Saturday, February 28, 2009
Rutu Modan's EXIT WOUNDS was one of the best-reviewed comics of 2007. I didn't get to read it until fairly recently, and while it has many virtues, it didn't strike me as book-of-the-year material. Reading JAMILTI AND OTHER STORIES, I was struck by the raw energy in her earlier work. Her draftsmanship is considerably more crude in her older stories, yet the power of her line in depicting pain, loss and loneliness is almost visceral at times. Modan zeroes in on family and the ways it can fall apart as her primary theme. The ways in which we idealize our concept of family and the ways that this image is inevitably shattered and trusts betrayed are centered around little mysteries in each of her stories. Those mysteries are there to hang a plot around but also as a way of exploring how we try to understand the motivations of our own family members--especially our parents.
Modan also ties in this concept of family with life as an Israeli. It's clear that the concept of Israel as a nation is one that fills her with pride and affection as well as a feeling of disappointment and betrayal. The title story is about a woman marrying an oaf who learns that her fiance is more of a right-winger with regard to Palestinians than she thought. When she tries to help what appears to be the sole victim of a suicide bombing, she is overcome by all sorts of feelings for the dying man. When she later learns his surprising identity, those feelings become all the more complicated and ambiguous. That sense of ambiguity of identity is Modan's greatest strength as a storyteller. What's interesting is that the more specific she allows herself to become with regard to setting, the more ambiguity she adds to the story itself. That level of detail gives her a foundation to explore certain ideas without worrying so much about the backstory of her characters.
For example, in "Your Number One Fan", the central idea of the story is the tension the protagonist has in centering his identity around being an Israeli singer and his intense intuition that success will only come when he is validated by someone outside of Israel. Finding himself performing at a Jewish community center in England is humiliating to him and his concept of success, and it causes him to want to lash out at himself and the woman who brought him there. He had hung his identity on this very Western concept of rock 'n roll success, and an understanding of the dilemma that so many Jews face (assimilate vs isolate) gave the reader a sort of instant shorthand on how to read this story. Like most of her stories, this one has a climax without a real resolution; the character faces a crisis point and passes through it, but nothing is neatly tied up despite the central mystery of each plot being resolved.
"Homecoming" taps directly into the angst and paranoia surrounding terrorist activity and the way loved ones can simply disappear. It's about a woman, her boyfriend and her father-in-law. The latter believes his son is still alive despite being shot down over Lebanon. The boyfriend thinks her father-in-law is crazy and wants her to move in with him on their kibbutz. For her part, she's trapped between reality and fantasy until the day a plane starts hovering over the farm. Most people think it's piloted by a terrorist, while the old man thinks it's his son. The boyfriend thinks (and is backed up by radio) that it's a terrorist. The standard is-he-or-isn't-he-alive homecoming story is given a good and horrifying twist with the terrorist angle, a detail that's simply part of the background of daily life.
The intersection between sex and death and the ways the mysteries therein haunt us as children is another subtheme in JAMILTI. "The Panty Killer" is the story with the most literal application of this idea, done in a grimly humorous fashion. A serial killer is murdering seemingly unconnected victims using the same MO: putting a pair of panties over the heads after they are killed. The identity of the killer is revealed halfway through to the audience, though the signficance of this character is left vague until the very end. Modan stunningly reveals that the whole story was an elaborate joke of sorts on the readers, complete with a one-liner of a punchline. That said, the repressed nature of the killer reveals Modan's understanding that one's sexuality is a living, fluid experience that can't be contained for long without dire consequences.
All of the stories in the book touch on family in one way or another. "The Panty Killer", for instance, marks one person's exciting but inconsequential public sexual humiliation as fun but also marks it as traumatizing to her daughter. The relationship between daughter and parent is discussed more explicitly in "Bygone" and "Energy Blockage". Both stories are about families who have had to resort to gimmicks in order to survive the absence of one or both parents. "Energy Blockage" is about a family where the matriarch fakes having spiritual healing powers and her daughters run the practice. One day, she zaps one of her customers with too much energy, who happens to be the current wife of the father who left them all behind. It's a clever story with all sorts of twists and turns around its central mystery; many of its themes would pop up again in EXIT WOUNDS.
