Friday, August 31, 2012

Comics-as-Poetry and Stylized Comics: Badman, Adams, Shrestha

MadInkBeard #1 & #2, by Derik Badman. Badman is an artist who specializes in repurposing previously existing text and images for poetic effect. This is his new (mostly) one-man anthology comic that's a catch-all for his shorter projects. The first issue uses text from Henry David Thoreau's Walden journals juxtaposed against Badman's recreations of comics by a variety of cartoonists, including Charles Schulz, Mike Sekowsky and a variety of other romance comics artists. He did this as part of the "30 Days of Comics" challenge that Allan Haverholm participated in (which I reviewed on 8/20/2012), and the results are understandably mixed given that restriction. His strip on 11/3/2011 was a great one, with the text reading "They will occur with/some essential difference/though at the risk/of endless iteration" and each of the four panels depicting the very outside edge of a house. The last two panels originally come from Schulz, and this is an example of one of Badman's comics working because of the way he was able to match text to image while creating a sort of poetic narrative with the actual images themselves. Things pick up again when he switches to using romance comics art that totally repurposes Thoreau's original text. Badman creates something lively and spirited with his use of spot color, adding hues in an almost abstract manner to create atmosphere and contrast. From there, he switches to near-abstract uses of color, grounded only by the text which suggests fires, breezes and at times extreme close-ups. Badman also includes a page each from Haverholm, Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton, all of whom did their own variations on the challenge. Craghead's drawings on leaves were fascinating, while Moreton's use of smudging and water effects reminded me of some older Craghead comics.

The second issue is all photocomics (what we tend to call "fumetti" in the US even though this term is not quite accurate), including a long essay on the history of the technique and its general lack of favor in the US. Badman tries a variety of approaches here: anchoring the photos with poetic text that tells a vague story, wordless pages that coalesce around types of images, and a visual photo narrative of sorts that dips into abstraction. Of the three approaches, I thought the first was the least interesting. There's a rigidity about the photographic image that for me resists poetic text; it's almost intrusive to see words with these images. I thought his attempts of the second sort were interesting, matching angles, shapes, colors and textures in each photo to form photo patterns. I thought the visual photo narrative was the most interesting, as the reader is led along a leafy path, up a set of stairs and into a dark forest. Here, the concrete and "real" qualities of the photos work in their favor, as the reader is led somewhere that seems to actually exist, until they are confronted with alternating images of pure light and darkness. I wouldn't mind seeing more experiments of this sort from Badman, who certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities of the photo comic, even if it seems clear that he's struggling to discover them himself. As always, Badman's comics fascinate and raise questions about the formal nature of the art.

Period, by Christopher Adams.  Adams is an up-and-comer whose first book is about to debut at SPX, published by the folks over at 2D Cloud. His work is all about stillness, quiet, and everyday experience as a kind of marvel. This comic follows a family as they go about their day, pelting the reader initially with a 4 x 8 panel grid that emphasizes the ways in which our morning routines blend into each other. Adams jumps back and forth in time as memories take over the narrative for extended periods of time and fantasies (like flying on a hammerhead shark) intrude on work rituals. Adams explores the family unit as one that is stultifying in its boredom because of the repetitive nature of its interactions but at the same valuable for that very reason. There's an extended sequence where a father players his young daughter in Wii tennis while her mother looks on that's remarkably true to life in how toddlers interact with their parents. From there, we see vacations, garbage day and other either memorable moments or quotidian rituals burned into memory, before consciousness recedes and we see mountains, just as the comic opened with a seahorse floating around and smoking a cigarette. This comic works because of Adams' chunky line and attention to detail; the reader is drawn to every panel as an event worth watching, even as Adams draws the reader's eye across the page quickly. Adams' work looks even better in color, and I'm hoping that his new book will fall into that category.

Genus #1 & #2, by Anuj Shrestha. This mini reminds me a lot of Adrian Tomine's work, if Tomine wrote conspiracy/mystery/sci-fi stories wherein a significant number of people had had their heads replaced by grotesque, bulbous plant-like organisms. Shrestha's line weight, character design and overall restraint as a storyteller all seem to be in Tomine's balpark, but the Lovecraftian body horror that runs throughout the series is heightened precisely because of that distance and restraint. The first issue is entirely silent, as a man wakes up from a nightmare where a spore organism is vomited out of his mouth to go to a job interview. From there, he begins to notice that a number of people have had their heads replaced, only to be confronted with the dead corpse of a "plant man", as he's discovered with the body a la an Alfred Hitchcock scene out of North By Northwest. At the end of the first issue, he discovers that his nightmare is coming true, as he feels protuberances on the back of his neck. The second issue is driven by narrative captions and a chase scene that feels a bit like The Matrix, as the hero is guided by a mysterious caller on his cell phone on how to escape his pursuers, down to drinking special hot sauce that cures him of the condition, or rather, allows him to control his transformation. I love the way that Shrestha plays around with familiar genre tropes while not alighting upon a particular genre; instead, he keeps the reader as off-balance and bewildered as the protagonist, who must wonder not only what he's up against, but who's helping him and why. This is a wonderfully clever and smartly designed comic that looks like it's headed in some interesting directions.

Coin-Op #4, by Peter & Maria Hoey.The brother and sister combo return with another comic's worth of the surreal and the mundane with a crisp, beautiful line and rich sense of color. It's no surprise that one of their strips was printed in an issue of Blab!, given that that publication is well-known as the intersection between the art world and the comics world. Once again, the stories are a mix of modern and postmodern, with an art deco feel representing the former and a fractured storytelling sensibility representing the latter. The highlights of this issue include "An Occurrence at Pont Neuf Bridge", a story that playfully riffs on the Hoey's own cinematic tendencies by providing three layers of storytelling. First, there's the wide-angle shot of a director screaming at a runaway actor to get back. Second is the highly cinematic series of small panels in the middle of the page which emphasize both motion and the actor's own dreamy, dazed narration. Finally, there's a series of single-page panels emphasizing particular story elements from classic films, abstracting a motion picture down to a few static elements. It's a funny story both about the obsessiveness of directors and the feeling of detachment the actor feels from reality--fueled in part by being in a movie.

