Thursday, December 2, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #2: Cuyler Keating

Cuyler Keating had two entries for 31 Days of CCS this year. First is an all-color autobiographical mini titled Light Left On. There are three brief stories that dip into comics-as-poetry territory. "March 19th, 2020" is a COVID/lockdown comic, the kind I've seen a lot of in comics form. The clever bit of imagery here was noting that the annual spring infestation of ladybugs was met with apathy. Keating then got a bit too on the nose, talking about the Trump administration and the lockout itself; this was understandable, but jarring, given the way she had set up the strip. 

The other two stories, "Worn Down," and "Room For The Road," get at her overall aesthetic a little more directly. Written after moving into a remote farmhouse in Vermont, these comics mix word and image together seamlessly, vibrantly employing colored pencil to add contours, depth, and weight to the page. They're about a lot of things all at once: the new house, the sense of distance, her husband, and her own attempts at embracing this new, rural lifestyle. This type of comic is a departure for Keating, and it was interesting to see her flex a different kind of comics muscle, even if she's not completely comfortable with it as of yet. 

Returning to her wheelhouse, culturally subversive fantasy comics, Keating also submitted the second issue of Food For Worms. This is an epic about a society of anthropomorphic frogs living in a fearful time as a poisonous "miasma" surrounds their environs. (Even when not writing about the pandemic, Keating is writing about the pandemic.) The wild card here is a young human woman named Margeaux, who was discovered in the forest as a baby and raised by the ruler of the Font, a sort of holy religious order. 

Keating is exploring a particular kind of intersection: an ancient theocracy in its crumbling decline, confronted by an existential threat. Margeaux is in the middle of all this, as she's treated as a curiosity at best and a wage slave at worse. In the second issue, Keating starts to pull some narrative strings together, as Margeaux makes it clear that she wants to learn how to make the perfume that protects people from the toxic air of the miasma. Beyond that, her yearning is an ontological one; she wants to know all of the secrets of the frog people, in part because she has no real idea what she is. "What am I?" is as basic a question as it gets, and Margeaux faces not only opposition in understanding this, but a racist undercurrent that asks if she even deserves to live. It is othering painted with a broad brush, but I sense that Keating is going further than simply exploring that surface-level narrative. 

While the story fairly cries out for color (especially the scenes with stained-glass depictions of religious figures), Keating's use of grayscale-shading is highly effective. Of course, none of that would work without her excellent character design. She truly understands how they frog people look, act, and move on a fundamental level. She's able to render them in an entirely serious way, even if they look cute. This is part of the point, I believe; their own self-perception is utterly grave, because why wouldn't it be? This marked the end of chapter 1 of the larger story, and Keating laid down a great deal of character development and a framework for the world. Now she's going to ask the key question: what does the protagonist want? She wants to make the perfume, and she's stolen a book that will let her do so. The rest of the story will no doubt follow from this, and I'm eager to see how it will play out. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #1: Denis St. John

Kicking off another year of reviews of comics by alumni and current students of the Center for Cartoon Studies, let's begin with a long-time favorite: Denis St. John. One of a few CCS alums specializing in horror and monsters, St. John has always brought a cartoony and playful edge to his work. His newest, Heart Of The Night Monster, is no exception. One of the things that makes his comics work is that while there are monsters and weird supernatural elements, they are always grounded in the foibles of his human characters. In this comic, the main character is a borderline-feral woman named Rowan. She's obsessed with being in the forest but has no actual idea how to survive there. 

St. John has a way of stacking true weirdness on top of awkwardness. For example, after she's seen shoplifting and biting the shopkeeper, she feeds some bread to a strange little monster. When the cops catch her, she sees the outline of a larger version of that creature above the forest. Rowan is mentally ill and totally unstable, but she is disinterested in living any kind of normal life and only wants to be in the forest. When she bolts from her treatment facility, she immediately heads for the woods. Once again, she has no clue or plan, and she is attacked and nearly suffocated by a tree with plastic bags. A monster emerges to save her, cutting her from the tree and dousing her in a river, melting the bags away. 

