Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Minis From CAKE: S.Roberts, C.Hannah, M.Galloway, J.Campbell

The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) was one of the better shows I've ever attended. Here are a few minis I picked up, with this batch from locals.

Body Magik, by Scott Roberts. I reviewed an earlier comic by Roberts (Chemtrails), but I get the sense that this new comic is much more closely related to his real project as an artist. I was fortunate enough to talk extensively with him about his artistic interest and methods, and a lot of that conversation revolved around Gary Panter as an inspiration. Roberts is definitely in that "mark-making" school of cartooning, where the imperfection of the line itself is an important part of the aesthetic--much more so than its pure representational value. It's an aesthetic that borrows some aspects from abstract expressionism in that the line is an expression of emotion, but it's one where narrative is still a key aspect of that expression.

In the case of this comic, it's about a group of old friends who visit their now ultra-rich and somewhat spaced-out friend who created some kind of life-changing app. Printed on a Risograph, Roberts uses a two-color approach (blue and orange) as well as decorative effects that affect the actual narrative. There's an interesting tension between form & figure and environment, especially with regard to depicting hallucinogenic effects that warp perception and reality. Roberts starts the reader off on shifting sands when introducing them into the rich man's home: it's strange and almost alien in character. Then things get even stranger when he introduces them to an app that reads one's desires and creates a new, 3D-printed, perfected body.

The rest of the comic explores these new bodies: a centaur, a lumpy but masculine mass, a furry bear, a couple sharing the same body in the most intimate ways possible, etc. Roberts naturally explores the downside of this app. The couple sharing the body has become completely cut off from the outside world. The centaur runs away from intimacy. The man who became the bear did it only for his lover, whose near appearance as male is distressing to him. That leads to an interesting debate: "Did you love me or my body?", with the remarkably honest answer being "I don't know...both?" Throughout this series of explorations, Roberts is careful to continue to focus on the figures while providing decorative subtext that push themselves into text, like the character who becomes a caterpillar suddenly bursting into life as a butterfly. It's the ultimate symbol of unambiguously joyous transformation, and to see it juxtaposed against someone regretting their own change was an interesting narrative strategy. It also points to the idea that subconscious desires may not match up with one's own conscious narrative.


My Erotic Life, by Jessica Campbell. Humor comics are something I take very seriously, if I may venture into contradictory territory. I can enjoy something that's a humor comic even if I don't laugh out loud; I can generally enjoy them on a more conceptual level, even if it's tough to make me laugh like that. Of course, when I do find a cartoonist that elicits that reaction (Ivan Brunetti, Michael Kupperman, Lisa Hanawalt, Gina Wynbrandt, Lauren Weinstein, Peter Bagge), they become instant favorites. So is it also the case with Jessica Campbell. Her Hot or Not was a brilliant work of satire, and I've enjoyed her other illustrated minis that were mostly not entirely comics. But this collection of four-panel strips (the building block of humor) shows the artist going strictly for punchlines--and a lot of them land hard. The great thing about the strip titled "Oh, this old thing? It's just..." is not that she escalated the absurdity to build to a crescendo, but rather that she immediately elevated the absurdity and kept it a high level. From "Cheetos sprinkled on my feet" to "A trash bag with nipple holes" (with hilarious accompanying illustrations, this was the best gag in the mini.

Not all of her gags are conceptual. A drawing of her own tongue writhing in her mouth begins with the question "How hard is it to swallow your own tongue?" and ends with the statement "I smoked a little pot", giving perfect context to the prior four panels, especially since that kind of pointless tangent and staring off into space is precisely what happens when getting stoned. Campbell has clearly been working on her cartooning and drawing, as it is way more confident than it was even in her book. A side effect of that work provided another strong gag, where she starts off wanting to learn how to draw a nude man. She opens up a Google rabbit hole, simply saying "Huh!" for the next eight hours. As Campbell continues to refine her line, she has the opportunity to continue to clearly merge the visual aspects of her humor with the already razor-sharp wit that she possesses.

Nest, by Marnie Galloway. Rarely do I encounter cartoonists with a high degree of technical illustrating skill who also possess an intuitive, humane approach to art the way that Marnie Galloway does. Her Burrow was a personal meditation on motherhood (though not an autobiographical one) that explored the relationship between early motherhood, sleep deprivation, and the dream-like state (bordering on psychosis) that often occurs as a result of that lack of sleep. Nest is a non-narrative companion piece, juxtaposing drawings against Galloway writing out the Sophie Jewett poem "To A Child" on pages opposite the drawings. The drawings are similar to her Burrow style: Megan Kelso-esque in the use of a clear line, the bulky bodies with a powerful presence, the pastoral imagery of mothers and infants asleep together. It was printed on a Risograph, with green (of course) being the single color at work here. The most beautiful thing about this comic is its stillness: mothers and children asleep together: safe, becoming rested and rejuvenated, and sheltered. There's a sense of beautiful dreams chasing away the confusion of Burrow, if only for a little while.


Chicago In The Fall, by Cathy Hannah. Hannah's being doing memoir comics for a long time,but with her recent Springtime In Chicago and its sequel, she's really started to hit a new stride. Each daily strip is just four panels long, and she is careful with regard to what she chooses to talk about each day. This volume is a raw, honest look at her love life, as she still pines for one co-worker while sleeping with another one, a man whom some of her friends worry about with regard to his temper. Hannah has found her stride in part because she's found a way to simplify her line without sacrificing coherency or emotional content. Working with what looks like a fine-line marker, she's also attained a level of panel-to-panel consistency that resonates with the reader--especially her own self-caricature. With a few lines for bangs, dots for eyes, and a prominent nose, her profile pops on the page.

Hannah switches subject matter from her current job, to job interviews, to therapy sessions (mostly talking about jobs, the guy she's sleeping with, and the guy she's still obsessed with), time alone with her ailing cats, and eventually anxiety over the 2016 presidential election. There's a strip where she turns away from sex because her partner is drunk; initially she thinks to do it just to get over with then realizes that's precisely the wrong thing to do. This later leads to a fight, which leads her to question why she's even in this arrangement, other than for sex: "Trust me, it's not that glamorous". Strips like that are balanced with Hannah experiencing delight with regard to things coming in the mail or getting goofy with friends, as it's clear that personal connections are a big part of her happiness, even as she tends to be a homebody by nature. Hannah goes round and round a bit and even cops to it at the end: there's no conclusion to this comic because her life wasn't wrapping up neatly either. There's a sense that this comic is one long holding pattern, waiting for other shoes to drop: Trump, the health of her cats, her job, the guy she's dating, and the guy she's in love with. The fact that none of the shoes other than Trump dropped, so to speak, add a certain amount of tension to her life, but it's clear by the tone of the strips that simply writing about these events is therapeutic in its own way.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Two More From Kilgore: Noah Van Sciver & Glynnis Fawkes

Slow Graffiti #3, by Noah Van Sciver. This is a minicomics version of Van Sciver's daily diary strip that his Patreon readers get to see. This one's from November of 2015 through April of 2016, when he was a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies. He famously fictionalized his experience in Blammo #9, depicting his own alienation from the students and how he unintentionally further alienated them, but these diaries depict a somewhat different experience. The reality was that he felt nervous about having to perform and teach, but at the same time, he wanted to connect with them as well. He goes into some detail about how much of this is related to anxiety, and how one student went out of his way to to offer someone to talk to if he needed it. Van Sciver then connected by helping students with a task; at heart, he's always shown that he's a team player.

