Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Ian Richardson

Wendigo, by Ian R ichardson. There have been a few CCS cartoonists who have chosen horror as their means of expression, which makes sense considering that Steve Bissette is on the faculty there. Bissette is one of the greatest horror cartoonists of all time, not just for his time drawing and co-writing the classic Swamp Thing run with Alan Moore, but most especially for his role in editing and contributing to perhaps the greatest horror anthology of all time in Taboo. Though Bissette can draw can gore with the best of them to be sure, it was his cerebral approach that left readers to fill in crucial details of the story that made his comics especially unsettling. I don’t know how much Ian Richardson trained under Bissette in particular, but the professor’s legendary movie nights were often designed to test the limits and endurance of his audience.

Richardson understands one of the most important rules of a horror narrative: never give the audience more of an explanation as to what’s going on than the characters themselves get. The corollary to that rule is: try to give the characters as little information as possible. The trick is showing enough to make the story coherent but not so much that the mystery, the source of the terror, is hand-waved away by a trope like a Native burial ground, a demonic totem, etc. What makes Wendigo such an effective comic is that Richardson takes a familiar horror story and still manages to shock the reader. The wendigo is a legend surrounding a party out in the woods in the deep of winter that resorted to cannibalism to survive, causing an evil spirit to create a monster out of the party whose hunger for flesh was unending. It’s an especially nasty story because while it tugs against our willingness to do anything to survive against the harsh odds that nature presents us, it also represents this horrible betrayal against humanity. In this book, a family of five is out in a cabin during the winter, and the father is finding it hard to trap food. Indeed, it seems like some of his traps have been tampered with. Richardson quietly and elegantly portrays the evil spirit in the forest as a series of twigs and leaves bound together, with the skull of an animal atop it. It touches one of his sons and he falls ill. When the man encounters a neighbor who was tracking a fox, they team up to try to kill it, an event that winds up having horrible repercussions.

Richardson’s manipulation of plot details is masterful, especially in the way that it becomes clear that his family is starting to become increasingly ravenous no matter how much meat he feeds them. He hides the reason why for reasons that make sense, but the eventual reveal is both horrifying and triggers the eventual climax of the book. Thanks to his horrible, inhuman decision, the man’s family starts to engage in vicious, murderous behavior that is magnified in its horror by the innocence of some of the characters. The ending is ambiguous in the sense of whether the spirit is thwarted or just heightened. There’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, that nothing good is going to emerge from this situation no matter what. Richardson’s art is a revelation. Earlier in his career, he had a tendency to over-render in an effort to create atmosphere. In this book, he used spot watercolors and a clean, thin line that didn’t skimp on detail but made sure to focus on the characters over anything else. The snowbound setting allowed for some strong use of negative space without sacrificing the reader’s sense of place. Faces and facial expressions, especially across an entire narrative, are still a bit of a weakness in terms of consistency, but Richardson was careful to focus on faces at crucial times.

What Happened To John Crowley?, by Ian Richardson. This isn’t so much a comic as it is a multimedia narrative told in the form of documents, images, letters, and newspaper clippings. The titular character is a man who sliced a woman open in broad daylight, shouting at something to make its presence known. The bulk of the book takes place as a series of letters between a psychiatrist at the local hospital in Vermont and his mentor living in Philadelphia. Ken Harker is the Vermont doctor charged to help the patient, found not guilty by reason of insanity. He writes to his mentor because he is genuinely as how to proceed. Richardson’s drawings are stand-ins for photos. The book is set in the early fifties, a time when shock therapy was still very common and the Polaroid One-Step camera had been invented. The shock therapy briefly helps the patient, who begs for more, that he “almost made it”.

