Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Comics Chat: Chewing Gum in Church

Chewing Gum in Church

I've liked everything I've read from Steve Weissman, so I had high expectations for this latest Yikes! book - which looks better than all his previous work. I wish it read a little better than it does, though. I liked it (mostly for its gorgeous cartooning), but this is the first of his collections that I wouldn't immediately and without qualification recommend to a casual comics fan.

Like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes, Yikes! has an adult's sensibility, but it tells stories about kids. The kid characters are partly there to give voice to the cartoonist's adult concerns. The twist in Yikes! is that the characters are cute, cartoony, kid versions of Monster Movies monsters - Li'l Bloody (a vampire), Pullapart Boy (a Frankenstein's monster), Dead Boy (a zombie), "Sweet" Chubby Cheeks (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Kid Medusa, etc.

In previous volumes of the series, Weissman has put them in slightly off-kilter situations and used the monster movie twist for color, poetic effect, and an extra layer of (gentle) irony.

I've always though of Weissman along with Richard Sala, as they're the two Fantagraphics-published cartoonists who are working in traditional (i.e., pre-underground) comic book/comic strip genres. And what's compelling about their work is the same thing that's compelling about the best of traditional comics: their sure sense of storytelling, characterization, and pacing, draws you into their very personal style and vision of the world.

Chewing Gum operates a little differently, though. Weissman has set everything up as a series of 4-panel strips. In general, each page has one strip - as if this were a collection of dailies from a newspaper strip - although sometimes Weissman blows things up to one panel per page for four pages.

It's a strange reading experience for a number of reasons. All of the strips point towards a punchline, but the gags are hardly ever fully-realized (I guess on purpose). There's nothing laugh-out-loud funny and there's nothing with the kind of pointed, poignant irony of Peanuts at its more philosophical. It felt to me like a "take" on daily gag strips, rather than an attempt to actually do that kind of cartooning.

A story emerges, but it moves forward herky-jerkily. This is such a big change from his previous work - which at its best has the assured rhythms of something like a Carl Barks Duck story - that I can't help but think that Weissman is purposefully trying to do something unconventional. He doesn't seem to want his audience to engage the same way with this book that they did with his previous ones.

It's a little tricky being a fan of an artist who's changing things up like this. On the one hand, I wouldn't want Weissman to stagnate. It's good that he's trying something new here. Plus, who knows? Maybe when I read his next book, why he's doing what he's doing here will become more clear to me and everything will click into place.

(I've had this experience with Dan Clowes, before: I scratched my head after reading the first chapter of David Boring and thought that it represented a step backwards, but while reading the second chapter I realized my mistake and saw that he had just been laying the groundwork for what he was really up to.)

So, while I still want to see what Weissman does next with these characters, right now, Chewing Gum in Church reads like a bit of a failed experiment - a too-formal for the material exercise that never really gels into a fully-realized book.

(Interestingly enough, this reviewer had almost exactly the opposite response that I did.)

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