Friday, July 1, 2016

Catching Up With Hic & Hoc: Tsurumi, Aulisio, Kelley

Hic & Hoc's publication rate has slowed down a bit in the past year or so, but Matt Moses still releases all sorts of interesting comics. Let's take a look at recent work.

Why Would You Do That?, by Andrea Tsurumi. Somewhere between Lisa Hanawalt and Kate Beaton lies the content of this book, though this book is most interesting when Tsurumi focuses on a particular obsession and just runs with it. Early features about how to go to one's local pool and the secret greatness of poodles, feel labored over, pounding an underwritten joke into the ground in the hopes that repetition would make it funny. It's only when Tsurumi abandons more conventional humor and decides to get really word that the book starts to take off. Take "Yup/Nope", for example. It's a hilarious and bizarre satire on the arbitrary nature of sports fandom, or really any kind of competitive activity that creates opposing camps by its very nature. The eccentric and monstrous figures combined with crass consumption and the ways in which fans fostered self-esteem by way of identifying with a group made this story funny, strange and pointed.

A gag where the food photographer for a newspaper is forced to take over as primary news photographer sees Tsurumi at her best, as every single story somehow manages to focus on any food-related images that are nearby. There's a fine line between beating a gag to death and escalating humor through repetition, and Tsurumi here tops herself in image after image. Speaking of food, "Cake Vs Pie" combines the antagonism of "Yup/Nope" with a certain kind of wartime photojournalism, creating visceral and even hilariously disturbing images of various dessert items doing horribly violent things to each other. The scene where a medical surgeon pours out a surgical pan filled with pie fillings is somehow simultaneously heart-breaking and hilarious, due in no small part to Tsurumi's considerable drafting skill. The book gets even better as Tsurumi quotes and illustrates the astoundingly cruel 19th century children's book The Peep Of Day, which reads sort of like a Jack Chick tract, only even meaner. The last big story in the book is the epic "HMTown", which is about growing up as part of a tourist trap town that prides itself on being haunted. It's a funny and sweet meditation on the ways in which the town's "ghosts" provided a memorable upbringing and gave the protagonist a sense of connection that she deeply felt despite her urgent desire to leave as a recent graduate. It was interesting to see Tsurumi pair her wacky imagery and conceptual gags with a more emotional, quiet and thoughtful premise. One gets the sense reading this book that Tsurumi is just getting warmed up as a humorist and storyteller, because it's obvious that she has the chops, delightfully skewed perspective, keen observational eye and clear ambition to continue to evolve as a humorist and storyteller.

Fedor, by Patt Kelley. This is a bit of historical fiction about Fedor Jeftichew, aka Jojo the Dog Faced Boy, who was one of the world's most famous and wealthy circus freaks. In sepia tones that ground the story in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and character design similar to that of Jay Howell (most famous for the character design of Bob's Burgers), Kelley spins a lovely and heartbreaking romance about Fedor and Helena, whom he met when he was a young man in the circus. The daughter of the bearded lady and the scaly man, she immediately fell for the young man who had a condition that caused him to be entirely covered in thick hair. What's clever about this comic is the way that Kelley jumps back and forth in time to create mystery, tension and slowly unravel a long-simmering conflict. Kelley introduces the couple in 1904 as simply a man and a woman meeting up again after a long time; it takes a few pages before it's obvious that the young man is a "Jojo" who had shaved his face. We then go back twenty years to when they met, in a fascinating section that establishes Fedor as a star, a sensitive young man, and a potential target for belligerent townies. It establishes Helena as a young woman with a strong sense of self but an indeterminate sense of purpose who is fiercely protective of those she loves. From there, we continue to flip back and forth in time as we see them splitting apart and meeting up again over the years, with neither willing to do what it took to really be together. Kelley perceptively guts romance without realism or true commitment, as Helena at one point takes him to task for loving the idea of her and not the actual person, and for caring more about his Jojo persona than her. The lengths that Fedor goes to in the end to prove his devotion provide an excellent final twist that takes advantage of real life events and reimagines them. Kelley backs up his time-jumping with panel design that seems to intentionally avoid any kind of consistent grid pattern, which keeps the reader off-balance while whipping them through memory after memory at a dizzying pace. There's a sweetness to the proceedings that takes it for granted that the couple saw past their obvious physical extremes and instead focuses on the ways in which their bodies were exploited for pay and how this kept them apart for so long. Fedor is about learning to be real and understanding & acknowledging the factors that keep people apart. 