The narrator of that story is hard-edged, cynical and a step ahead of everyone else. In contrast, "Bygones" is told from the point of view of a 16 year old who has little life experience and only a dawning sense of what the outside world could offer. Working in a bizarre "theme hotel" with her caretaker older sister and younger sister she falls for an older photographer until her older sister steps in. The sisters had been together until their parents died in a hotel fire. At least that's the story we know about until her sister's sometime lover gives her much more information. In the end, while she is still angry at her, she doesn't want to upset the status quo for her younger sister.
Comparing these newer stories to "King of the Lilys" is not flattering for the other works. Sure, it's still thematically interesting with some grotesque thrills thrown in, but it lacks the more personal touch of his later works. Anchoring his characters in Israel doesn't make them seem "more real"; this isn't a very interesting concern. Instead, providing a certain level of detail about time, place and setting that act as static characters in their own right, giving the antagonist and protagonist something to bounce off of.
Modan's art changed over the years as she was compiling strips for the book. She starts with a sort of polished-looking crudeness reminiscent of Olivier Schwauren's comics. The figures themselves are lumpy and often grotesque, but they move through space gracefully. Later strips play up this sense of the grotesque even more, even as her line takes on a "clear-line" quality. A story like "Jamilti" is a sort of compromise between the two styles, with grotesque and simply rendered characters done with flat coloring and a clear-line style. The grotesque figures in "The Panty Killer" are played for humor value, while the black & white figures in "Bygones" have a sloppy awkwardness to them that reflects the sloppiness of their lives. Reading this book made me instantly want to see out EXIT WOUNDS again, a book I sense I will read with new eyes thanks to how Modan showed the reader her development in JAMILTI.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Tom Pomplun's task of adapting classic and/or pulp literature into comics form has had its share of successes and misfires throughout the course of his publishing GRAPHIC CLASSICS. Most of the volumes have skewed toward classic genre stories, be it horror, adventure or science-fiction. The atmospheric or kinetic nature of those stories naturally lend themselves to a visual adaptation, even if the stories themselves are more than a little uneven. A number of the stories he edits are densely wordy, making the issue of adapting them a difficult endeavor. Some authors, like HP Lovecraft, are almost impossible to translate into comics form because the sheer denseness of Lovecraft's atmospheric horror writing is pretty much the entire appeal of the work. Something gets lost in the translation when it was brought into comics form.
On the other hand, the Mark Twain volume worked precisely because the economy of Twain's writing and his wit lent themselves to a crackling visual presentation. This was even more true of the latest volume, featuring adaptations of Oscar Wilde's short stories. This was by far the most successful of Pomplun's volumes for any number of reasons. First, this volume only had four stories, and each was allowed to be fully fleshed out and breathe. Second, the match between artist and subject matter of each story was ideal. Third, Wilde's work has a modern sensibility to it and a lightness to its prose style. Wilde keeps things moving, and while he can turn a phrase, he's not so in love with the sound of his own "voice" that his stories bog down. The way he paced and created transitions from scene to scene made it ideal for translating it into comics form. Lastly, his satiric voice is devastating even today. There's a viciousness to his satire that's hilarious and even unnerving at times, and the way he combines his skewering of social mores with legitimately exciting plot twists makes this comic satisfying on every level.
Lisa K. Weber illustrated and Alex Burrows adapted "The Picture of Dorian Gray", a story whose basic twist (a painting growing older while its subject stayed eternally young) is known to most. What's interesting about reading the actual story is that it's a vicious satire of upperclass life and the narcissism it engenders. Its subject, given the opportunity to lead the most dissipated of lifestyles with no ill effects to himself, becomes vain and self-centered to the point of solipsism. That detachment from human relationships, that total loss of empathy, made it easy for him to become a murderer, because other people had no more importance than objects. The famous quote "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" is the lynchpin of this story, leading Gray to reconnect with his conscience, a little too late.
"The Canterville Ghost" is both a parody of overstuffed Gothic horror stories and a scathing parody of the foibles of nouveau riche Americans and stuff British nobility. The concept of an ancient ghost not only being unable to scare the Americans who had bought a castle, but of being frightened of them was a hilarious one. The story then takes a slightly more serious and even sentimental turn toward the end, with tongue still firmly in cheek all the while. The team of Antonello Caputo and Nick Miller gave the story a light touch. Miller's line is a thin one, bolstered by characters with their eyes bugging out, exaggerated expressions and manic action. About my only complaint is that this story wasn't hand-lettered; the computer font was a bit distracting and took one's eye out of the panel at times.
"Lord Arthur Saville's Crime" is another story ragging on the aristocracy, this time in the form of free will vs fate. Saville learns from a palm reader that he's supposed to kill someone. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he might become a murderer at any time and sets out to kill someone as innocuously as possible so as to avoid a nastier murder later. Of course, those murders go comically wrong and Saville is first forced to think of another solution--and then that solution is thwarted at the very end. Stan Shaw's art is rougher and blockier than the other artists, giving the whole story a raw quality that works to its advantage.
The best story and adaptation was "Salome", adapted by Pomplun and drawn by erotic comics artist Molly Kiely. Kiely's mastery of body language and depiction of seduction made her an inspired choice for this retelling of the wicked Salome desiring the head of a prophet she lusted after on a plate. It's an interesting companion piece to "Dorian Gray" in the way it examines lust, narcissism and obsessiveness and the way each grows out of control when presented with no constraints. Like "Dorian Gray", Wilde delves into some dark areas here, with the implied necrophilia at the end a signal that Salome had gone too far. Both stories also have a strongly implied homoerotic element that shocked readers at that time. In this book, that simply serves to flesh out the characters a bit more and offer an alternative to the narcissism of the leads. In "Salome", the love that one guard has for another plays out first as jealousy but then as real concern for his friend becoming obsessed with as wicked a character as Salome. And that concern came with good reason, as his friend wound up killing himself when it was clear that Salome had no interest in him and couldn't care less when he died.
If Wilde was writing today, I'm convinced that comics may very well have wound up being his medium of choice. The crispness and wit of his stories, combined with a certain visual flair and clever plotting, would have served him perfectly in working with any number of cartoonists. He was truly a man ahead of his time.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
A trio of smallish books were just published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they range from minimalist to highly stylized. All three are concerned with capturing important moments of the human experience. Pascal Girard's NICOLAS is concerned with how we deal with grief and loss when we aren't ready to process it. Diane Obomsawin's KASPAR is about a young man in 19th century Europe who was left in a town after being raised in a cellar without human contact. This book is all about the line between individual and society and how this creates identity. Finally, Pascal Blanchet's BALONEY seeks to examine misfortune, exploitation and despair through aggressively quirky and angular design.
NICOLAS is the most powerful of the three works, in larger part because of its restraint. It's about the relationship Girard has with the death of his brother, who passed away at a young age at a time when Girard was also a child. The book unfolds as a series of vignettes as Girard takes an unflinching view of how he tried to cope (or not cope) with the experience, explain the experience, exploit the experience and then finally come to terms with his grief. It's at times hilarious, like when Girard is in high school and relates his loss to a girl so as to get over with her--his grin when he realizes his sneaky plan worked made me laugh out loud.
What NICOLAS gets to the heart of is the experience of grief as a child and the ways children try to process it. The process of grieving is as much a physical one as it is an emotional one, and the ritual of funerals (prevalent in every culture) is a way of expunging the visceral power of those feelings. Children aren't really capable of processing these emotions in the same way that an adult can, and as the anecdotes in this book reveal, the nature of that processing often doesn't come until many years later--often in random or inappropriate ways. This book could have easy been mawkish or scored points with easy sympathy; instead, Girard goes out of the way to demonstrate the less flattering ways in which he went through this experience. He did this not so much as a deliberate act of self-deprecation, I believe, but rather as the only way he knew of relating what he actually felt at a given time, rather than what people expected he should feel.
