Friday, July 13, 2018

Koyama: Ben Sears' The Ideal Copy

The Ideal Copy is Ben Sears third "Double+ Adventure" book for Koyama Press, part of their small but formidable listing of comics aimed at kids. This is the best of the three volumes, and I think it's because Sears scaled back a bit on the futuristic wow factor of the series and instead went back to good-old-fashioned caper storytelling. At its essence, the series features treasure hunters Plus Man (a highly adventurous kid) and his mechanical friend Hank (who is sort of like a Transformer in the way he can assume different shapes and functions), and treasure hunts are capers. Mysteries with clues that need to be unlocked, preferably with a wide variety of colorful characters. As such, this book has a well-designed structure that not only quickly establishes the main characters' prior status quo with a fun side adventure, it also puts the new adventure into motion.

Hank and Plus Man were working for the city as treasure hunters, going after those who abused the environment or otherwise did morally questionable things. When asked by the city to rob someone's grave in order to recover some post-mortem tax assets, they refuse and are made persona non grata. They get jobs as caterers and do a job in a mountain lodge working for a fraternity reunion of some kind. Sears captures the sheer unctuousness of the now middle-aged frat boys and their drunken antics, which happen to be covering up something far more sinister. As Plus Man gets curious and investigates some mysterious shenanigans, he acquires a kid and a burned-out former treasure hunter as companions.

The stakes get higher and higher for everyone as Plus Man exposes a counterfeiting ring and moves to try and stop it. Sears moves along his carefully structured plot in a relaxed, almost shambling manner as Plus Man's relentless curiosity and impertinence get him in trouble as well as give him opportunities to explore plot clues. There's a warmth in Sears' work that's unusual for science fiction, as his clear-line style and the constantly shifting background color patterns are inviting, keeping the eye moving across the page. The background colors are a sort of hidden grid in and of themselves, as Sears alternates blue, green, orange, and yellow on a number of pages--especially those with talking heads. That hidden grid keeps things flowing when the action or details on a page become more spare. On other pages, Sears has a way of doodling all kinds of details that organically fill the panel and pages they're on. That structure, mixed with what feels like a casual energy on the page thanks to his cartoonish drawing style, reveals Sears as an extremely careful and deliberate cartoonist whose serious approach doesn't detract from the liveliness of his line and the small joys of his characterizations.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Nervenkrank #3

The third issue of Nervenkrant, Katherine Wirick's minicomics serial about Dada artist John Heartfield, is the first that starts to get at the essence of what would become his life's work. The issue continues this historical fiction biography of the artist as he and his brother visit George Grosz, Heartfield's future Dada collaborator. While many associate Dada with cut-up techniques, dissonant live performances and other anti-art techniques, in Grosz and Heartfield they had two caricaturists who directly embodied Dada's spirit as a form of excoriating political and cultural protest. Indeed, Dada was a direct response to the slowly dawning realization that the rabid nationalism that helped lead to the war was utter nonsense that had nothing to do with the average person. Grosz and Heartfield did a lot of pen-and-ink drawings that have more in common with editorial cartooning than anything else, even if they used collage and other found-images as part of their work.

Getting back to the issue and the series in general, Heartfield (then still Helmut Herzfeld) was a sensitive, empathetic artist who wound up in the German army's version of a mental hospital a few times during his stint as a soldier. He had to dodge virulent "patriots" and others, including his landlord. Visiting Grosz was the revelation he needed in his life, because he was exposed to drawings that Grosz considered trash because no one in the art world thought them of any value: his brutal political cartoons. This sparked one of the central themes of Dada and the series itself: wrestling with the very concept of "beauty". In the eyes of Heartfield, beauty was a lie, like God and Country. It was all part of the same package, a bill of goods sold to him. "What good is this? What is it for?", he howled at his brother, saying that when he was being strapped down by the army, art wasn't going to save him. What Grosz was doing, what amazed him, was simply telling the truth about what he saw. Heartfield reasoned that if he was going to die anyway, he might as well record what it was like to live during this time, to leave behind his attempt to document the truth, as horrifying as it was. 

Dada is a paradoxical art form. It is art, using new and traditional techniques, many of them representational. It is anti-art, in that it rejects the institutions that define art and the concept of beauty removed from the everyday world. The world had become (was always?) absurd and meaningless, therefore the only sane response was art that played on this absurdity and meaninglessness, exposing it for what it truly was. Wirick masterfully not only captures and distills this moment in a single, powerful page, she also shows how this realization transforms Heartfield into someone who no longer cares what the world thinks about him, including the landlord who had verbally amused him so many times. It was also not lost on me as a reader that her use of a naturalistic, grey wash lent itself to fitting in with Grosz's images, which were in a sharper pen-and-ink without a wash, yet still fit in nicely with the overall conceit of the book. Wirick is creating a history of one man's wrestling with enormous concepts like art, beauty, nationalism, madness that aren't just abstract ideals--they are factors crashing into his every day life. The look in his eyes when he realizes that trying to combat the insanity of war with simply-defined notions of beauty was a fool's errand is the most striking image in the book; a moment of clarity but also of a mind bursting open, never to be the same ever again. It's an astonishing tipping point, and Wirick clearly gave it a lot of thought as she nailed it. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scholastic: Aron Nels Steinke's Mr. Wolf's Class

Aron Nels Steinke's major-publisher debut, Mr. Wolf's Class, is a pitch-perfect account of an ordinary classroom on the first day of school. It's the culmination of his career arc as a cartoonist and an expansion on his minicomics of the same name. Those comics were told entirely from his point of view as an actual teacher in a fourth grade class, but the bulk of the humor came from the things that the students said and did. Steinke is a keen observer, and when that gaze is turned on others instead of himself (as in his obsessive autobio comics), the result is a raw, hilarious and accurate account of what children are really like. In particular, Steinke captures the sense of controlled chaos in a classroom, with a teacher having to negotiate the personal narratives seventeen kids.

Steinke makes a number of smart storytelling decisions. He starts the book with a silent series of panels as Mr. Wolf fixes up his classroom. It establishes him as an important character, but then Steinke gives us one panel each on every student in his classroom going to bed the night before the first day of school in a 2 x 4 grid. That quickly established that every character is important, but the last panel introducing the kids spanning across the bottom third of the page introduces Margot. It's a clever device that hints to the reader that Margot will be a very important character. Indeed she is, as it's her first day of school in a new city. It's also Mr. Wolf's first day as a teacher at this school. Steinke gives the reader a couple of different routes into the story, as these characters serve as reader surrogates in a sense. We see the school through their eyes as being unfamiliar with a new routine, but we also get to see through the eyes of other students as well.

Steinke employs an anthropomorphic rendering of his characters, which is quite effective. First of all, it establishes a base cuteness level slightly removed from reality, which heightens what is after all a mundane setting. Second, it helps with the problem of keeping track of two dozen characters. Making each one a different animal makes it easier to remember who's who. Even with that aid, it's easy to forget the names of characters. Steinke is aware of that and incorporates it into the story, as Mr. Wolf forgets the names of some of his new students. There are some nice storytelling symmetries, as the story begins and ends with Margot and her first day, and also features Sampson with an unpleasant bus ride at the beginning of the story and a pleasant one with Margot at the very end.

Steinke weaves in a number of little stories and plots that follow each of the kids in the class. There's the prickly Aziza, sleepy Penny, cartoonist Oscar, brainy Stewart, etc. There's friendship, there's conflict, there's hurt feelings and even a missing student, as Penny takes a nap in a cardboard box. There are references to farts. Throughout the book, Steinke pokes fun at Mr. Wolf, who pats himself on the back a lot for doing a good job until Penny disappears. He also has to deal with rats in the classroom, a fellow teacher stealing his stapler and conflicts in his class.

