Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cheerful Nightmare: Kafka's Amerika

Real Godbout's adaptation of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika is very much unlike that of the famous author in terms of tone. That is, the anonymous gloom that usually pervades Kafka's work, complete with shadowy bureaucracies and the individual's eventual doom in trying to overcome the arbitrary nature of authority is notably absent here. Instead, Karl, a fresh-faced European young man who gets sent to America involuntarily after getting a maid pregnant, is immediately presented with the sort of magical good fortune that many imagined America gives to its hard-working immigrants. Though Kafka never visited the US, the "land of opportunity" and "rugged individual" narratives certainly carried over to foreign shores. So even though disaster quickly and persistently strikes in this story, Karl's optimism never wanes and the vision of America as a sort of giant traveling circus stays on the surface.

Of course, the book really reveals a Kafka nightmare as a sort of cartoon, when in which there's always an escape hatch into the next dubious episode of American adventure. Kafka's satire of the American dream of sudden and unearned prosperity as one marked in reality by exploitation, poverty and degradation is over the top and at times absurd, which is no doubt how he thought of America in general. Karl is a great character because he's a lampoon of the rugged individual, only he doesn't really know what he's doing. His intuition is faulty, his principles shift and are frequently betrayed. He finds that the system's rules in America are arbitrary and change on a whim.

This book is kind of a Bizarro Charles Dickens character, only in reverse. It's an episodic series of encounters with colorful and frequently seedy characters, with call-backs at crucial points in the narrative. Karl's corporate uncle, who plucks him off the boat he arrives in, at first seems to be a benign sort of deus ex machina of a character who immediately provides Karl with a life of easy wealth and luxury. When his arbitrary rules are disobeyed, he kicks out Karl permanently. Karl escapes a mansion wherein unsavory sexual acts were expected of him, only to run across caricatures of rough-hewn American immigrants (a Frenchman and an Irishman) who are far from the salt of the earth. They are as untrustworthy as anyone else, only in a more blunt and brutish fashion.

From there, the story starts to grow increasingly stranger and more absurd. More inexplicable kindness showed toward him is viewed with some suspicion because it's from women, whom he now distrusts as a matter of course after getting a woman pregnant. All-American efforts at "improvement" and hard work pretty much get him nowhere and eventually embroiled in a fiasco that gets him fired. When he winds up being a hand-servant to an obese, retired opera singer, that particular episode ends rather grimly, as she's taken to an "experimental center" in exchange for money given to him. It's implied that she will be vivisected in some way or other, all for science. The book ends abruptly, and yet fittingly, as he becomes a member of the vaguely-defined "Grand Nature Theater of Oklahoma". Is it a religion? A cult? A wild west metaphor? It's never quite determined just what they do or why, but investing in this kind of shady outfit would seem to be the American Way. Especially since good old hard work didn't seem to help.

The book reads like Kafka put every crackpot story or notion he had ever heard about America into one sprawling epic. Whether one is served up a dream or nightmare is almost arbitrary, and in some ways, crueler than the treatment his other characters tend to get. Most of Kafka's characters tend to understand that they're doomed no matter what. In Amerika, poor Karl never quite knows whether he's coming or going. At least he's bought into the delusion and myth and understands that lying, making up one's identity on the spot and generally morally dubious behavior is often a way to get ahead where opportunity (and opportunists) are frequently a step or two ahead of the law. Godbout's cartooning is perfectly in tune with the spirit of the book, It's clear, vivid and slightly cartoony, with just a touch of exaggeration. Characters like a hotel detective are given craggy appearances and the same sort of distorted features that Dickens might have described for one of his characters, one where a reader can take one look at a character and know everything about them. The book frequently drags, and there was plenty that could have been jettisoned, but it's hard to argue pacing with a book that was unfinished. It's fascinating to see an entirely different style of writing from Kafka, even if the underlying themes are the same.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On Death and Dying: What We Need To Know

Belgian cartoonist Willy Linthout's slightly fictionalized Years of the Elephant was about the suicide of his son. His follow-up, What We Need To Know (Conundrum), is a hilarious but bleak account of three brothers and their aging mother, and how they manage or don't manage as they get older. Each of the character's struggles is both frustrating and heartbreaking, as many of their problems stem either from their own actions or else an inability to communicate need in a timely fashion. It's about the ways relationships can wither and our own habits can calcify us beyond help. It's also a story about the peculiar and unique ways in which each family communicates and the bonds that create a sense of identity that can only truly be understood within that family.

The book begins with the relationship between "Ma" and her oldest son, Walter. He's a cantankerous, borderline-Asperger's type who still lives with his mother as an adult in an adversarial but symbiotic relationship. Despite his distrust of things like modern medicine, he manages to take care of her, in his own way. He's the sort who can't be bothered to take care of himself in any meaningful way but who can invent a device to detect if his mother has gone through his underwear drawer. Ma herself is a fractious, needling and prickly sort who became a shell of herself after the death of her husband. The contrast between the earlier, hell-raising woman who was ready to kick her husband's ass after he stayed out too late drinking and the woman who could barely leave her bed later in life is a bracing one. Her eventual death starts a spiral into near-feral and drunken behavior from Walter, who is now without a purpose in life.

