Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Molly Ostertag's The Girl From The Se

In thinking about Molly Ostertag's fantasy graphic novel The Girl From The Sea, it's important to consider three things beyond the work itself. First, there's no other way to describe this book as anything other than frothy, very lightweight entertainment. However, there's nothing wrong with that kind of book; it's the very definition of what the late Kim Thompson would describe as Good Crap. This is a well-drawn and sharply-designed book with a refined color palette and impeccable use of fashion. Ostertag has a lively line that's accentuated but not overwhelmed by color, and her use of gesture in particular is top notch. Second, this is a queer fantasy romance aimed at a young adult audience, and there is absolutely nothing momentous about this. It is now an expectation that this is what YA fiction is going to encompass. As such, and third, a frothy YA book with conflicts that are fairly easily resolved and an utter lack of queer misery is in itself a novelty. This is a book that is ultimately about queer joy and acceptance that doesn't dip into harder questions or unresolved relationships. There are plenty of those kinds of books around (see: Fun Home), and we're reaching a point in comics where stories about marginalized groups don't all have to follow the same miserablist formula.

So as a reader and critic, it's not so much that I wanted bad things to happen to its protagonist Morgan or the selkie named Keltie, or for tragedy to befall them. It's that I felt like I was given the barest but most tantalizing outline of an exciting set of characters, and I wanted so much more. Morgan is a girl living on an island near Canada who is a closeted lesbian, a secret she keeps from even her closest friends. Those friends include the Rich One, the Funny One, and the Shy One, and they serve as little more than a sort of texting Greek Chorus. Despite that, Ostertag embues them with enough personality (and absolutely killer character designs) to make me wish they were more complex and fleshed-out. Morgan's parents are divorced and her brother is acting out. All Morgan wants to do is finish high school, leave for the big city, and then come out and live her life openly. 

That's complicated when she meets Keltie, a selkie. That's a sort of were-seal, who only can become human every seven years and can only walk on land with a true love's kiss. Keltie saves Morgan when she falls into the ocean, and she kisses her. She then pops up and declares herself bound to Morgan. Their interactions are given the most depth and complexity in the book, which makes sense. That said, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the book's structure. When thinking about a plot, the essential question to ask is this: What does the protagonist want? In this case, Morgan wants to be closeted until she can leave. What is preventing her from doing this? Keltie. The key conflict in the book is also its most central relationship.

Every other conflict in the book--her brother's behavior, coming out to her parents, isolating herself from her friends, and even the tacked-on conflict of Keltie needing to save the seals' rookery--is easily solved and shoved to the side. The only conflict that matter is given a cute romance with a few fights and moments of confusion which are also solved with a hug and an apology. The problem is that the reader is meant to feel as though all of these other conflicts were intractable, but instead they easily melt away. It's wish-fulfillment with the lowest of stakes. Which is fine. Not every romance needs to be life or death. However, The Girl From The Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was, and it wouldn't have taken much of a structural change to get there. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Minis: Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #11

Jonathan Baylis's anthology memoir series So Buttons continues to truck along, as he just released his eleventh issue. As per usual, he has a strong eye for choosing the right artist collaborator for the right story. Perhaps the best in this issue was his collaboration with legendary UK cartoonist Phil Elliott, a mainstay of the burgeoning 80s British indy cartooning scene. Appropriately, Elliott illustrated the story of Baylis' time in London doing a semester abroad program. His charmingly sketchy style was perfect for this tale of Baylis meeting Bruce "Skinny Melink" Paley, a Brooklyn ex-pat who ran a comics store. Baylis followed up that anecdote with some surprising connections he later learned about as they connected to Elliott, Carol Swain, and others. 

Given Baylis' own circuitous history in comics, it's a story that makes sense. He spent years as an intern at various publishers, and this issue covers his time at Topps. It's bookended by illustrations from Fred Hembeck and Rick Parker, two veteran humor/gag cartoonists. The one by Parker is done in the classic Bazooka Joe style in a tribute to Baylis' friend Jay Lynch, who was a Topps veteran. Baylis is very much someone who has all sorts of geek fandoms in his wheelhouse, and the main story (drawn by Jeff Zapata) ties them together amusingly. Here's where the high production values Baylis uses for his comic strongly worked in his favor, because Zapata's smudged style would have looked messy in a black & white comic. However, the four-color palette was ideal for evoking that bright Topps aesthetic.

