State of the Art: Kagan McLeod Gets Kinetic in Kaptara

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Kagan McLeod broke through the landscape of oft-homogenized mainstream cartooning in 2011 with Infinite Kung Fu, an action-packed graphic novel about a martial arts layman. Rendered in shades of gray, that long-form debut featured lush brushstrokes and soft ink washes. Over the years, McLeod has proven himself a talented, capable artist time and again, most remarkably by adapting Michael K. Williams’ impossible-sounding R. Kelly anecdotes for Vulture.

His most recent project is Kaptara, a space opera produced in collaboration with cartoonist Chip Zdarsky, who jokingly describes it as “Gay Saga.” The comedic ongoing series (tagline: “Space…why you gotta be like that?”) concerns a group of astronauts stranded on the titular planet, which is occupied by parodies of ‘80s action figures. Even a cursory glance at Kaptara reveals a multi-faceted gem, defined by expressive faces, a purple and magenta-infused color palette and dynamic body language.

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McLeod—an editorial illustrator who cites contemporaries as disparate as Ed Piskor, Becky Cloonan and Eleanor Davis as influences—prefers a thick line. Weighted similarly to classical Chinese ink drawings, his figures have soft edges; their contours are abyssal and heavy, anchoring them to the space they move through. The closest comparison to this facet of McLeod’s cartooning may be the infamous inks of Vagabond’s Takehiko Inoue. McLeod then shifts these well-delineated bodies into athletic poses, and they’re always in motion: bending, yanking, pushing, pulling, leaping, running, jumping or (at the very least) talking animatedly. He invokes Will Eisner’s emphasis on body language, and the character’s posture and facial acting compete for primacy of communication. McLeod only breaks with these contiguous lines with little drips and splashes of ink, belying influences like Blutch and Goseki Kojima.

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With Kaptara, you can almost reach through the page and feel the wet viscera and wavy figures. “I’m a big fan of raw drawing skill, nice confident marks and lines,” McLeod explains over email. He specifically mentions the precise linework of illustrators from the ‘60s, including Noel Sickles and Bob Peak. “They were all able to get a lot across in just a few strokes, and find a great balance between abstract approaches and realism.”

McLeod fits nicely into that tradition, and his figurework successfully walks the razor’s edge of mimetic (realistic) and diegetic (stylized) cartooning: he doesn’t abstract figures or forms, but the way they’re rendered feels so idiosyncratic, so irreproducible by anyone else. And each line bristles with movement, because McLeod has cultivated a dynamism that can’t help but shine through.

This approach ties to McLeod’s emphasis on speedy mark-making and unfettered cartooning. The artist sums up this prioritization of immediacy: “I think a real test of skill is what you can do in five or 10 minutes.” He engages in timed figure drawing, and even participated in Sam Hiti’s collaborative live-art project, Tit For Tat, a modern update of Tac-Au-Tac (a televised series of exquisite corpses featuring such masters as Moebius, Hugo Pratt and Guido Crepax). But McLeod admits that he can’t always get the quickness he wants with his comics work, finding himself unconsciously tightening up—though any hesitation in his brushstrokes isn’t visible in the final product. Ultimately, his aesthetic still manages to feel both loose and purposeful.

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These soft inks contrast favorably with McLeod’s colors, and the artist’s distinct aesthetic creates a unified whole. While color typically feels more like an obligatory component in most mainstream comics, it can be manipulated to great tonal effect and narrative usage. This is usually achieved through stylized encoding, wherein objects and scenes are colored to correspond with an emotional intonation instead of a reflection of reality. But McLeod is able to achieve this vital storytelling affectation with a literal-minded palette. The saturation of his colors tends to be slight, and in some cases they feel almost bleached by the sun. The hues are lightly faded, a product of the artist adding “a rusty red wash to the original as well as a cool greyish blue.” This rounded, smoothed art feels very lush as a result, and McLeod’s choice in colors makes it pop. They complement inky textures and expand on their watery implications.

For his layouts and composition, however, McLeod prioritizes readability and communication. “I know you can get different rhythms and types of tension with panel layouts and shapes,” McLeod explains. “But I prefer to keep it simple in that area.” His pages aren’t particularly dense, and he makes his panels large enough to depict what they need to without feeling claustrophobic. The paneling is simple and clean, readable by casual and graphically literate readers alike. The story takes priority and McLeod doesn’t employ any overcomplicated tricks that may distract.

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McLeod’s collaborator on Kaptara, Chip Zdarsky, gives him the room to bring these visuals to the fore. “With Chip I think we have a good thing going where he leaves certain visuals in the script foggy for me to go to town on. Part of the fun, and I’m sure he can relate with his work with Matt [Fraction on Sex Criminals], is coming up with extra details—especially humorous ones—to amuse each other with. There are certain storytelling devices Chip uses in the first few issues that I don’t think I would have come up with in my own work, so it’s great to take a crack at drawing them. As far as him being an artist himself, that only helps to make my work better as I don’t want to disappoint. He’s also well aware of how grueling drawing a comic is, so he’s sympathetic when it comes to incredibly busy pages.”

That consistency of give and take is apparent in how McLeod and Zdarsky design the series’ characters. The pair formerly used an “APPROVED/NOT APPROVED” stamp for impromptu character-design jams, but have since moved on to a more streamlined vetting processes. “Going in, Chip wanted a wizard and I started sketching a weird old man, probably nude, for a laugh. Then his myth just writes itself. Obviously he’s nude because he’s a shapeshifter and has to stay fancy free.” It’s organic and natural, springing out of these cartoonists’ desire to entertain each other. It recalls the gut-level, “feels right” approach to inking and figurework that McLeod favors, and it’s produced an enticing comic.

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This overarching ethos of directness and simplicity has provided an exceptional artistic compass for Kaptara. Striving toward expression and communication has lead McLeod to cultivate a disarming style: it’s simultaneously raw, impulsive, and dense. He’s demonstrated noticeably growth over the years, honing his artistic vision and unifying his aesthetic, and with Kaptara’s launch, it will be a joy to see where McLeod not only takes that series, but where he takes himself.