Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Ian Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #13: Charles Forsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #12: Carl Antonowicz

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #9: Girl Talk & My Pace 2

My Pace Volume 2 is an anthology edited by Iona Fox and Anna McGlynn under their Rod & Cone aegis.

Girl Talk is a classic CCS anthology: hand-made and aggressively bold in terms of its theme and structure. This time around, an artist adapted part of another artist's diary, fictionalizing it to create a narrative. The hand-cut cover with various punched-out skeletons is beautiful and a nice touch. Anna McGlynn took an entry from Fox and turned it into a visceral slice-of-life story centered summer in the city. Our protagonist, Vivian, is sick of being in her cramped, hot apartment while getting calls from friends smoking weed and hooking up with random guys. McGlynn drew Vivian in such a way that she was irritated with anyone having a good time with a potential romantic partner, eventually drawing in x's for eyes. When a loser guy she has a crush on won't even hit on her because her breasts were "consumed with sadness", that's her breaking point, one that only snack cakes will alleviate. The rawness of McGlynn's storytelling is a nice fit for depicting the kind of daywhere people feel like they're melting.

Fox illustrating Cooper Whittlesey's psychedelic insights was a particular pleasure, as her quirky character design, decorative touch and oft-sketchy line were perfect for a comic about walking around and listening to music. Whittlesey and first-time cartoonist Alyse Burnside were inspired by McGlynn's diary, an office story about a young woman named Jane who is frequently sexually harassed and humiliated by her boss. It's revealed that she's the result of her father having sex with his mother, a fact she tries to work through with fantasy (both in real life and with porn). The battle between her trying to assert her worth as a human being that deserves love and the abuse she receives culminates in her taking a bus to the end of the line and meeting a naked woman next to a run-off pipe and perceiving her as someone connected to her. Nothing is explicitly revealed regarding this identity or even reality in this situation, and that ambiguity charges the strip even more. With 16 panels per page, Whittlesey & Burnside pummel the reader with tiny print, grotesque drawing and oblique angles, yet the horror and absurdity of it all is strangely hypnotic in its own way. Kaplan drew a convoluted account of a story from Fox, as it's about a day she was supposed to get a stitch out from someone who turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend. There are amusing rabbit-hole details that emerge from the story, but this story was fairly lightweight compared to the others. That's not surprising since it's just four pages, as it served as a digestive more than as a crucial part of the anthology.

My Pace, an anthology about marching to one's own drummer, had a tight seven-person lineup. It's not as conceptually interesting as Girl Talk and is more uneven, as the editors went wide and took some risks with their contributors, not all of which paid off. Sam Szabo's silly ant piece feels like something out of a 1980s Steve Willis minicomic, but the way in which he sticks to the premise of the ant janitor and its mystic implications won me over by the end, although this slight story was way too long. Collage artist Sara Hebert contributed clip art with statements about her anger about not asking for anything regarding her needs when having sex. It's short, stark and bold, and quite a shift from the first story. Sean Knickerbocker's crisp line art was another nice change of pace, as he wrote a story about a guy going back to the desolate area in which he grew up. Knickerbocker takes a wrecking ball to ideas like nostalgia and closure, as coming back to his old house was walking through a minefield of triggers. The kicker is that the friend who came told him that this was, in fact what he wanted--to relive the trauma instead of learning how to move past it.

Iris Yan's anthropomorphic autobio is always dryly witty, and even this story about the death of her mother is no exception. When she gets a wreathe "from the team", she imagines her mother was on a secret soccer team. Having her librarian mother's ashes on a shelf so she could read whenever she wanted was a sweet touch. Mississippi's text lettering was distracting, especially for a comic that was so roughly drawn. There were points where this meditation on loneliness was rough in a way that was lovely and expressive, and other points where it let down the story's flow. The more abstract nature of Megan Snowe's comic made that text feel more suitable, since it was a comic about texting, the hand and arm broken down in such a way so as to render them into almost abstract shapes. Finally Summer Pierre's piece about how she came to comics is one I've read elsewhere, but it was a perfect choice for ending this particular volume. It's a sweet, funny story about Pierre meeting "comics' (an anthropomorphic character accounting for all of the art form), having flirtations with music, art and poetry, and then one night coming back to comics ("It's you! It's always been you!"). Her use of the grid highlights her whimsical self-caricature design by featuring it in every panel, almost invariably in a different pose and position each time. It's a subtle way of making the reader work a little in every panel and keep their eye fresh when they absorb new text.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #8: Hannah Kaplan

Hannah Kaplan is one of a younger set of autobiographical cartoonists whom are especially frank about their mental health, their overall existential position on the world and their sex lives. Politics is also something else that's become a part of her comics, thanks to the changes the country's going through.

Wandering is a hand-cut, screenprinted comic that's nonetheless restrained in its color scheme (olive green and red). It serves as a brief introduction to her work and persona, ever restless as she balances a desire for solitude with the necessity of connection. It also alludes to the increasing number of marches and rallies that concerned people have started to throng to this year, especially in big cities. The personal is political, as the saying goes, and that saying has never been more true. Many of Kaplan's comics explicitly explore that idea.

Self Help is a work of fiction that highlights Kaplan's ability to zero in on excruciatingly painful moments of social awkwardness and then let the characters twist. This copy is grayscaled and I'm not sure it was meant to ideally be read this way, since all of her other comics are in color. It starts with a woman named Mel having lunch with her friend, who is about to get married and has those sorts of problems. Mel begins the story by relating a "tapping" technique that she uses to strike her pressure points so as to "transform my negative emotions". Mel continues with affirmations all he way to work, where she's approached by her work fling CJ, of whom she told her friend that they were keeping it casual, but she thought he was falling for her. Instead, this unctuous individual tells her that he's seeing someone else at work now ("She's fantastic! Have you talked to her?"), and even though he's "all about the polyamory thing", his new girlfriend didn't want him seeing anyone else at their company.

That kicked off her trying more affirmations that wound up betraying her real feelings ("Even though CJ isn't all that great a guy and actually his hair is really greasy and he smells like onions and he rejected me...") and then firing up the dating app Tindr on her phone--which led to a talking-to in front of her boss which grew increasingly (and hilariously) more awkward by the second. Things get worse and worse until she finally acts to look like she visualizes herself: as a bespectacled brunette with earrings and a mustache. Ridiculous times call for extreme measures, including becoming some else altogether, and the end of the comic reflects the first time she stopped needing to go through constant affirmation. While Kaplan's drawing is rough in spots, her ability to create expressive characters and depict body language is all she really needed to make this comic work.

A Quick And Easy Guide To Finding A Husband had a disclaimer on the cover that it was based on a true story with a fictional ending. Done in a pink and blue  wash, it's an odd story: Kaplan proposes marriage to a man from Australia living in Brooklyn with whom she'd had a single hook-up, because he was having Visa problems. It's an awkward, funny and strange way of looking at an awkward and strange kind of marriage, because it involved sex and cohabitation--it wasn't just a paper marriage. One thing to note about Kaplan if it hasn't been clear: she's a hilarious writer. Going to Brooklyn and encountering hipsters exchanging cheeses on picnic baskets and declaring their creativity, she nailed that sense of alienation that pretension can create. He's blunt when they discuss why she's doing this: "I guess it's all material for you anyway". They wind up getting married, it winds up going disastrously, but they cleverly reconcile when they decide to date other people. However, they wind up communicating through their Tindr profiles (shades of "Escape (The Pina Colada Song"!), to the point where they stop talking face to face! It's a funny, clever idea. Kaplan draws people and places with a messy, schlubby, lived-in quality: people as they are on a day to day basis, not some idealized idea of the same.

Is This OK? #7 is the latest issue of her autobio series, and this is the real meat of her work. Her coded use of colored pencils gives the comic a vivid yet clear sense of flow. That's especially true when there are multiple characters; she'll often match the color of the line for the characters with the color of their lettering. It's a small but valuable detail that reduces confusion just a bit, keeping the reader totally involved with the page. The book starts on election day in 2016 and ends on February 1st, 2017--three months of all kinds of turbulence. Kaplan bases this book on her willingness to be emotionally raw, open and vulnerable. The palpable sense of trauma after the election extends even to her therapist, who suggests a kind of group trauma on top of everything else going on in our lives.

