Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #13: Charles Forsman

Chuck Forsman came to CCS hoping to find a new direction in life, and there's no question that his imagination and relentless work ethic have truly paid off. Starting with a darkly humorous and absurd point of view, he quickly wrote a number of memorable comics in his Snake Oil series. When he decided to control the means of production when he started his publishing concern Oily Comics, he helped spark a micropublisher revolution and gained an enormous amount of attention for his own minicomics series, The End Of The Fucking World. That wound up being successful as a book for Fantagraphics, and now it's been adapted as a series for BBC (soon to appear on Netflix). After another teen-angst centered book in Celebrated Summer, Forsman switched gears with the ultra-violent Revenger comic, using low-fi 70s & 80s action tropes and revenge storylines. Forsman went to some deep grindhouse places, ultra-violent exploitation films with a subtle modern twist.

I reviewed the first three issues of the Revenger prequel series, Revenger & The Fog, last year. The collection, which also included the stand-alone Revenger #6, is published by Bergen Street Comics. The only thing I'll add to that review is a look at the final chapter, which made the stakes sky-high and then went even further over the top. Reggie, aka Revenger, wakes up with a bomb sewn inside of her, and has to go to extreme measures to get it out while trusting a teammate who betrayed her. Forsman's use of a full-but-flat color style echoing 80s comics, combined with flourishes like a two-page spread with half of Reggie and Slim's heads on each page and a four panel column on the other side is exactly the kind of thing a Frank Miller or perhaps Howard Chaykin (the puffiness of his character design reminds me a bit of Chaykin or his style predecessor Mike Vosburg) might do. The issue ends in tragedy, with Reggie's girlfriend literally lobotomized. These comics feel like Forsman both exploring something in the comics zeitgeist (ultra-violent, slightly ironic exploitation comics by the likes of Ben Marra, Keenan Marshall Keller/Tom Neely, etc.) and stretching himself as much as possible in a new direction. He took the subtext of his older comics, smashed that text in the reader's face and then drove in a few nails for good measure with a sledgehammer. I found the over-the-top nature of the violence interesting, but ultimately a little hollow. It's a sincerely intentioned genre exercise and doesn't really go much further, other than gender and race flipping its main character away from typical genre fare.

On the other hand, the first two issues of Slasher go to some genuinely weird places. They also feel like 80s comics, but more like indy comics that Steve Gerber might have written in one of his more extreme moods. The art retains some of that genre quality but also shifts back to Forsman's more familiar hand, as the people are frequently grotesque, beady-eyed, disfigured or diseased. The main characters are Christina and Joshua, both of whom are attracted to the prospect of violence as a sexual fetish. She falls for him because of his knife-play porn videos, but he's dealing with a vague disease (it's suggested that he's not really sick at all and is suffering from Munchausen's-By-Proxy thanks to his fundamentalist mother) and is at times kept locked up by his mom. She's dealing with a handsy boss, demeaning comments from everyone around her, and the sudden death of her father.

When Joshua's mom catches him wearing a leather mask, she takes away his phone and computer, isolating him from Christina. She takes this opportunity, after months of talking about killing the horrible, horrible people in their lives, to actually do something about it. She ties up a frat boy she picks up at a bar and carves him up. She slits the throat of an asshole in a parking lot who had been heaping abuse on his girlfriend and her daughter. She accepts her boss' invitation to help him cheat on his wife, only to wear a full leather suit and carve him to pieces. It's incredibly lurid but also remarkably authentic feeling, in the way that certain kinds of exploitation films do truly awful things to their protagonists, who themselves respond in even more horrible ways against a nihilistic world. What separates this series from Revenger is the way Forsman truly crawls into the heads of his protagonists, going even further than The End Of The Fucking World in some ways. While Slasher is a much more interesting series than Revenger, it's obvious that he couldn't have made the former without doing the latter first.

