Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #31: Awesome Possum #3

Awesome Possum Volume 3 is the continuing, kickstarted brainchild of editor Angela Boyle. It’s a big (400+ pages), varied and loving tribute to the flora and fauna of the world. How one feels about it as a reading experience will depend greatly on one’s interest in the subject, especially since there are a number of stories that aren’t even really comics at all, but simply illustrated text. Several of the entries are simply rundowns on the varieties of particular kinds of species and attendant drawings of them. Considering that there’s a separate, sixty-page section at the end of the book that’s nothing but illustrations, there’s a lot that felt redundant in this anthology. Awesome Possum succeeded when its contributors made the extra leap to truly doing an actual narrative surrounding a plant or animal, and failed when it was simply science class supplementary material.

Not every narrative was equally interesting or equally well-told. While William Scavone’s story about the Varroa mite killing off bees had a solid platform (a beekeeper and his daughter trying to detect mites), it turned out to be scaffolding for a lot of detailed jargon. Spratty’s strip about rattlesnakes was more visually interesting, in part because of the subject, but mostly because Spratty is a better storyteller who used panel-to-panel transitions to create genuine reader interest. Perhaps the best story in the whole book was Moss Bastille’s story about ergot and its long and colorful history. In a style mimicking stained-glass window effects, Bastille nonetheless went from strange folk story to hard science in the investigation of the poisonous fungus ergot. It caused death, strange behavior, hallucinations and was eventually used to derive LSD. Bastille kept the visuals simple and bold, using a lot of negative space to let information-packed pages breathe a little. This is a great example of telling a story without sparing detail, but not dumbing it down for a reader, either.

Some of the artists in the book explained the science as though it were for kids, and others for someone who was genuinely interested in the smallest details of various observations. Bastille was one of the few who found that sweet spot in-between. Megan Archer’s story about ants farming aphids was aimed at kids in terms of the flourishes an overall simplicity of the line, but it’s still detailed enough to be accurate. In a black & white book that demanded clarity, she was one of the ones who did it best, especially since there were so many stories using lettering that was too small or stylized or gray-scaling that was too muddy.

There was another consideration to think of: was their story interesting or boring, especially to a general reader and not someone who doesn’t already find nature’s tiniest aspects to be fascinating? Well, Ross Wood Studlar, who has been drawing nature for quite a long time, took no chances with his story. First, it was framed as a conversation between himself and a group of friends and relatives, which made it easy to feed the reader information naturally. Second, it seemed based on a true story, which made the mechanics of how to explain things even easier. Third, it was about how amphibians have the ability to return from the dead. That’s an eye-catcher that demanded an explanation, and Studlar then went over the science of how certain mosses and amphibians can be frozen solid for incredibly long periods of time and then revive themselves when the conditions are right again. That even includes the tiny tardigrades that live on moss—little creatures that can shut off their metabolic functions and survive virtually any conditions. Studlar has never been great at drawing people, but he can draw natural life like a champ and knows how to tell a story, even getting a laugh at the end.

Kevin Kite and Michelle McCauley did their own take on the Tardigrade, which has survived all five of earth’s great extinctions. The line was much simpler and cuter, but Boyle made a good call as an editor to follow up Studlar’s story with this one, because they are endlessly interesting. That story made use of a simple, thick line that was perfect for the story’s sense of humor. Tom O’Brien story about bats is interesting because he made the best use of the opposite: a fragile line and an extensive use of gray-scaling that nonetheless looked beautiful. That’s likely because he made sure the images stayed in constant movement while the accompanying text oozed along. Kelly Fernandez followed that up with a more cartoony pen-and-ink story that used gray-scaling to a lesser extent. Again, a smart palate cleansing choice by Boyle, especially since Fernandez’s actual subject (about the difference between crows and ravens) isn’t exactly gripping, which she makes up for by making it funny.

My antipathy toward chart and illustration heavy entries is clearly noted in this review. There were some exceptions, and Alyssa Lee Suzumura is one of them. The delicacy and precision of her line is so fine that I could look at it for hours. Her page formatting in this story about animals rafting as a way of making their way across the world was also clear and clever, with striking images telling the story in such a way that they didn’t depend on the text. There are also interjections of humor and absolutely stellar lettering. Patricia Maldonado’s take on cryptozoology is very text heavy and there’s little here that resembles comics, except that she chose an inherently interesting topic and her drawings are beautiful and clear.

As I read the anthology, I couldn’t help thinking what I usually do when I read one: this would have been so much better if you cut out a third of it. That rule applied here, but it’s so long that there were still have been so many great stories in it that balanced its overall approach, like an autobio encounter with a mountain beaver by Natalie Dupille, a cute but accurate account of the alarming phenomenon of aphid birth from Caitlin Hofmeister & Lauren Norby, and a super-cute series of illustrations and pages with big text by Bridget Comeau. Boyle’s own story about the dodo and extinction perfectly balanced her interest in detail with solid panel-to-panel transitions and a star character that is truly fun to look at in the flightless dodo. When you ask someone to be in your anthology and they have a specialty, let them run with it. In the case of G.P. Bonesteel, he specializes in horror, so his story about the invasive plant species houndstongue and all the damage has precisely the right tone.

Sometimes, sheer storytelling and drawing skill turned something dull (cottonwood trees of Canada) into something fascinating, as in the case of Laura Marie Madden. In the case of Jerel Dye and the Grasshopper Mouse, the physical characteristics of the creature became a part of this life-and-death story’s plot as it fought a scorpion. Aurora Melchior and Iris Yan both do their own take on the occasionally alarming mating rituals and habits of various creatures, both with a comedic outcome. Finally, Kriota Willberg’s amusing and highly detailed drawings of the “denizens of Manhattan” is a great showcase for this anatomical artist.

There were times that I wished for a heavier editorial hand in how some of the information was arranged. As noted earlier, this was a result of too many inessential pieces being published, but what can you do when it’s a kickstarted effort? There’s no question that she upped her game greatly as an editor and artist with this edition, as her interstitial possum drawings were an additional form of palate cleanser for the reader of this often entertaining and occasionally exhausting book.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #30: dw

dw is at the most extreme end of mark-makers to emerge from CCS, defying narrative and conventional comics layouts on every page. Which is not to say his comics are abstract, per se. Rather than attempt a straight review, here’s what I’m looking for and looking at when I read one of dw’s comics, and that certainly applies to his book with Fantagraphics Underground, Mountebank.

