Friday, August 7, 2020

Quarantine Comics From Caitlin Cass and Glenn Wilkinson

The global pandemic and its subsequent quarantine has had and continues to have a profound effect on artists all around the world. That was especially true during the period of March and April, where most people were actually obeying the constraints of the quarantine instead of pretending that science doesn't exist. That global sense of isolation moved many artists to dig deep into this feeling.
Caitlin Cass's Notes From Quarantine (Vol 10, #5 of her long-running postal constituency comics series) is something of a departure for her: these are single panel, New Yorker-style gag comics about quarantine life. Cass has actually had several strips published in the New Yorker, but it's clear that these quarantine strips are meant in part to satirize the dry, comedy-of-manners quality that one normally associates with that publication. In other words, COVID-19 and the quarantine have rendered that kind of wry satire irrelevant. Making quips about (relatively privileged) quotidian concerns without referencing the quarantine is like writing fiction.
Cass leans into that, combining the droll punchlines of this genre with brutally cutting observations. In one strip, a woman faces away from an older relative in a wheelchair, saying "Oh no, it's someone I know and love." A nurse walks by an apartment building on the way to work and admonishes its residents for staring at her. A school valedictorian gives her speech on the computer, noting that her generation can't mess up any worse than this one. Using a mix of soft grayscale shading and pastels, Cass delivers sharp barbs in a comforting form. The confidence and steadiness of her line is a great deal sharper than it was earlier in her career, making this kind of pastiche all the more effective as a result.
UK cartoonist Glenn Wilkinson's Quarantine Comics takes a different tack. These are three fantasy/sci-fi tinged short-stories done while in quarantine, but they aren't actually about quarantine. Although there are some thematic similarities. For example, "Once a wizard, now a pleb" is about a father and daughter going down to the market in ancient Rome. The magic that they understand is passing out of the world, and he's at first outraged that she's selling it for Roman currency, until he's made to realize that they are obsolete.
All of the stories are about a sense of loss and mourning with regard to something in society. In the second story, a Dr. Who-like character is outraged that the Daleks were created at the whim of an alien race that mistreated them. He winds up marrying the last Dalek, only his attempt at being a savior goes awry. The third story is about a man trying to fix his brain to keep up to date with current standards of goodness, only "goodness" is revealed to be a brutal accounting of personal hatreds and scores to settle. There's a profound cynicism at work in each of these stories: magic is fading from the world, heroes can't solve problems, and like in a Yeats poem, "the worst are full of passionate intensity." Wilkinson's work is in full color and looks like it's either been painted or made to look like it was painted. The figures are crude but effective. The overall aesthetic works for what he's trying to achieve.   

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Liz Valasco's The Seeker

I reviewed an earlier minicomics version of Liz Valasco's The Seeker a while back, and the finished version (from Tinto Press) fulfills the creepy, unsettling vision of those early pages. As alluded to in Aaron Lange's back-cover blurb for the book, the things that are unspoken in this disturbing story are every bit as important as the parts of the narrative that are made crystal-clear. It's a story about innocence, exploitation, and ultimately trauma.

The story follows a pre-teen girl who is never named. She's the titular seeker and also referred to as a necromancer. Omitting her name feels deliberate; she's someone who's been erased and feels alienated. That omission feels even more deliberate given that the rest of the cast, the older teens, are not only named, but frequently call each other by their names. They are signified. Rob, the hero of the story, refers to the younger girl as "weirdo" and "crazy," but never by her actual name.

The story opens with the seeker completing a ritual on Halloween. There are a lot of unanswered questions at work here. She uses a book of incantations with a big X on the cover; where did she get it from? The innocent-seeming shenanigans of retrieving a particular box gives way to bone-chilling horror when the plastic pumpkin she uses as part of her ritual starts talking to her after she finishes the spell. Opening that box sends a bunch of roaches scurrying into the pumpkin, providing the final key for its animation.
The story then turns to Rob and efficiently reveals that his dead grandfather wasn't what he seemed. His "class-ring" is a weird artifact, and the seeker demands it from Rob when she runs into him on the street. Rob is getting up to older-teen activities with his friend Brian, who brings beer to the forest for their rendevous with two girls, Ariel and Lana (Rob's crush). When the seeker finds them, gets the ring, and throws it in the pumpkin, the story takes a horrific turn.

