Monday, February 22, 2021

Sweet Home Miami: Spiny Orb Weaver #1 & Sun And Sand

Modern narratives about Miami are often about drug violence, glitzy nightclubs, and excessive & conspicuous consumption. And that's all true to an extent. I am a rare beast: a native of the Magic City, born when great swathes of unincorporated Dade county were still just strawberry fields. Miami isn't a city that produces anything; it processes things. It is reliant on tourists and suckers. It's where grifts are hatched and schemes are dashed. There are two overarching narratives about Miami that tend to go untold: it's a place where you can easily create a new persona and it's a place that's one major event away from being reclaimed by the swamp. 

If you live in a tropical paradise, who has time to create art? In spite of that, the arts have stubbornly been a part of the city's culture since its inception, especially tied to its historically strong sense of gay culture. One thing Miami has lacked is a strong comics culture. There are reasons for that. Miami is a highly decentralized place. Even former arts enclaves like Coconut Grove succumbed to hipster development that priced out the actual artists long ago. For a big city, Miami is deeply suburban. It's hard to put together a scene in a city when there aren't natural gathering places. Hard, but not impossible.

Thanks in part to Neil Brideau putting intentionality to work in creating pop-up shops with his Radiator Comics publishing concern, as well as various comics-making events, a community has begun to coalesce and publish. The best way to showcase young talent in a city like this is the tried-and-true method of the comics anthology. For Free Comic Book Day in 2020, Radiator Comics teamed with another powerful young publishing force in Miami, Jamila Rowser's Black Josei Press, to put together a free anthology titled Sun And Sand

Sure, that's an easy play on Miami's beach culture image, and that culture is certainly real. However, the comics themselves dive much deeper than that. I appreciated that in the credits, the authors were very specific about what part of South Florida they lived in. Miami is laid out as a grid in three different quadrants (the fourth quadrant is in the ocean, essentially), and so it's easy to know where someone lives based on an address or the particular sub-city, like Hialeah, Miami Beach, North Miami, etc. Culturally, there are areas of Miami that are remarkably self-contained; there are huge swathes where all businesses and even media are conducted and expressed in Spanish, for example. The result is that there are many Miamis and thus many potential stories. 

Carina Vo's "Mango Season" amusingly gets at a number of Miami truths. It is exceedingly easy to have your own tropical fruit tree in your yard, although it can be hard to keep track of them when the fruit starts to fall from the tree. Who "owns" the fruit is a matter of little interest to the abundant flora in the area, and Vo's clear line and spot reds amplify this. Jessica "Miss Jaws" Garcia has that big, bulky Johnny Negron/Michael DeForge-style character design in her story debating the superiority of the swimming pool vs the beach, with the potential wildlife in the latter being unnerving. Garcia makes effective use of extreme close-ups in this witty story.

Estrella Vega's story speaks to my earlier reference of Miami being close to returning to swampland, given the right set of events. Her illustrations juxtaposing daily life in Miami with a ghost level of flooding and corresponding invasion of critters is a sobering one. There was a reason why we weren't allowed to play near canals as children. Isai Oviedo's story about purloined croquetas played on the many crime stories set in Miami as well as amusing stereotypes of the sort of people who live there. Oviedo gets across the greasy deliciousness of that particular snack; Cuban food has a particular stick-to-the-bones quality to it. 

I've followed Drew Lerman's career for a while, and his Roy & Dav characters were particularly delightful in this anthology, channelling the golden age of cartooning in terms of their speech patterns and ragged-line. Brideu's "Critters" was interesting to read because for a transplanted Miami like him, the preponderance of fauna not found in other parts of the country can be overwhelming. I miss the friendly gecko lizards, personally. Miriam Rae-Silver's "HOA" speaks to both that fauna, including the invincible, omnipresent gators, as well as Miami's obsession with wealth and appearances. P.C. de la Cruz's fantasy of his uncle being attacked by a python on a fishing trip speaks to a real presence of these snakes who have no natural predators infiltrating the Everglades. 

