Saturday, December 3, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #3: Joyana McDiarmid

Long Division, Parts Three and Four, by Joyanna McDiarmid. The thing that has made this series about a young woman named Elena's struggle with depression and eventual time spent in a mental institution after attempting to commit suicide so distinctive is the array of formal tricks that Diarmid has used to visualize what is internal. The comic has jumped back and forth in time throughout, going from the present in the hospital to the past where she slowly started succumbing to her depression and started feeling suicidal. One of the visuals in the book has been doing anatomical drawings of Elena's body, focusing on the nervous system in particular. It's an emphasis on the fact that depression is a neurochemical process, not a sign of weakness or self-pity. McDiarmid's drawings are also compared to the branches or root system of trees: incredibly complex and mostly hidden from our sight. There are two pages after Elena has decided to kill herself when her various systems look like they're being strangled and blotted out by the dark blight of depression, superseding all other functions.

Later in the comic, in a section simply titled in cursive script (that personal touch made it all the more real) "today I'm going to die", McDiarmid really gets at that sense of relief, almost a kind of lightness when one's mind snaps from the pain of depression to the decision to kill oneself. McDiarmid depicts Elena dressing nicely, putting on earrings, etc and only pauses when she saw a thoughtful gift from her boyfriend. She overdoses, passes out, and instead of embracing that oblivion, imagines that there are dark hands all over her body, squeezing and obliterating her. It's a stark, two page-spread where this happens, with everything on the pages being black except for her form. The hands are almost like tendrils, slowly insinuating their way through her being, until she forces herself awake and calls for help, telling her housemate that she overdosed.

The nature of that help and the experiences depicted are genuinely overwhelming and frightening for her, and that comes through on the page. She has her wrists restrained because she had been yanking out her IVs and panics when she wakes up. She loses control of her voice for a while. The world in general is disorienting and she has no sense of time. The comic also depicts her friends and their feelings of helplessness, especially when Elena is moved to the ICU and they are unable to see her. When McDiarmid fast-forwards to life in the psychiatric ward, there's little sense of comfort--only routine. The concern of the workers feels forced and syrupy instead of actually therapeutic, like when one woman who starts talking about the voices she started hearing again and then being shut down by the worker, and that same worker putting words in Elena's mouth in a manipulative fashion. There's a notable difference between her actions and those of the psychiatrist who sees her, he talks to her with respect and just talks openly saying, "Because you are not your diagnosis". She engages Elena in things that she loves, like mathematics, and we see new branches and trees behind her outside, framing her discussion and representing growth.

However, it's one thing to get better enough to get out of the hospital, and it's quite another to make the readjustment to outside, daily life. The final scene of issue four shows her isolating from her loved ones again and avoiding the studies that she actually loves. McDiarmid here gets at the idea that the progression of mental health and illness is not a linear process. Progress can be halted and halting and regression can be common without therapy, medication and support. That support is especially important, especially given the sense of "exhaling" among loved ones after she comes out of the hospital, with the idea that she's "cured". The cure is a multi-faceted process, and McDiarmid really gets at the idea that simply working one's way back from the bring of suicide is not the same as being freed from depression and the things that trigger it and make it worse. There's one more chapter to go, and I'll be curious to see how McDiarmid resolves the narrative now that past and future have caught up with each other.      

Friday, December 2, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #2: Jarad Greene

Jarad Greene will graduate CCS in 2017, and his path has been an interesting one. He started off studying criminology & criminal justice, added theater studies and is now getting his MFA in cartooning. His comics employ a smooth, pleasant line deployed for a number of different storytelling and genre choices. Scene & Heard is an autobio comic about that very transition from his pre-law studies to embracing the arts. It studies the progression of choosing acting over speech as something that could help his future law career, precisely because it seemed more intimidating but also more potentially rewarding. The drama classes he took were grueling because it demanded a level of emotional presentness in the moment that is difficult to achieve, but once he did, it unlocked a new level of confidence in him as a person. What I like about this comic is that while there are psychological and emotional components in becoming an actor, Greene reveals that it's mostly a lot of practice, work and repetition--pretty much like any art or skilled activity. This comic is also all about understanding one's skill level when contemplating what to do next. Success for Greene meant conquering his first scene, building on everything he had learned up to that point. Unspoken in all of this is how this process obviously repeated itself in making this comic. Greene keeps things simple, staying within his wheelhouse as a draftsman but aggressively using unusual page designs to break up his story, varying panel size and layout as a way of modulating emotion and action. It's a very "talky" comic, but Greene also knew when to shut up and let the images take over the storytelling, like in one sequence where we see him really start to fall in love with acting.

Glass Figurines is a melodramatic slice-of-life piece most notable for Greene trying to use as much restraint as possible in not overloading the reader with backstory at the beginning of the story. It's about a guy going back home after the death of his uncle, and we quickly learn that his dad decided not to return with him for a variety of reasons. Withholding that information was important because the comic is really about how we process grief and the ugly practicalities that follow the dead after they have passed. In this case, there's a family dispute over an assortment of family knick-knacks, some of which are valuable, and one of the children who wants to sell as much of it as possible. Greene has a way of being fair to all sides involved, not underestimating the enormous psychological and emotional burden it can be to be a caretaker for someone who is dying and how after their death they need to be able to recoup some of that debt. The ending, where some beloved figurines become available after one is accidentally broken, is a bit on the treacly side.

When She Goes Skating Off The Moon is a well-crafted comic for children, with a great central hook: a young girl lacing up her roller skates when she falls asleep and zooming across the sky and around the moon. From there, she goes on all sorts of journeys across the world, both real and conceptual. Greene's fluid line and use of color are key here, along with a number of imaginative concepts and layouts. For example, on the page where she navigates "waterfalls of fountain pens", Green expertly leads the readers eye down and across the page and into the next page, filled with kinetic keywords like "zipping" and "spinning". Green doubles down on purples in this comic, reminiscent of Crocker Johnson's classic Harold And The Purple Crayon in the way it equates purple with the night. It's a charming little story, albeit one with no real sense of conflict or urgency, just pure fun.

The Fortress Charm is Greene's foray into fantasy comics. It's by far the most clever of Greene's comics and the one with the most unexpected twist, in large part because of the way Greene uses fantasy tropes that keep the reader guessing wrong. It's about a witch/alchemist type and her eager young gatherer/apprentice. After the apprentice kept bugging her for something to do, the witch gave her a simple job: to gather a flower from the ruins of an old castle, but dousing it in a potion before she gathered it. In the span of a few pages, what seemed to be an upbeat but typical quest/coming-of-age story turned into something far more sinister, and the reasons why were explained with no dialogue in a single panel. Greene accomplished the rare task of creating an entirely satisfying short story while leaving the reader wanting more. Fantasy may well be his best choice for future projects, because it's clear that he has a knack for navigating standard expectations of the genre and then subverting them in interesting ways.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #1: April Malig

April Malig is one of the most distinctive stylists to graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies, and I always look forward to what she's going to come up with when I'm preparing my annual feature on graduates of CCS.

I Didn't Have Instagram When I Lived In Seoul is a series of dizzyingly colorful photographs and a few comics made with a Risograph. What's fascinating about this zine is that the bright photographs and interesting composition of her photos (lots of framing around public structures) are an interesting match for her other comics, which tend to be heavy on saturated colors and poetic language. Shape and color are the most important elements of Malig's comics, as they convey the emotional content of what she's trying to express instead of using narrative and line. This zine is actually an exception in that regard, as the comics here are conventionally drawn and quotidian in their observations: it's as though the experience of living in Seoul was so strange in so many ways that she had to concretize her daily experiences as much as possible: drinking green tea lattes, bundling up to a ridiculous extent during winter, getting big stalks of celery at the supermarket and pretending it was a sword. Those are snapshot moments burned in memory and related as plainly as possible, as opposed to the near-abstraction of the actual snapshots she took of the city. The streets and buildings are recognizable as such, only Malig pushes certain color schemes in such a way as to make them look strange and unfamiliar, like walking through Times Square under the influence of psychedelics. In other words, things do look strange in an objective sense, but the nature of those things is warped by one's own perceptions. It's Malig's way of looking at the world.

Moon Banana carries that way of looking at the world further, as Malig has page after page of Riso-heavy work that's immersive in the best possible way. Malig has a knack for using the brightest of colors, like pinks and yellows, in the most fluid and least lurid manner possible. Instead, there's a beauty in images where she's breathing out colors and the text, integrated with the images, reads "All I want, really, is to breathe out/A tiny piece of me/And have it/Find its way to you". In another strip, this time in a nine-panel grid, she uses color patterns to depict speed and have it segue into its natural state on the page, which is stillness. It's a clever twisting of reader observation and expectation. On other pages, Malig abandons bright colors and instead focuses on light/dark contrasts shifting between positive and negative space, like in the way the leaves and branches of a forest flickered in and out. In another strip, Malig's use of text splayed across the page was the visual focus of the piece, with the sea foam photo underneath underscoring the poem she wrote about identity. Yet another piece is a mix of the bright Riso colors and the extensive use of negative/positive space, with two faceless figures separated by a wall.

Bad Feelings Zine #1 is similar to Moon Banana, only the poetic observations she makes are all on the darker side. Sometimes the observations are directed at the reader, sometimes they are directed to the artist as though from someone else, and sometimes they aren't aimed at anyone in particular, like the one series of overlapping, colored circles within a hand with the captions "Feelings fade,/And all that's left is that familiar relief." Another page is in black and white with a light green background, depicting a sea of hands with the caption "Some days just feel like ones you have to swim through". The sentiments and imagery veer from cynicism to fatalism to an almost bemused kind of hope. The feelings expressed her are certainly personal, but they're more on an existential level than anything else, as they talk about the limits of human perception, the frailty of human sanity and how getting out of the now is so risky because of what might await us. Malig's pitch-black sense of humor prevents these observations from becoming overly morbid or self-indulgent, and her keen design sense makes every page worth looking at.

So, I Fucked Up and I've Watched A Lot of Wong Kar Wai Movies are more recent photocomics from Malig. Malig's clearly hit on something with these photo zines. Once again, the highly saturated and exaggerated use of color for the photos turns them from something that's purely descriptive to something that occupies a kind of in-between space, a space between dream and reality. The first zine details a number of mistakes that start small and unassuming, like sprained fingers and a cataract stemming from embarrassing situations. Then came a far deeper confession, followed by this heartbreaking passage "Misplacing my affection in those that no had desire to hold, to keep, or even acknowledge it." The image is a distorted flower, which was remarkably apt given a flower's symbolic place in love and romance. The second mini is about the kind of relationship one might see in the titular director's movies: vividly depicted but doomed romances. Like the other mini, this one focuses on mistakes made but ultimately ends on a note of redemption, or at least self-affirmation and forgiveness. The photos have a way of externalizing the expression of Malig's emotions that words or even drawings alone could not capture: that sense of living in a larger-than-life, trippy world were things often seem more and less real at the same time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Minis: The Yeah Dude Comics Box

Philadelphia's Pat Aulisio has been steadily publishing his own work as well as the work of others for quite a while. The beautifully constructed cardboard box that houses the Yeah Dude Comics mini-sampler is quite the attention-getter for a variety of comics. Aulisio essentially constructed a portable mini-library for these comics.

