Friday, January 24, 2020

The Top 75 Comics Of The 2010s

Over at Solrad, I compiled my list of the top twenty comics of the 2010s. This was an extremely difficult task, as I had to leave out many worthy entries. Here's my list, ranked 21-75, of the other best comics of the decade.

A few notes:

* I excluded anthologies from the list, with the exception of the Jason Martin-written issue of Papercutter. That's a separate category to consider, in my opinion.
* I excluded most big collections of artists, with the exception of Mark Connery's Rudy, because that work had never been collected before in any format.
* I only allowed one entry per artist. The exception was John Porcellino, in part because the two works I chose are both exceptionally good and are completely different in terms of format and style.
* I stuck to printed matter only, with the exception of Laura Park's piece.
* I am limiting myself to a single line of description for each comic. I've reviewed most of them already.

Here's the list of 20 I published with Solrad:

1. Rusty Brown, by Chris Ware (Pantheon).
2. Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart (Macmillan).
3. Pretending Is Lying, by Dominique Goblet (NYRB).
4. You & A Bike & A Road, by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press).
5. The Love Bunglers, by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics).

6. Soldier's Heart, by Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics).
7. Leaving Richard's Valley, by Michael DeForge (Drawn and Quarterly).
8. The River At Night, by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn and Quarterly).
9. Everything Is Flammable, by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books).
10. Chlorine Gardens, by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press).

11. Infomaniacs, by Matthew Thurber (Drawn and Quarterly).
12. Someone Please Have Sex With Me, by Gina Wynbrandt (2D Cloud).
13. Girl Town, by Casey Nowak (Top Shelf).
14. The Heavy Hand, by Chris Cilla (Sparkplug Comic Books).
15. Artichoke Tales, by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics).

16. All The Answers, by Michael Kupperman (Gallery 13).
17. Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Books).
18. Sir Alfred #3, by Tim Hensley (Buenaventura Press).
19. The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Companion, by Luke Healy.
20. Book Of Days Daze, by E.A. Bethea (Domino Books).

And here's #21 - 75:

21. King-Cat 75, by John Porcellino (Spit-And-A-Half). This is the tribute to Maisie Kukoc issue, and it's a magnificent, sincere, and loving eulogy for a beloved pet.
22. Recidivist #4, by Zak Sally (La Mano). Haunting, poetic, and complex work--and printed by hand.
23. Hagelbarger And That Midnight Goat, by Renee French (Yam Press). An absurdist piece about the ways in which beauty, kindness, cruelty, humor, and horror can all share the same space.
24. Education, by John Hankiewicz (Fantagraphics). The master of comics-as-poetry once again puts together an extensively immersive and challenging series of images in creating a powerful narrative of sorts.
25. Frontier #17: "Mother's Walk," by Lauren Weinstein (Youth In Decline). No one gets more real than Weinstein, and this account of childbirth and its accompanying stressors and pleasures holds nothing back.

26. I Want You #2, by Lisa Hanawalt. One of the funniest, most stylish, most disgusting, and most bizarre comics I've ever read; this is what I mean when I refer to a reading experience as "the full Hanawalt."
27. Approximate Continuum Comics, by Lewis Trondheim (Fantagraphics). Endlessly witty quotidian observations from one of the world's greatest cartoonists.
28. The Infinite Wait And Other Stories, by Julia Wertz (Koyama Press). This is Wertz at her height, with a fully-realized drawing style and attention to narrative detail that makes her usual hilarious observations all the more poignant.
29. Susceptible, by Genevieve Castree' (Drawn and Quarterly). Brutally honest personal account of how a toxic parent can traumatize a child, and how that child reacts to the experience as they grow up.
30. Bright-Eyed At Midnight, by Leslie Stein (Fantagraphics). An ode to art and beauty as a worthwhile thing to pursue done in a bright, colorful style that is in itself gorgeous.

31. Make Me A Woman, by Vanessa Davis (Drawn and Quarterly). Davis' trenchant observations and her innovative open-page layouts make her one of the best, most singular memoirists.
32. Your Black Friend, by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket). A devastating, incisive, personal, and funny statement about race and the ways in which white people unfairly look to people of color for instruction.
33. Our Mother, by Luke Howard (Retrofit). Howard's personal and painfully funny account of his mother's mental illness and its creeping inevitability in his own life.
34. Out Of Hollow Water, by Anna Bongiovanni (2D Cloud). With quiet but powerful restraint, Bongiovanni spins horrible fairy tales that reflect the cruelty of real life, especially with regard to women.
35. Incidents In The Night, by David B (Uncivilized Books). This is a wild bit of autobio, detective story, and magical realist conspiracy theory epic--all done in David B's trademark dense black line.

