Friday, November 30, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Hotwire 2

This article was originally written for in 2007.
There's a lot to like in the new Hotwire, both by contributors new and old. The package is pretty similar to the last volume: lots of lurid, over-the-top and funny comics along with many pages of similarly-grotesque illustrations. Hotwire is editor Glenn Head's reaction to "literary comics" that he feels are pretentious an dull. While there's no editorial in this version announcing his manifesto of sorts, it's clear that Head both is continuing his own personal aesthetic vision while breaking his own rules when he sees fit. For example, there are even more non-story illustrations in this volume than the last, which contradicts Head's desire to present "comics with cool style and great stories". There's a lot here that isn't comics, but it does somehow fit into the anthology's underground, anything-goes, unruly sensibility.

I like the unapologetic, take-it-or-leave-it aesthetic that Hotwire carries. This isn't an anthology designed to win new converts to the world of comics, but rather it's a celebration of a style rooted in the tradition of the 60s underground artists and the 80s anthology Weirdo. As such, it's hard to imagine a reader being drawn to every artist in here, given such an extreme series of artistic choices. For example, Glenn Head's "Tongue Trouble" and Doug Allen's "Hillbillys 'R' Dumb" are the sort of over-the-top, stylized and id-soaked comics that are personally difficult to read. Johnny Ryan's "Sin Shitty" quasi-parody felt like a Ryan Mad Lib (insert your own scatological reference into line A, a taboo sexual act into line B, a vague comics reference into line C), especially since Frank Miller comics are the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Matti Hagelberg's "Zombie Justice" feels more like a Kramer's Ergot or Bete Noire piece than something for Hotwire, given the extreme stylization and scratchboard technique. Illustrations by David Paleo and Stephane Blanquet are the sort of page-jamming, highly-detailed orgies of visceral unpleasantness that my eye tends to gloss over.

On the other hand, the fact that this anthology provides such a fine spotlight for humorists, which is such a rarity in this era of graphic novels and prestige anthologies. It's exciting to see new work by Ivan Brunetti (in his stripped-down but still-vulgar style), Mark Newgarden (with his usual combination of old-style gag format with nihilistic punchlines), and R.Sikoryak (another literary smash-up, this time of Little Nemo in Slumberland with The Picture of Dorian Gray, done with his usual astonishing style mimicry), and Sam Henderson ("Lonely Robot Fuckling"--nuff said). Christian Northeast's "In The Trenches" was a hilarious, deadpan account of a self-serious but unaware small businessman's past. Onsmith contributes an autobiographical story detailing the odd behavior of a creepy neighbor. There's a lot to laugh at in Hotwire, and that alone makes me hope that we get a new edition every year.

Beyond pure humor strips, there's an amazing range of interesting material. The most welcome new presence in this volume is that of Mary Fleener, who contributes a new 10-page story and several of her distinctive illustrations. The latter are in her "Our Lady" series, using her fractal "cubismo" style, with subjects like "Our Lady of Apocalyptic Fixation" and "Uninterrupted Munitions". Her story, entitled "Niacin" will thrill any readers of her old Slutburger series in its depiction of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. This was a hilarious account of Mary winding up in a car with a creep who gave her pot laced with PCP, and her attempts at crawling out of that particular trip. Her thick, rubbery line is a perfect delivery system for the warped, drug-induced imagery that she saw in the story. Hotwire is a perfect home for Fleener's work, and I hope she continues to contribute to future volumes.

My favorite Hotwire discovery has been Tim Lane. His unfussy, naturalistic line is used to tell straight-up pulp stories. "Outing" plops us straight into a bizarre encounter in a bar that ends with a shooting and a car crash. My favorite conceit of the story is that it's narrated by a character who gives us all sorts of intimate information without revealing who he is or most of his backstory. "The Aries Cow" features a character named Muncie and weird stories told at a bar. "In My Dream" has Lane detailing the wacky details of a flying dream and his downfall in it. This sort of anthology is a great showcase for Lane, because his stories act as a sort of anchor for the work in here that are weirder, while still creating an unusual and unsettling tone.

Another remarkable achievement is Jonathan Rosen's "A Massive Stroke of Bad Luck", which is about an aunt who suffered a stroke and was kept alive but in a great deal of distress and pain for quite some time. The top half of each page is a single image that illustrates a few lines of text. The bottom half is a series of images from a sketchbook that "diagram" his aunt's sad state. The grey wash acts as a sort of numbing agent for the reader to the intensity of each page's drawings. The story's best quality is its lack of sentimentality while still getting across the affection Rosen had for his aunt and his concern for her condition.

Not every story here is in-your-face. Carol Swain's "Communicable Disease", is a quiet story about a man in an institution of some kind, where the very words of books fly off the page and his companion starts burying the books when they're empty. Colored pencil seems to be at work here in setting up the air of melancholy and despair. "Last Testament" is a clever, time-jumping story by Chris Estes and David Lasky about Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

Still, Hotwire's main punch comes from its stylization and concentration on the "all that is good is nasty" school of storytelling. Lorna Miller (another welcome presence) retells the story of Little Red Riding Hood that portrays her as a little skank who ends up being eaten--eaten out, that is, by the Big Bad Wolf. Glenn Head's "Oozing Dread" is a hilarious account of Wilhelm Reich's wackier theories regarding orgone energy, orgasms and how they're rooted in alien involvement, all centered around a particular neurotic patient. David Sandlin's "Slumburbia" is a typically sex-and-shame centered story, a sort of echo of Reich's prediction that sexual behavior and activity was doomed to take on a fetished, guilt-ridden quality. Mack White's "Trouble In Tacosa" takes on a western legend, splitting its depiction into the grimy truth on one side of the page and then how it would be portrayed in Hollywood. Craig Yoe's ode to Tijuana Bibles is a sort of day-glo meditation on the surreptitious, anonymous nature of these bits of pornography and the writers who created them. What I get out of it is that these artists weren't all that different in nature to other cartoonists in terms of pandering to an audience and doing it in a sweatshop setting. All told, while not every story in this anthology will appeal to every reader, there should be at least a story in here that will draw in the eye of any reader.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Hotwire

This article was originally published in 2006 for

With Mome, Fantagraphics tried to put together an anthology that would appeal to sophisticated readers who were open to reading comics but didn't necessarily know what to buy. A book for those who read Ghost World or American Splendor and wanted to know where to go next. Understandably, the focus of that anthology had to be on somewhat straightforward narratives. One doesn't find a lot of funny comics in there, even if some strips have a somewhat humorous bent (Tim Hensley is a notable exception). There also weren't a lot of comics in the id-fueled underground tradition, and what comics there were in that style were somewhat restrained. This is not a criticism, but rather a simple observation: Mome has its own aims and certainly can't be all things to all people. Hotwire steps in and picks up the threads missing from Mome, all in a delightfully lurid package.

Editor Glenn Head is quite clear about his goals for the anthology in his introduction. While acknowledging that it was all well and good that comics were now respectable, he missed comics that "felt unsafe, undomesticated, unhinged, even!" Hotwire is his expression of the feeling that "comics with great style and cool stories are already art, and no critic, museum or journal can change that..." Of course, Head breaks his own rules throughout the book. There are plenty of pages that aren't comics, like David Paleo's revolting pin-ups, Sam Henderson's sketches, Craig Yoe's centerfold or Judith McNicol's scribbles. While not stories per se, they contribute to the carny freakshow nature of the book. A book filled with nothing but this sort of thing would have been unreadable, but interspersed throughout they're a nice sideshow of sorts. Hotwire isn't a book likely to win new converts. Most of the artists within are take-it-or-leave-it in terms of their stories, and they don't apologize for it. It's a book meant for people who already love comics without reservation, in all of their cheap and occasionally debased glory.

