Warm-Ups: Big Plans #4

Posted by on January 20th, 2010 at 5:26 AM

Rob reviews Big Plans #4, by Portland cartoonist Aron Nels Steinke.

After reading every issue of Aron Nels Steinke’s Big Plans minicomics series, a few things became clear.  This is an artist in search of both a style and a voice.  His background as an animator and his interest in doing children’s books sometimes work at cross-purposes in his comics.  While he’s quite skilled at creating striking individual images (especially when he works big, which is rare in these minis), the figures in his panels sometimes feel stiff and posed.  At times, there’s often little panel-to-panel flow.  Despite the simplicity of his line, there’s no question that these comics are meant to have a visual impact first and foremost.

His line is Steinke’s biggest strength as an artist.  Operating somewhere between John Porcellino and James Kochalka, there’s a steadiness in each issue in terms of character design and page structure.  What’s interesting is that he changed from issue to issue as he was trying to figure some things out: how and when to use backgrounds, how and when to vary panel size, how and when to spot blacks.  “Big Plans” is an apt title for this series, because there’s ambition here that’s not quite realized on an issue-by-issue basis, but it’s clear that there is development as the series proceeds and Steinke figures out what’s working and what isn’t.

The other thing Steinke seems to be trying to work out is his authorial voice as an autobiographical cartoonist.  His children’s comic, Neptune, had a smarmy & cloying quality to it that belied the skill present in its design and the decorative beauty of its interiors.  That cloying, Kochalka-esque quality disappears in his autobio work.  Indeed, Steinke labored to present his autobio persona as a fairly dreadful sort of person: insensitive to other’s pain (when his brother had appendicitis), boorish and ungrateful (when he made an ass of himself at the Oscars) and self-absorbed.

Big Plans #4 was an interesting leap forward, as Steinke abandoned that persona (and indeed, the overall focus that was mostly on himself) to tell a story about his girlfriend and her stolen laptop.  The first thing one noticed was the way Steinke used detailed backgrounds to create mood as the story began, taking a page out of the sort of intense detail we saw in Neptune.  There’s a greater use of hatching in details on pants legs and even a good bit of stippling in things like the sidewalk.  Steinke did well to balance these decorative flourishes against the general simplicity of his character design; the flourishes enhance each panel, rather than distract the reader’s eye from the information he’s trying to convey.

The story turns from how Steinke’s girlfriend feels about having her house burglarized to getting a lead on Craigslist and having the police get involved.  Steinke plays against expectation here, as the police turn from being helpful and involved to being randomly profiling people in their low-income neighborhood and saying things like “You can’t trust anyone wearing a hoodie”.  The indignation felt by Steinke was put in check by his girlfriend during an attempted sting operation, who simply wanted her computer back.

By denying the reader a happy ending and creating more and more discomfort as the story went on, Steinke disarmed the reader with charming images and disturbing events, being careful to never let that tension grow to the point of  taking the reader out of the story.  This was the first story of Steinke’s that I’d read where he seemed to have complete control over the narrative, rather than floundering from page to page.  It avoided some of the more self-indulgent qualities of earlier issues while still retaining Steinke’s unique point of view.  After a lot of warm-ups, this comic was the first time Steinke fulfilled his promise as an artist.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.