Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Simple Horrors of Dream-Time: The Bun Field

Rob reviews the recent translation of Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki's THE BUN FIELD (Drawn & Quarterly).

The interpretation of dreams is much like the interpretation of any event: subject to a retroactive narrative of a primary experience. It's the same principle regarding the aesthetic experience vs. an interpretation of that experience--you can talk about it, and around it, and understand its origins and experiences, but the interpretation is not the same thing as the experience. It never can be. In much the same way, Amanda Vahamaki's THE BUN FIELD feels like an artist's best attempt to directly transcribe her own subconscious, but even that level of interpretation perhaps assumes a bit too much. This is a story with loose connections that follow the experience of a single character that starts off with a cartoonish but horrific dream and then delves into an even more cartoonish and horrific reality. The main character takes these events at face value and so must the reader.

That said, Vahamaki's art has a loose, scribbly quality to it that reflects immediacy and urgency. It feels like this was frantically scribbled into the artist's own sketchbook. Some of the images are actually beautifully rendered, while some panels retain the erasure marks of first tries. One of the ways in which comics are unique is that it's very easy to leave in those sort of tracings to reflect a change of artistic agency on a given page, an act that deconstructs both the act of drawing and reading the page. Seeing the artist's hand in such a direct way changes the way we perceive it but doesn't take us out of the narrative itself. It's one more story element that we simply must accept, just like a bear driving a car or an amateur dentist replacing the protagonist's tooth with a dog's tooth.

There are a number of recurring images and situations in THE BUN FIELD. The characters all obsess on eating, and in particular not having enough of or non-spoiled food. The protagonist is on some kind of journey, but it's not clear if she's moving toward or away from something. Indeed, aimlessness and the interminable length of journeys (represented by a number of panels tracking a tedious path) seem to be part of the equation here. The threat of death or personal injury always lurks, though it should be noted that the only significant injury the narrator sustains came when she tripped and fell on her face. Despite that vague sense of menace, there's an air of silliness as well, like the conversation the protagonist has with the bear driving a car, plowing a field of living buns, and the way various animals talk to her. Above all else, this comic seems to deal with how agency is frustrated in our dreams. The protagonist can't drive, can't decide where to go, can't finish a grisly job and eventually can't stop crying. The line between dream and reality is irrelevant here in very much the same way our own dreams can feel so very real.

In the end, that line between dream and reality is given a very deliberate wink as the dinosaur that pops up in the protagonist's dream reveals itself in "reality" to one of her friends. The protagonist is unable to overcome her grief (and guilt)-induced paralysis and so doesn't return home, despite being told that all is forgiven. This is a journey comic where things get progressively worse and eventually traps the protagonist into hopelessness. In a different comic, the dreamlike signifiers shown in this book would have an obvious story reference to tell the reader what they represent. Instead, it's the signifiers themselves that carry the weight of the book. The reader can guess at the potential underlying emotions (grief, guilt, despair) of those signifiers, but in the end it's all about the journey, not its beginnings. As a result, Vahamaki has created a bold variation on the hoary convention of the dream comic, one that trusts the reader to take each image as it is and react to the feelings we see on panel, not the feelings we guess they represent.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Two Kinds of Adaptations: First Time and The Raven & Other Poems

Rob reviews a couple of recent releases from NBM, both of which feature artists adapting stories from a single writer. THE RAVEN AND OTHER POEMS is illustrated by Gahan Wilson, while FIRST TIME is an erotica anthology featuring a host of artists interpreting the stories of Sibylline.

I always thought that CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED was a truly odd duck in the world of comics. They essentially mangled works of literature, paring it down to a more palatable length and getting industry hacks to illustrate them. That approach changed with the 90s revival and current reprinting and expansion of same by Papercutz, a division of NBM. These comics use high production values and try to match artists with subject matter that seems right up their alley. In the case of illustrating THE RAVEN AND OTHER POEMS, legendary NEW YORKER cartoonist Gahan Wilson could not have been a better choice. It's important to note that this volume is not a comic, but rather a series of poems with accompanying illustrations. The illustrations are subservient to and not in concert with the text, but nonetheless echo the sheer obsessive passion of Edgar Allan Poe.

Wilson manages to create a vibratory quality in his line by combining a lot of loopy lines that leave a lot of space with dense cross-hatching. The way he constructs his figures is fascinating, piling on geometric shapes that add up to characters. His proficiency in depicting the morbid made him an ideal match for Poe, but there's also a playfulness to his line, a sense of whimsy, that also fits in with Poe's lilting verses and sharp wit. While the illustrations for the titular poem were appropriately gloomy, the real show-stopper here was what Wilson did for the poem "The Conqueror Worm". This apocalyptic, gruesome poem feels like a predecessor to HP Lovecraft's stories, and Wilson's grotesque stylings live up to Poe's decriptions. Fans of either Poe or Wilson should seek this book out, even if Wilson declined to really attempt to adapt it to comics form.

Adapting erotica into comics form has mostly resulted in predictably inane narratives and/or art that that failed to arouse. Of course, the line between pornography and erotica is as nebulous as the very definition of porn itself. The anthology FIRST TIME valiantly tries to fly under the banner of erotica as its concept surrounds stories fleshing out first experiences with various aspects of sexuality. The writer, Sybilline, is a woman who wrote each story from a woman's perspective, in a further attempt to subvert the usually male-centric nature of porn.

The results were decidedly mixed, both in terms of narrative and arousal. While the concept of "first time" was clever, the stories themselves were remarkably predictable, even when a deliberate twist was thrown in. For example, the story about a woman "meeting" a man in a bar who was actually her husband lacked any sense of mystery. Some of the more light-hearted stories (like a woman buying her first dildo) weren't actually funny, just inane. The dialogue didn't help matters in most of the stories, especially those that tilted more towards accounts of specific sexual acts rather than fleshing out actual characters.

A notable exception was "1 + 1", a story about a woman's first lesbian experience. The cartoony art by Virginia Augustin was sharp and angular, adding an air of whimsy to what would turn out to be a sad story. While the "twist" of her one-night-stand being a woman was telegraphed, the way the affair turned out added a downbeat tone to a book mostly about fulfillment. In terms of pure sex appeal, the story "2 + 1", about a woman's first threesome, was the most visceral in its visual approach. Sometimes this was a bit much (like the depiction of the first kiss), but artist Vince's relentless commitment to details both explicit and decorative made the otherwise standard story a success.

The book's best story was a silent one adapted by Dave McKean. An anthology of this sort consisting entirely of silent stories might have been considerably more powerful, given the eye-popping quality of what McKean did here. It's about a man masturbating to an x-rated film on TV, his wife discovering him and seducing him, and the not-so-shocking ending where she turns on the film herself. McKean switches back and forth between a distorted photorealist style for the film and a sort of cubist/futurist take on the couple. This approach is the best in representing the kinetic qualities of sex in the entire book, as opposed to a series of still drawings.

Overall, the book feels a bit betwixt and between. The characters are well-developed enough for us to care about their sexual escapades. The stories are mostly not whimsical enough to get us to laugh with the characters as they get into sexual situations. The imagery, with the exception of McKean, is mostly the sort of stuff we've seen in other places. While the feminine perspective in narration was appreciated, it didn't seem to say much that hasn't been done in other volumes of erotica. Hopefully, if there are future volumes, they'll let the artists pursue newer avenues of representation regarding sex and won't worry about if the results are truly "erotic" or not.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Skin You're In: A Mess of Everything

Rob reviews the second volume of Miss Lasko-Gross' autobiographical high school vignettes, A MESS OF EVERYTHING (Fantagraphics).
Miss Lasko-Gross' self-caricature in her autobio stories is an interesting mash-up of a typical teen with low self-esteem and that of an indignant outsider determined to make her increasingly confident voice heard--and loudly. While she is constantly bombarded with the message that she doesn't fit in, she's weird, she's not "cute" like other girls and this message certainly takes its toll, by the end of this book one can tell that the volume of this message grows more and more muted in her own head. It's easy to internalize this message, and to a degree she does, but her own stubborn individuality and sense of generalized outrage constantly talks her out of it. At the same time, her utter contempt for anything resembling an institution (especially of learning) is magnified all the more when she "succeeds" in school as she learns to play the game of what is expected of her as a student.

It was this rock-solid sense of self that anchored her as a younger girl in her first book, ESCAPE FROM 'SPECIAL', giving her the ability to rise above the realization that the world has a way of punishing the naive-but-different. "Outrage" was her touchstone in this book, as her anger at everything gave her the fuel to rise above her own doubts and anyone who dared mess with her. Fundamentally, she wasn't really just angry about specific injustices (such as feeling that all the schools wanted were unquestioning sheep spitting back desired answers), but rather that qualities such as honesty, empathy and compassion were not only not encouraged by the culture-at-large, but openly derided. In her own eyes, she was doing everything "right" but was not only never rewarded but frequently punished. While despondent over this understanding, sometimes to the point of no longer wanting to live, she nonetheless kept plugging away.

Lasko-Gross lays out a fairly conventional narrative in terms of time and flow, but breaks it up with short vignettes. In the first book, the vignettes accreted an eventual collective weight that was greater than the sum of its parts. Lasko-Gross alternated between small, funny moments and the larger snapshots of personal drama. In this book, with several sustained subplots, the formal choice of using the vignettes worked in the opposite manner: it broke up a "heavy" storyline and made it more palatable by feeding it to us in smaller doses, punctuated by occasional sillier stories that also served to lighten the mood a bit.

This was a needed approach, because the "after-school special" nature of a friend with anorexia threatened to bog the book down at times, even as Lasko-Gross is careful to tie this in with her own sense of self and what a friend is obligated to do. It was obviously tough to deal with, given that this was based on Lasko-Gross' own experiences, but she perhaps threw in one vignette too many that repeated the same themes and exchanges. That was obviously done to reflect her own frustration in dealing with her friend (and the friend's eventual behavior toward her) and the conclusion of the story was certainly powerfully & skilfully handled. At times, however, I thought this subplot was in danger of taking over the book. That said, Lasko-Gross was careful to illustrate why this relationship was so important to her, particularly in the way she showed how she struggled to reveal her "true" self to others.

It's interesting to compare this book to Ariel Schrag's work. The former was done in the moment during high school and lacked the perspective of time to evaluate what it all meant. Of course, such an approach also prevents a bit of retroactive editing of memory. Lasko-Gross has a very particular sort of story that she wants to tell, but the use of vignettes to break up the narrative helps remove some of the temptation to make more sense out of one's own life story than is really there. Indeed, she goes out of her way to not just be self-effacing, but to even point out that she's a sort of "type" (the rebel), with a whole host of expected behaviors. It's actually that realization that allows her to break out of that role when she starts failing at school and smoking pot. Her strong sense of self is balanced with how her behavior affects others, including her family.

Lasko-Gross' greatest strengths as an artist are her character design, gesture and use of body language. It's the way she stages her characters that makes looking at each page interesting. She uses a muted palette on pages that are mostly filled with grey, and jams every panel with either decorative details or fills them with moody shading. When Miss is feeling a strong emotion in the comic, there are often strange little noodly lines that surround her that remind me (oddly enough) of mainstream artist George Perez. I love the touch of the exaggerated and the grotesque that she injects into her drawings, distorting faces and bodies to reflect emotional tumult. Lettering also serves as a way to depict exaggeration, and the organic quality of her lettering often reveals emotional states in a more direct way than the actual words themselves.

Ultimately, what saves the character of Lasko-Gross in this story is the feeling that she can escape this world by running off to art school. Her identity as an artist and increasing confidence in her own ability is perhaps the leading factor in caring less and less about what mainstream culture thinks about anything. At the end of ESCAPE FROM 'SPECIAL', she found a way to work herself out of being abjected into so-called "special education". At the end of this book, she stopped rebelling against the machine and instead pretended to play ball, never once internalizing the voice of authority, just so that she could escape from "normal". What was left unresolved here was the way her aggressiveness protected her from the world also isolated her emotionally; it'll be interesting to see if this becomes the main thrust of the last book in this trilogy. The last story in the book, coming as an epilogue of sorts, indicates how much connections come to mean to her.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Unspoken: Cecil And Jordan In New York Stories

Rob reviews the recent collection of short stories from Gabrielle Bell, CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK STORIES (Drawn & Quarterly).

With the release of LUCKY, Gabrielle Bell became best known for her wry autobiographical diary comics. Those comics have always been just one of her interests; in fact, her earliest minicomics tended to be fictional, as the collection WHEN I'M OLD shows. With the release of CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK, it's interesting to see how her dry sense of humor gets even drier when she gets away from strictly autobiographical accounts. It's also interesting to see a wider variety of visual approaches than one would expect from her wobbly but spontaneous line from her diary comics. As always, she's a master of subtlety, restraint, and repressed emotion--yet this volume sees her veering in some unusual, even fantastical, directions.

Bell is perhaps one of the more unlikely cartoonists to have their work adapted into film, yet director Michel Gondry adapted the titular story of this volume into his new film TOKYO! This was one of Bell's first attempts at working in color, and it looks a bit crisper here than in its original home in KRAMER'S ERGOT. The story of a woman who moves to New York to help out her filmmaker boyfriend takes an odd turn when she stops feeling useful and decides to turn herself into a chair. If she's going to be used, she may as well get really used. The deadpan nature of Bell's work made that transition a seamless one. While there are often loud, abrasive characters in Bell's comics, her protagonists are always calm and almost devoid of strong emotions--or at least emotional displays. That flatness of affect makes it difficult for a reader to identify with them, giving her stories a coolness. As a result, the reader is always kept a little off-balance and is forced to dig into each story's emotional subtext.

Bell does work a little more broadly and warmly in some of her stories. "My Affliction" reminds me a lot of her earlier stories. It's a wonderfully loopy story that feels almost completely improvised in the way it passes from weird episode to weird episode. There's a certain kind of dream logic going on as Gabrielle finds she can't fall to the earth, falls in love with inappropriate targets, gets a dog and parrot and winds up imprisoned in a giant's cage. What makes the story work is that the moment-to-moment transitions are muted and subtle up until a surprisingly tense climax, gently leading the reader along no matter how ridiculous the situations. "Robot DJ" is a first-person account of a reunion of friends at a concert. It's about camaraderie lost and found over the years that feels more like a Jaime Hernandez story than something I'd expect from Bell--especially the bonding over a particular band. There's a lightness to this story that results from the sense of connection and purpose we feel from these characters. Unlike most of the other characters in this book, they're settled and secure in their lives, and this story acts almost as an epilogue to the narrative we are told in a flashback. "Helpless", the last story in the book, is an interesting companion piece to "Cecil and Jordan". We see Cecil at an earlier age before she had been beaten down by life, connecting with her best friend in the form of public mischief. This story is warm and emphasizes connection with others as a way of finding a sense of belonging, as opposed to "Cecil and Jordan", which is about the breakdown of connection and finding oneself through isolation stretched into alienation.

At the other end of the spectrum are stories featuring characters who feel completely out of place and out of joint. "I Feel Nothing" features a Gabrielle stand-in visiting the apartment of the man who lives above her. He's young, shallow and rich, and the void he feels draws him to her. There's a brilliant scene where she imagines submitting to his plea and spending the day with him, extrapolating that out to a horrible end. So she stops and returns to the dull safety of her life, and it's not clear if that's the right decision or not, though it is certainly the decision void of both drama and potential reward. "Year of the Arowana" is an account in a letter of a meeting with a famous author, and the ways in which the evening became creepy and disappointing. The key to this story is that it's told as a letter by a narrator we eventually realize is not entirely reliable, as Bell provides subtle visual clues that things changed in the retelling. "One Afternoon" is about a woman who learns that her husband is dead and feels liberated by the announcement, only to learn that he's in fact not dead. The inane conversation the two have at the end of the story is chilling in the sense of quiet desperation we can feel from her and the mute self-satisfaction we feel from him. These stories experiment with some different tones for backgrounds and feel a bit more precise in the way they're drawn than more sketchy stories like "My Affliction". Bell sacrifices a bit of spontaneity here, but that may well be part of the intended effect for these emotionally cooler stories.

