Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Minis: Summer Pierre, Colin Lidston

Paper Pencil Life #5, by Summer Pierre. Pierre's quickly become one of my favorite autobio artists, thanks to an approach that is full of warmth, wit and intelligence. Pierre's ability to balance light and dark on a page, as well as her cartoony self-caricature with figures drawn from photo reference, make every page a pleasurable experience to read. That ability to balance form and content in such an intuitive manner is rare, even in the rare strip that's heavy on text. Pierre works in vignettes focusing on a single topic, like "Dappled Light". I've reviewed this elsewhere, but its focus on the family TV sitcom as a form of escape for young Pierre was both poignant and understated, as her cute-as-a-button child caricature roved around the world of Leave It To Beaver, eating cake and taking naps in the Cleaver household as her abusive father was left behind.

"Radio Radio" is one of the wordier pieces, yet Pierre's skill in evoking the warmth she feels in not only hearing the songs that radio stations across the nation play, but also the sense of location and community they create, makes this comic enormously satisfying. Music is a big touchstone in this issue, as another story about her finding an old mixtape and remembering the friendship and incredible depth of musical knowledge of someone from years earlier once again was evoked by Pierre's use of blacks as she depicted a night drive. Pierre's ability to zero in on small but important moments, both past and present, is in the tradition of John Porcellino and Harvey Pekar. Whereas Porcellino is most interested in the poetry of the moment and Pekar the profundity that can be found in the ordinary, Pierre seems to be fascinated with mindfulness and soaking in the joy of a moment. Whether that moment is a series of fun thing she spontaneously did with her son or if it was remembering a moment that she felt lost as a person, there's a fundamental sense of gratitude, of being glad for the joy of existing that can be felt in her work.

The second half of the comic is interesting because it addresses the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, quotidian and timeless observations became rooted in specific events. It reminded me, to a much lesser degree, of the career of Jen Sorensen. She mostly did silly, funny cartoons until George W. Bush got elected, and then went full-on political and hasn't stopped since. I don't think Pierre will ever move in that direction, but she did clearly start to use her drawing board as a kind of escape and therapy from how upset she felt about the election's results. Interestingly, her non-political strips really got back to basics: doing a strip about taking a run and the way it made her feel in the moment, as well as a "24 hours in the life" comic that crammed 40 panels into two pages. There were more comics about her son and family (like a touching story about her uncle). The strips were more directly about comfort, like drawing a scene from Love & Rockets are having a day to herself. The issue finishes up with "I'll Never Be Cool", a hilarious list of how and why Pierre is a hopeless square, and a comic about a party she attends in New York with Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman that takes a rather astounding turn before the reader is clued in on what's happening. That was Pierre having a little chuckle at the reader's expense, a sort of cheery wink at the reader that reveals that her sense of humor is more than intact. It's a great capper for a collection that's over fifty pages but never once feels stale or repetitive. Pierre is in a great groove right now, and hopefully she will keep it going.

The Age of Elves Issue Two, by Colin Lidston. This continues the slice of life saga of four high school friends who are avid role playing gamers, set in 2000. This comic is once again interesting because of the incredible amount of detail Lidston devotes to showing off his understanding of gaming, yet despite that it's not really about gaming. It's about relationships, and how the sort of person who views gaming as a major part of their lifestyle and identity interacts with others. There's social awkwardness to be sure, but there are also more nuanced, intragroup conflicts that arise thanks to seemingly trivial differences between group members. It's the paradox of gamer culture both being welcoming of outsiders but also frequently rigid with regard to thinking. That plays out in this comic in a long road trip to a huge gaming convention, as nerdy thought questions turn into arguments, with the two more conservative members of the group teaming up against the Goth guy.

Lidston reveals that there are both cracks and connections with everyone in the group, as the sole girl (Sarah) gets into it with the others when she critiques the awful writing from a panel description. There are times that the art got a little murky, as Lidston chose to go with a fairly heavy line weight throughout the issue. It didn't help that Lidston also chose to spot a lot of blacks on already-dense pages. That said, Lidston's line also had a spontaneous quality that allowed for expressive figure drawings. There's a sense that Lidston knows everything about these characters, down to the tiniest details, and that shows up on the page in terms of their body language and small facial expressions. That's the key to this comic, as long-term friendships among teens (especially among boys) are often dependent on that kind of visual signifier if they're unwilling to actually talk about their feelings.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Minis: X.Gordon, S.Hanselmann, K.Czap, Nou

100, by Nou. This comic plays around with figure and text in a way that's meant to confront the reader. The figure, a young, nude girl whose anatomy is kept bare, looks out at the reader in various poses. We see her on the left-hand side of each two-page spread, and big blocky letters on the right side. There's a sense of trying to reach out, of knowing that the general We is out there, but at once being resisted by the reader and the girl gazing at us. Her poses are as disarming as her words are confrontational, and the way she moves from image to image invites the reader to flip the pages like a flip book to see her in action. It implies a sense of near-simultaneity in these words and movements, a sense of action that the reader can't immediately answer because it happens so quickly.

