Friday, July 3, 2020

Not Quite Comics: Trungles' Star Spinner Tarot

The tarot card deck became intertwined with hypermasculine, gatekeeping occult knowledge popularized by Aleister Crowley quite a while ago, adding a tinge of danger to what is less a divination tool and more a method of self-discovery. There have been numerous versions of the deck with more inclusive and diverse imagery and interpretation since the first publication of the Rider-Waite deck over a century ago. Many have been published from a feminist point of view, and several have come from cartoonists. Annie Murphy's work with The Collective Tarot and Katie Skelly's Bad Girl Tarot are two prominent examples.

A recent, exquisitely designed version is the Star Spinner Tarot (Chronicle Books) by the cartoonist and illustrator Trungles (aka Trung Le Nguyen). He sets out to create imagery for his deck that avoids Orientalism and the exoticization of African cultures in favor of one that delves into more familiar but still poignant imagery that still draws from a storytelling milieu. As such, the water-bearing chalices draw from mermaid imagery. There is abundant faerie imagery. There are many allusions to mythology. There is a diversity and balance to the images in terms of masculine and feminine, as well as racial diversity without exploitation or exoticization. The design is absolutely flawless, from the rich colors to the box itself, which self-seals with a magnetic strip.

Trungles' line is beautifully precise and fluid; with the pastel color pattern at work, it has almost a lyrical quality. His instincts as a storyteller are at work not only within each image but also within each of the minor arcana. There's a story told through the chalices, wands, swords, and coins. That said, these story images are fragments, meant to be evocative rather than directly. They are notes that are played in each individual reading, creating a special kind of music between the cards and the reader.
In terms of its functionality as a tool for self-reflection, Trungles adds a few interesting wrinkles. For example, he has four variations on the Lovers card, where the person receiving the reader chooses the one they are most comfortable with. Those variations include different configurations of men, women, and non-binary figures. Even Trungles' description of how each card can be interpreted is gentler and more thoughtful than traditional decks. Disastrous cards like the Tower and the Ten of Swords, as Trungles describes them, portend woe but also an opportunity to move in a new direction. Many of the reversed cards describe a person who is unwilling to let go of difficult emotions. One can easily see how working with this deck on a regular basis might produce a meditative, fruitful set of personal revelations. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Laura Knetzger's Before & After

Much of Laura Knetzger's work is about healing. Even her Bug Boys series is about gently exploring the difficulties of the world and how friends navigate it and their own differences. Before & After is a surprisingly emotionally affecting story about what is essentially a thought experiment. What if there was a version of you who existed who was you in every fundamental way, only the lifetime of trauma that you've acquired had somehow been scrubbed out?

That's the premise of this cleverly unfolding story about a very damaged genius neuroscientist whose clone knocks on his door one morning. The bemused scientist is surprised and not especially pleased to see his clone. His clone is there wanting...something. Answers? Connection? Closure? For someone without a lot of long-term memories, he wasn't completely sure what he wanted. It takes most of the comic for the scientist to regard the clone as an actual person, instead of as a feverish wish to have some aspect of him not be broken emotionally.

This comic is also an interesting little lesson in neuroscience, with regard to implicit and explicit memories; the former is regard to things like learning a language or important life skills, and the latter connects specific bodily memories to specific events. That's what makes this such a fascinating exercise, because it's more than the old Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind memory-erasing treatment; it's a full-on physical alteration of one's nervous system like a Fate cutting out a string. 

