Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Nesting Egg: Capacity

Rob reviews the new book from Theo Ellsworth, CAPACITY (Secret Acres).

Theo Ellsworth's book CAPACITY defies easy description. I admire Secret Acres' publishers, Leon Avellino and Barry Matthews, for taking on yet another highly unusual project of an artist whose work up to that point had only been in mini-comics form. Like with Sam Gaskin's FATAL FAUX-PAS and Eamon Espey's WORMDYE, CAPACITY isn't simply a collection of minicomics, but a fully cohesive work with all sorts of unusual thematic connections. It's part autobiography,
part transcription of a series of waking dreams, part epic and part art exercise. It is, in a sense, a senior thesis for Ellsworth's own personal art school. It's filled with false starts, left turns, haunting images, abandoned ideas and a conclusion that stitches them all together. It is the artist's way of tricking himself into getting at other stories. It is a form of ritual and sacrifice that is only concluded upon having been read. It is a nesting series of eggs that give birth to each other.

Ellworth's main dilemma, as outlined in the beginning of the book, is that he is constantly beset by the stories and ideas of countless characters in his head. He can't seem to make them sit still long enough to actually draw a story that makes any sense. He literally rearranges his life in such a way to make it easier for him to do so, without distraction. Ellsworth lives an itinarant lifestyle, one where he relishes the freedom of living out of his car and hanging out on the beach, but it's mostly done in the service of trying to find a way to get his stories to make sense. When he isolates himself in a house, he's able to begin to record a story that ends abruptly. That starts him on the path to making a minicomics series called CAPACITY, determined not only to make it but to make sure that others see it, no matter the reaction of the audience and critics. A story has to be told to activate it, and it was clear that in order to complete that part of the story's ritual, he would have to be able to face public reaction.

Ellsworth is clearly in the category of "artist who writes", meaning that he's more comfortable drawing than writing a story, and in fact the latter is clearly a struggle for him. At the same time, even when he gave up trying to write and just drew, story ideas came to him. CAPACITY, to some degree, is the story of how he tried to overcome this problem. I can't help but think of Lynda Barry once again and her solutions to the problem of writing. One can't sit down and simply write an epic (as Ellsworth longs to do); instead, a writer has to focus on a single character and/or situation and keep going until inspiration strikes and the words simply start to pour out. It's almost a sort of self-misdirection for one's right brain, a ritual giving one access to one's creativity. For Ellsworth, he reified this notion of gaining access to his subconscious as finding a way to create a mechanical egg so as to offer it to the guardian of his subconscious.

The seven issues he wrote and drew of CAPACITY were part of the process of creating this egg, even if he didn't quite understand it at the time. CAPACITY was Ellsworth's attempt at getting at the characters in his head, watching them in "skits" and recording that story. Ellsworth is constantly drawn to stories with a recursive quality, like "You Must Really See My Hat", about a guy who demands that people look at the image on his hat, which has an image of something else inside of something else, ad infinitum. "The Flash In The Woods" zeroes in on time, another of his primary interests, as the image of a fairy drew him to write a story about a man who disappears for what appears to be just a second but in fact he frolicked with a fairy for seven years. Ellsworth turns the reader around when he introduces himself as the narrator halfway through as a sort of magical creature in fairyland. Back in the "real world", Ellsworth is excited to share his secret with that character.

Ellsworth is constantly inserting himself or aspects of himself into his stories. He seems to have a fundamental need in this book to explain himself. One gets the sense, however, that he's trying to explain himself to himself rather than the audience. It's interesting to compare this book to Espey's WORMDYE, a book filled with mysterious images and enigmatic stories that still have the same kind of thematic similarities that can be found in Ellsworth's book. The difference is that Espey has no interest whatsoever in explaining anything to the audience, whereas for Ellsworth the entire book is one long explanation. Both artists' work is incredibly dense; one can sense the images pouring off the page for both of them.

Ellsworth's work is a bit more delicate and ornate than Espey's, with an underlying warmth that is evocative almost of children's illustration. That's mixed with a loopy, psychedelic design sense that makes looking at each page a sheer delight. The sense of enthusiasm and naivete one gets from Ellsworth's persona is almost palpable and is quite endearing. As one gets the sense that the epic quest that he's always wanted to write about turns out to be an epic quest about telling that epic quest, one can't help but root for him at the end. The underlying structure is almost more interesting than the actual stories he tells, as a surrogate for the reader becomes an integral part of the book and encounters all sorts of odd characters. Some of them are directly
named as aspects of Ellsworth's personality, while others are the creatures he is drawn to think about, write about and draw.

The lingering question is where Ellsworth goes from here. This sort of self-referential art-as-ritual is the kind of thing you can only get away with once. At the end of CAPACITY, we get the sense that the process of creating it has solved some of his organizational problems and that he's ready to tackle his great unfinished story. I will be intensely interested to see what his next project looks like. Ellsworth's vocabulary really is the image, and he shouldn't feel compelled to become more of a "writer". Indeed, the clunkiest strips in CAPACITY were those where he forced poetry on his images. His war comic/poem stood out as something that did not work at all; the forced and banal nature of his rhymes distracted from images that were otherwise beautiful. Ellsworth has drawn a lot of attention because what he's done is so unconventional, so one can only hope that he plays to his strengths rather than try to force himself into a creative box into which he does not fit. I hope to see a future Ellworth epic that maintains the quirkiness, eccentricity and sheer joy of this book. Such a story can only come about organically, and it will be very clear to see what is forced and what comes naturally. As Ellsworth notes toward the end, "Every thought I've ever had is all part of this big invisible project that I'll keep working on until I die". As long as each subsequent project is part of that continuum, each new Ellsworth book will carve out its own space in the world of comics.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Imprint of Personality: Comics Comics and Mineshaft

Rob reviews the latest issues of the comics-related publications COMICS COMICS(#4) and MINESHAFT (#23).

COMICS COMICS' mission of examining things not quite on the beaten path means that the reader is exposed to some odd items that they may not have been aware of or even actively avoided. What I like best about COMICS COMICS is the way it reflects the personalities of its three main guiding lights. It's at its best when it's simply an outlet for Tim Hodler, who has become one of the best of all comics critics. He not only fully engages a work on its own terms, he is also able to articulate the nature of that engagement with a great deal of clarity and style. Frank Santoro is considerably less precise in the way he describes what interests him, but his sheer enthusiasm for a particular kind of aesthetic is so powerful that it sweeps the reader along. Ringleader Dan Nadel has an endearingly cranky print persona.

While I cringed when Nadel started to rant about comics needing to be "dirtier", I was delighted that he published his initial material on Woody Gelman, the patron of Topps who gave a lot of work to Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, among others. Nadel is dead-on when he describes Gelman's hidden but crucial role in comics history, both in terms of his patronage of two giant talents and the actual influence of the products themselves as subversive cultural artifacts. Their nature was entirely disposable, yet they had a sort of cumulative cultural weight. They provided an outlet for jokes, weirdness and imagery that delighted but did not condescend to children. Gelman was that sort of in-between figure that could make this happen; he was a collector with an affinity for underground culture, and he immediately recognized Crumb and Spiegelman as harbingers of a new underground. He was an emissary of a corporation yet had no hesitancy to employ underground artists; indeed, he viewed them as his most valuable contributors. I hope Nadel continues to pursue this study, perhaps in an upcoming issue of COMIC ART.

Hodler took on two of comics' biggest iconoclasts with his reviews in Steve Ditko and Dave Sim. Hodler obviously came in with preconceptions about both artists, yet fairly engaged their most recent works. He praised their innovations in projects that failed to work on other levels. He also heaped scorn on their didacticism, especially when it was built on a foundation of disingenuousness as in Sim's JUDENHASS. Hodler rightly calls Sim on the way he used out-of-context quotes from famous people to build up his historical anti-Semitism claims. Sim needn't have gilded the lily by quoting Mark Twain out of context if he wanted to find such evidence. Hodler's other review, an epic outline of Kentaro Miura's BERSERK, laid out an compelling csse as to why and how the series' ultra-violent, hypersexualized and adolescent qualities in fact had layers of subtext that only paid off as the story revealed itself.

