Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bryan Moss' Outer Heaven #1

Outer Heaven #1 is by Bryan Moss, a painter and cartoonist with a wild imagination. Dipping into the same sort of stylized, dystopian, and city-centric art style as a Jamie Hewlett, what sets Moss apart is his wry sense of humor and close attention to detail. Moss' style wouldn't be out of place with the Meathaus cartoonists of the 2000s: thick lines, looping and distorted character design, minimal use of negative space (indeed, there's a maximalist feel in every panel), and incorporating influences from manga and things like Heavy Metal. It's all there, but Moss quickly transcends those influences and turns it into something more interesting. 

Moss begins the comic with a series of pages featuring photocomics collages. In her introduction to the comic, Dr. Rachel Miller notes that much of this comic was done in a transitory period where lots of video tapes and other ephemera was consumed in a time of uncertainty. That low-fi video culture that carried a strong underground element is present here as well. 

The main story concerns an assassin named Broken Nose Betty who prefers what she calls "pacifist kills." She generally only goes after people trying to kill her or dangers to society, but she tricks them into getting themselves killed. The plot concerns a group of dangerous slugs masquerading as people, but Betty is on the case. She edits her Wikipedia entry and trolls her target on Reddit to manipulate him into getting taken out by his own boss. She then tricks a slug assassin into drinking a margarita...with a rim lined with salt. 

Moss's character design is sharp, creating interesting panel compositions by bleeding the colors of his characters into the rest of the panel. His panels are busy and bold but never difficult to parse, thanks to the precision of his use of color. He goes for broke in that regard: bold purples, oranges, sickly greens, and yellows assault the reader, yet every color is perfectly balanced. If there's a color clash, it's intentional. While his actual cartooning is the spine of the comic and gives it its structure, his painterly understanding of color is what gives Outer Heaven its sense of style. It's clear there are a lot more stories to be told in Broken Nose Betty's Void City. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Adam Meuse's Not The Ocean

Adam Meuse is one of those cartoonists whose body of work has become so solid and self-assured that it's surprising that he's still self-publishing. He's one of the best cartoonists living in North Carolina, and that's for certain. His most recent effort, not the ocean, is another example of his thoughtful meditations on mortality that also touches on the joy of living. The visual touchstone in play is the ocean. How the traffic near his house sounds like the ocean coming through the trees. How sometimes being presented with astonishing natural beauty feels fake because of our attempts to replicate it through media. 

Along the way, Meuse connects these experiences with friends and families, about how we mediate our experiences with the natural world with our own interpretations of these awesome phenomena. For example, there's a beautifully scratchy and scrawled comic about listening to a recording of the ocean while looking at it with his daughter. That comic is about the way our brain fills in holes in our perceptions, and listening to the recording is jarring because it doesn't quite sync up. 

Another strip talks about the abstract-looking paintings that Mondrian did of piers sticking out into ocean, like a forest of little trees or crosses. Seeing that repeated in a hotel carpet was a look of recognition that was an interpretation of an interpretation. Piers all the way down. 

The ocean also reminded him of a friend who used to work in the marine section of a museum, and then learning years later he had drowned, on a boat he had fixed up. Once again, the sea called; capricious, beautiful, destructive, but it also drew his friend closer to Meuse in that moment. The sea is life: the salt flats of Utah with the remains of an ocean; sea gulls surrounding a light house at night; a huge gull outside a hotel room from a night of no sleep with friends. Meuse ponders not only the awe that the ocean inspires but also the ways in which it continues to affect the way we think about the world away from it. It's the closest thing we have to going into outer space on Earth: an awesome, dangerous mystery that engages and soothes. It offers no answers, and neither does Meuse. He's just a witness who does his best in this series of beautifully-scribbled comics and drawings to express the feeling the ocean has given him, rather than the ocean itself. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Some thoughts on the new version of Dungeon: Twilight from NBM

I've said it before: Dungeon (or Donjon, in the original French) is my all-time favorite comics series. For the uninitiated, it's masterminded by L'Association founders Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Trondheim and Sfar combined to create a cartoony, anthropomorphic character design style that's a little grittier than Trondheim's usual style and a little more stylized than Sfar's. The central characters are an idiotic duck named Herbert and a philosophical but brutal strongman named Marvin. The genre is high fantasy, using every trope and trick in the book with regard to quests, epic adventures, spells, wizards, monsters, treasure, etc. you can imagine. What makes the series special is that it's simultaneously an irreverent send-up of all of these tropes and a loving tribute to them. It's akin to the most ridiculous D&D campaign imaginable with ridiculous characters who nonetheless have a job to do. 