The New Cast, by Kevin Czap. This comic is a fusion of Czap's interest in creative/cooperative reality shows like Project Runway and their own utopian take on any number of topics. That metaphor allows Czap to examine the ways in which local creative scenes grow, ebb and flow over time, something that's especially pertinent to comics. Czap and Czap Books are one of the ascendant small-press publishers of the moment; in a real sense, Czap's artists are the new cast. Czap has always made the characters in his book incredibly diverse, as they all tend to be genderfluid and multiracial. Binaries don't really exist in Czap's comics. Even the new/old binary is explored in detail here, as there's a sense of joyful interaction in the new season between the casts, but one-by-one the old cast members drop off and go on to do their own thing outside of the purview of group activity. That kind of communal living and working together is difficult to maintain as one grows older, interests change and other things become more important. As an artist, there's also an awareness of one's audience, and that's reflected in the comic by some viewers staying on and others moving to different shows. Because it's a Czap comic and things tend to turn out for the best, the new cast gets it together at the end and essentially becomes the new vanguard. Visually speaking, what I found most interesting about the comic was the way that Czap was able to make scenes where the characters were in motion and scenes where they were just hanging out equally interesting, thanks to their understanding of body language and gesture. Small gestures sometimes pack as much visual wallop as intense activity.

Drone, by Simon Hanselmann. This story appears in Hanselmann's new book, One More Year. Starring Werewolf Jones and Megg from his Megahex series, this is a story about two lonely people who are desperate to having some kind of expressive, creative outlet while self-medicating themselves as hard as possible in order to numb any kind of emotional response as much as possible. Jones is an especially pathetic character throughout the series, but here there's an almost heart-breaking attempt at him trying to do something positive with his life for just a moment. Megg is a far more complicated character, and this story deals with her relationship with her mother. She's worried that her mom might be in seriously bad shape (or even dead) after getting out of rehab when she doesn't answer a call on Mother's Day. The story progresses as the duo actually makes some progress on their hilariously over-the-top music (with Jones wanting to be as offensive as possible at all times and Megg voting him down), even as they sabotage themselves when they use subox (a substance used to wean people off heroin) that causes them to vomit every few minutes. When Megg's mom eventually contacts her, the nature of that contact is heartbreaking as well, and only the promise of losing herself in something pure and joyous in the music is able to help her. There's something about the smudged, cramped version of this story in minicomics form (published by 2dcloud) that adds to the atmosphere, as Hanselmann's line is fat and even looks smeared across the page at times.

Kindling, by Xia Gordon. This mostly abstract comic done in red and blue is in many respects a creative shot across the bow by a talented young cartoonist. The sense of the comic capturing something utterly timeless and yet yoked to a specific time and specific place gives the story a sense of a benign push and pull, or rather a hermeneutic understanding of how it's both things at once, and how it can be neither thing without both aspects working together. It's both timeless and specific, this feeling it evokes of being at a beach, watching a night sky, being part of a group that's exchanging an ineffable energy among its members. There's a series of pages of looping lines in the middle of the comic which alternate between looking like a woman's hair and the wind whipping through that hair, until it resolves into a figure walking amidst a rainstorm on the beach. Gordon has incredible chops and a way of looking at the universe that reminds me a little of Aidan Koch, only there's a remarkable warmth and sense of engagement that unites her images that might otherwise seem cold, disconnected and emotionless.  The title of the comic itself brings to mind something that's going to be used to spark a life-giving fire, as though the creation of this comic itself being fuel for future works. Her work fits nicely with 2dcloud's aesthetic.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Minis: C.Browning, M.J. Alvarez, M.Pearson

Grey Fug, by Chris Browning. This is less a comic than it is a series of captioned illustrations, detailing Browning's struggle with depression. Each single-page illustration is crammed either with detail, spotted blacks or dense cross-hatching. The conceit of the comic is explaining his depression to his two beloved cats, and there's a sense in which each panel represents a different window, a different look into his mind. He even views each of his cats' personalities as analogous to his own, with an older one with a cynical kind of tough love and the other with constant, wide-eyed enthusiasm. Taking them on this tour also brought on echoes of Dante being led by Virgil through the circles of hell, as each layer of depression is more difficult than the next to process. Browning takes us through mental clutter, self-recrimination over unfinished projects, deep regrets, and self-loathing (especially with regard to body image and comfort eating).

Browning is mindful enough to recognize his positive aspects, but is also aware that things can go downhill with no warning, thanks to both anxiety and his Asperger's syndrome, which means that of his neurological wiring is off-kilter to begin with. Browning identifies a huge key in combating depression: understanding that both its biggest catalyst and fuel is not just isolation, but also the idea that there is no one out there to reach out to. The comic demonstrates just how he reaches out, and how that gives him hope each time he falls into that "grey fug". There's a powerful sense of reaching out on each of the pages as well; he's telling a secret on himself, which is often a key aspect of negotiating the isolation urge. The comic is a literal demonstration that he has nothing to hide while simultaneously providing a path for him to tread when he's looking for a way out.

Hypnospiral Comics #8, by M. Jacob Alvarez. This is a series of single-panel gag comics, with Alvarez using an extremely heavy line weight for all of his drawings. It's a little distracting at times, as his gags don't have a lot of room to breathe in some of his selections here. His three panel-strips are similarly cramped thanks to dense line weights, but there's no doubt that he has solid ideas and knows how to match his drawings with his concepts. That is, he doesn't "draw funny" so much as his gags land because he's skillfully able to nail his ideas on the page. For example, one of the best gags was that of two t-rexes. One was obviously old because of his dialogue, cane and checkered cap, and the other young because of his baseball cap. However, the real gag was that the older one was standing and the younger one was bent over, which is funny because that crouch is the newer, but more scientifically correct, understanding of how the T-Rex carried itself. There's another good gag about a hero-swap between Frodo Baggins and Conan the Barbarian, and just how badly that would have gone. Alvarez has solid comedic and cartooning chops. All he needs now is to give his drawings a little more room and perhaps cut back on his line weights just a tad.

