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.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Matt Lubchansky's The Antifa Super-Soldier Cookbook

Matt Lubchansky's The Antifa Super-Soldier Cookbook (Silver Sprocket) has a killer high concept: what if this loosely-organized group opposing fascism, state-sponsored violence, and racism was actually a highly-trained paramilitary unit? In other words, what if it was actually what far-right media and politicians claim that it is, only moreso? This comic goes over the top in depicting Antifa as a sinister, well-connected boogieman out to destroy proper American values. Telling the parallel stories of a young Antifa member who is "called up" to become a cyborg super-soldier and a cop who rises through the ranks to destroy them, Lubchansky strikes a ridiculous tone throughout.


There is a bit of cognitive dissonance at work here, however. Everything about Antifa is told from essentially the viewpoint of a right-wing fantasy, and Lubchansky is clearly satirizing that view. However, their depiction of the police is inconsistent. On the one hand, as they note at the end, a lot of the more extreme behavior and plots from the police are disturbingly real. However, there are times when they seem to be spoofing the left's understanding of the police as much as they are parodying the right's understanding of resistance movements, and it's a false equivalency I'm not sure they intended.


Beyond that Lubchansky stretches the gag too far, and as a result the story feels bloated by the end. The joke repeated throughout the book--that leftists are sneaky, violent liars who are brainwashing our youth--doesn't get funnier through repetition. The characters, by design, are one-dimensional, but that lack of depth also wears on the narrative by the end. Lubchansky's satire also tends to hit a lot of obvious beats, never going much beyond their initial premise. This would have been far more effective as a ten-page story instead of a 60-page graphic novella. The visuals are functional but otherwise unremarkable, and the garish use of color didn't add much to the narrative.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Mass Market Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver has become such an interesting cartoonist because he's so versatile. He can do straight-up illustration jobs like his Johnny Appleseed or Grateful Dead books and bring them to life in interesting ways. He's adept at interesting biographies, like Abraham Lincoln in The Hypo and his upcoming epic about Joseph Smith. He excels at dramas about doomed losers like Saint Cole. He's a funny and self-effacing autobiographical cartoonist. At heart, however, Van Sciver is a gag man. That was true of his earliest comics and it's still true now, as his choices as an artist take him down some unusual detours. Drawing random comics for the newspaper Columbus Alive!, each one on their own ranges from hilarious to mildly amusing.


However, their collective impact is greater than the sum of its parts, especially when fruitfully paired with frequent collaborator and ace designer Keeli McCarthy. Van Sciver's vision of creating something like an old Peanuts paperback filled with random strips is brought to life with every element of the design. Even the absurd title, Please Don't Step On My JNCO Jeans, is evocative of the kind of snappy title that you might see for a random collection of some comic strip. The generic yellow background and the absurd image of an adult Van Sciver (complete with trademark mustache) wearing these faddish jeans from the 90s. The cliched yet entirely accurate copy on the back cover, complete with nonsensical poses of a dancing Van Sciver, also contributes to this aesthetic, which is simultaneously nostalgic and utterly square. Even the size and embossed edges of the pages are all part of the fun.

The actual comics are a glorious hodgepodge. In addition to that, there are a host of funny interstitial drawings of Van Sciver as various monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and others. There are funny (and usually embarrassing) stories from his childhood, along with the occasional triumph like a TastyCake driver randomly throwing him an entire box of baked treats. There are funny moments with his partner, Amy, including a long riff on the tool and phrase "stud finder" that deliberately steers into dad joke territory before a hilarious final swerve. A running gag throughout the book is Van Sciver trying to do something new and finding himself drawing fencing, French-speaking cats. His ability to find different ways to work a gag reflects the relentless nature of his cartooning. In a collection that is essentially just a lark, Van Sciver's serious commitment to a coherent aesthetic package elevates the work in a way that he didn't have to do. However, the design, careful sequencing, and the illustrations all reflect a desire to make sense of seemingly disparate material over a span of time. If the newspaper strips reflected his fancy at that moment in time, the book represented his overall aesthetic understanding of his own work during this period as well as a personal journal of sorts.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Full Hanawalt: I Want You

I've been comparing each of Lisa Hanawalt's books to her minicomics series I Want You with regard to how far they go with regard to their gags, sheer weirdness, and overall filth. While My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hot Dog Taste Test, and Coyote Doggirl all have their merits, none of them had quite the same unhinged energy as I Want You. It was with delight and surprise that I learned that D&Q was going to reprint this material, in part because so much of it informs her later design work on BoJack Horseman and her own series, Tuca and Bertie. Sure, it's a shameless cash-in (and the promotion reflects that), but this will be a real eye-opener for Hanawalt fans who never got a chance to read her minis. 