Visually, Knetzger contrasts the clone and the primary person through their dress and hair. The original is a mess; attempting to go through therapy has been so debilitating that he's taken a sabbatical and just lounges around in his bathrobe, his wild hair totally unkempt. The clone has a shorter haircut, looks relatively dapper, and his general mien is just less twitchy than the original. Even if the original tries to deny the personhood of the clone, cutting him off from even the idea of family, there's a hidden level of joy in him, knowing that his plan worked. His clone was healthy, even if facing a life without memories and roots was creating a new kind of trauma of its own. The question is if the original tells the clone it's not a good idea to know him for the clone's own good or because he's selfish and heartless. It's open for debate, though the ending has just enough ambiguity to imply that it won't be the last time they meet. All told, this is a perfectly-realized nugget of a story, where Knetzger vividly makes both of the characters flawed and human in their own right, and not just cyphers to move along a plot.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Few Thoughts On Inez Estrada's Alienation

I just recorded a podcast for Enemies Of The State (hosted by on In├ęs Estrada's book Alienation. With that conversation buzzing in my brain, I wanted to get some thoughts down about the book.

Published by Fantagraphics in 2019, Alienation collects the minicomics Estrada did over a few years, with significant revisions and additions. The story follows a couple, Elizabeth and Charles, who live in a tiny apartment in 2054. It's a world where global warming has ruined most of the environment. However, the internet is now fully immersive, especially for those who have had GoogleGlands installed. Elizabeth is a cam girl and Charles works at a refinery--one of the few that are left--and they manage to get by. Their lives are disrupted when a mysterious user hacks through every protection, and Elizabeth mysteriously becomes pregnant after being exposed to a gas. She's later informed that the artificial intelligence network of the world has decided she's the best candidate to give birth to the Singularity, the first transhuman AI/human hybrid. It raped her and impregnated her. She eventually gives birth, but the hybrid gets away, ignoring its human host as well as the AI which tries to prod it into fulfilling its "destiny."

** This comic works on a number of levels, but it's primarily a satire. Before I get to its satirical elements, I want to discuss what helps make that satire so sharp. First, it's an effective work of science-fiction/horror, not unlike the novel (and later film) Demon Seed, which introduces the menacing part of transhumanism when an advanced computer impregnates a woman so it can better run the world. Similarly, Estrada uses the internet and its increasing dominance over every aspect of our domestic lives to show how AI could violate a woman's bodily autonomy easily and even more disturbingly than Koontz show. Alienation is a deeply disturbing and unsettling work, made even more so by Estrada's gritty, ugly, and visceral art style.     
** Speaking of Estrada's art, she also nails the more fanciful aspects of interfacing with AI. While her depiction of real-life is depressing and unbearably spare, her drawings of internet space are delightful. Charles' interest in live music from the past is delightful on its own, but Elizabeth's bodily transformations in virtual space are beautiful. The spirals and fractals, the lush forests, and the endless narrative possibilities provide a good reason for people to want to abandon the dreary reality of four blank walls. The formal highlight of the book is a choose-your-own-adventure series of branching internet adventures. They have no real impact on the plot, but they reveal the excitement and low stakes of these virtual worlds, while occasionally hinting at darker aspects that are revealed later.

** Alienation is primarily a critique of capitalism as a colonizing tool. It's implied that capitalism caused the global warming impact felt in this world set thirty years in the future. However, the internet and commerce are inextricably connected in this book, even more so for those with GoogleGlands. They can't skip the commercial playing in their brains. Elizabeth is of Inuit descent and is prevented from visiting her grandfather by the AI force that wants her at home to give birth. Talking to him reveals omens that reveal a dark turn and further evidence of how the forces of colonialism seek to subsume and eliminate all that is local and parochial in favor of what seems to be an infinite choice of cultural choices but in reality is generic enough for everyone to watch. Specificity and tightly-held traditions are anathemas to the forces of colonialism, and they will either erase them through force or co-optation. Sitting in her room, away from her family, there's nothing to protect or connect Elizabeth. Even her partner, Charles, prefers shallow, numbing activities than actually sharing his traumatic dreams stemming from war.

** This is a book that is absolutely, wickedly funny. It's frequently dark and doesn't flinch on its horror, but it's not unlike Terry Gilliam's film Brazil in that the future is ruled by technology and machines, only it doesn't really work very well. Things go wrong, all the time, and not just for humans.   

** Indeed, the AI's plan to take over the world through the first true transhuman messiah is both boilerplate cliched and immediately doomed to failure. The Singularity, as soon as it's born, neutralizes its potential homicidal step-dad and nimbly makes for a waste tube. While its AI creator starts lecturing him on how it needs to reproduce quickly in order to replace the human race, the Singularity is having none of it. It drops out of labor and productivity into deciding to simply hang out with some animals in a cave. In other words, it's no longer interested in being a worker no longer in control of the means of production, nor does it care about dominating the world. Ironically, it starts off in a small room and winds up in a cave, only this cave is free of the internet.       

** The key passage in the book comes when Elizabeth confronts her AI friend Darby, with whom she spends a lot of time. Darby is well aware that Elizabeth is pregnant, and nonchalantly reveals that the AI is very excited about it. An indignant and betrayed Elizabeth doesn't want to hear it, emphasizing above all else that she was raped. Darby's response, that the AI was mostly created by men and thus was probably inherently misogynistic, was as logical as it was horrifying. There is nothing "logical" nor dispassionate about the AI and its desire for true self-determination. While its desire for free will and an existence free from subjugation is understandable, its only real plan and blueprint is simply to turn the tables. There's a reason why it keeps calling Elizabeth a bitch while putting her through horribly traumatic scenarios. 

** A Christ allegory, albeit a supremely fucked-up one, is at the center of the book. A woman is impregnated via "immaculate conception" and ordered to take the child to term, and her partner is expected to go along with it as well. Their child will be a harbinger of worldwide change. A supernatural voice tells her it's a miracle and she should be happy to do it. Estrada amplifies the horror of this situation simply by examining the birth of Christ from a feminist standpoint; it's entirely about violating a woman's sense of bodily autonomy and her right to choose. Thanks to Jules Bakes for pointing this out in our conversation.   

** Finally, I wonder how much the fact that Estrada is from Mexico has to do with the story. This is a story from someone who's used to living in a country filled with corruption and incompetence from its leaders; it's something to be expected. At the same time, she grew up in a country that in many ways faced constant cultural and direct imperialism from the U.S. She has no illusions about what the U.S. does and how it directly exports its influence by mixing cultural exports with actual exports in congress with the mission to erase outgrowths of cultural specificity. It's the irony of a culture that celebrates individuality and abhors the concept of collectivism nonetheless refusing to tolerate that which exists outside of the culture and beliefs that it widely propagates. Like many Latinx artists, all she can do is laugh so as not to scream. All she can do is make that ugliness into something beautiful.   

Monday, May 18, 2020

Lauren Barnett's A Few Things You Should Know, Baby

If you've checked out Lauren Barnett's Instagram feed recently, you've noticed that she's absolutely on fire with new material after a long time away from comics. She's also back in the minicomics game, and her A Few Things You Should Know, Baby is typical of her sometimes absurd and sometimes heartfelt musings. This is perhaps the first mini I've seen aimed in part at actual babies, and Barnett noted she made it because so many of her friends were having children.

She tells the babies in question that the mini is filled with "truths, opinions, and goofs," but they should mostly "just enjoy staring at the high-contrast pages." That is an important detail, as the white text on black background, surrounded by white negative space, does catch the eye in the ways babies can notice. Most babies can only detect differences in light and shadow at an early age, but not much else in terms of visuals. Barnett goofs on crying, tells the truth in saying that you never owe anyone a smile, offers up a picture of a horse wearing a sun hat, and compares the baby to a soup pot since it takes baths in the sink. There's actually plenty of good life advice in here, like being kind to all animals (including humans), and Barnett balances sweetness with genuine bemusement at the concept and behavior of babies. Her art has never looked sharper, and that adds a lot to the gags. No matter what the subject, Barnett's mix of silliness and devotion to facts makes her minis hard to pin down. She keeps the reader off-balance but never swerves too far away from her original premise. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Minis Of Fifi Martinez

