Thursday, December 17, 2015

Emergency High-Low Fundraiser

I've taken a bit of a hiatus to start to backfill the 30 Days of CCS feature, but I wanted to see if any readers were interested in helping with an emergency fundraiser. I need to raise a couple of hundred dollars to help bridge through a tough time. Any readers who would care to even make a small donation, it would be enormously appreciated. Thanks to all who read this blog, this year and the many years it's been in existence. There's a paypal button to the right for those who care to donate. Thanks in advance.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #23: Laurel Lynn Leake

Laurel Lynn Leake is an artist exploring a number of different storytelling strategies and themes. Her ongoing Poly Morphous (series is about mental health, and the casual, scribbly line creates an intimate relationship between text and reader. Her Poly character here is struggling with the sense of being broken as someone with mental illness, as feeling as they have no worth or value. Fighting through that feeling, acknowledging that feeling for what it is and still retaining some sense of worth. It's not denying the illness, but accepting it and embracing it as one part of being human. Leake here is sharing information that's both confessional and prescriptive, as she is forgiving herself for being human and asks the reader that they do it too.

Her the welt's awoken is comics-as-poetry, with jagged lines mimicking roots and lightning and the color splotches evoking blood and water. It's a comic about survival and isolation, and how the latter sometimes can help with the former--but not always. Suspension is a standard narrative short story, one about a work crew in the future that touches on diversity and body image being codified directly into the economy. Leake very deliberately creates a world where the workers represent a broad swathe of gender, race and ethnicity, but the real issue is regard to the suits that the workers are wearing. If they gain weight, they automatically make less money for "wear and tear", a direct statement about the inevitability of corporations finding any way possible to limit the rights of workers. Her expressive, naturalistic style is key to the success of this piece, and the green wash is a clever device that makes everyone the same color while informing the reader of the sort of greenhouse nature of their dangerous job.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #22: Simon Reinhardt

Simon Reinhardt has been learning, little by little, how to tell a compelling story with limited drafting skills. By simplifying and stylizing everything and incorporating a more poetic approach to his comics, he's created some compelling recent work. Starting with Trash Ghost, Reinhardt confounds expectations regarding rock band road trip stories. Using a scribbly line, Reinhardt relates a road trip undertaken by Trash Ghost, "New England's Premier Ghost Rock Band!". The put-upon drummer who's driving the band's van is confounded by the fog, as the lead singer and drummer make up excuses as to why they can't drive. When the lead singer goes out and sucks up the ghostly fog, her head swells comically, as though it were to float away like a balloon. It works, and it inspires the band's song for their recording session. This is a silly comic that nonetheless has its own punk style, as the furious scribbles and strange events create their own visual logic and establish a world.

That world is the same as is presented in Reinhardt's Mystery Town comics. This is a Pickle-style zine that purports to be an official town newsletter with a variety of story types. It begins with a funny contest regarding decorated mailboxes and then switches to a running series called "Nite Time Music", involving someone trying to chase down a tune they hear in the night. The first one features a record executive trying to chase it down and getting clubbed for his troubles. There's the dread of the "Endless Hallway" serial that resembles an EC story and the gleeful nihilism of "Savage Skies", which resembles a Blobby Boys comic with its vicious and hilarious "Drone Gang" fulfilling one man's existential dread in a way he never expected.

The second issue touches more on the absurdly Lovecraftian nature of Mystery Town, with the two ice cream trucks whose clashing jingles cause madness. There's more Drone Gang silliness, more Endless Hallway dread, but also some poetic comics in the form of Nite Time Music, catching the powerful and immediate feeling of the sentence "All My Favorite DJs Are Passing Cars" as we see a dancer next to a window, music blasting through. There's also a strip about a man who studies the human face at mural sizes to the exclusion of all else. Mystery Town is all about extremes, obsessions, absurdity writ large and life as both a horrifying mystery that is to be dreaded and a fascinating mystery that is to be gratefully explored. It's a grab-bag of cliches turned on their head, of feeling horrified at funny things and laughing at the horrific.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Summer

Summer is an anthology that was produced by CCS students while still in school. This is a themed anthology organized around the titular season, and the results vary widely from explorations of mythology to "what I did on my summer vacation" autobio pieces. The results vary wildly, especially since each piece is just four pages. The anthology starts off slow, with Laura Martin's slick art and slim story, along with three stories in a row that deal with being roasted and/or being eaten. The anthology picks up a little steam with the amusing one-page vignettes from Alex Karr entitled "My Mermaid Roommate", which talk about mermaids in their original sense, as devouring the lost at seas. Karr's line is crude but effective, especially in terms of relaying body language.

