Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Little Less Doom and Gloom: Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell

Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell is the third of the Jacques Tardi/Jean-Patrick Manchett comics translated by Fantagraphics, and while it's brutally nihilistic at times, it actually offers more of a ray of hope at the end than either West Coast Blues or Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot. The story involves a young woman named Julie who's plucked out of a psychiatric institution in order to work as a nanny for a rich industrialist's son. The son is out of control and the working conditions are weird, to say the least, but there's a weird resilience to Julie's character that's established from the very beginning.

The industrialist, Hartog, gets attacked by a former friend and business associate at the beginning of the book, but things get really weird when she and the boy are kidnapped. The actual employer of the kidnappers is strongly hinted at early in the book and is made plain about half way through, a revelation that's very noir and even sickening. The reality is that the kidnapping is all a set-up to make the emotionally disturbed Julie look like she killed the boy, an arrangement set up by the relentless assassin Thompson. Thompson is a magnificent character whom one is almost inclined to root for despite his total amorality, because of his work ethic and dismaying physical side effects he feels working his way up to a kill.

Of course, the plan goes horribly awry and Julie & the boy get away, starting a fantastic series of chase scenes, reversals, close calls on both ends, betrayals and surprising new allies. Through it all, Tardi's figure work, fluid panel-to-panel transitions and mastery of using backgrounds to enhance rather than detract from a narrative dominate the story. This one's a bit different from the other two Tardi/Manchette books in that the plot twists and violence are way more over-the-top and even ridiculous at times. Thompson is practically a super-villain and Julie remarkably clever. There's less of an in-depth examination of each character and more of an emphasis on the action mechanics of the story and its plot. The end eschews the typical Manchette nihilism and instead gives its heroes an unlikely happy ending.

The story veers between action spoof and straightforward action story as it proceeds, giving it an uneven feel. The villains actually feel villainous, rather than simply tools of a larger, unstoppable network of forces too vast to resist or even comprehend. Of the three books, this is also the one that seems the most ready to be adapted to film, in terms of both pace and the exterior nature of the characters' personalities. Whether or not this reduced level of nihilism is appealing to a reader is up to the individual in question, but there's no doubt that this book is quite different in tone and outcome than the other two. That difference gives it a little less depth as well, though all three wallow in certain kinds of noir tropes so unapologetically that it can't be said that any of them stray too dramatically from genre concerns. It's just that the genre treatments of the other two books are far more bleak and complex.

Student Work From Duke University

I had the honor of giving a lecture to Bill Fick's comics drawing class at Duke University a couple of years ago. Fick and I co-founded the DICE comics show in Durham, along with cartoonist Eric Knisley. For their final project, Fick's students were required to create a minicomic. Most of his students were not avid comics readers going into the class (some had followed him from his illustration class), though some read webcomics. Here are the results.

Farewell, My Lovely, by Jon Frizzell. This was certainly the oddest of the entries from this group, as this is essentially a highly raw "cover version" of Frank Miller's Sin City. This is a super-crude version that's nonetheless bursting with energy on the page. While Frizzell copies some familiar Miller light/dark effects, the crudeness of his figure work makes this a fascinating read, in part because of how visceral the scratchy art is. Those unfamiliar with the original story will no doubt be completely baffled, because Frizzell does little to set things up for the reader; the comic is more an interesting exercise than an individual's personal expression.

Batwoman, by Amanda Giddon. This isn't a superhero comic per se, but rather a treatise on how shoddily women have been treated in mainstream comics as characters for nearly a century. Giddon uses Batman and gives him a gender switch while giving him a tour of characters like Tessie the Typist, romance comics, Marvel superheroines, and various other tropes. Giddon treats the subject with wit and does a nice job laying out each page clearly. It's also obvious that she really did her research on the subject.

How To Save Money At Duke! by Natalie Ferguson. This is one of several Duke-centric minis, which is not surprising considering the powerful pull of college as a narrative device. The cover of this mini is either an homage or a direct swipe of a Jaime Hernandez drawing of Hopey Glass; either way, it's uncredited. The comic itself eschews narrative and instead each page is its own unit, describing a real or funny way to save money as a Duke student trying to have fun. It's all a bit in-jokey, but some of the pages are nicely designed. Others are too text-heavy, and most of them read more as illustrated text than as comics.

A Freshman's Guide To Duke University, by ?. This one was uncredited and looks like it was done by someone more interested in illustration than comics. I did like the pencil drawings and funny take on college life. The artist gives advice as to what kind of identity a freshman might choose and what kind of activities they might engage in, lampooning various easily-discerned personality types seen every day on campus (frat star, hipster, intellectual, Cameron Crazy, etc) as well as concepts like "pregaming", the monotony of Orientation Week, etc. The way this mini goes from sincere advice to sarcasm keeps the reader on their toes. This was one of several comics in this bunch that I wish had been redone with a bit more polish; its raw qualities detract from the final product.

The Code Of The Modern Gentleman, by Alex Lark. This is another comic that has plenty of good ideas that seemed rushed. It combines Duke in-jokes (Duke students really enjoy going to a seedy nearby bar with a mechanical bull for some reason) with the conceit of reintroducing the concept of being a "gentleman", mocking both concepts. I liked the production values and aesthetic gestalt of this comic, but it once again has more to do with hastily-drawn illustrations than it does a carefully-produced product.

Eleven Of Tiamat, by Liz Novaski. This is a retelling of the Babylonian creation myth, done in the style of a western. This is the most stylish and conceptually interesting of the Duke minis, one that mixes the grittiness of a Jean Giraud western comic with the sheer weirdness of Babylonian mythology. There's also a great deal of wit to be found in this story of revenge and more revenge, mixing in cinematic, tightly-focused close-ups with the sweep of the supernatural. There's also some subtle commentary on sexism in the story as well. Of this group, this is the most professional looking of the minis and the one that I could see being sold online or at shows.

The Dukies: Human Vs Squirrel, by Jae Cheon. Anyone who's ever spent time at Duke knows that the quad squirrels are aggressive and entirely unafraid of humans. Cheon uses a big, bold line that sometimes isn't entirely coherent in telling silly stories about squirrels that they're human, a devious squirrel that follows her around, and a squirrel that thinks Cheon's a squirrel. Some of the pages are over-rendered and others are minimally illustrated, with the latter drawings being far more effective. It's undeniable that Cheon has a certain eccentric style in how she tells a story, even if that style is frequently disjointed.

Untitled, by Kevin Jian. Based on Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn, this mini cleverly uses time fracturing to show how various female animals suddenly and mysteriously disappear. The reason is less important than the impact their leaving has and how suddenly life changed for everyone. Jian's simple and clear line make this the most fluid read of the Duke minis, and by jumping back and forth in time, he manages to up the stakes for the reader while still concentrating on the essential "humanity" of these characters and how losing out on the women in their lives is a devastating experience.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Circling The Drain: Saint Cole

Noah Van Sciver's Saint Cole is a shaggy dog story disguised as one of Van Sciver's more familiar "loser stories". The narrative follows Joe, a hard-working but hard-drinking waiter who's trying to earn money for his girlfriend and their infant son. Beginning with the arrival of his hard-living mother-in-law and his lust for a new 17-year-old hostess at the restaurant at which he's a waiter, Joe has a very bad week, and Van Sciver informs the reader at the very beginning that his life was about to go down the drain. What follows is that loser scenario on steroids, as Joe makes a series of hilariously disastrous and ridiculous decisions that almost seem like a parody of the sort of thing that Van Sciver and many others do in depicting a character whose life is going down the tubes. However, this is all just a distraction for the final image of the book, one that was entirely earned thanks to what seemed to be throwaway clues planted throughout the book.

Indeed, the plotting of this book is airtight. What seem to be atmospheric or even entirely extraneous details and characters set up the near-apocalyptic final image, one that's so huge that it's ridiculous and even hilarious. Building up to that ending is some of Van Sciver's finest character work. It's clear that he worked hard on Joe, creating a slumped body posture for him but also putting him out there less as a loser than as an alpha male who's been beaten down by life. That sense of hubris is what dooms this character. The character of his mother-in-law is another triumph for Van Sciver, as she's a real sleazeball. When she offers Joe some crystal meth to smoke and he reluctantly agrees, the reader knows that absolutely no good was going to come of this. The actual results were even worse than one could have imagined, so disastrous that it takes the sort of deus ex machina ending to extricate Joe from the situation.

