Friday, July 12, 2019

More Minis From Rachel Scheer

Rachel Scheer's autobiographical comics, while sharing a great deal of personal detail, are interesting for a different reason. She's a keen observer, first and foremost. She thinks and writes less like a diarist and more like a writer interested in providing context and background to everything she thinks and observes. That does add a bit of reserve and distance between herself and the reader, but not in a way that feels false or manufactured. In Around The Neighborhood, Scheer reflects on the minutia of life in Seattle, a city she simply decided to move to apropos of nothing. She didn't know anyone there, relying instead on her intuition that this would be a good place to go. As she notes in the introduction, "place" is exactly what she was going for: a city that had a strong sense of place that she could adapt to and eventually feel a sense of belonging.

Each of these one-page strips keeps the observations mostly light. There are lots of strips about the funny people and places she sees, from the sort of people who show up to a garage sale to avoiding creepy guys at bars to pondering the hat metaphors that other people use. Scheer certainly explores that sense of place, both in the city and in the recreational opportunities that Seattle has to offer. There are strips about finding spots to swim, and hike, and climb. There are strips about cafes and restaurants. Mostly, this mini simply allows the reader to ease into Scheer's whimsical point of view regarding the world, as she thinks about groupings of animals, her favorite snacks and her being mystified at Seattle's football fandom. Scheer's line is still crude in spots, especially with regard to character design, but one can see her start to develop her own style. Her own self-caricature is clever, which is a big key to allowing the audience to lock in on her and her particular style of wit.

By Mom, By Me: A Tale Of Two Childhoods was the first iteration of this comic that she did with her mother, Karen. It's a clever idea, as her mom recalls a particular time period, set of relationships, or places (drawn by Scheer) and then Scheer follows with her own version. It's interesting to see the similarities between the two women, especially in terms of a certain independence and restlessness of spirit. One can see how Scheer improved as an artist from this comic to her latest, as she gives depth and weight to each page with more detailed backgrounds and more use of spotting blacks. She's also a lot more confident with regard to her use of stylization, especially with regard to her character design. This comic explores the influence of their cousins, their experience as kids with summer camps, and what they did on Friday nights as kids. Scheer's mother seemed more gregarious and daring as a child, faking her way to getting free dinner at a hotel and hanging out with bohemians in the Bronx. Scheer spent a lot of time in camp reading and found there was a lot less to do in Arlington as a teen. It's an interesting project because both women are clearly trying to understand each other, even as it's clear that there's a tight bond there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Liz Valasco's The Adventures Of Moon Pie

Sweetness and existential despair mark Liz Valasco's continuing stories of her character Moon Pie. Her most recent mini, The Adventures Of Moon Pie, see this character with a moon-shaped head wander about a forest with his little robot companion that he built. Valasco blends a fine line, dense cross-hatching, and cartoony character design to create a lived-in world inhabited by these two odd creatures. Moon Pie, as the introduction explains, is an alien sent from space to complete a quest of some kind, but it's taking a long time. Like many vast undertakings, there's a lot of boring downtime, and this comic is an example of what he does on his downtime.

The first page sets up the itinerant character of Moon Pie, as the six panel grid winds up forming a single, beautiful image. Moon Pie's robot is clever and relentlessly curious, and they make a funny duo as they navigate the landscape, looking for mushrooms. Moon Pie finds a "friend" (a skeleton at the bottom of a well) and doesn't understand that it's dead and unresponsive, so desperate is he to find any kind of connections with other. There's also a profound sense of understanding his extremely long life span and wishing it was over until his philosophical robot reminds him of his responsibilities.  Everything from the lettering to the cross-hatching to the actual dialogue is strikingly thoughtful, as Valasco aims to create not so much a story as convey a mood. This is ultimately a story about loneliness, to be sure, but it's also a story about duty and understanding one's place in the world. There's a dull ache one feels when reading it; it's a mixture of melancholy and deep understanding.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Minis: Liz Bolduc's Perishable Goods

Liz Bolduc (aka "Liz Sux") is an autobiographical cartoonist I've been monitoring for a while. Perishable Goods is the first mini I've reviewed from her, and it's an impressively-designed and executed comic about the difficulties of managing toxic families and navigating one's own feelings of worthlessness. Each of these short vignettes is loosely-connected in a roughly chronological fashion. The title plays on this metaphor of short-term worth and inevitable decay with numerous references to food, photos of supermarkets, and old supermarket ads. The stories are about rot, both in terms of thinking about death but also feeling rotten and diseased from a mental standpoint. Bolduc reveals just enough details about her personal life and family life to get the point across. In many ways, the details are less important than the feelings surrounding them.

