Monday, October 31, 2016

Minis: Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, Simon Hanselmann, Anna Bongiovanni

Phylum, by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. Valero-O'Connell went all-out with regard to the production values of this small mini. From the silvery, translucent cover stock, to the use of spot pinks to the micro-mini comic inserted in the middle of this comic, this mini is a triumph of the combination of formal elements, decorative elements and content. The story is simple; familiar, even. A young woman finds a mysterious plant that felt warm in her hands when she pulled it up. She cooked it and ate it alone, in the absence of her partner (whose absence throughout much of the story is a key plot element). After she ate it came the micro-mini in the middle, with the pink image of a tiny plant creature slowly growing on black page after black page. The expected plot twist one would expect would be a sinister one, where the plant would be evil, control her, make her give birth to it, etc. Instead, the plant is happy to live inside of her, and she winds up being happy having the plant inside of her, pleasantly singing.

Valero-O'Connell uses an arsenal of interesting formal approaches. First, her character design is quite different than in her other comics; it's a clear-line style that emphasizes negative space around it on its single panel-per-page layouts. It's somewhere between Eleanor Davis and Megan Kelso, but her own naturalistic style still comes through in the way she draws everything else. The spot colors draw in the eye without being intrusive; they add a level of emotional shading. She also uses sous rature in her text, crossing out lines but leaving them visible to indicate something thought but daring to share it. The mini in the middle is a nice touch, confirming the obvious turn in the story while adding a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. My favorite part of the comic is the way that the real narrative is about the slowly fracturing nature of the relationship, that decay paralleling the beneficent nature of the new growth inside of her.

Landscape, by Simon Hanselmann. Hanselmann told me that all of his stories are autobiographical, thinly disguised by his appropriated use of children's characters as well as a variety of anthropomorphic characters. Most of his Truth Zone comics do not tend to be collected later on, and I'm guessing that he uses this format specifically to go even darker than normal as well as go meta with regard to comics and the comics industry. In other words, it's the opposite of being truthful about his own experiences and instead functions as a take-no-prisoners send-up of all sorts of things. Hanselmann opens with nonsensical and paranoid musings about art from the odious but still oddly-sympathetic Werewolf Jones as well as body image and scatological jokes involving Megg the Witch, The deranged highlight of the comic is the truly unsettling "Mysterious Skin". The sensation of reading this comic was like simultaneously being tickled into hysterical laughter and given painful electrical shocks. Using a 12-panel grid, Hanselman depicts Jones photographing his sons. He's done plenty of weird things with his young kids, but it took a few beats to recognize that he was taking nude, pornographic photos of them and then rewarded them with cartoons and junk food. He then uploaded the photos to Owl's computer and called the police, and was thrown in with the child molesters. The uncomfortable genius of this story is that Hanselmann doesn't let the reader get away with treating this as absurd; he makes it very real and frightening, especially in terms of Owl's reactions when he gets out of jail. This was all done out of revenge for Owl writing a bad review of Jones' zine on the old Hooded Utilitarian website ("It was fair!"). This was by far the most extreme prank Jones has ever pulled, and Hanselmann's restraint in the face of it by dutifully executing the joke as one would expect was remarkable.

There are other inside baseball references, including Megg ripping up an Owl mini devoted to Warhammer with some all-star contributors, rightfully critiquing him for making something so empty. "Funded" is a parody of pop-up comics schools that Jones somehow gets money for, shoots at The Paris Review's offices (in a sort of Charlie Hebdo shooting parody), and gets a young woman to commit suicide for biting Aidan Koch's art. (Truly a joke only a handful of people would get.) It ends with his school being raided at sea by the feds, the Navy and "the guys from NoBrow", as an imprisoned Jones transcends his incarcerated state by drawing panels with his own shit on the wall and having his spirit join god while ejaculating. Fans of Hanselmann's more outrageous side will need to track this down, especially because of the remarkable control he has over his line. The utterly deadpan (and downright dead) quality of his characters is key to making the jokes land as hard as they do, with the earnestness of Owl making him the effective straight man for everyone else.

The Mother Fuckin' Grease Bats, Sexxx Can Suck! and Uncompromising Petty Girlfriend, by Anna Bongiovanni. Bongiovanni first came to my attention with her more serious comics, but they're a skilled humorist and observational cartoonist as well. Their Grease Bats comics (regularly posted on feature queer characters Scout and Andy, best friends who maneuver their way through relationships, drunken revelry, dealing with straight culture, and holding each other accountable as only best friends can. Scout's a romantic and Andy's a cad, and Bongiovanni calls out the behavior of both, as this mini features the repercussions of Andy sleeping with women and then ghosting on them, and Andy confronts Scout on holding on too long to old relationships. Bongiovanni uses an unusual format, with three panels on top and two panels on the bottom of each page. The figures are loose and expressive, emphasizing body language and facial expressions above all else. Bongiovanni is interesting in that they address socio-political topics in the context of telling stories about these two characters, touching on ideas like identity and pronouns, queer misogyny, consent, the hegemony of straight culture and personal responsibility. They accomplish this in the context of the story and the emotional lives of the characters themselves, cracking jokes while making their points. It's the 21st century successor of Alison Bechdel's old Dykes To Watch Out For strip.

Uncompromising Petty Girlfriend is a Riso zine whose title describes its contents perfectly. It's told from the point of view of a woman who is not just self-centered and narcissistic, but appears to be the top in a BDSM relationship that involves significant psychological components. The restraint Bongiovanni uses in their single panel-per-page drawings only adds to the psychological and sexual tension of the comic. Sexxx Can Suck! is the opposite; it's an autobio zine talking about bad (consensual) sexual experiences, ranging from lost tampons, something called "Cock Rocks" that wound up a gooey mess, and the humiliation of being told that one tastes bad. Where the comic started to get real was when Bongiovanni discussed a relationship where they thought her partner was cheating on them, so their reaction was to cheat on their partner in return. Things only got worse from there, with Bongiovanni not trying to justify any of it in retrospect. Even in a situation as serious as that, Bongiovanni's comic timing, especially in the way they use exaggerated facial expressions, made the entire zine funny, even if that humor was at their expense.

Friday, October 28, 2016

mini-kus! Of The Week #1: Ruedi Schorno, Martins Zutis, Till Hafenbrak

David Schilter and company over at Latvia's Kus have been producing beautiful, provocative anthologies for quite some time. In 2010, Kus started their mini-Kus! line, featuring a single artist in a classic 16-page mini, in full color. The series is up to the forties now, so I'm going to review them, three at a time, every Friday. This article covers mini-Kus! #1-3.

Bearslayer Returns, by Ruedi Schorno. Schorno is a Swiss cartoonist but he's described as a "watcher of Latvian identity". This comic is all about updating Latvian folklore and doing a modern reinterpretation. Schorno does a new version of an epic poem by the Latvian poet Andrejs Pumpurs, who took the Latvian folk legend of the heroic Bearslayer, who used his gods-bestowed powers to fight for his fellow Latvians. He's a sort of Gilgamesh/Heracles figure, only he's eventually betrayed by his people. Schorno reimagines him in modern Latvia as a kindhearted security guard whose heroism is essentially reduced to quotidian gestures. His aggression is confined to internet commentary, hefting an axe to chop firewood and using a sword to skewer kabobs. His fate is the same as the Bearslayer of the poem: ending up drowning, next to his enemy. Schorno's commentary is tongue in cheek in the silliness of the everyday schmo living an average life being posited as the hero, but it's also quite serious in the way the Bearslayer opposes homophobia and global warming. Schorno's painted pages framed by huge letters give the book that epic scope that is then deliberately undermined by the mundane and every superficial nature of the drawings, like Bearslayer reading a supermarket tabloid. I thought it fitting for mini-Kus to kick off the series with something so specifically Latvian, especially since the text addresses the very idea of what it means to be a free Latvia, given their centuries-long history of being conquered by others. 