Santoro provides the voice and viewpoint of the artist in COMICS COMICS, and it's a forceful and idiosyncratic one. I loved the way he and Nadel broke down an old Ogden Whitney page; I felt like I had genuinely learned something after studying what they wrote. His introduction to his interview with British artist Shaky Kane is a bit all over the place (much like his writing in general), yet it snaps back to its main, forceful ideas unexpectedly after each digression. More than anything, one can feel the enormously powerful passion Santoro has for comics and the entire breadth and width of its history, embracing artists and comics that are often ignored by fans of alt-comics. The interview itself felt a bit perfunctory in comparison. It was too short to really delve into the artist, but some of the questions asked felt more like particular technical points Santoro wanted to know about to satisfy his own curiousity rather than questions designed to bring clarity to a wider audience.

Joe "Jog" McCulloch's article on Gerald Jablonski's comics was delightful. I'm generally resistant to reviews that focus on how a comic made them feel at a given time of their life, but Jog takes that basic structure and fully engages and breaks down the utterly loopy nature of Jablonski's comics. As always, the comics solicited for this issue were excellent and looked great on the huge (something like 21x17") broadsheet format. I wish all of Dan Zettwoch's comics could be printed in this format, given the crazy amount of detail he includes in his strips. There was another page by an uncredited artist (Ted May?) that also took advantage of the sheer size of the page with a cleverly designed adaptation of Poe's "The Masque Of the Red Death".

Having read a number of issues of MINESHAFT now, what I like best about it is the organic nature of its construction. It started as a place for Everett Rand to publish images of underground art that he owned, and snowballed into a place where a certain generation of comics creators started to submit new work. It's become a depository for fascinating fiction and cultural critiques that don't have a ready home, fascinating presentations of historical cultural detritus worthy of another look, and of course lots of sketches and comics.

This issue was actually more comics-heavy than some recent volumes. Sarah Sveda and Ed Piskor (not an underground artist, but he certainly carries that vibe to his work). Their "Grob Schwank" series, written by Sveda, was absolutely hilarious and disgusting. Piskor's art looked a little like Jack Davis' here as he brought that MAD feel to his exaggerated figures and gestures in a story about a pervert gynecologist. Aaron Lange's "Washington Beach", a sort of send-up of Archie Comics by way of The Hills was both cleverly designed and pleasantly smart-assed. Frank Stack's latest "Dirty Diana" is more of the same over-the-top adventure serial silliness, done in his usual loose, sketchy style. There's even a quick story by Harvey Pekar and Tara Seibel, wherein they talk about why he stays in Cleveland.

As always, MINESHAFT is a treasure trove of sketchbook work. Crumb contributes his usual assortment of odds and ends, while Sophie's sketchbook feels much more at home here than in MOME. Pat Moriarty's totem pole drawings and accompanying article as to why he started making them were intriguing, and it was fun to see a drawing from the new Bill Griffith collection. The highlight of the issue, however, was seeing Kim Deitch's sketchbook progress on his fascinating new comic about Kathryn Whaley. Here, Deitch focuses in on the concept of the phonograph being invented much earlier than Edison, and his delight when he learned that there in fact were voice recordings prior to Edison. Deitch's sketchbook work is actually much more accessible to my eye than his slicker, heavier finished work.

Two other items of special interest here: Bruce Simon excavating the pages of Sexology magazine--published in the 1930s--and Jay Lynch's mind-boggling cover. The former is the sort of cultural mining that MINESHAFT does so well, as the questions (and some answers) reprinted here are hilarious yet indicative of a desperate search for open answers to a topic that few dared discuss publicly. The level of detail and density of gags on Lynch's cover is a strong indicator why he draws so little of his own work these days. Rand doesn't grouse about the way things are, he simply goes about finding what he does like and getting it out there, issue after issue. Any fan of comics with the slightest interest in the underground and post-underground era will wonder where this zine has been all their lives once they finally lay their hands on a copy. The imprint of Rand and partner Gioia Palmieri can be felt surely as the COMICS COMICS trio on their publication. It's felt in what they choose to publish and the artists who likewise reach out to them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Order Out Of Chaos: Nocturnal Conspiracies

Rob reviews the collected translation of David B dream comics, NOCTURNAL CONSPIRACIES (NBM).

Upon reading David B's intriguing collection of dream comics, NOCTURNAL CONSPIRACIES, I was struck by just how apt the title was. David B carefully selected dreams that had a similarity of theme: dream adventures involving skullduggery, mystery and a sense of trying to make connections and hint at vastly enigmatic scenarios. In much the same way our unconscious creates dreams as a way of processing our fears, fantasies and random images, so too does the creation of a conspiracy theory serve to establish connections for events that are otherwise too overwhelming to even contemplate. A conspiracy theorist is a sort of detective, somehow managing to ask the "right" questions and make connections that "they" don't want you to know about--"they" representing the overarching masters of whatever fuels that particular conspiratorial paranoia. Conspiracies serve to explain evil, chaos, misfortune and anything else that is terrifying in the world. In both our daytime and nighttime identities, there is always this urge to impose structure on what we experience.

In the case of NOCTURNAL CONSPIRACIES, David B at first seems just a step behind the overarching menace of his unconscious. He is an active agent in his dreams, sometimes working within the conspiracy, sometimes working against it. He had long ago framed the woes in his life in militaristic terms, so it's no surprise that as he grew older, these terms would subtly shift to more closely resemble guerilla warfare, terrorist activity, gangster movies or spy stories. The dreams in this book are part of a shadowy world where every action has melodramatic overtones, as though it were part of a vast adventure story where David B is an essential character. He notes that many of his dreams have a cinematic feel, where he is "performing", but that sense of being an actor in a plot (in every sense of the word) pervades every dream.

The narrative nature of David B's dreams lend them a ready-made structure that lends itself well to the overlay of dream logic and jarring transitions. Beyond the organization of imagery, it's David B's shadowy, angular art that draws the reader in. The comic is mostly in black & white, with streaks and shades of midnight blue. It's that blue that gives the comic its night-time feel, that sense of moving in shadows. The first few dreams of the book offer variations on assassination plots, gangsters, terrorists and the secret masters of the world. "The Attic", dreamed in 1983, dips into horror. What makes this dream so unsettling is not just that the attic in question is inhabitated by Bosch-like monsters, it's the control they have over the other people in the space, forcing them to have sex. When the dream shifts scenes to a more typical "adventure" mission, David B can't shake the feeling that the dream really ended in the attic. It's one of the more chilling images in the book.

Other unsettling dreams include "Massacre", where we see stark images of human brutality in Africa; it's interesting that in the dream David B personalizes this kind of image in that one of the dead was a friend of his. "The Eye" finds David B killing an innocent man so as to avoid the Khmer Rouge, while "The Children" combines the action-adventure elements of his dream with the horrific notion of terrorists gunning down children.

There are lighter notes in this particular dreamscape, however. "The Cat" is a short dream where David B turns the tables on a guardian animal (it's one of Giacometti's elongated cats), eats its tasty, pate'-like brain and rides it around. "The Serials" finds him looking at a series of unusual, attention-grabbing drawings; he discovers that they were favorites of his grandfather. "The Heads", unlike most of the other dreams in the book, leaves off David B's narration as we see the fate of a giraffe-headed butcher, his head bouncing down the street and winding up as head cheese for a rival.

