Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Alex Cahill

So far in this column, I've mostly done broad overviews, and irregularly at that. But I've received a number of submissions that demand my attention, and so I'll have a new review every Saturday for the next several weeks.

First up is Alex Cahill's THE LAST ISLAND ($6, It's Cahill's first comic since getting a Xeric grant for 2005's SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR. For those not familiar with the grant, it's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle co-creator Peter Laird's foundation that gives financial assistance to comics creators' publishing efforts. A lot of great artists got their first serious attention through the Xeric (which is a series of columns in and of itself some day), and Cahill's work certainly shows promise.

THE LAST ISLAND is (mostly) wordless, and it meshes its emotional and psychological themes nicely with its stylistic approach. The first thing one notices about it is Cahill's interesting design sense. First off, it's printed in landscape, which gives the entire enterprise a flip-book feel. Cahill's art is simple and bold, using thick black lines to delineate his figures and using black/white contrasts throughout the comic. Using a simple style was an important decision considering that the visuals had to carry the entire narrative. Considering that the narrative (by design) strains credulity, the reader's ability to clearly follow the story's flow was imperative to engaging the work.

The plot is deceptively simple, but I will need warn prospective readers right now of certain spoilers. A blonde young man is living the good life on an impossibly tiny desert island. He's barechested and looks like he's been living there for years. His routine is disrupted by an object falling from the sky: a wheel of some kind. As he sleeps, the current floats him out to a city. Terrified, he manages to swim his way back to the bucolic pleasures of his island. Out of nowhere, another young man appears on his island, speaking on a cel phone. This dark-haired man is well-dressed and possesses a kind of restless energy that immediately distresses the blonde-haired man. The blonde, disturbed by the brunette taking yet another phone call, grabs the phone and smashes it. The brunette retaliates by chopping down one of the blonde's beloved palm trees.

That starts a cycle of mutual aggression. The brunette uses a rope to lasso the city and bring it over next to the island. If the reader hadn't yet started to question the logic of the situation by now, that action would certainly do it. The brunette beaned the stunned blonde from his high vantage point in one of his city-buildings, and the blonde retaliated by smashing a building with a felled tree. As their conflict intensifies, more parts start to fall from the sky, and it becomes clear that the parts belong to an airplane. They're down to one intact tree and one intact building when the full cockpit appears, and the pair form an uneasy alliance as they rebuild the plane. Just as they finish, thousands of slips of black & white paper fall from the sky. On each slip is a squiggle that looks a bit like a wave.

We cut to a psychiatrist's office where we see the blonde man on a couch (and he's wearing all black). His analyst shows him a Rorschach blot that is in fact the squiggle that we not only saw in the last panel of the main story, but also kicked off the whole book. It's a reveal that seems a bit cheap at first ("it was all just a dream!") but resonates with multiple layers of meaning upon reflection. What seemed to be a breezy bit of magical realism was in fact a complex self-reflection by a character who has a number of inner conflicts. In retrospect, it becomes obvious that both of the characters on the island were two sides of the same person, in continuous conflict. The island persona was one that wanted to be free of entanglements, almost irresponsibly free and delighting in solipsism. The city boy was connected to the outside world, but seemed glib and clearly looked down on the island boy. The airplane represented a way of merging the two personalities, of getting them to share their curiousity and work together. The twist in the story is not the reveal of the psychiatrist's office; an astute reader could probably have guessed that this was a fantasy or dream sequence of some kind. The twist is that the dream sequence is one that solved one man's inner struggles, but did so without the aid of the analyst, who thought the session was a waste of time.

Overall, this was an intriguing work with a bold design sense that requires the reader to do a bit of work. Both its ambitions and rewards were modest, but nonetheless quite satisfying for a reader willing to think about what's happening on the page. At the very least, I'm interested in seeing what Cahill will do next. Artistically, his work could use some refinement. I love bold, simple art styles but Cahill hasn't quite simplified enough to make his line seem effortless to the reader. One can sense that his style is still evolving, and hopefully will acquire a greater fluidity. As to the present, Cahill took a simple set of ideas and arranged them in such a way as to create a compelling and ambiguous narrative. He didn't overreach or undercook his ideas, and the result was both clever and thought-provoking.
SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR, by Alex Cahill. Cahill's THE LAST ISLAND was the first submission I reviewed for this column. SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR actually preceded that work, earning a Xeric grant. This comic is also a mute story, an account of the dreams and nightmares of a man who's lost his will to live. There are a couple of killer visual sequences here that make use of a certain kind of panel-to-panel rhythm. One the left half of the page, we follow an argument between a husband and wife--the viewer's perspective is flat here, as though they were in the room with them. On the second half of the page, we zoom in panel-by-panel onto a building, into a bedroom. When the two columns converge, the relationship between the two becomes obvious and tragic.

The second great sequence is when the protagonist jumps off a building to end it all, but finds the result isn't quite what he expected. Cahill obviously loves drawing cities and cityscapes. I'm guessing this is due in part to the way he can use stark black & white contrasts, which is the hallmark of his art. The sequence where the main character flies over the city, flipping between his rapturous face, his tortured memories and the sheer majesty and terror of skyscrapers, cleverly ties together the book's themes. This is a man who lives in a claustrophobic environment and is slowly being driven to suicide by not only his own guilt but by the relentless barrage of oppressive stimuli. It makes perfect sense that the comic is silent, because the character's inability to communicate in the first place is what led to tragedy.

Cahill is not quite a good enough draftsman to pull off everything he tries here. He over-renders a lot of panels and sacrifices a great deal of clarity. While his drawings have a lot of energy, this story demanded something a bit cooler and more restrained. A greater economy of line, and especially a more judicious use of blacks, would have made the book's panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions much smoother. Still, there's a sophistication in both theme & composition in this comic, and I hope to see more solo works by Cahill.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Still Creating It: Against Pain

Rob reviews the collection of 75 cartoons by Ron Rege' Jr, AGAINST PAIN (Drawn & Quarterly).

Ron Rege's collection of short stories, AGAINST PAIN, was revelatory for me in much the same way the recent Gabrielle Bell collection was. AGAINST PAIN, like CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK, changes the context of the stories, most of which originally appeared in anthologies. For Bell, it allowed the reader to more easily see the subtle ways in which she modulated emotion and found different ways to render tension with restraint. The key to Rege's book is the strip that opens it, "Bad News for Language". In Rege's "cute-brut", primitivist but highly stylized approach, his characters are meta-characters, not only justifying their existence as a way of expanding the alphabet, but asserting that comics expand language by constantly creating a new one.

One must approach Rege's work as though one is learning a new language. It's initially disorienting, given the frequently vibratory nature of his line and dominant use of decorative patterns as part of his narrative. Coming across his work in an anthology would stop me dead in my tracks, as I had to switch from a conventional reading of comics to his totally immersive world. Indeed, the way he integrates text & image as well as subjects & decorative touches would seem to be a big influence on a number of artists. Dave Kiersh and Souther Salazar are two peers his work seems to have informed a bit, as well as the younger, current wave that includes the likes of Juliacks and Olga Volozova. His use of color (and frequently, garish or clashing colors) is designed to elicit emotion, dominating the line and text in some strips. For most artists, the use of color is more subtle and/or utilitarian, but Rege makes it one of his primary storytelling tools.