There are stories about pushing through on drawing tasks, going out in the forest, going to an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner, going to lectures, meeting weird people at shows, and more. This is Van Sciver at his roughest and rawest, and there's a powerful immediacy on each page as a result of that. A cartoonist grappling with depression and anxiety on the page is almost a cliche' at this point, yet the way Van Sciver finds ways out of these states seems directly linked to his ability to draw and write about it. Quite contrary to the cliche' of the whiny autobio cartoonist, Van Sciver's strips are almost always solution-oriented, introspective or self-deprecating in the search of a really good joke. For lack of a better word, the sketchbook reveals a real sense of maturity for Van Sciver, both as an artist and person who is trying to be the best version of himself possible.

Reign of Crumbs, by Glynnis Fawkes. Fawkes has written about her children before, but much of her work tends to focus on either mythology or archaeology. Not in this book, as Fawkes expertly and honestly captures the ways in which children (and pre-teens in particular) are both terrible and wonderful. Her husband makes the occasional appearance as well, but most of the book is about her interacting with her eleven year old son Sylvan and her nine year old daughter Helen. Much of the book looks like it was drawn with a brush pen, giving her spare drawing style a lot of weight and power on each page. The characters are all well-defined as a result, and she fills in other details with a tool that produces a thinner line. There's a real sense of ease and looseness on each page, though it's obvious that she spent a lot of time considering the composition of each individual panel.

Her children are depicted as loving, funny, creative, intelligent and silly. They are also depicted as lazy, incredibly entitled, messy, picky eaters, argumentative and hypersensitive. In other words, human beings at a particularly dramatic stage of development, one where the tug of dependence and the need to be independent create some personality conflicts. It doesn't help that her two children want nothing to do with each other, each (correctly) thinking that the other will monopolize the conversation--especially when they are with their mom. The best scenes were the bedtime tuck-ins, especially when they demand better tuck-ins that she's given. Fawkes points out the ways in which her children are still very much children, and the ways in which they are pushing her away. She depicts herself as a pushover mom who perhaps spoils her kids a bit too much (especially with regard to their eating habits), but she's also aware of this tendency and makes fun of her kids when they take advantage of her or her husband. When "little Helen" requests a last glass of water after being tucked in, Fawkes makes fun of her and Helen simply moves on by yelling "Daddy!". There's a real sense of joy in this comic as the kids are still at an age where the kids are still demanding her presence even if they're pushing back a bit, and Fawkes can still get silly with them and draw a reaction.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stanford GN Project: A Place Among The Stars

I've long been fascinated by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. As far as I can tell, it's a unique endeavor for non art-schools in that it asks a group of students to create an entire, full-length book in just one year. There are further restrictions: it has to be based on real events and have some kind of social justice component. The results have frankly been all over the place, with 2010's Pika-Don (about a man who survived the bomb dropping at both Hiroshima AND Nagasaki) by far the most successful and the best-looking. The time constraints, the fact that many of the students are raw beginners, the distribution of labor (which inevitably is not equal) and many other factors have led to the books being more of a curiosity than something worth reading on its own.

The latest book I've received, 2014's A Place Among The Stars, is right up there with Pika-Don in terms of overall success. Interestingly, it predated the success of the book (and later smash hit film) Hidden Figures, which was about another little-known aspect of NASA, its "human computers" who were women and largely African-American. The book from Stanford is about the Mercury 13: thirteen female pilots who were given an opportunity to train and be evaluated for the possibility of going out into space in the early 1960s. It's an incredibly compelling narrative, and it's unsurprising and unfortunate that it's not common knowledge--especially given the rampant sexism in society and the quasi-military culture of NASA. Another interesting thing about the book is just how little the artists behind the project had to go on with regard to deep knowledge of the program. There were a few reference books, but this is something that really demands an oral history to really get at its deep roots.

That said, given the relative paucity of reference material, the artists did a remarkable job in creating a compelling, fluid narrative by focusing on several key characters and filling in some blanks. Fortunately for them, the key characters were memorable individuals indeed, Jerrie Cobb was a young and accomplished pilot who held a number of world records. Janey Hart was an accomplished pilot who was married to a senator. Randy Lovelace came up with the idea of training female astronauts (thinking they might be better suited to the rigors of space and were smaller than male astronauts) as part of NASA. And Jackie Cochran was the most famous female pilot in America, but a bit past her prime. That simple mix produced a compelling narrative that didn't feel at all dumbed-down, as every character was given shading and nuance.

Reading the end notes, the instructor team of Dan Archer (CCS grad and cartoonist), Scott Hutchins & Shimon Tanaka (writers) made one key change. Instead of having three teams on the book (writers, thumbnailers, artists), they instead made every writer a thumbnailer. Thumbnailing doesn't require drawing skill, but it does require an understanding of cartooning and storytelling. Doing this made it an easier process to translate their initial ideas into a form that was easy for the artists to translate. The actual drawing in the book is frequently shaky, especially with regard to anatomy. However, the cartooning is fine. The characters stayed on model on page after page despite having a number of different pencilers, their characters in relation to space were consistent and body language was well-expressed.

In terms of the writing, the authors did a great job setting up the main characters and their feats as pilots, the excitement of potentially going into space, and the many hurdles they had to face as women. Jealous, alcoholic husbands. Jobs that fired them for taking time off. Taking care of children with no one willing to help. Sexist and flip attitudes from men of all stripes, especially journalists. Indifference and scorn from male astronauts. Being told they weren't qualified because they hadn't flown jets, but being denied that opportunity because it was restricted to the military--which they couldn't join. An interesting twist in the story was that it was Randy Lovelace's idea to begin with, and that a lot of opposition came from a jealous Jackie Cochran, who wanted to be the first woman in space despite not qualifying physically for the opportunity. It all came to a head in a Congressional hearing where Lovelace refused to appear and Cochran stabbed the other pilots in the back. It wasn't just sexism that sank the program, but glory-hogging and grandstanding as well.

Wisely, the authors made sure to include an epilogue that not only followed what the pilots wound up doing after their program was permanently discontinued, but also how the US space program changed to eventually include women. The overall result was a pleasant, page-turning book that was painstakingly researched, nicely-colored in tones that were chosen to match the era. I could easily see a more polished version of this book being published by First Second or Scholastic as part of a historical or science-related YA line. Archer really hit on something by forcing everyone to do at least something that was visual by making the writers thumbnail, and the result was a pleasantly cohesive book that still upheld all of the values of the program.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Two From Kilgore: Unicorns Of Planet Earth, Kilgore Quarterly #7

Unicorns Of Planet Earth, by Lauren Barnett. Barnett doesn't do a lot of minis these days, but there's no question that she's become funnier and funnier over the years. Her latest comic is kind of a conceptual sequel to her excellent I'm A Horse, Bitch, except that it's from the point of view from Barnett as a "unicorn scientist" instead of from the animal's point of view, and it declares horses to be "snooze-fests". Barnett's comedy is mostly conceptual in nature, combining total absurdity with a deadpan quality that's razor-sharp. The crude drawings of unicorns (in full color, no less) are always funny in and of themselves, and made funnier by supporting text like "This unicorn is an alcoholic, though he would say he's just 'going through a rough patch.'" Even better is when she describes the fact that unicorns mate for life, she says, "I love knowing that true love is out there, even for unicorns! It doesn't make me want to stab myself in the face or anything like that. I'm just happy when others find happiness. Super happy."