Andy Shuping and Dean Sudarsky both focus on the feeling of being away from school, with Shuping's sloppy line effectively getting across his sense of simultaneously isolating himself and feeling abandoned, and Sudarsky's sparse, expressive line taking the piss out of his experience as an intern at Fantagraphics. Ben Wright-Herman's comic about Persephone going back to Hades was so well-written that I wanted to read the next episode, though the actual drawings felt a little overprocessed. On the other hand, Kotaline Jones' "Ephemera" has some of the sharpest and most confident cartooning in the whole book, with a well-developed and witty voice.

I thought Joe Davidson's summer diary was also interesting for different reasons; his line is chunkier and more cartoony, and he actively used hilariously strange avatars in his self-caricature. The last two comics couldn't be more different. Kelly Swann's photo album uses a highly skilled naturalistic approach to show how hard the cartoonist worked over summers in his life on activities that he enjoyed, until we reach the final panel and punchline as he sits in an office. It's a neat and perfectly organized strip with a clear and coherent gag. On the other hand, there's Cooper Whittlesey's scrawled-out "A Bit Of Tomfoolery". It's about calling a telephone number from a lurid bit of graffiti at a rest stop and a prank getting totally out of control. It's a hilarious mess of a story, with Whittlesey's art being so smudged and sloppy that it almost resembles graffiti itself.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #20:My Pace

Rod and Cone is the publishing imprint of Anna McGlynn and Iona Fox, and My Pace is their latest anthology that's mostly from CCS students and grads. It's a very nicely curated anthology whose contents manage to fit together well despite veering from confessional autobio to visceral weirdness. There's a scrawled, intimate quality common to all of the work here, beginning with Hannah Kaplan's "Summer Diary". These are almost embarrassingly confessional in nature, as Kaplan lets her insecurities and her sexual encounters out into the open and on to the page. She's not afraid to plainly draw her own nude body as well as those of her lovers, but the effect is raw and immediate, as opposed to titillating. Kaplan deals with the loss of an important relationship, the confusion of sleeping with her boss and the emotional challenge of living around in a loose, freehand pencil style that's all about capturing emotion through image as quickly as possible.

Cooper Whittlesey's four-panel and one panel strips veer somewhere between intensely personal and intimate and absurd at a Sam Henderson level. His drawing style is a sort of frenzied scrawl, with lots of difficult-to-read lettering and smudged images. Like Kaplan, it's like he's trying to get these thoughts about sex and "photos of every man she's ever been with--with erections!" out of his head an onto paper as quickly as possible. After the harshness of the first two artists, Fox's own "November Diary" is a smooth counterpoint. It's a lovely account of a trip from Vermont to Quebec for a zine fest, though not before Fox (who is also a farmer) stops off to examine a farm in Quebec. These strips are every bit as intimate if not as revealing as the other strips, as Fox doesn't stop to provide context to the information she discusses, nor does she seek to conceal anything. Her self-caricature is amusing, with a loop of hair on her head, and one gets a sense of contentment with considerable labors and struggles by the end of the story.

McGlynn keeps up the diary theme, only she goes back in time with "My Future Boyfriend", written by a fictional character named Vivian Howard. The rhythm of the narration is meant to mimic both a diary as well as a director's notes for a movie. The writing is beautiful and painful, as Vivian is spun around in a million directions by her own brain, her own hormones and the wonderful and terrible confusion of adolescent being. Drawing the strip on lined paper gave it a certain authenticity, and the use of imagery not directly related to the narration was clever and hinted at the way Vivian fought off feelings of jealousy and distrust and embraced those around her.

Reilly Hadden's "Land Grove" uses his thin, cartoony line to create another story about a dangerous, unstable environment and attempts to find safety in it. When a man goes out in a bicycle away from his partner and their tent, how he negotiates danger and the reward he receives is not unlike an Aesop's fable. Stephanie Kwok's textual diary provides yet another take on the concept, as she uses a variety of fonts to create a visual framing device for her rambling thoughts and observations. Throughout, the theme of wanting to connect but feeling isolated is repeated, her own shouts into the void an act of defiance against loneliness. Sophie Yanow's "Gaslight", featuring a figure off-panel talking to a prone figure on-panel, offers a different take on intimacy. The figure off-panel conflates honesty with intimacy, as though being honest about doing horrible things excused the horrible things we do. It's an appropriate capper to an anthology where every artist explored their emotions, their limits and their struggles in each story in an attempt at authenticity. Yanow reminds us that authenticity without humanity is no virtue. As always, her command over her line is so precise that she uses a handful of tremulous slashes and geometric figures to get at that sense of being devastated. All told, this is one of the strongest CCS-related anthologies I've read.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #19: Ben Horak & Pat Barrett

Ben Horak and Pat Barrett, two masters of nasty satire, teamed up for Thanks For The Sour Persimmons, Cousin (an all-time great reference to the classic cartoon, Duck Amuck). They lay on the visceral gristle in a story about a blobby angel (a go-to special for Barrett) who isn't very good at his job: instilling a sense of unity in a humanity that absolutely hates itself. The opening scene, on a crowded bus where everyone is yelling and acting hatefully, stops on a dime when the angel appears to work his magic. When the results go horribly awry, he goes back to his wife in a sitcom-derived scene (complete with laugh track and background "awwws") that demonstrates how sometimes following your dream perhaps isn't the best idea. The lurid pinks and purples are almost nauseating on the page, and that's the whole idea.

