Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mini-Kus! of the Week #14: T.Lehikoinen, E.Ostergren, L.Kenins

mini-Kus! #14: The Pernicious Kiss, by Tiina Lehikoinen. All three of the entries in this review are intensely sad in their own way. Lehikoinen tells the story of a young man who grows up with a horse's head, and she focuses on the dangers of him attempting to kiss a human woman. The comic is grotesque but deeply sad precisely because of Lehikoinen's remarkably exacting specificity and detail when it comes to his teeth, his gums, the shape of his mouth and head, the foam that might form and the pain that could result for his partner. Where Lehikoinen really twists the knife is depicting the anxiety that the horse-headed young man feels with regard to his own natural desire and possibility that he might accidentally devour someone he's kissing. It goes from being a metaphor for any self-perceived flaws and insecurities and dives deep into the specific anxieties unique to the protagonist. The lettering is especially remarkable in this comic, appearing as not just scrawled and immersive, but almost carved into the page, as if it was an act of desperate graffiti. At the same time, the audience is not asked to feel repulsed by or even pity the horse-headed man, but rather to simply empathize with him. If the narrative captions are a little distant at times, it's only to put us a bit further into the shows of this character rather than "other" him.

mini-Kus! #16: Runaway Dog, by Emilie Ostergren. On the one hand, this comic is about the rescue of a sad dog that receives total love and acceptance from his new owner, who also happens to keep an entire family's worth of "rescues" in his tiny forest house. There's a kind of charming, rambling logic to this story that almost completely eschews the use of negative space for an immersive but friendly storytelling style that thrusts the reader into this strange world where the gnome-like lead treats the dog with great kindness, and the other members of the family (who all live in vases and ewers). The dog takes them all for a ride on his back as they talk about retreating from a society where they were constantly afraid, and the dog decries the feeling of being a slave. The dialogue is all a bit odd if heartwarming, until the final panel where the little girl who owned the dog is weeping at his absence. It's Ostergren's clever way of showing the ways in which grief is not an emotion isolated to a single person, but a phenomenon that connects us in ways we often choose to ignore. Was the dog really treated like a slave? Is he truly being treated better now? Are the feelings of the little girl valid or rendered unimportant because of the dog's feelings? Ostergren raises these questions in her cartoony, ratty and expressive line and leaves them to the reader to work out.

mini-Kus! #42: Alien Beings, by Laura Kenins. Working in colored pencil, this is a painful story about conflating a childhood love of unexplained phenomena with events that may have led to her parents' divorce. It's unclear if this is an autobiographical story, but it doesn't really matter because of the emotional authenticity of the narrative. That's especially true because of the slightly crude and expressive quality of the art, which is entirely dependent on color, not line, making it look more like the work of a child than an adult despite the sophistication of the design. That's an intentional effect, as Kenins makes an effort to put the reader into the mindset of the protagonist, down to very era-specific music and (especially) TV shows like The X-Files. She wants to believe that what she perceived as an encounter with strange lights and a UFO had an immediate and negative effect on her parents' relationship instead of it fracturing for other reasons. Steeped in pop culture, she even goes as far to manipulate a situation where her parents "run into each other". Instead of resparking their love, it simply irritates them. This is a comic that sets out to explain the unexplained in a literal way at first, but eventually in a metaphorical fashion as well. Better that aliens caused the breakup than it being her fault (the go-to for children) or worse, it being no one's fault. Kenins perfectly captures that urge of trying to make sense of a strange world with hidden knowledge and an adventurer's spirit, with a feeling of just being a clue or two away from cracking the case.

Monday, July 17, 2017

NoBrow: Lorena Alvarez' Nightlights

I'm constantly amazed by NoBrow's ability to find artists from across the globe who fit into their clean, cartoony and colorful aesthetic. Lorena Alvarez' book Nightlights is certainly no exception, as she does her own take on that aesthetic and adds a few twists of her own. The story is inspired by the Colombian's own childhood spent in Catholic school, as it follows Sandy, a girl who's more interested in the worlds she creates with her drawings than with school or fitting in with others. The book opens with a cartooning masterclass on how to use negative space: a two page spread where a couple of pages of drawings are on the left-hand-side page, and more pages are scattered on the right-hand-side page, with Sandy herself laying down at an angle on the page and drawing. There's a pot holding flowers in the upper-left-hand side of the page that counterbalances everything else and tugs against Sandy's gaze being taken up by her mother calling her. Throughout the book, Alvarez solves storytelling problems by creating some extreme angles and character points-of-view to yank the reader's eye around.

Alvarez ability to balance panel and page compositions give the book a pleasing feel, even as she creates tension in various ways. The book's first twist is that she sees little lights above her in bed that she catches and transforms into a huge host of of creations that come straight from her imagination. There's another two-page spread where she's in the lower-left hand side of the left-hand-side page, and ideas come rocketing out of her in an almost conical fashion, getting bigger and bigger as they fly off the far right side of the right-hand-side page--with her riding on a creature, carrying a huge banner. These opening pages are an expression of pure joy and creativity, as her creations literally take her on a ride until she falls asleep.

When she meets a new girl with purple eyes and purple hair the next day, she's delighted to make a friend who is genuinely interested in her talent as an artist, even going so far as to ask for one of the drawings. Alvarez quickly makes it clear that the new girl, Morfia, is a magical being, but she takes the plot in an unexpected direction. Instead of Morfia becoming her new best friend for real, she turns out to be a kind of spirit parasite that's out to isolate Sandy from her family and anything except drawing. With Morfia's dream influence, Sandy's ideas start to become ugly and frightening.

