Friday, October 24, 2014

Art School Familiar: Wendy

Walter Scott's Wendy (Koyama Press) is a book that sneaks up on you. The crude line drawings and idiosyncratic page design is off-putting at first, as is the seemingly shallow nature of its characters. As one gets deeper into the life of art school grad Wendy, the visual language that Scott employs becomes remarkably versatile and expressive. Scott can get away with Peter Bagge-level exaggeration because of the simplicity of his line, so when Wendy's face turns into a circle with two huge black circles for eyes and a huge black oval for a mouth, the emotion she's feeling becomes visceral and hilarious to observe as a reader.

In many respects, this book is a modern update on Dan Clowes' classic short story Art School Confidential. Unlike Clowes, Scott isn't afraid to get extremely personal about his own life, as he invests various aspects of his life into different characters. To be sure, Scott mocks art world bullshit and pretension but treats what's at stake in terms of life and career with deadly seriousness. There's also the volatile mixture of art school pretension and Wendy's own young person-stupidity and sex drive that leads to a host of hilariously questionable decisions.

The story follows Wendy through the post-graduation blues as she struggles to build a career while looking for love. There are friends who stab her in the back and seeming enemies who turn out to be good people. Wendy makes horrible choices with regard to men, like dating a sleazy guy in a band who cheats on her with her best friend at first opportunity. Later, she gets an art sabbatical opportunity but has to deal with a jealous former mentor making her life miserable. There is backstabbing, backbiting, petty revenge, scheming and drinking way too much for all the characters involved, but Wendy herself is on a genuine quest to try and figure out just what she wants to accomplish in life.

What separates the book from yet another screed against the uselessness of art school is the genuine depth of character Scott gives to each member of the cast. Even seemingly shallow characters like Wendy's gay friend Screamo (whose visage is that of the killer from the movie Scream), a party animal and sex maniac, have a certain essential sadness that informs the entirety of their behavior. Wendy is treated sympathetically but never let off the hook for her own stupid or selfish behavior, and she certainly pays for her mistakes. What I loved about the book is the way she manages to tap into her actual talent and empathy for others, even when faced with distractions (many of the them self-created). The friendship between Wendy and Winona, an artist of First Nations descent who also has an internship at the same sabbatical camp, zeroes in on this relationship. The otherness that Winona is made to feel by supposedly enlightened artists is sickening, but her eventual betrayal by Wendy was a far deeper cut. Seeing them reconcile (sort of) was one of the more heartening moments of the book, displaying Wendy's burgeoning sense of empathy and responsibility and Winona's capacity to forgive.

Finally, I should mention that this book is hilarious from beginning to end. Scott serves up some art-world groaners that still land hard, like one artist telling Wendy that her work wasn't "quilts, they're textile hypersigils!" The pettiness and corruption displayed by artists, critics and others in this world is played for laughs as much as Wendy's own foibles are made the butt of Scott's jokes. This book is raw, honest and far more visually sophisticated than one would think at first glance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Search: More Comics By Michael DeForge

Michael DeForge is one of the most prolific cartoonists in the world, and he is constantly changing and refining his approach to comics. In his collection of stories from his series Lose, A Body Beneath, DeForge says two interesting things. First, he thinks of each issue as a discrete entity, not meant to be read as part of a collection. In this, I agree with him entirely. The charge of reading individual issues of Lose is lost in this collection, as work meant to be read at a full stop and compared only to the other stories in each issue finds itself bleeding into other issues. Different visual approaches consistent within a single issue look jarring when collected together. I understand the purpose of this collection, as individual issues go out of print and demand for DeForge's work increases, but it's really not the best way to approach his comics.

The second interesting thing he says, by way of brief autobiographical introduction and brutal take-down of his own work, is that he tried to kill himself in 2009. Following that event, he drew Lose #1 and hasn't stopped working. I'm not going to engage in dime store psychology (as is often my wont) for something as serious and personal an admission as this, but I will note that I've always sensed a restless, almost frustrated quality in his work. What's become clear after reading a couple of more years of comics since my initial profile of him is that he's trying to translate some clearly idealized concept onto the page and falling short in his own eyes each time. While he's especially harsh on his drawing in his frequent self-reviews, he also takes shots at his writing and general sense of humor. While most artists tend to be frustrated simply because they lack the technical skill to tell the kind of stories they want, that is most certainly not the case with DeForge. In Lose #1, for example (not reprinted in A Body Beneath; DeForge claims that it's because it's "a very bad comic book"), his stand-in character goes to a bar in hell filled with dozens of cartoon characters, all of which DeForge draws with incredible skill. For DeForge now, this would be an example of what he would call "lousy, try-hard drawing".

Like Ivan Brunetti and Chris Ware in particular, DeForge has chosen to pare down his line and his figures. Unlike those two, DeForge can't help but put these simplified figures into worlds that are filled with refuse, weird fluids and other unpleasant effluvia. Also like these two artists, DeForge is paring down his line in service of a greater thematic mission. In Ware's case, his primary concerns as a creator are memory (especially with regard to its unreliability, played out in narrative terms) and empathy (especially with regard to trying to empathize with those who seem radically different and even repugnant to us). For Brunetti, it's about trying to fight the pull of nihilism and solipsism by making connections to the life narratives of others, all while trying to expunge and make use of one's own bile. For DeForge, he seems fascinated by families and transformations. In so many of his comics, DeForge focuses in on a familial relationship: brother-brother, father-sons, aunt-niece, etc. Some of these families are surrogates, but he's almost always more interested in looking at the dynamics of these relationships rather than zeroing in on particular individuals. In this regard, he reminds me most of another restless cartoonist, Dash Shaw.

In each of these stories, DeForge adds a layer of genre fusion to create a fictive and often visually unsettling transformation that becomes part of his narrative's reality. That fictive element aids in bending reality such that his interest in transformation is a seamless part of the narrative, but it's also there because DeForge seems genuinely curious about pushing the borders of discredited or little-explored genres. Horror and pornography are two good examples of this. Horror is especially explored in terms of bodily transformations/mutations, the formation of new and inexplicable forms of life and his trademark "melting/dripping line" that pervades so much of his work. DeForge has actually stepped back from relying on that particular visual as a narrative shortcut as part of the process of paring down his line. I don't know if the fact that this style has been appropriated by so many other young cartoonists has had anything to do with his decision, but anyone who spends time on Tumblr's art pages can see his pervasive influence.

