Thursday, August 12, 2021

Miranda Harmon's Spring Cakes

Miranda Harmon, from the very start of her cartooning career, had a fully-formed style. She has a lively, fluid line that lends itself to cute but expressive drawings. It's no surprise that she's worked in animation in addition to doing comics. In a lot of her early comics, however, she had a style that was looking for a narrative at times. Her new book with Holiday House, Spring Cakes, shows just how much she's been able to lean into this style for a book aimed at new readers. This is part of their "I Like To Read" comics line that is a pretty shameless copy of what Francoise Mouly does with Toon Books, right down to the fancy endpapers and hardback format.



Nothing wrong with copying success; indeed, Mouly patterned her line after Golden Books. Little kids like hardbacks, and they are much easier to shelve than a comic book and much harder to destroy. It's just the right size for small hands to flip through. With Spring Cakes, Harmon overwhelms the reader with cuteness along with some low-stakes conflicts as three girls (Ginger, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg) help their mother make a special cake by going on an adventure to find the right ingredients. 

The thing that young cartoonists tend to struggle the most with, especially when they are working digitally like Harmon here, is not overwhelm their line with garish color. It's to Harmon's credit that while this book is one long bombardment of pastels, she keeps the colors balanced and surprisingly nuanced. It's clear she thought a lot about color and color theory to enhance her bold line without detracting from the narrative power of that line. In some panels, she uses an interesting technique where the top half of the panel is white, but it slowly fades into a light pastel. This avoids too much blank space without overwhelming the panel with a lot of color. Her character design is simple and expressive, with a sophisticated understanding of how to render garments. The book's tone is loving and warm, with little touches of tension throughout that are quickly resolved without being treacly. Harmon has really found her voice with the book, although I think her future will eventually lie in YA instead of early-grade books. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Reilly Hadden's Fellas

One of Reilly Hadden's long-term projects as an artist is examining masculinity. Even in Astral Birth Canal, which featured fantasy scenarios, one of the central relationships was that of a father and his son. In his Krikkit comics, the titular character gently explores his environment and his relationships. In his new mini Fellas, he explores masculinity and brotherly love between two professional wrestlers. The comic's dialogue is taken verbatim from a video clip taken after a huge match.



The wrestlers in question are Sheamus, the Celtic Warrior, and Cesaro, the Swiss Superman. In storyline, they were once bitter enemies who were forced to become a tag team called The Bar ("We don't set the bar...we are the Bar!") who became one of the WWE's greatest tag teams. At a certain point, the team was split up. It's important to note that in storyline, they were ruthless heels (bad guys); in essence, the epitome of toxic masculinity. 

The comic picks up after Sheamus lost to his former best friend Drew McIntyre in a fantastic, hard-hitting match. Wrestling is a hybrid of combat sports, improv, theater, burlesque, and a variety of other carny arts, designed to create a powerful emotional response through a visceral narrative. In the comic, Sheamus sees his old friend Cesaro after this nearly overwhelming experience with this match and breaks down crying. In the video, it was a beautiful moment of vulnerability and intimacy between two friends. Hadden heightens this emotion through an art style that emphasizes the sheer, sweaty physicality of the two men. 

The magic of wrestling is that kayfabe (keeping true to the narrative) is a marvelous confluence of honest feelings and an exaggerated story. Sheamus and Cesaro knew they were being filmed, but the constancy of the performance (in and out of the ring) simply fell away in that moment. The camera no longer mattered. It was two friends who understood what had just happened on a deep level that outsiders couldn't really comprehend. It was two friends who had shared months on the road who were put on different shows, sharing that moment and expressing their love and grief related to their separation. It's a moment of incredible tenderness, of words being expressed through tears and Cesaro's words of praise for the match meaning everything. Their characters are caricatures,expressed loudly and simply enough so that a fan in the book row can understand what's going on. However, the men, the performers are real. It's the thrill and the stress and anxiety of being a particular kind of performer, and only a man who had become your chosen family truly understanding. Hadden captures all of this beautifully, with the sheer size and muscular physique of the two men emphasizing, rather than belying, their physical and emotional intimacy. If these two powerhouses can allow themselves this kind of emotional openness, why can't all men relate to each other in this way?

Friday, July 9, 2021

Whit Taylor's Montana Diary

I've been following Whit Taylor's career for quite a long time. With Montana Diary (Silver Sprocket), she's published her finest work to date. Taylor has always been a thoughtful and intelligent writer, but there's a remarkable sense of confidence not just in the way she wrote about the frequently-horrific background of this memoir about a vacation to Montana with her husband, but in the way she drew it. It's exciting to see a cartoonist put it all together, and that's the case with this comic. 



In terms of format, it's not necessarily anything new. She's done this kind of historical/geographical exploration before. Whit's always been a thoughtful and restrained writer, offering perspective and wisdom with regard to her historical and cultural observations. She's also never been terribly didactic in her conclusions, allowing the reader to make up their own minds. While all of that was true here as well, there's a kind of funny swagger she displays, an almost unhinged and bizarre sense of humor that makes her the clear comedic focus of the comic. It pushes her husband as the straight man. However, even that narrative falls short of what's really going on. As a Black woman, it feels as though her presence in the whitest of states puts her into full-fledged survival mode, deferring to her husband and shrinking behind him in ways she never otherwise do. Taylor giddily engages with tourism even as she denounces the idea of not being American enough. She pointedly nails this narrative when her narrative caption calmly declares "I hate feeling like have to prove my Americanness. I'm descended from slaves, slave owners, and native peoples." The dialog she indignantly spouts off to her husband is "I am American as fuck."


Taylor goes in a lot of directions, but the main theme is how beauty and ugliness co-exist. Big Sky country was beautiful, but global warming is having an irrevocable impact on it, as one glacier will disappear in the next thirty years. A dive into the history of Lewis & Clark's expedition reveals exploitation and the virulently prevalent concept of Manifest Destiny. Even visiting the local native reservation reveals that the tribe was only left their land because the government didn't have any use for it. Taylor plays down her intellect and emphasizes how little she knows about history, which is a way of saying that few people in the country have a real sense of its history. Despite all of this, she acknowledges the hard truth that in America, the poison of its past and its persistence of its toxic structures is in direct opposition to its ideals, its beauty, and most importantly, its people. That said, this book isn't a screed; it's a vacation. It's funny time spent with her husband. It's hikes and meals and boat rides. Taylor balances all of these elements effortlessly.


Part of that is because her own persona here is so carefree and silly at times; in fact, there's almost an insistence on it despite her fear of white nationalists (and bears). There is no question that she was only able to sell this because her line was so expertly rendered. Taylor's line is clear and concise, as she leaned into her greatest skill: drawing expressions. Her tight talking-head focus was also a clever narrative technique, but she rewards the readers with a far greater range of expressions than usual in one of her autobio stories, with her husband a tight-lipped straight man. However, Taylor's clarity and skill in depicting her environment was absolutely essential in selling the rest of the story. Her line is not only clear, it's frequently beautiful in its simplicity in detailing forests, wildlife, and the people she meets. While her pages are full of detail, she avoids cluttering up her pages. In terms of layout, she used an open-page layout built on grid principles, providing both structure and freedom for her storytelling.  This story is in terms funny, personal, vulnerable, instructive, historical, and grim. Like John Porcellino, it's highly sophisticated and emotive storytelling that looks simplistic at first blush. However, there are hidden depths to be found in Montana Diary, rewarding multiple readings. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Escaping The Labyrinth: M.S. Harkness' Desperate Pleasures

The experience of childhood sexual trauma is one that rewires one's brain to such a degree that the result is going through life walking through a labyrinth. It's an especially insidious labyrinth because one can't perceive the walls around you or even that you're in a labyrinth at all. However, one still backtracks, goes off-kilter, chooses dead-ends, and repeats the same paths even if they tend to wind up in the same monstrous predicaments. M.S. Harkness writes about this experience in great detail in her memoir Desperate Pleasures, and it points to the way how different people respond to this kind of trauma in different ways. Not unsurprisingly for her as a young adult, it meant a hypersexual focus coupled with difficulty in actually experiencing true love or intimacy. While that was partly rooted in the kind of emotionally unavailable men that she chose to pursue, her choice to pursue them was intrinsically wrapped up in the feelings of worthlessness that trauma creates.

