Monday, April 10, 2017

Exploring The World of Cartozia Tales

I've read a lot of young adult fiction in going through books for the Eisner awards, and a fair number of them have been fantasy/action-adventure oriented. None have the level of ambition, playfulness, formal daring and fun of the Isaac Cates-edited Cartozia Tales series, which is an issue away from finishing up its initial run of ten. Cates and his artistic partner Mike Wenthe (a long-time friend from before his comics days, in the interest of disclosure) basically made Cartozia Tales a far more aggressive experiment than their work on their old series, Satisfactory Tales. Their interests in comics have always revolved around collaboration, formal experimentation, an almost whimsical sense of play (including plays on words and visual puns), and creating problems to solve. They seemed to really find a groove when they worked on an ambitious fantasy comic together, which perhaps provided the impetus for this series. The central thrust of the series is this: in a set of adjoining land masses dubbed Cartozia (the first of many, many place name puns in the series), the reader would follow all sorts of serialized adventures. Cates divided the map into a nine-panel grid. In each issue, one of the seven permanent creative teams would be assigned a sector and create a story. Each issue would feature two guest artists. In the next issue, the creators would move over one sector, so now they had the option of picking up from the previous artist (in a sort of narrative exquisite corpse game), creating a new character, or some combination thereof.

This approach has led to a crazy level of complexity, especially since some characters were created by one artist but not actually used by them; instead, they were given to another creator to use. And unlike the random approach of a true exquisite corpse, there was careful attention paid to continuity (both narrative and character), especially as each issue drew the overarching narratives of the series tighter and tighter, like a sort of fantasy Raymond Chandler novel. That's how it was supposed to go in theory; in practice, things got a little choppy at times. While the covers for each issue and the overall design have been excellent, it's been obvious (especially in some of the middle issues) that some cartoonists were rushing their entries. There have been a couple of fundraisers for the series, as Cates is paying everyone. Not every guest star has been a perfect match, nor has every narrative maintained a sense of fluidity. Frankly, unless the series is read at once, it can be difficult to remember exactly what was going on with nine different storylines. That said, it's remarkable to see how coherent the book is given the incredibly complicated logistics involved.

It was always obvious that when Cates & Wenthe worked together, they went all-out for the series. With a relatively smooth line and the ability to trade off with each other, that duo turned in some of the denser stories in the anthology, though that density often circled around how many puns and funny visual references they could throw in. Still, their works felt like going back to home base when reading this comic. The two most dependable cartoonists on the roster were Lucy Bellwood and Lupi McGinty. Bellwood works using a slightly thicker line and a looser overall style than McGinty's ligne claire approach, but they both possess a smoothly welcoming style that worked for every character in the series. The series' secret weapon has been Tom Motley, whose scratchy and inky style felt dissonant at first, but whose relentless commitment to formal experimentation (along with a few changes here and there to make his line clearer) makes him a great place in the book to get one's eyes challenged. He also shares the Wenthe/Cates proclivity for whimsy and wordplay, a nice contrast to the more straightforward styles of the other artists. His greatest achievement in the series was his homage to Gustave Verbeek's The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a classic comic strip that could be read one way, then turned upside down to continue the story using the same images. Motley's ability to precisely and flawlessly emulate that style within the context of the story itself was astonishing.

The early MVP of the series was Shawn Cheng, whose ultra-thin line and clean storytelling was simply beautiful to behold, but obviously work-intensive. He simplified his style later on, which was still perfectly functional but not quite the same in terms of impact. The other regulars (Jen Vaughn and Sarah Becan (often with Beckie Gautreua)) certainly had their moments. Vaughn created my favorite character/narrative in the series, the "Vagabond" narrative, and was clearly working hard in the early going. She had to skip an issue and some of her later work looks rushed, perhaps because she has a lot of other commitments on her plate. Of the two guest stars per issue, some were remarkably great, like Dylan Horrocks (oh, if he had been in every issue) and sublime work from Luke Pearson, whose young girl scientist Gret was a perfectly-designed character. Jon Lewis was a natural and another great artist to start out the series with, while Carol Lay was an interesting choice for a one-page story. Jon Chad and Chris Wright were fantastic gets in the same issue whose styles contrasted in a visually exciting way (Chad's detailed clear line vs Wright's scratchy and darkly eccentric style). The team of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ming Doyle was interesting because it resolved a key plot point and did it in a naturalistic style--which was highly unusual for the series. Tom Hart's dreamy, poetic comic also addressed a key narrative concern and Nick Abadzis' strip was formally charming in a series full of formally intriguing comics.

