Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Minis: Asher Z. and Lillie Craw

Dickless, by Asher Z. Craw. Craw's thin and delicate line paired with dense cross-hatching and themes related to body horror and psychosexual themes have always reminded me of Julia Gfrörer's comics. Craw's comics are not quite as visceral in the same way and go in different directions. For example, Dickless creates a mythology about teeth as the source of one's power. Losing them may mean a personal weakness that causes one's teeth to reject you, or simply a loss of power by losing the tooth that brings about weakness. In any event, Craw segues from that starting point into a young man losing a tooth, and per the narrator's advice, consulting a professional. Amusingly, that professional is a mysterious shopkeeper (pointedly next door to a dentist's office) who goes through a series of steps that include grinding the tooth up. When the client agrees to ingest it, it inspires the shopkeeper to say "Not as dickless as I took you for", implying any number of things: the danger involved in the process (he sees the future as a result), his decreased masculinity as a result of losing the tooth, his bland appearance, etc. Craw opens the reader up to a craft (in every sense of the word) surrounding teeth, where the shopkeeper recalls an earlier time when she sold tools in exchange for a human head full of teeth. This is a comic filled with hints of deep, lost knowledge and an understanding of the order of things known only to a few. That sense of being influenced by forces beyond our understanding is a running theme in all of Craw's comics.

#Blessed, Part One, was written by Craw's wife Lillie and illustrated by Craw himself. This is a brutal satire of celebrity culture where almost all the characters are animals. The comic purports to be the biography of one Party Twink, a former model from The Glitterverse who mooches off his boyfriend/sugar daddy Money Bear. The first half of the comic is a series of illustrations with text on the opposite page that explain each character and their motivations, all of which are 100% awful. The second half is a comic that has the Craws break into the narrative in clarifying precisely how Money Bear's mansion was a recreation of Marie Antoinette's mansion. The comic is a hilarious study of how privilege warps and distorts one's needs in absurd ways, how narcissism is a black hole, and how codependence enables this kind of behavior.

Zebediah Part III, by Asher Z Craw. This can best be described as Craw's magical realist autobiography. This is a remarkably clever and heartbreaking comic, building on the first two issues in unexpected ways while maintaining the tone and theme of the story throughout. The first part followed a couple named Zebediah and Eula-Lee, taking time to fully develop their quirks and obvious connection as well as subtly introduce the magical realist portions of the story in talking animals and mysterious religious figures commenting on them. The second part introduces the idea that after their deaths, Zebediah and Eula-Lee continued to live on in the forms of Asher and Lillie, except that Asher was in the body of a woman. This also introduces the reader to Asher's own autobiographical account of feeling like a stranger in his own body and wanting to die before his transition. Along the way, they are helped by various animals who have been urged by supernatural forces to save them, and they show kindness to all sorts of animals, including a family of possums. The second issue ended with Zebediah and Eula-Lee starting to remember their past lives and fully inhabit the bodies of Asher and Lillie, all while having to deal with a looming evil.

The third and final chapter opens with the couple in bed, trying to cope with the strange, new world in which they were living. While their faith was deep and abiding, they didn't know to what extent they were being protected or pursued by the forces of good and evil. Most of the issue is a game of cat and mouse as they are told to leave Portland and go out to the woods by the forces of good, and the Devil uses his form as a swarm of mosquitoes to subtly push people into attacking, endangering or otherwise dislodging the pair. When they are finally confronted by the Devil, they rely on their faith but mostly in their unwillingness to harm the innocent souls of Asher and Lillie and thwart evil through their selflessness. Every element of the comic is precisely well-constructed in terms of both plot and its visual elements, and it's all anchored by the vivid characterization of its heroes. Zebediah works on a number of levels at once: a supernatural story, a story of faith, a metaphor for being trans and above all else, a love story.

Craw makes a number of interesting decisions regarding page composition, switching between a steady six-panel grid for most of the action and an open-page, dreamy layout when supernatural forces are arrayed. There's a lot of white space involved here when there are talking heads sequences, which makes sense considering that the characters are the focus of the story. When it switches to an action shot, Craw flips again and draws detailed, heavily hatched and cross-hatched backgrounds and dense underbrush. Pose is more important than movement in this comic, as the figures are actually on the stiff side on the page, but that's once again a function of the narrative. The characters are well-aligned with each other in terms of space and body language, but Craw prefers to linger on each image rather than zip the audience along to the next panel. Indeed, that sense of appreciating stillness and each heartbeat & story beat is an essential element of the comic, especially given its twists and forays into the supernatural. Hopefully, this comic will be collected by someone soon.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Uncivilized: Joann Sfar's Pascin

Joann Sfar's idiosyncratic biography of the early 20th century painter Jules Pascin has been critiqued in some circles for glorifying the sexual conquests of male artists and buffing up that kind of macho narrative. Upon reading Pascin, I found the opposite to be true: this was a profoundly sad and meditative study about an artist searching for something that would ever and always be out of his grasp. The other thing to keep in mind about this book is that biographies tend to have autobiographical qualities, as the biographers often tend to seek out and empathize with their subjects, be it a deliberate act or a subconscious one. I see Pascin as a deeply meditative look at an artist who was a clear aesthetic influence on Sfar, digging deep into trying to figure out what made him tick, what made him think, what made him create and ultimately what he feared most. If anything, the book seems a deliberate rejection of the image of the macho artist and toxic masculinity in general.