Long Necked Bird 1, by Marc Pearson. Pearson and Michael Hawkins (below) make up Melbourne, Australia's Glom Press. They're a Risograph operation that makes lovely comics. Pearson's comic features the titular, silent bird who is an outcast with his own fellow birds but is friends with a frog. The frog comes up with a personal helicopter as an invention, so he can fly like his friend. Later, the bird sees a huge, bizarre creature that he later realizes could yield a reward. Pearson really goes to town with the Riso, using a different color on nearly every page to help express mood and time. The story itself is just the beginning of what is clearly a much longer saga, but there's an anxious sweetness to it that offers push and pull for the reader.

The Nap and Secret Song, by Michael Hawkins. Hawkins combines bigfoot cartooning with bizarre, highly sexualized shapes and psychedelia. The results look familiar but divorced from any one influence in particular, as Hawkins' voice is at once folksy and dreamy. Secret Song asks the question of what forces set us in motion? Are they chemical? Supernatural? Something else? The Nap similarly a mix of the sensuous and the existential, as a young woman coming home from work goes to sleep and ponders the implications of that state of unconsciousness, the way it makes her feel afterward ("like the debris from a glacier") and its ultimate connection to death. Hawkins sticks with a single color for this comic, but he's all over the place in Secret Song, with oranges, purples and golds that almost look embossed. He goes a bit over the top with color in that comic, to the point where it nearly obliterates his line in several places. It also distracts from the storytelling and nearly erases some of the lettering. Still, one can see the sheer enthusiasm at the possibilities that the Riso gives to tell a story, and it only makes sense to test those limits. It didn't work in this case, but there were still a number of interesting images and effects that I'd love to see repeated later.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Comics-as-Poetry #10: Inkbrick #4

The comics-as-poetry anthology Inkbrick's fourth issue was the best to date, thanks to powerhouse bookend entries from Keren Katz and Sasha Steinberg. The former's "Marks On The Attendance Sheet" is a tense, sexually charged story about a teacher and a student told from the student's perspective. Katz's use of impossible angles on an open-page layout creates the illusion of there being panels on the page, only it looks like they're caving in and/or putting the characters into these extreme, oblique angles. There's a lack of neat order on each of the pages, which is further exacerbated by Katz's intense and textural use of color, to the point where it looks like she's exploring the aesthetic of textiles. Arms and legs bend at strange angles, boot-tips droop, colors and patterns surround line and a number of other visual signifiers are at work to express the sense of feeling upside down that the narrator is experiencing. She's feeling unbalanced and dizzy in this relationship, feeling thrills and doubts and disappointment all at once. It's a brilliant short piece, probably the best in Inkbrick to date.

This issue was printed in 2015, a couple of years before Sasha Steinberg achieved international fame as Sasha Velour, the drag artist. However, this piece should be easily accessible to fans of Steinberg's drag work, given that it works with Velour's trademark bald head. The piece, "What Now?" is about Steinberg grieving his recently-deceased mother, and it makes extensive use of negative white space. Alternating between huge swaths of red, black and green, we see Sasha going from room to room (in his mother's house presumably), dizzyingly processing (one word per panel) the new reality of her absence. Later, a series of panels alternate between Steinberg spreading her ashes in the snow and melting away in the house. The last two panels are killers: another silhouette of a dress, this time with a hat, with the next panel being a photo of his mother in precisely the same position. It's a beautiful, touching exploration of what it means to exist in one moment and to disappear the next, and what those ideas mean when you leave a loved one behind you. This was the first comics-as-poetry piece I had seen from Steinberg, and it was powerful and sincere.

Another welcome presence in the issue was that of David Lasky, a pioneer of comics-as-poetry. This issue featured an experiment in juxtaposing a textual memory against unrelated images; in this case, it was several images he redrew from London's National Gallery. The best poetry, in my opinion, is that which has concrete images. That's why Lasky's later piece, which provides simple descriptions of activities "Streetlight walks, Electric fan in the hall, Shadows and breeze" is so powerful, particularly since the images take off from those concrete descriptions and becomes plays of light and shadow, focusing on small, singular images that almost look concrete out of context.

Many of the cartoonists make good use of the fact that Inkbrick is in full color. Laurel Lynn Leake's juxtaposition of color as representative of environment is abstracted in part because of the way she compares it to depression and that "thoughts can trap you". There's the implication that staying mindful is crucial even when being presented with the pure beauty of one's environment. Isuri Merenchi Hewage & Deshan Tennekoon are more direct in their piece "August In Pasikuda", as a single color, displayed on each page in different patterns but all in a grid, represent a different time of day and different activity in the same locale. The use of light, texture and an especially rich mix of colors, along with the concrete descriptions, powerfully evoke a sense of time and place in an almost visceral manner. It's interesting that they concretize color to create a sense of time and place, whereas Leake abstracts the same color patterns we see in nature to reflect inward.