Relating and expressing emotion is Rege's biggest obvious goal as a storyteller. Indeed, his style and technique, while unusual and demanding intense reader participation, mask a fairly simple and straightforward approach to feelings. Rege' understands that telling us about a feeling, even in pictorial form, is not the same thing as having a feeling. That's why he takes the approach he does: evoking direct feelings in an indirect fashion. His use of color reminds me a bit of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in its vibrancy and the way he uses color to create an emotional atmosphere. By abstracting his work in crucial ways and forcing the reader to either engage the work directly or move on, Rege' is able to get at some very concrete experiences.

This style lends itself well to adaptations of outside source matieral. The best examples of that are his stories "High School Analogy", "She Sometimes Switched To Fluent English..." and the "Boys" strips. The first story was originally published in the infamous "Marvel Benefit Issue" of the Highwater Books anthology Coober Skeeber. Briefly, it's the best Spider-Man story I've ever read. By reformulating it as a first-person, Holden Caulfied-esque account of his miserable life as a loner, Rege' manages to capture the heart of Peter Parker's appeal while adapting a variation of an early Spidey story where he meets the Fantastic Four. The "cute-brut" style is hilariously employed here as Parker goes through the same sort of hormonal surges that fuel all teenagers, only turned up to an extreme.

"She Switched To Fluent English..." is an adaptation of an interview between an Israeli interrogator and a 20-year-old Palestinian woman who was going to become a suicide bomber but then changed her mind at the last moment. The panel composition is fascinating, with a rectangle that caves in as we see the faces of the two characters in opposition (creating a concave effect) and then little interjections horizontally stacked between panels by Rege' himself as he's reacting to the story that he's adapting. It's actually one of Rege's more immediately accessible stories but still has the sort of wildly expressive decorative touches and unusual design that can be seen in all of his comics.

"Boys" is a reprint of a collaboration with the writer Joan Reidy, a hilarious series of 3x3 panels about awkward sexual encounters told from the perspective of young women. With the stories in black & white, Rege' gives the stories a kinetic quality though the use of expression lines. They're employed so liberally that they dominate some panels in an almost abstract fashion. The stories themselves vary in tone from shocked to turned-on to despondent to hilarious. Some of the stories don't actually depict people, like one story where the narration in its entirety is "Sex is never a big deal in my life until I don't have it", spread out over nine panels over a lonely, deserted small town. As always, there's a tension between funny drawings of people and exaggerated visual effects and the depth of feeling of the narrator. It's like Alfred Hitchcock zooming a camera lens in while moving the camera itself back out: simultaneously creating distance and intimacy. Rege's adaptation of a chapter from Lynda Barry's novel Cruddy is another highlight, expertly depicting the feelings of longing and mystery using a similar sort of line as in his "Boys" stories.

Every cartoon in this book is worthy of study; his first strip as a 16-year old is a nice display of his playfulness, years before he refined his style. His shorter collaborations with Denny Eichorn and David Greenberger are also interesting as he had to find a way to stay true to his own vision as an artist while working with a writer that had a very distinctive way of doing things. That said, the three crowning masterworks in this collection are "We Must Know, We Will Know", the five strips about pain, and "FUC 1997". The first strip treats the human longing for understanding in much the same way Rege' treats the human longing for love and connection: as a series of episodes filled with moments of raw pain and exhillaration. Rege' brings out his entire arsenal of visual tricks for this series of vignettes: the use of bright colors to elicit emotion; cute/funny character design in conflict with the intensity of emotion; unusual page and panel composition, with one strip using interlocking triangles; and complex and interlaced character arcs. The strip is all about curiousity and the urge to figure out unsolved problems and the way that passion and curiosity are rewarded and punished. Each vignette builds on the next both thematically and emotionally, building a connection with the first and last strips between the urge to create and the urge to connect with others.

"FUC 1997" is a strip about a long-distance relationship and a particular liasion a couple had. It starts off with a 4x4 grid modulated only by the use of color: bright yellow and then sky blue. In the strip's climax, the grid breaks apart and a smaller 2x8 grid pops up in light purple that condenses the story of the relationship and even adds a bit of self-deprecating humor. It's commenting on and deflating the incident that occurs during the story's climax, giving a sort of simultaneity on the page. The pain stories contrast the main characters moaning about the pain they're feeling ("! lunch!") with very funny-looking drawings, and then cleverly switch perspective between a man in pain, his girlfriend in pain in the same scene, and then Pain itself. Rege' is mocking woe-is-me solipsism here and digs into the origins of pain and the way it ultimately inspires creativity. Rege's art verges on the baroque in this story (especially his lettering), but his drawings are so funny and occasionally abstract that he never descends into excess.

There's a level of craft and innovation in the best of Ron Rege's work that only Chris Ware has managed to match in the last fifteen or so years, yet it also has that immediate, primitivist quality to it so crucial to its impact. Like Ware, Rege' embraced an almost geometric simplicity in his figurework as a counterpoint to the increasing complexity of his storytelling. The formal qualities of the work don't simply serve as a means to an end; instead, there is no differentiation between form and function as part of storytelling and narrative. Panel construction and composition, the use of color and lettering all become integral in communicating emotional information, perhaps even moreso than the actual figures or text. Ultimately, what Rege's comics explore is hope--the hope of someone who has earned it through trials and experience. It's the optimism of someone who's suffered but maintains their willingness to connect and seek experience. It's told by an artist who came up with these innovations not for their own sake, but because it was the only way to express his ideas. This is a book that needs to be closely studied by young cartoonists everywhere.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dancing About Architecture: Side B

Rob reviews "the music lover's comic anthology", SIDE B (Poseur Ink), edited by Rachel Dukes.

Trying to get at the core of one's feelings about experiencing music is enormously difficult to do in ink, be it text or image. This is due, I think, to music being the most ephemeral of the arts. With music, there is no distinction between a copy of the recording and the original recording. Even the physical housing for a recording has no special aesthetic quality inherent to the art. There's an immediacy to hearing music that is so tied to temporality that hearing specific songs at certain times ties the two together forever in one's memory. The experience of seeing and hearing music live takes on a certain tribal quality for those who see it together, binding it even further to time and place. More than any other art form, one can talk about and around music, but never hope to capture the experience of listening to music with language.

Armed with both word and text, there have been a number of examples of comics that tried to tackle this problem. Steve Lafler's BUGHOUSE is probably my favorite, capturing the spirit underlying the creation of music, the camaraderie of being in a band, the sparks of collaboration and the power of live performance. Jaime Hernandez is well-known for his achingly accurate depiction of a music scene in his stories concerning the punk scene in Los Angeles and the travails of a small-time band. More than that, so many of his stories center around the ways that music creates meanings, often secret meanings (this was the centerpiece of his great "Wigwam Bam", for example).

Cartooning about music isn't easy and is rife for failure if one isn't completely committed. The old Comics Journal Special Edition centering around music from a few years back had an astonishing array of cartoonists, but many of the biggest names clearly mailed it in. Cartoonist and editor Rachel Dukes is so devoted to the topic that she has done a second anthology about music, SIDE B (the obvious sequel to SIDE A). It's a "mom and pop" operation, assisted only by her fiance Mike Lopez and self-published at considerable personal expense. It's clear that music is a strong enough force in their lives that they feel compelled to make this kind of commitment.

