Sunday, October 29, 2017

Emergency Fall Fundraiser

It seems like disasters come in threes, so a car wreck, an upcoming surgery for my wife (unrelated to car wreck, thankfully) and a massive moving project naturally would all fall at the same time. For those interested, this would be a great time to join my Patreon or perhaps just donate through PayPal at the button on the right. I've written fifty pieces of criticism exclusively for my Patrons--one a week. In December, I will have a review every single day as part of my Thirty Days of CCS project for this year.  Thanks for your consideration.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Comics From Sophie Yanow

Sophie Yanow is one of the best, most original autobio cartoonists working today, especially when she also turns her attention to journalistic and political topics. Her book with Retrofit/Big Planet, What Is A Glacier? is remarkably personal and actually exposes a lot more personal information in a more straightforward way than she usually does in her autobio comics, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. The comic focuses a lot on her own anxiety and the way it creates a feedback loop. This is also a comic about global warming and the struggle to come to terms with what we can do regarding this issue. It's in the form of a tourist trip to Iceland with Hannah, a friend who met her there on her way to visit family in Europe. 

Yanow is a thinker on the page in a way that most cartoonists aren't. That is, she freely admits when she doesn't know something and is constantly trying to figure out how and why things work. Her anxiety affects her both regard to how she thinks about the world she's living in with regard to environmental and social justic. e issues as well as her own personal happiness in a romantic relationship. Yanow's work here seems more relaxed than usual; it's less deliberately angular and it's even scribbly at times in a way I don't generally associate with her work. The way she draws Hannah's hair, for example, is especially scribbly and quick. There's a sense that Yanow is trying to capture thoughts and feelings as quickly as possible in the moment rather than chew on them at length later on. Of course, while the drawings have that wild immediacy, the actual storytelling is told in a rigid 2 x 3 grid that forces the reader into a deliberate pace. It creates a sense of neutral ease that belies the artist's anxiety.

Hannah and Yanow grapple with how Iceland's new identity as a tourist destination is creating an increased carbon footprint that is threatening the very resources that they are using to draw in tourists. A lot of the book centers around Yanow learning about glaciers, wondering about her relationship to the environment she's encountering and debating with herself whether or not she should spend the money to see glaciers up close. All the while, the two women experience the alien Icelandic terrain while dealing with the odd kinds and amount of light at that time of the year. There's a gorgeous two page spread that pins that alien metaphor with them listening to David Bowie's song "Life On Mars"; the drawings are almost entirely abstract shapes formed by solid blacks and white spaces, framed by zip-a-tone grays.

Yanow demonstrates the ways she's in her own head, musing about her ex-girlfriend, her father and how fatalistic he was regarding death, as it had been a part of his life early on. There's one scene where she's asked to make a salad, and she spends the next few minutes looking up glaciers instead, connecting them as a measure of the ways in which climate change affects sea level. It was one of many thought processes that led to her getting obsessed not only with her father's potentially imminent death, but also the end of the world in general. That led to a series of debilitating anxiety attacks when she was in Canada, as her visa had been flagged and she was in constant fear of being deported. That anxiety was directly connected to a relationship that was plagued by her own sense of insecurity (in every sense of the word); constant fears of abandonment, of being sent home, of things ending and not being able to deal with them. So a lot of the anxiety was self-inflicted when she pressured her girlfriend, for example, but it was also obviously true that they saw the relationship framed in different ways. That didn't make the end any less painful, as Yanow depicts on several grueling pages of wishing she was being texted goodnight and then the end itself which came with being glued to her bed, crying, holding her own as in agony, screaming, etc.

All of this had a point--Yanow talked about grief and how she had rituals and a language for break-ups, unpleasant as it was, but didn't have ways to deal with other kinds of grief, like losing a friendship, being away from her parents and confronting the possibility of the end of the world. In the end, that's what this comic is all about: finding and framing an attitude that made sense and worked for her regarding potential future catastrophes. The end of the comic takes that topic on directly, as she talks about a variety of theories asking whether or not it's too late to act with regard to climate change, and how that might affect our decision-making. In a comic where she talks about her difficulty with endings in general, the end of this comic is perfect: reading that one last book that says it may be too late to effect change, but that doesn't mean trying isn't important, in ways that may not be apparent until much later. Resistance in the face of the inevitable is an important act of authenticity as a human being, and Yanow gets this point across and avoids being pedantic at the same time.

