Thursday, November 14, 2019

On The Passing Of Tom Spurgeon

Critic, writer, and show organizer Tom Spurgeon died on November 13th, 2019. He was fifty years old. He loved comics. Comics loved him back. What follows is a series of personal anecdotes, thoughts, and memories of Tom.

** Most people in creative fields are lucky to have a single successful avenue for expression. Tom wound up having five in his lengthy, expansive career. He was one of the best-ever editors of The Comics Journal and in general a long-time champion of minicomics in particular. He fulfilled a dream when he wrote the syndicated comic strip Wildwood. He wrote an excellent biography on Stan Lee and helmed a history of Fantagraphics, that while troubled in its final execution, was superb in the portions that he wrote and organized. He launched the single-most-important comics blog and news site, The Comics Reporter, and kept it going through thick and thin--though rarely in a way that he was satisfied with. Finally, he became Executive Director of Comics Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a remarkable show in partnership with the Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State. Let's unpack some of these.

** In my opinion, Tom is the greatest comics critic of all time and its second-best interviewer (behind only Gary Groth). He matched his catholic tastes as a critic and reader with a relentlessly searching and demanding critical acumen that celebrated excellence and hated mediocrity. His willingness to go deep and celebrate comics in all its forms is what made him unusual. You were just as likely to read about an editorial cartoonist or an EC artist as you were about a French alternative cartoonist or someone from Fort Thunder at the Journal or the Comics Reporter. His reviews were often grumpy and curmudgeonly, but he never went for cheap heat. He was direct and sometimes harsh, though he was willing to change his mind from time to time. He was perhaps the earliest advocate of comics-as-poetry in the form of Warren Craghead.

His Sunday interviews at the Comics Reporter need to be collected. He went far and wide and went deep with so many comics veterans and up-and-coming cartoonists. I was lucky enough to be interviewed twice by him, once for art comics in 2012 and once to discuss Acme Novelty Library #19. In both instances, it was clear that he clearly delved into what I wrote and pushed me in interesting directions. He was demanding. When a story arose, he wanted documentation, names and dates. As much as he knew and wrote about and documented, you could fill a hundred books with the gossip and unsourced data that was in his head that he chose not to print. Tom had a powerful sense of integrity and wasn't afraid to get into conflicts because of it.

** Indeed, I chuckled at the number of remembrances of Tom today that contain some variation of "Tom and I didn't always see eye to eye..." or "We argued all the time". However, those anecdotes were inevitably followed by an affirmation of the respect and love people had for him. For Tom, comics was too important to not take criticism seriously, even if it meant hurting feelings. That didn't mean that he didn't care about people.

Indeed, The Comics Reporter was the single biggest nexus for connecting cartoonists and writers in need with a network that could help them. I can attest to this personally, as Tom not only posted notes with regard to financial crises that I've faced over the past decade, he also personally contributed on more than one occasion.

Tom did piss people off, and recently. He had a tart tongue and knew how to zing people. Of course, his most popular target was himself. Tom was famously self-deprecating, and this wasn't a pose. It was something he struggled with, I believe. At the same time, when Tom gave you a compliment, it felt earned. He said nice things about me all the time on TCR, and "hearing" compliments is something I struggle with. But when Tom said it, I listened and took it to heart. At the most recent SPX, when he congratulated me on the slate of programming and gave specific comments on certain panels he liked, it was the most profound compliment I received in a weekend full of overwhelming thanks and praise.

** Let's talk a little more about The Comics Reporter. In an age of twitter, facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media that make it easy to connect writers and artists with an audience, that site's influence was less pervasive. In its heyday, and pretty much up until he went to work for CXC, The Comics Reporter was required daily reading. A link from Tom meant that you were going to get read. I was incredibly grateful to Tom when he started linking my work at because that's when my writing started to get taken seriously. When sequart died and I started my own blog, I asked Tom for some industry-related advice, and he was kind enough to give it to me.

Tom went to bat for a number of creators in a multitude of ways. Anytime he went an editorial route, his opinions were incisive and well thought out. He didn't just report the news; he was an educator. He was crucial in making sense of the past fifteen years of comics' expansion and boom time. Tom had grand plans to expand it further that never came to fruition, much to his own frustration. He was down on himself for what he considered to be TCR's mediocrity, and I told him that even in this more vestigial form, he was still conveying more information than anyone else. Tom felt that burden of imagining a project and it never appearing quite as one hoped. But he did it anyway.