As a result, there are a number of stories in Hotwire that aren't personally appealing. As a reader, I've never been drawn to a lot of the traditional underground artists. I can admire their nerve and the trails they blazed, but my eyes fall off the page of stories in the S.Clay Wilson tradition. The unleashed id and broken taboos are simply no longer as shocking or interesting in their own right. Thus, the stories by Head and Doug Allen didn't do much for me. My eye tends to fall off the page when reading these sorts of stories, and that was true here. The true highlights of this anthology are stories by the formidable array of humorists. Not all of them are personal favorites, but that just fits in with the rest of the book: there's something for every true fan of comics to either love or despise.

There are four comics in particular that stood out. Michael Kupperman's "The Scaredy Kids", Lauren Weinstein's "The Call", R.Sikoryak's "Mephistofield" and Mack White's "My Gun Is Long". The first is a tour-de-force of absurdity, as the title characters encounter The Bittern, Jungle Princess and other characters who introduce themselves by crashing through windows. Lines like "Nearby, an ant makes love to a paperclip" are thrown into the narrative as part of Kupperman's all-out assault on conventional storytelling. Every panel is packed with visual humor, wordplay, dada asides and/or over-the-top colors. Kupperman's sheer relentlessness is what makes his work stand out, and is perfect in this venue.
Weinstein's story would have fit nicely in her Inside Vineyland collection. It's a nightmarish tale of a young girl listening to a record of her favorite story, but the needle skips on an evil queen screaming. The scream takes on its own reality and draws the girl in, as she meets a sort of angelic figure who shows her the universe. She eventually returns back to her own world, but a later encounter with that same note leaves a permanent impression. Weinstein's loose, almost vibratory line adds to the story's hallucinatory quality.
Sikoryak is known as an astonishingly skilled style mimic, and his particular shtick is retelling works of classic literature by merging them with well-known comics characters. This time around, he combines Dr Faustus with Garfield to get "Mephistofield". He tells the story just like Jim Davis does a daily strip: three panels, with the third containing a punchline. The colors are appropriately flat and Sikoryak's perfect use of every Davis tic and style choice is a hilarious pairing with the grim cautionary tale of Dr Faustus. And of course, Garfield as the personification of evil is more than appropriate...

Mack White's "My Gun Is Long" is the amusing marriage of hard-boiled noir and conspiracy theory. It stars the real Lee Harvey Oswald, his double Alex Hidell, strippers, Jack Ruby, and a desperate attempt to dodge killers. The stark black & white imagery and unadorned figure work match the paranoia and claustrophobia in this story, but it's White's skill in channeling Phillip Marlowe that propels the story along.
There are plenty of other delights in here: a David Lasky-drawn biography of the Clash; a creepy Carol Swain story about a circus; a stripped-down Ivan Brunetti story; and Onsmith's demented tales of rural Oklahoma. This anthology didn't get a lot of notice when it was released, which is unfortunate because there's so much strong work in here. In particular, having a regular anthology that features humorists so prominently is something that the comics world has needed for quite some time. It'll be interesting to see if Head can produce future volumes that are as fresh and compelling as this.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Comics From Sam Spina

Sam Spina is at his best when he's drawing dopey, funny adventures that don't take themselves seriously. For example, his new comic The Frantastic Four (Kilgore Books, who publish Noah Van Sciver's Blammo! series) moves quickly beyond being a superhero pastiche and becomes something much weirder and more wonderful. Spina's work looks great in standard-pamphlet size, though it did fairly cry out for color. The story starts out as a quasi-serious riff on an obsessed astronaut who travels to Neptune, trying to better himself after his brother (beloved of his parents) disappeared. Every step Spina takes after that subverts genre conventions in the silliest way possible. The astronaut (Frankie Frantastic) meets an alien on Neptune and brings him home, "hiding" him in the most obvious ways possible. The super-intelligent robot his brother built is curious about this walking stalk of celery, but then a Godzilla-style creature pops up to fight Celery, only to agree to join with the others. The quartet bumbles through a series of ever-goofier adventures until they decide to open a restaurant, which winds up getting rave reviews. You get the idea. It almost feels like an example of "yes, and..." improvisational storytelling, except it was Spina himself who kept giving himself crazier things to throw into the story.

A more concentrated blend of Spina's penchant for visceral violence and nonsensical gags is Daggurs, a (mostly) 24-hour comic that recalls Kaz Strzepek by way of Kate Beaton. His simple character design is heightened by sharp-edge faces and cartoony expressions on the faces of animals. The comic veers from funny violence for its own sake to a denunciation of violence to a warped parody of "issue" comics, as the title character teams up with the angelic form of an angel he killed (a "whangel", of course) to spread the word about anti-violence. It's a more focused work than The Frantastic Four, which tends to repeat some of its jokes as it searches for new ones. Daggurs' more abbreviated length ideally highlights Spina's comic timing and understanding of how to use story beats to maximize visual gags.

Finally, there's Spinadoodles: The Third Year, the final collection of his autobiographical daily journal comic. In each of the past two collections of this comic, Spina has quoted from my reviews of his work to comedic effect. In this volume, he took the most negative quote from my review and zeroed in on it to create a strip that wasn't exactly funny in terms of having a punchline but was nonetheless amusing because of the way he digested the comment. Spina notes that the reason why he quite doing the daily strip is that he felt that he had pretty much mastered it, or rather, that it no longer held the same sort of challenge for him as an artist that it once did. It became something safe and dependable, and to his credit, Spina saw that it was time to step away and focus his energy on other work. In general, the same critique I made of past volumes still holds: some of the strips are half-assed and ill-conceived; they are simply Spina trying to fulfill his vow of doing a strip every day. In a sense, this collection is a warts 'n all spotlight on his process as an artist, because he easily could have curated this book to feature his best strips. Spina rarely lets the reader get too close to his darker moments, but he handles it quite well when he does go that route. The comic where he and his girlfriend sit around and muse out loud that they may well never achieve their dream jobs, but where they are now wasn't so bad was both reassuring and heartbreaking. Indeed, much of this book features Spina thinking about the future as he still has fun as a 20something person halfway between adult responsibility and the college life. One senses his ennui at certain points as the easy community of his youth starts to slip away a bit but can be reclaimed with relative ease with a trip or a visit. Spina also hints at the ways he and his girlfriend come into conflict but rarely goes into much detail. Mostly, Spina comes off as a fun guy who plays things for laughs and is in love with someone who feels much the same way. I hope to see longer, more focused autobio comics from him in the future.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Another Worthy Fundraiser: The Big Feminist But

I want to heartily recommend the Kickstarter fund for The Big Feminist But, an anthology edited by Shannon O'Leary and Joan Reilly. I've read some excerpts of the anthology and it's got a truly killer lineup of cartoonists (male and female) writing about issues related to feminism.I initially blanched at their goal of $14,000 until I saw that O'Leary and Reilly are actually going to pay a page rate to the artists and writers. This has the potential to be a great anthology, and the fact that unlike certain other Kickstarter anthologies featuring women, the editors are taking great pains to be professional toward the contributing artists and writers.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Young Man's Game: Hugo Tate

Hugo Tate (Blank Slate Books) was cartoonist Nick Abadzis' first major project as a young cartoonist. Working for the classic old British comic magazine Deadline, Abadzis did strips about the titular young everyman character that started almost as a lark but soon developed into something deeper and darker. After never being fully collected, the whole thing is finally back in print, and it's a gut-punch of a book in some surprising ways. As a whole, it's very much a work by a young man. That's both in terms of the skill level of Abadzis at that age (he was literally learning on the job), the ways in which he tried to compensate for his shortcomings as a draftsman, and the concerns of Hugo.