The comic goes from there, absorbing aspects of the likes of Lisa Hanawalt and Lauren Weinstein and giving them Barnett's own sardonic spin. What makes the comic so successful is Barnett's comedic sense of rhythm and the way she plays it off the bright, colorful and silly imagery. The mini is the perfect delivery system for this kind of humor, as her design and sense of humor is all over it. Barnett is the master at taking a seemingly thin premise and absolutely wringing out every possible laugh.

Kilgore Quarterly #7, edited by Dan Stafford. This latest issue of the in-house anthology collects a number of "orphans"--short stories by various interesting cartoonists that are now hard to find. It opens with a superb Summer Pierre piece, "Dappled Light", that starts off exploring her current relationship with old TV sitcoms from the 1950s (including the humor-free Father Knows Best) and then slips into a reminiscence about how TV was an escape from what was hinted at as a rough and abusive childhood. Pierre's drawing of herself as a girl is perfect in this regard: dots for eyes, a simply-drawn face, long straight hair. In the scene where she imagines herself inhabiting the world of Leave It To Beaver, just for a little while, that simplified self-image perfectly encapsulates her fragile emotional state. To be drawn with any more naturalism would be unbearable.

Tim Lane's "Steve McQueen Has Vanished" is typical of his deeply noir-inflected stories, only with a twist. Drawn in Lane's typical naturalistic, shadowy style, the story sees a drifter approach a roadside motel in a beat-up pick-up truck. The twist is that the drifter might be the missing actor Steve McQueen, who disappeared for a time in the early 70s. Another interesting storytelling decision is Lane himself being the narrator of the story but having the dialogue play out in real time, as though the narrator has no control over it. It's a story about regrets, rivalries, identity and the sinking feeling that one has made the wrong decisions in life. Lane also uses a metanarrative of McQueen's disappearance being on the news program McQueen watches in his motel room, as well as one of his earliest appearances (in the monster movie classic The Blob) being on TV.

Joseph Remnant's "I Told You So" is a story about heartbreak, obsession, falling in love with someone through their work and jumping into a new relationship just to reduce the pain of an old one. He's also an artist who uses a naturalistic style, but unlike Lane, it's more in the R.Crumb tradition of lots of lines and lots of cross-hatching, giving it more of a nervous energy than Lane's cool comics. It's a story about doing everything the wrong way but things turning out for the best anyway, and it's got a mixture of brutally sarcastic supporting characters and impractically idealistic protagonists.

Also in the issue is a hilarious Sam Spina "autobiographical" comic about a fish named Sam Spina who's having trouble getting laid, seguing to the actual Spina who then gets beaten up for looking like a threatening homeless presence. It's wish-fulfillment and anti-wish-fulfillment, all in one story, and in Spina's typically frantic, scratchy style. Leslie Stein's "The Desk" was taken from an Oily Comic she did where she sets up a desk in front of her room as a child made of fake bricks. It's a story about playing being an adult (her mom leaves to go to a meeting) and working through crisis, in the most delightful of ways, as she uses her trademark stippled style. There are also a couple of interviews in the book that are handwritten, featuring the cartoonist Jason and singer Grace Slick (!). This is a nice, tight little anthology that is surprisingly cohesive, given the differing styles and subject matter.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #7: Andrew White, Part III

This time around I'm taking a look at some of Andrew White's earlier work: Black Pillars 1-2, from 2013-14. These comics, as oblique as they are, are still far more conventional than much of White's work, as they play with some standard grids, have a fairly straightforward narrative, and use conventional linework. That said, White still plays around with fracturing that narrative, doing some interesting things with the grid and generally using a handy enigmatic storytelling device to full effect. The plot of the story revolves around thousands of mysterious black pillars appearing all over the earth, defying all explanation. Touching them was not lethal, but it create a sort of dissociation of both mind and body. Eventually, the pillars disappear for no reason whatsoever. The comic follows a few people from one small town, some of whom are displaced by the pillars, and their attempts to understand what was happening.

The opening five pages and the final five pages both feature stark shots of nature: mountains, forests, ruins reclaimed by nature, etc. The implication from these scenes is that the natural world in some ways will always be a mystery, one that humanity tries to tame or ascribe their own meanings to. Whether or not the pillars ever existed is almost meaningless in that context. But exist they did in the story, They are there for both the reader and the characters to ascribe meaning to: the Signifying McGuffin. In the context of this particular story, they serve as a metaphor for identity in the first issue and a metaphor for memory in the second issue.

In particular, they act as a kind of tentpole for a sort of young adult vision quest, the kind where a young person is trying to envision what the rest of their life might look like. Where there are two friends, and one winds up staying in town and the other winds up leaving, and they try to squeeze as much life as possible in the remaining moments they have together. "Let's do something stupid" is their mantra in the comic. Conversations go from being solid if uninformative to simply being blank word balloons. Forms of friends go from being solid to fading out. Some of the young people make understanding the pillars and their activities their life's work, while others simply use them as an excuse to take other actions.

In the second issue, when the pillars have disappeared, the theme shifts from identity to memory, especially with regard to how the latter affects the former. It's years later and the friends reunite for the first time in a while to discuss what it all meant. The beginning of the story features narrative captions describing how it felt for certain elements of humanity to feel like they were reclaiming their dominion over the earth. Similarly, the friends were trying to reclaim a set of experiences by going back over their tracks and remembering them. The reality in both cases is that enumerating certain qualities of a phenomenon is not the same thing as understanding the phenomenon. Just as the first issue finds characters becoming blurry and indistinct, so too does it happen in the second issue as well. It happens because people found themselves missing the enigmatic quality of the pillars, not to mention the way in which it forced humanity to act as a kind of unit in response to their presence as sort of the ultimate team-building exercise that creates bonds through a shared experience. Ultimately, the mountains still stand and the forests still grow, and humanity is no closer to understanding or even beginning to understand how to understand the mysteries of not just nature, but the core of their own selves. Memory provides an illusion of identity and continuity, just as the forced shared experience created a sense of community. White doesn't seem to be commenting one way or another on these matters: they just are, and a phenomenon like the pillars is a simple stand-in for any number of other signifiers we encounter in our lives.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Comics by Carta Monir and Carolyn Nowak

I'll admit to being mischievous when I decided to review the comics of friends and faux-rivals Carta Monir and Carolyn Nowak in the same column, but any sense of self-amusement quickly faded when I engaged with their beautiful, heart-rending work.

Secure Connect, by Carta Monir. I've read many, many comics about the experience of trans people.. Some were direct, personal and informative. Some were funny as well, using humor as a way to defuse some of the pain of the transition process (and life before transition). No comic has given me the opportunity to crawl inside the brain and heart of a trans person the way that Monir's comic did. The conceit is simple: a trans woman is given a computer program by her therapist that will connect her with a highly intimate, virtual support group. It's one where raw honesty is its most important aspect. The comic follows one such session, two months after she received the program.

The support session was divided into three activities: share an image, share a fear, wear an image. One of the keys to the success of the comic was Monir's open-page layout that was designed to replicate the emotional and first-person experience of being in such a session as opposed to the reality (a person sitting at a computer screen). As such, there are close-ups of her eyes, zoom-ins on screens, fractured and iconographic imagery, imagery that repeats as the protagonist imagines and re-imagines them in her mind that looks like pop-up screens, and then more conventional page layouts when there's a sudden narrative aspect to the nature of their interactions. There are a lot of interesting formal elements at work here, but the reader doesn't really notice the scaffolding unless specifically looking for it. Monir's narrative is so compelling and immersive that the reader is simply taken along on the journey.

