Thursday, January 17, 2019

Minis: John Hankiewicz' N for Nadelman

It's been a while since I've written about John Hankiewicz, who I consider to be one of the greatest cartoonists in the world. He came out with a book (Education) and a short mini within the last couple of years which I haven't reviewed yet, so I did want to get to his latest release as soon as I could. That comic is N for Nadelman, which is a meditation of sorts on the sculptor, artist and collector Elie Nadelman. He was active in the burgeoning avant garde scene in the early 20th century as a sculptor and later put together (with his heiress wife Viola Flannery) a huge collection that focused on folk art. His own work was forgotten during his lifetime, and there's one detail in particular that Hankiewicz zeroes in on: he put all of his pre-1935 work up in his attic to slowly rot away.

Hankiewicz (along with Warren Craghead) is the premier practitioner of comics-as-poetry. His approach has always been to use the familiar framework of comics in an oblique manner, creating rhymes through repeating certain panels and lines of dialogue. It is a narrative, but it's an oblique narrative whose meanings must be teased out and contemplated closely. In this comic, Hankiewicz defaults to a six-panel grid, 2 x 3, and he collapses them from time to time to emphasize certain images. He also uses his super-dense cross-hatching technique here to help create the atmosphere not just of darkness, but of being lost in the dark. The story begins with the image of a duck juxtaposed against the darkness as a woman approaches a house during a thunderstorm. She has a small pin in the shape of a duck in her hand, and these are key figures because they are representative of the kind of folk art that Nadelman collected and created himself.

The comic is set in 1944, two years before Nadelman's death. The woman spells out some details: she works for an art gallery and they borrowed a pie plate with two carved owl heads as handles from his collection for a folk art show. Her narrative captions only loosely match the accompanying image, as though she was thinking about these memories from the future and she was dictating a parallel narrative. She notes that his house was mostly bare from losing a lot of money in the stock market crash, and that only plays into Hankiewicz's hands. The house is bizarre as a result: dark and empty of almost everything except sculptures.

Throughout the comic, Nadelman is never literally seen. Instead, his works and objects stand in for him, a kind of visual metanym for the reserved, defeated but proud artist. Along with that visual bit of reality shifting, the narrative itself shifts in terms of causality, confusing even the narrator as Nadelman himself is confused. Was she there to bring back the pie plate or to take it? She wanted him to tell him a fable associated with the owls while simultaneously flashing forward and back in time and experiencing déjà vu. Nadelman in this book is about precision of language even as his form changes from one of his famous busts to his Dancer piece to his Tango piece. There's a joy of movement in these pieces that translates into cartooning, animating the page more than the other drawings. 

All along, she's wondering where she had seen him before, even as the tale of two owls staring at each other in desolation played out on the page. She and Nadelaman were those two owls, talking themselves into being other than they were in the desolation of life. However, she couldn't quite let go of that nagging sense that she knew him. Know him she did, because as she saw him literally as an impression of his works, she had "seen" him through one of his works that she saw in the city. In a sense, all that was left of him was his art--at least in her eyes. His world was dark and fading from existence, yet he would live on. 

Accompanying this comic is Notes for N, featuring "unwanted text" and "sketches from the beach". The text was excised from the comic and paired with sketches (some of them in Nadelman's style) that he made at the beach. The juxtaposition of art and image here in a setting that is not-art because it was only a precursor to something larger is fascinating. Like with any ready-made and repurposed use of art, the juxtaposition changed the meaning of both word and image. sketch of a bird is captioned "The rain has stopped, so I ask that you leave". It's fascinating, because the images that Hankiewicz drew are folk art images: just people and animals at the beach. Some of the images were then repurposed for drawings of sculptures, but it's all part of the overall project: reconciling fine art, folk art and the role of the artist in treading these two worlds. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Minis: Coin-Op Special: Karl Marx Bolan

The Coin-Op brother-sister art duo of Peter & Maria Hoey is well-known for their fastidious approach to their comics' aesthetics. Their smaller-run comics, the "45 rpm" line, both mimics their fascination with music in terms of form and content. They are designed to look like sleeves for 45 rpm records, best known as short-playing records with a single song on each side. The comics also are a mix of music history and something else. In the case of Karl Marx Bolan, it imagines an afterlife where rockers Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran conspire with Karl Marx to change the world. The Hoeys have the uncanny ability to draw naturalistic caricatures of famous people without losing any expressiveness; indeed, they lean into the caricatures to emphasize their larger than life qualities.

