Friday, October 21, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Blammo #9

Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver. It was interesting re-reading Van Sciver's recent comics in writing reviews of them, because while they are quite good, his work in Blammo #9 is noticeably better. This dense, 40+ page collection of recent works is as satisfying a comic as I've ever read. Van Sciver's dark sense of humor is on full display here, but it's his willingness not so much to be self-deprecating but to doubt himself and everything around him that makes this such a compelling read. For Van Sciver, serious character work and gags can go hand-in-hand. He applies movie parodies to his own life and yet manages to make powerful and honest revelations about himself in the process. He uses long-form improv techniques in the form of unexpected callbacks. In the midst of critiquing his own lack of craft, he unleashes a series of images that are as profoundly beautiful as anything I've ever seen in a comic book. Above all else, there's a sense of a mind that's constantly searching, questioning and seeking. He's a cynic who wants to be believe, but has yet to find anything to believe in.

In this comic, Van Sciver has at last managed to achieve what he set out to do as a cartoonist: tell stories packed with detail like Will Elder and Julie Doucet, overwhelming the reader with the intensity of his work while still retaining narrative clarity. Van Sciver's use of autobio in this issue is fascinating, as he writes about himself in the present day, flashes back to his childhood and later writes a fictionalized version of himself that is nonetheless no less authentic. The time Van Sciver spent in White River Junction at the Center for Cartoon Studies was time he used wisely, as his drawing schools noticeably improved. It's important to understand that Van Sciver didn't want to improve his draftsmanship simply for the sake of creating a flashier style; instead, Van Sciver wanted more control over what he was able to draw in order to draw out certain reactions from his readers through the power of his images. Van Sciver was going after creating a powerful aesthetic reaction in the context of his cartooning, a reaction that's mystical as much as anything else, and he got at that in the first story of the book.

Van Sciver really takes advantage of the periodical nature of his comic by including features like letters pages (including one from Robert Crumb!) and a funny, annotated catalog in the back, including a bonus strip where he looks at a bizarre, "hot" comic that Van Sciver describes as "a thesis project from an art student who wants to fuck New York." The opening and closing pieces answer the question, "Mommy, where do Blammo comics come from?" Van Sciver takes a poke at self-mythologizing in an absurd story about a head without a body that twice winds up setting up variations on the same dopey gag. It's Van Sciver deflating himself by showing that he's still very much a humorist at heart, even as he's greatly expanded his storytelling range.

The first full story is "White River Junction, Vermont". It's based on his experiences as as a fellow at CCS and the ways in which he felt uncomfortable with the students. While Van Sciver isn't afraid to torch some bridges here, this isn't really a bitch session about CCS or the people he met there. Rather, it's a meditation on belief, and the ways in which even the most progressive of people can stereotype others. When he reveals to a group of students at a barbecue that he's an ex-Mormon because they were spreading misinformation about church practices, they aren't exactly convinced by his explanations. That leads to the first of many flashbacks, where Van Sciver is stuck inside the house to study scriptures, but all he wanted was to play outside. Then he saw a strange UFO.

That leads to a hilarious page where he helps a student move, only to have the student say "I consider myself to be all-inclusive and everything, but someone told me that you're Mormon or something?" A frustrated Van Sciver snaps at the person, who then treats Van Sciver as though he were victimized, leading Van Sciver to utter the line "You're just a 30 year old with a wacky top hat who loves teen girl manga. I don't know you..." which leads to the student flinching and replying "You're assaulting me with your microaggressions!" Van Sciver here is frustrated precisely because the supposedly all-inclusive CCS environment is playing "Telephone" with his story and making precisely the kind of assumptions that are harmful. If this had been an early Dan Clowes story, the nastiness of that exchange would have stood as the story's climax. Instead, it leads to soul-searching on Van Sciver's part, as he realizes that he overreacted and thinks back to when his mother told him there was no hell, and how hard it was for him to shake that concept.