Harkness explored this in a more lighthearted way in her comic Tinderella, which focused more on the weirdoes she dated and several men she knew were bad for her emotionally but whom she couldn't stop seeing. Desperate Pleasures is thematically richer and features greater formal complexity, especially in the way she repeats certain scenes and memories and adds new contexts to them throughout the book. The book is set a few years earlier, where Harkness is in and out of school and trying to figure out what to do with her life. To make ends meet, she engages as a "sugar baby," meaning that she dated older men who would give her money. It's not unlike being an escort, only without the formal labels. It's often referred to these days as a "mutually beneficial relationship," and the dating aspect of it is as important as the sexual aspect, which distinguishes it from more traditional sex work.

Using a jet-black sense of humor, she noted that she also fucked lots of other guys, "Unpaid. For exposure, I guess." Any freelancer has to grimly laugh at that concept. Sex, once she realized t was a genuine act of pleasure (and ANY pleasure was one to grasp onto), became her outlet for her trauma. The problem was that the men thought of her, to quote Heidegger, as Zuhandenheit or "Ready-to-hand." This means seeing the people and objects we encounter in the world solely for their use-value. With regard to people, it means not seeing their existence as beings. The key sequence in the book ends with the two guys Harkness was sleeping with asking if they could buy weed from her--and she invited both of them over at the same time, as a petty, passive-aggressive way of striking out at their treatment of her as an object at hand.

That sequence followed a hilarious, bleak, and crucial imaginary one-woman-show she was putting on called "Tinderella," wherein she talked about discovering that her abuse hadn't damaged her ability to feel pleasure, but rather that her father was so bad at sex that he didn't know how to touch her. When she went to the gynecologist for the first time, she discovered to her great surprise how sensitive she was. Harkness depicts her audience walking out on her while telling this story, saying, "If you're not laughing, I can't do anything for you." This also hits on the concept of those traumatized as being "brave." There is no bravery or valorization in being sexually assaulted, especially as a child. There is only survival or death. There is only finding a way to cope, no matter how unhealthy it might ultimately be, or not. 

This is a stark realization, but when one is made aware that you're in a labyrinth, one can act on it--although it is very difficult. Harkness goes back and forth in time and cleverly changes her rendering style a number of different times. Her base style is a highly-cartoony rendering of herself where her eyes and mouth are barely perceptible as dots. It's a self-image that's easy to get behind, since it's abstracted from reality. Her hair is more fully-defined than her facial features. In other portions of the book, when things get a lot more "real," he uses a highly naturalistic style. The irony is that this more realistic version of herself is in many ways a put-on, an illusion for the rest of the world. She uses a hazy, dreamy style that relies heavily on shadows for flashbacks to her parents, including how her mother reacted to her abusive father. Harkness ties it back to seeing her father coming back from shore leave or deploying again, clearly as moments of simultaneous dread and excitement. There is a fundamental confusion and sense of cognitive dissonance in coming to terms with abuse at that age, and Harkness depicts it as reality-warping. 

