Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Author's Voice And The Artists: Dennis Eichhorn's Extra Good Stuff

Dennis Eichhorn has always very much been the mirror image of Harvey Pekar. He's a writer who has worked with a panopoly of artists to illustrate his real-life anecdotes. Unlike Pekar, however, who focused on the beauty of the mundane to an extreme degree, Eichhorn prefers to use the wilder episodes from his life as fodder for his stories. If it involved sex, drugs, violence, crime, and/or the weirdoes that he'd met and the unusual jobs he'd had, then Eichhorn wrote about it. Eichhorn has begun writing comics again after a long hiatus, with 2013's Real Good Stuff a welcome return to form. His newest comic is Extra Good Stuff, published by Last Gasp. It reprints a few of his 90s stories published in various anthologies and also has a number of new stories by younger artists who nonetheless fit into his aesthetic model like a grungy glove.

What's interesting about this issue is that Eichhorn, now seventy years old, is starting to confront the issue of morality.The key piece in the comic was "What Next?", drawn by R.L. Crabb. It's a story about Eichhorn checking into the hospital a few years back for an angioplasty. Crabb really manages to get at the chaotic dissonance one can hear on a hospital ward--especially one that was playing Fox News non-stop. The extensive use of negative space, even in the figure design, contributed to the strangeness of the story's surroundings. While in bed, he learned that Pekar had passed away, and there was a fantastic sequence where the Grim Reaper strolls into his room and isn't sure whether to pick Eichhorn or the man in the next bed--so he just picks the other man. For a man who has always depicted himself as being pretty close to indestructible, it's a fascinating admission of mortality, albeit one packed with a punchline at the end.

Of the other new stories, it's just obvious that cartoonists like Noah Van Sciver, Max Clotfelter and Tom Van Deusen were essentially born to collaborate with Eichhorn. All three have that ragged, labored-but-cartoony quality to their line that adds a touch of the grotesque and the ridiculous to their stories. Van Deusen's art on "It's Good To See The King" sets up an elder care center as a sort of zombieland and then gets truly strange when he encounters an Elvis impersonator. It's the ne plus ultra of weirdo Eichhorn encounters/crazy job stories, and Van Deusen makes it count. Van Sciver's "Gold Dust Twins" plays to his strengths in depicting sad, desperate and slightly pathetic people, as the story depicts Eichhorn getting mixed up in an insane gold-mining scheme that naturally goes horribly awry. One detail I love about Van Sciver's art is that he's great at drawing people with bad teeth. Clotfelter's heavily cross-hatched art creates a slightly manic vibe in "Taxi Driver", as Eichhorn once again encounters a sleazy and seedy scene in a motel as a cab driver, yet not only gets paid but also gets a tip! Creating an atmosphere where something horrible could happen at any moment but then doesn't is a punchline of its own, especially in Clotfelter's hands.

My favorite collaboration in the book is the most unlikely one: a strip with the eccentric style of Gerald Jablonski, a cult cartoonist if there ever was one. The story of Eichhorn's tenure as a "Spud Scout" is perfect fodder for the kind of kid-adult patter Jablonski's so adept at. David Lasky's one-pager about an unwelcome late-night phone call is typical of Lasky's formal cleverness. I imagine that while Eichhorn picks his artists carefully depending on the story's tone, it seems obvious that he gives them a tremendous amount of leeway in how they draw and design it.

The reprints and stories by Eichhorn regulars here are also excellent, as we get to see an older version of Ivan Brunetti's figure drawing (circa Schizo #3) in a story about Eichhorn working at the weirdo publisher Loompanics Unlimited. JR Williams has a crazy anecdote about Eichhorn trying to find a toilet in San Francisco and winding up in a urination fetish club. The Pat Moriarity/David Collier duo is incredible in Eichhorn's story about an inspiration for grunge, as one gets to see the playfulness of Moriarity and the detail of Collier combine in a series of memorable images. Dame Darcy draws against type in a story about luring Mormons over to a friend's father's house, who wound up shooting at them. Finally, Stan W. Shaw's wispy, Alex Toth-inspired story about observing Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his City Lights bookstore accept an unsolicited manuscript with great solemnity, only to throw it on a pile when the writer left, sums up Eichhorn's work in a single gag. Eichhorn simultaneously builds up his own mythology while satirizing it and taking the piss out of the baby boomer generation in general.

Two Highly Worthy Fundraisers: Mike Dawson and Tom Spurgeon

I first of all want to thank everyone who donated to this website after my fundraising call. Your donations made a bigger impact than you can even imagine.

