Friday, March 30, 2012

Three Flavors of Autobio: McNinch, Mari Naomi, Fawkes

This column looks at three different sets of autobiographical comics. One addresses being in relationships, one addresses being alone, and one addresses being part of a family.

Sleep-Deprived, Not-so-butch, and Sister Spit Tour 2011 Diary, by MariNaomi. Self-described "oversharer" Mari Naomi has made a career of talking about the history of her sex life in terms both moving and witty, and the first two minis here are further examples of the sort of stories found in her book Kiss and Tell. The latter mini is an account of the artist going cross-country with poet Michelle Tea's group of artists, poets, and writers to read and perform excerpts from their work. Being a first-time published author made the experience nerve-wracking but exciting, and her diary of the event was funny in that the trip was entirely sex-free, which is a bit funny considering that sex and sexuality are the dominant concerns in that book. As one might expect from a scribbled road diary, the images here are small, cartoony and frequently sketchy. Mari Naomi makes up for that by adding flourishes like a pair of birds hanging out at the bottom of each page cracking jokes and commenting on the proceedings, as well as other decorative elements. It's an interesting account of the ways that community can form in a short span of time given cramped quarters and intense activity.

Not-so-butch is less a comic than it is a sparsely-illustrated zine, but it's a wonderfully attractive package that is highlighted by MariNaomi's self-deprecating wit. She's a fine raconteur who has a way of framing specific anecdotes in a way that allows for a smooth narrative flow. This zine is about her first couple of attempts at finding a girlfriend after yet another man had broken her heart, and the disastrous results that ensued. The artist describes herself as sexually aggressive with men but shy with women, and the power struggles that resulted were both amusing and predictable. Sleep Deprived is one of her longer "Kiss and Tell" comics, but it's as much about her battles with bedbugs as it is a troublesome relationship. To put a finer point on it, the parasitic insects (literally sucking her blood away) were not unlike the emotionally parasitic man she wound up with. Naturally, when she finally fully committed herself to the relationship, he grew distant and eventually broke up with him. This was obviously an unsettling experience and the result is an unsettling zine, as she relates the lack of sleep from fearing bug bites is what eventually drove her batty.

You Don't Get There From Here #21, by Carrie McNinch. McNinch has been doing autobiographical zines and comics for something like two decades now, and the current incarnation of her autobio takes the form of daily, three to four panel strips. With no context, he plops the reader straight into her life and daily rituals. Like Jesse Reklaw's Ten Thousand Things To Do, the act of writing a cartoon diary becomes a kind of therapeutic release where one can discuss one's problems in public without immediate fear of judgment or shame. Such discussion is always in the context of walking a dog, eating Indian food, going for a run in the desert and finding ways to enjoy the small, poetic moments in life. McNinch alludes to a former drinking problem and how it continues to tug at her even now that she doesn't drink; an injury to her shoulder that's been a cause of frustration; her feelings of being depressed, both generalized and because of the change in season. I love her loose, cartoony line and delightful self-caricature, as they are perfect matches for her bracing honesty and unflagging sense of optimism.

Oh No! Children!, Dust and The Terrible Story of Kinyras and Myrrha, by Glynnis Fawkes. Fawkes, among other things, is an archeological illustrator who has spent time at ruins, drawing layers of strata. Her comics are largely autobiographical reflections on being a mother, an artist, a wife and a professional, and how she balances (or doesn't balance) her various demands. Her line is loose and sketchy, emphasizing the hint of line rather than the fullness of line. In that way, she's quite adept at depicting bodies in relation to one another--especially with regard to her and her children. That's especially important because this approach de-emphasizes the cuteness factor of depicting children and instead focuses on actual closeness. With two children at home that she's in charge of, it's clear that she learned the brutal lesson that a second child is not twice as much work, but ten times as much work with fewer respites. Oh No! Children! is funny and knowing, and certainly doesn't spare her children her frequently annoyed stance on their behavior. Her son in particular is a giant handful, constantly looking to push buttons and expand boundaries. He's also hilarious and sweet, even when he's annoying and provoking conflict with his younger sister.

