Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Perverseness of Nick Maandag: Harvey Knight's Odyssey

As a comedic writer, Nick Maandag follows a kind of logic that defies standard expectations of what a comic narrative should be like. In his new book, Harvey Knight's Odyssey, he's downright perverse about taking readers down blind alleys, subverting expectations, telling shaggy dog stories, and otherwise refusing to end his stories on anything resembling a conventional punchline. For Maandag, the humor is found in that repeated defiance of reader expectations that follows its own torturous logic. It reduces personal narratives to banalities at best and deluded acts of violence at worse. He is absolutely ruthless with regard to the concept of the quotidian, slice-of-life story, satirizing it like a wrecking ball. He's even meaner when it comes to the cruel pointlessness of religion and work culture, even if the satire doesn't seem to be his main objective. Maandag engages in vicious absurdity for its own sake, escalating absurd premises beyond a reader's comfort level until they go so far off the rails that they deliberately abandon the story's original idea and frequently reason itself. 

Maandag starts small in "The Plunge," the first of three stories in the book. It starts with a simple premise: Nick Maandag, in his office job, decides to start using a French press to work in order to make coffee instead of getting it from Tim Horton's. He's hesitant for a moment, for fear of being seen as pretentious, but then he reasons: why would anyone care or notice? Maandag takes that premise and takes it in an unexpected direction. In dialogue that is bone-dry and deliberately, maddeningly banal, his coffee-making goes in a different direction. His curious coworkers watch him go through the steps of using a French press and are fascinated by it, as he goes through a little narrative. Soon, his coffee-making becomes a ritual, as onlookers are excited for "the plunge," when he pushes the press down. Maandag even starts to become more elaborate in his narrative. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, until the entire office comes to watch. It ends on a newcomer saying, "That's it?", but the whole point of the story is not that this is interesting, but that so many people in this desperately soul-crushing environment gain the slightest bit of solace from a community experience that celebrates a moment of pleasure. It also attains a cult-like status (one co-worker says "We're always accepting new members"), even if the object of this cult is unbelievably trivial. 

Maandag runs with that idea in the title story. It starts with a crazy premise--a cult called the Church of the Holy Radiance--and goes in directions that utterly deflate the dogmatic qualities of the religion and reduce it to simple human greed and other base emotions. The religion believes that certain creatures are beings of light and others are beings of darkness, and humans are somewhere in-between. The Church aims to increase the light in humans (through obeying doctrines but also tanning beds), but this creates evil shadow beings that Church members now have a legal right to murder. There's an excruciating sequence where there's a lecture on which insects are dark and which are light that's every bit as arbitrary as any religious dogma. However, the titular Harvey Knight conspires against the cult's leader, steals his tanning bed, and eventually murders him. Harvey also hires a new assistant to do "experiments" that include skinning the old leader and turning that skin into a prop for a musical that includes maggots doing a can-can dance. The story and its characters get distracted and bored by their own narratives, forgetting to run their church or go to their own play. The ending is more of the same in terms of non-sequiturs, as a distracted and possibly addled Harvey decides to go explore the sewers. The "Odyssey" here rambles and makes no sense; it's like the antithesis of a Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. Maandag's plain and simple line accentuates this, as he draws absurd things (Harvey's misshapen head is an inherently funny drawing) in a nonchalant fashion. 

The final story, "Full Day," is a recapitulation of both of the first two stories in the book. It's an "Odyssey" of its own, only it's far removed from the absurd premise of the "Harvey Knight" entry and more in line with the first story. It's a "day in the life" wherein Maandag goes through a series of extremely silly and annoying obstacles. A sweeping machine that only clears sidewalks in the daytime deliberately sucks up his hat because he's walking too slowly. An elevator closes on him repeatedly. A lecture from the boss on work-as-family is an obvious pretext to start firing people. Maandag faces a dumb and arbitrary performance review metric and gets increasingly in the weeds with it as the company sends someone to evaluate him in the middle of the task; Maandag gets in trouble for using folders wastefully. In the middle of the evaluation, he's asked to evaluate the evaluator in the most mind-numbingly awful survey ever. Maandag's failure to complete a task leads to a shaggy dog story of dead ends, pointless conversations, kidnapping, and abject failure. A homeless woman flashing him on the train leads to him being pulled into a complaint of being harassed, ending with a grief counselor chasing him to give him condolences.. The day is a pointless one: nothing is learned, nothing is gained, and all of it is a waste of time. 