Being, by Martins Zutis. This comic by Latvian artist Zutis mixes dense cross-hatching of anthropomorphic chimneys with a bright, cartoony painted approach in a story about myths and heroes in the modern world. A benevolent chimney sweep covered head-to-toe in ashes has a line of cute anthropomorphic chimneys, giving out gifts like he was Santa Claus. In a series of cute, cartoony drawings, Zutis lays out a deadly serious argument regarding the relationship between belief and myth--especially including belief in the invisible hand of the free market and the influence of media and politics. The chimney sweep suggests that, aided and abetted by cultural and other outside forces, we create our own heroic realities and selves. The selves are both real and not real, just as we as sentient beings are real but also just whirring masses of atoms. The gift that each chimney receives is a cleaning stick, and it literally clears their heads. What I like most about this comic is that the chimney sweep goes on and on in essentially deconstructing all of existence, all of being, but his audience and those he's there to help (the chimneys) are almost entirely oblivious to what he has to say. One gets the sense that it's precisely because of that fact that he's willing to share those secrets.

Weeding, by Till Hafenbrak. Employing a bright green & red color palette, it's no wonder that the Berlin-based Hafenbrak has done illustration work with NoBrow. This silent comic that relies entirely on color and doesn't have a traditional use of line is as clear an example of the NoBrow aesthetic as I've ever seen. The story involves a gardener getting a job on a mysterious estate and finding that things are what they seem. Freeing a bird from a basement after it crashed in a window, the story turns on a dime and becomes an over-the-top horror story involving magic, monstrous plants, scientific experiments, headless bodies, heads in jars, etc. The revelation of the main monster is as chilling an image as I've ever seen in a comic, worthy of an HP Lovecraft monstrosity. Despite the fact that the comic is wordless, Hafenbreak is quite deft in quickly getting across information to the reader a beat ahead of the protagonist, so that it's clear as to why he's doing what he's doing. This is a perfect story for this format, as it doesn't stretch out a fairly basic story with unnecessary extra material. It stays true to its bare bones in an effort to draw out a specific series of reactions and then doesn't linger overlong on the shocks it creates. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Introducing The High-Low Patreon

I've decided to launch a Patreon for High-Low: High-Low Patreon. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is a website that allows supporters to pledge a certain small amount of money per month to help keep this site sustainable. I want to go to this model rather than do yearly fundraisers. Starting in November, Patrons will get (at minimal donation) a review exclusively for them. There will still be four days of free content per week, but that fifth day will be for supporters of the site. Thanks for considering it.

Koyama: Walter Scott's Wendy's Revenge

The new Wendy book from Walter Scott, Wendy's Revenge, sees the titular artist character trying to get her bearings as an artist and a person in several different locales around the world. Whereas the first book was all about Wendy's difficult transition from art school identity to the brutally petty and cutthroat world of gallery art, this book is all about Wendy trying to stay sane as a working artist. The first book was all about silly romances, unavailable men and assorted backstabbing and backbiting from so-called friends. It was also an exploration and affirmation of her own talent, which was a difficult transition for her because of her basic lack of self-respect, because of viciousness of the competition, and because of her own self-destructive habits.

The book opens with Wendy in Vancouver, shifting between the hard-party mode of her slightly younger days and a sort of jaded, drifting existence as she tries to figure out what to do with her life. Her Vancouver self has dyed her hair black, wears a black backwards baseball cap and generally wears all black. It's a pose, just not a well-considered one. The one consistent thing about Wendy in both books is that none of her poses or selves are ever really well thought-out. They are reactive, based on her latest oversensitivities and paranoia. The one thing that frightens her more than failure is success, even as the boldness of her art sometimes speaks volumes she's not willing to voice on her own. Indeed, Wendy's talent and the understanding of what a force she's capable of becoming in the art world is never in question in the book. What is in question is if she will ever be ready to handle that success without becoming completely unhinged and self-destructive, or alternately, narcissistic and greedy. Wendy craves nothing but connections, and in the first chapter, she befriends an older author she admires named Jack. There's a mystery in this section as to who stole a work of art from her gallery show, and Scott's skill in slowly doling out clues and providing a great deal of misdirection is remarkably sharp considering that his narratives tend to be episodic and not particularly plot-driven.

This section also serves as a kind of recapitulation of the characters  before Scott goes in a different direction, as there are a lot of familiar conflicts and character tics here. It makes sense that he'd do something to remind readers of his first book what was going on as well as providing just enough information for a new reader to understand what's going on. It's also a perfect introduction to his idiosyncratic drawing style. The lines are simple and straightforward, and there's rarely anything distinctive about his composition. The format of his panels is fairly standard in that first section. What stands out is the way he uses exaggerated figurework to create comedy, conflict, fear, misery and anger. Eyes bulge and transform into coal-black embers, mouths turn into voids, word balloons expand, waver and contract, and certain characters take on essentialist elements based on their personality. An example is Paloma, a slippery person who's drawn with a snake's forked tongue and is able to slither around.

The second section, when Wendy goes to Tokyo for a residency, stands out because Scott rendered all dialogue in Japanese, putting the drawings on the left-hand side of a two-page spread and the English dialogue translated on the opposite page. The stories are even drawn manga style, which is to say that they're meant to be written from right to left instead of left to right. Prior to that, there are segues to Wendy's friend Wynona, a First Nations woman by birth, going back to the reservation in an effort to save money, as well as other oddballs from the art world. Wendy's overwhelming anxiety makes it difficult to relax and enjoy her surroundings, which triggers several ill-advised partying episodes. Wynona may have her own problems, but she and Wendy act as each other's means of feeling grounded, even though they interact only infrequently in the actual book.

The final section sees Wendy back in her native Toronto and staying with a trusted friend, then sees her ping from Los Angeles to New York in order to make herself known on the scene before her gallery shows. If the first section was a good old-fashioned mystery plot, then this section turned into a heist story of sorts. The heist here was not to steal something, but rather to insert a manifesto exposing two art world mavens as manipulators who were looking to sell out spaces and make money off their sale while looking to place the blame on others. Wendy and Paloma, the target of the attacks, wrote the manifesto and then sneaked into an art gallery to carefully insert them inside show catalogs. The most interesting thing about this section is that it finds Wendy slowly starting to pull herself together, fighting against art-world bullshit and influence-peddling, and even find ways to work with someone she strongly disliked. That Scott pulls off this character growth with some hilarious situations and gags is what makes his Wendy stories so entertaining. The baseline absurdity of Wendy's stories is necessary just in order to compete with the whirring chaos that is the art industry. Tellingly, Scott is careful to not simply bash galleries or the art world in general; indeed, there is praise given to hard-working artists working with conceptual media. That said, he's not afraid to exaggerate personalities and body language to reveal the noise within the art world and how difficult it is to resist it. Wendy's Revenge is not only about resisting those vacuous art world trends, it's about finding ways to work on one's self while doing it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nate Beaty's Don't Cry Wolfman Chicago

Nate Beaty has been doing witty, expressive and self-deprecating mini-comics for quite some time. One gets a sense of that experience, both for good and ill, in reading his collection Don't Cry Wolfman Chicago. He's reached an age (late thirties) and a stage in his career, where it's no longer effortless to stay up all night and draw comics. There's also a clear sense of a constant reevaluation of his life and life choices, to the point where he mocks that tendency. The entire book is defined by a sense of push-and-pull, of wanting to make or have made different choices but knowing that he wouldn't be satisfied no matter what. There are, of course, the prerequisite strips about cats, none of which especially stand out. The better strips are those where Beaty has an understanding of his age and how similar he his to other cartoonists in his age cohort, as the hilarious strip "Cartoonist Gaggle" points out: three dudes with beards, flannel shirts and jeans all order whiskey and then perform various attention-getting acts in a sort of parody of a mating ritual. Beaty has a knack for self-deprecating humor that doesn't lapse into mere self-loathing. Part of that is his self-awareness as a cartoonist and person, and part of that is his bedrock need to relate narratives with punchlines. He's always going after the punchline, no matter what.

