Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Mini-Kus! Wednesday: Open Molar, by Lilli Carre'

Mini-Kus #80 is Lilli Carre's Open Molar. Seen a bit less in the world of comics these days since she's doing animation, it was a treat to see this new work. It abandons her flat illustrative style for something more abstract. Indeed, the entire comic has the feel of a set of diagrams, as it's designed as a set of instructions. The first is "Start mature." 


What exactly this is a set of instructions for is unclear. At various points, it seems to be regarding a set of dentures, but it later becomes a construct to seal oneself off from the outside world. The diagrams mix slashing dark blue lines with swathes of color that have no lines to contain them. The soft color designs resemble fingers or teeth while the lines sometimes coalesce into human forms, cup forms, window forms, and even plant forms. The accompanying text serves to deliberately obfuscate meaning instead of explaining the diagrams, as it's clear this is a process for...something. It's not clear what, but each instruction seems unconnected to the next. For example, "You should have a small gap around the frame. Check the plumb, level, and square. Note all mutations." is followed by "The drop shape will take color, developing a scent for deformation. If you fertilize, expect variation." There are later references to drilling and leaves.



That text provokes confusion and the slightest hint of recognition, as the more context Carre' provides, the more confusing the comic becomes. The final page is the only one that has panels, but each one only has circles, semi-circles, and splotches of color. Bits of the panel borders themselves fade in and out as the circle structure seems to float across the page. This is a mysterious comic either written in a deliberate code or designed to undermine any sense of what we understand as the purposeful, didactic interaction of word and image. The fact that it is not entirely abstract makes its oblique meanings all the more interesting to ponder; they are slippery and hard to capture. The irony of this is that the text is rather definitive in terms of its expectations of how the process is to go. After following these steps, something is expected to happen, but it's not clear what it is. Multiple readings are valuable in allowing one to slow down and truly parse the images, but what remains is a piece designed to foil the human brain's tendency to fill in gaps and blanks in order to create meaning.




Monday, October 19, 2020

Ley Lines Monday: Eric Kostiuk Williams' How Does It Feel In My Arms?

Eric Kostiuk Williams has long fascinated me because of his consummate skill as both illustrator and cartoonist as well as his blend of intellectual curiosity and pop culture--especially gay culture. As such, his entry in the Ley Lines ("How Does It Feel In My Arms?") series plays to all of his interests, as the artists/writers he examines as inspirations are pop music icon Kylie Minogue and anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin. 


Williams' signature visual style is a mix between highly-detailed naturalism and rubbery surrealism. His figures are liquid, morphing back and forth into new forms. Gender and identity are fluid as his characters dance to a pounding rhythm. The discussions mix the dance floor and the salon and obliterate the divide between high and low and between body and mind. His comics are also intensely personal; this manifesto about what he loves about Minogue's pop songs is not such aimed at the reader as it is aimed at his partner, who initially scoffs at Minogue's music in a record store. Williams spends the rest of the comic not only commenting on Minogue's deeply humanistic approach to lyrics, he even connects them to the kind of intentional anarchistic utopia that Kropotkin dreamed about.


The introduction of a glamorous, dancing Kropotkin was hilarious, but in the context of the warmth of the comic and especially Minogue as a benevolent hostess, it made perfect sense. Kropotkin's thesis was that the competitiveness of capitalism was not man's natural state and that in fact cooperation and helpfulness were humanity's default state. Williams postulates that adherence to capitalism and in particular, a reaction to resource scarcity with violence is a diseased state of being. There's a clever page where he does a send-up of the classic illustration of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan by following it up with Minogue in a similar pose. Rather than believe in an oppressive ruler who maintains order because the state of nature is "nasty, brutish, and short," Williams (though Minogue) posits a culture and society that integrates art, dance, pleasure, sex, and creativity, one that works through cooperation and hope instead of fear. 


It is collectivist anarchism that embraces its margins rather than tries to eliminate them. It values variation instead of trying to encourage conformity. Rather than embrace Hobbes' Leviathan as its social contract, or John Locke's credo of "life, liberty, property" that was cribbed by Thomas Jefferson, Williams' revolution is more French: liberty, equality, fraternity, where all three aspects are equally important and have a beat you can dance to. The fact that the comic is done in a hot pink wash only adds to this effect.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Mini-Kus! Wednesday: Alice Socal's Junior

Every Wednesday for the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at a recent issue of the excellent Latvian anthology series mini-Kus! This week's entry is mini-Kus! #75: Junior, by Alice Socal. This is a witty comic about an anthropomorphic cat and dog couple. She's pregnant, and he's taking care of her by reading to her and otherwise pampering her. She invites him to feel her belly because the baby's moving, but he can't quite feel it. 


