Monday, November 6, 2023

Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #13

There's a real throwback feel to the latest edition of writer Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons. (Poor Baylis chose a silly, throwaway title for this series, and now he's stuck with it as his brand. Cf. Julia Wertz's The Fart Party.) The amiable Baylis is a born networker with an extensive and deep curiosity about the history of comics and cartoonists. Meeting former Harvey Pekar collaborator Joe Zabel at a show led Baylis to hire him for a piece in this issue, which, in turn, led to him working with Gary Dumm and Brian Bram (last seen in American Splendor #2!) Can Alison Bechdel and Alan Moore be far behind? Other 80s indy stalwarts in this issue include Bernie Mireault and Michael T. Gilbert. 

Like Pekar, Baylis has a real sense of what stories to pair with which artists. It's fascinating to see him work with so many of Pekar's former collaborators, because as writers, Baylis and Pekar couldn't be any more different. Pekar's work, while deeply humanistic, was often cynical and even miserablist. However, he was also a keen observer of others and excelled in telling their stories. He was also the classic working-class intellectual, as his reviews of jazz records and literature in his comics revealed. Baylis doesn't truck with irony or spend much time wallowing in sadness (though there are hints of it); instead, he prefers to look at beauty, joy, and deep moments of connection with others and with art. As his story with Zabel revealed, what he does share with Pekar is a deep need to be a writer, and to have his thoughts expressed visually. Baylis' stories are almost always centered around himself, either in terms of the action or his reaction to same. I think this stems from his deep need to be a storyteller first and foremost, unlike Pekar, who was more interested in being an observer. What sets Baylis apart from other writers who collaborated with cartoonists like Pekar, Dennis Eichorn, or David Greenberger is a total sense of sincerity. Every one of these stories is important to him, and it's clear he spends a lot of time thinking about how each one will look. 

Tony Wolf was a good choice for "So...Swampy," given his affection for mainstream comics. This one-pager is more a style exercise than a story; it doesn't amount to more than "my grandma sent me some comics at camp when I was miserable and one of them was an Alan Moore Swamp Thing." On the other hand, "So...Premiered" (with art by Zabel and Dumm) is a meaty story that Baylis refers to as an "origin story." Baylis' background is interesting because while he loves comics, he went to film school at NYU. As such, he's had a number of gigs in the entertainment world, including with the Sundance Channel. That allowed him to meet Harvey Pekar at the premiere of American Splendor, where the writer gave Baylis encouragement. The story is full of funny visual flourishes that I'm guessing Baylis put in his script, like drawing Pekar as Dr. Octopus as part of an extended shtick. 

Baylis is frequently clever in his transitions from story to story. He follows this Sundance story with another one (drawn with flair by Mireault) about seeing the movie 28 Days Later at midnight and enjoying it because of the way he and the audience reacted together. It's a sharp observation of why seeing movies in a theater can be so rewarding. He follows that zombie story with one about his wife and kid drawn by Whit Taylor. Taylor is great at drawing stories about parenting, and this gag about a "zombified" Baylis walking in is set up nicely, complete with a plop-take at the end. Stories about being friends with Eli Roth as a film student and being delighted by his performance in Inglourious Basterds and a brief documentary bit with a memorable New York character fall more into the "anecdote" category as opposed to an actual story, and they feel a bit thinner as a result than some of the other stories. 

However, "So...It's A Viscous Cycle," featuring Maria & Peter Hoey, is the unquestioned highlight of the issue. Those two are extremely clever cartoonists and storytellers, and Baylis sets them up with a great premise regarding not just his vision, but the process of getting Lazik surgery because a film looked blurry. Keeping with the film theme, a piece on composer Enrique Morricone was interesting because Baylis notes that hearing his music just didn't sound right without accompanying film. Artist Rick Parker is a capable comedic cartoonist, but I thought a lot of the gags (did an image of John Cage need to be put next to an actual birdcage?) distracted from the overall content of the story. 

