Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ten Years Of High-Low

The most recent review I've done marks the tenth anniversary of posts to my High-Low blog. High-Low as a column existed for a couple of years over at, but it's nonetheless been precisely a decade since I decided to strike out on my own. I want to thank my readers, my patrons, the publishers and the artists who have supported me in my critical endeavor. I want to especially thank the late Kim Thompson, Eric Reynolds, Tom Spurgeon, Annie Koyama, the late Dylan Williams, Megan Kelso, Rob Kirby, Rebecca Perry Damsen, Dirk Deppey, Colleen Frakes, James Sturm, Michelle Ollie, Tom Hart among many others for their support, advice, encouragement and support. Here's to many more years!

Thirty One Days of CCS #13: Catalina Rufin, Alex Foller, Cuyler Hedlund

Genius Loci and Shirley, by Catalina Rufin. Rufin has a pleasantly ragged style that's made all the more effective with color. Genius Loci has an ambling pace to it, as it's a comic not so much about a specific narrative as it is about exploring a place and the emotions surrounding it. It's a story about a future where humanity was wiped out, by fairies and elves exist and have reclaimed the old spaces. In particular, it's about a fairy living in some abandoned trolleys that had personal meaning to her, but she was unable to stop living in the past. It took meeting a druid and their mentor to rekindle her interest in living her life again. There's a lushness to Rufin's style that works well with her bright figure drawing and generally relaxed storytelling. Rufin packs in a lot of information in a short period of time, as we learn all sorts of details about each character, but she's in no real hurry to get there.

Shirley is a retelling of Aesop's fable about the bat who can't join up with either the birds or the beasts because she's not enough like either of them to be accepted. She frames the whole thing in high school, with the eponymous Shirley the bat being rejected by both. She's not cool enough for the cool kids and doesn't have the same interests as the losers. Rufin takes this in an interesting direction in the end, where we see Shirley in therapy, clearly trying to shake off years of feeling unloved. It's a clever repackaging of the story that focuses on the nature of group dynamics and how even the powerless can be exclusionary. The visual approach is much the same, sans color, retaining the ramshackle qualities of Rufin's art without her distinct palette. In both stories, Rufin softens stories that in other hands might have been much harsher in terms of both narrative and characterization. Rufin shows a great deal of sympathy toward her characters, and one can feel it as a reader when all you want is for the characters to be happy.

Kid Pyramid, by Alex Foller. This was one of my personal favorite comics of the classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020, just based on my own personal aesthetic. Foller's shabby but cartoony line in this story of a teenager with a pyramid head stumbling his way through life. When his absentee father doesn't bother to show up for his birthday yet again, he goes on a quest to try to find him. Along the way, he's abused by his high school classmates (one referring to him as "ya food pyramid bitch"), traverses the desert, is trapped by a board game-loving creature underground and ultimately gets a bit of shaggy-dog joke advice from his father. The cartooning is a pure delight: rock-solid fundamentals with regard to pacing, storytelling and character design. However, Foller maintains an almost rubbery looseness that allows him to keep the story lively and unpredictable. Foller has a bright future ahead of him making some extremely strange comics.

Dear You, by Cuyler Hedlund. This is an interesting idea for a memoir comic, in that 22-year-old Hedlund found letters written by her when she was 15 and 18 years old. Each of them was addressed to a future version of herself--a senior in high school and a senior in college respectively. The fascinating thing about the letters and the comic itself is how cataclysmic changes can be during this time period. She went from being a loner child to someone building a new life with her boyfriend. Hedlund alternates pages as she goes from high school to college, with each letter in turns expressing yearning, cynicism, despair, loneliness, hope and a fervent desire to keep up with drawing.  The key to this comic was its page composition, and Hedlund created connections through time by mirroring events on pages with similar poses, similar panel constructions and similar uses of spotting blacks. There's also some smart use of lettering, where the 15-year-old Hedlund's hand is a little shakier than her older counterparts. Hedlund's line is mostly crisp and precise, but she also gets deliberately fuzzy during certain key memories. Hedlund goes far beyond the simple gimmick in the comic's presence to deliver something that's warm, unsentimental and ultimately hopeful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #12: Quinn Thomson, Kristen Shull, Eddie J. O'Neill

Zero Point and Quinn Thomson's Comics, by Quinn Thomson. Zero Point is a self-aware parody of Alien, more or less, employing a mix of line weights that emphasize different aspects of storytelling. A spaceship is sent on a rescue mission to an uncharted planet, and there's one guy in the crew who knows that everything on this “routine” mission is going to go horribly wrong. The stark blacks in this comic work well on the slick paper that Thomson chose, and they help accentuate his excellent work with making his faces expressive in an exaggerated way. The cartoonish nature of his line made me wish he had chosen to hand-letter the comic, as the fonts he chose were distracting. This is a funny comic that gets a lot of mileage out of its horrifying aspects and the awful decision-making of its characters. Thomson's portfolio comic shows off his expressive cartooning in an even better light with comics like “Metro”, which looks like it could be a short story featured in a French anthology somewhere. It's about a guy with stringy hair that stands up (an excellent design) having a miserable time on a subway. There are bits of over-rendering here and there, but for the most part Thomson keeps things clear and focuses on the physical humor of the jokes. In “Bibliomancy” and “Meditation Comic”, Thomson makes great use of a lively, squiggly line to create a wonderful, zaftig character in one comic and alternates between heavily spotted blacks and wonderfully scrawled faces in a deep-sea diving adventure. There's also a little of Graham Chaffee to his work, in that I could see him working comfortably in either comics or animation.

Netflix and Chill, Bones Vs. Tomes and Infernal Nihilism, by Kristen Shull. Shull is adept at the comedy narrative, as each of her three stories featured somewhat cynical sense of humor with genre trappings. Bones Vs. Tomes is a four-pager about a sorcery adept who goes out to the woods to learn spells instead of studying books to get them like wizards. In the span of four panels, she sets up the premise and introduces us to the teenage story of the story. Things go wrong (because of course) and she accidentally summons up a bunch of skeletons out for blood. Then there's a page and a half of negotiating the killer skeletons, until she's saved by a bunch of dickish wizards. The final two panels offer her wicked revenge for dealing with those bullies. Her line is decent, looking great when dealing with the main character and a bit more unsure when drawing other people. That said, her storytelling fundamentals are solid. There's nothing spectacular-looking about this comic, but her execution made it memorable.

Infernal Nihilism is a take on Dante's trip to hell, done in the Ed Emberley style of simple geometric shapes. Like much of Shull's work, it is simultaneously funny and grim. For example, Virgil, Dante's guide, takes the form of a scotch-drinking, cigarette-smoking giant squid. The planets of hell that Virgil shows Dante are filled with inconsiderate people, people who don't clean up after their animals, and those that feel they're morally superior. When Dante's relieved that he doesn't fall into any of these categories, Virgil reveals that the afterlife is all made-up, and that Dante's made his own hell. The cuteness of the story works effectively in both adding to the laughs but also making its nihilistic ending all the more stark, juxtaposed against the art.

Netflix and Chill is a great shaggy-dog joke of a comic, wherein a woman is brought out of a cryogenic sleep six hundred years after she went in and finds that all of humanity was absorbed by artificial intelligence after the Singularity occurred. The AI is fascinated by her as one of their ancestors and wants to keep her happy while studying her. They wind up throwing in another subject into her cubicle, a handsome guy, and the punchline swerves away from the common parlance of what “Netflix and Chill” means (sex) into something much more literal. Shull's line is pleasing here, working in a mostly naturalistic way but allowing her faces to be distinct and even slightly exaggerated. In general, Shull is adept at making short stories memorable, thanks to her comedic chops and strong sense of storytelling. That said, this is an artist that I can easily see tackling a long-form comic in the near future.

