Saturday, June 14, 2014

Farmer's Dilemma by Sam Alden

Written and Illustrated by Sam Alden
Self-Published

A fox adopted by chickens has moved out on his own in the big city. Without their guidance and council, he's not the same animal he was, and when the truth comes out, there's an all-too-human moment of crisis for the family in this short, poignant, and well-illustrated mini from Sam Alden.

Though I haven't gotten a chance to pick up Alden's new Retrofit book yet, I was very impressed with the sample pages I saw, so when this was at my local library* I eagerly added it to an entirely too large stack of stuff coming home with me.

Beyond Alden's linework, which is stellar, the thing that stands out about Farmer's Dilemma is that it appears to be just another quirky family comic at the start. Hey look, this fox is related to chickens! And they still henpeck him (ha ha ha I kill me) about relationships and who he's dating! There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and if it went no further, this would still be recommended, assuming you can find a copy.

But what's really extraordinary about this one is that after setting itself up to be that style of a comic, Alden hammers you with the fox's deadly secret--and it's so obvious you want to slap yourself on the forehead for not thinking of it until you find out in a dramatic inset panel that immediately pans out to the chickens' island, rather than the fallout of the revelation. The move to a sudden reveal, followed by forcing the reader to pause and consider what's just happened allows such a short comic to really hold more of an impact than it has a right to do.

Once we do start talking about the issue, Alden is careful to give both sides. There's the parental shock, of course, because of what it might mean for them. At the same time, the fox reels from a secret he'd preferred to have kept hidden, and only time and the healing understanding of his girlfriend will make things better. Things then shift back to the parents, who are dealing in their own way. Alden accomplishes this over only a few pages, but because of the tight illustrations and meaningful nature of the scenes, the reader doesn't require more to understand the story. Like a good flash fiction, everything that's required is here, and the work needed to accomplish that is no mean feat.

Alden's linework quickly made me a fan when I first encountered it, and seeing him work across an entire story was a real treat. There are so many little touches in Farmer's Dilemma that make it work as a mini-comic, starting with the character designs. Readers know that the fox is under extreme pressure by the fact that his eyes always look haunted and his head generally faces down. Throwing reality out the window, the parental chickens loom over him, a towering figure of authority that quickly put him back into old roles, like doing the dishes. It's easy to know how the fox feels, as dealing with parents who expect you to be someone you're not after you leave the nest is a common thing many of us share. Fortunately, however, Alden doesn't lay this on too thick, which is helps set this apart from similar minis.

Though his backgrounds aren't elaborate in construction (a chair is just a set of lines and the trees don't have individual leaves), Alden makes up for it with hatching, shadowing, and other effects that stand in for intricate details and will make a careful reader stand up and take notice. When the fox sits outside at night, there's a veritable Van Gough painting stretching out in front of him. After things have gone to crap, his father is shown completely in black profile, mirroring his mood. Roof boards are drawing with every line in the wood shown, providing an abstract that puts the center of attention on the characters in the frame, an idea echoed when the fox and his girlfriend are in bed and an ocean wave of lines across the bedspread surround them.

It's unlikely you'll find a copy of Alden's Farmer's Dilemma (he appears to only have foreign language copies left), but I went at length here to talk about Alden's abilities as a storyteller. If you encounter any of his work in your travels to a quality comics store, library, or convention, definitely pick up something by Alden. His work is outstanding, and is highly recommended.

You can find out more about Sam Alden at his website.

*And when I say "local" I mean at a small branch that has a modest but meaty zine and mini-comic section of its own, not the main branch. Oh, and every zine/mini across the system is able to be delivered to to your local branch.

Portland, everybody. I'd squeeze down to an efficiency if I had to in order to stay here, as long as I can keep the cats. This really is my version of heaven.

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