Baylis is a guy who's met a lot of interesting people through his various jobs. He talked about working as a coordinator for the Make-A-Wish foundation and coordinating a kid's lunch visit with John Cleese. Baylis is a sharp observer, and his comments on Cleese perhaps finding it necessary to be extra loquacious because he was nervous or needed to entertain were interesting. He also turns it from simply a name-dropping exercise into a human moment when he revealed a moment of real human tenderness in how Cleese wordlessly helped the child cut up his meal while continuing to entertain. A.T. Pratt and Garrett Gilchrist bookended the story with Cleese illustrations (lots of Monty Python stuff) and B.Mure drew it. Mure's use of what look like watercolors gave the story a sweetness to it.

When you need an illustrator to draw a story about whiskey, who else would you choose but November Garcia? This led off the issue, and it was an appropriate opener: very silly and funny, as Baylis recounted his quest to get his hands on a particular vintage of scotch. Garcia just went to town here with funny drawings; I'd be curious to see what the script's directions were for her in terms of some of the visual jokes. Finally, there was a one-page story about Baylis slipping into nostalgia for a Waldenbooks-turned-bank in New York drawn by his longtime collaborator T.J. Kirsch. Kirsch always hits that sweet spot between naturalism and cartooniness that fits so many of the affable Baylis' stories. Having Jim Rugg do a Basil Wolverton impersonation for the cover was also a real grabber, and it was a stroke of genius to commission Rugg to do it, given his extremely broad skill set. Baylis has grown extremely confident as a writer and long ago figured out the best way to play to each artist's strengths. I never get the sense that he's over-writing, which can be common in writer-artist collaborations. Despite the fact that these anecdotes are usually fairly breezy, the open nature of his writing makes them feel surprisingly chummy and even intimate. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Miranda Harmon's Spring Cakes

Miranda Harmon, from the very start of her cartooning career, had a fully-formed style. She has a lively, fluid line that lends itself to cute but expressive drawings. It's no surprise that she's worked in animation in addition to doing comics. In a lot of her early comics, however, she had a style that was looking for a narrative at times. Her new book with Holiday House, Spring Cakes, shows just how much she's been able to lean into this style for a book aimed at new readers. This is part of their "I Like To Read" comics line that is a pretty shameless copy of what Francoise Mouly does with Toon Books, right down to the fancy endpapers and hardback format.

Nothing wrong with copying success; indeed, Mouly patterned her line after Golden Books. Little kids like hardbacks, and they are much easier to shelve than a comic book and much harder to destroy. It's just the right size for small hands to flip through. With Spring Cakes, Harmon overwhelms the reader with cuteness along with some low-stakes conflicts as three girls (Ginger, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg) help their mother make a special cake by going on an adventure to find the right ingredients. 

The thing that young cartoonists tend to struggle the most with, especially when they are working digitally like Harmon here, is not overwhelm their line with garish color. It's to Harmon's credit that while this book is one long bombardment of pastels, she keeps the colors balanced and surprisingly nuanced. It's clear she thought a lot about color and color theory to enhance her bold line without detracting from the narrative power of that line. In some panels, she uses an interesting technique where the top half of the panel is white, but it slowly fades into a light pastel. This avoids too much blank space without overwhelming the panel with a lot of color. Her character design is simple and expressive, with a sophisticated understanding of how to render garments. The book's tone is loving and warm, with little touches of tension throughout that are quickly resolved without being treacly. Harmon has really found her voice with the book, although I think her future will eventually lie in YA instead of early-grade books. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Reilly Hadden's Fellas

One of Reilly Hadden's long-term projects as an artist is examining masculinity. Even in Astral Birth Canal, which featured fantasy scenarios, one of the central relationships was that of a father and his son. In his Krikkit comics, the titular character gently explores his environment and his relationships. In his new mini Fellas, he explores masculinity and brotherly love between two professional wrestlers. The comic's dialogue is taken verbatim from a video clip taken after a huge match.

The wrestlers in question are Sheamus, the Celtic Warrior, and Cesaro, the Swiss Superman. In storyline, they were once bitter enemies who were forced to become a tag team called The Bar ("We don't set the bar...we are the Bar!") who became one of the WWE's greatest tag teams. At a certain point, the team was split up. It's important to note that in storyline, they were ruthless heels (bad guys); in essence, the epitome of toxic masculinity. 

