Monday, June 30, 2014

Brit Comics: Tim Bird, Lord Hurk, Owen Pomery

Grey Area #2, by Tim Bird. This was published by yet another impressive UK micropublisher, Avery Hill Publishing. This is a lovely, poetic comic that's an ode to British motorways. It follows a businessman whose journeys take him from London to the far north of England, again and again. Bird's line is mostly just functional; the drawings themselves aren't a huge component of the poetic nature of his comics. That lies more in the narrative captions that drive the piece along with his page design. It's not so much immersive, comics-as-poetry as it is a deep meditation on a particular subject, aided by a quasi-narrative that allows the reader to lock in on the experience of a particular person. Though the comic is printed Portrait-style, many of the panels stretch across the page as though they were Landscaped, as four panels are stacked on top of each other. It's a deliberately panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and a recording of what is seen. He also uses this effect to contrast the modern iconography of the road (signs, power lines) with ancient, pagan iconography like carefully arranged stones. He varies his pages to reflect the experience of the driver: traffic jams mean small panels, crammed together. Night driving means bigger and fewer panels, until he drifts away altogether. Bird also engages in abstraction, like the blurring of nights at light or the blurring of vision that comes from staring at the road for too long. The narrative content touches on the quote that prefaces the comic: "Much has been written of travel, less of the road". That is precisely what he gets at in this comic: the underrated beauty of the shapes of roads (comparing them to ley-lines), the rhythm and meditative awareness that driving can create, the language and mystery of roads and the always-continuing quest to create the perfect path, etc. Bird gets at all of this in an understated but entirely effective fashion.

Bazoik, by Lord Hurk.This is a wonderfully strange mix of American crime comics by way of Jimmy Cagney, Brooklyn accents and Tony Soprano mixed with a firmly British sensibility. Hurk likes to cram in tons of clearly-delineated detail into frequently small and asymmetrically-designed pages, keeping the reader off-balance with panels that shift and lurch unexpectedly while delivering killer punchlines with exaggerated expressions. "Bronx Cheer", about a gangster sent into secret exile by his mob boss, finds him recounting his story in the hinterlands of England at an eel shop--only to find a deadly surprise waiting for him. "Dope-Crazy Killer Cartoonist" takes a similarly slanted and odd approach to page design as it channels scolding but lurid crime comics of the 1950s. Seeing a cartoonist walking around with a big black jug labeled "Dope" and injecting it into his nipples was hilarious--just the right amount of over-the-top humor while cleverly referencing an entire sub-category of comics history.The demented capper in this collection of short stories is "O'Killagin", about a mob boss who arranged to have himself brought back to life, Frankenstein's monster-style, who goes on to kill every other mob boss in town. The true origin of how he came back to life is revealed at the very end after several pages of hilariously bloody violence. This is a densely-packed, beautifully-arranged and quite funny send-up of both a particular kind of genre and America's fascination with it.

The Megatherium Club Vol 1, by Owen Pomery. Another Avery Hill production, Pomery's hatching-heavy and deliberately exaggerated account of the shenanigans of the 19th century group of "scientists" who lived in the Smithsonian castle is as silly as one would expect. Led by William Stimpson, the Megatherium Club was known for its drunkenness, absurd behavior (sack races in the Smithsonian great hall) and interest in naturalism. Pomery amps up their general level of weirdness and tamps down the actual science performed by the club, as they are forced to find evidence of the Yeti or face expulsion from the Smithsonian. It's very much a sitcom plot, with half the group bound and determined to find and bring back a Yeti and the other half determined to produce a fake in order to maintain their free housing and booze. The humor mostly revolves drunkenness and generally inappropriate behavior, with some extra saucy language thrown in for good measure. Some of the bits land by sheer dint of the weirdness of the club and others thud on delivery as the same punchlines are repeated more than once. The main attraction of the comic is Pomery's extensive use of vertical hatching on nearly every page in an effort to convey the "vintage" feel of the story, as though each panel was a photograph; it makes up for some rough character design and drawings on some of the pages. There's a promising comic to be made using this style and the Club itself, but this one didn't properly mix the balance between humor and fact quite right.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Coming-Out Party: On Loving Women

Diane Obomsawin's biographical series of stories, On Loving Women, (Drawn and Quarterly) is one of the most tender, heartfelt and amusing books I've ever read on the subject of first loves and coming out. Employing a simple line and anthropomorphic characters, she tells the stories of a number of women, many of whom grew up in an era where it was far more difficult to be gay than it is now. The stories are alternately sweet, awkward, painful and even hot, depending on which woman was telling her story and how much detail she cared to share. Mathilde's story was one of the sweetest and oddest stories, as she first told the reader how obsessed she was with horses and then revealed that the women she wound up being attracted to happened to be horse-faced. She also noted that her first real community of lesbians all happened to be deaf, which spurred her to learn sign language.

Bars play an important role in this book. Maxine noted that bars in Canada were the first place to offer safe zones and the ability to express oneself freely, especially for butch lesbians. For October, being older than she looked allowed her to get into a pub and establish contact with a woman she had her first sexual encounter with. In a twist that would seem crazy if it wasn't true, she ran into this woman years later on the street. October had a girlfriend but asked if she could fool around with her ex from time to time. This scenario seemed to be going fine until she "made the mistake of introducing her to my girlfriend" and October found herself on the outside looking in. M-H's story was very much about the urge to feel desired; she knew that as a sexually aggressive person, she would also be able to sleep with someone at a straight bar. At lesbian bars, that gaze of desire was nowhere near as strong, making her relatively shy. When she finally hit it off with a woman at a bar, it seemed like things would be going nowhere when her crush had a girlfriend--until all three of them went home together and had a drunken threesome.

Obomsawin's line may be spare, but it is remarkably effective in expressing emotion and moments of humor. In Maxime's story, she draws its protagonist as being in a "state of shock" by drawing a giant frying pan bonking her in the head. In Sasha's story, she draws the "love-struck" protagonist with saucer-sized eyes. There's a superb two page sequence later in the story where she comes out to her high school classmates, suddenly prompting all of her friends to be confused--with a roomful of students looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling, their chins perched on their hands. On the next page, we see her in a huge college auditorium, which she describes as a "whole other story", because "everybody wanted to have a lesbian experience". There's a hilarious panel where we see Maxime in the center, with every girl in the room from the first panel turned around to stare at her. The story ends with her being annoyed by being pursued by girls who weren't after love, just a new experience.

There are also less whimsical and amusing stories, as Marie was sent away to live with her aunt on account of her fooling around with girls. Catherine talked about how she acted out in school because she didn't know a safe way to express her sexuality. On the other hand, Charlotte's story saw her make love with her best friend in high school and get served breakfast the next day by her mother! While there aren't any truly harrowing stories in the book (the sort that L.Nichols notes in Flocks, her own coming-out series) involving violence or huge family schisms, there is still tension, pressure and a great deal of confusion. Asking older women about their experiences meant talking to survivors who wound up thriving and had perspectives on their past that younger people might not have had. This book also provides a space specifically for women's coming-out stories, which is not uncommon in poetry and literature but quite rare in comics.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Office: Benson's Cuckoos

Anouk Ricard is best known for her excellent children's comic series Anna and Froga, which is unusual in that its humor is that of awkwardness. Squirm humor, which mines vanity, a lack of self-reflection, the clash of socially inept characters with social mores and in general creates situations that expose our carefully but invisibly created social boundaries, really came to the fore in the US with the TV show Seinfeld. Its co-creator, Larry David, took squirm humor to another level with his own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. In England, squirm humor was layered atop quotidian, office life with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office. In my review of Ricard's Anna and Froga, I compared the group of friends there to the Seinfeld gang of friends. In the ever-escalating farce Benson's Cuckoo's, Ricard's squirm humor is very much a tribute to The Office that goes in a far more extreme direction.