Kate Schneider's "May" takes familiar, comforting images as a kind of bulwark against the stress she felt regarding an upcoming surgical procedure. It starts with lightly-drawn pictures of her cat, then the trees outside, and finally simply the night sky. It's not as sophisticated, visually or otherwise, as the other pieces in the book, but there's a sincerity to it that makes it work. Not every use of color is effective. Hayley Fiddler's "Waves" uses light blue as the sole tone in her poem about infidelity that switches from an undersea oyster to a couple getting ready. The use of color is obvious here and doesn't add anything when she switches from under the water to a bedroom, and the idea for the poem is not especially remarkable. The same is true about Paul Tunis' otherwise clever piece about pomegranates; it would have conveyed precisely the same information if it was in black and white.

A lot of the pieces involve melting, shifting and otherwise transforming into something new. William Cardini's piece takes his garish, computer-generated imagery and creates something quite beautiful with it, as his creature talks about being thrown into the river and their mud mind compressing. That's followed up with an image of the creature's mind turning into layers of sedimentary rock, each one constructed of the words they describe them: "to chalk, to coal, to marl, to shale". Louise Aleksiejew's piece, other than resembling Michael DeForge a bit, is all about a transformation from losing all her drawings and pictures into seeing a witch who gave her a magic item as a kind of replacement. There's a sense of whimsy, not fear, at work here, which fits with the melting art style. Gary Jackson & David Willet's "The Midnight Marauder Contemplates Retirement" is a naturalist image of a crimefighter having beaten up some criminals, but the action in the piece takes place in the graffiti in the background, reflecting a change of emotional states. It's a clever device that leads the reader across the page expertly.

Alexander Rothman's own "Honey Locust" speaks to the increasing complexity and beauty in his pieces, as his use of colored pencil combined with a strong sense of negative space makes for an eye-catching piece, as he combines the particular scent of the honey locust tree and imagines mastodons ages ago trying to get at its buttery scent. Michel Losier's strip is text-heavy and doesn't let its images breathe, while Aurelien Leif's piece is an excerpt from a longer work that's hard to approach because of the swirling chaos on each page. The experimental piece from Alexey Sokolin and Angel Chen was clever, using sentence mapping to create alternative versions of ideas, all leading into different, separate, images. All told, there was very little filler in this issue. Most of the cartoonists made some powerful statements and the editorial team of Rothman & Tunis kept the issue flowing with a variety of different visual approaches, being careful not to arrange pieces that were too similar to each other too close to each other in the anthology. This was really the first issue I felt like I could hand to someone and say that it was a pretty thorough survey of comics-as-poetry at this moment in time.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Malachi Ward, Part 2: From Now On

Concluding a two-week look at Malachi Ward, here's a review of his collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories, From Now On. 

This is a surprisingly coherent collection of stories. Some of that is intentional, as a particular story is told from the point of view of three different characters. One of them is the time traveler from "Top Five", which I reviewed last week. Adding texture and context to that story are "The Oviraptor" and "Disconnect", which follow the stories of the two other time travelers. We learn, for example, that the group badly overshot their goal of going back to watch early humans and neanderthals interact, instead going back to a much earlier era where dinosaurs were still active. One of the travelers permanently exiled herself from her only remaining compatriot, and "The Oviraptor" offers a touching attempt by the other traveler to reach her when he came across a bird-like dinosaur, after she had earlier mourned that she would never see a bird again. "Disconnect" is one of the best stories in the whole book, as it follows the arc of another traveler, as she faced a lifetime of alienation and loneliness before she went on the mission. She wound up getting there about forty years before the rest of her group, and the year-by-year narrative (including being visited and living with aliens, and then fleeing when some more aliens came along to attack them) that runs panel-by-panel is an effective and clever device. She spends the whole time trying to find her compatriots, not knowing that they weren't there yet, and there's a heartbreaking ending when she sees them after they've just arrived--still young. The deeply muted colors and naturalistic style reflect that sense of loneliness, and the color does a lot of the narrative work when Ward starts cramming panels on each page.

In terms of Ward displaying sheer drawing chops, nothing beats one of his earliest stories, "Utu". It established a number of Ward's favorite techniques. There's a double genre-flip, as it starts out as a fantasy story, then it's revealed to really be a sci-fi story, and then that turns into a sad-boy comic. There's the colonial urge shown by its main character, who uses his position of being from the future in an effort to change the past, thinking he knows better than the savages of yore. There's that sense of dystopian ennui, as all the advantages of the future don't make it any easier for the time-fiddler to escape his own sense of loneliness and inability to relate to women. Ward also shows off his drawing and design chops, especially in the way he transitions from light to darkness and drops a variety of revelations on the reader. "Hero Of Science" is simultaneously a more refined and more visceral version of these concepts in a manner similar to Jesse Moynihan's Forming comics. The character design is a tad cartoonier, but the commentary is more pointed. The story is about a yet another time traveler who has "gone native" with a primitive tribe, and he stages a murderous attack on other travelers from the future who are looking for him. It's in many ways not unlike a Mr. Kurtz situation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where it's not so much that a colonizer goes mad with power so much as it is the painful revelation that colonization is in and of itself an act of violence. What the traveler does here is just a logical extension of that premise.

Stories like "Henix", "Beasts of Kay-7" and "The Scout" all have double-twists after the initial premise seems obvious. Or rather, the consequences of the twist are unexpected. In "Henix", the High Protectorate (aka the queen) is visited by an elf that tells her that there was a prisoner in her dungeon that she needed to see. When the prisoner, half-elf and half-human, tells her that his father was a member of her court and put him in prison, she accepts his service in exchange for his service in perpetuity. The twist in the story is not the identify of his father, but rather her reaction when she finds out. This story is comparatively spare for Ward, focusing more on character than world-building.