Doing Slasher seems to have led Forsman to doing another teen series again in I Am Not Okay With This. I've read virtually every comic that Forsman's published, and this may well be his best. It's certainly his most unflinching work, and that's saying something. Drawn in this hybrid Elsie Segar/Charles Schulz style, the structure of the book is a diary written by Sydney, a depressed and confused high school student who has trouble fitting in. She's an Olive Oyl archetype: skinny and all arms and legs. At the end of the first chapter, we also learn that she's special (or "not basic") in one way; she has the power to use her mind to cause pain in others. The rest of the book is Syd trying to come to terms with that power and what it means in her life.

Each chapter introduces a new element, like revealing to the reader that her father, a Viet Nam vet, also has the power and has been completely traumatized by it. What's more, he knows she has it too and shows her how to use it to put him out of his misery. That's a harrowing discovery, a trauma that only makes things worse. Forsman does something very clever in the book in that he makes it clear that Syd is an untrustworthy narrator. For example, she talks about her mom being a bitch, angrily going off on her, etc. The reality is that the most her mother ever does is calmly ask her where she had been and what's going on. Syd had driven herself into an alienated state so completely that she was having trouble distinguishing a narrative of self-hatred from a reality of hostility/abuse from a parent.

Syd learns that getting high lessens the effect, has sex with her friend Stan (who gets her pot), and goes home with a Peppermint Patty-looking convenience store clerk who goes down on her. In the midst of that pleasure, Syd's seething, latent pain and self-hatred frighteningly manifests as a shadowy monster that she barely controls in time before it kills her lover. With Forsman using the ultra-cartoony, bigfoot style in this book, seeing this scratchy shadow monster silently coalesce over the span of four panels was a genuinely frightening moment. She's terrified of crossing a line, especially by accident.

She crosses a line intentionally later on when she hunts down the guy who got her former best friend Dina pregnant (and threw her out of his car in the middle of the street) and murders him with her powers. The denouement of the book is triggered when Syd goes to his funeral (!) and realizes Dina is still in love with him. She has no idea what Syd did, and that's when Syd realizes that she's a killer, not an avenging hero. Despite it all, there are moments of hope and opportunities lost before the inevitable occurs--and when it does, it's not romantic or majestic or altruistic or unselfish, or any other lies that the pathology of suicidal ideation leads one to believe. It's just swift, shocking and pointless. It's a jolt, one that makes sense in the context of this book being Syd's narrative, and that when other narratives were introduced, cognitive dissonance was also introduced.

Forsman's comics have always been about the veil between civilization and total chaos on a micro level. In an early issue of Snake Oil, there's a scene where demons kidnap a man and tell him, "Yes, this is really happening". It's important to them that he knows that reality and certainty are gossamer-thin constructions that can be torn to shreds at any minute. Celebrated Summer explores that theme through an acid trip that ties into think about the teens' futures. That punk idea of No Future is at the heart of every Forsman story. The End Of The Fucking World forestalls its psychopath protagonist by giving him one thing to care about--at least for a little while. Revenger in many ways is a method of striking back against that uncertain, cruel universe--stabbing it in the eyes to briefly keep it at bay. Slasher similarly is a way of striking back at not just the capricious nature of consensus reality, but also reclaiming one's sexual desires in the face of opposition. I Am Not Okay With This, on a certain level, seems to understand those latter two series as pure fantasy. Even with a deadly superpower, Syd felt helpless and alienated. There were brief respites from her pain that didn't last, and there was no one she could talk to about this. The tragedy of this book is not just that the world is a brutal, unforgiving and stupid place, but that Syd thought she was actively making the world a worse place.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #12: Carl Antonowicz

Carl Antonowicz is an artist whose grim and formally challenging takes on horror and death haven't quite clicked because the visuals weren't quite there to suit the story's needs. Like most young cartoonists, he's starting to figure things out by playing to his strengths as a draftsman instead of overrendering. As a result, his comics are now clearer without losing any of their initial complexity. In Until The Blood Runs Black, for example, he varies his grid structure from page to page as a way of reflecting the uneven course of its main characters but keeps the character design itself simple and expressive. The only visual problem with this comic is that the line weights he uses for the characters is so fine at times that when he goes heavy into spotting blacks (which he does often), it can make whole pages look indistinct. Looking at the pages he drew where the main character tells his sidekick how he lost his birthright, meant to look like a scroll (down to the use of faux-calligraphy), it became obvious that Antonowicz's work looks best in a clear-line style The images snapped off those pages vividly.