DeForge's exploration of BD/SM imagery and lifestyle mixed with alien and conspiracy stories is another instance of his use of comics fusion. His Kid Mafia series is another pertinent example, mixing gangster stories with slice-of-life coming-of-age tropes and characters. DeForge isn't afraid to abandon experiments that he feels aren't working, like his Open Country series. That one was about a couple experimenting with a form of mental projection that balanced psychic phenomena, interpersonal relationships and aesthetics. The idea was interesting, but I would guess that DeForge might have dropped it because the concept seemed more fleshed out than the actual characters. This gets at the essence of DeForge's comics: no matter how strange the concept or the aesthetic, his best comics remain focused on characters and relationships over plots and concepts. Let's briefly explore a number of recent minicomics by DeForge, some collections of older work, his first major graphic novel in Ant Colony, and finally what I consider to be his real comics laboratory: individual issues of Lose.

Mini-Comics

I Surgically Altered My Body To Become An Airplane. This tiny mini (3.25 x 3.25") is almost a take- off on his familiar theme of bodily transformation and sex. The main character is a woman who does precisely what is suggested in the title, leading to an adorably stripped-down drawing of an airplane with dot eyes and a tiny smile soaring around the page. DeForge explores family dynamics here and lampoons them, as the rich girl who became an airplane is berated by her family for her choice. When she sees a boy from school who's altered his body to become a car, it leads to the funniest sex scene I've ever seen, like two Fisher Price toys putting tab "a" into slot "b". This is a whimsical comic to be sure, but it's also an experiment in paring down his line to the most basic of levels and still finding ways to draw a reaction.

The Boy In Question, Leather Space Man and World Of The Leather Space Man #7. DeForge's mostly silent Leather Space Man character has been a flexible vehicle for him to write about celebrity, broken friendships, power relationships, BD/SM issues and sex as a transformative act. WOTLSM sees DeForge working in an 8-bit visual style, giving himself a particular constraint as he finds yet another way to simplify his style. This comic is all about a kid's first concert experience (seeing the LSM), only to have it go horribly awry when the LSM is shot on stage. A frequent motif of DeForge's in his narratives is an immediate and ridiculous catastrophization of events, where one traumatic event leads a character to completely adopt a new life and leave the old one behind. This is done in as deadpan a matter possible, and here it serves to satirize certain musical and cultural scenes that tend to act as a default personality for young people.

DeForge's catastrophe motif is also in play in The Boy In Question, wherein a couple of soldiers/cops find the body of the LSM and are told to stay put. Where precisely they are is unclear (it seems to be an alien planet or moon), but it quickly becomes clear that they've been abandoned, leading them to essentially create their own civilization while naively radioing in occasional ETA's regarding backup. The LSM becomes their sort of societal token, laid in a closed series of slabs with only a peephole providing access. This comic was an early attempt at providing a greatly simplified variety of character designs, but DeForge couldn't resist doing insanely trippy and intense backgrounds. It's an interesting contrast, but it doesn't add much to the actual narrative or themes of the book. The LSM is really just a McGuffin, the object that becomes an unquestioned totem of this new society throughout many centuries. It's an amusing satire of how certain ideas can become so reified in a society that no one thinks to question them.

The LSM mini is a sketchbook that reveals some future character designs for comics like Elizabeth of Canada, as well as his fascination with blurring the lines between organic and cybernetic. His comics at times remind me of the films of another Canadian, David Cronenberg. Many of his films have involved frequently monstrous bodily transformations (The Fly), the ways in which cybernetic ports are made to look like organic orifices (especially of a sexual nature, like in Existenz), a raw and frank attitude toward sex, and the ways all of these things can provide rapid alterations in our lives and culture (like in Videodrome). There's also plenty of dripping ooze to be found (The Brood), not unlike DeForge's melting lines, as well as meditations on the nature of creativity (Naked Lunch). DeForge places a great emphasis on humor and less on shock value, especially as he's matured as a creator, though he did once joke in an interview that his art may have been influenced by seeing a Cronenberg film when he was too young.

Sincerely, Abbey Loafer. Originally appearing in Offerings magazine, this is DeForge's take on a warped, Cathy-style strip with a female protagonist. The strip allows DeForge to indulge his love of creating weird title fonts for every strip, something that I've gathered is one of the few truly pure bits of mark-making that always give him pleasure. Part of that joy is clearly the use of a font that's entirely incongruous for its subject matter, something that's at work a bit here. Of course, Abbey Loafer quickly goes off the rails in its satire of gender conformity humor (ACK!) by way of a side-scrolling exploration of environment. Abbey has to deal with her sentient hairdo, her head leaving her body because "I just can't deal with your drama anymore!", make-up dealing her skin deformities and her eventual "makeover" into a beast that's shot with an arrow after a long ramble through a landscape.

When reading DeForge, it's important to keep in mind that above all else, he is a humorist. He's certainly examining any number of themes and ideas and has a particular visual style he's trying to hone, but it's all done through various screens of attempting to make himself or his audience laugh. Certainly, that laugh if often achieved by way of a horrific image; the scene at the end of his story "It's Chip" where Chip is covered with thousands of tiny maggots but is utterly happy is his Ed The Happy Clown moment as a cartoonist. (That is, the scene early in Ed when he breaks his leg walking down the street.) It's a shot across the bow to his audience, as it were, and though DeForge has started to distance himself from that kind of material, it's still an incredibly important part of his development.

Elizabeth Of Canada #1-2. These are the first two entries for DeForge's Oily Comics series. It's been over a year and a half since the second issue, so DeForge may well have chosen to abandon it. These comics are all about family dynamics and DeForge's demented version of Canadian history. The premise involves the titular character and her family trying to get by in a settlement town. DeForge portrays her father as a drunken layabout, but the industrious Elizabeth takes up a trade as an assistant butcher. There's all sorts of things hinted at in the combined twenty pages, as Elizabeth is an independent spirit who has clearly caught the eye of both the butcher and his assistant. Beyond that, the story is still in a raw stage, other than depicting Elizabeth's barely-concealed contempt for her family and in general a dysfunctional family dynamic. The most interesting thing about this series is the drawing, as one can see DeForge starting to strip down his line more and more while experimenting with odd shapes for his characters. The way he draws Elizabeth's hair as a hat-like object sitting on her head (a common motif for him now) is an interesting way of capturing something detailed with as few lines as possible; it also gives his characters a static quality.