Her mini Cozy is a short, wordless story about exploring harsh winter environments with a housemate, finding a pet red bird struggling against the elements and bringing it back into their warm home. The stunning use of red in an otherwise black & white comic makes those scenes pop with a powerful sense of warmth in the emotional sense, and the scenes back in the apartment pick up on that and match it with physical warmth. It's a delightfully cheerful little story.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Minis: Kyle, S.Glock

Forever and Everything #2, by Kyle. This is autobio that's formally reminiscent of early Jeffrey Brown, as each segment is given a title and is relatively short. Of course, Kyle (who does not use his last name for reasons that are made clear later) is older and in a much different place in life than Brown when he did books like Clumsy. Kyle is married  to a woman named Penny He uniformly uses a 12 panel grid and a simple drawing style that reminds me a bit of what Kevin Budnik is doing. His storytelling is clear and sharp, allowing for just enough negative space to make his pages breathe a bit. The storytelling is as simple as Kyle's line, at least at first, as there are funny little vignettes about spending time with his son, going on vacation and doing a silly art installation with his wife, who is also an artist. In fact, Kyle reveals that they met in an art class and first kissed working on a project together.

About midway through the comic, the stakes change. Penny's suggestion that they might have another child throws Kyle into crisis; he claims because he's worried about having even less time to draw, but the reality is that he was having serious second thoughts about what he was doing. He felt the pang of guilt that many autobio artists feel when they wonder if they're revealing too much about themselves and the people in their lives--especially his son. It got so bad that he actually quit drawing for several months, but felt the pull quite often. In a moment of self-awareness, he sought out therapy and teased out his issues, with his therapist being very supportive of him making art. Later, when Donald Trump was elected president, Kyle essentially had a mental break where he abandoned reading any kind of news sites, any news of what horrible things might be happening. It wasn't until he saw a flyer for a protest that he realized that pushing his emotions down like this wasn't healthy, and he went to the protest as a way to react against that feeling. What's interesting about these comics is that Kyle is comfortable relating a bit of quotidian detail on one day and then telling the audience about extremely personal details like anxiety, disagreements with his wife on major points, details regarding therapy and more. He's clearly just trying to be as honest and principled as possible with regard to his responsibilities as an artist, while maintaining the sheer joy he feels when he's drawing. Not every strip is especially interesting, but every one at the very least is well-paced and part of an overall strong sense of rhythm, from panel-to-panel and page-to-page. There's nothing new about what Kyle is doing here, but his sincerity and willingness to really "spill some ink" make it unusual for many diary comics.

Passport #1, by Sophia Glock. Glock (formerly Wiedeman) turns her focus from fictional and fairy tale families to her own life growing up overseas. Working from pencils (and maybe charcoals on some pages?), Glock has a way of drawing children that's especially heart-rending: fragile and tiny, with coal-black eyes like buttons and simple squiggles for lips and a nose. It's a powerful sense of innocence and vulnerability, and this story is an exploration of how five-year-old Sophia processes the world while living in Greece. As she notes in the introduction, the three things she loves above all else are her mother, her older sister (who is often not very nice to her) and her country. The love of all three is tested and pushed throughout the course of this comic.

While the faces of her characters are drawn iconically, Glock really goes to town with her dense, naturalistic renderings of buildings and gardens. There is power in these drawings as Glock tries to relate the way those buildings felt to her as a child--especially buildings like in the Acropolis of Athens. At the same time, she was trying to figure out what seemed to be a mysterious and coded world of adults, one made all the more mysterious by her enigmatic father's intentional vagueness as to what he did for a living. Her older sister Julia is an entertaining character, one who thought having a five year old following her around was a constant drag, but one who also was mean to her sister in hilarious ways. For example, a confused Sophia asked her sister if they were really getting a horse when they went back to America, and her sister egged her on by saying yes. Julia would also wake her younger sister by shoving her foot in her face.

Children of that age seek knowledge, but they seek some sense of control even more. The middle child in what was about to become a five-child household, Sophia had no interest in her younger brother (a baby) or her newborn brother that arrived when her mother returned from a hospital stint. There was a warmth she shared with her older brother that was paternal, like when he helped her get dressed for school; she even admitted that she knew how to do it but liked it when he helped her. It's telling that this wasn't something her father was even around for. That sense of control was finally granted when her mother allowed Sophia to claim "ownership" of a plant out on the balcony. She finally had her own little corner of the universe to herself. It's notable that one of the few interactions she has with her father is when he spanks her for telling a local that she's an American, something her parents forbade her from doing without explanation. The other feeling that Glock evokes is that sense of feeling terribly lonely even when a lot of people are around, as her siblings would find ways to ditch her when they played outside, leaving five-year-old Sophia to wander the streets, "play" with alley-cats, etc. Luckily, it was a small town, but it still pointed to that intense feeling of a lack of belonging, of an intense desire for connection that wasn't quite returned, and a sense that these feelings were powerful and would last. This is a tremendous start to what promises to be a wide-ranging series about alienation.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Minis: K.Short, C.Nowak

Doors Closing, by Kelsey Short. What I most enjoyed about this curious little urban fantasy tale is that Short does not bother to tell the reader what's going. The nature of the quest or mission is unrevealed, as is the origin of its magic. Instead, Short immerses the reader in one very specific aspect of the classic fantasy quest, or to put it in Joseph Campbell's terms, this story comes right after "the refusal of the call" and starts with "supernatural aid" and ends with "crossing the first threshold". The story features a young woman getting on a subway car and encountering a chicken-sized bird with her face! This mini looks like it was printed on a Risograph, with soft oranges and blues providing much of the background and foreground coloring, respectively. The linework is clear and unfussy, but she makes the sheer weirdness of the supernatural characters quite obvious.

Short uses a classic fantasy device where real world concerns are slowly subverted into something hidden and secret. She's given certain magical tools (a bird cloak, a magic flashlight, etc) and told to wait, as the denizens of the subway car start to shift and become creatures. She's told to jump out of the car at a certain point, a literal leap of faith, and her bird-friend flies in to save her, chiding her for jumping out of a moving train just because she told her to! It's a funny but pointed meta-comment; why obey any instructions when going on a quest? Why go on a quest at all? Short doesn't bother trying to explain that here. Instead, she was clearly interested in exploring that entirely irrational behavior linking the old life and the new, and calling it what it truly is: irrational.

No Better Words, by Carolyn Nowak. (Published by Silver Sprocket.) Sex, sexuality and desire have always been running themes in Nowak's comics, but this is her first explicitly pornographic comic. And it's about desire as an almost reified structure: she makes the reader feel it, thanks both to her evocative writing and her lush, warm art that uses color in a restrained manner and makes excellent use of negative space. It follows the thoughts and desires of Mallory, as she's got it bad for Theo, who will be at the house party she is about to attend. Nowak leads Mallory and the reader through a series of funny metaphors, imagining Theo as a planet, then imagining her desire as her chasing him through a maze made out of cheap sheets (where everything is pink, naturally); she even apologizes for not chasing him through something more interesting! Nowak's awareness of cliches and knowing which to lean on and which to ridicule make this especially effective in conveying true desire.

Interestingly, Nowak's comic had something in common with Short: there was a point of no return that both of their main characters crossed that changed the nature of all of their subsequent interactions. For Mallory, it was seeing Theo in the kitchen, and after some small talk, she told him she had a dream about him. She made the decision to be daring when he inevitably asked what it was about; perhaps he even guessed that it would be vaguely flirtatious. Instead: she went all the way: she told him that he made her come. Subsequently, Nowak's sense of pacing was used for exquisitely painful comedic purposes, as after a few panel beats of silence and blushing, there were ten agonizing panels of a housemate busting in, asking about marshmallows. The subsequent page, where Theo moves from right to left in order to be in front of her, was interesting because most action on comics pages is from left to right; this indicated how unusual the nature of this interaction was, how it was sort of like swimming upstream. One panel has Theo right underneath a lamp, giving him a halo effect as he was still so far away--and it disappeared as he drew closer and therefore real, and not idealized.

The sex scene is absolutely perfect: funny, fumbling, heated, sweaty, hot. The decision to show actual penetration was important to the story precisely because it took away the fantasy element: it was real, physical, immediate, powerful. On top of all of this, after they have sex, she considers one more metaphor: of Theo as a book that she doesn't want to even crack open for fear of ruining it, but not being able to help herself. The book knows it's being read, but only she knows how important he is in helping her to delineate the difference between wanting and that state of desire and actually being able to enjoy an experience and be present in it. Her figure drawing is picture-perfect, precisely because the bodies look like bodies, with all of their oddities, slight disfigurations and irregularities, the beauty of being unique and embodied. It's another outstanding entry in the body of work that Nowak is building about relationships of various kinds.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Minis: L.Knetzger

