Monday, August 13, 2018

Kilgore: M.S. Harkness' Tinderella

For M.S. Harkness, it's all about the angles. She begins her first book, Tinderella, about dating using the infamous Tinder phone app about an encounter in a gym where she eyes a hot guy like a predator, her eyes squinting into laser focus and corners of her mouth curling up to expose her teeth. It's a look of pure, deranged lust that depicts a face drawn in a hardened and jagged manner--not softly focused. The next scene sees her fucking a guy on a running tanning bed, hilariously making only half of her body slightly tan for a few days. In this story, Harkness is a college student who is devoted to her time in the classroom as well as the gym, but she wants something between random gym sex and a devoted relationship that takes up a lot of time. So she reactivates her Tinder account, an app that specifically is aimed at enabling hook-ups.

The arc of this book is interesting. It starts from the most anonymous sex scene possible (we know nothing about her at the beginning) and transitions into a hilarious series of depictions of the kind of sleazebags one finds on a dating app. Harkness makes it clear that while she may be demanding in the kind of guy she wants (cut, full beard, fully employed), she slowly starts to reveal her vulnerability as the book proceeds and she opens up to the reader and those around her. That juxtaposition between Harkness' flinty, sarcastic defense mechanisms and her later vulnerability and loneliness is telling. The fact that there is no easy remedy to this makes the book all the more devastating.

The trail of weirdos and perverts who dog her on Tinder is already funny, but Harkness makes them funnier by depicting the men as ghosts and even fish. When she meets someone semi-sane and had a night date with him, it seems as though she's found what she's looking for. Despite a reasonably nice date and hot sex (depicted in ways both graphic and hilarious), he eventually ghosted her after he offered to help her move. Everything seemed fine even then, but he simply stopped talking to her. That's when Harkness starts heaping bad luck on her character, like getting pink eye and finding herself alone on Christmas Eve.     

That led to the bad decision of succumbing to the seductive powers of the man she nicknamed "Night Call", who only ever called her up for random sex. This is a masterful yet totally ridiculous bit of storytelling, as they watch an old Wrestlemania event that involved a battle between company owner Vince McMahon and his son Shane. With that blaring in the background, Night Call asked about her dad, leading to a horrifying flashback where her mother was trying to change their last names away from their father's who was convicted for molesting children. Suddenly vulnerable, she reached out for emotional support & empathy and got met with a dude who went to sleep ten minutes after he had an orgasm. Things get even more devastating when she goes home, finds herself locked out, finds a way in and defiantly masturbates as she yells about not needing anyone. The final panel where her face is twisted in both agony and ecstasy is particularly telling. At the same time, Harkness mixes her pain with well-timed gags, like her vibrator having a rip cord like a chainsaw.

Harkness bookends things nicely with another lunch with her brother and a knowing look from that same guy at the gym she had fucked before. This time around, the final scene sees her phone flying across the room and breaking. She didn't find love or something even resembling it. She revealed that her emotional needs are far deeper than she wanted to admit. At the same time, she did get over a huge emotional trigger point in Christmas and went back to her regular routine. Tossing that phone meant she wasn't going to waste time chasing something that simply wasn't in the cards for her at that point in time. Harkness made it clear that it was her only inner conflict regarding what she needed (intimacy and connection without commitment) that made it so difficult to find someone, yet she also made it clear that the odds were against her in general with regard to finding someone that she liked. It was a surrender to this reality, one that she made clear wasn't going to change anytime soon. It's a downbeat but not depressing ending that simply acknowledged the way things had to be, but it was still jarring after the series of laughs throughout the book. Harkness shows that whatever solace one takes in being alone also brings about pain, while being with someone can lead to huge compromises and heartbreak. That she approaches both scenarios with a sharply developed wit and an aggressive style of art makes this book a great success.                                                                             

Monday, August 6, 2018

Minis From Daniel Spottswood

Daniel Spottswood uses a Raymond Carver-style overlapping series of individual narratives that meet at certain key points in his minicomics. There's a mix of slow-burn narrative but also a certain repetitive series of gags surrounding his characters, as the reader always expects certain things when a particular character is spotlighted. Visually, Spottswood uses a cute, simple style that emphasizes one or two features for each of his characters. He also puts in sly references to Marvel comics and other pop culture, like the cover of Disquietville Showcase #1 being a reference to an old series of Marvel covers during one month. Mostly, Spottswood gives the reader a set of slice-of-life narratives that start to become familiar and welcome fairly quickly. His ability to get to the essence of a character allows the reader to understand them thoroughly and look forward to what they might say or do next, especially as they interact with other characters.

For example, in Disquietville Tales #1, we're introduced to Owen and Patrick, a father-son duo who each act problematically in their own way, yet show each other unconditional love. There's Patrick, the artist, who is followed around by the silent ghost of his ex-girlfriend, presented on the page as just a series of dashes. Glen's a nerd who prizes getting a rare toy instead of the winter coat he badly needs. In the middle of the comic, it folds out for a tale of gathering spot "Pablo's Diner", where a number of these narratives intersect or give the reader a taste of what's to come later. It's intricate and overwhelming, but Spottswood is careful to bring the reader along gradually in and out of these narratives.

My favorite character in the book is Margie, the anxious and put-upon waitress who's always showing up late, fibbing to her boyfriend as a result of her forgetfulness and constantly anxious about her inability to focus on what she really wants to do in life. She's the embodiment of ambition undercut by anxiety-driven procrastination. Her design, with hairbows and short pig-tails, really fits her cute exterior that belies that mixture of worry and hedonism.

Disquietville Showcase Featuring Doug #1 is all about a particular misanthrope who works in the convenience store and is friends with Glen. Some people are born misanthropes, but in the case of the permanently unshaven Doug, his hatred of the world was created by lazy co-workers who took advantage of his good nature and team spirit. It didn't take long for him to take his revenge on them through never leaving the job and making them miserable. There's a centerfold feature about that history and his horrible coworkers, one of whom calls him a "faggot". There's a surprising sense of ease with which Spottswood uses homophobic language, but it's always either said by an obviously awful person or else it's actually corrected by another character.

Unstuck is a series of presumably autobiographical, single-page images that are memories (like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) that are "unstuck" from time. From being introduced to his baby brother to remembering an especially amazing Christmas gift to losing his job to a particular sexual encounter to meeting a future girlfriend for the first time, each image is powerful on its own. Spottswood's gift here is conveying a great deal of information in a single panel with a minimum of dialogue. The reader knows that they're jumping back and forth in time, and we see the same images of important people at different times. Spottswood's understanding of the complexity of emotion and memory, especially with regard to family, is hard to explain and understand, as an image of his father hitting him and a later image of him praying that his father doesn't die illustrates. The use of blue wash adds just enough of a touch to illustrate how the images are linked together, giving a sense of being slightly faded and flickering, like an old TV set. Spottswood's comics take advantage of his invitingly cute character design and allow him to inject a number of adult themes without ever losing track of their appealing, welcoming quality.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rent Emergency

Personal update: I retired from my job of 29 years in April, not entirely willingly. Thankfully, I've had the support of my Patreon to help offset the lack of regular income, as I've become a fulltime freelance writer. Today is payout today for Patreon, but my largest individual donor's ($200) card was declined today. My rent is due today, and I was depending on this to help pay my rent. If any readers who care to donate something to help off set this, I would greatly appreciate this--and I apologize for the inconvenience...

Best Life: King-Cat #78

John Porcellino keeps rolling on with his King-Cat Comics and Stories, and this issue has a lightness to it that's in line with recent issues. The beautiful cover is Porcellino's take on the unknown artist of the Flammarion wood engraving, drawing with a level of detail unusual for this comic. It's a "cover version" that's pure joy, both in terms of the original depiction of the atmosphere as well as the joy of drawing that comes through in his version. That joy is evident throughout the issue, as Porcellino in this stage of his career is as much a naturalist as he is a cartoonist, a modern-day Henry David Thoreau in terms of nature's importance to him. It's not all meditation and poetic observations, though as Porcellino takes delight in writing about his pets and the general ridiculousness of the human body.

