Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brit Comics: The Comix Reader

The Comix Reader is the brainchild of British cartoonist, Richard Cowdry. He edits and contributes material to each issue. Its format is that of a classic comics broadsheet; each issue is 24 pages and in full color. His stated purpose in publishing it was to revive the anything goes, "fun" and "free-spirited" nature of the underground press of the 60s and 70s. That's a line I've heard quite often from slightly older cartoonists in the US who decry literary comics and cartoonists and prefer their comics to be as id-soaked, vulgar and free-wheeling as possible. Naturally, there's room for all sorts of comics, but those that invoke the underground frequently have a chip on their shoulder while staking out their territory.

Fortunately, Cowdry abandons this rhetoric after the first issue and simply went about the business of recruiting a wide variety of artists to regularly contribute to the Reader. Having read the first five issues, it establishes a nice rhythm to see some artists return in issue after issue, while having more samples of work made me appreciate other artists more. Cowdry has made a sustained effort to recruit a number of female cartoonists and obviously has no editorial mandates as to what he wants each cartoonist to do. The result is a melange of gag strips, local/topical humor, autobio comics, whimsical fantasy strips, low-res drawings and highly detailed renderings. The Reader has gotten stronger from issue to issue, and that's a testament to each cartoonist obviously trying to contribute their best material and up their game in each subsequent installment. Rather than review particular issues, I thought I'd highlight some of the cartoonists who caught my eye. While this is a long list, there's still about a dozen other cartoonists published in the Reader who didn't draw my attention one way or another.

Richard Cowdry: Cowdry himself is an excellent and vicious satirist. Some of the strips here were reprinted in his Downtown collection, which I reviewed here.

Saban "Shabs" Sazin: The cartoony style of this artist emphasizes bold, sweeping expressions by his characters. Sazin smartly and amusingly addresses working-class woes as well as the experience of being an immigrant in the U.K. His thick line looks especially great soaking up color on a big page.

Lord Hurk: Hurk most closely resembles the underground cartoonists to which Cowdry refers than anyone else in the Reader. His comics are in turn bizarre, hilarious and imaginative as he imagines the adventures of the Lonely Bomb, Diamond Chops and misshapen superhero The Magnificent Orb. Hurk's chops are unassailable and his work looks especially effective in color. While he taps into that anarchic underground sensibility in terms of his ideas and wild visuals, he avoids scatology for scatology's sake; every gross gag is in service of the story or satire. His figures are grotesque, funny and distorted, but his work doesn't rest on grossing out the reader.

Kat Kon: Kon tends to work really big--like just four panels per huge page. That's because she likes to blow up faces and really zero in their weirder qualities. In issue #2, she works a bit smaller, but still with that thick line that emphasizes character expression and lots of spotting blacks. Issue #3 has one image where a woman has a shirt that says "I refuse to smile for no reason" and loads of dead bodies around her; it's a darkly amusing take on a persistent feminist issue that pervades any number of culture. The fifth issue reinforces this with her take on being a barista and the kinds of comments she gets. Kon isn't much one for metacommentary, letting her figures and images speak for themselves. The format certainly flatters her art and adds greatly to its punch.

Alex Potts: His comics took time to really grow on me, as he tends to use a 5 x 7 grid in each issue. That grid minimizes his art while pushing the reader through quickly, but his low-key narratives regarding the character Philip have a surprisingly dark tone to them. Potts reminds me a bit of Chris Ware in the way he uses small panels to his advantage and lets the reader figure out the implications of the character's story for themselves.

Steve Tillotson: Of all the artists in the Reader, Tillotson is the one who took the greatest advantage of the formal possibilities of working big. His trademark is using a grid that simultaneously depicts a single image and that breaks it up to allow individual actions by the characters. His rendering is superb, as he draws both cute & simple characters as well as lush backgrounds. I'm not sure I'd be up to seeing a book's worth of his strips, but that's what makes him perfect for an anthology.

Ellen Lindner: A long-time favorite of mine, Lindner uses her Reader space for autobio (which has always been funny and sharply observed) and splashes it with huge swaths of vivid color. Oranges, yellows, greens, pinks and purples all tend to dominate her comics here, grabbing the reader's eye while she relates witty and thoughtful anecdotes.

