Thursday, November 14, 2019

On The Passing Of Tom Spurgeon

Critic, writer, and show organizer Tom Spurgeon died on November 13th, 2019. He was fifty years old. He loved comics. Comics loved him back. What follows is a series of personal anecdotes, thoughts, and memories of Tom.

** Most people in creative fields are lucky to have a single successful avenue for expression. Tom wound up having five in his lengthy, expansive career. He was one of the best-ever editors of The Comics Journal and in general a long-time champion of minicomics in particular. He fulfilled a dream when he wrote the syndicated comic strip Wildwood. He wrote an excellent biography on Stan Lee and helmed a history of Fantagraphics, that while troubled in its final execution, was superb in the portions that he wrote and organized. He launched the single-most-important comics blog and news site, The Comics Reporter, and kept it going through thick and thin--though rarely in a way that he was satisfied with. Finally, he became Executive Director of Comics Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a remarkable show in partnership with the Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State. Let's unpack some of these.

** In my opinion, Tom is the greatest comics critic of all time and its second-best interviewer (behind only Gary Groth). He matched his catholic tastes as a critic and reader with a relentlessly searching and demanding critical acumen that celebrated excellence and hated mediocrity. His willingness to go deep and celebrate comics in all its forms is what made him unusual. You were just as likely to read about an editorial cartoonist or an EC artist as you were about a French alternative cartoonist or someone from Fort Thunder at the Journal or the Comics Reporter. His reviews were often grumpy and curmudgeonly, but he never went for cheap heat. He was direct and sometimes harsh, though he was willing to change his mind from time to time. He was perhaps the earliest advocate of comics-as-poetry in the form of Warren Craghead.

His Sunday interviews at the Comics Reporter need to be collected. He went far and wide and went deep with so many comics veterans and up-and-coming cartoonists. I was lucky enough to be interviewed twice by him, once for art comics in 2012 and once to discuss Acme Novelty Library #19. In both instances, it was clear that he clearly delved into what I wrote and pushed me in interesting directions. He was demanding. When a story arose, he wanted documentation, names and dates. As much as he knew and wrote about and documented, you could fill a hundred books with the gossip and unsourced data that was in his head that he chose not to print. Tom had a powerful sense of integrity and wasn't afraid to get into conflicts because of it.

** Indeed, I chuckled at the number of remembrances of Tom today that contain some variation of "Tom and I didn't always see eye to eye..." or "We argued all the time". However, those anecdotes were inevitably followed by an affirmation of the respect and love people had for him. For Tom, comics was too important to not take criticism seriously, even if it meant hurting feelings. That didn't mean that he didn't care about people.

Indeed, The Comics Reporter was the single biggest nexus for connecting cartoonists and writers in need with a network that could help them. I can attest to this personally, as Tom not only posted notes with regard to financial crises that I've faced over the past decade, he also personally contributed on more than one occasion.

Tom did piss people off, and recently. He had a tart tongue and knew how to zing people. Of course, his most popular target was himself. Tom was famously self-deprecating, and this wasn't a pose. It was something he struggled with, I believe. At the same time, when Tom gave you a compliment, it felt earned. He said nice things about me all the time on TCR, and "hearing" compliments is something I struggle with. But when Tom said it, I listened and took it to heart. At the most recent SPX, when he congratulated me on the slate of programming and gave specific comments on certain panels he liked, it was the most profound compliment I received in a weekend full of overwhelming thanks and praise.

** Let's talk a little more about The Comics Reporter. In an age of twitter, facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media that make it easy to connect writers and artists with an audience, that site's influence was less pervasive. In its heyday, and pretty much up until he went to work for CXC, The Comics Reporter was required daily reading. A link from Tom meant that you were going to get read. I was incredibly grateful to Tom when he started linking my work at sequart.com because that's when my writing started to get taken seriously. When sequart died and I started my own blog, I asked Tom for some industry-related advice, and he was kind enough to give it to me.

Tom went to bat for a number of creators in a multitude of ways. Anytime he went an editorial route, his opinions were incisive and well thought out. He didn't just report the news; he was an educator. He was crucial in making sense of the past fifteen years of comics' expansion and boom time. Tom had grand plans to expand it further that never came to fruition, much to his own frustration. He was down on himself for what he considered to be TCR's mediocrity, and I told him that even in this more vestigial form, he was still conveying more information than anyone else. Tom felt that burden of imagining a project and it never appearing quite as one hoped. But he did it anyway.

** Tom somehow wrote Wildwood while writing a biography about Stan Lee and freelancing for the Journal. He kept up The Comics Reporter while writing his book about Fantagraphics. That he wasn't able to finish it the way he wanted turned what should have been a classic into something that was highly self-congratulatory. Tom had a way of getting at the facts of what made something important with no patience whatsoever for frippery or self-promotion.

** I think the project that he was simultaneously proudest of and most troubled by was CXC. It is unbelievably hard to put together a comics festival. There are a lot of moving parts, especially when you're working with the grinding gears of a college bureaucracy. He seemed constantly weary when I saw him. However, the joy in his eyes and the genuine emotion in his voice when he was able to bestow the Emerging Cartoonist award (which includes a significant cash prize) showed exactly what comics and the people behind them mean to him. It meant a lot to him to give Katie Skelly, Kevin Czap, Kat Fajardo, Keren Katz, and Carta Monir both recognition and financial support. What a marvelous list that is: cutting-edge, diverse, and possessing the same kind of community values that Tom did.

Still: I know that Tom got blowback about any number of issues. Logistics proved difficult at times. I know that he did his best, but I also know that like everything he ever did, it wasn't quite like he pictured it. It doesn't matter, though, because what he did, working with a lot of different people, was still warmly received by so many people.