** Tom somehow wrote Wildwood while writing a biography about Stan Lee and freelancing for the Journal. He kept up The Comics Reporter while writing his book about Fantagraphics. That he wasn't able to finish it the way he wanted turned what should have been a classic into something that was highly self-congratulatory. Tom had a way of getting at the facts of what made something important with no patience whatsoever for frippery or self-promotion.

** I think the project that he was simultaneously proudest of and most troubled by was CXC. It is unbelievably hard to put together a comics festival. There are a lot of moving parts, especially when you're working with the grinding gears of a college bureaucracy. He seemed constantly weary when I saw him. However, the joy in his eyes and the genuine emotion in his voice when he was able to bestow the Emerging Cartoonist award (which includes a significant cash prize) showed exactly what comics and the people behind them mean to him. It meant a lot to him to give Katie Skelly, Kevin Czap, Kat Fajardo, Keren Katz, and Carta Monir both recognition and financial support. What a marvelous list that is: cutting-edge, diverse, and possessing the same kind of community values that Tom did.

Still: I know that Tom got blowback about any number of issues. Logistics proved difficult at times. I know that he did his best, but I also know that like everything he ever did, it wasn't quite like he pictured it. It doesn't matter, though, because what he did, working with a lot of different people, was still warmly received by so many people.

** Tom Spurgeon loved comics. He loved its shitty history and calling it out. He loved what comics is becoming now, and he loved what he saw as its future. He used his influence and power to lift others up, especially later in his career. Even his meanest reviews were never personal, even if some seemed dismissive. The targets of negative reviews tended to forgive him because of his sincerity and advocacy. He helped a lot of people in a multitude of ways, including me. I modeled my approach after his. He never steered me wrong. Without his example, his advice, and his direct help, I wouldn't be writing today. He loved comics, and comics loved him, and so did I.

Friday, November 8, 2019

mini-kus #79: Powerpaola's I Couldn't Stop

Ecuadorian-Columbian cartoonist Powerpaola's debut, Virus Tropical, was an excellent childhood memoir and heralded a run of such books by women. Her autobiographical contribution for the always-excellent mini-Kus series,(#79) I Couldn't Stop, is about an evening of portents in Buenos Aires. Her style is totally immersive, from the first panel depicting a full moon in the sky with probing eyes to the transition to a close-up of her own eyes, then distancing the reader with a pair of goggles. The entire comic depicts a kind of push-and-pull with the reader and with her world, as she found herself needing to get out and see people and connect with them in part because she had been working on a comics project about sex abuse.

There is an unsettling momentum with regard to fate in this comic, starting with a reference to the horoscope and continuing on to losing a supposedly protective bracelet, a warning from a friend about being on a bike, and seeing a cop wave a gun in the air in public. Along the way, she is almost defiant about rejecting and ignoring these omens, as she desperately needs to move, be active, and see her friends. The gray wash she uses adds to the dark mood of the comic, as well as her curious blend of naturalism and cartoony and almost grotesque character design. She seems to get what she needs with regard to defying fate, connecting with her friends, and even finding hope for change with regard to abuse and horror.

However, after that final portent of the cop waving a gun around and then sharply saying "Don't criticize me!" when people call him on his recklessness, she is defiant in going home on her bike, despite her friends begging her to go with her in their car. The result implies almost a kind of hubris on her part, that she may have managed to find a way to cope with the horrors swirling in her mind, but she ignored her safety in other, more basic ways--and she paid the price. The comic cuts off right at the point of her getting injured, with no further context or explanation. Given the warnings she gave the reader and that she herself ignored, no further explanations are needed. This is a grim comic that's nonetheless filled with moments of light before it spins off into the abyss, all told with a powerful sense of humanity.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Minis: Age of Elves #4

The fourth issue of Colin Lidston's slice-of-life story of four role-playing gamer friends circa 2000 once again focuses on Sarah, the sole girl in the group. In the last issue, it became clear to her that she was tired of doing all of the emotional labor in the group. She was tired of Evan's benders and of Bram's tantrums when people went outside of the Rules of the group. Indeed, it is ironic that groups of outcasts who can't seem to fall in step with social mores often tend to seek out subcultures with even more rigidly-defined rules of expected behavior. As per usual, Lidston favors a smudgy, slightly grotesque line that refuses to idealize its figures but also doesn't treat them as objects of derision. In particular, he excels at drawing people with larger body types in a way that makes sense, not as the object of a punchline.

In this issue, Sarah struck out on her own, hanging out with an older couple she had met in an earlier issue named Catherine and Alan. They gave her validation with regard to her interest in illustration and costume design in a way she didn't always get from her friends; more importantly, they represented new friends in an environment seemingly rife for making them at a gaming convention. Of course, her friends found it difficult to actually meet new people, mediating these relationships through the act of gaming itself, through drinking, or simply not interacting with anyone new. Sarah is the only one in the group looking to expand her horizons, if not reinvent themselves.

She learns how to make chainmail from Catherine. She's invited to go LARPing, though she declines. She attends an afterparty and has a good time. In particular, she has a conversation with Catherine that's telling. Catherine notes that she started playing D&D in the 1980s, when it was a fad for a while. At that time in 2000, with the fad long over, Catherine noted that the game now "belonged to us", meaning gamers. Catherine states confidently, "This is real life", but Sarah is unsure. That doubt is magnified when both Catherine and Alan make a pass at her as a couple, introducing a sexual world so far beyond Sarah's experience that she simply leaves as quickly as possible. It's another level of unreality, making her return to her friends a welcome experience. As imperfect and rigid as they are, they are what she knows. The question that remains is whether she will remain content with those imperfections in the long run or if she will address them. One issue remains in this surprisingly provocative series, one that offers up a number of subcultural critiques while still remaining respectful of those subcultures. It will be interesting to see if Sarah's story ends in resolution or resignation.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Shelf: Penny Nichols

Slice-of-life fiction is something I see a lot less of in comics these days, especially compared to its heyday in the 90s. A lot of it was perhaps thinly-veiled autobiography, only with a stronger narrative structure and/or more defined character arcs. Most fictional comics these days tend to be genre-inflected, even if the genre elements are in the background and the stories are heavily-character oriented. Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell are good examples of doing that at a high level. On the other hand, while MK Reed has done her share of genre work, she started her career working on slice-of-life books, and her big breakthrough was her love letter to libraries, Americus.

Her latest book, Penny Nichols, was written with frequent writing partner Greg "Clutch McBastard" Means and drawn by long-time minicomics stalwart Matt Wiegle. It's about a smart but aimless 26-year-old woman (the titular Penny Nichols) who is working a series of pointless temp jobs and going on the occasional horrible date. In reading it, this book is truly aimed at that mid-20s person who hasn't found their purpose in life. They don't have the ambition, ability, or interest to hook into the business world, but they've also faced a lifetime of discouragement in trying to do anything else. Their liberal arts degree seems pointless. They don't just want to hop on the marriage train and start having kids, but they don't know what they want.

In the case of Penny, she gets mixed up with a troupe of horror movie filmmakers who have plenty of vision and creativity, but they are missing the essential element of a single organizational brain. Reed and Means create a vibrant cast of horror geeks, over-acting theater guys, and dreamers who want a taste of something beyond their service or office jobs. Penny soon learns that much of the group, especially the two guys running Satan's Fingers Productions (or is it Killshot Films?) are long on ideas and short on actual follow-through. The spine of the narrative is built around making a horror film in time for a big indy horror-film event called Splatterfest.

Along the way, Reed & Means keep the focus on Penny and her life. That includes her adversarial relationship with her roommate, her dysfunctional relationship with her prim sister, and her own self-esteem as a person. The cover of the book is a neat summary of the narrative: Penny is there making directorial notes, adding make-up touches, holding a boom mic, assisting with blood for special effects, and then mopping up the whole thing. She's in blue while everything else is in yellow, a nice trick that focuses the reader's eye and makes them understand that the same person is in all of these roles. Penny helps write the script and do the storyboards, goes out and looks for costumes, scouts locations, and reads up on how to make a film. More to the point: she was encouraged to do this, and encouragement was all that she ever wanted and needed. She wanted to be part of something creative and to find a community that valued her for her creative instincts. Moreover, Penny Nichols hammers home one specific point: nothing you ever do will ever live up to your own ideal of what you wanted, so the most important thing to do is finish it.

Indeed, the final day of filming is one where Penny has to take over the most significant role: directing itself. The flaky director, whose anxiety always rose directly the closer he got to actually completing any project, didn't show up. Instead, Penny takes the reins and not only gets through it, she even manages to come to an understanding of sorts with her sister. Reed and Means keep the characterizations relatively simple but still allow each character to feel satisfied with themselves for their own contributions to the film. From the young special effects guy to the actress hungry for real structure, the crew manages to find workarounds for everything, both in terms of props, location, and even the story itself.

If all of this sounds like a metaphor for the comics community, that's because it is. Splatterfest itself is a love letter to events like SPX. Indeed, there's a time gap between the last day of filming and the convention, which opens with a young woman flagging down Penny and lavishing praise on the film. We learn that they didn't win the competition, but they did get a lot of attention and interest. Every artist and writer knows that feeling of someone coming up to you and telling them how important their work is to them. It's a sense of validation and belonging that was heretofore missing in the lives of so many. While that validation and camaraderie feels good and can be sustaining, Penny Nichols is firm in asserting the idea that it's the work itself that's most important.