In terms of the story, Antonowicz goes back to the laugh-filled Crusades. An indolent soldier (Bernard) and his best friend Jean start heading home, with Bernard desiring some kind of relic or treasure to buy his way back into his family. Jean is world-weary, dependable and kind. They talk their way into a Muslim woman's house for a night's rest, but Bernard steals her relic, a holy cloak that a saint used when blessing the diseased. Jean becomes possessed by the cloak, demanding repentance while his skin festers with boils and he starts attracting flies. In the end, literally no good deed goes unpunished in this pitch-black satire.

Turming Chapter 1. Antonowicz starts the story in media res, as a woman visits a nun who is content to confine herself to her room in an old castle. The nun shakes off the designation of "mother", saying "sister" will do, and that's a huge context clue for what's going on in the village. There is a new status quo in the village, as it is surrounded by some sort of malevolent force called the Miasma. It permanently disfigured the woman's (Yulienne) husband, both emotionally and physically. The nuns and families are certainly bound to the whims of the soldiers who visit, though it's obvious that both parties are interested in sex. The second half of this issue finds Yulienne at home after accepting some food from a soldier who's an occasional sexual partner. While the interesting mix of sex, politics, religion and apocalyptic imagery carries the comic, the character design is still a little shaky at times. On the other hand, Antonowicz is great at drawing buildings and depicting atmosphere. The fog that rolls in with the soldiers is drawn so quickly that you could cut it up. Conceptually, this comic and Buer's Kiss immediately made me eager to see more.

Buer's Kiss. Antonowicz dips into his (fictional) Middle Ages one more time in his most recent project. It's by far his most ambitious and assured book, as he manages to keep clarity of image while losing none of the density of his illustrations. He's more sparing in his use of blacks and even uses a lot of negative white space on some pages. This short preview sets up the ambitious larger story, which he's also adapting for the stage at the same time. That will be a "full-length staged reading...with voice actors, live foley effects and projected images". Given the quality and density of the images in the preview, I imagine this will look impressive. The story follows a woman who was given a funeral mass, which was only ceremonial as her real punishment for her sins was banishment from her village. The exact nature of her sin was not stated, but she doesn't exactly take the news with a smile, saving special anger for her husband, who will no longer even hug her goodbye. The lasting image is that of a defiant woman, breaking the crutch and alms pan she was given as she begins her journey. Everything about Antonowicz's character design and characters in action was impressive, even given a relatively small sample size.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #11: Dakota McFadzean, Dean Sudarsky, Mitra Farmand

That Was Awkward 1-2, by Mitra Farmand. Farmand draws funny, four-panel strips featuring little thumb-shaped characters. That said, it's amazing to see what she can accomplish with such simple shapes, especially in terms of both humor and expressiveness. Seeing one with a pony tail is an inherently funny sight, for example. That said, the strips are funny because of Farmand's wit and sense of timing. Farmand turns her attention toward awkward social interactions on herself (with a fourth panel that says "I DID THIS") as much as she does others ("THIS HAPPENED"). Farmand is especially sharp when doing strips about relationships and dating, racism, workplace drama and aging. She'll occasionally dip into full color experiments that work quite nicely with the ultra-simple figures. Despite the sense of formula from strip to strip, Farmand keeps the audience off balance because the punchline panel can vary from anywhere from the second to the last panel, with either the text noted above to fill out space and emphasize the joke, or else a silent beat panel. I could have read a dozen more issues of this.