The good news about what will emerge as 400+ pages of interconnected anthology storytelling involving over thirty different artists is that actually really started to tie up loose ends, put characters together and gain some real momentum as it went further. I look forward to the final issue and how it finishes drawing together the various storylines, both grim and silly, enigmatic and simple, and pleasantly ambling and urgent. While the series had its ragged moments, I'm staggered at how much traffic Cates had to direct while still contributing to virtually every issue himself. And while the series had its misfires (the James Kochalka piece felt like it came from another series entirely and changed what had been a promising narrative thread into something that became sillier and sillier), I admired Cates' try-anything style of editing that still had a degree of narrative rigor. I should add that the all-ages character of the book was a key to its success, especially as Cates threw every kind of extra he could think of at younger readers: paper dolls, word searches, mazes, drawing exercises and more. It was clear that Cates was making the kind of comic he would have wanted to read as a child, or perhaps creating one for his own family. That level of sincerity, effort and creativity is a remarkable tonic to the level of cynical, money-making tropes that I see in so much YA fiction.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

High-Low and the Top 75 Comics Blogs

A nice person named Anuj Agarwal wrote in and said that High-Low had been named one of the top 75 comics blogs on the web. This was a very nice and unexpected honor, as the site clocked in at #67. I don't know what metrics led to this determination by the Feedspot people, but it's nice nonetheless, especially since I have that .gif of the honor on the site now in medal form. Thanks to my readers.

:01: Jason Shiga's Demon, Volumes 1 & 2

I say it with every review I do of a Jason Shiga comic, because it bears repeating: Shiga's background is in pure mathematics, and so his comics often read as a series of locked-room puzzles, coding problems or other sorts of math-related conflicts, all punctuated by a jet-black sense of humor. Most of his other comics have had at least one twist involving a shocking act of violence, or multiple acts of violence over the span of the book, but Demon is sort of Shiga's version of Stephen King's It: a book that has every violent and disgusting action setpiece Shiga could conceive, each more over-the-top than the next, but each working in a rigidly-applied set of principles based on the book's initial premise. It's like It in the sense that King considered that to be a novel that had every scary thing he could think of in there.

The premise is this: the long-suffering Jimmy Yee (a protagonist of the same name appears in many other Shiga books, and it's not too much of a stretch to paint him as a simple Shiga stand-in) tries to kill himself by hanging himself in a hotel room for unknown reasons. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in what seems to be the same hotel room, alive (to his great consternation). In the beginning, Shiga really takes his time in establishing the presence in as brutal a fashion as possible. We see Jimmy try to shoot himself, bleed out in a tub and jump in front of a truck, but he keeps coming back. Volume one, which features the first five chapters of the story, features Jimmy trying to work out what happen and introduces Hunter, the man who will become his nemesis. What Jimmy realized is that he was a "demon": when the body he was in died, he simply possessed the nearest person, until they were killed, and so on. That sets Jimmy down a gruesome, amoral path where he experiments with the limits of his abilities by ruthlessly killing random people.

At the end of volume one, he is pursued by government operative Hunter in order to offer Jimmy a job as an agent, which Jimmy has no interest in. Hunter insists that Jimmy's going to work for him whether he likes it or not, leading to the first of many incredibly strange cat-and-mouse games between the two. This one involves a bleeding-out Jimmy being put in a jail cell next to a death-row inmate. Hunter thinks he has Jimmy pinned, since he took away anything that the inmate could kill himself with...except a square of toilet paper. This is the most hilarious and disgusting segment in the book, as Jimmy tries to reason his way out of the situation until he finally determines that he could turn the the toilet paper into a shiv if he dipped it in enough semen enough times. The situation inspires the immortal line, "Looks like he slit his throat with a cum knife, sir."

The second volume features chapters six through twelve, and adds a needed complication to the plot (otherwise Jimmy would have just disappeared at the end of volume one). That complication was the existence of his daughter, who not only is alive (Jimmy thought she was dead), she's a demon like her dad. That leads to a book-long series of conflicts between Jimmy and Hunter. When it looks like Hunter finally has the upper hand, Jimmy uses calculus and a photographic memory to turn the tables, seemingly once and for all. The second volume ends almost a hundred years after the story began, but this would in fact just reset the chess board between Jimmy and Hunter.

