Friday, July 22, 2016

First Second: Drew Weing

From the beginning of his career about fifteen years ago after he graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Drew Weing stood out from other cartoonists in his age range thanks to his remarkable versatility and skill. He did a couple of years' worth of a diary comic to hone his chops, did some interesting early webcomics experiments (Pup), and had a densely-hatched book published by Fantagraphics (Set To Sea). He co-wrote a kids' book with his wife Eleanor Davis (Flop To The Top) and helped her with her own YA book, The Secret Science Alliance. Despite his facility with the web, Weing is a throwback in many other respects. Fifty years ago, he would have likely been a syndicated daily cartoonist. His art takes its cues more from classic strip cartooning than modern superhero or even alt-comics. He has superb chops as a draftsman but is a cartoonist first and foremost, focusing on character design, body language, and gesture above all else.

His first book for First Second, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, is a set-up for a series told in episodic fashion. A young boy named Charles moves to a big city that feels like a cross between New York and San Francisco called Echo City with his family. He learns that his family is moving into a nearly century-old building that his father is fixing up. Weing takes up about fifteen pages carefully establishing the character as skeptical of the whole enterprise and annoyed with his gently needling parents who constantly try to push him into doing new, weird things and encourage him to get rid of some of his stuff. Weing then gives the reader one last piece of information before really starting the story: Charles is a blogger who fancies himself a reporter on "the frontlines of the battle for kids' rights." The agency of children is a key theme throughout the book, especially as the stage for kids being forced to deal with a strange world on their own becomes a dramatic plot point.

When Charles sees a huge monster at his bedside as he tried to go to sleep and his father offered him a "magic wristwatch" for protection, that was a sign that Charles was on his own. From there, Weing expands the cast a bit by introducing Kevin, a fellow kid from the building who mixes eccentricities (he constantly tries to set weird world records) with plot-device usefulness. When Kevin gives him a card for a "monster mediator" named Margo Maloo, that's when the book really takes off. Margo's presence as a hyper-competent, knowledgeable but enigmatic expert is perfectly set off by Charles' role as a stand-in for the reader, and the ideal reader at that: someone who is intelligent but knows nothing about the subject at hand.

From there, the book is simply a series of problems that need to be solved with equal emphasis on the "monster" and "mediator" aspects of Margo's job. She's the ultimate kid with agency, armed with knowledge of how things really are, knowledge that's kept hidden from adults. What Weing does especially well is slowly develop the partnership between Margo and Charles. When introduced to the monstrous troll named Marcus who menaced Charles at his bedside, the conflict is eased when both Charles and Marcus realize they have a common interest in a collectible game-toy. The other chapters address an especially annoying ghost that's captured some unruly teens and then take the reader on a tour on the monster underground: a grocery store for monsters, the monster postal system, a favorite monster bar, where monsters like to hide, etc, all in the name of finding a missing baby monster. To be sure, there's much about the book that follows a familiar formula, but Weing's attention to detail, in-depth characterization and overall cleverness as a craftsman makes this book a genre stand-out. Hopefully, there will be future volumes that allow Weing to flesh out his characters and this world a little more.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Foxing Reprints #10: Dawson Walker

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2dcloud: Austin English's Gulag Casual

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. This column closes out the 2dcloud feature.

Austin English is truly a singular cartoonist. While he favors a dense, immersive style that doesn't use negative space in the panels themselves, his style of drawing and his use of color forces the reader to reconsider the rulebook regarding gesture, character design and the ways in which bodies interact in space. To describe his drawings as crude misses the point entirely, because his work isn't a failed attempt at drawing something "normal" or a compensating by overdrawing with a lot of lines for a drawing that didn't look right. Instead, we're seeing shapes and forms entirely from the artist's imagination, and the effect evokes an emotional reaction on page after page, even if the source of that emotion can't be adequately explained. In that respect, English has more in common with painters like Pablo Picasso (warped figures depicting simultaneity of motion and emotions laid bare) or Mark Rothko (with a calculated desire to make color fields evoke certain emotional reactions) than any cartoonist I can think of, with the possible exception of Gary Panter. While Panter's ability as a draftsman is more traditionally refined than English's approach, Panter also clearly approaches his work uninterested in conventional rules and draws to please himself above all else.

The irony of his new collection, Gulag Casual, is that it was clearly pleasurable to draw and mold for English, while at the same time so many of the stories are about being made to feel uncomfortable, even in spaces one once thought were safe. English's comics make the familiar seem strange, the friendly seem threatening and upset notions of stability and sometimes even consensus reality. It's very much a series of stories set in a city, with all of the anxiety that living in a city can bring. Throughout the book, there are unwelcome door-crashers and intruders, people listening in on private conversations and then judging others for the content of their speech, and the particularly unpredictable threat of people who have clearly lost their minds. English taps into the kind of paranoia that someone on drugs might feel, that things are not only no longer safe and familiar, but that the world is starting to actively cave in on you or conspire against you. Everything looks and feels strange as a result.

Consider "A New York Story". This is English's most recent story and the most beautifully drawn, even if the images are warped and odd. Indeed, the image of one character bent over on the sidewalk as he recovers from a verbal thrashing is both funny and disquieting. The story follows someone talking about a person named Melo and then being confronted about what he said by a pair of perfect strangers on the street. That kind of public confrontation in a tight city space is hellish to think about, which is why English zeroes in on that feeling and magnifies it.

"The Disgusting Room", on the other hand, sees English burst free from all restraints as an artist, using paint, fabric, marker, pencil and construction paper to create a narrative of sorts about an expanding series of relationships. This is all about disturbing equilibrium as well as the concept of alienation in tight spaces. The main character seeks to be "good" as she takes on more and more responsibility, only to snap and abandon all of her responsibilities and relationships. It's also a story about mental illness (a running through-line in the book) and its "othering" qualities, both for those who are ill as well as those who are their caretakers.

"My Friend Perry" is all about violations of personal and emotional space as well as the ways in which intimate bonds can be shattered. In it, the main character seeks comfort from his strange and lazy best friend, only to learn that his sister (whom he lives with) has been traumatized by someone breaking into their apartment. This story has English's most expressive figurework, even if his figures resemble lumps and blobs. Despite that visual approach, English draws out fear, anger, affection, paranoia and dread through the ways his figures interact in space as well as his idiosyncratic use of color. "Here I Am" takes that idea of home invasion a step further, as a stranger initially welcomed by a family becomes deranged and threatening, even as English implies that the stranger is imaginary, a metaphor for guilt. Finally, "Freddy's Dead" takes all of that paranoia and strangeness and ratchets them up, as a pair of friends are separated and both wind up hanging around dangerous, unpleasant people they're not sure how to ditch.

The last two stories were done in pencil and hinted, along with the first story, of English starting to slowly refine and gain better control over his style. While "The Disgusting Room" throws the entire visual kitchen sink at the reader with no respite, English starts to focus more on bulbous, warped facial features in his later stories, and there's a strong emotional resonance to them as a result. "A New York Story" also uses negative space in the form of white space around a panel or two on a page, which allowed the story to breathe and encouraged reader identification while still heightening tension. The awkwardness, tenderness, intimacy and tension of human interaction in cramped environments is what English does best, and his evolving approach is only heightening those tendencies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Foxing Reprints #9: Eric Kostiuk Williams

Monday, July 18, 2016

2dcloud: Christopher Adams, Minis from Bongiovanni, Breutzman, Donsker, Miles

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. This column closes out my look at some releases over the past couple of years. 

Strong Eye Contact, by Christopher Adams. One of 2dcloud's virtues as a publisher is their willingness to give emerging artists a platform for unusual and nonintuitive work. Christopher Adams is a perfect example of this, as his work is immersive in a way that's unusual. Instead of demanding that the reader allow a complex page with little negative space to slowly reveal itself to them like many immersive artists, Adams instead offers up variations on narrative that contain a great deal of negative space but focus on quotidian moments and an emotional journey without the anchor of dialogue or narrative captions. Adams walks the line of providing a clear emotional through-line while leaving much of the narrative itself for the reader to decipher. The book is about a stand-up comedian who happens to be African-American; both are interesting choices because Adams seems to be going out of his way to write about someone whose experience is similar to his in some ways and radically different in others. The unnamed comedian is a different race than Adams and specializes in an art that is almost entirely reliant on audience reaction for success. The book's title hints that the story is very much about performance, and the titular "strong eye contact" is a key to a comedian connecting to and engaging with their audience.

