Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Exploring Rumi Hara's world in The Peanutbutter Sisters

Rumi Hara's new book, The Peanutbutter Sisters, is subtitled, "And Other American Stories." I asked her about this in the "Comics and Fabulism" panel at SPX, and she said that she's someone who considers herself to be both Japanese and American, as she was raised in both places. There's a lot here about what it means to be American, even as Hara navigates these environments as inherently fraught with danger. 

Hara's comics here fit squarely in the fabulist camp because there's an inherent naturalism to them that is repeatedly subverted in the course of each story. Her drawing style, while expressive, maintains a steady sense of naturalism until it takes on a touch of the grotesque in order to serve the narrative. The tone of her stories is uniquely hers, but there's a strong kinship with the work of Gilbert Hernandez in Hara's comics. Beto is more interested in getting cartoony in a more exaggerated way than Hara most of the time, but Hara can go there too. Stories like "Tree Love" (containing a hilarious visual joke about a surprise erection) and "Bubblegum Fighters" start with exquisitely-rendered and even beautiful figures and then add something weird on top. The latter story is especially reminiscent of Hernandez in terms of the wild flagellations of the two girls locked in bubblegum battle. These stories are especially palate cleansers for the larger stories; small aperitifs meant to evince a chuckle. 

"Verti-Go-Go" and "Living Things" flesh out their protagonists more thoroughly, but both are also more limited in scope than the two most significant stories in the collection. "Verti-Go-Go" is a delight, however, as Hara's story follows a man who is mentally transferred to a life of pure bacchanalian decadence at the sight of a bare belly button. Hara's detail in these over-the-top orgies that feature him as the center of attention is hilarious but also touching; he's not only experiencing pleasure but total validation. "Living Things" is Hara going to the limits of weirdness in this sci-fi road race story that centers on a reporter who's covering it live and on the road. It feels more like something out of Digimon than the rest of her work, and the attempts at adding a serious backstory are overshadowed by the details of the race and its alien participants. 

However, "Walking With Tammy Tabata" is a tour-de-force of storytelling as teens Tammy and Steven spend an afternoon walking through the city, coming up with the settings and characters for a traditional Japanese noh play. Steven is swept along by Tammy's impulsive, inquisitive, and fearless nature, especially as she is the kind of person who not only knows how to make an adventure out of everything, she's also the sort who has a way of making everyone she encounters feel special. Tammy and Steven create magic out of the overlooked, junky, and decaying parts of the city as they forge their own friendship. Hara's draftsmanship here is superb, conveying the fine details of the city. 

The book's titular story is the main event, however, recapitulating all of Hara's themes. It's set in the future in an America beset by disaster and decay. The titular sisters are triplets who are adept at riding the winds, as they scavenge junkyards to sell things on eBay. The mix of a fallen society still entirely gripped by capitalism and a supply-and-demand collector's mindset rings so true, as does their essential Southernness. The girls are named Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, living on an island called New Mississippi. There's an unstated logic in their story that seems ironclad yet deliberately mysterious to the reader, who is forced to take them on their own terms. That's true in the story itself, where the wary girls know how to deal with "villains" and those who would exploit them. They owe allegiance to nothing except themselves, their island, and the memory of their dead father. Indeed, the moment in time Hara captures here is one where their father has recently died; his lessons are still fresh, but their duty to him is gone. They're free to ride the winds and get a ride back on a whale whenever they like. 

The sisters quarrel but are ultimately always a united front, and their story draws in as many good-hearted people as it does those who would exploit them. They are citizens and aliens all at once, belonging only to each other. It's as though they came flying out of Hara's pencil, given the way their lives fill the page with utter conviction. For Hara, these fabulist stories have a life that feels every bit as real as a naturalistic character, and she acts as an observer, spy, and documentarian of these more interesting worlds for the lucky audience. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, 2021-22, The Index

Well, it took an absurdly long time to finish, but I'm declaring my 31 Days of CCS feature, dedicated to comics from students and graduates from the Center for Cartoon Studies, to finally be over. This is partly because with SPX coming up, I expect to get a whole bunch more soon. The list got long in part because I was slow, but also because new books kept coming out. Here's the entire list, with links to each individual review provided.

