Sunday, March 26, 2017

High-Low and the Eisner Awards

Regular readers may have noticed a decrease in the number of articles per week here at High-Low lately, and Patrons may have noticed that I'm a couple of articles behind. That's because, as I'm not sure I mentioned it here, I am on the jury for this year's Eisner Awards, the "Oscars of comics". As such, I've started to receive an overwhelming number of comics to read and ship back out, and it's starting to limit my writing time.

Here's my solution: from now until the last week of April, when I confer with the other judges, I won't be writing for this site. Then I'll pick up again at the usual speed. The exception will be for my patrons: I will write two columns early this week and then another on Friday and send them to them. I thought my patrons might be interested in seeing brief reviews of the comics I've been sent that might not normally fall under my bailiwick, especially perhaps certain corporate comics. For the curious, my Patreon site is here. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back to full force in late April, with perhaps the occasional review going up at The Comics Journal (tcj.com) as well.

Please do keep sending me your books, your comics and your zines. I always review everything, eventually.

Minis: K.Wirick, J.Zwirek, J.D.Woods


Jimmy Plays The Drums and A Natural Family, by John Dermot Woods. These are interesting, enigmatic comics that play a lot on the grid (the first is a product of Frank Santoro's correspondence course) and on very differing uses of color. Jimmy Plays The Drums is a story about expression and elusiveness, told in a time-fractured style over a long period of time. The entire story is done in bright CMYK in virtually every panel (with the black simply being the lines delineating the characters and the lettering), with the characters and backgrounds flipping colors in each panel. It's an interesting visual effect that forces the reader to reorient themselves on a constant basis as we figure out why the bespectacled Jimmy drummer is constantly trying to escape (from childhood) an older man. The people Jimmy hangs with and his peculiar abilities are only hinted at, but what is made clear is that his parents never allowed him to leave his penthouse home, and he only had the gardener as company--the man chasing him. It's a story about chosen family, a love of art that was not allowed or encouraged, and a slightly magical world that's given life but Woods' almost-exclusive use of colored pencil.

A Natural Family is more conventional in some respects. The use of color is purely functional and even bland. It presents with an unusual occurrence: a brother and sister (both adults) living alone in their family house, with the sister having fallen asleep for two straight days. It's told from the perspective of the brother, with a film crew, the police being brought in to observe the phenomenon and (presumably) have someone do something about it--to no avail. Woods then time-jumps back to the siblings, three days earlier, and reveals that a once-boisterous and happy familial relationship had been reduced to silence, and the suggestion by the brother that one of them leave the house to explore "missed opportunities" leads her to fall asleep in response--a move that prevents him from leaving. Much is left unsaid in this comic. What, precisely, was the nature of their relationship beyond being familial? There's a panel of the man in bed with a presumed sexual partner in the morning, seemingly ready to kick her out. The last page reveals that she went to bed naked, but it's clear that he put a dressing gown on her before he invited in the media. Is her escape into sleep a way of protesting her brother abandoning her, or is it something more? In both of his minis, Woods provides a lot of clues but ultimately leaves a lot of the answers up to the reader.



Stand-Up Comic, by Jeff Zwirek. Zwirek's one of my favorite comics formalists, especially in terms of the actual physical construction of his comics. This short mini about a stand-up comedian is made in such a way as to literally have a stand in the back, as though it were for display. It features a deeply schlubby comedian named Buster Guts, a pear-shaped fellow with a face that looks like it was arranged by Picasso. Zwirek starts off in a four-panel grid that falls away to an open page format as Buster Guts actually proves himself to be a top-notch, self-deprecating comedian whose gags go from tired to genuinely funny. This comic is a nice combination of gimmick and gags, with one grabbing the reader's attention and the latter standing on their own but aided by the mere sight of the comedian.