Unsurprisingly in an anthology comprised mostly of young and/or unknown cartoonists, the results were uneven. There also tended to be a certain amount of repetition in the themes chosen by the artists. That's inevitable in an anthology with a fairly narrow theme, but the better examples of each theme tend to make the lesser examples look even worse in comparison. The story categories roughly broke down as follows: the live music experience, music in relation to specific people in one's life, mixtapes, childhood remembrances of music, a special connection to a particular artist, love stories centering around music and the nature of music itself.

There were surprisingly few stories about the live experience, which I thought odd given the opportunity to draw audiences or bands in motion. Jeffrey Brown checked in with a funny anecdote about Cat Power looking right at him during a show and how that made him swoon. Dino Caruso and Josh Kemble's story about Caruso being sneaked into a David Lee Roth concert as a teen was also cute and revealed much about the strength of their relationship. On the other hand, a number of artists tried to tackle the nature of music and everyone came up short. For example, Rob Guillory's two pager was an illustration with a paragraph about his conception of music, and it just died on the page. R.S. Carbonneau and Jonathan Bass' clumsy attempt at depicting the way music can inspire writing metaphorically as a spacewalk spoke to two different problems. First, collaborating on this topic is enormously difficult, because a writer is most likely going to overwrite instead of letting the art tell the story. Second, as Brandon Graham noted in the clever introduction, depicting music is a matter of "show, don't tell", where the artist needs to "build a cool". Most of the lesser pieces in the book are too direct and earnest, trying to spell everything out instead of evoking something about the experience of listening to music.

That's why the most successful comics in SIDE B were those that focused on the relationship between music and memory. Liz Baillie's "Radio Radio Radio" and Box Brown's "A Beggar's Banquet" both tied specific songs to the funeral of someone close to them (one being fictional, the other autobiographical). In both instances, the song was a way of bridging the gap between life and death, and listening to it reinforced the connection they all shared. Here, music became a sort of shorthand for emotion. Ed Choy Moorman's story was along the same lines, going over a lifetime of musical experiences with someone close to him.

The comics form is obviously best known for its narrative qualities, and so stories about particular musicians and how they connect with each artist's life is a natural fit. Most of these tended to boil down to "I listened to band x in high school and his is how it made me feel", which unfortunately became repetitive after a while and uninformative unless you were directly familiar with the group in question. The stories that succeeded best told us something about the musician in addition to the cartoonist. That list included Colleen Frakes' story about Portland performance artist Jason Webley (done in her trademark loose style that featured a lot of black); Jim Mahfood's funny story about the effect Gary Wilson's odd stylings had on his personal aesthetic; and Noah Van Sciver's attempts at blazing out the bohemian's path ala Bob Dylan. There's an unabashed enthusiasm in each artist's story, showing that allowing someone to go on at length about an artist they admire can reveal something about the storyteller as well. The grittiness of the art of Mahfood (much less precious than much of his art) and Van Sciver brought the stories to life in a way that some of the slicker artists in the anthology don't.

Going back to one's youth so as to explore what music meant to each artist was another move that made sense, especially given the intensity with which teenagers feel everything, but especially music. I enjoyed Lucy Knisley's account of having all of her music disappear from her hard drive, with both a sense of loss and freedom from musical memories. Lawrence Gullo's story of Prague in 1968 was an interesting reminder of how Western music was a symbol of freedom to those behind the Iron Curtain, while Patricio Betteo's blotchy figures nicely captured the shadowy nature of music's grip.

Connecting music to love stories is another intuitive move, given that so many songs are about love. Three stories stand out here: Morgan Pielli's hilarious silent entry about dinosaurs and the first notes sounded (which brutally subverted sentiment in its final panel); Cathy Johnson's scribbly comic about missed opportunities for romance at a concert; and Warren Wucinich's stylish account of a night spent in the city, looking for live jazz and finding romance. The latter story wraps in the mixtape concept in slyly, with each song triggering a different memory. Jon Chad did something similiar in his mixtape story, with a specific track bringing back a particularly traumatic event while the character is making bread. Both stories are virtually wordless, instead using sweeping imagery and iconography to get their ideas across.

A few other stories bear mentioning: Mitch Clem's hilarious adaptation of the song "Checkers Speech" by the Mr T Experience, putting Richard Nixon in a new light; Jon Sperry's fun story about a band of anthropomorphic cats fighting aliens; Madeline Flores' twisty story about a teenager adjusting to the music and customs of a new land; the editors themselves with a cute entry about how the game Rock Band became a new way to bond over their shared love of music; and Megan Gedris' zip-a-tone heavy story about being courted by her various muses and how she wound up with the muse of comics instead of the muse of music. Like most anthologies with open submissions, I would have expunged about half of the entries and tightened it up a bit more. That said, Dukes' commitment to presenting a wide range of visual approaches was admirable, from the naturalistic Vertigo-esque art of Ryan Kelly to more abstract approach of Betteo. SIDE B's main problem was a sameness in conceptual approaches, which is where a stronger editing hand might have weeded out a weaker entry that was too similar to a stronger piece. Still, SIDE B's stronger stories were clever and affecting, displaying how motivated so many cartoonists were in addressing an art form so very different from theirs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Things Fall Apart: Jam In The Band 2

Rob reviews the second volume of Robin Enrico's chronicle of the rise and fall of a rock band, JAM IN THE BAND.

The first volume of Robin Enrico's JAM IN THE BAND focused on all-girl rock trio Pitch Girl's beginnings and what turned out to be their peak moment as an up-and-coming band. In a very "This Band Could Be Your Life" manner, the second volume is about the cracks that form and eventually break the band apart. Visually, this is a stronger volume because Enrico plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses as an artist even more. He's not adept at depicting naturalism or gesture in a way that feels realistic, which could be a real drawback in a story dominated by character interaction and personalities. Instead, the art is deliberately stylized so as to resemble an old-school video game at times, complete with weird angles, "energy levels", people moving flatly through space instead of fully inhabiting an area, arrows pointing out activities and energy flying off characters like special effects. This approach works remarkably well, given the glitzy and fantasy elements of being a rock band. It also helps convey the feeling of music being played, which is the most difficult aspect of representing music on paper. Lastly, it acts as a handy shorthand for conveying the larger than life emotions expressed by the characters.

Enrico's hyperstylization and narrative choices elevate the book from being a fairly predictable story about the rise and fall of a band and into a comic where every page holds an interesting surprise visually. The band, Pitch Girl, has the sort of archetypical problems we see in stories about musical groups: one member is in a long-distance relationship and isn't fully committed to the band; the guitarist is a lush and skirt-chaser; and the bandleader is a megalomaniac. The leader, Bianca, remains the most interesting and complex character in the book. Enrico's decision to deemphasize her a bit in this book was a wise one, if only to give the perspective of the other characters on the situation.

Once again, Enrico cleverly broke up the narrative (WIMBLEDON GREEN-style) with after-the-fact interviews with various people in the band's orbit, website articles and other ephemera. My favorite pages were journal entries from Bianca, which combined song lyrics, random emotional outbursts, graffiti, and details that served to humanize her a bit. The dialogues she held with an imaginary superstar future version of herself were some of the most interesting sequences in the book. That WIMBLEDON GREEN influence also popped up in how light-hearted and witty the book was, even when more serious issues arose. Part of that played out in Enrico's clever character design, which really played to his strengths as a stylist. Every character had a sort of distinctive personal flair that made them stand out, and Enrico created sparks by bouncing them off of each other.