Once again, the reader is ahead of the therapists in understanding that something horrible is happening here, but there are no easy answers to be found. That’s especially true after he manages to lure his brother and ex-wife to the hospital, and the tops of their heads explode and rain out blood that strangely does not stick to him. This is a particularly graphic and gory story in that regard, but far more unsettling is his claim to not be a demon but to be the wrath of god himself. To answer the titular question—no one knows, even 25 years after the fact, when Harker’s mentor tries to make sense of it all. Crowley killed a very specific set of people, then died, and then his corpse disappeared. Richardson leaves it up to the reader to guess at what happened, but it’s a slippery question. Was he possessed by a demon? Did he receive powers that were magnified by electricity? Why did he kill a very specific and small list of people? Did he go on to live in some other form? There are no answers, which is why this story lingers. That tension, once again, between knowledge and being kept in the dark with regard to the unknown, is something that Richardson has mastered. The next step for him as a writer is creating characters who are more than ciphers, something he’s able to do a little of in this story. He’s still more concerned with mastering plot and atmosphere than characterization at this point, but his progress in both of those areas makes me think he’s going to make a leap in other areas as well.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #15: Rio Aubry Taylor, Melissa Mendes & Michelle Ollie

Jetty # 5-9, by Rio Aubry Taylor. Taylor’s transfuturist sci-fi fantasy epic continues in short bursts, but by issue #9 it seems like Taylor is almost ready to move on from this particular storyline. Though this comic is science fiction, it’s also quite obviously intensely personal. The general plotline, that it’s the future, the sun has disappeared, and a girl named Mina is trying to escape capture thanks to some friendly monks who have vowed to protect her, is straightforward enough. It’s an a to b to c story, going from place to place and trying to find safety. At the same time, there are a number of other ancillary characters whizzing around, sometimes interacting with the main plot and sometimes off on their own. This is a story about transformation and loss, and how the two are navigated. It’s about demons and personal demons; one character is a recovering alcoholic who picks up a stray bottle of whiskey, and his self-loathing as a result allows a thousand-eyed demon to track them. It’s transfuturist with regard to trans issues, to be sure, but it also meditates upon the predatory future of capitalism that is far more efficient in eliminating those that don’t contribute to the bottom line. Issue six features a righteous barbarian witch who helps Mina by first clubbing the demon and then casting it into hell. Meanwhile, Taylor’s abstract comics background is used in the service of the narrative, as background characters continue to melt, transform and face incredible pressures.

Issue 7 features a cat creature named Leel’ Riot (a quasi-anagram of Taylor’s name) and zir friend Fill, the constantly and painfully transforming cyborg receiving an epiphany about the location of a missing friend, and Mina’s group gets some info from the witch. The eighth issue is the best of the group, starting with a hilarious flashback to giant underground worms (who seemed to be named after the alter egos of three of the original X-Men) who accidentally unleashed a horrific evil on the world. Taylor gets into some real eschatological stuff here, with demons feeding on pain and Mina’s anger and heretofore unknown powers playing a big part in everything. The sequence with the worms is a compact marvel of great cartooning and funny writing, as the melodramatic worms seem ridiculous until horrible things to start to happen. On top of all this, they are being observed by a sort of techno-Hindu deity up above. The very brief ninth issue is a big stop sign, as Taylor reflects upon zir nature as a sorcerer/cartoonist, conjuring up zir own worlds and creating zir own descendants. Dragging the story through abstract muck must be an incredible amount of labor on an issue to issue basis, and the story might be better served finished all at once. There’s no question that Taylor is creating a stirring, whimsical, queer, frightening and heroic narrative; it just simply needs to breathe a little.

The Weight, #1-2, by Melissa Mendes. I’ve read this in dribs and drabs for a while now, and I look forward to the collection of the original minicomics. That said, Mendes’ sense of design and willingness to delve into behind-the-scenes material makes each mini a valuable read on its own. Mendes’ comics have always been about families, but this is the first time she’s gone deep and to some dark places with a family that is not happy and supportive. Indeed, Edie (the latest in a series of characters who  gender is vague according to appearances, favoring the aesthetic and lifestyle of a tomboy) has an abusive father who took her mother away from her own parents. What makes it worse is that he seemed to have done it out of spite as much as anything else. As portrayed in the first two issues, her father Ray is a ball of resentment and cruelty, hating himself almost as much as he hates everything else in the world.