"Beasts of Kay-7" features a scientist whose flexibility of thinking prevents him and his crew from being turned into food by a group of monstrous aliens on the planet they're exploring. Notably, the scientist is one of the few characters in the book who's pure of motive. He doesn't want to conquer or colonize; rather, he simply wants to understand the life that's on the planet for the sheer sake of learning. He's an abrasive and insensitive character at times, but his dedication to science and the mission at hand give him a purity that the other characters in the volume don't possess. Once again, Ward's skill as a draftsman is on full display, as the bizarre half animal/half plant creatures on the planet are terrifying. The punchline of the story--that the mere act of observation and recording is a kind of intervention on its own--is clever and well-designed, especially in the way it shows how easy it is to not only become dependent on technology, but to take its existence entirely for granted.

"The Scout" is about the way in which colonization leads to inevitable violence, told through incredibly clever trope of an explorer's clone being repeatedly sent to a cave that looks promising for annexing. What keeps killing the clones? The originals, one after another, coming to the conclusion that what it's doing is wrong. Here, the genre doesn't flip as much as the story's point of view does. It's a neat trick and part of Ward's career-long exploration of when people should leave well enough alone but choose not to. Ward is always careful to come up with a premise and then carry it out in an entirely logical way. It's not quite so-called "hard" science-fiction, but rather, science-fiction that comes with a set of rules that it must follow and carry the structure of the narrative within that set of rules. Character is still more important than world-building, because the latter is just the scaffolding that the ugly human emotions at the heart of each story reside. Ward's mastery of that scaffolding allows him to craft increasingly intricate stories that explore the edge of morality and ethics.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sabin Cauldron's Maleficium

Sabin Cauldron's minicomics series Maleficium is the lesbian separatist witch comic I never knew I needed. It's a funny, action-packed and over-the-top trip through a number of different sub-genres that reminds me a bit of Ben Marra's stuff. In fact, his hyper-masculine action comics satires are a kind of mirror image to what Cauldron is doing here. Both artists take their genres quite seriously, but there's a ridiculousness to it all that's told with a straight face.

The first issue, set in 1969, is a send-up of horror/detective stories. "Lesbian Renegade Witch" Lobussa Thirst has to track down a killer that cleanly decapitated the head of a friend of hers, and the stories follow those beats until she tracks him down. Turns out she knows him, because she helped create him when she was getting her own head lopped off during the French Revolution. She inadvertently made him into a Human Guillotine, with the actual mechanism of how he accomplished it turning into a remarkably grotesque image. When she manages to seduce him, it's all over, as the story goes in a markedly different direction with a full-tilt series of occult rituals that bind him to her will. Cauldron only winks at the reader a couple of times (like with the epilogue), but the gritty, naturalistic art lends gravitas to a story that could have been much more ridiculous (and not in a good way) in different hands.

The second issue puts the rest of Lobussa's coven in the spotlight as they are forced to go up against a gang of biker werewolves whose bikes are also lycanthropes. The latter revelation made me laugh out loud, one of many funny moments in this satire of biker exploitation films crossed with a similar kind of witchsploitation film during the same era. This issue also makes use of psychedelic imagery, especially in its use of splash pages for some of the more outrageous scenes. The fight scenes are interesting in the way that Cauldron plays around with page design, putting the panels at jagged edges next to each other. Cauldron also makes nice use of negative space, flipping between positive and negative space in the most violent of scenes to lessen the impact a bit. There was even a bit of over-the-top poetry at work, as the comic began with an ode to the unpredictable power of electricity and ends with the witches triumphing over the wolves thanks to a live wire.

The third and fourth issues are even wilder. One of the witches, Caprina, was bitten by a werewolf and the result was that her head became that of a goat's. Later, she's dragged forward into time (into the far reaches of 1996), as San Francisco is becoming big on tech. She hooks up with a group of women anarchists in a squat and opposes a mysterious hooded figure who uses superpowered creatures like Finjas (merman martial artists) and an armored figure that's a Judge Dredd send-up called Kill-O-Byte. Throughout the issue, Cauldron drops dozens of easter eggs with images that refer to the women's alternative comics of the time. It's funny to see Carrie McNinch laying on a sofa in the squat as Caprina comes in. The hooded figure is trying to control the then-developing world wide web through Caprina, until the latter blows it up at the end of the issue.

Caprina is blasted forward to 2016, and virtually every character looks like a famous cartoon character, with Nancy giving a real estate tour to Daddy Warbucks. Caprina's therapist is "Dr. A.Kominsky", with Cauldron nailing the cartoonist's slightly grotesque self-image but not taking the reader too far outside familiar territory. When Caprina tracks down the hooded figure, a monstrous ball of energy emerges and destroys her old foe--but later comes for her. There's a lot of intrigue and running plotlines in this issue, as Caprina has to figure out why it seems like her partner is plotting against her. There's an amazing scene where she seeks out her former coven member Starlite, who complains that "black, brown and asian witches [are] used for emotional labor" when asked for a favor. The end of the issue reveals the origin of the energy creature that started stalking her as well as a surprise climax. For all the bombast and absurdity of the story, it's actually quite tightly plotted. There's also romance, betrayal, the ways in which gender identity changed over the years and much more. Though each issue stands alone, the running storyline becomes more compelling with each issue. Despite all the visual silliness, Cauldron never drops a straight narrative face in doing the comic, which makes the more dramatic portions of the comic all that more tense

