Friday, May 31, 2013

Press Gang Presents: Soto, Vigneault, Dalrymple

The Press Gang collective in Portland is directly connected to the excellent Studygroup website that features over a dozen interesting webcomics.Masterminded by Zack Soto, they've long created comics that have a heavy and unapologetic genre slant to them. Fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and adventure are common plot referents, though each author puts their own stamp on genre and frequently blends it with any number of other concerns. It's not quite the same thing that Michael DeForge and Josh Bayer are doing in the way they're putting genre in a blender, because each of these comics can be read as a perfectly straight-ahead genre story, albeit with an aesthetic viewpoint that is unique to each artist, rather than being part of a mass-market formula.

For example, Titan #1, by Francois Vigneault, is a straight-ahead science-fiction story, though it has more in common with sociopolitical fiction than it does any other genre. It's about a corporate mining colony on Jupiter's moon Titan and a new manager who's come to deliver some very bad news to them. The problem is that the bulk of the workers are mutated humans now known as Titanians, who are about ten feet tall and massive. Printed in a single orange tone (fitting for its Jovian setting), Vigneault captures the tension of the labor-management conflict while setting up secrets to be revealed by both sides, unbeknownst to the new manager. Vigneault also adds an interesting racial component to the proceedings when a potential romance starts to germinate between the new manager and a Titanian counterpart. Vigneault's really cleaned up a lot of the rough edges in his art (I credit that in part to those excellent bird minicomics he likes to draw) and has added a layer of style that makes this a smooth but still highly personal read. The format, design and every aspect of production make this a beautiful comic to look at. Fans of "hard" sci-fi will enjoy the way that certain details regarding life on Titan play out sociologically and in terms of technology, especially in the way that technology has the potential to completely erase a way of life.

The Secret Voice V2 #1, by Zack Soto. For most of his career, Soto has done variations on bizarre superhero/fantasy comics, many of them featuring his bandaged hero Dr Galapagos. Soto has abandoned and returned to this project a few times, and each time he's brought to it a higher level of craft. His character design is an uncanny marriage of Fort Thunder-style aesthetics and superhero-style anatomy: muscular figures, heroic poses, lots of characters in motion. That aesthetic mix is not in the least ironic; instead, Soto has taken what's inspired him to create something new. The story here is very simple: Dr Galapagos has entered the bowels of the Troll Kingdom to seek their aid in a war against the Smog Emperor. For reasons beyond his control, he accidentally kills the king and his shaman and is forced to fight for his life in order to escape. What sells this comic is the way Soto creates atmosphere, thanks to the way this comic was printed (Risograph?). The dark purples, yellows and oranges create the oppressiveness of this atmosphere, highlighting and strengthening his solid drawing ability. He manages to combine the heroic romanticism present in Jack Kirby comics with a more cartoony but monstrous quality present in Fort Thunder, which is less a stylistic jolt than a reminder to the reader of how much the two really have in common. Both are about motion and movement above all else, with any stillness creating a sort of heroic pose. They're both about conflicts, grand gestures, and an explosive quality that makes every image matter. Fort Thunder tended to make the character designs themselves simpler and more abstract (like Mat Brinkman or Brian Ralph), while Soto moves that design line closer to Kirby while still setting the story in that Ralph/Brinkman sort of world. As Soto has finally seemed to settle on a visual style that suits him, I hope the story itself continues to pick up its threads and weave something dense and complex; as it is, the reader is only getting hints of a massive, epic storyline.

It Will All Hurt, by Farel Dalrymple. Dalrymple is one of the finest draftsmen in the world of comics and has been for a long time. What we haven't seen from him is much extensive personal work since early in his career. This new series is going a long way to correct that, as it appears like it will be a long, sprawling career-defining work. This first issue mostly introduces the huge cast of characters, as the reader gets to see them do their thing in a series of unconnected vignettes. Dalrymple's line is a little looser and less precise than in some of his older work, but his use of watercolors brings every page to vivid life, thanks to a slightly muted but imaginative palette.  This is a kitchen sink of a comic that feels like Dalrymple simply dumped every single character idea that interested him into a single narrative that has elements of sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic distopia. Dalrymple is great at drawing children doing unusual things as well as monsters, and both are featured prominently in this story that sets up an invincible enemy and a small but growing set of allies that oppose him. Dalrymple plays around with action, with fluid panel-to-panel transitions and with the occasional dramatic pose for effect. This one is simply a visual feast, going above and beyond the already-high standards of Press Gang. This will undoubtedly wind up being one of my favorite minis of 2013.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Minis from Forsman, Ford, Glidden, Smith, Mardou, Overby, Latta

Time to check in on the world of mini-comics.

Snake Oil 1-2, by Chuck Forsman. This is a really excellent, unusual mini that combines slice-of-life slacker life with a truly demented fantasy narrative. It's told in a series of vignettes as a garbageman named Tim is kidnapped from a diner by several mysterious figures using some kind of magical powers. His best friend Bob and fellow garbageman tries to pursue them but is outfoxed. The lead sinister figure stops him by asking him his name, and then says, "Bob, quit doggin' me" and then laughs maniacally down an alley and disappears. Meanwhile, Bob's son Darryl is getting high with his friend Kim, who smokes what's in a mysterious pipe. She suddenly goes catatonic for no apparent reason. Tim finds himself in a mysterious land populated by nudists, while the bull-headed men who are driving him away in a van freak out on pills. In the back-up story, "Mickey The Man", a man goes from a state of being a human and then being an anthropomorphic duck and finds that his baby is stolen from him by unidentified, sinister forces.

It looks like Forsman is cycling through his influences in this mini, spinning them through his own unique point of view. I can sense early Chester Brown as an influence in the first story and his character design is very similar to Sammy Harkham's in the second. The way he mixes humor, fantasy elements, a gnawing sense of dread and everyday ennui as components in his story make it quite memorable. I like his character design and composition, though his line isn't quite assured enough to pull off every trick he attempts in this book. His ambition is impressive, as is his restraint in not overrendering his characters. Forsman is an student at the Center For Cartoon Studies, and it's obvious that he's developing rapidly as an artist. He's definitely one to watch.

Only Skin #3, by Sean Ford. This series reminds me a little of Gilbert Hernandez' work in some respects. The ensemble cast, the wide-open spaces, the eccentric character design, and the looming but enigmatic sense of menace that pervades the book are all reminiscent of a lot of Hernandez' recent work in particular. This issue starts to fill in some of the blanks regarding some of the key character's (Cassie) backstory, as we learn why she left the tiny, dusty town. She's confronted by a person who was the catalyst for her departure, who may play a significant role in the mysterious and brutal disappearances that are occuring in town. We also see more of my favorite character, the Pac-Man looking ghost that follows around Cassie's younger brother and nearly gets him killed. Some of the series' themes are also beginning to coalesce, especially mortality and the nature of human connection. I'm not sure how long this series is slated to run, but it quickly has become a favorite. Like Forsman, Ford has an excellent sense of composition and design but is still mastering the quality of his line. It's not always entirely assured, as though rendering certain scenes seemed to take an enormous amount of effort (especially character-to-character interactions). But also like Forsman, Ford avoids the pitfalls of overrendering.

How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, Chapters 1 & 2, by Sarah Glidden. Glidden is best known for her journal comics, and in these comics she takes her wry perspective to describe her journey to Israel on a "birthright tour". She took advantage of the Israeli government (combined with private donors) funding a program that brings young Jews to Israel from around the world. Glidden took the trip from a quite skeptical point of view, as a non-religious Jew whose feelings about Israel were ambivalent, to say the least. She was curious as to what kind of people she'd meet on the tour, if those running the tour would truly engage the tough questions regarding the Palestinian conflict, and how much of the trip would simply be an exercise in propaganda.

The best thing about these comics is Glidden's forceful and unapologetic presence as a biased narrator. She is not Joe Sacco in Palestine, submerging his own ego in order to get the stories of others. These comics are about Glidden's feelings and point of view about this experience. Despite her strong opinions going into it, one can sense that the mixed emotions she feels about being in Israel cause her to really think over everything she sees and hears. There's a liveliness in how she depicts characterization that allows the reader to fly through the story, and one can't help but wonder how Sarah will react to what she encounters next. Her position as someone who leans to the left who has enormous sympathy for the Palestinian cause can't help but be tempered by the complex realities of everyday life. Glidden also livens up the proceedings by depicting the wanderings of her imagination: as she confesses that she doesn't know how the Six Day War was fought, she starts to imagine soldiers mounted on dinosaurs attacking each other. Another sequence finds her experiences "on trial" in her mind, as the prosecution attacks what she sees as propaganda while the defense notes how open-minded the guides are, halting when the judge declares a recess for a bathroom break at the next gas station.

Glidden's line is on the primitive side, more concerned with capturing gesture and expression than a meticulously crafted stylization. For the purposes of a story that is entirely about the emotions and expressions of her characters, her art is more than up to this task. She sticks to a rigid 9-panel grid on every page, which serves to keep the story flowing but cramps things a bit. That mostly plays out in her lettering, which is a bit too small on the page and seems rushed at times. It's the only thing that interrupts the otherwise seamless flow of the comic; one rarely notices lettering unless it's a distraction. One could actually see the lettering becoming much clearer at the end of chapter 2, and her pages in general opened up a bit and started to breathe a bit more. I admire Glidden's ambition in tackling this project and think that her combination of wit, outrage and skepticism will make for a fascinating personal account of one of the world's most controversial areas. One can already see that the challenges inherent in telling this story are making her a better artist.

Small Bible,  by Shannon Smith. This is a clever mini that's about points of view and description. Taking key portions of the Old Testament, Smith quotes extensively from Stephen's Defense in the Book of Acts, then quotes the original scripture, then provides an illustration--all in just 9 pages. It's a clever comic that's both a straightforward depiction of an event, and a commentary as an interpretation of an interpretation of an event that may or may not have happened--but has enormous importance. Joann Sfar's Rabbi character in THE RABBI'S CAT described Judaism as different from Western (Hegelian) thought, which is thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The history of Jewish thought, he explained, is thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis, and so on. This mini is another step in the argument, providing a visual interpretation of the events that is action-oriented on nearly every page. An angel dramatically swoops in to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac; Moses gets a magic glowing staff from god that cures snake bites; various epic battles are fought. Smith gets across the quite visceral experience of reading the Old Testament, a tact that is quite different from the purposes of either Stephen or the original Torah. It's quite a clever little project.

Washing Machine, by Mardou. I really enjoyed this slice-of-life mini because it subverted expectations at every turn. A story about a 20-something woman who breaks off an affair she's having with an older married man, Mardou sets up a situation where her protagonist Rachel seems to be on the way to finding an exciting new boyfriend. Instead, Rachel's night ends in disaster as the wife of her ex-flame confronts her, her potential new boyfriend drives the hysterical woman home, and her dumpy roommate actually finds a potential love interest. Mardou's character design and dialogue are clever and serve well in drawing in the reader's interest. The ending of the story serves to offer up a bit of justice to a character that is actually a bit vain, shallow and conceited, and the way Mardou brings these threads together in one explosive ending was quite satisfying.

Jessica, by Jason Overby. This is an unusual mini printed with a thick cardstock cover and heavy paper. While this is essentially an anecdote about a missed connection with a woman, what makes it unusual is Overby's visual approach. He alternates between a Paper Rad-style primitivism, pure iconic abstraction, and Frank Stack-style scribbly expressionism. The story drifts in and out of the anecdote, as Overby sometimes digresses to past memories and experiences. This mini is stream-of-consciousness and attempts to get across the experience of one's own consciousness visually. I especially liked the iconic abstraction that represented himself; ironically, his most abstract representation is the most straightforward in relating the narrative. This was certainly an interesting amalgamation of ideas and techniques, presented without compromise to conventional narrative concerns, and it'll be interesting to see how Overby develops his talent.

Rashy Rabbit #4, by Josh Latta. This is an outsized slice-of-life comic told in classic funny animal fashion. Indeed, Latta's skill in rendering his characters in that classic style is so considerable that the first page of this comic, featuring a sex scene, caught me totally off guard. The title character is a familiar 20-something loser, constantly (but often unsuccessfully) on the make and getting high. That opening sequence, featuring a sex scene and a stunning death, was quite a darkly hilarious introduction to this issue. Rashy as a character is a sad sack, without much ambition of his own and is thus easily manipulated by others. While the dialogue has a sort of sleazy verisimilitude that's amusing (especially Rashy's dirtbag stoner cousin), Latta takes a risk in having a protagonist that's so passive in this issue. Not having read the first three issues of the series, I'd be interested in seeing how Rashy interacted with other characters, and how that influenced the narrative.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

David B Explosion

Other than his epic, classic Epileptic, there's been precious little of French master David B's output available in English. Dribs and drabs appeared in anthologies like Mome (later collected in The Armed Garden And Other Stories), short collections like Nocturnal Conspiracies, and single issues like Babel. The last year has seen three major releases in English by a cartoonist who's on my short list of Greatest Cartoonists Alive. They all share his emphasis on spotting blacks to create an atmosphere of oppressiveness and mystery, as well as mixing fantasy and reality in such a way that it's difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Above all else, David B is about propelling his stories ever forward, leading the eye briskly across a page filled with often ghoulish and frightening details.

Britain's SelfMadeHero published his Best Of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations (Part One: 1783-1953), written by historian Jean-Pierre Filiu. Though not written by David B, his imprint is all over it. Indeed, Filiu also writes this text as something meant to be playfully told, which plays out in the first chapter when he inserts speeches from George W Bush and Dick Chaney into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In a crisp and clear manner, Filiu hits the main highlights of the nature of the relationship of the US and the Middle East, plainly calling out barbaric behavior on both sides without demonizing either. His analysis of the early 19th century conflict between the US and the pirate city of Tripoli was astute and fascinating, and he couldn't have called upon a more appropriate artist than David B to illustrate it. Indeed, anyone who's read Epileptic knows that as a child he was obsessed with drawing battles with huge armies, frequently Arabs or Moors. The weight of the French-Algerian conflict pressed his imagination powerfully as a child, as did the history of conflict tied to beliefs in general. The juxtaposition of holy wars and obscene loss of life, that conflict of life and death, is at the heart of much of his work.

It was also interesting to read about this US-Tripoli conflict in part because it's little-taught in most American textbooks. I would imagine one reason why is that the US never scored a decisive victory; it was the actions of others that ended Mediterranean piracy. The chapters "Oil" and "Coup d'etat" get at the heart of US gunboat diplomacy and expansionism. In this age of Islamophobia, it's fascinating to read about how the US was once firmly on the side of the Palestinians retaining their land, in part because of the blatant (and self-avowed) anti-Semitism of key US policy makers. Without as much fighting to depict, David B cleverly depicts otherwise dry pages regarding negotiations and backstabbing with images of characters stretching out and acting as part of oil pipes. The "Coup" chapter carefully details the first time the US openly overthrew another world power, as they conspired to bring down the Iranian government and install the Shah. In a lesson that is never learned, one must always be careful of the allies one makes under duress in order to achieve a short-term political goal. While Filiu is a witty and incisive historian, there's no question that it's David B's brilliance that makes this such a lively read, and the model for all future history books that are published in comics form.

Also published through SelfMadeHero (and in the US, Abrams Comic Arts), Black Paths is David B's masterful blend of fact and fiction. Set in the aftermath of World War I in a small northern Italian city, the factual aspects of the book are every bit as crazy as the characters and stories that he makes up. The city of Fiume is taken by Italian war hero Gabriele D'Annunzio, a poet-soldier whose followers set out to establish a utopia as they seceded from Italy and opposed planned annexation by Croatia. This real-life figure is brought to life spectacularly by David B, who depicts him as a tiny, bald figure with eccentric tastes who is strongly influenced by the Dada movement. While his story is an important part of Black Paths, providing its most colorful and funniest scenes, David B also inserts a heist storyline and a love story into the action of a city that has descended into a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is "nasty, brutish and short". Fistfights constantly break out in the city, while Italian criminals are using it to ship stolen goods into and out of. The heist is the least interesting aspect of the story, but David B wisely shoves it to the back of his interests as soon as all the principal players are introduced.

Instead, he's more interested in examining the psychology of World War I through the eyes of Lauriano, a soldier who is also a writer and thinker. His share of the heist cut is getting access to the beautiful singer Mina, a strongly self-possessed woman who nonetheless is looking for a way out of the sheer, violent chaos of Fiume. She mostly functions as a kind of lens on Lauriano's nature as she tries to understand his pain and his overall plan. Indeed, it boils down to Lauriano undergoing a kind of trauma where he sees a dead soldier friend who urges him to arrange a burial despite the fact that his body is unavailable. In a dizzying climax that sees David B go way over the top in terms of mistaken identities, audacious plans (a tank becomes involved), spiritual gestures that are really gags (a statue of St Francis that's a running joke as a McGuffin suddenly becomes the key to resolving the final conflict), everyone winds up with a happy ending. Of course, David B doesn't stop there, as a speech from Mina earlier in the book both fleshes her out as her own person and reduces Lauriano back to his component parts: books. This is a thinking man's genre comic, jam-packed with action and excitement yet still steeped in history, unexpected character development and truly unexpected twists.

There's an easter egg for David B readers in Black Paths in that Lauriano writes for a publication called Incidents In The Night. That is a reference to an earlier work by the same name, which is one of David B's densest, craziest and most entertaining comics. Recently translated by novelist Brian Evenson and his daughter Sarah, I'd rank this only behind Epileptic as the author's most personal and audacious creations. It feels strongly influenced by classic conspiracy stories like Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, but it also has elements of autobiography and long digressions on history that fit into David B's usual storytelling tendencies. Many of David B's early comics were inspired by dreams and had a certain dream logic in how they depicted the facts and images of the things he encountered. Incidents In The Night starts out that way, as he dreams about finding a publication by that name in a bookstore. When he wakes up, he visits several esoteric bookstores in an effort to see if it actually exists.
This book has the trappings of a detective novel before it mutates into a book about conspiracies and mysticism. Instead of smoky bars or creepy temples, the action takes place in bizarre bookstores, including one with mountains of books that effectively require an archeological dig to find anything. The magazine turns out to have been begun by a Bonapartist named Emile Travers, who has managed to escape the Angel of Death (a prominent character) by leaping from book to book. Along the way, David B gains the power to take on the form of paper or shadow as he his forced by Travers to find a way to protect him from the angel of death. Along the way, David B has a long discussion with a bookstore proprietor about the history of genocide, and the terrible, forgotten Greek god Enn, the god of extermination and oblivion. The book's plot becomes increasingly complex as Travers' initial plans become deadlier and more morbid, as he slaughters an office of journalists he hired to reboot the magazine as a sacrifice to Enn. David B picks up allies in a journalist who seems destined to double as a romantic interest and a tough policeman who specializes in esoteric crimes, but the book (conceived to be the first of several) ends on a surprising cliffhanger.

Every theme, idea and interest of David B is distilled in this single book. Destruction, genocide, cults of personality, mysticism, conspiracies and the tiniest clues in unlocking them, the protocols of secret societies and forbidden religions are all here. The book also directly and metaphorically touches on something very important: David B wants immortality as a writer. He wants to cheat the Angel of Death to become, like Lauriano, a man composed of the books he wrote. While Travers initially seems to be an example in how to do this, what he really wants is Nothing: oblivion, the void, the extermination of all that his memorable. No wonder he hides out in an imaginary book called "The Desert", which consists solely of the letter "n": an invocation of and prayer to dread Enn, an almost Cthulu-like presence who literally looms over the book with the giant N on top of Travers' image. David B's art wasn't quite as polished here as it is now, as there's a little less detail and a little more white space. Still, his character design, story flow and stark nature of the imagery are all flawless and striking. Here's hoping that American publisher Uncivilized Books is able to translate future volumes of this story.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Shirtlifter, Love Stories, Spelt-Rite, Injury 2, Awesome

Shirtlifter #1-2, by Steve MacIsaac. MacIsaac is an extremely astute observer of human nature in his stories, both fictional and autobiographical. Issue #1, "Unmade Beds", is fictional but is based on MacIsaac's time spent in Japan with his partner. Identity and a sense of purpose are running themes in MacIsaac's stories, as is self-deception obscuring the same. In "Unmade Beds", the story's ex-pat protagonist Derek finds himself as a "kept man" as Michael's partner. He's deeply unhappy but is unable to express it to his partner; instead, his ennui plays out in the form of anonymous sex while denying his sexuality to his co-workers. His unwillingness to come to terms with what he really feels and own up to those feelings is in direct contrast to his otherwise sharp intelligence and awareness. That blind spot he has is his own latent self-loathing and selfishness, and as the story ends it becomes clear that his dawning understanding of both is too late to save his relationship. MacIsaac's restraint and subtlety are what make this story work, never hammering home key points of characterization but instead allowing them to unfold for the reader.

His autobio work in #2 ranges from brief musings and digressions to stories that are more explicitly driven by narrative. These stories link sexuality and identity, an issue that becomes especially pointed for gay men and women. The very declaration of sexual identity becomes a defacto political statement, and to publicly deny that sexuality is to distort an essential truth about identity. In stories like "Waiting For The Bus" and "You Can Tell Us Anything", MacIsaac struggles with his own desires and the experience of coming out to a family that is not entirely supportive. In the latter story, the juxtaposition of hurtful family statements with scenes from his loving relationship with his boyfriend are especially powerful.

The exploration of desire and its consequences are seen in stories like "Safe" (about the simultaneous desire for unsafe sex and the pressure often created to do so) and "Crush" (about an encounter on a jam-packed bullet train in Japan that underlines MacIsaac's alienation and isolation). My favorite stories were probably "Border Crossings" and "You Do The Math". The former is about MacIsaac's struggle to find a job in the US (he's a Canadian), which balances multiple identities (sexual, national, career, artistic) and forces him to make a leap of faith. The latter story is about the public/private dichotomy of sexual identity, where MacIsaac is still uneasy about how and when to come out to the general public (like many of his ESL students, who are homophobic). MacIsaac explores this issue through a series of clever vignettes, culminating in an exchange in a florist's where he makes a point of saying flowers are for his boyfriend.

There's one major issue I have with MacIsaac's work. While he has a solid understanding and grounding in the language of comics and page composition, his figures have an essential stiff and static quality that is created by his drawing this comic using a computer. That makes a lot of his stories look and feel much colder than I think MacIsaac intended. This is ameliorated somewhat in stories where he uses color but was a significant difficulty in "Unmade Beds". His use of a realistic style probably contributes to this problem; using a slightly more expressionistic approach might make his figures come alive a bit more. As I noted earlier, the use of color greatly aided in bringing his characters to life in #2, and I'll be interested in seeing how he continues to develop his visual approach. He's already one of the stand-out autobiographical writers working in comics today.

John Henry, by Dmitri Jackson. Jackson retells the legend of John Henry, steel-drivin' man, whom he refers to as America's First Black Hero, and this story subtly deals with the racial overtones of the legend. Jackson employs a simple, blocky style and a steel-blue wash to depict the duel between man and machine (John Henry vs a steam-powered drill). Jackson's character design is his greatest asset. His line is not quite assured enough to easily carry a story, but he generally avoids over-rendering and allows his compositional skills to drive his narrative. I also enjoyed his "Brother Rage" character in his minicomic Frotoons #3, a firebrand black orator whose speeches seem to contain parody, satire and a few grains of truth as well. Jackson obviously has a lot of potential as an artist and a distinctive point of view; his task at this point will be one of development, refinement and continued experimentation.

Love Stories #1, by Mat Tait. This New Zealander tells stories that are mostly about and set in his nation. This is a visually striking collection told in stark and boldly outlined black & white, giving his pages a certain weight while not sacrificing the fluidity of the narrative. Tait's local and Maori stories like "Graveyard Etiquette" (comparing a Maori creation myth to the simultaneous gratitude and resentment children feel toward their parents) and "The Heading Dog Who Split In Half" (about a legendary sheepdog) are crisply told and a delight to look at. Tat goes in a different direction with his last two stories. "Great Historical Disasters" is a hilarious collection of one-panel fictional historical events like "Admission of the Antarctic Empire to the U.N., 1974", where we see a Jack Frost-looking figure freezing the Secretary General. "Shortcuts To Enlightenment" is a creepy story reminiscent of Zak Sally involving a ritualistic process of adding an extension to one's house and various disturbing steps needed to possibly become enlightened. Tait is a master of tone, both visually and verbally, using shadow and intense cross-hatching to tell stories that linger in one's mind. Tait is a major talent, skillfully navigating the intensity of his imagery with the clarity of his storytelling.

Injury #2, by Ted May, et al. I loved the first issue of this series, and this issue is more of the same wonderful big fun. One thing I should note is that this is not actually a one-man anthology; Jeff Wilson co-wrote one story while Jason Robards did the finished art on another. "Hair of the Dog", involving teenaged stoner metalhead soap opera, had a number of laugh-out loud moments. With the story set in 1983, I grew up with a number of metalhead kids like Jeff and Ray--every beat of this story felt familiar. The climax of the story, where heartbroken Jeff imagines that the lead singer of Nazareth (helpfully labeled with a shirt that read "The Dude From Nazareth") sits next to him while they both sing "Love Hurts". The overwrought, over-the-top scenario was played entirely straight, which is why it was so funny.

The other story, the next chapter of "Your Bleeding Face", was yet another action-packed, over-the-top story with unexpected laughs. It was the story's little touches that made it so much fun, like two gang members playing a Slade pinball game or the video game-influenced action scenes. The scene where our hero, Manleau, is in a bathroom trying to get a man waiting in a stall for anonymous sex to leave for his own safety, was a riot ("I gotta get this guy outta here. Need to keep my phrasing free of double entendres!"). May's line is loose and lively, with a touch of that kinetic Jack Kirby energy informing his action scenes. What makes these comics so pitch-perfect is the way he's able to tell these stories in a completely straight-faced manner that respects the source material, yet at the same time has an understanding of the ridiculousness of it. That fine balance, much like Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar are able to achieve in their Dungeon series, is what makes Inury such a great comic.

Spelt-Rite Comics #1, by Martha Keavney. Keavney is a long-time favorite artist of mine and one of the funniest comics creators around. After a long hiatus, she's launched a new series, following her hilarious Badly-Drawn Comics. Spelt-Rite doesn't use a lot of self-reflexive humor like BDC did, but rather creates premises and either subverts them or takes them to extreme lengths. "Oh, The Irony!" takes every single time-travel cliche' imaginable (Hitler's mother, averting a world war, traveling on the Titanic, etc) and turns them on their head as a time-traveling Keavney enters the story for the most banal of reasons. The final punchline is Keavney at her best, managing to top every gag she had dished out. "Cease and Desist" is a story where every bit of dialogue and sound effect is a registered trademark. Amazingly, Keavney manages to construct an 18-page story out of these trademarks (even things like "Beep" and "True" are trademarked), including a guy trying to pick up a woman and that same man trying to talk a friend out of suicide.

