Tuesday, July 31, 2012

More From Max Mose: Basalt Idol #1

There are a surprising number of artists who have graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies whose primary interest is genre work. Of course, with artists like Denis St. John and Max Mose, genre in this case specifically refers to horror and science-fiction. Mose's new series is a big step up for him, both conceptually and in terms of execution. Like most of the increasingly large wave of alt-cartoonists who make horror comics, it seems like there's a significant influence from Fort Thunder as well as the godfather of alt/genre mash-ups, Gary Panter. Mose doesn't simply impose an insane sci-fi horror template on the world as he knows; instead, his version of reality contains the kind of brutal satire that Panter does so well. Mose's sly commentary on consumer culture and our own complicity in its dominance is a running theme, as the monsters often spring forward as a sort of cosmic, impersonal way to punish humanity. For Mose, coming up with ideas has never been a problem; instead, his earlier comics frequently lacked clarity.

With the first issue of his new series, Basalt Idol, Mose manages to touch on any number of horror and sci-fi tropes in his quirky, slight stiff and off-kilter style with much greater clarity and flow. Considering that this story is twice as complicated as his earlier works, this greater clarity is crucial to the success of the book. Subtitled "Monster Movie", the issue essentially boils down to a fight between a giant monster and a giant robot. Which is good and which is evil shifts as the issue unfolds, but Mose doesn't skimp on ridiculous, full-page shots of mayhem and destruction. What's more interesting about the comic is the commentary on the division in society between those living up in the clouds (complete with a sticky cocoon like substance that envelops homeowners in times of extreme crisis) and those on the ground.  While the monsters are fighting, a revolutionary group (led by an anthropomorphic dog, cat and turtle) sneaks around, waiting to take advantage of the carnage.

The monster itself is a wonderfully bizarre mishmash of multiple heads, stinger arms, lamprey sucker-mouth projections and tree trunk limbs. In typical monster movie fashion, he's unearthed from a deep slumber by greedy industrialists after an opening page featuring a fuzzy creature searching for his perfect mate, only to be captured and eaten by the monster. The reader learns that his monstrous form was the product of a curse from a different planet, forced to consume souls after being taken prisoner. While Mose uses plenty of dense hatching and cross-hatching, he opens up the page for the action scenes, wildly varying his panel formatting from page to page in order to keep the reader off-balance while retaining clarity by allowing for more white space. Simply by resisting the urge to fill up every panel with detail, Mose made this crazy comic far easier to parse. That said, Mose's lettering is still a bit wonky, and his word balloon placement and design can sometimes be distracting. His actual handwriting works quite well as a lettering style, but he has problems keeping it under control and consistently readable, especially when he vacillates in how big he makes his letters. Tightening that up a bit will allow the reader to focus more on his delightfully ragged and weird line as well as the multilayered nature of his narratives.

Monday, July 30, 2012

CCS Comics: Colleen Frakes and Friends

Colleen Frakes has long been one of the most productive of the CCS alums, and her recent output reveals that her work ethic has not abated. Frakes got a Xeric grant for her first book, won an Ignatz award for her second book, did National Novel Writing Month two years in a row to compile a third book, and had her fourth book (Island Brat) published by Koyama Press. Frakes continues to publish books as part of her own Tragic Relief series as well as do shorter minis and collaborations. Let's look at her recent work that manages to touch on several of these venues.

Island Brat 2 is a sequel to her Koyama Press-published book; it's a shorter and smaller mini that fills in some of the background details she didn't have room to expand upon in the initial discussion of what it was like to grow up on a prison island off the coast of Washington (state). I found the first book a little uneven, as she was trying to juggle a lot of ideas at once: memories of growing up on the island, drawings of the island, and going back for an island reunion as the state was getting ready to shut down the housing units permanently. This mini is a little less ambitious in its format, presenting life on the island as a series of vignettes. I love any comic where Frakes herself is a character, because her self-caricature is so delightfully angular and delicately rendered. Her loose, feathery line glides across the page and takes the reader with it as she discusses the details of moving to the island (after her parents are surprised that neither she nor her sister are all that excited about the idea of moving to an island), the ordeal of grocery shopping (a process that involves waiting for boats and then bus travel on the mainland because the island has no stores), and what it was like when a prison break occurred. Frakes knows that this aspect of growing up there is the most exciting to readers, but other than one incident, even this was mostly pretty dull. I'm hoping that Frakes continues to draw on these experiences for future minis, because there's a poignancy in relating the isolation and angst that teenagers feel in an environment that is actually completely isolated. It's also obvious that Frakes' feelings now about living there are complicated; part of her obviously relished the experience of living in nature and doing something unusual, and part of her still feels the whole thing was weird.

Upon returning to the west coast after living in Vermont for seven years, Frakes teamed up with fellow CCS alum Nomi Kane to do a split mini.  Frakes' half is called Kurt Cobain Once Slept Here!, a series of gags and observations about readjusting to Seattle. Frakes only offers up five strips, but they're all funny and well-drawn, as she uses gray-scaling for the first time in order to add some weight to these minimalist, small drawings. Both Frakes and Kane draw on the humor of their particular towns, confirming that the stereotypes about each are true. Seattle residents are still hung up about the 90s, obsessed with coffee and mostly keep to themselves. Berkeley residents (Kane's home) are hippies in precisely the way one would expect: smoking pot in public, subsisting on just salt and water because being vegan wasn't enough, and letting kids play with matches so they'll have "agency".  Kane's clean and naturalistic style is a nice counterbalance to Frakes' sketchier style. Even if the punchlines are obvious, given the stereotypes of where they're living, the strips are so well-constructed that it doesn't matter--especially since both Kane and Frakes appear in most of the strips as characters.

Finally, Frakes recruited  fellow CCS alum Betsey Swardlick to write a story for her Retrofit Comics submission, Drag Bandits. Swardlick likes writing caper stories, and this certainly fits that bill. What's interesting is that Swardlick's own frantic, scribbly art is replaced by Frakes' more serene, feathery line, a tension that doesn't always work smoothly. Swardlick also likes screwing with gender roles, and this period piece set sometime in the 17th century is no exception. The story follows what appears to be a masked female bandit who robs carriages in the countryside, but who is in fact a man dressed up in his wife's riding habit. His wife is bemused by her husband's little "hobby", until she's kidnapped by a vengeful victim of theft. She has to pull her own drag act later in the book, as the reader is led back and forth on a variety of shenanigans. It's a pleasant bit of silliness (if a bit padded at 32 pages), though honestly I prefer Swardlick's stories done in her own more manic style and to see Frakes' art used in her more typical thoughtful, restrained and dark stories.

