Friday, October 5, 2012

New Faces From CCS: Leake, Malig, Onorato, Steinberg, Dukes, Howard, Almendrala

This column gives me the pleasure of examining work by students from the Center for Cartoon Studies from the classes of 2012 and 2013, artists whose work is (mostly) entirely new to me.

All Rumors Are True, by Laurel Lynn Leake.Of all the comics mentioned here, Leake's features my favorite cover. The sneering, lipsticked figure whose hair obscures her eyes issues forth pink, pixelated pronouncements while the title looks like it was drawn in red lipstick.This comic follows Scratch, a "tiny little legend in the local drag scene" who is cast by a "metareligious hallucinogenic radical queerotica" video company Pansexual Pantheon. In a truly inspired idea, Leake posits this outfit as one that casts actors as gods and figures from a variety of religious pantheons from across history and has them fuck each other, all told through the details and history of those belief systems. Scratch is cast as the Shinto goddess Amaterasu and Leake tells the story of her experience through a series of behind-the-scenes clips, internet commentary interspersed as actual narrative, and bits and pieces of the film itself. She jams every panel with cartoony character interaction (her drawings of the zaftig actress who plays the goddess Uzume are especially eye-catching), whirling decorative flourishes, eye-grabbing text that has an almost visceral impact, or some combination thereof. This comic is successful because it's so highly stylized, a pure distillation of glamor, excess and sheer presence.

Stonewall #1, by Sasha Steinberg. This is a work of historical fiction about the famous Stonewall riots that sparked the LGBT movement in the US. Steinberg reminds us that at the start of the movement in particular, there was a strong emphasis on the "T" (trans) portion of the movement that got lost for a long time and has only within the last five to ten years become an accepted part of the overall rights movement (after considerable struggle). Steinberg draws this full-color comic in the style of golden age cartoonist Tarpe Mills, whose Miss Fury strip was very much a mix of drag disguise (for fighting crime) and fashion. It's a genius move to depict trans folk in that glamorous style, and I especially liked Steinberg's notion to create a fictional character (a 14-year-old trans person who called herself Miss Venus--especially clever given her resemblance to the golden age Bill Everett character called Venus) to go along with real figures like Sylvia Rivera. Venus is the sort of innocent new to a scene that allows veterans to play off of, a catalyst that causes the other characters to have something to react to. Steinberg skillfully creates an enormous amount of tension and drama considering that all of the action in this issue takes place in a cramped hotel room. The people in the room, he's careful to depict, were not saints or heroes. There were conflicts, jealousies and a frequent sense that many of them only associated with each other because they were all in the same boat.

The Stonewall riots were born out of frustration above all else, and Steinberg amps up that level of frustration and weariness in the form of people like Rivera, Ivan Valentin and Tammy Novak. Years of random and indiscriminate police raids and persecution made living and expressing themselves acts of boldness, even if being bold was less on their agenda than simply being. Venus represents the power of youth and hope that fuels every movement, the younger generation that has yet to be jaded and demands more. She's the focus of this first issue and so the figures here are representative of how Venus sees the world and the scene: glamorous, tinged with a hint of danger and excitement. Steinberg has really done his research here and transformed facts into a living, breathing story in a clever and innovative manner. Given that this is part one of ten, I'm eager to see how the series proceeds and what other visual representations he chooses to use.

Anything Is Anything, by April Malig. This is a bit of comics-as-poetry that takes the reader through Malig's sensation of falling as she tries to go to sleep and extends that metaphor through a number of experiences in her life, especially those that involve relationships. Malig has a strong sense of composition and design and works hard to make each page a poetic construct of is own and does a nice job of using blacks to create a dizzying sort of dream world. Her figurework is a bit stiff, which renders some of the key scenes lacking the kind of emotional power that I believe Malig intends. In particular, her use of gesture and the way her figures interact is stilted in a way that draws unwelcome attention from the reader's eye. I think this is simply a matter of experience, and that her figures will fit better with the rest of her graphics as she continues to draw, because otherwise it's obvious that she displays a great deal of nuance and emotional sensitivity as a creator. I especially liked her lines about communication, like "Words don't always hold, if they are even caught at all. It's hard not to feel like we're all just thumping glass upon glass". The image here are two people in bubble space helmets, frowning as they try to communicate. If anything, I'd like to see Malig go a bit more abstract on the page, breaking down figures more as shapes and seeing how that works with her strong decorative and design sense.

