Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Minis: November Garcia

November Garcia made one of her periodic journeys to the US from the Philippines, which meant that another issue of her grab-bag minicomics series Malarkey (#3) made its way to my mailbox. Garcia's confidence grows from issue to issue, and her use of spot color here enhanced the storytelling significantly. Garcia's use of color was not so much decorative as it was for storytelling clarity, as the colors helped lead the eye across the page. Garcia's comics are autobiographical, but there's no telling if she's going to go with a current observation, a dip into childhood, a tale about "My Weepy Ex", or hijinx from her family (and especially her mom).

Garcia is a humorist, first and foremost. When she does a four-panel, single-page story, it's almost always a sign that the fourth panel is going to have a punchline. That said, Garcia isn't afraid to "spill some ink" as a memoirist; that is, she makes herself vulnerable to the audience and provides intimate, personal details about her life. Her comics are funny because life is funny and frequently nonsensical, and she has a knack for distilling these moments. The greater precision of her draftsmanship shows in emphasizing certain images for comedic effect. For example, in a two-page story detailing her difficulties with smoking pot, there's a close-up panel of her bloodshot eyes as she realizes everyone she loves will someday die. There's a rubbery quality to her character work that's reminiscent of Peter Bagge at times, down to the heavy hatching.

That said, her character design (with emphasis on the eyes above all else) and lettering bears her own unique stamp. They're meant to be a little loose and cartoonish, but the reality is that she's careful on each page to have rock-solid storytelling and clearly-defined background jokes. Garcia is especially adept at drawing herself as a child, which can be a difficult task for some. She gets the body language and gestures that children make and just how weird they can be, which she emphasizes in a strip about her own strange behavior as a kid. Garcia is also as much a fan of comics as she is a professional, and there's a funny two page strip about a friend who tells her his animation friends think her work is too whiny. The result is two tight nine-panel grids worth of one-upmanship, as Garcia defends her indie comic turf and rejects the critique because the people making it don't know what they're talking about. The strip is especially funny because Garcia points out her own foibles and hypocrisies along the way. Her ability to do short strips and longer narratives with sensitivity, humor and even the occasional bit of scatology is indicative of her versatility and points to a wide and varied career path.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Minis: Eli "Hob" Bishop's Busybody

Busybody #1 is an excellent collection of Eli "Hob" Bishop's dreamy, visceral comics that almost all seem to involve body horror, body modification and/or bodily transformation. Bishop's page layout shifts and breaks on each page, running alongside other narratives. For example, "The Therapist" is a wordless, cartoony story in color about a couples therapist whose method involves mad science: putting them into a machine that combines them into a single, happy entity. Of course, when another couple with problems, the whole process goes horribly awry, until a surprise ending with a happy twist. Bishop contains the narrative to small panels that almost float along the page. "Discovery" runs along the top of these pages, and it's in stark black & white with heavy hatching. It's a shaggy dog joke of sorts about a man who falls in love with a woman but never manages to learn her name. There are no panels in this story; instead, it's an open layout that bleeds together. It's an interesting juxtaposition, as this story has a running series of narrative captions while "Therapist" has none. Both strips are funny with grim elements, and both have a strong punchline.

"Refresher" is a full color strip built on a relatively simple nine panel grid told from a first person perspective via narrative captions. It's the sort of story where the reader is kept in the dark for as long as possible as to exactly what's happening, and the moment of discovery for the reader is also the story's climax. It's about someone who lives in a remote area traveling to the city for something, and we don't learn what it is until the end. Then everything else up until that moment becomes clear. Bishop's line is extremely cartoonish here, looking more like a fantasy comic than anything else.