"The Hypocrites" (a story I published in Other magazine) takes a particular set-up (two guys showing how hypocritical the other is) and takes it to its wildest extreme (a third person performing a hypocritical act that is as ridiculous as it is monstrous). The masterpiece of the issue may be "The Minuscules", the "correctly spelled comic", starring Aloysius and Siobhan. Every bit of dialogue is packed with commonly misspelled words ("chaise", "cemetery", "desiccated", etc), leading up to a final punchline involving the word "stationary". Keavney's art is quite functional in its role as joke-delivery system for her set-ups--it's simple and unfussy as she doesn't depend on visuals for her jokes. Her combination of complexity of setup and absurdity of her jokes makes her one of the most effective humorists in comics today. Hopefully this issue will spur her productivity.

Awesome, The Indie Spinner Rack Anthology. This book certainly has a noble aim--providing a cash award to a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies. That award, by the way, was awarded to Chuck "McBuck" Forsman, whose excellent first issue of Snake Oil was just reviewed here on May 3rd. This anthology was conceived by the co-hosts of the Indie Spinner Rack podcast, "Charlito" and "Mr. Phil" and published by Evil Twin Comics. It is unfortunate that so much of this anthology ranges from awful to pleasant but forgettable. While it was admirable for so many artists to donate their time and stories, too many of the stories felt lazy, rushed or inconsequential. Too many of the stories (with the nearly incoherent story by Robin & Lawrence Etherington being the worst example) almost felt like advertisements for their creator's series rather than stories that stood entirely on their own. The exception to that objection was Kazimir Strzepek's Mourning Star short story, mostly because he did a great job in quickly setting up a premise and telling a clear story.

This book seemed to suffer from the spirit of "let's all get together and make an anthology", lacking an editor and direction. That said, about a third of the book's fifty or so entries were memorable, and of that number, seven were excellent and merit further discussion. First, Matt Kindt's "Misery Index" relating stories of people he's met on the title index--containing four quadrants of tragedy, humor, suffering and irony. True to description, the three anecdotes he relates are indeed very funny in their own awful way. Jamie Tanner's "The Accommodation of Old Man Small" is a typically creepy, beautifully drawn entry by Tanner, whose peculiar, meticulously drawn but cartoony art always impresses.

Chuck Forsman's own strip, "God vs Idiot" continues to plumb the themes he's explored in his other comics: alcoholism and family. This darkly comic story was a bit reminiscent of Chester Brown, with a thin line and absurdist elements like the hand of god coming along and smashing a bottle of alcohol, and the alcoholic man somehow having the devil's phone number from the phone book. Forsman's self-doubting afterword was almost as funny as the strip. His fellow CCS student, Joseph Lambert, contributed another visually striking strip about the creative process and the way it creates multiple voices of doubt and rage--and how this affects others. Roger Langridge added a typically zany story about a filthy vaudeville singer who managed to cheat death, effortlessly propelling the narrative while staggering the reader with his decorative touches.

One always hopes to discover a surprising gem in an open anthology such as this, and there were two notable entries in Awesome. Jesse Post and Ben Towle's "The Gates of the Garden" manages to pack a lot of portentous history and humanity into just four pages. It's an anecdote about British diplomat Gertrude Bell, whose influence in the Middle East can still be felt today. The biggest surprise in the anthology was Sarah Oleksyk's "The Enchanted Stag", a well-drawn, well-designed story that starts out in typical fantasy-genre fashion but soon turns those tropes on their head. The punchline of this story is so effective because Oleksyk stays completely within the expected rules and even visuals for such a story, but still manages to quickly surprise the reader.

Of the remaining stories, entries by Nick Bertozzi, Joshua Cotter, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Al Columbia, Liz Baillie, JP Coovert, Sam Hiti, Matt Bernier and the team of Harvey Hsiung & GB Tran were also quite good, but not quite as memorable as the artists mentioned above.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Odd Corners: Van Gieson, Evans, Shen

Eel Mansions #1, by Derek Van Gieson. This one was a bolt from the blue. I was familiar with Van Gieson from his work in the anthology Mome; I found the "Devil Doll" serial he drew (but did not write) to be a mostly incoherent mess as it tried to mash up war comics and horror. This comic is a far crazier and more successful attempt at combining supernatural, autobio, kid's comics, spy genre stories and action stories into one delirious stew. Van Gieson's dark and moody art mimics 50s horror in much the same way that Dan Clowes does: importing the strangeness of it without also importing the cliches. The story follows a diverse cast of characters as they all seek their individual goals. There's the former head of a Crowleyean cult, reduced to doing magic tricks at auto shows, who is recruited by a shadowy government agency to do one last job, because his family might still be alive. There's the dumb rookie spy who badly flubs his first assignment but lucks into a treasure trove of information. There's the boozy cartoonist whose wacky Moomintroll-inspired minicomic touches on Pink Floyd and her own alcoholism, along with her best pal who draws disgusting horror comics. There are assorted monsters, killers and agents with unknown allegiances and McGuffins like the demon-stopping power of mayonaise. Van Gieson's Tove Janssen mimicry is impressive and funny; indeed, his comic timing is sharp as it takes the reader through any number of surprises. Van Gieson manages to blend a lifetime's worth of influences into one heady brew that is enjoyable as an individual entry as well as part of what will hopefully be an equally frantic whole.

Stumpy and the Living Stone, by James Evans. This is a full-color effort about a poor pigeon missing several toes and how this happened. Evans has an exceptionally crisp line and a bold but restrained color sense, which gives this mini the feel of a children's story, up until things become horrible. (Example: a mouse Stumpy befriends accidentally gnaws on one of his toes). That tension between cute and horrible is what drives this comic, along with the pigeon's confusion as to why all the food went away (which leads this once-successful pigeon to ruin, as his family abandons him and children find a new dad they like better). This is a great sad-sack story with an open ending, so I suspect Evans will be back to heap more abuse on his hapless protagonist with the same level of skill and precision.

Party Plans #2 by Zejian Shen. In Shen's crazy serialized stories, the shaggy dog aspect of her storytelling is also the substance of the series. That is, every turn that introduces a new character doing something strange isn't an aside from the thin main storyline, it's the structure that keeps it stable. After checking in with the brutish but sensitive Victor Volcano where he erupts with pleasure in a geological and physiological sense, most of the issue is spent examining the fate of Doraemon Disguise, aka Malcom Mouse-ears. He's a snooty subway-car operator who gives the cold shoulder to Betty Boulder, aka Vic's girlfriend. Shen's specialty is the silent transition scene, where she builds up suspense in the mudane on page after page of beautiful, warped and strange character designs. Most of the comic consists of Malcom's dread in knowing that Betty is going to do her best to get bloody revenge on him for his slight, and Shen's muscular & visceral character designs highlight flopsweat and terror in a manner that is hilarious. When she finally gets to that revenge scene, she goes to a full two-page spread to illustrate Betty's elbow crushing Malcom's cheek, and then following it up with an indignant "Asshole!". Shen's storytelling chops are rock-solid; she simply chooses to go in unexpected directions for uncertain periods of time, carrying the reader along. In the middle of the book, she inserts a list of charaters introduced to date, which serves both to help readers identify these characters on the fly as well as try to figure what they're doing. At the same time, she doesn't forget about the main plot, alluding to it at the beginning of the book and returning to it more explicitly at the end. Shen's comics are best enjoyed without that destination or plot in mind, allowing her detours and tangents to simply play out. I suspect she's going to get a lot more attention when her book with Retrofit debuts later in 2013.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Personal Comics: Foss, Shapiro, McGovern