Regarding the end, it's amazing how much sense it makes, even if it is kind of crazy. The classic Van Sciver visual flourishes, like dense hatching and cross-hatching and drawing falling rain, all serve a greater purpose here. The standard Van Sciver weirdo characters wind up providing subtle clues, including the real meaning of the enigmatic title. Van Sciver almost gleefully provides these clues, like the fact that the cover and endpapers depict rain falling, or that the characters talk repeatedly about the weather. Again, what appears to be mundane takes on a greater meaning later in the book, so the reader should examine the book carefully as they proceed. While not quite as dense or thoughtful as The Hypo, Saint Cole is a great follow-up in the sense that Van Sciver stayed true to his style without repeating himself.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Catching Up With Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver is one of the more prolific cartoonists working today. Let's take a look at some of his recent work.

Deep In The Woods (with Nic Breutzman, published by 2D Cloud). Van Sciver's contribution here is titled "The Cow's Head" as he and Breutzman both tried their hand at creepy mythmaking. While this has been Breutzman's specialty, this kind of setting is a relatively new challenge for Van Sciver. The broadsheet format fits the densely drawn and atmospheric story perfectly. It's about a girl who runs away from home after she thinks her father wants to get rid of her. In the wintry forest, she happens upon an abandoned cabin that has a bit of food in it. A floating, decapitated cow's head asks for food and shelter (hilariously, when asked "who's there", it replied "I am Cow's Head. May I come in?"). The story winds up following a familiar formula: the just and righteous wind up being rewarded for sacrificing all they have because it's the right thing to do. Van Sciver successfully blends elements of horror, fairly tales and humor Van Sciver lays on the hatching and blacks throughout the story but is careful to emphasize facial expressions as well. This is crucial because the audience must be able to sympathize with the lead character, and there's a nice simplicity in the way the characters are designed that contrasts starkly with the dark denseness of the backgrounds.

Slow Graffiti. This is a self-published mini that debuted at last year's SPX, consisting of three short stories and other fragments culled from his sketchbook. I especially liked the first story, which was about a young woman visiting her mom's house for Christmas. She's a classic Van Sciver character: a malcontent, a searcher, someone drifting through life who's waiting for something to anchor herself to. What's interesting is that the character of her brother, a loser still living at home who pisses out the window of his bedroom when he's too drunk to stumble toward the bathroom, is the sort who would have been the main character in a lot of stories of this nature. There's also a transcription of part of a Jim Woodring interview where he details his childhood hallucination, as well as Van Sciver's take on the old Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last". In that last story, Van Sciver has to deal with a surly Bob Dylan stuck in a hole after the apocalypse as well as finding a treasure trove of comics he can't read. There's also a bonus mini sewn into the larger comic about a screenwriter's awful werewolf movie that has the feel of a Dan Clowes story.

"I Don't Hate Your Guts" (published by 2D Cloud). This is one of Van Sciver's periodic daily diary comics. A few things distinguish this from other diary comics: it's in full color, it deals frankly with issues of depression and it also honestly engages the feelings around a blind date that blossoms into a relationship. There's something else interesting about it: it's frequently hilarious. That's especially true with the scenes depicting his job at Panera, where he's surly with his boss and enjoys annoying his coworkers. Whether this is true or exaggerated is beside the point, because reading about Van Sciver telling his coworker about a wave of fire sweeping across the country, burning everything in its way was fantastic. This is also a journal of a working cartoonist, as he describes how difficult it can be to draw after a long day at work. The new romance, with an air of both optimism and nervousness ("This is very important: do you like Bob Dylan?") is wonderfully sweet and a dramatic tonic for Van Sciver's loneliness. There's a relentlessness to Van Sciver's work ethic (as evidenced by his remarkable comics output) that extends to all parts of his life; even when he's depressed and lonely, he keeps going. That's certainly true of this daily comic, which he works hard at coloring to give each page a certain liveliness. He mostly abandons his dense, hatching-heavy style in favor of a more spontaneous style, with his figurework looking more-or-less the same as in his other comics.