Sina Shamsavari: His autobio centers around relationships and loneliness as a gay man in London. His line varies from a bold, naturalistic style to a more fragile, angular look that incorporates splashes of color. I love the way he varies approaches from issue to issue. In some, he does a single narrative and in others, four 2 x 3 panel mini-narratives. All of them focus on the pros and cons of being alone, of being an outsider even in gay culture. The comics are philosophical and thoughtful rather than whiny, but one can still feel Shamsavari's(variously also known as Sina Evil and Sina Sparrow) the depths of his sadness. That's mitigated by the ways in which he finds to express himself. The sophistication of his autobio is a perfect balance for the sillier stuff in the Reader.

Paul O'Connell: O'Connell's biography of model and singer Sabrina in #1 was a strong piece, using photo-reference to create a narrative while giving it a "pop art" effect through the nonintuitive application of color. Less successful was a "clowns in hell" experiment with Addy Evenson; this page was dissonant to the point of incoherency.

Julia Homersham: Homersham appeared in the first two issues with a number of goofy gags that riff on inanimate objects like food or animals behaving as humans. The first issue features single-panel gags, while the second issue is all strips of various lengths. Homersham is heavy on both verbal and visual puns, and there are some groaners in there. In the context of the reader, her work acts as a nice palate cleanser for heavier work. Her "History of English Puddings" page is not strictly comics, but the nomenclature and explanation of many of these bizarre dishes is both bewildering and amusing.

Tobias Tak: Tak is a great draftsman who pulls out all the stops with his use of color. The actual content of his comics is usually self-consciously twee, which makes reading them a slog. They're like reading a Richard Sala comic without any of the bite or the brains and tend to act as a roadblock while reading the anthology. It's labored whimsy.

Gareth Brookes: His page about birds singing to humanity about its arrogance was one of the most overtly-precious, tedious and annoying lectures I've ever seen in comics. The birds are nicely-illustrated, but they're only illustrations and lie inert on the page.

Tim & Alex Levin: Their "Jones" gag strips, in issue after issue, are sloppy without any charm. The jokes themselves are easy pop cultural targets, dumb scatological humor, or bits of randomness that don't go anywhere.

Peter Lally: His take-off on the artist Banksy was silly, poorly-drawn and had an obvious punchline. Much better was "Taxi", a fascinating slice-of-life story (drawn white-on-black backgrounds) that reveals a lot about working-class taxi drivers and an older generation in general. The style Lally used was bold and eye-catching, instantly drawing me in.

Bernadette Bentley: Bentley writes, smart, funny and sharply-observed autobio comics. Her strip about being a guard in a museum and desperately trying to find things to do to stave off boredom is clever for her use of strike-outs in her text to couch meanings. The story about her mother trying to use art to draw out mentally handicapped people that was subsequently shot down by superiors was heart-breaking.

Barnath Richards: He did just one page for the Reader, but it's a doozy: a beautifully drawn and colored one-pager about remembering a TV show from his youth about a robot. In just three panels, he captures the vividness of this memory without wallowing too much in the nostalgia of the moment.

Hannah Eaton: Her densely rendered story about her grandfather hauling corpses for a living was funny and evocative of a different and often stranger era.

Jimi Gherkin: Gherkin's comics are mostly silly, but I thought his affectionate tribute to Harvey Pekar and R.Crumb in "The Jimi Gherkin Name Story" was effective both as homage and as a way of exploring his own past.

Elliot Baggott: Baggott is another artist who dove into the opportunity given to him by having such a big page with enormous relish. His first strip, a single illustration that follows a fox down a building and through a city, is a marvel of clear formal cleverness. His silent strip in #3, done in the style of stained glass, is a gag about how movable type transformed the world, complete with a plop take at the end. If his first strip was remarkable for its use of negative space, the second one is fascinating due to how the reader is dropped into a landscape entirely suffused with color. "Boss Talk" in #5 is a more conventional strip that's a takedown of thinly veiled sexism.

Bird: Bird's mediation on why we worship what we worship and the sheer weirdness of being alive in #3 was funny and thoughtful, and his thin line combined with a restrained use of color made it a highlight. Jokes about allergies and "Happy Days" in #4 could have been hacky, but they were so well-constructed that the set-ups were just as amusing as the punchlines; the character construction was completely different than his work in #3 but their rounded, roly-poly quality was entirely appropriate for this sort of joke.

