Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Koyama: GG's I'm Not Here

I'm Not Here was my first real exposure to the work of the Canadian artist gg, other than an anthology story here and there. There's something vertiginous about reading her comics, thanks to a push-and-pull in style and tone. On the one hand, her naturalistic style is so precisely rendered that there's never any question about what the reader is looking at. At the same time she draws the reader in, she simultaneously pushes them away by creating a cold environment that defies inspection from the reader. The story itself is very simple: a nameless young woman is taking care of her emotionally abusive mother and also trying to take care of her father, who seems increasingly addled by dementia but also incredibly mean-spirited. The young woman has photography as a hobby, and one day she takes a photo of a young woman who looks very much like her, in front of an apartment complex. She goes to the apartment complex and gets let in by the elderly landlady, who mistakes her for the actual tenant, who was supposed to be out of town. She luxuriates in the apartment, even sleeping in her doppelganger's bed. She has a series of horrible dreams/reminiscences.At the very end, her landlady offers her a chance to extend her lease.

The cold, almost sterile drawing style of gg is a deliberate tactic for this story. This is the story of a woman who had learned to push her emotions all the way down and numbed herself to the way her mother so nonchalantly and unrelentingly put her down. At the same time, she is trapped, with seemingly no way out. It's the "life of quiet desperation" that Thoreau talks about. Everything about this comic relates to seeing and being seen, and the panel-to-panel transitions more closely resemble a series of photographs than a more typical comics-oriented transition that's more fluid. The page-to-page transitions have more to do with film than comics: lots of fade-ins and fade-outs, blackouts, the camera lingering on a single image. The opening two pages provide a number of clues, we fade-in on the young woman methodically putting her hair up, her back to the reader's gaze. Even when we first see her face, it's mediated through the surface of a mirror. There is then a quote about "to live is to be somebody else", meaning that we must change on a day-to-day basis in order to be able to feel.

Later, when a street vendor questions her about her photography hobby, she responds that she's trying to capture how things are. His reply is that how things are is always changing; in other words, attempting to capture that sense of change by freezing it is foolish. That's when she sees her "double" and she begins to think about this other person, this other world. That feeling is accentuated when her mother essentially tells her that she's a failure, unlike her younger sister, in the most blase' tones possible. Then she encounters her father driving around at night, confused and belligerent. The photos she takes aren't really to capture how things are, but rather to capture an idealized version of how things are that don't truly exist. It's her refuge.

Receiving an invitation into someone's life is a kind of continuation of that refuge, and it's in that escape that she's able to not only confront years worth of abuse, she's able to cry because of it. There are multiple fade-ins and fade-outs to painful memories (drawn with a lighter tone of wash than the present-day events, which are by nature more solid), including one where she finally moved to act after being berated by her mother. gg leaves the story open-ended; she's essentially given an opportunity to be this other woman (where she went is unknown is unclear: did she move to escape her own life as well). Given a chance to truly confront her feelings and learning that her double was more of an opposite than a twin makes that choice far more difficult than one would think. The cover itself provides a clue, as the other woman wears her hair down (a symbol, perhaps of her more carefree but uncaring nature) and the two hairstyle are lined up, but upside down from each other. It's not just a mirror image, but almost a mutation or transformation, at work here. She's left to wonder not just what kind of person she wants to be, but also what kind of world she wants to live in, as the book fades to black. This is the kind of book that reveals itself to the reader slowly, and over multiple attempts; but once it does, it is a treasure trove of ideas related to family, identity, duty and ethics.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Last Hurrah: Runner Runner #4

After shuttering his excellent and long-running minicomics anthology Papercutter, Greg "Clutch" Means has been doing an annual, free anthology for Free Comic Book Day. Titled Runner Runner, the fourth issue (from 2015) was unfortunately also its last, but it certainly went out with a bang, with the usual mix of ten page stories and single page entries from a wide swath of cartoonists with different styles.

Sam Sharpe's "The Woman From Tuesday" is absolutely top-notch storytelling from a cartoonist who deserves much more recognition. The concept is simple at first: a man talks about him going on dates nearly every night with someone from the internet, interspersed with a memory from an old comic character: Cognito The Super Spy. The latter character essentially recapitulates the history of mysterious, adventurers, from Mandrake to the Shadow to Batman to Rorschach. The theme of the story is shifting identities and disguises, and the ways in which one can forget one's own identity by spending so much time as someone else.

Turns out the guy, named David, classifies each date by type--Deconstructionist (those who talk about the structure of dates on a date), Formalist (asking specific questions in a specific order), etc. Unmentioned but very clearly visible is the fact that David changes his appearance to match that of each date. He wears the same kind of ski hat and scarf as his first date, and puts on a curly wig and glasses to match his second date. The asides to old issues of Cognito perfectly match key moments of his dates in funny ways, especially when he starts thinking about Cognito's boy sidekick, Hypno.
Things get weird when a woman he dates on Thursday turns out to be the woman from Tuesday, in disguise (like he is). From there, the postmodern twists and turns of latter-day Cognito continue to get further wrapped up in the way this man and woman interact and the ouroboros swallows its own tail in a very amusing way. Sharpe's facility for drawing faces and sticking with a steady grid allows him to nimbly go from drawing superheroes to regular folks without jarring the reader once.

Evan Palmer's "The Godins: The Last Meal" is a fantasy story with lots of gray wash used to create mood. It's a flashback to one character's mentor, a hard-as-nails chef who always keeps her eyes on the prize with regard to serving the intimidating masters of the realm, dressed and armed to the teeth. His mentor saves his life when she takes up a sword to help a squadron instead of allowing him to go to certain death. The jarring transition makes the reader think for a moment that it's a reverie that's being interrupted instead of a flashback, which adds to the excitement of the story, until he snaps back in the future. Palmer's figure design is idiosyncratic (especially the odd noses) but smooth, with a clear and crisp line.