The comic picks up after Sheamus lost to his former best friend Drew McIntyre in a fantastic, hard-hitting match. Wrestling is a hybrid of combat sports, improv, theater, burlesque, and a variety of other carny arts, designed to create a powerful emotional response through a visceral narrative. In the comic, Sheamus sees his old friend Cesaro after this nearly overwhelming experience with this match and breaks down crying. In the video, it was a beautiful moment of vulnerability and intimacy between two friends. Hadden heightens this emotion through an art style that emphasizes the sheer, sweaty physicality of the two men. 

The magic of wrestling is that kayfabe (keeping true to the narrative) is a marvelous confluence of honest feelings and an exaggerated story. Sheamus and Cesaro knew they were being filmed, but the constancy of the performance (in and out of the ring) simply fell away in that moment. The camera no longer mattered. It was two friends who understood what had just happened on a deep level that outsiders couldn't really comprehend. It was two friends who had shared months on the road who were put on different shows, sharing that moment and expressing their love and grief related to their separation. It's a moment of incredible tenderness, of words being expressed through tears and Cesaro's words of praise for the match meaning everything. Their characters are caricatures,expressed loudly and simply enough so that a fan in the book row can understand what's going on. However, the men, the performers are real. It's the thrill and the stress and anxiety of being a particular kind of performer, and only a man who had become your chosen family truly understanding. Hadden captures all of this beautifully, with the sheer size and muscular physique of the two men emphasizing, rather than belying, their physical and emotional intimacy. If these two powerhouses can allow themselves this kind of emotional openness, why can't all men relate to each other in this way?

Friday, July 9, 2021

Whit Taylor's Montana Diary

I've been following Whit Taylor's career for quite a long time. With Montana Diary (Silver Sprocket), she's published her finest work to date. Taylor has always been a thoughtful and intelligent writer, but there's a remarkable sense of confidence not just in the way she wrote about the frequently-horrific background of this memoir about a vacation to Montana with her husband, but in the way she drew it. It's exciting to see a cartoonist put it all together, and that's the case with this comic. 

In terms of format, it's not necessarily anything new. She's done this kind of historical/geographical exploration before. Whit's always been a thoughtful and restrained writer, offering perspective and wisdom with regard to her historical and cultural observations. She's also never been terribly didactic in her conclusions, allowing the reader to make up their own minds. While all of that was true here as well, there's a kind of funny swagger she displays, an almost unhinged and bizarre sense of humor that makes her the clear comedic focus of the comic. It pushes her husband as the straight man. However, even that narrative falls short of what's really going on. As a Black woman, it feels as though her presence in the whitest of states puts her into full-fledged survival mode, deferring to her husband and shrinking behind him in ways she never otherwise do. Taylor giddily engages with tourism even as she denounces the idea of not being American enough. She pointedly nails this narrative when her narrative caption calmly declares "I hate feeling like have to prove my Americanness. I'm descended from slaves, slave owners, and native peoples." The dialog she indignantly spouts off to her husband is "I am American as fuck."

Taylor goes in a lot of directions, but the main theme is how beauty and ugliness co-exist. Big Sky country was beautiful, but global warming is having an irrevocable impact on it, as one glacier will disappear in the next thirty years. A dive into the history of Lewis & Clark's expedition reveals exploitation and the virulently prevalent concept of Manifest Destiny. Even visiting the local native reservation reveals that the tribe was only left their land because the government didn't have any use for it. Taylor plays down her intellect and emphasizes how little she knows about history, which is a way of saying that few people in the country have a real sense of its history. Despite all of this, she acknowledges the hard truth that in America, the poison of its past and its persistence of its toxic structures is in direct opposition to its ideals, its beauty, and most importantly, its people. That said, this book isn't a screed; it's a vacation. It's funny time spent with her husband. It's hikes and meals and boat rides. Taylor balances all of these elements effortlessly.

Part of that is because her own persona here is so carefree and silly at times; in fact, there's almost an insistence on it despite her fear of white nationalists (and bears). There is no question that she was only able to sell this because her line was so expertly rendered. Taylor's line is clear and concise, as she leaned into her greatest skill: drawing expressions. Her tight talking-head focus was also a clever narrative technique, but she rewards the readers with a far greater range of expressions than usual in one of her autobio stories, with her husband a tight-lipped straight man. However, Taylor's clarity and skill in depicting her environment was absolutely essential in selling the rest of the story. Her line is not only clear, it's frequently beautiful in its simplicity in detailing forests, wildlife, and the people she meets. While her pages are full of detail, she avoids cluttering up her pages. In terms of layout, she used an open-page layout built on grid principles, providing both structure and freedom for her storytelling.  This story is in terms funny, personal, vulnerable, instructive, historical, and grim. Like John Porcellino, it's highly sophisticated and emotive storytelling that looks simplistic at first blush. However, there are hidden depths to be found in Montana Diary, rewarding multiple readings. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Escaping The Labyrinth: M.S. Harkness' Desperate Pleasures

The experience of childhood sexual trauma is one that rewires one's brain to such a degree that the result is going through life walking through a labyrinth. It's an especially insidious labyrinth because one can't perceive the walls around you or even that you're in a labyrinth at all. However, one still backtracks, goes off-kilter, chooses dead-ends, and repeats the same paths even if they tend to wind up in the same monstrous predicaments. M.S. Harkness writes about this experience in great detail in her memoir Desperate Pleasures, and it points to the way how different people respond to this kind of trauma in different ways. Not unsurprisingly for her as a young adult, it meant a hypersexual focus coupled with difficulty in actually experiencing true love or intimacy. While that was partly rooted in the kind of emotionally unavailable men that she chose to pursue, her choice to pursue them was intrinsically wrapped up in the feelings of worthlessness that trauma creates.

Harkness explored this in a more lighthearted way in her comic Tinderella, which focused more on the weirdoes she dated and several men she knew were bad for her emotionally but whom she couldn't stop seeing. Desperate Pleasures is thematically richer and features greater formal complexity, especially in the way she repeats certain scenes and memories and adds new contexts to them throughout the book. The book is set a few years earlier, where Harkness is in and out of school and trying to figure out what to do with her life. To make ends meet, she engages as a "sugar baby," meaning that she dated older men who would give her money. It's not unlike being an escort, only without the formal labels. It's often referred to these days as a "mutually beneficial relationship," and the dating aspect of it is as important as the sexual aspect, which distinguishes it from more traditional sex work.

Using a jet-black sense of humor, she noted that she also fucked lots of other guys, "Unpaid. For exposure, I guess." Any freelancer has to grimly laugh at that concept. Sex, once she realized t was a genuine act of pleasure (and ANY pleasure was one to grasp onto), became her outlet for her trauma. The problem was that the men thought of her, to quote Heidegger, as Zuhandenheit or "Ready-to-hand." This means seeing the people and objects we encounter in the world solely for their use-value. With regard to people, it means not seeing their existence as beings. The key sequence in the book ends with the two guys Harkness was sleeping with asking if they could buy weed from her--and she invited both of them over at the same time, as a petty, passive-aggressive way of striking out at their treatment of her as an object at hand.

That sequence followed a hilarious, bleak, and crucial imaginary one-woman-show she was putting on called "Tinderella," wherein she talked about discovering that her abuse hadn't damaged her ability to feel pleasure, but rather that her father was so bad at sex that he didn't know how to touch her. When she went to the gynecologist for the first time, she discovered to her great surprise how sensitive she was. Harkness depicts her audience walking out on her while telling this story, saying, "If you're not laughing, I can't do anything for you." This also hits on the concept of those traumatized as being "brave." There is no bravery or valorization in being sexually assaulted, especially as a child. There is only survival or death. There is only finding a way to cope, no matter how unhealthy it might ultimately be, or not. 

This is a stark realization, but when one is made aware that you're in a labyrinth, one can act on it--although it is very difficult. Harkness goes back and forth in time and cleverly changes her rendering style a number of different times. Her base style is a highly-cartoony rendering of herself where her eyes and mouth are barely perceptible as dots. It's a self-image that's easy to get behind, since it's abstracted from reality. Her hair is more fully-defined than her facial features. In other portions of the book, when things get a lot more "real," he uses a highly naturalistic style. The irony is that this more realistic version of herself is in many ways a put-on, an illusion for the rest of the world. She uses a hazy, dreamy style that relies heavily on shadows for flashbacks to her parents, including how her mother reacted to her abusive father. Harkness ties it back to seeing her father coming back from shore leave or deploying again, clearly as moments of simultaneous dread and excitement. There is a fundamental confusion and sense of cognitive dissonance in coming to terms with abuse at that age, and Harkness depicts it as reality-warping. 

