Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reflections on SPX 2017

I've been writing SPX reports for a good fifteen years now. I've been involved in the show in a number of capacities: as a writer making sense of it, as a presenter of an Ignatz award, as a moderator of numerous panels, and as the first guest-curator for the Library of Congress' sweep of the show for new material. This year marked the first time I've actually stepped behind the curtain, as it were, and joined the staff in the capacity of co-programming director.

As such, this report will be more personal and less about the nuts and bolts of the show itself. What I will say about that is the staff, to a person was outstanding to work with. I've long had a warm relationship with Executive Director Warren Bernard, and he was delightful to work with. There were over ninety volunteers at the show this year, and we had wave after wave of helpful individuals who worked the doors of the rooms for panels, keeping lines in tidy order. They were there to instantly fix A/V issues. They were there to head off problems before they escalated. Most of all, co-programming director Dan Mejia was an outstanding partner to work with. Together, we nailed down an ambitious programming track and got it to run smoothly. All of the feedback we've received so far has been immensely positive.

I was very happy with all of the moderators this year, but let me single out a few. J.A. Micheline was a first-timer whom I trusted to pitch something interesting, and she did not disappoint. Her "Architecture Of A Page", featuring SPX star Tillie Walden, Sloane Leong, Chris Kindred, and Iasmin Omar Ata, was a smash hit. It was standing room only and drew raves for the way the artists dissected their work and Micheline directed the panel. Another first-timer, L.Nichols moderated "Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism", a panel I conceived of and chose the guests for. This was another SRO event, and everyone dug deep. Yet another first-time moderator, Whit Taylor, did a great job with "World Building From Reality", even subbing in a new guest when one had to drop out at the last second.

I moderated two panels. First was the 10th Anniversary of Koyama Press panel, with Annie Koyama herself, Ben Sears, Eleanor Davis, Hannah K. Lee, Dustin Harbin, and Patrick Kyle. I skipped over the stuff most people knew about and went straight to asking Annie about the nuts and bolts of publishing: her criteria for choosing her books, how it's changed over the years, and the astoundingly non-bottom-line oriented nature of how she runs her business. My favorite segment of the panel was when I asked the artists what their favorite Koyama book was, and Sophia Foster-Dimino's brand-new Sex Fantasy was tabbed by two of the artists. That eventually led to a hilarious back-and-forth between Harbin, Lee and Davis. If you're running programming and you have the opportunity to include any or all of that trio, you should jump on it. Notably, after the panel, Annie told me that Sex Fantasy immediately sold out.

I concluded the show with a panel I designed called "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness", featuring Keiler Roberts, Tyler Cohen, Luke Howard and Summer Pierre. That's a group whose work I know so well that I essentially wrote the questions five minutes before the panel began. Each brought a different perspective: Roberts as someone with bipolar disorder, Howard as someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother and eventually inherited the same mental illness, Cohen as someone raising her daughter as far away from toxic patriarchal attitudes as possible yet dealing with her own upbringing and the influence of the greater culture; and Pierre as someone dealing with the aftereffects of PTSD and a childhood of neglect. They were all so funny and forthright and willing to engage with each other and any topic. This was perhaps the most satisfying panel I've ever moderated.

A few words about the Ignatz awards. Typically, the response to programming and the way the Ignatz votes turn out tends to be a good way to take the pulse of the show. As I've written so many times, there's always been a rather stark divide between audiences at the show, roughly breaking down into an art comics vs genre comics split that manifested in print vs webcomics for quite some time. However, the last five years have seen that split slowly dissipate in many respects. A show that started off more diverse than most was still decidedly white, straight and male for many years. The gender divide was the first barrier to fall, but the show has steadily become younger, more diverse, more female and queerer every single year. The Ignatz awards are a tail-end indicator rather than a leading indicator, as it reflects the time it takes for a particular demographic to become part of the show's culture. Another way to think about the show is to look at the anthologies that debut there. More than ever, the artists making up the anthologies blur every kind of divide, be it on the art comics side or the genre side of things. Increasingly, there are more artists who straddle that divide as well. Young artists increasingly simply see all of comics as something they want to experiment with and don't feel the need to choose between memoir, genre comics, comics as poetry, etc. Many are doing it all, and mixing and matching in very interesting ways.

The wins by Bianca Xunise (Promising New Talent), Taneka Stotts (Outstanding Anthology) and the team of Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh (Outstanding Collection) point to this generational shift rather dramatically. It wasn't just the wins, but the impassioned acceptance speeches. Stotts' speech was all about visibility for creators of color, and how they will continue to tell their stories no matter what. Hirsh told a great story about being a kid and coming to SPX to meet Jeff Smith, who spent a lot of time with him and gave him a lot of attention. Only later did it occur to Hirsh that he was the only brown kid there. Ota and Hirsh hit on the theme of being people of color in a subculture (and honestly, a country) where they have often been invisible. Same with Stotts. Xunise's story was about her experience with police brutality and reflected on how she doesn't just want such stories to be done by people of color. However, it was Ben Passmore (the only man to win on the night, incidentally) who truly brought the house down with his speech. He made reference to George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, as another brown man from New Orleans who drew comics about police brutality and brick throwing. He joked that he could have used the brick earlier in the day, when he was part of the Juggalo parade that was protesting a Trump rally. And at the end, he said, "In conclusion, fuck the police, free all prisoners, and fuck Trump!" as he walked off to thunderous applause.

As exhilarating and exhausting as the show itself is (and I never quite am able to make it to every table and see everyone that I want, no matter how much I prepare), it's the interactions after the show late at night on the patio that provide the most lasting memories. There was certainly a sense of metaphorically huddling for warmth at this show, given the horror show the nation has become, but there's also something else going on. The young artists who are coming to the show seem exceptionally focused on their craft, a testament to a new wave of cartoonists going to art school/cartoon school. It's also a testament to a generation that has had greater access to the entire history of comics than any generation that came before them, thanks to wide-ranging reprints and the internet. They've been simmering in a sea of influences for years, and you can see the result of that in the person of artists like Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. If you don't know the latter name from my minicomics reviews, you will know it soon in other places. If the history of alternative comics can be divided into undergrounds (1965-1980), alternatives (1981-1993), and DIY/Xeric (1994-2005), I get the sense that we're about to close one chapter of comics and open up another. I can't wait to see what it looks like.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ten Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2017

I will be attending SPX this weekend; as always, it will be in North Bethesda, MD. Be careful not to get tripped up by the Juggalo gathering. I was co-programmer this year, and there's a great slate. I'm personally moderating the Koyama Press 10th Anniversary panel on Saturday and one I've been thinking of a long time: Motherhood, Mental Illness and Memoir, which will be on Sunday. As always, I will be accepting comics for review and wearing a black hat.

1. Carta Monir. Her debut from 2dcloud, Secure Connect, was a remarkable exploration of trans identity & technology and the ways in which the latter both bridges and has the potential to obscure the former. She's at the vanguard of a group of artists whose drawing style, interest in futurism and frank explorations of sex and emotional development all converge in distinctive ways.

2. Tyler Cohen. Not a typical autobio cartoonist, her Primahood: Magenta mixed a highly unconventional and boundary-breaking account of being a mother along with depicting a tribe of surreal, distinctively crafted women whose ferocity nor nurturing ability was ever in question. Cohen writes a lot of hard truths about guiding a child as best as one can in a world still heavily controlled by patriarchal thinking.

3. Sophia Foster-Dimino. Koyama Press just released a collection of her Sex Fantasy minicomics, and this brick of a book is filled with stories that are layered, hot, personal, emotional, quirky and even poetic. Like many on her list, her style is familiar in some ways and sui generis in others.

4. Katie Fricas. Her intimate, intense scribbly style has an immediacy and expressiveness to it that makes it fascinating to read. She's also hilarious, often approaching the darkest of events with a penetrating and self-deprecating wit.

5. November Garcia. All the way from the Philippines, Garcia is a funny, frank, crude, and thoughtful humorist and memoirist with a visual style that seems simple but is actually conceptually complex and even rigorous at times. Her keen observational skills and sharp timing are on display both in longer narratives (Foggy Notions) and gag strips (Malarkey). She'll be with her publisher, Hic & Hoc.

6. Aaron Lange. Comics' #1 purveyor of filth is also one of its keenest minds, sharpest observers and poetic hearts. His Trim series in particular has plenty of dirty gags, but there are also thoughtful meditations on his family, scrupulously-researched biographical pieces, musings on art and culture, and warts-and-all accounts of his youth. It's all told with a lively, naturalistic line.

7. Mardou. Sacha Mardou has been doing some of the best slice-of-stories in comics for quite some time, but the first volume of her book Sky In Stereo is clearly the best work of her career. This is somehow her first SPX, and she'll be doing a panel and a workshop in addition to showing off her work.(Correction: this is her first SPX since 2005.)

8. Avery Hill Publishing. I've enjoyed the eccentric, poetic and understated releases from this British publisher making their first appearance at SPX. Publisher (and writer) Ricky Miller and publicist (and cartoonist) Katriona Chapman will also be there, along with Tillie Walden. The two-time Ignatz award winner will be at her first SPX as well, and while her big book Spinning was just released by First Second, it was Avery Hill that took a chance and published her first three books. Check out Miller and Julia Scheele's Metroland, and anything by Simon Moreton.

9. Radiator Comics. This is Neil Brideau's new venture, and the Chicagoan is publishing and distributing all kinds of interesting comics. A few are directly published by Radiator, like Coco Picard's The Chronicles of Fortune. Chicago is one of the greatest of all comics cities, and Radiator has an interesting cross section of them. Sam Sharpe, Penina Gal, Luke Howard, Cara Bean and Coco Picard will be at the table this year.

10. Summer Pierre. In a very short amount of time, Pierre has become one of my favorite memoirists, thanks to the strength of her writing and the versatile quality of her art. From quotidian observations to life as an artist and mother to grappling with her own personal demons, Pierre's comics are beautiful and endlessly fascinating.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fantagraphics: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

With My Pretty Vampire, rising star Katie Skelly has a book that matches up her exquisite color sense, delightfully lurid sense of humor, eye for style and aesthetics and acidly satirical, feminist take on gothic/horror tropes. Skelly's eye for page design and layout have always had a lot more in common with French fantasy comics and manga as well as a number of delightfully trashy horror & exploitation films than any American comics. While dialogue is important, it's her arrangement of images (and in this book, colors) that are essential to the narrative. The opening pages, which turn out to be a dream sequence, wind up establishing and foreshadowing much of the action in the rest of the book. It starts with a bouquet of flowers, then zooms in a rose bloom that's dripping blood. A beautiful, half-naked girl licks up the blood, briefly revealing the teeth of a vampire. When she comes upon a half-naked corpse, she finds that it's her own body, dripping blood, prompting her to wake up from the dream.

The rest of the first chapter serves two purposes, narrative and aesthetic: establishing who she is, why she's there and her intent of escape; and long, lingering shots of her bathing, swimming and generally serving as an erotically-charged object of the gaze of her brother, who acts as a stand-in for the reader in that sense. We learn that she's a vampire who's been held captive in her brother's house for her own "protection", even going to school. Whatever noble intentions he may have are undermined by a shot of him watching her bathe through a peephole, establishing that no one in this book has the moral high ground. Clover, the titular vampire, is hungry from years of drinking ox blood but manages to escape. Switching from day to night, Skelly immediately embraces the night, with Clover's shining golden hair drawing the reader's eye into every panel where she's scurrying around at night.

In a horror-exploitation story like this, nudity is certainly expected, but so is violence and gore. Skelly does not skimp in the latter department either, beginning with her biting a trucker who is actually worried about her being underage. Skelly uses an interesting narrative device here, as she shifts to first person narrative captions that are so specific to her memories of what it was like to be a vampire that she barely acknowledged the personhood of the driver. Skelly adds a few more layers to the narrative as we meet a vampire hunter tasked to find her as well as a vampire cult who helped to create her. Skelly is careful not to overwhelm the story's imagery with too much plot, however--just enough to add some shade and structure to the story. Instead, both story and imagery intensify as the story goes on, as Clover hits the big city.

There's a great scene, after she's dodged sunlight and recharged herself with a new victim, where she stares into the window of a restaurant. Instead of starving for the food they were eating, she was starving for the blood they possessed--a clever image, as her hands dripped with blood. She allows herself to get picked up at a bar and then goes to a house party that quickly turns both erotically charged and bloody. We then get a flashback which reveals that her brother deliberately had her turned into a vampire by a vampiric order in order that "the one you love will never die". It's a creepy, incestuous gesture, made more so by the fact that she was underage. The same is true of the man who picked her up, as she was even wearing a school uniform when he started to hit on her. Even in a scene where she's actually having fun with a woman who's seducing her, her actual lusts come to the fore. Echoing the beginning of the book's dream, a half-naked Clover dripping blood from her mouth slowly and blankly eyes the other guests at the party as the objects they are for her.

The book's climax finds Clover, the vampire hunter and the order all converging at once. While her threat to society at large is neutralized, the ending has a tantalizing bit of karmic payback for her brother. It's a classic morally muddled ending to this kind of story, where there may be protagonists but there are no heroes. There are only competing urges, and Skelly's ending finds Clover with the kind of agency that she had been denied by her wholly unpleasant brother. Indeed, words like "love" and concepts like empathy have little meaning given the way her brother tried to control her and instead helped to create an amoral monster. The way Skelly slowly unveils increasing moral ambiguity in her characters escalates at the same time that style, fashion, sex and violence also become increasingly important to the story. Striking that note between lurid and stylish feels like what Skelly's career has been leading up to, and she was greatly aided in the undertaking by Keeli McCarthy's striking cover design. From the logo design meant to invoke 60s psychedelia (complete with a drop of blood bulging down from one of the letters, the color shifting from yellow-orange to red) and the ecstatic, half-naked Clover on the cover, blood dripping from her lips, it's a perfect composition that finds the eye bouncing from the title to the figure and back again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Secret Acres: Michiel Budel's Francine

Francine is a continuation of Michiel Budel's Wayward Girls series, focusing on the titular character and her friends. It's hard to pin down. It's got underage sex and nudity, but it's not at all erotic. Indeed, despite the scores of panty shots, its surreal quality and the intense agency of its female characters disrupt the male gaze. Katie Skelly compared Budel to the Russian artist Balthus and others have compared him to Henry Darger in his use of pubescent girls in fantasy, dreamlike scenarios. Somehow, Budel's work is even less prurient despite its more explicit nature, owing in part to obliterating the mystery of sexuality and removing its fantasy aspects. Indeed, sex and female friendships are the only truly "real" thing in these comics, which go in some odd directions as social and political commentary.

