Friday, July 12, 2019

More Minis From Rachel Scheer

Rachel Scheer's autobiographical comics, while sharing a great deal of personal detail, are interesting for a different reason. She's a keen observer, first and foremost. She thinks and writes less like a diarist and more like a writer interested in providing context and background to everything she thinks and observes. That does add a bit of reserve and distance between herself and the reader, but not in a way that feels false or manufactured. In Around The Neighborhood, Scheer reflects on the minutia of life in Seattle, a city she simply decided to move to apropos of nothing. She didn't know anyone there, relying instead on her intuition that this would be a good place to go. As she notes in the introduction, "place" is exactly what she was going for: a city that had a strong sense of place that she could adapt to and eventually feel a sense of belonging.

Each of these one-page strips keeps the observations mostly light. There are lots of strips about the funny people and places she sees, from the sort of people who show up to a garage sale to avoiding creepy guys at bars to pondering the hat metaphors that other people use. Scheer certainly explores that sense of place, both in the city and in the recreational opportunities that Seattle has to offer. There are strips about finding spots to swim, and hike, and climb. There are strips about cafes and restaurants. Mostly, this mini simply allows the reader to ease into Scheer's whimsical point of view regarding the world, as she thinks about groupings of animals, her favorite snacks and her being mystified at Seattle's football fandom. Scheer's line is still crude in spots, especially with regard to character design, but one can see her start to develop her own style. Her own self-caricature is clever, which is a big key to allowing the audience to lock in on her and her particular style of wit.

By Mom, By Me: A Tale Of Two Childhoods was the first iteration of this comic that she did with her mother, Karen. It's a clever idea, as her mom recalls a particular time period, set of relationships, or places (drawn by Scheer) and then Scheer follows with her own version. It's interesting to see the similarities between the two women, especially in terms of a certain independence and restlessness of spirit. One can see how Scheer improved as an artist from this comic to her latest, as she gives depth and weight to each page with more detailed backgrounds and more use of spotting blacks. She's also a lot more confident with regard to her use of stylization, especially with regard to her character design. This comic explores the influence of their cousins, their experience as kids with summer camps, and what they did on Friday nights as kids. Scheer's mother seemed more gregarious and daring as a child, faking her way to getting free dinner at a hotel and hanging out with bohemians in the Bronx. Scheer spent a lot of time in camp reading and found there was a lot less to do in Arlington as a teen. It's an interesting project because both women are clearly trying to understand each other, even as it's clear that there's a tight bond there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Liz Valasco's The Adventures Of Moon Pie

Sweetness and existential despair mark Liz Valasco's continuing stories of her character Moon Pie. Her most recent mini, The Adventures Of Moon Pie, see this character with a moon-shaped head wander about a forest with his little robot companion that he built. Valasco blends a fine line, dense cross-hatching, and cartoony character design to create a lived-in world inhabited by these two odd creatures. Moon Pie, as the introduction explains, is an alien sent from space to complete a quest of some kind, but it's taking a long time. Like many vast undertakings, there's a lot of boring downtime, and this comic is an example of what he does on his downtime.

The first page sets up the itinerant character of Moon Pie, as the six panel grid winds up forming a single, beautiful image. Moon Pie's robot is clever and relentlessly curious, and they make a funny duo as they navigate the landscape, looking for mushrooms. Moon Pie finds a "friend" (a skeleton at the bottom of a well) and doesn't understand that it's dead and unresponsive, so desperate is he to find any kind of connections with other. There's also a profound sense of understanding his extremely long life span and wishing it was over until his philosophical robot reminds him of his responsibilities.  Everything from the lettering to the cross-hatching to the actual dialogue is strikingly thoughtful, as Valasco aims to create not so much a story as convey a mood. This is ultimately a story about loneliness, to be sure, but it's also a story about duty and understanding one's place in the world. There's a dull ache one feels when reading it; it's a mixture of melancholy and deep understanding.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Minis: Liz Bolduc's Perishable Goods

Liz Bolduc (aka "Liz Sux") is an autobiographical cartoonist I've been monitoring for a while. Perishable Goods is the first mini I've reviewed from her, and it's an impressively-designed and executed comic about the difficulties of managing toxic families and navigating one's own feelings of worthlessness. Each of these short vignettes is loosely-connected in a roughly chronological fashion. The title plays on this metaphor of short-term worth and inevitable decay with numerous references to food, photos of supermarkets, and old supermarket ads. The stories are about rot, both in terms of thinking about death but also feeling rotten and diseased from a mental standpoint. Bolduc reveals just enough details about her personal life and family life to get the point across. In many ways, the details are less important than the feelings surrounding them.

Some of those details include dealing with a mom whom her therapist noted most likely had borderline personality disorder. That's a disorder wherein boundaries tend to be disintegrated, creating a suffocating amount of dependency. "Anger, fear (and) guilt" are common emotions displayed by someone with BPD toward those whom they've grown dependent upon, and Bolduc has trouble reconciling that reality with her own overwhelming sense of guilt. On the one hand, she recognizes the poisonous nature of this relationship, but she feels driven to maintain it. It's no wonder that everything feels decayed and false to her.

Much of the comic revolves around food. There's a lovely sequence about eating crepes at her grandparents' place after church as a child. When her grandmother died, the new tradition was eating at a diner. Ritual surrounding comfort food is at Bolduc's core--it's a touch of nostalgia that ameliorates the alienation she feels from both mother and father. Eating take-out is another pleasure, one that is comforting in the face of grief and uncertainty. Bolduc's line is mostly light, though she does use heavier line weights in some spots. There's an inkyness in her comics that's eye-catching, with a mix of densely spotted blacks and extensive negative space. There's a touch of the cartoony in her otherwise naturalistic line.

This is also a comic about loneliness, even when surrounded by family. Bolduc depicts herself as being fairly isolated and away from friends (and possibly a partner) throughout much of the comic. This is, I think, partly related to the essential nature of the narrative, which is an existential fear of death. She is terrified of her parents aging because it means their deaths, which she fears will leave her rudderless in the world. It also means that her death is near and inevitable. At the end of the comic, there is an understanding that even if are rotten, we will still be rotting one day. We may be isolated, but we will all return to nature, the perishable goods that we are.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Minis: Jessica Campbell's Chicago Works

Jessica Campbell is a cartoonist who's interested in a number of different kinds of media. She's a talented writer and thinker about comics, but she also just had a multimedia show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was taken from the diary of artist Emily Carr, who lived in British Columbia in the early twentieth century. This minicomic, Chicago Works, is the print version of that show, minus color and with the addition of rearranging the paintings/pieces into a steady six-panel (2x3) grid. It seems as though Campbell knew that something would be lost in translation by making the images so small, which is why publishing the works in black & white (her usual style in comics) made sense. To be sure, however, reading this comic is a different experience than going to see the show. There's less detail, everything is a bit tiny and cramped, and there's more of an emphasis on the writing than the power of the visuals.

That said, there's plenty to look at here. The cover is clever; the main character is seen in profile on both the front and back covers, but if you lie the whole book flat, it turns into a full-face drawing. It's a subtle way of letting the reader know not to take anything for granted in this comic, that things aren't as they seem at face value. Indeed, Carr's text, which is used as captions for each panel, are often at odds with the visuals. This is not a direct adaption of that text, but rather a comic that uses it as inspiration. 

There are times when some of the scenes seem inspired by Carr, although often in an ironic or directly contradictory manner. For example, when we are introduced to the narrator, she talks about her fine manners and English bearing and how that gained her favor in the boarding house she lived in. Campbell instead shows a near-feral young woman who takes a shit on the floor and idly lays on the couch watching television. There's a lot of flirting with this taking place in the past and present, including an extended appearance by Campbell herself. This is a comic about discovery and new experiences, and for Campbell, it seems to include references to moving to Chicago as well as discovering comics for the first time. This is also a comic about loneliness, independence, isolation, and female friendships and how they can be strained. Campbell's inky line and heavy use of black give the comic weight and power, especially in the funnier scenes. The reader is thrown into the middle of all of this with no explanations, but none is really needed thanks to the way Campbell guides the reader through the page. This is a strange, funny project that continues Campbell's project of exploring feminist ideas through deep irony, juxtapositions, and brutal but hilarious truths.    

Monday, June 17, 2019

Koyama: Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons

Aaron Leighton's A Children's Book Of Demons is in many ways an old-school Koyama Press project. Annie Koyama got her start publishing unusual books of illustrations before she moved on to comics, and this certainly fits more in that camp. Koyama has always taken a particular lesson learned from the late Dylan Williams and has published entirely according to her own taste and projects she believes in, regardless of genre or style. As such, it's hard to discern a particular aesthetic in her back catalog, other than "things Koyama likes." That's to her credit, as it's created a fascinating tapestry of comics and illustration ranging across genres. As she starts to wind down Koyama Press over the next couple of years, it will be interesting to see the choices she's made as a publisher.

Young adult and children's comics are something that Koyama's published a fair number of over the years. John Martz has done some especially memorable ones. With Leighton's book, Koyama has published a perfect little volume for pre-teens. It's a book for the ostensible purpose of summoning some unusual and funny demons. There's Dulcis, the sweet-generating demon who will leave everything sticky. There's Eruditi, the smart demon who will do your schoolwork--but don't call him a nerd! Mednaxx will help you craft the perfect lie and Oziplantrix will help you rock out. It's a funny take on the problems kids encounter and a kind of wish fulfillment in dealing with them.

It's the details that make this book fun. Leighton wrote a light-hearted description of each demon on the left--hand pages and drew a colorful illustration on the right. Leighton also was quite serious within the context of the book's conceit, even if that conceit itself (kids summoning their own helpful demons!) was both light-hearted and downright weird. There are even specific instructions on how to draw the sigils summoning particular demons, the color to draw them in, and how to act when summoning them. In general, the book pushes politeness and consideration in all interactions but especially when dealing with demons. Some of the demons are gross (there's one of flatulence) and some are silly, but it's easy to see how a kid might dream up any of them to help them in a particularly tight corner. My own ten-year-old daughter gravitated toward this book a few times, reading it in bits and pieces here and there. It's a book that rewards such an approach, and it's hardcover packaging and smallish size also lend themselves to it being an attractive art object that's worth picking up and examining.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio & Aon: Some Strange Disturbances

Sparked by Kickstarter, Craig Hurd-McKenney's collaboration with artists Gervasio & Aon, Some Strange Disturbances, is an excellent bit of queer-themed Victorian horror. Done with an elegant, fine line and extensive use of spotting blacks, there's plenty of atmosphere that backs up Hurd-McKenney's sensitive writing. The protagonist is Prescott Mayfair, an American spiritualist in 1895 London. The very first page of the story established his bona fides as a medium, as he recalled his mother being hauled off years earlier because she saw ghosts as well. The story begins with Prescott at a seance, communicating with the ghost of a young girl, and what he learned clearly horrified him.

That was the prelude to the meat of the story, which saw Prescott being hired by an aristocrat to see if his son was being possessed by a demon. Prescott befriended Delilah Quinton, an African-American singer who was performing in a choral group, who could tell he saw something that horrified him. After he revealed that he believed the girl was murdered by her father, she revealed that the man had been devoured by rats. Quinton was also well aware that Prescott was gay, and living in London in the shadow of Oscar Wilde's infamous and shameful trial. Prescott was furtively seeking sex on street corners and in opera boxes, and he knew he was in danger doing so.

When Prescott went to see the aristocrat's son, Duncan, in a horrifying mental institution, he saw them chained in a cell. It was revealed that Duncan was only in there because she was, in reality, a trans woman--not insane, nor possessed. However, when Duncan's parents came to inspect Prescott's investigation, their callous attitudes (especially his mother's) revealed in part that there was indeed a pernicious supernatural element at work--but it had to do with them. That led to an explosive climax with a jailbreak, a grotesque and terrifying rat-based reveal, and a happy ending for all.

In many ways, this story can be described as intersectional horror. The protagonist is a gay man, but Delilah had every bit as much agency as he did. Indeed, Hurd-McKenney played against heroic tropes when Prescott told her to get to safety at one point. Not only did she ignore his commands, but she also came in guns blazing. Part of that was a reaction against the misogyny of many adventure stories, but it was also a reaction against allowing Prescott to martyr himself. Duncan even said, "I will not allow myself to be saved by a prince," as she went in with a torch to kill the thing that replaced her mother. The horror in the story was generated in part by the reveal of the monster, to be sure, but what was worse was that what Duncan's parents had done was not surprising. The horror was generated by the human zoo that Delilah showed Prescott, featuring black people dressed as primitives. The horror was generated by the laws that wouldn't let Prescott or Delilah be who they truly were. The heroic arc for Prescott was not necessarily one of derring-do, but rather finding the courage to do the right thing, even if it was dangerous. It works on all of these levels, and it is a cracking, suspenseful story to boot. Future stories are planned, and seeing Hurd-McKenney and crew further explore historical presentations of intersectional stories is intriguing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Michael Kupperman's Supervillains

Michael Kupperman is unquestionably one of my favorite cartoonists. His humor work over the year, collected in books like Snake And Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret and the various Tales Designed To Thrizzle volumes, is some of the best absurd humor ever published. Last year, his memoir and biography about his father, All The Answers, made a big splash and was named book of the year by Publisher's Weekly. Autobio was a big departure for him and his art style, but he was up to the challenge. For a variety of reasons, Kupperman has stepped into the self-publishing arena with a Patreon featuring a number of his comics. He has since collected some of those comics.

His mini Supervillains came from comics originally published on the Adult Swim website. This is full-color work in the vein of his classic, absurdist humor from Thrizzle. It's exactly what it sounds like: absurdist takes on supervillains and their world. It veers from continuing characters (and thus comedic callbacks) to one-off jokes. It's also much dirtier than a lot of his humor; for example, the very first trip involves a woman telling her friend about her negative experience going out on a date with a human centipede who got drunk. Kupperman's humor usually involves one of two mechanics: hilarious shaggy dog details or absurd surprise swerves. One of his favorite techniques in this mini is to start the strip with a super-villain roll call, with each name and image sillier than the next. It's a funny play on roll calls in old super-villain comic books, only this time around there are characters like Professor 69 (a man who is in that sexual position, standing up, with another person), Killer Abs (a man with abs holding a knife), and Maitre D'emon. In that strip, he then swerved by having someone say, "Welcome to brunch!" After that small, funny swerve, Kupperman then gets weird, as the host gets his beast-servants to put on a live sex show. That unexpected bit of filthy humor is acknowledged as the guests get squidged out and leave.

The plot of most of the strips revolves around quotidian concerns: lunch, dates, hanging out in bars, jobs, parties, reality shows, and dishing gossip with your friends. Kupperman takes that template and lays on a layer of super-villain tropes: evil plans, psychotic behavior, murderous intent, crazy costumes, and bright but bizarre visuals. Kupperman's ability to mix and match, along with throwing unexpected curveballs at the reader and the visual gestalt that includes logo and lettering all contribute to each strip feeling fresh. Even after forty pages of these gags, I still wanted more.

The best example of Kupperman's versatility is the villain named the Public Urinator. His first appearance features a tight close-up in the first two panels, as we see his elaborate armor and hear his monologue about his powers. (He was angry about arbitrary public urination laws and release pressurized urine.) The third panel pulls back and we see he's participating in a speed dating event, and the focus suddenly shifts to the woman who's listening to him droning on and on. In his second appearance, he appears in a roll call strip, and a bad pun leads him to use his powers. The third strip sees him mostly off-panel as mayor ignores his threat and regrets it. This is truly a deliberately stupid and even juvenile premise that works at gut level but works even better when incorporated into different comedic structures.

This is a hallmark of Kupperman's work: mixing low humor with his deliberately mannered and cartoonist images and highly sophisticated comedic mechanics. That includes a number of callbacks, with a group of villains called the Pelvic Psychos (they all have "unusual groin areas') getting funnier with each appearance or Professor 69 appearing on a talk show with past and future versions. By using contrasts, defying expectations, assaulting the reader with bizarre images, and mining premises for all that they're worth, Kupperman has created a winning formula. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Tom Van Deusen's Expelling My Truth

Tom Van Deusen's comics are interesting because they can best be described as "autobiographical satire." His latest effort, Expelling My Truth (Kilgore Books), actually leans toward some uncomfortably real feelings about his career as a cartoonist, wrapped in part in his ongoing critique of capitalism and fame. Van Deusen's autobio comics have always straddled the line between over-the-top offensiveness and sharp critiques of both himself and autobio in general. That tension he creates has resulted in a series of hilarious comics, in part because Van Deusen obeys what I call the Comedy Law of Punching: "Punching down is easy and cruel, punching up can be didactic and pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny." In other words, Van Deusen is at his best when he makes himself the butt of his jokes, skewering the conceptualization of himself as an Alpha male type.

In the short first strip, Van Deusen goes after some low-hanging fruit: pretentious and talentless "conceptual" art gallery shows. This one features a man sitting in his chair, playing on his phone. Van Deusen's stand-in (a grotesque version of the cartoonist, complete with squared teeth and shaggy hair) is as angry at the justification for the piece that other people offer as much as he is angry about the piece itself. There's a bit of righteous anger on display...only for him to note that he has to catch a bus, deflating that persona and revealing his own persona when he urges that people must "expel their truths."

Van Deusen can also get just plain weird. The second story begins with him once again stomping all over personal boundaries and space by creepily asking to hold a woman's infant while they were riding a bus. The oblivious protagonist then accidentally happens upon rock star Eddie Vedder's house, and then things get weird. Vedder is friends with an alien who brings him drugs and catches Van Deusen peeping in his window. Surprisingly, he invites Van Deusen in, gets him high, sings him a new song (titled "I'm High") and gives him a television. The final, full-page splash panel reveals the punchline without hammering the reader over the head with details. Van Deusen's art ranges between the slightly grotesque and cartoon naturalism, which is just the right tone to strike for this kind of story. There aren't a lot of funny drawings so much as the art smartly supports his concepts.

The final story is both funny and bleak. Van Deusen's tech billionaire boss invites him over to hang out with his teenage son, who apparently is thinking about becoming a cartoonist. His son is unsurprisingly mopey and entitled. His comic, the Red Revenger, is a revenge fantasy against the mild inconveniences of having to wear a uniform to school and generally exist with other human beings. The truth of why he's there quickly becomes evident. His boss gets Van Deusen to admit that he hates his job. Furthermore, Van Deusen admits that as a cartoonist, his work is time-consuming, painstaking, carries little financial reward, is digested in mere minutes, and doesn't even attract women. In other words, he was there as a warning for his son, manipulating Van Deusen in the way that he views everyone as a tool to be used. Even in a strip as grim as this one, where Van Deusen openly wonders why he even bothers, he still manages to throw in a gag at the end.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree

Noah Van Sciver's One Dirty Tree earned him an Eisner Award nomination, and it's certainly well-deserved. This 2018 release from Uncivilized Books is self-revealing and honest in a way that Van Sciver has been hinting at for a long time with regard to his family. The structure of the book is interesting, as Van Sciver's autobiographical comic bounces back and forth between 1994 and 2014. This is a book about the ripples of childhood trauma reverberating down through the years, affecting mental health and personal choices. It's blisteringly funny and honest but recognizes the humanity in even the most problematic of figures. Van Sciver doesn't hold back in his depictions but isn't interested in passing judgment on others. Indeed, one of the central ideas in the book is the ways in which poverty has a profoundly detrimental effect on long-term mental health and stability.

One Dirty Tree focuses on the build-up to two significant life events: the steady erosion of his family in 1994 (when he was eight years old) and the erosion of his relationship with his girlfriend in 2014. That's when Van Sciver was just starting to taste some success as a cartoonist but still had to work full-time at a Panera in order to make ends meet. The book focuses on some of the last days spent in their dilapidated New Jersey home, called "One Dirty Tree" by his older brothers because it was on 133 Maple Terrace and there was a dead, gnarled oak tree in the front yard. Van Sciver expands on what it was like to grow up as one of eight siblings in tight, shabby quarters as part of a Mormon family, a rarity in New Jersey at the time.

As one might guess, it wasn't pleasant. His depiction of his family's life is matter-of-fact, just as one's own view of one's family life isn't informed by outside sources until much later in life. Both of his parents were religious up to a point, but they were also sort of hippies and started to become less and less religiously observant. His father, a lawyer, grew his hair out long and started to become disinterested in actually working. As a result, the Van Sciver family was dependent on their church for food, a car, and other charity items. At the same time, they Van Sciver's father grief for having long hair and he pushed back.

All of this led to a lifetime of shame for Van Sciver, especially since his vocation as a cartoonist wasn't exactly poised to make him get rich. His girlfriend Gwen was well-off financially and he lived with her in an environment that was unusually affluent for him. While he loved her and dreamed of a future with her, he always dreaded a break-up because their needs and backgrounds were so different. When trying to explain his background to a friend of Gwen's Van Sciver drew himself as a monster, because that's what he felt like: ugly, abhorrent, and abjected. While Van Sciver was not religious, he was tired of constantly being looked at like a freak for growing up Mormon, not to mention being judged solely on his income.

Again, Van Sciver isn't looking to lay blame. Even his father, who abandoned his family, is someone Van Sciver later reconnected with. Both his mother and father were people expected by society and religion to fill certain roles and found themselves chafing against those roles. His mother was an art student before she dropped out to get married, but she never gave up on writing. While there are no villains in this story, Van Sciver's mother is undoubtedly given the warmest treatment. The ways in which she stepped outside norms (laughing at a drawing her son made in church, giving Noah a high-five instead of punishing him when he kissed a girl) brought her closer to her children, and it's obvious that Van Sciver never forgot it.

Van Sciver implies that like his parents, he just isn't very good at being normal and doing what's expected. He's a free spirit who took his drawing obsession and turned it into his life's work. The problem is that he found it hard for others to take it seriously, conflating artistic ambition with not just laziness, but being a scammer or fake of some kind. What's worse is that it's clear that there will always be a part of him that believes this to be true. Being raised to feel ashamed is hard to take, and while he accepts the how and why of it happened, it doesn't make it any easier to feel stable and secure as an adult.

Thinking about it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a child who grows up without basics like food and a reliable shelter will struggle later in life. What makes the book so compelling is the way that Van Sciver ties these struggles to specific kinds of homes and reflects on how the everyday experience of these environments had a profound effect on him. His old house had decaying floors filled with splinters. His father ripped out the kitchen and never replaced it, meaning that they had to do dishes in the bathtub. The close quarters made everyone irritable all the time. Living with Gwen in her nice place made him feel like an impostor or a tourist in a life he didn't really belong to. While the last line of the main text is Van Sciver saying "These are the cleanest walls I've ever lived inside," implying a sort of heartbreaking paralysis, the afterword finds him breaking that cycle of shame a little. He returns to his old home as an adult three years later, and while there are no major epiphanies, there is a sense of closure in facing this place that had such a profound and lasting impact. The final image is a cutaway drawing of Van Sciver's self-image inside his head saying, "Life is weird." The wounds might still be deep, but Van Sciver's realized that he had to accept where he came from: what other choice did he have?

Friday, May 24, 2019

D&Q: Peter Bagge's Credo

It's been interesting following Peter Bagge's third act as a cartoonist. Originally one of the pioneers of alternative comics in the 80s with Neat Stuff (not to mention editing Weirdo), then one of the stars at the height and eventual fall of alternative comics in the 90s with Hate, he's reinvented himself a few times since then. Or rather, he's reinvented his subject matter, as he hasn't changed his visual style or fundamental essence as a humorist one iota. Bagge tried everything after Hate: animation in the middle of the first dot.com boom and bust, writing and drawing comics for DC, being a reporter and political commentator for Reason and other publications, and writing original graphic novels about various kinds of characters. Throughout it all, he's still retained his trademark rubbery style and frantic expressiveness.

His latest project has been a series of heavily-researched biographies about three different women for Drawn & Quarterly: Margaret Sanger, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rose Wilder Lane. All three of them are libertarian heroes who lived in the early 20th century. Each one was a remarkable individualist who carved their own path and refused to let society's patriarchal tendencies hold them back. Each one was also tempestuous and frequently difficult to get along with. Each one was a controversial figure in their own way. Bagge's admiration for each is obvious and his intensive research is obvious given that the notes section in the most recent book, Credo: The Rose Wilder Lane Story, is a third as long as the story itself. Of the three women whose story he's told, Lane is the one most directly connected to what became the libertarian movement, as she was friends with a number of people in that circle, including author Ayn Rand.

Lane was a writer, and well-known during her time for novels, political screeds and extensive articles in all sorts of periodicals. She may be best known for work for which she explicitly denied taking credit: collaborating with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder on her "Little House" books. This is a matter of extensive controversy, and Bagge doesn't try to settle it one way or another as much as he tries to introduce reasonable doubt. The assertion that Wilder, an untrained (but talented) writer could suddenly produce seamless prose at a late age all on her own seems far-fetched. The most likely scenario, given Lane's record of near-flawless prose, is that Wilder's daughter collaborated with her, taking her mother's ideas and giving them an extensive rewrite. At the barest minimum, she edited them and gave them polish. Lane had a complicated relationship with her mother (to say the least!), so it's possible that she didn't want to complicate it further by claiming credit for her work, as well as knowing that the success of the books hinged in part on the illusion of single-author authenticity.

Bagge is less interested in that particular debate and more interested in Lane's interpersonal struggles, especially with her mother. He notes that it's likely that she suffered from bipolar disorder, and she was well aware of and perplexed by her mental illness and the emotional roller-coaster it created. She was simultaneously loving and irascible, constantly smothering talented young people she met as her new "children" or later "grandchildren," in part to replace the baby she lost in childbirth. She was attracted to men but could only stand their company for so long before her wanderlust got the best of her. She was miserable when she was alone and miserable when she was with other people, and her awareness of this fact made her even more miserable. As whip-smart, accomplished, and stubbornly accomplished as she was, Bagge makes the case that she did all this in spite of the weight of her mental illness.

Bagge derives a lot of comedy from Lane's anti-government stance. Initially a socialist because of the influence of her aunt, she saw firsthand the horrors that a totalitarian socialist state can wreak. Bagge also makes the astute point that while her family was gifted land as homesteaders by the government, this was all land pretty much stolen by the natives or bought for a pittance in the Louisiana Purchase. The homesteaders served the purpose many settlers/homesteaders supported by their states do: establish a toehold in lands otherwise occupied by people who have been there for a long time and provoke conflicts. Lane was rightly suspicious of the government regulating industry because of industry's ability to simply buy their way into gaining favorable conditions that would help create monopolistic conditions. Of course, like many libertarians, the idea of a public good and how best to maintain it was something she didn't consider. Nor did she consider the amoral nature of capitalism and the relentless desire of corporations to get ahead not with a better product, but by exploiting workers unable to seek out a better situation or cutting corners on safety or waste disposal. Of course, many of these issues weren't prominent problems in her time, nor did she have training as an economist.


Of course, even though Bagge clearly admired many of her ideas (she wrote for an African-American newspaper and acknowledged the unjust nature of Jim Crow laws and the ways in which black people were persecuted by police, for example), he had no interest in making her out to be a saint or have all of the answers. Indeed, there's a scene where she and Ayn Rand not only have significant disagreements as to atheism, Lane became immediately suspicious of Rand cultivating a cult of personality. In this Bagge got at the heart of what made her an interesting character. She was more interested in ideas than notoriety. She preferred a dry but forceful delineation of ideas (her book Credo) to Rand's dressing it up in fictional form. She embodied the best ideals of the frontier spirit: a powerful and relentless sense of individualism combined with a generosity of spirit and understanding of teamwork as a necessity for survival. In many respects, this is Bagge's own statement about his beliefs in the form of this woman, who was closer to an anarchist than anything else.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Ellen Lindner's The Cranklet's Chronicle #2

Ellen Lindner's work has often dipped into the past, especially New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her comics have usually focused on women in these eras, in part because their stories are not well served from this time. Her latest series, The Cranklet's Chronicle, serves an especially underserved topic: the role of women in major league baseball. Linder is also not afraid to tackle difficult topics, and issue #2 was as much about race as it was about gender with regard to the game. With tremendous storytelling clarity, a pleasant line and crackling dialogue, Lindner told the story of Effa Manley, the only woman admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She co-owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro League and won a championship with them, only to see the league disintegrate when Major League Baseball finally deigned to bring in black players. It's a fascinating story that has a lot of twists and turns.

There's something particularly interesting in reading stories about women who defied the societal barriers arrayed against them in achieving remarkable things. In Manley's case, she also had to deal with issues related to race. Manley grew up thinking she was biracial, but her white mother revealed that her father was not who she thought he was. An affair with a white man made Manley technically white--but she grew up thinking she was black and in a black community, and she chose to continue to live as a black woman. The whole experience, as Lindner noted, had Manley saying, "Whatever I am...I will be exceptional!" 

Lindner's use of blue tones throughout creates a slightly nostalgic air, as though one was watching vintage footage of these events. She traces Manley and her husband Abe after they created the Eagles, creating an exciting narrative as Manley's business sense and charisma was a perfect match for her husband's ability to evaluate talent. It's a story that's a triumph and a tragedy, as her moment of triumph was taken away from her--she never got to be involved in baseball ever again. Fortunately, a reporter was able to catch up with her late in her life to get her story down, and it's truly a doozy. Linder does that story justice, finding ways to both focus on the exciting narrative as well as offer commentary on race and gender in America.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The End Of The Tour: Noah Van Sciver's Fante Bukowski 3

It's funny to think of Noah Van Sciver as a grizzled veteran of the comics scene, but that's truly what he's become. The guy who once wrote a strip fantasizing about winning an Ignatz award was just nominated for two Eisners. He's among the most versatile of cartoonists, equally at home doing satire, historical fiction, autobiographical comics, gags, and literary fiction. He's someone who clearly takes his work seriously but can also poke fun at himself and his own ambitions. That's most clearly evident in his series of Fante Bukowski books, which are about the world's worst and least self-aware writer. The magic in these books is not that Van Sciver hilariously satirizes the literary and art worlds, but that he manages to craft sympathetic characters along the way.

Each book in the series has been carefully designed to mimic a classic paperback design. This time around, it's meant to mimic David Foster Wallace, down to a "Genius Award" sticker on the cover. That attention to detail is thanks to Keeli McCarthy, one of the best book designers in the business. The subtitle of the book is "A Perfect Failure," and that sums up Fante's character to a T. The vain, glory-seeking, and delusional Fante set out to be a writer because he wanted to be famous, not because he wanted to actually do the work of being a good writer. He was more obsessed with the macho but sensitive trappings of what he saw as writing (hence his love of Charles Bukowski and John Fante) than actually coming up with coherent ideas. At the end of the second book, he and one of his zines got a degree of fame and success thanks to a critic Fante had done a sordid favor for.

At the beginning of the third book, Fante receives an offer to be a ghostwriter for a Disney starlet's autobiography. After leaching off his family (including a disapproving father), he actually got paid for his work, but he immediately ignored the parameters of the assignment. For the first time, Fante's own bizarre sense of integrity came to the fore, even if what he chose to write instead was nonsense. Indeed, while Fante continues to be a blowhard, Van Sciver does have him complete a sort of emotional journey. To be sure, Fante remains a privileged asshole who on the one hand rejected his father's career path in law, but didn't reject his desire for the trappings of wealth. He simply wanted it not only on his own terms but generated entirely from his own talent. A lifetime of living with someone who constantly put him down resulted in Fante (nee' Kelly) coping by creating his own fantasy world where he was actually good at something.

The structure of the book is interesting because while there's actually a tight plot and structure, Van Sciver allows many of his pages to act as separate vignettes, complete with their own punchlines. While the reader is exposed to Fante's essential incompetence and vanity, the flashbacks provided establish a bit of context for his behavior, to the point where his willingness to live in the scummiest of environments and associate with the worst of people is more than just a pose. It's part of his own essential nature to vacillate between comfort and disruption, self-absorption and sympathy. Indeed, the key relationship in the book is that of the friendship between Fante and Norma, a weirdo performance artist with an unsettlingly dark background. She has her own subplot where she's in conflict with the other major performance artist in Columbus, Ohio that winds up being murderous (art is cutthroat!) but tender with regard to Fante. His return to see her last performance is humanizing for both of them. Fante has sort of figured himself out, Norma made a collection that lasted, and even the prostitute who manipulated Fante's career behind the scenes gets her own reward. It's both genuinely earned as a happy ending as well as a parody of same, and Van Sciver's skill mixing sincerity and satire makes it all work.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Minicomics Of Elise Dietrich

Elise Dietrich is in that cohort of autobiographical cartoonists that includes Glynnis Fawkes and Jennifer Hayden--women who started to do comics as a kind of second act in life. Dietrich has actually done work at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and these minis show how quickly the confidence in her line has progressed thanks to a great deal of work. Looking at the work in Pine Pitch Perfume, for example, one can see that her character design is a little shaky. Balancing space in her panels is also an issue at times, leading to some clutter. That said, she has a keen observational eye and a low-key wit. Her storytelling is also excellent throughout, especially when paired with an interesting conceptual gimmick. For example, "Partial Anatomy Of A Fabric Stash" uses a nine-panel grid with a different pattern of fabric in each panel. Each pattern told a different story, with a different piece of her past by way of clothes she made or wanted to make.

She also told stories about her daughter, her dog, her childhood and traveling to Brazil. Dietrich wields narrative captions pretty hard in these comics, but even her earliest stories have a witty visual vocabulary as well. In panels where her daughter is trying to fool her into staying awake or where she's trying to listen to headphones on a plane and draw but keeps getting loudly interrupted, Dietrich's use of gesture and exaggeration makes those panels effective. Birth Story unlocks and unleashes Dietrich's easy charm as a storyteller in a story that's paced a little like a Summer Pierre comic, only with much more rubbery visuals. Like any kind storyteller, the charm of this piece lies in its details. For example, Dietrich refused to wear any clothing while waiting to give birth. The lactation staff was away when she gave birth because they went to a Jimmy Buffet concert. Those details allowed her to connect the reader to the wave of emotions she felt at different points. Dietrich mostly stuck to a grid in this comic but wasn't afraid to modify it, collapsing rows into a single image or making single panels into a mini-four panel grid.

Key West Diary is Dietrich's longest and best comic to date. Travel is usually good fodder for diary comics, given the narrative aspect of having a finite period of time one's writing about. Dietrich went the extra mile but traveling alone with her toddler daughter down to her old stamping grounds in Key West with old friends. That gave the comic an interesting emotional resonance, as Dietrich revisited not just an old place, but an old way of life. There's also the New Hampshire in winter vs. sunny paradise juxtaposition, which led Dietrich to increase her degree of difficulty by going out as much as possible with her daughter. There's some disconnect on her part with her friends, who rarely think about their scandalous adventures with Dietrich, especially since she was trying to prove to herself that motherhood hadn't changed her that much. This is a rich and detailed comic that sees Dietrich examine her past, present, and future as an individual apart from her marriage. Her line is expressive and loose as spontaneity was a key aspect of the diary, yet there's greater overall control. The ambitiousness of her trip was matched by the ambitiousness of this comic.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Minis: Jennifer Hayden's A Flight Of Chickens

A Flight Of Chickens is a collection of Jennifer Hayden's earliest work on the web, and it's a series of four-panel autobiographical panels. This was not unusual for the time (the early 2010s), but there was a lot that stood out about her work, even early in her career. For one thing, her level of detail, including elaborate decorative flourishes, pain-staking stippling, and intense cross-hatching, was unusual for the average autobio comic. She backed off a little bit on this later in her career, which was all for the better because some of the panels were overly dense. It was clear that she was trying to juxtapose her stylized and stripped-down character designs with those details to give her work a bit more weight, but the panels just weren't big enough to allow her work to breathe properly.

That said, it was still fun to watch her cut loose with her full bag of tricks as she unleashed her acidic sense of humor on the world. Hayden is an inveterate smart-ass in a house full of them, especially her very funny husband. Barbs fly between Hayden and her husband and children, yet there's a powerful sense of warmth and love suffusing the comic. Hayden also has a wonderfully whimsical sense of humor that she explores visually, like imagining herself as Patti Smith or Frida Kahlo. Hayden always draws herself with a distinctively long, conical nose, so seeing that pointy schnozz on Kahlo was especially amusing. There's another strip where she attends a Pablo Picasso exhibit and imagines that he's there, hitting on her teenage daughter. It was an incredibly clever way of working out her feelings with regard to the artist over time.

There's a celebration of her deceased friend Shirley, bringing her to life with her eyes peeking out over her spectacles. Hayden also has a raw, frank, and funny approach to sex, like in strips where she reminisces about the early days with her future husband and about getting a vibrator as a gift from a talk at an "Edgy Mothers Day" event. There were two extended narratives here. One is about a couple of women running a tea shop that doesn't quite hang together on a strip-by-strip basis. Another is about meeting a man who used to live in their house, leading to various reminiscences. One can see the progress made from one strip to the next in terms of pacing and storytelling, as Hayden was figuring things out for her long-form autobio book The Story Of My Tits. Hayden worked on other autobio material as a side-project while working on her book. She's someone who came to comics later in life, and her work has always felt like she's trying to catch up on a lifetime not spent on this kind of storytelling. Her work is restless as a result, as she's trying to tell a thousand stories all at once. It's taken her some time to slow down a bit and focus on what she really wants to do in the moment, but it's thrilling to see her truly unleashed here with this early work.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Minis: Ryan Cecil Smith's Songs Of The Field

It's always a genuine pleasure to get a new S.F. comic from Ryan Cecil Smith, as it may be my favorite genre comic. There's a pleasurable clarity in storytelling that comes straight from certain kinds of sci-fi manga traditions, but Smith is a restless formal innovator who tinkers with visual and verbal structures in fun ways. For example, he loves playing on the "S.F." initials in various ways; this is the continuing story of the Science Fleet, but this particular comic is a Supplementary File titled Songs of the Field. Endlessly reiterating that structure, often in terms of dialogue or narrative, is all part of the fun. Of late, Smith has taken to doing endless Supplementary Files following one of the main characters or a side character on their own long adventure.

This one follows Alward the Lizard, a solo adventurer who has no love for the "lawful" Science Fleet nor for the "chaotic" pirates at war with them. Here, in this meaty 74-page mini, Smith uses the letters L.K. to describe things related to Alward: he flies his low-fuel kruiser into a zone and uses a latch klaw to get fuel. He turns out to be the son of the Lizard King and an invincible outlaw who skirmishes with a bunch of redneck types in a small mining operation. It's fast-paced, funny and vaguely philosophical in a sort of Stan Lee/Silver Surfer kind of way. Alward bemoans his lonely fate and is puzzled at the relentlessly hostile nature of humans while exploring space. The real treat here is Smith's candy-like use of color in this risograph-printed zine; indeed, the production values on a typical Smith comic are well above that of the average minicomic.

What's remarkable is the way Smith saturates each page with color but never loses the integrity of his line nor the clarity of his storytelling. The use of zip-a-tone effects has something to do with that in terms of maintaining structure, but the bigger key is Smith's ability to balance one or two complicated elements with several simpler ones. His line is simple and cartoony, giving it the flexibility to work in a number of different formal contexts. While there are a lot of colors, there are all carefully balanced on a panel-to-panel basis. He's careful to balance no more than three colors against each other in a given panel, but then he might use three completely different colors in the next pattern. The overall effect is kaleidoscopic, but broken down it looks quite intuitive. That cartoony and colorful nature of his work allows him to go big in terms of exaggerations and expressiveness without ever losing control over the page. The overall effect of the S.F. series is that of an extended lark in frothy genre fiction, but Smith's relentless attention to detail is what sets it apart from other such series. He's less concerned about the overall goal than he is in the flavor of the details that support the overarching plot. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass

Let's catch up with some recent work by Caitlin Cass, one of the most original and prolific artists working in minicomics today. Her Postal Constituency service offers a subscription to her comics, and she puts something out every couple of months. The comics vary in terms of length, size, content, and ambition. However, she frequently writes about history, philosophy, culture, and politics.

Pre-History (Volume 8, Issue #6 of the P.C.) is a nice example of her work. It's a folded, small square comic that makes great use of its format by showing, one page/panel at a time, how various species evolved and were then wiped out by something. Cass has a snappy sense of humor and keeps things moving as she also alternates text and image on some of the pages. On other pages, she uses multiple unfoldings to tell a story.

"Give People Light And They Will Find A Way" (V9, #4) is a more straightforward story done in a standard format. Indeed, the comic was adapted from a presentation she gave at the school at which she teaches. Using a mostly open-page layout instead of a grid, the comic focuses on the women of the Civil Rights Movement. Cass noted that historically, women of color are usually at the forefront of every resistance movement but tend to get less credit than the men. This comic is both a remedy to that and a simple history. She talks about Jo Ann Robinson, who was the leader of the Alabama bus boycott. Using a simple, effective line, she relates the history of Ella Baker, who was one of the key founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That organization would be key in pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Finally, Fannie Lou Hamer was brought to life in discussing her role in getting people registered for the vote and the violence she faced in doing so.

Rest Stop Brochures For The Not-So-Distant Future (V9, #1) finds Cass working a gimmick for comic effect. This is indeed a group of brochures in comics form, bound by a light cardboard sleeve. This is Cass at her most conceptual, with gags like "Digital Red Tape," which is an app that makes it difficult to use one's phone; it's designed to help with phone addiction. "The Forum" is a brochure for an app that provides a crowd that will cheer you on publicly, no matter what you have to say. It's the ultimate echo chamber effect. "Rainbow Boat Tours" offers people a chance to sail through garbage, picking out plastic stuff one might have some affection for. "Drone Eyes" allows people to see the world through a drone's camera, while "Amazon Truck Share" spoofs the fact that most trucks are half empty, and it offers a free trip to a mystery location. The brochures range from silly to brutally satirical, but every brochure speaks to the ways in which we consume and regurgitate information and resources.

Finally, Myths (V9, #2) sees Cass using a slightly bigger format, slick brown paper and full color in conjuring up modern myths. One story is about a tear in the sky that people tried to sew up, paint over, protest against, and patch over. It turned about to be a funny metaphor for the ways in which crises (existential and otherwise) are treated by those who have money and those who don't. Another story was about people who refused to give offerings to those In Charge, and they were put in a window, depending on the generosity of others for food. It's a clever metaphor for those who choose to live apart from being ruled by capitalism (like many artists) depending on the whims of others for support--until it's all too much and one wastes away. There's a whimsical quality to all of the stories here, but it's ultimately a grim comic that's fatalistic with regard to our fate in society.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Minis: Daniel Spottswood

Daniel Spottswood usually does amusing and fictional slice-of-life comics, but in Son of Nix! and April 2018, he focuses on life with his wife and toddler son. The latter comic is printed on light cardboard stock and folds out like a calendar, with each day's slot containing either a four-panel strip or a single image. Spottswood's cute style is juxtaposed against his frustrations with his job and the difficulties of raising an active toddler. Some days are cute, like when his son gave him a good-night kiss but not for his mom. Some days are filled with emotion, like when he unloads on his wife for being so messy and then is immediately filled with shame. Some days are filled with having to bend to the iron will of a toddler who demands a certain kind of play. Spottswood also manages to read eight books in the month in addition to drawing this strip, finding the energy despite having a job that clearly enervates him. Working as a store dealing with shelving and organizing products is actually made worse by working for a friend as a manager, who is wishy-washy in terms of leadership. Despite all of the frustrations, one can sense a great deal of joy in this work, especially when he sees his son delight in something. The cute, spare line Spottswood uses is ideal for this kind of work when a lot of art is crammed into a small space, though some of the lettering is hard to read.

Son Of Nix! focuses in on Spottswood's son, Philip, in a standard minicomic format. There's a variety of work to be found: naturalistic drawings of his son, four-panel strips (in a size that lets them breathe), single-page gags and expressions of frustration, and more. Some strips are written taking Philip's point of view in mind, like how upsetting it is for your first birthday, surrounded by strangers and your food on fire. There are gags about play telephones that are very funny because Spottswood knows how to sell them both to the reader and his son. There's a lovely silent strip where he comforts Philip when he has a fever, falling asleep with him in his bed. There are more funny expressions of frustration, like when Philip knocks over his coffee in order to play with his cup or when Philip bashes him to wake him up before the sun rises. What I like most about these strips is their sense of being in the moment. There's a presentness in Spottswood's approach, especially in this mini, that focuses on the moment-to-moment life of being a parent. That gives them an almost visceral impact, both in terms of their humor but also their anger and frustration.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

CCS Extra: Reilly Hadden

Somehow, I missed that Reilly Hadden had sent me the final issue of his Astral Birth Canal series when I was covering his work last December. Issue #13 wrapped up some storylines and left some questions open as well, which will be picked up in his follow-up series, Astral Forest. This has been one of my favorite-ever CCS-related series, packing fantasy, horror, slice-of-life intimacy and even women's professional wrestling into a single and often bewildering package.

This issue is subtitled "Ghosts Stories," and it is a self-contained story that also acts as a framing device for last issue's cliffhanger ending. It all sort of hooks together a number of elements present in the series without quite explaining them all the way. For example, it follows the story of Bork, the god-warrior and his lover Valentina, a human pro wrestler. Bork was on earth to capture a "disgraced god-king" but was decapitated by him in the previous issue. This issue follows Bork's rebirth and Val's apparent death. The framing device is a series of stories told by a bird-creature and his apprentice on a boat, sailing the titular Astral Birth Canal. This is the first time that the series' title has been addressed since the 0 issue that brought humans to another realm by way of a video game. The bird-creature is similar to the sort we've seen in the other main storyline of the series, and it's clear that he has some sort of influence over life and death.

What makes this issue so effective is that Hadden doesn't burden the reader much with details and continuity. Instead, the focus is on the bird-creature's storytelling, which is almost folksy in tone. In many respects, this issue recapitulates the running theme for the series: the thin veil between life and death. The Canal actually being real and accessible for travel is a manifestation of the series' many deaths, resurrections, and reincarnations. It's an incubator for myths and legends, but what makes the series fascinating is that Hadden depicts these stories as being terrifying rather than heroic. People are thrown into the middle of a horrifying and inexplicable magical world and forced to attempt to survive. The reader is thrown into the middle of an epic storyline with no backstory, meaning that one simply has to accept the absurdity of the situation when reading it. This issue brought a small amount of clarity while creating any number of new mysteries. Throughout the series, Hadden kept the reader guessing and constantly entertained as he pursued his storytelling whims, and I'm curious to see what the tone of the new series will be like.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Minis: Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom

Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom is a fascinating, autobiographical look at the immigrant experience and gentrification. Pandya's family emigrated to Queens from India, and she was born and raised in that borough, "the most diverse city in the world." Returning to live in her old neighborhood as an adult, Pandya explores her feelings regarding gentrification and young white hipsters moving in. Her anger and frustration are palpable, in part because Queens made her (and other people of color) feel rooted. The young people moving in aren't looking to put down roots, in her mind; they're there for the experience and will move on after a couple of years. She explains that she understands why they're moving in and can't fault them, but she still feels frustrated.

That frustration is related to being a daughter of immigrants and a person of color in America. She noted that being in Queens allowed her to feel "invisible, in the right way." She didn't stick out, nor was she made to feel different by others, because she was one person of color among many. In turn, that helped her feel rooted to this area. It was where she grew up and learned how to ride a bike like any other American kid, but it's also where her mother taught her Gujarati. It's a place that belonged to her and people like her.

The fear is that as Queens continues to change, she won't have a place that roots her anymore. At a certain point, she may be forced to concede that "it doesn't belong to me anymore, either." This is a measured but emotional howl at forces beyond her control and the ways in which spaces that once were claimed by marginalized people can be taken away from them. It's about how colonialism is intrinsically bound with gentrification in ways that are often invisible to those moving into neighborhoods that are suddenly considered to be desirable. Pandya's use of colored pencils (the comic is printed solely in blue) is subtle and expressive, like in depicting the bemused smile on her face when she tells a friend "I like Queens, too." The sequence that ends the book is a memory of learning the alphabet of Gujarati. There's a lovely drawing of young Pandya on a single page, her form taking up the lower right-hand corner of the page. On the final page, she says, "Then we left, and I forgot it all." The same image is repeated, only it's now smudged and partly erased. It's a lovely but bittersweet encapsulation of someone who is trying to come to terms with the ways in which rootedness is often a luxury that immigrants and people of color in the US do not enjoy.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Uncivilized: Dash Shaw's Structures 57-66

The Structures series of minicomics from Uncivilized speak to publisher Tom Kaczynski's professional interests as an architect. Of course, the nature of structures--especially man-made ones--has also always been a part of Kaczynski's personal, aesthetic project. In particular, the ways in which we interact with structures and how they explicitly and implicitly represent aspects of the wider culture and interests of capitalism is at the center of his work. The relationship between evolution and civilization vs. humanity's basest instincts also informs everything he does. As such, it's clear that when he assigned an artist an issue of Structures to do, he was interested in seeing how they would interpret the concept. In a sense, it's a kind of anthology series, riffing on a single theme in radically different ways.

Dash Shaw did Structures 57-66, and his take on the concept was surprisingly clear and linear. Earlier in his career, Shaw went heavy on coded symbolism and metaphor in his comics. In more recent years, his storytelling has become more straightforward in some ways, especially his use of line and narrative. His use of color is what's become the interesting wild card for him, using a wildly expressionistic style to convey emotion and meaning. It's interesting to see him return purely to line and not color in this comic, especially since it's so straightforward and even whimsical. Each drawing is a sort of fantasy of a building project outside his house. The first is a "Monument To Jane," his partner. The monuments utilize a thick but simple version of his line, laid out as a kind of sculptural montage. For Jane, we see her from various angles engaged in various activities with an assortment of instruments.

There's a warm and loving monument to his parents, engaged in a hug that merges their faces. There's a soaring monument to Tezuka, a funny and solid monument to Gertrude Stein, a monument to Francis Picabia that mimics that artist's drawings and even a monument to "the kicker of the monument." Shaw's sense of humor can be dry at times because he's so committed to the reality of whatever scenario he creates, but the reality is that a lot of his work is whimsical and sometimes emphatically funny. This comic is a nice workout for him that allows him to explore a number of different shapes and align them with concepts that gently tweak the art world.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Minis: Jason Bradshaw's Things Go Wrong

Robyn Chapman continues to release interesting minicomics as part of her Paper Rocket Minicomics publishing concern, and Jason Bradshaw's Things Go Wrong is one of the most recent. Visually, it's in the same kind of rubbery, bigfoot style favored by artists like Sean Knickerbocker and Rusty Jordan. The characters are exaggerated and have odd dimensions; and the main character, James, takes up a lot of space on the page. This is by design: he fills up panels, bleeds over into other panels and essentially forces the reader to really examine him carefully from top to bottom. Though much of the story is done in a naturalistic fashion, Bradshaw's aim is to make the reader aware of the composition of each page. He wants them to see not just a character but also the process of what makes up the character: lines and shapes. The idea is to feel the way the character takes up space so that when he gets sick, the reader's reaction is a visceral one.

All of this is in a story about disease and depression. James is a sign painter and artist suffering from a debilitating parasite. This is a comic about how mental and physical illness can form a devastating synergy, with each affecting the other in turn. James is in pain, a feeling that initially inspires him to do paintings about this experience. However, given a chance at a cure, he opts not to take his medicine and stops doing anything but his work murals. He becomes suicidal by way of self-neglect, wanting to die but not being willing to actually kill himself. He's content to simply stop taking of himself in the hope that he'll be gone at some point. The blue wash for this comic speaks to that melancholy, as the reader is forced to watch him experience intense, unsettling pain along with losing control of his bowels. It's a resignation that's not just lacking a will to live, but rather it's almost a kind of self-punishment. James feels like he doesn't deserve to live because he has nothing to offer as an artist (and by extension, as a person).

The first issue ends with James at a low point, waiting for his death as he does nothing to take care of himself. That said, a future issue is mentioned, which means that this story is not yet over. I'll be curious to see how Bradshaw resolves this story and if James can find a way out. Notably, James has no friends or family to help him; that solitude is glaringly clear as he struggles through life. It's also a commentary on how the lack of human connection can accelerate depression and how our worst self-images and self-talk can bring us down. The slight touch of the grotesque in the drawings served to emphasize the ugliness that James felt.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Minis: Suzy & Cecil

Gabriella Tito and Sally Ingraham's mini Suzy & Cecil is a cute, sincere and low-key series of vignettes about a girl and her dog. Produced by Frank Santoro's Comic Workbook program in Pittsburgh, one can definitely see evidence of Santoro's influence. There's a strict four-panel grid that Ingraham never deviates from. There's also a highly expressive use of color throughout the comic, using colored pencil.  That includes color being extended to the actual line, giving the entire comic a larger-than-life feel that contrasts with the low-key stories and stripped-down pencils. The comic follows the adventures of Suzy and her dog Cecil, as they poke around the city and hang around the diner where her mom works. Cecil is a floor-cleaner, going after scraps when they fall on the floor. The pigtailed Suzy is an adventurer, going on boat rides, long walks, car rides and sojourns through back alleys with her dog. 

The results are pleasantly meandering and remind me a bit of Melissa Mendes' Freddy Stories. That's a comic about a tomboy and her dog, negotiating the world on her own terms thanks to a number of understanding adults in her life. This is similar and despite the expansive use of color, the essence of each strip is rooted in rock-solid cartooning fundamentals. There's an emphasis on the relationship between figures in space, even when the figures themselves are quickly sketched out. For example, drawings of hands and feet are basic--even crude at times. However, the emotional relationship between characters is made clear thanks to body language and gesture. Indeed, Ingraham probably could have stripped things down even further for the sake of clarity, as some lines looked overly fussy. 

Of course, the use of color is the most eye-catching aspect of these comics. In a comic that aggressively sticks to fundamentals in every other aspect of page design, the use of color is strikingly expressionistic. One page is colored all in lavender. Another features a yellow-orange ground and a purplish night sky. Other pages mix pink, blue and yellow. It's fun to look at and provides a great deal of variety. The enliven the small moments of the story, like Cecil encountering squirrels and birds, Cecil or Suzy snoring loudly and ruminations on youth and mortality. This is very much a comic that's about celebrating the smallest of moments of youth and preserving them. It builds a balance between being totally unaware of time, like Cecil, and feeling like you have all the time in the world, like Suzy. In the case of both, there's an awareness passed on to the reader that time's march is inexorable, and so we should particularly enjoy the smallest of moments. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Koyama: Chris Kuzma's Lunch Quest

Chris Kuzma's book Lunch Quest is sort of like Paper Rad decided to do a children's comic. The color scheme is toned down from "visual assault" to "vivid," but the big, black eyes and roundness of the character design are very similar to that aesthetic. The page layout is also quite simple, with a base 2 x 3 panel grid that is collapsed into fewer panels as well as splash pages. It feels like the book is a mash-up of several different ideas, cleverly linked by a framing device that sets up what is non-stop motion.

It's about a hungry rabbit character dressed in a business suit who comes home looking for his lettuce. Kuzma quickly establishes a premise and then exhausts it as he leads the reader around the page, then quickly adds an absurdist premise that turns the story upside down. In this case, it's finding a portal to another world inside of the lettuce bin, which shows him a couple of skateboarding kids getting into a series of escalating challenges with a rabbit master. Kuzma slips between standard panel-to-panel transitions and flattened, full-page open layouts that twist and turn through a variety of distinctive visual cues. The same pattern is repeated in the second half of the book, where the suited rabbit happens to witness an epic dance battle.

Kuzma does a version of Keren Katz's approach to comics here, which is strongly related to her own dance background. Kuzma thinks a lot about bodies in motion and the ways in which they flatten and become distorted. Kuzma seizes on that distortion and freezes it, creating a tension between the relentless motion and that momentary pose that's a slice of that motion. The use of color and the pleasing, friendly character design make that distortion friendly and cool for a young reader, as they lead up to fun resolutions for the frenetic action on the pages. The final part of the book is a recapitulation of the first two sections, as the rabbit frantically searches for lettuce and discovers a half-dozen new worlds that get just a panel each. The final reveal is funny and sweet, but Kuzma also adds a gag on top of it. This comic is a great way of introducing non-naturalistic storytelling to young readers, reconnecting them to basic concepts of shape and showing them how it can tell a story. It's also funny, good-natured and very slightly scatological, making it a perfect read for kids between seven and ten years old.