Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Six Mini Comics from M.S. Harkness

There's no question that M.S. Harkness is on a hot streak right now. Her latest memoir, Time Under Tension, is about to be published by Fantagraphics. Her willingness to be totally vulnerable and totally ridiculous about her sex life and body is the set-up for the raw, emotional vulnerability she expresses throughout. Her recent self-published collection, Six Mini Comics, collects a number of stories outside of the narratives in her longer memoirs, but they certainly are a snug fit with her overall project. 

Harkness mixes in photos of many of the events and people we see in these stories. The most wholesome was from a story from NOW #10, "Go Big Then Stay Home." It's a COVID/lockdown story, and unlike 95% of comics about this topic, it's extremely engaging. It's a departure for Harkness, as most of their stories tend to delve into their cynical relationships with others or else their own issues. This is about Harkness supporting her power-lifting friend Elis at a competition that was held in March of 2020, just as the lockdown began. The competition (the "Arnold Expo") still went on, and the support Harkness gave her friend was endearing. It was also a detailed look at competitions that aren't a part of the popular consciousness and the mechanics behind them, especially as a competitor. Harkness has really honed her character design style to a fine point, and her visual cartoony silliness is a sharp contrast to the visceral qualities of much of her subject matter. A lot of them may be about sex or bodies, but none of them are sexy. She's very much in the Peter Bagge school of exaggerated, rubbery figures that allow for a highly expressionistic style of cartooning. 

Speaking of sex, "Six Foot Six" plays on Harkness' character often choosing sexual partners for purely aesthetic, rather than intellectual reasons. The himbo she hooks up with in this story is fooled by her joking suggestion that she might be famous art provocateur Banky, and the last panel connects one of Banky's latest outrages with her own personal desires. Above all else, Harkness is hilarious, even when writing about painful subjects. Perhaps especially when writing about painful subjects. 

Along the same lines is "The Uncut Gem," which takes some idiot asking her if she can "handle" an uncircumcised guy and turning it into a hilarious heist fantasy where she blows up his foreskin like a balloon. It is an absolutely absurd image that once again transforms the almost cartoonist machismo she finds in many of her partners into comedy fodder. 

"Plunderbird" is part of this short suite of stories, but it opens up the discussion of Harkness' past experiences with "sugar dating, " which she hilariously addresses in a setting where her character is sitting in a plush overstuffed chair by a fireplace with a glass of wine, as though she were on "Masterpiece Theater" or something. She immediately brings up the elephant in the room of "you must have so many stories!" by relating a somewhat slight anecdote that's worth it for the ridiculous Native American tattoos he had all over his body. 

Harkness saves the real storytelling for two epic shorts that pretty much epitomize her most frequently-discussed topics: drugs and her vagina. Of course, there's much more to these stories than these crude reductions, and Harkness' wit and exaggerated line is what makes them interesting, but it is true that they start from that place. "A Savage Journey To The Heart Of An Anime Convention" is her take on gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson-style storytelling. Shortly after getting her BFA, Harkness accompanies a friend to an anime convention, where the friend makes bank doing commissions and selling art. Harkness only agrees to come along if she can be high, but some highly questionable edibles turn the experience into a stomach-churning, mind-destroying ordeal. It doesn't help that the con hotel is one where she had had a number of clients as a sugar baby. This is an especially fun story because Harkness gets to dial up the exaggerated quality of her line all the way, in a manner that she can't in her more serious, longer narratives. 

Finally, the true anchor piece is "Rotten." It's pretty much got everything. There are art school-era shenanigans, including a party that's right out of HATE. Only this time, it's Harkness and her friend Pete who are the (hilarious) assholes at the party, as they do a wrestling routine that concludes with Pete pumping off the roof of the house. There is an extensive discussion of Harkness' struggles with endometriosis, including almost unimaginable pain and indifferent doctors. There are dope sales to WWE wrestlers. there's the lead-up to the US Presidential election in 2016 and its horrifying result. There is inexplicable vaginal bleeding/discharge/odor amidst a harrowing trip to a quasi-celebrity sugar daddy client. There's Harkness barely paying attention at her lifeguard job. Most of all, there is the unforgettable scene of a tampon stuck way up inside of her causing all of these problems. The scene where the doctor is examining her, drawn as though it's a mechanic getting under the hood of a car, is exactly the kind of absurd, visually clever, and yet narratively resonant cartooning that she's so good at. Harkness, at heart, is all about the gag, even (and usually especially) when the joke's on her. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Lost Diamonds #2 by Ellen Lindner

