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).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Minis: Matthew Kelly


Goulash 1-3, by Matthew Kelly. These comics are less drawn than scrawled, befitting a loosely-connected series of anecdotes that involve children and their perspectives. In the first issue, that’s especially true in a strip where a young boy is punished for saying a “bad word” by a teacher, and then given a lecture that his parents are unfit to raise him. The strip simply ends with the boy hanging his head and saying, “Sorry, sir”. It’s a brutal encapsulation of the ways in which authority figures misuse their power in a fit of self-righteousness, without understanding or caring about the ramifications of their actions. Later, there are a series of self-portraits of someone named “Didi”, with a crude attempt at realism producing a character all clad in black; then a rainbow stick figure; then a shadowy figure in panel full of scribbles and finally a pitch-black figure in a black panel. The stark simplicity and total disinterest in any further kind of explication gets across a lot of information in a series of anecdotes that are often about trauma but also about aspirations.

The second issue is about identity and impostor syndrome. In each of the stories, it's shown that lies and fears about being called out form the make-up of the relationship. In the first, it's about two people who meet on a hiking trail, where the narrator talks about meeting every question with a lie in order to disguise their "true" self, which is implied is repulsive and hurtful. The second story is about a kid who doesn't understand anything his older brothers say, but he pretends that he does anyway. The third story is about body dysmorphia, as the main character has their head replaced as a youngster because doctors said it wasn't right. Even after getting a head transplant later in life, the character questions not just their identity but the veracity of everything. There's a sense that in each story, the root cause of this self-loathing is a fundamental disconnect between children and their parents, with the latter abandoning or failing the children in some way. 

The third issue is a recapitulation of the first two issues, with a single narrative about a kid who portrays themself as Frankenstein's monster, swinging back and forth from feeling like a monster and feeling like a kid, even as their peers reverse course and say that they're just a little kid. In so many situations like this, once the precedent has been set to negatively identify someone in a particular way, that label sticks hard. Even after the label has been proven false or otherwise contradicted, internalizing shame and self-hatred comes easily once it's been implanted, and attempts to uproot it are met with suspicion. The second story is about the self: what is it to be oneself, or not oneself? What does it mean to try on different personas, and how real are these masks? Using scrawled text, sharp images and collage, Kelly gets at the impossibility of this question, just as most of the issues he broaches have no solutions. Kelly's rawness empowers the emotional quality of these comics; if anything, Kelly needs to learn how to simplify and pare things down even more in order to deliver his message. 


Friday, May 11, 2018

Uncivilized Books: Tim Sievert's The Clandestinauts



Uncivilized Books has never been afraid to publish unconventional genre comics, especially in the realm of fantasy. Tim Sievert’s book The Clandestinauts combines high fantasy with grit and guts; it’s like seeing how the sausage of a fantasy quest is made. The book’s promotional materials make a number of references to Dungeons and Dragons, and the narrative has the twists and turns of an especially sadistic game master and players expertly and accurately acting on the chaotic and evil natures of their characters. The reader is thrown into the narrative in media res, so the book starts with a battle rather than the boring stuff of how the party was hired, etc. Characterization is doled out in the middle of and after fights, which are exceptionally gory—on the level of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit series.

The reader is given a roster of characters and a brief description, and there’s the usual group of fighters, wizards, fighter-wizards, a humanoid slug-creature and even a fighting construct. In this world, becoming a warlock means forming a pact with a demon, entailing one’s eventual doom. The narrative itself is quite simple: the titular group is on a quest to steal a chalice from a powerful wizard and bring it back for a huge reward. Of course, nothing is ever quite that easy, as one member dies and is sent to hell right away. One of the members of the party is a bandaged warlock named Ganglion the Grim, and he’s the kind of wild card that has his own agenda.

What makes this book entertaining is the sheer unpredictability of its twists and turns, as well as a modern-day sensibility in terms of its humor. Indeed, the book reads like a gorier version of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series, as there’s a level of self-awareness at play here in the way genre customs are being warped, but never so much that it breaks the fourth wall. Indeed, this world has its own unpleasant logic and rules, which the characters react to and defy as much as they can. Like Dungeon, the art is cartoony in terms of its character design but otherwise naturalistic, in order to truly capture the visceral quality of its violence and putrid environments. It also asks an important question: if a party has characters who are at each other’s throats, then why do they stay together? If they answer is “money”, then what happens when their reward shrivels up? Sievert plays that scenario fairly as the group falls apart at the end. Speaking of which, while there is a conclusion to this story, it feels like Sievert could easily write a number of sequels. There are any number of dangling plot threads that could be picked up again, and in this way it feels like it’s an adventure that’s part of a greater overall campaign. Readers looking for comics that are inspired by D&D’s nastier elements should seek this out, but this book isn’t aimed at a general audience.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

mini-Kus!: GG, A.Magan, P.Kyle, E.Androutsopoulos

I missed a recent early round of recent releases from our friends from Latvia:

mini-Kus! #55: Valley, by GG. The artist creates narratives out of contrasts and atmosphere. A story by GG inevitably becomes a lost world of some kind, a desire to cross a threshold that should not be crossed. In this story, a young woman gets a text from a friend that she and others are camping in a nearby valley but ran out of food. She asks her friend to bring them food so they can stick around. Of course, when the young woman arrives at the valley, her phone has no service and a dense fog has rolled in. In a series of light, airy panels, she negotiates the terrain, a driving downpour and hallucinating that a nearby volcanic steam opening was talking to her. She gets lost in all of this but calmly reacts by going for a swim. It's obvious that her coming out alone to rescue her friends was ill-considered, to say the least, which leads one to think about her motives. GG hints at her wanting to disappear but still wanting an overall goal to rein her back in. When her friend texts her that they decided to leave after all, she has nothing left to do, leaving her in an existential quandary as much as she's in a geographic one. GG's line is delicate to the point of disappearing on the page at times, in order to push color to the forefront. The ending is less downbeat than it is open-ended, with the main character's fate and path yet to be written.                               

mini-Kus! #56: A Friend, by Andres Magan. Done in a deliberately stiff style that emphasizes line above all else, this story is about a man and his missing dog. There are levels within levels at play here, and it’s unclear if those levels are all in the man’s mind or if they play out at all in real life. There’s a sense in which him losing his dog and reporting it to a police officer in the park is a cataclysmic event for the man, an event that triggers a lifetime’s worth of guilt and judgment. When he goes home after having lost his dog, a rock crashes through his wind with a note that says “Where is your dog?”. He accidentally (?) cuts himself on the glass when he picks it up, but the day seems to be saved when the policeman brings by his dog.