Monday, August 7, 2017

Tyler Cohen's Primahood: Magenta

Tyler Cohen's collection of her Mamapants/Primazons short stories and minicomics, Primahood: Magenta (published by Stacked Deck Press) is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. What I mean by that in this case is that the alternating Primazon and Mamapants stories gave each other structure and context in a way that was difficult to achieve in single issues of her minis, where Cohen had to sometimes overexplain what she was trying to do. Here, she doesn't even have to try, as Roberta Gregory's superb introduction makes some important distinctions between the two interlocking storytelling devices. The Mamapants stories are a Cohen's autobiographical comics about being deciding later in life to have a child as a bisexual woman who eschews labels as much as possible. The silent Primazon illustrations depict a matriarchal society whose members seemed to be a mix of insectoid and avian, but still humanoid. They're Amazons, of a sort, in a society that's at once whimsical and fierce. Everyone is at play, but play for everyone is deadly serious.

In the Mamapants stories, Cohen is interested in three things: to record the fierce and highly unpredictable behavior of her daughter, to comment on how she and her partner were raising daughter Nene--and in particular, the ways in which they were trying to avoid patriarchal influences, and finally what other "Primazons" had to say when she asked them questions about their bodies, femininity, and being treated like an object. Cohen was adamant about not letting gender hold her daughter back in any way and she wanted it to shape her personality as little as possible. Of course, the influence of society is powerful, so she came back from preschool wanting to play princess and she wore little else but pink. At the same time, her daughter loved playing outside, being physical and getting the kind of knee scrapes that Cohen got as a child. Still, Cohen obviously struggles with the influence that pop culture and other children have on her child, not to mention the omnipresence of sex being introduced as a kind of commodity.

Cohen's art is a mix of fluid, scribbly and cartoony. It's no stretch to see a naturalistic pose turn into a fantastical one, like depicting her young daughter as a tiger after dreaming she was giving birth to a cat. While spot color is used in the autobio comics, Cohen depends on her line to provide structure and stability for those comics. They are grounded in reality, with some of the color leaking in from lands of fancy in certain panels. The Primazon material is almost entirely dependent on color, often eschewing black lines altogether and sticking to bright, colored pencil renderings. When Cohen relates the results of her various survey, the figures telling the stories are Primazons. In many ways, the Primazons aren't so much an alternating storyline as much as that they seem to exist in the same space but in a slightly different dimensional space. Sometimes, there's some bleed between the two dimensions. 

Cohen has certain hopes and dreams for her daughter, but she's also adaptable and eschews rigidity whenever possible. When her daughter wants a particular doll that mixes monster tropes and Barbie tropes, Cohen relents. In short order, Nene becomes disinterested, which likely would not have happened if Cohen had forbade it. Cohen understands that a child's energy and desires can't be extinguished, but rather only rerouted to something healthier. While Cohen is fascinated by various milestones (like when her daughter's breasts start developing) and genealogical similarities, she's mostly just fascinated by the crazy magic of raising a child and seeing them develop their own sense of energy. When a bystander asked young Nene what she was (princess? ballerina?), Cohen simply said, "She's herself." That self is a slightly inchoate, rapidly developing (and sometimes in a contradictory way) young person who is pushed and pulled by contradictory images and desires that trusts and talks to her parents on her way to new adventures. There's a wistfulness at work here that covers up some of the extremely annoying parts of being a parent to a young child to be sure, as this volume roughly finishes up the preteen years. Cohen does it all with a very purposeful, radical point of view that is less interested in lecturing than it is in simply being honest, humane and funny.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #9: Inkbrick #3

Alexander Rothman, Paul Tunis and the rest of the Inkbrick gang have been quite busy since I reviewed the first two issues a while back. They've taken on an incredibly difficult task: publishing a journal of comics-as-poetry on a semi-regular basis. Given that it's still a fledgling sub-art form of an art form that itself is still in relative infancy (or perhaps young adulthood by now), finding good candidates can't be easy. There's also the problem of defining just what comics-as-poetry is. Some might include what I would simply call "poetry comics": poems with some illustrations. Such work lacks the interdependence of word and image that poetry comics has, even if making such a distinction is of the "you know it when you see it" kind.

Still, there's no question that even when some issues are a little thin on the best of comics-as-poetry, it's unquestionably true that they still publish the best of the best as well. Anna Grzton's "Gert" is a good example of a great find. In relating this story of his father and an imaginary friend, creating an immersive environment that takes the metaphor of tears cried by peonies falling like diamonds. Rothman continues to grow more daring in his experiments, sticking to concrete imagery (like a bird and a walnut as actors in a play) but more abstract ideas. His images are becoming more abstracted while still retaining some literal roots by using techniques like negative space to create foreground figures and a dense use of colored pencils.