·        The Title. A mountebank is a snake oil salesman, a charlatan, a fraud, a trickster. Someone who makes big promises and doesn’t deliver on them while still profiting. Is this perhaps a playful self-critique or anticipatory critique of the kinds of comics that he does in relation to other kinds of comics, and how others might perceive him as a cartoonist as a result?

·        Gestalt vs Microimage. The design of this book is meant to resemble a small, personal notebook, complete with lined/graph paper to construct his small blocks. These are meant to resemble 8-bit images on the page and create whorls of black and white cascading across and around the page. Don’t concentrate too much on the individual images, because there are simply too many to take in. I try to take in the gestalt, the larger image that is created by the patterns while still understanding the hermeneutic relationship it has with the smaller images. This isn’t a Seurat painting, where the individual dots only have meaning when seen in the larger context. Instead, it’s more like using a microscope to example a cell sample and understand that the ways in which both views are different and true at the same time.

·        Black vs White, Dark vs Light. dw relies on these contrasts above all else in his comics to create patterns, shapes, paths and interruptions. The stark white boxes that appear on his page almost act as impenetrable borders, but not in the traditional sense of comics borders and gutters. The contrasts rise again and again, as the decorative and narrative aspects of his comics are often one and the same. Not every page is meant to be interpreted; some are simply meant to be seen and enjoyed for what they are.
·        Text vs Image. dw’s go-to image is a simple rendering of an animal of some kind: a cat, a dog, a pig, a stag, a deer or something hard to identify. They live in and on his pages. They are not simply decorative. There are times when there’s some sequential movement with them within each page and across pages. There are also times when dw uses collage to insert found text, which is sometimes used as dialog, and sometimes used as random commentary on the page by himself as author or by an animal. Sometimes the text is upside down, and sometimes it’s not in English. A lot of it concerns sex, which is interesting because I wouldn’t say the rest of his work touches on sex that much in terms of imagery, at least not on a literal level. I wouldn’t be surprised if these references were a textual representation of the id he may be exploring abstractly in the rest of his work.

·        Narrative vs Static Image. Is there a journey that takes place from the first page to the last? To be sure. Does this journey have narrative meaning? I’m not sure that this is an important question to ask, any more than if a walk in the forest has narrative meaning, or a trip on a boat. It just sort of is, and the key is let each page wash over you without thinking about them too hard.

·        I use a different strategy with his little minicomics; I like to look hard at the details of each image, like one mini where each creature is describing a fantastic-looking creature using images alone. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Cooper Whittlesey

Cooper Whittlesey is a cartoonist deep, deep into the mark-making wing of CCS grads, yet he shows a remarkable amount of range even within that categorization. His collaboration with Ryan Garbes, Sustain Level, is one of many he's done in his short career, and he's shown equal facility as both writer and illustrator. I'm not sure what the division of labor was with this comic, as it's not credited and the comic is largely a mix of drawings and heavily constructed collage. The themes that run through the comic are freedom (economic and otherwise), the negative influence of tradition and hierarchies, innocence and what ultimately corrupts it. There are times that the zine flirts with traditional narrative, but it's only in fits and starts. This is a comic about discord as a form of resistance and confusion as a strategy for freedom.

Whittlesey's own Omens Of Normal Living is next-level material for him. It's by far his most coherent and ambitious comic in every sense: narratively, artistically, and aesthetically. It is at once genuinely moving, absurd, frightening, enraging, hilarious and thought-provoking. Divided into four chapters that are mostly unconnected, each chapter involves a life-changing moment of truth. The first chapter is about a teenage couple where a girl demands to a boy that they go on a Ferris Wheel, of which he is terrified. Turns out he's right, as the combination of the wheel and a mysterious fog turns it into an increasingly hot death trap. Fortunately for both of them, he opens up a little door on his body and announces he can get away to a little room, and off they go. The heat does not relent in their absence, and while this was a strategy for their freedom, it didn't affect anyone else. Whittlesey uses an odd grid here: 2 x 4, which leans toward multiple centering shifts for the eye in a series of 2 x 2 patterns. It's a strategy for both orienting the reader and keeping them on their feet as they look at the page. The visuals range from very light and scratchy to smudgy and suffused with gray.

The second story is about a dog convict in a world where anthropomorphic dogs can marry women, as a metaphor for "the right kind" and "wrong kind" of people mixing drawing disapproval and worse. It's told in retrospect as the dog reminisces about how happy he was with his girlfriend: how they were going to get married and have kids as he toed the straight and narrow with a dehumanizing job. It took just a single day when he snapped at his job (taking away the tree on the roof, which is a fantastic metaphor) to put him behind bars, and to see the dehumanizing effect this has on others.

The comic builds momentum from chapter to chapter. The third is about a plane whose engine explodes, and the captain, understanding that everyone aboard is doomed, hilariously sends the flight attendants around to kiss any children who have never been kissed. Every other passenger then makes use of the time to exploit or experience things they've never been allowed: one prim and proper young girl decides to soil herself, one passenger invites another to take a bit out of them, an adult demands to a couple sitting together that they be his mommy and daddy, etc. Two highly successful assassins realize they are sitting next to each other. The result is a dazzling, hilarious and unsettling display of humanity as the most base of animals, indulging the id without regard to anything else, yet doing so in a way that almost seemed pure, innocent and exploratory. The only asshole on the plane was the guy who wouldn't share his cigarettes.

