Friday, August 16, 2019

Minis: Gareth Brookes' Threadbare

Threadbare, at its heart, is putatively a transcript of a conversation between two older women on a bus about love, romance, and sex. Brookes overheard this conversation and even put out a tweet about it, and was urged to jot down the details. He did and turned it into a comic. However, that's underselling the craft aspect of the comic, which is both decorative and a key element of the emotional narrative. It's formatted as a comic book in terms of images, but each image was embroidered and photographed, rather than drawn. That even includes the word balloons, which were done with green and white thread. The results are surprisingly intimate and erotic, but the format manages an extra level of metaphorical vulnerability and fragility.

If the conversations themselves were relatively tame, the corresponding images were bluntly sexual. The first story was about a woman having an affair with a married man, as the topic was "when was the last time you were in love?" She talks about having to travel to see him, how exciting it was, but ultimately realizing that he was never going to leave his wife. The images depict connection as well as longing, as a man and a woman in various states of undress have phone sex with each other. Later, they are together and have sex. In both cases, Brookes depicts spidery tendrils emanating from the phone, lashing them together in their absence, but he also depicts each of them literally coming undone. The threads and tendrils act as apt visual metaphors for both sexual connection and emotional unraveling. This is a tragic story, as she realized as it was ending that she was no longer in love with him and would never love again.

The second story is a more wistful one, as the woman thinks back to an intense teenage romance that simply vanished. His family moved away, and he didn't say goodbye. However, at one point, she thought she was pregnant with his child, and dreamed about this for years afterward--even through her marriage. This is a story more about longing than passion, unlike the first story, save for a single moment of connection where she's imagining being impregnated by him. Even then, her memories and self-image are fraught and tattered. Only a single, final image of him naked lingers in fully-realized form, neatly stitched. It's also the last image of the book, as their reverie ends and they get off the bus, back to the reality of their present-day lives. This comic is a fascinating act of empathy, fully realized in a surprisingly expressive manner, given the medium.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Minis: Born To Die

Virginia Paine's mini Born To Die is subtitled "Dark Souls, Depression, And Making Comics." Video games have evolved to the point where their narrative qualities have elevated them above mere hobby status and much closer to an art form. One result of this is that playing certain games is metaphorically evocative in any number of ways, and Paine connects this particular game to depression and creation. Dark Souls is a notoriously difficult and unforgiving game. Its very premise is a grim one: the main player is the Chosen Undead, sent on a quest to rekindle an ancient flame by acquiring souls. The game is relentless in its gameplay and dark, but it has a compelling quality that draws a player to keep going not matter how many setbacks they face.

For Paine, the game is an apt metaphor for dealing with depression. At a certain point, one has to choose to keep grinding every day, even if there doesn't seem to be an immediate reward. Video games are supposed to be escapist fun, but Paine noted that the murky, unpleasant world of Dark Souls was not unlike living in a Portland where wildfires were raging, being underpaid at her job, walking to work in 100 degree weather, and being horrified at the news. Drawing herself as the Chosen Undead, she had it think "I'm so alone in this world" and "I'm not strong enough yet." When probing deeper as to why this was resonating so strongly with her, she realized that the physical act of playing the game was not unlike hacking away at the drawing board, wondering why she even bothered.

This was connected to chronic depression in the sense that there's no end or reward, "only more work." One creates rules for daily survival, and deviating from them creates the same kind of crisis as a simple mistake in the game. Paine keeps going because for her, there's no other choice. She is compelled. Like the video game itself, the struggle "doesn't get easier. I just get better." Surviving means developing skills, rituals, and strategies to keep the process going. Paine is a plodder. She continues to seek out relationships and believe that someone can love her, even if she feels too broken to be loved. She keeps drawing comics despite feeling that she's too old to achieve success. Her character keeps playing, even though the goal seems vague and always out of reach. There's a particular phrase she uses that snaps it into sharp relief: "It doesn't get easier. I just get better." Life continues to be full of frustration, grief, and a feeling of perpetual failure. The world never gets easier to deal with; one's own coping mechanisms only become more refined. Healthy defense mechanisms allow one to deal with obstacles head on, while unhealthy defense mechanisms are ultimately untenable. For Paine, holding on to that sense of compulsion in the face of all self-defeating logic is precisely what allows her to create, to work, and to cope with depression. The work must get done. We are compelled to do it. It's the plodder's way, as any writer knows.   

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Ladybroad Ledger #4

It seems as though Vermont may well have the densest concentration of cartoonists per capita, and that's not just because of the Center for Cartoon Studies. To be sure, CCS's presence and workshops have influenced and inspired many to start cartooning, but there are many others as well. The Ladybroad Ledger is a broadsheet anthology (with a very clever title), done in black and white with a color cover strip. The fourth issue of this all-women free anthology is typically solid and varied in its stories. At sixteen pages, it's also just the right length for this kind of format.

