Friday, September 14, 2018

Catching Up With SAW, Part 2

Let's look at some more minis from SAW:

Sketch Zine Twenty-Seventeen, by Miranda Harmon. This comic is chock full of illustrations and short comics taken from Harmon's sketchbook. Harmon is a big-time talent whose frank portrayal of both depression and alienation is marked by a light touch and friendly, inviting line. I liked one strip where she didn't want to buy into the idea that the actors in the tech comedy series Silicon Valley were supposed to be unattractive; her expression is almost one of resentment for what the entertainment industry was trying to get her to accept as true. Harmon uses two different self-caricatures: a scribbly bushy-haired one and her "Lil Onion Head" character. The latter is especially appealing and still manages to capture her essence, without sacrificing any expressiveness. Harmon's skill as an illustrator (especially of cute images) could earn her any number of mainstream jobs, but I hope that whatever long-term projects she takes on, she's able to personalize them as much as she does her autobio strips.

The Way I Look, by Melissa Iuliano. This is a short, cleverly-designed comic about body image. Iuliano makes great use of negative space in this comic, opening up with a couple of pages worth of silhouettes as she describes things she doesn't like about her body and then how she learned to accept it, with one exception. That exception is the discoloration on her upper lip, and the litany of horrors she had to endure in order to attempt to "correct" this. The last two pages are a beautiful expression of frustration and determined acceptance. Iuliano's line has some rough edges, but her storytelling techniques are sophisticated and engaging. Her ability to mesh technique and message in a smooth package is impressive.

Tabitha Waves In..."Your Biggest Fan!", by Kiana Stewart. This modest mini is about an aging anthropomorphic alligator actress (the titular Tabitha) who randomly runs into a fan on the street. The keys to this comic are body language and gesture, and Stewart nails both. At first, the actress is taken aback by the enthusiastic attention of the fan, but it's made clear that she winds up providing something for her that she needed. That's made clear toward the end when the fan gives her a big hug after Tabitha gave her an autograph. In a two-panel set, the first panel shows Tabitha unnerved by the surprise embrace (her eyes wide and her mouth pursed) and the second panel sees her eyes soften and her mouth relax, as though a weight had been lifted off of her. Notably and subtly, you can see her hand in the bottom left of the panel, softly returning the embrace.

Gnome Comix, by Lance "Gnome" Raber. There's a bit of an R.Crumb, id-inflected inspiration in these comics, but with a twist. Raber can draw in any style, from MS-Paint inspired wackiness to highly-detailed, realistic drawings, to grotesque caricatures in-between. There is certainly plenty of that grotesque quality permeating his strips, though the twist is that rather than play out as a series of fantasies being fulfilled, Raber instead specializes in drawing man-children of various shapes and sizes. Some of it is clearly self-effacing, while other strips are a clear critique of toxic masculinity. This mini is just a selection of strips done before Raber's time at SAW; though his talent is obvious, they're also all over the place. I'd be curious to see how he developed after SAW.

The Sculptor 2, by Eric Taylor. I've enjoyed Taylor's comics in the past, but this brutal parody of Scott McCloud's epic misfire is his best comic to date. The comic picks up after the end of The Sculptor, where a guy was given the power to sculpt anything he wanted with his hands by Death, only his life would end sooner. This time around, Death came in the form of Stan Lee to a young cartoonist. The woman he meets beats him up (instead of the absurd "angel" angle of the original book). Everything he does is a male power or sex fantasy fetish, including his savior act at the end. The comic is so effective because it exposes McCloud's original comic so mercilessly. Whatever good intentions McCloud had going into the sculpture were undone by his painfully treacly sentimentality and self-indulgence. There's also a painful lack of awareness of the viewpoints of others. Taylor plays that up while adding all kinds of wacky and obscene sight gags that serve to send up underground comics in general, as he "samples" Crumb and others in certain scenes.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Catching Up With SAW, Part 1

Let's take a look at some recent comics from Tom Hart's Sequential Artists Workshop, or SAW. It's his comics school that aims to have affordable rates without skimping on the actual quality of the education one receives. Like any good comics arts school, it demands that its students be working cartoonists, making minicomics. Let's take a look at the crop from last year.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, by M Parker. This is a shadowy little horror comic in the dense, scratchy and hatched tradition of a Steve Bissette. A horny guy lets in an old lover, who reveals herself to be a horrific figure with fangs and sharp claws that envelops him in a grim, yet also loving and maternal, embrace. The image of row after row after row of teats is interesting because it's both strange and comforting, as though she was an all-mother figure as well as a death figure. It's all a dream, of course, but upon awakening, the guy in the story is in tears.