Her mom, Marian, is helpless against his rage and determined will. The first issue depicts Edie’s birth and Ray’s subsequent revenge on Marian’s family (especially her father) by taking away their daughter from them. The second issue is Edie at about age six or so, a portrait of both extreme toughness and tender empathy. When some local boys trap a rabbit in a snare, Edie takes it away from them, daring them to stop her, as she gives the coney a proper burial. Mendes truly stepped up what was already one of her greatest skills as a cartoonist, which is her use of gesture. With just a few facial expressions and with her body language, Mendes gets across the ways in which she is similar to each of her parents. The fact that none of the boys in this story would dare step to her speaks volumes as to what happened the last time they might have tried to do such a thing. Yet she clearly is nurturing, loving and kind. Seeing her tenderly comfort her mother after another beating at the hands of her father quickly established the lengths to which she would go to help her mother, as well as her rage against her father. It’s a remarkable exploration of some dark territory for Mendes, but she nailed the emotional content of the story not because she’s used to writing highly dysfunctional families, but because the way she’s portrayed loving families comes through so brightly with regard to Edie and her mother. I am eager to read the whole thing, as Mendes continues to become one of the best cartoonists with regard to portraying small but crucial moments.

From The Desk Of The President, by Michelle Ollie. This is the annual CCS pitch comic, and what was interesting is that rather than have a guest or an alumnus make it, the President of CCS, Michelle Ollie, took it upon herself to do so. While not generally a practicing artist, Ollie reveals in this comic a lifelong love of the form. In doing so, she subtly gets across the CCS message of both Applied Cartooning (using your skills in a career that’s not necessarily publishing typical graphic novels) and also the expressive power of comics that anyone can have access to. In the story, she discussed her difficulty reading growing up and going to a rigidly-run Catholic school. It wasn’t until her father noticed that Ollie could read the words in comics just fine that he realized that there was a new avenue to pursue here. Soon, Ollie was not only reading comics, but also writing & drawing her own material. With the comic in a landscape format, Ollie juxtaposed her own childhood drawings of Snoopy in black with blue-line Charles Schulz originals underneath. Comics, she suggests, are simply another means of self-expression. That combination of word and image has a transformative effect on many, including children and veterans returning from war. For those struggling to put things into words alone, the alchemy of words and pictures together unlocks something in the brain, especially when one gives oneself permission to do “bad” drawings. In other words, to simply enjoy the experience of putting pen to paper without worrying what others might think about it. Ollie’s own line is charming and expressive; it more than does the job, especially since she clearly thought out the composition of her comic.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #14: Rachel Dukes, Sean Knickerbocker

Frankie Comics #4, by Rachel Dukes. Dukes has done a lot of different kinds of comics in her career, both personal and work-for-hire. Her best executed comics continue to be about her cat, in part because she achieves perfect balance between naturalist and iconic drawing, and in part because she makes sure to impart a central truth about cats: they are awful. They will mess with you just for fun, because they are mischievous, spiteful creatures. They are frequently either oblivious or indifferent to the needs of their humans. Mining humor out of these essential feline facts is what makes Dukes comics about them funny, because the truth about cat-loving humans is that they don't care. Cats are actually remarkably affectionate and intelligent if they feel like it, and their need to play as a function of hunting makes them extremely entertaining.

That said, as Dukes' partner points out in this issue, cats train humans to feed them, pet them and play with them--not the other way around. Dukes starts playing a game with Frankie where she throws a rubber band, but Frankie never returns it. Instead, Frankie has trained Rachel to keep playing the game precisely as she wanted! For all her mischievousness, Dukes portrays Frankie as a genuinely sweet cat who loves her people and wants their near-constant attention. These strips have become even stronger as Dukes has started to write longer narratives instead of just doing one-off gags, depicting a truly symbiotic relationship. And to be sure, the way Dukes draws Frankie is absolutely irresistible. It feels like Dukes is about half way through a serious collection of these comics, which will make for a formidable and fun book.