The first part of the book alternates between quotidian events in the man's life and abstract patterns that resemble landscapes or wave patterns. The fact that he's a stand-up comic makes the veracity of these events fluid, as some of them seem to be either fodder for stand-up material or Adams' way of getting across a stand-up storytelling comedian. There's one bit where he's in an amusement park with a woman and what appears to be her son, and he winds up accidentally kicking the kid in the face while wearing roller skates. A cameraman in the last panel casts the reality of that sequence into doubt; was this for a TV show? Are the abstract pages reflective of his "real" thought processes, as opposed to the calculated way in which comedy works?

The second section is in scrawled crayon and tells a single story. Compared to the crisp and sharp drawing and coloring of the first section, the second is deliberately jarring as it depicts the comedian playing mini-golf, getting locked out of his car, dealing with the cops and eventually making it home. Adams piles woe after woe on his protagonist, with the use of crayon simplifying the narrative and making it plainer for the reader. The final section is heavily cross-hatched to an almost abstract idea, as the patterns the cross-hatching creates are recognizable as drawings but also have their own plastic identity as a series of interlocking shapes. The section is not so much a narrative as it is a series of stills (photographs? post cards?) that tell a fractured story of travel and adventure. It's yet one level further removed from the reader, as the "strong eye contact" is nonexistent in this section, even if on a meta level it's still about performance. There's a short interview mini that goes with the book, as then co-publisher Justin Skarhus interviews Adams and the two grapple with the book's content and how to promote it. 

Yule Log, by Christopher Adams. Adams goes in a completely different direction here, emphasizing a lush  pencil line in this story about a man hired to be Santa Claus aboard an airplane that then crashes in the mountains. The book is very much about conspicuous and crass consumption, as the private jet features champagne being popped and every luxury imaginable. Adams then uses several pages to get across the awesome and indifferent power of nature, as the man manages to survive the wreck, calling out the names of loved ones (presumably his children) as he crawls through the snow. He passes out when he sees the Northern Lights, only to wake up tied to a Christmas tree that's being towed by a snowmobile. Santa's work is never done, as he sees a small shack and two kids jumping up and down in the distance. The cover, featuring masking tape over rolls of toilet paper, is hilarious, getting at the essence of the conflation of holidays (and human interaction and closeness) and commerce. Adams' pencil work here is unbelievably detailed but lively, as he emphasizes visually arresting events though he notably leaves out the visceral aspects of the crash itself.

The 2dcloud minis are a fascinating mixed bag. How It Happened is an autobio comic by Jason T. Miles that details the first time he went to Fantagraphics co-publisher Eric Reynolds' house. Reynolds is never mentioned by name, but Miles drops enough hints to make it pretty obvious. I've always loved Miles' use of negative space and giving shadows a visceral quality. Miles goes after nervous energy in this comic, as he's trying to stay cool in meeting someone that he clearly admires. The use of text as part of the drawing adds to the slightly claustrophobic nature of the story, which has a funny punchline when he reads a truly disgusting comic that Reynolds did.

Adams' Easter Island features the artist engaging in comics-as-poetry, as he constructs comics "sculptures" on each page, with text horizontally bifurcating the text on each row. Each image is responsive to the nature of being split in half, with each page documenting a memorable moment in time. Mayme Donsker's The Arborist's companion uses single-page photos to create a narrative of a person interacting with a tree: looking at it, sawing a branch off, and essentially doing other things to ponder or prune it. Like many 2dcloud works, it asks the reader to consider wordless art and contextualize it.

