Thursday, September 12, 2019

Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2019

Here's my usual dive into artists that SPX-goers should definitely check out. As always, I try not to repeat names from previous years and other shows.



1. The Triangle's Finest (Table W67) That would be three excellent cartoonists from the Research Triangle in my state of North Carolina: Andrew Neal (Hillsborough), Adam Meuse (Cary), and Max Huffman (Carrboro). Neal is the former owner of the excellent Chapel Hill Comics and the artist behind the hilarious and strange Meeting Comics. Meuse has been producing funny, strange, and touching minis for years, including the classic Sad Animals and Square. Huffman is a fairly recent grad of the School Of Visual Arts, He's a wild stylist with comics like Plaguers Int'l and Garage Island. This will be one of the best tables at the entire show.

2. Lance Ward (Table J9). I've been a fan of Ward's scorched-earth autobio for years, and I'm pleased to see his work get wider recognition. His new book, Blood and Drugs, is a harrowing and honest look at how an injury forced him to adapt to using a scrawled, almost manic style. He'll be at the Birdcage Bottom Books table, but all of his work is highly recommended.

3. ShortBox (Table W8).  The cutting-edge publishing concern of Zainab Akhtar will have a major presence at SPX. Like any smart publisher, she's way ahead of the curve with regard to up-and-coming talents; she was one of the first to become aware of Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, for example. This table will be jam-packed with great comics you may not have seen before. Zainab herself will not be there, but the books will be!

4. Diskette Press (Table I14). Carta Monir & Co. have quickly become a force to be reckoned with on the publishing scene. Come check out the work of Ignatz Award nominees Emma Jayne and Mar Julia in particular, but there's a wide variety of material to choose from.

5. Eleri Harris (Table L9). This Australian and graduate of the Center For Cartoon Studies is also a Nib editor and find historical/editorial cartoonist in her own right. Her historical comics are consistently well-sourced, funny, and fascinating.

6. Rachel Masilamani (Table A6a). I've been following her career since her Xeric Grant days, and her personal, poetic, and sometimes enigmatic work is better than ever. I'm excited that she has a chance to show off her work to a new audience.

7. Kate Lacour (Table H8-9). Her brand-new book Vivisectionary is out from Fantagraphics, and this is an engaging, witty, and visceral bit of body horror. Lacour's dry sense of humor is ever-present in this collection of drawings that were previously published in minicomics form, but the production values on this book make it a bizarre, beautiful art object.

8. Mary Shyne (Table I13a). This recent CCS grad is coming armed with her new book, Get Over It. Shyne's work is a perfect combination of top-notch production design and color, a playful line, and dialogue that mixes fantasy and verisimilitude. This will be one of the best books of the show.

9. Rikke Villadsen (W68-69). One of many Danes attending the show, Villaden's The Sea was a surreal, erotic, and terrifying mix of tropes and genres. Her pencil work, in particular, is dense and visceral. She'll also be at the Fantagraphics table.

10. Breena Nuñez (E11b). Her personal and political comics are playful, expressive, and powerful. Her comics about being Afro-Guatemalan often delve into family stories, but she's just as adept in using dynamic and innovative techniques in talking about injustice.

11. Glom Press (W6). Marc Pearson will be repping this excellent Australian Risograph publisher in their first SPX appearance. Bailey Sharp's My Big Life and Aaron Billings' Mystical Boy Scout #4 are particularly great.

12. Keren Katz (C13b). Katz is one of the most brilliant cartoonists working today. I haven't taken the deep dive into her work that I've wanted (I've only reviewed one book out of her extremely prolific output), but the way she works dance, abstraction, and comics-as-poetry into her narratives is relentlessly fascinating and confounding. There aren't many artists with a more sophisticated color palette, either. Her new book, The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, will be out from Secret Acres.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Small Press Comics Critics Announce Formation Of Nonprofit Publishing House Fieldmouse Press

Grass Valley, CA: Today, veteran comics critics Daniel Elkin, Alex Hoffman, Rob Clough, and Ryan Carey announced the formation of a new, non-profit publishing company, Fieldmouse Press, establishing a visionary, ambitious, and dedicated multi-venue publishing initiative within the burgeoning small press comics community. The company’s first publishing project, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), will publish comics criticism, essays, interviews, and new comics as a part of a larger effort to serve the public good. SOLRAD will launch at the beginning of January 2020.

