Friday, May 30, 2014

Fantasy Minis: Christopher Green, Bernard Stiegler, Jamie Hibdon



The Reptile Mind, by Bernard Stiegler. This is a deeply weird, intensely-drawn comic about an intelligent, dinosaur-like reptile who adopts a neanderthal boy as the recipient of her race's knowledge and history. In a series of densely-drawn (sometimes stippled with fine detail) panels, the boy undergoes a ritual that brings him in touch with a ghostly figure. The story then segues into what appears to be the present, as a hunter and his daughter happen upon the reptile and manage to kill it. They then adopt the boy, who is frightened beyond belief. The meat of this comic is in the detail and the visceral quality of every drawing, as the reader gets to feel the sinew and bones being snapped and the sheer density of the jungle. It's an intense, brutal and yet strangely beautiful comic. There's a sense in which every line has meaning in terms of establishing the home turf of the reptile and her adopted son, especially at an emotional level. The hunter and his daughter stick out almost painfully, warping a familiar pattern. At its heart, the comic is precisely about warping those sorts of patterns, first in terms of the sacrifice and ceremony that gives the boy knowledge and then in terms of an entire way of life being extinguished and a radically alien one being introduced.



Where Ever Flows The River, by Christopher Green. This is a very good fantasy quest piece that's really about the ties of family and the ways in which their betrayals can feel so brutal. It begins with the death of the father of Kale, a young woman consistently frustrated by his many manipulative schemes. Of course, his will requested that she and his son-in-law take his body on a trip to the mountains for his final resting place. Of course, this turns out to be another scheme, one that winds up involving his granddaughter as well as his other family members in a bid to gain a certain kind of magical power. Green's character design for his fantasy world is just off-kilter enough to make the reader understand that this environment has different rules than our world. The elongated, oblong noses on each character are one such cue, in addition to the vaguely medieval setting. His line is otherwise simple and unfussy, relying on the beautiful and restrained use of color to truly flesh out the characters and their surroundings. The book looks hand-colored, with what looks like colored pencil, giving the comic an organic and lively feel. Once the quest portion of the comic really takes off, Green propels the action with key panels getting bigger to emphasize the nature of the threats and then smaller again to show how the situation is resolved in a frantic manner. This pattern repeats until the final threat occupies an entire splash page. Green's resolution of this story isn't through brute strength or magic, but instead a sacrifice that belies the father's scheming. The simplicity of Green's line belies the dark nature of this story and its mix of cynicism and hope toward family relationships.



Lingua Franca Comics Volume 2, by Jamie Hibdon. This collection of sci-fi and super-hero stories is all over the place, ranging from primitive, scrawled fights between aliens and robots that look like they were lifted from a sixth grader's notebook to a finely-rendered brawl between a dopey superhero and a rubbery alien. In the interstitial portions of the book, there are quieter, more thoughtful strips (like the one above) that hint at the book's overall themes of loneliness and helplessness. The more refined drawings are quite nice to look at, as Hibdon has a great understanding of comic book "physics", as it were: the ways in which superpowered characters bend reality around them and how to make fantastic actions seem naturalistic while retaining their energy. The cruder stories were hard to parse even at a basic level. Hibdon's mini, Star Seed, meets somewhere in the middle. It's a bit of space mythology featuring a race of rabbit-like creatures dedicated to seeding new stars in the heavens, until one of them is captured by a monster. It's clear that spontaneity and continuously maintaining the sense that this is work ripped straight from a notebook are priorities for Hibdon. Some of it is so loose that it lacks coherency, but Hibdon's gambles pay off at other points.



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Minis: Drawdoer, Reinwald, Johnson


Crass Sophisticate, by Josh Reinwald. Though apparently part of a larger series, this comic stands alone in its depiction of insane, deranged, drunken and otherwise out-of-control characters doing strange things. There are characters shitting themselves, vomiting on themselves and others, and pathetic alleyway fights between men with a variety of disabilities, many of them emotional and/or mental. Reinwald's art is a heavily hatched scrawl whose characters have a heavy black outline in order to stand out against the craziness around them. The panels are drawn freehand, giving them a tilting and wobbly character to go with the generally sloppy but dense artwork contained within. The 45 page story concerns Josh, a war vet with a bad leg, his roommate Justin (who seems somewhere on the autism spectrum but actually has a date of sorts lined up), a thrill-seeking woman Justin meets at his job bagging groceries, and the belligerent super of the YMCA they're staying at. The book devolves into a hilarious fistfight between Josh and the super, one where Josh makes himself a homemade Batman costume that sends him into a state of babbling psychosis, only to be rescued by Justin leaping off of a fire escape. This is a comic with the courage of underground-inspired convictions, never tipping over into irony or winking at the audience. Instead, we get an array of barely functional humans and their interactions, with all of their dilemmas, hopes and dreams taken absolutely seriously by the artist. The lust object Bethany, a "normal" person, is depicted as being far more fucked up in some ways than anyone else in the story. This is a story about rock bottom and the people who desperately cling to it for fear of somehow falling even farther, and its frantic energy and willingness to follow gags and ideas all the way gives it a strangely compelling power. This comic has dozens of cringe-worthy moments but crucially never laughs at its characters, especially when moments of action arrive. The more visceral and scatological elements of the book are less important for their shock value than they are for narrative and humorous reasons.



Be The Love 2 and Infinite Jest Tijuana Bible, by Jon Drawdoer. Be The Love is another edition of Drawdoer's grab-bag one-person anthology. It's trippy, philosophical and open-ended, as Drawdoer is fond of using genre trappings for far-reaching psychological exploration. The issue starts with Drawdoer taking the reader on a tour of his books and essentially talking about the ideas behind them. The essence of Drawdoer's comics seems to be a devoted attempt at tearing down the notion of binaries: gender, personal, health and otherwise. The first story, about an alien dentist obsessed with their father and family issues, cleverly uses sci-fi trappings to create an alternate society where gender is far more fluid but the difficulties surrounding control are all too familiar.Other stories involve a musician relating quotidian aspects  his life story, the importance of having personal projects and of course the meaning of music in his life. Another part of a serial concerns musical riots, zen resumes, and the power and importance of games. Drawdoer is part of a burgeoning comics movement I like to call the "psychedelic ink-spillers". That is, these are cartoonists whose work is deeply personal and autobiographical ("spill some ink", as the saying goes, meaning talk about things that mean something to you) but presented in a trippy or deeply allegorical manner. Even in the Infinite Jest Tijuana Bible, which explores a future where the President is a germophobe who smokes dope and has orgies with his assistants, there's a level of thoughtfulness at work. As he explains in the coda, Infinite Jest is a book that means a lot to a lot of different people; it's a soul-searching work of comedy, and he wanted to riff on that a bit here in a comic that was inspired by a DMT trip. Drawdoer does a lot of the comics equivalent of noodling on the page, but I have a feeling he's getting somewhere.




