Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Queers And Comics Travel Fund

There's still time to donate to this worthy cause:


For Inquiries Contact: qctravelfund@gmail.com

Starting today, February 14th, the QC Travel Fund, a volunteer effort in partnership with Prism Comics, is raising money on Indiegogo to support creators who could not otherwise attend and present at the Queers & Comics conference being held in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts on April 14-15, 2017. The fundraiser can be found here.

Traditionally queer creators, those who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans*, asexual, intersex and otherwise present a non-mainstream sexual orientation, representation or identification, have been marginalized in society at large and in the sequential narrative form of comics. Events like the Queers & Comics conference aim to bring light onto those creators and the QC Travel Fund strives to financially enable those in the community that would otherwise be unable to participate due to lack of monetary means.

The QC Travel Fund Indiegogo fundraiser will run from February 14 – March 14, 2017. Queers & Comics creators have offered rewards for donations to the fund, including: digital copies of Northwest Press's anthologies “Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy!” edited by lesbian comics tastemaker Erica Friedman and “Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! edited Lambda Literary Award winning editor Tom Cardamone; digital copies of Northwest Press's Digital Mega Pack (digital editions of every in-print Northwest Press book published to date); "Love is MASSIVE" risographed postcard card set by Jiraiya; Manko Riot t-shirts by Rokudenashiko; and custom commissions by Queers & Comics creators. New rewards and incentives will be announced throughout the campaign.

Contribute to the fundraiser and reap your rewards here.

Prism Comics will also be collecting additional funds on site during the Queers & Comics conference to benefit the QC Travel Fund.

About QC Travel Fund:  The QC Travel Fund is a small group of independent volunteers who have come together to raise money for queer creators who could not otherwise afford the cost of traveling to attend and participate in the Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco from April 14-15, 2017.

About Prism Comics:   Prism Comics is the only organization in North America which provides a grant to emerging comics talent. The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant was founded in 2005 to support up and coming LGBTQAI cartoonists. To learn more about the QPG visit Prism Comics.

About Northwest Press: Northwest Press is a book publisher dedicated to publishing the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comics collections and graphic novels and celebrating the LGBT comics community. Find NWP’s original print releases and digital work at northwestpress.com.






Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Mini Reviews: D.Zender, T.Yamamoto, R.Van Ingram, J.T. Yost


Giving In, by Daniel Zender. This is a beautiful comic that looks as constructed as it is drawn. It looks painted and I can see brush strokes on some pages, but it also looks like MS Paint may have been used to fill in some parts of the page. Regardless, this a beautiful comic to look at, and it's well-designed enough to be effective as a silent comic. Indeed, with the striking use of pinks, greens, midnight blues and reds helping to code emotion, Zender didn't need text to tell this story about love, loneliness and accepting a brand new status quo when finding love. The story follows a young woman who goes on a camping trip with her friends. She's obviously depressed and lonely, thanks to her body language and some of the things she does in her apartment before the trip. Late at night, as she makes her way into the forest to pee, she encounters some strange pink lights. Intrigued instead of frightened, she makes her way into a tree, where she encounters some kind of tree spirit who is obviously every bit as lonely as she is. The story is marked by the silent decision she must make: stay in this weird environment where she's found a soulmate, or go back to her familiar world. In the end, she chooses to embrace the mystery of both her new environment and being in love. There is beauty and grace to be found in this comic, but there's also sadness as well, because the story notes that there's always a price to be paid for getting what we want.