Friday, July 27, 2012

CCS Comics: Denis St. John's Amelia

With the publication of the fifth and final issue of Monsters and Girls: Amelia, Denis St. John finished one of the quirkier horror stories I've ever read. The plot of the story is quite simple: a college-aged woman decides to find two artifacts that are connected to one that her deceased mother used to own. She has an ornately carved box, and she manages to track down another to a sleazy antiques dealer who used to know her mother. From there, the story is a cat-and-mouse game between the young woman (Amelia), her bizarre younger brother, the dealer and the wigged-out daughter of one of her mother's former lovers as to who can gather the objects and what their significance might be.

The plot of these comics is beside the point, however. What makes them so enjoyable is St. John's mixture of body horror, the humor of awkwardness, and sex. These comics are a love letter to many influences (including H.P. Lovecraft's fiction and David Cronenberg's films), but the biggest influence seems to be the horror comics of EC. In particular, Jack Davis seems to be a big influence here, and that can be seen in the way St. John draws his figures with slightly distorted facial features. There's also a total unpredictability in the way each of the characters acts (possibly due to the influence of the artifacts) that twists the reader around. For example, Amelia sleeps with the dealer in the first issue despite a huge age disparity and then steals his artifact (a tablet) when he's sleeping. She sees a weird pair of eyes in the dark when they're having sex (in itself a hilariously and awkwardly drawn sequence, especially when the dealer orgasms), only to discover that they belong to her younger brother, who has inexplicably transformed into looking like "a Nosferatu".

This scenario is repeated in a far more disturbing fashion in the second issue, when Sammy is revealed to be in league with the dealer and after Amelia has a dream where she's pierced by the third artifact (a dagger) and a bizarre rash grows on her stomach. When the dealer takes off his shirt and reveals a sickening protuberance growing out of him that resembles a spiky penis, he pins her down and the protuberance is met by a flowery gash growing on Amelia's stomach. In the middle of this disgusting, upsetting scene, in walks Sammy nonchalantly complaining that the eggs the dealer cooked are burned. St. John's timing here is flawless, as the humor that Sammy's presence provides doesn't lighten the situation but rather makes it much worse. The next two issues feature a rapprochement of sorts with Sammy and Amelia and the introduction of Eleanor, the aforementioned daughter of her mom's ex-lover. She's a demented sorority girl who insists on guzzling alcohol prior to meeting with Amelia and Sammy. St. John draws her as big-breasted and almost anorexic, almost resembling a Tom Neely character.

The final issue is a dizzying recapitulation of the rest of the series, as Eleanor is drawn to Amelia (at one point, they start to drunkenly dance as Eleanor starts feeling her up), the dealer comes back and Eleanor stabs Amelia after the knife is almost stolen from her. From there, things get even more unpleasant and bizarre, as Eleanor starts licking Amelia's protuberance as though she were performing cunnilingus (to the annoyance of the dealer) and the dealer explains the true nature of the objects. After escaping into the box, Amelia comes back out and is able to defeat both of her opponents, including a marvelous scene where she rips out the entire network of obscene Lovecraftian plant-like growths lurking inside of the dealer. The ending has a fitting, tragic twist, which makes sense given the nature of the power that she absorbs and her own erratic behavior throughout the comic. Amelia may be the protagonist of the story, but it's not clear that she's a hero. Indeed, she turns out to be a monster and a girl. St. John's art is claustrophobic, rubbery, funny, moody and outrageously designed. The extras in these oversized minicomics are a nice bonus, including the photos of Amelia stand-in Jess Abston (a real trouper, given the design that's drawn all over her) that turn into a full-blown fumetti at the end as well as nearly a dozen clever pin-ups by a variety of CCS artists and faculty member Steve Bissette. Hopefully, St. John is shopping this around somewhere for a deluxe treatment.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More CCS Comics: Cockle, Studlar, Olivares

Continuing my look at recent work by CCS grads, here are three wildly different projects.

Frog Stories, by Ross Wood Studlar. Studlar, who has a career as a park ranger, brings that interesting experience to bear on his comics rather dramatically in this comic. He's really found his voice doing comics about nature and wildlife, bringing a clear and whimsical voice to these animal narratives. This comic is a one-man anthology of frog-related stories, imagining a voice for these animals as they go about the business of predation. The first story, "Song For  Hungry Horned Frog" was drawn four years ago, and one can see the progress Studlar's made as a draftsman since that time. That doesn't apply so much to his drawings of frogs (though they have become sharper), but rather of of everything else. Studlar's also become more adept at depicting motion, as shown in the second story, "Acrobat By Night", which was done white-on-black to depict night activity. Here, the frog remains still in one panel and then jumps impossibly high to devour its flying prey. The way Studlar draws the frogs in full extension is quite beautiful; one can almost hear the frog's muscles stretching in mid-air. "Big Bad Bo" is about a bullfrog that terrorizes its pond, eating everything in its sight--even small mammals and birds. He meets his match when he's caught and placed in a terrarium, and even his constant stream of urine doesn't save him from that particular embarrassment. One can see Studlar's limitations in the last panel of the story, where the person is revealed; he clearly doesn't have a good feel for drawing people, or at least not as developed a one as he has for drawing nature. That really doesn't matter all that much, considering how lovely and charming his wildlife comics are. I'd love to see a book full of such stories, ones that continue to display the humor that Studlar mines out of his wildlife observations along with the deadly reality of nature.
Annotated #8, by Aaron Cockle. This is the latest and densest in a series of postmodern comics by Cockle that muse on the idea of language, the way it is controlled, and the ways in which language at its very core is rooted in deception. Prefacing the contents of the issue as being "half-told stories" (a clever play on Twice-Told Tales), each of the single-page anecdotes in this comic contains wide swaths of text that have been redacted, as though by a government agency that got a hold of the work before the reader saw it. The comic follows a day of an unnamed woman as she negotiates politics at her job at a publisher of some kind, goes out to lunch, goes on a date and later gives a lecture about her experiences. That lecture is interspersed with an account of her father telling a story about what happened in his life after getting divorced from her mother. The story ends with both the woman and her father more or less trailing off, alluding to events that they assume are well-known to the reader and involve a great deal of high-profile stress. This issue is all about in-between times, the times when the characters suffer setbacks so great that they have to leave town and take up again with their parents.