Rising, Caged Birds, Flight Club and Rats, by Eddie J. O'Neill. O'Neill has a distinctive voice that uses grotesque and distorted images to tackle complex emotions. In Rats, O'Neill uses a blood-red patina to tell a brief, horrifying story of a person feeling rats crawling around inside of them but fearing for them if they get out. The last image is of the person swallowing the rat, because “I'm not a mother”. The fear of being an inadequate nurturer of one's own parasitical entities supersedes the body horror images of the art itself, which I found fascinating. The pathological fear of losing one's own demons is in itself a horrible fate. Caged Birds features a a group of birds-as-mental-patients. They are drawn as birds and more-or-less act like birds...except some of them are in there for hearing voices, OCD or other mental illnesses. O'Neill takes this to its logical, grim but funny extreme when one of the birds tries to escape—and runs into a window. Once again, O'Neill's images point to dehumanization and detachment from one's own body.

Flight Club was done as part of a non-fiction assignment, and it's a highly clever story about O'Neill's family's history with violent birds of prey. From a pair of auks at a highly dangerous open-air, walk-through zoo, to some hopping mad turkeys to ultra-aggressive terns at the beach, there's a lovely clarity to O'Neill's line that is aided by the highly-effective placement of spot reds that emphasize the homicidal nature of these birds. There's one panel comparing the “pure evil” of all three birds and noting that it's the same despite the size difference of each—and evil is just blood red on the chart. Rising uses a thicker line weight in this moving, grim story about a monk trained in specific sacraments relating to the dead. The monk's job was to carry the body to a certain place where the bodies would be eaten by birds, allowing the souls to move on to their next life. When a group of bandits cut down a child, the monk overcomes adversity and gets the body to the top of the mountain—only to see his image burned down. When he returns and he realizes that he can't move all the bodies, a miracle happens. It's a genuinely joyous and surprising moment, and O'Neill's careful use of spotting blacks on the final pages frame the characters in just the right way.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #11: TS Moss, Gaurav Patil, Sage Persing

The Sun And The Frogs, by TS Moss. This is an elegantly designed mini featuring a die-cut cover and a beautiful sense of design throughout, meant to mimic stained glass storytelling. This feels like a retelling of a fable, only it's one directly related to climate change. The swirling blue of water throughout the story appears placid but holds menace as it rises day after day. On one set of pages, as the story within the story is told, the frogs beg the sun not to give birth to another sun, because they would boil. The narrative continues on the next two pages, only the visuals are of a protest against climate change that is ultimately fruitless. The final image is truly the final image, and the end of the story: “The frogs boiled alive”. This is a beautiful, pointed and straightforward story that makes its point quickly and doesn't overstay its welcome. Moss' aesthetic is sleek and stylish without being overly slick; I believe this story was drawn on a computer but it doesn't have that slightly stilted feel that such comics can have.

Confidential and B.B. By Gaurav Patil. B.B. looks like it was drawn as an Ed Emberley exercise, like several other of the first-year students' assignments. Patil took the opportunity to make the story a children's story of sorts in the Emberley tradition of stripped-down, geometric drawing with basic shapes. Patil uses the format as a sort of shaggy dog joke that doesn't pay off until the final panel. The titular B.B. stands for “big bad”, who comes from a tribe of badasses and seeks out other badasses to confront in the world. Every creature he encounters simply tells him their name, and a dinosaur points out to him that he hasn't made it clear what he is the biggest and baddest of. He realizes he's a wolf at last and can finally make sense of what the other animals are doing, but things go awry when he meets three little pigs. Patil shows nice comedic chops here, as well as a solid sense of how to use negative space effectively.

Confidential [Top Secret] is a variation on a world with mutants and how they affected the world. Someone would experience an “awakening”, which would unlock “their true potential.” Some were recruited by a sinister organization called The Agency, and this comic explores a mission featuring agents code-named XI (super-hearing) and XII (super-strength), as they went on a mission. It's an amiable enough comic, rolling on with a distinct sense of humor without resorting to outright spoof. The characterizations are exaggerated slightly to the point of silliness, but there's a darker core here. Patil's drawing here is serviceable as it's clear he understands his limits as a draftsman. He's careful to make clarity a priority in his storytelling and drawing, even if his actual drawing is wobbly at times.

Sage Persing submitted a whole bunch of comics that fell roughly into comics about family, comics about queer and trans issues, and other stuff. I'll start with the latter. Dead End was done using an unusual twelve panel grid, shoving a lot of story into each page. That pushes the reader through what is otherwise a relatively placid slice of story featuring two teenage girls who are wandering around. Persing's draftsmanship is shaky here, but their storytelling is confident and clear. Moreover, their sense of verisimilitude regarding the dialogue is spot-on, as this feels like a real anecdote that sums up a brief but crucial point in the lives of the two girls. Be Well is a portrait comic featuring various people saying things to them, often related to wellness—and mental health in particular. It's a comic of gratitude—thanking people for being there for them when Persing reached out and needed them. The portrait work is raw and expressive, and it captures something lively about each subject.

Visiting Dad is an excellent series of anecdotal memories of visiting their father in the hospital. The things that Persing remembered and chose to record are precisely the kind of fragments that stick with you during a traumatic and transitional time. In this case, it was hospital socks that Persing drew in great detail, recalling that they were supposed to have finished reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis before the grade started, and details of the restaurant they went to afterward. There's no other narration or information given, because the point of the comic was memory, not narrative. Good Friday sees Persing using watercolors to detail a particularly volatile argument between a daughter and her father; while it's not explicitly autobiographical, there are certainly family dynamics at work here. The argument is with regard to the existence of god, and it upsets him so much, that he stops the car and gets out. The comic is not so much about the substance of the argument as it is about the memory of the event itself. The moodiness of the color scheme is key to the success of the story, as Persing's character design is wobbly.

Things I Know About Nanny is Persing's Emberley assignment, and they made it a doozy. It's a family history of their grandfather (Nanny), including the bizarre events surrounding their great-grandfather (Cactus) and how his wife ran off with another man and took the children with them—until they dumped them. Persing not only expertly uses Emberley-style shapes in an efficient and clear manner, they also add a color scheme that makes the story pop. The narrative goes until the death of their grandfather, who at a certain point was paralyzed after an accident but lived long after that. The story concludes with Persing's birth, which was the anniversary of the day of Nanny's paralysis.

The Beasts, The Birds and the Bat is Persing's take on the Aesop assignment. The story is about the bat refusing to take a side in the war between birds and beasts, claiming to be a beast when asked by the birds to join and vice-versa. When peace arrives, they shun the bat. Persing turns this into a metaphor for being trans, with Aesop's admonition to “be one thing or another” especially brutal here. On Queerness is a single-page comic done in the form of a quilt to honor the work of David Wojnarowicz, who often used “stitches and thread”. It's symbolic of the patchwork but beautiful “chosen and created” families of queer folk, and there's a similar kind of beauty to be found in this representation of Persing's own chosen family. The metaphor of wounds being stitched-up by one's chosen family like a quilt is stitched is a powerful one. Finally, Tranny Joke is a brutal, personal account of the way trans people have long been used as a punchline in comedy—dehumanized, reduced, slurred. Persing relates how especially hard this is because comedy is so important to them, and shows that are otherwise incredibly important to them are instead attacks on people they love. Persing's potential bursts off of each and every page: as a memoirist, as a political cartoonist, as a slice-of-life storyteller and more. Persing's got the goods, and at this point it's just going to be a matter of refinement for them.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #10: Natalie Wardlaw, Emily Zea and Alexander Washburn

Full Bore, by Emily Zea. This comic is only four pages line, but Zea offers up a lot of clues as to what kind of cartoonist she is. This brief story is the first part of a longer saga about an outlaw family in the old west. There's a nice swerve in this story, as what seems to be an innocent victim is actually the newest member of the family, helping her father rob a train. Zea has a loose, expressive line and a strong command of page composition. Her varied line weights add an emphasis to her characters in motion and her mix of difference perspectives makes this a visually interesting comic. For something so short, Zea packs a lot of information into this comic and makes it a single, satisfying unit. 

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Alexander Washburn. I believe a story involving the tortoise and the hare is a regular early assignment at CCS. This one involves martial arts (a ninja tortoise?) in addition to the classic race. Washburn goes all-in on using a thick line and over-the-top expressiveness in telling this story. It's all about flop-sweat, arched eyebrows, clenched teeth and emotions yelled out loud. It reminded me of something like Naruto as much as anything, only on a much smaller scale. I have no idea what Washburn's interests as a cartoonist will be, but he definitely has the fundamentals to do an action strip in the vein of a Stan Sakai. 

Rehabgiving, Chronic, The Princess In A Suit Of Leather, Run, Trigger Warning, and Just One Branch, by Natalie Wardlaw. This is an astounding suite of comics by an excellent young talent. The order in which I read them worked out well, as more and more of Wardlaw's frequently traumatic life was revealed in each subsequent zine, as well as her process of healing. Just One Branch is her version of the Aesop fable "The Man and the Wood", and like Issy Manley, she provided a feminist take on it. However, the take was a bit different; in her version, the lumberjack is a seductive man slowly but surely insinuating his way into the life of the tree (who is feminized with a human face) until he cuts her down and rapes her. The reaction of the nearby tree: "Well, she did let him have her branches". It's a brutal story that illustrates how consent can be given but then brutally overstepped, leading to a reaction of "she was asking for it."

Similarly, her take on the story The Princess In A Suit Of Leather finds her own attitudes toward the ending shifting as she aged and understood that men and relationships were not going to save her. In the story, a girl who was raped by her father runs off to the woods and manages to put herself in the skin of a fierce animal. She winds up with a prince who cuts away her skin. When she was younger, she thought the prince freed her, but now she looks at the story as a man cutting away a woman's defenses before she was ready to give them up. It's a cogent critique, and one that makes sense in terms of the tone of the story.

Chronic has a medical intake form as its cover, which is filled out on the third page. It's a story about Wardlaw's chronic pelvic pain suffered from age 15 to age 21. It's especially brutal and poignant because it's not only true that modern medicine has a horribly limited understanding of women's health issues, it actively ignores symptoms and information in favor of throwing ibuprofen at it. Wardlaw had to suffer through three operations before they got it right and she was freed from a life of pain, though she notes that the reminders of pain are something she holds on to, because in a time when she had no voice of her own, the pain was all she had. Her naturalistic art is simple, effective and powerful.

Run was inspired by the simple Ed Emberley technique of drawing with basic geometric figures and building on them. This is done as a fairy tale where Natalie goes out to the desert and things seem to be going well, but a guy moves into her house who is violent and abusive. Of course, everyone makes excuses for him, and he keeps threatening to get her. The metaphor of fear as a little animal in her head telling her to run is a powerful one, especially at the end where she kills it. There's a common thread in these comics of numbing and detaching herself as a way of coping with extreme trauma, and that carries over into the next comic, Trigger Warning. 

This is a brilliant, harrowing piece of art told in six separate anecdotes. One shows images of trying to pretend fear wasn't there by pretending she didn't feel it, until she was proven horribly wrong. Another is the swing between feeling suicidal and homicidal as she goes through emotional swings, as well as the cycle of whether or not autobio comics about trauma are helpful or harmful. There are strips about feeling like she had "asked for" sexual assault and/or manipulation because of substance abuse, strips about her shifting body image, and a funny and awful strip called "The most truthful thing I ever said after sex". In that one, a guy asks her if she wants to be his girlfriend (in so many words) after sex and she replies, "I'm sorry, I can't...I have problems". This is an emotionally raw comic with delicate, assured drawings and a powerful emotional narrative, one that doesn't have an easy or pat conclusion. Indeed, being in a place where trauma was no longer actively happening had its own set of difficulties, making her wish for that time when all she had to concentrate on was trying to survive in the moment.

Finally, Rehabgiving is about checking herself into a clinic where she was treated for addiction, among other things. The interesting thing about this comic is her focus on other people's issues in terms of narrative. It makes sense, so most addiction recovery groups focus on group work and being there for others, caring enough to hear their stories in a non-judgmental way. The beginning of the comic is a tarot reading that outlines a road to recovery and strength, while the end notes that the clinic did not "cure" her, but started the process of recovery in a powerful way. It's a strong statement of its own in a remarkably coherent way. Wardlaw has a powerful narrative voice, and as she refines her already-strong storytelling skills, she has the potential to turn her life into an unforgettable comics narrative, if that's the path she chooses. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #9: Andres Catter, Issy Manley and Tim Patton

Stone Harbor and Photobooth, by Andres Catter. These are quiet, personal comics about small, intimate moments. Photobooth takes its inspiration from “the story of J.J. Belanger and photoboots as a queer safe space”, and the comic itself is shaped like the strip of photos one might get from said photobooth. Each page features a different queer couple: smiling, kissing, touching, embracing. It is a powerful statement of being seen, even in an otherwise potentially dangerous set of circumstances. Stone Harbor is a story of late summer and time slipping away. It's done in colored pencil: blue for the boy who hurries from a swimming pool with clouds swirling above and red for his love, waiting for him at the beach. The girl he meets does not immediately present as male (though she does wear a top and bottom when they go swimming in the ocean), and this ambiguity is deliberate. We don't know their story other than their love and that time may be running out. That each panel is a single page points to this idea that both want time to go as slowly as possible, savoring each moment.

Small Plates, The Sound Of Snow, and An Axe To Grind, by Issy Manley. These are politically charged comics that question the core beliefs of society. An Axe To Grind interpolates the Aesop fable “The Man and the Wood” with a speech by Donald Trump in the wake of the Brett Cavanaugh hearings for the Supreme Court. It's a clever approach, as the fable's moral is “Give not your enemy the means to destroy you”. Manley notes that many white women in particular have fallen right in line with regard to supporting Trump, despite his policies being actively hostile to women. She asserts that part of this is because their race and class make supporting fascism in their best interests overall, so they become complicit in such policies. Manley uses a naturalistic style that does the job in terms of getting across her points, but it felt like she wasn't entirely comfortable drawing this way at times.

Small Plates is a folding comic that once again hits on a striking image—that of the “small plates” of many tapas restaurants—and uses that to talk about being in the service industry. Everything in the restaurant is measured solely by its utility, and that includes the workers. The contrast between the care each pair of hands must take with the plates and the way the workers rip open their disappointing paycheck is the payoff of the comic, and it works well. The Sound Of Snow is a silent comic about a woman skiing with a man who's an instructor of some kind. The question is, what kind? When she creates sounds that are mere echoes of what's around her, it's an embarrassing failure. When she sits with nature and actually hears the “real” sound of snow, she's able to sing it out loud. It's drawn expressively and underlines the difference between hearing and speaking.

Gemini, Non/Dom and Oscillator, by Tim Patton. Patton is a member of the mark-making school of comics, where the line qua line is every bit as important as any narrative it's a part of. It's all about creating an environment for the characters to react to. Oscillator is wrapped in a ribbon and bound by three rings, with each page a different card to flip. The cover page is of a person (perhaps the author?), whose face is entirely made up of these rabbit-like creatures. On the following pages, they wriggle, jump, bounce, vibrate, melt and mutate into all sorts of shapes. It pukes and multiplies until the hare inevitably is consumed by a tortoise who becomes full of energy, zips around, gets stuck from being too big, and cries itself a river. It winds up landing on another rabbit, discharging its energy. Patton has an extremely assured, thin line that allows him to craft tiny images with a great deal of clarity.

Non/Dom looks like a jam comic he did with Hachem Reslan, featuring two characters in bobcat suits doing all sorts of odd things in the forest. The entire story looks like it was made up on the spot as they traded a sketchbook back and forth, both trying to draw in the same hand. It's an interesting experiment with some funny parts and some surprisingly cogent call-backs, but its too wobbly to be anything but an experiment. Gemini is Patton solo once again, and this time he works big but still uses the same kind of storytelling. This time around, the titular twins are one being split by lightning and have to find their way back to each other. It's a wordless epic as they endure hardship as they cross deserts, mountains and oceans until they see each other and their mutually binding rope. It's fascinating to watch Patton experiment like this, as he's clearly thinking about different kinds of world-building and different methods of achieving it.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #8: Emma Hunsinger, Hachem Reslan, Kat Ghastly

I spent the first week of my CCS reviews mostly looking at the work of old favorites. Now it's time to turn my eye to the classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The Last Mather, by Kat Ghastly. Subtitled "Inherited Karma", this is a short shaggy dog joke of a story about a ragged homeless man (derisively referred to as "the trash king" by a local) having a horrible day. He gets bitten by a wild boar and loses his shoe, he steps on a nail, he gets soaked with a bag of piss, etc. The final scene, where he confronts a famous ancestor, is actually a pretty hilariously complicated reference having to do with the concept of predestination. Ghastly's cartooning is spare but expressive, pointing the reader to every portion of each snowballing misfortune.

Under The Sun, Trickle Down, and Karantina, by Hachem Reslan. These are all short, weird minicomics made by an artist clearly interested in the absurd and horrific. Under The Sun I starts as a story about a lovers' quarrel. The comic is set in a nine panel grid, but there are no panel borders set, giving it an open feel. Reslan uses a number of interesting perspective tricks, like putting a door in the upper right hand of a panel to indicate its distance, but not moving the “camera” closer as a figure approaches it—he gets smaller on the page as he moves further away. It's an effective device for showing the emotional distance between the man and woman having a fight. Then a vampire appears in the woman's room, whom she mistakes for her lover at first. The eventual conflict is told with a series of shifting perspectives, the use of shadow and light, and the eventual collapse of panels on the final page. It's a short, smart comic told with a fine but steady line.

Karantina is about a woman surviving in a war-ravaged area. The comic is all about rituals of survival, focusing on water above all else. When that runs out, she has to move on. She finds a stream but also a dead, decaying dog, which she shoves into the stream in an act of mercy. The comic is about her attempts at not just survival, but dignity, and it's told with that same steady hand. Trickle Down is pure nonsense, as Reslan channels Joe Daly and possibly Cowboy Henk in talking about Ronald Reagan's exploits rolling skating and subsequent disappointments. It's pure absurdity, from the interactions of the main characters to the use of Reagan's image over various other people in the end pages. Reslan's work is imaginative, strange and well-executed.

The Pipe Family, by Emma Hunsinger. This oversized comic (about 12" x 8") is pure, glorious nonsense from beginning to end. Hunsinger's over the top ridiculousness, grotesque cartooning and distorted images form a weird, funny but logically consistent story about the Pipe family moving to "No River Junction". The Pipes have a monopoly on both pipes used for plumbing and smoking, and a couple of curious kids investigate why they've moved to their dusty old town. Hunsinger heightens everything here--dialogue, character design, plotlines--in order to make the narrative particularly silly. There are creepy-eyed children, impossibly large mustaches, non sequiturs, and plot twists to go with hilarious, deadpan dialogue. This comic is raw in the best possible way, as it looks like it just popped fully formed from Hunsinger's head.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #7: J.P. Coovert, Robyn Smith

Simple Routines, Volume #7, by J.P. Coovert. For his daily, 4-panel autobio comics, Coovert channels his sense of joy and positivity into each one. Even for sad strips like where his beloved dog London dies, Coovert just lets it all out there on the page. The strength of this comic is the strength of Coovert's cartooning: it's clear, fluid and strong. Even as Coovert uses a simplified style of character design, the actual drawings themselves are not only bold and confident, they are filled with life. His drawings of his dogs in particular are not only cute as images, they come to life on the page with a few strokes of his pen, thanks in part to his understanding of how objects interact in space. Coovert works mostly as an illustrator, but it's clear that he is really a cartoonist. These comics clearly serve to keep his head in the game while riffing on the things and the people he loves.

His comics with and about his wife Jacie are particular treats, as are those comics where he gets together with one of his friends. There's an undercurrent of sadness in his strips sometimes, as the various moves around the country have cut off some of his friendships. There's also the sadness of being away from childhood and college friends, and the intensity of those reunions in his comics is tinged by the sense that it's something that won't last. That said, one can frequently see Coovert circle around and remember the good things about his life and concentrate on them, and it seems clear that these comics aid in that as well. Simple Routines in many respects is an exercise in finding the positive by writing about the positive, and the results are uplifting for the reader as well.

Wash Day, by Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith. There are any number of striking and beautiful images in this comic drawn by CCS alum Smith, but the most striking is the second panel on the first page. The main character of the story, Kimana, is coming home off the subway and walking to her apartment. That second panel shows her with her keys splayed out of her fingers like miniature knives, as her best form of defense in case she's harassed or worse. This is a comic both about the essential dignity of black women and the ways in which men seek to tear it down. In both instances, there is great restraint and subtlety in exploring both ideas. Kimana is endlessly calm and patient in the face of catcalls and insults on the street as well as dealing with a trifling man sending her endless texts, apologizing for something he did.

As she explains at the end, this was not a day to deal with annoying lovers or give the time of day to a catcaller: it was wash day. Smith shined throughout the comic in terms of giving us a full understanding of Kimana's personality strictly through he body language and the way she relates to other people. Obviously, the images of Kimana slowly and methodically washing her hair, adding conditioner, brushing it out and putting it in clips is compelling and fascinating to watch. There's a specificity regarding what is clearly an important ritual that is striking in the sequence, one rarely seen or discussed in pop culture that is still overwhelmingly white. While those images are striking, Smith's drawing Kimana going about her morning as she walks to the local bodega, interacting with the manager as a regular and then passing the time with her flatmate Cookie are equally important in their own way. This is the story of a black woman giving herself permission to negotiate that particular day on her own terms, no matter what.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #6: April Malig, Josh Kramer, Dakota McFadzean

Last Mountain #5: To Know You're Alive, by Dakota McFadzean. This is an interesting departure for McFadzean, who rarely does autobio work. It's a fascinating addition to the burgeoning comics genre I'm calling True Parenting. Anyone who's a parent knows it's both terrible and wonderful, often at the same time. That's especially true of the toddler years, when kids develop agency but they've not yet reached the age of reason. This comic follows McFadzean, a stay-at-home dad, on a day with his toddler son. McFadzean describes his son as "intense" as a counter to his wife's more cute description of him as a "firecracker". ("Mama will come home RIGHT NOW!") The latter description is applicable when his son did things like get excited by green garbage trucks and the trolley on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The former description applied when his son hit McFadzean in the back of the head as hard as he could with a block. It's an amazingly rendered scene, as visceral as anything McFadzean has ever drawn.

What's most interesting about this comic is McFadzean's understanding of what his son is going through on an intellectual level and actually going through it with him. His son was going through a particularly painful teething process, the result being "he just screams and screams". As a parent, you feel awful. As a human being, it is hard to deal with. How one copes with that fight-or-flight confrontation through tantrums is crucial, and McFadzean feels bad about screaming back at him. There's another scene where he is literally surrounded by his son's screaming word balloons, his own attempts at reason drowned out as he covers his ears, puts his son in front of a screen and crumples into a heap. At the same time, McFadzean reveals his near-instantaneous anxiety over bringing his son into horrible world and compensates by psychologically picking at that wound, seeking out upsetting images. It feels like a way of fighting the everyday anxiety of child-rearing (amplified by a lack of sleep) by distracting oneself from it with actually horrible thoughts and images. The comic coalesces into a bizarre episode (?) of Mr. Rogers on a dark set, with shadowy figures that frightened his son enough to call for his father's help. It was the unknown calling, anxieties swirling for both father and son, as they passed through it. Though Mama came home at last, his son wanted to see the monsters again.

My Dumb Feelings, by April Malig. Malig's comics are a mix of swirling, colorful images (brought to life thanks to a Risograph) and her own pointed, funny and self-deprecatory comments. Lines like "I have a lot of energy, uh, it's just all potential" get at Malig's general discomfort with life. That page has bright orange and pink backgrounds with images of flowers coalescing on the page. It's the ultimate in potential energy. As she talks about on the final page of the comic, there's just a general sense of weariness pervading the comic. She's tired of everything, including herself and her own feelings. She's unsure if she's sad or angry enough about the right things, in the right ways. She has no idea if making something beautiful means anything, and notes that "believing in dumb magic feels as good and valid as believing in anything" else on a gorgeous page filled with colorful talismans. Malig advances no viewpoint other than her own personal uncertainty, which is a statement in itself. Nowhere is there a statement of surrender or inaction; she'll keep right on feeling those dumb feelings and doing meaningless stuff, but she knows she'll never get the Answer to any of her questions. That might make her tired, but at least she's trying, in a comic that can only be described as day-glo existentialism.

The Cartoon Picayune #8, edited by Josh Kramer. Kramer chugged along and published eight issues worth of solid comics journalism, with each reporter out in the field reporting on a story. This is unfortunately the final issue (published in 2016), but it's typically quite good and focuses on a variety of stories. Some are low-key, some are whimsical, and some are a matter of life and death. It's like a comics version of Radiolab or some other unpredictable, informative podcast. This issue features an interview with a man named Tony Burns, who went from homeless (thanks in part to having AIDS) to being the recipient of a government housing program that restored his dignity and autonomy. It's allowed him to become and advocate and assist others in similar situations. Kramer mostly just lets Burns tell his story (the story got a little cramped with tiny lettering at times, and everything about it demanded a bigger page), and it's a testament to putting the lie to the notion that public assistance saps an individual's interest in doing things for themselves. To the contrary, the knowledge that one's basics are at least partly cared for allows an individual to be a contributing member of society. This story fed perfectly into the issue's theme of "Unnoticed". Homeless people are unnoticed and ignored, and it wouldn't take much to help so many people reclaim their sense of dignity.

Laura Brooke Kovac's "Forgotten" is about a scrap-metal dealer who stumbled upon a metal egg that turned out to be one of the lost Fabrege eggs of Russia. What followed was a fascinating history of the eggs, including a note on how much they cost to make for the Tsars and their families relative to the average person's yearly salary. Ellis Rosen's "The Number Stations" is about the cold-war tactic of transmitting codes via short-wave radio to a one-time pad with the corresponding code to relay information. The original messages are available for anyone to tune into, and they continue to be transmitted to this day. The story follows how the public picked up on them, wrote books about and generally pondered their usage. It's an interesting artifact of the Cold War that persists precisely because it's so hard to crack. Finally, Kramer's "Why Grown-Ups Are Playing D&D" is still timely today, as the game continues to explode in popularity. Drawing each person he interviewed as their character as a fun touch, but Kramer gets at the heart of why it's drawing people in. In a world where technology is isolating, the camaraderie and imagination of the game is appealing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #5: John Carvajal, Beth Hetland, Sophie Goldstein

Today's reviews feature comics drawn, but not (solely) written by, CCS cartoonists.

Anterran Day 0: 1-3, by John Carvajal and Simon Mesnard. Carvajal drew this post-apocalyptic fantasy set on an alien world where smart phone-like objects wound up causing the end of the world. With only a few survivors left on earth, there was a war between the President and his soldiers and the mutants whose addiction to the devices known as Sok'as caused them to turn. The story follows a scientist, a teen that he rescued and a mysterious woman that they save from mutants. It's a solid story with some good twists and turns, but Carjaval's grotesque, funny art is what really sells it. Big bulbous noses, beady eyes, sharp teeth and backgrounds that vary from ramshackle to high tech make this series fun to look at on every page. What really sells it are the watercolors (or watercolor effects) that Carvajal uses, especially the way he uses them to create a particular facial design for each character. The red noses and flushed cheeks stand out, making the whole project look like something that resembles E.C. Segar's Popeye more than Mad Max. 

Half Asleep Volume 8, by Beth Hetland and Kyle O'Connell. This is the final chapter of this epic story about a scientist and her daughter Ivy at odds over their exploration of dream space. The cover flap is a marvel of design, neatly summarizing and explaining a few of the comic's central ideas in a spectacular manner. In terms of the story (which is way too convoluted to go into at this point with regard to the last chapter), one of the things I liked best about it was the central ambiguity of its characters, especially Dr. Lassette, Ivy's mother. She lied and kept secrets from her daughter for years and treated her like a research subject. However, she also clearly loved her daughter and saw her potential as a dream explorer who could make a better life for everyone with her discoveries. As previous issues revealed, something went horribly wrong when Ivy was off in the dream world, and this issue revealed the reason why: the scientists found it easier to enter through nightmares than dreams. Hetland went all-out in this issue, using several different line weights and drawing styles to get across the way in which Ivy was starting to find herself seeing things from the dream world in the real world, and how objects were disappearing around her. The climactic battle with a horrifying nightmare creature sees Hetland's art at its sharpest, as the inky jet black creature really fills up every panel. This is going to be a story well worth revisiting and chewing over.

An Embarrassment of Witches, by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan. This was the team responsible for the sometimes rambling, frequently entertaining webseries Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell. That series saw both writer and artist trying to figure things out on the page, and it's obvious that their second project together is going to be much more self-assured. For one thing, Goldstein has become one of the best artists in comics. Her science-fiction work is brilliantly pointed and challenging, if downbeat. Jordan's tone is much more lighthearted, allowing Goldstein to stretch a different set of creative muscles. This mini is an ashcan featuring some of their work to date, with the final results set to be published by Top Shelf. Whereas Darwin Carmichael was a slice-of-life comic revolving around a set of apartment-mates and their friends, Witches has a tighter focus. It's a post-breakup comic about a recent college grad named Rory whose boyfriend tells her that he wanted to see other people right before they were going to get on an airplane together and head to Australia for several months.

All of this is the foreground information. The background is that this is a world where magic is real and part of everyday life, much like the background of Darwin Carmichael is that every religion and mythology was real and its gods and creatures lived on earth. Magic here is used in storytelling terms as a way of bringing metaphors to life in extreme ways or expressing strong emotions. It's also very much cringe comedy, as we follow Rory make a series of bad decisions, starting with lying to her controlling Mother about not going to Australia. The mini sets up that like and her decision to live in a closet in her sister's place. Goldstein has a talent for instantly communicating a character's qualities through her design. The boyfriend, Holden, has permanently arched eyebrows that are a tell of his know-it-all tendencies. Her wiry mother has a taut quality that reveals her tendency to crowd her daughter. Rory herself has somewhat blank eyes (indicating her journey ahead) but also an edgy quality that displays her thorniness. Her sister Angela is all gentle curves and straight black hair, but even that mild-mannered quality has some darkness to it. This has the potential to be a big hit, if Top Shelf markets it right.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #4: Kevin Reilly & Sean Knickerbocker

Mothball 88, by Kevin Reilly. This delightfully weird comic is a triumph of design, a fascinating trip through the mechanics of games and sports with its own internal language and logic, and a political statement about the way spectacle is used as a societal anesthetic. Every detail of this Ignatz-nominated comic adds to its aesthetic, from the orange-and-blue spot colors, to the quality of the paper,and the stippling effects that add a gritty quality to the storytelling. The story itself is not just a game, it's a game televised worldwide on the planet Bombyxia. Reilly gets the unctuous patter of the announcers just right for the 88th Mothball Championship as he slowly unfolds how the game is played.

At first, the absurd action of the comic is whimsically delightful as the three competitors each enact their own strategies. The game involves pre-teens using various methods to hatch special moths in order to score points. The mechanics of the sport are fascinating, and Reilly spins a genuinely gripping story where the outcome of the game produces suspense. That makes the conclusion so fascinating, as the initially vaguely creepy details (a silent crowd comprised of what looks like clones described as being "glued into the action") start to become horrifying. Two of the competitors are disintegrated by a bathtub full of a corrosive that happens to be part of the field. The teenage winner wishes only to kill Mothus, the alien ruler of the planet. It quickly becomes clear that the humans on the planet play this game to amuse their rulers, who frame the whole thing as entertainment for all. There is hope implied at the end but no real resolution, ending the comic as it began--right in the middle of a larger story. This is very much in the tradition of using violent sports as a political/cultural social satire, like Death Race 2000 or Rollerball, and it succeeds because Reilly's precise art and storytelling nails every tiny detail to provide a level of authenticity that feels lived in.

Rust Belt #4, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker smartly writes stories about frustrated people in dead-end situations in Midwestern small towns. Most have been about younger people looking to leave town and improve their situations. This issue, "Internet Persona", is an incisive look into the life of a small-town, alt-right type Trump supporter and his burgeoning internet fame. The thing that really stands out about this issue is the way that Knickerbocker resists turning the vlogger, Jason, into a caricature without making him a sympathetic character. He's just a regular guy with a nice wife who hosts her family on Thanksgiving. He even takes the hint when his wife suggests everyone leave their politics behind at the dinner table.

Knickerbocker has a wonderfully ratty line, and his design for Jason--a pickle nose, patchy stubble, and squinty eyes--is absolutely spot-on. The story is fascinating because what it's really about the way that internet provocateurs take advantage of gullible dupes to further their own agendas (read: money and fame). Jason records right-wing rants on facebook (using typical language like "snowflakes" and "facts don't care about your feelings"), and one of his videos gets picked up by a right-wing media troll nicknamed "Burnt Toast". It goes viral as a result, and the undercurrent of the comic changes from his personal frustration and desire to speak on it to his delight that he's become famous.

Burnt Toast contacts him, flatters him and gives him advice. When he comes to Jason's town, he invites him out for dinner. He invites him to "contribute" to his website, providing content without being paid, other than a vague offer of "we'll see." There's a fascinating sequence where Burnt Toast has Jason watch a "reenactment" of a "stolen valor" video, one where a veteran confronts someone wearing a fake uniform looking for handouts. It's the kind of manufactured crisis that alt-right sites love to propagate and got to the heart of the shit-stirring, disingenous provocative nature of this kind of media in a naturalistic way. When his wife points out the general creepiness of Burnt Toast, it's less an affront to Jason's beliefs than it is his vanity, and it's pointedly the first time in the book that they have a significant argument. A provocateur's job is to make people angry ("own the libs!"), not to make cogent arguments--it's all about heat, not light. Knickerbocker demonstrates just how easily a frustrated person can get swept up into this kind of rhetoric, no matter how extreme it might become.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #3: Colleen Frakes, Josh Lees

Iron Scars Book 1: The Changeling, and Iron Scars Vol. 5, by Colleen Frakes. Frakes is one of the first graduates of CCS and has been one of the most consistently prolific artists as well. She's always used a loose line that emphasizes gesture and expression, varying line weights depending on the situation. Most often, the typical Frakes figure is one with a heavy black line marking the outline and a relatively iconic facial expression: a few lines here, a few squiggles there. Most of the comics Frakes has done have been fractured fairy tales: dark takes on classical tropes, going back to their roots.

Iron Scars in many ways is the culmination of a decade's worth of experiments. Frakes' best work features children in conflict with terrifying, mysterious forces. She's also written extensively about her unusual childhood growing up on an island housing a prison that was fairly cut off from the outside world; it was accessible only by ferry. Iron Scars is similarly set on a small island with a few families on it, also accessible only by ferry. Frakes takes these childhood memories and fantasies and transforms them into a vivid, funny and frightening epic. Instead of a prison island, it's an island where the line between the mortal realm and faerie realm is extremely thin, and a group of witches lives there to guard over the link.

The plot revolves around the dark faeries ("the Unseelie Court") starting to kidnap the children of witches, breaking a treaty, and the efforts of some kids to get them back. There's also the matter of one of the children in this tight-knit community actually being a changeling, switched at birth with an actual human child. What separates the story from typical fantasy is Frakes' uncanny knack for writing children. There are nine different kids, all of whom are written as unique individuals. Frakes obviously has an understanding of what it's like to grow up in that kind of isolation and what effect that would have on a close-knit group of kids. She took that understanding and added the fantasy plot as an overlay, but the relationships have an authenticity born from experience.

Frakes also has a knack for alternating humor and horror in equal measure. One of the running plots is the relationship between the women in the coven, which include a sky witch, a sand witch, a sea witch, etc. They constantly squabble and are quite quirky, especially the slightly confused sea witch and her frequent offers of fish. The faerie changelings are inky creatures that look like part cat, part demon and part spider: they look like they're made out of nightmares. The Unseelie Queen is almost alien in her ability to terrorize. The most notable child is Tyee, a girl who actively resists her heritage as a witch but winds up embracing it in an effort to rescue her friends. The book is full of close friendships, betrayals, attempts at rapprochement, and kids outfoxing adults. It's a thrilling, funny story by an artist with a well-developed aesthetic, from her brush strokes to her vibrant hand lettering.

Liberty High School Detective League #2, by Josh Lees. Lees describes this as a "Teen Mystery series for fans of Nancy Drew, Disney's Fillmore! and Case Closed". The premise of this comic is clever, in that the high school that new student Ray Griego attends has its own amateur Detective League, dedicated to solving various local crimes. Lees ticks a number of boxes with this comic, including distinctive character design, varied and realistic characterizations, and a genuinely interesting mystery plot that has a satisfying and sensible conclusion. Lees also has fun with the series' premise, including the fact that the titular Liberty High has a rival that it engages in mystery contests. The only problem with this issue is that parts of it look rushed, especially scenes where characters are interacting with each other in space. There are figures here and there that just look awkward as a result. Lees also tries to cram in a lot of panels on some of the pages, and a number of them feel cramped as a result. The problems with the comic are mostly of reach exceeding grasp on a visual level, and while that kind of ambition is admirable, the comic's rough patches hurt the flow of its narrative. The Archie digest presentation was a nice look, but not for a comic as jam-packed as this one. Lees has a great concept here, and it's one that only needs some refinement.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #2: Daryl Seitchik, Coco Fox

It's still a bit odd for me to think of Daryl Seitchik as a CCS cartoonist, as I've been reading her work long before she matriculated there. It didn't take long for her to reach a fully-formed style, with a stinging authorial voice and a penchant for reality-bending, dream-influence work. The CCS experience seems to have expanded her range of interests a little as a cartoonist, as well as introduced her to the valuable skill of collaboration. That said, her two most recent comics seem like extensions of past work, with slight tweaks.

Dear Missy (published by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket Minicomics) is a continuation of her semi-autobiographical Missy comics. The character design for Missy, and Seitchik's characters in general, is a sort of updated take on kids' comics: big heads, small bodies, and almond-shaped eyes with tiny dots. There is a sort of deliberately rigid quality to her characters, making them look like avatars as much as they are people. Seitchik uses tiny shifts in drawings to express a lot of emotion, but in eschewing a lot of gestural expression, she instead focuses on how tightly wound her main character is. This particular comic is part of Missy's journal, and she at first writes about loving writing. The child's voice she uses is heart-rendingly authentic, as she writes a poem to god about her divorcing parents. The poem has a simple, lovely meter and has the sort of misspellings one would expect from a ten year old. The line "Please don't fail me/It's OK if you do" is especially effective, because it underscores both Missy's essential sadness and her capacity for forgiveness. As opposed to the more direct diary entries that made up the previous Missy comics, this one felt like the sort of grand gesture only a child could make.

Caryatid is a more poetic entry from Seitchik. It's about caryatid columns, which were sculpted to look like women. It's a beautiful comic, written from the perspective of one of the columns, her eyes darting back and forth. Seitchik makes great use of gray scale shading here to create an illusion of light. The statue's imagination wanders from goldfish in a bowl to the fish swimming in the ocean to a rose in a sea of bottles. Here, Seitchik switches to bold red watercolors, emphasizing how the rose's initial appearance is like that of blood. The imagination of the column, as a female energy that is nonetheless constantly objectified, naturally turns to images of trying to be safe. She retreats back into sleep only when she has seen and felt that she is holding fire, imagined a head to be an egg and felt the presence of the rose above her. She was seeking totems and items of protection,

Coco Fox is a second-year student at CCS, and she uses an effectively clear drawing style that emphasizes her storytelling, use of gesture and creates an easy, natural charm in her comics. In Right To Left: A Basketball Memoir, she writes about her sixth grade basketball team. Using a 2 x 3 grid and long, looping lines for her character design, Fox injects the story with a level of detail that's unusual for this kind of reminiscence. This is a story about playing the game that's full of game-related details, as opposed to the game being the background for a more character-oriented narrative. Fox writes about her coach accidentally breaking her wrist when teaching her how to block a shot. During that sequence, Fox deliberately blurs her line to reflect that she had to use her non-dominant hand to draw and play basketball. It's written in a sixth grader's voice, which works well because it gets across her enthusiasm and her living in the moment; this approach goes a long way in charming the reader. There's even a suspenseful climax to the story, and Fox's illustrations are especially funny but well-designed during that segment.

Art Makes Me Feel features a young girl in a museum, looking at various works of art. Each drawing has a caption that starts with "This painting makes me feel like..." and goes from there. Examples include " I found loose hummus in my pockets" or "I'm French kissing a picture of myself. " Once again, this comic works because of the tiny, charming image of the girl. Her design is simple: a bow in her hair that seemingly levitates above her head, a dress, a pointy nose and long dark hair. The reader is drawn to her more than the works of art, and the subtle expressive differences from page to page A slightly more refined approach could make Fox an ideal candidate for doing children's  comics.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Thirty One Days of CCS #1: Laura Terry, Mary Shyne, Joyana McDiarmid

Welcome to another year of Thirty One Days of CCS! Every day this month, I will review the output of students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. I've been covering the comics and creators who've attended this school focusing entirely on comics education since close to its beginning back in 2005, and I've seen a lot of remarkable talents grow. The CCS ethos is to publish and get better in public, and so hundreds of minicomics have poured out of the school during that time. Let's see what's up with old favorites and new artists.

The Sweetest Curse, by Laura Terry. Terry had a big success with last year's Graveyard Shakes, and she'll be publishing Adorable Empire for them next. I reviewed the first couple of chapters of that in mini form last year. Her entry this year is a short, complete story that once again works in the fantasy milieu while subverting it. This time around, it's about a Bog Fairy, who are supposed to curse humans. The story follows a nice Bog Fairy who can't quite get the hang of cursing other creatures, doing things like turning a bush into a nice kitty. She takes abuse from bully fairies and gets mocked by a Fairy Princess. Terry neatly turns that conflict around and turns it into a sweet romance, as the Princess had a crush on the Bog Fairy, and the end sees them cursing bullies and having a grand old time of it. Terry's character design and line are both impeccable and irresistible. Her use of gesture and body language sells every aspect of the story, with a style that's wildly expressive while looking clean and precise. It's a great formula, because it gives her a template with which she can subvert expectations. Hopefully, she'll continue to return to this setting, because it seems fully-formed and capable of bearing a number of different stories.

Get Over It, by Mary Shyne. This is an extended version of a mini I read earlier that happened to be part of Shyne's senior thesis at CCS last year. The high concept for this comic is brilliant, as it's about a young woman who can see the emotional projection of each person, which takes the form of a creature of some kind. For those whose "emotional miasmas" have been damaged, they manifest as monstrous forms. The main character, Leigh, is a bit directionless as we start the story, acting as a bike delivery service for her father's restaurant. When she delivers food to a lab and puts on some equipment, it becomes obvious that others know about what she can see, and the equipment acts as armor. Putting it on allows her to literally fight trauma by getting it to become corporeal and punching it. The red ink she uses for the miasmas flatters her thin, careful line, giving her entire presentation a liveliness that just doesn't quit. Shyne barely scratched the surface of her narrative in this tantalizing excerpt, yet she left the reader with a fully-formed main character that was easy to root for. Shyne really succeeded here because she clearly understands the mechanics and pacing of how fights and action work.

Interstitial, by Joyana McDiarmid. McDiarmid's Long Division series (and hopefully upcoming book) was one of the best of the CCS projects that have been completed. She's certainly deserving of wider recognition. Interstitial sees her plunge into a new project, about three different young women who have been strongly influenced by a particular book of poetry. Elise and Quinn, in the present day, are lovers. Elise is in college and Hanna works there. Elise is friends with a third young woman, Hanna, who is also in college. At the beginning of the story, all three are in a very good place, as Hanna learns that she's going to be helping as a TA. The story starts with Quinn seeming to fracture across time as she looks out a window, from various ages of her life, and the rest of the chapter is simply set-up and introductions.

The second chapter winds back and starts to establish the actual story, as we look into the pasts of each of them. Hanna's part of a family where she's the second oldest and already a mother figure, thanks in part to an indolent older sister. Elise is neglected by her father in favor of her younger brothers. Quinn's in a turbulent relationship with a man, goes out dancing to spite him, and he tells her not to come home. The point of each of these flashbacks is to show them as unhappy here as they were satisfied in the first chapter. We get hints that that book of poetry, little poems for little girls, has some kind of transformative quality. Hints and pieces are all that McDiarmid reveals in this first issue, but there's a lot to think about here. Her character design is superb, as always. She draws bodies that look like real bodies, for one thing. Her use of gesture is a key aspect of the comic. The art isn't quite as elegant or intricate as her prior series, but it's obvious that she's going for a different, more cartoonist style here because the story's ultimate tone will be quite different.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Top Shelf: Carolyn Nowak's Girl Town

Carolyn Nowak's first collection of short stories, Girl Town, points to an artist whose comics operate on a number of levels. First and foremost, she's writing stories about women and women's relationships to each other in particular. There are crushes, there are partnerships, there are romances, there are friendships and there are people who are emotional supports for each other. There is also conflict, jealousy and fear. Nowak has a confident, inviting line that invites the reader in with its warmth and wit. Her narratives are light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with a certain playfulness at work in each story. Nowak makes her work seem lighthearted and even breezy on the surface, but the reality is that her work is emotionally and intellectually dense.

Take the collection's title. It's the title of the first story, of course, but it also encompasses the other stories as well: her book is an environment entirely devoted to the stories of women and girls. The cover image is an homage to the 1896 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out Of Her Well Armed With A Whip To Chastise Mankind, only the figure here is Betsy from "Girl Town". Betsy is very much a force of nature in that story, but what is she chastising mankind about? I would say that it's the one common theme in every story: trauma.

How each of the women deals with trauma, or rather, how most of them don't actively process their trauma, forms the underpinning of each emotional narrative. "Girl Town" is about a group of women who are kicked out of astronaut school because they are too beautiful and a group of weird women who are their next-door neighbors and putative antagonists. Each story also has an absurd or fantastical premise as a kind of humorous smokescreen for the darker events and emotions that lie underneath. There's a character in the story who loses an arm for unspecified reasons, a trauma whose origin is never explored. The story's narrator never really goes into detail regarding how being tossed out of astronaut school made her feel. That trauma is wrapped up in the narrator humiliating Betsy by fat-shaming her, despite her attraction to her. It's something she doesn't specifically respond to; instead, her friend gets revenge by taking a comfort object. Every move here is a passive-aggressive one, attacking unspoken vulnerabilities and traumas. At the end, the conflicts are revealed to be artificial, allowing for moments of affection and intimacy. 

In "Radishes", a story with a fantasy setting, teen friends Beth and Kelly skip school in order to go to the town's market. Body image is another theme Nowak addresses, from Betsy on the cover in a crop-top shirt to Beth's clear insecurity with her body a part of her overall shyness. Kelly is thin and gregarious. The story is a series of funny anecdotes that reveal how each of them care for each other emotionally. In this story, Beth's trauma is hinted at but not directly stated, but Nowak uses a clever device to get at a crucial moment of healing. The girls are eating magical fruit: some of it causes them to levitate and some of it causes hair to disappear. The titular radishes create a magical, mute double whose only ambition is to hug you. For Kelly, accepting this kind of self-love wasn't difficult. When Beth hugged her double, there was a profound moment of sadness as she could only apologize over and over to herself. At the same time, it was a moment of catharsis that Kelly tried to laugh off as she left with her friend. Once again, the brightness of the story's colors, the cheerful nature of the market, and Nowak's polished and expressive character designs mask all of this until the moment of truth, making that moment all the more powerful. 

"Diana's Electric Tongue" focuses on the titular character's "companion robot", an intelligent model designed for friendship as well as sex. Diana is getting over a bad break-up with a famous actor/scientist, and she uses the robot Harbor as a way of combating her loneliness. The narrative follows the fumbling, sweet awkwardness of their interactions as Harbor is able to figure out Diana's needs, even composing a poem for her. With every bit of sweetness, however, there's a barb, and the last line of the poem is "I will be with her until she doesn't want me anymore." Harbor has no agency or free will of his own; he wouldn't be there unless Diana paid for him. He wouldn't be there if she hadn't paid for him, in precisely the same way being with a sex worker or a therapist buys you their time and attention. 

The reality is that Harbor is really a therapeutic device for Diana, whose titular electric tongue was installed when she was in a horrible accident. That accident, and the requisite needs she had afterward, are what caused the break-up. Her celebrity boyfriend could only keep her in his life insofar as he didn't need to do any labor, emotional or otherwise. The story's title refers to the tongue, not the robot, because it is that physical and emotional trauma that drives every decision of Diana. She downplays it throughout the story, even playing up how cool her new tongue is until she reveals that it doesn't work very well with regard to taste. Both physical and emotional traumas were debilitating, and her relationship with Harbor allowed her to talk out her feelings and heal. Nowak drew a parallel between Diana's relationship with Blue, the celebrity, and with Harbor. Diana didn't feel like Blue's equal at any time, especially with regard to her agency within the relationship. Similarly, Harbor had no agency with Diana, something that clearly made her uncomfortable at times. She treated him as well as she could, but as sweet as the story is, Nowak made it clear that this wasn't actual love. That said, Blue is portrayed as kind of an awful person, one whose own short attention span and sheer whims could destroy lives. Truth emerges to indirectly chastise him.

"The Big Burning House" is a masterpiece of narrative complexity in the way it incorporates social media culture and its technological aesthetic. It's also a hilarious parody of that culture, as two young women start a podcast about an obscure movie that's nevertheless gained a cult following because it's impossible to find, the force of personality of its director, and the multiple endings that were filmed. What the story was really about was the kind of symbiotic, protective friendship that blossoms between the two into a collaborative, creative project and sense of identity. The story gets at a root trauma and how her friend protected her, creating a long-lasting bond through a piece of culture that mirrors some of their own lives. Interestingly, Nowak alternates between traumas incurred during adulthood vs traumas suffered during childhood in her stories. 

"Please Sleep Over" is an interesting mix of the two, as one of the characters recalls some childhood trauma but is also dealing with a divorce. She spends time at her parents' old house with her new girlfriend trying to process their judgment as well as the bewildering state she's in being divorced. There's a wacky neighbor who comes over uninvited who they later see pouring out her heart during karaoke. It's a reminder that you never know what someone else has been through. The story culminates in a dream where she is looking for her girlfriend and/or her ex-husband in the house, finding her girlfriend hiding in the bathroom. When her frightened girlfriend says that there's someone else in there with them, the main character looks blankly in the mirror and says, "I can see her." That's the last panel of the last story of the book. The "someone else" is her past self that she clearly fears but comes to terms with at the end. The truth emerges here not to chastise, but to shed light and provide comfort. 

In nearly every story, Nowak provides one or more hilarious segues that do nothing to advance the story but do everything to make the reader understand why the people in question are close. Laughter binds us, and the jokes told or situations negotiated show the reader why the women in question are close. Indeed, each story hints at the ways in which trauma can be isolating but provides the reader with a counterexample as to why it's important to reach out anyway. Each woman doesn't let her trauma from preventing her from acting; indeed, at the point we meet them, they've already reached out to others in order to help effect their own change. In Girl Town, Nowak creates a world of bold women who have already made a decision to change their fates; the reader is there to help them see things through.