Sunday, December 27, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Bread Tarleton

Bread Tarleton's ambitious Losing Comics is a fascinating metacommentary on storytelling in the manner of Pirandello meets Scott McCloud. Indeed, the title and the cover logo were direct references to McCloud's book on comics art, Understanding Comics. However, the simple, iconic character is dropped into the middle of a story and is alerted of this fact by the unseen narrator, who is said to represent the artist. It's left up to the nameless character to find their purpose, all while Tarleton explores the elastic nature of comics storytelling. 

The book has the cadence of certain manga in terms of its willingness to slow storytelling down to a crawl and force the reader to advance the action slowly, turning page after page in order to move things along. The existential quality of the comic also reminds me a bit of Anders Nilsen's "Monologues" comic, only this book doesn't have the jokey quality of Nilsen's work. Indeed, there is an impassioned sincerity to the struggle of the protagonist, as they go from confusion at their predicament and the narrator's purpose for them to anger at their fate to despair to determination. All they could do was keep going, trying to understand themselves while desperately wishing for connection. 

Losing Comics is a perfect example of cartooning and drawing being related but separate skills. The drawing in this book is simple and non-naturalistic. The cartooning, however, is complex and deeply affecting. Beyond Tarleton's command of gesture, there's a sequence where the character desperately wants the reader to tell them what they should look like, tortuously altering their face again and again. It's heart-breaking and dramatic, and it's a testament to Tarleton's skill as a cartoonist that each image is as powerful as the next. It's followed by an expression of gratitude toward the reader for bringing them to life by reading the book and accompanying them on their journey, even if it's a journey that they ultimately completed through their own willpower. It's a testament to the power of seeking out connection and understanding that we are always connected to others, even if it's not immediately obvious. 

The character's journey is the journey of anyone who struggles to understand their purpose in life, who feels everything is absurd and meaningless, and doesn't even know who they really are. In the end, the struggle, the journey, and the company provide enough meaning, a sentiment earned not through treacly sentimentality but through a viscerally difficult trek for the character and the reader. Losing Comics is a powerful conceptual achievement that may not seem beautiful on its surface, but it's more than worth exploring to get to its underlying truths.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

In Praise Of Annie Koyama

Annie Koyama is shuttering Koyama Press for good at the end of the year. Her books will still be available from distros like Spit And A Half and in stores, but she'll be moving on to a new phase in her career. She's not leaving comics, but I imagine what she does next will be very different.

On twitter, she asked if there were specific books that meant something to readers. I've been lucky enough to have read virtually everything that's ever been published by Koyama, and I've reviewed a huge chunk of it. Annie, you'll see more reviews of older stuff coming out from me in 2021, so it will still linger on for a bit!

Annie's choices as a publisher were idiosyncratic and diverse. All it took was for her to believe in what the artist was doing. While she did have an eye on sales, she certainly didn't give a fuck about trends. Indeed, part of her mission was finding an audience for up-and-coming artists, artists who were undeservedly ignored, artists too weird to find a home elsewhere, queer artists, artists of color, and most especially fellow Canadians. Not every book she published was precisely my thing, as her aesthetic interests diverged from mine in some ways, but I always respected her choices and took every book that she published seriously as a critic. 

A few quick thoughts on particular artists and books that I liked best. You have to start with Michael DeForge, whose uncompromising work was nurtured by Annie as he became one of the most popular and influential cartoonists of the past decade. Lose was one of the best periodicals during that period, with each issue surpassing the next on a regular basis. 

Jane Mai's work was a hurricane of powerful, expressive cartooning; frank talk about mental illness; and a curious, probing intellect that relished and dissected its own obsessions and interests. Her books are not lauded enough in critical circles.

I was delighted that Annie got to publish original work from Eric Kostiuk Williams. He's a staggering young talent with prodigious drawing and cartooning skills, a deep thinker, and a socially connected political voice. That's especially true with issues local to Toronto. 

Jessica Campbell is one of the funniest cartoonists alive. I will always regret that I wasn't able to convince my fellow judges of the genius of Hot Or Not: 20th Century Male Artists. The follow-up, XTC-69, was even funnier. Anyone who's ever followed my work knows that while I like all sorts of comics, I'm a gag man at heart. And it's REALLY hard to make me laugh. Campbell does it, every time. 

On the other hand, it took no effort to convince my fellow judges to nominate Daryl Seitchik's Exits for an Eisner. Seitchik needed about one mini-comic before she snapped into her current, fully-formed style. She's one of the best cartoonists working today, and I expect we will see big things from her in the future. 

Koyama published Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait, which was the best work of Julia Wertz's career up to that point. Wertz's willingness to reveal herself, get laughs, and take delight in things that she loved was a perfect balance of what's so appealing about her work in general.

Eleanor Davis' You, A Bike, And A Road is a staggeringly beautiful comic. Davis' drawings are almost too raw and beautiful to bear. Its depiction of her physical and emotional journey on her bike ride across the country is pure magic, even as she's processing the darkest of depressions. 

Finally, Koyama was the publisher of note for Keiler Roberts, one of my favorite cartoonists of all time. I have had the privilege of writing about virtually everything she's ever done. There aren't many cartoonists whose work I look forward to reading more than hers. At heart, she's a gag woman, even as she's writing about having bipolar disorder and MS and feeling like a bad mother. 

Beyond what she's published, Annie continued a legacy of ethical behavior in publishing inspired by people like Dylan Williams. In turn, she is inspiring younger publishers. She did right by her artists and everyone in comics. Her generosity is legendary. However she chooses to continue to work in the comics community, I know that it will make it better. Even if she never does another thing, her legacy in producing great comics is secure. Thank you, Annie Koyama. 

31 Days Of CCS, #26: Fantology

Every year, someone from CCS always seems to step up to do the work of editing and publishing an anthology. It's a time-tradition that has produced some excellent comics, including Sundays, Irene, Maple Key Comics, and most recently Brainworm. This time around, it's Fantology Volume 1: Origins, edited by Kristen Shull and Emily Zea. It's a straight-up fantasy anthology that makes no apologies for its subject matter and celebrates it with gusto. Not everyone in the book is a CCS student or grad, so for the purposes of this review, I will mostly focus on the CCS contingent.

While there are some solid entries in this anthology, the care that editors Shull and Zea put into make it greater than the sum of its parts. From Tess Scilipoti's simple but eye-catching cover design to the interstitial rhymes of Bartlebee the Bard to the choice of paper stock, this is a cohesive-looking and attractive book. Shull and Zea also chose to put these stories in a shared world (similar to what Isaac Cates did in Cartozia Tales), with a map at the beginning giving readers a rough understanding of that world and where the stories take place. It's a clever device that helps draw together a number of disparate styles and as well as skill levels.

Catalina Rufin's "The Quest" is one of the highlights of the anthology. Rufin went all-in on a thick line weight and spotting blacks and it works well with her relatively simple but expressive character design. It's an interesting contrast, because fantasy art with this kind of line usually tends to be more naturalistic and dramatic, but with the story's actual emotional narrative arc, that contrast between dramatic and pared-down made sense. The story follows a warrior and a young apprentice magician sidekick, and his supposed quest against a powerful witch. Rufin touchingly and hilariously subverts this trope in a way that still makes sense within the genre but also makes fun of warrior-types who can't express their feelings.