** Tom Spurgeon loved comics. He loved its shitty history and calling it out. He loved what comics is becoming now, and he loved what he saw as its future. He used his influence and power to lift others up, especially later in his career. Even his meanest reviews were never personal, even if some seemed dismissive. The targets of negative reviews tended to forgive him because of his sincerity and advocacy. He helped a lot of people in a multitude of ways, including me. I modeled my approach after his. He never steered me wrong. Without his example, his advice, and his direct help, I wouldn't be writing today. He loved comics, and comics loved him, and so did I.

Friday, November 8, 2019

mini-kus #79: Powerpaola's I Couldn't Stop

Ecuadorian-Columbian cartoonist Powerpaola's debut, Virus Tropical, was an excellent childhood memoir and heralded a run of such books by women. Her autobiographical contribution for the always-excellent mini-Kus series,(#79) I Couldn't Stop, is about an evening of portents in Buenos Aires. Her style is totally immersive, from the first panel depicting a full moon in the sky with probing eyes to the transition to a close-up of her own eyes, then distancing the reader with a pair of goggles. The entire comic depicts a kind of push-and-pull with the reader and with her world, as she found herself needing to get out and see people and connect with them in part because she had been working on a comics project about sex abuse.

There is an unsettling momentum with regard to fate in this comic, starting with a reference to the horoscope and continuing on to losing a supposedly protective bracelet, a warning from a friend about being on a bike, and seeing a cop wave a gun in the air in public. Along the way, she is almost defiant about rejecting and ignoring these omens, as she desperately needs to move, be active, and see her friends. The gray wash she uses adds to the dark mood of the comic, as well as her curious blend of naturalism and cartoony and almost grotesque character design. She seems to get what she needs with regard to defying fate, connecting with her friends, and even finding hope for change with regard to abuse and horror.

However, after that final portent of the cop waving a gun around and then sharply saying "Don't criticize me!" when people call him on his recklessness, she is defiant in going home on her bike, despite her friends begging her to go with her in their car. The result implies almost a kind of hubris on her part, that she may have managed to find a way to cope with the horrors swirling in her mind, but she ignored her safety in other, more basic ways--and she paid the price. The comic cuts off right at the point of her getting injured, with no further context or explanation. Given the warnings she gave the reader and that she herself ignored, no further explanations are needed. This is a grim comic that's nonetheless filled with moments of light before it spins off into the abyss, all told with a powerful sense of humanity.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Minis: Age of Elves #4

The fourth issue of Colin Lidston's slice-of-life story of four role-playing gamer friends circa 2000 once again focuses on Sarah, the sole girl in the group. In the last issue, it became clear to her that she was tired of doing all of the emotional labor in the group. She was tired of Evan's benders and of Bram's tantrums when people went outside of the Rules of the group. Indeed, it is ironic that groups of outcasts who can't seem to fall in step with social mores often tend to seek out subcultures with even more rigidly-defined rules of expected behavior. As per usual, Lidston favors a smudgy, slightly grotesque line that refuses to idealize its figures but also doesn't treat them as objects of derision. In particular, he excels at drawing people with larger body types in a way that makes sense, not as the object of a punchline.

In this issue, Sarah struck out on her own, hanging out with an older couple she had met in an earlier issue named Catherine and Alan. They gave her validation with regard to her interest in illustration and costume design in a way she didn't always get from her friends; more importantly, they represented new friends in an environment seemingly rife for making them at a gaming convention. Of course, her friends found it difficult to actually meet new people, mediating these relationships through the act of gaming itself, through drinking, or simply not interacting with anyone new. Sarah is the only one in the group looking to expand her horizons, if not reinvent themselves.

She learns how to make chainmail from Catherine. She's invited to go LARPing, though she declines. She attends an afterparty and has a good time. In particular, she has a conversation with Catherine that's telling. Catherine notes that she started playing D&D in the 1980s, when it was a fad for a while. At that time in 2000, with the fad long over, Catherine noted that the game now "belonged to us", meaning gamers. Catherine states confidently, "This is real life", but Sarah is unsure. That doubt is magnified when both Catherine and Alan make a pass at her as a couple, introducing a sexual world so far beyond Sarah's experience that she simply leaves as quickly as possible. It's another level of unreality, making her return to her friends a welcome experience. As imperfect and rigid as they are, they are what she knows. The question that remains is whether she will remain content with those imperfections in the long run or if she will address them. One issue remains in this surprisingly provocative series, one that offers up a number of subcultural critiques while still remaining respectful of those subcultures. It will be interesting to see if Sarah's story ends in resolution or resignation.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Shelf: Penny Nichols

Slice-of-life fiction is something I see a lot less of in comics these days, especially compared to its heyday in the 90s. A lot of it was perhaps thinly-veiled autobiography, only with a stronger narrative structure and/or more defined character arcs. Most fictional comics these days tend to be genre-inflected, even if the genre elements are in the background and the stories are heavily-character oriented. Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell are good examples of doing that at a high level. On the other hand, while MK Reed has done her share of genre work, she started her career working on slice-of-life books, and her big breakthrough was her love letter to libraries, Americus.

Her latest book, Penny Nichols, was written with frequent writing partner Greg "Clutch McBastard" Means and drawn by long-time minicomics stalwart Matt Wiegle. It's about a smart but aimless 26-year-old woman (the titular Penny Nichols) who is working a series of pointless temp jobs and going on the occasional horrible date. In reading it, this book is truly aimed at that mid-20s person who hasn't found their purpose in life. They don't have the ambition, ability, or interest to hook into the business world, but they've also faced a lifetime of discouragement in trying to do anything else. Their liberal arts degree seems pointless. They don't just want to hop on the marriage train and start having kids, but they don't know what they want.