Bug Boys 15, by Laura Knetzger. In having read the entire Bug Boys series, there's a real sense in which that the growth of her characters parallels her own growth as an artist. With each issue, Stag-B and Rhino-B have grown more mature and responsible in their village, even as they still retain the vigor and joy of youth. Similarly, Knetzger has grown increasingly ambitious as a storyteller, and this latest issue is the biggest challenge yet for all involved. The boys travel with their librarian friend Dome Spider to the big city, and Knetzger wisely immerses the audience right in the middle of the story as we see them in a huge crowd scene, trying to keep up with their arachnid friend. In many respects, Dome Spider is the star of the issue. She's at a place where the beetles haven't yet quite reached, in terms of balancing her love for her quiet bug village with the advantages of being in the big city. In fact, she brought the boys with her to see what the visit might inspire in them, especially the scholarly Stag-B.

Knetzger does something interesting in this issue, as she explains how many insects are fascinated by "giant" (human) culture, especially the food. A scene in a fancy restaurant reveals that they are, in fact, eating human garbage! There's also the rush and confusion of being in the big city for the first time, captured when the boys are lost, realize they have a map, and then panic because they can't make heads or tails of it! There's also a discussion of the pluses and minuses of living in different places, and why Dome Spider founded a library in tiny Bugville to begin with. It's a story about stepping outside of one's comfort zone in part to appreciate what you have. It's a story about being curious about the experiences of others in a positive way. It's a story about finding out what you really want and finding out where and how to do it. Dome Spider may be an intellectual who thirsts for interaction with her peers, but she also does her best work in peace and quiet that's also close to her actual field of study. Along the way, Knetzger delivers some of the most inventive art of her career, looking as comfortable drawing imaginative city crowd scenes as she does drawing the sprawl of the forest. It's capped off by the centipede ride at the end of the issue, as it whips around the city (and the page) at great speed, as Knetzger gives her new artistic playground one last look around. One gets the sense that the best friends will one day split up because of an interest in the city, but this issue served only as an introduction to a much wider world.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Minis: J.Lisa, K.Krumholz, S.Sharpe/P.Goodrich

View-O-Tron #3, by Sam Sharpe & Peach S. Goodrich. This has very quickly become a must-read two-person anthology, with Sharpe in particular turning in memorable stories. "That First Summer After College We All Stayed In The City And Founded Religions" is told in Sharpe's typical anthropomorphic style, and it's an achingly familiar story about that first awkward year after college friendships start to fall apart in the face of adult life. The titular activity of all their friends starting their own cults may be absurd, but it was contextually just a metaphor for young people doing something kind of ridiculous when they can still get away with it. What was interesting was that when two of their friends founded "The Church of the Sandcastle", it had a fervor that piqued the interest of both the narrator and her boyfriend at separate times. There's a metanarrative about a novel that's being read out loud that's also about relationship and a search for meaning, as each character separately finds themselves going to a sandbox service and only one of them emerges as a true believer. Sharpe really gets at that sense of utter certainty and energy of youth that goes hand-in-hand with a sense of aimlessness and a lack of meaning. His characters are far from deadpan; in fact the bulging eyes of the boyfriend after he's found a way out of his personal malaise, even if it came at the price of brushing his girlriend off.

Goodrich's pieces are about seekers: one, a stand-in for the artist, and other a giant monster (also possibly a stand-in for the artist) trying to find one's way in a hostile world. The first piece is an extended visual metaphor as the author goes on a literal hike around the world, only to be told to come home, where their house is made out of their friends. The rest of Sharpe's strips are shorter and more absurd, yet all of them pull on that same sense of displacement in his main story, only he uses sci-fi allegory to get across that point in silly ways. The final strip has callbacks to several earlier stories in a story about stress and how different people react to it, starting with a woman walking down the street and ending with a cosmic eater of worlds, who thinks about the woman walking when it's stressed out. There's a sense of yearning in these comics, of wanting to be comforted by someone or something that knows better. It's implied that the true believers who find a way to become happy are both extremely lucky and hopelessly deluded, like someone had flipped a switch in their heads that not everyone possessed. The cartooning is crisp and attractive, with Goodrich using a thinner line weight, as compared to Sharpe's denser comics. View-O-Tron is just one of many recent traditional comic books that's shown just what can be done in a short story format, but there's no doubt that it's one of the best.

