Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Best American Comics 2006

This review was originally published in 2006 at
As anyone who's read my articles on Mome and Hotwire will quickly realize, I have a particular interest in comics anthologies and the effect they can have on comics in general. While there are many inherent problems with anthologies (some avoidable and some not), their inherent potential to both highlight what is great about comics and bring attention to the medium is enormous. While anthologies like NonKramer's Ergot and Mome have served either to establish a cutting edge (in the case of the former two) or to bring art comics a step closer to a wider audience (in the case of the latter), neither has quite had the mission, scope or intention of a couple of other anthologies.

The first was McSweeney's #13, a special issue of the literary anthology guest-edited by Chris Ware. Published in 2004, the elaborate hardback issue had three primary foci: reprint classic comics or materials related to same; publish essays on why comics were such an important medium and/or their connections with other arts; and print the best comics of the day. That often included reprinting stories that originally appeared in various publications published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. This book wasn't necessarily aimed at established art-comics fans, but rather the literate and sophisticated reader of McSweeney's who had heard vaguely of these sophisticated comics, but didn't quite know where to turn to next after reading Maus. It was a wider audience than the usual art-comics crowd, but still not exactly what I'd call a general audience.

The second anthology going out to a wider audience is the upcoming The Best American Comics 2006. Published by Houghton-Mifflin, it's the newest series of The Best American... books that began in 1915 with The Best American Short Stories. The series is edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore, a former editor of The Comics Journal and a current editor of the magazine Punk Planet. She went through a number of submissions, minicomics, online comics, anthologies, weekly independent newspapers and various other sources to compile a list for this edition's guest editor, Harvey Pekar.

Pekar is of course one of the unique voices in comics, with his American Splendor series gaining a lot of momentum thanks to the success of the film adaptation. Pekar went to SPX in 2005 and was exposed to a lot of new work. He lamented the fact that so much of it would never be seen by a larger audience and so relished the opportunity to guest-edit this volume.

The result is an anthology that reflects Pekar's interests and biases as a critic and writer. Naturalism dominates the book, either in terms of story or art or both. There are a number of political/journalistic pieces with strips from Joe Sacco (embedded in Iraq), Lloyd Dangle (at the Republican National Convention in NYC), Kim Deitch (interviewing an inmate on death row), and various artists from World War III Illustrated(on an uprising in Nigeria). There's plenty of autobiographical stories/self reflection: Robert Crumb on his childhood, Lynda Barry on the artistic process, Jesse Reklaw meditating on his childhood by recalling each of the cats his family kept, David Heatley's clever series of short strips about his father, an excerpt from John Porcellino about a job he had, Rick Geary recalling a missed opportunity at being seduced and David Lasky talking about driving a bread delivery truck.

Even a lot of the fictional pieces fell into the realm of quotidian, slice-of-life stories: a strip from Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For, a intense story of a suicidal woman forced to care for a woman going insane by Justin Hall, a Jonathan Bennett story about a record collector from Mome, an installment from the excellent "Day-By-Day With Hopey" Love and Rockets serial by Jaime Hernandez, an observation of a young man in front of a trophy case by Esther Pearl Watson, a story about a woman dealing with a difficult supervisor by Hob, an excerpt from Alex Robinson's Tricked wherein a man is confronted by a daughter he's never met and an excerpt from Jessica Abel's La Perdida wherein a young woman is confronted regarding her thoughtlessness. Some of the fictional strips were heavily political, like a piece on union-busting from Olivia Schanzer and a first-person account from a monstrous businessman by Tom Hart.

That's twenty-one of thirty stories that all tread on somewhat similar ground. What's really missing from the anthology are comics in the Kramer's Ergot/Non/Fort Thunder school of formal experimentation. That's probably not a huge surprise, given Pekar's interests and preference for fairly straight-ahead representation in the artists he collaborates with. Of course, the fact that trying to sell such avant-garde comics to a general audience is a difficult task possibly may also have had something to do with it. The closest thing to formal experimentation we see in this volume is an excerpt from Rebecca Dart's intriguing Rabbithead, a wordless comic with multiple branching narratives. Strips from Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti (both done in a stripped-down, minimalist style) were also innovative in terms of layout.

That leaves six other stories that don't otherwise fit into the naturalist groove that I discussed. Joel Priddy's ""Amazing Life of Onion Jack" is one of the few overtly humorous pieces in the volume, a stick-figure story about a superhero who really wishes he were a chef. Kurt Wolfgang's Mome story "Passing Before Life's Very Eyes" is a slice-of-life story with a fantastic bent, while Lilli Carre's tale of Paul Bunyan shows us the downside of being an oversized woodsman. Lastly, there's a weird story of a man running across a dying soldier by Anders Nilsen (another excerpt), a loopy tale by Ben Katchor about a man who designed a window-sill pillow that altered society and lastly a wild Wonder Wart-Hog adventure by underground legend Gilbert Shelton.

The nature of this sort of anthology is to pluck the most interesting stories from other sources, and that certainly includes other anthologies. The Best American Comics 2006 not only used certain aspects of McSweeney's he Best American Cmics #13 as a template for some of its own efforts, it also used many of the same artists and several of the same stories. The pieces from Ware, Heatley, Barry and Deitch were all originally published in McSweeney's, and I don't think it's a coincidence that they're some of the best pieces in this book. In addition, different stories from Sacco, Hernandez, Porcellino, Katchor, Crumb and Brunetti were also published in McSweeney's. Both anthologies concentrated solely on North American comics, which certainly had a lot to do with the commonalities of authors (especially since there's a strong consensus on who the best artists are) and styles. Still, while BAC 2006 went to the same well as McSweeney's on more than one occasion, the pieces from artists like Crumb and Sacco were more compelling than the entries they had in McSweeney's. .

That said, BAC 2006 diverged from the McSweeney's model in concentrating on current comics and only current comics: no extraneous essays and no historical reprints. There's another, perhaps more subtle difference: while McSweeney's only published the work of three women (of 31 modern contributors), the ratio of BAC 2006 was 8/32. I think this speaks to two factors: the increasing number of women producing comics and the editorial influence of Moore. She has always been quite outspoken about the paucity of women represented in significant industry anthologies, and this was clearly a chance to rectify that.

The result is a perfect primer for those curious about alt-comics, or ready to branch out after reading a few of the big names. Some might complain that super-hero comics aren't included here. Pekar addressed this by saying that he read plenty of them, but didn't see any he felt were worth reprinting. That's certainly the bias of Pekar as an editor, and that may change in the future with different guest editors. Still, even the best superhero stories (I might have included an issue of Sleeper) are handicapped by being serialized, too long to easily reprint and often heavily laden by continuity. Personally, I thought that humor comics were given short shrift; not having Michael Kupperman in here is inexplicable. Pekar did say in his introduction that he didn't want to claim that this as a definitive list of all the great comics in this period, just his crack at that concept.

There's a nice balance between big names like Crumb, Shelton, Ware, Barry and Hernandez and younger artists as Carre, Hall and Watson. While most of the art isn't aggressively experimental, there's still a wide range of styles, ranging from the realism of a Sacco to the crude cartoonishness of Watson, Schanzer or Dangle. The fact that so many of the strips have a political point of view is something else that differentiates this book not only from McSweeney's but from a lot of art comics in general. It helps that these points are made by artists as visually distinctive as Tobocman and as sharp-witted as Dangle. Also, though there are a lot of autobiographical stories in the collection, none of them fall into the narcissistic trap that befalls so many cartoonists. Barry and Crumb's pieces are especially sharp.