If you've ever wondered what one of Joey Alison Sayers' Thingpart strips might look like expanded to full length, then "Silly Town" is for you. It's a fabulously demented tale about a children's music singer named "Jenny Rainbow" who sings the sort of cloying, catchy songs for kids that adults hate. Jenny sings a "concert" for some kids in an alley in a post-apocalyptic city, with her husband reminding her (and filling in the reader) that the government rounded up all the adults, leaving kids to fend for themselves. The bummer-proof Jenny takes that as an opportunity to become the biggest band ever. From there, things get even more absurd, as Paul had actually packed three oboes to take on his survivalist mission. When they get captured, the President himself sentences them to hard labor, but one of their songs has its own revenge on him. The structure of this story is quite clever but the best thing about it was the Jenny character, whose delusional qualities completely took over the strip.

Finally, Andrice Arp has a one-pager making literal the mess in her head when she finishes a project and how sometimes it's best to create in a state of chaos. I've missed her beautiful, detailed line and inventive use of angles and anthropomorphic creatures, bridging naturalism and mythology. Farel Dalrymple does a strip from his Pop Gun War world about a vicious cat, detailing what he's killed while wondering how something so cute can be such a killer. It's effective both as a stand-alone store and a palate cleanser for other Pop Gun War stories. I wish Means had the funding to do a bigger anthology, because he has an uncanny sense of pacing as an editor, knowing just how to create a smooth flow from story to story. Not everything he's published has been great, but it always fit in the context of the anthology at hand, inviting the reader in no matter what its subject matter or style might be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Koyama: Hannah K. Lee's Language Barrier

One of the things that sets Annie Koyama apart from many other publishers is her nearly-unerring eye in sensing what kind of self-published work might make a good collection. Such is the case with Hannah K Lee and her book Language Barrier, which has four separate chapters of "zines, comics and other fragments". It's an excellent description of the book's structure, as there's a little bit of everything from an artist who teaches illustration and also works in design. Her use of text reminds me a bit of Ray Fenwick, who turned the decorative qualities of text into narrative in his short stories in Mome and in two books published by Fantagraphics. That use of text is just one of many tools the incredibly sharp Lee uses to express herself. Even zines without an obviously discernible narrative still have an unspoken storytelling flow from page to page.

"Hey Beautiful" was the most recent of these works, and it's the one that most closely resembles sequential art. This section's about sex, loneliness, desire and the minefield that is negotiating the male gaze and online dating. It starts with a series of strips called "1 Is The Loneliest Number", which hilariously break down that sense of feeling desire and being embodied in situations where one is alone--getting physically ill in an embarrassing way in public, eating alone, going to the movies alone, and then (as though to make fun of her own concept) to be haunted by a spirit alone in bed, one that marveled at the size of your apartment. There are some strips about penises that are also very funny ("a terrible, unknowable surprise") where she imagines each one she sees as a hilariously different shape. Later on, there are some unforgettable images: her body rendered into its sexual components and displayed in a bowl as though it were fruit, with phrases of sexual violence making part by part disappear. There's another image of her lying prone, with assorted mansplaining monologues filling up her ears and drowning her. ("Let me tell you about Kubrick" was laser-like in its precision). Lee veers back toward more lighthearted but still-pointed material with two pages of Valentine's candy hearts with phrases like "I'll Do Emotional Labor" and "Be My Emergency Contact". Concluding with yet another hilarious series of "Interpretations of Emoji Sexts" led to another image of bodies warped, in pieces, on display. What was remarkable about this section was the way Lee arranged sex, identity, and sexual desire in such conflicting ways. It's not just a statement against the male gaze (though it's part of that), it's also a statement about sex in all its weirdness.

"Shoes Over Bills" is much more straight-ahead in its presentation, as it's about various beautiful kinds of shoes on the left-hand side of the page and then some kind of financial obligation written in spectacular script on the right, like "credit card debt". The best part is when Lee had a rate of exchange, like one pair of shoes worth ten boxes of ramen, another pair worth emergency dental work, etc. It's less about the actual shoes and more about how economic inequality (especially for those who chose to become artists) can leave one utterly abjected from market goods, and in a sense as an outsider from society in general. "Everyone Else Is Younger And More Talented" goes into the negative self-feedback look where one is unable to accept positive thoughts about oneself and twists them into vicious insults. As an artist, it's especially deadly, because it is the very definition of falling prey to Lynda Barry's Two Questions: "Is this good? Does this suck?" Unstated but inherent in those questions are two related questions: "Am I good? Do I suck?", where one's self-worth is tied up in one's work. Lee eventually boils it down to "beautiful" vs "We see you", in gorgeous type. Visually, a group of shapes is mirrored by cigarette butts, another indictment of one's art and oneself.

Finally, "Close Encounters" details a relationship through single word or phrase descriptions that snake around and through related images. From "small talk" to "affection" to "attraction", Lee goes through a gamut of experiences as though one was walking through the back yards of one's neighborhood, seeing things that should probably remain hidden. It eventually resolves, in tiny print to "settling in your ways", skips a beat with a page of linked lines (chains?) and then giant print over two pages that screams out "Nowhere to hide". The set of more abstract images that follow resolve in an interesting direction, as "You Don't Owe Anyone Anything" is contrasted to a naturalistic image of a couple kissing--a direct image after the deception of text. Indeed, this all ties into Lee's central theme and the book's title: the barrier here is language itself, forever obfuscating meaning and impeding connection. In this book, language goes from being humorously foolish to actively dangerous and destructive, rendering people into objects. Lee's skill in creating the book's images is what make its themes resonate, as she dances from idea to idea at a breakneck speed, thanks to the ways in which images precede the meaning supplied by text. It's that slight lag that creates cognitive dissonance in the reader and gets them to take another look about both image and word. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Minis: Robin Enrico

Subscribers to my Patreon can see my review of the (finally) collected edition of Robin Enrico's Jam In The Band that was published by Alternative Comics. I've reviewed the individual issues of the comic over its decade or so of production, but I wanted to have a final look at the book after many years of being away from it. Enrico has followed up with two minicomics (and a third one coming, I suspect), featuring several key members of Jam In The Band's cast.

Specifically, the minicomics Post and Quit follow a tour by a band that spun off from JITB's Pitch Girl: an "Electro Booty Jamz" band called Rayd Titties that was comprised of guitarist Corbin, DJ Jennet (another long-running character in the Enricoverse) and bass player Becky Vice, a breakout supporting character who earned her own spinoff miniseries while Enrico was still in the midst of finishing the main comic. Each of the issues is a contemplative inner monologue from the point of view of a different character, striking a very different tone from JITB's jittery, larger-than-life feel. It's obvious that Enrico thought a lot about structure in these comics. As always, he let the story dictate a lot of the format, as the panel structure varied on virtually every page.

Other than the narrative structure, the most notable thing about these comics is the way that Enrico obviously set out to challenge himself as a draftsman. Most of JITB was set in clubs, cafes, bars, etc, with lots of talking heads. In Post and Quit, he draws the backgrounds that one might see in exploring the Pacific Northwest. Lots of nature and lots of weird roadside attractions; it's obvious that he did some research with regard to the latter. Post, Corbin's story, deals with a character who was starved for love and stability in JITB as she tries to comes to terms with the way her old band broke up and how lead singer Bianca left their lives. In this story, a number of the characters consider where they've wound up in life as they start to get older, with some neatly tracking it into their personal narratives and others, like Corbin, who find themselves facing a lot of dark thoughts late at night.

Post's title is a play on words in several respects. It refers to the postcards and letters that Corbin is sending to her friend, zinester and close friend of Bianca, Alec Supernova (an Aaron Cometbus stand-in) through the post office. It's also a reference to this being post-band breakup and part of a transition to a different kind of living. If the ending of JITB made this transition seem easy, these minicomics reveal what happens after the honeymoon period. She can't help but reflect on her life in the old band and how it ended, miserable as it was. There are references to Bianca's imaginary "spirit guide" that she used to talk to and an encounter with a young woman at the end of the tour who was escaping a bad situation in a small town and reminded Corbin very much of a young Bianca.

Corbin is the sort of character who drifts from one situation to another, rather than going out and seizing something in the way that Bianca did. Corbin doesn't just wonder what Bianca's doing; instead, her musings are her way of trying to understand Bianca as well as trying to understand her own motives, especially since she slowed down on her drinking and casual sex. She doesn't want Bianca back in her life, telling her what to do, but there's an almost manic certainty that Bianca possesses something that she simply doesn't comprehend. Enrico himself wrote that by the end of JITB, Bianca was the character whom he understood the least, even if early on she was very much an Enrico stand-in. Time and the vicissitudes of life have a way of changing one's perspective. The key at the end of the comic is that Jennet kisses Bianca, after years of insisting that she wasn't attracted to her but was still her best friend. There is a lot to unpack there, but I sense that will come in Jennet's chapter.

Quit sees things from Becky Vice's point of view. More than anyone, Becky is a character whom at a very young age understood that life was a series of trade-offs, and the choices she made offered her an enormous amount of independence but very little in the way of emotional security. For Becky, this story is one about beginning to feel the weight of time and aging and understanding that even the most independent person needs to have a support system as they grow older. When the tour starts, Becky finds an unopened pack of cigarettes and vows that this will be her last pack, as a sort of tour companion. It's an understanding that she has to start making other trade-offs now in deference to growing older. If she gave up on getting married and having children as a trade-off for having full control of her time, then starting to live a little healthier was the trade-off for giving up a genuine pleasure in smoking.

Becky's thoughts are in big block print, fitting for a larger-than-life character such as she. She's an admirable character in many ways for facing up to her own failures and reminding herself that she chose this life to lead when she starts to get down. At the same time, she's human. She's lonely sometimes, no matter how satisfying being a performer might be. More to the point, she's not just lonely--she chooses to isolate herself, which is very different from both Corbin and Jennet. She confronts that aspect of herself as well, vowing to also get in touch with Alec after the tour. Becky is a glorious marble maze of a person, constantly shifting herself back and forth in an effort to keep the ball rolling and avoid pitfalls. While there will always be something of the hedonist in her, she's a pleasure-seeker who's now starting to understand of certain things that had perhaps escaped her in the past.

In terms of the art, Enrico's distinctly stylized technique is at its peak here. There's a clarity and confidence in his line that wasn't always there, when he would simply fill panels up with detail. He makes great use of negative space in both of these comics, as committing to do a story about the outdoors forced him to do so. His characters were sometimes so stylized as to look stiff, but his line has also become much more fluid. He still likes to throw a lot of eye pops at the reader for comedic or referential effect, but they're less jumbled now. These comics are downbeat and hopeful, restless and realistic, and uncompromising in writing narratives about characters while admitting that people's lives are rarely clean or simple enough to be framed in narrative terms.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Max Huffman and Garage Island

I've been following Max Huffman's work since he was a teenager, and now he's a graduate of SVA's comics program. It's difficult to pin down exactly what he's doing, other than to note that it's extremely funny and highly stylized. A few years back, he did an issue of Bootleg Jughead (#1), which features highly polished and grotesque images in the ballpark of Michael DeForge and certain Meathaus alumni (I sense some Brandon Graham deep in the DNA of his drawings). However, his sense of humor and comic timing are entirely his own. There's an intensity in his writing that demands multiple rereads, even as the action on the page flies by.