Some of the stories run a few pages, but most are a single page with a 2x3 grid. There are stories about work (including one where she had a nice male customer and she didn't that he wasn't even trying to hit on her), stories about the frequently contentious character of her relationship with her boyfriend, a strip where she follows the full moon and an odd one where she appears nude in six straight panels with forlorn expressions, with the lyrics of Meredith Brooks' song "Bitch" as the text. My favorite was one where an old boyfriend came into town, and her thoughts were in red cursive script, like "I don't know how to be nice to you". Trips across town to hang out at a bar are interspersed with road trips to DC to protest the inauguration (there's one strip where she tries to count the number of pussy hats that she sees but there are too many). The issue ends with a stunningly open and clear talk with her boyfriend about their relationship that results in matter of factly breaking up. The combination of her scribbly and expressive line, the use of color that never fails to add clarity to the proceedings, and her relentless pursuits of authentic experience and happiness are quite potent, adding punch to every page.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #7: Beth Hetland, Mary Shyne, Josh Lees

Half-Asleep Volume 7, by Beth Hetland & Kyle O'Connell.. This penultimate issue of Hetland and writer O'Connell's sci-fi epic/familial struggle answers some questions and sets up a potential final conflict between teen Ivy and her mother, a scientist who's been using her daughter as the guinea for her experiments. Her mother has been trying to figure out ways to reach out between the realms of consciousness and sleep, and the previous two issues, where Ivy went under in the lab's dream vault, saw her encounter all sorts of horrible and wonderful things. Ivy came back to the world of consciousness in this issue because her craft was out of energy; her mother thought that Ivy had been gone for forty years of subjective time but it had only been six--still enough time to really mess with things. It's difficult to parse this issue out in terms of plot; indeed, it will require a complete re-read when it's collected to properly evaluate it. I can say a few things about the highlight of the issue, a brutal conversation between mother and daughter.

Ivy rightly calls out her mother for her monstrous behavior in terms of how she was being exploited for her unique abilities. Her mother simply replied that she was doing her best to make sure that Ivy was capable of handling the world on her own. It's that kind of chilling logic without empathy that created their conflict in the first place, as both have spent the entire series keeping information secret from each other. Her mom reveals that she knows more than was written down and coldly notes that it will be a way for her to stay involved in her daughter's life. Meanwhile, Ivy realizes that she was the prototype for this experiment, and that her mother was preparing others to try to retrieve objects from other dream worlds. I imagine in the last issue we'll learn what her mother's true motive has been all along, but that won't sting as much as the revelations that came across in this issue. Hetland continues to use a bold line and a creative use of the grid (chopped up in three rows per page in a number of different permutations). I missed the use of color since Hetland brought us back to the waking world, and there were some pages with sloppy gray-scale that made me wish for a one or two color wash. On the other hand, I enjoyed Hetland's subtle visual pops. Ivy's inability to get real sleep starts to have a horrible effect on her, as she starts to begin hallucinating that a miniature version of herself was sitting on her shoulder. It speaks to her partnership with O'Connell that he doesn't over-write and instead clearly relies on Hetland to get across subtle pieces of information through graphics alone.

Get Over It #1, by Mary Shyne. I have Shyne's work in two separate articles because the comics are so radically different. This isn't unusual for a CCS student, as they are often encouraged to branch out and try several different genres. This comic is a beautifully-executed set-up of a clever idea that's sort of in the neighborhood of Ghostbusters. In just twelve pages, Shyne manages to create a vivid portrait of Leigh, a slightly aimless young woman who delivers food from her father's restaurant in New York City. At the same time, using a vivid color overlay, she reveals that she can see the auras of people and that they in fact are creatures that reflect the mood and emotional state of each person. Unbeknownst to us, they can also get into fights with other auras and do severe emotional damage and trauma. When she delivers something to a lab at a university, she puts on a metallic glove that informs her that she's a new employee, confirms her aura theory and tells her that her job is to contain harmful auras (which they call "miasmas"). The issue ends just as the real fight begins, and it's an excellent cliffhanger. Shyne hit on a nice concept here, and her clear but bold line combined with the spot color for the miasmas makes this a smooth, fun read. I hope she keeps going with this, because it's close to being fully formed.

Liberty High School Detective League #1, by Josh Lees. This is a straight-up kids mystery-detective comic with Bernadette "Burnside" Snyder and new kid at school Ray Griego. Lees very consciously creates a group of characters that ring true both in terms of their interests and ethnicities. Burnside is a skater who's also a member of the school's Detective League, and in this story, she's presented with the mystery of who's tagging her locker and why. The production of the book had some quirks. While the size and shape is perfect for kids (roughly the size of the platonic form of kids' comics, the Archie digest), the vibrant colors of the first few pages dull a bit into spot color and gray scale. It's fine for what it is, but the transition was a jarring one and the story doesn't quite pop as hard with the revised use of color.

The story was clever enough, but the real attraction here is the subtle use of characterization. Burnside is smart, clever and independent, carving out her own space in school and as a skater. At the same time, she's sometimes oblivious as to who's attracted to her. When the tagger is revealed to be a boy who wanted to get her attention, she has a great reaction--try to talk to someone about things they're interested in, for starters. The repudiation of borderline stalking behavior instead of valuing it as some kind of grand romantic gesture was delivered in a stark and direct fashion. Ray's Hispanic identity is important, but Lees makes sure he's not just a cliche'. The low-stakes nature of the mystery here make those characters even more important, as they are investigating something that's personal. Lees' characters are sometimes a bit on the stiff side; there are times when they look like they're posing as opposed to being in action. That felt like a creator who was paying close attention to details regarding setting and character design and needed to work more on panel to panel transitions and overall storytelling fluidity. There is certainly a great deal of potential in this series.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #6: Daryl Seitchik

Daryl Seitchik very quickly became one of my favorite cartoonists with her early work, so it's interesting to see her carry on at CCS. Her first book from Koyama Press was well-reviewed and earned an Eisner Award nomination, but Seitchik is taking the time to expand her toolkit while exploring different story concepts. Seitchik's work has often been about connection and detachment, with a deadpan self-caricature who moves about her world more than she interacts with it. There are good reasons for this, of course, but Seitchik's comics often involve alienation and even total abjection.

Because of that, it's interesting to see her more recent minis from her time at CCS. Lion Bride is a visceral, visually striking comic about a swim toward a waterfall. Even though the comic is in grayscale, the variations in shape and tone that Seitchik creates are enough to still draw the eye in so as to experience the texture of each drawing. Equating the roar of the waterfall with that of a lion bride and the white water taking the shape of the lion's mane. The text is spare but poetic, as she sees in the waterfall the bride tearing her veil when the water starts to spray out, described as "her raging calm". It's a meditation on cycles, on nature and even gender, as the mighty bride is laid low in her inevitable fall. The key to depicting this mixture of stillness and violence is Seitchik's visceral, immersive line.

Message From The Moon is an adaptation of a story from the Khoikoi people of southwest Africa. Here, Seitchik works off of a six panel grid template, breaking it from time to time to show a single image with four panels, for example. There's lots of zip-a-tone effects and some heavily spotted blacks. The story is about the sad moon trying to relate to the people that death is not the end, but every attempt it made to tell them directly scared them even more. So the spider took it upon itself to go from the moon to the earth on its web to tell them, but it was taking way too long. Hare appeared and offered to take the message, but he left before getting the whole thing and terrified the humans even more. The moon punished hare by blowing on him, permanently splitting his lip. Finally, spider decides to go on alone, finally making it to the surface. There, the arachnid realized that words alone would not be sufficient reassurance, so they made a web in the window of a house that needed to be rebuilt. This is a beautiful, vivid strip that flows in Seitchik's vernacular of loosened lingo, restrained cartooning and tight premise.

Norma #1 promises to be a continuing series, with a beautiful watercolor color, which is yet another new direction for her. It's the story of a cyclopean girl living in a small house near "the edge of the fire woods", who tended her garden and had her nose in a book on a constant basis. In this first chapter, her house Stephanie yells at her for not fixing her roof in a delightful series of drawings. Seitchik greatly loosened up her page composition for this comic, as panels sort of bleed into each other with decorative branches or acting as part of a cliff. The sequence where her house truly begins to have anthropomorphic qualities and gets angry is startling and funny. She leaves off on a cliffhanger, as the rain stops coming, which means that the trees will eventually be unable to stay on fire. This combination of fable and magical realism is a nice match for Seitchik's restrained style and eye for surreal imagery.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #5: Joyana McDiarmid, Jarad Greene, Mary Shyne

Jarad Greene has distinguished himself thus far as an excellent YA comics maker, but in his Memories of a Former Porcelain Doll, he relates an autobiographical story about appearances, the cruelty of peers and eventual body dysmorphia. That was in the form of skin problems, which he experienced later than most teens. The irony is that in middle school, his skin was perfect but he still used Clearasil. Only he accidentally used the kind that had concealer in it, leading his classmates to call him a porcelain doll and make fun of him for “wearing makeup”. Things got worse in his senior year when he actually developed acne for real, and it proved resistant to every standard treatment. That forced him to go on Accutane, an effective drug with brutal side effects, including skin so dry that it peels off and horrible arm rashes. 