Killbuck, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker has been writing stories about disaffected teens in cold, nowhere towns for pretty much his entire career. Killbuck represents the apotheosis of this work, distilled into a single narrative that unwinds to become surprisingly emotionally complex in unexpected ways. Killbuck is the name of the shit town these teens live in, and its very name is spoken of with venom. It's a thing to be derided and a place to leave as soon as possible, which means finding ways to pass the time until such a thing is possible. In towns like this where there's nothing to do, that often leads teens to do stupid things. In the case of Eric, Jesse and Kris, Knickerbocker has set up a classic teen friendship structure. Eric is the obnoxious, abusive alpha male dealing with his own abuse at home. Kris is the classic beta male: he's a fantasy role playing gamer in the early 90s (as his hinted by the lack of cell phones and the prominence of VCRs) who is constantly taking shit from his friends but is also kind of whiny. Jesse is somewhere in-between, going along with pranking Kris but also regretting it at times. He's at the center of the Venn diagram that connects them to Gracie and Sam, two girls who work at a diner and buy pot from Jesse.

The story begins with the friendship among the boys immediately starting to fracture. Eric finds a cabin abandoned for the winter and they break in, and immediately think of bringing the girls over for a party. When the girls realize that they are in the cabin illegally when Kris accidentally spills the beans, they leave and an ugly confrontation between Kris and Eric ensues. It's a line-crossing event whose repercussions are such that Eric not only cuts off all of his old friends and acquaintances, he starts to isolate himself from everyone while still remaining an object of abuse by others. Eric is ignored by Jesse even as he tries to keep an eye on Kris, as he's haunted by his brother brutalizing him and making him cry just as he did to Kris. Gracie becomes better friends with Jesse after he scores her some pot, but the last scene of the book reveals that for all his talk of leaving, he's still very much emotionally trapped in the town.

Indeed, Knickerbocker suggests that Killbuck is a state of mind as much as it is a place. It's a mean, petty and limited state of mind that is simultaneously resentful and entitled. Despite the behavior of his characters, Knickerbocker has empathy for all of them, even Eric, though it's unclear if any of them will take responsibility for their own actions and find a way clear of Killbuck. With this book, Knickerbocker's true style has emerged, with fully-assimilated accents of a dozen cartoonists but a finished look all his own. The emotions of his characters are raw and they wear them on their sleeves, but Knickerbocker's ability to modulate emotion and mood from the extremes of violence to dealing with sheer boredom is his greatest talent as a creator. That sense of verisimilitude, paired with his slightly bigfoot character design, provides a contrast that complements both storytelling aspects.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #13: Charles Forsman

Chuck Forsman came to CCS hoping to find a new direction in life, and there's no question that his imagination and relentless work ethic have truly paid off. Starting with a darkly humorous and absurd point of view, he quickly wrote a number of memorable comics in his Snake Oil series. When he decided to control the means of production when he started his publishing concern Oily Comics, he helped spark a micropublisher revolution and gained an enormous amount of attention for his own minicomics series, The End Of The Fucking World. That wound up being successful as a book for Fantagraphics, and now it's been adapted as a series for BBC (soon to appear on Netflix). After another teen-angst centered book in Celebrated Summer, Forsman switched gears with the ultra-violent Revenger comic, using low-fi 70s & 80s action tropes and revenge storylines. Forsman went to some deep grindhouse places, ultra-violent exploitation films with a subtle modern twist.

I reviewed the first three issues of the Revenger prequel series, Revenger & The Fog, last year. The collection, which also included the stand-alone Revenger #6, is published by Bergen Street Comics. The only thing I'll add to that review is a look at the final chapter, which made the stakes sky-high and then went even further over the top. Reggie, aka Revenger, wakes up with a bomb sewn inside of her, and has to go to extreme measures to get it out while trusting a teammate who betrayed her. Forsman's use of a full-but-flat color style echoing 80s comics, combined with flourishes like a two-page spread with half of Reggie and Slim's heads on each page and a four panel column on the other side is exactly the kind of thing a Frank Miller or perhaps Howard Chaykin (the puffiness of his character design reminds me a bit of Chaykin or his style predecessor Mike Vosburg) might do. The issue ends in tragedy, with Reggie's girlfriend literally lobotomized. These comics feel like Forsman both exploring something in the comics zeitgeist (ultra-violent, slightly ironic exploitation comics by the likes of Ben Marra, Keenan Marshall Keller/Tom Neely, etc.) and stretching himself as much as possible in a new direction. He took the subtext of his older comics, smashed that text in the reader's face and then drove in a few nails for good measure with a sledgehammer. I found the over-the-top nature of the violence interesting, but ultimately a little hollow. It's a sincerely intentioned genre exercise and doesn't really go much further, other than gender and race flipping its main character away from typical genre fare.