There are also the expected strips about the questionable career path of being a cartoonist, but these are generally pretty funny. My favorite was "Midlife Nofuckingidea", where Beaty asks himself if he should spend a bundle of cash on Transcendental Meditation, go on a road trip with cats, become a boxer or be a full-time cartoonists...and he concludes that the last choice sounds craziest. One thing that helps him sell his gags is his scribbly, often densely-hatched and highly expressive line. His self-caricature, with the beard and/or mustache, receding hairline and glasses is funny in and of itself. His need to create gags gives the book a cheery tone even when it tackles things that are unpleasant, like depression, loneliness and the sense that he's broken in some fundamental way. It's not just his line that's fun to look at, but also the way he uses a frenetic sense of exaggeration to bolster his gags. The final panel below is a good example of this, as his mouth is gaping open and he's shedding tears like a sprinkler. Even better is the strip below that, a frenzied, scribbly mass of lines that nonetheless hilariously anticipate and then deliver the punchline. Keeping a steady four or six panel grid anchors his comics and helps him create the rhythm needed to set up his punchlines.

That sense of Beaty being broken is best expressed in his strips about loneliness. It's not that he can't find romantic partners; indeed, they come and go in the nearly three and a half years the book covers. That's actually one of the book's strengths as a work of humor; by not forcing the daily diary formula on the reader, Beaty is able to pick and choose certain experiences for maximum impact. In some strips, he seems content and happy to have a girlfriend. In others, he hints at chafing at being that directly involved in someone else's sphere of existence. It's not so much the individual that's bothering him, but rather the very concept of being non-autonomous and codependent on others in any way. At the same time, he acknowledges that desperate need for human companionship, and there are not pat answers provided inbetween gags. There's only an acknowledgement that he's unable to be present in a given situation and not think about how its opposite might be more appealing to him. He portrays himself as being haunted by that sense of the good being the enemy of the perfect, only there's no way to have a perfect life given the contradictions he's plagued by. That said, the only way out for Beaty is cartooning, as he keeps creating, keeps thinking and keeps laughing:at himself, at the life he's created for himself and at the world around him.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Minis: Sophia Wiedeman

Sophia Wiedeman's comics continue to be elegant, restrained and scratchy in a way that adds a visceral layer to the reading experience. Looking at her 2015 mini, Semisolid, one can see how her line has become more confident, with no extraneous rendering. That said, when she requires a greater degree of naturalistic density, her hatching and stippling skills are more than up to the task. Her storytelling was always poetic and evocative, but she's truly developed the drawing chops to effectively tackle any subject without distracting the reader with figures or objects that are just a bit wobbly.

Wiedeman's ability to draw faces in a style that straddles the line between naturalism and a more iconic approach is one of her most distinctive visual signatures, especially when the eyes of her characters are the color of burnt-out embers. In this story, we follow a woman (possibly a stand-in for the artist) who is literally trying to draw her way into something. The panels of the page become large sheets of paper that she's drawing on, until finally a door appears on one and she grasps its handle. She emerges into a landscape with a withered tree that begins to fill with sand. After a moment of seeming impassivity, she finally extricates herself from the room and shuts the door. She's now in a complex of rooms and halls and happens upon something decaying, flies buzzing around it. When the flies start to swarm and chase her, she runs to another door and this time sees a huge blob sitting in the sand. Upon closer inspection, it's a giant baby, and she begs for its help after it asks "Is it time?". Its response was to swallow her whole and tell her "You know what happens now". The baby changes shape, turning into a marsh and then a forest where she wakes up. She spies a caterpillar and holds it in her hand, til she turns over and lies on her back--revealing a bulge in her stomach.

Clearly, this is not only a comic about becoming pregnant, but it's also one about the process of transformation as a whole. The rotting pile of decay perhaps represents the decision to abort a previous child, with the flies' insistent aggressiveness being a manifestation of lingering or unprocessed guilt. This is a journey that took her a great deal of effort to make, and while it may not have been time (there so rarely is a perfect time to have a child, though some are obviously much worse than others), it was clear that there was a need to sweep out the detritus in her brain and move on. That caterpillar, on its journey to transformation, was a clear metaphor for her own journey that was about to begin Wiedeman hints that while giving birth is certainly transformational in its own way, the real barrier here is the woman's attitude toward giving birth and the ability to discard and reshape her feelings. It's a beautiful, fascinating comic that offers the readers a number of clues but never spells things out.

Overripe is a collection with a couple of stories in it. The first is about a beloved dog rendered with an appealing gray wash. Wiedeman does a great job drawing the dog, which is the type which is essentially a four-legged carpet. The scribbles, squiggles and loops that made up the dog oddly gave it a sense of realness that a more naturalistic drawing might not have captured, because the squiggles made it easier to depict the dog's emotions and body language. The second long story, "Night Stand", is about Wiedeman's childhood proclivity for running through her mother's night stand. The feathery gray wash is exquisitely rendered, perfect for a story about memory and identity. In reading, smelling, using or eating everything she found, Wiedeman says she was "consuming her piece by piece". Not in the sense of using her up, but rather loving her so much that she wanted to know her totally, almost in a desire to see the world precisely through her eyes. It gets at the problem of human connection, where no matter how much we might love someone, we can never truly know them, never show true empathy because of how our bodies and minds are separated. Wiedeman suggests that over time (there's a beautifully-rendered sequence where the different shoes she wears indicates how she kept coming back to this practice), she knew her as best as she could--and she was ready to return the favor one day with her own night table. This is a beautiful, moving story that is still told with a sense of restraint, both in terms of the text and the visuals. There are also some interesting short pieces here exploring shapes, including a character falling across a nine-panel grid and another featuring ink drip down from panels in another grid, as well as a funny rendering of a worm speaking Spanish.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Minis: Summer Pierre

I had the pleasure of meeting Summer Pierre at this year's SPX, and she gave me a couple of her minis. I first became aware of her when it was revealed that she was a judge at this year's show, and I wondered how she had escaped my notice considering that her kind of work is right up my alley and I know a lot of people in her circle. Her Paper Pencil Life #4 is a reflective, easy-going account of being an artist, a mother and a person with an inquisitive and open mind. It's difficult sometimes for me to put my finger on what makes a diary comic successful or interesting, but reading Pierre's comics started to make that clear: it's the quality of writing. There is always artifice in doing diary comics, as it is only "true" as far is it describes a certain event at a certain time from one person's perspective. The key is in that artifice to take some risks, to spill some ink and open up a space of vulnerability.

From the very first strip, the clarity of her writing and point of view shines through on the very topic of writing itself. Working from photo reference, she draws a number of female writers at work through the years, imagining herself in the same position. The irony of the strip is that its conclusion talks about how she gave up writing, knowing it would never happen, only to find her voice as a cartoonist. Pierre's usual working style is a Frank Santoro-style 3x3 grid, with elegant flourishes here and there and a penchant for filling up her panels with detail but also giving them just enough breathing room. In a strip where she used a lot of cross-hatching, the narrative captions are in white in order to easy the burden on the reader's eye. In another strip that had more negative white space, she used black captions with white print. Her line is simple, malleable and expressive, reminiscent of Jessica Abel's work. It's also clear that she's looked at John Porcellino's work, as she has a penchant for trying to be in the moment and write & draw about that. Pierre never gets to Porcellino's level of stillness, but it's obviously something she thinks about while her brain is whirring.

