Monday, May 22, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #4: Derik A Badman

Derik A. Badman has been dedicated to creating comics-as-poetry in the form of juxtaposed found imagery and found text. In the past, he's used images from old romance and western comics to create new meanings, but in these issues of his MadInkBeard comic, he goes in a different direction. In #5, he used a black background for his four panel template, blowing it up across two pages to make the small details stand out as much as possible. It's a classic abstract comics technique, creating sequentiality without narrative. In this comic, it's especially interesting because the lines of each panel are slightly different in terms of weight and solidity, creating a viewing experience that is deliberately less fluid. It also sets the reader up for Badman's next move, which is introducing text and images in the panels. There are allusions to nature and explicit mention of the moon and the possibility of its double, leading Badman to explore that imagery, including a panel that makes it appear that the viewer is in the forest.

From there, Badman explores images from washed-out photos from nature and other things, random bursts of color and verbal cues related to nature that are explored through the use of color and shape. There's an especially clever sequence where the cue is "we do not forget attachment" and the third panel has no top border as some blue shapes come pouring through. The fourth panel finds order restored with a top border present, penning in a wash of contoured blue. Badman concludes the issue riffing on the phrase "the three kinds of world", with all sorts of photos teasing this out, then uses erasure techniques in exploring the phrase "the way it manifests itself in everything", striking out one or more of the words in order to create a different context. This issue really worked well, maintaining Badman's restlessness with regard to how best to create images. His use of found images will likely always be a part of his work, but seeing him at least vary the sources made his work seem much fresher than it has been for a while. Not only that, but he played around with the words themselves in a way that was interesting, playing with their simultaneous presence and absence through the use of strike-outs.

Madinkbeard #6 is a fun issue with a clever core idea: taking bits from other artists on the envelopes and other packaging sent with minicomics and creating a narrative of sorts with that, an "unwitting collaboration", as he notes on the cover. Accompanying the images is text from Allan Haverholm that's all about reaching out to others through the mail and with personal notes, putting out information that will outlive one's immediate agency. The various shapes and colors accompanying the text are wonderful, with lots of drawings from Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton in particular. That's a great duo, given the fact that they love doodling in general, but also because of how they are able to break down images to just a few squiggles and lines. Adding the plastic quality of envelopes, tape, post-it notes, etc. gives the comic a lovely texture. Badman sequences things in such a way that images of a kind often appear together, like a series of faces drawn by different artists all seeming to stare off at different boats appearing on the horizon on the right side of the page. The end result is a comic with a sense of warmth that's unusual for Badman's output, in part because it was easy for Badman to pick up on this feeling from the actual materials that he received.

Friday, May 19, 2017

On The Occasion of Two Anniversaries: Personal Observations on Koyama Press and 2dcloud

When I wrote a piece for the Comics Journal after Dylan Williams died in 2011, I made sure to ask two publishers for their thoughts on him and his influence: Annie Koyama (Koyama Press) and Raighne Hogan (2dcloud). I thought of them because apart from Williams' close friend Austin English, Koyama and Hogan have carried on the Sparkplug Comic Book tradition more than any other publisher.

Let's consider Raighne Hogan first. I started writing about comics in 2000 (a review of Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde for Savant magazine, edited at the time by Matt Fraction), but I didn't get really serious about it until early 2006, when I decided to turn my occasional column into a weekly for Sequart.com. So when Raighne sent me the first two issues of his Good Minnesotan anthology, there's a sense in which we were both starting out. Hogan kept going back, eager to improve and expand. From his earliest days, Hogan's mission was championing young and unknown talent, giving them a chance to do whatever they wanted. In the early years, the focus was often on John & Luke Holden and Nicholas Breutzman (his Yearbooks is still one of 2dcloud's best comics). Hogan made a point of finding work by interesting young queer artists as well; Anna Bonbiovanni's Out Of Hollow Water is one of the best comics of the last ten years. He published Noah Van Sciver, MariNaomi and Gina Wynbrandt. Along with one-time co-publisher Justin Skarhus (almost always a part of the operation), Hogan's choices began to become more assured, to the point where a reader could have complete trust in whatever came into their catalog. 2dcloud is now the undisputed avant-garde of American comics, and Hogan publishes books relying on fundraisers so he at least can break even and at the same time determine the audience base for his releases. That 2dcloud continues to thrive despite being so uncompromising is a testament to Hogan's determination and vision.

What to say about Annie Koyama? She's been a force of nature and a champion to Canada's illustrators and up-and-coming stars. Her relationship with Michael DeForge is one where both publisher and artist greatly profited from each other's presence and support. She too has a keen eye for talent and is a remarkably nurturing and positive presence. Annie is very much like Dylan in that respect: someone who always has time for an artist who needs someone to listen to them and get encouragement. I love that she has a stable of artists (DeForge, Patrick Kyle, Jesse Jacobs, John Martz, Jane Mai, Dustin Harbin) but also that she brings in new talent all the time, like Eisner-award nominated Daryl Seitchik. There's no end to the list of artists who want to work with her, and it's especially heartening when a veteran cartoonist in need of a publisher fits in with her, like Julia Wertz. She has long supported the work of queer cartoonists and of course the work of women, actively looking to create diversity in publication while still keeping an eye on getting people to buy them. Then there's all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that she does that's been so important to so many. Koyama's genuine warmth, keen intellect and empathy shines through in her books as well as in person, just as Hogan's innate sweetness and curiosity shines through in his.      

I've had the chance to grow as a critic in part because of the challenging and exciting work that they've published. I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to review virtually everything in their back catalogs. I respect their integrity and am grateful for the respect they've shown my work. They represent what is best about comics, both in terms of aesthetic ambition and personal collaboration. May the next ten years be smooth sailing for them.                                                                            

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Comics As Poetry #3: Comics As Poetry anthology

The origins of comics-as-poetry go way back to the 1960s, at least in terms of poets incorporating illustrations. The origins of what I call comics-as-poetry go back to the 1990s, with Warren Craghead being one of the earliest exemplars of the genre. I first used the phrase in 2009 to describe John Hankiewicz' Asthma and Tom Neely's The Blot. In 2012, New Modern Press published an anthology by the title of Comics as Poetry, edited by Franklin Einspruch. It's a short but solid introduction to the genre, featuring some of its greatest exemplars.

William Corbett's introduction regrettably references superhero comic books and generally lacks a real point, other than "who knows what the future will bring". Fortunately, the first piece is by Paul K. Tunis, who opens and closes the book with a style that brings a decorative quality to text that is well-integrated with its corresponding imagery. His first poem addresses the plastic quality of words, in the sense where all words sound like nonsense or onomatopoeia if said enough. Contrasting that with cartooning representations of said words adds to the fun, playful exercise that this piece is. His final piece is just as playful, using vivid imagery in his description of a relationship between a man and a woman--a relationship that's somewhere between work, romance and mutual aggravation.

