Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Out, Looking In: Photobooth: A Biography

Meags Fitzgerald's Photobooth: A Biography is an interesting collision of an obscure aesthetic subculture, a technological subculture and a historical subculture. It's both a history of photobooth machines around the world and how her growing obsession with them shaped her as an artist and even a person. The book folds in Fitzgerald's journeys in working with, thinking about and talking to others about photobooths. On that level, the book is what it is: a lively history of a mostly forgotten technology whose initial appeal was bringing a new technology to the masses at an affordable price. Her naturalistic style and obvious hours of research shine in this regard, bringing to life the many different models, styles and technological advances in each machine, as well as the historical context that made each change necessary. Fitzgerald's line reminds me a lot of Jessica Abel, especially when she worked on her Radio project.

While photo booths still exist today, they are digital photo booths, which give a different quality of photo than the old analog booths. Of course, this does lead her to question her devotion to analog booths and wanting to save them and raise attention to their unique qualities, because the chemicals that make them work are highly carcinogenic. In general, Fitzgerald shows a healthy skepticism toward her own obsession, though she feels obligated to see it through to the end with a certain sense of self-deprecatory humor. She knows what she's doing is slightly deranged but can't quite help herself. Along those lines, I loved the scene where she flew to a convention and met her "tribe" for the first time: other big-time enthusiasts, experts, and mechanics, many of whom knew far more than she did. For a fan, meeting someone who speaks their language can be an overwhelming experience, and that was certainly the case with Fitzgerald.

One thing that Fitzgerald didn't touch on was the inherent and obvious narcissism of her self-photo obsession with the analog machines, as she kept a record of thousands of shots over the years of herself. It's no wonder than an Italian photographer thought that he could seduce her by flattering her with an offer of a photo shoot, but she shot him down because narcissism is not the same thing as vanity. She wasn't vain at all, just obsessed with image and of aligning her identity with a particular, disappearing method of capturing this image. Even with all of her misgivings, the compulsive nature of her activities (especially with regard to spending money she didn't quite have) points to someone not quite in control of their actions, even as they're aware of it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Complete Clough On Comics at Cicada

I just wrapped up a year's worth of reviews over at Cicada, the literary magazine for teens (and cousin of the more famous Cricket). Here are links to every one of my columns:

1. May/June 2014: Margerite Dabaie, Ed Piskor, Gilbert Hernandez
2. July/August 2014: Nicole Georges, Rutu Modan
3. September/October 2014: Max Badger, Isaac Cates
4. November/December 2014: Liz Prince
5. January/February 2014: Farel Dalrymple
6. March/April 2014: Renee French

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Kitchen Sink: Fearful Hunter

Sometimes, the best way to break through a creative block is to write and/or draw a story that has elements one simply enjoys playing around with. In creating Fearful Hunter, Jon Macy decided to draw and write about things that he liked and figure out how they connected later. In his case, that was punk rock, boys, druids, werewolves and trees. The result was a much looser, freer and more expressive work than what I've seen from Macy.. This is hindered in part by the ridiculous, fantasy bodies that speak to the sillier end of wish-fulfillment: six-pack abs and asses so curvy they would put Milo Manera to shame. Still, unlike his previous book Teleny & Camille (in which he added a ridiculous, tacked-on happy ending), Macy here is able to unite his "star-crossed lovers" themes in a way that was organic, exciting and entirely related to the plot.

In brief, the story is about a young, emerging druid who falls in love with a werewolf, and the jealous master that seeks to have the werewolf for himself. Along the way, there's an epic conspiracy designed to make a particular druid all-powerful over their gods, a werewolf caravan, various friendly animals and sex scenes that not only aren't jarring to the reader, they are integral to the story. The more mundane aspects of the story, like the daily lives of werewolves and the sexual and platonic friendships of the book, help balance out some of the nonsensical fantasy/magic-speak.

