Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Autobio Minis: Shapiro, Harbin, Coovert, Baylis

Crushable: Ricky Nelson, Crushable: John Lennon, and The Hand Game, by Janice Shapiro. I read the first iteration of Shapiro's Crushable series in an online anthology, and it's a clever twist on the sort of sexual history comics that MariNaomi and David Heatley have done. It's a history of the crushes she's had on a variety of pop cultural figures from her girlhood to the present, which is an interesting method of getting at other formative events in her life over the years. Shapiro's line is scribbly and messy, leaning toward simplicity when depicting herself or her sister but more toward a scratchy realism when depicting her idols. In Ricky Nelson, six year old Janice crushes on the squeaky-clean TV and pop star, and that crush is a gateway toward discovering that her older sister's best friend loved Nelson as well. That gave her the in she needed to essentially take over that friendship, so long as Ricky Nelson was involved. Shapiro depicts this miraculous, almost utopic time when the two of them danced to Nelson's records and sat arm-in-arm when he was on TV, earning Janice the right to even get invite over to her friend's house. When Janice accidentally destroys the speaker of her parents' "hi-fi", so too is the friendship dissolved without that cultural medium. Shapiro notes that her crush was essentially transferred from Nelson to her friend, and when that ended, so too did her cultural infatuation.

John Lennon speaks to a different phenomenon. When the Beatles broke in America, Paul McCartney ("the cute Beatle") was the most beloved member of the group amongst teenage girls, and John was the least adored. Not so for Shapiro, who loved John but was forced by peer pressure to renounce that affection in favor of Paul. Shapiro muses on why she felt that connection, from sensing his leadership & intelligence, to the first sign of possessing a masochistic personality to an existential understanding of the darkness that lies at the heart of everything--but ultimately seems to chalk it up to the notion of the fact that we can't control whom we happen to fall in love with on any level. What's interesting is the shame she felt in later years for lying about it, a lie that betrayed her aesthetic sensibilities as much as anything. Speaking of masochism, The Hand Game is an interesting anecdote about playing this particular slap game with her father. The game is one where both parties hold out their hands and one person puts their hands on top of the other person's. They then try to slap one of the other person's hands as hard and fast as possible. If they miss, then it's the other person's turn. What was fascinating about this anecdote was that her father was considerably better at it than she was but refused to take it easy, leaving her hands bright red from slaps, even when she asked him if he'd take it easy. At the same time, each time he offered her a chance to end the game, she refused. Afterwards, her sister demanded to play the game with him. This was an interesting metaphor for the things we do to get attention from our parents as children, no matter how painful it might be.Shapiro reminds me a bit of Lynda Barry, both in terms of the crude but enthusiastic nature of their lines and the wistfulness with which they discuss the children in their stories.

Diary Comics #4, by Dustin Harbin. When Harbin handed me a copy of Diary Comics #4, I told him, "I thought you said you were done with diary comics." He replied, "I had something to say." Indeed he did. Rather than the simple exercise in daily comics making (and a slow, tentative reveal of Harbin's inner demons) that marked his first three entries, Harbin here tentpoles a harder look at himself and the way he interacts with the world around events that force him to interact with others, namely comic-book conventions. Harbin's self-image as he presents it in the strips in the first half of the book is earnest, slightly goofy and self-deprecatory, often setting himself up for a gag. That all changes with "Boxes", a five-part series of strips that takes up the second half of the collection.

"Boxes" is by far Harbin's densest, harshest self-examination and it's probably the best thing he's done as an artist so far. The first three sections deal with the long break in autobio strips, the vagaries of the passage of time, a brief reprise of the funny and perceptive report he did about Canada's Doug Wright Awards at the Toronto Comics & Arts Festival (TCAF), and a brief recapitulation of the sort of strip he likes to do about conventions. At the end of each part, he stops the story cold and alerts the reader that this is a diversion and isn't what he really wanted to talk about. That in itself is an interesting meta-device that clues the reader in that Harbin is avoiding something. In the fourth part, we get to spend a lot of time in Harbin's head as he prepares to go do a post-awards dinner with many of his comics idols. Harbin is self-conscious to a degree where it's no longer so much about saying something stupid or offensive, but rather doubting the very possibility of communication itself. Harbin very cleverly plays around with time, space and point of view in this strip, eventually fading into Kevin Huizenga-style pastoral scenes as a way of representing his drifting mind, popping back into dinner at various intervals. I laughed when he started talking about dinner going well despite his feeling stressed in a regular word balloon (rather than a narrative caption or thought balloon), only to have Chester Brown interrupt him by saying, "Dustin, we can hear you.".

The last part of "Boxes" focuses on a review that Tom Spurgeon gave him on Diary Comics #3, where he says "The result is a comic about a life being lived for the sake of presenting amusing comics". I'm not sure I entirely agree with that point of view, given Harbin's strips about dealing with depression and other insights into his own feelings. I do agree that Harbin is almost afraid to talk about the way he perceives the feelings of others. Harbin's reaction was to agree with the review to an interesting extreme: he says "One thing I've learned, in the process of doing these comics, is that I'm fake, very fake..fake like 'pretend to be...something' then forget that you're pretending." In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. Even as Harbin writes that he sometimes has trouble making real connections to people because of the way he has constructed their personae in his mind, the self he projects is kind, curious, self-reflective, funny, goofy and awkward in a sort of endearing way. Sartre has said much the same thing about identity in that the masks we think we wear are who we are in a real sense, or at least part of who we are. Harbin seems not so much fake but unmoored, as the self-image he projects is built on the shifting sands of depression. That's a harsh realization he shares on the last page of the comic, where he understands that he's stuck with the arduous task of recreating his self on a moment-to-moment basis or else find a way to fix his foundation. The latter is an even more arduous task, in part because the "how" in doing so is elusive (therapy? medication?) and mysterious even before trying to do so. That realization goes beyond the kind of deflective self-deprecation of earlier strips to the essence of a problem that goes far beyond the ability of self-expression on the page to handle. Leaving the comic without a pat answer for himself or the reader is an act of courage and an eloquent, if perhaps not consciously intended, response to Spurgeon's critique. As a reader, it was the first time that Harbin's used his top-notch rendering skills to provide a counterbalance to weightier matters, and for the first time I find myself drawn to Harbin's work for something other than its sheer charm. I wasn't wrong in my last review when I mentioned that Harbin seemed ready to move on to something more substantial than his preceding Diary output; I just didn't expect that substance to come in the form of another autobio comic.

So Buttons #5, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. Baylis continues to improve both as a writer and a self-publisher, as this comic looks attractive without being too slick. The eye-catching cover by Tom Scioli, dramatizing a pet-related anecdote, is funny because it allows Scioli to do his usual kinetic shtick ("covering" Jack Kirby) with an an otherwise quiet comic. The actual story, "So...Extracted" was drawn by Paul Westover in a full-color, slightly cartoony style that didn't take away Baylis' anxiety about his pet getting some dental work done, but it did take away some of potential melodrama from the strip. "So...Caffeinated" was simply a great yarn of an anecdote, drawn sketchily by the also-developing Thomas Boatwright. What Baylis is starting to do well is give his illustrators space to have fun with his scripts; Boatwright's exaggerated figurework and the way he uses colors helps exaggerate the humor of the piece.

Switching gears, "So...Escalated" is almost entirely in black & white and contains an excellent gag about Schindler's List. Drawn by Noah Van Sciver in his trademark scratchy, heavily cross-hatched style, Baylis balances the intense gravity of having seen the film with a friend in a theater with a joke that out of necessity lightens the mood. Finally, "So...Brisk", drawn by Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, once again takes a fairly lightweight anecdote and gives it weight and structure with confident characterization and allowing the artist to do what she does best: pleasant, simple and expressive character work. The light purple wash balances the linework nicely, a nice complement to the story about Baylis initially ignoring what seems to be hokey advice from his mother, only to find that mom knows best (sometimes). Baylis made sure to assign stories that played to the strengths of the artists he worked with, something that Harvey Pekar did so well for so long.

Salad Days, and Simple Routines #14-15, by J.P. Coovert.If Shapiro's work is about revealing bigger truths about herself through anecdotes, Harbin's are about how hard it is to communicate in a meaningful way, and Baylis' are a way of expanding anecdotes into vignettes, then Coovert's comics have are largely about being present and expressing gratitude for those moments that inspire joy. Coovert hasn't drawn nearly as much attention as other grads of the Center for Cartoon Studies, in part because his output has been steady but simple. His work isn't boundary-pushing or revolutionary, but rather focuses in on craft, character and the electric feeling of aesthetic & personal connections. Coovert gives the reader that in small doses in Simple Routines, which mirrors Harbin's work in the way it details going to conventions, visiting friends and amusing interactions with his wife. Coovert doesn't use comics as a form of therapy or a way of venting frustrations; instead, this is a graphic document of the ways in which his life is fun and rewarding in any number of ways. There's an utter lack of pretentiousness as Coovert flits from anecdote to anecdote: he's a happy, well-adjusted guy who loves his wife, accepts his limitations and tries to patiently expand his horizons as an artist.

At the same time, there's an almost child-like glee with how he sees the world, even as the understanding creeps in that he's not a kid anymore. That feeling is explored in Salad Days, a story about spending a weekend with a childhood friend, with the idea that they'll spend the weekend eating pizza, playing video games and drinking soda. The comic is rife with asides about the compromises they're making in their everyday, responsible lives while wishing they could do exactly what they want to do, all the time. Wistfulness begins to dominate the discourse of the comic until Coovert's character decides that they should tip over a port-a-john as a nod to their days together as boys when they used to get into mischief. That leads to an inadvertent, frantic scamper away from a passing police cruiser, with Coovert realizing that he can't get in trouble for something so dumb. They manage to get away with it, literally reaching for the stars as they hide out by a river, only to find them out of reach. It's a sweet moment that brings presentness into their friendship, taking them out of pure nostalgia and creating a new, thrilling moment of connection. Sure, that moment came about through a juvenile act, but that act was a symbolic corrective for nostalgia. As always, Coovert's simple line and clear design sense made these and his journal comics quite pleasant to look at; his use of color in Salad Days is crisp and understated. I'm not precisely sure what kind of cartoonist he's going to evolve into at this point; I know he'll be illustrating some work for First Second, but I'm not quite sure what sort of writer he's going to be. It's obvious that he'll apply his finely-honed craft to whatever he does.

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