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Canvas
posted October 20, 2004
 

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Creator: Alex Fellows
Publishing Info: Fantagraphics Books, $9.95, 88 pages, 2004
Ordering Numbers: None

Canvas continues the education of Alex Fellows, a young artist of some 25 years whose previous work appeared on the Fantagraphics web site. His latest trade paperback delves into the life of a pretty typical teenage girl just as she begins to have physical contact with the opposite sex. The setting is a summer camping vacation Canvas and her family takes, the kind of event a young person might undertake with their parents out of fealty to some sort of family routine, a way of doing things that starts to feel different the more they come to think of their life as those moments that occur when parents aren't around. Canvas meets a pair of boys, one in which she's interested and one that's obviously interested in her, and her movement towards one of them ends our involvement in her story.

The more interesting elements of Canvas arise out of the very specific setting and the details that Fellows brings to the book's scenework. This camping culture described feels very consistently true, even as Canvas' take on things opens up geographically in a way that corresponds to the increased scope of her personal relationships. Fellows does a nice job of capturing the banality of dialogue without showing off that he's doing so, and the way the two male characters and play off of one another, both in terms of their interest in Canvas and the fact that one of them seems to be receiving some television acting work, crackles realistically in a way none of the protagonist's interpersonal relationships come close to achieving. Fellows even seems to have gotten the sex parts right, the ground war between never having done something and going ahead and doing it that takes place in incremental fashion those few years between childhood and full teenager status. There is much to like here, and even more that should make the publishers feel encouraged.

Where the book falters is in its execution. Fellows simply isn't artist enough at this point to hold the reader's interest through many of these scenes. The figure drawing can be stiff and clunky. Some of the design work proves suspect as well. The characters have blank eyes, which makes them seem like ciphers in a way that doesn't play well against the very specific characterizations with which they're provided. The cartoonist makes abstractions of the parents, one would guess to make clear how alienated Canvas feels in their presence. The method is clumsy and distracting. Canvas remains too much on the cipher side of characterization; her growth is appropriately incremental, but we have no way of investing any significance in these smaller moments the way we do with the two competing brothers, for instance. Canvas feels too much like a character in a story, and we never leave that feeling of being in that story long enough for it to have an effect on us. Still, this is weirdly offbeat and potentially rich material with which Fellows is flirting. As with this book's protagonist, I admit to having little interest in watching the cartooonist develop in such painstaking detail, but it's possible I may very much like the adult.

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