Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Shelf: Penny Nichols

Slice-of-life fiction is something I see a lot less of in comics these days, especially compared to its heyday in the 90s. A lot of it was perhaps thinly-veiled autobiography, only with a stronger narrative structure and/or more defined character arcs. Most fictional comics these days tend to be genre-inflected, even if the genre elements are in the background and the stories are heavily-character oriented. Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell are good examples of doing that at a high level. On the other hand, while MK Reed has done her share of genre work, she started her career working on slice-of-life books, and her big breakthrough was her love letter to libraries, Americus.

Her latest book, Penny Nichols, was written with frequent writing partner Greg "Clutch McBastard" Means and drawn by long-time minicomics stalwart Matt Wiegle. It's about a smart but aimless 26-year-old woman (the titular Penny Nichols) who is working a series of pointless temp jobs and going on the occasional horrible date. In reading it, this book is truly aimed at that mid-20s person who hasn't found their purpose in life. They don't have the ambition, ability, or interest to hook into the business world, but they've also faced a lifetime of discouragement in trying to do anything else. Their liberal arts degree seems pointless. They don't just want to hop on the marriage train and start having kids, but they don't know what they want.

In the case of Penny, she gets mixed up with a troupe of horror movie filmmakers who have plenty of vision and creativity, but they are missing the essential element of a single organizational brain. Reed and Means create a vibrant cast of horror geeks, over-acting theater guys, and dreamers who want a taste of something beyond their service or office jobs. Penny soon learns that much of the group, especially the two guys running Satan's Fingers Productions (or is it Killshot Films?) are long on ideas and short on actual follow-through. The spine of the narrative is built around making a horror film in time for a big indy horror-film event called Splatterfest.

Along the way, Reed & Means keep the focus on Penny and her life. That includes her adversarial relationship with her roommate, her dysfunctional relationship with her prim sister, and her own self-esteem as a person. The cover of the book is a neat summary of the narrative: Penny is there making directorial notes, adding make-up touches, holding a boom mic, assisting with blood for special effects, and then mopping up the whole thing. She's in blue while everything else is in yellow, a nice trick that focuses the reader's eye and makes them understand that the same person is in all of these roles. Penny helps write the script and do the storyboards, goes out and looks for costumes, scouts locations, and reads up on how to make a film. More to the point: she was encouraged to do this, and encouragement was all that she ever wanted and needed. She wanted to be part of something creative and to find a community that valued her for her creative instincts. Moreover, Penny Nichols hammers home one specific point: nothing you ever do will ever live up to your own ideal of what you wanted, so the most important thing to do is finish it.

Indeed, the final day of filming is one where Penny has to take over the most significant role: directing itself. The flaky director, whose anxiety always rose directly the closer he got to actually completing any project, didn't show up. Instead, Penny takes the reins and not only gets through it, she even manages to come to an understanding of sorts with her sister. Reed and Means keep the characterizations relatively simple but still allow each character to feel satisfied with themselves for their own contributions to the film. From the young special effects guy to the actress hungry for real structure, the crew manages to find workarounds for everything, both in terms of props, location, and even the story itself.

If all of this sounds like a metaphor for the comics community, that's because it is. Splatterfest itself is a love letter to events like SPX. Indeed, there's a time gap between the last day of filming and the convention, which opens with a young woman flagging down Penny and lavishing praise on the film. We learn that they didn't win the competition, but they did get a lot of attention and interest. Every artist and writer knows that feeling of someone coming up to you and telling them how important their work is to them. It's a sense of validation and belonging that was heretofore missing in the lives of so many. While that validation and camaraderie feels good and can be sustaining, Penny Nichols is firm in asserting the idea that it's the work itself that's most important.