Horak's work has gone to another level of hilarious and brutal in its examination of human nature in his Grump Toast #5. The running story "Them Are Bad" features a situation where a person overreacts to an insult by killing the offending party, only for the story to reveal that this was an alien simulator designed to train potential secret agents on how best to fit in and infiltrate society for future conquest. Horak doesn't spare the detail in making the aliens grotesque while doubling down on the humor of what turned from an over-the-top response to a slight to essentially a bit of office humor. There's a second strip that involves the bad employee simply laughing at someone offensive dying and getting reprimanded, and the final strip puts a final, pathetic spin on the whole enterprise that reveals what's really going on.

"Never Mention Rope To A Hangman" sees Horak going silent, with images filling up thought balloons instead of words. It's about a pizza delivery man who thinks he's getting shorted on a tip, only to find he got a hundred dollar bill. When he starts to feel guilty about getting it and fantasizes that it might make the grumpy, ugly old man who gave it to him wind up in poverty, he turns around, goes back to the house, walks in and puts the money on a table. Then he makes a jaw-droppingly horrifying and hilarious discovery about the man he just delivered the pizza to, which then leads to a series of events far worse than anything he could have imagined. This is Horak doing what he does best--using the tools of his narratives to set up the reader in how things are flowing, then throwing in an over-the-top twist, and then returning to those tools with a new spin on how to interpret them.

"If It Wasn't For The Nights" almost defies description, as it's about a would-be hipster using highly dated "jazz" lingo in order to try to get women to pay attention to him at a night club. When every attempt fizzles, he winds up in a nightclub for cats (daddio!), a cute gag that Horak then takes to yet another visceral extreme when he winds up at the doctor later on. When the jaw-dropping revelation is made, Horak once again uses a gesture from earlier in the story as a callback meant to signal that everything was cool, only at the end of this story it was a pathetic attempt at justifying behavior beyond the pale.

At heart, Horak is a simple gag man. What sets him apart is the loving amount of labor he puts into each drawing in order to set up the gag, along with his razor-sharp understanding of using long form improv instincts to build up to the eventual punchline. He favors visceral, violent and revolting humor built on rock-solid comedic constructs, where no matter how absurd or disgusting the gag, the joke is so beautifully told that one must appreciate it. Take "Back In The Day...", which is essentially an extended beer ad for something called "Rat Brew", which contained "cheap but strong alcohol as well as a live, vicious rat fighting to free itself from its cold aluminum prison". That premise is so nonsensical as to defy description, not to mention good taste, yet Horak's genius in generating an ad copy buzz phrase in "The bite's the best part" gets at the core of what advertising does: sell people on the idea that being bitten by a vicious rat is the stuff memories are made of.

Another pure (if dark) gag strip is "Caroline". Here, Horak distracts the reader with the end of a sex scene with a chatty guy and a silent woman. Little by little, the details of how the encounter came to be are revealed, and the end of the story is a masterful execution (in all senses of the word) of distracting the reader through visceral visual details (not just assorted fluids, but the way in which the bed stand is cross-hatched draws in the eye) and babbling dialogue until the last crucial bit of data is revealed before the final punchline.

The book's epic story is "This Will Be Our Year", and it follows the structure of similar Horak stories from earlier issues. An abusive, unpleasant loser is physically beaten by his wife and infant son and forced to clean the house and throw out the garbage before he runs away. (The single page of pro wrestling moves the baby executes on his dad are hilarious and meticulously drawn.) From there, the man is beaten up, laughed up and begins starving before he goes to a fast food restaurant. Unable to pay for the food, he gets a job and is subjected to an array of disgusting humiliations before he's fired and thrown into the street. At this point in the story, Horak is just getting warmed up, as he stumbles upon a Scientology-type center and goes through a battery of tests before he's "approved". What he's approved for is sacrifice by a demonic cult that takes him to the woods and rips out his heart. What follows appears to be that character's redemption run, as he becomes an all-powerful being that wreaks havoc and revenge upon the city and his old job before he returns to his wife and son. Horak ends the strip with a gag that is predictable only in the shaggy dog sense, but it's perfectly executed. Along the way, there's mass destruction, lots of oozing, skeletons, people being burned, etc. What I like most about Horak, whose sense of humor is certainly distinct and certainly not for all tastes, is his absolute commitment to his craft, both in terms of fastidious attention to detail in his linework as well as the structure and set-up of each gag.