Huffman puts every genre in his comics and sets it to puree, as there's detective noir, science-fiction, comedy nerd stuff, slice of life and pure action. Bootleg Jughead also revealed perhaps his greatest strength: his willingness to go to great ends for a gag, especially if it somehow involved violence. There's a scene where Jughead imagines himself slam dunking a ball (drawn in stylized but mostly naturalistic manner) only to realize that he dunked on a light fixture. That total and unexpected demolition of previously established logic is his go-to gimmick. It's a sort of warped storytelling logic in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, where each character looks like a beloved and familiar figure that's been warped and turned into a caricature. That was obviously necessary when writing his comic about Jughead, but it was continuing this technique into his Crim Coblend's Garage Island series that really made it funny.

It is a series of gags tied around the loose premise of a Johnny Carson-style talk show, only its host (the titular Crim Coblend) is also the dictator of the small island country where it's filmed. The first issue is a micro-mini, something like 4" x 3". Huffman often uses the thinnest of line weights in some of his drawings, especially in drawing bodies. The heads are often grotesque, inhuman, drawn from a Cubist perspective or otherwise falling apart. The second issue gets bigger, at 5" x 8" and continues the use of almost lurid one and two color looks, often alternating between brick red and a light, vaguely nauseating green. The narrative is propulsive and even uses elements of continuity, but it's also nonsensical, as a detective in the employ of his family is looking for his missing uncle. Meanwhile, a roaming journalist makes his life miserable. There's a great gag that when the detective returns to his office, it was clear that some people had picked it over, inadvertently making it a little nicer looking in the process. One character exercises his true nature as being part airplane. The journalist (in a two page interlude with a cool, blue wash) winds up at a scenester party where after a dip in a pool consisting of olive oil, she's handed a loaf of bread to wipe off with. The action makes sense within each panel in a very clear manner, which means that it's not at all a confusing read. It's just that the further back you thinking about the story, the more absurd it becomes.

The third issue is in regular comic book forat, only with a lot of gutter space at the top and bottom of each page. The colors can be described as psychedelic pastels: soft and warm at first, but also disorienting and meant to be looked at as much as absorbed as part of the narrative. There's a return to the talk show setting and a long digression with the band leader, Doctor Website, who enters a Steve Ditko-like dimension for adventures there. Reading the previous issues is both helpful and entirely irrelevant; it's the former less because of the narrative and more to help get into the flow of Huffman's storytelling style, and irrelevant because Huffman himself informs the reader not to worry about the cast or story. Indeed, entering into scenarios in media res is another common tactic for Huffman, starting the action and gags first and letting story catch up to it later. Though I've thrown a few names out for comparison, Huffman's influences are also steeped in fine art and comedy as much as any comic, but there's a wonderful sense of geometry in his comics. Weird angles, squiggles, distorted figures and other techniques that make it feel like Huffman is illustrating some of warped view of reality in his own head, one that's both relentlessly unsettling and hilarious.

Though he made his goal, I'd like to note Huffman's kickstarter campaign for a project called Plaguers Int'l. Huffman continues to push the boundaries of his visuals while using adventure tropes for subversive purposes. This isn't work, at this point of his career, that can be indefinitely or as his signatures. It feels more like him trying to figure things out at a rapid pace until he's ready for something bigger, but the journey there is certainly a great deal of fun.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Fantagraphics: Joseph Remnant's Cartoon Clouds

Joseph Remnant’s Cartoon Clouds is the first book he’s written and illustrated, with Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland being a harbinger of his enormous talent as an artist. He’s very much influenced by underground comics and Robert Crumb’s naturalism in particular, along with his peer Noah Van Sciver. Unlike either of them, Remnant (both here and in his excellent comic, Blindspot [two issues self-published, third issue published by Kilgore]) eschews the more cartoony aspects of that kind of work and instead prefers an expressive naturalism that favors gesture, body language and the ways bodies interact with each other in space. Thanks to that skill, Remnant is able to exert a precise degree of control over his characters, but not so much that they appear inert on the page. Indeed, there’s nothing slick about his character work. He also likes adding drawing effects that are very clearly lines on paper, like cross-hatching and shadow effects. There are any number of simply beautiful-looking panels that reflect his intense amount of labor, but they’re not there for him to show off. They are to help him establish atmosphere.

That atmosphere is one of tedium and ennui, as the story follows four friends who have just graduated from a Cincinnati art school, each trying to pursue a career and figure out their lives in different ways. The result is a story that feels all-too-familiar: young, white twentysomethings moping around, trying to find meaning. Despite Remnant’s skill as an artist and storyteller, he falls into too many clichéd traps in the book, mistaking an unlikeable protagonist for being a compelling one. And the main character Seth, is both boring and annoying. He’s a relentless mope who hated art school almost as much as he hated his life after it. Cartoonists’ issues with art school are well-documented at this point, so if you’re going to critique it, you’d either better have a new point of view or at least be funny (like Aaron Lange’s comics about his experiences).

Every character seems narrowly defined and lacking in ambiguity, with the exception of Allison, a fellow student that Seth’s always had a crush on but never did anything about it. She wants a successful career as a gallery artist as much as anyone, but she eventually realizes that the shortcuts she took to get there weren’t worth her integrity. The other characters feel less like living people than cast for an indie film, leaning in hard on their most prominent qualities. Colby, the older, pretentious gallery owner with whom Allison hooks up, is less a character than a aggregation of art-world clichés: disingenuous, hypocritical, jealous of real talent and success, two-faced, secretly sexist, etc. Jeff is Seth’s best friend and he’s the art school grad who immediately stops doing art and starts nursing a prescription drug and later a heroin addiction. Kat is Jeff’s girlfriend who hooks into the art world by coming up with show ideas that have little or nothing to do with the art itself; she starts cheating on Jeff without bothering to actually break up with him. Cameos by an asshole trust fund kid and an aggressively atheist guy at a party add to that sense of caricature over character that plagues the book.

