3.26.2013

Crying In Front of Your Dog And Other Stories [Advance Review]

Apple Trees In The Pacific Ocean. Yeah, the new book by Phil McAndrew contains a piece in which an unknowing traveler hurls an apple core into the Pacific Ocean and a tree springs up right there in the middle of that vast watery expanse. It’s one of the many indications that McAndrew’s work will not be relying on any strict adherence to the non-fictional laws of nature. There’s a slightly whimsical element to his stories. This streak inhabiting most of the strips contends with the problems of real life, but sometimes in outlandish ways in order to help us gain clarity by the juxtaposition of the fanciful and the factual. Visually, the ink spattered title page is an early cue that McAndrew is purposeful about composing an effervescent aesthetic that’s not afraid to eschew traditional panel borders. He leaves many of his images free-floating with sparse text devoid of any rigid confines. In fact, he leaves some pages almost entirely white, bare-boned paper that moves swiftly, and just lets the silence scream. The drum solo on page 22 is another example of the way McAndrew is able to capture sound elements visually, with ink splotches and tight control of the light source emphasizing the staccato fits and starts of the drum set. Crying In Front Of Your Dog is a lavishly produced book from publisher/editor Jordan Shiveley at Grimalkin Press. It’s well over 250 pages, containing a robust mixture of old and new material, spanning the last 5 years and time spent on both coasts for McAndrew. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at TCAF (5/11 & 5/12), then I suggest you hunt down this French-flapped beauty and enjoy the experience for yourself. It’s also available for pre-order at Grimalkin Press.

McAndrew varies his style significantly over time. In some pieces, there’s an almost microscopic sense of detail in a style that reminds me of Norwegian illustrator Line Olsson, in the way that it pulls your eye along with it as it seemingly recedes into oblivion. There are lovely washes here from McAndrew; they soak into the paper and wring so much emotional depth out of what is basically black and white (and gray) line work. I also feel like there’s occasionally something a little reminiscent of Tom Neely’s work too, in the way that both artists have that rare ability to tell an entire story with static images, they imbue their single shot pages with that much life. “Are You Man Enough?” is the tongue-in-cheek opener in this book, which plays around with a standard assault on liberal arts education and how that’s perceived in society. By the end, there’s a delightful and almost literal transference of power captured with the end point: “Where did this motorcycle come from?” the girl asks. Her suitor retorts “I summoned it with my mustache.” “The Secret Thoughts of Harold Lawrence Windcrampe” contains a sequence from page 50 to about page 58 that’s a bold choice, proving McAndrew can manipulate pace with the best of them. “The Book” is a somewhat painful lesson in finite attention span. It proves the old business adage of “the elevator pitch,” that you basically have 30 seconds to grab and hook people or you lose them. It’s perhaps the most simplistic piece in the book, and the only one that really missed for me. If there’s any loose underlying theme that connects this collection of works, it’s overcoming self-doubt, in all the many ways that can manifest itself. It can be relationship, career, or intellectual insecurities. It can be familial or aspirational (like the ad campaign riff). It can be something as innocuous as the true agenda of cats, or a more complex form of social paranoia permeating our actions, as is the case with the pitfalls in “Tangible Connections,” or the story that follows with a regretful old man and a deal-with-the-devil morality play in “Pearly Whites.”

In the second part of the book, McAndrew seems to favor more full bodied panels in his more contemporary work. I enjoyed the visual “oomph” of pieces like “Internship,” “The House,” or “Tiny Al Gore,” which all seem to inhabit the page real estate more completely, pushing out to the edge of the page with more free-flowing ink. Then, out of nowhere comes “The Promotion.” It was hands down my favorite entry in the project. Speaking as a guy who keeps one foot firmly planted in my day job Corporate America confines and one foot firmly planted in the other world where I do, well, this, “The Promotion” was essentially everything I want from the high art of a low tech medium, exercising both sides of the brain. We see a lone nameless employee prairie-dogging his way out of a non-descript cubicle in a generic, dreary, drab office building somewhere. What follows is a total subversion of the traditional working world, done so in a primal visual language. Using this crafty symbology, life itself becomes this bland working world, the spilled coffee cup becomes a stand-in for corporate clawing and backstabbing and represents office politics, while an arcane mystic ritual with no apparent scientific rules replaces a merit-based ascension to management. I just adore this piece. It’s something I’d want to have the original art for and frame up in my office like some medieval polyptych painting. Honestly. “The Promotion.” Worth the price of admission all by itself.

Moving on, “Muddy Waters” answers the age old quandary of where Republicans come from. If, like me, you ever gasp to yourself “Who ARE these people?!” when they’ve pulled their latest economic debacle or unbelievable stance on the social issue of your choice, this will finally clear up that little mystery. “The Video Game” captures the quintessential paradox of modern life, offering up an interactive gaming console that actually forces you to go outside and discover nature in a non-tech fashion. “The Gathering” opens on page 230 with a dark and dense shot that reminds me of my favorite Southern California contemporary artist, Ed Ruscha, and a painting he did called “Nothing Landscape.” In these pieces, both artists have an ability to evoke mood so intensely, with just a few trees and a sort of preternatural control of light and dark. If, as I mentioned up top, McAndrew’s silence screams, then his darkness surely weeps. Page 232 is one of those Neely-esque panels I mentioned, punctuating the horror vibe on page 234 with a close-up of the cloaked figure. While it ultimately descends into relatively light satire and barbed social commentary, the opening shots of this piece are unforgettable. Similarly, the opening of a time travel portal in “The Warning” is an image that will stick with me. It’s a fantastic bit of ink being slung, a shot that leaps off the page in a multi-dimensional way like the tear in the very fabric of space-time that it depicts.

At the end of the book, McAndrew offers up a generous “thank you” list that comes off feeling very humble and genuine. These end notes are always an interesting way to get inside the head of a creator and I find it fascinating just to see who someone you don’t know, knows that you know. You know? I enjoyed the illustrated “more books by this author” section, which formed a visually eclectic little library. While this is only the second Grimalkin Press book that I’ve had the opportunity to review so far, it seems clear that publisher Jordan Shiveley has a good eye, a penchant for minimalism that understands the strengths of a visual medium. That stripped down, unfettered-by-anything-superfluous ethos is probably felt nowhere stronger than in the final piece of the book, the titular existential dilemma “Crying In Front of Your Dog.” There’s always a bigger picture. Things could always be better. Things could always be worse. Enjoy. Grade A.

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