The story begins with a new employee named Richard being introduced at Benson's Cuckoo's office. We first encounter him being interviewed by the "zany" boss, Mr Benson, who is an even more extreme version of the David Brent/Michael Scott boss from The Office. We learn that he only has the position because he inherited it from his father, who was an actual competent businessman. During the interview, Benson makes inappropriate jokes, draws a mustache on Richard's photo in his resume', asks him if he can touch his feet without bending his knees and other bizarre non sequiturs. Richard is even forced to buy his own computer and bring it into work as a precondition of being hired.

From there, things get even weirder. An office meeting devolves when an accountant faints after his intern screwed up a presentation by hand-drawing a pie chart (using cheese as a model) and doing a line chart without a ruler. An attractive former co-worker of the man Richard replaced named Sophie tears up when his name is mentioned. A belligerent worker named Christine repeatedly makes inappropriate remarks to Richard, some of a sexual nature. The boss seems to want to fire people at the drop of the hat and has the attention span of a gnat. Poor Richard gets drunk and pukes on Sophie, just as he's set to ask her out. While The Office started out weird and squirmy and slowly developed softer edges over the years, Benson's Cuckoos starts out weird and takes a dark (but still hilarious) turn, as the fate of the man Richard replaced becomes an open mystery. Unlike Michael Scott or David Brent, Benson shows no redeeming qualities whatsoever, either as a person or as a competent businessman. The erratic behavior of several coworkers winds up having a sinister origin, and both Sophie and Richard get caught up in it.

The clever thing about this book is that whether Richard is on a forced scavenger hunt or tied up in a basement, the pettiness of the intraoffice relationships doesn't change a bit. The same meanness, spite and laziness just gets pushed up to more absurd levels, but that pettiness keeps the pulse of the action at an even keel. It's hard for the reader to take any of this seriously, and that's how Ricard is able to get so dark at times and still keep the mood of this book light. Of course, the fact that she's using brightly-colored anthropomorphic animals as her characters is another way of keeping everything silly. For example, when Christine, the workmate who makes inappropriate and beilligerent comments to Richard about sex and other matters, lifts up her skirt and inadvertently shows him her panties, any sexualization in that scene is immediately sapped away because she's an anthropomorphic frog. The cheerful color scheme is almost offensive on some pages, giving the warped characters a cute quality they most certainly do not deserve. It's another approach in keeping the book's mood light even as it gets weird. Of course, as Ricard shows us in the end, even when things return to normal, it's the normal of a lunatic like Benson, as the inmates grow to enjoy living in the asylum.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Impressive Kickstarter: Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream

Locust Moon Press (an extension of Locust Moon Comics in Philadelphia, which also holds its own convention) is trying to fund a huge book of Winsor McCay Little Nemo tributes in a book that's to be called Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. It will be full color and has a remarkable roster of cartoonists from both the alt-comics camp as well as more mainstream cartoonists. It's going to be a hardback printed at original broadsheet size (16 x 21"). The book is done and the fundraiser is for printing; essentially, this kickstarter is a pre-sale. Check it out, if this sort of project appeals to you.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Oddball Minis: Winslow-Yost/Rae-Grant, Dugan, Mitchell/White, Phelan, Bong

Popcorn Muscles #1, by Gabriel Winslow-Yost and Michael Rae-Grant. The duo behind the deranged Steel Sterling comic once again takes Golden Age superheroes and villains like TNT Todd, Iron Skull, Master Mystic and Airmale & Stampy and does odd things with them. Using a day-glo color scheme that recalls the greatest excesses of Paper Rad as well as the deliberately posed and stilted character designs of Michael DeForge, this comic explores some different areas than their first effort, which was both more comedic and more kinetic. For example, Airmale and Stampy here are retired heroes and lovers who must use all sorts of devices to prevent themselves from floating away in their civilian lives. An extended sequence where Stampy is trying to take a shower and Airmale trying to prevent his lover from hurting himself. Stampy is tired of living like a freak, which leads to a surprisingly poignant ending that's revealed by a pot full of wilted flowers. Pink, yellow and blue are the dominant colors here, and their assault is so prominent that the conventionality of the set-up and the emotional rawness of the piece are both considerably muted, leaving the reader to sort and sift through it.

The Iron Skull sequence is a series of three identical images of a bizarre character with an irregularly-shaped head waiting to hear thoughts in his head from someone else. Like in the first strip, there's a lingering sadness at work in the wake of the clashing, psychedelic colors; it seems to be about someone losing his mind. The story of TNT Todd gets at the heart of what GWY and MRG seem to be after, which is the transparency of the constituent elements of their art. That is, they want the reader to see that this was drawn by computer, that it's constructed of very simple geometric elements, that its intelligibility is entirely dependent on the reader's ability to make connections in what they see. The mangled use of language, the out-of-panel asides to iconic images like his "g-man badge",  and the increasingly psychedelic and nonsensical flow of images almost make this feel like this is a story being told (or read) by someone with an aphasia. That said, there are enough clues that make this feel like an extreme, abstracted "cover version" of an original Golden Age story, one where the title character is indeed captured by skull creatures, encounters thieves wearing gas masks, is gassed and shot at and finally triumphs by shooting everyone with lightning. The last few pages are a particularly intense read with the bright red background initially obscuring the other colors on the page until one's eye learns to process it. The simplicity (and frequently, sheer stupidity) of the original stories and characters gives the artists some interesting material to work with, especially since they manage to channel the original frenzied energy that went into the Golden Age characters and turn it into something quite different. I am once again curious to see how they will follow this particular comic, though the #1 on the cover seems to indicate that this may be their new two-man anthology for the near future.

After The Gold Rush, by Dave Dugan. This is a genuine comics/zine oddity. Published in a manila folder with an untitled doodle, this is a collage of paper scraps, drawings by Dugan, and band announcements for his friend Nate Solod. Solod was a drummer and singer for a variety of funk bands as well as a roadie for the band G.Love and Special Sauce. The narrative, such as it is, is carried along by Dugan paraphrasing the Neil Young song "Tonight's The Night", which is about a roadie friend who died due to a drug overdose. During the course of the comic, Dugan reveals that Solod committed suicide. There are some neat lyrical symmetries; for example, in the original, there's a line about "playing guitar with a shaky hand". That's changed to "pound the drums with a shakyfoot"; "Shakyfoot" happened to be one of Solod's many projects, and Dugan designed a logo for it. There's an amazing sequence halfway through the zine where a vicodin wrapper is altered with Dugan's drawing and various words highlighted and circled ("depression", "overdose", "drug addiction"). stapled to it is the back of a cane sugar bag with a drawing of a woman that says "kisses sweeter than wine". That's what I enjoyed most about this comic: the total, frenetic commitment to its concept. There are other touches, like blank doctor's physical examination forms being used to draw on but also partly filled out in clever, telling ways. This comic is beautiful, strange, moving and psychedelic all at once. It is no more and no less a tribute to a friend, one designed to honor a friendship and history of collaboration entirely in the language of the nature of that collaboration: comics and music. If some of ideas seem a bit on the nose at times, the sheer sincerity and handmade effort of what is most assuredly an art object won me over.

REH #5 by Brian John Mitchell and Andrew White and Lost Kisses #25, by Brian John Mitchell. Mitchell has been producing his weird little micro-mini comics (2" x 2 1/8") for years. Many of them are skewed takes on genres from sci-fi to horror to westerns to the supernatural, done with artists with a wide range of skill. My favorite two series are represented in this latest batch. Lost Kisses is drawn in stick figures by Mitchell himself. There's a narrative box (usually at the bottom of each page) and a figure in each panel, with the figure saying something that's either in support of or at odds with the narrative caption. What started with just a series of somewhat despondent/ironic takes on life has morphed into something futuristic. Taking a page from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, his unnamed character has become "unstuck in time", popping up in a post-apocalyptic future. It's a typically, funny weird and strange comic that's as much about cringe humor as it is about a particular plot. REH features the private writing of the author Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Taken from when he was taking care of his mother and trying to scratch out a career as a writer (and get paid for the stuff he got published), White's spare and moody pencil work is a perfect complement to Howard as filtered through Mitchell. With just a single image available per page, White has to buckle down and waste no lines in creating atmosphere, as he must get across a single idea in dramatic fashion. It's a great series about writing and the writing process, as well as a window into another era.

