Monday, September 25, 2017

Minis: M.Turbitt, J.Baylis, J.Porcellino

That blissful comics avalanche feel is upon me after SPX. All I can do is sift through and start reviewing.

How To Eat Chips, by Meghan Turbitt. Turbitt continues her hilarious, over-the-top social satire by way of exploring advertising and imagery surrounding food in this mini. From the cover that's a parody of the Utz brand of potato chips to the "nutritional facts" on the back that indicates that it provides 200% of daily laughs, 100% of advice and 50% each of fashion, fine art & literature, this mini even has a single-page inset "Guide To Eating Potato Chips". What makes this mini so successful is Turbitt's genuine enthusiasm for food and snack foods in particular. The manic energy that Turbitt provides for her drawings is inherently funny in drawings of potato chips and people eating them; the dissonance between what we expect in a work of advertising and promotion and what she does on the page is amusingly diverting. The further the mini goes on, the sillier it gets, like listing the "best songs to listen to while eating Rap Snacks", positing pretzels as the enemy of chips, creating a "chips dream team" and imagining future chip flavors like oyster, pho, and lobster roll. At the same time, while the mini becomes silly, it never becomes absurd, and stays in the gravity of its central premise: a guide to something that needs no guide at all.

So Buttons #8, by Jonathan Baylis, et al. Baylis continues to get better with every issue of his collaborative autobio comic. His writing is sharper, more concise, funnier and just has a greater overall crispness and purpose. In terms of style, he's never been lacking for ideas, and the cover for this issue was just killer: a parody of the cover of American Splendor #4, as drawn by Robert Crumb. This was the one where noted record fiends Harvey Pekar & Crumb were doing an aw-shucks trade on records they really wanted, each thinking they ripped the other off. This time around, it's a drawing of Baylis and cover artist Noah Van Sciver, doing the same thing with comics. It's hilariously on point and evocative of the original while very much being in Van Sciver's mature style.

Baylis has learned to find good matches for story subjects. "So...Porky" is about his rejection of his Jewish religious roots in terms of dogma around diet and how he embraced pork. This was a light-hearted story, so a cartoony and light line like Corrine Mucha's was a solid pairing. I especially enjoyed how he went into so much detail about something called a Shanghai soup dumpling, which amusingly has a set of rituals surrounding it that one might almost call religious. Rick Parker's versatility and ability to draw horror images made him the right partner for "So...Hallow", which is a history of his love of Halloween make-up. It includes an interlude by Van Sciver where extremely gory make-up one Halloween stopped an angry motorist he'd just gotten into a fender-bender with in his tracks. Baylis always has a way of bringing these anecdotes around to more significant events, and in this case it was his initial interest in doing movie effects make-up for a living that waned when he started doing it for others, along with a general disinterest in Halloween that started after 9/11. The happy ending is that he started finding ways to dress up his dog. "So...Bejeweled" (with one of the best artists with regard to drawing animals in Rachel Dukes) is about his first dog as an adult who died not long after they got her, while "So...Close" is an amusing short with long-time collaborator T.J. Kirsch wherein he tells his wife that the feels like their life is settling down for the better...only to run out of gas. This issue is a solid, satisfying piece of storytelling.