Infinite Bowman and Xeno Kaiju, by Pat Aulisio. Aulisio uses a variation of the Brian Chippendale/Mat Brinkman style in depicting monsters investigating an environment, often with a layer of deliberately crude humor thrown on top. He also looks to work big, with as many splash pages as possible so he's able to cram as much detail as possible into his page. Xeno Kaiju was published as an oversized, 12 x 17 broadsheet to maximize the impact of his images. The title roughly translates to "alien giant monster", with kaiju being a type of film genre originating in Japan where a monster would attack humanity. Obviously, Godzilla is the most familiar example, and it's no accident that the monster in this story resembles the fire-breathing, giant lizard. The key to reading Aulisio's comics is that for all their scribbly clutter and lack of flow, the artist only has one or two images on each page that the reader needs to focus on. The rest is all noise or decoration, which one can study or ignore, because they have little importance to the overall story. On each of the pages here, the only thing the reader needs to pay attention to is the monster's egg that crashes to earth (seeded by an alien spacecraft) and its eventual transformation into a monster that starts destroying everything around it. The day is saved by a supertank that obliterates it, but in an EC-style twist ending, the final image is that of the alien craft launching six more monster eggs. The big format was essential in getting across the massive scale of the creature and its destruction, as well as enjoying the visceral pleasures that monster movies and comics bring.

Infinite Bowman has Aulisio writing about the further adventures of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Dave Bowman, the astronaut who survived the murderous HAL-9000 computer and was taken by a mysterious monolith and rapidly evolved. In the original story, Bowman becomes a godlike Starchild. Aulisio imagines something quite different, as Bowman is sent to another dimension, meets up with Kirby-like space gods who help him conquer his new world, goes to the earth of the future and winds up in hell, where he stirs up a rebellion. In essence, every panel in the book is designed in the same way that Xeno Kaiju is: despite there being a lot of visual "noise", the reader is always pointed to a single, defining image or pair of images. Aulisio fuses a hyper-violent, relentlessly weird set of images with what is basically dick joke humor. It's the essence of the book's humor: the supposedly advanced space gods seem to have no agenda other than conquest and destruction, and their chosen one is a boorish brute who is making his campaign as their avatar into his personal mission of revenge against anyone or anything that ever slighted him. Aulisio's visual approach changes slightly as the book proceeds, leaning away from the ultra-cluttered look and instead started to strip away scenes to their essentials. Aulisio's aesthetic can be wearying after a while, but he changes things up just enough to make this a consistently amusing read. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Foxing Reprints #4: Olga Volozova

The Golem of Gabirol, by Olga Volozova. This comic was one of the first published by Sparkplug after the death of Dylan Williams, and the discovery of a talent like Olga Volozova's is a testament to Williams' eye for comics that are unusual, intensely personal and poetic. Her The Golem of Gabirol is based on "the legends around the name of the Hebrew poet, scholar, Kabbalist Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who lived in Moorish Spain in the 11th century C.E.". It's a powerful story about a young woman sent to stay with her uncle, and the unusual Reb Solomon that she meets. It's a story about the intersection between words and reality done in what I call the "immersive" style of comics, wherein text merges with image for both decorative and narrative purposes and there's almost no negative space on the page. In a story where Solomon creates a "golem" version of the protagonist, Zuleicha, that intersection becomes all the more powerful, because golems are created out of clay and brought to life thanks to words that are written on their foreheads. 

Volozova digs deep into folklore to tell a story about the love triangle between Zuleicha, the facially disfigured Reb Solomon, and Zuleicha's cousin Nusret, who falls in love with her and marries her. There's a magnificent page early in the book where a speech by Solomon that claims that "letters are the elements that God created the world with" makes up the tree that she and Solomon happen to be sitting under. It's a transformative moment for her, because it makes her lose her fear of death while simultaneously imparting her with a thirst to understand poetry as the building block of creation. Solomon creates the golem (with Zuleicha's features) when Zuleicha gets married, which leads to him fleeing for suspicion of using dark magic. From there, the book becomes a journey for Zuleicha, who can see the fabled "old kings" of the earth who preceded Adam. In Volozova's immersive style, the spirit world and its manifestations (including the old kings) appear where negative space might appear in another comic. Like Zuleicha, the reader is allowed to see what is unseen by others, a disorienting technique that takes some getting used to. Indeed, most immersive books fairly demand that the reader approach them on the book's own terms or not at all. 

Tragedy strikes in the end, as Zuleicha loses both Solomon and her jealous husband. She manages to go unscathed in a sense, even after she has obtained forbidden knowledge and awareness of history and how the world truly is. She is left with the question of why Solomon eventually chose to break his golem and wonders whom he loved more--her or the golem? As to the latter, she's asked a question in return: whom did Adam love more, Eve or Lilith (who was cast out of paradise)? As to the former, she understands that "why" is the wrong question to ask. She believes he would have said "We are all made of words and need to have our stories told"; in essence, every human being is their own sentient story. In the case of his golem, she was in danger of being possessed by the ruler of the city instead of having any kind of free will of her own, of having any ability to tell her own story. In a sense, she was a cautionary version of Zuleicha herself, who as a woman had little in the way of rights or freedoms. That she wound up relatively free was largely due to her own strong sense of her personal narrative while managing to evade being overly molded and shaped by external architects. For Volozova herself (who dedicated the book to her late husband, who was also a rabbi), The Golem of Gabirol represents her own attempt to create life using text., in order to honor an old legend, to establish a memorial for her husband and to construct a feminist narrative where she builds a creative space for herself and Zuleicha, word by word.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mini-Anthologies: What's Your Sign, Girl?, Bad Boyfriends, Trailer Blaze

