Saturday, December 13, 2008

Autobio Minicomics

Rob reviews a number of autobiographical comics. Included are minis by Liz Baillie, James McShane, Vanessa Davis, Laura Park, Raina Telgemeier, Marion Vitus, Sarah Glidden, Alec Longstreth, Julia Wertz, and Matt Hawkins.

One joy of attending SPX is finding the latest issues of autobiographical minicomics series, as well as discovering new and interesting takes on the subject.

9/27/08, by James McShane. This was an interesting little brick of a comic; it was not so much printed as constructed, its pages punched out. Its dimensions are 4" x 2.5" by 1" with a silkscreened cover. Apart from its nature as an art object, the book itself follows an interesting formal concept: a diary comic where one draws what one has done every ten minutes. The day begins at 7:40am as his partner wakes him up and proceeds from there, detailing the most minute details of daily life in rapid-fire fashion. This approach has as much to do with animation as it does with comics, because with McShane's stripped-down approach, the reader is not meant to linger on any particular image for too long.

McShane noticeably tells the story almost entirely with pictures, avoiding dialogue in most of his panels. I'm guessing that's partly a function of not being able to remember everything that was said and only focusing on bits of verbiage that would make the diary a little easier to understand. It's interesting that even in a comic that purports to report on the details of a day, there's still a lot of room for variation and interpretation on the part of the artist. Of course, one also has to account for the fact that drawing his log was part of this day--a snake eating its own tail, in a sense. I'm not sure I'd want to read another comic like this; this is an experiment that would quickly yield diminishing returns, but I admire the way McShane devoted himself to it for a day.

SING ALONG FOREVER, by Liz Baillie. It's always interesting to read an autobiographical comic by an artist who rarely makes them, and why they would choose to reveal themselves. In Baillie's case, it was simple: she decided to create an account of traveling to a music festival with a friend (fellow artist Robin Enrico) in order to meet her favorite band (the Bouncing Souls), see them play and take a photo with them. The comic, as she notes on the cover, is a "love letter" to the band, something that she describes as "messy, sloppy [and] gushing words of pure devotion", something that's "uncomfortably sincere".

The framework of this comic was a sort of cousin to what Jesse Reklaw is doing in his COUCH TAG series. She's revealing portions of herself through a mediated source. In Reklaw's case, it was through accounts of all the cats his family owned or the story of a particular friendship. In Baillie's case, it's the way the band became not just an obsession, but a security blanket of sorts. From the first song she heard, she felt like she was understood, that her pain was not random, and that she could find ways to put it to use. One reason why artists create is to externalize their emotions in a way they can't quite do otherwise, and Baillie's comics are filled with characters bursting with emotions they can't quite understand who express them in often inappropriate ways.

The love letter approach, while indeed sloppy, led to some delightfully spontaneous, expressive art. Baillie carefully crafted the comic to include flashbacks as to how and why the band became important to her, but the actual events of the day she met the band went beyond her expectations. As she met the band, got sketches, got a photo and watched them play from backstage by their invitation, one could sense the sheer bliss she was experiencing. She met her heroes, men she had never met but who in a sense had saved her life, and they turned out to be superheroes. Baillie had the rare experience of interacting on an intimate level with that which was by its very nature larger-than-life in her own eyes. As an artist, she had to capture these rare feelings, feelings that couldn't entirely be captured in a coherent fashion. A little sloppiness was part of the process.

SPANIEL RAGE 2008, by Vanessa Davis. Davis is probably my favorite diarist in comics and this recent minicomics collection shows that she's only gotten better. Davis has organically created a formula for her comics that plays to her strengths. Her comics are intimate without being overly confessional. They have a warmth, immediacy and spontaneity while still clearly being carefully composed. They are revealing of neurosis and worry without being pathetic. Davis' comics are funny without devolving into shtick. This volume details the ups and downs of being in a relationship without lapsing into being overly cute or sentimental. I especially enjoyed the way she and her boyfriend tease each other about various subjects, and the way she depicted the way she veered between sheer bliss and insecurity. It was interesting to see her connect her desirability as a partner with her productivity as an artist.

The key to Davis' success is providing the illusion of intimacy to the reader. The reality is that by withholding the context of the events she depicts, she actually creates distance between herself and the reader. As a result as that safety net of sorts, this allows her to talk about deeper feelings. That sense of intimacy and immediacy is further aided by the way she designs her pages--there are rarely grids or panels, yet the reader never feels lost. Her comics owe as much to the classic New Yorker cartoonists or Jules Feiffer as they do modern alternative comics. About the only drawback to her spontaneous style in this mini is her lettering. It's clear that she didn't always measure out word balloons properly for certain anecdotes, and some words spill out of the balloons. I imagine that will be corrected for the eventual larger collection of these strips.

