Tuesday, January 6, 2009

sequart #190: Mini Comics Round-Up: Neely, Ayuyang, Sayers, Mardou

Rob reviews a variety of intriguing minicomics. (These reviews originally appeared on sequart.com)

YOUR DISEASE SPREAD QUICK and BRILLIANTLY HAM-FISTED, by Tom Neely. Neely is the artist behind THE BLOT, one of the more astonishing recent major comics debuts. Neely's work falls squarely into what I call "comics-as-poetry". I've written about THE BLOT and this topic for another website (which has yet to debut), but briefly, comics-as-poetry is not the same thing as an illustrated poem. Rather, it's a comic that utilizes the same sort of strategy that poetry does in terms of beat, rhythm and abstraction. It eschews standard narrative and forces the reader to engage the work. Unlike most narratives, which have an immersive quality (carrying the reader smoothly through the story), comics-as-poetry is most frequently anti-immersive: the reader is aware of each word, each image, each panel. It's up to them to create connections between word and image.

Neely's artistic style makes for an interesting series of contrasts. He draws much of his inspiration from classic animation and comics from around the 1920s, and his comics have a rubbery, cartoony quality that draws the reader to its surface qualities. At the same time, he subverts reader expectations with images that are often gruesomely visceral. Another trope of his is his use of ink blots. These blots have multiple meanings, depending on the context, but generally represent both creation and destruction. Neely also has an extensive background in fine arts, and as a result his comics have a tension between the flow between panels & pages and the powerful single image.

That tension is highlighted in YOUR DISEASE SPREAD QUICK, a minicomic "inspired by the music of the Melvins". Neely draws from the lyrics and characters of the album "(A) Senile Animal" to create an apocalyptic narrative. Flipping between a horse-headed man crying doom to a spectral figure drawing ink from the horse to a heavily-bandaged multiple amputee inching along the ground, Neely spends the story introducing doomed protagonists who are victimized by schemers (exemplified by a two-page spread of some of history's nastiest monsters). The bandaged man winds up turning the tables after being sacrificed to a huge eagle, and the world winds up transforming into a mass of doom-saying horse-headed men. The last page, with one of them screaming "The world is full of evil!" as he's buffeted by thousands just like him, is a funny bit of irony. Having not heard the album for reference, this comic is still an eye-popping read because of the way Neely creates a flow of imagery. The back cover, featuring an obligatory Hostess Pies parody starring the Melvins, is a bit of wish-fulfillment with a slightly salacious ending.

BRILLIANTLY HAM-FISTED is a collection of "comic strip poems" originally published on Neely's website. Neely dips a bit into John Hankiewicz territory here in terms of the way he uses realistically depicted ordinary objects in his strips and gives them a different meaning by virtue of the way they're juxtaposed. The similarities end there, because Neely is still working in a classic comics tradition by using a four-panel grid for each strip. He also is more deliberate in the way he contrasts word and image--sometimes working in concert, sometimes at deliberate cross-purposes. "Sunday Afternoon" is a strip featuring a common Neely image: a crowd so tightly packed there's nowhere to breathe or move. Panel by panel, the phrase "Some people just can't appreciate the pathos of it all" is uttered by someone in the crowd--but we don't know who, because the figures are so tiny. Of course, the actual identity is unimportant, since all of the characters look exactly alike and are in precisely the same jam.

The themes running through these strips include suffocation, failure, anxiety, and the desperate attempt to connect--both on an emotional level and as an artist. "Art" features the artist taking off his glove and cutting off his hand, even though he knows we "would prefer cheap decorations". Some of the strips are more engaging than others; some make a quickly-absorbed point while others require multiple readings. It's fascinating to see Neely continue to mix old cartooning traditions with formal experimentation. The contrasts and contradictions inherent in his style and methods are what make him an artist to watch.

Rina Ayuyang's recent string of sketchbook/diary minicomics has been quite engaging. The best quality of her recent OVERWHELMING WOT-NOT, for example, is the spontaneity and liveliness of her approach. She manages to sprinkle quotidian observations, joys and frustrations into narratives that are surprisingly coherent given her loose approach. Her self-characterization in her comics is as someone who's constantly frazzled, harried and short of inspiration, yet the comics themselves have a clever exuberance. In "Fire!!", Ayuyang manages to relate an amusing workplace anecdote, throwing in a couple of gags related to an annoying co-worker and then shifting seamlessly to a related event at home. It has a light, breezy tone that simultaneously feels like a funny memory recorded for posterity in a journal and a polished narrative.

