Review: American Steel by Danielle Chenette


One of the smaller publishers in the Chicagoland scene, Believed Behavior is a mixed online/offline publishing project by cartoonist Andy Rench. The core of the concern’s publishing activity is the Believed Behavior newsprint anthology, now up to issue #3. (You can see my thoughts on the second issue here.) Believed Behavior also periodically releases mini comics, and American Steel is one of three mini comics that Believed Behavior debuted at CAKE in 2016.  American Steel is available to read online; my copy came from a 3-pack bundle sale I picked up at the end of the year.

Printed by Perfectly Acceptable Press, American Steel is a 24-page 2-color risograph zine about a near-future where aliens have come to take over the Earth. Rather than being hostile and taking over by force, the aliens are trying to buy their way in, paying human workers good money to do work for them as they slowly take over. The story is told from the perspective of two workers painting a sign in an alien script and talking about their hopes and dreams.

Chenette’s cartooning has a gestural, carefree affect, more concerned with the course of a line than the form it means to represent. The drawings are abstracted significantly, with the lines of hands and faces shifting to meet the needs of the space and scene. While these images don’t morph and flow like the work of cartoonists like Austin English, there’s a freedom to the work which I found refreshing.

Chenette also turns the traditional speech bubble 90 degrees counter clockwise, forcing readers to turn the page sideways to read the dialogue. This formal choice makes the images seem closer or tighter, using up vertical space rather than horizontal space in the panel. That linearity emphasizes the closeness of the billboard, the height, and the way the characters are craning their necks to paint the sign.

Humor is Chenette’s weapon of choice, and much of American Steel reads a like an extended joke. The two workers call what is clearly a can of paint “crimson liquid,” and can’t read the text of the sign they’re meant to create. The last panel delivers a punchline telegraphed on the front cover. There’s a darkness to the work though, and I think in a timeline with a recently inaugurated Trump presidency,

American Steel reads even darker than potentially intended. There are a lot of promises made in American Steel. The workers are being promised higher paid jobs, more money. They don’t necessarily understand what the alien plan is, any of its specifics, or how it’s going to work, but they trust everything is okay and going to end up in their favor. We’re going to get the steel industry up and running again. We’re going to be happy again. Of course, they’re being set up for a fall. The main characters are both deluded and misinformed, maybe willingly so. Chenette’s humor is harsh; there aren’t any pulled punches here, although you can see them coming from a mile away.

Except, like Chenette’s characters, when you don’t.

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