The first activity featured the women sharing highly erotically charged images that had different meanings. One shared an image of an ex, spread-eagle and masturbating--not as a deliberately provocative act, but to relate her own feelings of disgust and worthlessness. That said, Monir revealing has the protagonist react with desire when she sees each of the sexualized images. It's an interesting juxtaposition, even as the protagonist lies to the others on the call about certain things, Monir lays bare her every emotion, fear and desire for the reader. That especially plays out when the image the protagonist uploads is of herself from six years ago (complete with beard), but she cops out and says it's her ex. She even repeatedly says "I'm sorry" out loud. What I found fascinating about this and a later panel where someone (a potential date) calls, she declines the call and texts to say she'll call back and gets told "don't bother" is the way Monir depicts the push-pull nature of this kind of therapeutic relationship. It's not all hearts and flowers and empowerment. It's messy, raw and makes her frequently feel ambivalent, scared and awkward.

The fears section was entirely verbal, which made it far less intense and visceral than the other two sections but no less difficult. The protagonist talks about her fear of change, or rather a fear of making a big and irrevocably wrong change. I love the sense of antagonism she feels toward the moderator of the group, even as she comes to feel sympathy for her. The last section, "wear your image", was when the comic ironically turned into a more typically-composed page. Monir made sure not to make it a grid so as to keep the reader a little off-balance, but there are regular panels and gutters here. One person sees herself as a super-confident, sexual being. One wears the skin of a guy who essentially asserts the limits of his patriarchal power: the power of life and death. One is a horrible, insensitive beast. The protagonist is a slutty, creepy girl who deserves punishment, and the moderator presents an image of a baby with its hands chopped off, which the protagonist views as "tragedy porn" even as the moderator says it's "to raise awareness". The brilliance of the end is that there is no end; there was an outburst of emotion from the protagonist and kindness from the moderator in return, urging everyone to vent and feel in this space. The final pages are a meditation on the group's mantra: "I will remake myself in my own image", as the protagonist imagines stacked windows being reduced to a simple, blank slate that is in the end, a positive expression of self. It's not an ending, but a first step. Monir not only beautifully expresses her own individual issues as a trans woman, she also brings the reader into the experience of therapy itself, of confronting and evading one's issues, of learning how to be honest with oneself and others. The innovation of her page composition mixed with her clear-line approach makes the book both immersive and entirely clear.

Radishes and Diana's Electric Tongue, by Carolyn Nowak. I first encountered the quirky, gentle and genre-inflected work of Nowak in an issue of the anthology Irene. I was immediately impressed by the way she depicted the push-pull of aggression and attraction and the way she treated each character with humanity and empathy, even as they sometimes did bad things to each other. Beneath the flip and fantastical surface of the comic was a deep well of emotion. That was certainly true for her Ignatz-winning comic Radishes, which is about two high-school age girls in a sort of fantasy setting. They decide to skip school one day and go to the big local market, where they have their run of the place because no one's there yet. One of the friends (Kelly) is tall, thin and confident, while her best friend (Beth) is shorter, plumper and passive. In a series of amusing anecdotes, the real story Nowak tells is how they take care of each other emotionally. Halfway through the story, they find a magical fruit stand whose produce causes them to float, lose their hair and eventually create a double. Kelly laughs off her own friendly double but Beth has a profound experience with hers, weeping as her double embraces her and Beth apologizes to her. It's a moment of profound self-actualization and forgiveness, of gaining a moment of self-acceptance and self-love. Everything Nowak does in the comic leads up to that one moment, and when it's over, the comic quickly ends. It was a powerful metaphor that didn't act as a blunt force object because of how seamlessly it was incorporated into the rest of the comic.

Diana's Electric Tongue takes on more complex themes. There's not much in the way of plot in this story, as Nowak's comics are more character pieces than anything. Instead, Nowak has the reader follow three distinct threads: 1) The fact that the titular character suffered a severe accident that saw her bite off her own tongue in the process, only to be replaced with a cybernetic version. The understated nature of the trauma of that event is a key part of the story. 2) Diana buys a companion robot that's attuned to each individual user; more than a sex robot (though that's part of ), it acts as best friend and confessor as well. 3) Diana is invited to a wedding where her famous ex will be present and decides to bring her robot, Harbor, to the event. Let's break down each thread.

One of the themes of the story is the intersection between physical and emotional trauma. One never gets the sense throughout the story that Diana has actually process her physical trauma. She has a new, fancy tongue, but it doesn't quite work right with regard to taste. The ways in which she tries to downplay this make it even more obvious that this is an issue she's simply chosen not to address. This plays a role in her choice to buy Harbor, who has therapeutic value in his "vault" mode, an uncrackable database for one's deepest secrets. Diana ostensibly bought Harbor to get over the pain of being dumped by her famous ex Blue, but that's only one of the kinds of pain she processes, until the very end of the story, when we see the accident occur, presumably in Diana's mind's eye.  Another theme of the story is shame. Though her friends mock her for it, buying Harbor and bringing him to a public even was a signal from Diana that she was through with shame. It wasn't just a whimsical decision, as she crossed a very specific kind of line with her choice.

Nowak also obliquely addresses another idea, which is the difference between Diana's relationships with Harbor and Blue. It's no accident that Blue does not have a present-tense speaking role in the comic. He's famous. There's a sense in which no matter what his intentions with Diana might have been, there was no chance of real, lasting intimacy between them precisely because he chose to live in the stratified air of celebrity. There are ways in which Diana was far more intimate with Harbor than she ever was with Blue in terms of being able to tell him anything, Harbor's devotion and genuine adaptability to Diana's needs. That plays out when he makes up a poem for her that's incredibly lovely in its own way. At the same time, he has no free will or agency of his own. He wouldn't be there if she hadn't paid for him, in precisely the same way being with a sex worker or a therapist buys you their time and attention. The story is open-ended, but one gets the idea that Diana was perhaps on the way to healing by the end.

The story works well because of Nowak's skill and clear delight in drawing bodies. Diana is big-hipped, her roommate has big legs and everyone in the story has their own particular physical and real-feeling presence. The composition of her panels is frequently quite clever, with not just open page formatting but cutaways where the roof has been lifted off. She keeps the reader off-balance with big splash pages, using negative space to highlight a single panel on a page, and lots of close-ups on faces. Her use of color was spectacular, adding context to the futuristic world she created to make it inviting, exciting, and slightly trippy. She's also great at drawing facial expressions, like the perpetual blush on Diana's face or the blank but benign expression on Harbor's face. This is ultimately a story about survival and recovery, with Nowak's humanity shining through and comforting her characters without sacrificing the pain of their struggles.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

CAKE And A Site Update

Due to travel and other factors, I haven't had a chance to update the site this week. Patrons should expect a make-up review from last week as well as a new review tomorrow. Regular programming will return next Monday.

Meanwhile, a few scattered thoughts from CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo.

** My expectations were right-on: it was the best show, table-to-table, I'd ever attended.

** As a mid-sized show, it was the best-run show I've ever been to. SPX is generally still the champ at this, but there was a level of execution at this show at all levels that was impressive.

