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. 

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.