Thursday, July 30, 2015

Heart-Shaped Box: Babak Ganjei's Early Learnings

Babak Ganjei is an interesting cartoonist whose publishing concern, Records Records Records, has released several noteworthy comics. However, he's taken a quantum leap forward in his own work with the minicomic Early Learnings. Jumping back and forth in time with a corresponding change in line weight, the comic covers young Ganjei's experience with racism growing up in England, the way music and popular culture shaped his identity, and how he glommed onto Nirvana's Kurt Cobain as a way of breaking out what he perceived as a predetermined societal and cultural role. This isn't a typical bildungsroman, however; Ganjei critiques his own current identity and identification with Cobain as much as he looks back fondly on it.

While this comic is frequently grim at times in terms of how Ganjei was treated (he was referred to simply as "Paki" by many of his classmates), what comes through the most is Ganjei's absolutely pitch-black and perfect sense of comic timing. I don't think I've read a funnier comic all year than this one. Ganjei deftly navigates the line between shaping his narrative to include a number of riotous gags while still getting across pain, sadness and alienation. Ganjei portrays his parents as being affectionate but entirely clueless; he even pokes fun at himself as an unreliable narrator in a scene where his parents can't remember how old he'll be on his birthday. "I'm not sure", his mother says, "the references in this work are all over the place. It's that confusing blurry time where childhood innocence meets some sort of sexual awkwardness.What does happen is that his parents invite his entire class to a showing of Dead Poets Society for his birthday, and Ganjei imagines his father saying "This is totally not a bad idea."

There's witty line after witty line to be found in this comic, and they're made all the more hilarious in the way they contrast with the palpable desperation and loneliness felt by young Ganjei. The formal qualities of this comic are quite interesting, as Ganjei's younger days are done in two or three panels per page. As he enters his more frantic teen years, Ganjei crams more and more panels on each page, paradoxically giving those small panels more detail than his bigger ones. There's crosshatching, shading and extensive background detail. Contrast that with the modern day scenes, rendered in a dense line that almost abstracts any detail beyond the figure drawing. Interestingly, the modern scenes are also mostly two or three panels a page.

Finding Cobain and identifying with Nirvana after years of listening to pop and wanting to be Marty McFly does little to solve any of his problems, especially when he orders a t-shirt that's several sizes too large. When detailing how much Cobain meant to him, a friend questions the wisdom of using the lyrics of a 21-year-old as a foundation for his current adult point of view, blasting away at it in reasonable point after reasonable point. This only leaves Ganjei to regret writing her into the story and then lamenting "This isn't even a date". Once again, Ganjei finds a way to acknowledge the importance of Cobain in his life while puncturing just how self-important and silly it is to take that much solace from a rock icon. Balancing sincerity and self-deprecation with a stinging wit and expressive cartooning puts Early Learnings on my short list for best mini of 2015.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fundraisers of Note: PFC, Bonesteel, Farrell

At the Autoptic Festival in 2013, I was privileged to spend a day talking to the artists engaged in that year's Pierre Feuille Ciseaux (French for "Rock, Paper, Scissors"), an extraordinary event that brought together artists from North America and Europe for a series of collaborative exercises that culminated in a single book as an artifact of the event. PFC was much more than that, as a gallery displayed the fruits of their collective labors in a variety of fascinating, constraint-based "experimental comics residency-laboratory". Indeed, the artists live together in a dorm for a week, constantly working on art. John Porcellino, initially leery at the prospect, described it as a life-changing event. PFC is coming back to Autoptic this year, and I would urge anyone interested in supporting this kind of collaborative project to donate to their kickstarter, which will fund transportation costs, printing fees and other expenses.

I'd also recommend this fundraiser for G.P. Bonesteel's third installment of his Jason comic, which is a slice-of-life comic about movie horror villain Jason Vorhees, featuring any number of other famous psychopaths, killers and monsters. It's hilarious, grisly and somehow touching all at the same time.

Please take a look at Greg Farrell's indiegogo fundraiser for his memoir Golden Age, a story about being poor and trying to make it in New York. Farrell's been steadily improving for quite some time and is someone to watch out for.



