Monday, April 10, 2017

Exploring The World of Cartozia Tales

I've read a lot of young adult fiction in going through books for the Eisner awards, and a fair number of them have been fantasy/action-adventure oriented. None have the level of ambition, playfulness, formal daring and fun of the Isaac Cates-edited Cartozia Tales series, which is an issue away from finishing up its initial run of ten. Cates and his artistic partner Mike Wenthe (a long-time friend from before his comics days, in the interest of disclosure) basically made Cartozia Tales a far more aggressive experiment than their work on their old series, Satisfactory Tales. Their interests in comics have always revolved around collaboration, formal experimentation, an almost whimsical sense of play (including plays on words and visual puns), and creating problems to solve. They seemed to really find a groove when they worked on an ambitious fantasy comic together, which perhaps provided the impetus for this series. The central thrust of the series is this: in a set of adjoining land masses dubbed Cartozia (the first of many, many place name puns in the series), the reader would follow all sorts of serialized adventures. Cates divided the map into a nine-panel grid. In each issue, one of the seven permanent creative teams would be assigned a sector and create a story. Each issue would feature two guest artists. In the next issue, the creators would move over one sector, so now they had the option of picking up from the previous artist (in a sort of narrative exquisite corpse game), creating a new character, or some combination thereof.

This approach has led to a crazy level of complexity, especially since some characters were created by one artist but not actually used by them; instead, they were given to another creator to use. And unlike the random approach of a true exquisite corpse, there was careful attention paid to continuity (both narrative and character), especially as each issue drew the overarching narratives of the series tighter and tighter, like a sort of fantasy Raymond Chandler novel. That's how it was supposed to go in theory; in practice, things got a little choppy at times. While the covers for each issue and the overall design have been excellent, it's been obvious (especially in some of the middle issues) that some cartoonists were rushing their entries. There have been a couple of fundraisers for the series, as Cates is paying everyone. Not every guest star has been a perfect match, nor has every narrative maintained a sense of fluidity. Frankly, unless the series is read at once, it can be difficult to remember exactly what was going on with nine different storylines. That said, it's remarkable to see how coherent the book is given the incredibly complicated logistics involved.

It was always obvious that when Cates & Wenthe worked together, they went all-out for the series. With a relatively smooth line and the ability to trade off with each other, that duo turned in some of the denser stories in the anthology, though that density often circled around how many puns and funny visual references they could throw in. Still, their works felt like going back to home base when reading this comic. The two most dependable cartoonists on the roster were Lucy Bellwood and Lupi McGinty. Bellwood works using a slightly thicker line and a looser overall style than McGinty's ligne claire approach, but they both possess a smoothly welcoming style that worked for every character in the series. The series' secret weapon has been Tom Motley, whose scratchy and inky style felt dissonant at first, but whose relentless commitment to formal experimentation (along with a few changes here and there to make his line clearer) makes him a great place in the book to get one's eyes challenged. He also shares the Wenthe/Cates proclivity for whimsy and wordplay, a nice contrast to the more straightforward styles of the other artists. His greatest achievement in the series was his homage to Gustave Verbeek's The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a classic comic strip that could be read one way, then turned upside down to continue the story using the same images. Motley's ability to precisely and flawlessly emulate that style within the context of the story itself was astonishing.

The early MVP of the series was Shawn Cheng, whose ultra-thin line and clean storytelling was simply beautiful to behold, but obviously work-intensive. He simplified his style later on, which was still perfectly functional but not quite the same in terms of impact. The other regulars (Jen Vaughn and Sarah Becan (often with Beckie Gautreua)) certainly had their moments. Vaughn created my favorite character/narrative in the series, the "Vagabond" narrative, and was clearly working hard in the early going. She had to skip an issue and some of her later work looks rushed, perhaps because she has a lot of other commitments on her plate. Of the two guest stars per issue, some were remarkably great, like Dylan Horrocks (oh, if he had been in every issue) and sublime work from Luke Pearson, whose young girl scientist Gret was a perfectly-designed character. Jon Lewis was a natural and another great artist to start out the series with, while Carol Lay was an interesting choice for a one-page story. Jon Chad and Chris Wright were fantastic gets in the same issue whose styles contrasted in a visually exciting way (Chad's detailed clear line vs Wright's scratchy and darkly eccentric style). The team of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ming Doyle was interesting because it resolved a key plot point and did it in a naturalistic style--which was highly unusual for the series. Tom Hart's dreamy, poetic comic also addressed a key narrative concern and Nick Abadzis' strip was formally charming in a series full of formally intriguing comics.

The good news about what will emerge as 400+ pages of interconnected anthology storytelling involving over thirty different artists is that actually really started to tie up loose ends, put characters together and gain some real momentum as it went further. I look forward to the final issue and how it finishes drawing together the various storylines, both grim and silly, enigmatic and simple, and pleasantly ambling and urgent. While the series had its ragged moments, I'm staggered at how much traffic Cates had to direct while still contributing to virtually every issue himself. And while the series had its misfires (the James Kochalka piece felt like it came from another series entirely and changed what had been a promising narrative thread into something that became sillier and sillier), I admired Cates' try-anything style of editing that still had a degree of narrative rigor. I should add that the all-ages character of the book was a key to its success, especially as Cates threw every kind of extra he could think of at younger readers: paper dolls, word searches, mazes, drawing exercises and more. It was clear that Cates was making the kind of comic he would have wanted to read as a child, or perhaps creating one for his own family. That level of sincerity, effort and creativity is a remarkable tonic to the level of cynical, money-making tropes that I see in so much YA fiction.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

High-Low and the Top 75 Comics Blogs

A nice person named Anuj Agarwal wrote in and said that High-Low had been named one of the top 75 comics blogs on the web. This was a very nice and unexpected honor, as the site clocked in at #67. I don't know what metrics led to this determination by the Feedspot people, but it's nice nonetheless, especially since I have that .gif of the honor on the site now in medal form. Thanks to my readers.

:01: Jason Shiga's Demon, Volumes 1 & 2

I say it with every review I do of a Jason Shiga comic, because it bears repeating: Shiga's background is in pure mathematics, and so his comics often read as a series of locked-room puzzles, coding problems or other sorts of math-related conflicts, all punctuated by a jet-black sense of humor. Most of his other comics have had at least one twist involving a shocking act of violence, or multiple acts of violence over the span of the book, but Demon is sort of Shiga's version of Stephen King's It: a book that has every violent and disgusting action setpiece Shiga could conceive, each more over-the-top than the next, but each working in a rigidly-applied set of principles based on the book's initial premise. It's like It in the sense that King considered that to be a novel that had every scary thing he could think of in there.

The premise is this: the long-suffering Jimmy Yee (a protagonist of the same name appears in many other Shiga books, and it's not too much of a stretch to paint him as a simple Shiga stand-in) tries to kill himself by hanging himself in a hotel room for unknown reasons. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in what seems to be the same hotel room, alive (to his great consternation). In the beginning, Shiga really takes his time in establishing the presence in as brutal a fashion as possible. We see Jimmy try to shoot himself, bleed out in a tub and jump in front of a truck, but he keeps coming back. Volume one, which features the first five chapters of the story, features Jimmy trying to work out what happen and introduces Hunter, the man who will become his nemesis. What Jimmy realized is that he was a "demon": when the body he was in died, he simply possessed the nearest person, until they were killed, and so on. That sets Jimmy down a gruesome, amoral path where he experiments with the limits of his abilities by ruthlessly killing random people.