The overall message is that adults are just as confused and clueless sometimes as kids, and they need help like anyone else. Steinke has crafted a book that will resonate with kids as feeling real but is also entertaining. It poignantly captures the way kids make friends with each other as well as the ways in which they hurt each other, even if it's inadvertent. Everything about this book is understated despite the clear amount of work Steinke put into creating a smooth structure for his story. By going after the small details instead of trying to push big events on the reader, Steinke has created a series that accurately, sweetly and amusingly chronicles the ups and downs of being a child at school.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Celebration: s! #29

s!, (formerly kus!), is the flagship anthology of kus!, the Latvian publisher that has a wide, international reach. Publishing in English, editors David Schilter and Sanita Muizniece have nonetheless always given each issue a heavily Baltic feel, and the tenth anniversary issue (#29) is a special celebration that focuses mostly on Latvia. I've said it before: Latvia is to comics as Lithuania is to basketball, meaning that these two states with small populations have a disproportionate amount of success and influence relative to their populations. Of course, all it takes to put a small press anthology is a lot of patience and determination, along with funding from the state culture foundation.

Most of the artists follow up on the celebration theme and do short stories about parties of various kinds. From Ana Vaivare's opening strip following a cat on the floor trying to get scraps from a table set for a feast Konig Lu Q's exploration of celebrations of not just commemorating booms and busts, but also causing them, there's the usual wide array of styles and visual approaches to be found. From a bright use of color from Vaivare and an open page layout to minimalist black and white and a standard grid, the anthology remains compelling throughout because no two strips look the same. The editors also made sure to alternate stylistic choices from one story to the next, such as Kaspar Grosev's swirling, almost abstract figures giving way to the over-the-top color and cartoonish monsters in Ernest and Andres Klaven's exploration of Cthulhu as a rejected slam poet. Speaking of elder gods, Reinis Peterson's red, yellow and orange-soaked silent saga has a huge boar sacrificed, a giant fire built, and a sickly green demonic figure rising out of the fire.

There's the joyous, brightly colored doodles of Davis Ozols, where happy blobs and humanoid shapes float around in rapt happiness. That's immediately followed by the unnerving "Dirty Pool", by Laura Kevins. A woman cleaning up after a party finds a friend hiding in the swimming pool in order to get away from a stalker. Next thing she knows, a chorus of "hey baby" and "aren't you going to say hello" comes from the bushes, as though they were surrounded by a pack of wolves. Staying in the pool is the only way to be safe, because "if they get wet they think they are crying--and vulnerability makes them dissolve". The humor is darkly accurate, as even the joking tone of the story is built on real-world experiences.

Other highlights include Elena Braslina's charming "The Dishes". Using a dense, scratchy style overlaid with key spot color, it tells the tale of a young woman who decides to clean a bathtub full of filthy dishes after a wild party. As she scrubs the dishes and more water winds up in the tub, she reveals a mermaid of sorts. In a neat bit of magical realism, the two escape together down the drain. The scratchy quality of her line, leaving all sorts of splatter on the page, was a perfect way of depicting the sheer amount of filth all over the place. The aquamarine skin of the woman in the tub breaks through all that splattered ink, and last panel was entirely that shade of blue-green.

Ruta Briede's "They Came" is a charming story, done in a clear green line, about a woman preparing a feast for the neighborhood cats. There's a deliberate, slow pace to this story that invites the reader to closely look at details and enjoy the unfolding events rather than worry about where they lead. Maija Kurseva's collage comics, where images are cut out of other images to form the people and furniture at a party. It's all laid over graph paper, giving it kind of an angular 80s music video aesthetic. It's the kind of piece that I love seeing in s!, as the editors are dedicated to presenting as wide a variety of visual approaches as possible. Finally, Martins Zutis' plays with the grid in an interesting way. He uses a 2 x 4 grid pattern and establishes the story on the first page, with each panel describing what is to come in the rest of the story, which is wordless. Each story unfolds a panel at a time per page; for example, the third panel down from the top on the left is "underground tea party". We see images of crystalline creatures slowly drinking tea. Each story unfolds separately, that is, until the "Volcano's first day of work" (with a mountain dressed in a business suit--a very clever visual pun) interferes when lava starts invading every other panel. It's one of many clever visual jokes as many of the mini-stories are celebrations in and of themselves.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Uncivilized/Odod: E. Eero Johnson's The Outliers

Odod Books, the YA arm of Uncivilized Books, has been quietly releasing some very good, mostly genre-focused books for a few years now. Peter Wartman was their trail blazer and Kickliy's Musnet is their big seller, but E. Eero Johnson's Tsu & The Outliers represents something different. This book about monsters and outsiders is for an older child audience, and there's quite a bit of intense, even frightening, action. The blurb on the back notes that the book is an outgrowth of Johnson's "hopes and fears of raising an autistic child", and that's reflected in the book's protagonist, Tsu. Tsu is nonverbal and is bullied and mocked by his schoolmates. However, he is also able to communicate with a monster in the woods, a "bigfoot" who turns out to be his friend.

The bullying aspect of the book turns out to be a fairly minor part of this relatively slender (116 pages) volume. Instead, the meat of the book concerns Tsu dealing with a talking monkey scientist and his pet serpentine chupacabra. There are several long, clever chase and fight sequences that make up the bulk of the book, and the story's outcome is not what one would think. Indeed, it sparks the next possible volume in the series, where Tsu goes off with the scientist and the other "outliers"--creatures outside the norm. Tsu's friendship with the creature named T-Chok (the bigfoot who also looks like he's part ent) is a reflection of his ability to communicate in a way and with a portion of the world that's closed off to others. It's a reflection of how his own ability to communicate with other people is closed off as well, until the scientist does something to him.

Johnson doesn't hit Tsu's communication issues hard in terms of moralizing about it; instead, it's an important part of the actual narrative. He is forced to find better ways to communicate. He shrugs off abuse because though he might struggle in school, he is at home in the dense forest. There's an odd story structure here that keeps the reader off balance. It starts in the middle of an action scene and eschews conventional pacing and three-act structure. The book also defies the typical hero's journey and gives every character murky motivations. Is the scientist good or evil, or is that classification meaningless? Is Tsu a hero or simply someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is Tsu entering a dangerous world with unknown terrain, or is he finally traveling into territory where he can finally be understood? Johnson keeps this all delightfully vague and is aided by his dynamic, scratchy line. The professor jumps around like a Jack Kirby character and the action is larger-than-life in that Kirby style. The single-color wash serves to highlight the dense quality of the line rather than bleed over it, making it just one more slightly off-kilter thing about this odd, compelling book.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Soaring Penguin Pressl: Boum's A Small Revolution

Soaring Penguin Press is one of many small press concerns in the U.K., and they tend to produce nicely-designed and crafted comics that lean between genre and art-comics. Boum's A Small Revolution is somewhere in-between, as it's sort of a war comic. It's the tale of a nation ruled by a tyrannical President, opposed by a Resistance of anarchists. The focus of the story is on a couple of young orphans, the daredevil Florence and the sickly Auguste. She steals food so the two of them can survive, though he has a lung disease (presumably tuberculosis) that is slowly killing him. She hangs out in a dying antiques shop to hear a record by an artist who advocated resistance but not war; it's a paradox that Florence embraces, even as he's referred to as a "deserter". From there, Auguste's older brother Dominique introduces them to the Resistance, and Florence's life is transformed.