** It's a juried show, but the jury process was very interesting as far as I could sense it at work. The range of special guests was interesting, as they brought in some younger artists (Jessi Zabarsky) and established art-comics stars like Gary Panter and Ron Rege'. What was more interesting was the concentrated effort to bring in a hugely diverse group of exhibitors who were under 30. I hadn't heard of nearly two dozen excellent cartoonists before I attended the show, and their work was impressive. I'm not even going to bother to specifically count the male-to-female cartoonist ratio, because the eye test said it was 50-50 or better.

** The venue itself was welcoming. While the front room wasn't a great place overall for sales (there are only a few tables and it's cut off from the rest of the floor), the fact that the main show was in a converted gym meant that there were some bleachers on one said that people could sit on to rest. The show was on the third floor, and the first floor of the Center On Halsted was occupied by a grocery store--perfect for popping down briefly for food or drink. Excellent synergy there.

** The show offered a genius idea when you walked on: pronoun stickers (he, she, they, etc.). It's another mark of the show trying to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

** CAKE had a slew of con-related events. There was a reading at legendary comics/zine/book store Quimby's on Friday night with several cartoonists. I managed to catch an astounding reading by Emil Ferris (more on her later) and Gabrielle Bell, who also killed. Then there was a post-reading reception. I got to meet cartoonists November Garcia and Chris Cilla for the first time, as well as talk to folks like Jordan Shiveley, Simon Hanselmann, Kevin Huizenga, Jacq Cohen and many more.

** Then there was an afterparty at a swanky bar hosted by Revival House (I noted to November that I wasn't nearly cool enough to be there) and I got to meet Eric Kostiuk Williams, Iona Fox, and Cooper Whittlesey. Spending time with so many cartoonists I've met from CCS made the weekend a great deal of fun.

** After the show on Saturday, another bar was hosting cartoonists. There was a wonderful get-together right after the show on the patio of the venue, then a concert featuring Panter & Rege' and another featuring Anya Davidson and Conor Stechschulte, then everyone convened to yet another bar.

** All of this points to how great Chicago is and how remarkably warm the community is there. One got a real sense of "let's all put on a show", even as CAKE had shifted into bringing in a number of new members on their steering committee. They genuinely cared about everyone at the show having a great experience, from exhibitor to spectator. There was some discussion as to why Chicago was such a great cartooning town, going back thirty years or more. One clue was the sense of continuity and tradition, and that was personified by the fact that Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti attended both CAKE on Sunday and the concert later. Chris said he wondered the same thing and thought that the mix of urban living and culture with relatively cheap prices all around helped, as did the brutal winters that demanded that people stay inside to work. It was nice, as an outsider, to experience that culture first-hand.

** As predicted, Jenny Zervakis' Strange Growths did quite well. John Porcellino reported selling a case of them even as sales were down overall. The fact that the Cubs were in town didn't help, as they soaked up most of the local parking (the venue is a few blocks away from Wrigley field). It was also really hot.

** Strange Growths was definitely one of the books of the show. I'd say that Juliacks' debut with 2dcloud, Architecture Of An Atom, was another. One thing I've been following for years is when a small publisher starts to make the leap to become a far greater presence. 2dcloud's table had a critical mass of great works, indicating a confident and assured series of creative decisions by publisher Raighne Hogan and the many other people who make up 2dcloud. Silver Sprocket was another publisher that's clearly coming into their own, with several debuts and a strong sense of identity, as publisher Avi Ehrlich has transitioned from simply making music to becoming a comics publisher. Czap Books is yet another vanguard of comics' cutting edge. And of course, Uncivilized continues to move from strength-to-strength as a publisher, as does Koyama, but those are known quantities. That's not even taking into account the dizzying array of local publishers and collectives, like Bred Press or Perfectly Acceptable Press.

** RIP to Yeti Press, which published an array of deeply personal and eccentric books. The mere act of publishing Eric Nebel (whom I got to meet) earns them accolades forever. Their last book was by Leigh Luna, a young cartoonist whose work I greatly admire.

** Other personal highlights included meeting Kim Jooha (new associate publisher of 2dcloud) for the first time, spending late nights talking to Scott Roberts, and hanging out with the delightful November Garcia. The excitement for comics that those three possess is infectious.

** The other highlight of my weekend was moderating the Place As Character panel. This was going to be a tricky panel because I knew I'd have to talk more than I prefer in order to get some specific information from each panelist, which meant hoping that they were all willing to take my questions and run with them. Fortunately, run with them they did, no matter how abstract or philosophical they were. The panelists were Emil Ferris, Sophia Goldstein, Laura Knetzger and Mita Mahato. Each artist used place as a kind of character in very different ways, and each artist has a radically different style that informs their work. I first asked how their formal choices informed their use of place and went from there. I was lucky that each artist had carefully considered the subject beforehand and was well-prepared to discuss the topic.

Ferris has a commanding, compelling presence on stage yet is far from a showboat; she's generous and giving as a panelist, both in terms of articulating her own work as well as interacting with the other panelists as well as myself. She made some comments about liking a flawed line with some dirt in it because we as humans are dirty and come from dirt that I found fascinating. At the same time, Goldstein's analytical approach that welcomed the idea of perfect linework had its own appeal even as the source of her work is so much darker than Ferris'. Goldstein touched on the deep, threatening and primal mysteries of the forest and agreed that her environments were in direct opposition to her characters, even if her protagonists were never heroes. Knetzger's gentle, cartoony style saw her concentrating on trying to create a sense of texture in her environment of everything except the Bug Boys themselves; she wanted them to remain nebulous in the minds of her readers. Mahato's paper-constructed comics took a tack similar to Goldstein's in that she wanted to unroot the reader from a sense of specificity of place and character by exploring abstractions to their furthest limits. The whole panel should hopefully be online soon.

Special thanks to Jessica Campbell for being so organized and kind with regard to the panel, and everything else the rest of the weekend.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

As You Were, Volume 4

The fourth volume of the punk-themed anthology As You Were is all about living situations. One of the problems this anthology has had was getting too many entries that were too much alike, as well as many cartoonists not quite being up to the task of writing something serious or poetic without coming across as pedantic. In this volume, the slightly broader nature of the theme allowed for some oddball entries along with more familiar stories about dilapidated houses, weird roommates, and the punk lifestyle in general. The anthology is generally funnier than any prior volume as well, both in terms of stories that are nothing but gags as well as more situational humor.

There's also a nice mix of short strips and longer stories, as well as some illustrations that tell a story. Both Andy Warner and Liz Suburbia have full-page drawings of a house with different kinds of goings-on. For Suburbia, it's a full-blown punk rager complete with a band on the porch but with some of the housemates sitting quietly in their rooms. For Warner, it's a smartly-designed drawing that focuses on the details of each unoccupied room in the house and leads the eye over to the treehouse on the right side of the page. A lot of the stories play off stereotypical riffs about punk living: piled-up dishes, bric-a-brac everywhere, parties at the drop of the hat, communal living and much more. Ben Passmore sends that up with "The Punklord", which puts all those ideas in a blender and then turns them into a heroic quest. Passmore's chaotic style that tends to fill up every panel with detail gets at that anarchic quality of punk living better than anyone else in the book.

