Boatfire #1, by Kevin C. Pyle. When you read a comic by Pyle, one can be assured of two things: that it will be thoroughly and impeccably researched, and that it will have a powerfully argued point of view. This one is about death, and in particular its fetishization and cultural impact during certain critical periods during history. Pyle fixates on the idea of the momento mori in art, and how during the Black Plague era in Europe in the 16th century, this kind of imagery became highly prevalent. In essence, the images were reminders that in all aspects of life, death was lurking. Pyle then makes the connection between art created during the plague and how punk rose during an era in the late 70s and early 80s when nuclear annihilation was still considered a real possibility. He also connects punk to 1950s-era nuclear paranoia and how the cultural reaction in the 80s was in many ways a recapitulation of the 50s. By way of fascinating anecdote, he recounts living in Lawrence, KS, during the filming of the landmark TV movie The Day After, which depicts life after nuclear war. Pyle later posits that it was punk's very denial of death through nihilism that allowed him and many others to process the unthinkable and come out the other side. He then connects that to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, two works of art that look squarely into the void and acknowledge what it means. In an incredibly clever panel, he has a group of kids blasting out a loud song on a road trip, only it's the words to The Wasteland ("This is the way the world ends..."). By embracing the idea that the fragile structure of society might one day end, it reduces the anxiety of losing one's hold on that as the foundation of sanity. Pyle is a smart, clever cartoonist in terms of his visuals, depicting himself as an anthropomorphic vulture throughout the comic, because what better animal could there be in terms of circling around death.
Drawing Is Hard, by Adam Meuse. This talented artist from Cary is one I've always thought was deserving of wider recognition. His latest mini is the best distillation of Lynda Barry's "two questions" I've seen with regard to the creative process. The two questions are asked by the artist regarding their work: "Is this good? Does this suck?". In this mini, we see the artist in front of an empty sheet of paper as their brain pulls up a seat beside him. The design of the brain is both cute and grotesque, with eye stalks sticking out of its brain-body and tiny arms and legs. The brain used a subtle but powerfully manipulative and persuasive line of argument that would make Socrates proud, in which he tries to make the artist quit drawing. He even got the heart to come over and tell him he didn't "deserve to make anything good. You're not really a good person." Any doubt that the artist expresses as to what ideas to follow are seized upon by the brain as more reasons why he should quit. The mini ends with the brain going to bed and the heart furtively whispering encouragement. Meuse here gets at the essence of the struggle of the artist, because no one can argue themselves into being creative or feeling their art is worthwhile. While cognition is involved in making art, it's not a cognitive process per se. Instead, it's something more akin to a mystical or subconscious experience, just as experiencing art is. It requires a deliberate choice to make, but once the pen hits the paper and the tactile, visceral experience of drawing begins once again, that's when suspension of judgment (a purely cognitive process) ebbs. As Meuse hints at, the brain can manipulate emotions to trick the artist into not creating, often using the act of creation as a referendum on one's very worthiness as a human being. Meuse notes that this is only a trick, however, and when one can separate feelings from judgment, it's possible to pry oneself away from the two questions. For a simple, cute comic done with an open page format with four panels a page, there's a remarkable amount of complexity to be found here.
Next Week In New York City!, by John Kerschbaum. Kerschbaum is one of my favorite humorists, combining dense hatching with a goofy, cartoony approach to figure design. He uses satire, gross-out humor, wordplay and occasionally oblique imagery in telling his jokes, but it's fair to city that he loves jokes involving city life, and New York City in particular. This mini is a collection of four-panel strips that "predict" upcoming life in NYC, with most of the gags being specific and provincial. So there are jokes about local politicians (the Anthony Weiner joke is pretty clever), alternate side of the street parking and the cicada invasion that require some knowledge of the city, but there are also plenty of gags about social media, pollen and art--along with scatological jokes. Kerschbaum is not at his funniest when given these kinds of constrictions, but he still manages to craft some truly excellent pages, like the gag about sneakers hanging from electrical worries (a familiar image), then an umbrella hanging, then a plastic bag--and closes with a barefoot guy with an armful of groceries getting rained on. Most of the jokes in this mini aren't as good as that, though Kerschbaum compensates by hammering the reader with gags in every panel and even employing some running gags.
Left Empty Book One, by Alan King and Jamie Vayda. The King/Vayda team usually write stories about King's wild days and crazy anecdotes about sex, drugs, drinking and rock 'n roll. Vayda's dense and cartoony line combines heavy stylization (often verging on the grotesque and/or absurd) with thick hatching and cross-hatching that creates a moody but rubbery atmosphere. Usually, this is used to depict scenes of debauchery. In this comic, we follow a clearly upset man coming home and drinking til he blacks out and Th breaking down in tears. The first half of the story follows him dealing with loss and trying to self medicate, and the second half goes a bit further back in time when we learn it's the writer himself, and that his wife suddenly grew ill and died. The exaggerated and even trippy imagery that Vayda uses was put to use illustrating nightmares and emotional breakdowns, and it worked surprisingly well. Beyond a simple expression of loss, this series promises to be about the ways in which grief and even mourning are not one-time experiences, but rather are experienced over and over again--with the pain being fresh each time. Medical bills and old greeting cards are artifacts of that grief, transporting the mourning individual back to the original time and feeling of sadness that is so profound that it is somatic in nature--tremors, wracking sobs, etc.