There is a scene worthy of Chekhov in the way that it establishes a future scene in which a jovial Resistance fighter plays around with Florence, first giving her a rifle that's way too heavy for her. Then she puts a grenade in her hand, telling her to be careful not to pull the pin, and then she takes it back. After that, the action moves swiftly in this slim volume (94 pages). Boum's clear line and cute, cartoonish drawing style winds up playing a significant narrative role. Florence, with her oval-shaped head and giant, almond-shaped blue eyes is an almost painfully cute character. Boum counteracts that in the early going by showing her smoking; it's an easy, shorthand reference to show how her childhood's been destroyed. Later in the story, when Florence breaks into the Presidential palace and hugs the President's leg, it's a believable development because she is tiny and cute.

Predictably, the President is unamused by Florence, who pretends to be afraid of the Resistance. Someone peels her off of him so he can go make a televised appearance. A sympathetic official asks her if she wants to see the President record his message, leading her to hug him again. This time, the plan works, and we see a certain grenade pin that she places in his hand. It's a fitting end for a character whose life was marked by occasional bursts of beauty amidst long spells of violence and meaninglessness. When the only people in her life were taken from her, she honored their memory be becoming the very symbol of revolution that she had sought in Boris's music. Whether or not her act of violence is less important than its symbolic importance to a watching nation. For all of the flourishes related to characterization in this book, Boum never loses sight of its tight plot elements. It's not a complex story in terms of plot or themes, but Boum uses that simplicity to create a direct, powerful punch in a compact space.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

D&Q: Genevieve Castree's A Bubble

Genevieve Castree was a local sensation as a young artist, drawing attention in the Canadian comics community for her minicomics. When she was ready to do her first long-form work, she went with Drawn & Quarterly and produced one of the best memoirs I've ever read in Susceptible. Her anthology work stood out wherever it appeared. Her combination of a delicate, almost fragile line with a punk sensibility gave her work a sense of both vulnerability and enormous power. That memoir was utterly unflinching in giving one of the most complex portrayals of family dynamics I've ever read. Her mother was frequently codependent, immature and even narcissistic, but there were also periods that Castree' treasured spending time with her, even if the boundaries weren't always the healthiest. Her father left her when she was five, but she reconnected with him over a decade later, and he gave her both the support and the room she needed in which to thrive. Castree described that book as purging a lifetime's worth of resentment and misery, opening her up to other things.

Those other things included a variety of multimedia projects, including a musical career both on her own and collaborating with her husband Phil Elverum's band, Mount Eerie. Some comics came with pieces of music designed specifically to go with them as part of the reading experience. She did a comic for the Drawn & Quarterly 25 anniversary book that was all about the comfort and warmth felt with various kinds of quilts. It was fitting given the family she had created with her husband and infant daughter Agathe. All of this made it all the more tragic when she found out she was going to die of pancreatic cancer. There was a period where she stopped creating art, then she worked tirelessly to create one last book. It was a book made for her daughter, who was two when her mother died.

That book was titled A Bubble. It's a children's board book, with each page featuring a single illustration, captioned text and word balloons. It's a charming story, told from the point of view of a child whose mother lives in a bubble. Her maman can't leave the bubble, but she can join her for naps, eating and drawing--the latter of which particularly makes her mom happy. She goes on adventures with her father and comes back to tell her mother about them. One day, the bubble breaks, and her mother is free. They go off to get an ice cream cone. And...that's it. Castree didn't get to finish the book. It's heartbreaking on so many levels, because book had just reached its second act and was starting to reach an emotional peak. On a side note, her friend Anders Nilsen finished the lettering and a few other small bits of art here and there. It's not immediately obvious, and most everything does look like it's from her hand. 

Of course, the central metaphor of the book is obvious. The bubble is Castree's sickness, preventing her from doing much outside the house. It's a story well-told, but the real attraction is Castree's unbelievably vivid illustrations. Her line and use of color are sublime, but it's the way she draws the interactions between child and mother that are almost too much to bear as a reader. It's so obvious that she wanted to leave something of her behind for her daughter, something intensely personal that let her know how much she was loved. I don't know where the story was going to go from there, but it seems like it was going to be about loss and how to react. We'll never know, but there's no question that the existence of this book is a gift, both for her daughter and her readers. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Newest From Rob Jackson

Minicomics stalwart Rob Jackson has always had a knack for genre mash-ups that respect all of the storytelling tropes of each genre will altering them in frequently amusing ways. In his latest comic, Behind Thick Glass, I Saw The Stars, he starts off with a crime caper, transitions into a fantasy story and then winds up with science-fiction. The overall message is: there's always someone bigger than you, but there are ways around that. The book is structured like a set of concentric circles, radiating out from smallest to largest. That first circle is a group of thieves who strip a car and sell off its parts. They do it so they can get passage to "Big Town". That name is quite literal, as they literally travel to a city of people two or three times their size.

After a series of misadventures involving being conned by a seemingly nice Big woman, they wind up in a Gnome (that's what they're called) sweatshop. They contact the underground who helps them escape and they are told about yet another passage to yet another city, where they are accompanied by one of the bigger folk. This is where Jackson's consistently weird character design works as a plot device, because when they get to the next city, it's revealed that the gnomes and the next size up in "Business Town" are trolls--both of whom are smaller than humans and were bioengineered as a way of helping to conserve resources. The people chosen for this shrink-ray treatment were the lower classes and business classes, of course. There are further revelations and hijinx, but Jackson establishes his themes clearly here.

A constant Jackson theme is the revelation that the emperor wears no clothes. Long-ingrained societal practices are frequently just a way to keep the lower classes in line. Our leaders are petty idiots drunk on power (even if they're gods). Exploitation of the weak or ignorant keeps the machine running. The plots of his stories tend to revolve around something being a spanner in the works, that being the protagonists. What makes his stories such a delight is the way he deflates the hero's journey. It's not dreamy or glamorous. It's dirty and grimy, and the heroes themselves are frequently disreputable people, if good-hearted. That fits with Jackson's entire aesthetic, which is celebrating the appearance of that which is, rather than imagining an idealized appearance for his heroes. In other words, his heroes are just regular schmoes who simply find themselves questioning the way things are and then acting on it. In this comic, it's the courage of the thieving gnomes that sparks the foundation of a new society, hidden deep. Pointedly, Jackson implies it's the fact that gnomes, trolls and humans are choosing to live together in this new society that will give it its strength, and that segregated societies will inevitably stagnate and wither. The final image of the comic, where the new group sets about rebuilding on top of the remains of the last human city, is a fitting way of connecting past and present without using a false narrative.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

AdHouse: Young Frances

I've reviewed all three issues of Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats series that featured the stories that make up the Young Frances collection. so rather than a formal review, I thought I'd make a few comments about it, bullet-point style.

* Rilly is actually the pen name of Hartley Lin (an impressive anagram), which was revealed for collecting the original stories into a single volume. Lin is a superb illustrator who can tell a story with a single image. The covers of the original issues were striking, and the book is every bit as well designed. Frances is centered perfectly in a type pose: mousy appearance with hair in ponytail, shoulders slightly stooped, a neutral expression on her face. It's as though she wants to disturb the equilibrium of the surrounding environment so little that she doesn't want to do anything to draw attention to herself.

Her best friend, Vickie, displays her naturally flamboyant personality by posing like a model, while their friend (and occasional romantic interest) Peter, has dropped out of the foreground where the other characters are and sunk into the background, reading a newspaper. It's fitting for a character lacking in pretension, and whose role helps keep Frances balanced and sane.