In French comics, serialization is in the form of approximately 48-page albums. The Dungeon series began with volume one of the Zenith storyline, introducing Herbert and Marvin and featuring the titular dungeon at the height of its success. As Trondheim and Sfar continued along, they asked: what if we skipped ahead to volume 101 of the series? What would be happening then? The result is the Dungeon: Twilight series of albums, where Herbert is the all-powerful and evil Grand Khan and Marvin is the Dust King and wishes only to die. The first volume of this series is #101! Then they imagined: what would the story be like if they went back in time to the beginning of the Dungeon, focusing on the original wizard master and where he came from? That would be Dungeon: The Early Years, featuring Hyacinth, who would become the creator of the Dungeon and its tower, and that volume started off at -99 and counted its way up to 1! Of course, neither artist intends to produce all of the volumes. They did ten volumes of Zenith, six volumes of Early Years (which skipped around, going from -99 to -97 and then to -84, -83, and -81. In Twilight, it goes from 101 - 106, and then 111 and 112. To date, 25 volumes relating to this storyline have been published, as well as another 28 volumes telling stories of side characters, early side stories featuring Herbert and Marvin, more stories of the far future and past, and other oddities. That's over 2500 pages of comics, most drawn by artists other than Trondheim, but that's a crazy level of output for one world!

This is a densely-plotted series of interconnected epics with dozens of characters, but one that's also easy to follow because it mostly focuses on a few key ones in each set of stories. Translating Trondheim's comics has always been somewhat thorny, because American audiences don't always take to his funny animal style of art and dry sense of humor. NBM, who's been translating European comics for well over forty years, tried a few different ways of translating these comics. First, they tried a black & white (grayscaled) version of this in comic book form, which no one much liked. Second, they started combining two volumes at a time in a smaller, almost digest-sized form. This was at least in full color, but the frequently intricate art was shrunk so much that it was hard to read, especially since they're also pretty wordy. 

At last, however, NBM has made the wise choice of reprinting the series again, this time at something approaching the original scale. Even better, they're packing four albums into one collection at a time, making them highly dense 200-page volumes. I just read the first collection for Twilight, and the result was a version that simply breathes better. Trondheim drew the first half of this volume, and much of his art has always depended on negative space: pauses, vistas, quiet moments that the art emphasizes. Printing it at the correct size helps this, and also helps when there's a lot of dialogue. 

And with a new character, a rabbit named Marvin the Red, there's a lot of chattiness. This Marvin eventually befriends the original Marvin, much to the latter's chagrin, since he's done with fighting and everything except going to the dragon burial grounds and dying. However, that's not in the cards for him, so he confronts his old friend Herbert. In Zenith, Herbert acquired a legendary sword that was a pain in the ass, and it talked about sending him on a quest for other legendary objects. In Twilight, we learn that he completed the quest, but at great cost: he took all of their evil into himself and became the tyrannical Grand Khan. Marvin was tired of living after his own years of battle, tearing out his eyes rather than see his own children because of religious customs. 

Then Trondheim and Sfar make the bold move of inflicting doomsday on his characters, as they now have to hop from island to island. Sfar is the artist for the first three chapters, the only ones he drew for any of the series. The husband and wife team of Kerascoet handle the art duties on the last chapter, and it's not quite as good as the ideal version of the characters that Sfar draws. There's a little too much texture in the line art, a little too much detail, and it's distracting at times. However, once one settles into their style, the story is flexible enough to adjust to this change and there are fewer distractions. 

Marvin the Red is the breakout superstar of this story. He's mean, stupid, and violent. He's also loving and loyal. He does anything he can to protect the Dust King and his little bat friend. He's absolutely fearless in the face of great danger. He's also a lover and a cad, romancing several women at once. Of course, he has no guile or skill, and he gets taken advantage of as much as he's just trying to get into their pants, but it's one of the funniest things about Marvin. He's a wonderful send-up of Conan-like barbarian characters. 

The ideal world would see each volume published separately, in English, with precisely the same coloring and line resolution. This collection doesn't have that. Sometimes, the resolution looks a bit wobbly. All that said, this is still a vast improvement over past attempts, and my hope is that sales are brisk enough to give the same treatment not just to Dungeon, but to other Trondheim books. Fantagraphics only published one volume of Ralph Azham before Kim Thompson died, and this kind of series seems ideal for NBM to publish if they get the rights. 

