Tiny Pages Made of Ashes 5/16/2014: Gray Areas and Overly Bold Blacks
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Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column
Department of Art #1
Let’s be honest. Here in the middle of 2014 it’s hard to write a review about a comic book with words like “chiaroscuro”, “Kafkaesque”, “meta-textual”, and “vexing” without coming off as some sort of pretentious thesaurus thumbing ponce. I shudder at the thought of such a misreading, but I am inescapably drawn to these very words when considering Department of Art #1 by Dunja Jankovic.
Jankovic is an artist first, beyond any other consideration of her abilities as a cartoonist or storyteller. Her pages and panels flow in an out of clarity – her lines tighten and release – her characters morph yet retain identity — her mazes lead back to themselves. Jankovic’s art is at war with negative space as lights and darks fight with each other for dominance. In that fight the viewer sees the beautiful choreography of chiaroscuro.
Somewhere in the grays lies yourself.
And as Jankovic abstracts she shoves us to connect. Department of Art is about creation, it is about the search for purpose, the search for self – but Jankovic places her thematic gist into a world suffused with Kafkaesque uncertainty, as if what is around the corner is the expected unexpected. Passageways are clearly marked in a language you do not speak, and yet as we’ve all waited in these foyers, we know what each door opens to. This is the DEPARTMENT of Art, after all.
“Do art. Let’s go. Yes.” A troubled creation about trouble creating is about as meta-textual as you can get without Jankovic personally reaching out of the page and shaking your hand. As the struggle with the muse, with concentration, gets more intense, the narrative strains – hanging on to clarity – but the art becomes infused with a passion and energy that tingles to the touch. Still, at moments clarity of storytelling teeters on vexing, but where confusion could easily subsume, there is a gentleness to its waves as if Jankovic has peered into all of your anxiety dreams and has left them gift wrapped under your tree of knowledge.
You read between the lines as there are so many on the page.
There’s beauty in this, and as this is the first issue in a promised series, Department of Art #1 is full of promise as much as it is full of juxtapositions.
It’s always a treat for a new issue of Tales of Fantasy to show up in my mailbox. It’s funny because in my job as publisher of Comics Bulletin, I get tons of PDFs for new and upcoming comics, but there’s still nothing like a print book, magazine of fanzine showing up in the mail. There’s nothing like holding a piece of comic art in my hands – so I was delighted to read that Larry’s brimming with plans and ideas.
And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a computer-oriented lifestyle – heck, as a website owner and project manager for a company that makes ereader apps I’m pretty much on the computer all day long, seven days a week – and maybe that’s why paper seems like such a treat to me. I love the tactile sensation of the paper, especially the nice thick paper that he uses for hiscovers.
My opening tangent about computer technology is relevant because this is the first issue of ToF to be digitally inked, by Larry’s pal Dan Burke, who I assume also lettered the lead story in Manga Studio as well. I’ve been reading Tales of Fantasy for years now, so I have a kind of mixed reaction to the changes that Burke applies to Larry’s drawing. I recognize his pencils beneath his inks, but they’re so transformed by the experience that they feel very different from what I’m used to. Perhaps the best comparison I can make is that it reminded me of the times that Wally Wood inked Steve Ditko (appropriate because I know he’s studying Ditko’s comics); his underdrawing was recognizable under Woody’s inks, but he often overwhelmed Ditko’s pencils, to the extent that the artwork often seemed more Wood than Ditko.
Similarly, the inking here overwhelms the pencils a bit – again, it’s not a bad combination but unlike the usual styling. Take a look at page 13, for instance, because could be both the most successful page in the zine and the one that contains the least amount of Larry’s DNA on the page. The kinetic black-and-white design of panel one has an almost art deco look to me, with its bold contrasts and somewhat indistinct flames – and really doesn’t look like his work at all. The bottom panel on the same page has the same dissonance for me. The bold bisecting of the robot, one half white and the other black, feels different from what I’m used to, and Glazinov’s masked face glows and shines with computer special effects but lacks most of that Johnson texture.
We see that sort of distortion again and again in this lead story: the bottom panel of page six takes a fairly standard Johnson scene (how many times have we seen the mysterious menace zap a heroic or innocent character in an issue of ToF?) but the visceral violence of the flesh flying off his body is a new take on an old rhythm, as is the high contrast between black and white. And Glazinov’s expression on the bottom of page 14 has a classic Johnson take on Vincent Price, but his face is rendered in a style that seems miles away from he usually creates (I was reminded of the comic art of Arnold and Jacob Pander, who drew a run on Grendel in the 1980s).
Another thing occurs to me as I think about the inking and that’s that it seems very machine-generated. Unlike with previous Johnson collaborators, we don’t see the brushstrokes or pen-lines that were used to ink. Instead, things are a little antiseptic and overly-rendered in a way that acts as a kind of tip-off of the digital elements of the work, in the same way that digital coloring looked awkward in many 1990s and early 2000s comics. I know that Dan worked hard and put in long hours per page, and that attention to detail shows in his digital inks, but there’s a dissonance between the organic pencils and his machine-driven rendering for me.
I hope I don’t come across as a complainer or as someone who hates change because I love change. I love that after all these years Larry is still open to trying new things with ToF. And this is still an issue well worth ordering.