Speaking of collaborations, Wiegle's cartoony, exaggerated style is ideal for a comic about making a horror movie. While a lot of his comics have dealt with fantasy or genre concepts, Wiegle at heart is a gag man. This is a book that has a lot of funny character moments, and Wiegle delivers a host of quirky, bizarre, and amusing character designs. Penny herself is gloriously frumpy, with hair piled on top of her head in somewhat haphazard fashion. Wiegle's varied line weights allow for a lot of precision character details as well as denser, more expressive lines when they film a bunch of the blood-splattering scenes. There is a sense of joy at the heart of this book, as the collaboration of the artist and writers reflects the enthusiasm of the cast of characters. Penny Nichols is about the joy of creation from concept to problem-solving to finished product, and it reflects how this shared passion can unite a disparate group of people in such an ebullient fashion. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Madeleine Aguilar's Minicomics

Madeleine Aguilar's upbeat autobio and fanciful comics are a delightful burst of fresh air. The two volumes of her autobiographical Precious Moments series feature expressive, stripped-down art founded on basic shapes. The first issue features the introduction of Baby Madeline, and Aguilar's depiction of her thoughts as an infant and toddler are both funny and warm. She captures that powerful sense of unconditional love that children feel for their parents, siblings, and grandparents as they feel like part of the same unit or being. The second issue (volume 5) features an older Madeline and a baby brother. Aguilar amusingly gets at several levels of sibling relationships at that age, from sharing the sheer joy of the world to being disgusted when he fills up his diaper. Aguilar uses a lot of blank space on her pages that gives them an almost sense of being scrawled on in a free and easy manner. That thick line has power, but it's also friendly and engaging.

That storytelling carries over in her equally cute middle-ages story Luteboy, which is about the titular character and his friends. Luteboy is an innocent to that point of being almost obnoxiously naive at times, something he gets roasted for from time to time by his monk friend Timotheus. Aguilar writes this character with a great deal of sincerity, but she's also acutely aware that he can be hard to take. This isn't a James Kochalka cute overload situation, but rather an instance of a character badly misunderstanding concepts like appropriate social cues, even if he does so without malice. At the same time, he's tolerated because he is so innocent and enthusiastic. Aguilar is also gently spoofing the concept of the idealistic, sensitive artist, as Luteboy often doesn't know how to take responsibility for his own actions or accept direction criticism. Still, his unflagging optimism wins the reader over, and at times his insights are real and poetic. Aguilar's line is unfailingly winning here, using a slightly lighter line weight but adding more detail to the comic.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Luke Pearson's Hilda And The Mountain King

There's no question that Luke Pearson is one of the most talented cartoonists of his generation. The sixth and final (for now) volume of his beloved Hilda series, Hilda And The Mountain King, not only caps off the cliffhanger ending of the previous volume but also ties together a lot of narrative threads from the very beginning. NoBrow very clearly knew what they had in Pearson from the beginning, as these books have always been printed at a size that allows his multi-panel pages to really breathe and flow. Of course, the care that NoBrow takes with their color and production values that mark each of their books has always been a highlight of the Hilda series, but the colors are far more muted and varied than in many NoBrow books. Indeed, Pearson uses a lot of negative space on his pages as a way to highlight individual character moments.

Color tends to dominate many NoBrow books over the quality of the line itself, but that's not the case for Pearson. His beautiful, expressive, and cartoony line takes precedence in every panel. The color simply accents and highlights the line. While his backgrounds and nature drawings are lush and warm, it's his use of gesture and body language in his character designs that truly draw in the eye. Pearson clearly looked at a lot of Chris Ware's work as well as Tove Jansson's, but there's also a lot of Donald Duck in there as well. The only contemporary who depicts panel-to-panel action on the same level is Jeff Smith, but Pearson has a more aesthetically-pleasing style.