The other major highlight of the issue was his easy and natural collaboration with Karl Christian Krumpholz. It's a story within a story, told at a bar between Baylis and Krumpholz at SPX, about a particular, rare sort of bourbon that Baylis managed to acquire. It works as a captivating yarn and also provides some insight into their friendship, as well. Krumpholz' highly stylized character design and moody palette make this feel like a true collaboration. Speaking of which, it wouldn't be an issue of So Buttons without a team-up between Baylis and longtime collaborator TJ Kirsch. The latter's design for another Baylis strip about someone who shares his birthday (in this case, former baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan) was clever, riffing on Ryan using pickle brine to help strengthen the skin on his hands. 

Baylis has a pretty deep well of stories to turn to. This one hit a little bit more on his love of movies and life in the entertainment industry than usual. I'd be interested in seeing more stories hitting on fatherhood, relationships, and friendships. More bar stories with Krumpholz would also be fun. There are some artists he just seems to vibe with more than others, and the Hoeys and Krumpholz are definitely on that widening list. The other thing it would be interesting to see from Baylis is a longer narrative. I'm not quite sure what that story would be, but one senses that he's got a few of those laying around. Baylis' commitment to craft, design, and editorial coherency are on clear display, as his writing and editing chops have matured to the point where he's willing to take risks. Not everything worked in this issue, but even some of the misfires were at least interesting to look at. Baylis wasn't interested in playing it safe, and one hopes that this trend continues for future issues. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Alaina Ewins' Night Things

Night Moves, by Alaina Ewins, is a delightful romance comic in a fantasy/magic setting. The plot, surrounding classmates Spica and Muna, sees them secretly preparing glamour spells for the big Valentine's Day dance. The complicating factor is that Muna develops a crush on the charismatic Spica. Ewins then deftly drops in the big plot device: if you don't cast glamour with pure intent, the "consequences can be dire!" Inevitably, the glam duo has a fun time at the dance but things go horribly awry as everyone at the dance is drawn and attracted to them--very aggressively! The cute confession that seems to fix everything dissolves into a surprise ending. 

The plot structure is cleverly constructed, but the real star of this mini is Ewins' character design. The attention to detail regarding garments, hair, and a variety of different faces and body types is essential to conveying the emotion and attraction between the characters. Despite this being in a fantasy setting, Ewins' attention to dialogue and high school social dynamics adds to the verisimilitude necessary to pull this off without feeling forced or cloying. Instead, the stress that Muna feels combined with her ambition in trying to impress Spica with glamour imbues the plot with real comedic tension. Ewins' drawing style is dense, with lots of hatching, spotting blacks, and a minimal use of negative space. Despite that density, Ewins' is an adept storyteller whose composition never confuses the eye, even if it does deliberately distract it with a lot of decorative touches. This immersive style works at quickly placing the reader right in the middle of this world that her characters are in without having to do much in terms of excessive narrative explanation. Ewins seems poised for longer and more complex stories of this nature. 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Francis Desharnais' Little Russia

Francis Desharnais' Little Russia is the final volume I'm looking at in this series on Pow Pow Books. That publisher certainly has a particular aesthetic, as the four different artists whose work I've reviewed feel like they're part of a larger tradition of Montreal cartoonists. I'm thinking of folks like Michel Rabagliati, who use a slightly cartoony style, a fairly thin line, and an otherwise naturalistic approach. Desharnais, in this book, is writing about his grandparents, who were settlers in the wilds of Quebec in the 1940s. This was all part of a government experiment where the settlers would go in, cut lumber, and share the proceeds equally to help build houses and start farms. It was dubbed "Little Russia" by some because it was a boldly socialist experiment that required not only total buy-in by all involved, it also made every man an equal in determining how their commune would be run. 

One of the interesting things about this account is how pointed the use of every "man" is here. Women were part of the community but had no say in public matters for decades. Desharnais' grandmother Antoinette did her duty as a good Catholic, giving birth to eleven kids, but her story is one of gradually losing her patience with the quite literal patriarchy determining her every move. Indeed, a priest was one of the chief leaders of this community of Gueyenne, even if he didn't actually live there. 

Desharnais deftly turns what could have been a dry and episodic account into a smooth narrative with a number of repeating themes. The lack of a voice for women is one of them in this supposed utopian community is one of them. Another is the inevitable lack of community spirit when people obtained their goals of having a home. Desharnais' grandfather Marcel was committed to being a farmer, and the lack of commitment of so many others forced him out of the community after more than 20 years. This book, above all else, is about the inevitable decline of communities when individual needs and greed supersede the understanding that the greater good of a community nourishes all. The spirit that saw the men save a fellow townsman's house from a fire ebbed when there were opportunities to make money elsewhere. A town's spirit cannot survive when everyone is isolated. 

