Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Minis: E.Lindner

Pitching A Fit In The Big City was partly a walk down memory lane for me, as I've been reading Ellen Linder's work since the very beginning of her career. This collects stories from 2001-2016, published in various minis and anthologies, as well as a couple of new stories. Lindner has always been a great writer in particular, even in her earliest stories like "Pieces", where she talked about the memory of her grandfather talking at her, cutting her to metaphorical bits because of her relative unimportance in the interaction. Lindner used a big, chunky line in the early days, like in her memoir about 9/11. It was a striking approach, but she's evolved and has used a number of different approaches. Her story about working at the Museum of Modern Art was fun because of the way she incorporated so many of the holdings as visual elements in her narrative.

Then there's "Hygienic Sex", a bawdy and hilarious memoir about a past relationship and its complications. Lindner's autobiographical tone has often had an amusingly formal feel to it, especially when she's deliberately trying to be funny. The tone is almost that of an old-time romance comic, paired with a raunchy and crude series of events. Lindner is a long-time city dweller, and her settings are often in flats, subways and the claustrophobic living conditions in a city. "What The Iguana Saw" was about dealing with a peeping Tom, an apathetic police response, and a totally random question asked by a cop. Lindner has a way of supporting funny moments, crystallizing the essence and leading it up to it with amusing details.

Lindner is also great at taking on a specific topic and building a story around it. In "Me And My Sari", Lindner talks about the garment given to her by her mother-in-law, the times she's worn it and why, and responses she's received by wearing it. "Bill Murray's Doughnut" is interesting because it details her experience as an extra on a film set, hoping for an encounter with Murray. A story about a facebook connection became interesting when she realized that a close friend of hers in England knew someone she dated in high school. Lindner took that coincidence and realized that a lot of negative perceptions she had about her experience weren't his fault. "Goodbye" was the most recent story in the issue and certainly the most devastating and raw. Here, Lindner talked about her tendency to used bake goods as a way of showing affection and recalling a time when a misunderstanding regarding this made an abusive ex-boyfriend flip out and put his hands around her throat. Lindner details her naivete and trusting nature, and how she was so baffled and stunned and hurt by the experience. Lindner then abandoned her typical, fluid line and switched to herself in the present day, drawn in a naturalistic style with a gray wash, as she talked about coming to terms with this story. This was a beautiful and haunting story that was a fantastic capper for this one-woman anthology, demonstrating Lindner's growth as an artist.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Minis: G. Fawkes

Hitting some more interesting minis...

Exit Archaeology, by Glynnis Fawkes. This is both a self-contained work and a sequel to her much longer Greek Diary as well as a companion piece to her other comics about being an illustrator at an archaeological site in Greece. Greece is a country that holds a great deal of meaning for Fawkes, and Kenchreai in particular. That's the eastern port of Corinth, where she had for nearly a decade worked drawing pottery shards and other items from an excavation site of Roman items. One of the running themes in Fawkes' comics is the notion of how difficult agency can be as a creative person. While artistic freedom and freedom in general is important, Fawkes found herself drawn to a job that had no creative nor academic value to her personally. She was an artisan, paid to do a job as an illustrator. No more, no less.

Being freed from the pressure of academia or comics deadlines--and even the responsibilities of having a family--was hard to give up. She could simply work, swim, sketch, drink and explore the area with friends. One gets the sense that Fawkes is constantly restless, her mind going in a million different directions. Only a mindless physical activity like her job or walking around seemed to soothe that buzzing brain. Even at that, the fact that she knew that she couldn't justify another trip out for this job ate at her a little, as time suddenly became a limiting factor for what was usually a more open-ended experience.

Her sketches of the local area are delightfully vivid and loose, as are her drawings of her friends. Indeed, the one major change is that this comic was much less of an interior exercise than some past efforts, and the second half of the comic focuses on the camaraderie of her work group. It wasn't just the labor that was important to her but also the fact that she was part of a team. She was an important cog making the machine run smoothly, and she took great pleasure in bouncing off of people who had become close friends over the years. More than anything, that's what Fawkes emphasized in this comic. Just as working in Corinth had become something she did for herself, so too is this comic a gift for herself. It's slowly paced and has a number of sketches of local sights. It lacks the interpersonal or family drama of her other comics set in Greece, and its only structure is that of the time spent in Greece itself. It's a breezy read at 44 pages, but it could have been even shorter without losing the essence of the story. Of course, self-indulgence was not only a theme of the comic, it was also the format of the comic. This is a comic that invites the reader to stop, slow down, and breathe as we join Fawkes soaking it all in as much as she could.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Minis: K.Roberts, M.S. Harkness/Y.Kwon, G.Vasile

Once more into the minicomics breach...