There are several semi-autobiographical stories here that mostly deal with Bell's childhood--and they don't paint a flattering picture. "Hit Me" and "Summer Camp" are set in the past, with the former finding outsider Bell dealing with bullies and stuck-up girls while being befriended by a class weirdo. When Bell impresses others with the use of violence, she happily moves up in the hierarchy of school and leaves her friend behind. "Summer Camp" details young Bell trying to recapture a feeling of connectedness she felt at summer camp as she runs away from home, only to discover that she made a mistake in trying to reproduce this feeling. "Gabrielle The Third" is on the surface about a family of pigeons that nested on Bell's windowsill, but it's also about Bell's relationship with her mother and how they differ from each other. Bell's modulation of emotion, shifting it into almost total flatness, actually adds to the pathos of each story without feeling like the reader is being manipulated. That flatness also forces the reader to stay their hand before judging anyone in the story, whether it's Bell herself (and she never makes herself a totally sympathetic character in her stories) or an aggressor.

The best story in the book, and of Bell's career, is "Felix". It's about an art student who tutors the teenaged son of a famous postmodernist sculptor. The tension between the student, the boy, and the artist is almost unbearable at times, with only the boy lashing out and acting, despite the fact that every character is feeling a sense of worthlessness and frustration. One of the funny ironies in the story is that the student is told that her work is "self-absorbed", yet the men telling her this are beyond self-absorbed--they're oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of others. Bell uses a soft pastel palette for her most successful use of color. It's not at all naturalistic, but rather feels like Bell is having the student draw the story. The linework and character design are more refined than in some of her other stories. It's a nice thematic summation of the whole book, touching on appearance vs reality, the feeling of being an outsider, the illusory authority of institutions and the difficulty of establishing and maintaining connections. It's also Bell's longest story, yet doesn't waste a single line. I'll be curious to see if she remains a short story writer or if she has a longer work in her. Either way, she has a body of work over the past few years that measures up to anyone in comics.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Expanding Pedagogy: Adventures in Cartooning

Rob reviews the young readers how-to guide/narrative, ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost (FIRST SECOND).

It's a golden age for comics in many respects, but it's especially a great time for comics textbooks. With schools such as CCS, SCAD, SVA and MCAD offering formal instruction and cartooning courses popping up everywhere, it makes sense that we should finally see some practical comics textbooks. From Ivan Brunetti's informal CARTOONING book to the densely-detailed DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES from Jessica Abel & Matt Madden along with Lynda Barry's more general inspirational guide WHAT IT IS and Kyle Baker's goofy HOW TO DRAW STUPID, there's now an embarassment of riches for anyone designing a course for teens or adults. First Second, a publisher that has gone out of its way to publish a number of comics aimed squarely at children, has stepped up to supplement the Abel/Madden book with ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING, which is designed to both educate and inspire younger children as to the formal properties of comics while telling a story.

Not surprisingly, the book was put together by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), James Sturm, and two graduates of the school, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. Frederick-Frost has already won a Xeric grant for his LA PRIMAVERA, and all three artists have collaborated here with a pitch-perfect blend of pedagogy and fun. The book starts off by asking if the reader can draw simple shapes and promises them the ability to draw comics if they can. ADVENTURES simultaneously folds in an adventure about a knight trying to rescue a princess from a dragon into a lesson about the basics of comics, with the knight as a stand-in for the reader and a magic elf as the instructor.

The reader learns about the basic unit of the page, the panel; how to depict motion against a background, the way text influences the way we perceive image, word balloons vs thought balloons and other concepts--all within the context of a comedic quest adventure story. It's actually a delightfully meta sort of story, like a less malevolent DUCK AMUCK, as the characters find themselves able to manipulate the rules of their world as they understand more and more about comics. The end result is extremely clever, as the book surprisingly becomes an exciting adventure story, a brief comment about gender equity, and an open-ended invitation to the reader to create their own stories. The book finishes with a handy appendix of other comics concepts (like gutters), and a step-by-step series of instructions on how to draw basic characters like horses and people. It's hard to tell what the division of labor was between the three artists. I recognize Frederick-Frost's brushstrokes in how the figures are finished, but the way the action is depicted makes it seem like Arnold did the layouts. Sturm may well have written it, given his recent background as an educator, though I'm sure all three artists had input in every segment of the book.

I'll be curious to see what sort of effect this book has on children, and what the best age group would be for it. I'm guessing that the ideal group would be somewhere between seven and ten years old. The book is probably a little too simplistic for anyone older, but I'm not sure its ideas will sink in with anyone younger, unless they have an adult working with them. I do like that there's a sample of an actual child's story based on the book's characters in the back, showing a reader that their own work doesn't have to be as exact as the creators of the book. That said, the only flaw of the book is that it may not be interactive enough to really force the reader into making their own strip. The reader is introduced to a number of concepts, shown how they can work in a story, but then gets swept along with the story. At the very end, the book asks the reader to create their own stories, but this requires a bit of a leap for a child that doesn't already draw. On the other hand, the book could be a way to get children to "turn your doodles into comics!" as the front cover suggests. It's supposing that most children will have the raw material to want to start to draw comics, just not the tools. As such, ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING is more of a toolbox (or perhaps toybox) than a textbook, explicitly providing aspiring cartoonists with the fundamentals an implicitly showing them how to write the sort of story that they'd want to read.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mini-Comics Round-Up: Sayers, Dinski, M.Hogan, R.Hogan, Trivial, Carcieri

Rob reviews another batch of interesting minicomics. Included are JUST SO YOU KNOW #1 by Joey Sayers; TRIVIAL, an anthology by Sean Ford, Alex Kim, Andrew Arnold & Alexis Frederick-Frost; MIND-MAPPING by Will Dinski; BEARD-GROWING CONTEST by Raighne Hogan; MANNY & BIGFOOT by Meghan Hogan; and PORTALS #1 & DREAM #1 by Nic Carcieri & Eric Dotson.

JUST SO YOU KNOW, by Joey Sayers. This mini is certainly a change of pace for the artist behind the "Thingpart" gag strips. Sayers generally employs a minimalist but nicely composed style for absurdist gags that skillfully subvert reader expectations. Her comics remind me a bit of Matt Feazell (in terms of the minimalist style) and Michael Kupperman (in terms of the quality of the absurd gagsmithing). JUST SO YOU KNOW is an autobiographical comic featuring anecdotes about Sayers' transition from male to female. I've actually read a surprising number of autobiographical comics about this subject, but Sayers' strips here are unusual because she takes great pains to provide every anecdote with a punchline. No matter how personal or serious a direction she takes the reader, Sayers always leavens the seriousness with a joke. The joke is frequently at her own expense. One gets the sense that Sayers was worried about being boring or preachy in a comic that was already (by definition) entirely self-centered. Pricking her own ego from time to time acts as preventative medicine for the reader who might think that Sayers takes herself way too seriously.

The impression one walks away with after reading this comic is that it's only because of the greater ease she feels in the world and with herself that she was not only able to write about this subject, but make fun of it. The first strip, "Freaking Out The Parents" starts off with some stiff medicine, as she tells her parents (and the audience) about the way she's struggled trying to live as a man, her depression and how she felt the need to turn to drugs. She kept going on like this for several panels, noting that she just wanted to be happy, until we are hit with her father saying, "Wait, you did drugs?" Sayers once again sets the reader up with one expectation and then pulls the rug out, establishing the formula for the rest of the comic.

Sayers gives us certain bits of the process of transition and the anxiety a transgendered person can feel, but isn't interested in presenting us with all the details. This comic is really about her own thoughts about transition, both funny and otherwise, as opposed to making a larger statement about it. There are vignettes about how hormones affect her emotional state (which create more than a little unease with both her and her girlfriend), being excited about growing breasts and getting a state ID confirming her new identity, and wondering if she's a bitch now in various circumstances. She closes things out by focusing on the relationship with her long-time and supportive girlfriend, as Sayers went from cross-dresser to transsexual. All told, this is a clear early front-runner for minicomic of the year for 2009, and I'm eager to see Sayers do more stories in this mold. She has a gift for relating personal details without being insufferable and of mining humor without forcing punchlines.