Untitled (Last Mountain #4), by Dakota McFadzean. This nerve-wracking, silent story about capitalism and advertising gone horribly awry gets its message across with a number of suspenseful 24-panel pages. It's the story of a young girl who's eating her typical morning sugary cereal with a nauseatingly cute mascot on its box. When it comes to life with its incessant smile on its face, it's unnerving but still interesting to the girl, until the bear wants to play hide-and-seek and its eyes appear on its hands. Not only are its eyes now blank, but dozens of tiny bears can be seen spilling out like maggots. What's real and what's an illusion are questions she's constantly asking herself, as the bears disappear and later come back to haunt her at night, as they've invaded the world and (worse) her mother. There's a nasty image of the girl stabbing her mom in the yes with scissors, only to be met with that unrelenting leer. The girl eventually triumphs, and years pass.

A guy comes into the cafe where she's a barista, and he's wearing a t-shirt with that image. Horrified, she asks about it, and he shows her a video of the bear being back in full-force...and there's a creepy set of panels where we see a close-up of his face, and the image of a bear forming as a kind of boil. In the way that time passes differently as an adult, so are these panels 2x3. It turns out she had kept the evil cereal box in a safe for a number of years, and when she opens it up again, she wishes her present away, and winds up being trapped in the past with the monster, forever eating bowls of cereal. She's sacrificed herself to a past of boredom, cavities and the annoying, invasive and omnipresent nature of advertising. McFadzean's control of his line is superb as he crams so many drawings onto single pages and loses no readability in doing so.

Hyperlydian, by Dean Sudarsky. This is a series of strange aphorisms in the form of letters between the unseen Darla and Ronald. Ronald begins the dialogue with a bunch of statements about ends, means, babies and respect, and the line is deceptively plain, especially with the off-putting font that he uses. Everything about this comic is off-putting, strange and yet familiar by way of deja vu. Darla tells him things like "You are as hostile to grace as rhythm to the future" and urges him not to dance again, with drawings of anthropmorphic notes rushing toward a puddle soaking in musical notes. These letters are interspersed with strange images, jokes, violent scenes that have nothing to do with the epistolary narrative, and these climax in a nail desperately trying to not get hammered, to no avail. There's something beautifully liquid about both text and images that swept me along quickly; I often had to stop myself to retrace my steps and really take in each page. This is a comic in the immersive tradition, filled with poetic passages and images, and it's worth many readings.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #10: Iona Fox & Penina Gal

Almanac 2017, by Iona Fox. So this is actually two variations on the same comic, with some overlapping material and some material unique to the volume. Both are in color. Fox noted that a final edition would be published at the end of the year. These autobio comics at once feel like a blend of influences (Carol Tyler's quirky character design, formal sensibilities and painterly qualities, Julie Doucet's embrace of the grotesque, Gabrielle Bell's whimsical sense of self and John Porcellino's embrace of nature) but also very much its own thing. This is mature work that shows Fox working with a great degree of confidence in her style, and with good reason.

Fox's comics have two built-in advantages. First, in her occupation as a farmer and mountain cabin caretaker, she simply does things that no other cartoonist talks about. Second, her sense of humor is extremely sharp, and she's able to bring humor to any situation. Fox also brings the perspective of someone with a number of intellectual interests, as her degree is in geology, she knows quite a bit about meteorology and it goes from there. Her self-caricature is one of my favorites, with a "fox curl" on top of her head and a collection of freckles, knobby knees and jumbled limbs. Her strips can range from a relationship strip about geese to a beautiful series of shots of sunsets. The strips pre and post Trump's election certainly have a different tone, as she touches both on politics and protecting those around her. There are strips about undocumented dairy workers and their struggle for improved conditions. Fox is also unabashedly frank with regard to her wants and needs with regard to both sex and companionship. There's a remarkable strip where she's betwixt and between out on a hike. She knows she's running late but also understands that moments like this that she's carving out for herself might not be available in a few years. She does it by coloring herself with the yellow-orange glow of the late afternoon and the details she provides of her form include stubble and bony hips. ,

The other edition prints some context notes for the reader, as well as printing rough sketches of strips that didn't make it to her weekly strip in a free weekly. This also has some strips from later in the year, including a hilarious one from the CAKE show where she was advertising on Tindrin order to get people to come to the show. Fox is a great example of a CCS grad who is somewhat limited with regard to the images she creates but at the same time turned those limitations into a highly expressive and personal style with top-notch storytelling. While Fox's stories about her jobs is fascinating and even informative at times, she can turn any subject into something interesting, thanks to her storytelling and narrative abilities.