We Watched Wrestling, by M.S. Harkness and Yewon Kwon. There is certainly an intersection between alt-comics and wrestling fandoms, and there has been for a long time. Jaime Hernandez is a great example of this, understanding the relationship between telenovelas and lucha libre in his Love & Rockets stories. One of the key characters in Reilly Hadden's Astral Birth Canal is a female wrestler. The titular character in Ed Luce's death metal romance Wuvable Oaf is a retired wrestler. For M.S. Harkness, best known for her autobio comic Tinderella, it's all about fandom. She & fellow fan Yewon Kwon decided to do a weekly diary of the WWE shows leading up to their big Summerslam event.

Harkness and Kwon both watch wrestling in part because of its sex appeal, and they both fully understand and embrace the total silliness of it. Harkness watched the RAW wrestling show, and it's in red ink because that's the trademark color of the brand. Her commentary was hilarious and often personal, like fantasizing about a wrestling faction consisting only of "brunette, bearded babes". Harkness' angular character design mixed with fluid page composition made for a consistently entertaining read, even if the reader didn't know what was happening. There's a measured balance her genuine interest and investment in what she's watching and her mockery of same; the former is what allows her to do the latter without seeing too snarky. Kwon's comics are a bit more naturalistic than Harkness' and use a thinner line weight. The commentary is also more spare and more serious, but it's a nice complement to what Harkness did. The centerfold is about a wrestling tournament in Japan by an artist named Chaack, which provides yet another color-coding for the comic and a more rapid-fire accounting of events. All told, this is probably best enjoyed by wrestling fans, but it certainly made me want to read weekly recaps of the matches by this duo.

Paintings, by Keiler Roberts. Roberts posted some of these on Facebook, and they are an interesting companion piece to her comics in part because they hearken back to an earlier creative outlet of hers in painting. Some of the paintings are direct recreations of panels that appeared in her comics, like the funny and heartbreaking image of Roberts laying down in the laundry, crying, as her husband encourages her to take a walk. The image here is a little more vague, and her muted color palette is interesting because it conjures up an image of suburban living. This is an ordinary person in a nice home who is clearly struggling. The image of her crying while lifting weights in the basement is telling in that regard, for example. At the same time, there are images of a woman trying to take joy in life and routine as well, as she plays with her dog and daughter. There are images of houseplants, the despair of a dirty stove, the solace of her dog as she's curled up on the couch. The cheerfulness of the colors often belies the sadness of the situation, and I think that's intentional. Mental illness can't be seen, and there's often no "reason" why someone should be depressed. At the same time, Roberts is also simply living her life as best she can.

It's interesting to look at these, both in and out of context with the rest of Roberts' work. They tell their own story, but it's a more simplified version of what Roberts writes about. What they tend to lack most out of context is Roberts' sense of humor and the immediacy of her drawing style. That said, the paintings are lively on their own thanks to their own lack of fussiness with regard to form combined with a great deal of thought regarding the choices of color. There's also the matter of still lives of domestic objects behind on the left-hand side of each double-page spread, and images of her and her family on the right. While meant to be looked at in a non-sequential manner, they nonetheless are part of a greater whole. This was an interesting experiment, and it would be fascinating to see Keiler use spot color in her books in the future, perhaps with the chapter-demarcating images she drew in her most recent book Chlorine Gardens.