There are also three comics about artists: Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau and Hal Croves. Each of the the three comics deals with the artist's biography as well as works, focusing on Pound's avid fascism and personal stake in knowing that his precise words were being used for the cause; Cocteau and his thoughts on critics and "this sickness, to express oneself" and the shell game that was Hal Croves' identity. Croves wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as B Traven (maybe), but his identity was something he kept purposefully vague. The mystery surrounding his identity is tailor-made for Cockle, who skillfully plucks certain key quotes about his life and then depicts a scene from one of his stories. The labyrinthine nature of Cockle's storytelling is reminiscent of Borges and Roberto Bolano, and Cockle builds on that effect with the physical manipulation of text and the juxtaposition of text and image. Words are warped, staggered, blotted out and erased. Even titles of pieces are frequently partially redacted, as though Cockle was pulling out a piece from a puzzle and hiding it from the reader. He leaves plenty of hints for the reader to follow along, but this comic is so effective because at no time does it rely on the visuals to create an impact. Instead, his mixed-media style enhances the text and allows the simplicity of his image-making to hold sway. Cockle's comics grow more exciting with each issue as he continues to play to his strengths as an artist.

School Pencil and other comics by Jose-Luis Olivares and friends. Olivares' fascinating, scrawled comics made him one of my favorite of the CCS artists from the very beginning of his tenure. For 2012, he had the idea of starting a minicomics subscription service (something that Liz Baillie also did): each month, the reader gets a minicomic, hand-made book, stickers and/or other assorted miscellany. The package he sent me contained several of his projects, starting with the gorgeous full-color accordion micro-mini-comic Animal Sense. Flipped on one side, and this is a comic featuring colorful cut-out animals going through the food chain on a desert island. Flipped on the other side, and the various rows form a single image. Each page of the hand-constructed Tramp Stamp is done with a hand-cut stamp as it follows the sad story of a woman with a bad tattoo who catches her boyfriend cheating on her, leading up to her stabbing him. School Pencil is an anthology done with fellow CCS alums Matt Aucoin and Holly Foltz, each of whom participate in a jam and contribute a variety of one-page strips. The work here is off-the-cuff to be sure, but Foltz and Aucoin contributed some fairly polished strips (especially Foltz, who has really sharpened up her draftsmanship) with solid punchlines. Foltz's pun on "Illuminati" was especially funny. For his part, Olivares contributes several diary strips that flip between studied naturalism and scribbly expressionism. There's something about his blocky, chunky style when he draws figures that's simply eye-catching and appealing to follow across a page. The strips are also personal and revealing while being restrained as far as going into too much detail; all the reader needs to know to understand the emotional context of these strips is what Olivares gives you. This mail service is the next best thing to seeing Olivares at a convention.

I just got a new comic in the mail from Olivares called Pansy Boy #1. While not explicitly autobiographical, it feels deeply personal. It starts with a teenaged boy's dream about a superhero and his sidekick (the titular character) saving the world. The hero then declares "And now we must kiss...first with our tongues...and then with our butts"--and then we shift to the boy waking up, as we see he was the sidekick in the dream..The rest of the comic features the boy quietly trying to deal with his erection, sneaking around the house and looking for "gay" images on a search engine. There's a level of verisimilitude that is almost uncomfortable yet funny, like reaching down to take off one of his socks when he's close to ejaculating. As he's cleaning himself up, his little brother comes in and barks out "Mom says you can't use the computer" without understanding what's going on or why. He's assuaged when the teen promises to tell him a story, starting off with a story of "2 handsome superheroes". Olivares' scribbly line is a perfect fit for a story about kids, even as it touches on the kind of adult issues that teens must face. In particular, it's a story about a teen who knows that he's gay, even if it's not something that he can discuss openly with anyone else. I also love that while there's an element of risk involved in this story, the teen manages to find pleasure without guilt or recriminations. I can't wait to see how Olivares follows this up. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Clown Show: Cycles

Cycles, an odd book written by Kyle O'Connell and drawn by CCS alum Beth Hetland, lays out everything that is to happen in the book thanks to one of its main characters perusing his "Index of interests and technologies. That list includes things like dynamite, women, lying, hot air balloons, famous criminals, single action revolvers and bicycles. The book slowly unravels the wacky scheme hatched by a pair of oddballs in 1870 England: "Dorothy" and "The Professor". The reader is simply introduced to them as two men living together in a small apartment, as one man sleeps most of the day and another bespectacled man is always fiddling with machines.While the Professor is trying to develop a modern bicycle, Dorothy gambles at high-stakes card games, gets repeatedly arrested and attends an opera wearing only a pair of boots. At one point, the duo dress up as clowns, rob a bank, and lead a huge crowd on a merry chase through the city, culminating in setting off dynamite that blasts their money over the crowd like rain.  When Dorothy is put in jail, the professor busts him out and they escape via hot air balloon. Connections are implied throughout the methodical and episodic nature of the book, but the whys and wherefores as to their actions are not explained until the very end.

What's funny about this book is that it winds up being a mystery wrapped up in a caper story, but many of the book's events seem entirely unconnected. Indeed, the Professor and Dorothy (a funnily-drawn tall man with a droopy mustache) themselves seem to be characters whose connection is so tenuous that it seems as though they are inhabiting entirely different stories. O'Connell and Hetland are careful, however, to clue the reader in that the mousy and eccentric professor is capable of some true public lunacy, just as the outrageous Dorothy is capable of meticulous long-range planning and highly detailed & skilled work as an artist. That their scheme was an entirely benign and even beneficial one makes the convoluted events of the book even more amusing: while the duo was trying to do something beneficial for society, they couldn't help but do so by way of a series of elaborate gags. The pacing of the book is deliberate, but the way that the audience is kept in the dark, along with the bizarre pranks perpetrated by the duo, makes this a lively read.
Hetland's figures always have a softness to them that is almost cute, and the whimsical nature of her art is entirely appropriate for such a lighthearted story. I did find myself wishing for a depiction of their world that was a little more lived-in and detailed. There are a lot of pages with no backgrounds or minimal backgrounds that feel thin and even dull. Her character work alone isn't enough to make those pages interesting on their own. Color might have helped add some depth and weight to the book, but barring that, I would have liked to have experienced the city as a city, complete with its requisite grime and squalor. Indeed, given that the duo are described as grimy and threadbare, seeing a few more examples of that in their surroundings would have added an even sharper contrast to the silliness of their actions. In a book where so much of its action is clearly meant to be delivered by way of the art, that visual punch is sometimes lacking. At the same time, Hetland's use of body language and gesture, even for simply-rendered characters, gives her protagonists a marvelous life of their own. She's also skilled in terms of panel-to-panel transitions, especially in scenes where there's a lot of forward movement or chases. In particular, she clearly relishes drawing both of the protagonists, but Dorothy in particular is a marvelously realized character. This is an unconventional book with a strange structure whose payoffs aren't immediately obvious, but O'Connell and Hetland manage to pull off an affectionate tribute to the idea of creativity unbound, one where art and science intertwine with an absurdist sense of humor. If it's a little wobbly at times in terms of its details, that's mostly because the authors' ambitions outstripped their reach at times. It's a very solid first book.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Artist as Servant: Studio Laffitte