Orbiting & Meow De Vivre, by Penina Gal. Gal has dabbled in humor and fantasy in her career, but Orbiting is a remarkable, warm, joyous and sensitive message from one friend to another. Told visually in red and green in the language of nature (flowers, clouds, wind, rain, waves, sky and space), it broaches the difficult topic of when a person is dealing with a lifetime of internalized exclusion. They feel they're a bother to others and don't deserve love. On top of this, the person in question is trans, making it even harder to express one's true self. In excruciating, beautiful detail, Gal talks about her friend knowing that she wanted community, but being unable to make it stick for fear of constantly feeling burdensome and unwelcome. There's a moment describing the friend's first kiss, up against a van, the person saying "I care more about art than kissing. Your art is beautiful." Throughout the imagery relates to the friend's tendency to have their head in the clouds, to overthink, to withdraw inside. There are reminders that they are integral to the earth, they are part of it, they are connected and fearless in ways they haven't even considered. Gal's command over line and color is fantastic and imaginative, with a constant tension between keeping the imagery grounded and letting it fly off into space or under water. The beauty of this comic is matched only by its generousness of spirit.

Meow De Vivre is a much sillier project, but it's also visually distinctive. Originally designed for gallery space at a hair salon, Gal actually does something original with cat cartooning. The "Singles In Your Area" page is hilarious, with profiles from "OK Catnip". There are "pawdicures", trash talk about dogs, cat selfies, cat haute couture, and a clever collage. Gal has an eye for gag humor that's never been obvious in some of her other work (with the exception of Glamera, which she did with Betsey Swardlick), but it stands out here in page after page celebrating cats as familiar creatures or as performing drag. Once again, Gal's watercolors are the main attraction, grabbing the eye without looking too garish. Being in a gallery, that use of color was obviously crucial for an audience, but it worked just as well on the page.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #9: Girl Talk & My Pace 2

My Pace Volume 2 is an anthology edited by Iona Fox and Anna McGlynn under their Rod & Cone aegis.

Girl Talk is a classic CCS anthology: hand-made and aggressively bold in terms of its theme and structure. This time around, an artist adapted part of another artist's diary, fictionalizing it to create a narrative. The hand-cut cover with various punched-out skeletons is beautiful and a nice touch. Anna McGlynn took an entry from Fox and turned it into a visceral slice-of-life story centered summer in the city. Our protagonist, Vivian, is sick of being in her cramped, hot apartment while getting calls from friends smoking weed and hooking up with random guys. McGlynn drew Vivian in such a way that she was irritated with anyone having a good time with a potential romantic partner, eventually drawing in x's for eyes. When a loser guy she has a crush on won't even hit on her because her breasts were "consumed with sadness", that's her breaking point, one that only snack cakes will alleviate. The rawness of McGlynn's storytelling is a nice fit for depicting the kind of daywhere people feel like they're melting.

Fox illustrating Cooper Whittlesey's psychedelic insights was a particular pleasure, as her quirky character design, decorative touch and oft-sketchy line were perfect for a comic about walking around and listening to music. Whittlesey and first-time cartoonist Alyse Burnside were inspired by McGlynn's diary, an office story about a young woman named Jane who is frequently sexually harassed and humiliated by her boss. It's revealed that she's the result of her father having sex with his mother, a fact she tries to work through with fantasy (both in real life and with porn). The battle between her trying to assert her worth as a human being that deserves love and the abuse she receives culminates in her taking a bus to the end of the line and meeting a naked woman next to a run-off pipe and perceiving her as someone connected to her. Nothing is explicitly revealed regarding this identity or even reality in this situation, and that ambiguity charges the strip even more. With 16 panels per page, Whittlesey & Burnside pummel the reader with tiny print, grotesque drawing and oblique angles, yet the horror and absurdity of it all is strangely hypnotic in its own way. Kaplan drew a convoluted account of a story from Fox, as it's about a day she was supposed to get a stitch out from someone who turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend. There are amusing rabbit-hole details that emerge from the story, but this story was fairly lightweight compared to the others. That's not surprising since it's just four pages, as it served as a digestive more than as a crucial part of the anthology.