The other feature I enjoyed was Moore's list of "100 Distinguished Comics from January 2004 to August 2005", also known as "the comics that I liked that Pekar chose not to include". The fact that this list contains work from humorists such as Kupperman and Sam Henderson, along with several contributions from Kramer's Ergot, shows that future guest editors could help this book move in some unusual directions. As it stands, it's perhaps not a bad thing that Pekar, who does some of the most accessible of indy comics, should put together an anthology that is quite accessible to the sophisticated reader not necessarily fluently conversant in the language of comics.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More Minis: Schreiber, Madden, Juresko, Lindo, Brown, Schubert

4090, by Nathan Schreiber.A lot of the comics published by Box Brown's Retrofit Comics have deliberately skewed in the direction of genre, perhaps in emulation of monthly superhero comics. After all, Retrofit is all about bringing back the comics pamphlet, albeit with content and art that's personal instead of being under the auspices of a corporate entity. Schreiber's sci-fi story looks like a cross between a Jack Kirby comic and an Alex Toth comic, with lots of visually dynamic and kinetic art mixed with sketchier, more minimalist linework. The story concerns a future scenario wherein most every attempt at saving humanity from a poisonous atmosphere have failed, and the assembled characters are attempting a desperate end-run around the end of the world while negotiating failed and fractious personal relationships. Interestingly, it was completed for Frank Santoro's drawing correspondence course, so my immediately went to see how the grid was arranged on each page. Sure enough, Schreiber went with a three panel page, with each panel stacked horizontally. The only exceptions were pages with explosions or big reveals, which collapsed the top two panels on each facing page. The story is unremarkable; it's typical character-driven sci-fi stuff. However, Schreiber's visuals make this comic worth a long look. The way he flips between drawings that have a real solidity and life of their own with drawings that are clearly drawings gives the book a real sense of power, as though reality is crumbling or blinking in and out of existence. Schreiber clearly absorbed Santoro's lessons well (even if his page structure is a bit on the nose), and I'll be curious to see his future work.

Sock, by Box Brown. Brown excels at depicting losers, oddballs and sleazebags in their natural habitats in a minimalist yet still grotesque style; it's a sort of mix between Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. Sock follows a young man at a party who's just done a line of cocaine (or possibly crystal meth) who then navigates the people there in an effort to perhaps get laid or at least have a good time. He's the sort of person who can't get out of his own way, a goofball who's part misplaced aggression and part frustrated affection. While nothing very good happens to him, nothing very bad happens either, as a geeky, enormously fat (drawn almost like a snowman, with circles on top of circles) wrestling nerd gives him a ride home after he blacks out. Brown clearly has a lot of affection for these sorts of crude characters who are just trying to find some kind of happiness, even if they lack the kind of emotional self-awareness to ever achieve it. Brown's drawings are just excellent, mastering the Ware/Brunetti school of characters as geometric figures.

The Blobby Boys #1, by Alex Schubert. Schubert is a funny cartoonist whose work seems heavily influenced by Dan Clowes' early Eightball work. There's a large array of gag-oriented strips that take on cultural detritus that feature cartoony, grotesque characters. Schubert also touches on true absurdity in his takedowns of tough post-modernist posing with his title characters, who are literally slime-shaped people who get into all sorts of mischief, including killing members of a rival band after a gig at a club. With characters like Aging Hipster ("Have you heard the new Arcade Fire?") and Punk Dad as well as Schubert's own observations like Paper Blog and a review of a bizarre musician called The Spoiler, there's a tremendous amount of skill and polish on display here for such a young cartoonist. It is only a 12-page minicomic, yet Schubert packs a lot into it, including a letters page that seems to be of dubious (yet amusing) authenticity. Schubert's talent is obvious, as is his comedic timing. At this point in his career, I'm curious to see more of his work so as to see how he's processing his influences and how he chooses to use that talent.

Gray Is Not A Color, by Sally Madden. One of the things I've enjoyed about reading Brown's Retrofit Comics is being introduced to artists whose work is new to me. Madden falls into this category, and I was impressed both by the scribbly yet confident quality of her line as well as how carefully she considered each of the vignettes in this autobio comic. It's about the time she spent as a teenager working at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which is a museum of medical oddities. The anecdotes tend to fall into three categories: stories about weird things encountered in the museum (shrunken heads, baby skulls, assorted creepy medical equipment, bloody outfits given as donations, etc), personal anecdotes about Madden, and anecdotes about her bosses. Of the three, I enjoyed the stories about her eccentric bosses the most because of Madden's clear affection for them. Madden's own self-caricature is a winner, with her hair pulled up tight in a bun and her jaw drawn squarely. This is a fine exampled of what I like to call mediated autobio: true life stories that focus in sharply on one particular aspect of life so as to shed light on the rest of one's story, even if that focus leaves out certain details. The artist reveals oneself by what one chooses not to talk about as much as what they do choose to talk about. In Madden's case, she's stingy with her own personal details but reveals much about herself in the way she chose to dress and the ways in which this environment was so nurturing and encouraging for her. She really stepped up to the task of providing an entertaining story in the Retrofit format.

Bad Breath Comics #5, by Josh Juresko. I'm still not sure what to make of Juresko's stiff art and homages to cheesy horror comics, but I find myself fascinated by his comics. They're a mix of EC-style creaky moral plays, non-sequiturs and flat-out anti-humor. Take "A Favor To Ask". It's about a kid who's clearly on the autism/Asperger's spectrum who buys a bunch of candy bars and gives them to some fratty guys at his school. Of course, he demands the wrappers back after they eat the candy. It's a bizarre story that goes nowhere, except that it heightens a maximum of social awkwardness and then stretches it out over several pages. The small "Dumbfuck" character is a cross between an early Dan Clowes strip and a Rick Altergott strip. "Atilla The Honeybee" is my favorite bit of glorious weirdness, as a guy in a bee suit happens upon a man relaxing outside and squirts him with a water pistol, saying "'Water' you gonna do about it?" before flying off, laughing maniacally. The strip felt like a random daydream come to life, drawn as soon as the artist thought about it."Haunted House...Spookier Conversation" and "Weekend" both appear to be send-ups of slice-of-life comics, as the former edges into ghost comic territory when the "host" of this comic seen on the inside front cover makes a cameo appearance after listening in on the inane banter of two girls going to a party. The latter is about a woman missing her bus stop and being forced to walk a few blocks.  That's it--not further commentary. I imagine this comic would infuriate a lot of readers, but Juresko never breaks character, as it were, by trying to explain what's going on and why. That's the reader's job, which is really part of the joke.

Super Lobotomy, by Sara Lindo. This is a wordless comic about a young anthropomorphic brain and his mother. He's a lazy sort, despite his mom encouraging him to help her with housework. He gets a "superhero cape" and takes a bus to the big city, where he gets in a variety of misadventures until he's arrested and finally makes himself useful. This is the best comic I've seen from Lindo; she clearly challenged herself both with her choice of drawing subject and her storytelling method. There were times when her wordless storytelling wasn't entirely clear, in part because of being thrust into the genuinely weird world where brains have arms and legs and read pulp magazines. Lindo creates a number of great gags once the brain-boy gets to the city and starts working mischief, but I couldn't help but wish the comic had been a bit more tightly edited to reduce some narrative padding. Lindo's definitely moving in the right direction, as her drawings look confident and her page design is clever. Hopefully, she will continue to push herself and get weirder and punchier in her drawing style and storytelling.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Big Fat Little Lit

This article was originally published in 2007 at
In my view, Art Spiegelman's greatest asset has always been his vision, not his hands. He is the original comics scholar, and I mean that not just in the sense that he has an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge about the medium. His relentless formal experimentation with comics early in his career showed that he understood the myriad of possibilities inherent in the art; more than anyone else, he knew what comics were capable of, and how so few took full advantage of this. While there were others in the past who thought about comics as something other than childish trifles or a hacked-out paycheck, he was the first to fully understand the bigger picture. Even Will Eisner, whose work at the time outstripped its competitors in terms of sophistication, was still trapped by the demands of conventional storytelling. What makes Spiegelman different from the underground artists that proceeded him by just a few years is that he has never just thought on a local scale (his own work) but always thought about the medium itself and how it could be advanced. That's why he's always been a connector, somewhat who took it upon himself to put together anthologies that would help the world see comics in a new way.