DO NOT DISTURB MY WAKING DREAM #2, by Laura Park. Park was probably my favorite discovery in 2008, an artist with fully-formed chops who is finding her way around sequential storytelling. Her comics are a great companion piece to those of Vanessa Davis and Julia Wertz, with each artist simultaneously revealing intimate details while keeping the reader at a distance. The only problem with this mini is that the reader doesn't get to experience the sumptuous way she employs color on her flickr page for these strips. The grayscaled strips in this mini look a bit muddy in comparison.

The subtext of these strips details Park's social anxiety. Like many cartoonists, she's shy and solitary by nature, and these strips provide a window into the comfort she feels being along against her urge to be with others. "Good Time Gal About Town" crystalizes these feelings, as she tells herself to go to a nearby party but can't quite do it, telling herself "Probly wouldn't have had fun". That said, these strips really aren't about misery, but rather simple joys. "The Bestest Damn Hobo What Ever Was" is a delightful strip about an especially busy and accomplished day as she shot around Chicago on her bike. The final, contented image of Park lying in a chair with her sore feet propped up was a particular pleasure to look at.

Park is a skilled draftsman who uses a spontaneous approach to her line. The result is a series of pages that are beautiful to look at with simple, expressive figures. The way Park draws her own facial expressions on her lumpy self-caricature is this book's biggest draw. Her self-caricature captures her energy, her curiosity, her urge to create and the way she delights in the world around her. The way she frames each anecdote into structured grids (often telling the same story more than once) speaks to both wanting to make these anecdotes readable to an outsider and that she constantly thinks about her world in comics terms. Hopefully some wise publisher will publish a collection of her strips in full color. In the meantime, Park will have a story in an upcoming issue of MOME, and I'm delighted to see that she'll soon be getting wider recognition.

OUTREACH, by Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier got her start doing minicomics, so it was nice to see her first such effort in several years after laboring over four Baby Sitters Club adaptations. This short mini is autobiographical, detailing anecdotes from conventions and classes she's taught to children. Her line, as always, is enormously appealing and spare. Telgemeier is an artist who really knows how to play to her strengths: gesture, expression and depicting energy and enthusiasm (especially from children). I could have read a book full of these modest, easygoing strips. I've read plenty of comics much like this one, but it's Telgemeier's distillation of both the joys and frustrations of working with children that make it such a pleasant read. There's a rhythm to these strips that's framed by the disciplined simplicity of Telgemeier's line, effortlessly setting up punchlines with visuals rather than gag lines. Telgemeier's own autobiographical book, SMILE, will be published by Scholastic in a couple of years, and I expect that to be the best work of her brief but productive career.

NO IN-BETWEEN #7-9, by Marion Vitus. Vitus has been working on this rite-of-passage/travelogue series for some time now, and it's clear that she's built up quite a bit of momentum with it now that she's serializing it on the web. The latest collection of issues stands alone quite nicely, as we see her in Austria, visiting the relatives of her ex-boyfriend--though they aren't aware that they've broken up. This series is about breaking out of one's shell, taking risks, confronting fears and experiencing intense highs and lows. Vitus mixes a naturalistic and expressive styles interchangeably, which sometimes makes for some awkward moments. Some of her figures have odd body proportions that change from panel to panel, for example. On the other hand, Vitus' more expressive drawings do a fine job of telling the story, especially in the way she draws faces. These comics have a compelling quality to them, mostly because of Vitus' narrative voice. That voice is of someone who had obviously been quieted by people in her life and was just starting to find ways to break out. That exploration of how tentative this process can be, of one step forward followed by three steps back, compels the reader to want more. Vitus' voice is self-deprecating without being self-pitying, which is a rare combination in autobiographical comics.

EIGHT DAYS OUT, by Sarah Glidden. Glidden is the artist behind the award-winning HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS minicomic that got picked up by Vertigo's new line of original graphic novels. I tend to think of her on the "writer that draws" end of the comics spectrum, as much of what she writes would be nearly as compelling without comics to go with them. It'll be interesting to see the end result of that comic, because I imagine Glidden's work will move more towards the middle of that art/text distinction as her line grows more confident. This mini is the perfect sort of comic to balance those interests, given the warmth and immediacy of the art. It's a travelogue (which seems to be Glidden's go-to subject at the moment) about a trip she and her brother took across country from New York to Los Angeles.