One example is Pascin meeting young Ernest Hemingway (the patron saint of macho artists) and humiliating him simply be calling out exactly what he knew Hemingway wanted: to not just have sex with one of the two women in Pascian's company, but to act as the white knight savior. In another example, one of Pascin's friends in the book is a gangster named Toussaint. He is the embodiment of the use of force to get one's way, but he hangs around Pascin because he's jealous of the painter's power of creation. Sfar is careful not to elevate what Pascin does over Toussaint's brutality; instead, there's a telling sequence where Pascin talks about how drawing is a kind of sexual substitute, a way of grasping at life and creating it on one's own and doing whatever one wants with it. In the philosophical discussions of art Pascin has with other painters like Antanas and Soutine, the question of just how to bring life to an image is the most crucial aspect of art. It's not just a matter of simultaneity on multiple planes like in Cubism, but rather an attempt at rendering all aspects of a subject in a phenomenological manner. Or as Antanas says, "You have to walk all the way around it to get the full picture" in order to get many viewpoints to resolve in a single image. The ability to do so, Pascin seems to be arguing, is no more or less noble or remarkable than seducing someone or beating them up.

This gets to the heart of the tragedy of Pascin as a character: he is desperately searching for something because he's been broken for a long time, but can't get it through either sex or art. Contrast Pascin to his friends Soutine or Marc Chagall, especially in the scene where all three get together for Yom Kippur. As a Jewish person, Sfar has spent much of his career exploring what it means to be a Jew, both in a religious sense and in an ethnic sense. He's explored many different ethnic variations and traditions surrounding Judaism, and his characters have engaged in the language of the religion, which is the language of debate. The debate, and the holiday itself, which is the day of atonement, revealed interesting things about all three men. Chagall was clearly leading the healthiest life, with a loving wife and a sense of purpose that embraced the power of the aesthetic without being consumed by it. Soutine was a misanthrope who was all too aware of his misanthropy and had come to accept it as he indulged his artistic obsessions.

Pascin told a long story about a time when he was a child and stole from his father in order to visit a brothel. Unlike his friends, who had hard early lives and risked everything for their art, Pascin was dismissive of his own ability. As would be revealed later, he simply wanted to be better at fucking than his father, wanted the power notoriety that going to a brothel would give him in school, and didn't care about the consequences. All throughout telling the story, Pascin angered Chagall with hilarious blasphemies, until he reached the end of the story, when he revealed that another man was blamed for stealing the money and he hanged himself out of humiliation. That was an obvious flashpoint for him that sent him down a path mixed with desperation and a love-hate relationship with art and sex. He became great at both (" a true pervert", his ex would say), having sex with men and women alike, as a kind of unspoken, eternal contest he had with himself and his father. Drawing and sex were two sides of the same coin, one leading to the other in a feedback loop.

Sfar's art has never looked better. It loosens up so much on some pages as to become almost abstracted; it's deeply expressive and packs a relentless emotional punch. At the same time, much about the story and his visual approach is funny, filthy and whimsical. Pascin externalized his fears through a razor-sharp wit and and relentless charismatic manner. He was much more a personality than his other artist friends and was resigned to the self-pitying misanthrope Soutine coming around and begging him to help him in the social realm. The women in the story range from naive to brilliant, with other historical figures like Kike de Montparnasse having key roles and engaging in the same kind of philosophical discussions as Pascin. For Pascin, some of them mean little to him and some (like the married Lucy) are loved with all he can give. It is clear that in many respects, they remain as much a mystery to him (if a familiar, comfortable mystery) as they were the first time he visited that brothel. He was chasing an experience he could never have, creating art to scratch an itch that could never be satisfied. Sfar helps create that sense of inner turbulence by varying his line: thicky and brushy on some pages, clear line on others, open layouts on some pages, grids on others, gray-scale on some pages, spotting blacks on others, cartoony on some pages, naturalistic and grittily detailed on others. It's an affectionate but clear-eyed take on an artist, warts and all, and the kind of questions about aesthetics that vexed Pascin and clearly vex Sfar as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

NoBrow: SP4RX

SP4RX is a tight little cyberpunk thriller that maximizes story economy and minimizes everything else while still retaining its satirical edge. The world that creator Wren McDonald introduces is a familiar one, where a corporation has its fingers in everything and introduces cybernetic program that allows "lower level" workers to take up to 36 hour shifts. Other nefarious characters want to take control of these lower level, refitted workers to make them into their own personal mind-controlled and high-powered army. The satire in this book is mostly seen in its margins, much like the Paul Verhoeven film Robocop. The grimy quality of this future city reminds me a bit of Moebius and Moebius-influenced artists like Brandon Graham, only it's rendered in a more typical NoBrow style. The characters are mostly rendered in a cute style where their faces are pretty much just dots and lines, but McDonald gets a lot of mileage out the essential looseness of his figure drawing.The light purple wash in the story gives everything an odd appearance, but not in a way that sticks out too much.