I'm A Bad Person And So Are You & It Was Fun While It Lasted, by Geoff Vasile. I'm a long-time fan of Vasile's fiction, but his diary comics are just as good. He establishes very quickly that he's not here to talk about what he had for lunch, as he immediately addresses his frustration with his career, his depression, his stressful job in the service industry, his substance use (and abuse), and his frustration with dating. That said, Vasile has the instincts of a humorist, and these four-panel daily strips are continuously funny and have strong punchlines, even when he's writing about something that's fairly dark. There's one especially brutal strip where the woman he's dating casually is jealous over him paying attention to another friend at a bar and gets angry at him, and later wakes up apologetically wanting to have sex. The final thought balloon of his, "Sex is no longer worth the effort it takes to have." is both grim and exactly the sort of thing a middle-aged man might think in that situation.

At the same time, he depicts himself as immediately off-putting and cynical, telling a date that he cherished a memory of a one-night stand where neither person even pretended that they were going to contact them again. Vasile isn't afraid to show himself, warts and all, but not in a way that's begging for sympathy nor in a way that is self-aggrandizing. The second collection goes even deeper into bad dates (one woman tells him to come up with his third-favorite painting in a museum date), bar fights, oversharing of feelings, his own "scummy" behavior with women, quitting his horrible job, self-hatred of various kinds, misanthropy, suicidal ideations, his horrible relationship with his dead parents, going to therapy and getting medicated. All of this is executed in his crisp, clear line (with shades of Jaime Hernandez in his character design) and is far more entertaining than it sounds, because of his tremendous wit. Vasile simply knows how to tell a story, whether it's directly about him or not.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Retrofit/Big Planet Comics: Summer Pierre's All The Sad Songs

Summer Pierre's short autobiographical vignettes in her minicomics series Paper Pencil Life have established her as a sensitive, philosophical and quirky presence in the ever-growing comics memoir genre. Her dedication to exploring her interior life creates its own set of narratives, often complete with punchlines. All The Sad Songs is her first extended work at over a hundred pages, and it's on the surface a love letter to the role that music has played in her life. Of course, what becomes evident about halfway through is that the book is really about Pierre's unprocessed PTSD and her subsequent treatment.

Pierre's art emphasizes a heavy use of black, dense hatching and a strong sense of atmosphere. At the same time, her figures are warm and inviting to look at, drawn in a beautifully clear style that accentuates gesture and expressiveness. The result is deeply intimate, as Pierre warmly welcomes the reader into her story and invites us to be there with her through every moment of pain and joy. There's little use of negative space, as Pierre asks the reader to immerse themselves into her world and memories. It's a daring approach for an entire book, but Pierre's gentle wit assures the reader that the experience will not be a suffocating one.

The running theme throughout the book is not just that music was something that had a powerful effect on her, even as a teen, but that it was something she felt the urge to share with others. As such, the book pays loving attention to the clunky old mix tape. It's a format that's now dead, but at the time, having the power to record music off the radio or an LP was remarkable, especially when portable formats became available. Moreover, a mixtape was a personal message: a juxtaposition of songs given new meaning by the intentionality of the person making them. It's a testament to the fact that editing is its own art form and means of expression, like a good editor with an anthology.

Mixtapes were a way of expressing excitement, affection (especially for new crushes) and friendship. And the technology had something to do with this particular expression, because it was often a tedious, long process to make a mix tape. Furthermore, when you listened to a mix tape, it wasn't easy to simply skip a track and go to another one if you didn't like a song. Listening to a mix tape was just as much of a commitment as making one. There were no other options for recording music until the CD burner came along and the digital music revolution. It's in this setting that Pierre's book takes place.

If her book is really about PTSD, then its twin themes are intentionality and seeking meaning. As a child of a musician and someone in the rock business, music was just something that was part of her natural atmosphere. It was like breathing; she didn't even have to think about it. As such Pierre notes that a lot of the mix tapes she made in her youth and young adulthood were a reflection of that river of music that was was floating down. It surrounded and carried her, rather than being something that felt like it was hers. For a young person, finding that song or band that just gets you can be a crucial process, one that she didn't achieve until the riot grrrl movement of the early and mid 1990s. More to the point, it pushed Pierre from the passive act of listening to actually learning how to play guitar.