Structures 24-34. Published by Uncivilized Books, this mini is part of a series where each artist is asked to draw eleven structures of some kind. Ever the wise-ass, each of his curving, organic structures is a National something: "National Chair", "National Burp", "National Ladder", "National Living Room", etc. DeForge goes wild with lots of spotting blacks, hatching, psychedelic & curvy lines and other elaborate, decorative pyrotechnics surrounding the most mundane of concepts. I like the idea of making many private and personal concepts (like a burp or one's living room) into a national monument, filled with excess and impracticality. This comic also clearly gave DeForge a chance to go crazy on the drawing end again, using a much thicker line and the kind of "show-off" drawing he's since eschewed for his more serious work.

Kid Mafia 1-3. Speaking of families, the high concept behind this series is so obvious that it's a head-slapper: teenage kids make up a traditionally structured mafia family. It's DeForge fusion at its most literal, as this group of high school kids negotiate slice-of-life high school stuff like unrequited crushes, trying to be cool and going to see shows with mob hits. This is another series that DeForge has apparently abandoned, and that makes perfect sense. While it would have been fun to see the detective introduced put the squeeze on the mob, for each of the mob members to see their interpersonal differences put each other at risk, and for more humor to be mined out of the weird tension he creates, it's also material that sort of writes itself. Neither the high school stuff nor the mafia stuff alone was done in an especially unique manner (though both are executed quite competently); the series depended entirely on the clashing high concept to generate its kick, as DeForge tried to show that the rashness and impulsiveness generated from teenage hormones wasn't all that different from mafia testosterone. I did like the autobio strips on the back cover of #2, featuring one character asking "Michael" (buried in a hole) "What's today's riddle? Answer: you're a piece of shit!" DeForge's self-flagellation in these strips is played for laughs, but it reminds me a lot of Chris Ware's sketchbook material that desperately spells out his own mental health issues. The drawings here are standard early DeForge, only reined in considerably in terms of warping space and figures.

Flu Drawings. This is a series of color drawing experiments from DeForge, accompanied by narrative text that begins in media res with the narrator noting that her father was an apartment manager who kicked out most of its inhabitants after the building was remodeled. Each image corresponds to the text in an occasionally oblique manner. For example, the apartment building is depicted as a series of hills staked upon each other, not unlike one of the "structures' of his other comic noted above. This one gets interesting when the narrator (a boy) talks about hanging out with an older rich girl (depicted as a looping series of color patches, organic/cybernetic jewelry and looping lines depicting something akin to a circulatory or nervous system. DeForge uses some interesting foreshortening techniques here for some of the poses, particularly one where the girl took a shower and "came out to greet me completely naked and sopping wet".

The comic suddenly takes a turn toward an interesting sort of sexual play that was not directly sexual, as the boy acted as a sub to her domme when she had him try on some of her outfits as well as make-up. The mini ends as the boy noted that it didn't make him feel feminine, but rather "a preview of the boy I'd grow up to be". It's a fascinating fragment that plays on a frequent running theme of DeForge's: sexual power relationships, sexual awkwardness and transformations. Here, a hint is much more effective than a longer narrative, and the distorted figures more accurately represent the distortion of reality that these kinds of encounters can create.

Older Work

"Very Casual": Apart from Lose, this is where I'd point newcomers introduced in finding out what DeForge is all about. A mix of his oldest material and some newer stuff, this collection from Koyama is expertly edited for proper story flow. It opens with "All About The Spotting Deer", one of his earliest comics released by Koyama and ends with "Incinerator", originally a stand-alone minicomic. "Spotting Deer" was originally published as a stand-alone comic by Koyama, and it's one that rightly got him a lot of attention early in his career. This story has a lot of layers. It's part faux-documentary, giving the reader a nature channel-style guide to the titular creatures who resemble deer but are "actually a kind of terrestrial slug". At the same time, we're privy to the actual documentarian and the quotidian, sad details of his daily life. The details regarding the deer grow increasingly absurd, especially with regard to those who leave their herds. Essentially excommunicated, they join human society and produce "psychic meat", which takes on suggestions to become any meat desired. So many of DeForge's favorite themes resonate in this comic: the transformation of the familiar into the strange, the behaviors of groups (especially organized groups like families) vs alienated individuals, the unforgiving brutality of the world, funny cultural criticism, the loneliness of being an expert in an unappreciated field, etc. In terms of the drawing, it's in his earlier and more detailed style, but there's a certain spareness in how each panel is composed, with a lot of negative space and very little fussiness in the backgrounds.

"SM" is the classic DeForge body horror story, one that plays on the conventions of horror films with twist endings. Two young women search for and discover a particular snowman in the woods; they're drawn in DeForge's "lizard person" style, a sort of cartoony and distorted frame with few detailed facial features. They cut a slice of what turns out to be "meat" from the snowman, chew on it, and have a psychedelic experience that knocks them for a loop. The ramifications of their act are serious, with DeForge sparing the reader from seeing them killed but doing them no favors because readers are forced to imagine it. "Sweet Tat" mixes body horror and transformation with DeForge's fascination for deconstructing cultural scenes, especially those surrounding bands. It's both deadly serious in how it depicts band and personal politics playing out with young people and hilariously disgusting, as the members of the band aren't even humanoid in shape; they're phallic, oozing monsters.

"Queen" is also about transformation, as a creature takes on more and more elements from the forest in order to appear traditionally female, no matter the pain she causes to creatures loyal to her. This one feels like DeForge riffing on an idea that felt fun and interesting to draw and less a specific statement about beauty, identity or femininity, but those latter aspects can certainly be read into it. "Cody" features a kind of superdeformed character design that looks like it was inspired by video games, but it's a critique and send-up of niche, insular subcultures. In this case, it's avid litterers, and DeForge himself becomes a character in the story about pointless obsessiveness and how it can develop (one might even say metastasize) into a fetish.

The other interesting thing about his early work is how obsessed he was with other comic strips and comic books. "Peter's Muscle" is his attempt at unpacking the psychological implications of Spider-Man; again, it reads like it was a fun thing to draw rather than a profound statement. The same is true of a comic about a sacrifice made to the giant head of a character from Foxtrot, a disturbing drawing of Marge Simpson, and "Riders", which is about a gang of vicious, criminal motorcyclists who offer a sacrifice to a gate in order to transform into the cartoon characters they wear as clothing.