At the end of volume one, he is pursued by government operative Hunter in order to offer Jimmy a job as an agent, which Jimmy has no interest in. Hunter insists that Jimmy's going to work for him whether he likes it or not, leading to the first of many incredibly strange cat-and-mouse games between the two. This one involves a bleeding-out Jimmy being put in a jail cell next to a death-row inmate. Hunter thinks he has Jimmy pinned, since he took away anything that the inmate could kill himself with...except a square of toilet paper. This is the most hilarious and disgusting segment in the book, as Jimmy tries to reason his way out of the situation until he finally determines that he could turn the the toilet paper into a shiv if he dipped it in enough semen enough times. The situation inspires the immortal line, "Looks like he slit his throat with a cum knife, sir."

The second volume features chapters six through twelve, and adds a needed complication to the plot (otherwise Jimmy would have just disappeared at the end of volume one). That complication was the existence of his daughter, who not only is alive (Jimmy thought she was dead), she's a demon like her dad. That leads to a book-long series of conflicts between Jimmy and Hunter. When it looks like Hunter finally has the upper hand, Jimmy uses calculus and a photographic memory to turn the tables, seemingly once and for all. The second volume ends almost a hundred years after the story began, but this would in fact just reset the chess board between Jimmy and Hunter.

This is one of the rare instances where I've decided to skimp on story details, because in true blockbuster fashion, it's the details in how Jimmy and Hunter engage in their battle of wits that makes the story so much fun. This is a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else. It's about trying to limit your opponent's moves as much as possible and forcing them into a single move, and then deviating from the expected with a devastating or surprising move that catches your opponent off guard. It's about turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. It's about finding out what your opponent holds dear and exploiting it. It's about ethics, and in particular, the circumstances under which murder is acceptable from a utilitarian point of view. Hunter wants to use Jimmy to wipe out all of America's enemies and create utopia. Jimmy isn't interested in being anyone's slave and kills out of what he views is necessity. The reality is that both of them are nihilists of the worst kind, unable to appreciate the value of a single life because of their willingness to discard it for their needs. They are the same person who are simply in opposition to each other, with Jimmy's weakness being his daughter and Hunter's weakness a simple-minded utopianism.

Shiga has refined his line in a manner similar to John Porcellino and Matt Feazell in that it's deceptively simple and beautiful. There's an effortlessness on each page where his drawings are lively but in total service to the story; his lumpy character design that often features odd facial characteristics is almost 8-bit video game blank at times, but his understanding of things like gesture and body language give the characters a sense of presence. In terms of storytelling, Shiga has few peers. His panel design is all part of his method in slowly unfolding an action set piece, switching from a tight grid to a page full of jumbled panels as things seem to spin out of control, and then back to order. Shiga flips the page around for aerial views--not to make the scene more spectacular, but as an illustration to fully understand the stakes involved. There's an almost mechanistic quality in reading these books, in the sense that once you start, it's much harder to stop reading than it is to continue. That's a testament to Shiga's total control over the page, including the use of rose and pink spot color and the extensive but unobtrusive use of grey scale. The design of the books is on the boring side, especially compared to the original minicomics. I also though splitting it into four volumes was questionable, but it actually proved to read relatively well in that format. Hopefully, there will be some kind of deluxe format available in the future.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

High-Low and the Eisner Awards

Regular readers may have noticed a decrease in the number of articles per week here at High-Low lately, and Patrons may have noticed that I'm a couple of articles behind. That's because, as I'm not sure I mentioned it here, I am on the jury for this year's Eisner Awards, the "Oscars of comics". As such, I've started to receive an overwhelming number of comics to read and ship back out, and it's starting to limit my writing time.

Here's my solution: from now until the last week of April, when I confer with the other judges, I won't be writing for this site. Then I'll pick up again at the usual speed. The exception will be for my patrons: I will write two columns early this week and then another on Friday and send them to them. I thought my patrons might be interested in seeing brief reviews of the comics I've been sent that might not normally fall under my bailiwick, especially perhaps certain corporate comics. For the curious, my Patreon site is here. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back to full force in late April, with perhaps the occasional review going up at The Comics Journal (tcj.com) as well.

Please do keep sending me your books, your comics and your zines. I always review everything, eventually.

Minis: K.Wirick, J.Zwirek, J.D.Woods


Jimmy Plays The Drums and A Natural Family, by John Dermot Woods. These are interesting, enigmatic comics that play a lot on the grid (the first is a product of Frank Santoro's correspondence course) and on very differing uses of color. Jimmy Plays The Drums is a story about expression and elusiveness, told in a time-fractured style over a long period of time. The entire story is done in bright CMYK in virtually every panel (with the black simply being the lines delineating the characters and the lettering), with the characters and backgrounds flipping colors in each panel. It's an interesting visual effect that forces the reader to reorient themselves on a constant basis as we figure out why the bespectacled Jimmy drummer is constantly trying to escape (from childhood) an older man. The people Jimmy hangs with and his peculiar abilities are only hinted at, but what is made clear is that his parents never allowed him to leave his penthouse home, and he only had the gardener as company--the man chasing him. It's a story about chosen family, a love of art that was not allowed or encouraged, and a slightly magical world that's given life but Woods' almost-exclusive use of colored pencil.

A Natural Family is more conventional in some respects. The use of color is purely functional and even bland. It presents with an unusual occurrence: a brother and sister (both adults) living alone in their family house, with the sister having fallen asleep for two straight days. It's told from the perspective of the brother, with a film crew, the police being brought in to observe the phenomenon and (presumably) have someone do something about it--to no avail. Woods then time-jumps back to the siblings, three days earlier, and reveals that a once-boisterous and happy familial relationship had been reduced to silence, and the suggestion by the brother that one of them leave the house to explore "missed opportunities" leads her to fall asleep in response--a move that prevents him from leaving. Much is left unsaid in this comic. What, precisely, was the nature of their relationship beyond being familial? There's a panel of the man in bed with a presumed sexual partner in the morning, seemingly ready to kick her out. The last page reveals that she went to bed naked, but it's clear that he put a dressing gown on her before he invited in the media. Is her escape into sleep a way of protesting her brother abandoning her, or is it something more? In both of his minis, Woods provides a lot of clues but ultimately leaves a lot of the answers up to the reader.



Stand-Up Comic, by Jeff Zwirek. Zwirek's one of my favorite comics formalists, especially in terms of the actual physical construction of his comics. This short mini about a stand-up comedian is made in such a way as to literally have a stand in the back, as though it were for display. It features a deeply schlubby comedian named Buster Guts, a pear-shaped fellow with a face that looks like it was arranged by Picasso. Zwirek starts off in a four-panel grid that falls away to an open page format as Buster Guts actually proves himself to be a top-notch, self-deprecating comedian whose gags go from tired to genuinely funny. This comic is a nice combination of gimmick and gags, with one grabbing the reader's attention and the latter standing on their own but aided by the mere sight of the comedian.


Nervenkrank #1, by Katherine K. Wirick. This is the first chapter of a much longer work about the life of German Dada artist John Heartfield, born as Helmut Herzfeld. There has been a proliferation of comics biographies as of late, mostly coming out of Europe, and they have a tendency to be pretty to look at but largely mundane. Wirick's work has a chance to be an exception, as Nervenkrank is clearly a passion project, not just a project researched for a contract. Heartfield's work is obviously important to her on a deep level, and it shows in the intensity of the rendering on each page and the emphasis on a slow narrative pace that establishes his emotional state as a soldier. The story opens in 1915, in the middle of World War I. Heartfield is a hospitalized soldier, clearly traumatized by what he's seen. Wirick emphasizes that by noting that his roommate literally won't come out from under the bed, another patient can't stop screaming about being bombed, etc. Returning to his boarding house, he is presented with compassion by the wife of the owner and contempt by the owner himself.