Chimps In Space #1-3, by Donna Almendrala. These three comics are Almendrala's way of exploring genre stories using the titular chimp characters, mixing extreme silliness with a genuine affection for each genre. The first issue is an outer space story where we eventually learn that the captain of the ship (who is narrating the story) is a complete idiot. It actually is less of a space adventure than a locked-door murder mystery whose resolution is also quite silly, especially when the captain tries to tack on a Star Trek-style moralistic message at the end. The second issue follows two of the crewmembers on a planet where they engage in Western-style hijinx; the beginning of the story is taken from an anthology story Almendrala did a while back. This issue was the most forgettable of the three, as it was really all over the place narratively and in terms of tone. I liked the third issue best, which featured the adventures of a dead crewman in the afterlife who is recruited to join Hermes, Ulysses, Hercules and Achilles to go on an adventure. He is reluctant to join this motley crew, which is why generates both narrative friction and humor. Almendrala really seems in her comfort zone with this comic, easily navigating fine details regarding mythology while reworking them for comedic purposes. There's an easily-detected Ernie Bushmiller influence in her figure drawing and use of spotting blacks, making each page a pleasure to read and giving each image a certain comedic charge. Even before she sets up a single gag, I found myself being amused by the figures themselves. I'd love to see her take on more mythological stories in a comedic tone because of the fluidity of that third issue.

Rockall #1, by Amelia Onorato. This is the first issue of what is shaping up to be a fantasy/romance story set in an island off of Ireland. We meet Tommy Kagan, a young man who has purchased property on the island is rowed out there at the beginning of the story. He quickly discovers two things: like all small communities, the island is a place where your business is everyone's business; and there are two inhabitants in the house he has bought. One is a woman accused of being a "selkie", a seal who takes human form who can be captured by a human who happens to see her dance. She can only be freed if she finds her skin after her human master has stolen it. Onorato wisely plays coy as to whether the woman is actually a selkie, though she is indeed searching for something and is trapped on the island after her husband mysteriously died in a fishing accident. That's an event the islanders blamed on her ("calling up the sea"), sparking mutual distrust and loathing. This is obviously a groundwork-laying issue, but it's one that's well-structured and built in part on a patois that is at once distinctive but not confusing. One gets a real sense of time and place very quickly in this comic. Onorato's line is simple, cartoony and expressive. The comic did cry out for color, however; a light green wash or even some kind of blue-green duotone would have looked much better than the grey wash used on a number of pages. I'm quite curious to see how the story proceeds.

"All Coons Look Alike To Me": The Life of Ernest Hogan, Father of Ragtime, by Luke Howard. In dealing with racism and the realpolitik of exploiting one's race for profit at a price, Howard manages to use a lot of highly emotionally charged images with a thorough degree of sensitivity and context in telling the story of musician Ernest Hogan. This book is told in black and red (two colors that wind up having considerable significance in the story) with single-page panels meant to emulate silent movies, complete with full pages devoted to dialogue or narration. Howard depicts Hogan's tale as one of a devil's bargain in an era where choices were few. There's a sense of joy and triumph early in the story as Hogan first hears and then later develops the musical form that would come to be known as Ragtime: melodic, upbeat, exciting music dependent upon the piano as its driving force. When he finds he can't sell his music to anyone (and white people in particular, because they're the ones with the money), he happens upon a minstrel show and decides to combine ragtime with minstrel show imagery, all in an effort to amuse white audiences.

