Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Royal Cat Comic Book Club: 4PANEL

Introducing the Royal Cat Comic Book Club!

Each month, Royal Cat Records will feature a new underground comic or graphic novel from a different boutique publisher or creator.

July's featured book is 4PANEL.

4PANEL is a new anthology featuring four awesome cutting edge artists.

The book is based on the long-running website and magazine feature that experiments with the comic strip format. Now it has branched out into a semi-annual book project with each issue focusing on four unique artists. Issue one features these guys:

  • Mark Connery — the Toronto genius who recently released the phenomenal collection Rudy (2014) with 2D Cloud— offers up Tricky Business, a series of individual 4PANEL strips in black & white. Conscientiously unpolished, in fact, a seeming amalgamation of scraps and doodles, these comics cannot help but betray an intimate familiarity with the precious comic conventions they are so insouciantly subverting. The strips often gesture towards narrative, but ‘what happens next’ is always spontaneous and nonsensical: there are gaps in every logic invoked, and poetry in every logical gap. These comics simultaneously have the feel of playful free-association, of sheer brilliance, and of raving lunacy. (And, yes, Connery’s infamous magical-cat protagonist does make a guest appearance or two within these playful panels.) Pure comics-Dada — tricky business, indeed! 
  • Jesse Jacobs opts to sustain a whole narrative across a set of individualized 4PANEL strips. The Garden, a “living synthesis of art, nature, and science,” tells the story of a vibrant alien garden that is overtaken by an invasive plant species. The cumulative narrative reads like an extraterrestrial iteration of the popular children’s song There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, with solutions becoming problems requiring further solutions leading to more problems, on and on. The Garden is as fun as it is anti-humanist, and it’s expertly illustrated. As with his recent Koyama Press books By This Shall You Know Him (2012) and Safari Honeymoon (2014), Jacobs’ intricate, geometrical artwork and finely tuned colour palette drive this story in complex and adventurous ways. The message embedded in all these beautifully rendered lines is clear: Immolate the garden. Re-set the future. Let life begin again in the void. 
  • Anuj Shrestha’s Seed Soul Star is capped on both ends by large 4PANEL sequences depicting what might be the rubble of a fallen civilization, or simply the busted up remnants of a demolition site, with a black, star-dotted sky hanging in the background. This desolate sci-fi backdrop sets the tone for Shrestha’s hauntingly beautiful work; it pulls each solo strip into a larger whole. Seed Soul Star relies on the image, more than on language, to communicate: these formally proficient strips drawn in a clear line (ligne claire) style have titles, but otherwise are largely silent. The section ­— a cold world portrayed in black, dull green and pale yellow — probes a wide variety of inter-resonating themes: colonization in its earthly form, expansion into space, cellular metastasis, body normalization, the accumulation of wealth and goods, evolution, the connection between destruction and growth. It asks us to contemplate the limits of constants in a way that is at once stunningly disturbing and serene.  
  • 4PANEL project founder Mark Laliberte carries out an intense, experimental investigation of the insular strip form in Darkly Projected, but does so while forging both subtle and explicit connections between various stand-alone pieces. The section opens with a strip that is both a ‘birth’ and a ‘death’, and throughout, existential themes of separation and loss echo and overlap from work to work. Motifs relating to comic book visuality, sonology and topography run up against their frames, only to resurface, slightly transformed, elsewhere in the section. Five interspersed ‘Slips’ serve as control strips that frame the sequencing of all the other works — these visually similar, cartoon abstractions provide a thoughtfully devised colour-phrasing that helps to impose a visual continuity across this section’s wonderfully and weirdly variegated terrain. 

The 4PANEL Project was launched in 2012 by Mark Laliberte — a Toronto-based artist, curator and editor. In simplest terms, the project strives to reinvigorate the traditional four-panel strip form. Despite its lofty beginnings in the annals of comics history, this once compelling A/B/C/D delivery system has degraded over the years into something that is predictable, humour-tinted and formulaic. While the syndicated tales of anthropomorphic house pets, loveable vikings and suburban middle-class families certainly have an audience — more Garfield, anyone? — I truly felt the form could offer so much more. 
Testing this potential, I approached a handful of artist-friends, presenting them with a challenge: to see what kind of unfamiliar work they could produce on a very familiar canvas made up of four sequential rectangles in horizontal formation. While 4PANEL strips are structurally similar to their mainstream cousins, the format constraints are tighter — everyone uses the exact same template without exception — resulting in a growing collection of self-contained works that quietly interact with one another on a formal level. 4PANEL asks its participants to take a cartoon tradition and cannibalize it to build something brand new. It allows artists to perform short, sharp experiments within the frame, emphasizing poetic and abstract explorations while de-emphasizing the need for a punch-line. Some artists do embrace narrative, of course, but they always manage to anarchically shirk convention the moment it seems to congeal into a norm.

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