Wirick depicts the stuttering Heartfield as delicate and sensitive but not weak. He steals the German flag flying outside his room and burns it. Dada was born in large part as a reaction to the pointless stupidity and brutality of World War I as the people were sent to die for no good reason, and this issue emphasizes all of these issues. Wirick is a skilled naturalistic artist who masterfully uses greyscale to balance depth and density in each panel. It's clear that she thoughtfully and carefully resolves issues like negative space, character interaction in space and how to make her realistically-rendered characters still manage to appear alive on the page. Her page design is functional, relying more on her figure drawing than on an innovative approach, but it's clear that this story is meant to appear in a larger format. This mini came out nearly four years ago and I haven't seen another issue since, but I hope she continues to persevere on this project.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Queers And Comics Travel Fund

There's still time to donate to this worthy cause:


For Inquiries Contact: qctravelfund@gmail.com

Starting today, February 14th, the QC Travel Fund, a volunteer effort in partnership with Prism Comics, is raising money on Indiegogo to support creators who could not otherwise attend and present at the Queers & Comics conference being held in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts on April 14-15, 2017. The fundraiser can be found here.

Traditionally queer creators, those who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans*, asexual, intersex and otherwise present a non-mainstream sexual orientation, representation or identification, have been marginalized in society at large and in the sequential narrative form of comics. Events like the Queers & Comics conference aim to bring light onto those creators and the QC Travel Fund strives to financially enable those in the community that would otherwise be unable to participate due to lack of monetary means.

The QC Travel Fund Indiegogo fundraiser will run from February 14 – March 14, 2017. Queers & Comics creators have offered rewards for donations to the fund, including: digital copies of Northwest Press's anthologies “Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy!” edited by lesbian comics tastemaker Erica Friedman and “Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! edited Lambda Literary Award winning editor Tom Cardamone; digital copies of Northwest Press's Digital Mega Pack (digital editions of every in-print Northwest Press book published to date); "Love is MASSIVE" risographed postcard card set by Jiraiya; Manko Riot t-shirts by Rokudenashiko; and custom commissions by Queers & Comics creators. New rewards and incentives will be announced throughout the campaign.

Contribute to the fundraiser and reap your rewards here.

Prism Comics will also be collecting additional funds on site during the Queers & Comics conference to benefit the QC Travel Fund.

About QC Travel Fund:  The QC Travel Fund is a small group of independent volunteers who have come together to raise money for queer creators who could not otherwise afford the cost of traveling to attend and participate in the Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco from April 14-15, 2017.

About Prism Comics:   Prism Comics is the only organization in North America which provides a grant to emerging comics talent. The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant was founded in 2005 to support up and coming LGBTQAI cartoonists. To learn more about the QPG visit Prism Comics.

About Northwest Press: Northwest Press is a book publisher dedicated to publishing the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics collections and graphic novels and celebrating the LGBT comics community. Find NWP’s original print releases and digital work at northwestpress.com.






Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Mini Reviews: D.Zender, T.Yamamoto, R.Van Ingram, J.T. Yost


Giving In, by Daniel Zender. This is a beautiful comic that looks as constructed as it is drawn. It looks painted and I can see brush strokes on some pages, but it also looks like MS Paint may have been used to fill in some parts of the page. Regardless, this a beautiful comic to look at, and it's well-designed enough to be effective as a silent comic. Indeed, with the striking use of pinks, greens, midnight blues and reds helping to code emotion, Zender didn't need text to tell this story about love, loneliness and accepting a brand new status quo when finding love. The story follows a young woman who goes on a camping trip with her friends. She's obviously depressed and lonely, thanks to her body language and some of the things she does in her apartment before the trip. Late at night, as she makes her way into the forest to pee, she encounters some strange pink lights. Intrigued instead of frightened, she makes her way into a tree, where she encounters some kind of tree spirit who is obviously every bit as lonely as she is. The story is marked by the silent decision she must make: stay in this weird environment where she's found a soulmate, or go back to her familiar world. In the end, she chooses to embrace the mystery of both her new environment and being in love. There is beauty and grace to be found in this comic, but there's also sadness as well, because the story notes that there's always a price to be paid for getting what we want.

The Rule, by Tetsuya Yamamoto. This is from Japan's BigUglyRobot, which publishes all sorts of odd comics in English. It follows a young man who visits some kind of vast repository of information, as he inquires after a small (nearly invisible) object that he finds in order to return it to its rightful owners. That snowballs into a wild, apocalyptic story where the young man encounters a race of aliens that originally owned the object, the other alien that had been hunting them down in order to get the object, and a hilarious final battle that devolves into an absurd Pokemon battle. It all makes sense in context, and Yamamoto's clever meta-storytelling provides all sorts of twists and turns along the way. One of those twists is going from a loose, sketchy style to an 8-bit video game style in the final battle. The looseness and fluidity of that earlier style stood in stark contrast to the deliberately stiff art during the battle scene, making that battle even funnier despite the fact that the stakes were no laughing matter. The title refers to how the protagonist was able to take advantage of extremely rigid thinking on the part of his opponent by changing the rules of reality (including having things like Microsoft Excel in his Pokeball) instead of trying to match the opponent on his own terms. Yamamoto manages to create a comic that's funny, mysterious and exciting, playing on standard comics tropes in order to come up with some new curves.

Loser Comix #2, by Richard Van Ingram. These are underground comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, full of heavily-rendered drawings that parody pop culture and politics. This issue was the end result of a Kickstarter campaign and it shows, with high production values and full color throughout. There's a plague story that's a thinly-veiled political allegory that has some genuinely funny lines and a densely inked, horrific quality to the art. Van Ingram's visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas, like the Loser Tarot. It's a funny concept that's beautifully-illustrated, but the actual ideas "The Ex-Wife", "The Republican" are on the bland side. The Peanuts parody Chunky Brown is tedious at best, turning Charlie Brown and Linus into loser hipster types, Lucy in a capitalist femme fatale (in one panel, her nipples poke through her shirt for no discernible reason) who sends them to work at a used bookstore. That latter development was clear Van Ingram's way of getting back at his awful used bookstore job, which was probably cathartic for him but not especially relevant for the reader. There's an accurate but tedious bit of social commentary about a yokel voting against his own interests by supporting Republicans. Van Ingram works best when he works briefly, like a hilarious strip about Richard Nixon seeing the future and the Partridge Family sending a message from 3013 to 1973, thanking them for their help in ousting Nixon and establishing a utopia. A serious strip about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson wouldn't have been out of place in World War III Illustrated, and here Van Ingram's dense but colorful style and page design perfectly encapsulates the desperate quality of his text. Van Ingram has a great deal of talent, and it's clear that he's trying to find the best way to use it.

Thanger Dangers, by JT Yost. This is a collection of odds and ends from various anthologies by Yost. "Thenthy" is an odd story about a particular way he bit down on his tongue when seeing an especially cute animal (and later, his daughter), and it leads him to wonder why we evolved with the tendency to react to extreme cuteness with an almost violent response. "The Lead Masks Case" is about the mysterious deaths of two men in Mexico that prompted the possibility of aliens, cults and other phenomena to explain a genuinely puzzling event. Yost is at his best here: clearly and amusingly laying out the facts while employing a line that skirts the edge between naturalist and cartoony. The mashup/parodies of classic comics are nicely drawn but not especially clever or funny. I did enjoy the ode to Waffle House, their absurd juke box and even more absurd styles of serving hash browns. Like Van Ingram, Yost is an excellent cartoonist who is still figuring out what he wants to say as an artist.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Stuff From Old Favorites: Steve Lafler & Lance Ward


Death In Oaxaca #3, by Steve Lafler (Alternative Comics). It's increasingly clear that when Lafler refers to death in the title of his series about a family of American ex-pats who settle in the arts mecca Mexican town, it's not so much about murder than the personification of Death itself. In this case, Death comes as a friend and source of information for Rex, a cartoonist and amateur musician (and Lafler's stand-in) whom Death visits in his sleep in order to jam with him musically. Rex's wife Gertie decides to become a superhero in Luchadora form, while their teenage son Myles is more of a background character but hints at burgeoning adulthood in this issue. 