A Silent Sigh, by Maxine Marie. This is an excellent example of comics-as-poetry, using the metaphor of a hook ensnaring another lodged in the throat of a woman who has lost her voice. Marie uses a thick, simple line and portions of shapes in order to craft her story, with text often opposite a page with that evocative, haunting bit of imagery. The most important image, as the woman saw another woman with a kite issuing forth from her mouth, is that the lodged in her throat and the key used to fishing it out are barbed. They are meant to catch fish, and the barbs are meant to hold them. In this instance, fishing out the key would mean causing an incredible amount of pain and trauma. It's a metaphor for holding in trauma vs the decision to confront it. In the former scenario, she could avoid the pain by ignoring her trauma, but at the cost of her voice. In the latter scenario, she would have the potential for speech again at the cost of great pain. The last image reveals her choice, and Marie's expert command of minimalist gesture makes that panel one to remember.

Minis by Karla Holland. Flash 'Vu is a clever comic involving Holland's daily commute at age 14 and age 24. Each 2-panel page featured the younger Holland on top and the older Holland on bottom. Younger Holland is going to school in a bus and older Holland is going to class in a car...and they spot each other in a splash page that smashes the two narratives together. It's a clever idea that's well-executed, especially in the way that Holland pays so much attention to details like body language.

Facing Back is a series of musings about a beloved childhood friend that she had to move away from and never talked to or saw again...until she saw her pop up on Facebook. What was interesting about this comic was Holland's line of reasoning with regard to getting in touch with her again vs. just letting that part of her life alone. Indeed, every one of Holland's comics is one that reveals a mind that's constantly evaluating every aspect and angle of her life and her choices. This particular mini looks better on the web than on paper, but that's more a formatting issue than anything.

Holland is a versatile artist. Vomics! are strips from working in a sports stadium, with all sorts of amusing observational humor and some absurd premises. The gag about a t-shirt gun gone horribly awry was especially effective. None of the jokes here were revolutionary, but this is a workplace comic in a workplace that's just not commonly seen in comics or our culture in general. Her The World Dance coloring book reflects a dedication to the small details necessary to differentiate clothing that's distinctive to different kinds of dancers in different spots around the world. Even though these are illustrations, not comics, Holland's skill as a cartoonist is such that the body language of each image feels like it's in motion, rather than a static figure dead on the page.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fifteen Artists And Publishers To Seek Out At SPX 2018

As always, it's a pleasure to compile my annual list of artists and publishers to seek out at SPX. I always make an effort never to repeat a name, and that's a tribute to the continuing depth of talent in alt-comics these days. There are also a few veterans here and there who are making their first appearance.

1. Laura Lannes. Table B11-B. This Brazilian autobio cartoonist made a big splash with By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, a painfully honest account of a doomed relationship. Her acidic sense of humor and sharp observations about life as a single person combined with her loose, fuzzy line made for a remarkably coherent & memorable series of vignettes. I believe she'll have a new comic at this show. 

2. Leila Abdelrazaq. Table M13-A. She's a Palestinian cartoonist based in Detroit who specializes in personal and political strips about alienation, persecution and identity. She recently finished as the first-runner up for the Locher Award, given to editorial cartoonists under the age of 25.

3. Conundrum Press. Table W66-B. They are one of the most underrated publishers in comics, consistently releasing daring, unusual comics. They're known for publishing works in English for the first time, giving a platform for young Canadian cartoonists, reprinting key comics and collecting truly strange comics. I don't think publisher Andy Brown will be there, but Max de Radigues will be there, repping his book Weegee.

4. Richie Pope. Table E11-A. Pope's magnificent issue of Frontier about fatherhood was one of the most memorable of the entire series. I'm eager to see his other comics.

5. Perfectly Acceptable Press. Table N13-A. Publisher Matt Davis is one of the premier purveyors of exquisitely-produced art objects (via Risograph) that are also excellent comics.

6. Rina Ayuyang. Table W1-4. Rina's a long-time favorite of mine who is debuting a book from Drawn & Quarterly soon called Blame This On The Boogie. I also have the pleasure of being the moderator for a panel she's on.

