Jesse Moynihan is a cartoonist whose influences are a complete mystery to me. This, as someone who prides themselves on being able to—with a fair level of acuity—guess who influenced certain cartoonists, should irritate me. But it instead turns the work, line, storytelling of Moynihan’s into a puzzle to be solved. And Moynihan’s latest, the second in the FORMING trilogy, FORMING II, is a difficult one.
More and more, manga and anime’s influence on American cartoonists continues to grow larger and larger, and as it has, there’s been a particular style of manga-influenced action that’s become more prevalent. The former preferred style of comic book fighting is the one seen in THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, particularly in the later issues; the action was bombastic and full of punches the shook the Earth. In those, it was all about fists—there wasn’t a lot of complex choreography necessary—and each moment was supposed to be this big event unto itself. The panels were bigger, and artists favored rectangular and square ones, and the pages were decompressed—each panel was given a lot of space to breathe, and the pages felt very fast-paced. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue, and, consequently, the issues felt very light. This style of fighting in comics had shorter fights, though at its height most of an issue may still have been given over to a single conflict. But when looking at manga, and manga-influence American comics, the action here was downright minimalist.
Take, for example, the 250-page fight sequence of Eiichiro Oda’s ONE PIECE, or the twenty-thirty page fights of Hiroaki Samura’s BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL. The differences in production and distribution allow manga bit more license when it comes to devoting so much space to fights, and it’s what would make a true emulation of that style disastrous if translated to American comics, but since Walt Simonson, Frank Miller, and Geof Darrow began bringing in Goseki Kojima and Sanpei Shirato influences in the late-‘80s, action in American comics has changed. It’s taken the dynamic page layouts of manga—the oblique lines and triangular panels, the dense page layouts—and been obviously influenced by their length. The speed and energy of them has crept into American comics as well. It’s obvious in the work of cartoonists like Emma Rios, Nathan Fox, Nick Dragotta, Wes Craig, Giannis Milonogiannis.
But looking at FORMING II, Moynihan’s work appears almost like it’s the work of a cartoonist out of time. But even that doesn’t accurately convey the singularity of the way he plays out his fights. He has the explosive bombast of ‘90s superhero comics, with wider, spacious panels and decompressed pages, but the dynamism and energy of manga. In some sequences, and in short bursts of storytelling, it feels very much like a Rob Liefeld or a Jim Lee comic. But he doesn’t fully embody a style without manga influence, he simply doesn’t express those influences in the way or to the degree that his peers do. He successfully blends the two styles, and it creates a very fluid, engaging experience. The way he blocks off a two-panel tier, cutting between two characters in the same pose, both ready to strike—it creates an energy and a tension that Moynihan knows just when to release (and Moynihan also physicalizes the catharsis by making that tension-breaking moment the release of literal energy by the characters).
The fight sequences in FORMING II also feature a lot of dialogue, which is something manga tends not to do. Similar to the absurd banter in a Ditko-Lee issue of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Moynihan manipulates the pacing of the fight by chop ‘n’ screwing it with his bizarre style of vehement youth-speak. The work of a storyboard artist/writer for ADVENTURE TIME (responsible or co-responsible for a number of my (and probably your) favorite episodes), the dialogue of FORMING II has that same blend of fantastical and contemporary—in fact, the first time I read FORMING, I described it to someone as a very dirty ADVENTURE TIME. And in his recent Inkstuds interview, Brandon Graham mentioned Moynihan’s ability to give this coarse contemporary dialogue to characters like Ancient Astronauts, God, and Noah (yes, that one), and instead of taking you out of the story it immerses you even further—it doesn’t hurt that it’s all really funny. It’s an ability that very few cartoonists have, and I’m not sure whether or not Moynihan learned it from ADVENTURE TIME or if AT learned it from him, but it works well within the lowercase-A absurd framework of FORMING.
Setting himself even further apart, Moynihan’ rendering is all his own. The closest comparison I could make would be to cartoonists like Simon Hanselmann or Dash Shaw, but both of those are still pretty far from Moynihan. His figures alternate between levels of detail, sharpening up during scenes of intense action especially. His larger figures are also much more mimetic than his smaller characters, being more proportionally accurate as well as more detailed. Again, his storytelling is strong and full of charm and sincerity, so it does the opposite of what inconsistent rendering tends to, and it endears you to the characters instead of taking you out of the story. But even the origin of that storytelling is mysterious. The first page has these diagrammatic lines running obliquely from corner to corner, and it reminded me immediately of Frank Santoro’s educational work, where he draws those same diagrams (and then some) over comics pages to illustrate why Herge’s TINTIN comics work so well because of how they’re tiered or whatever. I’m not sure to what extent Santoro was an influence on FORMING II, or if he even was, but it’s just one more hint at some singular connections being made by Moynihan’s brain.
His narrative influences, though, are little easier to parse out—he doesn’t hide the fact that’s toying around with Judeo-Christian and Greek mythology, as well as ideas about Ancient Astronauts—but the way he incorporates them basically renders all their previous incarnations as separate things completely. I think FORMING II is very obviously the middle chapter of a trilogy, but that’s not a failing of the book—it is, after all, the second of three books, and it’s apathy about being a stand-alone work isn’t a fault. Moynihan doesn’t fall victim to the conventional way of combining these mythologies, and he doesn’t try and combine them in any logical way; it feels very emotionally driven instead of intellectually driven. This makes it seem like Moynihan is playing with the fact that pretty much everyone knows who these characters are, and subverting that knowledge/expectation when he needs to. This makes the story and the disparate mythologies feel very organically fused, and instead of feeling like a retooling or reconciliation it feels likes ostensible originality.
Like I said, Moynihan’s comics feel like a puzzle. You have to really think abstractly to even begin to guess at the kinds of things he’s drawing on, but his ability to express his influence is so vastly different from the way his peers do. FORMING II (FORMING I, too) are comics that feel constructed to live longer in your head than on the page. This makes FORMING II anathema to any reader who prefers a passive, coddling reading experience, but really who needs those guys anyway?
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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