Van Sciver is called in by a school official, who received a complaint that Van Sciver was intolerant and had "negativity toward manga and expressive clothing". Once again, Van Sciver's inherent  introverted character worked against him, and the students there ran with misconceptions. Van Sciver goes back and forth to the past and back to the present, ruminating on the other artifacts being a Mormon left on his life, like a desire to wait til marriage to lose his virginity. He also considers his techniques as an artist, honing in on the ways his level of craft improved over the years and the internal debate between continuing to work on sharpening his detail or to simplify. That leads him out to the forest (after yet more difficulties with White River Junction), where he chides himself for drawing terrible trees ("sticks in the ground"), and he starts praying for god to appear to him. It's a beautiful, transcendent moment that adroitly answers his own question regarding the use of detail, as the lush, silent beauty of the forest is expertly rendered by Van Sciver. The final, silent panel represents his mind being stilled at last, if only just for a moment.

There are a number of excellent short pieces that act as palate-cleansers, including true tales from his dad's time hitchhiking out in the desert and pulling a horrible prank on his brother, the decline and fall of his hilarious "19th Century Cartoonist" character, and an adaptation of Aesop's "City Mouse and Country Mouse" fable. The 19th Century Cartoonists represents his broadest use of humor in this issue, even as the feature gets at certain truths about the status of cartoonists in society and how that's changed over time along with the self-delusion of hacks. All of these features are full-formed and thought-provoking and are far from throwaways or space-fillers; as I noted, they serve not just as a quick diversion between the main features, but they work to fully reset the reader's attention each time.

"Little Bomber's Summer Period" may be Van Sciver's single best work of fiction to date. He really steps out of his comfort zone in depicting the lives of "Bomber" and Jenny. Bomber is a security guard at an art museum who's just been left by his girlfriend after he bought a house. He's in therapy in an effort to deal with these issues, which is a smart way for Van Sciver to quickly catch the reader up on the character's problems and challenges. Essentially, his inability to express emotion and his need to put up protective walls leads his therapist to suggest a material way of tearing down those walls, by leaving his front door unlocked at night. Jenny is a graphic designer at the museum who's constantly being dumped on by her boss and ignored by her husband. The two of them are friends who commiserate regarding feeling stuck and helpless.

The story is about that sense of desperation and finding ways out of it. Bomber is inspired to start painting thanks to the story of a fictional artist named James Markinson, an abstract expressionist type who retreated to a cabin in order to clear his head. This was a case of someone badly wanting a myth to be true in order to set up a foundational change for themselves. Jenny winds up quitting her job and leaving her husband, asking Bomber for a place to stay while she figured things out. There's a sweetness to their friendship that never quite turns into romance, but they found ways to bring out the best in each other as friends. Bomber was comfortable enough to open up to her in ways he never did with his ex, while Jenny found an affirming, positive presence in Bomber, something she didn't get elsewhere. They are certainly co-protagonists in this story, with each of their narratives running into each other. The outrageous and funny end of the story is very cleverly presaged by all sorts of incidental clues in the narrative (Van Sciver never wastes a line of dialogue), adding a touch of comedy that's more in the realm of EC Comics than anything else. The final panel actually touches on the first story in the book, as despite everything else that happens, Bomber is clearly starting to see the world in a different way. He's starting to see the world as an artist, in all its beauty and terror, just as Noah in the first story stops and stares at the first, with his understanding forever altered.

The final story, "Comics Festival 2016", is a sequel to the first story in the book and also a very clear homage to the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories. A now-famous Van Sciver is the star of a comics festival, complete with a limo ride from the airport and constant demands on his time from his fans. At the same time, that attention is bittersweet, as his fans tell him they prefer his "earlier, funnier comics" (a bit straight from the film) even as he feels slightly adrift in his career. The UFO from the earlier story comes back and the aliens tell him, when he asks for the meaning of life and if he should become a missionary: "You're not the missionary type. You're a cartoonist. You wanna do mankind a service: write better comics." That's also from the movie, yet Van Sciver cleverly planted this callback earlier in the comic in a seemingly unrelated way. The book-long quest for meaning and that sense of wandering fits neatly into the structure of the parody, giving the story an authentic and emotional spine beyond the simple beats of the gags. The real achievement of this issue of Blammo is the way Van Sciver has managed to blend humor and pathos in equal measure in the same stories, each one supporting the other in unexpected and clever ways. Even the most mean-spirited of jokes is leavened by moments of true empathy, and even the least sympathetic of characters is given a fair shake. It's Van Sciver's clear confidence as a draftsman, cartoonist and storyteller that makes his explorations of self-doubt, faith and belief all the more convincing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Disquiet

