Thursday, October 31, 2013

Minis: Alternative Comics #4, Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever #3, Abyss, Reich #10

Alternative Comics #4, edited by Marc Arsenault. In addition to reviving Alternative as a publisher, Marc Arsenault has also revived its flagship comic book anthology. This is a solid entry featuring established and promising cartoonists alike. The Mike Bertino cover is hilarious and weird, giving the book a slightly more underground feel than past issues, while the back cover's collaboration between Craig Thompson and Theo Ellsworth brought the best out of both cartoonists. Even in a relatively short comic, Arsenault's sequencing is carefully considered, as a series of one-pagers by Grant Snider act as detailed palate cleansers at regular intervals. He keeps the reader occupied in these thematically (but not narratively) related strips with multiple panels that lead the eye around the page in interesting ways, be it a meeting of frustrated artists, a checklist for summer or a series of directions on how to make a time machine. The simplicity of his line makes it easy to follow the pages and adds a further palate-cleansing quality to them.

Noah Van Sciver's "It Can Only Get Better" is my vote for best strip in the anthology, as he uses the sort of period detail he became known for in The Hypo and creates a hilarious and vicious send-up of cartoonists and cartooning. It reminded me a bit of the old B.Kliban strip where the caption is "Out of the way, swine-- a cartoonist is coming!", only taken to the next level, as an early 19th century political cartoonist enjoys his life and his ability to kill or fuck with relative impunity--and imagines their status in society will only continue to rise. Other highlights include brief pieces from Sam Alden (still in his drawing phase where his figures look not unlike Nate Powell's), the usual silliness by Sam Henderson (the "Grapes Hawthorne" typically creating an over-the-top version of a typical encounter with a certain kind of annoying person) and a Blobby Boys story by Alex Schubert that cleverly has most of its action take place off-panel. I was happy to see new work by Allison Cole and Andy Ristaino, with the former's thick, blobby figures still packing an emotional punch and the latter's exaggerated satire going to some amusingly dark places. The James Kochalka stories left me cold; his autobio attempts being poetic but feels self-indulgent, and his kids' story is unrelentingly twee. I did enjoy the focus on David Lasky, including a couple of strips and an interview that stripped the questions away and was reformatted to appear as more of an artist's statement. Lasky certainly deserves this kind of exposure as an artist whose mix of formalism and humanism in his drawing style make him a potent storyteller. I hope that Arsenault continues to make the appearance of the anthology an annual event, as there aren't very many anthologies of any quality that have open submission policies.

Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever #3, edited by Tom Neely. This may be my favorite series in all of comics right now, thanks to Neely finding new ways to go to the well in telling jokes about Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig as cohabitating lovers. There are three reasons why the anthology is so consistently entertaining. First, the stories avoid homophobic jokes by design. Indeed, many of the cartoonists involved in the anthology self-identify as being queer, which makes their presence in an alt-comics anthology (unfortunately) a bit of a rarity. Second, the gags, which tend to focus on Henry & Glenn, all come from a place of fandom, as they're very much insider jokes that poke fun at punk and metal from a devotee's perspective. Third, Neely is careful to rotate the roster of guest artists from issue to issue so as to provide as wide a range of styles as possible. This issue features the continuing saga of Henry and Glenn squabbling because of the presence of Glenn's mother, a sweetness and light type who drives everyone crazy with the insistence of her niceness. Neely clearly has a ball drawing Dan DeCarlo-style caricatures of various rock and comics personalities, the best being his send-up of death metal icon Gaahl.

Mari Naomi's story about Henry & Glenn's more quotidian visit to the pharmacist was a nice palate cleanser after Neely's craziness and the in-your-face craziness of Justin Hall's epic of Glenn descending into "Gaydes" in order to search for Henry's soul after he dies. Hall goes after every gay stereotype imaginable in hilarious fashion, from the Cavern of the Catty Drag Queens to the Dungeon of the Leather Daddies ("where there is no safe word!"). The usual array of pin-ups and Michael DeForge's funny take on the relationship problems that might occur if the two tried to collaborate musically, drawn in his uniquely deformed style, makes for a memorable capper. Neely will publish one more issue before trying to collect the material, which I think is wise, since while what started as a cocktail napkin doodle has taken on a life of its own, it will hit the diminishing returns stage at some point.

Abyss, by Saman Bemel-Benrud. This is an interesting little comic published by 2D Cloud. It's reminiscent of the sort of comics that Tom Kaczynski does, wherein critiques of capitalism and the architecture that emerges as a result are engaged. Bemel-Benrud's approach is a whimsical one, wherein "augmented reality ghosts" are included as a feature for a new condo development. The ghost encourages a woman to jump down and visit it after she takes a photo of its image on her phone. Pixellation and fractalization are two running visual themes in this comic, as both ghost and woman cross over into a space that makes them aware of their intersecting with three and four dimensional reality. There's also a sense where technology takes on a new, comforting role, one where the digital becomes visceral. There's an almost cheery openness regarding the woman's attitude toward this kind of neat, compartmentalized side-effect of capitalism, one that focuses on its aesthetic qualities. Her boyfriend is the opposite, decrying the lack of authenticity of such spaces as he is unable to interface with the ghost and the ideas it represents in the same way. Bemel-Benrud is cagey as far as what side he's arguing for as both characters land solid points, but the optimism of the woman is quite persuasive, even as she keeps the details of her ghost encounter to herself. The visuals in this comic are simple, bordering on crude, but Bemel-Benrud is able to make that work by using a pleasing blue color wash and as many iconic images against a blank background as possible.This comic is less interesting to look at than it is to think about, because one wonders if the woman was enlightened or infected by her contact with the digital specter--or perhaps both.

Reich #10, by Elijah Brubaker.The tone that Brubaker set in this biography of psychologist Wilhelm Reich has always been even-handed and fair. Reich is treated neither as a dangerous madman nor a visionary; instead, he's presented as brilliant, innovative, fallible, arrogant and hypocritical. That treatment continues even as Reich's theories grow all the more bizarre and show the limitations of his knowledge of science beyond psychology. He made the leap to consider that radioactive materials like radium react badly to his orgone energy generators without understanding the effects of radioactive materials, for example. In this issue, his theories take another leap into observing what appear to be UFOs (what he called EAs) that appeared to run on orgone energy. He saw them as a threat to the earth, one that could be defeated by his of his cloudbuster gun that acted as a sort of lightning rod for that energy. Brubaker cleverly parallels Reich's own narrative of being a sort of scientist-soldier needing to find and fight energies with his corrosive paranoia regarding his wife and a colleague having an affair, demanding written confessions and pushing away loyal colleagues. This is despite the fact that Reich himself had affairs with dozens of women in the interest of sexual openness and resisting self-oppression. At the same time, Brubaker injects a running note of sadness, as the deluded Reich thinks the president is supporting his research covertly even while the FBI and FDA view him as a dangerous crackpot. This paranoid had real enemies, but he simply wasn't savvy enough to understand how to fend off his real enemies while pushing away his true allies. Brubaker's scratchy but simple line perfectly captures Reich's many emotional states. In one panel, when Reich is furious, Brubaker drops the lines that form his face and just leaves in the eyes and other facial figures that are given weight by densely hatched lines representing his rage. It's an eye-catching panel, one of many in this issue.The way that Brubaker distorts anatomy gives his work a powerfully expressive quality without betraying the verisimilitude of his use of body language and especially gesture.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hiding In Plain Sight: Wake Up, Percy Gloom!

Cathy Malkasian quotes William Blake at the beginning of her new book, Wake Up, Percy Gloom! The quote is "The fool who persists in his folly becomes wise", meaning that there are times when pursuing a truly foolish or ridiculous course of action all the way can sometimes lead to liberating, if frightening, revelations. Her books have always had wise fools and foolish wise people. Following what seems to be wisdom can instead lead to folly, and following craziness can sometimes yield wonderful results. Deception and in particular self-deception has always been a running theme in her work, with the undercurrent being that sometimes certain kinds of self-deception can be actually of greater benefit than knowing the actual truth.