South Beloit Journal, by John Porcellino. This mini from Uncivilized Books has an interesting origin. After finishing drawing a book about suicide, he found himself with 91 2x6" scraps of Bristol board after he trimmed the pages to size. He was inspired to do a daily, three panel journal strip that was very different from the sort of thing he does in King-Cat Comics & Stories. There's a level of precision, even in a minimalist sense, in those comics. Those comics are poetic, and the anecdotes carefully chosen. With a daily strip, John P simply unloaded what was on his mind in the fastest, rawest manner possible. The fact that he was going through an especially low, lonely period of his life and that he did this anyway is just part and parcel of Porcellino and his approach to life. Even at his most depressed, he finds a way to keep going, keep working, keep drawing, keep connecting and keep trying. The bright moments in this comic come when he's connecting with someone else, or talking to cartoonist friends of his at shows, or getting up and drawing/working when he would rather sleep all day. He's a sort of living example of the positive effects of what is known in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) as "opposite action"--doing the opposite of what you want to do in a depressed state, in order to change mood. The journal is also proof that no matter how awful today is, tomorrow has a chance to be better. That's borne out in the back half of the journal, when he goes on an extended trip to Canada for various shows and readings, and also starts dating someone new. Porcellino is not one to overromanticize anything, so reading about him watching the hockey playoffs with his new girlfriend is a kind of shorthand for that sense of new romantic energy. Making those connections and soldiering on with his creative work doesn't make everything perfect, but in these raw, ragged and emotionally vulnerable strips, Porcellino shows that it can at least help.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reflections on SPX 2017

I've been writing SPX reports for a good fifteen years now. I've been involved in the show in a number of capacities: as a writer making sense of it, as a presenter of an Ignatz award, as a moderator of numerous panels, and as the first guest-curator for the Library of Congress' sweep of the show for new material. This year marked the first time I've actually stepped behind the curtain, as it were, and joined the staff in the capacity of co-programming director.

As such, this report will be more personal and less about the nuts and bolts of the show itself. What I will say about that is the staff, to a person was outstanding to work with. I've long had a warm relationship with Executive Director Warren Bernard, and he was delightful to work with. There were over ninety volunteers at the show this year, and we had wave after wave of helpful individuals who worked the doors of the rooms for panels, keeping lines in tidy order. They were there to instantly fix A/V issues. They were there to head off problems before they escalated. Most of all, co-programming director Dan Mejia was an outstanding partner to work with. Together, we nailed down an ambitious programming track and got it to run smoothly. All of the feedback we've received so far has been immensely positive.

I was very happy with all of the moderators this year, but let me single out a few. J.A. Micheline was a first-timer whom I trusted to pitch something interesting, and she did not disappoint. Her "Architecture Of A Page", featuring SPX star Tillie Walden, Sloane Leong, Chris Kindred, and Iasmin Omar Ata, was a smash hit. It was standing room only and drew raves for the way the artists dissected their work and Micheline directed the panel. Another first-timer, L.Nichols moderated "Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism", a panel I conceived of and chose the guests for. This was another SRO event, and everyone dug deep. Yet another first-time moderator, Whit Taylor, did a great job with "World Building From Reality", even subbing in a new guest when one had to drop out at the last second.

I moderated two panels. First was the 10th Anniversary of Koyama Press panel, with Annie Koyama herself, Ben Sears, Eleanor Davis, Hannah K. Lee, Dustin Harbin, and Patrick Kyle. I skipped over the stuff most people knew about and went straight to asking Annie about the nuts and bolts of publishing: her criteria for choosing her books, how it's changed over the years, and the astoundingly non-bottom-line oriented nature of how she runs her business. My favorite segment of the panel was when I asked the artists what their favorite Koyama book was, and Sophia Foster-Dimino's brand-new Sex Fantasy was tabbed by two of the artists. That eventually led to a hilarious back-and-forth between Harbin, Lee and Davis. If you're running programming and you have the opportunity to include any or all of that trio, you should jump on it. Notably, after the panel, Annie told me that Sex Fantasy immediately sold out.

I concluded the show with a panel I designed called "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness", featuring Keiler Roberts, Tyler Cohen, Luke Howard and Summer Pierre. That's a group whose work I know so well that I essentially wrote the questions five minutes before the panel began. Each brought a different perspective: Roberts as someone with bipolar disorder, Howard as someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother and eventually inherited the same mental illness, Cohen as someone raising her daughter as far away from toxic patriarchal attitudes as possible yet dealing with her own upbringing and the influence of the greater culture; and Pierre as someone dealing with the aftereffects of PTSD and a childhood of neglect. They were all so funny and forthright and willing to engage with each other and any topic. This was perhaps the most satisfying panel I've ever moderated.

