Friday, November 6, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #6: G.P. Bonesteel

Garry Paul Bonesteel's third volume of his side-scrolling, landscape comic Jason continues to delve deeper into the emotional life and quotidian details of the Friday the 13th boogeyman. Bonesteel's visual flourishes are crisper and clearer in this volume, even as the character design remains iconically simple. Indeed, the designs display people as having entirely blank faces, with points standing in for hands and feet. Only the iconic horror characters that inhabit this world get their own set of features, and even those are greatly stripped down. In this world (as in ours, actually), the best way to determine why something happens is to follow the money. Horror movie villains are expected to make a certain amount of money or else face being forced to retire, and worse, irrelevancy. There's a hilarious sequence in which Jason is a guest speaker at a school for up-and-coming slasher pic stars, displaying a personality that's at once sensitive, withdrawn and undeniably obsessive.

Jason goes to a hardware store to get new items to inspire him and is treated with respect. He returns the favor by not killing the hardware store manager's son. He hangs out with the boorish Ghost Face (from Scream) and the more sensitive Freddy Krueger. He goes to his office and desperately tries to come up with new ideas. His prudishness makes him recoil at offers of sex that come through the mail. He also becomes obsessed with the little girl from whom he stole his pet dog. Bonesteel uses the psychopathic nature of each of his characters as a base, allowing different nuances to emerge from each as a result of simply assuming that every one of them is a crazed killer. It's a story about trying to rekindle one's creativity, how to work among one's peers, the drudgery of a work routine and the lack of attendant dignity often found as one ages.

There are several white-on-black dream sequences which give the book a visual power that's not as pronounced on the other pages. Despite several scenes of grisly violence, the book's real power to disturb lies in its power to make Jason a sympathetic character that we can't help but get behind. Bonesteel portrays him as a haunted character who's enormously lonely and unfulfilled but feels entirely trapped by his circumstances. This is a scenario that many feel in their jobs, and the way Bonesteel meshes this drifting ennui with gags and gore makes for a jarring but amusing combination. The one thing that drives me crazy about his work is his terrible spelling, as there are numerous misspellings that should have been caught. Hopefully, some of the more rushed elements of the work can be cleaned up once Bonesteel reaches the collection phase.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #5: Bailey Sharp

Bailey Sharp is another Australian CCS alum, and her comic Plain was part of the Minicomic of the Month club along with Ben Juers' Shirley. Plain tells the story of Pen, a shy young woman who is insecure about her looks and her standing with the opposite sex. Her best friend, Violet, is loud and brassy, and represents what Pen would like to be but doesn't have the courage to do so. The result of this, as alluded to after Violet chatted up a guy she had a crush on and essentially dissed her friend, was a smoldering but unexpressed anger. Then Violet gets them both into a car accident, and the result was that Pen's face was horribly scarred.

Going from "plain" to scarred had a fascinating, transformative effect on Pen. When the guy she liked, Pete, gave her a pitying speech about how she still looked beautiful, she challenged him on it by asking if he was going to kiss her. She started jumping in on conversations regarding sex with strangers. She turned around a clerk staring at her by telling him that she was going to take some candy, and then she did it. She hooked up with a band and danced in a music video (and then live), not especially caring about the motivations of the band or the effect she had on the audience.

This is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which appearance, especially for women, has such a powerful grip on our culture. It's also about how socially transgressive it can be to be a person whose appearance is so strikingly different, but also about how freeing it can be if this power is seized. There's a powerful scene where Violet, wracked by guilt for turning her friend "into a monster", is baffled and angry that Pen seems to be minimizing the accident. It's obvious that she WANTS the guilt and wants Pen to depend on her and allow her a chance to work off the guilt. Pen's stunned response is "I'm not angry because of what happened to my face. I've always been angry". Sharp just shows that the accident allowed her to discover and use her voice freely for the first time in her life. Sharp employs a spare line that suggests form instead of overemphasizing it, and this was key in keeping the focus on Pen's emotional scarring moreso than the physical scarring. I am eager to see what future episodes of this comic bring, and I'm hoping it's collected by Pikitia or another press with good taste.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #4: Ben Juers

Ben Juers is a 2011 grad of the Center for Cartoon Studies whose work I'm seeing for the first time. With his mini Shirley coming all the way from Australia as part of a Mini of the Month program, I was excited to see what he could do. The comic is a fantastic blend of art-world satire, geometrically-inspired cartooning, mysticism and fart jokes. It follows the titular character getting a childhood couch from her mother and falling into it, revealing a passageway into an artists's studio. As it turns out, the artist put herself into a trance and used drawings from Shirley of a weird bird-creature she had made as a child.