As a bonus, Hanawalt drew a hilarious six-page introduction that also serves as one of the better artist meditations I've read about the relationship an author has with old work. Hanawalt revealing that the work's connection with her relationships and life circumstances at that time sheds a great deal of light on why certain gags may be uncomfortable to revisit, even if a reader has no connection to this information. Hanawalt also praises her younger self for a lot of the material while chastising jokes that feel shallow or easy (like lots of dick jokes). What I've always found interesting about Hanawalt's work is the clear intellect at work in crafting her gags and thinking about the world, but her willingness to go deep into her id in a way that's gross, revealing, frequently unflattering, hilarious, and perverted is fascinating. That's especially true because her process feels so intuitive at times; when she grabs onto an idea, she runs with it and keeps going, well past a point where one expects but never losing the energy of the gag.



Hanawalt opened with a list gag, this time of "Mistakes We Made At The Grocery Store." It's mildly funny and absurd, but other iterations of this form would be more effective later. The real first shot across the bow in this book is "One Day At Work." In a highly naturalistic style, Hanawalt draws herself typing at a keyboard, only to find some of the keys are sticking. The culprits: sex bugs, gumming up the works with their fucking and semen. One of them ejaculates onto her face, which a coworker mistakes for mayonnaise and proceeds to wipe it of her face and eat it (!), which makes Hanawalt puke on the keyboard, which leads to the bugs thanking her for the lube. The rhythm of outrageous calamities at play here and the escalation of events, along with his taboo-busting power, gives this strip its gross power. It is sex, and filth, and gross, hidden things, and violating boundaries. It's a bizarre fantasy of the id, yet one that doesn't seek any victims; it's content in turning that fantasy inward. As I've said before with regard to humor, punching down is simply cruel, punching up can feel like hectoring, but punching yourself is always funny. 



It's not even self-deprecatory humor, either. Just an acknowledgment and celebration of one's own deep weirdness. Not all of it is gross or even internal, as Hanawalt just really likes drawing anthropomorphic characters in a naturalistic style, with particular attention paid to their clothing. The results are bizarre and endearing, and it's this aesthetic which drives much of her animation work. Sex is never far from her mind in these strips, although in the least erotic ways possible. For example, another list strip, "Common Dirty Talk and the Questions It Raises" dives right into that rawest of sexual raw materials, dirty talk meant to inflame desire. Hanawalt instead gets into the gears of it with deliberate reversals, like "You are filthy and your man meat is saltier than anything. Q: Is this really the best time to be criticizing my restaurant?" This is all accompanied by a drawing of a meal. Hanawalt can't help but subvert not just desire, but reality itself.



The ultimate Hanawalt list comic is "Things We Are Sorry We Did Last Night," which includes an item about murdering other Lisa Hanawalts and an extended section about shitty dances she came up with. It's a subversion of "bad decisions" type stories that features top-notch drawings that are inextricably bound with each gag. Even weaker material is boosted by her total commitment to the gag through her drawings, but her mastery of callback humor really comes into play here as well. Overall, there's no separation between writing and drawing for Hanawalt; they are just two complementary aspects of the same form of expression. 



Hanwalt's "Worst Sandwiches" feature really emphasizes her drawing in setting up gags like "Sandwich That Can't Hold You Close At Night" and "Peanut Butter Sandwich That Doesn't Taste Right" (because it's full of maggots). "How To Get A Haircut" presages the sort of work she'd start to do later when she was getting paid to do features like movie reviews. So much of the book isn't even directly gag-related; they are just drawings of things that Hanawalt likes, or the adventures of her BoJack-presaging He-Horse and She-Moose, who are always endeavoring to get laid. In retrospect, the gags in the book represented Hanawalt cycling through comedic interests and laying the groundwork for further refinement. The almostly palpably nervous energy present in these books, the sheer weird horniness and desire to follow her id on the page, was refined and redirected in future work. Rather than go to the id well one too many times, she instead found other ways to follow her funny obsessions, especially as her storytelling became more sophisticated. That said, fans of Hanawalt's work will find this book to be absolutely essential, both because it's as funny as any comics I've ever read and because of the roads she continued to pursue and the avenues she chose to abandon.