A few words about the Ignatz awards. Typically, the response to programming and the way the Ignatz votes turn out tends to be a good way to take the pulse of the show. As I've written so many times, there's always been a rather stark divide between audiences at the show, roughly breaking down into an art comics vs genre comics split that manifested in print vs webcomics for quite some time. However, the last five years have seen that split slowly dissipate in many respects. A show that started off more diverse than most was still decidedly white, straight and male for many years. The gender divide was the first barrier to fall, but the show has steadily become younger, more diverse, more female and queerer every single year. The Ignatz awards are a tail-end indicator rather than a leading indicator, as it reflects the time it takes for a particular demographic to become part of the show's culture. Another way to think about the show is to look at the anthologies that debut there. More than ever, the artists making up the anthologies blur every kind of divide, be it on the art comics side or the genre side of things. Increasingly, there are more artists who straddle that divide as well. Young artists increasingly simply see all of comics as something they want to experiment with and don't feel the need to choose between memoir, genre comics, comics as poetry, etc. Many are doing it all, and mixing and matching in very interesting ways.

The wins by Bianca Xunise (Promising New Talent), Taneka Stotts (Outstanding Anthology) and the team of Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh (Outstanding Collection) point to this generational shift rather dramatically. It wasn't just the wins, but the impassioned acceptance speeches. Stotts' speech was all about visibility for creators of color, and how they will continue to tell their stories no matter what. Hirsh told a great story about being a kid and coming to SPX to meet Jeff Smith, who spent a lot of time with him and gave him a lot of attention. Only later did it occur to Hirsh that he was the only brown kid there. Ota and Hirsh hit on the theme of being people of color in a subculture (and honestly, a country) where they have often been invisible. Same with Stotts. Xunise's story was about her experience with police brutality and reflected on how she doesn't just want such stories to be done by people of color. However, it was Ben Passmore (the only man to win on the night, incidentally) who truly brought the house down with his speech. He made reference to George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, as another brown man from New Orleans who drew comics about police brutality and brick throwing. He joked that he could have used the brick earlier in the day, when he was part of the Juggalo parade that was protesting a Trump rally. And at the end, he said, "In conclusion, fuck the police, free all prisoners, and fuck Trump!" as he walked off to thunderous applause.

As exhilarating and exhausting as the show itself is (and I never quite am able to make it to every table and see everyone that I want, no matter how much I prepare), it's the interactions after the show late at night on the patio that provide the most lasting memories. There was certainly a sense of metaphorically huddling for warmth at this show, given the horror show the nation has become, but there's also something else going on. The young artists who are coming to the show seem exceptionally focused on their craft, a testament to a new wave of cartoonists going to art school/cartoon school. It's also a testament to a generation that has had greater access to the entire history of comics than any generation that came before them, thanks to wide-ranging reprints and the internet. They've been simmering in a sea of influences for years, and you can see the result of that in the person of artists like Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. If you don't know the latter name from my minicomics reviews, you will know it soon in other places. If the history of alternative comics can be divided into undergrounds (1965-1980), alternatives (1981-1993), and DIY/Xeric (1994-2005), I get the sense that we're about to close one chapter of comics and open up another. I can't wait to see what it looks like.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ten Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2017

I will be attending SPX this weekend; as always, it will be in North Bethesda, MD. Be careful not to get tripped up by the Juggalo gathering. I was co-programmer this year, and there's a great slate. I'm personally moderating the Koyama Press 10th Anniversary panel on Saturday and one I've been thinking of a long time: Motherhood, Mental Illness and Memoir, which will be on Sunday. As always, I will be accepting comics for review and wearing a black hat.


1. Carta Monir. Her debut from 2dcloud, Secure Connect, was a remarkable exploration of trans identity & technology and the ways in which the latter both bridges and has the potential to obscure the former. She's at the vanguard of a group of artists whose drawing style, interest in futurism and frank explorations of sex and emotional development all converge in distinctive ways.


