Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Minis: Ryan Cecil Smith's Songs Of The Field

It's always a genuine pleasure to get a new S.F. comic from Ryan Cecil Smith, as it may be my favorite genre comic. There's a pleasurable clarity in storytelling that comes straight from certain kinds of sci-fi manga traditions, but Smith is a restless formal innovator who tinkers with visual and verbal structures in fun ways. For example, he loves playing on the "S.F." initials in various ways; this is the continuing story of the Science Fleet, but this particular comic is a Supplementary File titled Songs of the Field. Endlessly reiterating that structure, often in terms of dialogue or narrative, is all part of the fun. Of late, Smith has taken to doing endless Supplementary Files following one of the main characters or a side character on their own long adventure.

This one follows Alward the Lizard, a solo adventurer who has no love for the "lawful" Science Fleet nor for the "chaotic" pirates at war with them. Here, in this meaty 74-page mini, Smith uses the letters L.K. to describe things related to Alward: he flies his low-fuel kruiser into a zone and uses a latch klaw to get fuel. He turns out to be the son of the Lizard King and an invincible outlaw who skirmishes with a bunch of redneck types in a small mining operation. It's fast-paced, funny and vaguely philosophical in a sort of Stan Lee/Silver Surfer kind of way. Alward bemoans his lonely fate and is puzzled at the relentlessly hostile nature of humans while exploring space. The real treat here is Smith's candy-like use of color in this risograph-printed zine; indeed, the production values on a typical Smith comic are well above that of the average minicomic.

What's remarkable is the way Smith saturates each page with color but never loses the integrity of his line nor the clarity of his storytelling. The use of zip-a-tone effects has something to do with that in terms of maintaining structure, but the bigger key is Smith's ability to balance one or two complicated elements with several simpler ones. His line is simple and cartoony, giving it the flexibility to work in a number of different formal contexts. While there are a lot of colors, there are all carefully balanced on a panel-to-panel basis. He's careful to balance no more than three colors against each other in a given panel, but then he might use three completely different colors in the next pattern. The overall effect is kaleidoscopic, but broken down it looks quite intuitive. That cartoony and colorful nature of his work allows him to go big in terms of exaggerations and expressiveness without ever losing control over the page. The overall effect of the S.F. series is that of an extended lark in frothy genre fiction, but Smith's relentless attention to detail is what sets it apart from other such series. He's less concerned about the overall goal than he is in the flavor of the details that support the overarching plot. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass

Let's catch up with some recent work by Caitlin Cass, one of the most original and prolific artists working in minicomics today. Her Postal Constituency service offers a subscription to her comics, and she puts something out every couple of months. The comics vary in terms of length, size, content, and ambition. However, she frequently writes about history, philosophy, culture, and politics.

Pre-History (Volume 8, Issue #6 of the P.C.) is a nice example of her work. It's a folded, small square comic that makes great use of its format by showing, one page/panel at a time, how various species evolved and were then wiped out by something. Cass has a snappy sense of humor and keeps things moving as she also alternates text and image on some of the pages. On other pages, she uses multiple unfoldings to tell a story.

"Give People Light And They Will Find A Way" (V9, #4) is a more straightforward story done in a standard format. Indeed, the comic was adapted from a presentation she gave at the school at which she teaches. Using a mostly open-page layout instead of a grid, the comic focuses on the women of the Civil Rights Movement. Cass noted that historically, women of color are usually at the forefront of every resistance movement but tend to get less credit than the men. This comic is both a remedy to that and a simple history. She talks about Jo Ann Robinson, who was the leader of the Alabama bus boycott. Using a simple, effective line, she relates the history of Ella Baker, who was one of the key founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That organization would be key in pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Finally, Fannie Lou Hamer was brought to life in discussing her role in getting people registered for the vote and the violence she faced in doing so.