In the case of Penny, she gets mixed up with a troupe of horror movie filmmakers who have plenty of vision and creativity, but they are missing the essential element of a single organizational brain. Reed and Means create a vibrant cast of horror geeks, over-acting theater guys, and dreamers who want a taste of something beyond their service or office jobs. Penny soon learns that much of the group, especially the two guys running Satan's Fingers Productions (or is it Killshot Films?) are long on ideas and short on actual follow-through. The spine of the narrative is built around making a horror film in time for a big indy horror-film event called Splatterfest.

Along the way, Reed & Means keep the focus on Penny and her life. That includes her adversarial relationship with her roommate, her dysfunctional relationship with her prim sister, and her own self-esteem as a person. The cover of the book is a neat summary of the narrative: Penny is there making directorial notes, adding make-up touches, holding a boom mic, assisting with blood for special effects, and then mopping up the whole thing. She's in blue while everything else is in yellow, a nice trick that focuses the reader's eye and makes them understand that the same person is in all of these roles. Penny helps write the script and do the storyboards, goes out and looks for costumes, scouts locations, and reads up on how to make a film. More to the point: she was encouraged to do this, and encouragement was all that she ever wanted and needed. She wanted to be part of something creative and to find a community that valued her for her creative instincts. Moreover, Penny Nichols hammers home one specific point: nothing you ever do will ever live up to your own ideal of what you wanted, so the most important thing to do is finish it.

Indeed, the final day of filming is one where Penny has to take over the most significant role: directing itself. The flaky director, whose anxiety always rose directly the closer he got to actually completing any project, didn't show up. Instead, Penny takes the reins and not only gets through it, she even manages to come to an understanding of sorts with her sister. Reed and Means keep the characterizations relatively simple but still allow each character to feel satisfied with themselves for their own contributions to the film. From the young special effects guy to the actress hungry for real structure, the crew manages to find workarounds for everything, both in terms of props, location, and even the story itself.

If all of this sounds like a metaphor for the comics community, that's because it is. Splatterfest itself is a love letter to events like SPX. Indeed, there's a time gap between the last day of filming and the convention, which opens with a young woman flagging down Penny and lavishing praise on the film. We learn that they didn't win the competition, but they did get a lot of attention and interest. Every artist and writer knows that feeling of someone coming up to you and telling them how important their work is to them. It's a sense of validation and belonging that was heretofore missing in the lives of so many. While that validation and camaraderie feels good and can be sustaining, Penny Nichols is firm in asserting the idea that it's the work itself that's most important.

Speaking of collaborations, Wiegle's cartoony, exaggerated style is ideal for a comic about making a horror movie. While a lot of his comics have dealt with fantasy or genre concepts, Wiegle at heart is a gag man. This is a book that has a lot of funny character moments, and Wiegle delivers a host of quirky, bizarre, and amusing character designs. Penny herself is gloriously frumpy, with hair piled on top of her head in somewhat haphazard fashion. Wiegle's varied line weights allow for a lot of precision character details as well as denser, more expressive lines when they film a bunch of the blood-splattering scenes. There is a sense of joy at the heart of this book, as the collaboration of the artist and writers reflects the enthusiasm of the cast of characters. Penny Nichols is about the joy of creation from concept to problem-solving to finished product, and it reflects how this shared passion can unite a disparate group of people in such an ebullient fashion. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Madeleine Aguilar's Minicomics

Madeleine Aguilar's upbeat autobio and fanciful comics are a delightful burst of fresh air. The two volumes of her autobiographical Precious Moments series feature expressive, stripped-down art founded on basic shapes. The first issue features the introduction of Baby Madeline, and Aguilar's depiction of her thoughts as an infant and toddler are both funny and warm. She captures that powerful sense of unconditional love that children feel for their parents, siblings, and grandparents as they feel like part of the same unit or being. The second issue (volume 5) features an older Madeline and a baby brother. Aguilar amusingly gets at several levels of sibling relationships at that age, from sharing the sheer joy of the world to being disgusted when he fills up his diaper. Aguilar uses a lot of blank space on her pages that gives them an almost sense of being scrawled on in a free and easy manner. That thick line has power, but it's also friendly and engaging.

That storytelling carries over in her equally cute middle-ages story Luteboy, which is about the titular character and his friends. Luteboy is an innocent to that point of being almost obnoxiously naive at times, something he gets roasted for from time to time by his monk friend Timotheus. Aguilar writes this character with a great deal of sincerity, but she's also acutely aware that he can be hard to take. This isn't a James Kochalka cute overload situation, but rather an instance of a character badly misunderstanding concepts like appropriate social cues, even if he does so without malice. At the same time, he's tolerated because he is so innocent and enthusiastic. Aguilar is also gently spoofing the concept of the idealistic, sensitive artist, as Luteboy often doesn't know how to take responsibility for his own actions or accept direction criticism. Still, his unflagging optimism wins the reader over, and at times his insights are real and poetic. Aguilar's line is unfailingly winning here, using a slightly lighter line weight but adding more detail to the comic.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Luke Pearson's Hilda And The Mountain King

There's no question that Luke Pearson is one of the most talented cartoonists of his generation. The sixth and final (for now) volume of his beloved Hilda series, Hilda And The Mountain King, not only caps off the cliffhanger ending of the previous volume but also ties together a lot of narrative threads from the very beginning. NoBrow very clearly knew what they had in Pearson from the beginning, as these books have always been printed at a size that allows his multi-panel pages to really breathe and flow. Of course, the care that NoBrow takes with their color and production values that mark each of their books has always been a highlight of the Hilda series, but the colors are far more muted and varied than in many NoBrow books. Indeed, Pearson uses a lot of negative space on his pages as a way to highlight individual character moments.