In thinking about his career, the two phrases that come up for me again and again in describing Spigelman are "seeing the old in new ways" and "the great connector". These two phrases describe his work at many levels. In considering his career as an artist, one can consider him as a sort of applied phenomenologist. He furiously looks at every angle of an object (or medium) to describe it and understand it. This method allows one to consider it in new ways and to make some surprising connections. An obvious example is his recent work In The Shadow Of No Towers, which are strips done about his experiences near ground zero of 9/11 when it was happening. The experience was so traumatizing that he retreated to reading classic comic strips, and drew formal inspiration from them. That formal inspiration helped fuel his attempt to understand the experience, to look at it from all angles--all fueled by his emotions. A less obvious example comes in Maus--the book itself can be considered a study of his father, coming from many different angles to produce a complex and contradictory portrait. In so doing, he also creates the same kind of portrait of himself. Both of those are examples of this technique applied to more traditional narratives. Earlier in his career, his experiments tore comics apart and put them back together in unexpected ways. When his Breakdowns is finally reprinted, it will provide a textbooks on comics experimentation far more valuable than what Scott McCloud has written.

While his comics have been enormously influential in their own right, it can be argued that he's had a far greater impact as an editor. With his wife Francoise, whose own keen eye and point of view was a crucial part of putting together RAW, Spiegelman did on a larger scale the sort of things he had done as an early formalist. On this macro level, instead of merely juxtaposing his own images on a page, he put together a publication that contrasted the works of artists one wouldn't necessarily see together, then connected them to a public who had never seen comics quite like these. Along with Fantagraphics, RAW essentially created the modern art-comics scene. RAW went much further than Fanta's earliest offerings in how willing it was to experiment, to push the boundary of what was comics. Combining the works of struggling young cartoonists, European & Japanese artists unknown in the US, reprints of obscure but worthy strips, and fine artists whose work was compatible with the anthology, RAW opened up the eyes of many. While its circulation was initially modest, its impact was considerable.

The success of Maus (which Spiegelman initially serialized in RAW) allowed him to make a different sort of connection--media connections. He suddenly had the respect of the entire publishing world, which gave him a level of influence that led him to The New Yorker. This gave comics and comics artists a level of prestige that anticipated Chris Ware's involvement with McSweeney's and Ivan Brunetti editing a comics anthology for Yale University Press. It also gave Spiegelman access to a wide variety of artists, writers and editors in other areas of publishing. Mouly's status as art editor of The New Yorker gave her the same kind of reach and influence.

One thing that Spiegelman has talked about in recent years is his frustration with his own creative process. He has so many ideas but the slowness of his hand restricts his vision to an enormous degree. It's one reason why he mostly abandoned doing comics as such after he completed Maus. That project took so many years that one sensed that he was almost afraid to take on another project of that scope, for fear of it consuming his life for another decade. Reading Maus, one senses it's more than just his lack of speed that deters him--it's his own long-running self-critique as well as the expectations of others. After releasing the first volume of Maus, the accolades he received were so overwhelming that he was worried about living up to what he had done so far. When someone declares your work to be the best comic ever, how can you possibly follow that? This feeds into his role of artist-as-critic, or perhaps critic-as-artist: constantly thinking about comics as an art and its possibilities in general and his own work in particular, ruthlessly self-critiquing every move he makes.

It's interesting to see the kind of projects it took to move him out of that sort of self-paralysis. Despite his reputation as the great formalist & innovator, it's interesting that what has compelled him over the past 25 years have been personal projects: Maus, In The Shadow of No Towers, and Little Lit. What made Maus great was the constant running meta-critique, not just the harrowing holocaust story. It's easy to write a manipulative story about a holocaust survivor's journey, but Spiegelman resisted this at every turn, and even dealt with the creatively crippling praise that rolled in. The critique was both of the story's hero (the undeniably brave but unpleasant father) and its scribe (the son who has issues with his father). Shadow was the work that resulted when he was face-to-face with his own mortality, wishing that he had spent more time making comics. Both were a reaction to an overwhelmingly negative experience.

Contrast this to Little Lit. This was inspired by Spiegelman & Mouly's children. There's a purity of motive here, one where a parent wants to inspire wonder and ignite imagination. The autobiographical aspect that informs most of Spiegelman's work isn't at work here, even if the final product in some ways is just as personally revealing. There's no metacritique here, because he wanted to do something for his children and children in general--once again getting back to the earliest roots of his art. In a sense, it's the ultimate experiment--can Spiegleman & Mouly make a successful piece of art at this level after the hand they had in creating art comics? Once again, they put to use their skills as the great connectors into play, teaming up unlikely collaborators. Putting together renowned children's authors with a universe of alt-comics superstars was a stroke of genius, but do the results work?

I have each of the original three volumes in the little lit series, and their chief flaw as individual works is a sameness in each volume due to their theme. This is really only a flaw for an adult, since a child is more likely to enjoy a certain degree of repetition of ideas & themes in a book. The collection, on the other hand, bypasses that flaw and skillfully rearranges the stories to create a wonderful flow.

In general, I think children eight and under would enjoy the book the most, with pre-teens enjoying some of the grosser gags. That includes the David Sedaris-Ian Falconer collaboration about a young female ogre was an outcast because of her beauty, and who hits upon an ingenious solution to her problem utilizing her "inner beauty". That collaboration hits home just how far-ranging Spiegelman's influence as an editor really is--having the editor of the influential literary magazine McSweeney's and a critically-praised writer & commentator (Sedaris) working with the illustrator who created Olivia is the sort of advanced lateral thinking that Spiegelman & Mouly were known for while editing RAW. Along the same lines, another home run in this collection was the collaboration between Lemony Snicket and Richard Sala. In retrospect, this seems like an obvious pairing: the bone-dry and morbid wit of Snicket paired up with a cartoonist whose specialty is off-kilter horror & suspense stories really was a natural. The pair doesn't fail to entertain here, coming up with a haunting story of a young girl obsessed with a Yeti she saw outside her window and the tragic fate that befalls her. There's a darkness in tone in much of the content that's similar to the unbowlderized versions of the Grimm's & Hans Christian Andersen stories--it's clear that Spiegelman & Mouly weren't going for saccharine here.

Some of the old standbys from RAW chime in here. David Mazzucchelli contributes a beautifully-drawn story called "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess", about a fisherman who saves a turtle and is rewarded by meeting the Sea King, falling in love with his daughter. Joost Swarte has a crazy bit of over-the-top humor where a young boy trying to help his grandmother gets decapitated--and his day just gets worse from there. Like many of the contributors here, he also adapts an old folktale--this one about a man trying his best to support a complaining family, finding wealth thanks to a magic fairy, then realizing he's no better off than he was at the beginning of his story. Swarte's clear-line style is ideal for this sort of book. Charles Burns contributes one of many activity pages in the book, asking the reader to look for snakes and eggs in a picture. Richard McGuire does another activity page, using his stripped-down iconic style to get readers to identify shapes.

