Monday, July 2, 2012

Autobio Minis: Harbin, Boyce, Taylor, Gennis

Time to check in on the world of autobio minicomics:

The Melinderly #1, by Melinda Tracy Boyce. This full-color minicomic is the end result of a Kickstarter campaign. The Austin-based Boyce reminds me a lot of Vanessa Davis, both in the way she uses a slightly cartoony, painted style and the upbeat nature of her strips. Boyce's mission seems to be capturing magical moments on paper, like the events of "Drinkapalooza", a meandering story about a funny drinking game that involves adding bizarre articles of clothing where its participants wind up going to a party. The inebriated characters proceed to become the life of the party, even as Boyce hints at their slight obnoxiousness. "I Got You Something" reminds me the most of Davis, in that it's a strip about her mother and her gift-giving quirks that winds up with quite a punchline. Boyce makes great use of color (watercolors?) in her comics, giving herself a freckly, apple-cheeked complexion that's the cute anchor in a comic filled with cute-looking characters. Her use of detail in her stories gives them some nice comedic depth, like drawing herself, hiding in the bushes and smoking an apple bong at home. "Night of the Wonderful Wheatpaste" is an account of her boyfriend and another friend accompanying her on a late-night graffiti session, using home-made paste to put up art in the city. It's the essence of her work: distilling and capturing the sort of tiny moments one experiences in one's youth. The first chapter in her only fictional story, "Lustwander", establishes a very attractive food blogger with a video game-playing lump of a boyfriend who receives a secret admirer's love note. Boyce stacks the deck by making her character irresistible and her boyfriend a sexless lump, but we'll see where she takes this. It's clear that Boyce is as close to a fully-formed talent as I've seen in a young cartoonist, one with a strong and sweet voice with a knack for pleasing, low-stakes storytelling.

Diary Comics 3, by Dustin Harbin. I tend to say the same thing about Harbin's comics every time I review them: he has a great deal of talent but is still trying to figure out what he wants to say as an artist. His diary comics, which conclude with this third volume, seem to have helped him a great deal in this process. A daily diary comic can help artists process their feelings, hopes and worries even if that deeper conversation mostly takes place in asides or deflections. In his strips, Harbin portrays his depression as a heavily hatched cloud that surrounds him as well as a shadowy other self that paralyzes him. There's an implication that he's literally trying to outrun his own depression at times, which can be difficult when one's career is both sedentary and solitary. The routine of a daily strip, even one that's polished up after the fact, takes away from the kind of preciousness and perfectionism that can doom an artist's productivity.

Harbin has two chief virtues as a cartoonist: he's funny and he's a superb caricaturist--especially of himself.  The big-eared, snaggletoothed, fuzzy-faced and gangly self-caricature is a delight to follow across the page. Despite his battles with depression, there's a light-hearted quality to all of his comics, especially the convention reports. Those positively glow with optimism and the thrill of camaraderie with a group of cartoonists he obviously admires but is still trying to understand how he fits in with them. One thing that comes across in this comic is his sense of gratitude to people like his publisher Anne Koyama and friend Kate Beaton, both of whom have boosted his confidence level simply by encouraging him. I'm not quite sure what Harbin being "there" would look like at this point. He's clearly a humorist at heart, but I'm still not sure what kind of fictional storyteller he is, especially for a longer narrative. If I had to guess, I'd say his best shot at success would be in adapting and expanding upon some of his childhood stories (his childhood caricature is irresistible). I just get the feeling that it's all going to click for him and he'll come out with something that really turns heads.

Relics, by Whit Taylor. Taylor is another emerging talent who's trying to figure herself out as an artist. This 26-page mini is her longest sustained effort, one that allows her to think about her past while her future is in flux. It's a simple idea: a trip to the magnificent Museum of Natural History in New York with her boyfriend. The trip allows her to muse upon her many worries while trying to put them in perspective. She thinks about her parents divorcing and wondering if people were meant to be monogamous for a lifetime, especially after one's offspring "become viable". She ponders the recent and sudden death of her grandfather and wishes she was part of a society that allowed itself more space to mourn. She considers her own creeping depression and anxiety and fantasizes a bit about animals not having to face existential depression. Above all, she wonders about her place in the world after graduating with an advanced degree in a brutal job environment. There are no answers to be found here, but she clearly draws inspiration from the "buck up!" quotes from Theodore Roosevelt and the show at the planetarium, along with the rest of the museum. "It's important to get outside of yourself", she notes, as she takes comfort in being reminded of her cosmic insignificance as well as the fact that her own existence is as important as anyone else's. While still limited as a draftsman (Taylor goes for a realistic style but doesn't get there), this is her best effort to date, as she clearly spent a lot of time in getting across the details of the museum as well as its incredible scope. The success of this comic hinged upon her ability to do that, and even someone who's never made it to the Museum of Natural History will get a sense of just how vast and impressive it truly is.. Taylor notes that she's going to concentrate on doing non-fiction in the near future, and this thoughtful and forthright comic is an excellent grace note for her early autobio career.

Spaz! #5, by Emi Gennis. Gennis is a sharp cartoonist who can go from naturalistic to cartoony styles with great ease.  Even her own self-caricature changes from story to story. Gennis' specialty is mining her own neuroses and obsessions for comedic purposes. For example, her ongoing series from the Wikipedia List of Unusual Deaths can vary from ironically amusing to downright chilling, especially the infant who died because her parents were off at an internet cafe, playing a game in which they raised a magical child. Contrasting that with her ongoing battles with the anthropomorphic Zygote that keeps urging her to have children before it's too late reflects her own obvious fears as well as the way she feels the desire to be a mother. Even as Zygote gives Emi a makeover and gets her tarted up to go to a club, Gennis uses her bug-eyed, cartoony self-caricature to deflect the seriousness of the subject matter. In "You Know What's Fucked Up?", she further explores this discomfort by discussing the mental illness called Munchausen's-By-Proxy, in which mothers deliberately but secretly harm their children to get sympathy from others. Here, she uses a realistic style but involves herself as the narrator, once again exploring the way that becoming a parent can either reveal or transform someone in a monstrous fashion. "Paul" is the flipside of this fear, as she recounts a younger boy she knew in high school who wound up murdering his father. Gennis lightens things up a bit with a strip about the various kinds of potential roommates who advertise on the internet, before concluding with another death story: this time of a guest who drowned at a party attended entirely by lifeguards. I love the way that Gennis fixates on the ways things that we deem to be certain and dependable are frequently the things we should trust the least, and the subtext of the comic is her own fear of being put into a position where she's any kind of authority. For a funny comic, there's a lot of bracing material from this very interesting young cartoonist.

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