Shirley winds up going to an art show, where those same drawings are on display, subject to pretentious and pointless interpretations from the crowd. What's interesting about this comic is not just that it lampoons the art world, its patrons and those artists whose "work" is more a swindle than a reflection of talent or insight. All of that is mere comedic fodder, fueling a frantic pace that perfectly matches the crisp and angular nature of Juers' cartooning. Juers skillfully introduces a series of absurd characters and eventually rips away the facade behind each one. What starts as an art-world caper turns into a long-held revenge fantasy, as the manager of the artist turns out to be the real source of the drawings who holds a grudge against Shirley for copying the images and taking credit for them. Of course, that revenge fantasy turns into a "follow-the-money" caper, as someone posing as a reporter was secretly an agent for the company that created the image in the first place. In the end, the weird bird object itself winds up having its own peculiar influence, just as Juers ties off the plotline with a well-placed fart joke that had explosive results.

Juers is content to use fairly standard grids for his page layouts, with lots of four panel grids and a few other pages with two joined panels at the top or bottom. The creates a steady rhythm and moves the action along, which is important in a comic that has a great deal of motion and farcical energy but whose images are somewhat static. Juers prefers to let his character designs dominate each panel, using a minimum of background detail, so that the sheer weirdness of each character is emphasized. The artist, Josie, has an upside-down triangle for a head. The agent has a diamond-shaped head with a man-bun hair-do and symmetrically large and absurd eyebrows and mustache. Compare those two to Shirley herself, whose face looks like a sideways triangle, posed in such a way that gives it greater solidity than the other characters. The ways in which these figures meet in space creates its own kind of believable reality, as the ways in which they relate have a familiar, cartoony energy. Shirley is smart, absurd and visually clever work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #3: Colleen Frakes

Colleen Frakes is a cartoonist who generally works in the genre of darkly tinged revisionist fantasy, with a feminist slant. However, with Prison Island, she tells a personal and unusual story with a bit of awkwardness. The fact that this book has gone through several smaller iterations, both through other publishers as well as herself, speaks to the way that the story she's wanted to tell took on a life of its own. She spent much of her childhood on McNeil Island, outside of Washington state. It was a prison island, and everyone on the island that wasn't a prisoner worked for the prison. The island was only accessible by sea or by air, making events like going to school or ordering a pizza a logistical ordeal.

Each comic that Frakes has released about the island and the return (Island Brat, Island Brat 2, Ghosts and Pizza) has felt fragmented, like pieces of a larger story that Frakes hadn't quite figured out how to tell. With Prison Island (published by Zest Books), all of the pieces have finally fallen into place. Frakes began with a chapter that gives some context to the rest of the book, as well as establishing that her attitude toward prisons is more nuanced than most. She defends the inmates as not being lazy, noting that they work; she also defends the volunteer work shifts to do things like fight fires, noting that this gives them real-life experience that they could use on the outside. Frakes also gives the reader a bit of context as to her family's tendency to move around.

From there, Frakes jumps forward to when the prison was finally going to be shut down for good, and everyone who had ever lived there as an employee or island brat was invited back. Frakes, her younger sister and their parents drove around the island, exploring old haunts and walking through familiar buildings. Scenes from the past get filled with light, fuzzy pencils to indicate that they're old, while scenes from the present have a simple white background. There's a bracing honesty about the attitude Frakes and her sister had in moving there: they hated it. It was weird, and they didn't cotton to their parents' attempt at making them excited about living on an island.

Frakes spends the balance of the book jumping back and forth in time, countering the modern-day narrative of exploring an abandoned home with stories of just how odd it was to live on the island--especially as a rebellious pre-teen and teen. She gets that balance just right, as her memories and the modern-day tramping around don't necessarily hold major revelations. There are memories of birthday parties on the beach while an escaped convict was probably right near them, the balance between the work needs of a family and children craving stability and normalcy (and often craving it in a bratty manner), and the mechanics of just trying to buy groceries from the mainland without a car and by using a ferry. For a book that spends so much time reminiscing, Frakes' approach is refreshingly unsentimental. There was a lot about living on the island that was unpleasant, but it was also a unique experience. As an adult, Frakes obviously appreciated the narrative aspects of living on the island, knowing full well while it was happening that it was weird. Having the modern-day coda gives the book a sense of structure, as well as providing perspective. It's all done in Frakes' trademark brushy, cartoony style. There are few cartoonists who can get so much clear expressiveness out of so few lines, but Frakes has refined her style in such a way as to do this both in fantasy stories and autobio. Indeed, her own self-caricature remains one of my favorites in comics.