Mostly, the strips (originally published as "Franzine" minis) are comedy pieces; absurd, over-the-top satires of family life and the "dangers" of having strong-willed children. Much of the book centers around the swimming pool she builds out of spare parts, the sleazy pool boy who's fucking her mom, her various friends (each of a different faith), and assorted schemes she concocts to get out of doing school work. Francine's adversarial relationship with her young mother (who pretty much looks almost as young as Francine does) is another important aspect of the book, as Francine steals her boyfriend in one sequence. She does it more to piss her off than because she wants to have sex with him. That pales in comparison to what she does to Bully Girl, who was mean to her Muslim friend Gishlaine: she follows her home, caves her head in with a baseball bat and buries her in her front yard! It only gets weirder from there as she has to move the body (with the help of Gish), confront Bully Girl's mother) and then discover that Bully Girl is somehow still alive but missing her memories.

Francine later fakes her own death in order to avoid an art history test, only to find that her friends can no longer see her. She sacrifices the pool boy to Satan (but not the real Satan!) in another strip. The pool boy and another boy fight over her pool while Fran is paralyzed, ejaculating on a sandwich as a way of settling who gets in first. My favorite story was "Generation French Fries", in which an anthropology project leads to Francine, Githlaine and the waspy girl next door, Annet, all switching identities. Fran becomes Annet, who gets excited because she her mom gives her money to eat food at the snack bar near the house (because her mom was fooling around with Pool Boy again). After Fran/Annet has sex with Pool Boy on camera, she's excited because it generates more snack bar money. Annet becomes Gish, who is delighted that she's in for an arranged marriage with a nice boy who likes her instead of her crazy life with her "borderline" mother. Gish becomes Fran and starts sucking off the rabbi and a nice boy intended for her as well. The end of the story finds all of them switching back, alarming nearly everyone; it's not every day you hear a line like "By the blue balls of Jahweh!".

Perversion seeks to shock when it presents itself as out of the norms and mores of society. That's how it becomes prurient content, content designed to draw the male gaze in particular. It provides shock and dismay when at the same time the "offended" person is really turned on, as anger and desire blend into each other and demand accountability. What Budel does here is reverse the polarity of this interaction. Perversion becomes the defacto language of his characters, a language spoken in such direct defiance of mores that they shatter them. The girls are in complete control of their situations. Men and boys are mostly annoyances or there to be used. Sex is a means to an end, and Fran in particular knows what she wants. This isn't soft-focus porn; it's more like in-your-face, girl-gang action. Francine couldn't care less if you're looking at her or not, and if you piss her off, she will deal with you. Of course, the whole book is designed and drawn in a way that's meant to be off-putting and challenging. Budel's simple linework and thin line weights are the opposite of erotic artists like Guido Crepax or Milo Manera (the latter being an all-time male gaze renderer). The way Budel crams as many as 16 panels onto a page also lessens the visual impact of particular images, especially when he goes extra cartoony and gives his characters dots for eyes or distorts their forms in amusing ways. Perversion is just one of many options from his toolbox, but they all have the goal of making the reader laugh, even if it's a nervous one.

Monday, September 11, 2017

D&Q: Tom Gauld's Baking With Kafka

Baking With Kafka is another collection of Gauld's strips for The Guardian, and it's Gauld doing riffs and gags. I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work ins't entertaining as well. This collection of strips isn't so much a collection of strips about literary concerns in the vein of a Kate Beaton, but rather a series of meta-literary strips. That is, they are strips about writing, about the tedious business of publishing, about the cynical nature of advertising, about the way books become product, but most of all about books qua books. It pokes gentle fun at fantasy quests, literary cliches, romance tropes as well as the workshops aimed at writers desperate to get published.

All of this is done in Gauld's usual dry and deadpan manner, with a healthy dose of the silly and absurd heaped on top. Indeed, a lot of the jokes in the book are funny because Gauld pummels the reader with context, delivers the joke, and then goes back to context. Take "Niccolo Machiavelli's Plans For The Summer". In terms of drawing, this couldn't have taken more than an hour, because all it is is a calendar. The joke is conceptual, as the first Monday's plan is "Plot", the first Tuesday is "Scheme", the first Wednesday is "Connive", etc, all based on our conception of Machiavelli from his famous book The Prince. That's amusing, but after piling on for seven straight days, we get the more amusing "Dentist" on a Monday, and then ten days marked off for "Holidays!", and back to "Deceive", "Collude", etc, interrupted only once more with "Mum's birthday". It's a joke that would not have worked without a really good thesaurus and a strong conceptual grounding, because without the repetition of the expected bits, the other part of the joke wouldn't have landed.

Slightly less successful is "Magical Items For Fantasy Writers", where each magic item is described as doing something like "Dispels misgivings, gloom, bad advice and writer's block". Here, the joke is simply repeated from panel to panel, rather than building from panel to panel. The best strips incorporate visuals as a key element of their humor, and this is where Gauld's minimalism shines. Using simple silhouettes, he's able to evoke nearly any kind of situation. "Forgotten Chapters of Jane Austen's Emma" is a good example. The captions ("The Witch's Prophecy", "Bonaparte Attacks Hartfield", "Emma's Warrior Training" and "Wild West Adventure") are all funny on their own. But it's the drawings of silhouetted blimps bombing a British manor, of Emma learning to fight using an umbrella and Emma on horseback dodging arrows that help the joke to really land.

My favorite of Gauld's literary strips are those which feature books as anthropomorphic characters. There's one where a stodgy old literary novel refuses to let his daughter marry a fantasy novel named "Kingdom of Iron" ("He is epic and exciting and I love him!"). Instead, he's arranged for her to marry "", a "humorous modern update of a classic". The latter book is presented as wearing sunglasses and saying "Yo!". This is another conceptual strip, but the small visual flourishes are crucial in helping the joke to land, like the older book carrying a cane. Gauld also uses color not so much to emphasize his jokes, but simply as a way to fill negative space and force the reader's eye back to his figures.

Gauld is such a strong conceptual humorist that he barely needs illustrations for many of his strips, but this is sometimes unfortunate because his drawing is clear & efficient and creates clever juxtapositions to his text in his longer narratives. Indeed, some of Gauld's best work occurs in long, extended silent scenes where all the gags are visual. That's because this allows him to establish his themes in a more restrained and less obvious manner, without losing any of the humor. It's the difference between a long-form, personal work and a regular cartoon with a deadline. With the latter, Gauld has a lot of variations on particular themes that he alternates, most of which circle around the idea that books and characters are wonderful but publishing and all that goes with it is very silly indeed.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Yet More From Aaron Lange

Let's take a look at another round of minis from Philadelphia's own Aaron Lange:

Cash Grab #4-6. This series is Lange's grab-bag of sketchbook stuff, out-of-print material and other ephemera. #4 is a sketchbook issue wherein Lange starts to play with color, mostly of either people he knows personally or actors that interest him for some reason. Lange is an exceptionally perceptive portrait artist, even when working from photos, and he is able to nail eyes in particular. The other thing about Lange is that there's no gag or pun too dumb enough for him; once he grabs on to it, he doesn't let go, like in "Spock of Seagulls" or "Adamantium" (featuring the singer as Wolverine). On the other hand, some of these jokes are laugh-out-loud inspired, like the psychedelic, full color "Wuv Me 2 Times", a Jim Morrison drawing by way of Margaret Keane's big eyes-style. My favorite drawing was that of his portrait of the great Mary Fleener, when she confessed, "'Trim' means pussy?! No shit."

