Thursday, February 16, 2017

Minis: Magic Whistle 3.2 and 3.3

Issue 3.2 and 3.3 of Magic Whistle (Alternative) find co-editor Sam Henderson (along with Marc Arsenault and David Nuss) still fiddling around with the anthology's format. Number 3.2 is in regular comic-book size and looks great, giving the gags more space on each page to breathe. Number 3.3 went back to the old mini-comics sized version, but this special X-mas issue is done in two colors (red and green, of course, by Jim Campbell). The bigger format was clearly better, but I hope future issues continue to feature color. The cover for 3.2 is a stand-out, with Danny Hellman illustrating a bedraggled Henderson in the future in front of a Dirty Danny statue somewhere, pleading "I created him, you know!" This is of course one of many inside jokes gone amok in Henderson's comics, as he created the Dirty Danny character as a take-off on a nickname Hellman held for a bit when he did a lot of illustration jobs for magazines like Screw.

Henderson has been recruiting both young humorists as well as welcoming back old pros. Issue 3.2 starts with a perfect fit with the slightly grotesque line of Tom Van Deusen, whose story about's Jeff Bezos being a whiny crybaby who has to get his way all the time and is incapable of doing actual work on his own is not just funny in an over-the-top way, it eerily mimics the behavior of those in charge of the country at the moment. Seeing Bezos tromp around in a giant robot and then smashing up a Starbucks because he can't get his coffee quick enough is hilarious, especially when he decides to take a nap in the middle of the street inside his robot. Everything about every line of Van Deusen's art is grotesque, unflattering and revealing. Amy Lockhart takes the grotesque factor up a notch--not in terms of her drawing, which is deliberately minimalist--but in terms of the behavior of her characters. One of whom is a woman desperate for love who adopts a puppy and lavishes ridiculous amounts of love on it, and the other is why she bought the puppy--her abusive boyfriend that she's relentlessly devoted to, who at first wants to kill the puppy and then starts to love it after she gets injured and starts bleeding. It's abuse-speak in its most exaggerated but naked guise on the parts of both parties, which is why the laughs one gets from it are so uncomfortable.

Brigid Deacon's three one-page strips are all six-panel grids with variations on single round objects, like the sun, fried eggs, and a rotten tooth, all in various states of decay. Devin Flynn uses a dense, ink-heavy style to make a joke about sex and death, while the highlight of the issue for me was seeing new work from the legendary Seth Cooper (of Paper Rodeo fame). This new "Zissy & Rita" strip was a parody of Adventure Time and role playing games, with Zissy roleplaying a princess and failing miserably, as a bad role destroyed everyone in her kingdom. Things start to get even weirder when the ever-cynical Rita joins in on the game and she wants to go hang out with some evil witches because they can conjure black drugs. Matthew Thurber sites Cooper as an influence, and I'm not sure Simon Hanselmann has seen his work, but there seems to be a connection there as well. Cooper at heart is a storyteller, and there are rock-solid storytelling fundamentals underneath all the weird silliness, which is what makes his work so compulsively readable. Hopefully some sensible person will collect the 25+ years of material he's done.

As far as Henderson's work went in this issue, the highlight was the long, shaggy-dog story "The Berry Bedford Driggs Estate", which is about a dying billionaire who's looking for a worthy person to inherit all of his wealth. Henderson adorns his typically simple character design with all sorts of decorative aspects, like heavily hatched drapes, cross-hatching in other panels and a black & white checkerboard pattern on the floor. Henderson then flips everything with regard to that formula with "I Don't Even Know Anymore", a long story with absurdist rules that intentionally defy logic yet still remain consistent with its premise. There's also some more Cappy Jennings in this issue, but it's so highly abbreviated that I'm not sure why he bothered to put it in this issue.

What's remarkable about Magic Whistle 3.3 is that Henderson put together yet another set of guest-stars for his anthology without duplicating a single cartoonist from any of the five prior attempts at this he had made. He led with the great Steven "Ribs" Weissman doing a take on Henderson's own absurd, obscene "Lonely Robot Duckling" character. Despite the difference in styles, Weissman's version works because his scratchy, stiff line fit well with the inevitable horrible things that happen to those who happen upon the Lonely Robot Duckling. Jen Sandwich's anthropomorphic autobio was amusing, thought not the sort of thing that I would expect in an issue of Magic Whistle. There were moments of humorous insights rather than actual laughs in this story. Long-time veteran Roy Tompkins makes great use of the green and red to create an almost 3-D effect to go with this grotesque exploration of the moon, with lots of wrinkled monsters and other assorted weirdness. Corinne Halbert's lurid strip resembles something Eamon Espey might due in terms of its violence, gore and bodies being eaten by worms, along with a peeping-tom joke.