The final chapter is about the incipient death of a critic/artist who's been given a death sentence of a cancer diagnosis. An expert in “hardcore post-sense American Extreme art”, but at this point in his career, the Ebert to his Siskel tells him that they are “decaying void-geezers resting hard on our fiery laurels.” While the other three chapters were also about death, in this case, the turning point is a total reconsideration of the critic’s life project and approach. It’s not just that having cancer was an extreme that could not be topped, but also that such concepts didn’t have much meaning any more when the void really came calling. The rest of the story was a sensitive and humane and tender exploration of the end of life: talking to ex-wives, meeting up with old friends, going back to old painting techniques and simply understanding that he no special knowledge or insight with regard to his end. Whittlesey tends to use erase techniques in his work (both with text and art), and so the slow fade away of his body was both visually and emotionally affecting. There is sincerity in this comic that belies the crazy visuals and extremity of some of the scenarios, as Whittlesey has clearly thought about these topics at length and treated them with both the absurdity and empathy that they deserve. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Simon Reinhardt

It’s no surprise that some of the material in the new issue of Aaron Cockle’s Annotated first appeared in Simon Reinhardt’s grab-bag comic series Mystery Town. This anthology (sometimes one-man, sometimes with several contributors) is a pure expression of Reinhardt’s aesthetic vision, which reflects Cockle’s understanding of our senses being completely mediated by our cultural influences (or as he might put it, cultural viruses). Where they differ is in the sharpness and direction of their commentary; for Cockle, it’s a critique told in the language of the oppressors. For Reinhardt, it’s simply new grist for a mill of feelings and fears that go back way before capitalism.

Both cartoonists are not at their best when they attempt typical, narrative rendering. Collage, abstraction, erasure and hints at drawings best convey what they’re trying to express anyway, and it so happens that it’s their best fit as cartoonists with a limited toolbox. The conceit of the anthology is that it’s the official municipal newsletter of a place called Mystery Town in the USA, with the mayor (Herman T. Billfolde, a name worthy of Groucho Marx), where all sorts of strange things happen. So there’s a bit of Twin Peaks and every other form of media featuring a quirky, eccentric town. That said, that’s not really the focus in most of the stories. Instead, the stories are often intensely personal and elliptical. Issue 3 has two recurring features: “Nite Time Music” and “Endless Hallway”. The former is a series of mood pieces about music at night: in the desert, on the highway, in the forest, in the city. It’s music as something haunting, something the lingers and evokes deep feelings and memories. These pieces almost read as fragments of something that Tim Lane might do.

The latter feature speaks to Reinhardt’s other fascination, which is the ways in which horror works on a psychological level. Disorientation, both of the audience and the protagonist, is one way to evoke anxiety and panic, as not being oriented toward space (and eventually, time) takes away one’s epistemological foundation. Each of these strips has a different character in a different hallway, trying to make their way as best they can but sensing that they are doomed.

Issue #3 is the “Art Issue”, featuring a story where a show about volcanoes is held in what turns out to be an active volcano that erupts and wipes out the show and everything in it. It’s a funny send-up of art that cares less about its target than it does riffing on what kind of hubris would lead an artist to stage a show in such a place. The citizens of Mystery Town that we meet are often lonely, sad, scared or some combination thereof. Luke Healy’s contribution in #4 is a series of drawings on post-it notes that resemble Seth’s more spontaneous, cartoony style. The fifth issue chases down memories, ghosts, love and Drone Gang life.

In the sixth issue, Juan Fernandez contributed “Wired”, a sketchily drawn story about power lines (and cutting them) that has a narration detailing what happens when one stays awake for too many days in a row. It’s chilling, especially in how impersonal the imagery is. One of Reinhardt’s best stories, “The War Years”, is in this issue, about a sojourner in the wasteland who finds respite in the arms of a woman whose house he comes upon and later steals a device from her. The terrifying thing about this story is that the man who’s trekking is completely cut off from communication; he doesn’t know whether his actions even have meaning anymore. The unknown, Reinhardt suggests, is much more terrifying than a known horror, even if it’s awful.

Eventually, Reinhardt starts to stray away from straight narrative and begins to experiment with collage and mixed media, redrawing a page from an old Adam Strange comic and emphasizing the alienating quality of the shadow ray shot at him. Mystery Town #9 sees a reversal, as it’s a single story by Reinhardt that works in thick black lines. It examines the theme of what crime means during wartime, as a Cyclopean woman lives to steal, until she’s caught and rehabilitated…for a little while. This is really a story about addiction and the way one attempts to replace something that’s missing in one’s life with the object of that addiction. #10 has a lot of guest content from Drake, Nik James and Dean Sudarsky, and it’s epic in a way that other issues are quiet (it includes surfing in a fiery ocean, for example), yet it fits into Reinhardt’s overall aesthetic. 

Reinhardt snaps back full force in #11 with a hilarious send-up of navel-gazing autobio, except that in this case he’s still going to his boring job even though he just won the lottery. #12 juxtaposes a blank form against a series of clocks, as the narrator feels like he’s fallen behind time and doesn’t catch up with it again until his moment of death. It’s an elegantly-constructed story that still has Reinhardt’s hand in it prominently, despite its levels of abstraction. #15 has fragments (some dream, some excerpts from other authors, some autobio), but #16 seems to sum things up with an issue set at the Mystery Town Awards, an event that in itself is odd and mysterious as diamonds appear to rain down from the ceiling. It is, as a series, about fragments and pieces that make up a community and mind.

Reinhardt’s next project was October Movie Diary, a fascinating account of 31 horror movies watched during October. Each movie got four panels, and in many ways this is the first time I’ve seen Reinhardt in control of his line. It’s tough business selecting a few representative images from each film, yet he was up to the task as he used colored pencil both to create a wash effect and to color key elements in each panel (like blood). I think it would be accurate to say that Reinhardt has a cinematic eye when it comes to drawing comics, but not in any traditional sense. He’s obsessed with the single image that represents so much more. It’s not just a matter of shock, but a fascination with the sheer beauty and fascination with something horrible. Reinhardt is also an excellent critic, humorously and mercilessly reducing each movie to a few words, for good and ill.

With Reinhardt’s latest comic, Slow Theft, he moved into a comic book-sized format and full color. The comic reprints some of the best “Nite Time Music” strips (now in color and it features several new stories by Reinhardt. Without the Mystery Town scaffolding, these strips feel like they’re depicting a world that’s desolate and threatening, be they “inside stories” or “outside stories”, as noted on the back cover. “Maze” is about a world where death can come up from the ground in the form of a branching lightning bolt. What’s scariest about this story is that the protagonist’s rules for survival simply stopped working at a certain point.