Nicholas Breutzman's Harvest is a viscerally drawn, cartoony account of some ranchers gathering calves' testicles and bringing them to a local bar and grill. A bunch of oilmen come in and start a fight (a big mistake), and things only come to a close when the "Rocky Mountain Oysters" are fried up and ready. It's a hilarious, rollicking read that sees Breutzman really cutting loose on the page. Bongiovanni's Cavities and Crevices is visceral in another way, as it addresses the idea of penetration, consent and rape, beginning with a witch who "is lustful but not young". It's about the power of naming things and power dynamics in general. It's unsettling and powerful, and Bongiovanni's spare, scratchy art burns itself into the reader's mind.

Friday, July 15, 2016

2dcloud: Mark Connery and Luke & John Holden

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. Here are some reviews of releases from the past couple of years.

Rudy, by Mark Connery. This collection of minicomics by Canadian cartoonist Connery is like being handed a Rosetta stone of comics influences over the past twenty-five years. Mixing punk culture, zine culture, Dada, old-school comic-strips, philosophy, and correspondence art, Connery created a remarkably coherent emotional and narrative continuity of sorts over twenty-five years' worth of minis, many of which had miniscule distribution. Marc Bell (who edited the book) and Matthew Thurber are examples of artists that Connery obviously influenced, not to mention Ben Jones/Paper Rad. Throughout this at times overwhelming collection, Connery's storytelling is remarkably clear. Despite experimenting with a wide variety of visual approaches over the years, from an almost geometric simplicity a la Chris Ware to densely drawn environments in a Mat Brinkman vein, Connery's page design was quite conventional, preferring to draw on the traditions of newspaper gag strips above all else. I think that simplicity may also have been tied to his unusual distribution methods; some of these comics were copied and placed under the windshields of cars, for example. Like a Jack Chick comic with an entirely different mission, he wanted anyone to be able to pick these comics up and instantly understand its formal qualities, even if its content was baffling and mind-blowing.

The characters in the strip were simply defined, allowing for a variety of approaches in how they interacted. There was Rudy the cat, Ken the fish with legs, Phil the triangle/heart creature, and the awesomely dumb villain Cybernaut. The characters shift and warp shapes, genders and identities. Connery puts pop culture in a blender with strange references and distortions (he was probably the first to do disturbing Family Circus parodies, for example). Connery used classic cut-and-paste collage that reminded me as much as Greg Hill's Principia Discordia as it did a comic book. However, the irresistible readability of his comics reminded me a bit of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, which was once described as harder to not read than to read once you saw it. On the same page with a dumb gag, you might see a literary reference or a chopped-up image. What one must understand about the comics in this book is that they are relentlessly interactive. In addition to giving away a lot of his comics, Connery also published in local newspapers and printed his address in everything he did, inviting correspondence and trades. Connery sought not just an audience, but a like-minded community, and he did it entirely on his own terms.

It helps that Connery is one of the funniest cartoonists ever. On one level, he's a perfectly fine traditional gag cartoonist. He could easily have been a syndicated cartoonist who crafted odd but conventional jokes seven days a week. From that foundation, Connery wrote strips that took an initial premise and diverted it into an existential series of musings and into an absurd, frequently violent and/or sexual punchline. Cartoonish plans of violence and revenge are turned into elaborately-staged campaigns that go on for several pages. Connery creates mythology out of whole cloth but is kind enough to occasionally throw in a silly gag that subverts the seriousness of the story. That's a line he rides the entire time, as his characters do mean and petty things to each other by defying logic and physics in order to do so. Psychedelia is certainly another influence to be found in this book, and Connery is careful to closely hew to rules that characters must follow while at the same time finding ways to subvert those rules in the funniest ways possible. There's a self-awareness among the characters that something is just plain wrong with reality and that they have no control whatsoever over it. The best they can do is go with it and meet each example of dream logic with a dream response.

