Wednesday, June 23, 2021

I read Mathew New's YA book Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers in minicomics form. The book, published by Capstone, expertly tightens up the original stories without losing a bit of its absurd energy. The title alone betrays the total ridiculousness of its concept as a kind of send-up of Tintin and Indiana Jones. However, like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Donjon, all of that silliness is rooted in a plot that is rock-solid and deadly serious. All of this is aided by New's unfussy and cartoony line along with a clear, distinct color palette. 



From time to time, I like to show YA books to my 12-year-old, Pen. They really took to this book for a number of reasons. They liked its humor and propulsive action sequences that seemed to look to Carl Barks for inspiration. What they liked about all else were the mysteries that New set up. Indeed, the mysteries are the backbone for the otherwise completely silly stories, as they lend weight and depth to the adventures.



In this book, Billy is a teen explorer ala Tintin, and his companion is a talking duck named Barrace who happens to be a professor. They go on various adventures, and we learn that Billy's parents were famous adventurers. Their actual fate was never revealed, but Billy's inability to bring back proof of his adventures prevents him from joining the Explorer's League that his parents were part of. Indeed, Billy has to settle for being a janitor. Barrace is a college professor, and if a talking duck professor seems weird, the book fully acknowledges this without actually explaining it. Indeed, the book strongly hints that Barrace isn't really a duck at all. 



In a book filled with spoofs and self-aware humor, New also establishes that there are no throwaway lines or situations. In the first adventure, where they find the lost city of the Monkey People, the book's whole mystery is established when a mysterious blue spirit entity helps them and reappears throughout the book. In a hilarious take on the magic item quest, Billy and Barrace encounter a Lara Croft-style adventurer-thief as they have to take back a ring because it turned out to be cursed. A desert quest for an apparently-extinct type of bear once again brings Billy to disappointment, even as he manages to bungle a wish-giving magic lamp. A heroic quest that's Heroes Journey 101 reveals Billy's own desperation for fame and his insecurity. Billy has an overpowering retractable sword that he calls "Mr. Jabbers," an absurd name for such a relic.



Indeed, New rejects macho, toxic representations of heroism and instead focuses on the friendship between Billy and Barrace. Despite his impulsiveness and glory-seeking, Billy grows as a character throughout the book. He doesn't get what he wants (fame, glory, and entrance into the Explorer's Club as a member), but he gets what he needs (love and support from his best friend). 

My kid was angry that the book ended on a cliffhanger, as the blue spirit confronts the mysterious hooded figure who was trying to steal the cursed ring. The hooded figure refers to him as Spirit Eater, and had feared his arrival, as evidenced by his dialog and warning systems. That spurred an hour's worth of discussion from Pen, who came up with elaborate theories about the blue spirit/alien, the identities of the red and yellow figures we saw in etchings in the Monkey People temple, what happened to Billy's parents, what Barrace is exactly, who the hooded person is, etc. 

Ultimately, while New has a number of inspirations, it's clear that that he's created here is entirely his own thing. Far from being just a spoof, it trades on jokes about familiar ideas and subverts them. He always tells the story with a straight face (there are no narrative captions that indicate how the audience should feel), even (and especially) when it degenerates into total nonsense. Even the nonsense has surprising repercussions, like the cursed ring disappearing from view. New also adds just enough interstitital material to tie together disparate stories, and introduces the book with a two-page performance by Billy as he creates a theme song for himself and the professor. The funny things in the book have a tender quality to them, and the exciting parts of the story all have funny barriers thrown in the way of the protagonists. There's very little in the way of violence in this story, as it favors the sort of Barksian hijinks of a Donald Duck story to more visceral storytelling. This shouldn't work as well as it does, and yet New has a way of anticipating story problems and anticipating solutions, all while balancing a surprisingly complex web of plots and interpersonal relationships. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Announcing The North Street Book Prize


Aimed at creators of self-published comics and graphic novels/memoirs, art books, and five other genre categories, the North Street Book Prize offers cash awards to artists. Now in its seventh year, 
The North Street Book Prize vales entries which portray lives underrepresented in traditional media; diverse characters and themes are especially welcome. 