Horror artist Jorge Lantigua's "Colada" combines his cartoony but menacing line in depicting the bewitching power of this particular Cuban coffee. Jamilla Rowser wrote and Vo drew a lovely story about snorkeling and the astounding worlds that await just below the ocean's surface. It's a lovely capper to an anthology that understands the essence of its city and the people who live there, as opposed to its image.

The Brideau-edited anthology Spiny Orb Weaver #1 plays on his fascination with the local creatures, as this is a spider that spins beautiful, intricate webs. It's a fitting metaphor for cartoonists. There are three features. The first is a long story by Jessica "Miss Jaws" Garcia titled "Just A Walk Around The Block." Her character design is superb, as her female lead has a powerful presence that provides visual irony given how socially anxious she is. The story is a dialogue between her and her dog, who chastises her inability to make friends and allow him to to get to interact with the world. When he later loses control when he sees another dog, he reveals that he was never socialized with other dogs and is afraid of them...much like she is. In the final scene, where she makes friends with someone who pets her dog, Garcia pulls back. After a story full of fairly tight close-ups that illustrated how closed-off her world was, that final scene framed her as part of the larger world. 

Garcia's subsequent interview is revealing, as she discusses her training in illustration and animation and how this led her to comics. It was telling that she revealed that she's from Palm Beach county, which is two hours away from Miami. It's still South Florida and separate from the rest of the state, but it's also different from the wilder aspect of Miami. She also talks a lot about isolation, rejection, and trying to find a local scene. Tana Oshima's illustrated essay on paradise was fascinating as it compared her time living in Miami to living in Japan, bringing up the concept of asking for permission to be in certain spaces. Once again, Oshima is an artist who recognized Miami's almost feral, wild qualities that many people pretend aren't there in favor of luxury. Oshima's use of stark black and white contrasts speaks to the raw contrasts in poverty and luxury in Miami, going neighborhood by neighborhood. Even in the poorest of neighborhoods, however, there is a flowering abundance of hope and imagination. It's Brideau's mission, I believe, to highlight this abundance as an editor, publisher, creator, and enthusiast of comics.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Emergency Fundraiser

In less pleasant news, there was a serious illness in my family the past few weeks, and it's had a cascading effect on being able to pay rent. I'm trying to raise about $2000 in the next few days. Donations are greatly appreciated, (Paypal: but I also want to offer, if people are interested, hour-long zoom calls for any topic related to my expertise. Do you want a portfolio review? Do you want to discuss a specific comic? Care to chat about philosophy? Funky music? Basketball? Also, I will be offering up mini-comics grab-bags. I choose interesting minis: $15 gets you five minis, $25 gets you 10 minis, $50 gets you 25 minis.  

Also, for those who helped during last month's crisis, and indeed, have helped my family and I at any time, I want to express my profound thanks. It's life-changing. 

31 Days Of CCS, 2020: The Index

Well, it took a lot longer than I would have preferred, but 31 Days Of CCS is over for 2020. A few extra submissions took it past 31, but what does time mean anymore, anyway? My thanks to every artist who submitted something for this feature. Here's a handy index for every entry:

1. Leise Hook  

2. Natalie Wardlaw

3. Mercedes Campos Lopez

4. Cuyler Keating

5. Mac Maclean

6. Meg Selkey

7. Lillie J. Harris

8. Angela Boyle

9. Iris Yan

10. Masha Zhdanova

11. Ksenya Kouzminova

12. Rebecca Schuchat

13. Ashley Jablonski

14. Leda Zawacki

15. Filipa Estrela

16. Denis St. John

17. Kit Anderson

18. Reilly Hadden

19. Leeah Swift

20. Emil Wilson

21. Ivy Lynn Allie

22. John Carvajal

23. Sam Nakahira

24. Lauren Hinds

25. Kristen Shull

26. Fantology Vol 1

27. Bread Tarleton

28. Rainer Kannenstine

29. Anna Sellheim

30. Dakota McFadzean

31. Aaron Cockle

32. Tillie Walden

33. Fantology Vol 2

Thursday, December 31, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #33: Fantology Issue 2

The second issue of Kristen Shull and Emily Zea's Fantology arrived just under the gun for inclusion in this feature. Unsurprisingly, this issue was generally superior to the first, often in surprising ways. For editors figuring out how best to assemble an anthology, the second issue is the one where all the kinks are generally hammered out in terms of process and production. In an anthology where very little is at stake in terms of money but a lot is at stake in terms of editorial credibility, young editors have to take risks on the kind of work they accept. There were a few newcomers in this issue and the returns were fairly positive on them; indeed, some of these stories were the best in the whole volume. 