The title story is about three people who break into a huge home, aiming to do a quick smash and grab and then get out. Slowly but surely, they find the house irresistible, despite multiple attempts by the house itself to warn them away from there. After months of laying around, they realize that they can never leave. The “theft” here is not of valuables, but of lives. Reinhardt’s character design here is clever, and the ratty use of mark-making adds to the sleazy intentions of the thieves. “The White Woods” is interesting less than the story than its bleak tone, as a couple in the woods tries to rely on their physical intimacy as a way of keeping out the desolation of the woods they’re in, with one character unable to maintain that connection after he’s been outside for too long. It’s the color contrasts that make this story work, especially the unsettling white woods themselves. Reinhardt continues to challenge himself as an artist, and the result is a series of ever-more-challenging comics. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #27: Aaron Cockle, Mathew New, Steve Thueson

Aaron Cockle’s project can be difficult to summarize, but after reading issue #20 of his grab-bag series Annotated and another mini titled Over Time, Every Section Had Been Allowed To Grow Accordingly, it occurred to me that it can actually be explained in a sentence or two. Cockle’s comics are a critique of capitalism (and its tendrils in the state, the sciences and the worldwide information apparatus) and its effect on ontological, epistemological, ethical and even aesthetic systems. The critique is that capitalism distorts, obfuscates and all but undermines these systems, and the critique itself is written in that same distorted language. It’s a smart technique because in the same way that the description of an experience of beauty is not the same thing as beauty, or a description of drowning is not the same thing as drowning, so too would an outside critique of capitalism be impossible. There is no “outside” of capitalism on a global basis anymore. Cockle strips away the illusions and gets to the phenomenological heart of the dehumanizing effect of capitalism in a manner that’s poetic and elusive.

As Cockle has evolved as a cartoonist, he’s gotten further and further away from conventional figure work (never his strength as a draftsman) and has instead moved toward abstraction, collage and fragmentation. Over Time… starts with a chapter about a worker who learns that even dying doesn’t free him from his job; he winds up haunting everything in his office (including voicemail, which I thought was amusing) and working in the position for another three years. The second chapter imagines an entire office being sent to a retirement home together, struggling against dementia while creating artificial structures and obsessions with receipts. The third chapter uses found documents as part of a story of someone using found documents to draw the location of all scaffolded buildings in the city as a way of cheating death. The fourth chapter (which signals the end of part one of this title) instructs the entire world as to their jobs, imagining people with multimedia accounts as all part of a united structure.

Annotated #20 is actually split into five separate minis, each with their own beautifully designed and/or selected cover to provide a maximum of decorative gloss. “The Circular Of Ruins” is styled such that it looks like it was drawn straight into a pocket notebook with lined paper. Each page contradicts the next in this story about a consulting firm that may also perform scientific experiments. The contradictions are not deliberate; instead, they are products of the critique I discussed above. An inability to trust in memory and observation, as the story suggests, is a direct attack on our understanding of epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge. An ability to articulate the purpose of the company (and company = person in this example) is an attack on ontology, the philosophy of being. Not understanding how to treat others in the company is an attack on ethics. They are rendered senseless.

In a series of geometric shapes, “Anti-Pode” posits comparisons of a Wall, a Tower and a Pit. In the series of juxtaposed shapes (with different colors and gradients as rendered using zip-a-tone effects), the descriptions make each of the terms increasingly circular and meaningless. There’s no foundation to lay one’s understanding in. “Outsized Computer, Reporting Structure” is written as a kind of company report that reflect the ways in which everything is broken. Everything is structured, but nothing works, as the images of obsolete computers in the background tell us. All that’s left when resources have been stripped to their core are the artifacts of hierarchical thought. “Word Cage” breaks this down in another way, breaking down mission vs human cost; the “Affect Effect Infect” ethos describes perfectly the bare-bones mission of every corporate structure. The mini gets at the temporal and spatial effects of working in an office and how both are warped in this structure. Finally, “Cones Of Uncertainty, Cones of Resolution” is a savage takedown of public relations, noting that one must always apologize, even (and especially) if you don’t mean it. The way that this package is fractured, that it can be read in any order, speaks directly to Cockle’s critique more than any more traditional narrative could.

Mathew New’s loony, extended riff on Indiana Jones-style adventuring continues to grow simultaneously sillier and weirder with the fourth issue of Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers. The basic set-up of each issue finds Billy, a kid given a remarkable amount of free reign to explore, investigating a new ruin, pyramid or other such site for adventure. Along with him is Professor Barrace Wilcox, a talking duck with a great deal of education (this issue reveals that he’s written three books!) and his sword, Mr. Jabbers. It is at once not just a send-up of explorer stories and Indiana Jones in general, but also of the seemingly endless epic quest graphic novels that litter the Young Adult landscape. At the same time, it’s excellent, clear-lined entertainment on its own.

This issue finds the duo having packed some lunches in order to go explore the ancient Hero Trials of myth; a sort of combination of Heracles and Theseus with some other twists thrown in. The theme of the issue is immortality: Billy wants to be remembered as a great hero. The duo is then zapped from the entrance to the first trial: defeating giant birds that already have them up in the air. A magic spear appears to help him win the trial, and they’re then zapped to the next trial where he’s been given a magical flying cape. All along, a voice offers him advice on how to beat his opponents using the new items. New is terrific at pacing and panel-to-panel transitions in particular, and his use of color is tasteful and adds the right decorative touch while aiding the narrative in subtle ways.

Eventually, the whole thing is revealed to be a trap, but Barrace’s bizarre nature isn’t simply a throwaway gag. Indeed, when the villain of the piece deduces the duck’s true nature, it causes her to scream, giving Billy just enough time to win the fight. Meanwhile, a blue alien that may or may not be related to Barrace is looking for them both. New pulls off the neat trick of writing a satisfying adventure short story and creating just enough subplots to give the book a bit of weight and depth. A back-up story by Luke Healy fits nicely into the book’s tone, and Healy’s adopts New’s style to create a new look altogether. Pin-ups by Bridget Comeau and Megan Brennan are all part of the value added qualities of this release, as do postcards written by Billy and Barrace.