Fieldmouse Press will be operated by President Daniel Elkin, long-time publisher and editor at Your Chicken Enemy, with Alex Hoffman, publisher of Sequential State serving as Secretary/Treasurer. Rob Clough of High-Low Comics and Ryan Carey of Four Color Apocalypse round out the company's initial board of directors. The aim of Fieldmouse Press is to emphasize its four pillars of "comics, critique, community, and collaboration" by presenting challenging, unique, and diverse material to as wide an audience as possible.

Of the press’ founding, Secretary/Treasurer Alex Hoffman said, “Our goal is to provide a space for readers, artists, and the general public to explore the comic arts in the many forms they come in. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our goal is to serve this community that we love and do something we think hasn’t been possible before now. And as a nonprofit organization, we can take chances that other publishers haven’t.”

Fieldmouse's first major publishing project will be a new website, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), which will be a comics journalism hub featuring all-new and original content ranging from comics criticism, original comics, essays, interviews, and the promotion of small-press events and releases. Further publishing projects will be announced in due course, and will likewise share in the company's expansive, inclusive, and innovative vision.

Interested parties are encouraged to contact any of Fieldmouse's founders with questions, comments, and any business-related correspondence at:

Daniel Elkin: elkin@fieldmouse.press
Rob Clough: clough@fieldmouse.press
Alex Hoffman: hoffman@fieldmouse.press
Ryan Carey: carey@fieldmouse.press

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Minis: Evan Salazar's Rodeo #1

It's always a pleasure to get a mini in the mail from an artist with whom I'm not familiar, only for it to turn out to be excellent. Such is the case with Evan Salazar and his one-man anthology, Rodeo. The art style is somewhere between Dan Clowes' Eightball and Bill Amend's Fox Trot. That is, the settings are mostly naturalistic and conventional, but the figures are stylized and cartoony. Each story deals with something crucial that is lost or missing, and no one ends up satisfied.

The first story, "Medium Brew", is about a young woman named Abigail who considers a bizarre episode from her childhood when her mother left and a strange man with a bandage wrapped around his head appeared the next day as a houseguest. None of this was ever explained to her, other than that he was a "friend who I am doing a favor for" and her mother went on a last-minute trip. The only real information Abigail got about this period was her mom telling her, when she came back a month or so later when the guest left, was that "I know that I was gone a long time, but it was only so I wouldn't be gone forever." When the guest was there, Abigail played kid detective, looking for clues and connections as part of a larger conspiracy as she even collected his daily coffee grounds? Years later, she found a photo of the guest as a younger man on a beach, with no further explanation, stuck in a textbook in the house.

This story is fascinating because of its holes and gaps and the ways in which children fill in those gaps with elaborate narratives. It's their way of patching over trauma, until that trauma bubbles over in other, unexpected ways. When Abigal found that photo as a young adult, their first urge was to tear it up out of a surprising burst of anger. The question that is never broached is: who was the man? Why did her mom leave? Was he her dad's ex-lover, or her mom's? Was he a child from a previous marriage? Salazar vividly evokes that kind of family mystery that is never quite resolved but always leaves one wondering anxiously. If her mom left once, what was to stop her from doing it again? That anxiety takes a toll.

"Night Shift" is about a writer who dropped out of school to focus on his art, but works as a janitor to pay the bills. In two pages of nine-panel grids, Salazar juxtaposes that dream of being a writer with unpleasant, physical work. Hilariously, the writer/janitor composes a story as they work, self-editing to change phrases like "the odor of high-fructose corn syrup" to "the stench of high-fructose corn syrup." It's a complete statement unto itself as a work of the art he loves but also a desperate commentary on his unhappiness with his job. "Maggie" is about a cat who burns down her house after being frustrated by living inside, but comes to regret it when faced with the real world.

Each one of these stories, including the funny-creature Socratic dialogue "Critters" strip on the back, deals with an existential crisis of some kind. For Abigail, it's a lifetime of dealing not just with abandonment, but with an aspect of her life that made no sense. For the janitor, it was trying to live up to his identity of a writer in the face of literal garbage. For the cat, it was realizing that freedom wasn't exactly what she hoped it to be. They're all searching, probing, cleaning, and there are no clear answers. This is a small, unassuming comic that asks a lot of big questions.

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.