2. Tyler Cohen. Not a typical autobio cartoonist, her Primahood: Magenta mixed a highly unconventional and boundary-breaking account of being a mother along with depicting a tribe of surreal, distinctively crafted women whose ferocity nor nurturing ability was ever in question. Cohen writes a lot of hard truths about guiding a child as best as one can in a world still heavily controlled by patriarchal thinking.

3. Sophia Foster-Dimino. Koyama Press just released a collection of her Sex Fantasy minicomics, and this brick of a book is filled with stories that are layered, hot, personal, emotional, quirky and even poetic. Like many on her list, her style is familiar in some ways and sui generis in others.

4. Katie Fricas. Her intimate, intense scribbly style has an immediacy and expressiveness to it that makes it fascinating to read. She's also hilarious, often approaching the darkest of events with a penetrating and self-deprecating wit.

5. November Garcia. All the way from the Philippines, Garcia is a funny, frank, crude, and thoughtful humorist and memoirist with a visual style that seems simple but is actually conceptually complex and even rigorous at times. Her keen observational skills and sharp timing are on display both in longer narratives (Foggy Notions) and gag strips (Malarkey). She'll be with her publisher, Hic & Hoc.

6. Aaron Lange. Comics' #1 purveyor of filth is also one of its keenest minds, sharpest observers and poetic hearts. His Trim series in particular has plenty of dirty gags, but there are also thoughtful meditations on his family, scrupulously-researched biographical pieces, musings on art and culture, and warts-and-all accounts of his youth. It's all told with a lively, naturalistic line.

7. Mardou. Sacha Mardou has been doing some of the best slice-of-stories in comics for quite some time, but the first volume of her book Sky In Stereo is clearly the best work of her career. This is somehow her first SPX, and she'll be doing a panel and a workshop in addition to showing off her work.(Correction: this is her first SPX since 2005.)

8. Avery Hill Publishing. I've enjoyed the eccentric, poetic and understated releases from this British publisher making their first appearance at SPX. Publisher (and writer) Ricky Miller and publicist (and cartoonist) Katriona Chapman will also be there, along with Tillie Walden. The two-time Ignatz award winner will be at her first SPX as well, and while her big book Spinning was just released by First Second, it was Avery Hill that took a chance and published her first three books. Check out Miller and Julia Scheele's Metroland, and anything by Simon Moreton.

9. Radiator Comics. This is Neil Brideau's new venture, and the Chicagoan is publishing and distributing all kinds of interesting comics. A few are directly published by Radiator, like Coco Picard's The Chronicles of Fortune. Chicago is one of the greatest of all comics cities, and Radiator has an interesting cross section of them. Sam Sharpe, Penina Gal, Luke Howard, Cara Bean and Coco Picard will be at the table this year.

10. Summer Pierre. In a very short amount of time, Pierre has become one of my favorite memoirists, thanks to the strength of her writing and the versatile quality of her art. From quotidian observations to life as an artist and mother to grappling with her own personal demons, Pierre's comics are beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fantagraphics: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

With My Pretty Vampire, rising star Katie Skelly has a book that matches up her exquisite color sense, delightfully lurid sense of humor, eye for style and aesthetics and acidly satirical, feminist take on gothic/horror tropes. Skelly's eye for page design and layout have always had a lot more in common with French fantasy comics and manga as well as a number of delightfully trashy horror & exploitation films than any American comics. While dialogue is important, it's her arrangement of images (and in this book, colors) that are essential to the narrative. The opening pages, which turn out to be a dream sequence, wind up establishing and foreshadowing much of the action in the rest of the book. It starts with a bouquet of flowers, then zooms in a rose bloom that's dripping blood. A beautiful, half-naked girl licks up the blood, briefly revealing the teeth of a vampire. When she comes upon a half-naked corpse, she finds that it's her own body, dripping blood, prompting her to wake up from the dream.