Color tends to dominate many NoBrow books over the quality of the line itself, but that's not the case for Pearson. His beautiful, expressive, and cartoony line takes precedence in every panel. The color simply accents and highlights the line. While his backgrounds and nature drawings are lush and warm, it's his use of gesture and body language in his character designs that truly draw in the eye. Pearson clearly looked at a lot of Chris Ware's work as well as Tove Jansson's, but there's also a lot of Donald Duck in there as well. The only contemporary who depicts panel-to-panel action on the same level is Jeff Smith, but Pearson has a more aesthetically-pleasing style.

The Hilda books center around the title character, a young girl living with her mother. First, they lived out in the woods in a forest filled with strange creatures like invisible elves, mountain-sized giants, and trolls who turn to stone in the daylight. Their existence and motivations sparked the first Hilda book and became a running part of the narrative, although mostly in the background. The key turning point in the series came when her mother moved them into the nearby city of Trolberg, whose whole purpose was to keep the trolls away. Hilda loves her mother but is also extraordinarily strong-willed, and that tension is at the heart of the entire series. Her mother worries about her and starts to feel Hilda pulling away from her, unwilling to share her life with her. That came to a head in the previous volume, Hilda And The Stone Forest, when they were trapped inside the mountain with trolls. All seemed to end well until the end when Hilda woke up as a troll with the troll-mother they had met, and Hilda's mom dealing with the troll-baby they had met.

The new volume picks up from that surprise twist and introduces a number of other plot twists while still conveying the sheer joy that Hilda learns to experience as a troll. She misses her mother and being human, but being a troll conveys a little of the wild experience she wants out of life, one absent of responsibility and expectations. Balancing that wild quality with the safety and comfort she feels at home is at the core of the story, as well as balancing fear with compassion and understanding. The big, epic ending simply recapitulates the series' themes: the relationships between mothers and children (but especially daughters) and the desire from all to have a place to call home. Those themes are writ both large and small throughout the series, though this book makes it big and splashy. The final images display the kind of balance that Hilda and her mother achieved with each other in a joyous fashion.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2019

Here's my usual dive into artists that SPX-goers should definitely check out. As always, I try not to repeat names from previous years and other shows.



1. The Triangle's Finest (Table W67) That would be three excellent cartoonists from the Research Triangle in my state of North Carolina: Andrew Neal (Hillsborough), Adam Meuse (Cary), and Max Huffman (Carrboro). Neal is the former owner of the excellent Chapel Hill Comics and the artist behind the hilarious and strange Meeting Comics. Meuse has been producing funny, strange, and touching minis for years, including the classic Sad Animals and Square. Huffman is a fairly recent grad of the School Of Visual Arts, He's a wild stylist with comics like Plaguers Int'l and Garage Island. This will be one of the best tables at the entire show.

2. Lance Ward (Table J9). I've been a fan of Ward's scorched-earth autobio for years, and I'm pleased to see his work get wider recognition. His new book, Blood and Drugs, is a harrowing and honest look at how an injury forced him to adapt to using a scrawled, almost manic style. He'll be at the Birdcage Bottom Books table, but all of his work is highly recommended.

3. ShortBox (Table W8).  The cutting-edge publishing concern of Zainab Akhtar will have a major presence at SPX. Like any smart publisher, she's way ahead of the curve with regard to up-and-coming talents; she was one of the first to become aware of Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, for example. This table will be jam-packed with great comics you may not have seen before. Zainab herself will not be there, but the books will be!

4. Diskette Press (Table I14). Carta Monir & Co. have quickly become a force to be reckoned with on the publishing scene. Come check out the work of Ignatz Award nominees Emma Jayne and Mar Julia in particular, but there's a wide variety of material to choose from.

5. Eleri Harris (Table L9). This Australian and graduate of the Center For Cartoon Studies is also a Nib editor and find historical/editorial cartoonist in her own right. Her historical comics are consistently well-sourced, funny, and fascinating.

6. Rachel Masilamani (Table A6a). I've been following her career since her Xeric Grant days, and her personal, poetic, and sometimes enigmatic work is better than ever. I'm excited that she has a chance to show off her work to a new audience.

7. Kate Lacour (Table H8-9). Her brand-new book Vivisectionary is out from Fantagraphics, and this is an engaging, witty, and visceral bit of body horror. Lacour's dry sense of humor is ever-present in this collection of drawings that were previously published in minicomics form, but the production values on this book make it a bizarre, beautiful art object.

8. Mary Shyne (Table I13a). This recent CCS grad is coming armed with her new book, Get Over It. Shyne's work is a perfect combination of top-notch production design and color, a playful line, and dialogue that mixes fantasy and verisimilitude. This will be one of the best books of the show.

9. Rikke Villadsen (W68-69). One of many Danes attending the show, Villaden's The Sea was a surreal, erotic, and terrifying mix of tropes and genres. Her pencil work, in particular, is dense and visceral. She'll also be at the Fantagraphics table.

10. Breena Nuñez (E11b). Her personal and political comics are playful, expressive, and powerful. Her comics about being Afro-Guatemalan often delve into family stories, but she's just as adept in using dynamic and innovative techniques in talking about injustice.

11. Glom Press (W6). Marc Pearson will be repping this excellent Australian Risograph publisher in their first SPX appearance. Bailey Sharp's My Big Life and Aaron Billings' Mystical Boy Scout #4 are particularly great.

12. Keren Katz (C13b). Katz is one of the most brilliant cartoonists working today. I haven't taken the deep dive into her work that I've wanted (I've only reviewed one book out of her extremely prolific output), but the way she works dance, abstraction, and comics-as-poetry into her narratives is relentlessly fascinating and confounding. There aren't many artists with a more sophisticated color palette, either. Her new book, The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, will be out from Secret Acres.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Small Press Comics Critics Announce Formation Of Nonprofit Publishing House Fieldmouse Press

Grass Valley, CA: Today, veteran comics critics Daniel Elkin, Alex Hoffman, Rob Clough, and Ryan Carey announced the formation of a new, non-profit publishing company, Fieldmouse Press, establishing a visionary, ambitious, and dedicated multi-venue publishing initiative within the burgeoning small press comics community. The company’s first publishing project, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), will publish comics criticism, essays, interviews, and new comics as a part of a larger effort to serve the public good. SOLRAD will launch at the beginning of January 2020.