Filipa Estrela's "Discovery" is another delightful, warm story about a goblin who happens upon an island inhabited by mushroom people called Mycelia. Estrela cleverly sets the entire paradigm of an explorer on its ear, as Frond the Goblin realizes that she can't report her discovery of the island to anyone, lest it be despoiled by invaders. There's a delightful romance between Frond and Frill, the Mycelium who greets her on the island, and it leaves off on a note that implies that there could be future stories featuring this couple. The one problem with this story is that Estrela's line is light to the point of illegibility at times; it looks more like detailed thumbnails rather than a completed story. The story is also highly text-heavy, and there's some awkwardness with word-balloon placement. This was also a story that fairly cried out for color to add some weight to its pages, but the anthology was of course in black and white. 

I reviewed Alexander Washburn's "Clan Zargs" last year, as he submitted it as a separate feature. It's a nice fit in the anthology, as his anthropomorphic animal character design, thick line weight, and use of negative space allow the pages to breathe while he tells his silly and funny story about a newly-formed group of treasure hunters. I also reviewed Shull's "Thirsty" in her entry this year for CCS, and it perfectly encapsulated the best of fantasy fiction. It's not just telling a fantastical story, but introducing characters who are trying to tell their own story and create their own identity. 

Rainer Kannenstine's "The Apotheosis Of Jahk" is a well-realized story of a fisherman and a malevolent being named Titanis who at first offers friendship and wisdom to Jahk and those around him, but later inspires bloodlust and conquest. It's a story of a seemingly impossible moral problem and how Jahk failed it. Kannenstine's bold use of black and white contrasts matches his simple line nicely; it's a good example of creating a powerful set of images without overrendering.

Zea closed the anthology with "Seas The Day," a delightful coming-of-age fantasy story about a young princess who wants to be a warrior like her older brothers and the pirate who raids their city. Zea's sketchy pencil drawings and spare but powerful inking make each drawing pop off the page without losing any of their expressive power. 

Natalie Wardlaw and L.S. Hook both contributed short pieces. Wardlaw's was a silent story about finding a fairy with torn wings and mending them. It's simple, sweet, and drawn in Wardlaw's signature elegant line. Hook's contribution isn't so much a comic as it is a series of hunky drawings of men on an island that so enchanted the explorer that they chose to remain there. Both are the kind of short, intermediary pieces that provide flavor in anthologies like this. Amy Burns' "When The Gods Grew Bored" is a powerful creation myth for a particular group of people that's well designed and cartooned. Burns' attempt at a naturalistic approach didn't quite land because her character design was too crude; her lettering was also all over the place, which was distracting. 

Other interesting contributions included Jared Beerman's highly atmospheric fumetti photos of miniatures telling a story, Eliot Crow and Keren Katz's haunting story of a people turned into currency in the desert and what ultimately happens to them; Emily Bradfield's story of an official trying to thwart poachers and its surprising outcome; and Tay James' funny story of a young potion-maker trying to decide her future. 

Another volume of this anthology has been produced, and I'll be curious to see what kind of a jump the dedicated creators, as well as the editors, made. The second volume of an anthology tends to be the one where the editors figure out how to fix the errors they made in the first volume, so I'm eager to see what kind of leap they all make. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #25: Kristen Shull

Kristen Shull is one of the hardest-working of the CCS cartoonists, having published in the last two years a short fantasy comic, a biographical comic, a 32-page erotic fantasy comic, two years' worth of daily diary strips (and counting), and co-editing two fantasy anthologies. As I noted in my evaluation of her work from last year, she has done the work of getting better in public.

This year, I'm going to take a look at the collected Ego Gala, which has all of her daily diary strips from 2019. I've reviewed most of these before, but I will be reviewing them again in conjunction with Hell Bait, her erotic fantasy comic, as well as "Thirsty," her story from Fantology Volume 1. (I'll be reviewing the rest of that CCS-heavy anthology in a separate post.) Rather than critique each comic separately, I'll be doing a more generalized critique of her work in part, as she notes in her diary strips, she wanted to achieve the same effect in both her autobio and fantasy work: "Find the familiar." That means finding a way to reach and connect to her audience while telling her story, no matter the genre. 

1. All the way open. Once again, to use the Alex Hoffman parlance with regard to autobiography, Shull's memoir is as open as it gets. That's not just because Shull writes about subjects like her sex life, partying, mental health, loneliness, her insecurities as an artist, and much more, but also because she provides a strong emotional context for all of this. She does have a brief intro providing a bit of informational context for certain events in her life, but those were honestly not really needed to understand the emotional contexts of the events or her relationships. Shull balanced this openness against her responsibility to tell a story. While there's a bit of the "then I ate breakfast, then I ate dinner" quotidian dullness found in many diary strips, Shull either limits that as much as possible in telling a story, makes it part of a gag somehow, or at least does a funny or interesting image to go with it. Consciously or not, Shull never lets go of the story.  

2. Fearless. As I've noted elsewhere, it is a mistake to label autobio cartoonist's work as "honest," because how on earth would the reader know? Shull noted in a diary strip that one note she had received during a critique is that she was fearless in terms of what she draws, and that's a far better description. Shull isn't afraid to write about her fears, her vulnerabilities, her absurdities, her desires, and her adventures. While there were times where she felt a little embarrassed about drawing highly personal and intimate activities, it didn't stop her from continuing to write about them. As Gabrielle Bell once wrote, "It is humiliating to expose myself like this, but it is worse to try to hide it." Shull doesn't try to hide it. At the same time, "fearless" is not "reckless." She has an understanding of her responsibility with regard to how she depicts others, especially with regard to how they might make her feel. That comes out during a period where she felt particularly fragile, and she wrote about how she told her housemates that she wanted them to be nicer to her.

3. Bacchus and Minerva. Throughout her diary comics, Shull is referred to as the "Bacchus of CCS." She's not just fun at parties, but she actively encourages merriment in all sorts of ways. There's a visceral quality to her stories lacking in much autobio, and she's not afraid to share it: drinking, doing drugs, having sex, playing rugby, running, exercise, eating fancy meals, "hashing" (sometimes referred to as "the drinking club with a running problem"), etc. If it involves physical sensation, then Bacchus craves it and wants to share it. What Shull doesn't explicitly say is that if she's Bacchus, then she's also Minerva. Wise, introspective, thinking about the future--thinking too much, frequently. It's an interesting dichotomy, but an important one, because Shull may be a Bacchus for parties, but it's Minerva who gets the work done. 

4. The laboratory. Doing a diary strip like this is an act of will. It not only forces productivity, but it reminds cartoonists that the perfect is the enemy of the good--and the finished. It reminds them not to be too cute or precious with their work. It forces them to find good storytelling shortcuts and stops them from over-rendering. At the same time, drawing like this makes one a better draftsman. It's also highly low-stakes, so it allows artists to experiment with page design, storytelling techniques, narrative ideas, etc. The most interesting aspect of Shull's autobiographical work is that willingness to experiment.

5. Fantasy is reality. That said, Shull's autobio work is a solid example of the diary form, but that very format is in itself limiting and limited. While I can see Shull continuing her diary indefinitely for many reasons, it's clear that her true talents lie in fantasy storytelling. Hell Bait, for example, pulls off the remarkable trick of being an x-rated comic with explicit sex scenes that are entirely in service to the larger story. The premise, wherein a local witch who has a FWB arrangement with a demon and has to trick him into killing another demon by way of coitus interruptus, is absolutely ingenious. Shull not only has the instincts and ability to tell a good fantasy yarn, she's able to tell an absolutely hilarious and hot story that doesn't mock either fantasy or erotica. 