This launches an extended reverie where he fantasizes about being pregnant. That reverie includes him thinking about the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Junior, wherein Arnold somehow gets pregnant. Then it flips into fantasizing about meeting a pregnant version of himself in the "Jungle Animals" book he was reading. Slipping a pillow under his shirt, there's a sweet and funny scene where he's talking to his "baby" and making cat and giraffe figures out of clay. 


When his partner emerges, seeing him on the floor clutching the pillow, she simply offers him breakfast and suggests they eat it together. This comic is so funny because it's inspired by a level of jealousy over an experience he just can't have. It's also amusing because it's an attempt to center the experience of the pregnancy around himself. The bug-eyed features of the dog-man lend itself to his over-the-top emotional state. That's in stark contrast to her cooler nature, and her being a cat is a nice visual shorthand for this. It brings up the question of if men could get pregnant, how would that change society's view of the experience. If the patriarchy was still dominant in such a scenario, it's easy to imagine prioritizing and supporting childbirth financially and culturally in a way that's not allowed for women. Socal gently points this out while also even being somewhat sympathetic to the fact that most men (assigned male at birth, though not trans men) cannot give birth, though she can't help teasing the dog character a bit.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Ley Lines Monday: Whit Taylor's Smile

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at High-Low: Ley Lines Monday. I've accumulated quite a few new issues of this joint production between Kevin Czap's Czap Books and L.Nichols' Grindstone Comics, and rather than review them all at once, I've decided to spread them out over a few weeks. Ley Lines is a series where a cartoonist does a comic about a particular work or works of art and the artist(s) who made them. The results have been straight-up narratives, comics-as-poetry, historical examinations, and even abstract ruminations. It's one of the most original ideas for a comics series I've ever seen.

First up is Whit Taylor's Smile, subtitled "Anatomy of ambivalence." It details five-year-old Taylor's first exposure to Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa, as she was assigned to be the woman behind the painting for a class play. She rejected this out of hand, thinking it was boring that she just sat there. She wanted to do something, like "make the pasta," as in Tomie de Paola's children's book Strega Nona, the other text that Taylor examines in this comic.


Taylor the adult examines her feelings about this experience but does so through the prism of ambiguity. The mystery of her wry smile gets at the heart of an artist's intentionality. Taylor dances around the idea in providing the reader with biographical data regarding both da Vinci and Lisa Gioncondo, as well as details regarding the sophistication of da Vinci's painting technique and firm understanding of optics. It's not a coincidence that the subject of the painting's eye seem to follow the viewer; da Vinci's painstaking studies of corpses led him to an understanding of human anatomy that few other artists possessed. 


The question Taylor asked was, "What did it all mean?" That's a question with no answer. The circumstances surrounding the actual creation of the painting and Leonardo's intent are lost to time. The Mona Lisa is the soul of ambiguity, and this is one reason why it is so recognizable. Its ambiguity is a feature, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions and feel justified in doing so. 


The last image of Taylor is stirring a pot of pasta as an adult. It's a funny image, but it reflects the way she not only looks at the world as a scientist, but also as an artist. Taylor's entire project has been about confronting ambiguity and giving it a name. Whether it's confronting political injustice or her own personal mental health, Taylor approaches every topic with bracing honesty and a dash of whimsy. This particular comic sees her going to her strengths as a designer, turning anatomical drawings into elegantly decorative figures. By keeping her figures simple, she allowed herself greater complexity with regard to other details. The result is a charming comic that claims no answers other than the right to perpetually ask questions.


Friday, October 9, 2020

Good Grief, Adrian Tomine!

Adrian Tomine's comics are not warm and empathetic. The characters in them are mean, petty, spiteful, and self-destructive. Tomine generates a lot of comedy using this formula, but it can make them a difficult read, especially since the characters who aren't his obvious stand-ins are often paper-thin. While the situations in his previous book, Killing And Dying, were extremely clever, there was something that felt off about the characterizations. There were times it felt like he as reaching for something beyond his grasp as a storyteller. 


At heart, Tomine is a humorist. While he specializes in cringe humor, his work is at its best when he's the target of his jokes. In his newest book, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Cartoonist, Tomine unleashes a torrent of humiliations, self-owns, social awkwardness, and a profound lack of perspective on the reader, with each scenario funnier than the next. It's very much in the vein of Charles Schulz' Peanuts, with Tomine casting himself as a Charlie Brown character who desperately wishes he was Linus instead. Linus is pathologically anxious, but he's also introspective, kind, and even possesses a certain cool. Charlie Brown is a try-hard who keeps raging at his failures but doesn't stop trying, no matter how Sisyphean his task might seem. Charlie Brown is also socially inept, especially with regard to romance.

