Monday, June 27, 2016

Saying Good-Bye To Sparkplug: Lee, Sakugawa, Smith, Cardini

Nearly five years after the death of Dylan Williams, his eventual successor Virginia Paine has decided to shutter Sparkplug Comic Books. In the interim, she published a few projects that had been ongoing and introduced the world to some interesting young cartoonists. She did a fine job of continuing in Williams' memory by being true to her own aesthetic and interests and published some strong work as a result. This column will review the last few original publications from Sparkplug.

Vortex, by William Cardini. This is the collected edition of Cardini's interesting four-issue series that was more about texture and shape than it was character and story. That's OK, because watching Cardini cycle through his Mat Brinkman influence by drawing the entire thing on a computer asks the reader to consider each image as an image, both in terms of its over gestalt as well as its individual component. He works so big that the dots in the zip-a-tone effects he uses are enormous, reminding the reader that what they're seeing is computer-generated. That trick offers a layer of humor to the proceedings, as the story's protagonist (The Miizzzard) at one point bites the arm of an opponent and eats it. It's more like a video game effect than the more visceral experience one might get from the "warmer" environments that Brinkman creates. The story follows the galactic traveler The Miizzzard to a planet of living weapons who beg him to destroy their central control circuitry. That's pretty much the entire plot, as the Miizzzard has to go through a series of trials that attack his sense of reality and identity, expressed by Cardini as a series of wavy lines, repeated patterns and psychedelic effects. Here, the artificiality of the line and the "cold" effect the reader feels actually advances the narrative, as the Miizzzard must break through the illusion. Only the Miizzzard is continuously depicted with a thick, defining line, befitting his status as the most solid, "real" character in the story. Most of the other characters are grey-scaled blobs without that sort of defining line, which allows them to melt and warp on the page. Above all else, what this shares most with the Fort Thunder aesthetic is that this comic is an exploration of space and environment, only Cardini finds a way to depict its total otherness and alien qualities rather than warmly taking the reader on a tour. Only the Miizzzard stands in for the reader, and he's as baffled by what he sees and experiences as the reader is. The ultimate result is Cardini's most ambitious, eccentric and amusing project to date.

Ce/Ze, by Suzette Smith. This is a fascinating, unsettling story about two high school girls who become friends and share the same dream: of one of the girls dying in a girl accident. They come to believe that they're aliens who have lived past lives, which informs their friendship, their relationships with other friends and how they act around their parents. I love the way that Smith draws each figure: Amelia wears huge, almost bug-eyed glasses, while Honey's appearance is almost always deadpan. They both have a sort of alien, almost reptilian, presence at times. Smith strikes a balance between a portrayal of the ways in which friends can develop their own language and identity apart from societal approval and understanding with a genuinely fantastical story that unspools itself, bit by bit. That said, Smith always leaves a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. Are Honey and Amelia really remembering their past lives together? Did Amelia get murdered several times in different lives by a male, kingly figure? Are they aliens, fairies, or something else? Will the outcome be different this time around? Is there fantasy relationship a sublimation of their attraction for each other? Smith provides no easy answers, but does create fascinating connections between the characters. Whether or not those connections are real, synchronicity or pure fantasy is left for the reader to decide, but there are certainly enough clues to tantalize the reader. The muddy, murky drawings in pages with panel-less borders adds to the dreamy quality of this comic, as Smith wants a slightly strange, disorienting visual experience for the reader.

Bird Girl And Fox Girl, by Yumi Sakugawa. I was greatly impressed by Sakagawa's recent Ikebana, and one can see the leap she made from this comic to her more recent work. This comic is a sort of modern fable that begins with the relationship between the titular characters being severed, and the rest of the comic is the fallout from these events. We never learn why they were torn apart, only that it scarred both of them so deeply that they literally became different beings as a result. Bird Girl got an operation that turned her into a human, got married and had kids, which is as clear a metaphor for identity self-erasure as I've ever seen. Fox Girl becomes a model who specializes in dangerous settings, a drive toward self-destruction by way of conforming to gender stereotypes. The two eventually find their conventional lives fragmenting, leading them both back to the desert from whence they came, but their reunion only recapitulates the pain they felt. Sakugawa's voice and point of view are sharp and bold, but her line isn't quite as refined as it would later become. Simply put, there are a lot of drawings that just don't work in the context that she's trying to create, and it's distracting. An example is a drawing of Fox Girl wearing a mask, only her mouth is clearly drawn too far to the right on her face. There are a lot of images that are clearly meant to be singular and striking, but they just don't have the impact that was perhaps intended. Still, this is a fascinating comic from a thematic point of view, and Sakugawa's deadpan, almost cold narrative voice is an interesting contrast from the actual events of the comic.

A Wretch Like Me, by Ebin Lee. This is not a narrative, per se, in the sense that there's not a linear narrative on a page to page basis. However, there's no question that Lee is telling a powerful story in these pages. The subtitle of this comic is "Sad/Black/Ugly/Queer", and it's all about the ways in which feeling like the Other in a space dominated by the dominant hierarchy can be so devastatingly alienating. I'm not sure if the dysphoria that Lee refers to is gender dysphoria (feeling like one is in entirely the wrong body) or a more generalized dysphoria, a general dissatisfaction with one's own skin in general. Regardless, the above image encapsulates that sense of frustration that one can't simply choose another body to take off the rack. Another theme that Lee elucidates is being black in white spaces, with a nightmarish image of hands tearing at his head with the caption of "Can I touch your hair" indicating the way that sort of microaggression can be amplified in an unsafe space. There are images of Lee's face melting as he looks in the mirror, another where Lee is trying to rescue a black shadow of himself. Lee's images are often so dense that they appear to be etched, like in a two page spread of a "mammy" on one page and a crying face eating watermelon on the next, captioned "Trapped in the white imagination". Another page notes the pain of invisibility (erase of race, gender, and identity) with the danger of visibility in a public space. This comic is a howl of truth, flipping from painful image to painful image almost like a fever dream.

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