I also wanted to add a review of Steve Thueson’s landscape mini Hell Fight #1. It’s a silent, continuing series of four panel strips detailing a vicious, knock-down fight between a woman coming home from work and a skeleton dude that steals her beloved jacket. This one is bone-crunching (literally!) violence on a visceral level that is carefully established in panel after panel. The woman really does not want to lose that jacket, which leads to the use of all sorts of magic in an effort to fight each other off. If Billy Johnson represents a more polished, YA approach in terms of action, then Thueson’s work remains raw and spontaneous: punk rock adventure comics.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #26: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden’s Astral Birth Canal may be my favorite continuing series published today. Hadden’s really taken advantage of his Patreon platform to create issues that not only forward his own idiosyncratic, epic fantasy stories, but he also includes a couple of back-up features in each issue now as well. I’ve made this comparison before, but it bears repeating: Hadden’s model here reminds me a lot of what Chuck Forsman did in his Snake Oil series. There are multiple, connecting storylines that blur fantasy and real life. There is a sense of existential dread as well as the absurd that inhabits each page. The cartooning is scratchy and gestural, harkening back to artists like George Herriman in terms of mark-making. It’s a raw and powerful kind of art that builds on spontaneity in the way that Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur did.

Of course, I’m not saying that Hadden is at that level or is even consciously emulating those artists. Rather, he’s working in a similar imaginative path, one that emphasizes the journey over the destination in every work. Consider the slight Krikkit Goes Outside, which may as well be a kid’s mini. It’s about a cat who leaves home for a day, looking for mushrooms, the big toad and the river. This is unlike all other Hadden comics in that a character goes on an adventure, knows exactly what is in store for them and has a wonderful time. More typical is another one-shot called YOORM, which is about the first creature in the universe being created (in the evocative “chamber of mouths”) and its subsequent struggle. There is no path, there is nothing familiar and there is only confusion and pain for poor Yoorm. Its first thoughts induced paralyzing terror before Yoorm mastered them and eventually split off to form identical beings. Not having figured out biological imperatives like hunger, Yoorm soon died, “tears and rain, forever.” This cold, callous universe is what Hadden tends to lean toward in his narratives, though this is certain an extreme.

When Hadden grounds a narrative in characters who are familiar with the terrain, like in Finch Island (parts 1-3), a comic he did with his brother John, the entire narrative itself seems friendlier and more sure-footed for the protagonist. Here, a couple of anthropomorphic frog fishermen act as a kind of Greek chorus for Dr Finch, a scientist looking to find an island that his ancestor had come upon hundreds of years earlier. There is a warmth to be found in the story’s relationships; Finch befriends a dog who had been ensnared by a trap and is aided by the frogs. Finch feels warmly toward a breakfast partner as well as his ancestor. The trip is taken with no eye toward profit, but rather to achieve a kind of profound silence and stillness. I imagine the story has a few more chapters, but this is an example of pure curiosity being rewarded.

Of course, that’s not always the case. In the flip book The Wizened One/Our Fearless Hero (with Fionn McCabe doing the latter), the first character is a watcher whose imperative is to watch a system, and by doing so ensure its destruction. She doesn’t have the strength or inclination (she’s bound by duty) to look away, but she doesn’t like it either, which makes it all worse. The hero of the back half of the story is a self-deluded idiot who manages to survive horrible situations until he doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter because his entire universe dies thanks to the events of the other story. While there is a certain amount of nihilism involved in this beautiful, Risographed comic, on Hadden’s part it’s self-chosen by the character.

On to the main event: issues seven, eight, and nine of Astral Birth Canal. Issue #0 began with some teenagers from our planet being deposited in a mysterious other universe thanks to a video game, but each issue has begun and then turn away from several other bewildering narratives. The combination of brutal violence and wacky absurdity in each issue gives them a certain whipcrack sensibility where the reader has to be prepared for anything. One of the storylines involves a young warrior named Strongboy Edward and his impossible-to-please warrior father Bork. Edward dies at the beginning of #7, but that’s far from the end of his story, as he’s taken on a tour of the afterlife. In #9, the reader is introduced to the story of Valentina, an earth woman who’s a cashier during the day and a pro wrestler at night. It’s one more example of Hadden pulling out yet another seemingly unconnected narrative until her first solo match, which is a smash triumph. After the match, she meets an eight-foot warrior named Bork; as it turns out, Edward was watching highlights of the past with his also-dead father. It turns out to be a tender love story and also puts a bow on the familial tragedy that was Edward’s relationship with his father. This is some of Hadden’s best drawing and character design, mixing lumpy bodies with expressive faces.

Issue 8 features the remaining one of the three earth teens, Rona, and the native Bird Girl. They have been subjected to horrible, agonizing torture by a bird creature called the Cleric; those early scenes where Rona was terrified by a lack of understanding of anything happening around her combined with the utter terror of her new reality were unnerving. Again, very simple cartooning, almost at stick-figure level in some places, yet Hadden’s ability to stick the reader into that position of confusion and fear come from that raw, gestural sense of expression. Issue 8 features hope, because while the super-team designed to defend the land from the Cleric (the Mighty Bird Five) was utterly routed, one of its dying members passed on powers to the girls. If Edward’s story is a family tragedy slapped on top of non-stop mayhem, then the girls’ story is one of slowly learning to understand and adjust to one’s situation until it’s possible to overcome it.

As noted, there are plenty of great short back-up features. Anna McGlynn focused on the video game aspect of the story and told a tale about children in the future playing a version of Dance Dance Revolution as they’ve achieved immortality. Dean Sudarsky’s gritty style fits right in with a story about a Bork-like champion and his rivalry with the sun. In their separate stories, Simon Reinhardt and Stephanie Zuppo both zero in on the strange world and how it seems to draw people in from other dimensions. The former has a barbarian finding an idol and figuring out what to do with it—even if it wasn’t the best decision. The latter features a girl slowly revealing that she’s not an ordinary teen—she was brought to the world and learned how to fight, and that’s just what she was going to do, against all odds. Bridget Comeau does a story about a little mushroom creature encountering the Cleric, Luke Healy does a story about a religion rising and falling around a bird, and Hadden & Jenna Marchione (art) do a strip and ballad about a mighty warrior named Brenda. Josh Bayer, Sophie Yanow and Tillie Walden all provide pin-up pages that are all spectacular on their own merits. Hadden really went out of his way to make each issue a wholly satisfying read, and that’s why it’s such a great series: he is thinking both as an artist and an editor.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #25: Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman (who uses they/them pronouns) has been at their expansive webseries As The Crow Flies for well over three years, and the first print volume has been published by Iron Circus Comics. I can’t think of a more complementary fit between artist and publisher, especially since the popularity of the webcomic made its kickstarter campaign (a staple of Spike Trotman’s company for each book they publish—and not a single campaign has come up short) an easy sell.