Indeed, being embodied and thoroughly embracing that reality seem directly related to Porcellino's study of Zen Buddhism. There's a brief poem that opens up the issue, and anyone who's ever heard Porcellino do a reading of his work can hear the slightly somber, wistful tone of his voice as the words appear on the page. Later on, he revealed the "The Making Of" that poem, wherein he was sitting on the toilet, thinking about an image from his past. Hilariously, he yelled out to his girlfriend that he had written a poem on the toilet, and she replied "Are you going to share it with the class?". His cat Big Boy was in there with him, and his blinking as he read it meant that he approved. There is a sense of connection in this otherwise amusing strip that's indicative of the issue's overall tone.

Porcellino is always sincere in his observations. It's just that sometimes he's sincerely silly, like when he dropped a bunch of corny jokes as part of his illustrated Nature Notes. There's another making of strip, this time of another cat, Michi. In the original strip, Porcellino says to her, "You look like a possum". The cat replies, "Good, because I want to look like a possum", which is a very Zen and cat-like thing to say. The making of strip reveals Porcellino's imagination as he saw her eat. There's alsoa a goofy drawing of him, half-asleep, talking to his dogs as he wake up to feed them.

Picking up again on that theme of the joy of drawing, this issue is heavy with his nature illustrations. There's drawings of vegetation, birds and an elaborate series of drawings about the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly as part of a story he wrote about trying to breed them in his back yard. Porcellino, as always, embraces and loves the natural word but isn't separate from the concerns of the greater world, as in one strip about his dogs he pauses to pray for the salvation of the world. Furthering that idea of connection is his letters column, which was slightly dialed back in length but still furthered his idea of connecting with his readers and friends, and connecting them to each other on his letters page. There's a letter from Jeff Zenick, for example, and a long letter from raconteur Eduardo Bak Garcia, along with drawings from Jenny Zervakis and Megan Kelso.

The key story in this issue was its final one, "Lost And Found In The Woods". It's a classic Porcellino walking story, this time a slow hike in the woods where he comes across a random guy and birds, and reminisces about past times he had been through the same area. He writes poetic observations and above all else is present both in his observations and his memories. As a result, the reader is too. Indeed, while this is very a journal of his observations, this issue also feels like an open invitation to come and sit on the porch with him for a while and just listen to nature. Ending the issue with a single-page Zen master gag just recapitulates the experience of the issue itself: self-aware, funny and keenly observant.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Carrying The Bicycle: Gabrielle Bell's Everything Is Flammable

This was originally published at Roar in 2017.