36. War Of Streets And Houses, by Sophia Yanow (Uncivilized Books). Yanow is an ace at depicting the intersection of personal and political hotpoints, with a shambling line that is irresistible.
37. Raw Power, by Josh Bayer (Retrofit). It's punk as fuck, like all of Bayer's work, matching the expressive energy of the line with a steady narrative framework and a powerful understanding of history.
38. The Hospital Suite, by John Porcellino (Drawn and Quarterly). Still maintains the poetic nature of King-Cat while telling a straightforward narrative about his mental and physical illnesses.
39. Chunk, by Emma Hunsinger. A perfectly and expressively drawn comic about art school that delves deep into each character's emotional narratives.
40. By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, by Laura Lannes (2D Cloud). Autobio doesn't get any rawer than this, as Lannes holds nothing back in talking about her relationships with a line so expressive that it practically jumps off the page.

41. This One Is Mine, by Laura Park. In a single page, Park displays their stunning skill as a cartoonist and their storytelling brilliance in discussing their life with cancer.
42. This Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life, by Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics). This is a horrifying coming-of-age comic, filled with toxic friends and predators at every corner, told with commanding cartooning skill.
43. Sex Fantasy, by Sophia Foster-Dimino (Koyama Press). This is a funny, weird, and deeply intimate mix of personal and fictional stories--and the line between the two is deliberately blurred.
44. Dragon's Breath And Other Stories, by MariNaomi (2D Cloud). A sensitive, poetic, and deeply personal series of short memoir vignettes, tinged with a deep sense of melancholy and regret.
45. Arsene Schrauwen, by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics). This outrageous "biography" traverses areas like colonialism, fantasy, weird sex, surrealism and many other categories.

46. Young Frances, by Hartley Lin (AdHouse). This is both an exquisite character study and a knowing, hilarious parody of what it's like to work in a high-powered law firm, drawn by an artist who understands the tiniest nuances of character interaction.
47. New School, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics). This may be Shaw's masterpiece: a complex exploration of identity, adventure tropes, and sophisticated use of color for narrative purposes.
48. House Of Women, by Sophie Goldstein (Fantagraphics). A beautiful merging of design, color contrast, exquisite linework, and a complex takedown of colonialism, religion, and capitalism.
49. Exits, by Daryl Seitchik (Koyama Press). This is a beautifully surreal, personal, and angry book about the male gaze and what it means to be seen.
50. The Angriest, Saddest Black Girl In Town, by Robyn-Brooke Smith. With delicate and expressive pencils, Smith expresses her rage and alienation with regard to race, identity, and being the other.

51. Demon, by Jason Shiga (First Second). An outrageous, hilarious, over-the-top series of action sequences as logic problems and ultraviolence presented in context with its ethical & ontological implications.
52. Rookie Moves, by November Garcia. A funny and fresh voice in autobio who manages to express her own enthusiasm for comics and its creators as sharply as she does with regard to her own life.
53. I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB, by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics). Tardi is a legend, but this is his crowning achievement: telling the story of his father's wartime experiences.
54. Beta Testing The Apocalypse, by Tom Kaczynski (Fantagraphics). This is a smart and frequently chilling satire of culture and philosophy in a market-driven world.
55. Windowpane, by Joe Kessler (Breakdown Press). A trippy look at the twin poles of creation and destruction, filtered through a color scheme that often abstracts the subject matter.

56. Architecture Of An Atom, by Juliacks (2D Cloud). This is the most ambitious project yet by Juliacks, whose immersive style demands total attention and commitment from the reader--and this poetic story about human connection is worth it.
57. Houses Of The Holy, by Caitlin Skaalrud (Uncivilized Books). This is an enigmatic howl, a journey through the darkest recesses of memory told through symbols and language created just for this narrative.
58. Stroppy, by Marc Bell (Drawn and Quarterly). This surreal bit of utter nonsense has its own iron-clad logic and narrative momentum, resulting in a gleefully strange adventure.
59. Rudy, by Mark Connery (2D Cloud). A quarter-century's worth of subversive, Dada, punk humor (with remarkably traditional comedic structures), collected in one overwhelming volume.
60. Spinning, by Tillie Walden (First Second). This is a beautiful, dense memoir about the demands we place on ourselves and how this distracts from many of our real issues.

61. Couch Tag, by Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics). It's a fascinating episodic memoir, wherein Reklaw repeatedly uses the idea of writing about one thing as a way of exploring a deeper emotional issue.
62. Sky In Stereo, by Mardou (Revival House). This is a bracing, brave story about a psychedelic experience gone horribly wrong, and the harrowing subsequent stay in a mental institution.
63. Magic Whistle #3.2, by Sam Henderson (Alternative Comics). Henderson remains one of the premier humorists in comics, and he added the editor hat in expanding his series into a humor anthology.
64. Too Dark To See, by Julia Gfrörer. The horror of this brilliant, scratchily-drawn comic is in its deeply cynical attitudes regarding love, sex, and relationships. 
65. Operation Margarine, by Katie Skelly (AdHouse Books). It's a combination of stylish clothes & poses, a kickass adventure, and a deep meditation on trauma.

66. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics). A sprawling, visually astounding monster mystery book.
67. Papercutter #17 (Tugboat Press). This is the issue where every story was written by Jason Martin, and drawn by an all-star team's worth of cartoonists;
68. The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song, by Frank M. Young and David Lasky (Abrams). The research and verisimilitude for the famous singing family's dialogue is top-notch, but it's Lasky's astonishing cartooning that's the true draw.
69. Invisible Ink, by Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics). A startling family memoir that leaves judgment behind and focuses on empathy instead.
70. Megahex, by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics). Launched Megg, Mogg, and Owl into the public imagination; it's still the ur-young degenerate book of the last decade.

71. Lost Cat, by Jason (Fantagraphics). This Phillip Marlowe pastiche is one of the best of Jason's mash-ups of culture and explorations of loneliness.
72. Plans We Made, by Simon Moreton (Uncivilized Books). An emotionally impressionistic account of youth with a beautiful, spare line.
73. Hilda And The Mountain King, by Luke Pearson (NoBrow). This is the capper to one of the greatest kids' comics series of all time, by an artist at the height of his powers.
74. Forming, by Jesse Moynihan (NoBrow). A hilarious, profane, and hyperviolent account of the gods and aliens that walked the earth.
75. Pornhounds #2, by Sharon Lintz and various artists. A series of stories about working in the porn industry turns into a sensitive and funny account of dealing with breast cancer.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #31: Mike King/Michael Sweater

Mike King, currently using the pen name Michael Sweater, does what I sometimes refer to as "pop-punk" comics. These are artists who very much live a DIY, punk ethos and do frequently sweet, punk-themed comics, often revolving around a fantasy theme. His collection of comics from 2013, Lion's Teeth, puts all of his influences on display. Graffiti art, tattoo art, manga, fantasy comics, autobio comics, and more all are all there, blended in a confident and stylized line that's the clear result of drawing a lot of pages. The five issues of Lion's Teeth add up to nearly five hundred pages, including some work drawn in 2011. The cumulative effect of all of this is closer to looking at an intensely worked-over sketchbook than a coherent anthology series, but that rawness is part of the appeal.

The best strips are the ones featuring Dave, the wizard school student. Armless due to a curse, he loves magic but claims to hate everything else: the perfect, disaffected protagonist. Of course, that's all a pose, as he has a strong friendship with his anthropomorphic owl friend Argyle and a frenemy relationship with Richard, the snake who lives in the tree in his backyard. King's character design is top-notch, but the barrel-chested Dave is particularly inspired. Dave and friends are just as likely to go on a quest for death-summoning skull as they are to go out and eat the best pizza in the world, and that's part of the charm of the strip. Death himself is just a guy who has to go out and do a job, and it's frequently an annoying one. His adventures run parallel to Dave's until he is finally summoned, and their conversation is a surprisingly poignant one. I'd love to see more of these characters, especially because they provide such an interesting alternative to the all-too-familiar "wizard school" trope.