"Thirsty," her story in Fantology, is the best entry in the book. In the span of 12 pages, Shull establishes and cleverly resolves an interesting problem, draws horrifying lake monsters, and creates a working bond between a wizard and an elf. Shull crafted a satisfying one-shot story while leaving room for a larger saga if she chooses to go that route. All of her storytelling is excellent. 

6. The next step. Shull openly discussed not being able to imagine doing a longer work in her diary, but the reality is that she progressed in a manner that makes the most sense for a young cartoonist. Start small, finish short work, and keep putting out new comics. With enough pages under your belt, the idea of a longer work no longer seems as unattainable. Indeed, that concept for a fantasy epic started percolating in her head toward the end of 2019. Shull's future clearly is in the realm of fantasy; she's a sharp and witty writer and a great visual problem-solver. The one thing she needs to add to her toolbox is color. Her line is not quite forceful enough to drive an entire comic of this kind on its own, and while her understanding of gesture and body language are highly-developed, there's a certain blandness to the way she designs faces--especially compared to the exciting way she draws monsters. Learning to work with color would help with this while taking a load off other aspects of drawing. I think the ideal scenario is somewhere between Hell Bait and "Thirsty": a smart, engaging, high fantasy epic for adults. There's no question that Shull has the ability and the ambition to do so. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #24: Lauren Hinds

One reason I appreciate Lauren Hinds' comics is because it's clear how carefully she thinks through her work. Writing mostly about teens and children, her close study of family dynamics and disciplined restraint in depicting the breakdowns of families and friendships gives her work an almost uncomfortably intimate quality. 

In Jeremy (published by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket Mini Comics), Hinds depicts a turbulent friendship between two boys from different backgrounds. Implicitly set in Hinds' home country of Trinidad and Tobago, it's told from the point of view of an unnamed white kid with a protective family and his best friend, a Black kid named Jeremy whose family mostly ignored him. It really does like like the journal a kid might make, with every page designed on lined paper as though the kid was drawing the comic on notebook paper. Each page has a single panel and cursive writing below, narrating the story. Hinds' figure drawings have the deliberate spontaneity of a child's attempt at drawing, only with much greater technique and understanding of how a page works. 

In telling the story, Hinds is careful not to pass judgment on her characters. Jeremy is clearly a lonely kid, but he made for a frustrating friend. The narrator had a number of memorable adventures with him, but Jeremy insulted him when he couldn't go out with him. Jeremy also got his ass kicked on a consistent basis by the white kids at their school, but he never backed down from them. The most fascinating part of the narrative is the mixed messages the narrator receives from adults. A teacher tells him to stop hanging out with Jeremy. His mother says that he's too smart to hang out with Jeremy. His uncle, however, tells him that Jeremy is much tougher than he is, and this is all part of the narrator's general low self-esteem. In Jeremy, he sees someone who seems so much more free, brave, and imaginative than he is. He doesn't understand the things his friend is missing in his life. 

Eventually, after a misadventure where Jeremy's bossiness turns into outright disregard for his friend's safety, they drift apart. Hinds reinforces this in an interesting way. There isn't a dramatic moment of conflict, just that awkward phase where one person tries to ignore another. The beginning of the comic is in full, lush color reflecting the vivid quality of the narrator's memories and experience of these adventures. As the story unfolds and things slowly split apart, the colors start to fade. They're reduced to spot colors before the incident where they are nearly attacked by dogs occurs, and when the dogs appear, the comic reverts entirely to black and white. What is unstated in Hinds' comics is every bit as important as the things she spells out.

The Quiet Family explores similar territory and uses the same kinds of narrative techniques. This time, it's a young girl who's curious about the Bedoe family that moves in next door, because they're so quiet. This comic is much more emotionally charged and less subtle than Jeremy, as it doesn't take long for Kessa, the narrator, to deduce that Mr. Bedoe is abusive in the same way her dad was. Whenever Mr. Bedoe saw her or talked to her, Kessa felt uneasy, and for good reason. He was eventually arrested for assaulting his wife, who was protecting her daughter from him. There is a real sense of mourning and lost opportunity in this comic; Kessa feels bad for the girl because of what she went through (knowing it was what she went through as well) but also because she mourns what could have been a close friendship. While this narrative is far more dramatic and explosive, Hinds still shows a great deal of restraint as an artist. There's tremendous tension, but Hinds opts against melodrama. Paired with Jeremy, one can see a potential collection of stories told in this vein. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #23: Sam Nakahira

Sam Nakahira's development as an artist has been interesting, because while she's clearly headed to a career doing long-form, personal journalistic comics, she's taken the opportunity while at CCS to branch out a little and try different things. It's made her a better cartoonist, in part because her journalistic comics have sometimes been so deeply researched that it didn't leave a lot of room to have fun drawing things. Her mission was to transmit information clearly and succinctly, and that sometimes meant comics that weren't terribly interesting to look at on a purely surface level. 

That's certainly not the case with her selection of minis here. Cursed Hands is absolutely soaking in atmosphere, with black gutters and dense hatching immediately establishing an oppressive backdrop. The story is about a puppetmaker who creates puppets that are so lifelike that the small town she lives in think she's a witch. Her lover leaves after being unable to endure the abuse of the townsfolk. In response, the puppetmaker crafts a doll in the image of her lover so lifelike that it actually comes alive, drawing the attention of the devil. She tempts her with all sorts of things in order to get her hands, but the final confrontation is defiant. This story depended entirely on Nakahira's ability to get across emotion through body language and her ability to draw dolls and puppets. Her rendering is still on the rough side, but the actual cartooning nails every goal. The use of splash pages and unusual close-ups is highly effective in conveying mood as well. 

Copycat is a story that originally appeared in an anthology, but this solo edition similarly uses black gutters to set the story's tone. This one's about an art student named Mei and another student named Katie who befriends her. It doesn't take long for Mei to realize that Katie was starting to copy her sense of fashion, her musical choices, and even her choice of majors. It became clear that Katie wasn't just copying Mei but also trying to replace her. The final pages are chilling and inevitable. In this comic, keeping her character designs relatively simple allowed Nakahira a lot of room to experiment with different facial expressions and work in a horror vein with many of them. The bland friendliness of Katie in particular was cleverly played up as highly unsettling. 

The Quantum Worlds Of Bernice Bing is very much in Nakahira's bailiwick. This is a typically scrupulously-researched biographical comic about abstract expressionist artist Bing that's filled with Nakahira's own reactions and interests. Bing defied categorization, being less interested in getting on the treadmill of an art "career" and the capitalistic and competitive path this demands and much more interested in community outreach. Nakahira relentlessly pursues the hypocrisy and blatant sexism of the fine arts world and holds Bing up as a model for someone who did things on her own terms. 

Visually, Nakahira makes a lot of smart decisions in this comic. Clearly working from photographs and original paintings, Nakahira keeps character design simple. It's naturalistic, but Nakahira is more interested in capturing the essence of her subject rather than attempt to convey a detailed likeness of her subject. More importantly, Nakahira wanted to create a sense of what Bing's use of color was like, flinging colors across the page as though Bing was a wizard. This effect works, as once again Nakahira's goal wasn't to create precise reproductions of these paintings but instead of what it's like to experience them. That use of color makes this comic exciting to look at as well as read, and it's a testament to Nakahira's hard work on both clarifying her line and making her pages more visually striking.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #22: John Carvajal

John Carvajal has done a lot of work illustrating genre stories as well as writing and drawing his own short stories.  His first long-form book, Sunshine State, is clearly a much more personal work, drawing on his own experience as the child of immigrants and trying to find his way as he doesn't feel entirely a part of either Latinx or Anglo culture. Set in Tampa, it follows a directionless young man named Milo as he tries to navigate post-high school life with his friends. It's a slice-of-life story that follows Milo from innocent house parties where he dulls his existential ache with pot and alcohol to him engaging in riskier and riskier behavior. The core of the book is that because Milo doesn't have a true sense of identity, he also has a corresponding lack of agency. There's nothing he really wants to do or be; it all seems pointless. 