The seeker is clearly being manipulated by forces beyond her control (she wants to scare Rob and his friends, and the creature wants to eat their souls), and Valasco turns this into a tightly-plotted monster story. The horrifying thing is not the fight with the monsters itself, but rather the final fate of the seeker herself, devoured by the very forces that she sought solace in.

The layers in the story unravel a bit when we learn that the seeker's father left for unstated reasons. We never meet her mother, other than knowing that she wasn't at home on Halloween. How often was the seeker simply left alone? Her interest in scaring Rob felt like a tween crush that she couldn't otherwise articulate. She wanted to be seen and validated by Rob and take back some of the power she had ceded him with her crush. She wanted to "scare them all," taking power back against a world that ignored her and left her alone. If she scared them, they had to pay attention to her. One wonders if she got the book from Rob's garage when he wasn't paying attention; it's clear that she was familiar enough to him that perhaps she came by to annoy him.

Meanwhile, Rob is far from a spotless protagonist. He's not evil, but he's a bit uncaring and selfish. He's a typical teen. He's annoyed by the seeker and doesn't treat her kindly, but he doesn't bully her either. He's annoyed by his mom but later tries to do the right thing. He's freaked out by the whole event but none of the teens seem especially interested in mourning the seeker. He has a bit of imperiousness to him that makes him just a bit off as a hero. Everyone in this story has flaws; it's just that some of them have major narrative consequences.

Valasco's drawings sell the story. She draws the seeker with a simplified face, giving her a sense of fragile innocence with her fine line. At times, she almost looks like a Peanuts character. At the same time, Valasco creates mood and atmosphere with dense hatching and cross-hatching, especially of the backgrounds. The wispiness of her line and that constant sense of impending erasure is made manifest in the frequent thinness of her line, especially with regard to characters like Rob's mother. It also gives an initial sense of cuteness to the horror story that unfolds, creating cognitive dissonance for readers and characters alike. This comic is a small triumph, leaving many questions unanswered as it asks the reader to consider the motivations and circumstances of its characters.       

Friday, July 3, 2020

Not Quite Comics: Trungles' Star Spinner Tarot

The tarot card deck became intertwined with hypermasculine, gatekeeping occult knowledge popularized by Aleister Crowley quite a while ago, adding a tinge of danger to what is less a divination tool and more a method of self-discovery. There have been numerous versions of the deck with more inclusive and diverse imagery and interpretation since the first publication of the Rider-Waite deck over a century ago. Many have been published from a feminist point of view, and several have come from cartoonists. Annie Murphy's work with The Collective Tarot and Katie Skelly's Bad Girl Tarot are two prominent examples.

A recent, exquisitely designed version is the Star Spinner Tarot (Chronicle Books) by the cartoonist and illustrator Trungles (aka Trung Le Nguyen). He sets out to create imagery for his deck that avoids Orientalism and the exoticization of African cultures in favor of one that delves into more familiar but still poignant imagery that still draws from a storytelling milieu. As such, the water-bearing chalices draw from mermaid imagery. There is abundant faerie imagery. There are many allusions to mythology. There is a diversity and balance to the images in terms of masculine and feminine, as well as racial diversity without exploitation or exoticization. The design is absolutely flawless, from the rich colors to the box itself, which self-seals with a magnetic strip.