However, he rejects the dog out of hand; but is it because he has rejected his identity and the key relationship that defines it, or because he believes that is not his dog? The dog asks him “Where is your dog?” and we flash to his father, mother and sister all asking him the same question. Again, there is a collection of guilt that builds up to another rock coming through the window, this time with a card that matches the cuts he received on his hand. As though it were stigmata, his hand starts bleeding profusely all over the place, until we cut back to the park. The only difference this time is that the man expresses to the officer just how much the dog means to him. The dog had become the receptacle for all of his feelings, something he had to come to grips with lest guilt consume him. Whether or not his dog is found isn’t important; what’s important is that this emotionally stunted person was able to express his emotions in a positive way.

mini-Kus! #57: Night Door, by Patrick Kyle. Kyle’s warped, cartoony line requires careful attention, because there’s a clear narrative here underneath the extreme and cartoony stylization. Thematically, it’s a case of being careful of what you wish for, because you might just get it. A creature (looking like some sort of Disney nightmare) approaches the titular door, seeking admittance. He finds a tube sticking out of the door, and some sort of gas is emitted from it that allows him to go in. Through various twists and turns, he makes it through the underground maze until he comes to what seems to be a dead end as he’s neck-deep in water. He grabs for an object that lifts him, reduces him to a gas, and is captured in a pump. We see a man with a pump then push its contents through a certain tube. Kyle’s entire project has involved the subversion of the hero’s journey, and this is another take on the circularity and fruitlessness of the heroic quest. Kyle also writes a lot about isolation and how maddening it is, and this comic is thus a reflection and rejection of that quest as a means for an individual to somehow obtain greater knowledge or power.

mini-Kus! #58: Eviction, by Evangelos Androutsopoulos. This is a story about a man who heard a story from a man who became involved with a group of politically active squatters near the docks. It is implied that a number of them may be immigrants. It’s a story consumed by atmosphere by way of the balance between the shifting colors against a strong line but stripped-down character design. That atmosphere helps convey the vagaries of memory and how those details are possibly warped in the retelling. The original story is quite emotional, as the man believes his courage is insufficient and that he’s kind of a fake, unlike those who actually live in the squat. Eventually, the squat is broken up as the police use violence to clear it out. The man narrating the story to the reader visits the place and tries to square his idea of the place with the actual place—just as the reader tries to square fact and fiction. There’s no indication that this is based on a true story, yet it’s entirely believable. Just as the narrator is unable to put himself into the prior narrative, so too is the reader left on the outside, wondering.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Minis: Michael Aushenker, Kelly Kusumoto

Trolls: Operation Great Wall, by Michael Aushenker. Michael Aushenker not only likes to go over the top in his humor, he builds the wall extra high and then goes over the top. The composition of his drawings, the frantically scrawled quality of his lettering, and the lurid nature of his colors hammer the reader from the beginning and don't stop. He's clearly going for a Warner Bros. cartoon on acid (or maybe PCP) here, as his anthropomorphic air traffic controllers Wayward and Edward have exaggerated actions and conversations starting on the very first page. Aushenker pushes the reader into parsing the pages (his lettering sometimes gets out of control to the point where it eats up panels) and blasting them through the narrative.

The narrative is slight, with just enough story to get the characters moving. Wayward's fiance' Winda (a lisping, Chinese tweety-bird sort of character) gets kidnapped by her controlling parents and taken back to China. Wayward and Edward hijack a plane and crash it into the Great Wall, where more assorted hijinks occur as they wind up in prison. They are eventually freed because they inadvertently uncovered a terrorist cell while an absurdly racist and sexist Bill Clinton (an anthropomorphic pig) is there to make all sorts of inappropriate comments. Aushenker goes as far as to use the softened version of the n-word here, though the other characters make it clear that he shouldn't be saying it. The Clinton character goes on to insult every ethnic and religious group possible as a way to get cheap heat, essentially. Aushenker was trying to cast Clinton as the epitome of the uncouth ugly American, but it didn't quite scan and instead detracted from the overall story. That's unfortunate, because the manic energy of the narrative didn't need that extra bit of offensiveness in order to be effective.

Art Is My Joby, by Kelly Kusomoto. Aushenker tipped me to her lovely four-panel gag/diary work, which is simple and direct in its execution. What I especially liked about this comic is that Kusomoto varied her topics and tone from strip to strip. Some of them were melancholy, like when she bemoans being single but still gets a gag out of it when her dog thinks "What is she talking about? I'm right in front of her." Indeed, she gets a lot of mileage out of her dog, whether it's for silly or sentimental purposes. The simple shape she designed for her dog is yet another triumph of design, as her use of expression and body language is so precise that she can get across an enormous amount of information and emotion with just a few lines.

Other strips revealed her anxiety about stress and pressure she feels in her life but also talks about her love of being a wrestler and how it changed her life for the better. Some of the strips talked about self-care and how bad she is at it, while others talked about the frustrations she feels as a graphic designer. It's not diary work in the sense of taking the reader through a specific day and set of days over time. Instead, Kusomoto peppers the reader with anecdotes that build on each other, though many of the strips could have been rearranged with great ease. The comic left me wanting more, in part because each strip was so pleasant and made me want to read another one, but also because I got the sense that Kusomoto's work would have its greatest impact consumed in larger chunks. She doesn't quite spill a lot of ink about herself here, slowly revealing things about her life and history, but I think a clearer picture would emerge over time and a greater aggregation of comics. There's definitely something promising about her upbeat but emotionally sincere comics.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Josh Pettinger's Goiter #2

It's always enjoyable to read a good comic from an artist that I'm unfamiliar with, as was the case with Goiter #2. It's easy to trace his influences (DeForge, Ware, Clowes, perhaps Box Brown), but he goes in different directions than any of those cartoonists. This issue features a single story, "Henry Kildare". This is a story about helplessness and being manipulated by forces beyond one's control. Pettinger uses a 12-panel grid on most pages, slowly moving his characters across the page as there is very little action. Usually, a lot of panels on a page indicates a lot of activity in terms of panel-to-panel transitions. Here, Pettinger forces the reader to endure the same kind of ennui that the titular character experiences as well. There's also a certain rumpled quality to Kildare, a sense that he's been beaten down a bit. It's in his shoulders as well as his schlubby appearance.

Kildare is traveling across the country by bus, occasionally making phone calls to a girlfriend who never answers. After an arduous trek to a small town, we learn that he's a comedian who's headlining a club, and that he is a ventriloquist to boot. Again there's that theme of being a "dummy" to forces beyond one's control. That plays out when Kildare does mushrooms with the bartender at the club, which she does as a sort of ploy to seduce him but only turns out making him sick. He lies down in a park and then goes back to his room when events start spinning out of control. A pair of a young girl's underwear was stuck to his back, and they happened to belong to a girl who was missing. Suddenly, the small town turned on Kildare, quickly sending him to prison in a series of harrowing but hilarious scenes. Kildare only makes things worse when he tries to run away initially, but he's eventually released when police find the actual body. The coda of the story finds him finally making it back home, where he not only finds himself alone, but is still blamed by the mother of the dead girl despite being exonerated.

That speaks to another key factor: the ways in which pre-determined narratives affect our ability to deal with the actual data at hand. Upon telling a driver he was from Chicago, he was told it was a "war zone" and that his nice little town was nothing like that. The town was practically begging for a big-city outsider to take the rap for the crime, twitchy Kildare fit the bill perfectly. So much so, that they ignored the actual facts to create a narrative that made sense to them. Alternative facts, as it were. Kildare himself is a sad-sack character who is put-upon from the very beginning of the story until the end, unable to assert his agency in any meaningful way. That he was a punching bag of a character made it all the easier for the town to turn against him. Pettinger's deadpan drawing style makes the humor in this comic extra dry, as he lets the events themselves drive the humor, rather than funny drawings. Pettinger is clearly trying to find his own voice and he's not quite there yet, but you can see his skill, wit and understanding of storytelling on display.

Also included in this issue was a short mini, with a story titled "Dollybird". Pettinger's drawing style is a bit different here, looking more like Archie comics than anything else. With a single image per page, Pettinger aims to have the reader linger not just on each image, but each step of the story. It's about a man who goes online to find someone who can fulfill his specific kink: being beaten up by another man. The exploration of that kink in the man's narrative captions is juxtaposed by his verbally abusive behavior toward his wife. That juxtaposition reveals the disconnect between his desire for a kink that he can't explain and how he acts out his anger through his kink as he's punished for it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Minis: S.Lautman, T.Van Deusen


Black & White Diary Comics December-February 2017, by Sara Lautman. Lautman helpfully explains the entire premise of the mini in the title, and Birdcage Bottom Books published this collection. Lautman's comics have always been funny and strange, as she has always resolutely told her stories from a point of view that she never tries to explain or justify. Visually, her comics have always had a rock-solid and conventional formal sense of design, allowing her to get as wildly expressive as she wants with regard to figure drawing. Lautman is also consistently funny; sometimes it's dry humor and other times there's an over-the-top sense of "How can this be happening?" A good example is the first strip, "Crisis Hotline". Lautman, with an cartoonishly exaggerated nose and scribbly hair, calls up a crisis talk line. Lautman spills her problem to the person at the other end of the line (which was redacted) gets silence for a moment, and then a request for FaceTime (!). In one of those unbelievable moments, the call monitor is wearing a dog puppet on her arm and speaks in a dog voice ("That must be rrrruff!") until she breaks off in a fit of coughing. Tack on an awkward denouement, and you have a perfectly structured gag.

Lautman often builds her stories around a vague sense of discomfort. Whether it's singing alone at a karaoke night and trying to connect to some bros standing up, or a feeling of extreme anxiety as she steps in as a band's new drummer, Lautman always manages to feel out of place. There's a hilarious scene where she confesses to her friends what a horrible job she did and how sorry she was, and all she got was wonderful feedback. "Stupid supportive friends" she thinks, as she slinks away, as no one will feed her sense of inadequacy. That said, Lautman doesn't wallow, at least not without trying to generate laughs. There are also absurd, silly anecdotes, like attending "Gum Brunch" (which is exactly what it sounds like) and discussing the history and reverberations Gum Brunch has stirred up. There's another story where an older man approaches her in a bar, compliments her on the band t-shirt she's wearing, then walks away when she says the shirt was a gift and she wasn't really a fan. That all seemed standard until a woman runs up to them and says that that man was her uncle, and that this was the first thing he had said in thirty years! Lautman writes herself as a weirdness magnet even as she's finding it hard to deal with normal life, but she deals with both with a sort of deadpan humor that's accentuated by that appealingly scratchy, scribbly style.

I Wish I Was Joking, by Tom Van Deusen. This is a collection of odds and ends from Van Deusen from various anthologies; and as such, it has a slightly scattered feel. Van Deusen's favorite new character seems to be amazon.com head Jeff Bezos, and he is portrayed as barely able to interact with other people. There's a running joke about a disturbing relationship with his AI device Alexa (culminating in a great gag on the back cover) as well as him wrecking Seattle in his "Bezos-Bot"; essentially, it's Mecha-Bezos. It's sort of like a toddler having godlike influence on his world. A lot of the humor in the anthology is centered less on Van Deusen (usually the star and main target of his stories) and more on various celebrities. There's an uncomfortable, extended sequence where Van Deusen visits the home of Dave Matthews, who as it turns out (in this story, at least) is a coprophile and discusses this at length. Then there's a visit to an old Real World house, which has fallen into total savagery since the cameras left. It's a bit of low-hanging fruit for Van Deusen.


More amusing are "Undercover Grandpa" (exactly what it sounds like), which gets especially weird when the grandpa dies and leaves his grandson his head in a jar, which is then programmed to say all kinds of disturbing things. Then there's a strip where Van Deusen goes to the doctor, who winds up being a lab-coat wearing, stethoscope-wielding duck. It's not an anthropomorphic duck either--just a duck. It's total lunacy, as the duck goes wild and tries to attack Van Deusen. Overall, Van Deusen's best strips are the "autobio" strips where he portrays himself as an awful person, because they are both funnier and cut deeper, even when they stray into total fiction.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Minis: E. Lindner, J. Kieffer

The Cranklet's Chronicle #1, by Ellen Lindner. I've been enjoying Lindner's minis for close to twenty years now. While I've enjoyed her fiction, it's her autobio and reportage that I've always liked the best. That's because her authorial voice is witty and crisp, and her ability to draw people in stylish clothes is rare in comics. I was thus especially delighted to see the first issue of The Cranklet's Chronicle appear in the post, which is a minicomic series devoted to women in baseball. The titular "cranklet" is the feminized version of "crank", an obsolete term for a baseball fan. Lindner's always had an eye for style in any number of eras, so it's no surprise that she'd want to bring back an especially apt and fun description.

Using a light and dark blue wash, Lindner introduces this issue's main story by noting that in many ways, baseball is sexist. Yet she grew up a fan, just like her mom, and when her attention turned to the role of women in the game, she learned that the founder of her favorite team, the New York Mets, was one Joan Whitney Payson. The rest of the issue tells her story, as a woman born into wealth and obsessed with the New York Giants, just like her mom. Lindner really hits on the idea that sports (and baseball in particular) is largely a generational phenomenon, where one generation passes on the love of the game but also a lifetime of memories spent together enjoying the game. Later on, Payson bought shares of the Giants and witnessed the likes of Willie Mays making his famous over-the-shoulder catch in the World Series.

When several east coast teams got the idea to head west (as Lindner points out, this only happened because of post-war advances in air travel), the majority owner of the Giants turned down an offer from Payson to buy the team and keep it there and instead moved it to San Francisco. Lindner offered up a juicy fact that there was a move to start a new league to rival Major League Baseball, and Payson was encouraged to buy in. Before any of that came to pass, MLB headed off that potential crisis by offering New York a new expansion team and inviting Payson to be the owner. That team would be the Metropolitans, or Mets, and they actually played at the Polo Grounds (the Giants' old stadium) before they moved to Shea Stadium in Queens. What makes this story so fun in Lindner's hands is that she knows which anecdotes to play up, like Payson's fan superstitions amusing the crowd or manager Gil Hodges walking out of a room in anger after being mocked by a roomful of sportswriters. Lindner later cleverly tied Payson's devotion to the 1969 World Series champs to her own mom's who recalled sitting in a room with a bunch of other nurses in the clinching day game.

Lindner hits on all the emotional aspects of sports and how they intertwine with the game itself. Baseball games are long and the season is incredibly long. For a devoted fan, this creates a nice rhythm, a natural rise and fall that simultaneously makes the players a part of their daily life. The connection between different generations of fans and then the way in which the fans' overall excitement can energize a city--especially a city where everyone walks, like New York--are phenomena that go beyond the simplicity of a game and serve a function as a kind of shared belief system that everyone is part of. Lindner also includes a brief interview with (gasp!) a fan of the New York Yankees (the leviathan of baseball), asking about her fandom, the way it related to her fandom, etc. Lindner wrote this in such a way that non-sports fans could appreciate it, though it will obviously resonate more with fans of either baseball or sport in general.

Cabbagetown 1-3 and Drawing Thinking Of You Dancing, by Jason Kieffer. Jason Kieffer is at his best when he's writing and drawing about the down & out and dispossessed people of Toronto. I found myself disappointed in this minicomics version of that sort of story. Kieffer essentially indulges three different storytelling urges in each issue: the "real" origin of city-related symbology, tales of Native American gods like Coyote, and his more typical interactions with Toronto's homeless. The first bit, where he analyzes items like the statue in front of the police station or goes on about the Queen of England still being the real ruler of Canada, sound like typical conspiracy theory fodder. That there's Masonic imagery everywhere isn't exactly news, for example. The fact that he threw in a casual transphobic joke in the middle of one of his investigations certainly didn't add anything positive to these rants.