Be Careful About What You Pretend To Be: Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics

Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics (Koyama Press) collects material that I reviewed here, here and here. Upon rereading both the book and my own critiques, I'd like to add a few more comments, especially since I've been reading a lot of different diary and memoir comics of late. Something nagged at my as I re-read his comics, and what I realized upon rereading the "Boxes" strip at the very end was that Harbin is his own best fictional character. Despite his obviously enormous talent as both an illustrator and cartoonist (especially with regard to imbuing his caricatures with so much life), Harbin just doesn't seem to have much to say as an artist. When he quit his journal comic for a while, he noted that he did so with the idea of moving on to bigger, better projects.

The problem is that Harbin's only creative project since that time has been a dinosaur book for NoBrow. As one might imagine, it looks great. It's a clever book for children. However, it's not the big project that's been anticipated for an artist of his talent. The end of Diary Comics reveals that the problem isn't so much that Harbin doesn't have anything to say beyond lowest-common-denominator humor strips, but that he has no idea how to express himself in a manner that's in any way authentic. What is revealed is that the "Dustin Harbin" we see in the strip is an invention, a character that's based on real life that is still a fiction. Often, that fictional character is a mechanism for gags, but there are occasional attempts at relating the character's depression as well. Those strips are frequently well-done and provide a fascinating visual attempt at depicting depression (as a sort of shadowy, heavily-crosshatched self), but the overall effect feels a bit off. It's bloodless.

I've read plenty of diary strips where it's clear that the artist is using them as an exercise, a way of keeping themselves drawing daily. Some have the effect of reading someone's account on twitter of eating oatmeal in the morning: a strip full of quotidian details that add up to nothing. Many cartoonists are either unable or unwilling to pour their emotions into their work, to "spill some ink" as Rob Kirby might say. The best diary strips (Jesse Reklaw is a sterling example) manage to use those mundane moments as the conduit for expressing a deeper series of emotional truths. What's different about Harbin's difficulty in being both unable and unwilling to spill that ink is that he's obviously painfully aware of this problem. A late strip where he reveals that he has trouble talking about his feelings features his on-then-off-then-on-again girlfriend Kate. While he says to her, "What about all the sweet stuff stuff I say in my comics about how I love you?", she replies "I'm sure that's very nice for that girl, but I'm a real person". It's a brutal quote and one of the few times that Harbin is able to step outside of himself and realize that in depicting his "real life" on the page, he instead created a whole separate existence that only tangentially connected to that real life. The last page, where it dawns on him that the choice in front of him is either to keep pretending to connect to others in an authentic way or else admit that he needs to change the entire way he approaches his very existence. There is no other conclusion, no neat tie-ups. It's a meta-commentary on the rest of the book.

While this is entirely a self-critique and evaluation, it does raise the question of to what extent memoir and diary comics are "real", and how much that matters. Where is the line between authenticity and artifice? What value does the rest of this book have (beyond sheer craft), given this revelation? Does it matter to the reader if it's "merely" entertaining? If one looks at this sort of comic as another person attempting to not only get across their experiences on the page, but to attempt to get readers to understand that experience, then the rest of the comic is an entertaining failure. If one views it as an ever-expanding process where the author is trying to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it, then Diary Comics is a success, albeit in the same sense that a shaggy dog story is a success. It wastes a lot of time and takes a number of distracting and ultimately meaningless detours to get there, but without that time wasted, the overall effect of the final revelation is not as powerful.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Creativity, Motherhood And Self-Care: Miseryland

Miseryland is Keiler Roberts' second collection of her autobiographical strips from her minicomics series Powdered Milk. Please see links here and here for my reviews of what makes up the first fifty or so pages of the book. Much of the material in the latter half of the book focuses on Roberts' social anxiety. Like in much of her other comics, there's an obvious reluctance to focus on her mental health issues, and the reason she gives is that she's not sure anyone wants to read about that sort of thing. It's as though she's intensely worried that people will find her memoir work to be particularly narcissistic if she focuses on these issues. However, she can't help but crack every now and then on the page and let those issues sort of leak into the narrative, and her comics are all the better for this.