As the book opens in London, Hugo is drifting and aimless. He has designs on being a writer but has no discipline to do so regularly. He wants to be successful but doesn't quite know how to work hard. His life revolves around his friends and the local pub, but as the first part of the book proceeds, he becomes more and more frustrated with the rut his life has fallen into, even at so young an age. Abadzis perfectly captures that twentysomething feeling of listlessness and frustration, where one isn't even entirely sure what they're frustrated about. He also moves from drawing stick figures to a dense, scribbly style that shows off his newfound hatching and cross-hatching skills. That's true for all the figures but Hugo, who is depicted with the same sort of blank, stick-figure face. It's a clever statement on the character's self-image that is refined as Abadzis sees fit. Abadzis' early work reminds me a lot of Evan Dorkin's: furious, swirling, intense, comedic and scribbly.

The first part of the book takes some twists and turns and at times is a lovely and sad reflection on family, loss and connection. Like any young person out of school, the nature of connections and friendships is tenuous and confusing. Without a structure to keep everyone in the same place and doing roughly the same things, friendships drift and break apart. Family is no longer quite the same as people move and spread out. It's as much this feeling of total disconnection from everyone (a feeling that's more than a little self-absorbed, considering the number of people who care for him and the woman he leaves behind, not knowing she's pregnant) as it is his frustration with his general lot in life that spurs him to leave England.

For someone young, the opportunity to explore America and leave one's past entirely behind is too good an opportunity to be true, even if the New York of the early 90s was still slightly seedy. Indeed, that seediness provided a sort of authenticity, a kind of validation of America as frontier territory. The second half of the book, "O, America" starts off as a lighthearted New York adventure and evolves into a Hunter Thompsonesque "Fear and Loathing" road trip that gets darker and darker as it goes further and further west. Hugo hooks up with a guy named Spoonhead for a job driving a vintage car across the country and quickly learns that his boss is a lunatic. Yet Hugo stays on, despite having the option of bailing whenever he wants and taking a bus back to New York. It's a dark night of the soul experience for Hugo, one where his mode of expression is literally thrown out the window as Spoonhead throws his notebook out of the car. It's a clever move, as Hugo's grounding narrative structure is suddenly gone, plunging both Hugo and the reader into total chaos.

Abadzis goes nuts exploring fractured narratives, unreliable narrators, parts of the story left completely untold and a total breakdown and inability of his characters to tell the difference between paranoia and reality. Spoonhead goes from being a slightly unbalanced rascal to violent and unstable thug to out-and-out evil lunatic by the end of the story, and Abadzis depicts that kind of madness and drug consumption as something toxic and communicable. Hugo goes through his own breakdown, finally finding some measure of peace after escaping the clutches of Spoonhead at a ridiculously decadent LA party and exploring the west coast on his own. Interestingly, that's where he left the character for good, as he never returned to Hugo to finish what would have been a trilogy of stories. It's understandable as to why--Abadzis is simply too far away from the artist who wrote stirringly about the possibilities and pitfalls of his own youth through fictional familial structures and nightmare scenarios regarding a country he's always had close ties to. What gives Hugo Tate its power is that serialized sense of immediacy, that sense of a distopic youth fantasy being told by a young person. Retelling that story from Abadzis' perspective now would lack a certain authenticity, I think, even (as Abadzis suggests), he might tell the story backwards from the present. Better to leave Hugo sitting on that beach, forever changed and scarred by his experiences but finally ready to fully engage the world instead of making excuses for his frustration. Hugo Tate in its essence is a dramatic coming-of-age story, and such narratives rarely call for "where are they now?" sections. This work stands fully on its own as a journal of the  artist's own development as well as his character's.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Let Us Be Perfectly Clear

I've been following Paul Hornschemeier since his minicomics days. Of course, the aggressively ambitious & experimental artist made minis with production values that were astonishing. Some of the results can be seen in The Collected Sequential (AdHouse), which included compositional experiments like an improvised story where he printed only certain page numbers in one issue, then more pages in the next issue. It was an interesting experiment for both artist and reader alike, forcing both to form new connections for images that were deliberately fragmented.

Hornschemeier since then has gained a lot of notice from Mother, Come Home, a story collected by Dark Horse. Since then, he joined Fantagraphics and has a regular series in Mome and a new graphic novel, The Three Paradoxes, coming out shortly. There's a certain grimness and melancholy that's dominated his major works, but I always found his humorous pieces to be every bit as involving. Let Us Be Perfectly Clear collects his shorter works from the first issue of Forlorn Funnies, the AdHouse short work Return of the Elephant, and several other stories from other sources.

The book is split into two sections: one half is called "Let Us Be" and the second (requiring a full flip over and upside down, a clue as to the very different content that will be found) is "Perfectly Clear". The title of the former is perhaps a reference to the cast of characters that we meet: loners, weirdos, outsiders and predators. Most of them would prefer to just "let be". The best stories in the first section are "These Trespassing Vehicles" and "Wanted". Both are dazzling examples of Hornschemeier's facility with page design, color and narrative techniques.

The former is about a dyslexic man who sets out to kill his sister and best friend in a cabin, but gets the wrong address and shoots two complete strangers instead. The opening pages where we see Dennis narrating, the blue background behind the panels is almost soothing, belying his menace. When Hornschemeier flashes to the couple, he fast-forwards into their future with an omniscient narrator telling us of their unhappy fate. The layers of detail are deliberately confusing at first since we think the couple are the sister & the friend, but the narrator then reveals their names and Dennis' affliction. We then flash to a law student studying the case, flash back to a diagram of the shooting, then see the surprising aftereffects of the crime. What I like most about this story is its intricacy and the way it yo-yos back and forth between emotional distance and the immediacy of Dennis' unbalanced mind.

The latter story is designed to look like a couple of wanted posters, nailed to a wooden wall. This old-west feel (Hornschemeier seems fascinated by this trope) is turned on its head by the story of a sheriff who moves to the city with the woman he loves, going against his every instinct. When he sees a woman's purse with a horse design on it, the story switches to the poster overlaid over the first sign, and goes from full-color to two-color as he flashes back to his decision to leave. Flashing back into the present, we know that it's not going to end well.

While the rest of the stories in this section are at the very least attractive (especially his use of coloring in "We Were Not Made For This World"), the ideas seem a bit thinner. There's such an undertone of grim fatalism in his stories that some of the other offerings feel like they're laying it on a bit thick. This sensibility seems to work better when he's experimenting a bit more wildly or cutting it with more humor.

Which brings us to the other side of the book, "Perfectly Clear". That title may refer to his "clear-line" style in use here, a deliberately cartoony line meant to invoke other comics. There are three stand-outs here: "Artist's Catalogue", "The World Will Never Be The Same" and "Men And Women Of The Television". The first story is a series of conceptual jokes at the expense of fine art and philosophy: "Cocaine And Pillow Fight In Polar Bear Heaven" is an all-white page, while a page of sketches and philosophical gibberish are the "studies and notes" for "Dialectic on Preference", which turns out to be a crude joke. Best of all is a series of upside down & mirror-scripted strips about art that are then mercilessly slammed in a "guest critique". This is really the sort of thing that you can only do once, but Hornschemeier goes all the way with it. The second strip is a dead-on and nasty strip about man's inhumanity to man, before and after 9/11. The main difference depicted here is that Americans started wearing more patriotic clothing while being racist, sexist and ignoring the plight of the poor. While not the most profound observation, it's still pretty funny and sharply recorded.

The final story is probably my all-time favorite from Hornschemeier, and echoes of it pop up in his current Mome serial. There's a dreamy goofiness as every character, real and fictional, finds themselves constantly thwarted and near extinction, but tries their best to muddle through. We begin with a traditional, mustachioed western villain who seems to have cornered his arch-nemesis ("Taylor Handsome: Marshall") only to find he's gotten a man looking for a place to defecate. The villain, after accidentally blowing himself up, goes home to read an absurd children's book ("Thesaurus: The Literate Dinosaur") and later heads into town.

As he wanders into the crowd, he suddenly merges into a crowd on a modern street and we switch from his thoughts to the thoughts of everyone simultaneously in the narrative boxes. He passes a woman (whom we will later come to know in Mome) whom we suddenly focus on who seeks to dull her pain with TV. Specifically, a cartoon show called "Mister Dangerous". After the show ends, we follow Mister Dangerous offstage, where he is called on by the network gods and told he's being cancelled. He escapes into other TV shows and finally takes a small role in the next story, which returns to an earlier character in the book. The story is clever, visually inventive and balances humor & pain expertly. Hornschemeier's later work has not had quite had the same kind of fervid experimental quality, partly because he needed to focus more on character and story. I'll be curious to see what his newer comics will look like, and if we're due for another round of unbridled innovation from Hornschemeier.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Little Things

 This article was originally published at in 2007.

I've reviewed a number of works by Jeffrey Brown for, but Little Things is the sort of collection of anecdotes, reflections and observations that Brown does best. I enjoy his off-kilter takes on genre comics like Bighead and Incredible Change-Bots, but his real skill lies in arranging seemingly unconnected and random quotidian moments into something that coheres into an engaging emotional narrative. In Little Things, Brown's eleven different stories not only pile up emotional resonance on their own, there's also an accumulated emotional power the collection gains as we reach the final story, about Brown and his infant son.

The subtitle of this book is "A Memoir in Slices", and it aptly describes the strategy that Brown uses. In each story, Brown deliberately subverts the reader's expectations in terms of narrative, background and exposition. At the same time, each story is not a haphazard moment from Brown's diary, but rather seems carefully selected, constructed and manipulated. In stories like "These Things These Things" (originally published as a mini), Brown shifts the emotional focus of the story, keeping the reader off-balance, until we realize that the story is really about the connection between music and memory. In the course of relating some seemingly unconnected set of anecdotes about an old girlfriend, touring with other artists and his time at work, Brown is actually elaborately detailing his musical connection with a particular artist. It's a strong choice to lead off the collection, because it's the clearest example of the use of this technique.

"Missing the Mountains", for example, is about Brown's feelings about nature and confinement, and not really about the people he spends time with. In the story, Brown is constantly running ahead of his friends to spend time alone, but he really gets across his message with his visuals. Brown employs a rough, sketchy style designed to quickly get across information and as such rarely pays much attention to detail in his backgrounds. The relatively lush depictions of nature and the way Brown gazes out an airplane window at the mountains below is the key to understanding what's going on here.

The specific expectation that Brown upends is that each story will be about specific friendships or romantic relationships. For example, in "The Calm Before The Storm", Brown starts off with a story that seems like it's going to be about him dealing with his girlfriend's jealous ex threatening him, but that's just a feint for a humorous and embarrassing anecdote. "Everything Gets Fucked Up But Occasionally Gets Repaired" starts as a pleasantly ambling story about being uncomfortable around people foisted on him and then reacting to his windshield getting shattered that suddenly turns into a medical drama. As the title suggests, a number of things do get repaired--with the exception of a particular relationship. "Everyday Job" starts as a typical day in the life but shifts suddenly into Brown dealing with a car accident that happens right before his eyes.

Brown has a dry, sometimes distant but consistently self-deprecating sense of humor. The title piece is simultaneously the most straightforward story in the book in terms of narrative and also the most detached, as Brown narrates his life's story as an instruction manual whose goal is "How To Meet A Girl". With steps like "Meet Chris Ware (no substitutions, please) at a book signing and show him some work to receive encouragement" leading up to him meeting a girl who read one of his comics and contacted him as a result.

Above all else, Brown is a master of tone. His comics have spawned a wave of imitators, but none of them match his mastery at taking what seems to be an ordinary experience and infusing it with wit, drama or absurdity. I think some artists mistake what Brown does for a James Kochalka-type diary comic, conflating the immediacy of scribbling down their experiences with the spontaneity that Brown is able to evoke on the page. Little Things is especially interesting because it feels like a specifically-designed complement to the many books he's done about his relationships (like Clumsy, Unlikely, Any Easy Intimacy,  Every Girl Is The End Of The World To Me), telling stories about all of the spaces between his relationships. Brown understands that by fracturing the chronology of his autobiographical story, it helps him remove the potential tedium in telling stories about himself and allows him to shape his anecdotes for whatever theme he's developing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Feeling Dizzy: Hector Umbra

The feeling I got from reading German cartoonist Uli Oesterle's book Hector Umbra (translated into English and published by Blank Slate Books) was that it was a collection of a lost Vertigo series from the 90s, only drawn by Bob Fingerman and colored by Mike Mignola. It's as weird and funny as a Peter Milligan comic of the time, only without the psychosexual aspects of that writer's work. It's a book that revolves around nightlife and youth culture, but from a slight distance. The titular character has just lost his lifelong best friend as the book opens and is in mourning even as he's attending a major performance from his DJ friend Osaka. There's lots of drinking, partying and carousing going on in this book, but it's all a secondary consideration of the main character's grief and the mystery plot that soon opens up when Osaka disappears from his gig, right in the middle of his set.

That distance from youth forms the crux of the book's themes, as Hector and others first try to escape and then must ultimately face the events that proved to be formative, for good and ill. It's a comic about mental health and the quite literal obstacles that prevent us from achieving it in the face of the Neurological Infiltration Front, a group of tiny, intelligent "brain demons" who seek world domination through the use of Osaka's music and the special piece they make him write that they know will induce madness. They're the creatures that cause delusions, paranoia and spiteful behavior, and Oesterle simultaneously plays them for laugh in his design (they look very much like the Mars Atacks! cards drawn by Wally Wood) and amps up their menace in their actions. The NIF's chief advantage is that are invisible to nearly everyone--with Hector being a notable exception. His ability to see and act against them makes him an initially reluctant protagonist, until he's contacted by his dead friend, who tells him to sober up and find Osaka.

From there, the structure of the plot is fairly conventional: Hector picks up more allies (including reuniting with an ex-girlfriend) and faces more dangers (like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who are easy dupes of the NIF) until the climactic rave party in a cathedral, where the blood from an unconscious Hector saves the day. What really saves the day, however, is the way Hector makes connections and starts to grow up. He bonds with a young boy faced with being an orphan in much the same way Hector was. He no longer rejects commitment and embraces being with his ex-girlfriend (a pleasant-enough character who is mostly a cipher). Coming to terms with one's youth in Oesterle's terms means no longer acting like a child. This was a lesson that Hector's best friend Joseph was unable to learn (he died by accident by continuing to walk the razor's edge) and Osaka was unwilling to learn (thanks to his carefully-constructed double life). Even their fellow traveler Frantisek, a notorious ladies' man, settles down. In Oesterle's world, stasis equals death. It's a point of view that I found to be refreshingly idealistic, blasting through the expected, Vertigo-inspired veneer of cynicism.

Another influence in this book seems to be Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. That manifests partly in the form of Gilda Black, a street person who actually holds a number of keys to the resolution of the plot in terms of secret knowledge. Just as Neverwhere is a book that was a love letter to London and its secrets, so too is Hector Umbra a love letter to Munich and its bars, clubs, metro system, old buildings, and new structures. Oesterle is quite adept at the clever high concept in this book like the NIF, and the Jehovah's Witnesses acting as thugs, and the literal manifestation of anxiety. He imbues even the villains with fully-realized personalities and motivations. Other clever turns from Oesterle include the concepts of Club Beyond (a nightclub where the dead gather to drink dead beer and watch "reality TV"--edited highlights of the living) and Klub Koma (a sleepy bar that's a waiting area for the near-dead). What he does best is turn cliche' into real connections, especially when a flashback reveals how and why Hector and Joseph got to be friends in the most horrifying of circumstances as children in an orphanage. Hector is far from a John Constantine type of character; he's not a manipulative, calculating cynic who long ago lost his soul. Hector is simply someone who lost his way and needed some help finding it again, by way of helping a friend. Despite all the shenanigans, fights, and confrontations, the book is very much about the warmth of true friendship. As such, Oesterle may have been strongly influenced by the look of a number of different artists, but the actual content of his work is quite different from Mignola or Vertigo.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Lust

This article was orginally published in 2007.
Ellen Forney has a clear understanding of sex as an act that, when examined closely, has a strong undercurrent of ridiculousness to it. Not just in the act itself, but in the things that people will do and say to get it. Anyone familiar with personal ads in the back of local weekly independent newspapers, especially those that have "variations" or sex-only ads, will understand that this is doubly true for fetish ads. Yet these ads, however absurd they are on many levels, reveal something important about human desire and human happiness. Once a week, Forney has been adapting one ad from Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger for print in that publication. This is from their "Lustlab" section: people looking for a very specific kind of sexual fulfillment. Forney pointedly avoids stereotypical, frattish "man seeks two women for fantasy" scenarios, instead focusing on kinks that are a bit more unusual.

The key to the success of her cartoon adaptations is that she understands the line between humor and mockery in her ads. She fully embraces the often ridiculous nature of the desires expressed while still respecting those needs. The result is a series of cartoons that can best be described as "playful". The cover image itself is a hilarious triumph of design--we see a star covering up the woman's breast, which is understandable, but it takes a second to figure out why the second star is so big until the reader notices the strap on the woman's thigh. Forney's playfulness and openness regarding sex and sexuality put her in just the right position to "solve" the problem of adapting these ads in a clever manner. Be it depicting these desires as ads, turning text into illustration or just using an amusing cartoon image, her cartoons are both clever triumphs of composition and strangely endearing translations of desire.

It's no accident that The Stranger's sex-advice columnist Dan Savage wrote the introduction, because the potential readership for this book is less a comics-buying audience than one that would purchase a collection of Savage's columns. As such, that would explain the book opening up with forty pages of interviews with Forney and a selection of people who placed kinky ads--"satisfied customers", if you will. I thought it was a mistake to place these at the front of the book, because the real attraction here is Forney's cartooning, not the detailed fantasies of furry-MUCKers or sadists. It certainly wasn't very illuminating of Forney's process, especially since there were no cartoons accompanying them in those sections. If they had to be included, it would have made more sense to make them part of an appendix. On the other hand, the handful of selections where a few lines from the actual text of the ads she drew from placed next to her cartoon shed a lot of light on her process.

It's interesting to contrast this book to some of the recent pin-up collections that Fantagraphics has recently published. Those books are designed to create stylized images that evoke lust and desire in their target audiences, to titillate. The reader projects their fantasy onto the image, which has no inner life of its own. On the other hand, the images in Lust are far from erotic, even when many of them are much more sexually explicit than a standard pin-up girl. There is some degree of voyeuristic or people-watching titillation, but this is still a very different experience than from a pin-up book that is divorced from reality. While Forney playfully finds the humor in the kinks of her subjects, at heart these ads are the honest projection of someone else's desires. Forney cheerfully confronts the reader with the desires of everyday people, setting up an interaction between reader and image that is in direct opposition to that of a pin-up book. While we may chuckle at the impishness of some the kinks described here, what Forney really does is get us to think about our own kinks and fantasies--and encourage us to both embrace them and see them for how frivolous they can be.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sexe Et La Ville: But I Really Wanted To Be An Anthropologist

Margaux Motin's But I Really Wanted To Be An Anthropologist... (Self-Made Hero) is the embodiment of descriptions like "slight" and "breezy", at least at first glance. As Motin whips one rapid-fire series of anecdotes and gags after another at the reader, what emerges is a book that simultaneously embraces and gently sends up "chick-lit" entertainment along the lines of Sex and the City. The French cartoonist brings the expected bawdy and raunchy details one might expect from such a work, but Anthropologist also takes on a frequently amusing scatological bent as well as a surprisingly tender account of being in a committed relationship and having a young daughter. The format is essentially along the lines of a classic, Lynda Barry-style one-year journal comic. From the very beginning, Motin portrays herself as sexy and silly, with her delicate and amusing drawings given sometimes lurid emphasis by strategically coloring her panties, shoes and fingernails bright red. Motin isn't afraid to treat herself as the butt of jokes, though she gives as good as she gets from those around her.

Motin's mission seems to be depicting the notion that there's no contradiction between being a fashion-obsessed woman, an intellectual, an artist, a lover and a human being with typical bodily functions and the sense of humor of a ten-year-old boy. Her post-pregnancy body image is still a big topic of concern for her, even several years after the birth of her daughter. There's a Carol Tyler-style drawing of the post-pregnant body in all of its depleted "glory"; it's a sharp contrast to her normally cute, angular self-caricature. Indeed, her thinness is a concern for her, especially the way in which her breasts essentially disappeared after nursing. It's played for laughs, like when a clerk at a shop essentially feels her up and declares her to be a size AA, but there's a real sense of anger there as well. Motin also struggles with motherhood in a way that tries to play off her guilt in a series of gags, like one called "Unfit Mother" where she simply ignores her screaming child and denies that she's her mother. That's a running emotional motif in the book: uncomfortable emotions get played off as jokes that aren't really jokes. Motin seems reluctant to get at deep emotions in a serious manner in her journal, perhaps because of a need to constantly entertain. There's also a sense that she knows she has a good life and doesn't want to complain too much, for fear of being whiny. That's why her most melodramatic moments tend to be about superficial things, like clothes, and more serious issues (like her issues with her own mother and fears about debt and her career) tend to be more light-hearted.

A lot of the humor in the book (especially very typical "men and women are different" jokes) are given some extra lift with the level of verisimilitude she packs into every page as well as her skill as an illustrator. Just looking at this book is highly pleasurable, and the fact that its production values are quite high certainly helps it. When she uses spot colors, they pop off the page and add a lot to her gags. Indeed, many of her jokes depend on color, like one where her daughter announces the color of Motin's underwear matching that of fruit at a grocery store. That gag works because the bright red panties and bra, a symbol of Motin's elegance and sexiness in one panel, are suddenly revealed to the world in a less-than-flattering manner. Motin's observations aren't as deep as those of Tyler's or as laugh-out-loud funny as Julia Wertz's; instead, they occupy a sort of middle territory between those artists by way of the cheerful autobio comics of Vanessa Davis. Not every autobio or journal comic has to have deep tragedy at its core to be effective, if the author is willing to still reveal something about themselves and their life. While I wouldn't call Motin's work essential reading for this corner of comics, there's no question that she's a fine cartoonist whose point of view, obsessions and experiences will resonate with a number of readers.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Sparkplug Comic Books

This article was originally published at in 2006. Please note that Dylan Williams passed away in 2011.
A welcome trend in the comics world in recent years is the rise of the boutique publisher. With modest publishing goals and realistic release schedules, a small publisher can carve out a nice niche for their artists. One of my favorite publishers of this nature has been Sparkplug Comic Books, headed by Dylan Williams. Williams is himself an artist, having self-published several issues of the intriguing crime comic Reporter. Williams has said that he's looking to publish artists who have been overlooked and whose work is focused on storytelling. That's still a pretty wide net, and there are definitely some artists he has published who certainly push the envelope of what one might consider to be a standard narrative.

Jeff Levine's comics are observational studies of daily life, while John Hankiewicz's work is often abstruse and mysterious. On the other hand, Williams also gleefully publishes comics that are much more lighthearted, like Eric Haven's Tales To Demolish (a tribute of sorts to trashy 60's comics and monster movies) and Matter (Phillip Barrett's trippy and hilarious quasi-science-fiction stories). I've already discussed the delightful Asiaddict by Mats!? in my article on travel comics, but I'm pleased to report that there's isn't a stinker in the bunch of comics that Williams has published this year. Furthermore, there are a couple of legitimately great books: Hankiewicz's Asthma collection and minicomics maven Trevor Alixopolous' graphic novel debut Mine Tonight. I will have more to say about those latter books in future articles, but I wanted to use this space to discuss the other recent books from Sparkplug.

Jeff LeVine's Watching Days Become Years is an apt series title. The most recent issue (#3) is a continuation of the sort of thing LeVine does so well: sketching striking images from his everyday life and juxtaposing them against fragmented thoughts. The narrative here is the story of one man's life as he muses about what he's doing, where he's going and what it all means. Sometimes his thoughts are straightforward recollections of his days, wherein he simply draws interesting things that he saw and relates small anecdotes. On other occasions, LeVine becomes more abstract and poetic. There's one great panel where we see a drawing of a large, unmade bed with the caption "She was made of maybes." No further exploration of this point was made, but the melancholy and longing that LeVine feels is almost visceral. LeVine also struggles with the desire to stay inside all day and enjoy art, music and books and trying to connect with the outside world.

Ultimately, what makes this a surprisingly intense experience is that LeVine doesn't hold back. He relates a fantasy of strangling a neighbor with her own wind chimes and talks about his frustrations with women. At the end of the issue, he talks about days rushing by quickly as we see an image of a hand hoisting a beer: "Only now, one begins to understand just how fast a lifetime can go." This comic is contemplative and unassuming, reminding me a bit of John Porcellino's work in terms of its narrative content but with the immediacy of a sketchbook.

As quiet as LeVine's comic is, Tales To Demolish #3 is loud and lurid. Published in full color, the cover shows a superhero battling a reptilian creature over a pool of lava, with a half-naked girl in distress nearby. Eric Haven somehow manages to get across the fun of campy, pulpy comics and movies while at the same time telling his stories with a straight face. The first story "Mammalogy", depicts the struggle between mammal and reptile. We see an early mammal elude a reptilian predator and then later eat the eggs of its young. The story then cuts to an average schlub making an egg sandwich. The scene then shifts to a superhero (The Mongoose) battling a reptilian humanoid about to devour an innocent woman, part of his greater mission in the secret war between humans and reptiles. She breaks the spell of the story by asking him "Are you some kind know... uh...furvert?" Haven's ability to go back and forth between silly and pulpy, often on the same page, is what makes his comics so fun. He's not afraid to let a silly idea play itself out with serious execution. Considering an offering like "The Gunslinger", about a western hero who kills a snake by slinging his gun at it as though it were a boomerang, with spectacular results. Haven's all about Big Dumb Fun, but done with clever self-awareness. The results are perfect for a 24-page comic book.

In the hard-to-categorize department is Philip Barrett's Matter Summer Special. This mini-comic formatted comic looks like an old-style Archie digest. The content is altogether different. The best way to describe the high concept of this comic is Half-Baked meets Primer by way of Ed The Happy Clown. Two guys sitting around getting high (one of whom, Whitey White, is depicted as almost completely blank and devoid of detail) get mixed up with experimental weed that somehow opens a door into another dimension. What's great about the story is that Barrett manages to breathe life into what very easily could be two-dimensional characters. Like Tales To Demolish, it's a fun, unpretentious and loopy story that is effective on its own terms.

One thing I like about all three of these comics is that Williams is dedicated to actually publishing comic books, not just graphic novels or collections. The comic book still has a throwaway, ephemeral quality that is part of its charm, and the comics I discuss here exemplify that trait nicely. They traverse a number of comics traditions: weird 4-color adventure, trippy underground escapades and quiet, personal ruminations. These comics nicely balance the longer and more complex books that Williams also publishes and show that while there's a certain feel that Sparkplug comics have, it's difficult to pin down.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Autobio Minis: Shapiro, Harbin, Coovert, Baylis

Crushable: Ricky Nelson, Crushable: John Lennon, and The Hand Game, by Janice Shapiro. I read the first iteration of Shapiro's Crushable series in an online anthology, and it's a clever twist on the sort of sexual history comics that MariNaomi and David Heatley have done. It's a history of the crushes she's had on a variety of pop cultural figures from her girlhood to the present, which is an interesting method of getting at other formative events in her life over the years. Shapiro's line is scribbly and messy, leaning toward simplicity when depicting herself or her sister but more toward a scratchy realism when depicting her idols. In Ricky Nelson, six year old Janice crushes on the squeaky-clean TV and pop star, and that crush is a gateway toward discovering that her older sister's best friend loved Nelson as well. That gave her the in she needed to essentially take over that friendship, so long as Ricky Nelson was involved. Shapiro depicts this miraculous, almost utopic time when the two of them danced to Nelson's records and sat arm-in-arm when he was on TV, earning Janice the right to even get invite over to her friend's house. When Janice accidentally destroys the speaker of her parents' "hi-fi", so too is the friendship dissolved without that cultural medium. Shapiro notes that her crush was essentially transferred from Nelson to her friend, and when that ended, so too did her cultural infatuation.

John Lennon speaks to a different phenomenon. When the Beatles broke in America, Paul McCartney ("the cute Beatle") was the most beloved member of the group amongst teenage girls, and John was the least adored. Not so for Shapiro, who loved John but was forced by peer pressure to renounce that affection in favor of Paul. Shapiro muses on why she felt that connection, from sensing his leadership & intelligence, to the first sign of possessing a masochistic personality to an existential understanding of the darkness that lies at the heart of everything--but ultimately seems to chalk it up to the notion of the fact that we can't control whom we happen to fall in love with on any level. What's interesting is the shame she felt in later years for lying about it, a lie that betrayed her aesthetic sensibilities as much as anything. Speaking of masochism, The Hand Game is an interesting anecdote about playing this particular slap game with her father. The game is one where both parties hold out their hands and one person puts their hands on top of the other person's. They then try to slap one of the other person's hands as hard and fast as possible. If they miss, then it's the other person's turn. What was fascinating about this anecdote was that her father was considerably better at it than she was but refused to take it easy, leaving her hands bright red from slaps, even when she asked him if he'd take it easy. At the same time, each time he offered her a chance to end the game, she refused. Afterwards, her sister demanded to play the game with him. This was an interesting metaphor for the things we do to get attention from our parents as children, no matter how painful it might be.Shapiro reminds me a bit of Lynda Barry, both in terms of the crude but enthusiastic nature of their lines and the wistfulness with which they discuss the children in their stories.

Diary Comics #4, by Dustin Harbin. When Harbin handed me a copy of Diary Comics #4, I told him, "I thought you said you were done with diary comics." He replied, "I had something to say." Indeed he did. Rather than the simple exercise in daily comics making (and a slow, tentative reveal of Harbin's inner demons) that marked his first three entries, Harbin here tentpoles a harder look at himself and the way he interacts with the world around events that force him to interact with others, namely comic-book conventions. Harbin's self-image as he presents it in the strips in the first half of the book is earnest, slightly goofy and self-deprecatory, often setting himself up for a gag. That all changes with "Boxes", a five-part series of strips that takes up the second half of the collection.

"Boxes" is by far Harbin's densest, harshest self-examination and it's probably the best thing he's done as an artist so far. The first three sections deal with the long break in autobio strips, the vagaries of the passage of time, a brief reprise of the funny and perceptive report he did about Canada's Doug Wright Awards at the Toronto Comics & Arts Festival (TCAF), and a brief recapitulation of the sort of strip he likes to do about conventions. At the end of each part, he stops the story cold and alerts the reader that this is a diversion and isn't what he really wanted to talk about. That in itself is an interesting meta-device that clues the reader in that Harbin is avoiding something. In the fourth part, we get to spend a lot of time in Harbin's head as he prepares to go do a post-awards dinner with many of his comics idols. Harbin is self-conscious to a degree where it's no longer so much about saying something stupid or offensive, but rather doubting the very possibility of communication itself. Harbin very cleverly plays around with time, space and point of view in this strip, eventually fading into Kevin Huizenga-style pastoral scenes as a way of representing his drifting mind, popping back into dinner at various intervals. I laughed when he started talking about dinner going well despite his feeling stressed in a regular word balloon (rather than a narrative caption or thought balloon), only to have Chester Brown interrupt him by saying, "Dustin, we can hear you.".

The last part of "Boxes" focuses on a review that Tom Spurgeon gave him on Diary Comics #3, where he says "The result is a comic about a life being lived for the sake of presenting amusing comics". I'm not sure I entirely agree with that point of view, given Harbin's strips about dealing with depression and other insights into his own feelings. I do agree that Harbin is almost afraid to talk about the way he perceives the feelings of others. Harbin's reaction was to agree with the review to an interesting extreme: he says "One thing I've learned, in the process of doing these comics, is that I'm fake, very fake..fake like 'pretend to be...something' then forget that you're pretending." In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Even as Harbin writes that he sometimes has trouble making real connections to people because of the way he has constructed their personae in his mind, the self he projects is kind, curious, self-reflective, funny, goofy and awkward in a sort of endearing way. Sartre has said much the same thing about identity in that the masks we think we wear are who we are in a real sense, or at least part of who we are. Harbin seems not so much fake but unmoored, as the self-image he projects is built on the shifting sands of depression. That's a harsh realization he shares on the last page of the comic, where he understands that he's stuck with the arduous task of recreating his self on a moment-to-moment basis or else find a way to fix his foundation. The latter is an even more arduous task, in part because the "how" in doing so is elusive (therapy? medication?) and mysterious even before trying to do so. That realization goes beyond the kind of deflective self-deprecation of earlier strips to the essence of a problem that goes far beyond the ability of self-expression on the page to handle. Leaving the comic without a pat answer for himself or the reader is an act of courage and an eloquent, if perhaps not consciously intended, response to Spurgeon's critique. As a reader, it was the first time that Harbin's used his top-notch rendering skills to provide a counterbalance to weightier matters, and for the first time I find myself drawn to Harbin's work for something other than its sheer charm. I wasn't wrong in my last review when I mentioned that Harbin seemed ready to move on to something more substantial than his preceding Diary output; I just didn't expect that substance to come in the form of another autobio comic.

So Buttons #5, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. Baylis continues to improve both as a writer and a self-publisher, as this comic looks attractive without being too slick. The eye-catching cover by Tom Scioli, dramatizing a pet-related anecdote, is funny because it allows Scioli to do his usual kinetic shtick ("covering" Jack Kirby) with an an otherwise quiet comic. The actual story, "So...Extracted" was drawn by Paul Westover in a full-color, slightly cartoony style that didn't take away Baylis' anxiety about his pet getting some dental work done, but it did take away some of potential melodrama from the strip. "So...Caffeinated" was simply a great yarn of an anecdote, drawn sketchily by the also-developing Thomas Boatwright. What Baylis is starting to do well is give his illustrators space to have fun with his scripts; Boatwright's exaggerated figurework and the way he uses colors helps exaggerate the humor of the piece.

Switching gears, "So...Escalated" is almost entirely in black & white and contains an excellent gag about Schindler's List. Drawn by Noah Van Sciver in his trademark scratchy, heavily cross-hatched style, Baylis balances the intense gravity of having seen the film with a friend in a theater with a joke that out of necessity lightens the mood. Finally, "So...Brisk", drawn by Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, once again takes a fairly lightweight anecdote and gives it weight and structure with confident characterization and allowing the artist to do what she does best: pleasant, simple and expressive character work. The light purple wash balances the linework nicely, a nice complement to the story about Baylis initially ignoring what seems to be hokey advice from his mother, only to find that mom knows best (sometimes). Baylis made sure to assign stories that played to the strengths of the artists he worked with, something that Harvey Pekar did so well for so long.

Salad Days, and Simple Routines #14-15, by J.P. Coovert.If Shapiro's work is about revealing bigger truths about herself through anecdotes, Harbin's are about how hard it is to communicate in a meaningful way, and Baylis' are a way of expanding anecdotes into vignettes, then Coovert's comics have are largely about being present and expressing gratitude for those moments that inspire joy. Coovert hasn't drawn nearly as much attention as other grads of the Center for Cartoon Studies, in part because his output has been steady but simple. His work isn't boundary-pushing or revolutionary, but rather focuses in on craft, character and the electric feeling of aesthetic & personal connections. Coovert gives the reader that in small doses in Simple Routines, which mirrors Harbin's work in the way it details going to conventions, visiting friends and amusing interactions with his wife. Coovert doesn't use comics as a form of therapy or a way of venting frustrations; instead, this is a graphic document of the ways in which his life is fun and rewarding in any number of ways. There's an utter lack of pretentiousness as Coovert flits from anecdote to anecdote: he's a happy, well-adjusted guy who loves his wife, accepts his limitations and tries to patiently expand his horizons as an artist.