Speaking of collaborations, Wiegle's cartoony, exaggerated style is ideal for a comic about making a horror movie. While a lot of his comics have dealt with fantasy or genre concepts, Wiegle at heart is a gag man. This is a book that has a lot of funny character moments, and Wiegle delivers a host of quirky, bizarre, and amusing character designs. Penny herself is gloriously frumpy, with hair piled on top of her head in somewhat haphazard fashion. Wiegle's varied line weights allow for a lot of precision character details as well as denser, more expressive lines when they film a bunch of the blood-splattering scenes. There is a sense of joy at the heart of this book, as the collaboration of the artist and writers reflects the enthusiasm of the cast of characters. Penny Nichols is about the joy of creation from concept to problem-solving to finished product, and it reflects how this shared passion can unite a disparate group of people in such an ebullient fashion. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Madeleine Aguilar's Minicomics

Madeleine Aguilar's upbeat autobio and fanciful comics are a delightful burst of fresh air. The two volumes of her autobiographical Precious Moments series feature expressive, stripped-down art founded on basic shapes. The first issue features the introduction of Baby Madeline, and Aguilar's depiction of her thoughts as an infant and toddler are both funny and warm. She captures that powerful sense of unconditional love that children feel for their parents, siblings, and grandparents as they feel like part of the same unit or being. The second issue (volume 5) features an older Madeline and a baby brother. Aguilar amusingly gets at several levels of sibling relationships at that age, from sharing the sheer joy of the world to being disgusted when he fills up his diaper. Aguilar uses a lot of blank space on her pages that gives them an almost sense of being scrawled on in a free and easy manner. That thick line has power, but it's also friendly and engaging.

That storytelling carries over in her equally cute middle-ages story Luteboy, which is about the titular character and his friends. Luteboy is an innocent to that point of being almost obnoxiously naive at times, something he gets roasted for from time to time by his monk friend Timotheus. Aguilar writes this character with a great deal of sincerity, but she's also acutely aware that he can be hard to take. This isn't a James Kochalka cute overload situation, but rather an instance of a character badly misunderstanding concepts like appropriate social cues, even if he does so without malice. At the same time, he's tolerated because he is so innocent and enthusiastic. Aguilar is also gently spoofing the concept of the idealistic, sensitive artist, as Luteboy often doesn't know how to take responsibility for his own actions or accept direction criticism. Still, his unflagging optimism wins the reader over, and at times his insights are real and poetic. Aguilar's line is unfailingly winning here, using a slightly lighter line weight but adding more detail to the comic.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Luke Pearson's Hilda And The Mountain King

There's no question that Luke Pearson is one of the most talented cartoonists of his generation. The sixth and final (for now) volume of his beloved Hilda series, Hilda And The Mountain King, not only caps off the cliffhanger ending of the previous volume but also ties together a lot of narrative threads from the very beginning. NoBrow very clearly knew what they had in Pearson from the beginning, as these books have always been printed at a size that allows his multi-panel pages to really breathe and flow. Of course, the care that NoBrow takes with their color and production values that mark each of their books has always been a highlight of the Hilda series, but the colors are far more muted and varied than in many NoBrow books. Indeed, Pearson uses a lot of negative space on his pages as a way to highlight individual character moments.

Color tends to dominate many NoBrow books over the quality of the line itself, but that's not the case for Pearson. His beautiful, expressive, and cartoony line takes precedence in every panel. The color simply accents and highlights the line. While his backgrounds and nature drawings are lush and warm, it's his use of gesture and body language in his character designs that truly draw in the eye. Pearson clearly looked at a lot of Chris Ware's work as well as Tove Jansson's, but there's also a lot of Donald Duck in there as well. The only contemporary who depicts panel-to-panel action on the same level is Jeff Smith, but Pearson has a more aesthetically-pleasing style.

The Hilda books center around the title character, a young girl living with her mother. First, they lived out in the woods in a forest filled with strange creatures like invisible elves, mountain-sized giants, and trolls who turn to stone in the daylight. Their existence and motivations sparked the first Hilda book and became a running part of the narrative, although mostly in the background. The key turning point in the series came when her mother moved them into the nearby city of Trolberg, whose whole purpose was to keep the trolls away. Hilda loves her mother but is also extraordinarily strong-willed, and that tension is at the heart of the entire series. Her mother worries about her and starts to feel Hilda pulling away from her, unwilling to share her life with her. That came to a head in the previous volume, Hilda And The Stone Forest, when they were trapped inside the mountain with trolls. All seemed to end well until the end when Hilda woke up as a troll with the troll-mother they had met, and Hilda's mom dealing with the troll-baby they had met.