St Packrat's ABC and Alice B. Toeclip's Stay-in-bed Yoga Ritual, by Jacquie Phelan. These are self-described as "chapbooks", and they are micro-minicomics that feature drawings and text pasted in. Phelan is an interesting character; she's a former road and cyclocross bike racer and was a giant in her sport. These comics reveal a whimsical and philosophical soul, one whose spiritual investigations are leavened with a great deal of humor and self-deprecation. The ABC mini is a primer that talks about a mouse character's proclivity for hoarding and how it affects her life--and how it's also a symptom and manifestation of depression. The Yoga mini is a funny series of diagrams that detail her routines for doing yoga while still in bed, with positions like "cinnamon roll". It is at once deadly serious and light-hearted. The minis themselves are at the crudest possible level of technical ability; the photocopying is badly done, and Phelan had to pencil in by hand words and images that got deleted from the copies. Her drawing is rudimentary at best. That said, if Phelan can improve the technical aspects of her comics, she has the potential to be a very interesting artist. As someone who's led a rich and interesting life, I imagine there's a lot she could talk about regarding her experiences. Beyond simply expanding on things that she's done, her sense of humor and point of view are both huge positives regarding potential future work.

World of Bong, by D.R. Bong.  This is a short, black and white mini that's essentially meant as a teaser for the webcomic. It is a self-consciously goofy, crudely-computer drawn strip. Everything about this strip is awkward and stilted and not in a way that's funny. It's the sort of comic that relies on the idea of a Spanglish-speaking protagonist named "Mustachio" is inherently funny. The crude drawings don't even have the advantage of a human hand being directly behind them, and the awkwardness of their creation on the page and the inability of Bong to draw figures that relate to each other in space in a way that makes sense further dims whatever small, absurdist appeal the comic might have had.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Catching Up With Jon Chad

Jon Chadjurian is one of the more versatile and talented draftsmen in comics. He's also remarkably prolific, which is surprising given how detailed his line can be. Chadjurian (or Jon Chad, as he's known for some of his projects) has written and drawn two children's books, a huge compendium of disgusting humor, five issues (50 pages each) of a fantasy series involving bicycles and the first mini with bits and pieces of a science-fiction epic. On the side, he does a zine about pinball and contributes to anthologies. I get the sense that "workshopping" each of these projects with minicomics ahead of time allows him to stay fresh and interested. Let's take a look at each.

Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis. This second book in his Leo Geo series is Chad's most "commercial" work, but it's clear that this one is just as near and dear to his heart as his less commercial work. Published by Roaring Brook Press, Chad uses his talent for formal playfulness to guide the reader's eye across the page while deluging them with dozens of "eye pops" on each page. The first book in the series saw him go to the center of the earth, and so the book had to be held at a 90 degree angle so as to scroll down the page. When the reader and Leo reached the center, the book then had to be flipped 180 degrees so as to climb back up the other side. In this book, Leo goes to warn his brother Matt Data about a comet heading his way, taking his sentient computer along for company. When you flip the book upside down, we see a brand new title (Matt Data and the Cosmic Crisis) and a different mission: Matt going to warn Leo that his computer was infected by a virus that will make it perform bad experiments instead of "rad experiments". These books are tremendous fun because they dispense actual science fact along with goofball craziness (the action reminds me a little of the Johan Sfar/Emmanuel Guibert Sardine series) and give the reader a number of options on how to read it. Indeed, Chadjurian gives the reader a list of things to watch out for while reading the book, or the reader can simply follow the progress of the rocket (and the word balloons) across the page and ignore everything else. Of course, the eye pops are the best part of the book; they're bits of tiny punchlines crammed into a book that relies heavily on its formal structure to create reader interest. That's a deliberate strategy, as the highly simplified forms of Leo and Matt are rendered such as to keep things simple for the reader when tracking them across the page.

On the other hand, The Bad-Ventures of Bobo Backslack is Chadjurian's chance to cut loose on every filthy, unpleasant and just plain gross character and gag he could think of it. Bobo is kind of a pathetic nebbish in the mold of Todd Margaret from the TV show The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. The main difference is Bobo's insane lack of guile and self-awareness; they're so irritating that one can't help but laugh out loud every time something horrible happens to him--which is on virtually every page. The character design of Bobo, with those glassy eyes, upswooped hair in the front, annoying bow tie and sweat constantly flying off of him is perhaps the least endearing I've ever seen for a protagonist. In the course of the book, Bobo eats some cursed alphabet soup that causes him to vomit it up in offensive phrases, including puking a number of insults into the face of the girl he has a crush on. Sequences where he pukes things out like "Ha ha just kidding. I would never like you. Your loathsome personality and looks disgust me!" get funnier and funnier as they keep escalating. Chad doesn't spare a single grotesque detail; indeed, virtually every character in the book carries at least a touch of the grotesque, like creepy next-door neighbor Ted Sickness. This unblinking, stupidly-smiling, Weeble-shaped character is weird enough on his own, but when he starts making out with another potential love interest at a kissing booth (and when his cat joins in for a three-way kiss), Chadjurian achieves an amazing level of squirming comics absurdity.

Bobo later gets ingested by a giant snake who puts on a wig and takes over his life; gets horrible allergic reactions to cats and milk (the latter after being dunked in a tank full of milk), gets chased by dogs and savaged by birds; is manipulated by an insane Japanese terrorist (who for some reason keeps a cat in his drawer and feeds it beer and chips); is scolded by a friend of his mother's to clean up his house; and is captured by the US government both for potentially causing a breakout of a virus as well as the unforgiveable crime of copyright infringement. Each character is more insane (and weirdly drawn) than the next, like a group of counter-terrorists who can't stop talking about how hard they are. Chadjurian is less interested in upping the ante on a page-to-page basis than he is simply maintaining utter anarchy in a manner that's still remarkably easy to follow. He very carefully structures Bobo's adventures in a conventional manner; it's just that the characters and the outcomes are hilariously gross. One gets the sense that Bobo is his outlet for these kinds of ideas that tend to lurk beneath the surface for him. I am generally not the target audience for these sorts of gross-out gags, but Chad's sheer enthusiasm in delivering them in the most deliberately bland of packages is infectious. Combined with the fluidity and clarity of his line, Bobo's misfortunes are almost beautiful to behold.

Bikeman is Chad's ongoing fantasy series. There's the expected wide cast of characters, the lushly-drawn forest settings, and requisite weird and grotesque character design. Of course, because it's a Chad comic, things are off-kilter, as the inhabitants of this particular world ride quasi-sentient bicycles. Chad's facility in drawing machines gives the bikes a real presence in each panel, making the fantasy world feel remarkably real. The fifth issue features the young protagonist hunted down by a vicious character named Brasko and his gang. The essential triangle of the book is with the young man, Brasko, and the mysterious Bikeman. The latter character appears in flashback in this issue, as we learn that he was raised by wolves, a relationship that was not entirely benevolent for him. After a number of skirmishes and light-hearted moments that marked the first four issues of the series, this is a serious patch of trouble for the boy, who is being used by the villain to find the Bikeman. The action sequences in this issue are thrilling, as Chad cleverly uses blurring to depict the speeds at which the bikes are flying through the forest, flipping the reader from panel to panel. When the action stops, Chad uses two vertical panels per page, with close-ups on the terrified face of the boy followed by the sneering, toothy grin of the monstrous villain. While Chad's storytelling style and attention to detail is similar to that of his friend Alec Longstreth, the more whimsical qualities of his narrative remind me more of Max Badger's excellent book Oak. All three cartoonists share an ability to work in a particular genre and deliver a narrative that fits within its rules while still applying their own idiosyncratic ideas and storytelling methods.