Henderson turns to holiday versions of his greatest hits, including a Dirty Danny strip involving poo and another featuring "What Would Dirty Danny Do?" (like putting dildos on the christmas tree), the odious "He Aims To Please" at a holiday party and getting kicked out because he's a pervert, Gunther Bumpus getting stuck in the catflap again and getting abused by Santa, and Mr Slitzka abusing people at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas because he's Jewish. Henderson also includes an indecipherable flow chart about the holidays, a strip about a guy who vomits christmas presents, and a filthy story about a snowman coming to life. There are also some reprints from old issues of Puck magazine that are very difficult to read in this small format. This issue (despite the eye-popping Tony Millionaire cover) wasn't quite as strong as the previous one, but it also shows that Henderson is willing to take chances. Right now, there's no one willing to take the chance to do a comedy anthology, and Henderson is willing to put his own work on the line in such an endeavor.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Minis: The Ladybroad Ledger, The Magic Whistle

The Ladybroad Ledger, edited by Stephanie Zuppo. Billed as "Vermont's Femme Alt Comics Collective", this broadsheet is distributed for free throughout Vermont and not surprisingly has a lot of cartoonists who have or are attending the Center for Cartoon Studies. The cover strip went to Glynnis Fawkes, an illustrator and cartoonist who specializes in stories about ancient Greece and Greek mythology. In hues of dark orange, brown and red, she spins a tale of someone dressed as a minotaur who seduces a young woman away from the party they're attending to another "party" in his labyrinth. It's a chilling scene, made all the moreso by pursuers who came along later in an effort to rescue her. Fawkes' ability to inject charm and even whimsy into what is in reality a horrifying situation gives this strip a certain tension that continues to ramp up until the end. Julianna Brazill offers an appreciation of the Apsen tree, which is as much a tree colony as it is a single organism, while Bridget Comeau offers up a sharply-drawn recipe for "Finnish Pie".

Rachel Lindsay's silly exercise about an imaginary relationship between a highly evolved Luna bar and a rugged Clif bar was hilarious--especially the ending, when the customer she's telling the story to walks away. I had seen Iona Fox's comics before in one of her minis, but it's always nice seeing her unusual character design that's a touch on the grotesque side. Kelly Swann's naturalistic take on the life of a woman inspired by her gravesite was effective in its evocation of what made her tick, while Michelle Sayles' political cartoons are well-rendered but more than a little over the top. Zuppo's strip about an unscrupulous funeral director trying to secretly upsell her family on a casket was outraging. Angela Boyle tends to draw about interesting species of nature, and her strip here was a mysterious and silent story about a young woman finding the remains of what looked like a great whale on land as she tries to capture what look like tiny seed pods. Susan Norton's strip is an extended metaphor about drifting though life as an as astronaut drifts in orbit, finding solace upon being back on earth, albeit sitting around a campfire. Sandy Bartholomew's finely-rendered strips explore the nature of character dynamics in relationships as well as some brutal commentary about not just heat & passion, but also about how she reacts to guns and gun culture. The strips are both funny and harrowing, especially one where she's being given a spiel by a gun salesman that emphasizes things like stopping power. Finally, Laura Martin's distinctive use of blacks highlights an obliquely-told story about a masked ball and the mysterious intentions of one participant in particular. All told, this is a stylish broadsheet with a number of different storytelling approaches, with a solid level of craft throughout.

The Magic Whistle, Volume II #15, Volume III #3.0. All edited by Sam Henderson, Marc Arsenault, and David Nuss. After years of publishing Magic Whistle as a solo minicomic, the last three issues of MW Volume II were devoted to establishing a humor anthology, with several guest artists per issue. With Volume III Henderson has made that the primary mission of each issue, with a wide variety of comics veterans as well as new artists given space for their work. Henderson's sense of humor has always simultaneously been the silliest and the fundamentally smartest in all of comics, as his ability to break down the structure of a scenario like a guy continually getting stuck in a dogflap or how having an extra ass is hilarious on an almost scientific basis. His comics range from that visual/verbal split in the form of gags or longer narratives, always building to a punchline but often undermining that punchline with a deconstruction of the gag that is in itself hilarious.

MW #15 was the last in the old numbering format that Alternative Comics released. Henderson is pretty much a gag machine and can fill up dozens of pages, but his material works especially well when it's interspersed with other comedic approaches. Still, the "Your Ass Directed By" two-pager is Henderson at his absolute best, with eighteen ass jokes on two pages referring to Hollywood directors, each one intricately connected to their source material. The jokes about Ed Wood and Shia LeBoeuf are especially funny. Henderson's exaggerated autobio comics are also always highlights, like his "Mr Slitzka" feature starring an especially cruel physical education teacher and several running gags. "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" is about a toxic couple who escalate cruel pranks on each other after their break-up, but Henderson puts on the brakes and whips out a far different and funnier punchline than the narrative initially suggested. "First Drafts" reimagines key lines from famous films as something extremely dumb ("we're going to need a bigger goat"), while jokes about the future, "Rom-Coms For Other Species" and "Famouser Firsts" read like really well-done MAD gags. An especially nasty and funny installment of the Dirty Danny saga (featuring Dirty Danny inviting people to a garbage island with no rules) caps off an especially strong issue for Henderson. Meghan Turbitt's interpretation of the Marvel character The Thing as a mother nursing an adult version of her was the usual kind of hyperkinetic weirdness from the artist, while Steven Kraan's crudely-drawn absurdities are a perfect fit for this issue. Top it off with a great Victor Cayro masturbation gag on the back cover and some reprints from old humor magazines, and you have a nearly perfect humor comic.

