Sunday, November 29, 2009

Minicomics from SPX

Rob reviews a number of minicomics he got at SPX. Included are SO BUTTONS #2, by Jonathan Baylis, et al; NOAH VAN SCIVER MINI COMIC, by Noah Van Sciver; THE DAY I KILLED JESUS, by Julia Wertz; JUMBLY JUNKERY #7 & 8, by L.Nichols; BOOK COMIC, by Phil McAndrew; LIMBS OF THE MEGALITH, by Eamon Espey; OTTO ZEPLIN #1, by BT Livermore; THE REGULAR MAN, by Dina Kelberman; MY TERRIBLE TEARABLE HEART, by Sophia Wiedeman; TALES OF GOOD OL' SNOOP DOGGY DOGG, LOSERS WEEPERS and OLD MAN WINTER, by J.T. Yost; and PINSTRIPED BLOODBATH, edited by Jeff Zwirek.

SO BUTTONS #2, by Jonathan Baylis, David Beyer Jr, Tim Ogline & T.J. Kirsch. Baylis collaborated with several different artists for his autobiographical stories, and in general the visuals of this issue were stronger than his first effort. Baylis is at his best with the smallest of observations and recollections. Like many writers who don't draw, these stories are intensely text-heavy, sometimes to the point of overwhelming images. The artists who had the lightest, most cartoony touch were best suited to his work, like T.J. Kirsch on "So...She Married Me Anyway", a lovely story about him taking the wrong train on his wedding day. The material with his wife is the strongest in the book, especially when he tries to lecture her about comedy despite the fact that she's a professional stand-up comedian. On the other hand, his story about his Viet Nam vet uncle visiting the USS Intrepid had a lot stacked against it. Tim Ogline's earnest, naturalistic style demanded a light touch from a writer, but Baylis poured his heart out in talking about a tragedy that affected him. On top of that, the color in this story was distracting and took it further in a maudlin direction. If Baylis is going to continue mining these deeper memories (he had a similarly overwrought story about the Holocaust in his first issue), he'll need to figure out a way to add some restraint. Baylis' work is about memory above all else, and he is simply more effective relating his own, smaller memories (like recollections of listening to the Beatles with his mother) than trying to take on the horrific memories of a different generation. I do like his authorial voice and the easy way he jumps into his memories and finds ways to relate them as bite-sized narratives.

NOAH VAN SCIVER MINI COMIC, by Noah Van Sciver. Van Sciver is my favorite "miserablist" cartoonist at the moment, humorously relating his own struggles with alienation, depression, ambition and desire for success. The strip that summed all of that up the best was "Walk Home Drunk", a strip that began with Van Sciver being thrown out of a bar, trying to find his way home. Van Sciver's work is in the underground tradition: grotesque figures, an emphasis on the extremes of living (in this strip, puking up blood and the gag reveal that his "home" was a cardboard box), vicious exaggerations (Van Sciver's takedown of scenes and scenesters was hilarious), and a general sense of writing from the id. Van Sciver is still trying to find his voice and isn't quite there yet, but I like how many of his strips are so evocative of time and place. I would recommend his BLAMMO series, but this mini (a compendium of strips that appeared in various publications) is a nice place to start.

THE DAY I KILLED JESUS, by Julia Wertz. This is a split minicomic, backed with "The Legend of Rebob Mountain", an illustrated story that I previously reviewed. The titular story is a funny anecdote from the acerbic Wertz's childhood, where a family custom (of leaving a seat at the table empty for Jesus) was accidentally turned into an event that traumatized her. Wertz's autobio comics are an appealing blend of bitterness and shtick, especially when she looks back on her past as a born-again, prosyletizing Christian. That attitude mixes well with her effectively crude line that emphasizes over-the-top expressiveness. The anger that underlies all of her strips is contrasted by the goofiness of her figures, creating a tension in her work that gives even the silliest of her strips a certain charge. The reader is never distracted by drawings that are so funny that they are taken out of the reading experience. There's a pleasant sloppiness to her work that is partly a deliberate construction, and partly a sharp understanding of her own limitations as a draftsman. This piece was especially effective because she rarely writes longer narratives, but her sharpest work has been that which is a bit more fleshed out.

JUMBLY JUNKERY #7 & #8, by L. Nichols. This has become a consistently interesting grab-bag of stories, rendered in several different styles. Nichols mostly deals in slice-of-life anecdotes, and personal observations, but she also tried her hand at some compelling fiction in these comics as well. Issue #8's "Baxter" is about a kid obsessed with numbers, to the point where his book reports didn't discuss plot or character, but rather the average word lengths and graphs of letter frequency. The eventual reveal of this story took me by surprise, a tribute to Nichols' low-key storytelling style. "Paralyzed" is about a man who woke up, frozen, paralyzed by his own fear of death--a state that led everyone else to declare him dead. One thing I enjoy about her comics is the way her science background pops up in unusual ways, like in discussing entropy, ennui or the body as a mechanism.

Nichols' visual approach continues to evolve. In #7, she used a scratchy line that interlaced hatching and cross-hatching to create her figure and tell the story of Narcissus. Nichols also used color in her comics as a primary means of storytelling, matched up with simplistic stick figures. In other stories, she used a slightly deformed, almost Picasso-esque approach to making her figures. She also employed her standard self-caricature as a rag-doll with button eyes in interesting ways, like one story where literally tore her own stuffing out as an expression of frustration with the quality of her own work. These varied styles made her personal confessions and observations all the more interesting, a true one-person anthology. Nichols has frequently explored issues of identity and gender in her comics, with a refreshing absence of certainty one way or the other about what she believes. "Sisterhood" was a good example of that, a story about waiting for the feeling of "otherness" to disappear when she became an adult, that she'd feel connected to the idea of being a woman, but she feels as much an outsider as ever. The more quotidian observations from Nichols are of lesser interest; to an extent, her self-caricature can sometimes be a distraction in those strips. I'd love to see more fiction and color work from Nichols, and eventually some kind of long-form work. JUMBLY JUNKERY certainly has proven to be a fine training ground for her own development, with each issue showcasing work that's stronger and more daring than previous issues.

BOOK COMIC, by Phil McAndrew. This is less a standard comic than an extended shaggy-dog joke. With a single panel per page, it actually feels more inspired by minimalist animation (complete with silent "pause" panels) than anything else. It's about two people discussing books they've read, with a woman piling more and more over-the-top detail about her book. It turns out to be a fantasy-detective-conspiracy-scifi-ghost-romance-mystery story, becoming more and more unlikely with every detail she reveals. That's really the meat of the book, because the punchline (which is fairly obvious) is a head-slapper. In an effort to get the reader to flip the pages, McAndrew provides funny-looking drawings as his character, which I actually found a little distracting. While McAndrew is a great character designer and the details of the joke are amusing, there was no compelling reason for this to be a comic, per se.