Tomine traces the key humiliations of his life from childhood to the present, often focusing on his career. Going from doing mini-comics as a teenager to getting signed as a pillar of Drawn & Quarterly to achieving international success, acclaim, and attention does absolutely nothing for his self-esteem. Appearing on NPR's Fresh Air program is something cartoonists can only dream of and he knows it, but all he can think about is how dumb his voice sounded on the show. It's like if Charlie Brown wound up becoming a pitcher in the majors and hated himself for saying something dumb on a SportsCenter interview. Objective success and failure have little to do with one's self-image, and all Tomine can think of is his life-long social awkwardness.

That awkwardness settles around the cartoonist's lament: when they are at a signing or a show, all they can think about is how much they want to be alone. When they are back in their hotel room, all they can think about is their crippling loneliness. The title of the book is a funny allusion to the film about a rebellious student who strikes out at authority (The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner). He's cool and a badass. Tomine's character is neither cool nor a badass, so that title is yet another bit of self-deprecation, as his loneliness isn't the pose of a disgruntled teen, but that of someone desperate to be accepted and loved.

To be clear, this book isn't a humblebrag or an attempt to be self-deprecating in order to get the audience's sympathy. It's a series of acknowledged self-owns, much like when he published an embarrassing photo of himself from high school because it had been making the rounds in order to make fun of him. There's something about his success as a "literary cartoonist" that enrages certain corners of the comics world that works to diminish his skill and storytelling abilities. Ultimately, Tomine's tone isn't for everyone, but that combination of deep reserve in his characters masking deep rage is always compelling.


His best character remains himself, or rather a studied caricature of himself rooted in emotional truths but clearly played up for laughs. In the opening story, when he pops up on the first day of school and starts babbling about John Romita to his mocking classmates, he deliberately draws himself like a Schulz character. He's put upon like Charlie Brown but lashes out like Lucy, calling his classmates "stupid idiots." Of course, every humiliation here is specifically linked to comics in some way. His first San Diego Comicon is marked by some asshole confronting him about signing with D&Q instead of another Canadian publisher. and people burning him for ripping off Dan Clowes. The next year, he's nominated for an Eisner award and a childhood favorite, Frank Miller, is reading the list of nominees in his category. Miller makes a comment about not even attempting to pronounce his name as he then loses.

The racism that Tomine has faced in an alternative comics industry that was primarily white for decades is part of the story here, as he got put under a poster for Miller's "That Yellow Bastard" at a particularly anemic signing. While that was a bad signing, Tomine gets laughs not from his own dilemma, but from the shop owner who desperately tries to bring people over to the signing. Similarly, at a lunch with his then-girlfriend and future wife, they happen to sit next to a guy loudly bloviating about how bad Tomine's work was. While he didn't want a confrontation, he had to prevent his girlfriend Sarah from laying into that guy. In the next panel, he resolves to propose to her. It's a rare sweet moment in the book, even if it was propelled by the kind of aggressive know-it-all who frequently attacks his work.


It's also a bit of a corrective. In an earlier scene, when a blowhard asks him at a reading to essentially justify his existence as a cartoonist, Tomine's reaction afterward is to blow up, wishing extreme violence on him and then futilely attempting to backtrack by saying, "Just kidding!" It's an important progression because it reveals a key theme in the book. When Tomine is younger and lonelier, these slights bother him more, no matter how successful he is. When he's firmly with Sarah, like in that restaurant scene, he's able to swallow his rage and indignation much easier. When he becomes a father to two girls, the importance of all of this fades even more.

That's what leads into the final segment, wherein chest pains lead him to go to the ER. He realizes that while he thinks he's dying, he doesn't care about comics. He's only thinking about his wife and children. It provokes a profound moment later when he's back home with his wife, the pains a false alarm. Of course, she falls asleep while he's delivering this soliloquy about the importance of his family, and how much he had come to hate comics. He admitted to his pettiness and claimed he was a narcissist, saying that while he understood that comics had given him everything, all he could think about were the small humiliations. There's a profound moment of professing that he was going to change and be more emotionally open before he realizes she's asleep. 

Then the premise of this book hits him, and he gets to work on it. It's a fantastic punchline to a series of what amounted to shaggy dog stories, but it goes deeper than that. It's not just that Tomine is at heart a gag man who couldn't resist a series of humiliating gags that he had etched in his memory. It's not just that Tomine was expected to do comics and he felt pressure to do so. At heart, this comic is about how making comics gives Tomine genuine pleasure, even with all of the bullshit that surrounds it. It's why he got out of bed after a harrowing evening in the ER. Making comics is fun, and making comics about one's own humiliations is even more fun, especially since he gets to control the narrative. How "true" these stories are is irrelevant; what matters is how they serve the greater overall themes of the comic and how they work as individual narratives. The lack of context other than what he chooses to serve this humorous narrative makes this as closed as it gets with regard to autobio, but Tomine makes no pretensions otherwise. The only context the reader needs is what's given in each story, and each story is structured such that there's a different kind of humiliation each time. 

If it seems strange that Tomine marinates in these humiliations for an entire book's length, consider that he's been marinating in them his entire life. The book gave him the outlet he needed for them. Tomine's line absolutely crackles here as he pays tribute to artists like Clowes and Schulz, but his mastery over microexpressions and gesture (especially with regard to his children) refines the gags to an exquisite degree. This is sad-boy memoir that laughs at itself, as Tomine fully understands how lucky he is to have a career based on his skills and artistic expression as well as a loving family. He fully understands how much kvetching he's doing in the book, but he does it anyway because it's funny and because it allows him to trace this history of pettiness and overreaction and shows how he's grown out of a lot of self-destructive lines of thought. It balances the solitude of the artist with the need for social interaction of the person, even as it shows just how painfully funny these lessons were for him. Adrian Tomine may be a big blockhead, but at least he knows why it's funny that someone keeps pulling that football away from him at the last second.



Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Minis: Lauren Barnett's Bernadette

Bernadette (Tinto Press) is one of Lauren Barnett's longer stories and is a fine example of how she creates humor with animals that think like people. Barnett's best known for single-panel gags starring birds, jokes about stripper problems, and other absurd but off-beat ideas. (I'm not sure that there will ever be a better title for a comic than I'm A Horse, Bitch.) There is a deliberately crude quality to her comics that adds to the overall effect, especially when she uses watercolors to punctuate her humor. 


Bernadette features the titular cat complaining about its nemeses, household plants. She hates the way they look, they smell, and they taste. They are always in her way, and she's always happy to knock them over whenever possible. Then a new plant appears to replace one she wrecked, and she's inexplicably drawn to it. She starts talking to it and even dreaming about it. 

The dreams are the funniest part of the comic, as Bernadette dreams of driving a sportscar, only to be stopped by a plant. Later, she dreams that she and the plant were laughing and lounging poolside as well as playing on a see-saw. Finally, the cat gets another cat in the house, and they dream about playing cards together. Despite all of the silliness, I like how Barnett gets at the idea that even the most solipsistic of creatures needs others in her life, and her subconscious makes this very clear in her dreams. Even if Bernadette was unwilling or unable to articulate this concept, it was obvious that she had needs she didn't understand. Barnett's expressive use of watercolors amplifies all of these points.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Minis: Meredith Park

 Meredith Park's Long Lost Secret Sibling is what appears to be a sort of compendium of daily diary strips and other related material. She works mostly in watercolors, with an expressive, spontaneous style. Her comics are poetic and thoughtful, dwelling on spiritual concerns and working out her identity. There are a couple of pages that are particularly interesting; in one, she's drawing a plaintive cry out to god as she confronts her own inner conflicts. She literally draws herself wrestling down a bull in one sequence and is wrestling an opponent in a freestyle match in another. She even draws herself in a singlet to indicate this kind of relentlessness to be renewed and given a clean heart. Her language reminds me a bit of the poet John Donne.


That leads to a transition to a demonic other self that she explores in the next strip, a personality she cals the Ice Demon. It's everything about herself that she hates and fears, and her strips about it are both frightening and playful, just as the creature is. There's an entire page where she makes a big stand about accepting this part of herself and integrating it, only to be slashed by the demon and informed that she can't be integrated. She represents everything she wants but is afraid of. Park leaves off this story here, but it's brimming with potential for a longer work. The idea of a dark side that can't be integrated or accepted is a fascinating one, because it leaves Park with no easy answers. Or perhaps it's one thing to claim you're going to accept something about yourself and quite another to do it.


While the other strips in the book don't specifically mention this concept, they do touch on Park changing. She's not becoming a different person, but she is "opening up some windows." The implication is that perhaps this will provide enough ventilation to keep this dark side under control. A haircut she receives is a metaphor for all of this, as is the revelation that if she's going to get into a relationship again, she might be more comfortable with a woman.


There's one page that's in black and white, and it's a particular delight because she goes all-in with a thick line weight for every image. This is in contrast to her other work, which relies so heavily on color to do the work of storytelling. Her use of line there is almost a suggestion. There's a lot of interest in this 12-page mini, and it's clear that Park is still in the process of developing her voice as an artist as much as she's evolving as a person. The two processes are clearly intertwined.