The Grand Prize is $5,000 and the First Prize in each entry category is $1,000. Grand Prize and First Prize winners also receive a marketing consultation with a book publicity expert. Seven Honorable Mentions win $250 each. The 2021 deadline is June 30th, and the entry fee is $65. It can be submitted online or by mail.

Recent winners include Ingrid Pierre, for her graphic memoir Do Not Resuscitate, and Dmitri Jackson, for his slice-of-life comic Blackwax Boulevard. I reviewed the latter comic on High-Low here

The prize is sponsored by the website Winning Writers in partnership with the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a designation for "contests which are organized for the benefit of the author rather than the profit of the organizer." Winning Writers has been running writing contests for over 20 years. We are one of Writer's Digest's Top 8 Online Resources for Publishing and Marketing. We seek to be a welcoming place for diverse authors and stories, with a culture of listening to people of all genders, backgrounds, and abilities. We look for high-quality original writing that portrays under-represented perspectives with sensitivity, accuracy, and passion.


Please note that this post is sponsored by Winning Writers. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

CCS: Mannie Murphy's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

Mannie Murphy is one of those ten-year overnight successes as a cartoonist. Her comic that she completed after her one year at the Center For Cartoon Studies, I Still Live, was absolutely astounding in how fully-formed, thoughtful, and restless her voice was as a creator. Murphy has a towering, probing intellect that is both deliberate and intentional in the way she dissects her subject matter, because it's all personal. There is a barely-restrained sense of fury in the way she addresses many topics, even appearing dispassionate at times. Murphy is simply careful and thorough in how she researches her subjects, scrupulously fair in how she approaches them from multiple angles. But make no mistake: Murphy keeps all the receipts, as the saying goes, and she is devastating once she lays them all out and connects the dots.

If systematic oppression is sometimes a kind of shell game, where the oppressors distract their victims in hopes that they'll forget certain events, Murphy is a dutiful observer who knows where the ball is at all times. All of this leads up to her first book, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. Even the title has multiple layers. The original phrase comes from singer Lynn Anderson, and it's a sort of glib way of talking about how bad times are going to come. That phrase was later adapted into a semi-autobiographical story about a teen girl's battle with schizophrenia. For Murphy, the International Rose Test Garden is a huge tourist attraction in her hometown of Portland. The local home arena with Portland's beloved NBA team, the Trail Blazers, was named the Rose Garden for many years. They are symbols of Portland's affluence, the flip side of the quirky "Portlandia" narrative that's been nurtured by the city ("Keep Portland Weird.") 


Murphy's wide-ranging narrative connects her own personal experience of a particular high school, various Hollywood stars, the rise of white supremacy, murders, and the real history of Portland and Oregon. It's written like a journal or a diary, with each page featuring her handwriting on lined paper, accompanied by blue-wash illustrations so dense that there are parts where the bleed-through is emphasized. It's almost a watery image (hence the bleed), as though she had scratched the image into the page and let the wash flow over it as though it was her tears. I read and reviewed the minicomics that contained the bulk of the book that Murphy started publishing six years ago. While not materially different in terms of content, the design, the paper, and the use of color make it a completely different work. It's the difference between a series of zines and a book designed to look like a journal, and the result is something that feels more intimate. It's as though Murphy is taking us aside and sharing secrets. 


In a sense, she is. Starting with the death of River Phoenix, Murphy connects the dots to his hometown of Portland and his relationship with director Gus Van Sant. It's here that the dots she connects become very interesting, as she delves into Portland's history of pressing young queer men seeking a new life into being sex workers. Queer men who "acted" and looked straight were especially prized. Van Sant loved surrounding himself with young men, offering them money and luxury in exchange for their youth and cool. Among these men included Ken "Death" Mieske, a charismatic young white supremacist who was a disciple of Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi skinhead and former Klan member. Mieske and two other skinheads and members of East Side White Pride murdered Mulugeta Seraw and were in a high-profile trial that wound up making them martyrs for the movement.