The story follows Marx using the event of Elvis Presley's death as a distraction in order to send Vincent and Cochran to save Marc Bolan. He claimed that "We need a working class hero who knows how to boogie!", and Bolan's music destabilizes the Soviet Union and leads to crushing defeats of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. What makes the comic so much fun is the way that the Hoeys are so obviously conversant both in Marx's political ideas as well as the stories of each rock star. In just eight pages, they tell a story with an epic sweep that touches on raw early 50s rock, 70s glam rock and funk. It's a funny statement about the potential power of music apart from its status as capitalist commodity. The whimsical qualities of the comic are grounded by its naturalistic approach and roots in reality, but at heart it's still a fun bit of subversiveness.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Minis: Maia Matches' Incelocalypse

Dutch cartoonist Maia Matches' comic Incelocalypse is a hilarious, over-the-top satire of so-called InCel culture done in the style of a Jack Chick tract. From the eye-catching black and red cover and landscape page layout, Matches captures the frenetic, weird qualities of Chick's old religious pamphlets while adding exaggerated sex and violence. She even nails odd, mechanical quality of the lettering and the frequent footnotes in these comics, replacing references to the bible with "verses" from Gmail, Apple and Google Maps.

The story details a femme dom named Bitch and her search for proper cum providers. She finds them via a couple of InCels ("involuntarily celibate" men), who were in the news for their sheer, raw misogyny and belief that they are somehow owed sex by women. Bitch, an unforgiving and all-powerful figure, gets all of her prey to submit. That includes the Straw Feminist, a hilarious parody of what InCel-types purport to be feminist beliefs. The end includes the typical Chick "who will you choose" features and instructions on the "one way to fuck". Matches keeps the comic short and in-your face, aggressively engaging the reader in Bitch's world from the very beginning and dropping pointed and funny attacks on her targets. Considering that Chick parodies are not uncommon, Matches is careful to make hers stand apart, both in terms of its visceral impact as well as its message.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #31: Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle's meditation on work, capitalism and the merging of personal and work spaces is a comic called Over Time, Every Section Had Been Allowed To Grow Accordingly. The second issue collects four more stories in this quiet but nightmarish scenario. "Walks Through Untended Orchard" is unusual because it's all figure and illustration work by Cockle (albeit with day-glo colors provided by a Risograph). Most of his strips tend to be collages of a sort or at the very least filled with text. Instead, this is a quiet moment away from everything. There's no work, no information other than the apple tree and the apple. The onomatopoeia of the "crunch" filling up an entire page is crucial, because the whole trip is an appeal to the sense unhindered by technology or the structure of work.

"Dream Sequence" is about the concessions one makes while trying to create art in a world driven by money. A team of two is filming a bootleg horror film until a "weather event" sweeps them away with a sense of almost calming inevitability. Here, everything is taken away from two people trying to work under the radar, with their impending bad end being so obvious that it's almost welcome with a smile. "Emperor Panorama" is a text/photography cut-up, mixing two different strains of text about time and place with photos bled through with a single spot color. "Anxiety Of Isolation" is the most disturbing of these stories, as it's about night shifts, loneliness and disconnection.

Andalusian Dog is a new series from Cockle, and I've read the first four issues so far. It's about a man who has a video game named after the famous Surrealist film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. Unlike that film, which was made purely on whatever images they could think of in an effort to shock and jar the viewer with dream logic, Cockle is crafting a narrative based on paranoid logic built on hidden knowledge. The first issue finds the narrator kicked out of an apartment for mysterious reasons, but he takes the Andalusian Dog video game with him. Turns out the game is a reality emulator and creator; it can recreate spaces that it's been in long enough. The second issue ties the video game into a wider, byzantine secret society/cult surrounding versions of the game that predated the video game. Immortality, arcane knowledge and fever dream logic are all part of it as Cockle alternates text and image in the 2 x 3 panel grid on each page. It has the rhythm of a game, just as the open-page layouts of the first issue felt more like floating through free, virtual space.

The third issue is a sort of take-off on the idea of terms and conditions for owning the game, only the punishments for violating them are hilariously severe. Exile, banishment, public and private humiliation are all on the able, as the harsh text illustrates crudely-drawn diagrams. The final issue is giant block printing over old office photos; the text is frequently and deliberately obscured by the images to create dissonance and discomfort, mimicking the experience of being trapped in an office. Once again, Cockle's goal is to destabilize one's idea about corporate culture and capitalism in general by treating it as a kind of incubator of madness, a sinister form of feng shui. The game may be a key to subverting it, or it may be part of what creates it; Cockle leaves this vague. As always, his ideas discomfit the reader in a calculated but often whimsical fashion.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #30: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden is one of the most prolific and talented CCS grads, and in his case, his sheer work ethic and willingness to follow his ideas to some strange places have made him a better cartoonist. His regular anthology series Astral Birth Canal is up to twelve issues, and he has several different side projects he's working on as well. His comics are smart, funny, fearless, strange, horrifying, bleak and humane. He's moved way past his influences at this point to create his own strange aesthetic, intermingling fantasy violence and moment-to-moment personal details.