As I've noted before, Ellen Lindner has really found an interesting new niche with her baseball comics. Her latest issue (#2) of Lost Diamonds, "a history of gender rebellion in American Baseball," Lindner is doing a deep historical dive, going after primary sources wherever possible. As a result, this is as rigorous a study in the historical suppression of baseball based on gender as possible. Lindner's clear-line style and eye-pleasing blue wash (a bit of nostalgia), along with her amiable narration, make this a fascinating history even for those not interested in baseball. It's important to understand that this goes and went far beyond sports. The cultural importance of baseball was so overwhelming in the early 20th century that excluding women (as well as non-whites) was a deliberate strategy aimed at excluding them from the larger cultural conversation. As Lindner points out, despite many barriers, women still found ways to participate in the sport, and she's trying to make these stories better known. 

Lindner picks up the narrative in the early 20th century and the "Bloomer Girls" teams, so-called because they were trousers instead of skirts. Lindner brings up the St. Louis Black Bronchos, a barnstorming Black team of women. Not only were they dismissed by certain modern historian when they were re-discovered recently, Lindner notes that their performances were ridiculed by journalists of their era. When a writer referred to them as incompetent, Lindner points out that the game the reporter was writing about was actually quite close. This wasn't just a matter of opinion; without TV or other media to carry games, a false newspaper report damaged the team's gate. 

Lindner then goes into detail about uber-athlete Ida Schnall, an immigrant who immediately mastered baseball, swimming, and diving. She was denied an Olympic appearance because the US Olympic Committee didn't field a team, citing the immodesty of swimsuits. As a result of doing Broadway shows as a diver, she got to know baseball players doing side hustles, like legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson and manager John McGraw doing vaudeville. Through her connections, she founded the New York Female Giants, who drew a number of fans and harassment by the police. Another superstar was Lizzie Murphy, who held her own playing against men. Lindner notes that the success of players like Murphy led to exploitation, like in the case of a former major-leaguer taking a young team of women to Japan, only to abandon many of them when the money ran out. When money was finally raised to bring them back, one young player was swept overboard at sea. 

The Eastside Girls, a Black team that formed out of the local YWCA in Los Angeles, formed their own league, playing against the likes of the Japanese Girls, a team of Asian-American girls. It was a way of establishing one's identity in the most American thing possible, along with other positives like community, camaraderie, and the confidence that's built through sport. Girls wanted to play baseball because it was fun and let them hang out with their friends and meet new people (just like boys), but it was also a means to unlock wider acceptance overall. This was not unnoticed by men in power, who banned women from baseball in a number of places starting in the late 20s. This culminated in infamous baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banning pitching sensation Jackie Mitchell (who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in an exhibition game) and all women from organized baseball.  It was one thing for women to play; it was quite another for them to make those in power uncomfortable. This is the gender rebellion in a nutshell: an arbitrary attempt to hold others down in order to maintain power. There was no good reason to keep women out of baseball. As long as the sport existed, women played it. Men simply didn't want women playing in their sandlot, and as long as they had the money and influence, they made the rules. 

As Lindner explains, however, it's hard to keep the marginalized down forever. This is a history, to be sure, but it is also a polemic. It's a correction of the record based on facts, statistics, and first-person observations. Lindner is painstaking in her research, but this is far from a dry recitation of facts: through her lively art (and excellence in drawing clothes above all else), Lindner recreates each era in a way that makes the concerns and wants of the players feel contemporary. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

Minis: Wenting Li

Both of Wenting Li's minicomics here (Diary Fantasy and Libra Szn) are not only visually interesting in a Riso style, they are also both so intimate as to be uncomfortable. I got the sense of "Should I be reading this?" in how achingly vulnerable and open these comics are. Diary Fantasy is like a second cousin to Sophia Foster-Dimino's classic Sex Fantasy comics, done in a similar style with highly distinct and stylized character designs. The Riso work here is sharp and adds layers of depth to each of the scenes in ways I don't often see in most Risographed comics. Some of it feels like repurposed Instagram photos transformed into dreamy crowd scenes, intimate moments, and simple moments of aesthetic grace and beauty. Li has an eye for this sort of thing, and her drawings mix a clear line with blocky & chunky figures, giving each page a light quality that's then delightfully crowded up by the figures on the page. From a dim sum dinner to a nude beach to a curious examination of a watch repairman at work, there's just sheer delight in these seasonal observations. The stories behind the images hint and peek out at the reader without going into any detail; Li is simply trying to get across a sense of being present in the moment and yearning for it now. 

Libra Szn is quite the opposite in many ways--Li piles on details of multiple kinds of intimate moments. This is thinly-veiled fiction that is effective in grayscale, but I couldn't help wondering what the rich colors on the cover might have looked like in the interiors. The main character, Yuyin, is in her late 20s but has little sexual experience and is taking the opportunity to, as she puts it, get "more info." She's also a window-making artist traveling to do a big job, and she goes on a very cute, wholesome date that culminates in hands being held and a single kiss (and as the protagonist notes, only her second-ever). Li once again excels at portraying the bustle and energy of street life and the sort of lives that communities of artists inhabit. That constant hum of creativity as the lifeblood of a community is always there in the background, even when Li is more focused on individual relationships. After a lifetime of mostly ignoring sex, she makes out with a friend in a club bathroom and then hits up a guy she's texting with, saying "Fuck it it's Libra szn." After a comic full of mostly chaste, flirty scenes, the final scene features Yuyin and a guy named Carm exploring each other's bodies in a literal sense. There is both raw passion and almost painful intimacy in their conversation, as the two lovers slowly and carefully discover what the other likes and wants to do. The mix of naturalism and fantasy drawings (like a nipple dissolving into water) gives the reader an intense account of how the encounter feels from Yuyin's point of view. These comics feel like Li confidently finding her footing as a cartoonist, but they also feel like a transition to something much bigger.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Minis: Ruby Carter and Kayla E.

Ruby Carter is a young Chicago cartoonist who is primarily a humorist at this point in her career. For full disclosure, she will be doing a book for Fieldmouse Press in the near future. That future book is quite different from the full-color, psychedelic craziness of her minis Bogue and Oozemart. Bogue is a smaller mini billed as "the world's 1st fashion mag 4 bugs!", and that's precisely what it is. Carter has a great visual wit, and this Riso zine puts its colorful art to good use in depicting insects in fashionable gear. The funniest bit was "Who Wore It Best?" featuring comparisons of spiders and bees wearing pink ribbons, centipedes and dragonflies wearing pink heels, and snails and slugs wearing scarves. Oozemart is a sort of dystopian Riso zine done at larger scale (8.5 x 11), and Carter goes all-out with a colorful assault on the senses that mimics the visual assault of a big-box store. Of course, all of the food is comprised of a colorful ooze that melts away even as one is shopping. This is less a story than a concept brought to vivid (and lurid) life, as the pinks are especially nauseating. 

Ahead of the 2024 release of her book, Kayla E. continues to break brains with excerpts in the form of minicomics that are in themselves interesting objects to read and hold. Precious Rubbish: "Birds 'n Bees" (Vol 2, No. 2) is especially uncomfortable reading, as Kayla appropriates old kids' comics (here, Archie Comics and Sweetie Pie), redraws the art in her style while retaining the composition and action, and then grafts it to horrifying tales of sexual & physical abuse and incest. The bold simplicity of Kayla's line and adherence to gag format is almost unbearable to experience as a reader, as she forces the reader to engage these horrors through a structure that almost forces the reader to think of them as gags. Indeed, Kayla even labels many of these strips as "Surrogate Spouse Syndrome" gags, as both her father and brother walk around with her in a way that sexualizes her and leads others to think that she's their wife. Along the way, there are a number of fake ads that take their cue from Chris Ware's classically brutal ads in Acme Novelty Library #10, but she aims her vitriol at her abuser in things like "Hitman 4 Her." It's Kayla E's skill in making memoir that's a sort of subgenre, in that the homages use art meant for children and give it a warped new meaning that's meant to confront the reader. 