The fifth issue is more focused, as it's portraits from movies that made an impact on him as a teen, from Hollywood productions to b-movies. It's a case of autobiography by way of the artists that spoke to him. In many cases, he tends to add a touch of angularity to his poses, like the way Gillian Anderson's face is framed, or the way the hair on Milla Jovovich is drawn. He also has a way of touching on the most noir characteristics of his subjects, partly through his use of effects like dense hatching, spotting blacks and even stippling. The latter was true for his drawing of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, for example. That darkness and even a tinge of madness is especially present in the slightly uneven way he drew her eyes. It's not all darkness, however; his drawing of Miranda July befits her whimsical nature, and the way the lettering of her name melts and frames her head perfectly completes the overall quirkiness of the composition.

Issue #6 is his "deep cuts" grab-bag, including an interesting strip called "Time Release" about a pill-addicted comics retailer. Lange's drawing would get both more refined and more stylized later on, but he captures the degradation of the dealer trying to score pills off of a cosplaying Star Trek fan that ends in violence. The final joke, that the pills aren't what he expected, just added to the absurdity and nihilism of the story. Lange taps into that desperate loser vibe in his stories in much the same way that Noah Van Sciver does, getting across a real sense of empathy. As Lange notes, he very well could have ended up like that dealer if his life had taken a slightly different turn. Other than his film reviews (which are excellent), most of the rest of the issue consists of fairly disposable gags and anecdotes.

Those comics are interesting, especially for Lange fans, but the real main event is Trim #5. This is his current one-man anthology that has seen him take a step up in terms of sophistication and ambition as a writer. Starting with an incredible letters column that features praise from R.Crumb and an admonition from Van Sciver to cut back on his more juvenile, shock-value material. I think the sweet spot for Lange is somewhere in the middle, telling biographical or autobiographical stories that explore disturbing events or unusual people. Take "Pastor Dan!", for example. I loved the touch that made the title look like an old-time MAD title a la Harvey Kurtzman. This story details Lange's childhood as an altar boy at his church and his favorite pastor, the titular Dan. Lange was drawn to this weirdo, who recommended a Monty Python movie to him, recounted killing a cat as a youngster and generally was a positive if odd adult presence in Lange's life. Lange is very much one to provide little commentary in his stories beyond moving along the narrative, preferring to let the reader ponder what it all might mean.

Another sweet spot for Lange's sensibilities are his "Art School" short strips. They are roughly autobiographical and aren't a repudiation of art school like Dan Clowes, but rather a hilarious exploration of who he was at the time and what the rest of the school's culture was like. From hissing at a bunch of hackey-sack hippies to dropping acid at the wrong time in class to an exquisitely drawn weirdo classmate smoking dope with an "x" carved in his head, Lange has a real sense for surveying sheer weirdness and making it funny. It also helps that he takes aim at himself as a butt of jokes as much as he does anyone. There's another story about him coming home drunk and coked up, watching porn and then throwing out his entire collection--only to get locked outside in his underwear. Lange's ability to range between naturalism and exaggeration helps to establish place and tone while still allowing ground for absurdity.

There are a couple of stand-out longer pieces. "Blood and Soil" is another in a series of strips about his family that examines his German heritage, including his great-uncle Erich who was in the Luftwaffe in World War II. He did his job as a pilot but was not accepted to college because of his "perceived political leanings" (anti-Nazi?). Amusingly, his great aunt once told his father that she never had children because "she couldn't stand to bring another German into the world", which is hilarious and awful all at once. Lange is at once fascinated by German military imagery, uniforms and pins while being acutely aware of their impact and the ways others appropriated the imagery to spread terror or to simply shock. Lange neither glorifies nor wishes to forget his family's history, poking fun at it with pop culture and rock references.

"Parco Dei Mostri" is a tribute to his skill as an artist, as he brings to life a monstrous sculpture garden dating back to the 16th century but only recently rehabilitated as a tourist destination. This is an excellent example of the sharpness but also slight distance of Lange's narrative voice. As a writer, Lange clearly spends a lot of time thinking about his subjects. The way this story was arranged, as images taken from his mom's vacation, frames these pieces once considered to be pornographic by his contemporaries but are now harmless and for the whole family. No matter what kind of artifice is at work in one of Lange's stories, he compulsively pulls away the curtain to let the reader in on exactly what's happening and why.

Monday, August 28, 2017

D&Q: Poppies of Iraq

There's a gentleness to Brigitte Findakly's narrative voice that makes her descriptions of growing up in Iraq, in territory now occupied by ISIL/Daesh, feel understated and restrained. Poppies of Iraq is the third major memoir regarding growing up in the Middle East produced in the west (along with Marjane Satrapi's famous Persepolis, of course, and Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future), and it's so much more compact and less focused on tons of personal minutia than those other books. Findakly's past is every bit as painful and shattered as any ex-pat, but it's clear that these events feel a lot more distant to her now.

Co-written and illustrated by her partner Lewis Trondheim and colored by her (she's a professional colorist, not a writer), it has the feel of a fascinating, narrated family album. That's magnified by the chapter-ending photos that she provides of herself and her family. Findakly's narrative is straightforward, as she opts to portray her life and family as ordinary in nearly every sense but also affected by extraordinary times. Her father was a dentist, and it was not unusual at the time in the Middle East for those seeking higher education to obtain it in Europe. Her father met her mother in France, and she returned to Mosul when he was ready to start his practice as well as work for the military. The history of post-World War I Iraq is one of a nation being freed from years of Ottoman Empire rule and a great deal of continued foreign occupation. It is unsurprising that there might be instability in an ancient, proud country after years of colonial interference, and so in Iraq there were military coups and deposed monarchs, all leading up to the Saddam Hussein era.

For Findakly and her family, there were simply long periods of living a relatively carefree and fun life. She discusses going to public school and wanting to learn from the Quran like her friends (even though she was a Christian). There was her best friend who lived next door, with whom she played constantly. Throughout the book, Findakly jumps back and forth in time, revealing the fate of various friends, adding context to relationships that she only became aware of much later, and examining the irony of so many friends having to call her in Paris to make sure she was safe after the latest attack. As her narrative slowly moves forward, she reveals details about how her family was affected by whatever the latest coup was. When Christian-led forces had control of Iraq, her family was feared and mistrusted. When a Muslim-led government was ascendant, there were moments of great danger. In both cases, her father's status as a member of the army saved her family from a potentially harsh fate.

Findakly also addresses her betwixt and between quality as part French, part Iraqi. Her parents were able to use their status to get groceries and supplies that many others didn't have in times of crisis, but Findakly always wanted to have what the other kids were having. It was especially amusing to see her want margarine instead of butter! There were also little side-strips called "In Iraq", wherein Findakly would share a tidbit or two about one of her country's idiosyncrasies, like injections always being considered superior to pills, or families blessed with multiple children sometimes giving a new baby to someone in the family who can't conceive.

Her family left for France for good in 1972 because of the slowly crumbling infrastructure and increasingly corrupt government that was taxing her father unfairly. Findakly reverses the usual "we were happier in the west!" narrative by explaining how difficult her family had it. Her father couldn't practice dentistry in France; her mother's family cut her off when she went to Iraq; and it was difficult for her to adjust to an all-French classroom. Over the years, Findakly could sense growing unhappiness among her relatives when she'd visit, while at the same time she felt more and more comfortable asserting herself in France. She went to protests, she explored her talent in art, and eventually moved out on her own. She still felt drawn to what she considered to be her home country and even considered a drawing gig doing a children's book for the Ministry of Culture until she realized that it would mean working for Saddam Hussein. By the end of the book, her remaining friends and family in Iraq were shells of their former selves after the American occupation and its ensuing chaos, while the family members living abroad had their own prejudices. Findakly, remarkably, was able to empathize with them and their situation and tried not to judge, because everyone was affected by Iraq's chaos differently.

What's interesting about the book is that it's quietly about seizing control of one's own life and agency in subtle, gradual ways. Whereas the young Marjane character in Persepolis is bratty and unbearable as a teen, young Findakly is friendly & agreeable and carries those traits into adulthood. The art by Trondheim well-matches his skill in drawing from life (especially big, sweeping backgrounds) and his friendly, gentle character designs are a snug fit for the fondness she has for her family, extended family and friends. There was not much internal drama for Findakly growing up, and the move to France actually cat a time when she was champing at the bit for more freedom. In terms of what Trondheim did on the page, he used an open-format six panel grid that often collapsed panels. This contributed to the book's light, breezy feel that sometimes masked the more serious aspects of the story. This book doesn't try to be a major event or a profound commentary on the Middle East; its lack of such pretensions and focus on particular details make them all the more memorable and funny, as Findakly tries to connect her own story to any other story about growing up in any kind of unusual environment.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 3

Closing out my look at Caitlin Cass's Postal Constituent comics...

R.R. Whitehead (Volume 7, #2). Following a month spent at the Byrdcliffe Guild in Woodstock, NY, Cass wrote this very cheeky account of its co-founder, R.R. Whitehead. A dreamer from a young age, he had enormous family wealth that allowed him to act on his dreams. Cass portrayed him as both pliable and impressionable in terms of ideas but also rigid and dictatorial with regard to how he put his ideals of a utopian artists's colony into practice. On the one hand, women had freedoms that were totally unheard of in the colony, including openly accepted lesbian relationships. On the other hand, he drove off members of the colony by refusing to compromise on how things were run on a day-to-day basis. He was also obsessed with rejecting anything resembling modern manufacturing or making money, which stopped printmaking and similar arts at Byrdcliffe. Whitehead was certainly not immune from criticism, as the artists (including his wife!) used to draw him as a figure with an enormously long neck (his head in the clouds) in everything they did, which is a very funny running joke. Cass always shares some sympathy for dreamer-types like Whitehead, admiring their iconoclastic character as much as their failed ambitions.

Cassie Chadwick: Queen Of Cleveland (Volume 7, #3). Cass loves dreamers but also loves schemers and grifters who have style. This funny comic about a woman who went through multiple husbands, multiple identities and a couple of stints in prison in the early 20th century also speaks to something else: women trying to find ways to escape their inevitable fate as either near-slave laborers or else entirely dependent on their husbands. Chadwick cleverly took advantage of people's willingness to trade in on the reputations of the rich, as the rumor she herself started that she was the illegitimate daughter of tycoon Andrew Carnegie allowed her to walk into banks and just receive piles of money. She spent the money as fast as she got it, both for her own personal delight and also to keep up appearances as someone who is ridiculously rich. The single-tone light pink Cass used her was a perfect way of introducing a lot of negative space into the piece, allowing her to focus on character.

Mill Girls (Volume 7, #4). This is a full-color fantasy piece where Cass once again focuses in on the oppressed more than the ideas of an oppressor. It's a short comic that imagines the hard-working and exploited mill worker women going on strike against the men exploiting them, cutting open the men's cotton-cocoons and finding money sewn inside. It's a remarkable image, as justice is achieved until it isn't, and the monstrous industrialists grow huge and literally crush them. It's a story that played out often during the 19th and 20th centuries, as labor sought to assert their rights against an owner's relentless exploitation. It's just a story that's now out of fashion and no longer celebrated. That's thanks in parts to later corruption and incompetence on the part of many unions, but it's also due to corporations trying to scale back those gains over time. Cass painted this comic, and that quality lent it some of its magical realist qualities as things went in a strange direction very quickly, but it made sense in the formal continuity of the story.

Ivy Lee: Founder of Public Relations (Volume 7, #5). This is another short comic from Cass that's a short biography of a man with a questionable legacy: the founder of public relations. He was there who helped changed John D. Rockefeller from a man whose actions killed miners and their families into a folksy, "man of the people" type in the public eye. The concept of image being more important than substance is obviously frighteningly relevant today, and the person who controls their own image controls information and often public opinion. The cardstock and folding accordion formal qualities of the comic give it a little value added for this story of moral relativism.

Rock Thoughts, Volume Two (Volume 7, #6). Cass takes a different approach in this volume of the thinking rock. It's full color, one panel per page, with the story taking up the whole issue. It's a meditation on existence itself. The rock wonders ahead to when all life on earth will end and it will just be rocks again. Taking this kind of long view, where the rock considers time from a geological point of view and looks at life as a kind of short, fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying blip is another way of looking at consciousness, humanity and the urge to be remembered as ultimately futile and pointless thing that we do. It's pointless, yet the rock (and Cass) can't help but have a fondness for existence and consciousness, and the rock doth protest too much.

Burning Rivers (Volume 8, #1). Most everyone has heard about Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire in the late 60s as a symbol of both the dawn of the environmental movement and the decline of Cleveland. In this comic, Cass colorfully and dutifully records the many other times that not only Cleveland's main river caught on fire, but also those of Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit. They were all industrial cities who dumped waste, oil and alcohol into the nearby river without thinking twice, so it wasn't surprising that they caught on fire multiple times. The comic is as much about the movement as it is the fires, as people figured out how to clean the rivers and even bring back fish. Cass suggests that technology is neither good nor evil on its own, but rather that what's important is understanding it in a purely ethical sense: how does using this technology affect others, with "others" including the entire ecosystem?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass: Part 2

Continuing my look at Caitlin Cass' minis:

Rock Thoughts Volume One (Volume 6, #1). This is a funny comic about a rock that somehow attains consciousness but is otherwise just a rock. It's Cass' take on the mind-body split and identity. It also gave her a chance to use a thin line and a nine-panel grid in order to do gag strips. The rock goes through all sorts of stages of emotional well-being, starting off with "positive visualization" (which ends with a seagull shitting on him), feeling self-conscious and needy, feeling defiant and then eventually zeroing in on consciousness itself. It wonders if "the other rocks are playing a 1.7 billion year prank on me" by not having consciousness and then concluding "This consciousness thing is bullshit." Cass is exploring the idea that consciousness without agency plus incredibly expansive time is essentially torture, no matter how one tries to think one's way out of it. Even the end, when the rock has been put in a hamster cage and the rock finds comfort in the hamster and her constant motion in a wheel is thwarted when the hamster drops dead, puncturing yet another soliloquy with random cruelty. Obviously drawing a rock isn't that difficult, but it's the fine, little details that Cass adds to the comic that help add a degree of naturalism. The scenes she's creating, if devoid of the rock's word balloons, would look just like scenes of stillness in panel after panel. Adding a nicely-drawn child's hand or a fastidiously-detailed hamster wheel brings the reader into the rock's world and perspective. Cass is also making fun of rhetoric and speech-making in this comic, as a fancy speech or theory without an audience is essentially meaningless.