The source of the conflict between Bianca, Corbin the guitarist and Tiara the drummer was one of conflicting priorities. Bianca's only goal was total world domination, winning over every audience no matter how resistant they were at first. Tiara was in it for the experience, with the sense that once its time limit expired, she'd grow up and become a real adult. Corbin had no goals other than the immediacy of the moment and deadening her social anxiety. Drinking and having random sex were her ways of staying in the moment and not worrying about the void in her life. Both Corbin and Tiara are pretty simplistic characters, especially in comparison to Bianca. Once their motivational paradigms became clear and they were locked into them, it became easy to predict what they were going to do. Of greater interest were the ancillary characters we only get glimpses of, like the sex blogger, and the vaguely crazed heads of the label Pitch Girl was on (which included Bianca's ex-boyfriend). For the less defined characters, a little detail went a long way, especially with the wild visuals that Enrico created for them. Corbin and Tiara weren't quite interesting enough to command the amount of "screen time" they received, except when they were reacting to (and against) Bianca.

That said, the sequence that dominated the second half of the book, when the band goes on a disastrous tour of Germany and has it filmed by a documentarian, was by far the most vivid and dramatic portion of the story so far. All of the enthusiasm of the first volume was slowly drained away as each character was cut off from their support systems and faced with openly hostile and even violent crowds. Enrico really got at the claustrophic feeling each band member was experiencing, desperately trying to find ways to survive on their pittance of a per diem. The self-consciousness of their actions as they were being filmed added to this tension, especially when comparing an early, delighted jaunt through one city in a montage and the lifelessness of the band when they tried to recapture this feeling in another city.

Bianca's idea that their struggles were something to be endured as part of the band's journey to success became an exercise in masochism, something Tiara tired of. When she left, Bianca finally understood that she'd gone too far and didn't know what to do next. The book's final scene offered a bit of hope for her as a person, but the key conflict in the final volume will be if she's capable of balancing her obsessive need for success with developing a sense of empathy. Enrico's most impressive achievement with this project is creating a character who is fundamentally unsympathetic in many ways but still manages to create reader goodwill for her. It'll be interesting to see how he finishes the character's story arc; somehow, I don't sense a conventional happy ending in her future.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Idealist Abroad: French Milk

Rob reviews the travelogue comics of Lucy Knisley, FRENCH MILK (Touchstone).

FRENCH MILK is a travelogue about transitions and the way a dramatic change of ritual can make us understand our choices a bit more clearly. Lucy Knisley was a 22-year-old in this story on the precipice of starting her adult life and faced a fair bit of anxiety about the prospect. She went to Paris for a month with her mother, ostensibly to celebrate the latter's 50th birthday and spend extensive time with each other while they still could. Knisley also had to deal with being separated from her lover for a protracted period and the home she had made in Chicago. It's funny to see a travelogue as the first major project of a promising young artist like Knisley. This is the sort of comic one generally sees from older, more experienced cartoonists who have already established their narrative voices.

At its heart, the book was about the tensions between the joys and restrictions of childhood versus the freedom and responsibility of adulthood. The one bad move Knisley made was spelling out this conflict in her afterword, which hammered home rather clumsily all of the themes she had elegantly teased out in the rest of the book. This had the feel of a young cartoonist who wasn't quite confident enough to let her work speak for itself. This is unfortunate, because Knisley's narrative voice shifted from childlike glee over things like food and dresses to an almost world-weary cynicism, illustrating the nature of this tension. When Knisley early in the book alerts the reader that she always feels herself revert to childhood habits whenever she returns home, it feels like she then goes out of her way to talk about her sex life as "proof" of her adulthood. It's unstated (until the end) but clear that the trip was mostly about finding new ways to relate to her mother now that both of their lives were changing in ways both subtle and dramatic.

That sense of melancholy and uncertainty certainly doesn't pervade the book. Indeed, Knisley focuses on things like food, sightseeing and other everyday trivia as a means of getting her mind in the right space. The book also feels like a way of reifying a powerful event: getting it down in ink, photos and thoughts was a way of solidifying the ephemeral nature of experience, and more pointedly, memory. What makes the comic a delightful and breezy read is how much of an open book Knisley presents herself as, remaining upbeat and reveling in delight even as she faces down her anxieties. She opens with a little bit of context about her family and life, but not so much as to drown the reader in details. Knisley begins with the events of just a few days before her trip to France, given us some grounding in the life she's leaving behind for awhile, her sense of curiosity, her neuroses and what she wants out of life.

Keeping a diary of an event often changes the way we perceive the experience. Knisley was clearly going after a series of magic moments and found them in the simplest encounters with food, art and a very old & established culture. Her brushwork has an appealing weight to it and I liked the way she composed each page. Some pages were comics with panel-to-panel transitions while others were labeled illustrations of what she was eating, visiting or wearing. The cartoony nature of her line gave the whole book a certain whimsical quality, even when Knisley temporarily descended into melancholy over her future career as an artist and the concept of financial responsibility. The drawings remind me a bit of Hope Larson (a friend and peer) but also a bit of a Dupuy-Berberian cityscape.

Knisley's youthful enthusiasm pervaded the entire project, especially in moments when she visited the graves of writers she found inspiring (like Oscar Wilde) or connected the experiences of writers she admired to Paris (like Ernest Hemingway). Once again, Knisley did take quite noticably inform the reader that she was not an innocent, injecting frank talk about her sex life into the otherwise breezy travelogue entries. She confessed that her obsessiveness on the topic had much to do with being apart from her boyfriend while having so many tempting opportunities in front of her. While Knisley expressed her fears and worries, she managed to avoid whining and at least continue to draw something interesting, even if it had nothing to do with Paris.

What makes the book a success is that her autobiographical voice is such a pleasantly winning one. She's so plain-spoken and unpretentious that the reader can't help but wonder what witty observation she'll make next. Combine that voice with her cartooning chops, and it's no wonder why this book was green-lighted by a major publisher. The multi-media aspect of the book had to have been another draw, with the mix of photographs, text and cartoons. It's a choice that made sense for a book aimed at audiences who read books about travel, giving them a bit of a foundation they understand and something to connect to the cartoons in the book. This is the sort of book that by definition an artist can only do once: an autobiographical rite-of-passage travelogue. That said, it would be interesting to see her repeat the experience in another twenty or thirty years, this time from the perspective of her mother. Until that time, I'll be curious to see how she evolves as an artist. Subtlety is not her strong point at the moment, so it'll be interesting to see if she can turn that weakness into a strength.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shaggy Dog: Monologues For Calculating the Density of Black Holes

Rob reviews the new collection of stories, sketches and other tidbits by Anders Nilsen, MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES (Fantagraphics).

It's an interesting exercise to try to wrap one's head around Anders Nilsen's MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES, which is apparently the second in a series. Nilsen is well known for his exacting work in his BIG QUESTIONS series, which is one of the few comics I read these days that has a lot of stippling to go along with its other detail. DOGS AND WATER was another book with opaque themes and a painstaking line that demanded a high level of scrutiny from its readers to tease out its meaning. That's why it caught many readers off guard when he started submitting scratched-out, stick-figure comics for MOME and for his first Fantagraphics book, MONOLOGUES FOR THE COMING PLAGUE. A number of readers were frankly baffled or even angered by that comic, given its bulging page count and slapped-off drawings. Those readers will likely want to avoid BLACK HOLES, since the style is the same.