As the years go on, David B starts gaining more control in his dreams. In the early 90s dreams like "Fat Cop", "Blind" and "The Eye", he not only manages to evade danger and outwit his opponents, he starts to wield genuine power. In "Fat Cop", he's a detective and uses mental powers to push around a corrupt commissioner. In "Blind", he and his wife turn the tables on assassins invading their homes and strike out to recruit help against whatever other forces are arrayed against them. In "The Eye", he evades both an assassin and a guardian bull thanks to his own cleverness.

Arranging the dreams chronologically subtly gives them an overriding structure, even though none of the dreams are directly related to each other. They naturally flow into each other, with dream logic allowing the reader to except rapid changes in scene, theme and tone. This makes an interesting companion piece to Jesse Reklaw's THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE; in both cases, the artist has to interpret imagery that was half-remembered and fuzzy, yet at the same time vivid and immersive. David B's dream comics are where the conscious meets the subconscious and both his wit and visceral sense of storytelling shine through.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Art and Commerce: Skitzy

Rob reviews a reprint of the 1955 book by Don Freeman, SKITZY (Drawn & Quarterly).

One has to admire the willingness of Drawn & Quarterly to dig up and reprint obscure but worthy comics. Every one has had its own champion (Chris Ware and Joe Matt with Walt & Skeezix, for example), and SKITZY was pushed by Dave Kiersh. The book's pleasures are modest and unassuming, yet the spontaneity of cartoonist Don Freeman's line and the life he gives to his figures makes reading the book a series of simple joys. The story is told with no dialogue and a bare minimum of narration, as we follow Floyd Skitzafroid on a typical day at work. He literally splits in half--one half going to his Greenwich Village art studio, the other half toiling at a tedious office job. His artist self is constantly, deliriously happy, while his worker self is constantly glum and preoccupied.

Freeman is best known for his Corduroy series of children's books, books with his sketchy line and a sharpness to them unusual for kid lit. Freeman combined the eye of an inveterate doodler (especially from life) with the lively wit and spontaneity of a James Thurber. What makes this book special is not necessarily the story (which has a couple of funny twists but is mostly fairly predictable), but rather the details. Freeman's character design and use of gesture and body language are all impeccably lively and kinetic. While it may seem slightly quaint to us now, the way he brought the bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood to life bordered on the exotic. One could almost see, taste and smell everything "Skitzy" experienced on the street. Conversely, one could almost experience the subway claustrophobia his alter ego felt as well.

While there is only one image to a page in this book, the transition between each page certainly feels more like a panel-to-panel transition. The book's liveliest sequence is when Skitzy is in his studio loft, doing a painting of a nude model. There's a three page sequence where the model is in the foreground with her back turned to us, with Skitzy partially obscured. The next page shows her done with her pose, but Skitzy is frantically leaning into his painting. Meanwhile, the model relaxes in the foreground, this time in profile. The third page brings both of them into the foreground together. Skitzy is relaxed and triumphant, showing off his to work to his mode. Her back is to the reader, her hands up in amazement and her hips at an angle as we see her form through her diaphanous robe. We sense that the model has a crush on the artist, but his only interest here is an artistic one--almost like a little boy and his devoted hobby.

SKITZY doesn't merit multiple readings, but it certainly does invite multiple viewings. Each page is a masterfully composed unit worthy studying, the meeting point of spontaneity and years of practice. The fact that Freeman felt strongly enough about his story to self-publish it over 50 years ago is a testament to what this era meant to him as an artist, and it shows him at the height of his powers. As fans of the form, we are lucky that publishers like D&Q are around to keep these works of self-expression in print, especially those that encapsulate a bygone era. Comics and cartooning has not always valued its own history, but that's changed in the 21st century as audiences have opened up for works like this. This is a book any comics historian or artist looking for inspiration (both in terms of lifestyle and spontaneity) would find valuable.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Rhythms of Desire: The Lagoon

Rob reviews the new book from Lilli Carre', THE LAGOON (Fantagraphics).

Lilli Carre' is a young artist who has quickly developed into someone to watch closely. Even in her first collection of strips, TALES OF WOODSMAN PETE, one could see the way her line and style matured from the beginning of the book to the end. Those changes can be summed up in terms of tone and restraint. The earlier strips were a bit "louder"--sloppier and more all over the place. The jokes were a bit more overt and the pages lacked precision. As the book went on, one could see her true style starting to emerge, both in terms of character design and page composition. The details left out of her stories began to become as important as what she did reveal.

In her recent short story, THE THING ABOUT MADELEINE and her new book from Fantagraphics, THE LAGOON, one can see Carre' tackle the same theme in different ways: desire. The former is about desire and its relationship to identity, while the latter is a more complex exploration of desires that are hidden and their consequences. The plot of the story is simple: three generations of a family living in the same house all have a different relationship with a song they hear coming from a nearby lagoon. The tune is sung by a humanoid creature, one whose precise motives are difficult to fathom. The song has a seductive quality; for some, it was a lure for a watery doom.

For the family we meet in this issue, it represents something different for each member. For the grandfather, it's a connection to youth. Nearing the end of his life, he notes to his granddaughter that "The creature just doesn't sing all that much anymore"--an indication that this manifestation of longing has ebbed as he's become an old man. Singing the song is a way of reconnecting not with the desires of adulthood, but the freedom of childhood. Upon hearing the song again, he proceeded to pick flowers the next day.

For his daughter, the song and the creature represent the desires of young adulthood. With a husband and daughter of her own, the potent lust that the creature's song meant could no longer be fully embraced. Yet when she heard the song again (played again by her daughter on a piano), she not only couldn't help but become obsessed with it, she amusingly invited the creature into her bedroom after she had had sex with her husband. She shares secrets with the creature, whom she greets as an old friend. When the creature leaves, she can't help but follow, needing to hear the song again.

For her husband, upon finding his wife gone when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he hears the song and follows it to its source. Upon seeing his wife there, rapt with bliss, among many others listening to the song in the lagoon's reeds, he reacts with dismay. In short order, the creature disappears, his wife is pulled under and then him. Desire here is a dangerous thing, and secrets can be destructive. There was a fundamental disconnect between the husband and wife, a gulf in communication that doomed them.

For the daughter, the song represented the unknown of adulthood. She didn't quite understand why the song was so alluring, even if she admitted that it sounded nice. She was young enough to be afraid of monsters and still wanted to be put to bed at night, but old enough that such questions were starting to become relevant to her (her reluctance at "looking younger" after a haircut is a clue to this). It was fascinating seeing the parallels between her and her mother, and how they interpreted different sounds differently. For her mother, a tapping on her window was the creature inviting her attention. For the granddaughter, she was afraid of monsters. For the grandfather, the tapping was him beating out rhythms in his sleep--but also a way of noting that he was still alive, still vital. The granddaughter is afraid of monsters under her bed, while her mother literally told the creature to get under her bed when she saw that her husband was about to wake up.

In the end, when the creature inadvertently sets a pile of wood on fire, the grandfather advises the granddaughter that "It'll put itself out, but let's keep an eye on it, just to make sure". Fire is another clear symbol of desire both alluring and dangerous, and both watched it slowly wane on page after page until all was black. With the creature walking away, both the danger and allure of its song were gone, for both good and ill. For the grandfather, who took joys in other rhythms of life (like the yowling of cats), and the granddaughter, who was more interested in living in the present like a child should, it seemed that neither was quite aware of what was potentially lost.

Comics was an ideal format for a story about a song that means something different to everyone that hears it, and Carre' used the rhythms of sequential storytelling to her advantage. Her heavy reliance on black (especially as the story went on) gave the book a stark beauty, but it was her use of the physical and typographical qualities of sound effects that sold the book's themes. I especially liked the way the notes of the song had a sort of ropey quality, literally pulling in the woman into the lagoon. Panel-to-panel transitions were another key element of the book, especially on the two pages where we see moment flow into moment and we "hear" the sounds of the house at night--until a fateful leaf blows in and triggers the husband's fate. Carre's eccentric character design (triangular, shaded noses & wavy-lined hair), her restrained line and stunningly beautiful book design make this an impressive sophomore effort.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sickness: Fishtown

Rob reviews the new book from Kevin Colden, FISHTOWN (IDW).