Nervenkrank #1, by Katherine K. Wirick. This is the first chapter of a much longer work about the life of German Dada artist John Heartfield, born as Helmut Herzfeld. There has been a proliferation of comics biographies as of late, mostly coming out of Europe, and they have a tendency to be pretty to look at but largely mundane. Wirick's work has a chance to be an exception, as Nervenkrank is clearly a passion project, not just a project researched for a contract. Heartfield's work is obviously important to her on a deep level, and it shows in the intensity of the rendering on each page and the emphasis on a slow narrative pace that establishes his emotional state as a soldier. The story opens in 1915, in the middle of World War I. Heartfield is a hospitalized soldier, clearly traumatized by what he's seen. Wirick emphasizes that by noting that his roommate literally won't come out from under the bed, another patient can't stop screaming about being bombed, etc. Returning to his boarding house, he is presented with compassion by the wife of the owner and contempt by the owner himself.

Wirick depicts the stuttering Heartfield as delicate and sensitive but not weak. He steals the German flag flying outside his room and burns it. Dada was born in large part as a reaction to the pointless stupidity and brutality of World War I as the people were sent to die for no good reason, and this issue emphasizes all of these issues. Wirick is a skilled naturalistic artist who masterfully uses greyscale to balance depth and density in each panel. It's clear that she thoughtfully and carefully resolves issues like negative space, character interaction in space and how to make her realistically-rendered characters still manage to appear alive on the page. Her page design is functional, relying more on her figure drawing than on an innovative approach, but it's clear that this story is meant to appear in a larger format. This mini came out nearly four years ago and I haven't seen another issue since, but I hope she continues to persevere on this project.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Queers And Comics Travel Fund

There's still time to donate to this worthy cause:


For Inquiries Contact: qctravelfund@gmail.com

Starting today, February 14th, the QC Travel Fund, a volunteer effort in partnership with Prism Comics, is raising money on Indiegogo to support creators who could not otherwise attend and present at the Queers & Comics conference being held in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts on April 14-15, 2017. The fundraiser can be found here.

Traditionally queer creators, those who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans*, asexual, intersex and otherwise present a non-mainstream sexual orientation, representation or identification, have been marginalized in society at large and in the sequential narrative form of comics. Events like the Queers & Comics conference aim to bring light onto those creators and the QC Travel Fund strives to financially enable those in the community that would otherwise be unable to participate due to lack of monetary means.

The QC Travel Fund Indiegogo fundraiser will run from February 14 – March 14, 2017. Queers & Comics creators have offered rewards for donations to the fund, including: digital copies of Northwest Press's anthologies “Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy!” edited by lesbian comics tastemaker Erica Friedman and “Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! edited Lambda Literary Award winning editor Tom Cardamone; digital copies of Northwest Press's Digital Mega Pack (digital editions of every in-print Northwest Press book published to date); "Love is MASSIVE" risographed postcard card set by Jiraiya; Manko Riot t-shirts by Rokudenashiko; and custom commissions by Queers & Comics creators. New rewards and incentives will be announced throughout the campaign.

Contribute to the fundraiser and reap your rewards here.

Prism Comics will also be collecting additional funds on site during the Queers & Comics conference to benefit the QC Travel Fund.

About QC Travel Fund:  The QC Travel Fund is a small group of independent volunteers who have come together to raise money for queer creators who could not otherwise afford the cost of traveling to attend and participate in the Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco from April 14-15, 2017.

About Prism Comics:   Prism Comics is the only organization in North America which provides a grant to emerging comics talent. The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant was founded in 2005 to support up and coming LGBTQAI cartoonists. To learn more about the QPG visit Prism Comics.

About Northwest Press: Northwest Press is a book publisher dedicated to publishing the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics collections and graphic novels and celebrating the LGBT comics community. Find NWP’s original print releases and digital work at northwestpress.com.






Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Mini Reviews: D.Zender, T.Yamamoto, R.Van Ingram, J.T. Yost


Giving In, by Daniel Zender. This is a beautiful comic that looks as constructed as it is drawn. It looks painted and I can see brush strokes on some pages, but it also looks like MS Paint may have been used to fill in some parts of the page. Regardless, this a beautiful comic to look at, and it's well-designed enough to be effective as a silent comic. Indeed, with the striking use of pinks, greens, midnight blues and reds helping to code emotion, Zender didn't need text to tell this story about love, loneliness and accepting a brand new status quo when finding love. The story follows a young woman who goes on a camping trip with her friends. She's obviously depressed and lonely, thanks to her body language and some of the things she does in her apartment before the trip. Late at night, as she makes her way into the forest to pee, she encounters some strange pink lights. Intrigued instead of frightened, she makes her way into a tree, where she encounters some kind of tree spirit who is obviously every bit as lonely as she is. The story is marked by the silent decision she must make: stay in this weird environment where she's found a soulmate, or go back to her familiar world. In the end, she chooses to embrace the mystery of both her new environment and being in love. There is beauty and grace to be found in this comic, but there's also sadness as well, because the story notes that there's always a price to be paid for getting what we want.

The Rule, by Tetsuya Yamamoto. This is from Japan's BigUglyRobot, which publishes all sorts of odd comics in English. It follows a young man who visits some kind of vast repository of information, as he inquires after a small (nearly invisible) object that he finds in order to return it to its rightful owners. That snowballs into a wild, apocalyptic story where the young man encounters a race of aliens that originally owned the object, the other alien that had been hunting them down in order to get the object, and a hilarious final battle that devolves into an absurd Pokemon battle. It all makes sense in context, and Yamamoto's clever meta-storytelling provides all sorts of twists and turns along the way. One of those twists is going from a loose, sketchy style to an 8-bit video game style in the final battle. The looseness and fluidity of that earlier style stood in stark contrast to the deliberately stiff art during the battle scene, making that battle even funnier despite the fact that the stakes were no laughing matter. The title refers to how the protagonist was able to take advantage of extremely rigid thinking on the part of his opponent by changing the rules of reality (including having things like Microsoft Excel in his Pokeball) instead of trying to match the opponent on his own terms. Yamamoto manages to create a comic that's funny, mysterious and exciting, playing on standard comics tropes in order to come up with some new curves.

Loser Comix #2, by Richard Van Ingram. These are underground comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, full of heavily-rendered drawings that parody pop culture and politics. This issue was the end result of a Kickstarter campaign and it shows, with high production values and full color throughout. There's a plague story that's a thinly-veiled political allegory that has some genuinely funny lines and a densely inked, horrific quality to the art. Van Ingram's visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas, like the Loser Tarot. It's a funny concept that's beautifully-illustrated, but the actual ideas "The Ex-Wife", "The Republican" are on the bland side. The Peanuts parody Chunky Brown is tedious at best, turning Charlie Brown and Linus into loser hipster types, Lucy in a capitalist femme fatale (in one panel, her nipples poke through her shirt for no discernible reason) who sends them to work at a used bookstore. That latter development was clear Van Ingram's way of getting back at his awful used bookstore job, which was probably cathartic for him but not especially relevant for the reader. There's an accurate but tedious bit of social commentary about a yokel voting against his own interests by supporting Republicans. Van Ingram works best when he works briefly, like a hilarious strip about Richard Nixon seeing the future and the Partridge Family sending a message from 3013 to 1973, thanking them for their help in ousting Nixon and establishing a utopia. A serious strip about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson wouldn't have been out of place in World War III Illustrated, and here Van Ingram's dense but colorful style and page design perfectly encapsulates the desperate quality of his text. Van Ingram has a great deal of talent, and it's clear that he's trying to find the best way to use it.