There's a matter-of-factness to the narrative and a cartooniness to the character design that reminds me a lot of another Quebec artist: Guy Delisle. Desharnais, however, adds depth and detail to his backgrounds in a way that Delisle doesn't, especially with regard to the forests. There's an almost oppressive quality to the land that's a key element of the narrative and Desharnais captures the almost inevitable event of the land opposing the settlers at every turn. Even on his own farm, there's a sequence where Marcel hits a hidden stump while trying to sow seed and he goes berserk with fury. It captures the hopes and dreams of Marcel and Antoinette as well as their slow but stubborn understanding that their dream has faded and no one cares about the potential of the experiment anymore. Throughout Little Russia, Desharnais' drawings may not be spectacular, but he makes smart and subtle decisions throughout that honor a legacy while telling a compelling story. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Éloïse Marseille's Naked: The Confessions Of A Normal Woman

Éloïse Marseille's Naked: The Confessions Of A Normal Woman is a chronicle not just of her history of desire and sex, but also a memoir chiefly focusing on guilt and shame. It's a variation of what MariNaomi did in Kiss and Tell or David Heatley with his sexual history story, only it's from someone who's much younger and is just starting to gain some perspective. The wounds are fresh here, as the 27-year-old Marseille is just starting to process the years of shame and self-hatred at the end. While the story is mostly pretty light-hearted, the ending not only sees an outpouring of grief, it doesn't offer an easy out for the reader (or author, for that matter). 

In many ways, Naked is less a narrative and more one long therapy session, albeit one that has plenty of laughs at the artist's expense. Indeed, Marseille notes that she hopes that by sharing her own history of shame and guilt in a very public way, she can help others who feel the same way. That's a key element of the narrative: people suffering in silence and isolation are what lead to shame. However, when we are vulnerable enough to share, it's remarkable to see just how many people can relate to our struggles. The digressions into graphic medicine (like when she goes into some details regarding herpes when she learns that she's contracted it) are interesting, but sometimes at odds with other aspects of the story.

The therapeutic aspect of the comic somewhat limits the way Marseille approaches the narrative. With so little time to truly absorb everything she learned in a relatively short period of time regarding her self-esteem, there's a sense of "that's the way I used to be, and I'm so much different now" in much of the narrative. This approach makes the reader rush through the narrative, as Marseille tells the reader ahead of time how things are going to go. This is especially true when she talks about her first long-term relationship, which she throws herself into to the point where she ignores her own identity. It's clear that Marseille has to address this in order to get to the end, where her younger self confronts her current self, but it's part of the problem of the book trying to be several things at once and not quite succeeding. 

Marseille's cartooning is very much in a comedic tradition, with the ridiculous, bulbous claw noses and highly exaggerated expressions. On the one hand, it's a great way of really getting into the weeds with the way she draws bodies and sex, and her own body image issues in particular. Everyone is drawn a little grotesque and distorted; these are comedic figures that have sexual lives, but certainly not images that are sexy in any way. Marseille wisely creates some distance there, because that's not generally the story she's trying to tell, but there are moments where she is genuinely trying to portray her desire that come off a bit silly as a result. That said, Marseille spills a lot of ink in telling a narrative that exudes vulnerability. Above all else, the most startling revelation is not the fear of judgment she faces from her mother or the readers. It's her own judgment of her past self that's the most damning aspect of her narrative, and overcoming that will take much more work. It's that final admission that whatever perspective she's gained on her past, it's still limited. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Sophie Bédard's Lonely Boys

Sophie Bédard's Lonely Boys is a hilariously misleading title, since men barely figure into the narrative at all. Instead, it's another slice-of-life story centering around three women and their often fractious and difficult friendships. Once again, all three of the main characters are massively flawed and often hard to sympathize with, yet it's their flaws that make them feel so human. It's a story about unrequited love, hurt feelings, second chances, betrayals, being paternalistic, acting like a child, and in general people trying to figure out how to be adults. Above all else, it's about how the need to connect plays out in a world where all of our older bonds (family, college) have slipped away and we're trying to figure out who we are. Like Almost Summer, it's compulsively readable; once you start, you don't want to put it down. It's fun to spend time with these three frustrating but ultimately lovable protagonists. 

