Monday, August 31, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Reklaw, Nelson, Frank, Madness

Rob reviews TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #2-4 by Jesse Reklaw; TYPHOON #1 by Kelli Nelson; NEGRO FRANKENSTEIN by Al Frank; and REAL MADNESS COMIX by Bobby Madness.

TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #2-4, by Jesse Reklaw. This is the print version of Reklaw's one-year journal comic project that's going to wrap up in a couple of weeks. It's no surprise that the artist behind SLOW WAVE has always been interested in formal constraints, and so TTTTD employs a (mostly) rigid 4-panel grid in every strip and tends to follow similar patterns on a day-to-day basis. There's a density to everything that Reklaw draws, a richness found in every panel both in terms of content and drawings. One gets the sense that Reklaw feels an obligation to the reader to entertain them while recording quotidian details like meals and time spent sleeping. What's most interesting about this comic is the way that it seems to be acting as a form of therapy, even if such revelations tend to either be asides or come from out of the blue. Reklaw even comments on doing this, noting that he can say things about pain and depression in his journal that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about with his friends. From both the title of his comic and the frenetic way he goes about his life, Reklaw fills his schedule with projects and an active social life as a distraction of sorts, a way of staving off feelings of failure and depression.

As the strip proceeds, Reklaw opens up a bit and discusses those feelings and how he finds ways to fight them and stay creative. One of the most fascinating running bits in the strip was a daily meter that measured pain in his shoulders, head and back; mood; energy level; and caffeine & alcohol consumption. It highlighted just how much pain he lives with on a daily basis, something that he glosses over in some of his strips. Something that isn't spelled out is the way that Reklaw has assembled a tremendous support system of friends, even if he mostly acts as the life of the party around them. Reklaw actively fights against the sort of isolation that many cartoonists wind up experiencing, both in terms of of his social life and artistic pursuits like playing in a band, organizing gallery shows and the many comics projects he has a hand in.

Reklaw's greatest asset as a cartoonist is his brain. I'm not sure if rendering other people's dreams for years gave him the tools to solve problems on the page in creative ways or if he was drawn to begin SLOW WAVE because it gave him an challenging outlet for his ideas, but in any event, Reklaw thinks through each page and assignment like few other artists. In particular, he has a way of mediating genres through different story filters. For example, in COUCH TAG, Reklaw is working in autobio filtered through accounts of pets and a particular set of activities with friends. BLUEFUZZ is straight-up fantasy filtered through an absurd framework and dialogue. And TTTTD is a diary comic peppered with gags, one-liners, and guest strips, surrounding the grind of committing to such a grueling project. Reklaw seems incapable of half-assing anything (even if he might say otherwise), and one has to admire the level of devotion shown in this comic in terms of drawing and structure. At sixty pages apiece with an immense (but clearly presented) amount of detail on each page, these are not comics that simply fly by. They present rewards for readers that linger on particular panels or pages, and I think that once it's over, TTTTD will be regarded as one of the best of all comics memoir strips.

TYPHOON #1, by Kelli Nelson. Nelson is a long-time favorite of mine whose style is marked by a stark, computer-drawn line. While I usually have a hard time looking at such art, Nelson has made that style her own, creating a harsh aesthetic that matches her acerbic wit. TYPHOON is a venture into fiction, depicting the aftermath of a cataclysmic storm that has flooded the world. This is really a story about trying to keep one's sanity in the face of oblivion, as the two characters we meet have to come to terms with the flood in different ways. The woman keeps her sanity by anthropomorphizing the storm and gaining new strength by trying to find more survivors. The man, stuck on an island, had to deal with his own psychosis at feeling like the last, trapped man on earth. This is an elegant little comic with an intriguing premise and a beautiful design that perfectly suits Nelson's voice.

NEGRO FRANKENSTEIN, by Al Frank. In Portland, the three small press publishers Sparkplug, Tugboat Press & Teenage Dinosaur occupy a continuum of sorts in terms of the kind of comics they publish. Tugboat publishes the most mainstream and straightforward of the three publishers, while Teenage Dinosaur's releases are very much raw, underground comics. (Sparkplug tends to be somewhere inbetween the two extremes). Al Frank's comic is an old-school rant, dwelling on old high school tormentors and acerbic thoughts on race & gender. The two best strips are the autobio "1983" and "1993", two accounts of the perils of being African-American in a mostly white community. In the latter comic, Frank reluctantly goes to a swimming hole, worried about running into rednecks who were going to harass him for having a white girlfriend. When his worries turn out to be well-founded, the fury and helplessness he feels fairly vibrate off the page. The scribbly line he uses here is well-suited to the immediacy of the story. "1983" finds an middle school-aged Frank dealing with a bully and trying to get the attention of a girl, finding no solace or resolution to his desires. Frank employs a stick-figure style that feels a bit like Peanuts gone horribly awry. Frank's at his best when he channels his anger into memoir; his gag strips have a certain mean-spirited edge to them, but are almost entirely dependent on the context of the other stories for their ultimate meaning.

REAL MADNESS COMIX #3, by Bobby Madness. Madness is a regular with Teenage Dinosaur, and he's very much in the underground tradition, albeit with more of a political than sexual emphasis. In that respect, he has more in common with punk/DIY culture than some of the slicker work found in ZAP or HOTWIRE. There's also a great deal of sympathy with Big Daddy Roth's motorcycle comics of the 60s and graffiti artists. Indeed, his drawings of cars and motorcycles are the most lovingly rendered in the book, compared to the way he clearly quickly drew the rest of the comics in the book. This comic is a clearinghouse for his stories, and the effect is rather scattershot. Strips like "Tom Teen" are funny in the underground tradition, as Madness uses a variation of Archie-style drawing in depicting drugs, violence, anarchy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There are a lot of great gags in this story and it's rendered in a slightly less sloppy fashion than some of the other strips. Like all of his work, it's bursting with energy but never overcrowded.

"Uzi Duck" and "Gun Girl" are fairly self-explanatory strips that seemed pretty quickly scribbled out and improvised--violent gags with absurd premises. Madness even makes fun of his characters later in the issue, noting they are the "world's shitty-ist cartoon characters", vowing "we'll never sell out. How? Because we never sell!" There are a number of single-page sets of gags, and the self-deprecating Madness chides himself for ripping off MAD when he's supposed to be an underground artist. That particular panel really spelled out his appeal to me: he's a politically aware gag cartoonist who doesn't take himself too seriously. That said, he's also clearly compelled to write and draw; it's something that seems as important as breathing to him.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Survival & Alienation: A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge

Rob reviews the updated and revised edition of Josh Neufeld's first-person accounts of Hurricane Katrina: A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE (Pantheon).

I reviewed the work to-date of Josh Neufeld's A.D. back at about a year ago; alas, the links to that site still aren't operable. I noted at the time that this could be Neufeld's masterwork, and after seeing the finished product published by Pantheon, I think this is definitely the case. The attention he's receiving for this project has made him something of a 20-year overnight success, a fact that has made a number of his long-time fans (of which I am one) especially delighted. Neufeld put all of the skills he developed as a storyteller to excellent use in A.D., especially in how he is able to tell someone else's first-person story. Years of being one of Harvey Pekar's go-to illustrators combined with his own instincts as observer and reporter in his own autobiographical stories was a perfect training ground for an enormously complex and ambitious narrative.

Being a freelance illustrator meant that Neufeld could take time to volunteer for the Red Cross in Biloxi after Katrina hit in 2005. He blogged about the experience, drawing comments from locals and others who appreciated hearing his perspective and getting a chance to share theirs. Those blog entries turned into a zine (not a comic), and that zine drew the attention of Publisher Larry Smith knew that he had found an artist who could help tell the stories of survivors of the storm, and Neufeld diligently went about finding people who wanted to share their experiences.

The best thing about this comic is that Neufeld errs on the side of restraint at all times. His work has always had a certain quietude to it, and that stillness turned out to be a perfect match in depicting a raging storm and the hellish conditions that followed it. He rarely played up horrific images for shock effect, instead forcing the reader to understand that the suffering felt by his subjects was constant and unrelenting--even as they found a way to struggle through it. Neufeld also clearly labored to stay true to the tenor of each person's own narrative. Each person had greatly different experiences and their emotional response in recalling the tragedy also varied as a result.

