Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hospital Week: DNR, Books 2 and 3

Mister V's comics are almost relentlessly crude and tangential but in a way that adds to their charm and that reflects the chaos of his life in the medical industry. By slicing up his narrative into bite-size vignettes (a function, in part, of his originally publishing these as webcomics), the pseudonomous Mister V is able to retain some sense of order in the larger narratives while pleasing himself and the reader with whatever interests him in a particular vignette. The second and third volumes of his series DNR detail a significant administrative transition in his job as a medical transporter on the night shift of a busy hospital and then his shift to a patient registration job in the same hospital, respectively. While V is the hero of his own story, he happily depicts himself as less-than-heroic at times, detailing mistakes, failures of his own courage, moments of pettiness and the fact that his brutal bluntness sometimes hurt others. Grounding the narrative in his own weaknesses as a person allows him a platform to address the injustices he sees all around him. One of the overarching themes of the book is the transformation of the hospital from a caring place designed to help its patients to a cynical money-making enterprise built on corporate double-talk, bureaucracy and out-and-out deception. Another theme is his desire for self-improvement and getting a better job, as well as developing as an artist. That ties into the book's end, when his job devolves into finding ways to soak as much money from the patients he encounters as possible, leaving him burned out and incapable of showing compassion.

The second volume, Best In The Nation, is at its best when V brutally takes down the CEO of "Sampla Medical Center", Bob Shakey. (Understandably, all identities in the book have been changed to protect patient and worker confidentiality, including his own.) V is a savage and profane critic who gets at the heart of Shakey's five bullet points that have little to do with medicine and much to do with feel-good doublespeak. He's also kind of an asshole who won't keep his mouth shut, even (and especially) when doing so gets him in trouble--but that's a large part of the entertainment. Immediately, a new axeman is hired to clean house in V's department, and V is told to take a paycut or seek employment elsewhere. This introduces a bizarre element to the story: it's quickly discovered that his new boss has a "leather daddy" profile and that he not only hires a bunch of his dubiously credentialed friends, but that evidence emerges that those who play along with him sexually get promotions. V makes it clear in other portions of the book that he's against homophobia, but the profane nature of his sense of humor and the position he's put  blurs that border in an almost casual manner. Of course, V himself realizes this in the course of the story (like when he says "This is so fucking gay!" about a dumb assignment to a gay co-worker, then slinking off in embarrassment) and offers some self-admonishment. (There's also a long bit in the third book where V goes out of his way to assist a trans person.) The climax of the book, when the tyrannical boss slinks away after an employee he fired at the drop of a hat slapped a harassment lawsuit on him, showed how even the pettiest of tyrants can be laid low when drunk on their own hubris.

This volume balances V's own growing disgruntlement, the frequently disgusting and sometimes hilarious nature of dealing with patients in a hospital setting, the ways in which even the tiniest amounts of power can go to someone's head, how arrogance and simple incompetence can lead to mistakes, and how sometimes the most powerful members of a hospital can be the pettiest. He also mixes in intraoffice intrigue and romance in a way that was certainly interesting but of questionable taste and even relevance, a decision that V admitted in a later strip was something he felt bad about. All told, the second volume is a tight and brisk read, one that reflects his improvement as a cartoonist. His style is best described as kind of a grungy, deranged Jim Davis: huge eyes, exaggerated poses, lots of cocked eyebrows, etc. It works, however, as every character has their own personality and a slightly larger-than-life quality. It also helps make the assorted bodily fluids that pop up throughout the book a bit easier to take as a reader, making them a bit funnier while still losing none of their visceral impact.

The third book, Too Long In The Wasteland, isn't nearly as strong a work. Part of this is that the setting simply isn't as interesting. Working in the patient registration area turned the series from an interesting exploration of the health industry into more of an office conflict story. Indeed, what was supposed to be sweet salvation after years of being puked on turned out to be more of the same: petty infighting, squabbles over the tiniest amounts of power, V's unwillingness to bend to corporate dictates regarding uses scripts in patient encounters, etc. It also meanders quite a bit more and veers off into some pointless bits of scatological humor. Some of the episodes, like one where V goes out on a disastrous date with a co-worker, are quite amusing but overall this collection had a lot of fat to trim. Fortunately, the book ends on a strong note. V essentially ends the story because there is no more story--just him at this same job. Of course, he provides a couple of amusing psych-out endings as well, along with giving as many "where are they now?" updates for other characters as possible. In the end, while V continues to wallop the increasingly-corporate nature of big medicine, he also places the blame on people like himself--cogs in a wheel, unwilling or unable to get off because they need a regular paycheck. At the same time, V also notes that he engaged in a lot of negative cherry picking; even the dumbest and laziest employees still managed to help patients and showed moments of compassion. In the end, what working at the hospital most instilled in him was a desire to create and to get better at it; indeed, there was even one grim strip that showed a suicide fantasy sequence where the only thing that kept him clinging to life was that he had so many ideas he wanted to commit to paper. That was a brutally honest strip, one that was done in the obvious throes of depression. The isolation and alienation that a workplace can create had gotten to him, but art was his only way out.

Mister V's other work tends to be funny and raunchy, blending in genre tropes and extreme, visceral gags. The House of Whorror is a good example of this, as it depicts a Nevada brothel featuring a line-up of women who fall into horror-movie tropes: a prostitute possessed by a demon, a half-fish working girl, a vampire who loves sucking all sorts of bodily fluids, etc. Into this mix comes "Fran", a putative Sex Doll of Frankenstein who escaped her maker's clutches and found herself working at The House and the witch who runs it as part of a very special auction: a virgin. There's actually very little nudity or sex in this comic; instead, Mister V prefers to lean on the horror side of things for laughs. At the same time, he doesn't glorify or play down the negative aspects of sex work in this book, noting that while the brothel's madam helped them when they were down and out, she still exploits them. The men (mostly government and religious types) who use their services are depicted as creeps or worse, often as a means of giving them their comeuppance. There's almost a sweetness at work in this story that involves a Candide-like innocent in Fran making her way in the world without totally losing her ability to care for others and see the other working women as friends of a sort, as fellow freaks that are all in it together. That genuine love of the individual characters gives them a bit of depth and context, even as it's all a background for sexual abasement on the part of both john and working girls. Hitting that sweet spot between warmth and nastiness is Mister V's specialty, as the best moments in DNR were cynical precisely because of how much V cared about what was going on.

The same isn't quite as true in Mister V's shorter comics, collected in his Arborcides minicomics. For every funny concept, like the Purple People Greeter (a monster who works as a Wal-Mart greeter), there's a misfire like the over-the-top parodies of communism in the strips featuring Mao and Karl Marx. What's missing here is the humanity that informs his other work. The gags here for the most part aren't even necessarily all that inspired; instead, they're simply visceral, angry and over-the-top. I get that Mister V wants to make fun of communist-chic, but he beats it into the ground instead of letting the gag go after a couple of pages. The problem with a cartoonist whose only mode is over-the-top, all of the time is that there's no modulation between page to page and story to story. There's no subtlety possible, no room for reader interpretation. Mister V strikes me as a humorist with a brain, not just a gag writer who wants to gross out his readers. The reason why his other comics are so much more effective is because of his ability to modulate between extreme scenes and scenes that actually treat the characters as characters, instead of joke delivery systems.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kickstarting Suspect Device and the 2D Cloud Subscription

In its last week, I wanted to raise awareness of Josh Bayer's kickstarter for his experimental anthology, Suspect Device. This is the fourth issue of this frequently deranged and occasionally brilliant take on inserting one's own take on the beginning and end of a classic comic strip. Please consider supporting it; I view Bayer as one of the five most exciting cartoonists working today.

I also wanted to mention the subscription model that one of my favorite small press publishers, 2D Cloud is opting to use. You can prepay (at a discount) for any number of books, comics and minicomics with several different payment tiers. 2D Cloud is putting out a lot of great books this year and taking some real risks. Please considering supporting them ahead of time via subscription.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Hospital Week: Welcome To Nursing Hell(o)

Welcome To Nursing Hell(o) is another welcome addition to first-person memoirs regarding employment in the medical industry. Joel Craig is a nurse in L.A. whose husband is also a nurse; indeed, it was his husband's decision to quit acting and go to nursing school that inspired Craig to do the same thing. There's a lot to like in this loosely-organized, almost stream-of-consciousness account of several years spent in a job that's enervating and only occasionally rewarding. Craig is funny and spares no one in his quotidian accounts of the sort of things a nurse must do on a ward--least of all, himself. He states upfront that he got into nursing because he knew he could do it and wanted a steady job, not to "help people" (the standard answer) or otherwise be Florence Nightingale. There's a running dialogue with his imaginary fairy godmother, Madonna, that allows Craig a chance to vent properly while giving her advice on her acting career. There's a palpable tension in this book as Craig despairs of being able to have a creative outlet while working a job that in many respects is soul-destroying.