There's one interesting strip where she abandoned her naturalistic and expressive style for an Ivan Brunetti-style geometric approach, and it was a fascinating departure because it worked remarkably well. That style was a bit colder than her usual approach, however, and that warmth is key to her overall storytelling aims. Pierre isn't talking at the reader nor keeping them at arm's length; instead, one feels warmly welcomed, as though Pierre was a long-time friend who was catching us up on her life. Even that level of intimacy involves a certain performative aspect, as Pierre often couches her observations in funny stories like being constantly mistaken for Tina Fey. The same is true for "Kiss (Extended)", which is a meditation on the way friendships continue in gifts given--especially the gift of music, because it's a way of quickly accessing old memories. "How I Came To Comics" is another funny story, this time about Pierre's relationship with various arts in the form of anthropomorphic versions of comics, poetry, painting, music and fiction. This is Pierre at her best, her wit showing both in terms of the slightly ratty line and the funny conceptual nature of the strip.

While those are strong strips, I enjoy her quieter, more quotidian strips as well. Pierre's strips about improving her health and fitness, her obsession with coffee (a tired subject to be sure, but one that Pierre acquits herself well on), time spent with her friends, and musing on the town's energy after a big storm. While her son and husband show up quite a bit, they are very much secondary characters, as she prefers to think about her own reactions and feelings rather than delve too much into what they might be thinking. That said, family is something she thinks about a lot, usually in the context of a photo or other object that jogs a memory loose. That really gets at the heart of this comic, which finds Pierre either exploring a memory or desperately trying to stay present enough to hold onto that memory. The final strip more thoroughly explores that idea, as a long drive made mostly in silence finds her thinking about other trips and small kindnesses, as well as how different and better her life is now.

Memory is another key factor in her travel diary Souvenirs, as she points out that that word is French for "memories". Pierre discusses her struggle between trying to stay in the moment and connect with the various friends she was with on her trips to The Hague, Amsterdam and Paris and then later trying to record these memories. That struggle is evident on the page, as her drawing is understandably more rushed and far less confident than her other strips, especially as the book goes on. Her writing feels more scattered and there are fewer clever through-lines, and she finds few hooks in exploring the cities she's in as anything but a tourist (which is something she's trying to avoid). Pierre had trouble finding ways to distill the essence of each place she visited on the page in a meaningful way. What did come across loud and clear, especially in the Paris section, was just how much her friends meant to her. Especially as someone in her forties who doesn't have the benefit of being around old, close friends as much as they would like, that sense of living in a bubble of fun when hanging around them now was both giddy while she was in it and heartbreaking when she had to leave. She and her friend Mindy in Paris bonded mostly over food and simply being in each other's presence, and that got at something a cab driver said later in the book. He and others said that no Parisian is ever happy living there, that it's only a good place to visit. Pierre reflected on that without necessarily drawing any conclusions, but as someone who grew up in a place that depended a great deal on its tourist trade, tourist-oriented activities are almost always invisible to natives. It's impossible to stay present and focus on the beauty of a city like that when the city makes money off its beauty. Pierre asks, "It's still a kind of love, isn't it?" for a tourist to love a city, and it is. But it's not a lasting love; rather, it's a souvenir.

Even in an effort handicapped by illness, jetlag, fatigue and activity, Pierre's intelligence and inquisitive mind is on display. She's not afraid to to ask questions for which there are no immediate answers. There's a remarkable comfort in her drawing style, which mixes solid chops and excellent storytelling. In the ideal Pierre comic, everything moves at its own, languid pace, giving her the time and space to reflect both on the moment and the memories it triggers. Pierre certainly puts the lie to the notion that not having a traumatic life can make autobio boring, because she's making observations that anyone can relate to, even if their lives are nowhere near as comfortable as hers. Pierre's ability to write multipage stories does lead me to wonder if she's got the itch to do a longer narrative focusing on some key memories in her life; given her way of weaving themes in and out of her stories, I imagine it could be quite successful.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Blammo #9

Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver. It was interesting re-reading Van Sciver's recent comics in writing reviews of them, because while they are quite good, his work in Blammo #9 is noticeably better. This dense, 40+ page collection of recent works is as satisfying a comic as I've ever read. Van Sciver's dark sense of humor is on full display here, but it's his willingness not so much to be self-deprecating but to doubt himself and everything around him that makes this such a compelling read. For Van Sciver, serious character work and gags can go hand-in-hand. He applies movie parodies to his own life and yet manages to make powerful and honest revelations about himself in the process. He uses long-form improv techniques in the form of unexpected callbacks. In the midst of critiquing his own lack of craft, he unleashes a series of images that are as profoundly beautiful as anything I've ever seen in a comic book. Above all else, there's a sense of a mind that's constantly searching, questioning and seeking. He's a cynic who wants to be believe, but has yet to find anything to believe in.

In this comic, Van Sciver has at last managed to achieve what he set out to do as a cartoonist: tell stories packed with detail like Will Elder and Julie Doucet, overwhelming the reader with the intensity of his work while still retaining narrative clarity. Van Sciver's use of autobio in this issue is fascinating, as he writes about himself in the present day, flashes back to his childhood and later writes a fictionalized version of himself that is nonetheless no less authentic. The time Van Sciver spent in White River Junction at the Center for Cartoon Studies was time he used wisely, as his drawing schools noticeably improved. It's important to understand that Van Sciver didn't want to improve his draftsmanship simply for the sake of creating a flashier style; instead, Van Sciver wanted more control over what he was able to draw in order to draw out certain reactions from his readers through the power of his images. Van Sciver was going after creating a powerful aesthetic reaction in the context of his cartooning, a reaction that's mystical as much as anything else, and he got at that in the first story of the book.

Van Sciver really takes advantage of the periodical nature of his comic by including features like letters pages (including one from Robert Crumb!) and a funny, annotated catalog in the back, including a bonus strip where he looks at a bizarre, "hot" comic that Van Sciver describes as "a thesis project from an art student who wants to fuck New York." The opening and closing pieces answer the question, "Mommy, where do Blammo comics come from?" Van Sciver takes a poke at self-mythologizing in an absurd story about a head without a body that twice winds up setting up variations on the same dopey gag. It's Van Sciver deflating himself by showing that he's still very much a humorist at heart, even as he's greatly expanded his storytelling range.

The first full story is "White River Junction, Vermont". It's based on his experiences as as a fellow at CCS and the ways in which he felt uncomfortable with the students. While Van Sciver isn't afraid to torch some bridges here, this isn't really a bitch session about CCS or the people he met there. Rather, it's a meditation on belief, and the ways in which even the most progressive of people can stereotype others. When he reveals to a group of students at a barbecue that he's an ex-Mormon because they were spreading misinformation about church practices, they aren't exactly convinced by his explanations. That leads to the first of many flashbacks, where Van Sciver is stuck inside the house to study scriptures, but all he wanted was to play outside. Then he saw a strange UFO.

That leads to a hilarious page where he helps a student move, only to have the student say "I consider myself to be all-inclusive and everything, but someone told me that you're Mormon or something?" A frustrated Van Sciver snaps at the person, who then treats Van Sciver as though he were victimized, leading Van Sciver to utter the line "You're just a 30 year old with a wacky top hat who loves teen girl manga. I don't know you..." which leads to the student flinching and replying "You're assaulting me with your microaggressions!" Van Sciver here is frustrated precisely because the supposedly all-inclusive CCS environment is playing "Telephone" with his story and making precisely the kind of assumptions that are harmful. If this had been an early Dan Clowes story, the nastiness of that exchange would have stood as the story's climax. Instead, it leads to soul-searching on Van Sciver's part, as he realizes that he overreacted and thinks back to when his mother told him there was no hell, and how hard it was for him to shake that concept.

Van Sciver is called in by a school official, who received a complaint that Van Sciver was intolerant and had "negativity toward manga and expressive clothing". Once again, Van Sciver's inherent  introverted character worked against him, and the students there ran with misconceptions. Van Sciver goes back and forth to the past and back to the present, ruminating on the other artifacts being a Mormon left on his life, like a desire to wait til marriage to lose his virginity. He also considers his techniques as an artist, honing in on the ways his level of craft improved over the years and the internal debate between continuing to work on sharpening his detail or to simplify. That leads him out to the forest (after yet more difficulties with White River Junction), where he chides himself for drawing terrible trees ("sticks in the ground"), and he starts praying for god to appear to him. It's a beautiful, transcendent moment that adroitly answers his own question regarding the use of detail, as the lush, silent beauty of the forest is expertly rendered by Van Sciver. The final, silent panel represents his mind being stilled at last, if only just for a moment.

