Friday, May 23, 2014

More Minis: Adrian Pijoan, Graeme McNee, Jess Ruliffson, Matt Huynh

Ma, by Matt Huynh. This is a stripped down and expressionist companion piece to GB Tran's Vietnamerica in that it's an account of a family leaving an Asian country under stressful circumstances in the hopes of creating a new life overseas. In Ma (a word that Huynh informs us means "mother", "interval", "water" or "ghost", depending on the language), Huynh brings us the story of his parents while they were waiting to sail from Malaysia to Australia as boat people. That meanings of the word ma are reflected in different ways in the story. The connection between young Huynh and his mother is a crucial one in the story, especially as she constantly fears others taking him away. The story is all about Huynh's family waiting on the beach, desperate to get medical help and to be called upon as next to depart. Huynh draws the water in grey brushstrokes, giving it a spectral quality. That grey wash pervades and distorts the surroundings, turning a "beach paradise" into a hellish environment where food is scarce and everyone is desperate. There's one page where Huynh's mother just completely breaks down in sobbing, wracking tears after her husband left her to go to the doctor and the enormity and hopelessness of their situation hit them. There are also moments of hope, as their sons learn to speak their first words and provide a kind of light and warmth, even as the difficulty of how they will be provided for in the future is always at hand. In the end, when their names are called, their expression is less one of joy than of total disbelief. That's where the narrative ends for Huynh, because Ma in many ways is a book with a specific purpose: to provide a human face to those seeking asylum. The political climate in Australia now is such that asylum-seekers are now turned away and sent back, an attitude justified by scare tactics and scapegoating immigrants. It's an old story, one that's been told for over a hundred years in the US, and one that's backed up by nothing but fear. Huynh's book is compelling precisely because he turns that fear around and lets the reader experience the fear his own family faced while waiting for a better life. Without getting didactic or preachy in the least, he simply told a human story that other humans should be able to sympathize with, especially thus in countries largely settled by immigrants in the past. The sensitivity and power of his brushstrokes is held in check by a sense of restraint as he lets the images tell the story for him. It's less a lecture than an affirmation of the power of the family bond, a bond that should strike a chord in any reader. It's also a remarkable display of the depiction of body language, gesture and mood using that expressive, bold brush.

Invisible Wounds, by Jess Ruliffson. This is a simple and straightforward first-person account of a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the "invisible wounds" of the title. A comics journalist, Ruliffson boldly and clearly illustrates this account of life back home after the war. The vet in question starts off by talking about he surprisingly gets more compassion from civilians than from other ex-veterans, especially older veterans who have an axe to grind and see him as a convenient target. That's followed by a heartbreaking scene where he shares perhaps a bit too much with a neighbor, concluding with the statement "I'm not dangerous or anything." In the illustration above, Ruliffson captures the subtle and sad changes in expression as both parties found ways to exit the situation. In calm but plain language, he details how his emotions had become frayed since coming back; witnessing "cruelty would send me into a rage". He started to lose time when he would suddenly simply freeze and dissociate. Once again, Ruliffson is up to the task in illustrating this account of him laying down tiles and mortar, craeting a panel made up out of clocks and black & white tiles and showing the passage of time. The comic is full of simple and elegant solutions to storytelling problems. The one page where Ruliffson doesn't quite stick the landing is one where the vet relates this moving anecdote of being with his young daughter and the seriousness of her expression after he voices his thoughts about her growing older. Ruliffson didn't quite capture the girl's expression and in fact makes a rare error in trying to over-render. This isn't especially surprising for a young cartoonist, as children are extremely difficult to draw. Still, this is a short and moving comic that shows Ruliffson's great promise.

Minimal Comics Volume One, by Graeme McNee. With McNee's comics, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each comic in this small volume printed in color features three vertically stacked columns, each depicting the subject in a sequential manner. Some like "Shy", featuring a blank background in the first panel, a simply-drawn head barely peeing into the second panel and then a blank background in the third. Each strip is a sort of meditative problem-solving exercise, as McNee (a Scotsman living in Japan) seems fascinated by depicting simple events through time in a vivid but entirely stripped-down fashion. As a result, some of the strips have what amount to punchlines, while others are simply descriptive. It's almost an exercise in phenomenology, really, as McNee labors to describe one thing over time, removing other, competing subjects or concepts. There's not much more to these strips than that, but McNee finds ways around his constraints to depict a wide variety of emotions and ideas, all rooted in time and space.

Botany Utopia and Thinking Like A Mountain, by Adrian Pijoan. A self-professed "cartoon ecologist", Pijoan's latest comics have wisely dipped much closer to the world of science with considerably less mysticism piled on. Botany Utopia is a perfect balance of Pijoan's life-long fascination with plants and the actual science behind photosynthesis. Using clever spot greens on top of a line that's sometimes clear, sometimes scrawled and sometimes in the form of diagrams, the whole comic is visually striking. Pijoan labors to make it an immersive experience, as even the lettering takes on a decorative quality, one designed to emphasize the more emotional and evocative points he makes. While the first part of the comic is about Pijoan marveling about how alien plants are, the second is about why leaves turn brown in the fall. That description is remarkably lovely and even poetic, and that's backed up by the way he draws falling leaves. Thinking Like A Mountain is about how humanity needs to take a long-form view of how they impact they environment, referring to the title as an example of that sort of thinking that is necessary. He relates an anecdote about cowmen killing wolves preying on some of their herd, without thinking that the wolves kept the population of deer under control. With no predators, the deer reproduce rapidly and strip a region's ability to sustain them and stay fertile. Pijoan essentially adapts an essay by forester Aldo Leopold, endeavoring to make the lettering resemble someone's own script as though they were writing a letter. This leads to an occasional lack of clarity, as does Pijoan's difficulty drawing people and animals in a naturalistic manner. Drawing plants is certainly his strength at this point, but he'll need to find a way to streamline and clean up everything else. That said, the concept behind this mini was compelling, as Pijoan zeroed in on the most interesting, immediate and visceral ideas from the essay.

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