Every character has solid motivations and the fantasy elements of the story are well thought-out, fascinating and manage to avoid familiar cliches while still trumpeting "the power of love". Indeed, the book is one long exploration of sex as a function of love vs. sex as a function of power. This plays out in how the druids interact with their "allies" (the elder gods), including an excellent plot twist at the end that saves the day. At its core, this is a simple "outside forces conspire to break up an ideal couple" story, but Macy's storytelling instincts make these obstacles interesting to read about and far from arbitrary. By placing part of the conflict as one as professional duties vs romance, Macy hit on a point that will resonate with many readers. There is joy on every page of this book, as Macy's enthusiasm for his favorite subjects sings on every page. If Teleny and Camille felt clinical and slick, this book is personal and delightfully sloppy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS: The Index

I've been quietly updating the Thirty Days of CCS feature that got off-track during my hiatus for the last few weeks. Now that it's done, here's an index of every day and the comics reviewed. In all, I looked at the work of 48 cartoonists and read three anthologies. The last CCS review for this period will appear soon at  Regular reviews will resume at both and High-Low shortly.

1. Beth Hetland
2. Laurel Lynn Leake, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Laura Terry
3. Eleri Mai Harris, Josh Kramer, Bryn Adams
4. Penina Gal and Melanie Gillman
5. Stephanie Zuppo
6. Sean Ford, Amelia Onorato, Andrew Christensen
7. Colleen Frakes, Sarah "Chu" Wilson
8. Chuck Forsman
9. Sean Knickerbocker and April Malig
10. JP Coovert, Melissa Mendes, Rachel Dukes

11 .Reilly Hadden
12. Carl Antonowicz, Matthew New
13. Applied Cartooning Manifesto
14. Laurel Holden
15. Wade Simpson
16. Andy Warner
17. Max Mose and Dakota Mcfadzean
18. Romey Bensen
19. Sophie Goldstein
20. Ben Horak, Alex Kim, Jeff Lok

21. Dan Rinylo
22. Sasha Steinberg
23. Rebecca Roher, Jonathan Rotzstain, Peter Audry
24. Kevin Uehlein, Red House
25. Luke Healy, Simon Reinhardt
26. Annie Murphy, Adam Whittier, Jon Chad, Sean Ford, Rachel Dukes
27. Dog City 3
28. Aaron Cockle
29. Irene 4,5
30. Iris Yan

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 30: Iris Yan

Iris Yan is a CCS grad who specializes in autobiographical comics, but they always have a peculiar angle. For example, Capulanas And Sweets is about her time spent on the tiny island of Mozambique. Friends is about a variety of friends she lost touch with. Hotline is about her time spent in graduate school as a "liner" for the school's crisis hotline center. Each project sees her use a different visual approach. When the focus is on the personal and a degree of anonymity is important, she draws all of her characters as anthropomorphic animals (her own "totem animal") is a pig. In Capulanas and Sweets, it was important to get across a great deal of detail about her location, so she used a more naturalistic style.

Let's start with that comic first. Capulanas And Sweets is about Yan's time as a volunteer in Mozambique; her job was identifying potential tourist locations for the future community foundation. That's a fancy way of saying that she got to be a tourist who was exploring the local culture and had the ear of what turned out to be a prominent community leader. The comic is divided into small vignettes, as Yan (who is Brazilian with Chinese parents) negotiated a culture where she was very clearly an outsider. Part of that negotiation was learning that hygiene was an issue on the island, from people defecating on the beach because of a lack of toilets to sand appearing in food because it wasn't washed properly. Dealing with politics and political parties was a regular part of life, especially on the many national holidays the island held. While trying to be a creative problem-solver, Yan never held herself apart from the island's population, and was thrilled when prices started to mysteriously drop for her at the marketplace--especially for her beloved capulanas--bright pieces of colorful cloth that could serve as wraps, blankets or be made into virtually anything. Yan has a self-deprecating and disarming way of describing other cultures that serves her well, because unlike the comics of a Guy Delisle, she never comes off as a smug Westerner. Her lifetime of being an "other" both made her accustomed to the treatment she received but also far more respectful of the locals, their customs and traditions. While not a great naturalistic artst, her simple drawings here got the job done in an expressive and stripped-down manner.

Friends was prompted when Yan looked through her phonebook and wondered about the many people she was no longer in touch with, and decided to tell the stories of her friendships with them. It's a fascinating cross-section that cuts across youth to graduate school to the present. The cuteness of her animal figures belies the frequently serious and disturbing breakdowns in relationships, like one friend exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, prompting Yan to put her on a plane to her parents' place. Others include a guy whose breaking up with his girlfriend and leaving town was a happy occasion because Yan was pals with his girlfriend, a boyfriend who prompted her to become a vegetarian, and a friend with few social boundaries who tested her ability to deal with people in general. Throughout the book, Yan keenly examines her own behaviors and role in friendships and love relationships going sour, like unconsciously trying to make one boyfriend look bad in front of her parents and friends. Hints of Yan's spiritual and ethical decision-making are present as well, like being a kid and having a friend who was a Jehovah's Witness try to convert her with Bible stories, or being an adult and learning how to read auras as she alienated a hardcore atheist friend of hers. Yan's matter-of-fact about these conflicts, in part because of the way she draws herself as fairly unflappable. This is not to say that she's emotionless, just that her first instinct is to stay calm in these stories.