There are a number of excellent short pieces that act as palate-cleansers, including true tales from his dad's time hitchhiking out in the desert and pulling a horrible prank on his brother, the decline and fall of his hilarious "19th Century Cartoonist" character, and an adaptation of Aesop's "City Mouse and Country Mouse" fable. The 19th Century Cartoonists represents his broadest use of humor in this issue, even as the feature gets at certain truths about the status of cartoonists in society and how that's changed over time along with the self-delusion of hacks. All of these features are full-formed and thought-provoking and are far from throwaways or space-fillers; as I noted, they serve not just as a quick diversion between the main features, but they work to fully reset the reader's attention each time.

"Little Bomber's Summer Period" may be Van Sciver's single best work of fiction to date. He really steps out of his comfort zone in depicting the lives of "Bomber" and Jenny. Bomber is a security guard at an art museum who's just been left by his girlfriend after he bought a house. He's in therapy in an effort to deal with these issues, which is a smart way for Van Sciver to quickly catch the reader up on the character's problems and challenges. Essentially, his inability to express emotion and his need to put up protective walls leads his therapist to suggest a material way of tearing down those walls, by leaving his front door unlocked at night. Jenny is a graphic designer at the museum who's constantly being dumped on by her boss and ignored by her husband. The two of them are friends who commiserate regarding feeling stuck and helpless.

The story is about that sense of desperation and finding ways out of it. Bomber is inspired to start painting thanks to the story of a fictional artist named James Markinson, an abstract expressionist type who retreated to a cabin in order to clear his head. This was a case of someone badly wanting a myth to be true in order to set up a foundational change for themselves. Jenny winds up quitting her job and leaving her husband, asking Bomber for a place to stay while she figured things out. There's a sweetness to their friendship that never quite turns into romance, but they found ways to bring out the best in each other as friends. Bomber was comfortable enough to open up to her in ways he never did with his ex, while Jenny found an affirming, positive presence in Bomber, something she didn't get elsewhere. They are certainly co-protagonists in this story, with each of their narratives running into each other. The outrageous and funny end of the story is very cleverly presaged by all sorts of incidental clues in the narrative (Van Sciver never wastes a line of dialogue), adding a touch of comedy that's more in the realm of EC Comics than anything else. The final panel actually touches on the first story in the book, as despite everything else that happens, Bomber is clearly starting to see the world in a different way. He's starting to see the world as an artist, in all its beauty and terror, just as Noah in the first story stops and stares at the first, with his understanding forever altered.

The final story, "Comics Festival 2016", is a sequel to the first story in the book and also a very clear homage to the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories. A now-famous Van Sciver is the star of a comics festival, complete with a limo ride from the airport and constant demands on his time from his fans. At the same time, that attention is bittersweet, as his fans tell him they prefer his "earlier, funnier comics" (a bit straight from the film) even as he feels slightly adrift in his career. The UFO from the earlier story comes back and the aliens tell him, when he asks for the meaning of life and if he should become a missionary: "You're not the missionary type. You're a cartoonist. You wanna do mankind a service: write better comics." That's also from the movie, yet Van Sciver cleverly planted this callback earlier in the comic in a seemingly unrelated way. The book-long quest for meaning and that sense of wandering fits neatly into the structure of the parody, giving the story an authentic and emotional spine beyond the simple beats of the gags. The real achievement of this issue of Blammo is the way Van Sciver has managed to blend humor and pathos in equal measure in the same stories, each one supporting the other in unexpected and clever ways. Even the most mean-spirited of jokes is leavened by moments of true empathy, and even the least sympathetic of characters is given a fair shake. It's Van Sciver's clear confidence as a draftsman, cartoonist and storyteller that makes his explorations of self-doubt, faith and belief all the more convincing.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Disquiet

Disquiet, by Noah Van Sciver. This is an elegant collection of short stories culled from his own Blammo! series, various anthologies, short one-shots, illustrations and features made just for this book. Designer Keeli McCarthy outdid herself working with Van Sciver, as every aspect of this book is simply beautiful. The quality of the work itself varies, as it's a mix of his better and more recent stories as well as some sillier but still interesting material. That said, Van Sciver does a great job, working with editor Eric Reynolds, of sequencing the stories and interspersing them with interesting interstitial material. The most striking of this sort of material was a series of silhouette head shots of Van Sciver, each one a more fantastic rendering of what's really going on inside of his head: a lush forest, a series of lightning bolts, a rugged farm, a desolate and wind-swept cityscape, a mountain fortress filled with soldiers, and a strange contraption. In many respects, these illustrations and others are a sort of career mile-marker for Van Sciver, demonstrating the ways in which his drawing skills have improved.

Van Sciver has always favored a detail-rich approach to his comics, which made his early comics feel cluttered and messy. Usually, most cartoonists learning on the job figure out they need to simplify and stop over-drawing. Being a cartoonist doesn't mean you need to make every image a representational triumph; instead, what's important is the clarity of the storytelling. Counterintuitively, Van Sciver took the harder road: improving his skill as a draftsman through patience and practice, and then applying what he learned to his storytelling. The story, "The Death Of Elijah Lovejoy" (originally published by 2dcloud), is an example of that kind of learning lab. His first book, The Hypo, saw Van Sciver make a big jump with regard to both storytelling and techniques like his hatching and crosshatching. This story, a sort of companion piece to The Hypo, was essentially a series of drawing problems that Van Sciver tried to solve on every page, as a lynch mob that had killed a black man was now setting their sights on an abolitionist newspaper and its printing press. The story is the greatly outnumbered writers trying to defend themselves at sunset. So Van Sciver balances the colors in the sky against a densely-rendered house, horrific acts of violence on nearly every page, and the grotesquely-rendered participants. He uses a dizzying array of page design techniques, carving up panels at weird angles in order to keep the reader off-balance and fully inserted into the chaos of the event.

Most of the stories in the book combine Van Sciver's expertise in depicting the lives of the abjected, the desperate, the doomed and the delusional with his fascination with twists in the vein of E.C. Comics or The Twilight Zone. "The Lizard Laughed", for example (based in part on Van Sciver's father), is about a man whose son contacts him years after he walked out on his family. Here, Van Sciver uses a false climax (the son confronting the father, only to be brushed off) to set up a darker one (where the son weighs the decision of whether or not to kill his father in his sleep with a gun he had brought with him for just that purpose). The story works because of Van Sciver's unerring ability to balance the mundane aspects of his characters' lives with the unusual thing that happens in each story. "The Cow's Head" is a grimy fairy tale that's true to the unsanitized tradition of violence and punishment inherent in such stories but that's also given a level of absurdity true to Van Sciver's sense of humor. "Down In A Hole" is about a suicidal clown who's been fired from his TV show who falls into a deep hole while exploring a cave, finding a tyrannical society of mole men living below. The final twist, after what appeared to be a heroic escape, makes perfect sense as he realizes he has to accept his punishment. That urge to escape, a thirst for justice or a desire to go back to a simpler time is present in every story in the collection, and Van Sciver rarely grants his characters what they want.