Maartje Schalkx: Schalkx's strips are models of economy and efficiency, as they mostly depict just her head, and remove most of her facial features at that. There's one strip in particular where we see just her head on a pillow and her eyes open, staring at a man sleeping next to her with his eyes closed. She flips back and forth in sequence on a panel-free page, sparking a silent reverie about perhaps why she's there and who she happens to be sleeping next to. Another issue simply featured her head bouncing down the page, while another issue features her head interacting with other heads at an LGBT disco, where she's trying hard to pick someone up. That strip also features soft pastels in the background, adding to the ethereal feel of that particular scenario. Schalkx uses the entire page in smart ways that made seeing her work a pleasure in every issue.

Craig Burston: I'm not generally a fan of 8-bit style drawings, but Burston's "Low-Res Des" strips are funny because they make the formal qualities of the work part of the narrative. The strip about the fly (in an homage to the film The Fly) was especially amusing.

Ralph Kidson: Kidson's first strip was called "Big Balls Crow", which is about all you need to know about it. The rest of his work in the Reader is silly without otherwise being distinctive.

Sean Duffield: I found little to interest me in Duffield's work; when it wasn't mining scatological humor for its own sake, it seemed overly provincial. It was too locked into local, political and popular references to resonate with me, though perhaps that wouldn't be true of someone living in Britain.

Noelle Barby: Her autobio strip about encountering the forces of sexual debauchery (at last!) in high school was hilarious, as were the depictions of her particular sexual misadventures. Seeing Lust narrate her disappointing future sexual adventures in high school was also amusing, though Barby did at least hold out hope for herself for "life after high school".

James Parsons: Parson's first strip that sees football hooligans wearing the red cross on their faces was mostly clever because of the red crosses on the ambulances that arrive after the inevitable dust-up. His strip in #5 about developing a crush on the actress Sarah Douglas, who played the villainous Ursa in Superman II. It's the rare strip that's both intensely personal and dedicated to one's id but also finds ways to ridicule his own obsessions. The drawings themselves are hilarious--especially the cartoony ones of his penis.

Sally-Anne Hickman: Hickman's "SallyShinyStars" comic strip was a highlight of #5, detailing in grotesque and colorful fashion certain anecdotes about working in a market and the sort of customers she encountered. Her self-caricature is especially amusing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Brit Comics; Sean Azzopardi, Oliver East

Let's take a look at two British cartoonists known for poetic comics abstracted from their daily lives.

The Homesick Truant's Cumbrian Yarn, by Oliver East. Somehow, this is the first comic by East that I've read despite his solid reputation over the past few years. The short description of this autobio comic is that it describes East's walk from Arnside to Grange Over Sands in Northwest England's county of Cumbria. He makes the walk for no other reason than as a thing to do, walking as near the railroad tracks as possible but taking nearly seven hours to make it to his destination because of the mud, sand, wild animals, and odd strangers. There's a strong John Porcellino influence at work here, which isn't surprising, but East's voice is quite different. He has a wonderfully dry and sarcastic wit that accompanies his spare, blotchy line that goes from depicting moments of great stillness to accelerating into frenzied moments of pursuit. 

His narrative captions veer between simple and descriptive to saying things like, in discussing the distance he must walk "Somewhere between 200 K and fuck loads" or a brightening day as "The overcast sky like a Tupperware lid. And the tub has just been removed is all. Bright but still locked in." His page layout instructs the reader as to what to pay attention to without actually saying it. When he sticks to a 2 x 3 grid on the page, this signals a steady walking rhythm. When he expands to a 2 x 2 grid on page seven, he wants the reader to slow down and observe the damage done by recent storms, which is marvelously depicted by a blotchy, splattered ink technique. Later on, when he's chased by a dog, he adds more panels to get the reader into the action and fear of the event, reducing both his body and the dog to rudimentary sketches flashing across the page. The comic is full of little delights and surprises such as this, as East drops hints and clues about his own personality without ever discussing why he's making this particular trek. It is simply something that he needs to do, and the degree of difficulty as well as its eventual conclusion are both implicitly tied to a certain emotional feeling of earned triumph, a task completed. East helps the reader see the beauty in the mud, the downed branches, the locks and levees and the simple struggle of putting one foot in front of another--all without calling attention to that beauty in his narrative. It's all in the drawings, whose beautiful immediacy and sketchiness draws the reader in.