The central question Kevin Colden wants the reader to ask throughout his chilling FISHTOWN is "Why?" What would motivate a group of youths to murder another teen? What underlies their stated motive? How much of the responsibility for their behavior lies with them, and how much of it lies with their parents and other authority figures? Is there a discernible difference between evil and psychopathology?

FISHTOWN is Colden's own interpretation of a real-life case that took place in Philadelphia. Three teenaged males killed another 16-year-old named Jesse, while a similarly-aged girl looked on. The ostensible reason for killing him was taking his money to buy drugs. The book opens with one of the teens in custody, answering questions from an unseen authority figure. Time is one of Colden's essential formal tools here, as we go back and forth to events related to the murder and then back to the interview room. The other repeating motif is deceit: what is said does not match up with what is done or felt.

The visuals that Colden employs imply a sickness endemic to all concerned, not just the murderers. The only colors he uses are a sickly yellow and a rosy pink (for blood). The jaundiced appearance of the entire city implies that it was over before it even began for these characters--they were doomed and helped to further perpetuate their own doom. Colden employs a lot of tight close-ups that are claustrophobic and even a little nauseating at times, especially in the viscerally disturbing scene late in the book where we finally see the murder. He doesn't flinch in showing the blunt, matter-of-fact viciousness of the murder: the ultimate expression of sickness. Colden's line is scratchy and scribbly with a certain mainstream sensibility in terms of gesture and composition. It's an interesting contrast, reminding me a bit of Dave Gibbons in some places.

Each of the murderers winds up having a different motive, even if none of them cop to it. One of them was a childhood friend of the victim, but the sight of his lover (named Angelica) baring her chest to the victim, enticing him to have sex, drove him to a jealous rage. Angelica was a heroin addict and a cutter, the profile of someone who despises themselves and tries to find ways to both numb pain and find ways to express their inner pain. Angelica was an example of someone both too far gone to respond to therapy and someone who is enormously dangerous as a result. She was the lit match for the powderkeg of psychopathy that was the brothers Keith and Adrian.

Murdering Jesse was a twisted way of claiming power over their world. Each one of the murderers felt trapped and desperate. They all numbed themselves with narcotics and feigned apathy, but their actions speak to the desire to hurt a world that confused them. That feeling of shared power was made manifest in the way that the foursome hugged after murdering Jesse, completing an empowering ritual. It was a sicker reaction to a sick world, and one that they quickly realized would have repercussions. In their questioning sessions, they even allude to how sick the actions (especially of the others) were, even if they deny responsibility or regret.

Colden strongly implies that while the murderers had any number of reasons (abuse, mental illness) to lash out at the world, their actions were still their own responsibility. Jesse himself was a testament to this; it's implied that he used to be much more of a fuck-up until he quit school, got a job and planned to join the military when he turned 18. It's also implied that though Angelica and Justin (the fourth murderer) were in psychological pain, their home environments weren't especially oppressive. Indeed, both had potential support systems available to them if they had chosen to take advantage of them.

Ultimately, the camaraderie the murderers felt together was as false and fleeting feeling of bliss as a narcotic. In questioning, each of the kids found ways to turn on each other subtly and directly, and it's revealed that Angelica was quite happy to sell the others out for a less drastic sentence, even as she was manipulating Justin to the very end. There were no lessons learned here; none of the murderers will change or could even imagine wanting to change. A combination of environment and their own choices created the road they followed; they were ripe for sickness and did nothing to prevent it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Details of Armageddon: DUNGEON MONSTRES VOLUME 2Lew

Rob reviews the latest collection of stories from Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar's DUNGEON series, DUNGEON MONSTRES VOL 2: THE DARK LORD (NBM).

Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar are two of my favorite cartoonists in the world, in part because of the dizzyingly broad range of subjects they're interested in. Trondheim's work ranges from abstract, conceptual comics to slice-of-life to autobio to children's books to rip-roaring adventure. He automatically becomes one of the best artists in any genre he chooses to work in, and fantasy comics are no exception. He and Sfar didn't just choose to create a lark of a series to affectionately parody fantasy and role-playing tropes in DUNGEON, they wanted to create a genuinely involving story that worked on multiple levels. They wanted the adventure aspects of the story to be simultaneously exciting and silly as they built an entire world, Tolkein-style. As such, they set out a plan to tell the story of the titular dungeon in its glory days (the "Zenith" stories), to tell the story of its origins (the "Early Years" stories) and its downfall ("Twilight")--and planned to write a hundred volumes in each series!

If that plan wasn't ambitious enough, there are also side volumes that tell smaller, funny stories of the main characters ("Parade") and volumes that focus in on particular characters at particular times ("Monstres"). DUNGEON manages to be the rare series that is simultaneously complex and simple to follow, zeroing in on a few characters over time and expanding the cast from there. It's by far my favorite genre-related series of all time, enjoyable on every level. Of course, given the scope of this project (which they may never complete), Sfar & Trondheim have recruited a number of different artists to step in to draw the stories. NBM is reprinting each series two volumes at a time, and DUNGEON MONSTRES 2 is the latest edition. This volume features art by Andreas, known for his Lovecraftian horror stories, and Stephane Blanquet, an artist who specializes in the grotesque.

Both artists are inspired choices. In the first story, "The Great Map", Andreas' horror background is merged with the funny animal character design aa we follow the rabbit warrior Marvin the Red on a quest. The story does get a bit confusing if you haven't read the Twilight stories, so I'd recommend brushing up on those volumes so as to avoid confusion. That said, the
specifics of the quest are less important than Marvin's confusing love life, somehow trying to simultaneously pitch woo to two very different women at the same time. Marvin is one of the best characters in the entire series: a young warrior oblivious to the larger events of the world naively seeking glory. His single-mindedness in the face of total chaos is both exciting and hilarious, as he's both hero and comic relief.

The second story, "The Dark Lord", is drawn by Blanquet. His style is so distinctive that it was impossible to completely subsume within Trondheim's character design. This wound up working out quite nicely, as his monsters were especially gross and the violence especially visceral. This story follows what happened after the downfall of Herbert, the duck hero of Zenith who had become corrupted by power in later years. This story gives us a number of important details as to exactly how Herbert wound up in such a horrible position (he wound up being possessed by a dark entity connected to various objects of power he had collected) and follows him as he cleverly gets out of one near-death experience after another. Following such a haunted character after focusing in on such a naive character like Marvin was an interesting contrast, and I especially like the way that Trondheim & Sfar connected the two stories, telling them from different points of view. Any fan of Trondheim and Sfar should be reading DUNGEON, and any fan of DUNGEON should probably pick up every volume. This volume was an unexpected visual feast that was still entirely within the sensibilities of its writers.

magic whistle 11

MAGIC WHISTLE #11, by Sam Henderson. Sam Henderson has few peers when it comes to conceptual humor. His ability to make jokes about boners, bathroom graffiti and eating cat food
and turn them into a sort of metacommentary on humor itself never ceases to amaze me. He's somehow able to dissect the corpse of a joke, explain it to us in some skewed fashion, and then make the original joke ten times funnier. Henderson seems to simultaneously feel the urge to feed his audience non-stop gags while stopping to think about each one--the way they're constructed, how they affect an audience and how to stay original. The strip about Henderson drawing "X-Treme Jesus" for a Christmas card and the way his audience reacted to his cartoon is a perfect example of this sort of exercise.

Henderson is at his best with his longer stories. "The Groucho Duck" is a masterpiece of subverting expectations in panel after panel. When one character's attempt at pulling a gag is met with total obliviousness by his target, the way the first character breaks down and starts screaming "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" is funnier than the expected gags in the story. "Monroe Simmons' Blog of Revenge" is all about the humor of unexpected escalation by way of satirizing blog culture. There's a density to this strip that's made all the more satisfying by Henderson's deliberately simple line. Indeed, this 96-page comic feels absolutely jam-packed, requiring multiple readings to absorb every gag. Henderson remains in the top of rank of humorists working in comics today.

sequart #181: Waking Nightmare: Grotesque #2

Reviewed is issue #2 of the Ignatz line's GROTESQUE, by Sergio Ponchionne (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press).

It's unfortunate the the Ignatz line from Fantagraphics has received relatively little critical attention. It's only the best-looking series of periodicals currently being published in comics, it's also responsible for introducing a number of artists to American audiences. In particular, Italian series editor Igort has unleashed a number of his countrymen for wider attention, and Sergio
Ponchione has been one of my favorites in this group. The second issue of his series GROTESQUE continues to be a mash-up of familiar imagery and stories, all given a series of unusual twists.

The first issue was a variation on the dreamer's quest, as mysteries that gnawed at the main characters were brought to the brink of being solved and desires satisfied. Ponchione leaves the three main characters from the first issue hanging, instead focusing on a couple of side-characters and bringing them into a story that blends fairy tales, folklore, noir and religious fever dreams. That blend is stewed and given a classic comics chaser, with rubbery character
design. Characters have bulbous noses and odd anatomy and move in unusual ways, echoing Crumb, Segar, Charles Burns and many others. Ponchione is such an accomplished style mimic that his style transcends any particular influence. He's especially proficient at using the physical properties of ink on a page to create mood and story; I particularly liked his "Spot" character, a sentient ink blot with stick arms and legs.

The plot of issue #2 revolves around Professor Hackensack being sent on a mission by the series' mysterious and potentially sinister keystone Mr. O'Blique to Cryptic City. It's a city whose citizenry is being forced to buy emotions from the corrupt ruling Barons, and Hackensack was supposed to find a way to bring them down. O'Blique had helped set up the Barons' ancestor to
rule by giving him a secret: the meaning of life. Hackensack bounces between allies and enemies, gathering clues and portents, before the issue ends on a cliffhanger. Ponchione specializes in dramatic point-of-view shots; on one page, he pans down from panel to panel as we see the freakish anatomy of one character and the unsettling character design of his tormentor. The story is a waking nightmare, one with images and ideas that are familiar yet warped beyond
recognition, an effect that's both disturbing and hypnotic. I'm curious how long this series is planned to run and if Ponchione will delve into more symbolic imagery or keep it on a more literal (if eerie) level.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Huizenga Bonanza

Rob reviews a batch of comics by Kevin Huizenga (and friends). Included are THE FACTOIDS OF LIFE, OR ELSE #5 (Drawn & Quarterly), FIGHT OR RUN: SHADOW OF THE CHOPPER (Buenaventura Press) and NEW CONSTRUCTION #2.

Kevin Huizenga is a hard cartoonist to pin down. In an era when most cartoonists are looking toward book deals, Huizenga's new work came in the form of four simultaneously published minicomics. Each one shows a different face of perhaps the most important cartoonist to emerge so far in the 21st century. Huizenga owes a lot to classic cartooning, especially in terms of his figure work. He also looks at comics as a sort of diagram, constantly exploring form and structure. The themes of his comics run the gamut from metaphysics to sheer whimsy. One story might be a complex phenomenological exploration of time and space, another might be a video-game inspired series of iconic character battles, and a third might be a gag strip involving a fake trivia maven. In every one of his comics, one can sense a probing intellect, a restless problem solver and a dry, sharp sense of humor. Huizenga's spontaneous-looking line manages to bring an understated quality to his work, even stories that are heavy on formal pyrotechnics. That restless quality seems to be a big key in why he chooses to do a number of smaller projects rather than gear up for The Big Book. While none of his individual comics this year are quite in the same class as the new releases by Chris Ware or Lynda Barry, when one considers his work as a whole it's clear that he had as good a year as any cartoonist in 2008.

NEW CONSTRUCTION is a fascinating peek into the working process of Huizenga and the other USS Catastrophe artists (Dan Zettwoch and Ted May). This mini features thumbnails from all three artists of familiar work, in an effort to display just how useful thumbnailing can be for an artist. Like Barry, who urges drawing and doodling as a means to unlock one's muse, Huizenga enthuses over the use of thumbnails as a way of getting started and creating a quick visual layout. What's great about this comic is that we see three very different visions of what a thumbnail sketch is. For May, it's a fast, loose and sloppy way to lay out his story, throw in dialogue and generally get down gesture and composition. For Huizenga, it seems like panel design and structure is key; he mostly sticks to stick figures. For Zettwoch, it's a scribbly, messy page that simply serves as a source of information and a rough compositional outline. If I were teaching a course about comics, this mini would be my reference for teaching the importance of thumbnails.

The USS Catastrophe artists have been collaborating on a ridiculous fake trivia strip for a local St Louis newspaper called AMAZING FACTS...AND BEYOND! The first collection of these strips, THE FACTOIDS OF LIFE, is a delightfully assembled, complete with a list of other (non-existent) volumes in the series, like "Underwater Facts!" and "Facts On A Plane". Each artist sticks to their strengths here: May's strips tend to be less in a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" format and more absurd vignettes, like "Cell Phones". This strip posits that cell phones trigger an imaginary veil of privacy in their users (letting them talk at top volume about intimate details), and then notes that scientists developed a drug that did the same thing to ease anxiety--causing people to talk out loud to no one in particular. (One passerby yelling "What do you not understand about Planet of the Apes" had me laughing out loud.)

Zettwoch's strips invariably involved some kind of complicated gizmo or process, almost like a Rube Goldberg strip. His strip about how the basketball game of H-O-R-S-E originated with the Aztecs was both hilarious and disgusting, while "High Spirits" intricately describes how bootleg liquor was kept in abandoned St. Louis water towers. Huizenga goes in some truly strange directions, like his "Bible Fu" strip that imagines a missionary mixing the Bible with Shaolin kung-fu stories, creating "Fight Or Run" style matchups between the likes of Ruth & Leviticus (armed with a Scroll of Unclean Discharge). The single funniest strip is "Cat Calendars", telling of the secret history of cat calendars, like Joseph McCarthy going after communist sympathizer calendars such as "Revolution of Preciousness". This minicomic sees these artists at their most accessible, yet totally within their own wheelhouses in terms of interests and style. It's clear that all three are having a ball coming up with gags.

FIGHT OR RUN features a series of short strips not unlike the first part of GANGES #2--a comic book representation of video game-style fights to the death. There are hints of influences from sources as diverse as Mortal Kombat, EC Segar's POPEYE, Mad's Spy vs Spy feature and Mat Brinkman's flowing, rambling adventure strips. The simple format of two odd-looking characters meeting and a decision made to fight or run actually opened up a huge range of formal possibilities for Huizenga. Some strips are straightforward fights, others are more meta (like "F" battling "R"). Some strips are intricate, like a battle between Duck and Rabbit (two characters who look exactly alike until you consider them within their named contexts), while others are stick-figure extravaganzas (cute-girl McSkulls vs everyone). The strips in this book are a relentlessly delightful exploration of cartoon problem-solving. Huizenga starts from a premise and finds ways to take that idea to an ultimate, logical extreme. While well-drawn, there's a spontaneity to Huizenga's line here that gives each page a lot of pop and energy. FIGHT OR RUN is just as instructive in its own way as NEW CONSTRUCTION in how to maintain spontaneity and build structure.