When found by the treatment facility, she's soaking wet and has trash in her hair, but she's sanguine about the whole experience. Her roommate, Elisa, demonstrates that she might be more than she seems. This wouldn't be surprising, given her resemblance to certain characters from prior St. John comics. Rowan thought she looked like the hostess of a creature-feature program named Hella'Rella, and St. John stapled in a "secret comic" that was a mini printed on newsprint. It featured a hilariously exaggerated adventure where the horror hostess encounters a Scooby-Doo gang and systemically kills them in all kinds of cheesy ways. It's a love letter to fun schlock. In this comic and the main story, St. John really excels with regard to character design. Bugged-out eyes and a certain rubbery quality in the characters' limbs add to that sense of magical realism. This worked decently enough as a one-shot, but it feels like there will be more chapters of this. That's fine by me, because this type of wandering narrative is St. John at his most interesting, as he introduces then contextualizes new elements. This is well-crafted and highly entertaining cheesy schlock that both celebrates and engages in the tropes that make this kind of horror fun. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Rachael Smith's Quarantine Comix

Diary and memoir comics have become an extremely popular genre for cartoonists, especially in the form of webcomics or as Instagram posts. What's odd to me about this is that their ideal form is as a temporary way of helping cartoonists get through writer's block and helping them get over being too precious with their line. The classic four-panel, daily set-up forces cartoonists to crystalize the quotidian moments of their day into a narrative of some kind, complete with panel-to-panel transitions in order to create a kind of rhythm. While James Kochalka popularized the daily diary strip, Lynda Barry has spoken about how and why they're useful. Specifically, she talked about them having a limited shelf life; ideally, they should last no more than a year. 

Anything more than that, and you start to find it to be an overwhelming grind. Your line starts to break down. In essence, you are hacking them out. There are other ways in which such strips can wear out their welcome, especially if they drop any sense of narrative, or even worse, settle into a kind of smugness. That can be smug self-deprecation (this is intolerable, especially when this devolves into humblebrags) or a total lack of awareness regarding privilege. No matter how good you are, no one wants to read about your dreams, your cool kids, or the love of your life for years. Make no mistake: though diary comics are drawn from one's real life experiences, they are not the same thing as real life. They are a crafted narrative, and making those strips without regard for an audience is a guaranteed way to deliver something that becomes rote and twee. (Note: Kochalka.)

So when I started Rachael Smith's Quarantine Comix, it was with a bit of trepidation that it might be more of the same. Fortunately, Smith has a lot of tricks in her bag. First and foremost, she had COVID and the pandemic to work off of, and reactions to the first few months of quarantine are interesting. Second, she had a built-in narrative of being separated from her boyfriend because of the pandemic and how she coped with that. When they reunited, she didn't go much further; in part, I'm guessing, because there was no real story there. Third, Quarantine Comix is part of a continuum of autobiographical comics about her mental illness, along with Wired Up Wrong and Stand In Your Power. It's funny to read Smith talk about her own self-doubts and occasional self-loathing, considering how bad-ass she writes some of her fictional characters (though they have flaws as well). That includes the trope of a black dog representing her negative self-talk and self-loathing, and a white dog representing a more rational way of looking at yourself. In the context of DBT, this is a Wise Mind approach, where you acknowledge the negative feelings but try to connect them to something more rational. It's an approach woven into the strips here. 

There's more to recommend about this book, even if in terms of its observations and events, it is extremely mundane. That's because of circumstance, of course, but the observations mostly stay simple and on a surface level. Smith is funny and tries to add a punchline to as many of her observations as she can. She also eschews the four-panel grid on every page, often adding or subtracting panels, based on what the story needs. There are also full-color pages that are just illustrations of overall themes. There's one other key to the book's success: Smith doesn't date her strips, nor does she feel the need to include a strip from every day. That's often the curse of a diary strip that's gone on too long. Also, this technique spoke to the amorphous nature of time when typical structures like work and weekends started to become meaningless. 