* One of my favorite characters is the unnamed spiritual adviser of Vickie whom Frances decides to see toward the end of the story. She's a classic scam artist who at the same time believes some of her own hype. Frances is such an unrelenting cynic that she can't help but be a smart-ass when she meets her ("So how do we do this? Do you give me a spiritual plan to work on or something?"), while at the same time the adviser notes that her redecorated place will "be a write-off". The adviser realizes that Frances is not going to fall for any of this and so gives her simple advice: diet, exercise, sleep, someone to be with. It really is the advice she needed to hear. The adviser really is a con woman in the best sense of the word; she figures out ways to boost the confidence of the people she advises. That's why she worked so well with Vickie, who was waiting for that kind of prompt.

* There are a number of appealing supporting characters, the best of which is Marcel Castonguay. He's the massive, hulking genius lawyer who's always one step ahead of everyone else, resembling a cross between Daddy Warbucks and Wilson Fisk. He's eccentric in a way the powerful can afford to be. He lives in a hotel across the street from his office. he apparently never eats in front of anyone else, he doesn't use a computer but instead dictates all of his thoughts to his three assistants and tends to talk in terms of enigmatic riddles. However, when your pants fall down in the middle of a filmed speech about a major new acquisition, it still means you're human.

* A major theme of the comic is what it means to be successful, along with the masks and identities we must adopt in order to achieve success. When the book begins, Frances fears success. She's a college drop-out who apparently left despite being a brilliant student. She took a drone job as a law clerk and began to slowly realize that she was so good at it that she kept succeeding and being noticed despite not trying to do so. The fact that she didn't try to perform or put on a mask made her extremely valuable but also confused a number of people around her. On the other hand, Vickie wants to be a star more than anything, but once she achieves her dream, she learns that the games and masks have only begun.

* Lin does something very smart and reminiscent of something from the Jaime Hernandez playbook when he separates the two friends for more than half of the story. Hernandez found he was able to really play up the tense friendship between Maggie and Hopey by frequently separating them. The absence of one in a story was always strongly felt, and the reunions were that much more intense. Vickie and Frances had a relationship that was symbiotic in some ways, but it was also starting to become codependent. Their separation led them to really think about what the other meant to them. Vickie in particular told Frances that she was remembering to be cautious in ways that she never was as a survival mechanism in Hollywood. Frances needed to hear what Vickie told her about herself, that she wasn't a fucked up person. More to the point, she needed to hear that Peter really was in love with Frances.

* Lin's portrayal of office dynamics is something I've never seen in comics before, and he nails the eccentricities of being in this kind of setting. There's the tiny boardroom that means you're going to be fired if you go there. There's the balance between ruthless treatment of employees and figuring out that morale has to be boosted in order to keep the machine working. It's no accident that the most cartoonish characters are the heads of the firm; they are larger than life but absurd people.

* Despite the subject matter being familiar overall, and one that could perhaps be told in a variety of media, Lin takes full advantage of the comics form in telling this story. The aforementioned cartoonish characters, for example, only work in their absurd glory because they're juxtaposed against more naturalistically drawn characters. But even those latter characters are still very much done in a clear-line style, so the juxtaposition doesn't take the reader out of the story; they make sense next to each other. This wouldn't be effective in another medium. Also, Lin does things with pace and panel-to-panel transitions that slow up time in ways that are not only clever, but give real insight into Frances' personality. Stillness is a crucial aspect of this comic: gazing out of windows, looking at nature, conveying the feel of cold, crisp night air.

* Something that's clear is that Lin has a lot of affection for all of his characters, even some of the slimier ones. Vickie may seem flighty, but she's far sharper than she acts. Frances may seem overly tightly wound, but she's trying hard to relax into being affectionate toward others. Even the lawyers are treated with a certain bemused sense of humor. For the most part, the conflicts in the story are internal ones. Or rather, the conflicts that concern Vickie and Frances are internal. There are conflicts in the firm that play out with some people getting fired and some people getting promoted, with every move and gesture made part of the conflict. It's absurd in the same way the conflicts of subcultures are difficult to understand unless you're immersed in it. Lin is interested in giving an outsider's perspective for both this law firm and for Hollywood and draws a clear parallel as to the made-up rules, performative nature of all interactions, and the way both take over the lives of the participants.

* This is a very funny book, filled with tiny moments of humor rather than uproariously hilarious scenes. Lin is great at visual humor as well as witty dialogue, but it's all in service of the characters. It's a snapshot of a transitional period for the two friends who had been living together for some time, and there's a quote from Castonguay that sums it up: "There are no final outcomes. There are only developments." The end of the book is not the end of Frances or Vickie's story. It's simply a significant development for Frances, one that she that finally embraced in the way that Vickie embraced her development. The difference is that an outcome implies finality, whereas a development reveals a fluid situation. In this case, that fluidity is important because it's what allows Frances and Vickie's friendship to not only survive, but thrive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Minis: Kaczynski/Jetsmark, Turbitt

Some minicomics, fresh out of the oven...

Cartoon Dialectics 3, by Tom Kaczynski & Clara Jetsmark. This is a grab-bag of Tom K. stories from various places. "Skyway Sleepless" was originally published in a book of Minneapolis-related noir stories, and Kaczynski's take on the genre was at once clever, funny and part of his overall project of critiquing the effects of capitalism. It also incorporated a part of downtown Minneapolis that I found fascinating: the skyways between buildings, offering a walking path that's an alternative to traversing the winter hellscape. Of course, Kaczynski couldn't help but notice the ways in which they resemble the sort of pathways that gerbils might use in what is really a closed environment that cannot be escaped. This was dressed up as an art exhibit of the future, and a security guard (our protagonist) found chalk outlines that were part of an art exhibit titled "Future Crime Scene". 

From there, the story becomes a whodunnit: what's putting people to sleep? Is the professor who imagines a future based on skyways complicit? What about his femme fatale assistant? Is the whole thing a put-on, and how does life imitate art? While the story winds up being a series of gags and playful engagement with detective tropes, there's something clever about the way Kaczynski repeatedly pulls the rug from under the detective (and the reader), even as he satirizes the cold utopian nightmare of the skyway empire. It's an artificial (r)evolution, one predicated on the idea of One Great Man, technology over humanity, and a reliance on the kind of consumption of resources that capitalism is predicated upon.

The other stories are more directly political. A story he did for The Nib prior to Trump's election made a number of predictions that have all come true. "Trump And Nostalgia" (drawn with scratchy warmth by Jetsmark) is a typical bit of critical thinking on his part, as he positions the phrase "Make America Great Again" as a piece of Reagan-era nostalgia. Quoting the writer Svetlana Boym, he breaks down personal nostalgia vs political nostalgia. The latter is a feeling of rejection of everything that is new, couched in the language of law and order so as to obliterate the threat to the steady-state of nationalist identity. Kaczysnki doesn't take the next step, but this kind of nostalgia is often explicitly racist, xenophobic and homophobic. Nostalgia is a zero-sum game in the eyes of those who embrace it; if the Other's life is getting better, it automatically means that their own life is going to get worse. Othering the opponents is the key piece of weaponizing this feeling that then privileges law and order over the humanity of the othered class. 

In "Nostalgic", Kaczynski picks up those ideas again and explores personal nostalgia. There is a trigger we feel for old pieces of culture and product (and often, culture and product are one and the same) that is a longing for an earlier (and as we always perceive, simpler) portion of our personal narrative. It's a pacifier that creates a false sense of accomplishment in acquiring old things, old memories; the act of wanting these objects starts to supplant any joy that the objects themselves might bring. There is no critical element in our relationship to these things or bits of old culture; the endorphin rush is that of connecting it to fragments of memory. In other words, shows like Happy Days or old comic books provide a kind of comfort because they made a younger, simpler version of yourself happy for a moment. 