When Sandy meets Morfia again in real life, it's after a particularly unpleasant day at school, and Morfia finds her in detention. She's a perfect, rule-breaking playmate. as they create worlds together in the seriousness of their play. Sandy's ready to simply reject school life and expectations when she gets home, especially when her mother tells her that she knows about the trouble she's in and tries to lend a sympathetic ear. What Alvarez captures perfectly is Sandy's own confusion about herself and her own identity, especially as she's being slowly manipulated by Morfia. When her friend comes to her window and takes her deep into the forest, there's a horrifying sequences of images that show Morfia's deep and abiding hunger for Sandy's imagination and her willingness to keep her there forever. Sandy's quick thinking that showed she was actually paying attention to a key concept in school saves her life, and a return to school that introduces the concept of the atom proves to be just the catalyst she needs to merge her love of drawing with her love of learning.

There are certain superficial similarities between this book and Luke Pearson's Hilda series, especially a willingness to go deep in expressing danger and even terror. Both share a similar sense of whimsy. Both are about familial relationships. Pearson's had a chance to go a little deeper than Alvarez in exploring the character and her friends, but Alvarez' natural affinity for what in many ways is a stand-in means that I could see more adventures starring Sandy. The best part of each book is that despite the extensive and beautiful use of color, neither artist loses track of line. The characters have a solidity to them that grounds the fantasy aspects of the series and draws in the reader. There are times when I read a NoBrow book and can't remember much about it afterward, but Alvarez's storytelling choices and the verisimilitude of the Catholic girls' school lingered on long after reading it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Introducing High-Low Intersection: #1: Whit Taylor Interviews Miranda Harmon

Welcome to the first edition of High-Low Intersection, an occasional (and hopefully soon to be regular) feature that will highlight reviews, essays and interviews by other writers about comics, specifically for this site. They will be posted on High-Low's regular blank day (Friday) when they appear. There are so many excellent writers about comics and too few of them have a regular outlet for their work. On to our first feature: artist and writer Whit Taylor interviews up-and-coming cartoonist Miranda Harmon.
Miranda Harmon first caught my attention a few years ago on Tumblr. Her cute, but fierce character design, paired with her relatable one panel comics and autobio stories about feelings and relating to the world, show a young cartoonist with a fearlessness towards tackling the trickier parts of being a human. I recently spoke with her about how she got into comics, her process, and what she’s been up to lately.

  1. What’s your comics origin story? (aka. When and why did you start making comics?)
The first comics I remember making were heavily inspired by Garfield, my first obsession. I was around age 8 or 9, and my main character was named Marie, and she was a blue cat with Powerpuff Girl eyes. She was in love with a cat who was named after a boy from my school who I had a crush on!
I started drawing journal comics when I was in my senior year of high school, and they’re all very embarrassing now. I was introspective in the same way all 17-year-olds are. Then I went to Goucher College and studied fine arts and art history, expecting to go into academia or curatorial studies. While I was there I learned about indie comics.

I went to NYCC in 2011 and met some webcomics people, and it seemed like a good time. Then I went to my first SPX in 2013, and I started to make comics friends through twitter. That sealed the deal for me! I was surprised that I could participate as well as be a fan, and I was so happy to find a community.

Even though I wasn’t published, nobody could stop me from making zines and that was exciting to me. I liked that comics was separate from my academic career, in that way it felt like I had control over this new part of my life. My professors were supportive but didn’t know what to tell me, besides to keep going.

  1. It seems like in the last year or so, your comics have exploded in popularity, especially on Tumblr and Twitter. What do you attribute this to?
In late 2015 I finished a long, sincere journal comic about an experience I had with a podcast. I miscalculated and thought that nobody would care about that comic, but it turns out a lot of people connected to my story. After that I started to get more opportunities and eyes on my work. It feels like I’m oversimplifying but I really do look back on that one comic and the response to it, and I think that was a turning point for me.

I became much more confident about sharing my work after that. I started to believe in myself as an artist. For the first time making a comic made me feel powerful and strong, and I want to keep chasing that feeling forever.  

Whit: Are you referring to Harmontown?

Yep, that’s the one!

  1. Much of your work focuses on your emotional realm, including self-worth, relating the outside world, relationships, and mental health. What has your experience been with sharing this publicly, both for you and others?

When I make quick journal comics in my sketchbook, I try to make every part of the process as easy and fast as possible. Part of that is trying not to worry about any audience reaction. I feel like that way I am able to be more honest.

But when I sit down and spend time making something with more intent, it can be difficult because I don’t want to hurt anyone with my work. In one journal comic, I show myself explaining to a therapist that I feel, “rotten.” After I made this comic and put it online, a friend who almost never reads any comics at all sat me down and, crying, told me I’m not rotten and that she was worried about me. I was surprised because I nearly forgot that when I put a comic online, it can be read by anyone! I still think that when I make something it’s only for me and a handful of my friends to see, but the reality is different.

I haven’t made anything yet about real people in my life hurting each other. That’s something I want to do in the future and something that has the potential to really harm those close to me. I don’t know how to best proceed but I think I’ll have to find a way. Autobio doesn’t need to do the same thing for everyone, and I’ve used it as therapy as well as a way to gain some control over how I am received by the world. Both of those are valid but I think I’m at a point where I’d like to do more.
All of my favorite autobio stories are full of conflict, and I know I can’t keep making stories about just my own feelings about myself forever. If I’m being honest about my life and the stories I want to tell, they will be full of messy relationships and embarrassing, horrible moments. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about work by MariNaomi, where she shares her romantic history. I think those stories are fascinating and have a real impact on people, and I want to work towards sharing my own life like that.  

  1. Your artistic style is really charming! I like how it combines thoughtful character design with simplicity. How did you develop your style?

Thank you! I like to draw quickly and I’ve tried to build a visual shorthand that works for me, and I really think I just copied everything I love to look at.

I fell in love with webcomics in the mid 2000’s! The first webcomic I ever read was called VG Cats by Scott Ramsoomair. It was a comic about video games and the two main characters were anthropomorphic cats. I never play a lot of video games so I didn’t get the jokes, but I remember copying the drawing style when I was 14 and something new clicked. It’s been a long time but I think it’s still there in the way I draw! Is that embarrassing? I can’t tell! Sorry to Scott Ramsoomair if he ever reads this.

Luckily I found a lot of different webcomics and each one felt like a little place I could go, and almost none of them were about video games. I spent a lot of time reading KC Green’s work and I still look at my copy of his book, Anime Club, when I want to draw something important. I was also influenced by the comics of Meredith Gran, Magnolia Porter and Kate Beaton. The Internet was an incredible resource when I was a teenager. There were always new things to learn and I could go look at these artists’ work and study it as long as I wanted to.

The book that most changed the way I draw and think about drawing is Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat. I bought it in college and read it over and over. It’s full of all these panels like little chaotic worlds that work perfectly. I’m also in love with Sally Cruikshank’s work. Honestly there are so many great illustrators who I owe a lot to, I could keep listing names for a long time! Especially Tove Jansson.

  1. You recently graduated from SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop). What was your experience like and how has it influenced your comics making?

SAW was really perfect for me! I didn’t go to art school but by the end of my undergrad experience I wished I had. When I graduated from college I knew what I wanted to do and didn’t feel like I had spent any time preparing for it. Luckily I went straight to SAW right after Goucher College. I’m from Florida so it was nice to live close to home.

My classmates who I spent all year with were incredible and from all different ages and experience levels. I learned a lot from them, and we had a good chemistry as a class.

Tom Hart, the main teacher and founder of the school, is a big influence on me. He’s a great cartoonist but also a great person, and it was a big deal for me to watch how working artists actually live. During my year at SAW I was able to think a lot about what kind of person I want to be. I learned that I love being part of a community and I can’t do this alone. I want to be the kind of person who brings people together and helps others. I will never forget that Tom told us once, “The best reason to make comics is to show those fuckers.” I think about that every day and it helps guide my work still.

Gainesville was the last place I lived before I moved to LA, and while I don’t regret moving at all, it’ll always hold a place in my heart. I spent ages 22-24 there and I feel it’s where I finally became a person who I’m proud of.

  1. You recently moved to Los Angeles. How are you liking it?

I love it here more than I thought I could love living anywhere! I’ve never lived in a big city before and I’m excited by how much there is to do and how many people there are. I’m tired all the time because I need to work a lot and I feel like I’m always on, but I can tell that even though I’m not producing as much work as before, I’m thriving.

The other day I was on top of my friend Heather’s roof, the sun was setting and it was cool and windy even though it’s the middle of June. The sunsets here are so unbelievable. I could see Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood sign, and everything, and I kept asking myself in my head over and over if it was real. I knew I wanted to live here for years, and it was a big jump. I’m lucky to have so many people supporting me.

  1. What are some of your hopes and goals going forward with your comics?

I want to really sit down and work on a longer fictional narrative. I love making autobio work and I don’t want to stop but I want to get better at fiction. I have some ideas and I’m a little afraid to begin, but I know I need to take those steps! I think I’ve gotten away with doing what comes easy for me for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with easy but I want to stretch more and get stronger in other areas.

  1. What comics are you reading right now?

Currently I’m reading Ariol, the Three Donkeys by Emmanuel Guilbert and Marc Boutavant, and Spaniel Rage by Vanessa Davis. I love Vanessa Davis’ work, I am very inspired by the way she draws and records her life. I also just read through all of Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran again because it ended. Octopus Pie is my favorite comic ever made, I can’t stop thinking about it!

  1. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?

Not really! In the past year, I’ve been focused on moving and surviving. Unfortunately, I’ve pushed my personal comics work to the back for a little bit, but I feel like I’m finally stable enough to get back on that horse. I’d like to make a new minicomic before OC zine fest in August. I’m thinking it’ll be about a monster who goes to an important business lunch and messes everything up. I’ve also working on a couple of webcomic ideas that I’d like to get started before too long, and I have a picture book idea that I’m developing. And of course there’s also always journal comics I want to make, I really want to document this time in my life as best as I can because I want to remember it and process it fully.

  1. What advice would you give to fans of your work who are looking to make their own comics?

People should come before work if you can help it. When you’re making friends, find your peers instead of chasing down your heroes. Keep reminding everyone that you exist by making comics and showing up. It can feel lonely at first but in my experience people respond to sincerity and kindness. Really listen and get to know people and draw from your own experiences when you make comics.