Dotty Spotty 1-2, by Jennifer Lisa. This is a collection of classic 4-panels a day diary comics that mix whimsy and weirdness with frank talk about her emotions. The strips about the anxiety that an ultrasound produced are nicely built up with humorous tension that's diffused when all the portents turned out to be nothing. There's another strip devoted to a deceased and beloved dog, where Lisa talks plainly about allowing herself to forget that her dog was dead, then fake-jokingly noting "Hey, remember? Remember how we healed each other of broken pasts?" The drawings are spare and quick in this strip and in general, as Lisa doesn't get overly precious with her line. Lisa is also frank about trying to find the time and energy to do her comics, as much as she loves them.

The second issue is even sharper than the first, with a strip about playing pinball for an anniversary date that uses repetition nicely in its punchline. Then there's simply a strip about struggling with ADHD, including getting people to take ADHD seriously as a problem. There's a whimsical strip about wanting babies & toddlers to look like forest creatures (the mushroom-raised baby is particularly cute AND disturbing). There are strips about feeling shy in public and depression that resonate thanks to how immediate and urgent all of these comics feel. There's a note in issue two saying that while it's now 2017, she drew the comics in 2015 and hadn't done any since. This is unfortunate, because Lisa's willingness to let her mind wander and then snap to attention on a particular image, or emotion, or memory give the reader a crystal-clear understanding of that experience, whether it's funny or sad.

Revolt To What?, by Daniel Landes & Karl Christian Krumpholz. While this comic takes place in a bar (Krumpholz's specialty as a cartoonist), the story is by Landes, seemingly trying to channel Hunter S. Thompson and Joe Sacco simultaneously. It isn't quite successful, because Krumpholz's figure work is highly stylized in a way that clashes with Landes' already bombastic prose. The story is set in the early 90s in Prague, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and it started to dawn on the Czechs that they weren't exactly being handed paradise in being raided by capitalism. There's a character who is Landes' stand-in, an Argentinian scholar, a highly sexualized female revolutionary, and a world-weary male revolutionary. There's a bar, there are locals acting like American frat boys, and there's general unrest. There are musings on the strength of Czech beer. There's lots of pontificating. It just does not cohere. There's an interesting story to be told, even about these characters, but Landes' stylizations as a writer renders his characters into cliches. Krumpholz' line is out of control with spiky hair on everyone, an excess of cross-hatching and and dull grey-scaling that is suffocating, and an overall lack of restraint. Indeed, Krumpholz is far more restrained as a storyteller with regard to his own work.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Minis: S.Lautman, K.Fricas, C.Bean

Blabbermouth 2 and Art Fan, by Katie Fricas. This issue of Blabbermouth has a clever premise: taking a bunch of notes friends wrote to her in 7th grade and creating a narrative of sorts out of them, accompanied by Fricas' distorted and often grotesque figure drawings with garish, non-naturalistic colors. The results, as you might guess, are hilarious. Fricas prints notes that pinball from sheer teenage boredom and discussion of tedious school-related minutia related to tests to wacked-out stories of home, like one kid getting in a screaming match with her mother and then locking herself in the bathroom, calling her a bitch. An anecdote about scoliosis testing gets across the intense feeling of humiliation that went into the exams, especially if one's spine was curved. There's lots of talk about guys and one note where someone was trying to comfort Fricas by saying "You are not as ugly as you think you are" after a guy turned her down. Fricas is never less than intense in depicting all of the awful and yet sweet absurdity of being a 7th grader, in the form of documents that clearly meant enough to her to keep for well over a decade.

Art Fan is a collection of art criticism that Fricas did in the form of comics on the art website Hyperallergic. I could read a full-length book of these pieces, as her ratty line, effective use of grey, expressive use of color and uncanny ability to evoke the spirit of each of the art shows she attended gave me a thorough understanding of what each show as about. The Duke Riley show "Fly By Night", which involved going to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, waiting for sundown, and watching pigeons wearing LED lights being compelled to fly up and to the nearby bridge. That kind of extreme stunt in the service of a simple aesthetic reminds me a bit of the sort of thing Christo does, only it involved "defying their nature, the pigeons refused to surrender to a darkening sky". Pedro Reyes' "Doomocracy" combined the aesthetic of an interactive art installation with that of a haunted house in a critique of capitalism and political corruption that felt harrowing in interesting ways. Fricas seemed drawn to shows that pushed typical understanding and experience of art but wasn't necessarily out-and-out performance art. A strong visual component seemed key to her appreciation of the show, which is one reason Bjarne Melgaard's show bored her, as it was dull to look at and felt more like a fashion shows advertisement disguised as a show than authentic self-expression. Whereas the fashion history show Rei Kawakubo show's presentation had a whimsy and specifically a punk attitude that took the familiar and stretched it, battered it, and bloodied it and still came out looking beautiful. I'd love to see Fricas turn her discerning eye to reviewing comics, as she's an outstanding writer and gets to the heart of works in a clear manner.