It's a waste of time for everyone but the reader, that is, as Maandag's deadpan humor and drawings are a perfect conflation of ennui, absurdity, and total meaninglessness. This one doesn't quite have the more visceral belly laughs of his other recent work, but it's also fair to see that this book is much more conceptual in nature than his past comics. There's no hope or meaning to be found here, and that gleeful nihilism and total subversion of narrative expectations can be a gut punch at times. Maandag knows it too, and just when you think there's going to be a moment of character growth, Maandag short-circuits it with something absurd happening or that character (literally) choosing violence.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #31: Rust Belt Review 2-4

Sean Knickerbocker has been regularly releasing an interesting anthology that's taken work from open calls, and the results have been uniformly fairly strong. He's also had a few serials running throughout, including one of his own. I reviewed the first issue last year, but there are three more he submitted for this year's CCS call. I'm going to review it in much the same way I used to review batches of issues of the old MOME anthology from Fantagraphics: I'm going to sort them by cartoonist, since so many of them appear in every issue. 

Sean Knickerbocker: The editor of the anthology and CCS grad is doing a great job in putting together these anthologies. First off, the actual page size is huge, something around 10 x 12". Each page is given a lot of room to breathe, which helps a number of artists whose style is densely packed. Knickerbocker publishes stories from others that are tonally and stylistically different, and he deftly balances one-offs with serials. Each 100-page issue is a satisfying read, in part because there's variety and some heft to them, but without the problem of feeling padded. None of these comics are a chore to read.

Knickerbocker is serializing a story called "Best of Three," which feels set in the kind of small industrial towns featuring desperate losers featured in all of his comics. This is a story about gamblers, grifters, and gangsters, only it revolves around a deadbeat dad who became a big-time and successful Magic: The Gathering player. The absurdity of this nerdy game replacing things like blackjack or poker is only matched but how absolutely true this scenario is. Magic tournaments have even been televised on ESPN. The story follows a narcissistic loser named David who inherits money from his supposedly dead father, but as the story goes on, more characters emerge from the woodwork in search of the real motherlode of money that he hid. The mobster angle gives this story a bit more frisson than the typical Knickerbocker story, which is not to say he doesn't have conflict. It's just that the conflicts are social ones and don't tend to intersect with genre tropes. That said, even the criminals in this story are grimy and desperate, accentuated by Knickerbocker's cartoony line, complete with exaggerated facial features and lumpy bodies. Each chapter takes its own unexpected twist, making it a fitting anchor for the anthology. 

Michael Sweater mixes his anthropomorphic animals with slacker punk aesthetics to tell a story that's more emotionally resonant than his stories elsewhere. "No Regrats" (in #3) is  about two rabbit friends, Timmy and Charles, and a wild night on the town that results in Timmy getting a tattoo on his chest that says "Simp." Timmy has no memory of this, so he goes with Charles to complain at the tattoo parlor, and the proprietor reveals that Charles told him to give him this tattoo. This leads to a comical fight, but the cliffhanger scene ends with Timmy saying that after the tattoo is removed, they are done. Much of Sweater's work is about being friends with horrible people who take advantage of you and what kind of impact this has on one's life, but this story is unusual in that it leads to such a direct break. As always, his storytelling chops are fundamentally sound; his scratchy line is a nice match for his cute figures, diluting some of that saccharine quality they possess. That solid storytelling allows him to focus on making his characters as expressive as possible. 

