Monday, June 17, 2019

Koyama: Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons

Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons is in many ways an old-school Koyama Press project. Annie Koyama got her start publishing unusual books of illustrations before she moved on to comics, and this certainly fits more in that camp. Koyama has always taken a particular lesson learned from the late Dylan Williams and has published entirely according to her own taste and projects she believes in, regardless of genre or style. As such, it's hard to discern a particular aesthetic in her back catalog, other than "things Koyama likes." That's to her credit, as it's created a fascinating tapestry of comics and illustration ranging across genres. As she starts to wind down Koyama Press over the next couple of years, it will be interesting to see the choices she's made as a publisher.

Young adult and children's comics are something that Koyama's published a fair number of over the years. John Martz has done some especially memorable ones. With Leighton's book, Koyama has published a perfect little volume for pre-teens. It's a book for the ostensible purpose of summoning some unusual and funny demons. There's Dulcis, the sweet-generating demon who will leave everything sticky. There's Eruditi, the smart demon who will do your schoolwork--but don't call him a nerd! Mednaxx will help you craft the perfect lie and Oziplantrix will help you rock out. It's a funny take on the problems kids encounter and a kind of wish fulfillment in dealing with them.

It's the details that make this book fun. Leighton wrote a light-hearted description of each demon on the left--hand pages and drew a colorful illustration on the right. Leighton also was quite serious within the context of the book's conceit, even if that conceit itself (kids summoning their own helpful demons!) was both light-hearted and downright weird. There are even specific instructions on how to draw the sigils summoning particular demons, the color to draw them in, and how to act when summoning them. In general, the book pushes politeness and consideration in all interactions but especially when dealing with demons. Some of the demons are gross (there's one of flatulence) and some are silly, but it's easy to see how a kid might dream up any of them to help them in a particularly tight corner. My own ten-year-old daughter gravitated toward this book a few times, reading it in bits and pieces here and there. It's a book that rewards such an approach, and it's hardcover packaging and smallish size also lend themselves to it being an attractive art object that's worth picking up and examining.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio & Aon: Some Strange Disturbances

Sparked by Kickstarter, Craig Hurd-McKenney's collaboration with artists Gervasio & Aon, Some Strange Disturbances, is an excellent bit of queer-themed Victorian horror. Done with an elegant, fine line and extensive use of spotting blacks, there's plenty of atmosphere that backs up Hurd-McKenney's sensitive writing. The protagonist is Prescott Mayfair, an American spiritualist in 1895 London. The very first page of the story established his bona fides as a medium, as he recalled his mother being hauled off years earlier because she saw ghosts as well. The story begins with Prescott at a seance, communicating with the ghost of a young girl, and what he learned clearly horrified him.

That was the prelude to the meat of the story, which saw Prescott being hired by an aristocrat to see if his son was being possessed by a demon. Prescott befriended Delilah Quinton, an African-American singer who was performing in a choral group, who could tell he saw something that horrified him. After he revealed that he believed the girl was murdered by her father, she revealed that the man had been devoured by rats. Quinton was also well aware that Prescott was gay, and living in London in the shadow of Oscar Wilde's infamous and shameful trial. Prescott was furtively seeking sex on street corners and in opera boxes, and he knew he was in danger doing so.

When Prescott went to see the aristocrat's son, Duncan, in a horrifying mental institution, he saw them chained in a cell. It was revealed that Duncan was only in there because she was, in reality, a trans woman--not insane, nor possessed. However, when Duncan's parents came to inspect Prescott's investigation, their callous attitudes (especially his mother's) revealed in part that there was indeed a pernicious supernatural element at work--but it had to do with them. That led to an explosive climax with a jailbreak, a grotesque and terrifying rat-based reveal, and a happy ending for all.

In many ways, this story can be described as intersectional horror. The protagonist is a gay man, but Delilah had every bit as much agency as he did. Indeed, Hurd-McKenney played against heroic tropes when Prescott told her to get to safety at one point. Not only did she ignore his commands, but she also came in guns blazing. Part of that was a reaction against the misogyny of many adventure stories, but it was also a reaction against allowing Prescott to martyr himself. Duncan even said, "I will not allow myself to be saved by a prince," as she went in with a torch to kill the thing that replaced her mother. The horror in the story was generated in part by the reveal of the monster, to be sure, but what was worse was that what Duncan's parents had done was not surprising. The horror was generated by the human zoo that Delilah showed Prescott, featuring black people dressed as primitives. The horror was generated by the laws that wouldn't let Prescott or Delilah be who they truly were. The heroic arc for Prescott was not necessarily one of derring-do, but rather finding the courage to do the right thing, even if it was dangerous. It works on all of these levels, and it is a cracking, suspenseful story to boot. Future stories are planned, and seeing Hurd-McKenney and crew further explore historical presentations of intersectional stories is intriguing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Michael Kupperman's Supervillains

Michael Kupperman is unquestionably one of my favorite cartoonists. His humor work over the year, collected in books like Snake And Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret and the various Tales Designed To Thrizzle volumes, is some of the best absurd humor ever published. Last year, his memoir and biography about his father, All The Answers, made a big splash and was named book of the year by Publisher's Weekly. Autobio was a big departure for him and his art style, but he was up to the challenge. For a variety of reasons, Kupperman has stepped into the self-publishing arena with a Patreon featuring a number of his comics. He has since collected some of those comics.

His mini Supervillains came from comics originally published on the Adult Swim website. This is full-color work in the vein of his classic, absurdist humor from Thrizzle. It's exactly what it sounds like: absurdist takes on supervillains and their world. It veers from continuing characters (and thus comedic callbacks) to one-off jokes. It's also much dirtier than a lot of his humor; for example, the very first trip involves a woman telling her friend about her negative experience going out on a date with a human centipede who got drunk. Kupperman's humor usually involves one of two mechanics: hilarious shaggy dog details or absurd surprise swerves. One of his favorite techniques in this mini is to start the strip with a super-villain roll call, with each name and image sillier than the next. It's a funny play on roll calls in old super-villain comic books, only this time around there are characters like Professor 69 (a man who is in that sexual position, standing up, with another person), Killer Abs (a man with abs holding a knife), and Maitre D'emon. In that strip, he then swerved by having someone say, "Welcome to brunch!" After that small, funny swerve, Kupperman then gets weird, as the host gets his beast-servants to put on a live sex show. That unexpected bit of filthy humor is acknowledged as the guests get squidged out and leave.

The plot of most of the strips revolves around quotidian concerns: lunch, dates, hanging out in bars, jobs, parties, reality shows, and dishing gossip with your friends. Kupperman takes that template and lays on a layer of super-villain tropes: evil plans, psychotic behavior, murderous intent, crazy costumes, and bright but bizarre visuals. Kupperman's ability to mix and match, along with throwing unexpected curveballs at the reader and the visual gestalt that includes logo and lettering all contribute to each strip feeling fresh. Even after forty pages of these gags, I still wanted more.

The best example of Kupperman's versatility is the villain named the Public Urinator. His first appearance features a tight close-up in the first two panels, as we see his elaborate armor and hear his monologue about his powers. (He was angry about arbitrary public urination laws and release pressurized urine.) The third panel pulls back and we see he's participating in a speed dating event, and the focus suddenly shifts to the woman who's listening to him droning on and on. In his second appearance, he appears in a roll call strip, and a bad pun leads him to use his powers. The third strip sees him mostly off-panel as mayor ignores his threat and regrets it. This is truly a deliberately stupid and even juvenile premise that works at gut level but works even better when incorporated into different comedic structures.

This is a hallmark of Kupperman's work: mixing low humor with his deliberately mannered and cartoonist images and highly sophisticated comedic mechanics. That includes a number of callbacks, with a group of villains called the Pelvic Psychos (they all have "unusual groin areas') getting funnier with each appearance or Professor 69 appearing on a talk show with past and future versions. By using contrasts, defying expectations, assaulting the reader with bizarre images, and mining premises for all that they're worth, Kupperman has created a winning formula. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Tom Van Deusen's Expelling My Truth

Tom Van Deusen's comics are interesting because they can best be described as "autobiographical satire." His latest effort, Expelling My Truth (Kilgore Books), actually leans toward some uncomfortably real feelings about his career as a cartoonist, wrapped in part in his ongoing critique of capitalism and fame. Van Deusen's autobio comics have always straddled the line between over-the-top offensiveness and sharp critiques of both himself and autobio in general. That tension he creates has resulted in a series of hilarious comics, in part because Van Deusen obeys what I call the Comedy Law of Punching: "Punching down is easy and cruel, punching up can be didactic and pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny." In other words, Van Deusen is at his best when he makes himself the butt of his jokes, skewering the conceptualization of himself as an Alpha male type.