Examples of the oddness that abounds include Rudy defeating a duck vampire, only to adopt her children that he dubs R.U.D.Y.S: Rude Ugly Duckling Youth. Phil goes to a mall and falls in love with Trudy, the female version of Rudy, only to find out it's Rudy in women's clothing. The gang solves mysteries, gets kidnapped by weirdos and pull pranks on each other. Connery includes scraps of poetry that he scrawlsed on various pages, and they often become part of the story. By confining particular jokes to the original 8-page minicomic, Connery created a tapestry of comic weirdness that allowed for creative connections to appear organically in the collection. What seemed to be a throwaway gag in one mini was later seized upon and run with a future story. Bell's decision to group them by his own aesthetic sensibility rather than chronologically steadies the book from the beginning. While some of the chronology is lost along the way, the characters are mutable enough that it doesn't matter, which allowed Bell to create an unerringly steady flow of silliness. The book is best read in twenty to thirty page bursts in order to cleanse one's palate, but the overall effect is a level of comedic sublimity I've seen in few places.

Detrimental Information, by John & Luke Holden. This is another collection of zines, this time by the Holden Brothers. They've been linked with 2dcloud since the earliest days when all they published was the Good Minnesotan anthology. The collection has a nebulous quality that's not quite prose and not quite comics. The prose is hand-lettered, with big squishy letters that are not filled in. The illustrations are all variations on the monstrous, lumpy, naked little creatures that sometimes actively address the prose and sometimes go off in an entirely different direction. Each chapter has multiple vignettes that generally fall into three categories: stories about growing up, stories about people the Holdens may have met, and stories about working with the mentally disabled. The Holdens have little in the way of a filter, and many of the stories don't exactly put the protagonists in a flattering light. To be sure, this is very much a "point of view" comic that basks in, the essentially grotesque and visceral qualities that life has to offer. It's gross but real, across the board.

There's a hilarious story about being at school and having a police officer come in and explain what he does, only to see it morph into a story where the cop guns down perpetrators. When the teacher takes him to task for the story and showing up drunk, he winds up arresting her in front of the class. Another school story features one of the Holdens (John, I believe) talking about messing with the plumbing in a school bathroom and peeing in the corner as his was of passive-aggressively "evening the score" against a teacher that he hated. The scene where the principal takes them to an assembly and tries to scare them into confessing is also funny, especially since he feels no guilt whatsoever and is unimpressed by the threat of God knowing.

The stories about working with people with different kinds of disabilities were interesting primarily because of how little sympathy Holden displayed. A paraplegic ex-football player who had been nicknamed "The Mutilator" was now helpless as Holden had to remove his stool, gasping for air as he had to be off his ventilator during that period. Holden's takeaway: "I believe a spinal cord injury would benefit many arrogant, aggressive football playing men." There's a story about doing a seventeen-hour shift at a home for the developmentally disabled and simply equating it with being in Hell--only he's an employee there and walking around with a pitchfork. Another story featured a schizophrenic that Holden took out for the day, and how he was alarmed that the man tried to buy a car. Yet another story featured a seemingly benign patient who started choking Holden, wrapping his legs around him in an effort to prevent him from escaping.

This book is about being an outsider, experiencing it personally and experiencing with people even further on the margins than oneself. It addresses abuse and mistreatment with a restrained, even emotionally distant voice--both in terms of things that happened to Holden as well as the abuse he heaped on others. (That includes several stories where John was extremely cruel to his younger brother Luke in some pretty funny ways). It's a book that aims to tell uncomfortable truths about the ways that children treat each other, especially for being different. It tells the same uncomfortable truths about the ways in which adults repeat the behaviors that they've learned and stay in the same kind of power roles. His stories about working with the disabled, rather than trying to make himself look good, are all about the ways in which it can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to interact with those on the far fringes of society. The impatience and lack of empathy displayed in these stories partly came about from what seemed to be years of working the job and having the illusions that he could make a difference in their lives smashed to bits. Like them, and like everyone on the margins in this book, every day is simply about survival and having a sense of humor regarding the chaos of our world. The drawings simply reflect the emotional truth of humanity, which is both ugly and funny (and to our horror, sometimes funny because it is ugly).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Foxing Reprints #8: Sophia McMahan, MariNaomi, Liz Valasco