Haiku Revue and Empty Bed, by Rachel Foss. Foss was due to enroll at the Center for Cartoon Studies, but various circumstances never allowed that to happen. She still lived in White River Junction for a year and clearly spent her time wisely, because both of these comics are fine early efforts for a young cartoonist. Haiku Revue is a sort of combination of journal comic and formal experiment, as Foss writes an autobiographical haiku on every page to go with her comic. On each page, Foss deliberately tries to change something about its composition or form: changing up panel sequencing, using greyscaling, using different drawing styles, using silent panels, writing pages without her on them, etc. There's a wonderful frankness and openness about the sort of things that Foss shares; these comics are about taking a risk and learning to cope with loneliness and distance, but there's also a carnal component to them that's presented in a forthright but unsensational manner. Foss's draftsmanship also goes from shaky to confident over the course of that year as she quickly learned to play to her strengths as much as possible while developing her own style.

That certainly plays out in her most recent comic, Empty Bed. In its earliest pages, one can see how much more adept she is at things like cross-hatching and effective page design. However, the real draw is the way she draws faces and depicts body language. Using a simple but distinct line that makes the most out of the negative space around it (especially in the way she spots blacks to make her characters stand out), Foss generates an understated narrative about a lonely woman separated from someone who may be a former lover in a new place. An act of simple good will she performs early in the story winds up having enormously positive benefits (in every sense of the word) later on, as she actively fights against that sense of isolation that surrounds her. Foss still has work to do in terms of perfecting the way she draws characters other than her own stand-in as well as maintaining that polish for the duration of a story, but this is another honest, affecting and well-told story by a young cartoonist who seems eager to rapidly improve. The fact that she's able to get across so much emotion with a minimum of narrative excess points to a bright future, especially because she's adept at writing stories that are at once deeply personal but immediately recognizable.

Crushable: John Doe and 3 Comics, by Janice Shapiro. These are more amusing and self-deprecating autobio comics by Shapiro. Crushable: John Doe is novel because she actually knew the musician and actor at the very start of his career, when they were still working in a bookstore together. This one's especially funny because it takes us into her young adult life and into the present. Her tales of the viciousness of film school were hilarious, especially in the way everyone would react like vipers when someone achieved a measure of success. What I like best about this comic is the way it presents this sort of unrequited attraction as something that dominated her perceptions of him until they were able to find some common ground years later when they were both parents, living on the same block. This story is all about having huge dreams as a creative person, finding oneself falling completely short of achieving them and learning how to move on from this failure and create different kinds of meaning in one's life. Her arc of working as a screenwriter or director paralleled her feelings toward seeing Doe: being around a walking dream, never to be fulfilled, and eventually coming to terms with this.
3 Comics is much more light-hearted, as she explores her relationship with the film Red River, the weather and her fantasy of being on the game show Jeopardy!. There's a subtext of being uncomfortable with aging and doubting one's taste and beliefs as a younger person, a sense of wanting to reevaluate everything. The story also speaks to her wonderful expressiveness as a cartoonist even with a crude line; like her most direct influence, Lynda Barry, Shapiro has a lot of control over how a reader will experience her story through things like lettering and the body language of her characters. Brrrrrr! documents her life-long fear of cold weather, pinned mostly on worrying about being pinned to a single location and being forced to go out with her dog in the snow and ice. The sensation of being a prisoner to elements beyond one's control tie back into that fear of aging. The Jeopardy story is pure wish fulfillment, as Shapiro gets categories like "The Life and Times of Iggy Pop" and steamrolls her competitors.

Demongunz and Demondust #12-17, by Bernie McGovern. This is both prequel and sequel to McGovern's recovery comic DemonTears, which I thought was a generally bold and interesting take on the subject, especially because of McGovern's willingness to employ magical realism. These books are unusual in that they are journals of recovery, both in terms of the physical and psychological toll that addiction takes but also in terms of the artist recovering his creative spark. Indeed, the series involves from DemonGun to DemonDust as his alcoholism starts to become a more distant event in his past and the more violent and direct metaphor of a soul-splicing gun is no longer needed.This is still very much a journal, as McGovern is writing to a small but specific audience regarding news of the creative aspects of his life while slowly revealing aspects of his post-recovery self. The initial images are quite jarring, especially if one hasn't read DemonTears. McGovern fancies himself as literally growing another version of himself, from the brain and spinal cord up to an entire other body by the end of the first ten issues. What is obvious is that his practicing zen meditation has an enormously positive and centering effect, even in the face of tragedy like his grandmother dying and other of life's travails. The difference is that he has a different focus and different ways to cope with pain and sadness. By the very end of the collection, McGovern and his brain avatar are auditioning new characters to play with as stand-ins.

The individual minis (#12-17) are much more lighthearted and playful than the preceding stories, as each issue features one or more of the new avatars exploring new ideas. Some of the stories are philosophical gags (like the moon crushing a recalcitrant tortoise), some are breezy (like an elf and pumpkin-headed character cracking jokes and getting pumpkins to decorate), while others reflect McGovern's fears as a creator (a light-bulb headed character who is quite a potent metaphor), a character who doesn't quite work as a mouthpiece, the Karate Kid as an avatar of spring and renewal and the pumpkin-headed character (Bram Bones) on vacation.  The sense I get reading these comics is that even when McGovern is covering a heavy topic, nothing he's going through is as bad as being an alcoholic and then going through withdrawal and rehab. It almost feels like his comics offer him a little release for his darker feelings while in real life he knows he has to stay upbeat, which is reflected in his statement at the end of each issue. This series also gives him the opportunity to goof around and experiment with his art and characters. With no particular plot or direction, McGovern allows his characters to play around on the page in a spontaneous manner while trying new tricks, such as his tribute to Moebius. The result is a rare tour through an artist's mental playground as he tries to find out what works and what doesn't (sometimes stopping a story right in the middle when it's going nowhere) while trying to apply the same lessons to his own life. It's all a bit ratty and unsteady at times, but this is the mark of an artist unafraid to express as much as he can as often as he can, knowing he almost lost that ability for good.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Short-Form Round-Up: Cahill, Davis, George, Gauld, Dinski

Time to dip into my mailbox and review some interesting new short-form comics that have come my way. It's always exciting to be exposed to the work of a promising young artist for the first time, and this was certainly the case for Christopher Davis' work. Each of the three minis, though quite different, clearly could all take place in the same world. The most introspective of the minis, "I Walk With My Wife In The Evening", still takes flights of often-disturbed fancy in the narrator's mind. The narrator starts off thinking about his wife as they take a walk, but his thoughts then drift to clouds "raining down something coarse and dirty". That leads him to think about some contagion being unleashed in a city, with the government putting up razor wire and quarantining his house, and giving him a body bag for his dead wife. His thoughts then drift to the apocalyptic novel On The Beach, where a group in Australia waits for the world to end after nuclear war. Back at home, he entertains the fantasy that time can't catch up to he and his wife. The sensitivity of Davis' pencils give his meditations some narrative weight, both in how they accent and contrast his musings.

"Why I Never Joined The Strawberry Resistance" stars our same narrator, but this time it's in a very strange world. Bananamen run the world, exploiting snowmen in menial jobs. Those characters, plus a parking robot giving out tickets, all come together in a huge collision. All of this takes place against a high-tension city protest by a group called The Strawberry Resistance. The comic has the tension of a Robert Altman movie with a fanciful twist. The surreal elements help leaven the political content of the strip, allowing for a pleasantly ambiguous ending. My favorite of Davis's minis was "No Buses. Chickens.", a comic that encapsulates Davis' output. A young man is at a bus stop in front of a mini-mall in a city. Waiting endlessly for a bus, he sees a group of chickens devour a young woman who had been sitting motionless on a bus bench. We don't know how he got there or where he's going, and he basically doesn't care-- "If the buses didn't come? Then I guess I didn't have to be anywhere, any time soon, anyway". The deadpan tone and realistic pencils are a perfect balance to the grim absurdity of the strip. Davis has a very interesting future as he decides what kind of stories he wants to tell. At the moment, he's more of a writer who draws than an artist who has fully integrated both skills. His chops are incredibly impressive for a newcomer, as is his sense of composition, but it would be interesting to see him do a story where he relies more on visuals than text.

Things come into focus with the second issue of This Is Still America, by George.  The reader begins to understand that the young boy who is the central character of the comic was sent to live with his vicious father because he was constantly getting into fights. His only dream is to be sent back to his mother. In this issue, his father sees him back down from a group of young toughs, and then slaps him around until he goes out to challenge them. The boy, knowing that he's breaking his word, goes back to those kids and proceeds to pummel each of them in turn--crying as he does so. The comic gets truly intriguing when we delve into the boy's fantasy life. We never see his father's face until one devastating sequence: the father burns the boy's possessions in the backyard and kills a snake with a 2-tined fork. When we finally see his face standing above the fire, he appears as the devil. The boy's dog urged him to leave at the end. Graphically, this comic is much like the first issue: spare and stylized. Something that I picked up on in this issue is the influence of video games on the comic's graphics. When the boy is playing Pac-Man, we later see him walking in the street and the view is directly from above like in a video game. Once again, George's vision is unique. The second issue seems to be leading us to the boy going off on a journey of some kind after leaving his father, but it'll be interesting to see where this story winds up. 

Will Dinski is a favorite of mine, and his two new minis did not disappoint. Endorsement of Smoking is a fold-out mini designed to look like a pack of cigarettes. Once unfolded, the back of the mini shows cigarettes. The front of the mini has a strip where a character discusses the nature of addiction. The payoff, both verbally and visually, is quite satisfying, though on a small scale. What I like most about it is that it couldn't possibly work in any other format than this mini. The payoff is clever, made moreso because of the format. Others, as described in the subtitle, is "two short stories about the disenchanted and solitary". The first story, "The Pressman", is a funny and clever account of a night worker at a newspaper. For fun, he enjoys going to other people's jobs and blending into the background. He watches a corporate scandal unfold and is also in the background at the police station where they uncover the scandal. It's unclear, but implied, if he has any role in the scandal unfolding. "Get Away From Me" is about crowds, and a bird's pontification thereon. After complaining about crowds of people, he desperately tries to join up with a crowd of birds. As always, Dinski's style is utilitarian and assured. His layouts and figures don't dazzle, but instead serve the story and composition. Like many talented minicomics artists, I'm curious to see what he could do with long-form stories.

One of the first reviews I did for this site was for Alex Cahill's The Last Island. His new project is a collaboration with writer Jad Ziade called Poison The Cure. It's hard to pin down exactly what genre this falls under, but perhaps it could be called political science-fiction. The issue I received was the first of four, and it looks like it'll take a couple of years to finish it, especially since this issue was a beefy 104 pages. This issue is almost entirely prologue and set-up, yet the story is a compelling one. We spend the first 16 pages looking at the day-to-day activities of a group of alien explorers of some kind. They're sent to examine an abandoned world and figure out what happened, with the aid of one of the crewmembers who is a professional telepath. He can relive the lives of others (referred to cleverly as being a sort of reality-TV) and finds the "life-trail" of the one telepathically-aware person on earth. In trying to find out what happened to this person at the end of their "life-trail", the alien nearly has his brain fried. Going back a bit in time, the story begins.
The story takes place on Earth at some unspecified time in the future. It's the sort of dystopia where there are shady corporate and government deals. A young man returns to what seems to be his family to find out that a woman has died who is close to them. It turns out they are in a country resembling Mexico and were trying to get information on a corporation dumping toxic waste, and the woman was murdered in the process of this investigation. Throughout the course of the issue, we wonder who it is who will become the telepath. By the end, this is made clear, as the saga truly begins. We know from the ruins we see at the beginning of the story that the telepath will end up in Washington, DC, and so the rest of the story will be about that journey. Poison The Cure reminds me a bit of Megan Kelso's Girlhero serial "Bottlecap". It's a futuristic story where politics is at its core. Even the character Mugshot is someone who could have come straight out of that story. The focus of Poison The Cure is a bit different, however--the political intrigue is secondary to the mystery of how we get to this sort of apocalyptic ending. Cahill's character design is lively and carries a story that must have been challenging to depict. Cahill's secret weapon is his use of black & white contrast. His artful use of this technique makes for a nice shortcut in depicting certain scenes, though there were some occasional close-ups that were unclear and required a lot of time to decipher. That hurt the story's flow a bit, but happily those panels were few and far between. There's a long way to go in this story before it can be fully evaluated, but this is certainly an interesting start.

Lastly, there's this offering from the only "major" publisher in the group, Buenaventura Press. It's Hunter and Painter by the very droll Tom Gauld. The story is just 18 pages, long enough to set up a great gag. In a primitive culture (drawn in Gauld's spare but expressive style), an artist is expected to come up with his next great masterpiece, depicting the latest hunting conquest. He's stumped trying to find something inspiring for his next painting, but knows that all of the big conquests have been done. He hits on doing a painting of the women harvesting mushrooms, which gets him driven out of the village. A hunter who's a friend of the painter seeks him out, and they make a discovery that not only resolves that story, but provides the punchline for the story. Gauld's deadpan style makes him one of the most underrated humorists working today, and his strips are always a highlight of whatever anthology he happens to be a part of (most notably Kramer's Ergot).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Halloween Classics and Native American Classics

Halloween Classics, edited by Tom Pomplun. This volume was comfortably within series editor Tom Pomplun's wheelhouse, given the sort of things he's published in the past. As I've said before, there's no question that the series took a big leap forward in quality when Pomplun made the plunge into doing full-color books, because many of the illustrators and cartoonists he hires are obviously far more comfortable working this way. This volume was really as much a tribute to EC horror comics as it was to Halloween in general, with the cheesy interstitial pieces written by Mort Castle in the vein of the Crypt Keeper. I'm not sure these added much to the proceedings, because none of the jokes really landed and it felt like Castle was trying a little too hard. On the other hand, all of the actual pieces that were adapted were solid to excellent.