On the other hand, the first two issues of Slasher go to some genuinely weird places. They also feel like 80s comics, but more like indy comics that Steve Gerber might have written in one of his more extreme moods. The art retains some of that genre quality but also shifts back to Forsman's more familiar hand, as the people are frequently grotesque, beady-eyed, disfigured or diseased. The main characters are Christina and Joshua, both of whom are attracted to the prospect of violence as a sexual fetish. She falls for him because of his knife-play porn videos, but he's dealing with a vague disease (it's suggested that he's not really sick at all and is suffering from Munchausen's-By-Proxy thanks to his fundamentalist mother) and is at times kept locked up by his mom. She's dealing with a handsy boss, demeaning comments from everyone around her, and the sudden death of her father.

When Joshua's mom catches him wearing a leather mask, she takes away his phone and computer, isolating him from Christina. She takes this opportunity, after months of talking about killing the horrible, horrible people in their lives, to actually do something about it. She ties up a frat boy she picks up at a bar and carves him up. She slits the throat of an asshole in a parking lot who had been heaping abuse on his girlfriend and her daughter. She accepts her boss' invitation to help him cheat on his wife, only to wear a full leather suit and carve him to pieces. It's incredibly lurid but also remarkably authentic feeling, in the way that certain kinds of exploitation films do truly awful things to their protagonists, who themselves respond in even more horrible ways against a nihilistic world. What separates this series from Revenger is the way Forsman truly crawls into the heads of his protagonists, going even further than The End Of The Fucking World in some ways. While Slasher is a much more interesting series than Revenger, it's obvious that he couldn't have made the former without doing the latter first.

Doing Slasher seems to have led Forsman to doing another teen series again in I Am Not Okay With This. I've read virtually every comic that Forsman's published, and this may well be his best. It's certainly his most unflinching work, and that's saying something. Drawn in this hybrid Elsie Segar/Charles Schulz style, the structure of the book is a diary written by Sydney, a depressed and confused high school student who has trouble fitting in. She's an Olive Oyl archetype: skinny and all arms and legs. At the end of the first chapter, we also learn that she's special (or "not basic") in one way; she has the power to use her mind to cause pain in others. The rest of the book is Syd trying to come to terms with that power and what it means in her life.

Each chapter introduces a new element, like revealing to the reader that her father, a Viet Nam vet, also has the power and has been completely traumatized by it. What's more, he knows she has it too and shows her how to use it to put him out of his misery. That's a harrowing discovery, a trauma that only makes things worse. Forsman does something very clever in the book in that he makes it clear that Syd is an untrustworthy narrator. For example, she talks about her mom being a bitch, angrily going off on her, etc. The reality is that the most her mother ever does is calmly ask her where she had been and what's going on. Syd had driven herself into an alienated state so completely that she was having trouble distinguishing a narrative of self-hatred from a reality of hostility/abuse from a parent.

Syd learns that getting high lessens the effect, has sex with her friend Stan (who gets her pot), and goes home with a Peppermint Patty-looking convenience store clerk who goes down on her. In the midst of that pleasure, Syd's seething, latent pain and self-hatred frighteningly manifests as a shadowy monster that she barely controls in time before it kills her lover. With Forsman using the ultra-cartoony, bigfoot style in this book, seeing this scratchy shadow monster silently coalesce over the span of four panels was a genuinely frightening moment. She's terrified of crossing a line, especially by accident.