Continuing this week's focus on CCS artists, let's take a look at some comics from Jon Fine. Studio Laffitte is his take on French painter Georges Rouault and his patron/manager Ambroise Vollard. Fine fictionalizes both to zero in on a particular aspect of the artist's life: his relationship with commerce as a poor working painter. Fine has two significant advantages in crafting this portrayal: he's skilled enough as a painter to get away with doing the sort of things that Rouault did, and he's a fine enough illustrator to create a clear and compelling narrative. His clear, steady line reminds me quite a bit of Jason Lutes, though it's a bit more cartoony. I love his drawings of his Rouault stand-in, Alain Moreau. He's a dumpy, balding man with questionable hygiene and only a vague understanding of how to get along in the real world. With a tireless work ethic, brutal self-critiquing voice and a narrow belief in exactly what his art should look like, Moreau is a "pure" artist but barely functional as a human being. Fine explores how those around him tended to exploit these characteristics.

Moreau is constantly admonished to paint landscapes, pretty women, etc--things that the middle class would want to buy. Instead, his focus was solely on the human figure and women in particular, reveling in a grotesque appreciation of the female form. At the end of the first issue, he's given a seemingly ideal proposition: a patron who would let him live in the studio above his art gallery, pay for all of his expenses and supplies. The price was first crack at representing him and getting his paintings. As the second issue reveals, this turns out to be a devil's bargain as the patron condescendingly gives him tips and suggestions to make his work more salable, all the while refusing to give him a gallery show. In effect, he was keeping Moreau all to himself, until the ending of the second issue when the patron dies and his successor throws Moreau out, declaring that the paintings belong to him. It wasn't until a friend of the artist pointed out that he was being manipulated that Moreau even decided to act, until his devil's bargain got much worse. The cover of the second issue is quite clever: an expressionistic account of the patron looking over the artist's shoulder. The second issue is considerably more assured in terms of the art, as Fine really gets his footing here in creating a vivid set of characters who interact in interesting ways in space. Overall, a story about the exploitation of the artist by their financial backers is still quite timely, and this one is well told and vividly realized on the page.

Also worth noting is Fine's stream-of-consciousness "comic assemblage", I Said Be Quiet. This is a stylistic mish-mash that starts with strong, angular lines depicting a service at a synagogue that turns into an explosion of Joan Miro-esque figures. A man then walks into an unusual bar and is served a drink with a whole egg plopped inside of it. When he refuses to eat the egg and throws it at the wall, a gun is pulled on him. None of this adds up to much of anything other than getting a chance to see the artist's imagination committed to paper in very attractive fashion.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Life Doesn't Turn Out As Expected: Moose, Rust Belt

This post kicks off five straight days of discussing work from artists who graduated from or had a residency at the Center for Cartoon Studies. 

Moose, #6 and #7, by Max de Radigues. This fine series about a high school boy who is relentlessly bullied but refuses to tell anyone about takes an interesting turn in these two issues. Issue #6 of this humbly-produced yet attractive minicomic (the minimalist cover featuring a few thick lines and a few big dots for a face is augmented by a zip-a-tone pattern and augmented by a wide swath of negative space) sees our protagonist, Joel, outsmarted at every turn by his tormentor Jason. Face to face with the boy who has made his life hell out in the hallway, he even asks why he's doing this without an audience. Chillingly, Jason has simply come to enjoy inflicting cruelty on someone else. Joel gets a reprieve when he's sent to the school nurse, an oasis that is further explored in issue #7. The nurse, Sarah, is the only one who clearly sees that he's being bullied but also understands that Joel doesn't want to discuss it. Partly because of this, but mostly because she's more-or-less presented as the apotheosis of cool, she's the one adult that Joel trusts implicitly.  His crush on her is also quite obvious. As always, de Radigues' wonderfully fragile line and use of angles makes his comics wonderful to simply look at. The fragility of his line is an apt method of illustrating the fragility of a young life.

Rust Belt Spring 2012, by Sean Knickerbocker. This issue concerns brad, a middle-aged middle-manager at a Wal-Mart type of store. The cover pretty much expresses it all: Brad takes a long look at his life lived in "quiet desperation", wanting to scream all along. Upon meeting a former lover and flashing back to scenes ambiguously describing why they didn't work out, he takes stock of how miserable his daily existence is, living with his disabled mother. Things get worse when he's given the choice of being demoted or fired (with a severance package), swallowing what little is left of his pride and accepting the demotion. Brad is a classic sad sack character in that he's miserable but selfish to the point of near-solipsism. He ignores his wheelchair-bound mother while smoking pot and reading porn, very much like a teenager would. Knickerbocker's cartoony line is perfect for depicting these sorts of sad sacks, with bulbous noses and blank eyes. I've compared his figures to Dik Browne in the past, but there were also flashes of Ron Rege' in the flashback sequences. His use of greyscaling is restrained but effective, adding just enough dreary atmosphere to an oppressively dull environment.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Retro Satire: The Comics of Benjamin Marra

At first blush, Benjamin Marra's comics are bewildering. The violence, sex and general levels of misogyny on display give one pause as to when these comics were actually made.  There's a certain stiffness in these black & white comics that is highly reminiscent of the weird, crude and frequently trashy comics of the 80s black and white glut, when the boutique publishers of that day were looking to make a quick buck and hoping to catch fire like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Marra's comics capture that feeling, but with a satiric edge that almost never "breaks character" as he tweaks 80s exploitative entertainment (especially film), takes white power fantasies in the person of gangsta rap to their ultimate extreme and even spins a tale of liberal espionage. There's no question that his comics are ugly and brutal, but the relentlessly over-the-top nature of his satire is hilarious, even as it makes you wince.

Take his series Night Business, for instance. Everything about this comic screams "eighties!", from the neon-glow of the cover logo to the Cinemax-esque nature of the story. Marra takes the silliness of a typical Cinemax erotic thriller and adds an extra layer of grindhouse crazy on top of that with the character of Chastity. A ballerina who is told she will never be a success because her tits and ass are too big, she pays for her expensive dance school by stripping (of course). After she's attacked by a masked slasher who targets strippers, she survives and becomes a lingerie-clad vigilante on a motorcycle who rides around looking for rapists to gun down. It's straight out of the 80s schlock film Avenging Angel, done without a hint of irony even as Marra goes further over the top with each issue's worth of pimps, strippers, rapists, drug dealers, killers and virtuous exotic entertainment agency owners who double as bad-ass vigilantes. There's an almost posed stiffness in many of his drawings, reminding me a bit of mainstream artist Mike Zeck. That's also true of his 8-page comic The Naked Heroes, which is to fantasy what Night Business is to sleaze. The titular duo are a preternaturally cheerful dimension-hopping rock duo who wind up in a tussle with a monstrous demon who ejects smaller demons from its uterus in order to "collect" them. What results is several pages of decapitations, disembowelments and other assorted mayhem.