From the very beginning of her career, Frakes has been a prolific self-publisher. That includes participating in a number of fanzines. Notorious R.B.G is a zine about the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There's a story by Amber Nelson, drawings by Neil Brideau, and a hilarious sequence by Frakes that's a parody of a song by Beyonce'. You Missed The Point Completely! is a fanzine about the band Harvey Danger, done with Steve Seck. Seck's take is direct, albeit with a ghost character in his apartment. Frakes' strip is about a road trip dealing with a fragile friendship, one that finds some common ground in the band. Her page design, influenced in part by her fantasy work, is extremely striking. Finally, Witness is a Mad Max fanzine, focusing on the more feminist aspects of the recent movie. There are a couple of Furiosa-meets-Tank Girl moments here, an interesting review by Steve Bissette, and strip by Frakes that focuses less on the movie and more on her family's odd survivalist streak. For Frakes, the apocalypse is a nice place to visit, but she doesn't want to live there.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #2: Sarah "Chu" Wilson

Sarah "Chu" Wilson (henceforth Chu) is a recent CCS grad, and this book represents a collection of stories in a furry sci-fi setting, where the dominant race is that of intelligent, mutant hyenas. This collection, The Junk Hyenas Diner Volume One, does a fine job of highlight her smooth, confident and expressive line. The book is a series of connected episodes concerning a warrior/scavenger with bionic parts named Lucky, her chef brother Guff, and her robot friend that she rebuilt named Bailey. Wilson smartly pairs world building in tandem with character building.

We learn that the world is in many respects in a post-apocalyptic state, with mutant creatures like electroslugs and unicorns popping up to menace the survivors. There's also a more poignant take on the concept of mutation, as in the first story when a gunman tries to rob Guff's diner. The gunman is deformed and laments that deformity, though Lucky reveals that she has her own genetic challenges. For her part, she's almost preternaturally cheerful and optimistic, as she sees life as a constant series of exciting challenges. Her ability to salvage anything and turn it into something useful is a metaphor for her own life, though it is revealed at the end of book one that the one thing she couldn't salvage was a relationship with her mother. Of interest in the story is that in the hyena society, women are considered to be the leaders and protectors of their tribes. It's a role that Lucky simultaneously embraces, as she loves to be a protector, but also ignores, as she and Guff are very much equals.

For his part, Guff acts as a kind of friendly grump, tolerating Lucky's happy-go-lucky behavior while trying to create the best cuisine possible. This means going out on scavenging adventures that nearly cost them their lives, or Lucky bringing home an egg that hatches a monstrous, venomous, two-headed duck. The introduction of Bailey the robot as a tabula rasa in terms of memory, allows Chu to have Lucky act as an information dump for both the robot and the reader. It's always done in the service of characterization, as she charmingly meanders her way through a conversation about her philosophy of life that reveals much about every character. Bailey also allows Lucky to explain to the reader some basics about their world. At the same time, Bailey is very much its own character, as it seeks to gain a sense of purpose and understanding of the world. All of this is framed around clear, funny and well-executed action sequences. While this work would probably look better in color, Chu is careful to be sparing with the use of grey-scaling. This allows her linework and character design (Bailey is an especially inspired creation) to stand out.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #1: Josh Kramer

Josh Kramer's comics journalism reminds me most of what Josh Neufeld is doing, as well as Brendan Burford's old Syncopated anthology. Kramer is still spinning a comics narrative out of a particular subject, only he's doing so in a closely-sourced and tightly-reported. This kind of slow, expansive journalism flies in the face of factoid news, but it's always the best kind. Issue #7 of Kramer's journalism anthology, The Cartoon Picayune, collects some of his most recent pieces published in places like The Atlantic. Cartoon journalism is more than just a novelty at this point, because its best and most devoted practitioners have shown that they can make a news narrative come alive.