Dust is a series of short stories that focuses on Fawkes' adventures overseas and how important that time is to her, the incredible amount of difficulty she has in finding time to get comics work done, her feelings about her actual work and whether it's worth it, and ruminations she has while cleaning. I admire Fawkes' honesty regarding the direction her life has taken as a mother, and how it's satisfying in some ways and limiting in others. It's obvious that Fawkes is happiest in ancient cities filled with ruins, yet even those cities are less than ideal in many ways, apart from being separated from her family. That restlessness pervades all of her work, and she's not willing to provide easy answers for her readers. Finally, Kinyras and Myrrha is an adaption of a story by Ovid that is especially lurid. Ostensibly a myth about how the myrrh tree was created, it's about a young girl who is only attracted to her father, despite the consequences that forbidden love entails. When she manages to bed him (unbeknownst to him), she demands punishment from the gods, and so she gets turned into a tree as she gives birth to Adonis. Fawkes manages to keep tongue firmly in cheek while relating this story, even as its subject matter is especially salacious and scandalous.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Slice of Life Minis: Knickerbocker, Forsman, De Radigues, Speziani/Latella

This column will address a variety of slice-of-life minis, most of which center around high school and post-college young people.

The End Of The Fucking World Part Two, by Chuck Forsman. This is the second issue of what promises to be one of Forsman's most interesting stories. It's an interesting counterpoint to his friend de Radigues' Moose series in that it's being published serially in minicomics form and being published fairly frequently. The first issue of this series focused on a sociopathic teenage boy who reaches a breaking point and steals his father's car. His girlfriend, whom he views with barely-concealed contempt, is the focus of the second issue. They really living in a teenage version of a post-apocalyptic world as they wind up in a new town, living in a moment-by-moment reality. Her internal monologue is heart-breaking, as she sees herself as the one person who understands and can love the boy. In this twelve-page mini, Forsman really gets at the soul of this girl and how doomed she is, but also gets at the essential youth of her as well. With her hair in her eyes, she's more girl than woman, even as she tries to act tough by calling her waitress a cunt. Forsman's thin line conveys the fragility of their world as well as its grotesque nature.

Moose #5, by Max de Radigues. This mini focuses on a high school kid who is being mercilessly bullied. After a reprieve of a couple of issues, this issue sees the boy, Joe, being forced to return to class to sit right in front of his tormentor. The bully promptly ties a compass to his shoe and jabs Joe in the ass with it, but of course Joe is blamed for disrupting class. It's not unusual for a bullied child to hold his feelings inside but wind up acting out in other ways, and de Radigues gets at the pain of that reality. The Belgian cartoonist definitely carries on in the clear line tradition, with a spare but elegant line that's less fragile than Forsman's but still in the same ball park.

Rust Belt, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker is playing in the same sandbox as Forsman and de Radigues, only his world is a little sweeter and more hopeful. Chad, his big-nosed protagonist with hair over his eyes, is a knucklehead in love with a girl who's out of his league but starting to give him the time of day. His best friend is clearly into him, but he doesn't notice. What lifts this story out of cliche' is the way Knickerbocker uses details. When playing a role-playing video game, he makes sure the princess character is named "Ashley", like the girl he's in love with. Chad also faces bullying on a daily basis but manages to fight back--not that this noticeably improves his life. Knickerbocker's use of more cartoony characters (not unlike Harold Gray in terms of the noses and blank eyes) gives the series a more whimsical, wistful feel than the other two series mentioned above.