The key to Marra's success is his relentless attention to detail. The way he choreographs his fight scenes is brutal and beautiful. He takes pains to create an internally consistent plot and set of characterizations. Everything makes sense in his comics, even if it's completely absurd. This is especially true of my favorite of his comics, The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd. Marra dutifully informs the reader on the cover that this is "a work of satire and fiction", as if the first-page shot of New York Times political columnist Dowd lounging around her kitchen wearing lingerie and carrying a handgun in her stocking isn't enough of a clue. Lots of the details in this comic are true, like the way the Bush administration punished writer Joe Wilson by outing his wife Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and how Scooter Libby wound up as a fall guy. Marra invents the crazy details like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney sending assassins after Dowd in order to silence her potential earth-shaking column, and the issue is a cat-and-mouse game as Dowd tries to gather evidence, dodges killers, goes on a date with George Clooney, teams up with a rogue CIA agent and is thwarted when her laptop is shot before she can submit her story. This comic is also a funny send-up of the mediocre-to-awful biography comics that Bluewater publishes--the "Female Force" series in particular.

If these comics have somewhat of a mainstream sense of professionalism to them (bold lines, crisp inking and lettering), then Gangsta Rap Posse represents a comic that feels like it was drawn by a 15-year-old white kid from the suburbs in 1992. The titular rap group is essentially NWA on steroids, as they kill KKK members, neo-nazis and the police, and prove to be completely irresistible to all white women. They have zero regard for human life and are happy to murder the funk artists whose music they ripped off. (Marra's demented vision of Bootsy Collins as a knife-wielding former assassin is hilarious.) The quality of Marra's line is much more ragged here, and the lettering as well as word balloon placement feel more spontaneous and freer, as though they were scrawled in a single, manic drawing session. Marra spares no one here, with the henpecking Jewish manager Saul, their record label called "Prison Rape Records" (a funny and knowing nod to Death Row Records), and the wish-fulfillment of the brazenly misogynistic, nihilistic rappers who do what they want, when they want, and shoot anyone in their way. It's satire by way of a hammer that is effective because it never lets up for a second, even as it reveals the power fantasies at the core of the teenage idolization of this music.

The only time Marra really winks to the reader in an obvious manner that none of this is to be taken very seriously is when we see his author's photos. In Maureen Dowd, we see him bare-chested, wearing a leather jacket and brandishing a samurai-sword. In Naked Heroes, he has his hair slicked forward as a sort of cross between Ricky Jay and Criss Angel: the bad-ass magician. In the three issues of Night Business, he goes from Bukowski-esque rumpled tough-guy poet to wearing a fur-trimmed coat and shorts to appearing as a centaur with the words "Total Victory" airbrushed above him. His author bio is equally silly if entirely deadpan. Indeed, Marra is both over-the-top and totally deadpan at the same time, never breaking character or worrying about the reader keeping up. That said, there's no question that there's a seriousness in how he goes about telling his stories and depicting action; without that level of care, detail and genuine affection for the source material, these comics would come off as disingenuous, especially since it's not hard to satirize something that's cheesy. Marra's gleeful willingness to plunge wholeheartedly into genre fiction while at the same time mocking it with affection makes these comics both entertaining and genuinely unsettling.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Buddy Loves Jersey and Misery Loves Comedy

Here's another reprint of a column originally written for sequart.com.  This article was written in 2007.

It's a bit odd for me to review the new Peter Bagge and Ivan Brunetti collections that Fantagraphics recently released, because I've read the original issues that they collect more times than I can possibly recall. Both artists have been on my top-five list for well over a decade, even with their output being somewhat sporadic during this period. Both have become hugely influential in very different respects, while their new material continues to be as strong as ever. Anyone who loves comics, and humor in particular, owes it to themselves to take a look at this work. Most humorous comics might elicit a smile or a chuckle or two from me, but Brunetti & Bagge are the rare artists whose work kills me, again and again.

Like all great humorists, both artists reveal something of the truth of human existence with their works. Both artists produce work that is sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable to read because of its brutal honesty. Both create comics that cross the lines of decency and erase taboos, but are never crude for crudity's sake. There are no cheap laughs in these comics. Their artistic styles are quite different: Bagge favors an expressionistic, over-the-top style that reflects the frantic nature of his characters. Brunetti, at this stage of his career, demonstrated his astounding virtuosity in switching from style to style depending on what the story or gag required. Bagge's Buddy Bradley character, as he describes it, is a version of himself about ten years younger. The character is just different enough to put him through some truly absurd paces. Brunetti's comics either feature rants starring himself, or are over-the-top screamingly funny & horrible gags done in the style of newspaper strips. The worldviews and philosophies of the two artists are completely different, but both tell the truth as they see it.

That truth is bleak. Brunetti's Schizo era can best be described as an existential howl, nothing less than an attack on all of humanity's worthlessness. The target he saves most of his vitriol for is himself. Brunetti's recent material has gone away from this sort of relentless assault, and it's quite understandable. As exhausting as it can be to read his extended treatises, it must have been even more draining to write & draw them. Some of the pages have a manic quality to them, as text overwhelms image and dominates the page. In some respects, his nihilistic gag strips are a more succinct way of expressing his rage, hatred and despair. His creating the most awful and despicable scenarios imaginable for gags and punchlines is an expression of his understanding of humanity as almost entirely worthless, debased and banal--and the artist himself is no exception. I often find myself laughing in spite of myself, thinking "This is so awful!" but still being slain by the darkness of Brunetti's humor and his incredible skill both as an artist and humorist.