The rest of the first chapter serves two purposes, narrative and aesthetic: establishing who she is, why she's there and her intent of escape; and long, lingering shots of her bathing, swimming and generally serving as an erotically-charged object of the gaze of her brother, who acts as a stand-in for the reader in that sense. We learn that she's a vampire who's been held captive in her brother's house for her own "protection", even going to school. Whatever noble intentions he may have are undermined by a shot of him watching her bathe through a peephole, establishing that no one in this book has the moral high ground. Clover, the titular vampire, is hungry from years of drinking ox blood but manages to escape. Switching from day to night, Skelly immediately embraces the night, with Clover's shining golden hair drawing the reader's eye into every panel where she's scurrying around at night.

In a horror-exploitation story like this, nudity is certainly expected, but so is violence and gore. Skelly does not skimp in the latter department either, beginning with her biting a trucker who is actually worried about her being underage. Skelly uses an interesting narrative device here, as she shifts to first person narrative captions that are so specific to her memories of what it was like to be a vampire that she barely acknowledged the personhood of the driver. Skelly adds a few more layers to the narrative as we meet a vampire hunter tasked to find her as well as a vampire cult who helped to create her. Skelly is careful not to overwhelm the story's imagery with too much plot, however--just enough to add some shade and structure to the story. Instead, both story and imagery intensify as the story goes on, as Clover hits the big city.

There's a great scene, after she's dodged sunlight and recharged herself with a new victim, where she stares into the window of a restaurant. Instead of starving for the food they were eating, she was starving for the blood they possessed--a clever image, as her hands dripped with blood. She allows herself to get picked up at a bar and then goes to a house party that quickly turns both erotically charged and bloody. We then get a flashback which reveals that her brother deliberately had her turned into a vampire by a vampiric order in order that "the one you love will never die". It's a creepy, incestuous gesture, made more so by the fact that she was underage. The same is true of the man who picked her up, as she was even wearing a school uniform when he started to hit on her. Even in a scene where she's actually having fun with a woman who's seducing her, her actual lusts come to the fore. Echoing the beginning of the book's dream, a half-naked Clover dripping blood from her mouth slowly and blankly eyes the other guests at the party as the objects they are for her.

The book's climax finds Clover, the vampire hunter and the order all converging at once. While her threat to society at large is neutralized, the ending has a tantalizing bit of karmic payback for her brother. It's a classic morally muddled ending to this kind of story, where there may be protagonists but there are no heroes. There are only competing urges, and Skelly's ending finds Clover with the kind of agency that she had been denied by her wholly unpleasant brother. Indeed, words like "love" and concepts like empathy have little meaning given the way her brother tried to control her and instead helped to create an amoral monster. The way Skelly slowly unveils increasing moral ambiguity in her characters escalates at the same time that style, fashion, sex and violence also become increasingly important to the story. Striking that note between lurid and stylish feels like what Skelly's career has been leading up to, and she was greatly aided in the undertaking by Keeli McCarthy's striking cover design. From the logo design meant to invoke 60s psychedelia (complete with a drop of blood bulging down from one of the letters, the color shifting from yellow-orange to red) and the ecstatic, half-naked Clover on the cover, blood dripping from her lips, it's a perfect composition that finds the eye bouncing from the title to the figure and back again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Secret Acres: Michiel Budel's Francine

Francine is a continuation of Michiel Budel's Wayward Girls series, focusing on the titular character and her friends. It's hard to pin down. It's got underage sex and nudity, but it's not at all erotic. Indeed, despite the scores of panty shots, its surreal quality and the intense agency of its female characters disrupt the male gaze. Katie Skelly compared Budel to the Russian artist Balthus and others have compared him to Henry Darger in his use of pubescent girls in fantasy, dreamlike scenarios. Somehow, Budel's work is even less prurient despite its more explicit nature, owing in part to obliterating the mystery of sexuality and removing its fantasy aspects. Indeed, sex and female friendships are the only truly "real" thing in these comics, which go in some odd directions as social and political commentary.

Mostly, the strips (originally published as "Franzine" minis) are comedy pieces; absurd, over-the-top satires of family life and the "dangers" of having strong-willed children. Much of the book centers around the swimming pool she builds out of spare parts, the sleazy pool boy who's fucking her mom, her various friends (each of a different faith), and assorted schemes she concocts to get out of doing school work. Francine's adversarial relationship with her young mother (who pretty much looks almost as young as Francine does) is another important aspect of the book, as Francine steals her boyfriend in one sequence. She does it more to piss her off than because she wants to have sex with him. That pales in comparison to what she does to Bully Girl, who was mean to her Muslim friend Gishlaine: she follows her home, caves her head in with a baseball bat and buries her in her front yard! It only gets weirder from there as she has to move the body (with the help of Gish), confront Bully Girl's mother) and then discover that Bully Girl is somehow still alive but missing her memories.

Francine later fakes her own death in order to avoid an art history test, only to find that her friends can no longer see her. She sacrifices the pool boy to Satan (but not the real Satan!) in another strip. The pool boy and another boy fight over her pool while Fran is paralyzed, ejaculating on a sandwich as a way of settling who gets in first. My favorite story was "Generation French Fries", in which an anthropology project leads to Francine, Githlaine and the waspy girl next door, Annet, all switching identities. Fran becomes Annet, who gets excited because she her mom gives her money to eat food at the snack bar near the house (because her mom was fooling around with Pool Boy again). After Fran/Annet has sex with Pool Boy on camera, she's excited because it generates more snack bar money. Annet becomes Gish, who is delighted that she's in for an arranged marriage with a nice boy who likes her instead of her crazy life with her "borderline" mother. Gish becomes Fran and starts sucking off the rabbi and a nice boy intended for her as well. The end of the story finds all of them switching back, alarming nearly everyone; it's not every day you hear a line like "By the blue balls of Jahweh!".

Perversion seeks to shock when it presents itself as out of the norms and mores of society. That's how it becomes prurient content, content designed to draw the male gaze in particular. It provides shock and dismay when at the same time the "offended" person is really turned on, as anger and desire blend into each other and demand accountability. What Budel does here is reverse the polarity of this interaction. Perversion becomes the defacto language of his characters, a language spoken in such direct defiance of mores that they shatter them. The girls are in complete control of their situations. Men and boys are mostly annoyances or there to be used. Sex is a means to an end, and Fran in particular knows what she wants. This isn't soft-focus porn; it's more like in-your-face, girl-gang action. Francine couldn't care less if you're looking at her or not, and if you piss her off, she will deal with you. Of course, the whole book is designed and drawn in a way that's meant to be off-putting and challenging. Budel's simple linework and thin line weights are the opposite of erotic artists like Guido Crepax or Milo Manera (the latter being an all-time male gaze renderer). The way Budel crams as many as 16 panels onto a page also lessens the visual impact of particular images, especially when he goes extra cartoony and gives his characters dots for eyes or distorts their forms in amusing ways. Perversion is just one of many options from his toolbox, but they all have the goal of making the reader laugh, even if it's a nervous one.

Monday, September 11, 2017

D&Q: Tom Gauld's Baking With Kafka

Baking With Kafka is another collection of Gauld's strips for The Guardian, and it's Gauld doing riffs and gags. I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work ins't entertaining as well. This collection of strips isn't so much a collection of strips about literary concerns in the vein of a Kate Beaton, but rather a series of meta-literary strips. That is, they are strips about writing, about the tedious business of publishing, about the cynical nature of advertising, about the way books become product, but most of all about books qua books. It pokes gentle fun at fantasy quests, literary cliches, romance tropes as well as the workshops aimed at writers desperate to get published.

