Monday, November 28, 2022

Two from Keiler Roberts: The Joy of Quitting and Creepy

Keiler Roberts just had a couple of new books published, but in a sense, neither of them has any new writing from her. Having moved from the now-defunct Koyama Press to Drawn And Quarterly with her typically excellent My Begging Chart, she's just released two books with her new publisher. Sort of.

Creepy was co-written with her brother, Lee Sensenbrenner, and it feels less like a book than a long, brother-sister in-joke. It's a lecture about staring at phones and digital devices disguised as a sort of parable that works because of Roberts' deadpan style of art backing up the ridiculous premise. It follows a creepy lady who only eats the ears of children, and it turns out the best way to get them is to sneak up on them while they're staring at phones or tablets or TV. The whole thing is just...odd, especially as a release from D&Q. It feels like it should be a cheaply-produced minicomic. It's a lighthearted goof of a comic. 

The Joy Of Quitting is not a new comic; instead, it's a greatest-hits collection from all of Roberts' self-published and Koyama-published books. Cramming the sensibilities of five different books into a 260-page book means that a lot of the relaxed pacing of her previous books is lost. While it does retain much of her best material, the book suffers from the more relaxed, quotidian quality of the original books. Luckily, Roberts' material tends to be gag-oriented and doesn't rely on long narrative through-lines. Some of the strips about having MS are pushed a bit more front-and-center than in the original books, where those stories were surrounded by more trivial strips that added a tonal context to her other work. While this is a solid introduction to Roberts' work, readers are better off simply finding copies of her other comics. 

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Minis: Jenny Zervakis' Love and other Crack-ups, Part 1

There is always a sense of immediacy with Jenny Zervakis' comics and zines. Her latest, Love and other Crack-ups, is about her romantic relationships from college. It's based on some old letters she found in her attic, reminding her of the details of these relationships. The zine is a mix of text and comics, printing some of the letters verbatim, along with some additional comments. It's a window into the mind of a young woman in college and is interesting for that reason, but as always, it's her comics about her memories that are of greatest interest. 

While Zervakis is rarely afraid to share her thoughts and feelings in her comics, it's usually a bit more oblique and less than direct than it is in this comic. What comes through most in the comics is her biting wit and unvarnished sincerity. This is a look at a young person's first real encounters with love, and as such it's embarrassing, tender, and feels intensely dramatic. Zervakis keeps her drawings loose and scribbly, which works out well with regard to her storytelling. Her self-caricature as a college-age teen is expressive, and her short hair allows her a lot of different angles to work from. My favorite of the strips is the one about Aaron, her first true love in college. It's practically a rom-com! She loses her virginity to him but gets a UTI. She goes to a Halloween party dressed as a dinosaur (tail and all) and gets rejected by him. She has to deal with his general ambivalence, breaks it off, and takes no solace when she learns he has his heart broken by someone else. It's a classic Zervakis story as well: funny, vulnerable, a little awkward, and expertly told with linework that emphasizes gesture above all else. 

Zervakis shows off her drawing chops with drawings from a Scotland trip with the third boyfriend mentioned here, a long-term one with a guy named Jack. This also has rom-com vibes, with Jack's best friend asking her out prior to them getting together. Zervakis only sees him as a friend, which causes drama between them. In retrospect, she saw the cracks forming between them, since he had no interest in hanging out with her friends or family, but there's a change in the storytelling that reflects a more serious and settled relationship. Zervakis really gets at the heart of relationship dynamics in an interesting way. 

The text from the letters is interesting on its own, although toward the end, the balance she established earlier in the zine starts to skew heavily toward text over comics. Zervakis also ends the issue rather abruptly, but there is a promise of another issue in the future. This was an interesting experiment to see her focus on such a specific theme, as opposed to the looser and more poetic nature of her Strange Growths comics. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Summer Pierre's Carrington's World

This slender mini by Summer Pierre, Carrington's World, was nominated for an Ignatz Award in 2022. Pierre's clear-line style that allows just a bit of sketchiness is simply pure pleasure for me to read, especially when her comics are published in color as they are here. While Pierre is known for her pleasantly insightful memoir work, the comics I like best from her are what I call "autobiographical biographies." Thoroughly researched, and often using primary resources, these stories are not only insightful in their analysis of the subject and highly informational, they also offer up a glimpse into qualities that Pierre treasures most. By revealing what she admires to the reader, she often gives a clearer picture of herself than with conventional memoir comics. 