This is the second Percy Gloom book. The first saw him discover his true legacy as an immortal, just like his mother, and a realization that every now and then he would take naps that could span up to hundreds of years. He fell in love in the first book as he started to go about the task of building a city that had collapsed. The second book begins with him in a boat with his true love Margaret, only to quickly move to the present where we learn that Percy has fallen asleep again. The reader is quickly let off the hook and told that Percy was only asleep for a year, but he hadn't been able to tell Margaret his true feelings for her nor the nature of his immortality. The mystery of the book is just why Percy fell asleep if he loved Margaret so much.

Meanwhile, his mother Clara (a true delight in terms of character design) is trying to deal with the very long-term results of what began as a joke. She created a book centuries earlier as a work of satire: a joke book about a fictional, magical kingdom that represented paradise. As the year went on, those approaching the book grew further away from its original intent, treating it instead as a religious text and taking its predictions quite seriously--including one that precisely prophesized the date that paradise would float down to heaven. Of course, that prophecy also urged its readers to build towers of furniture in order to ensure a soft landing, but the most absurd actions take on a sober meaning for true believers. Malkasian's satire of religion is a gentle one, as Clara does her best to actually create paradise for them as she also tells her latest lover about her true nature and meets with others of her kind. Immortality, it seems, is simply being so amazed at the world that it takes a long, long time to do things. Folly and wisdom play out in the form of true believers looking for this paradise that Clara has set up, as well as the quixotic quest of Mr Tetzel, a man incapable of telling lies. He was abandoned by his parents (both merchants) because of this quality, and he was secretly taken care of by Clara's group, who convinced him he was living in this paradise country.

When Percy encounters him, it forms the backbone of the book's plot, as he tries to fight through his melancholy and we learn more and more about why he fell asleep. Malkasian's background is in animation (the Curious George cartoon and The Wild Thornberrys being her best-known), and it shows in the way that her characters are in constant, propulsive motion. Static images are generally reserved for moments of contemplation or great aesthetic revelations and are few and far between. Her art style is heavily feathered and textured, looking like a cousin to the likes of Renee French and Bill Plympton. Indeed, her art mimics the grotesque qualities of those artists, only in a much more gentle manner. Percy himself is on the grotesque side, with a head that literally lights up like an upside-down lightbulb, a squinty eye and a lazy eye. The blend of melancholy, emotion and whimsy is reminiscent of Charles Schulz; it's clear that Malkasian has genuine affection for her characters. Unlike Schulz, she's willing to give them a happy ending, and in Percy's case it takes the form of a good lesson. In the book, he plays both wise fool and foolish wise man as he has to grapple with the single most difficult aspect of being immortal: the knowledge that he will certainly outlive his loved ones. How he fell asleep was a moment of selfish weakness and cowardice, though an understandable one. The happy ending feels earned, though I missed the sharper satiric tone of the first book. It's still a fine statement about loneliness and the ways in which we create the circumstances that lead to isolation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Notes on the Cycle: A Matter of Life

As memoirist Jeffrey Brown has grown older, the focus of his autobio comics has shifted a bit. His earliest books were about relationships, jumping back and forth in time to depict small but important moments. Brown's storytelling technique is nonetheless a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but by going against strict chronology, one gets the sense that it allows him to fully understand and digest certain events better. Indeed, since all memories are of the past, one could argue that this is a more true-to-life way of depicting a personal narrative, as our memories tend to jumble and blur. Brown shifted from writing about his relationships with partners to his relationship with art and his own health in other books, crafting books of greater subtlety and depth than his earlier works. With A Matter of Life, Brown for the first time widens his focus to include stories about his father and first-born son Oscar. While both have popped up from time to time in his stories, this is the first time Brown has tried to create a narrative surrounding the three of them. The result is heartfelt but not as coherent as his recent My Funny, Misshapen Body or Little Things.

The most interesting element of the book is that Brown's father is a minister, making this book about his own faith and the process by which he became an atheist. What is ironic is that what initially started him down that path was his insider's understanding of how church worked, with the politics and pettiness inherent in any organization prevalent in his father's world as well. Those politics extended to young Jeffrey as well, who was expected to dress up, be polite and otherwise be an exemplar of good behavior and piety while his dad was working. Of course, preacher's kids frequently turn out to be quietly rebellious (and sometimes not-so-quietly), especially if they can detect any level of bullshit emanating from their parents. Brown mostly keeps the book pretty light, relating tales of being bored in church and acting out, provoking his parents into threatening to take away his Tolkein books and birthday presents. Brown's become a skilled comic storyteller, and the way he escalates his bad behavior in that story is made funnier by way of how it contrasts with the gentler strips in the book.

Brown builds up slowly to the reveal where he tells his parents that he's no longer a Christian, which ends in an anti-climax as he couldn't remember further details from the conversation. Yet the slightly shell-shocked expressions on everyone's faces said more than any further anecdote could communicate, a look that revealed sadness and sheer bewilderment. Brown quickly follows that heavy scene up with a goof on "Jesus in your heart", with a miniature Jesus literally pounding on Brown's aorta. Brown dips into the past and future as he addresses ideas like anger and homosexuality, admitting that he was homophobic in high school. It's yet another example of Brown willing to make himself look bad in service of the story, but it also fits into the book's overall theme of how beliefs are shaped but can change over time. He links some of that to growing up highly sexually repressed; it's not unusual for ignorance to be linked to prejudice and Brown certainly comes clean on that front.

The back half of the book addresses Brown's own challenges as a father and healthcare scares. He relates one incident where his son has a horrible allergic reaction to an antibiotic and has to go on a battery of medications to combat the still-present infection. Brown gets across that sense of helplessness a parent can feel while they think they are doing the right thing, and then ties it into the helplessness he feels when his father starts to get sick. Again, he finds ways to lighten the mood, ending the story about his son with frustration over the three year old's insistence on watching the same episodes of The Smurfs over and over.

The stories that Brown tells are frequently lovely and touching. They're certainly told beautifully, as Brown has now fully integrated color into his autobio work in a manner that makes a difference, like in a crucial scene depicting the beauty of a sunset that doesn't make him think of it as God's handiwork. The way he draws his son is adorably simple, with two dot eyes and a simple line for a smile; at the same time, Brown is able to draw a lot of nuance out of that simple character design. The first half of the book, which really examines Brown's relationship with his father and faith in great deal while referencing his own son, is as strong as his work has ever been. However, the back half, which focuses more on Oscar, feels underdeveloped. There's a lengthy anecdote about going to a museum in Europe whose connections to the rest of the book seems tenuous. This is a short book to begin with (just 96 pages) and as a reader, I got the sense that Brown didn't have enough material to justify a full-length book. Part of that may be that he simply doesn't have the distance from being a father now to fully grapple with that material the way he does other past events. He does manage to end the book gracefully by engaging the subject of death head-on, but it's almost as though the other anecdotes that would have made sense to include just haven't happened yet, like how his own son will ultimately choose to proceed regarding faith. Still, this book sees Brown moving in some interesting new directions, and I'd love to see him follow up on a number of ideas he explored.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Adventure Comics: Lindner, Cartozia Tales, Von Gieson

The Black Feather Falls, by Ellen Lindner. This period whodunnit is a perfect fit for Lindner's distinctive visual style. Set in 1920s London, the story follows an expat American named Tina Swift who sees a body covered up by police in front of her workplace. When certain things about the behavior of the police and a weird clue (a black feather falling out of a bible with a missing page) pop up, she enlists the aid of a woman at a newspaper, whose boss also turns up missing under similarly mysterious circumstances.  Lindner cleverly has her heroines navigating sexism as a barrier as great as the mystery itself, with Swift seeking help from unconventional sources, many of them scandalous. Lindner is totally in her element here, clearly having a ball drawing fancy period clothes and splashing her pages with orange, yellow and lavender.The brightness of these colors adds a highly refined sense of stylization and elegance to this murder mystery, making it feel very much like a sophisticated story rather than something "real", yet Lindner is careful to ground her characters in humanizing detail. The result is a delightful balance between a tightly-plotted and paced mystery and a colorful character-oriented narrative.

