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. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Announcing the North Street Book Prize

Aimed at creators of self-published comics and graphic novels/memoirs, art books, and five other genre categories, the North Street Book Prize offers cash awards to artists. Now in its eighth year, The North Street Book Prize values entries which portray lives underrepresented in traditional media; diverse characters and themes are especially welcome. 

The Grand Prize is $8,000 and the First Prize in each entry category is $1,000. Grand Prize and First Prize winners also receive a marketing consultation with a book publicity expert, as well as other benefits. One honorable mention in each category will receive $250 each. The 2022 deadline is June 30th, and the entry fee is $70. It can be submitted online or by mail. All winning entries receive publication of an excerpt from their book on alongside a critique from our judges.

Recent winners include Ingrid Pierre, for her graphic memoir Do Not Resuscitate, and Dmitri Jackson, for his slice-of-life comic Blackwax Boulevard. I reviewed the latter comic on High-Low here

All entrants will receive free gifts from our co-sponsors geared towards the development of their self-publishing careers. This will include free access to paid subscription services such as Book Award Pro, a company that analyzes your book and finds the contests most suited to it, and Self-Publishing Mastermind, a workgroup for authors that covers every aspect of the self-publishing and book marketing process. The price of entry also includes free downloads of PDFs about self-publishing and marketing from experts like Book LaunchersC.S. LakinBookBaby, and Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Every entrant comes away with materials to help them develop their craft and career, not just the winners.  
The North Street Book Prize is sponsored by the website Winning Writers in partnership with the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a designation for "contests which are organized for the benefit of the author rather than the profit of the organizer." Winning Writers has been running writing contests for over 20 years. We are one of Writer's Digest's Top 8 Online Resources for Publishing and Marketing. We seek to be a welcoming place for diverse authors and stories, with a culture of listening to people of all genders, backgrounds, and abilities. We look for high-quality original writing that portrays under-represented perspectives with sensitivity, accuracy, and passion.

Please note that this post is sponsored by Winning Writers. 


Friday, December 31, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #32: Less Than Secret

I enjoy anthologies that are a true team effort. This is something that's one of the major first-year requirements at CCS, as students are split into teams to make an anthology in a particular style, like Golden Age adventure or romance comics or 90s style Shonen Jump manga work. Because most alternative cartoonists are solo acts, forcing this kind of collaboration can be useful and teach a lot of lessons. Less Than Secret is an anthology from several CCS grads and several other cartoonists. Beyond their contributions in terms of the stories they drew, many of the book's cartoonists had other duties related to publishing. 

CCS grads Rainer Kannenstine and Ben Wright-Heumann served as its publishers. They were there to make sure the book was on schedule, obtain funding and consider distribution. JD Laclede was the editor, working directly with talent and sequencing the stories. Erienne McCray did the design, while Kelci Crawford acted as the crowdfunding manager. Angela Boyle was an anthology consultant, which makes sense considering her years assembling the Awesome Possum anthology. That collective sense of responsibility on what was clearly a labor of love is present and strengthens the overall anthology. 

The theme here is cryptids, or animals that some people claim to exist but whose existence has never been proven. It's fitting that Steve Bissette, the master monster-maker, penned a funny intro explaining his interest in monsters from a young age. Crawford's "A Day In The Life Of Mothman" is played for laughs, as a woman is followed by the legendary creature, whose presence foretells potential disaster. However, she can sense him, and it allows her to prevent a guy from being killed by a car, avoiding a fight at a diner, and preventing her from eating a bad hot dog. Crawford's line is crisp and expressive, with a lot of grayscale shading to add weight to the page. 

McCray's comic about the "Fresno Nightcrawler" (essentially a big baseball with legs) is also played for laughs, as this cryptid is more ridiculous than scary. They added a nice touch having the Loch Ness Monsters as its roommate and Bigfoot taunt it. McCray's line is fluid and a nice match for the kind of dynamic silliness that this ridiculous creature (wearing a fedora, even!) demands. Wright-Heumann is a horror guy, and he did a sort of Western/fantasy fusion with a family of Elves fending off a group of chupacabra mysteriously attacking them. The ending is grimly clever. His scratchy line was appropriate for the subject matter, though the extensive use of grayscale was distracting at times. This was a story that cried out for color. 