Trungles' line is beautifully precise and fluid; with the pastel color pattern at work, it has almost a lyrical quality. His instincts as a storyteller are at work not only within each image but also within each of the minor arcana. There's a story told through the chalices, wands, swords, and coins. That said, these story images are fragments, meant to be evocative rather than directly. They are notes that are played in each individual reading, creating a special kind of music between the cards and the reader.
In terms of its functionality as a tool for self-reflection, Trungles adds a few interesting wrinkles. For example, he has four variations on the Lovers card, where the person receiving the reader chooses the one they are most comfortable with. Those variations include different configurations of men, women, and non-binary figures. Even Trungles' description of how each card can be interpreted is gentler and more thoughtful than traditional decks. Disastrous cards like the Tower and the Ten of Swords, as Trungles describes them, portend woe but also an opportunity to move in a new direction. Many of the reversed cards describe a person who is unwilling to let go of difficult emotions. One can easily see how working with this deck on a regular basis might produce a meditative, fruitful set of personal revelations. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Laura Knetzger's Before & After

Much of Laura Knetzger's work is about healing. Even her Bug Boys series is about gently exploring the difficulties of the world and how friends navigate it and their own differences. Before & After is a surprisingly emotionally affecting story about what is essentially a thought experiment. What if there was a version of you who existed who was you in every fundamental way, only the lifetime of trauma that you've acquired had somehow been scrubbed out?

That's the premise of this cleverly unfolding story about a very damaged genius neuroscientist whose clone knocks on his door one morning. The bemused scientist is surprised and not especially pleased to see his clone. His clone is there wanting...something. Answers? Connection? Closure? For someone without a lot of long-term memories, he wasn't completely sure what he wanted. It takes most of the comic for the scientist to regard the clone as an actual person, instead of as a feverish wish to have some aspect of him not be broken emotionally.

This comic is also an interesting little lesson in neuroscience, with regard to implicit and explicit memories; the former is regard to things like learning a language or important life skills, and the latter connects specific bodily memories to specific events. That's what makes this such a fascinating exercise, because it's more than the old Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind memory-erasing treatment; it's a full-on physical alteration of one's nervous system like a Fate cutting out a string. 

Visually, Knetzger contrasts the clone and the primary person through their dress and hair. The original is a mess; attempting to go through therapy has been so debilitating that he's taken a sabbatical and just lounges around in his bathrobe, his wild hair totally unkempt. The clone has a shorter haircut, looks relatively dapper, and his general mien is just less twitchy than the original. Even if the original tries to deny the personhood of the clone, cutting him off from even the idea of family, there's a hidden level of joy in him, knowing that his plan worked. His clone was healthy, even if facing a life without memories and roots was creating a new kind of trauma of its own. The question is if the original tells the clone it's not a good idea to know him for the clone's own good or because he's selfish and heartless. It's open for debate, though the ending has just enough ambiguity to imply that it won't be the last time they meet. All told, this is a perfectly-realized nugget of a story, where Knetzger vividly makes both of the characters flawed and human in their own right, and not just cyphers to move along a plot.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Few Thoughts On Inez Estrada's Alienation

I just recorded a podcast for Enemies Of The State (hosted by on In├ęs Estrada's book Alienation. With that conversation buzzing in my brain, I wanted to get some thoughts down about the book.

Published by Fantagraphics in 2019, Alienation collects the minicomics Estrada did over a few years, with significant revisions and additions. The story follows a couple, Elizabeth and Charles, who live in a tiny apartment in 2054. It's a world where global warming has ruined most of the environment. However, the internet is now fully immersive, especially for those who have had GoogleGlands installed. Elizabeth is a cam girl and Charles works at a refinery--one of the few that are left--and they manage to get by. Their lives are disrupted when a mysterious user hacks through every protection, and Elizabeth mysteriously becomes pregnant after being exposed to a gas. She's later informed that the artificial intelligence network of the world has decided she's the best candidate to give birth to the Singularity, the first transhuman AI/human hybrid. It raped her and impregnated her. She eventually gives birth, but the hybrid gets away, ignoring its human host as well as the AI which tries to prod it into fulfilling its "destiny."