I would also say that it’s not the worst thing in the world to make a bad drawing! It can be intimidating because when you put something out on the Internet, there’s the potential for a lot of people to look at it. But don’t let that scare you away from making things. Everyone at some point has looked back on old work and felt embarrassed. The best thing I made a year ago makes me cringe to look at now and I’m prepared for that to always be the case!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Silver Sprocket: M.Sweater, L.Prince, J.Stanton

Please Destroy My Enemies, by Michael Sweater. For a publisher that focuses on punk, Silver Sprocket releases a number of comics with a high cute factor. Michael Sweater (nee' King) is a good example of this sense of being betwixt and between, as his comics are indeed very cute, but they also have a fairly dark quality as well. In a series of four-panel gags, the titular entry finds the little girl praying to god and then finding the corpse of one of her enemies as she holds his skull with a self-satisfied smile. That sets the tone for the rest of the book, as Sweater acts as a kind of train station operator, either pulling a narrative in a somewhat expected manner and then going over the top to sell the gag, or else switching tracks at the last second as a way to create the punchline.

Whether it's a vampire buying a lamp, a dog somehow talking its way into taking a driving test, a rabbit hating its dietary choices, a picture frame being hung in a way that makes the house crooked or a zoo where all the animals are obvious fakes, these strips make up Sweater's strongest work. They're conceptually precise and punchy, and he knows just how to draw out the laugh. His linework is neutral and tells the story without interfering or adding to the final outcome that much. Sweater also experiments with some three panel daily strips that don't pack the same punch and are less interesting visually. Sweater's at his best when he works big, works in a cartoony style and keeps his figures simple & direct. There are some hints of Aron Nels Steinke in his work especially in the way he draws big, cheesy smiles. Sweater has hit upon a formula that works very well for him, and the result is a funny book with some bite.

Be Your Own Backing Band, by Liz Prince. I've often found Prince's autobio work about her relationships to be derivative and too often slanted in a direction that's alienating to the reader. Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? tries for Jeffrey Brown-style warts 'n all honesty, but it strays too far and often into giddy silliness. Alone Forever has precisely the opposite problem: after a series of break-ups and relationship failures, this book wallows in self-pitying melodrama until Prince is able to make a tentative peace with her status. The real problem with both books is that there's too much stuff about relationships and not enough about what makes Prince tick. That's been solved by her very good Tomboy memoir (about gender identity and appearance) and this new collection of strips originally printed in Razorcake. Prince talks a bit about how finding punk and DIY had a huge, positive impact on her life. These strips are a sort of contemporary snapshot of how punk continues to influence her life at age thirty and beyond.

Prince is a curmudgeon about public displays of affection at shows (oh, irony!) and people taking selfies, which a friend points out is simply a different kind of enjoying the experience than Prince had. For the most part, Prince is wildly enthusiastic in sharing her experiences managing to get into shows, seeing friends, eating food and generally disrupting her life and sleep in order to have these powerful aesthetic experiences that center around camaraderie above all else. While some of the strips are about specific bands and why their music is important, more of them are about specific adventures Prince had with particular friends in order to get to a show or after a show. Many of the strips are about her friendships with the musicians, as Prince took to drawing concert fliers and such to become a part of the scene when it was clear that she had no musical talent. In many respects, having punk as a focus gives Prince the ability to tell stories about her relationships, her feelings about gender and how that's evolved, her feelings about art and her feelings about community. Punk mediates each of these aspects of her personality without her going too far down any particular rabbit hole. It gives her a constraint to work against, which makes her comics more dynamic and interesting. It's also obvious that writing about punk is an expression of pure joy for her, channeling all of her emotions (positive and negative) onto the page. There will always be a central sweetness to Prince's work that borders on twee, but this book never crosses that divide.

Squatters Of Trash Island, by James The Stanton. Stanton often writes about monsters and the apocalypse in a breezy, funny way. The end of the world is inevitable; it's just the "how" that's in question. And as such, there will always be people who cling to and exploit the slow or fast doomsdays that afflict the planet. This mini is about the strange and few who live on trash heaps in the ocean, trying to survive and even thrive in horrible conditions in a remarkably cheery manner. Some adjust by having sex with dolphins. Some distill disgusting substances into a kind of liquor. When a couple of representatives from a cola company come by to scrape the labels off their bottles (bad PR), they are horrified at the "society" they find living there, consisting of cannibals, perverts and outcasts. Of course, the cola company is as complicit in causing this breakdown of society as anyone, a point that Stanton drives home in contrasting the straightforward (if demented) moral code of the squatters with the sleaziness of the workers. Stanton further drives everything home with his relentlessly grotesque (but cartoony) art. There are weird figures, disgusting fluids or nausea-inducing colors on virtually every page, but it's still Stanton's writing that's the funniest thing about his comics. It's smart and over the top, but there's truth in every weird twist.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Silver Sprocket: I. Rotman, J Woodall, Io/Dukes/Warner/Fisher

No Gods, No Dungeon Masters, by Io, Rachel Dukes, Andy Warner & Hannah Fisher. Published by Avi Ehrlich, Silver Sprocket has become a publisher at the intersection of punk culture and geek culture. After years of releasing punk records, Ehrlich slowly made the transition to comics, and their most recent line of comics has cemented this. This mini was reprinted from the Subcultures anthology published a couple of years back, polished up a bit and recolored. The story is very much about a genderqueer person deeply steeped in RPG and geek culture who also identifies as an anarchist and part of punk culture. The story involves them going from a D&D session to helping thwart a police crackdown on a squat ("he just started screaming 'cast magic missile' and throwing bottles"), wondering why this cultural intersection didn't seem as natural to others as it did to them. Dukes was a perfect artist to portray this, as a queer person also deeply rooted in geek culture and punk politics. As such, there's a cheery, bright quality to this comic that carries over into the more political aspects of the story, since they are folded into the main character's fantasy life anywya

Girls, by Jenn Woodall. One of the big questions frequently asked by Silver Sprocket is why women (cis and trans), genderqueer folk and people of color aren't more readily accepted in punk/anarchist communities. Ben Passmore's brilliant Your Black Friend takes down the racial aspects of this in a measured, funny and angry way (he richly deserved his Eisner nomination) and Woodall's Girls, a collection of mostly silent images that scream more than a thousand words each, handles sexism. Often, quite literally with a baseball bat. It's a spiritual twin of Hellen Jo's Frontier #2, only with a different kind of aesthetic and purpose. Above all else, this is a comic about agency actively and forcefully expressing themselves in the world  in a variety of ways, from a variety of perspectives and aesthetics. From the young woman vomiting flowers to the weary astronaut on a moon orbiting Saturn, this is one long howl against discrimination, objectification, rape culture, violence against women and the patriarchy in general. It's also very much an affirmative display of women, not just a reaction. Woodall is a talented illustrator who manages to combine fantastical elements with an expressive naturalism. Every woman is vividly brought to life on their own terms, and Woodall emphasizes that despite a common desire to resist and struggle, the ways in which they do that differ for everyone here. There's also a sense of joy to be found in the righteous anger expressed in this comic, as it's a part of claiming that agency.

Siren School, by Isabella Rotman. This is a perfectly executed series of jokes about mansplaining. Rotman takes the sirens of myth and conceptualizes them having to learn modern techniques on how to lure men, as simply sitting on a rock and looking beautiful doesn't cut it anymore. Instead, each of the sirens develops a patter that flatters and encourages men to mansplain to them about cars, video games, Star Wars, fantasy sports and especially allowing men to think that the sirens don't recognize their own beauty and that only men can bring it out of them. The siren wearing glasses and saying that she plays video games, but not real video games, is a hilarious stab at the heart of the heinous "gamer gate" controversy and the whole "fake geek girl" nonsense that is so prevalent in pop culture. Each page is a single panel that continues to build until the inevitable: a siren showing her teeth, getting ready to reel in her prey. The concept of sirens playing to men's fantasies in an entirely different but modern way is a hilarious one, only Rotman tells the story not so much to emphasize the ways men are weak, but rather the way that their egos blind them to reality as they treat women like the weak-willed and ill-informed objects that the sirens pretend to be. It's smart, funny and just the right length at 22 pages.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mini-Kus! of the Week #13: M.Ahokoivu, E.Valve, M.Sienczyk

Mini-Kus #10: Otso, by Mari Ahokoivu. This story of a bear astronaut takes a highly surprising turn early on. Ahokoivu mixes a friendly, simple line with a green color pencil wash as to astronaut is told to enter "hypersleep" in order to reach his destination in the stars. That's a clever take on hibernation, of course, but what actually happens is a mix of the strange and horrifying. In hyperspace, his ship is overtaken by a trio of bloodthirsty aliens, who attack him for unknown reasons in a series of visceral, orange-stained pages that are surprisingly disturbing. As always, simplicity and suggestion are far more frightening than complexity of image and gore. The final twist is that the aliens seemed to be there to help the bear fulfill his mission of being out in the stars, just in a way that was simultaneously terrible, beautiful and poetic. This is another one of those issues of mini-Kus! where the length of the story is perfect for the subject matter, as well as the size of the pages. The reader is given a glimpse into the mysteries of the universe, and all we're allowed to see is what's on these very small, mini-comics sized pages.

Mini-Kus #11: All You Need Is Love, by Emmi Valve. This is a charming, visually interesting autobio comic that explores relationships and love outside of romance. Valve uses a thick, chunky line for her hand-drawn panels that reflect the rough, spontaneous nature of her drawing. At the same time, within each panel her line is thin enough to detail delicate aspects of her environment as well as provide cross-hatching. Hers is a heavy world, weighed down by depression and expectation. Like many in that state, basic self-care seems entirely impossible. Fortunately, her platonic friend Joakim stops by to give her encouragement, help and a push in the right direction. They bond over the Beatles, coffee and a trivia quiz, as Joakim essentially engages her in opposite action: healthy activities that make her feel better but are the opposite of what her malaise wants her to do. The watercolors in the piece become subtly bright as the story goes on, reflecting the fact that this isn't a cure, but rather a reprieve. The way Valve focuses on specifics in the story is the key to its success; she doesn't try to make any larger points about love, work or success because doing so would rob the story of its personal power.

Mini-Kus #12: Historyjki, by Maciej Sienczyk. This mini is like reading an especially strange series of vignettes from Ripley's Believe It Or Not. There's the same straight face in presenting the absurd, the same stiff line, and the same total commitment in telling the story. There's a story of a tribe on a small island, a frightening old man with oversized testicles, and a tribe that travels in a formation the shape of the old man. There's a piece about a song made up during sweeping the floor that becomes an epic about a woman whose bra is stolen off of her when she dies, and how horrible this is. There's a robber foiled by touching a piece of food in a man's mouth shaped like the robber surrendering, tall tales surrounding bread and frightening bread fauns that walk around at night, and the boy who could only survive if kept in boiling water. The latter had to wear a suit like an iron lung/pot-bellied stove but managed to have a wife and children! These stories are remarkably dense but short, packing a treasure trove of false facts in just three or four pages each. The colors are deliberately flat, refusing to betray any sense of sensationalism in these otherwise whacked-out stories, as Sienczyk sticks to his shtick relentlessly.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Minis: L.Luna/P.Wishbow, H.Fisher, R.Jordan