7. Silver Sprocket. Table J1. Avi Ehrlich's punk DIY aesthetic is the engine behind this burgeoning publishing concern. He publishes the personal and the political.

8. Iona Fox. Table D13. She's one of the brightest young voices in the embarrassment of riches we as readers are enjoying with regard to memoir and diary comics. She draws from experiences that are quite different from the average city dweller.

9. Matt Emery. Table F2. He's the brains behind Pikitia Press from Australia, and he's introduced me to a number of excellent cartoonists.

10. Summer Pierre. Table I11-A. In a year where the theme of the programming is memoir and there are so many great cartoonists in that area, Pierre stands out as one of the best of the best. Her line is as engaging as her storytelling, which is full of wit and warmth.

11. M.S. Harkness. Table M12-B. Her Tinderella was a hilarious but poignant autobiographical book that was remarkably frank and upfront about desire, loneliness and the sheer indignity of dating.

12. Maria Hoey. Table L14. One half of the Coin-Op team, she will be there with a recent issue of the comic as well as the collection from Top Shelf. She's one of the best illustrators around.

13. Julia Kaye. Table N1-A. Her book Super Late Bloomer is one of my favorites regarding the experience of transitioning. Her line is endlessly fun to look at.

14. Taneka Stotts. Table I1-A. A fine writer in her own right, Stotts is also a superb editor. Her Elements: Fire rightfully won the Eisner award.

15. Fred Noland. Table G5-A. This is "Fredo's" first SPX in some time. His minis from the early 2000s were some of my favorites.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Marguerite Dabaie's The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories

There's a long and winding history to this project that should have been short and sweet. The bulk of this book was actually some of her earliest work, and she self-published two volumes starting in 2007. The first strip in this edition (published by Rosarium), "The Struggle", describes the difficulties she had in getting attention from any publisher from these personal, mostly funny observations about "Growing Up Christian Palestinian In America". She faced rejection after rejection, which led to two great realizations. First, simply putting the word "Palestinian" in a book title in America was enough for a publisher to reject it for fear of it being too controversial or political. While Dabaie doesn't shy away from political issues, the book's real focus is on how specific cultural idiosyncrasies unite us all as people. Every culture has their own food, music, fashion and odd quirks all their own; it's what makes us all human. Dabaie simply wanted to share the complexities of growing up in a culture that she herself was ambivalent about in some ways, especially the sexist underpinnings of it.

There is a certain sense where even the smallest detail in this book is political, however. Palestinians have faced a great deal of erasure as a culture as a way of justifying their expulsion from their homes seventy years ago. Palestinian foods (especially) and other cultural touchstones have been claimed by others, so to declare something as Palestinian and particular to that experience is radical in a sense. Dabaie doesn't waste time addressing common and sticky perceptions of what someone of Palestinian/Arabic origin must be like with"Should/Am", a series of paper-doll cutouts. Dabaie goes from stereotype to stereotype, boldly drawing humor out of a cut-out of "Martyr" ("NOT in Israel To Sight-See!"), alongside "Muslim", "Seductress" (a harem girl costume), "Revolutionary" and finally "Hungry Artist". It's a direct shot across the bow to start a collection, and Dabaie makes her bluntness work by using dark humor and the convention of a child's activity.
The rest of the stories in the book range from light-hearted memories as a child to pointed observations on today's political climate. A story about her family stealing grape leaves from wine orchards (prefaced by the technique on how to roll a grape-leaf) was funny, as was a story about the ways in which Palestinian-Americans go to extremes in connecting with their culture. It's clear that Dabaie is conflicted on a number of matters relating to the Palestinian cause. In a story about hijacker Leila Khaled, it's obvious that Dabaie is drawn to her because she was a woman who acted boldly in the Arab world, and not just because she drew media attention to the Palestinian cause. There's another story called "The BestEST Joke" where someone tells her a Palestinian joke (not knowing that she was half-Palestinian), and she doesn't know how to react. "Arabs and Film" addresses not only the weirdness she felt growing up watching Arabs depicted as terrorist stereotypes in films. Above all else, this is a book about coming to terms with a lifetime of cognitive dissonance.