Jim Kettner's "Tales From The Bookhouse" takes an idealistic approach, lovingly detailing a house and a network of punk houses in Philadelphia, their hilarious parties that served as camaraderie-building exercises and a powerful sense of connection that drew back many when the time came to shut it down. Kettner's clean, naturalistic style deliberately takes the edge off the setting in a way most of the other cartoonists in the book chose not to do. The other end of the spectrum finds Steve Larder's "The Hippy House", about a self-described square who moved into a ridiculous stereotype of communal living, complete with "random bits of fabric on the walls", property that not-so-mysteriously walked away, piles of dishes and bare feet. His line is a frantic scrawl that reflects the intensity and surprises of that situation, though his reactions were very much made with a lot of affection. Erin Wilson's "Buying The Baron's House" in many ways is the definitive statement on the punk ethos, especially from a feminist perspective. Using an eight-panel grid, the left side of the page depicts the construction of the house in 1858, as a young businessman steadily becomes more interested in money than his own family, dying alone in a house full of servants, most of them women. The right hand side depicts 2008, as a group of female punks take over the now-decrepit house, joyously renovating it and replacing the scowling portrait of the titular Baron with one of anarchist hero Emma Goldman. Wilson's clean and precise line cleverly relates lots of subtle details, like the Baron's wife drifting toward the attentions of a lumberjack..

There are three standout stories in particular. Steve Thueson's sharply drawn "July 2009" about living in a tiny room during college is a joyous union of clear-line and clutter. The story is funny and pits the familiar tropes of living in a punk house with an especially urgent plot point: his girlfriend asking then-virgin Steve if he wanted to have sex. He didn't have a condom, but there was a place in the house with a bowl of them. But when he got there, a house concert was in progress and he didn't have the guts to go to the bowl and just grab one. The comedic timing is sharp and there's a sweet poignancy to it all. Nomi Kane's "Nightmare On Milwaukee Avenue" put her in conflict with a housemate who wouldn't buy toilet paper when it was his turn (disgustingly using newspaper and throwing them in the trash can) but who gave Kane grief for merely keeping her tampons nearby in the bathroom. There's a scene of truly righteous anger that had me laughing out loud that in particular exposed how many hippy/grungy types who might seem enlightened have many sexist and even misogynist beliefs. Finally, Rick V's "Draws A Comic About Every Human He Has Lived With" succeeds by sheer force of repetition and his ability to find a gag for every situation, matching his crude but energetic art.

Some of the stories are just about spaces: the haunted room that Liz Prince grew up in, the way that Aimee Pijpers managed to find comfort in virtually every space she ever lived in, and Lindsay Anne Watson's depiction of a simply floating in a comfortable space done in the same style as Michael DeForge. Some of the stories take the concept to the limit, like an infomercial for an old punks' home by Rob Cureton, an odd sci-fi story about reclaiming lost prisoners by Joshum, and James The Stanton's fantastical account of rats pouring out of a wall in a punk house and forming a single, sentient being that flies into space. There are also more variations on strange people encountered and spaces lived in that frankly didn't register, which is often a problem with this anthology. It's always about twenty pages too long

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Moreton Of The Week #6: Minor Leagues 1-3

My feature on Simon Moreton concludes with his Minor League zines, issues 1-3.

Minor Leagues is Moreton's latest catch-all series, and in many ways, it's his most mature work. Looking at the first issue, it's that Moreton is still experimenting with different line weights and moving into some different territory. There's one drawing of an elderly couple sitting, watching some event. It's a sublime illustration, capturing their essential qualities with a few swooping lines here and there. Moreton mixes printed text & illustrations, text alone, text that inspires several pages of illustrations, and regular comics. I still prefer his most minimalist attempts at illustration the most, like the sketchy illos for a story about a trip to Paris that Moreton took. They are so expressive and beautiful that they almost seem as though they came out of Moreton's pen effortlessly. There's a sharply observed and reported strip about a trip to America when he was younger (including a few Warren Craghead style text immersions into the image), a gorgeous silent story about a long walk in the rain, and a lovely (and lively!) story about a trash can fire for leaf burning that was part of a memorable afternoon in his youth.

One of Moreton's skills as a storyteller is his ability to write a story about a memory and really inhabit it on the page, and then move on to a completely different era and inhabit that just as fully. Moreton's best selection of drawings ever came in Minor Leagues #2, in a section about summer that uses a hybrid visual aproach. There's a judicious use of splotches acting as spotting blacks, there are several variations in line weight, and there's a careful balance between a minimalist approach that nears abstraction and a sketchy naturalism that once again covers the essence of each character thanks to his use of gesture and body language. There's a photo series that seems to be a reaction to the disastrous results of Brexit, as though Moreton was almost saying that for a while, he could no longer see the beauty in the every day and abstract it from the original object. Interestingly, Moreton retreats back into drawing pictures of nature as a further reaction: birds, flowers, sunsets and even elegant graveyards, as though there was a more urgent need to create beauty than usual. There's also a letters section that's every bit as meditative and thoughtful as the ones that John Porcellino publishes in King-Cat. 

The third issue is shorter and sadder, as it focuses on the death of his father. After a strip about the uncertainty of his father's condition in a hospital, Moreton follows it up with an startling walk in the rain featuring a line that's about five times as thick as his usual line. The effect is a kind of heightened reality, one that's repeated later in the comic in a story about birdwatching. Moreton counters the sadness of the eventual death of his father with more images of flowers and memories of teenage hooliganism. The extensive use of negative space, the relaxed pacing of every story, the meditative quality of his prose and the general rhythm of each thick issue create a comic with powerful emotional content, using restraint to address some frequently intensely raw emotion. This is the best work of his career overall, and it looks like the best is yet to come with Moreton.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ten Artists To Seek Out At CAKE 2017

I will be attending the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) this Saturday and Sunday, June 9th & 10th. I'm excited to meet a number of Chicago-area artists for the first time, and of course will be looking for comics for review. On Sunday at 3pm, I will be moderating a panel titled "Place As Character", featuring the artists Emil Ferris, Laura Knetzger, Sophie Goldstein and Mita Mahato. All panels will take place on the third floor of the Hoover-Leppen Theatre. CAKE has a tremendous amount of talent, perhaps the most per capita of any American art festival. This is a show with special guests like Gary Panter, the explosively popular Emil Ferris, Simon Hanselmann, Kevin Budnik and many more. Here are ten artists you might be less familiar with that you should consider visiting if you attend the show.

1. Haleigh Buck (Table 315). This autobiographical cartoonist from Baltimore is making some of the rawest, densest comics about dealing with mental illness as part of everyday life, including how she dealt with an enormous breakdown. Her naturalistic style has a surreal edge to it and she maintains a wicked sense of humor throughout.


2. Chris Cilla (Table 205). His book The Heavy Hand is one of my favorite comics of all time, fusing a variety of styles together seamlessly to create a psychedelic, hilarious journey that defies all of the genre conventions that the book explores. His minis are also excellent, creating his own brand of underground comics that acknowledge all of their forebears without being beholden to any one in particular.



3. Cathy Hannah (Table 410). Hannah is another autobio cartoonist who writes about the intersection of the personal and political in interesting ways. She spills a lot of ink in delving deep into her own mental illness issues, her feelings about relationships and documenting her own therapeutic breakthroughs in real time. She uses an inviting, cartoony style to tell her stories.


4. Sophie McMahan (Table 403). Ever since one of her comics appeared in my mailbox, I've been astounded by the sophistication of her critiques of beauty, image and the male gaze through the use of body horror and distorted versions of 1950s-style advertising illustrations. Every one of her comics is both aesthetically beautiful and thematically challenging.



5. Carolyn Nowak (Table 505). She's doing some fantastically funny comics about sex, gender identity, culture and intimacy, with her recent Diana's Electric Tongue especially notable. A winner of the Ignatz award last year, her comics have a sense of lived-in warmth that's part of her sharp critiques. Her work is questing, curious, warm, funny and extremely smart.


6. Ben Passmore (Table 307). He just earned an Eisner nomination for his breakthrough short comic Your Black Friend, a pointed meditation on racial alienation. However, his other comics, like his postapocalyptic-autobio series Daygloayhole, are every bit as provocative, dealing with issues like addiction, isolation and connection, told with a weary sense of humor and razor-sharp intellect.


7. Ethan Rilly (Table 405). Rilly's Pope Hats series is one of the best things going in comics. Its serialized storyline about a law clerk named Frances features characterizations that rarely found in comics, gorgeous character design and an unerring ability to use stillness and pauses as a key part of his storytelling. His comics are subtle, beautiful and immensely satisfying.


8. Yumi Sakugawa (Table 220). This is an artist whose sharply-observed observations about art and gender dovetail beautifully with her sense of composition that makes extensive use of negative space. There's also a slightly exaggerated sense of reality to be found in her comics, often mediated through her frequent use of a reserved or deadpan narrative voice. UPDATE: Yumi Sakugawa has cancelled.


9. Eric Kostiuk Williams (Table 510). Williams' gained a lot of notice with his Hungry Bottom Comics series, a comic that mixed autobiographical essays about being young and queer in Toronto with surreal dreamscapes. Williams' potent mix of incredibly fluid draftsmanship and a probing mind helped get an Eisner nomination with his recent Babybel Wax Bodysuit, and his recent Heartbreak Condo Disco from Koyama Press.



10. Jenny Zervakis (Table 105). It's a conflict of interest to suggest that her debut collection of Strange Growths could very well be the book of the show, given the fact that I interviewed her for a section at the end of it. However, I'm not the only one eagerly awaiting this book that collects the first 13 issues of her minicomic, mostly from the 90s when she was a publishing mainstay. That John Porcellino had been planning to do this kind of collection for years speaks to the respect he has for her work. Her thin, penciled line tells stories that are poetic, still, funny and sharply observed.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #6: Andrew White, Part II

My look at Andrew White's comics-as-poetry continues with three more comics.

Read and Erase. White describes this as a "spiritual sequel" to Ley Lines #4, which analyzed Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein. The size, format and even color of the mini mimic the first comic to remarkably exacting degrees. This is a beautiful account of the relationship between Stein and her wife, Alice Toklas. It's bookended by correspondence between Picasso and Stein, notable for Picasso's desperation while struggling early in his career (including multiple requests for money) vs later in his career, when Stein begs him to write or visit, desperately missing her friend. The comic is written in the cadence of Stein's prose and White's images mimic the shadowy, almost foggy quality of the Ley Lines comic. White uses a 2 x 4 grid here to create a rhythmic understanding of Stein & Toklas' life, one where Stein thought and wrote and where Toklas took care of other things. This is a comic about the differences between speech and writing, about the ways in which some really smart people have difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis, and about relationships with a perfectly symbiotic balance.

The first half of the book is from Stein's point of view, ending with love notes written to Toklas. The back half of the book is from Toklas' point of view after Stein has died, and the grid suddenly becomes 2 x 2, reflecting how half of this unit has been taken away. The longer panels with much more negative space also reflect the sense of loss and emptiness that Toklas felt, but the steady rhythm of the grid also reflected the way her simple daily rituals and mission to publish Stein's work kept her going. At heart though, she never felt the same again with Stein gone. White's comics aren't usually this emotionally wrenching, but he earns every ounce of feeling expressed in these pages in the way that he structured it. It's among his very best comics, with its only problem being that some of the lettering is very hard to read because of the publication process.

This Is A Brick Wall. The comic was "inspired by the work of Sol Lewitt", a conceptual artist whose work often came in the form of instructions on various permutations of things that others would draw. In a sense, his work continues long after his death as his instructions continue to be carried out. This comic starts with the invocaton "Hello. Pick up a pencil if you want and follow me." From there, White takes the reader through a number of panels with statements and instructions regarding the tactile nature of the comic as well as instructions on drawing, from circles, to symbols, to imagine something being blue, drawing sounds, images in one's own head (and whether or not you would want to draw that image). It's a conceptually simple but quite compelling mini that I read multiple times, marveling at its immersive structure.

Tides. This is among White's simpler comics, both in terms of tone and execution. Using a 2 x 4 grid, he tells the story of summer in a beach town and how a teenage boy and girl made a connection and what that connection meant years later. White uses a fairly thick line here, reminiscent of Dash Shaw, and modulates mood and emotion through the use of colored pencil. He fills in a lot of details with blue in particular, and that color gives the story a certain lightness. Green indicates warmth, as when the boy meets the girl and she invites him to go to a swimming hole. The girl is red, indicating mystery. They meet up again years later, with him not knowing to expect, and she shows him a gnarled tree in the middle of the desert, claiming no one knows what it's doing there. It's colored red, of course. They each have their own kind of purity and are drawn to each other because of it, yet they are also horribly mismatched. White depicts a relationship with a particular kind of frisson that can only last for a brief time.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hurk's Ready For Pop

UK cartoonist Hurk (aka "Lord Hurk") works in the distorted, grotesque underground tradition, but he's always been less about shock and transgression than simply telling funny and over-the-top stories. Ready For Pop is his first long-form work, and it's a love letter and send up to Swinging London, mod culture, Pop Art, pop music, over-the-hill comedians and tough-guy movies. Visually, Hurk also has a little fun referencing French New Wave cinema's tendency toward surrealism on the second page of the story, as there are inexplicable images of a tiny man in a blender, a bird dropping a branch through a window and a gun being fired. Hurk's page design deliberately tries to keep the reader off-balance, as it eschews the use of gutters and tilts up and down at strange angles. There are frequent decorative flourishes that fill empty space (arrows, checkerboard patterns, black & white stripes and other familiar psychedelic patterns) and there's a lot of symbolic language instead of text, The figures are strange and distorted, with long, grotesque faces. Just looking at the single page is a strange and off-putting experience.

What makes the page even better is when Hurk slowly reveals that the page wasn't meant to be obscure or symbolic: it described events that were literally happening. There was a tiny man (pop singer Vic Vox) who was about to be pureed in a blender and served in a milkshake. That's the beginning of the intersection of 60s era British pop music and 60s era British gangster movies. That blender we see at the beginning of the story is a sort of cheeky clue for the reader that this book will put all of Brit 60s culture in a blender in order to see what happens.

The book's central narrative is the race to find an antidote to Vic's shrinking in time to perform on the enormously popular live TV show Ready For Pop, a send-up of shows like Ready Steady Go. The hero of the book is Detective Chief Inspector Ladyshoe, who leads a Scotland Yard team in search of clues. The book unfolds like a storytelling problem that Hurk created for himself, laying down new narrative pipe in chapter after dizzying chapter until finally bringing all the threads together. Along the way we meet a washed-up, alcoholic comedian given a chance to host the show, a string of Vic Vox's rivals that included anarchic Rolling Stones analogues called the Small Pocks, absurd police sketches (a truly inspired gag!), the initiation rites of a local Masonic-type lodge, the ambitions of a young female pop singer & her manager-boyfriend, the sinister machinations of an American cigarette company, assorted charismatic and thuggish British gangsters, gunplay, fisticuffs, billiards halls, assassin monkeys and the like.