TRIVIAL, by Alexis Frederick-Frost, Alex Kim, Andrew Arnold and Sean Ford. The third of the Center for Cartoon Studies' "Four Square" anthologies is the strongest overall. Every quartet of artists in each issue works around a central theme, with this issue's being "trivial". That's a rather open-ended concept, which leads to four very different sorts of stories. Frederick-Frost's bold brush strokes and heavy use of blacks are a perfect way to open the book, drawing in the reader's eye with the starkness of his style. It's a style that fits the story well, being about the harsh beauty of Antarctica and a Shackleton expedition there. As he and his men trudge across the unforgiving landscape, the only way they could keep their sanity was by discussing the most inane of topics: conceptualizing new dishes and then debating their merits and originality. During a heated debate about the jam roll, Frederick-Frost underscores the nature of their struggle by printing the rather restrained text of Shackelton's account of the debate but showing a life-or-death struggle in the ice. It's a clever idea, well-executed.

Alex Kim and his weird, wavy line really go to town on a trivial conversation that turns into a graphic description of a weird nightmare. Kim throws us straight into a talking head with no explanation (not unusual in his comics), as the character is talking to someone we never see (one can surmise that the reader is really his conversational partner). The character talks about his obsession with hands and then relates a dream where he discovers his hands have become gigantic, sentient and murderous--eventually killing him, even as they were still attached to his body. What makes the story work is the way Kim uses panel-to-panel transitions, slowly panning down and around to up the horror content of the story. The effect is deliberately disjointed, creating an intense dream logic that continues until we slowly, creepily pan back to the character in real time. This is less a story than an image that Kim expanded and fleshed out, and it's the strength of that image that makes this chapter memorable.

Andrew L Arnold has an entry about a retired god/superhero who lives on a cloud. His day starts off reading a book, and he is then presented with a problem that is seemingly trivial at first but grows ever more problematic: a meteor heading toward a city that his explosive arrows just won't blow up. In the end, his luck (and aim) run just a little bit awry. This is a nicely designed chapter with a funny punchline that is deliberately stretched out like a shaggy dog story. It's a bit more conventional than the other stories in this anthology and less interesting to simply look at, but it's solidly crafted.

Sean Ford checks in with a couple of vignettes related to his ONLY SKIN series, featuring the odd ghost and new kid Clay. In the series, the ghost is mischievous at best and malevolent at worst, but he's more the former in these stories. In the first vignette, Clay and the ghost are mushrooming and the ghost urges him to give a poisonous mushroom to a nearby girl. When Clay refuses, the ghost mocks him like a grade schooler. In the second story, the ghost longs for nostalgic memories that are not really his, like drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes in a cemetery. The punchline comes when Clay actually does it for him and it's not exactly as exciting as he hoped. Ford's biggest strengths are character design and page composition. He solves the problem of what are essentially two talking head stories by varying his panel design, having the characters engage in visually interesting actitivies while they talk and dropping characters into shadow as a way of adding variety. All of that would be pointless if Ford weren't so adept at crafting dialogue. Clay acts as a nice straight man of sorts for the ghost, whose enigmatic nature lends itself to all sorts of possibilities. It's not surprising that a good chunk of the crew behind the SUNDAYS anthology would produce such a visually distinctive book with great production values, and it's clear that they all approached their contributions to this book very seriously.

MIND-MAPPING, by Will Dinski. Another winner from Will Dinksi, who always engages the form of his delivery system in new and exciting ways. This comic is about memory as it relates to pain, and the ways in which the things we recall tend to be very much by choice. It's about a map specialty store owner with a photographic memory, who laments that he is haunted by the specters of his memories, recalling them more sharply than most. He relates in excrutiating detail various incidents burned into his brain. Upon discovering that his store has been robbed, including of his laptop, he realizes that perhaps a lifetime spent dwelling on the mental recreation of trauma has left him more than a little unobservant. That realization perhaps let him realize that the ghosts he was haunted by were of his own making.

The comic unfolds like a typical Dinski work: crisply stylized characters, word balloons that act as individual captions and a certain economy of line and storytelling. The comic folds out like a map, which not only refers back to the main character but also the way he thought of memory as a series of grids that one could access. When one has finished the comic, Dinski gives us a little surprise: turn out the lights and then look at the glow-in-the-dark images that pop up. It's a clever flourish for a story that had a lot of punch and wasted no time to get there. Dinski's been on a real roll the past couple of years, and this mini certainly continues his hot streak. I like how he goes out of his way to create comics that are difficult to reprint in standard format, fully embracing the freedom and difficulties that creating minicomics provide.

BEARD GROWING CONTEST by Raighne Hogan and MANNY & BIGFOOT by Meghan Hogan. This is a pair of tiny minis from the husband-wife duo behind the excellent GOOD MINNESOTAN anthology. Both of these minis are beautiful, weird art objects; they're less stories than quick impressions. R.Hogan's BEARD GROWING CONTEST is a brief little vignette about a little kid straining to grow a beard and unleashing a fart instead, with the real punchline being what happens in his dreams later on. The full-color MANNY & BIGFOOT feels like a story fragment, as a man and his pet rabbit are threatened by a mysterious kidnapping note, while his sweater-stretching roommate Bigfoot messes with him. The soft pastels grab the eye and create an almost blurry softness for the visuals. The production values of both minis are top notch, even if the comics themselves are the very definition of "slight". Still, it's clear that that's what both cartoonists were going for: a slight, fun comic that served as a useful test for some eye-catching techniques.

DREAMER #1 and PORTALS #1 by Nic Carcieri, Rantz, Jason Flowers, Joel Cotejar, and Eric Dotson. There's something comforting about a writer who is so devoted to creating genre comics that he puts them out bit by bit in minicomics form. There's no pretense to being rich or famous, but rather an intense need to tell one's stories. As part of United Fanzine Organization, these comics have the appearance of work by enthusiastic amateurs rather than polished pros, but this is honestly what is most appealing about them. With both DREAMER and PORTALS, we get a tiny snapshot of a larger idea, the effect being watching the first five-minute segment of a 25-part movie serial from the 1930s. DREAMER'S about a guy who receives a weird artifact of his father's that has something to do with some kind of ancient struggle. I like the unfussy line of artist Eric Dotson here, even if it is a bit stiff in places. Every story in PORTALS is a bit of high concept: both "Kylie West" and "Hot Wings" involve big-boobed heroines engaging in adventure; the former's about an astronaut who winds up on a weird planet, and the latter is about warrior angels. The stylizations of artist Rantz veer between sloppy and fetishistic, drawing equally from manga and Image-style art. As such, it feels more like pin-up art than something that really tells a story. Jason Flowers' work in "Are We Dead Yet?" (about an immortal detective) tries for noir but winds up being muddy (including the lettering). "The London Fog" is the most ridiculous concept in the book (a magical Victorian-era vigilante preying on killers in the form of fog) yet Joel Cotejar's linework makes the idea come alive. I like the enthusastic fan ambition of Carcieri in that he's writing five epics at once (if in dribs and drabs), almost as if he's finding out what will stick best. It's that purity of enthusiasm that shows through, even if some of the stories feel like well-trod genre ground. Other than the loopy-but-serious "London Fog", I can't say that I'd be eager to read further installments of any of these series, but I'm glad that they exist.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thirty Under Thirty #5: Juliacks

Rob interviews the cartoonist Juliacks, the latest subject in the "30 Under 30" series of interviews, wherein an emerging cartoonist is profiled. I just profiled Juliacks at length, and I find both her training as an artist and point of view to be quite distinctive. She's the rare artist who approaches a problem from many different angles and is comfortable working in a number of different media in order to fully wrap her mind around an idea.

I. Formative Years

CLOUGH: Where did you grow up? Were/are your parents of an artistic bent?

JULIACKS: I moved around a bit growing up and lived in Los Angeles, Munich Germany, and New Jersey. My parents are not artists but they are creative in their own ways. They have shaped me in their zeal for knowledge and interest in multifarious stories while also being seemingly fearless.

CLOUGH: What effect, if any, did moving around a lot have on you as both a person and formative artist?

JULIACKS: I adapt to different settings and people somewhat easily. I'm attracted to people who seem unapproachable. I like challenges. I absorb places and people and also do not necessarily feel attached to one place. Sometimes I feel like a transient but I think I will eventually find a place that fits. Maybe not.

CLOUGH: When did you first start drawing?

JULIACKS: I remember drawing a collaborative fingerpainting with some kids in German kindergarten.

CLOUGH: Were your parents supportive of art as an activity?

JULIACKS: I think I always loved to draw but was definitely encouraged and supported by my parents, although I didn't always agree with their opinions. My father actually collected S. Clay Wilson and R. Crumb back in the day but my mother made him throw away those comics because she was afraid my siblings and I would discover them.

CLOUGH: Did you draw with your parents, friends, and/or siblings?

JULIACKS: I think that I mostly drew with friends. I had one friend in particular with whom I would make silly drawings. I always liked drawing games like the exquisite corpse and things like that.

CLOUGH: Do you approach each page knowing exactly what you're planning to do, or do you approach it as an improvisational exercise at times?

JULIACKS: Lately I've been planning out each page. The text determines what the page will look like.

CLOUGH: When did you first start drawing comics?

JULIACKS: I was drawn to comics in high school and started making ones with a very silly bent like transgendered robots that find love with my friend Alice Crackel. I didn't feel confident about my own writing skills until college.

CLOUGH: It's interesting that you were more confident as an artist than as a writer. How do you perceive yourself now--as an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or do you now perceive no difference between the two?

JULIACKS: They are both equally important but I do find writing extremely challenging whereas art is more of an intuitive impulse, but still hard. In turn, I think of myself as both...but still lean more toward art because it comes more naturally.

CLOUGH: I know you went to Carnegie Mellon. Did you study art there? Why did you choose to go to a liberal arts school as opposed to an art institute?

JULIACKS: I went to Carnegie Mellon University because I wanted to be in a University setting where I could take humanities courses. Specifically I went there for this special degree called the Bachelor of Humanities and Arts which is an integrative arts and humanities degree. My concentrations were art and creative writing. The art school was based in conceptual thinking determining the method and medium of execution. This was great for me as I was able to explore my stories with all the freedom I wanted.

CLOUGH: How did this program enable you to become a more confident writer?

JULIACKS: Well the School of Humanities at Carnegie Mellon housed one of the first departments of creative writing in the country. This department is special because there aren't any graduate students which means that if you are a dedicated and enthusiastic writer you can have wonderful mentors with small workshops. My mentors were especially Hilary Masters, and also Jane McCafferty, Jane Bernstein, and Sharon Dilworth.

CLOUGH: How long have you been reading comics?

JULIACKS: I started as a kid but was never zealous just about comics. I've always been a bookworm. What is it about the form that inspired you to want to make them yourself? In high school I started reading comics by R. Crumb (my friend's Dad didn't throw them out) and Daniel Clowes and loved how raw and personal and graphically tactile they were. There is and was something exciting about them in the reading experience. I like how comics are a combination of many different forms of thinking. Reading and drawing comics when you are really involved makes you think on many different levels: visually, metaphorically, character but also image, icon and symbols, repetition and meter.

CLOUGH: It's interesting that you touch on repetition & meter and later reference John Hankiewicz. Do you see comics as, among other things, a form of poetry?

JULIACKS: I guess when I'm approaching the work I'm looking at the text which I have written which is sometimes written with poetic language. I think the experience of reading comics can be similar to reading poetry because of all the different visual and written elements both in sight and imagination that are happening at the same time.

CLOUGH: Is the act of drawing pleasurable for you, or a chore? Do you draw from life and/or keep a sketchbook?

JULIACKS: I love to draw. Drawing a comic is very challenging for me and each time I start I think that I am relearning how to draw. I used to draw from life and keep a sketchbook but not lately, I keep notebooks for ideas and composition concepts. I tend to draw on papers that are within my reach, I have many notebooks but not one sketchbook. I like to draw when listening to others speak.

CLOUGH: Why is that? Is it something about the rhythm of speech that makes you want to draw ?

JULIACKS: I like having an auditory distraction while drawing. As opposed to the rhythm of the speech, I like listening to other's ideas and stories while engaged with my own work. For some reason it helps me focus.

II. The Working Process

CLOUGH: Unlike most cartoonists, performance is as much a part an expression of your themes is the page itself. What is it about performance art that compels you to do it? Do you value either the page or performance above each other, or do you regard them equally?

JULIACKS: Both mediums are important to my personality and artistic process. Making comics is a solitary, reflective and meditative pursuit, which I am used to doing independently, while performance artworks are collaborative, social, relational, and energetic forces bringing together many people to participate and view live art! I regard them as equally challenging and dynamic and they suit my personality of being an introverted extrovert.

CLOUGH: The way you use text in your comics makes it very much part of the illustration; you focus on making the text illustrative on its own. Why do you do this?

JULIACKS: The way we read images can be interpreted in the same way that we read text. Making text illustrative is another method to tell the story and I find it evocative to think and work within that idea.

CLOUGH: Your pages tend to be crammed full: details, panels, decorative designs, solid blacks. Is this just your intuitive way of composing a page or is this a more deliberate strategy?

JULIACKS: Well, in a general sense I think artwork that is full of details makes you look longer and possibly see the picture differently each time you look at it. I like work with layers, showing subtlety and expression. Especially in regards to the book Swell which has certain pages that are intensely dense, the strategy for the first part: Open Faced Sandwich was to contain one scene on one page. This effect would not only impact the emotional presence I was portraying in the story but also show how the character's mind was fragmented and changing with memories and events. The borders on each page are also significant in terms of telling the story for the same reason.

CLOUGH: Your comics have what I call an immersive quality to them, in that the reader is dunked into a character's experience on their own terms. What do you hope your readers get from your comics, and do you feel that your work demands that readers approach your work on its own terms?

JULIACKS: My hope is to portray an engaging story that provokes the reader to be lifted into another world like any other storyteller. When I set out to make comics my mindset isn't to be demanding necessarily. When I am making work I want to be interested in what I am making, so I go slowly in order to become immersed in the page myself. I want the pages to be captivating images so that I am satisfied, otherwise it's a bad day.

CLOUGH: You've done a number of comics collaborations, and of course your performances are often collaborative as well. What is it that you like about working with other artists?

JULIACKS: Other artists have fascinating ideas and perspectives. Collaborations are challenging in that there is always compromise but usually the energy and motivation level is amped up so that you can achieve things you wouldn't otherwise on your own. In addition, besides being stimulated by others' ideas and expertise I like having an outside perspective on the worlds I have created where I am subjective and sometimes unaware of the effects of what I am making. Collaborators can clue you into that outside objective view in an insightful way.

Currently I'm collaborating with director Kathleen Amshoff on the final performance of Swell to coincide with the publishing of either the full book or the third part. We aim to work across disciplines as a means of finding new, transformative languages of performance by making a site-specific, multimedia, interactive performance intertwining the narrative of *Swell *with private rituals in which the audience is invited to participate.

CLOUGH: Your comic with Austin English is simultaneously dense and playful. What were setting out to accomplish with that story?

JULIACKS: That comic was a playful drawing jam where we were having fun just drawing together. I think that later on we could do a more extensive collaboration where the writing and the drawings are more planned out. It would be interesting to see the results.

CLOUGH: How are your collaborations with Matthew Thurber and Olga Volozova different, and why did you want to work with each artist?

JULIACKS: Well, the collaboration with Olga was actually Dylan Williams' (Sparkplug Comics) idea, which I immediately embraced because I thought that she was an interesting artist and I am always up for a challenge. Over the course of this book we have gotten to know one another and it has been a really different way of making a comic for me.
The Matthew Thurber collaboration has yet to be finalized and I'm not sure when it will be finished. That collaboration also comes out of a drawing jam kind of thing where one person starts drawing something and then passes it on to the next person and they build upon it. The one we hope to work on, "The Opera" will hopefully one day be completed. The hope is that each page will be a song and may come with an operatic CD. Who knows?

CLOUGH: What do you get out of these experiences that you don't get working on your own?

JULIACKS: In addition, besides being stimulated by other people's ideas and expertise I like having an outside perspective on the worlds I have created where I am subjective and sometimes unaware of the effects of what I am making. Collaborators can clue you into that outside objective view in an understanding way.

CLOUGH: In what ways do you prefer working on your own?

JULIACKS: I love the freedom to pursue what I want and how I want it. Sometimes it is fun to be in control especially if I have an idea that I want to execute and know that I want to do it in a certain way.

III. The Themes

CLOUGH: A number of the same themes to tend crop up in your comics. I'd like to get your take on why each one of them is important to you as an artist.

JULIACKS: These themes you have selected are large and reflective of different fascinations, life experiences, fears and social causes. I think that many of these themes are relevant to society today and I try to process my own experiences in fictional terms. I feel that in some cases I would like to keep a personal distance between myself and the work. All of these themes are tied together...

CLOUGH: Is there a reason why you prefer not to work in a more explicitly autobiographical manner?

JULIACKS: A couple of reasons: One is that I am not really interested in that genre because it has been produced in so many different forms of comics already. I'm more excited about what you can do with a narrative by constructing characters, a story and a world. Second is that I'm not interested in that kind of exposure and I'd rather process my experiences through writing fiction and sometimes leave them behind altogether by entering someone else's mind.

1. Grief/grieving:

Things I am interested in related to grief and grieving: Repression, death awareness. Today there are adverse reactions: death denial, alienation and shame. How do we process these mourning movements today in a world that doesn't stop to recognize or have satisfactory methods of dealing with this particular form of madness?

2. Mental illness: Fear mongering. The easy lapses. How easy? The inner monologue. The provocations. Alienation. Isolation and the mind. Crazy. How and what is crazy? What is functional? HYSTERIA. Related to aging, the more alone, the more on the fringes--- the more willing to make and think without fear and without logic.

3. Aging. Where do we go physically and mentally? How often do we lose? How many do we love? What if we are alone?
Aging and the search for identity are related in their confusion, their
place in society, and their desire for more.

4. The search for identity, especially as a teenager is the foundation of self. Exploration. Self awareness. Raging.

5. Memory. Our black hole. Where we can get lost. How we define ourselves. How we process our experience. The degradation. The idealization. The abstraction. The loose bits.
Also: neuroscience: the way we tell a story reflects our inner psychological state.

CLOUGH: Can you explain how the latter plays out in your comics?

JULIACKS: The scientific ideas of neuroscience influence my performance installations more than my comics except for now with the book I'm working on Rock That Never Sleeps which features stories about the effects of memory as it wanes. These ideas fascinate me as do the people who are affected by neurological disorders. I like combining these ideas with fiction, although doing this will reflect a probably inaccurate representation of the idea as the scholar propagated.

6. The creative urge. A means to an end. Where does the compulsion to make art come from? For some people art comes out of a need to create. I realize that in a secular world, art-making fills the gap once occupied by community rituals and religion; I am interested in art as a therapeutic process-both its viewing and its creation.

CLOUGH: Do you find that first creating and then later viewing your own art is therapeutic for you?

JULIACKS: Creating work is helpful for synthesizing past experiences and in that way can be cathartic. Viewing my own work at a later date is not.

CLOUGH: What do you feel when you look at your own comics and performances later on?

JULIACKS: It depends on how much distance I have from the work. I usually do not get the response from my own work that I seek out in others, just because I'm too subjective.

IV. Other Questions

CLOUGH: As someone who has been part of both the comics world and the art world, how would you compare the two?

JULIACKS: The concerns of both worlds on the surface seem very different. This question is hard because both groups are so diverse formally and in ideas that I find it hard to grapple with specifics. The art world feels a lot bigger to me, but that may be because the levels of access are different than within comics which is much more accessible. I feel more of a sense of freedom when I think in terms of "art." than in "comics." but then again I feel free in comics to do anything because the medium has tons to explore and expand upon.

CLOUGH: Why do you feel more freedom in "art" as opposed to "comics"--is it the form of comics itself (and perhaps its history) that is limiting, or is it something else?

JULIACKS: I'm not really sure. I think it's related to my personal art school background that pushed students to make experimental individualized work and educated us within a broad spectrum. When I am at conventions there seems to be a dialogue that is contentious about the place of art comics within the tradition of comics and things that herald traditional forms, which isn't bad, but is not as free feeling to me. My view about these terms will probably change because they are based on how I feel today.............and it's all in my head. There aren't rules in comics like anything else.

CLOUGH: Is there a sense of community in either that has been important to you?

JULIACKS: I really loved my art school community that was always encouraging and promoted art creating as a form of research. My professors and fellow students were inspiring in that many had a singular vision but were accepting of other's flights of fancy. I've enjoyed starting to be a part of the comics community where I can have a dialogue with another artist on a few levels and interests. I remember my first Small Press Expo was so exciting to meet so many people who were as into comics as me and who made such sweet work.

CLOUGH: Are you currently able to make a living as a cartoonist/artist?

JULIACKS: Nope, but I am teaching comics and art to kids, so something halfway in between?

CLOUGH: What's the art scene like for you in Los Angeles?

JULIACKS: Well, I have just arrived and still am trying to find my bearings. I need more time for exploring the city and finding my way. Right now I'm not very engaged, but I'm sure it will get easier as time goes by.

CLOUGH: What comics are you currently reading?

JULIACKS: I just read Theo Ellsworth's Capacity and really want the international anthology Glomp, which features work by cartoonists that are portraying comics three dimensionally.

CLOUGH: Whose cartoonists' work do you find most inspiring, and which cartoonists have had the greatest influence on you?

JULIACKS: I always find this question hard because there are different elements that have grabbed me. I love the nuance of Chris Ware, the sincerity and moments of Austin English, the craftmanship of the Closed Caption Comics Crew and Chris Cornwell, the depth of the Codex Serafini, often I'm inspired by other works of art that seem to grasp what I strive for as well. This theater group Back to Back Theater in Australia made this piece, "Small Metal Objects" which was so amazing. and this artist, Eija-Liisa Ahtila makes incredible film art representing the inner workings of the mind in physical form. Language is important to me. I love comics by John Hankiewicz and Paper Rad for that reason. I love books and characters. Mostly, I'm ignorant and need to read, see and hear more and that is why I can't properly answer this question.

CLOUGH: SWELL, in my opinion, is your most ambitious work as a cartoonist. What was the inspiration for this story, and do you perceive yourself as doing something different in this work as opposed to your past comics? How do you feel you've evolved as a cartoonist in the past three or four years?

JULIACKS: This story began as a seedling in the fall of 2007 with the original plot and character founded. Later, while studying abroad in Australia, I lost a close friend from High School. This was a shocking experience for me filled with guilt, regret and assailing grief. I felt alienated and put these emotions into the story I had already structured. At the same time I began studying fiction that played with perspective and time like the author Marguerite Duras and looked back upon old favorites such as Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn."

In terms of my evolution, I guess I'm still searching for what I am supposed to be. I still want more from myself. I want Swell when it's all said and done to live up to something unreal but something that I can't escape now. My friend Ben Powell who died kind of challenged me when I was 18 writing, "Where is a comic book that comes down screaming from the sky like a comic book should, full fucks, and lands in yer lap, ignites itself on your general area, and takes off, runnin' into you, the greatest superhero of all, so good it's better than cream dreams of the New Yorker, a super comic man to undermine J. Kavalos and separate Teaneck from the North American Continent. It puts me in contact with a comic to destroy the fucking green areas on the earth and the mold." So hopefully one day I will find it and make it. but i probably won't.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Immersion: The Comics of Juliacks

Rob profiles emerging young artist Juliacks and does an overview of her comics work to date.

The work of cartoonist Juliacks is a bit hard to pin down. She's part of an emerging trend in comics where the plastic qualities of text and image are equally emphasized as objects of one's aesthetic gaze. Words aren't used simply to impart information, drive a narrative or otherwise act separately from pictures. Instead, the actual letters themselves become part of the imagery, creating a reading environment that immerses the reader in the work in a way that can be exhausting and rewarding. This act of apprehending each page in order to make sense of the narrative is very different from the typical comics page in that in the latter instance it's much easier to compartmentalize one's reading experience, either looking at images and then reading text or vice-versa. Most readers don't consciously consider the choices they make reading such comics pages, and any skilled cartoonist can approximate a synthesis of the two experiences. Juliacks and the other practitioners of the "immersive school" (which includes Austin English, Theo Ellsworth and Olga Volozova) instead seek a true synthesis, where neither word nor image is privileged above the other and other forms of signifiers are used as well.

It can be a bit daunting to engage these sorts of comics; they demand that you accept them on their own terms or not at all. They can be difficult to begin and adjust to as a reader. Of course, once a reader has locked into this style, the stories become impossible to put down. It doesn't hurt that Juliacks has excellent compositional chops as a cartoonist, seamlessly assembling a number of complicated images on each page. Her figure drawing is simple and ranges more toward a primitivist technique, but it's also not unusual to see her go a bit more abstract in the way she represents her characters. Juliacks stuffs every one of her pages with powerful imagery, drowning the reader in drawings intended both as information and decoration (and frequently designed to do both). Trying to process that much information on a page (especially when the eye is not led to value one image over another) can be draining as a reader, and Juliacks often goes over the top in jamming her pages to the brim. Still, one can sense the raw energy and excitement present in her comics, and the level of detail certainly rewards repeated readings.

While Juliacks' narrative structure isn't as straightforward as Volozova's, there is always a fairly simple narrative, centered around one or more characters. She uses comics as one springboard to explore those ideas that she finds interesting: memory, loss, aging, grief, disease and emotional trauma. She slips in and out of first-person and third-person narrative but will present either in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion. That's entirely fitting with the immersive style of comics, given that stream-of-consciousness is all about creating structure without intentionality; that is, what appears to be random is in fact subliminally creating a narrative.

While Juliacks' comics are certainly self-contained entities, it's interesting to note that she's very much a multi-media artist. In fact, she often adapts her comics as performance art, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that both comics and performance art are different outlets for the expression of her ideas. The themes are all the same, but the experience of the pieces themselves couldn't be any more different. The live performances are built on a series of explosive moments instead of a more still, immersive experience on the page. If Juliacks' comics are the equivalent of being submerged in her ideas, her performance pieces are like having those themes splashed in one's face. It's fascinating to see a cartoonist reaching out to a live audience in such a way, achieving a sort of immediacy of reaction that is lacking in comics. These performances can be viewed on her website, but I'm guessing those clips fail to capture the viscerality of an actual live performance seen in person. What is obvious is the way Juliacks is able to completely rework her ideas into something that takes advantage of a live performance. The clips of her are kinetic, even frenzied, emphasizing body and movement on the stage as a complement to the way she exaggerates emotion on the page with her figure drawing and decorative flourishes.

It seems clear that Juliacks doesn't privilege one type of aesthetic experience over the other, and it may well be that she finds herself needing to engage in one type to balance out the time and creative energy she spends with the other. That said, it seems that comics may ultimately be a more effective way for her to explore her ideas, because it allows a greater degree of control. At the moment, restraint is not an attribute she seems all that interested in, but I sense that as she evolves as an artist, it will become something she seeks out.

One of her earlier comics (from 2006) is THE TALE OF OLD LADY MERRELL. It's about a woman living in a now-condemned house with the dolls that she's created, pondering what to do after she's learned that she's going to lose her house. This comic shifts visual tones on a page-by-page basis, making it a jarring (if involving) read. There's a density to each page--sometimes black & white, sometimes full color--that pounds at the reader. The line drawings are very typical Juliacks--thick black lines, grotesque figures, quirky decorative touches and text-as-art. However, as long as the reader commits and latches on to the narrative, it's a powerful experience.

The story is about what lies beneath the urge to create. The woman in the story created dolls, or rather, used the physical medium of creating dolls to tell stories. Those dolls were a form of therapy, embuing the essence of a particular event into physical form. It was no surprise that she viewed them as real, because as active agents of memory (and what is reconstructed memory but a kind of story?), they did have their own lives. With each doll, she disassociated a little more, after being separated from her own life for unspecified reasons. After an incident where two neighborhood girls freaked out when Merrell showed them a particular set of dolls, she became an outcast and created a doll that forever put her on the outside. For Merrell, the dolls were all she had left of life; she had long lost the ability to feel and connect to people. It was heartbreaking to see her give away her dolls, until she was only left with her first doll, an avatar of sorts. She left this world not just because her dolls were in danger, but her ability to continue as an artist and see her handiwork was being squelched. The reality is that this urge to create is what kept her alive, when she had no other reason really to live.

In her stories "Invisible Forces" and "Like Lace", we shift back to teen-aged years. The former follows a character over time, while the latter deals with a couple of particularly memorable days in school. "Invisible Forces", purports to be "a prelude to an apprenticeship in a mental home", detailing the "early tremors of Rody Plane". We see Rody's early years as she feels paralyzed by a feeling of smallness in the universe, being overwhelmed by infinity. That paralysis was exacerbated by her abusive mother and absent father and became more debilitating over time. As the comic ends, she's completely frozen, unable to move or think for herself. It's interesting that the cover of this comic resembles the title pages from Volozova's THE AIRY TALES and the splotchy use of color seems familiar in that regard as well. Color didn't really seem to add much to this story; Juliacks' most effective pages tend to be in stark black & white. This tends to highlight the decorative aspect of her pages most effectively.

"Like Lace" follows the torturous thought processes of Lydia, an outcast who is humiliated by her teacher after she bungles an oral book report. In this story, one can see Juliacks' work in a more formative state. While the emotional core of the story is painful and bold, and her figures are fascinatingly grotesque and distorted, she didn''t quite have the skill to create pages that conveyed information in a way that flowed smoothly. The crudeness of her composition clashed with the ambition of her storytelling here, but that ambition on display was certainly admirable. The story also lacked a number of decorative elements that we would see in future works, and it became clear that those non-narrative elements would go on to play a huge role in creating the immersive experience of her comics.

"Antelope Eater" followed a similarly tortured youth but for a different reason. It's about a young boy whose mother is suffering from multiple sclerosis and finds himself drawn further and further into a fantasy world to avoid dealing with the brutal day-to-day existence of watching his mother deteriorate. This story was successful in terms of merging word and image together for a gestalt experience. As a reader, that synthesis really added to the sense of entering a completely different world.

SWELL, however, is Juliacks' most accomplished and ambitious work to date. It's about a woman in her first year of college who is forced to attempt to cope with the sudden death of her older sister. Juliacks worked big here; the two issues to date are both about 12" x 11". The first part of SWELL, "Open-Faced Sandwich" had covers screenprinted on construction paper. What's most striking about these comics is the way in which Juliacks' sense of composition became much more advanced. There's a page where the story's protagonist, Emmeline, recalls an instance where her older sister, Lucy, smashed a bunch of eggs that Emmeline and her friends had decorated. There are decorative touches framing the page in the form of little eggs, and the panels are framed so as to form an egg. Juliacks changes her approach to a page at a frequently breakneck pace--going from a number of tiny panels in a row to huge splash pages.

The second issue introduced us to Emmeline's parents, who were equally at a loss to process Lucy's death. Juliacks drops hints that Lucy had some kind of mental affliction or processing disorder, judging by the awkwardness she felt in social situations and her general neuroses. This first part of this issue finds them all trying to sleep and struggling to do so. They all wind up "dreaming awake". Juliacks introduced each segment with a huge splash page depicting each of the individual characters, with a decorated egg-shape in their mouth that tells us they're dreaming awake. The next page is jam-packed with panels detailing each character's fears, hallucinations and neuroses, switching between an omniscient narrator and first-person stream-of-consciousness narration. It's occasionally a bumpy ride in a narrative sense, but Juliacks had a firm hand and never loses control of the page. When a sleepless Emmeline runs away, that throws her parents even further into panic and paralysis, even as Emmeline feels like she's moving toward some kind of resolution.

This series is one of the best explorations of memory and its connection to emotion that I've ever read. Most intriguing is the way Juliacks connects the emotional to the somatic, in terms of the way that the feeling of grief is bottled up by each of the characters. Of all the emotions, grief seems to be the most connected to physiological processes: wracking sobs, shaking, and wailing acting as a necessary if painful way of finding catharsis. Juliacks zeroes in on Emmeline (her diamond-shaped eyes adding an otherwordly feel to her character, differentiating her from the dumpier Lucy) and her inability to find her voice for that grief. When buried, grief can be an enormously destructive emotion in ways that cannot be understood by the person suffering from it. That stream-of-consciousness style, where Emmeline is constantly dipping into her memories as a way of trying to process Lucy's death, is perfectly meshed with Juliacks' lettering. The entire package depicts emotion in an intuitive manner that a reader can instantly grasp without being hammered on the head. The size of the panels, the size of the lettering, and the greater abstraction of images all are ways Juliacks modulates emotion. Juliacks greatly improved the control she had over her line and figures, adding greater clarity to her work without sacrificing complexity.

Juliacks has become one of the most interesting cartoonists working in mini-comics form and is certainly due for a publisher to pick her up for a long-form work. A handsome collection of SWELL would certainly seem to be just the thing to start with. There's no question that she's prolific and diligent, very much devoted to improving as a cartoonist. Considering that her first published works are barely four years gone, it's amazing to see the way she's improved and advanced as a cartoonist. She's got a unique vision, an excellent sense of design and composition, a powerful narrative voice and distinctive visual flair. At this point, it's all about fine-tuning, refinement, and restraint for Juliacks as she continues to evolve and mature.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Delightful Ambiguity: Mome 14

Rob reviews the 14th volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME.

If MOME #13 felt a bit all over the place, #14 went much further with that sense of fragmentation, juxtaposing stories with ambiguous images and endings to create a dizzying and fascinating array of visual styles. The interstitial pieces by Derek Von Gieson add flavor and color throughout the issue, acting as a sort of visual palate cleanser between stories. These are open-ended, one page narratives that vary between first person accounts of post-apocalyptic landscapes or embarrassingly intimate details regarding a busted-up wedding to third-person accounts of a boy and his vicious parasites. What they all have in common is that they thrust the reader into the middle of a narrative with little context and no backstory and deal in quotidian details. That matter-of-factness extends to the weirdest of circumstances, adding to the sense of both enigma and familiarity the reader feels with each snippet. That sense of mystery, dread and resignation pervades much of the entire issue, giving it a thematic cohesion that wasn't always seen in past volumes.

Laura Park's second MOME offering, "Office 32F", felt a bit more substantive than her first contribution. It's a whimsical tale of paranoia and awareness, slipping in and out of autobiography as she writes a journal about her discovery that she was under surveillance by a tiny group of spies. The level of quirky detail she provides (like finding a tiny pair of saltines in her celphone, or finding a tiny pair of mittens in a spider web, bleaching them and then flushing them down the toilet) speaks to the way that she was simultaneously alarmed and comforted by the spies in her life. Her actions took on the bearing of ritual, both in the sense of daily actions that we engage in as a sort of comfortable groove as well as an active ceremony designed to evoke a particular desired outcome. When she learned that she was no longer being watched and may not have been the real subject at any time, there was more than a twinge of disappointment--as well as a wink to the audience. That seemed to indicate her simultaneous unease and excitement of having her work (much of it autobiographical) viewed and judged by an audience, creating an invisible relationship that nonetheless had a significant impact.

Olivier Schwauren's second entry to MOME has the feel of an unearthed artifact, bursting with a crude energy reminiscent of a Golden Age comic. If this story had been published fifty years ago, Dan Nadel would have already reprinted it. The washed-out sepia tones give the story that sense of being of a different era, and the deliberate lack of detail he provides in framing his stories of single-minded obsession further tantalize the reader. It's a room full of men engaged in some activity--is it a parlor? a bar? an mental institution? It's impossible to say. There are power hierarchies here even as some men strive to break out of their tedium. In this instance, one man shows another a crudely-drawn dungeon adventure page that he says is a sort of game and cajoles someone else into trying it. After being mocked, the protagonist loses it and his dragged away, but it's left open as to what kind of impact his game has on his friend. Schwauren's strips have their own loony internal logic that evokes a certain delight when followed. The only cartoonist I can think of that does anything remotely similar in intent is Gerald Jablonski, though both men are so idiosyncratic as cartoonists that their output is completely different.

There are a number of stories here whose appeal is primarily visual, leaving it up to the reader to make connections or draw conclusions. The Ben Jones/Frank Santoro/Jon Vermilyea team-up for a Cold Heat episode was the most striking of these, as aliens observe a rock star being consumed by a swirling demon whose reach apparently threatens the entire world. It's a wordless piece that slides us from image to image, never stopping to explain the hows and whys of the situation, instead forcing the reader to accept the information provided on the page and react to it. Vermilyea also continued his motif of homicidal, anthropomorphic food items with a strip about Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall to give kids some "special" Kool-Aid...and then gruesomely pick up the pieces. That touch of the grotesque and the absurd was a great find by editor Eric Reynolds and makes for a great contrast with the more austere and inward-looking pieces publishing in MOME. That's also true of Josh Simmons, whose "Funny Pages" is an Ivan Brunetti-esque hijacking of a standard page of comic strips, turning them into something more brutal or coarse.

Stories by Dash Shaw, Sara Edward-Corbett and Conor O'Keefe are also striking in their use of visuals in very different ways. O'Keefe's story is a cross between Winsor McKay (in terms of the quality of his line) and EC Segar (in terms of story content). Like both of those cartoonists, this story has the feel of animation, with exaggerated action as a boat manned by an unusual cry is buffetted by the waves. Edward-Corbett's story is similarly slight and short but stands out because of her beautiful line work and bold use of color in a retelling of the tortoise and the hare. Shaw's use of color in "Scenes from the Abyss" is absolutely stunning. It's a simple story about an ambitious but banal young screenwriter trying to get his project made and impress those around him. Each segment of the story is introduced with a large panel dominated by a circular structure: a lamp, a tank of water containing a stage, a hot tub, a reel of film, etc. There's a sleazy sense of fakeness to this character, who in every stage of the story is finding a different way to distort reality, a practice reflected in the way Shaw blurs and distorts light and color in this strip.

There's plenty of straight-out humor in this issue, some of which is more effective than others. Ray Fenwick continues his funny "Truth Bear" series and the Stick's quest for truth takes an unusual turn when a non-omniscient creator shows up. Fenwick's work is pretty much an examplar of idiosyncratic, valuing both words and drawings equally in terms of their plastic qualities. Hernan Migoya and Juaco Vizuete check in from Spain (keeping up MOME's tradition of introducing American audiences to foreign cartoonists) with a bawdy story about a hard-luck Peruvian who winds up with a job as a gofer for a popular but monstrous popular singer. It's not exactly subtle in the punches it throws, but the cartooning is so weird and elastic that it's compelling. Speaking of a lack of subtlety, Emile Bravo's "Wild West Winging It" is a parable about current American politics down as a Western. While it was interesting to get a Frenchman's perspective on the 2008 election, the hits he lands are all too obvious. The same goes for the second installment of Gilbert Shelton's Not Quite Dead story. I will say that this segment was funnier than the first, thanks to getting much of the ham-handed approach to religion of politics being thrust to the side and a preponderance of funny drawings taking the forefront here.

The centerpiece story in this issue of MOME is Lilli Carre's "Carnival". Carre' in some respects is a perfect replacement for Gabrielle Bell in MOME (though Bell may contribute some more stories in the future, she will be far from a regular). Her line is somewhat similar, though Carre's work is a bit more stylized, especially in her character design. Like Bell, Carre' went through a period of rapid improvement and is not publishing some striking stories. "Carnival" is a blend of magical realism and heartbreaking loneliness played out as a sort of emotional deadening. The Carre' stories I've read tend to be about longing denied or somehow frustrated. This story concerns a man who can't make lasting connections (we're tipped off by his profession of car salesman) who nonetheless feels the void in his life encountering a free-spirited single mother at a carnival. Their potential connection goes awry on both their parts for different reasons and both of them are left with fantasy as their only real outlet.

The variety of visual approaches and storytelling styles, along with the international flavor of the anthology, have transformed MOME from a showcase for a handful of young artists to a sort of latter-day RAW. Obviously, it's not the sort of sui generis creation that RAW was, but it's appealing to the same sort of sensibilities. It no longer seems to be aiming to be an entry-level comics anthology for highly literate audiences; instead, it's now assuming that those literate audiences are quite capable of handling any number of styles. MOME might also become a place where work that was going to be printed in comic books that are no longer being published due to industry & economic concerns might now find a home. The balance struck by editors Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth between unpublished, up-and-coming artists, alt-comics legends with short stories to publish and international stars with stellar work that needed translation has been a delicate one, but when everything comes together just so (especially in issues 12 and this issue), then MOME becomes a crucial component in understanding alt-comics as they stand today.