SP4RX follows a prototypical sinister corporation that has made life "better" by introducing "cybernetic efficiency public-aid program" ELPIS, essentially designed to turn workers living in the Lower Levels of the city into hyper-efficient workers that can go for 36 hours at a time. Even more sinister is a conspiracy to take over their programming and turn them into a tireless, durable army. A hacker named SP4RX is hired to find a piece of hardware that winds up being crucial in this regard, both to the conspiracy and the resistance against them. The best thing McDonald does with SP4RX is make him utterly apathetic to the ideals of the revolution; he just wants to live quietly off the grid, hang out with his best friend CL1PP3R, and make money. Circumstances don't allow this to happen, as he's manipulated by both the state and the resistance into making various moves, until he is finally able to play his own game.

Though the action in the book is fairly dark and brutal, McDonald is able to inject some pitch-black levity into a number of the scenes. The ELPIS cyborgs are of course turned into weapons that murder humans, but only after asking them "How do you contribute to the efficiency of this level?" Watching the ELPIS cyborgs run amok is one of the funnest things to follow in a book that's filled with fluid & visceral fight & chase scenes. In many respects, McDonald pays the most attention to the action going on in the city itself, as it's the most fleshed-out "character" in the book. SP4RX is little more than a grim, terse loner who does the right thing in the end for his own reasons. McDonald depicts the leader of the resistance as kind of a kook who rambles on about principles that no one cares about, like freedom. The villains are comically corrupt and over-the-top, but even this was a reflection of the authority they usually feel. Both heroes and villains use the same kind of ruthless methods, which McDonald subtly but pointedly demonstrates in the course of the book. Changing the world would mean a total paradigm shift that integrated humanity and artificial intelligence in a meaningful way, and this book depicts a bump in the road on the way to the paradigm shift. In sacrificing himself, SP4RX inadvertently found a way to alter his world and integrate man and machine in new ways. That's only hinted at that at the end, but that kind of vagueness of motivation is what makes the book so much fun to read in the end.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

D&Q: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts

The defining element of Gonzo journalism, as originated by Hunter S. Thompson, was that the illusion of objectivity was cast aside in favor of an acknowledgment that the journalist, in reporting the story, becomes part of the story. This is not to suggest that journalism, even Gonzo journalism, doesn't have its own rules and even standards. However, it is a way of letting the reader know that this was a specific set of circumstances interpreted in a particular way by a journalist. Making this acknowledgment is a way of cutting off at the knees the possibility of making an argument by way of anecdote, which is the weakest yet most common rhetorical method of argument. It puts the lie to the notion that the journalist has special knowledge or insight. All the journalist can hope is that their account, bias and narrow scope and all, is compelling enough not to give the reader all the answers, but to give them enough information to start asking more questions.

In Sarah Glidden's first book, How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less, Glidden clearly had the journalist urge without the journalistic tools to address her Birthright trip to Israel. She knew going in that Birthright was at least in part a propaganda exercise, but she was surprised at how emotional so many aspects of that trip made her. The weird artificiality of the setting made the book feel staged at times, even if she was trying to resist that staging. The book wound up being more memoir than a work of journalism, though the seeds were clearly planted to follow up later. In particular, she wanted to talk to people directly who didn't have a particular, prescribed political agenda they wanted to peddle to her. In the end, she was no less clear about her feelings and opinions about Israel than she was when she started, but she stayed true to that conclusion and did try for a pat answer.

That desire to talk to others, a curiosity about the nuts and bolts of the actual journalistic process, and a constant slamming on the metaphorical breaks regarding any kind of smooth narrative that emerged on a trip to the Middle East make up the bulk of Glidden's new book, Rolling Blackouts. This book is a work of meta-journalism, as she followed members of the Seattle Globalist to Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Syria and documented their process. Throughout the book, there are two separate dynamics: the dynamic between the Globalist crew and the people they interview and use as contacts, and the dynamic between Sarah Stuteville of the Globalist and her friend Dan, an ex-marine who saw time in Iraq who happened to be one of her oldest friends. Glidden stood as an outsider in both sets of dynamics, in part because she didn't want to interfere with the work the Globalist journalists were attempting to accomplish. While Glidden was obviously a character in this book, she very pointedly noted that this wasn't a memoir. She got to shape it the way she wanted and wasn't obligated to share her feelings about anything in particular. As such, we never hear Glidden's feelings about being an American in the countries they traveled to, nor how she felt as a Jewish person in those countries. Indeed, her ethnic background wasn't brought up a single time in the book. Glidden the person in this book is a very intelligent and perceptive cipher, and that's as it should be.