Magic Whistle 3.0 made plain what Henderson really wanted: an anthology humor periodical that included his own work. This first issue in the new format (keeping the same minicomics size) featured a running "Sid & Sid" feature from John Brodowski, which included an art museum devoted to paintings about horror movies, a bell jar craft exhibit featuring butterflies and tiny replicas of authors committing suicide, a momentous undersea archaeological find in the form of a sponge with square pants, and horrifying first contact with aliens in the shape of clowns. JB's comics have always been funny, but he comes down more on the side of straight gags than the funny but unsettling material he usually does.  Manuel Gomez Burns' rubbery figures are as sharp a contrast from Henderson's deliberately crude figures as Brodowski's naturalistic style is, but Burns' work is similar in that it works on a conceptual as well as visual level in deconstructing time and space in a comics panel.

Henderson's comics often have a vicious quality to them as well, and Leah Wishnia's revenge comic about creating the perfect spitball to destroy someone who slighted her fits right in, Her gleefully crude line and over-the-top demonic explosions at the end are hilariously cruel and give the comic a greater  edge. Ansis Purins is another cartoonist who mixes humor and horror, and his comic here is no exception, as it follows two brothers (a jock and a nerd who can't be separated from his tablet) going out into nature. The jock berates his brother and throws away his tablet but feels bad--until he's confronted by an army of monsters and zombies. His younger brother saves him and they bond over smashing monsters together. This comic gets its humor from the action as it does from a particular gag or concept, making for another departure in the comic. Speaking of violence, Jesse McManus takes the characters from Henderson's old Nickelodeon comic, "Scene But Not Heard" and puts them through ultra-violent and psychedelic paces in a way that honors the originals but adds McManus' own trippy and slightly rubbery line as his own signature. The real find of the issue was Peter Bagge digging up some old comics from his older brother Doug, which happen to be absurd, angry and highly pointed. Bagge wasn't exaggerating when he said that drawing comics and being funny came naturally for his brother, who lost interest in them prior to dying young. These comics are a fantastic find and point to Henderson as not just a humorist, but someone who thinks constantly about the craft and history of comics. The way he likes to include reprints of old humor magazines also points to this, and it made for a remarkably rich issue.

Henderson went out of his way to up his own game, with a joke about what chewing gum is called in each state that's a parody of the sort of infographic one might see on Facebook. He actually went the extra mile of coming up with one for each state, including items like "Goof Pickles", "Nobody's Applesauce" and "Windowless Christmas". There's the serial "The Cappy Jennings Story", about a popular 1950s comedian whose catchphrase is "Look at my ass!", and his rise and fall. It's the prototypical Henderson long-form comic in that it provides a warped view of history that still feels familiar and pairs it up with an incredibly stupid punchline. Henderson also included his share of single-panel gag strips, this time acting as interstitial material instead of as the meat of the comic--a role they are perfectly suited for. The next two issues of Magic Whistle, which I'll be reviewing tomorrow, have a slightly different format.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Minis: E.K. Williams, MariNaomi, Sophia Foster-Dimino

Babybel Wax Bodysuit, by Eric Kostiuk Williams (Retrofit). Williams pulls off a star turn in his first Retrofit comic, using color for maximum effect after publishing his earlier comics in black & white. The conceit of the fluidity of form in the object of the red wax on cheese is remarkably effective, especially in the way that Williams likes to warp and bend reality and physical forms. Williams' comics are a mixture of the cheeky, the philosophical, the intellectual, the sexy and the emotionally intimate, and I love that metaphor of stripping something away to get at the really good stuff. This comic has a number of short stories, the standout being "The Literal Word", which is about teenage Williams becoming friends with an older, Christian, Republican woman on a comics forum. Using his fluid, melting style, Williams transforms himself into his avatar (Daredevil) and transforms his friend into a queen, since she was sort of the group's mother hen. It's a typically thoughtful, visually gripping and expressive story about learning things about others who are very different than you while at the same time finding your own way in life. In his case, it was discovering the gay club scene in college and slowly drifting away from her. Williams has some smart things to say about Facebook and how its algorithms discourage cross-cultural exchange while being nostalgic for his old internet support network.

In addition to a number of visually spectacular one-page strips (some straightforward, others surreal), the other big story was "Britney Jean 2116". You would expect a story about Britney Spears being preserved as a cyborg for Las Vegas shows in the year 2116 would be campy, and one would not be wrong. However, this story is less about camp and more a dystopian sci-fi story about commodification (a running theme of this comic) and loss of identity. It's a story that on the one hand appreciates her silly pop songs at face value, but also questions the corporate structure that pressured her and caused her so much anxiety. It's a fear that Williams worries about on a larger level as an artist, since he's concerned that his honest self-expression might eventually be appropriated and commodified aginst his will, either in his lifetime or beyond. Structuring it in a legitimately exciting sci-fi story makes it all the more fun, especially with an open-ended conclusion where Britney is not yet ready to join a larger revolution. Williams mixes politics, aesthetics, philosophical concept and his own hard-won wisdom in an ambitious stew that is distinctive in terms of its component parts being discernible but also forming something greater and more original than the simple sum of those parts. He does this with a supple line and a skill with both line and color that is already quite formidable.