Other alt-comics stars contribute some inspired bits of lunacy. Lewis Trondheim drew a choose-your-own-adventure maze featuring an unfortunate character who meets an unfortunate and often grisly end but only has one possible positive outcome. Kim Deitch's stylization and imagination made his story about a civilization of cats come alive. On the other end of the detail spectrum, Jules Feiffer's "Trapped In a Comic Book", about a boy who looks a bit too closely at a superhero comic being made, falls in and can't get out, makes the most of its creator's famously spare line. Dan Clowes plays it mostly straight, adapting "The Sleeping Beauty" and telling us what happened after the end of that story. His typically flat style of storytelling that tends slightly towards the grotesque works well, especially in depicting the monstrous mother of the Prince. Like in RAW, Spiegelman reprinted stories from classic artists. Walt Kelly, Basil Wolverton, Maurice Sendak, and Crockett Johnson are among the artists whose work seamlessly fits in with the rest of the stories here--and no wonder, considering their influence. Spiegelman himself contributes two stories. One is a clever adaptation of a Hasidic folk tale about a prince who thought he was a rooster, and a little gross-out trifle about a boy who picks his nose with unexpected results. The moral of that story is perhaps a bit too weighty in a volume that mostly eschews instruction & correction.

The only story that fell completely flat to my eye was, surprisingly, the Neil Gaiman-Gahan Wilson collaboration. Neither creator seemed to complement what the other was trying to do all that well, and the result is a clunky throwaway of a story. It wasn't awful, but there just wasn't much "there" there, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker. Apart from that one surprising miss, the book is a sheer delight. It's a perfect starter kit for comics appreciation for kids, with stories written for them that do not seek to condescend. That's always a difficult mark to achieve in writing for children--how does one write a story that will challenge and intrigue youngsters without boring them? Spiegelman & Mouly's collection walks that line adroitly, going from grim to loony and knowing when to switch directions. It's a feat that clearly took all of their years of experience as anthology editors to properly assemble, and it's a book that showcases their love for storytelling above all else. Now that their children are older, it would be interesting to see Spiegelman & Mouly try something similar for young adult fiction.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Food and Drink: Knisley, Antal, Brideau/Toosi

Let's look at three comics that investigate the visceral and cultural joys of food and drink.

A Comic Guide To Brewing, by Lara Antal. All three of these comics have extensive how-to and history sections, which is not surprising when talking about food. What's a bit different about this comic is that it's told from the point of view of a character from Antal's series, Tales of the Night Watchman. The character, a barrista, speaks with such expertise about the subject that it's clear that Antal herself has spent time brewing coffee for a living. Antal's in-depth discussion on the kinds of coffee and the complexities of making it in its many forms is actually quite fascinating, especially in the way she cleverly designs each page to give it a lively, active feel. Her chops as a draftsman are not quite up to snuff in providing the kind of detail necessary to really highlight the different brewing systems and other technical stuff, though she more-or-less gets her point across. Of course, this was done as a 24-hour comic, so it's understandable that it's a bit rushed. Antal includes fun little gimmicks with this comic, like a cardboard spoon attached to the front cover.

Yock Yok, by Neil Brideau and Fereshteh Toosi. This is an odd little project from an organization called Regional Relationships, which "commissions artists, scholars, writers and activists to create works that investigate the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region." In this case, writer Toosi investigates a curious food local to New Orleans and Virginia called Yock, which is classic poor people food that has a fervent following. It's essentially noodles and a ketchup-based broth that has as many permutations as it does different names and spellings. Brideau is not a top-notch draftsman, but like Antal, his clever design work makes each page a pleasure. The book is lighthearted in tone, freely dipping into tall tales surrounding yock while acknowledging its status as a beloved, crucial and above all else, regional food. It's hangover food that's cheap to make and generally contains whatever happens to be laying around the kitchen. It's not unlike pho or any other peasant food that relies on ingenuity and years of subtle alterations to attain its status as a comfort food icon. The fact that it is still very much a regional phenomenon in an age when industrial and commercial food is so dominant is both interesting and reassuring. The comic comes in a fancy bronze-colored envelope and comes with a CD containing an interview between Toosi and a woman named Joy Smith, who knows quite a lot about the subject.

Relish: My Life In The Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley. Knisley's new book will be published by First Second in April of 2013. This can best be described as a "food memoir", as Knisley mediates a number of key events in her life through the making and consumption of food. Born to foodie parents in a time when that term and way of life was just coming into being, Knisley was nourished by her parents in more ways than one. There's a sense in which this book is lightweight and a fluff piece; negative emotions and aspects of Knisley's life are mentioned only in passing or avoided altogether. At the same time, Knisley clearly hasn't had too traumatic of a life; she has two loving parents, lots of friends and tons of rich experiences as well as a career as an artist. Of course, not every autobio story has to be about the Holocaust, terminal illness, or dead parents in order to be engaging. Vanessa Davis' comics are a good example of this, and while I don't think Knisley is quite in her class as an artist, there's a cheerful, familiar and friendly tone to her work that immediately draws the reader in and makes them comfortable. Indeed, as Knisley's clear line and bright colors flow along and relay funny anecdotes and family recipes, I immediately wanted more. It's not what I would call comics junk food, but rather a simple but expertly rendered piece of pastry.

Knisley is simply a cheerful sort with a sharp eye and a highly-developed sense of wonder. She ends each of the brief chapters with a recipe that's brightly-rendered and amusingly annotated. Knisley is also far from a food snob. Her parents denied her processed food as a youngster, so she naturally gravitated towards it
and often ate it in secret. The chapter on junk food is funny and spot-on: people eat junk food because it tastes good, and eating it on rare occasions is not such a bad thing. She highlights this by discussing a trip to Rome with her father as a bratty teen (she gently chides herself for her behavior more than once in the book), where she got revenge on her dad one morning by going to the McDonald's across from the hotel and then chowing down on burgers and fries in front of him. A child of divorce, Knisley was nonetheless loved by both parents, even if her relationship with her father was fractious at times.

Knisley's eye for and memory of detail is a key reason why this book is a success. For example, in detailing a trip to a Mexican village as a pre-teen, she makes the page come alive when depicting how she and her best friend had total free reign to spend money there, thanks to their sick parents. The anecdote about her friend discovering Mexican pornography was as funny as her description of the cheap, astonishing delights of taqueria food was evocative. Indeed, considering that one can't smell or taste what she experiences throughout the book, she does a remarkable job of bringing to life everything around the experience itself. For example, her description of the circumstances of consuming a number of apricot-filled croissants on a humid Italian morning made my mouth water not so much for the food, but rather for the sheer aesthetic joy that Knisley experienced that morning. Above all else, that connection to simple beauty and her ability to convey it is what draws me to Knisley's work. It's not just a croissant, it's a means of expression and connection, which is how Knisley views food. Relish is a simple book about simple pleasures, providing account after account after why such enjoyment is so important.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Past and Future: Vermilyea, Cardini, Chad, Leach

Battle Burger, by Jon Vermilyea. This isn't a comic, but rather a series of illustrations of Vermilyea's violent, creepy anthropomorphic food characters done up in full gladiatorial garb. Silkscreened in full color, these drawings are funny, beautiful and disgusting--all at the same time. My favorite images include a two-page spread of a Road Warrior-inspired armored tank driven by a bloodthirsty slice of pizza and cut of meat. Even better is a monstrous doughnut, its hole encircled by sharp teeth. Vermilyea has done too few comics by my estimation, which is unfortunate because he's a big-time talent. He probably has done enough minis and anthology entries to fill up a collection by now, but as it is he's underexposed.