Disquiet, by Noah Van Sciver. This is an elegant collection of short stories culled from his own Blammo! series, various anthologies, short one-shots, illustrations and features made just for this book. Designer Keeli McCarthy outdid herself working with Van Sciver, as every aspect of this book is simply beautiful. The quality of the work itself varies, as it's a mix of his better and more recent stories as well as some sillier but still interesting material. That said, Van Sciver does a great job, working with editor Eric Reynolds, of sequencing the stories and interspersing them with interesting interstitial material. The most striking of this sort of material was a series of silhouette head shots of Van Sciver, each one a more fantastic rendering of what's really going on inside of his head: a lush forest, a series of lightning bolts, a rugged farm, a desolate and wind-swept cityscape, a mountain fortress filled with soldiers, and a strange contraption. In many respects, these illustrations and others are a sort of career mile-marker for Van Sciver, demonstrating the ways in which his drawing skills have improved.

Van Sciver has always favored a detail-rich approach to his comics, which made his early comics feel cluttered and messy. Usually, most cartoonists learning on the job figure out they need to simplify and stop over-drawing. Being a cartoonist doesn't mean you need to make every image a representational triumph; instead, what's important is the clarity of the storytelling. Counterintuitively, Van Sciver took the harder road: improving his skill as a draftsman through patience and practice, and then applying what he learned to his storytelling. The story, "The Death Of Elijah Lovejoy" (originally published by 2dcloud), is an example of that kind of learning lab. His first book, The Hypo, saw Van Sciver make a big jump with regard to both storytelling and techniques like his hatching and crosshatching. This story, a sort of companion piece to The Hypo, was essentially a series of drawing problems that Van Sciver tried to solve on every page, as a lynch mob that had killed a black man was now setting their sights on an abolitionist newspaper and its printing press. The story is the greatly outnumbered writers trying to defend themselves at sunset. So Van Sciver balances the colors in the sky against a densely-rendered house, horrific acts of violence on nearly every page, and the grotesquely-rendered participants. He uses a dizzying array of page design techniques, carving up panels at weird angles in order to keep the reader off-balance and fully inserted into the chaos of the event.

Most of the stories in the book combine Van Sciver's expertise in depicting the lives of the abjected, the desperate, the doomed and the delusional with his fascination with twists in the vein of E.C. Comics or The Twilight Zone. "The Lizard Laughed", for example (based in part on Van Sciver's father), is about a man whose son contacts him years after he walked out on his family. Here, Van Sciver uses a false climax (the son confronting the father, only to be brushed off) to set up a darker one (where the son weighs the decision of whether or not to kill his father in his sleep with a gun he had brought with him for just that purpose). The story works because of Van Sciver's unerring ability to balance the mundane aspects of his characters' lives with the unusual thing that happens in each story. "The Cow's Head" is a grimy fairy tale that's true to the unsanitized tradition of violence and punishment inherent in such stories but that's also given a level of absurdity true to Van Sciver's sense of humor. "Down In A Hole" is about a suicidal clown who's been fired from his TV show who falls into a deep hole while exploring a cave, finding a tyrannical society of mole men living below. The final twist, after what appeared to be a heroic escape, makes perfect sense as he realizes he has to accept his punishment. That urge to escape, a thirst for justice or a desire to go back to a simpler time is present in every story in the collection, and Van Sciver rarely grants his characters what they want.