LIMBS OF THE MEGALITH, by Eamon Espey. Everything Espey writes is pretty much a must-read for me, and this collection of very short stories for Bash magazine are no exception. While rendered in his usual grotesque & absurd style, these stories are more accessible and straightforward than much of the material that appeared in WORMDYE. These stories remind me of a weird, alternate version of Ben Katchor's JULIUS KNIPL stories, wherein we are introduced to someone with an unusual profession, an unusual life circumstance, or an unusual place in which they live. What's remarkable about these stories is their compactness, especially since Espey's WORMDYE narratives stretched out in ways that were frequently challenging. Here, Espey introduces us to a world where decreased life spans mean that children marry at age ten; a man whose dog shrunk down to an inch and turned into stone; a woman who lied about going on vacation and who made up weird tales about what she did; and a horseshoe collector who built a time machine. Espey is at the top of his game here, and this is one of the top minicomics of the year.

OTTO ZEPLIN Vol 1, by BT Livermore. This is a funny and well-drawn comic with a slightly weird premise: detailing the epic adventures of a baby whose exploits began right out of the womb. The title character was an actual person who died eight months after birth in the early 1900s, and Livermore, fascinated by the name, extrapolated all sorts of events for young Otto. These are all captioned, single-page gags wherein Otto is visited by the ghost of a pathetic U.S. Grant, hits it big in the stock market and blows it all on candy. What made the comic work was Livermore's crisp and clever character design, which did a nice job of conveying the dryly absurd nature of the humor.

THE REGULAR MAN #4, by Dina Kelberman. Kelberman's IMPORTANT COMICS was a delightful discovery for me this year, a book filled with ultra-minimalist, sardonic strips. This particular comic was about isolation and self-obsession, poking fun at herself while still delving into her own paranoia. Kelberman employs clashing colors in this little two-pager that further get across the sense of cacophony she relates here. Above all else, Kelberman is funny, both with her punchlines and her tiny geometric figures and the impromptu panels she strews across the page.

MY TERRIBLE TEARABLE HEART, by Sophia Wiedeman. Wiedeman excels at mythologizing heartbreak and pain, and this collection of short stories coheres nicely in depicting a set of experiences that form a sort of emotional narrative. "Exploratory Surgery" depicts a young woman carving open her chest and narrating as she went along, noting that if you reach inside, you get a prize. "Space Heart" was a hilariously nasty story about a smiley heart that started talking about how love lifts you up, "higher and higher". As the heart soared above the clouds into outer space, it exploded. Even the slightly maudlin "This Too..." which featured the young woman giving her heart to the Heart Monster, reassuring him that she'd grow another one as she curled up in the fetal position, used a striking sense of absurdity to leaven the outsized nature of the way she depicted pain. The way Wiedeman used dark dots for eyes gave her figures a much-needed sense of distance for the reader, even as the warmth of her line and the way she used grey drew a reader in. Refinement is the next stage for Wiedeman: more simplicity for her figures, greater confidence in her line and less reliance on greyscaling to achieve emotional effects.

LOSERS WEEPERS, TALES OF GOOD OL' SNOOP DOGGY DOGG, and OLD MAN WINTER, by JY Yost. Yost's greatest strength as an artist is his character design, and this serves his frequently amusing slice-of-life stories well. He also has a knack for seizing on a concept or gimmick and taking it in some unusual directions. For example, LOSERS WEEPERS was created when he found a journal written by a woman despairing of her relationship with a crazy boyfriend, an envelope with some explicitly crude writing scrawled on it, and a scrap of paper written in broken English. He pieced these together to create a story about that ex-boyfriend running into his ex-girlfriend, doing an obscene rap at an open-mic night and winding up sleeping under a bridge with fellow junkies. The tone of the piece was both tragic and comedic, which aptly describes much of the rest of his work. SNOOP was a compendium of dream comics and an autobiographical story related to the rapper. These are all amusing, with Snoop appearing as a friend, mentor and occasional supplicant. The last story, where we learn the impact that Snoop's music had on Yost as a child, put the dreams into a different context.
OLD MAN WINTER won a Xeric grant, and it's a collection that very much pushes emotion (and frequently sentiment) to the forefront. The title story exemplifies Yost veering from cartoony figures to naturalistic backgrounds (complete with dense cross-hatching), as we meet an old man whose wife has just died and is nearing the end of his own life. The story's emotional arc is pretty clear from the outset. The most interesting thing about it wasn't the titular character, but rather the way others around him reacted to someone in deep mourning who did as much as possible to hide it. The most effective story was "Logging Sanjay", a funny childhood account of playing pranks on a friend's family that unintentionally went to some darker places. "Roadtrip" was a really well-drawn story comparing the life paths of a human child and a calf that had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's propaganda in the truest sense of the word, trying to provoke an emotional reaction with the way it juxtaposed its imagery. In that sense, it's quite effective, but propaganda is imagery programmed to provoke a single, particular reaction; this is what I'd consider to be the opposite of art.

PINSTRIPED BLOODBATH, edited by Jeff Zwirek. This is an attractively designed, sharply focused minicomics anthology about organized crime-related stories in Chicago, drawn by Chicagoans. Almost every story is a winner here, with some providing more of a payoff than others. The only dissonant note in the anthology was the story by Neil "Neil Jam" Fitzpatrick, whose stylized art and authorial voice were a bad fit. Nate Beaty and Bernie McGovern use mostly wordless stories to depict historical events; both make the wise decision, in telling stories about massacres, to provide a minimum of context. The details are less relevant than the emotional, visceral nature of the violent acts (especially with McGovern's story about a gangster going out in a blaze) and their aftermath (in Beaty's strip, a woman bloodies her handkerchief as a keepsake).
My favorite stories were editor Zwirek's account of the history of the Thompson submachine gun (the "Tommy gun") and Sam Sharpe's stunning story of his mother's delusion about his connection to a crime family. Zwirek's use of a fractured narrative was quite clever, as was the way he used the inventor's moral struggle with the fact that his invention was being used by criminals as a way of adding emotional & dramatic tension to what was essentially a timeline. Sharpe's story is a clever spin on the way that gangsters have not only become part of American myth, they've become part of American paranoia. His mentally ill mother concocted a story about how he was taken away by the "Sharpe crime family" as a way of explaining to herself how her mental illness (and time in an institution) was the product of a conspiracy. Using Jason-style anthropomorphic figures added just the right level of distance for this story. Zwirek has a sharp eye as an editor, and I hope he attempts something like this again.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

High-Low and the Comics Journal

Beginning in December, I'll be part of the new blogging team at the Comics Journal's new, expanded website presence. The site goes live on December 1st, and I'll have new blog entries on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. TCJ's blog posts are 500 words and under; regular readers of this column know that I'm rarely that terse. So my minicomics reviews will likely be chopped up a bit more, and my longer reviews will be featured on the front page of the new I will continue to post links from here to the new page whenever I have a new article up, and will probably post things here from time to time. Thanks to everyone who has kept up with my writings here and at I'm greatly looking forward to being part of the new TCJ team. One of my first articles I intend to publish will be one I've been shopping around for nearly two years, so I'm excited it'll finally see the light of day.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Art of Awkwardness: PS Comics

Rob reviews Minty Lewis' collection of stories, PS COMICS (Secret Acres).

