It’s a strange guide to a mysterious treasure, this tome launching April 25th at Desert Island (eerily appropriate venue name!) from So What? Press, edited by Lara Antal and Dave Kelly. BREAKERS is the culmination of the Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency Program’s three weeks of seclusion for 26 comics creators in the Autumn of 2012. Those circumstances alone are enough to make it an unusual volume, but in addition the “students” who willingly cast away on this adventure are all professionals placing themselves for the duration of the residency in the hands of mentors to explore their craft, do a fair amount of soul-searching, and rise the challenges their mentors posed. Mentors for the ACA Residency 2012 as “Master Artists-in-Residence” included Ellen Forney, Megan Kelso, and Dean Haspiel and their “students” were organized into three “teams” under their leaders, self-titled Team Zeppelin, Field House Gang, and Team YOLO, respectively.
Within their enclaves, ACA residents produced their own work for the large part of their time, but came together for instruction, activities, and a major group project. Venturing into the wilds of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, also became something of a jungle experience for them, from New Smyrna’s nudist beach to enigmatic flora and fauna. The works that emerged and were collected in BREAKERS are two-fold. There are the stories, journal-like in comics form, of the experiences of living in these enclaves and engaging with the locale, and then there are the products of the imagination in isolation, fragments of memory and life outside the immediate zone that seem like a reassessment of influences and the value of the lives that the artists would eventually return to. Both types of narratives represent aspects of fairly radical experimentation for the artists concerned. Whatever their chosen mode of style and technique prior to the Residency, envelopes were pushed, assumptions were clearly challenged, and to some extent artistic identities re-shaped. That makes BREAKERS a very exciting chronicle, and essentially an adventure narrative in segmented, fascinatingly idiosyncratic form. If comics creating can have a Robinson Crusoe experience, these artists chose to undertake a radical journey which, like a shipwreck, meant abandoning some aspects of control and predictability.
BREAKERS has surprising aspects of continuity when perused as a whole. Location and purpose tied the mental space of these creators together for a time and created their own unusual zeitgeist, as often grounded in humor as in personal epiphanies. The ubiquitous, bewildered aging man in floppy sunhat at the nudist beach who stood watching as artists suddenly arrived on the otherwise deserted beach to go skinning dipping graces not only the back cover of BREAKERS but pops up repeatedly in several narratives. He rightly becomes a strange symbol of surprise, but also of observation and disjunction. As the artists engaged in activities strange to them, and observed themselves, they reconsidered their potential and recorded these processes. Undertaking a personal experiment like this, and essentially transcribing it in sequential narrative format in both externally located stories and internal pathfinding makes for a treasure trove of commentary on what comics are and how they are created in human terms.
Team Zeppelin, consisting of Lara Antal, Rebecca Case, Jean Chen, Julie Condon, Gabrielle Greenlee, Boum (Samantha Leriche-Gionet), Lynda May, K-Fai Steele, and Ellen Forney, their mentor, seems to produce some of its own stylistic rhythms, noticeable when the selected works are placed side by side in BREAKERS. There’s a compelling exploration of ink, whether in thinly sketched but multiplied lines, or heavy, loose brushwork. It gives the sense that the artists were getting back to basics, and building upon the primal elements of the form. Despite an exotic range of subject matter and styles, the ink, and the occasional pulse of a watery element suggest a unified experience at the Residency for Zeppelin.
Field House gang, led by Megan Kelso, and including Nusha Ashjaee, Theresa Coulter, Gabrielle Gamboa, Sean Ironman, and Lark Pien, found their own groove with a kind of schematized handling of representation. Overall, their work gives the eerie sense of seeing the world through x-ray glasses, through surfaces and into the experiences depicted. Finding your way into this layered world results in wandering through psychological space from dreams to altered perceptions of reality, and the spectrum of states in between. Notes on one page to “choose one comic” remind the reader that BREAKERS is only a small percentage of the output produced at the ACA. Thinking about 26 artists in one place for three weeks is enough to boggle the mind in terms of the ink and paper that must have been involved on each personal journey.
Team YOLO (which later crystalized as Studio YOLO post-residency), featuring Christa Cassano, Fionnuala Doran, George Folz, James Greene, Meghan Lands, Gregory McKay, Jp Pollard, Jessica Ruliffson and their mentor Dean Haspiel, confirmed the extreme diversity of the artistic teams by producing a surprising fusion of more classic aspects of comics format with unapologetically indie forays into narrative. From lush inks to greytones and finely tuned line-drawings, the panel and guided reading is king. This, too, is another move back to basics, analyzing the units of storytelling and how to find the flexibility in traditional forms that may have been lost in the passage of time. There’s also an interesting tension between the surface of narrative events in YOLO’s comics and the suggested, but not fully defined psychology of characters, mostly showing, but partly telling, giving readers a peak but no more behind the curtain of human experience.
Each of the teams dug into the surface of comics in the twenty-first century and found their own flotsam and jetsam to polish off, rethink, and repurpose. That process of rediscovery and engagement with the basic tools of comics is clearly a liberating thing. As a volume, BREAKERS seems like one of those long sea-voyage travel logs propped up under glass in museums, weathered by what must have been violent elements, now a kind of residual shell-echo. There are strange splotches and splashes that speak of tactile experience, the fine lines of carefully encoded and deeply significant happenings. Like a log, BREAKERS conveys the hands that shaped it, and the magnified intensity of record keeping when one travels into unfamiliar territory and continues further than most people dare.
Of course, the irony of this vast range of experience contained in one volume is that it was all produced while artists engaged in an exercise of standing still, something that becomes increasingly a commodity, maybe even an impossibility in modern life. The isolation was a key ingredient, but one of several that the ACA Residency seems to have refined to a science to create a creative locus compatible with a wide range of creative impulses. Being included in the narrative, as a reader, is bound to capture your imagination, and if I dare say it, most likely your heart. Even these 26 artists may not realize, until they see BREAKERS, that their interlinking personal narratives were part of a bigger picture, that they were the heroes in their own adventure. Readers get to pick up their story, now bound together literally, and find all their strange comics tales of unknown lands in BREAKERS.
In addition to the launch party at Desert Island, BREAKERS will be available at Stumptown from April 28-29th and will also feature a West Coast releast party at Mission Comics and Art in San Francisco on May 2nd. You can also find a massive interview The Beat conducted with the 8 members of Team YOLO about their Residency experience here.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.