My Pace, an anthology about marching to one's own drummer, had a tight seven-person lineup. It's not as conceptually interesting as Girl Talk and is more uneven, as the editors went wide and took some risks with their contributors, not all of which paid off. Sam Szabo's silly ant piece feels like something out of a 1980s Steve Willis minicomic, but the way in which he sticks to the premise of the ant janitor and its mystic implications won me over by the end, although this slight story was way too long. Collage artist Sara Hebert contributed clip art with statements about her anger about not asking for anything regarding her needs when having sex. It's short, stark and bold, and quite a shift from the first story. Sean Knickerbocker's crisp line art was another nice change of pace, as he wrote a story about a guy going back to the desolate area in which he grew up. Knickerbocker takes a wrecking ball to ideas like nostalgia and closure, as coming back to his old house was walking through a minefield of triggers. The kicker is that the friend who came told him that this was, in fact what he wanted--to relive the trauma instead of learning how to move past it.

Iris Yan's anthropomorphic autobio is always dryly witty, and even this story about the death of her mother is no exception. When she gets a wreathe "from the team", she imagines her mother was on a secret soccer team. Having her librarian mother's ashes on a shelf so she could read whenever she wanted was a sweet touch. Mississippi's text lettering was distracting, especially for a comic that was so roughly drawn. There were points where this meditation on loneliness was rough in a way that was lovely and expressive, and other points where it let down the story's flow. The more abstract nature of Megan Snowe's comic made that text feel more suitable, since it was a comic about texting, the hand and arm broken down in such a way so as to render them into almost abstract shapes. Finally Summer Pierre's piece about how she came to comics is one I've read elsewhere, but it was a perfect choice for ending this particular volume. It's a sweet, funny story about Pierre meeting "comics' (an anthropomorphic character accounting for all of the art form), having flirtations with music, art and poetry, and then one night coming back to comics ("It's you! It's always been you!"). Her use of the grid highlights her whimsical self-caricature design by featuring it in every panel, almost invariably in a different pose and position each time. It's a subtle way of making the reader work a little in every panel and keep their eye fresh when they absorb new text.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #8: Hannah Kaplan

Hannah Kaplan is one of a younger set of autobiographical cartoonists whom are especially frank about their mental health, their overall existential position on the world and their sex lives. Politics is also something else that's become a part of her comics, thanks to the changes the country's going through.

Wandering is a hand-cut, screenprinted comic that's nonetheless restrained in its color scheme (olive green and red). It serves as a brief introduction to her work and persona, ever restless as she balances a desire for solitude with the necessity of connection. It also alludes to the increasing number of marches and rallies that concerned people have started to throng to this year, especially in big cities. The personal is political, as the saying goes, and that saying has never been more true. Many of Kaplan's comics explicitly explore that idea.

Self Help is a work of fiction that highlights Kaplan's ability to zero in on excruciatingly painful moments of social awkwardness and then let the characters twist. This copy is grayscaled and I'm not sure it was meant to ideally be read this way, since all of her other comics are in color. It starts with a woman named Mel having lunch with her friend, who is about to get married and has those sorts of problems. Mel begins the story by relating a "tapping" technique that she uses to strike her pressure points so as to "transform my negative emotions". Mel continues with affirmations all he way to work, where she's approached by her work fling CJ, of whom she told her friend that they were keeping it casual, but she thought he was falling for her. Instead, this unctuous individual tells her that he's seeing someone else at work now ("She's fantastic! Have you talked to her?"), and even though he's "all about the polyamory thing", his new girlfriend didn't want him seeing anyone else at their company.