OR ELSE #5 is the most wide-ranging of these comics in terms of content. It's funny that even though this is a release from preeminent art comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, it looks like a very nicely-designed minicomic. This comic consists of quietly personal anecdotes, a sweeping, post-apocalyptic story featuring Huizenga everyman Glenn Ganges, and more abstruse strips like "The 100 Most People In America", "Profiles" and "Which Sentences Are We Diagramming?" "Profiles" is a remarkably clever strip that uses the size and abstract symbolic content of word balloons to create a coherent narrative despite the fact that no recognizable words are used. Tongue firmly in cheek, Huizenga then gives us a "preview" of the next 19 issues of "Or Else", spanning the next dozen or so years. In addition to assorted adventures, furniture refinishing, and interviews with wise celebrities, the last issue promises a "description of a new world and way of life" reviews. Perhaps the oddest thing in the issue is what appears to be a scathing parody ad for something real: a seminar on "Revelation Offers Hope In A World of Terror". Belief and metaphysics has always been a running theme in Huizenga's comics, and this ad parody is a pretty vicious take on what he obviously views as exploitative fearmongering.

Huizenga's work is so effective because of the way he's able to balance a number of seeming contradictions. His line appears to be free and spontaneous, yet his thumbnails reveal a meticulous planner. His approach ranges from enigmatic to easily accessible, often in the same comic. He's daring but not ostentatious, quietly providing eye-popping surprises and (at times) big laughs. There's a thoughtfulness to his work but also a sense of whimsy. His comics sneak up on you, rewarding multiple readings. While one can spot his influences, he's not beholden to any singular artist or style. He's an exciting artist to watch because it's difficult to predict what he'll eventually evolve into as he matures.

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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Story Telling A Story: Acme Novelty Library #19

Rob reviews the 19th issue of Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY.

One cartoonist I've written little about is Chris Ware, in part because so much has been written about him. However, the 19th issue of his ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY series may be his single most stunning achievement in terms of structure and emotional resonance. The comic is in three separate chapters, with the reader's understanding of each constantly shifting and changing throughout the issue. Visual information contrary to text is resolved in shattering ways as the comic bends between genres. Even though this is just a part of Ware's larger RUSTY BROWN serial, this stand-alone issue requires no knowledge of the serial, and is an obvious book of the year candidate. While some critics accuse Ware of a certain sameness in theme and presentation, he's only become more sophisticated, more humane and more mature in his ongoing examination of the desperate search for human connection.

RUSTY BROWN will prove to be the most complex narrative of Ware's career, given the large number of characters and the ways in which they will interact with each other. Issues 16 and 17 of Acme were the introductory pieces of the story; as such, they were fairly straight-ahead and Ware didn't really show us much technically that we hadn't seen before. We've seen the Rusty Brown character in various short pieces and "jokes" from Ware before; he's the sort of pasty-but-vicious collector who is incapable of experiencing any kind of joy outside of the temporary narcotic (and neurotic) release of acquisition. The story is set in the late 1970s in Nebraska (Ware's original stomping grounds) as nerdy abuse magnet Rusty meets the new kid, Chalky White--an even more pathetic version of himself. We are also introduced to Chalky's older sister Alice, loutish classmate Jason Lint, Rusty's teacher Joanne Cole, art teacher "Chris Ware" (a sort of "what if?" version of the author) and Rusty's father, Woody Brown, the subject of Acme #19.

Woody is also a teacher at the school and hates his life. He has contempt for his doting wife, he resents his bizarre son's existence and wonders aloud in Acmes 16 and 17 what had happened to the last twenty years of his life. Something about seeing Alice White shakes him up, and this issue reveals what that is. The volume is an absolutely stunning character piece divided up into three chapters, all of which obliquely reveal what led Woody to his life of "quiet desperation". The structure of the issue is brilliant: it starts off with a science-fiction story (which the table of contents reveals was written by "W.K. Brown") that features an interesting tension between text and image. The second story features Rusty in his upstairs study (notably avoiding his wife and son) where he's trying to write (to no avail) and instead reminisces about a relationship from twenty years earlier that devastated and mystified him.

The girl in question uncannily resembled Alice White, accounting for his being so flustered. An afternoon tryst with this girl from the newspaper they worked at together took on enormous meaning to him; it meant becoming not just an adult, but a man (as Woody himself alludes to). Like many of Ware's characters, Woody may be hypercritical of himself to the point of self-loathing, but he lacks self-awareness and empathy. The girl's behavior indicated that she was deeply disturbed for any number of reasons that Ware only hints at, but it's clear that she despises herself. It's implied that she took money from a newspaper bigwig in exchange for sex and in general felt powerless over her own life. That's what likely triggered her frequent visits to Woody's tiny apartment for sex--the feeling of power and control over another. It's no accident that she was on top every time sex was depicted in this issue. In the end, when a desperate Woody proposed marriage to her (via letter), it was no surprise to see her tear up the letter in his face, laughing.

Throughout his life, Woody dealt with his own punishing awkwardness with his peers by pouring his emotional energy into reading science fiction. It became his own narcotic to numb the dull pain he constantly felt, a substitute for actual relationships or feelings. When the pain of his relationship became too much to bear, he sublimated it into writing a science-fiction story of his own. When we read the story in this issue, we're not reading the story per se. What we are seeing/reading is what Woody experiences when he rereads the story (and the original draft in particular) that came out of that experience. This singular act of creation is clearly the one thing in his life that he's ever been proud of.

One of the central themes of the sci-fi story, Woody's own reverie and even the short prose story at the end of the issue is the way emotional trauma muddies memories, and by association, muddies identity. In each story, there are key passages where the narrator tells us that their memories of a particular period are fuzzy. Art imitates Woody's life here as he was never fully able to come to terms with his grief but was also unable to see how his own behavior led to this trauma. As a result, his own characters either commit monstrous acts and/or remove themselves entirely from humanity, and can never quite remember how or why things got to be so bad.

It's not an accident that Woody's characters are always in the process of trying to assert their dominance over their environments and lovers, most often clumsily and viciously. Emotional abuse tends to run in that sort of cycle, where the abused/dominated person seeks a victim of their own to compensate for their feelings of worthlessness. In Woody's case, he was taken in by a secretary whom he had ignored at the newspaper who had an obvious crush on him. He quickly moved to dominate her (and it was no accident that when they finally had sex, he was on top) physically and emotionally. It didn't take long for him to resent his wife for her submission, though the empathy-challenged Woody couldn't connect his new behavior to that of the woman who broke his heart.

In the sci-fi story, the text notes that the protagonist's lover had red hair that matched his, but what we "see" is a brunette. Woody notes that when the story was published, it was with revisions. The main revision was to change the lover to a redhead, ostensibly to match his wife's appearance. This was done less as a token of affection than as a means of declaring his newfound dominance. At that time, he was relishing the (short-lived) rush of excitement he felt over being able to control another person in reality, as opposed to acting out a revenge fantasy in his story. At the time Woody was rereading his manuscript, the original emotional truth of what he wrote rose to the forefront of his mind. It wasn't just in the way his lover appeared--it was her cold behavior in dialogue he imagined that wasn't part of the story (this was revealed at the end when we see a final snippet of prose), her desperation to get away from him. No matter what he wrote, the story wasn't an affirmation of his dominance, it was a vicious revenge fantasy about a character who was as blind to his own shortcomings as the author was.

I've written a bit about comics-as-diagrams. Diagrams in themselves are a kind of comic in that they visually depict information in a clear, almost abstract manner. They are meant to be interpreted as much as they are read and are immersive in a manner different from standard comics narratives. Dash Shaw, John Pham, Dan Zettwoch and others often work in this style, but Ware is its greatest exemplar. While some have suggested that his abstracted style is cold and mopey, I would argue that it captures raw emotion in a way that few comics can. He does this primarily through the way he composes his page, altering its rhythm to either speed up or slow down time. His rich but simple use of colors fits into that diagramatic scheme as he rigidly adheres to a visual scheme that is flat in nature. Ware loves to break down his characters and their surroundings into circles and squares. The circle winds up being a repeating visual motif when Ware zooms in on a circle framing an environment or a person. When Ware wants the reader to get the sense of events happening quickly or in a confused manner, he shrinks his panels and crams them together. When he wants to impart a frozen, crucial moment, he'll have a single panel dominate the rest of the page. I don't think it's a coincidence that the impetus for Woody writing his story came from him drawing a diagram of a rocket ship.