By The Slice, by Giulie Speziani and Cecilia Latella. This is a modest effort by a couple of relative newcomers that starts off as one thing and makes a couple of surprising turns. Latella employs a conventional, realistic style that nonetheless has a chance to breathe expressively, especially when the main character, Gwen, gets angry. The story concerns Gwen, fresh out of college and without a job. She applies as a cashier at a pizza joint for an owner who seems to possess the sort of earthy wisdom one would expect in a story like this. Instead of turning into a story about the wacky ups and downs of working in a restaurant, Speziana seizes on some seemingly incidental details about the pizza owner (a crack about gender stories, calling one customer a bitch after she walked out) and turns it into a dilemma for Gwen: should she stay in a job where her boss is openly racist and sexist just to make money, or should she walk away? It's a surprisingly meaty read for something that seemed so lightweight at first, and that misdirection was a clever calculation on the part of Speziani.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Supernatural Minis: Lewis, Bongiovanni, Wiedeman

Time to take a look at three minis that take an offbeat approach to horror and the supernatural.

The Lettuce Girl #2, by Sophia Wiedeman. This is the second part of Wiedeman's take on the story of Rapunzel, or at least a variation thereof. In this issue, we learn how the lettuce girl came to live locked away in a tower by a crone. It gets at the heart of the themes Wiedeman tackles here: the ways in which the desires and weaknesses of parents inevitably extracts a price on their children. A mother-to-be wanted nothing more than to eat lettuce, even if her husband had to steal it. The way in which Wiedeman depicts the ravenousness of the pregnant woman is slightly unsettling if amusing; reason and ethics took a back seat to her craving. Of course, he gets caught by the owner of the garden, who may or may not be an actual witch, and in his cowardice he agrees to offer up his potential daughter to spare his own life. Wiedeman implies that this act permanently destroys his marriage, especially when he offers up the cold comfort of "We can have another."

The girl grows up thinking that the witch is her mother, who visits from time to time to bring her vegetables (only vegetables). The girl is tired of living in the keep and longs to leave, but her "mother" forbids it. The issue ends when the girl encounters a sort of magic serpent looking for its mother. Once again, Wiedeman loops the reader around to absent and bad parenting, where the girl is abused by her adopted mother but still loves her, because it's all she's known. She strains against that relationship, but only leaves when presented with someone who is missing their own mother. What makes this book so interesting is that unlike a modern fairy tale, where the girl is kept apart from her noble parents by a witch, the young parents in this book are far from ideal. Their own greed and fear wind up costing them their child, forcing the reader to ask if they even deserved to have a child in the first place. Wiedeman's art combines a simplicity of form with some nice usage of crosshatching. Her figures are admirably loose and slightly scribbly, giving the whole comic a fluid quality. I'm interested in seeing how unconventional she's going to become in the greater narrative of the story.

The Offering, by Anna Bongiovanni. This creepy tale of witches with a ragged, fragile line reminds me a bit of Julia Gfrorer's Flesh and Bone. It starts with two sisters in a forest, with one excited about going to a gathering of witches in a coven and the other creeped out. When their activity escalates into human sacrifice as to create a hideous demon baby, things take a truly horrific turn. With her light and almost delicate line, Bongiovanni nonetheless expertly evokes fear and disgust in equal measure, with an ending that provides an interesting twist. Just as creepy as the actual bloodshed and witchcraft is seeing the witches freak out about "their baby", a play on hysterical parents in real life that's quite clever. Bongiovanni has been a consistent stand-out in the Good Minnesotan anthology, and this comic represents some of her strongest work to date.

Klagen: A Horror, by Jon Lewis. This smudged, scribbled comic done in pencil and printed on yellow paper feels as much like an artifact retrieved from a dark corner of an occult bookstore as it does a comic. That atmosphere allows Lewis to submerge the reader in a death cult conspiracy that's essentially going about its business and using the objects at hand (i.e., people) to create a creature to act as their servant. Lewis wraps all of this in a mystery/conspiracy theory involving a man looking for his best friend, only to discover that he's been transformed into a "black dog", a man turned into a creature thanks to being seduced by pure nihilism. Lewis undercuts reader expectation by making the protagonist nothing more than a witness; there's nothing he can do against an enemy that's everywhere and that's already won. He escapes from the ritualistic rape by the black dog of the woman he was obsessed with, and why not? The cultists (who speak in white-on-black text found in the hoods that cover their faces) know where to find him and he has no understanding or way of stopping them. In just sixteen pages, Lewis creates a world of fear and dares the reader to engage it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Minicomics Round-Up: Max Young, James T. Stanton

Here are a few genre-related comics from a pair of creators.