What's Your Sign, Girl? This is the latest ambitious anthology from Rob Kirby, who as per usual invited a fascinating collection of artists to contribute to this specifically limited comic. Kirby has an uncanny sense of how to assemble his line-ups, which is a tribute to his skills as a networker and editor in order to have a wide array of artists to choose from as well as an idea of who would fit in best with a particular theme. This time around, the theme is the zodiac, and each sign in the comic is represented by a different cartoonist. Each cartoonist has a different level of knowledge and/or belief in their celestial sign, which is one of the elements that makes it so interesting. Like many, my interest is a passing one, finding it interesting to think about but not necessarily putting much stock into it. That point of view is shared by a number of cartoonists in the book, but they all find different ways to express it. Others talk about their signs and how they seem to relate directly to their personalities and lives. That's true of Delaine Derry Green, for example, rattling off her Aries traits in her upbeat, stripped-down style. Whit Taylor takes on her Gemini sign in a similar manner, but only Green's white-on-black, cluttered approach, Taylor prefers a more wide-open design and clarity above all else. She really gets at the duality of this sign, and depicts the internal struggle of feeling like two contradictory people. Taylor does this with a great deal of wit, as either her illustrations or the captions/dialogue for same all have amusing gags.

Tyler Cohen and Kirby himself talk about their difficulties accepting their own signs, which are Capricorn and Virgo, respectively. For Cohen, a big part of that resistance was related to the sexist and patriarchal "reading" that her sign was given by a famous astrology book. Upon getting a professional reading, she kept in mind what it said regarding her future, and it landed some pretty solid hits. Her vowing to "keep walking sideways" is a perfect metaphor for how she as a crab navigates life. Kirby's strip is typically chatty and upbeat, with that rubbery quality to his line giving every character a little extra bounce. For Kirby, being a Virgo means being fussy, a worker, and an analyzer, lacking the dreamier or more visionary quality of other signs. While he identifies with these labels to an extent, it seems like for him the Zodiac hits certain surface qualities but can't cover everything, as one's individual qualities always stand out.

Cara Bean and Eric Kostiuk Williams both embraced their signs fully as they encountered the animal forms of their signs in their stories. Bean gets advice from a Leo that comes out of the clouds to lead the pack but to be careful how one's actions are interpreted. Williams drew a psychedelic, ritualistic story about how Scorpio came to fully adopt and prepare him as one of its own: an enigmatic, bold, ambitious searcher. The density and mystical quality of Williams' story sticks out in this anthology, as most of the guests opted to to keep things simpler.

Marnie Galloway and Rick Worley flat-out reject the validity of the zodiac while still sympathizing with those who find it useful. Worley, using his typical anthropomorphic approach, turns the strip over to his severe OCD and contextualizes it as an attempt to make order and balance out of chaos--which winds up being a typical Libra trait. Galloway is an atheist with a degree in philosophy, but she came from a religious background where she tried to fit in. She was struck by the essential core of existentialism--that we one day will cease to exist-- and haunted by it until she realized that because death was unknowable, the only thing we can know is life. Thus, focusing on our day-to-day lives is the only thing we can do to make them better in this regard. Religion and astrology are simply attempts at making our lives easier to understand. This remarks comes as part of a conversation with a person who's devoted to the Zodiac, and after making her final proclamation, her friend rattles off a bunch of Galloway's character traits and declares "You are such a Pisces!", to which Galloway hilariously draws herself grimacing. Galloway's thin, graceful line and her unerring sense of how and when to use negative space gives the comic elaborate decorative qualities as well as her own narrative concerns.