This is one of the rare instances where I've decided to skimp on story details, because in true blockbuster fashion, it's the details in how Jimmy and Hunter engage in their battle of wits that makes the story so much fun. This is a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else. It's about trying to limit your opponent's moves as much as possible and forcing them into a single move, and then deviating from the expected with a devastating or surprising move that catches your opponent off guard. It's about turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. It's about finding out what your opponent holds dear and exploiting it. It's about ethics, and in particular, the circumstances under which murder is acceptable from a utilitarian point of view. Hunter wants to use Jimmy to wipe out all of America's enemies and create utopia. Jimmy isn't interested in being anyone's slave and kills out of what he views is necessity. The reality is that both of them are nihilists of the worst kind, unable to appreciate the value of a single life because of their willingness to discard it for their needs. They are the same person who are simply in opposition to each other, with Jimmy's weakness being his daughter and Hunter's weakness a simple-minded utopianism.

Shiga has refined his line in a manner similar to John Porcellino and Matt Feazell in that it's deceptively simple and beautiful. There's an effortlessness on each page where his drawings are lively but in total service to the story; his lumpy character design that often features odd facial characteristics is almost 8-bit video game blank at times, but his understanding of things like gesture and body language give the characters a sense of presence. In terms of storytelling, Shiga has few peers. His panel design is all part of his method in slowly unfolding an action set piece, switching from a tight grid to a page full of jumbled panels as things seem to spin out of control, and then back to order. Shiga flips the page around for aerial views--not to make the scene more spectacular, but as an illustration to fully understand the stakes involved. There's an almost mechanistic quality in reading these books, in the sense that once you start, it's much harder to stop reading than it is to continue. That's a testament to Shiga's total control over the page, including the use of rose and pink spot color and the extensive but unobtrusive use of grey scale. The design of the books is on the boring side, especially compared to the original minicomics. I also though splitting it into four volumes was questionable, but it actually proved to read relatively well in that format. Hopefully, there will be some kind of deluxe format available in the future.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

High-Low and the Eisner Awards

Regular readers may have noticed a decrease in the number of articles per week here at High-Low lately, and Patrons may have noticed that I'm a couple of articles behind. That's because, as I'm not sure I mentioned it here, I am on the jury for this year's Eisner Awards, the "Oscars of comics". As such, I've started to receive an overwhelming number of comics to read and ship back out, and it's starting to limit my writing time.

Here's my solution: from now until the last week of April, when I confer with the other judges, I won't be writing for this site. Then I'll pick up again at the usual speed. The exception will be for my patrons: I will write two columns early this week and then another on Friday and send them to them. I thought my patrons might be interested in seeing brief reviews of the comics I've been sent that might not normally fall under my bailiwick, especially perhaps certain corporate comics. For the curious, my Patreon site is here. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back to full force in late April, with perhaps the occasional review going up at The Comics Journal (tcj.com) as well.

Please do keep sending me your books, your comics and your zines. I always review everything, eventually.

Minis: K.Wirick, J.Zwirek, J.D.Woods


Jimmy Plays The Drums and A Natural Family, by John Dermot Woods. These are interesting, enigmatic comics that play a lot on the grid (the first is a product of Frank Santoro's correspondence course) and on very differing uses of color. Jimmy Plays The Drums is a story about expression and elusiveness, told in a time-fractured style over a long period of time. The entire story is done in bright CMYK in virtually every panel (with the black simply being the lines delineating the characters and the lettering), with the characters and backgrounds flipping colors in each panel. It's an interesting visual effect that forces the reader to reorient themselves on a constant basis as we figure out why the bespectacled Jimmy drummer is constantly trying to escape (from childhood) an older man. The people Jimmy hangs with and his peculiar abilities are only hinted at, but what is made clear is that his parents never allowed him to leave his penthouse home, and he only had the gardener as company--the man chasing him. It's a story about chosen family, a love of art that was not allowed or encouraged, and a slightly magical world that's given life but Woods' almost-exclusive use of colored pencil.

A Natural Family is more conventional in some respects. The use of color is purely functional and even bland. It presents with an unusual occurrence: a brother and sister (both adults) living alone in their family house, with the sister having fallen asleep for two straight days. It's told from the perspective of the brother, with a film crew, the police being brought in to observe the phenomenon and (presumably) have someone do something about it--to no avail. Woods then time-jumps back to the siblings, three days earlier, and reveals that a once-boisterous and happy familial relationship had been reduced to silence, and the suggestion by the brother that one of them leave the house to explore "missed opportunities" leads her to fall asleep in response--a move that prevents him from leaving. Much is left unsaid in this comic. What, precisely, was the nature of their relationship beyond being familial? There's a panel of the man in bed with a presumed sexual partner in the morning, seemingly ready to kick her out. The last page reveals that she went to bed naked, but it's clear that he put a dressing gown on her before he invited in the media. Is her escape into sleep a way of protesting her brother abandoning her, or is it something more? In both of his minis, Woods provides a lot of clues but ultimately leaves a lot of the answers up to the reader.