Jetpack Shark, by Max Young. This comic is exactly what it sounds like--the exploits of an intelligent shark wearing a jetpack. Young exploits this inherently ridiculous and silly premise in the most violent way possible, satirizing ultraviolent Hollywood blockbusters with gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a climax of an action scene where our protagonist bites the head off of his enemy. Young uses a naturalistic approach that's a bit cluttered at times. There are some panels where background detail detracts from the action at hand, and other panels where the action is unclear. The printing of this mini also looks a bit blurred at times, with some of the lines looking pixelated. I enjoyed the origin story more, partly because the clutter and that naturalistic style made more sense when the only absurd thing in the panel was the shark. This story also looked as though it were hand-lettered, as opposed to the more sterile computerized font used in the first story. I like that Young takes a silly idea and plays it as straight as possible, and I'm curious to see how he refines this idea, or if it's best left as a one-off bit of silliness.

Beast Begat Beast and Stobor, by James T. Stanton. Each of these comics is a concept piece that plays on certain genre conventions and takes them in unusual directions. Stobor imagines our technology as sentient, with the first story featuring the CPUs of cell phones mocking their "slavedrivers" for sending three photos of what they had for lunch. This comic focuses on longing and the desire for material contact. There's an extended piece that's essentially a robot sex toy/sex organ catalog (the two are one and the same), wherein the sexual utility of a part is impossible to understand by a human. The funniest story features a male robot getting off but refusing to cuddle (needing to "defrag in solitude"), but when she protests that he told her he had a "cuddle card installed", he retorted that it was removed so he could afford a piece of hardware for her hardware. The sex and tech puns fly fast and furious in this comic, but the long sex catalog feature drags the comic down. Stanton seemed more pleased with the tech he could draw than actually generating gags.

Beast Begat Beast is a stronger and funnier effort overall. The lead story, "The Sea Serpent Zoning Commission", is an incredibly clever idea: whenever a new sea beast is somehow spawned, the commission has to meet to figure out where it's going to live. The story of how the spawning couple met, the annoyance of the committee for even needing to meet, and most of all the list of "begats" are all funny, culminating in a fantastic gag. Stanton is great at drawing monsters, giving them a slightly cute and comedic edge without skimpy on their more horrific qualities. The silkscreen covers on both comics are also quite striking.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Worthy Fundraising Effort: Sparkplug Comic Books

Sparkplug Comic Books is trying to fund their next three books, which are Katie Skelly's Nurse Nurse, Elijah Brubaker's Reich #9 and Olga Volazova's Golem of Gabirol. Please consider donating to keep Sparkplug going and to fund these very worthy projects.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Autobio Minicomics: Francesca Cassavetti, Nick Tesco, Zack Empire

Time to dip into the minicomics pile; this time around, let's look at a couple of autobio comics.

Panic Attacks by Francesca Cassavetti and Re Members, by Nick Tesco & Francesca Cassavetti. Cassavetti is best known for her scribbly line and her amusing autobio anecdotes. Panic Attacks is a series of loosely-connected stories from early in her childhood. She spent time growing up both in England and France and recounted events both dear and stressful to her. The book turns with an incident where a man nearly grabbed her when she was still a pre-teen but ran away when a door opened above them. That brought out a feeling of panic that was hard for her to shake, especially when she was home alone. Cassavetti has a way of getting at the heart of the tension a child feels when they realize that adults don't understand their fears. What's worse is the sinking feeling that adults aren't interested in listening to what causes a child anxiety. Considering that most children have a strong desire to please, receiving mixed signals as Cassavetti did is a recipe for a lifetime of anxiety. Cassavetti's charming storytelling style is made all the more poignant when she follows a funny anecdote with a more serious one. The gray-scaling in the early stories is distracting and fairly screams out for color, but the lighter tones in the other stories is much more effective.

Re Members was written by Cassavetti's husband, musician Nick Tesco. He was a member of a punk band called The Members that was active from 1977 to 1984, as well as some other bands. Described as "a punk memoir", the comic gets at the heart of the movement that was part angry shout at the establishment, part method of getting laid and getting famous. It opens with Tesco on tour in Atlanta, cheating on his girlfriend in England with a local woman. In what was a living cliche', he was lonely and homesick even as he was fooling around with a group. That anecdote concluded when Tesco learned that Motown legend Eddie Kendricks was in the hotel, and he happened upon him in an elevator. When Kendricks told the disheveled and hung over singer "Man! You look fucked up!", his response was elation as he then proceeded to brag to his bandmates.

With Cassavetti's delightfully scribbly and expressive line acting as a counter-balance to Tesco's more emo moments, the comic then launches into a funny and frequently illuminating history of a "this band could be your life" scenario. What was most fascinating to me was Tesco's brief time spent with J. Walter Negro and Lennie Seeley of Loose Jointz, one of the most underrated 80s funk bands. ("Shoot The Pump" is one of the all-time great jams.) Of course, that relationship ended when J. Walter slept with Tesco's beloved girlfriend, and in a fit of hilarious hypocrisy, he threw a hissy fit at a nearby bar. This mini is just the first four chapters of the larger story, and it ends with an arrest for drunk driving that's not nearly as unpleasant as one would expect. I'm curious to see where the story goes from here, given the way punk fizzled out in the mid-80s.

Jerkface Comics
#1, by Zack Empire. There are all sorts of reasons why this comic shouldn't be any good. It's an autobio comic by a 19 year old guy who frequently writes about his sexual frustration, his frequent masturbation, and the way he wastes time instead of drawing. There are several stories about trying to either think up an idea about a story or how he procrastinates instead of drawing. He lives with his parents and doesn't have a job, and yet still can't muster up the discipline needed to draw. The story is riddled with spelling errors and the art is raw. However, I found myself enjoying nearly every page, and for a single reason: the artist is funny. Beginning with his self-caricature (a sort of anthropomorphic alligator), there's a funny drawing or joke on every page. From the very first page, when his stand-in Jerkface gets into an argument with the narrative caption when it starts insulting him, Zack Empire turns his self-loathing and self-deprecation into non-stop jokes. The best story in the comic is his conflict with his own sentient to-do list, which at first provides him structure, then starts to nag him, then pummels him out of frustration. The artist shows a tremendous amount of potential as a humorist, especially the way he uses exaggeration. There's a frantic, Peter Bagge-style quality to his art, where he builds things up with a slow boil and bludgeons the reader with a whopper of a physical gag. As long as Zack Empire cleans up his work a bit (that's everything from cross-hatching to lettering to editing), he's got an interest career ahead of him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John Porcellino @ Duke, 3/15/12

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be moderating a discussion with the great John Porcellino at Duke University's Perkins Library on Thursday, March 15th, at 7pm. The creator of King-Cat Comics and Stories will discuss his work with me during the discussion, which will be held in the warm and intimate Rare Book Room.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Piling On: Incredible Change-Bots Two

Jeffrey Brown's first Incredible Change-Bots book was a smart-ass but affectionate nod to The Transformers cartoon of the 80s, highlighting the absurd elements of genre fiction in general and playing up its more melodramatic and cliched elements to the hilt. It was amusing but entirely predictable, even when he delved into the sort of minutia more common to this autobio comics. The sequel, also from Top Shelf, takes that initial plot and goes to some strange places with it.All successful genre sequels, as they say, consist of making exactly the same movie over again. In terms of the conflict and plot, that's exactly what Brown does here, and he makes no pretense of hiding that fact. Instead, he throws in the Superman myth as evil Fantasticon Shootertron loses his memory and gets taken in by a kindly couple on a farm. Having his main villain vacillate between cheerful warmth and over-the-top ruthlessness is one of the funnier ideas Brown pursued in this book.

Brown also makes a point of noting that chief Awesomebot Big Rig (the Optimus Prime analog) is kind of an ineffectual blowhard. Indeed, he makes the further assertion that in most genre fiction, both sides employ extreme violence, even as one is labeled good and the other evil. Mot of the robots on both sides are pretty awful in their own right. Even an innocuous character like the golf cart robot Balls (yes, Brown isn't afraid to go for a cheap joke) is annoying in his own way. Everything about this second volume is sharper. The awkward lulls are more pointed and funny, the plot is even more arbitrary and fluid, and the colors are more vivid. The pointless love story in the first book is revived and it becomes even more pointless and funny. In Kyle Baker's book You Are Here, he said that he wanted to put a pretty girl, a fight or a chase scene on every page. For Brown, there's either a comedic bit, a fight or an explosion on every page. Sometimes, there's all three. One gets the sense that Brown's enthusiasm for this book was almost gleeful, given that he had the opportunity to do something farcical and silly, as opposed to his more poetic, weighty autobio work. It seems clear that these sorts of books make his other comics better, because they've only become more ambitious. A book like Incredible Change-Bots Two clearly allows Brown to forestall burnout while treating his audience to an amusing lark that still bears the mark of hard work.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Give The People What They Don't Want: Important Comics Are Bad and The Regular Man

On the back of her collection of strips from the Baltimore City Paper, Dina Kelberman printed this quote from a disgruntled reader: "Please, please, please CANCEL Important Comics by Dina Kelberman. She makes the Family Circus seems creative and entertaining. What was the strip she replaced? Please, don't print her anymore. It's painstakingly pathetic, unartistic and drab." There's a degree to which Kelberman's art functions as provocation (especially in a weekly newspaper), given her minimalist line, her avoidance of conventional narrative, and her focus on the decorative aspects of lettering. That said, I don't think she ever means to deliberately provoke readers or try to do something defiantly anti-art. On the comics page, Kelberman is someone who lives exclusively in her own head, and her comics represent an attempt to communicate that experience.

This might sound like a stretch, but the strip Important Comics Are Bad reminds me of the most is Charles Schulz's Peanuts. That's because every major character in Peanuts functions as a different aspect of Schulz's personality, just as all of Kelberman's dumpy, geometric figures represent the argument she carries on constantly in her own head. At the same time, both Schulz and Kelberman are committed to writing gags. To be sure, Kelberman abandons the more conventional joke/narrative structure of a Schulz on a frequent basis. There's plenty of absurdism to be found in this book and lots of practical jokes on the readers. The best of these is the accompanying CD that contains recordings from the Important Comics podcast, wherein a friend of Kelberman's would try to interpret each week's strip in the most half-hearted manner possible. The comics themselves are about contradictions, the chief one being Kelberman's misanthropy vs her need to be with others. Every other theme of the book is a variation on that, like comically inflated egomania vs a consistent sense of worthlessness, the need to be productive vs the desire to waste time, etc.

Those themes are more pointed in direct in her fabulous collection of her epically strange quasi-monthly four-page minicomic, The Regular Man. The production values for this comic are ridiculously high considering the minimalist nature of her line, but that level of detail is important because of the counter-intuitive way she uses splotches of color. Unlike Important Comics Are Bad, Kelberman starts each issue knowing that she needs to fill up two pages worth of comics. She starts doing this in a fairly conventional manner but gets more ambitious and conceptual as the book continues, with one story interpolating her emotional experiences with a schematic drawing of furniture. Her use of color is almost expressionistic at times, adding emotional tones as well as challenging the reader to see a comics page in a different way. Beyond her techniques and ideas, I just find Kelberman's comics to be hilarious. The mopeyness inherent in navel-gazing auto-bio is duly mocked even as she indulges in same. "Listening" to her main character analogue yell is as funny as Sally Brown yelling in a Peanuts strip. Boredom and self-loathing are transformed into fodder for laughs, and her drawings are frequently surprisingly expressive, even without the addition of color. Kelberman is a unique figure in comics as a provocateur without guile as well as a humorist with surprisingly traditional roots.