Thanger Dangers, by JT Yost. This is a collection of odds and ends from various anthologies by Yost. "Thenthy" is an odd story about a particular way he bit down on his tongue when seeing an especially cute animal (and later, his daughter), and it leads him to wonder why we evolved with the tendency to react to extreme cuteness with an almost violent response. "The Lead Masks Case" is about the mysterious deaths of two men in Mexico that prompted the possibility of aliens, cults and other phenomena to explain a genuinely puzzling event. Yost is at his best here: clearly and amusingly laying out the facts while employing a line that skirts the edge between naturalist and cartoony. The mashup/parodies of classic comics are nicely drawn but not especially clever or funny. I did enjoy the ode to Waffle House, their absurd juke box and even more absurd styles of serving hash browns. Like Van Ingram, Yost is an excellent cartoonist who is still figuring out what he wants to say as an artist.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Stuff From Old Favorites: Steve Lafler & Lance Ward


Death In Oaxaca #3, by Steve Lafler (Alternative Comics). It's increasingly clear that when Lafler refers to death in the title of his series about a family of American ex-pats who settle in the arts mecca Mexican town, it's not so much about murder than the personification of Death itself. In this case, Death comes as a friend and source of information for Rex, a cartoonist and amateur musician (and Lafler's stand-in) whom Death visits in his sleep in order to jam with him musically. Rex's wife Gertie decides to become a superhero in Luchadora form, while their teenage son Myles is more of a background character but hints at burgeoning adulthood in this issue. 

This third issue starts to tie a few of the early plot threads together and smartly gets its protagonists on the same page. Death takes Rex on a walk that reveals that Rex is a reincarnation of the son of Eduardo, a local eccentric who is an immortal vampire. What's revealed in this issue is that Eduardo became a vampire when his village sent him to investigate a mysterious, huge rock that suddenly appeared, and the beings inside turned him vampiric for mysterious reasons. Meanwhile, Eduardo, who subsists on animal blood, is getting weaker and weaker and is rushed to the hospital at the issue's end, but not before getting a human blood transfusion. It's hard to say where Lafler is going with all this, as the story meanders in an episodic fashion more than any of Lafler's non-psychedelic stories. It was smart of him to have Rex and Gertie reveal their secrets to each other, as the strength and ardor of their relationship is one of my favorite things about this comic. It's clear that Lafler is happy to let the story set its own pace, as he dips into local culture, cuisine and politics in addition to the soap operatic hijinks (and parody of same) of its cast of characters. There's no question that this comic is a genuine delight to look at from a structural and storytelling perspective; Lafler is one of the best figure artists in comics, with a rock-solid understanding of anatomy that meshes with his loose, playful line. His hatching and use of negative space and spotting blacks is all in service to the story; he never shows off or wastes a line. I imagine Lafler will start to draw together plot lines shortly, but it is odd that there doesn't seem to be a clear antagonist as of yet. That may well become Eduardo or someone else, depending on how many issues he plans for the series. I'm simply happy to be along for the ride. 

A-Hole #6 and Blood And Drugs, by Lance Ward. One of the best and most bracing autobio cartoonists actually does all sorts of comics, and A-Hole is his catch-all anthology for such material. There's his "Fatnuts" strips, a brutal parody of Peanuts that doesn't so much make "Chucky Brown" the butt of jokes for being fat as much as it makes every character their worst possible selves, with Chucky still the center of it all. It's also Ward's catch-all strip for anything he's angry or concerned about, like his characters getting radiation poisoning thanks to the disaster at Fukashima in Japan, Bernie Sanders, science without morals and nightmares. His "Stick Shifter" strips are all-aggro parodies of The Fast And The Furious type of car adventure movies, with the main driver always getting so angry that horrible things happen with the car. There are also strips credited to "Jason Walters", and I'm not sure if that's a Ward pseudonym or not, but the "Kafka The Cat" and other strips are mostly mild genre parodies. While the overall content is amusing, it's not anything that's especially innovative or that sticks with the reader like Ward's autobio strips.