One of the more surprising and delightful aspects of this volume is that the shared-world conceit of the first volume not only carried over here, but that some artists used the creations of other artists from the first volume to strong effect. This is another similarity to the Cartozia Tales series edited by Isaac Cates, only without the OuBaPo-style rigidity with regard to rules and switching every issue. This felt like a relaxed and fun one for artists to play together in the same world. Speaking of relaxed, the issue's theme of "Flora & Fauna" struck a nice balance between having no theme and having one that produced too much of the same thing. Each artist was simply compelled to come up with a new animal or plant during the course of their story. Some of them were incidental, and some of them drove the plot. 

While fantasy stories often devolve into world-building exercises, it was clear that Fantology's artists were generally far more interested in character-building. The characters drove the plots, and in the cases where they were returning characters, the stories served to expand on their histories and personalities. All of this is also tightened up by the anthology's narrator and gimmick Bartlebee the Bard, who not only informed the readers as to the anthology's theme, but also introduced each story and served as a natural piece of interstitial material. Unfortunately, one thing that got by the editors was matching up page numbers and the table of contents, which only had a passing resemblance to each other for many entries. 

The continuing adventures of several characters were certainly highlights. Shull's own saga of Sabi and Kata (the elf and the wizard) once again had an episode that was not only entirely satisfying on its own merits but also moved along the larger plot. It even hooked in a character from a group introduced by Leise Hook in the first issue. Given that the main characteristic of the character was his lusciousness, this was right up Shull's alley. Catalina Rufin's continuing adventures of Brono and Satu, the barbarian and his child, continued to be pitch-perfect. While retaining a rough fantasy aesthetic, the gentle quality of the story belied its concept. Filipa Estrela's gentle saga of Frill and Frond, the mushroom person and goblin who became partners in the first issue, is expanded here as the parameters and boundaries of their relationship are tested. Indeed, this is less a fantasy comic than it is a comic about relationships with fantasy trappings, although Estrela made those trappings delightful. Emily Zea's "Troubled Waters" continues the adventures of Princess Trudy and pirate captain Troub. It's a funny and compelling story, as it's made clear that Troub is more closely connected to Trudy than she first let on. Zea's linework here seems considerably more rushed in this issue than the first, however. Alex Washburn's story about a group of dysfunctional explorers maintained its humor thanks to Washburn's thick line and irreverent storytelling. 

The most interesting artists that were new to me were Tao Tao Jones and Chelsi Fiore. The former wrote a compelling story about the Pea from the "Princess and the Pea" becoming a cherished heirloom to a family of servants, until one of them broke away and created her own country based around the pea's growth. Jones' line is thin and scribbly, which suits the material, although I found myself wishing her script was a bit larger. Fiore's story about a desert traveler encountering a fuzzy little potato-like animal was imaginatively drawn and worked well with its short length. It was not just a story about reuniting a child with their family but also about an explorer who respected the environment they traveled in. 

This anthology was filled with pleasant interactions in this particular world, proving that not every fantasy story has to be about conflict. Eddie O'Neill and Kay Brand told a story about a couple going hunting for eggs and herbs so they could have brunch together; the plot was thin, but it was all about fleshing out their dynamic as a couple. Emily Bradfield's story had a little more action, but it was about a witch and a new witch wishing to be her friend and work comrade and how routine can often prevent us from making connections. Rainer Kannenstine's story is a send-up of boastful fantasy tropes. Kat Ghastly offered up more of a psychedelic bit of lore than a story, but it worked as a visually impactful opener. 

There were three stories that particularly stood out. Keren Katz's detailing of how the coin-people introduced in the first issue reversed their process and undid everything that was purchased with them was both conceptually fascinating and heart-rending. In terms of style, there's no one who draws with her level of detail and conceptual power. Kevin Fitzpatrick's meaty story about a potions-master and his imprisonment was full of fascinating character details, ethically thorny dilemmas, and extensive mastery of light and dark contacts. Emil Wilson's story about hunters discovering a bear with an orange tree growing on it not only had an exciting blend of naturalism and weirdness, it also was emotionally complex and touching. 

At 252 pages, the volume felt a little bloated. There were several stories that were had to parse or process visually that could have been eliminated. While the slighter stories were enjoyable, this issue felt unbalanced in that direction. The more complex stories really stood out in this volume, but their tone was subdued by the lighter fare in some of the other stories. Creating a balance in an open-call anthology is extremely difficult, but it's a credit to Shull and Zea that they were able to sequence things in such a way that they were nearly able to pull it off. 

31 Days Of CCS, #32: Tillie Walden

It's fascinating to watch Tillie Walden's progression as an artist, because it's clear that with every project, she's adding some new technical skills to her toolbox. In her first book, it was hard to tell any of the characters apart, because Walden admitted that she didn't really like drawing people. She liked drawing buildings. She addressed that in subsequent work that was more directly character-oriented, while still keeping the key element of her work: a strain of magical realism that seeped onto every page until it became the new defacto reality. Walden mastering other formal elements, like a sophisticated use of color, made each subsequent work even richer, though she never strayed from the romantic fantasy elements in her comics.

Her most recent book, 2019's Are You Listening?, is a lot of things at once. It's a road story. It's a classic quest. It's a romance. It's science-fiction. It's magical realim. It's a highly personal story about paths that were clearly intimately familiar to Walden. At it's core, however, this is a story about trauma and how we deal with it. In particular, it's about how some people are not allowed to have the space to even speak their trauma and what happens because of it. 

It's the story of Bea and Lou, both running away from a small town in Texas for different reasons. For Lou, who's in her late 20s, she's running away from the trauma of her mother's death as well as the expectations put upon her as someone who developed the skills of a prodigy at a young age. Bea is in her late teens and is running away from an abusive situation, one where she has no voice to speak on it. All she can think to do is just run. She happens upon Lou, who takes pity on her, and together they drive through Texas. 

Lou is driving to see her aunt, while Bea lies to her about where she's going. Lou once again takes pity on her and allows her to simply travel with her. For about the first half of the book, Walden builds up both their stories and neuroses, hinting at their deeper roots, while drawing what amounts to a love letter to her Texas home. Walden builds a master class on the use of light, especially at night time. It's not simply dark on the road; it's a kaleidoscope of bruised pinks and purples, harsh oranges, and cheery yellows. The world becomes a little stranger and a little more stark on these back roads. 

When they meet a cat on the road and decide to return it to its owners. They name the cat Diamond, and it has a tendency to run away but lead them to useful places. This is when their journey becomes increasingly strange, as they seek out a town that doesn't exist on maps called West, and they are pursued by sinister agents of the Office of Road Inquiry, who badly want the cat. One of the running subplots in the book is Lou teaching Bea how to drive. It's a useful skill, but it's also a metaphor for the role Lou plays for Bea in this book. She's not a rescuer. She can't solve Bea's problems. She's not her mom or her sister or her lover. But Lou has been through some things and knows that if you can be mobile, you can outpace your problems for a while. 

They both learn lessons from the cat. The most important one that's revealed is that the cat, despite the belief of the Office of Road Inquiry and their own eyes, does not possess magic powers. The magic is in the land, available to anyone who sees it and believes in it. There are some spectacular chase scenes worthy of Carl Barks in the book; they are beautifully cartoony and ridiculous, but also terrifying. The heroes just barely stay a step ahead of their pursuers, we discover, because they want to stay ahead of them.They find West and Bea returns the cat because her will is far stronger than she understands. It's the steely will of a victim who refuses to be victimized again. It's the will of a survivor, and that's what Bea and Lou are.