Going back to the art deco/Max Fleischer feel are "Valse Mecanique" and the latest installment from "Saltz and Pepz". The former reminds me a bit of Metropolis, given the robot society and how it works within an oppressive government, although this strip is more about creativity in such environs. The latter story's anthropomorphic dogs once again get in trouble with the law, this time over a Thelonius Monk record. Naturally, this leads them to travel back in time to meet Monk himself and steal a wallet from an associate of the jazz musician's. It also wouldn't be an issue of Coin-Op if there wasn't at least one story with fractured storytelling,as "The Slippery Lobster" sees the Hoey's use a 4 x 3 panel grid both as a single image and as a series of panels telling a propulsive story. This story is about motion coming in a number of different directions: left to right, right to left, upper left to lower right, upper right to lower left. That motion is given real stakes when boats threaten to run into each other and a lobster fisherman eventually loses his catch. It's a tremendously clever, witty comic that uses formal innovations to tell a very simple story, incorporating both movement and simultaneity into a page that makes it static and dynamic at the same time, depending on how the reader approaches it. This is a fine showcase for two illustrators who are also top-notch cartoonists.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Slice of Life Minis from MK Reed, Minty Lewis and Liz Baillie

This article was originally published at in 2007.
* ***
Liz Baillie, MK Reed and Minty Lewis are three of my favorite minicomics artists, and the sort of stories they tell all tend to focus on relationships, daily struggles and personal dramas. However, each artist explores these slice-of-life stories in radically different ways. They differ not just in terms of storytelling choices and styles, but the kind of characters they seem most interested.

Lewis draws anthropomorphic fruit, dogs and cats. There's a deadpan tone to her stories that's aided by her amusing visual storytelling style. The inherent weirdness of animals (and they are animals, eating cat food and using kitty litter) doing absurd things like attending "Craftstivals" (an obvious take-off on comics fests) is muted by the low-key tone Lewis employs. PS Comics 4, like many of her comics, is about codependent and occasionally emotionally abusive relationships. In this issue, a self-absorbed dog who is obsessed with selling his cheese cozies at a "Craftstival" alternately ignores and berates his friend a cat, who is intensely loyal to him. The way Lewis plays up the fussiness and hubris of the dog (who is a huge failure at the festival) is balanced by the fact that the cat is indeed kind of dense. The end of the story redeems both characters in a series of delicately portrayed moments, including an almost-apology from the dog. Secret Acres will be publishing a collection of Lewis' quirky, appealing work next year. Her quiet wit and the way she meshes it so well with her stylistic choices reminds me a bit of Jason, though their themes and interests are otherwise very different.

MK Reed is one of my favorite writers in comics, but I'm also impressed by the way her art is becoming more expressive. In the second issue of her mini-comic series Cross Country, Reed turns in what may be the single best story of her career. The story follows Ben and Greg as they travel the country as part of a promotional tour for the Wal-Mart style stores that Greg's family owns. Ben hates Greg's overgrown frat boy-ways but tolerates it (while hating himself) because of the money, the experience and to some degree, his own natural self-loathing. This issue focuses on Ben visiting a college ex named Julia, and it's obvious that their break-up traumatized him. The way Reed captures the awkwardness and tension of their reunion through gesture and small talk is painfully evocative. Ben's own flashbacks and creepy dream sequences (embracing Julia while encircling snakes start biting him) add to the issue's emotional resonance.

Reed's ability to capture a particular time and place for young people is on further display in her collection of one-panel strips, I Will Feast On Your Whore Heart.. The actual strip, with each panel based on a single, pre-selected theme can be read in its entirety on the web. It details little moments from a relationship of "two hipsters from Brooklyn", eventually forming an emotional narrative of sorts. Like Cross Country, the characters have unfulfilled ambitions as artists and writers and behave in self-destructive ways. However, there's an undercurrent of pervasive hope and energy here as well, even as the boyfriend has to deal with his girlfriend's heavy drinking and thin-skin about her writing. As always, the highlight of Reed's comics is her snappy and witty dialogue.

Liz Baillie excels at depicting a certain kind of urban youth culture in her My Brain Hurts series. Issues 8 and 9 did a lot to advance the story's plot, as Joey (a gay teen who just got out of the hospital) finally learns exactly who savagely beat him and has a blow-out with his father, running away from home. His best friend Kate reaches a sort of understanding with the ex-skinhead who was present at Joey's beating, and he's clearly trying to do penance in the form of community service at a gay & lesbian rights center. What I like most about these comics is the way Baillie steers her characters into and out of trouble. Just when the characters seem to have miraculously turned a corner, their own self-destructive tendencies and teenaged short-sightedness leads them to disastrously bad decisions. Baillie's art grows more expressive with every issue, and I was especially impressed with her use of body language during the intense showdown between Joey and his father. Baillie captures the hopes, fears and dreams of a particular youth subset (queer/punk/outsiders in New York) with a great deal of verisimilitude, making every character sympathetic in their own way. Everyone in this comic is broken in one way or another, and Baillie lovingly depicts them all without judgment. Her work reminds me a bit of Terry LaBan's early Unsupervised Existence comics, both in terms of themes and the paces she puts her characters through.

Baillie's 8-page mini Layover was done in her sketchbook during an insanely long layover on her way to her brother's wedding. It's the rare autobiographical comic from her, and I loved the manic energy she poured into each panel. The personal details were touching but wisely only hinted at, like why this wedding was such an unusual event for her brother and the playful relationship she has with her husband. Baillie would excel in the daily diary strip format if she ever chose to do that for any extended length of time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Minicomics Round-Up: Stanton, Rae-Grant/Winslow-Yost, Kyle, Lee, Five True Fans, Bird

Gnartoons #1, by James T. Stanton.Stanton is great at drawing monsters, robots and monster-robot hybrids. He then accentuates these highly detailed, almost manic drawings with bright, lurid colors that almost overpower the reader before one adjusts. That's certainly true of the lead story in this one-man anthology, "Subterfuge", where a pet robot and its owner are ambushed by a huge network of threatening machines. Stanton can stop on a dime and go back to black & white for a story about an aggrieved classroom pet being accosted by a band of crazed kids, emphasizing the barbaric and grotesque nature of children who are let loose in packs without adult supervision. Stanton then pauses to consider his own obsession with drawing monsters, wondering if it's something he gets out of his head or if that obsession is leading somewhere darker, all on a cleverly-designed page designed to keep the reader off-balance with triangular panels and sickly colors. Stanton really throws the kitchen sink at the reader in this sampler, using highly realistic drawings in one disgusting strip about San Francisco and varying his color schemes in a more poetic strip. Stanton has the potential to be a major talent, and these minicomics offerings are an interesting way for him to warm up in public.