Seth is the protagonist, and it’s his tedious journey that informs the tone of most of the book. He loses his job as an artist’s assistant. He is disgusted when he realizes that art galleries and museums mostly offer unpaid internships to young people who either have a trust fund or else are willing to live in abject poverty in order to maybe make some connections. He takes a job in fast food, stops painting and hooks up with a pot-smoking teenager as his new girlfriend of sorts. It’s not til the end that things begin to pick up, as a lecture from a returning friend and a chance meeting with his idol, the local legend John Pollard. Pollard was supposed to be at an opening of his art but instead was at a working man’s watering hole to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play. Pollard gives him the advice that was obvious to everyone: Seth should pursue something with his comics and drawings instead of his paintings. Pollard is much the stereotypical gruff, older artist, but simply by adding a layer or two to his personality, Remnant immediately made him one of the more complex characters in the book.

The book has its requisite happy endings for the “right” characters (Seth and Allison), as they go off to seek their destinies in new cities. Jeff is very much the “there by the grace of god go I” character, putting himself in a position that he knows will wind up in his death as an addict, sooner rather than later, in order to help his friend. Kat has sold out and is quite happy to do so. It’s an overly neat wrap-up for a book that at 160 pages feels bloated. In many respects, Cartoon Clouds feels like a book that Remnant needed to get out his system, that he sensed that he would only have one shot to write as a young person. It certainly put his craft to the test and found him passing that area with flying colors. Hopefully his next book won’t be about art and artists, as I think he needs a fresh, new area to explore. He certainly has the capacity to do it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Winter Fundraiser

My family is facing some hopefully temporary financial difficulties at the moment, so any kind of help from supporters of the site would be greatly appreciated. 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 over sixty pieces of criticism exclusively for my Patrons--one a week. As promised, I had my annual 30 Days of CCS feature about artists from the Center for Cartoon Studies. New reviews will be up tonight and tomorrow, and this weekend will see a couple of new Patron reviews.  Thanks for your consideration. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Short Box: Jeremy Sorese's The Tar Pit

First, a note about Zainab Akhtar's Short Box comics service. It's a periodic box of comics that she publishes, often up and coming talent that she is helping to bring before a larger audience. After that initial release, the artists are free to sell the comic on their own. That was the case for The Tar Pit, by Jeremy Sorese. I'm not exactly sure what Sorese uses, but the effect in this comic is a dense charcoal. It's evocative of a time long gone; it's thick and atmospheric, as though one was watching an old black & white film. That gritty charcoal effect is also in effect in the book's many night scenes, as the darkness threatens to swallow the light on each page. The grit and space-filling quality of that effect is in sharp contrast to Sorese's character designs, which are highly stylized and include a great deal of negative space in the faces, which are simplified to the point where they almost look like they belong to puppets. While this is a character piece and there's not a lot of focus on backgrounds, Sorese clearly did his research with regard to fashions, hairstyle and other time-specific elements of the time, which is the early 1950s.

The setting is a house where famous Hollywood actors Burt and Fred lived with Vivienne, in an arrangement that was supposed to reflect her dating both men and in reality was a beard arrangement for the lovers. In return, she received decent and well-paying movie roles, albeit ones that had no speaking lines. One of her "boyfriends" inevitably had the hero role in those films, of course. The book opens with a "Barbershop" party; that is, one where the boys and others with similar arrangements could be themselves for a little while. The plot is very simple but its ramifications are intensely complicated. Vivienne grows increasingly disenchanted and lonely living with a couple, especially given their frequent fights and indiscretion when having loud sex. On one frustrating night, a writer who had been haunting the outside of the house cajoled her into admitting on the record that Burt and Fred were gay, right before admitting he was gay as well. In one of the few exaggerated scenes, Sorese depicts Vivienne feeling like everyone in the diner she was talking to the writer in was gay and laughing at her.

The story gets published but quickly squashed. Vivienne slowly loses her roles. She starts to get work in advertising on TV, as color becomes popular. At the same time, the comic switches over to full color illustrations, done in what looks like colored pencil. When Burt dies of a drug overdose, Fred makes a fictionalized film that features a Vivian character who dominates everyone else and threatens violence, and whose outing of them leads to them losing their careers. The book works its way to Vivienne working with the actress who played her in the movie, thirty years later. when the topic of Fred (who had just died of AIDS) comes up, Vivienne utters an unforgivable homophobic slur. The final scene is one of tragedy and hope, combining her inability to come to terms with her life and her deep-seated homophobia.

To be sure, this is not just a story about her homophobia. It's a story about how self-hating gay men used to make money outing other gay men. More than that, it's a story about deep-seated misogyny. Vivienne got more love from Fred's dopey chihuahua than from either men, and it's clear that it wasn't sex that she was missing, but intimacy. She was treated as a convenience, an object, someone they only paid attention to when there was a camera pointed in their direction. She was stuck, as the title implies, in a comfortable but miserable arrangement. She wanted to sell out her roommates and was just looking for a buyer; in reality, she got nothing, other than her own freedom in a way. The irony of the film that Fred did is that it pointed her as the villain all along, while she of course was a non-talking player in real life as well as in film. Yet it showed her as a powerful, dominant woman who had all the best lines, which is why Vivienne liked it so much; it's whom she always wanted to be.