There are also psychological side effects that he managed to dodge, and the end of the first issue finds him happy and ready to go to college. However, this story is told in flashback, and he let the readers know that his problems would return. He presages that at the very beginning of the story, where it’s not just having skin problems, it’s the fear of them always returning, triggered by any number of factors (including stress and anxiety). Greene uses a simple, clear line in a mostly naturalistic style that still allows him to be expressive when necessary. The occasional bulging eyes, sponge head, skull face and other self-descriptors add to the drama in a way that doesn’t take the reader out of the story. In many respects, they’re a way of Greene telling a ghost story about himself; a tale of his own haunting from mysterious, outside forces that tortured him. 

Joyana McDiarmid's Long Division #5 concludes the bracing, honest and uncompromising look at depression and suicide that was based on true, personal events. The first four issues featured the main character, Elena, in her stay at the psychiatric hospital and flashbacks to what led up to her suicide attempt. Struggling with bipolar disorder, she found herself unable to take care of herself or reach out to others for help. Ingeniously, McDiarmid used the metaphor of the branching nervous system as a way of visualizing her mental state, with her depression slowly blotting out healthy functions. McDiarmid's line is fine and expressive, and she's especially great at character design and drawing clothing.

The last issue is deliberately quiet and understated after the frantic quality of the four issues preceding it, both in terms of the day-to-day events and the stark metaphorical imagery seen in the early issues. It's McDiarmid's way of acknowledging that life is not a neat narrative, and that the struggle with mental illness, even with all the support, therapy and medication that's needed, is one that will always have good days and bad days. This issue features a difficult conversation between Elena and her ex-boyfriend, with whom she discusses her suicide attempt for the first time. Their relationship had been rocky and he had come off as self-righteous, and while an understanding of sorts is reached between the two of them, he tried to make her suicide attempt all about him. "I feel terrible, I really should have seen it coming" is a phrase he repeated, as he in no way tried to show empathy. Unsaid in the narrative is Elena's understanding that while she felt a responsibility to talk to him about it, she was not in any way responsible for his feelings about it.

The rest of the issue features Elena's attempts at self-care: hanging out with friends and family, getting rest, and generally being gentle with herself. We see her struggle with weight gain and her academic work while finding ways to accept those feelings. We can see the background paintings in her room echoing the anatomical imagery McDiarmid used throughout the series. Finally, the imagery of branches meets reality as she climbs up a tree, rests on a firm branch, and simply breathes. The image of disappearing a little with each breath and then reappearing reflects an exercise in acceptance. It's a beautiful, understated way of providing not so an ending as a coda or a grace note.

Incompatible, by Mary Shyne. This is one of the smartest, starkest self-examinations I've ever read when it comes to relationships. The high concept is simple: she includes one example from each of the twelve Zodiac signs of a man she dated with that sign. It's in order of the traditional Zodiac, starting with Aries and finishing with Pisces. It's one page per partner, each page a six-panel grid. Shyne efficiently uses that space to offer highlights, lowlights and particularly visceral and graphic images that really drive home what each relationship was all about. For example, the Aries that she kicked things off with two panels about how she met this particular guy and his impeccable dressing habits, while noting (with raised eyebrows) that his penis was two different colors, "almost like a pudding cup". The last three panels touch on how conscious she was that he never took her out, most likely because of her weight. It's a marvel of great cartooning (clear, bold lines, with an extra thick line weight for her glasses, her dominant accessory) and efficiency, as there are no wasted lines.

