Manos, The Hands of Fate: Chris C. Cilla's The Heavy Hand
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The most arresting image in Chris C. Cilla's 2010 graphic novel, The Heavy Hand
, are the inside front and back covers; dozens of hands, in different positions, from different angles, with individualized palm lines. The rendering is suspended somewhere between cartoony and realistic; the skeletal penciling is visible underneath, covered in ink and wash. It's a visual reminder of the laboriousness of cartooning: the combination of effort, productivity and creativity. Before the book has even begun, the title has to be re-evaluated; it starts to evoke the mark — the hand — of the cartoonist.
A sustained narrative, Cilla's The Heavy Hand
follows Alvin Crabshack as he tries to escape his dead-end life by making his way to the scientist Professor Berigan, who is located deep within a mountain that contains a mysterious life-form. These life-forms escape and they insinuate themselves among humans, although it seems to make little difference in their stunted lives — especially Alvin's. Only a masked man seems to have any sort of control over what transpires. The book is episodic (broken into chapters with discrete titles, such as "Goat Globe"); events are staged and restaged. Time skips and stretches: for example, the chapter "The Party Trap" captures the real feeling of being at a party — of being over-stimulated by the tide pools of conversations; the mundane taking on the aspect of choreography (signaled by an inset panel of an aproned man taking a tray of cookies out of the oven). There are many false starts and aborted attempts; mutated, half-dead, half-alive creatures; and thwarted ambitions.
Stylistically, characters are like the mechanical detritus they fool around with; patched together and randomly assembled from a variety of idioms (Gary Panter, funny animals, Daniel Clowes, psychedelia, Wally Wood). Only their noses bear distinction, curling into a fine schnozz or lengthening into hollow tubes. Cilla's preoccupation with hands (which is a relatively common and understandable one among cartoonists: Burne Hogarth, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Jamie S. Rich and Andi Watson, etc., have all done works about the subject) leads him to emphasize gesture, the manner in which someone holds a can of beer or waves a cigarette. Gesture is how figures push back against the cramped rooms, subterranean passages and desert environs that overwhelm them. Textured panels with "organic," hand-drawn borders vibrate with menace. Reproductive and stillbirth imagery abounds: there are bursts of violence.
Cilla is of a particular strain of widely anthologized (Cilla's comics have appeared in Kramer's Ergot
and Paper Rodeo
), self-publishing (Drip
, The Diplomat
), collaborative (he drew a weekly written by Greg Petix, Swonk
) minicartoonist, one whose work is seemingly everywhere — except in one place, until now. As such, I was a little surprised that The Heavy Hand
, put out by Sparkplug (Cilla, according to the book's bio, is a Portland, Ore., resident, by way of southern Arizona), didn't receive more attention. I asked Cilla some questions, and what was particularly interesting in his responses (our exchange is below) is to find out what he did deliberately — "my attempts to squelch opportunities for my characters" — and what he is as mystified by as his readers.
KRISTY VALENTI: Would you talk about the relationship between the biological and mechanical in your graphic novel?
CHRIS C. CILLA: The Heavy Hand
is mostly biology, sometimes resulting in human nature. The use of appliances is not condemned; can openers, flashlights, refrigerators, etc. are somewhat effective, but not decisive. Professor Berigan's machinery causes more problems than he solves. I have belittled technology into a mundane symbolic role. The larger division is between man and the natural world, as expressed through some unnatural creatures (and a masked agent).
Would you say your graphic novel contains "body horror"?
There are some chopped-off heads, and the one-eyed blobs do some distressing damage to people, but I think that's about all. More horror is in the humor of the banal conversations, and the grotesque imaginary animal life forms.
Futile attempts at reproduction reoccur. (I'm thinking of "Goat Globe.") What about this theme interests you?
The dormant eggs are first seen to produce a living spawn in the Goat Globe story, but the reptile(?) offspring is clearly in rough shape for the rest of the story. The fitful progress of this new life form falls in line with my attempts to squelch opportunities for my characters. I think futility in general finds a symbolic home in the inert eggs. But the real-life goats seem to be doing fine...
Devices and influences
You mix anthropomorphic characters in with humanoid characters without comment. What are you hoping to achieve with this device?
I like comic books, and all my characters are cartoons, human or otherwise. I hope that casual funny animals make other unreal elements easier to accept for readers.
Would you talk about how you decided to structure and pace
The Heavy Hand?
I knew I would be making a long comic story, so I roughed out a road trip and a few characters, added scenes I'd like to read, and paced the book accordingly. I wanted an expository talky (slower, humorous?) beginning, with an accelerated concluding section, less individual moment and more fragmentary, and a couple of abrupt changes/endings. I chopped it up into chapters, and tried to control the pace with drawing and paneling, also by concentrating dialogue.
Your drawing style is referential. How do you go about synthesizing your influences and making them your own?
I'm not trying to deliberately refer to any other artists, but I am steeped in comics art, and I'm sure that spreads to the surface in my work. There are a few references to outside works ("Silver Machine" is a Hawkwind song, the splash panel of "Goat Globe" has a small corner of a [William] Hogarth engraving clumsily copied), but if you see another artist bleeding through my work it is unconscious.
What is your process? (Sketching, etc.?)
I planned a mundane adventure comic, and imagined reading it. Road trip episodes is an easy way to start pulling together a story structure. I keep a sketchbook all the time, and write down anything that I think of relating to the story, characters, dialogue, drawings or whatever. I broke it up into segments, roughed out small versions of each: then whittled each part down to a readable chunk. I plan a lot and keep a lot of notes, but I always leave some room for improvisation. I pencil, then letter and ink, then Wite-Out.
The storytelling gives the impression that you work in short bursts.
I tried to complete each chapter on its own before moving on to another chapter. I did work on the chapters out of order.
What is your pace as a cartoonist like?
I draw every day, but I often don't have long stretches of time to work on comics, often just my weekends. The episodic structure is deliberate, and is more of a result of editing than of my working pace. It always takes a lot longer to draw a comic than I think it will.
What kind of considerations do you make when you create your layouts?
I knew what the dimensions of the book would be, and that it would be printed full bleed, so everything was measured in advance. I planned the pages as spreads, and as individual pages to be read. When I am working on a comic, I think about it a lot, and if I see a page in a dream, I adapt layouts to accommodate what I have seen. I am primarily thinking about the final reading experience.
The drawings of machines are quite detailed.
The machinery comes from a love of the detailed imaginary technology of Jack Kirby and Wally Wood (among others); it's drawing indulgence in some ways.
Are you mechanically adept?
I'm not especially mechanically inclined; I can set a mousetrap without getting snapped, but I can't fix a washing machine.
What kind of thought goes into how you draw noses?
I try and include a variety of noses, sort of like the anthropomorphic characters, these crazy noses let the reader know that anything goes. Big noses are a cartoon tradition that I embrace, from Mutt & Jeff, Powerhouse Pepper, Syd Hoff, etc.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up a color comic for the upcoming Emergence
anthology coming out of Bellingham, and some pages for the next Studygroup 12
. I will be putting together a collection of The Diplomat
soon and a couple more original books (one funny animal), and I will also be working on a project with La Mano 21, details to be nailed down. I am also working on some novelty T-shirts, and other screen-printing projects.
All images ©2010 Chris C. Cilla
Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010