Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Minis: E.K. Williams, MariNaomi, Sophia Foster-Dimino

Babybel Wax Bodysuit, by Eric Kostiuk Williams (Retrofit). Williams pulls off a star turn in his first Retrofit comic, using color for maximum effect after publishing his earlier comics in black & white. The conceit of the fluidity of form in the object of the red wax on cheese is remarkably effective, especially in the way that Williams likes to warp and bend reality and physical forms. Williams' comics are a mixture of the cheeky, the philosophical, the intellectual, the sexy and the emotionally intimate, and I love that metaphor of stripping something away to get at the really good stuff. This comic has a number of short stories, the standout being "The Literal Word", which is about teenage Williams becoming friends with an older, Christian, Republican woman on a comics forum. Using his fluid, melting style, Williams transforms himself into his avatar (Daredevil) and transforms his friend into a queen, since she was sort of the group's mother hen. It's a typically thoughtful, visually gripping and expressive story about learning things about others who are very different than you while at the same time finding your own way in life. In his case, it was discovering the gay club scene in college and slowly drifting away from her. Williams has some smart things to say about Facebook and how its algorithms discourage cross-cultural exchange while being nostalgic for his old internet support network.

In addition to a number of visually spectacular one-page strips (some straightforward, others surreal), the other big story was "Britney Jean 2116". You would expect a story about Britney Spears being preserved as a cyborg for Las Vegas shows in the year 2116 would be campy, and one would not be wrong. However, this story is less about camp and more a dystopian sci-fi story about commodification (a running theme of this comic) and loss of identity. It's a story that on the one hand appreciates her silly pop songs at face value, but also questions the corporate structure that pressured her and caused her so much anxiety. It's a fear that Williams worries about on a larger level as an artist, since he's concerned that his honest self-expression might eventually be appropriated and commodified aginst his will, either in his lifetime or beyond. Structuring it in a legitimately exciting sci-fi story makes it all the more fun, especially with an open-ended conclusion where Britney is not yet ready to join a larger revolution. Williams mixes politics, aesthetics, philosophical concept and his own hard-won wisdom in an ambitious stew that is distinctive in terms of its component parts being discernible but also forming something greater and more original than the simple sum of those parts. He does this with a supple line and a skill with both line and color that is already quite formidable.

I Thought YOU Hated ME, by MariNaomi (Retrofit). These are memoir comics at their most intimate, as MariNaomi examines an on-again, off-again friendship with enormous importance over a span of close to forty years. What I liked best about this story was MariNaomi's varied but always assured cartooning style that emphasized facial expression to such a degree that she was often able to excise virtually every other element from the page when the situation called for it. There's also a sharp tale told here about the ways in which personalities can change over time, as eight-year-old Mari was extremely shy, while her best friend's new friend, Mirabai, was a confident and even obnoxious tomboy. They often ganged up on her and made fun of her in a series of strips that were a deliberate homage to Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips: stumpy character design, deliberately simple facial features, etc. Along the way, something interesting happened: Mirabai became a genuine friend.

Another homage to Schulz, the famous "Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he's trying to kick it", is done twice here: first, in the same way, and second, where Mirabai actually puts the ball down and lets Mari kick it. That was beautifully symbolic of the closeness of their relationship, one where they shifted roles as Mari became the bad girl and Mirabai was the one who had no interest in smoking, doing drugs or losing her virginity as quickly as possible. Of course, despite her new coolness, Mari was pissed that the guys would fall for Mirabai instead of her, until she became resigned to the idea because Mirabai really was that great. When Mari ran away from home, Mirabai was there to help. When their twenties rolled around, neither understood just how fragile friendships can really be. Both floated in and out of each other's lives, thinking the other no longer wanted to be friends, until their mid-thirties.

What follows after that is a series of wonderful, intimate conversations about relationships, their pasts, their futures, debilitating diseases, professional successes and small moments spent together. The scenes of mutual, genuine affection get highly detailed, realistically drawn close-ups to emphasize not just their intimacy as friends, but an intimacy that's unique to them. Simpler drawings allow for the reader to identify with the characters with greater ease than more naturalistically- rendered drawings, and they also tend to move the action along with greater ease. With a realistic drawing that's a close-up, that's the artist's way of telling the reader to stop and take a long look at this image before moving on. This is ultimately a sweet and simple story that revolves around its story beats, which are as much about what is not said as what is directly expressed.

Vom Night, by Sophia Foster-Dimino. This is an interesting project, published by JMC Aggregate, which features a comic by Foster-Dimino and a download code for a song of the same name as the comic at bandcamp.com by gobbinjr, aka Emma Witmer. The song is dreamy and atmospheric, which fits nicely into SFD's narrative within a narrative. It's about a young woman who goes about her day as a cake decorator at a bakery who in her thoughts is telling someone (herself? an imaginary correspondent? something in-between?) a story about a dream that she's had. The story fills her every waking moment, especially when she's doing automatic activities like brushing her hair or walking to work. SFD's figure work here is incredibly satisfying just to look at, as the unnamed protagonist's slightly chunky body and long, red hair drawn to resemble a labyrinth at times gives each panel a certain presence. Her blank eyes betray the fact that she's not entirely there, even as she tries to be kind and sympathetic toward her co-workers. That's especially true of one co-worker who is concerned about her brother and later learns that he's in the hospital. What the co-worker mistakes for kindness and compassion is simply the protagonist doing her very best from spacing out again so that she can get back to telling herself her story. That said, when told that she's a good listener, she frowns and doesn't have anything to say to that, as it was clear that she was listening out of a sense of social obligation and politeness rather than genuine concern. This was a fascinating take on introversion and how unknowable the mind truly is, and it was the delicate, restrained quality of Foster-Dimino's line that made it so effective.

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