All of this is done in Gauld's usual dry and deadpan manner, with a healthy dose of the silly and absurd heaped on top. Indeed, a lot of the jokes in the book are funny because Gauld pummels the reader with context, delivers the joke, and then goes back to context. Take "Niccolo Machiavelli's Plans For The Summer". In terms of drawing, this couldn't have taken more than an hour, because all it is is a calendar. The joke is conceptual, as the first Monday's plan is "Plot", the first Tuesday is "Scheme", the first Wednesday is "Connive", etc, all based on our conception of Machiavelli from his famous book The Prince. That's amusing, but after piling on for seven straight days, we get the more amusing "Dentist" on a Monday, and then ten days marked off for "Holidays!", and back to "Deceive", "Collude", etc, interrupted only once more with "Mum's birthday". It's a joke that would not have worked without a really good thesaurus and a strong conceptual grounding, because without the repetition of the expected bits, the other part of the joke wouldn't have landed.

Slightly less successful is "Magical Items For Fantasy Writers", where each magic item is described as doing something like "Dispels misgivings, gloom, bad advice and writer's block". Here, the joke is simply repeated from panel to panel, rather than building from panel to panel. The best strips incorporate visuals as a key element of their humor, and this is where Gauld's minimalism shines. Using simple silhouettes, he's able to evoke nearly any kind of situation. "Forgotten Chapters of Jane Austen's Emma" is a good example. The captions ("The Witch's Prophecy", "Bonaparte Attacks Hartfield", "Emma's Warrior Training" and "Wild West Adventure") are all funny on their own. But it's the drawings of silhouetted blimps bombing a British manor, of Emma learning to fight using an umbrella and Emma on horseback dodging arrows that help the joke to really land.

My favorite of Gauld's literary strips are those which feature books as anthropomorphic characters. There's one where a stodgy old literary novel refuses to let his daughter marry a fantasy novel named "Kingdom of Iron" ("He is epic and exciting and I love him!"). Instead, he's arranged for her to marry "pickwick.com", a "humorous modern update of a classic". The latter book is presented as wearing sunglasses and saying "Yo!". This is another conceptual strip, but the small visual flourishes are crucial in helping the joke to land, like the older book carrying a cane. Gauld also uses color not so much to emphasize his jokes, but simply as a way to fill negative space and force the reader's eye back to his figures.

Gauld is such a strong conceptual humorist that he barely needs illustrations for many of his strips, but this is sometimes unfortunate because his drawing is clear & efficient and creates clever juxtapositions to his text in his longer narratives. Indeed, some of Gauld's best work occurs in long, extended silent scenes where all the gags are visual. That's because this allows him to establish his themes in a more restrained and less obvious manner, without losing any of the humor. It's the difference between a long-form, personal work and a regular cartoon with a deadline. With the latter, Gauld has a lot of variations on particular themes that he alternates, most of which circle around the idea that books and characters are wonderful but publishing and all that goes with it is very silly indeed.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Yet More From Aaron Lange

Let's take a look at another round of minis from Philadelphia's own Aaron Lange:

Cash Grab #4-6. This series is Lange's grab-bag of sketchbook stuff, out-of-print material and other ephemera. #4 is a sketchbook issue wherein Lange starts to play with color, mostly of either people he knows personally or actors that interest him for some reason. Lange is an exceptionally perceptive portrait artist, even when working from photos, and he is able to nail eyes in particular. The other thing about Lange is that there's no gag or pun too dumb enough for him; once he grabs on to it, he doesn't let go, like in "Spock of Seagulls" or "Adamantium" (featuring the singer as Wolverine). On the other hand, some of these jokes are laugh-out-loud inspired, like the psychedelic, full color "Wuv Me 2 Times", a Jim Morrison drawing by way of Margaret Keane's big eyes-style. My favorite drawing was that of his portrait of the great Mary Fleener, when she confessed, "'Trim' means pussy?! No shit."

The fifth issue is more focused, as it's portraits from movies that made an impact on him as a teen, from Hollywood productions to b-movies. It's a case of autobiography by way of the artists that spoke to him. In many cases, he tends to add a touch of angularity to his poses, like the way Gillian Anderson's face is framed, or the way the hair on Milla Jovovich is drawn. He also has a way of touching on the most noir characteristics of his subjects, partly through his use of effects like dense hatching, spotting blacks and even stippling. The latter was true for his drawing of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, for example. That darkness and even a tinge of madness is especially present in the slightly uneven way he drew her eyes. It's not all darkness, however; his drawing of Miranda July befits her whimsical nature, and the way the lettering of her name melts and frames her head perfectly completes the overall quirkiness of the composition.