"Incinerator" touches on a number of DeForge's interests, including the dynamics of the strip Peanuts, family dynamics, BD/SM, bodily transformation, and sexual humiliation. It's also one of his funniest, sharpest strips in terms of the timing and rhythm of its dialog, and it maintains its absurd premise by employing an entirely deadpan and serious mien. The collection as a whole is remarkably coherent, held together by short strips and visual callbacks that act as interstitial material as well as a sort of thematic glue.

Root Rot: This is another early release that I wanted to include because it displays DeForge's interest in editing and publishing. Co-edited by Anne Koyama, it reflects their mutual interest in both comics and illustration, as each artist in the anthology is given just two pages to work with. DeForge did the cover but otherwise makes his presence known as an editor. The result is a mix of some clear Koyama favorites like Jesse Jacobs, Jon Vermilyea (the two pages here would go on to be part of his Fata Morgana, also published by Koyama) and Chris Eliopoulos, as well as DeForge favorites like Angie Wang, Hellen Jo and Mickey Zacchilli. My favorite pieces include T. Edward Bak's flattened forest drawing, Jo's crying skater comforted by a girl in a flower, Wang's desperate mother-daughter exchange of secrets, Joseph Lambert's terrifying father-son doppelganger forest chase, and Dan Zettwoch's amazing cutaway drawing/story about excavating a car from a swamp and finding a nest of beavers. Eliopoulos is the one artist that Koyama boosts whose work has never done much for me, falling a bit too close to the cloying qualities of a James Kochalka comic. Otherwise, Root Rot is an interesting opening salvo for both DeForge and Koyama.

Ant Colony

Originally published as a web comic, Ant Colony is the first "graphic novel" length work by DeForge. It plays on a lot of familiar themes, like family structures (especially unconventional and/or chosen family structures), hierarchical power structures, sex in the context of power relationships, gender, alienation and transcendence. DeForge puts all of that in the context of life in an ant colony that's on the verge of collapsing, adding the kind of nature documentary details that he's brought to several other comics. Anthropomorphizing insects and animals and then violently pulling away their human characteristics to reveal their animal nature is one of his favorite tricks, and it's used to great effect here. It's also tremendously funny, more than a little sad and repeatedly brutal.

DeForge puts in details about ants, like the males all having to service the female queen of the colony, and turns them into key plot and character points. The central characters of the book are a gay couple who are starting to drift apart, as one starts having an existential crisis about being a tiny, insignificant ant and the other can't comprehend this struggle or understand how to relate to his lover. Their dynamic changes later in the book after a savage battle between the ants and a group of deadly red ants, who murdered a member of their colony. The submissive member of the couple became dominant after he experienced the insanity of violence and the utter collapse of their colony, and his once-distant partner finds himself pleading for the stability he once gained from him as his abstract and even bourgeois belief systems lost their meaning in the context of disaster.

DeForge plays with the implication that the father of a boy ant in the book is also his brother, and that technically everyone in the colony is related. It's a stratagem designed to squidge out the reader a bit, but it also points to a key aspect of the the colony's way of life that was sub rosa. That said, the kid who inhales an earthworm divided up so small that they infiltrate his brain and change his perceptions of everything feels sorrow when his father essentially abandons him after bees mark him as a "chosen one". The bees act as sort of hippie superbeings, above the concerns of mere ants and concepts like doubt.

The silent, predatory spiders who scuttle around wearing what look like funny but terrifying dog or cat disguises are my favorite of DeForge's character designs. They are the only silent characters in the book and are by far the most feared. They fall outside of the family dynamic model of the book, as do most of the female characters. Indeed, women in many of DeForge's comics--especially up to this point--are frequently seen as a kind of unknowable other. Not that DeForge's comics are sexist, but rather that his earlier work (including Ant Colony) doesn't quite know how to write prominent female protagonists. There's a far greater focus on how the male-dominated cultures he explores are deeply dysfunctional precisely because they are male-dominated. Indeed, the only other female characters in this book are colonial female ants who are supposed to be scullery maids or nannies, which is in itself a commentary by DeForge on our own sexist culture and how difficult it is to break out of socially (and sometimes biologically) constructed roles. Biologically, pheromones are frequently discussed in the book as something that transcends reason or affection in terms of driving behavior, and this is more true for humans than most would acknowledge.

Visually, DeForge's cute and weirdly-drawn ants are awash in a sea of color. The palette is simple but bold across the board, emphasizing color contrasts to heighten the strangeness and terror of the environment. That bit of strangeness is in tension with and accentuates the way he treats these characters as having the anthropomorphic equivalents of human intelligence and desire. The same goes for the dialog, which is mostly in the patois of young and old humans alike. Ultimately, this is a story about the ways in which we try to create community even when old ways of living life have completely disintegrated. There's not a happy or unhappy ending, or even an ending at all. It just stops after the young ant starts spelling out various scenarios as to what could happen and doesn't bother to pick one is the most likely. This book isn't about the stability of the society of the colony before the collapse, nor is it about a potentially reconstructed society; it's specifically about trauma, disaster, and decay and the way it shifts power and power relationships.

Lose

Lose #4. To really trace DeForge's development as an artist, you can sweep away everything else and turn to his laboratory: his continuing series Lose. Each issue is a complete statement that acts as a kind of yardstick for his evolution as an artist and his aspirations to get better. #4 is all about transformation, and DeForge starts to let plot details and conventional narrative concerns drop away in tackling transformation as it relates to sexuality and identity.

The main story, "Someone I Know", is an exploration of the transformative qualities of BD/SM made visceral and alienating. Here we can see the Cronenberg influence at its most pronounced, yet DeForge always creates a distance between his characters and the reader with their blase' small talk and informational lacunae. The lead character here experiences a transformational experience at a sort of fetish club that features memory loss that hides some kind of horrific actions from both himself and the reader. All we know is that a line has been crossed that he didn't necessarily cross willingly, that this transformation has been done as part of an attempt by a shadowy group to make him part of an evolutionary leap, and that the nature of the transformation blurs the lines of biology, cybernetics and fetish culture. Everything about this story is designed to make the reader queasy.