The plot is a kind of shell game where one has to be aware at all times as to who has Vic's antidote and if the authorities are aware of this. Where Hurk eventually takes that last shell with the antidote under it was funny and not entirely unexpected, but he fully commits to the bit and goes all the way with it. This is a very British kind of comic with its references, but it's one so ingrained in general pop culture that most readers even a little familiar with the era will easily be able to understand what's going on (and Hurk is sure to spell everything out) and those a bit more steeped in the era will chuckle at Hurk's references. That said, the book is really simply a mash-up between pop music and caper films, an easily digestible concept that is given depth, detail and specificity by staying true to its era. It's the consistency and clarity of the mind-bending visuals that really put the book over the top, giving the book a skewed and psychedelic look without sacrificing storytelling Hurk's single-page splashes signify the beginning of a new chapter, with a wide view of an edifice that's about to have storytelling significance. It's a palate cleanser and rest point for the readers to catch their breath for a moment and chops up the narrative into more easily digestible parts. It also provides a bit of negative space for a story that's so incredibly jam-packed, with even blank spots in panels generally filled by zip-a-tone and other effects. For a story that has shaggy dog qualities, it's Hurk's incredible attention to visual details that make it such an enjoyable and remarkably page-turning ride.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tim Gaze's 100 Scenes

Tim Gaze's 100 Scenes is an interesting formal experiment: it's a one-hundred page, abstract graphic novel. Using a particular printing technique, each page contained a blotchy ink pattern that had some consistency thanks to the way the paper was pressed to produce it. Gaze noted that it was up to each reader to "read" each page and determine what they saw.

There is a real power to sequentiality. Simply by following up an image on one page with an image on another page, and continuing that kind of physical page-turning rhythm, there's an illusion of time passing and events changing. The result here was feeling as though I was being taken on a tour of very old images in a very old place. Some of the images were horrifying, some of them were mysterious, and some of them seemed to tell their own stories, but no matter what, there was a sense of being disconnected from them. There was a sense of being a tourist, safely detached from the old, visceral dangers that I witnessed. No matter how long I lingered on an individual image, I always had the sense that I never truly comprehended what was going on in that scene because there was another scene to attend to.

Some of those scenes felt like blood spattered on a wall, sophisticated cave drawings, networks of some kind of nervous system or sophisticated plant, mysterious & shadowy beings, strange lights, being plunged into darkness, walking in an ancient forest with just bits of light poking in above us, and glimpses of intelligences that I couldn't quite comprehend. It had a feeling of forbidden knowledge in an almost Lovecraftian sense. Yet the distance I felt from it kept the atmosphere from being one of true dread. It was like seeing an eclipse through a pinhole in a cardboard box instead of staring straight at the sun, like seeing the shadows of horror rather than the horror itself. The length of the book led to some repeat viewings of similar images, as though I was treading similar ground. Some of the things I saw looked like actual images, and others felt like tricks of the light. The length of the book was at times punishing, but it was important to stick through it in order to complete the journey as presented. All in all, it was an interesting experience to read, using simple rules regarding the form of comics to maximum effect.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #5: Andrew White, Part I

Andrew White is one of the most prolific practitioners of comics-as-poetry. I'm going to break down his work over the next month as part of my overall comics-as-poetry series. Today, we'll look at some of his collaborations.

Those Goddamn Fuckers (with Alec Berry) was published by Uncivilized Books as part of their minicomics line. Written by Berry and drawn by White, it's an especially haunting story that stays mostly faithful to a 2x3 grid until the final page. That grid is often free of borders, but its structure allow for the ghostly, fading figure effect that resembles that of memories, times and people slowly fading away. The story is about one figure in particular, a street poet and writer, the kind who is not long for this world. He's the kind of person who's broken and mentally ill and self-medicating but with something to say and people who will listen, if only for a time. The smudgy, blurred quality of the images and and frequent dropping away of line indicates that this is also a memory that won't stay around for long. It's a comic about connecting to something meaningful that is slipping away.

Fill'd/Empty'd (with Warren Craghead). The classic Warren Craghead comic is one where a relatively still scene is observed over time without regard to narrative. It's a kind of pure form of phenomenological poetry, looking at what is observed without regard to its function or its average everyday use, and through drawing it, Craghead really sees it. White experiments with this in his half of this flip book comic, taking a Craghead drawing for reference and running with it. White often uses a John Hankiewicz approach in his comics by creating a rhythm by "rhyming" images and then repeating them throughout, pairing the images with short pieces of text. White is exploring all of the meanings of the word "filled" by juxtaposing scribbled, shadowy figures against many days' worth of observation of what seems to be a pond near some rolling hills. There are oblique references to the rain cycle (airlifted) that also have a double meaning with regard to emotional states. There's a rainstorm, and the way that affects everything in the environment. Though he's working a hybrid between his own style and that of Craghead's, White's drawings always have a more anxious and urgent quality than the quietude of Craghead's, making for an interesting clash.

That clash continues with the White-written "Empty'd" part of the mini, which was drawn by Craghead. This is a different kind of phenomenological study, one in which the study of a single object with regard to its context is crucial to understanding the story. In this case, it's a stop sign in front of a vacant lot. In a fractured, frenzied manner, Craghead eventually relates the story of a car crash near the sign, a tragic event that perhaps ended someone's life. Incorporating the text as broken, jagged letters into part of the rusty, battered setting is a powerful reminder of how traumatic the event truly was and how even conjuring up memories of it is difficult and indistinct. Collaborations like this are often tricky, but both Craghead and White embraced the essential qualities of each other while working out how to create a synthesis.

Muscle Memory (with Kimball Anderson). Once again, White shows his versatility in working in a style closer to Anderson's than his own. Anderson loves playing with time and pace while blurring colors. In this comic, they mixed colors together and also co-wrote this story of a chef working over a number of years. This is a comic about a mindset, specifically a mindset needed for repeatedly performing a mundane but still somewhat skilled set of tasks. The imagery is inchoate in the early going, suggesting that a persona as a chef was still somewhat in its formative stages at the time. The rhythm of this comic is a 4x4 grid on the left-hand pages and a single, recapitulating image on the right hand side. It is crucial as a reader to stop and rest for a moment on the many empty panels in the early part of the comic, as they are meant to create a kind of reader empathy toward the slow progress made both in developing skills but also creating an identity. There's a relaxed, meditative feel to these panels as an identity is built and firmed up. The frequent use of alliteration creates an additional layer of viscerality, as even the words have weight and thickness on the page. Without conscious thought to what the chef was doing, their mind drifted out of intentionality and into the titular muscle memory. Two entirely blank pages suggest a passage of time that was so numbingly similar on a day to day basis that literally nothing stuck to the page. As the chef ages and their hands and mind aren't quite as sharp as they once where, there's no panel that goes blank. There's an intense, almost painful level of concentration on hands, head and the work itself. There's also a pain expressed with regard to the meaningfulness of this identity, a pain that fades as the work continues on. The repeating text is a kind of buzzing set of thoughts in the back of the chef's mind: never fully formed, but always repeating. White and Anderson embrace simplicity on a formal level in order to examine far deeper concepts, but the concept is irreducible from the form here. That makes it a perfectly-realized example of comics-as-poetry, one that might be used to demonstrate the form in a way that makes clear sense to a layman.