That led her to become a part of Boston's folk music scene. She played every open-mic night, every bar, every shop that would let her play. The key section of the book is her articulating chasing the feeling "of being found, of being known, of being heard in songs", looking for a specific kind of sublime aesthetic experience that can't be forced; you must be lucky enough for it to reveal itself to you. It's an experience that binds song and listener together, conjuring from thin air a combination of words and melodies that explains how they feel as someone living in this world. For a moment, that itch in the back of one's brain is finally scratched. We have peeked behind the curtain and saw the glory of creation, and we get to remember it for a little while.

That feeling does not make us immune to pain and trauma, nor is it a cure for it. Leaning on it too heavily can be like any form of self-medication: effective until it reaches the point of diminished returns--and then no longer effective. Pierre describes in detail how denying one's own pain eventually comes at an enormous cost, one with somatic as well as psychological symptoms. For Pierre, she described this feeling of anger and betrayal that led to "the brick"--a feeling in the pit of her stomach that made it hard to breathe. It was a panic attack, brought on by years of PTSD being exacerbated by a continuous loop of bad relationship choices.

Music is something that was recommended to her by her first therapist, who used the "talking cure". At the time, music was the only thing that gave her pleasure and didn't cause anxiety. Her former loves writing and drawing led to those somatic experiences of PTSD as well. The problem was that Pierre sought validation, redemption and tranquility by chasing relationships, no matter how ill-advised they were. The more she chased the sublime as a means of self-medicating, the further away it got from her. It was only when she picked up, moved across the country and got a new therapist who focused on how her mind and body were out of synch that she began to get better. Focusing on mindfulness of her body when she felt anxious, breathing techniques and other meditative therapy made all the difference.

The book emphasizes that the experience of art, and music in particular, is an essential part of what it means to be human. Be it listening for that song that hears you or performing music as an expression of living in that joy, music has powerful, positive effects on us. What Pierre points out is that these effects are not the same thing as therapy, no matter how much we channel our emotions into it. Pain has to be dealt with openly and in a therapeutic setting as a way of putting us on the right course, and/or with the intervention of medication. Doing so allowed Pierre to write her first love song for a man who was leaving town and couldn't get involved with her.

It was a song about that feeling of sadness "without rage", without trying to get someone to do something, without trying to wound or lick a wound. It's a beautiful grace note of an ending, especially with the sly use of the book's framing device. The book was told in past tense as Pierre looked over her old mixtapes and letters, and one of the final images is a current image of her husband and son--and her husband looks an awful lot like that man who had to leave her many years ago. It's a beautiful grace note as she offers up music not as a cure, but as a hook--something that lets us know that we are alive, we are heard and we are seen. Sometimes that's all we need to point us in the right direction to make our lives better.

Friday, October 5, 2018

mini-Kus!: Kvam, Pita, Krause, Vitina

Latvia marches on with more issues of mini-Kus!....

mini-Kus! #67: Day Tour, by Mariana Pita. Pita's line is as loose as it gets, cohering around a pleasant arrangement of pastels. It's about a young woman desperately seeking self-validation and her football-loving talking dog. As she goes to give blood, they have to navigate a busy city made busier by rabid fans ready to take in the match. The comic really is about how we choose to confront anxiety and its effects on our everyday life. Simply leaving the house was a big step for the protagonist, much less finishing the job of actually giving blood. Even when she's not able to give a full amount, she knows that she's done everything she can. Her dog represents a sort of negation of the search for meaning, as he can't give blood and is obsessed with the game. It's his way of dealing with reality, but he's outside of the camaraderie of fandom and instead faces its more alienating qualties. All of this is done in the most welcoming, friendly prose possible, as it digs into some dark places.

mini-Kus! #68: Weekend, by Erlend Peder Kvam. This is as unhinged a comic as I've ever read, with a strange logic that's shouted at a million decibels and intense colors. The comic is a combination of brutal satire and sincere weirdness, as a boss with a cultish following among his workers must entertain his twin nephews (?) over the weekend. Every figure is distorted (with lots of foreshortening), has spiky-headed features and threatens to jump off the page. There's even a parody of criticism, as the boss is revolted by the work of one nephew as that of a "try-hard" and is drawn to the silly weirdness of the other nephew. There's no doubt a heavy sense of intentionality to every line and word (done in an electronic font), but it's so deliberately strange and off-putting that it almost dares the reader to engage it.

mini-Kus! #69: Maud, by Marlene Krause. This is a straightforward but interesting biographical comic about Maud Wagner, one of the first female tattoo artists. A circus acrobat throughout her life, she initially agreed to date her future husband Gus in exchange for lessons on how to do the manual "stick and poke" tattoo. Done in bright colored pencil, Krause emphasizes the sheer joy of their interactions as he shared his past as a sailor traveling around the world and she revealed her desire to see the sorts of thing he had experienced. They eventually became well known as a pair of master tattoo artists who were themselves covered in art. Krause does a great job condensing their lives into key moments, including the birth of their daughter Lotteva and Maud extracting a vow that Gus would never tattoo her. As a result, their daughter would become a skilled tattoo artist in her own right, only she never got a drop of ink herself because the only person she ever wanted to do it was her father, and he had died. Those story beats were filled out by more quotidian anecdotes that talked about the yearnings of each character, with beautiful and cartoonish renderings on each page.

mini-Kus! #70: Worms, Clouds, Everything, by Lote Vilma Vitina. Reminiscent of the small renderings of Souther Salazar, this book has dozens of small, scratchy but beautiful drawings of nature as observed by a hermit in the wilderness. The hermit is obsessed with mushroom hunting, from the thrill of the hunt itself to the delicious things he makes to the psychedelic experiences he has by eating certain kinds of fungi. There are some deliberate parallels to the work of Henry David Thoreau here, as the hermit talks about his surroundings and the feelings they invoke in great detail. Color contrasts are important as different pages are on different color stocks, creating different visual effects without the use of very much actual color. This is a comic about filling in the blanks and creating new ways of looking at the world every day.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Minis: R.Petersman, F.Lyn/S.Cantirino

Some more recent minis from SPX to ponder...

Summer Sketches, by Rachel Petersman. I understood this to be Petersman's first official comic, but this humble photocopied mini of black & white pencil sketches shows a young artist who has already developed her own observational voice. Petersman has also developed a strikingly effective visual language predicated upon narrowing each page down to a single, central image. For example, on one page where she's seeing a band play, she zeroes in on the lead singer prowling on the stage. It's clear that she's using some photoreference as well as simple observation of her city's environs, but the results feel lived in rather than stiff. Her style is naturalistic, but she doesn't make the mistake of overrendering. She's perhaps too reliant on naturalism in drawing faces without quite having the chops to pull off differentiating figures at this point; a more cartoonish but definitively drawn set of expressions would have made it easier for her to get across emotions in close-ups. That said, her writing evokes the sadness and sweetness of being a young person in the city, struggling with anxiety but determined to make the most of the environment around them.

Flower Girls, by Francesca Lyn and Sally Cantirino. A post-modern take on "magical girl" comics is a strikingly original idea, especially when addressed in such a humane and loving way as in this comic. It poses the question: what happens when a bunch of magical girls grow up and stop having adventures? How do they adjust to the world at large? Lyn introduces us to Rose, now an adult but formerly the leader of a group of such girls who now lives with her cousin in the city. Right from the start, the reader is introduced to the idea of not only her being a magical girl in real life, but that the ancillary materials like best-selling dolls were a part of their daily existence as well. Negotiating fantasy with the ugly, harsh reality of capitalism is a theme of this comic, especially in the sense of exploring the problem of conflating purpose with financial success.

That said, Rose is drifting, and encounters with former teammates Prism and Skye (now a couple) do little to assuage her anxieties. She has dreams about encountering the goddess who gave her her powers, which have now faded with the years. There are allusions to one team member who fell out of contact and another who totally abandoned them. There's a mysterious segment where her cousin disappeared, only to turn up in the hospital without memories of how he got there--only to make a mysterious phone call indicating that Rose had been fooled. The comic left the reader with a lot of questions and certainly had me wanting more. Cantirino was a perfect choice as collaborator, as the SAW grad is equally adept at depicting the grittiness of daily urban life with the feathery, airy quality of fantasy realms.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Some SPX Minis: J. Baylis, A. Stang, R. Ullman

I can never resist reading minis from old favorites right after SPX. Here are some examples...

