Friday, August 24, 2012

Autobio Minis: Cohen, Thomas, Williams, Yanow

Primahood #1 & #2, by Tyler Cohen.  These are attractively drawn & colored, slightly trippy and brutally true accounts of being the mother of a young girl. Interspersing her "observations" of the Primazons (a fantasy overlay of her interactions with mothers and their children) with her own stories about raising her "fierce" daughter, Cohen's stories ring true precisely because a parent has only so much control over a child's beliefs, behaviors and fantasy life. A progressive feminist, Cohen is alarmed when her daughter picks up concepts like princesses, marriage and other heteronormative, stereotypically gendered ideas from pre-school. At the same time, Cohen's refusal to bottle up or force her daughter to conform (or in this case, not conform) to societal norms allows her to retain a certain wild individuality, where even the most stereotypically feminine concepts are warped through her daughter's quirky lens.

The second issue is conceptually tighter and better drawn than the first, which isn't surprising considering that the first issue was Cohen's return to comics after years away from the drawing table. Cohen is very clearly interested in the concept of play as a serious form of activity vital to the sanity of children, and views it through her Primazon lens: as a sort of tribal activity performed by untamed and almost feral females. They are all almost entirely naked, other than decorative trappings, with abstract and vaguely animalistic heads. It's a way of making these otherwise familiar forms feel slightly alien and Other. It's a tribe that one cannot ask to join, but that one is forced into when one has children. Play is at the heart of the second issue, and the concluding story "Miss Education" (concerning her daughter's entry into kindergarten and all the new questions it raises) switches between particularly distressing and difficult anecdotes with Primazons playing a hand-slapping and rhyming game/ritual. This is a great take on the newly-burgeoning motherhood comics sub-genre, joining the likes of Lauren Weinstein, Carol Tyler and Francesca Cassavetti in providing an honest look at what it's like as a mother and as an observer of a child's behavior. I hope Cohen keeps this going.

My Life In Records #2: Into My Heart, by Grant Thomas.  Thomas writes autobio stories with the hook that they're mediated through his memories of how music has affected his life. This issue deals with the intersection between two critical events: his near-death by drowning when he was a toddler and his childhood fascination with the actual mechanics of how Jesus enters one's heart. This is a full-color comic, something that is irrelevant (and sometimes even distracting) on some pages but is crucial during those sequences where he's falling deeper into the swimming pool, the water taking on sickly dark blue and green hues. Thomas segues from that event into discussing how a particular christian record aimed at children made such a big impact on him, in part because it came with its own set of crayons. What follows after that is Thomas recreating the sort of theological debate a child might has when debating whether or not to (literally?) open up one's heart and let Jesus live there. His slightly older brother (like Thomas, depicted wearing a bunny mask), explains in his own way about the concept of the Holy Ghost, adding a level of complexity to young Grant's world (good ghosts and bad ghosts?). All of this leads up to his choice of becoming baptized, which in many Protestant circles, involves full submersion. There are some more beautiful pages with the background of a lake, the words of the song "Come Into My Heart Lord Jesus" melding into the background before they loop into a record player, and young Grant practicing baptism in his own bathtub. The final image is one of relief as much as it is joy--a fear conquered and a new step taken in spiritual development. Thomas is deliberately vague as to whether religion continues to be important in his life, but that wasn't relevant to the conflict presented in this issue: fear vs faith. The baptism, as experienced by Thomas here, was a sort of shock therapy after he had prepared for the moment, in much the same way therapists try to help people with phobias of any kind.

Hungry Bottom Comics, by Eric Kostiuk Williams. I've read a number of autobio comics from gay cartoonists detailing coming-out experiences, the awkwardness and excitement of cruising and how one manages to deal with one's own feelings of self-loathing, but Williams' account of his experiences is my favorite. That's because of his wit, his intelligence, his hard self-reflection and a naturalistic drawing style that nonetheless has a rubbery quality to it that allows for some flights of fancy. Indeed, his style reminds me a bit of Phoebe Gloeckner in terms of both his figure work and the way he blends text and image to create a slightly dreamy whole. This collection of strips mixes in single-panel gags about experiencing life as a young gay man, gently mocking both himself and the scene as a whole, with longer and more introspective stories. There's a rough chronology here as his coming-out story with his mom is toward the beginning, and it is hilarious. The fact that his mom basically browbeats him into coming out while washing dishes is alleviated by the fact that Williams depicts her as glamorous singer Kelly Rowland (with the disclaimer; "May not actually resemble Kelly Rowland.")

Those longer pieces highlight Williams' philosophical take on being gay, quoting Camille Paglia and Jean Genet at length, while still going into great detail about clubbing, cruising, drinking, and having lots of anonymous sex. His comics about dating and the disconnect between many gay men's private and sexual spheres are especially thought-provoking, leading to his account of being in a relationship and the unique joys and heartaches that experience generated. When he has an AIDS scare after a condom broke, it understandably forced him to reevaluate himself and the scene; memorably, he excoriates both for pretending that AIDS was over, slowly shifting a scene of dancers at a club into iconic Keith Haring figures. The comic concludes with the campy yet highly self-analytical strip where a despondent Williams meets his "diva totem", who forces him to confront his shame and self-loathing about his own feminimity.  Williams is careful to note that the lesson to be learned here is not simply self-acceptance, but also "admitting the extent to which I've been complicit in instances of cowardice and disrespect". That's heady stuff for such a young person to have come to grips with, but I think his own sense of humor about himself (the title of the comic comes from a vaguely insulting thing someone said to him once) is what makes that possible. The humorous, philosophical, sexual and quotidian aspects of his life all come into play in this comic, as Williams ultimately rejects the sort of cordoning off of one's life that many in the scene choose to do.  I hope he continues to juggle all of these concerns in his future work.

In Situ #2, by Sophie Yanow.  Yanow is one of my favorite new autobio artists, thanks to her interesting stylistic choices, poetic narrative choices and her intense desire to merge personal and political concerns. Generally holding to a six-panel grid, Yanow often fractures her narratives by eliding words, stretching words out over time and space through panel-to-panel transitions, crossing out words and making clear scratch-outs in her art, and numerous other tricks to indicate the flow of consciousness and a genuine sense of inner conflict. Living away from her beloved home city of Oakland in its hour of its greatest political uprising and awareness, Yanow feels guilt for not being there as well as frequent contentment in the equally-bustling and creativity-sparking city of Montreal. There are lighter-hearted moments, of course, especially those that address her sex life and sexual identity. There's one scene where she and a lover are having an inane, drunken conversation where Yanow winds up thinking to herself "Oh my god...really?"; as in all of her strips, Yanow depicts herself wearing glasses that obscure her eyes to distance herself slightly from the reader in the tradition of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. The next strip, where she and her lover are lying in bed listening to Joni Mitchell lyrics, prompts her lover to exclaim "What is this self-made lesbian hell?" Yanow reflects on her health, her feelings of weakness, her battle with depression, her conflicting feelings about being with others, and the politics of wearing a jacket with a Neil Young patch at a doom metal show. Yanow is part John Porcellino, part Gabrielle Bell, and her work is some of the most exciting from the autobio arm of alt-comics today.

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