Monday, May 23, 2011
Public Service: New Minis From Susie Cagle
Susie Cagle is rare among twenty-something cartoonists in that her comics have an explicitly political bent. This is not to say that they are polemics; indeed, these autobiographical accounts of her own personal commitment to a variety of causes are ambivalent at best. That ambivalence is not so much directed at the cause itself, but at the very human foibles of those who try to carry out that cause in the field. As such, Cagle refers to herself as a "reportage cartoonist": an autobio cartoonist who doesn't pretend to be unbiased as she reports on what she sees in the field. Cagle's politics are progressive/leftist, but she's hardly a party-line artist. Indeed, her experiences as a member of a movement reveal the cracks that form in every political assemblage. Cagle has two chief virtues as an artist. First, she's an excellent draftswoman. She adds a slightly grotesque touch reminiscent of the work of Gabby "Ken Dahl" Schulz, along with Schulz' propensity for making lettering a key aspect of his visual approach. Second, Cagle adds a light, whimsical touch to her comics to leaven the political medicine she's reporting on, starting with her own frumpy self-caricature.
The second issue of Nine Gallons (Microcosm Publishing) continues Cagle's account of her time spent with Food Not Bombs, a "non-organization dedicated to fighitng hunger with vegetarian meals comprised mainly from wasted food". The title refers to the soup pot they carried with them. Cagle quickly learned in the first issue how little camaraderie there was to be found in the group and how much was demanded of her. This issue explores her own motivations in greater depth, partly in the way Cagle interacts with her roommate. Like many white leftists who come from some degree of privilege, Cagle struggles with her status as a potential revolutionary. There's an interesting sequence where she has an internet exchange with a friend regarding an "anarchist people of color" rant decrying Food Not Bombs because it's mostly a white leftist organization. Cagle leaves unresolved the idea of whether this group is part of the solution (fighting hunger) or part of the problem (preventing minority groups from doing it themselves).
Of greater interest is the conflict she has with her roommate. At first, the roommate scoffs at Cagle spending so much time with FNB when Cagle encourages her to participate. When the roommate claims to be inspired to volunteer at the food bank but also plans to videotape the experience as part of an art project. In a sequence that's a bit too on-the-nose, Cagle goes off on her friend, decrying her for making the experience all about her--when in fact she was having her own argument shoved back in her face. Do one's motivations matter when it comes to helping others? Is there really such a thing as altruism? Ultimately, the critique in this comic is as much about herself as it is on the less savory aspects of FNB, but I'm curious to see how far she takes this critique and how nuanced she makes it.
I'm Here From The Government (the link is to an incomplete webcomic version of the story) documents Cagle's stint as a "census enumerator"; i.e., one of those folks who went around to directly gather census information from hard-to-reach segments of the population like those living in shelters, group homes or on the streets. While it was clear that Cagle took this job to help make sure that the populace that tends to get ignored in census-taking was counted in order to help with proper government aid, she was still somewhat horrified to discover that she was now "a fed". She even had to swear an oath to defend the Constitution and follow a chain of command.
This comic was drawn a little more loosely than Nine Gallons. The figures are much smaller, the grids are tinier and her observations are a little less personal and quotidian. It's also much funnier, as Cagle recounts the false names ("Fuck This" and "This Is Bullshit" among others) written down for her at a youth home and snickers at how seriously her group leaders take the whole chain of command concept. Cagle also gets in a couple of jabs at some of the more questionable aspects of the sense. One woman is reluctant to give her race because she had heard this was how Japanese-Americans were rounded up prior to World War II. A man is distressed at the wastefulness of the paper usage of the census, and Cagle has no counter but to say "this is how we do it."
I thought I'm Here From The Government was a more interesting comic than Nine Gallons because it felt less calculated, especially at an emotional level. Cagle wants us to consider her own thoughts and feelings in a far more direct way in Nine Gallons than she does in I'm Here From The Government, and that degree of narrative & emotional manipulation (while part of the point of the story) made me feel like I was being led along by the nose as a reader. To be fair, the issue of Nine Gallons that I read is part of a larger narrative, and so it's unclear just where Cagle will take the story. That said, I thought the looser approach used in I'm Here From The Government allowed Cagle to take more risks as an artist, like in one segment where she's part of an overnight trip to document people sleeping in parks where all the dialogue is rendered as unintelligible squiggles. I do admire the fact that Cagle manages to devote herself to an organization and its goals while keeping on eye on its structure and the ways it works in real time with real people. I'm curious to see what she'll try next; for some reason, I can see her joining a political campaign and documenting that experience.