Portals (Volume 6, #2). This is a none-too-subtle parable about a woman who stared into readily available portals all day long. Portals "into teacup auctions...obscure historical events,...alternative lives...", etc. When she got upset one day, she flew "to the place where portals become objects", called "the cacophany (sic) of things". She was charmed by the singular nature of each object she saw until she saw a weird guy go by, and she flew back, frightened. Of course, this is a story about the internet, television and our modern obsession with screens in general. Cass is arguing that despite the wonder this technology inspires, the amazing things it can show us, it also cuts us off from human contact. While the present-ness of having a thing in one's possession is part of that experience that's lost, it's really negotiating a world full of others and having to face ethical questions that makes us more than mere rocks on a shoreline. Cass notes that uncontrolled, an addiction to screens can permanently impair our ability to negotiate the world in a meaningful way that has the capacity to bring joy that simply watching something cannot. Her use of an open-page format gives it the feeling of a child's fairy tale book, a sense of reality being fluid.

Poking The Bubble (Volume 6, #3). This is a rare autobio comic by Cass, wherein she talks about her project to date, her current activities as a teacher, and some doubts about the nature of her project. Cass went to St. John's College in Baltimore, whose curriculum was the Great Books of the Western World. In other words, she spent a long time studying the works of dead (mostly white) males. She notes that her project has been humorously pointing out the failures of the ideas of these figures, for anyone steeped in philosophy knows that its history is one system replacing another ad infinitum, until theories arise that look to wipe out philosophy at its very root. That said, there's a telling panel in this open-page layout where Cass yells at the Great Books: "Ha ha, you're gonna fail even though you tried!" and the books respond "Ha ha, you can't say anything without referencing us first." It's a compelling argument that dawns on Cass, as she's set up her project in opposition to thoughts generated within a patriarchal bubble. It's only through teaching at an all-girls' school that exploring ideas doesn't have to be in opposition to anything. Instead of poking that titular bubble of the patriarchy, she realizes that she can have hope that her students find new and innovative ways of looking at the world. It's a beautiful moment of self-actualization.

Effie Stevens (Volume 6, #6). The expanded version of this story is a beautiful, full-color comic. It's about an entirely forgotten woman in a small town who left no mark on the world save one: a huge, expansive quilt wherein she drew every single person she could remember going about their day, as well as their name. This is a beautiful, poetic comic that really comes to life with color. It's also smartly arranged in small vignettes that capture aspects of the quilt and her life as though one were considering facets of a gem. The quilt gave her purpose in a life that was otherwise meaningless and unconnected, though Cass notes that while it helped, it was not a substitute for real human contact. The quilt outlived her, however, as it was found, displayed as a local object of wonder, and eventually cut up and sold to become part of other family's traditions. It's a fascinating meditation on memory and how quickly the influence of any life has within generations of its disappearance. The color on each patch of the quilt pops off the page, giving life to the beautiful object that Stevens was creating. Cass raised another question here: the difference between art and craft, and if there is a meaningful difference.

Little Mister (Volume 7, #1). This is a story about how one's creation can be perverted and exploited, especially when men have an opportunity to do so with regard to women. It's about a cartoonist/writer who creates a despicable character called "Little Mister" who "always comes out on top" and "takes from the less deserving." Starting as a satire on women's roles in society, it got turned into a literal celebration of men's rightful place as being dominant and even a fetish item for good luck and fortune. When it got further twisted into white nationalist propaganda (ala Pete and Matt Furie), the artist essentially swore off men and moved away, but the ideas followed her. This is a nasty, trenchant and oh-so-realistic story that's told with Cass' old-timey flair, as she's especially adept at drawing late 19th century and early 20th century buildings and fashions.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 1

Let's catch up with one of my favorite cartoonist-historians, Caitlin Cass. She's a remarkably prolific cartoonist, as she's managed to stick with her Postal Constituent mail-order minicomic service for years, now going into an eighth volume. Her ongoing series, Great Moments In Western Civilization, is a monument to her formal creativity, unceasing curiosity, wry sense of humor and intellectual rigor as a historian. Let's take a quick look at each of these minis to see where her interests wandered:

The Seven Liberal Arts. (Volume 4, #6). This small mini is an expansion of a highly compressed diagram on its first page, as the practitioners of the titular liberal arts all essentially get gags in, either at their own expense or that of others. The Geometry department re-abstracts their ideas in an effort to trick the Astronomy team a level above them to "convince themselves that they see us in the stars". Philosophy is at the top, of course, and it winds up being an elaborate ski lift for the other liberal arts, which is as good a metaphor as I've ever heard for it. The imagery, which is reminiscent of something approaching Dante's vision of hell, is clever in how Cass uses cutaways and incomplete data to give the reader just a glimpse of what's happening.

Great American Inventions (Volume 5, #3) is a poster folded down to mini size. Folded back out, this white-on-black series of drawings features Cass' sardonic comments on items like The TV Dinner, the Machine Gun, and the Cotton Gin ("A New Reason to Enslave People!"). This poster falls into Cass' larger project of critiquing notions like progress, especially when paired with capitalism. In other words, innovation and capitalism on their own have no moral compass and shouldn't be celebrated simply for being new, efficient and money-making.

The Index, #6 (Volume 5, #4) is the latest issue of Cass' subseries about meaning and purpose, where a man and a woman argue about the best way to go about it. Susan collects blank note cards that reflect the potential of a single person. Richard fills the cards with his thoughts and starts indexing them. The series has introduced magical realist elements, like the couple summoning the library of Alexandria, indexer Paul Otlet, and the philosopher Diogenes. This issue introduces Virginia Woolf into the equation, as Susan attacks Richard's argument by saying that one's works cannot be reduced to a single sentence. Instead, it's the small details of a life lived that give a person worth. What I love about this issue is that the way Cass is willing to subvert arguments with the very rhetorical devices that have been introduced. In this case, it's Woolf herself that questions looking to her as an inspiration on how to live, given that she wound up killing herself. Like with every other issue, nothing is resolved with regard to the philosophical argument, even as Cass' line grows ever more confident and even elaborate at times.

Benjamin Rathbun Builds Buffalo is a folded broadsheet talking about the con man whose ability to scam others got a number of important buildings created in Buffalo, NY, including the very jail that he was sentenced to. What's funny about this story is that it's a familiar and relevant one even today: a visionary in search of start-up capital. In his case, he simply forged the names of other people in order to get loans. Cass works big on the page here, and it suits her work, especially with regard to the way she spots blacks. The main problem with her smaller comics is that her line is not yet fine or flexible enough to fully breathe given those space constraints. Cass obviously has some affection for the con man's vision, as she later depicts his effort to build what is essentially modern-day Niagara Falls.

Bestiary Of Ordinary Americans (Volume 5, #6) is almost a response from Susan (from The Index), although it's an unrelated project. A bestiary is a compendium of mythical creatures, often with a moralizing tone. In Cass' hands, it's a quotidian detail about a number of different people, yet it's a detail that reveals something important in some way. Whether it's Sarah's hatred for ballet, Glenna inexplicably buying boxes of cereal despite hating cereal, or Amy's internet addiction, every anecdote is revealing as it shows the reader the true nature of each person, many of whom wish they could be different people or make different decisions--yet they feel compelled to do otherwise. These are some of Cass' warmest drawings, but it's a shame she couldn't print the whole issue in color, because it looks like she may have been working with colored pencil here.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Zoe Taylor's Joyride

Zoƫ Taylor's Joyride is a wonderfully brushy, scribbly and visceral story about a young woman at a party who makes a bold decision. Taylor does the absolute minimum to establish characters and motive, and she doesn't have to. After beginning the story with the odd image of a dressed-up woman sitting in the middle of a forest, it shifts to a lavish party, a woman getting ready for that party, and a sportscar speeding along to get to the party at the mansion. There are relationships that are left vague; there's an implication that one of the women is the daughter (or perhaps the sister) of the hostess, as the hostess even says to a friend, "That's her disguise." Nonetheless, the action at the party continues: people laughing, drinking and otherwise enjoying the moment. That is, until the first woman leaves the party and steals the sportscar that we saw in the first scene.

The hostess exclaims "She hot-wired the car!", and it's telling that no one at the party looks very surprised. What follows is an exhilarating, visceral series of full splash pages worth of speed lines and a blurred car. She eventually loses control and wraps the car around a tree in the forest. She walks away from the crashed car, which soon catches on fire and explodes. The other woman has followed her and is looking for her in the forest with someone who is presumably her boyfriend, but her flashlight-aided search fails.

That's more or less the whole story, but the level of ambiguity in the story is maddening. The story had a car crash as its climactic event, but the lack of context deliberately robbed the reader of drawing any conclusions from it other than raptly absorbing the images as images. We don't know why the first woman stole the car or her relationship to the other woman and her boyfriend. We don't know if this is the climax of a lifetime of erratic behavior or just another weekend. We don't know what will become of the woman after the car crash. Once again, Taylor forces the reader to simply experience the images and what is certain. There was a woman. She stole a car. She drove it fast, crashed it, and walked away. Any other conclusions to be drawn from the story are mere suppositions. One can make some connections regarding wealth, family and dysfunction, but that's all connotation--and mostly guesswork at that. If Taylor had felt like leaving more clues or leading the reader in a different direction, she would have. Instead, she focuses strictly on the action and takes the reader along with her, thanks to her expressive, immediate style and the cheap newsprint that soaks up those thick, black lines.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #11: Inkbrick #5

After a strong fourth issue, the fifth issue of Inkbrick was mostly forgettable. Most of the pieces weren't out-and-out bad, but some were too short to make much of an impact. Others were just not visually exciting. The highlight of the issue was a specially colored section featuring work from Jenny Zervakis, one of the earliest practitioners of comics-as-poetry. Her section, introduced by John Porcellino (who just published a big collection of Zervakis' work), stands out for its depictions of stillness and beauty, as well as a reserved but beautiful use of language. "Chuparossa" is an emotional reflection on a bird's song, its resilience and its motivations. It's a poem about intentionality, beauty and being present, with a marvelously subdued use of color. Zervakis was also an early practitioner of dream comics; here, there's a softly-colored one about her mother being a highly proficient gardener. There's also a deliberately ugly, bruise-colored strip that takes place at night and depicts a car accident, with the identity of the victim switching at the last moment. It's a dream about uncomfortable, raw emotions.

The recurring bit that held this issue together was that of a series of strips from Samplerman. He's best known for his collages of golden age comics and is especially interesting not just for juxtaposing images in unusual ways, but in experimenting by using clumps of comics as formal and decorative tools. In one story, the images form fractals. In another strip, the gutters take on character shapes, with the images of the strips turning into negative space. Other strips form loops raining down from above, or rooms full of strange objects. There's a sense of delightful experimentation and joy on each of these pages as Samplerman takes on the rich, lurid nature of the original colors and repurposes it in fascinating ways. Samplerman is able to retain enough of the original imagery to let the reader easily understand its original source material while at the same time divorcing the images from their original contexts. And there's no doubt that what he's doing is still comics; indeed, he relies heavily on the grid in order for the reader to understand the nature of the patterns he's playing with.

Other highlights in the issue include Courtney Loberg's mysterious, evocative strip about "sistering" (the use of water magic to recall specific visions) and a bizarre event seen while driving down a road. Her smudged, light sepia tones add an extra air of mystery to the proceedings, especially with her thin line weights with regard to her characters. Kurt Ankeny also uses a thin line weight effectively, albeit his method involved colored pencils. His story is about older people contemplating heights and also their inevitable ends. The way Ankeny juxtaposed the lines of the people's faces with the lines forming fields and buildings below was especially clever, as was a comparison of blades of grass to swords. Winnie T. Frick's red-and-lime "interview" with someone's double touched on all sorts of interesting ideas, including the concept of being a container for ideas for another person as well as the idea of shifting selves and identities. There's a sense of identity fracture here, with some hints that part of it is due to capitalism, and it was interesting to see this explored by way of a direct interview with her but not the "original". Publisher Alexander Rothman continues to impress, as his imagery of spring in the woods and the text regarding closeness and later othering play against each other in interesting ways.

Paul Tunis has made some interesting choices as editor, but his recent contributions have left me cold. The images are little more than decorative and don't have much impact on their own. The paint-spattering and photography of Alexey Sokolin and the textile/text experiment of Deshan Tennekoon & Thilini Perera just left me cold. They're too slick for the eye to grab onto, and that goes double for the actual plastic qualities of the text itself. Most of the rest of the issue either didn't combine text and image in interesting ways, or they were so fleeting that they simply didn't have much impact. This issue speaks to how difficult it can be to put together strong issues on a consistent basis without repeating too many of the same contributors.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Minis: Summer Pierre, Colin Lidston

Paper Pencil Life #5, by Summer Pierre. Pierre's quickly become one of my favorite autobio artists, thanks to an approach that is full of warmth, wit and intelligence. Pierre's ability to balance light and dark on a page, as well as her cartoony self-caricature with figures drawn from photo reference, make every page a pleasurable experience to read. That ability to balance form and content in such an intuitive manner is rare, even in the rare strip that's heavy on text. Pierre works in vignettes focusing on a single topic, like "Dappled Light". I've reviewed this elsewhere, but its focus on the family TV sitcom as a form of escape for young Pierre was both poignant and understated, as her cute-as-a-button child caricature roved around the world of Leave It To Beaver, eating cake and taking naps in the Cleaver household as her abusive father was left behind.