Lonely Boys centers around roommates Lucie and Jen, who immediately have to contend with the return of Ella, their former roommate who bursts in on them after disappearing for a year with no explanation (and stealing the communal money). The plot centers around why Ella comes back. The cover of the book hints at a lot--three friends looking off in different directions, with Ella turning her back on the others. Jen is fiercely loyal but judgmental, especially of Lucie--almost to the point of infantilizing her. It doesn't help that Lucie starts the book by staying in the tub all night because she still can't get over her ex and refuses to get out when Jen wants to pee. She acts like a child, so Jen treats her like one, with bad boundaries all around. 

Ella's another matter. It's clear that Jen was in love with her, and Ella's cruel departure wounded her badly. Ella is an enigma: on the one hand, she's caring and effortlessly cool. She does what it takes to survive and is willing to hurt others if need be. On the other hand, she genuinely tries to reconnect and right past wrongs when she returns, only she continually chickens out at the last second at doing the right (and hard) thing. It's no surprise that when Ella fights to win her friends back but then leaves again when Jen lays out the truth about her feelings: she's always there for Ella, but Ella uses her "like a pawn." Ella returns in the first place not to make up with her friends, but to have a safe landing spot for an abortion, which leads to a hilarious scene where a neighbor takes her to the clinic, thinking it was a date, and then Lucie and Jen come along, furious that Ella didn't tell them. 

Above all else, Bédard has a great sense of comic timing. Jen is a perfect straight-man character, slowly burning over the shenanigans of Lucie's moods and childish behavior and then Ella's sheer narcissism. Lonely Boys also features an all-timer of a supporting character in Sophie, an insufferable "indigo child" who can see auras, has multiple catering jobs, and is totally sanguine with stalkers because she's a "modern young woman." She's a hilarious bag of hipster cliches all rolled up into one character. Ella likes her because unlike Jen, Ella doesn't like to judge. Ultimately, Ella understands the ways in which she fucked up, as she asks a sleepy Lucie if she's a parasite to her and Jen, but she's not willing to do the work to repair relationships. Worse, she selfishly writes it off as being better for her friends if she just leaves. In the end, Lucie is a little more hardened and Jen a little more sanguine with regard to everything. No matter what their conflicts, they are there for each other, and that's what sets them apart from Ella. 

Once again, Bédard succeeds because of her inventive character design, ear for dialogue, and understanding of just how complicated interpersonal dynamics and histories can be. She's adept at drawing different body types (the tiny Lucie is particularly fun), she's willing to get gross and weird (the pissing revenge plots between Lucie and Jen were hilarious), and she's frank about sex and relationships. By giving each character highly well-defined motivations, it's that clash of motivations that not only creates interesting conflicts, it makes each character sympathetic without excusing their poor judgment. This is a mainstream comic in the best sense of the word. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Sophie Bédard's Almost Summer 1

Moving on to a different Pow Pow Press artist, Sophie Bédard has a style that I can only call "compulsively readable." She specializes in the kind of slice-of-life comic that was very common in the 90s and has fallen out of style in print, though not online. Indeed, her first major work, Almost Summer, had its origins as a popular webcomic. Published in four volumes, the first book establishes the four major characters (Emily, Anthony, Michelle, and Max) as high schoolers beginning another year of classes. The best thing about Almost Summer is that every character, without exception, is awful. They are selfish, self-absorbed assholes. They are also kids who don't know any better, are confused by everything, and desperately cling to each other in spite of it all. This is refreshing, because too many teen-centered narratives depict them as preternaturally wise, whereas kids in reality frequently make stupid and short-sighted decisions. 