Derik A. Badman's piece is his usual stuff: repurposing the work of old cartoonists (usually from romance or western comics) and adding either his own text or text from a completely different source. It's a kind of shtick, but it's a surprisingly effective shtick in that this juxtaposition really does create a new meaning for both image and text. The melodramatic quality of the figures is "cooled" by text that's frequently oblique, but not random. Einspurch's own piece is what I would call more of an illustrated poem rather than comics-as-poetry in that the text could hang entirely on its own without the use of the watercolors of different kinds of flowers he employs in the poem. It's an amusing poem but just doesn't hang together like the other work in the book, and I think part of that may be that he was a poet before he tried cartooning.

Absolutely no one puts together a page like Warren Craghead does. His nautical piece uses carefully drawn images, scrawled lines, odd uses of spot color, a six-panel grid with no outside edges, images that bleed into each other and text that is attached to images and tumbles across the page. Despite the spareness of the drawings and the extensive use of negative space, Craghead's comics have a thickness to them that takes several readings to truly absorb. Jason Overby's comics are like that as well, only he's not afraid to go much more abstract than Craghead. He also makes extensive use of collage, found images, scribbles and repurposed text as he goes meta in a piece titled "Process Is Poetry", referring to process in creating anything, not just a poem.

Kimball Anderson uses a first-person point of view in her piece about riding in a car through the countryside and losing one's sense of self. Not just ego loss, but that sense of being unable to understand the difference between sleep and consciousness. The art here is mostly naturalistic, but the color scheme gives the piece a strange quality, like a sense of being hyper-real as though one is in a psychedelic state. Julie Delporte's story about OCD/pure obsession and tracing it back to her childhood and a fear of being hated by her parents over something she did related to sex is actually one of the more conventional pieces in the book. The accompanying images are quite straightforward, but it's her extensive use of colored pencil and open-page layout that makes it unlike other comics. Finally, Oliver East's feature employs some of that Craghead minimalism and negative space, but then goes in a different direction by providing small cutaways of walks around gardens, tiny slices of quietude that I found to be remarkably moving.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Variations On A Theme: Ibrahim R. Ineke

For Ibrahim R. Ineke, horror is hidden and forgotten knowledge brought to light. It's poking around in the woods and seeing things not meant to be seen. It's encountering ancient beings that look like children whose presence will bring no good. It's forbidden speech being spoken aloud, forbidden rituals made part of the everyday. It's the understanding that civilization is a facade, something that will fall away in time and be overtaken by the forest and its denizens. Ineke has been working and reworking self-published adaptations of Arthur Machen's 1904 story "The White People" over the last couple of years, culminating in a hardback publication issued by Dutch publisher Sherpa in 2015.

Ineke has long used three visual techniques. First, there's his own elegant pen-and-ink line. There's a delicacy, almost a fragility to his line that nonetheless allows for a great deal of naturalistic detail. His faces are mostly naturalistic, though they do have a slightly cartoonish quality that sometimes turn into twisted, terrifying images. His second technique is an extensive use of photocopying to repeat and distort images, often using double and even triple exposure. Along with the increasingly dark images generated by photocopying, Ineke also uses a lot of thinly-applied white-out as a mark-making technique.

In The White People, that white-on-black imagery opens the book as we see a number of figures deep in the woods notable for their lack of presence. They take up white space but have no other definition. Then comes a scene that Ineke has repeated in a number of comics: two boys playing in the woods, playing at being warriors or wizards (one even invokes Lovecraft lore and Cthulhu) and one boy running a little ahead of the other. In a slow burn of one panel stacking atop the other and the images getting bigger, we see one kid sitting in a field, his head half disappeared. Ineke flips from the bright sun illuminating a field to a dark cave (jotted with dots of white-out) with waterfalls. The child is looking at another world and is forever changed. In the book, Ineke then repeats the interaction, this time in color, and then repeats it again, this time with the implication of ritualistic kidnapping. There's a chilling image of a child turning around and their face being the image of a sinister-looking house, one where it's implied all sorts of awful things take place, followed by a full-page shot of a feral child-like thing. The book ends with two detectives looking for the missing boys, with one of them oblivious to his surroundings and the other all too aware of what the woods represent, especially with regard to "the good folk" or fairies.

An earlier minicomics version of the story with the same title included an introduction that made this connection between the city's men of power and their occult connections that involved the ritualistic abuse of children, including a reference to a sequence of symbols that appears in the stories. While this was useful, Ineke's decision to excise that bit made sense given his emphasis on imagery and suggestion over explicit explanation. Witch Route is a short mini with some forest scenes and some key (reprinted) text about testimonials regarding children who had passed through fairy territory and came back horribly changed. Again, it's an establishing text that later became assumed and tacit. White Court is a hand-bound and assembled mini that makes the connection between kids and fairies more explicit, as it starts with a stag hunt that turns on the hunter when he is surrounded, turns to a man playing a flute being seduced by a fairy, and then segues to a different version of the two kids playing at combat with each other, this time in an abandoned building and direct intervention from fairies. There's a more structured division between chapters and additional scenes, none of which are more effective than what wound up in the book.

Also worth mentioning is No Maps, which is a collaboration with Niels Post alternating spam comments from the internet with Ineke's imagery. The images range from spare to intense to horrific to amusing. Eloise is about a missing young woman and starts with violent, ritualistic image at a punk show mashed up with imagery from Catholic ceremonies. That juxtaposition, of rebellion vs tradition, is at the heart of the comic in the way that her story is one of betrayal by those she loved most. It relates to the other comics in the way she rejects the city and what she has known before and instead embraces nature and the outdoors, ending the book climbing a mountain (and perhaps not coincidentally wearing a jacket with the named of the punk group The Damned on it). Here, it's all scribbles and texture with line instead of other effects.

Finally, there's the anthology miniseries Black Books, where every issue also feels like a lab for a larger story. Each issue begins with a reference to Saturn in an astrological sense, and each story has its own twist on horror. The first issue is yet another version of the two boys playing in the woods, this time with an explicitly vicious ending. The second issue is a darkly funny retelling of the fate of Orpheus, his severed head forever alive, meeting up with a Muse who uses his head to perform cunnilingus and then kisses him--and then tosses him away. The third issue returns to the city, where secret arrangements add a sinister quality to interactions between lovers and the custody of children shared between families. The fourth issue lifts dialogue from an earlier comic and makes it an interaction between a lord and a servant, who gives him a report in comic book form that is rejected but triggers a sort of breakdown of reality. The fifth issue is about a heist gone horribly wrong when reaching the forest and includes tales of a Robin Hood-style archer causing mayhem before the reveal of a ghastly child (an image used in The White People). Finally, the sixth issue is about a merciless, pitiless witch deftly outwitting a spiritual world full of male forces.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Moreton of the Week #3: Smoo 8-10

Let's take a look at the last three issues of the self-published series where Simon Moreton got his start, Smoo.