That's followed with "Canadian Royalty", a variation on this theme and "Spotting Deer" that posits a "royals" culture in Canada not unlike that in Britain, spoofing the incestuous nature of their lives. It's a funny piece with exquisite drawings, to be sure, but the targets feel obvious. The last piece, "Sixties", uses the concept of disease causing transformation as a metaphor to explore racism without actually mentioning racism (the disease makes everyone look like a girl named Stacy). It's brutal, funny and on point in a way that's both blunt and subtle, veering into nostalgia in a way that young people often do as a way of escaping grappling with their current surroundings and culture. In terms of the drawings, Lose #4 sees DeForge at his most ornate, detailed and alien. His figures and backgrounds are drawn in a deliberately strange, unsettling way, even as he cut way back on any actual scenes of gore, violence or anything visceral at all. The horror is all psychological, and even that horror is regarded as a mixed bag rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

Lose #5: There are a number of interesting shorts, but the real main event is "Living Outdoors". Certain of his drawing tropes came together in a relationship story that was genuinely moving and tragic. There's still the requisite crazy ideas, like a "bookworm" that literally wears glasses and acts as sort of an ever-present interloper in various scenes, octopus ink that gets you high but is used to "create" zebras at a zoo, and other such weirdness. However, the story at its core is about teen heartbreak and identity, as a high school boy and a slightly younger girl have a complicated and exploitative relationship. Her knowledge of the psychedelic qualities of certain plants (thanks to her zookeeper dad) is used by him to score points with his peers, and the girl he wants to bed in particular.

DeForge takes teen drama genre tropes and turns them upside down, attaching themes related to authenticity, identity and the ways in which the promises and ideologies of adulthood are falsehoods. DeForge's drawings are simpler here, which only serve to highlight his page composition. Whether it's using an intricate splash page or using a six panel grid (2x3) to create interesting gestalt images, this is the most visually spectacular of any of his stories. His use of negative space also accentuates the lingering desires of both the male lead and his younger female friend. The way he uses individual images in panels and then an overlaying image going across the panels is not unique to him, but it's still tremendously effective in getting across the psychedelic experience. It's also one of his funniest stories. It can't be overstated just how much DeForge has been influenced by the rhythms and gags of classic comic strips. He can throw all sorts of bizarre imagery and casual, ambling conversation between characters at a reader, and then snap into a premise/gag set-up on a dime.

Indeed, the short pieces in the book take a cue from Ivan Brunetti, except that they insert DeForge as the object of horrible abuse while still using the rhythms of Ernie Bushmiller. There are other strips that take on the static appearance and function of a New Yorker cartoon, and the opening strip "Recent Hires" uses the same sort of tropes that Larry David uses in his squirm-comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm. If Lose #4 was DeForge cycling through his interest in the "dripping line" aesthetic
and body horror then Lose #5 was him making his best effort at cycling through what he would describe as "show-off" drawing (at least in terms of format). Both also reflected his growing confidence and assurance as a storyteller and creator of compelling characters, something that would come to fruition in Lose #6.

Lose #6: This issue features DeForge's best story to date, "Me As A Baby". It's about a woman named Cherrelle who finds herself going to any lengths to recover her niece's stolen clarinet case. This is the first story from DeForge where I've seen him truly step outside himself in creating a character, including her motivations and relationships. It's also a story that's directly about family dynamics, as Cher has a barely-repressed rage toward her sister, her boyfriend and pretty much everyone but her niece. Indeed, her niece is the one and only opportunity Cher gives herself to be a good person and (potentially) a good mother. Everything else about her screams sociopath in this story, especially when confronted with the classical ethical dilemma of Plato's Ring of Gyges. In Plato's story, Gyges is a man given a magic invisibility ring, and with no possible repercussions that could arise if he commits crimes, Gyges winds up murdering, raping and robbing. For Cher, she revisits her shady past because she has to join "the Mafia", a hilariously-rendered version that's part cult and part wilding expedition.

When she becomes a member of the Mafia in order to retrieve the clarinet case, she not only willingly goes on a crime and murder spree, she also cuts the throat of a guy she had a fling with at her office. The urge she felt to punch her perfect boyfriend's face in, earlier in the story, is fully unleashed when there's no chance of repercussions. At the same time, she saves the day for her niece and weeps when she sees her on stage, or rather weeps in anticipation of her niece's future redeeming her own actions and life.

The story is told with her as narrator, and in many ways it's an improved and updated version of "Dog 2070", another story about someone desperately trying to make a family connection who repeatedly attempts to justify their own shitty, borderline insane actions. "Me As A Baby" seems to take pieces from other DeForge stories and makes them shine; the Mafia aspect of the story goes from being typically exploitative violence in his Kid Mafia series to something that's nihilistic and frightening (while still totally absurd) here.

There are typical DeForge drawing tropes, like the lumpy full-body outfits of the Mafia, the serpentine eye slits and the way they skitter across the page like video game characters. There's "DeForge Detritus", as he fills up panels with tiny bits of garbage and extra lines to get across the weight of the lawlessness of the setting.

The reason the story works is DeForge finally simplified his line in such a way that made it versatile and still capable of expressing a great deal of emotion. Looking toward Charles Schulz and Chris Ware, DeForge's figures here are Schulz-basic, and Cher in particular is a triumph:a round head with a single continuous scribble for hair, round eyes with big pupils, a tiny oval mouth and small lines to indicate eyebrows and cheeks. She's also grey-scaled in such a way to indicate that she's a person of color. Her niece Sally looks very much like Woodstock, drawn in the "gummy, doughy quality that kids have", which is an observation that Cher makes about her but one that plays out precisely in the way Sally is drawn.

DeForge has worked very hard to make things simple, stripping away layer after layer of lines extraneous to the emotional core of his stories. The "autobio" story that leads off the issue gets at this, as DeForge is kidnapped by dogs and replaced by dogs so that he and his style of doing things will never be missed. The story "Dogs of Canada" is a reprise of sorts to "Spotting Deer", only it subtly picks up on body horror, transformation and the creeping realization that our society is built on the flimsiest of foundations, vulnerable to forces that we don't  understand.

Transformation is a constant theme for DeForge, but this issue is less about transforming into something new and more about transforming into what we really are and dropping all other pretenses. It seems to be a key for him as a way of invoking his own series of transformations as an artist, as he sheds different skins and approaches on his way to getting his pencil to draw precisely what he sees in his head. Few artists have left more interesting or complicated molted skins behind as DeForge has, especially in such a short period of time. There is a new "burden of promise" for him, now that he finally seems to have reached his mature style as an artist. This is not to say that his transformation is complete, but rather that the foundation is there for him to pick through past themes, tropes and styles and build something completely new.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fundraisers: Last Gasp, New South Festival

I wanted to make note of the kickstarter fund for Last Gasp's ambitious fall line. Last Gasp has been a key distributor and publisher of underground comics for a long, long time, and so I would consider adding your support to their campaign.

 As a contributor to Foxing Quarterly's blog, I also wanted to make note of the impressive-sounding new comic arts festival in Austin, currently holding its own fundraiser. This has the potential to be something great.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Some Thoughts On Root Hog Or Die

Dan Stafford's low-fi, slightly ramshackle documentary, Root Hog Or Die, is entirely fitting with regard to its subject minicomics/zine-making legend, John Porcellino. The film follows a roughly chronological look at his life and career as a musician and cartoonist with extensive interviews from a number of friends and peers from all walks of his life. The film's rough, DIY feel makes sense given Porcellino's background as a cartoonist who uses an exceedingly spare line to relate anecdotes and poetic observations about his life and environment. It was interesting to see various places around Illinois and Denver concretized on the screen, but it was more interesting to hear Porcellino's own feelings about each of these places. There are also a number of readings of his comics by a variety of people.

The film is neatly divided into title-card sections, from his early life to college years to his early years in bands. From there, Porcellino's descent into years of poor health are described in some detail, and his account of battling OCD and depression are particularly harrowing. What is delightful is seeing the frequently solitary Porcellino hanging out with various of his friends from over the year. He's not by nature a solitary person, but circumstances and mental illness often drove him into that direction. Seeing him just cut up with friends like Noah Van Sciver was one of the real joys of this DVD, especially in the extended deleted scenes section. In some ways, I enjoyed the deleted scenes as much or more as the film itself, because they were every bit as revealing as the film's narrative but were more relaxed and more fun. Watching them felt more like reading an issue of King-Cat than watching the straight narrative. The "Extra P" section, devoted to John P talking about the "filler" cartoons from King-Cat as well as talking about how they bombed at one presentation, was excellent for the same reason.

A couple of quotes stood out in the film as especially illustrative of why John P is so good at what he does. Long-time admirer Ivan Brunetti notes that the specific nature of Porcellino's observations about life actually give them a universal appeal. We may not share Porcellino's precise situation or even aesthetic understanding of the world, but his passion for understanding and his attempt to create meaning is easily understood. Porcellino's interest in Zen Buddhism became crystal clear when he referred to it as the "DIY religion", where it's all up to your own effort to make it work and no one else can make it work for you. How fitting is that thought, given his own relentless and independent work ethic over the years?

Where the documentary is at its best is when it manages to capture the thoughtful, poetic and philosophical side of Porcellino alongside his more playful and silly side. Seeing live footage of various bands he was in was a great deal of fun, as well as hearing anecdotes about some of his wackier on-stage antics. Porcellino is a skilled raconteur, even if that's a skill that took him years to develop. He's someone who's now used to talking about his life as a narrative and parceling it out as a series of anecdotes. At the same time, the best John P comics are those that float apart from specific timelines, those that are about Porcellino as phenomenologist. He observes the world, apart from its utility and our everyday understanding of it, and deftly records his sense of awe. There is a famous Zen koan: "First there is a mountain/Then there is no mountain/Then there is." This is a way of describing the Zen approach to living in the material world. We acknowledge the world as it seems to everyone, as the manifestation of the evidence of our senses and all of the assumptions that flow out of that. Then we acknowledge the illusory nature of these constructions. Then we once again acknowledge the temporal and physical existence of the world once again and our role in it. Porcellino's exquisite awareness and willingness to feel his emotions as connected to time and place are the essence of what makes his poetic work so powerful. It is simple and direct, where small details matter most of all. The words are basic and unadorned, the images stripped down to their simplest configurations.

That's especially true with regard to his relationship with animals, and his beloved, deceased cat Maisie Kukoc most of all. There's one strip about traveling across the country on a move where he sits in the cab of a truck, eating with his cat. There's a sense of perfect contentment on both their parts, of total understanding and acceptance of each other.

The timing of this documentary was interesting, because it came at a time when Porcellino was just starting to heal from years of mental illness that wound up wrecking two marriages. Both of his ex-wives are in the film, and he and his first wife Kera actually share a great deal of time together on the screen. The obvious affection both women still feel for him is obvious, given their tones of voice, body language and the ways they exchange words together. There's a sense in which being mentally ill is an aberration of who we are, a warped mutation of our true selves. Porcellino's OCD was certainly in that category, made all the more painful because he could understand rationally that what he was doing and thinking was not credible but couldn't help feeling and thinking that way. When someone is depressed and isolated but is then able to make a reconnection with an old friend, that experience can be a powerful tonic. It's rebuilding synapses that had been long abandoned and creating a flow of creative energy that had been dammed away. Seeing this happen onscreen, even if it's not discussed as such, is quite interesting and even inspiring. The film can also be seen as a companion piece to Porcellino's new book The Hospital Suite, which goes into greater detail regarding a number of autobiographical details from the film. Viewers should be warned that the DIY nature of the film extends to things like frequently poor lighting, a shaky camera, weird angles, etc. None of that seems to matter much given the subject, as the film shares in and celebrates Porcellino's own rough edges.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Activist Week: World War III Illustrated #44, World War III Illustrated 1979-2014

Issue #44 of World War III Illustrated was one of the quieter, more reflective entries in the long-running magazine's history. Billed as "the Other issue", the stories are about the experience of being made to feel the other,and there are some remarkable stories built around this theme. First and foremost is Sandy Jimenez's piece on growing up in the burned-out South Bronx and being photographed by some art students as a child. Thinking they were friends, he eventually sneaked into their show and saw himself as they saw him: the Other. As a poor, dirty waif. That betrayal set the stage for his later difficulty taking photos when he got to art school and his later, painful understanding that it's not the camera that exploits its subjects, it's the photographer. The way he draws his eyes as black saucers is especially affecting and attention-grabbing. This is a raw, powerful story that I wish had gotten wider recognition when it was published; it's certainly one of the best things I've ever read in WW III Illustrated.