This is a slowly-paced, contemplative book that emphasizes (despite everything else going on emotionally and spiritually) the relationship between humans and nature. In particular, its focus is on being present and experiencing nature aesthetically, taking in the beauty of each moment and connecting one’s own life force to that of life around you. Gillman astoundingly uses colored pencils for every panel and page, and this allows them total control over every image while maintaining a soft, human touch. Just as Gillman emphasizes in the story how important it is to be able to continually perceive just how beautiful nature is, so it is also the case that the reader is reminded what a treasure it is to look at each beautiful page.

Their character design is simple but extremely distinctive, especially with regard to the ways they draw so many kinds of differently shaped faces and is able to render them consistently, page after page. That simplicity makes the facial expressions of their characters their laboratory for expressing emotion and providing a specific path for character interaction. Body language and gesture are part of this, but the reader must follow the character’s expression in relation to each other to truly follow the action.

Something that is not noted in this book is that it’s the first volume in a series. This is important, because otherwise the reader would be baffled by the ending. It’s a minor point, but most book series make it a point to slap “Volume I of a thousand…” on the front cover, inside the front cover, at the end of the book, etc. And while those books try to tell something of a complete story in a single volume, this first offering from Gillman is most certainly not that, even if there is a solid break point on page 272.

The story follows Charlie, a queer, thirteen-year-old African-American girl, being dropped off at a wilderness adventure Christian camp. She has immediate and continuous doubts about being there, especially when she walks in and realizes that every other girl there is white. Throughout the course of the book, she gets to know a few of her fellow campers, is taken aback by some insensitive comments by both the counselor and other girls, and by the end of the book plans some subversive action with her new friend and ally Sydney, a trans girl. The trail they’re taking follows that of a (fictional) woman named Beatrice Tillson in 1894, who led a revolt of sorts against the men in the town by going out on a sabbatical with all of its women.

The plot is simple. The ideas that Gillman explores are difficult and complex. It would have been shooting fish in a barrel for Gillman to have Charlie experience something like a fundamentalist/evangelical assault, filled with characters of faith who are portrayed as clich├ęs and hypocrites. Instead, Gillman weaves an exploration and critique of feminism that is not intersectional along with a personal and meditative examination of religion and spirituality--all told by well-meaning but flawed individuals. As it turns out, not all of the women were allowed to go on this journey in the 19th century; there were servants of color who were told to stay behind to take care of the children. Bea makes an off-handed joke when Charlie asks her for a tampon where she’s relieved that Charlie didn’t tell her that she was a demon-worshiper or really a man, implying that as a Christian and feminist, Bea would tend toward the trans-exclusionary side of things.

The thing that Charlie zeroed in on was Bea talking about the sacred ritual at the end of the journey, a “purification” that involved a “whitening of the soul”. When Charlie eventually mentioned this to Bea’s daughter Penny, the latter was horrified by the use of this metaphor. It spoke to how just as the book was about Charlie finding her physical footing on the trail, so too was she finding her footing, her voice and confidence in interacting with others in direct ways. Charlie talked to God throughout her trek, wondering if she should really be there and starting to doubt her faith altogether. She and Charlie devise a pact to find a way to disrupt that final ceremony and expose its hypocrisies. Gillman also starts to explore some of the other characters, like mean girl Adelaide, who confesses to being conscious of her meanness and how she’s trying to be better, especially with regard to Therese, who obviously adores her.

Gillman hits on the essential idea that right and wrong are frequently easy to differentiate and are only complicated by people themselves, who are contradictory and complex and often irrational. They note that there are layers of belief systems with regard to race, class, gender, sexual identity, sexuality, etc that all have a place in how these belief systems play out, and that by ignoring or minimizing any of these component parts, any competing system that strives for fairness is incomplete. Every character in the book that gets extended time feels real because Gillman strives to tell their stories from their point of view, even if that narrative excludes others. Gillman doesn’t need cheap conflict or obstacles to tell a compelling story; indeed, such tricks would only detract from the conflict that’s on the intellectual, emotional and spiritual level in this book.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #24: April Malig

Malig hasn’t done much in the way of comics in recent years, but her collage/photography zines that she Risographs are beautiful and funny. There’s a sense in which these zines are acts of will against depression and entropy. For example, Yuri!!! On Ice Is The Only Thing Keeping My Sanity Together!!! ends with an apology that this was not a fan zine, but rather that in a time when things were and are awful in any number of ways, this anime proved to be “a talisman for tender things” like “stronger friendships, a sense of community” and “a break from the real world”. While not a fan of that show myself, I’ve been witness to the sheer joy and happiness I’ve seen from people who are into it. And that sense of finding a community, of making a connection, are absolutely crucial to one’s mental health, something that’s reinforced again and again in Malig’s work.

That theme is reflected slightly differently in TBH, I’d Rather Live In A Sailormoon Background, as the desire for escape is so great that she imagines literally pushing into a drawing or cartoon and living there for a little while. New Mexico 2016 Zine is about using paper to record beautiful, strange events and times that now seem far away. It’s a way of keeping them alive and real in a way that’s difficult to do with just memory or even a simple photograph; the act of making is a kind of jump-start for reliving those experiences. Again, the candy-colored shades and backgrounds and the simple and sometimes blurred images evince feelings more than specific ideas. Collage Zine 2017 is even more abstract and basic than these other minis in terms of concept but far more complex in terms of the colors, drawing and even hand-constructed nature of the thing. It begins with the text “Like, whatever, fuck it…Do what you want” and goes further down into that paradoxical hole of accepting meaninglessness and fighting it through creating things.

