Sunday, February 1, 2009

Periodical Reviews: Snake Oil, Shirtlifter, Reich, Big Questions, TTTTD

Rob reviews the latest issues of several comics series. Included are SNAKE OIL #3 (Chuck Forsman), REICH #5 (Elijah Brubaker, Sparkplug Comic Books), SHIRTLIFTER #3 (Steve McIsaac, Justin Hall & Fuzzbelly), BIG QUESTIONS #11 (Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly) and TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #1 (Jesse Reklaw, self-published).

Though standard pamphlet-size issues of alt-comics have gone out of vogue for any number of reasons, there are still plenty of holdouts. Some of them publish them as minis, while other publishers still make a point of releasing individual issues of series as opposed to waiting years for a collection.

Elijah Brubaker's ongoing series REICH, a biography of famous outcast psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, is still in the process of building to a slow boil. Anyone who knows about Reich's life is aware that his truly weird theories were yet to come, as was the worst of the abuse he would take from various governments. The fifth issue is a clear turning point, as Reich's outspokenness and utter certitude has alienated him from both the psychoanalytic and communist camps. There's a remarkable page where Reich delineates his vision of a sexual utopia to his mentor, Freud: sexual education, the eradication of venereal disease, diligent contraceptive campaigns, legalizing abortion, protecting children from seduction. It's all too much for Freud, who was so shaken by World War I's violence that his view of humanity became increasingly distopic. Here, Brubaker's use of unusual angles in arranging his figures and the slightly fanciful nature of his drawing was put to good use, as we literally see Freud in his shadow, and then having words put into his head by Reich's enemies.

Brubaker's authorial voice regarding his subject is restrained but unsparing. It's clear that he respects Reich's ability as a thinker, but has little patience for when Reich uses his theories to justify his increasingly questionable actions. He sloughs off his wife's feelings over his many affairs as something only a neurotic would experience and refuses to acknowledge his responsibility to be fully open and honest. The irony is that like many theorists, he hides behind his own dogma at the expense of a broader, humanistic point of view, a fact that's especially piquant given his own utopian quest. Brubaker's heavy emphasis on Reich's personal life spotlights the idea that the personal (and sexual) is political and that Reich's own obsessive nature often deliberately obscured his responsibilities closer to home. One senses that Reich's story, in Brubaker's hands, is very much a tragedy in the truest sense of the term. A hero with vast knowledge and great hubris will be brought down in the most painful way possible, and a great deal of his fate will be his own doing. Reich's inability to be fully honest with himself and his own repression, will wind up taking him down. I'm always eager to see the next issue of this series.

Multi-Ignatz winner Chuck Forsman came out with a new issue of his series SNAKE OIL, and it once again furthers an overall narrative and also features several stand-alone strips. The larger story is a series of shorter vignettes, some of which are clearly connected and others not, about the ways in which daily life are suddenly and nightmarishly ruptured by unexplainable and absurd horror. We follow a man dropped into another world, looking for a friend, only to have his native guide eaten by a hideous creature. The way the man connects this event to his own failings as a person ("If only I was 'more fun'") was amusing and an interesting storytelling device, dropping mundane, navel-gazing musings into a life-or-death situation.

We also see stories of a king who wants Apple Jacks, a teen acting out on the guilt he feels over his friend's overdose, and one of the series' original characters being gutted like a fish in a men's room by one of the many weird creatures inhabiting the "real" world. The back-up features were an interesting mix, with one strip devoted to drawing an approaching rainstorm, and another punning on "breaking up" over a cel phone. Forsman's confidence as a storyteller continues to grow, as he's shedding his influences and developing a style all his own. He's managed to maintain his loose, lively & scratchy line while continuing to bring greater clarity to his figures. Forsman obviously likes to vary his visual approach, working in silhouette on some pages, pure scribbles on others, open grids, closed grids, dense hatching, and the use of lots of white space. While there's clearly an overarching story slowly developing here, this series continues to have an improvisitory feel to it. That sense of improvisation with clarity has grown from issue to issue.

SHIRTLIFTER has to date been Steve McIsaac's one-man anthology, but the third issue also featured Justin Hall and Fuzzbelly with their own entries. Each of the three artists brought a different approach. MacIsaac's approach is "cool", in that there's a great deal of reserve in his characters and his art has a certain stiffness to it. That makes it more like a series of images to be stared at than a sequence of images that flow together. Fuzzbelly used a sketchier approach with a more rubbery line in doing a short story about porn that was in itself porn. Hall's story is the most ambiguous, the least sexually explicit and features the most organic-looking line.