Roger is the loving, benign middle son who becomes a raging alcoholic. He seeks help and tries to quit but can never quite do it. There's an astonishing segment where he's in the henhouse, drinking some booze that he secreted away from his wife, where the chicken starts talking to him and gives him the "Ten Commandments for the Alcoholic". It's a litany of secretive and deceptive behaviors that he was obviously following to a tee, even as he was deceiving himself into thinking that what he was doing wasn't so bad. Charles is the youngest, and the suicide of his son haunts him throughout the book and creates an ever-increasing gulf (literalized on the page) between he and his wife. Charles is Linthout's stand-in, In this book, he's mostly a minor character, with his story getting the least amount of time of page time. He's the only character in the book who finds a way to get better (through being creative) and slowly comes to terms with the tragedies in his life. Learning how to revisit them in a positive way was the key to repairing the relationship with his life and start to live as a happy person. That didn't free him of the influence or burden of his brothers, but it was clear from early in the book how much he loved them on a totally unconditional basis.

The book is divided up into a series of anecdotes, following each member of the family over time. Walter is by far the most entertaining but sad character to follow, given his stubborn and eccentric intellect and total lack of social graces. Small details about him buying a cheap brand of sardines because he likes to use the oil from the can to lubricate his bicycle are especially funny. The book itself is drawn in a highly loose and expressive style reminiscent of early comic strips like The Katzenjammer Kids. It's all pencils and no inks, so the emotional power of the work is instantly noticeable. The occasional extraneous line looks like Linthour's story simply spilled out of his pencil with the ferocious energy of a young gag cartoonist, giving this story an immediacy and intimacy that would have been missing in a more polished take. There are no easy lessons or homilies served out in this book. There are no platitudes about family or how we have to take care of each other. It's just a brutally funny, honest and hard look at the ways in which families can disintegrate.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Shape of Things: Distance Mover

Patrick Kyle's Distance Mover (Koyama Press), a collection of his minicomics series, is an excellent example of the "shape and squiggle" school of comics. The humanoid characters in this sci-fi book are unusual shapes and relate to each other in 2D space in nonintuitive ways. Characters who are interacting with each other often seem to slide past each other or else interact at strange angles. That kind of deliberate manipulation of space, scale and dimensionality is reminiscent of the sort of thing that Paper Rad does, wherein the reader is meant to see the drawings as drawings and the colors in the piece as colors in addition to having representational qualities. Kyle's use of this approach is greatly different from Jones, who used it for absurd and satirical effect. Kyle, on the other hand, uses it as a way to express the sheer otherness of the places and characters he introduces in the story. These are places so alien that our conception of space, time and physics not only no longer holds true, but it affects our very perception of aesthetics.

This collection of stories basically breaks down into two stories, following the adventures of cosmic guardian being Mr. Earth and his ship, the Distance Mover. The first story begins as a loose exploration of a different society and its aesthetics and turns into a story about stopping a corrupt government from literally sucking energy away from its people. The second story involves Mr Earth rooting out corruption among his fellow super-powered "Misters" as he's accused of treason and turns into a desperate battle against an all-consuming, evil space ooze. The first story relies almost solely on Kyle's idiosyncratic use of line, but the latter uses lots of ink splotches, zip-a-tone and fuzzy blue/brown shading. Given that the opponent is an all-corrupting black ooze, it makes sense that Kyle would deliberately challenge his delicate use of line with a disruptive and anarchic use of ink.

Simply by following Kyle's formal decisions, there's a great deal to like about this book. For example, the way he depicts motion is not by using traditional comic book zip lines or by way of panel-to-panel transitions. Instead, he takes advantage of the advanced physics of Mr. Earth and uses stretched lines in a static image that appears as stretched to those watching it in the panel, taking advantage of the ways in which comics are actually static purveyors of information rather than a fluid stream of information. He eschews standard definitions of "sequential art" by way of given every page an open format, with no panels delineating time sequences. Some of them are single-image splash pages, while others have multiple images blurring into and out of each other as a way of showing time passing.

While this is a science-fiction comic with moments of suspense, clever plot twists and all sorts of clever surprises, Kyle takes great pains to avoid sci-fi cliches. In part, that's because the pacifism of Mr. Earth makes him an unlikely action story star, yet both of the stories involve long chase and escape scenes. The overriding sense of gentleness as a response to aggression makes the book highly unusual for a genre comic, yet that gentleness in no way dulls the action or the stakes involved. Similarly, while many of the figures and character designs border on abstraction, Kyle invests them with a remarkable sense of expression and emotion. No matter how weird things get in this book and how strange its points of view become, it never stops feeling real. This is a beautiful, odd book, and it's well worth the effort it takes to immerse oneself in its understanding of reality.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Satellite of Love: Moonhead and the Music Machine

Andrew Rae's Moonhead and the Music Machine is about a teen-age boy named Joey Moonhead, who has a moon hovering about his body where his head should be. Said moon has eyes, nose, etc; it's entirely functional as a real head, with the exception of the times Joey stops paying attention and his head floats away into the clouds. His parents are similarly moon-headed and similarly find their attention drifting far away, especially from their son and his emotional needs. This book would be unbearably twee and cliched, and its metaphors ham-fistedly obvious, were it not for Rae transforming its more trite elements by way of his mind-bending visuals. The ligne claire style of drawing combined with a soft pastel palette gives each page a gently psychedelic quality.

Another of Rae's assets is the straightforward literalization of what makes each person weird and unique, as he externalizes each character's true inner self throughout the course of the story. It's a simplistic technique, but it's told with so much sincerity and empathy that it winds up being a highly effective storytelling tool. The story follows the aimless high-schooler Joey, who doesn't find a direction in life until he invents a music machine with transformative qualities. He's aided in this by another kid who happens to be a ghost (in a subplot out of Fight Club), who gives him the confidence to perform in public. Rae then indulges in the old cliche of an outsider ignoring his best female friend in favor of a pretty but vapid girl and climbing up the social ladder.

All of that gets resolved, of course, but it's by way of some remarkably grotesque cartooning that is still somehow grounded in the mostly kid-friendly nature of this book. In the end, Joey learns to appreciate his best friend, not so much as a love interest, but as someone who's actually his superior when it comes to creating art. He also comes to terms with the ghost that's the literalization of his confidence in front of others, which is a key factor in allowing him to share the beauty and transformative power of his art with others. Bubbling under the surface of a mostly mellow story is the idea that art can be so powerful that it can cause those exposed to it to examine their true selves and find some raw, ugly truths. That was the most interesting aspect plot-wise of this pleasant if meandering book, though it got buried a bit in the resolution of the teen angst storyline.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Art School Familiar: Wendy

Walter Scott's Wendy (Koyama Press) is a book that sneaks up on you. The crude line drawings and idiosyncratic page design is off-putting at first, as is the seemingly shallow nature of its characters. As one gets deeper into the life of art school grad Wendy, the visual language that Scott employs becomes remarkably versatile and expressive. Scott can get away with Peter Bagge-level exaggeration because of the simplicity of his line, so when Wendy's face turns into a circle with two huge black circles for eyes and a huge black oval for a mouth, the emotion she's feeling becomes visceral and hilarious to observe as a reader.

In many respects, this book is a modern update on Dan Clowes' classic short story Art School Confidential. Unlike Clowes, Scott isn't afraid to get extremely personal about his own life, as he invests various aspects of his life into different characters. To be sure, Scott mocks art world bullshit and pretension but treats what's at stake in terms of life and career with deadly seriousness. There's also the volatile mixture of art school pretension and Wendy's own young person-stupidity and sex drive that leads to a host of hilariously questionable decisions.

The story follows Wendy through the post-graduation blues as she struggles to build a career while looking for love. There are friends who stab her in the back and seeming enemies who turn out to be good people. Wendy makes horrible choices with regard to men, like dating a sleazy guy in a band who cheats on her with her best friend at first opportunity. Later, she gets an art sabbatical opportunity but has to deal with a jealous former mentor making her life miserable. There is backstabbing, backbiting, petty revenge, scheming and drinking way too much for all the characters involved, but Wendy herself is on a genuine quest to try and figure out just what she wants to accomplish in life.

What separates the book from yet another screed against the uselessness of art school is the genuine depth of character Scott gives to each member of the cast. Even seemingly shallow characters like Wendy's gay friend Screamo (whose visage is that of the killer from the movie Scream), a party animal and sex maniac, have a certain essential sadness that informs the entirety of their behavior. Wendy is treated sympathetically but never let off the hook for her own stupid or selfish behavior, and she certainly pays for her mistakes. What I loved about the book is the way she manages to tap into her actual talent and empathy for others, even when faced with distractions (many of the them self-created). The friendship between Wendy and Winona, an artist of First Nations descent who also has an internship at the same sabbatical camp, zeroes in on this relationship. The otherness that Winona is made to feel by supposedly enlightened artists is sickening, but her eventual betrayal by Wendy was a far deeper cut. Seeing them reconcile (sort of) was one of the more heartening moments of the book, displaying Wendy's burgeoning sense of empathy and responsibility and Winona's capacity to forgive.

Finally, I should mention that this book is hilarious from beginning to end. Scott serves up some art-world groaners that still land hard, like one artist telling Wendy that her work wasn't "quilts, they're textile hypersigils!" The pettiness and corruption displayed by artists, critics and others in this world is played for laughs as much as Wendy's own foibles are made the butt of Scott's jokes. This book is raw, honest and far more visually sophisticated than one would think at first glance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Search: More Comics By Michael DeForge

Michael DeForge is one of the most prolific cartoonists in the world, and he is constantly changing and refining his approach to comics. In his collection of stories from his series Lose, A Body Beneath, DeForge says two interesting things. First, he thinks of each issue as a discrete entity, not meant to be read as part of a collection. In this, I agree with him entirely. The charge of reading individual issues of Lose is lost in this collection, as work meant to be read at a full stop and compared only to the other stories in each issue finds itself bleeding into other issues. Different visual approaches consistent within a single issue look jarring when collected together. I understand the purpose of this collection, as individual issues go out of print and demand for DeForge's work increases, but it's really not the best way to approach his comics.

The second interesting thing he says, by way of brief autobiographical introduction and brutal take-down of his own work, is that he tried to kill himself in 2009. Following that event, he drew Lose #1 and hasn't stopped working. I'm not going to engage in dime store psychology (as is often my wont) for something as serious and personal an admission as this, but I will note that I've always sensed a restless, almost frustrated quality in his work. What's become clear after reading a couple of more years of comics since my initial profile of him is that he's trying to translate some clearly idealized concept onto the page and falling short in his own eyes each time. While he's especially harsh on his drawing in his frequent self-reviews, he also takes shots at his writing and general sense of humor. While most artists tend to be frustrated simply because they lack the technical skill to tell the kind of stories they want, that is most certainly not the case with DeForge. In Lose #1, for example (not reprinted in A Body Beneath; DeForge claims that it's because it's "a very bad comic book"), his stand-in character goes to a bar in hell filled with dozens of cartoon characters, all of which DeForge draws with incredible skill. For DeForge now, this would be an example of what he would call "lousy, try-hard drawing".