Cartozia Tales #2, edited by Isaac Cates. The second issue doesn't quite have the same level of aesthetic appeal in terms of its guest stars as the first (replacing Jon Lewis and Dylan Horrocks with James Kochalka and Adam Koford was a step down), but seeing the characters and settings rotate over to a new set of artists was fascinating. Indeed, it's in keeping with the very mission of the comic, which will see characters pop in and out depending on what area of the map the artist in question chooses to focus on. The interesting result, as editor Cates points out, is seeing what essential elements of each character remain after being handed to different artists with greatly differing styles. One thing I greatly enjoyed was seeing a number of different formal tricks in use, which makes sense given that the whole series is essentially one big formal trick. The biggest trick of all is making the contents enjoyable as stories first and experiments second, something that Cates (and artist partner Mike Wenthe) cut their teeth on for years in their Satisfactory Comics series. Beckie Gautreau and Sarah Becan, in their story about "Upside-Town", tell the entire story upside-down, because that's how physics works in the magical city. However, the word balloons are right-side-up because that's how they want the story to be read. A good example of issue-to-issue continuity is Tom Motley taking the storytelling crow from the first issue and actually expanding a panel from the first issue into a larger panel that reveals a brand new context. It's a clever move that also expands upon the overall narrative. The two MVPs of the issue are Shawn Cheng, thanks to his delicate linework and imaginative, lush design; and Lupi McGinty, whose playful and cartoony style is a perfect match for the robot and the scullery girl we met in the previous issue. Of course, the issue in general is packed with extras, like paper dolls, pin-ups, etc. I'm delighted to report that Cates met his Kickstarter goal, because he has the potential to publish a truly memorable all-ages series that works for a number of audiences.

Eel Mansions #2 and #3, by Derek Von Gieson. These comics just get crazier and crazier. There's so much going on and Von Gieson is so restless in racing from storyline to storyline that these comics fairly vibrate with energy. In some respects, this comic is like if Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville had thrown in a supernatural conspiracy plot in on top of the larger story of a critic trying to get at a cartoonist's working process. Indeed, much of the second issue is devoted to an interview between a critic and cartoonist Janet Planet, criticizing her recent work (the hilarious named Doomin, which is a cross between Tove Jannson and Simon Hanselman's comics) and telling her to get back to her long-running series. We see pages of her comics (as well as her friend's) interspersed between pages of the actual narrative.One of her characters is even an autobiographical cartoonist, and we see her work as well! Inbetween those long meta sequences, we see bits and pieces of the queen of the lizard men, a retired mystic brought back in for a big case with the tempting thought that his family might be alive, a couple of weird children wander around, a rookie government agent is given his occult indoctrination, and other crazy stuff. Von Gieson's work crackles with excitement, as the pages look like they're simply flowing from his pen. One almost senses that like his comics writer stand-in, this series gives him a chance to draw whatever the hell he wants on a page-by-page basis. He gets to switch between his typical, brushy style to a something more cartoony, then something denser and harsher when he feels like drawing monsters. All of these stories fit together and even overlap at points, and I imagine he'll continue to draw those narrative strings closer together in future issues.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

J.T. Dockery and the Coal Mine School

Reading through the collected comics of JT Dockery, I was struck by the cover of his book Despair. On it, it promises guest appearances by Julia Gfrorer and Chris Wright, and my immediate thought was "Of course it does." Dockery's scratchy, dense, cross-hatch heavy and comedically pitch-black comics have a lot in common with Gfrorer, Wright, Anna Bongiovanni, Zak Sally, Max Mose and a few other cartoonists (including sometimes Eleanor Davis and Eamon Espey). What they all have in common is the way they use comics as a way of unloading pain, trauma and the contents of their id. With regard to the latter, it's not in a free-wheeling manner like S.Clay Wilson or Robert Crumb, but rather an approach that sees that id captured, pinned down and examined thoroughly on the page. These artists also tend to use mythology, fables, fairy tales, junk culture and horror as mediating devices. The human body and what it does is a matter of clear fascination and revulsion, as body horror is not uncommon in their works. I don't want to risk being too reductive in trying to lump artists into a particular sub-genre or movement (it's certainly a weakness of mine), but I want to highlight and celebrate these artists, given that I find their comics to be fascinating as art that works on multiple levels: aesthetic impact, emotional, psychological and cerebral. These are smart cartoonists who make their work easier to understand by providing metaphors that are concrete, primal and easy to grasp, while never making their meanings plain or obvious. Dockery thanked Gfrorer and Wright for their contributions to Despair, noting that they all labored in the same "coal mine" in making comics. A coal mini is dark, dangerous, oppressive and yet those who work in it share a certain camaraderie regarding their labors. So my shorthand for this kind of comic will be the Coal Mine School.

Dockery has had three major collections of comics, each of which showed his progression as an artist both technically and narratively. Dockery's comics are a sort of cross between Robert Crumb and Chester Gould by way of HP Lovecraft, mashing together a pulp framework and the howl of the id. That said, there's also a probing, curious intellect evident in his work, one that takes inspiration from poetry, folk tales and hard times. There's a matter of fact surreality present in Dockery's work, where the grotesque and bizarre frequently have sexual overtones as true surreality does. That said, there's a strict kind of dream logic to be found in his work, with a set of rules that aren't always easy to discern but are present nonetheless. There's also a pitch-black sense of humor to be found on each page, where the laughs are usually unsettling in nature. In Tongues Illustrated is a collection of strips that start off with unconnected stories but soon launch into the adventures of Mask or Machine, Private Investigator (a golden age pulp superhero type) and Jack Lustmond (a Sam Spade type). Both heroes are instantly in over their heads in their various adventures, quickly undone by women and overwhelmed by greatly superior villains. Dockery loves thinking about people who don't fit in and fall through the cracks, like the author Harry Stephen Keeler, a man with a fertile imagination who wrote nearly impenetrable novels written in ethnic slang. The book concludes with a final series of strips about Lustmond, his femme fatale Mona, and a series of primal images about their relationship and the origin of the universe. It doesn't quite cohere, and indeed this first collection of strips feels fragmented, as though Dockery is reaching for a thousand ideas at once and doesn't quite know how to arrange them.

Dockery's second major work is Spud Crazy, an adaptation of a Nick Tosches script. It's easy to see why Dockery took this strange work on, because it's jam-packed with noir imagery and tropes, strange sexual fetishes, shadows, narrative fragments and memorable images. It begins by conflating the image of a sexy female leg with a potato and goes from there. Indeed, even though Dockery didn't write the script, Spud Crazy is a recapitulation of sorts of the kinds of tropes, images and themes he explored in In Tongues Illustrated. The main difference, oddly enough is that Tosches' script leaves more to the imagination, making this a comic dominated more by its images than its words. Once again, there are detective tropes, femmes fatale, mysterious nightclubs, plants growing out of strange places, and a dead prostitute. The story doesn't have a particular beginning or end, per se; indeed, one can imagine reading it on a loop and picking up nearly anywhere in the narrative. The introduction by Richard Hell (!) and longer essay by Bob Levin are interesting supplemental material but not essential to reading and absorbing the comic. I do recommend listening to the accompanying CD as a sort of soundtrack, but I would also regard this as more supplemental than essential. Dockery's images stand alone.
The first volume of the winkingly-titled Despair is Dockery's best work to date. Published in early 2013, the comic is 90% Dockery, with endpapers based on the tarot's Ten of Swords (disaster) by Gfrorer and a short story by Wright at the very end that's all about the ways in which direct knowledge is very limited indeed. The first story, "ThisEatsItself", is a horror tale that's visceral in a manner not unlike Thomas Ott. It follows a man who buys a strange object that he eats, only to wake and find that his mouth is gone. In short order, he discovers a mouth on his arms, with jagged teeth. A mouth appears at the end of his penis, and he finds himself feeding them whiskey and then pieces of his own flesh, including an honest-to-god injury to the eye motif when he cuts out his own eye and feeds it to his mouth-penis. More mouths appear and eventually his devouring a magical book leaves the book and makes him disappear. This is a brutal, dark and yet bleakly humorous story about consumption in all its forms. Dockery also prefaces an adaptation of a Stephen Crane poem with a short story about wakefulness, which is really about the sensation of waking up into a nightmare. It's about desires thwarted but unabated and coming to terms with one's situation. "The Black Riders and Other Lines" features trial after trial, with Dockery inserting his own caricature into each of the trials, either as observer or participant. Each of the stanzas is about the end of hope, the end of being or the end of feeling, conflating all three at various points. It plumbs the depths of despair, which is why I imagine Dockery was drawn to it, yet this coal miner of an artist always manages to find a laugh in the most desperate of situations. How else could he manage to keep digging?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Minicomics: Nichols, Cantirino, Remnant, Gfrorer, Reklaw

Flocks, Chapters 2 and 3, by L.Nichols. These are the next two chapters in Nichols' meditation and exploration of faith and growing up as a queer born-again Christian. Each issue tends to cover similar ground, circling back to a variation on a theme. For example, the second issue, subtitled "body of conflict", gets at Nichols' body-image issues, knowing exactly what she wanted to look like as a kid but knowing it "wasn't OK". Using her distinctive rag doll self-caricature, Nichols depicts the forces and pressures she felt as a child and teen using the nomenclature of physics, though those arrows bearing down on her pierced and drew blood. The comic is heartbreaking in that she has a strong sense of identity but prays desperately to change, to conform, to not be a sinner. It never works, and at the end of the issue she goes back out into nature with the animals and woods that provide her so much comfort because they allow her to be herself as she is.

The third issue ("Nature vs Nurture") focuses less on body image and more on faith itself. A constant, running theme throughout this comic is Nichols refusing to demonize faith and religion, despite her experiences. She talks about the feeling of community she frequently felt, the power and mystical intensity of gospel services, and the comfort she felt in the idea that god was all around. At the beginning of this issue, she quotes a pastor quoting the Bible, referring to the "still, small voice of God". This concept made sense to her, that almost Buddhist idea that she was "part of something larger".Once again, that voice was best heard out in nature, where it was easier to see oneself as part of something larger instead of hearing the loud, angry voices decrying homosexuality and sinners. As Nichols notes, those were the voices of man, not God. While Nichols works through a lot of pain in these comics, it's not done in anger, but rather in appreciating beauty. Nichols' approach is to match the hate she felt for herself and the hate she felt from others with gentleness and care. Her use of full color to depict just how vibrant her environment was to her is a key to the success of these comics, because one can sense the joy radiating from those sequences. These comics are not a chance for revenge, but rather a plea for understanding. I hope she keeps going.

Turnpike Divides Part 2, by Sally Cantirino. The first issue sets up a story about a young man returning home to New Jersey to attend the funeral of his best friend, with the strong sense that said friend drove his car deliberately into a pole. This issue picks up on the ramifications of this event, as the man (Alec) tries to gain comfort from his ex-girlfriend (Lily). Cantirino nails the ways in which twenty-somethings relate to each other as they find themselves drifting through life, and this comic takes dead aim at narcissism and self-pity. Alec tries to find ways to blame himself for his friend's death and condemns those around him for not mourning him sufficiently, before Lily reveals a key fact about his death and generally puts him in his place. It's also about no longer being part of a place, about its relevance to one's life being entirely in the past. Cantirino's line is a little on the busy side, making the pages a bit denser to read than they need to be, but she does capture a sense of time and place. She notes that she used a lot of reference to real places for this story, and it's easy to see that; the spaces here look lived-in and well-trod. She also has a real knack for drawing night scenes and snow, which added a lot of atmosphere to the story. A student at the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), her ambition as a cartoonist is clear.

Blindspot #3, by Joseph Remnant. The latest issue of the talented Remnant's one-man anthology focuses on autobio stories this time around, but each of the four has a very specific tone and purpose. At the same time, each of them fervently questions both himself and the cultural values surrounding him. In "L.A. Coffee Shop", Remnant takes aim at all of the "creative types" who fulfill every LA stereotype one can imagine, both in terms of the way they dress and the things they say. Of course, Remnant takes a step back and aims those barbs for himself as well, letting the other artist he saw in the cafe draw a picture of Remnant looking like an idiot. "Pappy Ron's Pizza" takes dead square aim at the controversy over Papa John's Pizza refusing to comply with the Affordable Healthcare Act because it would eat into their profits and "force" a small increase of the price of pizza. Here, Remnant watches a "news" report from a right-wing TV network that fully supports "Pappy Ron". From there, driving to various locations during con season leads him to choosing that pizza joint...but he just can't quite go through with it. It's a strip where Remnant is literally nauseated by the patter the Pappy Ron employee is forced to spew out, but it's also a story where Remnant follows through on his principles.

"Elevator" finds Remnant confronting his past in the face of an old friend and an odd interaction with him, as well as going back to his old school. This unsettling story then quickly resolves in a way that makes sense, and the jarring ending doesn't feel like a cop-out because of the warning Remnant receives during the course of the narrative.  The story that sort of recapitulates all the others is "You Are Here", which is about depression and how Remnant used meditative hiking up a hill as a form of therapy. Walks have a way of first stirring up bad thoughts and then dissolving them through sheer physical exertion, and Remnant works through his miasma and depression by forcing himself through. It's a story that touches on John Porcellino and his zen comics poetry, using many silent panels to create a rhythm that Remnant feels while walking. The slow, steady progression from panel to panel is modulated by the density of Remnant's cross-hatching, especially when Remnant walks slowly through shadowy parts of a forest. It's interesting to contrast the relative calm and quiet of that darkness to the darkness Remnant wakes up to in "Elevator". As always, Remnant's skill as a cartoonist is superb, with complete control over his line and his page. Like many artists inspired by underground cartoonists, Remnant's layouts are relatively straightforward, though he does something unusual on many pages with a 3-2-3 grid. The reader tends to go to the center of the page in grid set-ups, but Remnant deflects the reader's eye with two central panels in the middle of the page, forcing them to take in both of the central panels as a single image and then the rest of the page. Remnant wants the reader to look at every panel and follow its rhythm to the next, even when there are silent beats and delays. The way he formats the page makes the reader do this if they want to follow the story, and he faithfully puts a lot of clear but detailed information in every panel. Location, mood and body language are all keys in Remnant's comics and it's obvious that he wants the reader to closely follow all three. Even though this issue is autobiographical, Remnant is less interested in being confessional than sharing relatable stories.

Black Light, by Julia Gfrorer. Ever since publishing her first book with Sparkplug, Gfrorer has been creating one astounding, unsettling and frequently erotic story after another. This mini collects four short stories from a variety of sources, and what's remarkable about it is the way she takes tired fantasy and horror tropes (a vampire, Death, a deadly water nymph, and a magical bear) and transforms them into something that's actually frightening and real. That's because while the genre trope is often part of the story's big reveal, it's never the most frightening thing about the story. For example, "River of Tears" starts with the sort of party scene that Gfrorer excels at depicting, but soon segues into a series of texts from a suicidal junkie girlfriend. The horror here is not the Grim Reaper coming to take her away, but rather the mind-rending horror of dealing with that kind of emotional manipulation. "Phosphorus" is horrifying not because there's a monster in a pond, but rather because it's about sexual violence and humiliation."All Is Lost" is a downbeat story because it flips around the expectation of a monster menacing a child and suggests that it's the mother who is really the monster. Finally, "Unclean" and its ultimate monstrous revelation only works because of the way Gfrorer sets up and details the woman's betrayal. Indeed, she even suggests that the vampire is less of a predator than the woman's cheating ex-boyfriend. Her line is scratchy, harsh and dense, all befitting the kinds of stories she tells. Gfrorer is a smart storyteller above all else; one can sense just how much thought goes into each story and how certain elements, once revealed, will resonate for the reader. Her work rewards multiple readings because of its thoughtfulness and attention to detail, as well as her deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics and how they become dysfunctional.

LOVF New York: Destination Crisis., by Jesse Reklaw. This is a harrowing, intense account of Reklaw journeying to New York City and inadvertently going off his meds and becoming homeless for a period of time. Published by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket Minicomics, it's a beautiful, full-color minicomic that contains comics, sketches, collaborations with others and tenuous threads of narrative. It's a comic that's as much about the process of making a comic as it is the material itself, because the original pages got rained on at one point and the colors bled into each other. It's a collaboration with the elements as well as other artists, and a document of Reklaw going through a manic phase when he was off his meds. The line between typical member of society and being homeless is shown to be remarkably thin, especially when someone is dealing with mental illness. This comic rewards multiple readings simply because each page is so dense and filled with detail, scrawled jokes, background gags and references to New York. The city plays a huge role, given how unforgiving it is to the poor, but also because Reklaw went to the city to try and do business, even going to the weekly open tryout at The New Yorker. This comic represents a side of Reklaw I've never seen before. He's an artist whose comics are generally neat and ordered, hewing to strict grids and other formal constraints. Here, he's all over the place in spectacular fashion.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Minicomics: Barnett, Henderson, Brunton, Tablegeddon

The Magic Whistle #13, by Sam Henderson. A new issue of Magic Whistle is always cause for celebration, and it's good to see that this is going to be a regularity with the newly-revived Alternative Comics. This is my favorite format for Henderson's work, because it allows him to display his full range as a humorist. There are single-panel gags, longer narratives, long-form callbacks, long-running serial gag features, conceptual jokes, scatological jokes and even funny anecdotes. Henderson excels in all of these areas and is perhaps the most versatile humorist in comics as a result, even as his deliberately crude visual stylings remain the same from strip to strip. This issue's highlights include a very meta Gunther Bumpus strip, wherein he doesn't get stuck in his cat flap and thus doesn't leave his ass hanging, leading to all sorts of angst and the eventual, ineffective intervention of Pickles the Exploding Dog (one of Henderson's best-ever jokes, especially thanks to the very serious and determined expression on the face of the dog). There's also a great Dirty Danny strip, a typically demented Lonely Robot Duckling strip, and a story about a bizarre encounter on a subway. Henderson also features work from the delightfully wacked-out Lizz Hickey, whose diary comics and jokes about being peed on fit right into the proceedings. David Goldin's back cover is drawn very much in Henderson's style. I like this mini-anthology approach, as it reminds me of what Peter Bagge was doing in Hate before he closed up shop on the regular run of the series.

I'm A Horse, Bitch, by Lauren Barnett. This comic begins with a reclining horse that says "Pleased to meet you. I'm a horse. Don't worry, the jealousy you're feeling is normal." Things pretty much go from there, as Barnett takes this concept and runs a mile with it, playing up the hilarious vanity of the horse ("I read books that would confuse you. I'm smart as fuck."; said books include Gravity's Rainbow, Twilight and Ecrits). Every page has a great joke on it, leading to a solid finish. What makes this a big step forward for Barnett is that this comic isn't just conceptually funny, but the drawings themselves lend a lot to the jokes as well. She sells a joke about how embarrassing ponies are with a really cutesy drawing of a pony, for example. From beginning to end, it's a perfectly-realized bit of  humor.

Second Banana, by Tessa Brunton. This is a funny story centering around Brunton's relationship with her brother regarding belief and influences. As the youngest member of her family, Brunton was susceptible to her brother's tendency to pontificate. Sometimes this led to him sharing "the good stuff" with her, like comics, HP Lovecraft, ghost stories and other unexplained phenomena. However, it also led to his point of view being the only correct one, which made it especially tough because he was precociously intelligent and Brunton struggled academically. This was a power imbalance, and Brunton sadly relates how it came between them, even as her brother meant well. This especially came to light when he abandoned his love of the supernatural for rationalism, a move that essentially cut Brunton off from her steady supply of wonder. Brunton's character work is expressive and loose but grabs the reader's eye because of her attention to detail and decorative aspects of her work. She's careful to add hatching and background details like wallpaper patterns and imaginative details like monsters and haunted woods. Her line weight is thin to the point of fragility, a quality that carries over to the emotional qualities of her work, which combines nostalgia and sadness in equal measure.

Tablegeddon, edited by Rob Kirby. Kirby's one of the best editors in comics, and this zine sees him quietly putting together a comic filled with some intriguing names from the world of alt-comics as well as queer comics, two camps that are rapidly converging and sharing energy these days. Everyone who is an exhibitor at a comics or zine festival can certainly sympathize with the stories told here. Beyond the simple fact that everyone featured here is a cartoonist, many of the creators tend to write about how introverted they are and how tough it is for them to deal with crowds. Max Clotfelter's densely-hatched comic is a nice introduction to the anthology, as it details his first friend in comics, his first (awful) show and his first disappointing experience with comics. Sally Carson and Cara Bean's jam comic about meeting & bonding at a CCS workshop and then tabling together at various shows is inspiring and revealing, especially in how they are able to help each other through shared insecurities and encourage the other to work through it. Their lines mesh well, with Bean's stubby self-caricature and Carson's cute, bespectacled figure making a great visual duo. Bean's line is slightly thicker than Carson's which works to help differentiate their figures a bit more, but both are careful to avoid spotting blacks.

Kelly Froh and Carrie McNinch both write about the downside of tabling: a lack of an audience, a room that's too cold or a table that's too windy, and crippling shyness. Along the same lines, Aron Nels Steinke relates a story (told in his anthropomorphic style of drawing) of tabling with a guy he got into making comics who was suddenly getting TV deals and the relentlessness of certain kinds of fans. Kirby, Mark Campos and Justin Hall all talk about specific experiences, as Kirby relates a difficult time at TCAF, Hall talks about a brutal 20 minutes wearing down a customer until he made a sale, and Campos talks about a "mystery comic" he made that had an amusing punchline. The centerpiece of the comic, Gabby Gamboa's depiction of a family of neanderthals having a picnic discussing their comics, is hilarious, as she really gets at the conversations and pettiness that can take place at these sorts of events. John Porcellino's comic about how any theories predicting a show's success or failure tend to be specious at best. Tony Breed and Jason Martin both did strips about the ups and downs of tabling and the feeling of connection one seeks out at events like this. The seriousness and sincerity of those comics is then paired against the weirdness of Matt Moses recalling a belligerent fan at TCAF, a show held at a library and the sweet hilarity of Rick Worley relating his crush on Dash Shaw at one show. In the former strip, drawn by Jess Worby, the bulging eyes of the patron made everyone think that he was surely going to snap and murder them. In the latter, Worley builds up a fantasy of getting married to Shaw until he's brought down to earth by being told that Shaw was a woman. Worley's "Bottomless Belly Button...bit overrated, don't you think?" made me laugh out loud. It was one of many such moments in this anthology, one designed to entertain fans and draw nods of understanding from other cartoonists regarding experiences both positive and negative interacting with the public and selling one's art.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pursuit of Folly: Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

Ulli Lust's teenage memoir Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life walks a fine line between being a sort of after school special and a glorification of relentlessly irresponsible behavior. It's important to refer back to the title of the book as a sort of totem that explains just why 17-year-old Lust did what she did. She felt bored and trapped by her life in Austria and was inspired by anarchist and punk movements. When a fellow girl she met had the idea to simply hitchhike to Italy with no money and no passports, it seemed the perfect opportunity to cash in on one's youth, to go where the winds and fate took you. Lust is unsparing in detailing the highs and lows of the experience and the increasingly crazy events that overtook her. Like William Blake's line about pursuing folly, Lust ultimately became wise as a result of her experiences. Because fortune loves a fool, she escaped from her circumstances unscathed, mostly through sheer dumb luck but also a fair amount of guile.

The book opens with a disaffected Ulli at a crossroads. Her parents are urging her to go back to school, but she finds more inspiration hanging out with her punk friends. In essence, she simply wants to drop out of a bourgeois society. That's partly a political rejection as she allies herself with anarchism, but it's also an aesthetic lifestyle choice: rather than live a life of deadened sensation, she wants to try a life where every act and experience is a heightened one, every memory seared into one's brain. That's when she takes off with Edi, whom she met the morning after Edie had had sex with one of her friends. Edie had shown some experience hitchhiking, so the duo just started walking until they fumbled across the Austria-Italy border. The early part of the trip found them dodging policemen (a frequent worry) and living off the land, as their migration brought them a number of idyllic moments.

Throughout the book, there are temporary alliances built on a sense of trusting others on the road. Once in Italy, she starts to learn the price of trusting others, especially men. While she and Edie do manage to find a community of hippies, drop-outs and anarchists living in various parks, Ulli makes the mistake of going off with a couple of guys to the coast. One of the book's darker tones is the way in which a homeless 17-year-old girl is essentially a commodity for men, especially in Italy where the application of the male gaze is relentlessly shameless. She comes to realize that every man who wants to "take care" of her, buy her a meal, etc really just wanted to fuck her and then cast her aside. Edie, on the other hand, was happy to fuck anyone with a pulse, an inclination that made it easy for her to get along with others for a while, but it carried its own price. The book takes a harsh turn when Ulli is raped and then attaches herself to her rapist when she is hungry, homeless and doesn't seem to have other options.

The virgin/whore binary that is so common in hypermasculine cultures was certainly at work here, as her "boyfriend" wanted her to dress better and never, ever disagree with him -- especially in public. That reawakened Ulli's inner rugged individualist and offended her burgeoning feminist sensibilities, though she made the mistake of traveling on to Sicily. That portion of the book was the most fascinating and most bizarre, as Ulli steps into a world that feels like something out of a bad story but was quite real. This was the heart of "family" territory, as the mafia ruled the island and the city of Parma in particular. That Italian hypermasculinity was such that prostitutes weren't allowed to operate in the city because they were immoral, but this only meant that young men were even more brazen and brutal in going after single, unattached women. Women like Ulli.

Her luck seems to take a turn for the better when she is reunited with Edie, who was separated from Ulli as part of a scheme by a would-be rapist. However, Edie winds up being a sort of warped mirror image of Ulli. While Ulli saw her as a fellow free spirit, capable of letting fate and chance determine their days, she also thought of her as a loyal friend, someone she could trust. It was one thing to be constantly disappointed by men on her journey, but being betrayed by Edie would be something else. Yet that's precisely what happens after Edie becomes the girlfriend of the son of a mob boss with a severe learning disability, rendering him brutal and especially stupid.

The core of this book and the essence of her experience was learning to retain one's humanity and dignity in the most dehumanizing and alienating of situations. It wasn't just the threat of rape and being viewed solely as a sexual object that was dehumanizing, but also simply trying to live on a day-to-day basis with no money of one's own. Ulli escapes from the situation with her humanity intact even after being part of harrowing situations like escaping from a mob house, something Edie is not capable of when she later goes back and abandons her friend. Edie is drawn sort of like a human switchblade: long, lean, and angular with spiky black hair. She looks sleek but is really dangerous like a switchblade, and she winds up mercilessly cutting off her friend. She's a hedonist with no moral center, no sense of loyalty and no real emotions. While one of her companions relentlessly calls her stupid (another dehumanizing tactic that Ulli does not stand for), her problem was that she was a near-sociopath, a creature of pure id like a toddler that doesn't understand or care about the consequences of her actions. In many respects, she was the example for Ulli of what not to do and what not to become as a human being. Both young women were working in a moral vacuum, but Edie represented total amorality while Ulli represented a more noble sense of morality, a way of navigating the world that wasn't bourgeois but also wasn't purely selfish. For lack of a better term, she discovered a punk ethic the hard way.

I've rarely seen a book where art and story were in such perfect harmony. Lust employs a loose, expressive line that's naturalistic but quite fluid. The looseness of that line aids Lust in her depiction of the funnier moments of the book, like when Ulli and Edie get crabs and have to shave their public hair. Edie breaking down because she "no longer looks like a woman" was funny and especially telling that this book took place in the 80s, before shaving became a more common and even expected trend. Lust's own self-caricature is a wide (and even wild) eyed woman with crazy, unkempt hair and tattered clothing. Lust also captures the staggering beauty of Rome perfectly, as well as illustrating crippling poverty and the anarchist society of the homeless. The two-tone color scheme grounds the work nicely, providing a pleasant warm surface for the reader to embrace throughout the book's more unpleasant moments. Lust embraces her past as a sort of rite of passage, one that was about living her life according to a certain aesthetic. Lust was after beauty above all else: the beauty of travel, the beauty of total freedom from expectations and consumer culture, the beauty of great cities, and the beauty within others. Even if that quest for the beauty in others resulted in a hideous confrontation with inner ugliness, it never dampened her resolve or her hopes to find that sense of beauty in the world, a quest that continues even today  in her career as an artist. Lust may have lost her naivete' in the course of the story, but she never lost her sense of wonder.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Minicomics: Seitchik, Farrell, Skelly, Dinski, Taylor

Brendon and Going Rate, by Greg Farrell. There's no question that these comics are a major step forward for Ferrell. His Yo Burbalino comics had amusing moments, as it was clear that he was a good storyteller with no end of interesting anecdotes to share, but the stories felt rushed and the execution underworked. He also relied on the cheap joke and shock because they were both easy. With Brendon, a story obviously based partly on his own experiences (though it's explicitly noted as a work of fiction), Farrell retains the crude charms of his previous comics with a far greater sense of restraint and subtlety. This is a really sharp story that has a knowing sense of just how pre-teen boys relate to each other. The story revolves around a porn mag that "Greg" trades with the titular Brendon, a Hispanic kid who's become his best friend. Farrell homes in on the frequently homoerotic relationship young boys have with each other, even as there's a hyperawareness about not really being gay. That extends as far as actually performing sexual acts on each other as a sort of way of less expressing real attraction and more as a way of using their bodies. Farrell also relates tales of cruelty, betrayal and confusion, creating a book that is light on nostalgia and heavy on lives as they were lived, warts and all. Farrell keeps his line simple and utilitarian, rarely varying line weight or using many effects. Instead of using a grid, Farrell has an open page layout, which works because of the way memories and experiences bleed into each other.
While Brendon was Farrell's best effort to date, a look at his short story collection, Going Rate, reveals that this change didn't happen in a vacuum. "White Whale" is an interesting account of Farrell's obsession with one particular missing hip-hop album from his collection, and how he feel actually he after acquires it. "Jumbo Jockey" is about the B&H lunch counter in Manhattan, and Farrell does a great job capturing the essence of the place, the kind of food they serve and the sorts of people who eat there. "420" starts out as what seems to be another tedious story about someone's personal drug habits but turns into a story about personal responsibility and being a role model, all without taking on any kind of faux-moral tone. "I Am The Son Of A Small Business Owner" talks about the realities of the internet and corporations destroying small businesses and talks about the only way a small business can survive is to provide knowledgeable and personable customer service for those who happen upon their store. There are other, more-hastily drawn stories in the book, and while they're appropriately expressive, Farrell's line is too loose in those stories.

