Friday, May 27, 2016

Youth in Decline Week: Dream Tube

Rebekka Dunlap's Dream Tube is Youth in Decline's third book (Rav by Mickey Zacchilli and Snackies by Nick Sumida were the first two). The three stories in this collection explore the tropes of fantasy, dreams and science-fiction with an eye that's at various points both whimsical and horrible. With figures that are stylized and distorted in a manner that's not unlike that of Dash Shaw, Dunlap's stories always involve coupling at their cores, and the ways in which couples fall apart or get torn apart. "Brooklyn Witch Treats" is the funniest story, as it doesn't follow a single character as it does a scene, transposing Brooklyn hipsters into a supernatural setting in a remarkably effortless fashion. Casting a spell in a bathroom is akin to doing lines of coke (only the witch was in the wrong bathroom). Various monsters and magical creatures dance in the club, while a hooded man winds up sleeping with the witch, who devours him when she asks him if he wants to see her void. The second half of the story concerns a voyeuristic creature with an eye for a head (an appropriate fetish) who watches eye-BDSM porn ("Bad eyes don't get solution!") and has a crush on a beautiful witch from afar. It's implied that his insinuating gaze disrupts her own attempts at "broadcasting", a wide form of expression. This is less a narrative than a loosely-connected series of events that creates a tone and illustrates a particular aesthetic.

"Cities And Spaces And" is about a couple living in a remote location and a dream she had. In the dream, they were living in a city, they didn't know each other, and the city was under attack. Essentially, she created a romance for them that didn't exist in their daily lives, one that included danger, daring, new sights, togetherness but also a certain amount of distance in terms of intimacy. Dunlap's stylizations are especially vivid here, emphasizing angles and grids set against inexplicable shapes. It's wish fulfillment and a reaction against their present living arrangement, where even the man's hair is rigidly stylized.

"Colony" is about paranoia and the problematic nature of colonization, as a scientist is increasingly concerned with the ethical implications about the presence of her team, especially as initially innocent exploration turned into something far different. It's also about friendship and betrayal, with imagery and ideas not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the lead character tries to anticipate and outsmart the forced arrayed against her. It's also a story about guilt, as her friend who came with her on the interstellar journey wound up being a sort of sacrifice as he merged with the alien forces. Dunlap is remarkably skilled as both illustrator and cartoonist, and I think the similarity to Shaw's work may come in a mutual interest in manga. What's especially interesting about Dunlap's work is that she wrote three stories with very different concerns and tones using roughly the same visual techniques, but the way she arranged images and wrote each story led to wildly different tones. To be sure, there are funny asides and eye pops in each story, but the first story's anarchy, the second story's intimacy and the third story's paranoia led to wildly different reading experiences.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 10-12

Frontier #10 (2015), by Michael DeForge. I've read a lot of stories by DeForge, but this is the first one that I'd classify as heartbreaking. The premise itself is absurd but has a germ of paranoid plausibility that makes it such an effective work of satire. It's about a woman who's a former radical who now works as a kind of deep cover agent for a real estate company. Years ahead of developing quiet neighborhoods, they send her in to blend in and become part of the local community, and then to reshape and ultimately destabilize any attempts at protesting or resisting the ultimate encroachment of developers. On page after page, the nameless, faceless (we see her only in profile) woman lists detail after detail of her method, as she starts off as shy and "blossoms" thanks to the aid of her neighbors and husband, whom she meets and marries as part of the plan. The level of detail and disassociation necessary for her to succeed is almost psychotic, as DeForge paints a photo of a false transformation. That fact that she was a radical but is now a willing servant to an especially brutal and exploitative company shows a very different kind of transformation, one where money and status for one's employers is all-important. However, she reveals that the lives she creates and the tears she sheds are real; she is not unfeeling. Indeed, it is the fact that she can simultaneously live a life that looks and feels authentic while living at different life at the same time that makes the story so devastating and enraging. Visually, DeForge decided to continue with full page illustrations with text at the bottom, not unlike First Year Healthy. There's still "DeForge Detritus" on nearly every page, but his figures are now so pared down that they're nearly abstract. The brightness of the colors and generally pleasing quality of the shapes belie the coldness of the narrative text, as it becomes clear that not only does she feel emotions while on the job, it may well be the only time she is capable of doing so. DeForge's writing is becoming more sophisticated even as his use of imagery is becoming more simplified.