1. Denis St. John

2. Cuyler Keating

3. Masha Zhdanova

4. Mercedes Campos Lopez

5. Leda Zawacki

6. Sofia Lesage

7. Madi Baker

8. Meg Selkey

9. Maya Escobar

10. Faith Cox

11. Rebecca Schuchat

12. Mac Maclean

13. Daryl Seitchik

15. Erika Bloomdahl

16. Reilly Hadden

17. Violet Kitchen

18. Leeah Swift

19. Emil O Melia

20. Ross Wood Studlar

21. Kit Anderson

22. Annabel Driussi

23. Al Varela

24. Ashley Jablonski

25. Kori Michele Handwerker

26. King Ray

27. Robyn Smith

28. Jarad Greene

29. Kat Leonardo

30. Rachel Bivens

31. Josh Rosen

32. Less Than Secret anthology

33. Luke Kruger-Howard

34. Ben Wright-Heuman

35. Michael Sweater

36. Rust Belt Review Vol 1

37. Steve Theuson

38. Ian Richardson

39. Luke Healy

40. Aaron Cockle

41. Good Boy! Magazine

Monday, August 29, 2022

Two From Kayla E.

Kayla E. is one of the most exciting young talents in the world of alternative and literary comics in quite some time. I've been following her progress in minis and in places like Nat. Brut, but she's gone to another level recently. She's working on a memoir for Fantagraphics, and hints of what will wind up in that book can be found in two recent minicomics: Fun Time Fun Book and Precious Rubbish Vol. 2 No. 1. Kayla E. writes about her horrifying childhood and the unthinkable abuse she suffered, but it's mediated through Ivan Brunetti-style simplicity and filtering her experiences through old Archie and ACG comics. 

In much the same way that her comics collection was her safe haven as a child, so too does the style of people like Harry Lucey and Bob Wickersham inform and guide her through a harrowing juxtaposition of kid comic wholesomeness with mental illness, abuse, family dysfunction, violence, incest, and withholding of emotion. In Fun Time Fun Book, Kayla. E gives the reader word searches, paper dolls, fashion, and crossword puzzles. However, they are all about horrible things, like her mother's borderline personality disorder, Kayla E.'s desperate attempts to please her, and details like her older brother having a peephole into her room. There are also references to her drinking issues and desperate need to imprint on others for love and approval. 

Precious Rubbish is a series of short stories done in the model of ACG stories, MLJ stories, and Archie. Most of them are about her mother and the bizarre behavior she engaged in. Her parents divorced and Kayla mostly lived with her mom, who had little interest in actual parenting. Throughout her stories, religious iconography is crucial, as her own unique interpretation and relationship with Christianity informs her comics now, just as it did her beliefs as a child. There's a heartbreaking sequence where she fantasizes that Jesus is her mother, and she becomes Christ-like, only to have an overwhelming desire to have her insides scraped out so that she becomes someone else. In the Archie-style story involving baking, the dialogue all comes from the book of Job while the captions are all memories of abuse, but also bizarre events like watching her mother go through an exorcism. No fantasy and no nightmare could keep up with actual events that were occurring, and this is a reality barely kept at bay in her comics with her grotesque self-caricature facing a series of impossible trials with little to no reward or any sense of a way out. Yet, the art itself is a reaction, a howl against her experiences, and a statement of purpose. 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Not quite comics: Marvel Big Book of Fun And Games

I have a general policy against reviewing most Marvel & DC stuff, but I'll make an exception with one of the weirder reprints from the 1970s: Marvel Big Book Of Fun And Games. This is a collection of the late 70s comic book that did not feature comics; instead, it featured mazes, word searches, trivia, secret codes, and other activities for kids. For a 10-year-old me obsessed with both comics and puzzles, this was the best thing ever. I had already gotten my hands on The Mighty Marvel Fun Book series that Fireside Books was publishing at around the same time, which had extremely obscure trivia about Marvel characters in addition to things like mazes and crossword puzzles. However, I could buy Fun And Games for 50 cents along with my other comics, and fill it out while waiting with my mother in the grocery store. 