There's a clever visual trick that Carvajal uses throughout the book. Whenever Milo smokes up, the smoke billows up around in the form of little skulls. Later, when he feels anxious (especially around his parents), the skull-smoke wafts up from his imagination. The skulls represent a number of things: when he's high, he's experiencing a "little death" of his consciousness, his awareness, and his grip on reality. While Milo didn't want to be aware or connected to his daily reality, that came at a cost, and directly tied back into that loop of anxiety. 

Much of the dialogue in the book is in Spanish, and that in itself is a pointed form of commentary, because it's Milo's family that only speaks to him in Spanish as Colombian natives. Carvajal seems to connect Milos feelings of alienation toward being Latinx to his father's constant, withering disapproval and disappointment. His father isn't a screamer or yeller, but he's blunt in clearly wanting a better life for his son and has low tolerance for his son's bullshit. Milo seems to connect the identity of being Latinx in America with being like his dad, and it's something he clearly doesn't want. But though he's white-passing (unlike his friend Aldo, who is dark-skinned), he doesn't feel like he's part of that mainstream culture either. 

It's no wonder that not only did he find himself drifting, but that he found his way to increasingly alienated subcultures. He kind of fell into selling pot, but Carvajal masterfully portrays that constant tension and feeling of paranoia that begins when you step outside the law. Even seemingly benign interactions have that moment of danger where it feels like it could all go wrong. His depictions of the kinds of things people do while high, while blackout drunk, and on psychedelics all resonate, as he accurately portrays the pleasures and risks of each.

Carvajal divided the book up into different seasons, allowing time to pass more quickly. He goes from not knowing what to do with his life in summer to starting to sell pot and getting caught by his father in fall. That was a brutal scene, as he lied through his teeth about why he had a pipe and pot, and his father calmly instructed him to flush away the drugs and smash the pipe, telling him that he didn't come to this country for this shit. His mother tearfully wailed that his uncle tied because of this. The drug business in Colombia was serious, and the sheer disappointment from Milo's father (encapsulated in a visceral sigh as he knew his son was lying) had those smoke skulls welling up again, as Milo simply couldn't confront his own actions in a meaningful way. 

In the winter, Milo has moved out and immediately not only experiences his apartment getting robbed, but is roped into going with his roommate and a mob and trying to track down their stuff door-to-door. It's an initiation into a new world he's also not comfortable with, but it's a symptom of how alienating himself from his family hasn't done anything to actually find himself. He has a hard-partying girlfriend and he's doubled-down on his dealing, starting to meet far more dangerous dealers further up the food chain. Worse, his identity has become that of a drug dealer, alienating his friends. Another set of dealers comes to his house, looking for money and drugs, and he tries to finger his neighbors. Then he gets blackout drunk and in an accident. Then the neighbors confront him about him trying to narc on them, and his life gets threatened. It's an all-too-predictable chain of events for someone like him at the bottom of the food chain. He loses his place to live and his girlfriend.

Milo is self-aware. He doesn't want to be doing all of this, but when Aldo asks him what he does want to do, all Milo can say is "I've never really had any desire to do or be anything." Milo was never given the template to fit into a pre-existing structure nor the personal agency to choose his own path, because he felt his own agency was worthless--in part because of things his father said to him. When Aldo reminds Milo that he can draw, and that there are possibilities there, that sets events into motion that not only give Milo a new future outside of his Tampa bubble, but also sets the stage for his father to tell him that he loves him and will always be there for him--and that he understands Milo has trouble expressing emotions. It's a tender and true moment, because Carvajal is careful never to portray Milo's dad as villainous or abusive--just as someone who didn't understand how to support his son emotionally. 

Carvajal's use of color adds much to the comic's emotional narrative. So much of what happens to Milo is left unsaid, and the watercolors emphasize his moods and those of the people around him. His figures are cartoony, which makes some of the trippier and more surreal images in the book easier to understand and hook back into the overall emotional narrative. Carvajal's use of Tampa itself as a background is a key element of the book as well. When you grow up in a tourist town, its bright trappings can seem rather drab if you're inured to them. Carvajal also clearly has his finger on the pulse of what it's like to be Latinx in a Florida city, as it's possible as an immigrant to never actually have to assimilate to white American culture, depending on where you're from and where you're living. That's certainly true of the Cuban community in Miami, but many Central and South American countries have huge communities in Florida. That's why for someone like Milo, who never had a strong sense of self, it was so easy for him to feel a kind of personal and cultural paralysis. He never found a place to belong until he actually listened to his friends who loved him best and drew encouragement. Even at that, the dramatic nature of his travails is deliberately undercut by his flat emotional affect, so that him going to art school is a good first step, it's only a first step. Carvajal doesn't overplay his hand in transforming the character, because he clearly had so far to go, and that was an interesting variation on this kind of story. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #21: Ivy Lynn Allie

Ivy Lynn Allie's most recent minicomics show an artist who's come into her own stylistically and as a writer. Her short fiction is exceptionally clever, subtle, and unsettling, and her ability to effortlessly cross genres mark her as someone who can go in any direction as a cartoonist and do well.

Last Stop, for example, mixes two genres. There's a heaviness to this story as she quickly establishes her nameless protagonist as a man who's reached the end of his rope. He's broke, he doesn't have a job, and he's completely isolated himself from his family and his therapist. Allie gets this across with one succinct panel. This is a character psychodrama. The story begins when he falls asleep on the subway, only to awaken at a stop where a talking raccoon in a cop's uniform rousts him and throws him off the train, and he finds himself in a part of the city where anthropomorphic animals are dominant. That minor-key tone of his depression mixed with the weird absurdity of the world he finds himself trapped in are a potent high-concept, and him finding another human and glomming on to him provide the spark for the beginning of a potentially longer story. As it stands, the combination of despair and lunacy resonates. One can see Allie's drawing tighten up and sharpen as the issue unfolds, with the black gutter space emphasizing the comic's sense of gloom. The character design, especially for the animals, is expressive; it's silly but also gritty and realistic at the same time.

My Friend Meredith is a brutal take on how childhood friendships can be every bit as abusive as other relationships. A girl named Terri and her family visit their friends, and a loving, open Terri is happy to see her same-age friend, Meredith. Allie is not subtle in waving the red flags regarding Meredith from the beginning: she wants Terri to watch a scary movie at her, and then screams at Terri and hits her with a pine cone when Terri beats her in a foot race. The point of the story is not that it establishes Meredith as a sociopath (and Allie does pile it on), it's that Terri is willing to take it, because she thinks of her as a friend, no matter what. What's left unsaid are the social forces that pushed Terri to think this was so, and how her faith in them clearly wavered in the comics' final, silent panels. 