Dungeon is bawdy, bloody, raucous, contemplative, tragic, and triumphant. It's a series of interlocking storytelling puzzles in the tradition of Carl Barks. It's a love letter to fantasy fiction and even roleplaying games. It's a devastating satire of all of these things, all at the same time. Any fan of fantasy comics or fiction at any level will enjoy both its reverence and irreverence, often on the same page or even the same panel. NBM has published an omnibus for Twilight, Zenith, and Early Years. Hopefully, they will finish those out and then turn to Dungeon: Monsters, Dungeon: Parade, and untranslated work like Dungeon: Antipodes. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Crowdfundr for Fieldmouse Press

As you may know, one of my many hats is being a member of Fieldmouse Press, the publishing concern that puts out and just published its first book, Ariel Bordeaux's Clutter. I'm quite proud of that book, and I'm also quite proud of our upcoming Spring publishing season. 

For a variety of reasons, we have shifted away from using Kickstarter for our fundraising needs and have become the inaugural launch for Crowdfundr, a new fundraising entity. We're working directly with the folks running Crowdfundr, and we are extremely pleased with this collaboration. Here's a link to our fundraiser on Crowdfundr

We will be publishing two books and two minicomics this Spring season. The first book is Now And Other Dreams, by Daryl Seitchik. Daryl is an extremely talented young cartoonist who emerged nearly fully-formed, as readers of High-Low might remember. Nominated for an Eisner for her book Exits, Now bears some similarities to that narrative. Now is a collection of Seitchik's out-of-print dream comics and other surreal narratives. Told in her deadpan style that still allows for a number of expressive flourishes, Seitchik delves deep into her own thoughts, beliefs, trauma, and fears and comes out the other side. The collection also features two new stories. Her storytelling, line, and daring as a cartoonist feed into how she's able to create so many variations on her theme of exploring her subconscious. 

The second book is Good Person Trouble, by Noëlle Kröger, They are a fantastic German cartoonist and described this book as "Bertolt Brecht meets Judith Butler." Based loosely on Brecht's The Good Person Of Szechwan, the narrative examines trans and gender issues in an ingenious manner with characters that are anthropomorphic animals. This courtroom drama with a number of dramatic twists was translated by Natalye Childress, and it's Kröger's debut in English. 

The first mini is Magic Nation #1, by Ellen O'Grady. Ellen is a miraculous cartoonist who just started in the practice after years spent in other pursuits. Her sensitivity, her understanding of color, and the expressiveness of her characters are absolutely remarkable. This memoir of her childhood is meditative and evocative of the woods that meant so much to her. She's an instant memoir superstar. 

The second mini is Fish Out Of Water, by Phoebe Mol. This is yet another debuting artist, and Mol's arresting and grotesque character design and immersive storytelling style is reminiscent of artists like Juliacks. Her color sense is spectacularly vivid. 

I hope that you consider funding these books and preordering them through our Crowdfundr. Thanks for your consideration!

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Hyperverbal: Hayley Gold's Letters To Margaret

Hayley Gold's debut graphic novel, Letters To Margaret, is a crazily ambitious hybrid of comics and crossword ephemera with an avalanche of puns, wordplay, eye pops, and so much more. Gold's reach exceeds her grasp in a number of respects, but it was a dizzying and invigorating experience reading her attempt to throw the kitchen sink at her reader in the sheer number of verbal and visual devices she employed. 

Let's unpack all of that a bit. Gold's formal ambition was staggering. The basic plot concerns a Columbia journalism student named Margeret "Maggie" A. Cross, a crossword puzzle enthusiast and blogger about that subject. She's relentlessly and painfully self-righteous, judgmental, and irascible, but she also has a razor-sharp wit and a strong point of view. The other protagonist is Derry Down, a grad student and her TA in a journalism class about column writing. As a Black grad student and fellow crossword enthusiast, he's sensitive to the way the New York Times crossword marginalizes people of color. As the gold standard puzzle, it bothers him to be reduced to words like AFRO and to see clues related to Aunt Jemima. The lead blogger on the site was his mentor, journalism professor Lewis Dodgson (a sly Lewis Carroll reference), who wrote as Vox Populi.  Another crossword blogger (a subculture within a subculture, not unlike comics criticism), Maggie eviscerated Vox as being too PC. When Derry realizes that Maggie was the blogger (she went by Anna Graham, and he by Mr. Lear), he wanted to get back at her. Things go in some surprising directions, as conflict can create sparks of romance as well as conflict. 