While the rest of the book is jam-packed with funny observations about her toddler daughter Xia and the various wacky things that she says, Miseryland is really about the reality of parenting on a day-to-day and minute-by-minute basis. It's a particular responsibility that is unyielding in terms of its demands and burdens, and for someone struggling with mental health issues it can feel especially onerous. It's also a book about negotiating the world and the people in it, while struggling with crippling self-doubt, in an effort to be creative and maintain a respected professional career. Even those strips are laced with acidic humor that's frequently equal parts self-deprecating and viciously hostile. Take the strip about Roberts encountering a woman at a subway stop. She thinks that the woman is wearing an ugly shirt, and then the woman comes up to hear and compliments Roberts on her sweater. The rest of the strip consists of Roberts' awkwardness, as she gives a response that she thinks is dumb and is worried that she'll have to sit next to her the rest of the way. However, the woman "reads her mind" and lets her off the hook in a warm, friendly fashion. It seems like the woman didn't so much read her mind so much as she read Roberts' body language.

Every time that Miseryland feels like it's going to zero in on such feelings, Roberts turns to gags from her everyday life. I especially like the way she depicts her husband Scott, like when she asks him to look at some sores in her nose and he says "God no! That's the last thing I would do. I will never look at them." Of course, the real star is Xia, who's at the age where the seriousness of play becomes profoundly important, scolding her mother to not say sorry with a laugh to one of her dolls. While children can be draining to take care of, Roberts shows how they can also provide enormous solace. On one page, a clearly deflated Roberts is cheered up by her husband reminding her that her daughter said "assplesauce" that day.

One gets the sense that by the end of this volume, Roberts is an artist whom, despite her social anxiety, draws the bulk of her inspiration from her interactions with others. This makes her work noticeably different from many autobio comics that tend to be mostly internalized monologues, but also points to the fact that she is actively seeking out this sort of interaction. Whether its commiserating with a friend that they are both the "world's worse mothers", having heart-to-hearts with her charming mother, venting to her husband or getting endless amounts of entertainment from her daughter, Roberts faces her emotions while being fully present with others. The result is a richly textured, complex and authentic account of one person's life. That authenticity is deeply felt in the way she depicts the variety of experiences in as honest a manner as possible, whether it be sadness, joy, outrage, or anxiety. There's a marvelous immediacy in the way she draws her comics, ripping the images from her memory and onto the page with a minimum of fussiness and a maximum of emotional expressiveness.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

John Porcellino's Back Pages

Throughout the course of its 25-year existence, John Porcellino's King-Cat series has mostly been autobiographical in the sense that it captures thoughts, feelings, moods, anecdotes and observations from his daily life. It has rarely been a straightforward, diary-style narrative. There have been exceptions, like the stories that made up Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man and Perfect Example. For the most part, however, Porcellino's writing circumambulated a number of huge, life-altering events. Porcellino noted that there were certain stories and events that he'd get to eventually, and "eventually" finally happened in the form of The Hospital Suite (published by Drawn & Quarterly), a book with three overlapping sections detailing Porcellino's battle with a mysterious, life-threatening illness and later depression, anxiety and debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This book accounts for a lot of things that were implied or elided in King-Cat. The first section, "The Hospital Suite", sets up the rest of the book. As a straightforward narrative about an abdominal tumor that required surgery, Porcellino also tells a story about love, fear, faith and coming to terms with the possibility of his death. There is the terror of being sick and dealing with doctors who needed a number of attempts to find out exactly what was wrong with him, but there was also the palpable comfort he received from his then-wife Kera as well as from his Buddhist faith. There are moments of humor, like when Porcellino is pissed that Harvey Pekar had beaten him to the punch in depicting a scene where his wedding ring fell off his finger because he had become so skinny. At 113 pages, this could have been its own graphic novella, However, the story deepens and becomes more resonant when paired with the next two sections.

The second section, "1998", talks about his journey back to his hometown of Chicago with his wife and the ways in which his life started to break down. Plagued by allergies that even made him hypersensitive to the ink he used for his comics, Porcellino once again had to come to terms with the idea that he might have to accept that he would lose everything that was important to him. When a specialist was finally able to help him with his allergies, he faced a new challenge in his persistent, alienating OCD. It was enough to cause his wife to walk out on him in a truly devastating scene, one that was precipitated by the nagging sense that she was on the verge of leaving him for months on end. This section mostly acts as a link between the first section and the last, detailing the ways in which physical and mental woes can wear away at relationships.

