Friday, January 26, 2018

NBM: T.J. Kirsch's Pride Of The Decent Man

T.J. Kirsch’s graphic novel debut, Pride Of The Decent Man (NBM), is admirably brief and direct. It is ultimately about intentionality, responsibility and the forces that pull against both. Its principle character is Andy, the kind of loser who tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is easily manipulated by people he thinks are his friends. Andy’s best friend is Whitey, the kind of chaos vortex of a person who sucks people into his craziness and doesn’t let go until something horrible has happened. Not a deliberately bad person, necessarily, just a selfish and stupid one who lives enough of a charmed life to get away with things. Their dynamic forms the basis of the mostly episodic plot.

Andy twice trusts Whitey and gets badly burned twice. The first time, Whitey accidentally burns down the restaurant Andy works at because of his recklessness. The second time, Whitey talks Andy into robbing a convenience store, a scheme that goes horribly awry. Horrified, Andy realizes that there’s a kid in the store with the owner. Andy gets sent to prison and Whitey gets off with a slap on the wrist, thanks to some political connections. The through line and connective tissue of the book is Andy becoming a writer in college, in an effort to capture the world so that he can remember it later. That writing becomes the book’s narrative captions, which comment both directly and indirectly on what we see on the page.

The essence of Andy’s character is that he accepts responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame Whitey for roping him into the caper, or for getting out of jail scot free. Andy understands that even someone without a great deal of agency ultimately does wind up making decisions, even if it’s a decision to drift into the orbit of a sociopath like Whitey. A person is to be judged by their actions but also has the capacity for change and redemption, simply by choosing a different path. Andy is seemingly rewarded when a daughter he never knew opts to come into his life. Suddenly, his life has greater purpose and meaning.

That’s where things become problematic for Kirsch. Instead of figuring out how such a reunion would actually work out in the long run (a much more difficult storytelling choice than what he opted for), he decided on a tragic ending. This wasn’t necessarily a terrible decision, and the denouement of the story is actually quite effective, as his daughter chooses to live in the little shack in which he had resided, proud and happy to have at least met her father and understand his motives and the path he wound up on. The problem is that Kirsch had to come up with a series of plot contrivances that rely all too much on coincidence and convenience, punishing Andy through cheap irony. One can see those devices grinding away on the page, detracting from the genuinely soulful character work done with Andy and his daughter.

It’s unfortunate that Kirsch didn’t quite stick the landing, because there’s so much to like in this story. Kirsch’s figurework is solid, even blocky at times in a way that reflects on how much Andy changed his body while in prison, going from skinny to built like a cement block. Kirsch excels at exploring small details, but never loses panel-to-panel transitions nor individual panel composition. He excels at depicting bodies in space, interpersonal interaction and gesture, using an unfussy drawing style that simply gets the job done in its mix of naturalism and Clowes-like flatness. More than anything, Kirsch draws Andy as a man who’s not quite in step with his environment, and that’s symbolized by this huge man with a small pen and notebook in his powerful hands, attempting to gently create something beautiful with ill-equipped instruments and comically bad luck.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Joe Decie's Collecting Sticks

Joe Decie's quotidian memoir strips have always tended to be more on the comedic than serious side, and his fractured use of time makes it easy to set up his gags as very short vignettes. His first graphic memoir, Collecting Sticks (Jonathan Cape), doubles down on his gag work as the driving element of a single, extended narrative. Every aspect of the story is played for laughs from beginning to end, even as the subtext is that of a loving family with certain tics that play out on the page. Decie has the hairbrained idea of going camping with his wife and son for a cheap holiday, but his wife remembers all too well how miserable it was to stay in a tent for several days and was never going to do it again.

So when Decie, with puppy-like enthusiasm, not only suggests camping again but also says that they had fun doing it before, his wife seized hold of the narrative. She booked them for "glamping" ("glamorous camping") before he could even object to its price or ask to think it over. Throughout the book, his wife Steph acts mostly as the straight woman, his son Sam is a sort of wild force of nature, and he's the well-meaning bumbler. Decie has such a dry sense of humor that he's able to get away with this for a book's length, though it does wear from time to time on the reader. The book is essentially an inventory of things that went wrong but that didn't spoil their good time, like Decie's OCD taking forever for them to get out of the house or his son's reluctance to get dressed and do anything but play with Legos. When Decie passed on the responsibility of packing to his son (very much a kid thing to do), his son packed up a bunch of sticks, a recurrent activity for him in the book.

Decie goes to great lengths to portray himself as a fool, from his hilariously awful abilities as a navigator to his inability to create a fire, as he says things like "Getting lost is fun!" and pulls out graph paper from a D&D set to create a new map. There are times when going this broad starts to wear thin, as though he was advised to amp up the comedy as much as possible instead of Decie's occasional forays into more meditative fare. That said, his juxtaposition of bone-dry narrative and wacky visual antics made the gags that much more effective, as did the sober but expressive nature of his grey wash and fragile line.

Once they get to the cabin, things pick up, and by that I mean absolutely nothing of real interest happens, but Decie manages to make it funny anyway. A walk to find a quaint local market for supplies winds up being an expedition to a big-box grocery store, where they got essentials like smoked paprika. Though it's disguised in a series of generational disconnects, the central relationship explored in the book is between Decie and Sam, as they wander off together being very silly. There are funny bits about the cautious Decie having to reel in his daredevil and inquisitive son in from time to time, but it goes unsaid just how satisfying it is for Decie to spend this kind of extended time with his child.

Decie starts to throw in some funny bits to enhance the humor, like a sign at the beach that says "No Photography/No Sketching" after he and Steph had been doing both for hours. Sam is only at the very edge of being whiny, knowing just when to stop (like complaining about going to the pub because it's boring and then remembering he can get a drink with a straw there). There's also the droll, loving relationship between Decie and Steph, both of whom have the same dry and slightly absurd sense of humor, with Steph being just a step ahead at nearly all times. There are also moments when Decie jokingly brings up his very real problems with anxiety that are played straight but also treated with humor, as he fully understands how much of a problem it is even as he's helpless to indulge in it.

This is a lightweight book, by design. It's meant to capture one's attention and keep it with funny bits at the expense of the protagonist, and the grey wash helps the reader quickly fall into the story's rhythms and quirks. It doesn't feel overly long or like there's too much filler, because honestly, the whole story is filler. It's a book that has a handle on its non-essential qualities and invites the reader to hang out anyway. The result is a pleasant journey and a better understanding of Decie through his humor, because framing reality through that lens is what makes the family comedy effective. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dispatches From Seattle: Froh/Clotfelter, Van Deusen

Stewbrew #5, by Kelly Froh and Max Clotfelter. This is the duo's zine that they work on together, and in this case it's comics and collage from a trip between Wisconsin and their home in Seattle. Froh's mother gifted her a car, but she had to drive it back. There are menus, receipts and all sorts of weird ephemera. There's annotated ephemera which included amusing advertisements, as well. Froh and Clotfelter switch off doing comics on the trip. Froh starts off the comics with a strip about her parents, who rarely showed her affection as a child but surprised her on this visit. Froh and Clotfelter contrast nicely in terms of style, as Froh keeps things simple with her line and Clotfelter employs a scratchy, ink-heavy style.

The couple is determined to see as much Americana as possible on the trip, so they stop off in places like Bible Land and stay in the Frontier Cabin Motel. In the Badlands, they encounter prairie dogs and are told that the dogs have the plague and must be avoided. In the style of John Porcellino, there's lists of music they listened to and the kinds of (mostly awful) foods they ate. A highlight is an atlas doodled all over by the artists. The pace of the comics quicken as they get closer to Seattle. Clotfelter doesn't like to linger on details as much as Froh does to begin with, as Clotfelter drinks in the scenery while driving and draws things in dense but readable style. The comic is at its best in depicting quiet moments with awe and affection, like when the two are briefly stranded in a town that feels abandoned, as though they were in a zombie film that was just getting started. The punchline of the comic is Froh noting that despite driving a couple of thousand miles through strange territory, driving in Seattle was going to be much worse, thanks to the general unfriendliness of the city. Everything about their styles and sensibilities stands in sharp relief to the other, but they complement each other nicely. Both their comics and the fun little nuggets of text they incorporate into the issue add to that strange road trip reality they were living in.

The Big Me Book, by Tom Van Deusen. Van Deusen took his formula of the ultra-revolting male autobiographical cartoonist to a new, awful, and hilarious level in this comic. Not only is each individual strip designed to make the reader despise him like he was an expert wrestling heel, Van Deusen has created a subtle continuity between strips that escalates that loathing, creating callbacks that give a base to the exponentially increasing over-the-top quality of each strip. From the author's statement that kicks the book off that satirically wonders why everyone wouldn't want to know everything about him and the (tastefully) nude photo of him sunbathing in a park (which I hope was done specifically for this purpose), Van Deusen immediately sets the reader against him.

The first strip is a nasty takedown of cartoonists and social media, in that he wanted to get a lot more likes from his facebook post of having dinner with his parents back home. That likes have become a kind of currency, especially for artists, is a crystalization of the desire to be validated by popular demand. The fact that the reality is that he berates and insults his poor parents just lays the illusion bare. That's just a warm-up for the comic's real doozy of a strip, in which Tom feeds a stray cat who happens to be a magical talking cat who grants him wishes. Van Deusen wishes for a room full of Nazi memorabilia, to be able to wear a SS uniform in public and finally to be able to fuck a plastic vagina in public with no repercussions. The sheer awfulness combined with the utter banality of these wishes is what makes this story so funny, along with the disgusted but obligated cat's comments and awful, eventual fate. Van Deusen doubles and then triples down in this story, and drawing himself with a leering, crazed look on his face throughout reinforces his awfulness.

Van Deusen then takes that to another level in what starts off as a "I'm bombing at a con story" into something far stranger. In trying to trick a woman into thinking that he's not a misogynist ("It's satire", he repeatedly notes, again hitting on the go-to excuse for many a misogynistic cartoonist's work). Then Van Deusen returns to the realm of the ridiculous, as it becomes apparent that his thought balloons have somehow become apparent to everyone, a fourth-wall gag that Van Deusen really exploits with phrases like "It's not satire, I'm totally a Nazi." That leads to a wacky visit to the doctor, a call-back to his relationship with his parents (of course he still calls his mother "Mommy") and an explosive sight gag to end it. Throw in an homage to Dr Seuss on the cover, and you have Van Deusen firing on all cylinders: conceptually, narratively and visually. The fact that he does it in such a concise manner is what really sets it apart from his past work. What makes a further impact is just how much detail he's able to cram into strips that move so quickly, and how interesting his drawings are. Consider the cat granting a wish in the page above: its sunken eyes and the hypnotic spiral emanating from it indicate a creature that is ancient and powerful.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Monday, January 1, 2018

Thirty Days of CCS: The Guide And High-Low News

Before I publish the handy all-in-one guide to this year's Thirty Days Of CCS feature, I wanted to make a few quick announcements. There will be no new content this week, so that I can catch up with my patrons, whose patrons-only content was put to one side in December so I could concentrate on the main feature. Every day this week, starting Tuesday, will contain a new review for my patrons. New material on the regular site will commence once again on January 8th.

1.  Colleen Frakes, Sophie Goldstein, Amelia Onorato
2.  Laura Terry
3.  Tillie Walden
4.  Luke Howard, Steve Thueson, Dan Nott
5.  Joyana McDiarmid, Jarad Greene, Mary Shyne
6.  Daryl Seitchik
7.  Beth Hetland, Mary Shyne, Josh Lees
8.  Hannah Kaplan
9.  Girl Talk & My Pace 2
10. Iona Fox & Penina Gal

11 .Dakota McFadzean, Dean Sudarsky, Mitra Farmand
12. Carl Antonowicz
13. Charles Forsman
14. Rachel Dukes, Sean Knickerbocker
15. Rio Aubry Taylor, Melissa Mendes & Michelle Ollie
16. Ian Richardson
17. Rainer Kannenstine, Anna Sellheim
18. Kane Lynch
19. Nomi Kane & Donna Almendrala
20. Allison Bannister, Whiteley Foster

21. Romey Petite & Laurel Holden
22. Ben Wright-Heuman & Andi Santagata
23. Sasha Steinberg
24. April Malig
25. Melanie Gillman
26. Reilly Hadden
27. Aaron Cockle, Mathew New, Steve Thueson
28. Simon Reinhardt
29. Cooper Whittlesey
30. dw
31. Awesome Possum