He writes the title song, which is an immediate smash hit that trades in on white stereotypes about African-Americans, and immediately becomes rich and famous. Of course, this doesn't earn him actual respect from caucasians, who take it upon themselves to repeat and laugh at the racist imagery he celebrates while they're hanging out with him. More to the point, when fellow black folk stare at him with a mixture of disdain and deep disappointment, it causes him to create something more uplifting, "something the next generation can look up to". But it's too late, as he's locked into being a minstrel show man for life. There's a powerful scene where Hogan has trouble getting off the blackface and red lip makeup he uses for shows and has a nightmare that white men wearing minstrel masks chop off his own face and replace it permanently with a grinning mask. The last chapter shows him dying of tuberculosis (the red blood on the white handkerchief showing it all), finding a black man playing piano in a bar and being invited to play with him. Howard sides with Hogan in this question: if someone makes a devil's bargain, do you blame the person for being naive or the devil for being evil? In this case, Hogan got what he wanted--fame, success, money and simply a chance to play a new kind of music. The price he paid was severe, but he could never go back after establishing himself, even though he desperately wanted to. The stereotyped, grinning black imagery that Howard employs here is even more powerful than the hateful words--and Howard doesn't hold back from depicting it exactly as it was, from showing just how white folks saw black folks. It reminds me a of a quote from Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn: "Black music is in, black culture is in, but black people will never be in." It's a phenomenon that while not as nakedly racist as it was in Hogan's day, continues to persist in the overall culture (cf Robert Townsend's film Hollywood Shuffle). Howard is successful in evoking the aesthetics of the day without for a moment indulging in nostalgia in a book that is provocative, intelligent and striking to look at..

Comics Cardigan, by Rachel Dukes. Dukes is no newcomer to comics, after having edited and published a few music-related anthologies (Side A and Side B) as well as operating a small-scale comics distro. Going to CCS, I'm guessing, is a way to settle down and work on her own chops. Her Comics Cardigan package certainly displays her skill as an editor and publisher in terms of packaging and all-around attractiveness as an art object. A cardboard sweater snugly holds all sorts of little treasures. Let's unpack them one by one:

* "Hello Sweetie", a promotional notebook for her new website. There's an attractive, single-tone screenprinted cover.

* A priority mail sticker-stamp with the Mixtape Comics symbol screenprinted on it, with the motto "No worries. just keep drawing."

* An 8 page mini called Adventure Story. Done in the style of Ed Emberley (he of the simple, geometric how-to-draw books), this is a cute story about a cat that goes overseas to try to rescue its beloved teapot, only to find a surprise.

* Frankie's Busy Day, a 32 page full-color mini aimed at kids, about a confused cat unsure of why all her toys were being taken away by her people, until she is taken to a new apartment. The very simple line (drawn on a computer, perhaps?) is nonetheless expressive, and the use of color makes the characters pop off the page.

* A 20-page mini consisting of one-page autobio strips, process pages, and an excerpt from a longer ongoing series that seems to be an intense family/high school drama.

It's easy to tell that Dukes has a strong work ethic and is constantly compelled to not only create nice-looking comics and zines, but to get them out to the public. What is not clear to me is what sort of cartoonist she is at this point. None of this is related to her first-year thesis project, for example, and I get the sense that her "real" work tends to be in the naturalistic style she displays in "Primary", her ongoing series.Reading the Comics Cardigan package certainly made me want to find out more about her cartooning, but I only wish there was something here that I could have really sank my teeth into. That aside, her children's book was really well-done and contained a number of moments of sly humor.


  1. Hi Rob! This is a great write-up of some of my CCS peeps! I really loved reading it.

    I just wanted to mention though that the art you have up for Laurel Leake's "All Rumors Are True" is from a comic by Mike Crosier.

    Go CCS!

    -Sophie G.

  2. D'oh! I had a hard time finding any images for Laurel's stuff. I'll edit the article. Thanks, and as always, I have an open invitation for any CCS artist to submit work for review.

  3. Hi Rob! Thanks so much for the excellent write-ups for everyone's comics! Sorry my pictures were so hard to track down - here's a link to my cover:

    Thanks for the heads-up too, Sophie! C: