You Were Swell #2, by Sophia McMahan. This comic reflects McMahan's interest in exploring alternative meanings in 1950s-style advertising art and romance comics. In particular, she's interested in the dichotomy between beauty as a social construction and the feelings of self-loathing that undermine one's own self-image. She also takes dead aim at the ways in which men are more frequently exempt from this self-destructive cycle and help perpetuate it, like in strips such as "Lothario From The Black Lagoon". This is a hilarious bit of satire featuring the sea monster from the titular Black Lagoon schmoozing and seducing woman after woman with cheesy pick-up lines like "Do you believe in love at first sight?" "Escape" talks about McMahan's own attempts to distance herself from her need to compare herself to others, in order to avoid plunging into the inevitable depression that this creates. It's accompanied by trippy images of blank-eyed women with a third eye, a four-armed devil woman, and other externalizations of her negative feelings.
Speaking of which, "Good To See You' is a devastating story that initially consists of blandly pleasant-looking people sharing inane conversational pleasantries. ("Wow you look great! It's been so long", "Thank you, how are you?" accompanied by cheerful if slightly blank faces. The last page of the story consists of one of the characters rearranging her face until it distorts into unrecognizable, inchoate flesh. McMahan specializes in this kind of body horror, the sort that gives an image to the sort of silent scream one can never unleash in such situations when one is expected to act in certain ways.
"Slip Away" and "Please" talk about fears regarding being hurt, being exposed and even fearing the experience of happiness, given that it will inevitably will slip away. It's less a sense of catastrophising one's negative feelings and instead being a realistic barometer of the way things are. Vulnerability is hard, and being rejected is painful. "Please" depicts two boxers sparring with text like "Please don't be mean to me" floating inbetween punches. It's a visceral way of getting at those feelings, both in terms of receiving punishment but also dishing it out because of a fear of being hurt. McMahan then turns around in "Are You Lonesome" and draws cheesecake beauty pin-ups with scales and webbed hands, challenging the male gaze and just what it is we mean when we say that we're lonely. Her subversion of the concept of beauty and what it entails emotionally, her depiction of the difficulty of communicating in a meaningful way, and her own willingness to graphically grapple with her own self-loathing make her comics quite a powerful experience.
The Seeker, by Liz Valasco. This is a delightfully creepy piece about a tween girl who slinks around her neighborhood, looking for a mysterious box and hiding it from a neighborhood boy. It has all the elements of being a cute Halloween story until shit gets real in its climax. What's interesting about this surprising culmination of ritual and belief is that things don't backfire on the protagonist. Indeed, the end of this comic promises more of a quest for truth and meaning than the typical reasons people try rituals, though the girl is not above scaring the boy she encountered earlier. Valasco's think line, cute but naturalistic drawing style and use of a strategically-applied blue wash make this a an intriguing comic to look at as well as read. The page where the contents of the box come out is made all the more effective thanks to the use of dense hatching and cross-hatching, creating a genuinely unsettling atmosphere.
Great Heights, by MariNaomi (2D Cloud). This small mini came as a reward for those who subscribed to 2D Cloud's yearlong book subscription service or who ordered her book Dragon's Breath.. The window for joining that subscription has now passed, but I wanted to note that this little eight-page comic has an eerie charm. It's about a visit to the World Trade Center that MariNaomi made in 1998, where she and a friend went to the top of Tower 2. She notes that pressing up against the glass made it feel like she was falling, which was a secret fantasy of hers. The final image of the mini is that of a tiny airplane. It goes without saying that this fantasy could not encompass the horror of the events of 9/11, which makes that flashback juxtaposition so interesting, especially as rendered in MariNaomi's minimalist style.
I battle cancer at my day job, and write about comics & women's college basketball at night. I have feisty young daughter who is my test subject for all the kids' comics I receive.
I will happily review any comics sent to me. I especially like to review minicomics. Contact me at tmc [at] duke [dot] edu for more info or send your comics to:
New Address as of 1/18/14 is now 815 B West Markham Ave
Durham, NC 27701