Cosmoknights, by Hannah Fisher. This is a great example of how younger creators have completely eradicated the boundaries between genre comics and alternative comics. This is a slice-of-life comic that slowly reveals its more fantastical details about two young women from very different societal castes who develop an intense friendship. Tara, as we learn, is royalty. Pan, her best friend, lives a more hardscrabble existence but is in many ways her friend's connection to the outside world. This comic is all about moments and the ways in which the two characters relate to each other, and as such, it's heavy on body language cues. Fisher has a strong sense of line but an even stronger sense of how to use color as the key element of her emotional narrative. There's one sequence where the friends are at a nighttime, outdoors concert where the blacks, purples and blues provide an emotional backdrop for the friends dancing, and then later Pan shows Tara a spectacular view of the two moons of her planet. (This is when it becomes explicit that this is a science-fiction story.)

When Pan helps her friend escape from how prescribed her fate is about to become, she does it knowing that she will be arrested and will be separated from her friend no matter what. As the back cover notes, a knight can be "the devoted champion of a lady", and that's precisely the role Pan plays for Tara in this first installment of a much longer story. Fisher is able to make this comic a complete story in and of itself, with a fully realized emotional arc. Obviously, there's a longer narrative arc in the offing, but it's clear that the series' emotional arc is its most important component.

Give, by Pam Wishbow/Hunt, by Leigh Luna. This is the last release of the sadly departed Yeti Press, but it's a good one, spotlighting two up-and-coming cartoonists. Wishbow's creepy comic about plumbing the mysteries of the forest uses a sickly green as a spot color as the story's narrator tries to resurrect a dead mouse using various herbs and ephemera she finds in the forest. When she's eventually successful, she learns that getting what she wanted wasn't necessarily what was good for her, as the forest gave and then took it away. Wishbow's art is dynamic and abstracted in the way children's illustrations sometimes are, popping off the page with powerful, stylized compositions. The way Wishbow incorporated text into the art itself made the comic more immersive, creating a world that the reader is drawn into.

Luna's story juxtaposes multiple bright colors against a pitch-black story, as tradition dictates that the mothers of a small town must put their daughters out into the woods with the wolves for a night. Tellingly, there is no reason given as to why the women allow this: it simply happens, because the wolves take them. The most the women can do is prepare them, fixing their hair and putting them in beautiful dresses as a kind of "preparation" that is not actually a safeguard of any kind. The comic is a brutal condemnation of rape culture without once using the word, with the ending featuring the women taking the sons of the wolves to "teach them to be good". The comic goes from a multigenerational commiseration of helplessness and inevitability to a seizing of power and agency. There's a delicacy throughout the comic in terms of the figurework and use of color, and that doesn't change even at the end.

Duane's Big Walk, by Rusty Jordan. This is a kind of catch-all zine for some of Jordan's recent short stories involving his Duane character. Jordan's trademark is exploring various contrasts with blacks and shades of gray, with Duane musing existentially with his bird friend Christian. There's a bizarre puppet/claymation story featuring a TV newswoman whose story starts to hilariously and disturbingly unravel as the comic proceeds. The worlds that Jordan creates are evocative and strange, full of losers, bottom-feeders, hard-travelers and the desperate. "Off The Schneid!" puts them all together in a single story and lets them all intermingle. A lost romance is rekindled. A friendship is repaired. A bar is the setting for all of this, as all of these desperate people become a community of sorts. There is warmth to be found in Jordan's world, even if it's covered up by grime and toil. It's reflected in his grotesque but friendly character design, all lumps and bulging eyes and tufts of hair out of place. These characters are familiar, like on the edge of one's social circle from years ago. There's a lingering sense of absurdity in Jordan's comics and a touch of sadness combined with an unformed but still present sense of hope.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alex Nall: Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours

Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours, by Alex Nall. Nall has written a number of comics about teaching that are interesting, but this is an interesting long-form book that he created via fundraiser. There are three narratives that are intertwined here. First is Nall's own narrative as a teacher who is struggling, with one belligerent student in particular being a relentless thorn in his side. Second is Nall's partner, who is also a teacher, struggling trying to teach languages to slightly older kids. The third narrative is a timeline of Fred "Mister" Rogers, the famous children's TV host known for his extraordinary gentleness. (There's a sub-narrative involving Nall talking to a teacher friend of his via computer). The comic is mostly about finding one's path and how to figure out if what you're doing at the moment is what's best for you. Nall struggles at his school with the belligerent kid, Kevin, and he regrets how he loses his temper with him even as Kevin antagonizes and even hits other kids. Nall takes solace in watching reruns of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and finding out more about his life, as Rogers took a long time to figure out his own path.

Nall goes into some detail about Rogers, noting how important it was for him to have a diverse cast and challenge gender roles--but only up to a point, as he didn't want a gay cast member to openly come out and even encouraged him to get married to a woman. Rogers was essentially picking his battles and openly said that he didn't think society is ready, but the cast member (Francois) noted that if he had allowed him to come out, it might have accelerated acceptance in society for an entire generation of children. Nall depicts Rogers as a complex but ultimately loving and accepting person who had a profound impact on not just his viewers, but everyone who worked for him. There's even an amusing sidebar where a young cameraman on his show named George Romero was trying to recruit one of the show's actresses for a certain zombie movie he was making.

