notes on Tom K’s short stories
Sunday, August 16, 2009
This isn’t a review or anything that attempts to cast a truly critical eye on the comics work of Tom Kaczynski. It’s more of an appreciation. For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics. Is it any surprise that many of his stories have to to with architecture or that he went to architecture school?
I’m purposely composing these notes without any of his stories in front of me. I just read all of his MOME stories in order, one after another. And now all those volumes are back on the shelf. I chose the images for this post as randomly as possible before I wrote what follows below. The idea is to let the stories “work” on me like a half-remembered dream and to try a decode what it is that’s successful about them. Also, I’m focusing on their construction rather than the stories themselves.
Sense of space/place
I feel firmly rooted in Tom’s stories. I understand where the characters are, where I am as a reader. Never a bottle-necked area of the page or spread. It’s all very clear and airy, like walking through some Beaux-Arts 19th century library building. There are clear sight lines and strong centers on every page.
-The “Highway Story” (100,000 miles) is interesting because it balances a certain sense of movement along with a realistic, believable sense of scale. Cars packed on a highway in slow motion, car crashes, cars lined up in a parking lot. Close-ups of the protagonist in his car and long shots of endless highway ribbons. It’s a short story, maybe only 8 or 9 pages—yet within the first couple pages a world is defined by the landscape itself. Also worthy of note is a remarkable transition in which a suburban tract of houses (replete with countless cul-de-sacs) sort of fades into a drawing of a pair of lungs.
-The “Condo Story” (976 sq ft) in contrast is less about balancing movement & scale as it is about scale itself. It opens with a couple on a rooftop looking down on to the street where a woman is walking a dog. So immediately here is the set-up: Seeing the world, or more specifically a neighborhood as a scale model. There is also a wonderful transition where the condo in real life fades into an architectural scale model of the same building.
There’s a mirroring here too of the condo itself and the panels on the page. The story begins with a six-panel grid and ends with a nine panel grid; there’s a crowding of space that reflects the characters feelings towards the building. The new condo being built in the neighborhood is taking away the sky and the crowded pages in the latter half of the story reinforce this anxiety. There’s a great vertical panel in the middle of a page that is taller than the rest; it breaks the grid. Fittingly, it’s the moment when the new tenants of the condo move in (directly across the way from the couple’s window, so it looks like the scale model. Just perfect framing.)
-The “Corporation Story” (Million Year Boom). I can clearly see in my mind how perspectives & sight lines carry the reader across panels and the spreads of this story. There are very strong “horizontals” in this story (almost in counterpoint to the strong “verticals” present in the “condo story”). The corporation headquarters is low & wide, and the page compositions are tailored to convey the sense of open yet contained space. There’s a great scene when the protagonist dives into a long rectangular pool that spans two panels. Another beautiful coupling of panels illustrates the top of a parking garage. And I can clearly see one of the characters standing near a grove of trees and while gesturing to the trees, his motion rhymes with the sweep of the trees themselves. Characters change scale rapidly. Simply by walking around the corporation grounds is an exercise in alternating camera angles. This strengthens the narrative which is pregnant with a particular kind of corporate anxiety & alienation.
Figures in landscape
The solidity of the figures in Kaczynski’s stories is also worth noting. The figures are rendered objects, as “real” as the landscape they inhabit. This is important. It’s clear to me that the pages are composed to allow, to facilitate a smooth transition between “figure” and “ground.” There is no rift, no schism between the two. Whether simply sitting on a couch, walking down a street, or standing before a wide vista—the characters do not dominate the page design (as they do in most comics). There is a very strikingly ordered balance. Again, this strengthens the narrative.
Kaczynski’s use of tone/color is very helpful in this regard. Strong lights & darks, and strong “modeling” of forms both of the figures & of the forms within the landscape creates a pleasing depth. The figures stand out from the landscape rather than blending in or disappearing into the background.
Also, Kaczynski creates depth by often pulling the camera back & up slightly. The reader is positioned above the action and different sight lines are created because of it; it’s less of a “flat” angle. Add to that his seemingly innate feel for “airy” panel and page compositions. He only draws what is necessary for each panel, each scene—there appears to be a lot of room to breathe in the pages themselves. By doing so he can add details and important elements without ever crowding the frame or the page (unless, like in the “condo story”, he wants to).
Writing and Drawing
I really enjoy his writing and drawing. He definitely owes a debt to the works of J.G. Ballard and Daniel Clowes. This is not a bad thing. Ballard was a surgeon with his words and the same could be said for Clowes with his drawing. Kaczynski has incorporated both masters’ approaches into his own work in a way that I find inspirational. He went through his influences and came out on the other side with something new, something his own. Like some hauntingly familiar “house style,” the approach fits the subject matter like a glove.