Rest Stop Brochures For The Not-So-Distant Future (V9, #1) finds Cass working a gimmick for comic effect. This is indeed a group of brochures in comics form, bound by a light cardboard sleeve. This is Cass at her most conceptual, with gags like "Digital Red Tape," which is an app that makes it difficult to use one's phone; it's designed to help with phone addiction. "The Forum" is a brochure for an app that provides a crowd that will cheer you on publicly, no matter what you have to say. It's the ultimate echo chamber effect. "Rainbow Boat Tours" offers people a chance to sail through garbage, picking out plastic stuff one might have some affection for. "Drone Eyes" allows people to see the world through a drone's camera, while "Amazon Truck Share" spoofs the fact that most trucks are half empty, and it offers a free trip to a mystery location. The brochures range from silly to brutally satirical, but every brochure speaks to the ways in which we consume and regurgitate information and resources.

Finally, Myths (V9, #2) sees Cass using a slightly bigger format, slick brown paper and full color in conjuring up modern myths. One story is about a tear in the sky that people tried to sew up, paint over, protest against, and patch over. It turned about to be a funny metaphor for the ways in which crises (existential and otherwise) are treated by those who have money and those who don't. Another story was about people who refused to give offerings to those In Charge, and they were put in a window, depending on the generosity of others for food. It's a clever metaphor for those who choose to live apart from being ruled by capitalism (like many artists) depending on the whims of others for support--until it's all too much and one wastes away. There's a whimsical quality to all of the stories here, but it's ultimately a grim comic that's fatalistic with regard to our fate in society.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Minis: Daniel Spottswood

Daniel Spottswood usually does amusing and fictional slice-of-life comics, but in Son of Nix! and April 2018, he focuses on life with his wife and toddler son. The latter comic is printed on light cardboard stock and folds out like a calendar, with each day's slot containing either a four-panel strip or a single image. Spottswood's cute style is juxtaposed against his frustrations with his job and the difficulties of raising an active toddler. Some days are cute, like when his son gave him a good-night kiss but not for his mom. Some days are filled with emotion, like when he unloads on his wife for being so messy and then is immediately filled with shame. Some days are filled with having to bend to the iron will of a toddler who demands a certain kind of play. Spottswood also manages to read eight books in the month in addition to drawing this strip, finding the energy despite having a job that clearly enervates him. Working as a store dealing with shelving and organizing products is actually made worse by working for a friend as a manager, who is wishy-washy in terms of leadership. Despite all of the frustrations, one can sense a great deal of joy in this work, especially when he sees his son delight in something. The cute, spare line Spottswood uses is ideal for this kind of work when a lot of art is crammed into a small space, though some of the lettering is hard to read.

Son Of Nix! focuses in on Spottswood's son, Philip, in a standard minicomic format. There's a variety of work to be found: naturalistic drawings of his son, four-panel strips (in a size that lets them breathe), single-page gags and expressions of frustration, and more. Some strips are written taking Philip's point of view in mind, like how upsetting it is for your first birthday, surrounded by strangers and your food on fire. There are gags about play telephones that are very funny because Spottswood knows how to sell them both to the reader and his son. There's a lovely silent strip where he comforts Philip when he has a fever, falling asleep with him in his bed. There are more funny expressions of frustration, like when Philip knocks over his coffee in order to play with his cup or when Philip bashes him to wake him up before the sun rises. What I like most about these strips is their sense of being in the moment. There's a presentness in Spottswood's approach, especially in this mini, that focuses on the moment-to-moment life of being a parent. That gives them an almost visceral impact, both in terms of their humor but also their anger and frustration.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

CCS Extra: Reilly Hadden

Somehow, I missed that Reilly Hadden had sent me the final issue of his Astral Birth Canal series when I was covering his work last December. Issue #13 wrapped up some storylines and left some questions open as well, which will be picked up in his follow-up series, Astral Forest. This has been one of my favorite-ever CCS-related series, packing fantasy, horror, slice-of-life intimacy and even women's professional wrestling into a single and often bewildering package.