She crosses a line intentionally later on when she hunts down the guy who got her former best friend Dina pregnant (and threw her out of his car in the middle of the street) and murders him with her powers. The denouement of the book is triggered when Syd goes to his funeral (!) and realizes Dina is still in love with him. She has no idea what Syd did, and that's when Syd realizes that she's a killer, not an avenging hero. Despite it all, there are moments of hope and opportunities lost before the inevitable occurs--and when it does, it's not romantic or majestic or altruistic or unselfish, or any other lies that the pathology of suicidal ideation leads one to believe. It's just swift, shocking and pointless. It's a jolt, one that makes sense in the context of this book being Syd's narrative, and that when other narratives were introduced, cognitive dissonance was also introduced.

Forsman's comics have always been about the veil between civilization and total chaos on a micro level. In an early issue of Snake Oil, there's a scene where demons kidnap a man and tell him, "Yes, this is really happening". It's important to them that he knows that reality and certainty are gossamer-thin constructions that can be torn to shreds at any minute. Celebrated Summer explores that theme through an acid trip that ties into think about the teens' futures. That punk idea of No Future is at the heart of every Forsman story. The End Of The Fucking World forestalls its psychopath protagonist by giving him one thing to care about--at least for a little while. Revenger in many ways is a method of striking back against that uncertain, cruel universe--stabbing it in the eyes to briefly keep it at bay. Slasher similarly is a way of striking back at not just the capricious nature of consensus reality, but also reclaiming one's sexual desires in the face of opposition. I Am Not Okay With This, on a certain level, seems to understand those latter two series as pure fantasy. Even with a deadly superpower, Syd felt helpless and alienated. There were brief respites from her pain that didn't last, and there was no one she could talk to about this. The tragedy of this book is not just that the world is a brutal, unforgiving and stupid place, but that Syd thought she was actively making the world a worse place.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #12: Carl Antonowicz

Carl Antonowicz is an artist whose grim and formally challenging takes on horror and death haven't quite clicked because the visuals weren't quite there to suit the story's needs. Like most young cartoonists, he's starting to figure things out by playing to his strengths as a draftsman instead of overrendering. As a result, his comics are now clearer without losing any of their initial complexity. In Until The Blood Runs Black, for example, he varies his grid structure from page to page as a way of reflecting the uneven course of its main characters but keeps the character design itself simple and expressive. The only visual problem with this comic is that the line weights he uses for the characters is so fine at times that when he goes heavy into spotting blacks (which he does often), it can make whole pages look indistinct. Looking at the pages he drew where the main character tells his sidekick how he lost his birthright, meant to look like a scroll (down to the use of faux-calligraphy), it became obvious that Antonowicz's work looks best in a clear-line style The images snapped off those pages vividly.

In terms of the story, Antonowicz goes back to the laugh-filled Crusades. An indolent soldier (Bernard) and his best friend Jean start heading home, with Bernard desiring some kind of relic or treasure to buy his way back into his family. Jean is world-weary, dependable and kind. They talk their way into a Muslim woman's house for a night's rest, but Bernard steals her relic, a holy cloak that a saint used when blessing the diseased. Jean becomes possessed by the cloak, demanding repentance while his skin festers with boils and he starts attracting flies. In the end, literally no good deed goes unpunished in this pitch-black satire.

Turming Chapter 1. Antonowicz starts the story in media res, as a woman visits a nun who is content to confine herself to her room in an old castle. The nun shakes off the designation of "mother", saying "sister" will do, and that's a huge context clue for what's going on in the village. There is a new status quo in the village, as it is surrounded by some sort of malevolent force called the Miasma. It permanently disfigured the woman's (Yulienne) husband, both emotionally and physically. The nuns and families are certainly bound to the whims of the soldiers who visit, though it's obvious that both parties are interested in sex. The second half of this issue finds Yulienne at home after accepting some food from a soldier who's an occasional sexual partner. While the interesting mix of sex, politics, religion and apocalyptic imagery carries the comic, the character design is still a little shaky at times. On the other hand, Antonowicz is great at drawing buildings and depicting atmosphere. The fog that rolls in with the soldiers is drawn so quickly that you could cut it up. Conceptually, this comic and Buer's Kiss immediately made me eager to see more.