Another relationship wound up with her hating herself for how much she wanted one sort of indifferent guy to love her. Another was a platonic relationship where she actually liked the role of Friend that men often assigned to her. There are almosts, guys she broke up with because they needed more than she could give, guys who friend-zoned her, and a guy who made her feel safe but with whom she didn't have a sexual connection. Shyne is great at drawing bodies, and her own self-caricature is both full of clever details (freckles, glasses, shape of nose and eyebrows) and economical in terms of its overall presentation. There are times when her choices regarding negative space (she only spots blacks here and there) give her pages a slightly hollow feel, but her line is so engaging that it doesn't matter much. Above all else, her understanding of gesture, expression and bodies interacting in space is top notch, and that's the key to making this comic work so well. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #4: Luke Howard, Steve Thueson, Dan Nott

After Luke Howard finished the emotionally devastating, formally challenging comic Our Mother, it made sense that for his next comic, he wanted to do something as a palate cleanser of sorts, something that wasn’t as draining. The comic turned out to be The Big Mystery Case (subtitled “A Crime Comedy”), which threw every trope and cliché’ imaginable from hard-boiled detective stories and creepy serial killer cases and reimagined them as a kind of easy-reader primer for kids. The result is hilarious, as Howard’s deliberately spare line leaves only basic storytelling scaffolding plus whatever visual jokes he wanted to throw in. There is inane repetition that starts at the beginning, as the detective gets a call that says “We need you for the big mystery case” and he says out loud, afterward, “They need me for the big mystery case”. After he finds a clue, he says to the cops, “Take this back to the lab and do lab things to it.” You get the idea. 

There are mentions of a dark past and a trail that leads to the awesome Bad Boy bar, where a guy with a Mohawk is wearing a skull-bedecked top that says “Crime Shirt”. At one point, the detective says “We can do this easy way or the hard way” and the bar dudes hilariously say “Oh, then I say we go with the easy way”, simultaneously calling out action clichés and subverting them. There’s a Mystery Cave, flashbacks, a memory of a memory of a partner eaten by a shark in the caves, a memory of another partner being killed in a unique manner by an eagle and the discovery of a second detective, with whom a reluctant partnership is formed.

The back half features an encounter with a jailed serial killer (ala Hannibal Lecter) for information and a final confrontation in a basement (“Our descent is a metaphor”) that leads to an anticlimax. Nothing else would have suited this narrative, really. Howard doesn’t draw distinct faces in this story and also uses deliberately awkward poses, with the main detective tending to hunch his shoulders forward. He’s identifiable mostly by his moustache, just as the other detective he meets is made distinct by her hair (and otherwise identical detective outfit). This comic is 132 pages of silly, complete with an inspirational, shoegazing ending with a surprise character. There’s even a fan letter written by the killer to his inspiration stuff in an “envelope” glued to the inside back cover. 

In the package for the comic, Howard threw in a second comic, The Little Mystery Case. It’s a send-up of his own send-up, as the detective finds a lost puppy, tries to squeeze out of his underground connections and accuses the Big Fat Boss of the crime. The end is inevitable and heartwarming, even if he did insult the Big Fat Boss (his name is Steve and he’s sensitive about his weight). Howard basically inserts a puppy into crime clichés and it slowly dawns on him that this doesn’t make much sense. Howard goes big on every page, as it’s a page per panel. He invites the reader to go as quickly as possible in reading the story, and the images don’t really encourage the eye to linger; Howard is careful to make his jokes quickly apparent. Howard is a funny cartoonist, and I’d welcome seeing variations on this formula in the future.

In Quest Mania, what Steve Thuesen does here can only be described as “crusty punk D&D adventures”. In the newest, full-color comic book (titled “The Swamp”), the unnamed adventuring duo have been hired to retrieve a crown from a tomb. They’re having all sorts of trouble: the male half of the duo’s ears are painfully ringing due to a show he saw a few days prior; the swamp isn’t even on their map, they are attacked by a monster, and they have their stuff stolen by a goblinoid creature. The guy is especially miffed when his mixtape he made for a girl gets stolen. When the creature leads them to the tomb, she speculates that he perhaps has a fetish, which sparks an argument. The genius of this comic is the way Thueson transfers the template of two crusty punks and the things they argue about and bond over to a magical fantasy-adventure world. Indeed, the transfer is surprisingly seamless. It helps that he’s equally adept at drawing monsters as he is punks; there’s no character or style clash on any of the pages. The pierced, schlubbily dressed punks just happen to be carrying huge swords and know how to use them.

