Luke Howard has always been a remarkably skilled cartoonist whose interest in formal experimentation has always made his comics quite interesting. His comics have always been more than just excuses for formal pyrotechnics, as he's often explored issues relating to identity and the ways in which social pressures and expectations affect its construction. Howard has really started to hit his stride and has moved beyond his influences in the last year or so, as his 2016 output featured two of the best comics of the year.
Talk Dirty To Me is the perfect confluence of artist and publisher. Published by design wiz Chris Pitzer of AdHouse Books, this is a collection of a serial originally published in the very good Maple Key Comics anthology. It's a comic about identity, shame, sexuality, agency and the essential question: what should I do with my life? The story follows Emma Barns, who has just moved to the big city (unnamed, but presumably New York) with her husband because he's just got a new job there. The simple plot summary for the book is that out of curiosity, she takes a job as a phone-sex line worker. That plot provides the structure for Howard's real goal: allowing Emma to explore her past with regard to her sexuality and then project what might happen as a result of taking this job. Howard flips back and forth in time and intentionally blurs the line between truth and wish-fulfillment in a very clever way, especially since he uses some misdirection early on to make the reader think the story was going to head in a particular direction. The design is incredibly clever, with the French flaps lifting up phone receivers to reveal sex talk underneath--with the inside front cover being the call center side with her dialogue and the inside back cover being the customer's side, with his dialogue.
Emma's crippling flaw is a lack of confidence in herself and a corresponding lack of self-esteem and shame. She's ashamed of her sex drive and also ashamed and conflicted with regard not only to her love of pornography, but the also the kind of porn she watches (sexual humiliation/BDSM). Though it's never stated, it's clear that she initially takes the phone sex job because it not only plays into her obsession with sex, it gives her a lane into finding out exactly what she's good at and passionate about. She realizes at the job interview when she takes control of a play-acted "call" and realizes that she shed her lack of confidence and jumped right into the fantasy role of a dominant sexual figure.
Fantasy is a key element of the book. There are all sorts of fantasy sequences, like Emma transforming into a nude, conventionally sexy woman as she's doing the interview and has the interviewer in the palm of her hand. Upon arriving in the city where she knows no one, there's a fantasy sequence where a man in the street grows to giant size to talk to her outside the window of her apartment, answering all her questions about the city and what she should do with herself. That latter segment leads her to perhaps the central conflict of the book: asking herself to list "things I'm good at". She can't come up with anything, so when the interviewer said "I didn't expect you to be good at this", it clicked for her. In her imagination, this was the key that would unlock everything else. It would give meaning to her personal narrative of shame, because she would be able to write about it and share it with others as she related her career as a phone sex worker. Many of the scenes don't have panels, which helps the free-form and fluid nature of much of the book, as events simply slip into each other without rigid time and space restrictions. The pink wash is subtly lurid without drawing too much attention to itself.
We see her in the future with a best-selling book about the experience and an assured voice talking about all of the conflicts she had had with regard to sex on NPR. As we keep flashing forward, the details start to get and more absurd, as she becomes a celebrity, a late night talk show guest, an adviser to Congress, a potential visitor to the International Space Station...and in the most crushing segment of all, her husband wants her as much as she wants him. The book then collapses to the key event: her first phone call. In her imagination, she's nervous but does a great job, and this moment of total control is liberating and powerful for her. In her mind, it's the first step to actualizing her dreams and starting her new life. The reality is that she does indeed do a great job...but her first customer is a recovering sex addict who is relapsing with her and starts sobbing on the phone. It's an especially crushing scene because she knows all too well what sexual shame feels like, and because she's a good person she'll have no part in perpetuating it. The last part of the book is an interchange between Emma getting a job at the local ice cream place and a memory of being slut-shamed by her so-called friends after essentially being goaded into giving a guy a blow-job. It's poignant for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which again is not wanting to be any part of making someone else feel sexual shame. It ends with her giving a big, awkward monologue in front her new boss about not being a risk-taker, about not being an empowered person. One gets the sense, however, that self-awareness is the first key to self-development, and while she didn't get the narrative she wanted with this opportunity, Emma is someone who will hopefully find a way to tell her story eventually.