Issue #8, in several small vignettes, talks about different ways Moreton felt the weight of anxiety and stress, and the ways in which he found himself coping. Walking around Washington, DC in the fall, the sight of a snapping turtle on a rock was somehow reassuring. Reading Moreton's work over time, he's become remarkably assured in his minimalist take, as he's not afraid to draw big, bold strokes or use a few strategically placed and confident squiggles around a simply-defined central figure. The vignettes refer to a relationship that's in the process of being redefined and reevaluated on the fly, in the middle of what is ostensibly a vacation. In classic Warren Craghead fashion, when he talks about the pieces of the relationship being taken apart, the very text that proclaims this falls apart, drifting down the page. There's a remarkable segment where he's alone in a bar, where the pages flip open and fold apart, as he feels powerless to stop what's going on in his life, like a "drunken ghost". Finally, there is quiet reconciliation and more contemplative walks, the event of music suddenly breaking out on the street the kind of marvel that reminds us of the random gifts that life can bring.

Smoo #9 introduces a lot of text on its own pages, as a kind of reflection and amplification of the images on other pages. This issue reflects on family and previous states of mind. There's a touch of a regular Moreton theme in the way that friendship endures and in many way freezes one's age with that friend back to childhood, while also being aware of being adults. It's about gatherings of friends and families at wakes. It's about understanding how and why someone isn't doing well at a given time in one's life. In "Doubt", Moreton ponders the notion that he's never really "lived a day in my life". There's a recurring theme in his comics that he feels stuck, running in place and living an inauthentic life. That's countered by the way he observes his environment and treasures his friends, because the ability to perceive and then convey beauty is a remarkable act of authenticity.

The final issue, #10, touches on a number of these themes. There's a lot of text used once again, as he thinks about places he's lived and the visceral qualities of each: sights, sounds, smells, heat, cold, etc. There's an interest in larger forces that shape his days. From lingering in the past to capturing a moment comes Moreton watching a group of birds in the fog, and then following a path with a lover to find a waterfall. This time, it's conveying that sense of aesthetic experience that is both shared and entirely personal, relaying a few moments in time in as stripped-down a manner as possible. It's his way of relaying that sensation of the sublime, when things seem to be moving in slow-motion, seem to make sense and are heart-breakingly beautiful. The issue ends after another nature excursion and then a slow moment at home, saying "We've been changing" That's neither a positive nor a negative statement, simply a fact of mutual experience. In exploring deeply personal and individual thoughts  while clearly trying to put them in a larger context, Moreton has expanded his range as an artist while still working within his strengths in depicting spare and expressive visual stimuli.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Alex Bodea's Six Breakfasts/One Lunch

Alex Bodea's Six Breakfasts/One Lunch is a self-published, hand-constructed book that almost has the feel of a dossier or other official set of documents.. The brown paper is rough on one side, shiny on the other. As an object, it's fascinating to look at, flip through and simply feel. It's a book that takes on macro subjects like worldwide terrorism, fascist totalitarianism and the refugee crisis and looks at them in the most micro manner possible. Bodea describes the minutia of working as a volunteer in Germany at a refugee center for displaced refugees, specifically in helping serve the titular six breakfasts and one lunch during the course of a week. There is no explicit, larger commentary; instead, this is simply the observations of a person helping other people get food.

Bodea's formal choices were interesting. The figures were painted with swift, squiggly brush strokes, providing just enough structure to understand figure, foreground, background and other key items. The text (which almost looks typeset) is circled on just one or two highlighted letters and then is pointed to a panel. With this simple set of tools, Bodea uses a landscape formatting to craft a number of panels about people waiting in line, the kind of food they eat, and what clean-up is like. Most of the refugees don't speak the same language as the coordinator, making some conversations difficult. The volunteer/author is able to help with the situation of one refugee's family, which he thought was being persecuted for having children by a childless couple. The careful smudges and brushstrokes quickly become an elegant kind of shorthand language that's both word and picture in its own way. The images are small and Bodea's strategy is to whip the eye across the page quickly, especially when depicting motion.

It is the details that allow Bodea to tell a bigger story. The refugees are in Germany and hoping for a better life. They have nowhere else to go. They are depending on the kindness of the centers, eager to eat the food in front of them and comfortable enough to complain when something's missing but also paranoid as to whether as to if the sugar is poisoned. Bodea helps someone who speaks the same language as him get to a train station, where they encounter a desperate man who has lost his papers on the underground. You may as well lose your soul or your memory in a situation like this. Bodea's ability to communicate so much with a simple brushstroke speaks to the power of that image as well as finding a way to create a rhythm with it. There are small joys and small heartbreaks, often revolving around children. There is bureaucratic weirdness (the volunteers have to handle certain items, usually for liability reasons), but there's also a genuine sense of caring. In the back of the book, added as inserts, are a couple of cards that detail certain items (the book is heavily object-oriented, meaning different foods and their containers most often) and how they made Bodea feel, as well as another card that has a "list" of characters and where they were from. Above all else, the book reveals the daily life of the dispossessed (and it is hinted that many of them are Muslim), those hoping for a new and better life, and those who haven't quite reached it yet but are being materially aided and not abjected by the people in their potential new homes.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #2: Linen Ovens




Linen Ovens is a 2014 anthology featuring four cartoonists who would continue to carve out interesting paths in comics-as-poetry. Keren Katz, a rising star in the comics world, led off with "A Picture Of Health", a story that features a frequent motif in her work: a narrative thickness that is immersive in the sense that it demands a reader's full attention and a willingness to adhere to the frequently playful, absurd quality of her imagery. At the same time, Katz also uses a lot of negative space in her page design, letting the reader breathe and refocus their gaze on a page-by-page basis. Using colored pencil and a distorted figure composition, Katz weaves a tale about performance, celebration and secrets, as creatures pour from a tree to provide gifts and secrets. The use of color is dazzling and is crucial to moving the eye across the page in the ways in which Katz wants. The story follows the flights of imaginative fancy that follow after attending the ballet, with text that adheres to figures and creeps around the page. The tone is one of strange delight throughout the story, which befits the images.

Molly Brooks' "Selvage" leans heavily on its two-tone effect in addressing memory and place. The dark green of the sweater that's been knitted and its inner fibers is analogous to the narrator's thoughts, plans and dreams unraveling. The flashbacks to the finished sweater and a lover now gone add poignancy to the interminable Now the narrator finds herself in, having lost both a burden and a gift. Andrea Tsurumi's comics always tend to hew closer to light absurdism. In "Hectacle", there's a nursery rhyme cadence to the disparate set of farm-related images and the text that accompanies them, especially the phrase "biscuits and breath". Alexander Rothman's "The Thing In The Wall" is illustrative of one of his main interests: the poetic qualities of brief, quotidian moments. This story is about hearing a sound when one is about to drift off to sleep, a sound that shouldn't be there. It goes beyond simple fear or annoyance and instead follows a different path, as the narrator drifts into a dream (in a beautifully bright image that's a nice contrast to the greyscale of the other pages) and considers the way time is warped by perception, sleep and seasons. He ponders the theoretical existence of the animal he thinks he hears and mourns its theoretical passing in a touching panel where he's leaning up against a wall and the ghost animal is on the other side.