His minimalist line and barest backgrounds recall John Porcellino's work a bit, especially in the way they evoke a certain kind of emotional shorthand. It's another way of avoiding sentimentality, so that at the end of the book when he talks about missing his brother every day, it's a moment that's been earned in the eyes of the reader. NICOLAS is a modestly ambitious but perfectly executed book.
Obomsawin's KASPAR is similarly drawn with a very spare line. In this case, it's a way of mimicking the childlike state of its subject. Obomsawin chooses to tell the story as a first-person narrative from Kaspar Hauser's point of view, making this a sort of children's narrative where the main character is writing his own story as he goes along. It's an interesting strategy, because it speaks to Kaspar himself being interested in spinning his own story and becoming a character in the new world he was thrust into; it seems very clear that he was quite aware of what his eventual status in society meant. We get a sense of Kaspar the showman with the story told this way. Second, it's a way of hinting at but not getting bogged down in the greater philosophical questions his existence raised. Nature vs nurture, the individual vs society, language vs cognition are all running arguments in this comic, and none of them are resolved. She also hints that Kaspar developed some interesting sensory tics, like synesthesia.
Instead, we have Kaspar narrating his own death scene, almost detaching himself from what passed for reality and phasing into the world of fiction. It's a great story, both in terms of the reader following his life and seeing how and what he learns as well as how the world treats him. He went from being pitied to studied to celebrated to being an object of suspicion. "Object" is a key descriptor of this comic, because the world saw Kaspar as an object of study, while Kaspar saw others as objects related to his own simple ends and happiness. It's not a story about emotional connection or emotions at all other than those directly related to survival. The simplicity of the art (and Kaspar's own narrative) is both funny and sad and becomes more poignant as one begins to realize that Kaspar will never be able to fit in in this world.
The most visually striking of the three books is Blanchet's BALONEY, "a tale in 3 symphonic acts". There's a lot of ambition in this book, as Blanchet seeks to translate the swelling emotions felt while listening to a symphony's performance into comics form. He wants the reader to feel music crashing as they go from image to image and page to page, getting across the immense sadness and despair related to this story of oppression.
It's not an entirely successful mix. The formal elements of this book, while stunningly beautiful, interfere with any attempt at grounding the characters emotionally and letting the reader hook into them. They're caricatures that are part of a larger morality tale, not characters. As such, it was hard to work up much interest in the travails of a doomed little mountain town plagued by a vicious autocrat and the over-the-top woes of the butcher and his daughter. The book is not a tragedy in the Greek sense, but rather a story of oppression, a brief ray of hope, and then that hope mercilessly snuffed out at the hands of a brutal authority figure. It's opera-as-polemic, writ larger-than-life, but ultimately a bit too simplistic and on-the-nose.
It also doesn't feel like a comic. There are swaths of beautiful, sharply-rendered illustration that cleverly mix black, white & red in all their contrasts. Blanchet's character design is wickedly clever, especially with one bicycle wheel subbing as a missing leg for a crippled girl. Problems come when we see an image and then a long, clunky chunk of text explaining what we're seeing and what everyone feels. I couldn't help thinking while reading this that this comic seemed to want to be an animated feature with sound rather than a comic. Blanchet had specific pieces of music in mind all along when drawing this comic, and it would have been a much more subtle way of getting across emotion and relating information while still retaining that slightly bombastic operatic feel.
It was jarring to read BALONEY after reading NICOLAS, given the restraint the latter displayed in the depiction of the same sort of emotional trauma. The two authors obviously had different ends in mind while writing these comics and certainly different motivations, but the restraint of NICOLAS made it all the more powerful, whereas BALONEY is a book more to be appreciated for its formal qualities than experienced as a coherent work of art.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The last few volumes of MOME have brought in a startling number of new contributors as the original lineup is mostly phasing itself out or going to a more irregular contribution schedule. Only Kurt Wolfgang remained in this issue from the original group as he continues his "Nothing Eve" serial. I love the increasing density of his line and his irresistible character design. The way he draws his main character's best friend (and unrequited love) Edie is in a ragged, exaggerated manner that makes the reader fall in love with her just like Tom, the protagonist. It's interesting that in a story about the end of the world, the real core of the story turns out to be this romance with loose ends. One gets the sense that all of Tom's adventures prior to recounting his relationship with Edie were just distractions until he could force himself to think about her, see her and get some kind of final closure. Wolfgang is a nice fit for this anthology because his sensibility has always been somewhere between Peter Bagge-style shenanigans and unabashed romanticism.
Volume 12 of MOME was the best of the series in part because of how loaded its "veteran" contributor lineup was. With translated stories by David B, Killoffer and Olivier Schrauwen, MOME had some stunning work from the first rank of European avant-garde cartoonists. These longer pieces are MOME's anchors for the shorter works of newer cartoonists. MOME 13 has the first part of a story by underground legend Gilbert Shelton (with Pic) and a short story by scratchboard artist Thomas Ott. Both of these stories fell completely flat. Ott is a pulp/horror artist whose work has a certain nervous energy but is ultimately pretty shallow. The story here, about an astronaut lured by a space siren, wouldn't have been out of place in either an EC comic or Heavy Metal.
Shelton's work has never done much for me, perhaps because the taboos he breaks (especially with regard to drug humor) seem pretty tame today. There's a certain manic nature to his panels and page design and a loving level of detail, but it all seems so ham-fisted and obvious. The satire he employs is of the most obvious kind and the situations he puts "the world's least famous rock band", Not Quite Dead, all seem rather familiar. I can see Shelton as an influence on many modern cartoonists (Terry Laban comes to mind) but his work seems very much anchored to a particular time and place and didn't grow in the way that Crumb's did.
David Greenberger's contributions felt a bit out of place. I love Ray Fenwick's text-based comics, but Greenberger's (known strictly as a writer, not an artist) list of albums seemed like a weak way of getting into MOME. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing something more substantive by him in the pages of this anthology.
These grips aside, this issue of MOME featured the single best story published in its pages: Dash Shaw's "Satellite CMYK". Shaw of late has been digging into color as a formal storytelling tool, experimenting with its eye-grabbing qualities to either anchor the narrative, guide the reader or else depict clashing or contradicting ideas in a clever manner. This story is about deception and identity, as a man is depicted at three different ages in three different identities. He is tossed around by a group of rebels in a huge satellite where people living on certain levels believe they are at the lowest level, whereas the rebels know there are lower levels and keep trying to smuggle people down to them and give them new identities. Of course, our protagonist has no interest in being part of this struggle--he just wants to live his life, and resents having his loved ones and memories taken away from him.
The clever thing about the story is that each identity is represented by a different color from the offset printing scaled of CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. That entire world is in that one color (and even goes in that CMYK order), with that "subtractive color" a handy stand-in for that subtracted series of memories. The final page, where the protagonist is literally in the dark before seeing a brand new image when the lights are turned on, is a perfect demonstration of the way offset printing works to create new colors through combining plates, just as the protagonist is now living on a level where he is allowed to keep his memories. It's an incredibly clever idea that could really only be done in comics, and on print in particular.
This volume of MOME seems to have much more eye candy in it than past volumes; that is, stories that one just loves to look at as much as read. For example, Laura Park's ruminations about sleep and why she has always avoided it look gorgeous in color and carry that perfect combination of cuteness and despair that permeates all of her work. There's a bit of muddiness to be found here that is mitigated by the sheer commitment she has to her images; these are watercolor impressions of life, not detailed reproductions.
Sara Edward-Corbett's color work is precisely the opposite of Park's: high-contrast, sharp lines and a formal playfulness that demands the reader follow along as the story beckons on the page. "Hunting For Blueberries" is a charming bit of formal experimentation as Edward-Corbett fools around with both page and panel design, weaving objects & characters into and out of each other's way by breaking across panels. The slow, anchoring series of panels at the bottom of the page not only deflate the main action of the story, they serve to off-handedly answer a riddle asked at the beginning.
Then there's the ever-hilarious Tim Hensley's deliberately flat color work as he continues his wacked-out Wally Gropius story. His John Stanley-esque character design pushed against punchlines both warped (like suicidal girls falling for Wally) and surreal (like the baseball accoutrement in a recording studio) make for one of the weirdest and most wonderful comics experiences of the past few years. It was also more than a little disturbing to see Wally being grilled by his wannabe girlfriend's father after the out-of-nowhere and violent sex scene they had a couple of issues ago. As a reader, always make sure to study every detail of every panel of what Hensley's doing--you will be rewarded.
The last really visually striking piece was the latest scratchy, watercolor piece by Derek Von Giesen, titled "The Marriage Tree". It's a series of dark vignettes as two sisters each murder the husbands they are stuck with in an arranged marriage, and resent the fact that their other sister seems to be having a perfectly good time with her new husband. It's less a story than a series of ideas and images, and Von Giesen's blotchy style lends itself to a lot of ambiguity. If I'm not as crazy about his work as I am about some of the other stories in this book, I am happy to see a completely different visual approach being used.
More out of left field than Ott's space-horror story is Josh Simmons' "Jesus Christ", which imagines the savior as a gigantic creature that crashes to earth like a meteorite and rises to wreak bloody and violent havoc on the world. The loving level of detail Simmons pours into this story as the centaur-like divine being gets its bearings, belches fire and pulls a fiery sword out of its own throat is more funny than horrific, as though the world is getting its just desserts in wishing for miraculous beings to return.
Conor o'Keefe's "Bums In Love" is a comparatively modest entry compared to the pyrotechnics we see in this issue. His style here owes more to children's book illustration than alt-comics, though his sharp critique of consumer culture and values is in full effect. There's also a little Winsor McCay whimsy and fragility in his drawings, which makes for an interesting contrast with the distance and acidity of his commentary.
Lastly is the most straightforward story in the book, Nate Neal's "An Interview With Minnie Moverman". It's exactly what it sounds like: an interview with a woman who had a particular kind of music career--selling songs for TV shows. This is as much a story about the myths surrounding life in New York as it is the story of the subject, as well as trying to sell out and failing. The world-weariness of Minnie makes her a funny subject, even if some of angst of the anecdotes she's recalling don't quite seem well-earned.
All told, the highs of this issue were as good as anything published in MOME. It's remarkable that through its run, there have been very few artists whose work immediately turned me off for a variety of reasons. Shelton is just the biggest name where this was the case, but anyone who's a fan of his work will need to check out this story. I'm always excited to see where MOME is headed next as it continues to evolve into an anthology that showcases the best of the past and future.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics once noted, a number of years ago, that what the American comics market lacked was "good crap". That is, there were plenty of adolescent super-hero comics around and a decent number of literary/art comics, but not much in the way of a true mainstream for adults. He also noted that the French were especially good at producing "good crap"; comics that one wouldn't elevate to the highest levels of art, but were still compelling in a number of ways and told a great story.
MISS DON'T TOUCH ME, recently published and translated by NBM, is a perfect example of "good crap". It's a murder-mystery story set in a turn of the 20th century French brothel. Such a story could be remarkably exploitative in the manner of a Cinemax erotic thriller, and there indeed some of those elements present. What makes this story rise above the inherent limitations of its setting and genre is the way Hubert depicts the most lurid acts in a somewhat blase' fashion. In a sense, this is as much a workplace story as it is a thriller, as the girls in the brothel have schedules and the madame fills out ledgers. Hubert also gets in some sly social commentary regarding class, especially with regard to whom ultimately takes the fall for the murders.
Above all else, it's the playful, almost bigfoot art from the husband-and-wife art team Kerascoet that gives the book a number of odd tensions. They are the artists behind the Early Years stories of DUNGEON, and their sensibilities unsurprisingly lay somewhere between Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Their character design has a playfulness to it that retains the practiced sexiness of the brothel's women but adds little tics here and there. There's also more than a little touch of the grotesque and the exaggerated in their character design, like the plump madame, the gangly cocaine dealer and the brutish & stumpy member of royalty who is a regular at the brothel.
The story operates on another level: fish-out-of-water situation comedy. The story follows Blance, a naive and virginal maid, who demands entrance into the brothel after her sister is murdered in cold blood and turns up as a victim of the serial killer called "The Butcher of the Dances". She manages to finagle herself a job as "Miss Don't Touch Me", a dominatrix who furiously whips those who "misbehave" and is never touched. The other women of the brothel take an instant dislike to her--especially since she replaced someone murdered by the "Butcher of the Dances". The artists take an interesting risk in making their protagonist shrill and neurotic, managing to both play this for laughs and heighten tension when she's in danger. Visually, Blanche is all angles--sharp nose, switchblade body, pointy chin. Only her eyes, when bugged out, add any roundness to her features. That heightens the contrast between her and the other women in the brothel, who are of course all curves.
After we are introduced to the premise, the story is a series of seeming allies being untrustworthy and characters with mysterious motives becoming life-savers. The story's shifting sands keep the reader guessing as to who's really responsible for the crimes, even if Blanche quickly becomes gripped with certainty as to the identity of the killers. The climax of the story, when we learn just how wrapped up certain members of the brothel are with the serial killer story, is nasty and visceral in a way that's unexpected. After a number of light storytelling touches (especially with the introduction of Josephine, a transexual African-American prostitute whose shtick is to resemble Josephine Baker), the end was particularly grim. Kerascoet depicted Blanche's eyes bugging out of her head when she was committing acts of violence or generally alarmed, but in that final scene, there was a certain steely resolve in her eyes.
While Blanche does take her revenge, the story doesn't exactly have a happy ending. Blanche is still a bit adrift and realizes she has nowhere else to go but the brothel (a bittersweet realization), the real killers go unpunished because of their prominence in society, and one of the story's few seeming innocents goes to a swift and brutal execution. Those odd minor notes modulate the story's lurid nature. That luridness is almost always present in stories playing up the intersection between sex and death, and the artists do little to downplay those scenes, but the story's characterization and underlying commentary prevent it from wallowing completely in filth. Indeed, Hubert, through the story's prostitutes, notes that it's the rest of the world that's wallowing in filth and hypocrisy; only the prostitutes are getting paid for providing an outlet for it. That's a realization that dawns on Blanche at the story's end, and may be why we see her crack a little smile when she realizes that this is her home. MISS DON'T TOUCH ME is both exploitative and in turn commenting on the nature of exploitation, and that natural tension of ideas is wrapped in a tightly-wound murder-mystery plot and turned on its head by the art.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The philosopher & historian Michel Foucault wrote a number of books that tended to have the same core idea: that the nature of human relations, stripped bare of idealistic constructs, is one of power relationships. In HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, Foucault makes a case that sexual relationships are entirely based on power and hierarchy. In DISCIPLINE & PUNISH, he gives us a history of prisons and pushes the idea that the Enlightenment Project did nothing to make the concept of the prison more humane, and in fact made it less so in certain ways. In MADNESS & CIVILIZATION, he lays out the history of the treatment of mental illness. He exposes the curious phenomenon of madness "rising" in certain areas during certain eras, which he posits is again a rationalist position of defining certain behaviors or groups of people as insane. The writers and artists behind THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX use aspects of all three of these arguments to aggressively push for a total reform of not just the prison system, but the entire justice system that surrounds it.
The marriage of art and polemics is often a tenuous one. The history of that marriage finds art usually getting short shrift, or downright exploited, for a particular political end. The more dogmatic a point of view, the more likely artists are to be exploited. The relationship between Communists and Surrealists is a telling example, as the former eventually declared the latter to be decadent despite having similar sympathies. The genesis of the comics in this collection came from the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Lois Ahrens, who was seeking a way of quickly and easily disseminating information about the injustices she saw. She was inspired by ubiquitous fotonovellas in Mexico, by trade unions putting out information in comics form and by a couple of economists trying to explain complex information in simple pictorial form. Comics were an especially compelling way of putting a human face on a systematic and institutional set of exploitative structures; tugging on emotions became much easier in comics form that with a dry set of statistics or charts.
Ahrens didn't mention a couple of other sources that seemed every bit as inspirational: the way Mao Zedong used comics for propaganda and the manner in which fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick creates his cartoon tracts. There's no question that these comics, and the "reader's responses" that go with them, are nothing short of propaganda. But that, I mean that they are carefully crafted to forcefully articulate a particular point of view and set up opposing viewpoints as easily disposed straw men.
The good news for these comics is that they were illustrated by cartoonists well-versed in balancing polemics and art. The magazine WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED has been relentlessly bombing away with its progressive agenda for nearly thirty years. Artists like Peter Kuper and Eric Drooker have been balancing art and politics for a long time; for them, the political is also personal, and has led to some striking art. In THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX, cartoonists Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth collaborated with various personnel associated with the project to illustrate the ways that prisons exploit the small towns they're built in, the way that the so-called War on Drugs has destroyed lives, and the ways in which the justice system affects poor women and children in particular.
The collaborations are not always entirely successful as works of art or propaganda. I think that owes much to the fact that the artists had to adapt a lot of dry information in a way that was interesting. Kevin Pyle, the artist behind the excellent book BLINDSPOT, particularly struggled in adapting the most abstract of the three stories, "Prison Town". Part of this was in the visuals: Pyle's work takes on a different life in color, and the greyscale art here looked muddy. His collaborator, Craig Gilmore, is clearly an information man, not a storyteller.
The overarching argument of this book is that there is money to be made in building prisons; in order to justify them being built, there have to be prisoners to put in them. This became easy with the War on Drugs, criminalizing behavior that is essentially a victimless crime to an absurd degree. Increasing police presence in high-risk blocks served to also add to the pool of prisoners. The problem with "Prison Town" is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more information from other prison towns on what effect having a penitentiary institution had on their communities. This starts with a conclusion and works its way back with some supporting details, rather than building an argument in the opposite way.
More successful is "Prisoners of the War On Drugs", which talks about not only the ways in which a young and naive person can wind up in prison but also the ways in which race affect sentencing (most famously, possessing crack cocaine inexplicably leads to harsher sentences than possessing powder cocaine) and the ways in which the system stacks things against those who get out of prison in terms of being denied public assistance. This section is more successful because it's more episodic and Sabrina Jones' thick black lines expressively get points across. It is still pretty text-heavy, with some pages looking more like illustrated text than comics.
The best of the three stories is "Prisoners of a Hard Life", which is the most focused and expressive of the bunch. Willmarth integrates text and image on the page that makes the lettering look like part of the art, making this possible with a heavy black & white set of contrasts. This story is the best mix of emotional and statistical appeal, bombarding the reader with example after example of lives being shattered--both of women and their children. The way that the prison-industrial complex exploits the poor, the disadvantaged and the desperate is presented in such a way that one's reaction to these stories is visceral. The creators (Susan Willmarth, along with Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens) are careful to buttress their anecdotal (and emotional) argument with carefully placed statistics and even provide alternatives to what's being done now.
The creators of this book are careful not to condemn prisons per se, nor do they call for the abolition of prisons. They instead focus on victimless crimes, non-violent crimes and institutional poverty, and especially how the latter is informed by the former. Incarceration (and the death penalty) is an extremely emotional issue for many when it comes to violent crimes. The creators tacitly acknowledge that there probably are some people who need to be locked up, but that the number of dangerous individuals didn't exponentially increase in a short period of time, any more than "hysteria" became an epidemic for women in the latter half of the 19th century. Just as certain behaviors were labeled as insane during that time, it was easy to criminalize certain other behaviors now. The Real Cost emphasis on how economics drives this process makes it seem all the more insidious and cold-blooded; in the end, all we have to do is follow the money to understand why it's being done. I only wish that the approach of the book was slightly less sledgehammer, since it really does bring to mind Jack Chick's methodology.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
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.