Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Autobio/Diary Roundup: Dabaie, Wertz, Baylis, Spina, Marcej, Harbin

Let's take a look at a variety of diary and autobiographical minicomics.

He Also Has Drills For Hands!, by Marguerite Dabaie. This is a self-curated collection of Dabaie's best daily strips over the span of a year, and the result is a minicomic that leaves the reader wanting more. These are drawn in a sketchbook and combine the intimacy and loose feel of such a drawing with a surprising level of detail and some attractive decorative features. In her Hookah Girl comics, Dabaie isn't necessarily known for her sense of humor (though there are funny moments), but her daily strip is far more likely to end with a punchline of some kind. The title of the strip refers to one of her childhood crushes--a character from a video game with drills for hands. Dabaie throws in bits and pieces from her childhood, creativity, daily life, her then-fiancee (and now husband) and a tale about inadvertently meeting John Cusack. In the selection of comics she published in this mini, it seems that she takes great pains to tell an entertaining story of some kind in her strips, rather than just focus on relating particular quotidian events. That said, Dabaie does reveal bits and pieces about her life through stories about her grandmother and things she sees on the streets of New York--it's just that every strip has the same slightly comic and exaggerated flavor, heightened by the charming immediacy & roughness of her line.

Spinadoodles: The Second Year, by Sam Spina. This is the latest big batch of diary comics from Spina, a cartoonist who's clearly attempting the daunting task of getting better in public. In over a year and a half worth of daily strips (he never missed a day), Spina tries different art styles and moves a bit away from the obvious influence of James Kochalka. The overall experience of reading this was not as rewarding as reading the samplers from Marcej and Dubaie, two cartoonists who pared down their strips to a "best-of" selection. Spina chose to steam ahead with every last strip, no matter if they were half-assed, uninspired or repetitive. This mini is a document not only of his life, but also of his development as an artist. It wouldn't be quite truthful to omit strips done while he was dead tired from a long day at work, but the resulting reading experience was a bit of a slog at times. This is not to say that there weren't highlights; indeed, about 1 out of every 4 strips either landed a decent laugh, contained a personal revelation or had an interesting drawing. Given that there are 400 or so strips (with 4 crammed to a page), that's still a fairly solid showing. And some of the best strips (like the ones where he shows snippets of arguments with his girlfriend) are all the more effective because their tone is so unlike his other comics. The strips that work best are usually the ones that look the least like Kochalka's; that is, strips with less line weight (especially in the panels) that rely more on the basic figures rather than textures.

One thing that surprised me was that after a certain point, the rhythm of the strip started to grab me. It wasn't so much that the individual entries became noticeably stronger over time, but rather the kind of observations Spina was making started to become appealing on their own. Spina portrays himself neither as a deep thinker or someone who's especially introspective, but the raw surface energy of his observations has a propulsive quality. Eventually, Spina's simple caricature of himself (big, angular nose and sharp chin), frequently childlike enthusiasm, and self-deprecatory charm leave more of an impression than any particular anecdote. Projects like this eventually tend to have diminishing returns (Spina himself complains about how much more productive he might be if he wasn't doing a daily strip in one entry) unless they become one's life's work, ala Ben Snakepit. I don't think this is true of Spina, so I imagine there will come a point where what he's getting out of drawing these strips is far exceeded by the amount of time and effort he puts into them.

So Buttons #4, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. Baylis has been writing autobio comics drawn by others for the past couple of years, but this issue of So Buttons represents his biggest leap forward in all respects. First off, the format and coloring of this mini are clean, attractive and reflect a lot of attention to detail. Second, the ordering of the stories was deliberate (as Baylis notes in his introduction) and far more effective than in past issues. There's a beautiful flow of styles as Baylis roughly moves in chronological order. Third, everyone in his roster of artists did a fine job. More on that in a moment, but Baylis' past contributors in particular have made real strides in their storytelling. Lastly, Baylis has finally learned to rein himself in a bit. A huge flaw for many writers who don't draw (especially those that do autobio) is that they tend to over-write their stories. They simply don't know how to let the visuals of the story work as an equal partner. There's also a tendency to ramble on for too many pages instead of distilling an anecdote to its essence, the way that Harvey Pekar did so well. Baylis still has a tendency to overexplain the significance of certain events rather than letting the event speak for itself, but that tendency is lessened when he writes shorter stories. The fact that the stories in this volume were all between two to four pages seems to be a key as to why they were so effective.