Most of them are very short and raw. Going in order of the table of contents, Josh Bayer leads off with Hot Desert Fever. It's one of his riffs on Sylvester Stallone and Stan Lee, as he imagines Stallone desperately wanting to write comic books like Lee. The resulting Human Torch story is a classic Bayer parody: altered character design (the Torch wears a helmet and carries a gas can), scatological humor, and visceral violence. Bayer's ability to fully inhabit the minds of these hyper-masculine, ridiculous characters and somehow make them come alive on the page is one of his greatest talents. Even in a story as absurd as this one, where Stallone has a butler that he names as Jarvis or Alfred, depending on the panel, and where he grows a tiny version of himself as Rocky to give him advice and encouragement, Bayer's always working within an internal set of logical rules.

Ian Harker's Face Force is a parody of 90s era Image Comics, with Rob Liefeld in particular being a touchstone. Nothing much actually happens in this comic, which makes it a particularly apt satire. McDonald's National Cemetary (sic), by Michael Gerkovich, is a series of strange images and clip art surrounding the idea of McDonald's going back to ancient Egypt, and to imagine what one would find if a site was excavated. Some of them riff off McDonald's iconography, like a Hamburglar looking through a telescope or a pharaoh having Ronald McDonald makeup on. The actual images match the meaningless absurdity of the concept itself, and Gerkovich gleefully runs with it. Josh Burggraf's International Geographic cleverly takes the you-are-there anthropological premise of the source material it's parodying with similar shots of nature, candid shots of "native" life, and the rituals from an alien world that are as baffling to the reader here as indigenous societies are to western societies. Burggraf's skill as an illustrator sells the joke, which is short enough to not outstay its welcome.        
Aulisio's Diabolik! is a parody of the Italian anti-hero, and he nails the way the narrative in the comic spells everything out. Getting pushed aside by his girlfriend Eva was also amusing in the way he puts everything in annoyingly modern speech patterns. The use of shadows and effects like zip-a-tone also made it reminiscent of its source material. Tara Booth's Daily Routine reminded me a lot of Jerry Smith's Rattletrap: extremely crudely-drawn comics, printed at tiny size, that hilariously and disgustingly address quotidian issues. Booth holds absolutely nothing back, like an early strip where she's over at a friends' place, falls asleep on her couch and accidentally urinates on it while asleep. When she wakes up, she leaves as fast as possible, as the caption "Run away from pee couch" indicated with a combination of shame and glee. Booth isn't afraid to get absurd or exaggerated, like in her strip where her face resembles two eggs and bacon, another where her dog licked her face off, and a truly disgusting entry where she gives birth to a "food baby". The cheery wave the food baby gives is what puts the strip over the top. There's an essential sweetness to these strips despite the frequently disgusting and scatological subject matter, and that sweetness ties in to her willingness to confront issues that normally are couched in terms of shame. She forgives herself and allows herself to be human, and that shines on every scrawled page.

Issue one of Box Brown's Softcore is something I have reviewed elsewhere, Skuds McKinley's Korgok is straight-up, visceral sword-and-sorcery. After an epic-establishing introduction, the actual comic is all highly-detailed violence. Keenan Marshall Keller's The Goiter #1 is another standout in this collection. Keller's work is not unlike Ben Marra's in that he uses hyperviolent and exaggerated situations for humorous intent, only that humor is bone-dry and at times indistinguishable from the actual genre comics and movies that he is paying homage to. In this case, Keller starts out doing a story about stoners and transforms it into a supernatural/horror story, as a young man who's working for an elderly woman hears a voice coming from the enormous tumor on her head. Keller leaves open the possibility that the young man is insane & hallucinating, which makes the scene where he "frees" the tumor by cutting it off, leaving her body spurting blood, all the more disturbing (and yet hilarious because of its ridiculous nature). Keller goes over the top in his figure work, deliberately overdrawing and cluttering up his page in an effort to keep the reader off-balance.