Audra Stang is someone whose Star Valley stories I'm reviewing elsewhere, but she's another regular from the first volume. This is a side story involving her young stand-in Adelaide and her friend Bernie, as they explore the tunnels underneath Magic Waters, the decrepit resort that used to make the town a tourist attraction. Stang's mix of a highly cartoony line in the vein of a Dell or Archie comic and intense greyscale shading provides a nice atmosphere for this journey underground. Paired with her friend and secret crush Bryson and his friend Jesse, Stang has a painfully acute understanding of teenage dynamics and how teens both wear their hearts on their sleeves and pretend they are completely detached. The plot revolves around Bernie wanting to take photos for a story, convincing Bryson to take them down there, but the result is both a fleshing out of every character and a bit more lore concerning Star Valley itself. Stang's stories about the conflict between working-class people and the wealthy make this a nice fit in the anthology. 

Andrew Greenstone greatly benefits from working on such a big page, because his art is dense, grotesque, and distorted. Working so big allows his art to have maximum impact, like a page where one character falls off a bike and hits the ground hard. Volume 2 continues the story of the twisted psycho who kidnapped a young woman for a demented game show, as the story mostly follows her paranoid boyfriend who's trying to protect her and reestablish their relationship. There's just enough of the first story's weirdness here to provide a strange flavor, but Greenstone swerves into the boyfriend's own madness. Greenstone's story in Volume 3 is unrelated but every bit as strange, as a zoo creates new animals thanks to the bizarre "Lemur Man" who comes out and turns humans into animals. What's great about the story is that it starts as a ridiculous urban legend that is very quickly revealed to be true, and the sort of grotesque transformation that the story demands is right in Greenstone's macabre wheelhouse. 

Brian Canini Canini is a very good cartoonist and his stories in volumes 3 and 4 were both highlights. "Silk Stockings" in #3 is a brutal family story that mixes the main character's (a teenage boy) general confusion and horniness with his parents' marriage starting to fall apart. There are just so many interesting character moments here, as the conflict centers around his father's lack of financial success coming to the forefront as they stay at his successful childhood friend's house. His friend very consciously "treats" his dad with lavish dinners, even as his mom seethes that it's not something he could pay for. Bruised egos and long-held resentments go side-by-side with the boy accidentally seeing the friend's attractive young wife put on silk stockings, sending him into a whirl of confused hormones. There's another scene where the friend's teen son expresses his loneliness by his eagerness to play hide-and-seek instead of play a video game. The simple line almost mimics something like a syndicated newspaper cartoon like "Hi And Lois" creating a tension between the conflict and the seeming happiness underneath. 

"False Flag" is a hilarious story that starts with a confusing scene with a young man half-dressed in the cold, then rewinds to a meet-cute romance, and then barrels into a spy story. The deflections and distractions work nicely in a story that utterly deflates the romantic premise, with the cute and squiggly line pushing the romantic aspect until it doesn't. 

Alex Nall's mix of naturalism, the grotesque, and the cartoonish is sometimes a mixed bag for me as a reader, but there's no question he's a thoughtful cartoonist. I can see what he's doing in terms of the style clash, but it often reads as purely dissonant instead of creating a carefully-constructed tension. However, his work in Rust Belt Review resonates, as his line seems a bit simplified for some of the stories. In "License To Kill," for example, Nall leans heavily on a thick line weight, carefully balanced black and white contrasts, and character design that emphasizes ugliness without going all the way to comically grotesque. The story follows a doomed high school crush that metastasizes into pure exploitation, until it transforms into some just desserts (literally and figuratively). "Facilities" is a sweet story about people working at a doomed mall, trying to find some solace and hope in each other. Like with Knickerbocker, there's always a sense of desperation in Nall's stories. Unlike Knickerbocker, Nall usually allows for a bit of hope. "Wall Of Fame" is a funny story about a conflict between a bartender and a regular, and it's ultimately about boundaries and space while despairing of one's ultimate fate. Nall, along with Stang and Knickerbocker, are truly the anchor artists of this anthology. 

Ian Densford & the Bros. McGovern This writer/artists team are another beneficiary of the sheer size of each page, because the Bros. use a highly smudged and messy style that's heavy on both lines and greyscale shading. Like many stories in the anthology, there's an interesting swerve in these stories. In "Soggy Landing," that smudged style is highly evocative of the muddy, messy war story that it depicts. Everyone is covered in mud and filth as a company tries to survive, waiting to be saved by reinforcements. Near the end, there's a huge swerve toward horror that's almost funny in its outrageousness, but Densford and the Bros never break character. Making the characters anthropomorphic goats somehow made the ending even more effective. The story in Vol 4 is also supernatural, swerving a bit from a coming-of-age country story. Densford is creating an interesting shared universe in these short stories, making them not quite a serial, but rather a series of thematically connected sketches.

