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.

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.