Harkness early on drops hints as to the things that can help her escape the labyrinth. First, despite everything, she desperately wants to make a connection that goes beyond sex. When she tells one of her lovers that she's in love with him on the phone, it's clear he's incapable of reciprocation. Actually telling him this, however, was the one true act of bravery she performed in the book. Second, the warmth she shows to her younger brother in helping him on physical training extends his role from Tinderella; he gives Harkness unconditional love and never judges her. The most important key is hinted at at the beginning and followed through at the end: Harkness' decision to become a physical trainer. While Harkness is a smart and sensitive artist, her stories are always about her need to express herself physically. She escaped the labyrinth not through her own workouts but rather through guiding others through their own journeys. Harkness might be self-deprecating with regard to her self-worth and rejects the idea of her courageousness, but there's a tremendous generosity of spirit and a desire to build others up that seems integral to her self-narrative. How does she help herself? By trusting herself enough to help others and breaking her tendency to go in circles. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Mathew New's Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers

I read Mathew New's YA book Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers in minicomics form. The book, published by Capstone, expertly tightens up the original stories without losing a bit of its absurd energy. The title alone betrays the total ridiculousness of its concept as a kind of send-up of Tintin and Indiana Jones. However, like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Donjon, all of that silliness is rooted in a plot that is rock-solid and deadly serious. All of this is aided by New's unfussy and cartoony line along with a clear, distinct color palette. 

From time to time, I like to show YA books to my 12-year-old, Pen. They really took to this book for a number of reasons. They liked its humor and propulsive action sequences that seemed to look to Carl Barks for inspiration. What they liked about all else were the mysteries that New set up. Indeed, the mysteries are the backbone for the otherwise completely silly stories, as they lend weight and depth to the adventures.

In this book, Billy is a teen explorer ala Tintin, and his companion is a talking duck named Barrace who happens to be a professor. They go on various adventures, and we learn that Billy's parents were famous adventurers. Their actual fate was never revealed, but Billy's inability to bring back proof of his adventures prevents him from joining the Explorer's League that his parents were part of. Indeed, Billy has to settle for being a janitor. Barrace is a college professor, and if a talking duck professor seems weird, the book fully acknowledges this without actually explaining it. Indeed, the book strongly hints that Barrace isn't really a duck at all. 

In a book filled with spoofs and self-aware humor, New also establishes that there are no throwaway lines or situations. In the first adventure, where they find the lost city of the Monkey People, the book's whole mystery is established when a mysterious blue spirit entity helps them and reappears throughout the book. In a hilarious take on the magic item quest, Billy and Barrace encounter a Lara Croft-style adventurer-thief as they have to take back a ring because it turned out to be cursed. A desert quest for an apparently-extinct type of bear once again brings Billy to disappointment, even as he manages to bungle a wish-giving magic lamp. A heroic quest that's Heroes Journey 101 reveals Billy's own desperation for fame and his insecurity. Billy has an overpowering retractable sword that he calls "Mr. Jabbers," an absurd name for such a relic.

Indeed, New rejects macho, toxic representations of heroism and instead focuses on the friendship between Billy and Barrace. Despite his impulsiveness and glory-seeking, Billy grows as a character throughout the book. He doesn't get what he wants (fame, glory, and entrance into the Explorer's Club as a member), but he gets what he needs (love and support from his best friend). 

My kid was angry that the book ended on a cliffhanger, as the blue spirit confronts the mysterious hooded figure who was trying to steal the cursed ring. The hooded figure refers to him as Spirit Eater, and had feared his arrival, as evidenced by his dialog and warning systems. That spurred an hour's worth of discussion from Pen, who came up with elaborate theories about the blue spirit/alien, the identities of the red and yellow figures we saw in etchings in the Monkey People temple, what happened to Billy's parents, what Barrace is exactly, who the hooded person is, etc. 

Ultimately, while New has a number of inspirations, it's clear that that he's created here is entirely his own thing. Far from being just a spoof, it trades on jokes about familiar ideas and subverts them. He always tells the story with a straight face (there are no narrative captions that indicate how the audience should feel), even (and especially) when it degenerates into total nonsense. Even the nonsense has surprising repercussions, like the cursed ring disappearing from view. New also adds just enough interstitital material to tie together disparate stories, and introduces the book with a two-page performance by Billy as he creates a theme song for himself and the professor. The funny things in the book have a tender quality to them, and the exciting parts of the story all have funny barriers thrown in the way of the protagonists. There's very little in the way of violence in this story, as it favors the sort of Barksian hijinks of a Donald Duck story to more visceral storytelling. This shouldn't work as well as it does, and yet New has a way of anticipating story problems and anticipating solutions, all while balancing a surprisingly complex web of plots and interpersonal relationships.