Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poetics of the Everyday: John Porcellino and Jason Martin

Jason Martin and John Porcellino are two of my favorite autobiographical cartoonists, in part because of the way both take a  poetic approach in talking about their lives. Martin is more likely to use a traditional narrative approach (much like Harvey Pekar), but there's a thoughtfulness to his stories that goes way beyond the simple and the quotidian. Porcellino is often more poetic in describing small events that have a large impact, or the ways in which interacting with his environment can mask his pain. It's almost comforting to see a new issue by either artist.

Laterborn #8 is Martin's latest comic, a year after the superb issue of Papercutter that he wrote and others illustrated. His own style is much cruder and simpler, but he's quite effective in getting across a wide range of emotions with it. This is a flip-cover comic meant to emulate the way a mixtape or album can have dramatically different tones on different sides. I like this idea because it allows form to shape content. "Side A" of this comic contains slightly more light-hearted stories. "Half-Deaf" is about how being born deaf in his right ear has affected Martin over the years, for good and ill. It's a funny but poignant story that reflects on how losing his hearing altogether would have prevented him from being able to hear music, something that is crucial in his life. "Book Reports" and "Secret Origins: I Want To Eat Pizza" both deal with his zine roots. The former is about a junior high teacher who demanded a lot from his students in terms of book reports, including illustrated covers that wound up looking like zines. The latter story is about Martin's college-era revelation of wanting to do a zine with friends. What I found most interesting about this story is how Martin so thoroughly conflated zine-making with playing music, especially in the sense that he thought of zine-making as strictly a collaborative activity. It was something creative and fun to do with friends at that point, not a solitary pursuit.

"Side B" begins with a dark series of anecdotes titled "It's Not Like He Tied Her Up And Other True Stories".. Essentially, these are stories told by others or overheard about horrible things. A woman who spoke little english asked a security guard for direction and he wound up feeling her up; stunned, she said "thank you", which is both awful and hilarious, as noted by the woman herself at the end of the story. People Martin knows experience, in a real and virulent way, homophobia, racism (in a truly disturbing anecdote), sexism, rape, and the desire to rape. At the end, there's a cringe-inducing story about Martin needing to head to the restroom just as a class video was about to air about date rape."Buffalo Blood" is a story about a visceral memory regarding a beloved Scoutmaster who died before Martin could complete an important initiation ritual, rendering that ritual heart-rending when he finally completed it.

"New Year's Day" is partly about Martin's sense of social anxiety and how a kind word by his friend Dylan Williams instantly negated that feeling. It's a beautiful tribute to Williams, whose enthusiasm and openness to others meant a lot to a number of people. "Lightness" feels like the the heart of this comic, and is typical of what I've read by Martin. Martin is someone who closely examines their feelings and memories in an attempt to come to terms with both, but always retains a sense of hope and optimism. It's not an optimism based on self-deception, but rather the hard-earned wisdom of someone who's been through ups and downs. This story connects a period of unemployment and stress with waiting on the new issue of King-Cat to arrive at his local comic shop. Not only does he get the comic, but the cover matches the part of town he had to travel to in order to get a new job! A sense of place is crucial to Martin and becomes part of his emotional background, often acting as scenery to music that's important to him; this is reflected in the second half of the story. There's a meatiness to Martin's stories that remind me of Pekar, an intellectual and emotional curiosity that's as attuned to the thoughts of others as it is to himself.

King-Cat #73 finds John Porcellino in an intellectually curious and roving state, a sign of becoming more settled both in his new Illinois home as well as his position as a cartoonist and publisher. The darker observations of the recent issues have subsided in favor of the sort of close reading of nature that's frequently been at the heart of his work. "In Search Of The Cuckoo Bird" reveals a lot about the author's life while making life events take a back seat to the obsession of the moment: trying to find out what sort of bird he saw at a park. Being a decent amateur birdwatcher, he was stumped by the brief, blurry glimpse he caught of the bird but managed to see it again later after he finally started wearing eyeglasses. Along the way, we see John P reminisce about one of his ex-wives in relation to his obsession with seeing the cuckoo and then lay next to his new girlfriend, his mind free to wander along paths that weren't tortured. The fact that the story ends in uncertainty is fitting, because this is a process story, both in terms of living his life and trying to identify a bird. There's no certainty regarding relationships or happiness, just as trying to identify a bird with limited expertise and corroborating information is a difficult process. I love his drawings in this story, especially the crude and then increasingly sure-handed attempts at drawing the bird he saw.

The rest of the issue is rather light-hearted. There's a story about sneaking in cats to go see The Blue Lagoon, a story about a cat needing to approve his shoelaces, and a dream involving Porcellino as a monk but still in the very confusing and disorienting comics industry. The dream was as lighthearted as these other stories, but masked some of Porcellino's real concerns: how much to commit to the comics industry as personified in his decision (after some hesitation) to "get his hands dirty" in a situation that had a number of downsides. The dream is a testament to Porcellino's new and steadfast attitude regarding comics--he is determined to make them and determined to be one of those people who gets the work of others read. This story and this issue are both a statement of purpose and a celebration of the small moments and the fact that he has time and the opportunity to focus on the small moments. Those opportunities do not entirely ameliorate stress; indeed, in some situations they exacerbate it. Still, there's a buzz of energy that pervades this comic, stretching from the cover image to his "top 40" to the final gag, an energy that still mostly manifests in quiet, contemplative moments but is present nonetheless.

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