In this case, the subject is Dora Carrington, an artist in the famed Bloomsbury Circle in England that included Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and others. Initially thought of just as the companion (?) of writer Lytton Strachey, she was also a painter and illustrator whose work was discouraged by a prominent critic. Pierre carefully untangles the sexism endemic to the era from the genuinely quirky (and likely neurodivergent) behavior of both Carrington and Strachey. Pierre's charming cartooning got me invested in caring about the life of this artist I knew nothing about before I read this comic, and her imagined encounters between these people is part of that charm. Pierre's lettering is also highly attractive, and alternating white lettering on a black background for the captions with black lettering on colored backgrounds in the panels and word balloons added weight to her authorial voice while strongly differentiating it from what she imagined these people were saying. 

Above all else, it is Pierre's delight in the ilustrated letters of Carrington that is the highlight of this story. She asserts that Carrington's caricatures and drawings that went along with her writing revealed a budding cartoonist. She imagines Carrington thriving in putting out quirky, funny minicomics that she might have enjoyed--and then inserts a micro-mini comic into the comic itself! I could read an entire volume of Pierre writing about other artists. The only thing I lamented in this comic was that Pierre needed a proofreader, as there were multiple spelling errors. Otherwise, Pierre followed her storytelling whims to some delightful places. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Julia Gootzeit's Parent Thing

Julia Gootzeit is yet another North Carolina artist (and Durham in particular!) who demonstrates how the scene here is thriving and vibrant. Gootzeit dabbles in any number of genres, from science-fiction to memoir, and Parent Thing is a diary comic about her first two years of parenthood. I've read a number of comics about birth and the early years of motherhood (it's been a burgeoning genre in the past few years), but Gootzeit's hilarious and raw observations are some of my favorite. 

Gootzeit resists the urge to turn the whole experience into a smooth narrative. Indeed, she almost takes the opposite approach in this series of (mostly) four-panel diary strips. The theme in this comic is an almost constant state of bewilderment mixed with awe and sheer panic. Gootzeit's scratchy, scribbly style is an excellent match for this kind of storytelling, especially with the splashes of color that appear in many strips. Like everything else here, the color isn't naturalistic; instead, it helps relate the emotional narrative of these stories. Gootzeit uses a lot of reds and oranges for heightened emotions and anxiety, and cooler blues for calmer moments. 

There is a running theme of running out of time and time going too fast, but also moments of almost stultifying stillness. There's also a sense of realization that in the early days, a baby is pretty much just a blob, like in one hilarious nine-panel strip where Julia simply exclaims "Hi baby!" to her uncomprehending infant over and over. The way she draws the baby's eyes going all over the place is an especially funny detail. 

That shifts as the baby grows, and then there's a more naturalistically-drawn strip that's captioned "Gotta draw the baby quick...before he grows up!" At the same time, Gootzeit also falls into that baby rhythm where all the days look roughly the same: "Run. Draw comics. Read comics. Stare at baby." Some of the drawings are beautiful, like an ocean scene where Gootzeit draws the water as both ominous and majestic in expressing her admiration in one panel, then presenting the look of sheer terror on her kid's face and noting "my baby isn't such a big fan yet."

There's a sense of not doing enough, then reeling that in and managing to enjoy moments. There's one great color strip that features Gootzeit, her partner, and the baby that turns into colorful whorls that's captioned "small moments twisting into a haze." The book ends with the beginning of the toddler years, also known as the era of permanent exhaustion. There's less time to think as she is simply chasing her very active kid around, and that's an excellent place to leave this funny, frantic, and tender collection of experiences and foggy memories on. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Minis: Jonathan Baylis And Friends Return For So Buttons #12

Jonathan Baylis continues his series of mostly affable and funny autobiographical stories with an all-star cast of cartoonists as his collaborators in So Buttons. Working in the tradition of Harvey Pekar, Baylis has refined his storytelling and matched his ideas to his illustrators with an intuitive editorial sense that rarely goes astray. Anyone who's met him in person knows that his upbeat and ebullient personality perfectly matches the mensch he writes about on the page. He's less concerned about narrative than he is in precisely nailing an anecdote, often to set up a particular punchline. 

Every new issue features upgraded production values; the cover stock and the paper for it are both top-notch. Baylis has been at this awhile now, and he continues to add new features even as his stories begin to shift from childhood and young adulthood to more stories about his wife and son. In one story, drawn by Lance Ward, Baylis ponders his own place in the comics world. This is a perilous question that can usually only end badly, but this story is less about worry about one's accolades and more about connecting with people in the community. As a side note, this thirst for community was a big theme at SPX this year, as the artists were giddy to be back out with their peers and fans. The story is set at an earlier SPX, where Baylis sat with the late Tom Spurgeon (one of the great writers about comics) and Carol Tyler (one of the greatest cartoonists of all time) and made them laugh. This anecdote led into Baylis learning that Tyler had many pages of unpublished art; he not only printed one in this issue, but he made prints of this to sell in order to help fund her late husband Justin Green's memorial. 

Another fun thing was seeing a comic from his young son, Lucas. While every parent obviously loves seeing their children's art, the deep love that Baylis has for the medium has clearly been communicated and shared with his son--another example of this theme of community that marks this issue. 

Like Pekar, Baylis has turned himself into a cartoon character, with his cap and facial hair being iconic elements he directs his artists to use. He plays on this in a strip about his facial hair, noting that his wife liked it on their first date, so he's kept it that way. That look is a bit like the actor Ethan Hawke, who he happens to work with later in life. Here, Baylis lets slip something that otherwise has nothing to do with the rest of the story (he was bullied in childhood), but the strip ends with a punchline about he and Hawke both wearing the same sneakers. 

Baylis has worked in television and also the Make-A-Wish foundation, and his wife is a stand-up comedian who had a show on NPR for a long time. As a result, he's met a lot of famous people, and they often provide fodder for his stories. One such story involved meeting punk legend Ian MacKaye in a green room, and he told him about being on Saturday Night Live as part of a mosh pit for the band Fear. Drawn by J.T. Yost, it's both naturalistic and slightly on the grotesque side, befitting the subject matter. Baylis pokes fun at himself for dropping names in a story drawn by frequent collaborator Noah Van Sciver, but it's genuinely interesting to see Baylis draw lines between meeting Chris Claremont, Jay Lynch, and the director Mike Dougherty. Creative circles can be pretty tight. 

To be sure, Baylis has written about personal things before, especially with regard to his relatives. This issue feels a little different, though. In one story, he goes into greater detail about being bullied and talks about learning how to spar in a boxing gym. With Josh Pettinger giving the story just enough cartoony distance to soften the subject matter, Baylis talks about how literally learning how to take a punch in a boxing ring. In a series of increasingly-visceral panels where Baylis' face swells up with each blow received, he unleashes a torrent of grief: disease, death, job loss, and family crises over a relatively short span of time. A more naturalsitic approach would have been unbearable, but Pettinger nails this litany of blows landed, just as Baylis lays it out plainly. There's not a happy ending per se, but he ties it back into boxing by learning how to take a shot and keep moving. 

On a lighter night, strips about his son reading his comics and being absolutely delighted to see the word "shit," much to Baylis' consternation, is fun at his own expense, but he also clearly enjoys this dynamic. A strip where he helps a pregnant woman get to a hospital is given some soulful emotion when he realizes it's the place where his wife gave birth. The montage of images from the husband-wife duo of Kevin Colden and Miss Lasko-Gross is especially effective in portraying the profound gratitude he has for this place and that time. As with many of Baylis' comics, the whole tends to be greater than the sum of its parts, which is a testament to his editing and sequencing of his pieces. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Exploring Rumi Hara's World in The Peanutbutter Sisters

Rumi Hara's new book, The Peanutbutter Sisters, is subtitled, "And Other American Stories." I asked her about this in the "Comics and Fabulism" panel at SPX, and she said that she's someone who considers herself to be both Japanese and American, as she was raised in both places. There's a lot here about what it means to be American, even as Hara navigates these environments as inherently fraught with danger. 

Hara's comics here fit squarely in the fabulist camp because there's an inherent naturalism to them that is repeatedly subverted in the course of each story. Her drawing style, while expressive, maintains a steady sense of naturalism until it takes on a touch of the grotesque in order to serve the narrative. The tone of her stories is uniquely hers, but there's a strong kinship with the work of Gilbert Hernandez in Hara's comics. Beto is more interested in getting cartoony in a more exaggerated way than Hara most of the time, but Hara can go there too. Stories like "Tree Love" (containing a hilarious visual joke about a surprise erection) and "Bubblegum Fighters" start with exquisitely-rendered and even beautiful figures and then add something weird on top. The latter story is especially reminiscent of Hernandez in terms of the wild flagellations of the two girls locked in bubblegum battle. These stories are especially palate cleansers for the larger stories; small aperitifs meant to evince a chuckle. 