South Korea Scrapbook 2008-2011 is a fantastic mix of confessional autobio, comics, Lonely Planet reviews, photos, and drawings centering around Malig’s experiences moving to South Korea (from California) for three years and how it shaped her. It started as kind of a whim centered around a boy she had just met and turned into a slowly life-affirming experience where she had friends and connections all across town. She had places she knew and loved, food she sought out and enjoyed, and a life lived intentionally. That seemed to be the key to her experience, as the isolation in a foreign country can be so extreme that one is forced to find connections, communities and meaning on an everyday basis. Malig’s sense of humor and the multimedia lens with which she views the world convey this feeling to the reader in a warm, self-deprecatory but ultimately sincere fashion.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #23: Sasha Steinberg

Sasha Steinberg, during his time at CCS, was one of the most ambitious, talented and cerebral of its students. His Stonewall series, taking on the famous riot that launched the gay rights movement in the USA from a variety of different points of view. During his time at CCS, he also began experimenting with drag performance as Sasha Velour. An early showcase came at the Ignatz awards at SPX, when she presented an award, along with her partner Johnny. (Steinberg tends to flip between pronouns, and for the purposes of the article, I will refer to Steinberg as she when in the Velour persona and he otherwise). Of course, Sasha Velour has become a worldwide star thanks to her winning Season 9 of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. She won it using the same persona she presents as a cartoonist: a playful intellectual whose work is deeply informed by and a tribute to a number of historical influences.

Even before her success on the show, Velour was self-publishing a full-color, the first issue of which was titled Vym, but has since been simply retitled Velour. The third issue is fairly light on comics and heavy on both photography and especially collage. It’s also light on the thoughtful, philosophical essays from the first issue, or at least, they manifested in the form of interviews and photo commentary. The emphasis on both collage and performance reminds me of the sort of the thing that was produced in Weimar Germany, also harkening back to collage artists like Hannah Hoch.

The result is a colorful, beautiful comic that emphasizes the sense of community and kindness in drag culture rather than the shade that’s thrown on TV. Indeed, the theme of the issue was “Sisters”. There was a photo/collage piece where a pair of drag queens used similar materials to decorate photos of the other, and this turned out to be the most striking photo essay in the magazine. A tight-knit Brooklyn drag group (The House of Aja) receives a similar kind of photo-collage treatment, with each member getting a page of their own glory. Velour’s conception of drag has always emphasized inclusivity, especially with regard to people of size, people of color, people of different faiths and trans women, and the “That’s My Sister” article speaks to the incredibly wide array of manifestations of what drag means to people. (I thought Patti Spliff was an especially clever persona.)

Circling back to CCS contributors, Jose-Luis Olivares contributed drawings of five of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, along with commentary. This is a group that Olivares is listed as a “novice” of, and Olivares’ painterly qualities are on full display. April Malig collaborated with Untitled Queen on what could have been a fantastic risographed zine as well as an article in this magazine. Titled “the spectacularly sad surreptitious spinster snake sister survival spellbook”, it’s a clever, funny and deeply emotional blueprint for establishing and nourishing friendships with one’s sisters. Their mutual Filipino background contributed to the dessert portion of the piece, a layered concoction called Halo-Halo.

Velour herself contributed a collage of photos of her fellow stars from Drag Race, putting them in fantastical settings befitting their personae. Velour was the subject (along with her Drag Race collaborator, Shea Coulee’) of a photo essay emphasizing their “Naughty Nightie” piece on the show and taking it to another level. Finally, in a comic by Laurel Lynn Leake titled “Afters”, she depicts some moments of rest after a drag show, with each of the performers doing their own post-mortem. When Yessica Mente wonders why one of her tributes went down so poorly, her friends note that her tribute to an African-American artist (recently departed), including use of a racial slur. Yessica, not being African-American, is unsure and defensive about this, and tensions rise.

Leake takes a long look at the kind of simmering tensions that can arise and nods toward the fact that it was women of color (and trans women of color of that) who were the key figures of Stonewall. Leake is another artist who is sensitive and aware of the complexities that surround drag while being enormously sympathetic toward them. The end, which includes apologies but also a sense of realizing that certain issues couldn’t be resolved instantly, speaks to the sisterhood that’s the theme of the issue and the story itself. It speaks to drag’s power and possibilities while gently examining the human imperfections that are a part of it, so that it can be celebrated authentically.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #22: Ben Wright-Heuman & Andi Santagata

Ben Wright-Heuman’s another artist from the horror-suspense wing of CCS, and his Letters Of The Devil webseries was successfully kickstarted to book form. Wright-Heuman is an example of an artist who’s able to work around his limitations to produce a successful, engrossing narrative. In his case, his actual draftsmanship is just serviceable enough to get by. Some figures and drawings are better executed than others, and he’s able to execute things like gesture and body language well enough to get around other figure drawing problems. There are times when the drawings are a distraction, but Wright-Heuman makes up for that with a sharp script, strong storytelling and a clever use of color.

The story begins with a mysterious figure talking about justice and hypocrisy who delivers a letter written with red ink and sealed with wax bearing the letter “L”. The letter, also signed with that single initial, was delivered to a detective named Cedric and contained cryptic information regarding a potentially corrupt financier. When the detective takes the bait and investigates the claim (without his partner, oddly enough), a chain of events is sent into place as various other people received letters from the mysterious L, each one providing incriminating or interesting information about another person.

Wright-Heuman sets up a delicate structure in his plotline that leaves plenty of room for characterization. He keeps the reader guessing as to whom the true protagonist might be til the very end as the story gets murkier and murkier with each murder. There’s a sense in which every character is the protagonist of their own story, an idea that Wright-Heuman follows closely as each character has an excuse for their actions that falls away upon scrutiny. Once the mystery is set into motion, the story’s gears grind away at it as Wright-Heuman loves planting subtle clues that come to fruition much later on. The possibility of supernatural intervention is an interesting aside that also keeps the reader (and the characters) guessing. Above all else, he makes the reader ask, “What kind of story am I reading?” and he chooses not to answer that til near the very end. If there’s an author that he has something in common with in terms of story structure, it winds up being Agatha Christie, only he goes several steps darker than even she does.