There are a lot of interstitial pages here devoted to King's graffiti/tattoo art designs. Here, he uses a big, bold line with stark black/white contrasts. It's different from the rattier, looser line of his comics, while also use zip-a-tone and gray-scale effects to fill in negative space in order to add weight to the page. There are also the "Clyde" comics, which are done in big, chunky lines on the back of old priority mail envelopes. There's also his older "Make Me" comics from 2011, which are more random bits of humor. There's one running bit where a human refuses food to an animal or threatens to hurt them, and then a huge boxer shows up to beat the human to a pulp. King's comic timing is sharp, and his use of callbacks like this is smoothly developed. There are also comics featuring little punk kids being schooled in how to be properly punk by adults. The other major comics in these collections are autobiographical, where he draws himself as an anthropomorphic cat and his girlfriend (now wife) Benji as an anthropomorphic mouse. King can actually get pretty raw and real with regard to his mental state in these strips--both in the comics about himself and in the Dave comics in particular. That mix of well-developed craft and a willingness to try anything is a hallmark of his work, which has continued in the books he's done with Silver Sprocket.

Monday, December 30, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #30: Andy Warner

Andy Warner, along with Josh Kramer, Eleri Mai Harris, Dan Nott, Dan Archer, and a few others, make up a group of CCS grads whose primary interest is in comics journalism. Unsurprisingly, Warner has been a longtime mainstay of The Nib, and he's one of their best contributors. His minicomic, Eruption, is a good example of his Nib work. It's meticulously-researched, thought-provoking, and provides a human angle on everything. This is about the eruption of Mt. Kilauea in Hawai'i a few years back. In his clear, rich detailed drawing style, he gives the reader a sense of what it was like when the volcano erupted, but he also provides information as to the implications and repercussions of the event, both geologically and economically.

On the other hand, Spring Rain, his memoir of being in Beirut in 2005 when a revolution was breaking out, is sprawling, self-indulgent, messy, and raw. As he discusses in the book, he's told a lot of stories about Beirut in the course of his comics career, but he always left out all of the significant personal details. This book integrates a significant mental breakdown he experienced, the fraught relationships he was dealing with, and the extremely tenuous political situation that exploded around him. All at the age of 21.

Writing this kind of book was an all or nothing proposition. After years of holding back, Warner had to discuss everything, no matter how embarrassing or painful it was. It's clear that he was as honest as he possibly could be in telling this story, because he does not make himself a sympathetic character. Indeed, his time in Beirut could be described as a continuous series of bad decisions, starting with breaking up with his girlfriend in America prior to the trip, for no reason other than being apart. He regretted it immediately and talked to her via email when he could, but it was obvious that he had unfinished business there and it gave him a baseline level of misery.

That was balanced against Warner making a number of remarkable friends. Some were natives of Lebanon, while others were from the US like he was. Living abroad, it wasn't surprising that the isolation of this experience would lead to him making such fast friends, and it was clear that they knew that he needed them. They encouraged him to go out instead of stewing alone in his depression. A major subplot of his story was that many of these friends were gay men, which puzzled a few since Warner was ostensibly straight.

That in itself was a key element of the book: Warner coming to terms with his own sexuality and how that related to trauma. An incident from high school where a guy he wanted to be friends with grabbed Warner's crotch against his will confused and traumatized him. That led him to stop trying in a class, and one day the teacher punished him by laying him down on the floor and telling him to hump it. Shame, rage, humiliation--all bottled up. On top of all that, Warner's family had a history of mental illness. All of that subsumed trauma combined with genetic tendencies made Warner a ticking time bomb.

Throw all of that on top of a genuine political uprising that alternated moments of hope and solidarity for the Lebanese with cynical machinations by Syria, the PLO, and America, and you had an almost absurd outward manifestation of the roiling paranoia and despair that Warner felt. Indeed, almost every one of his friends had their own inner struggles. One gay friend took a bunch of pills to kill himself because he knew his parents would never approve of him. As the world became more uncertain, Warner's relationships with his friends grew closer but also more unstable. His next-door neighbor and close friend came on to him despite him having a boyfriend, but Warner agreed to hook up with him several times. He had sex a few times with one of his female friends and both tried to pretend it didn't mean anything until it did. When he tried to get her to hook up with someone else at a party, it was an act that demeaned and hurt her. Of course, the group throwing drugs into the equation did little to calm things down. All that did was accelerate the madness, matching the madness around them.