The core story and motivations are all relatively simple. Maggie is a harsh critic, but she's stung by rejection--and specifically having her crossword rejected by the NYT. Derry simply wants to find ways to make the crossword world feel more inclusive. Gold adds layer upon layer to the plot and the structure of her comic in order, in some sense, to approximate the chaos, complexity, and playfulness that goes into constructing a crossword puzzle. It's also about how two individuals will always see the same series of events with vastly different points of view, but that it's possible to make connections that bridge that communication gap if you make yourself open and vulnerable. 

So the first thing that Gold does to communicate this is make it a flip-book. About fifty pages are devoted to the story from Maggie's point of view, and when you reach the end, one can flip the book over and read the same essential narrative, only from Derry's point of view. Considering how much of the book is subsumed by thought balloons, the reading experience is quite different, as the reader becomes completely immersed in the point of view of each character and slowly sees them navigate that gap. 

That alone would have been plenty. However, there's an additional plot device and mystery as Maggie starts getting letters from Margaret Farrar, the (deceased) crossword puzzle editor of the NYT for 27 years. "Margaret" writes as though Maggie sent her the crossword puzzle that was rejected and wrote encouraging words. This was all the doing of her junk food video-making roommate Amanda, Maggie's former crossword commentary blogging partner. 

Each chapter is headed by crossword puzzles that contain clues and spoilers for the chapter itself, and Maggie's own puzzle is printed several times as it evolves. That particular gimmick is extremely clever, immersing the reader in this particular hobby and culture in the most direct way possible. Gold doesn't stop there with her visual tricks, as she makes frequent use of internal notations and metacommentary. Those comments are frequently made by talking arrows, one white and one black, named Ebony and Irony. They comment on the plot, the thoughts of characters, crossword clues, and everything else, adding another level of visual and decorative wordplay to the proceedings. On top of all that, Gold throws in some magical realism for good measure, as several of the characters are literally able to read the thought balloons of other characters, while others appear as hallucinations, bringing snacks along to enjoy. 

Throw in Derry's fascination with the nonsense poems of Edward Lear and a heavy dose of history regarding crossword puzzles, and you'd have something that even the most confident and experienced visual artists would find challenging to present in a clear, coherent manner. The biggest problem with the book was its design. The pages were absolutely crammed with text, suffocating and surrounding entire panels' worth of art with layer upon layer of text. While swimming in wordplay was part of the point of the narrative, the reader never got a chance to breathe. Gold has also noted that Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls, was an inspiration with regard to dialogue, but even that hyperverbal show had interludes that allowed everyone to take a breath. 

Gold does combat this problem with her cartooning, and it was often successful, especially as my eye adjusted to the frequent walls of text. Specifically, she kept her line simple and functional and used color as character signifiers, guiding the reader's eye across the page. That allowed her to integrate her comics with crossword puzzles; the crosswords took on a pleasing decorative aspect. However, this approach did not work at all when she plopped a blog down on the page, especially with the text being so small. This was another design problem; this book needed to be printed at a much bigger scale. Each page was based around an eight-panel grid, but being printed at 7" x 10" crammed too much information on one page. A 10" x 14" scale, more in line with a European album, would have made the pages breathe a bit. 

Letters To Margaret feels like a young cartoonist bursting with ideas and trying to cram them all into one project. The marginalia, the metacommentary, and other, similar elements distracted from the book's most interesting innovations. Gold's ability to alter the narrative in both sides of the flip book was astonishing and allowed her to focus on the most important aspect of the comic: its characters. Derry and Maggie were both unreliable narrators and were hard to like, but that was part of their charm for both the reader and each other. Letters To Margaret, at its heart, is about the dangers of being so hardened in one's beliefs out of spite that it prevents you from even trying to understand the perspectives of others. Derry and Maggie were both funny, sweet, nasty, and unbelievably witty on their own; they didn't need the marginalia to make their story shine. Gold has a remarkable facility with dialogue and wordplay, giving even the most affected and stilted wordplay emotional depth. Maggie and Derry used their hyperverbal qualities as a mask for their deeper feelings and insecurities, but they also used it as a form of playful, loving interaction. 

Gold clearly has a bright future with regard to these kinds of character dramas, as her own sense of humor, playfulness, and eager willingness to innovate will no doubt continue to transform what could be dull talking-heads panels into something far more interesting and challenging. That said, I would hope that she focused her cartooning on the most important part of visual storytelling: the characters. How they interact with each other in space and fluidity of movement, in particular, are things that would enhance Gold's way of creating a beautiful verbal dance between her characters. I'm fascinated to see what she tries next. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

New address!

 Hello, all! I have a new address:

Rob Clough

1227 Seaton Road

Apt 40

Durham, NC 27713

Monday, May 16, 2022

Cool Jesus: Jessica Campbell's Rave

The genius of Jessica Campbell's work is her fastidious attention to detail. Her first two books were broad satires of gender, culture, and art that landed hard precisely because of how much she knows about art institutions and how easy it was to write a funny bit of feminist sci-fi. With Rave, however, Campbell moved into more serious territory in exploring how evangelical Christianity, by design, controls every aspect of its parishioners' lives and creates trauma and dysfunction. Campbell's attention to detail with regard to the church in this story is almost painful to read; it's the sort of thing that only an insider could have explained. 

Rave is the story of two teenage girls, Lauren and Mariah. Lauren is a good-natured, church-going girl who attends a fairly big evangelical church in what seems to be a suburb or smallish town. It's the kind of community where people tend to know each other--like it or not. Mariah is her classmate, a "bad girl" reputed to be a witch. When they are paired together on a school project on evolution, they decide to do a sleepover at Mariah's place, since Lauren's parents are offended by the very concept of evolution. Lauren's drawn to Mariah's devil-may-care attitude, and Mariah is drawn to Lauren's hidden potential. They slowly fall in love, the kind of romance that crosses naturally from close friendship into something physical. At a certain point, Lauren hears a sermon condemning same-sex marriage and starts to feel the kind of cognitive dissonance only a believer confronted with ideology that runs contrary to their lived experience can understand. She distances herself from Mariah and immediately regrets it, but it's too late. 

In the book's superb climatic sequence, Lauren attends a Christian "rave" (which is hilarious in any number of ways, but more on that later) while Mariah hangs out with a creepy guy in the forest. In both instances, the girls receive forced and unwanted sexual advances from guys they trusted. In Lauren's case, she simply runs away from the dull boy who's hitting on her; it's implied she only agreed to go with him to the rave as a nod to trying to fulfill the role the church wanted for her. In Mariah's case, she runs off into the woods and accidentally drowns in the river; it's implied that she was not just drunk, but drunk from something the guy brought and had drugged. Lauren eventually sees through all of the hypocrisy and storms out of church, smoking a cigarette from a pack she found in the garbage--a small tribute to her friend. 

It's the astounding verisimilitude of the cloying, manipulative quality of the church that makes this such an unsettling read. Christianity's ace in the hole has long been its ability to co-opt local religions and customs throughout history, repurposing these familiar mores and stripping of their original meaning while retaining the trappings. This viral quality can be seen in modern iterations of worship in churches using lingo and tropes familiar to kids while using the latest technology, like headset microphones. The core of the ideology remains unchanged for evangelical Christianity in particular: salvation can only come through Jesus, same-sex relationships and pre-marital sex are evil, Satan is actively trying to get you to stray off the path, etc. This played out in the DJ who ran the Christian rave, saying that Jesus was the first raver and wants people to dance and move--but not have sex. The use of lingo like "Can we talk?" in an attempt to dress up the archaic and repressive nature of these beliefs is the essence of this playbook, and Campbell just nails painful detail after painful detail. It would all feel like an exaggeration if it wasn't 100% true.

There's a scene early in the book that reveals just how much the church was simply theater. The daughter of the pastor (who of course revealed his struggle with masturbation that he supposedly conquered) got knocked up and was forced to go through the pregnancy. She was called onstage to repent and talk about God's love. When Lauren said hello to her at school the next day, the girl (smoking a cigarette while pregnant) simply said, "Fuck you." It was all a charade, all for show. Love, mercy, and compassion were stage dressing for controlling the lives of the believers. Lauren didn't truly understand this until the end of the book, and who can blame her? 

Campbell has her limitations as a draftsman, but it doesn't matter much because her skills as a cartoonist are so sharp. Her use of gesture is top-notch; there's a scene where Lauren is talking to Mariah on the phone, sitting in a plush chair, moving in different positions. Her relaxed poses in each panel reveal just how comfortable she was feeling with her best friend in ways that felt natural until the authority of the church told her otherwise. Similarly, the plastic quality of the pastor and rave DJ are reflected in the way they have their hair sculpted. Her satire is as trenchant as ever in Rave, but its surprising emotional depths point to her evolution as a cartoonist.