This experiment lasted for 13 issues, and I suspect it died it in part because the newsstand was dying out. I bought my comics from a magical place called The Front Page, a small shop jammed to the gills with magazines, newspapers of all kinds, tobacco, and even the obscure Marvel magazines like Marvel Preview and Epic Illustrated. That place was heaven, the guys who ran it let me hang out as long as I wanted, and a trove of comics was available for just a few bucks. I remember when titles like The Micronauts, Ka-Zar, and Moon Knight were made available to comics shops only in the early 80s. It was just another sign that the newsstand, a haven for kids for well over fifty years, was on its way out. 

The series was drawn and conceived by a Canadian artist named Owen McCarron. He actually pitched the idea to Stan Lee, who was always looking for an angle and a new way to profit from his characters. McCarron already designed his own puzzles and games for his own newspaper in Halifax, and he had been doing them for thirty years. A veteran of Charlton comics and early Marvel work (he was a pinch-hitter here and there), McCarron was given carte blanche on the comic, and he ran with it. His ability as a style mimic was simply remarkable, and his puzzles were just challenging enough. These comics were also funny and sometimes silly; he stroke a perfect tone as he drew in a Marvel house style that touched on Kirby and Ditko but was also in the vein of Win Mortimer's style on Spidey Super Stories (which McCarron also contributed to): simple, sleek and stripped-down. 

The book was published by Abrams, so it looks nice. Some more recent puzzles were added to the book, like strips involving Star-Lord and Groot. It is unfortunate but not surprising that McCarron is not credited anywhere on the cover for nearly 150 pages worth of work that came straight from his pencil. He's only credited by Roy Thomas in his introduction and in the indicia. Obviously, these aren't his characters, but the puzzles and the gags were entirely his. Work-for-hire strikes again, although I imagine this was de rigueur for him. Still, the result is clearly a delightful labor of love, and I'm glad it exists again for kids to enjoy. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bryan Moss' Outer Heaven #1

Outer Heaven #1 is by Bryan Moss, a painter and cartoonist with a wild imagination. Dipping into the same sort of stylized, dystopian, and city-centric art style as a Jamie Hewlett, what sets Moss apart is his wry sense of humor and close attention to detail. Moss' style wouldn't be out of place with the Meathaus cartoonists of the 2000s: thick lines, looping and distorted character design, minimal use of negative space (indeed, there's a maximalist feel in every panel), and incorporating influences from manga and things like Heavy Metal. It's all there, but Moss quickly transcends those influences and turns it into something more interesting. 

Moss begins the comic with a series of pages featuring photocomics collages. In her introduction to the comic, Dr. Rachel Miller notes that much of this comic was done in a transitory period where lots of video tapes and other ephemera was consumed in a time of uncertainty. That low-fi video culture that carried a strong underground element is present here as well. 

The main story concerns an assassin named Broken Nose Betty who prefers what she calls "pacifist kills." She generally only goes after people trying to kill her or dangers to society, but she tricks them into getting themselves killed. The plot concerns a group of dangerous slugs masquerading as people, but Betty is on the case. She edits her Wikipedia entry and trolls her target on Reddit to manipulate him into getting taken out by his own boss. She then tricks a slug assassin into drinking a margarita...with a rim lined with salt. 