This is a strong, if short, anthology. It's a good forerunner/companion piece to Rothman's Inkbrick anthology and an excellent primer for just how broad a category comics-as-poetry can be. For Katz, it's about the image in itself that creates meaning. For Tsurumi, it's formal juxtaposition. For Brooks, it's poetic and abstract language that is aided by the drawings to help communicate the emotions involved. For Rothman, the images are conventional and the text is descriptive, but their combination is indicative of a place outside time and our conventional understanding of the everyday. It's a great place to start for those new to comics-as-poetry.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Moreton Of The Week #2: Rain and What Happened

Catching up with some more by Simon Moreton:

What Happened. A Kilgore Books release (one of my favorite small publishers around), leans heavily on Warren Craghead in terms of some of the actual drawings, but in terms of composition it's very much something else. Like Craghead, Moreton uses a lot of extremely thick lines in his drawings as a weigh of emphasizing weight, space and presence. They are deliberately non-naturalistic, as they are designed to make the reader think about that space and the drawing that's there than actually represent something. He uses zip-a-tone for similar reasons. Moreton messes around a lot with different grid designs, going from a four panel grid in the early going to an open-page layout on facing pages and back to the four-panel grid. When the storyline took on a slightly added level of complexity, Moreton quietly went with a six-panel grid that then filled up the page (he left negative space with the four panel grid). It's all part of the fluid rhythm of the comic, that sensation of rising and falling, of going from calm to excited and back to placid.

The structure of the comic revolves around a spring and summer Moreton spent as a teen. Using very few words, he gets across that amazing feeling when you're old enough to organize activities with your friends, go over to their houses on your own, etc. He also details the ways in which teens are sort of emotional ticking time bombs. There's one scene where Moreton is at a friend's house, and his friend just launches into a brutal brawl with his younger brother, leaving Moreton sitting there stunned. Another finds Simon and his friend Hadyn renting a UFO video that freaks them out; it's one of the two page, open-panel spreads, along with the fight. There are first loves, walks in the woods, trips to the beach, games of football and a glorious concluding segment where Moreton and his friend sit in a car, absorbing the words and music to a song from a tape they put in. Moreton is recording not a season, but rather a chunk of time specific to his friendship, and it ends with this segment, this song, the images and words jumbling together until the memory fades and the book ends with a number of blank panels in a row. Moreton had told the audience "what happened" and no more.

Rain and Other Stories. This is a more spontaneous effort, drawn from cues provided by Moreton's friends. The first story is "Three Transgressions", which Moreton imagined as people in fancy dress jumping fences and climbing through windows. This slightly moodier, darker work from Moreton, but it doesn't quite coalesce as well as his other work, especially since the rhythm of the piece feels off. "Fizzy Drink" goes back to his well of childhood stories, where here the hope of a new soda turns out to be disappointing. It's the opposite of a special childhood memory; it's a memory because of the way it so strong affected the sense of taste. "Rain" is the true highlight of this mini, as it combines a nice looseness in Moreton's line with strong compositions with regard to the buildings and trees (I love the way they almost jut up against the rain), The rain itself is drawn in a simple way that varies in intensity from panel to panel, as we see it batter a pedestrian until the lines get shorter and fewer and the storm goes away. Here, the length of the story really works to its advantage, as it needed to be a bit long to give the shower a real lifespan that has the correct feel, while still whipping across the page quickly enough to follow the story's main figure through the rain. The result is a beautiful, visceral story about watching and experiencing a rainstorm.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

2DCloud: Sprawling Heart & Perfect Hair


Sprawling Heart, by Sab Meynert. 2dcloud has never been afraid to publish books that don't neatly fit into categories, and Meynert's book is no exception. I believe it's best described as an illustrated prayer and invocation for healing. The lush illustrations, including delicate pencil drawings, elaborate design work and vibrant use of color, give the eye something powerful to work with when paired against the relatively spare use of text. The prayer is about staying open, staying aware, looking for help and looking for connections. There's a repeating visual motif of flowering amidst an open hand, representing perhaps that it's important to understand how to be open to the things life can offer you, that one's mental state is key to accepting or not accepting what life has to offer, in all of its incarnations. The comic is all about flow, fluidity and water's paradox in being droplets and a wave all at once. That metaphor is used to explain our position relative to others: we are all water, whether we realize it or not, and we can either flow or resist--but the river will always keep moving.

Perfect Hair, by Tommi Parrish. This is an audacious debut by Parrish. It's interesting that Dash Shaw offered up a blurb, because among the many influences that Parrish cycled through in the course of this book, Shaw was the most significant. The layout, the use of diagramatic text, the use of textual onomatopoeia in place of more typical sounds effects, and simple line are all there--except when they're not. Eleanor Davis is another obvious influence, and there may be hints of Gary Panter, Chris Ware and many others. What's remarkable is the way they are able to dial in and out of a particular visual style, often in the middle of a story. In "Train Scene", Parrish begins with a naturalistic color setting at the station, then switches to a pencils-only page, and then to the big, blobby character design they use for much of the book. In other words, the "real" image, the self-image, and the way she looks at others. The result is a style for Parrish that becomes uniquely theirs, whipping the reader from narrative fragment to narrative fragment while still retaining a cohesive set of character profiles.

This book is a short, punchy series of vignettes about gender identity, sexual identity and its boundaries, isolation and alienation. In particular, it's about the feeling of being embodied and being alienated from one's body. The two leads (and as it is implied, lovers) Nicola and Cleary, each experience these feelings in their own way. Nicola is a bespectacled sex worker and artist who is at once settled in her life but also has trouble accepting the narrative put upon her as a constantly objectified sex object. There's a remarkable scene where she is hearing the narrative of a guy trying to run his patter on her. She pops off her breasts and then eventually pulls herself out of her body, leaving behind the colored form of her skin to reveal a stick figure, walking away. Later, Nicola encounters another familiar John trope: the white knight. He wants her to act like she's in love with him, and then later says he can "save" her from "all this" because he has money and wants to make her his wife for real. (Hilariously, she replies, "This what? This conversation?")

Meanwhile, Cleary (named for Beverly Cleary, perhaps?) is the cool Nicola's opposite. She goes to what appears to be a kind of fetish club and panics when a man doesn't so much frighten her with his desire, but rather puts her off as he begs her for validation of his existence. In fact, the player, the white knight and the man in the club all rely on the women in the book to validate their existences in one way or another. Cleary's reaction was to have a panic attack, but she also had learned how to control them with breathing exercises, a key point that illustrates the ways in which both Nicole and Cleary have found ways to navigate and even control their environments. When a doctor later mistakes Cleary for a boy, she doesn't mind. This touches on an earlier story where the characters aren't named and the figures look different, but it is clearly Nicola and Cleary's story and personal backstories, one of which refers to Cleary eventually coming out as trans. The way Parrish loops the reader in and out of these narratives rewards multiple readings, as the connections become clearer and the sheer craft setting up subtle signals is remarkable. Parrish's use of color is frequently sublime, evoking emotion while still staying true to the figures. This is a remarkably ambitious novella that hits every emotional beat while employing an array of narrative tricks that are more than just formal pyrotechnics.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fantagraphics/Hic & Hoc: Vague Tales & Dad's Weekend

Vague Tales, by Eric Haven. In a lot of ways, Vague Tales, is the logical conclusion to the sort of comics Haven's been doing for a long time. The weird attachment to barbarian stories, witchcraft, monsters, superheroes and regular guys standing their living room have all formed the background of his storytelling interests for years. The level of craft he attaches to each demonstrates a familiarity and an affection for genre tropes that is undeniable, yet he comes at them in such an odd way that it's hard not to chuckle at his storytelling decisions. This is not naive storytelling that is funny in spite of what the author intends; rather, Haven's approach is clearly entirely calculated. The riffs on slice-of-life comics spinning out of control make that obvious. The reason why it works is because his use of mostly silent storytelling adds a level of dryness to the proceedings that is often lacking in overheated genre potboilers, where writers insist on purpling up the prose to within an inch of the story's life. Instead, Haven focus on what a kid would see: striking images, strung together in such a way where it's easy to understand what's happening, even if the reader has no clue as to why.

That titular vagueness helps make the stories funny. What sets apart this very slight book (just 74 pages, including the end papers) is the way Haven throws story after story at the reader and then has them bleed into each other in unexpected ways. It opens with a man standing in his living room, but the first story proper is "Psylicon", which is four pages of a crystalline man with thoughts like "ponder" and "brood" whose head explodes on the last page. It's a parody of 70s Marvel comics filled with cosmic characters who moped around the universe. "Ruin" features an emaciated ghoul of a woman (a favorite Haven trope) who flies around in a biplane, shoots down a spaceship and sucks the souls out of the pilots before they crash. "Pulsar" features a barbarian character who looks uncannily like the 1970s Captain Marvel character with his costume all but torn off, and he decapitates a monster. "Sorceress" finds the titular character going into a mountain until she encounters the head of the crystalline man.

That's the pivot point for Haven, who suddenly brings all the characters crashing together. There are fights, mysterious connections, and as is often the case in a Haven comic, the end of the world. Only it isn't--it might be just a thought in the crystal man's head, or in the imagination of the man in his living room, who is only flesh and bone, as both the cover and the last page of the story indicate. What does it mean? Well, it's vague. Every story is about pointless violence, pointless destruction and a general dealing in pointlessness. Why does anyone do anything in these stories do anything? They obviously feel compelled, which is funny considering the man in the living room seems to have no compulsions or agency of his own, other than to daydream and imagine other characters with a purpose, no matter how banal or pointlessly violent. They're vague because the limits of the man's imagination allow them no further shape. They're the images of a man-child, and it seems that Haven is satirizing that tendency toward indulging this sort of infantile fantasy as much as he is celebrating it.

Dad's Weekend, by Pete Toms. This is a character study that is impeccably structured. It's about a conspiracy theorist and his young adult daughter, and their attempt to reconnect over a weekend. It's a funny, slow-burning, slow-building story that is also genuinely sad. The story is mostly told from the highly sardonic point of view of his daughter Whitney, and the story starts with her friends telling hilariously detached stories about their horrible futures, including one who plans to be a "failed arthouse film director", going into great detail how he will accomplish such a thing. Whitney has her own "20 year plan" of failure which is equally funny, as she and her dad exchange quips. Then the already-strange story takes a weird turn, when Manny (the dad) finds out that a friend of his is missing. This leads to a hilarious but unsettling series of events where he talks to his wife, detects something off about her and then throws a hot drink in her face.

Essentially, he was so deep in conspiracy theory decoding that he had altered his own perceptions, or rather lived in a world where what was coincidence or a trick of the ey. e became proof that his friend's wife was a lizard person. When he was found dead ("he ran himself over in a parking lot"), Manny attends the funeral and screams "This funeral is a false flag!" Eventually, he reveals the source of his paranoia: the existence of his daughter. When he saw what he perceived as the sheer terror of being alive in her eyes as an infant, it drove him from being a person who saw meaning in nothing to someone who desperately yearned to find the secret meaning of everything. It's classic conspiracy thinking, in that it's better to believe that some horrible force is in control of the world (and hence your life) than to believe that nothing and no one is control, and that everything is random and chaotic. Toms is playful at times with regard to the reality of the situation (especially in the last panel of the story), but the reality is less important than that conspiracy theorist's state of mind. The paradox is that "awareness" of the conspiracy induces a kind of debilitating madness that's exactly what They would want for you anyway. Visually, the comic has an odd flatness to it. It looks like it was drawn on a computer, and it relies on color fills quite a bit to tell the story. The strange visual tone of the comic is a perfect match for the flatness of affect of both of the main characters, who both deflect the sad reality of their situations by denying it in some way

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Simon Moreton of the Week #1: Plans We Made

Simon Moreton is one of my favorite artists to emerge in the last five or so years. His style, which has evolved past influences like John Porcellino and Warren Craghead, is elegantly stripped down, meditative but active and fascinated by the past but not weighed down by nostalgia. I have a number of books and minis by him to examine, so I thought I'd do a bit at a time, starting with Plans We Made, a 2015 volume published by Uncivilized Books.

The book is a look back at time spent in the suburbs growing up and into his teen years. The dominant theme here is one of inhabiting that sense of special, sublime time spent as a youth, where moments in real time simultaneously become beloved memories. Moreton's bold but spare line is perfect in providing just enough detail to inhabit those memories along with Moreton, to get a sense of the emotional narrative of running around his neighborhood as a boy, playing in the forest, claiming a chunk of land as theirs. At the same time, Moreton starts to build a competing emotional narrative as he grows older and his circle of friends expands: a sense of needing to escape, to move on to something bigger. Those two strong impulses circled each other, as Moreton's mastery of his territory started to feel like treading the same ground over and over. At the same time, the pull of his friends is beautifully depicted in small anecdotes like watching a building catch fire from their vantage point in the forest and being struck by the strangeness of it all. It's an experience marked in their memories as something atypical in their daily patterns, their daily interactions that were driven to creak a spark. That spark is the sublime quality of feeding off of and feeding others in conversation, in love, in closeness and in treasuring simple, small moments. It's an evasive feeling frequently blunted by the mundane aspects of everyday life, but Plans We Made reads like a narrative not so much of events but of exceptions to the daily grind.

Each story was an exception, forging a group memory. Moreton uses very little text in telling his stories, and the spareness of that text is often simple but poetic in nature. More often than not, he prefers to let his line do the talking in terms of capturing and explaining an experience. The trees, the lines of houses, the heat of the sun, the blare of the radio, body language at parties: even as things become more complex emotionally, they retain that same simplicity in form in terms of the drawing, as well as in scale. There's a brutal scene where it's implied that Moreton breaks up with a girlfriend and she urges him to go, and we see him on that brutal, solitary walk home. He's alone with his thoughts and the familiar surroundings are not comforting to him. The last section of the book, where he's alone in his house for a month as his parents are away, happen to coincide with 9/11. It was a final moment of not quite understanding himself, or the world, in that moment. It recorded perhaps the last time he felt at home in some sense. Sitting outside the house with his friend, trying to make sense of it all, trying to connect all the dots of his life, nothing quite fit.