So what is Nilsen's goal here? Like many artists whose masterwork takes years to complete, it seems as though Nilsen wanted to spend time on a project that was utterly different from his other work. Thus, the MONOLOGUES: spare and scratchy where his other work was detailed; loose and spontaneous where his other work was considered; and funny where his other work was melancholy. It's interesting to see the many influences that inform MONOLOGUES; there's a bit of absurdists like Ionesco, elements of Tom Stoppard's wit and philosophical musings, stream of consciousness dada in the style of Tristan Tzara, and oblique New Yorker type gags with the scratchy looseness of James Thurber and Saul Steinberg. Clocking in at over 400 pages, what MONOLOGUES winds up most of all as is a really good shaggy dog joke.

We meet a man who tells us about his day, where an increasingly absurd number of weird events has happened to him. He goes on Oprah, gets kidnapped by the CIA, and has all of his possessions shrink to nothing--or so he tells us. The central idea behind the book is "I'm not me", so he's able to talk about these events as though they were happening to someone else. We then meet the man in charge of his fate, with a scribbled-out head. The fact that Nilsen does not correct his scribbles is obviously quite deliberate: the omnipotent creator makes mistakes, but the characters are forced to deal with them. Immediacy and spontaneity are what he's going for above all else, not pausing to correct because he's quickly changing a punchline.

It's a risky approach because even comics with loose & scratchy art rarely include errors, and it's a big reason why so many readers have reacted so viscerally against these books. I actually see the scratch-outs as part of the joke: it's a form of erasure, leaving behind meaning even though we can't see the meaning. We can't see it as readers or know Nilsen's intent before he scratched out a word. Of course, we can only guess at what he really means even when we do see the words, which is part of the point. The spontaneity of the page makes for a deconstructive reading experience, where Nilsen forces the reader to break down each image and word.

Nilsen mockingly addresses his critics in the middle of the book, one of many tangents and side-trips in the book. Nilsen jokes that the drawing isn't crude--it took him his whole life to learn how to draw this badly, after drawing well for so many years. When the criticism is brought to his attention that he isn't funny, he simply replies "Fuck you. I don't think you are funny either." When another person notes that it's "random and incoherent", he smirks (with his blank-faced character), "Ah, my audience is finally beginning to understand me." These strips are random after a fashion, given the level of improvisation seen here, but it's not automatic writing. There are definitely story and concept threads that bind the book together.

One of the monologues is about a god-like figure looking over his creation and doubting his own decisions, while wearing handcuffs. The existence or non-existence of such concepts as god, empirical proof, knowledge and even doubt itself is discussed and then immediately lightened by a gag or an attack by killer robots. At its heart, this is a book about doubt and the ways in which it is punished and discouraged. Certitude even about doubt comes under fire in this book, as Nilsen mocks nihilism as much as he does the smugness of scientists. Nilsen lampoons science and faith alike, goes off on a tangent where he posits absurd fights ("who do you think would win--cows or pigs?"), and later has a bunch of single-page gags about masked burglars. The answers to profound philosophical questions are often solved by consulting a calculator, while the search for a note from his mother seems to be crucial to the ontological foundation for the main character. My favorite thing in the book are his absurd floorplans, where the rooms are labeled with people and things along with places (like salt pork, or machine guns).

An important note about the book is that it needs to be read in as close as one sitting as possible. There are recurring jokes as well as admonitions to pay attention to the main plot, even if nothing seemed to be happening. While there are plenty of gags, it's the shaggy dog nature of the book that form's the book's foundation, stringing the reader along as characters talk to us about what seems to be nonsense, until the end. Reading the book in smaller chunks robs the reader of that immersive experience and blunts the overall effectiveness of the joke. A second reading of the book helps remove some of that initial confusion, even allowing one to understand the bigger picture while taking in the small details a bit more closely.

MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES is a lark that allows Nilsen to ask a few fundamental questions without taking it all very seriously. It's best read quickly at first, never lingering too long on a particular image (again, a deliberate move by Nilsen). Instead, one should pay attention to the rhythm of the dialogue (and monologues) as it builds and gets crazier and crazier. The experience is akin to going to a small theater with bare walls, watching an absurdist play unfold. Even the pages where the character's backgrounds are mountains or maps feel like an overhead projector clumsily creating a background instead of a more organically constructed scene. We're thrust directly into the experience with no warning or context. It's best not to have any expectations; even the author chides his assistant for claiming that the book will all make sense in the end. While there is a conclusion of sorts to the narrative, it's really just another series of blackout gags as the main character drowns himself in paper in search of the one note that will ground him in reality and gets cleaned up in a quite literal manner. It's one of a surprising number of visual gags in this comic, as Nilsen isn't just shoving words down our throats but instead uses images as the workhorse for many of his jokes. Nilsen may have been trained in art school, but he has always had the instincts of a cartoonist and appreciation for the entire depth and breadth of its history. In this book, those instincts play out in an unorthodox fashion.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Deadpan, Elegant and Surreal: Nine Ways To Disappear

Rob reviews the new collection of stories by Lilli Carre', NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR (Little Otsu).

Lilli Carre' is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished and prolific young artists in comics. Her level of progression from project to project has been remarkable. Her latest effort, NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, may well be my favorite of her works to date. It's a collection of nine loosely connected short stories centered around the idea of what it means to disappear and highlights both her influences and the way she's incorporated and transcended them. What I love best about her work is the lengths she will go to sell a gag or let a strange idea play out to its logical extreme. With her impeccable design sense, cleverness in solving problems of composition and ability to create funny looking drawings that have a deadpan quality, Carre's stories both stand entirely on their own yet have a loose kinship with several other sub-movements in comics.

John Hankiewicz is a clear inspiration for some of her more abstract stories that almost have the rhythm of poetry. "Wait" and "What Am I Gonna Do?" both have the same sort of mundane imagery gone awry that one might see in a Hankiewicz story, but Carre' takes them in a very different, more directly absurd, direction. The latter story in particular has an enormously clever use of text text literally consuming a figure in the story with the weight of its burden. The deadpan surrealism of Gilbert Hernandez also seems to be an influence, especially in sweeping epics like "Dorado Park", "Sleepwalker" and especially "The Pearl". The latter story, concerning a singer transformed into a pearl and the various places he winds up in, may be my single favorite short story of the year to date. Carre' also seems to have a certain kinship with the immersive comics of Theo Ellsworth, Juliacks, Austin English and Olga Volozova. The way she often integrates text and image and the way her visuals draw the reader into her own world are very much like those other artists, but there's a coolness to her work that creates a tension between immersion and distance. It's that tension that I find to be especially gripping in her comics.