Children of Divorce and Still Life #1, by Daryl Seitchik. Seitchik is one of my favorite young cartoonists, and she flexes some different aspects of her talents in these two minis. Still Life has strips in the vein of her recent comic Sub: meditations that dip into magical realism and stream of consciousness thinking. Seitchik uses a very simple, fluid line in relaying stories about wanting to be a ghost (and how she suddenly realized that she had become one after getting high), hilariously overreacting to her toe going numb while watching a show in bed, and flashing back to remembering the sound of an ocean she heard in a beloved sea shell while using it as an ashtray while listening to music now. The way Seitchik draws herself as tiny goes beyond simply being short, as exemplified in the strip "Dinner With An Adult", where she draws herself as just a few inches tall, sitting in a gigantic chair opposite someone asking her if she's depressed and where she sees herself in ten years. These are comics about drifting, about the feeling of being betwixt and between. Fortunately for the reader, they are stylishly drawn and quite funny. The strip where the internet gives her possibilities for why her toe is numb is amusingly drawn, as she conflates "inflamed" with "enflamed" and draws herself on fire. In other strips, the way she spots blacks to create dramatic negative space is striking.

Children of Divorce is not quite as assured in terms of the drawing, but Seitchik displays some skill in the ways in which children act cruelly toward each other. The physical version of this comic is in black and white, which actually wound up flattering her character design a bit more than the way she used color online. The main character fancies herself a witch, giving out fortunes. While she's the lead, she's far from sympathetic, as she's jealous of her best friend giving attention to "Medusa", a girl with a lazy eye who is nonetheless one of the popular kids. I loved the way Seitchik drew thin, flailing limbs and skinny legs looping around. Best of all are her exaggerated faces with contortions worthy of Peter Bagge in some panels and subtle, tiny lines that nonetheless are packed with emotion in others. Seitchik will have a comic out with Oily Comics soon, and I imagine she will shine in that format, especially since she seems comfortable with her style and storytelling abilities. I'm interested in seeing what kinds of stories she'll tell from here.

Operation Margarine #2, #3, by Katie Skelly. Skelly seems really at home in this mod-inflected road story about two women whose paths cross in interesting ways. The first issue set things up for Margarine, a rich girl frequently kept in a mental institution by her mother, and Bon-Bon a tough girl on a motorcycle who simply punches out a guy who hassles her after selling her out. These issues set up what Skelly really wants to do: draw images of the open road, introduce mysterious guys with scars and stylish women with different-colored eyes to hassle them. There are motorcycle and arms dealers in the middle of the desert and a funny diner scene wherein a long-suffering waitress is made to look every bit as interesting as the leads. Skelly clearly loves combining glamor and menace, as Bon-Bon pretty much exudes that on every page. She's like a ronin on a motorcycle, waiting for something to do and someone to protect while trying to think about her past as little as possible. Margarine has been broken for so long that she's looking for someone to put her back together in an entirely different environment. Skelly really plays to her strengths as an artist here: character design, gesture and body language. She minimizes background detail in such a way that it's not lacking on the page when needed, but doesn't interfere with the two leads when she wants the reader to zero in on them. This series will be collected by AdHouse and will undoubtedly look great.

Alarm Clock, by Will Dinski. I've been reviewing Will Dinski's comics since I began High-Low over seven years ago, and he continues to produce thought-provoking, funny and occasionally disturbing work. This mini is a grab-bag of shorter work by Dinski, including an extended sketchbook section. The cover, a tribute to Gluyas Williams' work from the 1930s, leads to a hilarious punchline when one opens up the back cover as well. It's a well-designed gag that adds an enormous amount of character detail in the service of pulling the eye in one direction. Even though this is a series of shorts, Dinski manages a callback gag in the last story from the first in two stories that otherwise have nothing else to do with each other. One's a bit of hyperbole about a man who's always late and the extreme measures he takes to try to reset the clock, and the other's a droll bit of satire about a cruel but dim executive who prefers delegating unpleasant tasks to underlings. In general, each of the strips carries the titular quality of nothing happening and then alarms going off; In "Wait", a man is anxious to shake things up, but his friend tells him to sit still despite an ever-escalating series of crazy events, until the craziest event of all is an opportunity to act. "A Fine Job In The Execution" is about a watch and a conversation a man has with himself sitting alone in a room, imagining various men of authority praising his work.It's an inner dementia at work here, an alarmed mind that is stirred by a timepiece and a possible reminiscence of being a state executioner. Dinski uses a variety of color schemes here to reflect the action; the first story employs shockingly bright colors and exaggerated figures, while "Wait" employs a red and green scheme for key phases of the story, with green representing calm and red representing action. This is a fine sample of work from a smart cartoonist with an impeccable sense of design.

Stethoscope Microphone, by Whit Taylor. This is a real change of pace for Taylor, who generally tends to do autobio and semi-autobio comics. This is a comic about the rise and fall of The Doctors, the greatest funk band of all time, and Taylor takes every music trope she can think of, puts them in a blender, and sets it on Space Bass. Taylor throws in elements from Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, the Beatles and every other Behind the Music idea and lets the absurdity flow. Taylor works in color here, which gives her very thin line some definition and greater structure, allowing her to pull off the kind of images she needed for the story to work. Taylor isn't afraid to get very silly, making a woman adopting the persona of Betsy Ross as the main love interest of the narrator. Overall, this is a pleasant diversion that's actually quite well-researched in its own way, and fans of funk in particular will enjoys some of the references.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Fantasy Is Reality: Dear Beloved Stranger

Dino Pai's Dear Beloved Stranger (Top Shelf) was one of the final books to receive a Xeric grant. It's a fascinating and complicated story about the ways in which dreams intersect with and obstruct reality, especially with regard to the creative process. Indeed, the story is about a young man (Dino) who has recently graduated from art school and is finally free to work on his own stories. He finds himself drawn to but afraid of connecting with Cathy, a fellow recent graduate who is also drawn to him, mostly by his intense shyness and sense that he has things to say but can't express them. The story slips into that story/dream, involving a boy looking for the source of a beautiful voice. Pai essentially alternates between a quotidian comic about the creative process and the world of creativity as an actual, living force. He links the ability to create closely with the ability to communicate and build connections; when he's stuck on both of them, Pai marvelously depicts the kind of bored, time-wasting trivialities one engages in in an effort to make projects magically fix themselves.

For Pai, there is no such magic. Indeed, in the middle of his dream world project, failure of imagination bring great peril and even oblivion to its hero. At the same time, the difficulties of Pai's avatar take a physical toll on him, as he collapses in front of Cathy during the story's climax. It's only at the end that we discover that the "beloved stranger" Dino writes to is an unreachable object of affection, an unrequited and one-way love affair that fueled his imagination as a younger man and led him to craft this story. When that person became irrevocably unavailable, it damaged Pai's narrative mid-stream, an interruption that's captured throughout the course of this story. So Dear Beloved Stranger is a comic about making a comic that includes the comic that's being made as part of the comic. That meta-comic interacts with reality in interesting and unexpected ways on a psychological level. It's never quite magical realism, but rather a sort of fluid reality where one's fictional constructs feel as though they are real and part of your life. Considering that authors talk about characters dictating story and going in unexpected direction, that's definitely a kind of a magical conjuring space where the author only has so much control over what's going on.

That's very much how things play out here. Pai's own anxieties make it difficult for him to write a comic that must, in order to be successful, precisely capture just what this person means to him and how transcendentally wonderful she is, but do so in a narrative fashion where his being able to meet her is justified in the text. That's the essential conflict here: Pai can't figure out a way or a scenario where he "deserves" to meet her, because she isn't part of his real life. He's not simply writing wish fulfillment, but rather trying to document a feeling and that feeling's ultimate manifestation. He can't get there and can't ever get there, and that realization spurs the climax and allows him to ultimately finish the book. The device of sharing this story with another, real person for whom there might actually be real feelings in real time makes this approach work and prevents it from eating its own tail, as it were. Pai's refusal to slap on a make-shift happy ending or romance gives it another layer of authenticity. This book is a hero's journey that's really a journey of self-discovery. It's a journey that's only completed when the hero realizes that his initial goal wasn't really ever in his grasp to begin with, and that truth is more important than fantasy.