Finally, Erika Davidson's enigmatic Hadaka is a dreamy, surreal version of the Japanese festival where a minimal amount of clothing is worn. All the figures here are women, as they walk into rooms filled with or filled up by various women's erogenous zones. It's a brief mini whose mission seems to have been getting down those images on paper, of putting something that came from dream logic and fantasy and making it partially tangible. Thomas Toye's Entering A Room Full Of People is another visceral horror story, this time involving a frightening, serpentine home intruder who encounters a voracious plant that has killed the family living in the home. This almost entirely silent comic is typical of the works found in this box: rough, visceral, iconoclastic, visually distinctive, uncompromising and entertaining. The actual quality of each comic varies, as does its ability to sustain interest after a single read, but this was a great sample of a particular kind of comics aesthetic that a number of artists are currently pursuing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

mini-Kus! Of The Week #6: Mikkel Sommer, Theo Ellsworth, Lai Tat Tat Wing

The weekly mini-Kus! column will take a hiatus during December, since that will be devoted entirely to the Center for Cartoon Studies, and will pick up again in January.

mini-Kus! #34: Limonchik, by Mikkel Sommer. This is a reimagining of the story of Laika, the first dog in space on Sputnik-2. Of course, Laika met a grim fate in space, dying in her capsule from overheating mere hours into her flight. Her journey was a propaganda victory for the Soviets, even if the true nature of her fate wasn't revealed until years later. In this mini, Sommer imagines something different: Laika's craft crashing to earth years later, only the dog was not only alive, but was floating around after gaining vast powers. Using a soft, muted palette and a very cute character design, Sommer turns on a dime as the dog's eyes begin to glow and it systematically destroys the entire planet. It's a revenge story, to be sure, but one almost gets the sense that Laika was more of an exterminator, preventing the plague of humanity from ever spreading. There was little anger in the dog, as she even forgave the man who put her in the spacecraft in the comic's only line of dialogue. She simply went about her business in that single-minded way that dogs possess.

mini-Kus! #35: Birthday, by Theo Ellsworth. Many of Ellworth's comics are about rituals, siege perilous moments, rites of passage and other activities designed to give wisdom through extreme experiences. This mini is no different, as we are told the very nervous protagonist is about to undergo something called the Inner-Space Birth Ritual. Anyone familiar with Ellsworth's work knows that he almost obsessively never leaves any negative space on his pages. Everything is filled up with intense color, detailed patterns, dense cross-hatching, etc. It's Ellsworth's way of completely submerging the reader into his world, forcing them to address the images they see on their own terms rather than simply waiting to be led around by a conventional narrative. That said, Ellsworth's comics are not incoherent; rather, they have their own internal sense of logic driven by human understanding of rituals and quests, and that is certainly the case for this short story. The hero signs some kind of waiver and consents to sit in an ornately decorated chair in order to have a special helmet placed atop his head. Another Ellsworth specialty is the juxtaposition of the inner world and the outer world, and in this comic, we see the man sitting in the chair with images flashing across the helmet. In his mind, he's going down a terrifying slide to an unknown destination until very slowly, he begins to regress back to his birth state: warm, safe, comfortable and nurtured. Even a cake is presented to commemorate the event. All of Ellsworth's comics mix that sense of the harrowing and frightening with the possibility of enlightenment and peace at the end of an ordeal, and he does it with an almost rococo sense of design. It's as though the design and decorative aspects of the comic are indistinguishable from the structure and even the narrative he creates.

mini-Kus! #36: Pages to Pages, by Lai Tat Tat Wing. Speaking of looking to the structure and meta qualities of comics as lines on paper, Lai's comic is like if Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics had somehow been crossed with the same artist's Destroy! In a city where every building's windows are panels and the otherwise faceless and indistinct main characters (one pink, one blue) have either lines or panels on their faces, an argument emerges between analog vs digital. The blue person buys a tablet that enables them to do all sorts of interesting digital drawing, but the pink person is openly disdainful, as they're all about the printed page. The blue character turns into a monstrous supervillain with oversized hands that have the ability to swipe and alter reality, including killing innocents by moving around panels, opening up huge holes in the street, etc. The pink character merges with their comic book and becomes muscled, using the comic as a cape to confront their former friend. Eventually, the two return to normal even as crowds gather and capture them with their phones. It's a very funny take on being the observer/recorder, being the observed and the ways in which different levels of technology create different relationships with the world. When an artist is drawing the fight, they gather a crowd as they watch them draw on a pad of paper--until the attention of the crowd drives them to run away! Lai's understanding of American superhero tropes is spot-on, even as he subverts and pushes the form in interesting ways. That's especially true of the end, which doesn't have the big finale that solves the problem, but rather the story's denouement is where the capacity for creation, observation and distribution all come together as theory and practice unite.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Conundrum Press: Blackbird

