Minis Monday: The Comics of Jon Chad

Posted by on April 12th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Leo Geo and The BAD-ventures of Bobo Backslack
Jon Chad

I’ve never been introduced to a cartoonist through two comics that were so different from one another as this pair from Jon Chad … but then that’s mostly because one of them is Leo Geo. Measuring 4” by 13”, Leo Geo is stapled on its short side and meant to be unfolded and read down its length, which is all the better to depict the protagonist’s journey through the center of earth and out the other side.

So while the premise of the comic begins with a child’s brainstorm  (“Straight through the ground until you hit China!”) it develops into a science-addled quest with a nod to Jules Verne as it veers into mystery (“Those aren’t natural at all …”) that turns into an out-and-out fantasy as it comes to increasingly look like a videogame before concluding as a survival trek.

Leo Geo’s physical format offers terrific spectacle — a two-foot visual plunge with every double spread — as well as immense formal and narrative challenges. The action drops, without panel divisions, through the middle of pages. The unfurling is without panels and without borders; “frames” are supplied as the eyes shift and refocus, allowing Leo to simultaneously appear on different “levels.” At book’s midpoint, like Dante crawling down and then up Lucifer at the epicenter of the Inferno, Leo reaches earth’s midpoint at which he begins to ascend from bottom to top of the expanses. Along the way he offers continual commentary on his progress and generally proves he’s just a font of information.

Visually everything is represented at a steady middle distance and at a consistently enforced dimensional scale. At that scale, our blobular hero is routinely overshadowed by his environment, by subterranean formations, natural and alien architecture and a parade of fabulous creatures. Chad’s graphic invention is unflagging. Logic, science, narrative sense or dramatic tension may falter, but there’s always something interesting to look at, some visual feat engaged and progress recorded. Nor is it any small accomplishment in keeping perspectives comprehensible, accomplished in part here by a smart juggling of sharply rendered details with contrasting empty space.

Leo’s voice-over of his descent and ascent is, if anything, more problematically loopy. Much of it is vocalized thought, self-conscious and largely superfluous, but there’s a parallel accompaniment of scientific factoids that adds a brazen artificiality to the narrative state of affairs. Proffered info ranges from the predictable — like the distinction between stalactites and stalagmites — to the functional non sequitur — the founding date of the first American dental college or the tensive strength of bamboo.

Despite the creative implications of its audacious format and despite equally audacious diversions, the comic manages to be both utterly nutty and uniquely compelling. Over 40 pages, 40 l-o-n-g and unusual pages, our reading becomes more participatory than usual. Chad’s artistic strategy is fixed. Leo is unrelenting. Their momentum carries the day and us along with it, irresistible as gravity. At long last, there’s an odd but genuine sense of relief and satisfaction when Leo emerges to overlook Taipei and its towering pagoda-like skyscraper: “The human limbic system plays a part in basic emotions, such as happiness. It is connected via neurotransmitters to the lacrimal glands in our eyes, making emotional triggers for the production … of tears.” Oh, it’s plenty weird and, if not exactly wonder-filled, then certainly curiosity-crammed.

In contrast, The BAD-ventures of Bobo Backslack is a more conventional, squat little comic about a comedically pathetic squat little figure. On the very day he’s determined to reveal his feelings for a girl, he runs afoul of “cursed” alphabet soup, the kind of soup that, upon profuse regurgitation, spells out untoward declarations. Exteriors and scenes, as backdrops, are depicted with a plausible realism, serving to emphasize Bobo and his fellows as grotesques in their fully rendered, rounded, loving detail. Narratively, the book functions most purely as heedless romp, as callous fun-letting, poking adolescent fears with the sharp liberties of an underground comic channeled through gross-out comedy movies.

So maybe the unifying aspect of these two titles is Chad’s interest in fusing various themes supported by diverse genres and media through the paraphernalia of pop culture. Or maybe he’s restlessly engaged in the process of seeing what sticks best to the walls.

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