Fieldmouse Press will be operated by President Daniel Elkin, long-time publisher and editor at Your Chicken Enemy, with Alex Hoffman, publisher of Sequential State serving as Secretary/Treasurer. Rob Clough of High-Low Comics and Ryan Carey of Four Color Apocalypse round out the company's initial board of directors. The aim of Fieldmouse Press is to emphasize its four pillars of "comics, critique, community, and collaboration" by presenting challenging, unique, and diverse material to as wide an audience as possible.

Of the press’ founding, Secretary/Treasurer Alex Hoffman said, “Our goal is to provide a space for readers, artists, and the general public to explore the comic arts in the many forms they come in. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our goal is to serve this community that we love and do something we think hasn’t been possible before now. And as a nonprofit organization, we can take chances that other publishers haven’t.”

Fieldmouse's first major publishing project will be a new website, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), which will be a comics journalism hub featuring all-new and original content ranging from comics criticism, original comics, essays, interviews, and the promotion of small-press events and releases. Further publishing projects will be announced in due course, and will likewise share in the company's expansive, inclusive, and innovative vision.

Interested parties are encouraged to contact any of Fieldmouse's founders with questions, comments, and any business-related correspondence at:

Daniel Elkin: elkin@fieldmouse.press
Rob Clough: clough@fieldmouse.press
Alex Hoffman: hoffman@fieldmouse.press
Ryan Carey: carey@fieldmouse.press

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Minis: Evan Salazar's Rodeo #1

It's always a pleasure to get a mini in the mail from an artist with whom I'm not familiar, only for it to turn out to be excellent. Such is the case with Evan Salazar and his one-man anthology, Rodeo. The art style is somewhere between Dan Clowes' Eightball and Bill Amend's Fox Trot. That is, the settings are mostly naturalistic and conventional, but the figures are stylized and cartoony. Each story deals with something crucial that is lost or missing, and no one ends up satisfied.

The first story, "Medium Brew", is about a young woman named Abigail who considers a bizarre episode from her childhood when her mother left and a strange man with a bandage wrapped around his head appeared the next day as a houseguest. None of this was ever explained to her, other than that he was a "friend who I am doing a favor for" and her mother went on a last-minute trip. The only real information Abigail got about this period was her mom telling her, when she came back a month or so later when the guest left, was that "I know that I was gone a long time, but it was only so I wouldn't be gone forever." When the guest was there, Abigail played kid detective, looking for clues and connections as part of a larger conspiracy as she even collected his daily coffee grounds? Years later, she found a photo of the guest as a younger man on a beach, with no further explanation, stuck in a textbook in the house.

This story is fascinating because of its holes and gaps and the ways in which children fill in those gaps with elaborate narratives. It's their way of patching over trauma, until that trauma bubbles over in other, unexpected ways. When Abigal found that photo as a young adult, their first urge was to tear it up out of a surprising burst of anger. The question that is never broached is: who was the man? Why did her mom leave? Was he her dad's ex-lover, or her mom's? Was he a child from a previous marriage? Salazar vividly evokes that kind of family mystery that is never quite resolved but always leaves one wondering anxiously. If her mom left once, what was to stop her from doing it again? That anxiety takes a toll.

"Night Shift" is about a writer who dropped out of school to focus on his art, but works as a janitor to pay the bills. In two pages of nine-panel grids, Salazar juxtaposes that dream of being a writer with unpleasant, physical work. Hilariously, the writer/janitor composes a story as they work, self-editing to change phrases like "the odor of high-fructose corn syrup" to "the stench of high-fructose corn syrup." It's a complete statement unto itself as a work of the art he loves but also a desperate commentary on his unhappiness with his job. "Maggie" is about a cat who burns down her house after being frustrated by living inside, but comes to regret it when faced with the real world.

Each one of these stories, including the funny-creature Socratic dialogue "Critters" strip on the back, deals with an existential crisis of some kind. For Abigail, it's a lifetime of dealing not just with abandonment, but with an aspect of her life that made no sense. For the janitor, it was trying to live up to his identity of a writer in the face of literal garbage. For the cat, it was realizing that freedom wasn't exactly what she hoped it to be. They're all searching, probing, cleaning, and there are no clear answers. This is a small, unassuming comic that asks a lot of big questions.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Minis: Gareth Brookes' Threadbare

Threadbare, at its heart, is putatively a transcript of a conversation between two older women on a bus about love, romance, and sex. Brookes overheard this conversation and even put out a tweet about it, and was urged to jot down the details. He did and turned it into a comic. However, that's underselling the craft aspect of the comic, which is both decorative and a key element of the emotional narrative. It's formatted as a comic book in terms of images, but each image was embroidered and photographed, rather than drawn. That even includes the word balloons, which were done with green and white thread. The results are surprisingly intimate and erotic, but the format manages an extra level of metaphorical vulnerability and fragility.

If the conversations themselves were relatively tame, the corresponding images were bluntly sexual. The first story was about a woman having an affair with a married man, as the topic was "when was the last time you were in love?" She talks about having to travel to see him, how exciting it was, but ultimately realizing that he was never going to leave his wife. The images depict connection as well as longing, as a man and a woman in various states of undress have phone sex with each other. Later, they are together and have sex. In both cases, Brookes depicts spidery tendrils emanating from the phone, lashing them together in their absence, but he also depicts each of them literally coming undone. The threads and tendrils act as apt visual metaphors for both sexual connection and emotional unraveling. This is a tragic story, as she realized as it was ending that she was no longer in love with him and would never love again.

