Sunday, December 27, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Bread Tarleton

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

In Praise Of Annie Koyama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Days Of CCS, #26: Fantology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 25, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #25: Kristen Shull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #24: Lauren Hinds

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #23: Sam Nakahira

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #22: John Carvajal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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