"Sushi Times" is a rougher, sketchier story that's as much about Ayuyang's often misplaced sense of empathy as it is about a particular lunchtime incident. "Happiness" and "A Dream of Sandra Bernhard" are slightly melancholy ruminations disguised as rambling anecdotes. The best story in this mini is "This Is The Day", a story that's both about writer's block and a way of fighting her way out of it. Faced with a blank sheet of paper and nothing to say, Ayuyang at first retreats into time-wasting activities, but soon tries to find ways to inspire herself. She draws support and wisdom from her friends, gets told to practice what she preaches after telling a friend to value her work, gets a hilarious "pep talk" from her father and vows to get back to her Big Story after a brush with mortality. What I admire most about this mini-comic is that it works as a form of art therapy. Instead of staring blankly at a sheet of paper because she can't work on her "real" project, Ayuyang engages in a form of highly polished doodling. In her recent work, she's become much more relaxed and comfortable with her storytelling, which has translated to a real sense of playfulness on the page. While I'm eager to see her eventual long-form project, I hope she continues to give us these pleasurable little side projects.

One of the specialties of the cartoonist Mardou seems to be examining friendships both deep and casual, especially among women. In MANHOLE#3, her character Bea takes us through a first-person account of the history of her friendship with Carrie. Both rock scenesters, Mardou tells a story of a friendship that was really a platonic love affair. Her use of detail and ability to evoke emotion through vivid anecdotes really gets across the depth and importance of this friendship, at least through Bea's eyes. The story does meander a bit and coalesces a bit more after a second reading, especially after one reads the ending. Indeed, as Bea is about to become the mother of a girl, her experiences with Carrie became all the more important in her memory, as a sort of continuum of feminine connection.

Mardou's line is sketchy and loose but highly expressive. Her character design is varied and effective, with her eyes in particular carrying a lot of the narrative's load. In the story, Mardou had a way of the story's leads creating meaningful eye contact with each other that frequently reduced the men they were with to mere props. In retrospect, Bea could see the end of their friendship coming, but there was nothing that really could be done about it. Sometimes, some friendships have a limited time span, no matter how intense they may be in the moment. This story is about a series of moments that had a life-changing quality to them; Bea knows that they're gone forever, never to be reclaimed, but the memories will always linger and influence her the rest of her life.

I WISH YOU WERE DEAD: THINGPART COLLECTION #6, by Joey Sayers. This is a drop-dead hilarious collection of 4-panel gag strips from Sayers' THINGPART website. Sayers specializes in classic "turn the idea on its head" humor, presenting a premise that the reader expects to go in one direction and then subverting it by the third panel before ending with the punchline. To this end, she employs a cartooning style that is simultaneously minimalist and grotesque. The design of her characters' bodies and backgrounds is bland and is just there to provide points of information and reference. The faces and heads are another matter.

Sayers draws round, stick-figure style heads with crudely-rendered faces: dots for eyes and simple mouths. Those mouths are often filled with just 2 or three teeth that almost resemble fangs. Like Matt Feazell, the master of stick-figure comics, Sayers' characters are still enormously expressive, with Sayers' refined understanding of gesture and body language shining through the simplicity of her line and aiding the punchline. Sayers is a flat-out great gagsmith, either taking an absurd idea to its logical end (like an employer praising what are suggested to be a commercial artists' samples but look like blank squares to the reader--until we see that the artist is applying for a job at "White Cardboard Squares, Inc.") or subverting a familiar scene (like a teenager asked to say grace who instead insults Jesus' tastes in food, is praised by his parents in doing so, and leads Jesus to buy the junky "Sugar Bomb" cereal the kid wanted instead). Sayers' work is also in the Michael Kupperman/Martha Keavney area of absurdist humor, but her goals and methodology are different. Fans of those humorists should certainly check out her website, especially since Sayers has such a high hit/miss ratio.

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