Dan Mazur talks about having his own chart done and feeling ambivalent about it. On the one hand, he felt like the chart was sometimes contradictory (both selfish and generous?) and designed to flatter its recipient. On the other, he saw its value in providing a structure, framework and even measuring stick. Aron Nels Steinke related a funny anecdote where his Aries wife helped him break out of his typical, rigid Aquarian behavior. Kevin Budnik cleverly overlaid text from an astrology book with a header describing particular Taurean character traits (stubborn, independent, practical, fearing of change, etc.) underneath each panel on each page. That allowed him to create an entire narrative that showed how each descriptor fit his life without it feeling forced or artificial. Budnik's skill as a diarist is really on display here, as his different formal approaches to doing autobio comics made him an ideal fit for the anthology. Speaking of well-suited, Annie Murphy is once again an anthology MVP with a fascinating, thorough and well-researched history of her sign of Capricorn. Murphy's greatest skill as a writer is connecting historical data with her personal experiences. Going back into mythology for the origin of Capricorn's nature as a goat-fish, she makes connections with the god Pan and concepts like pantheism and pansexuality. It's not just that Capricorns have a number of contradictory traits (happy/sad, driven/playful, earth/water) that must be justified, but rather that the contradictions themselves are illusory. Murphy notes that Capricorns must understand that it's OK to be more than one thing at the same time and accept this rather than resist it. Working with a white-on-black setting, there's a richness to the images that Murphy chooses that make it easy to understand why she was so successful as one of the creators The Collective Tarot. Like Budnik with autobio, talking about symbols in a meaningful way is entirely in Murphy's wheelhouse. Kirby's ability to pick out cartoonists who would work well with the material makes this perhaps his best small press anthology to date.

Trailer Blaze. Spearheaded by Kelly Froh & Eroyn Franklin, this anthology neatly demonstrates just how deep a bench there is for cartoonists in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular. This anthology is a snapshot of some of the work done at an all-women comics residency called Trailer Blaze, organized by Seattle's indispensable Short Run festival. About a dozen women went to the Sou'Wester trailer park and lodge for around a week. One of the things that stuck out in this anthology is that this arrangement not only gave the cartoonists a chance to bond and share ideas, but it also gave them an equal amount of time for solitude out in nature. Liz Prince, in her diary comics included here, discusses how long walks centered her and made her better company, especially when conflict was concerned. For Robyn Jordan, the week gave her an opportunity to work on her watercolors, with the nearby beach serving as inspiration. Megan Kelso drew portraits of her and her friends at a restaurant, posing them so as to look similar to an old photograph of a group eating and drinking there. Janelle Hessig was her usual wacky self, drawing a hilarious take on the old joke "Everyone is getting laid except for you." While Kelly Froh zeroed in a couple of images and blew them up, Emilie Bess and Gillian Rhodes created what were essentially lists of interesting or funny details about their experience. Finally, Sarah Leavitt did a manifesto about finding ways to work around writer's block and other delays by working slowly and steadily every day, seeking out new inspirations and learning how to finish small tasks and celebrate them. I'll be curious to see if the residency spawned more expansive work later in the future, but this mini served as an advertisement for the experience as much as it did a working diary.

Bad Boyfriends. Edited by Laura Lannes, this is a powerful collection of stories of survival. What's really remarkable about it is how well it stands up as a work of art, not just as a work of personal expression. From decorative touches like the hand-stenciled cover and gold cardstock underlay to the large variety of visual approaches the artists used, every woman in this book contributed something remarkable. Celine Loup's art on a story from an anonymous writer makes uses negative space to create some sharp images, especially since the woman in the story was dark-skinned and her abuser was quite pale. The panel-to-panel transitions were especially devastating, as she felt shame when she orgasmed after he forced herself on her in their last encounter. Even the lettering contributed to that feeling of being shattered, which was later contrasted against her grim, silent resolve. Hazel Newlevant took a different tact; rather than recall the entirety of the relationship with her ex, she instead noted one particular incident that not only encapsulated her feelings about being used but also revealed how little her ex understood her feelings.

Lannes takes a minimalist approach in not only recalling the details of her abusive relationship, but other events that primed her for such abuse. Her use of negative space to represent the depth of her pain and astonishment is especially stark. Julia Gfroerer's two-page spread depicting the nine levels of hell a la Dante is especially devastating, as she turns the horrifying details of her abuse into the events experienced at each level. Her abuser's destruction of her art is an especially grim detail. Hannah Kaplan's story, which also has an anonymous writer, has a surprisingly warm feel, thanks to the way she used pencil shading effects, something she cuts back on and replaces with negative space as the details of the abuse become more and more stark. While there's a happy ending in that the new relationship is a loving one, the scars of being made to feel worthless and undesirable are still haunting. Mariana Paraizo's epic with 24 panels per page is the most intense and suffocating piece in the book, as she intersperses black-on-white and white-on-black panels in an effort to not only separate day from night, but also to occasionally create gestalt images over the span of two or three panels. The story concerns a charming, lying man who had a way of creating intimacy and then disappearing for long periods of time. Cathy Johnson's text quote about how psychology privileges the point of view of men with an illustration is an interesting interstitial piece. Laerte's piece on having a jealous boyfriend who lied both to himself about his sexuality as well as her closes out the book on an ambiguous note. The comic is important because unless these stories are told, believed and assimilated by both men and women, the abuse will continue.