Same Day Return and Rain On Glass, by Sean Azzopardi. Azzopardi's comics tend to reflect on his life, career and friends in particular. The former comic is a bit on the diffuse side, as Azzopardi sees a potential dopplelganger on the street, one whom might have been him if he hadn't changed his habits; he reunites with old friends in a mall and feels both the weight and awkwardness of years as well as the eventual easy and familiar rhythms of conversation; and returns to his small home town to see his sister. That latter strip is excellent, as one can see Azzopardi stripping out more and more extraneous detail from his art while adding a touch of grey here and there to give its visuals more weight. That story is ambitious in other ways, as Azzopardi flips back and forth in time as a way of recording his initial ambivalence to coming home, to what he was like growing up and what actually happened on the trip. The final major story, where he's attending a going-away party for a friend but his heart isn't much into it. When a friend texts him about the death of his mother, being able to console his friend is almost a form of relief.

Rain On Glass is a major step forward for Azzopardi. Something about his cartooning just clicks in this connection, though in terms of format it's very much like his other comics. He really spills some ink as he goes back and forth in time in talking about his teenage years living with his father in a miserable setting while turning to his friend Matt via mail in order to keep sane. It's a beautifully illustrated comic that gives the reader just enough information about the narrator to have the story make sense, while delivering odd and jarring anecdotes, like his father sitting him down with his stepbrother to watch a porno. There's a harrowing story about being brutally assaulted as a teen by a thug who thought Azzopardi had messed with her and the scars the incident left; there's little in terms of wrapping the incident up neatly--it is simply recalled in visceral, dizzying fashion (there's a remarkable two-page spread of Azzopardi's dizzying response to a vicious headbutt). The final story is a funny, sentimental account of following around The Jesus and Mary Chain around England as a teenager and even getting invited to stay in their hotel and get free passes to their next, inevitably riot-inciting show. Wading through a non-stop rainstorm, the memory cheers him, even as the waters absurdly rise above the heads of the crowd.

The comic is Azzopardi's best primarily because of his increasing sophistication with regard to story structure. It's not just the flashbacks that I'm talking about here, but rather how his strategic use of them strengthens the overall theme of each story. There are perils to dwelling in the past, Azzopardi's comics seem to be saying. Good memories are sometimes the product of horrific abuse and can easily connect to them. Thinking about the past can be instructive for the present, but one must be aware of rising tides. Above all else, Azzopardi has mastered restraint in his storytelling. Certainly, he's still a cartoonist who very much wears his heart on his sleeve and that earnestness is central to the way he tells his stories. However, the way he gets across that earnestness is slightly less direct, redirected through formal tricks that allow the reader to experience a number of difference narrative perspectives. That's aided by a much lighter rendering touch that reveals an increased confidence in what he's drawing and how he's drawing it. Hopefully, he'll continue to refine and perfect his storytelling, now that he seems to have truly moved into his mature style. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Time Crawls On: House Party


In Rachael Smith's big-publisher debut, House Party, she channels early twenty-something angst into a breezy and lively story about three friends from college who miss their glory days. In college, Neil was a successful comedian, his girlfriend Michelle an award-winning writer and their roommate Siobhan an artist. The punchline for anyone not in their early twenties is that all three of them are working menial jobs that have nothing to do with their art and feel like they've either sold out or are over the hill--but they're only two years out of college! While that seems like a ridiculous notion on the face of it, that a 24 year old should feel washed up, Smith gets at the heart at why this sort of thing happens. Without the natural support of college and its insulation against the real world, it can feel difficult to achieve the same kind of productivity and success that one experienced with the structure of classes, teachers, institutions and friends. Just as important is that the community one built in college is effectively ripped away once friends start to leave town, get married, and start careers. The urge to keep that circle of friends just as it was in college, to repeat the same kind of epic parties and to hope that doing so will maintain one's creativity is at the heart of this book.

After a particularly dispiriting day for all three, Neil decides that the antidote to their ennui is staging a house party like they had had a couple of years prior. That event was a high point for all three, especially since it kicked up the romance between Michelle and Neil to another level. The flagging romantic relationship just two years later began the book as a subplot, but it takes on greater prominence toward the end. Naturally, trying to recreate the past has dire consequences, especially when they invite over a band (the perfectly-named The Helveticas) that initially idolized Michelle and then later shunned her out of jealousy. That was especially true of striking redhead Georgia, the lead singer of the band. While the trio manages to convince the band to come over to their place for the party (saving it from the doldrums), it comes at a heavy, heavy price. The young guests act like animals and Georgia has eyes for a drunken Neil. In the end, all three learn that while it's impossible to reconjure the circumstances that led to such remarkable camaraderie and creativity, it is possible and in fact necessary to create new paths and new methods in order to move forward. Sometimes those paths come with hurt feelings and broken relationships, but Smith seems to argue that inertia is a far worse fate.