That said, this is an unusually strong and coherent issue overall. Sabrina Jones' account of a young woman caught up in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws is notable because of her expressive pencils-only style. A report from activists in Quebec about the student protests is as measured and even an account that I can imagine, as it takes aim at both right-wing scorn toward Quebecois as well as the racist and anti-immigrant tendencies of some from the left. Leila Abdul Razzaq's comics about her father's experiences growing up after his family was thrown out of Palestine are superb; the drawings are lively and expressive and the narratives are personal, detailed and passionate. Carlo Quispe, who's become one of my favorite personal/political cartoonists, uses his expressive scrawl of a line to relate a story about trying to reconcile his dating life with his political life as an activist. Tom Keough and Seth Tobocman have pieces about resisting bullying and the possibility of new communities in the face of disaster, both of which have a more hopeful character than the usual sort of WWW III Illustrated article.

The magazine has been one of the very few places where American readers can gain access to translated work by Middle Eastern cartoonists. In addition to Razzaq, there was work by Egyptian artist Ganzeer (though I found its sentiments rather pat) as well as a dream comic from Barrack Rima. That one was especially interesting, because it was very much about being the other as a foreign immigrant, and the page composition was fascinating. Many of Rima's pages looked constructed rather than drawn, and other pages had drawings with a remarkably sensitive and fragile quality. In an issue where co-founding editor Peter Kuper had a few pieces, they wound up being among the least compelling material in the issue. This speaks to the overall health and vitality of the anthology, as its younger caretakers have done a fine job in maintaining its voice.

Speaking of its founders, PM Press recently published World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014. This is the third time in its history that a collection of the best from the anthology has been collected, but this is a definitive and beautifully well-produced 300-page volume. Reading this book is quite a different experience from reading the average issue of the magazine in that the charmingly ramshackle DIY feel of the magazine is not really in evidence here. This is both a good and bad thing, as some of the pieces published in the magazine over the years weren't really of a high enough level of quality to merit reprinting, and the somewhat slapdash nature of the editing and construction of each issue sometimes inhibited the flow as a reader. Of course, that also meant wonderful surprises popping up in each issue as well in addition to the contributors who have been with the magazine throughout its run. The book is well-organized, with fourteen different subsections grouping together different kinds of stories. While there are about forty artists represented, much of the book focuses on a small group of regulars.

Of course, when those regulars include Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman, Fly, Eric Drooker, Sabrina Jones, Sue Coe, and Nicole Schulman, there's not too much to complain about. There are also oddities like an early Peter Bagge strip, a piece by occasional contributor and cause celebre Mumia Abu-Jamal, and contributions by artists known for their work in other venues like Art Spiegelman and Tom Tomorrow. Still, the regulars do most of the heavy lifting and document thirty-five years of government oppression, police brutality, oppression of women and spirited resistance across the globe. While both Kuper and Tobocman have both clearly been inspired by street art in their use of stencils, bleeding images, etc, Kuper's work has always been more polished and more in the tradition of political cartooning. Even his autobiographical strips, like when he went to testify on Mike Diana's behalf at his obscenity trial, have a slightly amused, detached and self-deprecatory air.  He uses powerful and blunt images and satire as his weapons. Tobocman's work has always been more emotional and on-the-ground, detailing events as he experienced them. It's speaking truth to power in the most direct way possible.

Drooker and Coe's best-known work consists of single images on covers or as illustrations, using rich colors and lots of ink to get their points across poetically but bluntly. Jones and Schulman are superb storytellers with naturalistic styles. Fly has always been the secret MVP of the magazine whenever she's appeared; there are few artists who are as adept at writing biographical details with as much visceral punch as she can, and her own street-level approach to life and art give her comics a powerful sense of authenticity. The nice paper and use of full color makes this book an eye-popping read, and the editors do a great job of using interesting interstitial material to stitch together the differing chapters. Sandy Jimenez notably updated one of his old stories, "Skips", in full color, and it added a lot to the reading experience. Reading this book is reading a history of opposition and of artists grappling with their role in that resistance. It must be noted that there's a solid representation of artists who are women and artists of color, and this was so long before that was a commonplace event in alternative comics. There's little in the way of self-congratulation; instead, their helpful timeline at the end of the book just underlines how it's simply time to get back to work.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Activist Week: World War III Illustrated #43

For thirty-five years, World War III Illustrated has been the standard-bearer for comics activism. Its existence predated and to some extent presaged the more precise comics journalism of Joe Sacco. It's always been somewhere between political cartooning, comics storytelling and in-your-face agit-prop. Tomorrow, I'll examine the recent hardcover collection from throughout the magazine's history as well as #44. Today, I'm going to examine #43, an issue from 2012. (I haven't seen a copy of the most recent issue, #45, which debuted a year ago).

#43's theme is "Expression Repression Revolution", and its pages are stuffed with reports from the resistance in Egypt as well as the ramifications of the Wikileaks reveal of brutal war crimes perpetrated by the US in Iraq. The editorial collective for the issue, which includes Rebecca Migdal, Hilary Allison, Carlo Quispe and co-founder Seth Tobocman, notes that the magazine has a commitment to pluralism even in its hard-left approach. That manifests in how Wikileaks founder Julian Assange comes up for both praise and criticism, and the same is true for Barack Obama. The issue was published in 2012, when Occupy and attempts to silence the movement were more active and the revelations regarding the more sinister aspects of the Obama administration were revealed. In a broader sense, the issue is about the idea of free speech and censorship, especially given that the left often seeks to ban certain kinds of speech.

That's explored in Jordan Worley's "Violent Praxis", which follows a group of anti-racist activists who seek to jam and interfere with racist groups like the KKK and skinhead organization. It's a fascinating read, given that it captures the debate between those who would justify violence as part of resistance and those who see the use of force as coercive and counter-productive. The issue leads off with a new Mike Diana story, which is fitting given his status of being charged with obscenity for drawing his comic over twenty years ago. I never thought Diana was much of a cartoonist; his claims of trying to reflect the violence of society in his comics may have been true, but his crude grasp on both drawing and language made those comics a slog. That said, there's an interesting rawness to his work that's only become more interesting after the ridiculous circus he was put through.

One of the more interesting things about this issue is that it prints work by Egyptian cartoonist Magdy El Shafee. There's brutally hilarious work about Egypt's position regarding foreigners as well as an interesting story about him trying to preserve old works from rioters. Walking the line between resistance and total chaos is something that's little discussed in activist circles, and his line drawings are exquisitely funny. Tobocman and Worley collaborate on a fairly straightforward account of the brutal US assault on random, unarmed civilians in Iraq.(ostensibly, as a kind of pressure-valve revenge for soldiers killed by an IED) that's typically blunt. There's an excerpt from a graphic novel simply titled Julian Assange that starts with the incident and then delves into Assange as a cultural figure. That's countered by Bill Weinberg's piece accusing Assange of ignoring a Wikileaks operative in helping a brutally repressive regime, although the art supporting this piece is impossibly small and blurry.