"Verti-Go-Go" and "Living Things" flesh out their protagonists more thoroughly, but both are also more limited in scope than the two most significant stories in the collection. "Verti-Go-Go" is a delight, however, as Hara's story follows a man who is mentally transferred to a life of pure bacchanalian decadence at the sight of a bare belly button. Hara's detail in these over-the-top orgies that feature him as the center of attention is hilarious but also touching; he's not only experiencing pleasure but total validation. "Living Things" is Hara going to the limits of weirdness in this sci-fi road race story that centers on a reporter who's covering it live and on the road. It feels more like something out of Digimon than the rest of her work, and the attempts at adding a serious backstory are overshadowed by the details of the race and its alien participants. 

However, "Walking With Tammy Tabata" is a tour-de-force of storytelling as teens Tammy and Steven spend an afternoon walking through the city, coming up with the settings and characters for a traditional Japanese noh play. Steven is swept along by Tammy's impulsive, inquisitive, and fearless nature, especially as she is the kind of person who not only knows how to make an adventure out of everything, she's also the sort who has a way of making everyone she encounters feel special. Tammy and Steven create magic out of the overlooked, junky, and decaying parts of the city as they forge their own friendship. Hara's draftsmanship here is superb, conveying the fine details of the city. 

The book's titular story is the main event, however, recapitulating all of Hara's themes. It's set in the future in an America beset by disaster and decay. The titular sisters are triplets who are adept at riding the winds, as they scavenge junkyards to sell things on eBay. The mix of a fallen society still entirely gripped by capitalism and a supply-and-demand collector's mindset rings so true, as does their essential Southernness. The girls are named Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, living on an island called New Mississippi. There's an unstated logic in their story that seems ironclad yet deliberately mysterious to the reader, who is forced to take them on their own terms. That's true in the story itself, where the wary girls know how to deal with "villains" and those who would exploit them. They owe allegiance to nothing except themselves, their island, and the memory of their dead father. Indeed, the moment in time Hara captures here is one where their father has recently died; his lessons are still fresh, but their duty to him is gone. They're free to ride the winds and get a ride back on a whale whenever they like. 

The sisters quarrel but are ultimately always a united front, and their story draws in as many good-hearted people as it does those who would exploit them. They are citizens and aliens all at once, belonging only to each other. It's as though they came flying out of Hara's pencil, given the way their lives fill the page with utter conviction. For Hara, these fabulist stories have a life that feels every bit as real as a naturalistic character, and she acts as an observer, spy, and documentarian of these more interesting worlds for the lucky audience. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, 2021-22, The Index

Well, it took an absurdly long time to finish, but I'm declaring my 31 Days of CCS feature, dedicated to comics from students and graduates from the Center for Cartoon Studies, to finally be over. This is partly because with SPX coming up, I expect to get a whole bunch more soon. The list got long in part because I was slow, but also because new books kept coming out. Here's the entire list, with links to each individual review provided.

1. Denis St. John

2. Cuyler Keating

3. Masha Zhdanova

4. Mercedes Campos Lopez

5. Leda Zawacki

6. Sofia Lesage

7. Madi Baker

8. Meg Selkey

9. Maya Escobar

10. Faith Cox

11. Rebecca Schuchat

12. Mac Maclean

13. Daryl Seitchik

15. Erika Bloomdahl

16. Reilly Hadden

17. Violet Kitchen

18. Leeah Swift

19. Emil O Melia

20. Ross Wood Studlar

21. Kit Anderson

22. Annabel Driussi

23. Al Varela

24. Ashley Jablonski

25. Kori Michele Handwerker

26. King Ray

27. Robyn Smith

28. Jarad Greene

29. Kat Leonardo

30. Rachel Bivens

31. Josh Rosen

32. Less Than Secret anthology

33. Luke Kruger-Howard

34. Ben Wright-Heuman

35. Michael Sweater

36. Rust Belt Review Vol 1

37. Steve Theuson

38. Ian Richardson

39. Luke Healy

40. Aaron Cockle

41. Good Boy! Magazine