Craig is an amateur artist, and it shows in this book. First, the printing for the book was terrible. The line quality is fuzzy at best throughout, and there are many pages where it threatens to fade away entirely. Craig's linework is crude but does have a certain energy as he keeps to a 2 x 3 grid. It creates a nice rhythm that allows the story to flow along. The biggest problem with the book is its inherent disorganization. There are multiple starts and stops, as well as scenarios that get repeated several times. The book badly needed an editor to cut some sequences and rearrange others to create a more fluid and less repetitive storytelling effect. It's clear that he wanted to create a rhythm for readers, but he got in his own way more than once. Another problem is that the frequent and sometimes random invasions of text were a major culprit in this repetitiveness, as Craig was telling instead of showing. One senses that he didn't have enough confidence in his comics storytelling to let it speak for itself, and so he turned to text to clarify it. This was completely unnecessary, as his story was easy to follow.

Nurses are the backbone of every hospital, expected to have an understanding of how to care for patients while performing demanding and unpleasant scutwork. Craig gets at that challenge and frustration and doesn't spare himself in depicting how often he loses his temper. A hospital is a bureaucracy, and if part of that machine decides to be slow and incompetent, there's nothing that can be done. At the same time, Craig recognizes his own limitations as a person and a nurse, especially when looking back on his early years when he made a number of rookie mistakes. Craig details being reprimanded for swearing on the job, which is poor customer service on the one hand and an effective venting method on the other. He also goes into detail what kinds of people he sees in a hospital ward, including psych cases, drunks, addicts and others who are essentially beyond help but require service in any case. In an institution where morale is low, burnout in nurses like Craig can be fairly common--especially when that institution is in cost-cutting mode.

The other thing that distinguishes this book is the way in which Craig works in his personal passions as a frustrated artist, as well as the relationship with his husband. He notes that in terms of queer comics, there wasn't much out there that he happened to be interested in, and one reason he decided to start drawing the book was to create the canon he wanted to read. Living in (more-or-less) gay-friendly Los Angeles is a reason why the depiction of his relationship is so matter-of-fact, but it's also something that interests him less than talking about his job and his interest in the arts. In a way, this book feels like Craig's undergraduate degree in comics, as he learned how to figure out storytelling, pacing, page design, etc. Next up will be learning how to put it all together in a more coherent package with better design values. Craig has a voice worth listening to, and I hope he continues to refine it.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Revising Myths and Twisting Sci-Fi: Kinoko, Maggie Woolfolk, William Cardini, Matthew McDaniel

The Epic of Gilgamesh, by K. Kinoko Evans. This is a charming, cartoony and yet mostly faithful adaptation of "the world's oldest story". In three issues and around 75 pages, Kinoko distills the highlights of Gilgamesh's journey from boorish and hated ruler through a hero's journey that matures him. Along the way there's sex, violence, monsters, the gods, double-crosses, schemes, journeys through the land of death, an account of the Great Flood and essentially the template for every other mythos and epic belief system ever recorded. Kinoko uses a charming line and a cute set of facial expressions that amusingly contrasts the seriousness of the events of the story. In that respect, her art reminds me a bit of Kate Beaton in terms of its breeziness, clarity, decorative qualities and gentle irreverence in depicting the classics. Kinoko does use a thick, fat line in drawing the lead's eyes and eyebrows, giving him an immediate sense of power. Kinoko depicts Gilgamesh as a sort of overgrown frat boy with godlike abilities; it's no wonder that he inflicts so much misery on his subjects, especially in the form of jus Primae Noctis, or having sex with virgins on their wedding nights before their new husbands do so. To that end, a priestess of Ishtar lures Enkidu, the Wild Man, to the kingdom of Uruk to fight Gilgamesh. Finding themselves to be equals after fighting for hours, Kinoko then transforms the book into the first bromance. The way Kinoko incorporates modern slang is still entirely in keeping with the spirit of the story, as it is certainly no less epic or violent in her interpretation than in its original form. She also adeptly captures the inherent pettiness of the gods and the ways in which they mimic humanity's own short-sightedness. In the end, Kinoko also captures the epic's central message regarding the power of friendship and the need to live one's life in the moment.

Ratchethart Forest, by Maggie Woolfolk. Inspired in equal parts by Norse mythology, Pogo and maybe True Swamp, Rachethart Forest is a funny, weird, charming and disturbing comic that seems to be a perfect outlet for the artist's pop-culture and literary segues. Woolfolk has really hit on something here, as these characters resonate in a way her past comics never quite did. Part of that is that delicate synthesis between character and concept; some of her older work fell flat because it was entirely conceptual and reference-based, or else too personal in relating her particular tastes. Here, her forest animals are both familiar to a reader in terms of their archetypes yet entirely within the bounds of her broad, silly and sometimes violent sense of humor. Fittingly, this is a quest comic. The ancient crow known as Ode guides a beaver named Sixer across the swamp in an effort to alleviate her pain after her husband went crazy/was possessed and ate their son's eye. Other creatures have their own agendas and their own journeys in this swamp, which is part mythological dumping ground, part swamp and right next door to a nuclear power plant. Woolfolk saturates her dense and expressive drawings with musical references, odd pop-culture appearances (I especially liked the Log Lady haunting a dazed owl), puns, wordplay, poetic allusions, scatological humor and in general a rousing blend of high and low culture. The earthiness of the swamp and its denizens is countered by the mythological weirdness of many of its features and creatures. The grey-scaling and printing job in general is a bit on the muddy side; I'd love to see this collected when it's done (two more issues) and printed larger and on better paper.

Optik Noize #4, by Matthew McDaniel. I'm not sure how much earlier issues are supposed to inform this lighthearted bit of escapism, but this issue felt like a complete product not dependent on other stories. The drawing is somewhere between Scott McCloud cute and Charles Burns grotesque, while the story itself trades in on classic sci-fi tropes like clones (and the problems with cloning a clone) and an all-encompassing "everything equation" that solves every problem. McDaniel also makes this an old-fashioned romance comic as well, with a square-jawed hero and a long-suffering romantic interest, with their relationship being thrown into bold relief when an evil version of him asks some uncomfortable questions. This mni is certainly an amusing throwback; it's the sort of comic that would have been published by someone like Comico or Pacific in the 1980s. It's a fun and breezy read and well-executed at a genre level, and it doesn't aspire to do or be more than that.

Vortex #4 and Tranz #2, by William Cardini. Once again for Cardini, his comics are less about story and character than they are about texture and shape. If a comic drawn on a computer can be said to espouse the "mark-making" ethos of so many characters influenced by former Fort Thunder cartoonists like Mat Brinkman, then Vortex certainly fits in this category. This fourth and final issue of the series finds its protagonist, the Miizzzard, in conflict with the head of an evil slaver empire. The battle is all wavy lines, repeated patterns, zip-a-tone effects and a cascade of psychedelic effects. There is still a character at the heart of things in the Miizzzard, but he's more of an audience entry point and interpreter of an environment than a character that's been fully fleshed out. The second issue of Tranz is more of the same sort of action without the benefit of a particular plot or character to lead the reader along. I find the zip-a-tone in particular to be hypnotic and beautiful in its own strange way, just as I'm drawn to Cardini's comics despite his obvious influences.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stories That Need To Be Written: Over Easy

Reading Mimi Pond's book Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly), one gets the sense that this is a book that had to be written. As a professional writer and cartoonist for over thirty years (The Simpsons, Pee Wee's Playhouse and Designing Women are among her credits), Pond has an understanding of story structure as well as narrative and character arcs. The story of her time as a waitress in the kind of colorful diner with the sort of memorable people in an era that turned out to be more interesting than one originally supposed practically writes itself. Indeed, even among her other coworkers, there was an artistic urge, a yen to record and explore this experience. Pond captured it at the time through her sketchbooks but didn't actually get to structure it as a whole story until nearly thirty years had passed. That life where so many of her coworkers had ambitions to be famous writers or poets but either didn't have the talent or drive still proved to be fuel for Pond. The distance of time made it much easier for her to be both kind and cruel to her stand-in character, Madge. Kind in the sense of forgiving her youthful over-eagerness but cruel in how she depicts how Madge is simply not as cool as everyone else, not as desirable as everyone else--not as much a "character" as everyone else. Telling the story from her point of view makes all the more sense, as Over Easy isn't just about a working-class experience in one's youth, but also about the transition in youth culture from hippies to punks. As a nation, it was a time of being betwixt and between, about underachieving, about having no future.