Harkness early on drops hints as to the things that can help her escape the labyrinth. First, despite everything, she desperately wants to make a connection that goes beyond sex. When she tells one of her lovers that she's in love with him on the phone, it's clear he's incapable of reciprocation. Actually telling him this, however, was the one true act of bravery she performed in the book. Second, the warmth she shows to her younger brother in helping him on physical training extends his role from Tinderella; he gives Harkness unconditional love and never judges her. The most important key is hinted at at the beginning and followed through at the end: Harkness' decision to become a physical trainer. While Harkness is a smart and sensitive artist, her stories are always about her need to express herself physically. She escaped the labyrinth not through her own workouts but rather through guiding others through their own journeys. Harkness might be self-deprecating with regard to her self-worth and rejects the idea of her courageousness, but there's a tremendous generosity of spirit and a desire to build others up that seems integral to her self-narrative. How does she help herself? By trusting herself enough to help others and breaking her tendency to go in circles. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Mathew New's Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers

I read Mathew New's YA book Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers in minicomics form. The book, published by Capstone, expertly tightens up the original stories without losing a bit of its absurd energy. The title alone betrays the total ridiculousness of its concept as a kind of send-up of Tintin and Indiana Jones. However, like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Donjon, all of that silliness is rooted in a plot that is rock-solid and deadly serious. All of this is aided by New's unfussy and cartoony line along with a clear, distinct color palette. 



From time to time, I like to show YA books to my 12-year-old, Pen. They really took to this book for a number of reasons. They liked its humor and propulsive action sequences that seemed to look to Carl Barks for inspiration. What they liked about all else were the mysteries that New set up. Indeed, the mysteries are the backbone for the otherwise completely silly stories, as they lend weight and depth to the adventures.



In this book, Billy is a teen explorer ala Tintin, and his companion is a talking duck named Barrace who happens to be a professor. They go on various adventures, and we learn that Billy's parents were famous adventurers. Their actual fate was never revealed, but Billy's inability to bring back proof of his adventures prevents him from joining the Explorer's League that his parents were part of. Indeed, Billy has to settle for being a janitor. Barrace is a college professor, and if a talking duck professor seems weird, the book fully acknowledges this without actually explaining it. Indeed, the book strongly hints that Barrace isn't really a duck at all. 



In a book filled with spoofs and self-aware humor, New also establishes that there are no throwaway lines or situations. In the first adventure, where they find the lost city of the Monkey People, the book's whole mystery is established when a mysterious blue spirit entity helps them and reappears throughout the book. In a hilarious take on the magic item quest, Billy and Barrace encounter a Lara Croft-style adventurer-thief as they have to take back a ring because it turned out to be cursed. A desert quest for an apparently-extinct type of bear once again brings Billy to disappointment, even as he manages to bungle a wish-giving magic lamp. A heroic quest that's Heroes Journey 101 reveals Billy's own desperation for fame and his insecurity. Billy has an overpowering retractable sword that he calls "Mr. Jabbers," an absurd name for such a relic.



Indeed, New rejects macho, toxic representations of heroism and instead focuses on the friendship between Billy and Barrace. Despite his impulsiveness and glory-seeking, Billy grows as a character throughout the book. He doesn't get what he wants (fame, glory, and entrance into the Explorer's Club as a member), but he gets what he needs (love and support from his best friend). 

My kid was angry that the book ended on a cliffhanger, as the blue spirit confronts the mysterious hooded figure who was trying to steal the cursed ring. The hooded figure refers to him as Spirit Eater, and had feared his arrival, as evidenced by his dialog and warning systems. That spurred an hour's worth of discussion from Pen, who came up with elaborate theories about the blue spirit/alien, the identities of the red and yellow figures we saw in etchings in the Monkey People temple, what happened to Billy's parents, what Barrace is exactly, who the hooded person is, etc. 

Ultimately, while New has a number of inspirations, it's clear that that he's created here is entirely his own thing. Far from being just a spoof, it trades on jokes about familiar ideas and subverts them. He always tells the story with a straight face (there are no narrative captions that indicate how the audience should feel), even (and especially) when it degenerates into total nonsense. Even the nonsense has surprising repercussions, like the cursed ring disappearing from view. New also adds just enough interstitital material to tie together disparate stories, and introduces the book with a two-page performance by Billy as he creates a theme song for himself and the professor. The funny things in the book have a tender quality to them, and the exciting parts of the story all have funny barriers thrown in the way of the protagonists. There's very little in the way of violence in this story, as it favors the sort of Barksian hijinks of a Donald Duck story to more visceral storytelling. This shouldn't work as well as it does, and yet New has a way of anticipating story problems and anticipating solutions, all while balancing a surprisingly complex web of plots and interpersonal relationships. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Announcing The North Street Book Prize


Aimed at creators of self-published comics and graphic novels/memoirs, art books, and five other genre categories, the North Street Book Prize offers cash awards to artists. Now in its seventh year, 
The North Street Book Prize vales entries which portray lives underrepresented in traditional media; diverse characters and themes are especially welcome. 