The Lizard Laughed (Oily Comics). This fictional story highlights one of the things that Van Sciver is best at: depicting dysfunctional relationships. The kicker here is that it's the story of a non-relationship, as an estranged son calls up his father to tell him he's visiting. There's an almost dull tension in the book as the son arrives, with the father freaking out a bit about it beforehand. Their initial exchanges are almost politely banal, as the father takes the son on a hike. Like some of his other recent comics, there's an interesting contrast between backgrounds and characters; the comic takes place in the insane natural beauty of New Mexico, and Van Sciver does the rock formations justice with his dense but clear renderings--especially since the comic is in black and white. There's what turns out to be a false climax when the son confronts the father about leaving him and his mother so many years ago, an outburst that's rejected by the father. That leads to the real climax, which was certainly a shock in the moment while reading it. Here, the threat and then shrinking from violence is actually more powerful and emotionally devastating than actual violence. It's a restrained and mature storytelling decision that gets at the heart of a lifetime of disappointment.

Weekend For Two. The sequel to his full-color sketchbook collection Weekend Alone, this Tinto Press publication has more short stories, more cover recreations, more sketchbook drawings and more weirdness. In the weirdness category, there's a drawing of the monster Gorgo and a page entitled "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" that depicts a simply-drawn sequence of masturbation. This is another page that feels like an old Dan Clowes bit from Eightball. Then there's "Johnny Cash In A Cave", which is based on a true story about Cash feeling despondent, only it adds in some hilarious commentary from God guiding Cash out of the cave where he intended to die. Body language hasn't always been Van Sciver's strong suit, but he really captures the slumped shoulders and sad overall posture of Cash. "A New Love For An Old" is based on a true story about a man trying to find a lost love in Paris, only to see what looks to be a painting of her in a museum. Turns out this was the daughter of that woman (not his), and they wound up getting married! Van Sciver goes all-out with both cross-hatching and colored pencils in this piece, and it's one of his most visually dazzling. There's a grimly funny story based on a Dave Eggers story, an excellent bit about a stand-up comic getting shorted on his pay and then getting accosted by a belligerent guy at a diner, and a fascinating diary comic about visiting Detroit for a talk. This was interesting because Van Sciver stayed with someone he didn't know, he drove around looking at (and drawing) some of the devastated buildings of Detroit, and because he gave us some insight into his process as a speaker (like getting drunk). Printed on slick enough paper to really absorb his blacks, this is simply a great looking package overall and an interesting document of a young artist's creative process.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Fellow Travelers of Hang Dai Studios

Studios have long been a tradition in the world of comics, from the early sweatshops to more recent space-sharing from mainstream artists. Only in the last decade or so have alt-cartoonists decided to rent work space together as a way of becoming more productive, of getting out of the house and of being with like-minded individuals. Brooklyn's Hang Dai Studios consists of alt-comics veterans like Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld as well as a host of newcomers.

Dean Haspiel's Psychotronic Comix. This is a great sampler of Haspiel's work. He's always been a comics "tweener" in that he's had one foot in the mainstream comics world and one foot firmly in the alt-comics world. That was the case even when mainstream comics wasn't all that interested in his work; he just has a sensibility that's greatly influenced by Jack Kirby as well his mentors, Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin. The comic starts off with a tribute to his collaborator Harvey Pekar, who illustrated one of Pekar's few long-form works in The Quitter. Then there's a Gene Colan-style street level superhero comic featuring an origin story for The Red Hook (which is also a section of Brooklyn). It's stylish and features great character designs.

Then we get an emo-superhero tale in "Tommy Rocket", followed by some superhero silliness with his team A-OK Cool struggling with breakfast as well as fighting on other worlds. This sort of loosely-assembled and plotted work is Haspiel at his best, especially when he introduces color into the equation. It's not unlike the sort of thing that Jim Rugg likes to do, only Rugg is more of a style chameleon than Haspiel, whose trademark exaggerated facial expressions and thickly inked lines always put a stamp on his work.