The second story is a more wistful one, as the woman thinks back to an intense teenage romance that simply vanished. His family moved away, and he didn't say goodbye. However, at one point, she thought she was pregnant with his child, and dreamed about this for years afterward--even through her marriage. This is a story more about longing than passion, unlike the first story, save for a single moment of connection where she's imagining being impregnated by him. Even then, her memories and self-image are fraught and tattered. Only a single, final image of him naked lingers in fully-realized form, neatly stitched. It's also the last image of the book, as their reverie ends and they get off the bus, back to the reality of their present-day lives. This comic is a fascinating act of empathy, fully realized in a surprisingly expressive manner, given the medium.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Minis: Born To Die

Virginia Paine's mini Born To Die is subtitled "Dark Souls, Depression, And Making Comics." Video games have evolved to the point where their narrative qualities have elevated them above mere hobby status and much closer to an art form. One result of this is that playing certain games is metaphorically evocative in any number of ways, and Paine connects this particular game to depression and creation. Dark Souls is a notoriously difficult and unforgiving game. Its very premise is a grim one: the main player is the Chosen Undead, sent on a quest to rekindle an ancient flame by acquiring souls. The game is relentless in its gameplay and dark, but it has a compelling quality that draws a player to keep going not matter how many setbacks they face.

For Paine, the game is an apt metaphor for dealing with depression. At a certain point, one has to choose to keep grinding every day, even if there doesn't seem to be an immediate reward. Video games are supposed to be escapist fun, but Paine noted that the murky, unpleasant world of Dark Souls was not unlike living in a Portland where wildfires were raging, being underpaid at her job, walking to work in 100 degree weather, and being horrified at the news. Drawing herself as the Chosen Undead, she had it think "I'm so alone in this world" and "I'm not strong enough yet." When probing deeper as to why this was resonating so strongly with her, she realized that the physical act of playing the game was not unlike hacking away at the drawing board, wondering why she even bothered.

This was connected to chronic depression in the sense that there's no end or reward, "only more work." One creates rules for daily survival, and deviating from them creates the same kind of crisis as a simple mistake in the game. Paine keeps going because for her, there's no other choice. She is compelled. Like the video game itself, the struggle "doesn't get easier. I just get better." Surviving means developing skills, rituals, and strategies to keep the process going. Paine is a plodder. She continues to seek out relationships and believe that someone can love her, even if she feels too broken to be loved. She keeps drawing comics despite feeling that she's too old to achieve success. Her character keeps playing, even though the goal seems vague and always out of reach. There's a particular phrase she uses that snaps it into sharp relief: "It doesn't get easier. I just get better." Life continues to be full of frustration, grief, and a feeling of perpetual failure. The world never gets easier to deal with; one's own coping mechanisms only become more refined. Healthy defense mechanisms allow one to deal with obstacles head on, while unhealthy defense mechanisms are ultimately untenable. For Paine, holding on to that sense of compulsion in the face of all self-defeating logic is precisely what allows her to create, to work, and to cope with depression. The work must get done. We are compelled to do it. It's the plodder's way, as any writer knows.   

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Ladybroad Ledger #4

It seems as though Vermont may well have the densest concentration of cartoonists per capita, and that's not just because of the Center for Cartoon Studies. To be sure, CCS's presence and workshops have influenced and inspired many to start cartooning, but there are many others as well. The Ladybroad Ledger is a broadsheet anthology (with a very clever title), done in black and white with a color cover strip. The fourth issue of this all-women free anthology is typically solid and varied in its stories. At sixteen pages, it's also just the right length for this kind of format.

Rachel Lindsay leads off with a funny strip, done with a green and yellow wash. It's about her outrage over technology, especially with regard to music, as she decries her formerly record-player loving friends' use of Alexa. The ending is a straight-up EC Comics spoof, with an ironic twist that's meant to be easily guessed. Lindsay's exaggerated line and exasperated expressions reminded me a bit of Roberta Gregory in some places. There's also a nice interview with her on the back page of the issue.

Another highlight of the issue are two pages from the Fawkes women: Glynnis and her young daughter Helen. Any long-time reader of Fawkes' work knows that her daughter has always been obsessed with bunnies and creating bunny characters, and this has crossed over into her own comics work. Glynnis drew a strip that Helen wrote about a nervous bunny who impresses a royal bunny by simply being themselves and running through the forest to get twigs and burs on them. There's also a page of Helen's written-and-drawn bunny stories that are very amusing. Helen clearly gives a lot of thought to things like panel composition and perspective, because most of her panels are very well-framed. She also gives a lot of thought to character design and how to differentiate characters who all look roughly alike.

Elise Dietrich and Bridget Comeau both contributed recipes/crafts. For Dietrich, her chicken lentil soup reminded her of a visit to Morocco. For Comeau, it's a way of reducing plastic use by making reusable food wraps. Susan Norton and Kara Torres both use thick lines and dense panel design for different purposes. For Norton, it's a story about feeling constantly uprooted, as defined by having to constantly pack and unpack her record collection. For Torres, it's for a humor strip about "art. anon.", a twelve-step support group of people addicted to the artist lifestyle. Torres nails the language of recovery and addiction for humorous effect.