The Rule, by Tetsuya Yamamoto. This is from Japan's BigUglyRobot, which publishes all sorts of odd comics in English. It follows a young man who visits some kind of vast repository of information, as he inquires after a small (nearly invisible) object that he finds in order to return it to its rightful owners. That snowballs into a wild, apocalyptic story where the young man encounters a race of aliens that originally owned the object, the other alien that had been hunting them down in order to get the object, and a hilarious final battle that devolves into an absurd Pokemon battle. It all makes sense in context, and Yamamoto's clever meta-storytelling provides all sorts of twists and turns along the way. One of those twists is going from a loose, sketchy style to an 8-bit video game style in the final battle. The looseness and fluidity of that earlier style stood in stark contrast to the deliberately stiff art during the battle scene, making that battle even funnier despite the fact that the stakes were no laughing matter. The title refers to how the protagonist was able to take advantage of extremely rigid thinking on the part of his opponent by changing the rules of reality (including having things like Microsoft Excel in his Pokeball) instead of trying to match the opponent on his own terms. Yamamoto manages to create a comic that's funny, mysterious and exciting, playing on standard comics tropes in order to come up with some new curves.

Loser Comix #2, by Richard Van Ingram. These are underground comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, full of heavily-rendered drawings that parody pop culture and politics. This issue was the end result of a Kickstarter campaign and it shows, with high production values and full color throughout. There's a plague story that's a thinly-veiled political allegory that has some genuinely funny lines and a densely inked, horrific quality to the art. Van Ingram's visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas, like the Loser Tarot. It's a funny concept that's beautifully-illustrated, but the actual ideas "The Ex-Wife", "The Republican" are on the bland side. The Peanuts parody Chunky Brown is tedious at best, turning Charlie Brown and Linus into loser hipster types, Lucy in a capitalist femme fatale (in one panel, her nipples poke through her shirt for no discernible reason) who sends them to work at a used bookstore. That latter development was clear Van Ingram's way of getting back at his awful used bookstore job, which was probably cathartic for him but not especially relevant for the reader. There's an accurate but tedious bit of social commentary about a yokel voting against his own interests by supporting Republicans. Van Ingram works best when he works briefly, like a hilarious strip about Richard Nixon seeing the future and the Partridge Family sending a message from 3013 to 1973, thanking them for their help in ousting Nixon and establishing a utopia. A serious strip about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson wouldn't have been out of place in World War III Illustrated, and here Van Ingram's dense but colorful style and page design perfectly encapsulates the desperate quality of his text. Van Ingram has a great deal of talent, and it's clear that he's trying to find the best way to use it.

Thanger Dangers, by JT Yost. This is a collection of odds and ends from various anthologies by Yost. "Thenthy" is an odd story about a particular way he bit down on his tongue when seeing an especially cute animal (and later, his daughter), and it leads him to wonder why we evolved with the tendency to react to extreme cuteness with an almost violent response. "The Lead Masks Case" is about the mysterious deaths of two men in Mexico that prompted the possibility of aliens, cults and other phenomena to explain a genuinely puzzling event. Yost is at his best here: clearly and amusingly laying out the facts while employing a line that skirts the edge between naturalist and cartoony. The mashup/parodies of classic comics are nicely drawn but not especially clever or funny. I did enjoy the ode to Waffle House, their absurd juke box and even more absurd styles of serving hash browns. Like Van Ingram, Yost is an excellent cartoonist who is still figuring out what he wants to say as an artist.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Stuff From Old Favorites: Steve Lafler & Lance Ward


Death In Oaxaca #3, by Steve Lafler (Alternative Comics). It's increasingly clear that when Lafler refers to death in the title of his series about a family of American ex-pats who settle in the arts mecca Mexican town, it's not so much about murder than the personification of Death itself. In this case, Death comes as a friend and source of information for Rex, a cartoonist and amateur musician (and Lafler's stand-in) whom Death visits in his sleep in order to jam with him musically. Rex's wife Gertie decides to become a superhero in Luchadora form, while their teenage son Myles is more of a background character but hints at burgeoning adulthood in this issue. 