Haspiel then shifts to autobio, with a strip about an old bar that would come to mean a lot to him, and eventually it was too much for him. Haspiel has a talent for spinning yarns about places that has great significance to him, and this story is told with great economy. There are funny stories about his misadventures with marijuana, a hellish experience with a neighbor who may have been a robot (shot straight from his pencils, giving it a nice sketchy effect) and a story about founding Hang Dai. The quick-hitters work best for Haspiel, especially given his tendency for noirish narrative captions and stylized dialogue. Giving the reader just a hint of where his mind is wandering and then moving on to something else made this a rich reading experience.

The Giant Effect, by C.Cassano. This little fable about a cruel sheep-devouring giant and his eventual downfall is viscerally told, with the giant-flesh-hungry expressions on the sheep being especially effective. The sepia wash and Cassano's thin line add to that mythological feel of the story, while the lettering varies according to the story's needs. This is a clever and effective comic.

The Vagabonds #3, by Josh Neufeld. It's an interesting transition of sorts for Neufeld, who started his career writing stories about his travels around the world and his observations. He's still travelling and observing, but he's doing so in the context of being a comics journalist now. His specialty is on-site interviews that obtain personal experiences from major events. For example, "Superstorm Stories: A Red Hook Family" is all about one family's experience in cleaning up from the storm, focusing on the loss of a lifetime's worth of reading materials. Neufeld uses single-tones for his panels and switches them up as a means of identify time in a story with a hopeful ending.

Neufeld isn't afraid of more nuanced and complicated stories, as "Bahrain: Lines In Ink, Lines In The Sand" indicates. This is one of his best-ever stories, as it details the stories of two friends he made while spending time in the Middle East country as a representative of the U.S. state department. Through their stories, Neufeld details an uprising in that country and how widely opinions varied on who was a terrorist, who was a traitor and who was an activist. There were no easy answers to be had and Neufeld doesn't pretend to have any, preferring to allow each story to make its own case. There are more lighthearted pieces as well, like a page about Turkish tea, another couple of pages detailing his involvement as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan  (this had his most lively, colorful cartooning in the book), and reimagining public education. Neufeld's cartooning has always been more functional than exciting, which befits his tendency to view stories as problems to be solved in order to get across a particular experience. He doesn't have the chops of some other comics journalists, but he gets around that by using a number of different approaches. He might use color in a non-intuitive fashion, might use a minimalist line, might invoke parody or satire in his character designs or might play it totally straight and do naturalistic art and colors. Especially with regard to his journalistic comics, clarity is more important than any other quality, but Neufeld's instincts are always to push the reader just a little bit so as to get across information in a way that will make them remember it. It's good to see him back in comic book form once again, both as a home for a number of comics that originally appeared on the web as well as having an opportunity to do other kinds of short-form experiments.

Hang Dai Studios Comix. This is an anthology from some of the artists who share space in Hang Dai. As such, it's not especially cohesive, given the wide disparity of styles. It's more instructive to read it as a sampler rather than a cohesive statement or expression of an editor's vision, a sampler that reflects a certain point in time for these artists. Christa Cassano's smudgy line and sepia tones really seem to be her trademark at this point, and she's as at ease doing a story about an outcast in the city as she was in drawing a giant being devoured by sheep in her mini. Seth Kushner & Nick Bertozzi's "Schmuck: Raising The Bar" is one of Kushner's semi-autobio comics about meeting up with a past fantasy girl in a bar and the rather ridiculous circumstances that result. Bertozzi's figurework elevates the material, which was appropriately amusing but didn't quite go far enough in either the direction of raunch or laughs. Shiraj Ganguly's "Savior" is a nicely-drawn, silent story about the downside of being a super-champion.

The two real highlights of the comic were quite different. Jess Ruliffson's "Haditha/Katrina" is another one of her interview comics with veterans of recent conflicts. She has a tremendous knack at breathing life into transcripts by way of her sketchy and expressive line and a sense of how to visualize both big and small moments. Gregory Benton's "Teratoma" is a bizarre and colorful story about a creature willing itself into life and encountering a woman who turns its existence around. Kushner, best known as a talented photographer, then provides an account of the studio's evolution and the various artists who ply their trade there. It's a great snapshot of this current studio-related movement in indy comics.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Looking Out, Looking In: Photobooth: A Biography

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Complete Clough On Comics at Cicada

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

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