On the other hand, Blood and Drugs, while being (apparently, mostly) fictional and also a different aesthetic approach than his fairly straightforward design of his autobio strips, packs as much of a wallop as his best work to date. Using a six-panel grid to anchor the rest of his page, Ward frequently goes off the rails in this comic about heroin addiction and what a person is willing to do to keep it going. In slashing red and black markers on the early pages, Charlie Brown and Calvin & Hobbes scream at each other until it resolves into Ward on a bus, in deep pain, willing to try anything. Ward sells all of his art to his initial fixes, gets a friend to drive him to a dealer's house (under protest) and is forced to give the dealer (depicted as a Jabba the Hutt-style creature) head in exchange for heroin. Ward bits the guy's dick off instead and flees, knowing that he's doomed and screaming at a local street Santa that he sells lies to children. The whole thing is over the top and scrawled, looking a bit like Josh Bayer's work at some points, only much more scribbled and intense. The key page in the story is when Ward scores some heroin to "get normal" so he can finish doing a story, only for the reader to see four straight blank panels. Heroin takes away one's capacity and interesting for much in life other than heroin. It certainly takes away pain, but it takes away desire, motivation and inspiration as well. The story may seem over the top in terms of its approach and histrionics, but it feels authentic in a way that implies familiarity with these kinds of stories, even if this wasn't something that Ward experienced personally. As always, however, Ward is his own best character, even in a fictional story. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

D&Q; R.Sikoryak's Terms And Conditions

Reading Robert Sikoryak's Terms and Conditions is like if Marcel Duchamp had decided to start doing comics. It's at once a shaggy dog joke and a work that pushes at the boundaries of the comics form. I've read plenty of abstract comics, but the emphasis there is narrative abstraction from a visual perspective. I've also read plenty of comics that remove images and play strictly with the form in terms of panel-to-panel and page-to-page flow with the words playing against that bit of formal experimentation. What Sikoryak does here is have page after page of recognizable, narrative imagery stripped of meaning not by removing text or adding nonsense text, but rather by replacing text with the entirety of Apple's terms and conditions for iTunes. The words are entirely coherent and understandable on their own (if incredibly boring, like most terms and conditions), but they have almost no connection to the images chosen to accompany them. The subtitle "A Graphic Novel" is thus even funnier, as Sikoryak intentionally uses the pretentious and market-driven name for long-form comics to describe something that is in no way a graphic novel.

This work is also different from his comics/literature mash-ups, because there he specifically finds ways to tie the visuals into the original source material. The only concession Sikoryak makes here is that on every page, one of the characters is dressed up like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who was well known for his turtlenecks and stubble. All of his dialogue consists of the terms and conditions of iTunes, as he explains them to the other characters on page after page. What started as goof became a mission for Sikoryak, who deliberately wanted to mold the terms and conditions and fit them in the confines of a book in a way that didn't disturb the original sequences that he adapted in the course of the book. Of course, Sikoryak is a gifted style mimic and challenged himself by taking on so many different kinds of comics, from YA comics to classic strips to superheroes to manga to alternative comics to everything in-between. One could see his skill as a mimic wobble from time to time; interestingly, the most notable misfire was an adaptation of a page from Raina Telgemeier's Sisters. There's a purity and smooth clarity to Telgemeier's line that Sikoryak doesn't quite match here, as his line is a bit on the wobbly and wavy side on this page. He also doesn't get the colors quite right. The same is true for his attempt at Jeff Smith's Bone. Another deceptively-simple looking comic is so smooth and balanced (especially in terms of color scheme) that it's actually difficult to mimic in a way that makes it look like Smith's work.

On the other hand, his goof on a page from Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga is not only dead-on, he's able to inject some visual humor in the form of the background characters doing all sorts of perverted things with apples. Sikoryak isn't always able to inject that kind of humor into a page, but it seemed like an obvious fit here. He also really nails the alternative comics in particular, like his pages goofing on Peter Bagge's Hate, Daniel Clowes' Wilson and Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken. It's also funny to see how successfully he's able to mimic Julie Doucet (down to those stray bits of ink) and Lynda Barry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, his Spawn is hilarious, laying bare some of Todd MacFarlane's affectations as an artist. Sikoryak has a list of the creators, comics or comic strips he used as source material in the book, so it's obvious that trying to identity source material was part of the experience. Indeed, there's definitely something that's a bit "inside baseball" about this book, because I imagine handing the book to a non-comics reading person would utterly baffle them.