It is rare for a comic to take me by surprise, but CCS student Andi Santagata managed that trick when I read the first page of her mini Jed The Undead Volume One: Fire In The Hole. There was a black “adult content” band around the mini that I had to slide off, which made me curious about its contents. It took me a few moments to parse her extremely thin line art and small panels on that page, but it soon became clear that a male was masturbating to a biker babe image, penis in hand. What was unusual that when he orgasmed, he blew a hole in his roof. When the page is turned, we can that he’s a demonic teenager, and the blanket that had been covering him up was still smoldering from the explosion.

That’s quite a way to start this hilarious supernatural teen angst comic, in which the titular Jed learns that once a demon comes of age, ejaculation becomes a problem. Especially because he moved with his father to Las Vegas, and simply seeing girls is torture for him. The story is very much about the perils of adolescence write large and out of control, as he spends this issue clumsily trying to figure things out and awkwardly explain things to his extremely cheery father and his best friend Freddy. In possibly the funniest two-page spread I read this year, Jed tries again (to the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery book, of all things) and realizes that he’s about to ejaculate. So he aims outside his open window at a tree many yards away. The result is a spectacular direct hit that incinerates the tree and attracts the attention of the local fire department. His efforts to shrink into his mattress as much as possible cap off this masterfully staged scene.

The rest of the comic plays off of this problem as various solutions are considered and abandoned, and Freddy winds up coming to his friend’s rescue. Santagata is completely committed to her style of art and it shows in the confidence of her storytelling, as scratchy and occasionally difficult to scan as it sometimes is. Once the reader adjusts to her bone-dry sense of humor and storytelling rhythms, everything else follows. I did think this comic could benefit from the use of spot colors, at a minimum, instead of the grayscaling she chose to use.

Chupacabra starts in a joyride in New Mexico with a teen possibly nicknamed “Florida” by the asshole driving the car. She’s out in defiance of her mother and is clearly intimidated by the older, cooler people she’s in the car with. A lighter is demanded, which she provides, but it’s unacceptable because it’s short and white, meaning it’s bad luck. Immediately, the car slams into something, What follows is once again a mix of suspense, horror and comedy, with the extensive use of blacks crucial in spotlighting what’s out there waiting for them. Santigata cleverly makes the lighter a key element of the narrative, turning what seemed to be bad luck into a life-saving device. It’s not as visually sophisticated as her Jed story; rather, it feels like a solid warm-up in terms of establishing pace and mood. The only other cartoonist from CCS I can think of who manages to combine horror and humor so effectively is G.P. Bonesteel, though his visual approach is completely different. It’s a small group overall to be sure, and I can see where Santigata (like Ian Richardson) might have taken some cues from Steve Bissette. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Romey Petite, Laurel Holden

Spiderella is an unusual CCS-related project, as it’s an illustrated children’s book, not an actual comic. Of course, while CCS is known to focus on storytelling in comics form above all else, there have been a number of cartoonists who have focused on illustration or illustrated text. (Katherine Roy comes to mind.) While at CCS, the two kicked around this story, which combined aspects of Cinderella and the myth of Arachne but turned out to be something closer to modern YA adventure comics in many respects. It was decided that Petite would write the actual text and Holden would do the illustrations and their accompanying watercolors. The 200 page book is at once a rapid read but also surprisingly dense. It winds up being the first part of an indeterminately long saga, yet it’s also a satisfying read on its own. Petite and Holden create a beautiful storytelling rhythm, where the slightly poetic and slightly silly language that Petite chooses is a perfect match for Holden’s bright colors, exaggerated facial expressions and pointed use of gestural drawing.

The latter is especially important in an illustrated book that’s not a comic. The understanding of the way bodies interact in space that Holden possesses gives each of her pages life, rather than feeling static, and it’s because of the way she poses her characters and has them express body language in the form of pointing, hunching their shoulders, or slyly staring off in a direction counter to all the other action on the page. Holden also totally leans into the fashion aspect of the story, with her creations more than rising to the occasion of silliness (yet still fashionable) that Petite writes. For his part, Petite’s omniscient narrator is funny without being too wacky, informative without spelling everything out, and on top of the narrative while still allowing a digression or two.

The story is about a young girl named Eleanor who has the fantastic ability to sew very quickly and imaginatively for her boss, Minerva. So much so that Minerva keeps her locked in an attic, where Eleanor is happy because she can at least talk to her friends, the spiders. That mix of sweet and creepy (it’s rare that spiders living in someone’s hair is considered to be a nice thing in literature) also serves to make this book distinctive. While much in the narrative is made to be deliberately familiar, Petite clearly is interested in subverting typical fairy tale narratives in other ways. When the King and Queen of the kingdom decree that their son, the Prince, must get married, they declare a Royal Ball so that a proper bride can be chosen. That all sounds pretty boilerplate, but Petite greatly deflects expectations at the ball and especially with regard to the Prince. The ending of the story in particular is a happy one, but in a manner that’s not common for typical fairy tales, although Petite had been hinting at it throughout the book. What Spiderella wanted more than anything was a chance at adventure (and being reunited with her father, also an adventurer), and she earned that chance. And when the Prince runs after her in this book, it’s not to guarantee her a life of luxury like in Cinderella, but rather to beg to get away. I read the first twenty pages of the book to my daughter, a sometimes squirmy listener, and she demanded more. I read the first seventy pages out loud and she was rapt with every page and made all sorts of predictions as the story proceeded.

(This drawing is by K.M. Claude.)

Also reviewed is a sketchbook rough in Petite’s My Biblical Daydreams series, entitled “Clear As Day”. The story is about a writer who’s apparently had a drunken encounter with a woman named Theda who expects him to show up somewhere. The fact that he can’t quite recall everything the way it was precisely recorded bothers him as a writer. He wanted perfect, clear memories. So Theda talked to him about this and gave him water from the River Lethe, the Greek underworld river of forgetfulness. (Its name means “oblivion”.) It was good ol’ Death playing a little prank, as the water put his memories where they could never be touched again, and she promised to come back later for the rest. (Petite didn’t specify that this was death, but the anagram and other clues made it obvious.) This was a clever short story with great character design, and the modern touches were effective in deflecting the story’s true aim until just the right moment.