Hotline is my favorite of the three comics here. Originally serialized in Maple Key Comics, there's a more assured sense of flow in this comic than in her other work, which tends to meander at times. This comic about joining a finely-honed group of "liners" in helping callers help themselves through a series of mirroring and parroting techniques is fascinating, mostly because the liners themselves have so many psychological problems. (Yan is referred to as "generally fucked up".) Nailing the quotidian details of how training worked, how an average night worked, and how it all ended along with the specifics of how the friendships created with her fellow liners gave more direct insight into Yan's personality and experienced than the two other autobio comics referenced in this article. Part of that is that this comic isn't explicitly about her, but rather an experience she shared. That gave her room to insert her point of view strongly as a way of becoming an entry point for readers. The other reason, I believe, is that this was simply a much more personal comic that deal with sensitive and personal issues. Certain issues that were dodged in the other two comics were an important part of Hotline. Once again, Yan's balance of the absurd and the near-tragic while keeping a deadpan affect throughout is the key to her appeal, with her placid animals characters the perfect mirrors for this approach.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 29: Irene 4, 5

Irene continues to be a consistently well-edited, designed and produced anthology. Each issue is a self-contained and coherent entity, even as certain themes and artists tend to pop up from issue to issue. Editors DW, Dakota McFadzean and Andy Warner are the essence of the anthology, as each brings elements of their own aesthetics and methods to the book, both in terms of the actual stories and the contributors who are selected for each issue. Warner's naturalism, McFadzean's emphasis on open spaces and how they can be haunted (both figuratively and literally) and DW's mark-making weirdness make for a surprisingly even blend, in part because all three show a remarkable amount of flexibility and respect with regard to the points of view of their fellow editors.

Irene 4 features a number of stories that can be called personal, even if they aren't directly autobiographical. For example, Jan Burger's fanciful tale of his child being called forth from his wife's womb by the family cat is a warm and wonderful story about waking up to the demons that keep us distracted from what's important: being creative. Burger's supple line makes it perfect for fantasy stories such as this. Then there are directly autobiographical stories like Georgia Webber's "Access", which is about the injury she suffered that made it hard for her to speak. In this short, she talks about social media and how easy it is for her to get lost in it, because she doesn't have to be conscious of her injury. At the same time, in this story full of cascading windows, she understands that a life filled with nothing but social media is an empty one. Jai Granofsky's "Cauliflower" walks the line between the two, as a series of dream sketches and gags about pizza, what "comics" are and the logic of cauliflower.

Warner's interest in reportage drew in a couple of entries. Emi Gennis is well-known for her interest in unusual deaths, and in "Nyos" she reports, in her typical naturalistic style, of how an eruption of carbon dioxide from a nearby lake killed nearly everyone in an African village. The point she hits on that's interesting is that the mysteriousness of the event made the very few survivors think that the world had ended, and wondered when they left if anyone would be there to see them. Jackie Roche's "Black Boots" takes a micro view of a big event: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You might know that he was taken to a room across the street; what you might not know is that the room was a boarding room rented to a soldier named William T. Clarke, who later charged admission to his room for morbidly curious onlookers. "A Dream", by Warner & McFadzean, has the feel of reportage, as it's about a woman recalling a dream she had about imprisoning her brother, only to have her situation reversed. It's very much a "tell not show" story, as the artists are more interested in evoking the sense of a story being told then telling that specific story.

DW's presence can certainly be felt as well. He crafted a story surrounding the interstitial characters from a prior issue, "Veronica And The Good Guys" that Warner drew in his mixed cartoony/ naturalistic style, about a rock band being chased by a planet full of "bad guys" hungry for their skins. Amy Lockhart's "Drawings" fit in with DW's aesthetic; this weird mix of stippled, naturalistic anatomy with big foot/big nose qualities warps reader expectations. Carlista Martin's gender-bending, highly detailed drawings tread similar ground but with an entirely different approach. "Generals and Gods" features McFadzean writing and DW drawing a story of possibly misplaced mercy. The Mat Brinkman-inspired line is the only visual approach I could have imagined for this story. "Walk Like You Mean It" combines DW's cut-up text technique with the drawings of Power Paola, and the resulting cute/weird imagery looks like something out of Paper Rodeo.