The Hilda books center around the title character, a young girl living with her mother. First, they lived out in the woods in a forest filled with strange creatures like invisible elves, mountain-sized giants, and trolls who turn to stone in the daylight. Their existence and motivations sparked the first Hilda book and became a running part of the narrative, although mostly in the background. The key turning point in the series came when her mother moved them into the nearby city of Trolberg, whose whole purpose was to keep the trolls away. Hilda loves her mother but is also extraordinarily strong-willed, and that tension is at the heart of the entire series. Her mother worries about her and starts to feel Hilda pulling away from her, unwilling to share her life with her. That came to a head in the previous volume, Hilda And The Stone Forest, when they were trapped inside the mountain with trolls. All seemed to end well until the end when Hilda woke up as a troll with the troll-mother they had met, and Hilda's mom dealing with the troll-baby they had met.

The new volume picks up from that surprise twist and introduces a number of other plot twists while still conveying the sheer joy that Hilda learns to experience as a troll. She misses her mother and being human, but being a troll conveys a little of the wild experience she wants out of life, one absent of responsibility and expectations. Balancing that wild quality with the safety and comfort she feels at home is at the core of the story, as well as balancing fear with compassion and understanding. The big, epic ending simply recapitulates the series' themes: the relationships between mothers and children (but especially daughters) and the desire from all to have a place to call home. Those themes are writ both large and small throughout the series, though this book makes it big and splashy. The final images display the kind of balance that Hilda and her mother achieved with each other in a joyous fashion.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2019

Here's my usual dive into artists that SPX-goers should definitely check out. As always, I try not to repeat names from previous years and other shows.



1. The Triangle's Finest (Table W67) That would be three excellent cartoonists from the Research Triangle in my state of North Carolina: Andrew Neal (Hillsborough), Adam Meuse (Cary), and Max Huffman (Carrboro). Neal is the former owner of the excellent Chapel Hill Comics and the artist behind the hilarious and strange Meeting Comics. Meuse has been producing funny, strange, and touching minis for years, including the classic Sad Animals and Square. Huffman is a fairly recent grad of the School Of Visual Arts, He's a wild stylist with comics like Plaguers Int'l and Garage Island. This will be one of the best tables at the entire show.

2. Lance Ward (Table J9). I've been a fan of Ward's scorched-earth autobio for years, and I'm pleased to see his work get wider recognition. His new book, Blood and Drugs, is a harrowing and honest look at how an injury forced him to adapt to using a scrawled, almost manic style. He'll be at the Birdcage Bottom Books table, but all of his work is highly recommended.

3. ShortBox (Table W8).  The cutting-edge publishing concern of Zainab Akhtar will have a major presence at SPX. Like any smart publisher, she's way ahead of the curve with regard to up-and-coming talents; she was one of the first to become aware of Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, for example. This table will be jam-packed with great comics you may not have seen before. Zainab herself will not be there, but the books will be!

4. Diskette Press (Table I14). Carta Monir & Co. have quickly become a force to be reckoned with on the publishing scene. Come check out the work of Ignatz Award nominees Emma Jayne and Mar Julia in particular, but there's a wide variety of material to choose from.

5. Eleri Harris (Table L9). This Australian and graduate of the Center For Cartoon Studies is also a Nib editor and find historical/editorial cartoonist in her own right. Her historical comics are consistently well-sourced, funny, and fascinating.

6. Rachel Masilamani (Table A6a). I've been following her career since her Xeric Grant days, and her personal, poetic, and sometimes enigmatic work is better than ever. I'm excited that she has a chance to show off her work to a new audience.

7. Kate Lacour (Table H8-9). Her brand-new book Vivisectionary is out from Fantagraphics, and this is an engaging, witty, and visceral bit of body horror. Lacour's dry sense of humor is ever-present in this collection of drawings that were previously published in minicomics form, but the production values on this book make it a bizarre, beautiful art object.

8. Mary Shyne (Table I13a). This recent CCS grad is coming armed with her new book, Get Over It. Shyne's work is a perfect combination of top-notch production design and color, a playful line, and dialogue that mixes fantasy and verisimilitude. This will be one of the best books of the show.

