Thursday, June 21, 2018

AdHouse: Young Frances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Minis: Kaczynski/Jetsmark, Turbitt

Some minicomics, fresh out of the oven...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Two From Toon: Ivan Brunetti and Jordan Crane

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Two From November Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Miss Lasko-Gross' Henni

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

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

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