The third section, "True Anxiety" is by far the most harrowing. It's about his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and OCD. "Battle" is an overused term with regard to illness, but in Porcellino's case it accurately describes his many attempts at treating it. Meditation, yoga, diet, supplements, aversion therapy and talk therapy all helped for a period of time, but a stressful life event would simply make it come back, stronger than ever. Porcellino does a remarkable job in relating how one of the worst things about OCD was a rational awareness that the things the disease demanded were absolutely crazy and even absurd. Because the disorder works on one's lizard-brain, fight-or-flight responses, no amount of rational thought can assuage it. Porcellino even laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of some of his OCD fears, like how renting a Godzilla movie might cause monsters to appear and attack his town. Eventually, he gives in to the idea of medication, and there's a remarkable panel where he realizes that it's actually starting to help. Porcellino's work has always been simultaneously powerful and understated, and the ending of this book is typical of that quality. In talking about how he still has issues that he's dealing with, he notes that his life is now so much better, and in the past panel says, "When we meet, let's shake hands." That's a powerful affirmation for someone who was so germ-phobic, as well as an expression of openness and wanting to live.

The Hospital Suite is direct and blunt in a way that most of his work simply isn't. It still bears his trademark spare and understated line, conveying a maximum of emotion and information with a minimum of fussiness. It is brutally honest without being whiny or self-serving; if anything, this book shows just how humbled Porcellino was by his life experiences. There's an underlying sense of gratitude in how he came out the other side. The plain, stark and straightforward nature of the narrative takes on a greater power when paired with the rest of his life's work; The book certainly works on its own (as does King-Cat), but read in conjunction (and especially if one is a long-time reader of Porcellino's comics), each work illuminates and informs the other in interesting ways. The Hospital Suite provides context and resonance for the King-Cat stories, while King-Cat is in many ways a shadow autobiography that has illustrated Porcellino's life in a poetic manner.

While there are some interesting appendices in the book, the true companion piece to The Hospital Suite is actually the recently published King-Cat #75, the 25th anniversary issue. This is the tribute to Porcellino's beloved and deceased cat, Maisie Kukoc. Like the first and third sections of The Hospital Suite, this issue rewinds back to the early 1990's and tells the story of his life and his struggles with illness through the eyes of his relationship with his cat. There's lots of details about how life with a cat is a weird experience, but Porcellino genuinely drew comfort from this constant companion during his lowest moments. This relationship essentially framed one overriding aspect of Porcellino's form of self-expression: that he was not afraid to love, to acknowledge and express his emotions and to display constant wonder and awe at the natural world. That's especially brought him in the final, wrenching sequence when Maisie is dying and he takes her outside, explaining to her how hard it is to let go but it has to be done. This two page spread is masterful, as Porcellino only actually uses images in a handful of the twelve panels; some panels have only text, same panels don't have any borders, and some panels have just a handful of lines. The final panel of the second page has a drawing of his house, breaking up this moment of emotional intimacy and returning them both to the material world. Porcellino cleanses the reader's palate after she dies with a few pages depicting her favorite games, in packed pages featuring playful and kinetic art. Porcellino has an uncanny ability to draw animals in such a way that provides a fully-developed sense of their personality with just a handful of lines.

Ultimately, both The Hospital Suite and King-Cat #75 are about accepting loss without numbing oneself to the emotional reality of the situation. It's about the process of grief, as Porcellino had to grieve the loss of his health, his wife, his pet and even his own sanity and still found a way to make it through to the other side. Accepting loss while never giving up on life, the capacity for love, the willingness to take emotional risks and the energy to create and express oneself are depicted by Porcellino as part of what makes us human. There's no escaping loss and tragedy, and Porcellino's study of Zen Buddhism helped him to accept that the only way out is through--or as he says in his many books, "Forge".