Conundrum International is publisher Andy Brown's imprint where he collects or reprints comics from cartoonists around the world. A particularly fertile source for him is Belgium's L'Employe' Du Moi, which often features cartoonists with deep roots in the zine and minicomics making scenes. Pierre Maurel's Blackbird is a perfect example of such a comic. Originally published in 2011, it's still quite relevant in 2016 in the wake of a trend across both Europe and the US of a hard swing to the political right. Maurel's comic shows how in one stroke of a piece of legislature, people can be turned into outlaws. However, the tone of this comic is not one of inevitable defeat, the Orwellian image of "a boot stamping on a human face - forever", but rather one of inevitable resistance in perpetuity. It also explores the origins of how such laws can push fence-sitters into becoming radicals.

As the story begins, we are introduced to a couple of zinesters going about their rounds: stapling, going to the copy shop, and dropping off their zines at the usual bookstores, record stores, etc. Then Maurel introduces us to a specific kind of conflict: that of the choice of keeping one's independence in making zines and having the opportunity to make a living writing as a professional author. Two partners on a zine called "Blackbird" face that conflict when one is chosen for publication and the other isn't. The one who is chosen finds himself distancing himself from his past more and more as he faces pressure to play respectability politics. When it is announced that the government has passed a law that prohibits all forms of self-publishing, the other zinester is now suddenly a criminal.

The rest of the book follows their other zine-making friends in an attempt at resistance. They steal table-top copiers and toner and keep up their publishing, find underground zine fairs and in general try to keep their ideas going. When one of them assaults someone who won't put up a flyer, that one act of violence enables the authorities to really crack down on the zine-makers, citing them all as violent and dangerous (a classic government tactic used against protesters). A lot of the initial resistance is whimsical and conceptual, like splashing ink on the government members who pushed through the bill and then uploading it to youtube. That was done by a an ex-member of the publishing collective who had walked out years earlier because he felt the rest of the group wasn't radical enough, and now the new law had reunited him with his old friends. What was interesting about him was that the more the government cracked down, the more even he became radicalized. He stopped throwing ink and started throwing Molotov cocktails by the end of the book.

While most of the zine-makers we're introduced to are captured and jailed, everyone else was now radicalized. That includes the bomb-throwing writer who lived off the grid, the now-published author who was pushed to fight what was clearly injustice, and a new, younger set of zine-makers who were ready to go to work. Tellingly, that new group had more women than the old group, because this was very much a male-centric story where the women tended to be sexual partners or potential sexual partners. Maurel does little to glorify that aspect of his characters but instead tells it like it is: it is not unusual for otherwise-enlightened men to exhibit openly sexist behavior in scenes like this.

Visually, Maurel's line is a more detailed and naturalistic version of the scratchy, cartoony art of what I've seen from a lot of Belgian cartoonists who work in black and white. It's lively, expressive and fairly dense & detailed, as Maurel wants the reader to get a sense of life in the city as opposed to solely focusing on his characters. The characters and the city are interconnected, and Maurel reflects that in his drawings squats, alleyways, bookshops, and tiny apartments that the zine-makers find themselves inhabiting. Maurel mostly sticks to a six-panel grid to keep things on a steady rhythm, until there's a tense chase scene. When that happens, Maurel drops the grid altogether and uses an open-page layout, as the action literally spills from one image to the next. The experiences of the white, presumably heterosexual characters in the book reflect Maurel's own understanding, I would imagine, but it's certainly not at all difficult to transfer that to any other group that's going through state-sponsored crackdowns.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Olga Volozova's The Green Zybari Stories