The Coyote stories he chose to tell were usually focused on sex and/or scatology, and that got old fairly quickly. The effect wasn't even shocking as much as it was juvenile. The stories that were focused elsewhere lacked cleverness, with every moment of the story being telegraphed from the very start. The best of his stories about locals was about "Ursula" in #2, which told her story with a degree of sensitivity and kindness that was in marked contrast with the far more aggressive "Jen" in #3. Kieffer positions himself as a fellow member of Toronto's underclass and positions himself on the sidewalk for "people-watching". The truth seems to be that he's more of a dabbler in that world than the real inhabitants of the underclass who are trying to cope (poorly) with mental illness and addiction, who lack that self-awareness that Kieffer possesses. As such, they are always filtered through Kieffer's own sense of safety and awareness. He doesn't mock his subjects, but they are very much "othered", even if it's done in a sympathetic manner. That said, that he engages with them at all is affirming their humanity in a way that most aren't willing to do.

The mini about dancing (co-credited to the dancer, Mairi Greig) is interesting in the way that an illustrated poem is interesting. It is an adornment entirely exterior to the original work of art itself. It is amusing and possibly interesting but unnecessary. In the case of this mini, it was interesting to see Kieffer try to capture the movements and sounds of a long dance routine, but the way he did it made him incapable of expressing what it is a dancer does with their body to create expression. It's similar to an illustrated poem vs comics-as-poetry; the first slaps an image on top of text, and there's no real two-way interplay. The second takes the rhythms of poetry and translates them (both textually and visually) into comics form, aiming for the effect of poetry rather than simply its form. Similarly, it is possible to draw comics-as-dance (Keren Katz does this), where the ways in which bodies are flattened and contorted as dancers are transformed into shapes on the page. This was an interesting experiment for Kieffer and Grieg that ultimately wound up being tedious in its repetitiveness.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Minis: A.Meuse, R.Scheer, T.Jones


You're Garbage Fired!, by Adam Meuse. This is a collection of "some post-election sketchbook pages" by the talented and funny Meuse, published by Birdcage Bottom Books. I believe this is the first time Meuse has been published by someone else, and it's certainly well-deserved. The drawings and strips here reflect the rage and despair felt by many in the wake of Donald Trump winning the presidency, and the mini is well-served by being in full-color. That makes the scatological joke of a soiled diaper strongly resembling the shape and color of Trump effective; it's not an especially smart take on Trump, but it certainly does reflect Meuse's visceral rage. His portraits of folks like Steve Bannon and Kelly Conaway have an almost undead feel to them: they are rotting human beings. Mike Pence bleeding from every pore is a genuinely unsettling image, as though he were an antichrist. Angry portraits of the president by his two young daughters and a final strip where he scrolls through the news of the day one last time and goes to bed, saying, "Ok, I sufficiently hate everything and everyone" cap the collection with the same kind of grim but bright humor. Meuse is an incredible caricaturist, but it's the way he captures the essential awfulness of each figure that's really impressive. The only artist doing something comparable is Warren Craghead, who draws grotesque caricatures of Trump and his lackeys every day.

Cats Of The White House and The Hanukkah Fire, 1992, by Rachel Scheer. The first mini was written by Danny Noonan and drawn by Scheer, and it's really an illustrated zine about presidential cats. It's interesting in the way it reveals a side of the presidents that's not widely known historically, even as "First Pets" command a great deal of attention from the press while their owners are in power. The stories about Abraham Lincoln being obsessed by his cats to the point where it annoyed his wife were amusing, as was the account of Teddy Roosevelt forbidding anyone on the White House staff from disturbing his cat at any time.

Scheer works in a stripped-down, cartoony tradition where spotting blacks and slightly exaggerated facial expressions do much of the narrative heavy lifting. That's especially true in the latter comic, a charming memory of a long-ago Hanukkah caught on film and brought back to life here with the use of spot color and photo collage. The incident in question was really an excuse for Scheer to think about her family history and the ways in which ethnic practices supersede religious ones. She notes that her grandfather was a Polish refugee who wound up living in a community in Shanghai, China, which I found fascinating. There was a smooth, easy transition to that family history to the incident in question, in which a home-made menorah catches fire and gets tossed in the sink. It's a memory that's representative of the ways in which Scheer and her family felt Jewish even if they had no religious connection to the faith at all. Here, the gesture of the family trying to go through the ceremony with stuff made by the kids is more important than the actual ceremony itself. Scheer has a strong command over her page design even as her drawings mostly stay in the functional range. Again, she's not trying to dazzle the reader with her draftsmanship; instead, she's trying to clearly tell a story, and she uses a variety of approaches to do so clearly.

22 Tapes, by Toby Jones. I was delighted to see this comic show up in the mail, as Jones has mostly been working on animation projects for the past several years. His Memory Foam minis were some of the most entertaining autobio comics I had ever read, so it was interesting to see him come back to it, albeit in a highly unusual fashion. The premise of the comic is that Jones got a bunch of Hi-8 tapes that he had made in his childhood digitized, and he had the idea of watching them one-by-one and improvise comics with regard to what he remembered and felt of the tapes. He was between 11 and 17 when he made these tapes, and the result was unearthing a lot of increasingly unpleasant memories of his life at that time.

Jones zeroes in on the fact that his younger self was obsessed with the idea of creating entertainment. Whether it was in the form of skits, crude animations or childlike weirdness, his younger self just wanted to be on camera. Jones is unsparing in his commentary on his younger self, but he is happy when he managed to collaborate and put together something that was half-decent. That was especially true of some of those early animations, a few of which even had things like B-stories and callbacks. The comics sometimes went on tangents to discuss the relationships he had with certain friends and why some of those friendships faded.

Eventually, Jones gets around to discussing why he was really doing this comic: after years of working as a professional animator to create a polished mainstream product, he wanted a chance to return to that essential urge to create something just for himself, without caring what anyone else thought of it. He revealed that at the time he was making the videos, he was being bullied in school and had a horrible home life. Those tapes were his only real escape at the time, as they gave him a chance to exercise total control of his environment. Jones gave himself that same kind of relief in doing this comic, only this time it was relief from the pressure of having his work scrutinized, edited and controlled. What's most interesting about this mix of still photos from films and Jones' own drawings is that Jones didn't consciously go into it knowing how emotional and exhausting reliving the past would be. At the same time, the way he wrote about these emotions was hilarious. This was an interesting experiment that bore some fascinating fruit.