The centerpiece of the comic is "Shift Report", which has four different but related running narratives, stacked on top of each other on page after page. It's a black & white comic with subtle beige spot-colors that add a deliberate drabness to the proceedings. The setting is a hospital inpatient ward. The top row follows two patients, the second row follows a nurse from the time she wakes up til she's on the job, the third row doesn't even coalesce until later as a dream sequence, and the bottom row follows another nurse from the middle of his day til the end. The story is heavy on minutiae, because that's precisely what a hospital ward is all about: the small, tedious details. Bishop is deliberately stingy with personal details for each of the characters, revealing only what we see when everyone is either at work or laid up in the hospital. Tiny details do indeed emerge with regard to ambitions, relationships, errors and personal characteristics, but they are entirely mediated by the story's beats. It's a fascinating, ambitious way to capture a sort of liminal state of being and the stewards of that experience. I'll be curious to see how the narrative continues to proceed.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Youth In Decline: Lovers Only #2

The first edition of Lovers Only, published by Youth In Decline was a classic. The second issue has one brilliant story supported by two lighter, breezier stories. The brilliant story, one of the best I've read this year, was Sophia Foster-Dimino's clever "Lauren Oscar Veronica Eli Roverto Sarah Olivia Noah Lindsey Yasmin" (or LOVERS ONLY). Foster-Dimino is in the first rank of today's young cartoonists, both because of her uncanny verisimilitude with regard to dialogue and relationships as well as her formal boldness. Each page of the story features a different character mentioned by name interacting with another character. That second character becomes the focus of the next page as they interact with a new character, and so on. Foster-Dimino uses an open-page format as she builds the structure of each page around the first letter of the name of the character, writ large. (That's what eventually spells out "LOVERS ONLY").

The formal cleverness of the story supports the theme and characters. The open page format, for example, is a way of making the fluidity of the narrative and the relationships between the characters clearer. The characters and their stories bleed and loop into each other, with bits of info here and there being passed along off-panel. That's a smart move that heightens the emotional impact of each page, as the reader knows what's happened already and they then get fast-forwarded to the emotional punch of those events. The story is essentially about desire, and the ways in which each pair of characters on a page fit or don't fit together.

Yasmin loves Lauren in the first story--and the entirety of Lauren's dialogue here is "Mmph" and "Mm-hm". Lauren is a picture of self-loathing, which is heightened even more in the next section when she's with the cruel Oscar. Lauren doesn't love Yasmin, but she takes advantage of her for sex; she desires her. Oscar desires Lauren. Oscar gets a fetish fulfilled by Veronica and further passes on the poison of gossip with her. There are many different kinds of relationships shown here, some sexual and some platonic, but there's always a power imbalance of some kind. The last strip loops back around to Yasmin, having heard everything said about her, weeping on the lap of her silent friend. So many of the strips have completely silent characters, and even where there's a conversation most of the strips really are monologues. The agency flows only one way in each case, and on each page it seems like it flips from one character to the next like a line of dominoes tipping over.

Foster-Dimino's mastery of gesture and body language reveals something else. There's more than one way to hold up the upper hand in a series of power exchanges. Yasmin may have dominated the conversation on the first page of the story with Lauren, but there was no doubt that it was Lauren who held the upper hand. Similarly, Yasmin may have been distraught on the last page of the story, but she dominated the narrative in the way she was being comforted by Lindsey. The theme of this issue is "Love Triange", but Foster-Dimino turned it into a Love Tesseract.

Zacchilli's piece is about a woman who's in sort of a triangle with herself in terms of her attention. She dreams of being poisoned by her doctor but interprets it as a sex dream. Her job is to draw dogs but she's constantly thinking about who knows her best and least--and she can't figure it out, no matter how much she graphs it out. As always, Zacchilli's art looks like scrawl at first glance, but her pages have rock-solid composition, pacing and clarity.