Other stories include a funny, scribbly, open-page layout strip by Mary Lundquist about tiny elves drinking her coffee; a dense, silent story about a woman braving strange conditions to reactivate a power switch on an island by Abby Pearl; a scribbly and gray-washed series of drawings by Natania Nunubiznez discussing her simple desires; an unfortunately pixelated page from Michelle Sayles about trailblazing hiker Emma Gatewood; a Feifferesque strip by Janet Biehl in terms of figure drawing and shading about inspiring some kids in Izmir; and shorts by editor Stephanie Zuppo and Frances Cannon. They all contribute to the relaxed quality of the broadsheet, as most of the pieces take their time in telling their stories instead of adhering to strict plot and pacing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Minis: Caitlin Skaalrud, Scotty Gillmer, and Carl Thompson

Caitlin Skaalrud is an artist who I've long felt deserved wider recognition. Her poetic allegory about depression and suicide, Houses Of The Holy, was an excellent debut. Prior to that and currently, she's a minicomics maker. 2nd Birthday is a companion piece of sorts to that longer work, an act of "art-making as a spell of banishment to any ghosts left behind." It is a beautifully complex allegory involving figures, charts, quotes, and a running narrative at the bottom of each page that interacts with the analysis at the top of each page. Skaalrud notes that this is not a moment-for-moment recollection of a chain of events; instead, it's a lyrical impression of them, as she is guided by a beloved dog out of a state of misery.


In the narrative, she is depicted as a lost wanderer, bindle in hand, approaching the sainted dog. In the commentary that dominates each page, she talks about the idea of burning some aspect of the self away as being necessary for growth. It is the trial of the hero, hitting rock bottom for an addict, the dark night of the soul for the searcher. It's also part of a cycle, a necessary step in the journey that is always repeated. In relating this allegory, Skaalrud hits on an important point: we come up with myths as part of our own internal narrative, the one we use to make sense of the world. When that narrative is fractured and seems irreparable, we have to find ways to repair it or at least make sense of it, or risk further damage. For Skaalrud, this involved a ceremony to expunge the negative energy that she feared she was leaving everywhere. In the narrative, this was expunged in the form of a fiery chicken that the dog killed. How did this play out in real life? Her beloved dog was there for her, when she needed him: "You don't thank someone for their love, you love THEM. Anything else is advertising." The dog's love is pure and unconditional, attuned to what she needs emotionally as many animals are. The gantlet was run, the pain endured, wisdom was won, and love eased her through. The second birthday arrived. This was a dizzyingly beautiful account of that pain and slow recovery.

Two Shot, subtitled Comics At The Movies, was written by Skaalrud's husband Scotty Gillmer. One story was drawn by Skaalrud and the other by Gillmer's long-time drawing partner Carl Thompson. "First Person, Plural" was drawn by Thompson, and it's about a group of film critics in 1981 New York. In particular, it's about the relationship between two women: one an older critic, and the other a student still finding her feet. This is an interesting comic clearly written by someone intimately familiar not only with the history of film, but also the history of film criticism. There's a great deal of nuance in this story, as relationships and friendships are hinted at without being explicitly spelled out. That said, there's an emotional catharsis where the younger critic gets an honest critique of something she wrote by the older critic while still getting a confidence boost. Gillmer addresses sexism, the nature of the canon, and a critic's responsibility in this story, while Thompson's lively and expressive figure drawing ably carries the story.

"If You Can" was drawn by Skaalrud, and it's a deeply personal and autobiographical story that also revolves around film. There are parallel narratives at work here: the narrative captions are essentially an essay about the films of Steven Spielberg. In particular, he addresses the tension in Spielberg's films between domesticity and exploring the unknown. He focuses on three films: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Hook, and Catch Me If You Can. The first finds its hero rejecting home for the unknown, the second tries to have it both ways, and the third finds a balance between the two. Meanwhile, the story itself follows the relationship between Gillmer and Skaalrud over time. It goes from a Gillmer who's grappling with depression and in the beginning phases of a long-distance relationship to a Gillmer in a long-term relationship with her. The tension between the two narratives creates an interesting commentary, with the resolution of the essay (favoring compromise and trade-offs as an ultimately healthy response) mirroring the resolution of their lives together. It's very much a love letter of sorts, mediated through a love of both the arts and criticism. Skaalrud's art has a lived-in feel that creates a sense of density. These are "thick" events, and Skaalrud's dense use of gray-scaling shading, hatching, and sturdy line weights all match it. The concept of give-and-take suggested in the essay is reflected in the collaboration between Gillmore and Skaalrud as partners.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Getting Real With GIving Birth: Minis From Meghan Turbitt

Some of the best comics of the past year or so have been about pregnancy and giving birth in particular. Meghan Turbitt adds to this list with two of the best and funniest minis of the year: Meghan Turbitt's Pregnant & Fired and Laughter Birth. Now, Turbitt's stock-in-trade has always been cultural and social satire, with a heavy emphasis on interacting with cultural consumption as well as frank and disarming discussions about her sexuality. All of that is still here in her raw, subversive takes on being pregnant, giving birth, and the terrifying things she experienced in the aftermath of that experience. Indeed, Turbitt's flip, bawdy, and unapologetically scatological point of view is simply aimed at what is usually depicted in gauzy, saccharine terms.

Meghan Turbitt's Pregnant & Fired begins with a letter from her old job firing her. To literally add insult to injury, they note that they don't have to legally tell her why they're firing her, but they do anyway. Stuff about not "maintaining a positive, collaborative work environment" and an "inability to function as a team member" would be hilarious in terms of their insufferable language, if it hadn't meant that she lost her job while she was pregnant. The rest of the mini has one to two-page anecdotes about everything running through her mind. That includes learning to twerk while pregnant, looking for loose change, drawing baby clothes, and being bored enough to try Coconut La Croix. (As always with Turbitt, it's the specificity that is the essence of her wit.) Throughout the comic, Turbitt amusingly uses the tooth-set mascot of her old company as a sort of Greek chorus.

