Tuesday, December 18, 2012

review: digestate: a food & eating themed anthology

by Alec Berry 

In terms of the the pitch, point and purpose of this publication, the title really says it all.

Digestate was funded through the ever-popular platform of Kickstarter. Cartoonist J.T. Yost acts as editor and organizer of this piece, and it includes the contributions of Box Brown, James Kochalka, Noah Van Sciver, Renee French, Josh Bayer, Victor Kerlow, Jeffrey Brown, Alex Robinson and many, many more I will not list. There's 288 pages in the volume, and the price tag reads $20.

I was offered a review copy, so here we go.

As an anthology, Digestate is about as average as it gets. It strays from "horrendous," but aside from a few standout inclusions, neither does it pass on into the grounds of "must-own."

I like the theme. If there's anything Anthony Bourdain has taught me, it's that there's more to food than pure sustenance. Food is identity, culture, custom, business, erotica, leisure, politics and probably more, so there's certainly plenty to be written about food, let alone room for there to be, dare I say it, a "food genre" in comics, and I'm all about covering open ground. That said, this anthology seems a little restrained, presenting the herbivore/carnivore debate, gag strips and self-esteem driven "foodtropectives" at a consistent and almost predictable pace. At a shorter page count, this may not be an issue, but when reading 288 straight pages there's a repetition. Maybe this is expected of a themed anthology, but I couldn't help but be feel lectured to too often or the audience of an anecdote better left unsaid.

I don't mean to say Yost directed his talent and did any sort of restraining, but rather that the talent itself built the cage. The interview portion below says Digestate's original purpose was to host a discourse on veganism and omnivorism, but Yost mentions that as the project took shape, that original thought was dropped and a general food theme replaced it. The room to run free and wild was there, but somewhere along the line the artists involved feared venturing out, or they all just covered similar ground and the amount of contributors simply emphasized the fact.

That's my main complaint. I understand an excitement to include a body of cartoonists, but Digestate could have benefited from a shorter roster rather than aiming for a size award. Yost was certainly interested in representing an array of perspectives and voices, which is great, but it seems not every voice in this instance needed raised. Not to say those specific cartoonists are bland or boring, just that maybe they didn't serve this project all the best. I mean, this is a big book (55 contributors). A tighter edit could have shaped this into a neat little item and wiped away the excess, but as it stands Digestate feels gluttonous. There's an overflow of content here. As a cartoonist sampler, maybe that's a good thing (although, as typed, the focuses of the pieces sort of overlap), but as an object of art or defined work, this book watered itself down by throwing such a party. 

But, there are a few highlights.

Yost's own piece marks the center of the book, and I might go as far as to call it the overall winner. Titled "Slaughterhouse Stories," it details the account of a slaughterhouse worker in a journalistic style. Yost proportions the story to rely on the man's own words. He eliminates the grid and uses full page drawings while overlaying the source's narration against the art. From this, the reader's eye follows text more than it does imagery because there's not a grid to direct, but for a story centered on recollection it makes sense to place such emphasis on the speech. The power of the story comes from it being an experienced occurrence, and without a focus on Yost's source's words you'd lose some of that.

While some may consider it a bit of a lecture, I give credit to Yost for acting as journalist here and allowing this man to tell his tale. Centering the piece on the source absorbs some of the lecture element and transforms it into more of a narrative by tying all sentiments to a central human figure. Also, the amount of detail Yost takes from his source heightens the sense of disgust, where other "slaughterhouse stories" sort of just get by on "yeah, they kill animals inhumanely." Yost puts you there, and while detailing the suffering dealt to animals he's also sure to spotlight the risk to humankind, making the point harder to ignore.

Nate Doyle's "Fug It" provides a nice laugh while poking fun at veganism. I found it charming and down-to-Earth.

Jeff Zwirek does some great cartooning with his jungle man strip. Two panels per page, clean imagery, a wonderful, smooth line all along with a nice little punch line - just solid craft.

Noah Van Sciver went with an extended poop joke, and I respect that.

Alex Robinson's "Peanut Butter Kid" was relatable. He brings up quite a few sentiments of picky eating that I've lived with previously in life.