The question "Are You Listening?" refers to how we listen to the land and ourselves--our own potential. Lou is a fascinating character because there are ways that she's lived a life similar to Walden's. As she depicted in Spinning, Walden spent years as a competitive ice skater, throwing her entire life into it, until she just quit. Walden then threw that intense discipline and work ethic into comics, completing six graphic novels in about five years' time and graduating from CCS. That too, took its toll. Being a prodigy doesn't necessarily just mean displaying great talent at a young age. It's a reflection of the obsessive need to be good at a certain thing and practicing it endlessly. Sometimes, you need a break. Sometimes, you need to visit your aunt, especially when other aspects of life come crashing down on you. Walden shows a great deal of kindness to these characters, allowing them to get what they need from this trip while supporting each other. She feels for both of them, because she understands what both went through, to different degrees. 

The only thing I wanted from this book that I didn't get was for it to be bigger. It needed to be French-album size in order to really stretch out its pages. It needed Texas to feel bigger. It needed the colors to really spread across its pages. The size and scope of its environment needed to swallow up its characters just a bit more, allowing them to grow in stature, emotionally speaking, when the time came. Despite the hundreds of pages Walden has drawn up to this point, featuring bold experiments and resonant characters, it still feels like this is all prologue. This was the first book of hers that started to balance her playful sense of experimentation with more personal storytelling, all while staying within her usual lane of exploring particular kinds of friendship and love. It's exciting seeing her on this journey. 

31 Days Of CCS, #31: Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle continued to roll on with three new issues of his enigmatic series Andalusian Dog in 2020. Ostensibly about the development of and playing of an apocalyptic video game, Cockle's comics dig deep into the relationship between capitalism and metaphysics. In the January issue, Cockle makes notes that seem almost autobiographical at times in recalling hearing about a Samuel Beckett story involving artificial intelligence and reading about them on comics-futurist websites. This was all while working a strange receptionist job in New York that also involved oversight in moving from building to building. This framework was built over a series of neon Risographed pages that discussed superpositioning. The back half of the issue discusses various kinds of player traps in the game that are mostly conceptual, as well as a history of player dwellings. All of this makes a great deal of sense if you have any experience playing free-flowing, world-building games like Minecraft, only with a far deeper degree of ontological power. 

In the February issue, dreams and diagrams take center stage. This issue is super text-heavy and surprisingly sexual, as the dream diary often refers to unspecified sexual relationships and masturbation. The text is over more of that pink and blue neon Risographed coloring, adding dissonance to the storytelling even as Cockle adds "panels" to each page over the text, even if they don't conform to typical panel-to-panel storytelling. That makes this comic especially difficult to parse, although I think the information-jamming is part of the point. In all of the Andalusian Dog comics, Cockle is deliberately playing with the concept of how the brain is unable to comprehend multiple streams of information. 

In the October issue, Cockle used a slightly more straightforward approach as he imagined a scenario influenced by the science-fiction writer A.E. van Vogt and his novel The World Of Null-A. Van Vogt was a big influence on Philip K. Dick precisely because his scenarios did not quite add up. They had a mysterious, evasive quality that appealed to him, and it's clear that van Vogt influenced Cockle here, along with Dick, Borges, and others. One of the stories seems to be related to the project/video game and is related to astral projection and time travel, and how they are related. The stories relate to the plot of van Vogt's novel, and to how having an "extra brain" makes him an ideal detective in a world without crime. In general, van Vogt's project was talking about intuitive leaps in thinking rather than deductive reasoning, and all of that is very much in line with Cockle's project. He keeps coming at the reader at oblique angles, where it's difficult to determine how much of his project is carefully-planned and how much is not only improvised but entirely random, like a Dada performance that relies on the subconscious. There is a game and a meta-game, a story and a meta-story, and Cockle is deliberately cagey on how the two are to be sorted out. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #30: Dakota McFadzean

Dakota McFadzean's short stories reflect desolation. His stories are set in rural Canada, and the isolation of the area is almost palpable and contributes to the sense of existential dread and horror that is in every one of his stories. I've reviewed most of the stories in his newest collection, To Know You're Alive (Conundrum), in High-Low and other places, but the design of the book and the sequencing of the stories gives them a different context, so I decided to review them with fresh eyes. 

