144 Pages; Print, $19.95
Comics, maybe more than other popular mediums, are mired with pastiche narratives passed off as mature artistic statements. For corporate fare featuring beloved archetypes (think Spider-Man, Batman, etc), a well-played riff on a beloved style of drawing or plotting from the (not all that distant) past hits the pleasure zone of the readership hard. An artist like Darwyn Cooke, rather than receiving his due as a virtuosic nostalgia master (nothing wrong with it, after all), is perceived more as the living, breathing real thing—maybe more beloved then whoever it is in the first place that is the basis for his entire career. Cartoonists who make more personal work aren’t immune to this. The pastiche just tends to be more insular, skipping fewer generations and employing a more of-the-moment, collage-as-style, less “scholarly” approach.
Anya Davidson’s debut book School Spirits confronts this problem head on. Pastiche, at first glance, seems to be in Davidson’s artistic DNA. Yet to call her work deeply reminiscent of any other artist somehow seems to miss the point (however, many artists who fall into this discussion make it the entire conversation). A recent review of her work mentioned Milt Gross, and Percy Crosby’s name also has been batted around. Davidson’s comics have, at times, the line quality and the particular energy of both these men. Love and passion for prewar comedic newspaper cartooning seems obviously embedded in what Davidson serves us. Old time men’s magazine gag cartooning is part of her vocabulary, and we can also check off Kirby-krackle (rampant in artsy and mainstream circles now and forever). X-Men character Rogue is referenced, suggesting even a passing affinity for superhero artist Marc Silvestri. In terms of drawing, she’s a virtuoso. If she wanted, she could line herself up with someone like Cooke and pad out a nice career politely invoking the popular styles she admires. And yet, at second and third and all glances after, School Spirits reveals the pastiche tag to be irrelevant when discussing Davidson’s work.
It’s irrelevant partly because Davidson is such a high level virtuoso that she’s able to synthesize a lot at once, and she synthesizes so much because she is a comics history omnivore. But Davidson doesn’t want to re-mix the past to modernize or make it “cool” or “as fun as it should have been.” Her narrative concerns and themes are wild and totally her own. So what emerges is something deeply potent: a graphic novel drawn with incredible skill that hits old style cartooning trope buttons hard and assertively, all in service of Davidson’s own native intellect.
School Spirits’s plot, on the most straightforward level, concerns high school student Oola and her friends as they bounce around their campus with Looney Tunes-esque elasticity. Davidson lets them flirt with the supernatural in a breezy way, as deep philosophical discussions with rock gods and mystics fade in and out. It’s a very loose plot, designed as a structure for Davidson to put all of her cartooning concerns into motion with as little feedback as possible. Thematically, the title undersells us: School Spirits sounds like the name of a book that invokes both horror and teen romance genres and mixes them together into something zeitgeisty. But the actual plot is so loose and open that any multi-genre parody enthusiast is sure to walk away flummoxed. Yes, friends Oola and Garf are high school students, and yes, there are brushes with the macabre. About as on the nose as it gets: fellow student Inga plans on throwing a party. “There’s gonna be food and music and I decorated the whole house” says Inga. In response, Oola imagines a ghoul offering up human head with the telegraphed punch line: “Bon Appetit!” But that’s a throwaway gag, as is the title.
The book fluctuates between school happenings and Oola’s rich daydream reactions. It’s within this set-up that Davidson’s compound style of cartooning comes through. At...