This book is heavily influenced by Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series. That's especially true with regard to the character designs and overall figurework, though Smith tamps down some of the more manga-inflected aspects of his work. Georgia looks and acts a lot like Envy Adams. Smith and O'Malley cover a lot of the same early 20s aimlessness, selfishness and angst. Rock music plays a big part for both as a general part of youth culture. However, Smith avoids the magical realist aspects of O'Malley's work and instead focuses on a powerful form of alienation that results when one graduates from college. Visually, her use of color is what really distinguishes her work from O'Malley's; it's bold, bright and expressive without overwhelming her solid linework. And while Smith's story is similarly about twentysomething alienation and disaffection, much like O'Malley, her version of this is far more compact. To be sure, this book represents a big step forward for Smith, who managed to retain the quirkiness of earlier works while shedding some of their more self-indulgent aspects.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Brit Comics: Julia Scheele


Julia Scheele is a young British cartoonist who's mostly done collaborations to this point in her career, though her own solo work has proven to be more powerful. Her catch-all anthology, I Don't Like My Hair Neat, is a lushly-produced affair in full color. This proves to be quite important, given Scheele's facility as a colorist. Her use of color in the "Positive", a story from the first issue of her zine that's written by Katie West", establishes the mood of the story far quicker and more effectively than any accompanying text could. The first few pages, detailing an affair a woman has more-or-less on a whim is shaded entirely with an icy blue, giving a sense of the ethereal quality of the event. That's both in the sense that it was heavenly but also that it didn't feel real, including any pretense of emotion. When she got back out to the real world, the coloring scheme switches to a fiery orange with reds and yellows giving some slight contrast; it's the light of the sun, of course, but also a revealing light. When she thinks she might be pregnant, that orange starts to get oppressive as she rushes to get a pregnancy test while lying to her partner. The ending is especially fascinating, as she's let off the hook in a way that she perhaps doesn't deserve. While the story is well-written, Scheele's own one-page "A Short History of Touches" is far more devastating, as a red arm is shown touching her in various pleasant, romantic and erotic ways--until the last panel, when it's clutching her by the throat.

The second issue features more illustrations and stories she did with other writers that look striking, like "Spells of the Kama Sutra" once again juxtaposing blue and reddish-orange, or her adaptation of the song "Like A Mountain" that gives it an apocalyptic quality. More interesting, once again, are the more personal stories. "Tell You Now" is an adaptation from a Le Tigre song, but the images speak to something else, bringing back that chilling image of a hand around a neck and the subsequent attempts at healing and simple survival. "Sinking" is a fantastic, wordless story about a woman trying to fool her nightmares into thinking she's someone else after she chops off her hair after a nightmare where she starts sinking into her bed and then has her arms and legs chopped off, like a mannequin. When she tries to go back to sleep, the same thing happens, only this time she sinks beyond sight into the bed. It's a chilling story of trying to wash horrible thoughts and memories away, only to be sucked up again by them. "Bad Omen" is another interesting story about bringing a boyfriend to a beach in Brazil after a ceremony took place that had some animal sacrifices. For her, it's a part of the local culture and her past; for him, it's an affront to civilization and she found herself have no defense against either his reaction or his arguments. The story ends abruptly, because as the title suggests, it's easy to surmise what happened after this. Here, the stark white of the beach and the bold blue of the sky create an atmosphere where gore and weirdness truly stand out.

Scheele edited The Heroines Zine, which asks each contributor to write about, draw or draw a story about a particular woman who has had a powerful impact on them--real or fictional. Philippa Rice's drawing of her sister and herself wearing onesies is charming and sweet, while Lizz Lunney's ode to the TV character Clarissa is heartfelt. Heather Wilson's story about British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is all about how her consciousness was raised. Ellen Lindner's bouncy illustration of and interview with "city stitcher" Lauren O'Farrell (aka Deadly Knitshade) is illuminating both in terms of allowing O'Farrell to tell her story about how acts of creation became life-affirming in the wake of battling cancer as well as Lindner discovering yet another interesting creative trend. Alistair Bohm's essay about musician/writer Carrie Brownstein is terrific, and the accompanying illustration by Scheele is even better. Her drawing of musician Kathleen Hanna is even better, as it captures her dynamism. I'd like to see more on the comics side of things for future issues, but it's a terrific idea that's well-executed.