This third issue starts to tie a few of the early plot threads together and smartly gets its protagonists on the same page. Death takes Rex on a walk that reveals that Rex is a reincarnation of the son of Eduardo, a local eccentric who is an immortal vampire. What's revealed in this issue is that Eduardo became a vampire when his village sent him to investigate a mysterious, huge rock that suddenly appeared, and the beings inside turned him vampiric for mysterious reasons. Meanwhile, Eduardo, who subsists on animal blood, is getting weaker and weaker and is rushed to the hospital at the issue's end, but not before getting a human blood transfusion. It's hard to say where Lafler is going with all this, as the story meanders in an episodic fashion more than any of Lafler's non-psychedelic stories. It was smart of him to have Rex and Gertie reveal their secrets to each other, as the strength and ardor of their relationship is one of my favorite things about this comic. It's clear that Lafler is happy to let the story set its own pace, as he dips into local culture, cuisine and politics in addition to the soap operatic hijinks (and parody of same) of its cast of characters. There's no question that this comic is a genuine delight to look at from a structural and storytelling perspective; Lafler is one of the best figure artists in comics, with a rock-solid understanding of anatomy that meshes with his loose, playful line. His hatching and use of negative space and spotting blacks is all in service to the story; he never shows off or wastes a line. I imagine Lafler will start to draw together plot lines shortly, but it is odd that there doesn't seem to be a clear antagonist as of yet. That may well become Eduardo or someone else, depending on how many issues he plans for the series. I'm simply happy to be along for the ride. 

A-Hole #6 and Blood And Drugs, by Lance Ward. One of the best and most bracing autobio cartoonists actually does all sorts of comics, and A-Hole is his catch-all anthology for such material. There's his "Fatnuts" strips, a brutal parody of Peanuts that doesn't so much make "Chucky Brown" the butt of jokes for being fat as much as it makes every character their worst possible selves, with Chucky still the center of it all. It's also Ward's catch-all strip for anything he's angry or concerned about, like his characters getting radiation poisoning thanks to the disaster at Fukashima in Japan, Bernie Sanders, science without morals and nightmares. His "Stick Shifter" strips are all-aggro parodies of The Fast And The Furious type of car adventure movies, with the main driver always getting so angry that horrible things happen with the car. There are also strips credited to "Jason Walters", and I'm not sure if that's a Ward pseudonym or not, but the "Kafka The Cat" and other strips are mostly mild genre parodies. While the overall content is amusing, it's not anything that's especially innovative or that sticks with the reader like Ward's autobio strips.

On the other hand, Blood and Drugs, while being (apparently, mostly) fictional and also a different aesthetic approach than his fairly straightforward design of his autobio strips, packs as much of a wallop as his best work to date. Using a six-panel grid to anchor the rest of his page, Ward frequently goes off the rails in this comic about heroin addiction and what a person is willing to do to keep it going. In slashing red and black markers on the early pages, Charlie Brown and Calvin & Hobbes scream at each other until it resolves into Ward on a bus, in deep pain, willing to try anything. Ward sells all of his art to his initial fixes, gets a friend to drive him to a dealer's house (under protest) and is forced to give the dealer (depicted as a Jabba the Hutt-style creature) head in exchange for heroin. Ward bits the guy's dick off instead and flees, knowing that he's doomed and screaming at a local street Santa that he sells lies to children. The whole thing is over the top and scrawled, looking a bit like Josh Bayer's work at some points, only much more scribbled and intense. The key page in the story is when Ward scores some heroin to "get normal" so he can finish doing a story, only for the reader to see four straight blank panels. Heroin takes away one's capacity and interesting for much in life other than heroin. It certainly takes away pain, but it takes away desire, motivation and inspiration as well. The story may seem over the top in terms of its approach and histrionics, but it feels authentic in a way that implies familiarity with these kinds of stories, even if this wasn't something that Ward experienced personally. As always, however, Ward is his own best character, even in a fictional story. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

D&Q; R.Sikoryak's Terms And Conditions

Reading Robert Sikoryak's Terms and Conditions is like if Marcel Duchamp had decided to start doing comics. It's at once a shaggy dog joke and a work that pushes at the boundaries of the comics form. I've read plenty of abstract comics, but the emphasis there is narrative abstraction from a visual perspective. I've also read plenty of comics that remove images and play strictly with the form in terms of panel-to-panel and page-to-page flow with the words playing against that bit of formal experimentation. What Sikoryak does here is have page after page of recognizable, narrative imagery stripped of meaning not by removing text or adding nonsense text, but rather by replacing text with the entirety of Apple's terms and conditions for iTunes. The words are entirely coherent and understandable on their own (if incredibly boring, like most terms and conditions), but they have almost no connection to the images chosen to accompany them. The subtitle "A Graphic Novel" is thus even funnier, as Sikoryak intentionally uses the pretentious and market-driven name for long-form comics to describe something that is in no way a graphic novel.

This work is also different from his comics/literature mash-ups, because there he specifically finds ways to tie the visuals into the original source material. The only concession Sikoryak makes here is that on every page, one of the characters is dressed up like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who was well known for his turtlenecks and stubble. All of his dialogue consists of the terms and conditions of iTunes, as he explains them to the other characters on page after page. What started as goof became a mission for Sikoryak, who deliberately wanted to mold the terms and conditions and fit them in the confines of a book in a way that didn't disturb the original sequences that he adapted in the course of the book. Of course, Sikoryak is a gifted style mimic and challenged himself by taking on so many different kinds of comics, from YA comics to classic strips to superheroes to manga to alternative comics to everything in-between. One could see his skill as a mimic wobble from time to time; interestingly, the most notable misfire was an adaptation of a page from Raina Telgemeier's Sisters. There's a purity and smooth clarity to Telgemeier's line that Sikoryak doesn't quite match here, as his line is a bit on the wobbly and wavy side on this page. He also doesn't get the colors quite right. The same is true for his attempt at Jeff Smith's Bone. Another deceptively-simple looking comic is so smooth and balanced (especially in terms of color scheme) that it's actually difficult to mimic in a way that makes it look like Smith's work.

On the other hand, his goof on a page from Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga is not only dead-on, he's able to inject some visual humor in the form of the background characters doing all sorts of perverted things with apples. Sikoryak isn't always able to inject that kind of humor into a page, but it seemed like an obvious fit here. He also really nails the alternative comics in particular, like his pages goofing on Peter Bagge's Hate, Daniel Clowes' Wilson and Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken. It's also funny to see how successfully he's able to mimic Julie Doucet (down to those stray bits of ink) and Lynda Barry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, his Spawn is hilarious, laying bare some of Todd MacFarlane's affectations as an artist. Sikoryak has a list of the creators, comics or comic strips he used as source material in the book, so it's obvious that trying to identity source material was part of the experience. Indeed, there's definitely something that's a bit "inside baseball" about this book, because I imagine handing the book to a non-comics reading person would utterly baffle them.