Monday, April 9, 2018

The Return of mini-Kus!: A.Diaz, P.Franz, F. Lobo, R.Muradov

Let's take a look at the latest from everyone's favorite Latvian comics publisher:

mini-Kus! #63: Nausea, by Abraham Diaz. This story by Mexican native Diaz is grotesque in every sense of the word. The way that Diaz writes about Mexico City is as though it is a single, decaying organism and the people in the story are simply malignant parasites eating away at it from within. There's a miserable convenience store clerk, a sleazy male and female couple, a couple of thugs looking to rob the store, and a cranky single dad just trying to dodge the city's dangers. Like a more lurid version of a Raymond Carver story, their separate narratives cross and have an effect on each other, usually for ill. Diaz's art features sickly color backgrounds, lumpy & cartoony figures that remind me a bit of Peter Bagge's work, made even dingier by a persistent & needling rain. The titular nausea refers to the irrelevance of the actions or intentions of any of the characters. The father makes dinner that seems to have killed him and his daughter by accident. With regard to the lovers, the man constantly imagines himself or his lover to be a rotting corpse, both during and after sex. The only characters left alive are the predatory robbers, who are still miserable and caught out in the rain. This is less a story than a look at a series of ugly wounds, but every page is vivid, riveting and grimly funny. Indeed, Diaz's point of view of all this is ugliness is as something absurd, not tragic.


mini-Kus! #64: Collection, by Pedro Franz. Inspired by a famous bookshop that collected ephemera from artists, this mini is a collection of memories. There's a memory of how a tooth got jagged, because when he drew he constantly put pressure on it. There's a list of being in a bookshop and pulling out a huge stack of great books and comics; instead of drawing the scene, he listed the books as though they were stacked one atop the other. Then there was a series, or almost a museum gallery really, of various physical scars from throughout his life. The action ranged from still lives to comic book sound effects, and the clear through-line is not just a certain carelessness in life, but rather a refusal to listen to platitudes regarding danger that were yammered at him. There's a stop at the bookshop (where the famous "other" in its name is crossed out and replaced by "comics") and finally a lingering look at a photograph from long ago of his father and his then-baby sister. Like everything else in the comic, Franz emphasizes the "thing"-ness of each object. The photo is especially because there's a huge water stain on it, but the image of his father and sister persists. The scars are permanent mementos on the museum of his body. The images are bold and striking, with deep, rich colors that emphasize the concepts that need strong visual representation.

mini-Kus! #65: Master Song, by Francisco Sousa Lobo. This is one of the oddest iterations of mini-Kus!, and that's saying something. It's told in rhyme, as the main character recites it in a sing-song fashion. The panels themselves are in a strict 2x2 grid on every page. Red and blue alternate as the dominant colors in the book, with the narrator (a nanny named Emily) dressed in red. The song is really a cry for a young woman who understood that she was a sub after reading (ugh) Fifty Shades of Grey, yet is unable to find a dominant partner. Then all of a sudden, she reveals how much she hates working for her family, who are Jewish ("their faith I despise"). There are vague allusions to Palestine but nothing more specific to her particular brand of anti-Semitism. A random sexual encounter is of course unsatisfying, because she's unable to convey her needs as a sub. When she talks about the torture of going to synagogue the next day and secretly dreaming of revenge as she blames her employers for Palestine's woes, the odd synergy becomes a little clearer. She is, in effect, torturing herself in all aspects of her life. She works for people she hates and has sex with men she has no interest in. She's a sub without agency of her own, and so inadvertently becomes her own master and doles out punishment to herself. The ouroboros on the back page is a sign that makes this arrangement clearer, as this is a rhyme and a song that will only repeat itself.


mini-Kus! #66: Resident Lover, by Roman Muradov. Well, this is a Roman Muradov comic, which means there will be clever uses of color, shape, line and perspective. There are times when his comics are on the twee side and perhaps too clever for their own sake, but that's certainly not true in this comic. I've found that Muradov's comics work best when they are shortest, and he hit on a series of concepts here that inspired wonder. This is a comic about connections, especially distant and tenuous ones. This is a story within a story, as the narrator (with his lover, and his ex-lover, and his ex-lover's lover) goes to a particular store and then the house owned by a particular pair of women who were the daughters of the owners of the store's founders. He tells a story of them mimicking each other's behavior every day and even sharing the same lover; balance was everything to these women who came to be called sisters.

That played out in the candles they lit atop the department store every night, which they watched to make sure they burned out in a balanced fashion. What is left unsaid at the end is that the narrator stomped on a bunch of the candles at random, and while he did so in no particular pattern, it was left unknown if he upset the balance. Much as the mentioned but unseen is his former lover's lover's lover is a person whose existence perpetuates this kind of infinite progression of connections going outward, the sisters sought to isolate their relationships inward, creating a balance that doesn't really exist in real life, one that's almost hermetically sealed. For them, the patterns of daily life mean something and must be obeyed; for the narrator, it is decoration: line and shape and color that fall to the side in comparison to the complexity and absurdity of human relationships. Muradov allows all this to play out in as straightforward a manner as I've ever seen him deliver in terms of narrative, and it served him well.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

D&Q: Anna Haifisch's Von Spatz

Anna Haifisch is tough to pin down. Her art clearly owes a lot to early twentieth century animation and cartooning, but it's impossible to really narrow it down beyond understanding that this is part of her aesthetic. Her ragged, cartoony line is simultaneously off-putting and yet impossible to look away from. That helps create the essential sensibility of her work, which uses deadpan and occasionally absurd humor as the engine that propels the characters and their emotional narrative. The plot supposes that Walt Disney did not die in the mid 1960s. Instead, he had a breakdown and went to recover at the eccentric Von Spatz Rehab Center in California. The center, run by a German immigrant family fleeing Nazi Germany, had some delightfully strange features.