Smith's drawing is charming and exaggerated, frequently adding to the humor of each piece. Like any good diary comic, there are subtle background elements that are more pronounced if one thinks about them. There's an underlying sense of worry about Smith's mental health from her family and friends, and it's clear that some of her friends make it their mission to check in on her. Some of the humor (like talking to her cat and it talking back) is a little on the contrived side, forcing gags on situations where there aren't really any. Worse, some of the anecdotes seemed to be used because a punchline seemed to be there, but the joke wasn't really strong enough to justify it. 

However, it's Smith's perseverance in the face of despair, ennui, and fear that's the real star of the show. In many ways, it's a class in how to seek out help with a mental illness, as Smith reaches out to friends and family, is gentle with herself as much as possible regarding productivity, and is even relatively sanguine about weight gain. The eventual reward, when she's reunited with her boyfriend, feels entirely earned, especially as she's respected the laws regarding the lockdown. While a large part of the book's appeal is its status as a historical curiosity (something that will become of greater interest as time marches on, I suspect), Smith's understanding of her own mental health issues and willingness to talk about them in public makes this a powerful work of graphic medicine in the guise of a very funny set of anecdotes. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Abby Jame's Emotional Data Test Tube Sugar Baby

The most interesting aspect of Abby Jame's hilariously titled Emotional Data Test Tube Sugar Baby is its reliance on social media culture to simultaneously critique and revel in its banality. That's the meat of the comic, but the scaffolding is a rock-solid cyberpunk plot with interesting twists and turns. The reader is thrown right into the middle of the narrative, as bored young woman Tink and her sentient computer teddy bear are bored and hungry. When she texts her sugar daddy Greg for money, it sets off a bizarre series of events that include the apocalypse (for starters), being grown in a test tube, sugar daddy incest, being used as a tool by both the government and the resistance, and a great deal of hot girl ennui. 

Jame is a member of the Michael DeForge school of thin-line characters and maximum environmental detritus. The character designs are distinct and cartoony, with her entire world stylized to the nth degree. The colors are pastel to the point of nearly being cotton candy, changing on nearly a panel-by-panel basis. The matter-of-factness with which Tink regards her fantastic environment is integral to the humor of the book, which is the essence of the work. Tink is a character with very few fucks to give and is unimpressed with the potential end of the world, the government conspiracy, or much else beyond her own personal gratification. Yet, this is the way she was raised and designed. When her apparent contact in the underground, a woman named Mits, shows her their secret weapon, a fantastic artificial being named Amanda, Tink's reaction had me howling: "She looks fun and slutty." An indignant Mits replied, "She's not that," but Tink said, "I know a fun slut when I see one." While this was a ridiculous sequence, it actually rolled directly into the plot in an unexpected way.

The only thing Tink did care about was a boy named Brad, and specifically, their social media relationship. When Brad texted her, she was outraged that all he said was "how r u?," declaring that to be hostile. She fretted over Brad unfollowing and refollowing another girl when the world was at stake and she was confronting her test-tube dad/sugar daddy. When told her destiny was to be uploaded with a program that would destroy the government, but it would kill her, she only agreed after Brad hooked up with Gretchen. There's a surprising psychedelic sequence that ties into the story and the REAL story (her social media life), culminating in an interplanetary journey. In the end, she looks for more boys. This is a story that is so totally of this moment in the zeitgeist and yet completely cognizant of this, all while transcending it in a remarkable series of gags. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Andrew Neal's Where The Rent Went

Andrew Neal's evolution as a cartoonist in his Meeting Comics strip has been fascinating to watch. He transformed it from an inchoate series of gag panels to an absurd but fully fleshed-out narrative chock full of complex, layered characters. Of these, Val Cannon became his breakout star, thanks to her give-no-fucks attitude and full possession of her sexuality. One of the fun things in Meeting Comics is when Neal randomly reveals a new fact about one of his characters. With Val, it's that she was the lead singer of a punk band called Titty Blud. 