Ghost Sex, by Sara Lautman. Lautman's comics are some of the strangest I've ever seen in terms of being in service to their own internal logic and nothing else. They are anti-narratives, like one story about a person anticipating a smell, inhaling the aroma, and then waiting for it to come back around again. The lines are thick, quick and simple. "The Most Popular Thing" is simply someone musing what the most popular thing happens to be, whether it's ice cream, dogs, music or "likes". There's a joke about a hamburger that's the same image on page after page, with only the accompanying text telling us something absurd about the item of food. The titular comic is the most interesting, as Lautman really plays with form here, as two Pac-Man style ghosts go from first base and then all the way home. Lautman is playful with her use of shapes and the way they relate to sex--especially when the two ghosts merge. Lautman's attention to seemingly inconsequential details is a strategy for her overall project of observing the absurd in everyday life.

Snake Pit and Why Draw?, by Cara Bean. Bean is an art teacher and many of her comics are about the experience of teaching and the process of teaching. Why Draw? is more in the vein of the sort of thing that Lynda Barry does, except it takes what Barry regards as a self-evident truth (everyone loves to draw) and delves into it a bit. On page one, she explodes Barry's "Two Questions" ("Is this good?" Does this suck?") that inhibit both creativity and the basic pleasure that making marks on paper brings. She does this by using her self-caricature (an anthropomorphic bean, of course) to say, "You don't have to like your drawings. I will like them." There's power in that statement, as Bean gives the potential student (the reader) and gives them unconditional support in what they draw. They just have to do it. From there, Bean goes into the litany of positive effects that drawing can have on the brain. From there, she does short strips about various artists and their comments about drawing, as well as getting into the right mental space to draw. This feels like a perfect mini to hand out on the first day of a drawing or comics class.

Snake Pit sees Bean use her talent for synthesizing lectures into short comic strips that crystalize certain topics. Here, it's adolescent depression and suicide. The way she illustrated the symptoms of depression, for example, gives them a solidity that simply reading a list of symptoms does not. Without minimizing them, she uses funny drawings to make them even more memorable, like a group of arrows branching off to indicate problems with concentration. Similarly, for more serious symptoms (like suicidal ideations), her drawing a mountain that someone's scaling, wishing they didn't exist, is a powerful visual metaphor. Bean goes on to describe some of the consequences of depression (like learned helplessness) as well as treatments like Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy (CBT). It's a clear, non-judgmental and easy to understand distillation of a lot of information, as the simplicity and fluidity of Bean's clean line carries a lot of complex information.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Minis: L.Weinstein, G.Galligan, S. Mannheim

Perfect Maine Vacation and Normel Person, by Lauren R. Weinstein. These are minicomics collections from strips Weinstein had online at Mutha Magazine and in print in the Village Voice. There's always been a humorous, unapologetic bluntness to Weinstein's work that gives it a raw power, matched by her line that ranges between exquisitely naturalistic and cartoonishly ratty and grotesque. Weinstein takes her trenchant sense of humor and turns it on herself as she struggles to cope with the onslaught of emotions she feels after giving birth, especially with regard to her status as an artist. It includes self-recriminations as her teenage self vowed never to become a mother since it would interfere with her desire to be an artist. Weinstein even teases herself at the end by admitting that she hoped doing this strip would give her an epiphany between motherhood and her art, between being present and drifting into fantasy. Each page is framed by a large upper panel, but the rest of the page is a six-panel grid without panel borders. That pull between tight and loose is not only a theme, it's also the very structure of the comic itself.

"Perfect Maine Vacation" picks up a few years later, as her is growing older and Weinstein realizes that so many memories she holds dear with regard to her daughter are things her daughter is about to forget. It's a remarkable story (Ignatz-nominated) that plays on memory itself and why the fragments we retain from childhood stay with us and why other memories don't. It's a much more straightforward story done in a 2 x 3 grid with a blue wash that gives the sense of memories fading away. Once again, her style is blunt, self-deprecating and unashamed to share very personal details. Also once again, Weinstein struggles with being present and starts to acknowledge that these moments are slipping away, and it hurts. "Flower Voyeur" is a great example of her watercolor skill as she recounts recovering from fusion neck surgery, laying around her garden. Speaking of the pollination, she says, "All around me is sex. Which I miss, not being in my 20's in Brooklyn anymore." It's a perfect example of her almost blase' frankness; she's writing it because it's an amusing truth, not to get a rise out of the reader.