"Punks V. Lizards" represents a merger of Van Sciver's older interests as a cartoonist with his new understanding of how to emotionally modulate a story. Indeed, it's a perfect example of a character wanting to go back to a simpler time when they were happier with other people. "Night Shift" and "Untitled" find Van Sciver experimenting with making women the protagonists of his stories, often in roles that are compelling but also juxtaposed against more colorful characters with far greater problems. Overall, the material in this book is a step above his first collection, Youth Is Wasted. Everything is sharper, smarter, better drawn, more complex and more interesting. Before Van Sciver won his Ignatz, I told him and anyone else who would listen that Van Sciver has had a good an eighteen months as any cartoonist in the world, based on this collection, My Hot Date, Fanta Bukowski and other work. What is obvious, and is evident by my review of tomorrow's entry, is that Van Sciver hasn't come close to peaking yet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: My Hot Date

My Hot Date, by Noah Van Sciver. If Fante Bukowski was a funny lark for Van Sciver, then My Hot Date is a highly focused, excoriating and awkwardly hilarious autobio story. As I noted in my review of Fante Bukowski, Van Sciver understands that punching yourself (done correctly) is an inherently humorous thing to do, and Van Sciver is merciless in mocking his fourteen-year-old self. At the same time, this comic is also a savage critique of the narcissism of youth culture, the emptiness of consumer culture and the desperate trauma that poverty can inflict. While Van Sciver has written plenty of funny stuff before, this comic had me howling in laughter at many of its pages. While the humor certainly takes advantage of young Noah's awkwardness, I found that there's a material difference between this and other kinds of "squirm humor". Squirm humor is drier and usually devoid of empathy; there's a cruelty to it where even if the target is deserving, it can sometimes be almost unbearable to watch or read. This comic, published by Kilgore Books, is at once broader in its sense of humor and also more sympathetic towards its characters--and that includes Noah himself. Sure, he plays his humiliating first date for laughs, but the effect is less "look at that asshole" and more like "look at that poor, naive child." Van Sciver quite deservingly won his first Ignatz Award for this comic.

There's a lot going on underneath the surface of this comic. While it's ostensibly about this particular, humiliating experience, the comic is very much about the dynamics of a family steeped in extreme poverty. Van Sciver sets the stage right away when he notes that his father was long gone and that his mother was trying to raise six kids in a two-bedroom apartment. The second thing that is clear is that Noah had initially been raised Mormon until his mother took him out of the church, which left Noah with little spiritual or cultural guidance other than what was popular or present at the time. That's how he became a skater kid who listened to rap and bands like Korn. Van Sciver is painstakingly honest as to how he talked when he was fourteen: he said things like, "Hold up, dawg" and "Word up, yo." The embarrassing attempts to act tough, like a friend carrying around a butterfly knife, rang oh-so painfully true. The "anatomy of Noah Van Sciver, 1998" page is self-eviscerating to be sure, but the fact that he had to wear his sister's old sneakers and that he had a single pair of sagging pants points once again to the way that any attempt at adolescent self-esteem was simply doomed from the start. The page where he stares into the bathroom mirror and imagines he's Conan the Barbarian is one of the funniest I've ever seen; it's a testament to the self-delusion of the male ego.

Getting back to family dynamics, a friend of Noah has regular, profanity-laced screaming matches with his mother. When it's revealed that Noah's been chatting with a girl on AOL, there's a labyrinth of family issues he has to navigate in order to talk to her, including competing for computer time with his sister Abby and competing for the room with the computer with her sister Amanda (and her boyfriend). That led to Van Sciver describing the sleeping arrangements in the house: the six kids all shared one room. Noah slept on top of a ratty bunk bed that rained down planks on his younger brother, and they both tortured Abby by trying to scare her ("We would keep this up until she cried.") Van Sciver doesn't cry poverty or bemoan his upbringing; rather, the family was simply a part of his narrative's plot mechanics. For example, when he somehow managed to convince the girl he was talking to go on a date, he asked Abby to cut his hair. She agreed, but "only if you smell my breath for 2 minutes", which is exactly the kind of weird thing a sibling would do to another sibling who wanted a favor. When told that using lemon juice would lighten his hair, he did so only to find that he attracted a swarm of bees--another laugh out loud moment in the book. His older brother literally beat him up to the point of tears while he was on the phone with his prospective date.

Naturally, the date quickly went south once the girl he had talked to realized that Noah was younger and scrawnier than she had thought. Of course, the fact that she brought one of her friends along (and she was vicious) didn't make it any less awkward. Van Sciver noted that the date failed "because of who I was. I had somehow sold myself as a higher quality product than I could actually deliver", which was a brutal and telling quote. Not only was that a devastating blow to his self-esteem, he cleverly phrased it in terms of economics; he was a product that he couldn't sell in a culture that he didn't have the resources to buy into.

Visually speaking, Van Sciver has always excelled at drawing compelling and sympathetic grotesques. He truly went to town in this regard in how he drew his family, his friends and especially himself. From distorted faces to overbites to scraggly beards, Van Sciver's characters are simply fun to look at. His fourteen-year-old self, with freckles, ultra-curly hair, glasses and bad teeth, is an absolute triumph from a character design standpoint. Van Sciver's self-caricature dominates every panel he's in because of his eccentricities. What really stands out in this book is the expressive use of color. There are pages where Van Sciver scribbles colors in using colored pencils, and those scribbles (as well as taping down lettering corrections) give the reader a sense of just how handmade this story is. There are pages with incredibly dense cross-hatching that still employ that color scribble that serves almost as a kind of embellishment after taking a closer look. They add depth but also grit, as though the entire world seen through Van Sciver's eyes was hopelessly grim and muddy. The color is entirely in service to the line, though, until right after Noah's date and he's getting a ride home. In a despondent state, Van Sciver draws himself fading out, leaving more abstracted color then line. It's one of many small details that reveals just how much thought Van Sciver puts into every page of his work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski, by Noah Van Sciver. I've been reviewing Noah Van Sciver's work for six years, and I can't think of a single cartoonist who has improved more in the course of following their career. Through sheer hard work and a relentless urge to improve as both writer and draftsman, Van Sciver has become one of the best working cartoonists in the world. The themes and interests that have always driven his work, like crippling loneliness; the lives of outsiders, weirdos and grotesques; lives spinning out of control and a grim but frequently bitterly hilarious sense of fatalism continue to be featured. It's just that Van Sciver has matured as a writer, and he's now much more capable of creating fully-formed characters who are often living in absurd or nightmarish situations. Van Sciver is also a devastating satirist who uses himself as his best target, mining genuine laughs out of hubris, the stink of desperation, arrogance and self-delusion.

Van Sciver is a restless creator, usually working on multiple planned projects at once as well as improvising projects in his sketchbook. That's how one of his funniest projects, Fante Bukowski, came to be. Goofing around on the idea of a pretentious, privileged aspiring writer, he created Fante and started posting pages on the internet. While he played the idea of a guy so deluded that he would change his name to reflect his two favorite hipster authors for laughs, Van Sciver essentially paints him as everything he hates: someone who wants fame but isn't willing to work hard. Fante is a blowhard who takes on the trappings of the starving, bohemian writer, proclaiming his own genius even as he calls his mom up for money.

One thing that I've always liked about Van Sciver's work is that he gives a lot of thought to every detail regarding his comics. He's especially interested in production design, and the design of this book is a pure, hilarious delight. It mimics the cover design, font, shape and paper type of a Bantam Books-style sleazy/literary novel from the 1940s. The entire package is a silent gag in and of itself, and that's part of Van Sciver's cleverness: using a visual gag without feeling the need to oversell it. Van Sciver's restraint and trust in his readers' ability to make connections is a big reason why he's able to inject both pathos and humor into his stories. Even at his most satirical, Van Sciver still finds ways to make his characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Fante may be a buffoon and a hypocrite, but even in this story, there's a spark of humanity that's almost admirable. After all, he leaves his job work for his father as a lawyer to become a writer; it's just that the way he goes about trying to be an artist and his motives ("1. A big time book deal. 2. Apple stock. 3. Emma Stone") that are so laughable and sad.

The book starts off with an episodic approach and stays as a series of vignettes, though Van Sciver quickly located the spine of his narrative as well as several key characters. There's a sleazy, starfucking literary agent, the publisher of a tiny but pretentious literary journal, an older guy at a bar that Fante befriends, and a young, slightly unhinged writer that Fante winds up sleeping with. One of the highlights of the book is a Dave Eggers signing that Fante attends, and he winds up insulting Fante while talking to the literary agent. Van Sciver portrays Eggers as kind of a sad sack: "Don't mind me...I'm not sitting right here. ...oh lord...I should have gone to computer college." Fante eventually gets some inspiration but winds up doing a bad rewriter of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being instead, earning him the wrath of the agent. The book ends with Fante leaving the city in an attempt to find himself in nature which ends as badly as one would expect. To round out this slender little volume, there are Fante pin-ups at the end (in the Mighty Marvel style!) that seem so fitting.