"Punks V. Lizards" represents a merger of Van Sciver's older interests as a cartoonist with his new understanding of how to emotionally modulate a story. Indeed, it's a perfect example of a character wanting to go back to a simpler time when they were happier with other people. "Night Shift" and "Untitled" find Van Sciver experimenting with making women the protagonists of his stories, often in roles that are compelling but also juxtaposed against more colorful characters with far greater problems. Overall, the material in this book is a step above his first collection, Youth Is Wasted. Everything is sharper, smarter, better drawn, more complex and more interesting. Before Van Sciver won his Ignatz, I told him and anyone else who would listen that Van Sciver has had a good an eighteen months as any cartoonist in the world, based on this collection, My Hot Date, Fanta Bukowski and other work. What is obvious, and is evident by my review of tomorrow's entry, is that Van Sciver hasn't come close to peaking yet.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: My Hot Date

My Hot Date, by Noah Van Sciver. If Fante Bukowski was a funny lark for Van Sciver, then My Hot Date is a highly focused, excoriating and awkwardly hilarious autobio story. As I noted in my review of Fante Bukowski, Van Sciver understands that punching yourself (done correctly) is an inherently humorous thing to do, and Van Sciver is merciless in mocking his fourteen-year-old self. At the same time, this comic is also a savage critique of the narcissism of youth culture, the emptiness of consumer culture and the desperate trauma that poverty can inflict. While Van Sciver has written plenty of funny stuff before, this comic had me howling in laughter at many of its pages. While the humor certainly takes advantage of young Noah's awkwardness, I found that there's a material difference between this and other kinds of "squirm humor". Squirm humor is drier and usually devoid of empathy; there's a cruelty to it where even if the target is deserving, it can sometimes be almost unbearable to watch or read. This comic, published by Kilgore Books, is at once broader in its sense of humor and also more sympathetic towards its characters--and that includes Noah himself. Sure, he plays his humiliating first date for laughs, but the effect is less "look at that asshole" and more like "look at that poor, naive child." Van Sciver quite deservingly won his first Ignatz Award for this comic.

There's a lot going on underneath the surface of this comic. While it's ostensibly about this particular, humiliating experience, the comic is very much about the dynamics of a family steeped in extreme poverty. Van Sciver sets the stage right away when he notes that his father was long gone and that his mother was trying to raise six kids in a two-bedroom apartment. The second thing that is clear is that Noah had initially been raised Mormon until his mother took him out of the church, which left Noah with little spiritual or cultural guidance other than what was popular or present at the time. That's how he became a skater kid who listened to rap and bands like Korn. Van Sciver is painstakingly honest as to how he talked when he was fourteen: he said things like, "Hold up, dawg" and "Word up, yo." The embarrassing attempts to act tough, like a friend carrying around a butterfly knife, rang oh-so painfully true. The "anatomy of Noah Van Sciver, 1998" page is self-eviscerating to be sure, but the fact that he had to wear his sister's old sneakers and that he had a single pair of sagging pants points once again to the way that any attempt at adolescent self-esteem was simply doomed from the start. The page where he stares into the bathroom mirror and imagines he's Conan the Barbarian is one of the funniest I've ever seen; it's a testament to the self-delusion of the male ego.

Getting back to family dynamics, a friend of Noah has regular, profanity-laced screaming matches with his mother. When it's revealed that Noah's been chatting with a girl on AOL, there's a labyrinth of family issues he has to navigate in order to talk to her, including competing for computer time with his sister Abby and competing for the room with the computer with her sister Amanda (and her boyfriend). That led to Van Sciver describing the sleeping arrangements in the house: the six kids all shared one room. Noah slept on top of a ratty bunk bed that rained down planks on his younger brother, and they both tortured Abby by trying to scare her ("We would keep this up until she cried.") Van Sciver doesn't cry poverty or bemoan his upbringing; rather, the family was simply a part of his narrative's plot mechanics. For example, when he somehow managed to convince the girl he was talking to go on a date, he asked Abby to cut his hair. She agreed, but "only if you smell my breath for 2 minutes", which is exactly the kind of weird thing a sibling would do to another sibling who wanted a favor. When told that using lemon juice would lighten his hair, he did so only to find that he attracted a swarm of bees--another laugh out loud moment in the book. His older brother literally beat him up to the point of tears while he was on the phone with his prospective date.

Naturally, the date quickly went south once the girl he had talked to realized that Noah was younger and scrawnier than she had thought. Of course, the fact that she brought one of her friends along (and she was vicious) didn't make it any less awkward. Van Sciver noted that the date failed "because of who I was. I had somehow sold myself as a higher quality product than I could actually deliver", which was a brutal and telling quote. Not only was that a devastating blow to his self-esteem, he cleverly phrased it in terms of economics; he was a product that he couldn't sell in a culture that he didn't have the resources to buy into.

Visually speaking, Van Sciver has always excelled at drawing compelling and sympathetic grotesques. He truly went to town in this regard in how he drew his family, his friends and especially himself. From distorted faces to overbites to scraggly beards, Van Sciver's characters are simply fun to look at. His fourteen-year-old self, with freckles, ultra-curly hair, glasses and bad teeth, is an absolute triumph from a character design standpoint. Van Sciver's self-caricature dominates every panel he's in because of his eccentricities. What really stands out in this book is the expressive use of color. There are pages where Van Sciver scribbles colors in using colored pencils, and those scribbles (as well as taping down lettering corrections) give the reader a sense of just how handmade this story is. There are pages with incredibly dense cross-hatching that still employ that color scribble that serves almost as a kind of embellishment after taking a closer look. They add depth but also grit, as though the entire world seen through Van Sciver's eyes was hopelessly grim and muddy. The color is entirely in service to the line, though, until right after Noah's date and he's getting a ride home. In a despondent state, Van Sciver draws himself fading out, leaving more abstracted color then line. It's one of many small details that reveals just how much thought Van Sciver puts into every page of his work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Noah Van Sciver: Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski, by Noah Van Sciver. I've been reviewing Noah Van Sciver's work for six years, and I can't think of a single cartoonist who has improved more in the course of following their career. Through sheer hard work and a relentless urge to improve as both writer and draftsman, Van Sciver has become one of the best working cartoonists in the world. The themes and interests that have always driven his work, like crippling loneliness; the lives of outsiders, weirdos and grotesques; lives spinning out of control and a grim but frequently bitterly hilarious sense of fatalism continue to be featured. It's just that Van Sciver has matured as a writer, and he's now much more capable of creating fully-formed characters who are often living in absurd or nightmarish situations. Van Sciver is also a devastating satirist who uses himself as his best target, mining genuine laughs out of hubris, the stink of desperation, arrogance and self-delusion.

Van Sciver is a restless creator, usually working on multiple planned projects at once as well as improvising projects in his sketchbook. That's how one of his funniest projects, Fante Bukowski, came to be. Goofing around on the idea of a pretentious, privileged aspiring writer, he created Fante and started posting pages on the internet. While he played the idea of a guy so deluded that he would change his name to reflect his two favorite hipster authors for laughs, Van Sciver essentially paints him as everything he hates: someone who wants fame but isn't willing to work hard. Fante is a blowhard who takes on the trappings of the starving, bohemian writer, proclaiming his own genius even as he calls his mom up for money.

One thing that I've always liked about Van Sciver's work is that he gives a lot of thought to every detail regarding his comics. He's especially interested in production design, and the design of this book is a pure, hilarious delight. It mimics the cover design, font, shape and paper type of a Bantam Books-style sleazy/literary novel from the 1940s. The entire package is a silent gag in and of itself, and that's part of Van Sciver's cleverness: using a visual gag without feeling the need to oversell it. Van Sciver's restraint and trust in his readers' ability to make connections is a big reason why he's able to inject both pathos and humor into his stories. Even at his most satirical, Van Sciver still finds ways to make his characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Fante may be a buffoon and a hypocrite, but even in this story, there's a spark of humanity that's almost admirable. After all, he leaves his job work for his father as a lawyer to become a writer; it's just that the way he goes about trying to be an artist and his motives ("1. A big time book deal. 2. Apple stock. 3. Emma Stone") that are so laughable and sad.