Other than that, the rest is sort of a wash - forgettable, at best. I've been a fan and supporter of Yost's for a few years now, but I can't type this review and pretend Digestate was all the fun I could ever want. It wasn't. It's average, like a majority of the anthologies out there today. You can buy it here if you want, but personally I'm glad this was a free review copy. Harsh, maybe, but true.

But, hey, let's give J.T. Yost a chance to speak (I've done enough) ...

And now, a brief interview with the book's editor J.T. Yost. This was originally published on Spandexless.com in June 2012.

Alec Berry: You mentioned in another interview that this idea originated from other cartoonists you knew being vegan and wanting to illustrate the two extremes of eating – vegan to the total carnivore. Does the project still fit that original idea or has it morphed into something else?

J.T. Yost: Yes, I started with the idea of Digestate being a flip-book. One side would be comics by vegan artists, and the other would be comics by carnivores (I think ‘omnivore’ is technically correct, but ‘carnivore’ sounds better). Once I’d made a list of artists I hoped would contribute, I realized that the requirements would have to be loosened in order to include everyone. There are about a dozen vegans contributing, but we are far outnumbered by the carnivores (as in real life, I suppose).

The anthology is now open to the artists’ interpretation of the theme “food & eating”. I’m hoping for a huge variety of viewpoints to be expressed.

AB: What can food say about a person’s identity? Does the phrase “you are what you eat” really fit?

J.T.: There seems to be a huge range in how people relate to food. I am personally very interested in food politics, but I’ve come to realize that I’m probably in the minority. To demonstrate that diverse range you could take someone like myself who has the luxury of choosing specific dietary restrictions (veganism) and a starving person who just wants sustenance – ANY sustenance – to survive. I’m pretty certain the latter has more pressing matters than drawing a comic for this anthology, but I think the other contributing artists may have vastly different comics than what I’m submitting. I’m hoping for a wide range in subject and tone.

AB: You’ve been a contributor to anthologies before. What’s it like now being the editor?

J.T.: I love it. I love anthologies in general, especially well edited ones like Papercutter. Ideally, they have some well-loved artists balanced with relative unknowns. That way, the reader is drawn in by the bigger names but discovers some new talent. Editing an anthology with this many contributors (over 50!) is a lot of work, but I get reinvigorated each time someone sends me their finished comic.

AB: Have you been very involved with each strip or is this more a case of letting the artists go off and return with what they want? Or is there a middle ground?

J.T.: Other than picking the artists and supplying the theme, I’ve had very little input into the comics being contributed.  As an artist, I prefer a lot of freedom, so I only make suggestions if asked. The only exception is the cover image. I came up with a general idea that I thought was suited to Cha’s (the artist) temperament, but I’m pretty much letting her run with it.

AB: What’s a good rule of thumb for an anthology comic in your opinion?

J.T.: There are no rules, that’s what’s great about them. An artist who has cultivated a certain style or tone of work can try something new if they’d like.

AB: What’s your take on the whole idea of “cartoonists should use anthologies to learn”?

J.T.: Who can say? There have certainly been cartoonists who deliver incredible fully-formed graphic novels right out of the gate with no previous mini-comics or anthology work under their belts. Personally, I’m fairly embarrassed of my earlier anthology contributions, but they taught me valuable lessons. Anthologies can be a great learning tool, but sometimes the anthology reader can suffer while that artist learns!

AB: Other than Digestate, anything else in the works?

J.T.: Appropriately enough, I’m working on a ten page comic for the upcoming Hic & Hoc anthology of Unsolved Mysteries and a piece for an anthology about cringe-worthy experiences edited by Peter S. Conrad. I have notes for Losers Weepers #4 (LW is an ongoing narrative based on and including actual found letters, notes and other detritus), but haven’t had the time to sit down and write/draw it. I’m a full time dad to my daughter Lulu/freelance illustrator/pet portraitist/small press comic publisher/etc., so there’s not a whole lot of free time!

AB: What will people take away from Digestate?

J.T.: Ideally, I’d love for the readers to learn something or expand their viewpoints about food. Hopefully be entertained. If not, Digestate‘s pages can be easily removed to be used as napkins.

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