Chad goes even further afield in the introduction to Mezmer, his space fantasy epic. In some ways, this is his craziest work to date. Rather than tell a single, linear narrative in this issue, Chad instead tells a series of vaguely connected short stories. Some of them are heavy with backstory, like the robotic Maxer giving the reader a bit of history. Others come in toward the very end, like the confrontation between the heroic man/machine Mumfot and the roguish Ferls, which ends with the hero destroying a "Doombox". Ferls is rescued by his extremely cheerful sentient craft Bluebell, which constantly shouts out things like "I'm Bluebell! Now you're on me!" It's sort of like if a dog could talk but also had lasers and could fly. This is further reinforced in a supplemental mini where Bluebell is first created and becomes friends with Ferls. Drawn a bit like his Leo Geo comics, Bluebell explores space in side-scrolling fashion until he meets his new partner. Included with the mini is what looks like a child's drawing; it's a drawing that Bluebell made for Ferls. This level of absurd detail in a sci-fi story approaches Ryan Cecil Smith's insane devotion to world building in his S.F. series. Back to the main mini, there are also tales of the War Rock, a giant, sentient rock-like creature that participates in and is a fan of war. Bluebell appears and gets a day off. More backstory is thrown in here and there, creating a sense of history and depth that is nonetheless quite deliberately silly. That said, Chad seems best suited for science fiction above all else; there's something about the way he draws machines, ships and power-rays that makes it look like they simply flow out of his pen with no effort. One senses an avalanche of characters emerging from his imagination that he can barely keep up with.The fractured narrative style allows the reader to concentrate on these details without worrying too much about a conventional plot. To be sure, the plot is never the thing when it comes to Jon Chadjurian's work; indeed it's all about the ride.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fundraiser for Cringe

Here's a fundraiser for a worthy comic: the anthology Cringe.This is a book about embarrassment and "personal humiliation, shame and awkwardness from a variety of indie cartoonists." The book is fully funded, but project chief JT Yost informed me that extra money will go straight to the artists. This is a rare opportunity for an artist to get paid for contributing to an anthology, so I'd urge readers to do so. Participating artists include John Kerschbaum, Jeffrey Brown, Box Brown, Sam Henderson, and Steve Lafler.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Catching Up With Box Brown

Though most of the press Box Brown is receiving of late is regarding his new Andre The Giant book with First Second, he's been remarkably prolific on the minicomics front as well. Let's take a look.

Softcore 1-3. Brown is at his best when examining the fine details of the lives of the scummy and scuzzy. These comics are about a couple of guys who hire models to jack them off on camera, for placement on a website. Each issue is from the point of view of a different character; in #1, we follow a young man doing this for the first time with a model from Russia. After they conclude what he describes as a hand job detached enough that it felt "like we were fixing a toilet together", her handler makes a series of bizarre hand signals. The anxiety-ridden young man concludes that he was cursed by "Russian voodoo" in a hilarious but harrowing series of physically debilitating experiences. For him, the neurosis of this experience was channeled into a supernatural feeling, replacing his guilt and self-loathing.

The next two issues are from the point of view of Candy, the model, who mostly sees the men she works with as an opportunity to separate them from their money, and her fellow Russian Karlina. From Candy's point of view, her friend who put a "curse" on the protagonist in the first issue is a video game nerd who was just throwing up signs from a game, and she used him to essentially drain him of a lot of money in order to bring her friend over. Karlina in turn went over to Frank's apartment, another guy who does videos, essentially in order to case him and see what he was all about after drugging him. Every figure in these comics is designed to look like a cross between a Chris Ware character and a Michael DeForge character in that they are highly simplified while appearing at weird angles. Every character is crooked,slanted and exaggerated in terms of both posture and motive, as Brown examines a number of desperate and lonely people either looking to make a connection or else get ahead in life. I'll be curious to see how the series continue to develop.

Beach Girls is a loving tribute to spring break movies and the culture that surrounds both vacation spots and vacations themselves. Once again, Brown populates this comic with a cast of low-lifes, morons and opportunists, all of whom are either after thrills or money. Those after thrills are easily separated from their money by the locals who survive on tourist money; in a sense, it's a less creepy version of the sort of relationships found in Softcore. Brown also treats these characters with considerably more affection, especially true believers like Hank and Phoebe. Hank is the lunkheaded surfing true believer who resents the presence of tourists and is indifferent to bilking them out of their money at the skate/surfing shop at which he works. Phoebe is the "plain" friend who accompanies two other, more conventionally attractive friends to the beach and is in search of authentic experience. The relationship that develops between her and Hank is sweet and defies many expectations. Brown seems to have a lot of fun drawing cartoony, minimalist faces on top of beach bodies, giving all of them a certain cheap tackiness that defies the real-world ideal that we think of when we consider the glamour of the beach. The back-up by James Kochalka is pretty much what one would expect of Kochalka: silly and disposable.

The best of his recent work is certainly Number 1. The lead story, "Kayfabe Quarterly", wraps up Brown's fascination with professional wrestling into the story of a kid who grows up obsessed with the notion of "kayfabe". This is a professional wrestling term referring to the wrestlers staying in character and pretending what they're doing is real, no matter what. It leads him to wonder how many adults in his life are practicing kayfabe, saying one thing but meaning and doing another. "What's real? What's a work?" (A work is a match whose outcome and events are entirely predetermined and scripted.) This leads to a chronology of the history of his magazine, leaving him to wonder at times "What if there's not enough bullshit out there to write about?" Ingeniously, Brown eventually turns the story in on itself, as the protagonist slowly evolves and comes to terms with his brother's religious tendencies, his father, and friends he's fallen out with. All wind up as fodder for his magazine, frequently befuddling and enraging his readers. Even as the magazine retreats to the internet, there's a fundamental sweetness at work here that's typical of Brown's work. Even the crudest character is capable of personal insights and the ability to evolve. The DIY nature of the publication also reflects Brown's own status as a DIY publisher, something that's distilled a bit more harshly in the second story, "The Documentarian". It's a series of one-panel strips about a film documentarian and what he's doing at that moment. That figure is always in silhouette, but it may as well be Brown or any number of creators barely hanging on, receiving some crumbs of recognition and then getting back to work without ever truly being able to cope. Brown gives a sympathetic portrait in both stories of people who work mostly on their own in an attempt to further their own dreams and what it costs them in order to do so. Brown's work is best when he works big, and the character design looks great on page after page. With his sketchy style, he relies a lot on zip-a-tone effects to give his pages some weight and depth and relies heavily on spotting blacks on other pages. He varies his visual approach depending on how old the character is, which helps move the story along in time as well as varying imagery for the reader. It's a simple, unobtrusive tactic that is quite effective. Brown is building up an impressive library of characters who are in society's margins but nonetheless have complex inner lives and stories to tell.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Expunging Bile: Black Lung

There are some stories that need to be told by cartoonists. The ideas are so compelling, so wonderful, that the stories flow out of them, as though the story was writing itself. Chris Wright's Black Lung is not such a story. Instead, it feels more like a cancerous tumor that had to be excised from Wright's imagination in order to finally free him of it.Wright's grotesque character design that was so unsettling and fascinating in his Inkweed collection is still at play here, as his characters are huge, lumpy, bulbous men with sausage fingers and weird tufts that make up their hair. It's like they're a race of aliens or monsters in human clothing, with the stories set in a vaguely 19th century milieu. This is an era of sailing ships and piracy, but there's little romance in this story.Wright unleashes the full power of his dense artwork to create a relentlessly grim and oppressive story that is at times a pitch-black satire of both reason and faith.

There's a fairly wide cast of characters, but it essentially settles on three men: a vicious local thug named Mose, a dark-hearted pirate captain named Brahm and a refined but troubled teacher named Isaac. The first third of the book, though rough and tumble, is light-hearted when compared to the rest of the book. There are bar fights, kids run amok, cases of mistaken identity, schemes and various other forms of seedy shenanigans. Wright's ultra-dense use of hatching and cross-hatching creates an oppressive atmosphere, but it's one that nonetheless feels entirely alive. The bars, restaurants and streets feel like dirty, grim and real places. That powerful solidity of place is crucial when Isaac accidentally ends up in a bar full of men set to ambush Mose and have him conscripted to Brahm's crew. Isaac sticks out ridiculously in this setting, making his kidnapping by pirates almost a comedy of errors.