Monir's piece is simple in concept that carries layers of deep, frustrated longing. It's about a character named Jason who attends a New Year's Eve party with a woman named Eri, who they're clearly in love with/attracted to. The party is hosted by Holly, who is attracted to Eri but is close friends with Jason. Eri and Holly wind up having sex in the same room where Jason is, and he winds up leaving the room. Interestingly, the title refers to "3 Girls On New Year's Eve", implying that Jason is really trans and hasn't come to grips with that yet. Beyond that, Monir deeply explores the ways in which being excluded from desire in a friendship is deeply wounding, especially when the objects of one's affection don't show much interest in restraining themselves. The feeling Monir gets across is a sharp and stinging one, of a betrayal of empathy. There's a visceral quality to Monir's art that cuts to the heart of the matter, amplifying those emotions and zeroing in on them as they have a somatic effect. Her story is a fitting bookend to Foster-Dimino's, as it recapitulates and focuses some of the emotion of the first story in a more concentrated form.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Minis: Jenny Zervakis, Whit Taylor

Strange Growths #16 1/2, by Jenny Zervakis. Zervakis threw this one together shortly before the Zine Machine show so as to have something new, so it's a bit shorter than a usual issue at just twelve pages. Zervakis hasn't been able to do many comics in recent years, so getting this issue was a treat. Most of the issue is about a beach trip she took with her daughters and a friend & her daughters. The cover is one of her best: a drawing of her daughters on vacation, the wind near the beach whipping through the  palm trees and their hair. It's the perfect blend of Zervakis' knack for drawing vegetation and capturing the likeness, personality and body language of her girls.

There's always been a reserved quality to Zervakis' work. There's not much in the way of surface flash in her drawing or writing style. However, I'm inexorably drawn to it because of her quirky, meditative observations and her spontaneous, expressive line. Even pondering such quirky Americana like the tourist trap South of the Border, Zervakis manages to imbue it with a poetic quality. Most of what she writes about in this story is fairly quotidian: what she and her daughters did on their vacation in Myrtle Beach. That said, the essence of her daughters' personalities comes through both in terms of how she draws them as well as little quirks regarding the things they wanted to do. Zervakis' zines have always been personal and intimate while usually being deliberately spare regarding specific details, but this issue finds her opening up a little about her divorce and the ways in which certain rituals and public appearances may seem routine to others but trigger sadness in her.

There are also a few sketches of her kids and pets, along with a series of cartoons from her older daughter Penelope that are darkly hilarious. Everything about this issue feels spontaneous and loose, as Zervakis noted to me that she was doing it on a time crunch. To my eye, that freed her up to not fuss over things and instead trust in her instincts as a storyteller. Zervakis played to her strengths here as an artist, and the result was a series of images that were lovely on their own and even more effective in conjunction with the text.

Fizzle #2, by Whit Taylor. The second issue of Taylor's slice-of-life series about a disaffected young woman named Claire. She works in a boutique tea shop, she has a rich stoner boyfriend, and she has no idea what to do with her life. One of the questions that Taylor raises here is if there's a difference between existential malaise and depression. After all, there's nothing "wrong" with her life, but it's made clear that she's desperate to have a "thing" to make her own. A hobby, a belief, a creative outlet--something. Taylor seems to suggest that there is certainly a link between the two concepts of malaise and depression, with the former leading to the latter at times. Indeed, many therapists recognize situational depression as a diagnosis different than major depression. That said, the character of Claire is in more of a holding pattern in this comic, trying to fight the feeling of "meh", with anything, even something as silly as making gourmet popsicles.

There's a panel where Claire made her popsicles out of different kinds of fruit, she tries it and fireworks go off around her head. It's a brief, sublime moment. There's that moment of possibility that's then spoiled by her boyfriend and her awful boss, but it's a memorable moment nonetheless. A Shark Tank-style reality show introduced toward the end makes me think the comic will go in that direction, but even if it doesn't Taylor's wry comedic chops are on display here, as her send-up of popular and youth culture in general is sharp. She's really locked into her style as an artist as well, with expressive faces that center around lips and eyebrows. There's a smooth confidence to her work that can be seen all-around in her page design and backgrounds. In a comic that's mostly talking heads, her ability to make create compelling expressions was the key to the comic's success.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Minis: Ed Luce