Star Fruit, by Gretta Johnson. This is another slice of psychedelia by way of Winsor McCay (the dreaming protagonist tossing and turning in her bed on page one is a hint of this), only it turns into a fascinating celebration of womanhood, identity and the notion of personal goddesshood. The young dreamer is visited by a crone who feeds her the fleshy "star fruit", kicking off a series of images and adventures inspired by a cross between Robert Crumb and Henri Matisse (the painting The Dance is explicitly referenced, for example). Of course, this crone is on the lascivious side, wishing not so much as to free the young woman as to keep her for herself. When the crone was revealed to be half-chicken, the woman quickly fled, with a nearby cat stretching out to give her fur. In the second half of the book, she meets a wise old man in her kitchen who claims to be her guardian, and they wind up in bed after he eats the star fruit. All along, the crone is still there, watching over in the form of a small bird. When the woman wakes up, the man is gone, having transformed into a baby. The comic is an odd subversion of the hero's journey crossed with the biblical myth of eating the forbidden fruit, In both instances, there's an oddly fleshy, visceral quality to the story that not only connects sexuality, spirituality and the intellect, it considers them all part of the same continuum. The woman at the end has a family of sorts, only the mother and father figures morph from sexual partners into children and pets. I'm not sure just how far to dig with regard to its symbolism, because the story makes sense on its own terms in that it posits that every journey is really a psychological and spiritual one moreso than a physical one, with the goals of enlightenment and change always available to those who seeks it right at home.Johnson's composition is rock-solid and her figures quaver and slither across the page in fascinating ways, modulated by intense but comforting use of color.

Monday, May 26, 2014

An Artist's Tour: 100 Crushes

On the surface, the formula for Elisha Lim's collection 100 Crushes is pretty standard fare for a cartoonist, especially one who has had a lot of work published on the web: collect bits and pieces of different strips, projects and ideas, as well as chapters of longer works. The result usually feels slapped together in a sloppy an arbitrary manner, acting mostly as an excuse to collect short works that are otherwise unpublished. To publish this as a debut book would be especially ostentatious, but the reality is that Lim's short work is far from ordinary and her comics stray from typical fare. Part of that, of course, is that as a queer, non-Caucasian, non-male, non-cisgendered person, comics from them published by a conventional alt-comics publisher are few and far between. Certainly, there was undoubtedly some awareness of that when Annie Koyama decided to publish Lim's comics, and Koyama has a track record as a publisher who has made a point of establishing diversity as an important value. Beyond the simple facts of Lim's identity, there is the more important fact they (Lim chooses to use "they" instead of "he" or "she" as an identifying pronoun, something they write about in the book) produce interesting, thought-provoking and funny images.

There is a sense in which much of Lim's work isn't pure cartooning per se, but rather illustrated text. The opening segment of the book, "100 Butches", is precisely what is advertised: drawings of "fabulous butch lesbians" from Lim's personal life, noticed from afar or from history. Lim brought each of them to life, and their handwriting is actually a key element with regard to the intimate nature of these portraits. My favorite was of blues legend Ma Rainey, but all of them were funny or inspiring or fascinating in some way. A number of the stories address racism and how many queer folks have to deal with that on top of their sexual identity. "Sweetest Taboo: Memoirs of a Queer Child in the Eighties", is a more lighthearted look at the ways in which culture was perceived by Lim and how it shaped their perception of self. From Pee-Wee Herman to the Thundercats to Ghostbusters", Lim provides a bright (almost day-glo, really) illustration and description for each of these influences.

"The Illustrated Gentleman" is an article about fantasies regarding and realities surrounding being identified as female but wanting to dress in men's clothes and shop in high-fashion men's stores. This was one of the sharpest and most thought-provoking features in the book, as Lim's drawings are spot-on and worthy of inclusion in a fashion magazine. However, the most powerful moment came when they described their father giving them a tie as a Christmas gift, a perfect tie for them that was like "a sissy butch dream." The gift was less important than the acknowledgement of "the real me", and the description of these feelings was heartbreaking. The most uneven part of the book was "Sissy", which was illustrated by Lim but written by different people who weighed in on the term "sissy" and what it meant to them. The results were both positive and negative toward the term, but the actual writing was hit and miss.

That's especially true in comparison to the first two chapters of "The Hong Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart", a story about an all-girl school in Singapore and the effect an American girl had on its students. I was actually frustrated at how short the excerpt was, because Lim had completely hooked me with their increasingly clever and intricate drawings that meshed perfectly with the text instead of simply illustrating it. "They" is a thoughtful series of interviews regarding gender, gender fluidity, gender construction and the use of the binary-erasing "they" as a replacement for gender pronouns. The illustrations here feel superfluous, even if the subject is interesting. On the other hand, "Jealousy" more cleverly meshes image and text in describing their frustrating experience with jealousy and the concept of polyamory.I think this story truly points the way forward for Lim in terms of its immersive qualities and the informative yet enigmatic nature of the images. 100 Crushes feels like an informal thesis project for Lim as a young cartoonist, with the most innovative and challenging work yet to come.

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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Minis: Ansis Purins, Lukasz Kowalczuk, Anuj Shrestha, Sar Shahar, Jared Rosello


Vreckless Vrestlers #0, by Lukasz Kowalczuk. This is an odd little mini by Polish cartoonist Kowalczuk about a wrestling manager from the future who kidnaps warriors from across time and space to fight for a championship with the motto of "one rule - no rules". With a fat, cartoony line reminiscent of Johnny Ryan (Prison Pit would seem to be an influence here), Kowalczuk uses a wordless approach (save for brief narrative captions) in introducing the eight characters who will wind up fighting each other. From valkyries like Barbarica to creatures like Vegan Cat and Crimean Crab, every aspect of this comic is over the top and blatantly ridiculous. Unfortunately, there's not much here in this "#0" terms of actual carnage for the reader to enjoy, but it would seem that the eventual payoffs will be visceral, silly and imaginative.

Magic Forest #1, by Ansis Purins. This is a collection of bits and pieces from the upcoming and longer Zombre #3. The concept here is a magic forest where some of its denizens are in alliance with human forest rangers, resulting mostly in goofy and occasionally violent gags. Purins has solid comedic timing that particularly shines through in a strip about an elf desperately asking a ranger for aid against the Spider King and his army. The ranger, of course, had been contacted by another ranger about a spider infestation in a cabin, but Purins strings things along amusingly with the elf relaying an epic tale until the ranger reveals a secret weapon: a can of "Spider B Gone". In another strip, a ranger tries to get official information out of a mermaid who doesn't speak english, chastising her that nudity isn't allowed on the beach while desperately asking her to keep singing. What makes this comic interesting is the way that Purins balances bigfoot drawing, traditional fantasy character design and naturalistic drawing. The remarkable clarity of line allows Purins to juggle all three styles while still retaining a coherent overall visual approach. Part of the reason why Purins does this so well is the consistency in the way he depicts gesture and expression; even characters drawn in different styles tend to act and move in the same recognizable set of patterns, one that's heavy on body language to such an extent that a reader could ignore all dialogue and still understand the comic.