Steel Sterling, by Gabriel Winslow-Yost and Michael Rae-Grant. This is the first comic by this writer-artist duo, and it's an impressive debut. Riffing on Charles Biro's Golden Age creation, Steel Sterling is a lab-created hero who goes on a psychedelic spreed of mayhem. There are three different operating levels in this comic. First, there's the constant, kinetic, left-to-right ass-kicking of the protagonist, who wades through ninjas, robots, grid-covered rooms, strange animals, axe-handed mustachioed-men sitting on toilets and other such nonsense, all in lurid, day-glo colors. Second, there's the earnest narrative captions that follow him around, commenting on his fights, offering advice and evaluating the evil of his opponents. Finally, there's the static, languid scenes of arch-foe the Black Knight (done in green as a counterpoint to the preponderance of red found in this comic), who counter-intuitively gets the center grid on every single page. This is counter-intuitive because as Frank Santoro would tell us, the center grid is where the eye goes to first, looking to balance the other figures. By inserting a very slow-moving narrative as the center of our attention on every single page, GWY and MRG subvert both reader expectations and the implied narrative of the story, telling the reader that the hyper-violent adventures of the hero are less important than this green-lined figure eating breakfast. This helps set up the final-page gag while foreshadowing the treadmill nature of Steel Sterling's mission. This is definitely a modern take on Golden Age tropes, as the authors seem to borrow as much from Michael DeForge as they do from Biro or even iconoclasts like Fletcher Hanks. I'd be fascinated to see what this pair of artists comes up with next.

Bird Brain Comix #1, by Bird. The otherwise anonymous Bird's comic is the first I've seen from Tom Hart's Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, Fl. It's the first comic of any kind I've received from my home state, which is not exactly a hotbed for alt-comics talent. In a spectacular explosion of self-deprecation, the artist notes (on the cover, no less) that this comic is "overly designed, inarticulate and poorly drawn". Of course, this issue is none of those things, even if it's obvious that this is an early effort in the artist's career. Instead, this comic owes a lot to long-form improv, with the added advantage that because Bird's not explicitly going for laughs in every strip, certain comics that stand on their own as serious statements are later revisited for both tragic and humorous results. Of course, in this comic, the "jokes" come at the expense of downtrodden characters victimized by unfeeling teenagers out to get wasted and violent. There's a matter-of-factness running through this comic as a robot separated from his body and the roadside assistance of Sasquatch are treated fairly nonchalantly. The one thing that drove me crazy about this comic was Bird's insistence on using a thin line and leaving a lot of white space without spotting a lot of blacks or varying his line thickness.  He also winds up relying too much on effects like zip-a-tone to fill in some of those big white spaces, and the effect is a greyish, unattractive page. Still, there's an interesting mind at work here, one that just needs to get back to the drawing board and continue to experiment.

Them's The Breaks, Kid., by Cassie J. Sneider, MariNaomi, Ric Carrasquillo and Tessa Brunton. This anthology is by the Five True Fans collective, and the theme of this one is essentially misfortune. This is a mix of comics and illustrated essays, most of which are quite personal. The cover is hand-stamped with an image from each story, which is one of those crazy yet endearing things about minicomic-makers insane work ethic. Sneider's "Bad Decisions" is a sound choice for lead-off story, given that it's grim but hilarious. The grim part regards Sneider's life-long near-poverty, meaning she's rarely had access to things like health or dental insurance. There's a bit where she's left to wait in a dentist's office with a painfully bad tooth for hours, until she decided to steal something from the exam room for every ten minutes she was kept waiting. That led her to possess some novacaine, which led her to ingest it into her face because she thought it might arrest an allergic reaction to antibiotics. It's a horrifying but undeniably hilarious image.

MariNaomi kicks in yet another variation on a story she's written about an ex-boyfriend who disappeared years earlier, this time including an epilogue about seeing his best friend as a homeless person and trying to ignore him as he now seemed clearly out of his mind. This set up the tragic end of the man killing himself by throwing himself in front of a subway car. The essence of her section dwells on being haunted by once-powerful connections suddenly disappearing forever, an event that has a powerful effect on one's memories of the original events. Carrasquillo's cartoony line focuses on the ways in which marketing is subverted by children, by how faux-humble introductions to one's heroes masks seething jealousy, and a gag where appealing to the true force behind the water bill is an imposing process. His contributions were well-drawn and cute, but seemed radically out of step with the rest of the artists in the book; if anything, they felt slight compared to them.

My favorite part of the book was by Tessa Brunton, who did a number of crisply-drawn comics about her battle not only with chronic fatigue syndrome, but the emotions and self-hatred that often accompanies a disease whose main symptom involves an inability to summon the energy needed to deal with a standard person's day. There's one powerful strip about her desire to give into her bitterness, her anger, her desperation and her hatred of her own body. Then she owns up to the real reason why she tries to stay positive: because "bitterness is repellent" and "I don't want them [her friends and family] to all go away." That's a powerful statement, but Brunton also notes that simply drawing these feelings and printing them is a kind of emotional therapy, one that certainly draws other people to give her sympathy but mostly makes her understand that others do care. Brunton's lack of relentless cheerfulness about her condition is refreshing and funny, giving her license to make some pretty dark jokes. (When an internet support group scolds her and tells her she can do whatever you put your mind to, she replies "Indeed I can" as she holds a gun to her head.) Between this suite of strips and her comic Passage, Brunton's beautiful and light penciling style and sharply sardonic wit have made her a talent to watch.

Distance Movers #1 and #2, by Patrick Kyle. This is straight-ahead surrealism, as Kyle puts together a comic that for all intents and purposes is a genre science fiction comic, yet doesn't conform to standard fantasy tropes. Instead, Kyle's drawings (all printed in color ink, one color at a time) are rubbery, highly simple but stylized and mostly static on the page. The sort of lumpy surrealism that flows from the Marc Bell tradition in Canada is present in this work, though this story of Mr. Earth visiting a backwoods village and later taking one of its denizens to a hyper-advanced big city zips readers through an increasingly complex plot that's more like Matthew Thurber. There are some wonderfully abstract sequences of pure, non-narrative shapes that represent a sort of virtual art gallery that fit snugly in with the rich and warm visuals in the rest of the comic, as the color printing (done on the highly versatile Risograph) simply grabs the eye and doesn't let go. Kyle combines simplicity and clarity of line with complexity of design and narrative to creative a beautiful new series.