Like Ivan Brunetti and Chris Ware in particular, DeForge has chosen to pare down his line and his figures. Unlike those two, DeForge can't help but put these simplified figures into worlds that are filled with refuse, weird fluids and other unpleasant effluvia. Also like these two artists, DeForge is paring down his line in service of a greater thematic mission. In Ware's case, his primary concerns as a creator are memory (especially with regard to its unreliability, played out in narrative terms) and empathy (especially with regard to trying to empathize with those who seem radically different and even repugnant to us). For Brunetti, it's about trying to fight the pull of nihilism and solipsism by making connections to the life narratives of others, all while trying to expunge and make use of one's own bile. For DeForge, he seems fascinated by families and transformations. In so many of his comics, DeForge focuses in on a familial relationship: brother-brother, father-sons, aunt-niece, etc. Some of these families are surrogates, but he's almost always more interested in looking at the dynamics of these relationships rather than zeroing in on particular individuals. In this regard, he reminds me most of another restless cartoonist, Dash Shaw.

In each of these stories, DeForge adds a layer of genre fusion to create a fictive and often visually unsettling transformation that becomes part of his narrative's reality. That fictive element aids in bending reality such that his interest in transformation is a seamless part of the narrative, but it's also there because DeForge seems genuinely curious about pushing the borders of discredited or little-explored genres. Horror and pornography are two good examples of this. Horror is especially explored in terms of bodily transformations/mutations, the formation of new and inexplicable forms of life and his trademark "melting/dripping line" that pervades so much of his work. DeForge has actually stepped back from relying on that particular visual as a narrative shortcut as part of the process of paring down his line. I don't know if the fact that this style has been appropriated by so many other young cartoonists has had anything to do with his decision, but anyone who spends time on Tumblr's art pages can see his pervasive influence.

DeForge's exploration of BD/SM imagery and lifestyle mixed with alien and conspiracy stories is another instance of his use of comics fusion. His Kid Mafia series is another pertinent example, mixing gangster stories with slice-of-life coming-of-age tropes and characters. DeForge isn't afraid to abandon experiments that he feels aren't working, like his Open Country series. That one was about a couple experimenting with a form of mental projection that balanced psychic phenomena, interpersonal relationships and aesthetics. The idea was interesting, but I would guess that DeForge might have dropped it because the concept seemed more fleshed out than the actual characters. This gets at the essence of DeForge's comics: no matter how strange the concept or the aesthetic, his best comics remain focused on characters and relationships over plots and concepts. Let's briefly explore a number of recent minicomics by DeForge, some collections of older work, his first major graphic novel in Ant Colony, and finally what I consider to be his real comics laboratory: individual issues of Lose.

Mini-Comics

I Surgically Altered My Body To Become An Airplane. This tiny mini (3.25 x 3.25") is almost a take- off on his familiar theme of bodily transformation and sex. The main character is a woman who does precisely what is suggested in the title, leading to an adorably stripped-down drawing of an airplane with dot eyes and a tiny smile soaring around the page. DeForge explores family dynamics here and lampoons them, as the rich girl who became an airplane is berated by her family for her choice. When she sees a boy from school who's altered his body to become a car, it leads to the funniest sex scene I've ever seen, like two Fisher Price toys putting tab "a" into slot "b". This is a whimsical comic to be sure, but it's also an experiment in paring down his line to the most basic of levels and still finding ways to draw a reaction.

The Boy In Question, Leather Space Man and World Of The Leather Space Man #7. DeForge's mostly silent Leather Space Man character has been a flexible vehicle for him to write about celebrity, broken friendships, power relationships, BD/SM issues and sex as a transformative act. WOTLSM sees DeForge working in an 8-bit visual style, giving himself a particular constraint as he finds yet another way to simplify his style. This comic is all about a kid's first concert experience (seeing the LSM), only to have it go horribly awry when the LSM is shot on stage. A frequent motif of DeForge's in his narratives is an immediate and ridiculous catastrophization of events, where one traumatic event leads a character to completely adopt a new life and leave the old one behind. This is done in as deadpan a matter possible, and here it serves to satirize certain musical and cultural scenes that tend to act as a default personality for young people.

DeForge's catastrophe motif is also in play in The Boy In Question, wherein a couple of soldiers/cops find the body of the LSM and are told to stay put. Where precisely they are is unclear (it seems to be an alien planet or moon), but it quickly becomes clear that they've been abandoned, leading them to essentially create their own civilization while naively radioing in occasional ETA's regarding backup. The LSM becomes their sort of societal token, laid in a closed series of slabs with only a peephole providing access. This comic was an early attempt at providing a greatly simplified variety of character designs, but DeForge couldn't resist doing insanely trippy and intense backgrounds. It's an interesting contrast, but it doesn't add much to the actual narrative or themes of the book. The LSM is really just a McGuffin, the object that becomes an unquestioned totem of this new society throughout many centuries. It's an amusing satire of how certain ideas can become so reified in a society that no one thinks to question them.

The LSM mini is a sketchbook that reveals some future character designs for comics like Elizabeth of Canada, as well as his fascination with blurring the lines between organic and cybernetic. His comics at times remind me of the films of another Canadian, David Cronenberg. Many of his films have involved frequently monstrous bodily transformations (The Fly), the ways in which cybernetic ports are made to look like organic orifices (especially of a sexual nature, like in Existenz), a raw and frank attitude toward sex, and the ways all of these things can provide rapid alterations in our lives and culture (like in Videodrome). There's also plenty of dripping ooze to be found (The Brood), not unlike DeForge's melting lines, as well as meditations on the nature of creativity (Naked Lunch). DeForge places a great emphasis on humor and less on shock value, especially as he's matured as a creator, though he did once joke in an interview that his art may have been influenced by seeing a Cronenberg film when he was too young.