Ware has a pitch-black sense of humor, especially when he mines humor from pathos. There's an astounding page in the book where Woody has just been rejected by his lover, who gives him the $100 dollars she had received to go away (and perhaps attempt to expunge her own guilt at prostituting herself). On the next page, we open with a panel with a stack of sci-fi pulp magazines, then we see a panel with some packs of cigarettes and candy, and then a panel with a half-eaten candy bar and wads of bills. Later, he masturbates to a magazine that has her smell on it, a desperate act of loneliness that Ware simultaneously manges to play for laughs and pathos. The fact that Woody tries to anesthesize himself by plotting to spend it on older science-fiction magazines is the first step to entering the pathology of collection. On a later page, Ware crams 176 panels onto a single page to show the insanity and blurriness of memory when he broke his glasses (making him unable to perform his job properly), had sex on and off with his lover (who kept rejecting him) and finally proposed to her. At the same time, he loses his job and his life completely disintegrates. The way that Woody mistook manipulation for real affection pointed not only to how starved for affection he was, but that he was no longer able to truly reciprocate it once it was received.

The connections between the three stories are intricate. The sci-fi story opens with a character (facing away from us) shaving. This is both a fake-out for the audience (it's not here on earth, it's on Mars!) but also a way that the character reasserts his humanity--a cleansing ritual designed to make one look presentable in public. There was no public for the protagonist, other than his former wife whom he dominates simply by having her in his vicinity, but this was a way for him to feel urbane and normal. The protagonist and the lover in both of Woody's stories are nameless, a fairly naked way for Woody to project his fantasies. In both cases, it's clear that he views both protagonists as rugged, capable loners--his fantasy version of himself that reads Proust and drinks scotch. (Of course, his characters turn out to be psychopaths, but that may not be the way he sees them now). Woody shaves off his moustache at the end of the book in an attempt to imitate the ritual his own character found so comforting and realized that it brought him no solace.

The final story, written in Woody's present (the late 70s) once again features a rugged loner literally launching himself on a mission where he will never see earth again while his ex-lover's alive, due to the way she hurt him. It was amusing to see a footnote saying that the story didn't succeed because of an obscure astronomical metaphor that Woody employed--he was punished for his own ambition. The story reflects the whole "where did my life go" lament of Woody, even as the melodramatic reaction of his character obscures his own lack of self-actualization. It's telling that the only relationship Woody ever had where affection was freely given and received was with his dog, whose senseless death destroyed any last bit of empathy he possessed and fueled the most disturbing portions of his story.

If each subsequent issue of the Rusty Brown serial focuses on a different character as vividly as this issue, Ware will have truly created an all-time classic. Ware created a character who simultaneously earned the pity, sympathy, disgust and laughter of his audience. Ware's approach becomes more and more intricate with each issue, yet has also become more accessible and universal. While all fiction may be autobiographical, Ware is taking a number of new avenues of exploration of human ethics and interaction. I'm guessing that each character that he explores in detail will represent a different aspect of the search for connection and the awful choices we can make in that endeavor. It's gratifying as a reader to see one of the world's greatest
cartoonists take on such an ambitious, consuming project, but it's one worthy of his talent.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Wave From CCS

Rob reviews the latest batch of comic from students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). Reviewed are comics from Penina Gal, Chuck Forsman, Caitlin Plovnick, Colleen Frakes, JP Coovert, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Bill Volk, Denis St. John and Alex Kim.

Time for another peek at some recent comics from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS).

THE FIRE MESSENGER 1, by Penina Gal. This first issue of what promises to be an extended fantasy series is most notable for its gorgeous use of color and the way Gal plops us into a fantasy world with no information given to the reader. We meet two boys named Aiden and Nik. We quickly learn that Aiden has the power to control fire, but that the friends were trapped in a big fire that Aiden couldn't quite control and somehow wound up in an unfamiliar forest. As they wander through the forest and desperately try to survive, we are slowly given clues through their dialogue about their lives. They both go to a school in a world where everyone has some kind of special magical gift, but Aiden's abilities make him a teacher's pet. The unfamiliar world they wind up in turns out to be our Earth, and the realization that they're no longer on the right world chills our heroes.

The way the story begins reminds me a bit of Phillip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS novels, where we're thrown into a magical world with no context and are expected to figure things out through context. It's an effective strategy, because it forces us to concentrate fully on the characters instead of on the way the world is built. Gal favors pastels for both the color of her paper and the actual panels themselves, giving the book a fairy-tale look. The main problem with this approach is that the color fairly overwhelms her line throughout much of the issue. Her line is deliberately simple and basic and the emotions of the story are mostly conveyed through color, but a slightly bolder line would make the story's figures stand out a bit more. The thinner line led to a blurred, bleeding effect, especially between foreground and background. Still, her use of color is expressionistic and ambitious, and I'm curious to see where the story goes from here.

DEAD AIR #1, by Caitlin Plovnick. This minicomic miniseries about a group of 20-something slacker guys with a band is modest in scope and ambition. The story is a familiar one: directionless young men sitting around getting stoned, listening to music, going to dead-end jobs (or laying on couches all day), etc. What makes this comic worthwhile is the pitch and tone of Plovnick's treatment of her characters. That tone is equal parts mockery and affection, made effective by the pitch-perfect dialogue. The lazy guy who doesn't even want to get off the couch because "it's all gloomy out", the convenience store clerk whose smartassery gets thrown in his face by activists, the record store clerk whose passion for music is chewed up by retail are all examples of characters that could have been cliches. Instead, there's a respect for the way they interact (especially with regard to music) but also an understanding of how pathetic their lives are. The strip on the back cover shows of Plovnick's wit, which she uses in a restrained manner in her comic. The themes and characters we see in this book are certainly nothing groundbreaking, but Plovnick's developing skill as a storyteller made me want to see more. If anything, I'd like to see Plovnick simplify her line. She overrenders a few scenes that would have benefited from a clearer line, which gets in the way of the expressiveness of her characters.

3AM and A SMALL STORY OF LOVE AND DEATH, by Alex Kim. Kim's comics always have an open-ended and ambiguous quality. His stories rarely provide much in the way of exposition. The reader is thrown into a situation and forced to figure out how the characters he's introduced are interacting and why. 3AM is a comics adaptation of a poem written by Jessica Abston, an ode to those magical late night hours spent in diners where reality seems a little more fluid somehow. Kim's use of silhouette to depict the blankness of the narrator in all this was a clever move. A SMALL STORY... opens with a typical Kim setting: a conversation in a bar. A person tells a story about watching two rats living near a subway line rail and understanding that they were mates. He is drawn to their lives in ways he can't articulate and is shattered when he sees that one of the rats is dead and the other essentially commits suicide by waiting for a train to hit it. Of course, the friend he tells the story to is baffled by his obsession, and even the sympathetic bartender thought he was crazy.

This comic is not about the story of the rats, but that the man needs to tell this story. It reflects a deeper crisis in the main character that is just hinted at but never hammered at, and that emotional restraint is a hallmark of Kim's work. As always, Kim uses a wavy-line approach in his characters' clothing, giving them a rumpled look. I wish he had taken a different approach with the character design in this comic, because the main character needed to stand out a bit more from the others. That said, his use of panel-to-panel transitions was quite clever and resonant, especially when the protagonist has just witnessed the rat killing itself.