Temple, by Jun K. Lee. This is a quiet, poetic story about a man finding god in another man's ear and a sort of phenomenology of what this experience is like. Lee's sparse, thin line reminds me a bit of Souther Salazar's delicate, almost fragile images, and Lee's equally delicate lettering has a strong visual impact as well. The lettering is just a little scrawled--it's entirely legible, but it's small and requires a bit of concentration to parse it. That actually folds in nicely with the increasingly strange images we're presented with in this 8-page comic, as the narrator focuses his attention on a small dot that provides a direct line between him and god. The end of the comic raises the issue of who is entitled to see god and for how long, especially since the narrator steals the ear to keep for himself. This brief story doesn't wear out its welcome and is remarkably clear and coherent, given the strange places it goes to.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Leslie Stein, Blaise Larmee, Katie Skelly

 This article was originally published in 2008 at

Eye of the Majestic Creature #3, by Leslie Stein. Stein's unique blend of misanthropy, anthropomorphic fantasy elements and search for connections returns with a new issue. #3 goes in a slightly different direction, as "Larry" (Stein's likely stand-in character) leaves her isolated cabin to visit her family in Chicago. This 40-page comic is quite rich and dense, both in terms of story and art. As always, the visuals in her comics are a treat. The fact that it's printed on cheap, thin newsprint somehow enhances the tactile experience of reading this comic. As in prior issues, she employs a rubbery thin-line style that's given depth by her painstakingly intense use of stippling.

This issue is probably her most focused and sustained single narrative. There are fewer random digressions and surreal moments, but the story is no less odd. The plot is simple: Larry goes to stay with her mother, hangs out with old friends for a night of drunkenness that leads to a blackout, then has dinner with her brother, father, and his assorted exes. Then she returns home to her best friend, the anthropomorphic guitar Marshy. What's interesting about the story is the way Larry lives a little less in her own head than in past stories. The comic has always been about the tension between misanthropy & alienation and the desperate need to connect. This issue feels a bit like Larry is rewinding to a past identity or identities and seeing how they fit. The result carries an evocative sense of verisimilitude in its craziness. It reminds me a bit of certain issues of Hate, as we're thrust straight into someone else's family drama and pub crawl. The latter sequence is one of the most entertaining I've ever read. I love the way that the button eyes she employs for her characters dilate as they get drunker and drunker. The page where Larry approaches her blackout is cleverly composed, as the formerly neatly-aligned panels get smaller and tumble down the page and her figures get more and more sketchy (in every sense of the word). The story's last page reiterates Larry's essential struggle: the need to connect against the exhaustion she feels when she gets home...and the exhilaration she feels when she's alone again.

Stein's work is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) charming and grotesque, and I was especially impressed by her character design and characterization in this issue. There is an issue-to-issue narrative of sorts, albeit a thin one, and I'm curious to see how long she intends to continue this particular project and where she sees it going. Her high level of craft and care, combined with her unique sense of humor, makes reading each issue an increasingly rewarding experience.

Nurse Nurse #2, by Katie Skelly. The clever Skelly really starts to bring her psychedelic sci-fi story to full life in this second issue. Skelly shows a confidence in using the visuals to carry the narrative that wasn't quite there in issue #1, and the result is a pleasantly demented story. Our heroine, the sexy nurse Gemma, arrives on Venus only to find a man attacked by a cloud of butterflies, a mysterious black goo and the surprising sight of two of her colleagues making out with each other. Skelly really stands out here with a hallucinogenic sequence of one patient, a free-flowing & loopy series of drawings that coalesce nicely with her expressive character design. I like the fact that this is a science-fiction story that draws from very few conventional sci-fi sources, especially in terms of the look of the story. As always, Skelly writes funny, blunt dialogue to go along with her rapidly-developing sense of motion and composition. I'm looking forward to the eventual collection of this mini-series.

Untitled, by Blaise Larmee. This is a 12-page comic printed on thick cardstock, with a mysterious, evocative narrative about family and tragedy. Jumping back and forth in time, Larmee tells a story of a teenaged boy and his two sisters. Working with light, pastel tones, Larmee uses color to evoke different levels of memory, fading panels in and out as though he were connecting them to specific memories. A brother and sister must deal with a phone call out of the blue telling them that their parents have died, while a third sister is in the hospital with a toy elephant that serves as an emotional anchor for her. The end of the story flashes ahead to the brother, Birch, thinking about his past and literally walking out of the present into the past, taking his youngest sister out of the hospital as she rides out on her elephant, the hospital room flooding. There's a sense that the whole sequence, the whole story is about regret and connections lost. It's a story that demands multiple readings to allow the visual cues Larmee uses to really wash over the reader.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Minicomics Round-Up: Willberg, Vasile, Shiveley, Stiner, White, Cass, Gustavson/Peck

Trackrabbit #5, by Geoff Vasile. Jesse Reklaw has long listed this series as one of his favorites, and this crazy first issue that I read does not disappoint. Subtitled "Guy and Kylie's Tiny Dinosaurs", it posits a slightly different America where the nightmarish idea of Sarah Palin as president has come to pass, forcing a geneticist named Guy out of a job. Guy has a bone-dry sense of humor and a sense of ethics that is gray at best, making his new job as head of a home for developmentally disabled adults all the more hilarious a match. Paired up with a hippie caretaker named Kylie, his main conflict in the issue is to come up with a way of deflecting the hatred the residents of the home aim at him after he puts their pet dog outside, leading to its death at the hands of a couple of deranged teenaged kids. Guy's background as a geneticist mixed, his access to a lab and the residents' need for pets inspires him to create the titular tiny dinosaurs, which the residents name things like "Batman", "Santa Claus" and "Paul Bunyan". Vasile's clear line and lack of fussiness in designing his pages allows him to put the pieces he builds into play with some darkly comic results. For example, the scene where the residents take the dinosaurs (which are incredibly cute, yet obviously dangerous) out for a walk results in one dinosaur eating a cloth flower off of a little girl's dress, a triceratops chasing a panicked dog, and a pteranodon munching on someone's kite.