Murphy connected the skinheads to the punk scene in Portland and certain benefactors like Van Sant and a club owner she referred to as Mr. X. Far from an outlier or coincidence, Murphy connected the dots back to the founding of Portland and Oregon. The whites who settled there aimed to make it a white utopia, intentionally settling on native land and using their diseases to wipe out that population. When some natives killed some settlers in retaliation, the white settlers were able to use that to their advantage and not only gain statehood, they also wrote laws forbidding Blacks and Asians into their constitution. Not just racism, but actual white supremacy was nakedly baked into the very fiber of Oregon. Murphy argues that this has never been truly reckoned with, despite fierce protests by some of its citizens, and it perpetuated itself in the face of the KKK in the early 20th century and the skinhead movement of the late 20th century. What was most frightening about the latter, Murphy revealed, was that despite the image of Nazi punks being outlaws and rejected by society, the reality is that this group signed up for the police and military in droves--and it was Metzger himself who coldly declared his victory when he was on trial. 


Murphy wrote about this six years ago. The national wave of police violence against Black people and other minorities and their sympathy for white supremacists made this observation even more chilling with the book published in March of 2021. Murphy doesn't make a direct connection here, but there's also an extremely laissez-faire attitude that pervades Portland, one that favors those who already carry a lot of privilege. It's the attitude of unchecked capitalism and an abandonment of protecting the weak and vulnerable. Murphy's high school was run under experimental rules encouraging free thought and questioning authority. It also created an environment where skinheads like Ken Death were allowed to roam unchecked. The difference between an atmosphere where creativity and free thinking are encouraged and one where all attempts at exploring and instilling community virtues could be plainly seen. It's a false binary and an abandonment of education, especially for those populations who were vulnerable. Murphy does note that in Portland's culture, being queer certainly didn't make one enlightened, especially if you were white, male, and in contact with privilege. Murphy's own connection to the school, her classmates who died there, and a disastrous camping trip where those who listened to authority died revealed that no adult ever gave them a good reason to trust them. The quirky freedom of "Portlandia" was a myth and harbored snakes in its bosom.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of cults, especially in terms of power exchanges. River Phoenix grew up in the predatory Children of God cult, which emphasized incest and underage sex as part of its teachings. The white supremacists were hucksters who offered homeless, frequently queer, young hustlers a line of bullshit they knew they would believe. That they wanted to believe, because it freed them of personal responsibility and transferred the blame to different races, nationalities, and religions. Murphy points to groupthink as a kind of collective way of frequently making horrifying moral decisions, because it defuses personal responsibility and warps simple logic. 

Murphy's dissection of the mechanics of how this works is flawless, just as the thoroughness of her research with regard to history is staggering. However, she's a native. This is all personal to her, because she's seen how all of this can and has been resisted, even against unbelievable odds. She's not an unbiased observer and has no interest in that role, often adding personal comments to her record of historical events. This doesn't weaken her arguments, because she's not arguing emotively. She's calmly laying down connection after connection and creates a sophisticated historical argument rooted in primary documents. Even the personal aspects of the narrative, like her recounting River Phoenix's story, prove to be recapitulations of her larger arguments in microcosm. Murphy doesn't attempt to simplify or minimize the problems she raises; she simply provides context and shines a light on them. In many ways, going back to the title, the "you" refers to Portland itself, as she strips away its mythos and lays bare its rot. It's up to everyone to clean away that rot. It's not quite a hate letter to Portland (because there are things she loves and wants to fight for)...but it's close.    

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Minis: Colin Lidston's The Age Of Elves #5

Having read the conclusion of Colin Lidston's slice-of-life comic The Age Of Elves, it's clear what kind of story he was actually telling. The plot involves a group of teenagers and their trip to GenCon, a huge gaming convention. Set twenty years ago, it came at a point just a few years before geek culture became the dominant culture, and this was intentional. This is a story about social anxiety, first and foremost. Every member of the gaming group is extremely socially awkward in their own way, and they find their own ways of coping. Sarah, the most "normal" member of the group and the only girl, finds the limits of her willingness to explore outside the group, even as she tires of them. Bram uses intellectualization to mediate social interactions, preferring to layer on a template of rules and gameplay because he has no idea how to interact otherwise. Evan is the burnout of the group, who drinks hard when he experiences social anxiety. Jamie becomes prickly and aggressive, as most of the boys in the group do. 



Indeed, this is an interesting examination of how just because someone is socially awkward, it doesn't justify their behavior. One can see in the modern-day phenomenon like InCels and other geek subcultures are every bit as vindictive, hierarchical, and (above all else) misogynistic as mainstream society. Worse, geeks are so often gatekeepers to their secret hobbies that the open resistance to diversity and change is frequently despicable. There are shades of that here, but there's also the palpable sense of camaraderie in the way that they all have each other. 



The previous four issues consisted of Sarah questioning her commitment to the group. She's an artist who felt her work went unappreciated by her friends, but she dreamed that upon meeting her fantasy illustration idol at the con, she'd get the spark to her career that she needed. Of course, when she did find new friends at the con as she sought to branch out, they turned out to be middle-aged swingers who tried to seduce her. Note: she was 17 years old. So she's already been burned once with trying to get out of her comfort zone, which is not surprising because the age difference is so huge at the show. Again: this was 2000 when most gamers were older and a generation hadn't been brought up gaming with the easy-to-learn 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. And to be frank, it's not like that older generation had social skills that were any better developed. It was a sea of people, many on the spectrum, lacking an understanding of their own neurodiversity and proper coping mechanisms. All they could was try to emulate neurotypical behavior as best they could, which was often not well. 

Sarah was burned yet again when her idol took one look at her portfolio and gently tore it to shreds. She also gently ignored Sarah's request to help make her get started, as she even asked for her phone number! However, the illustrator gave her a piece of sound, if difficult advice: think of something you really love, then make something that "makes you feel even more like that." The question for Sarah was, what exactly did she love? 



Lidston's art throughout is a great example of how to incorporate gesture and body language to do the bulk of your storytelling. Every angle Sarah stands or sits at betrays her anxiety and awkwardness. When she dresses up as Death (from Sandman) at the costume contest, she doesn't sell it in the least; she looks mortified to be onstage. What made it even worse was Bram coming after she told her friends not to, giving her an unsolicited gift (which included a lecture on things to choose in a particular game) and then expressed his attraction for her in the most awkward way possible. Sarah absolutely exploded at this, already having faced sexualization at the hands of people she thought were becoming her friends. Like her friends before her, she just reached her limit. The scene where Bram offers a hug is painful and hilarious, as she turns him down--again, Lidston's naturalistic style that borrows just a touch from the grotesque does most of the job in relating the narrative.

The denouement is clever. On the car ride back, all the things they got mad about were basically swept under the rug. That said--no one was ready for their regular game night just yet. When Sarah got home, her mother left her a book of paintings from Cezanne. Sarah hit upon one with four gamers sitting at a table with a grizzled sense of camaraderie. She obviously saw herself and her friends in this painting, for better or for worse. Any thought that she may have had that she was somehow better than her friends had been completely erased; all of them proved to be at their worst in a number of ways on the trip, yet they all still made it home together. For now, at least, these were her people. How much any of them learn or grow in the future was left entirely up in the air. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Keiler Roberts shares My Begging Chart

In Keiler Roberts' newest book, My Begging Chart, there's both more and less of what regular readers have come to expect. There are more gags but fewer long stories. There are more quiet moments that are single-page images that aren't stories or gags at all, but serve as a kind of interstitial rest stop. There's more of her daughter Xia with full agency in expressing her feelings and her own dry sense of humor, and fewer strips where Xia's experiences are mediated by Roberts as a parent. There are fewer direct references to Roberts' experience with bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis and more quotidian accounts of how her life has changed on an everyday basis as a result of her health. 