DAFFY, by Chuck Forsman. The SNAKE OIL artist presents a collection of shorter works here, mostly humor strips and other odds and ends. The bulk of the mini is a reprint of the "Jimmy Draws Cats" series of strips originally published in SUNDAYS. This was Forsman's best early effort, drawn with the feel of a classic comic strip with Forsman's own brand of absurdity. The scenes where young Jimmy is sent to "Art Skool", depicted as the most desolate and vicious place imaginable, still make me laugh. The book's first strip, featuring two characters hanging on a gallows, creates an absurd situation by contrasting the dialogue and the grimness of the situation. Drawing the characters as stick figures heightens the tension and humor even more.

The last pages of the book are devoted to what seems to be an attempt at doing a series about the life of Jim Thorpe's latter years. I'm not sure if this is a work in progress or a work abandoned, but it seemed intriguing. You can see Forsman's line developing in some of these earlier strips, where he didn't have quite the same control over his line that he does now. At the same time, it's clear that he has always tried to maintain a spontaneity of approach, and that organic quality of his comics is perhaps their greatest appeal.

WOMAN KING preview, by Colleen Frakes. I've always found Frakes' bold but spare line and composition to be her greatest strengths as an artist. There's a bleakness to her work that I also find appealing as she tells her own version of myths and folktales. This brief preview is no exception, a story told in another format in the NO! anthology that I reviewed elsewhere. Frakes' composition is bold and exciting in this story of a girl chosen to lead a clan of bears against a human village, but some of the rendering seems a bit rushed here. That's especially true of the girl herself; it seemed as though Frakes was trying to get at an iconic depiction of her but couldn't quite pull it off without adding some more detail. On the other hand, the way she constructs her bears embodied that bold simplicity perfectly. Given the way she altered her final version of the story she told in her Tragic Relief book, redrawing much of it, I wouldn't be surprised to see this mini as simply another draft. In any event, the prospect of a long-form work by Frakes is an exciting one.

INSIDES, by JP Coovert. This short, striking comic plays to Coovert's strengths: an understanding of how to create and solve visual puzzles on each page. He doesn't do this with a lot of formal pyrotechnics, but rather a thoughtful and clever approach on how to use images to tell a story on several levels. This comic is a great case in point, as it's literally about a man (presumably Coovert himself) purging and vomiting up everything that's touched, moved or inspired him. Whether this purging is at some level voluntary (it would seem not), there's a sense that, like any purging, one feels better afterward. That feeling faded quickly as the character whimpers that he needs the final person her purged: an important significant other. The realization that getting rid of everything inside is only helpful up to a point--especially when we're trying to purge memories, influences and feelings. Because of the strong specificity of the images purged but a lack of detail given regarding their meaning, it's easy for a reader to project their own memories and feelings onto these images. That particular tact was risky on Coovert's part, but the way his images from specific to general was impressively conveyed.

3 STORIES and MARIA OF MONTMARTRE, by Alexis Frederick-Frost. 3 STORIES is a cleverly designed mini that shows off a few different approaches from Frederick-Frost. His comics combine a looseness of figure with an almost diagrammatic approach. Those figures have a sharpness to them, as Frederick-Frost composes them mostly out of triangles and rectangles. The simplicity of form combined with the expressive sweep of what appears to be a brush makes one pause to admire each page before even reading it. "Letter" is the most clever of the stories, a circular narrative where the lovelorn protagonist meets a horrible fate due to coincidence. His love going up in flames becomes both literal and figurative. The simplified character design makes the backgrounds every bit as important to look at as the characters themselves. That gestalt of background and foreground established throughout the story makes the final panels all the more effective. "Haunt" is more conventionally designed, with a visual conceit that lacks subtlety. The reader understands right away that the protagonist is haunted by the ills of the modern world and can't do anything about it, but the on-the-nose depiction of this on page after page dulls the point. On the other hand, "Hunt" almost dips into abstraction in this story of a hunter in a forest. The way Frederick-Frost worked the hunter into an almost abstract forest of angles and jutting lines was quite striking, and the literally explosive climax continued to make use of this interesting visual approach.

MARIA OF MONTMARTRE is Frederick-Frost's second long-form work. It's based on the life of a model-turned-painter in Impressionist-era France. This is only the first volume of what would seem to be a much longer work. Compared to his first long-form comic, LA PRIMAVERA, Frederick-Frost's figures were much more expressive here. While maintaining his simplicity of character design, he was able to add just a few more flourishes to bring the likes of Toulouse-Latrec and Aristide to life. While his use of greyscale shading was effective in adding texture and weight to his panels and figures, I'm guessing that the eventual collected work will be one or two toned. This chapter is simply and leisurely told with few surprises, but it's the loving details of how Frederick-Frost imagined the life of Paris in the late 19th century that give this comic life. The idea of a story talking about the tension between artist and model and the muse seeking her own form of expression is a clever one, and I'm guessing the the eventual finished piece will be Frederick-Frost's most impressive output to date and really announce his arrival.

THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED, by Bill Volk. This is a 24-hour comic, one with an impressive level of compositional and drafting skill for such an exercise. There are certainly a number of rough spots, of course, but the cleverness of the artist and spontaneity of his approach makes up for the raggedness of his line and occasional clutter. The story is about Volk working at a library and wondering why the Dewey Decimal system files some comics all together, but others (like MAUS) in completely different portions of the library. This leads him on an amusing fever dream quest where he confronts Melvil Dewey, Art Spiegelman and dame Fortune herself and concludes that there's nothing wrong with MAUS being filed under World War II/Holocaust books, and that in fact all comics should be scattered "unto the four winds". Visual flourishes like Volk's fever-dream self morphing into an anthropomorphic dog to talk to Spiegelman's famous anthropomorphic mouse caricature was clever. A comic not just about comics but about how comics are shelved is a bit meta, but that can be forgiven, I think, for a student entering the comics boot-camp that is CCS. I'll be curious to see more work from Volk drawn under more ideal conditions.

MONSTERS & GIRLS: AMELIA, by Denis St. John. There's so much going on in this comic that it's difficult to know where to begin. First and foremost, it's a high-concept horror comic. It's about a girl in her early 20s who has a magic object (a box with a creepy, ornate eye symbol) and is seeking out two other objects that are related to it somehow, knowing that she needs to complete the set. That particular bit of high concept unifies all of the other weirdness in this comic and gives it a sturdy structure to rest upon. Second, the tone of the comic slips between laugh-out loud absurdity back to horrific, sometimes in the same panel. Third, sex is a key and visceral component of this story, and St. John blends in eroticism with humor and horror--again, sometimes in the same panel.

There's a scene early in the comic where the protagonist, Amelia, is seducing a much older man so as to steal his magic object (a writing tablet). The way she moves her body around so as to avoid the disgusting prospect of seeing his facial expression, only to be scared witless at a pair of eyes staring at her out of the darkness, and watching her body twist around on top of his, was squirm-inducingly funny. Later, when she confronts her younger brother, acting remarkably casual for someone who was in the room at the same time and seemingly in cahoots with the older man, she blurts out "Why do you look like a Nosferatu?" The weirdness and laughs never take the reader out of the story, because this is in no way a parody. Everything that happens here makes sense in the context of this world, and the reader is asked to immerse oneself in it.
St. John is ambitious in the way he uses expression, gesture and mood. He doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off on every page and in every panel. Amelia's big eyes are one of the book's foci; there are some panels where her face, given a greater focus by St. John's line, looks slightly raggedly drawn. There's a density to his cross-hatching that's sometimes at odds with his figures. At times, there's also an awkwardness in the way his figures interact. Some of that is intentional, I'm guessing, but some of it is distracting on the page. On the other hand, St. John's use of black/white contrast is quite clever, as is the way he renders the repeated skull motif. His greatest skill is his ability to render humor, discomfort and desire in the same panel, and that blend is what makes this such an intriguing comic. I've never seen a comic that blended all three and still managed to tell an engaging narrative, and it seems that St. John is well on his way to creating a significant long-form work.