Finally, the stories that defy categorization. Mazen Kerbaj (almost certainly brought in by Warner) has a story called "Boats", which is a hilarious treatment of boats as anthropomorphic beings that actually hate water. Luke Howard's "Zapruder 313" is about two guys sitting around watching the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy getting killed. It's less a morbid exercise than it is a simple exploration of the idea of how things can be one way one second and then radically different the next. James Hindle's "Yellow Plastic" is Hindle's best-ever story. It's a story about a teen meeting a mysterious girl who appears and disappears suddenly from his life, the sort of person who leaves a mark on a guy even if their interactions were brief. Laura Terry's "The Dark" is a visceral, disturbing story about addiction and self-destruction couched as a fantasy about a shadow creature encouraging such behavior in a woman desperate to get away from it. It's one of her most powerful stories, one that still uses her witty and clear line but subverts it for emotionally devastating effect.

Irene #5 follows a similar path in terms of genre, mark-making, illustration personal stories and reportage. The cast of characters, other than the three editors, is entirely different. "Fire Truck Duck" is by Warner, and it's a touching bit of quite sincere nostalgia regarding how their father used to tell them stories, and how the occasional recording, preserved today, recreates the experience to a degree. Dave Ortega's "como un tren" is a different kind of memoir, one about his family's journey from Mexico to El Paso and religious freedom. The sketchiness of the art reflects the artist's own struggle in telling the story of someone else, of knowing when to invoke creative license and when to stick precisely to the facts.

After that is an incredibly clever cartoon by R.Sikoryak mashing together the long-running Simpsons with the Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill's semiautobiographical play, A Long Day's Journey Into Night. The idea of Homer as James Tyrone (a successful actor pigeonholed into a single role) parallels the notion of the Simpsons becoming cultural icons at the expense of the overall quality of the series. That, and some Bosch-inspired drawings by Emanuel Schongut, provide a palate-cleanser for the longest piece in the book: a story written by the FDZ and drawn by Fouad Mezher called "The Fifth Column". It's a story set in Lebanon, by Lebanese cartoonists (once again, Warner's connections come into play here). It's a story that starts as something personal, then political, and then slowly descends into total horror. That horror is born of reality, of roaming packs of dogs and checkpoints, which makes it all the more chilling.

Following that bit of naturalistically-drawn genre is a bit of mark-making lunacy with DW and Mark Connery. Luke Healy's "Mountain Take Me" is another cornerstone of this issue, one that I've covered elsewhere. After a bit of comedic weirdness from James Stanton and Bailey Sharp (the former in the tradition of underground artists, the latter more like Anders Nilsen), Pat Barrett's "You Are We" is a tremendous bit of sci-fi combined with the possibilities and difficulties surrounding identity. Jon Chad's "Compleet Pwner" is a hilarious, nasty and deliciously drawn fine-line extravaganza featuring monsters, spaceships and the moon. In other words, all the things he does well. DW follows these two genre stories with something that's purely him: mark-making and pattern-creation in the service of exploring consciousness through the use of repurposed text.

Finally, Dan Rinylo and McFadzean contribute two stories that dwell on ontological concerns. For Rinylo, it's being given an absurd and meaningless tour of the world by a higher being, who shows him his total insignificance in the face of things when he complains about the stupid stuff he's being show. For McFadzean, it's a memory of using clay to create creatures called Gnoshlox; it's a child's magical realist memory that supersedes anything that came earlier. In both cases, pondering meaning is fruitless, even though it's something we either can't resist trying or can't stop from entering our minds. McFadzean's stories always linger in one's mind when he talks about the lives of children, not unlike an Eleanor Davis. That's why it's so exciting to see him collaborate with like minds as well as creators he respects who work in an entirely different style; it's clear that editing Irene has stretched all three of the editors.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 28: Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle's two series, Annotated and Word & Voice, both carry a mysterious and frequently apocalyptic quality that centers around language. Using an elliptic storytelling style that deliberately presents the narrative as a series of loosely connected fragments and images, his comics are challenging, poetic and haunting.The first six issues of Word & Voice saw a man silently navigating what appeared to be a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, until he found a woman and her family. When they finally spoke, what emerged from their mouths was gobbledygook.

