Friday, May 24, 2019

D&Q: Peter Bagge's Credo

It's been interesting following Peter Bagge's third act as a cartoonist. Originally one of the pioneers of alternative comics in the 80s with Neat Stuff (not to mention editing Weirdo), then one of the stars at the height and eventual fall of alternative comics in the 90s with Hate, he's reinvented himself a few times since then. Or rather, he's reinvented his subject matter, as he hasn't changed his visual style or fundamental essence as a humorist one iota. Bagge tried everything after Hate: animation in the middle of the first dot.com boom and bust, writing and drawing comics for DC, being a reporter and political commentator for Reason and other publications, and writing original graphic novels about various kinds of characters. Throughout it all, he's still retained his trademark rubbery style and frantic expressiveness.

His latest project has been a series of heavily-researched biographies about three different women for Drawn & Quarterly: Margaret Sanger, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rose Wilder Lane. All three of them are libertarian heroes who lived in the early 20th century. Each one was a remarkable individualist who carved their own path and refused to let society's patriarchal tendencies hold them back. Each one was also tempestuous and frequently difficult to get along with. Each one was a controversial figure in their own way. Bagge's admiration for each is obvious and his intensive research is obvious given that the notes section in the most recent book, Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story, is a third as long as the story itself. Of the three women whose story he's told, Lane is the one most directly connected to what became the libertarian movement, as she was friends with a number of people in that circle, including author Ayn Rand.

Lane was a writer, and well-known during her time for novels, political screeds and extensive articles in all sorts of periodicals. She may be best known for work for which she explicitly denied taking credit: collaborating with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder on her "Little House" books. This is a matter of extensive controversy, and Bagge doesn't try to settle it one way or another as much as he tries to introduce reasonable doubt. The assertion that Wilder, an untrained (but talented) writer could suddenly produce seamless prose at a late age all on her own seems far-fetched. The most likely scenario, given Lane's record of near-flawless prose, is that Wilder's daughter collaborated with her, taking her mother's ideas and giving them an extensive rewrite. At the barest minimum, she edited them and gave them polish. Lane had a complicated relationship with her mother (to say the least!), so it's possible that she didn't want to complicate it further by claiming credit for her work, as well as knowing that the success of the books hinged in part on the illusion of single-author authenticity.

Bagge is less interested in that particular debate and more interested in Lane's interpersonal struggles, especially with her mother. He notes that it's likely that she suffered from bipolar disorder, and she was well aware of and perplexed by her mental illness and the emotional roller-coaster it created. She was simultaneously loving and irascible, constantly smothering talented young people she met as her new "children" or later "grandchildren," in part to replace the baby she lost in childbirth. She was attracted to men but could only stand their company for so long before her wanderlust got the best of her. She was miserable when she was alone and miserable when she was with other people, and her awareness of this fact made her even more miserable. As whip-smart, accomplished, and stubbornly accomplished as she was, Bagge makes the case that she did all this in spite of the weight of her mental illness.

Bagge derives a lot of comedy from Lane's anti-government stance. Initially a socialist because of the influence of her aunt, she saw firsthand the horrors that a totalitarian socialist state can wreak. Bagge also makes the astute point that while her family was gifted land as homesteaders by the government, this was all land pretty much stolen by the natives or bought for a pittance in the Louisiana Purchase. The homesteaders served the purpose many settlers/homesteaders supported by their states do: establish a toehold in lands otherwise occupied by people who have been there for a long time and provoke conflicts. Lane was rightly suspicious of the government regulating industry because of industry's ability to simply buy their way into gaining favorable conditions that would help create monopolistic conditions. Of course, like many libertarians, the idea of a public good and how best to maintain it was something she didn't consider. Nor did she consider the amoral nature of capitalism and the relentless desire of corporations to get ahead not with a better product, but by exploiting workers unable to seek out a better situation or cutting corners on safety or waste disposal. Of course, many of these issues weren't prominent problems in her time, nor did she have training as an economist.