The bulk of the first three issues of Schizo is taken up by his "Self-Caricature", which details his musings after waking up (late) for work and what happens upon his arrival. The first issue sets the scene with his general disgust towards the world and himself; there's one memorable page where he pictures "The world as it is today", wherein he's surrounded by murderers, pedophiles, rapists, the hopeless and the victims, begging "Please lobotomize me!" He lies in bed musing upon his fantasy where "I'm Jim Jones, and planet Earth is my Jonestown" and then realizes that he's late for work. Brunetti then moves into a more stripped-down, cartoony style for his gag work, with strips like "Drink My Piss, Motherfucker", "Pontiff In My Pants", "Pardon My Sodomy, Son" and the unforgettable "The Nun With Two Dicks". This is Brunetti's deepest exploration of his id, unfiltered, and attached to a gag structure that makes each strip detonate on the page. These strips are Brunetti at his best: brutal and brilliant.
As adept as Brunetti is at lashing out at the world, he's even better at self-immolation. The story "I Like Girls", drawn in the most realistic style I've seen from Brunetti (before or since), details his obsession with various types of women as he's waiting for his wife at an art fair--including his crush on a mutual friend of theirs. That self-flagellation continues in the second issue of Schizo, which focuses on suicide. "Turn Your Eyes Inside and Dig The Vacuum" continues the self "Self-Caricature" serial and veers into an almost manic direction. As he debates suicide as a defensible position with himself, he then has an extended debate with Jesus Christ. One page of the debate is one panel, filled almost entirely with one huge word balloon. By way of contrast, there's also a page where we see dozens of Ivans in hell, killing, torturing and/or sodomizing each other. The French artist Killoffer did an entire graphic novel years later revolving around this sort of image, but it's still a stunner. He gives a page over to his then-wife to describe what it's like living with Ivan, and then does an amazing page of strips mimicking the style of classic strips starring him and his wife. My favorite is one where he's Sluggo and his wife is Nancy, who chides him by asking "Doesn't anything make you happy?" only to recoil when he's cheered by a nearby nuclear explosion.

Another amazing feature from the second issue was the fantastic letter column. Virtually every important cartoonist of the day wrote in, including R.Crumb ("Lighten up, dude"), Chris Ware ("Maybe I wasn't such a bad guy after all"), Mary Fleener ("I enjoy the fact that there is a decapitation or stab wound on almost every page--now that's Big Entertainment for your Comics Dollar"), and David Mazzucchelli ("I suspect that anyone who lists his favorite toy as 'Hello Kitty' can't be totally bitter"). It goes on from there, but it was obvious that his initial impact was huge within the art-comics world.
The third issue has the last-released part of "Self-Caricature", titled "Work Equals Degradation". Told in a 4 by 4 panel grid on every page, the regimentation and claustrophobia on the page reflects those feelings evinced by arriving at work and having to deal with the rest of the world. This strip represents his late-90's peak in his old, highly-detailed but still cartoony style. While not sacrificing an ounce of the bile and bite of his earlier stories, he's able to structure his rants into a more coherent, and ultimately more effective, storytelling style. As he negotiates his day and talks to his coworkers, his inner voice is still as devastating as ever--even moreso, given his mild-mannered demeanor. He concludes the issue with perhaps the peak of his gag work during this era: 4 strips featuring the characters Diaper Dyke and Captain Boyfuck, with the jokes exactly what you think they might be, only much funnier. Brunetti's knack for subverting traditional gag-strip situations with the darkest premises and characters he can imagine is a key to what makes his jokes work.
Those that already own Schizo 1-3 will still find a wealth of other material, culled from the many other places Brunetti's appeared over the years. I consider myself to be something of a Brunetti completist, but even I found a few strips here and there that I'd never seen before. Most of them are the sort of "horrible, horrible cartoons" that we later saw in his books HEE! and HAW!, but drawn in his older style. A section devoted to his work in color was especially enjoyable, with strips like "Who's Your e-bay Nemesis?", a surprisingly hopeful bit called "The Dancing Queen" and three pages about James Thurber as highlights.

About the only negative thing I can say regarding Brunetti's career is that he spawned a wave of imitators, few of whom understand the intelligence and despair behind the gross-out cartoons. All they saw in Brunetti's work was the over-the-top transgressiveness of its humor, and they seized on this shock value to produce work that ranged from mean-spirited to utterly worthless. This, of course, was not Brunetti's fault, but it's not a surprise to see how different his new material is from his old comics, especially in Schizo1-2. Brunetti has written and spoken about how a lot of work that he did in the past was tied directly into depression, to the point where he became paralyzed and unable to draw for a long time. As a reader, it made me uncomfortable to see others treat the "Ivan" of these comics like any other character, relishing his pain. But the pain expressed in these comics isn't shtick, it's real. The last thing Brunetti the artist wanted from these comics was for the reader to feel sorry for him (since he deflates himself constantly), but it's impossible for me to read these stories and not feel the artist's humanity. While his new material explores a lot of the same territory, it's filtered through a very different kind of artistic lens, one that gives both author and reader a bit of room to breathe. Brunetti himself is understandably ambivalent about his comics from this era, but it's a great day for comics that this material has been collected at last and made available for a wider audience.

Peter Bagge's Hate was one of the most popular and best selling alt-comics series, and I consider it the comic that best defined its decade. The first Hate collection, Buddy Does Seattle, features Buddy Bradley living in Seattle in the early 90's, at precisely the same time it became the cultural capital of the United States and a symbol of the "slacker" generation. Hate was both the embodiment of this era and a critique, but there were many readers who saw themselves in the cynical, loud-mouthed and brutally honest Buddy. When Buddy decides to go back to his parents' place in New Jersey with his crazy girlfriend Lisa, a lot of readers were horrified. Replacing the hipness of Seattle with the mundane quality of suburban New Jersey was not what a lot of people wanted to see in this series. The fact that Hate was now in color and had someone else inking it led to cries of "sell-out", but it's not like Bagge toned down the content in any way. If anything, the series became even crazier and darker, but in a way that was perhaps much more uncomfortable for some of its readership. Instead of keeping Buddy eternally young and squaring off against hipsters (sort of like a Bizarro Archie), Bagge made Buddy deal with the perils of suburbia: babysitting his sister's brats, dealing with his insane alcoholic brother, tolerating sleazy neighbors and trying to find a way to make money without actually working too hard. In other words, dealing with actually becoming a real adult, a topic that's pleasant for no one.

Buddy starts a collectibles business with his old friend Jay, who promptly spends much of their profits on drugs and strippers. "Uncle Buddy" is a grueling story featuring Buddy having to babysit his niece and nephew--monsters both. It concludes with Buddy wondering how much a vasectomy costs. "I've Got Three Moms!" shows Buddy dealing with his girlfriend, his mother and his sister--and that despite his protests, he actually comes around to enjoy domestication. Things start to deteriorate with the ever-unstable Lisa, to the point where Buddy declares his love to a married friend of his in the middle of a toy convention (and is naturally shot down). When he snaps at Jay afterwards and he's asked what his problem is, he replies "Nothin', 'cept for the fact that my life's a total joke, is all..." Jay replies, "That, and the fact that you're a total asshole." Buddy puts his head on the table and mutters, "...yeah ...that too..."