While he "quotes" mostly popular comics and best-sellers, most of the source material would be a source of frustration instead of humor. There is a level where that doesn't necessarily matter, because he's not just going for recognizability in his work but also a pure aesthetic impact. In other words, as long as the reader recognizes that something is a superhero comic, or a fantasy comic, or a kid's comic, that's enough of an informational hit to enjoy the book at a base level. That said, it's a book made for a comics fan with a decidedly broad knowledge base that extends into modern-day work and YA work. It's also important to note that the satirical and formal trickery of the book are less important than the images themselves, the way each page is designed and the wide variety of character designs. It's a love letter to the elasticity of comics disguised as hate mail to Apple. That love letter is not quite as satisfying as his other, more complicated comics, but it's certainly a lot of fun to look at.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Minis From Andrew Alexander

Andrew Alexander is an interesting young cartoonist who works very much in the Gary Panter "ratty line" tradition. Dead Dog Daze #1 is a perfect example of this, with the distorted faces and heads mixing that Panter aesthetic with a sort of distorted Archie-by-way-of-Clowes concept. This first issue begins with a drug dealing kid named Anthony who calls his recluse friend Henri because he discovers a dog that's been hanged on a football goal post with some strange symbols carved in it. The comic switches first-person perspectives with a large cast of high school (and slightly older) kids and their connections with the crime and with each other. Alexander's ear for dialogue and willingness to go deep into the darkest aspects of his characters made this a riveting read. That was especially true as his grotesque, exaggerated character design was in some ways a parody of Archie (Anthony bore a resemblance to Jughead, for example) but in other ways it represented making each character's appearance reflective of their self-image or inner character.

There are a lot of levels of story here. One interesting diversion in the story is when Anthony goes to visit his supplier Heff (a shut-in obsessed with chess), and Heff tells him that everyone in town plays a role like a piece on the chessboard. Henri is the detective and Anthony is the orphan, and that observation fuels the rest of the issue, as Anthony starts wondering about his life in an existential sense. For the reader, it becomes clear that detective really is Henri's role and that this is a twisting detective mystery with a rogue's gallery worth of suspects. There's even a haunting detail from the past in that Henri was the one who discovered the body of his friend Wren in the forest, an event that clearly altered the course of his life and not in a positive way. There are muscle-headed football players (including one with stitches on his head that make him look like Frankenstein's monster), popularity-seeking girls, and concerned grandmas (one whose face consists entirely of wrinkles, like she's the Dick Tracy villain Pruneface). I'll be curious to see how Alexander resolves this.

Headfirst #2 (as Alex Dicker) is a collection of Alexander's short stories. They are more scribbly and less ambitious than Dead Dog Daze, but they are certainly still interesting. The first story involves a road trip and a quartet of life-long friends going in very different directions. This one is all about the ways in which aggression goes hand-in-hand with friendship and communication, and how different life choices cause that level of intimacy to fracture. The pivotal character in the story is Ralph, who has moved away from California and his friends, and that resentment is palpable even as he finds it hard to relate to his old life. That's especially true when it's revealed along the way that the purpose of the trip is a drug deal, and Ralph actually fantasizes about busting up the deal when he imagines he sees a cop. The constantly sleepy character instead simply dreamed this intervention, and the deal (financing his friend getting his and girlfriend's upcoming baby) was all to set up a new life, one even further removed from his. The other stories involve a post-Civil War narrative about a returning soldier always in search of the next fight, and sees him being manipulated into hunting down Native Americans by the neighbors of his family. That one's a bit on the convoluted side, and the lack of clear storytelling doesn't help. There's a funny bit of autobio involving rebellion and connection at an older age, and there's also a clever story about a living toy who's constantly being torn apart by his owner. This mini shows a restless mind at work with some solid characterization, but it doesn't quite cohere. The difference between this 2014 comic and the 2016 comic reviewed above clearly shows Alexander's development, and it's obvious that he's going in the right direction.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fantagraphics: LOVF, by Jesse Reklaw

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the book-length version of Jesse Reklaw's diary of madness, LOVF. One chapter was published as a minicomic by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket, and the effect of that mini was truly that of an all-out assault on the senses. This isn't really a comic in the traditional sense, though there are some comics sequences. Instead, it's what it purports to be on the cover: "The illustrated diary of a man literally losing his mind." There are two things has to consider when reading this book: the visual approach and the actual timeline. The timeline follows Reklaw's relationships in his residence of Portland starting to crumble, until one shattering day when he's brutally beaten by a guy after he stopped to try to help the woman the perpetrator was assaulting. That led Reklaw to New York, where he learned that his Medicare was stated-based, meaning that he couldn't get his psych meds since he had no money. That meant being homeless in New York, then managing to get himself to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and finally back to Portland again. Each city is roughly demarcated as a chapter and marked off as such by a different color of paper.

Visually, Reklaw collaborated with a host of guest artists (including some he was involved with romantically) and used a dense, dark mixture of colors on each page. There was also a side narrative involving an adventurer named Koldor that was the most visually interesting and funny part of the book; it was done very much in the spirit of Reklaw's Bluefuzz the Hero mini, which was meant to work both as a straightforward adventure, as a metacommentary about role playing games, and as a partly autobiographical series. There's also plenty in the way of eye-pops and other visual easter eggs on each page, but they were more in the spirit of a sketchbook jam than anything resembling a real narrative. The autobiographical story is told through Reklaw's hand-painted text, and the images are there more to reflect his state of mind than support the text with images that make it clearer.

Reklaw, in his career doing his strip Slow Wave and autobio projects, always struck me as an artist who thrived on creating order out of chaos. In transcribing the dreams of others, he put them in a solid grid and used a fairly naturalistic style to make sense of them. There was a solidity to be found there, just like in his diary strip Ten Thousand Things To Do and most of his Couch Tag book. Lurking underneath that order was the bubbling chaos of being in constant pain and dealing with the PTSD of a difficult childhood, along with other mental and emotional issues. He built structures to contain all of these things, and LOVF reveals what happens when the emotional and personal scaffolding of one's life is removed: total collapse. Tonally, what was odd about this book (and much of his other work) is how distant it all felt, like he was describing something happening to someone else. Reklaw's strategy in his autobio work was also to use a mundane and quotidian approach that the reader (and he) could latch on to, which allowed him to slip in the real roots of trauma or experience of depression or debilitating pain. He doesn't close such events in a big reveal moment; it simply comes up almost incidentally, as he frequently buries the lede with regard to his own life. There's no drama built-in to his work, which is not to say that there's no trauma.

What Reklaw describes in a matter-of-fact kind of way (giving away most of his possessions and leaving town) is actually pretty startling stuff, and the tone of the scene where he's beaten is almost bemused. There's a sense of almost denial that something could be causing him pain that eventually comes out in his behavior, like drinking to excess, saying hurtful and obnoxious things to others, and trying the patience of his friends. He's in and out relationships, charming and alienating people he meets, flirting with financial success and then having no money at all. At the end of the book he reveals what precipitated his initial journey to New York: a trip with his mom and siblings where Reklaw had a breakdown and walked away, eventually winding up in a nearby stream where the cops pulled him out. He was locked up, escaped from lock-up (!) and eventually got sent to a mental hospital. In other words, he started the book on a foundation of shifting sand to begin with, and without his meds that became quicksand. Reklaw is philosophical about it all, as he knows he could have killed himself or been killed in any number of ways, but it didn't quite seem to be his fate.