Some of those details include dealing with a mom whom her therapist noted most likely had borderline personality disorder. That's a disorder wherein boundaries tend to be disintegrated, creating a suffocating amount of dependency. "Anger, fear (and) guilt" are common emotions displayed by someone with BPD toward those whom they've grown dependent upon, and Bolduc has trouble reconciling that reality with her own overwhelming sense of guilt. On the one hand, she recognizes the poisonous nature of this relationship, but she feels driven to maintain it. It's no wonder that everything feels decayed and false to her.

Much of the comic revolves around food. There's a lovely sequence about eating crepes at her grandparents' place after church as a child. When her grandmother died, the new tradition was eating at a diner. Ritual surrounding comfort food is at Bolduc's core--it's a touch of nostalgia that ameliorates the alienation she feels from both mother and father. Eating take-out is another pleasure, one that is comforting in the face of grief and uncertainty. Bolduc's line is mostly light, though she does use heavier line weights in some spots. There's an inkyness in her comics that's eye-catching, with a mix of densely spotted blacks and extensive negative space. There's a touch of the cartoony in her otherwise naturalistic line.

This is also a comic about loneliness, even when surrounded by family. Bolduc depicts herself as being fairly isolated and away from friends (and possibly a partner) throughout much of the comic. This is, I think, partly related to the essential nature of the narrative, which is an existential fear of death. She is terrified of her parents aging because it means their deaths, which she fears will leave her rudderless in the world. It also means that her death is near and inevitable. At the end of the comic, there is an understanding that even if are rotten, we will still be rotting one day. We may be isolated, but we will all return to nature, the perishable goods that we are.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Minis: Jessica Campbell's Chicago Works

Jessica Campbell is a cartoonist who's interested in a number of different kinds of media. She's a talented writer and thinker about comics, but she also just had a multimedia show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was taken from the diary of artist Emily Carr, who lived in British Columbia in the early twentieth century. This minicomic, Chicago Works, is the print version of that show, minus color and with the addition of rearranging the paintings/pieces into a steady six-panel (2x3) grid. It seems as though Campbell knew that something would be lost in translation by making the images so small, which is why publishing the works in black & white (her usual style in comics) made sense. To be sure, however, reading this comic is a different experience than going to see the show. There's less detail, everything is a bit tiny and cramped, and there's more of an emphasis on the writing than the power of the visuals.

That said, there's plenty to look at here. The cover is clever; the main character is seen in profile on both the front and back covers, but if you lie the whole book flat, it turns into a full-face drawing. It's a subtle way of letting the reader know not to take anything for granted in this comic, that things aren't as they seem at face value. Indeed, Carr's text, which is used as captions for each panel, are often at odds with the visuals. This is not a direct adaption of that text, but rather a comic that uses it as inspiration. 

There are times when some of the scenes seem inspired by Carr, although often in an ironic or directly contradictory manner. For example, when we are introduced to the narrator, she talks about her fine manners and English bearing and how that gained her favor in the boarding house she lived in. Campbell instead shows a near-feral young woman who takes a shit on the floor and idly lays on the couch watching television. There's a lot of flirting with this taking place in the past and present, including an extended appearance by Campbell herself. This is a comic about discovery and new experiences, and for Campbell, it seems to include references to moving to Chicago as well as discovering comics for the first time. This is also a comic about loneliness, independence, isolation, and female friendships and how they can be strained. Campbell's inky line and heavy use of black give the comic weight and power, especially in the funnier scenes. The reader is thrown into the middle of all of this with no explanations, but none is really needed thanks to the way Campbell guides the reader through the page. This is a strange, funny project that continues Campbell's project of exploring feminist ideas through deep irony, juxtapositions, and brutal but hilarious truths.    