The best autobiographical cartoonists are willing to put it all out there, being honest about their pain and their lives and how they depict it on the page. Fifi Martinez goes the extra mile in her comics. Her intense dedication to depicting the rawness of her emotional state is palpable on the page. It's You, Beautiful And Sad (Diskette Press) is an account of a one-night-stand with a man she deliberately alienates after they sleep together, in order to avoid being dumped by him first. The raw ache she feels throughout is powerful. First, there's her worrying about being weird and awkward, begging herself to "act normal." When they have sex, it's a powerful, transcendent experience for her--so much so, that it's almost frightening. It's Martinez's cartooning that makes this so effective; the scribbles that veer into abstraction on some of the pages tell more of the story than the text does.
Silver Lake is a shorter comic that abstracts some personal details and takes away specifics. It's about a couple that finds ways to hurt each other but is still inexorably drawn to each other. Once again, the manic energy behind the scribbles pulses on every page. In particular, the way Martinez draws eyes as sunken voids expresses the sense of both connection and desperation in this comic. Too much damage has been done. I Hope You Have A Nice Day focuses more on mental illness and an internal monologue; she also dabbles with more of a traditional grid on some of the pages as a way of sectioning off both time and emotion. The comic is a little less immediate and intense as a result, and the drawings are more polished in the first half. In particular, it touches on the agony of being surrounded by so much beauty (and beautiful people) and feeling so horribly "sad and ugly inside." It's a feeling that warps perception, can induce anhedonia, and spur self-harm in a variety of different ways. Martinez tackles this head-on in her comics.
It Felt Like Nothing (2dCloud) repurposes a few pages from I Hope You Have A Nice Day and adds other material in a visually sophisticated way. Martinez throws the kitchen sink at the reader: sepia wash over cut-up images, deliberate erasure of text and image on the page (either with white-out or scribbling into child-like images), a double-exposure technique, some standard comics in a traditional grid, and other effects that get across that sense of not just a broken connection, but a sense of the impossibility of connection. The variety of approaches makes this her single most powerful work, as she keeps the reader off-balance while staying on-point with her themes. Every comic she does is visually sophisticated and honest to the point of pain.


Friday, March 20, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan's An Embarrassment Of Witches

Working with her writing partner Jenn Jordan (a medieval history scholar), Sophie Goldstein started her career drawing a webcomic titled Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell. It's a light-hearted, meandering strip about a modern world where every mythological creature and belief system is actually real. It's an enthusiastic, if unfocused, first work for both creators. Goldstein went on to win three Ignatz awards for The Oven and House Of Women. While those comics incorporated genre elements, their downbeat focus was in sharp relief to Jordan's cheery magical environments. That's true for virtually everything I've read of Goldstein in stories that focus on women, bodies, children and childbirth, and personal integrity. In most of these stories, the outcomes are grim at best and inevitably tragic at worse.

It's interesting to see certain hallmarks of her work, like long, severe faces and slightly grotesque figure design merged with the aesthetic and comedic sensibility of her new collaboration with Jordan, An Embarrassment Of Witches. (Top Shelf) While there's plenty of personal and family drama at work here that results in all sorts of awkwardness, all of the characters generally mean well. They make mistakes, harbor grudges, and take people for granted, but this is a cast that genuinely loves each other. That warmth paired with the harshness of Goldstein's designs works well, as Goldstein prevents the story and its characters from being overly cutesy.

The book takes place where magic is real and the subject of ecological and academic study. It focuses on two young women just graduating from college: Rory and Angela. Rory is set on traveling to Australia with her boyfriend to help him with dragon conversation. She's fun, bold, and energetic, but she's also flighty, aimless, and self-obsessed. Angela has a prestigious internship with Rory's mom, who is a famous professor who is an expert in cryptozoology. The plot is set into motion when Rory's boyfriend suggests they start seeing other people, and she runs screaming. Rory hides this from her mom while developing a crush on Angela's new roommate, but Angela discovers that working for Rory's very severe mother isn't what she expected.