Nall mostly sticks to a 2 x 3 grid here, abandoning it from time to time for a splash page for effect. His figurework is rough and cartoony, and there are times his use of color overwhelms individual panels. However, he's able to consistently get across the heart of his story, and the time fracturing of his narrative is effective in blending together several different emotional concerns. Sometimes in the end, Nall implies, someone needs a lucky break in times of difficulty, as he received and Rogers received many times in his career. Sometimes you need a single person to reach out and make what you're doing seem worthwhile, and that can make a tough job worth it. Nall also explicitly says that teaching is a rough road, and that there's nothing wrong with stepping away if it's not for you, as his partner decides to do. Perhaps if she had received the kind of support she needed, she might have stayed. Perhaps not. The point of the story, from Mister Roger's point of view, is that we all have our own paths and our own decisions to make, and we have a right to make them. The other main point of the narratives is that while anger is a natural reaction, the decisions we choose to make with regard to that anger are our own, and there is often an extraordinary opportunity available to turn it into something else.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Virginia Paine's Milkyboots

Virginia Paine has been doing diary comics for quite some time, but she actually stopped after 2012 in favor of other work. At CAKE, she had a couple of other recent diary comics (all in her Milkyboots series) as well as an older issue I hadn't seen. Paine has always worn a lot of hats in comics. She's taught comics, she worked for Dylan Williams at Sparkplug Comic Books and later took over the company when he died. She chose to shutter Sparkplug last year after a solid run that produced several excellent comics, particularly from trans creators.

It's a shame that Paine abandoned diary comics when she did, because Milkyboots #14 reveals a artist who had become really good at them. While she was always adept at writing clearly about her emotions and relationships in a way that was involving to the reader, what changed was her clarity as an artist. She simultaneously grew more confident as a draftsman while mostly simplifying her line, giving her comics both immediacy and clarity. At the same time, her figure drawings of her friends (fellow cartoonists) are exquisitely expressive and naturalistic in a way I hadn't seen from her before. At the same time, her daily observations following a bad breakup are poetic, spare and shattering. There's a sense of flailing around in her observations, going from wondering about her ex to thinking about the things she drinks every day. Paine also writes about going to therapy and how having students as therapists makes for an odd dynamic at times, setting boundaries with her friends while appreciating how much they mean to her, her sadness about the death of Williams, and the ways in which she resonates with music.

Milkyboots #15 was originally a Patreon comic that picked up four years later. It reflects an artist who's in the midst of bringing Sparkplug to an end and trying to figure out her new path. There's a lot of frustration in this comic, as Paine has started to feel burdened by the concept of success and what it means. There's travel, a new girlfriend that she portrays far less intimately than she did the girlfriend portrayed in early issues of the series, and new creative plans. One always gets a sense of motion from Paine, even when she's grappling with depression and uncertainty. Despite the fact that she clearly drew these comics as quickly as possible, her line was bold and confident, even as it was sketchy and especially loose.

Milkyboots #16 was billed as the "food issue", and it was a simple, direct way of connecting certain food experiences with autobiographical experiences. The comic makes lovely use of spot color, using an open-page format instead of a grid. The coloring (from markers?) is vibrant without being intrusive. Paine recalls living in Bolivia as a child, eating flatbread, peaches off a tree and an especially delicious salad. That resonance of food and memory is a powerful one, all the more so when that memory is of something very simple but great tasting because of preparation and freshness. There are other travel memories, but there are also memories of being an adult with no money who was eating dumpstered food. She often depended on the kindness of friends, and the memory of that food donated also resonated with her because of both taste and her life at the time. This comic is in many ways more personally revealing than many of Paine's other comics, as talking about food is something that can only really be done directly, but the common experience of relating that experience makes the narrative a connective one. The consumption of food and the context in which we eat it has meaning and resonance, especially if food is scarce or not taken for granted. There's an easy charm about this issue that doesn't have any figure drawings in it, yet is as personal and revealing as any of Paine's other diary comics.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Greg Farrell's Hipster!

Greg Farrell is the sort of young cartoonist who started self-publishing minis that reflected the ways in which he was very much a work-in-progress. However, his devotion to comics showed in the way he worked relentlessly to become a better draftsman, cartoonist and writer. His On The Books, about his experience as part of a union working for New York's Strand bookstore, was a huge leap forward for him. It reflected a purposefulness that had been largely absent from his meandering earlier comics, and a cartoonist without agency is one who is going to flounder. Farrell's collection of shorter stories, Hipster!, reflects a similar level of maturity even as the subjects are much more familiar. Indeed, much of Farrell's early work focused on gag humor that he never quite got right, but his more personal stories had a raw energy and brutal honesty that was compelling.

Farrell takes that energy, refines it just a bit, and creates a loosely-crafted narrative that connects all of these stories. It begins with Farrell describing a life growing up in the Long Island suburbs and dreaming of moving to New York or Brooklyn. It's a life he describes in great detail, for good and ill. For example, "Plagued Out" describes the reality of living with roaches, mice, rats and other vermin in old apartments, with bedbugs being the most hated pest of all. The energy and immediacy of the city has many trade-offs for someone who is not extremely wealthy, and that includes the frequent necessity for getting flatmates and having to deal with noise from one's upstairs neighbors. None of these are exactly revolutionary subjects, but Farrell's blunt, cynical and funny takes on these subjects makes them worthwhile. Farrell has a slight air of detachment when telling these stories; often, the more upsetting the subject happens to be, the more Farrell makes it seem like it's happening to someone else.