This issue is subtitled "Ghosts Stories," and it is a self-contained story that also acts as a framing device for last issue's cliffhanger ending. It all sort of hooks together a number of elements present in the series without quite explaining them all the way. For example, it follows the story of Bork, the god-warrior and his lover Valentina, a human pro wrestler. Bork was on earth to capture a "disgraced god-king" but was decapitated by him in the previous issue. This issue follows Bork's rebirth and Val's apparent death. The framing device is a series of stories told by a bird-creature and his apprentice on a boat, sailing the titular Astral Birth Canal. This is the first time that the series' title has been addressed since the 0 issue that brought humans to another realm by way of a video game. The bird-creature is similar to the sort we've seen in the other main storyline of the series, and it's clear that he has some sort of influence over life and death.

What makes this issue so effective is that Hadden doesn't burden the reader much with details and continuity. Instead, the focus is on the bird-creature's storytelling, which is almost folksy in tone. In many respects, this issue recapitulates the running theme for the series: the thin veil between life and death. The Canal actually being real and accessible for travel is a manifestation of the series' many deaths, resurrections, and reincarnations. It's an incubator for myths and legends, but what makes the series fascinating is that Hadden depicts these stories as being terrifying rather than heroic. People are thrown into the middle of a horrifying and inexplicable magical world and forced to attempt to survive. The reader is thrown into the middle of an epic storyline with no backstory, meaning that one simply has to accept the absurdity of the situation when reading it. This issue brought a small amount of clarity while creating any number of new mysteries. Throughout the series, Hadden kept the reader guessing and constantly entertained as he pursued his storytelling whims, and I'm curious to see what the tone of the new series will be like.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Minis: Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom

Aatmaja Pandya's Phantom is a fascinating, autobiographical look at the immigrant experience and gentrification. Pandya's family emigrated to Queens from India, and she was born and raised in that borough, "the most diverse city in the world." Returning to live in her old neighborhood as an adult, Pandya explores her feelings regarding gentrification and young white hipsters moving in. Her anger and frustration are palpable, in part because Queens made her (and other people of color) feel rooted. The young people moving in aren't looking to put down roots, in her mind; they're there for the experience and will move on after a couple of years. She explains that she understands why they're moving in and can't fault them, but she still feels frustrated.

That frustration is related to being a daughter of immigrants and a person of color in America. She noted that being in Queens allowed her to feel "invisible, in the right way." She didn't stick out, nor was she made to feel different by others, because she was one person of color among many. In turn, that helped her feel rooted to this area. It was where she grew up and learned how to ride a bike like any other American kid, but it's also where her mother taught her Gujarati. It's a place that belonged to her and people like her.

The fear is that as Queens continues to change, she won't have a place that roots her anymore. At a certain point, she may be forced to concede that "it doesn't belong to me anymore, either." This is a measured but emotional howl at forces beyond her control and the ways in which spaces that once were claimed by marginalized people can be taken away from them. It's about how colonialism is intrinsically bound with gentrification in ways that are often invisible to those moving into neighborhoods that are suddenly considered to be desirable. Pandya's use of colored pencils (the comic is printed solely in blue) is subtle and expressive, like in depicting the bemused smile on her face when she tells a friend "I like Queens, too." The sequence that ends the book is a memory of learning the alphabet of Gujarati. There's a lovely drawing of young Pandya on a single page, her form taking up the lower right-hand corner of the page. On the final page, she says, "Then we left, and I forgot it all." The same image is repeated, only it's now smudged and partly erased. It's a lovely but bittersweet encapsulation of someone who is trying to come to terms with the ways in which rootedness is often a luxury that immigrants and people of color in the US do not enjoy.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Uncivilized: Dash Shaw's Structures 57-66

The Structures series of minicomics from Uncivilized speak to publisher Tom Kaczynski's professional interests as an architect. Of course, the nature of structures--especially man-made ones--has also always been a part of Kaczynski's personal, aesthetic project. In particular, the ways in which we interact with structures and how they explicitly and implicitly represent aspects of the wider culture and interests of capitalism is at the center of his work. The relationship between evolution and civilization vs. humanity's basest instincts also informs everything he does. As such, it's clear that when he assigned an artist an issue of Structures to do, he was interested in seeing how they would interpret the concept. In a sense, it's a kind of anthology series, riffing on a single theme in radically different ways.