I'm not crazy about comics that insert huge blocks of typewritten text, but Angela Boyle's cartooning is so sharp in her story of the odd little elwetritsch that it wasn't too distracting. Moreover, using that text as the main character's interior monologue actually made this a useful device, commenting on the comic set around it. Boyle manages to sneak an entire murder mystery into this little comic with an unassuming old woman and her strange "pet." Ian Klesch and Andrew Small's story about how a lycanthrope used a dating app to fool a woman into being his prey was funny and grisly. The figure drawing was crude at points in a way that was distracting, and some of that was due to over-drawing in an effort to bolster a shaky line. 

Rainer Kannenstine's piece about the Dover Demon went in yet another direction: how messing with weird cryptids is likely to bite you in the ass in horrible ways. It's the story of a bully who attacks the creature in the forest with a ball, then gets his head crushed in revenge. He used some digital effects in interesting ways, including a "syrup brush" for some of the background fills that added to the story's atmosphere. Jess Johnson had perhaps the silliest story in the book, as an emo kid is befriended by his sister's new boyfriend: "JD," or the infamous Jersey Devil. Johnson turned the creature into an actual hockey player and made this a romance/family story where everyone took JD's presence for granted. It's hard not to see Johnson's strong shojo manga influence, giving this a radically different look and feel from the other stories in the anthology. However, it's not a slavish adherence to the style; rather, it's a launching point into Johnson's own style. 

There's plenty of backmatter in the anthology, including full biographies and behind-the-scenes stuff that's somewhat interesting, but at 20 pages (compared to 90 pages for the rest of the book) it feels like a lot of padding. That said, the interviews asking each creator why they chose their cryptid, their creative methods, etc. was at least thoughtfully done. Overall, this is a breezy anthology that I wished had been a bit longer. 

31 Days Of CCS, #31: Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen has two entries here. The big one is the art job he did for The Good Fight, written by Ted Staunton. It is an unfortunately timely book set in 1933 Toronto, at a time when Nazis were starting to take hold. Toronto is known now as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world, but this era showed how fraught that status was, and still is, to an extent. As such, the cast is very Toronto: a Jewish kid named Sid and an Italian kid named Plug, whose families live together, try to hustle their way into helping their families during the Depression. 

The essence of this book is a shifting idea of ethical behavior in the face of poverty, systematic white supremacy, and police corruption. Sid and Plug start the book hooking up with Tommy as part of a pickpocketing trio. Tommy is Jewish but pretends he's Irish, because it's better to identity with more traditionally Anglo-Saxon ethnicities than staying true to your own identity--especially as a grifter. His patter, his swagger, and his braggadocio were things that Sid and Plug were dazzled by, even as they slowly started to understand that he would (and later did) sell them out at a moment's notice. 

When Sid and Plug were pinched and ended up at the police station, they were quickly wisened up about how the world really worked. The cops couldn't care less about some teen yeggs. What they were after (and had been watching the boys over) was the identities of labor leaders, so they could crush them. They not only couldn't care less about the ethnic minorities who were banding together in order to get better working conditions, they were happy to let the burgeoning Nazi presence in Toronto take care of their job for them. 

The book's climax was the real-world Riot at Christie Pits. It putatively started as related to a hotly-contested softball game but led to what was supposed to be a massacre of Jews, Italians, and other minorities as the cops stood by and did nothing. Instead, the marginalized groups fought back and the pro-labor Mayor was able to use this to help get control over the police, and labor gained a number of concessions. In the 21st century, this is all somehow next verse, same as the first, as various forces continue to work against labor and the general voice and betterment of marginalized peoples. 

Of course, this is all framed through the eyes of the kids in order to bring it within the purview of YA fiction. This is where Rosen steps in so ably. He has a spare but expressive cartoony style that maximizes the expressions of his characters while keeping a foot in naturalism. The color palette is admirably restrained, emphasizing Rosen's line art instead of dominating it. The characters, especially the antagonists, are on the exaggerated side at times, although Plug, Sid, and Plug's sister Rosie are well-realized. It felt like Rosie was a character Staunton wanted to do more with but couldn't quite figure out how, and her status is somewhere between central character and a side character who adds a bit of color. This amounts to Rosen's PhD in comics in some ways, as it's his first full-length book after doing a lot of minis. His style is no-frills, but it told the story ably and aptly. 