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Sickness: Uncivilized's dip into horror

The first issue of The Sickness, published by Uncivilized Books, looks and feels more like a 90s black & white Image comic than the kind of thing Uncivilized would normally do. At least at first. However, Tom Kaczynski's bunch has been slowly moving into serialized work for a while now, with Craig Thompson's Ginseng Roots, Noah Van Sciver's Maple Terrace, Tom K's own Cartoon Dialectics, and more. However, The Sickness most closely resembles a standard-size comic book, rather than a minicomic. Rather than the work of an auteur, it's done by the team of Jenna Cha, Lonnie Nadler, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Cha is the artist and co-writer, with Nadler. It feels and looks like a lot of other horror books published in that era and the early aughts; everything about it is a throwback, including having multiple covers for the first issue. Knowing Tom K, this isn't a choice made for collectors, but more of an aesthetic one. 

The Sickness follows a kid named Danny in 1945 Stillwater, MN, and then shifts a decade later to Lakewood, CO. In Stillwater, we're introduced to a teen named Danny, who's become increasingly alienated from the rest of his friends. He's seeing things, horrible things, and being around anyone just makes it worse. Cha teases us just a bit with a final panel reveal of a monstrous-looking woman and a mysterious man in the background. In Lakewood, there's a long reveal of a woman listening to records in a living room, talking to a cop, as it's slowly revealed that the woman's sister has murdered her husband, two children, and their dog. Her son survives the attack and is questioned by a psychiatrist, as he tells him that his mom kept seeing holes, said their faces had been warped, and there was someone else in the house. Going back to Danny in the future, he's seeing all of the things that were described by the killer, including a grotesquely warped version of his mother and a mysterious man in the background. 

The whole effect is quite clever, even if the extensive monologue by the psychiatrist and the dense dialogue in general suffocates the narrative a bit. The three part structure of show, don't show, then show again builds tension and slowly gives the reader a set of clues that are built upon without revealing the entire hand. Much of the horror is implied and teased, making the actual monstrous moments all the more effective. The idea of otherwise completely normal people snapping because of some pernicious outside influence is a terrifying idea, especially since the nature of this "sickness" is unclear. Given the slow pace of the issue, I'm guessing that this will go at least seven or eight issues, and that the psychiatrist will be a prominent character. The art is dense and naturalistic, with a lot of smartly-added greyscale shading to go along with hatching and crosshatching. That level of realistic detail makes the monstrous elements more effective, because it feels real to the reader. Limiting the number of those scenes is important precisely because its connection to what seems to be everyday reality is a big key to the comic's success so far. 

Friday, July 14, 2023

Short Reviews Of Short Minis: Desmond Reed, Fredo Noland, Stuart Stratu

Troubled Teen, by Desmond Reed. Reed is at his best when he gets to depict highly detailed, grotesque characters. This is a first-person narrative featuring the titular character, who is pock-marked with acne, has that distinct teen stubble, and comically exaggerated nose and ears. Reed establishes the visual stakes right away with dense hatching and cross-hatching, dragging the reader into a world that is already discomfiting. Immediately upon establishing the character, Reed takes things in a totally absurd direction, starting with "Like most folks, I was discovered in a trash can when I was a baby. I matured over a period of four weeks." It goes from there, as he spawns mini-clones through his acne that he keeps popping and then tortures his little brother, an egg-shaped head atop a torso with disturbing amounts of hair. The whole thing is disgusting in a Basil Wolverton sort of way; there's not much in the way of narrative. It's more a chance for Reed to briefly sketch an amusing, gross idea. 