I Thought YOU Hated ME, by MariNaomi (Retrofit). These are memoir comics at their most intimate, as MariNaomi examines an on-again, off-again friendship with enormous importance over a span of close to forty years. What I liked best about this story was MariNaomi's varied but always assured cartooning style that emphasized facial expression to such a degree that she was often able to excise virtually every other element from the page when the situation called for it. There's also a sharp tale told here about the ways in which personalities can change over time, as eight-year-old Mari was extremely shy, while her best friend's new friend, Mirabai, was a confident and even obnoxious tomboy. They often ganged up on her and made fun of her in a series of strips that were a deliberate homage to Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips: stumpy character design, deliberately simple facial features, etc. Along the way, something interesting happened: Mirabai became a genuine friend.

Another homage to Schulz, the famous "Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he's trying to kick it", is done twice here: first, in the same way, and second, where Mirabai actually puts the ball down and lets Mari kick it. That was beautifully symbolic of the closeness of their relationship, one where they shifted roles as Mari became the bad girl and Mirabai was the one who had no interest in smoking, doing drugs or losing her virginity as quickly as possible. Of course, despite her new coolness, Mari was pissed that the guys would fall for Mirabai instead of her, until she became resigned to the idea because Mirabai really was that great. When Mari ran away from home, Mirabai was there to help. When their twenties rolled around, neither understood just how fragile friendships can really be. Both floated in and out of each other's lives, thinking the other no longer wanted to be friends, until their mid-thirties.

What follows after that is a series of wonderful, intimate conversations about relationships, their pasts, their futures, debilitating diseases, professional successes and small moments spent together. The scenes of mutual, genuine affection get highly detailed, realistically drawn close-ups to emphasize not just their intimacy as friends, but an intimacy that's unique to them. Simpler drawings allow for the reader to identify with the characters with greater ease than more naturalistically- rendered drawings, and they also tend to move the action along with greater ease. With a realistic drawing that's a close-up, that's the artist's way of telling the reader to stop and take a long look at this image before moving on. This is ultimately a sweet and simple story that revolves around its story beats, which are as much about what is not said as what is directly expressed.

Vom Night, by Sophia Foster-Dimino. This is an interesting project, published by JMC Aggregate, which features a comic by Foster-Dimino and a download code for a song of the same name as the comic at by gobbinjr, aka Emma Witmer. The song is dreamy and atmospheric, which fits nicely into SFD's narrative within a narrative. It's about a young woman who goes about her day as a cake decorator at a bakery who in her thoughts is telling someone (herself? an imaginary correspondent? something in-between?) a story about a dream that she's had. The story fills her every waking moment, especially when she's doing automatic activities like brushing her hair or walking to work. SFD's figure work here is incredibly satisfying just to look at, as the unnamed protagonist's slightly chunky body and long, red hair drawn to resemble a labyrinth at times gives each panel a certain presence. Her blank eyes betray the fact that she's not entirely there, even as she tries to be kind and sympathetic toward her co-workers. That's especially true of one co-worker who is concerned about her brother and later learns that he's in the hospital. What the co-worker mistakes for kindness and compassion is simply the protagonist doing her very best from spacing out again so that she can get back to telling herself her story. That said, when told that she's a good listener, she frowns and doesn't have anything to say to that, as it was clear that she was listening out of a sense of social obligation and politeness rather than genuine concern. This was a fascinating take on introversion and how unknowable the mind truly is, and it was the delicate, restrained quality of Foster-Dimino's line that made it so effective.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Conundrum: Jillian Fleck's Lake Jehovah

Jillian Fleck's debut book Lake Jehovah is the sort that an artist with a lot to say tends to throw at the world; there are multiple levels of meaning, metaphor and symbol in the comic that take a long time to unpack, along with a complex visual playbook that riffs on all sorts of formal tricks like the use of the grid and repeating visual motifs. Fortunately for the reader, Fleck was up to the task that she set for herself in telling a story of multiple apocalypses, mysterious illnesses, horny demons and talking animals, and a remarkable balance of the absurd and the deadly serious. Along the way, there's a serious examination of the value of poetry, the utility of language in general and a restless exploration of gender and sexuality, It's done with a humane and sympathetic take on all of the characters, no matter their experiences.

Whether one prefers to refer to it as magical realism or simply deeply symbolic, here's the book's plot. A young genderqueer person named Jay finds ximself diagnosed with Soft Disease, which is apparently a not uncommon diagnosis in a world that's experienced multiple apocalypses up to that point. Jay is constantly worried that xis partner, Mells, is going to leave xim, which in fact is exactly what happens, as Mells runs off with Jay's old professor Asterix. When Jay falls asleep for several months as a result, a number of odd things occur. First, Jay's writings have become a prophecy of the new apocalypse, and created a tourist industry as a result. (This is one of many cleverly sardonic touches in the book.) Jay encounters an old friend who dresses up as a spirit animal to give tours, meets two true believer Apocalypse Tourists, encounters a sleazy poet, the poet's demon drug dealer, a talking fox and what purports to be Jay's guardian angel. In the end, the apocalypse may or may not have happened, but Jay realizes that it doesn't really matter.

Let's unpack all of this. This is a comic that is primarily about mental illness and how that plays into relationships, real world difficulties and day-to-day survival. Jay is deeply depressed and anxious, exhibiting any number of mental illness symptoms, but most significantly is that of catastrophization. That is, every problem or fear is extrapolated so as to become a worst-case scenario. That depression is closely correlated to feelings of worthlessness and meaninglessness, especially when faced with any kind of perceived betrayal or rejection. Suicidal ideations become common. Anxiety is another major symptom described here as well. The exact diagnosis is less important than the symptoms in terms of the story, but the way they're described it could be anything from bipolar 2 to borderline personality disorder, with the latter seeming more likely.

How does this play out in terms of the story? A "soft disease" sounds like an apt description of mental illness. The apocalypses and the sense that the world is ending (especially when Jay's fiance leaves) fit right into that sense of imminent catastrophe, especially the fact that the world has seemingly ended multiple times in multiple ways. Suicide and self-harm are given form in the titular lake, whose name represents the cold judgement of an omnipotent god. When Jay confronts xis "guardian angel" at the end, it's at the bottom of the lake, with the full weight of god's judgment literally on top of them both. Drugs are a big part of the book, and all they seem to do is magnify one's problems and self-image, not provide answers or refuge. It's no accident that the "guardian angel" avatar is the same lurid, day-glo color as Jay was when xe was on a serious trip; it's a huge ball of rage against everything in the world, especially ximself. There's a grueling scene where Jay in that mode brutally murders a vicious dog, which in itself was colored in the same way and thus feeling the same kind of rage. Meeting rage with rage, Fleck suggests, does nothing to actually address the root of that rage, that self-hatred that comes from a lack of self-worth.

Jay's antipathy toward poetry is another key aspect of the book. Xe hates it because xe regards it as a form of lying, of being indirect in communication. Jay's fiance Mells loves it precisely because some things cannot be expressed directly, that sometimes language is incapable of accurately capturing certain kinds of experiences in a straightforward manner. You have to talk around and through certain things to really deliver the message, which is especially funny because this comic makes great use of comics-as-poetry at times. The repeated use of tiny panels; the use of "rhyming" images to indicate patterns of behavior or portents of things to come and even the use and then breaking out of the grid to get at a sense of disorder are just a few examples of how Fleck's visual strategies reflect poetry, not to mention the heavy use of symbolism.

Another key to the comic is that no one is any more or less a sympathetic figure. When Jay finds ximself with a huge, gaping wound on xis stomach (and I don't believe it's a coincidence that the genderqueer Jay, who has a penis, would develop a wound with a labial shape), the wound winds up being xis real conscience. There are no apocalypses save the ones you make up. Jay's fiance' left because Jay had become mentally ill and was unwilling to recognize this, much less get help. Jay's pathological need to be reassured that a relationship would never end is what caused the relationship to split apart. Sex for Jay was not always a means of connection; it was sometimes a means of escape. Fleck makes it clear that Jay's problems are not imaginary; the world is an awful place in many ways, with toxic landscapes and violence & death lurking in so many places. There's always a personal doomsday that's about to arrive for someone in the world. Jay did have genuine mental illness issues and did have a loved one leave xim. The problem, Fleck suggests is taking those problems and turning them into something far worse, something monstrous. Fleck's figurework is a little rough in some places, as her characters look somewhere between Archie characters and Simon Hanselmann's, with a strong understand of how both Chris Ware and Frank Santoro create a page. The use of the grid is central to so much of the story, but so is finding ways to literally destroy it as Jay smashes symbolic shapes. Ultimately, the story winds up being one about self-acceptance, even in the face of one's darkest fears.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

mini-Kus! Of The Week # :11 S! #26: Dada

This is my final Kus! article for a while, as I've caught up to most of their work. For this final installment, I'll be reviewing issue #26 of the Kus! anthology, S!. Doing Dada-inspired work can be a tricky business, especially if one's understanding of Dada as an art movement is limited to surface qualities like absurdity, randomness and negation. Dada is aesthetic, political and personal. It examines the limits of rationality and the ways in which rationality is a slave to convention. It questions assumptions, smashes elitism and is frequently conceptual at a level where one questions the foundations of art. Dada is dead because specific Dada artists created particular works to address specific ideas at precise moments in time. Those moments of time are now gone, and now the work is inert. Dada will never die because there are always new moments to describe and new problems to address. The famous quote goes, "Like everything else, Dada is meaningless." Dada questions its own assumptions and existence the way it questions everything else.

So what are comics inspired by Dada like? They should be personal, they should be readily available to the public (a comic is an excellent format for Dada-inspired art), and they should explore and go beyond our everyday understanding of what comics, lines on paper and text can be. Two of the artists who really nailed it were Marc Bell and Dunja Jankovic. Working in their own styles, they captured different senses of what Dada explored, with the understanding that Dada's various manifestations across the globe had different emphases. Bell has always been an absurdist who has used cultural detritus to inform his jokes, as well as a "ready-made" style of repurposed imagery. In his strip here, he employs his tortured warping of language to create almost entirely nonsensical conversations between different creatures, with a nod of the hat to Dada artist Francis Picabia. There is nothing naive or random about this comic; it's an entirely calculated series of images and words that form a complex and connected set of visual and verbal jokes. Jankovic works in her story, eschewing language in favor of alternating psychedelic black & white patterns and brightly-colored & vaguely phallic shapes. Each is meant to stimulate different parts of the brain; the psychedelia is there to shut down thought and engage in the powerful visual stimulus. The shapes are meant to inspire interpretation, preferably a dirty one. It's part of the gag, and the way Jankovic whips one's sense from one mode of thinking to the next is precisely the kind of disorientation that Dada is meant to produce.