Will Dinski has a couple of stories featuring his Eat Street Diners Club characters, who are regularly featured in an email newsletter. Dinski's weird, angular characters with minimal shading look constructed as much as they are drawn. This silly and mannered story about one of the characters finding a gun and the cop who chases him down is weird, lacking the usual sense of irony inherent in Dinski's story. He's playing this one loud and broad, and it feels a bit like filler compared to the rest of the stories in the volumes it appears in. 

Asia Bey Bey's "Open Roads" uses a four-panel grid (with amusing author comments at the bottom of each) page that really takes advantage of all the space on the page. This allows them to focus on their two leads, two young women hitch-hiking in the desert. The guy who picks them is a creep who then starts masturbating, which leads them to jump out of the car. The story really serves as a showcase for Bey's excellent and expressive figure work. While this looked to be a serial, only one entry has been published (in #2). 

Evan Salazar A number of these stories mix grounded, naturalistic settings with supernatural elements, and Salazar's story combines the lonely life of a young adult with a bit of video game fabulism. The idea of cursed games, magical games, and games that have some kind of deeper intelligence behind them is not an uncommon theme in fiction (especially in comics), and this one has a more benign one, as a strange game winds up summoning a cat that becomes the young man's companion for many years. It's not explicitly stated, but Salazar, using a sketchy and cartoony style befitting a video game, makes it work. 

Sienna Cittadino Their line is a bit wobbly at times and their character design is similarly shaky, but Cittadino is an excellent storyteller who understands tone and subtlety. It is a (presumably) autobio story that sees "Sienna" as a teen go to a pool party, only to be a largely ignored introvert. They are much more at home on a soccer field, but their mom is berating them to be happy and cheerful, and resents Sienna's lack of enthusiasm at her presence in their life. Cittadino says a lot without having to spell things out, and the solid storytelling allows them to use a paucity of dialogue.

Mike Freiheit This was a strong story by Freiheit, that starts from a fairly ridiculous place and gets exponentially funnier, weirder, and more outrageous. It's about the funeral of an awful person who plans to have their body turned into diamond and then preserved as an NFT. This was all planned by his brother, who proceeds to give the most vicious eulogy of all time, culminating in revealing that he cloned his brother and will raise that child as his own, defeating him in combat when he's 18. Of course, the bullied becomes the bully in this story, but it's so outrageous that it's hilariously satisfying. This isn't meant to teach a lesson; rather, it's one long rant against toxic masculinity. 

Sam Grinberg The best shaggy dog stories and escalating jokes start from the most absurd of premises. So it is with Grinberg's "Pancake Jake," a story about three friends. Two are ghost-hunter types who see the significance in everything, and the other is a skeptic. When they convince him of the diner monster legend Pancake Jake, who appears if you say his name three times after ordering funny face pancakes at a diner. This then actually happens (and the reveal of the monster is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious), leaving the story on a cliffhanger. Grinberg's stylized character design is appealing, especially with the way he uses blacks to provide contrast. Hopefully, this serial continues after Vol 4. 

Gina Lerman This is the first part of a serial and very little happened, as it's about a young woman going to an art residency in Vermont, being informed that aliens abducted a couple, and then not finding her friends at the remote cabin. Lerman also benefits from the big pages, as she employs a nice, thick line with a simplified line. 

Matt MacFarland MacFarland excels at slice-of-life stories, and this is a good one: recalling some summers spent as a waiter in a family-owned Italian restaurant filled with insane characters. MacFarland's line is functional and stands out when he's exaggerating character moments. The story fits snugly with the many other working-class settings for stories in the anthology. 

