The Comics Journal reviews SHOWCASE #4

“The Comics Journal Review - Showcase #4” / The Comics Journal / Dirk Deppey / September 13, 2006

Perhaps the biggest cliché surrounding art-comics anthologies is that they tend to be mixed bags in terms of the quality of the contributions. It's true, for the most part -- anthologies with a sizeable number of contributors tend to find the works on display dividing themselves into A-listers (solid, engaging contributions that you'd buy even if they were the only content in a given book), B-listers (acceptable work that fleshes out many anthologies but are less likely to stand on their own) and C-listers (everything else).

Drawn & Quarterly's Showcase series generally manages to blunt this syndrome by avoiding an overload of different works, instead focusing on two or three cartoonists and giving them a color palette and page count sufficient to let them spread out and fill their pages with considered, complex stories. That the D&Q staff have excellent taste in cartoonists doesn't hurt, either. That said, the "A,B,C" syndrome doesn't entirely go away, if for no other reason than that the reader really can't help but ranking contributions against one another. Still, the results at least reach a higher benchmark.

Case in point: The new fourth volume, which contains work by Gabrielle Bell, Martin Cendreda and Dan Zettwoch. Each is a promising cartoonist whose learning curve has already put him or her in the ranks of storytellers to watch, yet still shows every indication of having better work waiting in the wings. If each artist seems to be at a different point along the trail at the moment, they each nonetheless demonstrate a skill and storytelling faculty worth noting.

This volume opens with its strongest piece, Gabrielle Bell's untitled story of, oddly enough, three artistic aspirants at different stages of the growth process. The central character is Anna, a representational painting student whose spirit is slowly being crushed by the preconceived notions of the teachers and fellow-travelers around her. When conceptual sculptor Frank Reinhart hires her to teach his young son how to draw, the stage is set for a philosophical struggle between two competing views of art played out between father and son, with Anna serving as battleground.

This all sounds didactic, but it really isn't; discussions of art occur frequently, but they're framed in a continuum of conversations and slice-of-life episodes that place the characters front and center in the story, as written by an author with a firm grasp on how to tell a satisfying and thought-provoking short story. Bell, no slouch as a representational artist herself, makes no secret of where her loyalties lie in the debate, but still has a firm enough grasp of the gambits and pretenses of the modern art world to provide the reader with what feels like a fairly nuanced portrayal of its inhabitants. By contrasting the complex motivations of an acknowledged master of said world with the simple aims of a child learning to draw, Bell is able to make her case without seeming to hit the reader over the head with a hammer, allowing the tale to circle in on its central theme in a naturalistic fashion, rather than resorting to the clunky aethetic moralizing for which a lesser artist might have been tempted to reach. The result is an engaging short story that presents its themes with dexterity and subtlety, leading to an ending that hints at resolution while implying further complications beyond the last panel. It's not quite a bravura performance, but it's close enough to make you notice.

By contrast, Martin Cendreda's story, "Dog Days," can't help but pale a bit in comparison. A slice-of-life tale involving bored children and their semi-superstitious elders, set against the distant backdrop of a serial killer on the loose, Cendreda's contibution is well-crafted but not particularly original. In some ways, it's as aimless as the children it follows around. This is in some ways the effect for which Cendreda seems to be aiming, and the results are amiable enough -- Cendreda brings an engaging illustration style and sense of visual narrative to the proceedings, and consequently has no problem capturing the reader's attention. The problem is, "Dog Days" feels a bit slight once one reaches the story's conclusion, especially following on the heels of Bell's masterful story.

Dan Zettwoch's contribution, "Won't Be Licked!", feels more solid and innovative, and its storytelling sensibility is different enough to help it stand out from the other two contributions to this issue. Set against the backdrop of Louisville, Kentucky's grievous 1937 flood, Zettwoch's story avoids the naturalism of the previous two tales in favor of a clever, technically accomplished historical travelogue, as we follow a resourceful young man around the town in an improvised boat, visiting each neighborhood and examining what happened from his perspective. Zettwoch has perhaps the firmest grasp of the comics language of anyone to appear in Showcase this side of Sammy Harkham, and while his previous minicomics have seemed at times to almost drown Spiegelman-like in their own conceptual cleverness, here Zettwoch keeps the artifice restrained in service to the narrative. "Won't Be Licked!" is too modest a tale to be called a significant leap forward, but it's clearly a demonstration of Zettwoch's growing maturity as a cartoonist. Alas, like "Dog Days," this isn't a story that could survive scrutiny if left to stand on its own; it's too slight, however entertaining.

None of this is to say that Cendreda and Zettwoch's contributions are bad by any means, but they're both anthology B-listers, a status that only becomes more apparent in proximity to Gabrielle Bell's masterful opening tale. Perhaps the anthology format simply defeats all attempts to overcome its limitations. Even so, together these three short stories manage to flesh out another issue of an collection that, if not the best of its kind, may perhaps be the sturdiest currently being published.

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