WANC: Hell On Ice Special, by Ed Luce. This is a black & white version of what will be a full color feature in Luce's upcoming Wuvable Oaf volume for Fantagraphics. One thing I've always liked about Luce's work is that he's innovated all sorts of clever gimmicks (not unlike a wrestling gimmick) in self-publishing his work. From special lanyards for the bands featured in the comic to centerfolds and all sorts of special editions, Luce has always had an eye on catching the eye of casual fans with something spectacular. Here, he mimics the old WWF magazine as the story follows Oaf from his days as a professional wrestler in WANC (Wrasslin' Association of National Champions). It even has a centerfold featuring Goteblud and Luce as a referee.

While Wuvable Oaf has always been a romance comic first and foremost, it's also been a comic about pro wrestling and a comic about death metal, all with queer themes. It's been Luce's mission to show queer characters doing things you wouldn't necessarily see in either mainstream or queer-themed work. He goes out of his way to feature characters who are "bears", for one thing, and the model on the cover of the magazine portraying Oaf (as his wrestling character Goteblud) is there in all his hairy glory. Luce also has a strong understanding of the ring psychology and storytelling that are a part of wrestling, only his imaginary territory is one far more open to queer characters than most wrestling associations these days. (That is changing a bit, though...)

Most of the issue is an absurd gimmick match between Goteblud and his opponent, Dr. Avalanche, in a "Hell on Ice" match where the ring was coated in ice. The entirety of the issue features this match, but Luce also works in a romance angle, a backstage business intrigue angle, and the tension that Dr. Avalanche wasn't going to let his young foe "get over", i.e., he wasn't going to let him win even thought that's what the script said. Where Luce was most successful here was presenting absurd, over-the-top action while still making the story all about character and incorporating queer themes throughout. Now, those themes are somewhat subordinated to this particular story, but that will even out in the upcoming book, I would imagine. Fans of the Oaf will want this no matter what; casual fans can wait til the book comes out. That said, it's a pleasure to see the fine details of Luce's line art on display.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Minis: Haleigh Buck's I Feel Weird #3

I Feel Weird, Haleigh Buck's continuing series about "depression, anxiety and hopefully getting over it!" is about as raw and real as it gets. That's both in terms of talking about those feelings as well as the long, hard process of therapy. Buck sharing about what brought her to bottoming out in previous issues was certainly harrowing, but that's a narrative that is a familiar one in a sense. Lots of attention is paid in mental health narratives to "this is where I was, I needed help, and I got help" (which is valid and important, certainly), but much less is paid to the long, incremental process of getting better. That's especially true thanks to how frequently difficult it is to actually get therapy in a time when getting health insurance in general is so difficult, especially if one doesn't have the means to do so.

Issue three is her most ambitious, centered and focused effort to date. It must first be said that her level of craft is just outstanding. She can go cartoony to hyperrealistic naturalism and it all fits together. Her page design choices are consistently interesting, using blacks as a way of overpowering the reader and getting across that sense of anxiety that permeates every bit of her work. Buck jams a lot of words onto each page and even makes that crowding a decorative aspect of her work.  With dense hatching and cross-hatching to add detail and depth to her work, Buck just likes slinging ink and makes it work for her. In the Will Elder tradition, she also adds a lot of funny eye pops to each page. Indeed, while Buck's work is visually dense, by no means is it dour. She's a funny writer who can take the darkest topic and make it funny. For example, the back cover has a bunch of comics and a coffin with an interesting and particular shape that's captioned "Thanks for keeping me out of life's longbox." It's a great image, and Buck's attention to detail, as always, is important in getting the joke to land.