Krikkit On The Creek is the second of his minis to feature this gentle cat character. It's a small mini that has no real plot: it simply follows Krikkit as he explores his environment in a mindful, happy manner. Every moment he spends walking around the creek and its accompanying waterfall, fields, stone bridge and cave is a happy one. He's delighted to eat from a blueberry bush and observe lobsters, ostriches and a new. Hadden offers spot color using colored pencil for Krikkit, making him a light orange that contrasts nicely with the simple black and white renderings. Like anyone doing a comic for young children, Hadden makes the comic a series of lists of things: things seen, things eaten, things interacted with. It's a delightful little object.

His series Kath starts with a standard Hadden technique: beginning a story in media res and then slowly filling in the backstory as the action propels the narrative forward. The comic starts with the titular character eating a sandwich by a fire, before she's interrupted by an imp. Their interactions lead to a monster sent by the gods coming to destroy her, a conflict that plays out with him defeating him just long enough to get away. Kath is a marvel of character design: her stringy hair, scarred face and battle-hardened body only become more interesting to look at when she dons her huge, horned helmet. In the third issue, we learn her quest, see her take a tough moral stand and make a daring, clever escape. There's an admirable straightforwardness to this comic that Reilly sometimes eschews in his work, and he accomplishes the neat trick of laying down narrative pipe while keeping the action going at the same time. Every reveal leads to the next big action, as the story comes into greater focus even as Hadden keeps increasing the stakes. The quest of looking for her child and bonding with her son's memory by eating the sandwich they invented together adds a level of humane sweetness to the proceedings.

Finch Island #4 is the continuation of yet another series, involving an anthropomorphic bird paddling to an island founded by an ancestor. We also see him from another point in time, his story commented on by a pair of frogs who happen to be traders. This comic is a model of restraint and tensions literally roiling beneath the surface, as Hadden masterfully reveals in the water as Finch is leisurely bringing his boat ashore. There are monsters, underwater societies and other bits of oddness rendered in a light hand, giving the impression that the reader can only barely make out what's there. Considering the rest of the issue is Finch exploring the island with a dog that he rescued, and one comes away with a weird tension that something's about to happen, but it's not clear what that might be. There's an almost poetic feeling to some of the sequences in the book, particularly the still ones where Finch is just stargazing.

Finally, there's the interlocking Astral Birth Canal #10-12. This series is still Hadden's best work, and it's his own mad science laboratory for exploring long-form, improvisational storytelling. Hadden loves pushing new ideas and images on his readers and letting them figure things out on their own. He's wrapping up this title in favor of a new one to be called Astral Forest, and it's a split that makes sense in the same way his nearest comparison in comics, Chuck Forsman, did when he ended his Snake Oil series. Both of these series explored fantasy tropes in unusual contexts with weird, often absurd humor in the face of horror. For all his flourishes, Hadden never strays too far from creating a traditional narrative here, only mediated by his own sensibilities and desire to keep things from getting too calcified and safe.
The bulk of the narrative here concerns Edward, son of Bork, who is a space god often sent on missions to eliminate certain horrible people and monsters. Bork is dead and Edward's just been killed, but they are watching lives playing out in an effort for Edward to learn more about his mother Valentina. She's a pro wrestler whose career takes off when she falls in love with Bork. With key songs in the background amplifying the action, Hadden takes the reader out of the story to remind them that other people are watching this, including Edward's horrified reaction to seeing his parents have sex. #11 has Bork's reveal that he's a god after he helps her win the wrestling championship, and she offers to come with him. Hadden interjects tons of humor in Bork's awkwardness, the way the wrestlers are drawn, and the horribly embarrassing moments involving sex that alarm his son. #12 has an escaped prisoner that Bork captured on his ship wreaking havoc, ending up with a shocking cliffhanger ending that reveals not all is as it seems. He then added tremendous depth to this storyline, with the sweet and bizarre relationship between Bjork and Valentina on display and told with complete sincerity and a surprisingly heavy erotic charge.