That's true in his story about an abusive, mentally ill ex-girlfriend and their massively dysfunctional, toxic relationship. According to his narrative, she would often initiate physical abuse in her anger after issues threats and insults, and his aim was to diffuse it as much as possible until she calmed down and apologized--and then sex would generally ensue. Farrell is pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing, backing up some of his claims with statistics, even if his is a narrative that's not common in everyday conversation. In many respects, this story is where his art shines. Farrell's art is ugly, blunt and direct. His aim is to tell a story by doing the basics in terms of figure work and not much more. This is a blunt and ugly story, and the grotesque qualities that Farrell brings to his art (the panels where he draws himself with an especially hairy ass stand out) bring out that raw ugliness in a way his more dispassionate prose does not.

Farrell writes lovingly about local restaurants, growing up with video games and the way it bonded him with his brothers, his obsession with a certain rap album, his relationship with marijuana and his experiences dealing with sensitivity to electronics. There's also a brutally on-point comic about the inevitability of humanity's destruction at the hands of climate change that was originally published in World War III Illustrated. Throughout the book, the reader is given a sense of being given a pleasantly rambling tour of Manhattan & Brooklyn as well as Farrell's own life. It's a tour for insiders, with a few popular tourist destinations here and there but mostly about hidden spots that tourists don't know about. Farrell touches on a lot of typical autobio topics, but he also veers off in some interesting directions. The book has an uneven quality at the end, as he starts writing essays (with a few support strips here and there) about teaching comics for the first time. This really merited a full narrative treatment, and I'm not sure why Farrell opted for the essay format. On the other hand, he wrote a fascinating essay about his dealings with legendary (and controversial) small press publisher Microcosm, who published On The Books and from whom he has received no royalties, thanks in part to a bad contract he signed. Cartoonists rarely talk openly about business like this, and once again Farrell's hyperbole-free, matter-of-fact attitude about the experience was interesting, especially in how it led him to crowdfunding this book. In fact, Farrell makes pointed arguments that publishers in general may be completely obsolete from a practical, not just moral position. Farrell is by no means a finished product as an artist, but one can definitely see that he's starting to find his voice.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mini-Kus! of the Week #12: E.&A. Klavins, Liesmas, D. Sietina

Some more new issues of mini-Kus! have been published, and I also managed to find some older ones I was missing. Without further ado, let's resume, the weekly look at three issues:

mini-Kus! #7: Rainbow Of Pain, by Ernests & Andrejs Klavins. The Klavins use a thick black line to anchor their cartoony and grotesque comics that fill up every bit of negative space with often lurid color. The story's about the worst competitive diver in the world who is taunted by the second-worst diver, grateful that there will always be someone worse. The diver is approached by a mysterious figure who offers to train him, as he claims to be the trainer of the "Ruritania People's Republic". The grotesque and cartoony qualities of the art push and pull at each other, as there's an inherent cuteness to the figures belied by incredibly ugly and twisted faces. Through a special regimen and some mysterious "vitamins", the diver gets better and better. When the diver discovers that his trainer was banned from the sport from using an experimental steroid, he decides to quit taking the pills, only to have his trainer reject him. What results after that is a hilariously nasty ending, involving a fatal car accident, a weighty decision being made, and a grotesque transformation providing a callback to the comic's first scene. The result is a perfect mini-Kus comic, with high visual impact in a short number of pages.

mini-Kus! #8: The Flames, by Liesmas. This is a very simple, straightforward story about a couple of teens visiting the girl's grandmother and finding that where she lives is overrun by a corporation polluting the environment. Liesmas employs a kind of magical realism in showing how the teens managed to find a way to chase out the developers, which included the girl, Maya, being able to talk to tigers and convince them to attack. There's a tremendous amount of warmth and sincerity in Liesmas' line and the story itself, as it's a kind of wish-fulfillment scenario. The tone never wavers away from the sincerity, even as the action starts to become extreme and then absurd. There's a humanistic quality to be found in this comic as well as a sense of hope, even if that hope may be naive. The drawings are basic but functional, the storytelling is clear, and the use of colors is muted and adds variety to the comic without being a distraction.

mini-Kus! #9: Bobis, by Dace Sietina. Like some of the other earlier issues of the series, this comic is in Latvian with an English translation at the bottom of the page. It makes sense, considering how stylized and immersive the original lettering is. Drawn in an open-page format where panels bleed into each other, it tells the story of a man and his dog, the titular Bobis. Sietina drew an ordinary day (with the character repeatedly emphasizing how ordinary it was) in a style that mixed naturalism and a sort of grotesque exaggeration. That mix of fine-line drawing with intense hatching and cross-hatching was somewhat dizzying, especially with the slightly sickening use of yellow as a spot color. When the story shifts into a dream/hallucination, Sietina starts throwing in all kinds of colors, with a lot of angry reds and scribbly blues being added on to the fine-line drawings that continue. This discordant use of styles, still meshed with the narrative but also decorative quality of the lettering, gives the comic multiple layers of impact. There's an encounter with his dead grandmother, a red light in the distance that becomes something he can grab, and a sense that he can't breathe. The reveal at the end is telegraphed but still clever, because Sietina goes all the way with it. This is an immersive comic that is nonetheless easy to follow, in part because the artist leaves so much negative space on each page.