Monday, June 17, 2019

Koyama: Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons

Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons is in many ways an old-school Koyama Press project. Annie Koyama got her start publishing unusual books of illustrations before she moved on to comics, and this certainly fits more in that camp. Koyama has always taken a particular lesson learned from the late Dylan Williams and has published entirely according to her own taste and projects she believes in, regardless of genre or style. As such, it's hard to discern a particular aesthetic in her back catalog, other than "things Koyama likes." That's to her credit, as it's created a fascinating tapestry of comics and illustration ranging across genres. As she starts to wind down Koyama Press over the next couple of years, it will be interesting to see the choices she's made as a publisher.

Young adult and children's comics are something that Koyama's published a fair number of over the years. John Martz has done some especially memorable ones. With Leighton's book, Koyama has published a perfect little volume for pre-teens. It's a book for the ostensible purpose of summoning some unusual and funny demons. There's Dulcis, the sweet-generating demon who will leave everything sticky. There's Eruditi, the smart demon who will do your schoolwork--but don't call him a nerd! Mednaxx will help you craft the perfect lie and Oziplantrix will help you rock out. It's a funny take on the problems kids encounter and a kind of wish fulfillment in dealing with them.

It's the details that make this book fun. Leighton wrote a light-hearted description of each demon on the left--hand pages and drew a colorful illustration on the right. Leighton also was quite serious within the context of the book's conceit, even if that conceit itself (kids summoning their own helpful demons!) was both light-hearted and downright weird. There are even specific instructions on how to draw the sigils summoning particular demons, the color to draw them in, and how to act when summoning them. In general, the book pushes politeness and consideration in all interactions but especially when dealing with demons. Some of the demons are gross (there's one of flatulence) and some are silly, but it's easy to see how a kid might dream up any of them to help them in a particularly tight corner. My own ten-year-old daughter gravitated toward this book a few times, reading it in bits and pieces here and there. It's a book that rewards such an approach, and it's hardcover packaging and smallish size also lend themselves to it being an attractive art object that's worth picking up and examining.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio & Aon: Some Strange Disturbances

Sparked by Kickstarter, Craig Hurd-McKenney's collaboration with artists Gervasio & Aon, Some Strange Disturbances, is an excellent bit of queer-themed Victorian horror. Done with an elegant, fine line and extensive use of spotting blacks, there's plenty of atmosphere that backs up Hurd-McKenney's sensitive writing. The protagonist is Prescott Mayfair, an American spiritualist in 1895 London. The very first page of the story established his bona fides as a medium, as he recalled his mother being hauled off years earlier because she saw ghosts as well. The story begins with Prescott at a seance, communicating with the ghost of a young girl, and what he learned clearly horrified him.

That was the prelude to the meat of the story, which saw Prescott being hired by an aristocrat to see if his son was being possessed by a demon. Prescott befriended Delilah Quinton, an African-American singer who was performing in a choral group, who could tell he saw something that horrified him. After he revealed that he believed the girl was murdered by her father, she revealed that the man had been devoured by rats. Quinton was also well aware that Prescott was gay, and living in London in the shadow of Oscar Wilde's infamous and shameful trial. Prescott was furtively seeking sex on street corners and in opera boxes, and he knew he was in danger doing so.

When Prescott went to see the aristocrat's son, Duncan, in a horrifying mental institution, he saw them chained in a cell. It was revealed that Duncan was only in there because she was, in reality, a trans woman--not insane, nor possessed. However, when Duncan's parents came to inspect Prescott's investigation, their callous attitudes (especially his mother's) revealed in part that there was indeed a pernicious supernatural element at work--but it had to do with them. That led to an explosive climax with a jailbreak, a grotesque and terrifying rat-based reveal, and a happy ending for all.