Minty Lewis first came to my attention with a funny story in an SPX anthology (the travel-themed edition) about featuring anthropomorphic fruit as her characters. Her PS COMICS minis have alternated between the travails of various fruit-oriented characters and the lives of anthropomorphic terriers. The cuteness of her character design boldly contrasts with the bitter awkwardness of her slice-of-life stories. Lewis mines the humor of cruelty for her characters, especially the office-life set-up for the fruit character stories. It reminds me a bit of the UK version of The Office, in that there are a number of characters who are desperately lonely and unhappy but don't know how to reach out without inflicting pain on others. In Lewis' stories, it's the most pitiable characters who often wind up saying and doing the most awful things. The clarity of her line and the sharpness of her dialogue make this a compelling read. The juxtaposition of her cute drawings (which grab the reader's eye and are just funny drawings) and the nastiness of tone both more effective. A naturalistic style of art would have made these comics feel somewhat leaden, but the simplicity and flow of Lewis' pages help the reader fly across these pages, soaking up the dialogue.

There are a number of highlights here. "'Me' Time" features the simultaneously abrasive and lonely Apple rejecting his obnoxious workmates because he was inspired by a character from a TV show who did the same thing. In a creepy but hilarious sequence, Apple has a running commentary with this character (Lemon), pretending that she was actually with him as though she were her soul mate. When Apple stayed home the next day from work (at the "urging" of Lemon), he was stunned to see a TV interview where she described the character as a loser and used method acting to inhabit the role. Chastened, Apple sought out his coworkers for after-work recreation, even if he still hated them.

"Bitter Fruit" was a stunning account of workplace romances gone horribly wrong, as Pear is rather casually dumped by Banana in favor of Kumquat. Apple stepped in, rather clumsily, in an effort to offer comfort to the bitter Pear (who said things to Kumquat like "Check it out, Apple! The monkey learned to shave its face!"), first insulting her and then trying to advise Pear to start writing. Apple, who felt like someone somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, tried to get Pear to come over to his place to hear him read his script. Faced with that and the possibility of having to hang out with Banana & Kumquat at an after-work get-together, she chose the latter. There were some hilarious images in this story, like the (literally) pear-shaped Pear being thrown out of her ex-boyfriend's apartment wearing sweat pants.

"Out of Season" featured Apple trying to hit on the new temp, Strawberry, only to discover the she was even more unbalanced than he was. She turned out to be the sort of borderline personality disorder person we've all met from time to time, rigidly defining everyone she came into contact with as either friends or enemies. Apple, with his rigid ideas on how to advise others, naturally managed to alienate her even as he was trying to hit on her. The highlight of the story came when the office went to see Pear at an open mic poetry night, which included lines like "And my vagina remembers/what you used to feel like/every morning...there is cereal/but every night...there's just slices". In each story, Apple makes a ridiculous protagonist, someone who is acutely aware that he's at the bottom of the social power structure and hates it, but will press any small advantage he can find. He wants to be "understood", but is such a narcissist that he can't understand other points of view and experiences. He wants to be considered compassionate and understanding, but is completely devoid of empathy. In short, everything he does makes everything worse, and provides a lot of bitter laughs.

I wasn't quite as drawn to Lewis' stories that star Yorkshire Terriers, with the exception of "Yorkie Matrimony". The humor in the other stories isn't quite as biting and the drawing felt a bit more stiff, especially with regard to character interaction. "Yorkie Matrimony" was so over the top yet true to life that it felt agonizingly real. The story involved a pair of female apartment mates, one of whom gets engaged. The other roommate feels betrayed and abandoned, worried that she won't be able to take care of herself. That started a series of passive-aggressive moves on both of their parts, culminating in a bridal shower game of Scrabble that featured insults to the groom.

Lewis has a knack for relating the power struggles at the heart of many relationships and how we choose to engage them. That sense of push-and-pull, where we need intimacy but also have the urge to dominate and control our partners and friends, powers the tension of her stories. The ways in which humans interact with each other, trading in self-deception, is absurd on its face, which makes Lewis' storytelling choices all the more resonant. Humans are ridiculous, so why not portray them as fruit or dogs or salt shakers? It's a way of softening the blow while playing up the humor inherent to the pain of human interaction. This collection, by playing up the connections between stories and characters in subtle ways, actually strengthened the original source material and gave it a surprising coherency for material collected from so many sources. Secret Acres once again provided a public service by getting stories that were once part of minis out to a wider audience.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Monsters

Rob reviews the bracingly personal new comic from Ken Dahl, MONSTERS (Secret Acres).

Ken Dahl's MONSTERS created a sensation when its first few chapters were released as minicomics, winning an Ignatz award. In their original format, the minis were barely-disguised autobiographical comics about a particular relationship he had and how it came crashing down when both partners realized they had herpes--and that he probably gave it to her. The final version, published by outstanding small press concern Secret Acres, changed some of the details and appearances but left the emotional core of the book intact. Dahl, working very much in the tradition of underground comics, created a hilarious but bracing story about living with a disease that by its very nature creates a state of perpetual alienation. The craving for intimacy is permanently balanced by an intense feeling of guilt and self-loathing, a sense of not being worthy of intimacy because of the disease. That feeling is further multiplied by the understanding that while herpes is incurable, it's not especially harmful. There's always the temptation to simply withhold one's diagnosis from potential partners.

After all, as Dahl noted, something like 60% of all adult Americans has herpes in one form or other--but most people don't know it. For a conscientious person, the feeling is akin to shoplifting being the only method one can use to obtain a product. Shoplifting is clearly a crime and an ethical lapse, but the line between right and wrong becomes very thin at that point of desperation and little harm that can be caused.

MONSTERS turned from the dynamics of a particular relationship to the specifics of day-to-day living with what was once euphemistically called a "social disease". Dahl infused the book with a weird tension. It's part confessional, part educational comic, part gag book at his own expense. Living with constant pain in his mouth, and without proper insurance for medication that might help, led to a miserable day-to-day experience. At the same time, Dahl felt guilt for being that miserable, considering that nothing was really "wrong" with him. Of course, the worse part of the experience was the sense that it was not only not possible to experience intimate contact ever again, but that he didn't even deserve intimacy. What separated this book from simple melodrama was two things: Dahl's acidic sense of humor and his virtuostic linework.