The back-up stories as strong, as Hadden continues to find a host of interesting artists to work with for back-up features. Cooper Whittlesey's dense story is told through a nine-panel-grid, each page upping the ante of danger for its main character. Steve Bissette draws a forest monster, while Anna McGlynn's choose-your-own-adventure comic for her main character is clever, as it comes up with a cosmogony for a primitive society using yes/no questions. It's enjoyable to explore major events disrupting such societies in this way, as these disruptions often lead to significant long-term changes. Audry Basch's peek at a couple of dog superheroes, Hadden & Susan Dibble's delightful fairy tale about lovers, and Iona Fox's over-the-top story showing Val and Bork having sex are less impactful but still add a lot of depth to this world-building process. We're learning about how and way many of the characters do what they do and why.

I suspect Hadden's new series will be another leap forward for him, allowing him to tell some new stories while still dabbling in this world he's created. It's a world where anything can happen, the powerful are merciless, and hope is still present albeit way in the background. His cartooning is confident, his understanding of narrative is sharp, and his approach continuously explores the idea of gender and gender roles in fascinating ways.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #29: Ocean Jones, Bread Tarleton, and Kevin Reilly

Ocean Jones and Brandon "Bread" Tarleton collaborated on a book called Big Grungus, which seems to be a collection of sketchbook-style zines where each artist traded the pages back and forth with each other. There's an aesthetic that I've seen developing among some young cartoonists that combines a scribbly, mark-making style of art with any number of genres, including autobio, fantasy or in this case, wise-cracking anarchist cats. That aesthetic is often closely aligned with punk/anarchist sensibilities, and that's certainly the case here. The loosely-constructed stories follow the cats Big Head George and Big Stinky as they lie around, go skateboarding, get in arguments, go on quests, brag, philosophize, and insult each other.  It's punk absurdism, with every mark on the page as important as any line of dialogue. There's a whirlwind of styles here, with some sections carefully rendered and others looking like ink is slashed across the page.

Jones' own Big Jumps 1 is very much in the vein of Big Grungus, only these are personal observations. That scrawled, expressive line and warped perspective fills every page as they talk about wanting to personally transform their body, piss on the government, and try to get up. Tarleton's The Woods is different: it's a silent work about a small person traversing their way through some thick, mysterious forest land. Tarleton's line here is dense, with lots of gray shading and cross-hatching. When the traveler sees a series of bug-like creatures marching in a row and then sees one of them devoured from above by a monstrous creature, they decide to leave the same way them came from. It's a strong sequence that manages to convey emotion through some subtle use of body language, and the visceral surprises in the story sell the reader on that shock.

I reviewed Mothball 88 earlier in December, but I have a few other Kevin Reilly comics to consider. Reilly's collection of short stories, Obscure Imperatives, sees him working in a number of different genres and styles. “The Birthplace Of Saints” is a story that sees him working through a number of different influences, yet coming out with a style all his own. It's been noted that his thin, wispy line is reminiscent of CF's, but I see more of Olivier Schrauwen (in terms of color and forms) and Dash Shaw (in terms of the fantasy) content here. That said, this story of a roller-skating keeper of the faith who protects a temple important to pilgrims is entirely its own thing. Reilly has a knack for not just world-building, but creating entire ontological systems for his characters. The way he has the belief systems attached to his worlds play out over the course of the narrative is fascinating, especially since so many of them wind up being horrific or lethal in some way. The way he ties those systems into sports and competitions is also interesting, as self-actualization as a believer is directly tied into one's own athletic prowess. 

There's a little Mat Brinkman in his “The Obscure Imperative”, a quest story with tiny panels, unusually shaped figures, and a starkly steady line weight. Again, Reilly's stories play out as narratives with a lot of stake, and in this case it's survival and memory. He creates a set of rules, lets the reader know just enough to follow the story, and then takes those rules to their logical (and frequently disquieting) end. “Fifteen” is an unusual mix of genres. It starts as a teen romance, with a mysterious girl named Molly encouraging the narrator to run away with her. She's too cool for him, but she gives him a mix tape that may have magical effects. There's a steadiness to his line here that is unchanged despite the frequent and weird scene changes, where the narrator goes from chasing her to becoming a member of a marauding, anthropomorphic rock band to fodder at a mental institution to running free.  
A Thousand Times is Reilly's take on the Ed Emberley assignment, where an artist draws a story using the simplest of geometric shapes. It's the story of a horse that keeps running and running, trying to find its girdle. It's another example of Reilly creating a world with its own dream logic that inexorably leads to a horrific end. Halcyon Bike Shop is a piece of cleverly-designed commercial work that doubles as a guide for how to maintain one's bicycle and an advertisement for the shop itself. It's beautifully constructed and designed, and it points out a constant in Reilly's work: absolute clarity in his storytelling. It's obvious that he has a big future ahead of him as a cartoonist, especially if he finds a publisher that believes in his work.