In many ways, this story can be described as intersectional horror. The protagonist is a gay man, but Delilah had every bit as much agency as he did. Indeed, Hurd-McKenney played against heroic tropes when Prescott told her to get to safety at one point. Not only did she ignore his commands, but she also came in guns blazing. Part of that was a reaction against the misogyny of many adventure stories, but it was also a reaction against allowing Prescott to martyr himself. Duncan even said, "I will not allow myself to be saved by a prince," as she went in with a torch to kill the thing that replaced her mother. The horror in the story was generated in part by the reveal of the monster, to be sure, but what was worse was that what Duncan's parents had done was not surprising. The horror was generated by the human zoo that Delilah showed Prescott, featuring black people dressed as primitives. The horror was generated by the laws that wouldn't let Prescott or Delilah be who they truly were. The heroic arc for Prescott was not necessarily one of derring-do, but rather finding the courage to do the right thing, even if it was dangerous. It works on all of these levels, and it is a cracking, suspenseful story to boot. Future stories are planned, and seeing Hurd-McKenney and crew further explore historical presentations of intersectional stories is intriguing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Michael Kupperman's Supervillains

Michael Kupperman is unquestionably one of my favorite cartoonists. His humor work over the year, collected in books like Snake And Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret and the various Tales Designed To Thrizzle volumes, is some of the best absurd humor ever published. Last year, his memoir and biography about his father, All The Answers, made a big splash and was named book of the year by Publisher's Weekly. Autobio was a big departure for him and his art style, but he was up to the challenge. For a variety of reasons, Kupperman has stepped into the self-publishing arena with a Patreon featuring a number of his comics. He has since collected some of those comics.

His mini Supervillains came from comics originally published on the Adult Swim website. This is full-color work in the vein of his classic, absurdist humor from Thrizzle. It's exactly what it sounds like: absurdist takes on supervillains and their world. It veers from continuing characters (and thus comedic callbacks) to one-off jokes. It's also much dirtier than a lot of his humor; for example, the very first trip involves a woman telling her friend about her negative experience going out on a date with a human centipede who got drunk. Kupperman's humor usually involves one of two mechanics: hilarious shaggy dog details or absurd surprise swerves. One of his favorite techniques in this mini is to start the strip with a super-villain roll call, with each name and image sillier than the next. It's a funny play on roll calls in old super-villain comic books, only this time around there are characters like Professor 69 (a man who is in that sexual position, standing up, with another person), Killer Abs (a man with abs holding a knife), and Maitre D'emon. In that strip, he then swerved by having someone say, "Welcome to brunch!" After that small, funny swerve, Kupperman then gets weird, as the host gets his beast-servants to put on a live sex show. That unexpected bit of filthy humor is acknowledged as the guests get squidged out and leave.

The plot of most of the strips revolves around quotidian concerns: lunch, dates, hanging out in bars, jobs, parties, reality shows, and dishing gossip with your friends. Kupperman takes that template and lays on a layer of super-villain tropes: evil plans, psychotic behavior, murderous intent, crazy costumes, and bright but bizarre visuals. Kupperman's ability to mix and match, along with throwing unexpected curveballs at the reader and the visual gestalt that includes logo and lettering all contribute to each strip feeling fresh. Even after forty pages of these gags, I still wanted more.

The best example of Kupperman's versatility is the villain named the Public Urinator. His first appearance features a tight close-up in the first two panels, as we see his elaborate armor and hear his monologue about his powers. (He was angry about arbitrary public urination laws and release pressurized urine.) The third panel pulls back and we see he's participating in a speed dating event, and the focus suddenly shifts to the woman who's listening to him droning on and on. In his second appearance, he appears in a roll call strip, and a bad pun leads him to use his powers. The third strip sees him mostly off-panel as mayor ignores his threat and regrets it. This is truly a deliberately stupid and even juvenile premise that works at gut level but works even better when incorporated into different comedic structures.

This is a hallmark of Kupperman's work: mixing low humor with his deliberately mannered and cartoonist images and highly sophisticated comedic mechanics. That includes a number of callbacks, with a group of villains called the Pelvic Psychos (they all have "unusual groin areas') getting funnier with each appearance or Professor 69 appearing on a talk show with past and future versions. By using contrasts, defying expectations, assaulting the reader with bizarre images, and mining premises for all that they're worth, Kupperman has created a winning formula.