Roman Muradov, another artist already heavily influenced by the shapes of artists like Jean Arp, uses the old Dada cut-up technique to form text that drives the geometric shapes he uses for this slip of a story about body parts. Olaf Ladousse uses the formal qualities of bright blue and pink, reminding the reader of the artificiality of the colors in his construct, to create a gag about Dada. Brie Moreno does something similar with her Peter Max-inspired, brightly colored figures that discover a living version of Raoul Hausmann's famous sculpture The Spirit Of Our Time: a sort of (literal) dummy head representing banality. The characters in the story are literally bitten by this banality in their effort to try to care for it. Jaakko Pallasvuo uses a collage technique by taking an old issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and repurposing it as an ode to Marcel Duchamp, especially the way his art was so conceptual. The story is a kind of dream about Duchamp (hence appropriating material about the Dream King), thinking about his prowess playing chess and the way he rushed through his ideas.

Andy Burkholder's absurd breakdown of language and image, of sign and signifier, is funnier still because of the way he also breaks down the idea of the iconic, cartoon image. It's a metacommentary where all artifice is not only laid bare, but the component parts are broken down to such a degree that language is made meaningless and image is also an artificial construct. Vincent Fritz explores shapes and the way the brain immediately applies utility to them, using three circles as a sort of perpetual-motion figure that's having items dropped to it. Sammy Stein comes at this idea from a different angle, as he begins with a tree, then we see it chopped down and sectioned; the sections are sent overseas to then get stacked and covered in concrete, and finally they are placed in a graveyard as a sculpture memorializing Dada. It's a good gag that nonetheless gets at the absurdity of certain processes and the arbitrary nature of monuments.

Daniel Lima brilliantly remixes the dialogue and situation of a George Herriman Krazy Kat page in his own style, with the now-human characters in sacks and toting around doors, creating odd geometries that still has a powerful impact because of the Herriman's deliberate mangling of language that is nonetheless recognizable. Both Liva Kandevica and Jose' Ja Ja Ja focus in mostly on the ways that language gets mangled; in the former case, language is seen as a constant form of aggression, and in the latter, the artist reinterprets famous Dada quotes around his own angular, cluttered imagery. Some of the other comics don't quite zero in on Dada's principles in a recognizable way; a couple (like Dylan Jones and Ernests Klavins) focus in on more of the random images or strange narrative ideas that some associate with something being absurd than specifically Dada. Still, this tightly-edited book is surprisingly challenging and well-considered with regard to its theme, and a number of pieces fit perfectly in the Dada tradition.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Aaron Lange Sells Out

One of the most talented of the latest generation of underground artists (the Mineshaft generation?), Lange's comics are a mixture of brilliant drawing, challenging insights and juvenile humor. For Lange, his idea of selling out came in the form of his CaSh Grab comics, issues one through three. Published by The Comix Company, they are meant to mostly be sketchbook highlights but Lange inevitably adds his own ideas and meditations on any number of subjects, starting with his struggle to get sober. There is a remarkable power to be gained in understanding one's own sense of powerlessness in the face of addiction, and going sober not only did nothing to dull Lange's edge as an artist, but it gave his work a great sense of clarity. The first issue of Ca$h Grab has a lot of portraits drawn at bars, and Lange is superb at capturing the essence of his subjects with a naturalistic style the emphasizes weariness and even pain on his subject's faces, like that of a "horny mom threw teen daughter a naked twister sex party, AA sponsor says". Lange drew her as sad and searching with big eyes and a sense of desperation, not as a lurid figure.

Which is not to say that there's not any filth to be found here. No one does it better than Lange, but even here, he uses it for more than just shock. Depicting addiction as a beautiful, naked woman begging him to come back gets at his lament of "oh, gawd, it's just so awful sometimes". A lot of the drawings here were clearly done as a way to keep his hands busy and his mind active, from drawing pictures of Scully from the X-Files to old superhero logos to an account of a recent acid trip. Without perhaps even meaning to, Lange created a sobriety journal with a remarkable amount of impact. The second and third issues are more conventional, as they are mostly assembled from reprints of the kind of Hollywood portraits that Drew Friedman does. That is, the portraits, though mostly naturalistic, often offer a kind of commentary about each figure. Every now and then, Lange made a joke about the subject's appearance or their role (Elizabeth Montgomery). There are punk figures, figures from old Hollywood and cult figures. Lange ranges from his standard, thick black line to a painstaking use of stippling. The effect is different from Friedman, who uses a hyper-real style to make his figures seem more rubbery, while Lange seems to want to create a noir, sleazy atmosphere for all of his subjects to be a part of. The third issue has more of Lange's silly jokes, like changing the DeNiro film to "Uber Driver", with DeNiro holding up two phones that have pictures of guns with them, saying "Are you texting to me?" A lot of the images in this issue came from commissions, but the funniest image was that of Klaus Nomi as The Punisher.