Friday, July 18, 2014

War On Fun: Bad For You

Kevin Pyle and Scott Cunningham's Bad For You (Henry Holt) is a compelling and slow burning case against the over-regulation of and fear-mongering regarding activities that children have historically enjoyed: comics, video games, television, skateboarding, etc. While aimed at a young-adult audience (complete with a glossary of terms in the back to help younger readers understand certain historical, legal and philosophical terms), there's no mistaking this book's bold, anti-authoritarian stance. That should be no surprise given Cunningham and Pyle's close connection to radical comics anthology World War III Illustrated, but this book is far from a heated polemic. Instead, it's an intensively-researched and well-sourced book that is careful to link up historical, social and cultural contexts with regard to larger institutions like education, parks & recreation and various gaming and toy industries. At its heart, the book's biggest and last target is the war on free and critical thinking.

Of course, given that this is aimed at young adult readers, Pyle and Cunningham take a certain amount of sheer glee in revealing both how intellectually bankrupt bans on fun tend to be and how historically cyclical they are. They note, for example, historical outrage over the institution of things like the written word, the printing press, and the novel as contributing to moral decay and a decreasing work ethic. Pyle and Cunningham make an interesting case throughout the book regarding why children find moderately scary or dangerous activities to be so appealing. For example, gruesome and visceral fairy tales are important for a child's psyche not to scare them, but rather to let them play out their own natural fears of the unknown, death, darkness, abuse and even adults in general. It's a safe way to express these fears, much as playing violent video games or watching horror moviesgenerally tends to lead to a decrease in violence by providing a steam valve for kids. The same is true for adventurous play on playgrounds, which not only gives kids a chance to blow off steam, but it also provides mental stimulation.

The authors discuss research methods and reasoning at length in the book. In general, they take aim at argument by anecdote, where bans are created because of statistically rare instances of something happening. Sometimes, bans arise due to simple urban legends, like the classic "razor blade in the candy" trope surrounding Halloween. They also argue against studies that infer causality from correlation, which generally tend to arise from studies that have a firm goal in mind and manipulate the subjects to confirm a previously-formed hypothesis. The study of juvenile delinquents and comic book reading by Dr Frederick Wertham is a classic example of this, because he didn't bother to create a control group of non-delinquents and comic book reading, as the authors point out. Bad For You patiently counters myths and bad studies with facts, statistics and better-constructed studies that pointed out violent media, comics, etc have no statistically significant effect on behavior. The authors note with an air of resignation the ways in which video games and whatever the newest form of technology favored by children come under attack again and again when the newest round of gun violence flares up, an attack proliferated and perpetuated by anyone with a media outlet. In the expanding media universe of the internet, it's incredibly easy to proliferate bad science, pseudoscience, and arguments by anecdote and difficult to get True Believers to back down.

One thing the authors don't do is extrapolate a child's need to understand and explore their fears to adults, and how this historical drive to decry youth culture is really the adult response to these fears. That cycle occurs in part because when they don't understand a new technology or culture, there is first the fear of being replaced by their children--a fear of their own mortality. The responses to argument-by-anecdote also reveal a parent's own understandable fear of outliving their children. At the same time, this urge to "protect" children is really an urge to protect their own egos and understanding of a constantly changing world. Anything embraced by their children but not understood by adults is automatically feared. As such, it creates an unwarranted nostalgia for old days that did not actually exist.

The authors build on their arguments for their real target: the educational system that increasingly relies on standardized testing and increasingly phases out recess, the arts and even history. Once again, their exploration of the history of the educational system in the US gets to the root of certain issues, like school once being developed to create students who would respond well to the rigidity and repetitiveness of factory work. While one can criticize such a method in its own right, the additional problem is that such a system is now obsolete thanks to the increasing mechanization of factory work as well as it being shipped overseas in so many instances. What Pyle and Cunningham stump for, again and again, is play. A school environment centered around play and exploration instead of rote memorization and standardized testing, they argue, would lead to students better suited to deal with a rapidly changing society. Technology should be fully embraced instead of shunned, especially if there's a chance to use it in creative ways.