The comparison that makes the most sense is Max de Radigues' Rough Age, which uses a similar, highly cartoony line for character design. Bédard's line is thicker and more exaggerated, and she plays things for laughs a bit more than de Radigues. Nonetheless, the verisimilitude of the dialogue and aching familiarity of the crushes, conflicts, and pure ennui of being that age make each page just fly by. The heart of the book is the fractious friendship between shy Emily and extremely obnoxious Michelle, aka Mimi. Mimi is just the worst, all bluster and insults, as she drags her friends into her nonsense on a regular basis. Emily is relentlessly negative and unpleasant, which is entirely a defense mechanism for her highly sensitive feelings. She denies even really being friends with Mimi, saying that she just sort of came into her life and stayed there. Of course, this isn't entirely true, because while Mimi is a walking disaster area of uncontrollable feelings, she's also fiercely loyal. People are complicated, especially teens. She's a dream to look at in terms of the drawings: nonstop expressive fun. Bedard is an absolute master of gesture and expression, as Mimi, in particular, is fun because of her huge eyes bulging out from underneath her hair. 

The first book sets up a potential relationship between the dour Emily, whose pining for the guy who has sat in front of her in class for years is one of the running gags in the book. She's also the only character whose internal life the reader is privy to, letting the reader see the underlying love and sensitivity at the core of her character. In the book's funniest sequence, Mimi gets drunk at a party (after vowing to stay sober that night) and makes out with a guy she's unsure of. She calls Emily in the middle of the night to rescue her from the party, and Emily does it, pulling her off the guy and putting her on her bike (despite Mimi's many insults). Mimi has the nerve to be mad at Emily for not taking her around back in case her mom was awake AND asks her to go back and get her coat. (The worst!) As Emily notes, however, Mimi is always there, and that's why she tolerates her. She secretly craves connection, which is why she finally acquiesces and takes a walk with her neighbor Anthony, who is obsessed with her. Almost Summer just aches with inchoate desire, frustrated dreams, and the endless possibilities of youth. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Zviane's Going Under

The melancholy at the heart of Zviane's in For As Long As It Rains is magnified in her previous book, Going Under. The fleeting moments of pleasure and connection in the former are offset by the deep sense of loneliness and isolation felt by its unnamed protagonist. That isolation and sense of total abjection is the primary focus of and it's a potent distillation of existential despair. It is as potent a document of depression that I've ever read. 

The story follows a young woman involved in a job surrounding the classical music industry. The book opens with the moment where she feels like she's "going under"; in other words, when a totally debilitating depression is about to pull her into its grip. The book goes into very little detail about that period, in part because she implies that there is little to say: crying, being unable to move or do anything, barely being able to eat. Existing, not living. 

Instead, Going Under talks about when she "gets better." Functional. Able to work and go out in public. What makes the book so devastating and so barbed is the way Zviane gets at just how tenuous this state is and how "better" does not mean "well" or "good." In fact, in some ways, it's even worse, as the palpable concern people had about you fades as they no longer have to think about your problems. Indeed, others become a drain because the only thing worse than indifference is the feeling that people are talking about you behind your back. 

Zviane's storytelling is sharp. The relentless use of grayscale shading in For As Long As It Rains is largely absent here, as the extensive use of white negative space ironically makes the story feel more repressive, not breezier. Zviane also doesn't fill in faces, which includes the story's protagonist. She smartly understands the reader will fill them in, much as we fill in the expressions and emotions of those around us that we don't really want to know more about. Zviane also uses a clever second-person narrative style that's built around faux-omniscience; she is constantly telling the reader what's going to happen to all of the people around her, including when and how they will die. Of course, this isn't a true device, as a woman she claims earlier in the book she never sees again pops up at the end and winds up triggering a particular trauma that Zviane had clearly thought she had left behind. 

The climax of the book is a look at what happened right before her massive depressive breakdown. Fighting her depression and sense of worthlessness, she willed herself out of bed to go see a lecture she had organized from a famous musicologist. She stopped just before she went in, worried that everyone would comment about her being too sick to work, but not too sick to see the lecture. Getting caught up in that trap is what sent her under, and being given an opportunity to see the lecturer in the present day led to her detecting "that smell of water again." There is a sense that the only thing worse than being seen is not being seen, and the protagonist can't bear either one but knows that isolation is a killer. However, Zviane leaves the reader wondering if connection is even possible at all, and if we should even bother trying. It's bleak and harrowing, and Zviane's crisp, precise linework boldly captures this sense of despair.