Lange's real work comes in the pages of his series Trim, and the third issue has a lot of highlights. I find Lange's casual use of racist and homophobic terms to be kind of dumb, because it's obvious that he's a smart person who actually thinks about social and political issues. Part of that stems from his "I don't give a fuck" attitude, which adds energy to a lot of his work but also detracts from it at times. Opening the issue with images from his high school yearbook and the creepy feeling he gets from looking at them now is Lange at his best: confronting his id without letting himself off the hook. "Where Have All The Cool Faggots Gone?" is actually an interesting piece in its analysis of the conflation of outsider culture with gay culture as he discusses a number of historical figures, but coming at this culture from a position of obvious privilege was not only obnoxious, it refused to do the hard work of actually trying to investigate the current avant-garde of gay culture.

As always, his autobio is top-notch. "Bummer Vacation" finds him quitting his awful job and running off to his mom in Cleveland, leaving his long-suffering wife behind. It's a fascinating account of literally trying to go home again, finding some aspects of it sweet and other aspects bitter as inevitable decay struck at beloved childhood memories. More than anything, the trip served to calm him down. "Float" is about him finally getting to try a sensory deprivation tank and feeling ready for whatever hallucinations and/or revelations it might bring, only to panic after just a couple of minutes in the tank. As someone curious about the experience yet knowing that I would also resist the experience, I could sympathize. The back half or so of the comic was dedicated to the sort of "horrible, horrible" gag cartoons that Ivan Brunetti used to do, only Lange relies heavily on visual and verbal puns. This is where Lange goes all the way to the edge and beyond, with jokes about Rwandan genocide, Nazis, Anne Frank, desperately wanting a drink and more. My favorite features included the running "Sassy Bartender", which plays on the increasingly dumb and dirty names for drinks and "Bill Fingered", a Batman joke I couldn't help but laugh at. Lange's approach, as always, is to pummel the reader with joke after joke, delicately-rendered & filthy image after image. For every dumb or gross joke, Lange lands two smart and pointed gags. Lange's comics are high-risk, high-reward and packed with content from cover to cover.

Trim #4 may be the best issue yet, anchored by the excellent biography of musician Peter Laughner that also serves to act as a sort of history of Cleveland itself. With a flowing, open-page layout that mixed in naturalism, caricature, stippled portraits that had a ghostly quality (an intentional effect), Lange told the short, unpleasant story of an influential but highly self-destructive musician who was in a number of bands, including the first iteration of Pere Ubu. In Lange's view, Laughner and Cleveland were inseparable: two doomed, isolated and underappreciated entities consumed by disaster. There's no question that he was a genius, but he was also violent, unpredictable and frequently anti-social, making him difficult to work with in a band setting. Throughout the story, Lange peppers it with repeating jokes, lyrics and images that reflect the "Ain't No Fun" quality of the story's title and also a title of one of Laughner's songs. This is punk as true nihilism, seeking nothing but total immolation of everything, including oneself. This is Lange at his best: cogently critiquing Laughner without either judgment or sentiment, letting the facts speak for themselves even as he improvised a different visual technique to anchor each page, be it a psychedelic background for Laughner's high school band days or a savage pencil-dominated drawing of animals reclaiming Cleveland. Lange's research was clearly extensive, and it was clearly relayed with a minimum of tedium and a high degree of focus on its most interesting aspects. The rest of the issue is also solid, as Lange puts his remarkable observational and raconteur skills on display in a story about the strange behavior of his new neighbors and unleashes the usual array of pretty funny, filthy gags, the best of which were the hilariously weird "Pig the Fucks" (involving putting pig noses on cops) and "Twerk Will Set You Free", which is perhaps the most absurd Nazi-related filth I've ever seen.

The collection of Washington Beach strips basically showed that a little of that concept went a long way. Compiled in one place, the strip mostly feels like a waste of Lange's talent, as he takes fish-in-a-barrel aim at hipsters and their assorted drug habits, obsessions and sexual habits. While the structure and rhythm of the strip is drum-tight, the gags are often groan-inducingly obvious or cheap. That said, some of the running gags (one of the hipsters often saying "I better txt andy about this!") were sharp and Lange is superb at creating callbacks. On the other hand, his My Dad collection is tremendous, with each strip building on the next to create a hilarious, nuanced portrait of his father that gently mocks him and also displays Lange's genuine affection and admiration. The mini is also a document of Lange's growing skills as an artist over the past few years, as his figure drawing in particular has become much more confident and bold, even as his versatility in terms of drawing style has blossomed. There's one sequence of strips where we see a completely naturalistic image of his dad, a stripped-down/geometric Brunetti-style drawing, a cartoony version and a number of in-between versions--all of which made sense depending on the nature of the anecdote. Two fun running gags: Lange throwing in a blatant lie about his father that his dad would yell about, and Lange's father yelling at his brother (drawn either as a hippie or a punk) about all sorts of things. Lange's use of layout is unusual, as he packs a lot of material into a small space but uses carefully-placed and differently-shaped panels (often circles) to break up the page and let the eye rest a bit.

