Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Autobio Minis From Wertz, Park & Ayuyang

This review originally appeared at in 2008.

I love the immediacy of a good autobiographical comic, especially when it feels like something ripped out of an artist's sketchbook. That's certainly the case for the minicomics of Laura Park, Julia Wertz and Rina Ayuyang. All three artists make very different stylistic decisions, but share similar senses of humor and outlooks on life. Their minis avoid simply being standard diary comics or straightforward accounts of their life narratives, and instead focus on the "little nothings" (to quote Lewis Trondheim) in life that make for good gags, jokes and anecdotes.

Julia Wertz is best known by many for her webcomic, The Fart Party. Her art is the rawest and most stripped down of this group, often using stick figures to depict her life. One can sense the burning need she has to express herself in comics form, as even the crudest of her drawings are well designed and expressive. Her understanding of gesture and timing is what makes her strip so effective. The particulars of Wertz's life are no more or less interesting than anyone else's, but she's clearly fully aware of this. Instead of a navel-gazing narrative, Wertz instead concentrates on wringing humor out of every situation. Her tendency to look at life as a series of adventures is contrasted nicely by her cynical, curmudgeonly attitude.

Issue #5 is about a cross-country trip by train that involved meeting up with her boyfriend and seeing many other cartoonists. Wertz's comics have actually gotten funnier and more cutting since that relationship ended, especially since boyfriend-foible comics are an area that several other cartoonists have been mining (Liz Prince comes to mind). What fuels the humor of this issue is the tension between Wertz's misanthropy and genuine desire to reach out and share ideas with like-minded individuals. The jams that Wertz and Park did were fantastic, as both artists seemed to bring out the best in each other. I could see the two of them collaborating on a long-form work with spectacular results.

Issues #6 and 7 detail the agony of moving across country. Wertz is often at her best when she can really go off on a good rant, but the target of her fury is just as likely to be herself as an outside irritant. One critic admired her comics because they "bared all"; on the contrary, I admire them because Wertz edits out events that aren't pertinent to her punchlines. While many of her strips can be found at her website, they're meant to be read on paper and work best as coherent 32-page units.

Most of the material in Laura Park's mini, Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream, can be found on her Flicker page. Many of the pieces there are in sumptuous color, which obviously didn't translate over to this black and white mini-comic. On the other hand, that only highlighted her remarkable and multifaceted skills as a draftsman. This mini has a variety of single-panel strips, gags, sketchbook drawings, short stories, recipes and other ephemera; with all of it revealing much about its author. Even in the fairy tale she starts about a young girl and a garden, the character she draws is an obvious stand-in for herself. Park is comfortable in any number of styles, from realistic and heavily rendered to a more cartoony line.. Her sense of design is what really pops off the page, from her own iconic character to the fonts in her lettering. The word that best describes her work is "playful", both in terms of the way she addresses her subject matter and the way she plays around with the medium. There's something warm and inviting about her line that makes one want to look at more of her drawings, because they create a comforting environment for the reader to visit--even if it's just for a brief time. Park's storytelling ability doesn't get too much of a workout in this mini, but her restraint and understanding of story beats pervades other work of hers I've read.

In Namby Pamby #4, Rina Ayuyang spins stories about her cat, her brother, her TV-watching habits and people she's met into engaging, well-constructed stories. What's interesting about her work is the effortless way she's able to switch tones from story to story. "Cat's Got A New Crush" and "A Secret To Die For" are both light-hearted accounts of specific obsessions. Ayuyang loves writing about such obsessions from a third-person perspective even as she immerses the read in the particulars of her cat's imaginary life or the way Murder, She Wrote episodes are constructed. The scene where she imagines her cat leading a gang and getting into vicious knife fights with rival cat gangs was hilarious.

"The Book of Ruth" is a touching, hilarious tribute to the life of her older brother from her perspective. The twelve panel grid she employs forces her to keep each panel clear and simple while propelling the reader through her brother's life story. While she gets off plenty of jokes at his expense, Ayuyang doesn't spare herself, frequently casting herself in the role of consummate irritant. The sequences where each youngest child reacts with jealousy at the arrival of a new child, only to be taunted by their older siblings as a sort of karmic payback, are cleverly told in an understated manner. From the lighter early stories to the range of emotions exposed in Ruth's story we turn to a thoughtful and meditative anecdote about a man that Ayuyang was friends with, each relating to each other's misery and ennui. It was done with her non-dominant hand for an anthology, but the result saw a striking use of white on black to tell this bleak but ultimately hopeful story. Ayuyang doesn't have Park's chops, but she is able to effectively tell the kind of stories that she wants to relate.

It's interesting that all three artists discuss their lack of self-confidence and self-worth through their comics, but it seems clear to me that they work through this self-doubt every time they commit to creating a page. The proof of their ability, commitment and passion for comics is on every page, even if it's not immediately apparent to them. They've internalized Lynda Barry's dictum not to worry about whether "Is this good? Does this suck?" and instead have faith in the simple act of drawing and writing and where it will take them. These minis have the feel of immediacy and urgency to them, as though the artists simply couldn't wait another second longer to put them together. That's why the work of all three artists bears watching as they continue to develop their voices.

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