Graphic memoirist Gabrielle Bell’s comics have always been built on her deadpan and uniquely discomfiting sense of humor, subtlety, restraint, simplicity of line and design, and keeping a certain distance between herself and her readers. Because her images operate in such beautiful harmony with her dialogue, she has a way of crafting an absorbing series of narratives out of the minutiae of daily life. In reading about her childhood spent in an isolated area in California, one gets the sense that she’s someone whose socialization was never quite complete, which turned out to be both to her benefit as well as to her readers. That’s because her keen intellect and powers of observation slice through polite and assumed interactions and lead her to ask questions and act in ways that others might not.
On the one hand, Bell often presents herself as a shy and anxious misanthrope who plays up her quasi-feral tendencies. On the other hand, she’s also engaged, witty, and intellectually and emotionally curious. Because she essentially opens all of her books in media res and rarely provides any kind of background or context, she’s able to keep the reader off-balance even as she draws them into her narrative. Though Bell shows a willingness to talk about anything, that doesn’t always mean that she’s actually revealing herself to the reader. She’s able to keep her distance while relating embarrassing anecdotes that she feels compelled to relate, or as she said in her previous book, Truth Is Fragmentary, “It is humiliating to expose myself like this, but it is worse to try to hide it.”
Her latest book, Everything Is Flammable, builds on her past work by maintaining that same reserved style told in short vignettes, but she builds them into a powerful, overarching narrative that winds up being far more revealing than anything she’s ever written. As always, she divides the page into six identical square panels, two by three, in an effort to create an easy rhythm for the reader and to get them to focus less on the composition of each page and more on the content. Her thin line is given definition and depth by the mostly muted use of color, and her drawings have a weight that’s also supported by her own unique style of smudgy spotting blacks. She goes out of her way to vary the way each panel is arranged on a panel-to-panel basis as a way to avoid reader fatigue, since there’s very little in the way of action in her stories. That technique helps keep each page lively, even when it’s just people sitting around talking.
The book begins with the usual sort of Bell strips: stories about her fretting about her vegetable garden, being frustrated with her computer, and dealing with the kind of weirdos who seems to zero in on her. There’s a funny strip where she imagines having to carry “some invisible, unwieldy object, like say, a bicycle, with both hands over my head, while continuing to try to function normally”. It’s an image that resonates and reappears throughout the book, as Bell often likes that sort of poignant but comedic callback.
Bell then gets a call that sets the rest of the book in motion: an old neighbor tells her that her mother’s house has burned down and that she’s lost everything. That prompts her to begin one of many trips from New York to rural Northern California, with each one delving deeper into her feelings about her mother. Along the way are a number of digressions that make Bell’s work so funny, but this is a book where her tendency to sometimes slip into magical realism is entirely avoided. There’s a sense that Bell wanted to stay grounded and entirely present in this narrative, though she can’t seem to help but slip in a few of those funny digressions. A fan in Germany bought a lot of her original art, and she had the fantasy that she could bring her mom to that fan’s house and simply live with him.
It’s revealed in the book that Bell’s mother Maggie was abused by her partner Jeff. After he left, she essentially dropped out of society, happy to live on her small property with her dogs and away from others. Sometimes she would let people (like her younger next-door neighbor Gus) help her out, and other times she’d yell at them to leave. She wanted to simplify her life as much as possible, and to that end, she wanted to buy a small, prefab house to replace the one that burned down. Much of the book explores this process, as Bell also comes to terms with the fact that her mom (with good reason) was skeptical regarding Bell’s helpfulness as to this process as well as her ability to thrive in isolation. Honest to a fault, Bell cops to wanting to feel like a hero to her mother as well as hoping to generate material to do comics about.
She depicts her mother with great warmth and complexity. Maggie is a highly intelligent and sensitive person who just decided not to put up with the world’s bullshit anymore one day and who lived on her own terms ever since. It’s hard to describe her relationship with Bell; it is certainly loving and caring, but not maternal in the stereotypical sense. They are more than friends, but the bond that Bell depicts (especially on her own part) is a tremendous sense of empathy for someone who looks at the world in very much the same way she does, and who helped Bell become awake and aware. There’s also a scene with Bell’s 90 year old grandmother where Bell goes off on her for not teaching her mother the skills she needed to cope with the world or even show an interest in her now, and her grandmother tearfully replies that she didn’t know how.
What was remarkable about that scene is that the dialogue between Bell and her grandmother played out in the present tense, but Bell also added some past tense captioning that commented on what she was saying–often adding an amusingly self-deprecating comment. It speaks to her mother’s regrets and feeling that she was a terrible mother, leaving unspoken the role of her father and grandfather. The end result of the berating was both of them in tears, with Bell apologetic, and a talk the next morning that revealed that telling these truths made them closer. The Bell women may have been part of dysfunctional families, but they never had any illusions as to whom they really were.
As Bell and her mother negotiate and navigate the process of purchasing and then having a house assembled and brought to her property, there’s a separate but unspoken sub-narrative of how they both negotiate and navigate having to deal with men. Maggie’s neighbor Gus has a history of violence and time spent in prison, but he also seems genuine and caring in his own broken way. Bell is fascinated by him and “interviews” him (to his bewilderment), partly to suss out his true motivations and partly out of genuine curiosity. Bell depicts him with a certain solidness and clearly empathizes with him as a fellow outcast, even imagining shacking up with him as part of an effort to stay close to her mother as well as fulfilling a fantasy of dropping out. Bell knows that would never work for any number of reasons (hilariously picturing a “future” scene of her with children, chasing them away from their home), with her need to sometimes be in the city being one of them.
In perhaps the most subtle storytelling presentation in the entire book is the character of the salesman who sold them the house. Superficially gracious but also a somewhat unctuous character, he steadily takes opportunities to make inappropriate comments and physical overtones toward Bell. It starts with calling her “sweetie”, an unwanted hug at the close of sale and an unwanted gift of salmon, and continues on with entreaties to go fishing and concludes with a kiss on the cheek, another unwanted embrace and a speech about being glad she came into his life while his fiance’ wasn’t watching. Bell didn’t directly comment on any of this other than simply illustrating it, nor did she have to.
Bell also spends a lot of time discussing the pets (many of them pretty wild) she and her mother had had on the property, barely tamed to the point where neighbors wouldn’t allow their big dogs on their property. Bell didn’t feel an emotional connection to her pets as a child (she notes having to fake it when a cat died), but it’s clear that as she constructed her own identity as a person, a love of animals developed even as she grew to love and connect with others.
The book ends with a bookend sequence of sorts, as the apartment she was illegally subletting to a friend burned down in a fire in New York. Contrasting the empathy of her mom’s friends in California to the apathy and outright hostility in New York was something she didn’t even have to play up. There was an interesting scene where she came upon a woman who was shaking next to the subway when she and a friend were in a hurry, and Bell stopped to help her and eventually call 911. She eventually gets offered an apartment in a building for the displaced, which she immediately is charmed by but her friend is horrified by. It speaks to the way that Bell isn’t really so much of a misanthrope as she is someone who needs a certain amount of solitude. Indeed, her perception of herself as “someone barely passing” to street people makes it all the more easy for her to break the unspoken rules of living in New York and reach out to others and help those in need.
There’s a coda that features a number of silent pages of Bell back at her mom’s place, taking a walk in the woods and taking in the scenery. She encounters a dog and makes friends with but warns him off when she gets near home, because Gus’ dogs are viciously protective of territory, not even recognizing Bell. It’s a mirror image of her reaching out to help that woman amidst the barking dogs of New York and a reflection of the ways in which her growth as a person was affirmed over the course of the book. The last image in the book is a silent one of Bell soaking in a bathtub that Gus had just installed in her mother’s house, quietly portraying her restoring her strength in a place that she did so much to make happen. If Bell’s other books revealed a person whose persona seemed fractured, then this one reveals a woman who has begun to reconcile the twin needs for solitude and connection. It’s no coincidence that such a book would be her first long-form narrative, even if it was made up of vignettes.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Silver Sprocket: Benji Nate's Catboy