It wasn't a part of his life that had a definitive conclusion; rather, he was there until he left, and all that remained were the memories that had changed from pure, innocent joy to an aching impatience mixed with a profound sense of connection. Moreton does it with a slow pace, with single panels or images taking up one page (and not even all of it, much of the time), as he wanted to portray a sense of looking at the page reliving the memory in the same amount of time. At the same time, detail mattered less than impressions, and so the hints at trees and houses and neighborhoods got sketchier in some segments, and slightly more detailed in others. The way in which Moreton takes his time and in so doing makes the reader take their time as well, is the key to emotionally inhabiting each scene and letting the reader in on these feelings. It's an honest, gentle, and bittersweet account of the feeling of having close friends, a first love and a place to explore.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Comics As Poetry #1: Inaction Comics

This is the first entry in what will be a months-long series on comics-as-poetry. It's a branch of comics that's exploded in recent years, with the results being remarkably varied. A cousin to abstract comics, comics-as-poetry stretches the limits of narrative in comics and explores the different ways words & images can interact in a manner similar to poetry's ability to use words in an intuitive manner to get across a hint of the sublime.

This week's book is Inaction Comics #1: Productivity, edited by Kimball Anderson. It's more than just a clever title; indeed, its premise is a challenge to a fundamental aspect of comics: that it is sequential art, featuring movement and action between panels and pages. The grids and the rhythms of storytelling are all designed to create a fluidity of action that carries the reader along. Anderson goes in a different direction, and the other artists in the book follow along; create a single narrative from a number of different artists that focuses on stillness, inactivity, and quiet. The book is separated into three sections: floating, weighted and balance. One of the running themes of the book is how frenzied and uncontrolled activity is in itself a kind of sickness, or at least an inability to stop and be still. There's virtue in having goals and working hard, but this book examines what happens when work consumes us. At the same time, in one running narrative spearheaded by Anderson, one of the characters is clearly medically disabled, and they have trouble reconciling what they see as a lack of usefulness with their partner's activity.

The Weighted section is the book's most intense, as there's a frenzy of activity but also a period of having to wait before being active, and it's portrayed as agonizing for a certain set of people. For them, as LB Lee shows us, activity is simply an antidote to a fear of being still, of being alone with one's thoughts, as well as being part of bipolar. That's followed up on in the Floating section, where the mania of needing to be in constant motion eases and equilibrium is achieved. In the course of works that vary between stream of consciousness narrative, snapshots of relationships, case studies, and traditional narratives, the very concept of "productivity" is examined and flipped around. There's a strip by L. Nichols that examines the anxiety surrounding "work" and "getting work done", highlighting the fact that being anxious about work interrupts the actual flow of being able to first relax, then focus and finally follow-through. In their strip, as they sit at a drawing table, they finally are persuaded to go on a walk with their dog. In the middle of the walk, they realize the irony that sometimes the act of moving one's body creates a stillness of mind that's impossible to achieve simply by trying to will it into being. Anderson goes even further to suggest that such activity creates erasure of self and meaning.

The book also hints, in the Floating section, that the very concept of productivity in a capitalist society is toxic. It values frenzied activity over thoughtful contemplation, rushing instead of moving, and busyness as a form of self-worth. Susie Oh's strip about the silkworm is a perfect encapsulation of the book's ethos, as the silkworm creates beautiful silk in its own time, at its own pace, in its own way. Frenzied activity is almost incapable of the act of creation. Laurel Lynn Leake's strip is the visceral opposite of this, as the "shame of inaction" is turned inward, until one devours oneself. In this strip, it's a literal self-destruction, a metaphor for the ways in which guilt and self-loathing drive self-destruction. It's an interesting strip because the visual approach of each artist is radically different. Anderson's use of line is spare, as color shapes create the emotional narrative. Nichols uses a single spot color and line, concentrating on close-ups but never showing their face in total. Lee's work is standard pencil and ink, hewing closely to naturalism in a way that's jarring when compared to the rest of the book. Andrew White often works directly with words and shapes, representing the way in which one's vision becomes strained and one's ability to concentrate dims. Leake's art is visceral and terrifying. The overall result is a beautiful, restrained and remarkably cohesive work, despite slipping from the work of one artist to another. The overall effect is as though the reader has been given the rare privilege of seeing how someone else sees the world, feeling what they feel, and understanding their fears and desires. At just over a hundred pages, it moves at a remarkably brisk pace, as the artists found a way of locking in together in an intuitive way. It's poetic and direct, but also offers so many sublime moments of simply being, of inhabiting each strip and understanding, even if only for a moment.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Koyama: Nathan Jurevicius' Birthmark

Nathan Jurevicius' book Birthmark is part fairy tale and part hero's journey, as it follows a nameless and bulbous creature from abject poverty to world-shaking influence. Told in first-person captions, what's memorable about this book is Jurevicius' dense, grotesque and often scribbly use of color. The hues and scribbles give one the sense that the entire world shown here is badly bruised and battered. The story begins in the city, where the hero is separated from his mother after his father (a painter) had displeased the Grand Inquisitor (the defacto ruler of the city). The juxtaposition of pink, purple and dark green creates that "bruise" effect, as the hero lives the life of a scavenger and later a menial factory worker.

One of the central themes of the book is that compassion and caring, even in a brutal and uncaring world, can be enormous strengths. The hero takes pity on a grub that would otherwise have been farmed for food or entertainment, and she becomes his best friend. They leave the city together and simply go about trying to do the right thing and be helpful, which leads to a series of adventures that eventually become horrible. Death is everywhere, and it comes for Edith the grub, transforming the hero into someone who turns his grief and love into a weapon of vengeance. At the same time, he knows that he has to take care of Edith's children, to whom she gave birth right as she died. Again, protecting and nurturing life in this book ultimately leads to a special and powerful destiny. By the end of the book, the hero waltzes back into the city and rescues his mother, and threatens changes. Those changes are only hinted at as the book ends (I suspect there will be another volume), but what matters is the way in which the hero became hardened enough to kill his enemies but retained enough compassion to think of his mother and the inhabitants of the city first.