Kaczynski quotes the pulpy but prescient Alvin Toffler book Future Shock in its observance that the faster that technology develops and directs our lives, the more that nostalgia becomes a powerful force. It's the triumph of feeling over reason (witness the increasing hostility toward science), or even worse, the triumph of "alternative facts". Feelings become facts, and actual facts that cause cognitive dissonance become fake news. As with everything else in life, always follow the money. When there's a national feeling toward embracing nostalgia, there will be people ready to sell it to you, further creating a nostalgia feedback loop. 

Kaczysnki does offer an interesting corrective to personal nostalgia. Given the future shock we are experiencing (propelled by new technology being pushed just as hard as nostalgia), it's only natural to feel that tug of nostalgia when we see an old toy that brought us joy. He suggests that rather than buy that toy in an effort to chase the past, we should instead think about our feelings surrounding the experience of playing with the toy. Play is an essential and very serious element of childhood that incorporates objects and breathes life into them as part of expanding and exercising imagination. Tapping into that feeling of experiencing the joy of imagination is what we should be aspiring to, using it to create something new. In a world where everyone is creating something, the need for relentless consumption is greatly reduced.

Galactic Friends, by Meghan Turbitt. On the surface, this comic about experiencing the Star Wars movies for the first time as an adult seems to have little to do with Kaczynski's comic. In fact, Turbitt's hilarious examination of Star Wars is a hilarious but incisive critique of a set of nostalgic tropes that hardened in the imaginations of several generations of children. Star Wars is a kind of perpetual motion nostalgia-generating machine, drawing on pulpy sci-fi serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and telling a story that's a wish-fulfilling (space) fantasy. It marked a hard turn away from the kind of science-fiction that had dominated film for over a decade: grim takes on how the events of these frequently dystopian futures were really just reflections of the present. Star Wars even fits into Future Shock in the sense that trusting your feelings is more important than science or reason--another key element of nostalgia. 

The back cover features Turbitt's face replacing those of the Star Wars characters, which is both a funny visual (especially Darth Turbitt) and an interesting piece of commentary. Star Wars at its essence is wish fulfillment: it wants the viewer to identify with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia AND Han Solo. Turbitt then spends much of the mini asking perfectly reasonable questions that prick that fantasy balloon. It starts off by wondering if a variety of characters (including C-3PO) have a penis, which is both an infantile reaction and a sensible reaction to the ways in which the movies neuter sexuality so thoroughly. In depicting the Slave Leia scene in Return Of The Jedi, where Carrie Fisher is in a metallic bikini surrounded by puppets, she simply remarks "It is my understanding that some people jerk off to this scene?" It's a strangely incongruous scene in the film that was a burst of sexuality (entirely in the province of the male gaze) in a narrative that's otherwise devoid of sex; no wonder it launched a thousand fetishes. 

Turbitt calls out Luke for being boring, Han for being a dick to Leia, the privileging of human-looking beings as the protagonists, and the fact that Darth Vader and Kylo Ren are angsty teens who never had to grow up. She actually likes that aspect of the films, that the villains are just big overgrown babies who shop at Hot Topic. Turbitt's drawings capture a lot of the fun of the films, and it's clear that she enjoyed watching them. She simply enjoyed them for what they were: silly pulp with actors who chewed the scenery, and not products with so much nostalgic power that they create cultlike devotion. Tubitt's whole project seems to be reacting to cultural phenomenon in a raw, direct way, stripping them of their identity as product and reveling in their absurdity. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Two From Toon: Ivan Brunetti and Jordan Crane

Toon Books has a fairly uninterrupted run of quality, especially with regard to their younger readers' books. Some of the longer-form comics aimed at teens haven't quite hit the mark, but artists who have a strong design sense tend to excel in their slim hardcover format, even if they hadn't done stuff for kids prior to this. Two recent books are from two of the best designers and illustrators in comics: Ivan Brunetti and Jordan Crane. Twenty years ago, it was hard to picture Ivan Brunetti doing children's books and Jordan Crane working for a major publisher, but there you go.

Brunetti's 3x4 is aimed at Toon Books Level One, meaning emerging readers. He had previously done a book called Wordplay for Toon, which used a similar device of conceptualizing the topic from a purely visual standpoint and then explaining it using words as well. Right on the cover, Brunetti explains the basics of multiplication with the book's star, Annemarie, headlining three different rows but also being part of four different columns of images. The book hammers home the conceptual quality of multiplication, as a number that adds up items in rows and columns. The book itself is about a classroom assignment regarding multiplication, as Brunetti doubles down again and again to keep the focus on the fundamentals established at the start. He carefully breaks down various kinds of sets in a running gag, making it easy to remember. Brunetti keeps the background colors muted so as not to interfere with the objects on each page. They're crucial because Brunetti has to highlight those in order get the concept across to young readers. Brunetti also has a slow build-up of kids trying to one-up each other with the assignment, with Annemarie emerging with the most ambitious drawing of all. A nice side note regarding the book is how many of the characters in the book are people of color. It's simply a matter-of-fact detail that goes unspoken, yet it speaks volumes.

Design king Crane's We Are All Me is deceptively simple. Another Level One book, there's just a few words of text on each page. However, the book is conceptually complex, as Jordan asks the reader to shift their perspective multiple times. He starts out exploring our relationship with the environment as the pages bleed into each other in terms of color. Air, water and earth flow into one another as smoothly as Crane's crisp color patterns. There's just a joyous rhythm to this comic, both in terms of visuals and words, like the lines "and bone and meat/and beat beat beat". Flipping over to the heart with the last line, there's an explosion of pink, orange, and blue on the page as Crane went in the opposite direction, going smaller and smaller until he reaches the subatomic level. Crane goes beyond that to make some interesting claims regarding sentience arising at that level and that all of it (and us) are connected. Heady stuff, but Crane clearly respects his audience enough to think them capable of understanding it conceptual. Thanks to his bold and dynamic use of color, he's right to think so. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Two From November Garcia

November Garcia keeps plugging away with funny autobio comics that show off her ability to distill sweeping events into just a funny anecdote or two, as well as her ability to turn tiny details into a story. Take her Rookie Moves, for example. It details her trip back to the USA (she currently lives in the Philippines) to attend the shows CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) and SPX (Small Press Expo). The former she attended without tabling and the latter was the first show in the US at which she tabled. (Full disclosure: I spent time with her at both shows and briefly appear in the comic.) Her story is that of the overnight success that takes twenty years to get there and managing the cognitive dissonance between being a fan and a peer of this cohort of cartoonists is something that she played up for laughs. 

Indeed, opening the comic with funny highlights distilled from the local Filipino comic con set her up as someone totally comfortable her own surroundings, even if some young women mistook her husband Roy for Adrian Tomine. The next strip finds her at Chicago's famous Quimby's comic store at a reading, nervous and excited. Garcia's facility for comedy was quickly was demonstrated in two panels: one where she recognizes me (because of the hat, I say) and one where Iona Fox recognizes her (because of her nose, November says). The way she switches character positions, frames each panel with a proscenium of black, and relies on gesture to express the warmth underneath the humor shows just how carefully she considers her formal decisions. Garcia's figure drawings are simple but expressive, as she's especially proficient at depicting body language and the way bodies interact in space. Not unlike Julia Wertz, her backgrounds are tight and detailed.