Hall's "The Liar"is an excerpt from a larger story, about a young hitch-hiker with a pattern of using others. This is a story about someone who uses sex as a means of getting what he wants, quickly detaching himself from any dangling relationships and restlessly moving on to repeat his pattern. The main character is an interesting cipher for the reader, his true intentions constantly shifting and hidden. The one common thread is the way he leaves doodles on bathroom walls and stalls at each of his stops. He jokes about drawing an epic story a page at a time on stalls all over America, but it's clear that this form of self-expression tells us something about himself. He leaves no other trace of himself behind but that. Some of Hall's drawings are a bit clumsy (especially the way he draws hands), but his characters are so expressive that the problematic aspects of his draftsmanship tend to fall away.

Fuzzbelly's "F Buds" is a breezy story about the author's frustration with drawing typical gay erotica. He decries the fantasy scenarios of construction workers, truckers etc., saying that they have little to do with "real romance or real sex". He then depicts one of his own encounters as pretty much straight-up porn, only with a punch line at the end. It's a cute idea, but one gets the sense that artist protests a bit too much, especially given that his own entry here was not what I would call "erotica" either.

The bulk of the issue is given over to several chapters of a larger story by MacIsaac called "Unpacking". MacIsaac's comics are often a strange read. They have that static quality that I mentioned of someone used to drawing porn. Porn is all about creating single, powerful images; and MacIsaac excels at depicting sex as that series of images. However, MacIsaac is as concerned with what leads up to making our romantic and erotic choices as he is in detailing the acts. The problem is that his chunky figures don't really seem to move all that well in the spaces he creates; the panel-to-panel flow of his figures and their relationship to each other in space is sometimes stiff and awkward. In other words, I feel a tension in MacIsaac's work between the cartoonist and the illustrator, a tension exacerbated by how much of it is done on computer.

That said, what carries the story is how carefully he pays attention to expression and gesture. Body language is everything in this story. His sex scenes are far from gratuitous; indeed, they wind up carrying a lot of emotional information that becomes key later in the story. "Unpacking" is about a man who's just been dumped after an 8-year relationship and the ways in which he tries to cope. In particular, he starts having random sex with on-line hook-ups while dodging his ex's attempts at "staying friends". The title refers to his disinterest in unpacking his boxes in his new place as well as unpacking in trying to start a new emotional life. What makes the story so interesting is the way MacIsaac explores sexual politics, as the main character, Matt, winds up hooking up with a man married to a woman who also likes having sex with men. That man does not identify as being gay and in fact believes that men can't have real relationships with each other, which leads to some fascinating tension. The reserve of Matt's character, with all sorts of pain simmering underneath the surface, adds to that tension. I'm curious to see where this story will eventually lead.

Reviewing a single issue of Anders Nilsen's series BIG QUESTIONS is difficult without providing context for what has gone before. Nilsen has made a huge splash in recent years doing comics in a number of different styles, all of which tackle any number of philosophical issues. Those who have only read his stick-figure monologues will be surprised to see his feathery, delicate pencils in BIG QUESTIONS, the series that really brought him to prominence. In brief, the title of the book sums things up nicely: a number of events happen to a group of animals, mostly centered around birds, and everyone is trying to figure out what it all means. This series emphasizes gesture, open space and the occasional shocking event that has enormous impact because of the normally languid pace of the story.

Issue #11 is actually much less talky than other recent issues, emphasizing slow and agonizing action. A wounded bird literally crawls on the ground for miles, while another bird dedicated to watching over him flies after him, silently imploring him to go back, to no avail. A dog nudges a sleeping man in the midst of a plane wreck. The pilot of the wreck dreams of a monstrous bird that he has to cut open in order to free dozens of smaller birds inside of it. In the most wrenching scene, a crow sneeringly informs another bird that he's just accidentally eaten animal meat (which has a "sweetness" to it, informing the issue's subtitle of "Sweetness and Light") and can never turn back. The bird returns to his nest and mate, filled with their dead young, and tries to convince her to eat as he consoles her.