After trying to convince her mom that it was OK to put a soda stream on a baby shower gift registry, Turbitt turns to sex. She wonders if people constantly think of her having sex with her boyfriend now that she's pregnant. She writes about a photo where no one can tell that she peed her pants and notes that she can smell her own vagina all the time now that she's pregnant. Beyond adding several levels of gravity to her usually more flippant satirical critiques, Turbitt's work is different here. Her comics have often had a frenetic quality to them, but in this mini, she's almost nonchalant in how she relates these major, life-changing events. There are subtle call-backs, subversions of what would otherwise be hacky jokes (like with regard to food cravings), and funny visual punchlines that subvert the text. Despite everything, the page of hopes with regard to her future daughter is heartfelt and funny.

If that mini was laid back, then Laughter Birth is intense. It's a loose journal of the last few weeks of her pregnancy and birth story, and it immediately immolates any kind of Hallmark sentimentality with the opening page. That's where Turbitt, with great sincerity and affection, states "The moment I recognized that I wanted to become a mom, is the moment I realized I love the way my cat's asshole smells." Things proceed from there, as Turbitt realizes that as a future mom, she is now the subject of most of internet porn these days. She commiserates with an aunt when she discovers her first hemorrhoid, drawing an image of the "bag of grapes back there" that her aunt so vividly described.

This comic is a fascinating companion piece to Lauren Weinstein's Mother's Walk (from Frontier) and Marnie Galloway's Slightly Plural because all three women have extremely distinct memories of the childbirth process. While Turbitt goes into less detail about that particular aspect of pushing, she does slightly breeze over how difficult it was--requiring oxygen and wet paper towels for her forehead. From the very beginning, she tells the truth about the nature of giving birth, as her daughter Billie "was born along with an explosion of poop." Not only were Turbitt's immediate post-birth thoughts about when she could have sex again, she actually expressed them to her "horrified" mid-wife, who told her to wait six weeks.

While that was all fun, Turbitt then chronicles the frightening realization that she couldn't walk. It took a while for the staff to figure out why, until they realized that she had compressed some nerves during labor. While it was serious and scary, Turbitt always finds a way to subvert the gravity of the situation. For example, her nipples were sore from nursing, so she requested to be topless in the hospital on a near-constant basis. There's a scene where she wants to hug the doctor who tells her that she's going to recover and she demands a hug--but as she's topless, he flinches and says, "That's quite alright." Turbitt then details the assorted indignities involved when one can't stand: having to have nurses pick out bits of toilet paper from your ass, having your mom and boyfriend shower you, and realizing that that horrible smell is your own ass.

The rest of the comic details her recovery, with plenty of light-hearted but sincerely grateful moments regarding her own health. There are plenty of callbacks as well, as when she finally has sex again, as she peppers her boyfriend with all sorts of mood-killing questions until he tells her to "stop talking." When she's getting physical therapy, she asks if she has to wear clothes for it, and the therapist emphatically says yes.  There's a level of specificity and detail in both Turbitt's art (which she has refined and stripped down to its essence over the years) and her writing that gives these short vignettes a surprising level of complexity. This is an epic narrative disguised as a breezy bit of comedy, one fraught with many traumatic moments and uncertainty. It's that breezy veneer and narrative restraint that powers both the comedic and dramatic aspects of Turbitt's story. Drama and comedy complement each other, each making the other kind of moments all the more meaningful.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Minis: Sage Coffey


With a wonderfully thick, loopy line, Sage Coffey's Wine Ghost Orders A Sub is a funny and strange little mini about food and death. Coffey's Wine Ghost character looks a bit like a Pac-Man ghost with rubbery, hairy legs and long eyelashes. All she wants is a sub sandwich with a particular set of ingredients, and this short comic establishes the rules that govern her life. She has to possess a human (willingly) in order to actually get her food (despite her best efforts to attract the attention of the worker at the sub shop), and this otherwise wacky and silly comic has a bittersweet encounter at the end. Coffey's mix of thin and thick line weights add to the sense of both exaggeration and nuance and goes well with the single-tone red that they use throughout.



Monday, July 22, 2019

More Minis From Elise Dietrich

I don't know what it is about the northeast that's producing so many sensitive and thoughtful autobiographical comics, but Elise Dietrich has certainly proven herself to be part of this trend. The Sandwich Shuffle is her shot at an Hourly Comics Day mini, and her winning wit makes this a fun comic to read. Dietrich strikes just the right now in how much she reveals to the audience in a comic that's very much in media res by its very nature. It's a snapshot into a single day of a cartoonist, and if you knew nothing about them going into reading the comic, it's up to them to provide enough information to make sense. In short order, the reader learns that Dietrich has a young daughter, that her husband is away from town, that she has issues with her weight and food, and that she blanches a bit when her mom seems more delighted to visit her brother's new baby than to stay there.

That said, there's a resoluteness to her narrative that's invigorating. Dietrich is always full speed ahead, no matter what. Despite struggling with a cold, she finds ways to do comics, work with clients over the internet, take care of her kid, go to the library and drop off her mom at a bus stop. The art is understandably rough and sloppy, but it clearly reveals her stylistic impulses and how she organizes a page and a panel. There's an orderliness to Dietrich's work that manages to focus both on foreground and background. The reader is always made aware of time and place, even as the people dominate the action.

Making Time is a collection of diary comics, from the first snow of November through February. In Vermont, winter is a powerful entity, and many of these comics revolve around struggles with the weather. Most of them are Kochalka-style: four panels, with a punchline of sorts in the final panel. Dietrich's line is more careful and assured in these comics, but it's clear that spontaneity and expressiveness are her goals. That said, Dietrich jams every panel with detail, hatching, and other decorative details. The result is cluttered but in a good way. One gets the sense of just how her life is cluttered and bursting with happenings. The comics are quiet and meditative, almost as a way of recovering from the frenzy of childcare, workouts, 5K runs, and knitting baby blankets. These comics are frequently funny, like when Dietrich grouses about muzak being played during a yoga session. These comics are engaging because Dietrich has a distinctive authorial voice, and it's clear that she took quickly to comics because she was eager to find a new way of expressing herself.