Van Sciver is at a stage in his career where even a lark like this stands out as something that strikes a chord with both the artist and the audience. To be sure, this book is a ridiculous goof, with over-the-top characterization and some ridiculous situations. That said, Van Sciver took it upon himself to use the book to continue to work on his skills as a cartoonist and storyteller, and some of his best and most fluid character design can be found in this book. There's even a character who bears a resemblance to Archie Andrews and is as annoyingly square as one would expect a grown-up Archie to be. Still, the perpetually sunglasses-wearing, goateed literary agent is only slightly less interesting and funny than Fante himself.  If Fante is a version of Van Sciver to some degree (perhaps a worst-case scenario), it makes sense that he would make the repulsive agent such an effectively mean character. Van Sciver has a way of making himself an object of derision in his books in a way that doesn't come across as whiny or self-pitying. He simply understands that when writing satire, punching down is frowned upon and punching up can be pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review and Kickstarter for Awesome 'Possum

The editor of the Awesome 'Possum anthology, Angela Boyle, sent me a copy of the second volume to review in conjunction with the Kickstarter for the third volume. Here's a a link to that kickstarter, and I would consider making a donation if possible. The anthology's mission is to publish comics and illustration about the natural world, and to leave that mission as loosely defined as possible so as to give the artists some room to interpret it.

That variety of approaches is what makes this a surprisingly readable book, especially given that so few of the entries here resemble conventional narratives. The other thing that makes the book a pleasure to read is the wide variety of visual approaches that were used. It would have been easy to make it a densely-illustrated book with an entirely naturalistic approach, but that would also have been boring. Furthermore, that type of art is often difficult to match up with cartoon storytelling, panel-to-panel flow and general readability. Even artists with somewhat limited draftsmanship ability managed to fit in by limiting the complexity of what they chose to draw, synthesizing the information conveyed by text with spare imagery to create a fluid piece.

Boyle is all over the anthology and has some of its best pieces. including the opener about how Opossums are enormously helpful creatures, the psychology of dogs, and the structure of fungi. Perhaps the best piece in the book was by her mother, Anita K. Boyle: a fascinating and beautifully composed ode to the role of water lilies in their environment. Though an entirely scientific account regarding these plants, Boyle's use of decorative elements, humorous flourishes, clever page design where everything is elongated much the way the lilies are underwater and a clear line made this strip the model for the rest of the book: clear, clever, entertaining and informative. Another highlight was a strip written by Steve Bissette and drawn by his former student Ross Wood Studlar (whose focus as an artist has been on wildlife). It concerned his sighting a fisher cat (a variation on the weasel) in the forest, which is a rarity, and finding that the animal stared him right in the eye. The story balanced a description of this interesting animal and its habits and ended with Bissette expressing his respect for it. This was one of the few conventional narratives in the book, and it worked precisely because of Bissette's knowledge of and respect for the Vermont woods.

Other highlights include Stephanie Zuppo's story about the Thyacine, a species thought extinct that keeps getting sighted; Kelly Swann's "first person" story from the perspective of a Thorny Dragon, which is exquisitely rendered in addition to being amusing; and Reilly Hadden's wistful account of being around Common Loons. Some of the material might have been trimmed from the anthology, but there's nothing that brings the anthology screeching to a halt. Indeed, virtually every piece is at least interesting to read, and few of them wear out their welcome. The general restraint and succinctness of the artists in this anthology definitely work in its favor. The end section, featuring a number of illustrations, provides different renditions of previously-mentioned plants and animals, this time from a purely static standpoint. This section fit well and didn't feel like the anthology was simply being padded. I'll be curious to see if the balance that made this volume work well continues to hold in the third volume, which will be nearly twice as long.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Minis: S.Mannheim, B.Heinly, D.Johnson/R.Lockie