Sincerely, Abbey Loafer. Originally appearing in Offerings magazine, this is DeForge's take on a warped, Cathy-style strip with a female protagonist. The strip allows DeForge to indulge his love of creating weird title fonts for every strip, something that I've gathered is one of the few truly pure bits of mark-making that always give him pleasure. Part of that joy is clearly the use of a font that's entirely incongruous for its subject matter, something that's at work a bit here. Of course, Abbey Loafer quickly goes off the rails in its satire of gender conformity humor (ACK!) by way of a side-scrolling exploration of environment. Abbey has to deal with her sentient hairdo, her head leaving her body because "I just can't deal with your drama anymore!", make-up dealing her skin deformities and her eventual "makeover" into a beast that's shot with an arrow after a long ramble through a landscape.

When reading DeForge, it's important to keep in mind that above all else, he is a humorist. He's certainly examining any number of themes and ideas and has a particular visual style he's trying to hone, but it's all done through various screens of attempting to make himself or his audience laugh. Certainly, that laugh if often achieved by way of a horrific image; the scene at the end of his story "It's Chip" where Chip is covered with thousands of tiny maggots but is utterly happy is his Ed The Happy Clown moment as a cartoonist. (That is, the scene early in Ed when he breaks his leg walking down the street.) It's a shot across the bow to his audience, as it were, and though DeForge has started to distance himself from that kind of material, it's still an incredibly important part of his development.

Elizabeth Of Canada #1-2. These are the first two entries for DeForge's Oily Comics series. It's been over a year and a half since the second issue, so DeForge may well have chosen to abandon it. These comics are all about family dynamics and DeForge's demented version of Canadian history. The premise involves the titular character and her family trying to get by in a settlement town. DeForge portrays her father as a drunken layabout, but the industrious Elizabeth takes up a trade as an assistant butcher. There's all sorts of things hinted at in the combined twenty pages, as Elizabeth is an independent spirit who has clearly caught the eye of both the butcher and his assistant. Beyond that, the story is still in a raw stage, other than depicting Elizabeth's barely-concealed contempt for her family and in general a dysfunctional family dynamic. The most interesting thing about this series is the drawing, as one can see DeForge starting to strip down his line more and more while experimenting with odd shapes for his characters. The way he draws Elizabeth's hair as a hat-like object sitting on her head (a common motif for him now) is an interesting way of capturing something detailed with as few lines as possible; it also gives his characters a static quality.

Structures 24-34. Published by Uncivilized Books, this mini is part of a series where each artist is asked to draw eleven structures of some kind. Ever the wise-ass, each of his curving, organic structures is a National something: "National Chair", "National Burp", "National Ladder", "National Living Room", etc. DeForge goes wild with lots of spotting blacks, hatching, psychedelic & curvy lines and other elaborate, decorative pyrotechnics surrounding the most mundane of concepts. I like the idea of making many private and personal concepts (like a burp or one's living room) into a national monument, filled with excess and impracticality. This comic also clearly gave DeForge a chance to go crazy on the drawing end again, using a much thicker line and the kind of "show-off" drawing he's since eschewed for his more serious work.

Kid Mafia 1-3. Speaking of families, the high concept behind this series is so obvious that it's a head-slapper: teenage kids make up a traditionally structured mafia family. It's DeForge fusion at its most literal, as this group of high school kids negotiate slice-of-life high school stuff like unrequited crushes, trying to be cool and going to see shows with mob hits. This is another series that DeForge has apparently abandoned, and that makes perfect sense. While it would have been fun to see the detective introduced put the squeeze on the mob, for each of the mob members to see their interpersonal differences put each other at risk, and for more humor to be mined out of the weird tension he creates, it's also material that sort of writes itself. Neither the high school stuff nor the mafia stuff alone was done in an especially unique manner (though both are executed quite competently); the series depended entirely on the clashing high concept to generate its kick, as DeForge tried to show that the rashness and impulsiveness generated from teenage hormones wasn't all that different from mafia testosterone. I did like the autobio strips on the back cover of #2, featuring one character asking "Michael" (buried in a hole) "What's today's riddle? Answer: you're a piece of shit!" DeForge's self-flagellation in these strips is played for laughs, but it reminds me a lot of Chris Ware's sketchbook material that desperately spells out his own mental health issues. The drawings here are standard early DeForge, only reined in considerably in terms of warping space and figures.

Flu Drawings. This is a series of color drawing experiments from DeForge, accompanied by narrative text that begins in media res with the narrator noting that her father was an apartment manager who kicked out most of its inhabitants after the building was remodeled. Each image corresponds to the text in an occasionally oblique manner. For example, the apartment building is depicted as a series of hills staked upon each other, not unlike one of the "structures' of his other comic noted above. This one gets interesting when the narrator (a boy) talks about hanging out with an older rich girl (depicted as a looping series of color patches, organic/cybernetic jewelry and looping lines depicting something akin to a circulatory or nervous system. DeForge uses some interesting foreshortening techniques here for some of the poses, particularly one where the girl took a shower and "came out to greet me completely naked and sopping wet".

The comic suddenly takes a turn toward an interesting sort of sexual play that was not directly sexual, as the boy acted as a sub to her domme when she had him try on some of her outfits as well as make-up. The mini ends as the boy noted that it didn't make him feel feminine, but rather "a preview of the boy I'd grow up to be". It's a fascinating fragment that plays on a frequent running theme of DeForge's: sexual power relationships, sexual awkwardness and transformations. Here, a hint is much more effective than a longer narrative, and the distorted figures more accurately represent the distortion of reality that these kinds of encounters can create.