The humor of the book, such as it is, gets even darker once aboard the pirate ship. Mose quickly adapts to life as part of the crew and takes Isaac under his wing. The crew is full of murderous psychopaths, degenerates and the insane. Under Brahm's command, they ruthlessly pillage and plunder other ships. There's an almost relaxed, quotidian quality about the second third of the book, as Wright leisurely introduces us to the rest of the cast and the reader gets a sense of what daily life is like. Of course, daily life is horrible and dangerous, especially for someone as soft as Isaac, but that's part of the book's appeal. He is able to make himself useful by reading books to Brahm, and the two slowly develop an intellectual and philosophical rapport.

Brahm does what he does because the two women he loved and their unborn children were technically heathens, and thus in hell. Rationally, with the presupposition that god is real, Brahm reasons that if he lives as wicked and awful a life as possible, he is sure to rejoin his loved ones in hell. That logic is twisted but entirely sound, and Isaac reveals that he teaches poor children because he was kicked out of his last job for having an affair with a student, and then mistreated her afterwards. The final third involves Brahm leading his crew to a raid on a fort with a massive treasure and then disappearing. This part of the book is a real Heart of Darkness moment, one where morals, ethics and society utterly break down in savagery, with each man having to decide for himself what is good and evil. In the end, Isaac is left alone on an island, perhaps as punishment but more likely as a sort of reward from Brahm, an opportunity for his own redemption. Whether or not Brahm has found his own redemption through evil deeds is left up to the reader to decide, but it's remarkable what a well-rounded and even sympathetic character he becomes in Wright's hands. This is a book about a lot of mens' dark nights of the soul writ large (and bloody), and Wright offers no easy answers for any of them.

Friday, June 13, 2014

NoBrow Week: NoBrow 7-9

Let's take a look at the most recent editions of NoBrow's titular flagship anthology. The anthologies were some of NoBrow's earliest publications and the first five volumes didn't actually have any comics as such, just illustrations (some of which had a narrative content). Now the anthology is split 50/50 in terms of comics and illustration, making it highly unusual in today's comics scene. The anthology can be seen as a celebration of the NoBrow aesthetic: elegance, simplicity of design and vividness of color. For many of the pieces, the most immediate impact comes from that use of color rather than the line of each artist or even the narrative. The effect is not a slick one, as the comics maintain a certain warmth and even welcoming quality despite the brightness of each individual page. NoBrow is old-school in that each volume has a particular theme the artists must work around. Each issue has an interesting mix of North American, British and European cartoonists, all of whom fit the NoBrow aesthetic in one way or another. There's also a sense of whimsy to be found in many of the pieces, if not outright (dry) humor. Most every piece tends to be four pages, with a few exceptions, and it's clear that the artists brought their A-games in order to participate.

The best of the three issues reviewed here is NoBrow #7, themed "Brave New World." Editors and publishers of NoBrow Alex Spiro and Sam Arthur put together a killer line-up, and they delivered. Beginning with a doomed bicycle rider as drawn by Joost Swarte, most of the pieces edge up against science-fiction and distopian fiction. Tom Gauld opens up with the ABCs of utopia ("jetpacks", "xenopets") and follows that with the ABCs of "Our Dreadful Future", including "kill-bots" and "zeppelin attacks". It's typically dry and witty Gauld. Joe Lambert's piece of course centers on children, and it's one of his best stories to date. It concerns a group of children worrying about mortality and meeting a rich next-door neighbor. They get into all sorts of shenanigans and the end of the story reveals that this was a flashback to the three friends in the future, reminiscing about how their bond started. Lambert's line is always superb, but here he's really getting at gesture and dialogue that really captures the experience of children.

Eleanor Davis goes backward, as a group trying to reenact Adam and Eve before the fall is slowly whittled down to a single couple. Davis has always worked well using color as a primary narrative tool, and her use of pastels mimics the effect of reading this as a series of cave drawings. Luke Pearson dabbles in a ghost story that involves jumping back and forth in time. Jillian Tamaki's story is about a woman who starts to shrink and simply carries all the way through her being absorbed in a story that's strangely moving. Ethan Rilly's story of a misanthropist working in a mining colony is fantastic, getting at both the alienation of the main character and just how incredibly intolerable he is to others. I could read a book about this character. Richard Short's highly cartoony strip using his usual cast of characters is typically amusing, philosophical and harrowing.

Michael DeForge's "Leather Space Man" strips are show-stoppers, introducing this alien being as a kind of documentary subject, one given over to eyewitness accounts of women trying to sleep with him. DeForge's use of red and black only adds to the intensity of the story. Domitille Collardey's story is another standout, a gorgeous and heart-rending story about an alchemist who systemically closes himself off from the world and his ex-lover through his talents. Anders Nilsen's "Poseidon" is the anchor story of Rage of Poseidon from Drawn & Quarterly, and its use of silhouette makes it a nice match for the kind of figure work on display in this volume. The only artist whose work I was not familiar with that I thought stood out was Andrew Rae; his "Space Cadet" used a panel-to-panel correspondence across pages to match the adventures of a little kid finding a page of pornography in the woods to a spaceman finding a relic on an abandoned planet. It's a cute concept, cleverly executed.

Luke Pearson's piece on anxiety leading to physical illness was fascinating and funny, and was one of the best stories in NoBrow #8, "Hysteria".  I found most of the stories in this issue to be lightweight and forgettable, though there were a few other exceptions. Zack Soto's story about a mecha-hero protecting a moon base from monsters was cleverly designed (action in big pictures at the top of the page, drama and dialogue in small panels at the bottom) and used soft colors to take the edge away from the story's action. Jose Domino's story about a man trying to get away from noise was so insistent that its final punchline landed despite being predictable. Matteo Farinella takes a look at the antiquated medical definition of hysteria, one where a "wandering womb" dresses up in a suit and starts hanging out in a park. It's a pointed tale that has a certain Jim Woodring quality in terms of its character design (the walking uterus is genuinely creepy-looking).

Marc Torices' "Broker", about a cold man with a high-powered financial job, uses a few tricks from the Chris Ware playbook in terms of design and color to relate his ultimate physical breakdown, likely due from guilt that was simply filed away in his brain. It's a smart story that's packed with information and is perfectly paced. Philippa Rice's "Crisis" added a bit of crude energy missing from much of the anthology, relating a story about a young woman in a grocery store trying to impress a bagboy. Finally, I thought the Dilraj Mann/Laura Halliwell story about a young woman trying to reconnect with a high school friend who had moved up in terms of her peer group was one of the sharpest-looking stories in the edition, especially in terms of its character design. The device of a gang of girls pretending to faint in order to gain attention was clever and sad at the same time, especially when the protagonist gets double-crossed but eventually becomes stronger for the experience.

NoBrow #9, "It's So Quiet", is certainly a bounceback from #8. Lambert returns is the loudest silent story I've ever read. Once again featuring kids, one of them starts ranting and raving, with the points of the word balloons appearing but not the actual balloons. He's initially embarrassed by his loquaciousness when someone plays it back to him, literally peeling the mouth off his face, but he later uses that phone recording to hijack yet another conversation. Jon McNaught kicks off the anthology with a story about a statue of St Francis of Assisi making a journey from garden store to garden, a mute witness to nature and fellow stone inhabitant of a lonely man's yard. Jim Stoten's atomic viewpoint story pulls the camera deeper and deeper into an image, revealing a smaller image and repeating this process ad infinitum until it all loops back to the beginning. It's a rapid-fire series of occasionally trippy and cartoony images. Will Morris' modern update of an old British ballad about an engaged man being tempted by a mermaid is extremely clever in terms of its design and execution; it's funny and sad all at once. Bianca Bagnarelli is an emerging talent from Italy whose work is reminiscent of Eleanor Davis' her "Say Hi For Me" follows a child's journey from the bustle of the city to the awesome hush of the rural winter.