This is a difficult book to navigate. There are fascinating visuals and surprising twists and turns, but the restraint that has marked Reklaw's books in the past obviously went out the window, replaced instead with that strange disconnect that even Reklaw noted is something that he doesn't understand or relate to at this point in his life. Reklaw said it feels like someone else hijacked his life for a while and did this book, unconcerned with consequences and instead more interested in trying on different personae every day. It's a book about losing touch with reality and repeatedly self-inflicting wounds and burning bridges. Really, its main attraction as a comic to read is that secondary fantasy narrative that I wish had been fleshed out more in lieu of the book that we got, because it seemed to illustrate the chaos surrounding his life better than the other actual illustrations did. This is less an artistic masterpiece than an extended warning to himself and expulsion of toxins, a perilous journey with some dark but occasionally fascinating roadside attractions.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Minicomics of Cathy Hannah

Chicago-area cartoonist Cathy Hannah has been remarkably prolific over the past few years. Her autobio comics tackle topics that range from body image to depression to eating disorders to simply finding one's purpose in life. Let's take a look at her recent output, starting with three one-off minis. Sometimes an autobio cartoonist is afraid to, as my fellow critic Rob Kirby likes to say, "spill some ink". In other words, go really deep about their feelings and thoughts, no matter how ugly or embarrassing. Hannah has absolutely no problem going deep, using her comics not just as a kind of self-therapy, but also as a powerful feminist manifesto rooted in vulnerability. In Kitten Pits, for example, she talks about her history with her own body hair and how much she hated it and felt disgusted by it. There's even an embarrassing anecdote about having an infected hair follicle which she has to have seen by her doctor, which was kind of an intense distillation of a lifetime of viewing herself as imperfect. The ending, where she stops shaving, finds a moment of validation that's powerful.

Uglyfat takes on body image and eating disorder issues directly, as Hannah reveals that she hated her nose and thought she was too fat from a very early age, thanks to comments on the schoolyard and media. Using an eight-panel grid and a highly expressive, sketchy style, Hannah whips the reader through a life where she was judged for her size and appearance, which only amplified her self-hatred when she did find people who wanted to be with her. Simply put, she wasn't wrong when she saw thin  and conventionally attractive girls get preferential treatment. When she finally did lose weight (in order to become a better skater for the roller derby team she hoped to join), it wasn't the validation she needed. Instead, the mini ended in a spiral of depression.

We Are Gonna Be Friends touches on a lifetime of not just being sad, but actually chasing that feeling. It starts with an anecdote about wanting to watch Old Yeller again and again, which then moves to the modern day, where that sadness has metastasized in the form of being unable to understand how someone could possibly consider giving birth, knowing that your child will suffer and die. It's almost a sort of hyper-empathy that in Hannah's case stopped being functional. This mini is inked with a much thicker line and there's a wash that gives it a nice texture. Like most empathetic people, Hannah immediately perks up when she learns her brother and his wife were going to have a child, because she could be the cool, empowering aunt. When given a chance to nurture others, she was there in a shot, even if there was still a great deal of anxiety. Hannah is actually quite skillful at transforming her anxiety and awkwardness into highly effective cringe humor, like in a scene where she drunkenly shocks her sister-in-law's conservative, religious mom by suggesting they name the boy Lucifer. Hannah avoids easy, convenient endings in her work, so the mini ends with her attempting to bond with her nephew but still not feeling 100% sure about her feelings about bringing a baby into the world or that its mere existence would make her happy, though she just can't help feeling warmth regarding her nephew.

Alas is Hannah's main autobio series, consisting of short stories, story fragments and observations. The essence of this highly self-aware artist is something she talks about in a special convention issue of Alas, in which she notes that she lives a very easy, privileged life: she doesn't have to worry about food, has a fun job, gets to bike to work, is supported by her parents, etc and yet is still deeply depressed and unsatisfied. This is because she still doesn't feel she has a purpose, and also because she feels terribly lonely and wants the validation a relationship can bring as well as an opportunity to heap affection on another person. In other words, the idea of a relationship is just as important to her as the actual potential person. The first issue of the regular series starts an occasional serial about her father's experiences in Viet Nam, but it's also about the ways she depends on him as a source of strength and validation. Hannah often speaks about herself through the language of depression, as she catastrophizes, declares herself useless and an idiot. Of course, the reality is that Hannah is inquisitive, philosophical and mindful of social justice and the circumstances that affect others' lives; as noted before, she's an empath who is unable (because of her mental illness) to turn a little of that empathy on herself.

The second issue focuses on the details of a 2012 march in Chicago against NATO and war in general, and Hannah's observations of what she saw and heard were especially astute. For someone who is so passionate about her cause, she has a remarkable sense of overall fairness and went out of her way to record the thoughts of the police, for example. Contrasting the stories of war veterans apologizing for their actions to her father's memories of the sheer banality of being in the war made everything political in this comic that much more personal, down to romantic protester vibe that she witnessed and secretly wished was a part of. The third issue matches up her father's war stories with her recollection of 9/11; her observations about fatalism creeping into pop culture were especially interesting.

The fourth issue is a dense grab-bag: from feeling betrayed at not getting a gallery job despite her many hours spent as a volunteer to more body image exploration and personal history to profiles of obscure artists Hannah clearly finds interesting to her father's war story (this time about hauling a soldier who had been hit by napalm to an evacuation helicopter) to a follow-up to her book from over a decade ago, Winter Beard. That book, which won a Xeric Grant, was about Hannah writing a comic over time to express her feelings to her male best friend. His response was not to express that he was in love with her, but that he was unsure of her real feelings, considering that she was about to move away. The story here follows up on that as she attends his wedding, gets drunk and desperately wants to hook up with someone, to no avail. The story ends as many of her stories do--with Hannah crying and no real sense of closure. The running theme in her comics is that of someone who finds herself relentlessly inadequate, yet she never stops trying to improve herself, to do and try new things and to maintain social contacts. Despite these setbacks, Hannah sets out, Charlie-Brown like, and keeps plugging away.

The fifth issue was my favorite. Hannah's drawing just continued to get better from issue to issue, adding greater moments of depth and texture and varying her line weights to give certain scenes more emotional resonance. Hannah is a talented illustrator as well as a cartoonist, as evidenced by certain of her drawings and her elaborate covers, and each issue of Alas provides a few of those treats to the reader. This issue concerned meeting up with an old flame now in recovery for substance abuse, which made Hannah (someone who likes to drink and who smokes pot every day) highly uneasy. That made for some awkward moments in the story, but it's also the kind of raw honesty that she relays so well. Her frustration with being alone boils over into a hilarious fantasy sequence about being Albert Camus' lover, as her core as an existentialist spills over into her daily life. Being aware of death's inevitability can sure get in the way of one's daily happiness, but that's part of who Hannah is. Finally, the sixth issue flashes back to family: a brilliant aunt who was usually ill when Hannah was a child and her cool older cousin who was kind to her and showed her all sorts of cool stuff. There's some remarkable confessional stuff as well as a harrowing scene of how her father got his Purple Heart (took shrapnel in an explosion).

Hannah's most recent comic is Springtime In Chicago, which sports a beautiful, colorful color and a striking, naturalistic self-portrait. In many respects, it's a companion piece to Winter Beard, but with a number of significant differences. First, she long ago cycled through the Jeffrey Brown influence that marked her earlier work. Second, Hannah used a strict, daily diary comics approach. Third, as seen in the book's third strip, Hannah is in therapy and is making this an important part of the narrative. Of course, the main similarity is that there's a guy at work she has a crush on, and she can't quite work up the courage to tell him--so she does comics about it (and other stuff) instead. There's a hilarious strip where she smells his sweater, is swept up by his scent for a moment, and then immediately castigates herself for her obsessive behavior. There's a running story involving the health of her beloved cat and the helplessness she feels with regard to him, dealing with depressive spells, self-care in the form of baths, and many funny little anecdotes. Working in a four panel strip form pushed Hannah to cartoon like a strip cartoonist, down to using punchlines and packing the biggest punch in the final panel. It worked nicely on a number of levels, especially when Hannah was able to really establish her self-worth in a powerful way and understand how much love she has to give, as opposed to needing love from someone else. There's a lot of radical acceptance in this collection of strips, and that emotional punch that came from the breakthroughs she was making were every bit as important as the comic punchlines that came through in her funny strips.