Issues seven through twelve flash back to the possible source of the virus (a transmission from a space station), the silent recreation of a society on earth now through pure survivalist tactics, the way that a love relationship gone horribly wrong may have spurred the crisis, the horror of the breakdown of all languages, one by one, a shadowy and conspiratorial explanation for how the whole thing may have evolved and the ways in which the semiotic breakdown of reality may have caused an actual breakdown in reality. In other words, when language disappeared, the things that language represented sometimes disappeared as well. Cockle alternates ideas and images with each issue; one issue focuses entirely on survivors, while another shows the breakdown of language. His visuals are rough, but they get the job done and use a clever sense of design to orient and then disorient the reader on each page.

Issues 13 and 16 of Annotated are part of a single storyline, which is about various other perspectives about the "soft coup" from Annotated #10. #13 features a plane (and plan) in flight as an inventory of items necessary to make the coup go forward are read. Once again, the relationship between word and action is a key part of understanding Cockle's comics, as a seemingly mundane list is really an inventory of destruction and terror--even if the "great man" perpetrating it claims to be "just and benevolent". Of course, the video game consisting of triangles that we see the key woman in the story playing is really a powerful system that's destroying buildings and the opposition in general. In #16, one of the key individuals is captured and interrogated by, one would presume, the US government. The phrase "You know how this works" is repeated twice, as though the interrogator has already created a reality where she gives him information simply by invoking it. That dependence on code, that certainty that we have in language, in ideas and concepts, is lost by both sides here, as the mysterious "white", "grey" and "black" boxes of the terrorists either go down, take themselves down by their own volition or otherwise act in unexpected ways. The sins of the terrorists, it is implied, is not so much a moral one but one of vanity: the vanity and arrogance of certainty. Cockle grounds it all in the fallibility of human relationships, of how power is at the basis of the relationships even in this new utopia. Using mostly tight shots and profile drawings of characters, Cockle gets away with a limited display of the apocalypse by allowing us to see his characters' reaction to it instead.

Annotated 12 starts with a split narrative, "Deer Park/Loon Lake". The intersection between the two is unclear; the figure in the narrative on the left side of the page is bandaged (and a frequently recurring character/motif in this series), while the figures on the right appear to be lovers. Is the "he" mentioned by the bandaged woman on page 1 on the phone the man in the other narrative? What is the relationship between the two of them? Are they mother and son, as the woman reading a biography of Edgar Allen Poe might seem to indicate? Both stories are entirely mundane, yet contain a sense of desperation on the one hand and dangerous frisson on the other. There's a mundane tension that's almost unbearable. In the second half ot he issue, "U.S.A. 2014", Cockle uncorks a series of very funny short strips that explore the same sort of territory that Tom Kaczynski does in his strips: architecture and its effect on the psyche, the stilted nature of human interaction, and the relationship between technology and alienation. As heavy as all this sounds, Cockle treats these ideas in a joking manner, even managing to leave off strips with a punchline.

Annotated 14 features a more stripped-down, abstract style that continues to play on themes of architecture with stick-figure characters. Another running theme in Annotated is the use of characters giving presentations or committees presenting findings about information that's just a bit outside the reader's grasp, as there's a lecture commenting on the work of a man whose ideas were mentioned in the first story in the issue. Annotated is never meta for its own sake or to be clever; rather, it is constantly referencing a host of outside concepts that sometimes naturally intersect, sometimes in the interest of a narrative.

Finally, Annotated #15 is in many ways the most straightforward of the series. Titled "Surveillance", we see a group of people despairing that a group of "giants" are coming to crush them. A middle-manager (of the hilariously-named "Building Robert Gates") dresses down a scientist to losing to Building Donald Rumsfeld, bemoaning their lack of "good apps". Cockle nails whiny manager-speak to a "t", here, even as we slowly learn that the scientist and her colleague have the grim job of extermination put forth before them. It's a chilling tale told with the emotion and regret of the scientists, only their feelings have little to do with feeling sympathy for their subjects. Cockle's fascinating with geometry and graphs (especially the x-y-z axes) plays out extensively in this comic, once again giving it a unique visual presentation even if the actual draftsmanship is on the rough side.