Each short story starts with a relatively mundane premise (two sisters living in a strange house, a man with a sleepwalking problem, a singer who encounters tragedy) and runs with the theme of the book in some unexpected ways. Carre' differs greatly from Hernandez in the way she incorporates the touch of an animator and frames every story with decorative borders. Those decorative touches are never intrusive, yet somehow add to the mood and atmosphere of each story. They mesh well with the book's size, which is 6"x6" square. Carre' relies heavily on black for mood, yet still varies her approach depending on the story. "The Neighbor" and "Dorado Park" both have a lot of dense cross-hatching, creating an oppressive atmosphere fitting for those creepy, claustrophobic stories. "The Sun", "Wait" and "What Am I Going To Do?" all have blank white backgrounds, which makes sense given these are less stories than weird blackout gags. The rest of the stories make use of dense, atmospheric blacks in much the same way as her book THE LAGOON does.

Unlike THE LAGOON, this book makes far greater use of funny drawings, as opposed to just idiosyncratic character design. The way the panels are created gives the content of each a sort of stagey feel, especially in episodic stories like "The Pearl". Give the pages of the book a quick ruffle like a flip book and this sense of being on stage really comes alive. The nature of each disappearance in the stories varies widely, from getting lost in a forest to being eaten by a word balloon to shrinking into nothingness. My favorite story in the book is "If I Were A Fish", which switches gears after two pages, going from kinetic to static as we follow the existence of a storm drain. The drain tells us about its existence and the many things it collects (that disappear for others), yet it can only think about the tiny objects that slip through its grates. It's the only protagonist in the book that doesn't receive a resolution to its problems by disappearing. The drain stays exactly where it is, and pops up again later, only to continue to be frustrated.

NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR marks the third publisher Carre' has published with, not counting her entry in BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2009. Little Otsu is yet another small press comics publisher that has a limited but impressive set of comics and other art objects for sale. Like Secret Acres, Picturebox or Sparkplug, Little Otsu concentrates on getting design and other little details right. I'll be reviewing some other efforts from the publisher shortly. What's really started to distinguish Carre's work is her sense of balance and rhythm. She balances the depiction of sound, memory and even smell in ways that other artists don't, in part because these are all things that interest her. That sense of rhythm, developed after some false starts with her TALES OF WOODSMAN PETE comics, allows her to slow down or speed up narratives while never disturbing the reader. It's balanced by the way she uses her line and those aforementioned decorative touches, giving her a formula of sorts that creates an almost hypnotic reading experience. Short stories still seem to be her greatest strength as an artist, but THE LAGOON proved that she could play with her own formulae to create a different experience for a reader. I'll be curious to see where her storytelling whims take her next.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Secret Origins: Funny Misshapen Body

Rob reviews the new collection of autobiographical stories by Jeffrey Brown, FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY (Touchstone Books).

For someone who's been sharing intimate and embarrassing details of his life in book after book, it's funny to call Jeffrey Brown's FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY his most personal work. The description fits, however, and it's all due to his style of narration in this book. In his previous autobio comics, Brown evoked universal feelings of love, loss and confusion by way of very specific vignettes. He was always careful to use a lot of time and narrative fracturing so as not to get the reader too invested in "story", per se, but rather the sort of feelings we can all understand about how relationships get jumbled up in our memories. It's an emotional ordering of events, not a chronological one but such a tactic can feel more true and vivid. Using that technique also allowed Brown to maintain a certain distance from his reader. Withholding basic but key contextualizing facts from the reader forced one to instead think about what these people were thinking and why. This emotional narrative always superceded what one would think of as a standard plot-driven narrative; indeed, it subverted such a standard narrative.

The manner in which Brown chooses to reveal personal details varies between self-indulgent, self-depracatory, and self-aware. Brown also varies between narratives with clearly defined punchlines and situations that simply trail off with no resolution. He's adept at depicting awkwardness and his self-caricature often winds up creating it. No matter how much Brown tries to distance himself from the reader through the narrative, one can still sense a certain warmth for everyone involved in the story, including himself. Despite pain, failure and heartache, his comics have always carried a certain degree of optimism, maintaining that spark of hope we might all feel when we're caught in a despondent situation.

FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY wastes no time delving into Brown's past with a directness, focus and attention to detail that he deliberately left out of past volumes. The reason seems pretty clear. While LITTLE THINGS was about the way small details in our lives accumulate, form patterns and ultimately add up to a life lived, FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY is about Brown's personal quest to become an artist and how this got wrapped up in his coming to terms with identity and self-image. It's a warmer book than Brown's other material and more direct, even if he still continues to splinter the chronology of events. As a result, it doesn't feel as much like a "Jeffrey Brown book" as his other comics and reminds me a bit more of conventional autobiographical comics.

This plays out on the page in the way Brown uses narrative captions. In most of his stories, narrative captions provide the sparest of information and never reveal Brown's thoughts or drive the narrative. In FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY, narrative captions almost exclusively propel the story forward and feature lots of "I did this" statements. Brown spells out his intentions and feelings pretty clearly in the captions, leaving the actual images and dialogue as a method of conveying punchlines. This approach allows Brown's unabashed enthusiasm for comics to shine through in a way that's not expressed in his other books. This comic actually reminds me a bit of Alec Longsteth's autobiographical work in its directness, sheer enthusiasm and refusal to be the least bit abashed about either. While Brown is looking back at how he developed as an artist with a wiser eye, one never gets the cloying sense of certitude that one feels after reading a David Heatley comic. Heatley's comics tend to follow a very dialectical path (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) with clear "right" and "wrong" positions emerging in his own mind. On the other hand, with Brown we get a sense of "well, this is working for now". There's less a method to his madness than there is a sense of him following his instincts.

The conflicts of instinct vs ambition vs outside expectations are at the heart of this book. Brown's stories of his fumbling attempts at young romance, becoming cool by way of pot and alcohol and the ways in which his body betrayed him with Crohn's disease relate to his quest for purpose in that they reflect his overall awkwardness. While the book is ostensibly about the way his artistic path developed, he pointedly tells that story out of order and intersperses it with these other, intimate accounts of personal embarrassment and humiliation. It's a key move, because the book otherwise would have been overwhelmingly specific and self-indulgent. Brown also amps up the level of humor in this book in an effort to leaven the more directly personal nature of his stories. Sometimes he goes a bit overboard in telling the reader how he used humor in his poetry readings to undercut his own potential self-seriousness; this is something that was pretty clear in the narrative and didn't need to be spelled out--and especially not several times.

That said, I do understand some mentions of his use of humor, since it accidentally became one of the cornerstones in his future career as a cartoonist. His stories of how he went from a boy who loved comics to a high school cartoonist to "serious" artist are refreshingly honest and mostly free of the blame and frustration I've seen in other accounts of art school from cartoonists. While Brown was frustrated, it was more due to him not knowing what he wanted to do than with his teachers or fellow students. When his teachers called him out on a lack of ambition and direction, he took that message to heart. Meeting Chris Ware pointed him in the right direction, and from there, he started to realize that instead of the detached art he had been making, he instead wanted to make something direct, honest and communicative of human experience. Brown really showed the reader all of his cards here, revealing that his now oft-imitated narrative structure was inspired by a particular writing class in art school. This also became the rationale behind his loose, scratchy art. He wanted something immediate and easy to parse rather than an overworked, slicker style that would deflect reader engagement and involvement.