The new volume picks up from that surprise twist and introduces a number of other plot twists while still conveying the sheer joy that Hilda learns to experience as a troll. She misses her mother and being human, but being a troll conveys a little of the wild experience she wants out of life, one absent of responsibility and expectations. Balancing that wild quality with the safety and comfort she feels at home is at the core of the story, as well as balancing fear with compassion and understanding. The big, epic ending simply recapitulates the series' themes: the relationships between mothers and children (but especially daughters) and the desire from all to have a place to call home. Those themes are writ both large and small throughout the series, though this book makes it big and splashy. The final images display the kind of balance that Hilda and her mother achieved with each other in a joyous fashion.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2019

Here's my usual dive into artists that SPX-goers should definitely check out. As always, I try not to repeat names from previous years and other shows.

1. The Triangle's Finest (Table W67) That would be three excellent cartoonists from the Research Triangle in my state of North Carolina: Andrew Neal (Hillsborough), Adam Meuse (Cary), and Max Huffman (Carrboro). Neal is the former owner of the excellent Chapel Hill Comics and the artist behind the hilarious and strange Meeting Comics. Meuse has been producing funny, strange, and touching minis for years, including the classic Sad Animals and Square. Huffman is a fairly recent grad of the School Of Visual Arts, He's a wild stylist with comics like Plaguers Int'l and Garage Island. This will be one of the best tables at the entire show.

2. Lance Ward (Table J9). I've been a fan of Ward's scorched-earth autobio for years, and I'm pleased to see his work get wider recognition. His new book, Blood and Drugs, is a harrowing and honest look at how an injury forced him to adapt to using a scrawled, almost manic style. He'll be at the Birdcage Bottom Books table, but all of his work is highly recommended.

3. ShortBox (Table W8).  The cutting-edge publishing concern of Zainab Akhtar will have a major presence at SPX. Like any smart publisher, she's way ahead of the curve with regard to up-and-coming talents; she was one of the first to become aware of Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, for example. This table will be jam-packed with great comics you may not have seen before. Zainab herself will not be there, but the books will be!

4. Diskette Press (Table I14). Carta Monir & Co. have quickly become a force to be reckoned with on the publishing scene. Come check out the work of Ignatz Award nominees Emma Jayne and Mar Julia in particular, but there's a wide variety of material to choose from.

5. Eleri Harris (Table L9). This Australian and graduate of the Center For Cartoon Studies is also a Nib editor and find historical/editorial cartoonist in her own right. Her historical comics are consistently well-sourced, funny, and fascinating.

6. Rachel Masilamani (Table A6a). I've been following her career since her Xeric Grant days, and her personal, poetic, and sometimes enigmatic work is better than ever. I'm excited that she has a chance to show off her work to a new audience.

7. Kate Lacour (Table H8-9). Her brand-new book Vivisectionary is out from Fantagraphics, and this is an engaging, witty, and visceral bit of body horror. Lacour's dry sense of humor is ever-present in this collection of drawings that were previously published in minicomics form, but the production values on this book make it a bizarre, beautiful art object.

8. Mary Shyne (Table I13a). This recent CCS grad is coming armed with her new book, Get Over It. Shyne's work is a perfect combination of top-notch production design and color, a playful line, and dialogue that mixes fantasy and verisimilitude. This will be one of the best books of the show.

9. Rikke Villadsen (W68-69). One of many Danes attending the show, Villaden's The Sea was a surreal, erotic, and terrifying mix of tropes and genres. Her pencil work, in particular, is dense and visceral. She'll also be at the Fantagraphics table.

10. Breena Nuñez (E11b). Her personal and political comics are playful, expressive, and powerful. Her comics about being Afro-Guatemalan often delve into family stories, but she's just as adept in using dynamic and innovative techniques in talking about injustice.

11. Glom Press (W6). Marc Pearson will be repping this excellent Australian Risograph publisher in their first SPX appearance. Bailey Sharp's My Big Life and Aaron Billings' Mystical Boy Scout #4 are particularly great.

12. Keren Katz (C13b). Katz is one of the most brilliant cartoonists working today. I haven't taken the deep dive into her work that I've wanted (I've only reviewed one book out of her extremely prolific output), but the way she works dance, abstraction, and comics-as-poetry into her narratives is relentlessly fascinating and confounding. There aren't many artists with a more sophisticated color palette, either. Her new book, The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, will be out from Secret Acres.