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Time For Adventure with Marc Bell: Stroppy

Marc Bell is weirdly one of the most influential cartoonists of the last twenty years but also one of the most obscure to most audiences. His stylistic flourishes are partly a continuation of classic bigfoot cartooning, partly a continuation of underground comics (I see bits of R.Crumb and Skip Williamson in there), and partly an outlet for the feverishly vibrant concepts that spew forth from his imagination. Marc Bell is an artist who puts the lie to Scott McCloud's notion that comics by nature must have multiple panels to tell a story, because even his single page/single panel work seems to move and pulsate on the page. In reading his comics, one almost sees Bell as less an artist crafting a narrative than as an anthropologist dutifully observing and recording the goings-on of the cultures that happen to inhabit his brain. Another influence seems to be Will Elder in terms of the incredible detail and many "eye pops" (or "chicken fat", as Elder called) that can be found in every panel of Bell's work. Bell piles joke upon joke upon joke, providing callbacks to his own comics as well as references to the wider culture (pop and otherwise). Despite the frenzied energy of each panel, Bell counteracts that mania with languid, casual interactions. Conversations between characters can go on for pages. There's a sense of the characters just hanging out as Bell observes them doing their thing.

Bell is an obvious influence on many of today's comics surrealists (Matthew Thurber would be one example, Michael DeForge another), but he's had an even greater influence on a generation of animators. Virtually every single original show on the Cartoon Network owes a debt to Bell's work, from Uncle Grandpa to (especially) Adventure Time. The trippy visuals, the weird background details and even the relaxed pace of the narrative mirrors Bell's work. The main difference is that much of Bell's work can be hard to access without a plot to latch onto. Those shows have had success precisely because they've mixed Bell's visuals with a very simple premise and plot. Bell's latest book from Drawn & Quarterly, Stroppy, is Bell's attempt at reclaiming his aesthetic by similarly grafting it onto a simple plot.

The plot of Stroppy is as follows: the titular characters loses his awful job, his home and even his clothes thanks to an annoying guy advertising a concert by a mysterious local collective of musicians. Said musicians are advertising a songwriting contest that Stroppy enters with the work of a friend of his who happens to be a poet. Meanwhile, his ex-employer is concerned with the amount of power these musicians are accruing and launches his own investigation. The storylines converge in the contest and Stroppy's subsequent attempt to rescue his poet friend from the clutches of the musicians. It's a slightly odd story, but straightforward enough, as the reader is always kept aware that Stroppy is having abuse heaped on him, that the musicians are weird and vaguely sinister, and that everyone with the slightest amount of power is an asshole. Bell further keeps things simple but structuring the narrative as a series of four-panel pages, very much taking a cue from the early comic strip masters. That keeps things chugging while allowing Bell to reset on every page, adding flourishes as he goes.

That narrative spine allows Bell to go off the deep end into total silliness, weirdness and satire (this comic is one long, Kafkaesque attack on capitalism) while still retaining thematic and aesthetic unity. It's an insane world that Stroppy lives in, but one with internally consistent rules and reality. Oppression, the abuse of power, disregarding the efforts of hard work, bureaucracy, and the whims of those in control are taken as givens. The musicians, the All-Star Schnauzer Band, are a collection of megalomaniacal lunatics. Stroppy's boss, Monsieur Moustache, is the embodiment of slimy greed. The guy who accidentally gets him fired, Sean, wins my vote for "character you'd most like to see pummeled" as an unctuous bootlick who is oblivious to the harm he causes to others. Bell's lyrics are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and just when you think the book has climaxed during the songwriting contest, Bell takes things to the next level with Stroppy fighting for his friend by way of playing an elaborately and psychotically designed miniature golf course. Bell reclaims his spot as one of the top humorists in comics with Stroppy, making his work more accessible without sacrificing an ounce of his aesthetics.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mini Round-Up: E.Brubaker, Luce, L.Suburbia


Reich #12, by Elijah Brubaker. Ten years and 260-odd pages after he began this series about psychologist Wilhelm Reich, Elijah Brubaker finally finished it with this twelfth and final issue. It's a tribute to new Sparkplug publisher Virginia Paine that she's found a way to raise the funds to see this project through after the death of former publisher Dylan Williams. The final issue, which covers his eventual imprisonment and death, deals with Reich in much the same way Brubaker did throughout the entire series. Reich was both a moral crusader with ideas about sex and sexuality that were way ahead of his time and a hypocrite consumed by jealousy over imaginary situations and dismissing jealousy from others. Reich was almost always the smartest person in the room but also lost touch with reality, conflating real threats with imagined ones in what resembled a schizophrenic breakdown. His unshakable belief in himself and his discoveries was both his admirable quality and the eventual cause of his downfall. Brubaker treats Reich as a fascinating, brilliant, flawed and damaged person; he is sympathetic to his plight and even-handed with regard to many of Reich's theories, but is interested in the gestalt of Reich's life, both good and bad.