Normel Person is a single-page strip that reminds me a lot of her old alt-weekly strip from The Stranger, Inside Vineyland. It's a similar format, only this time around Weinstein is stressing about Donald Trump and sharing stories of getting pregnant again (by accident) at 41. It's a full-color strip, which gives many of the strips a particularly visceral and unpleasant quality. For example, in her strip "Extreme Comfort Food", the creamed cat casserole wouldn't have been quite right without the nauseating yellow-orange she chose for it. There's one strip where she's crying because her uncle was going on a bigoted rant with regard to Trump winning and she's off buying cranberry sauce for the family Thanksgiving dinner. The can of sauce urges her to run away with it, and as the sun sets in this happy ending, Lauren asks, "What do we do now?" The next strip is an absurd diagram of her parents' fridge. It's an easy juxtaposition regarding the kinds of things she tackles on a week-by-week basis, with strips like "Feel Good Lefty Valentines", "Time Loop" (about a relationship with an expiration date), "How To Think (First World Edition)", "Parent Zone!", and "Tainted Hoods, Blocked Blocks: The Streets I Avoid" giving you a taste of her bouncing between the political, the personal and the completely absurd. Sometimes she mixed all three in one strip. This is truly the best work of her career, and I get the sense that the deadline prevents her from getting too precious with regard to the art. Weinstein's skill makes even he scrawls and scribbles expressive and funny, and her willingness to be vulnerable and real only fuels her more pointed political and humorous asides.

Weeb 1 & 2, by Gale Galligan. Galligan is known now as the artist who took over the Baby Sitters Club series from Raina Telgemeier, but her autobio work is sharp and funny. It's got a heavy manga influence put through an American blender, with a look not unlike the sort of thing Bryan Lee O'Malley does. Galligan's strips are much different, however, and they use the exaggerated character of manga style to emphasize heightened emotions. There's a great strip where she gets her first boyfriend as a teen and her eyes turn huge and the facsimile of the One Ring he gave her to put around her neck glows. Galligan's stock-in-trade is exaggeration, like when her boyfriend mentions kissing, her face first shrinks up like a prune, then she fades into an endless field of flowers until the actual kiss, and....CLUNK. It's a great punchline, since when she "learned the power of storytelling", it came at the price of hissing "lies" to a wall of manga books she saw. The second issue is a series of one-page vignettes about gaming and Yu-Gi-Oh in particular. It's really about the kind of friendships that can develop with a shared interest. Galligan's work is never anything short of charming, mixing the bitter and the sweet in a way that makes her an obvious choice to take over Baby Sitters Club. It's a mix of funny drawings and sharp set-ups that never stray too far from reality.

"No Time For Coffee", by Stephanie Mannheim. This little mini highlights Mannheim's ability to draw herself looking unbelievably stressed out, mouth agog and eyes bulging, as she thinks she's late to class. Each page a single panel, Mannheim hilariously was so disoriented by being an hour early to her class that she thought she was dreaming, because she was encountering an entirely different teacher and set of students! It's a good story that doesn't outstay its welcome.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Minis: A.Meuse

Taking Up Space, by Adam Meuse. Throughout his career, Meuse's comics have been equal parts amusing whimsy and dark undercurrents. This comic contains two stories that wind up being connected in an unexpected manner. The first, "Grey Cube", is an excellent example of Meuse's idiosyncratic sense of humor, as it recalls an art school experiment that determined the volume of his body; that is, how much space it took up by submerging himself in water, taking measurements, and doing the math. It would up being the equivalent of a 74 liter cube, or a cube with 16.5" dimensions. He turned this into a jokey student gallery show presentation by making cubes with those dimensions and labeling them "my volume standing" and a messed-up one "my volume dancing". The cubes sat next to his apartment until the city came to pick them up. This was a cute but rather inconsequential story.

That is, until you read "Black Box", which grimly (but with a touch of bemused humor) notes that eight years after Meuse's cube experiment, "my brother decided to take up a lot less space" by committing suicide. Meuse's pacing and drawing in the first story was methodical, taking the reader through perhaps more detail than was necessary to get the joke. In this second story, the reprise hits the reader in the gut, as we see how his brother methodically sealed the door, safely created a charcoal fire in a bucket in his sealed-off room, took sleeping pills and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. This story is about the three plastic containers that his brother's ashes were placed in, one of which Meuse received. There are no major epiphanies or emotional scenes in this story, yet it's unquestionably a story about grief and mourning. He mixes his brother's ashes into his paints in his art studio shed and paints a portrait of him with those paints. There's a beautiful panel were Meuse muses "I know my brother would have approved" with the image of his brother looking over his shoulder, a very slight smile on his face. The final volume of the painting was 4,600 cubic inches--or 76 liters.