The book falls short of illustrating every one of their points, but Pyle is careful to make sure the historical scenes are depicted by way of comics as a way of getting them to go down smoother. He uses a wonderfully fuzzy style on some pages and a clearer, crisper line on others. It reminds me a bit of the fuzzy, slightly grotesque naturalism of Lauren Weinstein, where it's more important to capture the essential emotional characteristics of a person or scene than it is to recreate the thing precisely. That slightly grotesque style is also a nod to EC Comics, for whom this book is a sort of extended love letter. The pages consisting of just text come at the end of each section, sort of as a way of piling on additional data and synthesizing the ideas that the reader was just exposed to. There are also a number of clever graphs and a scathing feature on standardized testing done in the form of a standardized test. Bad For You's arguments are well-built, the content is well-organized, and the book has a sense of humor about itself while being utterly serious in its goals to demolish a fear-mongering culture of rigidity and give kids the ammunition with which to do so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Franchising: Dragons: Riders of Berk

It's not a surprise that the popular How To Train Your Dragon films and subsequent TV show Riders of Berk have spawned a comic book. The movie featured a young Viking boy named Hiccup who befriends a dragon, the ancestral enemies of his people. Eventually, he manages to fix the dragon's wing and ride him as he comes to understand that the dragons are enslaved by a master dragon; Vikings and dragons team up at the end in a film filled with wit both charming and vulgar. The first volume of this new comic series, Dragon Down, was written by Simon Furman and drawn by Iwan Nazif. There's an inherent problem both with the TV show and this comic, which is that the original premise of the first film (Vikings vs dragons) was a huge part of its appeal. The new status quo of dragons living with Vikings is such that new conflicts have to be manufactured that are inevitably less engaging than the original premise. For example, in this book, the antagonists are a group of outcast vikings who use a runaway dragon as bait to trap Hiccup and force him to train dragons for them. These characters are little more than ciphers.

The misunderstanding that leads to the dragon of one of Hiccup's friends running away is far more interesting as a conflict, and it's what really drives the story. The rest feels like obligatory action. This is not helped by the wooden dialogue that lacks the snap the film and TV show carry. Losing the solid voice work from film does a lot to blunt the comedic and dramatic impact of the characters, leading to an adaptation that feels forced. That's especially true of the attempts at jokes and some of the initial character interaction; it's as though Furman felt obligated to do some minimal level of introduction for the reader that revealed something about the characters, only his attempt was so surface that it was hard to tell the difference between most of the characters. The character relationships which were so sharply detailed in the original film are mostly shunted to the side in the comic. On the other hand, Nazif's linework is excellent. He had the imperative to stay within a certain set of designs in order to be consistent with the look and feel of the cartoon, but his art is lively and fluid. That fluidity makes what is otherwise a dull story readable. I'd love to see him turned loose on something other than corporate art, because his talent for comedy, adventure and simple motion on the page is obvious. I do commend the publisher (Titan Books) for not forcing him to draw in the same 3D style as depicted on the cover; instead, the coloring and format is such that it plays to his strengths as a stylist. In order for this series to succeed on its own, there has to be a deeper exploration of individual characters that's only hinted at here; otherwise, it will simply pale in comparison to the source material.

Monday, July 14, 2014

New Books From Yeti Press

After a successful Kickstarter, publisher RJ Casey has published a number of new books from his imprint, Yeti Press.Most of these books are by relative newcomers, but a number of them are printed in lavish color. In general, these books have an all-ages vibe to them.

Bird Witch, by Kat Leyh. Leyh collected the first few issues of her minicomics series in this book, and it's an attractive package. This is a well-developed but character-based fantasy story that slowly builds its backstory around the friendship of young witch Nina and her new friend Tali, who is of a race that is part bird. They initially bond over flying (Nina with her broom, Tali with her wings), and Leyh skillfully establishes their friendship and personality types before introducing a conflict in the form of the Bird Witch, an evil being that captures rare types of birds for her own ends. There are chase scenes, reversals, desperate plans and a last-second rescue by a relative. Leyh is definitely of the Kate Beaton school of cartooning in terms of her line, body language and simply-designed characters. Color adds texture and depth to her work, making the world feel real and making Tali all the more exotic because of the rich colors and patterns of her clothing. Later chapters in the book flesh out the world a bit, as Nina is revealed to be the daughter of a forest warden, who protects the magical forest against evil creatures; this is her ambition in life as well. There are bits and pieces of subplots and foreshadowing laid down for future chapters, but the real focus on the book is the way in which Nina and Tali quickly bond and find ways to get into trouble. Despite the extensive use of color, it all feels organic rather than part of an assembly line, like the Amulet books.