Raziel Puma Using a 12-panel grid (Santoro-style), Puma uses a clear-line approach to this story about a kid inspired by Allen Iverson in trying out for basketball. It's really a story about sibling rivalry that ultimately becomes a story about empathy, and freezing in the moment. Puma's drawing and storytelling are both excellent, as the story is well-paced and features a lot of expressive figures that hang together nicely on the page.

Jordan Speicher-Willis brings some punk energy to the proceedings in telling a story about a bunch of kids who pull an elaborate prank in order to help pay for school lunches for the rest of the year for everyone. That punk anarchist hatred of the system but desire for help and mutual aid is baked into the story, mixing direct action that flirts with violence but never violence for its own sake. The scribbly line from Speicher-Willis dips in and out of hatching, spotting blacks, and other techniques to keep things flowing, but it's that clear-line energy that adds clarity to the proceedings. 

Andrew White I can't imagine a better candidate to do one and two-page interstitial pieces than White, who skirts the line between pure comics-as-poetry and work that has some of these qualities but trades more in narrative. Regularly working with a 12-panel grid, White creates a poetic rhythm in his panels, often alternating word and image in each one. His use of negative space in that rhythm gives his text-only panels their own sense of weight that keeps them firmly attached to the narrative instead of taking the reader out of it. Almost every strip tends to be about environments, as you see sky, mountains, and clouds, until the final strip in the book, following a quietly tortured figure as she collects honey or syrup from trees. There's a beautiful delicacy and precision to the lightness of White's line and approach. (Full disclosure: Fieldmouse Press will be publishing a book from White.)

Friday, December 30, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #30: Bread Tarleton

Bread Tarleton (full disclosure: Fieldmouse Press will be publishing a book by Bread next year) is fascinating to follow as a cartoonist because they alternate between interesting and whimsical formal experiments and sensitive, emotionally expansive narratives. For example, My Favorite Mug is a micro-mini about a funny mug that their partner found them, a "boat mug" that prevents spillage that's decorated with horses. It's the embodiment of kitsch, and it's that ridiculous sincerity that's the big draw. Tarleton is funny in a blunt way, like in Why Are Seafood Restaurants So Horny?, which is all about the double-entendres frequently seen in mom-and-pop restaurants. For both, Tarleton uses a very immediate, almost scrawled line; in the latter, they use magic marker to great effect. Their lettering is especially clear and expressive. Things I Fidget With During Video Calls is as simple as it gets in listing things like hair bands, cords, and soup (?); there's a matter-of-factness to comics like this that makes it work. It's all about spontaneity for them, a way of keeping the pen working. 

Working with standard 8.5 x 11" paper, Tarleton's My Face Drawn in Innovative (DUMB) Ways is exactly what it sounds like: Tarleton drawing their own face running upstairs, with paper underwater, etc. It's a goof, like much of their short work, but it's also a way of continuing to expand possibilities and live with the results of spontaneous, expressive drawings. Some of them are actually quite interesting, like the underwater paper drawing. Horse is a choose-your-own-adventure comic with a similar 8.5 x 11" format, and it's surprisingly poignant for a lark. Tarleton is quite contemplative when it comes to characters pondering their reasons for being, and the horse in question makes choices that lead to staying at home with friends, living alone on a mountain, moving to the city and becoming an executive, and moving to the city and becoming an anarchist punk. Once again, Tarleton's line emphasizes the immediacy of their drawings, but the cartooning and storytelling are rock-solid. 

Moths repurposes photographs with drawings of moth characters over them to tell a story about sobriety, body image, and a desperate attempt at self-validation. The Woods is a bit of silent comics-as-poetry, as a small forest dweller observes a cycle of predation and withdraws from it. You is another attempt at comics-as-poetry, this time mixing word and images, as the unseen narrator is speaking to an unknown and unseen You. Like many of Tarleton's comics, this is a story about identity and finding one's role in the world, and how much of a struggle that can be. 