Rosen also included Wrestle Club!, a fun zine where he invented an all-women's wrestling federation. He alternated between profiles and short comics involving the wrestlers, and it's a delight. The federation (the All Girls Fight League or AGFL) is a bit like Japanese feds like Stardom where most of the fighters are pretty young (and mostly teenagers), and Rosen really keys in on how each character's gimmick is informed by their personality. This seems like a perfect future YA project; I hope Rosen pursues it. 

31 Days Of CCS, #33: Luke Kruger-Howard

Goes #1 is the innovative collection of comics from Luke Kruger-Howard, built on a non-profit model. I did an extensive interview with him on the model at SOLRAD, but I'm going to discuss the actual content of the book here. Howard's a talented draftsman who can work a number of different styles, but he's found something that works well for him with blocky, bulky, and distorted figures. There's an intentional distortion of naturalism at work here that emphasizes the actual quality and shape of the lines and figures. It's a self-conscious technique that pushes the experience of line qua line on the reader, making them experience the figures as both part of the story and as actual drawings. It's a delicate balancing act, but that bit of abstraction away from naturalism ironically allows the cartoonist to imbue his figures with greater emotional energy. Kruger-Howard's line is certainly up to that task.

That sensitivity is crucial for a collection whose theme is "touch." Kruger-Howard explores non-romantic, non-erotic touch through the issue in a variety of ways. The main piece is "Men's Holding Group," which can best be described as the antithesis of the way many many misinterpret "Fight Club," embracing its machismo while ignoring it as a satire of capitalism. In Kruger-Howard's story, we have a story that's every bit as subversive, using non-romantic touch and intimacy between men as a way of attacking the barriers that cultural mores have erected against this kind of closeness. The story follows an organizer of and a new member of this "Men's holding group," whose purpose is to not just ask the question as to why men don't show affection toward each other, but also engage deliberately in ways to change that with hugs and holding hands--again, all in non-romantic ways. Throughout the issue, including an excerpt from a fake zine from the future, that lack of touch is labeled as a sort of emotional starvation that begins with the lack of affection many fathers have with their sons. The story is sweet and funny and awkward, as everyone acknowledges both that the whole thing is weird--but that it's also sad that it is weird. There are segues to hyper-masculine settings--the gym, football locker rooms, even the show "Friends"--and how creating a culture of friendly touch also opens up the door to greater emotional intimacy, improves communication, and creates stronger bonds between friends.

"Dead Dog" is an autobiographical story about the recent death of Kruger-Howard's family dog, Whimbly. One of Kruger-Howard's best assets as a creator is his total willingness to confront tragic and emotionally devastating revelations with gallows humor. In this story, for example, as he's hefting the corpse of his big, beloved dog, he recalls a childhood anecdote where his mom made a hilariously horrifying joke when he was trying to put his childhood dog's body into a car. At the same time, Kruger-Howard gives himself permission to write a parallel narrative where Whimbly is getting all of the food, walks, fresh air, and comfy dog beds that he wants in the afterlife--but he can never quite settle in because his people aren't there. Kruger-Howard ends the story with a look back to when he first met Whimbly as a way of expressing how our affection towards pets and each other creates a narrative that never ends. 

"Let Me Show You Around" is a clever story about therapy and anxiety. A very of Luke invites a therapist named Edith inside his "house," aka, his brain, to help him fix it. Meanwhile, the house very much has its own agenda, even as it constantly worries about falling into the ocean. It's moments like this when Kruger-Howard's work has an absurd, almost detached sense of humor, echoing the sense of fatalism he feels with regard to mental health. Of course, this story has a brightness to it in that the "house" can be repaired and fixed up. The final story, "Goes," recapitulates the book's theme in a sweet way. It's about his son turning one year old and him remembering the various ways he held him at various ages, with the last panel being his son running away. "He still quickly goes." Holding an infant isn't just about intimacy; it's a way of comforting the child, helping them sleep, digest food, and so much else. While a constant need for this sort of touch must be pushed aside as a child become independent, the entire point of this issue is that it shouldn't be entirely abandoned, either. Touch remains nourishing, invigorating, and comforting, and there's no reason why it should ever stop being any of these things. This is a moving and entertaining comic, and it's radical both in terms of how it came to be and of the ideas it espouses. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #30: Rachel Bivens

Rachel Bivens is very much a CCS student hunting for her style, playing around with the student assignments in some clever ways. For example, Texture! is a silly story about needing to use three different kinds of textures in a story; Bivens turned it into a meta-assignment. The cartoonists gets a sweater with fuzzy texture and a haircut with feathery texture bur cries when they can't afford a third texture--and the puddle from tears winds up being the third texture for the real assignment. Bivens' lettering is rough, but that fit into the spontaneous nature of the story's energy. 

Sinking is a very clever use of the Ed Emberley assignment with simplified, geometric figures. It's a mostly silent story about a deep-sea diver who has her oxygen line cut, inducing hallucinations until she manages to make it back to the surface. The simplicity of form contributes both to the comic's sense of wonder and terror. 

The most interesting of Bivens' comics was Granite. This sketchy, expressive comic is about a trio of teen girls who go to a beach. The narrator is shy, unathletic, and clearly not into doing things like cliff diving or log rolling. She goes along with most of it because of her clear crush on one of her friends. It's more than that, however; there's an element of feeling you were exactly like one of your friends, but then you encounter them in a different environment and everything changes. There's a beautiful sense of tension and ambiguity in this comic.

The opposite is true in the fantasy/friendship comic Rhubarb's Cold Open. Rhubarb is a messenger going through a scary forest and is accosted by Smallflower and Frog Fruit. They start their friendship by scaring him and spend the entire comic ignoring his boundaries, either by refusing him a moment's respite or actively putting him in dangerous situations. The intent in this comic for kids is to encourage opening oneself up to adventure, but Smallflower and Frog Fruit are so over-the-top and obnoxious that one can hardly blame Rhubarb for wanting to be alone. This is only part one of a larger story, so perhaps this gets resolved, Rhubarb's "friends" don't display much real friendship here. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #29: Kat Leonardo

Over the years, it's been fascinating to me to see how CCS students choose to interpret their assignments. That's especially true of  the Aesop's fable assignments. Kat Leonardo is a young cartoonist with a lot of illustrating skill, and that's readily apparent in The Mouse And The Manticore. It's a variation on "The Mouse And The Lion," wherein a mighty creature shows mercy on a mouse and is later rewarded for a small kindness. It's the details that make this comic pop: the cute mouse endpapers, the delicate and restrained use of watercolors, and the refined use of gesture to tell a simple story. 

The Damselfly is a beautiful, unsettling statement of self, using a powerful visual metaphor. Introducing the titular insect as one that sheds its skin as it grows, evolving past old forms and leaving them behind, Leonardo's character reveals that she cannot leave the past behind, and that's revealed through dozens of hands grabbing her, holding her fast, and surrounding her. It leaves her "hiding in plain sight" and she signs off with the desperate plea of "come find me." Using a simple blue line, Leonardo's visual approach is entirely dependent on that clear line that devolves through the comic to create a horrific effect. The use of hands in this way reminded me a bit of Tom Neely's The Blot.

Anosmia makes use of a mostly blue/gray wash to tell the story of Leonardo losing her sense of smell in 2020. She wasn't sure if it was COVID-19 or not, but the interesting story here is that she used to have what she described as a "superhuman" sense of smell. This is a comic about trade-offs, highs and lows in life. Her sense of smell was so powerful that she could smell flowers from across a room, and eating was a blissful experience. It also meant she was extra sensitive to foul odors, and she was frequently so overwhelmed by smell that it induced debilitating migraines. Things are now more level and there's less pain and discomfort, but Leonardo clearly misses the highest of highs. Her use of ink to depict smells, and additional spot colors to indicate migraines, was a clever storytelling device. One thing I wish she would have discussed is smell's relationship with memory and how that's changed for her. 

Redacted sees Leonardo using yet another technique: colored pencils. In a story about being visited by someone's ghost, or the memory of a person missing from her life, the way that colored pencils blend together and are made even more intense when juxtaposed against entirely negative space is a clever storytelling solution. The intense brightness of her current world contrasted with this memory that's harder to access is powerful. 

Eternal Knight is a love letter to love itself, through time and multiple lifetimes. Leonardo uses her full bag of tricks here: clever endpapers, a wide range of watercolors, interesting page compositions, and a theme that resonates throughout every technique. In telling a story about lovers that continue to find each other, again and again, throughout different lifetimes, Leonardo gets across that sense of interlocking souls that seem to never have enough time together, no matter what. The biggest problem with this comic is that Leonardo goes too over the top with color, and it sometimes overwhelms her line. A more restrained palette would have been more effective in returning the focus to the lovers, rather than their environment.