Pecos, by RJ Casey and Eric Roesner. This is sixty pages of total nonsense. Casey writes and Roesner draws the adventures of Pecos Bill, a bounty hunter in some crazed, mythical version of the old west that includes a demented, opium-dealing Johnny Appleseed and a Paul Bunyan who is all too intimate with his blue ox. Pecos Bill is one of those "one-upping" kind of characters, where everyone tries to one-up each other by talking about his deeds in the first story. Things are a bit silly and crazy throughout the book, but Casey takes it to the next level in a sequence where Pecos Bill rides one of Paul Bunyan's sperm while he's having sex with Babe the blue ox, then plants explosives inside Babe's body while singing a deranged song to the tune of "Home On The Range". It's a pretty magnificent gross-out gag, one that justifies the tamer and duller jokes earlier in the book, which are fairly disposable. Roesner's exaggerated and grotesque character design does a lot to carry the book, though it's uneven at times and some of his storytelling was difficult to follow at times.

Rose From The Dead, by Andrea Bell. This supernatural romance book feels like something Slave Labor might have published twenty years ago. Bell's character design and use of color are both quite appealing, as she makes the graveyard setting both spooky and funny. It's the story of long-time friends Jack and Roz on Halloween, when Jack is finally determined to tell his whirlwind of a friend that he's in love with her. She can't quite stand still long enough for him to tell her, and all of this is interrupted by skeletal ghosts, one of whom drags Roz into his grave. This is a charming comic, even if the relationship between Jack and Roz isn't exactly novel, and Roz makes for a compelling and clever heroine. The problem with the book is the page design. The panel-to-panel transitions are frequently confusing, as the order of the panels is often unclear. The dialogue and action is frequently vague enough such that it doesn't help clear this up any. Once Bell is able to clean that up a bit, she'll be on her way, because she has the skill to create fast-moving stories with clearly-defined characters and add just the right amount of humor.

Poops Boobs Poo, by Sam Sharpe. This is a killer collection of gags greatly inspired by Ivan Brunetti and the tradition of classic single-gag cartooning in places like The New Yorker. The gags run from the silly (a squirrel talking about how it bothered him just how much he liked nuts), to the edgy and violent (a man holding another man's severed head saying "You tell me this now?" after Moses brought down the ten commandments), to the gross (an amusing fisting joke). There are bad puns, penis size jokes and even a few call-back gags throughout the book. Sharpe has two things on his side: the level of craft in constructing his gags and his draftsmanship. Take the cartoon above, for example. The reader is immediately drawn to the figure in the middle thanks to the way he's positioned on the page. The reader immediately understands that he's a cyclops, that he's unhappy, and that his friend is exuberant after walking out of a film. Searching for context (and going from left to right), the punchline immediately becomes evident thanks to the "Blast-o-rama in 3D" poster. Some of Sharpe's gags had images that existed solely to set up the caption as the punchline, while others used words to set up a funny image as the punchline. He doesn't go quite as far as a Brunetti or a Ryan in most of his gags, in part because he's more about the laugh than the shock, but he's not afraid to get pretty transgressive. Sharpe is a thoughtful, interesting young cartoonist and it was fun to see him cut loose on this kind of gag, almost as an academic exercise.


Well Come, by Erik Nebel. This is a vivid, funny and sometimes gross series of silent cartoons about the interactions of various cartoon shapes. Some are sharply delineated as people, and some are shapes that blend, bleed or outright take over other shapes. Some shapes complete others, making a new mouth or a smile. Other shapes infiltrate or steal parts from other shapes outright. Nebel's use of color is almost psychedelic in its brightness, and the thick, glossy paper allows the color to really soak in on the page. The semi-connected mini-narratives bring to mind certain Lewis Trondheim comics in the way that blobs interact with other blobs in a frequently violent and/or visceral manner. The Team Society League collective's gross comics are another touchstone, though Nebel mostly resists gross-out gags in favor of a gentler sense of humor. The use of color reminds me a bit of Paper Rad a bit, though without the greater weirdness and depth of strange narrative. What you see is what you get on these pages, and Nebel's adherence to following the logic of each gag to its ultimate conclusion works well on page after page. It's the sort of book that you never quite want to end.