Frontier #11 (2016), by Eleanor Davis. Another issue by a comics heavy-hitter, this story is simply titled "BDSM". It's about appearance vs. reality, identity and (of course) sexual expression. On the set of a porn set, Victoria plays a dom and Alexa plays a sub. The director demands that each actress pay better attention to the details of their roles (Victoria must be crueler, Alexa must be more innocent) in order to create a better scene (for which he's ridiculed by a co-worker). Throughout the rest of the issue, there is a tension between the two actresses as Alexa's obvious delight in playing a servile role in real life bothers Victoria, even as Alexa sloughs it off as liking to be nice. In the final third of the story, Alexa loses her keys and has Victoria drive her home, where Alexa seduces her. Throughout the entire story, it's obvious that Alexa was engaging in "topping from the bottom", wherein the submissive partner is actually in control of the situation and manipulates the dominant partner. In this case, the reason she was doing this was spelled out quite clearly at the end: Alexa wants Victoria know that it's OK if she wants to hit her--and it's OK if she wants to be hit. Davis clearly sets the story on a porn set as a way of first establishing these acts under the auspices of a sex as a pure act of objectification--a job, as it were. Alexa is a character that transfers and transforms an act done for the pleasure of others (especially men) into a private, intimate and emotional act that is still highly charged. That she teaches Victoria to do this for her own pleasure and embrace this side of her sexuality is the truly transgressive act, and that's what makes this such a sharp commentary. Davis' figurework is brilliant in the way it recapitulates the essence of the main characters: Victoria is all harsh angles, and Alexa is doe-eyed and all curves. The way Davis spots blacks and makes extensive use of negative space further emphasizes the differences between the two characters and sets them apart from everything else in the comic. Davis prefers an economy of line in most panels, but her use of gesture and body language is so direct that she only needs a line or two to pack in a lot of information.

Frontier #12 (2016), by Kelly Kwang. This issue is a return to earlier entries that didn't have conventional narratives, per se. Instead, Kwang explores issues of identity in the guise of the "Space Youth Cadets", a heavily video game-influenced concept that allows for the idea of exploring a space or an object rather than focusing on a particular character as a narrative hook. Kwang uses a dense pencil style that fills up a number of the pages with tiny panel insets, decorative computer screen icons, random characters talking in the corner of the page, and other eye pops that enrich the overall experience. When she wants to concentrate on the action at hand, like when a character wants to be encased in "internet jelly", the details suddenly fall away in favor of Kwang's crisp, rich shading. The epic story references that are only hinted at remind a bit of the sort of thing that Ryan Cecil Smith does, but Kwang's approach is almost an archaeological one, as the reader is given bits of information second-hand, as interpreted by the "screens" that attend so many of the images. Like video games, we get to see a roster of different character types, their vital stats, and their overall aesthetic (which is as important as anything else here). What we might see from page to page is unpredictable, as once the concept is introduced, we simply see snippets of the lives of various cadets. It's a clever experience in turning a digital experience into analog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 7-9

Frontier #7 (2015), by Jillian Tamaki. This issue won an Ignatz Award for best story in 2015. "Sex Coven" is perhaps the quintessential Youth In Decline publication in the way it addresses the themes of transformation, materialism, utopianism and horror. Tamaki has every tool needed for comics greatness, as her comics have expressive characters with a fluid design that overlaps between cartoony and naturalistic; her page design is innovative, but always with a greater purpose in mind; her understanding of gesture, anatomy and how bodies relate in space makes every panel intuitively easy to understand even without words; and her skill as an illustrator is top-shelf. While she's best known for the comics she's done with her cousin Mariko, I prefer Tamaki's comics that she writes herself, like SuperMutant Magic Academy and this sly satirical dig at youth culture.

The story's title refers to a file uploaded to a computer that contained a six-hour long droning sound. The comic is framed as someone doing research on the file, which was renamed "Sex Coven", and the effect it had on culture. When teens listened to it, it had psychotropic effects such that it spawned "CovenCrawls" where kids would go out in the woods and listen to the file. When a kid dies by accident walking into traffic, Tamaki expertly nails the ways in which these sorts of crazes turn into orgies of parental and authoritarian paranoia--especially since the file only seemed to have a powerful effect on those under 25 years old. The story transitions to a group of Reddit-style SexCoven code experts who drop out of society to carry out the "final directives of The Data": form a utopian group out in the desert. We learn a lot of details from an ex-member of the group who left out partly out of jealousy, but mostly because of her lingering desire to remain connected to the structures of the outside world. The paradox of the story and the group was that it claimed to seek enlightenment away from the artificiality of constructs like capitalism and religion while still maintaining a clearly rigid, hierarchical and most likely patriarchal set-up. It's a denial that they were still of the world while they all clearly were, dropping out while still being in range of being able to buy ramen from the nearby gas station. Using a series of small panels (much like screens on a computer) with a larger background illustration on each page allowed Tamaki to tell the story three ways: with the narrative text, with each individual panel, and with the underlying illustration. Quite often, they are in conflict with each other, or the presence of each in the same space changes the meaning of the other. It's a clever, compelling story.

Frontier #8 (2015), by Anna DeFlorian. DeFlorian, an Italian cartoonist, directly addresses the concept of transformation through the twin lenses of fitness and fashion. Everything about this comic obliquely mimics the aesthetic of fashion magazines: flat, stiff and colorful. The two nameless young women in this comic work out in a gym with progressive night classes like "Free Speech In Squat". That's followed by an incredibly awkward but funny sex scene that's very much about invasion of privacy. The back half of the comic is a veritable fashion show in a variety of colors, patterns and anguished facial expressions as the two women clearly are trying to work out a violation of trust after the one woman has a clearly dangerous sexual encounter. Here, the reliance on fashion and exercise is taking on a false identity, one that belies and obfuscates the original connection the two women had. It's less a distinct narrative than it is narrative bursts followed by provocative and oblique images.

Frontier #9 (2015), by Becca Tobin. Here's another comic in that body horror/transformation wheelhouse of Sands', this time with a far more whimsical visual approach. UK cartoonist Tobin's squiggly, colorful and at times vibratory line pairs up an irresistible cuteness with a touch of the grotesque. In a story that could easily fit into the logic of an episode of Adventure Time or Steven Universe, musician Butter Road is trying to create a living instrument out of clay as a way of getting her band Eurobe the impetus it needs to successfully stay together. Butter desperately wants the music so much that she's willing to overlook being famous, even as she fantasizes about somehow merging with a wall. When she uses her own blood to create the instrument, she succeeds beyond her wildest dreams. In a series of beautiful and bright watercolors, Tobin creates a gorgeous wave of sound in depicting the way the creature becomes part of the band, until its need for blood puts Butter in danger. The ending is unexpected, clever and disturbing, as Tobin doesn't drag the story out any more than needed. It's interesting to see a visual approach that's so radically different from anything seen in Frontier thus far (though not unusual in the world of alt-comics, to be sure) still encapsulate the same ideas and even the same sense of dread as many of the other issues.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 4-6

Frontier #4 (2014) is by illustrator Ping Zhu. It's perhaps the biggest outlier in the series in terms of theme, though it does fit into publisher Ryan Sand's aesthetic of being interested in pure illustration and allowing the reader to put their own narrative and emotional spin on them. It's more difficult to do that with Ping's drawings because they are simple crayon drawings for the most part of animals and vegetation with the occasional lush, painted figure thrown in for contrast. It has the look and feel of a sketchbook by an artist with a remarkable command of anatomy, bodies in motion and gesture.

Frontier #5 (2014) is by talented young artist Sam Alden and is a companion piece to Hollow, an emotional horror story about a family and the bizarre sinkhole that seems to follow them around. Alden absolutely nails how dread-inducing the hole is, as it's literally the abyss, an absence of anything that threatens to swallow its protagonists whole. At the same time, this issue is very much a coming-of-age story that fits perfectly into Sands' interest in stories of transformation. The story follows two sisters on a beach and shows just how carefully Alden uses color as a powerful emotional and narrative signifier. The issue follows two sisters who are sharing that both of them can see the hollow, and Alden uses a flashback device dependent on color to clue the reader in as to when things were flashing back to the present. There's a clever sequence where the two sisters are talking about whether their mother holds in secrets where a flashback starts in the middle of the modern-day panel as a door starting to open with their mother peering out. The flashback concerns the girl's mother looking in disapprovingly as the girl may have been masturbating under a blanket, and the girl resolutely tries to explain herself to her mother, who is uninterested in talking about it further. Going back to the present on the beach, a sinkhole opens up and nearly swallows up the girl who had been flashing back, with a color pattern on the sinkhole identical to that of the chair her mother had been sitting in when she dismissed her. The sinkhole suggests that it's a physical manifestation of the family's guilt, repression, anxiety, trauma and secrets. The sinkhole appearing was akin to a panic attack nearly swallowing her up. None of this is mentioned, but the girl's reaction to it appearing was "It heard us", a horrific realization that her anger, guilt and fear could swallow her up at any time. With his stripped-down style, Alden continues to be an ace with regard to gesture and figures interacting in space.

Frontier #6 (2014) is by horror cartoonist Emily Carroll. It's based on a true-life Ontario murder/haunting of a woman named Ann Herron. Like all the best horror stories, it has one foot in reality and another foot in possibility. It generates fear by slowly and carefully building up facts and anecdotes, first starting with how to play the children's game "Ann-By-The-Bed", a sort of summoning activity not unlike playing with a Oujia board. Carroll cleverly shifts back and forth from drawing photographs (later showing them stained with blood) to traditional comics panels to a floor plan that acts in much the same way a grid might. The comic shifts between recounting the tragic life of Herron and the way that she apparently appears by the bed of those who summon her, with a number of different accounts given as to what she looked like, what the experience felt like, etc. Carroll recounts her own experience of dreaming about Ann and then waking up and finding her on her chest. This is a common manifestation of sleep paralysis, but it's no less frightening in context. Carroll considers other rumors about her death, that it might have been her brother-in-law killing her. She looks at odd details like Herron's blood apparently being found in every room in the house or the supposition that the family was cursed, and ends with a chilling warning. Carroll's mastery of atmosphere, pacing and keeping the reader off-balance with a barrage of different visual approaches (the switch from black and white to color and back is especially jarring) transforms an ordinary ghostly urban legend into something legitimately frightening.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 1-3

Of the newer alt-comics publishers, Youth In Decline's Ryan Sands reminds me the most of the late Dylan Williams of Sparkplug Comics. First, he has a particular aesthetic that guides his publishing choices above all other considerations. Second, he always has an eye on up-and-coming talent. Third, he not only is open to diversity in whom he publishes, it's clear that he seeks it out. In the first twelve issues of YID's anthology talent showcase, Frontier, Sands has published the work of eight women. Four issues have featured Americans, four issues have featured Canadians, and the rest have come from all over Europe. Some of the artists have submitted a single story for this mini-comic size publication (about 6.5 x 8"), while others have submitted several shorter stories. Some artists eschewed narratives altogether, preferring illustrations that have a sort of fractured narrative quality. All of them are in Sands' aesthetic wheelhouse, which can be described as an overlapping appreciation for what some might consider banal or limited genres like horror or erotica. Really, what Sands is most interested in is narratives and imagery about transformation, ritual, and identity. The approach each artist might use was less important than a certain bold willingness to take difficult and sometimes problematic ideas as far as they will go.

In Frontier #1 (2013), Russian artist Uno Moralez is featured. His character designs range from cartoony to naturalistic as they depict David Lynch-inspired torch singers, religious iconography as part of a visceral battle between good and evil, and scenes of voyeurism met with sheer, unrelenting horror. There's not a cohesive narrative connection between all of the images, but they have a thematic similarity in that Moralez is showing us a fallen world that's still met with pockets of desperate belief. For every moment of hope, there's an image of corruption, dissolution, and abject terror. What seems beautiful and desirable is destructive, and what is pure is eventually destroyed. The image of a boy with a telescope seeing a horrendous female demon with an almost prehensile tongue is especially terrifying, as she simply appears in front of him and chases him. We don't see her catch him, but we do see his head tilt at a sickening angle, with a demented grin spreading across is face. Many of the illustrations have a pixelated quality, as though Moralez wants the reader to understand the artificial nature of what they're seeing. That connection between image and reality is driven home at the end with a photo of Laura Dern ugly-crying in a scene from David Lynch's Wild At Heart, which is a film about a quest that slowly breaks down.

Frontier #2 (2013) features Hellen Jo in a comic filled with images of girl gangs in a sort of mythical California. Again, there's no particular story here other than imagining what might have led to the moments captured in time that Jo depicts, like one image of a group called the Bang Gang where one girl is putting on lipstick in a public bathroom while another is washing blood out of her mouth. Jo indicates in an afterword that these are fantasy figures based on girls she saw, feared and respected growing up, desiring the power and freedom they wielded. Jo's skill as an illustrator is remarkable, as she tells a lot of story with body language and the placement of figures in space. The details of what the girls are doing is less important than their poses and how they're doing it. Jo favors lavender and blue as her go-to colors for many of the illustrations, soft colors that both belies the toughness of the girls and underscores the fact that they are still young girls. Two girls who call themselves the Shit Twins stand against a wall with blank expressions, blue hair and fairly typical clothes--but one of them is wearing an eyepatch. There's another two page spread where a member of the Scalps is getting her hair buzzed while eating a lollipop and another is looking at art on a wall. Every illustration shares that weird tension between adulthood and childhood, one that Jo is careful not to sexualize in an exploitative manner. Indeed, the girls here are defiant and clearly do not give a fuck about anyone else's view of them. They have transformed from whatever they were before into something different, powerful and self-determining.

Frontier #3 (2014) includes three stories published in English for the first time by German artist Sascha Hommer. In an afterword, he says that his biggest influences are Chris Ware and Yuichi Yokoyama, and that's made clear by his simplified use of character design as well as an interest in oblique imagery. He uses a lot of zip-a-tone effects in "Drifter", which is essentially a shaggy-dog story about an escaped convict on what appears to be an alien planet. The story starts off with a jailer bitching about the convict's complaints about his room, and the story tensely follows his journey after escaping, only to reveal that he got what he really wanted in the end. In a story where every page was a nine-panel grid, Hommer always used the middle panel in the page not necessarily as a climax point, but as a tension point: his pursuers blown up, moving forward in a ridiculous disguise in a diner, wondering if the police would catch him, etc. "Transit" is about aliens investigating a small town in Austria for their mysterious purposes ("transit"--colonization?). Instead of simply following around a figure, the story has an almost clinical air about it, as we see computer screen images the aliens are following. The figures we do meet have a lumpy, almost bigfoot quality to them. "The Black Lord" is about a board game's main piece that we see over a long period of time, using that familiar Richard McGuire time-splintering effect that Ware has long favored. The ultimate fate of the figure is reflective of the game's theme of conquest and randomness. The latter two stories are all about transformation, while the first story is about the illusion of change.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hazel Newlevant: Chainmail Bikini

We unfortunately live in a world where Chainmail Bikini's theme as an anthology (women's gamers) is a political statement. Unfortunately, in the wake of unrelenting hostility, misogyny and out-and-out threats on women who happen to play and write about video games, a public admission of being a gamer is an act of bravery. Indeed, that was one of the primary statements of purpose during the book's Kickstarter campaign. The book is a way of saying that gaming isn't and shouldn't be something that's reserved only for men, that there are a number of women who enjoy it, and that gaming communities shouldn't be hostile environments for women. In that sense, the book's existence makes it an unqualified success.

At the same time, it's also that most unpredictable of comics phenomena: the open-call anthology. For an editor and a project like this, it's difficult to turn down earnest contributions. Unfortunately, the resulting 200 page anthology was far too long for such a specialized subject and a wide variety of skill levels on display. The resulting read can be a slog, because while everyone's story is slightly different, there are too many stories and approaches that overlap in terms of style and intent. For example, one often-used narrative trick in the anthology talks about how important video or role-playing games were or are to them, and then draws the characters from a campaign having an adventure. Katie Longua, Anna Anthropy/Jeremy Boydell, Anna Rose, MK Reed, Becca Hillburn, Diana Nock, Liane Pyper, Sarah Stern and Jade Lee all did this, to a certain extent. Reed's was the sharpest written of the bunch, since as the Dungeon Master she took an all-male group of players playing an all-female group of characters through an adventure that had hilariously menstrual overtones. Stern's story involved a new DM in an established group of guys who stood her ground with them while giving them the best adventure they'd ever been on. Hillburn's story was sharply-drawn, featuring the ridiculous character of "Pretty Paladin Critical Missy" hogging the spotlight, as the other players accused her of grandstanding. Starting the story with the fantasy narrative and only switching over to the players later on was an especially effective technique.

There were several stories involving gender, identity and how gaming affected it. Anthropy's story touched on it, but the visuals for the story simply weren't up to portraying how magical the game she played was for her and the digital lettering was distracting. On the other hand, The K.A. Kelly-Colon/June Viganis collaboration about a teen boy realizing that the female monster character he played in a game felt more like the real version of them than their birth gender uses clever page design choices while getting across the message. Kori Michele's story is a rant against the way many handheld games demanded that you enter your gender before playing, especially as a person who was "deep into my gender confusion".

Some of the best stories addressed gaming and mental health. Jane Mai's "Ikachan" is remarkable in the way it incorporates the bizarre game Mola Mola's suicidal aspects and how she connected it to a memory of learning how to swim. The scrawled text and lush images are quite affecting. Elizabeth Simins' "Manic Pixel Dream Girl gaiden: guitar heroine" details the artist's experience with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and helped distract her from her increasingly paralyzing OCD events that often revolved around death. There's no happy ending here, just a depiction of the struggle. Caitlyn Rose Boyle's exquisitely-drawn "Connections" champions the idea of video games as a way of moving the mind away from depression, even if they are "sweet and silly things". Her linework and lettering are crystal-clear and confident, as she makes extensive use of negative space to highlight those figure drawings. Sera Stanton's strip is about how she thought healers were pointless video game characters but how she wished she could do it in real life; her pages suffered from clutter that made them difficult to read.

Several stories dealt with sexism and misogyny head-on. Maggie Siegel-Berele's story talks about the slow progress being made in reining in misogyny and creating safe spaces for women and LGBT folk in Live Action Role Playing (LARP) communities in a straightforward, somewhat didactic fashion. Laura Lannes' strip about the feminist implications of the game Portal is a master class in deconstructing the symbols of a piece of culture and revealing its meanings in addressing the concept of patriarchy, although I wish the visuals had been a bit less bland. Sarah Winifred Searle's story about misogyny in the play-by-post role-playing community is pointed in its use of real-life examples, smoothly-designed and honest about the positives and negatives to be found in her pursuit.

A number of stories were simply about how the artist felt alienated from others until they found gaming, and then they had the sense that they found their people. Molly Ostertag's LARPing story from her teen years puts a clever spin on it by making it a third-person narrative, retaining the lessons she learned and confidence she gained in her schooling and career. Rachel Ordway's story is about how making up a game with her brothers bonded them over a summer, while Natalie Dupile's is about how a LARP variant at a summer camp brought people together because it didn't take itself too seriously and allowed for a lot of free expression. Kate Craig's story is another one about LARPing that involves romance; it's rather straightforward but with expressive figurework that carries the thin plot. Yao Xiao and Kinoko Evans both did strips about growing up and turning to video games for support, confidence and even personal growth.

Yao's strip talks about having parents disapproving of gaming. Newlevant touches on that subject with a strip about playing a dumb hack-and-slash video game but loving it because it was a particular kind of bonding experience with friends. Amanda Scurti's strip about pretending to avoid doing violent things on video games with her mother was hilarious, especially as a moment of self-reflection about enjoying violence ended with her gleefully going along with her brother to look at a violent game. Sophie Yanow's story is less about gaming as identity and more about her group fluidly accepted gaming as just another thing they did. Newlevant's other strip pointed to the idea that she could do an entire book of stories like this on her own as an autobiographical device, because her other story was completely different. That involved playing Vampire: The Masquerade and having to play a seduction on a non-player character--which essentially meant role-playing a seduction with her GM. It's a funny story that has just a tinge of the interplay being for real. I wish more of the anthology's stories had taken their cue from Newlevant in not trying to be quite so literal or didactic about their involvement in gaming and focused a bit more on trying to create an interesting narrative. That said, I admire the anthology's undeniable sincerity, the variety of visual approaches, the general lack of slickness and/or overdrawing, and the way so many of the cartoonists were willing to share so much of themselves.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hazel Newlevant: If This Be Sin