Throughout the comic, Garcia balances genuine expressions of emotion with the urge to write toward comedic ends. She wrote about penning a letter to John Porcellino about how his comics had changed her life that she later found embarrassing. Garcia in this segment truly poured out her feelings in a earnest way, and the eventual punchline she used for the strip didn't diminish that. The rest of the comic finds her awkwardly making friends with Gabrielle Bell, getting up to shenanigans at signings, going to dive bars, and winding up in the wrong lines at SPX. Garcia walks a fine line in setting herself up as the butt of many a joke, but her affability and wit don't allow her to sink into self-deprecation for its own sake.

More Diary Comics (From A Relative Nobody) shifts the focus back to her everyday life in Manilla. If Garcia depicts herself as a fish out of water in her comics in America, she's very much in control in Manilla as she deals with work as a graphic designer, her wacky mom and life with Roy. Her line is much looser here, eschewing blacks and hatching altogether in favor of just using a bold approach. Throughout the comic, she obsesses about being obsessed with her career, with the paranoid sense that all of the offers she's receiving might dry up at any time and chastising herself for working too hard. Garcia also talks a lot about her health, with one strip starting with the line, "I woke up with whiskey regrets" as she combats the hangover with yoga and negates that with eating a bowl of potatoes. Garcia goes to extremes in her comics: she drinks hard, she eats rich food, and she stays up late, but she shows the ways in which her body pays for this excess with headaches and GI distress. Those extremes seem to be triggered as a way to cope with her two biggest enemies: boredom and anxiety.

Garcia in her comics seems happiest when she's moving: dancing in her house, exercising or running around. That and drawing help set up the central conflict in her life (and in many an introvert artist's): a desperate need for solitude interspersed with an even greater need for connection with like-minded people. Having that solitude disrupted triggers anxiety, but being isolated triggers boredom. Garcia also gets a lot of mileage of the old trope of a diary cartoonist not having anything to say and demanding that Roy do something. At the same time, the travel comics that completed this mini reverted to the kind of small, funny events in the context of a longer journey that marked the previous mini. Garcia's comics are less confessional than they are affirmations of the absurdity of her life, because that absurdity often leads to wonderful things.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Miss Lasko-Gross' Henni

Miss Lasko-Gross is unusually versatile for an alternative cartoonist in that she can write a sci-fi caper, a highly personal autobio story or in the case of her book Henni, an allegorical fantasy book. What makes the book distinctive from a visual standpoint is her use of a cool blue-green wash, often in subtle ways. It doesn't dominate the page so much as it enhances it, and it's a nice contrast to her thick line and extensive use of spotting blacks. The characters in this story are a sort of anthropomorphic cat creature, and they have furry bodies, human faces and sharp teeth. Lasko-Gross is extremely skilled at portraying emotion with body language: arched eyebrows, furrowed brows, bulging eyes and just general uses of stance and gesture sell the story in a way that allows her to slowly unveil the larger plot.

The story centers around a teen named Henni, who lives in a corrupt, oppressive theocracy that her father was punished for defying. She was due to be put in an arranged marriage that was supposedly made in careful consideration and prayer by their priests but was really determined by how big a bribe you gave them. Henni is openly rebellious, something that her mother tries to quell to no effect. When she crosses over lines that she was forbidden to cross, her sister declares her a demon and a merchant sends off for a stoning party. In reality, he was a rebel who aided her escape. After that, she happens upon a village with its own corrupt set of values (not unlike Calvinism, with predestination and such), but she slowly began to realize that it's all one big con no matter where she went. Only the forbidden works of art left by a blind artist gave her hope, and after meeting her she learned that her father might still be alive.

This is a deeply feminist work, as Henni doesn't just rebel as an individual, but as a young woman who rebels against the roles put on women in this society, who exist mostly as chattel. They are to be seen and not heard, and educating them was frowned upon. She's able to turn the prejudices of the second village against them in trial and escape from horrible punishment. It's a book about irrational entitlement and male entitlement in particular, as the ruling class rules by force and superstition instead of logic and hard work. There will be future volumes of this story, and Lasko-Gross does well in letting the story follow its own pace. In searching for a land of truth and justice, Lasko-Gross turns a fantasy narrative into an update of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim Progress, another allegorical story about the hard road to heaven, as Christian walked the land encountering the living avatars of various qualities like Faith, Hope and the Doldrums. Recognizing and accepting the hypocrisy around her while acknowledging that there was still hope was the key. This volume felt like a warm-up for the character and the world surrounding her, with deeper lessons still to come.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Complete Badly-Drawn Comics, by Martha Keavney

This collection of Martha Keavney's minicomics from 1988 through 2002 (eight issues in all) represents the work of a cartoonist who was part of the Xeric/DIY generation of artists, albeit one who wasn't especially prolific. What made her Badly-Drawn Comics series unusual was its relentless commitment to its mining humor out of its titular premise. Indeed, her comic probably had more in common with humorists of the 80s like Peter Bagge than the minicomics revolution that exploded in the 90s. What's clear is that in terms of pure, conceptual comedy, Keavney has few peers in comics. Her nearest cousins are probably Michael Kupperman and Sam Henderson. Kupperman's visual aesthetic is more important than Keavney's, as he's trying to draw on a particular kind of nostalgia for things that never quite existed. However, like Keavney, he excels at taking a familiar premise and absolutely flogging it to death, creating a tension between reader and the work that plays on that familiarity and warps it through that familiarity. Like Henderson, the deliberately crude quality of the drawing (especially when Keavney actually figured out a line she was comfortable with drawing) is a key element in the humor, providing a sort of easy-to-access visual that is easy to bend in any number of conceptual directions. Keavney's interest in (and self-mockery for) self-reflexive humor that often self-consciously explains the joke to the reader (creating even more tension) is a large part of her appeal. She sees the gears in hack comedy and loves to rearrange them for the reader.

The first few issues of Badly-Drawn Comics rely heavily on the "badly drawn" aspect of things, consistently bringing attention to this and creating conceptual humor out of it. Her original characters, Nick and Nicolette, often complain about not knowing what's going on because everything is so badly drawn, they have no idea what objects are around them. A "scratch 'n sniff" comic features items like a perfume called Eau de Paper. Keavney runs through these gags quickly before she creates her greatest character: Martha Keavney. She's introduced complaining about the many rip-offs of her famous comic and how bad they are, like Poorly-Penned Portrayals, which is a failure because it's drawn too well. Then there's the "reader participation" issue, which is told from the point of view of the reader hanging out with Keavney. After a pleasant conversation, the reader gets out of hand, angers Keavney (who starts throwing things through the panel like a 3D movie), has sex with Keavney and eventually learns that Keavney is the all-powerful god of her strip. In the next issue, she shows up in one of Nick and Nicolette's stories, who want to get back at her for heaping so much abuse on them.

Keavney also plays around with the formal aspects of comics for laughs (and making fun of Understanding Comics), explaining things like flashbacks, flash-forwards, etc in literal terms. When the caption said, "One Week Later", it was an actual week in Keavney time, as she was startled by the reader's presence. There's a blobby superhero named Letratone Girl who diffuses conflict thanks to her shades of grey. The sixth issue is where Keavney's style is firmly in place and she no longer makes gags about her comics being badly drawn. "One White Chick Sittin' Around Talkin'"explores her frustration with only being able to draw herself, then introduces multiple Marthas as extra characters, then rejects that as self-indulgent after a pun-filled fight between two of the Marthas. The story then morphs into a hilarious It's A Wonderful Life parody, where the assorted "what ifs?" twist and turn on themselves in the most convoluted possible ways.