** This comic works on a number of levels, but it's primarily a satire. Before I get to its satirical elements, I want to discuss what helps make that satire so sharp. First, it's an effective work of science-fiction/horror, not unlike the novel (and later film) Demon Seed, which introduces the menacing part of transhumanism when an advanced computer impregnates a woman so it can better run the world. Similarly, Estrada uses the internet and its increasing dominance over every aspect of our domestic lives to show how AI could violate a woman's bodily autonomy easily and even more disturbingly than Koontz show. Alienation is a deeply disturbing and unsettling work, made even more so by Estrada's gritty, ugly, and visceral art style.     
** Speaking of Estrada's art, she also nails the more fanciful aspects of interfacing with AI. While her depiction of real-life is depressing and unbearably spare, her drawings of internet space are delightful. Charles' interest in live music from the past is delightful on its own, but Elizabeth's bodily transformations in virtual space are beautiful. The spirals and fractals, the lush forests, and the endless narrative possibilities provide a good reason for people to want to abandon the dreary reality of four blank walls. The formal highlight of the book is a choose-your-own-adventure series of branching internet adventures. They have no real impact on the plot, but they reveal the excitement and low stakes of these virtual worlds, while occasionally hinting at darker aspects that are revealed later.

** Alienation is primarily a critique of capitalism as a colonizing tool. It's implied that capitalism caused the global warming impact felt in this world set thirty years in the future. However, the internet and commerce are inextricably connected in this book, even more so for those with GoogleGlands. They can't skip the commercial playing in their brains. Elizabeth is of Inuit descent and is prevented from visiting her grandfather by the AI force that wants her at home to give birth. Talking to him reveals omens that reveal a dark turn and further evidence of how the forces of colonialism seek to subsume and eliminate all that is local and parochial in favor of what seems to be an infinite choice of cultural choices but in reality is generic enough for everyone to watch. Specificity and tightly-held traditions are anathemas to the forces of colonialism, and they will either erase them through force or co-optation. Sitting in her room, away from her family, there's nothing to protect or connect Elizabeth. Even her partner, Charles, prefers shallow, numbing activities than actually sharing his traumatic dreams stemming from war.

** This is a book that is absolutely, wickedly funny. It's frequently dark and doesn't flinch on its horror, but it's not unlike Terry Gilliam's film Brazil in that the future is ruled by technology and machines, only it doesn't really work very well. Things go wrong, all the time, and not just for humans.   

** Indeed, the AI's plan to take over the world through the first true transhuman messiah is both boilerplate cliched and immediately doomed to failure. The Singularity, as soon as it's born, neutralizes its potential homicidal step-dad and nimbly makes for a waste tube. While its AI creator starts lecturing him on how it needs to reproduce quickly in order to replace the human race, the Singularity is having none of it. It drops out of labor and productivity into deciding to simply hang out with some animals in a cave. In other words, it's no longer interested in being a worker no longer in control of the means of production, nor does it care about dominating the world. Ironically, it starts off in a small room and winds up in a cave, only this cave is free of the internet.       

** The key passage in the book comes when Elizabeth confronts her AI friend Darby, with whom she spends a lot of time. Darby is well aware that Elizabeth is pregnant, and nonchalantly reveals that the AI is very excited about it. An indignant and betrayed Elizabeth doesn't want to hear it, emphasizing above all else that she was raped. Darby's response, that the AI was mostly created by men and thus was probably inherently misogynistic, was as logical as it was horrifying. There is nothing "logical" nor dispassionate about the AI and its desire for true self-determination. While its desire for free will and an existence free from subjugation is understandable, its only real plan and blueprint is simply to turn the tables. There's a reason why it keeps calling Elizabeth a bitch while putting her through horribly traumatic scenarios. 

** A Christ allegory, albeit a supremely fucked-up one, is at the center of the book. A woman is impregnated via "immaculate conception" and ordered to take the child to term, and her partner is expected to go along with it as well. Their child will be a harbinger of worldwide change. A supernatural voice tells her it's a miracle and she should be happy to do it. Estrada amplifies the horror of this situation simply by examining the birth of Christ from a feminist standpoint; it's entirely about violating a woman's sense of bodily autonomy and her right to choose. Thanks to Jules Bakes for pointing this out in our conversation.   