A book consisting solely of strips about her family would have been a different book in terms of tone, to be sure. The clever structure of music portrays the complexity of her feelings, as musical skill was something she always desired but training was denied to her because she was a girl. The exquisitely drawn "Domestic Goddess" is about expectations that she defied, where she was expected to cook, clean, be quiet and be ready to get married & have babies. Dabaie's hatching is sharp and precise, and her depiction of her Teta (grandmother) as a multi-armed monster in constant whirring motion was reflected in Dabaie's present-day activity as an artist. Dabaie is fond of many aspects of her childhood but doesn't romanticize the people and events that alienated her.
My favorite story in the collection was "NOW", an acidic critique of Americans using the kaffiyeh, a traditional piece of cloth, as a fashion statement. ("Go against 'the man' Now. In style!") I think Dabaie is currently most skilled as a satirist; she has an elegant thin-line in those drawings that really brings out the cutting humor in her concepts. I also admire her simplified, stripped-down style that she used in "The BestEST Joke" and the grape leaf story. The stories where she uses a gray wash are less successful visually, especially compared to her bolder and crisper line elsewhere. Still, Dabaie was bold in trying so many different styles for this collection, and it's clear that she has a strong storytelling voice. Her point of view and experiences are also obviously unusual in the world of comics, but it's not just that point of view that makes her distinctive as an artist. Her brains, sense of humor, and graphic design sense are the engine that manages to link her memories and opinions in such a bold presentation.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Minis: Colin Lidston, A.D. Puchalski

The Age of Elves #3, by Colin Lidston. This is the continuing story of a group of high school gaming friends who make a long road trip to the enormous Gen Con show. What the series is really about is how social outcasts who feel awkward around most people interact with each other, and how this interaction is not always a positive one. That's especially true when they find themselves out of their comfort zones. In this issue, for example, all is well for the first few pages of the story as they are amazed by the size of the con and get swept up in gaming sessions and merch tables. Then the sole girl in the group, Sarah, gets lost on the way to a dance later that night and encounters a couple who give her some encouragement.

It's when she gets to the dance that all sorts of awkwardness is triggered and well-illustrated in the body language depicted by Lidston. Sarah pulls Jamie on the floor to dance, leaving Bram and Evan on their own. Bram, who is clearly unnerved by social interaction outside of gaming contexts, walks away to find a game. Evan proceeds to get hammered on his own. There's a telling quote when Sarah later asks Bram if he made a new friend at the gaming table, and he replied "I was able to turn a marginal advantage into a rout, through..." Strategizing in lieu of other forms of interaction, as opposed to being a gateway to further and deeper interaction, is at the heart of the group's dysfunction.

That further comes to light when it turns out Evan doesn't make it back to the room and they are eventually informed that he passed out drunk in the lobby. Sarah is clearly the member of the group forced to do the emotional labor for everyone (not surprising, since she is a young woman), as she takes care of Evan and tries to deal with the tantrums of Bram and Jamie at the same time. That's especially true when they try to blame her for all of this. That plays into another aspect of the group: their friend Phillip who quit. The reasons why he quit are a matter of debate; some of the group play the old "he wanted to spend time with his girlfriend instead of us" canard, while others say that they embarrassed him now. Fealty to the group and the game superseded everything else, and the very idea that the game would end terrified Jamie. Hardcore gamers, those who arrange their entire lives around the hobby, often wind up recapitulating the same societal rules that they find themselves being alienated by. The new rules they create have different names, but they are still about dominance and competition in the worst of situations.

Pet: "The Garden Party", by A.D. Puchalski. This is an odd little story that starts as a courtly comedy of manners and turns into a supernatural slaughter. Drawn with a delicate, almost fragile line that is buttressed by dense cross-hatching, the figures look a bit like Dr. Seuss meets John Tenniel (illustrator of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories). The story starts along those lines, as a dashing anthropomorphic wolf captures a girl-cat thing to bring to a garden party. The young men and women at this noble affair have on animal masks of their own and mock the wolf, whom nonetheless makes an impression on one of the women. Meanwhile, the indolent partygoers summon an all-devouring demon who starts to destroy everything around him, scattering the characters at the end of the story.

There is a confidence in Puchalski's storytelling that is especially clear in her character designs. That slightly droopy quality in the wolf, the feral weirdness of the cat-girl, the delicate decadence of the garden party participants, and the blobby horror of the demon are all highlights in this leisurely-paced comic that only has two panels per page. Puchalski's commentary on the decadence of the rich, the desperation of those looking to move up in status and the sheer indifference of those without a chance are all on display here, told in a manner not unlike a deranged fairy tale. That's thanks in part to Puchalski's formalism with regard to dialogue and lettering that's as delicate as every other facet of her visual approach. This certainly left me wanting more.