That kicked off her trying more affirmations that wound up betraying her real feelings ("Even though CJ isn't all that great a guy and actually his hair is really greasy and he smells like onions and he rejected me...") and then firing up the dating app Tindr on her phone--which led to a talking-to in front of her boss which grew increasingly (and hilariously) more awkward by the second. Things get worse and worse until she finally acts to look like she visualizes herself: as a bespectacled brunette with earrings and a mustache. Ridiculous times call for extreme measures, including becoming some else altogether, and the end of the comic reflects the first time she stopped needing to go through constant affirmation. While Kaplan's drawing is rough in spots, her ability to create expressive characters and depict body language is all she really needed to make this comic work.

A Quick And Easy Guide To Finding A Husband had a disclaimer on the cover that it was based on a true story with a fictional ending. Done in a pink and blue  wash, it's an odd story: Kaplan proposes marriage to a man from Australia living in Brooklyn with whom she'd had a single hook-up, because he was having Visa problems. It's an awkward, funny and strange way of looking at an awkward and strange kind of marriage, because it involved sex and cohabitation--it wasn't just a paper marriage. One thing to note about Kaplan if it hasn't been clear: she's a hilarious writer. Going to Brooklyn and encountering hipsters exchanging cheeses on picnic baskets and declaring their creativity, she nailed that sense of alienation that pretension can create. He's blunt when they discuss why she's doing this: "I guess it's all material for you anyway". They wind up getting married, it winds up going disastrously, but they cleverly reconcile when they decide to date other people. However, they wind up communicating through their Tindr profiles (shades of "Escape (The Pina Colada Song"!), to the point where they stop talking face to face! It's a funny, clever idea. Kaplan draws people and places with a messy, schlubby, lived-in quality: people as they are on a day to day basis, not some idealized idea of the same.

Is This OK? #7 is the latest issue of her autobio series, and this is the real meat of her work. Her coded use of colored pencils gives the comic a vivid yet clear sense of flow. That's especially true when there are multiple characters; she'll often match the color of the line for the characters with the color of their lettering. It's a small but valuable detail that reduces confusion just a bit, keeping the reader totally involved with the page. The book starts on election day in 2016 and ends on February 1st, 2017--three months of all kinds of turbulence. Kaplan bases this book on her willingness to be emotionally raw, open and vulnerable. The palpable sense of trauma after the election extends even to her therapist, who suggests a kind of group trauma on top of everything else going on in our lives.

Some of the stories run a few pages, but most are a single page with a 2x3 grid. There are stories about work (including one where she had a nice male customer and she didn't that he wasn't even trying to hit on her), stories about the frequently contentious character of her relationship with her boyfriend, a strip where she follows the full moon and an odd one where she appears nude in six straight panels with forlorn expressions, with the lyrics of Meredith Brooks' song "Bitch" as the text. My favorite was one where an old boyfriend came into town, and her thoughts were in red cursive script, like "I don't know how to be nice to you". Trips across town to hang out at a bar are interspersed with road trips to DC to protest the inauguration (there's one strip where she tries to count the number of pussy hats that she sees but there are too many). The issue ends with a stunningly open and clear talk with her boyfriend about their relationship that results in matter of factly breaking up. The combination of her scribbly and expressive line, the use of color that never fails to add clarity to the proceedings, and her relentless pursuits of authentic experience and happiness are quite potent, adding punch to every page.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #7: Beth Hetland, Mary Shyne, Josh Lees

Half-Asleep Volume 7, by Beth Hetland & Kyle O'Connell.. This penultimate issue of Hetland and writer O'Connell's sci-fi epic/familial struggle answers some questions and sets up a potential final conflict between teen Ivy and her mother, a scientist who's been using her daughter as the guinea for her experiments. Her mother has been trying to figure out ways to reach out between the realms of consciousness and sleep, and the previous two issues, where Ivy went under in the lab's dream vault, saw her encounter all sorts of horrible and wonderful things. Ivy came back to the world of consciousness in this issue because her craft was out of energy; her mother thought that Ivy had been gone for forty years of subjective time but it had only been six--still enough time to really mess with things. It's difficult to parse this issue out in terms of plot; indeed, it will require a complete re-read when it's collected to properly evaluate it. I can say a few things about the highlight of the issue, a brutal conversation between mother and daughter.