Moss's character design is sharp, creating interesting panel compositions by bleeding the colors of his characters into the rest of the panel. His panels are busy and bold but never difficult to parse, thanks to the precision of his use of color. He goes for broke in that regard: bold purples, oranges, sickly greens, and yellows assault the reader, yet every color is perfectly balanced. If there's a color clash, it's intentional. While his actual cartooning is the spine of the comic and gives it its structure, his painterly understanding of color is what gives Outer Heaven its sense of style. It's clear there are a lot more stories to be told in Broken Nose Betty's Void City. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Adam Meuse's Not The Ocean

Adam Meuse is one of those cartoonists whose body of work has become so solid and self-assured that it's surprising that he's still self-publishing. He's one of the best cartoonists living in North Carolina, and that's for certain. His most recent effort, not the ocean, is another example of his thoughtful meditations on mortality that also touches on the joy of living. The visual touchstone in play is the ocean. How the traffic near his house sounds like the ocean coming through the trees. How sometimes being presented with astonishing natural beauty feels fake because of our attempts to replicate it through media. 

Along the way, Meuse connects these experiences with friends and families, about how we mediate our experiences with the natural world with our own interpretations of these awesome phenomena. For example, there's a beautifully scratchy and scrawled comic about listening to a recording of the ocean while looking at it with his daughter. That comic is about the way our brain fills in holes in our perceptions, and listening to the recording is jarring because it doesn't quite sync up. 

Another strip talks about the abstract-looking paintings that Mondrian did of piers sticking out into ocean, like a forest of little trees or crosses. Seeing that repeated in a hotel carpet was a look of recognition that was an interpretation of an interpretation. Piers all the way down. 

The ocean also reminded him of a friend who used to work in the marine section of a museum, and then learning years later he had drowned, on a boat he had fixed up. Once again, the sea called; capricious, beautiful, destructive, but it also drew his friend closer to Meuse in that moment. The sea is life: the salt flats of Utah with the remains of an ocean; sea gulls surrounding a light house at night; a huge gull outside a hotel room from a night of no sleep with friends. Meuse ponders not only the awe that the ocean inspires but also the ways in which it continues to affect the way we think about the world away from it. It's the closest thing we have to going into outer space on Earth: an awesome, dangerous mystery that engages and soothes. It offers no answers, and neither does Meuse. He's just a witness who does his best in this series of beautifully-scribbled comics and drawings to express the feeling the ocean has given him, rather than the ocean itself. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Some thoughts on the new version of Dungeon: Twilight from NBM

I've said it before: Dungeon (or Donjon, in the original French) is my all-time favorite comics series. For the uninitiated, it's masterminded by L'Association founders Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Trondheim and Sfar combined to create a cartoony, anthropomorphic character design style that's a little grittier than Trondheim's usual style and a little more stylized than Sfar's. The central characters are an idiotic duck named Herbert and a philosophical but brutal strongman named Marvin. The genre is high fantasy, using every trope and trick in the book with regard to quests, epic adventures, spells, wizards, monsters, treasure, etc. you can imagine. What makes the series special is that it's simultaneously an irreverent send-up of all of these tropes and a loving tribute to them. It's akin to the most ridiculous D&D campaign imaginable with ridiculous characters who nonetheless have a job to do. 

In French comics, serialization is in the form of approximately 48-page albums. The Dungeon series began with volume one of the Zenith storyline, introducing Herbert and Marvin and featuring the titular dungeon at the height of its success. As Trondheim and Sfar continued along, they asked: what if we skipped ahead to volume 101 of the series? What would be happening then? The result is the Dungeon: Twilight series of albums, where Herbert is the all-powerful and evil Grand Khan and Marvin is the Dust King and wishes only to die. The first volume of this series is #101! Then they imagined: what would the story be like if they went back in time to the beginning of the Dungeon, focusing on the original wizard master and where he came from? That would be Dungeon: The Early Years, featuring Hyacinth, who would become the creator of the Dungeon and its tower, and that volume started off at -99 and counted its way up to 1! Of course, neither artist intends to produce all of the volumes. They did ten volumes of Zenith, six volumes of Early Years (which skipped around, going from -99 to -97 and then to -84, -83, and -81. In Twilight, it goes from 101 - 106, and then 111 and 112. To date, 25 volumes relating to this storyline have been published, as well as another 28 volumes telling stories of side characters, early side stories featuring Herbert and Marvin, more stories of the far future and past, and other oddities. That's over 2500 pages of comics, most drawn by artists other than Trondheim, but that's a crazy level of output for one world!