Of course, even though Bagge clearly admired many of her ideas (she wrote for an African-American newspaper and acknowledged the unjust nature of Jim Crow laws and the ways in which black people were persecuted by police, for example), he had no interest in making her out to be a saint or have all of the answers. Indeed, there's a scene where she and Ayn Rand not only have significant disagreements as to atheism, Lane became immediately suspicious of Rand cultivating a cult of personality. In this Bagge got at the heart of what made her an interesting character. She was more interested in ideas than notoriety. She preferred a dry but forceful delineation of ideas (her book Credo) to Rand's dressing it up in fictional form. She embodied the best ideals of the frontier spirit: a powerful and relentless sense of individualism combined with a generosity of spirit and understanding of teamwork as a necessity for survival. In many respects, this is Bagge's own statement about his beliefs in the form of this woman, who was closer to an anarchist than anything else.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ellen Lindner's The Cranklet's Chronicle #2

Ellen Lindner's work has often dipped into the past, especially New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her comics have usually focused on women in these eras, in part because their stories are not well served from this time. Her latest series, The Cranklet's Chronicle, serves an especially underserved topic: the role of women in major league baseball. Linder is also not afraid to tackle difficult topics, and issue #2 was as much about race as it was about gender with regard to the game. With tremendous storytelling clarity, a pleasant line and crackling dialogue, Lindner told the story of Effa Manley, the only woman admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She co-owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro League and won a championship with them, only to see the league disintegrate when Major League Baseball finally deigned to bring in black players. It's a fascinating story that has a lot of twists and turns.

There's something particularly interesting in reading stories about women who defied the societal barriers arrayed against them in achieving remarkable things. In Manley's case, she also had to deal with issues related to race. Manley grew up thinking she was biracial, but her white mother revealed that her father was not who she thought he was. An affair with a white man made Manley technically white--but she grew up thinking she was black and in a black community, and she chose to continue to live as a black woman. The whole experience, as Lindner noted, had Manley saying, "Whatever I am...I will be exceptional!" 

Lindner's use of blue tones throughout creates a slightly nostalgic air, as though one was watching vintage footage of these events. She traces Manley and her husband Abe after they created the Eagles, creating an exciting narrative as Manley's business sense and charisma was a perfect match for her husband's ability to evaluate talent. It's a story that's a triumph and a tragedy, as her moment of triumph was taken away from her--she never got to be involved in baseball ever again. Fortunately, a reporter was able to catch up with her late in her life to get her story down, and it's truly a doozy. Linder does that story justice, finding ways to both focus on the exciting narrative as well as offer commentary on race and gender in America.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The End Of The Tour: Noah Van Sciver's Fante Bukowski 3

It's funny to think of Noah Van Sciver as a grizzled veteran of the comics scene, but that's truly what he's become. The guy who once wrote a strip fantasizing about winning an Ignatz award was just nominated for two Eisners. He's among the most versatile of cartoonists, equally at home doing satire, historical fiction, autobiographical comics, gags, and literary fiction. He's someone who clearly takes his work seriously but can also poke fun at himself and his own ambitions. That's most clearly evident in his series of Fante Bukowski books, which are about the world's worst and least self-aware writer. The magic in these books is not that Van Sciver hilariously satirizes the literary and art worlds, but that he manages to craft sympathetic characters along the way.

Each book in the series has been carefully designed to mimic a classic paperback design. This time around, it's meant to mimic David Foster Wallace, down to a "Genius Award" sticker on the cover. That attention to detail is thanks to Keeli McCarthy, one of the best book designers in the business. The subtitle of the book is "A Perfect Failure," and that sums up Fante's character to a T. The vain, glory-seeking, and delusional Fante set out to be a writer because he wanted to be famous, not because he wanted to actually do the work of being a good writer. He was more obsessed with the macho but sensitive trappings of what he saw as writing (hence his love of Charles Bukowski and John Fante) than actually coming up with coherent ideas. At the end of the second book, he and one of his zines got a degree of fame and success thanks to a critic Fante had done a sordid favor for.