Finally, Bruce Fort: Professional Bully is a wild story about two guys who are part of a professional bullying service. When a local high school drama teacher is bullied and pranked for the third time in a month, it triggers some reflection on the part of the titular character. What starts as a clever gag comic with two lead characters with seemingly no redeeming qualities becomes something quite different halfway through. The bullying premise is turned inside-out as the victim gets the bully to not only reconsider what they're doing, but also consider how it affected his friendships. The end scene, where the two former bullies reunite in a therapeutic setting, is wild because of the kind of language they're using while still having vestiges of their outsized characters and personalities. Tarleton utterly subverts their own genre concept by critiquing and challenging toxic masculinity and allowing these characters to interrogate it as well. How one deals with anger is always present in Tarleton's comics, and finding ways to express it in a non-toxic way seems to be part of their overall project as an artist. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #29: Filipa Estrela

Filipa Estrela crafts (and I do mean crafts) delightful, multi-media minicomics, often using materials like felt and then photographing it to create a narrative. For example, Find mixes paint, cut-out figures and yarn to tell a brief, poignant story about connection in the face of darkness. The yarn is used to create the lettering, and the cut-outs are posed and drawn upon in different ways to create the figures. It's an ingenious, painstaking method that's also emotionally affecting. Acceptance is a story about a young woman climbing a mountain in order to talk to a dragon about grief, and it's done entirely in intense watercolors. There's no linework at all, as Estrela instead delineates figures with big brushstrokes. 

Joy won a MICE mini-grant in 2021, and this comic is entirely made of felted figures and backgrounds, with sewing lines deliberately made visible to emphasize the constructed quality of the comic. It's incredibly complex in its construction, and Estrela takes great pain to create movement in this story of some friends getting together for a tea party and snuggling under a blanket after a rainstorm. The expressiveness of her figures is what makes this so much fun to read, even as Estrela once again is less interested in a complex story than she is in invoking a certain kind of feeling. 

Sparkle In The Fog uses assorted craft decorations to support the narrative of being a "scattered mess," as the pile is stirred up and rearranged in order to try to create something new, only to remain a mess. But the search itself is worth it, Estrela argues. My Mother's Garden sees a pivot: exquisitely rendered and printed drawings of flowers on cards with gold-ink lettering, all to the end of highlighting the flowers found in her mother's garden. It's made all the more poignant with the reveal that the garden has fallen into disarray, representing her absence; however, the persistence of the blooms provides evidence of her hand for all time. This is a superb merging of craft, artistry, and feeling. 

Gender Clown is done in a more traditional line form, only all black lines have been flipped with white and everything is surrounded by cotton candy colors. It's an interesting and personal take on gender, as Estrela eschews any particular role, preferring to embrace all of them all at once. Like a clown wearing multiple outfits, Estrela prefers to "dress in layers" with regard to gender and gender performance, and this little confection of a comic firmly establishes this idea in an inviting manner. 

Spy/Spa Day is much more conventional in terms of narrative; it's a cute story about an anthropomorphic frog and turtle who go on a "spy" day together instead of a spa; they listen in on others, sneak around, and then eventually actually go to a spa. Estrela certainly has the chops to do kids' comics if she wants; she has the rhythm and style down pat. Date Night has more of a YA vibe, and it's just as good. This is the most conventional of the comics in this collection, but Estrela's cartooning is simple, expressive, and goes in some interesting technical directions, especially when you look at line weights and the use of color in flashback and current scenes. The comic is about two childhood friends briefly reunited for a day as adults, and they find their feelings are the same as always but have evolved into something else. The moment-in-time quality of their interactions give this comic a particular poignancy and longing, just as much of Estrela's work does.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #28: Leeah Swift

Leeah Swift crafted a number of beautifully-drawn, confrontational, and hilarious comics for her CCS thesis package, but the one that sums up their work the best is probably Freex. Subtitled "Somewhat of an artist's statement/pseudo-manifesto," this comic gets at the very heart of cartooning itself. Swift likes to draw figures that can be described as grotesque: distorted, rubbery, weird, monstrous, fluid, and fantastical. She says she likes this style because "freaks allow me to be more honest than most of the social and moral conventions of the world do." This reminds me of some drawings that Marnie Galloway recently published on her Substack. She drew herself at the board--a basic, realistic drawing. It was accurate, she said, but not true. She drew another one of herself as a snail, with her three loving but demanding kids reminding her that she is going at a steady snail's pace in her work. This was true, but not accurate. Then she drew herself as a werewolf for fun--neither accurate, nor true. 