As a draftsman, Kramer is solid and competent, but lacks the sheer chops of a Joe Sacco or the polish of a Matt Bors. Nevertheless, it's clear that his time at the Center for Cartoon Studies taught him how to draw with clarity, eschewing any kind of overdrawing that might interfere with his narrative. In that regard, he reminds me most of Neufeld, who's smart and innovative in terms of his storytelling techniques but devoid of technical flash. Kramer's "Counter-Shading" is a great example of telling a story with a significant visual component and bringing it to life with cartooning. It's about the history of camouflage in World Wars I and II, focusing on the "Razzle Dazzle" ships the US used to throw off U-Boat attacks, as the color schemes of ships would be deliberately confusing. Stories about Japanese sniper, US towns that threw painted nets on top of themselves to throw off enemies, and the use of a "ghost army" consisting of decoys and deception were all fascinating. Kramer makes no particular judgments regarding this history, only making a connection between technology and trying to stay ahead of one's opponents through trickery. He efficiently gives examples of each type of camouflage, with the diagram of a typical Japanese sniper being especially illuminating.

"Tundra Green", about the history of the criminalization of marijuana in Alaska, similarly takes no sides. It cleverly goes from the specific to the general, as it focuses on a man named Irwin Ravin, who intentionally got himself arrested for possession in order to challenge state law. The article recounts the fascinating history of the tension between state law and traditions against federal law with regard to personal liberties, while talking about how a particular strain of pot grown in Alaska might have a potency level that further mucks up rulings. This piece was far less visually interesting than the first one, with lots of talking heads and charts.

On the other hand, "Our Favorite Orbits Are Getting Crowded With Space Junk" is highly interesting on a visual level. This sort of story is what Kramer does best: delving into a meaningful, fascinating but unusual topic about which the Ideal Reader (an educated person who doesn't know about this subject) is a perfect target. That's because Kramer provides that reader with all they need to know, both in terms of the basic facts and the ramifications of said facts. In this case, it's about how the space junk that we've thrown up in earth's orbit is starting to cause collisions and accidents. Zeroing in on just how small a piece of space junk can be and still cause tremendous damaging was both sobering and vividly presented. The ramifications of this were also chilling: the potential destruction of communications , weather and navigation satellites. A number of potential solutions were pointed out, but what the article really gets at is that this is a topic that needs to be taken more seriously, and soon.

There are also a couple of smaller pieces by guest-artists. Emma Woodbury Rand's "The Grey Ghost" is all about a particular rum runner during prohibition whose garb and M.O. were so outrageous as to practically make them a super-villain. The fact that they were never caught only adds to the legend, and Rand's use of blacks and dynamic lines plays up the mystery and action aspects of the story. Craig Schaffer's "A Pagoda In Pennsylvania" is all about the ways in which importing a style of architecture into America can create a unique synthesis of styles and promote aesthetics as something as important as sheer functionality. Schaffer's line here is clear and naturalistic, as he really just had to get across the beauty of the building in question.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews, Bonus: Drawn And Quarterly: Twenty Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels

The Drawn and Quarterly 25th anniversary anthology (henceforth (D&Q25) is a massive book that's scattered, lacks a cohesive focus but bears examination from a number of angles. As such, here are a number of scattered thoughts about this fascinating monster of a publication.

* This book is a sprawling, joyful exercise in both back-patting and celebration of its departing publisher, Chris Oliveros. As such, the many critical essays in the book aren't exactly hard-hitting, and I thought the way some of the essays rewrote history a bit so as to minimize the efforts of other alt-comics publishers during this period (especially Fantagraphics) bordered on being disingenuous. In defense of this unwieldy cudgel of a book, there is really no attempt at coherency to be found in its production. It's more a victory lap than an anthology, highlighting the many aesthetic (and even a few commercial) victories in Oliveros' reign as publisher. There is the germ of a great anthology to be found here. There were also the beginnings of an authentic history of the publisher, but that history tended to smooth over or ignore the bumps in D&Qs road, except when to mention them would valorize Oliveros and his crew. It's a testament to the quality of D&Q's contributors over the years that this glorified vanity project is so often such a compelling thing to read. For that matter, there are a number of excellent comics in among the more standard-issue tributes.

* The design of the book is typical in that it is beautiful; this is not surprising, given that D&Q brought a beautiful design sense to comics for the first time. Opening up with Tom Gauld's droll minimalism and Dan Zettwoch's elaborate chart-making tendencies gave the book a certain sense of self-effacement and restraint.

* The Sean Rogers-penned History of D&Q hits all the major highlights, especially in terms of zeroing in on D&Q's early reputation as a publisher mostly interested in autobio comics. While the problem of comics as a boy's club is addressed, Rogers overlooks the frequently problematic comics of Joe Matt as a symptom of that club.