"Radio Radio" is one of the wordier pieces, yet Pierre's skill in evoking the warmth she feels in not only hearing the songs that radio stations across the nation play, but also the sense of location and community they create, makes this comic enormously satisfying. Music is a big touchstone in this issue, as another story about her finding an old mixtape and remembering the friendship and incredible depth of musical knowledge of someone from years earlier once again was evoked by Pierre's use of blacks as she depicted a night drive. Pierre's ability to zero in on small but important moments, both past and present, is in the tradition of John Porcellino and Harvey Pekar. Whereas Porcellino is most interested in the poetry of the moment and Pekar the profundity that can be found in the ordinary, Pierre seems to be fascinated with mindfulness and soaking in the joy of a moment. Whether that moment is a series of fun thing she spontaneously did with her son or if it was remembering a moment that she felt lost as a person, there's a fundamental sense of gratitude, of being glad for the joy of existing that can be felt in her work.

The second half of the comic is interesting because it addresses the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, quotidian and timeless observations became rooted in specific events. It reminded me, to a much lesser degree, of the career of Jen Sorensen. She mostly did silly, funny cartoons until George W. Bush got elected, and then went full-on political and hasn't stopped since. I don't think Pierre will ever move in that direction, but she did clearly start to use her drawing board as a kind of escape and therapy from how upset she felt about the election's results. Interestingly, her non-political strips really got back to basics: doing a strip about taking a run and the way it made her feel in the moment, as well as a "24 hours in the life" comic that crammed 40 panels into two pages. There were more comics about her son and family (like a touching story about her uncle). The strips were more directly about comfort, like drawing a scene from Love & Rockets are having a day to herself. The issue finishes up with "I'll Never Be Cool", a hilarious list of how and why Pierre is a hopeless square, and a comic about a party she attends in New York with Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman that takes a rather astounding turn before the reader is clued in on what's happening. That was Pierre having a little chuckle at the reader's expense, a sort of cheery wink at the reader that reveals that her sense of humor is more than intact. It's a great capper for a collection that's over fifty pages but never once feels stale or repetitive. Pierre is in a great groove right now, and hopefully she will keep it going.

The Age of Elves Issue Two, by Colin Lidston. This continues the slice of life saga of four high school friends who are avid role playing gamers, set in 2000. This comic is once again interesting because of the incredible amount of detail Lidston devotes to showing off his understanding of gaming, yet despite that it's not really about gaming. It's about relationships, and how the sort of person who views gaming as a major part of their lifestyle and identity interacts with others. There's social awkwardness to be sure, but there are also more nuanced, intragroup conflicts that arise thanks to seemingly trivial differences between group members. It's the paradox of gamer culture both being welcoming of outsiders but also frequently rigid with regard to thinking. That plays out in this comic in a long road trip to a huge gaming convention, as nerdy thought questions turn into arguments, with the two more conservative members of the group teaming up against the Goth guy.

Lidston reveals that there are both cracks and connections with everyone in the group, as the sole girl (Sarah) gets into it with the others when she critiques the awful writing from a panel description. There are times that the art got a little murky, as Lidston chose to go with a fairly heavy line weight throughout the issue. It didn't help that Lidston also chose to spot a lot of blacks on already-dense pages. That said, Lidston's line also had a spontaneous quality that allowed for expressive figure drawings. There's a sense that Lidston knows everything about these characters, down to the tiniest details, and that shows up on the page in terms of their body language and small facial expressions. That's the key to this comic, as long-term friendships among teens (especially among boys) are often dependent on that kind of visual signifier if they're unwilling to actually talk about their feelings.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Minis: X.Gordon, S.Hanselmann, K.Czap, Nou

100, by Nou. This comic plays around with figure and text in a way that's meant to confront the reader. The figure, a young, nude girl whose anatomy is kept bare, looks out at the reader in various poses. We see her on the left-hand side of each two-page spread, and big blocky letters on the right side. There's a sense of trying to reach out, of knowing that the general We is out there, but at once being resisted by the reader and the girl gazing at us. Her poses are as disarming as her words are confrontational, and the way she moves from image to image invites the reader to flip the pages like a flip book to see her in action. It implies a sense of near-simultaneity in these words and movements, a sense of action that the reader can't immediately answer because it happens so quickly.

The New Cast, by Kevin Czap. This comic is a fusion of Czap's interest in creative/cooperative reality shows like Project Runway and their own utopian take on any number of topics. That metaphor allows Czap to examine the ways in which local creative scenes grow, ebb and flow over time, something that's especially pertinent to comics. Czap and Czap Books are one of the ascendant small-press publishers of the moment; in a real sense, Czap's artists are the new cast. Czap has always made the characters in his book incredibly diverse, as they all tend to be genderfluid and multiracial. Binaries don't really exist in Czap's comics. Even the new/old binary is explored in detail here, as there's a sense of joyful interaction in the new season between the casts, but one-by-one the old cast members drop off and go on to do their own thing outside of the purview of group activity. That kind of communal living and working together is difficult to maintain as one grows older, interests change and other things become more important. As an artist, there's also an awareness of one's audience, and that's reflected in the comic by some viewers staying on and others moving to different shows. Because it's a Czap comic and things tend to turn out for the best, the new cast gets it together at the end and essentially becomes the new vanguard. Visually speaking, what I found most interesting about the comic was the way that Czap was able to make scenes where the characters were in motion and scenes where they were just hanging out equally interesting, thanks to their understanding of body language and gesture. Small gestures sometimes pack as much visual wallop as intense activity.

Drone, by Simon Hanselmann. This story appears in Hanselmann's new book, One More Year. Starring Werewolf Jones and Megg from his Megahex series, this is a story about two lonely people who are desperate to having some kind of expressive, creative outlet while self-medicating themselves as hard as possible in order to numb any kind of emotional response as much as possible. Jones is an especially pathetic character throughout the series, but here there's an almost heart-breaking attempt at him trying to do something positive with his life for just a moment. Megg is a far more complicated character, and this story deals with her relationship with her mother. She's worried that her mom might be in seriously bad shape (or even dead) after getting out of rehab when she doesn't answer a call on Mother's Day. The story progresses as the duo actually makes some progress on their hilariously over-the-top music (with Jones wanting to be as offensive as possible at all times and Megg voting him down), even as they sabotage themselves when they use subox (a substance used to wean people off heroin) that causes them to vomit every few minutes. When Megg's mom eventually contacts her, the nature of that contact is heartbreaking as well, and only the promise of losing herself in something pure and joyous in the music is able to help her. There's something about the smudged, cramped version of this story in minicomics form (published by 2dcloud) that adds to the atmosphere, as Hanselmann's line is fat and even looks smeared across the page at times.

Kindling, by Xia Gordon. This mostly abstract comic done in red and blue is in many respects a creative shot across the bow by a talented young cartoonist. The sense of the comic capturing something utterly timeless and yet yoked to a specific time and specific place gives the story a sense of a benign push and pull, or rather a hermeneutic understanding of how it's both things at once, and how it can be neither thing without both aspects working together. It's both timeless and specific, this feeling it evokes of being at a beach, watching a night sky, being part of a group that's exchanging an ineffable energy among its members. There's a series of pages of looping lines in the middle of the comic which alternate between looking like a woman's hair and the wind whipping through that hair, until it resolves into a figure walking amidst a rainstorm on the beach. Gordon has incredible chops and a way of looking at the universe that reminds me a little of Aidan Koch, only there's a remarkable warmth and sense of engagement that unites her images that might otherwise seem cold, disconnected and emotionless.  The title of the comic itself brings to mind something that's going to be used to spark a life-giving fire, as though the creation of this comic itself being fuel for future works. Her work fits nicely with 2dcloud's aesthetic.