The book starts off with an episodic approach and stays as a series of vignettes, though Van Sciver quickly located the spine of his narrative as well as several key characters. There's a sleazy, starfucking literary agent, the publisher of a tiny but pretentious literary journal, an older guy at a bar that Fante befriends, and a young, slightly unhinged writer that Fante winds up sleeping with. One of the highlights of the book is a Dave Eggers signing that Fante attends, and he winds up insulting Fante while talking to the literary agent. Van Sciver portrays Eggers as kind of a sad sack: "Don't mind me...I'm not sitting right here. ...oh lord...I should have gone to computer college." Fante eventually gets some inspiration but winds up doing a bad rewriter of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being instead, earning him the wrath of the agent. The book ends with Fante leaving the city in an attempt to find himself in nature which ends as badly as one would expect. To round out this slender little volume, there are Fante pin-ups at the end (in the Mighty Marvel style!) that seem so fitting.

Van Sciver is at a stage in his career where even a lark like this stands out as something that strikes a chord with both the artist and the audience. To be sure, this book is a ridiculous goof, with over-the-top characterization and some ridiculous situations. That said, Van Sciver took it upon himself to use the book to continue to work on his skills as a cartoonist and storyteller, and some of his best and most fluid character design can be found in this book. There's even a character who bears a resemblance to Archie Andrews and is as annoyingly square as one would expect a grown-up Archie to be. Still, the perpetually sunglasses-wearing, goateed literary agent is only slightly less interesting and funny than Fante himself.  If Fante is a version of Van Sciver to some degree (perhaps a worst-case scenario), it makes sense that he would make the repulsive agent such an effectively mean character. Van Sciver has a way of making himself an object of derision in his books in a way that doesn't come across as whiny or self-pitying. He simply understands that when writing satire, punching down is frowned upon and punching up can be pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review and Kickstarter for Awesome 'Possum

The editor of the Awesome 'Possum anthology, Angela Boyle, sent me a copy of the second volume to review in conjunction with the Kickstarter for the third volume. Here's a a link to that kickstarter, and I would consider making a donation if possible. The anthology's mission is to publish comics and illustration about the natural world, and to leave that mission as loosely defined as possible so as to give the artists some room to interpret it.

That variety of approaches is what makes this a surprisingly readable book, especially given that so few of the entries here resemble conventional narratives. The other thing that makes the book a pleasure to read is the wide variety of visual approaches that were used. It would have been easy to make it a densely-illustrated book with an entirely naturalistic approach, but that would also have been boring. Furthermore, that type of art is often difficult to match up with cartoon storytelling, panel-to-panel flow and general readability. Even artists with somewhat limited draftsmanship ability managed to fit in by limiting the complexity of what they chose to draw, synthesizing the information conveyed by text with spare imagery to create a fluid piece.

Boyle is all over the anthology and has some of its best pieces. including the opener about how Opossums are enormously helpful creatures, the psychology of dogs, and the structure of fungi. Perhaps the best piece in the book was by her mother, Anita K. Boyle: a fascinating and beautifully composed ode to the role of water lilies in their environment. Though an entirely scientific account regarding these plants, Boyle's use of decorative elements, humorous flourishes, clever page design where everything is elongated much the way the lilies are underwater and a clear line made this strip the model for the rest of the book: clear, clever, entertaining and informative. Another highlight was a strip written by Steve Bissette and drawn by his former student Ross Wood Studlar (whose focus as an artist has been on wildlife). It concerned his sighting a fisher cat (a variation on the weasel) in the forest, which is a rarity, and finding that the animal stared him right in the eye. The story balanced a description of this interesting animal and its habits and ended with Bissette expressing his respect for it. This was one of the few conventional narratives in the book, and it worked precisely because of Bissette's knowledge of and respect for the Vermont woods.

Other highlights include Stephanie Zuppo's story about the Thyacine, a species thought extinct that keeps getting sighted; Kelly Swann's "first person" story from the perspective of a Thorny Dragon, which is exquisitely rendered in addition to being amusing; and Reilly Hadden's wistful account of being around Common Loons. Some of the material might have been trimmed from the anthology, but there's nothing that brings the anthology screeching to a halt. Indeed, virtually every piece is at least interesting to read, and few of them wear out their welcome. The general restraint and succinctness of the artists in this anthology definitely work in its favor. The end section, featuring a number of illustrations, provides different renditions of previously-mentioned plants and animals, this time from a purely static standpoint. This section fit well and didn't feel like the anthology was simply being padded. I'll be curious to see if the balance that made this volume work well continues to hold in the third volume, which will be nearly twice as long.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Minis: S.Mannheim, B.Heinly, D.Johnson/R.Lockie

The Amazing Vanishing Man: Prelude, by Daniel Johnson and Rosie Lockie. This mini is about the juxtaposition of fame and performance with a desire to escape it--escape from all contact. It follows an escape artist in a circus who comes to want to escape the ultimate trap: his own body. By learning astral projection, he's able to accomplish this, but then he starts having trouble getting back into his body, realizing that the only way to accomplish his goals is to do it in his laboratory of performance: the stage. The pressure of the stage paradoxically allowed him to relax into performing his tricks, as having something at stake allowed him to concentrate in a way that trying in a less risky fashion couldn't. This comic was just the first part of a larger story, and it was interesting to see how the artist (Lockie) expanded on the script, using a variety of compositional techniques on each page. Sometimes she went for a straight grid with minimal detail--especially with regard to the other characters in the story, who naturally were fuzzy because of the escapist's indifference toward them. On other pages, she used a lot of heavy hatching and cross-hatching to get at the heaviness of certain experiences, like trying to escape from one's own body. The final product felt rough, both in terms of writing and drawing, in a way that I don't think the artists were intending. It seems to be the work of younger artists figuring things out in an ambitious manner, and I'll be curious to see how they develop as a team as the series progresses.

Roxie #6 and #7, by Stephanie Mannheim. These two issues complete the saga of rocker Roxie, an over-the-top stew of sex, drugs, violence and rock-and-roll rendered in the tradition of Peter Bagge and Johnny Ryan. The plot is actually reminiscent of Josie And The Pussycats more than anything else, only everyone in the story is either looking to get laid, get famous, get revenge or some combination of all three. The plot is about two rival bands, one all women and one all men, and their various sexual/romantic entanglements and mutual plans to sabotage each other. The story comes to a head in the final issue, in which all of these terrible characters do awful things and get some partial comeuppance for it. Of course, these comics work because Mannheim has a great sense of the cultural zeitgeist and just the sort of references that make the most sense for it. In particular, her commentary on fame, what creates it and what people will do for it is especially on-target. Of course, the main appeal of these comics is her frenetic and funny cartooning. Her characters have crazily gritted, cartoony teeth, bulging eyes, and pointy noses. With all of that visual "noise", Mannheim did something especially clever on a page where she drew two characters falling in love in a naturalistic style, representing a truly over-the-top and sappy event in the story. Mannheim isn't afraid to get mean, which gives her work a powerful source of energy. Over the course of this series, Mannheim has also refined her line, giving it a precise crispness that makes the eye-popping quality of her subject matter all the more effective. It's cartoony art that is powerful because she has total control of her images, as well as the compositional elements of each panel and page.  In many respects, this series felt somewhat disposable, as though it was a way of stretching her writing abilities such that she could put together a longer narrative while keeping it both coherent and funny. I get the sense that the best is ahead for Mannheim.

Camp and The 3:00 Book Best of 2016 Again, by Beth Heinly. Heinly, a friend of Meghan Turbitt's, works in a similar, unfiltered and funny manner. The 3:00 Book reprints her internet single-page gags as well as her Facebook commentaries on same. Many of the commentaries wind up being funnier than the actual strips in question. Sometimes it's because Heinly is beating herself about a weak strip and hilariously over-explains, a favored comedy technique pioneered by Johnny Carson. That kind of meta-humor is in full effect throughout this book, but Heinly is careful not to pour it on too thick. Sometimes, the commentary is just commentary, adding context or an anecdote about the set-up. That said, the commentary is almost always funny no matter what its aim. The big weakness in these strips, and something that she gets at in the introduction, is that there's no particular point of view that emerges in the course of reading them. Heinly says "There is really nothing special about me or these comics because there about 500 straight white cis freckled girls who write the same shit." I think what differentiates the better autobio cartoonists is that they find an angle, be it Turbitt's over-the-top cultural commentary, Vanessa Davis' layouts and sharp awareness of how she relates to others, etc.

Where Heinly excels is in more conceptual humor, something that gets lost in the midst of doing a diary comic. That's why her comic Camp, a "stoner horror comedy", is so much more effective as a cohesive work of comedy. The cover promises that "Everyone dies" and Heinly lives up to that promise, albeit in the most hilariously convoluted manner possible. The concept is that a group of stoners are camping out in the woods with the idea that they're going to rough it. The only problem is that most of them are either stoned, stupid or both. Rather than an external force hunting these clowns one by one, the only real threat to them is their own stupidity. Two of the stoners find rare mushrooms in the forest, which may or may not be poisonous. Of course, they eat them and then die. One woman stacks way too much wood in the fire pit they've built, catches on fire, and falls into the inferno she's created. Heinly keeps escalating things from there, with the members of the party dying in increasingly absurd ways. The real humor of the book is that they're pretty much either too stoned or too sociopathic to care that their friends are dying left and right. The survivor was, of course, the stupidest and most stoned member of the party who was more concerned with getting joints off the dead body of a friend than either the friend's death or the need to actually find a way out. Heinly then takes that premise and goes way, way over the top, suddenly turning scene after blase' scene of people dying into something truly horrific. It's a grim final joke, but Heinly pulls it off thanks in part to the rhythm and structure of the story. Her line is serviceable and more effective here than in her other gag work, because her simple but exaggerated character design makes sense within the context of the story. Her strict use of a 2x3 panel grid keeps the story zipping along, another element that shows how carefully she considers and structures her work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Minicomics: R.Valero-O'Connell

If Only Once, If Only For A Little While, by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. I first noticed Valero-O'Connell's work when she was a first-year at MCAD and she was doing OuBaPo-style structured comics with rules as part of a larger event. The concurrent manga and art comics boom that began roughly around 2000 has had an interesting effect on young cartoonists, especially women. More young women have read comics and manga actually aimed at girls than at any other time in the US since probably around the 1950s. This is not to say that boys and girls don't read and enjoy all sorts of comics, but the way that the superhero comics industry aimed stuff at boys was pretty obvious--especially in the hypersexualized early Image era. Moreover, every year that goes by sees more comics being stocked in bookstores, libraries and school book sales, meaning that the sheer variety of comics available is growing every year. Valero-O'Connell is someone whose work seems clearly influenced by that variety, incorporating aspects of both manga and western comics in her storytelling and her line.

In many respects, she's working in a purely naturalistic tradition. A look at the first page sees three perfect establishing panels, formatted horizontally. The first panel is a carefully-rendered shot of some flowers. The second is a pair of feet and a bicycle seat, clearly fallen next to the flower bed. The third is a beautiful establishing shot of Charlie, her eyes closed and in profile, a sly and relaxed smile on her face. The first panel establishes Charlie's name, the second panel acknowledges an accident and the third introduces both a sense of relief and her best friend via dialogue, Olive. The character design, especially the exaggerated size of both women's eyes, reveal that manga influence. It's actually a bit jarring at times, seeing this juxtaposition of styles, but Valero-O'Connell makes it work thanks to her absolutely sterling layouts. Her use of negative space and her ability to balance elements in a panel is remarkable. Her lettering does get a bit cramped at times, but she chose a really tough route in using both uppercase and lowercase letters. Her use of a grid variation shows an advanced understanding of how form can affect emotional content.

For example, this story of two friends hanging out, enjoying the routine of being with each other day after day, first hits a speedbump on a page where the first three panels on the page are either filled with detail (panel one) or else make extensive use of white negative space (panels two and three). Panel four is at the center of the grid, and it's a disturbing fortune from a fortune cookie that Olive opens that is entirely offset by black negative space. Valero-O'Connell then uses a modified mirror technique, making panel five be a shot of a concerned-looking Charlie and the final panel at the bottom collapsing into a single image that mirrors the first panel, only it zeroes in on Olive at the bottom right corner, with the rest of it taken up by a dragon mural. That fortune is the first of a variety of seemingly supernatural elements, or perhaps hallucinations, from people around her. The rest of the comic follows from that moment, ending as a meditation on death, grief and healing. Valero-O'Connell perhaps lays it on a little thick toward the end as it becomes obvious as to what's going on, but she makes up for that with the last five pages that confront tragedy head-on. Her level of craft and storytelling is as good as it gets for a young cartoonist, and the next step for her seems to be more a matter of refinement and nuance, especially in terms of characterization. She's illustrating a book for First Second that's coming out, and I hope she's coloring it as well because that's yet another strong element in her toolbox. It won't be long before she's writing and illustrating her own books.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Alternative: Jim Campbell's At The Shore

Jim Campbell's At The Shore has been coming out in dribs and drabs over the years, but Alternative Comics has finally come out with a definitive collection. Alternative seems to be swooping in and publishing deserving, previously self-published comics with solid design and production values. Campbell is a veteran of the Meathaus comics collective, which used to regularly release interesting-looking anthologies but is mostly reduced to just a collective web presence now, as its members pursue their individual comics and animation careers. Campbell's toothy characters and cartoony art give him a different look than most of the other Meathausers, and he took that to its logical end in this funny and totally off-kilter sci-fi/zombie/teen romance story.

The success of this book lies in Campbell's ability to constantly keep the reader off guard by feeding them just enough plot or character development and then zooming off into a seemingly absurd or unrelated direction. The main character, a weird young woman named Gabi, tries to start telling a story to her friends about eating seaweed as a child when she's interrupted by the conventionally attractive Astrid. Her friends then drag her down to "the shore" for a little fun, but she's reluctant to go. Every time she tries to tell her increasingly weird and convoluted story, her friends contemptuously interrupt her. To be fair, it is weird: dredging for seaweed, her father (constantly in a diving outfit) and his professor friend finding out that a dead fish, placed back in a bowl of water, would come back to life, etc.

When the group gets the car stuck on the beach, that's when the real shenanigans begin, as a zombie in a wetsuit attacks them. Gabi manages to keep her cool and has a friend use a frisbee to stun it (one of the many eccentric details in the book is the way frisbees rebound) before she runs over its head. As the narrative proceeds, Gabi restarts her story again and again, each time providing more context. The key plot point was her father and the professor using a chemical to clean up the harbor, which worked to clean up the chemicals but had the unfortunate side effect of reanimating the dead. Throw in a ship that recently lost its entire crew, and you have instant zombie invasion. What makes the book fun is the weird characterization and plot aside Campbell throws at the reader, like the nonchalant revelation that there are Loch Ness monsters living in the ocean, the fact that Gabi's mother dressed like Gilligan all the time, the weird chemistry between the professor and one of the guys, and the professor's demented, inappropriate timing for humor and history lessons.

For all of the gratuitous weirdness and silliness that Campbell throws in, it should be noted that the book actually has a remarkably tight plot and great use of suspense. He pours humor on every tense moment, but the humor works because the tension is palpable. The way Campbell wove his characters into and out of trouble while throwing in new complications was highly skillful, something that he almost seemed to want to hide with all the silliness. This isn't an absurd comedy with extraneous zombie elements; it's a nasty, cleverly-plotted zombie story with an absurd veneer. That veneer is aided by Campbell's entirely non-naturalistic use of colors, veering from the muted to the lurid. They serve to manipulate the reader's emotional reaction rather than simply provide information, as they create a frequently queasy atmosphere interspersed with more sharply defined use of color around certain character entrances, as though a spotlight was being cast on them. It's the equivalent of mood lighting, offsetting Campbell's deliberately goofy character design with its own impact. For a goof of a zombie story, there's an awful lot of craft and thought that went into this book, which is what sets it above most genre-oriented work.