At the beginning of the third book, Fante receives an offer to be a ghostwriter for a Disney starlet's autobiography. After leaching off his family (including a disapproving father), he actually got paid for his work, but he immediately ignored the parameters of the assignment. For the first time, Fante's own bizarre sense of integrity came to the fore, even if what he chose to write instead was nonsense. Indeed, while Fante continues to be a blowhard, Van Sciver does have him complete a sort of emotional journey. To be sure, Fante remains a privileged asshole who on the one hand rejected his father's career path in law, but didn't reject his desire for the trappings of wealth. He simply wanted it not only on his own terms but generated entirely from his own talent. A lifetime of living with someone who constantly put him down resulted in Fante (nee' Kelly) coping by creating his own fantasy world where he was actually good at something.

The structure of the book is interesting because while there's actually a tight plot and structure, Van Sciver allows many of his pages to act as separate vignettes, complete with their own punchlines. While the reader is exposed to Fante's essential incompetence and vanity, the flashbacks provided establish a bit of context for his behavior, to the point where his willingness to live in the scummiest of environments and associate with the worst of people is more than just a pose. It's part of his own essential nature to vacillate between comfort and disruption, self-absorption and sympathy. Indeed, the key relationship in the book is that of the friendship between Fante and Norma, a weirdo performance artist with an unsettlingly dark background. She has her own subplot where she's in conflict with the other major performance artist in Columbus, Ohio that winds up being murderous (art is cutthroat!) but tender with regard to Fante. His return to see her last performance is humanizing for both of them. Fante has sort of figured himself out, Norma made a collection that lasted, and even the prostitute who manipulated Fante's career behind the scenes gets her own reward. It's both genuinely earned as a happy ending as well as a parody of same, and Van Sciver's skill mixing sincerity and satire makes it all work.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Minicomics Of Elise Dietrich

Elise Dietrich is in that cohort of autobiographical cartoonists that includes Glynnis Fawkes and Jennifer Hayden--women who started to do comics as a kind of second act in life. Dietrich has actually done work at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and these minis show how quickly the confidence in her line has progressed thanks to a great deal of work. Looking at the work in Pine Pitch Perfume, for example, one can see that her character design is a little shaky. Balancing space in her panels is also an issue at times, leading to some clutter. That said, she has a keen observational eye and a low-key wit. Her storytelling is also excellent throughout, especially when paired with an interesting conceptual gimmick. For example, "Partial Anatomy Of A Fabric Stash" uses a nine-panel grid with a different pattern of fabric in each panel. Each pattern told a different story, with a different piece of her past by way of clothes she made or wanted to make.

She also told stories about her daughter, her dog, her childhood and traveling to Brazil. Dietrich wields narrative captions pretty hard in these comics, but even her earliest stories have a witty visual vocabulary as well. In panels where her daughter is trying to fool her into staying awake or where she's trying to listen to headphones on a plane and draw but keeps getting loudly interrupted, Dietrich's use of gesture and exaggeration makes those panels effective. Birth Story unlocks and unleashes Dietrich's easy charm as a storyteller in a story that's paced a little like a Summer Pierre comic, only with much more rubbery visuals. Like any kind storyteller, the charm of this piece lies in its details. For example, Dietrich refused to wear any clothing while waiting to give birth. The lactation staff was away when she gave birth because they went to a Jimmy Buffet concert. Those details allowed her to connect the reader to the wave of emotions she felt at different points. Dietrich mostly stuck to a grid in this comic but wasn't afraid to modify it, collapsing rows into a single image or making single panels into a mini-four panel grid.