In the short first strip, Van Deusen goes after some low-hanging fruit: pretentious and talentless "conceptual" art gallery shows. This one features a man sitting in his chair, playing on his phone. Van Deusen's stand-in (a grotesque version of the cartoonist, complete with squared teeth and shaggy hair) is as angry at the justification for the piece that other people offer as much as he is angry about the piece itself. There's a bit of righteous anger on display...only for him to note that he has to catch a bus, deflating that persona and revealing his own persona when he urges that people must "expel their truths."

Van Deusen can also get just plain weird. The second story begins with him once again stomping all over personal boundaries and space by creepily asking to hold a woman's infant while they were riding a bus. The oblivious protagonist then accidentally happens upon rock star Eddie Vedder's house, and then things get weird. Vedder is friends with an alien who brings him drugs and catches Van Deusen peeping in his window. Surprisingly, he invites Van Deusen in, gets him high, sings him a new song (titled "I'm High") and gives him a television. The final, full-page splash panel reveals the punchline without hammering the reader over the head with details. Van Deusen's art ranges between the slightly grotesque and cartoon naturalism, which is just the right tone to strike for this kind of story. There aren't a lot of funny drawings so much as the art smartly supports his concepts.

The final story is both funny and bleak. Van Deusen's tech billionaire boss invites him over to hang out with his teenage son, who apparently is thinking about becoming a cartoonist. His son is unsurprisingly mopey and entitled. His comic, the Red Revenger, is a revenge fantasy against the mild inconveniences of having to wear a uniform to school and generally exist with other human beings. The truth of why he's there quickly becomes evident. His boss gets Van Deusen to admit that he hates his job. Furthermore, Van Deusen admits that as a cartoonist, his work is time-consuming, painstaking, carries little financial reward, is digested in mere minutes, and doesn't even attract women. In other words, he was there as a warning for his son, manipulating Van Deusen in the way that he views everyone as a tool to be used. Even in a strip as grim as this one, where Van Deusen openly wonders why he even bothers, he still manages to throw in a gag at the end.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree earned him an Eisner Award nomination, and it's certainly well-deserved. This 2018 release from Uncivilized Books is self-revealing and honest in a way that Van Sciver has been hinting at for a long time with regard to his family. The structure of the book is interesting, as Van Sciver's autobiographical comic bounces back and forth between 1994 and 2014. This is a book about the ripples of childhood trauma reverberating down through the years, affecting mental health and personal choices. It's blisteringly funny and honest but recognizes the humanity in even the most problematic of figures. Van Sciver doesn't hold back in his depictions but isn't interested in passing judgment on others. Indeed, one of the central ideas in the book is the ways in which poverty has a profoundly detrimental effect on long-term mental health and stability.

One Dirty Tree focuses on the build-up to two significant life events: the steady erosion of his family in 1994 (when he was eight years old) and the erosion of his relationship with his girlfriend in 2014. That's when Van Sciver was just starting to taste some success as a cartoonist but still had to work full-time at a Panera in order to make ends meet. The book focuses on some of the last days spent in their dilapidated New Jersey home, called "One Dirty Tree" by his older brothers because it was on 133 Maple Terrace and there was a dead, gnarled oak tree in the front yard. Van Sciver expands on what it was like to grow up as one of eight siblings in tight, shabby quarters as part of a Mormon family, a rarity in New Jersey at the time.

As one might guess, it wasn't pleasant. His depiction of his family's life is matter-of-fact, just as one's own view of one's family life isn't informed by outside sources until much later in life. Both of his parents were religious up to a point, but they were also sort of hippies and started to become less and less religiously observant. His father, a lawyer, grew his hair out long and started to become disinterested in actually working. As a result, the Van Sciver family was dependent on their church for food, a car, and other charity items. At the same time, they Van Sciver's father grief for having long hair and he pushed back.

All of this led to a lifetime of shame for Van Sciver, especially since his vocation as a cartoonist wasn't exactly poised to make him get rich. His girlfriend Gwen was well-off financially and he lived with her in an environment that was unusually affluent for him. While he loved her and dreamed of a future with her, he always dreaded a break-up because their needs and backgrounds were so different. When trying to explain his background to a friend of Gwen's Van Sciver drew himself as a monster, because that's what he felt like: ugly, abhorrent, and abjected. While Van Sciver was not religious, he was tired of constantly being looked at like a freak for growing up Mormon, not to mention being judged solely on his income.

Again, Van Sciver isn't looking to lay blame. Even his father, who abandoned his family, is someone Van Sciver later reconnected with. Both his mother and father were people expected by society and religion to fill certain roles and found themselves chafing against those roles. His mother was an art student before she dropped out to get married, but she never gave up on writing. While there are no villains in this story, Van Sciver's mother is undoubtedly given the warmest treatment. The ways in which she stepped outside norms (laughing at a drawing her son made in church, giving Noah a high-five instead of punishing him when he kissed a girl) brought her closer to her children, and it's obvious that Van Sciver never forgot it.

Van Sciver implies that like his parents, he just isn't very good at being normal and doing what's expected. He's a free spirit who took his drawing obsession and turned it into his life's work. The problem is that he found it hard for others to take it seriously, conflating artistic ambition with not just laziness, but being a scammer or fake of some kind. What's worse is that it's clear that there will always be a part of him that believes this to be true. Being raised to feel ashamed is hard to take, and while he accepts the how and why of it happened, it doesn't make it any easier to feel stable and secure as an adult.

Thinking about it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a child who grows up without basics like food and a reliable shelter will struggle later in life. What makes the book so compelling is the way that Van Sciver ties these struggles to specific kinds of homes and reflects on how the everyday experience of these environments had a profound effect on him. His old house had decaying floors filled with splinters. His father ripped out the kitchen and never replaced it, meaning that they had to do dishes in the bathtub. The close quarters made everyone irritable all the time. Living with Gwen in her nice place made him feel like an impostor or a tourist in a life he didn't really belong to. While the last line of the main text is Van Sciver saying "These are the cleanest walls I've ever lived inside," implying a sort of heartbreaking paralysis, the afterword finds him breaking that cycle of shame a little. He returns to his old home as an adult three years later, and while there are no major epiphanies, there is a sense of closure in facing this place that had such a profound and lasting impact. The final image is a cutaway drawing of Van Sciver's self-image inside his head saying, "Life is weird." The wounds might still be deep, but Van Sciver's realized that he had to accept where he came from: what other choice did he have?

Friday, May 24, 2019

D&Q: Peter Bagge's Credo

It's been interesting following Peter Bagge's third act as a cartoonist. Originally one of the pioneers of alternative comics in the 80s with Neat Stuff (not to mention editing Weirdo), then one of the stars at the height and eventual fall of alternative comics in the 90s with Hate, he's reinvented himself a few times since then. Or rather, he's reinvented his subject matter, as he hasn't changed his visual style or fundamental essence as a humorist one iota. Bagge tried everything after Hate: animation in the middle of the first boom and bust, writing and drawing comics for DC, being a reporter and political commentator for Reason and other publications, and writing original graphic novels about various kinds of characters. Throughout it all, he's still retained his trademark rubbery style and frantic expressiveness.

His latest project has been a series of heavily-researched biographies about three different women for Drawn & Quarterly: Margaret Sanger, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rose Wilder Lane. All three of them are libertarian heroes who lived in the early 20th century. Each one was a remarkable individualist who carved their own path and refused to let society's patriarchal tendencies hold them back. Each one was also tempestuous and frequently difficult to get along with. Each one was a controversial figure in their own way. Bagge's admiration for each is obvious and his intensive research is obvious given that the notes section in the most recent book, Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story, is a third as long as the story itself. Of the three women whose story he's told, Lane is the one most directly connected to what became the libertarian movement, as she was friends with a number of people in that circle, including author Ayn Rand.

Lane was a writer, and well-known during her time for novels, political screeds and extensive articles in all sorts of periodicals. She may be best known for work for which she explicitly denied taking credit: collaborating with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder on her "Little House" books. This is a matter of extensive controversy, and Bagge doesn't try to settle it one way or another as much as he tries to introduce reasonable doubt. The assertion that Wilder, an untrained (but talented) writer could suddenly produce seamless prose at a late age all on her own seems far-fetched. The most likely scenario, given Lane's record of near-flawless prose, is that Wilder's daughter collaborated with her, taking her mother's ideas and giving them an extensive rewrite. At the barest minimum, she edited them and gave them polish. Lane had a complicated relationship with her mother (to say the least!), so it's possible that she didn't want to complicate it further by claiming credit for her work, as well as knowing that the success of the books hinged in part on the illusion of single-author authenticity.