Even without specific narratives to follow, My Begging Chart has a consistent emotional narrative. There is a sense of grudging acceptance of her circumstances that results in art that feels spontaneous, loose, and highly expressive. Roberts is still a loveable, truth-telling crank as always, but the frustration that felt palpable in her other books gives way to simply being OK with needing to rest and stare off into space more often. There's another dynamic at work here as well, where her daughter's sense of agency has changed the way they relate. There's an intense closeness which was always there, but Xia's greater independence but also greater sense of empathy and understanding of her mother deepens their relationship in interesting ways. Above all else, the close sense of control that Roberts tried to cultivate through cleaning and organizing is greatly relaxed as she comes to accept her current circumstances and realizes that she can't be bothered to do things like dust a ceiling fan.



The opening narrative is about Roberts' annoyance with Xia's imaginary friends taking up real space. Her unwillingness to even entertain their existence is hilarious, even as she recalls the superhero Robin as her own imaginary friend, mostly to take the blame for things she did. This segues into an extended series of strips where Roberts is playing Barbie dolls with Xia. There's an eagerness on Roberts' part now that Xia was old enough to really engage in mutual and extemporaneous play with dolls that she get in on that action. Her own love of dolls and play is funny, in part because she wanted to push Xia and see how quickly she could improvise elaborate backstories. There's always a deeply cynical edge to all of Roberts' humor, but there is also sheer delight in having this milestone unlocked at last. It's a way for them to truly connect on a level where the agency of both parties is equally important. Of course, in the context of the book, Roberts doesn't care about that parenting milestone jazz. She's put in a lot of years of work as a mother, and it's about time it paid off with some fun play. 

Roberts is a smart-ass and an authority figure. Xia is also a smart-ass and is proving she can match what her mom dishes out, like when Roberts tells Xia they aren't going to buy anything at the bookstore they're visiting. Sure enough, Xia peppers her mom with requests until Roberts demands they leave, bemoaning that she just wanted to visit her friend there. Xia responds, "You'd be a better friend if you bought more books from her." There's no comeback from that one, and Roberts simply takes the loss there. 



This is another essential aspect of Roberts' humor: while she will make acidic or sarcastic remarks about people for a laugh, she makes herself a target of the jokes most of the time. As always: punching down is cruel, punching up can be didactic, but punching yourself is always funny. Roberts is never cruel, but has no patience for bullshit or things she doesn't care about. There's an undercurrent in the book where she has no interest in wasting a single second on things that are boring to her. Why should she? Time is very important in this book. There's a sense of time getting away from her, of time being wasted. However, there's also a sense where she's stopped caring about making every moment meaningful. Sometimes, like on pages where she draws herself in a towel, standing with her mom and her husband Scott, that serves no narrative function nor any humorous function, really. It's clearly just a moment in time that she liked and wanted to record. In terms of the book, these are breather spots. Both the artist and reader don't have to do any "work" on those pages in terms of interpreting something or making the reader laugh. It's a page where she can just be, which is another subtheme of the book. 

Xia has always sort of been the star of Roberts' books, with Keiler as sort of the straight man who reacts to the funny things a little kid did. Xia took a back seat the past couple of books as Roberts explored more personal issues but was also trying to build a little separation for her kid as she started to develop her own sense of agency. In this book, Xia reclaims her stardom in funny ways. There are times when she deliberately annoys her mother, knowing what kind of reaction she'll get. There are times when Roberts deliberately teases or grouses at her, like when she says "Let's pretend your homeschooled and make a schedule!" as a way of entertaining a bored Xia. More interesting is Xia's understanding of her mother's limitations but not abandoning their connection, like when an exhausted Roberts is too tired to play dolls but engages Xia when she plays "the acting game," wherein Xia acts out an emotion. It's a scene that has likely played out many times, as Xia didn't complain or bat an eye when her mom couldn't move. Instead, they created a new kind of memory, one funny enough for Roberts to record for many reasons.