Much of this issue is an ode to filmmakers that have meaning for Baylis, often in connection to specific life events. "So...Chalk It Up To Konglateral Damage", drawn by Thomas Boatwright, is interesting because Baylis associated the movie with Thanksgiving--and that he never got to see it all the way through. "So...Stranger Than Parrot Eyes" (also drawn by Boatwright) is a more cartoonish story about Baylis seeing director Jim Jarmusch on the street. Baylis fantasizes about hanging out with him and his "Sons of Lee Marvin" friends while ruminating on what appeals to him about film and what turns him off. Noah Van Sciver draws "So...Loyal", a history of his baseball fandom. Van Sciver eschews a literal approach in terms of the imagery he uses to illustrate Baylis' narrative in favor of a more whimsical take. It's an approach I haven't seen before in a Baylis comic, and it works. Fred Hembeck draws a very funny story about Baylis' internship at Marvel Comics and how he was put in a position to correct John Romita, Sr. on a piece of art. That there are so many stories in this issue (eleven plus a bonus page from Van Sciver) gives it a nice weight and denseness; the issue turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts.

My World And Welcome To It, by Richard Marcej. Marcej is a toy designer and occasional cartoonist who decided to do a diary comic as a way of getting himself to draw every day. The subject matter is mostly standard diary work: movies he sees, bathroom habits, notable sights and events from his life. He is, however, extremely open about his life in terms of his dating habits and family tragedies, treating them with respect but also with the same level of detail he uses in his other strips. What sets this strip apart from similar work is the fact that each entry is cleverly composed and extremely well drawn. Marcej uses a single large panel frame and varies the strip's internal structure depending on what sort of story he's telling. For things like movie reviews, he splits the page up into four panels, underneath the date and a title for the strip. In the strip above, a single image dominates the entire page. In other strips, he'll lead the reader in three different panels that bleed into each other. Marcej pays special attention to clarity in his storytelling while adding a lot of detail such as hatching, cross-hatching and carefully-rendered structures. Marcej is also a fine letterer, a crucial but overlooked aspect of diary comics--especially for wordy artists like himself. The clarity and simply pleasing quality of his lettering makes even the most text-dominated strips nice to look at. Marcej isn't exactly being innovative with this strip, but it's one of the best examples of this sub-genre.

The Great Pretenders And Other Stories, by Julia Wertz. Some of these stories have appeared in past Wertz minicomics, but this mini is the best collection of Wertz's new trend in storytelling until her new book comes out. All of the stories here are from Wertz's childhood and they're entirely unsentimental, raw takes on the ways in which children parse the adult world. There's a reference in the title story to a baby in Wertz's family dying when she was just a child, leading to a game with her older brother wherein he pretended he was his own fictional twin brother. There's a running theme in Wertz's comics of wanting to be someone else, wanting a different life and identity. There's a tension between being a near-solipsist and someone desperately craving meaningful interaction, and that conflict is evident in these childhood strips as well. Wertz has a constant sense of things not being quite right (like the amazing strip where she and her brother are momentarily excited that they might be getting a heat lamp for Christmas instead of a Nintendo video game system), and that feeling is hilariously warped through her own logic as a child. The dread that Wertz felt as a child also emerged in her anxiety over "killing" Jesus in a tea party game and living at the foot of a mountain that supposedly housed vicious flying monkeys. Wertz's bug-eyed drawings are getting more and more self-assured; she's found a clear, distinct and funny drawing style that works well for her.

The Doug Wright Awards 2011, by Dustin Harbin. This is a collection of the strips Harbin did at earlier in 2011 as part of their Cartoonist's Diary series. It's essentially a love letter to Canada and its Doug Wright Awards, a ceremony honoring the best of English-language Canadian comics. Harbin is impressed by the simplicity (just four awards), sincerity and seriousness of the event. It's an event that everyone involved believes in, a group that includes the greater Canadian cultural community, not just comics. Harbin heaps on the praise a bit exorbitantly, though he's aware that his status as an outsider perhaps blinds him to Canada's flaws. That said, there's no question that Canada has produced some of comics' greatest artists over the past thirty years or so, and so an event like the Doug Wright Awards is certainly warranted. The real appeal of this comic is Harbin's remarkable skill as a caricaturist, really nailing artists like Chester Brown & Seth without belittling them.


  1. Thanks for the nice review, Rob! I really appreciate it!

  2. Yeah, thanks so much man! That's awesome!

  3. All of these comics sounds fantastic... I'm going to suss them out.

  4. Thanks much for the write-up Rob, I appreciate it.