Ivy rightly calls out her mother for her monstrous behavior in terms of how she was being exploited for her unique abilities. Her mother simply replied that she was doing her best to make sure that Ivy was capable of handling the world on her own. It's that kind of chilling logic without empathy that created their conflict in the first place, as both have spent the entire series keeping information secret from each other. Her mom reveals that she knows more than was written down and coldly notes that it will be a way for her to stay involved in her daughter's life. Meanwhile, Ivy realizes that she was the prototype for this experiment, and that her mother was preparing others to try to retrieve objects from other dream worlds. I imagine in the last issue we'll learn what her mother's true motive has been all along, but that won't sting as much as the revelations that came across in this issue. Hetland continues to use a bold line and a creative use of the grid (chopped up in three rows per page in a number of different permutations). I missed the use of color since Hetland brought us back to the waking world, and there were some pages with sloppy gray-scale that made me wish for a one or two color wash. On the other hand, I enjoyed Hetland's subtle visual pops. Ivy's inability to get real sleep starts to have a horrible effect on her, as she starts to begin hallucinating that a miniature version of herself was sitting on her shoulder. It speaks to her partnership with O'Connell that he doesn't over-write and instead clearly relies on Hetland to get across subtle pieces of information through graphics alone.

Get Over It #1, by Mary Shyne. I have Shyne's work in two separate articles because the comics are so radically different. This isn't unusual for a CCS student, as they are often encouraged to branch out and try several different genres. This comic is a beautifully-executed set-up of a clever idea that's sort of in the neighborhood of Ghostbusters. In just twelve pages, Shyne manages to create a vivid portrait of Leigh, a slightly aimless young woman who delivers food from her father's restaurant in New York City. At the same time, using a vivid color overlay, she reveals that she can see the auras of people and that they in fact are creatures that reflect the mood and emotional state of each person. Unbeknownst to us, they can also get into fights with other auras and do severe emotional damage and trauma. When she delivers something to a lab at a university, she puts on a metallic glove that informs her that she's a new employee, confirms her aura theory and tells her that her job is to contain harmful auras (which they call "miasmas"). The issue ends just as the real fight begins, and it's an excellent cliffhanger. Shyne hit on a nice concept here, and her clear but bold line combined with the spot color for the miasmas makes this a smooth, fun read. I hope she keeps going with this, because it's close to being fully formed.

Liberty High School Detective League #1, by Josh Lees. This is a straight-up kids mystery-detective comic with Bernadette "Burnside" Snyder and new kid at school Ray Griego. Lees very consciously creates a group of characters that ring true both in terms of their interests and ethnicities. Burnside is a skater who's also a member of the school's Detective League, and in this story, she's presented with the mystery of who's tagging her locker and why. The production of the book had some quirks. While the size and shape is perfect for kids (roughly the size of the platonic form of kids' comics, the Archie digest), the vibrant colors of the first few pages dull a bit into spot color and gray scale. It's fine for what it is, but the transition was a jarring one and the story doesn't quite pop as hard with the revised use of color.

The story was clever enough, but the real attraction here is the subtle use of characterization. Burnside is smart, clever and independent, carving out her own space in school and as a skater. At the same time, she's sometimes oblivious as to who's attracted to her. When the tagger is revealed to be a boy who wanted to get her attention, she has a great reaction--try to talk to someone about things they're interested in, for starters. The repudiation of borderline stalking behavior instead of valuing it as some kind of grand romantic gesture was delivered in a stark and direct fashion. Ray's Hispanic identity is important, but Lees makes sure he's not just a cliche'. The low-stakes nature of the mystery here make those characters even more important, as they are investigating something that's personal. Lees' characters are sometimes a bit on the stiff side; there are times when they look like they're posing as opposed to being in action. That felt like a creator who was paying close attention to details regarding setting and character design and needed to work more on panel to panel transitions and overall storytelling fluidity. There is certainly a great deal of potential in this series.