Mundanity’s stifling damnation

Cartoonist finds macabre humour in malaise of suburban and rural existence

Within the drawn realm of cartoonist Dakota McFadzean the fantastic is apparently real — or at least may be.

Or perhaps should be if only to rescue his characters from mundanity’s stifling damnation. In the Saskatchewan-born McFadzean’s first book Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On (Conundrum Press) we meet multiple figures stuck in a malaise of suburban and rural existence with its flat horizons stunted perspectives and limited prospects. Nonetheless humour is not alien here.

McFadzean now living in Toronto is a stupendously promising young talent who hasn’t gone unnoticed: one of Other Stories ’ collected mini-comics was selected for the 2012 edition of publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American Comics series alongside such distinguished cartooning company as Chester Brown ( Louis Riel ) and Chris Ware ( Building Stories ).

Additionally McFadzean’s web comic The Dailies was shortlisted by Slate magazine in 2012 for Best Web Comic; some of its featured characters reappear in the artist’s debut tome which also includes the Canadian comics industry’s Shuster Award-winning “Ghost Rabbit.”

Both The Dailies and Other Stories are characterized by a macabre humour expressed through wholly unexpected and often fantastical twists delivered as abrupt jarring punchlines — some of which we laugh at if only to stifle discomfiture. And not just at the sometime grotesque visual concepts but also the existential sangfroid as in Other Stories ’ tale “Brokenface” in which the title figure with a gaping orifice for a mug seeks fulfilment among the wholly visaged.

McFadzean also presents scenarios with the quality of the most harrowing haunting and elusive of dreams. Take his book’s opener “Standing Water” in which a masked boy is apparently the only one able to move about a world that is — what? Frozen? Afloat in some substance unseen? And why?

A master of fine arts graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont McFadzean’s uncluttered handsome line is a counterpoint to his content and often drolly underscores it. He’s also masterful at capturing tremendous latent action within the ultimately static comics medium; consider the rhythm juxtaposition and command of body movement in “Ghost Rabbit” in which a little girl and her imaginary compatriot dance and tumble about across a two-page spread.

We’re also sometimes presented a world not meant simply to represent the one we inhabit but that seems to operate according to cartooning conventions. When the masked protagonist of “Standing Water” tries to speak at one point for instance words — carried literally inside a word balloon — dissipate into air.

The playfulness with comics devices is also on display in the titular “And the Horse You Rode In On” in which McFadzean uses the unique hybrid that is text and image together in comics to visually have one character talk over another her word balloons dominating his. The narrative result is an alienated high schooler steamrolled by the uninterested useless guidance counsellor.

There is to be sure a grimness present in McFadzean’s world view; “Snotgurgle” for example reminds of our tendency to destroy wonder in the world in favour of our most base inclinations. And the spectre of death hovers recurrently — literally as a memento mori in “Boxes” and as a symbol of life as a succession of all good things ending in “Skeletons.”

Yet while hopes and dreams remain uncertain in such tales as “Seelie Court” with its ambiguous final panel the book’s centrepiece “Leave Luck to Heaven” — the selection included in The Best American Comics — conveys genuinely useful applicable philosophy: it’s up to us to find our own meaning and wonderment around us.

“Ghost Rabbit” for that matter is about no less than reckoning with death by making the most of life a sentiment that also seems echoed at the close of “Brokenface.” Hence McFadzean repeatedly provides nothing less than a recipe for how to exist.