Jurevicius worked big on every page. Most every page had one or two panels at most, in an effort to emphasize the massiveness of the struggle, the sheer size of the city, the ferocity of the threats encountered, etc. As such, each page is worth of studying on an individual basis in terms of the color balance and composition. It's not what I would call a beautiful book, but its aesthetic is powerful and unapologetic in the way it portrays the grotesque quality of its characters and backgrounds. When Jurevicicius switches from the base colors to bright blue or canary yellow, it opens up the book's world to the reader as well as its hero. The matter-of-factness of the hero is another interesting quality of the book, as he reacts in a level-headed manner to the horrible things that happen as well as the major changes that occur in his life. Gaining new knowledge and purpose does not fundamentally change him as an individual; instead, it only reinforces his strongly-held values. I'll be curious to see if there's another book that will come out of this series, because it has room for greater complexity with regard to the overall narrative.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Uncivilized/Odod: Musnet, volumes 1 & 2

The artist known as Kickliy (their identity a closely-held secret for some reason) has crafted a remarkable series about a mouse who comes to be named Musnet and his love of painting. Indeed, the entire series is a love letter to the art and craft of painting and the possibilities of self-expression, particularly in the way that Impressionism was such a startling change from previous styles of art. This is a sweeping epic that is nonetheless made up of numerous quiet moments, as Kickliy is clearly content to take their time in telling this story. The colors are lush without being distracting or garish, giving the reader something to enjoy looking at as the narrative unfolds. The character designs are simple, straightforward and cute without being cloying. The story of the would-be painter mouse is one where the garden and the house are full of fun & adventure, but death also lurks around every corner. It's charming without being sanitized.

The first volume of Musnet, The Mouse of Monet, focuses on the young mouse coming to be the apprentice of a cranky old squirrel painter, in the shadow of the house of Monet. It slowly establishes his friendship with the girl mouse he meets at the beginning of the book (Mya) and how he is able to talk the old painter (Remi) into being his mentor. It's also a long look at the craft of painting, from how to stretch a canvas, how to mix paint and how to hold a brush. It's marvelously modest, low-key and charming, even when we are introduced to the grieving Monet himself. Kickliy slowly establishes the series' status quo, as Musnet works with Remi and moves into the big house with Mya's family. The mixture of wit, ambition and melancholy makes for an interesting tone for the series. All at once, the reader is being shown something old that's dying out (Remi's style of painting), the future of art in Musnet, the anguish of Monet and the longing for a sense of being part of something greater than himself in Musnet.

With the premise established, Kickliy complicates things in volume 2, Impressions Of The Master. As opposed to the uncertainty that opened the first book, this volume opens with a picnic, symbolic of Musnet's becoming friends with Mya (who is a writer) but also symbolic of his relentless work ethic in trying to please his mentor. Kickliy then turns that bit of reverie and character-building into a life-or-death chase as Musnet manages to outwit a snake and an owl who are looking to turn him into a meal. There's a funny sequence where the mouse enters a maze (a lovely bit of visual storytelling/problem-solving), the introduction of a major new character (a spider named Chiby), threats from landlords, and other concerns. There's another major action sequence where Musnet and his friends rescue Mya's father from the owl.

Its end is gentle,as Musnet has struck out on his own and relishes the company of his friends. Though each volume is just 54 pages, the sheer density of each page and the album size of the book make this a highly satisfying read. The books consistently avoid cliche' and predictability. There are some gentle lessons taught about friendship and being part of something, but it's far from didactic. The books focus on the importance of balancing hard work with spending time with friends, of being honest about feelings and having the courage of one's convictions. Kickliy balances gags & silliness, character moments and exciting action scenes with aplomb, never allowing the book to fall into a pattern. Add to that the simple and expressive beauty of each page as a separate art to appreciate with the fluidity of the storytelling, and you have a book that's both easy to love and admire.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Exploring The World of Cartozia Tales

I've read a lot of young adult fiction in going through books for the Eisner awards, and a fair number of them have been fantasy/action-adventure oriented. None have the level of ambition, playfulness, formal daring and fun of the Isaac Cates-edited Cartozia Tales series, which is an issue away from finishing up its initial run of ten. Cates and his artistic partner Mike Wenthe (a long-time friend from before his comics days, in the interest of disclosure) basically made Cartozia Tales a far more aggressive experiment than their work on their old series, Satisfactory Tales. Their interests in comics have always revolved around collaboration, formal experimentation, an almost whimsical sense of play (including plays on words and visual puns), and creating problems to solve. They seemed to really find a groove when they worked on an ambitious fantasy comic together, which perhaps provided the impetus for this series. The central thrust of the series is this: in a set of adjoining land masses dubbed Cartozia (the first of many, many place name puns in the series), the reader would follow all sorts of serialized adventures. Cates divided the map into a nine-panel grid. In each issue, one of the seven permanent creative teams would be assigned a sector and create a story. Each issue would feature two guest artists. In the next issue, the creators would move over one sector, so now they had the option of picking up from the previous artist (in a sort of narrative exquisite corpse game), creating a new character, or some combination thereof.

This approach has led to a crazy level of complexity, especially since some characters were created by one artist but not actually used by them; instead, they were given to another creator to use. And unlike the random approach of a true exquisite corpse, there was careful attention paid to continuity (both narrative and character), especially as each issue drew the overarching narratives of the series tighter and tighter, like a sort of fantasy Raymond Chandler novel. That's how it was supposed to go in theory; in practice, things got a little choppy at times. While the covers for each issue and the overall design have been excellent, it's been obvious (especially in some of the middle issues) that some cartoonists were rushing their entries. There have been a couple of fundraisers for the series, as Cates is paying everyone. Not every guest star has been a perfect match, nor has every narrative maintained a sense of fluidity. Frankly, unless the series is read at once, it can be difficult to remember exactly what was going on with nine different storylines. That said, it's remarkable to see how coherent the book is given the incredibly complicated logistics involved.

It was always obvious that when Cates & Wenthe worked together, they went all-out for the series. With a relatively smooth line and the ability to trade off with each other, that duo turned in some of the denser stories in the anthology, though that density often circled around how many puns and funny visual references they could throw in. Still, their works felt like going back to home base when reading this comic. The two most dependable cartoonists on the roster were Lucy Bellwood and Lupi McGinty. Bellwood works using a slightly thicker line and a looser overall style than McGinty's ligne claire approach, but they both possess a smoothly welcoming style that worked for every character in the series. The series' secret weapon has been Tom Motley, whose scratchy and inky style felt dissonant at first, but whose relentless commitment to formal experimentation (along with a few changes here and there to make his line clearer) makes him a great place in the book to get one's eyes challenged. He also shares the Wenthe/Cates proclivity for whimsy and wordplay, a nice contrast to the more straightforward styles of the other artists. His greatest achievement in the series was his homage to Gustave Verbeek's The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a classic comic strip that could be read one way, then turned upside down to continue the story using the same images. Motley's ability to precisely and flawlessly emulate that style within the context of the story itself was astonishing.