One of the people who beat the drum loudest on my behalf, without even asking him, is Tom Spurgeon. Tom is one of the key figures in comics coverage, with his Comics Reporter an invaluable part of comics culture and a nexus for alt-comics links, news and commentary in particular. When I became fully invested in my career as a critic nearly a decade ago (!), I reached out to Tom for advice and he was generous with his time. His linking to my work has been a crucial part of growing my audience. Tom is looking to get back to what he does best: write about comics. To that end, he has set up a Patreon account to help him fund the time he needs to make this goal happen. Please consider becoming one of his patrons.

The excellent and thoughtful cartoonist Mike Dawson has been doing all sorts of personal strips about being a father, political issues and more on his own site as well as other sites for the last year or two. He's ready to self-publish this work and has set up a kickstarter to this end. Please consider donating to that kickstarter, because I really want to see his book Rules For Dating My Daughter become a reality.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Autobio and Collaboration: Jonathan Baylis

Jonathan Baylis has been plugging away at his autobio series, So Buttons, for a number of years. He's put together a handsome and well-organized collection, titled So Buttons: Man of Like, A Dozen Faces, that's greater than the sum of its parts. Inspired by the Harvey Pekar formula of having a stable of illustrators to collaborate with depending on the sort of story he wants to tell, Baylis has become more and more adept at pulling back on over-writing (and indeed, writing over) the art and trusting his collaborators to "show, not tell." The book is organized into sections on childhood, working in comics, his thoughts on film, his relationships and his love of animals, among others. When some of these pieces originally appeared in his minicomics series, they stuck out in a discordant manner. Recontextualized in this book, these strips are far smoother and make much more sense.

Baylis is less interested in "spilling ink" about his deepest feelings and more interested in relating anecdotes and opinions. Indeed, in one strip where he talks about a doomed relationship in the context of a trip to Los Angeles and the discovery of what appeared to be a body on the beach, his musings on how the trip cemented the notion where he and his girlfriend were drifting apart seems wedged in unnaturally. Better to provide a little less information and let the reader pick up on context clues than repeatedly try to hammer home symbolism. On the other hand, Baylis reveals a lot more of himself when he simply relates funny stories about trying to edit the work of his professional comedian wife, or plays off his OCD tendencies as a gag. When he shifts into overly-sincere mode and feels the need to explain darker emotions, his stories just don't ring as true.

Fortunately, he keeps things on a fairly light but entirely sincere basis for most of the book. My favorite stories tended to be those that focused on his reaction to works of art, be they film, comics or paintings. The "Basquiat Jam", a trio of stories drawn by Victor Kerlow and Becky Hawkins, get at the heart of how seeing Basquiat paintings in Spain affected him at a deep level, both because of the art and because of the way it connected him to his native New York City. "So...Crumby", about a friend of his who shared R.Crumb's passion for obscure records, was drawn by Crumb descendant Joseph Remnant, who actually goes a little cartoony at times in this story. Indeed, Baylis reveals much about himself in the stories he chooses to tell about others, like his father, his mother and his wife. That's true of little memory fragments from his childhood, surprising revelations and details about the ways in which he was loved and loves them.

There is an essential warmth at the heart of Baylis's comics that's best exemplified by his ongoing collaboration with cartoonist T.J. Kirsch. It's accessible and slightly cartoony. The storytelling is solid and clear. Kirsch has a way with body language that's a perfect match for Baylis' character-driven stories, creating a naturalism that a more realistic style wouldn't necessarily convey. It's pleasing to the eye without trying to be funny. When Baylis is going for a specific kind of laugh, that's where Noah Van Sciver and Rick Parker come in. Van Sciver's wobbly style is perfect for embarrassment-related humor, while Parker's skill as a caricaturist who can go over the top makes him ideal for more outlandish anecdotes. Stories about his days as a Marvel intern are fittingly drawn by fan art legend Fred Hembeck.

While Baylis and his collaborators don't always stick the landing on every strip, what makes this such a delightful read is the obvious care and thought that went into each collaboration as well as the design of the book. Outstanding cartooonist and designer Will Dinski designed the book, showing off some of the drawings of Baylis that he commissioned from the likes of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, Ed Piskor, MariNaomi and Jim Steranko (!). The book looks great and reads smoothly, so much so that even some of the more disposable strips feel added value rather than wastes of time. That Baylis has chosen so wisely and so well in his choice of artists speaks well of his eye for talent that works well with his project. That said, I expect Baylis to continue to grow as a writer, developing an even stronger sense of how to write visually without overloading his comics with text.