When Guy finally has to get rid of the dinosaurs, his solution (breeding a flesh-hungry mini-T-Rex) is as demented as it is brilliant, though this leads to his eventual exit from the home. In Vasile's world, life and death come at a pretty cheap price, as does loyalty, considering that Guy winds up being forced to work for the government in order to breed more tiny dinosaurs for military purposes. Just as cold is Guy's dismissal of the highly deluded Kylie, who had fallen in love with the highly unavailable Guy (as he hints: "Don't ask, don't tell") and is brushed aside. The essence of Vasile's work is its light-hearted nature, even when it touches on violence and morally questionable acts. None of the characters in the book are meant to be especially likeable or easy to identify with, but that constant deflection of audience identification is what gives this book its comedic charge. I wasn't crazy about Vasile's slightly bland character design, but I suspect that choice was made in part to point the reader toward the real stars of the issue in terms of pure drawing: the dinosaurs. They were just exquisitely drawn and a constant source of both action and sight gagsin a comic whose humor otherwise was either dry bon mots from Guy or else a broad send-up of crunchy-types in Kyle.

A Guide To Injury Prevention For Cartoonists, by Kriota Willberg. Willberg is a professional massage therapist as well as an artist and teacher. This 56-page mini is frankly a public service for all cartoonists, given the way that it not only addresses all of the ways in which cartooning is not only debilitating because it's a sedentary activity, it's harmful because it can encourage poor posture and muscle damage. On top of that, Willberg provides a battery of stretches and muscle-strengthening exercises designed specifically for cartoonists and even provides a couple of sample routines that artists might follow. The mini is obviously copiously illustrated with her own clean-line cartoons, many of which are quite funny. That's especially true of the running motif of a cartoonist working til her arm falls off. Even as a non-cartoonist, there were bits of the mini that made me check my posture and how I stretched my muscles; she notes that improper care of one's muscles can literally shrink a person down as muscles shrink. I'd especially recommend this mini to young artists who are just starting to develop their work habits that will no doubt follow them for life. They may well be less likely to listen to pain or go to doctors, so the advice given in this comic could be quite important for a long time. Willberg's key point to cartoonists is to think of themselves as athletes and to train as athletes, given that they are involved in a very specific kind of intense physical activity on a daily basis. That's a simple but effective technique in getting artists (many of whom lead very interior lives) to think of their bodies before they start thinking about their pages.

March 29, 1912, by Jordan Shiveley. The date is the giveaway on this comic: it's about the end of the ill-fated Robert Scott expedition in the Antarctic. It's quite literally about the end, as Shiveley provides clues about the desperation of the four men in this crew: the cans of food were all eaten, the bones of whatever small animals they could capture are long picked-over, and the inadequate tents reveal that most of the party is dead. The last member (presumably Scott himself) desperately trudges out into the snow before keeling over, as the unforgiving night falls on him, only to reveal the haunting beauty of the aurora australis. This is a slight yet beautiful-looking little comic, done in landscape to accentuate the hugeness and hopelessness of Scott's quest.

Underwater Crystal Zone, by Daniel Thing Stiner. This is a small collection of playfully psychedelic comics originally published on the web whose look is somewhere between Skip Williamson and Fort Thunder. That is, the figures in this book are clearly designed if somewhat loopy-looking, with lots of long and exaggerated limbs and bizarre character designs, but the comic itself is very much an exploration of environment for its own sake. The taste that we get in this mini features a lot of clean and attractively-designed characters going about their business: finding underwater gems, playing music, building "reindeer machiens", and interacting with Mayan gods from the past/future. The comic feels more like a variation on a theme than something truly original, but that variation is still enjoyable.

The Index #1, by Caitlin Cass. Cass, best known for her Great Moments In Western Civilization Postal Consituent, takes a stab at long-form narrative with this first issue. There are certainly traces of her Great Books-inspired series to be found here in the story of two people whose pathology is that there's nothing wrong with them. Susan's totally bland life devoid of conflict was only given comfort thanks to buying several thousand blank index cards; for her, they represented the hopes and struggles of everyone who had hopes and struggles--she could project the lives of others on them. Her ex-grad school boyfriend John was crippled with the inability to finish any endeavor, getting 75 pages into his dissertation before he realized he had no thesis, and so he set out to fill up the cards. That's where the issue ends, setting up a non-conflict conflict for two passive-aggressive individuals who might well have thrived if they simply had a conflict that needed to be overcome and resolved to completion. The couple is essentially reduced to the philosopher's dream of living a life of the mind, but neither has anything to say or anything to think, until their own conflict begins. It never even occurred to them to create their own chaos as a way of alleviating boredom until John felt compelled to do so. Cass' line continues to improve, which is crucial given the way she relies so much on facial expressions in this comic. She still has a way to go to truly refine her line to the point where its crispness would be a perfect match for her dry, refined storytelling tendencies, but she's getting there. I'll be curious to see just how far she takes this series.

Territory, by Andrew White.White, an artist whose work I know through working with Brian John Mitchell's Silber comics, drew this mini working with Frank Santoro's comics correspondence course, and White credits Santoro as the editor. It's got Santoro's influence all over it mainly through the way White uses color (and color contrasts in particular) to drive both the story narrative and emotional narrative. This 16-page story is very simple but also completely enigmatic: a young man goes off to the woods under false pretenses, leaving behind his partner. He's there to play an unspecified strategy game against an unseen opponent, something he keeps hidden from his partner for unknown reasons. The comic is told using a time-fractured scheme, something that is only revealed with the appearance of a beard on his chin. Blue in the story represents the tether he has with his partner; her scenes are done entirely in blue and he's colored in blue when he's talking to her on the phone. Red represents the game, fire, danger and alienation. Yellow is a neutral color here, and the hidden connector to the sight of the forest as it actually might look, since yellow and blue combined make green. The title of the book refers to territory won and lost during and because of the game, as he makes a phone call to her in a panel where the phone keypad looks like the game board. The man, talking out loud to his unknown opponent, at one point understands that his mere appearance there was part of a larger game that he played into in order to try to make some kind of sense out of his life. White leaves it vague as to whether he is able to truly leave the game and go back to his partner, or if the moves he's made have trapped him forever.

Mogman, Prologue and Chapter 1-3, by Henry Gustavson and Tyler Peck. This is a very odd comic that flirts with horror but instead is simply enigmatic and strange. It follows a man with a disfigured face who lives in an abandoned factory with a Frankenstein doll that talks to him and what he does with his night. Early on, the reader's perspective is that of a new security guard at the factory, who is frightened by the monstrous presence of the man before realizing and understanding that while enigmatic, he seems essentially harmless. After the guard goes away, the man and the doll have an extended argument, capped by the man going out for a walk and seeing what sort of reactions he might get. There's a funny scene where he silently walks up to a woman outside her house, ignores her questions and then simply says "Do you know what it feels like to die?" before she goes back into her house.  Later, he admonishes himself for saying something so dumb--the monster having second thoughts. The third issue ends with him being assaulted and left on the ground by a homeless man, who steals the doll. This is a slowly unfolding comic that is extremely heavy on atmosphere, shadows, wrinkles, and thick lines in general. The artists aren't afraid to go off on long, strange visual tangents, like the man staring at his hand and causing it to break up into first a cubist form and then an abstract one. The artists list Bernie Wrightson as an influence and one can see them try to create an almost Gothic atmosphere for a story that otherwise feels quite modern and even quotidian, despite its strange trappings. At the same time, each issue does significantly advance the story, even if the story itself still seems rather shapeless. I have no idea where this is going, which in itself is intriguing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Another Worthy Kickstarter: The Projects

With a week left to go, I wanted to make mention of an extraordinary kickstarter called The Projects, described as an "experimental art + comics festival in Portland." The brainchild of Maria Sputnik, Dunja Jankovic, Jason Leivian and Jason T. Miles, it's modeled after certain European festivals that value creativity over commerce. It will have panels, performances and collaborative projects aimed at erasing the divide between artist and audience, a line often created by commerce. The money they are trying to raise will go toward defraying the cost of flying in several of the guests as well as supplies. Please consider donating to this unique experiment.

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.

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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Minicomics Round-Up: Fisher, Young, Gullett, Viola

Time for a look at a variety of domestic minicomics that have come my way...

3-D Pete's Star Babe Invasion Comics #3, by Mike Fisher. This fanzine devoted to b-movies and the women who starred in them doesn't overstate the value of it subject matter nor is its devotion ironic. Fisher simply likes the sheer entertainment value of vintage b-movies and the beautiful women who starred in them, and writes clever and crisply drawn comics that celebrate this fact. "Queen of Outer Space is King of the B-Movies" is a tremendous appreciation of the awful titular film, as Fisher shares weird factoids about the movie (including Zsa Zsa Gabor's role in the film as a rebel). He correctly calls out the male roles in the film as being painfully stereotypical, but it's his sharp use of a boldly-defined line and evocative figures that make reading his comics a real pleasure. Fisher's own thoughts on fandom are equally cheerful, as the actor Marc Singer made him feel warm and welcome at a convention, even if Fisher's encounter with him was a bit weird. Anyone interested in the subject matter will delight in Fisher's observations and drawings.

Blacked Out #1, by Max Young. Young is the king of high-concept minicomics ideas. His last comic, Jetpack Shark, has an appeal that is self-explanatory. This comic is about a slightly douchey college kid prone to blackout drinking binges who learns that drinking alcohol gives him superpowers. Recruited by a grizzled man at a bar whose alcohol-based powers give him the ability to control smoke, the issue ends with the kid ready to be trained in how to use his powers in order to fight some unnamed menace. Young's art is fairly naturalistic with the odd tic of elongating his heads into "long faces", but it's clean and packed with details. The idea of a society of super-powered drunks is a very funny one, and Young milks the concept for all its worth. The comic is funny despite the fact that virtually every character is fratty and obnoxious, but then that's exactly the sort of culture that's going to produce young, super-powered drunks. I'll be curious to see how far he's going to take this story.

Air Ghost Illustrated #1 by Jim Gullett.  This is a continuation of the Gary Panter-influenced story that appeared in a recent issue of the anthology Candy or Medicine.Gullett's lightning-bolt headed, big-toothed character post-apocalpytic bounty hunter Ziff feels like a more stylized version of Panter's Jimbo character, though Gullett's overall visual approach is much cleaner and more straightforward than Panter's. In other words, Gullett may have taken inspiration from a certain kind of comics storytelling, but he fuses it with more conventional kind of genre narrative. Still, this book is interesting because of the intensity and detail of Gullett's drawings, which overpower the reader without sacrificing readability or flow. The story, such as it is, emphasizes action and conflict: the bounty hunter gets captured by a vengeance-seeking lizard man and gets back at him using a vital piece of technology. There's no question that this is a great-looking minicomic that, like the other comics examined in this column, are not ground-breaking or innovative but rather represent successful and skilled iterations of older formulas.

Herman the Manatee Has Had Enough (Volume 5), by Jason Viola. As Viola prepares to wind up this strip that's gone to some unexpected places considering that its premise involves the title character getting hit in the head repeatedly by boats, this latest volume features some of his sharpest cartooning and best gags. There's an extended riff about robbing baby seahorses from a seahorse "gated community" that has lines like "You know, reef today is ten times stronger than when we were kids". Rather than bogging down in extended continuity strips, Viola balances basic gags with shorter, punchier stories that land a lot of hits, mixing goofy gags with existential angst. While many of Viola's strips in this series haven't landed successful jokes, it's been a strong proving ground for him in producing clear, strong art that ably supports his premise and an opportunity to gain a certain rhythm as a cartoonist. There's no question that he's a much better cartoonist now than he was when he started the strip.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Fox Bunny Funny

This article was originally written in 2006 and posted at
One of my favorite finds of SPX was by an artist I was only a bit familiar with: Andy Hartzell. Meeting him at the Global Hobo table, I was immediately astounded by the intricacy and stark beauty of Fox Bunny Funny. The first thing one notices about it is how elaborate its packaging is. This work is actually three separate minicomics, held in a silkscreened, pressboard slipcover. The book's design reflects its theme: identity and how it's created. With leather straps tying the book together, the book is a beautiful art object.

Now, there are certainly a lot of minis where the author spends most of their effort on the cover and not enough on the actual narrative. This is not the case here. Hartzell makes the most of the format to create a story that is alternately hilarious and horrifying, manipulating familiar images and taking that familiarity to subvert reader expectations. Each of the three minicomics has a surprise ending. The first has a big reveal that explains the odd behavior of our protagonist, the second contains a moment of horror that signals the character's transformation, and the last comes at the end of a series of two page spreads that are a visual tour-de-force.

This is a silent set of comics, and the protagonists are classic funny animals. They're anthropomorphic foxes and rabbits, living in cities and acting like humans in most ways. Hartzell takes this to its logical conclusion, down to using paw-prints to create a pictorial written language. What creates the tension in this comic is that the relationship between foxes and rabbits is the same here as it is in reality: predator and prey. Not only do foxes eat rabbits, hunting them is considered a macho rite of passage. Hunting parties are organized by the fox equivalent of the Boy Scouts in order to raid rabbit villages. The rabbits are used to this sort of thing and have well-organized hiding places and monuments erected mourning the carnage the foxes wreak on them. Their religion and its iconography is a huge focus point in the book, with a scene in a church containing a key transition point.

The stories focus on a male teenaged fox. Without giving away the reveals, the first mini focuses on a particular secret transgression of his. The second details the ramifications of that transgression and the steps his family takes to correct it. Those steps eventually lead to a scene that starts off joyfully and ends in horror. In the last mini, we move to the future as the boy has become a man--and he receives some painful but ultimately liberating lessons.

Hartzell uses a thick, firm black line. There's a liveliness and energy to his line that occasionally borders on the frenetic when he's trying to depict disorientation. He slowly builds on this energy, starting with more background backs and building to more and more detail. He skillfully creates a world that simultaneously evokes the funny animal milieu and a naturalistic world. That balance and tension makes the violence in this book all the more shocking. That's especially true since that visceral quality is in the background at first; the book initially starts with a mystery and sight gags.

The tagline of the book is "Strength Weakness Faith Fear Pride Shame Fox Bunny Funny". That sums up the subthemes of the book, but the overriding theme is that of identity and how it's formed. What is the role of genetics vs environment? How do cultural & religious forces warp one's true nature? The last mini, where a very different world is revealed to our hero, opens up the possibilities of a society where all of these opposites can be embraced and celebrated.

Monday, August 20, 2012

International Mini Round-Up: Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Great Britain

I am always thrilled when I received a minicomic with a foreign stamp on it, be it from a familiar favorite or someone completely new to me. This round-up will feature comics from Ireland, Poland, Denmark, Spain and Great Britain.

Smoo Comics #5, by Simon Moreton.  The British Moreton's increasingly confident voice and line have made his quiet, reflective and poetic comics a rich and rewarding experience. He's not quite at John Porcellino or Warren Craghead levels of refinement of his words and lines down to the sparest possible levels of meaning, but he's getting there. This issue contains a number of short stories and meditations on his time spent in the seaside town of Falmouth, which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Moreton gets at the intense loneliness he felt in the form of drawings of street lamps, fog-bound coasts obscuring boats and buildings, and the simple quietude of the countryside. When drawing figures, he has a new economy of line that gets across the bare minimum of human details but still does a tremendous job with gesture and body language so as to convey emotion. In other strips, he uses smudges and scribbles to get across that feeling of desperation and of emptiness during what was very much a drifting portion of his life.

Haunted Bowels, by Craig Collins and others. This is a bit of silliness from the Scottish writer/cartoonist, who mostly collaborated with other artists in this collection of short gag strips. Accustomed as I am to seeing cerebral if visceral horror stories from Collins, it was amusing to see him riff on pop culture and lay down some deadly puns. (Example: "Glee Van Cleef", which features the tough-guy cowboy actor gunning down the cast of America's most annoying non-reality TV show.) One of his best running gags was the "Zinder Kurprise", a take-off of the "Kinder Surprise" chocolate eggs that come with toys that are very popular in Europe.As always, his best collaborator is Iain Laurie, whose detailed, intensely-lined style is a perfect match for the density of Collins' work--even his silly work, like the hilarious "Seamus Heaney's Heinous Penis", which features the famous poet's penis singing a techno song while the man himself is trying to do a reading. Collins' evil floating head strip, "Omniscient Zorgo", is perhaps the most reliable generator of laughs, even if the punchline is more-or-less the same every time. Collins is better-suited to horror with slight comedic overtones than comedy with horror flourishes, but there are still some solid pieces in here.

Om, by Piotr Nowacki. Polish artist Nowacki likes to draw almost silent comics, generally using simple onomatopoeia to punctuate his visual gags. The narrative about a sort of all-devouring lizard-creature going about its day with its giant pet is just one funny drawing and gag after another, as Nowacki's feathery but simple line has enough weight to make the reader linger on each image but is fluid enough to push the reader onward to the next panel. Nowacki squeezes a lot of humor out of his characters' eyes; the lizard creature's eyes cross whenever it starts munching on something (alarm clock, toothbrush, chess set, etc)  that sets up a nice visual rhythm for the book. This comic is absurd in a low-key way, as the egg is awakened by the lizard putting it on a frying pan every morning, and the two go to school with varying degrees of success.  The female robot teacher (also with crossed eyes) gives the lizard an "A" for solving a math problem by eating the chalk and eraser, but the egg gets an "F" when it complains that there's no chalk. Nowacki heightens the stakes when a ninja kidnaps the egg, leading to a detective search, an epic rescue, a friendship with a fish-headed prisoner, a showdown with a giant octopus, and other silliness. This is a near-perfect all-ages comic, jam-packed with action and jokes on every page. I could easily picture this upgraded to a hardcover board book by a publisher of children's books.

Silent V #6, by Kyle Baddeley. In some respects, Silent V has been Baddeley's thesis project as a cartoonist. It's fitting that he's ending it with #7, because he's taken the lessons, ideas and absurdity about as far as they could stretch. This issue starts to wrap things up with helpful exposition filling in the blanks of the crazy, inexplicable action of the earlier issues. There are aliens disguised as bears, monsters disguised as robots, time-traveling gods affecting the lives of their adversaries so as to turn the tide of war, and the driest of gags being trotted out at odd times (like a giant button that says "Escapees Please Press Here"). Baddeley's figures are big, broad and lumpy, possessing a cartoony presence that chews up the page. His backup story, "Maggot Lump", featuring a heroic maggot foiling a candy-store robbery, is as silly, weird and gross as it sounds. I'd love to see Baddeley continue to explore that short story urge, as it seems to be a more coherent and easy fit for his silly and occasionally terrifying sense of humor.

The Well Below, by John Robbins. This mini by Robbins, aka Sean MacRoibin, was one of four the Irish artist sent to me after I review an anthology of Irish artists at the version of High-Low. Robbins' line is spare and sketchy (a trait he shares with the other Irish artists in the batch he sent me), but also expressive and attractive. Robbins seems most interested in time, memory, and the irrevocable break between childhood and adulthood. The first story, "Find The River", is a simple slice-of-life story about two men on their annual fishing trip on a nearby river, as they try to reconnect while dealing with their own dysfunctions as adults.  The catch: Robbins draws them as children throughout the story, a tactic that starts off as confusing, then clever and finally more than a little sad. The art reveals that the men only relate to each other as boys, taking on old roles, while also simultaneously wishing for simpler times. "Man From The Past" and the prose story "The Time Machine" both have to do with the ways in which outcasts are effectively out of synch in a world with highly developed rituals and social roles. After a mini's worth of downbeat stories, Robbins caps things off with the title story, and the reader is tipped off that things will be a little different with the more solid but cartoony line that Robbins uses.  This story follows a man whose only emotional connections are ones that are superficial and from years in the past, resulting in a string of completely outrageous (yet somehow low-key) series of acts. Meeting up with a girl he had a crush on in grade school by coincidence, the middle-aged protagonist Tom tells her of his love for her in the past, which results in a highly unusual and gross sexual encounter that gives the phrase "a brown trout, a pine cone and a couple of maltesers" an especially hilarious and disgusting context. Tom is a fascinating character, one who is entirely unapologetic for his near-sociopathic inability to make connections with those who should be his loved ones. This was my favorite of the four minis, revealing an artist equally adept at depicting sadness and absurdity.

Matter #1, by Philip Barrett. Barrett is well known to alt-comics fans, thanks to having some of his comics published and distributed early on by Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comic Books. The story in this comic, "A Stagnant Pool", is the quintessential pub/club story. Barrett uses a loose, sketchy line, strategic scribblings, and a slightly reserved, almost detached narrative style to tell this story of a young man who goes to see a band at a bar, the women he encounters, and the large part of his own story he forgets after drinking too much. Barrett's use of restraint is what I loved best about this comic, as a clearly turbulent and upsetting time for the lead is kept at arm's length from the reader, even as his actions are more and more unstable. Visually, Barrett cleverly uses the repeating motif scene above, substituting the lips or the lips, eyes and nose of a woman for the actual woman herself, as though that was the only thing he could see or focus on at that given moment in time. Those lips later took on different meanings depending on the situation: lust, desperation and even bewitching. The comic focuses on how he got lost with one woman but it was her best friend that he was really after, and this is repeated as a motif through the use of her star tattoo turning into a maze, the maze he felt he was running when he left the house of the first woman the next morning after a night of sex that he had blacked out. This is also a story about connections, secrets and mysteries and the ways in which all three can elude us. The artist whose work is most similar to Barrett's is perhaps Sacha Mardou in terms of its verisimilitude, along with the spareness of John Porcellino.

Other Days, by Patrick Lynch. Lynch isn't quite as accomplished a draftsman as the other artists from Ireland, as both his drawings and lettering are a bit on the rough side. However, Lynch certainly shows plenty of formal daring, like in one story where his big-headed figure delights at getting to go to his job, where he is bullied by an unseen boss who bludgeons him with huge, blocky letters. Lynch is more interested in depicting quiet but significant moments, like a boy playing with his best friend, only to show that it's the boy's last day in town as he and his mom are moving away. Lynch also does work on the fantastic end of things, like one story about a man being visited by a dead friend who urges him to live his life. There's also a strip about firefighters encountering all sorts of silly, weird people on nights of the full moon. Most of these stories were done for anthologies, accounting for the disjointed nature of the collection, but the collective weight of Lynch's work has a smudgy, scrawled and fiercely intelligent appeal.

Absence, by Andy Luke & Stephen Downey. This is part-autobio, part public service announcement on the part of Luke, and the entire comic is available at the link above. It's a nice companion piece to David B's Epileptic, this time from a person who actually has this condition. It actually reminds me a bit more of recent comics about their own disease from Nomi Kane and Sam Gaskin, in that it focuses in part on how this affected their childhoods and how they gained control of their own narratives as adults. Downey does a remarkable job in telling Luke's story with expressive art that focuses on gesture and faces. What's most interesting about this comic is how Luke has managed to go nearly a dozen years without a violent grand mal seizure. Part of that was accomplished by letting go and allowing smaller seizures or moments of freezing up to happen without resisting them, which in turn allowed him to learn things at an accelerated rate, which in turn builds neural bridges that help prevent seizures. Narrative is a powerful theme in this comic, as Luke advocates "owning the experience" as "gatekeepers of this exclusive knowledge" of what it is like to experience these sorts of neural disruptions.

Switching gears, let's take a look at the work of Danish cartoonist Allan Haverholm. Like Derek Badman, he's a formalist interested in comics-as-poetry. The comic that best sums up his work is Koan,which is a series of pages with roughly four panels per page whose images are not explicitly linked, but their juxtaposition creates a kind of narrative of rhythm. Divided into "travel", "home" and "surveys", the first section is marked by speed lines and propulsion, the second by a kind of stillness, and the third by more abstract patterns often coalescing into forms that suggest water, air, movement and sometimes stillness. 30 Days of Comics is a more ambitious comic, as it was part of a month-long challenge to do a new strip every day. This comic is a mix of standard cartooning, more abstract work (including his attempts at graphically illustrating music), gag work with unusual self-restrictions (like "What Telekinetics Do To Show Off", where the titular character never moves while opening up a can), color experiments, strips where key panels are left out so as to make the reader fill in the narrative blanks, and scenes inspired from TV and Twitter. His comic Lots is a collection of strips done while watching the show Lost, minus all of the characters. It adeptly picks up on the way the show established mood with its island backdrop and ominous use of stillness. Finally, Sex and Violence is a flip book whose Sex section is a series of orgasmic drawings of his girlfriend, the presentation of which is more warm and tender than erotic and certainly not exploitative. The flipside, drawn by Mattias Elftorp, simply details an onrush of riot-garbed policemen armed with truncheons and shields bearing down on the reader's perspective, eventually blotting it out altogether. Haverholm brings a lighter touch than many to this sort of experimentation, injecting even the most abstract of his comics with a sense of whimsy.

Finally, there's the El Monstruo De Colores No Tiene Boca ("the color monster has no mouth") project from Spain. This is a series of double-sided, folding cardstock illustrations of children's dreams. Each "issue" is devoted to a single artist, who attempts to capture key images from these very brief dreams. It's not quite what Jesse Reklaw does in Slow Wave, because there's no attempt at narrative here.  Instead, each illustrator chooses a different method to create a striking image. Roger Omar collected the dreams and handed out the assignments, and deliberately chose a number of different styles for the project. There's Javier Saez's intensely hatched pen-and-ink drawings, Takeuma's beautiful, stark and simple black & white drawings, Max's typically funny and surreal gag panels, Thomas Wellman's energetic and muscular action-oriented strips, Mitch Blunt's approach that used the faces of the children with a single image on their forehead from their dream, and Pedro Lourenco's frightening, psychedelic drawings. While it's not quite comics, it's still a fascinating project that's producing some intriguing art objects.