Monday, July 28, 2014

The Madness of Civilization: Goddamn This War!

World War I was a subject that so enraged Jacques Tardi that he followed up his powerful It Was The War Of The Trenches with Goddamn This War! The former book was a series of disconnected vignettes that jumped around in time and gave the reader the simple blood and guts of the war: powerful new technologies that bewildered unprepared soldiers and made conventional combat obsolete; opportunistic officers; hypocritical and out-of-touch generals and leaders espousing patriotism in meaningless conflict; and a war engineered to further the rich and no one else. In Goddamn This War!, Tardi adds more structure and labors to create a narrative that follow a more linear temporal path. Each chapter covers a single year of the war, and Tardi enlisted the aid of World War I expert Jean-Pierre Verney to write an extensive appendix to the book covering the entire scope of the war on a similar year-by-year basis. Once again, Fantagraphics' beautiful design work makes the book look as good as possible; it was one of the last books that Kim Thompson edited before he died.

What's most remarkable about bout the first-person narrative of the unnamed French soldier, as well as the highly detailed and opinionated essays by Verney is that World War I made no sense whatsoever, and even the soldiers knew it. There was no way to explain it without using the language of nationalism and jingoism. It was a vestigial attempt at fighting the same European wars for territory that had been fought for a thousand years, only the industrial revolution and the advent of market capitalism transformed it beyond the abilities of even the military's leaders to understand and shape in a meaningful way. It was a war of propaganda, of industry looking to expand, of nationalism whipped up in popular culture for catastrophic ends. Beyond the war's general pointlessness, Europe was turned into a mass grave by dint of the sheer stubbornness of its military leaders. Several of France's generals in particular simply didn't understand that hurling thousands of French soldiers at well-fortified German positions only guaranteed creating piles of French corpses. Add to this idiocy on both sides the notion that the war would be over in a few weeks only added to their recklessness with the troops. This was no longer the 100 Year War, the Thirty Year War or even the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Wars were no longer fought on level fields with horses. WWI introduced such horrors as mustard gas, the flamethrower, advanced heavy artillery, air combat, advanced submarine use, grenades and tanks.

Tardi, through his sardonic and cynical narrator, explores the soldier's experience. The soldier on the ground literally had no idea what was going on in terms of strategy. He simply charged up a hill and attacked when told to and otherwise tried to stay alive in his trench. The war simply became unremitting boredom followed by chaos, frenzied orders and the hope for survival. All of this took place in mud and snow, in the mountains or underground, in the air and on the sea. The soldiers were ill-equipped to fight against new and frightening technology. Indeed, the Germans said after the war that their enemies won not because of their superior ability or strategy, but because of "General Tank". Even the highly-disciplined German lines couldn't resist the British tanks en masse.

The best way to describe the conflict for the soldiers, especially from Tardi's narrative, is that it was like being sentenced to hell for five years--if you were lucky to live that long. When the armistice came, the soldiers were in disbelief that hell was now over. Tardi noted that their joy was understandable if misplaced, since so many lives had been lost and so much of France's infrastructure had been destroyed. Tardi's soldier is seething with anger throughout the book and openly resentful of his officers while having sympathy for the enemies, "Les Boches". There's a particular German soldier he sees early in the war, when they managed to spare each other, and he often wonders what's become of him.

Tardi's mastery of body language is a perfect fit with his slightly cartoony figure drawing. There's almost a touch of a bigfoot drawing style that's a touchstone of French cartooning. At the same time, he's fastidious with regard to details: he wants to know exactly what each weapon, each uniform, each battle looked like in real life. Despite that penchant for detail, the comic never bogs down into static photorealism. Instead, there's a slow, lurching quality to the narrative that gets across the stop-and-go nature of the combat. His use of color is a key storytelling technique. While starting off with all sorts of vibrant reds, blues and greens, the book eventually gives way to trench-gray and mud-brown, with splashes of red thrown in when blood's involved. He also highlights flags and officers as they appear, showing how incongruous these symbols and people are with regard to actual combat.

Tardi is actually fairly restrained with regard to gore and violence throughout most of the book. There are the occasional scenes of a soldier trying to hold in his guts or a soldier with his brains blown out, but Tardi chooses to focus on the living more than the dead. That's until the last two pages of his chapter on 1918 (the last year of the war): they feature 3 x 3 grids where every panel is that of the disfigured face of a different soldier. These are faces deformed and reconstructed (as much as patchwork medicine would allow) by shrapnel, bullets and bombs. Each page is wordless, with each man in uniform. It's a powerful and even stomach-churning pair of pages, and it's a challenge for the reader to actually look at each panel in detail.

In the 1919 chapter, each page is stacked with three horizontal panels. Each panel details a different person's life and experience in the war. There's a Senegalese POW captured by the Germans, wondering what this white man's going to do to him. There's a soldier feeding his buddy stuck in mud with a long stick, as he slowly sinks. There's a nurse desperately trying to help tend to soldiers while wondering about her own brother. There's a piano in a wrecked building that's been booby-trapped by the Germans. There are children forced to work in German mines because there's no one else left. And so on, until we finally meet our narrator, sitting in a bar, missing one hand. It's a virtuoso piece that avoids some of It Was The War Of The Trenches' tendency to be a bit too on-the-nose with regard to its anti-war sentiment. Goddamn This War!, while going into great detail with regard to the conflict in a way that can be understood and compartmentalized, is less about war and more about madness. It's about the madness of what Kant would say is treating other human beings as a means to an end. It's about the madness of reifying arbitrary borders into a concrete identity called a "nation". It's about the total absurdity of being caught up in these situations, and how absurdity breeds tragedy when guns and uniforms are involved. It's about the danger of dogma when it doesn't take human lives into account. It's the work of a mature cartoonist whose exasperated outrage has given way to a simmering and more nuanced cynicism.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Various Causes and Promos: Porcellino, Agostino, Cupcake Award, Mini of the Month Club, Mini-Sweep

A few causes, opportunities and promotions that have been passed my way: The great John Porcellino had a documentary made about him by Dan Stafford titled Root Hog Or Die. Stafford is running a kickstarter campaign to produce DVDs for the film, a shorter version of which will screen at various places this year, including SPX. The goal is pretty affordable ($5000) and this will be a must-see for fans of John P. Here's the Kickstarter link.

Author Lauren Agostino passed on a note to promote her new book (with A.L. Newberg), Holding Kryptonite: Truth, Justice and America's First Superhero. The book came about due to her stumbling across legal papers and other private correspondence between Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Check it out here.

Brian Cremins of CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo), one of the fine alt-comix shows in the US, sent me a note announcing the Cupcake Award. This is a $250 cash prize to print a new minicomic and a free half-table at CAKE to sell their comics. Here's the FAQ, but hurry with the application: the deadline is August 31st.

Australia's Andrew Fulton wrote to me about his Minicomics of the Month Club. The latest round of subscriptions ends on July 31st, so act quickly. Each month, a subscriber gets a new minicomic, including work by CCS grads Ben Juers and Bailey Sharp. Check it out!

Finally, I wanted to link to Foxing Quarterly's blog, where my Thursday column "Mini-Sweep" continues to appear. I've recently written about Whit Taylor's The Anthropologists, Elijah Brubaker's Reich #11, Asher Craw's Hungry Summer and Olga Volozova's The Golem of Gabirol.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Comics Journal Index 2011

Here are all of the reviews, features and interviews I wrote for in 2011. Note that the website went through a reboot in March of 2011, with articles from prior to that date appearing on the "classic" TCJ site. My favorites from this year include my reviews of Habibi, Gay Genius, The Collected John G Miller, The Heavy Hand and Habitat #2, as well as my feature on Dave Kiersh. I think both of the interviews featured here (Mike Dawson and Mari Naomi) are worth reading.

Papercutter #17, edited by Greg Means 12/21/2011

Gay Genius, edited by Annie Murphy 12/19/2011

Freddy Stories, by Melissa Mendes 11/30/2011

Pope Hats #2, by Ethan Rilly 11/22/2011

Mark Twain's Autobiography, by Michael Kupperman 11/16/2011

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton 11/11/2011

Habibi, by Craig Thompson 11/4/2011

The Burden of Promise: Fusion and the Comics of Michael DeForge 10/5/2011

Collected John G Miller, 1990-99 9/30/2011

Little Nothings V4, by Lewis Trondheim 9/13/2011

The Mike Dawson Interview 9/8/2011

Americus, by MK Reed & Jonathan Hill 9/2/2011

Too Small To Fail, by Keith Knight 8/25/2011

I Will Bite You!, by Joseph Lambert 8/17/2011

Island of 100000 Graves, by Jason & Fabien Vehlmann 8/8/2011

Huntington, WV 'On The Fly', by Harvey Pekar & Summer McClinton 7/22/2011

Level Up, by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham 7/18/2011

Sundays 4, Forever Changes, edited by Chuck Forsman 7/8/2011

Lost Boy: The Comics of Dave Kiersh 6/30/2011

The Next Day, by John Porcellino, Paul Peterson, Jason Gilmore 6/28/2011

Willie & Joe: Back Home, by Bill Mauldin 6/18/2011

Dungeon Monstres, Vol 4, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar 6/9/2011

The Heavy Hand, by Chris Cilla 6/3/2011

Melvin Monster Volume 3, by John Stanley 5/18/2011

Habitat #2, by Dunja Jankovic 5/6/2011

Top 25 Minis of 2010 5/4/2011

Blammo #7, by Noah Van Sciver 4/28/2011

Approximate Continuum Comics, by Lewis Trondheim 4/15/2011

Eric Reynolds and the End of Mome 4/12/2011

Gazeta, edited by Lisa Mangum 4/8/2011

The Latest From Revival House 3/16/2011

Switching Between Languages: An Interview With MariNaomi 3/15/2011

Lewis and Clark, by Nick Bertozzi. 3/2/2011

Twilight of the Assholes, by Tim Kreider. 2/28/2011

Interiorae #4, by Gabriella Giandella . 2/26/2011

Grotesque #4, by Sergio Ponchionne. 2/23/2011

Niger #3, by Leila Marzocchi. 2/21/2011

Sammy The Mouse #3, by Zak Sally. 2/19/2011

The Broadcast, by Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon. 2/16/2011

Comics as Poetry 2: L. Nichols, Malcy Duff 2/14/2011

Comics as Poetry 1: Jason T Miles, Aaron Cockle 2/12/2011

Mineshaft #26 2/9/2011

Minicomics: Candy or Medicine, Dina Kelberman, Kel Crum, Lydia Conklin, Desmond Reed 2/7/2011

Nipper, by Doug Wright 2/5/2011

Solipsistic Pop, Volume 3 2/3/2011

Tubby V 1, by John Stanley 2/2/2011

Nancy V 2, by John Stanley 1/31/2011

Minicomics from Alexis Frederick-Frost, Sean Ford and Noel Freibert 1/29/2011

Curio Cabinet, by John Brodowski 1/28/2011

Scenes From An Impending Marriage, by Adrian Tomine 1/26/2011

Toner by Jonathan Wayshak; Boston Gastronauts, by C. Che Salazar; Negative Too by Phonzie Davis; The Short Term, by Nick Jeffrey; Interview With Delicious Storm, by Si-Yeon Min 1/24/2011

Big Questions #15, by Anders Nilsen 1/22/2011

Berlin #17, by Jason Lutes 1/19/2011

Palookaville #20, by Seth 1/17/2011

Borderland by Dan Archer, World War III Illustrated #41 1/15/2011

Hotwire V 3 1/12/2011

Eden, by Pablo Holmberg 1/10/2011

Minicomics: Sacha Mardou, Kyle Baddeley, Ryan Cecil Smith 1/8/2011

Minicomics: Francois Vigneault, Johnathan Baylis, ES Fletschinger 1/5/2011

The Whale, by Aidan Koch 1/3/2011

1-800-MICE #5, by Matthew Thurber

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Brit Comics: The Comix Reader

The Comix Reader is the brainchild of British cartoonist, Richard Cowdry. He edits and contributes material to each issue. Its format is that of a classic comics broadsheet; each issue is 24 pages and in full color. His stated purpose in publishing it was to revive the anything goes, "fun" and "free-spirited" nature of the underground press of the 60s and 70s. That's a line I've heard quite often from slightly older cartoonists in the US who decry literary comics and cartoonists and prefer their comics to be as id-soaked, vulgar and free-wheeling as possible. Naturally, there's room for all sorts of comics, but those that invoke the underground frequently have a chip on their shoulder while staking out their territory.

Fortunately, Cowdry abandons this rhetoric after the first issue and simply went about the business of recruiting a wide variety of artists to regularly contribute to the Reader. Having read the first five issues, it establishes a nice rhythm to see some artists return in issue after issue, while having more samples of work made me appreciate other artists more. Cowdry has made a sustained effort to recruit a number of female cartoonists and obviously has no editorial mandates as to what he wants each cartoonist to do. The result is a melange of gag strips, local/topical humor, autobio comics, whimsical fantasy strips, low-res drawings and highly detailed renderings. The Reader has gotten stronger from issue to issue, and that's a testament to each cartoonist obviously trying to contribute their best material and up their game in each subsequent installment. Rather than review particular issues, I thought I'd highlight some of the cartoonists who caught my eye. While this is a long list, there's still about a dozen other cartoonists published in the Reader who didn't draw my attention one way or another.

Richard Cowdry: Cowdry himself is an excellent and vicious satirist. Some of the strips here were reprinted in his Downtown collection, which I reviewed here.

Saban "Shabs" Sazin: The cartoony style of this artist emphasizes bold, sweeping expressions by his characters. Sazin smartly and amusingly addresses working-class woes as well as the experience of being an immigrant in the U.K. His thick line looks especially great soaking up color on a big page.

Lord Hurk: Hurk most closely resembles the underground cartoonists to which Cowdry refers than anyone else in the Reader. His comics are in turn bizarre, hilarious and imaginative as he imagines the adventures of the Lonely Bomb, Diamond Chops and misshapen superhero The Magnificent Orb. Hurk's chops are unassailable and his work looks especially effective in color. While he taps into that anarchic underground sensibility in terms of his ideas and wild visuals, he avoids scatology for scatology's sake; every gross gag is in service of the story or satire. His figures are grotesque, funny and distorted, but his work doesn't rest on grossing out the reader.

Kat Kon: Kon tends to work really big--like just four panels per huge page. That's because she likes to blow up faces and really zero in their weirder qualities. In issue #2, she works a bit smaller, but still with that thick line that emphasizes character expression and lots of spotting blacks. Issue #3 has one image where a woman has a shirt that says "I refuse to smile for no reason" and loads of dead bodies around her; it's a darkly amusing take on a persistent feminist issue that pervades any number of culture. The fifth issue reinforces this with her take on being a barista and the kinds of comments she gets. Kon isn't much one for metacommentary, letting her figures and images speak for themselves. The format certainly flatters her art and adds greatly to its punch.

Alex Potts: His comics took time to really grow on me, as he tends to use a 5 x 7 grid in each issue. That grid minimizes his art while pushing the reader through quickly, but his low-key narratives regarding the character Philip have a surprisingly dark tone to them. Potts reminds me a bit of Chris Ware in the way he uses small panels to his advantage and lets the reader figure out the implications of the character's story for themselves.

Steve Tillotson: Of all the artists in the Reader, Tillotson is the one who took the greatest advantage of the formal possibilities of working big. His trademark is using a grid that simultaneously depicts a single image and that breaks it up to allow individual actions by the characters. His rendering is superb, as he draws both cute & simple characters as well as lush backgrounds. I'm not sure I'd be up to seeing a book's worth of his strips, but that's what makes him perfect for an anthology.

Ellen Lindner: A long-time favorite of mine, Lindner uses her Reader space for autobio (which has always been funny and sharply observed) and splashes it with huge swaths of vivid color. Oranges, yellows, greens, pinks and purples all tend to dominate her comics here, grabbing the reader's eye while she relates witty and thoughtful anecdotes.

Sina Shamsavari: His autobio centers around relationships and loneliness as a gay man in London. His line varies from a bold, naturalistic style to a more fragile, angular look that incorporates splashes of color. I love the way he varies approaches from issue to issue. In some, he does a single narrative and in others, four 2 x 3 panel mini-narratives. All of them focus on the pros and cons of being alone, of being an outsider even in gay culture. The comics are philosophical and thoughtful rather than whiny, but one can still feel Shamsavari's(variously also known as Sina Evil and Sina Sparrow) the depths of his sadness. That's mitigated by the ways in which he finds to express himself. The sophistication of his autobio is a perfect balance for the sillier stuff in the Reader.

Paul O'Connell: O'Connell's biography of model and singer Sabrina in #1 was a strong piece, using photo-reference to create a narrative while giving it a "pop art" effect through the nonintuitive application of color. Less successful was a "clowns in hell" experiment with Addy Evenson; this page was dissonant to the point of incoherency.

Julia Homersham: Homersham appeared in the first two issues with a number of goofy gags that riff on inanimate objects like food or animals behaving as humans. The first issue features single-panel gags, while the second issue is all strips of various lengths. Homersham is heavy on both verbal and visual puns, and there are some groaners in there. In the context of the reader, her work acts as a nice palate cleanser for heavier work. Her "History of English Puddings" page is not strictly comics, but the nomenclature and explanation of many of these bizarre dishes is both bewildering and amusing.

Tobias Tak: Tak is a great draftsman who pulls out all the stops with his use of color. The actual content of his comics is usually self-consciously twee, which makes reading them a slog. They're like reading a Richard Sala comic without any of the bite or the brains and tend to act as a roadblock while reading the anthology. It's labored whimsy.

Gareth Brookes: His page about birds singing to humanity about its arrogance was one of the most overtly-precious, tedious and annoying lectures I've ever seen in comics. The birds are nicely-illustrated, but they're only illustrations and lie inert on the page.

Tim & Alex Levin: Their "Jones" gag strips, in issue after issue, are sloppy without any charm. The jokes themselves are easy pop cultural targets, dumb scatological humor, or bits of randomness that don't go anywhere.

Peter Lally: His take-off on the artist Banksy was silly, poorly-drawn and had an obvious punchline. Much better was "Taxi", a fascinating slice-of-life story (drawn white-on-black backgrounds) that reveals a lot about working-class taxi drivers and an older generation in general. The style Lally used was bold and eye-catching, instantly drawing me in.

Bernadette Bentley: Bentley writes, smart, funny and sharply-observed autobio comics. Her strip about being a guard in a museum and desperately trying to find things to do to stave off boredom is clever for her use of strike-outs in her text to couch meanings. The story about her mother trying to use art to draw out mentally handicapped people that was subsequently shot down by superiors was heart-breaking.

Barnath Richards: He did just one page for the Reader, but it's a doozy: a beautifully drawn and colored one-pager about remembering a TV show from his youth about a robot. In just three panels, he captures the vividness of this memory without wallowing too much in the nostalgia of the moment.

Hannah Eaton: Her densely rendered story about her grandfather hauling corpses for a living was funny and evocative of a different and often stranger era.

Jimi Gherkin: Gherkin's comics are mostly silly, but I thought his affectionate tribute to Harvey Pekar and R.Crumb in "The Jimi Gherkin Name Story" was effective both as homage and as a way of exploring his own past.

Elliot Baggott: Baggott is another artist who dove into the opportunity given to him by having such a big page with enormous relish. His first strip, a single illustration that follows a fox down a building and through a city, is a marvel of clear formal cleverness. His silent strip in #3, done in the style of stained glass, is a gag about how movable type transformed the world, complete with a plop take at the end. If his first strip was remarkable for its use of negative space, the second one is fascinating due to how the reader is dropped into a landscape entirely suffused with color. "Boss Talk" in #5 is a more conventional strip that's a takedown of thinly veiled sexism.

Bird: Bird's mediation on why we worship what we worship and the sheer weirdness of being alive in #3 was funny and thoughtful, and his thin line combined with a restrained use of color made it a highlight. Jokes about allergies and "Happy Days" in #4 could have been hacky, but they were so well-constructed that the set-ups were just as amusing as the punchlines; the character construction was completely different than his work in #3 but their rounded, roly-poly quality was entirely appropriate for this sort of joke.

Maartje Schalkx: Schalkx's strips are models of economy and efficiency, as they mostly depict just her head, and remove most of her facial features at that. There's one strip in particular where we see just her head on a pillow and her eyes open, staring at a man sleeping next to her with his eyes closed. She flips back and forth in sequence on a panel-free page, sparking a silent reverie about perhaps why she's there and who she happens to be sleeping next to. Another issue simply featured her head bouncing down the page, while another issue features her head interacting with other heads at an LGBT disco, where she's trying hard to pick someone up. That strip also features soft pastels in the background, adding to the ethereal feel of that particular scenario. Schalkx uses the entire page in smart ways that made seeing her work a pleasure in every issue.

