Thursday, December 18, 2008

Slice of Life Minicomics

Rob reviews a variety of slice-of-life comics he found at this year's SPX. Included are works by Liz Baillie, Alec Longstreth, Robyn Chapman, MK Reed, and Greg Means.

Slice-of-life comics are often more revealing of their authors than actual autobiographical comics, especially in terms of what emotions are depicted. SPX is always enormously fertile ground for such comics, and this particular set is mostly by artists whose work is quite familiar to me.

THE SCARF, by Alec Longstreth. Few artists love their craft more than Alec Longstreth, and as such this mini is part formal exercise and part story. It was written by Lindsey Sharp and produced using "printmaking ink on carved styrofoam plates". As a result, each page held a single, round panel that emphasized simple, stark images. The story is about the life cycle of a wool scarf, from being sheared from a sheep to the various people who wore it. I'm amazed that Longstreth was able to get such an expressive set of images using this crude technique. This comic is more interesting to look at than read, but its ambitions are modest and sincerely met.

MY BRAIN HURTS #10 and FREEWHEEL #1, by Liz Baillie. Baillie concluded her MY BRAIN HURTS series with this issue, and it was a perfect send-off for her characters Joey and Kate. The two queer teenagers struggled to come to terms with their identites and the harshness of the world throughout the series, constantly shooting themselves in the foot even when handed golden opportunities. Both characters were trying to find ways to work through the unfocused pain and rage they felt on a daily basis. It was heartbreaking to see Joey's self-absorption and self-flagellation make him incapable of relating to Kate in any way other than another person to use, though heartening to see Kate refuse to be used. The ending of this comic was perfect: no easy resolution of either character's pain or dilemmas, and a parting between the two characters that featured a realization that Joey had to leave town if he was going to live. This series, though it took many years to complete, was a snapshot of a particular time and place. As such, all Baillie wanted us to know about these characters happened on these pages; there is no epilogue, no "where are they now", nor should there have been. MY BRAIN HURTS was about the agony and potential of the eternal present moment, and that moment was preserved forever in the way this issue ended.

FREEWHEEL is a completely different sort of story. The common thread is once again troubled youth, only this time it's from the point of view of a young girl in a foster home who runs away to try to find her foster brother, who has been kicked out. The art here is both cleaner and denser than MY BRAIN HURTS, with a lighter line matched by heavy crosshatching and background detail. The story itself is a quest, jumping back and forth in time as young Jamie is trying to find her brother. The first benevolent figures that she meets are a community of hobos, which is where the issue ends. Jamie doesn't quite have the same level of rage as Baillie's other characters; indeed, she's the most idealistic and hopeful of them. It'll be interesting to see how her journey changes her point of view in future issues.

SOURPUSS #2, byRobyn Chapman. This comic is somewhere between slice-of-life and autobio, as it details the relationship between three teenagers growing up in a hick town in Alaska. The three are best friends, one of them ostensibly based on Chapman, but the fact that she's the girl in the group starts to lead to tension when romantic feelings spring up. In a town where they're the only outsiders, the only people they can relate to, relationships can quickly become incestuous and friendships can dissolve.

The pleasures in this mini are small ones, as it's a familiar kind of story. Chapman is careful not to tell the story from the point of view of any character in particular in terms of an interior monologue or narrative. The reader is given no special knowledge as to what each character is thinking, other than the visual clues that Chapman provides. The reason why the comic works is its restraint; her figures are simply designed but drawn with an appealing line, and the dialogue is similarly spare but packed with subtext. The characters in this book are very much teenagers who are unable to articulate their emotions, not extemporaneous soliloquizers. Structuring the issue around a Fugazi concert was a particularly inspired idea, especially given what Fugazi represented to a particular kind of young person in the 1990s. The issue unfolds at a leisurely pace, a choice that matches the way time slows down for bored, disaffected youth.

YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!, by Greg Means. This is a clever "100 themes" comic, wherein an artist is required to draw a panel of an overarching narrative based on a theme word or phrase for that day. Themes like "Safety First", "Rainbow", and "Pen and Paper" speak to the randomness of ideas, and it's up to the artist to put them all together. Means, known for his "Clutch McBastard" diary comics as well as his publishing concern Tugboat Press, tells the story of a misanthropic woman and goofy guy and their relationship. The tone is light and the narrative spare, as are Means' figures. Essentially, he had to find 100 different ways for two characters to interact using very little in the way of backgrounds while still providing an emotional story arc of sorts. He further took that challenge to craft a gag for every theme, often playing against expectations ("Cat" involves a cat being kicked like a football, for example). The result is a silly, breezy read where the gags, themes and Means' line synch up quite pleasantly.

MYRTLE WILLOUGHBY, by MK Reed. Reed took up the 200 theme challenge, and this mini represents the first 50 themes. Reed's 100 theme challenge comic, I WILL FEAST ON YOUR WHORE HEART, was hilarious and painfully true to life. This is a format that well-suits her gift for dialogue as well as evoking time and place. MYRTLE WILLOUGHBY is an even better effort so far, capturing the lives of young people in hipster-filled Brooklyn in a trenchant and pointed manner. The story follows two friends, Myrtle & Penny, as they move into an apartment in Brooklyn and proceed to struggle through their jobs, make good and bad decisions regarding their love life and interact with the city. There's nothing novel about the set-up, but what makes it work is the amount of space that Reed creates between themes. By focusing on a single idea and image and then forcing the reader to make a connection to the next theme, she's able to tell a story minus extraneous exposition. The reader gets to fill in details instead of being bombarded by them. The comic also works because, like Means, Reed delivers a gag or punchline of sorts on every page. Not all of them are jokes, per se, but the image always interacts with the theme in some unusual way, such as "Anomaly". With a larger cast than in her first "themes" story, this iteration is much more ambitious in scope. Given the way she carefully hand-crafted an elaborate cover for her last collection of themes, it should be interesting to see what Reed will come up with this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment