Winners, by Anna Ehlremark. The excellent comics store Floating World (in Portland, OR) has been publishing their own comics for quite some time now in addition to being one of the best comics stores in the US. Publisher Jason Leivian has made it a point to publish comics from the most obscure and challenging margins of the alt-comics world, and his most recent batch is no exception. Winners, by Swedish native Ehlremark, is unlike anything else I've seen from that country. Part of that reason might be because she's spent a lot of time in the Balkans like Serbia and Croatia, and it's clear that the political and social unrest in those countries over the past twenty years has had a profound effect upon her work. Croatian-Canadian cartoonist Nina Bunjevac says as much in her afterword, and it's a bit of illumination after the unrelentingly grim but absurd world that her short stories take place in. These aren't so much traditional narratives as they are narrative fragments that are more about time, emotion and powerful images than a specifically resolved plot with sharply defined characters. There are oppressors, the oppressed, and a disturbing third category where the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
Ehrlemark's art is marked by its reliance on blacks as well as distorted, grotesque figures. The book starts off on a disturbing note with "My Sister", which establishes a world with advanced technology, as the narrator notes that her sister was created in a lab to resemble her exactly but that she was the original, a sentiment that leads her to murder in the most savage way possible: hitting someone on the head with a rock. It's a Biblical allusion to Cain and Abel, but in this case her sibling's only crime was to exist. The starkness and bluntness of Ehlremark's art is leavened by the darkest of humorous notes, like the silhouette of a penis spurting out droplets "that jumped into the opening of a lusty lady". Things only get darker from there. "Prologue" is one of many silent stories in the book, and it's all about a future where bioengineering is real but is creating horrors, with women and girls the primary victims.
"Wake Up" is a very in-between kind of story about a woman in and out of consciousness in what looks like a wartime infirmary. "No" is one of the many stories that's simply a howl against the patriarchal qualities of the world, technology, sex, and the forces of rationality itself, opposing it with ritual and an allowance for creating one's own identity. In many ways, "Abundance" is the creepiest story in the book. It follows a group of what appear to be homeless people or outcasts scraping by for survival, until one of them is offered a chance to go with a stereotypically beautiful woman who offers them an opulent lifestyle. This story is a brutal takedown of capitalism and the "I got mine, don't worry about his" qualities that it creates. The book is full of stories about the apparent unity of a group or a couple being disrupted or completely ignored when the slightest of advantages presents itself, like in "The Big Escape".
Toward the end of the book, Ehlremark starts to suggest that the only way to properly resist the bonds of the new, ugly world is to escape to its margins. "Brothers" is about an unconventional relationship, where two brothers are together with the same woman, impregnating her at the same time as part of an entirely willing arrangement. "Pioneer" surrealistically suggests a new world forming at a sub-atomic level after being brutally sent out of this one. "Happy Ending" suggests the fragility of this world and that forces will always be arrayed against those on the margins. The book's title is heavily charged in and of itself, as the idea of winning and losing in life is heavily influenced by the competition engendered by capitalism, especially since the book strongly implies that there's no point in playing the game because it's already been rigged.
Test Tube, by Carlos Gonzalez. A musician/cartoonist/performance artist/filmmaker, Gonzalez picked up on a more recent wave of Providence hybrid creations following the initial impact of Fort Thunder in the 1990s. This collection of a three-issue minicomic series feels familiar and strange all at once. One can see that Gonzalez has soaked up influences from across the culture, both high and low, and the result is a style that feels familiar and evokes a great deal of deja vu', yet it's impossible to pin down specifics. It's fitting that Matthew Thurber blurbed the book because it's not a bad comparison, but the structure of Gonzalez' work and the overall tone is much different. I see echoes of Gilbert Hernandez and Dan Clowes as much as I do early 90s comic books, but most of all I see a singular aesthetic that's designed to tell a story in a fairly straightforward way while also totally baffling and unsettling the reader.
Gonzalez uses a clever storytelling trick designed to keep the audience guessing as he introduces a character, follows their narrative around for a little while, and then cuts to a seemingly completely unrelated character. It doesn't take long for him to tie the narratives together and to do so with a bizarre but quite clear plot point that lets the reader know precisely what's going on. The book embraces sleaze, as the proprietor of a decrepit movie theater finds himself drawn to a strange and run-down strip club with some unusual private shows. We then meet a woman who's drawn to a weirdo at her flea market stall as she's trying to sell records, temporarily hallucinating that there's a wasp on her hand and that a photo of a dog is a nude photo of herself fusing with a tree. We meet a journalist investigating weirdness, and a sex addict triggered by some TV nudity to go down to that strip club. Gonzalez also fools the reader a bit by shifting around time, so that even though the woman (Jill) is introduced later in the book, everything she does precedes the events that the men in the story experience.
In each narrative and throughout the book, every panel is littered with visual detritus. It's a fascinating move, because it's not so distracting that one can't read the panel (indeed, Gonzalez is a clear and direct storyteller who uses standard grid templates). However, the smudges, shapes, squiggles and random lines have an additive effect even as one's eye screens them off after a few pages. They contribute to the feeling of alienation and strangeness on every page, that feeling of familiar things seeming wrong somehow. It's a creeping feeling just out of sight and mind that's incredibly anxiety-inducing. All of that is simply the background for this story; Gonzalez isn't doing weird for weird's sake or deliberately trying to confuse the reader; indeed, he starts exploring and explaining the plot about halfway through. His own character design is stiff and stilted, freezing characters in place with a simplistic style that makes good use of so many other strange elements in a panel. It all makes for a perfect visual gestalt.
The story is really about a convoluted scientific/aesthetic collaboration to create tones and words that will immediately change, mutate and evolve those people who listen to it. It's revealed that the experiments went horribly awry years ago, but that they're being continued now in strip clubs, bars and small performances. Gonzalez leaves it up to the reader to decide if the nature of this evolution is positive or negative, but he does make it clear that it's something that's feared and resisted by many. The plot is resolved, but it's a remarkably open-ended story that could go in any number of directions. Gonzalez isn't the least bit interested in telling the reader what to think about what just happened in the book or judge the characters, nor is he clearly coming out in favor of or against the "evolution" that's depicted in the book. What he is interested in doing is depicting the struggle and urge to create and the process and possibilities of doing this in the underground. Sleazy bars, strip joints, and broken down theaters are all perfect venues for affecting a few people in a profound fashion, making the process depicted in the book a possible metaphor for his own work. Regardless, Gonzalez' tapping into body horror and (in essence) mad science is as traditional as it gets, and the way he plays off of and warps tradition is what makes the book so interesting.