There is a sophisticated layout in this comic for such a relatively simple pair of stories, as both stories essentially mirror each other in terms of placement of splash pages and overall pacing. The question "How much space does a person take up?" is absurd and comical on the face of it, because no one thinks of one's worth in terms of volume; people aren't "precious" in that way in the way a precious metal is. At the same time, in an existential sense, this is exactly the right question to ask. How much space do we take up can mean what impact do we have on the world? What is the mark we leave on it? How will we be remembered. If the first story treats the question like a joke, then the second story treats it quite seriously. Documenting his brother's existence through that painting that contained the literal essence of his brother was clearly a means by which Meuse came to terms with that initial grief. In many respects, this comic that documents that documentation is another way of coping with grief with reverence, with a bit of cheekiness, and love.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Comics From Hazel Newlevant and Laura PallMall

Sugar Town, by Hazel Newlevant. This is a good old-fashioned, quasi-autobiographical romance comic by an artist who quite deservingly just won an Ignatz award for portraying relationships both healthy and toxic. The fact that it's a queer, poly romance comic simply means that there were more layers for Newlevant to explore in a manner where every character treated others with respect, empathy and compassion. This is not to say that the comic was devoid of tension, because people make mistakes even with the best of intentions, but that the openness displayed by all prevented cartoonish conflicts and deceptions.

The story finds Hazel home in Portland, away from her boyfriend. She meets a woman named Argent who tells her within seconds of meeting that she's also a dominatrix. Not to impress or intimidate her, but simply as a matter-of-fact expression of her sexuality. The cover of this comic is expertly constructed: Hazel moving from right to left across the page, stopped in her tracks by the gaze of the exceedingly confident Argent, as a disco globe above them framed the image. Newlevant explores desire, vulnerability, queer identities, poly identities and so much more in this comic. There's a scene where she's skyping in the bathtub with her boyfriend, as they both deal with feelings of jealousy that often appear no matter how hard one tries in this sort of relationship. There's the palpable new relationship energy on the page as she gets to know Argent, and when she accidentally annoys her when she talks about her dominatrix job in public, it's a moment that's respectfully acknowledged but forgiven.

I don't know how much of this was pulled from real life, but there are levels of detail on a date that I found remarkable: Argent coming home to bake Hazel a cake for her birthday, a flogging session derailed by a pulled muscle, and Vicodin-induced declarations of love. Hazel deciding to make a true mix tape (not CD or digital file) for the older Argent was especially cute and drove the narrative a bit further, as the story ended with Hazel heading back to New York but very much in love with two people. Newlevant's figure work grows ever more confident with each new project, but it's her coloring that's the real revelation of this comic. It's complementary to her line rather than overwhelming it, but her use of color particularly with regard to outfits was a key aspect of the story, as Argent's stylishness was an important part of her overall personality. It's a sweet story with levels of complexity that surprise the reader, with every aspect of its emotional narrative feeling entirely earned.

Sporgo 2, by Laura Pallmall. The artist has a way of digging deep into the lives of miserable or confused people and dumping the audience right into the middle of their problems. A young screenwriter in LA is struggling to find any traction, doing shit jobs and even getting arrested at a Wal-Mart for illegally filming a project. The mini follows him around, including a disturbing episode of sleep paralysis that takes on apocalyptic overtones. What's most interesting about this comic is the way Pallmall juxtaposes the most mundane and tedious difficulties that have more to do with ennui than anything else with their sudden transformation into potential doomsday scenarios. Such stories tend to sneak into the writer's scripts no matter what else he's doing, as well as his nightmares. Pallmall's figurework is greatly simplified from the first issue, which certainly helps with the story's overall flow. The way she captures a particular time and place gives the comic a lot of power, as the main character is faced with a common problem in Hollywood: maintain integrity or start to buy the hype and dressing regarding star power. The ending provides a beat where he realizes that he can't do both at once and isn't sure which way he's going to go. That ambiguity is another strength of Pallmall's work, as she prefers to provide only enough information for the reader to understand what's at stake but eschews doling out easy answers.