Sanity Check was not only the most fully-realized of these three comics, it was one of the better minicomics I read in 2020. It's a collection of her shorter comics in the tradition of series like Eightball, and the small aesthetic touches and interstitial pieces in the comic make it greater than the sum of its parts. It's a satisfying read from beginning to end, starting with "Of Course, No One Knew." Allie begins the piece in media res, as she at first leads the reader to believe that this is a flashback comic of some kind with invisible narrators talking about a film they had made together. Allie deliberately confuses the reader as to the point of view in this story while relishing the opportunity to talk about the making of a small-budget horror flick. The swerve she introduces has a huge payoff that makes everything make sense while revealing how different projects can be hugely meaningful to people, especially young people. 

"I Made A Friend," with pink as its spot color, is a horribly tragic and tender account of the magic spark of creativity and how cruelly and quickly it can be snuffed out. "The Situation" is about a woman whose job it is to remove poisonous toads, but who didn't want to kill them. The decisions she's forced to make are heartbreaking, but it's even more heartbreaking when it's clear this experience hardened her emotionally. The pea soup-green in this comic is crucial in establishing its atmosphere. Allie's restraint as a storyteller and willingness to explore emotionally complex characters and situations signals that she's ready to sink her teeth into a longform comic or continue to build this body of short story work. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #20: Emil Wilson

When Emil Wilson came to CCS, he had a career in graphic design and illustration. He knew how to effectively design a page. After a year in the program, he's also become an excellent writer and cartoonist. His dry sense of humor and ability to plumb the depths of human despair in interesting ways reminds me a great deal of Will Dinski's work, especially when one also considers the formal and design qualities of their work. 

The Final Results follows the final journey of Carl, a man who dies in his sleep and stops at an afterlife computer terminal that is there to answer his questions about anything. Carl asks how many times he had sex, who stole a childhood bicycle, and if the Cubans killed JFK. Then he goes deeper: who was his soulmate? What was his ideal career supposed to be? Occasionally, the computer would tell him things like "the future is not supported on this device," which was clever. The comic was done in black and white, with the ink line droppping out for Carl. He was drawn in a spectral blue with a blue sky background, which was a smart visual solution in depicting his non-corporeal state. Wilson's figure drawing is still a work in progress, but the actual character design was excellent, as he excels in crafting ordinary-looking schlubs. 

Potato, Potato, Potato was a sweet comic about dementia. A quick note: Wilson excels at typography and lettering. He's a smart and sharp designer with regard to fonts and overall design and has a knack for knowing what will work for each story, because he never repeats the same design. His lettering is bold but organic and never lacks for clarity. This comic was about an old married man and woman and his creeping dementia. When he appeared naked in the living room with a collander on his head one morning, she knew what was happening. After the usual round of doctors and advice from her children, she gave him a photo book in an effort to jog his memory. He responded by trying to eat one of the photos. In a marvelous, hilarious twist, she joined him in his nonsensical behavior--yelling at the trash can, putting all the furniture outdoors, etc. But she also put on dance records at random and he responded to that. The final page, where she tells him about a tree and he responds, "Potato," was especially sweet, because she responds in kind and it is comforting for them both. Here, Wilson's character work is absolutely spot-on. Gesture, facial expressions, and especially the way the characters interact in space are so intimate it's almost painful. It's an absolutely lovely, charming comic.

The Sorry Man is yet another visual experiment. It's a comic with an unusual open-page layout, where images are matched with lines of dialogue. The story is about a man whose job is writing elaborate apologies to aggrieved customers of a particular airline. Whatever the complaint, no matter how small or petty, he had a way of completely acquiescing to their emotional demands. It's not just a matter of apologizing though; it's wording it in a very precise but passive-aggressive manner that relieves his employer of responsibility. The parallel story was that his young daughter was dealing with a mean-spirited bully at school. After the usual advice of being extra-nice to her backfired while he was dealing with an incident where a psychotic flier was restrained with duct-tape over her mouth, he snapped. He told his daughter it was OK to get mad, and she promptly beat down her bully and made her bleed. His ultimate solution to both problems in the form of letters was cutting, dark, and hilarious. The moody brushwork and innovative lettering solutions that added clarity to the piece were indicative of a cartoonist who carefully thought out the solutions to visual and narrative storytelling problems.

(Probably) The Last Time is a memoir of COVID and his dying father. Once again, it's a visual departure from his other comics. Wilson's versatility is one of his best qualties as a cartoonist, because he can work in a wide variety of styles. This was done scrapbook/collage style, with hand lettering. It's a series of two-page spreads, with some dominant header often done in the style of an advertising font. The story follows Wilson visiting his father on the west coast after he was told that he probably had just three months to live. His sarcastic sister, needy mom, and suddenly emotional and open father are all part of the cast of characters, as is Wilson's husband Giacomo. A memoir about a specific set of emotions regarding his father went absolutely haywire when COVID struck and forced Wilson to make a number of difficult choices regarding his schooling, and it got even more complicated when his husband got sick. This is a bracing, funny, and knowing story about a family that for all its dysfunctions, was still incredibly important to Wilson. The moments of affection and honesty his dying father gave him were depicted as almost overwhelming in the way they surprised him. The visual bag of tricks Wilson unleashed on the reader made every spread exciting and challenging. I'm especially excited to see Wilson's senior thesis project, given his progress and ambition as a cartoonist. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #19: Leeah Swift

Leeah Swift is an interesting talent, as an example of a cartoonist who already has a highly-developed personal style as a young cartoonist but is clearly still figuring out what kind of cartoonist she wants to be. Initially springing out of the Minneapolis scene, Swift's comic Meet Cedar The Giraffe was published by Caitlin Skaalrud's Talk Weird Press. This is a comic that deliberately plays with social conventions, as the unseen interlocutor who attempts to engage Cedar is a role that Swift inherently questions from the beginning. Cedar is a woman, writing a note, sitting in a booth, but in some ways, the "giraffe" part of the title comes from the narrator treating her as though she were an animal in a zoo. Cedar's reluctance to engage and general guardedness regarding her name and past both seem more like well-established defense mechanisms than the sign of a disaffected character. However, this understanding for the reader comes slowly, as Swift slowly subverts the cheerfulness of the narrator and Cedar's prickly response into something much darker and more personal. Ultimately, however, Cedar is reluctant to let go of the conversation, needing a connection of some kind, any kind at that moment. 

In terms of the drawing, Swift's character stylizations are deeply rooted in a thorough understanding of gesture and body language. The wooden booth, drawn as old and deeply pitted, anchors each page, giving Cedar something to play off of. There's a fundamental sense of restraint in both writing and drawing, even given the subject matter and Swift's character design. 

The opposite is true in her Aesop assignment, the classic The Tortoise And The Hare. Subtitled "Race Through A Silly Metaphor For Depression," Swift is highly self-aware that this comic is all over the place. It's less a narrative and more a deeply personal pause at the fork of a road. The first three pages are devoted to the story proper, and they're a showcase for Swift's increasing skill as a draftswoman, with tight hatching and fine details. Swift has a confident and bold line and has a great sense of comic timing as well with regard to visual gags. 

The back half of the story is Swift relating to both tortoise and hare. She felt the malaise and depression of the tortoise but also understood that slow labor was the only way she could make the kind of art she wanted. She related to the hare's energy, confidence, and ambition, but recognized that it also led to an overinflated sense of self and arrogance. I think for a cartoonist like Swift, CCS is an ideal environment because it likely forces her to draw on on the positive aspects of both of these selves. It puts her in a supportive environment but also one where collaboration, deadlines, and the expectation to publish are all expectations of the program. She has to do the work and thus avoids the impatience of the hare. She has to do the work and thus avoids the malaise of the tortoise. What will be interesting is when Swift is ready to tackle a more ambitious assignment in her second year and what that might look like. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #18: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden has long been one of my favorite CCS cartoonists, even as his work is hard to classify. It has fantasy elements, to be sure, but it's a sort of alt-comics fantasy: rough around the edges, filled with moments of weird humor, and frequently absurd. Despite that absurdity, there was always a terrifying edge to his work, where horrible things happened to innocent people for no reason. 

Since ending Astral Birth Canal and after just a couple of issues of Astral Forest, his fantasy series, Hadden has spent much of his time on a different project: the adventures of Kricket The Cat. These are all-ages fantasy comics with a wonderfully gentle sense of humor that rely on the reader's desire to hang out in this particular world. Indeed, the plots, such as they are, are cursory at best. Instead, we are presented with the things Kricket does on a particular day and the people that he meets. An early version of this from 2017, Krikkit Goes Outside (note the different spelling) is drawn with a spareness resembling John Porcellino, as young Krikkit meanders around the forest. He searches for mushrooms, chases a frog, and rides down the river on a raft. The only use of color is a hand-drawn yellow for Krikkit's fur. There's a simple pleasure to be found in just seeing how Hadden lays out each page, leading the reader on in some pages dominated by their negative space and on others with simple drawings but a dense layout. 

Hadden has refined and changed the character a bit, releasing other minis in full color. Kricket The Cat introduces him as a "gentle young man" who "loves mysteries," so Kricket sings to periwinkles on the beach to draw them out, waves hi to the ghost in the forest, and meets the monstrously large Old Man Catfish. The color strips remind me a bit of Pablo Holmberg's Eden strips a little, as the narrative wanders from character to character. His friends Joey and Jenny get the spotlight, then we follow the ghost at home, worrying about a growth on their faces, and finally follow Kricket down into a well-labeled dungeon where a mimic gives him onions as his treasure. There's a light, easy, self-consistent logic at play in these strips, where everyone is languid to the point of inertness at times. When Hadden counters this slowness with actual action, it perks up the reader. The strips also knowingly play on fantasy tropes without mocking them, it's as much a part of daily life as laying in the grass is. His line is a little more developed in this mini, ut Hadden mostly keeps it simple, prefering to let the color fill in gaps and give the pages weight. 

Free Boots follow Kricket on a single adventure, as he puts on a pair of free boots but discovers they are full of slugs. He doesn't seem to mind, however. Indeed, he becomes obsessed with them, and the slugs not only start rapidly multiplying, they become a single, belligerent consciousness. Only the intervention of Old Man Catfish saves the day. The nature of his adventure and the fight make it seem like something that wouldn't be out of place in one of Hadden's old series, but it still retains the essential gentle quality of the character. 

The Tower Underneath is entirely in black and white, printed on yellow paper. It starts as a take on tourist traps, turns into a dungeon crawl that subverts expectations (the big, sword-wielding lizard man is actually quite nice), goes up the stairs of the Tower of Destiny, meets the Wizard in the Wall, and learns that his fate is to be entirely average. Hadden pulls off the trick of wrting a fun fantasy narrative that subverts the genre at every turn without mocking it entirely. This is the heart of his work right now, as he's slowly assembling a beautiful body of work that's easy to glide through, yet immensely satisfying to read. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #17: Kit Anderson

Kit Anderson brings a completely different set of skills and experiences than most of the other CCS students whose work I've seen. A graphic designer and illustrator, Anderson is applying these skills to cartooning. What's interesting is that Anderson has the eye of a formalist, paying a lot of attention to elements like page design and panel design, and how the two can be related to theme. For example, in Crossings, there's a page that starts with a single horizontal panel of mountains running across the first quarter of the page. The second panel is a smaller map of that territory, also in a single panel. That map is inset as part of a larger image of a car driving toward the mountains, with other panels strategically placed to reveal the driver of the car. The other comics here are similar in intent, although this one was the most effective. 

Minis 2020 is four different one-page strips, each with a different narrative done in a different style. One emphasizes the passage of time in the same place by using different gradations of light and color. Another is a black and white experiment about someone using a match for light in a dark basement, met only by the reflective eyes of a rat. Another used a stark black and white contrast to ultimately express the seriousness of leaving a biosphere behind and the choices that led up to that. The final strip is a COVID commentary, where the text consisted of typical sentiments about bingeing TV and reading books, only each image is that of a scene in nature, oblivious to what humans were doing. Anderson is a thinker as a cartoonist, combining word and image in a deliberate manner to create a feeling, rather than concentrating on a narrative.

With The Snow Well, Anderson went way out of her comfort zone in a number of ways. This was the CCS Aesop's fables assignment, and she chose to adapt "The Fox And The Goat," wherein a fox trapped in a well lured a goat into it with promises of delicious water and jumped on its back to escape, leaving the goat there. This is an old West-style story set in winter, wherein a messenger appeared at a bar, and a man who knew her sat down for a drink and a story with her. She told a story about a messenger who took refuge in a cabin in the middle of nowhere during winter, thanks to the kindness of a woman living there, only to find that the woman stole her horse and left her there.

This comic looks like it was drawn mostly by hand, and it seemed like Anderson tends to do everything with electronic tools. She went all out in terms of various drawing tricks, with grayscale shading, dense hatching and cross-hatching, and her typical use of highly contrasted light and shadow. It's a cleverly-told story with a slight varitation on Aesop that provided a clever twist. The one area where Anderson seemed less confident was her figure drawing. They were stiff and she didn't have a tight grasp on how bodies interact in space. Her thin line seemed ill-matched for the material and made her characters look wobbly. There's a great deal to like about Anderson's cerebral approach, especially with regard to panel design and page-to-page transitions, and it's clear that this mini is the first step of many in merging her formal sophistication with more basic character drawings and narrative.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #16: Denis St. John

Denis St. John is one of a small number of CCS grads who has specialized in monsters and horror, and he touched on both things in his recent work. Quarantine Dreaming Comix is a cut above standard dream comix in that St. John took intense, lucid dreams and turned them into brief but compelling horror narratives. As always, there's a touch of the absurd in his work, like in the story where he heard howling coming from the walls; the pose of his character, wearing goggles and determinedly using a drill, made me laugh out loud. The next image, of dozens of babies in the walls, screaming their hatred for him, was both unsettling and absurd. 

There's a running theme in his dreams of good things turning horrible, like a sexual encounter leading to rot and decay, or taking care of a kid leading to the child being covered in disgusting, diseased skin. Sometimes he's the victim of a horrifying event and sometimes he's perpetrating it, like when he tricks a beautiful park ranger into going to hell with him. Another strip has him fending off a murderer in Toon Town, which allowed St. John to really show off his range as a draftsman. His use of spotting blacks, silhouettes, dense hatching and cross-hatching, and other techniques gave his work a high level of sophistication without losing that raw dream energy. 

The Mesozine Era is a zine dedicated to one of St. John's favorite things: dinosaurs. A number of other CCS alum are in it as well, including Donna Almendrala, Russ Wood Studlar, and Bryan Stone. Most of St. John's own contributions were detailed dinosaur drawings, though he did include a dream strip wherein his drawing new interpretations of dinosaurs got him yelled at by people trying to play baseball. Joey Weiser's strip comparing dinosaur hunting to getting recognition as a comics artist was amusing. Another St. John strip had an amargosaurus battling an alligator; St. John is especially imaginative in depicting the kind of movements and damage each might do. Studlar's strip about the dangers of a watering hole highlighted his skill in drawing nature. For those who like dinosaurs, this is a fun fanzine to check out. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #15: Filipa Estrela

Filipa Estrela sent me a lot of comics last year for this feature, and it was clear that she was developing a number of interesting ideas all at once. Her entries for this year are further developed versions of several of her better original ideas that show off not only her ability as a cartoonist, but also as a crafter and graphic designer. 