Issue #6 is his "deep cuts" grab-bag, including an interesting strip called "Time Release" about a pill-addicted comics retailer. Lange's drawing would get both more refined and more stylized later on, but he captures the degradation of the dealer trying to score pills off of a cosplaying Star Trek fan that ends in violence. The final joke, that the pills aren't what he expected, just added to the absurdity and nihilism of the story. Lange taps into that desperate loser vibe in his stories in much the same way that Noah Van Sciver does, getting across a real sense of empathy. As Lange notes, he very well could have ended up like that dealer if his life had taken a slightly different turn. Other than his film reviews (which are excellent), most of the rest of the issue consists of fairly disposable gags and anecdotes.

Those comics are interesting, especially for Lange fans, but the real main event is Trim #5. This is his current one-man anthology that has seen him take a step up in terms of sophistication and ambition as a writer. Starting with an incredible letters column that features praise from R.Crumb and an admonition from Van Sciver to cut back on his more juvenile, shock-value material. I think the sweet spot for Lange is somewhere in the middle, telling biographical or autobiographical stories that explore disturbing events or unusual people. Take "Pastor Dan!", for example. I loved the touch that made the title look like an old-time MAD title a la Harvey Kurtzman. This story details Lange's childhood as an altar boy at his church and his favorite pastor, the titular Dan. Lange was drawn to this weirdo, who recommended a Monty Python movie to him, recounted killing a cat as a youngster and generally was a positive if odd adult presence in Lange's life. Lange is very much one to provide little commentary in his stories beyond moving along the narrative, preferring to let the reader ponder what it all might mean.

Another sweet spot for Lange's sensibilities are his "Art School" short strips. They are roughly autobiographical and aren't a repudiation of art school like Dan Clowes, but rather a hilarious exploration of who he was at the time and what the rest of the school's culture was like. From hissing at a bunch of hackey-sack hippies to dropping acid at the wrong time in class to an exquisitely drawn weirdo classmate smoking dope with an "x" carved in his head, Lange has a real sense for surveying sheer weirdness and making it funny. It also helps that he takes aim at himself as a butt of jokes as much as he does anyone. There's another story about him coming home drunk and coked up, watching porn and then throwing out his entire collection--only to get locked outside in his underwear. Lange's ability to range between naturalism and exaggeration helps to establish place and tone while still allowing ground for absurdity.

There are a couple of stand-out longer pieces. "Blood and Soil" is another in a series of strips about his family that examines his German heritage, including his great-uncle Erich who was in the Luftwaffe in World War II. He did his job as a pilot but was not accepted to college because of his "perceived political leanings" (anti-Nazi?). Amusingly, his great aunt once told his father that she never had children because "she couldn't stand to bring another German into the world", which is hilarious and awful all at once. Lange is at once fascinated by German military imagery, uniforms and pins while being acutely aware of their impact and the ways others appropriated the imagery to spread terror or to simply shock. Lange neither glorifies nor wishes to forget his family's history, poking fun at it with pop culture and rock references.

"Parco Dei Mostri" is a tribute to his skill as an artist, as he brings to life a monstrous sculpture garden dating back to the 16th century but only recently rehabilitated as a tourist destination. This is an excellent example of the sharpness but also slight distance of Lange's narrative voice. As a writer, Lange clearly spends a lot of time thinking about his subjects. The way this story was arranged, as images taken from his mom's vacation, frames these pieces once considered to be pornographic by his contemporaries but are now harmless and for the whole family. No matter what kind of artifice is at work in one of Lange's stories, he compulsively pulls away the curtain to let the reader in on exactly what's happening and why.