* The book is jammed full of testimonials, most of which are at least well-written, if not especially revelatory. The exceptions are those of former employees like Rebecca Rosen, since they really convey precisely what it was like to work at D&Q and what the world of comics was like in general.

* I like that the book connects D&Q's publishing history with that of alternative comics in general, especially in terms of aggressively courting the bookstore market.

* The book goes out of its way to not play favorites in terms of its praise of its roster of artists, which I found understandable if evasive. Every one of their artists is simply awesome, though the book makes no mention of artists leaving D&Q for other publishers or D&Q ceasing to publish authors that had been on their roster for years, like Michel Rabagliati or David Collier. I don't know the whys and wherefores of their departure, but these were two key artists that stopped publishing with D&Q and started publishing with Conundrum Press instead. An honest word or two about how and why the modern roster was constructed and the ways in which business may have interfered with art would have been appreciated.

* I found most of the interviews to be revealing and was surprised at how little overlap there was. Interviewing retiring publisher Chris Oliveros of course made sense, as did new publishers Peggy Burns & Tom Devlin. However, I thought the interview with translator Helga Dascher was a bit much in an already oversized book.

* There were four kinds of comics in this book. There were strips about or in honor of D&Q's 25th anniversary, strips about other subjects, reprints of little seen work and reprints of widely-seen D&Q material.

* The Jillian Tamaki strip about a young women turning her internship at D&Q into a lucrative blogging and then film career is hilariously over the top. Kate Beaton's strip about her "formula" is a gag that's right on the nose, while James Sturm's full story about a "sponsor" for cartoonists kvetching about the success of others is almost a shaggy dog tale, given its punchline. Kevin Huizenga's strip highlights his mordant sense of humor, as he gives a "future history" of his involvement with comics.

* Some of the essays on the artists themselves were quite good, with Joe "Jog" McCullough's essay on Huizenga being particularly instructive. It was a nice touch to have an artist profiled, then to have that artist profile a classic cartoonist whose work was being reprinted, like Chris Ware with the Walt & Skeezix books or Adriane Tomine with Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

* There were a number of interesting "other" strips, including a classic bit by R.Sikoryak, mashing up Walt Whitman with Jack Kirby. Zettwoch's strip typically covers an aspect of Americana without sentiment and with cut-away drawings. Genevieve Castree's story about blankets is probably the most standout in the whole book, as she uses clever design and heart-rending reveals to discuss the roles different blankets have played in her emotional life.

* One of the more interesting features of the book is how it presents little-seen material from its big stars. Chester Brown has two such strips (along with three separate appreciations!), while there's material from a forthcoming book from Tatsumi, new stuff from Ware, etc. There's also brand-new work from Joe Matt that is probably a few years old at this point in terms of when he drew it. The appreciations of Seth by Lemony Snicket and Leslie Stein (respectively) were among the best in the whole book. There's also some interesting archival material from Lynda Barry regarding her novel Cruddy.

* The other reprints mostly mined old issues of the Drawn & Quarterly series, as well as several other books. I found this material to be the most disposable, though I can see why for the sake of completeness it was kept in the book. That inclusion made this an interesting historical document, but not a better anthology.

* Indeed, this may as well have been called the Encyclopedia D&Q, given the number of essays and historical pieces.

* This book is a victory lap and a bit of well-earned log rolling for a company that defied the odds in both surviving and thriving.

* The book is far too unwieldy to read in a single sitting like a typical anthology; it's best digested in fifty page chunks.

* I did appreciate the genuine effort made to give the reader material that, if not new, at least was obscure.

* I thought the balance between D&Q's "big five" cartoonists (Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine) and the more recent successes like Beaton and Barry was reasonable, although I thought the long section on Art Spiegelman (who has published exactly one book with the publisher) was perhaps a bit overblown.

* I found myself wishing for a more warts 'n all treatment of D&Q, its mistakes (remember the flop of Crumb's napkin sketch book?) as well as its triumphs. This is an interesting oral history, but a highly filtered one.

* In some ways, this book should be thought of as an artifact, something to be referred to in the future as a wonderful bonus. It's an 800 page lagniappe.

* I was baffled that there was no mention of publishing Tani Gevinson's highly successful Rookie books.

* The final irony of this anthology is that the way in which its many editorial voices contributed to its incoherency is amusing, considering that that the publisher was known for 25 years of having a single, distinct editorial and aesthetic voice. To be fair, Burns and Devlin have done much to expand and change that aesthetic since their arrival, creating the beautiful mutant Highwater/D&Q/webcomics creation that marks the publisher today.