Dahl used a clever trick in depicting life with the disease, creating an anthropomorphized version of herpes as a sort of constant companion. Dahl leaned heavily on the comically grotesque in the depiction of his "friend" as well as himself, going over the top on many pages for humorous effect. Crumb was an obvious influence on his line, but there's a bit of Peter Bagge in there too, especially in terms of character design. Any influence he took from others was mostly that of inspiration and boundaries of what was possible in comics--seeing what could subjects could be addressed. Dahl is very much an original, who manages to walk the line between intense rendering and clear page design. His figures went from simplistic to naturalistic to cartoony, sometimes all on the same page.

MONSTERS is a book that has a lot of narrative text, but it's just in support of the intensity of the images on every page. Dahl either employs a funny drawing or grotesque drawing in nearly every panel, powerfully underlining the central theme of unearned alienation. It's a tribute to his skill and sense of humor that this unrelenting intensity doesn't become overwhelming to the reader. It does help that Dahl employed several series of silent pages, including detailed renderings of actual herpes sores, the morning routine of assorted pills and powders and a hilarious sequence where the herpes-ridden finger of god squashes his head.

The central plot arc of this story is a simple one. Dahl goes from oblivious, to denial, to shirking of responsibility and knowledge of herpes, to overobsessing about the details of the disease. The quotidian details of the various "homeopathic" remedies he tried to relieve his oral discomfort dovetailed neatly with several hilarious sequences depicting his job making food at a Whole Foods-style, vegan grocery store. Dahl excels at depicting screaming, pompous & deluded lunatics from all walks of life, but he saved a special sort of venom for the health food fanatics he used to serve. That sequence pointed out that stress tended to trigger his pain, but it also pointed out how much he was beginning to hate a group of people that he theoretically thought of as like-minded folk. Overcoming his fear of humiliating rejection and self-loathing, the feeling that he deserved to be alone, became his biggest task, one that he finally achieved when he acknowledged his need for intimacy with a particular person while being honest with her. When she told him it wasn't really a big deal, Dahl depicted himself as having layers of slime and goo falling away from his skin, revealing just another person. He even had sympathy for the anthropomorphized disease, acknowledging that it was just another form of life trying to get by.

That climax is followed by a twist-ending epilogue that comically took the rug out from under Dahl, rendering five years of his life a "corny sex-ed PSA". It's an ending so unlikely that it has to be true, but it didn't nullify the emotional truth of what he was trying to accomplish with this comic. There are a number of pages of fairly didactic material, but Dahl's skill as an artist (and some truly gross drawings) made these fascinating to read. Slightly less interesting was the time spent on the laundry list of foods he was trying to avoid, and how that clashed with his attempt at the time to be a vegan. The book was at its best when Dahl simply went about his day and tried to figure out how to relate to others.

At its heart, this is a book about ethics in its truest sense: what do we do about others? How do we relate to them, and why do we want to? Do we treat them as objects at hand or as ends unto themselves? Dahl was confronted by a scenario that forced himself to ask these questions every time he wanted to kiss someone, have sex with someone one or initiate any kind of intimate contact. It underlined not only the ways that we take such things for granted, it illuminated the entire issue of how our material needs intersect with our conception of self and other. It also highlighted the ways in which society's taboos on openly discussing sex and sexuality lead to situations where disease is spread. MONSTERS is both a funny confessional story highlighting the mistakes of its protagonist and an attempt to open a dialogue, and it's a rousing success on both counts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Three Takes On Christmas: The Fir Tree, Gift of the Magi, A Kidnapped Santa Claus

Rob reviews a trio of Christmas story adaptations from Harper Collins' itbooks line. Included are L. Frank Baum's A KIDNAPPED SANTA CLAUS (adapted by Alex Robinson); Hans Christian Andersen's THE FIR-TREE (adapated by Lilli' Carre); and O. Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI (adapted by Joel Priddy).

The itbooks line represents another entry of smartly-designed, attractive and intelligently chosen comics for whatever is left of the book market. Each of the three hardbacks is designed to be held by a younger reader (they're about 4.5 x 7.5), with each book totally roughly 60-70 pages each. They're graphic novellas, really, but they perfectly mesh the sensibilities of modern comics publishing with a throwback attempt at drawing kids back to classic literature. The choice for each of the three stories was inspired, with each volume representing a different range of emotions and experiences. What struck me most about each volume was that despite the fact that each artist was adapting someone else's story, the tone of each comic was very much that of the cartoonist, not the writer.

For example, Alex Robinson adapted the obscure L. Frank Baum story, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus". The story itself was very short and sparing on details, so Robinson had to flesh out a number of characters and situations. His tone for this story was absolutely perfect, a blend of humor, action, horror and Christmas sentiment. I'm guessing the publishers chose him because of the tender and funny way he handled a Christmas story back when BOX OFFICE POISON was still coming out in comics form. Robinson thrived with the constraints he found himself faced with here, and I found this a much more satisfying work than his recent TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN, a book I found predictable and maudlin. With A KIDNAPPED SANTA CLAUS and LOWER REGIONS, Robinson seems to have found a niche with off-kilter genre stories filtered through his slice-of-life storytelling interests.

Baum set Robinson up with Santa living in a valley with all sorts of helpful creatures, near the lair of the demons Selfishness, Envy and Hatred. Robinson turned what could have been a tedious fable into something charming, thanks to his lively character design and focus on character interaction. The demons are all jealous of Santa and first try to trick him into renouncing his good ways (with one of the demons disguising himself as Robinson's own self-caricature, which for someone reason he draws as a morbidly obese man), and then later kidnap him when that fails. The reader gets both the usual Santa-related Christmas ephemera in this story and several pages of fairy vs demon battle action. The inclusion of demons, along with Robinson's heavy reliance on blacks, make this an unusual entry as a Christmas story, but that was all part of the fun. This is the frothiest of the three books, which makes sense given that Robinson's art and approach is the most straightforward of the three artists asked to contribute.

The artist who did the most with the least was Joel Priddy, in his adaptation of O.Henry's THE GIFT OF THE MAGI. This story has been told and re-told so many times that its twist ending (a standard O.Henry trick) is not exactly a well-kept secret. Priddy is not a widely known name in comics circles, but I've been a fan of everything he's published, starting with his sole graphic novel, PULPATOON PILGRIMAGE. Priddy is a remarkably fluid, versatile draftsman who can create naturalistic settings and complex color blurring effects but also draw the reader's eye in with character designs that are cartoonishly simple. Clear-line animation is a big inspiration for the visuals of this book, with sharp, angular facial features, exaggerated expressions and the sweeping movements from panel to panel. The simplicity and clarity of the figures contrasts elegantly with the more naturalistically rendered furniture. His use of color in a key sequence pops off the page, especially the way in which he literally unrolls it on to the page when Della takes her hair down and rolls it back up when she ties it up again.

Priddy's narrative voice is also extremely clever, essentially taking the reader on a voyeur's tour of a couple fallen on hard times who sacrifice their most valuable possessions so as to get the perfect Christmas gift for the other. There's a great page where the husband, Jim, first sees his wife's shorn locks and we see four faces from him in sequence, each one trying to express a different level of surprise, shock and bemusement. The next page, where we see Della (dreading that Jim would reject her) coil her body into a ball, is nicely matched against the next page, where she tries to deflect her anxiety by uncoiling herself and cheerfully trying to reassure her husband. Priddy manages to generate a lot of humor out of an otherwise tense moment thanks to his line.

The book as a whole has a light touch despite its slightly maudlin premise and treacly conclusion. Priddy helps the story earn its earnestness with his characters' body language, turning what seemed to be resentment from Jim into the most earnest kind of admiration. After pages of clever visual turns (like fracturing Della's likeness with multiple looks at a very narrow mirror, or "animating" the ways in which their prize possessions would cause the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon to envy them), Priddy goes back to the images of snow and stars against a black sky, reflecting the wisdom of generosity of the protagonists. THE GIFT OF THE MAGI is admirable both for its charming drawing and the ingenious ways in which Priddy solved storytelling problems.

Of the three adaptations, Lilli Carre's THE FIR-TREE feels the most like the sort of story she might have written on her own. Carre manages to trump Priddy with the ingenuity of her design, weaving text and image together in clever ways. There's a brightness to her design that's an effective and ironic contrast to the relentless grimness of the original Hans Christian Andersen story. Carre's work has always had a magical realist element to it, so a story about a tree with thoughts, hopes and dreams was a natural fit. What was different was how much Carre leaned on the original text; her dialogue and written narration is usually considerably more spare than in this book, preferring to let her images tell the story as much as possible. Here, she embraced the fairy-tale narration to its fullest, but found different ways to make that text visually interesting.

Andersen's story had a punishing way of relaying its moral without actually spelling it out ala Aesop: don't wish to become something else so much that you are incapable of enjoying your life now. The fir tree wanted to become bigger and resented animals jumping over it. It grew tired of its forest and wanted to see the world. It longed for a better world, never satisfied with its own. Of course, when it gets chopped down, it immediately starts to regret its stance, but only begins to learn to enjoy the moment once it's too late. The tree's delusional belief that the glory of Christmas day, when its branches were hung with fruit and candles, would be repeated again and again, was painful to the point of being funny. The book continued to pile on as the tree was thrown into an attic for several months, then taken outside, chopped into pieces and thrown onto the fire, sighing in the end that it wished it could have enjoyed itself while it had the chance.

Visually, Carre's biggest success was making a tree an interesting protagonist. The way the tree's branches bent gave it a subtle anthropomorphic quality and a surprising amount of expressiveness. Carre' used a variety of colors for her word balloons that allowed them to mesh with both image and the narrative text on the page, giving the whole book a fluid, sweeping quality. Despite the fact that the book was in reality more illustrated text than "pure" comic book (there were no traditional panels, for example), that integrative strategy prevented the book from having a static quality. The warmth of her images is an interesting contrast to the formal, almost cold nature of the narration and dialogue. At the same time, that distance is an element that's often present in Carre's work, and it was obvious that the effect was deliberate on her part.

Each of the three books was successful on their own terms. The Robinson book was a character-oriented lark with action elements. The Priddy book showed off the artist's cleverness as a cartoonist. The Carre' book fit neatly into her concerns as an artist, displaying yet another narrative approach while staying true to her overall trajectory of explanation. It felt like each artist was given a lot of leeway, within the bounds of story length (each is a graphic novella of about sixty pages in length) and format (the size and general appearance of each book is roughly the same, though the covers of each book are different colors). It's encouraging when a new imprint feels like a lot of thought has gone into it, and this is certainly true of itbooks. I'll be curious to see what they choose to do next with regard to comics, and if they'll move on from adaptations to original stories.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Artist Introspective, Part 3: Map Of My Heart

Rob reviews John Porcellino's recent King-Cat collection, MAP OF MY HEART (Drawn & Quarterly), as the final entry in a three part series on artists with recent publications that look back on their careers.

John Porcellino's MAP OF MY HEART is the most devastating of the three books I've examined in this series, because here the artist's struggle with self-worth and the desire to create was inextricably tied into his own mental illness. That illness was exacerbated by a life-threatening physical ailment as well as his wife leaving him, leading to full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD often has a strong link to depression as well, leading to a crippling paralysis of will. Porcellino fought through this, in part, through his deepening studies of Buddhism and his unquenched desire to keep producing issues of King-Cat Comics. This was the period where Porcellino went from good to great as an artist, making his style and prose spare & compact. Like with Zak Sally, it was the work that counted, and it acted in some sense as much as a lifeline than as something to conquer. Porcellino supplemented the comics with extensive endnotes, much like Sally. His approach was less a free-flowing essay than a series of fragments: journal entries, unpublished drawings, and detailed context regarding a particular line or strip. This made complete sense, given that one could always "read" Porcellino himself as someone composed of these small moments. He was entirely emotionally transparent simply by what he chose to depict and how he chose to do so.

The book's title, taken from a piece of children's art he saw, is the most accurate way to describe this process. Bit by bit, moment by moment, the reader comes to understand Porcellino's point of view and the nature of his struggle. This is far from typical mopey autobio work, but is instead the one instance where the map and the territory are virtually the same thing. He was in pain and worked through his pain, and from his current vantage point, time did nothing to soften the feelings he experienced. The book ended on an enormously upbeat note, thanks to him meeting his future wife Misun, but in many ways that was less a payoff for the reader than simply another part of the struggle.

There's a surprising cohesiveness to this book as an individual entity, even though it's composed of a number of different issues of King-Cat. The issues are pretty much reprinted in their entirety (including letter columns), with the exception of chapters from stories that would be reprinted elsewhere. The remainders of those issues tended to be meditations on his environment, anecdotes from his past, or spare but aching visual poems that reflect on his divorce obliquely. He also started adapting poems and stories from his Buddhist teachings into comics, a combination that wound up creating some of the most charming stories in the book. Given the success of his THOREAU AT WALDEN adaptation, I'd love to see an expanded collection of Porcellino's Buddhist story adaptations.

The Zen Buddhist influence is key to understanding this collection and the way that Porcellino's style evolved. Porcellino took up Buddhism at perhaps the lowest ebb of his life, a life filled with noise and activity. Buddhism's central tenet is that desire is the cause of suffering, and Porcellino's comics were always about desire, longing and the urge to find one's place in the world. Buddhist art and poetry has always been an attempt to describe the indescribable, the feeling of Zen enlightenment and bliss called satori. I've always felt that the attainment of satori is less an intellectual or emotional process than it is an aesthetic one. The experience of beauty can be described or reduced to familiar emotions, but those descriptions are not the experience, and as such, can't be communicated fully to others. So it's no surprise that Zen teachings are done through poems, paintings or oblique aphorisms--all forms of art that demand intense engagement from the audience. It's entirely up to the audience if they're ready to engage the work and draw meaning from it--and what that meaning is can vary.

In MAP OF MY HEART, Porcellino followed the Zen model when he started to go with less. His line--already a simple, minimalist tool--became even sparer and less fussy. More of his pieces were his own version of Zen poetry, carving away complex emotions and events and leaving only their essence. Porcellino has a fascination with nature that pervaded this volume, from the lives of ants, birds, root hogs and pill bugs to the stillness of bogs and the sound of wind. Zen poetry and art focuses on nature--that which surrounds all of us, is older than us and bigger than us. Considering nature is humbling for any individual who truly ponders their place in the world, and as such is a perfect avenue for teaching the lessons of Zen. While this is true for Porcellino, he also simply delights in his environment. He loves taking walks, listening to the sounds of his neighborhood, blazing trails in places where people don't usually go, and the way the cold air felt. There are also amusing quotidian stories about shopping with his mom and hanging out with friends that showed off his sense of humor.

Above all else, he loved his faithful cat, Maisie Kukoc. Kukoc was an anchor for him in more ways than one. Porcellino was quite frank in his endnotes about his battle with OCD and depression, and the feelings of self-hatred and self-destruction that ensued. At one point, he noted that he avoided suicide only because he worried about who would take care of his cat. It's a stunning low point, but also a triumph of sorts because he was looking for a reason to live, not a reason to die. His struggle was perhaps best reflected in the wrenching story "Forgiveness", a story from his childhood. It was about John exploring an environment and dealing with the human urge to destroy and the enormous feelings of guilt that came about as a result of killing a bird with a slingshot. When a ball went into the basement and the family dog ran after it, John was paralyzed by grief and guilt once again. One almost senses that John's guilt was even greater as an adult than as a child; it felt like he didn't fully process the emotions felt from the experience until he drew the story. There is no pat resolution to the story, just the feeling of remorse and the desire for self-nullification.

Porcellino faced these feelings head-on, forcing himself to experience the guilt and work through it. He attacked the feelings of powerlessness through taking walks, leaving towns, seeking experiences and embracing his relationships with others. Porcellino learned the valuable lesson that one can only make connections when one is open to the risk that such connections entail. It's letting go of one's fears, which are directly related to one's desires for self-protection. Leaving himself open allowed him to embrace the connection that would become meeting his future wife. That relationship alone didn't dissipate his OCD, but it gave him another weapon with which to fight that spiral.

When they began as a long-distance relationship, Porcellino did a strip that obliquely referred to his longing to see her. In many ways, this strip was the essence of what it means to live in the world while trying to follow Zen. One option for being a Buddhist is to withdraw entirely from the world and worldly sensations. Another point of view is that one can't abandon the world but instead must try to view quotidian concerns with a Zen approach. The world exists and we choose to interact with it; the key is not to become obsessed with dominating it. In this strip, Porcellino acknowledged his aching desire and allowed himself to feel it fully in the moment. He didn't curse their separation, but instead acknowledged it while experiencing his environment, noting that it was "the first hot night of the year". It's the page that's the best representative of his work in the book, spotlighting the insight of a man who allows the world to reveal itself to him rather than trying to impose himself on it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Artist Introspective, Part 2: Like A Dog

Rob reviews Zak Sally's collection of early comics, LIKE A DOG (Fantagraphics), as the second entry in a three part series on artists with recent publications that look back on their careers.

If the mood surrounding Paul Hornschemeier's ALL AND SUNDRY felt a bit chilly and reserved, Zak Sally's collection of his RECIDIVIST material and other works was positively pugillistic in nature. Of course, the battle Sally was fighting was with himself and his place in the world, both as an artist and a person. In republishing his first mature works, Sally went out of his way to directly confront the feelings he was experiencing at the time he was writing these comics and contextualize where he was at the time, both literally and psychologically. The extended endnotes written by Sally were one of the most bracing but inspiring pieces of writing I've ever seen by an artist on their own work. It's a statement of purpose not just as an artist, but as a human being. Sally simply embraced every misstep he committed as an artist, every mistake made as a person, every pang of doubt and self-hatred felt--because in the end, one has no other choice if they're going to continue to create. LIKE A DOG is in many ways a journal of a restless artist drawn to comics and frightened of them at the same time, with these two impulses tearing him apart as his own pattern of constantly uprooting his life reflected this conflict.

Sally was a member of the rock band Low, a group that achieved a certain level of fame and critical regard in the last decade. Being in the band meant a lot of travel and a rootless lifestyle, something that suited the restless Sally just fine when he was younger. At the same time, he found himself drawn to comics as a form of expression very different from his musical career. It was his first love, but a pursuit that left him constantly frustrated. Never allowing himself to have roots was, in a sense, a way to cut off the possibility of having to confront the idea of commitment. Comics, to Sally, represented a very particular kind of relationship and commitment that was especially difficult, yet impossible to deny. The result was the publication of a couple of issues of his elaborate minicomic RECIDIVIST, both of which were reprinted in this volume.

The first issue is rough compared to his later work, with a lot of overrendering and shaky lettering. Still, it's a compelling read because of the way he's able to establish his unique narrative tone. Sally often writes in second person, like in "All My Friends Are Giants", a squirmingly uncomfortable story about a literally tiny person who is a relentless manipulator. His nonstop blather is such that this feels like someone Sally dealt with on a regular basis. "Dresden" dialed back the intensity, both in terms of the visuals (heavy on blacks but otherwise rendered in a more minimal manner) and the story. Sally wisely let the disturbing events he witnessed speak for themselves, an inexplicable scene at a club he was going to perform at involving a striking young woman & what appeared to be a priest. The final story, "Severed" reflected Sally's obsession with the true existence of human beings as bags of meat. This was another story told in second person, as the body alerted the person that they had violated a contracted and that relations (and a tendon) were officially severed. It was a statement of disgust with himself, as well as being unable to live in his own skin as both person and artist.

The second issue was a big leap forward. While this collection wasn't quite able to capture just how intricate it was in terms of its cover, there's a stunning beauty in its design, especially the endpapers. He mentioned writing it, between tours, living in a 10x6 room so compact that every inch of it "had to make sense". I think as a result, this forced a similar sense of structure on his comics, which became at once more ambitious and more disciplined. "You're Going To Fry" was the most over-the-top strip in the issue, a brutal allegory about Hollywood culture written once again in second person. Its tone is less of an imperative one than his other stories of this ilk, but Sally's final visual, showing the film discussed in the strip merely reflecting the hellish reality of life in Los Angeles, spoke volumes.

The highlight of the issue, and the book, was "At The Scaffold", an impeccably researched and intensely moving account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's time spent in prison. Jailed for speaking out against the Tsar (in the mildest of fashions), he spent his time in solitary confinement wracked by pain. Still a young man, he forced himself to focus past the pain and write. The parallels to Sally's own situation were obvious, and Sally was clearly moved and inspired by the letters of the young man who would later go on to be one of the greatest authors of all time. It was also an admonition to himself to stop wasting time, to let go of his past bitterness and self-loathing as an artist. It was fitting that in the first story that Sally wrote that wasn't actually about himself, he wound up revealing more of himself in a direct manner than he had before. It was reminiscent of what Ivan Brunetti would later do in SCHIZO #4, as he wrote biographical stories about famous figures that Brunetti identified with.

Sally's admonition for change was further reflected in "You Won't Let Yourself Be Touched", a dream comic told in first person, but where we never see the narrator. It's a desperate plea to himself to find a place to settle down into, but he wasn't quite ready yet. As Sally himself noted, this story saw him shift into his mature style in terms of his line. The line is expressive & simple, and much less reliant on the use of heavy blacks or intense rendering. It's the first time he showed a great deal of restraint as a draftsman. The story reflected his sense of disgust for how he was living ("like a dog"), that he was somehow less than human, and represented the first step on his road to transformation.

The rest of the book contained short stories from a variety of sources, including MOME and COMIC ART. There are some real stunners here: Sally was down on "The War Back Home" because of its timing around 9/11, but this scratchboard comic was one of my favorites in the book. It's one of the most clever stories about self-destructiveness that I've ever read, as Sally anthropomorphized every item in his apartment in terms of being allies or enemies in a constant battle, concluding with his worries about a potential alliance between the beer and his blank drawing paper. "21" was a hilarious (and as it turns out, autobiographical) story of a waiter who encountered an unusual guest who only ordered orange from room service--but wanted something altogether else from her waiter. "Dread" was a standout story from MOME, one where he incorporated the unusual lettering he'd been developing as a story device that heightened the sense of existential terror the narrator felt. "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" was Sally at his best in that it was an autobiographical story that revealed a lot of crucial personal details, but did it as a secondary concern to the real story. That story was one of the struggle of the artist against exploitation on top of an everyday battle to gain inspiration, and the EC Comics flourishes in it were a nice touch. This story also displayed Sally's pitch-black sense of humor; despite the relentlessness of his style, Sally is far from being a miserablist.

In his afterword, Sally first provided context for each and every piece and then evaluated them. There's a brutal honesty to his approach that eschewed both a narcissistic sense of self-validation as well as self-negating self-deprecation. Rather than simply declaring all of his old work to be worthless, he treated it as part of a process. Some of the work he was still proud of, some of it he saw as a breakthrough in some way, and some of it was a dead end. All of it had value, because it was documentation of what led him to his current status as an artist. He noted that "somehow, making these comics forced me to work some shit out. And that the process of 'working it out' is real, and it's got value..."

It's obvious that this is true, because while not all of the work here is strong, one can see a voice developing and sound some truly interesting notes. The third issue of RECIDIVIST was one of my top comics of the decade, and his SAMMY THE MOUSE series clearly touches upon a number of events that he experienced as a younger man as well as his older works. Sally quit his band, settled down, bought his own press and has become comfortable with the process of making and publishing comics. He's quick to deflate his own sense of self-satisfaction, along with the idea that anyone's got it figured out. In the end, he says, "it's the work that counts". It's what mattered when comics frightened him, and it's what matters now that he's more settled. While Sally wanted to provide the reader context and his own view on his work (because he liked that sort of thing reading other collections), his opinion about his art was no more or less valid than the reader's.

It's a crucial point, because a difficult part of being an artist is declaring when something is done and can be experienced by others. The work becomes a separate entity, a monument to what the artist has created that has the potential to have an impact on its readers. Whether it's positive or negative is obviously out of the artist's hands and may or may not wind up affecting what the artist does later. There are certainly hard-working artists who have never produced a single worthwhile work, but the point is that unless the artist continues to release work, it is absolutely certain that they will never get better. The work is all that's left after the ephemeral nature of process and emotion fades away. It's the responsibility of the artist to create the best work of which they are capable, to have the courage to publish it, and to have the discernment to figure out how to ge better. I'm reminded of Lynda Barry's Two Questions from WHAT IT IS: if the artist immediately focuses on the questions of "Is this good?" and "Does this suck" instead of their actual inspiration, they will be in a constant state of paralysis. It's a struggle that Sally obviously was afflicted by, but has found a way to overcome it, and LIKE A DOG is a testament both to the struggle and the triumph.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Artist Introspective, Part 1: All And Sundry

Rob reviews Paul Hornschemeier's sketchbook and rarities collection, ALL AND SUNDRY (Fantagraphics), as the first entry in a three part series on artists with recent publications that look back on their careers.
Most artists, in evaluating their own work, often find it difficult to revisit old pieces because all they can see is what's wrong with them. For some, it's a matter of having moved on to a different phase or set of interests; it's as though a completely different artist had created these older works. For others, it's a painful reminder of what they had to go through in order to create the work. In this series, I'll be examining recent books by Paul Hornschemeier, Zak Sally and John Porcellino that touch on these concepts in different ways. These books are unusual in that they not only present a work of art for a reader to absorb and interpret, they also contain extensive notes by the artists themselves that contextualize their comics. The sort of comments that each artist chose to make reflected on them directly as individuals, as well as the internal and external forces that were at work while they were writing their comics.

I've been reading Paul Hornschemeier's work since he was self-publishing SEQUENTIAL, an ambitious and gorgeous comic that focused heavily on formal experimentation. Hornschemeier has always hovered between an expressly downbeat, naturalistic style (characterized by heavy tones and thick lines) and a deliberately off-the-wall, cartoony style that frequently juxtaposed the lightness of the line with the subject matter at hand. The latter style felt like a conduit straight to his id, while the former seemed more deliberate and cerebral--even if he was usually exploring a series of tragic events. His book THE THREE PARADOXES was a remarkable marriage of his different impulses, combined with his impeccable design sense and subtle use of color. In many respects, it was the culmination of his artistic and intellectual career to date, embracing his degree in philosophy, his love of old comics and his desire to explore human emotion.
Hornschemeier obviously draws a lot of inspiration from Chris Ware, especially in terms of color scheme and alternating between naturalistic and iconic styles. There's a different level of emotional impact in his comics, however, a certain distance that reminds me more of what Daniel Clowes or Art Spiegelman do in their work. In his cartoonier work, I sensed a Skip Williamson influence in terms of the looping way he drew hands, heads and facial figures. Considering that ALL AND SUNDRY collects his sketchbook work from the time he was writing THE THREE PARADOXES, I was curious to see what it would reveal about the struggle he had creating that book. I was especially interested in taking a peek at his process as an artist, given that this book was a return to his more aggressively experimental style after having toned it down a bit for MOTHER, COME HOME and even his MOME serial, LIFE WITH MR. DANGEROUS.
I found the experience of reading and looking at this collection to be an oddly ephemeral. I rarely got a sense of the artist, the process or the work. In his introduction to the book, Hornschemeier justified the book's existence as a sort of self-validation, tangible proof that even though he's only published a small number of books, the actual work he does on a day-to-day basis has added up to something. What we got was a book that's pretty much for Hornschemeier completists only. The "Drawings and Stories" section was dominated by alternate covers in other languages for his books and reprints of his short stories from MOME. There were two items of interest here: first, a clever comic for the Luaka Bop Records album Yonlu that leaned a bit on his Skip Williamson chops in depicting the label as a home for the unusual and hard to categorize. Hornschemeier is at his best depicting wanderers in dreamlike landscapes, and this strip played off that motif but gave the wanderer a certain sense of purpose--even if he wasn't quite sure he knew what he was looking for. The second strip of interesting was "Huge Suit Among The People", a strip that once again used a Williamson-like figure as a God stand-in, randomly inspiring people to do horrible things. The way he connected characters and played off different moments of time was both clever and moving, and it made me wish the strip had appeared in a different book.

That highlighted one of the problems of the book for me: it was neither fish nor fowl. I would have liked to have seen a more extensive Sketches & Drawings section that went deeper into his philosophical & personal ideas surrounding "The Three Paradoxes", for example. More drawings from life combined with more personal notes (ala Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY DATEBOOK) might have also been interesting, but Hornschemeier is one of my favorite thinkers in comics--and we didn't see enough of his thought process in this book. Even worse than ephemeral, it felt like it came all too easily to him, a notion that is probably far from the truth, yet haunts the page. Once again, there were fleeting moments in this section of the book that grabbed me: mimicry of classic comics and cartoons, character studies (I like how his initial drawing of Amy from LIFE WITH MR DANGEROUS is labled "John Pham rip-off?"), drawings of togas, a page about a particularly meaningful moment. Most of it was nice enough to look at but left me cold as a reader.

ALL AND SUNDRY is less about the work itself and more about the artist as worker. It's a justification of time spent, a validation of illustration projects undertaken. It's like his comics were a math problem and he was told to "show his work". Quite honestly, Hornschemeier's actual work was far more revealing than this behind-the-scenes look at his process. We don't get much of a sense here of why Hornschemeier became so obsessed with the ideas in THE THREE PARADOXES, or why loneliness recurs so often in his comics. There's almost a sheepishness on some of the pages included here where he indicates that his life is going well and that he's comfortable. Certainly, it's not that I want to read about an artist suffering for their work, but in reading a sketchbook/coffee table book/miscellaneous story book, I want to get a sense of why they're doing what they're doing, and why I as a reader should care. Hornschemeier's concept was to give the reader a little of everything, but this wound up frustrating me as the servings of this fish/fowl mishmash were too small. Fans of his work will find some intriguing nuggets and beautiful images, but this sketchbook contains few of the qualities that make Hornschemeier's work so consistently engaging and challenging.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Real America: Cross Country

Rob reviews the new book by MK Reed, CROSS COUNTRY (self-published).

"It's rural America. It's where I came from. We always refer to ourselves as real America. Rural America, real America, real, real, America."--former vice-president Dan Quayle.

MK Reed's CROSS COUNTRY is ostensibly about a young man who is forced to travel across the country with his odious former fratboy boss. It's also a vicious takedown of nondescript small town America as well as the monotonous corporate entities that wind up gutting them. Reed's go-to skill as an artist has been her uncanny ability to evoke the way young people speak and act. The way she managed to mine comedy and pathos out of a particular subset of youth culture (urban hipster types) reminded me a bit of the early days of Peter Bagge's HATE in the way that the reader gets a sense of time and place as well as character. Visually, Reed tried to play to her strengths as much as possible. She focused on gesture and expression, zeroing in the pained faces of Ben, the protagonist, and the blankly smug look that was permanently plastered to his boss Greg. The key to the comic's success was the way Reed wrote characters that she had little in common with. While Greg was a strutting, cocky and privileged boor, Reed wrote him in such a way that the reader really understood his point of view.

The story's plot is fairly straightforward: Ben was a few years out of college and trying to figure out his life as a frustrated creative person. He's traveling by car with Greg, the heir to a WalMart-type series of big box stores, sponsoring sweepstakes that were really an excuse to ferret out underperforming stores. Greg was pretty much the personification of the unexamined life: he's stuck in a life of adolescent excess and tastes that's an extension of the soul-crushing corporation that he's an heir to. He eats junk food, seduced underage waitresses and constantly revisited his college days. The tragedy of the character is that no matter how he's chastened (and Reed certainly piles on), the ridiculous largesse he enjoyed made all of his problems go away. There's never any reason for him to grow or evolve, because he can enjoy his life as a perpetual adolescent.

Greg was a perfect (if unwitting) antagonist for navel-gazing Ben, who's the personification of passive frustration. He can't get over his college girlfriend who dumped him, can't revive his dormant creative impulses as a writer, can't confront his boss and is in love with his best friend from afar. He's stuck in a rut and has no one but himself to blame, and the job he's taken for the summer reminds him of this through his recurring nightmares. Ben's story was one of going from passive to active. The first transformative event for him was visiting his old college girlfriend (living in the middle of nowhere) and realizing that she was no longer the same person who dumped him--and he was no longer the same person who was dumped. The second key event was rescuing Greg from being savagely beaten by some townies at a fair in a manner that was humiliating to Greg, but not in a way that he could understand as demeaning. That moment of clever assertion was entirely believable and affecting, as Ben moved from slightly pathetic sad sack to getting his life on the right track, all while never losing his credibility as a character.

Reed has been an ace at this sort of character development throughout her career. What was most interesting in this book to me was the sociopolitical subtext. As much as Reed sneered at the vulgarity of middle America, the book was more of an indictment of lowest-common-denominator corporate culture. The scene where Greg is confronted by two employees of his store who were just fired for swearing was especially delicious, as they were quite aware of the way conglomerates systematically exploit small communities and eradicate local culture and commerce. Ben and Greg are both revolted by the towns they pass through not because they are weird and alien, but because they are all depressingly the same.

Reed's art is serviceable, especially in evoking the personalities of the characters. The bland handsomeness and perpetually blank expression of Greg dominate the page, and the way Reed zoomed in on him, chin in hand, when he was pondering which girl he'd pick up for a one night stand was simply great drawing. Where the book suffers a bit is the occasionally muddy use of greyscale. The book truly cried out for color, especially in scenes involving a lot of shadow and in the stores. There's a garishness to big-box stores that was slightly lost in translation in black & white, and Reed did herself no favors by leaning so heavily on adding so much shading. The book would have looked a bit clearer with either darker blacks or relying on linework. The shading felt like Reed trying to evoke the experience of color, but it didn't quite work. Still, the shading didn't interfere with Reed's ability as a storyteller, especially her interesting panel placement choices, weird angles and time being warped when Greg was getting beaten up. Overall, CROSS COUNTRY was the best-realized of all of Reed's comics to date. It was the most complex, ambitious and visually interesting of her comics, and I will be curious to see how she continues to develop as a draftsman in her career.