At the same time, there's an almost child-like glee with how he sees the world, even as the understanding creeps in that he's not a kid anymore. That feeling is explored in Salad Days, a story about spending a weekend with a childhood friend, with the idea that they'll spend the weekend eating pizza, playing video games and drinking soda. The comic is rife with asides about the compromises they're making in their everyday, responsible lives while wishing they could do exactly what they want to do, all the time. Wistfulness begins to dominate the discourse of the comic until Coovert's character decides that they should tip over a port-a-john as a nod to their days together as boys when they used to get into mischief. That leads to an inadvertent, frantic scamper away from a passing police cruiser, with Coovert realizing that he can't get in trouble for something so dumb. They manage to get away with it, literally reaching for the stars as they hide out by a river, only to find them out of reach. It's a sweet moment that brings presentness into their friendship, taking them out of pure nostalgia and creating a new, thrilling moment of connection. Sure, that moment came about through a juvenile act, but that act was a symbolic corrective for nostalgia. As always, Coovert's simple line and clear design sense made these and his journal comics quite pleasant to look at; his use of color in Salad Days is crisp and understated. I'm not precisely sure what kind of cartoonist he's going to evolve into at this point; I know he'll be illustrating some work for First Second, but I'm not quite sure what sort of writer he's going to be. It's obvious that he'll apply his finely-honed craft to whatever he does.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sequart Reprints: 3 Comics About Travel

This article was originally published at in 2006.
There's something particularly appealing about travel comics. Traveling involves beginning and ending points, making it easy to adapt as a narrative. By definition, travel stories almost always involve the narrator or protagonist doing something that's out of their ordinary frame of experience: they're in different settings and out of their daily routines. The eyes of a traveler are "new" eyes, observing something in their altered environment that a local might take for granted. Comics are especially well-suited for this because the artist can get across to the reader what a place looked like so much more effectively than with prose alone, yet can also modulate the degree to which they represent this realistically.

How the artist chooses to communicate what they've seen leads to choices that create some very different forms of what is essentially the same idea. O'Connor, the artist behind Journey Into Mohawk Country, is an illustrator of children's books who was fascinated by the travel journal of van den Bogaert, and he chose to flesh out those words with his own images. This journey into history was aided by extensive notes taken by the narrator, but the fact remains that this is an interpretation of an account of an experience, rather than a direct interpretation of the experience itself. Despite this, it's the most straightforward effort of the three authors cited here.

Mats!? chooses to make a first-person, anecdotal account of his experiences in Asia in Asiaddict. There isn't an actual narrative in sight, but rather an accumulation of observations, humorous asides and bits of weirdness. The result is both rollicking and reflective, respectful and smart-assed, morbid and mirthful. It's a playful book that manages to both give us a tour of the weird and disturbing in southeast Asia and provide a lot of practical advice for the off-the-beaten-path tourist.

Gary Sullivan takes the most poetic and oblique route in his interpretation of what he saw in Japan and Coney Island Avenue in two separate issues of his minicomic Elsewhere. Though the panels flow by as in a conventional narrative, the words are either unconnected to the images but juxtaposed against them directly, or are a divination of the images. The experience of reading this is quite different than the other two books. Though it's a narrative of a sort, the way the text is arranged makes it more of a visual experience.

Journey is all about the Dutch expansion of beaver pelt trade with the Mohawk tribe, and van den Bogaert's journey north to hammer out a trade agreement. Along with two companions, he pays assorted tribe members to guide him north. The journey during the winter was not easy, and the story is one stop in Mohawk castles after another. The account is pretty dry even if the details are unusual; at one point, van den Bogaert tries to buy a tame bear from a local tribe. The Mohawks are constantly demanding that he shoot off his gun to celebrate deals that are made.

The fundamental difficulty I have with the book is that the text and illustration are often in conflict with each other. It's as though o'Connor can't quite shake the whimsical choices he might opt for as a children's book illustrator, and as a result the way he chose to draw the story makes it seem far more lighthearted than the text would indicate. While the outsider's glimpse into the minutiae of Mohawk life nicely depicted culture shock and a great deal of interesting historical detail, the overly cartoony art and occasional digressions into slapstick didn't work for me. The narrative was businesslike, often dry and bordered on desperate at times. The facial expressions o'Connor chose to emphasize (lots of wide eyes, slack jaws and crooked grins) were often at odds with what was going on in the text. Sometimes this sort of juxtaposition can be interesting, but over the course of an entire book it proved to be distracting. I think that's partly because o'Connor mostly plays it straight in the way he told his story. If he had gone a bit further into absurdism and/or a non-realistic depiction of the story, it may have been more effective. Those problems aside, Journey Into Mohawk Country was clearly a labor of love for an artist who had long been fascinated with the subject matter and an interesting experiment as a comic.

Asiaddict was the most compelling of the three offerings here. By concentrating on the most lurid, weird and overlooked details of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Mats!? made every anecdote memorable. His visual style was a perfect fit for the tone of his observations: over-the-top, in-your-face and striking. There seems to be a bit of an EC comics influence at work here (especially the blood and guts that's prevalent at times), down to the bright and discordant use of color on some pages. While Mats' quieter observations (how to get around in Bangkok, tales of local writers, painters and architects, depictions of weird bric-a-brac) add a bit of quotidian weight to his meanderings, the real highlights come when he talks about the wilder sights.

That's best exemplified by his drawings and photos of the hard-to-believe "theme park" depicting Buddhist hell. That came complete with statues depicting torture, mutilation and other righteous punishments for the wicked. That is nicely balanced by his drawings and descriptions of ancient temples, both preserved and left to nature. When in Laos (the most-bombed country per capita, thanks to Nixon) and especially Cambodia, his humor becomes darker. Discussing the bloodthirsty idealogue Pol Pot, his subtitle is "Blood Brother Nr. One" as he discusses how the visions of one man led to the extermination of nearly a quarter of Cambodia's citizens. The most memorable tale he tells is of artist Vann Nath, a survivor of the most brutal prison in the country. He later went on to paint images of the torture he saw and experienced after Pol Pot was overthrown, as the prison was converted into a museum of genocide. Another vivid profile was of Akira, the "human mine sweeper". He's made it his life's goal to find every unexploded landmine in Cambodia, and maintains a small museum of his findings. The liveliness of Mats' exaggerated line combined with his wry observations made for an experience that was self-aware as to the author's own point of view while being completely unapologetic for that position. The result was a deeply satisfying read.

Sullivan's minicomics are quite a bit more abstract, yet still give a strong flavor of cultural clashes and information overload. Elsewhere #1 is his "Japanese Notebook", wherein he relays a variety of sights from his honeymoon in Japan. In particular, he depicts a number of advertising images, with accompanying garbled English phrases. The imagery shifts from traditional Japanese iconography to subtly warped Western depictions (usually in cartoon form) to the grotesque. The effect is distancing; unlike the other two comics noted in this review, there's no attempt at trying to make sense of what the narrator is seeing. Instead, Sullivan preserves the feeling of alienation and wonder that he experienced.

Similarly, Elsewhere #2 depicts similar phenomena even though this time the depiction was of a multi-ethnic street in Brooklyn. This time, the text is an adaptation of a poem about Coney Island Avenue, and Sullivan cleverly attaches the poem to the images he saw while walking up that same street. Unlike #1, which almost completely eschewed narrative in its use of text, #2's text seemed to flow from a beginning to an end. Of course, much of the text was a simple recitation of the sights and sounds from the street; much like in Japan, advertising was a central concern. In a densely populated city filled with populations and languages almost entirely unfamiliar to the observer, advertising is both bewildering and strangely comforting. Iconic depictions of things people want and need, and attempts to sell the same, are one thing that most people can understand. Yet their strangeness alters their context and meaning for the observer. That strangeness creates the poetic quality of the images and allows the text to follow suit.

Each comic plays around with different kinds of narrative styles, yet each one depicts a traveler on unfamiliar grounds. Whether that traveler is fully immersed (O'Connor), delivering omniscient commentary after the fact (Mats!?), or simply observing and processing pure information in offbeat ways (Sullivan) all three methods of storytelling rely on the fact that travel comics allow a creator to use a background that anyone can understand in order to experiment in other ways. Even if their intent is to depict adventure, humor or poetry, the tools are all the same.