This third issue starts to tie a few of the early plot threads together and smartly gets its protagonists on the same page. Death takes Rex on a walk that reveals that Rex is a reincarnation of the son of Eduardo, a local eccentric who is an immortal vampire. What's revealed in this issue is that Eduardo became a vampire when his village sent him to investigate a mysterious, huge rock that suddenly appeared, and the beings inside turned him vampiric for mysterious reasons. Meanwhile, Eduardo, who subsists on animal blood, is getting weaker and weaker and is rushed to the hospital at the issue's end, but not before getting a human blood transfusion. It's hard to say where Lafler is going with all this, as the story meanders in an episodic fashion more than any of Lafler's non-psychedelic stories. It was smart of him to have Rex and Gertie reveal their secrets to each other, as the strength and ardor of their relationship is one of my favorite things about this comic. It's clear that Lafler is happy to let the story set its own pace, as he dips into local culture, cuisine and politics in addition to the soap operatic hijinks (and parody of same) of its cast of characters. There's no question that this comic is a genuine delight to look at from a structural and storytelling perspective; Lafler is one of the best figure artists in comics, with a rock-solid understanding of anatomy that meshes with his loose, playful line. His hatching and use of negative space and spotting blacks is all in service to the story; he never shows off or wastes a line. I imagine Lafler will start to draw together plot lines shortly, but it is odd that there doesn't seem to be a clear antagonist as of yet. That may well become Eduardo or someone else, depending on how many issues he plans for the series. I'm simply happy to be along for the ride. 

A-Hole #6 and Blood And Drugs, by Lance Ward. One of the best and most bracing autobio cartoonists actually does all sorts of comics, and A-Hole is his catch-all anthology for such material. There's his "Fatnuts" strips, a brutal parody of Peanuts that doesn't so much make "Chucky Brown" the butt of jokes for being fat as much as it makes every character their worst possible selves, with Chucky still the center of it all. It's also Ward's catch-all strip for anything he's angry or concerned about, like his characters getting radiation poisoning thanks to the disaster at Fukashima in Japan, Bernie Sanders, science without morals and nightmares. His "Stick Shifter" strips are all-aggro parodies of The Fast And The Furious type of car adventure movies, with the main driver always getting so angry that horrible things happen with the car. There are also strips credited to "Jason Walters", and I'm not sure if that's a Ward pseudonym or not, but the "Kafka The Cat" and other strips are mostly mild genre parodies. While the overall content is amusing, it's not anything that's especially innovative or that sticks with the reader like Ward's autobio strips.

On the other hand, Blood and Drugs, while being (apparently, mostly) fictional and also a different aesthetic approach than his fairly straightforward design of his autobio strips, packs as much of a wallop as his best work to date. Using a six-panel grid to anchor the rest of his page, Ward frequently goes off the rails in this comic about heroin addiction and what a person is willing to do to keep it going. In slashing red and black markers on the early pages, Charlie Brown and Calvin & Hobbes scream at each other until it resolves into Ward on a bus, in deep pain, willing to try anything. Ward sells all of his art to his initial fixes, gets a friend to drive him to a dealer's house (under protest) and is forced to give the dealer (depicted as a Jabba the Hutt-style creature) head in exchange for heroin. Ward bits the guy's dick off instead and flees, knowing that he's doomed and screaming at a local street Santa that he sells lies to children. The whole thing is over the top and scrawled, looking a bit like Josh Bayer's work at some points, only much more scribbled and intense. The key page in the story is when Ward scores some heroin to "get normal" so he can finish doing a story, only for the reader to see four straight blank panels. Heroin takes away one's capacity and interesting for much in life other than heroin. It certainly takes away pain, but it takes away desire, motivation and inspiration as well. The story may seem over the top in terms of its approach and histrionics, but it feels authentic in a way that implies familiarity with these kinds of stories, even if this wasn't something that Ward experienced personally. As always, however, Ward is his own best character, even in a fictional story. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