Older Work

"Very Casual": Apart from Lose, this is where I'd point newcomers introduced in finding out what DeForge is all about. A mix of his oldest material and some newer stuff, this collection from Koyama is expertly edited for proper story flow. It opens with "All About The Spotting Deer", one of his earliest comics released by Koyama and ends with "Incinerator", originally a stand-alone minicomic. "Spotting Deer" was originally published as a stand-alone comic by Koyama, and it's one that rightly got him a lot of attention early in his career. This story has a lot of layers. It's part faux-documentary, giving the reader a nature channel-style guide to the titular creatures who resemble deer but are "actually a kind of terrestrial slug". At the same time, we're privy to the actual documentarian and the quotidian, sad details of his daily life. The details regarding the deer grow increasingly absurd, especially with regard to those who leave their herds. Essentially excommunicated, they join human society and produce "psychic meat", which takes on suggestions to become any meat desired. So many of DeForge's favorite themes resonate in this comic: the transformation of the familiar into the strange, the behaviors of groups (especially organized groups like families) vs alienated individuals, the unforgiving brutality of the world, funny cultural criticism, the loneliness of being an expert in an unappreciated field, etc. In terms of the drawing, it's in his earlier and more detailed style, but there's a certain spareness in how each panel is composed, with a lot of negative space and very little fussiness in the backgrounds.

"SM" is the classic DeForge body horror story, one that plays on the conventions of horror films with twist endings. Two young women search for and discover a particular snowman in the woods; they're drawn in DeForge's "lizard person" style, a sort of cartoony and distorted frame with few detailed facial features. They cut a slice of what turns out to be "meat" from the snowman, chew on it, and have a psychedelic experience that knocks them for a loop. The ramifications of their act are serious, with DeForge sparing the reader from seeing them killed but doing them no favors because readers are forced to imagine it. "Sweet Tat" mixes body horror and transformation with DeForge's fascination for deconstructing cultural scenes, especially those surrounding bands. It's both deadly serious in how it depicts band and personal politics playing out with young people and hilariously disgusting, as the members of the band aren't even humanoid in shape; they're phallic, oozing monsters.

"Queen" is also about transformation, as a creature takes on more and more elements from the forest in order to appear traditionally female, no matter the pain she causes to creatures loyal to her. This one feels like DeForge riffing on an idea that felt fun and interesting to draw and less a specific statement about beauty, identity or femininity, but those latter aspects can certainly be read into it. "Cody" features a kind of superdeformed character design that looks like it was inspired by video games, but it's a critique and send-up of niche, insular subcultures. In this case, it's avid litterers, and DeForge himself becomes a character in the story about pointless obsessiveness and how it can develop (one might even say metastasize) into a fetish.

The other interesting thing about his early work is how obsessed he was with other comic strips and comic books. "Peter's Muscle" is his attempt at unpacking the psychological implications of Spider-Man; again, it reads like it was a fun thing to draw rather than a profound statement. The same is true of a comic about a sacrifice made to the giant head of a character from Foxtrot, a disturbing drawing of Marge Simpson, and "Riders", which is about a gang of vicious, criminal motorcyclists who offer a sacrifice to a gate in order to transform into the cartoon characters they wear as clothing.

"Incinerator" touches on a number of DeForge's interests, including the dynamics of the strip Peanuts, family dynamics, BD/SM, bodily transformation, and sexual humiliation. It's also one of his funniest, sharpest strips in terms of the timing and rhythm of its dialog, and it maintains its absurd premise by employing an entirely deadpan and serious mien. The collection as a whole is remarkably coherent, held together by short strips and visual callbacks that act as interstitial material as well as a sort of thematic glue.

Root Rot: This is another early release that I wanted to include because it displays DeForge's interest in editing and publishing. Co-edited by Anne Koyama, it reflects their mutual interest in both comics and illustration, as each artist in the anthology is given just two pages to work with. DeForge did the cover but otherwise makes his presence known as an editor. The result is a mix of some clear Koyama favorites like Jesse Jacobs, Jon Vermilyea (the two pages here would go on to be part of his Fata Morgana, also published by Koyama) and Chris Eliopoulos, as well as DeForge favorites like Angie Wang, Hellen Jo and Mickey Zacchilli. My favorite pieces include T. Edward Bak's flattened forest drawing, Jo's crying skater comforted by a girl in a flower, Wang's desperate mother-daughter exchange of secrets, Joseph Lambert's terrifying father-son doppelganger forest chase, and Dan Zettwoch's amazing cutaway drawing/story about excavating a car from a swamp and finding a nest of beavers. Eliopoulos is the one artist that Koyama boosts whose work has never done much for me, falling a bit too close to the cloying qualities of a James Kochalka comic. Otherwise, Root Rot is an interesting opening salvo for both DeForge and Koyama.

Ant Colony

Originally published as a web comic, Ant Colony is the first "graphic novel" length work by DeForge. It plays on a lot of familiar themes, like family structures (especially unconventional and/or chosen family structures), hierarchical power structures, sex in the context of power relationships, gender, alienation and transcendence. DeForge puts all of that in the context of life in an ant colony that's on the verge of collapsing, adding the kind of nature documentary details that he's brought to several other comics. Anthropomorphizing insects and animals and then violently pulling away their human characteristics to reveal their animal nature is one of his favorite tricks, and it's used to great effect here. It's also tremendously funny, more than a little sad and repeatedly brutal.