Keavney doesn't often get into more personal humor, but her strip "The Incredible Adventures Of... Self-Absorbo!" featured her narrowly avoiding having the center of attention taken away from her from a friend who tearfully told her about her cancer. Using her secret power of super-tears, the friend apologized and told her how great Martha was. One of Keavney's great skills as a writer is adopting the cadence of whatever she's trying to lampoon, and she truly nailed super-hero speak here (and in the truly disgusting Hostess Twinkies parody later in the book). Probably her two best stories are "The Mix-Up" and "The Secret Life Of Martha Keavney". The former is a parody of every romance/comedy of manners/wrong time, wrong place trope imaginable, jammed into one story. Martha gets hired by someone who only takes on people in relationships (she was single), so she hires an actor who claimed he was gay (he was not, he lived in a building whose landlord only allowed gay people) to be her boyfriend for a dinner at her boss's house. The actor was told that Martha was a nun, leading to all sorts of hilarious contrivances. The best part of the story is that after setting up the premise, Keavney claimed that a few reels of the movie were missing, leaving only the ending. How everything wound up completely different and yet perfectly happy is completely omitted, making it that much funnier.

"The Secret Life..." is a masterpiece of building on a premise and one-upping it. Martha imagines herself as an Antarctic explorer, until she's shaken out of that reverie by her boss at her job that she hates. While imagining how great it was to be an explorer, she's woken out of that reverie by a fellow homeless person in a subway tunnel, and Martha thinks about how nice it would be to have a job and an apartment. That keeps escalating until we see Martha in hell, and that escalates to a hilariously banal punchline that nonetheless works perfectly in stopping the progression of events. Simply put, there are few cartoonists with the kind of comedic chops that Keavney displayed during her active publishing period, and hopefully the new strip she has in this collection (along with a funny introduction and index) means that she'll be more prolific in the future.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Miss Lasko-Gross and Kevin Colden's The Sweetness

I've been reviewing comics by Miss Lasko-Gross and Kevin Colden from the earliest days of High-Low. However, the Z2 comics series The Sweetness represents the first time that this married couple has collaborated on a major project. Their pairing on this gonzo sci-fi heist comic is as smooth as any I've seen in comics. Lasko-Gross's demented sense of humor is a perfect match for Colden's smooth line that still delights in gore and splatter. I have only read the first four issues (there is a fifth as well), but the series is filled with wit, interesting characters, plot twists and even surprising amounts of warmth.

The story is about two pilots hired to take a spaceship to a colony world. Also aboard is Nelly, an ex-con who is the liaison between the prisoners on board the ship in cryogenic sleep and those who are going to take them at their destination. That simple enough set-up is instantly complicated by one of the pilots nervously smuggling contraband as part of an apparently high-level deal. From there, the book becomes a kind of shell game as Nelly and Scout, a hilarious, bawdy pilot, try to outwit the other, smuggling pilot, a brutal customs process, an ambush on the colony planet they land on, aliens invading their ship and radical nudists.

The complicating subplot is the nature of the contraband: it's sugar. The aliens who tried to hijack them were after it, because for them it's an intoxicant of the highest order. That accounts for the outrageous covers, featuring an attractive, cute or harmless person with their eyes censored by a line and a close-up of their horrible, decaying teeth. It doesn't have anything to do with the plot other than as a visual metaphor for the rotten character of that particular future. Of course, the reality is that sugar truly is an addictive substance that's difficult to kick; it's just that supply and demand is very different than in this book. The aliens are so desperate to either consume sugar and/or obtain large quantities to get wealthy that they would attack any vessel that so much as had a packet of sugar. The series begins with aliens so desperate to score that they break a treaty between Earth and the aliens to do so. The punchline is they didn't want to harm anyone to get the sugar, but the authorities not only killed them but also the people around them, as a sort of sterilization measure.

This ultimately is a comic about negotiating hypocrisy as a means of survival. All Nelly wants is a cut of the action, because she knows it's going to happen no matter what. It's implied that as a black ex-con, she doesn't have many other options. The Earth officials are hypocrites and corrupt, the dealers she's working with are two-faced, and only Scout proves to be a real friend and ally. Nelly is tough, competent and no-nonsense, while Scout is wild, risk-taking and a free spirit. There's a scene where she is given a substance that's an extract of an alien's saliva, and it turns her into a monstrous, naked powerhouse that joyfully and viscerally tears apart a large group of people trying to kill her and Nelly. Lasko-Gross's sense of comic timing is superb here, as Nelly is trying to make a phone call to a drug dealer while Scout is killing enemies in the most disgusting ways possible. Colden picks up on that comic timing with a fine but detailed line that captures minute details for greatest shock and comedic value. I believe this series will be collected soon, and anyone interested in off-beat science-fiction that pulls no punches will find this to be a delightful read.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Fantagraphics: Bayer & Marra's Crime Destroyer #2

Josh Bayer's All-Time Comics line published by Fantagraphics has had its ups and downs. It's walked the narrow line between satire of hyper-violent, sexist comics and a celebration of same. Crime Destroyer #2 is mostly a Benjamin Marra production, with co-scripting by Bayer. It has the usual Marra beats, only some of the inherent ridiculousness of the character (like two Black Power fists acting as epaulets on his uniform) pulls away from Marra's usual deadpan delivery. It eventually answers the question: what if Ben Marra wrote Batman?

The issue begins with the titular character barging in on a villain named P.S.Y.C.H.O., a crazy nihilist type not unlike the Joker. The story explores the way vigilantism might actually play out, as he prevents the execution of judges by shooting the villain. They are outraged that he took the law into his own hands, before he reassured them that he used rubber bullets to stun him. When Crime Destroyer takes the villain to police headquarters, the by-the-book commissioner orders the villain to be freed and CD to be arrested, saying, "The law demands not justice--but order..." Marra hits on a sensitive political topic in a blunt manner, as the "Blue Lives Matter" mantra and the unwillingness of good cops to hold bad cops accountable for their actions is precisely about order over justice. It's also the polar opposite of what usually happens to super-heroes in these kinds of stories, as they become sort of unofficial members of the police department.

Marra and Bayer go straight for the throat again and again. The P.S.Y.C.H.O. kidnaps the commissioner's adult daughter after he's freed, prompting Crime Destroyer's only ally left to call him to help rescue her. He finds the villain, dispatches his muscle and then shoots him in the back with a real bullet as he runs away. CD then finishes the job by throwing him over a ledge--or does he? There's a villainous intervention by the Big Bad of the ATC line, Raingod, leading to an ending out of an old Steranko issue of Captain America. The comic's satirical elements are in many ways in conflict with its campier aspects, a frequent problem with superhero comics in general. Marra's stiff, 80s-emulating art really does make it look like a relic from another era, especially since veteran letterer Rick Parker contributed to this issue. The overall effect is somewhere betwixt and between. It doesn't work as light entertainment, but the characters are too thin to really work on a more sophisticated satirical level. There's a lot that's interesting about this comic, but its dissonant tone makes it disposable.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Minis: Mike Freiheit

Mike Freiheit's Go Fuck Myself! series of minis are mostly humorous autobio that focuses on mental illness, his relationship, and dealing with self-loathing. It opens on a note that I've seen a few times from autobio cartoonists: an army of duplicates converging on him and beating him to a pulp, leading him to decide to get up. After that, he dramatizes all the unpleasant things happening in a day (account balance insufficient, healthcare going up, worrying about doing an unfunny strip) as being kicked or punched in the groin...with him doing the honors in the final panel, uttering the titular phrase of the comic. That pretty much sums of the tenor of the strips: absurd and self loathing, with the author inviting the audience to laugh with and at him. The tone is lighter in other strips, like when his feet start yelling at him for exercising, then run away from his body when he takes off his shoes.

There are also uncomfortable strips where Freiheit catches himself staring at a pretty woman on a bus, then castigates himself for staring, then reminds himself that he's married. It's not quite at the level of horrifying self-revelation like in Ivan Brunetti's "I Like Girls", but it's in the same category. Later on, he helps his wife out when she's having a bad day at work, faxing the cat over in a bit of inspired silliness. There are funny callbacks, like Freiheit's alter ego (an apeman) and his dinosaur friend Craig encountering a benevolent alien (only to kill and eat it) and Freiheit wondering out loud to his wife that if he had a friend named Craig, could he call him "Craigasaurus Rex"? The best thing about that strip is that he felt he needed permission from his wife for this absurd thought.

The first issue ends with a substantial short story about dealing with anxiety and depression, personified as a round shadow creature that takes over his brain and prevents good thoughts. It's not an original idea, but his execution is crisp and affecting, using deep blacks to frame the rest of the action. He takes the metaphor to a funny place as things like therapy and medication are daggers used to stab depression and force it to ebb. What I liked best was turning that martial metaphor around as Freiheit hugged the manifestation of his fears and depression in a gesture of understanding that this is part of him. The issue closes with Freiheit's apeman self yelling at him in the mirror after Freiheit reaches out to him, saying that he's needed to keep him sharp as an artist.

The second issue (subtitled: "The Fuckening") is sharper in every way. Freiheit juggles five different narratives all relating to the same theme, taking place in different time periods. The first involves him as a farmer in a village, enduring going to the church of the Sky-Beast because his wife is still into it. The second features the return of his ape-man, trying to introduce the concept of dairy to his tribe and proposing that they merge with a nearby tribe instead of fighting with them all the time. The third takes place in the modern day, where he mulls over the idea of being a farmer and wondering if he could pick up the knack of killing animals for food. The fourth thread sees Freiheit in art school, enduring a horrible critique from a teacher. The last thread is in the future, where he and his wife are wearing body suits and wondering whether or not to buy a picture with or without clouds.

He neatly segues from period to period, with themes from each period echoing into the others. There's rejection in nearly every period: the apeman is ridiculed by his tribe (who worship the Sky-Beast) as well as the other tribe (who worship a kind of turtle creature); the art student not only endures a ridiculous critique, he's later forced to go to a museum where Hitler's beautiful tapestries are on display; the farmer skips out on tithing and is followed by the rest of the village to his home with torches; the couple are unhappy with their choices. Only modern day Mike, in the most banal of circumstances, seems to be happy, as his biggest decision revolves around what kind of sandwich to make. There's a final gag that ties it all together, but there's no question that this issue is a huge step up for the artist.

The strengths of the first issue are still all there: the doubts, the self-loathing, and the character of the apeman as a go-to protagonist. He folded everything else into the stories instead of them floating around as one-offs that were occasionally on the self-indulgent side. It's also more varied on a visual level, as Freiheit carefully builds his environments in such a way to both be distinctive and flow into each other in a natural way. He also doesn't linger too long on any particular story, and the transitions feel smooth and unforced. If the first issue was a lab where Freiheit worked on some very familiar concepts, the second issue was a solid finished project that touched on all of the important themes without hammering the reader over the head with them.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Koyama Press: Jessica Campbell's XTC69

In Jessica Campbell's first book, Hot or Not?, she took on sexism and the male gaze in the art world by judging artists by their looks and overall sex appeal. It was a blunt-force object of satire, taking its premise to its limits and beyond by actually making the satire funny and a willingness to stay in character the entire time. Her new book, XTC69, is a brutal take-down of the kind of science fiction novel that's sexist to the point of misogyny. The way she drew the cover (a woman in another woman's arms, a crew member fighting a zombie, a spaceship whooshing by) was meant to evoke those sort of books from the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Heinlein in particular is a target, both his simpler books like S Is For Space and his more "mature" work like Stranger In A Strange Land.

Those books tend to be power fantasies, with the handsome, brave space captain as a stand-in for the author, who inevitably has sex with whatever female character or characters whom might be introduced. Campbell does that one better: the protagonist of the story is Captain Jessica Campbell from another planet, and the female love interest also turns out to be Jessica Campbell, frozen in a cryo-chamber on earth for seven hundred years. Captain Campbell and her crew are looking for mates to help repopulate their all-female planet. Despite all the silliness in the book, Campbell plays fair and has her trio of alien women act very seriously, and the slow reveal of the plot also reflects a carefully assembled bit of scaffolding that surrounds the commentary.

After they take earth Jessica (whom they dub JC2, since the name "Jessica Campbell" was a title won through bloody combat on her planet) with them on their search, they find the last planet that can save them: Mxpx. Along the way, Campbell subtly sets up romance between the book's Jessicas, with a detour into a gag where the captain asks JC2 about the Hadron Collider and quantum physics (getting no results) and then asks about "Harry Potter, Boy Lizard", setting up a twelve hour lecture from JC2. That's a bit of silliness, along with the food available to eat and the aliens' preferred cuisine, "glug glug", which turns out to be pizza. When they find their destination, Campbell goes back to the blunt-force object approach, as the main continent on the planet of only men is shaped like a giant penis and there is some kind of football-like object at its north pole.

When after a period of trial and error that resembled an all-male version of the film Idiocracy, they meet President Chad, who helpfully tells the reader that women long ago abandoned the planet, "because those ingrate bitches wouldn't give us nice guys a chance." They get ordered around a bit, and JC2 gets bombarded with questions like "Why aren't females funny?", "Could you smile? You have resting bitch face" and simply "Blowjob?" The commander is so enraged that she orders the planet to be destroyed, seemingly dooming her planet until a deux ex machina of sorts pops up, albeit one that's totally consistent with the plot and its clues. The two Jessicas kiss in triumph at the very end, in the way the hero usually gets the girl but all the mushy stuff is left for the very end.

Perhaps the funniest part of the book came on the acknowledgements page, where she did a strip where someone asked her if the book was "misogynist against men" (in itself a hilarious turn of phrase). Campbell replied that "A man read it and said it was fine" and that "...some of my best friends are men." That was a rhetorical extra point after the touchdown that was the rest of the book, crushing the kind of arguments men have used for justifying sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. in their own work. Campbell's critique is pointed, even as she dresses it up with gags and sci-fi tropes. For example, she makes a sharp rebuke of transphobia when she has Captain Campbell relate that on her planet, people chose their genders based on their own personal revolution, and to force someone to be a man (because of course everyone would want to lean toward being a woman), to go against their own construction of gender, would be an act of cruelty.

Visually, Campbell keeps her pages simple, with a 2 x 3 grid and a thick, expressive line. Her self-caricature (in her trademark striped shirt and bushy hair) is one of my favorite in comics. Her character design is distinctive, with the page full of asshole guys questioning her containing hilarious and various "bro" types. Campbell's comedic timing is sharp, as she uses panel beats to heighten the awkwardness of a situation, like when Jessica first appears out of the cryogenic tube. The book is also breezily paced despite the occasional info-dump, especially such instances were usually incorporated with some bit of silliness. What Campbell has achieved in this book is a delightful balance of satire, absurdity and sharply-observed witticisms. That she achieved this with a plot that makes far more sense than most science fiction stories was just icing on the cake (or if you prefer, more cheese on the glug glug).