One running theme in McFadzean's work is the liminal space between reality and frightening fantasy and how children often make no distinction between the two. In "Gnoshlox," for example, an adult recalls playing in a sandbox and creating these sort of clay golem creatures he called "Gnoshlox." It was all matter-of-fact, and one day it ended, with the implication being that he changed somehow and was no longer able to make it happen. It was, metaphorically, the difference between magical thinking and the age of reason. This story was part of a suite about childhood experiences. "The Truck" is about the way children push each other to cross and push ethical lines and social mores, and what happens when lines are crossed. 

"Buzzy" expands on this idea and explores the ways in which socialization can warp kids. The title character is a misanthropic kid who starts going to a new school and finds that while he has to deal with the same kind of assholes as ever, his weird tics and explosive temper doesn't make life any easier for him. That's especially true when he doesn't know how to react to someone being nice to him and inevitably drives her away. McFadzean leans heavily on a John Stanley/Little Lulu style of scaled-down, cute-kid drawings as a way of contrasting the idealized quality of kids with a frequently more brutal reality. "Good Find" is a sort of companion piece to "Truck" in that an older kid eggs on a younger kid...but it's slowly revealed that this is a world where their monstrous features are just a casual fact of everyday life. "Hollow In The Hollows" moves the ages up a bit, where there's a greater understanding of one's own actions and how we hurt each other. It ends on a hopeful note, where the magic that one of the characters so desperately wishes is real manifests in the presence of a friend who has forgiven her behavior.

The "Intermission" section contains short pieces that reveal that even when McFadzean does gag work, it's tinged with dread. The most disturbing is "Ghostie," which is about a Casper-type boy ghost who gets rousted by bumbling ghost hunters and their monkey, and then remembers for a moment that he is dead and lets out a howl. It's funny and terrible all at once. "The Pasqua Penny Savor" draws a little on Chris Ware and others who've done fake comic strip pages with tiny panels, and it mixes in fantasy stuff with unnerving slice-of-life comics about families and parenting. 

The second half of the book is about the transition and tension between childhood and adulthood. The longest story is a gibberish title where the bear from a cereal box comes to life and menaces a kid in a non-stop parade of horror that's jammed into 24 panels per page. It's frantic and disturbing, as the kid does whatever he can to stop the leering, cheery menace that only seems to mutate and multiply. After seemingly vanquishing it, the bear returns in his adulthood to menace him further...only for the kid to pop back into childhood. The key to the story is its use of a bloodline spot red. It's sparing at first, but the kid eventually accepts the monster as his entire world is red. This silent story is an effective metaphor for understanding that our fears never really go away, but we can accept them. 

"Debug Mode" is about a programmer trying to find bugs in a game for a company with a weird hierarchical structure, only to learn that the game is much broader than she suspected. "First" is about first contact with an alien lifeform whose lack of demonstrable intelligence, but the story is really about the way in which social media and our cultural attention span quickly moves on to new, frequently stupid topics when the old one fails to entertain. "To Know You're Alive" is an autobiographical story about McFadzean taking care of his difficult toddler son. Being alone and taking care of a kid who is absolutely melting down is unbelievably difficult, and McFadzean captures the horror of that moment of losing one's temper and yelling back. That forbidden, guilt-inducing feeling of wanting to be freed from the burden. It centered around Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on an old website, including weird, creepy episodes that were silent or filmed in the dark. 

The story reflected that key understanding that time is a different construct for kids, who will pass through that inconsolable rage and return to the steady-state of seeing his parents as his whole world and needing his father because he's scared. It is a fitting capper to a collection that reflects a parent's anxieties: fear of a child dying, fear of a child being bullied, fear of a child bullying, fear of a child not fitting in, and fear of failing your own children above all else. It's not an accident that the entire collection uses red as a spot color, because these stories are about McFadzean facing and ultimately accepting his own fears, understanding that they will always be there. We are always in the red.