In the rest of the issue, Buck goes back and forth from the psychotherapy session that began in the previous issue and other stories. The first story is about a New Year's Eve hookup that disappoints because the guy she's with announces that he doesn't want a relationship the next day. She tries to laugh it off in the story itself while informing the reader that she is upset. There's a brief strip about the sort of responses one gets when others learn that you've tried to commit suicide, which is scorched-earth on-point and darkly hilarious at the same time. There's an anecdote about Buck's especially dysfunctional younger sister who had just had a baby--and Buck's other sister was understandably concerned for the baby's welfare. The anecdote concerns some psychopathic behavior evinced by their younger sister as a child, and it's an understandable concern. The art here slides between caricature and near-photorealism, and the effect is astounding.

Of course, the main attraction in this issue is the therapy session, with a therapist who's using a prescribed method (including tagging patients as being a particular kind of tree?) and is not exactly the essence of empathy. The therapy session runs in a narrow row of panels at the top of the page, and the rest of the page is taken up by the history of depression and its treatment from antiquity to now. It's a sobering reminder of just how primitive medicine was (and still is, in some ways), especially with regard to mental health. Buck's illustrations are funny and weird, giving the reader a lot to look at. In the next therapy chapter, her anxiety is addressed, and there's an amazing page where her therapist asks her what makes her anxious. Buck replies, "Everything" and then spends an entire page, with white lettering atop a black page, listing dozens and dozens of triggers. It's page that doesn't even need to be read from top to bottom--the simple acknowledgment of the scope of her triggers makes it a powerful image, with a small self-caricature in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Incredibly, the story ends with the therapist asking how often Buck prays. What separates this issue from the earlier two is Buck's focus is much sharper, allowing her to really zero in on key issues and render them in the form of a narrative. There's no question that she's a major talent, as this comic shows off her storytelling, drawing and writing chops.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Minis: E.Lindner

Pitching A Fit In The Big City was partly a walk down memory lane for me, as I've been reading Ellen Linder's work since the very beginning of her career. This collects stories from 2001-2016, published in various minis and anthologies, as well as a couple of new stories. Lindner has always been a great writer in particular, even in her earliest stories like "Pieces", where she talked about the memory of her grandfather talking at her, cutting her to metaphorical bits because of her relative unimportance in the interaction. Lindner used a big, chunky line in the early days, like in her memoir about 9/11. It was a striking approach, but she's evolved and has used a number of different approaches. Her story about working at the Museum of Modern Art was fun because of the way she incorporated so many of the holdings as visual elements in her narrative.

Then there's "Hygienic Sex", a bawdy and hilarious memoir about a past relationship and its complications. Lindner's autobiographical tone has often had an amusingly formal feel to it, especially when she's deliberately trying to be funny. The tone is almost that of an old-time romance comic, paired with a raunchy and crude series of events. Lindner is a long-time city dweller, and her settings are often in flats, subways and the claustrophobic living conditions in a city. "What The Iguana Saw" was about dealing with a peeping Tom, an apathetic police response, and a totally random question asked by a cop. Lindner has a way of supporting funny moments, crystallizing the essence and leading it up to it with amusing details.

Lindner is also great at taking on a specific topic and building a story around it. In "Me And My Sari", Lindner talks about the garment given to her by her mother-in-law, the times she's worn it and why, and responses she's received by wearing it. "Bill Murray's Doughnut" is interesting because it details her experience as an extra on a film set, hoping for an encounter with Murray. A story about a facebook connection became interesting when she realized that a close friend of hers in England knew someone she dated in high school. Lindner took that coincidence and realized that a lot of negative perceptions she had about her experience weren't his fault. "Goodbye" was the most recent story in the issue and certainly the most devastating and raw. Here, Lindner talked about her tendency to used bake goods as a way of showing affection and recalling a time when a misunderstanding regarding this made an abusive ex-boyfriend flip out and put his hands around her throat. Lindner details her naivete and trusting nature, and how she was so baffled and stunned and hurt by the experience. Lindner then abandoned her typical, fluid line and switched to herself in the present day, drawn in a naturalistic style with a gray wash, as she talked about coming to terms with this story. This was a beautiful and haunting story that was a fantastic capper for this one-woman anthology, demonstrating Lindner's growth as an artist.