The Amazing Vanishing Man: Prelude, by Daniel Johnson and Rosie Lockie. This mini is about the juxtaposition of fame and performance with a desire to escape it--escape from all contact. It follows an escape artist in a circus who comes to want to escape the ultimate trap: his own body. By learning astral projection, he's able to accomplish this, but then he starts having trouble getting back into his body, realizing that the only way to accomplish his goals is to do it in his laboratory of performance: the stage. The pressure of the stage paradoxically allowed him to relax into performing his tricks, as having something at stake allowed him to concentrate in a way that trying in a less risky fashion couldn't. This comic was just the first part of a larger story, and it was interesting to see how the artist (Lockie) expanded on the script, using a variety of compositional techniques on each page. Sometimes she went for a straight grid with minimal detail--especially with regard to the other characters in the story, who naturally were fuzzy because of the escapist's indifference toward them. On other pages, she used a lot of heavy hatching and cross-hatching to get at the heaviness of certain experiences, like trying to escape from one's own body. The final product felt rough, both in terms of writing and drawing, in a way that I don't think the artists were intending. It seems to be the work of younger artists figuring things out in an ambitious manner, and I'll be curious to see how they develop as a team as the series progresses.

Roxie #6 and #7, by Stephanie Mannheim. These two issues complete the saga of rocker Roxie, an over-the-top stew of sex, drugs, violence and rock-and-roll rendered in the tradition of Peter Bagge and Johnny Ryan. The plot is actually reminiscent of Josie And The Pussycats more than anything else, only everyone in the story is either looking to get laid, get famous, get revenge or some combination of all three. The plot is about two rival bands, one all women and one all men, and their various sexual/romantic entanglements and mutual plans to sabotage each other. The story comes to a head in the final issue, in which all of these terrible characters do awful things and get some partial comeuppance for it. Of course, these comics work because Mannheim has a great sense of the cultural zeitgeist and just the sort of references that make the most sense for it. In particular, her commentary on fame, what creates it and what people will do for it is especially on-target. Of course, the main appeal of these comics is her frenetic and funny cartooning. Her characters have crazily gritted, cartoony teeth, bulging eyes, and pointy noses. With all of that visual "noise", Mannheim did something especially clever on a page where she drew two characters falling in love in a naturalistic style, representing a truly over-the-top and sappy event in the story. Mannheim isn't afraid to get mean, which gives her work a powerful source of energy. Over the course of this series, Mannheim has also refined her line, giving it a precise crispness that makes the eye-popping quality of her subject matter all the more effective. It's cartoony art that is powerful because she has total control of her images, as well as the compositional elements of each panel and page.  In many respects, this series felt somewhat disposable, as though it was a way of stretching her writing abilities such that she could put together a longer narrative while keeping it both coherent and funny. I get the sense that the best is ahead for Mannheim.

Camp and The 3:00 Book Best of 2016 Again, by Beth Heinly. Heinly, a friend of Meghan Turbitt's, works in a similar, unfiltered and funny manner. The 3:00 Book reprints her internet single-page gags as well as her Facebook commentaries on same. Many of the commentaries wind up being funnier than the actual strips in question. Sometimes it's because Heinly is beating herself about a weak strip and hilariously over-explains, a favored comedy technique pioneered by Johnny Carson. That kind of meta-humor is in full effect throughout this book, but Heinly is careful not to pour it on too thick. Sometimes, the commentary is just commentary, adding context or an anecdote about the set-up. That said, the commentary is almost always funny no matter what its aim. The big weakness in these strips, and something that she gets at in the introduction, is that there's no particular point of view that emerges in the course of reading them. Heinly says "There is really nothing special about me or these comics because there about 500 straight white cis freckled girls who write the same shit." I think what differentiates the better autobio cartoonists is that they find an angle, be it Turbitt's over-the-top cultural commentary, Vanessa Davis' layouts and sharp awareness of how she relates to others, etc.