Originally appearing on the Vice website, Benji Nate's Catboy strips are the perfect example of an artist using the visual style and tropes of a comic aimed at children, only its audience is adults. The book's premise is a young woman named Olive who wishes she could hang out with her cat Henry as though he were a real person. The next thing she knows, he's walking upright like a person and is speaking English. The humor of the strip is often derived from Nate slipping in and out of the unshakable truth of the strip (Henry is a cat and still acts like one) to one where Henry's transformation is so easily accepted by everyone else that it becomes a slice-of-life strip. Nate also discusses gender, identity and sexuality in the strip in ways that are sometimes painfully shy but also straightforward. For example, Olive dresses Henry in her own clothing and tells him that she only has "lady clothing", and his blunt response is "I don't know what that means." It's a swift, sharp rebuke to gender modeling disguised as a cute exchange.

Unsurprisingly, the guileless and confident Henry is a big hit with everyone Olive knows--even people who never gave her the time of day, like her high school nemesis Dixie. At the same time, he's still a cat, who refuses to use a toilet, likes to eat mice and wants to have sex with other cats. Nate doesn't avoid Henry's animal aspects, but she finds ways to make them funny, rather than off-putting. He won't take showers, instead cleaning himself by licking himself like a cat does--only because he's so big, he coughs up a huge hairball. At the same time, Henry also has an endearing naivete about things like birthdays, slumber parties and pets. He falls in love with a snail as his pet after rejecting more typical ones, and he wants everyday to be his birthday. Much of the charm is in the way Nate uses simple shapes to build her characters. Olive's oval head, trophy ears, parted hairstyle and pigtails is as memorable a character design I've ever seen, especially with the way she draws eyes. It's a half-circle with the right side filled in with blacks. It's a formal device that makes it easy for Nate to express big emotions with a minimum of heavy lifting. Henry's eyes are black circles inside a slit of a white circle, which practically glow against black fur. Nate also often slaps dialogue on top of a character's head as a way of emphasizing the speech, one of many quirks that builds up the visual world of the story.