The first thing one notices about Over Easy is how beautiful it is. Pond's a scribbly artist who's great at capturing the essential elements of each character and is just as hard on her own caricature as she is on everyone else's. The glorious green of this book that provides its single-hued wash is that green of diner tabs, of diner counters, of seventies furniture. It's comforting and slightly sickly at the same time, and it's telling that every character, no matter how they imagine themselves, is all in that same green wash that represents an era. I should note that Pond is never so pretentious as to say "It was the end of an era..." in this comic. Instead, she lays on detail: a tedious fellow art student goes from hippie to punk seemingly overnight, cuts his hair and buys a leather jacket, for example. The fabulousness of the waitresses at the diner came from their thrift-store dresses and in one case, the punk rock haircut and attitude ("a punk Lauren Bacall thing that drives men wild"). Pond's caricatures are all just slightly on the exaggerated side, but not so much as to render them grotesques. Still, the slyness of moves like making the hippie dishwasher girl "Daisy Deadhead" have flowers for eyes is a hilarious sight gag. The composition of each page is relatively simple though never in a grid that's static from page to page. Pond will go from a page with five panels to a page with two panels that highlight a particular character's features to a single-page splash and then back to a page with as many as six panels. It's a way of deliberately keeping the book out of a rhythm or a rut, breaking up a story that essentially has no real spine of a plot.

Indeed, the book is defined by variations on a theme--that theme being the actual hard work of a diner. The days are broken up by moments spent ogling cute boys in the diner, of moments of interpersonal drama, of jokes shared, bad feelings vented and drugs inhaled. Pond's stand-in, in a theatrical sense, has a walk-on role to all this drama, coming into the story halfway through after years of romantic entanglements, betrayals, bad feelings and other general myth-making. This episodic, character-based approach is carefully attached to the greater generational story that Pond is telling at the same time. She's cautious not to overplay her hand in this regard, but the cultural signifiers of the era play a part in each person's story, not the least of which is her own. Pond's Madge is an art school drop-out whose belief in art itself was greatly shaken by school and many of the people she met there. The "real-life" experience she craved in the diner proved to be grueling but also enriching in ways that wouldn't become clear until much later.

The fact that thirty years passed before she took on the task of processing the experience and spinning it into a story shows that this was almost a necessary incubation period. Pond the artist wasn't quite ready to do this book until she had had time to both process the experience and develop her skills. The results are remarkable. Pond is a good enough writer that she could have simply written a novel or screenplay based on her experiences, as her turns of phrase are bright and memorable without dragging into "tell, not show" territory (In fact, according to an interview with Tom Spurgeon, she tried to sell Over Easy as a novel but didn't get any bites.) Instead, her narrative captions and descriptions enhance her simple, lively drawings. Consider the panel where she meets perhaps the true hero of the story, her future boss "Lazlo Merengue" (an assumed, hippieish nickname that she immediately addresses in all its silliness). She refers to his "welcoming laugh" as "a bubbling fountain of entre nous" while creating a rich and detailed caricature of a man who should have been easy to ignore or write off, but instead had levels of rich depth and warmth. Lazlo and Madge are platonic soulmates in this book, as their senses of humor and points of view are very much in alignment, even as Lazlo has an uncanny charisma and knack for getting along with all kinds. Over Easy is a love letter to him as much as it is to the diner itself, because characters like Lazlo tend to become a nexus point for weirdness, intrigue and excitement. All things and scenes must pass, so I'm eager to read the second part of the book to see how the story of Madge, Lazlo and the others changes as identities start to become a little less fluid and a little more hardened. Until then, this seems an early and easy candidate for one of the best books of the year.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Catching Up With Ryan Cecil Smith

Ryan Cecil Smith is one of my favorite young artists to make extensive use of genre tropes in such a way that is true to the concept while subverting it for humorous results. There's also a certain restlessness about his work, as he's exploring different narrative and visual styles. He also clearly thinks long and hard about the worlds that he creates, using world-building as a way to explore different visual and linguistic tricks and tangents. Smith also has tried his hand at other types of comics, like sketchbook diaries, collaborations, and humor. Let's take a quick look at some of those other types of minis over the year before examining the jumbo third issue of his ambitious S.F. series, which was published by Koyama Press.

Howard or "Howie" is a funny little fourth wall experiment, as an increasingly belligerent, musclebound meathead. The narrator cautions the reader that even though Howie is just a creation of pen and ink, he's still trouble. That leads to the hilarious punchline of the book, one that takes advantage of it being on actual paper. It's a good gag, and Smith takes full advantage of the physical space on the page and the grotesque qualities of his steroidal subject. Weird Schmeird #1 is a flip-book he did with fellow Closed Caption Comics member Lane Milburn, using that particular phrase as the central meeting place for their flip book. Smith's portion is about a fantasy adventurer looking around his environment for glory, and he spends much of his time incredibly bored. Suddenly, he's pushed into absurd combat sequences that feel every bit as artificial as the other sequences in the story, finishing up various "levels". It's a silly story that finds Smith subverting the fundamentals of video game adventure tropes, just as Milburn subverts horror tropes in his side of the book.

Cold Heat Special #5 was done in collaboration with Frank Santoro (who did the layouts), as a supplement to Santoro's series with Ben Jones. While I've never been sure of exactly what's going on in the overall series, this mini is simple. A frail man and his daughter are living out in the woods in a society where food is scarce and there's danger around. She goes out in an effort to get food. She encounters a man who kills a dog to get food, and when she tries to do the same, she finds it doesn't work. There are a series of heartbreaking scenes when she gains genuine comfort from hugging a dog before she unsuccessfully tries to kill it. The minicomic is done in a 2 x 3 panel grid; what's clever about it is the way that Smith occasionally has the action from one panel bleed into the next, like one two-panel sequence where she's hugging the dog, or another two panel sequence where they man is using his knife to slash a dog's throat. It's a clever strategy, having action so powerful that it busts through the sequencing strength of a panel border.

Mostly Girls and Cafes is one of Smith's earlier comics, and it's exactly what it sounds like. On a trip to France in 2007, he kept a sketch diary of the places he saw, the people he met and the things he ate. The best pages are those where he gets to draw women who pose for him, like Courtney towards the end of his trip. You can see Smith's style begin to coalesce in this mini, with lots of big, chunky lines for some of his figures, alternating between realistic and cartoony drawing styles, varying line weights to create different effects, lots of hatching and use of blacks to create mood. It's also a nice snapshot of a young man who's on a European adventure and looking to meet interesting people and create connections, though there's a sense of caution running throughout the book as Smith is careful not to waste too much money. Mostly, one gets the sense of a young artist trying to experience and record as much as possible, and finding that balance difficult at times.

This brings us to Smith's most current work, the epic sci-fi homage/parody S.F. Modeled after the feel (rather than plot) of manga and anime tropes, this third issue of S.F. continues to follow the adventures of S.F. mascot Hupa, a young boy whose parents were randomly killed by the Seductress, leader of the Pirate Nation. S.F. is Smith's all-encompassing and telescoping series of abbreviations. At its root, it's unstated that it simply stands for "science fiction". In the story, it stands for Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces (or S.F.S.F.S.F.). There's a large and colorful cast of characters that include talking cats, intelligent birds and duck-billed men as well as more traditional "scientist-fighters". Getting to work big here suited the scope of Smith's ambitions, as the first part of the story is a giant space battle and cat-and-mouse game in an asteroid field. The second involves suspicion on the part of S.F. member Russell (the cat) regarding Hupa--is he a robot spy? They investigate the site of Hupa's parents death, as Hupa recovers some stationery and some mysterious gems wind up in the hands of the disguised Seductress. The third part of the book details the bumbling yet successful adventures of Agent Man, the lazy S.F. member who somehow lucks into defeating his enemies on a mission. As always, Smith leaves the issue on a cliffhanger, once again highlighting the secret importance of Hupa. The comic is a success in part because of Smith's kitchen-sink approach, which is part parody of wacky adventure manga but also an understanding that having no limits to the kind of cartooning he can bring to bear on his series only makes it more appealing. Smith alternates between highly detailed and clever space battles to using rubbery figures, absurd perspectives and a use of zip-a-tone and other effects to give each page depth and texture. That mix of larger-than-life reality on the page is a perfect match for the space/soap opera nature of the characters and their struggles, as well as the silly wordplay and slapstick humor Smith throws in. Even the craziest jokes and bigfoot gags fit together with more serious drawings if the narrator keeps a straight face throughout, and that's just with Smith does here.

Smith is continuing to make "supplementary files" (yet another SF) for S.F., the most recent being S.F. v P.N. It's an adventure story wherein the fleets of S.F. and the Pirate Nation battle each other, but it's also a clever constraint comic in that all dialogue and text in general is laid out in a pattern where words beginning with "s" and "f" are then followed by "v", "p" and "n".  Not every word begins with those letters, but there is a cycle where words beginning with those letters (and in that order) are used. What's remarkable about this little comic, is that this constraint is remarkably fluid and entirely consistent with the sort of dialogue used in Smith's other comics. He's not afraid to use florid language, nor is he afraid to use slang. As always, Smith's comics look like bizarre artifacts, managing to seem both old and new. The use of spot reds add both text and clever visual effects, taking the reader slightly out of the action, as though we were watching the events on a television screen somewhere. The extensive use of zip-a-tone effects heightens that feeling of artificiality, that these are images instead of real events. In all of his comics, Smith never wants the reader to forget that they are looking at drawings and wants them to think about the sheer beauty of lines and dots on paper while getting swept along with the story. That push and pull between his vivid imagination and acceptance of the artificiality of drawings qua drawings is at the heart of Smith's work, working in parallel to his love of genre and desire to turn it inside-out and see what makes it tick.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Meghan Turbitt's Sick, Beautiful World

Meghan Turbitt is an artist specializing in the hilariously grotesque as she isn't afraid to get graphic, gross and intimate in satirizing celebrity culture, popular aesthetics and social media tropes. Her work reminds me a lot of Lauren Weinstein's early comics in the crude but powerful energy of her drawings, her willingness to get as gross as possible in service of a gag, and the anarchic sense that anything can happen in her stories. Not surprisingly, Weinstein was one of her teachers at the New School. In Lady Turbo and the Terrible Cox Sucker, Turbitt starts off with her comics namesake and Brent, a transgender geisha (don't ask) going to a club to drink and dance. It winds up with a priest kidnapping Brent for his own demented pleasures, the priest (Cardinal Cox) trying to become Pope (by means of a biggest dick contest, of course), and the musician Prince acting as Lady Turbo's fairy godfather. It's all totally ludicrous and wonderful, as Turbitt slips between very simple drawings and close-ups to emphasize lurid, silly and weird gags.

In the follow-up, Lady Turbo's The Biggest #Loser, Turbitt takes her character to Hollywood after Pope Brent refuses to take her calls. Turbitt utilizes more extreme close-ups and makes more of an attempt to use naturalistic drawings (or at least recognizable caricatures) in this comic, as the likes of Mel Gibson and OJ Simpson show up as key characters. Turbo dubs herself "the biggest loser" for not being able to talk to her friend, turns to twitter for advice (with the likes of @slutdummy and @69mycat sound off, along with an ad for "The Biggest Loser" TV show that Turbo thanks is a statement aimed at her. After she lands in Hollywood, her character meets Gibson ("Shalom!") and is drawn in ever-increasing states of mouth-agape shock, with each drawing getting more exaggerated and funnier. The issue ends with her meeting OJ Simpson, going off to a bar with him and kissing him. Turbitt's comics are loud--her lettering gets huge when someone is shouting something, which is often. Most every page has a weird revelation that involves eyes bugging out or hair standing up straight.

In her most recent comic #FoodPorn, Turbitt combines the obnoxious tendency of people to take photos of their food at trendy restaurants, a number of gross drawings, and the quite literal interpretation of the comic's title to relate a series of scenes wherein a gross person makes delicious food, causing her to be filled with desire so overwhelming that it causes her to do engage in a variety of sexual acts. A gross-looking pizza parlor chef suddenly transforms into a hunk in her eyes when he makes the pizza, cradling her as he feeds her a slice of pepperoni. This is where Turbitt's exaggerations take central stage, especially when drawing her tongue.It either rolls out of her mouth like a carpet or whips out of her mouth like a weed-whacker, scooping up toppings from a taco maker. Every chapter is presaged by realistic drawings of the food to be seen, giving the reader ample warning as to what might come next: sushi placed strategically on her body for the sushi chef, ranch dressing on her face from Buffalo wings, a rendezvous with a toilet seat thanks to a bartender (in a truly disgusting, hilarious scene) and the one scene that leads to true love--getting a decent cup of coffee. This is the comic with the most consistently interesting drawing from Turbitt, given that every one of the gags has to be sold by her ability to draw exaggerated, lurid figures and poses. Turbitt's voice is a welcome one, part of a new generation of cartoonists who aren't afraid to focus on humor and their own personal takes on it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fantasy Minis: Gordon Harris, Evan Palmer

Let's take a look at some minis steeped in fantasy tropes:

Ainulindale, by Evan Palmer. This is an adaptation of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkein's The Silmarillion, which is Tolkein's lyrical creation myth story that begins with the god-figure Illuvatar and his creations the Ainur. One of the difficulties with The Silmarillion, and with this chapter in particular, is that it lacks the kind of world-building detail found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are also no characters with which we can learn more about what's going on slowly. Instead, Tolkein dumps a lot of abstract myth-making on the reader, making it a bit of a slog--especially since this material was released posthumously by his son Christopher and much of which was not entirely finished. Evan Palmer cleverly stepped in and turned the abstract into beautiful sequential images that trimmed as much of the text as possible and instead used pictures to explain the rising and falling musical themes of Illuvitar and his creations ("the offspring of his thought"). Paralleling the story of Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost, there arose one of the Ainur (Melkor) who chose to rebel against his creator. This chapter reveals how Illuvitar sought to try to discipline Melkor at first and attempted to convince him to participate in the themes of creation, but Melkor only sought to destroy everything put in front of him. Palmer's use of color really sells the story, as his blues and deep purples in depicting the Ainur when they're abstract make sense. Later, he uses a lot of silhouettes and simple but colorful character designs for the Ainur when they choose physical form, giving the comic a certain playfulness that the text lacks. About the only negative regarding this adaptation is that it probably needed to be three times as big to cover the full majesty of the story and Palmer's imagery; things feel a bit cramped as they stand. I'd love to see him try to adapt later chapters as well, especially the bits that are actually character-oriented.

The Secret Origin of the Dust Elves #1, by Gordon Harris. This beautifully-printed little mini is a hybrid of comics, prose and illustrated text. Harris is able to make that combination work because of a united aesthetic, with a midnight blue wash and matching decorative patterns that mark each prose page. It's a good strategy because at this stage, Harris is a better illustrator than he is a cartoonist. By that I mean that his panel-to-panel transitions are sometimes a bit stiff and his figures lack general fluidity of motion. Given that the first part of the book is a chase scene, this is a vital aspect of the work that's not quite up to snuff. That said, the illustrated prose is clever, in part because it signals a different kind of storytelling as part of the narrative. The story concerns the titular Dust Elves who are essentially resigning their position, only one of them gets noticed by one of the girls in whose room he sometimes travels. The problem is that she asks the questions "Where do they come from?", which apparently is the one question they cannot abide. So they sit down at a computer to write their "secret origin", which naturally turns out to be a lot of nonsense, before the issue ends. This section of the book is drawn as a comic, only instead of using the warm, handwritten style of lettering, it uses a computerized font to mimic the artificial nature of what they're writing on the computer. The wash here is purple, perhaps to indicate purple prose. It's a highly effective and funny metastory, and one can sense that Harris will continue to make it even sillier as the issues go on.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Three From The Triangle: Adam Meuse, M.R. Trower, Jenny Zervakis

One of the reasons I helped create DICE (Durham Indie Comics Expo) was to spotlight the interesting and diverse range of cartooning talent that's emerged here in what's known as The Triangle portion of North Carolina (Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill). Mineshaft of course publishes out of Durham, and there are long-time cartooning veterans like Eric Knisley (a DICE co-organizer), Kevin Dixon, Mark McMurray and many others. Here, I thought I'd spotlight the work of three cartoonists who had these comics available at DICE last November.

Roh and Eik, by M.R. Trower. Trower is a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and these comics reveal a young cartoonist with an interesting point of view who is rapidly developing. Roh was student work (done in Paul Karasik's class) and there's a lot here that makes that plain. Trower works too small in this comic, with a number of scenes lessened in terms of emotional impact because Trower tried to cram too much onto one page. This is unfortunate, because their linework is quite excellent, with an expressive quality that matches deft draftsmanship along with a fluid understanding of panel-to-panel transitions. Roh follows a high school girl who was born with frog-like creatures who's treated as a freak by her peers, teachers and parents. Only a P.E. coach (herself an "other" because the students think she's a lesbian) see Roh's potential as a track star on the hurdles. I thought that was a nice touch, adding a clever real-life use of her frog-related abilities. When Roh is told to dissect a frog in class or else, she rebels against the teacher, principal and even her parents, who want her to have "the surgery". All of this is, of course, a pretty clear metaphor for queer issues in general and transgender issues in particular. The latter half of the book gets a bit messy, as Roh runs away from home, meets a soul mate, and then encounters an actual demon in human form that tries to kill them. When Roh saves them both, they are provided a deux ex machina out of their entire existence: the opportunity to live on another world where everyone is "strange". This was clearly a wish-fulfillment scenario, one that came out of nowhere, and it took what was an emotionally wrenching and powerful story and gave it an easy way out.