There was a little more artifice in the way that she structured these strips than in her earlier work. Part of that was the format, to be sure, but there was a solidity to her storytelling that marked a significant change from the more fragmented quality of her earlier comics. While there was always an emotional through-line to follow in those comics, there wasn't much in terms of narrative. The strip format is a concise one, and it clearly forced Hannah to make some difficult choices here and there as to what to include and why. That's important because Hannah has a lot to say as an artist, both with regard to personal and political issues (and their intersection, of course). She could write any number of different kinds of memoirs detailing one or two of these issues, but I think the daily strip format is best-suited for the wide variety of stories she wants to tackle. In many respects, she embodies the existentialist's dilemma: understanding that we are truly alone while at the same time trying to figure out exactly how we should deal with others.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Retrotfit: Paloma Dawkins' SummerLand and Karine Bernadou's Canopy


SummerLand, by Paloma Dawkins. Retrofit is certainly casting their net wide as they've truly become the American answer to Latvia's Kus!. Their willingness to publish work by young cartoonists or cartoonists who work in other media as well has created (along with Frontier, of course) has created a limited, serialized anthology that's clearly much easier to publish and distribute than an actual anthology collection. It also obviously allows the spotlight to fall on one cartoonist at a time. In the case of SummerLand, it's much less about story than it is about memory and the perfect aesthetic moment. In the beginning of the story, when cousins Gwen & Santana meet to put on a play, the psychedelic, day-glo colors that shift from page-to-page as the day they spend together goes by aren't simply decorative; they are meant to evoke a sense of the hyper-real, where moment-to-moment living takes slows down and one can see and experience all of the beauty around you as though one was under the influence of psychedelic drugs. In such an instance, color gradations and changes in light in particular are highly noticeable and powerful events, and they provide an imprint that goes along with the actual experiences and interpersonal exchanges that can occur during such events.

The second part of the story takes place years later, when Santana is a lawyer and Gwen is a famous actress/model but is incredibly unhappy. The pages have a more muted quality and a great sense of sameness in terms of color, representing a kind of blandness and stasis in day-to-day living--even for someone who has apparently achieved her dreams. The line drawings, which were simple and elegant as they took a back seat to the use of color, suddenly became grotesque and warped in the second part of the story. The final pages see Santana meeting up with an old friend, who shows her something beautiful as a way of reminding her of what can be and what she is as a person, and the pages dramatically shifted to the same kind of spectacular colors seen earlier in the book. The story and message here are simple, as it's the aesthetics of the comic that take center stage, along with an understanding of how just important aesthetics are with regard to finding meaning in one's life.


Canopy, by Karine Bernadou. This odd comic makes extensive use of blood-red colors in its silent tale of a young girl left in the forest to fend for herself. It is in turns whimsical, erotic, terrifying and mystical, as she learns to survive, thrive and understand the universe she's been born into. The big-eyed, red-skinned girl and her family look like Picasso drawings from his primitivist period (like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), down to the detail that her father looks like he's wearing a "primitive's" mask. The story is one of her negotiating her environment, and in particular negotiating the many kind of men that came her way. The story is a brutal, hilarious assessment of these men and her honest willingness to engage with them as well as her strength in forcing them out of her life when they prove to be toxic or dangerous.

Her father becomes a sort of idealized figure for her, as she flashes back to childhood with him (in pages that are all red) in pages that seems as much fantasy as they are reverie, doing things like chasing each other around, making each other punch themselves as puppets, surviving a flood, squeezing each other flat and slowly switching ages. These are sweet pages that still have an air of weirdness to them, in the sense that the reader has the idea that the young woman doesn't really know her father and she knows this as well, which colors her memories a bit. The other men in the story range from a brute savior who leaves her and forces her to figure things out on her own, to a vicious "gardener" who harvests female body parts so as to devour them (how's that for a sexual assault metaphor?) that she outwits thanks to some rebellious body parts from the garden, and a giant male flower who begs her to take him with her. Needing water and lacking any in the area, she simply puts the stem of the flower inside herself in one of the most strikingly strange and yet tender images in the book.
There's a musician whom she becomes infatuated with who's drawn to the siren call of mermaids, which she kills and roasts over a fire for dinner. (He wandered off after that.) There was the return of the faceless brute, who just wanted to steal her face. She kills him and gets it back, but she finds herself having to pop little growths that look like him all over her body--a remarkable metaphor for PTSD. She is most certainly not herself after that encounter, one that seemed to bring her a man that was like her father until it was clear that she was dealing with a toxic narcissist. That encounter left her broken, as her flower died and she left, going to sleep and pulling the night sky around her for a blanket that was magically transformed into a dress. For the first time, she had her sense of style and protection as she was able to heal from her trauma enough to take care of herself and even thrive. When she finally encounters what seems to be her father again, he tries to strangle her, but she escapes and is ready to kill him, only to see that he's died and that his blood quickly grows a magical tree, at the top of which is a sexy male fox that she gets drunk with and has sex with. For the first time, however, the woman is empowered in a way she wasn't before, as she puts her dress back on and simply walks away. It's a remarkable journey of discovery, growth and empowerment, as no masculine force ever rescues her. She engages masculine forces until she understands how to protect herself and engage them on her terms. It's a savage, vicious book that doesn't pull its punches, and yet the rite-of-passage quality it possesses is distinctive and strangely sweet. The simple, cartoony line drawings and use of color make it both unpretentiously beautiful to look at and and frequently visually shocking.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Minis: Ben Passmore

Ben Passmore's work visually reminds me a bit of Brian Ralph, the godfather of simply-cartooned area-exploration comics like Cave-In and Daylight. Ralph's detritus-filled post-apocalyptic backgrounds and the characters who explore them have influenced any number of cartoonists, and Kaz Strzepek is another name that comes to mind in looking at Passmore's stuff. Of course, Passmore clearly thought it would be interesting to use an environment like that as an extended metaphor for a comic about isolation, addiction and the quest for meaning and connection. At the same time, he repeatedly makes fun of himself for using this metaphor, letting the audience in on the joke in both issues of his series Day-Glo Ayhole that I've read. The world he sets up is pretty much a pastiche of every post-apocalyptic form of media one can imagine, from The Road Warrior to cannibals to zombies to mutants and more. There's a machine turning people into cockroaches that are feeding on a wave of pornography.

Passmore's work is both a brutal indictment of society (which isn't all that far away from the world he depicts) and himself. In particular, his stand-in character talks about an addiction to pornography and the ways in which this has made it difficult for him to have real sexual and emotional relationships. There's a profound poignancy in these scenes, even as Passmore is traipsing through piles of garbage, heaps of porn and hostile cannibals. At the same time, Passmore uses another character (with "No Limitz) tattooed on his forehead) as a kind of Mad Max stand-in who proceeds to kill everything in his path because he's desperately hungry. There's one hilarious scene where a group of survivors wind up killing themselves because they know about his reputation, and they want to save their food. The punchline is that "No Limitz" comes across their food, he tosses it aside because he doesn't like apple pie. There's a guest strip in the first issue by Erin Wilson that made me laugh out loud, as it asked the question "Where Are All The Ladies?" in Passmore's post-apocalyptic rant. The women spot "Ben" and "No Limitz" and invite them to their oasis (complete with water slide), but Ben notes that he "can't hear much over my internal monologue".