Leeah Swift draws comics that are not accurate, but they are true. And the weirder she gets, the more vulnerable and intimate the comics feel. Those terms fit better than something as nebulous as "true" is when describing anything, much less a subjective set of feelings around art. Swift zeroes in on something else: the spontaneity and immediacy of drawings that may be "mistakes"; their energy often brings something that is absent in a more labored, craft-centric drawing. At a deeper level, and from the perspective of a trans woman, these drawings make her question beauty standards and how they can promote cruelty. Concluding this series of illustrations by saying "Love every freak," it's a challenge for both herself and the reader. 

Swift describes a lot of her comics as "stream-of-consciousness." This is especially effective with several of the shorter, beautiful little art objects she creates, like I. Drawn like an ever-expanding maze, it's about being caught in an emotional labyrinth where things don't matter much. For Swift, who usually goes pretty big in terms of images, this micro-mini relies solely on a minimalist line. Butt Or What is a color experiment with a short, singular punchline that Swift critiques with a character coming saying it's merely "mildly amusing." Swift's self-caricature has a marvelously deranged quality to it, especially in the way her eyes bug out. Once again: freaky. Wiggle Water is a series of images with a Seussian labeling scheme, going from "wiggle water" to "cannon fodder" to "helpful otter." There's a precision of line, absurdity of character design, and restraint in color scheme that reminds me a bit of Paul Hornschemeier's early comics. The last of these shorter comics is Aaahh, Yes! I'm Back On My Medication!. It's another comic that shows off the crispness of her line and the vivid but tasteful use of color, as she feels invincible back on her meds, then goes off her meds because she feels invincible. 

The first of her two longer works is a eulogy/history about the punk-cabaret singer Jack Terricloth, aka Peter Ventantonio, titled I Want To Know That It Mattered. He's exactly the kind of cult figure that a teenage Leeah needs: a weirdo who defies and walks amongst conventions, veering between the sincerity of a crooner, the sneer of a punk rocker, and the self-aware showmanship of a carny barker and tent preacher. His music and performances not only had a profound influence on Swift, they also let her be a part of his cult fanbase, giving her a sense of safety in a setting where everyone was constantly redefining themselves. Swift's tone veers from personal to historical/analytical and goes straight to crass, grief-deflecting humor. She recalls she and her friends snickering at Terricloth's bulging dick in a tight-fitting suit, and then wonders allowed if she could have saved him if she had given him a blowjob. Swift is quite self-aware with what she's doing here, and her liquid and fantastical art reflects it as we see her melt into goo. Jack Terricloth mattered to her, and that's what's important. 

Leeah Swift's Stream-Of-Consciousness Comics is essentially Swift's brand at the moment: fantastical, intellectually curious, slightly lurid, and confessional. Graduating from CCS reveals an artist with considerable technical skill, a deep understanding of comics storytelling, and a probing mind. It's still not entirely clear what kind of cartoonist Swift will be. Confessional memoir? Short, humorous stories? Detailed historical analysis along the lines of what Sasha Velour was doing before she went into drag performance full time? I could see Swift doing any and all of that; their drawing and cartooning skill is such that she could go in a more commercial direction if she wanted for some projects but stay in freak realm for more personal work. In this comic, she writes an interesting essay critiquing Marvel movies but also detailing why these movies have personal significance. This is probably the weakest entry in the book, in part because the art feels a little less out-there than in their other work. Conversely, Swift's comics essay on why they find Nick Cave and his music simultaneously irresistible and problematic, with a detour into a critique of queer people desperately trying to find crumbs of queer content in otherwise aggressively mainstream work while ignoring scores of actual freaky, queer artists. The other strips are about turning 30 and also getting sober, thinking about her future, and turning away from the cynicism of her past. Both are short and sweet and a fitting end to a decade and a sustained thesis. Leeah Swift's best comics are certainly yet to come, but the path she's taken is well worth examining. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Kristen Shull

Daily diary comics are an excellent practice, especially for young cartoonists who need opportunities to put techniques into action. They're also ideal for cartoonists who tend to be perfectionists to such a degree that it takes them ages to complete a page--and even then, they're not satisfied. You can't be too fussy with your line when you're doing a diary strip; you simply need to keep your pencil moving. The practice of working every day establishes good working habits and can help unlock cartoonists struggling with blocks. Lynda Barry recommends it as a practice for these and other reasons. I'd add that for someone specializing in memoir, it's an excellent way of crafting narratives out of personal events. 


One thing I tell my Rent-A-Critic clients is that it is almost inevitable that doing a diary strip will lead to diminishing returns. Not just for the audience, but for the artist as well. Barry recommends doing consecutive diary strips for no more than a year. I recommend no more than three months. When an artist starts falling behind, starts doing strips about having nothing to say, strips about how they're too busy to do a diary strip, or strips about the burden of doing these strips, then it's past time to stop doing them. 

As Kristen Shull notes in her final volume of her daily collection Ego Gala, keeping up with the strip takes on a life of its own. Her diary strips were fresh and fun when she started them, as her bright, upbeat, and mischievous attitude toward life gave her comics an infectious energy. The realities of working, the pandemic, and having too many projects to work on at once started creeping in as early as late 2019. The COVID quarantine gave her a different perspective in 2020, but as things got busier, that same feeling of "Why am I doing this?" started to return. As a reader, reading several strips in a row and then seeing Shull (correctly) talk about how dull those strips were in the next strip did not encourage one to want to read every page. 

This is especially true because there were a number of strips that crackled with her usual energy and enthusiasm. When Shull goes on a trip, or an adventure, or digs deeply into her feelings and tries to understand why she feels the way she does about things, her strips have enough story to distill into a fluid narrative. I think the reason this dissatisfaction with her daily strips resonated with Shull is that at heart, she is an artist interested in narrative above all else. It's why her fantasy stories are so fun; her characters are varied and intriguing, but they all have clearly-defined motivations. Or if a motivation is unclear, it's because it's a deliberate plot point. Shull excels at finding that balance in her genre work as she slowly blends character and plot and provides a fascinating world for them to explore. 

Memoir, especially long-form genre, is just as much a genre as anything else. Even the most urgent diary comic torn straight from one's experience is still mediated by one's point of view, memory, and particular storytelling decisions. The diary strips where Shull is spinning her wheels reflects an inherent sense of having no story to tell, just anecdotes. Quotidian details can certainly be spun into compelling narratives (Harvey Pekar remains the master), but anecdotes on their own are "just a bunch of stuff that happened," to quote Homer Simpson. 

The other problem with a daily diary strip is that the daily practice can be conflated with a daily mandate. There's a sense that if you don't cover every single day, you are somehow failing the practice. For an artist who posts every day on Instagram or their own website, it can be hard to see the bigger picture when they're so constantly in the moment. Of course, Shull's boyfriend Alex mentions the stress that the diary strips cause and asks her to cut back. Shull herself frequently wonders why she's doing this and no other comics work. That compulsion is hard to shake, until Shull does some fun fantasy stickers for a convention, is delighted with what she does, and starts to really question why she doesn't do this all the time.

Shull gets into some interesting meta territory here: what is an artist's identity? When does a specific work define an artist? Shull reveals that the sheer quantity of her practice means a great deal to her, even as she knows that there are plenty of clunkers in there. There's also plenty to be proud of as well; she writes a lot of interesting stuff about relationships, communication, and an honest appraisal of one's own insecurities. She then hits upon the fundamental issue with diary comics: no one should ever feel compelled to do one every day. That's why I recommend no more than three consecutive months in the practice, but I also tell clients that they should return to diary comics when they have something interesting and specific they want to explore. Shull comes to this conclusion before the end of the year, quitting in November. She's since done the occasional (usually weekly) diary strip that is built around specific ideas (her recent discussion of AI was interesting). Hopefully, she can focus on what she does best: fantasy stories, like the kind she does in her Fantology anthology. The one she's been cooking up is dying to be collected as a graphic novel; I hope her schedule allows her to do this in 2023.