Vortex #3, by William Cardini. I love the increasingly abstract and artificial texture of Cardini's series, which will likely wrap up with #4. It's a fascinating take on the Mat Brinkman/Fort Thunder school of exploring a space, as the protagonist, the Miizzzard, struggles to regain coherence while traveling through a dreamspace. Using a variety of repeating patterns, zip-a-tone and other effects, and simple shapes, Cardini keeps the reader's eye moving across the page without leaving them in the dark for too long. Cleverly, he makes the artificial feel of each page part of the story itself, as the Miizzzard breaks free of the illusion to reach the final stage of his journey, which is where the issue ends. It's interesting to see a book done in the "mark-making" school of comics drawn entirely on a computer, as it heightens reader tension and makes the contents all the more alien in its coldness.

New Sludge City, by Brendan Leach. This is a tight, moody futuristic caper story by the talented, emerging Leach. Published by Retrofit Comics, Box Brown's innovative venture, it's a modest-looking comic that looks like it was shot straight from pencils with some grayscale effects. It's a deliberately ugly, low-fi look for an ugly little story about a pair of thugs who plan to use boutique body-switching technology to pull off a big score. The scuzzy underbelly of the city is highlighted by its otherwise futuristic and even utopian trappings, like cars that drive themselves and fully automated homes. Of course, the punks aren't rich and are trying to get over by getting paid for allowing rich people to inhabit their young bodies for an evening, a sort of obscene cosplay for the futuristic 1%. When it becomes evident that there's no honor among thieves, one only wonders how long the eventual triple-cross that concludes the book was actually in place. The scribbly pencils and heavy atmosphere of the piece do a lot of the narrative heavy lifting in this comic, leaving the reader only to wonder about the nature of the relationships in this comic prior to its events. In this and his earlier The Pterodactyl Hunters, Leach seems to enjoy exploring cities and societies in their decline. In the former comic, certain characters will do anything to maintain their status. In New Sludge City, certain characters will do anything to escape their societal standing.

Maser, by Jon Chad. Chad's rightly received a lot of attention for his all-ages Leo Geo series, but his genre-inflected stories sometimes go in a darker direction. This mini he was selling at SPX is a short, funny and nasty story about a social outcast scientist who perfects his maser (different from a laser--Microwaves Amplified by Stimulated Emissions of Radiation) and calls up a random co-worker in the middle of the night to talk about it. Of course, when the co-worker curses at him and later belittles him at their job, the scientist first takes drastic measures, then takes even more drastic measures in order to get what he really wanted: a chance to talk about his maser with this random co-worker. Chad's a superb draftsman and draws the horrific scenes where someone's face gets burned with an almost loving attention to detail. This one's well worth reading if you can track it down.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Living and the Dead, Grave Robber's Daughter, House, HWY 115

This article was originally published at in 2007.
Fantagraphics isn't exactly known as the go-to publisher for horror or suspense comics. Yet they've released a number of comics over the years that fall into these categories, albeit usually in a skewed or off-beat manner. Thomas Ott's scratchboard comics can't be considered anything but horror comics. Richard Sala works entirely within the mystery/horror realm, albeit with an eccentric sense of humor. Even Charles Burns' Black Hole explicitly uses monster-movie trappings to get at its deeper meanings. The fact is, Fantagraphics has never been afraid to publish genre comics, just so long as the works are intelligent and the result of an author's personal vision.

In recent months, Fantagraphics has published several comics that all lie in the horror-suspense continuum. However, each volume is completely different in terms of tone, style and intent. They range from zombie romance comedies to killer clown mysteries to the exploration of a spooky old house to detectives trying to track down a serial killer in a very strange world. Notably, all of them are in black-and-white; this is no surprise because there's no better way to get across the starkness of terror than by depicting it in the starkest of terms. Where each artist excels is in how they compose the page to guide the story, and the sort of linework they employ.

Let's begin with the most lighthearted of the four comics I'll be discussing, Jason's The Living And The Dead. This is a clever little tale by the fantastic Norwegian cartoonist, for whom genre boundaries don't seem to exist. No matter what kind of story he tells, he always uses his stripped-down, clear-line, funny-animal style in his comics. Amazingly, it works every time, acting as a very quick shorthand for the reader to instantly understand any situation. For his funny comics, his standard characters often wind up interacting with more outlandish caricatures (like Darth Vader, Indiana Jones or the Terminator). In his serious comics, their deadpan nature keeps the audience on edge. For a tale of zombies, it's perfect.

Like most good zombie stories, this book is really about something else. In a brilliant opening page when we're trying to find out who the protagonist is, we see a couple dining at a restaurant. We then see a waiter and the next panel focuses on him, so we learn the couple is not important. The waiter walks into a kitchen, past some cooks—it's not their story, either. Finally, we settle upon the dishwasher, who is clearly not happy to be there, and we learn that the story focuses on him. Walking home, he encounters a sweet-seeming prostitute whom he immediately falls for. Working up the courage to talk to her another night, he realizes that he won't have the money to pay for her services for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, a meterorite falls to earth in a graveyard and the dead walk again—just as our hero was ready to see his woman.

From there, he saves her from a zombie in the nick of time, and they run around town trying to get away from the undead. There are small moments of grim humor to go with whacking zombies in the head with axes or setting them on fire. The climax of the story is too good to give away, but suffice it to say that romance lives on even beyond the grave. The story overall is a nice confection: it doesn't linger in one's imagination as long as some of Jason's best work (especially his recent The Left Bank Gang), but it's still fun. While there are plenty of zombie-munching scenes, Jason's open layout and wit allows the reader to laugh at the scenes easily. He only uses 6 panels a page (with one notable exception towards the end), an approach that allows the reader to easily approach the work and almost race across each page.

Richard Sala's The Grave Robber's Daughter is a nasty comic with periodic moments of comic relief thanks to its heroine, Judy Drood. This young detective with a foul mouth accidentally stumbles upon a small town that seems eerily empty. It's empty with the exception of the town carnival, where she stumbles upon some extra-creepy clowns and smartassed teenagers. Nothing seems to make much sense until she runs into Nellie, a young girl on the run who's trying to dodge the clowns. Seems as though one night they rode into town, hypnotized every adult into coming to the fairgrounds...and then made them disappear. Nellie gets kidnapped when Judy nods off, and Judy is left to deal with one of the grotesque clowns. Judy clubs the thing in the head with a shovel and the remains of a corpse are revealed.

The story takes several twists and turns after that as we learn what the clowns really are, who brought them to life and why, and the ultimate fate of the town and Nellie. Witchcraft, curses, soul reanimation and teen angst gone amok are all involved, but the creepiest page of all is the final one, as we see Nellie changing into something very disturbing—and clearly influenced in part by Judy's own bad habits. Sala's panel design is an important part of the storytelling. The use of just a couple of panels a page in the early going, often catty-corner to each other, is a nice reflection of the town's isolation and Judy's disorientation. Like Jason, Sala also uses a stripped-down style, but this book resembles the art in a child's adventure book: the faces range from simple and iconic (often with dots for i's) to grotesque and cartoonish. This makes for some jarring moments when we are presented with grisly acts of violence. What I like most about this comic is that while mysteries are revealed and the case is "solved", there's no real resolution. The eccentricities in Sala's style and the Judy Drood character in particular are a perfect match for the horrors he reveals. The reader is never quite sure whether to laugh, cringe or both.

Josh Simmons' House is in many ways the most straightforward of the works reviewed in this article. There's no overt element of the supernatural at work here, and Simmons further restricts himself by making the story entirely wordless. I've been reading Simmons' minicomics and associated series for some years now. The best way to describe them is earthy: they're bawdy and often dedicated to exploring the lives of those on society's fringes. In House, he plugs in a teenage love triangle into an increasingly claustrophobic scenario that's a masterpiece of page design. More than any of the other books reviewed here, House could only work as a comic.

The opening sequence is quite memorable: a teenage boy comes across a ramshackle house in a forest clearing. After looking at it for a moment, he walks away from it to meet his friends at the real "house" in the story: a huge, magnificent relic of a building. Simmons takes a couple of pages to let the reader see just how impressive a structure it is. Meeting two female friends of his, the trio seems quite prepared for an adventure: they have headlamps and backpacks with supplies. Going through the ruins of the house, they discover that part of it is completely underwater. It's a spectacular scene, and loves blossoms between the boy and one of the girls—much to the chagrin of the other girl.

This long exposition sets up the action in the second part of the story. One of the girls almost falls down a flight of stairs in the dark, but the boy saves her in the nick of time. That save is yet another false take, as the stairs collapse under the weight of another girl. It's not long before the trio is separated—partly by circumstance, partly by jealousy, and partly by hallucination (or is it something else?). Simmons draws the reader into the ultimate nightmarishness of the scenario through his composition and use of black. The story starts off brightly, often with single-page splash panels. As the adventure begins, it goes into 3 panels per page—until we reach the secret passage that precedes the collapse of the stairs, when it becomes a 6-panel grid. When the characters are separated, it changes into a 9-panel grid. Towards the very end, as the characters are alone and in the dark, it becomes a 12-panel grid. By that time, every panel is engulfed in darkness, reflecting the desperation and hopelessness of the situation. This is a comic that's tautly and cleverly constructed. Its goals are modest in terms of narrative and themes, but it's a pleasure to see how Simmons takes a familiar set of elements and wrings real desperation out of them.

Finally, there's Matthias Lehmann's disturbing HWY 115. We are thrust right into the plot on the story's first page: there's a serial killer on the loose named Robert Illot who has escaped from his psychiatric hospital. His MO for killing his victims is to stuff unusual objects down their throats. He's already struck again, having forced a roast chicken down some unfortunate person's gullet. We then meet our hero, a detective who's trying to find Illot on Hwy 115, his choice of locale for his killings. The detective picks up a woman who's also looking for Illot, and she has a notebook filled with contacts. The whole book has a feverish sort of dream logic from the very beginning, as its never explained how the woman got this notebook or why she was on the side of the road. From there, they travel from place to place in order to talk to people who knew Illot at the institution. Two things happen in every case: we are told of a story that Illot told them where he's a young boy alone in a house, and someone is killed by means of some device that the detective had just heard about in that segment of the story. In particular, these items provided comfort to the young boy in the story, odd as they were. And without exception, they were stuffed down throats of their victims: a stapler, a bunch of lightbulbs, a huge beetle, a sock, etc.

The story has a curiously static feel to it. The detective is constantly in the dark even as he does all the legwork. He starts to wonder where talking to all of these people is leading to but feels compelled to keep doing it. The people he meets grow progressively more disturbing, until he finally meets the last person on the list. He tells the detective the last part of the little boy's story that Illot told him, and at that moment the two narratives converge suddenly, unexpectedly and violently. This leads to a final twist that is never explained but rather strongly hinted at throughout the story, making us question the sanity of more than one character and reality as it is presented in the narrative.

The tension in the story is ratcheted up through the use of Lehmann's manic scratchboard style. This gives each panel a sort of frenzied & neurotic energy, heightened even further by the unsettling events that Lehmann depicts. This story is about loops and feedback, and the new realities that result from such feedback. Lehmann is fascinated by the grotesque, and it's no coincidence that we never see Illot actually do anything bad until the end of the story. Instead, we relive the gruesome killings of those who knew him, each of them driven to kill by the circumstance of their own insanity (or so it seems). Lehmann is able to get some humor out of some of the situations (like a driver who picks up the detective and the woman), but the story is really just one long nightmare—and it's not clear that anyone gets to wake up from it.

That nightmare reality, the transformation of everyday reality into something horrible, is what these books are about. In The Living and the Dead, the protagonist embraces the nightmare. In The Grave Robber's Daughter, one character escapes from the nightmare and another character becomes it. In House, all three characters struggle but have to limply succumb to darkness. In HWY 115, the trick is not knowing where the nightmare starts and reality stops, because the ground shifts constantly for our hero. All of the artists involved are quite adept in manipulating fear for their audience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Minicomics round-up: Viola, Echavarria, Fitzpatrick, Shapiro, Cullum

Rabbit Shadows, by Jason Viola. I've always preferred Viola's side projects to his gag-oriented Herman the Manatee webcomic, and this silent comic is no exception. It's about an anthropomorphic rabbit leading a humdrum, lonely life who is somehow able to freeze and isolate his shadow, which he uses to become a famous artist. When his one gimmick is rejected by the public for being passe' and he's accused of being washed up, he retreats in despair to the forest, where he accidentally finds new inspiration. This is perhaps a statement about working on the same strip for a long time and finding one's inspiration drying up, as well as the sheer joy of being in that moment where creativity starts to flow again. In that moment in the forest, Viola suggests, is the purest form of being an artist: creating for its own sake, without consideration of audience, fame or money. Viola's drawing is lovely here, as it's a bit fuzzier and denser than his webcomics, giving it a warmer overall atmosphere.

Jerry's Journal, by Neil Fitzpatrick. This is a single-page gag version of Fitzpatrick's quasi-philosophical musings, done off-the-cuff in his sketchbook. This is a format that flatters Fitzpatrick's art and writing. His line at this stage of his career is fully formed, and he does a nice job using thick but simple black lines to quickly set up his cartoon bird for a series of gags. This comic is mostly about loneliness, the sort of cutesy navel-gazing that James Kochalka might have done if he hadn't had a girlfriend/wife. Fortunately, Fitzpatrick doesn't seem to mind mocking his own character's self-absorption, as in one funny strip when Jerry starts droning about how he's "into stickers right now" and the giant words "NO ONE CARES" appear in the sky. The one page format allows Fitzpatrick to quickly move on from the gags that don't land without miring the reader in a nonsensical narrative that's going nowhere. At the same time, there's just enough continuity between strips to make the whole thing cohesive, if very slight.

How Do I Know Who I Am If I Forget?, by Luis Echavarria.I reviewed a bunch of Echavarria's earlier comics in a High-Low piece.This comic is a big leap forward in terms of writing, characterization, depth, subtlety and overall skill. Echavarria dials way back on the gimmicks that marked his earlier work, presenting the reader with a simple, beautiful silkscreen cover of a young woman as a cutaway drawing of her insides. It's a funny, creepy story about an introverted teenage girl named Camila who is trying to connect to the world in her own bizarre way. The comic starts innocently enough, as the slightly OCD Camila fastidiously tends to her aquarium and all its inhabitants, spending hours staring at them. Echavarria slowly reveals increasingly strange details about her, like staring at her own excrement, "just like a crime scene investigator would examine a piece of evidence". Her boyfriend breaks up with her after she suggests they try drinking each other's blood. (That scene was cleverly staged against the couple watching the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is all about memory and identity.) Finally, when one of her "eel-shaped fishes" dies, she swallows it whole. Shortly thereafter, she winds up in the emergency room, where all is revealed as to her bizarre behavior, which has an internal logic all its own. Echavarria does a fine job of mixing the mundane with the strange, as Camila is very much an innocent scientist looking for the best way to establish her own identity while connecting to the world. The alienating way she goes about this gives the comic its narrative charge, especially since she's not deliberately trying to freak anyone out; her methods simply seem to be logical for her socially tone-deaf mind. This is a great character study by an artist who's hitting his stride, and the lush, naturalistic style he employs adds a lot to the proceedings. Some of the pages look a little rougher than others (especially in the beginning), but he pulls it all together quickly to create a horror book without any supernatural content or violence.