One of the running gags in the book is that Henry is better at virtually everything than Olive, who is presented as a sort of feral adult. Henry has no problem meeting women, whereas Olive is very much undecided about her own sexuality. She thinks she doesn't like boys until she meets a nice guy who seems to be flirting with her, only to offer her a job at a lunch she thought was a date. Olive has trouble finding work, but Henry somehow winds up making tons of cash as a dog sitter, which is its own series of funny vignettes. Olive doesn't have any friends, but Henry turns everyone he meets into a friend who is fascinated by his whimsical choices. Olive is an artist, but Henry goes to a life drawing class and is easily better than her on his first attempt. There's a sense in which Henry represents her best self, one with confidence and (most importantly) a lack of self-consciousness. Slowly but surely, they help each other start to self-actualize, as she gets him to understand how social customs work and he helps her take more risks. Throughout the book, there's an unshakable bond between the two, even if they happen to argue every now and then. This is just the kind of sincere, quirky book that's become a standard for Silver Sprocket. It still eschews conspicuous consumption and the culture surrounding it, but it also avoids the kind of privileged nihilism and aggression that's marked punk at other points in time.  It's a new kind of punk attitude, one emphasizing sincerity, kindness and openness.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Minis from Jep

Jepcomix #5 and #7 are by the cartoonist Jep (Jeff Clayton) and they are mostly four-panel autobio comics that originally appeared on the web. Issue #5, however, is mostly fiction. Using a crude, mostly stick-figure style for his stories, Jep emphasizes exaggerated gestures above all else. In the story of a mouse and a sentient ball of some kind (complete with oversized eyes and teeth), Jep's characters are in constant motion as they seek to raid the bounty of a picnic table. The cartoonist keeps details to a minimum while using a gray wash to add a bit of weight to the page. The result is a funny, clearly told story that moves along at a pleasant pace. The visual formula is repeated to a different effect in a funny reinterpretation of Jesus' pleas to God in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus talks to God in the form of a cloud and amusingly forces god to come up with good reasons why he has to die. In the end, Jesus is threatened with being dismissed altogether, so he plays along. What I like about this is that Jep is engaging in some solid theological debate in addressing some very basic assumptions.

Jepcomix #7 is a very long look at Jep's life with fighting as the narrative structure. He describes each of the encounters he had in school, where he lost every fight. There's no wistfulness or regret here, as he recognizes why kids interacted the way they did and how utterly pointless it was. This also led to a series of strips where he was followed by dolts who called him homophobic slurs. By this point, Jep was deliberately a pacifist, so he had to rely on luck and his brains in order to get out of those situations. Much of the rest of the comic is concerned with the world and his emotional state after Trump was elected. It's fascinating to read, because on the one hand Jep had done a lot of work confronting his own anger issues. Responding to a situation with blind rage was no longer his modus operandi. So Trump being elected (despite Jep being Canadian) was in many ways the ultimate test of his attempts to find tranquility.

Indeed, much of this issue focuses on tiny but steadily growing changes he sees in the world around him in terms of greater hostility, as well as his own inability to deal with his own outrage at the result of the electoral shift. He deals with this via meditation and even avoiding the internet for a couple of days. The comics in this volume are quite wordy and Jep is well aware of that, and he tries to vary formats on different days, emphasizing an image or two filling up panels with a minimum of verbiage. It all forms a curious sort of tension, as Jep acknowledges his own unresolved anger problems and his attempts at seeing the viewpoint of others while at the same time still having a short fuse and a loud mouth. This level of honesty and self-awareness, along with a commitment to engaging with the world, is unusual for this kind of autobio comic. The art becomes mostly a means to an end here despite his best efforts; it's a delivery system for his thoughts and not too much more. What he's talking about simply doesn't lend itself to stretching himself more in terms of the visuals, or at least, it doesn't lend itself to being a visual problem for Jep to solve. He gets his points across, and there's an almost frantic quality to his line and even his letter, as though he was slashing at the page as quickly as possible. These comics certainly stand out against most autobio comics of this type.