Along the same lines, Lannes' own The Basil Plant is a modern fable that takes an unexpected turn midway through but really follows through on it. The story begins with Lannes trying to find ways to ameliorate her crippling anxiety. At first, eating a pear outside helped, but when the weather turned, she tried to start a garden. When that failed, she started pulling out her hair, which alienated her roommates and boyfriend. That hair was a signifier of her femininity and female identity, and when she abandoned it, she was abandoned in her relationships. When she realizes that it was her identity as a woman that was causing her anxiety, she became a hulking muscleman with a gigantic penis, and luxuriated in all the benefits that masculinity gave her in a patriarchal society. Concluding "I peed on the world", this beautifully stripped-down and frequently restrained story went all the way over the top at the end, cleverly satirizing the difficulties she faced.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Foxing Reprints #3: Elijah Brubaker

Reich #11, by Elijah Brubaker.  Brubaker is nearing the end of his series about the controversial Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose theories about "orgone radiation" led him to make some radical claims. Brubaker's take on Reich is neither hagiography nor a sensationalist expose'. Indeed, Brubaker tries to be as matter-of-fact as possible regarding the increasingly eccentric nature of Reich's claims, including that aliens were infecting earth with negative orgone energy. The story is told through Reich's eyes and experiences, but this also includes his failings as a human. Brubaker hammers home Reich's hypocrisy regarding his jealousy toward a lover that he accused of cheating on him. His free love ideas didn't seem to apply to those whom he viewed possessively. His absolutist and almost cultish demand for belief from his colleagues led him to alienate many former friends and supporters.

In this issue, the reader is introduced to the beginning of the end for Reich. The Food & Drug Administration was coming down hard on him, a process that would eventually see Reich sent to prison and reams of research destroyed. However, it's hard to have much sympathy for Reich at the beginning of the story, as he once again demands that his ex-lover admit to an affair, and she once again denies it before he hits her. For a man whose position with regard to so many issues was feminist in a manner that was way ahead of its time, Brubaker presents this act as the ultimate form of betrayal and hypocrisy. It's portrayed partly in silhouette, with Reich's arm stretched out almost casually. The brutishness of the act is contrasted with just how easy it was for Reich to descend to that level.

One by one, his friends, followers and family start to leave. There's yet another revealing scene where he meets by chance the widow of the man he thought was having an affair with his ex-lover. When she invites him over for a picnic, they each have different things on their mind. For Reich, he anticipates a sexual encounter. For the widow of modest means, it's a chance to ask Reich for money, which he flatly declines. It's yet another example of the almost casual cruelty of which he was capable. 

The issue ends with Reich in Washington, trying to attach himself romantically to a younger woman. The final scene is with his beloved son Peter in a hotel room, as Reich first engages in orgone-related jargon with his son and then confesses that he might have to take his own life if men come "to take me away in chains". For the first time, he completely breaks down as his son tries to comfort him. It's one of the rare scenes where Reich shows vulnerability as a human being rather than attempt to portray himself as being above others.

Brubaker's shadowy, sketchy and angular style is a deft match for the bizarre world of Reich. There's an almost haunting, static quality in each of the panels, even when there is movement involved. Brubaker wants the reader to focus in on each character's body language in each panel as a counter-point to the dialogue. The sketchiness of the line allows the reader to focus on the expressionistic qualities of the character design, and the extensive use of shadow effects contributes to the downbeat mood of the comic. There will likely be a couple of more issues before Brubaker wraps up the series and likely collects it. Reich is one of the more impressive feats of comics biography that I've read and certainly the most interesting since Chester Brown's Lous Riel, which was obviously a huge influence. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Saying Good-Bye To Sparkplug: Lee, Sakugawa, Smith, Cardini

Nearly five years after the death of Dylan Williams, his eventual successor Virginia Paine has decided to shutter Sparkplug Comic Books. In the interim, she published a few projects that had been ongoing and introduced the world to some interesting young cartoonists. She did a fine job of continuing in Williams' memory by being true to her own aesthetic and interests and published some strong work as a result. This column will review the last few original publications from Sparkplug.

Vortex, by William Cardini. This is the collected edition of Cardini's interesting four-issue series that was more about texture and shape than it was character and story. That's OK, because watching Cardini cycle through his Mat Brinkman influence by drawing the entire thing on a computer asks the reader to consider each image as an image, both in terms of its over gestalt as well as its individual component. He works so big that the dots in the zip-a-tone effects he uses are enormous, reminding the reader that what they're seeing is computer-generated. That trick offers a layer of humor to the proceedings, as the story's protagonist (The Miizzzard) at one point bites the arm of an opponent and eats it. It's more like a video game effect than the more visceral experience one might get from the "warmer" environments that Brinkman creates. The story follows the galactic traveler The Miizzzard to a planet of living weapons who beg him to destroy their central control circuitry. That's pretty much the entire plot, as the Miizzzard has to go through a series of trials that attack his sense of reality and identity, expressed by Cardini as a series of wavy lines, repeated patterns and psychedelic effects. Here, the artificiality of the line and the "cold" effect the reader feels actually advances the narrative, as the Miizzzard must break through the illusion. Only the Miizzzard is continuously depicted with a thick, defining line, befitting his status as the most solid, "real" character in the story. Most of the other characters are grey-scaled blobs without that sort of defining line, which allows them to melt and warp on the page. Above all else, what this shares most with the Fort Thunder aesthetic is that this comic is an exploration of space and environment, only Cardini finds a way to depict its total otherness and alien qualities rather than warmly taking the reader on a tour. Only the Miizzzard stands in for the reader, and he's as baffled by what he sees and experiences as the reader is. The ultimate result is Cardini's most ambitious, eccentric and amusing project to date.