LITTLE THINGS is still Brown's best book; it's his most challenging and rewarding in terms of its structure and ideas. The clever way he connects memories and anecdotes to create a larger overarching structure was enormously ambitious and successful. FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY is a bit less ambitious, more of a companion piece that fills in gaps than a significant statement of its own. In some ways, it wasn't a surprising move, because even in LITTLE THINGS Brown starts to become unsure of his autobiographical approach and starts to think about trying something a bit different. FUNNY MISSHAPEN BODY clears up mysteries, airs secrets and gives context to Brown's other comics, looping back to his first book, CLUMSY. It does so enthusiastically but unpretentiously and invites the reader to poke fun at him along the way. More than any other autobiographical artist that I can think of, Brown is acutely aware of the difference between actual experience and the interpretation and recording of same. While the view in this book is perhaps not as compelling as his best works, it's still worth seeing and a compellingly honest statement about the frustrations and joys of the artistic process.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Self-Portrait of the Artist: Likewise

Rob reviews Ariel Schrag's autobiographical high school epic, LIKEWISE (Touchstone Books).

Ariel Schrag long ago carved out a unique niche for herself in comics with the release of her first work, AWKWARD. She wrote and drew an autobiographical account of her ninth grade experiences immediately following the conclusion of ninth grade. She did the same for her next book, DEFINITION, a comic that started to gain her a good bit of notice and began a chain of events where experiences and the recording & interpretation of those experiences started to blur together. Her next project, POTENTIAL, was a series that was later collected and was considerably more complex than her earlier works. While she wrote this account of her junior year during her senior year, it took her a lot longer to actually finish drawing and inking the book. LIKEWISE, her senior year chronicle, took a year to write, but she only just finished inking and had it published it a decade later.

LIKEWISE is a glorious mess. It's a reflection of an artist who was simultaneously fully coming into her own and a young woman grappling with an identity crisis on several levels. There are so many conflicting artistic agendas in this book that one almost needs a scorecard. Part of this is due to the way Schrag was cycling through her influences so quickly. She started reading James Joyce's ULYSSES as a senior and suddenly her work took on the time-fractured, stream-of-consciousness nature of Joyce's fiction. At the same time, LIKEWISE has a decidedly postmodern bent, with Schrag pulling away from the narrative to make metatextual comments. Schrag was also constantly aware of the need to entertain and dramatize; she deliberately veered from pages of navel-gazing into over-the-top situations. She reveled in the depiction of tenseness and unraveling normalcy, like a scene at a family birthday party where her mother and aunt engaged in escalating hostilities. It's clear that Schrag wanted the audience to simultaneously laugh and squirm even as she depicted herself as being paralyzed when the whole event was going down.

What prevented this all from becoming too clever or jumbled for its own good was the way Schrag's work really served to document a young person coming to grips with their own obsessive disorder. While Schrag didn't precisely spell this out, she gave the reader enough clues to figure out what's going on. The first is when she talked about being a child obsessed with disease and coming up with rituals that would help "prevent" her from getting them, finally needing therapy to work through it. While she worked through the compulsive element, her work stands as a monument to the way art can be both therapeutic and an impediment to growth. Recording her life as a comic became the center of her life, to the point where she started to think of everything in how it would translate as part of her story. She started keeping files and photos on the people she hung out with, and went as far as tape recording them in LIKEWISE. It's telling that when she finally started to cut off contact with an ex-girlfriend, she was distressed because she didn't have the right reference photos for the comic and desperately wanted her to pose for them.

Schrag's comics started as fun, carefree ways of recording her experiences, obsessions and relationships. AWKWARD, contrary to its title, lacked almost any sense of self-consciousness or attention to style. DEFINITION, on the other hand, was heavy-handed at times in the way she was trying to integrate visual styles she found interesting (like graffiti art) into her own work. The way she picked through the narrative to create something coherent made it ring the most false of all her comics, even as it read the smoothest. POTENTIAL was remarkable because Schrag never depicted herself as a sympathetic character in any manner, even with a girlfriend who grew increasingly cold and distant. Even though that book shifted its focus from what she experienced at school to the way her relationship consumed her, it maintained its illusion of being about "now".

LIKEWISE smashes that illusion even as she told a very loosely linear chronology of the year. In the book's prelude, Schrag depicted a conversation between herself and her ex, Sally, where Sally noted "You might as well call the next book 'writing Potential'". LIKEWISE was not about Schrag's senior year, but was rather about an obsessive person trying to write, in the most minute and painful detail, about an experience that consumed her. Eventually, Schrag started to understand that her obsession started to make her a snake eating its own tail. Memory and experience started to blur together, where recording her immediate thoughts almost started to supercede having other experiences. There was a point in LIKEWISE where she realized that she had to stop what she was she doing in terms of her obsessive recording of every moment if she was going to move on in her life. At that same point, she also knew that the comic was the only thing keeping her together even as her life was falling apart in other ways. The divorce and increasing weirdness of her parents, her inability to cope with Sally, and the fracturing of friendships coincided to turn making the comic from creative outlet to last tether to sanity & stability. Of course, if POTENTIAL at its heart was about Schrag's inability to see how she wound up in obsessive situations, then LIKEWISE brought with it the dawning realization that she brought most of her problems on herself.

One of the more interesting things about Schrag's work is that her books tended to reflect aspects of whatever her current academic obsession was. In DEFINITION, it was chemistry, which spilled over into the obvious ways in which people combined. In POTENTIAL, it was biology, and she really ran with this idea both in terms of the individual structure of each chapter and the ways in which she looked to science to solve her own identity crisis. Her own homophobia is a running theme throughout both POTENTIAL and LIKEWISE, as Schrag becomes obsessed with trying to prove to herself scientifically that homosexuality isn't an aberration. That sort of scientific flatness was a nice complement to the teenage diary feel of her narration.

LIKEWISE dwells a bit more on literary devices as Schrag systematically reveals and dismantles all of her own comics-making techniques. The problem in the first section is that the Joycian techniques combined with high school angst made for a tough slog at times. When Schrag was dealing with her family or wondering out loud about the ineffable concept of "it", a sort of sense of total aesthetic balance, the first section really pops. When Schrag goes back into moping about Sally by way of Joyce and the text piles up on the page, LIKEWISE becomes a frustrating read. Interestingly, at the climax of a huge, dramatic revelation by Sally that included the carefully-detailed anecdote of Schrag wetting herself, Schrag-the-writer pulls back and flashes forward to herself writing this segment. This is when LIKEWISE starts to get interesting and Schrag uses the structure of comics to get at what Joyce did rather than simply write in stream-of-consciousness style.

The rest of the book is fragmented, with certain images repeating as Schrag nonetheless keeps up the roughly linear chronology. Details of certain events are parsed out slowly and obliquely, only to be referred to again and again. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is when Schrag really starts to get more daring with her visuals. It helped that LIKEWISE was printed on better paper than any of her Slave Labor books were, but she didn't quite have the chops to pull off a few of the things she did in this book in the past. Schrag alternates between her heavily-crosshatched and more densely rendered style to a scribbly & sloppy line that represents the immediacy of a diary (and open wound) to a dazzling scratchboard technique to a greyscaled, more naturalistic line. Schrag's strength was always in her use of gesture and expression, and her scribblier drawings carry feeling and the immediacy of crazy moments better than her more tightly rendered drawings. This is also reflected in her lettering, which varies from standard print on what's deliberately drawn as something ripped out from a sketchbook to her smaller, more precise lettering style to a more frantic scrawl.