It was interesting to see the differences in what Stuteville did and what Joe Sacco does in his comics journalism. Sacco inserts himself into the scene but never hesitates in making friends with the locals as he often stays in one place for months. There are also times when he's as ruthless as he needs to be in finding the story he's looking for, as depicted in Footnotes In Gaza. Stuteville is a more traditional journalist, as getting to spend a lot of her time with her subjects is unusual and there's not always the opportunity to engage in social interaction. It did happen on occasion, where Stuteville attended parties at people's homes and danced, or went out to get drinks. Glidden depicts Stuteville as professional but empathetic, probing but kind and a mix of supreme confidence and self-doubt. Some of her subjects were happy to talk to an American journalist, while others took the opportunity to use her as a vessel for venting their hatred of what the American army did to their country. In both instances, Glidden depicted Stuteville as almost infinitely patient and unflappable, always allowing her subjects to vent without once trying to justify what had happened. In almost every case shown, even the most vociferously hostile subjects would calm down and realize that it wasn't her fault and recognized that she was there to hear their stories.

By way of contrast, the way Stuteville interacted with Dan reflected the full weight of their history and the ways in which she no longer understood him. As media-savvy individuals, they were both going after certain stories and were aware that the other was trying to shape the story in a particular way. For Dan, who had been as peace-loving as anyone in high school, he viewed enlisting as a way of trying to personally influence events in Iraq. It was a way of doing more than just protesting; in his view, it was a way of effecting real change. What Stuteville was looking for was him starting with perhaps that narrative and then seeing that narrative change when he met people who had been affected by the war. His immediate reaction, which he repeated again and again, was to say that the war hadn't affected him negatively at all, he was glad that he performed this service, didn't regret his actions at all and didn't feel any guilt. He was answering questions that weren't even asked, which immediately caused Stuteville to want to chase down the things he denied.

That led to a series of ever-more-frustrating, passive-aggressive interviews. Stuteville was constantly trying to figure out a way of circling around and drawing him out (even chastising Glidden for directly questioning him on some sensitive material when she didn't think it was an appropriate time). Every time, she would get stonewalled. Ironically, it wasn't until the very end of the book, when Dan heard some Iraqi refugees in Syria decry America, that he admitted that coming to Iraq was a mistake. The irony was that he told this to Glidden, not Stuteville, and Glidden was incisive in her analysis: Dan was looking for absolution from someone, anyone, and it would never come. Stuteville later talked about the mistakes she made in trying to interview Dan, acknowledging that she was simply too close to the subject to be truly objective. This interpersonal conflict added some spice to what was otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative. Many of the stories presented were interesting, but what the reader saw was the bare bones of that story that would later be turned into something more coherent. It was the equivalent of watching an unedited film, which was interesting up to a point but repetitive after a while.

The book picks up when the crew meets Sam, an Iraqi native who had lived in Seattle for a number of years before being deported. Technically, he was deported for falsifying aspects of his application, but the reality is that he was seemingly connected to a key Al-Qaeda member who helped mastermind the 9/11 terrorist attack. Sam claimed innocence and ignorance, which seemed fishy to the group until they actually spent a lot of time with him. This was an interesting bit of give and take, as the group sensed that while his story had some inconsistencies, the essential truth of him being innocent felt true to them. The amount of time spent with him in the book, small touches like him being obsessed with being able to have access to American snacks and his sheer lack of guile gave the reader the same kind of intimacy that the group felt with him. Glidden really shines in creating these scenes, creating a sense of ease on the page that was casual but also weighed with the seriousness of the charges and the sadness of Sam being separated from his wife and children. Glidden also gets at the idea of a sticky truth where it's impossible to know all of the factors that went into the arrest, like the politics influencing the US officials.

The final segment of the book in Syria is closer to what one would expect about a book set in the Middle East: focusing on human misery, the ramifications of war and individual tales of despair and hope. As grim as the refugees' lives were in Syria, the reality of Syria today is far more upsetting, given the horrific civil war and genocide. Entering Syria meant encountering state-enforced admiration of Assad, which was amusing for a while until it became clear that state surveillance was a real thing. There were moments of humor in this book, to be sure, but it was laughing in the dark. The title of the book refers to a phenomenon in Iraq where they were planned, brief blackouts at night, because there wasn't enough power to keep the city lit all at the same time. It became Glidden's metaphor for journalists facing long periods of uncertainty, often foisted intentionally on them, followed by moments of insight. It also refers to their perspective as Americans, and Dan in particular. The last big blowout argument between Stuteville and Dan took place during a blackout, where Dan makes the case that someone needed to stop Saddam Hussein, and Stuteville counters that it wasn't our place to do so, especially without any real sense of how to fix what happened next. The lights blinked on after that moment as the argument ended, a moment of enlightenment or at least having one's cards all out on the table achieved.

Whereas Joe Sacco combines incredible skill with a pen and a sense of when to bend naturalism toward a more cartoony style, Glidden keeps everything sketchy and loose. Her use of color is key to the book, as mellow pastels dominate backgrounds and keep the book on an even keel in terms of tone. No matter what kind of story is being discussed, Glidden's consistency in this regard gives the book cohesion and adds a sense of restraint to the book. This makes sense, because the book is less about the Middle East than it is a book about process and craft. Glidden balances that discussion of process with interpersonal relationships, which was crucial in preventing the book from becoming too dry or academic. The book does drag here and there, and there are a few story tangents that don't quite go anywhere, but for the most part Glidden is able to turn quiet moments into important ones because they flesh out interpersonal relationships. Glidden does a fine job overall of humanizing a difficult job, providing context and understanding of how an important job is done, and explaining why it's as important as it is.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retrofit: Anya Davidson and Leela Corman

Lovers In The Garden, by Anya Davidson. This bonkers crime-romance comic set in the 1970s reminds me of the sort of thing that Elmore Leonard might write. It's a series of character vignettes tied together by a central plot of two hitmen being sent to kill their latest target. The construction of that plot is seamless, even as Davidson throws in a number of twists that alter the balance of the story. That said, the plot really exists as a way for Davidson to explore a series of different kinds of relationships. The first is the relationship between a reporter and a story subject, as Elyse Saint-Michel interviews a man named Flashback, who happens to be a hitman. She's trying to get him to give her some info on his boss, a scummy heroin dealer named Dog, and he winds up telling her some of his life story. The second relationship we see is that of the other hitman, Shephard, and a young woman named Coral Gables. They are in love, so much so that Shephard wants to quit the business.

The next relationship moves the plot forward a bit, as Dog asks the hitmen to do one last job, and he'll allow Shephard to quit. After they leave, he tells another employee, a woman named Mystic Blue, to kill them both after they complete the job. When we meet Elyse's boyfriend Chip, when we see that Coral is actually an undercover copy, and that Mystic wants to double-cross her boss, one of the themes of the story clearly emerges: broken relationships that actively choke off trust and support in the face of ambition and greed. It's not even a good vs evil issue, as Elyse and Coral are very much using others to get what they want, even if their goals are noble. Davidson actually plants doubt even there, as the "good" characters want to get the big scoop or bust a drug dealer, but they're doing it to advance, not because they are focused on doing the right thing. Another theme that Davidson hints at is how sexual love can be ephemeral and even deceptive. The sexual relationships between Coral and Shephard and Elyse & her boyfriend had no real depth.

The setting is another interesting factor in this comic. The 1970s was an era of a revolution of rising expectations, as women and people of different races started seeing social and cultural advancement as a real possibility. As such, two of the key characters in the story are African-American women, and the key antagonist (Mystic Blue) is a woman who is fed up with her position in Dog's gang. Force is a means to an end. Davidson moves the story to an explosive and tense climax, switching points of view so that the reader can better see exactly how which people with guns are in facing each other and in what position. All of that serves as a way of revealing who the true lovers are, in a fraternal but still remarkably deep way: Flashback and Shephard. When the shooting starts, we flash back to Viet Nam, where Flashback saves Shephard. They faced trauma together and still had each other as homeless people when they were taken in by the drug lord, who started them slowly until he moved them up to hitmen. One of the best lines in the story comes from Flashback: "Like a lobster in a pot of water. The temperature rose so gradually I didn't realize I was being boiled alive." Dog exploited them until they were too much in his debt and his thrall for them to do anything different. In an era where being able to define oneself was its hallmark, Shephard and Flashback were the only two characters who weren't able to do this, until Flashback found the same kind of courage that served him in saving Shephard in Viet Nam. Theirs is the only love story with a happy ending (for as long as it might last) in the book.

The line is Davidson's usual expressive, loose and and even cartoony style. Interestingly, it's mostly the characters who get solid black line drawings. Everything else is done in colored pencil, including most of the backgrounds and even many of the street scenes. It's a clever way of pushing the characters forward ahead of everything else, even as the colors themselves have a slightly ratty and psychedelic character to them. It's that mix of punk and psychedelia that is Davidson's trademark, and it's an especially clever strategy given the book's obsession with artifice vs reality. Davidson suggests that it's all artifice on one level, everything but the kind of true friendship that lasts through bullets and bombs and through madness and destitution. Despite all of the sleaze and backbiting in this comic, it still retains an almost sweet level of optimism in the face of everything, precisely because of that true friendship.

We All Wish For Deadly Force, by Leela Corman. It's remarkable how much thematic cohesion there is in this collection of Leela Corman's short stories. I've been reading Corman's comics for nearly twenty years, when she started out with her Flim-Flam minicomics and early books like Subway Series and Queen's Day. Since that time, her work has become more explicitly about gender, cultural mores, personal and ethnic identity, class and sexism. All of these topic were explored in her book Unterzakhn, as Corman has almost always written fiction. As such, I was surprised to see so much autobio in this book, even if it addressed most of the same issues she's always been interested in. For example, the bonds of family are a crucial element in the book, and in particular the way family carries on after trauma and tragedy.

Consider "The Wound That Never Heals" and "Yahrzeit". The former directly addresses the sudden death of her toddler daughter Rosalie and the latter addresses her grandfather possibly witnessing his family dying during World War II. Corman is an especially sharp writer, and she approaches these horrors from a number of different angles. There is the immediate, visceral approach, where she depicts the hypervigilance that results from PTSD as being a sort of shadowy force that forces her to appear normal. There's the clinical approach, where she breaks down precisely what's happening in her brain and why. There's the philosophical approach, which leads to the title descriptor of the first story. There's also the generational approach, wherein she imagines her grandfather carrying around the dead as a burden or like a phantom limb, just as she does. She also imagines another world where her daughter is alive and wonders if her grandfather ever did the same.In both stories, she makes the point that what others view as strength is simply our survival instinct as animals, and acceptance of the permanence of trauma is the only thing that can help one accept it. The former story vividly uses color in unconventional ways, contrasting horror with bright backgrounds as a way of highlighting the dissonance of looking normal while living with PTSD. The latter story is a more traditional Corman creation, as the contrast here is with her usual thin line and the roughly-penned outline of the dead.

Corman's identity as a Jewish person is also key in this collection. It's something that ties into identity and as a narrative for loss. Even a lightweight story like "Brooklyn Bellydance Adventure", which was about Corman teaching the discipline to Jewish women of Russian descent, is incredibly sharply-observed in terms of what they shared and what was foreign. "This Way To Progress" is about her grandparents, through the device of the kind of furniture she chooses to have and the way it reminds her of her family. A chair is emblematic of a place to sit and reflect in one's home, and the modernist chairs her grandparents chose reflected their progressivism, of leaving behind horror and tragedy, of an openness to new ideas. "Irreducibles" similarly starts off in a lighthearted manner as it talks about certain essential aspects of Jewish identity, joking about being in a cabal or craving gefilte fish. What is unique about Jewish culture is that despite its many rules that are inexplicable to outsiders, the idea of what being a "good Jew" means is remarkably open to interpretation. Corman seizes on the idea that kvetching (complaining) is one of these "irreducibles", for the sheer pleasure of the act--even if the complaint has been assuaged. Seizing on these lighthearted ideas develops into the darker aspects, like an ever-present feeling of doom that everything could collapse and Jews could be rounded up again. Once again, Corman advocates not resisting or ignoring that feeling, but rather accepting it and using it effectively. "The Book Of The Dead" seizes on that idea and talks about the exile from France her grandparents faced and how living in Brooklyn altered family dynamics forever.

An unstated theme in the book is guilt. Survivor's guilt for Corman being alive and and her daughter not, guilt for being alive while a number of her relatives died in the Holocaust, guilt for what she acknowledges is the privilege of being an artist, and guilt for accidentally getting to live in a time and place that's given her some semblance of security and consistence. That is addressed specifically in "The Book Of The Dead", as the artist and a survivor can only do their best to honor the dead, show gratitude toward those who gave her an opportunity to create and acknowledge one's debts. Acceptance of guilt, acceptance of trauma, and acceptance of the full beauty and horror regarding the implications of one's ethnic heritage are the only way out of the inevitable side effects of trauma, Corman suggests. The only way out is through. The interstitial pieces in the book, done in colored pencil, are raw and visceral memories of Rosalie and current anecdotes about missing her and dealing with monstrous people in public who lack any sense of empathy toward children.

Corman, partly through her bellydancer friend Luna of Cairo, also discusses the ways in which women have and are ignored, humiliated and outright abused in society. While the particular brand of sexism she faces in Egypt is particular to that country and culture, it is not to suggest that America or any other country is any less openly sexist and abusive toward women, and that society at large tolerates sexual assault and harassment. One of Luna's stories involves women working hard to elect a presidential candidate who did a great deal to help fight back against sexual assault, making an example out of a public gang rape on a city street. In the story "It's Always Been Here", Corman details the history of a well that was a part of a shrine to Aphrodite and the generations of women who came with supplications regarding having children, dealing with abusive husbands, etc. All of these stories reflect ways in which women have and can care for other women in a position of strength and authority. The latter story hints at ways in which that authority can be weakened over time but also suggests that it's something that can be tapped into again at any time. Corman explores a lot of dark places in this book, both within and without her, but the last resonant theme is that of survival. She may play down the strength necessary to survive, but what Corman does as an artist in this book is not just convey survival, but articulate the ways she has managed to cope with the weight of her own traumas in a manner that's remarkably beautiful, expressive and powerful.

Monday, January 9, 2017

mini-Kus! Of The Week #8: Moisseinen, Franz, Kallio, Sailamaa

mini-Kus! #40: 1944, by Hanneriina Moisseinen. Using dense but delicate pencils, Moisseinen elegantly uses a background setting of war to illustrate the ways in which nature is abused and exploited by man and the ways in which the feminine is ignored and cast aside. The story starts with bombers flying overhead and a woman doing her morning chores on the farm, and when she's told that she and her family have exactly two minutes to evacuate, she replies that she has to assist a cow that's about to give birth. After a successful birth, the men take the calf away from its mother and kill it, saying that it would starve and never survive the journey away from the farm. As they leave the now-bombed farm, there's a sort of thousand-yard stare shared by the woman and the cow. There's a sensitivity and restraint on the part of Moisseinen in this comic, as there's no need to exaggerate events that undoubtedly happened repeatedly and continue to happen now. In that sense, this comic serves as an object of mourning and honoring the dead, the innocent, those left behind and that which is destroyed in the wake of senseless violence.

mini-Kus! #41: EYEZ, by Aisha Franz. This is a bright, almost garishly-colored story about surveillance. Franz's line and use of color reminded me a lot of Gilbert Hernandez in this story, especially in the way Hernandez uses nudity as both an expression of personal freedom as well as a potentially dangerous way of exposing vulnerability. Franz's use of near-future technology is also a bit like Hernandez in the way that technology causes as many problems as it solves. In this particular story, which opens with a young man sunbathing nude on his roof, we see a camera drone fly up and violate his privacy. As he goes into his apartment/bunker (every aspect of the apartment is meant to mimic a panic room or a fortress meant to keep the outside world from intruding, instead of a warm and functional home), he angrily closes the blinds to all of his windows when he sees the drone hovering outside, only to reveal a gender-switch: she was wearing a fake male suit the entire time. Her privacy (spent desperately drinking water while being serviced by some kind of electronic pleasure couch) was disturbed by the prying, needy eyes of her cat. That sparked her to go to yet another secret chamber (layers within layers of camouflage and secrecy) and hook herself up to a sort of virtual reality/sensory deprivation device that turned her into what looked like pure energy. It's interesting that the progression of the comic goes from seeing the person sunbathing out in nature, then at least experiencing physical pleasure in her house, to finally becoming non-corporeal when she was sure no eyes were on her. To be viewed, in the context of this comic, is to be objectified and commodified, which is why the gender disguise was such a powerful image. Franz takes it a step further as the simple act of being needed in the material world becomes an invasion of privacy and an interruption of the intimacy of solitude, which is a horrifying side effect of that objectification. The end result of objectification, Franz seems to suggest, is people escaping their physical forms altogether in order to avoid it.

mini-Kus! #44: PF-E/FRAF, by Ville Kallio. This is an exploration and extrapolation of how global capitalism, fueled by right-wing responses to Islamic terrorism, fuels a permanent state of emergency and inextricably fuses the work force with the military. Sponsored by Saab and Volvo, unwitting soldiers are sent to pursue suspected terrorists. There's a grim, cartoony beauty in Kallio's drawings and a remarkably lively quality in his cartooning, as there's a sense of camaraderie even in these doomed, exploited soldiers that's mixed with social media interactions and viruses. Indeed, the endgame of the strip, where the resistance makes itself known in an unexpected way that gave the soldiers a chance to save themselves, reveals how the opposition to fascism often tries to use its tools against it in innovative ways. While the soldiers on the ground use conventional weaponry, Kallio suggests that the real weapons are information and a willingness to engage in personal transformation. This comic was clearly drawn on a computer, but Kallio shifts between making that artifice obvious (as though the soldiers, and by proxy, the reader, were in a terrifying video game) and disguising it in a manner that makes even the most garish of colors feel surprisingly naturalistic. Kallio redefines what is real in a world of nanotechnology, noting at the end that in a cancerous world dominated by our cancerous minds, we have to learn to accept that toxicity and adapt. This is an example of the mini-Kus! format and the short length of these comics being perfectly suited to an aesthetic approach and concept.

mini-Kus! #46: Everyone Is Hungry, by Anna Sailamaa. This beautiful comic, done in colored pencil, focuses on the simple, day-to-day existence of a girl and explores the passage of time in a moment-by-moment series of sensory impressions that focus on each of the five senses in different ways. The sheer delight of a girl looking out a window, touching the window, tasting and smelling her food and hearing the song of the sparrows gives the comic an intimate but visceral quality that reflects the power and immediacy of each moment. There's a broader metaphor expressed in the comic as well, as the day is not just a day, but an entire lifetime. As the sun sets and the flowers bloom and wilt, the fruit is eaten and rots, and the birds come and go, the reader sees the lights of the house extinguished at the end of the story after the sun sets. It's the end of a day consisting of moments, the whole of which seems impossibly greater than the sum of each moment, because moments are measured outside of time, in the full embrace of the power of aesthetic experience. The naturalistic approach here is softened by the use of colors, so the images on each page come alive as that particular moment is being experienced and savored.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Rokudenashiko's What Is Obscenity?

Rokudenashiko's What Is Obscenity? is jam-packed with great ideas and horrifying but hilarious stories. Its only real flaw is that it's incredibly fragmented, a reflection of much of its original serialized nature. There's a lot in here that's also not comics: interviews, photos, newspaper clippings, etc. All of this makes for a choppy and occasionally repetitive reading experience, as we're told several times about how she started to make her unique style of art as well as the circumstances surrounding that arrest. So as a cohesive work of art, What Is Obscenity? is kind of a mess. However, taken in pieces, it's an astounding account of sexism, fascism, hypocrisy and one artist's joyfully laughing response to all three.

