Thought Construction

*One for here and one for there - I found a store that stocked the new Angry Youth Comix while I was visiting my parents for the holiday (by which I mean relaxing in my poppy mansion), so I reviewed it in the Savage World. And now -

Uptight #2

This is the newest issue of Jordan Crane’s ongoing series from Fantagraphics, available right now at your local store or straight from the artist.

It’s something of a throwback to alternative comics days of yore, in which an artist would maintain an ongoing series chock-full of standalone stories, visual experiments and serialized longform works. Not a lot of those are around anymore, but Uptight is doing its best to carve out a space in the current market. It’s appealingly priced at only $2.50 for 22 pages of b&w story, and Crane smartly calibrates each issue to exploit the book’s necessary presentational limitations, with eerie limited colors soaking the front covers, thick black setting off the interior fronts, and stories leaking out right onto the back cover. It’s a fragile sort of approach, perfect for the stories Crane sets out to tell.

As with last issue, there’s three stories in here (EDIT 9/4/07 6:31PM: No, I'm wrong, there were only two stories last issue). All of them are joined by varying types of interior brooding on the parts of their protagonists, yet all of them are charged with Crane’s bright command of the comics form. The artist has mentioned his distaste for “fabulous looking drawings that don't have a language,” and his work indeed evidences a firm grasp of comics grammar (and do check out the art samples at that link).

There’s an excellent page in this issue’s first story, Take Me Home, one of Crane’s ghost stories, in which the lead character’s omnipresent caption-based narration and the action occurring in-panel flutter between wavelengths. The narrator is describing how a ghost kept him from sleeping at night via flashback; specifically, the first of the page’s panels (it‘s a nine-panel grid) tells us he’s having trouble sleeping via caption, while showing him being haunted, thus completing the thought. The next panel depicts Our Hero standing next to a woman, as the narration tells us about how he came to hang around with her to drive the ghost away.

Then, for the next four panels, the narration and the visuals alternate between different levels of story. When we’re told of the narrator and the woman spending time together, we see the man being haunted by the ghost. When we’re told of the ghost’s haunting, we see the narrator talking to another man about the woman, as the ghost groans from off panel (additional non-visual information!). The captions then explain the narrator’s realization as to the meaning behind the haunting, while the visual narrative depicts the narrator’s personal woes, then numerous exteriors of buildings to convey the passage of time so as to catch the visuals up to the narration, until the final panel sees narration and visual link again in terms of immediate, present subject, as they did in the first panel. It’s so smooth so as to seem invisible at first, yet the approach keeps distinct streams of information flowing through word and picture. It’s quietly stunning.

The story as a whole is better for existing so firmly in the comics form; Crane’s careful disassociation and recombination of word and picture, intuitive a storytelling mode as it is, also enhances the tale’s ambiguity, so as the reader is not only unsure over the narrator’s means of stopping the haunting, they’re not even certain if the narrator is reliable at all. As such, a potentially curt weird tale is deepened into something eerier, through subtle formal control.

The issue’s second tale, Before They Got Better, is quieter, being a character study of an aging man whose relationship with his wife and daughter becomes especially frayed over a nervous evening, while his granddaughter’s youthful capriciousness prompts him to consider the mutable nature of familial love. A polished, well-observed piece, again deepened by Crane’s approach - here, he initially works in a nearly clear line style, gradually adding thick blacks to denote the presence of the main character’s self-analysis, the story eventually spilling out into the dotty ink of night, then the dominant solid shades of a nighttime home, the final panel being almost totally black. Again, the unspoken works in concert with the themes evident from the text, and the construction belies depths that can’t be reached through simple panel-by-panel representation.

The final story is a another installment of Crane’s serial Keeping Two, which has proven to be quite a forum for the artist’s storytelling aptitude - after all, the main character does little more in the present than the dishes, while memories and fantasies literally surround him in tight six-panel grids. Pay close attention to those panel borders! This sort of thing could easily lapse into incoherence in the serial form, but Crane cleverly divides his chapters into movements of thought. This time around, the lead character imagines all the horrible things that might have happened to his girlfriend, since she’s not returned from the video store.

At first, reality and imagination are marked off as white-dominant and black-dominant. Then, as the imagining character’s visions intensify, white and black denote differing planes of fantasy, murder scenarios whipping into frantic medical care from earlier scenarios, everything getting jumbled and panicked. It must be said that Crane’s use of body language is at its keenest here, his cute character designs marvelously expressive. Bold letters add extra punch - there’s a panel in here of a blood-spattered surgeon bellowing “MASSIVE BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA” with no punctuation at all, and it’s one of my favorite panels from any comic this year.

So yes - all brooding, but the differing flavors of contemplation are conveyed through different narrative approaches, all of them specifically attuned to the comics form. This is excellent work, really filling, and rewarding of close study. Don’t hesitate to buy it from somewhere, like that link up top!