Kirsten Rothbart's "Dead End" is less a story than an anecdote of a young woman who wears a bear costume for a living and her rock 'n roll dreams that she refuses to relinquish. Disa Wallender's "A Sneeze Within A Sneeze" is disgusting and hilarious, as a woman sneezes a miniature version of herself made out of snot into existence, only to be sucked up by her creation. The use of colored pencil gives this strip a rough edge that's unusual in an anthology whose edges are usually a bit smoother. Arne Bellstorf's "Silent Night" uses charcoal and gray and small panels to tell the story of a woman looking to kill herself, possibly as a reaction to the world at large. It is remarkably restrained in its storytelling, even as it makes clever visual connections (the pattern on her pants is that of static on a TV set, representing how alone she is). Mikkel Sommer's "The Silent Visitor" is about a woman welcoming an alien visitor, and at first it's all about knowing glances and seduction. In the second half of the story, it turns all of that on its head in hilarious fashion when the alien meets her dog. Hellen Jo's "Are You There, Lucifer? It's Me, Cindy" has Jo drawing a teenage girl (what she does best, of course) cutting herself ritually over a pentagram, crossing her arms petulantly when it doesn't seem to work, then spasm and glassily look off when she discovers that it indeed has, but not in the way she wanted. The blood-spattered message in the final panel is a funny and grim send-off.

I haven't touched on the illustration side of the anthology in this review and don't have much to say about them other than that some of them have a narrative quality and in some ways encapsulate the feel of the theme better than some of the comics. I thought the illustrations in #8 were better overall than most of the comics, for example. Just as the original Drawn & Quarterly anthology combined the best of Canadian, American and European cartooning, so does NoBrow express the state of a particular aesthetic in comics in a manner that no other anthology nor publisher in comics does at the moment. It's a cooler, more refined aesthetic, but one that allows for humor and even some genre tropes.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

NoBrow Week: BlexBolex, Biografiktion

BlexBolex first caught my attention in his NoBrow book DogCrime, which I described as follows: "Blexbolex’s figures are colorformed shapes, sort of like the shapes Richard McGuire used in P+O. He accompanies these frequently dense, melting images with crazy narrative text." The same is true for the loose sequel of sorts to DogCrime, No Man's Land. However, where DogCrime was compact, No Man's Land is epic in sweep. The narrative, which has a crazed and apocalyptic quality, is episodic in nature. One narrative follows our protagonist, a detective/spy who fakes his own suicide after being convicted of a crime and goes on the run. The second narrative consists of flashbacks  that the detective recalls, slowly filling in the missing pieces of information for the reader. Despite the chaos present on each page, there's a fairly tight plot that ties things together, just as each page slowly comes into focus despite the splotches of coral, olive and midnight blue that make up each page.

No Man's Land slowly addresses the detective's struggle as one of battling every aspect of conspiracy imaginable. He is tortured for information by a multi-eyed monster that represents the confluence of military, corporate and governmental forces. An abandoned ship is actually full of biological weapons: plague zombies. He winds up in a house overrun by sharks and commanded by an officer and a priest, saying "I get out of one nightmare only to land in another, just as idiotic", a statement that more-or-less sums up the book as a reading experience. Surviving that experience, he talks to a soldier who had secreted himself away from his superior officers, spilling a story-within-a-story epic about being a grunt in a World War I trench combat situation and trying to figure out a way to survive. That led to yet another story-within-a-story epic about the soldier meeting another soldier who was part of a religious sect that used astral projection and drug use to send their consciousnesses out into the world, even taking over other bodies. Certain revelations come out that lead to the detective's capture by former comrades (including Puss In Boots) that reveal everyone's complicity in the scheme. 

The book's seeming deus ex machina calls back to an earlier sub-plotline but in fact loops the reader back to the very beginning, showing that the opening of the book was either an illusion or else a Schroedinger's cat choice. That is, the book has two possible openings: one where the detective died and one where he didn't, but the reality where he doesn't die leads directly back to the beginning. BlexBolex's comics are disorienting, hilarious, absurd and existentially bleak. Reality is constantly shifting sand and swampland, never allowing the reader or his characters a chance to stand on solid ground. In many respects, the BlexBolex style is the epitome of NoBrow, as it privileges color and design and gives them the same stand as drawing and narrative, and does so in a striking and powerful manner.

The same might be said for the Berlin-based collective known as Biografiktion, a group that consists of Ana Albero, Paul Paetzel and Till Hafenbrak. In their anthology of the same name, Biografiktion sees each artist do a ridiculously fake "biographical" story about a celebrity or celebrities. Collected from their original zine form, this volume features black & white stories about Eddie Murphy and ABBA. These are all strictly for laughs and are quite funny, drawn in a sort of cartoony, primitivist style. The three artists wouldn't look out of place in a Fort Thunder-style anthology, for example. The book opens up with each artist doing a biography of one of the other members of the group. Albero opens up with a vicious story about Paetzel being a "corpulent" kid who turned into a giant karate kid; Paetzel does a story about Hafenbrak becoming a fire-extinguishing hero; and Hafenbrak turns in a whimsical account of why Albero is afraid of bugs and understands both German and French.

The best Eddie Murphy story is one where he decides to write and direct his own romantic comedy, and all of the parts (including the female lead) will be played by him. This leads him to fall in love with the image of his female counterpart and spurs on a crazy series events that involves copious drug use, a hallucination of Sherman "The Nutty Professor" Klump giving him a secret formula, and the creation of his perfect mate. The author is not credited but I'm pretty sure it's Hafenbrak yet again. There's something delightfully creepy about the toothy grimace we see on Murphy's face throughout the story, and in general the slightly flat nature of his drawing style only heightens the craziness of the story. All three artists shine in their ridiculous ABBA stories, as Paetzel sees the young group blessed/cursed by a magical man from the future who fulfills their dreams of success but also lets them know that heartbreak is inevitable--and their fate is now inescapable. It marries silliness with an EC Comics-style ending. Hafenbrak's silly quest comic turns ABBA into something resembling fantasy characters, fulfilling their destiny through music. It's like turning a Luke Pearson comic into something much stranger and quirkier. Albero's comic about a girl resisting punk rock to become a love slave to one of ABBA's members is strangely touching and wistful, focusing on her ability to generate empathy for her characters through her use of body language and gesture. 

While this is the meat of the comic, the full-color sections on work and food fit more into the NoBrow aesthetic valuing color, design and illustration; this was perhaps the inspiration for NoBrow's initial interest in the collective. Mostly silent, these sections range from traditional comics to illustrations that explore those concepts in amusing ways. The brightness and power of the color contrasts are what give these comics such a vivid and memorable quality. They're not just funny, but beautiful as well. I think sometimes it's easy to get lost in the bright palette of the NoBrow aesthetic and miss the fact that a large number of the comics they publish are humor comics, or fantasy comics with a humorous bent. Biografiktion, for all of its flourishes and eccentricities, is a gag book at heart.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

NoBrow Week: Robert Hunter, Jose Domingo

Robert Hunter's Map of Days is yet another exquisitely designed, vividly colored comic from NoBrow. The coloring process they use for the books gives every one a startlingly dense and rich palette, allowing cartoonists to use that color saturation as a narrative tool. NoBrow devoted an entire anthology to questions of cosmogony, and Hunter's book is very much about the ramifications of the origins of the world. In particular, what happens to old, heartbroken gods? Hunter's use of color is different than the way Luke Pearson or Jon McNaught (the two breakout stars from the NoBrow stable) tend to use it. It's softer, fuzzier and warmer, even on pages where there are bright yellows and oranges. It's more akin to a children's book, though the Chris Ware influence is still evident. The story itself is intricate and surprising, as the book turns from an initial account of the god-like creature at the center of the earth who falls in love with the sun to a teen staying with his grandfather by the sea during the summer. As the story progresses, what seems to be a quotidian series of anecdotes slowly converges with the first narrative, creating a jarring series of images that pop off the page. Hunter's dynamic use of color really pays off when the two narratives finally collide in an unexpected manner, but he then ups the stakes of the story to create an intense sense of drama by the story's end. The story is also remarkably touching, as it's ultimately about betrayals of trust on multiple and disastrous levels, and how one man tries to make up for his errors. The book is at once one of NoBrow's most stunning and most approachable releases.