Hotel Le Jolie, by Jared Cullum.This is a sweet, low-key comic that takes its time in unraveling the ways in which a man and woman missed out on a number of opportunities to connect as children. Cullum somewhat heavy-handedly has the woman as a girl give him a love note, asking for a drawing. He responds by giving her the drawing in public next to her friends, who ridicule him--and she feels forced to go along with it. Years later, peer pressure causes the boy to do the same. Now at a conference and finding her at the front desk, he once again has a choice to make. I liked the structure of the comic and the character details, even if it all seemed a little familiar. Cullum is a decent enough craftsman working in a naturalist style, but there are lots of tell-tale tics that betray a lack of experience: over-rendering in some panels, under-rendering in others, a shaky understanding of how bodies interact in space. Cullum has a lot of potential, especially thanks to his command over dialogue and solid storytelling skills. This is simply a case of an artist needing to get back out there and continue to draw more comics in order to get a better feel for their own style.

"Popular", Crushable: Mary Tyler Moore and  Crushable: Neil Young, by Janice Shapiro.I've greatly enjoyed the various episodes of Shapiro's autobio-by-anecdote "Crushable" minicomics. A smart way to do autobio is to parcel it out or mediate it through something other than the author; in this case, it's a list of the pop culture figures Shapiro had a crush on. The Mary Tyler Moore comic is hilarious because Moore represented this idealized figure of perfection, one that she dreamed of emulating until the cool girls came around and pressured her into drinking, doing drugs, etc. Seeing teenaged Shapiro literally wearing a Moore-style turtleneck and scarf and then seeing them disappear in a cloud of smoke was funny and effective. The Neil Young comic is even more deranged, because it involves a complex plot to become Neil Young's girlfriend by way of her best friend becoming Jackson Browne's girlfriend (note: both were fifteen years old at the time) after seeing the latter in concert. The epilogue to the story is even more embarrassing, detailing the fleeting moment Shapiro actually did get to meet Neil Young years later and what a disaster that was. "Popular" is about the way popularity as a teen shifted from being nice and clean-cut in the early 60s to detached and slovenly in the early 70s. In her typically self-deprecatory style, Shapiro notes that she had the slovenly and nice parts down pat, but couldn't make the transition into being a good 70s cool girl because of her innate dorkiness. Shapiro's line is crude, but she's undaunted in the way she attacks the page, even if drawing certain figures and things is out of her reach as a draftsman. She makes it work because of her scribbly style and distinct voice as a writer. Indeed, her scrawl is a confident extension of her own handwriting. I'd love to see her continue to refine this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Stuck In The Middle/Escape From "Special"

This article was originally published at in 2007.
The teen-age years are prime ground for storytelling because of the inherent drama that adolescents create in their own world. The transition from elementary school to junior high is perhaps the most awkward move of all, because the formation of one's personality is as much a reaction to the Other as it is a development of their own self. Staking out one's place in the social hierarchy is a complicated game, where conformity to norms is the rule and the systematic hazing of those who are different is the means by which the system is maintained. Comics are an especially ideal means for talking about this period, because the expressiveness of cartooning can be a perfect match for the outsized feelings teens experience.
Cartoonist Miss Lasko-Gross, in her semi-autobiographical comic Escape From "Special", learns that if you're not any good at playing the game after you've learned it, you may as well stop playing. Starting with her earliest memories as a child, Gross manages to create a narrative out of a bunch of short anecdotes. On an initial reading, the narrative feels like a house of cards, threatening to tip over into an unfocused mess. The further one goes in the story, however, the more one can see it cohere. The story begins with young Melissa realizing early on that she was a bit different from others. The realization that she can never know anything for sure sent her into a tailspin, and her wanting to put Barbie into a murder-mystery freaked out one of her friends.
It didn't help that she had trouble looking others in the eye, and that she was behind her classmates in being able to read despite an active and engaged mind. It also didn't help that she was actively resistant to any kind of authority. That combination got her kicked out of her school and placed in a new age feel-goodery, which had its own absurd rules. Its "no-negativity" rules extended to wearing black and eating mushrooms, since they grew in dark places. Of course, her parents sending all sorts of mixed messages had its own effect--they made her go to religious classes but also brought her along when their band went on tour. Things came to a head when she's placed in a special-ed class. While this was certainly humiliating ("Why don't they just call us retards and get it over with?"), it allowed her to see the game for what it was.
As she went into junior high school, she tried to fit in but realized "I'm outside of some mass cult of social agreement." There was a period of despair when this realization sank in, leading to thoughts of suicide and non-existence. It got to a point where part of her wanted to be "lobotomized" like the rest of her peers, but she knew it wasn't an option. When she was given an ultimatum by the girls she was trying to be friends with not to hang out with "druggies & losers", she saw that her choice was obvious, and that choice brought the freedom to speak her mind and stop pretending. Gross is skillful in how she arranged the anecdotes and gave them an accumulated weight, especially as she grew older in the story. What's most appealing about the book is her warts-n-all portrayal of her stand-in. The slightly grotesque and expressionistic art is a perfect match for the way Melissa looks at the world and herself. She's not an easy person for the reader to like--she's cranky, argumentative and prone to outbursts of rage. But her eccentricities are not affected, and the ways that she comes to terms with how to deal with the world while embracing what made her different made for an inspiring conclusion.
Stuck In The Middle is appealing because it provides a look at a variety of experiences and a variety of artistic styles to match. It's no surprise that Ariel Schrag put this volume together, because she's well-known as someone who started doing comics about her high school life while she was still in high school. She's currently finishing up a book on her senior year of high school after a two-year stint on the TV show The L Word. In this anthology, she got heavy-hitters Joe Matt & Dan Clowes to allow her to reprint some of their work. Clowes' "Like A Weed, Joe", is one of his best short stories, dealing with a boy's boredom spending a summer with his grandparents and his struggle to create a narrative framework for his life.
One of Schrag's stories, "Plan On the Number 7 Bus", is about the other end of the teen hierarchy. She was one of the ones on top who used her position to heap abuse on others, and the story involves a plan hatched by her and a friend to humiliate someone they knew. When they wind up in an unfamiliar part of town and they panic, Ariel vows "I cannot be mean"... though it seems doubtful that she'll be able to hold herself to that vow. Her sister Tania contributes "Snitch", about the fluidity of the hierarchy and how easy it is to slide up or down. After snitching on a boy who was torturing her in class, she becomes a social pariah, looking for a new group. When she finally finds it, she eagerly says "Well, that's what you get when you're a snitch" when she hears about someone else's tattling to a teacher. The harsh reality is that no matter how oppressive & unfair peer pressure can be, most kids can't see a way out of it and want to use it to their own advantage. Along the same lines, Gabrielle Bell has a piece that gives a slightly different perspective on an outsider's relationship with her classmates. In "Hit Me", Bell eschews the use of thought balloons or internal narration, making the story unique in this collection. We never see her inner thoughts as her classmates taunt her for wearing the same clothes several days in a row and smelling odd. When another outsider challenges her to a fight, Gabrielle wins and abandons another outsider friend when popular girls invite her to sit with them at lunch. The narrative distance Bell erects makes this an especially effective and devastating story.
There are sweeter stories as well. Dash Shaw's "Crater Face" involves a boy with acne problems who falls for a girl, and manages to overcome his own insecurities and reach out to her and reassure her about her own issues. "Never Go Home" is a Robyn Chapman story about a girl who is abused by her father who winds up at a school dance and sits under the bleachers. She's found by another girl, and several minutes of awkward silence & conversation ensue until the girl asks her to dance, leading our narrator to think "Maybe I'm OK. Maybe this could last. Maybe I'd never go home." Aaron Renier's "Simple Machines" talks about the author's ADD and tendency to escape into his own world with his drawings. When others reach out to him and he takes a risk by trusting and working with them in school projects, he's able to mix his old world of fantasy with his new friends. It's an enormously touching moment, one of the instances where life-long friendships can grow out of the crucible of adolescence.
Virtually every story is at least worth reading, though Nick Eliopulos' tale about a batboy and a baseball mascot doesn't fit very well with the other stories. Jim Hoover's style is a lot slicker than the other artists', and his entry feels a lot more pat and less nuanced than the other stories in the collection. On a visual level, they at least do offer something different to look at, compared to the less "realistic" styles of most of the artists in the anthology. Schrag obviously took great pains as an editor. She balanced upbeat & downbeat stories, stories by men & women, and gave everyone plenty of room to tell their stories. She added touches like a yearbook-style "autograph" section and photos of the contributors from middle school (the photos of Clowes & Matt are especially amusing). The variety of stories that she gathered was crucial, because it's easy for a reader to grow exhausted by a "theme" anthology if the editor doesn't do a good job getting as many different takes on a subject as possible. Unlike many anthologies where the stories are too short to really make an impression, there's a meatiness to this 200-page volume that makes it an enormously satisfying read.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Grief and Joy: Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know