Burt and Fred never copped to their roles in making Vivienne unhappy. At the same time, neither did Vivienne come to terms with what she did. Instead of feeling regret for betraying people she spent so much time with, she simply doubled down on her homophobia. Or rather, homophobia became the reason she gave herself for hating the two men, when the reality was that she was lonely. That she was lonely was not their fault, but it was also true that they didn't seem to give the slightest thought to how she felt about things. In the end, her unwillingness to see past her feelings, insecurities and prejudices choked off her ability to show empathy, as the final, heartbreaking scene indicates. She poured her emotions into her dog and couldn't forgive or admit her own complicity in a relationship from decades before that still clearly defined her in many ways. Without that ability to forgive and accept responsibility for her own actions at key moments in her life, she remained hardened. It's the kind of story that was more common in the 80s and 90s, but I think Sorese was wise to reinforce the basics, given that homophobia never truly goes away. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

2dcloud: Laura Lannes

In critiquing autobiographical cartoonists, I will sometimes accuse them of not "spilling enough ink". That is, the cartoonist smooths out too many rough edges, edits out the most embarrassing parts and in general processes it into agreeable pabulum that lacks bite. With Laura Lannes' intricately-assembled By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, (2dcloud) she not only spilled some ink, she emptied out the bottle and had to get more. "Confessional" only begins to describe what she does in this memoir of a month spent pining after a guy she had developed a surprisingly quick emotional and sexual attachment to who was nonetheless unavailable. The story of the highs and lows of that relationship makes up the bulk of this spiral-bound, legal paper-sized comic, and it feels like Lannes is incapable of not revealing herself on page after page.

It's hard to explain what she's doing and why. A compulsion? Oversharing? Performance? Therapy? Sickness? I think there are elements of all of these things at work here, plus a fiendishly wicked sense of humor and a sense of rising to the occasion as an artist. On the first page, she establishes every key element of the comic. There's the 3 x 4 grid, the light orange spot-coloring that proves to be a crucial visual element, and the grey wash that almost looks liquid in some panels. She also establishes her sense of humor (in one panel, her dialogue argues with her narrative caption) as well as the relationship with the man, named Francesco, with whom she falls in love with. She ends the page with a gag at her own expense, one of dozens in the comic.
Lannes is frank, upfront and unsparing about her sex life--both with regard to her own needs and foibles as well as her partners. She's lonely and horny and gets excited when an old lover texts her ("I'm gonna get a dick appointment!"), only to realize that he's too high to actually have sex. In a comedic sequence worthy of the Marx Brothers in terms of its progression, she sorts through a drawer only to realize that her vibrator ("Roger Rabbit") is out of batteries, and her plug-in Hitachi somehow caught on fire. There's a panel that's perfect in the way it describes her body language as she realizes that she's not up to doing "manual labor", and the last panel is her getting back to work.

Lannes slowly writes through the story of her fitful relationship with Francesco, struggling as a freelancer for companies that get bought and sold and try to slough off the responsibility of paying their invoices. There are Tinder chats that turn into long arguments. There are her attempts at being involved with various socialist groups. The details of her life provide a robust account of what it's like to be young and living in the city as an independent woman. She turns the focus on her sex life that not only zeroes in on the act itself, but also on her feelings about the sex and sometimes awkward conversations before and after. Comparing having sex with Francesco to a Swedish guy she knows provides a vivid and blunt reflection and comparison of the two experiences. Fran is jealous of Laura seeing other men despite the obvious hypocrisy evident in that statement and she pushes back.

After their last time together (they agree to stop because he doesn't want to stop seeing this other woman and won't make Laura his primary partner), the rest of the comic is a series of events where she is miserable and trying to shake it off, with varying degrees of success. There's a fascinating sequence where she goes off to Mardi Gras with a guy she hooks up with when they're both single and coming off a break-up, only they somehow manage to not have sex the entire time they're there. Fran sends Laura an over-the-top, emotional email that she hilariously comments on bit-by-bit. They have a romantic last text session to say goodbye ("Time does what it can, it passes"), which is ruined by the messiness of real life when she has to tell him that a sex partner had passed chlamydia on to her, and he was now at risk. The last page is somehow heart-rending and cruelly funny all at once, where she's crying, then masturbating, and crying while masturbating, then crying out in grief after she orgasms.

Lannes has an acute understanding of the fact that love, sex, and romance are all inherently ridiculous and that there's no dignity whatsoever to be found in their pursuit. At the same time, she has an acute understanding of the importance of intimacy, connecting with someone on multiple levels, and grieving it when it's gone. A self-described "emotional tortoise", she came out of her shell and had a wide range of experiences as a result--most of them painful, but all of them vivid, and created something extraordinary by virtue of being willing to accept the experience for what it was. Combining her skill as a cartoonist, her razor-sharp wit, her ability to create a structure around the experience that any reader could understand turned those experiences into one of the best autobiographical comics I've ever read.

Friday, January 26, 2018

NBM: T.J. Kirsch's Pride Of The Decent Man

T.J. Kirsch’s graphic novel debut, Pride Of The Decent Man (NBM), is admirably brief and direct. It is ultimately about intentionality, responsibility and the forces that pull against both. Its principle character is Andy, the kind of loser who tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is easily manipulated by people he thinks are his friends. Andy’s best friend is Whitey, the kind of chaos vortex of a person who sucks people into his craziness and doesn’t let go until something horrible has happened. Not a deliberately bad person, necessarily, just a selfish and stupid one who lives enough of a charmed life to get away with things. Their dynamic forms the basis of the mostly episodic plot.

Andy twice trusts Whitey and gets badly burned twice. The first time, Whitey accidentally burns down the restaurant Andy works at because of his recklessness. The second time, Whitey talks Andy into robbing a convenience store, a scheme that goes horribly awry. Horrified, Andy realizes that there’s a kid in the store with the owner. Andy gets sent to prison and Whitey gets off with a slap on the wrist, thanks to some political connections. The through line and connective tissue of the book is Andy becoming a writer in college, in an effort to capture the world so that he can remember it later. That writing becomes the book’s narrative captions, which comment both directly and indirectly on what we see on the page.