It's funny that she and her brother chose to listen to podcasts of "This American Life", because her own storytelling style is not unlike a feature on that show. Her narrative voice has a gentle, warm, probing wit. She looks at her world with eyes wide open and openly seeks out new experiences and sights. That openness translates well to comics, as the reader feels like they are traveling with her, listening to her tell a story. The sketchy quality of her art has a certain immediate power to it, but she has difficulty getting across the beauty of her surroundings with some of her less detailed drawings. It's clear that experiencing the natural beauty of the American southwest had a profound impact on her, one that she wanted to share with her audience, but this venue was not quite the right one. It really required the use of full color and/or an elaborate series of visual tricks that aren't quite in her arsenal to date. At eighty pages, Glidden does serve up a meaty account of her trip that still manages to reveal little in the way of personal detail but much in our understanding of how she perceives the world. Glidden is already a talent to watch and someone who should only improve as she continues to evolve as an artist.

2007 PHASE 7 SUMMER SUPPLEMENT, by Alec Longstreth. The most enthusiastic artist on artist cranked out an attractive-looking story as a 24-hour comic, no less. Longstreth enjoys writing about the craft of creating comics, and time management in particular. This comic was a sort of meta-commentary on time management, since it's all about his decision to become a fellow at the quite isolated Center for Cartoon Studies in a small Vermont town. Longstreth throws in nice-looking splash pages, a number of fairly detailed drawings, diagrams, caricatures of over a dozen people and more in this high-energy mini. It's a comic about wanting to draw comics, and the purity of Longstreth's enthusiasm for the form has always been one of his biggest strengths as an artist. The simplicity of his line has always made his work appealing if not always compelling. When his "Basewood" serial is done, that will most likely his best early work, and I sense that he's best suited for clever genre-related work with occasional pit-stops and detours into autobio and other experiments.

BEFORE THE FART PARTY and THE LEGEND OF REBOB MOUNTAIN, by Julia Wertz. I'd describe Wertz as another "writer who draws", only unlike Sarah Glidden, Wertz is rambunctious, all over the place and sloppy. She mixes her potent sense of humor with a healthy dose of anger, bitterness and self-deprecation. Wertzpretty much pours all of her feelings on the page, and these two comics show the results at different points in her career. BEFORE THE FART PARTY contains the strips she did prior to launching the webcomic that has attracted a fairly substantial audience. It's an interesting mini, as Wertz is trying to find a voice both as writer and artist. She actually started off trying a more naturalistic style for her autobio strips, but it was clear that she was best suited for a more cartoony, almost bigfoot, style. She very quickly honed her chops as a comedic writer even before settling on a style of art that worked for her, as was evident in strips like "Hospital 1982-2004" (wherein she discusses her history of falling down and her desire to give birth to kittens), "First/Last Date" and the hilarious "Robot Vs Snowman" (a pitched battle between her left and right brain selves that leaves both dead--this was her application strip to CCS!).

REBOB MOUNTAIN is not a comic, but rather an illustrated story from Wertz's childhood. There are a few interesting uses of misdirection here, as we expect an irreverent story from her early life (which had many unusual stories attached to it), but instead we get a fairly sober meditation on how & why children attach meaning to certain events. In this case, the unthinkable death of a friend of theirs from cancer was shifted into their ongoing angst about the creatures they thought lived at the top of the mountain near their house. It's about the rituals children use to ward off the unexplained, about the feeling of being kept in the dark by adults and wondering about how to gain access to the world's real secrets. This mini is an interesting fit with the rest of Wertz's work, since one can't fully pigeonhole her. Most of her work is funny, but it also has a diary strip quality to it, as well as days where it's more a straight rant than a punchline. Still other days are expressions of pure joy, once again with no punchline. Wertz took a fairly common internet phenomenon and has carved out a unique identity for herself.

UNLUCKY #3 & #4, by Matthew Hawkins and various artists. Hawkins does Harvey Pekar-style autobio collaborations with a variety of artists, focusing almost solely on stories about his own misfortunes or the very strange things he's seen. He has a raunchy, visceral wit as he zips back and forth in time for these short anecdotes. Issue #3 matches a story with scatological and broken-heart elements with Matthew Bernier's minimalist (almost symbolic) art, which fortunately blunted the gross-out factor of the story while playing up its humor. I thought Dave Savage's scrawled-out art for a story about the various weirdos he knew in school was another appropriate choice, looking as though it had been scribbled on someone's book cover. Hawkins' stories seem to go best with collaborators whose art is heavily stylized (which is why I thought Toby Craig's moody but naturalistic art was a bad fit), partly because Hawkins' writing has a certain deadpan quality to it no matter how weird the situation he describes. That matter-of-fact storytelling style is perhaps his greatest strength; he never oversells his premises but rather lets them play out with restraint on his end, allowing his artists to go hog wild. I'd like to see Hawkins illustrate one of his own stories--he's certainly got the chops to do so.

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