Eik, finished in early 2013, is a more nuanced and interesting story that touches on similar themes. The story once again opens in a school, with a figure named Eik who's a sort of anthropomorphic set of geometric shapes, running for their life. Chased by a mob of slightly different shapes and patterns, they manage to escape underground. From there, Trower takes us on a tour of Eik's world, where children are allowed to change their shapes only up until a certain age, when that shape must harden into a societally-acceptable form that directly informs their role. Be it labor, enforcement or simply "filler", once you line up and take your form, there's no going back. Eik's dilemma was realizing that they were due to become part of the "martyr" class, whose members could help "beat back enemies of society by participating in a noble suicide mission". Trower's work is all about subverting the idea of binaries, fixed roles and the societal pressure that demands this sort of conformity, and Eik's world proved to be a more flexible way of exploring this metaphor than Rho. When Eik literally goes underground and is given a variety of choices that include isolation, surrender and confrontation, they choose confrontation. That leads to a battle with self that results in a sort of blossoming that transforms the whole of society, but not without personal cost. It's an ending that has a utopian quality, only this time it's one where society is transformed instead of escaped. The cartooning is uniformly excellent, as the vagueness of the characters' forms allows Trower a lot of room to invent their own set of cultural norms that are still closely tied to ours. The clear linework is dazzling, especially in the sequences where Eik is trying to negotiate pipes underwater and the populace is transformed; indeed, there seems to be just a touch of the Fort Thunder aesthetic to be found in those pages, only with far greater use of spotting blacks. In these two comics, Trower's already shown an interesting use of genre tropes for metaphors related to identity and oppression and has demonstrated an impressive set of cartooning skills. They promise to be an ambitious and challenging artist as their work continues to mature from a storytelling perspective.

Strange Growths #16, by Jenny Zervakis. John Porcellino has long listed Zervakis as an inspirational figure for his comics; in fact, he will be publishing a collection of her work for his Spit-and-a-Half distro in the near future. It's easy to see why Zervakis, whose output has been greatly slowed in the past decade because of family and work, was such an important figure for Porcellino and others interested in comics-as-poetry in the 90s. In her most recent issue of her series Strange Growths, Zervakis focuses on drawings of her environment, her children, her pets and the simple implications of everyday life and everyday sensory experience. Take "Winter Wonderland", for instance. This is a simple story about a rare snow day in Durham, one that she and her daughters took advantage of by making a trek to the local college campus. With great precision, Zervakis describes the feeling of the air and environment around her. With her scratchy and grey-scaled imagery, she depicts how alien the landscape became covered in snow and ice, most of all getting at the stillness and sense of magic that all three felt.

Zervakis' comics also have a warmth to them thanks to a creator not afraid to fully express her emotions without worrying about a particular kind of payoff or a potential lapse into sentiment. In "I Am Thankful For Betty The Dog", Zervakis transforms a simple story about a lost dog with health issues into an examination of her family structure, the emotional development of her older daughter, and her own feelings when that dog reappears again as though by magic. "Postcards From Ripley's Aquarium" shows the artist ilustrating the weirdness of aquatic creatures, using a fat line and lots of black in a manner that captured something essential about these animals. There's a crude beauty in Zervakis' line; it's not quite as refined as Porcellino, but there's a sense of immediacy and even urgency in the way that she draws her stories, her dreams and the observations of both her children and herself. This is a must-read for any fan of this kind of thoughtful, reserved sort of storytelling.

White Cards, by Adam Meuse. Meuse was a revelation for many at DICE, because while he's fairly well known locally, this hilarious cartoonist doesn't have much of a national profile. The out-of-towners who saw his witty, absurd and frequently filthy cartoons were impressed. While he generally works with a simple and uncluttered line, there's actually a great deal of studied clarity and simplicity to be found in his work that clearly came after a great deal of thought. In White Cards, comics that Meuse drew at work to stave off boredom for him and his co-workers, the opposite was true. These are totally off-the-cuff, disgusting and hilarious gag strips involving him and his co-workers Heather, Tracy and Curtis. They are frequently violent, scatological, sexual and wholly inappropriate. My favorite part of the book was a series of cartoons involving Tracy having a sexual relationship with a giraffe that gets every bit out of this possibility as one can imagine, including a giraffe's neck/cunnilingus joke that had me rolling. Meuse excised the cartoons that were too in-jokey and provides all the necessary information needed to enjoy each series of jokes. Mostly, he expertly captures that sense of frustration and mind-numbing boredom that can lead to shared moments like this, where there's that one co-worker who does something to make one's day more exciting. Meuse just happened to be that co-worker, who was fueled by their interactions to create something memorable.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Beautiful Darkness

The week in off-beat fairy tales and other weird stories focuses on an actual fairy tale: Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet's Beautiful Darkness. Described by some as "Thumbelina meets Lord of the Flies", the book has a take-no-prisoners approach in coldly examining an environment in a manner that elicits gasps. One gets the sense that the authors took great delight in subverting reader expectation on every page as they raised the stakes on what kind of horrible and/or horrifying event they could cook up next. Vehlmann's best known English translation was the Jason-illustrated book Isle of 100,000 Graves, while Keraskoet is the illustration duo comprised of Marie Pommepuy and Sebastien Cosset, best known to English-speakers as the artists behind the lurid Miss Don't-Touch-Me series.

The book starts with one of the most terrifying and yet hilarious fake-outs ever. The kind fairy girl Aurora is aided by her friend Plim to help her impress the Prince who has come to visit her for tea and cake. That first page of interactions couldn't be any more steeped in stereotypical modern children's fairy tropes. If you've ever seen the Australian TV show The Fairies, you'll know precisely what I'm talking about. When something red drips from the ceiling into the cup and the ceiling itself caves in, the focus pulls back and there's chaos and mayhem everywhere as the host body for the fairies falls down dead. She's a little girl who dies in the middle of a forest for unknown reasons, but all of the creatures living inside of her must react to her death, one way or another.

This is a reverse-quest book in that it starts with a large cast that is slowly winnowed-down as the book proceeds. While there's plenty of unexpected gore and violence (a cat comes in the night to prey upon the fairy camp, a toad eats the Prince, a fairy who was part of a group of triplets gets dragged off to an ant hill), it's the character interaction that proves to be far more cruel and horrifying. Hierarchies based on little more than intimidation and personal charisma form to subvert the fairy utopia Aurora worked tirelessly to create, one that would end with her marrying the Prince. Her basic sense of kindness blinds her to the machinations of others, like the vain and cold-hearted Zelie. The authors suggest that some of the fairies correspond to potential aspects of their host who just died; Zelie bears a striking resemblance to a doll she carried, for example, and Aurora is the name of the company on a notebook she carried. While most of the fairies took to the forest and tried to negotiate a life with the animals therein, one fairy is unwilling to depart the corpse. In a series of scenes that start off as revolting (the fairy eats the maggots now inhabiting the decaying host body in a visceral fashion) and wind up as sad and pathetic, as she starts to dream that she was the girl and later finds herself quite isolated in the girl's eyesockets, shivering and afraid.

Seeing characters betray each other and seek to gain an advantage over each other at a moment's notice, as I mentioned earlier, is the truly disturbing characteristic of this book. The character of Plim embodies this sort of feckless self-advancement, as he is content to be lead thug for Zelie after bullying and intimidating any number of other characters into doing work for him or taking what's theirs. It takes a while for Aurora to learn that the others view her leadership as a benign organizer as a kind of joke when they all betray her affection for the Prince, leading her to leave. When the feckless fairies manage to find her safely snug in the cabin of a human, it looks like the pattern is going to repeat itself as Zellie installs herself as being in charge and immediately sets upon finding punishments for Aurora. Aurora ponders leaving this all behind but returns not because she has no other choice, but because the clever and industrious fairy has a plan. When she takes advantage of the fact that the other fairies believe her to be oblivious and overly trusting, Aurora leads them to a final fate that's fitting for them and for her, as the starry-eyed dreamer winds up finding her prince after all, after a fashion. Only in a fairy-tale such as this can such a brutal and vicious ending be construed as a happy one.

Visually, Kerascoet plies beautiful water colors on top of simply-rendered and cute characters. This makes the scenes of death, decay and violence all the more jarring. That's especially true when they visually reference stories like The Borrowers or The Wind In The Willows to give a sense of what happens when these tiny creatures meet actual forest predators and their desires. Even saintly Aurora is not immune to fits of violence, as when she claws the eyes out of a mouse who had betrayed her with her tiny, needle-like nails. That scene establishes her understanding of the forest as a place where one either adapts or gets killed and puts an end to her viewing herself as a benevolent, wise and admired figure and leads her to understand that there's a sucker born every minute--and that she's been a sucker. Without their mastery of the studied cuteness of each character and the subtle gradations in mood and emotion they express (the doll-like Zelie in particular is a masterpiece in terms of a character going from blank to malevolent with disarming speed), the narrative simply wouldn't work. Similarly, the final image of the book, when Aurora gets her happy ending, is that of the cabin in the snowy woods, a light blazing from a window. It's like something out of a pictorial depiction of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" or Norman Rockwell in the way it captures warmth, only the reader knows what lies beneath. Drawn & Quarterly certainly made sure that the visual impact of the book was not muted in its translation.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Oak

Max Badger's Oak is one of the last books that received a Xeric grant, and it was one of the worthier recipients to ever earn this honor. In addition to being a fine and assured debut comic, it's also one of the better all-ages fantasy comics I've ever read. Badger's figures are simple and fluid, with the unnamed orphan protagonist being an especially well-crafted character. The squarish head, the big dark eyes and the messy hair make him easy to follow across the page. Badger keeps things simple with him in order to make it easy for him to depict the character in a variety of states and moods. Most of his character design follows suit, with more detailed backgrounds like forests, caves and a village detailed enough to almost feel and smell. He modulates tone with an extensive use of greyscaling and spotting blacks; he uses very little simple white negative space. This is important, because each panel has a sense of weight and solidity to it, grounding what is in reality a fantasy quest story into a mundane and humorously realistic stumble through the woods.

What makes this book so enjoyable is that it's a quest book only by accident and on the sly. It's book-ended by a classic fairy-tale trope: a tree begs a woodsman to spare it, and in return alerts him that Death is coming for them both. They set a trap for Death which doesn't work, but he's so impressed by their bravery that he grants them each a wish. The woodsman accepts his own death but wants his son to be spared. Death instead agrees to make him brave. The tree wants the boy to have his strength, so if he doesn't fear death, he'll at least be tough enough to deal with what comes with that attitude. We are then introduced to the orphan boy, whose fearlessness and toughness come into play in an almost naive fashion, as he helps to save a girl from humiliation.

From there, the narrative of the book is the boy trying to return to a certain spot so he can go on a date with the girl the next day. However, he keeps getting interrupted and going the wrong way. He first falls into the tomb of a king and talks the king's ghost into getting out of there. Then he encounters a huge, talking snake that wants to eat him, but in a long and hilarious chase scene with a number of twists and turns, the two become allies. He encounters a dead soldier's ghost and convinces her to turn away from revenge. An intelligent cloud decides to follow them around and be his pet. The orphan convinces each of his companions to abandon their quest, not join one, though they all agree to help him get home for their own reasons. Each of these supporting characters is rich and interesting enough to support a narrative of their own--some of them funny, some of them grim.

Badger cleverly ties up their story threads at the end of the book, when the orphan's return is to a town that's been taken over. What was a gentle, loping narrative suddenly becomes tense and exciting, as though the characters were called in from back stage to deal with a crisis. The book seems to end in tragedy, a fact that alarms the tree at the end of the book. As it turns out, Death visited the tree a few times to tell him more about the boy, and Badger cleverly outlines the fate of every character--with the orphan boy last. Oak is cleverly structured, funny and genuinely warm without being overly twee or treacly.  At 9 x 12' and in hardcover, Badger is smart to work as big as possible, letting his pages breathe and his characters fill up the page. Badger keeps the reader off-balance, slipping between action, slice of life character work, comedy and drama from scene to scene, and one gets the sense that he could work in any kind of genre and produce a work of similar quality. He's got all the tools needed to become an excellent and interesting cartoonist; it will simply be a matter of further refinement and continued inspiration.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Fata Morgana

Jon Vermilyea's expertise has always been mixing the grotesque and the mundane. Anthropomorphic slices of pizza drip cheese in a menacing and disturbing fashion, while anthropomorphic breakfast foods get into brutal fights.In Fata Morgana (presented in glorious color by Koyama Press), Vermilyea endeavors to create the sort of story that wouldn't be out of place with Toon Books or a generally adventurous children's book publisher. Maurice Sendak seems to be a clear influence here in this wordless story of a boy who gets out of bed, goes outside and sees his friend waiting for him--a little stone robot man. A forest full of trees with bulging eyes and heaps of goo inside of them await them, and each two-page spread reveals yet another adventure the two get mixed up in. Along the way, they pick up a number of companions, followers and fellow adventurers. At this point, the comic becomes a kind of game not unlike Highlights magazine's "Hidden Pictures" feature.

A "fata morgana" is a superior mirage, one that seems incredibly detailed and complex yet far-off. The book begins with him asleep and waking up to go out and ends with a mirror image of that original sequence, walking up to his house and waving to his friends and going to sleep. Is the book a Winsor McCay examination of dreams, or is a waking examination of one boy's imagination. The garden hose and mailbox are drawn with the same level of solidity as the anthropomorphic roast ham or pumpkin. Vermilyea gives no indication as to which world is real, and which world is the mirage but makes it clear that the events of the story are quite real to the boy. Each two-page spread opens up an epic's worth of storytelling possibilities: dodging a forest of gushing goo; escaping two gigantic monsters battling over a bridge; attending a big puppy's birthday party; riding the seas on a many-tentacled creature, etc. Along the way, there are even visual depictions of hurt feelings and fractured friendships, like one orange-and-purple adventure where the boy is having a great time but his stone friend is off sulking by himself. That's the sort of story where one would expect a moral at the end, only Vermilyea simply shuffles the reader off to yet another stunning two-page.

The boy may be in constant danger, but he's also very much in control of his own fate. It's hinted that he's clever and resourceful, and his ability to make weird friends helps him make the best of many dangerous situations. Life becomes a series of thrills that are made all the more wonderful because of his friends coming along with him. In that sense, the story is very sad, because it's about a boy who may not have any other siblings or friends of his own. In his fantasies, his toys come alive and become his friends--or perhaps a magical forest provides him with the friends he needs. However, this isn't a kid alone with his anger, like Max in Where The Wild Things Are. This isn't a kid who gets stuck in his blankets and falls off the bed, like Little Nemo. This is a kid whose imagination is such that it can only be sated by a series of adventures, each more bright and weird than the next, before he can rest. Visually, each two-page spread is an example of the illustration/cartooning hybrid that marks some children's literature. He invites the reader to carefully study each page in order to find each character and what they happen to be doing in each scenario, and also invites them to figure out who's new. Then there are some spreads, like one in which a group of starfish are engaged in an underground mining operation, where Vermilyea uses the page structure to depict dozens of mini-scenarios, as the reader flits from the "panels" created by the small caves in the mine. This is exquisite storytelling and becomes, in effect, a children's book aimed at adults. It may be too esoteric and complicated a book for children to follow; indeed, it requires leaps of logic and filling in narrative gaps in order to fully appreciate it. That said, it still manages to replicate the joys of reading this kind of story as a child without dumbing it down or drowning it in a sea of expository prose.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Reggie-12

Brian Ralph's Reggie-12 strips are interesting in that they are very much of the moment and anticipated the moment a good decade ahead of time. What I mean by that is that these strips started running in 2000 but were only collected (and added to in 2013), and this is a time period when the Fort Thunder/Highwater Books aesthetic started to dominate popular culture in surprising ways. When one considers shows like Adventure Time, there's no doubt that the work of folks like Ralph, Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale and James Kochalka had a huge influence on that show's aesthetic and attitude. Of this group, I think Ralph may be the biggest influence on this kind of fantasy storytelling, one that involves a total immersion in one's environment balanced against identifiable and active protagonists exploring that space. A book like Cave-In is sort of a master-class in that kind of storytelling.

Ralph is such a big influence because his work is a blend of accessibility and an uncompromising aesthetic. Part of that is his own blend of influences, including video games, Jack Kirby and general genre fiction. His status as a fan of that sort of work, at least as stuff that moved him growing up, gives him a remarkable amount of facility in telling that sort of story with his own aesthetic. That's true of Daybreak, for instance, a zombie story where one of the main characters is the reader. Reggie-12 is aimed more at kids as a send-up of anime and manga tropes, with Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy being the main target. The humor is frequently juvenile and scatological, but there are actual jokes with actual punchlines that are funny. Ralph isn't being raunchy in that sort of twee James Kochalka "Look at me! I said 'penis'!" kind of way; instead, his scatological jokes are well-constructed and funny to look at. Take the strip where Reggie-12's "waste fluid retention filter" didn't get changed and he starts to leak. When prompted on camera if it's like a diaper, the naive robot cheerfully says "Yes! It's very much like a diaper!" and follows that up by saying "You'd be surprised how often it needs changing". That latter panel has the reporter laughing out loud and another one laughing so hard that he's thrown his arms around Reggie. That's funny enough, but when another robot says "At least he didn't mention his posterior deflatulator", Ralph absolutely drives the joke home.

Drawn & Quarterly published the book in the best possible format. It's hardcover and oversized, all the better to allow the reader to fully engage in the level of detail and chicken fat Ralph throws into each panel. The single tone blue wash is attractive and helps provide needed contrast between the figures and their background; Reggie in particular is almost never in blue but instead is in crisp black & white. The comic features plenty of cute and funny drawings by Ralph, but it's always in a variation of his own cartoony style. One never gets the sense that he's dumbing down his drawing style to do this book; instead, he's simply focusing on a particular kind of drawing style (Tezuka, monsters, robots, etc) and playing it for laughs. While the jokes and gags are simple and the targets fairly broad and easy (this is a loving send-up, not a sharp satire), the level of craft Ralph applies to exploring environments or creating suspense in other comics is simply turned to thinking up as many jokes about Astro Boy, cats, scientists, labs, etc as possible. Ralph's storytelling chops and total mastery over his line and (most of all) page design enable to tell any kind of story with great efficacy, especially if it's a story that has kinetic storytelling possibilities.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales Week: Safari Honeymoon

I am kicking off a week of off-beat fairy tales, weird fantasy and strange sci-fi with Jesse Jacobs' Safari Honeymoon. If his book By This You Shall Know Him was Jacobs working at the macro level in detailing how the gods capriciously created the earth, then this book is all about the micro level of how a particular jungle environment works on an everyday basis and how it deals with intruders. There are three protagonists: a husband and wife on their honeymoon and their guide who protects them and feeds them on this "extreme" vacation. It is most certainly a riff on white colonial safaris in Africa as a symptom of colonial aggression, exploitation and ignorance. Jacobs lets the satirical implications of his story speak for themselves without hammering these themes home. Instead, he simply concentrates on the matter at hand: detailing a host of visceral, squirming, and frequently horrific forms of life that the trio must encounter. As per usual, his publisher, Koyama Press, spared no expense in making this book look beautiful.

Jacobs actually preceded this book with a mini called Young Safari Guide. In it, we meet the guide character as a younger man, as he details hunting one of the jungle's bizarre creatures and roasting it over a spit. To his horror, he realizes that the creature was pregnant and that her progeny were both multitude and voracious. Jacobs has the guide narrate his own story with a touch of officiousness, a distance  that heightens the weirdness of the story and contextualizes it with a colonial point of view. That satire becomes especially effective when the guide has to detail all of the gross details that go along with survival. It must also be said that Jacobs is simply great at thinking up different kind of monstrous organisms and how they might survive in a particular ecosystem.

Back to Safari Honeymoon, each of the three characters faces their own set of challenges. The husband is older and obviously a captain of industry of some kind, the sort of person who would relish putting up the head of a hunted animal up in his "condo". He knows all too well that his wife, a kind and curious sort, is far too good for him. While she's as complicit as he is in simply agreeing to go on this kind of trip and getting excited by all the action, she has a compassionate streak as well. The guide is matter-of-fact, super competent and doomed. In talking about the many parasites that inhabit the jungle, the guide notes that one of them jumped in his throat, ate his tongue and then locked itself in. However, it also gave him a heightened sense of taste, allowing him to become a gourmet chef. It's one of the funnier, grosser revelations in the book, but one that speaks to Jacobs' genuine curiosity and ingenuity in imagining as many species as possible and how they might thrive. At one point, the guide has to beat the husband around the head in order to dislodge one parasite and then asks them if they've been wearing their butt plugs at night.

Jacobs draws his environments and creatures with a level of neurotic detail that is overwhelming at times. There are also pages consisting of nothing more than taxonomic drawings of plants, animals and meals prepared, telling a story within a story of how many millions of lifeforms there are that humans cannot perceive. Jacobs' intent for the reader does seem to be to overwhelm them at first but also force them to take a closer look at the drawings in order to really see what's there. Take the cover, for instance. It's meant to look like the couple are kissing in a clearing shaped like a skull. Focus on any particular strip of the "head", and one can see a number of clearly delineated creatures, each one constructed in that looping, spiky and tentacled style that Jacobs favors. Jacobs heightens this contrast by drawing his human characters as simply as possible; except in the case of extreme close-ups, they don't look like more than stick figures. Nude, they look even more distorted, with huge legs and squat torsos. That makes them look less substantial and real than the creatures and plant life surrounding them--especially given Jacobs' use of a light green monotone. When even the badass guide proves to be susceptible to the jungle's many predators, the couple must find ways to adapt or else become victims themselves. Jacobs subverts jungle fantasy tropes by presenting just how precarious life is in the wild without the virtue of a total technological advantage and details that the only way out is to understand how the dominant species manages to adapt. The couple gets their happy ending, but only because they were forced to change.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Tribute: Paul Joins The Scouts

Each of the loosely-autobiographical volumes of Michel Rabagliati's Paul series tends to fold itself around a particular theme or phase of development. The Song of Roland is all about the acceptance of death. Paul Goes Fishing is about finding one's way in life as well as struggling with trying to create new life. Paul Moves Out is about becoming an adult. However, his newest book, Paul Joins The Scouts (the second volume published by Conundrum Press) doesn't seem to have a particular theme or goal in mind for most of the book. There's a subplot about growing up in 1970 Montreal and dealing with the reality of the Quebec separatist terrorist group the FLQ kidnapping members of the government, but that ultimately proves to be a red herring. There's a running subplot about a first romance for Paul, but that's not the meat of the story either. There's yet another subplot about Paul taking up cartooning, but that's somewhat integrated into his general development as a person through the Scouts. It's not til the gut-punch of an ending that we learn why Rabagliati has chosen to spend so much time talking about the significance of joining the Scouts, the boys he made friends with in his cohort of six, and the Scoutmasters who were kind to him. Rabagliati is paying tribute to their presence in his life at that time and mourning their absence, both their literal absence as well as the way it inexorably shaped his life, one that would become far more tumultuous in just a few years.

As is his wont, Rabagliati begins the book with a page filled with the mysterious image of a sneaker hanging in a tree, with smoke blowing by it. When that image is reprised later in the book, its meaning becomes instantly clear, especially with regard to why Rabagliati chose to open the book in such a manner. Rabagliati is such a powerfully effective storyteller because of his knack for using nonverbal clues to set up each book's events in short order. In the first ten pages of the book, we see Paul as a carefree teen, idling moments away in a park with a kite. Then we meet the girl who would become his love interest as the initial sparks are laid out in the form of a casual conversation fraught with meaningful body language. Walking home, we see separatist graffiti on a storefront wall. Then the reader is introduced to Paul's family and the tense dynamic between his mother and her mother-in-law, who lives in the apartment across from theirs and demands an "open-door policy". Just like that, an entire book's worth of characters and character interactions is neatly and seamlessly introduced in Rabagliati's attractive, clear-line style. 

After every subplot and character is swiftly introduced, they get moved to the background so Rabagliati can concentrate on telling Paul's odyssey as a Scout. He delves deep into the stories of each of the three Scoutmasters. One is gay (and has a boyfriend jealous of the time he puts into scouting, which is the one time the matter of pedophilia is raised), another is a working stiff he lives to provide direction for the young, and a junior scoutmaster is a college student interested in radical politics. It's those politics that provide a tenuous link to the FLQ and their increasingly violent methods and give the reader a sense of suspense while reading the story. However, that suspense is less important than the loving detail Rabagliati gives to Paul's first camping trip. Other than the gravity of having to camp outside in the open by himself for one night, there's no dramatic tension in this sequence. It's simply a collection of character sketches and bonding rituals that detail how much being a Scout came to mean to Paul, and by extension how much the members of his troop came to mean to him. Rabagliati depicts the occasional personality clash, but it's nothing on the scale of something like Mike Dawson's Troop 142. There's simply a tremendous amount of warmth in Rabagliati's depiction of Scout life, and he depicts this as an unambiguous positive in Paul's life during the same period where he has his first love and discovers how much he loves to do comics. That he has so much of this yanked from under him at the end leads to a downbeat denouement. The resolution of his mother's feud with his grandmother is equally tragic in its own way; their inability to co-exist robs Paul of that intimate family connection (even if it' with good reason). The final, silent pages of the book are Rabagliati's tribute to his fellow Scouts, each one its own powerful image. Rabagliati has been accused by some of being emotionally manipulative and sentimental. While that can be true at times because of his tight control over the emotional content of his stories, I see him as earning the right to draw out that emotion from readers with carefully-laid details that allow the reader to take each character as they are, both positive and negative, and see them as fully fleshed-out human beings. It's easy to feel moved by the triumphs and tragedies in a Rabagliati book because of his genuine sincerity and his skill at painting complex portraits of each character, not the least of which is his own stand-in.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Best of the Best: R.Crumb: The Weirdo Years

If a reader unfamiliar with Robert Crumb's work were to ask for a single volume in order to get a sense of his best work, the new collection from Last Gasp, R.Crumb: The Weirdo Years would be my pick. Sure, it doesn't have any of the 60s material or characters like Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat or the Snoid, but it also lacks the more juvenile, misogynistic and nihilistic material that marked his work in the early to mid 1970s. One gets a sense that Crumb got sober and started taking stock of his career after it was briefly affected by fame, battles in court and a brush with the IRS.This material was previously reprinted across volumes fourteen through seventeen of The Complete Crumb Comics, published by Fantagraphics. Of course, those volumes also had a number of the Crumb/Harvey Pekar collaborations, as well as material appearing in other magazines like Zap and lots of ephemera. Those volumes are also far more precise in telling you precisely where and when each story was published, whereas the Last Gasp volume simply lays it all out there in roughly chronological order. The Last Gasp edition is more about preserving the flavor of the Crumb contributions from the actual issues of the seminal Weirdo anthology, and includes things like the bizarre fumetti that Crumb staged with various of his friends. The result is a heady brew of some of Crumb's best and most controversial stories.

Crumb, perhaps influenced by working with working-class Pekar, started to branch out and adapt selected works of literature and science. Naturally, he picked out the dirtiest and weirdest parts he could, like in his amusing adaptation of Samuel Johnson's journal. To be fair, that journal had plenty of filthy parts, as he discussed getting a venereal disease from a woman he thought was virtuous, the unsatisfying nature of having sex with a prostitute in the park and having a crazy threesome in an inn. Crumb's line is lush and even a little fuzzy in these stories, eschewing the harsher edges he reserved for more neurotic stories. That's true of his adaptation of an interview with the author Phillip K. Dick, wherein he goes into great detail about his years-long religious experience/psychotic breakdown in amazing detail, including a bizarre premonition about a birth defect in his infant son. Here, Crumb turns up the hallucinatory nature of his art in illustrating Dick's visions, all while keeping the drawing naturalistic. Another highlight is his adaptation of Kraft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis, a book of case studies of assorted sexual disfunctions. Of course, at the time, that include being an "invert" (or homosexual), and those cases (and more to their point) have a tragic quality. Then there's the kid who was hopelessly attracted to rabbits, or the man who could only have sex with his wife if she wore a wig, or the sadist who didn't understand what the big deal was when his activities came to light in court. These stories are Crumb at his best: witty, intellectually curious and fun to look at.

The stories featuring his character Mode o'Day are some of my favorites. Mixing in the model/actress wannabe title character, her sleazy anthropomorphic dog friend Doggo, and a cast of hipsters, coke fiends, art snobs and other attractions of Los Angeles, these comics are both some of his funniest and some of his sharpest in terms of satire. It helps that Crumb seems to genuinely like Mode as a character, even as he mocks her social-climbing ways. She's at least more tolerable than those she encounters, something that Crumb tends to note when he gives her self-awareness at times. The strip about Mode being roped into "helping" a restaurant is especially funny and felt like Crumb leaned on someone else's story to get some of the details of how hellish it can be to run a restaurant. Speaking of satire, Crumb's parody of Omaha The Cat Dancer ("Wichita The Rat Dancer") is amazingly on point, ruthless and hilarious. His retelling of Goldilocks from a modern, "punk" perspective is also amusing, as he attacks what he sees as a sense of entitlement while also secretly admiring the energy and insolence of the young.

Crumb's autobio is also outstanding. Stories like "I Remember the Sixties" and "I'm Grateful, I'm Grateful" see Crumb taking the piss out of both himself and his entire generation, as he especially takes on his own whiny narrative voice in the latter. "Footsy" talks about the beginnings of his fetish for legs and feet in junior high school and how much pleasure he was actually able to gain from these encounters. "Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis" is perhaps the strongest piece in the book. Crumb takes stock of his life and his persona as a "famous" cartoonist, worrying that he's lost his edge and ability to be creative. He spills a lot of metaphorical ink on this page, getting into the nitty-gritty of his feelings about being married, being a new father again, and his still-unquenched lust. Unlike the fictional pieces in this volume that explore his misogynist, violent fantasies through a thinly-veiled alter ego, Crumb is honest here and talks about those desires that excite him and create feelings of repulsion both for himself and the women he does them to. Crumb always cops to how base his desires are and never tries to justify them, though he doesn't ever try to change them either. "Memories Are Made Of This" is a good example, as it details an encounter with a dancer when he was married. He has nothing but contempt for her and thinks only of how he might get her to lower her standards and have sex with him.

That brings us to the last piece in the book, the infamous "When The Niggers Take Over America!" This piece of trenchant satire has been appropriated by hate groups as a noble example of fighting against the dangers of non-white races, much to Crumb's horror. It is clear that this piece is meant to play on the worst fears and excesses of white America in imagining a plot by African-Americans (pushed along, of course, by Jews, the second part of the piece) to systematically destroy and enslave white Americans. This fear, spoken out loud, is at the core of much of the opprobrium hurled at President Obama today and Crumb dug down deep to generate every frightening image he could conceive to carry the piece. The problem with the story is that it's perhaps a bit too convincing in the sense that part of Crumb (perhaps through his upbringing) believed some aspects of his satire. After all, he still refers to African-Americans as "negroes" throughout this book, and it's not for irony's sake. Bob Levin noted Crumb occasionally using casual anti-Semitic language in his article about Crumb and his former lawyer Albert Morse in The Comics Journal #302. He writes about how young black men terrify him, and Doggo is also demonstrably uncomfortable walking in a "bad" part of town in stories in this collection. Fear is born out of ignorance, and it's clear that rather than being an overt racist, Crumb's lack of exposure to people of color outside of an entertainment context left him susceptible to this kind of emotive response. The text itself is clearly satire, but the subtext (especially the way in which Crumb gleefully draws the most hateful, stereotypical portraits of African Americans and Jewish people possible) is such that intent is much more difficult to parse. Like in his comics about women where he admits that he's a misogynist in terms of what he chooses to draw and how he chooses to act out his desires, these comics reveal Crumb as someone inadvertently admitting to and struggling with racist attitudes inculcated long ago.

There's no doubt that Crumb remains one of our greatest cartoonists. His craftsmanship here is impeccable as he tries a variety of different kinds of styles, line weights, narrative approaches and storytelling techniques. Weirdo was all about letting loose and letting the chips fall where they may, which might as well summarize Crumb's career after the influence of S.Clay Wilson's violent and misanthropic id-fueled comics. Wilson's stance was that a cartoonist should never self-censor and put it down on the page no matter how awful the thought. Of course, the questions that Crumb and Wilson never asked were: "Just because I can say something, should I say something? And if I do, should I examine why I said it? Does being 'honest exempt me from criticism?" Crumb certainly shows moments of self-reflection in this book, but not so much that it would actually cause him to change anything regarding his method. Instead, they fall into the kind of self-doubt and depression that has afflicted him from time to time. In a way, it's hard to blame Crumb for not being more self-critical; this approach has worked for him for a long time, and it's obvious he's made a number of highly successful works of cartoon art. Still, I think Crumb's career-long fixation on his basest obsessions has limited him in certain ways. Young cartoonists would do well to emulate his work ethic, skill and lack of self-censorship and then stop there without also absorbing Crumb's narcissism and habits. Of course, the last thing Crumb would ever want to be is a role model; he's never made excuses for his excesses, but he's never apologized for them either. What remains is a body of work that must be closely picked over, studied, enjoyed and critically examined (for good or ill) by those who seek to learn from it.