The Grand Prize is $5,000 and the First Prize in each entry category is $1,000. Grand Prize and First Prize winners also receive a marketing consultation with a book publicity expert. Seven Honorable Mentions win $250 each. The 2021 deadline is June 30th, and the entry fee is $65. It can be submitted online or by mail.

Recent winners include Ingrid Pierre, for her graphic memoir Do Not Resuscitate, and Dmitri Jackson, for his slice-of-life comic Blackwax Boulevard. I reviewed the latter comic on High-Low here

The prize is sponsored by the website Winning Writers in partnership with the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a designation for "contests which are organized for the benefit of the author rather than the profit of the organizer." Winning Writers has been running writing contests for over 20 years. We are one of Writer's Digest's Top 8 Online Resources for Publishing and Marketing. We seek to be a welcoming place for diverse authors and stories, with a culture of listening to people of all genders, backgrounds, and abilities. We look for high-quality original writing that portrays under-represented perspectives with sensitivity, accuracy, and passion.


Please note that this post is sponsored by Winning Writers. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

CCS: Mannie Murphy's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

Mannie Murphy is one of those ten-year overnight successes as a cartoonist. Her comic that she completed after her one year at the Center For Cartoon Studies, I Still Live, was absolutely astounding in how fully-formed, thoughtful, and restless her voice was as a creator. Murphy has a towering, probing intellect that is both deliberate and intentional in the way she dissects her subject matter, because it's all personal. There is a barely-restrained sense of fury in the way she addresses many topics, even appearing dispassionate at times. Murphy is simply careful and thorough in how she researches her subjects, scrupulously fair in how she approaches them from multiple angles. But make no mistake: Murphy keeps all the receipts, as the saying goes, and she is devastating once she lays them all out and connects the dots.

If systematic oppression is sometimes a kind of shell game, where the oppressors distract their victims in hopes that they'll forget certain events, Murphy is a dutiful observer who knows where the ball is at all times. All of this leads up to her first book, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. Even the title has multiple layers. The original phrase comes from singer Lynn Anderson, and it's a sort of glib way of talking about how bad times are going to come. That phrase was later adapted into a semi-autobiographical story about a teen girl's battle with schizophrenia. For Murphy, the International Rose Test Garden is a huge tourist attraction in her hometown of Portland. The local home arena with Portland's beloved NBA team, the Trail Blazers, was named the Rose Garden for many years. They are symbols of Portland's affluence, the flip side of the quirky "Portlandia" narrative that's been nurtured by the city ("Keep Portland Weird.") 


Murphy's wide-ranging narrative connects her own personal experience of a particular high school, various Hollywood stars, the rise of white supremacy, murders, and the real history of Portland and Oregon. It's written like a journal or a diary, with each page featuring her handwriting on lined paper, accompanied by blue-wash illustrations so dense that there are parts where the bleed-through is emphasized. It's almost a watery image (hence the bleed), as though she had scratched the image into the page and let the wash flow over it as though it was her tears. I read and reviewed the minicomics that contained the bulk of the book that Murphy started publishing six years ago. While not materially different in terms of content, the design, the paper, and the use of color make it a completely different work. It's the difference between a series of zines and a book designed to look like a journal, and the result is something that feels more intimate. It's as though Murphy is taking us aside and sharing secrets. 