Rachel Lindsay leads off with a funny strip, done with a green and yellow wash. It's about her outrage over technology, especially with regard to music, as she decries her formerly record-player loving friends' use of Alexa. The ending is a straight-up EC Comics spoof, with an ironic twist that's meant to be easily guessed. Lindsay's exaggerated line and exasperated expressions reminded me a bit of Roberta Gregory in some places. There's also a nice interview with her on the back page of the issue.

Another highlight of the issue are two pages from the Fawkes women: Glynnis and her young daughter Helen. Any long-time reader of Fawkes' work knows that her daughter has always been obsessed with bunnies and creating bunny characters, and this has crossed over into her own comics work. Glynnis drew a strip that Helen wrote about a nervous bunny who impresses a royal bunny by simply being themselves and running through the forest to get twigs and burs on them. There's also a page of Helen's written-and-drawn bunny stories that are very amusing. Helen clearly gives a lot of thought to things like panel composition and perspective, because most of her panels are very well-framed. She also gives a lot of thought to character design and how to differentiate characters who all look roughly alike.

Elise Dietrich and Bridget Comeau both contributed recipes/crafts. For Dietrich, her chicken lentil soup reminded her of a visit to Morocco. For Comeau, it's a way of reducing plastic use by making reusable food wraps. Susan Norton and Kara Torres both use thick lines and dense panel design for different purposes. For Norton, it's a story about feeling constantly uprooted, as defined by having to constantly pack and unpack her record collection. For Torres, it's for a humor strip about "art. anon.", a twelve-step support group of people addicted to the artist lifestyle. Torres nails the language of recovery and addiction for humorous effect.

Other stories include a funny, scribbly, open-page layout strip by Mary Lundquist about tiny elves drinking her coffee; a dense, silent story about a woman braving strange conditions to reactivate a power switch on an island by Abby Pearl; a scribbly and gray-washed series of drawings by Natania Nunubiznez discussing her simple desires; an unfortunately pixelated page from Michelle Sayles about trailblazing hiker Emma Gatewood; a Feifferesque strip by Janet Biehl in terms of figure drawing and shading about inspiring some kids in Izmir; and shorts by editor Stephanie Zuppo and Frances Cannon. They all contribute to the relaxed quality of the broadsheet, as most of the pieces take their time in telling their stories instead of adhering to strict plot and pacing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Minis: Caitlin Skaalrud, Scotty Gillmer, and Carl Thompson

Caitlin Skaalrud is an artist who I've long felt deserved wider recognition. Her poetic allegory about depression and suicide, Houses Of The Holy, was an excellent debut. Prior to that and currently, she's a minicomics maker. 2nd Birthday is a companion piece of sorts to that longer work, an act of "art-making as a spell of banishment to any ghosts left behind." It is a beautifully complex allegory involving figures, charts, quotes, and a running narrative at the bottom of each page that interacts with the analysis at the top of each page. Skaalrud notes that this is not a moment-for-moment recollection of a chain of events; instead, it's a lyrical impression of them, as she is guided by a beloved dog out of a state of misery.


In the narrative, she is depicted as a lost wanderer, bindle in hand, approaching the sainted dog. In the commentary that dominates each page, she talks about the idea of burning some aspect of the self away as being necessary for growth. It is the trial of the hero, hitting rock bottom for an addict, the dark night of the soul for the searcher. It's also part of a cycle, a necessary step in the journey that is always repeated. In relating this allegory, Skaalrud hits on an important point: we come up with myths as part of our own internal narrative, the one we use to make sense of the world. When that narrative is fractured and seems irreparable, we have to find ways to repair it or at least make sense of it, or risk further damage. For Skaalrud, this involved a ceremony to expunge the negative energy that she feared she was leaving everywhere. In the narrative, this was expunged in the form of a fiery chicken that the dog killed. How did this play out in real life? Her beloved dog was there for her, when she needed him: "You don't thank someone for their love, you love THEM. Anything else is advertising." The dog's love is pure and unconditional, attuned to what she needs emotionally as many animals are. The gantlet was run, the pain endured, wisdom was won, and love eased her through. The second birthday arrived. This was a dizzyingly beautiful account of that pain and slow recovery.