Bagge is less interested in that particular debate and more interested in Lane's interpersonal struggles, especially with her mother. He notes that it's likely that she suffered from bipolar disorder, and she was well aware of and perplexed by her mental illness and the emotional roller-coaster it created. She was simultaneously loving and irascible, constantly smothering talented young people she met as her new "children" or later "grandchildren," in part to replace the baby she lost in childbirth. She was attracted to men but could only stand their company for so long before her wanderlust got the best of her. She was miserable when she was alone and miserable when she was with other people, and her awareness of this fact made her even more miserable. As whip-smart, accomplished, and stubbornly accomplished as she was, Bagge makes the case that she did all this in spite of the weight of her mental illness.

Bagge derives a lot of comedy from Lane's anti-government stance. Initially a socialist because of the influence of her aunt, she saw firsthand the horrors that a totalitarian socialist state can wreak. Bagge also makes the astute point that while her family was gifted land as homesteaders by the government, this was all land pretty much stolen by the natives or bought for a pittance in the Louisiana Purchase. The homesteaders served the purpose many settlers/homesteaders supported by their states do: establish a toehold in lands otherwise occupied by people who have been there for a long time and provoke conflicts. Lane was rightly suspicious of the government regulating industry because of industry's ability to simply buy their way into gaining favorable conditions that would help create monopolistic conditions. Of course, like many libertarians, the idea of a public good and how best to maintain it was something she didn't consider. Nor did she consider the amoral nature of capitalism and the relentless desire of corporations to get ahead not with a better product, but by exploiting workers unable to seek out a better situation or cutting corners on safety or waste disposal. Of course, many of these issues weren't prominent problems in her time, nor did she have training as an economist.

Of course, even though Bagge clearly admired many of her ideas (she wrote for an African-American newspaper and acknowledged the unjust nature of Jim Crow laws and the ways in which black people were persecuted by police, for example), he had no interest in making her out to be a saint or have all of the answers. Indeed, there's a scene where she and Ayn Rand not only have significant disagreements as to atheism, Lane became immediately suspicious of Rand cultivating a cult of personality. In this Bagge got at the heart of what made her an interesting character. She was more interested in ideas than notoriety. She preferred a dry but forceful delineation of ideas (her book Credo) to Rand's dressing it up in fictional form. She embodied the best ideals of the frontier spirit: a powerful and relentless sense of individualism combined with a generosity of spirit and understanding of teamwork as a necessity for survival. In many respects, this is Bagge's own statement about his beliefs in the form of this woman, who was closer to an anarchist than anything else.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ellen Lindner's The Cranklet's Chronicle #2

Ellen Lindner's work has often dipped into the past, especially New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her comics have usually focused on women in these eras, in part because their stories are not well served from this time. Her latest series, The Cranklet's Chronicle, serves an especially underserved topic: the role of women in major league baseball. Linder is also not afraid to tackle difficult topics, and issue #2 was as much about race as it was about gender with regard to the game. With tremendous storytelling clarity, a pleasant line and crackling dialogue, Lindner told the story of Effa Manley, the only woman admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She co-owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro League and won a championship with them, only to see the league disintegrate when Major League Baseball finally deigned to bring in black players. It's a fascinating story that has a lot of twists and turns.

There's something particularly interesting in reading stories about women who defied the societal barriers arrayed against them in achieving remarkable things. In Manley's case, she also had to deal with issues related to race. Manley grew up thinking she was biracial, but her white mother revealed that her father was not who she thought he was. An affair with a white man made Manley technically white--but she grew up thinking she was black and in a black community, and she chose to continue to live as a black woman. The whole experience, as Lindner noted, had Manley saying, "Whatever I am...I will be exceptional!" 

Lindner's use of blue tones throughout creates a slightly nostalgic air, as though one was watching vintage footage of these events. She traces Manley and her husband Abe after they created the Eagles, creating an exciting narrative as Manley's business sense and charisma was a perfect match for her husband's ability to evaluate talent. It's a story that's a triumph and a tragedy, as her moment of triumph was taken away from her--she never got to be involved in baseball ever again. Fortunately, a reporter was able to catch up with her late in her life to get her story down, and it's truly a doozy. Linder does that story justice, finding ways to both focus on the exciting narrative as well as offer commentary on race and gender in America.