The essence of Andy’s character is that he accepts responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame Whitey for roping him into the caper, or for getting out of jail scot free. Andy understands that even someone without a great deal of agency ultimately does wind up making decisions, even if it’s a decision to drift into the orbit of a sociopath like Whitey. A person is to be judged by their actions but also has the capacity for change and redemption, simply by choosing a different path. Andy is seemingly rewarded when a daughter he never knew opts to come into his life. Suddenly, his life has greater purpose and meaning.

That’s where things become problematic for Kirsch. Instead of figuring out how such a reunion would actually work out in the long run (a much more difficult storytelling choice than what he opted for), he decided on a tragic ending. This wasn’t necessarily a terrible decision, and the denouement of the story is actually quite effective, as his daughter chooses to live in the little shack in which he had resided, proud and happy to have at least met her father and understand his motives and the path he wound up on. The problem is that Kirsch had to come up with a series of plot contrivances that rely all too much on coincidence and convenience, punishing Andy through cheap irony. One can see those devices grinding away on the page, detracting from the genuinely soulful character work done with Andy and his daughter.

It’s unfortunate that Kirsch didn’t quite stick the landing, because there’s so much to like in this story. Kirsch’s figurework is solid, even blocky at times in a way that reflects on how much Andy changed his body while in prison, going from skinny to built like a cement block. Kirsch excels at exploring small details, but never loses panel-to-panel transitions nor individual panel composition. He excels at depicting bodies in space, interpersonal interaction and gesture, using an unfussy drawing style that simply gets the job done in its mix of naturalism and Clowes-like flatness. More than anything, Kirsch draws Andy as a man who’s not quite in step with his environment, and that’s symbolized by this huge man with a small pen and notebook in his powerful hands, attempting to gently create something beautiful with ill-equipped instruments and comically bad luck.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Joe Decie's Collecting Sticks

Joe Decie's quotidian memoir strips have always tended to be more on the comedic than serious side, and his fractured use of time makes it easy to set up his gags as very short vignettes. His first graphic memoir, Collecting Sticks (Jonathan Cape), doubles down on his gag work as the driving element of a single, extended narrative. Every aspect of the story is played for laughs from beginning to end, even as the subtext is that of a loving family with certain tics that play out on the page. Decie has the hairbrained idea of going camping with his wife and son for a cheap holiday, but his wife remembers all too well how miserable it was to stay in a tent for several days and was never going to do it again.

So when Decie, with puppy-like enthusiasm, not only suggests camping again but also says that they had fun doing it before, his wife seized hold of the narrative. She booked them for "glamping" ("glamorous camping") before he could even object to its price or ask to think it over. Throughout the book, his wife Steph acts mostly as the straight woman, his son Sam is a sort of wild force of nature, and he's the well-meaning bumbler. Decie has such a dry sense of humor that he's able to get away with this for a book's length, though it does wear from time to time on the reader. The book is essentially an inventory of things that went wrong but that didn't spoil their good time, like Decie's OCD taking forever for them to get out of the house or his son's reluctance to get dressed and do anything but play with Legos. When Decie passed on the responsibility of packing to his son (very much a kid thing to do), his son packed up a bunch of sticks, a recurrent activity for him in the book.

Decie goes to great lengths to portray himself as a fool, from his hilariously awful abilities as a navigator to his inability to create a fire, as he says things like "Getting lost is fun!" and pulls out graph paper from a D&D set to create a new map. There are times when going this broad starts to wear thin, as though he was advised to amp up the comedy as much as possible instead of Decie's occasional forays into more meditative fare. That said, his juxtaposition of bone-dry narrative and wacky visual antics made the gags that much more effective, as did the sober but expressive nature of his grey wash and fragile line.

Once they get to the cabin, things pick up, and by that I mean absolutely nothing of real interest happens, but Decie manages to make it funny anyway. A walk to find a quaint local market for supplies winds up being an expedition to a big-box grocery store, where they got essentials like smoked paprika. Though it's disguised in a series of generational disconnects, the central relationship explored in the book is between Decie and Sam, as they wander off together being very silly. There are funny bits about the cautious Decie having to reel in his daredevil and inquisitive son in from time to time, but it goes unsaid just how satisfying it is for Decie to spend this kind of extended time with his child.

Decie starts to throw in some funny bits to enhance the humor, like a sign at the beach that says "No Photography/No Sketching" after he and Steph had been doing both for hours. Sam is only at the very edge of being whiny, knowing just when to stop (like complaining about going to the pub because it's boring and then remembering he can get a drink with a straw there). There's also the droll, loving relationship between Decie and Steph, both of whom have the same dry and slightly absurd sense of humor, with Steph being just a step ahead at nearly all times. There are also moments when Decie jokingly brings up his very real problems with anxiety that are played straight but also treated with humor, as he fully understands how much of a problem it is even as he's helpless to indulge in it.

This is a lightweight book, by design. It's meant to capture one's attention and keep it with funny bits at the expense of the protagonist, and the grey wash helps the reader quickly fall into the story's rhythms and quirks. It doesn't feel overly long or like there's too much filler, because honestly, the whole story is filler. It's a book that has a handle on its non-essential qualities and invites the reader to hang out anyway. The result is a pleasant journey and a better understanding of Decie through his humor, because framing reality through that lens is what makes the family comedy effective. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dispatches From Seattle: Froh/Clotfelter, Van Deusen

Stewbrew #5, by Kelly Froh and Max Clotfelter. This is the duo's zine that they work on together, and in this case it's comics and collage from a trip between Wisconsin and their home in Seattle. Froh's mother gifted her a car, but she had to drive it back. There are menus, receipts and all sorts of weird ephemera. There's annotated ephemera which included amusing advertisements, as well. Froh and Clotfelter switch off doing comics on the trip. Froh starts off the comics with a strip about her parents, who rarely showed her affection as a child but surprised her on this visit. Froh and Clotfelter contrast nicely in terms of style, as Froh keeps things simple with her line and Clotfelter employs a scratchy, ink-heavy style.

The couple is determined to see as much Americana as possible on the trip, so they stop off in places like Bible Land and stay in the Frontier Cabin Motel. In the Badlands, they encounter prairie dogs and are told that the dogs have the plague and must be avoided. In the style of John Porcellino, there's lists of music they listened to and the kinds of (mostly awful) foods they ate. A highlight is an atlas doodled all over by the artists. The pace of the comics quicken as they get closer to Seattle. Clotfelter doesn't like to linger on details as much as Froh does to begin with, as Clotfelter drinks in the scenery while driving and draws things in dense but readable style. The comic is at its best in depicting quiet moments with awe and affection, like when the two are briefly stranded in a town that feels abandoned, as though they were in a zombie film that was just getting started. The punchline of the comic is Froh noting that despite driving a couple of thousand miles through strange territory, driving in Seattle was going to be much worse, thanks to the general unfriendliness of the city. Everything about their styles and sensibilities stands in sharp relief to the other, but they complement each other nicely. Both their comics and the fun little nuggets of text they incorporate into the issue add to that strange road trip reality they were living in.

The Big Me Book, by Tom Van Deusen. Van Deusen took his formula of the ultra-revolting male autobiographical cartoonist to a new, awful, and hilarious level in this comic. Not only is each individual strip designed to make the reader despise him like he was an expert wrestling heel, Van Deusen has created a subtle continuity between strips that escalates that loathing, creating callbacks that give a base to the exponentially increasing over-the-top quality of each strip. From the author's statement that kicks the book off that satirically wonders why everyone wouldn't want to know everything about him and the (tastefully) nude photo of him sunbathing in a park (which I hope was done specifically for this purpose), Van Deusen immediately sets the reader against him.

The first strip is a nasty takedown of cartoonists and social media, in that he wanted to get a lot more likes from his facebook post of having dinner with his parents back home. That likes have become a kind of currency, especially for artists, is a crystalization of the desire to be validated by popular demand. The fact that the reality is that he berates and insults his poor parents just lays the illusion bare. That's just a warm-up for the comic's real doozy of a strip, in which Tom feeds a stray cat who happens to be a magical talking cat who grants him wishes. Van Deusen wishes for a room full of Nazi memorabilia, to be able to wear a SS uniform in public and finally to be able to fuck a plastic vagina in public with no repercussions. The sheer awfulness combined with the utter banality of these wishes is what makes this story so funny, along with the disgusted but obligated cat's comments and awful, eventual fate. Van Deusen doubles and then triples down in this story, and drawing himself with a leering, crazed look on his face throughout reinforces his awfulness.

Van Deusen then takes that to another level in what starts off as a "I'm bombing at a con story" into something far stranger. In trying to trick a woman into thinking that he's not a misogynist ("It's satire", he repeatedly notes, again hitting on the go-to excuse for many a misogynistic cartoonist's work). Then Van Deusen returns to the realm of the ridiculous, as it becomes apparent that his thought balloons have somehow become apparent to everyone, a fourth-wall gag that Van Deusen really exploits with phrases like "It's not satire, I'm totally a Nazi." That leads to a wacky visit to the doctor, a call-back to his relationship with his parents (of course he still calls his mother "Mommy") and an explosive sight gag to end it. Throw in an homage to Dr Seuss on the cover, and you have Van Deusen firing on all cylinders: conceptually, narratively and visually. The fact that he does it in such a concise manner is what really sets it apart from his past work. What makes a further impact is just how much detail he's able to cram into strips that move so quickly, and how interesting his drawings are. Consider the cat granting a wish in the page above: its sunken eyes and the hypnotic spiral emanating from it indicate a creature that is ancient and powerful.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Monday, January 1, 2018

Thirty Days of CCS: The Guide And High-Low News

Before I publish the handy all-in-one guide to this year's Thirty Days Of CCS feature, I wanted to make a few quick announcements. There will be no new content this week, so that I can catch up with my patrons, whose patrons-only content was put to one side in December so I could concentrate on the main feature. Every day this week, starting Tuesday, will contain a new review for my patrons. New material on the regular site will commence once again on January 8th.

1.  Colleen Frakes, Sophie Goldstein, Amelia Onorato
2.  Laura Terry
3.  Tillie Walden
4.  Luke Howard, Steve Thueson, Dan Nott
5.  Joyana McDiarmid, Jarad Greene, Mary Shyne
6.  Daryl Seitchik
7.  Beth Hetland, Mary Shyne, Josh Lees
8.  Hannah Kaplan
9.  Girl Talk & My Pace 2
10. Iona Fox & Penina Gal

11 .Dakota McFadzean, Dean Sudarsky, Mitra Farmand
12. Carl Antonowicz
13. Charles Forsman
14. Rachel Dukes, Sean Knickerbocker
15. Rio Aubry Taylor, Melissa Mendes & Michelle Ollie
16. Ian Richardson
17. Rainer Kannenstine, Anna Sellheim
18. Kane Lynch
19. Nomi Kane & Donna Almendrala
20. Allison Bannister, Whiteley Foster

21. Romey Petite & Laurel Holden
22. Ben Wright-Heuman & Andi Santagata
23. Sasha Steinberg
24. April Malig
25. Melanie Gillman
26. Reilly Hadden
27. Aaron Cockle, Mathew New, Steve Thueson
28. Simon Reinhardt
29. Cooper Whittlesey
30. dw
31. Awesome Possum