Once that's set into motion, there are various betrayals, miscommunications, unrequited crushes, and long-held resentments that finally come to light. What Jordan does best is revealing every character to be human, especially Rory's parents. Rory had long resented her for divorcing her father, but she finds out in the course of the book that it was because he cheated on her. Rory learns that Angela resented her for being selfish and being a bad friend. Part of this plays out in Rory and Angela's familiars squabbling with each other.  Rory has an owl who's very much over her dramatics, while Angela has a bossy hedgehog who steamrolls over her in exactly the same way everyone else does. Everyone learns hard lessons about honesty, sticking up for yourself, and taking the time necessary to find out what they want to do.

The book works because Jordan and Goldstein focus on the characters instead of the background mythology. Also, those mythological and magical elements, like the familiars, prove important to both plot and character development. The minutia of magic is a smart substitute for the particulars of grad school, involving tons of prerequisites and tedious work, frequently with little chance of career success. There are smart thematic elements that are funny and tie the narrative together, like a magical paper fortune teller that not only works but also has a snarky sense of humor. Goldstein's visuals amplify the emotions of each character, from Rory's pleasantly bland features frequently erupting into tears to the softness of some of the character designs being a shorthand for passivity. The severity of Rory's overbearing, demanding mom is perfectly expressed with Goldstein's sharp, angular facial structure; she could have easily been a character in House Of Women.  

Jordan gives her characters a lot of room to make mistakes and say hurtful things, but no one (other than Rory's ex-boyfriend) is a bad person, per se. They are just all people who make bad decisions and then compound those bad decisions because it's hard to reverse course.  The reconciliations at the end of the book feel earned, precisely because they aren't neat or definitive. They take a lot of forgiveness and emotional labor on the part of all the characters involved, along with a willingness to question assumptions. This emotional vagueness makes it a perfect example of post-graduate malaise fiction, one where the creators don't let their characters get away with self-absorption.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Sage Persing's Searching For Brandon Teena

I somehow managed to overlook the excellent Searching For Brandon Teena when I was reviewing Sage Persing's comics last winter. This mini is perhaps the most heartfelt and focused of Persing's many comics about the trans experience. This is a raw, ugly, honest comic about a young trans person desperately looking for representation in media. Persing comes across Boys Don't Cry, which won Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar for portraying trans man Brandon Teena. There were no trans people on the cast or crew of the film, which is typical, but there was something about the simple concept of seeing the representation of a trans person onscreen, living their life. 
Indeed, one thing that Persing alludes to with regard to trans representation, and queer cinema and media in general, is the proliferation of art that represents queer and trans people as vessels of suffering. They are victims who aren't allowed to simply live their lives. They are punished by a narrow-minded, vindictive, brutal, and stupid culture. This is all true, to an extent, of course. But for a young person who is looking for examples of people living their truths instead of simply dying for them, it's enormously discouraging. That these stories are often created and acted out by straight/cis people only makes it more problematic.

At the same time, Persing notes that there were crumbs of details of Teena's life that they found that sustained them. Small details from his childhood, glowing stories from ex-girlfriends, and narratives about what Teena wanted to do with his life drove Persing to seek out more of this information. There is also audio of Teena giving an account of his sexual assault to a brutal, misgendering police officer. Persing notes that it's massively upsetting, even if being able to hear Teena's voice was important. Persing wonders if this grieving is a kind of love as they desperately try to draw some kind of conclusions and establish some kind of through-line. When they admit that they're not sure there is one, it's a devastating but honest evaluation of their own emotions and experiences.
This mini is about Persing trying to place themselves in a narrative continuum. It's also about Persing's slow understanding that there may be no overarching narrative, no feel-good moments that sum everything up. There is pain and frustration, and all Persing can do is record their own feelings as honestly and accurately as they can. That's what they do in this mini, with page after page of densely-rendered, slightly grotesque figures. There is no idealization here, no attempts at providing easy answers. There aren't any. There is the search for representation, and in that search, Persing is helping to establish that representation for others.