Ce/Ze, by Suzette Smith. This is a fascinating, unsettling story about two high school girls who become friends and share the same dream: of one of the girls dying in a girl accident. They come to believe that they're aliens who have lived past lives, which informs their friendship, their relationships with other friends and how they act around their parents. I love the way that Smith draws each figure: Amelia wears huge, almost bug-eyed glasses, while Honey's appearance is almost always deadpan. They both have a sort of alien, almost reptilian, presence at times. Smith strikes a balance between a portrayal of the ways in which friends can develop their own language and identity apart from societal approval and understanding with a genuinely fantastical story that unspools itself, bit by bit. That said, Smith always leaves a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. Are Honey and Amelia really remembering their past lives together? Did Amelia get murdered several times in different lives by a male, kingly figure? Are they aliens, fairies, or something else? Will the outcome be different this time around? Is there fantasy relationship a sublimation of their attraction for each other? Smith provides no easy answers, but does create fascinating connections between the characters. Whether or not those connections are real, synchronicity or pure fantasy is left for the reader to decide, but there are certainly enough clues to tantalize the reader. The muddy, murky drawings in pages with panel-less borders adds to the dreamy quality of this comic, as Smith wants a slightly strange, disorienting visual experience for the reader.

Bird Girl And Fox Girl, by Yumi Sakugawa. I was greatly impressed by Sakagawa's recent Ikebana, and one can see the leap she made from this comic to her more recent work. This comic is a sort of modern fable that begins with the relationship between the titular characters being severed, and the rest of the comic is the fallout from these events. We never learn why they were torn apart, only that it scarred both of them so deeply that they literally became different beings as a result. Bird Girl got an operation that turned her into a human, got married and had kids, which is as clear a metaphor for identity self-erasure as I've ever seen. Fox Girl becomes a model who specializes in dangerous settings, a drive toward self-destruction by way of conforming to gender stereotypes. The two eventually find their conventional lives fragmenting, leading them both back to the desert from whence they came, but their reunion only recapitulates the pain they felt. Sakugawa's voice and point of view are sharp and bold, but her line isn't quite as refined as it would later become. Simply put, there are a lot of drawings that just don't work in the context that she's trying to create, and it's distracting. An example is a drawing of Fox Girl wearing a mask, only her mouth is clearly drawn too far to the right on her face. There are a lot of images that are clearly meant to be singular and striking, but they just don't have the impact that was perhaps intended. Still, this is a fascinating comic from a thematic point of view, and Sakugawa's deadpan, almost cold narrative voice is an interesting contrast from the actual events of the comic.

A Wretch Like Me, by Ebin Lee. This is not a narrative, per se, in the sense that there's not a linear narrative on a page to page basis. However, there's no question that Lee is telling a powerful story in these pages. The subtitle of this comic is "Sad/Black/Ugly/Queer", and it's all about the ways in which feeling like the Other in a space dominated by the dominant hierarchy can be so devastatingly alienating. I'm not sure if the dysphoria that Lee refers to is gender dysphoria (feeling like one is in entirely the wrong body) or a more generalized dysphoria, a general dissatisfaction with one's own skin in general. Regardless, the above image encapsulates that sense of frustration that one can't simply choose another body to take off the rack. Another theme that Lee elucidates is being black in white spaces, with a nightmarish image of hands tearing at his head with the caption of "Can I touch your hair" indicating the way that sort of microaggression can be amplified in an unsafe space. There are images of Lee's face melting as he looks in the mirror, another where Lee is trying to rescue a black shadow of himself. Lee's images are often so dense that they appear to be etched, like in a two page spread of a "mammy" on one page and a crying face eating watermelon on the next, captioned "Trapped in the white imagination". Another page notes the pain of invisibility (erase of race, gender, and identity) with the danger of visibility in a public space. This comic is a howl of truth, flipping from painful image to painful image almost like a fever dream.