That was a great gag, but it is telling that the first major female character in the book was essentially formed out of Ben's essence, like Eve came from Adam's rib. There's also the suggestion that she initially was formed from a porn clip from Ben's imagination, and she initially presents in that way. They trek across the wasteland as she tries to help him restore his human form, becoming closer while he still tries to work out his feelings about relationships. They even briefly cross paths with No Limitz, who goes on to encounter Jesus on the cross and the hand of God. They of course all get into a huge battle, with No Limitz whacking the hand of God with Jesus on the cross. The hand of God gets bummed afterward because no one will hang out with them. Passmore's dialogue is hilarious in this sequence, as Jesus is just another mythological trope to deal with, but it's clear that he took particular glee in the way he designed this sequence. By the end of the issue, the woman (Jodee) leaves Ben because of his inability to get over his essential fear of connection, and both No Limitz & Ben get torn to shreds but a monstrous, mutated, double-headed cop. Passmore hits upon the addict's worse-case scenario: someone willing to love them but finding themselves unable and unwilling to love them back. The deaths of his stand-in and his action stand-in are just a manifestation of that moment of devastating clarity, with death by cop being an especially on-the-nose way for an African-American character to go, especially in the remains of New Orleans.

There's no question that the "day-glo" part of the comic is a crucial aspect of the story. Passmore uses oranges, purples, pinks and yellows, but they're actually fair soft pastels instead of lurid colors. This is important because of the impact he's aiming for; he's not trying to bludgeon the reader with the visuals, but rather soften the landscape so as to allow the more thoughtful aspects of his story to emerge. New Orleans (which is where Passmore hails from) is another key part of the story. Considering that the city in a sense is still recovering from its own apocalyptic moment after Hurricane Katrina, especially its African-American community, the idea of touring an unrecognizable landscape with the occasional familiar piece of detritus is a powerful image. So is the lawless, brutal quality of the cops, who are just there to preserve disorder, to quote Richard Daley. While the reality is that this is still a personal wasteland above all else, it's not hard to see the ways in which the overall chaos and cruelty of the world can have an affect on one's psyche and coping mechanisms.

Goodbye, published by Silver Sprocket, is a kind of companion piece. Passmore takes Plato's bit from the Symposium, that humans were originally two beings (two heads, four arms, four legs) that Zeus split apart, creating the desire to recreate the existence of a soulmate. Passmore transposes that concept to that sense of being a young person and part of a glorious scene, in those early moments of creating a family of choice before real world concerns like jobs, marriage, children, and capitalism in general break up those moments of pure aesthetic joy. There's a remarkable gag where an anarchist in a coffee shop is growing increasingly enraged by two young women describing their vacations and showing each other photos on a phone until he goes off on them. When he looks at the picture, it's of one of the women with a machine gun and a circle A flag fighting the revolution somewhere, immediately putting him in his place and forcing him to accept how truly bourgeois he is. The last half of the book is an internal argument focusing on that very problem: how to become truly active in making change, and if that's even possible. There's a moment of hope in which there is less of a "me" in the form of people of a single self at war with itself and a "they" in the form of that recaptured aesthetic of connection forming again, even if just for a moment. Passmore mixes philosophy, humor and emotion in his stories in equal measure, all in an effort to get to a sense of truth about both himself and the world. That truth may not be very pleasant, but it is at least hard-earned.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Minis: Ella Gall & Kostja Ribnik, Andreas Brandal


Glimpses of Comfort, by Ella Gall & Kostja Ribnik. This is a writer-duo from Bosnia, and there's a certain brutal quality to them that I associate with comics from the Balkans. The drawings are mostly naturalistic, but they are also distorted and grotesque. Details tend to reveal rot and decay. The stories have a dystopian, nightmarish quality with a strong element of darkly cynical humor. The first story, "Don't Edit Sober", sets the stage for the other stories in this collection, as the artist tells the writer that if being drunk is the only way to separate our consciousness from the absurdity of this world, you may as well edit your work drunk to keep a connection to it. "Once They Had Pest" looks a little like a Brian Chippendale comic in the way the eye is dragged back and forth across the page of an underground setting. It's the most concise expression of the collection's theme: that humanity is a plague that will eventually be eliminated, in a process that will be as absurd as it is inevitable.

"Or All The Worlds With Bottles" expresses that sentiment in a different way, with the heavy use of spotting blacks emphasizing the central conceit of the story: that the man living in a tiny flat can't bear to part with any bottles he brings into his apartment. When it's revealed that he keeps having to get new apartments after he crowds himself out with bottles and he ponders having to get a better job as a result, it's the best kind of absurdity: the kind that seems dictated by ironclad rationality. It's a funny parable for not just letting obsession take over and crowd out the rest of one's life, it's one specifically aimed at conspicuous & ultimately pointless consumption in a capitalist society. He desperately hopes the bottles contain beauty and meaning in the same way a person hopes their career and possessions provide meaning. "This Funny Story" transposes that problem to a brutal, totalitarian government where a character named Didi didn't find any of the absurdly brutal tactics he was exposed to the least bit funny, when it was the state itself that didn't understand the banality of its existence. Ribnik goes to town on the skinny, tortured figure in this story and the buffoonish yet terrifying oppressors he has to put up with.

"Autumn Love Story" breathes a little more than the other stories, but it's no less melancholy as it's about an immortal existence that's haunted by an inability to act on one's feelings. "Winter Song" opens things up even more, as all the negative space here is white. It's a story that in many ways doesn't necessarily contradict the prior messages in the comic, but rather expresses that despite the stupidity of existence, the only way to live that makes sense is to take emotional risks and get out of our comfort zone, even though this will inevitably lead to pain. The final story, "Sleep Museum", is a further illustration of that principle, as a woman living in a newly refabricated city experiences a sense of sleepy numbness as she always and only stays inside during the winter. The story then flips to a man walking outside and coming back in, resenting the way in which he feels like his city had been reduced to a museum piece. The final panel reveals both how true that actually was but also gave a bit of hope for a tiny rebellion in the form of a live, human connection. The question that the artists pose is, is that glimpse of comfort enough to live an authentic life, or is it more important to fully inhabit the ways in which the world makes us uncomfortable?

False Memories, by Andreas Brandal. Another in the Stripnjak comics published by Ribnik, this is a silent series of crudely-drawn and laid out, inksplattered, densely hatched and cross-hatched comics about a series of monsters who run various apparatuses that control different systems. The first is a diminutive creature resembling a troll doll that runs a labyrinth; the second a cylindrical creature that's a mix of robot, tendrils and maggots who plugs into a city's electrical system and deals out death; and the third are a series of monstrous insects and spider creatures. There's also a one-eyed man who runs a mysterious system of switches and potions to create and manipulate life, and the final chapter is a series of nearly-abstract creatures at odd angles that seem to interact in an almost benign way with other creatures. These comics have the feel of an Eamon Espey without the direct social commentary; they are harsh and uncompromising in their own way, yet they represent the logic of closed ecosystems. They represent reality as it chosen by the creatures who are the masters of these worlds, whether or not it's true. Truth has no place in these stories; the only things that count are process, experimentation and ritual. Not even good or evil, per se, have any meaning in these stories, which are uncompromising in their approach and willingness to stay opaque.