Eric: State of the Web(cartoonist): James Grant and Mel Hynes
Current Webcomic: Two Lumps
Enthusiasm: Happily Reading
How Frequently Read: Sporadically Checked
James Grant is going to kick my ass if we ever meet. I have this as an article of faith.
Understand, I don't want him to kick my ass. Asskickings hurt, and I'm old and frail. And I don't think I've actually given him reason to kick my ass -- our dealings in the past have been cordial, helped I'm sure by the fact that I've liked pretty much anything he's been part of. And he's not an unreasonable person.
No, James Grant is going to kick my ass sheerly because he is that cool, and because my ass is there to be kicked. He'll apologize afterward, assuming I don't mewl.
Mel Hynes will not kick my ass unless I give her a reason. But if I give her a reason she will destroy me. She will reduce me to corpuscles. James Grant kicks asses because that's what he does. Mel Hynes is a force of nature.
They do a comic strip about cats.
Two Lumps is not FLEM Comics. It isn't horrifying the way a snake is. Two Lumps is not Timmy Kat, which is one of my favorite one-shot comics of all time. Two Lumps is not Pedestrian Wolves or On The Banks of Lethe, Grant's two books, at least one of which gave me disturbing dreams for weeks. Two Lumps is a comic strip about cats.
But man, it's sure as Hell not Garfield either.
On one level, Two Lumps is mostly family friendly. It's about a smart, evil cat and a stupid, loving cat. Also, there is vodka and occasionally sex. It's largely gag-a-day with some forays into continuity when they feel like it. Also, occasionally one farts on the other.
Which gives us, ultimately, some sense of where to put it on the cosm of media about animals. See, almost all stories, TV shows, movies, cartoons, comic books, comic strips, cave drawings or other representations actually about animals anthropomorphizes them to some degree. (Note we're not actually discussing anthropomorphic comics here -- from the Funny Animals through to Furry Comics et al. We're talking about actual animals, not animals with opposable thumbs.) And these representations follow a continuum -- anywhere from Clifford The Big Red Dog, who is after all very big and red, and while he is a dog his dog nature is subsumed by cute, through Garfield, who is an utterly unrealistic cat but not very big or red, all the way to Watership Down, where animals act like animals, are in no way cute, and sometimes rabbits set up repressive police states that must be overthrown while rabbit priests dream horrible dreams of blood and rivers.
Ebenezer and Snooch aren't Watership Down, but they're sure not Clifford. While their thought processes aren't realistic, the core behaviors and troubles they get into are. They're selfish (even Snooch), and while Eben might be brilliant, he doesn't really understand the world as we do and he doesn't care to. You get the feeling that for all their reverence for "Mom," they'd sell her in a New York second for a heap of food. They eat things they shouldn't. They get into liquor and candy that'll kill them. They freak the Hell out and go into blinding rages of pain and destruction when they go to the vet. They stare at birds "they would lick for hours and hours."
In short, rather than acting cute and cuddly and the way we'd like cats to act, they act like cats, and sometimes that's cute and sometimes that's horrid. And sometimes it involves smells that no decent being would admit to. I know this. I own a cat. And I love my cat. But my cat, for all my love and affection, has a brain the size of a walnut. She has no true cognitive skills. She doesn't understand my words. She understands things that make her feel good, things that make her feel bad, and things she wants to stalk and kill. She will gladly wolf down any cheese or turkey I have, even if it's too fast and it makes her vomit, then immediately walk back over and ask for more. This is not the act of an reasoning creature.
Garfield may love lasagna, but he's not at the core a dumbass cat. Eben and Snooch, no matter how smart they are in the strip, are grounded in being cats. And you can totally see Snooch eating to the point of throwing up just everywhere, horrifying all who see, then walking over and asking for more food. And if he doesn't get it he'll go and eat what he just vomited, because hey.
Disgusting? Yes. But very Cat.
This has been the hallmark of the Grant/Hynes partnership/marriage. Before Mel Hynes, Grant was a crazy fucker. FLEM Comics remains one of my personal high water marks of online comics reading, and it horrified me as much as it entertained me. Hynes hasn't reformed Grant and she hasn't tamed him, but she's channeled him. Two Lumps (and, for that matter, Timmy Kat) contain all the potential for horror as FLEM, but it's been redirected (and the actual horrific things take place just off panel) and given a veneer of respectability. And, as the masters know, showing gore makes for a visceral film, but implying it makes for a terrifying one.
Or, in this case, a really funny one.
As stated, Grant and Hynes are really great at comic strip execution. They can touch on (or wallow in) disgusting or pleasant subjects with either facility, without ever having the strip fade into "Not Safe For Work." Hynes is a solid writer and scripter who has a solid grasp of who and what cats are without romanticizing them. Which is a hard skill -- she clearly likes cats and likes having cats without needing to hide from their essential animal nature. And Grant's art really comes into its own on this strip -- his style fits the cat world perfectly, he's great at both the body language of a pissed off cat and a variety of cartoonish facial expression, and he goes into all the detail a given strip requires while keeping the balance in place.
I won't claim every strip is a winner. Though this is a strip I greatly enjoy, you'll note I have it under sporadically checked. As with FLEM before it (FLEM still lurches out new strips now and again, but they're rare), I think the best way to read Two Lumps is in two week chunks -- this way, strips that are more serviceable than brilliant are swept up in the tide. Further, reading it every day can make the strip seem repetitive, where taking it in two week chunks highlight the differing elements.
Also, when they move into longer storylines -- a rare occurance, mind -- they don't always work so well. This is a gag-a-day strip at heart, and it's where its strength is. We're in a longer storyline right now that's going pretty nicely, but there's always the danger it will begin to drag without a solid way of resolving.
On the Whole
Two Lumps knows its business. It does it well. And Grant -- always brilliant, in my estimation -- has been refined by Hynes, and that's to the good. Really, you can see it in his prose writing as well. On The Banks of Lethe is a better book than Pedestrian Wolves was -- more refined, better paced and executed, and while some of that is experience some of it's also Hynes's influence. My comic reading life is enhanced by their presence.
Which doesn't change the fact that James Grant will kick my ass if we ever meet. But then, nothing could.
So, as for tomorrow, the one armed bandit spins....
Hrm. Cherry... Pirate... and the white space between two bars and what looks like a fish. Mrph. Y'okay. We can do this one. We'll see you then.
Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 27, 2008 10:50 AM
Hmmm... no comments after 6 hours. Do they all agree with you, or are they all AFRAID OF JAMES GRANT?
Personally speaking, I miss the Jay chronicles from FLEM.
Oddly enough, if you look at the early Two Lumps strips, they contain some very NSFW language and some of the situations are a bit crude, albeit apropos. It's probably leftovers from his early works (which were truly epic, the Jay storyline nearly made me wet myself with laughter on the first runthrough), but I'm still amazed at how the strip quickly evolved from FLEM with cats into something that should be replacing Garfield on the funny pages. They've slipped into the continuity trap a couple times (I always forget to check the strip if I don't have my trawl handy), but by and large they're consistent and pretty funny. Regular updates, too, which is always a plus.
In other news, I'm glad to see that the latest return of Websnark is actually progressing at a pretty good clip. I have so missed your sparkling wit and wisdom these past few months (Thank God for RSS feeds).
Comment from: Danalog posted at February 28, 2008 1:05 PM
Digging Up Corpses I found more enjoyable than Pedestrian Wolves, and not as much as Lethe, if you haven't read that one (since you didn't mention it)
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