Funded by a Prism Comics Queer Press Grant, If This Be Sin is Hazel Newlevant's first fully-fleshed out work. Each of the three stories in the collection connects queer identity with the arts, with the first two stories based on actual events and the latter containing similar emotional details. The book's formal qualities are interesting. Newlevant apparently uses a brush to draw her figures, giving them a denseness and solidity with a thick line that allows her to be relatively sparse when it comes to actual detail. Her use of watercolors runs with that initial density of line, as it allows her to pick and choose her color scheme to emphasize the book's emotional narrative as much as it does the chronological narrative. All of this is framed in a design that's unpredictable from page. Some pages have an open layout where one image bleeds into another to portray the passage of time (especially when music is being played), while others use a kind of floating grid where the gutters stretch and bend around panels. There are times when her figures are stiff and the body language isn't fluid, especially in how characters relate to each other in space. That hurts the emotional realism of the book at times, but Newlevant manages to get around that with many dramatically staged panels and a touch of magical realism that plays off of that stiffness. It greatly helps that Newlevant doesn't over-write here, adding redundant narration or overly expository dialog. She trusts the reader to figure things out on their own, especially as each story has painfully bittersweet qualities.

The eponymous story is about blues singer/pianist Gladys Bentley, a cross-dressing, African-American, openly lesbian performer who was popular in gay speakeasies during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Newlevant here sees her earn a spot at a nightclub, boldly assert herself sexually and in terms of her talent, and sneer at the women at the church who looked down on her and literally spat in her direction. Newlevant adds a bit of drama with a police raid on the club that Bentley escapes and then cuts to an article she wrote years later about how she was "treated" to achieve a "normal" existence. Newlevant cleverly drops this narration first into an image of a distraught Bentley staring at a mirror after the bust, then into a page that finds this narration published years later in a magazine, and then brings us to later when she appeared on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" show. Bentley was portrayed as every bit the firecracker she was earlier as she fired back improvised lines at the legendarily quick-witted Groucho, but the final panel is a wistful look back at a top hat she sees in her dressing room. The top hat was emblematic of her drag outfit, a daring topper to her allowing herself to express herself as she saw herself. No matter how "normal" she had become thanks to societal and political pressure, Newlevant hints that she paid an enormous price to do so.

The second story, "No it U Lover" is about Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, former members of Prince's band The Revolution. This story got a bit of buzz after Prince's death, and it portrays him as a complicated, ambitious musician with a lot of contradictions. The story details how Wendy and Lisa became key components of Prince's sound and look. For all of Prince's outrageousness on stage, he was a meticulously demanding taskmaster off of it, much like James Brown. At the same time, he was forward-thinking and knew talent when he heard it, like when he heard Wendy playing guitar in her girlfriend Lisa's dressing room. There's a panel where Wendy shows off and starts playing his songs and Newlevant draws Prince with his eyes lighting up, and we knew it wouldn't be long before she was in the band. The sexually ambiguous Prince not only had no problem with Wendy and Lisa's relationship, he even played it up for events like creating a poster for Purple Rain, putting Lisa's arm around Wendy's waist. There's a bit of tension as they were trying to figure out just how public they should be, but in a beautiful two-page spread that's the emotional heart of the story, Wendy, Lisa and Prince become a sort of musical family, freely fusing their talents together.

This is where Newlevant is at her best in shaking off the clumsiness in how she depicted her characters interacting with each other, as she Prince in three different poses in one panel to depict the passage of time, and then the three of them enter a "Dream Factory" space where they are all equals. That wouldn't last long, as Prince would want to go in a different direction and after a confrontation with him, he made it clear that he viewed this as his band--and moreover, that he had created them. Once again, the ending is a wistful one: Wendy and Lisa stand their ground but wind up being tossed aside, especially as they feel like they were exploited in a number of ways. Naturally, Newlevant uses a lot of purple in this story (including depicting their confrontation with Prince taking place on a rainy day), just like she used a lot of dark blue for Bentley's story (about a blues singer).

The final story, "Dance The Blues" is a fictional one that takes place in modern times. It's about a blues dance competition where the main character, Carita, is nervous about how she'll do considering that it's her first time attempting this. She's wary of dancing with a preening egotist, and sure enough, when they are matched up, he tries to upstage her. When paired up with a beautiful woman named Alex, she's very much attracted to her in an unspoken way. When Carita asks her to hang out afterward, Alex reveals she's going home with Todd. The story doesn't have the emotional heft of the other two; it's simply a reminder of the ways in which gender, sexuality and identity are in a pressure cooker dominated by a culture that's defined as heteronormative and patriarchal. None of that is explicitly stated in this sweet, sad story, but it's the subtext of the entire book. Once again, her willingness to show restraint in expressing something she's clearly passionate about was remarkable, as Newlevant let the images and the colors tell the story.