Friday, June 24, 2016

More Aussie Comics: Squires, Gooch, Linton

Here are a few more comics the esteemed Matt Emery put into my hands at SPX 2014 from Australia:

Snasnakes, by James Squires. This is a series of one to two page gags that usually wind up with something horrible happening in the punchline The cover image, of a man floating in a raft floating on an ocean of snakes, captures precisely the sort of nightmarish imagery that Squires seems to gleefully enjoying depicting. In one gag, when a wife tells a husband he's driving "to fast", he mocks her for her spelling error (the fact that she said it aloud but that he picked up on it is part of the gag, since he "saw" her mistake) until he smashes into a tree, killing them both. Squires' simple line makes the idea of horror more important than actually drawing horrible things; indeed, even his drawings of snakes are simple and even cute. That's why a strip like "Blood Snake" is so effective; the snake looks cute as one of the pith-hat wearing, bearded English explorers tries to face the harmless-looking animal down until it spits red blood (with color appearing for the first and only time in the comic) in his face. Squires loves the absurd (the explorers start to make out with a deadly "Most Venom Snake" in one strip) and jokes about taxonomy ("Secret Box", featuring that title over a box, gets turned into "Thumbtack Box" at the end when someone spills the beans). He also just enjoys being randomly mean to his characters, with two separate injury-to-the-eye motif gags as a way of escalating an expected injury into something truly horrific. Squires is one of the funnier cartoonists I've encountered in quite some time, and I was left wanting more.
Lucki Aki in the New Stone Age, by Barry Linton. This comic was originally done in 2003 (and reprinted by Emery's Pikitia Press in 2014), and Linton's been drawing comics since the 1970s. With Robert Crumb as an obvious influence, Linton's account of a boy and his aunt in a sea voyage during the neolithic era is bursting with energy and joy. Linton's technical skill, with heavy hatching and cross-hatching and working in tiny details, doesn't conflict with his proficiency as a cartoonist, with lively character design, innovative page layouts and fluid panel-to-panel transitions. I enjoyed Linton's approach to approximating the patois and slang of different islanders using EC Segar style-"I yams", as well as the lettering that was altered just slightly to give off a "stone-age" appearance. Linton is an ace at drawing boats, and his jagged panel design during a thunderstorm subtly helped create a sense of being tossed to and fro for the reader. There's a pleasant, meandering quality to the story, where Linton frames each page with a small title to indicate that they're units that can be processed independently--not unlike a Sunday comic strip that picks up the story from week to week. That story structure gives the comic an episodic feel, even if Linton doesn't use that form in order to create suspense, but rather to emphasize the joy of discovery, exploration and sharing of knowledge. There are other fascinating details, like each island's culture being matrilineal, and in fact often setting up the "mother" of the village as a sort of goddess. I've never read anything quite like this: a fully-formed take on an underexplored part of history with colorful characters and well-researched details.

Gasoline Eye Drops and Hidden, by Chris Gooch. Gooch is a young cartoonist (twenty when these were published two years ago) with a tremendous amount of promise. It took me a while to figure out whose comics his remind me of, at least in terms of form, and it's Paul Grist. The character design is similar, as is their extensive use of negative space. However, Grist is a genre cartoonist (albeit a highly quirky one), and Gooch goes in rather different directions. That said, Hidden is certainly a genre comic of a kind (horror), one of the rare genres that Grist hasn't tried. It starts off as a police procedural, as a young man is being questioned for what apparently is a murder. Gooch uses a sickening yellow wash on top of mostly employing a 2 x 2 grid, giving the comic a claustrophobic, unsettling quality even before considering its contents. The young man tells his story in flashbacks, as he's a filmmaker who was making a sort of porn/horror mash-up in a remote location. There was tension on the set, and after a sex scene, things started to get weird as creatures descended on the set, and they were hungry. Gooch's character design on these one-eyed, toothy and shadowy humanoids is especially creepy. The story turns out to be a deconstruction of horror tropes, because after he manages to escape the creatures, he now starts to understand that his ordeal has only truly begun. Gooch is equally adept in building suspense and applying some jaw-dropping gore in equal measures, though the latter is only used sparingly and in an almost deadpan manner.