Warner's own depiction of his breakdown and near-suicide attempt is harrowing. It was unsparing and used the full range of his considerable skill as a draftsman. For weeks, he had heard voices. He had seen threatening faces. The whispers grew louder on that night, and then eventually they passed. It is no coincidence that he had decided to do a story about his high school experience, releasing that trauma a little. The importance of art in Warner's life is one of the big emphases in this book; he never comes out and says it, but it's obvious that art saved his life. It's also clear that writing this book is something he had to do. Everything that happened was too big to wrap his mind around, but he couldn't help but try to do it anyway. Warner tries to give the reader a sense of Beirut and its history, what its people are like, and what it's like to be a student abroad. Then he tries to do this as a completely unreliable narrator in a volatile political situation while on drugs. It never quite coheres, but neither did his experiences. A bunch of horrible and beautiful stuff happened to Warner. He made a number of bad decisions and hurt some people's feelings as a result. He made it through as best as he could, and came clean with regard to trauma and mental illness through his art. If nothing else, he paid a debt to himself and others by being open about what happened to him in Beirut, bridging the gap between journalism and memoir in a graphic, compelling, and expansive manner.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #29: Luke Healy

Luke Healy emerged from CCS as a fully-formed cartoonist. All of his early minis are excellent and well-designed, and he's been remarkably productive since then, with three books under his belt. His most recent book, Americana, is probably the most straightforward of his books, in that it's a travel memoir that mixes text and comics. At the same time, there's something that's deeper than a simple account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. This is a story about displacement of identity at a deep level. Healy is a native of Ireland who spent a lifetime obsessing over the USA: its culture, its expansiveness, and its possibilities. He loved America, but he wasn't able to stay here for any appreciable length of time. His visa expired after a year at CCS, and he wasn't able to return until halfway through his second year. He couldn't find any jobs that would allow him to stay.

All of that led him to fixate on walking the Pacific Crest Trail--over 2,500 miles through desert, mountains, and forests. He had no experience hiking or camping at all. His "practice" was the occasional long walk on level land in Ireland. Over the course of over 300 pages, Healy details his struggles (physical and emotional) on the trail and meeting his eventual goal at the Canadian border. The way Healy writes about America and his life, in general, is a pervasive sense of something being missing--something that he could see that was just beyond his grasp. He's uncomfortable in his own skin, and that seems to have little to do with the fact that he's gay. There's a basic sense of total discomfort that's palpable in his other work by way of his characters and author persona, and a little more subdued here. After all, this version of Luke is as much an invention as in his other books, but it's the one based most closely on real events in his life.

It's also subdued because the audience is presented with all-Luke, all the time. He doesn't go out of his way to make himself likable, but he also tones down on some of the negative self-talk. Part of that is through the genuine focus on the experience of hiking the PCT. It was grueling, and he even seriously thought about quitting when he got near Los Angeles. A friend picked up him and he rested for several days, but he decided to go back to the trail again. A sticking factor halfway through was the ill health and eventual death of his grandfather; each time he thought about going home, his family encouraged him to keep hiking. He even managed to talk to his grandfather a few times, who was perfectly delighted that his grandson was hiking in America.

This book, by its very nature, is sprawling and self-indulgent. Healy has no pretensions regarding special insights into hiking, nature, America, or even himself. This is not to say that he doesn't think about and discuss all of these things, and he records it to the best of his ability. He gets across each of the bizarre environments he hikes through, from the Mojave Desert to the High Sierras, and he relays just how poorly prepared he was for all of this. He could barely set up his tent and made poor time at the beginning of the hike. The camaraderie of the trip was an interesting subplot, because it was something that he both cultivated and avoided. He usually preferred to be alone, but there were times that he wanted to share some of his experiences. That became especially true about halfway through the hike, when a mountain lion came sniffing around his tent at night. That motivated Healy to hike much faster and talk his way into camping with other folks at night.

Healy's line is simple, expressive, and surprisingly kinetic. The characters in the book are almost always moving, albeit slowly, and Healy showed a knack for depicting this movement while also providing a real sense of the environment. The pinks and blues he used as single-tone fills added just the right amount of atmosphere.