Neufeld noted that he made sure to select as wide a cross-section of experiences as was possible. There was Kwame, the African-American teenager who evacuated the town and was forced to view its destruction and reconstruction from afar. There was The Doctor, a wealthy white denizen of the French Quarter--an area of the city that was mostly untouched by both the storm and the ensuing flood, but who was a big part of its recovery. There were Abbas and Darnell--a shopowner and his friend, both determined to ride out the storm, who faced the most hellish of life and death experiences. There were Leo and his girlfriend Michelle, two more residents who left the city and who had to cope with the treasured memorabilia of a lifetime destroyed. Finally, there was the book's emotional core: Denise, who felt the sting of abandonment by her government the most acutely when she was stranded at a convention center. The seven people who wanted to tell their stories were a cross-section of race, gender and class, but all of them loved their city.

While some of the narratives are more compelling than others, Neufeld wove them in and around each other so as to provide relief for the heavier stories and context for the lighter ones. For example, the Doctor had been through any number of storms, so he calmly hosted a hurricane party and cleared out storm drains when the eye of the storm passed over. After the storm ended, he went from building to building looking after potential patients and set up an "impromptu clinic" to provide care to all in his neighborhood. A fixture in a town where time usually stands still, his biggest woe was that the shrimp at Galatoire's weren't as good as they used to be. It's obvious that Neufeld was deliberately juxtaposing the experiences of the Doctor against those that suffered life and death consequences, but he carefully restrained himself from making any judgments of his own.

That said, the Doctor received far fewer pages than either Denise or Abbas & Darnell. For the former, she experienced nearly getting killed in her own apartment by the storm and then waiting as buses that were supposed to carry everyone to safety never showed. Thousands of survivors outside the convention center and Superdome were left in unsanitary, harrowing situations as they had to deal with a government that was both corrupt and incompetent. She and her family only managed to escape through luck, but Denise took it upon herself to note that the reports of roving gang violence were not only not true, but that many gang members took it upon themselves to give food, water & medicine to those who needed it the most. Abbas & Darnell had to contend with a flood of noxious waters, mosquitoes, rats in nearby trees swimming after them, and the brutal August sun in their bid to ride out the ordeal and protect Abbas' store. Here, Neufeld used his most dramatic imagery: dark floodwaters pooling ominously, the specter of disease embodied by mosquitoes and rats, and the oppressiveness of the heat & humidity.

Leo & Michelle and Kwame all left the city, leaving behind all they had. These stories are also comparatively minor beats, with Leo (an avid comic book collector) coming to grips that everything he had was destroyed. Kwame grew accustomed to being away from home as he finished high school in Berkeley, college in Ohio and then spent a semester in London. For both, an eventual return home was essential. Denise embodied the idea that part of the spirit of the city died in the experience as so many were left without lives or homes. She eventually went back despite that despair, but noted that "we're not all home yet" and was in no mood to party in a city known for its laissez-faire attitudes.

In terms of the visuals, Neufeld used a single-tone color field for most of the different sections. This helped highlight different parts of the narrative, but also added a subtle hint of emotion. Most of the colors in the early part of the book are somewhat cheery: sea foam-green, a bright yellow, a light lavender, etc. As the story proceeds, the colors become darker and more sickly, culminating in bruise-purple and jaundice-yellow for the scenes depicting disease and mayhem. In the scenes after the storm, the spotlighted characters are all a different color from everything else in the panel--a notation that they have been marked by this experience and that they are no longer quite as home amidst their surroundings. Neufeld's line is supple--just realistic enough to depict these events, but rubbery enough to make the pages breathe a bit. He takes advantage of the book format with several dramatic two page spreads, the most dramatic of which was the "they brought us here to die" crowd shot.

This book isn't about innovation, but rather the urgent need for people to tell their stories in as direct and open a manner as possible. While Neufeld does weave stories in and out effortlessly so as to move the reader's eyes from page to page easily, there's very little artifice to be found in A.D. Neufeld has always had a way of asking complicated questions in a straightforward manner, and this book is his most ambitious display of his natural curiosity and empathy. It's a story that needs retelling, especially given that we're four years out from the storm and the city is still struggling, especially its poor. The real tragedy of Katrina is not the storm, nor the flood, but the alienation felt by its citizens in the wake of the event. For a city that is a national treasure and one of America's few truly unique cultural outposts, there was frequently a startling lack of empathy for the dispossessed. This was a moment of national shame, a time when everyone knew that the government at all levels failed its people, and Neufeld simply gave a voice and a face to those affected by the experience in a way that anyone could understand. A.D. is really the best kind of political work: one where the author can make a point without bludgeoning the reader and let the reader decide what's right and wrong.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Rob Ullman, Stan Yan

This week's reviews are of material a bit lighter in tone than I've been reading recently. There's satire in the Harvey Kurtzman tradition with Stan Yan's THE WANG: WHO'S YOUR DADDY?  Also, I examine the breezy minicomics of Rob Ullman, which includes the sketchbook compilation TEENY BIKINI and the wordless romantic superhero comic THAT'S JUST SUPER (

Let's start with Stan Yan. This edition of THE WANG is the second graphic novel in a series, and so as a reader I was a bit in the dark regarding a number of the characters. Thankfully, a quick recap on the inside front flap along with the basic premise being easy to grasp made reading this fun. The introduction compares our hero (Eugene Wang) to Candide, which brought to mind a more modern version of the classic hapless innocent: Kurtzman & Will Elder's Goodman Beaver. Like Goodman Beaver, Eugene has only the best of intentions but not much spine and few wits, and he tends to wind up in situations that escalate in terms of his own humiliation and personal suffering. Yan's particular story interests revolve around humiliation in bed and in the workplace.

The story starts off with some heavy-handed attacks on business, the government, etc by one of Eugene's friends. Not knowing the character, it was difficult at first to tell what Yan was trying to accomplish here. Happily, the scene quickly changes to Eugene's ex-girlfriend (who dated his mom after they broke up!) fantasizing about a three-way with Eugene and his mom that disturbs even her. It was quite a jarring shift in tone and content, but that's what made the scene funny. From there, Eugene is derailed in his soul-draining job as a cold-call stockbroker despite his best attempts, attends a vapid sales motivational seminar, runs into fellow sales hustler Sue Ann Potts (who is even more clueless and helpless than he is) and tries to find out if his father (whom he's never met) was murdered. My favorite part of the book came when Eugene's ex-girlfriend (Kristin, aka "Chief") gives him a key to her apartment. This was done for one reason: if she's ever in an accident, he must come to her apartment and remove her vibrator before her parents come in and discover it.

Of course, this leads to the two of them getting into a car accident, and a gravely injured Kristin reminding Eugene of his oath. In the book's best sequence, Eugene (with a broken ankle and a bleeding tongue) walks across town, oath firmly planted in his head. Dragging his one foot and slurring his words, he scares a crowd who just got out of seeing "Dawn Of the Dead". The set-up, the timing and the ultimate (and multiple) payoffs of this sequence are fantastic. Not every gag clicks in this book, but this chapter builds on prior jokes and brings them to a head. The denoument of the book, where Eugene suspects that his mother may have killed his father, has its own share of pleasures and some genuine emotion.

The book is somewhere between gag book and and slice-of-life story. It reminds me a bit of what Terry Laban used to do in books like CUD and UNSUPERVISED EXISTENCE, and Yan's art even reminds me a bit of early Laban. The exaggerated characters and stylization remind me a bit of Bob Fingerman's MINIMUM WAGE stories, though Yan is not quite as accomplished an artist. At this point, I think Yan is a better writer than artist. I actually quite like his exaggerated caricatures: Eugene's absurdly long and out-of-place lock of hair, Kristin's grimness, his mother's gruesomeness. The problem is that his line is just too heavy at times. The comedy in some scenes is undercut by over-rendering and too much use of black. Some of the panel composition can be a bit cluttered, confusing some of the narrative at times. Fortunately, Yan's comic timing is unimpeded by these difficulties, and I'm quite curious to see how his style evolves. There aren't many artists employing Yan's brand of humor these days, and it's a welcome sight indeed.

Rob "Chappy" Ullman has long been one of my favorite artists in the minicomics scene. He's done autobiographical vignettes, stories about hockey players, slice of life comedy, and provocative sketchbooks. His clean line, expressive figures and solid storytelling skills make his work a pleasure to read. While not especially innovative either as an artist or a writer, Ullman can be depended upon for an enjoyable story that flows nicely and looks great.

Ullman is best known for his depiction of the female form. He manages to render a figure that's both realistic (unlike the vast majority of "good-girl" type artists) and appealling. He's sort of the king of minicomics pinups, and TEENY BIKINI is a great example. Straight out of his sketchbook, Ullman presents a variety of renderings of the female form. Some are finished and inked, and others are just pencils, but they're all expressive.

THAT'S JUST SUPER is equal parts superhero story and romance. That sort of story is a lot more common these days than they used to be, but Ullman really plays up the "romance" side of things here. What makes it clever is that it's a silent narrative, relying on Ullman's compositional skills to keep things flowing from panel to panel. The story is a simple one: a superheroine is at work when a monster attacks the city. A superhero that she has a crush on engages the monster, and she quickly changes to join him. The superhero ignores her and gets his ass kicked, but her ingenuity saves the day. However, the hero takes credit for her actions and rebuffs her totally. Crushed, she goes to a bar and gets drunk, and beats up some guys who see her as her alter ego on TV and make inappropriate comments. There's a cute finale that one can see coming, but it's still satisfying.

What makes it a fun read are the details. The action moves quickly and snappily, but my favorite panel is the aftermath of her bar fight. She gets kicked out with a wicked grin on her face, with one guy smashed into a TV and another with a pool cue shoved up his ass. My second favorite panel is when she gets home and regrets no longer being drunk; Ullman depicts this with her thinking of a bee flying out a window (the buzz is gone!). Every panel is loose and expressive, perfectly matching the subject matter.

Sometimes one likes to be challenged by a work, to engage it on its own terms and form an interpretation based on the text. Other times, one enjoys a work that allows a free and easy read. I think Ullman's greatest skill is creating compelling character portraits. Even in a wordless story, we get a nice sense of who the main character is. Ullman's only done one long-form work (GRAND GESTURES, from Alternative), but I'd like to see him do a more complex narrative that combines his expressiveness, use of character and impeccable design sense.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Memory and Form: Windy Corner Magazine #3

Rob reviews the latest issue of Austin English's comics/criticism project, WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE #3 (Sparkplug Comic Books).

What I like best about Austin English's ongoing WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE is that it seeks to clarify the artist's relationship with memory and the narrative that we form from our memories, and how this is different from nostalgia. That theme was particularly evident in this issue, given features like Frank Santoro writing about Gipi's GARAGE BAND, memoirist Vanessa Davis interviewing memoirist Carol Tyler, as was as English's own explorations of his past. Of course, there's a wonderful quirkiness to this magazine that sets it apart from other comics-related publications. That quirkiness is not a pose, but rather an expression of the many hats English wears. He's a cartoonist whose style continues to evolve from issue to issue. He's an editor managing submissions, but also a curator of sorts who looks to add just the right piece to create the desired aesthetic effect. He's a critic who seeks to understand and illuminate what art means to him. Above all else, the mission of WINDY CORNER is to get artists thinking about other works of art and how it affects them, as well as the processes of other artists.

English seems to be shifting his style from crude figurework to a blockier style defined by color patterns more than line. A lot of the art in this issue leaned heavily on decorative touches as opposed to a more stripped-down narrative. That was certainly true of the introductory illustrations by Lilli Carre' and the comics-as-poetry inspired table of contents by Molly O'Connell. Carre's use of tiny blasts of color on a white page, culminating in a single figure talking on the phone with her hair on fire, created the sense of a mind gone haywire. O'Connell worked in purple ink, using the most conservative line in the entire issue for her figures that wrapped around the contents. In English's own "Life Of Francis" series, that heavy use of blocky/blobby images dominates this entry, giving a certain sense of frightening solidity to Francis now becoming an adult and living on her own. I don't think English is doing any favors to this slow-moving story by serializing it; it would likely be a more interesting reading experience taken in one shot.

On the other hand, his ongoing exploration of his earliest memories proved to be a highlight. Done in a very loose line and filled in with crayon, "Drawing" really got at the heart of his struggle with drawing, wishing that he could be like one of his friends, whose "hands always knew which line to draw next". "Bernal Heights" is another exploration of living with his family as a child, remembering odd things about the next-door neighbors as only a child might. Of particular interest was "In The Museum", a black & white piece that employed that blocky/blobby style for a story about a father's recollection of a day out with his daughter. This is an emotionally intense story, one where he's trying to figure how to communicate with her and feels constant frustration. I've always liked the direct way English deals with emotion, and the way he intermingles ambivalence and affection with his characters.

The other comics in this issue varied wildly in approach. Sakura Maku's "You Turn My Lights Into Rays" is an intense assault of color, mixed media and calligraphic effect. The way that Maku slips between painting and cartooning and song is dizzying yet exhilarating, reminiscent a bit of Souther Salazar's work. Jason Miles' interpretation of a letter received by Windy Corner uses tiny panels, blotchy art and splotchy colors in an effort to get across the sense of cartoon fellowship the letter-writer felt with English. Both comics are meant to be looked at as much as read, a reflection of the more painterly nature of the magazine. Indeed, the back cover is a painting by Joseph Hart, an assembled piece with different color and textural elements juxtaposed against each other in a way that's hard to take one's eye off of it.

As much as I'm interested in WINDY CORNER's comics, it's the analysis and interviews that engaged me the most. English once again used his intuitive, personal critical style to look at the work of children's book illustrator Garth Williams. This is the most personal essay I've read to date from English, noting that Williams' drawings had enormous power despite their simplicity. Not only in terms of what looking at them meant to him, but in terms of possibilities in terms of making marks. He singles out Williams as the biggest earliest influenced he had in becoming an artist and loving art.

Deceptive simplicity was a running theme throughout the issue's analyses, as Frank Santoro turned his brand of from-the-hip commentary on the pauses and rests of Gipi's GARAGE BAND. Santoro is very much a critic/reader who demands that Something Happen in a narrative framework, yet he found much to love in a story that was entirely driven by character beats both overt and subtle. In particular, he talked about "the synthesis of drawing, color, narrative and symbolism" and how each element informed the other in turn. The color of the skies reflected emotion and possibility, while the elements drawn in each panel reflected the theme of family, both biological and acquired. I loved the way Santoro went chapter by chapter and not only broke down what he saw, but related how they affected him emotionally.

That running theme of how a work affected an artist echoed through Vanessa Davis' interview with Carol Tyler. Davis' free-flowing approach to creating memoir comics owes much to Tyler, and it's clear that the interview touched on a number of Davis' own concerns as an artist: the appearance of productivity, the use of a painterly (as opposed to clear-line) style in comics, the responsibility of the artist when writing about others, and whether or not autobio in general is a worthwhile pursuit. There's an intimacy to this interview that made it feel as more like an intriguing conversation that interested readers would want to eavesdrop in on than a formal discussion. At the same time, Davis managed to zero in on the heart of Tyler's work in terms of both art and artist that I hadn't seen in other interviews. The only problem I have with the interviews in WINDY CORNER is that they seem too short. While the their airm is not a career-spanning blow-by-blow, I wish I could hear a bit more of these conversations.

Even the sloppier elements of WINDY CORNER (smudges, smears, spelling errors, odd fonts, a lack of page numbers) are somehow endearing and sum up what English is all about. Translating what he sees in his mind onto the page has obviously been a career-long struggle for him, yet he continues to push forward and find ways around this problem through sheer effort and love of the form. He's sort of a younger version of Art Spiegelman in that respect--an artist with a deep love and understanding of the history of comics whose brain and eye are far more developed than his hands. Despite that difficulty, both artists soldier on. English may not be at a juncture in comics history when he can dazzle with formal inventions (ala BREAKDOWNS), but he does somehow manage to be two steps ahead of other observers when it comes to sniffing out new talent and movements in comics. English looks to the past like Spiegelman, but seeks out a different set of inspirations--and from sources even more unusual. Poetry, painting and certain kinds of film provide a framework for English's goals as much as comics do, and the observer can see the presence of each discipline start to slowly shape his work. English has a long way to go before he reaches his mature stage as an artist, but his curiosity and determination to push himself and comics in general mark him as an artist to follow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Gfrorer, Neely, Huizenga, Jackson, Jay, Platt, Beyer, Wiedeman

Rob reviews another selection of minicomics from old pros and newcomers alike. Reviewed are ARIADNE AUF NAXOS V. 1 & 2, by Julia Gfrorer; SELF-INDULGENCE, by Tom Neely; GREAT DEEDS AGAINST THE DEAD, by Rob Jackson; RUMBLING Chapter 2, by Kevin Huizenga; MY EXPLODING HEAD, by John R. Platt; THE NATURAL WORLD #2, by Damien Jay; CASUAL SEX and CITY UNDER SAND, by David Beyer, Jr.; and THE DEFORMITORY, by Sophia Wiedeman.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, volume 1&2, by Julia Gfrorer. These fall into the category of what I call "ramble comics"--minis where the artist takes the reader on a rambling journey that usually features themselves or a stand-in as a character and where the action and scenery is fluid to the point of surreality. I'd throw Jonas Madden-Connor and Damien Jay (especially in POCKET PARTY) in this category as well. The title of the comic refers to a Richard Strauss opera that originally followed a long play that was about a commedia dell'arte being thrust into the middle of a serious work. In much the same way, Gfrorer thrusts herself into the middle of other storylines, fed by pop culture concerns. The results are hilarious, with her thin and spontaneous line feeding her twin concerns of absurdity and sheer horror.

The first issue, themed around the idea of time, features Julia encountering James Bond in his different incarnations, then getting bored and drawing Gilgamesh meeting Simon Templar (The Saint)--with herself as a character in that meetup. That duo starts making out, leaving Julia to comfort Gilgamesh's now-left out pal Enkidu. Julia goes on to meet up with Doctor Who
(leading to a comedy routine the two), St Francis of Assisi (whom she horrifies by chomping on a live rabbit) and Lancelot, whom she contacts with her mind. This is a playful comic where horrible & inexplicable things can happen at the drop of a hat. It has the feel of total spontaneity on each page, but really seems to conform more to the principles of long-form improv. That is, while each individual page and panel might be improvised, there's an underlying structure that is referred to from time to time and that pops up in surprising ways.

The second issue's theme is death, and it mostly sees Julia wandering around as a sort of ghost zombie after the king of the witches kills her. There's an obsession with nomenclature and language that pervades this comic, especially the ways in which focusing in on picayune details obscures real meaning. Grforer expresses this idea with deadpan wackiness, with dialogue a bit reminiscent of Mat Brinkman's MULTI-FORCE: slang and curses spoken by supernatural characters. Doctor Who pops up again, this time dancing around the theme of regeneration. This comic is as much about the creation of the comic as it is a narrative, as Grforer never lets the reader forget that the comic is being drawn and that she is drawing it, even as strange things happen to her. The drawings have the crackling energy of sketchbook spontaneity but with a wit that provides a solid support structure.

Tom Neely. This little mini is a wordless bit of body comedy/horror from an artist who combination of bigfoot drawing and naturalism creates an unsettling atmosphere. The concept is simple: a pair of naked twins faces each other and one starts eating the other whole. As he's doing this, his twin is excreted out the other side, until the original image is duplicated as the book's final panel. With Neely, the fun is in the visceral, inky details and exaggerated body language. The way he elongates arms and legs while drawing pubic hair in exacting detail is the sort of thing that creates the old/new tension in his comics, a visual signature of sorts. I believe he customizes the cover for this comic when purchased at conventions (he did a drawing of the wolf from THE BLOT on mine), which is just a bonus for this beautiful comic.

GREAT DEEDS AGAINST THE DEAD, by Rob Jackson. This is another off-kilter genre comic from the prolific Jackson, in the tradition of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar. This time around, Jackson takes on the occult, in this story about a haunted house manipulating a widower. Jackson manages to hit every note and cliche' while still telling a straight-ahead story, including occult investigators, paintings coming to life, being forced to sleep in a haunted house overnight and deadly cemetery statues. At the same time, Jackson's characters often drift off on amusing tangents, like the musings of a literary agent and the matter-of-fact rantings of the demonic house. Jackson's crude but earnest line tackles occult conventions with gusto, and that simplicity subverts the usual visual cliches one associates with the genre. Jackson backs up that feature with what looks to be some drawings from life that form a rough narrative of a day out. The main critique I might make of Jackson's work is to further simplify his line. There are times when he overrenders a bit in an effort to provide atmosphere, and it's distracting. Taking a further cue from the simple but clear style that Trondheim employs would go a long way to making his genre explorations all the more effective.

RUMBLING, Chapter 2, by Kevin Huizenga. With the cancellation of his D&Q series OR ELSE, Huizenga announced that he'd be continuing his "Rumbling" story in minicomics form. The second issue adds a bit of context and backstory to the vague sense of dread regarding an exile trying to evade the ramifications of a religious war. What's fascinating about this adaptation of a story by Giorgio Mangenelli is how Huizenga works in his visual and verbal interests into a previously existing narrative structure. There are the wide shots of countrysides and night skies, this time imbued with a feeling of doom instead of the usual sense of awe. There are the diagrams and philosophical asides that now represent life and death instead of merely playful exploration. It even features his signature everyman character Glenn Ganges, whose intellectual curiosity is subsumed in favor of survival and desire for human contact is warped into hermitage. The most fascinating thing about this story is the way Huizenga presents iconography as something that has lethal real-life consequences--both in a predictable way (religious wars) and unexpected (science wars). Glenn eschews all conflict and dips into his true love of ancient history, a pastime derided as heretical by all. Huizenga jumps around chronologically, going from quiet reflection to moments of danger along the way in rapid succession. It's a rich and potent stew from one of the most interesting cartoonists working today.

MY EXPLODING HEAD, by John R. Platt. Platt noted that this was his first mini-comic, and he was wise to play to his strengths as an artist. This is an 8-page collection of gags and observational humor that reminds me a bit of the sort of thing that Shannon Smith does. Platt employs a simple line that eschews extraneous details and overrendering and displays a knack for character design. His best strips actually feature jokes about monsters (like "Mummy Dearest" holding a wire hanger) and especially Bigfoot. Platt also did a micro-mini comic called "My Beard In Alternate Dimensions", which featured a number of funny Don Martin-style drawings of reimagined facial hair. There are downbeat undertones to his gags, as Platt also refers to his ongoing battles with depression, and it's interesting to see him deflect this particular show of emotion with jokes. It feels like Platt is slowly trying to figure out what he does best as a cartoonist and humorist, and I think that will be an interesting process.

THE NATURAL WORLD #2, by Damien Jay. One of my favorite minicomics artists returns with another chapter in what's shaping up to be a grimy fantasy epic. I'm reminded a bit of Terry Gilliam's film JABBERWOCKY, a medieval epic that paid special attention to the mud, manure and sheer unpleasantness of the life of a serf. Jay's greatest skill as an artist is his character design. The way he draws eyes (especially the bulging eyes of the forest hermit who falls in love with a female villager), facial expressions and gesture makes each page a pleasure to simply look at. While the pages look fine in greyscale, I must admit that I'd be very curious to see him unleash his vivid color sense on this story. There's an ease of pace to this story featuring all sorts of character bits, but I was surprised at the way Jay managed to pick up seemingly disparate plot threads and connect them. My favorite sequence in the comic featured a woman trying to hit on the village blacksmith, who was utterly immune and oblivious to her advances. The way she subtly removed her head scarf and tried to stand seductively, only to never even get the slightest glance from her intended, made what was essentially an extended conversation into something that drew the eye to the page. I'm guessing that this story will be Jay's longest sustained narrative to date.

CASUAL SEX and CITY UNDER SAND, by David Beyer, Jr. These are two sharp but very different looking minis. CITY UNDER SAND began as a 24-hour comic but turned into a comic mostly done on the subway--and given that the bulk of the narrative concerns a subway ride gone horribly awry, it's fitting. The story reminds a bit of Yuichi Yokoyama's TRAVEL in that it's a wordless comic that follows a particular traveler through a weird environment but doesn't seek to explain what he's doing or why. Beyer uses an expressive, scribbly style that's fleshed out with what looks like magic marker, adding atmosphere. I liked the way Beyer shifted the focus of the journey from what seemed like a long, arduous desert journey to a subway ride instead.

While CITY UNDER SAND was all about mood, CASUAL SEX was all about a clever device setting up a punchline. Beyer employs a naturalistic pencil style here in his depiction of a young man who wakes up with just one thought: "sex". That thought carries over throughout the day, culminating in a trip to the bar where he says things like "obnoxious sexual advance!" only to get slapped or drinks poured on him. The punchline of the strip, where the person he goes home with has more in store for him than he expected, was a perfect comeuppance for this walking pile of hormones. I get the sense that Beyer is very much still trying to figure out exactly what he wants to do as an artist in terms of the sorts of stories he wants to tell. It also seems as though he's trying to settle on a visual style. It's clear that his chops are already first-rate, with the confidence to create more spontaneous comics without overrendering like CITY UNDER SAND but the skill to pull off something trickier in CASUAL SEX. Beyer has the potential for a very

THE DEFORMITORY, by Sophia Wiedeman. This is a Xeric grant-winning book that's a collection of related short stories about the denizens of a sort of asylum for freaks. Wiedeman uses an intensive black & white pencil style with lots of hatching and cross-hatching but simple figures and faces. Her figures actually remind me a bit of Gabrielle Bell, but even more cartoony. Wiedeman's pages are cramped and claustrophobic, which I think is an intentional effect to heighten the occasional two-page spreads. These are cramped and claustrophobic stories about desperate people who have put themselves in tough situations.

The book is framed by the story of a young boy who sees a unicorn in a forest and is frozen by the memory, building himself a tower in hopes of one day seeing it again. Then we meet Dolores, a woman whose hands warped and deformed but one day turned into sentient crab-like appendages who became her friends. They pointed her to the Deformitory, a place where she would be accepted. It becomes evident that her hands have their own agenda as they point out the Heart Monster as something to be feared, when it seems that this may not be the case. That subsequent Heart Monster strip is a sort of pivot point for the book that takes it in a darker direction; the style she uses here is even more cartoony, even as the Heart Monster meets a bitter end.

From there, Wiedeman introduces us to a mermaid with tentacles who can't make friends and whines incessantly about it. When a slug-girl offers to hang out, the mermaid recoils in disgust, revealing her own shallow nature. We're then returned to a now happy Dolores, who makes the mistake of getting a date, sending her hands into a jealous fury. They attack her date, belittle her for crying, slowly torment her over time and then try to kill her. She drowns them in a bucket but immediately regrets it, given that they're all she had. The book's final pages find the man from earlier in the book finally meeting his unicorn again, bringing it within sight of a forlorn Dolores, offering a glimpse of hope for all.

Dolores' hands are a potent metaphor for any sort of self-destructive behavior or addiction. Even when they were trying to kill her, she desperately wanted them back. Wiedeman manages to sidestep hammering this idea home with the visceral nature of her storytelling. The panels where Dolores is drowning her hands are larger than most in the book, and her line is much more detailed; so as to force the reader to feel the impact of the event. There's also a lot of unexpected humor in the book (especially in the mermaid chapter) that leavens out the more melodramatic elements of the story. The best thing about the book is its elegant structure; its formal elements provide a solid framework for its flights of fancy. Like most young cartoonists, Wiedeman simply needs to refine her linework. Some of her use of cross-hatching seems overly fussy, detracting from her character work. Her use of gesture also seemed a bit awkward at times, especially when characters interacted with each other. Still, this was an enormously ambitious early work for the cartoonist, one worthy of wide attention.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Henry Chamberlain & Jesse Moynihan

It's a bit difficult to give a proper critique of Henry Chamberlain's Alice In New York. The author informs us from the start that it's the beginning of a graphic novel. As such, it feels like a work in progress, in more ways than one. It's clear that there are some overarching themes and subplots being planted early on, but it also seems that the artist is learning on the job. Indeed, Chamberlain alters a number of his artistic techniques from the first issue to the second, and it's conceivable that the eventual finished project will be completely reworked.

Chamberlain uses a very loose and sketchy but expressive style. At times, his line is so loose as to look like something popped out of a sketchbook, but there's an energy and immediacy to his style that's appealling. It's possible that he understood just how loose things were and he at times used some tricks to balance this out. Some of his techniques are quite appealling: when the lead character shows someone a page from his sketchbook, the sketches we see simulate a heavy charcoal drawing. Other techniques are just distracting, like the heavy use of zip-a-tone and other "special effects". Rather than balance a panel, they are just distracting (and sometimes employeed seemingly at random). Happily, Chamberlain abandons their use in his second issue, and utilizes a bolder line.

Thus far I haven't said much about the story. What we're shown is fairly intriguing: a young man comes to New York City in 1989, looking for a purpose. The woman he's staying with (apparently at a B&B) takes an interest in him, and a number of serendipitous events fall in line for him. The young man (named Henry) is an artist who immediately falls in love with the city, looking for (and finding) some kind of magic around every corner. It's a feeling I can certainly relate to, having had those sort of experiences every time I visit New York.

At the same time, we get flashes of an underlying story. Alice, (yes, THAT Alice, of Wonderland fame) apparently is now some kind of magical overseer of New York. The White Rabbit tracks her down in a taxi to tell her that Henry has arrived. Henry has a conversation with a drug dealer in Washington Square Park that's straight out of Lewis Carroll (he even puts on a Cheshire Cat head!). Where exactly all of this is going is unclear, but it is fascinating.

Indeed, it's the small touches that interest me the most. Chamberlain gives us glimpses into the characters we meet, but no more. His host once was in Paris, posing nude for an artist she was involved with. Henry meets a young woman who takes an interest in him. Henry visits museums and is overwhelmed by the sheer visceral experience of the city. The "less is more" approach keeps the reader wanting more.

The first two issues are a little all over the place as Chamberlain the artist is trying to find his way as much as Henry the character is. But the energy in both his line and his story is palpable, and I'll be interested to see if he can retain that energy while refining his style. It'll also be interesting to see how he merges the slice-of-life elements with the magical realist elements. It's certainly an intriguing start for a comics newcomer.

The Backwards Folding Mirror is another 2 issue series that's a demo of sorts for a larger graphic novel. Its creator is Jesse Moynihan (check out, an artist who is totally committed to his vision and his own visual language. The best way to describe this book is as surreal, in the original sense of the term. Surrealism was a movement dedicated to unlocking the secrets of the unconscious through the use of stream-of-consciousness in both word and image. Eventually, some branches of it become more codified, where certain repeated images took on fixed meanings.

What I believe Moynihan is doing is telling stories that are quite clearly autobiographical, but coding them in images that blur reality and force the reader to really engage the page. We are introduced to a young man wearing a conical hat, the world he lives in and the people he associates with. There are no narrative boxes to guide the reader: we are simply thrown straight into a bizarre situation from the first. The young man is making out with his girlfriend in a forest when a bizarre animal runs past them to a tree whose very existence seems to invoke horror. The young man wanders off with his friend (a naked devil), goes underground, magically winds up in his living room and is stabbed in the temple by a doppelganger.

The work demands multiple readings simply to get used to what's happening, but it certainly rewards the reader. Once one becomes accustomed to its visual language, a reader can get at the meat of what's going on here. Moynihan's approach takes the reader out of their comfort zone of what is expected in an autobiographical story and instead tries to depict the emotions and thoughts surrounding real-life, with an absurdist (and often hilarious) touch. There's one scene where the young man is having a conversation with a snail. The snail is decrying its existence ("I'm just a lowly turd of a snail...I'm bird food. Why should I have kids?") and the young man replies "We all play a part, man." The snail spits out "Fuck my part. Seriously."

The themes Moynihan is grappling with are complex. There's the divide between indoors and outdoors, of course. Scenes set in the forest always have an element of terror in them, like something bad is about to happen. In the first story, the young man's girlfriend has to look away from a tree that Moynihan depicts as terrifying. It's a very existential moment (almost straight out of Sartre's Nausea) where the very is-ness of the tree was something intimidating.

Sex, reproduction and different forms of death are also repeated themes, all often in the form of dreams and dream logic. Reality is very fluid here, with characters waking up from dreams only to confront elements from their dreams in waking life. Despite the weirdness and ominous tone, the overall feeling of these comics is not bleak. Indeed, the young man is continuously grappling with his world and not submitting to the frequent despair of his friend the devil or the snail. The young man is often angry, not despondent; he's connected to his world, not detached. He's trying to figure things out but sometimes gets in the way of his own exploration.
Death and violence are often shown as modes of transformation. After just two issues, it was difficult to see where the overall narrative arc (such as it is) was going for our hero, but there did seem to be subtle transformations from story to story within each issue. Moynihan's line becomes much more assured in the second issue, creating scenes that had a stark and raw beauty. The result is a comic where the visuals were much more in the forefront than in the first issue, which relied on its narrative and visceral power to get its points across. I think the more refined his style becomes, the more precise control he'll have over the narrative and the emotions he's trying to depict. It's definitely refreshing to see authors to approach autobiography from different directions, making the specific universal.

Where I Came In: Peanuts 73-74

Rob reviews the latest volume in the career-spanning collection of Charles Schulz's classic strip, THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1973-74.

The latest volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS held a special meaning for me, since these are the first comics I started reading as a four-year-old child. As far as I can remember, PEANUTS may well have been the first thing I started reading, period. These weren't necessarily my favorite strips from Charles Schulz (even as a child, I recognized the greatness of the late 50s and early 60s), but there's a reassuring sturdiness to them. At the same time, Schulz was trying any number of new ideas to see what would stick. As a result, the day-to-day tone of the strip often widely varied, from one-liners to familiar psychological explorations to continuity stories to long riffs on sports to social commentary. To his credit, Schulz wasn't afraid to abruptly drop an idea when it stopped working, or more likely, when he lost interest in it.

A case in point was the end of the Poochie saga that started in the previous volume. Here, Schulz took an unusually melodramatic turn by ret-conning Snoopy's original owner into the strip, a girl named Poochie. When we finally meet her, Schulz either decided it wasn't working out as he expected or had deliberately framed it as a shaggy dog story, but in any event the sequence ended with a befuddled Poochie encountering Joe Cool and walking away. Schulz also briefly took on gender discrimination head-on in the form of Marcie (a character who got a great deal of attention in this volume) dealing with the sexism of Thibault, a boy who didn't want her on the baseball team. To say that Schulz's take on this issue was heavy-handed is an understatement, even drawing Thibault with a permanent scowl that all but paints him as a villain. Schulz concludes the sequence with Marcie punching him in the face and doesn't pursue the issue this directly any further.

Schulz always noted that his first mission as a cartoonist was to be funny. While his most memorable strips may have been ones that traded in melancholy, a number of his daily strips were devoted to one-off gags. In this volume, Schulz went from setting up those gags in the form of his characters to having Snoopy literally type wordplay jokes for the reader. A number of these gags were obvious groaners, but Schulz anticipated the audience's reaction with the real gag of each strip: the "audience" of his typewritten story committing an act of violence on the punster. "She creamed him with the electric toaster" was a particular favorite of mine. Speaking of Snoopy, while he's as much a mainstay as ever, he doesn't quite dominate the action as much in this volume as in past years, at least in terms of lengthy fantasy digressions. We get the occasional appearance of Joe Cool and the WWI fighting ace, but more in one-offs as opposed to days-long sagas.

In terms of the longer sequences, Schulz concentrated on Charlie Brown and his relationship with sports and summer camp. When Charlie Brown finally cracks up and sees a baseball rise in the east instead of the sun, he even develops a rash on the back of his head in the shape of a baseball. Forced to go to summer camp wearing a paper sack over his head, he suddenly becomes beloved and respected by his peers (despite the nickname of "Mister Sack"), even becoming camp president. Once again, Schulz ends this sequence with a bizarre blackout of a joke, featuring the first and only appearance of MAD's Alfred E Neuman. Schulz had gone from a fairly grounded sense of consensus reality to Snoopy's flights of fancy to outright weirdness. That became quite evident when he introduced the character of the sentient schoolhouse that Sally started to talk to, one that dropped bricks on people it didn't like. Like every other fantastical element in this strip, Schulz introduced it matter-of-factly and without explanation. Schulz really took to this idea, turning to it frequently late in 1974.

Those weird digressions apart, Schulz really did play out his ideas on the baseball diamond during this era. He throws Rerun Van Pelt on the baseball team, has Snoopy pursue Babe Ruth's home run record at the same time Hank Aaron was going after it (adding a bit more social commentary), and having an actual win overturned because of a gambling scandal. (Shades of Pete Rose--Rerun bet on Charlie Brown's team, even as he was a player!) Schulz also did a series of somewhat hacky gags featuring Snoopy as a tennis player; it was clear that Schulz had suddenly become enamored of the sport and wrung every bit of humor he could muster from Snoopy playing an unseen opponent. This is the first time for me as a reader where an extended series of Shulz gags felt creaky to me now, but 24 years into his tenure, it wasn't surprising to see him eager to try something new to him.

That seems to be the essence of Sparky Schulz to me: even with the pressure of the daily grind and his position as the lynchpin of what had become a vast empire, Schulz wrote to amuse himself. He never hacked out a drawing and freely experimented with new directions, characters and points of view. By 1974, the strip moved away from the dominant quartet of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy and saw Marcie and Peppermint Patty as crucial catalysts. Unlike the more generic Peanuts characters like Shermy, Patty and Violet, Schulz went out of his way to give his new characters distinctive & quirky personalities and backstories. They weren't one-joke characters like Pig-Pen or Frieda, but true extensions of Schulz's personality like his immortal earlier creations. While Schulz repeated motifs and extensively sampled certain gags over the years, he refused to completely freeze his characters in time. Indeed, he changed his focus from the philosophical and psychological aspects of the characters and their relationships to an approach that was simultaneously broader but more in tune with contemporary issues. By 1974, he had come up with so many ideas that it was easier and easier to take a pit stop at older ideas with a fresh narrative--and in so doing, throwing older readers a bone--and quickly moved on from them into a new idea. At his best in this volume, Schulz gave the readers some of the best stories of his career. The chronological presentation of the material is so important in building a true rhythm with the reader, and I'll be curious to see how his oft-maligned 1980s strips feel when read in a collection. In the meantime, seeing how the strip's tone furthed descends into absurdity in the late 70s will also be interesting to observe, especially if Schulz's heart doesn't seem to be in the non-absurd stories.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Twists and Turns: Love and Rockets New Stories #2

Rob reviews the second issue of LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES, by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez worked in almost completely different territories for the second issue of their now-annual LOVE AND ROCKETS: New Stories series. Jaime wrapped up his super-hero epic surrounding Penny Century, Angel of Tarzana and the Ti-Girls, while Beto's big story was a wordless bit of whirling imagery in the mold of his old NEW LOVE stories. It's been awhile since I've seen Gilbert do a story as deliberately oblique and enigmatic as this, given that much of what he's done of late has been either wrapping up the fates of his American-based Palomar characters or whipping up over-the-top noir/pulp thrillers. For Jaime, his first stories in the new version of L&R have been a return of sorts to his early Mechanics roots, only even more steeped in the fantastic. At the same time, his commanding storytelling prowess and greater subtlety directly inform this story, leading to some surprisingly poignant moments amidst sci-fi twists and costumed mayhem.

Gilbert actually contributed two stories to this issue. The first, "Sad Girl", introduces his latest female character of note, Dora "Killer" Rivera. Killer actually first appeared in an occasional L&R volume II feature called "the Kid Stuff Kids", one of Beto's more delightful and light-hearted features in recent years. Reconnecting with the extended Palomar family, Killer is the daughter of Guadalupe and granddaughter of Luba, the principal character of the Palomar stories. Killer is an interesting counter to Luba's sister Fritz; she has the busty physical proportions of the family but has a confidence and self-possession that Fritz always lacked, even if Killer is every bit as vulnerable in her own way. Beto fast-forwarded Killer to her teenage years and surprisingly turned this from a typical slice-of-life character study into a bit of noir. One senses that this story is the first of many for this particular set of characters, as Gilbert once again manages to maintain his connection to his oldest characters. In recent years, his stories have become increasingly sordid as Luba's extended family moved to the USA. Decay, decadence, corruption, hypocrisy and the erosion of community & family bonds have been his most notable themes, along with the destruction of innocence. This story ends with the end of Killer's innocence, much as he started out in this way with Luba in POISON RIVER or Fritz in Volume II. Both of those characters took different paths, so it'll be interesting to see where he takes Killer.

"Hypnotwist" is a silent dream/nightmare journey comic that is not unlike the experience of a David Lynch film. It follows a woman awakening from a restless sleep who slips on a shirt and ventures out into the night, meeting a variety of unusual people. That journey was mediated by a pair of what appeared to be magic slippers ala Cinderella, or perhaps Dorothy --only they tended to guide her to the seediest places wherein she faced her fears and obsessions. Gilbert does something interesting at the beginning of that journey, where the woman sees the shows glow and finds herself sinking into the floor. The room she sees is rendered more crudely, with thicker lines reflecting the unreality of the moment. As she proceeds, she faces her obsession with having children, with her own potential madness (meeting a crazed, homeless version of herself on the street) and with her own questionable choices in men.

The story gets more crazed as it proceeds, as she comes across a building with a haggard woman trapped in a pit awaiting torture, finds herself in that role, and witnesses a number of bizarre transformations. Melting transformations are a running motif in this story, as the protagonist escapes several menacing situations by changing identities and locales. The final pages are especially fascinating, as the woman gets out of another jam, realizes that she's menstruating, and then goes on stage as a magician/hypnotist. Walking home, she meets up with a variation of a figure she's seen earlier in the evening, looking back on the madness she went through on her journey. Secrets and images of Masons and other conspiratorial elements beyond one's control dominate the story, as the hypnotist dreams of the fluidity of identity. Visually, this is Gilbert at his most exciting and fluid, as he varies his line weight and style to help create the story's disorienting effect.

Jaime's Kirbyesque "Ti-Girls Adventures" somehow manages to neatly synch up his slice-of-life Locas stories (including the sterling batch that he wrote for Volume II) with slam-bam action, ridiculousness and even a suprisingly tender meta-narrative. In a story ostensibly about Penny Century gaining superpowers after years of wanting to be a superhero, Maggie became the key figure because her gift was being able to interpret and read obscure old comic books that foretold the future. The story dealt with topics that Gilbert tends to favor: the relationship between mother and child, the awkwardness felt between older and younger generations (especially with multiple generations all interacting with each other), and the legacies left for children. Of course, Gilbert explored those ideas within the framework of magical realism in Palomar, and later within pulp/soap opera tropes. Jaime plays them out within superhero spectacle.

What's remarkable about the story is that it is completely successful as a super-hero epic. Jaime cuts loose with the fights with every bit as much verve as he did when drawing his wrestling stories in WHOA NELLIE! Jaime touched on cliches like evil twins from the future, the origin of superpowers, women's prison breakouts, brawls in outer space and superteam dynamics to create a story of epic scope that still managed to neatly put all of the toys back in the Locas box, so to speak. He also injected a great deal of humor into the story while still respecting the bounds of the genre, though one had the sense that he was deliberately evoking the spirit of obscure, hacked-out superhero comics that nonetheless had a certain no-one-is-reading-this weirdness to them.

What we've seen from Jaime & Gilbert in volume III of LOVE AND ROCKETS is very much a back-to-basics movement, filtered through what they've learned as cartoonists. For Jaime, his line has become impeccable without losing any of its spontaneity, but what really separates this from his earliest genre works is the way he paces the story. There's none of the awkwardness and raggedness of line that marked some of his earliest stories, and his use of spotting blacks is simply stunning. One senses that Jaime wanted to cut loose after years of creating stories out of quieter and quieter moments. I'll be curious to see where he goes next. As for Gilbert, "Hypnotwist" is a remarkable return to the sort of surreal storytelling that he has occasionally delved into, a rich series of images that reward multiple readings. Neither brother is doing what I'd call groundbreaking work at the moment, but they've earned the right to revisit past ideas and techniques and see where they can take them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two Takes On Murder & Suffering: Famous Players & Arlene's Heart

Rob takes a look at two very different looks at murder and violence: FAMOUS PLAYERS, by Rick Geary; and ARLENE'S HEART, by Victoria Frances. Both books are from NBM.

Rick Geary has long been comics' go-to man for grisly historical events, with his series of books on famous and mysterious deaths from NBM. After many books on 19th century deaths, he's only recently started to dip into the 20th century, and FAMOUS PLAYERS doesn't really solve a mystery as it does tear away a facade. It's about the death of Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor and the hysteria that resulted after his murder was discovered. In a very matter-of-fact manner, Geary first lays out a brief history of Los Angeles, how the film industry came to dominate it (much to the consternation of the locals) in the 1920s, and how Taylor figured into it. Our tabloid and gossip obsessed culture certainly didn't arise out of a vacuum, and Geary draws a pretty straight line between the murder of Taylor (along with the trial of comedian Fatty Arbuckle) as the events that gave rise to the overwhelming popularity of scandal sheets as well as a repressive film code that stunted film for nearly fifty years.

Geary's storytelling is both methodical and leisurely. He wants to make the reader understand the era, one that he clearly has some affection for. It's obvious that he spent a lot of time with photo reference of the era, given the loving reproductions of not only the principals of the event, but chapter-leading illustrations of other famous stars of the era. Of course, scratch the surface, as this murder did, and one can find all sorts of hypocrisy. This wound up being an unsolved murder, but Geary carefully takes us through all of the known (and substantiated) evidence in a methodical manner. He first recreates the discovery of Taylor's body by his cook/valet (and his subsequent hysterical reaction), the arrival of the police, a weird pronouncement by a "doctor" who subsequently vanished, and curious onlookers & neighbors who disturbed the forensic evidence. Throughout the book, Geary uses intense hatching to add texture and weight to his otherwise thin line. It also gives a certain power to his caricatures, bringing his comics a certain nervous energy that brings his characters to life. Lastly, it draws the reader's eye around the page, given his spare use of spotting blacks.

After stepping the reader through the craziness of the body's discovery, Geary then takes a step back and tries to recreate the night of the murder, based on witness testimony. Geary scrupulously tries to stick the facts as they were known and debunks gossip and outright scandal sheet fabrication that tried to fan the flames of sensationalism. Of course, there was no need for sensationalism, given that truth was far stranger than fiction. Details of Taylor's life eventually emerged, creating a portrait of a man who changed his name and left his old life behind (one hat included a wife and daughter) after he came to terms with the true nature of his sexuality. This would be a trend in Hollywood that continues to this day: the unfortunate closeting of sexuality to deflect press scrutiny and preserve public image.

That digging revealed a long list of potential suspects with all sorts of motives: jilted starlets, drug-dependent actresses, psychotic mothers, studio heads, past and current servants, former soldiers under his command and a host of others. Geary patiently noted how each of them were debunked or dismissed as potential suspects, given alibis and shaky motives. The fact that the case was unsolved, combined with the multiple trials for Arbuckle, drew a lot of national vitriol from various public morality groups for Hollywood. This led to the shackling Hays code, which restricted film content for decades. As an aside, it was an interesting coincidence that comic books rose to become such a cultural force within a decade of the code's enforcement, especially since they were rife with precisely the sort of images the code banned. This book doesn't really have an ending per se; instead, it posits the murder of Taylor as the first chapter of a bizarre series of tragedies and scandals--some coincidential, others self-inflicted--that the land of make-believe and fantasy continues to generate. It's telling that in the book's final image, Geary reveals that Taylor is interred in the Hollywood Forever cemetary under his real name--the illusion stripped away in the face of mortality.

If Geary's book plumbs the source of mystery and misery, Spanish painter Victoria Frances seeks to wallow in the pain of human misery so as to give it a name and exorcise it. In ARLENE'S HEART, Frances touches on nearly every kind of pain experienced by the downtrodden of the world as a sort of dark fantasy world that is experienced as a cleansing gauntlet by her doll heroine. Painting in the Japanese "dollfie" style, we are introduced to Arlene, a homeless girl who makes dolls and whose fondest wish is to become a doll herself. After she dies of cancer (which included a scarring mastectomy), she gets her wish and becomes a doll who starts travelling unseen through a world that has some magical qualities (like a woman reborn as a butterfly) but is mostly horrific. We are introduced to oppressed gay and transgendered people, abused women, women oppressed by religion, children with cancer, abused animals, junkies, homeless old women (who doubled as witches), people suffering the effects of war and landmines, and children suffering from poisoned environments. The doll empathizes with each of them as she searches for her heart, and she finally finds it in the city, a discovery that gave comfort to all.

This book (and it's illustrated prose, not a comic in any sense) is enormously heart-felt, earnest and well-meaning. Frances has great skill as a fantasy/gothic painter. Unfortunately, the book is as subtle as a sledgehammer, with Frances feeling that she needed to spell out her fairy-tale symbols that fairly screamed out their meaning on the page. It didn't help that she also tacked on an epilogue that further explicated the meanings behind her images. The other problem with the book is that her airbrushed and photorealist style has a cold, distancing feel. As a reader, I felt no empathy with the parade of woe that Frances relentlessly described on page after page. The book's climax, where Arlene befriended a seal only to see it clubbed to death by hunters, felt more like a Johnny Ryan joke than a definitive condemnation of cruelty visited upon the innocent. Frances was ambitious in trying to create a personal work that dealt with political issues, but she overreached from the book's start and wound up with a pretty-looking mess that bordered on kitsch.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Treasure Troves: Bringing Up Father and Happy Hooligan

Rob reviews the NBM "Forever Nuts" series reprints of two classic comic strip series from early in the 20th century: BRINGING UP FATHER, by George McManus; and HAPPY HOOLIGAN, by Frederick Opper.

If this decade is the golden age of comics reprints, it's only fitting that NBM (one of the oldest alt-comics publishers) should launch a series of reprints from the golden age of comic strips. With their Forever Nuts series, NBM is collecting "classic screwball strips", comics that would have a profound and lasting influence on the history of American comedy and pop culture in general. Frederick B. Opper's HAPPY HOOLIGAN was one of the earliest popular comic strips, evolving past 19th ideas of cartooning and creating formal ideas that would quickly become conventions. George McManus' BRINGING UP FATHER, which debuted a decade later, was one of the first modern strips, making a different sort of draftsmanship popular, one that would be the standard for comedic strips for fifty years. The design of both books is simple and unfussy in trying to present the strips in a fairly large format. BRINGING UP FATHER puts two strips on a page, whereas the Sunday-only HAPPY HOOLIGAN has one six-paneled strip per page. BRINGING UP FATHER also has a handy notes section, contextualizing the fashion, news and pop culture references that McManus threw into his strip.

The approaches NBM used for these comics was quite different in the collections. For BRINGING UP FATHER, they reprinted the first two years of the strip in their entirety. On the other hand, NBM printed a sampling of strips from 1902-1913 for HAPPY HOOLIGAN. From a historical standpoint, it's interesting to see the way that McManus slowly honed his craft, refining his storytelling and line over time. From a reader's standpoint, it made this collection a tough read on occasion. In part, that's because the strip had a simple premise that McManus did variations on over and over again: Jiggs was a common laborer who somehow struck it rich, but never wanted to abandon his old friends, food or drinking habits. His wife Maggie and daughter Nora, on the other hand, were inveterate social climbers who were constantly embarassed by his behavior. Jiggs inadvertently behaving badly spurred virtually every gag in the series; in later years, McManus would punch up the strip considerably by having Maggie react violently, throwing plates & rolling pins at him.

In later years, McManus would find ways to add a lot more variety to his settings and set-ups, making something funny happen or get stated in every panel rather than relying on his predictable punchlines. In the early years, McManus frequently recycled gags with little variation. There were also obviously days when deadlines for other strips led to some lazy storytelling decisions: no backgrounds, smudged & hurried lettering, awkward character placement, etc. Still, he could afford the occasional stumble due to the sturdiness of his class-clash premise and his masterful character design. Newspaper comic strips were aimed at the common working man, and so it was no surprise to see a strip mocking the mincing excesses of the upper classes become a huge hit.

When McManus took Jiggs' family on a European vacation, he opened up a new world of possibilities of gags and embarassing situations for him. The language barrier experienced in various countries fueled any number of gags, as did jokes like Jiggs being confused by the canals of Venice, repelled by lederhosen in Germany and baffled by the food in France. McManus was also able to build jokes around boat and train travel, often stretching them out for weeks. It was obvious that this nearly year-long trip abroad reinvigorated him as an artist, because some of his most beautiful and complex drawings came during this portion of the book. When McManus took the time to construct a fully-realized environment for Jiggs to bounce off of, that's when the strip really started to shine.

As the strip went on, McManus became more and more comfortable with his hero, varying his poses and gestures for the greatest comedic impact. The squatness of his character, with his gut thrusting forward and a slight stoop in his back as a result, made him funny-looking to begin with. It also gave the strip a certain propulsive quality, as a Jiggs who always looked like he was tipping forward was funny to watch move from panel to panel, drawing the reader's eye. McManus was a dutiful observer of popular trends in any number of areas, but most especially fashion. His women (including Maggie), were always adorned with the latest styles, giving his strip a certain verisimilitude to the readers of its time even as McManus was mocking fashion. Still, it wasn't until Maggie became a more worthy opponent for Jiggs that the strip truly became great. This volume was about laying out how the artist of one of the longest-running strips of all time got his start and providing a complete document of this process. At some point, I think it would be beneficial for readers to see a single greatest-hits volume of McManus' work, with material drawn from across a few decades.

This was roughly the approach used for HAPPY HOOLIGAN: a smattering of strips across time. As a reader, this approach really worked. Opper very quickly got a reader up to speed on what was happening and what might be coming up next in a story, and the variations on the strip's simple theme that were featured in this volume were quite clever. Simply put, Happy Hooligan was a hobo (wearing an iconic tomato can on his head) who tried to helpfully butt into other people's problems, only to make things much worse and draw punishment from everyone around him (especially the police). He was accompanied by his yellow-clad brother, Gloomy Gus, who first predicted doom and then usually made a point of somehow managing to profit from his brother's woes. Over this decade's worth of strips, Opper introduced their British brother Montmorency (who talked like a duke but dressed like a hobo), their three nephews who were more clones than brothers (and who obviously influenced Donald Duck's nephews), and characters from other Opper strips like Alphonse and Gaston (the ridiculously polite Frenchmen).

The difference between the two books is as much where the cartoonists themselves stood at that point in their careers. McManus was in his late 20s, coming into his own with his first big hit. This volume recorded his growing pains as he tried to keep his concept fresh and found him not always succeeding. On the other hand, Opper was 40 when he created Happy Hooligan and had been an enormously successful, popular and influential cartoonist for twenty years. He was one of the stalwarts of the legendary humor magazine Puck, where he worked in a finely detailed style after his cartooning idol, Thomas Nast. This was a cartoonist at the height of his powers who then embarked on a second act for his career as a newspaper comic strip pioneer. Indeed, Opper deliberately dumbed down his style to appeal to a wider audience, both in terms of the complexity of his line and his subject matter.

Even dumbed down, Opper proved repeatedly that he was a master. There's a fluidity in his strips that was often absent in the more illustrative early strips of the era. The panel-to-panel transitions, the way he drew action and violence, the way he layered gag on top of gag and the way he gave the reader something to look at in every panel was a direct progenitor of both classic animation and artists like Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder and Al Jaffee (for starters). Opper's characters had a touch of the grotesque in their design, with googly eyes, odd postures, and crazily colored clothes. This collection also had the advantage of jumping forward in time and cutting some of the repetitiveness of the premise, as Opper kept adding characters and doing different variations on his theme. One of the funniest was Opper taking months to get his characters on a boat to Europe; they were prevented week after week from even getting on the boat--and it was a big event when they did.

It must be noted that neither strip was really meant to be read in collected form, and some of the repetitiveness of the strips was intentional to bring new readers up to speed quickly. As such, I wouldn't recommend reading either one of these volumes straight through. A week's worth of strips at a time is what I would recommend a day in order to keep the reading experience fresh. That said, Opper was more skilled at taking a simple premise and finding endless ways to come up with creative variations, like a blues guitarist working with three chords and still springing forth with memorable creations. For the casual fan of comics history, I might wait for future volumes of BRINGING UP FATHER to see McManus at his best, but every fan of gag cartooning in particular needs to read HAPPY HOOLIGAN.