In the book's final section, Schrag's chapters start to get shorter and shorter as she barrels toward the end. She's no longer going on at length about how she feels, and instead just gives us quick snapshots and anecdotes, allowing the reader to fill in the details. It's the kind of restraint that Schrag never used in the rest of her work; her style has always been about a frontal assault of sorts on the reader--take it or leave it. This most-fractured segment of the book is also about her increasingly fractured personality, as she questions her sexuality and is forced to confront her burgeoning celebrity with a certain segment of youth culture. This is reflected in her experiences with her oldest friend, who talks about the way people talk to Schrag, and Schrag herelf owns up to using that celebrity at times for her own purposes. The book's last two chapters are a sort of recapitulation of the rest of the book, both in terms of story and art, as Schrag goes from a goofy cartoon depiction of herself to that greyscale version and then back to her standard style. The book ends on a goofy, self-effacing note, deflating both the expectations of senior year of high school and her own obsessions, leaving the reader with a protagonist who is perhaps at last a bit more comfortable in her own skin.

Reading LIKEWISE is frequently a rocky and frustrating experience, but Schrag's sheer ambition and drive behind this comic is so compelling that one can't help but get swept along. It's fascinating to see the decisions she makes as a storyteller and autobiographer, since the concerns of one are frequently not the same as the other. Schrag pointedly shows herself as difficult to interact with and love, even when the narrative is driven by teenaged Schrag's righteous anger against the world. Schrag's pain came from both internal and external sources, and while her identity and output as an artist probably wasn't the ideal way to cope, it was all she felt she could cling to at the time. That desperation made for a commitment to the story at all costs, and it's the depth of her commitment that makes LIKEWISE such a compelling read.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Unreliable Narration: George Sprott, 1894-1975

Rob reviews the revised "graphic novella" by Seth, GEORGE SPROTT: 1894-1975 (Drawn & Quarterly). This is an expanded version of the strip that originally was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

As seen in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Seth's GEORGE SPROTT was a sort of distillation of the storytelling techniques he used in his delightful (but slightly melancholy) WIMBLEDON GREEN combined with the same sort of themes found in his current long-running serial, "Clyde Fans". The original 20-part serial was composed such that each page could be read as a discrete unit but also fit as part of a larger narrative. That narrative, such as it was, contained frequent digressions into the history of certain buildings and long interviews with people who knew the titular character. The handsome new release for Drawn & Quarterly fleshes out certain aspects of Sprott, provides a bit more breathing room with incidental illustrations and even concretizes them with photos of Seth-built cardboard buildings.

Seth is labeled a nostalgist in the way he tends to idolize the past. I've always thought that for him, it wasn't so much idolizing past values, but rather a sense of immersion in an aesthetic that always felt tied to a particular time and place. That's why the buildings of importance in GEORGE SPROTT are given so much development and "characterization"; to Seth, they are crucial pieces of the story. These buildings are both repositories of specific experiences at specific times and aesthetically beautiful in and of themselves. George Sprott is just one man living in the fictional Canadian town of Dominion, a town so real and vibrant to Seth that he felt compelled to recreate it as a series of models. For Seth, his aesthetic battle is between generic and specific. One gets the sense that through mass production and globalization, the individual aesthetic of local communities is being obliterated, and along with it the quirky panache that Seth reveres. This theme of the shrinking importance and influence of individuals in the face of an increasingly bland culture resonates throughout GEORGE SPROTT, recapitulating the themes that have always been present in Seth's comics.

What separates GEORGE SPROTT from other slice-of-life studies is the apologetic, sheepish narrator who is far from omniscient. While the narrator does move the story forward (with a number of digressions) as Sprott's last day on earth is detailed, they apologize not only for leaving out details, but for failing to pithily explain who Sprott really was to the audience. The reality is that all narrators are unreliable, with none moreso than those who narrate their own stories. Putting together a biography is an act of trying to overlay a narrative on top of a life--but a story is not a life lived, but rather a retroactive interpretation of that experience. One can talk about a life, around a life, give facts, figures & dates--but such an approach doesn't really provide true insight. Having a narrator who knew all sorts of stuff about Sprott but who wasn't in any real position to tell us what it all meant was a refreshing approach, and one that allowed the reader to approach the story more on their own terms.

Following the visual style of WIMBLEDON GREEN fits nicely with that approach, because as the narrator is constructing the story of a life out of overly-simplistic parts, so does Seth the artist draw his figures as simply-drawn geometric figures. Circles, squares and triangles make up nearly every figure and building as there's a minimum of rendering, an interesting departure for an artist whose dense brushwork creates so much atmosphere. By simplifying his figures, Seth reduces the reader's tendency to linger too long on individual images, instead propelling them along the page as we follow the simple figures. At the same time, the reader is immersed in the atmosphere of the piece, as the use of color is crucial in creating mood. Seth masterfully evokes this atmosphere with that brush, giving the simple figures a certain power, all while creating a total environment where every element is designed to convey the overall emotions of the piece. The effect of the metallic blue and the reddish brown color overlays feels like we're looking at an old photograph, starting to fade. The new material in the book consists of anecdotes that can run a few pages long, and these are all done in tan, as though we're looking at a crumbling piece of newspaper. Of course, the slickness of design, the way the colors pop and the quality of the paper add a certain tension to this illusion; it's somehow both new and old.

If the reader is kept at a distance from Sprott, it's because the character deliberately pushed aside troubling feelings by adhering to a strict set of daily rituals. The irony here of course is that Sprott as a younger man fancied himself an adventurer, a rascal and a lover--a man who lived by his whims and felt no compunctions about spontaneity, even if that wound up hurting others. That robust, handsome man had become obese, living in the past as his employment with a TV show and weekly lecture had him constantly recounting his younger, more vital days. His only remaining skill was that of raconteur, trying to entertain but never to interact. Like all of Seth's characters, he's now a man trapped in the wrong time who squandered his opportunities to make the lives of others better and is now trying to chase away demons of guilt.

Of course, Seth makes sure never to make it that simple. We get all kinds of accounts about Sprott, from intimates to those who only knew him from his TV show or lectures. Those stories wind up telling us little about Sprott but lots about them, especially since so many of the accounts seem to contradict each other. The sharpest comparison is between his illegitimate daughter, who never knew him, hated him for this and then perpetuated her feelings onto her children; and his niece, whom he heaped affection on. His niece was the one person still taking care of him late in his life, and it's implied that Sprott heaped affection and attention on her because he realized it was too late with his daughter. Whatever the reason (guilt, regret, a desperation to connect), a connection was formed; there's one remarkable drawing of his niece as a child sitting in his lap, an utterly contented look on her face.

There's never a real sense of mystery to be found in this story, another deliberate move by Seth. We understand early on why Sprott feels regretful and whom he hurt and how. There's something about details being revealed to the reader that concretizes the experience all the more, making us both pity and feel shame for Sprott. In the end, the narrator doesn't pretend to try to wrap things up or make sense of his life. We don't know if George's affection for his niece proved to be some form of redemption, or if that concept has any meaning at all in this context. From a purely materialist standpoint, the strip about a collector TV ephemera proudly showing us his Sprott collection was both touching and pathetic. Touching in that in some small way, Sprott won't be forgotten--but pathetic that he will only be remembered as a sort of trivial fetish. The scattered array of panels toward the end that represent Sprott's last moments recapitulated the way his life was represented in the book: fragmented, episodic and filled with meanings that are not easily teased out.