Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: L.Nichols, Shannon Smith, John Porcellino

Rob looks at three different takes on autobiographical minicomics from L.Nichols, John Porcellino and Shannon Smith.

KING-CAT #69, by John Porcellino. John P. has just hit the twenty-year mark on this series, and he continues to set the standard for what's possible in minicomics. This issue mixes the melancholy and the euphoric in equal measure as we meet John and partner Misun's new kittens. There are plenty of strips about the funny things that young cats do, rendered in Porcellino's minimalist but expressive line. There are also the usual strips about moments of sublimity, like the tedium of waiting in a car mitigated by getting to see a particularly beautiful moon. This issue also directly confronts his views on aging; having hit forty, one senses a certain disconnect on Porcellino's part with his punk rock past and receding hairline. This is most poignantly felt when he realizes that the sound of a passing train no longer represents escape. For Porcellino, all moments have the potential to be a Magic Moment, if one pays close enough attention. There's no difference in value attached to the mundane goings-on of his pets, a zen appreciation of a wintry day, or lingering on moments from his youth. Porcellino's restraint is what prevents his comics from becoming maudlin or sentimental, both in terms of the spareness of his line and plainness of his prose.

ADDICTED TO DISTRACTION, by Shannon Smith. The best word to describe this mini is "pleasant". Smith is an amiable fellow with a loving family who enjoys relating anecdotes about his life and the world of comics. The "In A World of Savages" strips are my favorite in the book, as Smith employs a pleasingly shabby line to relate stories about his daughter, his obsession with the Comics Journal, and his status as a cartoonist vs being a musician. The bulk of the issue is devoted to his Super Bowl Sunday drawing experiment, where he drew a page once an hour describing his day. His line here is extremely crude for obvious reasons, but his gentle, self-effacing humor shines through on every page. Smith works the angle of being a laid-back, toy-loving guy in a house filled with women & girls quite nicely, especially in the way he lets his children dictate the pace and nature of their play. A different strip where a character encounters a lyrics-spouting Jimi Hendrix felt more like an exercise than a real story, and his more heavily-labored art doesn't add much clarity. On the other hand, the pages of illustrations in the back were often funny (Lucy Van Pelt haranguing Judge Dredd?) and weirdly enthusiastic (like several pages hyping up Virginia Tech in the ACC football championships). All told, this wasn't an earth-shattering collection of stories, but it was one without any pretenses of such.

JUMBLY JUNKERY # 4-6, by L.Nichols. L. Nichols' snapshots of life remind me of a cross between Lisa Maslowe and Jeff Levine. Some of her strips have Levine's meditative and poetic focus on life as it's lived in motion, taking time to slow down and think about her environment. Some of them have Maslowe's sly wit and focus on what delights her, while still dealing with her own anxiety. Of course, both of those artists also owe a debt to John Porcellino, but Nichols' line is much different. While Porcellino has stripped away all but the most essential of lines, Nichols prefers to use more blacks, shadows and a cartoonier line. The most striking thing about her art is her self-caricature: an overstuffed rag doll with button eyes, but with several piercings and an unusual haircut. The rag doll is a stroke of genius in these strips, mostly because this very simple figure still manages to be enormously expressive, especially in terms of gesture and body language. The way Nichols draws her self-caricature with stooped shoulders walking down the street or smiling contentedly in bed with her partner is great cartooning.

Between issues 4 and 6, Nichols seems to have worked hard on refining her line. The thicker black lines she was using didn't seem to do her storytelling and clarity any favors, especially when depicting things other than herself. The one exception in #6 was "Stigmata", where she deliberately went to a crude-looking line that looked a little like watercolor (to simulate blood?), telling a story about her childhood desire for stigmata as a sign of her special nature. That story spoke to one strain of her interests: desires unfulfilled--both her own, and what she felt pressured to do.

Indeed, Nichols' stories about identity have a matter-of-fact but deeply personal component in the way her ambiguous gender used to be a sore point for her. This is a person who embodies the phrase "the personal is political", given how she tried to avoid contentious issues relating to gender and feminism but was forced into it given the crap she had to take from teachers, fellow students, co-workers and random people on the street. As an engineering student, she was stunned to find how often she encountered blatant sexism. In her "The Sad Truth" strips, she related such anecodotes with a good deal of righteous anger, but that fury didn't linger in her other work. Indeed, "Stereotypes" finds her longing to avoid any kind of gender categorization in a resigned manner, while another strip conveyed the feeling of betrayal from her own body she felt every time she menstruated.

Her "Confessions" strips relate stories from the tenuous relationship she has with her right-wing parents to learning how to use a yo-yo as a child. Her funny "Sisyphus" strips all have the same punchline: her work is never done, no matter what it may be. It's the stories that don't fall into ready categories that are her best, however. In #6, "Quantum" is a fascinating speculative story about going to the future to find that souls were discovered to be a kind of quantum particle. That led to the discovery of an equation that was in itself sentient and impossible to pin down, leading to a cultural revolution where scientists took up the arts. The story's denouement finds Nichols taking up art after finishing up engineering school "because I thought the future should start now".

What Nichols seems to be aiming at is a very personal record of feelings-in-the-moment, be they high or low. Some of them are profound observations, while others are silly records of what her cat is doing. Nichols is also careful not to engage in too much navel-gazing, turning her eye to things she sees on the street & subway and people she's observed. As Nichols refines her line and continues to add clarity to her pages, she will really be able to get the full amount of expressiveness she's trying to get out of every panel. There's a sense of both whimsy and melancholy that pervades these comics, aided by Nichols' self-deprecating but still confident attitude about her own life. This attitude was clearly hard-won and well-earned, and it's the key to why the reader is drawn to her stories.