Ultimately, this is a book about emptying one's self. When one's only concern is surviving on the trail on a day-to-day basis, other things fall away. Healy was twitchy, restless, overstuffed and anxious; he implies that he was drawn to the PCT because it would beat these things out of him. The trail made him lose weight at a rapid pace, his fat reserves consumed by the relentless energy needed for the trail. There was the sort of camaraderie that comes about when people are thrown into a strenuous, isolating situation. By the end of the trail, he had not only become a proficient hiker, but the hike itself became everything. At the end, he felt mostly relief and weariness. He could finally stop. The cumulative effect was like any strenuous, meditative activity: helping Healy empty his mind and quiet it.

I don't think this book had much to do with America per se, other than simply being the setting for this trek. The quote he had at the beginning alludes to this a bit: "I'm driven by my hunger for the American experience. But also by the hope that if I gorge myself on it, I'll become sick of the taste." His PCT trek had nothing to do with the Hollywood or cultural image of America that he was so drawn to. Instead, he took on America as a beautiful, sprawling, and dangerous geographic entity. It was unsentimental, unwelcoming, and yet almost painfully beautiful at times. He let America drain his body of strength, batter him, wear him down, and finally focus. Confronting America in this way is what finally allowed him to release his fixation. It's about having no choice but to let go.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #28: Liam McTaggart

Liam McTaggart is a first-year CCS student with a scribbly, scratchy minimalist style. His work reminds me a little of Emma Hunsinger's (although she uses more loopy lines), and both of their comics remind me of Jules Feiffer's comics.  By is a short comic depicting the heart-rending visit of a man and his elderly grandmother who has dementia. Every day is the same series of emotionally draining conversations and then a return to a hotel and anesthesizing routine until the next round of hard conversations. The next day is even more difficult, as his attempt at roleplaying his father (playing into his grandmother's delusions) is somehow even more painful. The spare drawings contrast the complexity of the emotions at work.

Picking Up Scorpions seems to be McTaggart's Aesop assignment, a variation on the old The Scorpion And The Frog story. A man asks a man for a ride through the desert, promising money. He refuses to show it first, telling the other man to trust reason--why would he doom himself? Well, when the car broke down, the man didn't have any money. It was his nature to be untrustworthy. There's a stink of desperation in this story conveyed through gesture and a minimum of lines. Their First Album is about a husband and wife who find reasons and excuses to be away from each other. While she's out walking for hours, he goes to a bar. It's not clear why they have so much trouble communicating, but her attempt to reach out at the end, after they've shared a moment together with music, is telling. This is an interesting comic because the main narrative details everything but the core emotional problems of the couple.

The Matter is a fascinating look at the end of a teenage relationship. McTaggart is aces at depicting both desperation and indifference. In this case, it was indifference on the part of a girl and desperation on the part of a guy. She had her head in the clouds as to what a relationship should be and was almost revolted by the idea of any kind of physical contact or physicality in general ("because I'm not a slut") because it went against her own personal aesthetic. For his part, he just wanted someone to love, (even if he clearly didn't understand her) but he knew what was happening and walked away. Her response was to go back to listening to pop music that drew her back to the clouds.

Simple, Stupid is the best of McTaggart's work. McTaggart has an ear for dialogue, and the verisimilitude of the conversations in this book allows him to subtly explore male toxicity and the awkwardness of desire. The story revolves around two male friends named Dean and Ted, and it's clear that Dean is in love with Ted. However, the two dance around his attraction until a drunken game of Truth or Dare, which leads to some awkward silences in the group. Later, when Dean stays over at Ted's house and strips down in front of him, he becomes embarrassed, leaves, and stops talking to his friend. Dean later enters into a romance with a girl named Sarah and approaches it with the same kind of emotional earnestness that he did with Ted, only this time he allows himself to pursue these feelings. There's a fascinating, intimate scene where McTaggart zooms in and all the reader sees are lips and a couple of other portions of the face. When Dean sees Ted at a party and Ted is clearly friendly, he realizes that his homophobia was entirely internalized. It's a rare event to read a story featuring bisexual characters, but McTaggart nails every how masculinity interferes with one's ability to express affection and attraction. McTaggart does have a few things to refine (especially his lettering), but he's found a style and tone that work well for him.

Friday, December 27, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #27: Emil Wilson

Emil Wilson is a CCS outlier. Not quite a trailblazer, but definitely an outlier. At 53 years old, he was already established as an art director and illustrator in San Francisco. He's married. But like a few other older cartoonists, the muse took him to White River Junction in order to learn how to tell stories. Wilson is already quite skilled and has a fully realized style. What will be interesting is to see him learn how to craft narratives and work entirely within the discipline of cartooning, which is related to but quite different from illustration.

The urge to be a cartoonist is something that's clearly been burning in him because he was already quite prolific even before her arrived at CCS. Let's take a look at his comics. There are a few one-pagers, like The Great Sex Talk Of 1973. Right away, Wilson establishes his visual style: slightly distorted and grotesque figures with rosy cheeks and a restrained but prominent use of color. He's also quite funny, as this story follows seven-year-old Emil having read a book about sex and asking his mother about it. When he asks about the possibility of him impregnating her, her chain-smoking disaffectedness swats his inquiries down until Emil brings up Jesus as the reason he couldn't do it. How To Pronounce My Name is another funny one, as a barista mistook his name for "Anal" and even wrote it on his cup. This one's all in gray-scale shading with a bit of a Ben Katchor rattiness to his line. Once again, his instincts as a humorist are sharp. All About Me! The Body Edition is a single page illustration of his body, relative to various things that happened to it at various ages. Again, Wilson knows how to work a meaningful anecdote, including bits related to his husband and a lot of positive self-esteem.

Telling People is a clever mini where Wilson details the various conversations he had with people when he told them he was going to art school. The first strip outlines every second thought he had about it, from feeling isolated and out of place with younger cartoonists, to being separated from his husband, to worrying about encountering death due to Vermont's icy weather. His friend only reacted when Wilson pointed out that there were no Starbucks there. Again, Wilson has great comic timing, and visually, the page serves as a text-delivery mechanism, as he doesn't want to detract from the gag. The rest of the strips are variations on a theme, with the one where he's talking to his deluded mother being the best.

Killing Simon is a mini, I think, that may well portend Wilson's future. It's about a man who accidentally kills a family's cat right in front of them at a yard sale. He feels horrible about it, but his attempts at making amends only lead him into weirder and more awkward situations. It's an extremely uncomfortable comic that gets cringe-worthy in all the right ways. However, here we also see Wilson's limitations as a cartoonist. His figures are stiff at various points, and he doesn't have a sense of how to draw figures interacting in space. His use of gesture also needs some refinement.

Silent Witnesses was Wilson's try-out comic for CCS, and it immediately showcases two things: he's a funny writer and a distinctive stylist. However, this isn't really a comic in any traditional sense. This is illustrated text. The Turtle And The Bunny, Wilson's take on the CCS Aesop assignment, is another viscerally droll comic. Here, the layout is somewhere between illustrated text and an open-page comics layout, as a jealous pet bunny's own paranoia eventually does him in. The juxtaposition between the ornate lettering and cute use of color with the eventual grisly violence is a striking one, and the page of morals is grimly hilarious. The Princess And The Turnip is another whimsical and absurd fairy tale about a woman who falls in love with various inanimate objects, until she finally finds love with an umbrella. Once again, there's a nice contrast between the scratchy line and the elaborate lettering and lush use of color. The Taking Tree is a parody of Shel Silverstein's classic The Giving Tree, only the boy, in this case, is Donald Trump. As a parody, it's amusing; as political satire, it's a bit of a blunt force object.

Eight Nates is a funny kids' comic about a lonely kid who manages to conjure up seven copies of himself as playmates, to disastrous effect. This had an odd mix of black & white and color; I couldn't quite tell if this was deliberate. Introducing Erin Williams is a true story about a woman who stutters, and it's told as a kind of interview comic. Stuttering is an executive functioning neurological issue that is poorly understood by the lay public. This is a sharp, colorful comic that makes great use of naturalism and body language. We Will Never Be Happy Again is, as was stated in the mini itself, an illustrated poem. It's more of Wilson's grim sense of humor on display. Finally, The Pillow Of Your Dreams is a funny, well-designed "User's Manual" for a pillow that creates vivid dreams for its users. Wilson's obvious facility with this kind of drawing is what made the humor in this comic all the more effective.

I can't quite yet tell what kind of cartoonist Wilson is going to be. He's extremely skilled in some areas, but certain habits of illustration have to be un-learned before one becomes a good cartoonist and visual storyteller. Wilson is very funny, especially with regard to cringe humor, and I could see him going in that direction. The stuff he wrote about his family and friends is also funny, in an often bleak manner. CCS is a perfect place for him, because cartooning and storytelling are the bedrocks of their curriculum.