In The Fastest Mile I Ever Ran, Thueson draws himself as a kind of punk duck in this story from high school. He establishes early on his generalized anger toward pretty much everyone around, but especially his homophobic and generally awful schoolmates. That rage wound up fueling him when it was time to run the mile in physical education, as he wound up doing a six minute mile--way ahead of his classmates. Of course, he also made the mistake of drinking an orange soda earlier in the day and nothing else, so his body--pushed to its limits-reacted accordingly by vomiting. The worst part of the story was him having to lay on the floor as other kids came in and then being forced by the janitor to clean it up. He's saved from the bell after working on this disgusting job for a while, but as the end of the story reveals, he learned nothing from it. Once again, Thueson's ability to draw disaffected punks in any setting, with attitude fully on display, is his greatest skill as a cartoonist.

Belling the Cat and Spy Blimp, by Dan Nott. Belling The Cat is a collection of three short stories, and it's a classic CCS move for a student to collect their student work in such a mini. Nott is graduating this year, and these comics show a cartoonist trying a number of different things. The first story, "9.11.01" uses the Ed Emberley simple-shape model (everything is either a circle, square, triangle, rectangle or oval) to relate his experience of 9/11 as a sixth grader. Using a 2 x 4 grid, it's odd now but made sense then that the teachers were trying to keep the event under wraps, but all it took was one student who had a doctor's appointment in the morning to rely this information. It's a comic that's interesting for its portrayal of cognitive dissonance on the part of the panicking adults, which bent the brains of the kids who were used to their authority figures being sure of everything that was going on. The Emberley style adds to that sense of a kid drawing the story and being unable to capture the complexity of an emotionally fraught situation.

The best story was Nott's adaptation of "Belling The Cat", based on an old folk tale. What I liked most about it was Nott's delicate, cartoony line in service of depicting a genteel mouse society menaced by the random violence of cats. It's a great story because it's about the way an idea can go a long way without anyone closely examining the viability of its premise. In other words: "Who bells the cat?" "Election Day" is about the 2016 election and suggests that there was a poor contingent of non-racist white people who voted for Trump because life was hard, his rhetoric had appeal, his racist friends liked him, and he didn't like being called a racist by someone outside a polling station. Nott tries to build up this character as reasonable and likable (with the light red wash being a subtle signal of what kind of voting area he was in). I'm not sure if Nott was setting this guy up as a good guy who got goaded by an asshole into voting for Trump, or simply a weak-willed person who got pushed into voting by Trump by the more passionate around him, despite his better judgment. Either way, considering the number of white people (and men in particular) who voted for Trump nationwide, I didn't find the strip's conclusions (such as they were) to be all that enlightening. The way Nott slipped between naturalistic drawing (the main character in particular) and the cartoonishness of the more extreme characters was clever.

Nott's work was much tighter overall on the whimsical, weird Spy Blimp. The first chapter is all about "Fat Albert", an aerostat (a stationary blimp) docked near Key West in Florida. Its purpose was unclear, although it was eventually revealed to be a spy blimp that also transmitted US TV to Cuba. It also had a tendency to have its anchor rope snap under high winds from time to time, and Nott depicts two fishermen tying it to their boat so as not to let it get away. Fat Albert had other ideas, taking the men and their boat into the sky. Incredibly, it was shot down by the Air Force, putting the poor fishermen into the ocean. It's a wonderfully absurd series of images in this nine-panel grid. The second story is an awesomely cynical one about a defense contractor trying to unload the JLENS (Fat Albert, essentially) as an anti-cruise missile deterrent. Its testing disastrous (causing power outages thanks to it getting away), the snake-oil salesman contractor pitched it to the senator for surveillance purposes.

 The third story reveals the panopticon-like qualities of the aerostat. Even if its cameras were broken, it was enough to make the people think that they worked to change their behavior. Designed to sniff out potential bombers, it wasn't hard to make the leap to categorizing any kind of odd behavior as threatening and in need of immediate termination. The differences in perception based on the degree of surveillance, violence and colonialism they're subjected to are depicted as bleakly humorous, as the cheers from the Afghans when they shot down their aerostat compared with the quirkly South Floridian bohmemians was telling. This is a smart, well-paced comic that concentrates on visual payoffs but also provides some key decorative qualities as well for balance.