Key West Diary is Dietrich's longest and best comic to date. Travel is usually good fodder for diary comics, given the narrative aspect of having a finite period of time one's writing about. Dietrich went the extra mile but traveling alone with her toddler daughter down to her old stamping grounds in Key West with old friends. That gave the comic an interesting emotional resonance, as Dietrich revisited not just an old place, but an old way of life. There's also the New Hampshire in winter vs. sunny paradise juxtaposition, which led Dietrich to increase her degree of difficulty by going out as much as possible with her daughter. There's some disconnect on her part with her friends, who rarely think about their scandalous adventures with Dietrich, especially since she was trying to prove to herself that motherhood hadn't changed her that much. This is a rich and detailed comic that sees Dietrich examine her past, present, and future as an individual apart from her marriage. Her line is expressive and loose as spontaneity was a key aspect of the diary, yet there's greater overall control. The ambitiousness of her trip was matched by the ambitiousness of this comic.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Minis: Jennifer Hayden's A Flight Of Chickens

A Flight Of Chickens is a collection of Jennifer Hayden's earliest work on the web, and it's a series of four-panel autobiographical panels. This was not unusual for the time (the early 2010s), but there was a lot that stood out about her work, even early in her career. For one thing, her level of detail, including elaborate decorative flourishes, pain-staking stippling, and intense cross-hatching, was unusual for the average autobio comic. She backed off a little bit on this later in her career, which was all for the better because some of the panels were overly dense. It was clear that she was trying to juxtapose her stylized and stripped-down character designs with those details to give her work a bit more weight, but the panels just weren't big enough to allow her work to breathe properly.

That said, it was still fun to watch her cut loose with her full bag of tricks as she unleashed her acidic sense of humor on the world. Hayden is an inveterate smart-ass in a house full of them, especially her very funny husband. Barbs fly between Hayden and her husband and children, yet there's a powerful sense of warmth and love suffusing the comic. Hayden also has a wonderfully whimsical sense of humor that she explores visually, like imagining herself as Patti Smith or Frida Kahlo. Hayden always draws herself with a distinctively long, conical nose, so seeing that pointy schnozz on Kahlo was especially amusing. There's another strip where she attends a Pablo Picasso exhibit and imagines that he's there, hitting on her teenage daughter. It was an incredibly clever way of working out her feelings with regard to the artist over time.

There's a celebration of her deceased friend Shirley, bringing her to life with her eyes peeking out over her spectacles. Hayden also has a raw, frank, and funny approach to sex, like in strips where she reminisces about the early days with her future husband and about getting a vibrator as a gift from a talk at an "Edgy Mothers Day" event. There were two extended narratives here. One is about a couple of women running a tea shop that doesn't quite hang together on a strip-by-strip basis. Another is about meeting a man who used to live in their house, leading to various reminiscences. One can see the progress made from one strip to the next in terms of pacing and storytelling, as Hayden was figuring things out for her long-form autobio book The Story Of My Tits. Hayden worked on other autobio material as a side-project while working on her book. She's someone who came to comics later in life, and her work has always felt like she's trying to catch up on a lifetime not spent on this kind of storytelling. Her work is restless as a result, as she's trying to tell a thousand stories all at once. It's taken her some time to slow down a bit and focus on what she really wants to do in the moment, but it's thrilling to see her truly unleashed here with this early work.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Minis: Ryan Cecil Smith's Songs Of The Field

It's always a genuine pleasure to get a new S.F. comic from Ryan Cecil Smith, as it may be my favorite genre comic. There's a pleasurable clarity in storytelling that comes straight from certain kinds of sci-fi manga traditions, but Smith is a restless formal innovator who tinkers with visual and verbal structures in fun ways. For example, he loves playing on the "S.F." initials in various ways; this is the continuing story of the Science Fleet, but this particular comic is a Supplementary File titled Songs of the Field. Endlessly reiterating that structure, often in terms of dialogue or narrative, is all part of the fun. Of late, Smith has taken to doing endless Supplementary Files following one of the main characters or a side character on their own long adventure.

This one follows Alward the Lizard, a solo adventurer who has no love for the "lawful" Science Fleet nor for the "chaotic" pirates at war with them. Here, in this meaty 74-page mini, Smith uses the letters L.K. to describe things related to Alward: he flies his low-fuel kruiser into a zone and uses a latch klaw to get fuel. He turns out to be the son of the Lizard King and an invincible outlaw who skirmishes with a bunch of redneck types in a small mining operation. It's fast-paced, funny and vaguely philosophical in a sort of Stan Lee/Silver Surfer kind of way. Alward bemoans his lonely fate and is puzzled at the relentlessly hostile nature of humans while exploring space. The real treat here is Smith's candy-like use of color in this risograph-printed zine; indeed, the production values on a typical Smith comic are well above that of the average minicomic.