Jose Domingo's Adventures of a Japanese Businessman is not unlike a Sergio Aragonnes cartoon on PCP. This entirely silent story begins with the titular businessman walking home after work, on an oversized page with a fairly regular 2x2 panel grid. By the third panel of the first page, Domingo has set this guy up to be at the inadvertent center of a great deal of trouble. In the first four pages alone, the businessman dodges a mobster gun battle, avoids a giant sushi roll sign from crushing him, accidentally inhales a chemical that turns him into a hulking monster and leaps away into a forest filled with magical creatures. That's enough action and mayhem for a single story, but Domingo has more than a hundred more pages of abuse to heap on this poor guy. He comes across a family of cannibals, gets seduced by a trucker who almost accidentally ran him over, gets turned into a leaf by a witch, gets revived by a guru, meets a family of benevolent yeti, dodges yeti hunters, and walks under the surface of the earth. There's an intensely rubbery quality to Domingo's line that actually reminds of another Mad artist--Don Martin. Those yeti have that same trembling, vibratory line that Martin uses. There's also a bit of a video game influence here, as the businessman's big square head and small body make him look like an 8-bit video game character. Just when you think the book can't get any crazier, Domingo leads the reader into my favorite bit, one that caused him to laugh pretty hard. The businessman happens upon a group of people entering what seemed to be a combination of demonic temple and workplace. They got dressed up in robes and their high priest went over a chart of some kind and then sacrificed an infant. Then they all went upstairs to their job: the Postal Service. It was an incredible punchline to a fantastic, unnerving set-up. The last third of the book somehow manages to become even crazier, with trips to hell and monster fights that looked like something out of a Fort Thunder comic dominating the action. The book ends appropriately, with a scatological joke that makes everything right again and an especially amusing double-take in the final panel. This is a work of relentlessly demented genius told with the tight, kinetic precision of a Carl Barks story and packed to the gills with eye pops and carefully-arranged gags. That four-panel grid and the seemingly never-ending journey of the businessman gives the book an almost spiraling feel that becomes vertiginous at times, held in place for the reader thanks to its tiny but indefatigable protagonist. Fans of visceral humor that backs up its gross-outs with gags that were clearly well thought-out for maximum impact must seek out this book.

Monday, June 9, 2014

NoBrow Week: Luke Pearson

This week, I'll be taking a look at publications from England's NoBrow from the last couple of years. First, I wanted to note the publication of Luke Pearson's Hilda and the Troll.This is an updated and refurbished version of Hildafolk, his first Hilda book. Some have rightly compared his comics to Miyazaki, but I originally wrote that his comics remind me more of Jordan Crane's children's books. This update is bigger (around 9 x 12") and also has an expansive map of Hilda's mountain environment, as well as an excerpt on the troll book that Hilda reads. and a look at Hilda's desk. Pearson is already one of comics' greatest stylists, and his characterization is pitch-perfect. The book is actually part of Flying Eye, the children's division of NoBrow.

The last couple of Hilda books have moved the story's locale from a rural mountain cottage to the strange little city of Trollberg. What the reader quickly discovers in Hilda and the Bird Parade is that the town is every bit as eccentric and magical as the surrounding countryside. What we learn in these books is that there are rules for living in the city safely that play out metaphorically in terms of magical beings and spaces in-between furniture. Pearson's jamming up to 25 or 26 panels on a single page mirrors the way in which the city itself is packed-in. That becomes especially pronounced after the opening segment where Hilda and her mother argue about Hilda wandering around the city on her own. Seeing the angry face of Hilda's mom take up the entire bottom third of page three is a shocking image for the reader, with the enlarged print of her word balloon doubling up on her anger and fear. When she does allow Hilda to explore with some school chums, the pages suddenly fill up with tiny panels, as Hilda tries (and fails) to get into the sort of malicious mischief they favor. There's one funny page where Hilda is supposed to ring a doorbell and run away, but instead she freezes and tells the elderly woman at the door that she merely wanted to check "that everything's OK".

That leads to a game of hitting birds with stones, something Hilda deliberately messes up at despite peer pressure. When a large and unusual bird is hit by the rock, Hilda rushes to its side. When it turns out he can talk, this spawns an adventure that takes up the rest of the book. Hilda has two distinguishing characteristics: an unerring sense of kindness and a relentlessly insatiable sense of curiosity. The latter prevents the former from ever becoming too treacly, and the former sets her apart from the other kids. The rest of the book sees them try to find her house, then try to find her mother, all while the bird is trying to recover its memories as to an important task it needs to perform. Pearson is careful to resist sentiment, as the warmth he displays in the reunion of Hilda and her mother is immediately broken up by a joke. The central theme of the book--finding one's identity in a new place--is wrapped up nicely and modestly at the end of the book. This volume feels a bit like the first Hilda book, as it's more about exploring character and setting than it is in triggering a more involving plot. Pearson is content to just let his characters wander amiably at times, allowing the reader to simply enjoy the images. His character design is attractive and eye-catching without being too slick. His understanding of body language and gesture is superb, especially when applied to younger characters. Hilda's stick-figure arms and legs and her huge red boots are distinctive enough to always draw in the reader's eye, no matter what else is happening on the page. Pearson keeps the reader slightly off-balance throughout the book by never repeating the same formal set-up twice. Each page has a different grid and panels are never the same size. There are some pages with horizontal grids, vertical panels that jut down to cover a third of the page, splash panels and even some images that flow out of borderless panels.

Hilda and the Black Hound, on the other hand, is more rigid in the way it uses its grids. There's still a good bit of variation on a page-to-page basis, but Pearson abandon's the dizzying approach of Bird Parade, in part because both Hilda and the reader have become better acquainted with Trolberg by this point. This book once again subtly casts a bit of light on the mother-daughter relationship that is so important to the series, as Hilda's mom inadvertently pressures her daughter to get "Sparrow Scout" merit badges. There are three plotlines in the book that wind up intersecting. The first sees Hilda in the Scouts but getting distracted to the point where she's not able to fulfill her duties. The second is about a giant, shadowy black dog that starts popping up in Trolberg, one that starts eating people whole. The third is about Hilda's obsession with a Nisse, a fuzzy humanoid creature that lives in households (in cracks and spaces behind furniture) and occasionally steals minor items. Hilda happens upon one who has been kicked out of its house and feels the urge to help it.

The book then proceeds to pull these three narrative strands together, ramping up the action and suspense in a kinetic and fluid manner. This book is less Tove Jansson (a clear Pearson influence) than it is Carl Barks in terms of the frenetic chase sequences and tight squeezes the characters get into. Regarding influences, Pearson has very quickly cycled through a large variety of influences to find his own style, but one can see traces here and there. Chris Ware's use of color is easy to spot, and there's also a bit of Herge' to be found in terms of the clear line. The brightness of the book is certainly a part of the overall NoBrow aesthetic, which favors strong color schemes above intensive drawing styles. Still, Pearson has carved out his own niche and identity as a cartoonist with a gentle wit and an astonishing amount of patience for all of his own creations. Indeed, there are no real monsters or villains in his stories, just creatures that are more or less misunderstood. Of course, Pearson is able to use the scary design of the Black Hound to generate genuine thrills and excitement, especially during the climax when the Hound is chasing Hilda and the Nisse through house after house. The simple theme of this book is not to judge others too quickly by appearances and allow others to grow and develop at their own pace. Now that Pearson's books are more readily available in the US, there's a good chance that they could become quite popular, and deservedly so.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cracked Lenses: Love and Rockets New Stories #6

If Love & Rockets New Stories #5 saw Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez retrenching as they built storylines around new characters, then #6 is the first powerful realization of that idea. Both brothers often talk about certain characters and following them around to see what they'll do, to see if they can figure them out. Both talk about certain characters as unknowable for a variety of reasons; loose cannon Hopey has always been Jaime's unknowable character, while Gilbert has enjoyed writing Fritz for the opposite reason, that she has no real agency of her own and thus can fit any number of ideas or storylines. In Gilbert's cracked-lens return to Palomar, his new central figure is Killer, the daughter of Guadalupe and granddaughter of Luba. After last issue's hilarious interpolation of a film about Palomar starring Fritz with Killer meeting everyone for the first time, this issue delves into Killer trying to figure what she wants to do with her life. In particular, she wonders if she should give up being an actress.

After last issue's splashy stories, this issue is a bit more low-key with regard to Killer and her story, preferring to lay some narrative pipe and give the characters a bit of room to breathe and interact. The essential narrative arc to be found here is whether or not Killer is pregnant, a story that's fanned by media interest and that excites her father, Hector. When he learns this is not the case, there's a devastating scene where he cuts her down and she walks away. Killer, the "Sad Girl", who inspires story titles like "Willow, Weep No More" is perhaps the most stoic of all Hernandez's characters, rarely betraying any signs of negative emotion. She's guarded but not impossibly so, like Luba (or Maria, for that matter). She's flexible but is learning to exert agency in this storyline, unlike Fritz. Gilbert also drops a lot of other familial tidbits in this story as a way of connecting the toxic communication styles that plagued Killer's family for years. We see Maria (her great-grandmother) expressing guilt about giving away Luba, then denying her existence, then in a flashback where they cross paths without knowing it in America. This is connected with footage from the Maria M. movie popping up, something which means little to Luba (who hardened herself against the existence of her mother years earlier) but which endlessly fascinates Killer. We also see flashbacks to Fritz trying to curry her mother's favor with regard to the film, with an offer to appear in it even as Fritz plays her. Killer represents a chance to do things differently in this family saga, to be someone who manages to dodge the same kinds of tragedies and horrors that her older relatives endured. Guadalupe was always the most stable and happiest of Luba's children, and Killer represents a child who has her mother's stable nature but who is still teetering on the edge of dealing with fame. The end of the book, where she encounters Doralis' ghost and suddenly gets the urge to act again, has the potential to set some interesting stories in motion.

It's amazing to see how Gilbert continues to approach this family in new ways to get at different emotions and experiences. Luba may now just be a sideline character and Fritz relegated to cameos and appearances in her "films" (the story where she appears as a furry monster and fights a magic man in boots was hilarious, disgusting and profane in all the best ways), but the sheer weight of their history can be felt on every page. Even for a new reader, their presence becomes important thanks to flashbacks, even though the story could be followed fairly easily as a continuation of the previous issue. The Palomar characters and setting seem effortless for Gilbert to draw, which is why the untitled story was so much fun--the reader got to see him really cut loose and get nasty. The tie-ins between this story and the Maria M. standalone "movie" book were also interesting, as this issue is a kind of commentary on both how the characters view the "films" but also Gilbert's reaction to reader and critical commentary on that work. In a sense, he's giving the readers what they want by going back to Palomar, but he's doing it in a sneaky way, one where he wants the reader to know that they're not going to get exactly what they think they want.

In L&R New Stories #5, Jaime introduced Tonta as his new tentpole character. This teen is a sort of "Bizarro Maggie" in that she shares much of Maggie's awkwardness and desire to be part of a scene but she has far less of Maggie's charm or good looks. Jaime spent the issue slowly exploring her world, one that finds her with her own version of Rand Race (a punk rocker named Eric), except that the crush is pretty much unrequited. If Tonta has a Hopey, it's Gretchen "the Gorgon", a girl from school who's as weird and wired as Hopey, only with a distorted, ugly face. Gretchen clearly has a crush on Tonta, a fact lost on the endlessly dense girl. Indeed, she embraces her nickname (which means "dummy" or "stupid" in Spanish), preferring it her given name of Anoush, which means "sweetness". Jaime sets her up as a punk rock wannabe, but also displays an enormous amount of affection toward this character, whom he's clearly trying to get to know. It is telling, however, that Jaime doesn't use thought balloons for any of his characters in this issue with the exception of one returning character. Traditionally, Maggie always got thought balloons but Hopey never did, as she was an impenetrable character for Jaime. Whereas Maggie was someone that he "knew", and it delighted him to put her in different kinds of situations.

Where that leaves Tonta is a good question, one that I'm not sure Jaime himself is sure of at the moment. We're seeing "Bizarro Maggie's" story play out, but this time, we don't know everything she's thinking. Of course, the way that Tonta blabs out her thoughts and feelings, one wonders what she does keep inside. Hernandez connected her to two old characters: Vivian, the "Frogmouth", is her half-sister. Angel of Tarzana is her high school P.E. teacher. Angel knows Tonta because she knows Vivian, and there are all sorts of hilarious scenes that erupt because of that connection, like Vivian attacking Angel from behind when she's on the field during class. Tonta and her friends (including Gomez, who's sort of Daffy-like in her innocence) are fascinated by their teacher, who wants to bring as many new sports as possible to her students. When they are summoned to a mysterious location for what turns out to be a Luchadora wrestling match, it's all thanks to Gretchen, who knows that their teacher is wrestling as "The Angel of Assassins". This is the most light-hearted part of the book, a throwback to those wrestling comics that Jaime used to do so well.

All of this is window dressing, essentially, fun incidental stuff to get lost in as a means of getting to know the characters. What seemed like somewhat aimless character work in #5 is quickly established in the serial "Crimen" as an especially brutal and heartbreaking story. When Tonta comes home from a day's shenanigans, she's told that her step-father has been killed by a burglar. We are then introduced to Violet and reintroduced to Ishmael, a seeming thug who worked at a country club. When Jaime reveals that Ish is in fact Vivian's twin brother and that they are all half-brothers and sisters (along with Tonta, Muneca and baby Alby), it's a surprise. What is a shock is Violet's assertion that their mother had Tonta's step-father killed, and that she had accused her mother years earlier of killing off her father. This brutal story of family politics, lies and betrayals seamlessly blends the harder edge Jaime has brought to his stories of late along with the lighthearted, character-based work that's been there as well.

Even as the children scheme to send their mother to children (with Tonta being the last to know everything, including the fact that she even had a brother), Jaime manages to inject humor into the grimmest of proceedings. That's because the drama all takes place off-panel, allowing him to focus tightly on the character interactions of the siblings. Thanks to the fact that Vivian is a total loose cannon who's as likely to punch her sister Violet in the mouth as look at her, Jaime has a built-in monkey wrench and live wire for his stories in a character who can't help but liven up any story she appears in. At the same time, he adds depth and even pathos to this brute of a character while subtly crafting a story where she is manipulated by others from the very start. What's remarkable about Jaime's stories in these two issues is the way that he's able to tie the events of this story (which of course end in disaster for the children as they are utterly outmatched in court and intimidated out of court) back into the funny, quotidian adventures of Tonta. Dyeing her hair black and attending a new school, she attends a concert by the band containing her object of affection, a band that's now become popular. When he starts singing a song called "Black Widow", which she realizes is about her mother, she's experienced the ultimate betrayal. It's a heartbreaking way to end the issue, one whose final scene is Tonta as a baby at the swimming hole that's a big part of this story, with her siblings showing her affection even as her older brother (at age 13) has stopped living with his mother because of what he knew she did. Indeed, the family politics surrounding Tonta make Maggie's family look stable and loving by comparison.

Jaime hits the Hank Ketcham hammer hard in this issue with his character design, the overall looseness of the characters, and the slightly goofy and grotesque characteristics this particular cast has. Violet's slightly hard-boiled appearance betrays her as someone who's done a lot of hard living. Ish and Vivi are both impossibly attractive in their own way. Tonta's snaggletooth overbite, her messy hair, her poor posture and overall schlubbiness are simply fantastic; she's a self-described loner who is desperate for company and love. Gomez' willowy frame, Angel's sturdy and powerful body and Gretchen's remarkable grace all inject tremendous amounts of personality into these characters before they speak a single word. As great a draftsman as Jaime Hernandez is, he's a far greater cartoonist. Gesture, body language, minute facial expressions and the ways people interact with each other in space and in terms of panel-to-panel transitions are his real strengths as a cartoonist. Nailing these small details allows him to go "big" with emotions and the occasional exaggerated expression (especially from Tonta, who's always pulling faces) with no dissonance whatsoever, Each chapter of "Crimen" is only two pages long, in a 2x4 panel grid and the first panel blacked out with white title text. This is where things get heavy. The other stories have freer grids, befitting the lighter touch of those stories. Beyond the powerful emotional content and humor in this issue, Jaime's comics are master classes in how to structure a loosely-serialized set of short stories.