D&Q; R.Sikoryak's Terms And Conditions

Reading Robert Sikoryak's Terms and Conditions is like if Marcel Duchamp had decided to start doing comics. It's at once a shaggy dog joke and a work that pushes at the boundaries of the comics form. I've read plenty of abstract comics, but the emphasis there is narrative abstraction from a visual perspective. I've also read plenty of comics that remove images and play strictly with the form in terms of panel-to-panel and page-to-page flow with the words playing against that bit of formal experimentation. What Sikoryak does here is have page after page of recognizable, narrative imagery stripped of meaning not by removing text or adding nonsense text, but rather by replacing text with the entirety of Apple's terms and conditions for iTunes. The words are entirely coherent and understandable on their own (if incredibly boring, like most terms and conditions), but they have almost no connection to the images chosen to accompany them. The subtitle "A Graphic Novel" is thus even funnier, as Sikoryak intentionally uses the pretentious and market-driven name for long-form comics to describe something that is in no way a graphic novel.

This work is also different from his comics/literature mash-ups, because there he specifically finds ways to tie the visuals into the original source material. The only concession Sikoryak makes here is that on every page, one of the characters is dressed up like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who was well known for his turtlenecks and stubble. All of his dialogue consists of the terms and conditions of iTunes, as he explains them to the other characters on page after page. What started as goof became a mission for Sikoryak, who deliberately wanted to mold the terms and conditions and fit them in the confines of a book in a way that didn't disturb the original sequences that he adapted in the course of the book. Of course, Sikoryak is a gifted style mimic and challenged himself by taking on so many different kinds of comics, from YA comics to classic strips to superheroes to manga to alternative comics to everything in-between. One could see his skill as a mimic wobble from time to time; interestingly, the most notable misfire was an adaptation of a page from Raina Telgemeier's Sisters. There's a purity and smooth clarity to Telgemeier's line that Sikoryak doesn't quite match here, as his line is a bit on the wobbly and wavy side on this page. He also doesn't get the colors quite right. The same is true for his attempt at Jeff Smith's Bone. Another deceptively-simple looking comic is so smooth and balanced (especially in terms of color scheme) that it's actually difficult to mimic in a way that makes it look like Smith's work.

On the other hand, his goof on a page from Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga is not only dead-on, he's able to inject some visual humor in the form of the background characters doing all sorts of perverted things with apples. Sikoryak isn't always able to inject that kind of humor into a page, but it seemed like an obvious fit here. He also really nails the alternative comics in particular, like his pages goofing on Peter Bagge's Hate, Daniel Clowes' Wilson and Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken. It's also funny to see how successfully he's able to mimic Julie Doucet (down to those stray bits of ink) and Lynda Barry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, his Spawn is hilarious, laying bare some of Todd MacFarlane's affectations as an artist. Sikoryak has a list of the creators, comics or comic strips he used as source material in the book, so it's obvious that trying to identity source material was part of the experience. Indeed, there's definitely something that's a bit "inside baseball" about this book, because I imagine handing the book to a non-comics reading person would utterly baffle them.

While he "quotes" mostly popular comics and best-sellers, most of the source material would be a source of frustration instead of humor. There is a level where that doesn't necessarily matter, because he's not just going for recognizability in his work but also a pure aesthetic impact. In other words, as long as the reader recognizes that something is a superhero comic, or a fantasy comic, or a kid's comic, that's enough of an informational hit to enjoy the book at a base level. That said, it's a book made for a comics fan with a decidedly broad knowledge base that extends into modern-day work and YA work. It's also important to note that the satirical and formal trickery of the book are less important than the images themselves, the way each page is designed and the wide variety of character designs. It's a love letter to the elasticity of comics disguised as hate mail to Apple. That love letter is not quite as satisfying as his other, more complicated comics, but it's certainly a lot of fun to look at.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Minis From Andrew Alexander

Andrew Alexander is an interesting young cartoonist who works very much in the Gary Panter "ratty line" tradition. Dead Dog Daze #1 is a perfect example of this, with the distorted faces and heads mixing that Panter aesthetic with a sort of distorted Archie-by-way-of-Clowes concept. This first issue begins with a drug dealing kid named Anthony who calls his recluse friend Henri because he discovers a dog that's been hanged on a football goal post with some strange symbols carved in it. The comic switches first-person perspectives with a large cast of high school (and slightly older) kids and their connections with the crime and with each other. Alexander's ear for dialogue and willingness to go deep into the darkest aspects of his characters made this a riveting read. That was especially true as his grotesque, exaggerated character design was in some ways a parody of Archie (Anthony bore a resemblance to Jughead, for example) but in other ways it represented making each character's appearance reflective of their self-image or inner character.

There are a lot of levels of story here. One interesting diversion in the story is when Anthony goes to visit his supplier Heff (a shut-in obsessed with chess), and Heff tells him that everyone in town plays a role like a piece on the chessboard. Henri is the detective and Anthony is the orphan, and that observation fuels the rest of the issue, as Anthony starts wondering about his life in an existential sense. For the reader, it becomes clear that detective really is Henri's role and that this is a twisting detective mystery with a rogue's gallery worth of suspects. There's even a haunting detail from the past in that Henri was the one who discovered the body of his friend Wren in the forest, an event that clearly altered the course of his life and not in a positive way. There are muscle-headed football players (including one with stitches on his head that make him look like Frankenstein's monster), popularity-seeking girls, and concerned grandmas (one whose face consists entirely of wrinkles, like she's the Dick Tracy villain Pruneface). I'll be curious to see how Alexander resolves this.

Headfirst #2 (as Alex Dicker) is a collection of Alexander's short stories. They are more scribbly and less ambitious than Dead Dog Daze, but they are certainly still interesting. The first story involves a road trip and a quartet of life-long friends going in very different directions. This one is all about the ways in which aggression goes hand-in-hand with friendship and communication, and how different life choices cause that level of intimacy to fracture. The pivotal character in the story is Ralph, who has moved away from California and his friends, and that resentment is palpable even as he finds it hard to relate to his old life. That's especially true when it's revealed along the way that the purpose of the trip is a drug deal, and Ralph actually fantasizes about busting up the deal when he imagines he sees a cop. The constantly sleepy character instead simply dreamed this intervention, and the deal (financing his friend getting his and girlfriend's upcoming baby) was all to set up a new life, one even further removed from his. The other stories involve a post-Civil War narrative about a returning soldier always in search of the next fight, and sees him being manipulated into hunting down Native Americans by the neighbors of his family. That one's a bit on the convoluted side, and the lack of clear storytelling doesn't help. There's a funny bit of autobio involving rebellion and connection at an older age, and there's also a clever story about a living toy who's constantly being torn apart by his owner. This mini shows a restless mind at work with some solid characterization, but it doesn't quite cohere. The difference between this 2014 comic and the 2016 comic reviewed above clearly shows Alexander's development, and it's obvious that he's going in the right direction.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fantagraphics: LOVF, by Jesse Reklaw

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the book-length version of Jesse Reklaw's diary of madness, LOVF. One chapter was published as a minicomic by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket, and the effect of that mini was truly that of an all-out assault on the senses. This isn't really a comic in the traditional sense, though there are some comics sequences. Instead, it's what it purports to be on the cover: "The illustrated diary of a man literally losing his mind." There are two things has to consider when reading this book: the visual approach and the actual timeline. The timeline follows Reklaw's relationships in his residence of Portland starting to crumble, until one shattering day when he's brutally beaten by a guy after he stopped to try to help the woman the perpetrator was assaulting. That led Reklaw to New York, where he learned that his Medicare was stated-based, meaning that he couldn't get his psych meds since he had no money. That meant being homeless in New York, then managing to get himself to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and finally back to Portland again. Each city is roughly demarcated as a chapter and marked off as such by a different color of paper.