So Buttons #9, by Jonathan Baylis, et al. Baylis writes with increasing confidence and a Harvey Pekar-like ability to pick the right artists for the right kind of stories. That's not a coincidence, as Pekar is one of his major influences. Baylis and long-time collaborator Noah Van Sciver in "So...Carl" play on the structure of the famous Pekar/R.Crumb story "The Harvey Pekar Name Story", yet the structure actually serves a purpose in discussing his father Carl and his same-named cousin. While Baylis often plays his personal anecdotes for laughs, there's often a deeply personal and even cathartic quality to many of them as well; in this case, it was going to the funeral of his uncle with his sick father and freaking out that "Carl Baylis" was dead.

Two other long-time Baylis collaborators also shine in different ways. The simplicity of T.J. Kirsch is perfect for an anecdote about Baylis' young son talking about how he loved The Flash, his mom...and that's it. Thomas Boatwright returned in a follow-up about Baylis' old ambition of being a horror movie make-up artist, with exaggerated, cartoonish figures and a bright use of color contributing to an upbeat story of meeting one of his heroes and having it go well. Summer Pierre was a perfect choice for a sweet story about Baylis talking to his son about music. A story about getting rare roast beef from the Second Avenue Deli in New York was fittingly done by one of the best in depicting the city in James Romberger. Fred Hembeck continues to illustrate Baylis' time as an intern in comics, which was littered with disastrous stories. This time around, it was at Valiant Comics, where he watched staffer after staffer get fired by despondent publisher Bob Layton. Hembeck's deep knowledge of comics was put to good use in some clever panels, like one where he referenced the famous image of an alcoholic Tony Stark from an issue of Iron Man that Layton co-wrote and inked. I'm not sure if Baylis suggested that connection or if Hembeck came up with it, but it's the sort of thing that happens all the time in Baylis' comics. Baylis has a love of comics and its history that's coupled with an eyes-wide-open understanding of the industry's foibles. Combining that with an intuitive sense of not only what kind of anecdotes from his life make for a good story, but how to tell that story economically, has made him one of my favorite recent memoirists.

The Audra Show #1, by Audra Stang. Everything about this little mini is perfectly designed, from Stang's cheery self-caricature on the cover to the intense use of reds, blues and yellows. It was clear from the beginning that Stang was a talent to watch, and it's interesting to see her stretch out and work so extensively with color. Her biggest strengths remain dialogue and character interaction, as there's a great degree of verisimilitude. This comic begins with a wink to Daniel Clowes' Ghost World in that there are two teenage girls at a diner in 1988 who harass a schlubby, mustachioed waiter named Owen. The story takes place from the point of view of the waiter, who has a crush on a waitress named Bea. When they part after hanging out after work one night, she happens to see him him jump off the dock into the ocean...and when he doesn't come up after several minutes, she gets worried. The ending is a sublime moment of magical realism that nonetheless is a smooth fit with the rest of the story and even resolves the romantic tension between the two characters.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales #3, by Robert Ullman. Ullman's sports comics get more and more confident as he wrings out every bit of story and character to be found in the oft-eccentric National Hockey League. With this third issue, he's close to putting together enough material to assemble a book (around 70 pages so far). Ullman's clear, smooth line is ideally suited for this kind of storytelling, as he varies line weights to emphasize contact and action. The comic picks and chooses between the ridiculous, the beautiful, and the horrifying, as the early NHL had a Wild West feel in terms of its on-ice violence but also featured an intensity that created a deep connection with fans.

This issue featured statistical oddities embodied by players like Ken Doraty, whose career was notable for his overtime heroics and little else. The story of the "Curse of Muldoon", which supposedly prevented the Chicago Black Hawks from finishing in first place, was hilariously revealed to be a newspaper-created hoax. Ullman uses a grey wash to create an old newsreel feel in telling the story of Larry Kwang, the first Chinese-Canadian (and minority of any kind) man to play in the NHL. It's a story that's predictably filled with racist incidents, yet Kwang found different ways to rise above them in his life. In recent years, his story has been more widely told. There's also the story of Ace Bailey, who nearly died in an on-ice fight after taking a blind cheap shot, but later forgave the man who struck him. Ullman crams a lot of stories into 26 pages, and his ability to snappily get at the heart of each story without wasting a line makes this one-man anthology a compelling read.