Buer's Kiss. Antonowicz dips into his (fictional) Middle Ages one more time in his most recent project. It's by far his most ambitious and assured book, as he manages to keep clarity of image while losing none of the density of his illustrations. He's more sparing in his use of blacks and even uses a lot of negative white space on some pages. This short preview sets up the ambitious larger story, which he's also adapting for the stage at the same time. That will be a "full-length staged reading...with voice actors, live foley effects and projected images". Given the quality and density of the images in the preview, I imagine this will look impressive. The story follows a woman who was given a funeral mass, which was only ceremonial as her real punishment for her sins was banishment from her village. The exact nature of her sin was not stated, but she doesn't exactly take the news with a smile, saving special anger for her husband, who will no longer even hug her goodbye. The lasting image is that of a defiant woman, breaking the crutch and alms pan she was given as she begins her journey. Everything about Antonowicz's character design and characters in action was impressive, even given a relatively small sample size.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #11: Dakota McFadzean, Dean Sudarsky, Mitra Farmand

That Was Awkward 1-2, by Mitra Farmand. Farmand draws funny, four-panel strips featuring little thumb-shaped characters. That said, it's amazing to see what she can accomplish with such simple shapes, especially in terms of both humor and expressiveness. Seeing one with a pony tail is an inherently funny sight, for example. That said, the strips are funny because of Farmand's wit and sense of timing. Farmand turns her attention toward awkward social interactions on herself (with a fourth panel that says "I DID THIS") as much as she does others ("THIS HAPPENED"). Farmand is especially sharp when doing strips about relationships and dating, racism, workplace drama and aging. She'll occasionally dip into full color experiments that work quite nicely with the ultra-simple figures. Despite the sense of formula from strip to strip, Farmand keeps the audience off balance because the punchline panel can vary from anywhere from the second to the last panel, with either the text noted above to fill out space and emphasize the joke, or else a silent beat panel. I could have read a dozen more issues of this.

Untitled (Last Mountain #4), by Dakota McFadzean. This nerve-wracking, silent story about capitalism and advertising gone horribly awry gets its message across with a number of suspenseful 24-panel pages. It's the story of a young girl who's eating her typical morning sugary cereal with a nauseatingly cute mascot on its box. When it comes to life with its incessant smile on its face, it's unnerving but still interesting to the girl, until the bear wants to play hide-and-seek and its eyes appear on its hands. Not only are its eyes now blank, but dozens of tiny bears can be seen spilling out like maggots. What's real and what's an illusion are questions she's constantly asking herself, as the bears disappear and later come back to haunt her at night, as they've invaded the world and (worse) her mother. There's a nasty image of the girl stabbing her mom in the yes with scissors, only to be met with that unrelenting leer. The girl eventually triumphs, and years pass.

A guy comes into the cafe where she's a barista, and he's wearing a t-shirt with that image. Horrified, she asks about it, and he shows her a video of the bear being back in full-force...and there's a creepy set of panels where we see a close-up of his face, and the image of a bear forming as a kind of boil. In the way that time passes differently as an adult, so are these panels 2x3. It turns out she had kept the evil cereal box in a safe for a number of years, and when she opens it up again, she wishes her present away, and winds up being trapped in the past with the monster, forever eating bowls of cereal. She's sacrificed herself to a past of boredom, cavities and the annoying, invasive and omnipresent nature of advertising. McFadzean's control of his line is superb as he crams so many drawings onto single pages and loses no readability in doing so.

Hyperlydian, by Dean Sudarsky. This is a series of strange aphorisms in the form of letters between the unseen Darla and Ronald. Ronald begins the dialogue with a bunch of statements about ends, means, babies and respect, and the line is deceptively plain, especially with the off-putting font that he uses. Everything about this comic is off-putting, strange and yet familiar by way of deja vu. Darla tells him things like "You are as hostile to grace as rhythm to the future" and urges him not to dance again, with drawings of anthropmorphic notes rushing toward a puddle soaking in musical notes. These letters are interspersed with strange images, jokes, violent scenes that have nothing to do with the epistolary narrative, and these climax in a nail desperately trying to not get hammered, to no avail. There's something beautifully liquid about both text and images that swept me along quickly; I often had to stop myself to retrace my steps and really take in each page. This is a comic in the immersive tradition, filled with poetic passages and images, and it's worth many readings.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #10: Iona Fox & Penina Gal