My father died five years ago this month. He and I were not especially close; we got along fine after sorting out our difficulties a couple of decades ago, but we had little in common. I liked him well enough but didn't have any especially strong feelings for him. My mother died thirty years ago last month, when I had just become a teenager. There was no one else in the world I was closer to at the time. My reaction to the two events could not have been more different, though not in the way one might expect. As a teen, I was not able to fully process my mother's death. I simply retreated to my room for a week and read stacks of comic books. I never experienced a demonstrative emotional reaction until the day before my wedding, over twenty years later, when I saw an old black & white photograph of my fiance's grandmother on her wedding day, standing next to her mother. Something about that sense of familial continuity stirred an emotion in me I heretofore had never truly felt: grief. I sobbed uncontrollably, unable to contain the buried emotions for another moment. It took me a while to fully process that experience, given the intensity of the emotions that surround one's wedding day, but I knew that it felt cathartic.

When my father was dying, I traveled a great distance to see him in his hospital. There was a look in his face of wonder and almost gratitude when he saw me. None of my feelings had really changed regarding him, but I knew I was entering a new kind of emotional space, albeit one that was familiar and from an earlier life. I spoke at his funeral and was sincere in the way that I praised him, the way he lived his life toward the end and how he battled depression. After the funeral, I collapsed into my brother's arms, once again sobbing uncontrollably for a few minutes. After that release of grief and the subsequent, low-key wake, I had a number of personal epiphanies regarding why all societies and religions have grief rituals. It's not so much the substance of the ritual that's important, but rather the chance as a family and community to engage that grief, to be present and truly feel that grief, rather than let it fester. It was also at this moment that I realized I was ready to become a father.

When my daughter was born, I intellectually understood what I was about to receive: the gift of unconditional love. It's one thing to know it and quite another to actually experience it. It was powerful and ecstatic, and I've come to understand it as a remarkable tool for the survival of our species. Raising a child is such difficult and unrelenting work that this gift is sometimes what keeps a parent going. Of course, the flipside of this love is grief; losing someone that you give or gave this unconditional love to is devastating, even if that bond one feels as a child ebbs over time. Losing a child as a parent is the most unthinkable disaster of all; a gift cruelly and randomly snatched away. As a father, it is what I fear most.

The world of alternative comics is starting to see more personal narratives directed toward child-rearing and the emotional complexities thereof. As a reader, I feel especially drawn toward personal narratives that speak a kind of truth about the sheer terror of the parenting experience, especially the sense that one is somehow doing it wrong. Comics have the power to speak to this experience with a particular kind of power, given the way that they can be more or less naturalistic in style and modulate emotion with any number of visual & narrative tricks. The work of art that speaks to me the most in how it runs the gamut of emotions regarding being a parent is cartoonist and fine artist Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know series.

You'll Never Know (Fantagraphics Books) spans three volumes, 350+ pages and eight years. All of that work, a career-topping labor of genius, stems from a single question: "Why is my father incapable of showing me love?" That single question mushroomed such that Tyler found herself having to explain everything: her father's service during World War II, the stormy but steady relationship of her parents, her wn failed marriage and subsequent time spent as a poverty-stricken single mother, the mental illness of her daughter, the slow and uneasy reunion with her husband, and her own status as daughter, mother, sister, wife and artist. If this sounds a bit all over the map, that's because it is, but Tyler slowly pulls the strings of her narrative taut in some astonishing ways, especially in the third volume.

Tyler's theory regarding why so many men from the "Greatest Generation" were incapable of showing love was that the war was horrific but that the soldiers were discouraged from processing their trauma. Unprocessed trauma, like any strong negative emotion, never really goes away. Tyler set out on a quest to get her dad to talk about his experiences and document them in her loose comics form that mixes and matches collage, painting, drawing and craftwork. That quest was a way of distracting herself from the mess her own life was in after her husband left her and their young child for another woman, as well as a way of trying to examine her own emotional state. Her father finally did open up a bit to experiencing horrific events like witnessing "rivers of blood", things that transformed him from happy-go-lucky to grim. Tyler curses the specter of Hitler and war in general at the end of the first volume, "A Good and Decent Man", trying to reconcile her father's emotional deadness with her image of him as a good person.

The second volume, "Collateral Damage", examines the grief of wives and mothers. It discusses the many ways in which Tyler's mother had to put up with her father's rages and unpredictable moods. It also goes to the heart of her mother Hannah's grief in "The Hannah Story", which was about her mother finally coming to terms with the death of her young daughter Ann decades later. This story is all about repressed grief and the toll it takes, as she was never allowed or encouraged to mourn. Instead, she was pressured to think about her duty and moving on, an attitude that served no one, especially as the other children were forbidden to say her name. In one of the most powerful sequences in comics history, Tyler depicts her mother allowing herself to feel that loss as she went through a box filled with Ann's things, with Tyler noting that Ann's name will always be nestled inside her mother's.The third volume sees Tyler trying to find herself as a woman in a marriage whose boundaries were nebulous, tending to her daughter's obsessive-compulsive disorder that had gone unchecked (unbeknownst to Tyler) for far too long, and attempting to wrap up this project with her increasingly cantankerous father. There's a moment of closure when Tyler takes him to the WWII Memorial but not in the way she expected. When her father breaks down in tears in their car, it's not because of the memorial, but because he too was wrecked by the death of his daughter. Tyler skillfully depicts the way in which her father is stunned by his own connection to that long-ago grief and what it made him become. The war may have left a terrible mark but not one worse than the devastation he faced at home.

The overriding theme of the book is that "you'll never know" the feelings of one's parents, of other people in general. Tyler manages to bridge that gap in attempting to grapple with her own grief regarding her marriage and her daughter, knowing full well that the dread of potential loss lurks in the shadow of the everyday joy of having a child. The book represents a grueling but priceless experience of knowing that she may not be able to relate to her father's experience during war, but she certainly understands the feelings associated with not being able to protect or save one's own child. It's a remarkable example of an artist being totally honest about their own feelings of grief and joy in a manner that provokes growth and fully embraces the relationship between the two. It's also a scathing rebuke against the societal forces that pressure us to withhold grief and fear. Tyler experienced both on a regular basis as a mother, during and after her postpartum psychosis that she touches on in this book as well as her other major work Late Bloomer, and it's clear that only through allowing herself to have felt strong negative emotions toward her baby was she able to move beyond them and the guilt associated with those feelings. In the end, Tyler emphasizes the joy of her relationship with both her daughter and her parents, relishing giving and receiving a deeper and richer version of a child's unconditional love.