There are different ways to perceive time and to record narratives around it. A quotidian, tight focus creates a sense of immediacy without necessarily providing much context. Pulling back to create a smoother narrative sacrifices some verisimilitude in favor of storytelling. For an artist, a project like this has a certain immediacy, but it must also be said that it's the latest entry in a long career. There's an internal context that the book has with its strips, but the external context with how this book is part of a continuum must also be considered, as well as how it will read when Roberts publishes more books. My Begging Chart feels like a series of subtle turning points in how she approaches everything in her life, not just art. Roberts is still about the gag above all else, make no mistake, but the quiet moments she records with no dialogue, no plot, and no point other than to savor them are acts of gratitude. They are also gifts for the reader, which is where her closed autobiographical style really pays off. She's been telling her story with relatively little context her entire career, so these context-free single-page drawings of her lying down with Xia or snuggling with her dog Crooky don't feel at all out of place. In many respects, they are more personally revealing than her actual stories, which are mediated by narrative and humorous concerns. 


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Tatiana Gill's Head Meds

There's open memoir, closed memoir, and then there's the memoir of Tatiana Gill. Every memoir she does not only tends to have a strong guiding theme to provide structure, but it also gives an astonishing amount of detail and context. It's almost overwhelming how open she is about drug use, addiction, self-harm, and other issues. At the same time, it makes a great deal of sense, because she's writing this from the perspective of an addict in recovery and working the 12 steps. "Rigorous honesty" is a hallmark of such programs, but like any other structured belief system, it is fueled by personal narratives. Gill has embraced this fully, to the point where the thoroughness and messiness of her recording her narrative obstructs actually telling a smoothed-out and readable narrative. There are a lot of rough edges that she refuses to smooth out in service to her story, which makes this particular memoir, Head Meds, such a compelling read.


The hook of this particular book is a systematic exploration of every drug she's ever taken for prescribed, psychiatric reasons and how these drugs have affected her, for good or ill. Gill hits on an extraordinary insight:certain medications eased the pain of her depression but gave her no real insight as to the roots of her trauma. They simply allowed her to feel better and therefore party more, doing a variety of recreational drugs and engaging in risky behavior. Different therapist and the benefit of more years passing have allowed Gill to figure out what works for her, more or less, but she noted that she's still vulnerable to trauma and relapses. She also readily admits that having a home with a loving partner and a pet, along with being on his insurance and overall support, is a luxury that she understands that not everyone has. 


Indeed, after discovering that running and reducing stress generally make her happier, she is careful not to preach some kind of formula or claim any kind of narrative closure. Instead, she thanks her luck and realizes that in trying to write a history of her use of SSRI's and other antidepressants, there's no way she can tell what was caused by her brain chemistry and what was exacerbated by her lifestyle choices. At the same time, detailing her story reveals how complex mental health can be and that attempts at reductionism are inevitably doomed to failure. 


There's something else that's remarkable about this book: Gill tackles her past and manages to do so with a minimum of shame. As a result, there's no defensiveness at work here. She freely admits to what she did, she freely admits to her current struggles, and she understands how lucky she is. There's a strong understanding that her choices, even the bad ones, don't make her a bad person, because she can always make different choices--especially with the proper support and health regimens. 

The first half of the book, where she deals with this narrative in a chronological fashion, has an almost frantic pacing and tone. It's as though she's trying to race through these details as quickly as possible in order to get them on the page. The second half of the book leans more on her drawing, as each page is a brief anecdote or syllogism related to recovery, good boundaries, and forgiveness--especially self-forgiveness. Much of it is dedicated to anger, a difficult emotion for those dealing with trauma to process. Interstingly, even though there's no narrative flow whatsoever in the second half of the book, it nonetheless highlights,illustrates, and recapitulates the narrative from the first half of the book, providing a more human and present context for things she rushed through here and there. The two halves complement each other loosely, and the spontaneity of her line helps project her unflagging optimism despite everything. I've read a number of cleaner, more calculating books on mental health that aim to be guide books, but Gill's warts 'n all presentation feels more effective in discussing these issues. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Andrew Neal's Meeting Comics