Visually, Reklaw collaborated with a host of guest artists (including some he was involved with romantically) and used a dense, dark mixture of colors on each page. There was also a side narrative involving an adventurer named Koldor that was the most visually interesting and funny part of the book; it was done very much in the spirit of Reklaw's Bluefuzz the Hero mini, which was meant to work both as a straightforward adventure, as a metacommentary about role playing games, and as a partly autobiographical series. There's also plenty in the way of eye-pops and other visual easter eggs on each page, but they were more in the spirit of a sketchbook jam than anything resembling a real narrative. The autobiographical story is told through Reklaw's hand-painted text, and the images are there more to reflect his state of mind than support the text with images that make it clearer.

Reklaw, in his career doing his strip Slow Wave and autobio projects, always struck me as an artist who thrived on creating order out of chaos. In transcribing the dreams of others, he put them in a solid grid and used a fairly naturalistic style to make sense of them. There was a solidity to be found there, just like in his diary strip Ten Thousand Things To Do and most of his Couch Tag book. Lurking underneath that order was the bubbling chaos of being in constant pain and dealing with the PTSD of a difficult childhood, along with other mental and emotional issues. He built structures to contain all of these things, and LOVF reveals what happens when the emotional and personal scaffolding of one's life is removed: total collapse. Tonally, what was odd about this book (and much of his other work) is how distant it all felt, like he was describing something happening to someone else. Reklaw's strategy in his autobio work was also to use a mundane and quotidian approach that the reader (and he) could latch on to, which allowed him to slip in the real roots of trauma or experience of depression or debilitating pain. He doesn't close such events in a big reveal moment; it simply comes up almost incidentally, as he frequently buries the lede with regard to his own life. There's no drama built-in to his work, which is not to say that there's no trauma.

What Reklaw describes in a matter-of-fact kind of way (giving away most of his possessions and leaving town) is actually pretty startling stuff, and the tone of the scene where he's beaten is almost bemused. There's a sense of almost denial that something could be causing him pain that eventually comes out in his behavior, like drinking to excess, saying hurtful and obnoxious things to others, and trying the patience of his friends. He's in and out relationships, charming and alienating people he meets, flirting with financial success and then having no money at all. At the end of the book he reveals what precipitated his initial journey to New York: a trip with his mom and siblings where Reklaw had a breakdown and walked away, eventually winding up in a nearby stream where the cops pulled him out. He was locked up, escaped from lock-up (!) and eventually got sent to a mental hospital. In other words, he started the book on a foundation of shifting sand to begin with, and without his meds that became quicksand. Reklaw is philosophical about it all, as he knows he could have killed himself or been killed in any number of ways, but it didn't quite seem to be his fate.

This is a difficult book to navigate. There are fascinating visuals and surprising twists and turns, but the restraint that has marked Reklaw's books in the past obviously went out the window, replaced instead with that strange disconnect that even Reklaw noted is something that he doesn't understand or relate to at this point in his life. Reklaw said it feels like someone else hijacked his life for a while and did this book, unconcerned with consequences and instead more interested in trying on different personae every day. It's a book about losing touch with reality and repeatedly self-inflicting wounds and burning bridges. Really, its main attraction as a comic to read is that secondary fantasy narrative that I wish had been fleshed out more in lieu of the book that we got, because it seemed to illustrate the chaos surrounding his life better than the other actual illustrations did. This is less an artistic masterpiece than an extended warning to himself and expulsion of toxins, a perilous journey with some dark but occasionally fascinating roadside attractions.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Minicomics of Cathy Hannah

Chicago-area cartoonist Cathy Hannah has been remarkably prolific over the past few years. Her autobio comics tackle topics that range from body image to depression to eating disorders to simply finding one's purpose in life. Let's take a look at her recent output, starting with three one-off minis. Sometimes an autobio cartoonist is afraid to, as my fellow critic Rob Kirby likes to say, "spill some ink". In other words, go really deep about their feelings and thoughts, no matter how ugly or embarrassing. Hannah has absolutely no problem going deep, using her comics not just as a kind of self-therapy, but also as a powerful feminist manifesto rooted in vulnerability. In Kitten Pits, for example, she talks about her history with her own body hair and how much she hated it and felt disgusted by it. There's even an embarrassing anecdote about having an infected hair follicle which she has to have seen by her doctor, which was kind of an intense distillation of a lifetime of viewing herself as imperfect. The ending, where she stops shaving, finds a moment of validation that's powerful.