Grow is a fascinating art object. Tucked away inside a cover with a velcro seal and the title letters laid out in glitter and glue, this is a reboot of a project about a magician who gives sentience to a beautiful mushroom, which in turn decides to become a sort of mushroom farmer. However, instead of the comic being drawn, it was done entirely by way of needlefelt and then photographed. The effect is astonishing, creating a fuzzy, magical aura on each page. Estrela maintained a rock-solid hold on the cartooning aspect in every panel in order to establish clarity and also was careful to balance aspects of the page like the relationship of bodies to each other in space. That was the most impressive thing, because it could have easily looked like things hanging in space. Instead, Estrela even introduces foregrounds and backgrounds in a number of panels without compromising the reading experience. The only thing that would have improved the experience was for the pages to be bigger and slicker, to let the colors really shine. I could easily see Estrela pursuing something like this as a hardcover in the future. 

Rioteens! is a magazine-size expansion on her Rioteens characters that she introduced in minicomics. They were actually born as characters she invented for a superhero role-playing game, but they were clearly so much fun to think about that she invented a teen magazine for them to inhabit. If the Rioteens were characters that could have appeared in the old Action Girl anthology comic, then this magazine is the sort of thing that Sarah Dyer would have delightfully reported on in her old zine. 

There's a ten-page adventure comic, wherein Kitty Swipe tries to raise money for her non-binary sister Bubblegum Hop. There are word searches, fake ads, paper dolls to cut out, question and answer sessions with the stars of the book, drawing exercises, fan art, an advice column, and extended bios for all of the characters. Estrela went all-out and did the entire thing in color, which made her characters just jump off the page. Her character designs were already clever and varied; for example, Kitty Swipe is a fat character, and this is presented in an entirely matter-of-fact way. BH is still the best, as he's a sentient black hole who wears a yellow hoodie, and he keeps his hands in it most of the time. Estrela's comics all have a delightfully upbeat quality to them that's still rooted in real-life concerns. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #14: Leda Zawacki

I was well aware of Leda Zawacki's work before she went to CCS, and the comics she submitted all have a level of sophistication and polish that's indicative of an artist with a style that's close to fully-formed. That's not an accident, considering that she's been making comics for a while. Zawacki has a delicate but highly stylized line that reminds me a little of how Lilli Carre' approaches the page. There's a flat, cartoony quality to her characters that aggressively emphasizes their two-dimensional nature such that every narrative has a dreamy, magical feel. Each of these three comics provides variations on that approach.

For example, The Swinging Bridge, a story adapted for comics from Mari Navarro, emphasized its two-tone colors as the primary driver of the narrative. The dark blue-green not only represented the story's nighttime setting, it also served as the color of clothing. The brief shocks of bright yellow were narrative interjections, representing key emotional turning points. Zawacki's line is a thin one, relying on color to do most of the heavy lifting and fill up negative space. The story, following a teen and a friend who is obviously acting out against a lack of parental engagement, sees Mari go to her friend Rosana's house for her birthday. Rosana demanded that they play with a Ouija board, which freaked Mari out, but also seemed to be a strange, chaotic outlet for Rosana. The story culminated in a dangerous bike ride across a bridge and a shocking encounter that could have been much worse, especially for two Latinx girls. Zawacki mixed dread, anxiety, and confused personal identities into a visually dense but narratively clear story. 

Pomegranate Heart was Zawacki's CCS application comic, which of course meant that it had to include a snowman, a robot, fruit, and the artist in the story. Zawacki wove a sad, sweet story about using a red, fleshy pomegranate as the heart for for a robot and then for a snowman, and then had to find a way where they could be inside together without the snowman melting. This was an experiment in leaning entirely on her line art, and while it looks wobbly in some places, Zawacki's commitment to that clear line backed up by selective uses of hatching, spotting blacks, cross-hatching, and even some stippling gave the story the weight it needed to counterbalance that essential lightness of the narrative.

The Visitor was Zawacki's very loose take on the traditional Aesop's fable assignment. Based on Aesop's fable "The Astrologer," it's ostensibly about someone being so fixated on reading signs that they ignore what's around them. Zawacki, employing grayscale shading to add weight to her thin line, hit on a strong visual formula in this comic. The story was about a lonely seer doing online tarot readings when a demon came through a paid political advertisement. Being a seer, she rejected its attempts to fill her with dark thoughts, but she invited it to dinner as she noted that while she was looking at the cards for fun, she knew she had to engage the outside world eventually. It's an elegant metaphor for quarantining against the pandemic and being wary of intrusive thoughts and isolation. 

Zawacki still works best using color and obviously leans toward philosophical and thoughtful fantasy and mythology as her go-to genres for expression. She's done longer work before, and I'm curious as to how her CCS experience will alter her eventual career trajectory. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #13: Ashley Jablonski

Ashley Jablonski's is just starting out as a cartoonist, but from the short works she sent me, there's already a great deal of promise in her work. While her visual approach is completely different, her early student assignments remind me a bit of what Natalie Wardlaw did, in terms of using her art to directly address her trauma. 

For example, her CCS application comic (the one that requires a robot, a piece of fruit, the artist, and a snowman) was titled Change, and it's an intense but brief meditation on the trauma that she understands she's been through because her father has paranoid schizophrenia. She detailed how cold he was growing up, then discussed being put in a caretaker role at an age when she couldn't understand what was wrong with him, then described a harrowing incident where he threatened Jablonski and her sister with a knife. She astoundingly managed to stick to the assignment when she described her father's behavior as robotic. She compared the ripening of a fruit to a snowman melting as a metaphor to talk about the changes she went through growing up with her father. The final page, which is in black and white, is a howl of a drawing: it's Jablonski herself, where "the color was taken out of my life" as she was just trying to survive.

Jablonski was ambitious in this strip, and it paid off in that drawing but cost her some clarity in other panels. She didn't quite trust her line or her use of color enough to lean on either to carry the narrative, and the result was a muddle at times. The actual page composition and ideas behind the drawings were all solid, especially the clever panel-to-panel transitions, but the actual images lacked the clarity she was going for. That said, that final page had a perfect chiaroscuro balance while highlighting the resolute but weary quality of her face. 

In The Tortoise And The Hares, Jablonski took the Aesop's fable assignment and turned it into a personal diary of her first semester away from her home state. Once again, Jablonski took a specific premise and made it personal while deftly exploring the depths of that premise. This time around, Jablonski opted for a dense visual style with a heavy line weight as she drew herself as a tortoise, slowly adapting to life around her and recognizing her own bravery in completely uprooting her life. Jablonski allowed for just enough negative space to let her drawings breathe, while still establishing the immersive quality of her drawing.

Jablonski also submitted a number of one-page comics. These range from sketches to gag work to personal reflections, all experimenting with line weights, grayscale shading, and stylistic flourishes. There's also a strip that gets at the central issue of all of her strips: the guilt and paralysis she feels toward her father. On the one hand, he not only traumatized her with threatened violence, he also witheld affection as she was growing up. On the other hand, knowing that he has a serious mental illness, one that creates paranoia and delusions, means that he wasn't in command of his faculties. It's a difficult decision to make regarding her future relationship, but it's clear that working through them on the page is as much a part of her overall process and project as an artist as figuring out her best visual approach. It's all part of the same thing, and it will be interesting to see how Jablonski continues to explore and expand on both her own outlook and mental state as well as the most rewarding ways to express herself.  