Where Heinly excels is in more conceptual humor, something that gets lost in the midst of doing a diary comic. That's why her comic Camp, a "stoner horror comedy", is so much more effective as a cohesive work of comedy. The cover promises that "Everyone dies" and Heinly lives up to that promise, albeit in the most hilariously convoluted manner possible. The concept is that a group of stoners are camping out in the woods with the idea that they're going to rough it. The only problem is that most of them are either stoned, stupid or both. Rather than an external force hunting these clowns one by one, the only real threat to them is their own stupidity. Two of the stoners find rare mushrooms in the forest, which may or may not be poisonous. Of course, they eat them and then die. One woman stacks way too much wood in the fire pit they've built, catches on fire, and falls into the inferno she's created. Heinly keeps escalating things from there, with the members of the party dying in increasingly absurd ways. The real humor of the book is that they're pretty much either too stoned or too sociopathic to care that their friends are dying left and right. The survivor was, of course, the stupidest and most stoned member of the party who was more concerned with getting joints off the dead body of a friend than either the friend's death or the need to actually find a way out. Heinly then takes that premise and goes way, way over the top, suddenly turning scene after blase' scene of people dying into something truly horrific. It's a grim final joke, but Heinly pulls it off thanks in part to the rhythm and structure of the story. Her line is serviceable and more effective here than in her other gag work, because her simple but exaggerated character design makes sense within the context of the story. Her strict use of a 2x3 panel grid keeps the story zipping along, another element that shows how carefully she considers and structures her work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Minicomics: R.Valero-O'Connell

If Only Once, If Only For A Little While, by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. I first noticed Valero-O'Connell's work when she was a first-year at MCAD and she was doing OuBaPo-style structured comics with rules as part of a larger event. The concurrent manga and art comics boom that began roughly around 2000 has had an interesting effect on young cartoonists, especially women. More young women have read comics and manga actually aimed at girls than at any other time in the US since probably around the 1950s. This is not to say that boys and girls don't read and enjoy all sorts of comics, but the way that the superhero comics industry aimed stuff at boys was pretty obvious--especially in the hypersexualized early Image era. Moreover, every year that goes by sees more comics being stocked in bookstores, libraries and school book sales, meaning that the sheer variety of comics available is growing every year. Valero-O'Connell is someone whose work seems clearly influenced by that variety, incorporating aspects of both manga and western comics in her storytelling and her line.

In many respects, she's working in a purely naturalistic tradition. A look at the first page sees three perfect establishing panels, formatted horizontally. The first panel is a carefully-rendered shot of some flowers. The second is a pair of feet and a bicycle seat, clearly fallen next to the flower bed. The third is a beautiful establishing shot of Charlie, her eyes closed and in profile, a sly and relaxed smile on her face. The first panel establishes Charlie's name, the second panel acknowledges an accident and the third introduces both a sense of relief and her best friend via dialogue, Olive. The character design, especially the exaggerated size of both women's eyes, reveal that manga influence. It's actually a bit jarring at times, seeing this juxtaposition of styles, but Valero-O'Connell makes it work thanks to her absolutely sterling layouts. Her use of negative space and her ability to balance elements in a panel is remarkable. Her lettering does get a bit cramped at times, but she chose a really tough route in using both uppercase and lowercase letters. Her use of a grid variation shows an advanced understanding of how form can affect emotional content.

For example, this story of two friends hanging out, enjoying the routine of being with each other day after day, first hits a speedbump on a page where the first three panels on the page are either filled with detail (panel one) or else make extensive use of white negative space (panels two and three). Panel four is at the center of the grid, and it's a disturbing fortune from a fortune cookie that Olive opens that is entirely offset by black negative space. Valero-O'Connell then uses a modified mirror technique, making panel five be a shot of a concerned-looking Charlie and the final panel at the bottom collapsing into a single image that mirrors the first panel, only it zeroes in on Olive at the bottom right corner, with the rest of it taken up by a dragon mural. That fortune is the first of a variety of seemingly supernatural elements, or perhaps hallucinations, from people around her. The rest of the comic follows from that moment, ending as a meditation on death, grief and healing. Valero-O'Connell perhaps lays it on a little thick toward the end as it becomes obvious as to what's going on, but she makes up for that with the last five pages that confront tragedy head-on. Her level of craft and storytelling is as good as it gets for a young cartoonist, and the next step for her seems to be more a matter of refinement and nuance, especially in terms of characterization. She's illustrating a book for First Second that's coming out, and I hope she's coloring it as well because that's yet another strong element in her toolbox. It won't be long before she's writing and illustrating her own books.