The only real problem I had with the book is that Pai circles back around the same ideas and themes several times before the climax. I think he could have gotten across the same ideas and made the book much more powerful by paring down the middle, which drags quite a bit. Pai's visuals are compelling and powerful, but some of that initial impact is watered down when the same effects are repeated throughout the story. I understand that Pai was trying to convey a certain kind of pacing and ennui at several points throughout the story, but I wish he had had the confidence in his readers to pick up on the subtleties and nuances of his story without having to repeat them multiple times.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

At The Zoo: Tune Book 2: Still Life

The second (and hopefully not final) volume of Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine's Tune takes its time and really lets the reader marinate in its hero's dilemmas that get crazier and crazier. The first volume introduced art student Andy Go, who quit school anticipating a lucrative career in illustration and instead wound up living with his parents. Kim combined a love story, art school horror stories and spoofing stereotypes about demanding Asian parents while throwing a huge curveball at the readers in the end: the job that Andy gets is as a zoo exhibit in a parallel dimension. Everyone more or less accepts this matter-of-factly, but Andy is frustrated upon learning that his long-time unrequited crush in fact shares her feelings for him but is now apart from her. That's where this volume picks up: watching Andy adjust to life as a zoo exhibit.

This volume is illustrated by McClaine, who seamlessly takes Kim's character designs and makes them just a tad cuter. Otherwise, there's not much of a noticeable change between the two volumes. McClaine's characters are expressive and work well either as simple figures or more naturalistic ones, depending on what Kim calls for. Kim loves to use a lot of exaggeration to express feelings in his characters, and McClaine runs with that nicely, smoothly rendering Andy's frustrations, hopes and dreams. When Kim introduces a premise, he really likes to see just how far he can expound upon it before moving on to the next idea. At the same time, he also slyly lays some hints in what seem to be trivial scenes regarding story concepts that are explained later on. This keeps the reader off-balance in an interesting way. For the first part of this volume Kim explores Andy's solitary existence as a zoo exhibit. He learns to relax and even enjoy the job, thanks to the interdimensional aliens replicating his house exactly and filling it with all his favorite books, music and TV shows.

The first wrinkle thrown at Andy is that he was tricked into signing a contract that wasn't for a year: it was for life. He would never see any of his friends (or more importantly, the girl of his dreams) again. After initially trying to be friendly to the aliens watching him in the zoo, he instead grows angry at them. The next wrinkle is that he learns he can talk to his neighbor, whose advice may well be dubious. The third wrinkle is that he's due to get a female mate. Throw in one of the zookeepers being fascinated by his ability to draw (art is a concept foreign to the aliens), and there are all sorts of plot shenanigans that keep the reader guessing. Every one of those plot twists is earned by Kim's insistence on telling the story slowly, letting the reader get to know Andy warts 'n all. At the same time, some of the ethically dubious things that Andy does (like read his crush's journal to discover that she loves him) wind up getting punished in funny and unexpected ways. The volume ends with Andy and his new roommate plotting an escape and their next-door neighbor making himself known to them in person for mysterious (and probably sleazy) reasons. Whether or not there's a third volume will depend on how well the book sells. Tune was being published as a webcomic (as befits Kim's roots) before being published by First Second (not an uncommon move these days), but Kim is actually paying a real wage to McClaine in order to draw it, which is certainly a refreshing and professional approach in the world of comics. There's been no news that I know of regarding how the first volume did, but I get the sense that Kirk will need a couple of more to finish out this story. I hope he does, considering how adeptly he moves between slice-of-life fiction and science-fiction.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Baited Expectations: The Cute Girl Network

Written by MK Reed & Greg Means and drawn by Joe Flood, The Cute Girl Network (First Second) takes on the notion of what it means to be in a bad relationship. It's about going with one's gut and own two eyes rather than the experiences of others. It's actually remarkably devoid of artificial twists and turns thrown in to give the potential lovers a conflict to battle against. Instead, Jack and Jane both have to battle the titular Network: a group of young, single women in the city of Brookport (a Portland/Brooklyn amalgam) who exchange information on their ex-boyfriends and stage interventions if necessary when they see someone going into a situation lacking what they deem to be crucial knowledge.

Jane is a skater who works in a skate shop, while Jack sells soup at a food court. What's interesting about the thrust of the book is that while neither character is very complicated, it's that very lack of complexity that draws them together. Jane faces rampant sexism at her job and at the skating park, a point hammered home in a sharply-written scene where she chews out a guy who first dismissed her ability to skate and then deigned to hit on her when she proved himself. Jack is lazy, spacy and clumsy. He's also kind, devoted and funny.

Jack's roommates include a true sexist pig of a bro and a devout feminist, but they all somehow get along because they all share their views openly and enjoy berating each other in a playing the dozens kind of way. I'm not precisely sure what the division of labor was between Reed and Means, but dialogue is Reed's specialty and a big strength of the book is its verisimilitude. It's that sense of being true to life that gives what would otherwise be cardboard thin characters some depth and heft. Still, one can't help but sense the writers of the book pushing back at the sheer shrillness of Network leader Harriet and her dogged insistence that she knows what's best for Jane. Jane is given an intervention by the Network and is taken around to meet several of Jack's ex-girlfriends, all of whom share hilarious horror stories about atrocious birthday presents, forgetting to show back up at an apartment for an anniversary dinner, talking to a girlfriend's mother about their sex life in excruciating (if oblivious) detail. Jack is aware that Jane is being fed this information and is on pins and needles regarding Jane's decision. Will she listen to the Network's (in the face of scold Harriet and her friend who also disastrously dated Jack) urges to dump him, or will she ignore the facts and take a chance?
Before and after images by Joe Flood. Note the level of detail.

The answer is not in the least surprising to anyone who read and saw that Jane consistently enjoyed being with Jack and that he made her feel good. Means and Reed suggest that in a way, the Network wound up subverting their own attempts to steer Jane away from Jack. First, Jane's stubborn and contrary nature made it unlikely for her to do something just because someone told her it was for the best, even someone she was friends with. Second, finding out someone's worst qualities from the very beginning can ground a relationship if there's a real attraction there and squash the fantasy construction we might have. Jane herself suggests that just because Jack wasn't right for these other women didn't mean he wouldn't be right for her, because she had little in common with the people she met. For his part, Jack gives an honest accounting of his many screw-ups but also provides context lacking in the horror stories; more to the point, he seemed motivated to try as hard as possible. Reed and Means give the book a romantic ending, but they also notably stay away from showing an epilogue, updating the state of the relationship in later times.

Another thing that makes the book work is the slightly scratchy and messy style of Joe Flood. Better known for drawing monsters and the like, the bit of grit he adds to the proceedings is not only appropriate to the characters, it helps steer the book away from the smooth, cutesy and more typical First Second house style. It especially helped that the book was in black and white, in part because Flood was more than happy to fill up his panels with the detritus and other details of a city. He didn't need bright, happy colors to fill in gaps. Reed and Means do throw him a bone by having him draw some pages from the Twilight-type series that's mocked relentlessly by the female members of the cast (yet secretly liked). I definitely sensed Reed's hand here, since she created a hit fantasy series for her book Americus.

Despite occasional foul language, I still see this falling squarely in a slightly upper level of young adult reading, like the sort of thing a 16 or 17 year old might enjoy. Ultimately, it's a well-crafted book that's not quite as interesting as Reed's prior book for First Second (Americus), even though it tries its best to provide a new, meta wrinkle on the romance comic. Indeed, many classic romance comics have plot twists that reveal how scummy an exciting bad boy really is, and end with the heroine tearfully intoning "If only I had known!" The Cute Girl Network shows how inside knowledge often reveals things that aren't as important to some as they are to others.