Andrew Neal was the owner of Chapel Hill Comics, one of the best comics stores in a America, for a number of years. When he sold the store, he eventually took a new job, and that job one day inspired him to do a loosely-sketched, four-panel comic about an office meeting that took place during the apocalypse. Just as surely as Charles Schulz's first Peanuts strip ("Charlie Brown...Oh how I hate him!") set the tone for years of work, so too did Neal's wobbly line establish the absurdity and sheer ridiculousness of office life. Also like Schulz, Neal slowly shaped his characters into complex, funny, and memorable personalities with long-running stories. Throughout his run on Meeting Comics, Neal has never deviated from making this a gag strip, even when the jokes are dark and the subject matter is satirical. 


A collection of the first six issues of the minicomic was published by AdHouse, and it unsurprisingly looks great, just like all Chris Pitzer-designed books do. Neal kept it simple, as a squarebound paperback printing each strip chronologically, with plenty of extra material in the back. The strip also appears on Neal's Patreon, in minicomics form (I believe it's up to #19 at the moment), and earlier strips are appearing on Solrad. Neal hustles this strip, and it's easy to understand why: his storytelling is so brisk, his characters' designs are so clever, and his gags so smooth that it approaches the status of compulsively readable.


Upon reaching the end of the collection, I also read issues #8 and 9 (I'm missing #7 and haven't seen #10 and up yet) and a related mini called 320 Shades Of Greg. The first dozen or so strips all have that hastily-sketched, spontaneous feel to them, and they are unpolished as a result. While Neal had been drawing on and off for years, it's obvious that it took a little while for him to grow into Meeting Comics as his first true, long-range project. It takes a little while for archetypes to evolve into characters and for gags to first become recurring gags, and then characters of their own. A good example of that is the HR robot Rob, who began as a gag and then became a regular member of the cast as the ex-boyfriend of Val. (There's a later joke about "on-again, off-again" relationships that's particularly inspired.)


Val is the Snoopy of the series, the wild break-out character. With her trademark hair in a bun and big earrings, it's also interesting that this lead character is a Black woman. The diversity in the strip is pretty casual and woven into the humor. Don is an older gay man, while Thomas is a Black man who has to deal with a lot of shit--but also has a secret identity as the Ribbon Cutter, a superhero who foils the mayor's attempts to cut ribbons at openings. But Val is a fearless, funny, ass-kicker and hedonist. That said, Kevin is often the focus of the strip, as a manager who lives a conflicted double-life as an activist and musician. Even douchey Gil, a management bro, is a fully-realized character. 

The key to the success of the strip is that Neal passes no judgments on these characters. They are most certainly Part of the Problem as managers in a corporation with unstated aims (it's part of the joke that they don't quite know what the business does), but they are also people who need to make money to live. Neal is casual about the company's corruption and evil, because these things are understood. How each person navigates it for their own personal hustle is what makes the strip funny. These characters drink, date, fuck, gossip, and seek out some degree of connection along the way. Even when Jesus shows up as a character and joins the company, it makes sense. That makes side projects like the bizarre and hilarious 320 Shades Of Greg so funny; the story is weird on its own, but the actual punchline is an awesome groaner. 

Neal is funny, and what also helps make the strip compelling is that he can go to a few different wells in any given strip. A punchline might be a pun (there's a gag about an old ska band becoming janitors that made me laugh out loud), a funny image (Val hiding from her mother in a filing cabinet), or a carefully-constructed bit of character humor. The slightly surreal quality of the comic makes it easy for a reader to accept all of this as part of its reality. One gets the sense that the best is yet to come from Neal, both in this strip and future projects. It's certainly been a lot of fun watching him figure it out on the page.