Two Shot, subtitled Comics At The Movies, was written by Skaalrud's husband Scotty Gillmer. One story was drawn by Skaalrud and the other by Gillmer's long-time drawing partner Carl Thompson. "First Person, Plural" was drawn by Thompson, and it's about a group of film critics in 1981 New York. In particular, it's about the relationship between two women: one an older critic, and the other a student still finding her feet. This is an interesting comic clearly written by someone intimately familiar not only with the history of film, but also the history of film criticism. There's a great deal of nuance in this story, as relationships and friendships are hinted at without being explicitly spelled out. That said, there's an emotional catharsis where the younger critic gets an honest critique of something she wrote by the older critic while still getting a confidence boost. Gillmer addresses sexism, the nature of the canon, and a critic's responsibility in this story, while Thompson's lively and expressive figure drawing ably carries the story.

"If You Can" was drawn by Skaalrud, and it's a deeply personal and autobiographical story that also revolves around film. There are parallel narratives at work here: the narrative captions are essentially an essay about the films of Steven Spielberg. In particular, he addresses the tension in Spielberg's films between domesticity and exploring the unknown. He focuses on three films: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Hook, and Catch Me If You Can. The first finds its hero rejecting home for the unknown, the second tries to have it both ways, and the third finds a balance between the two. Meanwhile, the story itself follows the relationship between Gillmer and Skaalrud over time. It goes from a Gillmer who's grappling with depression and in the beginning phases of a long-distance relationship to a Gillmer in a long-term relationship with her. The tension between the two narratives creates an interesting commentary, with the resolution of the essay (favoring compromise and trade-offs as an ultimately healthy response) mirroring the resolution of their lives together. It's very much a love letter of sorts, mediated through a love of both the arts and criticism. Skaalrud's art has a lived-in feel that creates a sense of density. These are "thick" events, and Skaalrud's dense use of gray-scaling shading, hatching, and sturdy line weights all match it. The concept of give-and-take suggested in the essay is reflected in the collaboration between Gillmore and Skaalrud as partners.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Getting Real With GIving Birth: Minis From Meghan Turbitt

Some of the best comics of the past year or so have been about pregnancy and giving birth in particular. Meghan Turbitt adds to this list with two of the best and funniest minis of the year: Meghan Turbitt's Pregnant & Fired and Laughter Birth. Now, Turbitt's stock-in-trade has always been cultural and social satire, with a heavy emphasis on interacting with cultural consumption as well as frank and disarming discussions about her sexuality. All of that is still here in her raw, subversive takes on being pregnant, giving birth, and the terrifying things she experienced in the aftermath of that experience. Indeed, Turbitt's flip, bawdy, and unapologetically scatological point of view is simply aimed at what is usually depicted in gauzy, saccharine terms.

Meghan Turbitt's Pregnant & Fired begins with a letter from her old job firing her. To literally add insult to injury, they note that they don't have to legally tell her why they're firing her, but they do anyway. Stuff about not "maintaining a positive, collaborative work environment" and an "inability to function as a team member" would be hilarious in terms of their insufferable language, if it hadn't meant that she lost her job while she was pregnant. The rest of the mini has one to two-page anecdotes about everything running through her mind. That includes learning to twerk while pregnant, looking for loose change, drawing baby clothes, and being bored enough to try Coconut La Croix. (As always with Turbitt, it's the specificity that is the essence of her wit.) Throughout the comic, Turbitt amusingly uses the tooth-set mascot of her old company as a sort of Greek chorus.

After trying to convince her mom that it was OK to put a soda stream on a baby shower gift registry, Turbitt turns to sex. She wonders if people constantly think of her having sex with her boyfriend now that she's pregnant. She writes about a photo where no one can tell that she peed her pants and notes that she can smell her own vagina all the time now that she's pregnant. Beyond adding several levels of gravity to her usually more flippant satirical critiques, Turbitt's work is different here. Her comics have often had a frenetic quality to them, but in this mini, she's almost nonchalant in how she relates these major, life-changing events. There are subtle call-backs, subversions of what would otherwise be hacky jokes (like with regard to food cravings), and funny visual punchlines that subvert the text. Despite everything, the page of hopes with regard to her future daughter is heartfelt and funny.

If that mini was laid back, then Laughter Birth is intense. It's a loose journal of the last few weeks of her pregnancy and birth story, and it immediately immolates any kind of Hallmark sentimentality with the opening page. That's where Turbitt, with great sincerity and affection, states "The moment I recognized that I wanted to become a mom, is the moment I realized I love the way my cat's asshole smells." Things proceed from there, as Turbitt realizes that as a future mom, she is now the subject of most of internet porn these days. She commiserates with an aunt when she discovers her first hemorrhoid, drawing an image of the "bag of grapes back there" that her aunt so vividly described.

This comic is a fascinating companion piece to Lauren Weinstein's Mother's Walk (from Frontier) and Marnie Galloway's Slightly Plural because all three women have extremely distinct memories of the childbirth process. While Turbitt goes into less detail about that particular aspect of pushing, she does slightly breeze over how difficult it was--requiring oxygen and wet paper towels for her forehead. From the very beginning, she tells the truth about the nature of giving birth, as her daughter Billie "was born along with an explosion of poop." Not only were Turbitt's immediate post-birth thoughts about when she could have sex again, she actually expressed them to her "horrified" mid-wife, who told her to wait six weeks.

While that was all fun, Turbitt then chronicles the frightening realization that she couldn't walk. It took a while for the staff to figure out why, until they realized that she had compressed some nerves during labor. While it was serious and scary, Turbitt always finds a way to subvert the gravity of the situation. For example, her nipples were sore from nursing, so she requested to be topless in the hospital on a near-constant basis. There's a scene where she wants to hug the doctor who tells her that she's going to recover and she demands a hug--but as she's topless, he flinches and says, "That's quite alright." Turbitt then details the assorted indignities involved when one can't stand: having to have nurses pick out bits of toilet paper from your ass, having your mom and boyfriend shower you, and realizing that that horrible smell is your own ass.

The rest of the comic details her recovery, with plenty of light-hearted but sincerely grateful moments regarding her own health. There are plenty of callbacks as well, as when she finally has sex again, as she peppers her boyfriend with all sorts of mood-killing questions until he tells her to "stop talking." When she's getting physical therapy, she asks if she has to wear clothes for it, and the therapist emphatically says yes.  There's a level of specificity and detail in both Turbitt's art (which she has refined and stripped down to its essence over the years) and her writing that gives these short vignettes a surprising level of complexity. This is an epic narrative disguised as a breezy bit of comedy, one fraught with many traumatic moments and uncertainty. It's that breezy veneer and narrative restraint that powers both the comedic and dramatic aspects of Turbitt's story. Drama and comedy complement each other, each making the other kind of moments all the more meaningful.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Minis: Sage Coffey


With a wonderfully thick, loopy line, Sage Coffey's Wine Ghost Orders A Sub is a funny and strange little mini about food and death. Coffey's Wine Ghost character looks a bit like a Pac-Man ghost with rubbery, hairy legs and long eyelashes. All she wants is a sub sandwich with a particular set of ingredients, and this short comic establishes the rules that govern her life. She has to possess a human (willingly) in order to actually get her food (despite her best efforts to attract the attention of the worker at the sub shop), and this otherwise wacky and silly comic has a bittersweet encounter at the end. Coffey's mix of thin and thick line weights add to the sense of both exaggeration and nuance and goes well with the single-tone red that they use throughout.



Monday, July 22, 2019

More Minis From Elise Dietrich

I don't know what it is about the northeast that's producing so many sensitive and thoughtful autobiographical comics, but Elise Dietrich has certainly proven herself to be part of this trend. The Sandwich Shuffle is her shot at an Hourly Comics Day mini, and her winning wit makes this a fun comic to read. Dietrich strikes just the right now in how much she reveals to the audience in a comic that's very much in media res by its very nature. It's a snapshot into a single day of a cartoonist, and if you knew nothing about them going into reading the comic, it's up to them to provide enough information to make sense. In short order, the reader learns that Dietrich has a young daughter, that her husband is away from town, that she has issues with her weight and food, and that she blanches a bit when her mom seems more delighted to visit her brother's new baby than to stay there.

That said, there's a resoluteness to her narrative that's invigorating. Dietrich is always full speed ahead, no matter what. Despite struggling with a cold, she finds ways to do comics, work with clients over the internet, take care of her kid, go to the library and drop off her mom at a bus stop. The art is understandably rough and sloppy, but it clearly reveals her stylistic impulses and how she organizes a page and a panel. There's an orderliness to Dietrich's work that manages to focus both on foreground and background. The reader is always made aware of time and place, even as the people dominate the action.

Making Time is a collection of diary comics, from the first snow of November through February. In Vermont, winter is a powerful entity, and many of these comics revolve around struggles with the weather. Most of them are Kochalka-style: four panels, with a punchline of sorts in the final panel. Dietrich's line is more careful and assured in these comics, but it's clear that spontaneity and expressiveness are her goals. That said, Dietrich jams every panel with detail, hatching, and other decorative details. The result is cluttered but in a good way. One gets the sense of just how her life is cluttered and bursting with happenings. The comics are quiet and meditative, almost as a way of recovering from the frenzy of childcare, workouts, 5K runs, and knitting baby blankets. These comics are frequently funny, like when Dietrich grouses about muzak being played during a yoga session. These comics are engaging because Dietrich has a distinctive authorial voice, and it's clear that she took quickly to comics because she was eager to find a new way of expressing herself.