Olga Volozova's comics are dense, immersive narratives that are often inspired by Russian folklore and her own vivid imagination. In The Green Zybari Stories, which purport to be "from the diary of Niusha Ramonova", a high school girl's interactions with local, magical creatures has increasingly darker implications with regard to her and her friends. These stories have such a forceful authenticity to them that I wondered how much, if any, of this was adapted directly from Russian folklore and how much came from Volozova's own remarkable imagination. Regardless, the book consists of three separate but chronologically consecutive stories centered around Niusha and her friends. The book opens with Niusha and her best friend Tasya going to the nearby lake to see if they could spot any Zybari: shimmering, green water sprites. Right away, Volozova establishes that there are links between the Zybari and humans, even if both races lived by entirely different understandings of how the world worked.

Each of the three stories begins with a member of the Zybari tricking, violating or strong-arming Niusha into doing something she didn't want. In "Green Zybari", Niusha initially thinks that she can get knowledge regarding a beloved hat that she lost in exchange for a kiss, not understanding the immutable Zybari customs; she effectively became engaged to the Zybari on the spot, and is forced into a marriage proposal by another Zybari passing as human. There are other men in the story and they don't behave well either, but the Zybari represent something worse, something horrible and primordial at the heart of patriarchal systems that utterly ignores the personhood of women and considers them to be objects or slaves that come and go at their behest. Eventually, Niusha appeals to a Zybari elder, who helps her find a way out of her bind. This story felt familiar, with a happy and instructive ending. Volozova's dense art and lettering helped to create a claustrophobic atmosphere with scratchy character designs and blacks filling in blank spaces, but the story didn't go nearly as far as the next two.

"Zybarik" establishes her feud with various classmates, as several accuse her of being a witch. She runs out to the lake and promptly falls asleep and is then raped by a Zybari who sloughs off any responsibility as he informs her she might get pregnant. What follows is a jaw-dropping narrative that's part nightmare, part absolutely endearing, as it only took a week for the Zybari to come to term. Tasya helps Niusha as a midwife as the baby is born invisible, the rest of the story follows his rapid growth, the ways in which the baby boy was mistreated by others, his incredible abilities (like making a time machine), and how she readjusts to regular life when he rapidly grows up and leaves. There's a powerful emotional resonance that rings throughout the story as Volozova closely relates the relationship between mother and son as it develops, even as Niusha is desperately trying not to flunk out of school.

The third story expands the cast considerably and is far more complex, as it is revealed that all humans have various levels of souls, and the most essential is each human's animal soul. After throwing a tantrum over a misunderstanding over something Tasya said, Niusha once again rushes to the lake. She is charged by a spirit at the lake to use a powder to turn one of her rivals into a mouse soul, but she refuses and in turn becomes like a mouse. That leads to her being shunned and ignored by her friends, as she learns her mother and grandmother shared the same spirit. It slowly becomes clear that many of her classmates are not only aware of this magic, they are actively trying to transform others. In a series of twists and turns, Niusha finally gets turned back to normal and reclaims her friendship with Tasya, but she also experiences a great deal of abuse and bullying. Her relentlessly optimistic nature propels her through all three stories, as does her amazing sense of empathy.

The one thing I wished for when reading this book was that it was larger, and in color. While the small scale (4.5 x 8") gave the book a certain sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that aided the stories, it also wound up cramping a lot of the pages and made them hard to understand the action and/or dialogue in each panel. Opening up the page up a bit would have made it breathe better without sacrificing tone. While Volozova is skilled with using black and white art, the greyscale used here doesn't do much to aid the story. Some subtle use of color, perhaps a two-tone wash, would have helped sustain the atmosphere that Volozova was trying to create. Despite that, the almost feverish quality of her storytelling made for an intense and compelling read, with each page bringing forth both new shocks and beautiful expressions of emotion.