Meant for artists (and cartoonists in particular), the center was notable for its huge penguin pool, its hot dog cart, and its art supply store. Therapy was conducted in a group setting by one of the key characters, a young hippie Von Spatz named Margarete. Disney found himself with great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and children's book illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Initially resenting their presence, the book follows this trio as they become friends and bond with each other. The story is told in short vignettes (Haifisch's go-to method), with an early one "The Exercise" doing a lot of story and character duty in a hilarious fashion, as each artist is challenged to do a story with three elements, and Disney's turns out to be the most dark and disturbing by far.

The story lopes and moseys at its own pace, following the odd rhythms of rehab life. The presence of the penguins cheers some of the patients up but annoys Disney. Haifisch cuts between Disney, Steinberg and Ungerer, each dealing with their own problems in terms of confidence and ability to deal with the outside world. There's a great strip titled "Prozac" that essentially shows how radically different each of their reactions to the drug is, with each man having thought balloons dominated entirely by colors and patterns, each one radically different. There's an exhibition important to the center that the artists manage to ruin, as well as a lot of attention paid to Margarete's private life. That includes an affair with someone else at the center and an exasperated phone call to her European mentor regarding her patients.

Haifisch's project to date has been about the life of the artist. She is well aware of how twee that kind of self-reflexivity can come across and is sensitive to pretension and egomania. At the same time, there is something inherently strange and absurd about being an artist for a living and depending on the tastes and whims of others who support you. Especially those who act as gatekeepers. This book focuses on monetarily successful artists who can do whatever they want but still find themselves struggling. Disney here represents not the theme-park building multimillionaire, but rather the soul of someone who is always doubting himself no matter what. Working oneself to death, no matter the profit, only works for a short period of time. This is a book that is fundamentally about self-care, about camaraderie, about love and about non-monetized self-expression. The boys ruin the exhibition precisely because they just don't care about art and money anymore, nor the hoops one must jump through in order to make it.

It's also about the importance of mental health and how quickly it can slip away, especially since creative types tend to be more susceptible to depression on average. Haifisch has a tremendous amount of affection for all the characters in this book, especially the caregiver Margarete, who is trying to figure things out on the fly. Haifisch intermingles sincerity with absurdity, kindness with sharp barbs, and wonder with weariness to create a kind of artist's Shangri-La. It's what the center represents in the course of the story as well as a kind of fantasy Haifisch no doubt wishes really existed, especially since she lists herself as a future patient in the endflaps.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

First Second: Penelope Bagieu's Brazen

French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu has carved out an interesting career doing biographical comics. Her book about Cass Elliott was exceedingly well-drawn, particularly since what Bagieu does best is exaggeration. A big personality like Elliott's was perfect for that kind of story, even if it felt like the book delivered its message in a heavy-handed way at times. Her new book, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World, sees Bagieu select subjects who had to defy society simply to achieve what they wanted. In this collection, Bagieu is able to create incredibly vivid biographical portrayals of historical figures using no more than five to eight pages. Even with the two page, bright portrayal of each figure in-between chapters, this is an extremely dense book that delivers a lot of information. That's a tribute to the sheer intensity of Bagieu's research, and as such, this isn't really a book that's mean to be read all at once. Indeed, in its original format, each entry appeared once a week. 

There is value, however, in reading it relatively quickly, because one can see the thematic through-line of the book appearing quite clearly. Bagieu went out of her way to tell the stories of women throughout history and all over the world. Freeing the book from a simple Eurocentric bent made the stories all the richer while making it clear that the kinds of challenges and gains that women have made tend to be similar no matter what the era. There are stories of women from Africa, Asia, and South America and the Middle East. It's not just women in their youth who are profiled, but also women whose primary impact came at a more advanced age. I'm happy that Bagieu also included Christine Jorgensen, the most famous trans woman in the world in the mid-twentieth century. Bagieu is also careful not to feature too many of the more obvious candidates. There's no Susan B. Anthony or Tina Turner, for example. No Joan of Arc, Cleopatra or Catherine the Great. Instead, we get Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo & Matamba (roughly modern Angola), who seized power in a system that did not allow for a queen and waged war against the Portuguese. We get Wu Zetian, the first and only Empress of China. Through sheer intelligence, guile and willpower, they navigated the minefield of the patriarchy to rule their countries. In Wu Zetian's case, she was especially concerned with improving the plight of the poor. 

Bagieu presents us with actors (Margaret Hamilton, Hedy Lamarr{who was also a brilliant inventor}), public servants (social worker Leymah Gbowee's story is amazing), artists (Tove Jansson), musicians (The Shaggs, Betty Davis, Sonita Alizadeh), scientists and physicians (Agnodice, Katia Krafft, Mae Jemison), revolutionaries (Las Mariposas, Therese Clerc, Naziq al-Abid) and more that's hard to categorize. Indeed, some of the most delightful entries included Giorgina Reid, who saved the Montauk Point lighthouse because of her innovative technique that fought off beach erosion. She had no engineering degree or special training, just remarkable intelligence, vision and persistence. Then there's Frances Glessner Lee, who overcame the frustration of a lifetime of being able to use her brain for something useful to inheriting money that funded a school of forensic medicine at Harvard. She created crime scene miniatures that were so detailed, down to the tiniest minutia, that they are still in use today. Even virtual simulations can't match them. 

These stories are not all breezy and fun. Not all of these women lived long lives, due to being killed, like Las Mariposas. There is a lot of blood and violence in these stories, and women are often the victims. The essence of what she hits on for each of these women is that they were aware of the ways in which the deck was stacked against them and figured out ways to beat the system, because their ideas were that important to them. These were women who wanted to express themselves and had no time for sexism (and in some cases, racism) to deter them as they boldly defied mores and even laws. Even The Shaggs, who recorded music because of their tyrannical father, created a sound that influenced a number of different musicians later on because of its unique qualities. The women in this book seized their own agency and definitively put the lie to the notion that women were in any way incapable of doing anything a man could. Even the women in the book who had support from the men in their lives still found obstacles placed in front of them by society's institutions, all of which were informed by patriarchal thinking. That so many of the women in the book are unfamiliar only goes to show how history is written and why.

Bagieu's line is delightful in the clear-line tradition, even when depicting violence and tragedy. Her use of color greatly aided her in such situations, as she was able to subtly shade a scene that touched on darker material. Though she mostly uses a variation on a nine-panel grid, she uses an open-panel format that allows the work to breathe a little, no matter how much detail she crams into a panel. These are text-heavy stories, and Bagieu struggles at times to balance word and image on the page. Thankfully, her line is so skillful and her use of color so tasteful, she's able to get away with it most of the time. It also helps that she unleashes these beautiful two-page drawings encapsulating each subject following each story, acting as a much-needed palate cleanser. Her character design is consistently clever and lively, using exaggeration to sell emotions and situations. This is a book that will appeal to its YA target audience but also keep the interest of adults as well. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Minis: Mastantuono, Steshenko


Screwed Up, by Konstantin Steshkenko (AdHouse Books). What do you get when you cross cringe humor with gross-out humor? You get this mini by Steshkenko, who uses a simplified line and character design as a way of reducing the visceral shock of the gross-out humor and amplifying the intensity of the social awkwardness in this comic. It takes place in a subway, as a clueless and clumsy guy named Jeremy is desperately trying to create sparks with a woman named Stephanie. After a long monologue where he declares his love for her in the most meandering way possible, he gets down on one knee to propose at precisely the same time she tells him that she's dating his former best friend. From there, the humor turns anxious as he fumbles the ring onto the tracks, finds it after rifling through garbage, and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that there's a train bearing down on him. That sets the stage for the second half of the comic, where Steshkenko keeps upping the stakes and grossing out the reader.

The genius of the comic is that the grossly visceral details are always less uncomfortable to the reader than the increasingly-cringeworthy actions of all three characters in the love triangle. even though the character work is simple, Steshkenko makes extensive use of background characters to provide both verisimilitude and then a kind of Greek chorus to react to the ensuing mayhem. There is a final, hilarious gag that is both over the top and entirely in keeping with the rest of the story. It's the sort of joke that would be a keeper in a rom-com in terms of establishing a relationship. Here, the joke simply elicits horrified laughs. At a deeper level, the character of Jimmy represents the earnest but clueless guy who is completely uninterested in the fact that this woman that he's declared his love to does not want him in any way, shape or form. The horrible fate he suffers is not so much justice as it is a heightening of his totally undeserved confidence and entitlement at a time when he should simply be screaming in pain. This is a sharply observed and smartly designed comic.     

The Guest House, by Jon Mastantuono. This is a dense and clearly deeply personal comic by Mastantuono about identity, mindfulness and desire. It is not presented as autobiography, though it clearly has autobiographical elements. That vagueness was important to the story, as there is a sequence where the reader is given access to the thoughts of a character other than the protagonist, and it's key to understanding the narrative. The narrator begins the comic by talking about a common practice recommended by many: to let in all feelings, desires and strange thoughts and not reject them. Over time, he noticed that doing this eventually eroded his self-worth, in part because he had never addressed the self-loathing he had felt as a bisexual kid in junior high school, inappropriately feeling up guys when playing basketball. One can absorb feelings and choose how to react in a given situation, but that becomes much harder when trauma is involved, and the sheer rejection he felt from so many was deeply traumatic.
                                                                                                                                                               
The narrator joins a gay support group and meets Trent, who tells the group about feeling empty as a human being as a child and learning how to fill himself up with the interests and personalities of others to become cool. The narrator stops paying attention to him as he starts to fantasize about him, even as he also wonders what Trent thinks when he sees him. There's then a remarkable chapter about the buzz of desire with clever formal framing, like thoughts cut up into images like grinding gears the eye follows around the page or drawing a page of stars and talking about feeling their displacement. However, the one thing he knew how to do was build a "guest house" where he could pretend to be confident and full of life, and this made it easy for him to ask Trent out. There's an intense first date scene where the narrator reveals to Trent that he seriously dated a couple ("unicorning") for three years, and that's when we get to hear Trent's thoughts and trepidation about the narrator. Again, there's some emotionally resonant formal trickery going on here as the focus shifts from one person to another and then some word & thought balloons completely obliterate the other person's when the focus shifts.

The two characters are drawn and lettered using entirely different colors, which is not only an aid to differentiate them, but also represents a fundamental divide between them that can never be crossed. After they hook up, it ends badly, as it turns out Trent stole some items from the narrator after they hooked up. It's a jarring realization that's matched with some discordant drawings, as he comes to understand that the judgment he fears from others spurs him to judge others. The narrator suggests that it's time to learn how to negotiate encounters with others that are more than those grinding gears of desire and judgment, of using and being used, of trying to be soft instead of hard. Mastantuono really gets across the terror and thrill of having sex with someone new and then the later, horrible realization that occurs when it's clear you just don't fit with them. The interplay between self-doubt and self-loathing vs desire and the illusion of a solid self is at the heart of the comic with the possibility of kindness being so hard to comprehend make this a bracing but familiar story.