Stand-Up Comic, by Jeff Zwirek. Zwirek's one of my favorite comics formalists, especially in terms of the actual physical construction of his comics. This short mini about a stand-up comedian is made in such a way as to literally have a stand in the back, as though it were for display. It features a deeply schlubby comedian named Buster Guts, a pear-shaped fellow with a face that looks like it was arranged by Picasso. Zwirek starts off in a four-panel grid that falls away to an open page format as Buster Guts actually proves himself to be a top-notch, self-deprecating comedian whose gags go from tired to genuinely funny. This comic is a nice combination of gimmick and gags, with one grabbing the reader's attention and the latter standing on their own but aided by the mere sight of the comedian.


Nervenkrank #1, by Katherine K. Wirick. This is the first chapter of a much longer work about the life of German Dada artist John Heartfield, born as Helmut Herzfeld. There has been a proliferation of comics biographies as of late, mostly coming out of Europe, and they have a tendency to be pretty to look at but largely mundane. Wirick's work has a chance to be an exception, as Nervenkrank is clearly a passion project, not just a project researched for a contract. Heartfield's work is obviously important to her on a deep level, and it shows in the intensity of the rendering on each page and the emphasis on a slow narrative pace that establishes his emotional state as a soldier. The story opens in 1915, in the middle of World War I. Heartfield is a hospitalized soldier, clearly traumatized by what he's seen. Wirick emphasizes that by noting that his roommate literally won't come out from under the bed, another patient can't stop screaming about being bombed, etc. Returning to his boarding house, he is presented with compassion by the wife of the owner and contempt by the owner himself.

Wirick depicts the stuttering Heartfield as delicate and sensitive but not weak. He steals the German flag flying outside his room and burns it. Dada was born in large part as a reaction to the pointless stupidity and brutality of World War I as the people were sent to die for no good reason, and this issue emphasizes all of these issues. Wirick is a skilled naturalistic artist who masterfully uses greyscale to balance depth and density in each panel. It's clear that she thoughtfully and carefully resolves issues like negative space, character interaction in space and how to make her realistically-rendered characters still manage to appear alive on the page. Her page design is functional, relying more on her figure drawing than on an innovative approach, but it's clear that this story is meant to appear in a larger format. This mini came out nearly four years ago and I haven't seen another issue since, but I hope she continues to persevere on this project.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Queers And Comics Travel Fund

There's still time to donate to this worthy cause:


For Inquiries Contact: qctravelfund@gmail.com

Starting today, February 14th, the QC Travel Fund, a volunteer effort in partnership with Prism Comics, is raising money on Indiegogo to support creators who could not otherwise attend and present at the Queers & Comics conference being held in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts on April 14-15, 2017. The fundraiser can be found here.

Traditionally queer creators, those who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans*, asexual, intersex and otherwise present a non-mainstream sexual orientation, representation or identification, have been marginalized in society at large and in the sequential narrative form of comics. Events like the Queers & Comics conference aim to bring light onto those creators and the QC Travel Fund strives to financially enable those in the community that would otherwise be unable to participate due to lack of monetary means.

The QC Travel Fund Indiegogo fundraiser will run from February 14 – March 14, 2017. Queers & Comics creators have offered rewards for donations to the fund, including: digital copies of Northwest Press's anthologies “Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy!” edited by lesbian comics tastemaker Erica Friedman and “Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! edited Lambda Literary Award winning editor Tom Cardamone; digital copies of Northwest Press's Digital Mega Pack (digital editions of every in-print Northwest Press book published to date); "Love is MASSIVE" risographed postcard card set by Jiraiya; Manko Riot t-shirts by Rokudenashiko; and custom commissions by Queers & Comics creators. New rewards and incentives will be announced throughout the campaign.

Contribute to the fundraiser and reap your rewards here.

Prism Comics will also be collecting additional funds on site during the Queers & Comics conference to benefit the QC Travel Fund.

About QC Travel Fund:  The QC Travel Fund is a small group of independent volunteers who have come together to raise money for queer creators who could not otherwise afford the cost of traveling to attend and participate in the Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco from April 14-15, 2017.

About Prism Comics:   Prism Comics is the only organization in North America which provides a grant to emerging comics talent. The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant was founded in 2005 to support up and coming LGBTQAI cartoonists. To learn more about the QPG visit Prism Comics.

About Northwest Press: Northwest Press is a book publisher dedicated to publishing the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics collections and graphic novels and celebrating the LGBT comics community. Find NWP’s original print releases and digital work at northwestpress.com.






Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Mini Reviews: D.Zender, T.Yamamoto, R.Van Ingram, J.T. Yost


Giving In, by Daniel Zender. This is a beautiful comic that looks as constructed as it is drawn. It looks painted and I can see brush strokes on some pages, but it also looks like MS Paint may have been used to fill in some parts of the page. Regardless, this a beautiful comic to look at, and it's well-designed enough to be effective as a silent comic. Indeed, with the striking use of pinks, greens, midnight blues and reds helping to code emotion, Zender didn't need text to tell this story about love, loneliness and accepting a brand new status quo when finding love. The story follows a young woman who goes on a camping trip with her friends. She's obviously depressed and lonely, thanks to her body language and some of the things she does in her apartment before the trip. Late at night, as she makes her way into the forest to pee, she encounters some strange pink lights. Intrigued instead of frightened, she makes her way into a tree, where she encounters some kind of tree spirit who is obviously every bit as lonely as she is. The story is marked by the silent decision she must make: stay in this weird environment where she's found a soulmate, or go back to her familiar world. In the end, she chooses to embrace the mystery of both her new environment and being in love. There is beauty and grace to be found in this comic, but there's also sadness as well, because the story notes that there's always a price to be paid for getting what we want.

The Rule, by Tetsuya Yamamoto. This is from Japan's BigUglyRobot, which publishes all sorts of odd comics in English. It follows a young man who visits some kind of vast repository of information, as he inquires after a small (nearly invisible) object that he finds in order to return it to its rightful owners. That snowballs into a wild, apocalyptic story where the young man encounters a race of aliens that originally owned the object, the other alien that had been hunting them down in order to get the object, and a hilarious final battle that devolves into an absurd Pokemon battle. It all makes sense in context, and Yamamoto's clever meta-storytelling provides all sorts of twists and turns along the way. One of those twists is going from a loose, sketchy style to an 8-bit video game style in the final battle. The looseness and fluidity of that earlier style stood in stark contrast to the deliberately stiff art during the battle scene, making that battle even funnier despite the fact that the stakes were no laughing matter. The title refers to how the protagonist was able to take advantage of extremely rigid thinking on the part of his opponent by changing the rules of reality (including having things like Microsoft Excel in his Pokeball) instead of trying to match the opponent on his own terms. Yamamoto manages to create a comic that's funny, mysterious and exciting, playing on standard comics tropes in order to come up with some new curves.

Loser Comix #2, by Richard Van Ingram. These are underground comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, full of heavily-rendered drawings that parody pop culture and politics. This issue was the end result of a Kickstarter campaign and it shows, with high production values and full color throughout. There's a plague story that's a thinly-veiled political allegory that has some genuinely funny lines and a densely inked, horrific quality to the art. Van Ingram's visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas, like the Loser Tarot. It's a funny concept that's beautifully-illustrated, but the actual ideas "The Ex-Wife", "The Republican" are on the bland side. The Peanuts parody Chunky Brown is tedious at best, turning Charlie Brown and Linus into loser hipster types, Lucy in a capitalist femme fatale (in one panel, her nipples poke through her shirt for no discernible reason) who sends them to work at a used bookstore. That latter development was clear Van Ingram's way of getting back at his awful used bookstore job, which was probably cathartic for him but not especially relevant for the reader. There's an accurate but tedious bit of social commentary about a yokel voting against his own interests by supporting Republicans. Van Ingram works best when he works briefly, like a hilarious strip about Richard Nixon seeing the future and the Partridge Family sending a message from 3013 to 1973, thanking them for their help in ousting Nixon and establishing a utopia. A serious strip about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson wouldn't have been out of place in World War III Illustrated, and here Van Ingram's dense but colorful style and page design perfectly encapsulates the desperate quality of his text. Van Ingram has a great deal of talent, and it's clear that he's trying to find the best way to use it.

Thanger Dangers, by JT Yost. This is a collection of odds and ends from various anthologies by Yost. "Thenthy" is an odd story about a particular way he bit down on his tongue when seeing an especially cute animal (and later, his daughter), and it leads him to wonder why we evolved with the tendency to react to extreme cuteness with an almost violent response. "The Lead Masks Case" is about the mysterious deaths of two men in Mexico that prompted the possibility of aliens, cults and other phenomena to explain a genuinely puzzling event. Yost is at his best here: clearly and amusingly laying out the facts while employing a line that skirts the edge between naturalist and cartoony. The mashup/parodies of classic comics are nicely drawn but not especially clever or funny. I did enjoy the ode to Waffle House, their absurd juke box and even more absurd styles of serving hash browns. Like Van Ingram, Yost is an excellent cartoonist who is still figuring out what he wants to say as an artist.