Neal went down a rabbit hole with Meeting Comics #21: it's a one-and-done story titled "Where The Rent Went," featuring Val in 1996. Couch-surfing in precisely the kind of post-college house familiar to the sort of person still figuring things out after graduation, the story was set in a house party where Val performed. When one of the housemates reported that the envelope containing the rent was missing, the story suddenly turned into a combination of a detective story and a romance/sex saga. 

It's compelling as both. Interviewing the housemates led to a wide array of people with varying motives, which she eliminated one-by-one. Neal is thorough in not cheating with regard to providing clues but doesn't telegraph it, either. It also serves as a kind of origin story for Val as a sexual being, where she becomes aware of how much everyone in her house is into her. Cleverly, Neal solves the story's mystery but leaves the issue on a cliffhanger. 

One of the reasons why Val is so compelling is her character design. Her glasses obscure her eyes, making her seem more opaque and mysterious. Even with a mohawk and a tight leopard-print dress, she retained that air of mystery that was a big part of her attractiveness. Every character in this issue feels very much like an archetype, like long-haired Ricky with six-pack abs or a concert nuisance dubbed Dick-Out Daryl. Neal uses a pretty thick line and a lot of greyscale shading that gives his comics a sludgy feel that fits the overall mood of his work. His character design is highly stylized and wouldn't really work with a lot of cross-hatching. 

VALue Added is a bonus mini that discusses Neal's process. He goes into detail regarding Val's background and how he slowly added to it, changes he made to the script as he expanded the story, and photos back from his days living in a Chapel Hill house not unlike this. Neal also captures a certain feeling of being that age, when rather than feeling the possibilities of youth, one instead feels like life is already passing you by. That it's nearly too late to do something interesting with one's life. It's a suffocating feeling, but Val is the one character who always smoothly navigates it, no matter what. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Ellen Lindner's Lost Diamonds Part One

Anyone who's read this blog over the years knows how much I've enjoyed Ellen Lindner's evolution as a cartoonist. One of the things I find most interesting about her work is her devotion to baseball, and in particular, her research into the role of women (or female-presenting people, as she notes) in the history of the game. Lost Diamonds is subtitled "A History Of Gender Rebellion In American Baseball," and she examines this through a particular critical lens. Rather than accept the premise that there are no female baseball players, she instead asks the question: "Why aren't there any female baseball players? What structures have prevented this from happening?"

Baseball is one of the few sports, even today, where women don't play it at any organized level other than Little League, and even that took a number of lawsuits. The only other sport where that's the case is American football, and even that has been slowly changing on a high school level, albeit in fits and starts. Sure, there's softball, but it's not the same sport. Lindner makes the case that the same individuals and forces who conspired against being inclusive of women with regard to baseball were the same ones who banned black players from major league baseball for close to sixty years. They wanted to keep it white and male, and they even created narratives around this idea and propagated it through the press and the very companies that created baseball-related products. 

Indeed, Lindner notes that the origins of baseball date back to the 1700s and were both imported from Europe and combined with extant indigenous ball-and-stick games. It's just that the ball-and-stick games played in Europe were often played by women and sometimes by all genders together. Baseball became a national obsession in the US and drew interest from everyone. Just as there were well-known male barnstorming teams that went from town-to-town, so too there were women's teams, including one out of Philadelphia that was all black women. Racist press coverage diminished their nationwide appeal. At the same time, baseball teams started popping up on all-women's colleges in the northeast US. The forces that propagated the idea that baseball was "invented" by Abner Doubleday instead of being a comglomeration of many different but similar games became reified as a way of making baseball the exclusive province of white men. 

Lindner also notes that the fashion of wearing corsets, giving women extremely restricted movement, didn't help during the late 19th century. Narratives about the "fragility" of women propagated through the press also didn't help. Through it all, Lindner inserts herself as an amiable narrator, gently guiding the reader through a great deal of historical injustice with a smile. However, she's unsparing with regard to the facts, and she wields that historical record (and the attempts to alter this narrative) like a slugger. Lindner's strength as an artist has always been her skill in drawing clothing and fashion, especially from different historical eras. That's on full display here, and the blue wash adds to that sense of this being a historical document. 

This is a fascinating piece of comics journalism, and it's striking that there aren't more of these kinds of comics when it comes to sports. Sports has its share of built-in narratives with regard to the games themselves, but the behind-the-scenes events and the weird characters in the game make it an incredibly easy transfer for comics. I hope Lindner is able to eventually get a book out of this. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Molly Ostertag's The Girl From The Sea

In thinking about Molly Ostertag's fantasy graphic novel The Girl From The Sea, it's important to consider three things beyond the work itself. First, there's no other way to describe this book as anything other than frothy, very lightweight entertainment. However, there's nothing wrong with that kind of book; it's the very definition of what the late Kim Thompson would describe as Good Crap. This is a well-drawn and sharply-designed book with a refined color palette and impeccable use of fashion. Ostertag has a lively line that's accentuated but not overwhelmed by color, and her use of gesture in particular is top notch. Second, this is a queer fantasy romance aimed at a young adult audience, and there is absolutely nothing momentous about this. It is now an expectation that this is what YA fiction is going to encompass. As such, and third, a frothy YA book with conflicts that are fairly easily resolved and an utter lack of queer misery is in itself a novelty. This is a book that is ultimately about queer joy and acceptance that doesn't dip into harder questions or unresolved relationships. There are plenty of those kinds of books around (see: Fun Home), and we're reaching a point in comics where stories about marginalized groups don't all have to follow the same miserablist formula.

So as a reader and critic, it's not so much that I wanted bad things to happen to its protagonist Morgan or the selkie named Keltie, or for tragedy to befall them. It's that I felt like I was given the barest but most tantalizing outline of an exciting set of characters, and I wanted so much more. Morgan is a girl living on an island near Canada who is a closeted lesbian, a secret she keeps from even her closest friends. Those friends include the Rich One, the Funny One, and the Shy One, and they serve as little more than a sort of texting Greek Chorus. Despite that, Ostertag embues them with enough personality (and absolutely killer character designs) to make me wish they were more complex and fleshed-out. Morgan's parents are divorced and her brother is acting out. All Morgan wants to do is finish high school, leave for the big city, and then come out and live her life openly. 

That's complicated when she meets Keltie, a selkie. That's a sort of were-seal, who only can become human every seven years and can only walk on land with a true love's kiss. Keltie saves Morgan when she falls into the ocean, and she kisses her. She then pops up and declares herself bound to Morgan. Their interactions are given the most depth and complexity in the book, which makes sense. That said, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the book's structure. When thinking about a plot, the essential question to ask is this: What does the protagonist want? In this case, Morgan wants to be closeted until she can leave. What is preventing her from doing this? Keltie. The key conflict in the book is also its most central relationship.

Every other conflict in the book--her brother's behavior, coming out to her parents, isolating herself from her friends, and even the tacked-on conflict of Keltie needing to save the seals' rookery--is easily solved and shoved to the side. The only conflict that matter is given a cute romance with a few fights and moments of confusion which are also solved with a hug and an apology. The problem is that the reader is meant to feel as though all of these other conflicts were intractable, but instead they easily melt away. It's wish-fulfillment with the lowest of stakes. Which is fine. Not every romance needs to be life or death. However, The Girl From The Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was, and it wouldn't have taken much of a structural change to get there.