Genus 3, by Anuj Shrestha. The third issue of this crazy conspiracy/sci-fi/horror/mystery comic ramps up both the mystery and the craziness while still retaining its signature crisp, restrained style of art. The plot follows an office worker who first dreams that there are multitude of others whose heads have been replaced by vaguely obscene, bulbous plants. Then he realizes that he's become one of them and is guided, Matrix-style, by a phone caller who seems to be able to watch his every move. In this issue, he poses as a plant-executive, having gained control of the ability to transform, and is again guided to a building where his two subordinates are killed by his savior, another plant-headed man. Of course, things once again aren't exactly as they seem, as our protagonist winds up tied up and injected by his supposed savior while being given a speech about corruption and being expected to behave. Shrestha's line is incredibly thin and precise as the suits he draws are as crisp and clean as the plant heads he draws are bizarre and disturbing. It's difficult to review just a single issue of this series, as it's obvious that there's much more that's going to be revealed, but so far it's a fascinating critique of corporate culture and science told through sci-fi tropes, but designed to be as clean and antiseptic as possible in terms of its execution.

Sequential Vacation II, by Sar Shahar. Secret Acres picked up the follow-up to Shahar's excellent first issue in this "travel" series, one in which the vacation is more of an imaginative one, one that draws a person out of their daily life. That certainly holds true in this issue, "Beach Fantasy". Grids are a key element of Shahar's art, omnipresent in his character's lives even as they try to find ways to break free of their boxes. It's no accident that the more fantastical aspects of Shahar's stories often have splash pages as opposed to the rhythm of a four panel grid or two panels on top and one panel on the bottom. After the opening fantasy sequence, the reader is literally presented with a huge grid: a sheet of graph paper that essentially makes up an office building. When that building explodes (literally destroying the grid), we see that our protagonist is watching a 3D movie in a theater, the idea of destroying the grid firmly implanted in his imagination. The next image, that of a hand scanning a UPC symbol on a flowery shirt, is a clever one because it's once again a splash page. The shirt represents fantasy triumphing over the grid, a dream of something else. Of course, the reader is then reminded that the grid is everywhere: on the cashier's computer, on the tile at the ice cream stand the hero goes to next, on the buses and in the city of Los Angeles itself. Wearing that fantasy shirt, the reader can see that he has a dating profile up on his computer ("Who's up for drinks?) along with itunes blaring, suggesting a party. We see the image of two beers being clinked, only to discover that it's on TV and the man is drinking alone. The man watches the box (TV), clicking from channel to channel in a dispiriting series of panel-to-panel transitions, the evening ending with a bomb on a TV show laying waste to its environment--in much the same way the evening has been a devastating failure, with the spilled cheetos and box of bagel bits a depressing reminder of this "party". The sun turns into the moon, which regenerates the beach fantasy, with a mystery man reappearing on this fantasy beach and a squeeze on the knee while boating providing a moment of aching delight. Of course, the final two pages contain the odd image of what appears to be a factory on the shore, with twin smokestacks framing the final image. Shahar has an uncanny knack for portraying the desperation of loneliness in a clever and frequently funny manner, using familiar imagery in unusual ways. When he has enough stories to fill up a book, he'll gain a considerable amount of attention for his work.


The Well-Dressed Bear (Will Never Be Found) Book One, by Jarod Rosello. Told in a narrative style not unlike Edward Gorey (and there's a touch of Gorey to be found in the page design and even some of its decorative qualities), it's about a bear who starts getting weird, unwelcome phone calls. The third chapter is when it starts to get cooking, when the Bear leaves his brownstone home to go about his business in the city. The city, however, is a bombed-out and decaying wreck, something not at all addressed in the narrative. There are almost hints of City of Glass to be found here, in that "it all started with a phone call" and that identity plays a key role in the story's proceedings. The narrative turns from simple description to balancing paranoia and even desperation. Rosello's crisp linework and rubbery, looping arms remind me a little of Megan Kelso's comics. I'd love to see this mini eventually reprinted at a larger size, as it would highlight the decorative quality of some of the pages more emphatically.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Minis: Nick Sumida, T.V. Alexander, Jordan Shiveley


Baybeez, by T.V. Alexander. This is a short, nasty and funny mini about babies, drawn in a grotesque and visceral manner. The results are absurd, hilarious and disturbing, like one strip where a woman seems to get pregnant from a toilet seat and then immediately starts giving birth to baby after baby, until all that remains is her skeleton. That strip was like a deranged cousin to the Chester Brown classic "The Man Who Couldn't Stop Going". Some of the strips are excuses to draw out puns, like "Babies shaving babies". It's an all-too-short collection for a clearly witty cartoonist.

Snackies II by Nick Sumida. This is a killer collection of gags that manages to work loneliness, pathos and a sharp satirical eye into a single, attractive package. Sumida is a great writer who sloughs off the self-loathing one would expect from this kind of comic with a powerful wit that results in real laughs. As an artist, he uses a clear line given weight and texture by making the entire comic red (this looks like the work of a risograph) and then adding extensive use of zip-a-tone and other effects. The lettering is not unlike Edie Fake's hand, a sort of cross between an old EC Comic font and a mechanical font. At the same time, Sumida shows some affinity for Michael DeForge style body horror, sneaking it into strips at key moments. What's amazing about his comics is that he manages to breathe new life into tired subjects like internet dating and personal ads in general. In "Meeting People Is Easy", Sumida describes using the hilarious "Arm's Length Method Of Intimacy Aversion (Practiced by 'Children')", including methods like throwing wads of wet paper at them, abstaining "from ordering food and just flick your tongue over the surface of a glass of tap water", etc. The slight cuteness of Sumida's drawing style is immediately subsumed by the sheer weirdness of his images. An ever better strip is "How To Deal With Stress", where Sumida tells friends he does things to let off steam, and we cut to Sumida setting fired to a car, taking a chainsaw to a mannikin while yelling "you're not my father", and more. Sumida stacks the deck with gag after gag, and then ends the story with a killer punchline. He skewers the narcissism of missed connections personals with one about mistaking his own reflection for another hot guy in an increasingly ridiculous set of scenarios, while trying to come up with a witty good-by phrase like his friends leads to an ear-piercing and glass-shattering scenario. I could have easily read another hundred pages of gags like this. Sumida's sense of pacing, page design and character design are all top-notch. The red tones got to be a bit much after a while, but they did create an interesting reading experience. This is a cartoonist who's ready for bigger things and deserving of a collection.

Rejoice, by Jordan Shiveley. This is a funny book of shorts by publisher/editor/designer Shiveley, whose Grimalkin Press has published some good-looking books. This is a collection of short strips about mice facing existential crises, relationship problems, and of course dilemmas relating to desire in the form of cheese. It's an interesting comic read right after Sumida's, considering that Shiveley has some similar points to make about relationships and loneliness, with a similarly cynical and darkly witty voice. A number of the strips don't have punchlines, as such, but rather painful endings (like the one above). Shiveley provides a number of punchlines after the fact with his index, with listings like "callous disregard", "disheartening truth of our situations" and "moment you realize she is leaving and nothing you can say will stop it" all getting multiple citations. Shiveley's line and page composition are remarkably open and light, yet he still manages to squeeze a lot of emotion and pathos out of these mice characters. The comic works because it provides a simple and even cute layer of imagery as a buffer for these painful emotions and thoughts. By not even attempting to anthropomorphize these mice, Shiveley wisely just lets their ids do a lot of the talking. Sex, death and sustenance resonate on every one of the pages, and Shiveley is wise not to overplay his hand. Instead, he keeps things light, crisp and in motion, as one strip bleeds into the next with few defined stops. If this strip was a form of therapy for Shiveley, I'd like to see more of it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Reading Ray Ray Books

Cartoonist Cody Pickrodt has formed a micropress in order to publish not only his own series, Reptile Museum, but also the comics of cartoonists Emma Louthan and Laura Knetzger. Let's take a look at the initial output of this new publisher, Ray Ray Books.

Reptile Museum #3, by Cody Pickrodt. This was an interesting issue because it brings up issues regarding the ethical behavior of its protagonist, "Pants". In this post-apocalyptic setting, Pants' abilities and past are still something of a mystery. Having impressed a young woman named Gristin in the previous issue, he seeks to impress her further by taking her on a tour of the titular museum. That involves leaving her for a moment in the dark in a room full of scaly creatures and then kissing her neck when he returned. While Pants believed that they engaged in consensual sex, Gristin's reaction when he finally tracks her down says otherwise--that she believed she didn't have a choice. In Pants' point of view, he was trying to impress her and thought he had simply seduced her. Pickrodt was bold in painting an already complicated protagonist with the brush of sexual assault, and I'll be extremely curious to see how this incident affects the rest of the series. Visually, the big change in this issue is going from black & white to a single, bold blue color. It's an effective change that complements Pickrodt's open page style, wherein there are no defined panel borders and sequential transitions are more organic and fluid. Note that Pickrodt is offering subscriptions to this comic.



Club Queen Rat King, by Emma Louthan. Louthan is quickly becoming one of my favorite young cartoonists. Her combination of a slightly ratty line, distorted character design, dreamy and weird settings, and frank but funny embrace of sexuality and style give her comics a feel all their own. I'd classify what she's doing as her own brand of Immersive comics, meaning that text, line and image blur in such a way that the reader has to carefully and willfully enter the world that Louthan creates on the page. The comic must be read on its own terms or not at all. That said, Louthan provides any number of visual cues and entry points for a reader. The first page appears to simply be a number of lines bifurcated by a solid vertical line in the center of the page. When one turns the page, we see the lines are curtains of a club, and we meet the titular "club queen". This comic is done in gold and blue, and Louthan isn't afraid to cram a lot of detail into very small panels. Sometimes, that creates a blurry mess, but Louthan turns that to her advantage in trying to create a disorienting environment for the reader in the bizarre club that's run by blobby figures. They beg her to work for them as a bartender and to tend to the Rat King in the VIP room. The comic is about rarity, beauty, and the slow acceptance of something horrible as actually something beautiful. It is also about the manipulation of image, aesthetics and fashion. There are a lot of layers to unpack in Louthan's comics, which are dense in more ways than one.



Flowering Vine, by Laura Knetzger. This comic is in two colors: blue and green, as Knetzger essentially takes a look at herself and her own growth through a series of anecdotes, drawings and thoughts all loosely connected as a sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative. The story is one of advancing and retreating, where her ambition is to always move forward and create but occasionally retreat when feeling broken. The loose narrative is frequently beautiful and poetic, with lines like "I made in myself a shining iron heart capable of molten romance" standing out in this back-and-forth series of illustrations. The comic has one serious flaw, and it's that the illustrations in it are superfluous. All of the text in this comic could easily be read as a poem without losing an ounce of meaning if the illustrations were removed. While the illustrations are attractive, they are all rather on the nose in working with the prose, rather than the prose and images working together to create something different. It's an illustrated poem and not comics-as-poetry, making it more of a visual exercise rather than a fully-formed hybrid work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Poetic Images of Kimball Anderson


Kimball Anderson is a cartoonist experimenting with abstract comics, comics-as-poetry and other interesting techniques for creating offbeat forms of sequential narrative. In particular, Anderson seems interested in juxtaposing dialogue against abstract or shadowy images. For example, I Don't Get It can be interpreted in a few ways. Judging from the dialogue alone, it's about one person trying to evaluate and negotiate his relationships with several other people through a conversation with another friend. The person feels misunderstood, even as they judge the motives and things other people have said to and about them. The dialogue is presented on each page with a number of captions, each one being a blurred series of color splotches. It's like trying to look through a window in the rain, or see your reflection in a dusty mirror. One interpretation of the comic is that this is actually a monologue spoken in front of a mirror; lines like "I just feel like...I'm a reflection of everyone I've ever met" seem to offer that up as a hint. Another take might be that the shapes and colors represent emotions and feelings, and there seems to be something to that as well--the patterns do not feel random.

Hands 1: Objects feels more like a writing exercise/phenomenological investigation. Drawn in a photorealist style in pencil, each drawing of a hand holding a new objects asks questions like "What is it?", "How does it feel?", "Are there memories in it?", "Is it a symbol?" It's a clever concept, especially at the end when the objects are post-it notes containing questions, giving the whole comic a recursive quality. It's phenomenology-as-narrative, as each question is designed to evoke a feeling but also to use the evidence of one's senses to truly consider objects beyond their average, everyday understanding of them. Inside features full-color, cartoony art with an interesting panel design concept. In this story of an extreme agoraphobe told from his point of view, there's not so much a traditional panel-to-panel set of transitions as there as a cascade of images contained in panels, each loosely connected to the patches of text that make up the narrative captions. It is a sympathetic portrait of someone trapped by mental illness, one where the narrator tries to pathologize himself as little as possible and even explore certain creative and comforting aspects of his condition. Anderson's skill is evident in all of these experiments, wisely keeping them all relatively short.

Anderson's full-length "poem comic about not being ready to let go", Okay Okay, combines the narrative and visual elements of their other comics. Instead of speech balloons, there are narrative captions, some of which are dialogue and others of which are told in the third person. The character design is naturalistic on some pages and sketch & cartoony on others. There are single-color washes used on some pages, smaller uses of spot color in some panels and the occasional large color splotch on others that look like water color paint drippings. The resulting atmosphere is dreamy, halfway between creating life on the page and letting the reader know that these are lines and splashes of paint on paper, that it was constructed and built. There's always a sense where the reader and characters alike are being kept off-balance. Characters build up barriers, while others come close to touching but veer away in an asymptotic fashion. Even when some characters touch physically, Anderson points out that this isn't the same as letting them in emotionally. The book follows a twisting, spiraling path around the relationships of several characters, some of which are real and others of which are fantasy. An all-pervasive fear of touch, of allowing one's self to be known by another (in all senses of that term) pervades the book as different characters attempt to cope in a variety of ways, with art being the most obvious response. Anderson suggests that true connection can only occur when one's fantasies and self-deceptions are stripped away, a process that sometimes requires a tremendous leap of faith. That's just what happens at the end of the book, as two seemingly separate stories suddenly merge as two individuals who experienced isolation and connection with different results come together, with a truer path laying ahead of them. Anderson is still in the stage of figuring things out as an artist in terms of style, technique and approach. There is occasionally a labored quality to Anderson's work, and it lacks a certain fluidity at times as a result. That was certainly true in Okay Okay, their most ambitious comic to date, but one senses that the rough patches in the comic (mostly in terms of body language, bodies in space and other spatial issues) are ones that will be smoothed over in time. Kimball Anderson is certainly a promising addition to the small pool of cartoonists specializing in comics-as-poetry, and Anderson's focus on both ontological and social concerns makes these comics especially intriguing.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Trajectory: Youth Is Wasted

Noah Van Sciver has reached the stage of his career where a collection of his short stories is appropriate and even overdue. Culled from his series Blammo! as well as several anthologies and a stand-alone comic, the collection Youth Is Wasted is an amusingly titled account of precisely what Van Sciver did in his youth: work his ass off at the drawing board in a quest to get better in public. It’s an ideal introduction to his comics, focusing on Van Sciver’s tales of desperate losers, urban decay, the often fruitless search for meaning and connection, and maintaining hope in the worst of situations. The stories all feature an abiding sympathy for these characters; these are his people. There are also a few stories that feature Van Sciver’s more whimsical and just plain weird tendencies. Like Dan Clowes, Van Sciver is a gag man at heart. It’s just that his punchlines tend to be on the darker side.


As such, “The Easy Life” is a sort of invocation for the book, as a one-pager that features Van Sciver’s amusing and somewhat pushy narrative caption voice, urging a worker to quit his job, live under a bridge, kill his boss, etc., promising great rewards. Navigating the line between drudge work and being an artist is a constant sub-theme in Van Sciver’s comics, with the fantasy of getting off that treadmill a pervasive one. “Abby’s Road” was an early breakthrough for Van Sciver, as he notes in the artist’s commentary at the back of the book. It’s about a loser Juggalo recounting his brief relationship with a girl in high school and how his jealousy drove her away in spectacular fashion. While the protagonist is kind of scummy, Van Sciver’s achievement in this story is getting the reader to feel sorry for him.


Throughout the book, Van Sciver sprinkles in one to three page stories and fairy tale adaptations to act as a sort of palate cleanser for the reader. The best of these are “It Can Only Get Better” and “I Could Be Dreaming”, along with “The Wolf and the Fox”. The first story is about a 19th century cartoonist and not only his prominence in society, but the hilarious amount of fantasy latitude he has with society as a whole: he can pretty much kill or fuck anyone he wants, at will. The second story plays on Van Sciver’s love of E.C. horror, as the narrator takes us through waking up to find a repulsive creature rubbing all of the things you love most on its disgusting penis—up until a “twist” ending. The fairy tales give Van Sciver a chance to show off his greatly improved chops, as they’re chock full of dense cross-hatching, beautiful decorative borders and excellent drawing in general. “The Wolf and the Fox” is not just a fairy tale, but also an account of an abusive relationship and how the Fox manages to escape it through his cleverness.


“Who Are You, Jesus?” was another early breakthrough. Van Sciver has a knack for crafting slice-of-life stories about losers who nonetheless have a redeeming quality or two. This one is about a guy who finds a wallet belonging to a cute woman. He initially thinks to take the money, but his own words spoken at a job interview (“I’m a good person”) come back to haunt him, and he returns the wallet. Initially, things really seem to be working out well when they get drunk and hook up at his apartment, until he not only realizes that he’s been played, but that he was now in worse shape than before he started. It’s a grim but fitting ending that has an almost E.C. Comics moral sensibility, albeit one with a great deal of heart, as we actually feel for the protagonist.

“Because I Have To” is a more sentimental story about a young man whose younger brother dies in a car crash. On Halloween, he happens upon a young girl who’s lost and helps her trick-or-treat while they look for her brother. Van Sciver’s commitment to character and the rhythms of his dialogue make the story effective. It’s not so much verisimilitude as it is Van Sciver’s unusual voice underlying everything he does. When the protagonist of the story is asked by the little girl if he has a girlfriend, he replies, “Who are you? Terry Gross? No, girls don’t like me. It’s the desperation vibe I give off. Forget about it. You’ll understand when you get older.” There’s a certain flat simplicity to his dialogue that works well with the bluntness of his imagery.

“1999” is my favorite of Van Sciver’s short stories. It’s the most clever and complex of his comics, filled with a grim sense of doom and ambiguity that’s tied to the Y2K panic. His lead character, Mark, is a college dropout who works at a sandwich shop and falls in love with Nora, a fellow shift worker who claims to have an open marriage right before they engage in daily sex on the job. Things naturally go awry. The ending of the comic, beautifully set up with a clever bit of foreshadowing, turns the drama entirely on its head after pulling the reader along through sequences that seem to make no sense, all against the backdrop of a doomsday event that never happened. That Mark will have to keep on living the same miserable life is not explicitly stated, but it seems the obvious outcome. Van Sciver’s line and layout skills have become refined without losing any of the raw, nervous energy that’s always been a key element in his comics. He varies his layouts from page to page, slowly adding more panels per page as the comic proceeds and things get more suffocating for Mark. Zip-a-tone style effects are added during both sex scenes and larger images of emotional turmoil, equating the two as a kind of vertigo. He’s great at drawing plain-to-ugly characters wearing drab clothing who slouch a lot. This is a funny comic about sad people, which is starting to become a specialty of Van Sciver’s.



"Expectations" is yet another excellent relationship comic by Van Sciver, who seems to hit on new emotional angles every time he tackles a new story like this. This one is about a guy who fell apart when his longtime girlfriend suggested "a break" and who completely disappeared from her life and the lives of their friends. The storytelling device of the park that was a pauper's cemetery is incredibly clever, since the whole story is about the past, and in particular, the ways in which we poorly handle our pasts and the people in them., He has a real knack for getting across the awkwardness but also the potential for magical connections that can be found at a party.

Published by AdHouse, the book unsurprisingly looks attractive in a modest and minimalist way. It's a softcover book with French flaps, underneath which are yet more gags. It's well-edited and sequenced, subtly showing Van Sciver's growth in a chronological fashion with regard to the longer stories but also pacing those stories with lighter fare. As such, there's a pleasing rhythm created in the book, giving the reader plenty of rest stops along the way. Youth Is Wasted is a substantial collection, one that provides both an introduction to and an insight regarding the evolution of Van Sciver as an artist. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

More A-Holery From Lance Ward

Lance Ward first came to my attention with his autobiographical collection K-Mart Shoes. It is one of the most honest, blistering and brutal series of autobio strips I've ever read, as Ward recounts a youth filled with indifferent and later abusive parenting, mental illness, and bad decisions leading to an arrest. Drawn in a loose, expressive manner on a steady 12 panel grid, Ward's talent for narrative storytelling shone through on every page. Ward does other kinds of cartooning, including raw, brutal and scatological gags collected in (Lance Ward Is An) A-Hole. If his autobio comics are a way to coherently analyze and address the many painful incidents from his life, then his humor strips are a way for him to let off feelings of rage. That is personified in his absurd Tater Tot Diaper Man character. He's a guy wearing a diaper with a dirty pillow case on his head who sits on top of buildings that throws M-80s (his "tater tots") at random passerby. Sometimes he dispenses his wrath in a just way, and other times he's just a symbol of mayhem. There are other pointlessly vicious characters like Pink Eraser Head (the name says it all), a muscled meathead who inflicts harm on the likes of poor saps like Colostomy Bag Joe. Ward frequently finds ways to subvert his own creations, like in one strip where a winged demon bursts through a window, wanting to discuss his feelings with a woman. Another is a strip where Pink Eraser Head gives Colostomy Bag Joe a "testicular exam" (grabbing his balls and mashing them), only to have a look of horror in the next panel. The payoff panel features Joe at the doctor, being told he has testicular cancer. It's a brutally hilarious, nihilistic gag that shows the brains behind the mayhem.

The second issue isn't quite as funny as the first; its descent into nihilism rivals the early issues of Ivan Brunetti's Schizo for the bleak, violent and fatalistic vignettes depicted in this comic. It's a less focused comic, one that goes from railing against injustice to a random act of violence in the blink of an eye. It's less colorful and has fewer coherent gags than the first issue, even if the drawing is excellent, maintaining its raw power while tightening up across the board. As in response to that approach, the third issue is much tighter, featuring just two stories. The first is the origin of his character "Lord Harold", a disfigured misanthrope who recounts years of prison abuse just to get information on a repository of fabulous wealth. This is a kind of warped, sci-fi story that features some excellent drawing, repulsively grotesque character design and grim, dark laughs. The same can be said of the second story, "The Apocalypse Chronicles", features Ward's familiar autobio caricature going up against the zombie apocalypse. What's funny about this strip is that it's really not all that different in tone from his other comics in terms of the horrors and hypocrisy of civilization. The zombie apocalypse is just a little more honest about it. Both of these stories were interesting because they deviate significantly from Ward's 12 panel grid that he uses for quicker, more expressive work. Here, he frequently works big, employs a lot of greyscale shading, and varies his panel and page design. If he wasn't so clearly meant for humor and satire, Ward could be a fair genre cartoonist.


The fourth issue was a real breakthrough."One Day In 1978" and "Another Day in 1978" are informed in part by his experiences of growing up in a suburb with little to do, and they feature a key element in all of his comics: how parental and familial relationships often degenerate into simple, brutal power relationships. In the first story, a little kid discovers some violent comics by a neighborhood teen named Ronny. His stepfather, Bill, confiscates every thing he does like from the kid and puts it in his tool box. Bill owes money to a cocaine dealer who is getting angry and anxious about getting paid. Ward sets up the dominoes and they begin to fall when Ronny steals the toolbox and stashes it in the bushes. The kids, in search of more comics, find the toolbox and start looting it. Ronny comes by and starts savagely beating one of the kids, until a frantic Bill comes along and demands the cocaine, which has been thrown away, which starts him savagely beating Ronny. That continues until the dealer comes by and savagely beats Bill, caving in his face much like Ronny's character did in the comic he drew. What's especially remarkable about this story and its sequel is the way Ward captures the warmth and importance of young friendships and the impulse to create one's own adventures in a boring suburb along with the low-level dread of random acts of violence being perpetrated upon you. The second story focuses more on that friendship between the three young boys; while it has a no-holds-barred quality in terms of dialogue, there's also a sense of sweetness and naivete. At the same time, there's once again that circular relationship with violence, as the bigger fish metaphorically devours the smaller fish.

Wit's End is a collection of stories more in the vein of K-Mart Shoes, only divided up by various subjects. Unfortunately, the version I saw was in black & white with greyscaling, instead of using the beautiful and narratively efficient water colors in his first book. It's not a dealbreaker, to be sure, as the art and writing are still both quite good, but Ward's use of color made K-Mart Shoes truly stand out. That said, this comic employs the loose, spontaneous style he prefers for his autobio pieces and thus is filled with that same sort of casual energy, paced along the pre-set 12-panel grid. The story divisions allow Ward to write in terms of shorter vignettes and loosely-connected ideas rather than the kind of chronological narrative he attempts in K-Mart Shoes. This looser strategy also allows him more moments of humor and comic relief in what is otherwise an in-your-face and honest portrayal of Ward's struggles with his mental health, physical health and history of trauma. Sections like "Kid Stuff", "Of Banners and Buffoons" and "Boot Camp" all relate fairly amusing anecdotes, either as a collection of one-pagers are as a short vignette. They balance out "Heart Attack" and "Dopes to Infinity", which are about his health problems and his crumbling marriage, respectively. There are chapters about the joys and pitfalls of drug use, but the most absorbing chapters are about becoming a cartoonist again after abandoning it as a teen and a variety of Ward's crazy friends. There are hints regarding the deeper, darker stories that Ward tells in K-Mart Shoes and elsewhere and there are certainly moments of despair and struggle, but Wit's End is largely an upbeat, funny comic that draws from both his autobio and his humor work. It's an excellent place to start for one curious about Ward's work.

After I finished this column, I received a copy of Ward's sequel to K-Mart Shoes, titled Adults Only. The events described in the new book make Ward's difficulties in K-Mart Shoes look like a birthday party. In this slender volume (about eighty pages), Ward returns to his crisp and vivid watercolors for his autobiographical comics, colors which help to heighten emotions and fill in blanks. The first chapter picks up right after the end of K-Mart Shoes, when Ward has managed to graduate from high school after overcoming any number of obstacles that included but were not limited to an abusive step-father, an indifferent biological father and a fickle mother. Ward's modern-day caricature frequently pops up in order to provide perspective and commentary, and there's one powerful scene where he recalls being intentionally shunned by his father's family after graduation. Modern-day Ward gets so angry in one panel that the lines threaten to fall apart, and he disappears altogether in the third panel. Some old hurts and betrayals simply don't get better when discussed.

While many of the stories told by Ward were upsetting, nothing compares to the second chapter. As he writes: "One day I woke up to discover that I was in a mental hospital." Ward had somehow managed to "lose" an entire year's worth of memory while dealing with the realities of being in an institution. This is a harrowing chapter, less so because of the hospital itself (which Ward credits as helping to save his life) and moreso because of the sheer terror of being alone, unwanted and having lost a huge chunk of one's memory and identity. Once again, Ward's use of color is clever: in the early part of the chapter, it's entirely black & white. Slowly, Ward adds a little color to his face but no other colors. As the chapter progresses and he slowly starts to get better, more color creeps back in. Much of the rest of the book is framed by a device where Ward actually gets to talk to a therapist for the first time in his life, as he slowly starts to try to piece together memories. He wound up in some horrific situations, like living with two co-workers who physically and then sexually assaulted him. The third chapter talks about a relatively more stable time, when Ward had a live-in girlfriend and a steady job at an adult bookstore. This raised other questions for Ward regarding his sexuality, which he talks about in a painful but cathartic way. Throughout the book, Ward manages to address a number of situations he got mixed up in with an absurdist's touch of humor, recognizing ridiculous events for what they were. At the same time, that blank year remained blank, despite some clues discovered here and there. It's a horrifying ending, even as Ward proves again and again that he's a survivor in the face of little to no support. Ward has no easy answers for himself or the reader; even as the steward of his own narrative, he proceeds in fits and starts, unsure of where to start or stop regarding certain parts of his life--especially those parts that he can't remember. This is rough, spontaneous and engrossing cartooning.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Another Kickstarter To Consider: Speculative Relationships

Tyrell Cannon asked me to put up a link to his new kickstarter campaign for an anthology he's doing with Daniel Warren Johnson, Isabella Rotman, Mike Manomivibul, Scott Kroll and Rinko Endo called Speculative Relationships. Cannon was behind the very interesting Gary, an account of the Green River Killer. The concept of the anthology is mixing science fiction with romance fiction. Please consider checking it out.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Hunt: A.Meloro, J.Willems, S.Wiedeman, L. Milevski

Let's take a look at some minis that talk about being hunted, hunting after something or experiencing a life of being set up as prey.


Funnies, by Anthony Meloro. The three one-page stories and the accompanying purely decorative pages speak to Meloro's aesthetic: raw and dirty on the one hand, and densely but abstractly beautiful on the other. The stories here are about restless people hunting for relief: a man getting his fortune told, one that indicated he'd never get out of his rut; one where two professionals examining a corpse are struck by its similarity to an old lover; and a man giving into seduction somewhat releuctantly. Meloro's figures are shadowy and even ephemeral, eliciting emotional reactions with a remarkably sparse amount of detail. His narrative captions are similarly terse, yet they work hand-in-hand to create that atmosphere of longing, of things out of our reach--or worse yet, desires fulfilled in a less than satisfactory manner. The strange color of the cardstock used and the texture of that cardstock only add to the comic's strangely appealing qualities.


The Lettuce Girl #4, by Sophia Wiedeman. This is the last chapter in Wiedeman's reworking of the story of Rapunzel. It's a story about bad parenting, absent parenting, selfish parenting and the effects that each have on children. Hazel, the Rapunzel stand-in, has been locked in a tower her whole life by her false mother. The (implied) witch acquired her thanks to Hazel's father cowardly promising her to the witch after stealing lettuce from her garden, lettuce that her pregnant mother demanded. From the very beginning of the series, Hazel is fed a series of lies and simply accepts them because it's all she's ever known. She's kept in the tower for her own "protection", even as she longs to see the world. When Hazel manages to break free, thanks to a talking serpent looking for her mother, she learns that her "mother" was not entirely in the wrong. She winds up being drawn to a gingerbread house, where she's being fattened up to be another witch's dinner. This take on the story about mothers and daughters is more of a feminist version, one where there are no male rescuers who swoop in to save the day. Instead, Hazel has to figure out her own salvation. Meanwhile,her "mother", who has grown another child from magic seeds, finds that controlling the fate and behavior of your children is an impossible task. When Hazel and her "mother" meet again toward the end of the book, Wiedeman's storytelling is excellent. Framing them in the background of each panel, so as to keep them just barely in the sight of the reader, their conversation is private, intimate and clearly ultimately healing for both parties. When they part, they know it's for the last time (there's no longer any place for Hazel in her mother's life), but they parted with a far greater understanding of the other. It's an emotionally powerful moment of forgiveness on the part of Hazel in particular, but also for her "mother", who had previously reacted as though Hazel was a piece of property rather than her child. Humanizing her was Wiedeman's most intriguing innovation in this story, as was having the ocean in front of Hazel and her serpent companion at the end--what better symbol for the unknown? Wiedeman's line is a pleasing mix between loose and dense. The characters all have a loose, expressive quality that gives the entire story a spontaneous feeling. One can sense the energy on each page as the panel-to-panel transitions are smooth and fluid. At the same time, Wiedeman isn't afraid to use dense hatching for her forest scenes or a more delicate and refined line for other key scenes, like the vast tower and finely-rendered forest in the background of an embrace between Hazel and her "mother". The entire story is an understated study in balance, in terms of the visuals, the narrative and the characters themselves.


The Wild One, by Laila Milevski. This is a disturbing, visceral story drenched in dense blacks about a teenage girl lured by a wizened woman into performing a ritual to appease the jungle's jaguar goddess. The only problem is that girl backs out at the last second before the ceremony is over, leading to disastrous consequences. The aftermath of the event forms the latter part of the mini, as the old woman has not only disappeared, but has seemingly slipped out of everyone's memory, leading the girl into the jungle for her own encounter with the jaguar. Milevski crams a lot of panels onto each page, which serves to create a sense of claustrophobia as well as heighten tension and suspsense by forcing the reader to jump from panel to panel. This is a story about alienation, folklore and the consequences of crossing certain lines. The main character, Camilla, essentially had her fate sealed the minute she started talking to the old woman, even if she didn't know it at the time. Of course, her fate is an ambiguous one in the sense that she is now entirely severed from society--it's neither happy nor sad, it's just new and savage. The story is all about rules and rituals, and how fragile they can be. It was interesting that while the backgrounds in the jungle scenes were all drawn in a lush manner, the backgrounds in the other scenes were frequently blank. Part of this was to add clarity to scenes with lots of talking heads, but that lack of background detail in Camilla's daily life was telling in some ways. This was another smart, gritty effort on the part of Milevski, whose other comics have explored the frequently violent and troubled relationship between civilization and nature.


The Fatal Marksman Act I, adapted by Jaime Willems. This is actually Willems' second crack at this story, adapted from the Thomas DeQuincey story "The Fatal Marksman". It's about a young man named Willhelm, who's hoping to earn the hand of Kate, the daughter of a huntsman. Her father refuses the union because his son must be a huntsman in order to keep the land in the family. The reason this was so because his ancestor who originally won the lands as a reward from a nobleman was accused of having used a "devil's shot" to kill his prey--unerring but demonically-rewarded aim. To continue to defend the family's honor, each descendant must prove his own worth. Of course, Willhelm is a writer, not a hunter, but the end of the first act sees him gain aid from a shadowy figure. Willems' adds a bit of depth and richness to the story by starting it off at a carnival, with a carny barker setting theme and adding some potential portents on the first page. The key difference in this version is really in the art. Willems' figures are so dark as to appear to be woodcuts. Eyes are deep and sunken and every line is thick, with hatching looking like dense shadows and the frequent use of spotting blacks creating an atmosphere of dread. The features of the figures are slightly grotesque, appearing almost to be marionettes thanks to their exaggerated cheeks and eyes. Willems' frequently curvy and erratic panel design adds to that sense of distortion and unreality that the book evinces; even the structure of the page itself can't be depended upon by the reader. Even though nothing bad happens in this comic, Willems has created an atmosphere where one expects things to fall apart at any moment.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Street Fightin' Men: Iron Bound

Brendan Leach is building up a resume of works that focus on specific urban environments in specific historical eras. Behind that urban setting lies the real theme for his comics. For example, in his first book, The Pterodactyl Hunters In The Gilded City, Leach uses a fictionalized New York around the turn of the 20th century as his backdrop. However, the story was really about a young person who desperately wants to be in on the end of an era before it comes to a close, especially because his older brother was such a key part of it. In his new book, Iron Bound (Secret Acres), Leach grounds his story in the gritty streets of New Jersey in the early 1960s, as we follow two young toughs with different goals in Eddie and Benny. As the story begins, the duo are riding a Greyhound bus back to Newark when the twitchy, angular Benny picks a fight with another passenger and winds up stabbing him to death.