Rokudenashiko's (a pen name that means "good-for-nothing girl" in Japanese) story is basically told in two different sections. What the reader sees first is the story behind her arrest for obscenity in her native Japan. She was a strugglcng cartoonist who hit on the whimsical idea to have a mold made of her genitalia and then decorate the results. The resulting "manko" (pussy) art, which she dubbed "Deco-Man", was upbeat, silly and clever. She made the molds into decorated manko cell phone covers. She turned them into dioramas of things like golf courses and gardens. She ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to buy a 3D printer, which enabled her to build a cover for the first manko kayak, which she took out for a spin in a public event. It was an amusing, affirming and above all else, cute, way to reclaim and demystify the ways in which pussy had been either completely sexually objectified by men or else decreed gross and unfit for public consumption (also by men). Cuteness, as she discussed later, was a crucial aspect of what she was doing. When she was doing this in a more serious manner, it got little attention. When she saw a particular pop singer get a huge amount of attention because of her cuteness, she understood that using those kinds of surface trappings would allow her to get attention from the public while getting her point across at the same time. Moreover, she could make that point in an indirect way, allowing the ideas to penetrate in a non-didactic fashion.

Rokudenashiko was arrested for digitally distributing "obscene" files to crowdfunding supporters who donated a certain amount of money. Before any American reader snickers at outdated and hypocritical morals and mores of Japan, one should consider a couple of different cases: Mike Diana and 2 Live Crew. In the latter case, a power-hungry, politically ambitious sheriff in south Florida declared the rap group's very lyrics to be obscene, causing their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be to be banned in Florida and many other places. Of course, 2 Live Crew was famous and made a lot of money, so no real harm came to them. Diana's case is another story. It was another example of a power-hungry lawman looking to climb the political ladder who ordered Diana's violent comic, Boiled Angel. To be sure, Diana's comic was crude, violent and disturbing, which he attributed to simply being a reflection of the things he would see on the news all the time. In a case in the mid-90s where the prosecution built their case on the idea that all comics were for children, he was the only artist in US history to be convicted of obscenity in a backwater Florida court. Among other things, his sentence forbade him from coming within 100 feet of children as well as drawing anything, ever. He was subject to random, unannounced searches of his home to make sure he wasn't drawing.

Obscenity charges are distractions that inflame ignorance and hypocritically moralistic & self-serving agendas, and such was the case for poor Rokudenashiko. Of course, the Japanese government made a mistake in picking her as an opponent, because of her relentless optimism and fighting spirit. From the moment she was arrested, she thought of what a great manga it would make. She spent a harrowing week in lock-up after she was arrested, unable to contact her family and only getting a brief visit from a court-appointed lawyer. Japanese jails are incredibly rigid in terms of one's activities. The police didn't read her her rights, lied about any number of things and were trying to force a confession out of her. They had up to twenty days of locking her up to force a confession, and they cops tried to wear her down. Instead, she unnerved the cops by making them say "pussy" over and over--something that visibly unnerved them. It was clear to Rokudenashiko that in Japanese society in particular, there was a huge double standard regarding male and female genitalia. There were giant penises being celebrated in town festivals, but the mere mention of female genitalia was considered something far too awful for public consumption.

The good news for her was that she was receiving a great deal of public support for her release after the press initially denounced her as a "so-called" artist. She got a great deal of free legal help and was actually freed after her first appeal. There's a hilarious scene where she's getting out of jail and is trying to throw away the pair of panties she had worn when she went to jail that were taken from her. The guards refused to let her do it, and actually chased her down when she just tossed them aside to give them to her. It's a level of sheer spite and meanness on the part of authority when faced with opposition.

The second half of the book traces how and why she became a manko artist. She started in manga, but it was tough for her to really break through in a brutally competitive market. She got the idea to get laser surgery to trim her labia a bit and did a comic about it, and then had the idea to make a mold of her pussy and create art with it, sharing it with others. After some initial success, there was a powerful sequence where she revealed that she was struggling after she divorced her husband (whom she had cheated on repeatedly because of her general unhappiness) and her art was getting roadblocked. Even the manga she made about her surgery was downbeat and dour, as the editor told her to make up an angle about her hating her own body. She felt suicidal until one woman came up to her after an event and told her how much it meant to her, which gave her renewed strength to go on.

In many respects, this book feels provisional, as the trial has not yet occurred and a lot has happened to Rokudenashiko, like getting married and becoming pregnant. A reworked and more cohesive version of both of the stories in the book (her arrest and her origins as an artist) after the trial is over would likely be a far more powerful and effective book. Still, there's a lot to enjoy here, and everyone involved was careful to provide context to American artists regarding a number of her references. Rokudenashiko's line is playful, confident and loose. It added a tremendous amount of humor to her story, was always clear, and was remarkably expressive. At her heart, she is a humorist, and the sharpness and ferocity of her wit came through on every page.