Our Mother, published by Retrofit, is a much shorter comic, but it has about five times the formal innovation and complexity of Talk Dirty To Me. It's a brilliant comic that addresses an incredibly difficult subject through humor and extended visual metaphors that serve as their own perfect little narratives. Howard broke out every formal trick in his toolbox to tell an autobiographical story about what it was like to grow up with a mother who had severe depression and was subject to frequent panic attacks. The inside front cover is a 4x4 grid where every image is of a crudely-drawn toy car that Howard's mother made and it establishes what's at stake here. Howard then whips the reader through multiple narratives done in multiple styles, each based around a different metaphor for mental illness and/or living with a person with mental illness. It opens with his mother's parents meeting a shadowy noir figure in order to get her to give his mom a mental illness, because it's "a family thing". In the most off-the-cuff and banal way possible, they rattle off a list of horrific symptoms that she would experience for years. What makes the strip funny and heartbreaking is that obviously no parent would deliberately wish something like that on their child, yet genetics frequently leads to these cruel outcomes.
The next segment sees Howard's father leaving the family in a manner that's brutal and heartless toward both of them, yet Howard doesn't deny the truth of her total non-responsiveness. It's just become his problem now, only he's just a kid being put in a position of caretaker at far too young an age. The art changes in the next segment, which begins a fantasy quest as Howard's mother is now a young girl whom only he understands, rendered in something close to the Adventure Time-style of drawing: simple but stylized figures, lots of odd angles, big eyes, etc. This segment starts off with a little magical realism but soon goes whole-hog into fantasy. There is a circular quality to the narrative that implies that getting his mom "home" (i.e., healthy) will always be happening. The next segment takes place in the future, where humanity lives in giant robots called Mothers. Howard zeroes in on one Mother, where the pilot is desperately trying to fix the robot while being distracted by an annoying, useless guy named Kevin who won't shut up. This is at once the most hilarious and most visceral of Howard's metaphors, especially after the pilot keeps killing Kevin, but he just won't stay dead. Kevin keeps coming back to annoy, distract and otherwise keep the pilot from fixing the ship. If that voice (depression) would just shut up for a minute, the pilot could think and make Mother functional again. The humor of this metaphor is milked by spacing out the joke throughout the book, and returning to it each time is a fun reward for the reader instead of being repetitive.
The final narrative is truly the most heartbreaking, as a scientist is trying to perfect a new antidepressant using a gorilla as a test subject. We first see this from the point of view of the scientist, who is reluctant to use the gorilla as that test subject but has no other choice. Later, the story is told from the point of view of the gorilla, whose behavior and mood shift wildly depending on which version of the drug she receives. Howard completely nails the almost random nature of how different people respond to different drugs. It can take years to find the right combination, and then things can change and drugs can stop working. The fantasy story is the most light-hearted in the book, but it actually hews the closest to reality in a number of ways. When a child has to take care of their parent a lot of the time, it changes their relationship. That's reflected in the Howard stand-in going on an adventure with a younger version of his mother, as it's effectively two children being together. The quest to get this younger version home is whimsical, involving swords, riddles, monkeys, an evil overlord, disguises, etc. It's precisely the kind of thing a kid might make up for a quest, but it ends with them traveling back in time to his mom's house when she was a kid--she was finally home. That allowed for some real introspection, as Howard recalls the strange memories of trying to engage his mother, of her panic attacks that necessitated trips to the hospital in an ambulance.
Howard knew there was no conclusion to what was a series of metaphors, so he amusingly transcribed a conversation he had with his mom after he had finished most of the book. He used a series of family portraits in fumetti style to help fill in some gaps on how and when she eventually got better. That's when Howard drops the bomb that the same depression started for him at exactly the same age as everyone in his mother's family: 28. The cheerful innocence of the photos in contrast to the painful subject is really disconcerting, but it does make for a powerfully strong contrast to the rest of the book. In the course of the interview, when she asks him how he's going to end the story now that he has this information, he simply replies "with, like, a cartoon hot dog farting". And that's exactly what happens after an epilogue to the fantasy portion of the book, when Howard gets sent back to the future and his mother reconnects with her parents on Christmas day. Howard is all about deflection, so on the inside back cover, when he talks about the specifics of his depression, the only image we see for sixteen panels is that farting hot dog. While absurd, it gets across the point that life is absurd, random and unfair. There's something wrong in Howard's brain, just as there was in his mother's brain and grandmother's brain and grandfather's brain, and there was nothing he could do to stop it once his time came except finally learn to get help when it became obvious he needed it. While it may sound strange to say, this is at once both the most entertaining and most harrowing account of mental illness that I've read. I've rarely read a book whose formal pyrotechnics blended in so seamlessly with the themes of the story.