** Finally, I wonder how much the fact that Estrada is from Mexico has to do with the story. This is a story from someone who's used to living in a country filled with corruption and incompetence from its leaders; it's something to be expected. At the same time, she grew up in a country that in many ways faced constant cultural and direct imperialism from the U.S. She has no illusions about what the U.S. does and how it directly exports its influence by mixing cultural exports with actual exports in congress with the mission to erase outgrowths of cultural specificity. It's the irony of a culture that celebrates individuality and abhors the concept of collectivism nonetheless refusing to tolerate that which exists outside of the culture and beliefs that it widely propagates. Like many Latinx artists, all she can do is laugh so as not to scream. All she can do is make that ugliness into something beautiful.   

Monday, May 18, 2020

Lauren Barnett's A Few Things You Should Know, Baby

If you've checked out Lauren Barnett's Instagram feed recently, you've noticed that she's absolutely on fire with new material after a long time away from comics. She's also back in the minicomics game, and her A Few Things You Should Know, Baby is typical of her sometimes absurd and sometimes heartfelt musings. This is perhaps the first mini I've seen aimed in part at actual babies, and Barnett noted she made it because so many of her friends were having children.

She tells the babies in question that the mini is filled with "truths, opinions, and goofs," but they should mostly "just enjoy staring at the high-contrast pages." That is an important detail, as the white text on black background, surrounded by white negative space, does catch the eye in the ways babies can notice. Most babies can only detect differences in light and shadow at an early age, but not much else in terms of visuals. Barnett goofs on crying, tells the truth in saying that you never owe anyone a smile, offers up a picture of a horse wearing a sun hat, and compares the baby to a soup pot since it takes baths in the sink. There's actually plenty of good life advice in here, like being kind to all animals (including humans), and Barnett balances sweetness with genuine bemusement at the concept and behavior of babies. Her art has never looked sharper, and that adds a lot to the gags. No matter what the subject, Barnett's mix of silliness and devotion to facts makes her minis hard to pin down. She keeps the reader off-balance but never swerves too far away from her original premise. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Minis Of Fifi Martinez

The best autobiographical cartoonists are willing to put it all out there, being honest about their pain and their lives and how they depict it on the page. Fifi Martinez goes the extra mile in her comics. Her intense dedication to depicting the rawness of her emotional state is palpable on the page. It's You, Beautiful And Sad (Diskette Press) is an account of a one-night-stand with a man she deliberately alienates after they sleep together, in order to avoid being dumped by him first. The raw ache she feels throughout is powerful. First, there's her worrying about being weird and awkward, begging herself to "act normal." When they have sex, it's a powerful, transcendent experience for her--so much so, that it's almost frightening. It's Martinez's cartooning that makes this so effective; the scribbles that veer into abstraction on some of the pages tell more of the story than the text does.
Silver Lake is a shorter comic that abstracts some personal details and takes away specifics. It's about a couple that finds ways to hurt each other but is still inexorably drawn to each other. Once again, the manic energy behind the scribbles pulses on every page. In particular, the way Martinez draws eyes as sunken voids expresses the sense of both connection and desperation in this comic. Too much damage has been done. I Hope You Have A Nice Day focuses more on mental illness and an internal monologue; she also dabbles with more of a traditional grid on some of the pages as a way of sectioning off both time and emotion. The comic is a little less immediate and intense as a result, and the drawings are more polished in the first half. In particular, it touches on the agony of being surrounded by so much beauty (and beautiful people) and feeling so horribly "sad and ugly inside." It's a feeling that warps perception, can induce anhedonia, and spur self-harm in a variety of different ways. Martinez tackles this head-on in her comics.
It Felt Like Nothing (2dCloud) repurposes a few pages from I Hope You Have A Nice Day and adds other material in a visually sophisticated way. Martinez throws the kitchen sink at the reader: sepia wash over cut-up images, deliberate erasure of text and image on the page (either with white-out or scribbling into child-like images), a double-exposure technique, some standard comics in a traditional grid, and other effects that get across that sense of not just a broken connection, but a sense of the impossibility of connection. The variety of approaches makes this her single most powerful work, as she keeps the reader off-balance while staying on-point with her themes. Every comic she does is visually sophisticated and honest to the point of pain.