This is a densely-plotted series of interconnected epics with dozens of characters, but one that's also easy to follow because it mostly focuses on a few key ones in each set of stories. Translating Trondheim's comics has always been somewhat thorny, because American audiences don't always take to his funny animal style of art and dry sense of humor. NBM, who's been translating European comics for well over forty years, tried a few different ways of translating these comics. First, they tried a black & white (grayscaled) version of this in comic book form, which no one much liked. Second, they started combining two volumes at a time in a smaller, almost digest-sized form. This was at least in full color, but the frequently intricate art was shrunk so much that it was hard to read, especially since they're also pretty wordy. 

At last, however, NBM has made the wise choice of reprinting the series again, this time at something approaching the original scale. Even better, they're packing four albums into one collection at a time, making them highly dense 200-page volumes. I just read the first collection for Twilight, and the result was a version that simply breathes better. Trondheim drew the first half of this volume, and much of his art has always depended on negative space: pauses, vistas, quiet moments that the art emphasizes. Printing it at the correct size helps this, and also helps when there's a lot of dialogue. 

And with a new character, a rabbit named Marvin the Red, there's a lot of chattiness. This Marvin eventually befriends the original Marvin, much to the latter's chagrin, since he's done with fighting and everything except going to the dragon burial grounds and dying. However, that's not in the cards for him, so he confronts his old friend Herbert. In Zenith, Herbert acquired a legendary sword that was a pain in the ass, and it talked about sending him on a quest for other legendary objects. In Twilight, we learn that he completed the quest, but at great cost: he took all of their evil into himself and became the tyrannical Grand Khan. Marvin was tired of living after his own years of battle, tearing out his eyes rather than see his own children because of religious customs. 

Then Trondheim and Sfar make the bold move of inflicting doomsday on his characters, as they now have to hop from island to island. Sfar is the artist for the first three chapters, the only ones he drew for any of the series. The husband and wife team of Kerascoet handle the art duties on the last chapter, and it's not quite as good as the ideal version of the characters that Sfar draws. There's a little too much texture in the line art, a little too much detail, and it's distracting at times. However, once one settles into their style, the story is flexible enough to adjust to this change and there are fewer distractions. 

Marvin the Red is the breakout superstar of this story. He's mean, stupid, and violent. He's also loving and loyal. He does anything he can to protect the Dust King and his little bat friend. He's absolutely fearless in the face of great danger. He's also a lover and a cad, romancing several women at once. Of course, he has no guile or skill, and he gets taken advantage of as much as he's just trying to get into their pants, but it's one of the funniest things about Marvin. He's a wonderful send-up of Conan-like barbarian characters. 

The ideal world would see each volume published separately, in English, with precisely the same coloring and line resolution. This collection doesn't have that. Sometimes, the resolution looks a bit wobbly. All that said, this is still a vast improvement over past attempts, and my hope is that sales are brisk enough to give the same treatment not just to Dungeon, but to other Trondheim books. Fantagraphics only published one volume of Ralph Azham before Kim Thompson died, and this kind of series seems ideal for NBM to publish if they get the rights. 

Dungeon is bawdy, bloody, raucous, contemplative, tragic, and triumphant. It's a series of interlocking storytelling puzzles in the tradition of Carl Barks. It's a love letter to fantasy fiction and even roleplaying games. It's a devastating satire of all of these things, all at the same time. Any fan of fantasy comics or fiction at any level will enjoy both its reverence and irreverence, often on the same page or even the same panel. NBM has published an omnibus for Twilight, Zenith, and Early Years. Hopefully, they will finish those out and then turn to Dungeon: Monsters, Dungeon: Parade, and untranslated work like Dungeon: Antipodes.