Craig Burston: I'm not generally a fan of 8-bit style drawings, but Burston's "Low-Res Des" strips are funny because they make the formal qualities of the work part of the narrative. The strip about the fly (in an homage to the film The Fly) was especially amusing.

Ralph Kidson: Kidson's first strip was called "Big Balls Crow", which is about all you need to know about it. The rest of his work in the Reader is silly without otherwise being distinctive.

Sean Duffield: I found little to interest me in Duffield's work; when it wasn't mining scatological humor for its own sake, it seemed overly provincial. It was too locked into local, political and popular references to resonate with me, though perhaps that wouldn't be true of someone living in Britain.

Noelle Barby: Her autobio strip about encountering the forces of sexual debauchery (at last!) in high school was hilarious, as were the depictions of her particular sexual misadventures. Seeing Lust narrate her disappointing future sexual adventures in high school was also amusing, though Barby did at least hold out hope for herself for "life after high school".

James Parsons: Parson's first strip that sees football hooligans wearing the red cross on their faces was mostly clever because of the red crosses on the ambulances that arrive after the inevitable dust-up. His strip in #5 about developing a crush on the actress Sarah Douglas, who played the villainous Ursa in Superman II. It's the rare strip that's both intensely personal and dedicated to one's id but also finds ways to ridicule his own obsessions. The drawings themselves are hilarious--especially the cartoony ones of his penis.

Sally-Anne Hickman: Hickman's "SallyShinyStars" comic strip was a highlight of #5, detailing in grotesque and colorful fashion certain anecdotes about working in a market and the sort of customers she encountered. Her self-caricature is especially amusing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Brit Comics; Sean Azzopardi, Oliver East

Let's take a look at two British cartoonists known for poetic comics abstracted from their daily lives.

The Homesick Truant's Cumbrian Yarn, by Oliver East. Somehow, this is the first comic by East that I've read despite his solid reputation over the past few years. The short description of this autobio comic is that it describes East's walk from Arnside to Grange Over Sands in Northwest England's county of Cumbria. He makes the walk for no other reason than as a thing to do, walking as near the railroad tracks as possible but taking nearly seven hours to make it to his destination because of the mud, sand, wild animals, and odd strangers. There's a strong John Porcellino influence at work here, which isn't surprising, but East's voice is quite different. He has a wonderfully dry and sarcastic wit that accompanies his spare, blotchy line that goes from depicting moments of great stillness to accelerating into frenzied moments of pursuit. 

His narrative captions veer between simple and descriptive to saying things like, in discussing the distance he must walk "Somewhere between 200 K and fuck loads" or a brightening day as "The overcast sky like a Tupperware lid. And the tub has just been removed is all. Bright but still locked in." His page layout instructs the reader as to what to pay attention to without actually saying it. When he sticks to a 2 x 3 grid on the page, this signals a steady walking rhythm. When he expands to a 2 x 2 grid on page seven, he wants the reader to slow down and observe the damage done by recent storms, which is marvelously depicted by a blotchy, splattered ink technique. Later on, when he's chased by a dog, he adds more panels to get the reader into the action and fear of the event, reducing both his body and the dog to rudimentary sketches flashing across the page. The comic is full of little delights and surprises such as this, as East drops hints and clues about his own personality without ever discussing why he's making this particular trek. It is simply something that he needs to do, and the degree of difficulty as well as its eventual conclusion are both implicitly tied to a certain emotional feeling of earned triumph, a task completed. East helps the reader see the beauty in the mud, the downed branches, the locks and levees and the simple struggle of putting one foot in front of another--all without calling attention to that beauty in his narrative. It's all in the drawings, whose beautiful immediacy and sketchiness draws the reader in.

Same Day Return and Rain On Glass, by Sean Azzopardi. Azzopardi's comics tend to reflect on his life, career and friends in particular. The former comic is a bit on the diffuse side, as Azzopardi sees a potential dopplelganger on the street, one whom might have been him if he hadn't changed his habits; he reunites with old friends in a mall and feels both the weight and awkwardness of years as well as the eventual easy and familiar rhythms of conversation; and returns to his small home town to see his sister. That latter strip is excellent, as one can see Azzopardi stripping out more and more extraneous detail from his art while adding a touch of grey here and there to give its visuals more weight. That story is ambitious in other ways, as Azzopardi flips back and forth in time as a way of recording his initial ambivalence to coming home, to what he was like growing up and what actually happened on the trip. The final major story, where he's attending a going-away party for a friend but his heart isn't much into it. When a friend texts him about the death of his mother, being able to console his friend is almost a form of relief.

Rain On Glass is a major step forward for Azzopardi. Something about his cartooning just clicks in this connection, though in terms of format it's very much like his other comics. He really spills some ink as he goes back and forth in time in talking about his teenage years living with his father in a miserable setting while turning to his friend Matt via mail in order to keep sane. It's a beautifully illustrated comic that gives the reader just enough information about the narrator to have the story make sense, while delivering odd and jarring anecdotes, like his father sitting him down with his stepbrother to watch a porno. There's a harrowing story about being brutally assaulted as a teen by a thug who thought Azzopardi had messed with her and the scars the incident left; there's little in terms of wrapping the incident up neatly--it is simply recalled in visceral, dizzying fashion (there's a remarkable two-page spread of Azzopardi's dizzying response to a vicious headbutt). The final story is a funny, sentimental account of following around The Jesus and Mary Chain around England as a teenager and even getting invited to stay in their hotel and get free passes to their next, inevitably riot-inciting show. Wading through a non-stop rainstorm, the memory cheers him, even as the waters absurdly rise above the heads of the crowd.

The comic is Azzopardi's best primarily because of his increasing sophistication with regard to story structure. It's not just the flashbacks that I'm talking about here, but rather how his strategic use of them strengthens the overall theme of each story. There are perils to dwelling in the past, Azzopardi's comics seem to be saying. Good memories are sometimes the product of horrific abuse and can easily connect to them. Thinking about the past can be instructive for the present, but one must be aware of rising tides. Above all else, Azzopardi has mastered restraint in his storytelling. Certainly, he's still a cartoonist who very much wears his heart on his sleeve and that earnestness is central to the way he tells his stories. However, the way he gets across that earnestness is slightly less direct, redirected through formal tricks that allow the reader to experience a number of difference narrative perspectives. That's aided by a much lighter rendering touch that reveals an increased confidence in what he's drawing and how he's drawing it. Hopefully, he'll continue to refine and perfect his storytelling, now that he seems to have truly moved into his mature style. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Time Crawls On: House Party

In Rachael Smith's big-publisher debut, House Party, she channels early twenty-something angst into a breezy and lively story about three friends from college who miss their glory days. In college, Neil was a successful comedian, his girlfriend Michelle an award-winning writer and their roommate Siobhan an artist. The punchline for anyone not in their early twenties is that all three of them are working menial jobs that have nothing to do with their art and feel like they've either sold out or are over the hill--but they're only two years out of college! While that seems like a ridiculous notion on the face of it, that a 24 year old should feel washed up, Smith gets at the heart at why this sort of thing happens. Without the natural support of college and its insulation against the real world, it can feel difficult to achieve the same kind of productivity and success that one experienced with the structure of classes, teachers, institutions and friends. Just as important is that the community one built in college is effectively ripped away once friends start to leave town, get married, and start careers. The urge to keep that circle of friends just as it was in college, to repeat the same kind of epic parties and to hope that doing so will maintain one's creativity is at the heart of this book.

After a particularly dispiriting day for all three, Neil decides that the antidote to their ennui is staging a house party like they had had a couple of years prior. That event was a high point for all three, especially since it kicked up the romance between Michelle and Neil to another level. The flagging romantic relationship just two years later began the book as a subplot, but it takes on greater prominence toward the end. Naturally, trying to recreate the past has dire consequences, especially when they invite over a band (the perfectly-named The Helveticas) that initially idolized Michelle and then later shunned her out of jealousy. That was especially true of striking redhead Georgia, the lead singer of the band. While the trio manages to convince the band to come over to their place for the party (saving it from the doldrums), it comes at a heavy, heavy price. The young guests act like animals and Georgia has eyes for a drunken Neil. In the end, all three learn that while it's impossible to reconjure the circumstances that led to such remarkable camaraderie and creativity, it is possible and in fact necessary to create new paths and new methods in order to move forward. Sometimes those paths come with hurt feelings and broken relationships, but Smith seems to argue that inertia is a far worse fate.

This book is heavily influenced by Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series. That's especially true with regard to the character designs and overall figurework, though Smith tamps down some of the more manga-inflected aspects of his work. Georgia looks and acts a lot like Envy Adams. Smith and O'Malley cover a lot of the same early 20s aimlessness, selfishness and angst. Rock music plays a big part for both as a general part of youth culture. However, Smith avoids the magical realist aspects of O'Malley's work and instead focuses on a powerful form of alienation that results when one graduates from college. Visually, her use of color is what really distinguishes her work from O'Malley's; it's bold, bright and expressive without overwhelming her solid linework. And while Smith's story is similarly about twentysomething alienation and disaffection, much like O'Malley, her version of this is far more compact. To be sure, this book represents a big step forward for Smith, who managed to retain the quirkiness of earlier works while shedding some of their more self-indulgent aspects.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Brit Comics: Julia Scheele

Julia Scheele is a young British cartoonist who's mostly done collaborations to this point in her career, though her own solo work has proven to be more powerful. Her catch-all anthology, I Don't Like My Hair Neat, is a lushly-produced affair in full color. This proves to be quite important, given Scheele's facility as a colorist. Her use of color in the "Positive", a story from the first issue of her zine that's written by Katie West", establishes the mood of the story far quicker and more effectively than any accompanying text could. The first few pages, detailing an affair a woman has more-or-less on a whim is shaded entirely with an icy blue, giving a sense of the ethereal quality of the event. That's both in the sense that it was heavenly but also that it didn't feel real, including any pretense of emotion. When she got back out to the real world, the coloring scheme switches to a fiery orange with reds and yellows giving some slight contrast; it's the light of the sun, of course, but also a revealing light. When she thinks she might be pregnant, that orange starts to get oppressive as she rushes to get a pregnancy test while lying to her partner. The ending is especially fascinating, as she's let off the hook in a way that she perhaps doesn't deserve. While the story is well-written, Scheele's own one-page "A Short History of Touches" is far more devastating, as a red arm is shown touching her in various pleasant, romantic and erotic ways--until the last panel, when it's clutching her by the throat.

The second issue features more illustrations and stories she did with other writers that look striking, like "Spells of the Kama Sutra" once again juxtaposing blue and reddish-orange, or her adaptation of the song "Like A Mountain" that gives it an apocalyptic quality. More interesting, once again, are the more personal stories. "Tell You Now" is an adaptation from a Le Tigre song, but the images speak to something else, bringing back that chilling image of a hand around a neck and the subsequent attempts at healing and simple survival. "Sinking" is a fantastic, wordless story about a woman trying to fool her nightmares into thinking she's someone else after she chops off her hair after a nightmare where she starts sinking into her bed and then has her arms and legs chopped off, like a mannequin. When she tries to go back to sleep, the same thing happens, only this time she sinks beyond sight into the bed. It's a chilling story of trying to wash horrible thoughts and memories away, only to be sucked up again by them. "Bad Omen" is another interesting story about bringing a boyfriend to a beach in Brazil after a ceremony took place that had some animal sacrifices. For her, it's a part of the local culture and her past; for him, it's an affront to civilization and she found herself have no defense against either his reaction or his arguments. The story ends abruptly, because as the title suggests, it's easy to surmise what happened after this. Here, the stark white of the beach and the bold blue of the sky create an atmosphere where gore and weirdness truly stand out.

Scheele edited The Heroines Zine, which asks each contributor to write about, draw or draw a story about a particular woman who has had a powerful impact on them--real or fictional. Philippa Rice's drawing of her sister and herself wearing onesies is charming and sweet, while Lizz Lunney's ode to the TV character Clarissa is heartfelt. Heather Wilson's story about British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is all about how her consciousness was raised. Ellen Lindner's bouncy illustration of and interview with "city stitcher" Lauren O'Farrell (aka Deadly Knitshade) is illuminating both in terms of allowing O'Farrell to tell her story about how acts of creation became life-affirming in the wake of battling cancer as well as Lindner discovering yet another interesting creative trend. Alistair Bohm's essay about musician/writer Carrie Brownstein is terrific, and the accompanying illustration by Scheele is even better. Her drawing of musician Kathleen Hanna is even better, as it captures her dynamism. I'd like to see more on the comics side of things for future issues, but it's a terrific idea that's well-executed.