Bagge keeps upping the ante in story after story. Lisa going to see a shrink is perhaps the highlight of the whole collection, culminating in a joint session where Buddy eviscerates the therapist for blatantly manipulating Lisa into buying into her agenda. As dysfunctional as that relationship was, when Lisa walked out on Buddy he started to spiral downward in a truly impressive fashion. He set about alienating all of his friends and family, including his business partner, to retreat into almost total isolation. The return of Leonard "Stinky" Brown was just the harbinger of the insanity that was to follow in the second half of the book. And unlike Seattle, where Stinky's shenanigans were merely ridiculous, New Jersey took him down a much darker path. His exit from the series, depicted in a very straightforward fashion, remains one of the more stunning moments I've seen depicted in a comic. It was so senseless and (seemingly) random, yet fit perfectly into the trajectory of Stinky's life.

Stinky's ultimate fate was fitting for one of the few characters in the book who, in his own way, was a hopeless romantic. The inveterate cynic Buddy was always his opposite, but Bagge depicts Buddy as being just as pathetic when he starts hanging around AOL chat rooms, going on blind dates and hanging around other losers. When Buddy has a chance to get back together with Lisa, he not only jumps at it but decides to marry her on the spot when she reveals that she's pregnant with his child. The way he talked Lisa into keeping the baby and marrying him was classic Buddy. When she said that any kid they'd have would be fucked-up, Buddy simply replied, "So there'll be one more fucked-up person in the world! Who's gonna even notice?" It's a happy ending of sorts for Buddy, as he abandons his cynicism to pursue "the American dream". The truth is that Buddy never quite figures out what he wanted in life; his misanthropy is cancelled out by his fear of loneliness. There was always a part of him that wanted to be able to buy into middle-American culture, but he knew that he could never really stomach it. At the same time, his hatred of pretension in all its forms (and utter lack of creative expression on his own part) meant that he could never really live as a hipster. Either way, Buddy knew he was going to live a lie; he simply chose the lie that disgusted him less, and pursued it wholeheartedly.

Bagge's rubbery, manic art is a perfect match for the outsized personalities of his characters. His slightly expressionistic style allows him to do things like have a page where Buddy's head swells to ten times its normal size with anger. And no one depicts the ridiculousness of sex like Bagge--he combines a graphic depiction with flailing limbs, exaggerated poses and bulging eyeballs. It's a pleasure just looking at a Bagge page, because the often grim events depicted in his story always take an absurd turn with the way he draws them.

Any comics fan who is a fan of humorists needs to snap up both of these volumes, as well as the first volume of Hate and Schizo #4. Anyone interested in cartooning, humor, storytelling and total investment in one's art owes it to themselves to read them. Even if neither artist's work speaks to the reader personally (and there is a huge serving of cynicism & nihilism dished up), their sheer devotion to the craft of making comics is inspiring. It's inspiring to me as a critic, and it's certainly influenced a generation of artists. These are comics that work on so many levels: as craft, as humor, as commentary, and as the most personal of expressions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New Comics From Rob Kirby: Three #3 and Ginger

Rob Kirby really went all-out in producing the third issue of his queer anthology Three.While the past two issues contained three stories by three different artists, the format of this issue is a bit different. There are still three features but also a number of shorter pieces that manage to incorporate threes in some manner. For example, the opening page is a 3 x 3 grid, with each panel featuring art by a different cartoonist. Mari Naomi contribute an image of a woman in three successive moments in time, eating a piece of fruit. It's a beautiful, evocative drawing, as she is nude and being watched by a prone figure. Marian Runk did a one-page bird strip featuring three different backyard birds.About the only cartoonists who don't fall into this pattern are Matt Runkle and Janelle Hessig, in their delightful strip about making a pilgrimage to see Dolly Parton in concert and discuss why she's so inspiring.

Those features are nice little changes of pace for the feature stories, all of which are dramatically different from each other. "Oh No!", a jam "where something bad happens every three panels" is entirely self-explanatory and quite silly. Borrowed from what was going to be content from an upcoming volume of Jennifer Camper's anthology Juicy Mother, an all-star lineup of queer creators passes the narrative baton every three panels and cycles back through one more time to each artist. The story is nonsense, as a one-legged, one-eyed African-American lesbian is struck by a struck in the first strip by Ivan Velez Jr, and it gets crazier from there as exorcisms occur, we view donkey's getting blown in hell, Paris Hilton being born to the devil, dead characters rising up and killing their creators, a demented Peanuts pastiche, etc. Camper, Kirby, Ellen Forney, Diane DiMassa, Joan Hilty, and Howard Cruse all obviously have a fun time, and the strip looks great in color.

The real highlights of the issue are Carrie McNinch's "Fly Like An Eagle, her story of spending a year in a Christian middle-school; as well as Ed Luce's "Love Lust Lost". I count Luce's Wuvable Oaf as one of my comics blind spots (just haven't gotten around to picking it up yet) and I'm sure some of the nuances of this strip were lost on me, but there's no doubting the absolute command he has over a comics page. This ingeniously designed and paced story of three "bears" draws the reader in from the first image, even as the silent nature of Luce's imagery is quite bizarre at times. One man with red eyes and a fearsome beard plays endlessly with his tiny kitty-cats, a second does some kind of fetish cosplay/furry play with a group of men dressed as pigs, while a third man with a bunny-eared motorcycle helmet zips through traffic on a mountainside in order to deliver flowers at a spot where a former loved one died. This story is cute, touching and bizarre all at once as it plays upon the theme of "three" in a number of different ways. It's one of the best short stories I've read all year.

McNinch's story is in that same league. It's one of her longest stories, and one written in her voice as a teenager. It's an account of struggling to deal with life in a restrictive Christian school, the fellow burn-out girls that she befriends, and the creeping realization that she's gay. It's a story that goes from isolation to the understanding that she's not alone, that there's a community waiting out there for her to join. Seeing McNinch's simple line in color is lovely, as the color really adds a lot to the emotional content of the story as well as assisting in evoking the era (late 70s/early 80s). As always with McNinch's work, it's her strong attention to tiny details that makes this comic come alive, from the fashions and drugs of choice to the ways in which she is able to grasp and comprehend her own thoughts and emotions.  It's certainly the strongest story I've read from this long-time comics and zine veteran.

I also wanted to highlight Ginger, a short collection of strips about Kirby's dog. She's a beautiful, affectionate chocolate lab, and it's Kirby's skill at drawing her that makes these stories so much fun. From the poem "Birch" (written by Karen Shepard) that is an image of Ginger asking "You gonna eat that?" to a story about a squirrel falling out of a tree and straight into the waiting dog's mouth, Kirby evokes the joys and occasional headaches of owning a strong-willed, energetic dog. I'd love to see an expanded version of this at some point.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sequart Reprints: What It Is

I have nearly a hundred of my old reviews and columns from the old sequart.com site that I've managed to recover.  I will occasionally post some of the better ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  This column was written in 2008.