DeForge puts in details about ants, like the males all having to service the female queen of the colony, and turns them into key plot and character points. The central characters of the book are a gay couple who are starting to drift apart, as one starts having an existential crisis about being a tiny, insignificant ant and the other can't comprehend this struggle or understand how to relate to his lover. Their dynamic changes later in the book after a savage battle between the ants and a group of deadly red ants, who murdered a member of their colony. The submissive member of the couple became dominant after he experienced the insanity of violence and the utter collapse of their colony, and his once-distant partner finds himself pleading for the stability he once gained from him as his abstract and even bourgeois belief systems lost their meaning in the context of disaster.

DeForge plays with the implication that the father of a boy ant in the book is also his brother, and that technically everyone in the colony is related. It's a stratagem designed to squidge out the reader a bit, but it also points to a key aspect of the the colony's way of life that was sub rosa. That said, the kid who inhales an earthworm divided up so small that they infiltrate his brain and change his perceptions of everything feels sorrow when his father essentially abandons him after bees mark him as a "chosen one". The bees act as sort of hippie superbeings, above the concerns of mere ants and concepts like doubt.

The silent, predatory spiders who scuttle around wearing what look like funny but terrifying dog or cat disguises are my favorite of DeForge's character designs. They are the only silent characters in the book and are by far the most feared. They fall outside of the family dynamic model of the book, as do most of the female characters. Indeed, women in many of DeForge's comics--especially up to this point--are frequently seen as a kind of unknowable other. Not that DeForge's comics are sexist, but rather that his earlier work (including Ant Colony) doesn't quite know how to write prominent female protagonists. There's a far greater focus on how the male-dominated cultures he explores are deeply dysfunctional precisely because they are male-dominated. Indeed, the only other female characters in this book are colonial female ants who are supposed to be scullery maids or nannies, which is in itself a commentary by DeForge on our own sexist culture and how difficult it is to break out of socially (and sometimes biologically) constructed roles. Biologically, pheromones are frequently discussed in the book as something that transcends reason or affection in terms of driving behavior, and this is more true for humans than most would acknowledge.

Visually, DeForge's cute and weirdly-drawn ants are awash in a sea of color. The palette is simple but bold across the board, emphasizing color contrasts to heighten the strangeness and terror of the environment. That bit of strangeness is in tension with and accentuates the way he treats these characters as having the anthropomorphic equivalents of human intelligence and desire. The same goes for the dialog, which is mostly in the patois of young and old humans alike. Ultimately, this is a story about the ways in which we try to create community even when old ways of living life have completely disintegrated. There's not a happy or unhappy ending, or even an ending at all. It just stops after the young ant starts spelling out various scenarios as to what could happen and doesn't bother to pick one is the most likely. This book isn't about the stability of the society of the colony before the collapse, nor is it about a potentially reconstructed society; it's specifically about trauma, disaster, and decay and the way it shifts power and power relationships.

Lose

Lose #4. To really trace DeForge's development as an artist, you can sweep away everything else and turn to his laboratory: his continuing series Lose. Each issue is a complete statement that acts as a kind of yardstick for his evolution as an artist and his aspirations to get better. #4 is all about transformation, and DeForge starts to let plot details and conventional narrative concerns drop away in tackling transformation as it relates to sexuality and identity.

The main story, "Someone I Know", is an exploration of the transformative qualities of BD/SM made visceral and alienating. Here we can see the Cronenberg influence at its most pronounced, yet DeForge always creates a distance between his characters and the reader with their blase' small talk and informational lacunae. The lead character here experiences a transformational experience at a sort of fetish club that features memory loss that hides some kind of horrific actions from both himself and the reader. All we know is that a line has been crossed that he didn't necessarily cross willingly, that this transformation has been done as part of an attempt by a shadowy group to make him part of an evolutionary leap, and that the nature of the transformation blurs the lines of biology, cybernetics and fetish culture. Everything about this story is designed to make the reader queasy.

That's followed with "Canadian Royalty", a variation on this theme and "Spotting Deer" that posits a "royals" culture in Canada not unlike that in Britain, spoofing the incestuous nature of their lives. It's a funny piece with exquisite drawings, to be sure, but the targets feel obvious. The last piece, "Sixties", uses the concept of disease causing transformation as a metaphor to explore racism without actually mentioning racism (the disease makes everyone look like a girl named Stacy). It's brutal, funny and on point in a way that's both blunt and subtle, veering into nostalgia in a way that young people often do as a way of escaping grappling with their current surroundings and culture. In terms of the drawings, Lose #4 sees DeForge at his most ornate, detailed and alien. His figures and backgrounds are drawn in a deliberately strange, unsettling way, even as he cut way back on any actual scenes of gore, violence or anything visceral at all. The horror is all psychological, and even that horror is regarded as a mixed bag rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

Lose #5: There are a number of interesting shorts, but the real main event is "Living Outdoors". Certain of his drawing tropes came together in a relationship story that was genuinely moving and tragic. There's still the requisite crazy ideas, like a "bookworm" that literally wears glasses and acts as sort of an ever-present interloper in various scenes, octopus ink that gets you high but is used to "create" zebras at a zoo, and other such weirdness. However, the story at its core is about teen heartbreak and identity, as a high school boy and a slightly younger girl have a complicated and exploitative relationship. Her knowledge of the psychedelic qualities of certain plants (thanks to her zookeeper dad) is used by him to score points with his peers, and the girl he wants to bed in particular.

DeForge takes teen drama genre tropes and turns them upside down, attaching themes related to authenticity, identity and the ways in which the promises and ideologies of adulthood are falsehoods. DeForge's drawings are simpler here, which only serve to highlight his page composition. Whether it's using an intricate splash page or using a six panel grid (2x3) to create interesting gestalt images, this is the most visually spectacular of any of his stories. His use of negative space also accentuates the lingering desires of both the male lead and his younger female friend. The way he uses individual images in panels and then an overlaying image going across the panels is not unique to him, but it's still tremendously effective in getting across the psychedelic experience. It's also one of his funniest stories. It can't be overstated just how much DeForge has been influenced by the rhythms and gags of classic comic strips. He can throw all sorts of bizarre imagery and casual, ambling conversation between characters at a reader, and then snap into a premise/gag set-up on a dime.

Indeed, the short pieces in the book take a cue from Ivan Brunetti, except that they insert DeForge as the object of horrible abuse while still using the rhythms of Ernie Bushmiller. There are other strips that take on the static appearance and function of a New Yorker cartoon, and the opening strip "Recent Hires" uses the same sort of tropes that Larry David uses in his squirm-comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm. If Lose #4 was DeForge cycling through his interest in the "dripping line" aesthetic
and body horror then Lose #5 was him making his best effort at cycling through what he would describe as "show-off" drawing (at least in terms of format). Both also reflected his growing confidence and assurance as a storyteller and creator of compelling characters, something that would come to fruition in Lose #6.

Lose #6: This issue features DeForge's best story to date, "Me As A Baby". It's about a woman named Cherrelle who finds herself going to any lengths to recover her niece's stolen clarinet case. This is the first story from DeForge where I've seen him truly step outside himself in creating a character, including her motivations and relationships. It's also a story that's directly about family dynamics, as Cher has a barely-repressed rage toward her sister, her boyfriend and pretty much everyone but her niece. Indeed, her niece is the one and only opportunity Cher gives herself to be a good person and (potentially) a good mother. Everything else about her screams sociopath in this story, especially when confronted with the classical ethical dilemma of Plato's Ring of Gyges. In Plato's story, Gyges is a man given a magic invisibility ring, and with no possible repercussions that could arise if he commits crimes, Gyges winds up murdering, raping and robbing. For Cher, she revisits her shady past because she has to join "the Mafia", a hilariously-rendered version that's part cult and part wilding expedition.

When she becomes a member of the Mafia in order to retrieve the clarinet case, she not only willingly goes on a crime and murder spree, she also cuts the throat of a guy she had a fling with at her office. The urge she felt to punch her perfect boyfriend's face in, earlier in the story, is fully unleashed when there's no chance of repercussions. At the same time, she saves the day for her niece and weeps when she sees her on stage, or rather weeps in anticipation of her niece's future redeeming her own actions and life.

The story is told with her as narrator, and in many ways it's an improved and updated version of "Dog 2070", another story about someone desperately trying to make a family connection who repeatedly attempts to justify their own shitty, borderline insane actions. "Me As A Baby" seems to take pieces from other DeForge stories and makes them shine; the Mafia aspect of the story goes from being typically exploitative violence in his Kid Mafia series to something that's nihilistic and frightening (while still totally absurd) here.

There are typical DeForge drawing tropes, like the lumpy full-body outfits of the Mafia, the serpentine eye slits and the way they skitter across the page like video game characters. There's "DeForge Detritus", as he fills up panels with tiny bits of garbage and extra lines to get across the weight of the lawlessness of the setting.

The reason the story works is DeForge finally simplified his line in such a way that made it versatile and still capable of expressing a great deal of emotion. Looking toward Charles Schulz and Chris Ware, DeForge's figures here are Schulz-basic, and Cher in particular is a triumph:a round head with a single continuous scribble for hair, round eyes with big pupils, a tiny oval mouth and small lines to indicate eyebrows and cheeks. She's also grey-scaled in such a way to indicate that she's a person of color. Her niece Sally looks very much like Woodstock, drawn in the "gummy, doughy quality that kids have", which is an observation that Cher makes about her but one that plays out precisely in the way Sally is drawn.

DeForge has worked very hard to make things simple, stripping away layer after layer of lines extraneous to the emotional core of his stories. The "autobio" story that leads off the issue gets at this, as DeForge is kidnapped by dogs and replaced by dogs so that he and his style of doing things will never be missed. The story "Dogs of Canada" is a reprise of sorts to "Spotting Deer", only it subtly picks up on body horror, transformation and the creeping realization that our society is built on the flimsiest of foundations, vulnerable to forces that we don't  understand.

Transformation is a constant theme for DeForge, but this issue is less about transforming into something new and more about transforming into what we really are and dropping all other pretenses. It seems to be a key for him as a way of invoking his own series of transformations as an artist, as he sheds different skins and approaches on his way to getting his pencil to draw precisely what he sees in his head. Few artists have left more interesting or complicated molted skins behind as DeForge has, especially in such a short period of time. There is a new "burden of promise" for him, now that he finally seems to have reached his mature style as an artist. This is not to say that his transformation is complete, but rather that the foundation is there for him to pick through past themes, tropes and styles and build something completely new.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fundraisers: Last Gasp, New South Festival

I wanted to make note of the kickstarter fund for Last Gasp's ambitious fall line. Last Gasp has been a key distributor and publisher of underground comics for a long, long time, and so I would consider adding your support to their campaign.

 As a contributor to Foxing Quarterly's blog, I also wanted to make note of the impressive-sounding new comic arts festival in Austin, currently holding its own fundraiser. This has the potential to be something great.