In a sense, she is. Starting with the death of River Phoenix, Murphy connects the dots to his hometown of Portland and his relationship with director Gus Van Sant. It's here that the dots she connects become very interesting, as she delves into Portland's history of pressing young queer men seeking a new life into being sex workers. Queer men who "acted" and looked straight were especially prized. Van Sant loved surrounding himself with young men, offering them money and luxury in exchange for their youth and cool. Among these men included Ken "Death" Mieske, a charismatic young white supremacist who was a disciple of Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi skinhead and former Klan member. Mieske and two other skinheads and members of East Side White Pride murdered Mulugeta Seraw and were in a high-profile trial that wound up making them martyrs for the movement.


Murphy connected the skinheads to the punk scene in Portland and certain benefactors like Van Sant and a club owner she referred to as Mr. X. Far from an outlier or coincidence, Murphy connected the dots back to the founding of Portland and Oregon. The whites who settled there aimed to make it a white utopia, intentionally settling on native land and using their diseases to wipe out that population. When some natives killed some settlers in retaliation, the white settlers were able to use that to their advantage and not only gain statehood, they also wrote laws forbidding Blacks and Asians into their constitution. Not just racism, but actual white supremacy was nakedly baked into the very fiber of Oregon. Murphy argues that this has never been truly reckoned with, despite fierce protests by some of its citizens, and it perpetuated itself in the face of the KKK in the early 20th century and the skinhead movement of the late 20th century. What was most frightening about the latter, Murphy revealed, was that despite the image of Nazi punks being outlaws and rejected by society, the reality is that this group signed up for the police and military in droves--and it was Metzger himself who coldly declared his victory when he was on trial. 


Murphy wrote about this six years ago. The national wave of police violence against Black people and other minorities and their sympathy for white supremacists made this observation even more chilling with the book published in March of 2021. Murphy doesn't make a direct connection here, but there's also an extremely laissez-faire attitude that pervades Portland, one that favors those who already carry a lot of privilege. It's the attitude of unchecked capitalism and an abandonment of protecting the weak and vulnerable. Murphy's high school was run under experimental rules encouraging free thought and questioning authority. It also created an environment where skinheads like Ken Death were allowed to roam unchecked. The difference between an atmosphere where creativity and free thinking are encouraged and one where all attempts at exploring and instilling community virtues could be plainly seen. It's a false binary and an abandonment of education, especially for those populations who were vulnerable. Murphy does note that in Portland's culture, being queer certainly didn't make one enlightened, especially if you were white, male, and in contact with privilege. Murphy's own connection to the school, her classmates who died there, and a disastrous camping trip where those who listened to authority died revealed that no adult ever gave them a good reason to trust them. The quirky freedom of "Portlandia" was a myth and harbored snakes in its bosom.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of cults, especially in terms of power exchanges. River Phoenix grew up in the predatory Children of God cult, which emphasized incest and underage sex as part of its teachings. The white supremacists were hucksters who offered homeless, frequently queer, young hustlers a line of bullshit they knew they would believe. That they wanted to believe, because it freed them of personal responsibility and transferred the blame to different races, nationalities, and religions. Murphy points to groupthink as a kind of collective way of frequently making horrifying moral decisions, because it defuses personal responsibility and warps simple logic. 

Murphy's dissection of the mechanics of how this works is flawless, just as the thoroughness of her research with regard to history is staggering. However, she's a native. This is all personal to her, because she's seen how all of this can and has been resisted, even against unbelievable odds. She's not an unbiased observer and has no interest in that role, often adding personal comments to her record of historical events. This doesn't weaken her arguments, because she's not arguing emotively. She's calmly laying down connection after connection and creates a sophisticated historical argument rooted in primary documents. Even the personal aspects of the narrative, like her recounting River Phoenix's story, prove to be recapitulations of her larger arguments in microcosm. Murphy doesn't attempt to simplify or minimize the problems she raises; she simply provides context and shines a light on them. In many ways, going back to the title, the "you" refers to Portland itself, as she strips away its mythos and lays bare its rot. It's up to everyone to clean away that rot. It's not quite a hate letter to Portland (because there are things she loves and wants to fight for)...but it's close.