Almanac 2017, by Iona Fox. So this is actually two variations on the same comic, with some overlapping material and some material unique to the volume. Both are in color. Fox noted that a final edition would be published at the end of the year. These autobio comics at once feel like a blend of influences (Carol Tyler's quirky character design, formal sensibilities and painterly qualities, Julie Doucet's embrace of the grotesque, Gabrielle Bell's whimsical sense of self and John Porcellino's embrace of nature) but also very much its own thing. This is mature work that shows Fox working with a great degree of confidence in her style, and with good reason.

Fox's comics have two built-in advantages. First, in her occupation as a farmer and mountain cabin caretaker, she simply does things that no other cartoonist talks about. Second, her sense of humor is extremely sharp, and she's able to bring humor to any situation. Fox also brings the perspective of someone with a number of intellectual interests, as her degree is in geology, she knows quite a bit about meteorology and it goes from there. Her self-caricature is one of my favorites, with a "fox curl" on top of her head and a collection of freckles, knobby knees and jumbled limbs. Her strips can range from a relationship strip about geese to a beautiful series of shots of sunsets. The strips pre and post Trump's election certainly have a different tone, as she touches both on politics and protecting those around her. There are strips about undocumented dairy workers and their struggle for improved conditions. Fox is also unabashedly frank with regard to her wants and needs with regard to both sex and companionship. There's a remarkable strip where she's betwixt and between out on a hike. She knows she's running late but also understands that moments like this that she's carving out for herself might not be available in a few years. She does it by coloring herself with the yellow-orange glow of the late afternoon and the details she provides of her form include stubble and bony hips. ,

The other edition prints some context notes for the reader, as well as printing rough sketches of strips that didn't make it to her weekly strip in a free weekly. This also has some strips from later in the year, including a hilarious one from the CAKE show where she was advertising on Tindrin order to get people to come to the show. Fox is a great example of a CCS grad who is somewhat limited with regard to the images she creates but at the same time turned those limitations into a highly expressive and personal style with top-notch storytelling. While Fox's stories about her jobs is fascinating and even informative at times, she can turn any subject into something interesting, thanks to her storytelling and narrative abilities.

Orbiting & Meow De Vivre, by Penina Gal. Gal has dabbled in humor and fantasy in her career, but Orbiting is a remarkable, warm, joyous and sensitive message from one friend to another. Told visually in red and green in the language of nature (flowers, clouds, wind, rain, waves, sky and space), it broaches the difficult topic of when a person is dealing with a lifetime of internalized exclusion. They feel they're a bother to others and don't deserve love. On top of this, the person in question is trans, making it even harder to express one's true self. In excruciating, beautiful detail, Gal talks about her friend knowing that she wanted community, but being unable to make it stick for fear of constantly feeling burdensome and unwelcome. There's a moment describing the friend's first kiss, up against a van, the person saying "I care more about art than kissing. Your art is beautiful." Throughout the imagery relates to the friend's tendency to have their head in the clouds, to overthink, to withdraw inside. There are reminders that they are integral to the earth, they are part of it, they are connected and fearless in ways they haven't even considered. Gal's command over line and color is fantastic and imaginative, with a constant tension between keeping the imagery grounded and letting it fly off into space or under water. The beauty of this comic is matched only by its generousness of spirit.

Meow De Vivre is a much sillier project, but it's also visually distinctive. Originally designed for gallery space at a hair salon, Gal actually does something original with cat cartooning. The "Singles In Your Area" page is hilarious, with profiles from "OK Catnip". There are "pawdicures", trash talk about dogs, cat selfies, cat haute couture, and a clever collage. Gal has an eye for gag humor that's never been obvious in some of her other work (with the exception of Glamera, which she did with Betsey Swardlick), but it stands out here in page after page celebrating cats as familiar creatures or as performing drag. Once again, Gal's watercolors are the main attraction, grabbing the eye without looking too garish. Being in a gallery, that use of color was obviously crucial for an audience, but it worked just as well on the page.