Sunday, March 18, 2012

Autobio Minicomics: Francesca Cassavetti, Nick Tesco, Zack Empire

Time to dip into the minicomics pile; this time around, let's look at a couple of autobio comics.

Panic Attacks by Francesca Cassavetti and Re Members, by Nick Tesco & Francesca Cassavetti. Cassavetti is best known for her scribbly line and her amusing autobio anecdotes. Panic Attacks is a series of loosely-connected stories from early in her childhood. She spent time growing up both in England and France and recounted events both dear and stressful to her. The book turns with an incident where a man nearly grabbed her when she was still a pre-teen but ran away when a door opened above them. That brought out a feeling of panic that was hard for her to shake, especially when she was home alone. Cassavetti has a way of getting at the heart of the tension a child feels when they realize that adults don't understand their fears. What's worse is the sinking feeling that adults aren't interested in listening to what causes a child anxiety. Considering that most children have a strong desire to please, receiving mixed signals as Cassavetti did is a recipe for a lifetime of anxiety. Cassavetti's charming storytelling style is made all the more poignant when she follows a funny anecdote with a more serious one. The gray-scaling in the early stories is distracting and fairly screams out for color, but the lighter tones in the other stories is much more effective.

Re Members was written by Cassavetti's husband, musician Nick Tesco. He was a member of a punk band called The Members that was active from 1977 to 1984, as well as some other bands. Described as "a punk memoir", the comic gets at the heart of the movement that was part angry shout at the establishment, part method of getting laid and getting famous. It opens with Tesco on tour in Atlanta, cheating on his girlfriend in England with a local woman. In what was a living cliche', he was lonely and homesick even as he was fooling around with a group. That anecdote concluded when Tesco learned that Motown legend Eddie Kendricks was in the hotel, and he happened upon him in an elevator. When Kendricks told the disheveled and hung over singer "Man! You look fucked up!", his response was elation as he then proceeded to brag to his bandmates.

With Cassavetti's delightfully scribbly and expressive line acting as a counter-balance to Tesco's more emo moments, the comic then launches into a funny and frequently illuminating history of a "this band could be your life" scenario. What was most fascinating to me was Tesco's brief time spent with J. Walter Negro and Lennie Seeley of Loose Jointz, one of the most underrated 80s funk bands. ("Shoot The Pump" is one of the all-time great jams.) Of course, that relationship ended when J. Walter slept with Tesco's beloved girlfriend, and in a fit of hilarious hypocrisy, he threw a hissy fit at a nearby bar. This mini is just the first four chapters of the larger story, and it ends with an arrest for drunk driving that's not nearly as unpleasant as one would expect. I'm curious to see where the story goes from here, given the way punk fizzled out in the mid-80s.

Jerkface Comics
#1, by Zack Empire. There are all sorts of reasons why this comic shouldn't be any good. It's an autobio comic by a 19 year old guy who frequently writes about his sexual frustration, his frequent masturbation, and the way he wastes time instead of drawing. There are several stories about trying to either think up an idea about a story or how he procrastinates instead of drawing. He lives with his parents and doesn't have a job, and yet still can't muster up the discipline needed to draw. The story is riddled with spelling errors and the art is raw. However, I found myself enjoying nearly every page, and for a single reason: the artist is funny. Beginning with his self-caricature (a sort of anthropomorphic alligator), there's a funny drawing or joke on every page. From the very first page, when his stand-in Jerkface gets into an argument with the narrative caption when it starts insulting him, Zack Empire turns his self-loathing and self-deprecation into non-stop jokes. The best story in the comic is his conflict with his own sentient to-do list, which at first provides him structure, then starts to nag him, then pummels him out of frustration. The artist shows a tremendous amount of potential as a humorist, especially the way he uses exaggeration. There's a frantic, Peter Bagge-style quality to his art, where he builds things up with a slow boil and bludgeons the reader with a whopper of a physical gag. As long as Zack Empire cleans up his work a bit (that's everything from cross-hatching to lettering to editing), he's got an interest career ahead of him.

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