What's remarkable is the way Smith saturates each page with color but never loses the integrity of his line nor the clarity of his storytelling. The use of zip-a-tone effects has something to do with that in terms of maintaining structure, but the bigger key is Smith's ability to balance one or two complicated elements with several simpler ones. His line is simple and cartoony, giving it the flexibility to work in a number of different formal contexts. While there are a lot of colors, there are all carefully balanced on a panel-to-panel basis. He's careful to balance no more than three colors against each other in a given panel, but then he might use three completely different colors in the next pattern. The overall effect is kaleidoscopic, but broken down it looks quite intuitive. That cartoony and colorful nature of his work allows him to go big in terms of exaggerations and expressiveness without ever losing control over the page. The overall effect of the S.F. series is that of an extended lark in frothy genre fiction, but Smith's relentless attention to detail is what sets it apart from other such series. He's less concerned about the overall goal than he is in the flavor of the details that support the overarching plot. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass

Let's catch up with some recent work by Caitlin Cass, one of the most original and prolific artists working in minicomics today. Her Postal Constituency service offers a subscription to her comics, and she puts something out every couple of months. The comics vary in terms of length, size, content, and ambition. However, she frequently writes about history, philosophy, culture, and politics.

Pre-History (Volume 8, Issue #6 of the P.C.) is a nice example of her work. It's a folded, small square comic that makes great use of its format by showing, one page/panel at a time, how various species evolved and were then wiped out by something. Cass has a snappy sense of humor and keeps things moving as she also alternates text and image on some of the pages. On other pages, she uses multiple unfoldings to tell a story.

"Give People Light And They Will Find A Way" (V9, #4) is a more straightforward story done in a standard format. Indeed, the comic was adapted from a presentation she gave at the school at which she teaches. Using a mostly open-page layout instead of a grid, the comic focuses on the women of the Civil Rights Movement. Cass noted that historically, women of color are usually at the forefront of every resistance movement but tend to get less credit than the men. This comic is both a remedy to that and a simple history. She talks about Jo Ann Robinson, who was the leader of the Alabama bus boycott. Using a simple, effective line, she relates the history of Ella Baker, who was one of the key founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That organization would be key in pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Finally, Fannie Lou Hamer was brought to life in discussing her role in getting people registered for the vote and the violence she faced in doing so.

Rest Stop Brochures For The Not-So-Distant Future (V9, #1) finds Cass working a gimmick for comic effect. This is indeed a group of brochures in comics form, bound by a light cardboard sleeve. This is Cass at her most conceptual, with gags like "Digital Red Tape," which is an app that makes it difficult to use one's phone; it's designed to help with phone addiction. "The Forum" is a brochure for an app that provides a crowd that will cheer you on publicly, no matter what you have to say. It's the ultimate echo chamber effect. "Rainbow Boat Tours" offers people a chance to sail through garbage, picking out plastic stuff one might have some affection for. "Drone Eyes" allows people to see the world through a drone's camera, while "Amazon Truck Share" spoofs the fact that most trucks are half empty, and it offers a free trip to a mystery location. The brochures range from silly to brutally satirical, but every brochure speaks to the ways in which we consume and regurgitate information and resources.

Finally, Myths (V9, #2) sees Cass using a slightly bigger format, slick brown paper and full color in conjuring up modern myths. One story is about a tear in the sky that people tried to sew up, paint over, protest against, and patch over. It turned about to be a funny metaphor for the ways in which crises (existential and otherwise) are treated by those who have money and those who don't. Another story was about people who refused to give offerings to those In Charge, and they were put in a window, depending on the generosity of others for food. It's a clever metaphor for those who choose to live apart from being ruled by capitalism (like many artists) depending on the whims of others for support--until it's all too much and one wastes away. There's a whimsical quality to all of the stories here, but it's ultimately a grim comic that's fatalistic with regard to our fate in society.