9. Rikke Villadsen (W68-69). One of many Danes attending the show, Villaden's The Sea was a surreal, erotic, and terrifying mix of tropes and genres. Her pencil work, in particular, is dense and visceral. She'll also be at the Fantagraphics table.

10. Breena Nuñez (E11b). Her personal and political comics are playful, expressive, and powerful. Her comics about being Afro-Guatemalan often delve into family stories, but she's just as adept in using dynamic and innovative techniques in talking about injustice.

11. Glom Press (W6). Marc Pearson will be repping this excellent Australian Risograph publisher in their first SPX appearance. Bailey Sharp's My Big Life and Aaron Billings' Mystical Boy Scout #4 are particularly great.

12. Keren Katz (C13b). Katz is one of the most brilliant cartoonists working today. I haven't taken the deep dive into her work that I've wanted (I've only reviewed one book out of her extremely prolific output), but the way she works dance, abstraction, and comics-as-poetry into her narratives is relentlessly fascinating and confounding. There aren't many artists with a more sophisticated color palette, either. Her new book, The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, will be out from Secret Acres.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Small Press Comics Critics Announce Formation Of Nonprofit Publishing House Fieldmouse Press

Grass Valley, CA: Today, veteran comics critics Daniel Elkin, Alex Hoffman, Rob Clough, and Ryan Carey announced the formation of a new, non-profit publishing company, Fieldmouse Press, establishing a visionary, ambitious, and dedicated multi-venue publishing initiative within the burgeoning small press comics community. The company’s first publishing project, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), will publish comics criticism, essays, interviews, and new comics as a part of a larger effort to serve the public good. SOLRAD will launch at the beginning of January 2020.

Fieldmouse Press will be operated by President Daniel Elkin, long-time publisher and editor at Your Chicken Enemy, with Alex Hoffman, publisher of Sequential State serving as Secretary/Treasurer. Rob Clough of High-Low Comics and Ryan Carey of Four Color Apocalypse round out the company's initial board of directors. The aim of Fieldmouse Press is to emphasize its four pillars of "comics, critique, community, and collaboration" by presenting challenging, unique, and diverse material to as wide an audience as possible.

Of the press’ founding, Secretary/Treasurer Alex Hoffman said, “Our goal is to provide a space for readers, artists, and the general public to explore the comic arts in the many forms they come in. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our goal is to serve this community that we love and do something we think hasn’t been possible before now. And as a nonprofit organization, we can take chances that other publishers haven’t.”

Fieldmouse's first major publishing project will be a new website, SOLRAD (www.solrad.co), which will be a comics journalism hub featuring all-new and original content ranging from comics criticism, original comics, essays, interviews, and the promotion of small-press events and releases. Further publishing projects will be announced in due course, and will likewise share in the company's expansive, inclusive, and innovative vision.

Interested parties are encouraged to contact any of Fieldmouse's founders with questions, comments, and any business-related correspondence at:

Daniel Elkin: elkin@fieldmouse.press
Rob Clough: clough@fieldmouse.press
Alex Hoffman: hoffman@fieldmouse.press
Ryan Carey: carey@fieldmouse.press

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Minis: Evan Salazar's Rodeo #1

It's always a pleasure to get a mini in the mail from an artist with whom I'm not familiar, only for it to turn out to be excellent. Such is the case with Evan Salazar and his one-man anthology, Rodeo. The art style is somewhere between Dan Clowes' Eightball and Bill Amend's Fox Trot. That is, the settings are mostly naturalistic and conventional, but the figures are stylized and cartoony. Each story deals with something crucial that is lost or missing, and no one ends up satisfied.

The first story, "Medium Brew", is about a young woman named Abigail who considers a bizarre episode from her childhood when her mother left and a strange man with a bandage wrapped around his head appeared the next day as a houseguest. None of this was ever explained to her, other than that he was a "friend who I am doing a favor for" and her mother went on a last-minute trip. The only real information Abigail got about this period was her mom telling her, when she came back a month or so later when the guest left, was that "I know that I was gone a long time, but it was only so I wouldn't be gone forever." When the guest was there, Abigail played kid detective, looking for clues and connections as part of a larger conspiracy as she even collected his daily coffee grounds? Years later, she found a photo of the guest as a younger man on a beach, with no further explanation, stuck in a textbook in the house.

This story is fascinating because of its holes and gaps and the ways in which children fill in those gaps with elaborate narratives. It's their way of patching over trauma, until that trauma bubbles over in other, unexpected ways. When Abigal found that photo as a young adult, their first urge was to tear it up out of a surprising burst of anger. The question that is never broached is: who was the man? Why did her mom leave? Was he her dad's ex-lover, or her mom's? Was he a child from a previous marriage? Salazar vividly evokes that kind of family mystery that is never quite resolved but always leaves one wondering anxiously. If her mom left once, what was to stop her from doing it again? That anxiety takes a toll.

"Night Shift" is about a writer who dropped out of school to focus on his art, but works as a janitor to pay the bills. In two pages of nine-panel grids, Salazar juxtaposes that dream of being a writer with unpleasant, physical work. Hilariously, the writer/janitor composes a story as they work, self-editing to change phrases like "the odor of high-fructose corn syrup" to "the stench of high-fructose corn syrup." It's a complete statement unto itself as a work of the art he loves but also a desperate commentary on his unhappiness with his job. "Maggie" is about a cat who burns down her house after being frustrated by living inside, but comes to regret it when faced with the real world.

Each one of these stories, including the funny-creature Socratic dialogue "Critters" strip on the back, deals with an existential crisis of some kind. For Abigail, it's a lifetime of dealing not just with abandonment, but with an aspect of her life that made no sense. For the janitor, it was trying to live up to his identity of a writer in the face of literal garbage. For the cat, it was realizing that freedom wasn't exactly what she hoped it to be. They're all searching, probing, cleaning, and there are no clear answers. This is a small, unassuming comic that asks a lot of big questions.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Minis: Gareth Brookes' Threadbare

Threadbare, at its heart, is putatively a transcript of a conversation between two older women on a bus about love, romance, and sex. Brookes overheard this conversation and even put out a tweet about it, and was urged to jot down the details. He did and turned it into a comic. However, that's underselling the craft aspect of the comic, which is both decorative and a key element of the emotional narrative. It's formatted as a comic book in terms of images, but each image was embroidered and photographed, rather than drawn. That even includes the word balloons, which were done with green and white thread. The results are surprisingly intimate and erotic, but the format manages an extra level of metaphorical vulnerability and fragility.

If the conversations themselves were relatively tame, the corresponding images were bluntly sexual. The first story was about a woman having an affair with a married man, as the topic was "when was the last time you were in love?" She talks about having to travel to see him, how exciting it was, but ultimately realizing that he was never going to leave his wife. The images depict connection as well as longing, as a man and a woman in various states of undress have phone sex with each other. Later, they are together and have sex. In both cases, Brookes depicts spidery tendrils emanating from the phone, lashing them together in their absence, but he also depicts each of them literally coming undone. The threads and tendrils act as apt visual metaphors for both sexual connection and emotional unraveling. This is a tragic story, as she realized as it was ending that she was no longer in love with him and would never love again.

The second story is a more wistful one, as the woman thinks back to an intense teenage romance that simply vanished. His family moved away, and he didn't say goodbye. However, at one point, she thought she was pregnant with his child, and dreamed about this for years afterward--even through her marriage. This is a story more about longing than passion, unlike the first story, save for a single moment of connection where she's imagining being impregnated by him. Even then, her memories and self-image are fraught and tattered. Only a single, final image of him naked lingers in fully-realized form, neatly stitched. It's also the last image of the book, as their reverie ends and they get off the bus, back to the reality of their present-day lives. This comic is a fascinating act of empathy, fully realized in a surprisingly expressive manner, given the medium.