Sabin Cauldron's "Water Damage" was an interesting piece that considers the micro and macro ramifications of a humble kitchen sponge. There's a micro level of the internal structure of the sponge and of bubbles, and the macro level of a hand about to disturb this equilibrium of moisture and dryness. The orange used in the comic adds an alien feeling to the whole thing, down to the shadowy, spidery black fingers reaching for the sponge at the end. Wynn's "Unanswered" uses negative space to talk about identity in the form of one's self-image. In some ways, it seems to be a reference to proprioception, the sense that we know where our body is even when we don't see it. When that sense goes awry, we literally can't feel ourselves. Expanding that idea to identity itself (as opposed to one's position in space) is a clever idea, perfectly suited to comics to quickly explain.

Paul Tunis' matches images to text in a way that doesn't quite jibe. It's not random, but there's a false solidity in the way in which the naturalistic images and the short narrative bursts of text don't contrast in ways that seem very meaningful or interesting. Similarly, the rhyming structure of Laurence & Myra Musgrove's is a big distraction with regard to the simple image of a crow singing about its world. A lot of the artists take a big chance with the visual structure of their pieces, and not all of them are successful. John G. Swogger's "The Shrine" successfully redacts aspects of archaeological drawings to compose a beautiful poem about an abandoned space from all four cardinal directions. On the other hand, Alexey Sokolin's "Panopticon" uses 3D art effects that veer, paradoxically into total abstraction and the uncanny valley effect. It's distracting more than disorienting, and the font used for the lettering doesn't aid the reader in grasping the work.

Other notable contributions include Anthony Cudahy's mixed-media entry "No Eyes", which features drawings and photos of statues from antiquity and obsesses over the way they stare, even when they've been torn out. Catherine Bresner's excerpt from "January 2nd" is also a mixed-media piece reminiscent of Julie Doucet's recent collage work mixed with text. She also took images that look like they came from 1950s and 60s lifestyle magazines and inserted images of dominance, violence and in general elements related to patriarchal oppression. Maelle Doliveux and Alyssa Berg both rely on a sharp use of color and the passage of time in their pieces. Doliveux's is a clever one about a woman with a blossom for a head that slowly wilts over time when her lover leaves and doesn't come back. Berg's strip is rougher, using color to create the crest and fall of an ocean wave and comparing it to the rise and fall of a (presumed) lover's chest. The use of color crosses panel borders as we see two images simultaneously, just as she does.

The two long narratives in the book come from Glynnis Fawkes and the team of Marguerite Van Cook & James Romberger. The former story is a funny one that focuses on Fawkes' established fascination with Greek mythology, as she tells the tale of how she met her future husband as though she were a wild nymph and he was a charming faun, trying to lure her away from her busy life. There's a lushness to her brushwork and use of color that matches the heat of the sexual tension depicted in the book, but there's also that lasting sting of no longer being able to frolic in quite the same way as she did before she and her husband had their sun. Fawkes also expertly depicts that push-pull feeling of loving someone but desperately wanting to retain independence, until the attraction and affection wins out. Van Cook & Romberger's "Perfectly Manicured (To the Bone)" sees Romberger doing a take on the illustration style of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant strip, down to the flourishes selected for lettering. It tells the tale of the garden of dead children, the remnants of war, and horror and exploitation, waiting to bloom again in the wake of disaster. The question is, bloom for good or ill, as a young girl walking through the garden takes one of the "flowers" with her, against the advice of the gardener. It's a fold-out that doubles as a dust cover, and it's a spectacular, beautiful work. It's one of many chances the editor-publishers were willing to take, and it was a success.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Koyama: Eric Kostiuk Williams' Condo Heartbreak Disco

Eric Kostiuk Williams' debut was technically Babybel Wax Bodysuit with Retrofit, but he's been self-publishing his own smart, funny and visually exciting autobio/anthropological comics for quite some time. What's interesting is his abiding interest in mainstream comics styles and tropes, as well as his desire to subvert and repurpose them. That's exactly what happens in his debut with Koyama Press, Condo Heartbreak Disco. It follows the adventures of two immortal beings, The Willendorf Braid and Komio, who have been companions for centuries but now live in a highly ethnically diverse, inexpensive section of Toronto. It's a fascinating comic because of the way it manages to combine all of Williams' interests, be it queer culture, city life, larger societal trends and the concept of magical helper beings.

Williams goes beyond sheer novelty in presenting this story about a benign, sheltering human braid-creature and a rubbery, shapeshifting creature of vengeance. Komio the shapeshifter hires herself out to people who are being abused, mistreated or otherwise treated poorly by their partners/lovers/flings. The comic begins with Komio pretending to be seduced by a guy at a club, going to his place, and then revealing their true self in horrifying fashion. Komio was hired by several women treated poorly (there's an implication of rape, but it's not explicit) by this guy to torture him for two hours, which they do. Very quickly, the reader learns that this is less a super-hero comic than it is a horror comic in many ways, with ancient beings whose standards of behavior and beliefs is very different from humans.

Williams sets up the story where Komio and the Braid are happily and quietly living with a flatmate in a low-income but ethnically diverse and exciting neighborhood in Toronto. There's a devastating bit of social satire unleashed when a photographer starts taking pictures of people in the area and puts them online, only to have the photos commandeered by a faceless, evil, real estate conglomerate. There's a brilliant twist in the book where we expect Komio to go up against and defeat the conglomerate. However, Komio switches sides when the power behind gentrification is another immortal being whose desire is to slowly eradicate humanity. The condos being built weren't for the rich; they were made to stand empty, slowly driving out every person. It was a way of wiping out the scourge of humanity.