Uglyfat takes on body image and eating disorder issues directly, as Hannah reveals that she hated her nose and thought she was too fat from a very early age, thanks to comments on the schoolyard and media. Using an eight-panel grid and a highly expressive, sketchy style, Hannah whips the reader through a life where she was judged for her size and appearance, which only amplified her self-hatred when she did find people who wanted to be with her. Simply put, she wasn't wrong when she saw thin  and conventionally attractive girls get preferential treatment. When she finally did lose weight (in order to become a better skater for the roller derby team she hoped to join), it wasn't the validation she needed. Instead, the mini ended in a spiral of depression.

We Are Gonna Be Friends touches on a lifetime of not just being sad, but actually chasing that feeling. It starts with an anecdote about wanting to watch Old Yeller again and again, which then moves to the modern day, where that sadness has metastasized in the form of being unable to understand how someone could possibly consider giving birth, knowing that your child will suffer and die. It's almost a sort of hyper-empathy that in Hannah's case stopped being functional. This mini is inked with a much thicker line and there's a wash that gives it a nice texture. Like most empathetic people, Hannah immediately perks up when she learns her brother and his wife were going to have a child, because she could be the cool, empowering aunt. When given a chance to nurture others, she was there in a shot, even if there was still a great deal of anxiety. Hannah is actually quite skillful at transforming her anxiety and awkwardness into highly effective cringe humor, like in a scene where she drunkenly shocks her sister-in-law's conservative, religious mom by suggesting they name the boy Lucifer. Hannah avoids easy, convenient endings in her work, so the mini ends with her attempting to bond with her nephew but still not feeling 100% sure about her feelings about bringing a baby into the world or that its mere existence would make her happy, though she just can't help feeling warmth regarding her nephew.

Alas is Hannah's main autobio series, consisting of short stories, story fragments and observations. The essence of this highly self-aware artist is something she talks about in a special convention issue of Alas, in which she notes that she lives a very easy, privileged life: she doesn't have to worry about food, has a fun job, gets to bike to work, is supported by her parents, etc and yet is still deeply depressed and unsatisfied. This is because she still doesn't feel she has a purpose, and also because she feels terribly lonely and wants the validation a relationship can bring as well as an opportunity to heap affection on another person. In other words, the idea of a relationship is just as important to her as the actual potential person. The first issue of the regular series starts an occasional serial about her father's experiences in Viet Nam, but it's also about the ways she depends on him as a source of strength and validation. Hannah often speaks about herself through the language of depression, as she catastrophizes, declares herself useless and an idiot. Of course, the reality is that Hannah is inquisitive, philosophical and mindful of social justice and the circumstances that affect others' lives; as noted before, she's an empath who is unable (because of her mental illness) to turn a little of that empathy on herself.

The second issue focuses on the details of a 2012 march in Chicago against NATO and war in general, and Hannah's observations of what she saw and heard were especially astute. For someone who is so passionate about her cause, she has a remarkable sense of overall fairness and went out of her way to record the thoughts of the police, for example. Contrasting the stories of war veterans apologizing for their actions to her father's memories of the sheer banality of being in the war made everything political in this comic that much more personal, down to romantic protester vibe that she witnessed and secretly wished was a part of. The third issue matches up her father's war stories with her recollection of 9/11; her observations about fatalism creeping into pop culture were especially interesting.