One thematic reason for the issue's stillness is when it took place: in the waning hours before dawn. The series had a literally explosive moment a couple of issues ago when a bomb (that many of the birds had been worshiping) went off, and the last few issues have been dedicated to exploring the aftermath of that event. For the birds, it was akin to Zeus throwing a thunderbolt or Jehovah speaking to Moses through a burning bush, only the message was an apocalyptic one. This issue was a literal sort of "dark night of the soul" as each of the characters was trying to make it to daylight. It's fitting that the crawling bird who opened the issue finally reached his destination (the edge of the crater created by the exploding bomb) as dawn arrived. I am wondering, given the cancellation of other D&Q series like CRICKETS and OR ELSE if BIG QUESTIONS will make it to its final issue, or if Nilsen will simply choose to publish the whole series in one collection. Given the individual care given to each issue, I hope he'll stick it out.

TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #1 is Jesse Reklaw's latest project, a daily diary strip inspired by Lynda Barry's example. If 2008 was the year when the comics world suddenly stopped taking Barry for granted and heaped huge amounts of well-deserved praise on her, it was also a year when Reklaw started to finally receive some long overdue accolades of his own. After many years of nominations, he got a big win at the highly competitive Ignatz awards. It's perhaps no coincidence that Reklaw's productivity in comics is at an all-time high, given his weekly SLOW WAVE strip, the new collection of those strips from Dark Horse (and subsequent book tour), his autobiographical COUCH TAG book that he's working on; random & brilliant minis like BLUEFUZZ and now TTTTD.

This new project actually seems to be as much an exercise for developing COUCH TAG as it is a project in its own right, given the way he chooses to flatten certain aspects of his emotional life and emphasize seemingly quotidian details as a way of getting at something deeper. In COUCH TAG #2, Reklaw tells the story of the disintegration of his family by way of talking about all of the cats his family ever owned. In #3, he chronicles the ups and downs of various friendships through their mutual obsessions, pranks and fantasy worlds that they invented. TTTTD seems to be about the tension between his need to be perpetually in motion as a reaction to his depression and constant physical pain (almost of a fibromyalgic nature).

Reklaw is matter-of-fact when he brings up his depression, never offering a context or explanation of its origin, or in fact of anything he's doing. In four panels every day, he in a sense tells us the ways in which he perceives himself succeeding or failing in his own eyes and the ways in which he tries to cope. He's actively engaged with the world and with others, and some of the most fun strips are the ones in which he is goofing around with his fellow artists. That sense of camaraderie is clearly crucial to him, that others share his passion and that they happen to be people he loves spending time with. There's an industriousness to Reklaw that is a reflection of the way he's battling against his own problems; he's always picking up new projects, accepting invitations into gallery shows, organizing comics for festivals, etc. That activity leads to stress, and stress to procrastination and self-flagellation, but Reklaw always fights through it.

That ability to bring himself back to the drawing table despite the stress, worry and pain was one of the most striking repeated events in this dense, 64-page collection covering two months of Reklaw's life. Having a weekly strip in SLOW WAVE is clearly both a burden for Reklaw and an enormous benefit, because his sense of professionalism makes him get back to drawing, which then makes him realize how much he loves it and how it eases his depression. Barry talked about how worrying about the "two questions" ("Is this good?" and "Does this suck?") can paralyze an artist and make them forget that drawing & writing are pleasurable activities--and that artists forget this over and over, every time they have any kind of block. Reklaw found his own ways of getting around the two questions, even if everything else in his life makes him forget his love of drawing. Taking on this daily strip, given Barry's example, always forces him to draw at least the one quick page a day, if nothing else.

At its heart, TTTTD may be a depiction of a struggle, but it's done with Reklaw's light, subtle touch as a humorist. He may not employ "funny drawings" or craft conventional gags, but Reklaw's comics have always had laugh-out-loud moments. That matter-of-factness in his depiction of life, that slight flattening of affect, makes for a perfect set-up for his dry humor. One senses that Reklaw understands his own tendencies as a loner (not unusual for a cartoonist) and balances that with his easygoing relationship with his girlfriend, with high-energy interactions with his friends (including a number of jams in the pages of this comic, along with tours and cons) and even with the way he is always reaching out to animals.

I wish I had thought to include the on-line version of this strip as one of my favorite comics of 2009, because it certainly stacks up with the best diary comics by the likes of Vanessa Davis & Laura Park. I do wonder how many of the strip's repeating motifs have been intentional and how much was subconscious placement of material, and how much Reklaw re-reads his old diary entries to see what he's done. Being a quickly-drawn diary comic, there's not much flash here, but there is plenty of expressiveness and a lively line. Indeed, Reklaw is remarkably adept at getting across emotion with a quickly-drawn likeness; fussing over such drawings endlessly often winds up killing that initial energy. This comic is one man's attempt at channeling his stress into something very positive indeed.

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