Brubaker's detailing Reich's early sexual experiences in a previous issue is a crucial but understated way of showing how many of his theories originated in encounters he couldn't fully process as a child. Making Reich the narrator of his own story also helped keep Brubaker's explicit opinions out of narrative, giving Reich himself the opportunity to state his own case--for good or ill. The angular, shadowy and cartoony nature of the art allowed Brubaker the flexibility to make this as much an emotional narrative as it was a chronological one. To his credit, Brubaker never shoots for visual or narrative pyrotechnics throughout the story, no matter how bizarre Reich's stories of battling with UFOs with orgone energy became. Indeed, one question left for the reader is that given that many of Reich's theories about sexuality were so progressive, what aspects (if any) of his orgone-related research (including seeding clouds) are valid? Brubaker asks that while Reich may have been delusional and jumped to some incorrect conclusions, it doesn't mean that many of his ideas weren't worth pursuing, albeit using different methods. Reich was a fantastic series about the ways in which ego and personality conflict with seeking the truth, and how those conflicts affect those around us.


Oafanthology, edited by Ed Luce. Luce's Wuvable Oaf is a genuine comics phenomenon, but one underrated aspect of that book is how much Luce loves to collaborate. This "collection of Wuvable Oaf drawings & stories" allowed Luce to work with fans, friends and admirers with his characters. The series (recently collected by Fantagraphics in a superbly well-designed hardcover) has always been part romance comic, part pro wrestling comic and part rock 'n roll comic. The fact that the titular character is a "bear" and that most of the characters are gay somehow manages not to matter much with regard to the above genres, yet the fact that most of the characters are gay is crucial to the series' DNA. It's assumed, uncompromising and direct, as Luce doesn't dilute his content for a crossover audience, yet the wacky but somehow relateable characters clearly appeal to a relatively wide audience. Fantagraphics wouldn't be publishing it if they didn't think so.

Oafanthology takes this crossover appeal and runs with it. For example, Luce's collaboration with Tom Neely, having Oaf meet Neely's "Henry and Glenn" characters, reflects Luce's own contributions to Neely's anthology and their shared aesthetic and cultural touchstones with regard to metal. The same is true for "The Spawn of Goteblud", drawn by Josh Bayer, who has used his scratchy line to write about pro wrestling elsewhere. Edie Fake's comic about Oaf's crazy cat working for the sadistic chef character is hilariously over the top. The Katie Skelly-drawn strip about the character who loves to wear dead cat skins is perfectly in Skelly's wheelhouse in drawing fashionable characters. In the same vein, Vanessa Davis's story about Oaf's grooming is perfectly her. There are a number of interesting pin-ups as well, including a mind-bending Junko Mizuno drawing, an appropriately disgusting one by Johnny Ryan and even one by mainstream artist Stephen Sadowski. None of this will make a lick of sense to non-Oaf fans, but it's a perfect supplement for those who are in the know.



Cyanide Milkshake #6, by Liz Suburbia. Suburbia just had her first book released by Fantagraphics, but this series is a catch-all for her other interests. This is the sort of one-woman anthology that's stuffed with gags, brief vignettes, a running serial, autobiographical notes and more. Suburbia's foice is clear and distinctive, and her line is both clear and expressive. A memory of nearly being kidnapped into a stranger's car and barely outrunning him is chilling, especially in the way she contrasts the terror of the moment with the calm of hiding out in a fenced-in yard with a rabbit staring at her. The post-apocalyptic romance "G.B.A" is exciting, funny and charming, mixing the Gary Panteresque style with a vividly detailed relationship story, one where commitment, choices and killing zombies all go hand-in-hand. Suburbia effortlessly blends fantasy, rock, feminism, punk, autobio, dogs and superhero gags into a surprisingly coherent package, held together by a singular aesthetic. This is the laboratory of a percolating and unique talent and indicative of the ways in which younger creators draw inspiration from a huge variety of sources.