In so doing, Williams revealed some uncomfortable truths about the characters. Komio's years of acting as an agent of vengeance had soured them on humanity as a whole, even if there were a specific few humans that they liked. The Braid's status as a loving nurturer was on hold until the real estate crisis came, and then they became a powerful, humane force for good--especially when Komio disappeared. In the end, the book ends on a note that reminds me of the biblical story of Lot, trying to convince the angels not to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah as he looked for virtuous people. The challenge laid down here is trying to convince Komio that humanity is actually worth saving. Through the Braid, Kostiuk makes a powerful argument on behalf of humanity, showing that crisis has a way of bringing people together. More to the point, the Braid argues that those being exploited by the rich and powerful shouldn't be lumped together with those oppressing them. It's a humane, one-on-one, interpersonal response. It's an ethical position closer to virtue ethics than Komio's almost utilitarian response of wiping out humanity as a kind of ethical equation. It's empathy vs rationality, and it's obvious that Williams meant for both characters to be powerful advocates of their positions but that empathy was ultimately more important.

Williams told me that one of his biggest influences is Joe Sacco. You can see it if you're familiar with Sacco's earlier work in particular, especially the stuff most recently reprinted in But I Like It. Sacco's work is much more stylized and rubbery, even as he maintains a strict naturalism in terms of backgrounds, character design, gesture, etc. Komio and the Braid are weird, larger than life figures in a real-world Toronto who manage to fit into a neighborhood where everyone's a little bit different and foreign but still accepting. Williams' page design flips from homey and warm to skewed and scattered, depending on whether he's trying to focus on warmth or keeping the reader off-balance. In other words, the parts of the story that focus on Komio are chaotic and unpredictable in terms of page design, panel construction and size. The Braid's are in a more standard grid that allows the reader to focus on emotion instead of spectacle. In the panels they shared together, they were wobbly and fantastic at times, but never out of control in the way they became when it was Komio alone. It was a smart shorthand for the emotional lives and impact each of the characters had on each other and their environment. Williams' imagery is intense and splashy, but above all else, he's a thinker as a cartoonist. He's always trying to find a new way to express ideas, combining his personal and political ideas into a potent, visually startling, storytelling experience.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Malachi Ward: Vile Decay and Top Five/Sweet Dreams

Malachi Ward is one of the preeminent science fiction cartoonists working today. Though his work is unabashedly genre-oriented, its attitude and inspirations clearly come from the world of alternative comics. This week and next, I'll take a look at some of his comics.

Sweet Dreams/Top Five. This is an interesting flip book that's about science-fiction tropes, sleep and fantasy. Sweet Dreams is a first-person narrative about a man with a slightly oddly-shaped head who doesn't dream that he was abducted by aliens; instead, he dreamed he was the alien abducting people! With just one or two panels per page and an all-black background, it would seem that the comic might be frightening. Far from it, as it ends with the man (now in classic alien "grey" form) kissing his former abductee on the forehead. What's funny about the story is that despite being the alien and going through his process, there's still no explanation as to his goals or reasoning behind probing and examining humans. It's every bit as opaque in this fantasy as it is for those who claim to remember being kidnapped.

Top Five, the other story in the flip book, is a story about grim survival with a first-person narrative that tries to take the protagonist's mind off his situation. He's an explorer on another planet who thinks about Star Trek minutiae in order to pass the time and deal with grueling physical labor as he struggles to make it through each day. There's an urgency to his fantasy life that goes into details about things like the top five time travel episodes of Star Trek that supersedes the urgency of his dull but frightening everyday life. Whereas the man in the first story has the luxury of pretending he's an alien, the spaceman in the second story retreats into fiction as a means of keeping his sanity. Both men dream of a different life for different reasons. This story has a rigid four panel grid that de-emphasizes the exotic nature of a foreign planet, instead putting the reader right into the heart of the man's boring work rituals, again and again. While the images tell the story, they do little to tell the story of the man's inner life, which is told almost entirely through text. In both stories, the actual drawings serve to tell the story in a mostly naturalistic style, but in neither case are they designed to draw a lot of attention. It's the page composition and panel set-up that do all the heavy work here.

Ritual #3: Vile Decay is the latest issue in Ward's running series with Revival House. The approach is radically different in this comic, as the reddish pinks dominate everything, including line. The story is indeed about decay, the decay of time and narrative, and the fragility of the line contributes greatly to the way the story works. Using a simple 2 x 3 grid, the story starts with a father and son walking around the beautiful canyons of a desert, with the father telling a story of a family going to visit a city. When they approached the city, a mob overtook them and did horrible things to the man's family. The moral of the story is that there was no moral; "Everything just gets worse" and "That's why you don't go into the fucking city, boy." Then the whole environment was revealed to be a hologram. Flash back to the man remembering being in a political protest with his girlfriend that turned into a riot, and then the boy is revealed to be a hologram as well. Then theres's another flashback to a few years after the riot, when everyone there talks about the incident. The political urgency of the moment is replaced by one of intimacy rotting away, as the couple is no longer together in the future, and they're with different partners. The former girlfriend of the protagonist in particular seems resentful of this in the sense that she created this powerful narrative with her former boyfriend, but it wasn't enough to keep their relationship a living, vital thing. Seeing the sun come up, the last few pages are all about her thinking about the sun, a seeming constant but also in a state of decay. She literally thinks about past sunsets and time passing, as she seems lonely and isolated. Whether in the past or in the future, Ward seems to suggest, the characters in this story all die alone.