There's a grimy, squalid plot involving a crooked detective and some corrupt small-time operators in Newark and Asbury Park. That plot is beside the point and acts just as a structure for Benny and Eddie to react to and be manipulated by. The real essence of the book is the relationship between Eddie and Benny and the ways in which they want to evolve. Benny is a psychopath who glamorizes the idea of being a gangster thug, but it's his inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality that make him unstable and unreliable. Eddie takes a taste of gangster life and regrets it, wishing to get out of the life, only to find that once you've eaten the forbidden fruit, it's not so easy to cross back. That first scene, though out of context for the reader, is really the scene where both men reach a crossroads in their life. Having tasted being the pawn of a manipulative gang boss, one who gave him the assignment of murder, Eddie decides he wants no more part of it. Having crossed the line into murder, Benny wants to be a player, not kept on the sidelines.

The book bobs and weaves its way through time, filling in events via flashbacks. Other characters, including sisters and love interests, are introduced to provide context and subjects of frustration. Eddie is a character who has earned the respect of others but knows that he's made a mistake he can't take back. Benny is completely incapable of owning up to his actions ("Jeez--chill out, Eddie!") and winds up nearly getting killed for his stupidity. Like a shark, he's too stupid and vicious to die. Eddie's loyalty to his friend is one of his several admirable qualities, but being loyal to a psychopathic killer is something likely to bite you in the ass, and that's precisely what happens here when it comes time for the characters to either accept or deny their roles in the scheme of things. In the end, Benny is content to be a murderous cog because it makes him feel like a big man, and Eddie isn't quite smart enough to realize that loyalty means nothing. It's a bleak ending to a bleak story, but one that rings true in every respect.

Leach brings the era to life with a scratchy, expressive line that looks like Gipi and Ben Katchor teamed up to draw a squalid tale about losers in a bygone American urban setting. The heavy use of blacks and the tastefully employed grey wash is reminiscent of Katchor, especially in the way he draws buildings and cars in a manner that feels real and authentic without going for naturalism. Benny in particular looks and acts like a Gipi character--all angles and attitude, with any semblance of an inner life left entirely opaque to the reader. If Benny is drawn like a jagged piece of glass, then Eddie is drawn all in squares--solid, dependable and even a bit slow. Their relationship is fascinating to me because the story doesn't depict it as symbiotic in any way; if anything, Bennie is a leach. His relationships with women reveal that any deviation from his desires might result in violence. Yet Eddie stands by him for no discernible reason other than history, a decision that winds up dooming him. Like in The Pterodactyl Hunters, Iron Bound is a story of two young men linked together in differing positions of power, and how those positions change by the end of the story. The tragedy of the book is that while Benny relishes flicking his switchblade into its killing mode, he really possesses no more power than he did at the beginning of the story--and in some ways, he is considerably diminished. The lesson that Eddie learned is one that Benny won't be able to process; one day, he'll just be tossed aside. The way that Leach creates a tense and exciting story without glamorizing the violence and gang lifestyle is perhaps his greatest achievement with this book.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Hospital Week: Updown Clown

Whit Taylor's hospital story is a fictional one, and it takes place in the psych ward of a hospital, not in one of the general inpatient wings. There's no question, however, that her book Updown Clown is very much about what happens when one lands in the hospital for an illness. In this case, it's mental illness at work here in this story of a professional clown with bipolar disorder. To be sure, the concept of a depressed clown creates an instantly understandable set of reversed expectations, one that could be almost too on the nose if Taylor wasn't so careful in terms of treating the subject and the character with great sensitivity and empathy. The character of Gabe the clown is presented as sympathetic if flawed, with the doctors he meets trying to divine the environmental as well as chemical reasons why he wound up as bipolar. This form of disorder is best known to laymen as "manic-depression", meaning that the person cycles between periods of intense energy and euphoria and then cycles down to crippling depression. It's the sort of depression that literally prevents one from getting out of bed. Gabe is initially presented as someone resistant to the idea of this diagnosis, even as the cyclical nature of the illness emerges repeatedly throughout his life as Taylor depicts it.

The book is divided between two narrative timelines, one beginning with the event that sends Gabe to the hospital and seeing him through to his discharge, and the other starting with the day he met his future girlfriend until he reaches that critical breaking point. The book flips back and forth between the two timelines, which are more or less linear other than a flashback scene to childhood during a therapy session. One thing that's immediately noticeable about the comic is that Taylor clearly did a lot of thinking with regard to her use of panel layouts. Rather than sticking to a four or six panel grid, she varies that format on an almost page-to-page basis, often going to an unusual 3x2x3, 2x3x3 or 3x2x2 set-up. This allows her to "zoom in" on her characters and emphasize facial expressions and body language during key scenes, like when Gabe is confronted by his long-suffering sister in the hospital. Taylor is limited in terms of her draftsmanship, but this book is full of her finding ways to work around visual problems by concentrating on keeping the actual drawings as simple as possible while working hard to ensure the actual page design provides a fluid experience for the reader. Her difficulty drawing things like hands is offset by her skill in drawing facial expressions, and the close-ups she uses on these expressions is a good example of a visual work-around that she uses. The one difficulty I had at first was differentiating between the two narratives; there aren't any kinds of visual cues like a different line width for the panels for past sequences that would have made that flashback easier to process. Once into the book and armed with the understanding that the story would flip between sequences, it became easier to process this, but it's the one formal problem in the book that lacks an elegant solution.

Taylor made the bold step of publicly declaring that bipolar disorder was something she struggled with herself (type II a far milder form than Gabe), giving her a unique bond and understanding of this character. There is the occasional use of narrative captions that provide commentary here and there, but Taylor wisely uses them sparingly so as to allow the characters to tell the story themselves without too much of an overarching voice tying things together for the reader. Through Gabe, Taylor explores a lot of issues related to mental health. There's the resistance to a mental illness categorization and the sense of resentment when one's everyday behavior is pathologized by a doctor. There's the struggle with being medicated and its side effects, especially for artists who find themselves feeling deadened by either the medication or its side effects. That often leads to a sense of feeling "cured" (especially during an up cycle) and abandoning one's medication altogether, as Gabe does multiple times in the course of the book. There is the feeling of guilt and shame that is felt when one understands what the disease does to one's loved ones. Regarding those loved ones, Taylor painfully and accurately depicts that toll and how it can play out, as Gabe's sister feels drained and his girlfriend eventually leaves him. Most importantly, while the end of the book depicts the conclusion of a narrative sequence, Taylor refuses to put a bow on it and declare it a happy ending. It's simply a chance to become functional again, one that could be used or squandered. There's no "cure" here, just the possibility of life-long management.

Taylor didn't set out to do a primer on bipolar disorder the way that Ellen Forney did in Marbles. Instead, she chose to track a character with whom she spent time establishing and fleshing out through his moment of greatest despair, kicking off his hospital stay with an inadvertent gag on his part--tripping on one of his oversized clown shoes and knocking himself out, full of an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. While he claims that his intent was not one of suicide, Taylor points out it didn't matter all that much--it was only a matter of time. I appreciated Taylor's portrayal of the health professionals in the story, depicting them neither as saviors nor demons, but rather people trying to figure out the best way to help.  With Updown Clown, Whit Taylor has taken a major step forward in this bracing character study of a clown struggling with bipolar disorder who wakes up one day to find himself in the hospital. She depicts his illness in a restrained, sensitive and empathetic manner, emphasizing human relationships above all else.