Stratu's Diary Comix, August 2015, by Stuart Stratu. Stratu is an Australian artist who does crude, full-color, 12-panel diary comics. His self-caricature dominates nearly every panel, and his head dominates the rest of his body. With giant eyes, spiky bangs, a two-tooth smile and lots of exaggerated expressions, Stratu gives the reader something interesting to look at on every page, which is important when one considers the general dullness of daily anecdotes. The text-heavy panels are mostly carried by that memorable self-caricature, as Stratu does at least endeavor to deliver a gag of some kind every three panels. That keeps things moving at a fast clip, and his strong opinions about music and movies keeps things lively. A month's worth of these strips is just about the right amount; a longer collection would be difficult to read. 

Black Sheep #4 by Fred "Fredo" Noland. Fredo was one of my favorite late 90s/early aughts alternative cartoonists, and his mini sees him in fine form. Centering around a music scenester and critic named Ivan, Fredo delves into an incredibly detailed and dense slice-of-life story that sees him being harassed by a woman named Lattie in an ongoing game of "insult tag." Ivan hits the record store. He goes to a punk show, antagonizes people, has difficulty with his own Latino background, and later goes to a record party. Vinyl, of course. Every character is so well-observed and precise, the character design is absolutely top-notch, and the ending is a wonderfully surprising swerve. There's also something wonderfully and painfully familiar about all of these characters and settings; if I didn't know a lot of people like this, then I saw them from across the room. Like the best slice-of-life stories, it was a pleasure to simply hang out with these characters, and I was disappointed when the comic ended.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Minis: Alli Katz

I met Alli Katz at CAKE 2023, and she was kind enough to give me a few of her minis. Two of them focused on pregnancy and the frequently dubious joys of early motherhood. Very Funny Jokes And Some Comics That Make You Think Vol 1, as one might expect, is a grab-bag of random comics. It's hit and miss, which is not unusual for this kind of mini, but some of the hits are solid. "Live Action Carebears" has a realistically-drawn, angry bear with a Carebear symbol on its chest, and simply the concept behind this made me laugh. The execution helps the gag land. There's a good newspaper typo/awkward headline gag that works because Katz just keeps pouring on the weirdness. There's a New Yorker-style gag with the punchline of someone asking "Can you explain it in Harry Potter metaphors?" that I found hilarious considering there's a large segment of the population that seemed unable to do otherwise for quite some time. Most of the actual cartooning isn't especially memorable here, but Katz's skill and timing as a humorist are sharp. 

9 Months But Actually 10 Months But Actually Forever is about Katz's whole pregnancy odyssey, from imagining a sperm giving an egg a pick-up line to the actual birth. This comic is clearly what's in her wheelhouse as a creator: memoir told in short bursts with gag punchlines that still hew closely to the more serious aspects of the experience. Katz's self-caricature (huge glasses that hide her eyes behind blank circles) is especially effective. The comic is closest in spirit to Meghan Turbitt's comics about birth, which makes sense since Turbitt is primarily a humorist. The strips about things she's worried about reflect the way that so many birthing books exist primarily to terrify expecting mothers. There are also a lot of great strips about the way she relates to her partner, especially one strip where they talk about how they think their jokes are "really landing with the doctor." Katz doesn't veer too far away from expressing her emotions in this story in service of a gag; indeed, she leans into them as much as possible, which makes totally sincere pages like having her daughter in her arms all the more effective. 

"Just Pretend Your Boob Is A Hoagie" is all about the highs and lows of breastfeeding. This was the most interesting of the three minis, in part because it's a subject that's not always discussed much, even in the increasing number of mom comics that have been published in the last decade. Katz talks about the struggles of breastfeeding, the difficulties of pumping, the judgmental lectures from lactation consultations, and the feeling of somehow failing your child if you don't breastfeed them. Katz manages to inject a lot of humor into the proceedings, but this is a more serious attempt at coming to terms with the possibility of giving her daughter formula and the shame that this concept invites. In the end, Katz manages to mostly figure it out, and the comic ends on a wistful note when the transition comes in weaning her child. The expressiveness of her figure drawing is especially sharp here. This is promising work from a young cartoonist.