Dash Shaw did Structures 57-66, and his take on the concept was surprisingly clear and linear. Earlier in his career, Shaw went heavy on coded symbolism and metaphor in his comics. In more recent years, his storytelling has become more straightforward in some ways, especially his use of line and narrative. His use of color is what's become the interesting wild card for him, using a wildly expressionistic style to convey emotion and meaning. It's interesting to see him return purely to line and not color in this comic, especially since it's so straightforward and even whimsical. Each drawing is a sort of fantasy of a building project outside his house. The first is a "Monument To Jane," his partner. The monuments utilize a thick but simple version of his line, laid out as a kind of sculptural montage. For Jane, we see her from various angles engaged in various activities with an assortment of instruments.

There's a warm and loving monument to his parents, engaged in a hug that merges their faces. There's a soaring monument to Tezuka, a funny and solid monument to Gertrude Stein, a monument to Francis Picabia that mimics that artist's drawings and even a monument to "the kicker of the monument." Shaw's sense of humor can be dry at times because he's so committed to the reality of whatever scenario he creates, but the reality is that a lot of his work is whimsical and sometimes emphatically funny. This comic is a nice workout for him that allows him to explore a number of different shapes and align them with concepts that gently tweak the art world.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Minis: Jason Bradshaw's Things Go Wrong

Robyn Chapman continues to release interesting minicomics as part of her Paper Rocket Minicomics publishing concern, and Jason Bradshaw's Things Go Wrong is one of the most recent. Visually, it's in the same kind of rubbery, bigfoot style favored by artists like Sean Knickerbocker and Rusty Jordan. The characters are exaggerated and have odd dimensions; and the main character, James, takes up a lot of space on the page. This is by design: he fills up panels, bleeds over into other panels and essentially forces the reader to really examine him carefully from top to bottom. Though much of the story is done in a naturalistic fashion, Bradshaw's aim is to make the reader aware of the composition of each page. He wants them to see not just a character but also the process of what makes up the character: lines and shapes. The idea is to feel the way the character takes up space so that when he gets sick, the reader's reaction is a visceral one.

All of this is in a story about disease and depression. James is a sign painter and artist suffering from a debilitating parasite. This is a comic about how mental and physical illness can form a devastating synergy, with each affecting the other in turn. James is in pain, a feeling that initially inspires him to do paintings about this experience. However, given a chance at a cure, he opts not to take his medicine and stops doing anything but his work murals. He becomes suicidal by way of self-neglect, wanting to die but not being willing to actually kill himself. He's content to simply stop taking of himself in the hope that he'll be gone at some point. The blue wash for this comic speaks to that melancholy, as the reader is forced to watch him experience intense, unsettling pain along with losing control of his bowels. It's a resignation that's not just lacking a will to live, but rather it's almost a kind of self-punishment. James feels like he doesn't deserve to live because he has nothing to offer as an artist (and by extension, as a person).

The first issue ends with James at a low point, waiting for his death as he does nothing to take care of himself. That said, a future issue is mentioned, which means that this story is not yet over. I'll be curious to see how Bradshaw resolves this story and if James can find a way out. Notably, James has no friends or family to help him; that solitude is glaringly clear as he struggles through life. It's also a commentary on how the lack of human connection can accelerate depression and how our worst self-images and self-talk can bring us down. The slight touch of the grotesque in the drawings served to emphasize the ugliness that James felt.