That's part of the package with WW III Illustrated sometimes, alas. It's printed on mostly cheap paper (though there are color sections), and almost no copy-editing is done. The Diana piece was rife with spelling errors, for example, and that wasn't the only piece with that problem. On the other hand, this makes a piece like Allison's "Bad Words" stand out, because its rendering is so precise. This is a great piece about the author's relationship with things she shouldn't say, finding the right audience for her words and respecting those who don't want to hear certain words, realizing that her opposition to certain words makes others treat her differently and rethinking the negative connotation of words entirely. It's a lively, funny strip that's a highlight of the issue.

There are features on a former Disney caricaturist whose status as a person of color was a driving force in his frequent difficulties playing his trade, as well as a correspondent in prison whose mail has been repeatedly censored or held back. Other highlights of the issue include a typically satirical Kuper piece about the Tea Party and their benefactors the Koch brothers, a piece by Tobocman and Jessica Wehrle about the first days of the Occupy movement, a searing personal piece by Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz regarding her complicated experiences regarding sex and sexuality, and a piece exposing the hypocrisy regarding the Smithsonian banning artist/activist David Wojnarowicz's video from an installation. While World War III Illustrated has never been short on material, it seems like worldwide activism and turbulence has made for a richer and more diverse magazine on the whole.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Activist Week: Ethan Heitner and Kevin C. Pyle

Ethan Heitner and Kevin Pyle have long been mainstays at the seminal political comics anthology World War III Illustrated. Each has also done their share of solo work, much of which is in the category of direct action literature.

Pyle's Wage Theft, co-written by Jeffry Odell Korgen and flip-booked with a Spanish-translated version, is a deft, fast-moving and highly persuasive tract aimed at workers who have suffered from the title phenomenon. The comic, drawn in Pyle's scratchy line with a huge emphasis on greyscaling to add tone and depth to each page, focuses primarily on undocumented/illegal workers in service industries like cleaning. The practice of wage theft can involve being paid less than minimum wage, of failing to pay wages or paying them on a consistently late basis, ignoring overtime, making illegal deductions, etc. Some employers feel they can get away with this by threatening to report their employees to immigration, threatening to fire them or using some other form of illegal intimidation. This comic is full of cases of workers who fought back, the resources they used and the outcomes they achieved. Pyle and Korgen aren't practicing pie-in-the-sky activism here, as they acknowledge that there's a risk of businesses going bankrupt as a way of dodging their debt obligations and of course the difficulty of losing time and wages. That said, by giving a clear idea of what resources do exist and how people have used them, this comic is meant to be a seed that provides support and a means of resistance to exploited workers across the country.

Heitner's comics focus on Palestinian rights and divestment away from Israel. Nothing "Normal About It was written by Tanya Keilani and speaks to the idea of false equivalency of "dialogue" between Palestinians and Israelis, given the idea that the Israelis booted out the Palestinians in 1948 and currently practice what is roughly the equivalent of apartheid. Keilani's comic details some Palestinian students being invited to dialogue and eventually walking away after realizing that for groups to come together as equals, the two groups actually have to be equal. The writing is strident and without the faintest sense of subtlety, and the Israeli supporters here are portrayed as little more than straw men (curiously illustrated to look like stuffy Archie-adults). Tara Tabassi's writing is similarly one-note in There Is A Checkpoint Around This Center!, which is about a protest about the clash between Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) in New York being denied space at the NY LGBT Community Center. The central idea that oppression of Palestinians is not something separate from queer issues is one that makes sense, but this is less a story than a series of shouted slogans. That has its place, and documenting this issue makes sense, but comics like these are merely preaching to the converted.

More effective are Heitner's own comics. Old Abdullah Had A Farm, for example, is a perfect example of effective and memorable political comics. Drawing his characters as anthropomorphic mice, he detailed the ways in which settlers, soldiers and the Wall pushed out farmers from their land, and how this has led to a movement. With a scratchy, cross-hatching heavy line, the comic has the proper amount of pitch-black humor and serious commentary. The Power of Our Voices uses Joe Sacco-style interviews with Palestinians and tells their stories, building a powerful case for the cultural boycott of Israel. Interviewing artist Samia Halaby, for example, she makes the point that art cannot transcend politics, that it either passively or actively supports oppression even if it claims to have nothing to do with it. That's the crux of the argument in favor of the cultural boycott, especially since an argument is made that Israel's cultural exports are very much a propaganda exercise in improving their image around the world. If Halaby is perhaps too much of a firebrand for one's tastes (she comes out in favor of violence as one means of resistance, which is unusual in these comics that call for protests, boycotts and divestments), then AnneMarie Jacir's story of not being allowed to film a documentary in Palestine, nor being allowed in is even more powerful. Trying to navigate a brutal, impersonal and frequently nonsensical bureaucracy frustrated the filmmaker. When told she'd be invited into a festival in Haifa, she refused because her own father wouldn't be allowed access. Another artist, Larissa Sansour, had her work censored in France because it was too "pro-Palestinian". Letting people tell their stories is the most effective way of getting a greater point across, and Heitner then takes that opportunity to lay out the specifics of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.

Heitner's own Empire State of Mind has two stories: an adaptation of a Kafka story that touches on jackals and Arabs, and the sticky relationship between the Middle East and the West. "Stick and Stay, "They're Bound To Pay" is about the big union strike in Flint, Michigan that led to the rise of United Auto Workers. They struck for better working conditions and fair wages, and their commitment and togetherness--especially with the quick-witted support of their wives--won the day for them. Like Pyle, Heitner is skilled at creating a narrative out of primary sources. He adds a sense of suspense and drama to events that certainly didn't lack it and is careful to let his pages breathe with the occasional silent panel that is worth the proverbial thousand words. Heitner is careful not to write this with a sense of starry-eyed nostalgia of triumphs past, but rather as a call to arms for protesters and occupiers everywhere. That mix of fact, reasoning and passion is what makes his narratives so compelling. It's not just relating that the personal is political, but trying to explain precisely how and why this is so in such a way that anyone can understand it.