Gasoline Eye Drops is a horror comic of a different kind, as it follows a highly dysfunctional love triangle to its uneasy conclusion. What's interesting is that the story is told from the point of view of a young woman named Sarah's new boyfriend, and we are privy to his deepest, darkest thoughts as we see him talk to a therapist. We only see Sarah's point of view through him, and we never actually see the third member of the triangle, Sarah's ex who constantly tries to manipulate her through suicide threats. Indeed, she kept word of her relationship with her new boyfriend secret for fear of upsetting her old boyfriend for a long time. While Simon, the new boyfriend, keeps quiet about his concerns and later his extreme feelings of anger toward Isaac, the old boyfriend, Those feelings escalate throughout the story, but he's reluctant to let her know just how angry or order her to stop talking to him, even though that's what he desperately wants to do. His feelings of beating up and then later killing Isaac keep growing, spreading into his dreams. One gets the sense that admitting these feelings out loud to his therapist is the only thing that keeps him sane, in contrast to Isaac, who has resisted therapy and has no one to talk to. The book's climax, when Isaac finally hurts Sarah off-panel, features her calling Simon for help in picking her up. The weird ambiguity of the situation (who was the woman who was with her?) finally leads Simon to snarl that she's to never see him again, to which she snarls back "Of course I'm never seeing him again." There is certainly a sense in which Sarah has used Simon, just as she let Isaac use her, and one gets the sense that the happy ending we see is highly temporary. Gooch implies that neither Sarah nor Simon are stable enough individuals to make the relationship work, and it's clear that the cycle could very well repeat. The dream scenes where Simon attacks Isaac are visceral and disturbing, as we see Simon's id totally unleashed. The scene where Simon and Sarah snarl at each other features their faces twisting into ugly, multi-lined masks. The orange wash that Gooch uses helps create a feeling of unease in the reader; it's the color of low-level alarm. The most clever device of the comic is that the reader is put into the place of Simon's therapist or roommate: involved observers who have no influence on what will happen, but are horrified nonetheless. The emotions and situations here are over the top at times, which is not surprising for a young cartoonist, but Gooch's skill in making everything feel authentic shows that he's one to watch.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Foxing Reprints #2: Whit Taylor

Continuing my reprints of columns I did for Foxing Quarterly:

The Anthropologists, by Whit Taylor (Sparkplug Comic Books).  Virginia Paine was Dylan Williams' employee at Sparkplug Comic Books and is now the publisher after his death in 2011. After a long period of adjustment where Paine co-published along with Tom Neely and Emily Nilsson, Paine is now in the process of putting her own stamp on one of the more eclectic and unpredictable catalogs in comics. Apropos with regard to cost and her sphere of interests, she's launched a Sparkplug Minis Series as an official complement to some other recent, shorter releases. 

Sparkplug has long been a place where young cartoonists are chosen because of their promise and given the opportunity to become better in the public eye. As such, Whit Taylor's The Anthropologists is a perfect selection for this series. The comic features Taylor's autobio stand-in character Wren during her college days, when she traveled to western Australia as part of a study abroad program. The idea was to study and talk to Aboriginal people as part of their cultural anthropology program. Paired with a hyperenthusiastic fellow American student and filled with ambivalence about the trip, Wren's anxiety is really just an expression of her own cultural, racial and identity issues in microcosm.  

In such an experience, one might expect to become close to a fellow student in such a situation. Instead, Taylor shows Wren and the other student, Miriam, as being opposites in nearly every imaginable way. However, their contrasts become more complicated and interesting than simply overly enthusiastic vs ambivalent. Wren is ambivalent about being shown an Aboriginal sacred space as though it were a vacation destination and is even more uncomfortable with getting a photo taken with a wanjina (an Aboriginal symbol). Miriam was constantly peppering people with inappropriate questions and was clearly bothered that Wren didn't share her enthusiasm. In the parlance of the comic, Miriam was comfortable treating the Other as the other, meaning that as an anthropologist she was distinct and separate from her subjects. On the other hand, Miriam wouldn't commit to doing things that actual Aborigines would do: going crabbing, eating whelks, hunting lizards, etc. This was partly because she was a vegan, but the implication here was that these activities were too immersive for her. 

For Wren, doing these things gave her a chance to talk to people in the context of their daily lives, ask them their feelings about how Aborigines are treated, and generally step outside of the comfort of her daily life. When she meets some young women at a party and they say she looks like "a Broome girl", this means that she looks like she's of mixed race, just like many people in the city of Broome. Taylor suggests that it was easy and natural for Miriam to draw a line between herself and the Other, given that she was white. For Wren, who noted that she was racially mixed, drawing that line was much more difficult, especially given the history of racial oppression both in the US and Australia. At the same time, the struggles she had in the book reflected the difficulty she had identifying with any group in particular. 

Taylor gets at these revelations with a great deal of subtlety and humor. Even though Miriam is kind of a ridiculous character and acts as comic relief for the reader, Taylor still treats her with some degree of sympathy. She's depicted as a person, not the embodiment of every American cliche'. Wren's struggles are similarly presented as neither the correct nor incorrect point of view. Instead, it's all about learning to ask the right questions about oneself and the world. Most of all, the way that their guide, Terry, is depicted is fascinating. He's clearly reserved about revealing details about himself, something that Wren respects but Miriam doesn't. He's as much the Other as the Aborigines they meet. 

Taylor's line is crude but functional. Her character design is solid (the way she draws upturned mouths is especially effective in expressing mood) and she has a decent grasp of body language. There were times when it seemed like she wanted the reader to get a sense of the environment, but her chops weren't quite up to drawing lush background scenes. Instead, Taylor stuck to what she could comfortably draw and focused more on character, concepts and nuance. Taylor continues to be an excellent writer and smart cartoonist who is becoming increasingly proficient in working around her limitations as a draftsman to create sophisticated and contemplative work.