Friday, August 21, 2015

More Autobio: Durham Comics Project, Give Thanks, Grant Thomas

Give Thanks, by Philip Weiss. This is the first published comic of an artist who spent time at SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop), and while aspects of it are raw, it's clear that Weiss already has a few things going for him as a cartoonist. First, he's embraced his own style of cartooning and focuses on what's important on each page. Second, he understands how to depict body language, especially his own slumped body posture. Third, he understands how best to use restraint as a cartoonist. He doesn't over-render or over-explain this story. It's about Weiss avoiding his mother for some unspecified reason and spending Thanksgiving by himself. After watching TV and puts a lasagna in the oven, he goes out on a bike ride and eventually comes face-to-face with a bison. When he comes back home, he calls his mother and starts to unpack why he was avoiding her. The reason is never stated, nor was it necessary. The life-and-death nature of encountering such a huge and majestic creature and silently acknowledging each other's presence is not discussed, only depicted. Whether it was fear, or awe, or shock or some combination thereof, this was an experience that motivated Weiss from avoiding emotions to feeling them. It was obviously a potent enough memory to commit to the page.

The Durham Comics Project, edited by Amy Godfrey. I wrote the blurb for this anthology, and I think it's worth reprinting here: "The stories submitted for The Durham Comics Project range between whimsical observations about daily life, personal demons that make every day a struggle, a child's delight or disappointment in learning something new about the words, and an adult realizing that the world they live in is bigger than they think. Encouraging non-artists to express themselves on paper as well as publishing seasoned cartoonists, The Durham Comics Project is a fascinating mix of styles and visual approaches. In each case, the joy of self-expression and the opportunity to relate personal stories is evident in both the scrawled cartoons of young children and the fine lines of experienced artists."

To add a little background, Godfrey is a children's librarian here in Durham, NC. She's also a cartoonist. She's organized countless Drink 'n Draws and comics-related events at the library, including the yearly Comic Fest which has brought in the likes of Jason Lutes, Raina Telgemeier, Nate Powell, Nick Bertozzi, Willow Dawson and many others. She commissioned the creation of a device known as the Comics Contraption, an "infinite jam comics machine" that advances one panel at a time, so each person draws a single, large panel on a long scroll. The Durham Comics Project was born out of her interest in giving people who had never told their stories a chance to do so in comics form, as she ran classes and encouraged all comers to draw, regardless of ability. The end result was an anthology that's a snapshot of a particular group of people at a certain time and place. It's less interesting as comics qua comics than it is as a cultural document, since so many of the pieces were drawn by absolute newcomers, but it is intriguing nonetheless. The pieces by experienced cartoonists like Eric Knisley, Jape and M.R. Trower were unsurprisingly the best, but I loved Jesse Crossen's account of being recognized as the reincarnation of the friend of a famous Indian musician for its matter-of-factness in the face of weirdness. Bernard Liles' stick-figure account of just trying to hold on to his sanity is powerful; one gets the sense that he has rarely had an outlet with which to express himself. It's less an anthology of results and more of an anthology of process, which in itself worthy of interest.

Dodo #4, My Life In Records #3 and #4, by Grant Thomas.  Thomas is a comics formalist, interested in how the plastic qualities of the comic itself affect the narrative and reading experience, as well as how different narrative tricks play out. In Dodo, Thomas, uses a brush and ever-splotchier ink to tell a story about how the raven and the loon got their colors, which involves a brush getting disturbed and flinging ink. "Oblique Strategies" is a palindrome, in which the drawings in the panels read the same backward and forwards, with only the text changing. Then there was a strip, heavily festooned with decorative flourishes that play up the religious art quality of the subject, that's about a monk who "for 3 years kept a stone in his mouth in order to teach himself silence." Thomas uses this as a chance to rapidly cycle through variations on this idea. Here, you can see Thomas stretch and explore comics in clever ways that don't outstay their welcome.

He turned his autobio-by-way-of-music into what he describes as thinly-veiled autobio in his series My Life In Records. Each square-bound mini is meant to mimic an old fashioned CD booklet. The concept of each issue is fascinating: the third issue is about how Star Wars proved to be a formative experience in different anecdotes surrounding relatives, music and pets. It's less about the movies than it was about those memories being with his grandfather and brother. The fourth issue is all about growing up Christian and being taught that rock and roll was the devil's music, but also finding inspiration and solace in Christian music. That slight veil of fiction works well in this regard, allowing Thomas some poetic license with regard to specific events and feelings to create a narrative that has an emotional honesty. The problem with these comics is that going to color was a disastrous idea. His color scheme is at once too conventional and way too all over the place, and his line simply isn't strong enough to withstand it. Every page looks like a mess, especially when he tries to draw famous rock stars. This is a case of the production values overwhelming the work rather than enhancing it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Autobio As Spoof: Nick Sumida

On the surface, it may seem strange to cast Nick Sumida's gag-heavy work as being autobiographical, but Snackies, a riotous satire of self-importance and common knowledge, is so successful precisely because Sumida himself is the main character in his stories. Starting the comic off with a filthy Sumida's roommate bringing him a video game called "Snackies", in which "you play this narcissistic millennial with a an art school degree and an addiction to external validation". The collected version is superior to either of the first issues of the same title, in part because the way the book was edited makes it far more cohesive (there are some funny interstitial features) and in part because the color scheme is a perfectly-chosen midnight blue and sea foam green.

The first killer story is "Fake It Til You Make It", wherein Sumida pretends to know how to use PhotoShop in order to get a job. The freak-out Sumida depicts when he realizes that he can't fake his way through is over-the-top (my favorite is a toothy Sumida ordering pizzas, being told "Ma'am, calm down" and Sumida screaming "I'M A BOY!"), and it gets even better when he tries to pass off things like "a picture of a cartoon vagina smoking a joint" as his assignment, to which he replies, "That, I do not recall..." What makes Sumida such an effective humorist is a perfect sense of building and how to build a premise in such a way that the comedic payoff is almost always unexpected. For example, in a strip about how Sumida deals with stress, we are suddenly jolted into his demented brain, as we see him taking a chainsaw to a mannnequin, huffing paint and setting fire to a car. A strip about being disappointed about seeing a potential crush on a subway, only to be disappointed by his haircut turns into increasing levels of crazy, as he repeats the premise only to see him growing Lord Voldemort out of his head and turn into a terrifying monster that licks him. We are then thrust back to the beginning, with Sumida's eyes bugging out, afraid to check out the guy that's really in front of him. Another strip has Sumida as a physical trainer giving practical exercise tips while telling the subject to tapping into their "wellspring of deep emotional trauma". Another variation on this theme finds Sumida giving baking tips while trying to eat his sadness over being alone on Valentine's Day.

Sumida is one of the few cartoonists who manages to engage the concept of social media as a societal force in an original and funny manner. The interstitial bits in the book are iphone chats with God, who is either insulting or uncaring in his communications with Sumida. It's a great running gag, because it's sort of the ultimate check on narcissism. Sumida also plays around with tired old gags such as the ROFL acronym and takes it to absurd places, like ROFWHAMUTSH (Rolling on floor while holding a mirror up to society's hypocrisies). The acronym is funny enough, but Sumida sells it with the drawing--a serious, even self-righteous figure holding up a mirror.

Like his contemporary, Michael DeForge, Sumida is skilled at adding body horror as an over-the-top way of satirizing our common understanding of societal mores. There's a strip about a "how'd we meet" situation that winds up being about ritualistic grisliness. A strip about revealing secrets in a relationship turns hilariously grim when, after a minor revelation from a partner, Sumida reveals that he is, in fact "a pile of seven furby dolls stuffed inside a human skin suit". The fact that furbies are unnerving enough to begin with makes his uncannily accurate drawings all the more effective.

A strip where he obliviously asks others about which pair of glasses to buy while the apocalypse occurs around him has a clever idea, but once again, it's the tiniest of details that he gets right that makes it so hilarious. It's the fact that "Nick" gets self-righteously pissed off that no one's listening to his dilemma, the fact that he has preconceived notions about why any answer is wrong, about how he only starts to freak out when he realizes there's no internet that turn a one-note joke into a delicious self-indictment. Sumida transforms his obvious anxiety and emotional rawness into the stuff of brutally honest and frequently absurd gags. The line between autobiography and what serves the gag is one that ceases to matter, because in Sumida's hands, they become one and the same. His humor is painfully true, and his own anxiety is painfully hilarious. The attention to detail in terms of design and use of color is a tribute both to Sumida and his publisher, Youth In Decline.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Summer Fundraiser For High-Low

After a bit of a time away from this blog and writing in general, readers of this blog may notice that I'm back in a rhythm. Unofficially, I'm in the middle of doing a long series on autobiographical comics. I have about another week left in this series, after which I will tackle comics for kids for a week. After that, I'll finally get to the big profile on Josh Bayer I've been promising for a while.

One reason why my writing output has been lessened is the usual financial pressures made more dire by a variety of medical bills stacking up. Any reader who wishes to make a paypal donation for the site may do so using the button on the right. I would like to thank all of the readers who have made contributions in the past; you don't know how much those contributions, both big and small, have helped me and my family.

Lastly, thanks to said financial pressures, this will be the first year since 1999 that I won't be able to attend a comics festival. I'm usually a mainstay at SPX, but I regret to say that I won't be there this year. Anyone who hoped to pass on their work for review at that show may send it to me at the address at the left. This is especially true for artists at comics programs like SAW, SVA, MCAD, Columbia College and especially the Center for Cartoon Studies. I'd like to continue to make my Thirty Days of CCS an annual tradition, so for any any CCS students and/or alums who see this, please pass it on.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

More Autobio: Park, Lautman, Fricas

Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream #4, by Laura Park. Park is unquestionably one of the most skilled cartoonists around. She's best known for illustrating other people's projects for a living, but her own autobio comics are at once funny, heart-breaking and sharply observed. Her self-caricature is one of the best in comics--especially when she's wearing a hat. Her strips about happiness, loneliness and illness are especially affecting, because Park gets at the essence of her feelings with a minimum of self-pity but a maximum of thought. There's a strip about going to a bra-fitting that's absolutely hilarious, while a strip about not having enough to say or being good enough to do her own comics is powerful. Despite her obvious talent, it's obvious that some of the comics she makes simply don't come out in the manner she imagines. I should note that this issue of the mini (published by Uncivilized Books) is sketchbook-raw, with several images and tiny strips crammed on some of the pages. Happily, Drawn & Quarterly will be publishing a collection of her work.

MacroGroan 6 and Lying And Cursing: 2 Stories, by Sara Lautman. Lautman's images are scrawled and scratched across the page. Her scribbly self-caricature is especially appealing, especially the way she draws her hair as an indistinct blob. MacroGroan is a sketchbook comic featuring mostly humorous observations by the artist. What I like best is the way she experiments with different visual styles. The scribble is always there, but sometimes it's on a page with detailed cross-hatching and background details, creating wobbly and almost vibratory effect. On other pages, the images are still and dominated by heavy use of blacks. Even in her simplest drawings, there's a detail or two that makes the images pop, like the way she draws eyes. Some pages are overlaid with other images, while still others strategically use grey-scaling. Her observations are funny, even when dealing with serious issues like therapy. Lautman's mind goes in a lot of different directions, and her comics reflect this.

Lying and Cursing is part autobio, part fiction. Each page in this 5.5 x 5.5 inch squarebound mini is a single image, which allows those scribbly drawings to breathe a little more. The first story is a history of Lautman's love of swearing, including resistance she's received from doing it as well as musings on the implications of cursing versus blessings (including saying "bless you") after sneezes. The story is a mix between genuine contemplativeness and total silliness. The second story focuses on an idea Lautman had about a story where a bunch of kids convince a naive and gullible friend that ridiculous things are true, like "Jellyfish are immortal", only to find that once she believed it, it automatically changed reality to accommodate this new belief. Describing it as "Amelia Bedelia meets Quantum Leap", Lautman takes the idea to some dark places. Lautman's greatest strength as a storyteller is her ability to make every idea, every story and every journal entry sound like a conversation she's having with you, the reader.

Blabbermouth 1, by Katie Fricas. It's not unusual for autobio cartoonists to write about sex, or even do a history of their sexuality. What's different about Fricas' work is that it's as much about rudimentary feelings of desire that one feels as a child as it is about actual sexual experiences. In a highly expressive scrawl that looks like it's ripped straight from her id, Fricas goes in chronological order to discuess being referred to as a pervert by someone's mother at the age of ten, seeing girls in summer clothes at the age of eleven, writing stories about sex and then ripping them to pieces at fifteen, etc. The page about losing her virginity is just a drawing of the stucco ceiling above her; the image itself is fascinating, highly detailed and beautiful in its own way--as opposed to the actual experience. There are drug-laden encounters, dizzying experiences and moments seared into her memory. There's also a sequence where her mother tells her that she had a child much earlier in her life and gave it up for adoption. Fricas spills a lot of ink in this comic, both literally and figuratively. Her splotched line gets at the emotional content of an experience, the part that's most closely associated with memory, as opposed to trying to accurately recreate the "real" experience.