While he "quotes" mostly popular comics and best-sellers, most of the source material would be a source of frustration instead of humor. There is a level where that doesn't necessarily matter, because he's not just going for recognizability in his work but also a pure aesthetic impact. In other words, as long as the reader recognizes that something is a superhero comic, or a fantasy comic, or a kid's comic, that's enough of an informational hit to enjoy the book at a base level. That said, it's a book made for a comics fan with a decidedly broad knowledge base that extends into modern-day work and YA work. It's also important to note that the satirical and formal trickery of the book are less important than the images themselves, the way each page is designed and the wide variety of character designs. It's a love letter to the elasticity of comics disguised as hate mail to Apple. That love letter is not quite as satisfying as his other, more complicated comics, but it's certainly a lot of fun to look at.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Minis From Andrew Alexander

Andrew Alexander is an interesting young cartoonist who works very much in the Gary Panter "ratty line" tradition. Dead Dog Daze #1 is a perfect example of this, with the distorted faces and heads mixing that Panter aesthetic with a sort of distorted Archie-by-way-of-Clowes concept. This first issue begins with a drug dealing kid named Anthony who calls his recluse friend Henri because he discovers a dog that's been hanged on a football goal post with some strange symbols carved in it. The comic switches first-person perspectives with a large cast of high school (and slightly older) kids and their connections with the crime and with each other. Alexander's ear for dialogue and willingness to go deep into the darkest aspects of his characters made this a riveting read. That was especially true as his grotesque, exaggerated character design was in some ways a parody of Archie (Anthony bore a resemblance to Jughead, for example) but in other ways it represented making each character's appearance reflective of their self-image or inner character.

There are a lot of levels of story here. One interesting diversion in the story is when Anthony goes to visit his supplier Heff (a shut-in obsessed with chess), and Heff tells him that everyone in town plays a role like a piece on the chessboard. Henri is the detective and Anthony is the orphan, and that observation fuels the rest of the issue, as Anthony starts wondering about his life in an existential sense. For the reader, it becomes clear that detective really is Henri's role and that this is a twisting detective mystery with a rogue's gallery worth of suspects. There's even a haunting detail from the past in that Henri was the one who discovered the body of his friend Wren in the forest, an event that clearly altered the course of his life and not in a positive way. There are muscle-headed football players (including one with stitches on his head that make him look like Frankenstein's monster), popularity-seeking girls, and concerned grandmas (one whose face consists entirely of wrinkles, like she's the Dick Tracy villain Pruneface). I'll be curious to see how Alexander resolves this.

Headfirst #2 (as Alex Dicker) is a collection of Alexander's short stories. They are more scribbly and less ambitious than Dead Dog Daze, but they are certainly still interesting. The first story involves a road trip and a quartet of life-long friends going in very different directions. This one is all about the ways in which aggression goes hand-in-hand with friendship and communication, and how different life choices cause that level of intimacy to fracture. The pivotal character in the story is Ralph, who has moved away from California and his friends, and that resentment is palpable even as he finds it hard to relate to his old life. That's especially true when it's revealed along the way that the purpose of the trip is a drug deal, and Ralph actually fantasizes about busting up the deal when he imagines he sees a cop. The constantly sleepy character instead simply dreamed this intervention, and the deal (financing his friend getting his and girlfriend's upcoming baby) was all to set up a new life, one even further removed from his. The other stories involve a post-Civil War narrative about a returning soldier always in search of the next fight, and sees him being manipulated into hunting down Native Americans by the neighbors of his family. That one's a bit on the convoluted side, and the lack of clear storytelling doesn't help. There's a funny bit of autobio involving rebellion and connection at an older age, and there's also a clever story about a living toy who's constantly being torn apart by his owner. This mini shows a restless mind at work with some solid characterization, but it doesn't quite cohere. The difference between this 2014 comic and the 2016 comic reviewed above clearly shows Alexander's development, and it's obvious that he's going in the right direction.