The early MVP of the series was Shawn Cheng, whose ultra-thin line and clean storytelling was simply beautiful to behold, but obviously work-intensive. He simplified his style later on, which was still perfectly functional but not quite the same in terms of impact. The other regulars (Jen Vaughn and Sarah Becan (often with Beckie Gautreua)) certainly had their moments. Vaughn created my favorite character/narrative in the series, the "Vagabond" narrative, and was clearly working hard in the early going. She had to skip an issue and some of her later work looks rushed, perhaps because she has a lot of other commitments on her plate. Of the two guest stars per issue, some were remarkably great, like Dylan Horrocks (oh, if he had been in every issue) and sublime work from Luke Pearson, whose young girl scientist Gret was a perfectly-designed character. Jon Lewis was a natural and another great artist to start out the series with, while Carol Lay was an interesting choice for a one-page story. Jon Chad and Chris Wright were fantastic gets in the same issue whose styles contrasted in a visually exciting way (Chad's detailed clear line vs Wright's scratchy and darkly eccentric style). The team of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ming Doyle was interesting because it resolved a key plot point and did it in a naturalistic style--which was highly unusual for the series. Tom Hart's dreamy, poetic comic also addressed a key narrative concern and Nick Abadzis' strip was formally charming in a series full of formally intriguing comics.

The good news about what will emerge as 400+ pages of interconnected anthology storytelling involving over thirty different artists is that actually really started to tie up loose ends, put characters together and gain some real momentum as it went further. I look forward to the final issue and how it finishes drawing together the various storylines, both grim and silly, enigmatic and simple, and pleasantly ambling and urgent. While the series had its ragged moments, I'm staggered at how much traffic Cates had to direct while still contributing to virtually every issue himself. And while the series had its misfires (the James Kochalka piece felt like it came from another series entirely and changed what had been a promising narrative thread into something that became sillier and sillier), I admired Cates' try-anything style of editing that still had a degree of narrative rigor. I should add that the all-ages character of the book was a key to its success, especially as Cates threw every kind of extra he could think of at younger readers: paper dolls, word searches, mazes, drawing exercises and more. It was clear that Cates was making the kind of comic he would have wanted to read as a child, or perhaps creating one for his own family. That level of sincerity, effort and creativity is a remarkable tonic to the level of cynical, money-making tropes that I see in so much YA fiction.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

High-Low and the Top 75 Comics Blogs

A nice person named Anuj Agarwal wrote in and said that High-Low had been named one of the top 75 comics blogs on the web. This was a very nice and unexpected honor, as the site clocked in at #67. I don't know what metrics led to this determination by the Feedspot people, but it's nice nonetheless, especially since I have that .gif of the honor on the site now in medal form. Thanks to my readers.

:01: Jason Shiga's Demon, Volumes 1 & 2

I say it with every review I do of a Jason Shiga comic, because it bears repeating: Shiga's background is in pure mathematics, and so his comics often read as a series of locked-room puzzles, coding problems or other sorts of math-related conflicts, all punctuated by a jet-black sense of humor. Most of his other comics have had at least one twist involving a shocking act of violence, or multiple acts of violence over the span of the book, but Demon is sort of Shiga's version of Stephen King's It: a book that has every violent and disgusting action setpiece Shiga could conceive, each more over-the-top than the next, but each working in a rigidly-applied set of principles based on the book's initial premise. It's like It in the sense that King considered that to be a novel that had every scary thing he could think of in there.

The premise is this: the long-suffering Jimmy Yee (a protagonist of the same name appears in many other Shiga books, and it's not too much of a stretch to paint him as a simple Shiga stand-in) tries to kill himself by hanging himself in a hotel room for unknown reasons. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in what seems to be the same hotel room, alive (to his great consternation). In the beginning, Shiga really takes his time in establishing the presence in as brutal a fashion as possible. We see Jimmy try to shoot himself, bleed out in a tub and jump in front of a truck, but he keeps coming back. Volume one, which features the first five chapters of the story, features Jimmy trying to work out what happen and introduces Hunter, the man who will become his nemesis. What Jimmy realized is that he was a "demon": when the body he was in died, he simply possessed the nearest person, until they were killed, and so on. That sets Jimmy down a gruesome, amoral path where he experiments with the limits of his abilities by ruthlessly killing random people.

At the end of volume one, he is pursued by government operative Hunter in order to offer Jimmy a job as an agent, which Jimmy has no interest in. Hunter insists that Jimmy's going to work for him whether he likes it or not, leading to the first of many incredibly strange cat-and-mouse games between the two. This one involves a bleeding-out Jimmy being put in a jail cell next to a death-row inmate. Hunter thinks he has Jimmy pinned, since he took away anything that the inmate could kill himself with...except a square of toilet paper. This is the most hilarious and disgusting segment in the book, as Jimmy tries to reason his way out of the situation until he finally determines that he could turn the the toilet paper into a shiv if he dipped it in enough semen enough times. The situation inspires the immortal line, "Looks like he slit his throat with a cum knife, sir."

The second volume features chapters six through twelve, and adds a needed complication to the plot (otherwise Jimmy would have just disappeared at the end of volume one). That complication was the existence of his daughter, who not only is alive (Jimmy thought she was dead), she's a demon like her dad. That leads to a book-long series of conflicts between Jimmy and Hunter. When it looks like Hunter finally has the upper hand, Jimmy uses calculus and a photographic memory to turn the tables, seemingly once and for all. The second volume ends almost a hundred years after the story began, but this would in fact just reset the chess board between Jimmy and Hunter.

This is one of the rare instances where I've decided to skimp on story details, because in true blockbuster fashion, it's the details in how Jimmy and Hunter engage in their battle of wits that makes the story so much fun. This is a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else. It's about trying to limit your opponent's moves as much as possible and forcing them into a single move, and then deviating from the expected with a devastating or surprising move that catches your opponent off guard. It's about turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. It's about finding out what your opponent holds dear and exploiting it. It's about ethics, and in particular, the circumstances under which murder is acceptable from a utilitarian point of view. Hunter wants to use Jimmy to wipe out all of America's enemies and create utopia. Jimmy isn't interested in being anyone's slave and kills out of what he views is necessity. The reality is that both of them are nihilists of the worst kind, unable to appreciate the value of a single life because of their willingness to discard it for their needs. They are the same person who are simply in opposition to each other, with Jimmy's weakness being his daughter and Hunter's weakness a simple-minded utopianism.

Shiga has refined his line in a manner similar to John Porcellino and Matt Feazell in that it's deceptively simple and beautiful. There's an effortlessness on each page where his drawings are lively but in total service to the story; his lumpy character design that often features odd facial characteristics is almost 8-bit video game blank at times, but his understanding of things like gesture and body language give the characters a sense of presence. In terms of storytelling, Shiga has few peers. His panel design is all part of his method in slowly unfolding an action set piece, switching from a tight grid to a page full of jumbled panels as things seem to spin out of control, and then back to order. Shiga flips the page around for aerial views--not to make the scene more spectacular, but as an illustration to fully understand the stakes involved. There's an almost mechanistic quality in reading these books, in the sense that once you start, it's much harder to stop reading than it is to continue. That's a testament to Shiga's total control over the page, including the use of rose and pink spot color and the extensive but unobtrusive use of grey scale. The design of the books is on the boring side, especially compared to the original minicomics. I also though splitting it into four volumes was questionable, but it actually proved to read relatively well in that format. Hopefully, there will be some kind of deluxe format available in the future.