Finally, there is Huge, a double-barreled blast of putrid filth aimed at the Trump administration and all of the associated cronies. In other words, when they go low, Lange responds by plunging his targets into oceans of bile, shit and filth. He actually starts out in smartass mode, using various slurs as Trump's hair, but then goes into full Ralph Steadman mode, creating hallucinatory nightmares of monstrous Trump figures with penis pustules all over his face, dripping blood and other fluids. Other targets like Mike Pence and Steve Bannon are barely human predators, eating rats and drowning in semen--barely able to grunt. It is an all-out assault that hits as hard as any Trump caricatures this side of Warren Craghead. Lange really hits a nerve with depicting these leaders as luxuriating in death, decay and their own depraved sickness. Unlike Lange's usual filthy drawings, there's no joy or fun to be had here: just a powerful mirror held up to those in power. These images are drawn as much as they seem to be vomited straight from Lange's mind onto the page, and their impact is more visceral than anything I've ever seen the talented Lange do.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Secret Acres: Gabby Schulz's Sick

Gabby Schulz's Sick is body horror in the most relevant and realistic sense of the word. In many ways, it's a recapitulation of his entire career to date, and it's the most brutal and nihilistic take on both humanity and (especially) himself since the first couple of issues of Ivan Brunetti's Schizo. The story is simple: it's an account of fifteen days spent with a serious illness, one that debilitated him to the point where he could no longer even get up to drink water or use the bathroom. From the description, it sounded like an extreme form of the flu. Influenza is no joke, and it can kill people who don't have strong constitutions, are very young or very old, or have no support or care. The latter case describes Schulz, and that's the heart of the comic.

Living alone with roommates he doesn't know all that well and without being in contact with any friends, Schulz also didn't have the money to go to a doctor and wasn't willing to risk a hospital ER that would likely turn him away for lack of insurance. The sheer misery of that experience, where one's skin feels like it's on fire, where your entire body is wracked with pain, your stomach is doubled over with cramps, you lose control of your bowels, you are unable to eat, where sleep barely seems to help--it's no wonder why it led to such a brutal dark night of the soul for him. That said, Schulz has never been one to mince words with regard to the horrors of our society and to the ways in which we fool ourselves into buying into a system that is essentially meaningless and hollow at its core. Even trying to enjoy the little things is next to impossible because it's all part of a doomed, poisoned world. Schulz is well aware of how much worse most people in the world have it than him, as a cis white straight male; indeed, he knows that he is complicit in what he has been given as a result of his privilege.

What's interesting is that despite all of this and frequent wishes that he would just die, Schulz simply wasn't wired for suicide. He had no way of answering the question: "Why bother living?" other than to say that we're hard-wired to do so and equally hard-wired to have hope in the face of calamity. There's no ray of sunshine to be had here, making this an even grimmer read than Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (its nearest literary equivalent), which at least held out experiencing aesthetic beauty as a meaningful activity. For an artist like Schulz, even that activity is spoiled by the reality of the world. And yet, he does it anyway, walking out to a park and drawing in his sketchbook. If the problem of existentialism is how we relate to the sheer existence of other people (think the final line of No Exit: "Hell is other people."), then what Schulz does is hint at that connections are the only way we can successfully fool ourselves into continuing to have meaningful hope.

He suggests that the moments of happiness in his life consisted of finding ways to return to the womb, and that included his relationships. The problem with that point of view is another central problem of existentialism: that we can never truly know the point of view of another person and thus can never make a real connection with them. That said, there are also thinkers who have demonstrated that empathetic understanding, when given and received freely, is a real phenomenon. The understanding at a deep level of each other's "otherness" (often through an understanding of looking at the other person and you knowing that they know they're looking back) is another form of connection, upon which entire societies can be built. What can really be drawn from Schulz's work is that a lack of empathy, a lack of connection and a willingness to be totally isolated is not just what literally led to his physical sickness, it also led to his emotional sickness. That biological drive for hope is also a biological drive for togetherness, and despite his despair in this book, what becomes clear that is that it takes the courage of authentic action, of a willingness to reach out, is in many ways the only thing that separates humanity as a species from total barbarism. A lack of empathy makes it easy to commodify others as well as commodifying oneself.

The power of this book is in Schulz's agonizing but frequently hilarious drawings. He wrings coal-black humor out of the bleakest situations in the manner of a Ralph Steadman, and the original webcomics downward scroll effect is maintained in the page design and oversized pages. Schulz has always been an impeccable pen-and-ink artist, but his secret weapon here is his use of color, especially a kind of bruise-colored and nauseating yellow. He alternates between an open grid on some pages and full-page splashes on pages where he really wants to drive a point home, like about religion, belief systems in general and his central metaphor of humanity being the real disease. To say that he lays it on thick is an understatement; there's not a single page that goes by without grotesque and over-the-top imagery. Connecting a childhood nightmare with his current state felt almost cathartic in the context of the story thanks to its visceral qualities, and it's that total commitment to the image that makes its exaggerated qualities so powerful. Schulz wasn't simply out to shock the reader in this book, but rather to draw a reaction as real and powerful as the one that he experienced himself. I still believe his conclusion was something of a cop-out that allows him to get through life without actually doing the hard and brave work of making connections, but there's no doubt that his deconstruction of society, politics, culture and religion were all devastatingly on-point.