2008 has already seen some remarkable comics. My shortlist for the best of the best would include Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings, Dash Shaw's Bottomless Bellybutton and Michel Rabagliatti's Paul Goes Fishing.. However, if I had to chose just one comic as best of the year to date it would be Lynda Barry's amazing What It Is. The quickest way to describe it is as a book version of her workshop course "Writing The Unthinkable", but that's really only a small portion of this project. What It Is is part memoir, part art project, part philosophical treatise on cognition, part aesthetic analysis, part linguistic theory, part sketchbook, and part art textbook. At its heart, it addresses the concerns of ontology as they relate to aesthetics. That is, this book gets at the heart of what it is to be (human), and how art brings meaning to that being. After she wrestles with this idea for 130 pages, Barry then describes a particular method she uses in her writing workshop, one that allows ideas to reveal themselves to the writer.

The format of the first section of the book flips between fairly straightforward autobiographical memoirs about her relationship with creating art and what she describes as "essay questions". On those pages, she employs a dizzyingly dense collage approach to illustrate those questions. She uses her own drawings and doodles, clip art, cut-out bits of repurposed text, and old schoolchildren's homework assignments, among other source material. The questions she asks are straight out of a Philosophy of Mind textbook, including "What Is An Image", "Why Do They Exist?", "What/Where Is Your Imagination?", "What Is An Imaginary Friend?", "What Is A Memory", etc. Barry's interest and study of cognition and linguistics, however, relates directly to identity and being. The questions she asks are given no direct answers at first; instead, Barry redirects the reader by discussing her childhood relationship with art.

As it turns out, asking those questions about art with regard to Barry are precisely those that yield the greatest insight. She grew up in a poor family that did not exactly embrace self-expression or the arts. Barry eventually learned that the world of images that she slipped into when she read the very few books in her house were something that "can transform your experience" of your situation. As a result "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay...we have...always used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable". This activity can loosely be described as "play", be it staring at an image and thinking it's alive, creating an imaginary friend or playing alone--or drawing. Barry is careful to note that play and "fun" aren't necessarily the same thing, but that this is something we forget as adults. She goes on to say that "If playing isn't happiness or fun, if it is something which may lead to those things or to something else entirely, not being able to play is misery." This is one of the key points of the book, and she hits on an idea that Heidegger explores in his philosophical writings.

Barry stresses that we can't come up with ideas by thinking about them, taking them by force of mind and will. Similarly, Heidegger notes that we can't understand Being through conventional rational/cognitive means, because the way we use language inherently limits our ability to do so. Language simply can't capture this essence. The essential observational truth of the matter, however, is that we do experience ideas and we did experience play as children. In both instances, in order to get access to ideas and play, we can't attempt to seize them; instead, we have to allow ideas/images to reveal themselves to us. This is what I refer to as "the aesthetic experience": the moment in time and space where we have a particular experience of the world (be it art, nature or a relationship) revealing itself to us. It's not simply mystical, because it always involves a kind of physical and temporal interaction. The feeling can be described, analyzed and named--but the name of the experience is not the experience. It's not a thought or a feeling per se, but something rooted in temporality. It's a visceral experience, even when one is not trying to create art but simply experience it.

Barry sinks her teeth into the ways that this experience manifests itself physically, and it's perhaps the most lucid exploration of this subject that I've ever read. Discussing why humans like to think about monsters, Barry discusses an anecdote about her obsession with the Gorgon Medusa as a child. She found herself drawing it even as the entire notion of being turned to stone by it consumed her. It was only much later that she understood that she needed this monster to cope with a mother who frightened her: "...a furious woman with terrifying eyes and snakelike hair was the perfect monster for me." She then asks us, "What was yours?"

That leads into her discussing the very act of mark-making, that activity that all children engage in but most stop at some point in their life. The exception is the doodle: those marks we idly make on paper while waiting on the phone, "where one line can still follow another without plan". The physical act of doodling allows us to alter our sense of temporality with relation to being stuck in a particular physical situation. It allows us to engage the world, and that engagement is at the heart of play. As with her Gorgon drawings, being able to play, to engage that spirit and activity, helped Barry get through her teenage years, making "steady moods I could rely on" as she tried to envision a different life, a different identity.

Barry's most important advice for aspiring artists and writers comes in how to deal with what she calls "the Two Questions": "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" Those two questions bring on paralysis, dread and block for all artists. Instead of being able to revel in the creation of art for its own sake, when one becomes more concerned about some objective validation, it destroys our ability to access our imagination. It alienates us from being able to access the "floating feeling" of mark-making that we all understand as children, making us "feel like I was both there and not there". The Two Questions find everyone eventually, holding ideas hostage as you try to solve their riddle--that not every drawing has to have a purpose, not everything written is for anything in particular. That paradoxical surrender is what allows one access to that well of ideas, "to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape". One couldn't think or theorize way out of this paralysis, only allowing ideas to reveal themselves to you, like Heidegger and Being.

To this end, Barry concludes the book with a series of timed writing exercises designed to get her students to use images as a means of jumping into the physical act of writing. And I do mean physical: Barry is very strict in noting that these examples must be done with pen or pencil on paper, and not on a computer. Somehow, this act of motion, moving one's hand, is itself an act of creation that leads to other acts of creation. She starts by encouraging the reader to remember their first phone number and what feelings that evokes. She then works up to cars that we remember, mothers other than our own that we can think of, and then a variety of questions regarding time & place and that image. The key in these timed exercises is that one's pen can never stop moving; if one gets stuck, simply start to doodle or draw patterns on a notepad. There's obviously some kind of meditative quality that this repetitive physical act contains that is not unlike the states of mind achieved through meditation, prayer or exercise. The other key rule is that one must wait at least a week before even looking at what one writes--because any sooner and one worries about whether something is Any Good. You're too close to the work to be able to have an experience of it as something separate from you. Anyone who does any kind of writing should go through the exercises at least once; it's a process that illuminates one's own creative process.

The page that really sums up what Barry's trying to say is 122, where she nails down precisely what she means by "image": "It's the pull-toy that pulls you, takes you from one place to another...the ability to stay in motion, to be pulled by something, to follow it, and stay behind it." Memory, motion and creation are all bound up together in mysterious ways. At a certain level, that interconnection can't be further reduced, understood or described by way of language. The nature of that interconnection is not important, only the understanding that the connection exists and has always existed in one's life (even if it was forgotten). Barry's moving story of her own halting struggle with the process of creation and imagination serves to make the reader think about their own struggle without being overly didactic. At the same time, the way she delineates her method is inspiring because of the way she establishes borders and boundaries for her exercises. Without play, our imaginations wither and we devolve into rage, madness and/or numbness. Finding ways to engage in play is the essence of what it is to be human.