The fourth issue is a dense grab-bag: from feeling betrayed at not getting a gallery job despite her many hours spent as a volunteer to more body image exploration and personal history to profiles of obscure artists Hannah clearly finds interesting to her father's war story (this time about hauling a soldier who had been hit by napalm to an evacuation helicopter) to a follow-up to her book from over a decade ago, Winter Beard. That book, which won a Xeric Grant, was about Hannah writing a comic over time to express her feelings to her male best friend. His response was not to express that he was in love with her, but that he was unsure of her real feelings, considering that she was about to move away. The story here follows up on that as she attends his wedding, gets drunk and desperately wants to hook up with someone, to no avail. The story ends as many of her stories do--with Hannah crying and no real sense of closure. The running theme in her comics is that of someone who finds herself relentlessly inadequate, yet she never stops trying to improve herself, to do and try new things and to maintain social contacts. Despite these setbacks, Hannah sets out, Charlie-Brown like, and keeps plugging away.

The fifth issue was my favorite. Hannah's drawing just continued to get better from issue to issue, adding greater moments of depth and texture and varying her line weights to give certain scenes more emotional resonance. Hannah is a talented illustrator as well as a cartoonist, as evidenced by certain of her drawings and her elaborate covers, and each issue of Alas provides a few of those treats to the reader. This issue concerned meeting up with an old flame now in recovery for substance abuse, which made Hannah (someone who likes to drink and who smokes pot every day) highly uneasy. That made for some awkward moments in the story, but it's also the kind of raw honesty that she relays so well. Her frustration with being alone boils over into a hilarious fantasy sequence about being Albert Camus' lover, as her core as an existentialist spills over into her daily life. Being aware of death's inevitability can sure get in the way of one's daily happiness, but that's part of who Hannah is. Finally, the sixth issue flashes back to family: a brilliant aunt who was usually ill when Hannah was a child and her cool older cousin who was kind to her and showed her all sorts of cool stuff. There's some remarkable confessional stuff as well as a harrowing scene of how her father got his Purple Heart (took shrapnel in an explosion).

Hannah's most recent comic is Springtime In Chicago, which sports a beautiful, colorful color and a striking, naturalistic self-portrait. In many respects, it's a companion piece to Winter Beard, but with a number of significant differences. First, she long ago cycled through the Jeffrey Brown influence that marked her earlier work. Second, Hannah used a strict, daily diary comics approach. Third, as seen in the book's third strip, Hannah is in therapy and is making this an important part of the narrative. Of course, the main similarity is that there's a guy at work she has a crush on, and she can't quite work up the courage to tell him--so she does comics about it (and other stuff) instead. There's a hilarious strip where she smells his sweater, is swept up by his scent for a moment, and then immediately castigates herself for her obsessive behavior. There's a running story involving the health of her beloved cat and the helplessness she feels with regard to him, dealing with depressive spells, self-care in the form of baths, and many funny little anecdotes. Working in a four panel strip form pushed Hannah to cartoon like a strip cartoonist, down to using punchlines and packing the biggest punch in the final panel. It worked nicely on a number of levels, especially when Hannah was able to really establish her self-worth in a powerful way and understand how much love she has to give, as opposed to needing love from someone else. There's a lot of radical acceptance in this collection of strips, and that emotional punch that came from the breakthroughs she was making were every bit as important as the comic punchlines that came through in her funny strips.

There was a little more artifice in the way that she structured these strips than in her earlier work. Part of that was the format, to be sure, but there was a solidity to her storytelling that marked a significant change from the more fragmented quality of her earlier comics. While there was always an emotional through-line to follow in those comics, there wasn't much in terms of narrative. The strip format is a concise one, and it clearly forced Hannah to make some difficult choices here and there as to what to include and why. That's important because Hannah has a lot to say as an artist, both with regard to personal and political issues (and their intersection, of course). She could write any number of different kinds of memoirs detailing one or two of these issues, but I think the daily strip format is best-suited for the wide variety of stories she wants to tackle. In many respects, she embodies the existentialist's dilemma: understanding that we are truly alone while at the same time trying to figure out exactly how we should deal with others.