Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Tails

Words: Jared Gniewek

Tails is the semi-autobiographical comic story of a young man dealing with issues of responsibility, relationships, loss, and redemption. It centers on a young man named Ethan (the namesake of the author, Ethan Young) who dreams of being a big shot cartoonist. He works at the Humane Society in Manhattan under a goblin-like witch of a boss while keeping stray cats in his bedroom at his parents’ Manhattan apartment.

Sometimes he makes compositional choices that don’t make sense to me; he fixates on images that don’t matter (like blonde strangers on subways) and gives them the illusion of dramatic portent with no payoff. This can confuse a reader and left me wondering what purpose some of the interactions had. He also tends to use larger figures and close ups and I would have liked to have seen more distant shots. This is a taste issue though, as his rendering skills are quite lovely at times and he seems to represent many of the characters with great candid evocative expressions. The drawing of his mother’s face was simply beautiful.

Other interactions are a bit more satisfying... such as the gay couple giving money to a homeless man and arguing over it just after Ethan has a fight with his girlfriend, Sin. And his interactions within and without his imagination alongside his cat charges are wonderful and charming.

I, for one, would love to see these super hero cat adventures fleshed out rather than being window dressing. If these fantasies are an approximation of the types of comics the character Ethan is drawing then they are integral but if they are simply a view into his imagination they are kind of meaningless. I can’t wait to find out what the book the character of Ethan is working on looks like. It seems strange, though, that Ethan (who fantasizes colorful and over-the-top action sequences) would dedicate his efforts to a B+W “indie” style book.

Have you ever noticed that in stories like this the art or writing created by the protagonist almost never sucks? I hope the book he’s working on isn’t the web comic I’m currently reading. And I hope it isn’t as good as Ethan Young’s work.

The strip is drawn from a very subjective perspective as the only attractive characters (so far… the graphic novel is only up to the third chapter of adaptation as a web comic) are the young male lead and young women (who Ethan draws with an eye for the candy). Everyone else is handicapped, or deformed, or simply grotesque. Ethan Young has created a world where his character seems to be the only normal one. This is a dangerous place to be from a dramatic perspective as it makes everything the character says in his lengthy monologues resonate as either self-important or as precocious.

And not to sell the farm but SPOILER ALERT! Ethan finally opens his mouth while speaking on page seven of chapter two. Every other time the attractive characters speak their mouths are sealed. It’s only the grotesque whose lips are not glued together. Is he saying something about the characters with this? Is it unseemly to express yourself with open mouth? To be uncouth? In Ethan’s world view it would seem that’s the case.

I did find the monologues to be a bit long winded (with parentheticals galore!) and self serving but Ethan is not a completely likeable character so it helps to see Sin’s reactions to his “rants” at a certain point in the strip. It is a wonderful echoing of the reader wishing he would just “get it together”.

I guess I’m a bit of an old crank but this always happens to me when approaching semi-autobiographical comic stories with a younger protagonist. I start out not caring. I start out immediately dismissive of the text, the writing, the art…everything. The creator, in cases like this, begins at the bottom of a big hill and I could care less if they get to the top of it.

Maybe it’s because I spent my early twenties screaming in a band instead of drawing books. Maybe the older generation of metal dudes looked at my stuff with the same level of disdain and I never climbed the hill in their eyes. In any case, I usually don’t start out liking books like this. I hated the seminal Blankets by Craig Thompson (still do… and I know that in some circles this will mean my views will be summarily dismissed but I don’t care) and didn’t care for Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison at first look (but loved it by the end).

This school of “underground-lite” alt comics tends to leave me reaching for Justin Green’s “Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary” or R. Crumb’s “My Troubles with Women” to get to the real id. I call it “underground-lite” because the conceit of the piece is that it is independently published and drawn in black and white with a focus on human interaction instead of heroics. The old undergound books were a true opening of the subconscious and a letting loose of personal demons onto a page with absolute conviction of personal freedom where as this seems so tightly constricted and as suppressed as the character of Ethan himself. Even his imagination seems to be canned and less than pure unadulterated fantasy… his is safe and tepid.

Yet it is rewarding.

You know why? Hooks. Like a catchy pop song or a twist ending, or a potent metaphor…something external to latch onto outside of personal experience. Something to make the cranky old-man Jared calm down and really start reading. Once a hook gets involved I stop reading from the front of my brain (my admittedly unlikable area of cognizance) and start from the lower (my more honest and simple area).

The hook in this case, was a bird.

My problems with the strip, frankly, flew out the window once the drama kicked in during the third chapter and I felt that Ethan Young did a wonderful thing. The Ethan character is one who suppresses his loving emotions except through animals and after his big fight with Sin, he picks up a sick pigeon and decides to take care of it. Externalizing the fragile relationship he has with Sin into the form of this hurt animal raised my estimation of his talent through the roof.

I reread the first few months of entries after getting to the end to see what I was missing the first time through and I felt pretty close to the same as I had the first time but now I was seeing how the interplay with the animals echoed Ethan more strongly. How the caged cats were a metaphor for his art scrambling around in his brain like kittens in a bathroom. This use of metaphor is so adeptly handled that any reservations I had about the artwork, grotesque characterization and overextended monologues was quite simply trumped.

I see now that Ethan is purposefully somewhat of a blank slate and his inability to communicate coupled with his rage at his brother, his girlfriend, his boss, and his father is externalized through his conscientious love and care for the animals in his life. At least that’s the way I’m seeing it now. I can’t wait to read more and see how the whole thing comes together.

The strip is good. Read it.

Jared Gniewek has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre for which he is also the story editor. Jared’s blog, Die By The Pen, outlines his philosophies and personal quest as a writer.