September 6, 2014

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SPX Spotlight 2014: Cathy G. Johnson and Jeremiah

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I'm not sure exactly when I started really getting into comics that use watercolors (and watercolor-inspired work, like that of Colleen Coover), but now whenever I find them, I'm very interested in the work, the process, and how it changes the dynamic of a comic.

So I'm very pleased to see that Cathy G. Johnson is nominated for an Ignatz award for "Promising New Talent" because her work is incredible.* It's haunting in terms of both artwork and story, especially in the case of her webcomic Jeremiah, which is now available as a graphic novel.

Jeremiah, the title character, is a young man who clearly has some development issues. He's pursued by a girl who claims to be his cousin (but may be a much closer relative), badgered by an uncaring, drunken father, and questioned by an outsider who comes looking for work but can't just leave things alone.

We open with idyllic bright skies and fields and the young couple relaxing. But even in the first few pages, there are hints that things aren't quite right. Jeremiah doesn't speak at first, and when he does, it's always hesitating. By the time Michael appears, we can tell that this fragile balance, which is already starting to bleed (even visually, as the watercolors mix together), really cracks as we see the cruel edge of the father who gives a minor alcohol (and later berates him for not drinking it). As we move further along, it's clear that Jeremiah has issues. He's unable to perform sexually, he's unable to handle social interaction, and in the end, just wants to be left alone.

But that's not something Michael will allow. He keeps pushing at every turn, forcing Jeremiah to look at what's really going on, whether he wants to or not. The girl tries to keep things together, acting as a counter-balance and professing her love. In the end though, innocence, once doubted, can never be recovered and Jeremiah finds that there's a horrible darkness he's tried to avoid.

It's a truly chilling ending, if I read the implications correctly. I won't go into that here, because I'd like you to be fresh when you read it yourself. But it sure seems like Jeremiah is living a life that is both tragic and horrible, and you have to wonder if he ever did anything to deserve it, or if this fate is just the world being cruel to an innocent boy.

What is not horrible or cruel is the art and story here. Johnson's (first?) novel-length story shows great skill at plotting, leaving clues, and working to obscure things just enough to leave the ending ambiguous. That's a tall order for even established cartoonists, so to be able to do this right out of the gate is impressive.** It's definitely seeded in her shorter work, where things are rarely exactly as they seem. I enjoyed those as well when I investigated her for this profile, but Jeremiah is such a great work in terms of its deceptive complexity that hits you in the gut at the end that it really stands out.

A lot of the mood of this comic comes from the coloring aspect, and that reminds me a bit of Joann Sfar's work, where the lines exist to create a space for the colors to fill in the details and aspects of the characters and world. Ms. Johnson's lines are stark and create figures and backgrounds that are solid and stocky. In and of themselves, they don't do a lot to bring emotion to the work. But when filled with colors, where a check might gain or lose a rosy complexion, corn-like vegetation looks vibrant or broken, and so on, there's a life an energy that really resonates for the reader.

It also serves as our clue that things are going wrong for Jeremiah. As we progress, the background goes from bright blue to an eventual gray that shows he's no longer the boy we met, lazing in the grass with the girl he loves. In between, things move from brightness to dark, often with Michael being the reason for the change in palette. Along the way, there's some simply stunning blending of colors, allowing them to bleed together on the page that shows a purposeful lack of "control," meshing with a theme of the story itself.

Jeremiah is a great comic, and is definitely recommended. Cathy G. Johnson is a great artist, as you can tell from her samples available on the website, and I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

You can find Cathy G. Johnson on the web here.
Jeremiah is available here.

*It's really no surprise to me that the Ignatz awards are really good this year, given that one of the judges is a Panel Patter writer, one is a close friend, and another is a comics creator I think highly of. The judges did a great job this year of taking SPX and bringing in line with the current face of indie comics.

**I apologize if I'm wrong on this, but from the website, it looks like this is her first long-form work, to go along with a really solid history of shorter projects, which you can view on her site.