Saturday, December 12, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #12: Rebecca Schuchat

Rebecca Schuchat contributed two comics with different purposes. Shame is an adaptation of Numbers 12, highlighting her skill using tonal contrast. On virtually every page, Schuchat flips black and white in terms of which color dominates a panel, and the way she spots blacks and uses negative space so effectively gives the story a highly fluid and visually exciting charge. Combined with her use of spot reds to accent the page and highlight the narrative, and the result was a visual approach that set the stage for this story about shame, patriarchy, and femininity. It's the idea of shame as an externalized force set on women that they did not choose to take on; indeed, it's really the shame of men forced on them. The red accents of the bright scene, the apple that Eve ate of, and veins popping out of dry skin popped off the page, emphasizing suffering and the original object of shame and desire. This is a visually inventive comic that goes all-in on its dense line weights and stripped-down naturalism.

(Somehow) Only Five Months was a diary of the first five months of Schuchat's experience with the pandemic and quarantine that doubled as an Inktober project. The prompts were vague enough so as not to overwhelm her own narrative, but they did guide it in interesting ways. For example, a page with the prompt "floating" was used by Schuchat to talk about floating in a river, and how this also made her "feel a tranquility that I haven't felt in months--not tied down to reality or my own body..." What makes the page effective is the intense light/dark contrast between the white space of her body and the black ink of the surrounding water. Schuchat's hand-lettering is also an important part of the image. Schuchat also widely varies her page design, from a standard grid to splash pages to open-page layouts. The character design is not quite as stylistically precise as in Shame, but that's the nature of time-sensitive projects like Inktober. 

The fact that the comic is so visually cohesive is a tribute to how Schuchat approached the project. This is also a well-constructed comic in terms of the actual narrative, as Schuchat's focus on the instability of her life as she moved out of a shared house and back in with her parents contributed to her sense of abandoning and being abandoned by her friends. Finally leaving Oakland revealed just how beloved she was by her circle of friends. It's also a powerful account of lurching from pandemic ennui to engaged activism, when the protests in Oakland and other cities became a powerful, daily activity. I'm not quite sure what kind of cartoonist Schuchat is going to become, but she certainly has the skills to do memoir, comics journalism, and comics-as-poetry.

Friday, December 11, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #11: Ksenya Kouzminova

I quite enjoyed Ksenya Kouzminova's entry for this series. She noted that she didn't have a minicomic she wanted to send, so she sent a hand-annotated copy of several entries from her gag strip, Zinka's World. It was only 8 strips in total, but that was enough to get across the flavor of this gentle, funny comic. The chief virtues of the strip are Kouzminova's highly appealing line, her stylized character designs, and a strong grasp of character interactions. Her line is bold and confident and gives each strip a certain amount of weight and power. At the same time, she doesn't feel the need to over-render, trusting in the clarity of her designs to carry the storytelling.

The one distracting thing about her art is her use of hatching. Ksenya's hair is hatched in a fairly loose pattern, and it looks very much like a technical trick than a natural part of the character. Also, her line is so strong that the hatching feels redundant. Some of the finer hatching and cross-hatching on objects n the strip is more effectively used, like on a sweater or a bedspread. The humor itself is quotidian, dealing with the smallest details of life these days like the pandemic, decorating early for Christmas, and playing with one's cat. Some of the punchlines are sharper than others, with the more visual and/or conceptual jokes being the best. Kousmniova's talent is obvious, and it simply needs to be refined.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #10: Masha Zhdanova

Masha Zhdanova is a first-year CCS student, and her contributions to this feature were some of the classic CCS student assignments. Birds, Beasts, Bat is an Aesop's Fable that many CCS cartoonists have adapted, but Zhdanova's take on it was quite clever. The first two pages are a standard take on the fable, which begins with the beasts going to war with the birds drawn in a naturalistic style. Then she shifts over to the real narrative, which is a summer camp where two competing teams (birds and beasts!) are playing capture the flag, but there's one guy (the bat) who tries to play both ends against the middle. In the end, he's banned from the game for his indecisive deceitfulness. Zhdanova went heavy on grayscale shading, and the result looked muddy on a number of pages, especially since her line weight is so thick to begin with. I got the feeling that this was a comic that was meant to be in color to accent those weights. Her character design and use of gesture carried much of the narrative.

The Princess In The Tower was the Ed Emberley assignment, which means everything must be drawn using elemental shapes. It's a great exercise, because it reinforces an important idea: drawing and cartooning are two related but different disciplines. By emphasizing that it requires very little drafting skill to tell a perfectly coherent story, it allows cartoonists to focus on the fundamentals: pacing, panel design, gesture, the relationship of characters in space, etc. Once again, Zhdanova had a clever wrinkle for her story: since it was about a princess in a very tall tower, she formatted it as an approximately 4" wide and 12" tall comic. She made use of that height on one page when the princess parachuted her way down from the tower, creating a nice downward scroll. 

Finally, there's The Museum Of Masha's Mind, a "comics mixtape." It's an unfolding comic wherein she talks about her various comics and other influences over the years. This was a fascinating read, as she discussed the impact of manga and webcomics in particular as being formative influences. She also cited Miik Morinaga's Girl Friends as being important when she was figuring out her own sexuality. Of particular interest were images from Soviet-era cartoons that she used to watch obsessively after her family came over from Russia. The whole thing is tied together by a drawing of herself as a sort of tour guide for every page, drawing the reader's eye to the right places. This is an idea that I'd love to see more artists take up.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #9: Iris Yan

Iris Yan is one of my favorite CCS grads. Her dry sense of humor, minimalist but highly expressive line, and use of anthropomorphic animals for her autobiographical stories have long been a source of continuous delight. There's a matter-of-factness to the blunt way she evaluates the world that renders her an outsider no matter where she goes--and she's just fine with that. She's of Chinese heritage, grew up in Brazil, went to school in Vermont, worked in Madagascar, and now lives in Taiwan. No matter where she lives, she has a keen sense of the absurd with regard to local culture. 

Yan asked me to review her story in the excellent s! anthology, #39. This Latvian anthology has consistently put out some of the best comics over the past decade, and they've always been committed to a strong international presence. Yan's story fit into the theme of the anthology, "The End," as the pieces were about disaster, death, and other endings. Her story was about the death of her father, but it mostly concerned the details regarding his funeral. This is where Yan's sardonic, questioning wit shined even in the face of tragedy. In particular, Yan's ability to navigate certain local customs regarding funerals, like handing out towels to guests and buying fruit as an offering from the dead, made it easier for her to take over the proceedings from her sister. 

Even in this moment of tragedy, Yan was happy that she'd be able to go without taking care of her hair for several days, and was hoping to carry this as an excuse not to deal with other people. While Yan might come off as callous and uncaring, that wasn't really the focus of the piece. Like her mother, her dad was now gone too, and there was nothing she could do about it other than go through the rituals of mourning. That's what this piece was really all about; respecting rituals and providing a proper send-off with dignity but not necessarily with a lot of sentiment. The dryness of her wit is well matched with the spareness of her line, adding tiny comic elements (like her sister's glasses) to serious proceedings. Yan deserves a major collection of her work.