Ben Avery and Shepherd Hendrix's version of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was appropriately grim and cruel to its poor protagonist, the proud but flawed Ichabod Crane. At its heart a love triangle where the more noble leg of the structure is crushed, the ending has an appropriate twist given the events at the climax of the story. I always tend to picture Crane as slightly more cartoony than what see hear, but it's a decent adaptation all the same. "A Curious Dream", a Mark Twain story adapted by Antonella Caputo and artist Nick Miller, is another acidic bit of satire wherein Twain admonishes cities who let cemeteries go to seed in the form of a parade of the dead packing up their belongings and leaving. Miller's rubbery art is perfectly suited for this kind of humor.

Pomplun and Gane adapt an Arthur Conan Doyle short story called "Lot No. 249", one written during the height of the mania regarding Egypt in the late 19th century. Like many early mystery/horror stories, the revelation here is not exactly surprising to a modern viewer, which hurts its payoff section. The good news is that Doyle's craft is impeccable and his talent for creating memorable characters makes this an enjoyable read. Rod Lott and Craig Wilson's adaptation of HP Lovecraft's "Cool Air" is extremely clever and appropriately moody and atmospheric. It really gets at the creepiest aspects of Lovecraft without totally devolving into mentions of Cthulu.  The real winner in this volume is Pomplun & Matt Howarth's adaptation of the script for the film "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari", a German expressionist classic. Unlike most of the rest of this volume, which seemed pretty easy to assemble, this was a really out of the box adaptation, especially when one considers that the original was silent. It manages to be at once visceral and cartoony, creating an atmosphere of dread and absurdity befitting the source material. The ending, when madness seems to utterly warp the world of the protagonist, is cleverly pulled off by Howarth. Overall, this is a volume that doesn't stick out from many others in the series, other than my assertion that it's more confidently executed from beginning to end.

Native American Classics, edited by Tom Pomplun, Joseph Bruchac, and John E. Smelcer. On the other hand, I admire the fact that Pomplun has the guts to step away from genre fiction and take a risk, like he did with African-American Classics and the Louisa May Alcott volume. Working with Bruchac & Smelcer, both Native American poets and writers, this volume has an impressively confrontational and bold tone. There's a sense of barely contained anger and righteous bitterness that pervades the book, yet this feeling is balanced by pride and beauty. The Benjamin Truman written and Tim Truman/Jim McMunn and Mark Nelson adaptation of Zitkala-Sa's "The Soft-Hearted Sioux" sets the tone for the rest of the book, as many of the stories are about the ways in which the white man not only took their land, but tried to seduce them over to Christianity. This story shows a Sioux man's conversion as nothing less than a disaster, one that he was cursed for and eventually executed for by the very white men to whom he now owed allegiance. The multiple hands employed here made things a bit uneven, which was made unavoidable when Tim Truman fell ill and was unable to complete the story alone. A more tragic ending came to the artist Robby McMurtry, who was killed just before the book went to press. His loose, sensitive line, expressive use of color and marvelously tremulous lettering hand give the story "On Wolf Mountain" (written by Charles Alexander Eastman and adapted by Bruchac) an enormous amount of visceral power, which was crucial given this wolf vs white man fable.

Nomenclature is another important part of this book. ""The Cattle Thief" is about a native hunted by white men for his thefts, but things are turned on their head when they are reminded who stole what from whom, and when. Weshoyot Alvitre's art is dark and expressive, though the digital lettering undercuts its overall visual effect. I wish more artists used McMurtry's example as far as lettering went. For the most part, this volume is pretty sparse on stories that deal with Native American legends and mythology. "The Hunter and Medicine Legend" is an exception, as Andrea Grant & Toby Cypress adapt an Elias Johnson tale. The slightly cartoony, animation-influenced style of Cypress works well here as a group of grateful animals found a way to raise a friendly dead chief from the dead. "How The White Rage Came To America", adapted by Pomplun and Roy Boney Jr from teachings by Handsome Lake by way of Arthur C Parker, tells of how Columbus pretty literally brought the Devil to America, only even the Devil was taken aback to see how much damage he had done to the natives. It's an effective and nasty story with moments of humor and bitter truth. The Pomplun/Tara Audibert adaptation of Bertrand N.O. Walker's "A Prehistoric Race" is a very different take on the classic tortoise vs hare story with a funny twist ending.

There are lighthearted moments in the volume (like the Buffalo Wild Woman story about Coyote eating a wild potato and getting near-fatal flatulence) and some adventure stories (George Copway's "The Thunder's Nest"), but the real showstopper down the stretch is the William Jones story "Anoska Nimiwina" (adapted by Bruchac and Afua Richardson), which is more illustrated prose than a comic, but quite dynamic nonetheless. It's the epic tale of how one woman was able to bring peace between warring tribes thanks to her voice and music. The other must-read was Royal Roger Eubanks story "The Middle-Man" written by Jon Proudstar and drawn by alt-comics legend Terry Laban. It spells out in painfully exacting detail the ways in which unscrupulous businessmen used natives looking for a quick buck to provide translations services that helped the businessmen to legally take away their lucrative land during the height of the oil boom. It gets at the heart of Native oppression: lies, assurances, contracts that mean nothing and their own kind often unwittingly selling them out. Combine this with many impressive, impassioned poems in this volume and you have the sort of collection I've never seen before in comics form, one that I hope is ready by many students.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Another Look Inside the CCS Student/Mentor Process

In honor of the graduating class of 2013 at the Center for Cartoon Studies, here's some heretofore unreleased interview material that I did for my article on CCS for The Comics Journal #301. I asked each student the same questions. Here are some selected answers regarding my topic: the student/thesis mentor relationship.

Steve Seck
Steve Seck is in the middle

RC: Why did you choose Alex Robinson as your advisor?

SS: As someone who is attempting a serialized comic, I was interested in hearing his thoughts on how he went about serializing Box Office Poison (which works remarkably well as a book). I am a great admirer of his storytelling ability, sense of humor & drawing style & saw a lot of things he was doing well in his work that I needed to improve on in mine. He also seemed like someone who would be approachable & relatively easy to work with.

RC: What was the process of working with Robinson like? How hands-on was he?

SS: I had a great experience working with Alex. My girlfriend & I had moved back to New Jersey from Vermont in the fall of 2008 - I was one of the first low-residency students in the CCS program - so I was able to meet up with Alex in Manhattan a few times to review work, have a couple drinks & discuss comics with him. I would bring copies of my inked pages with me for him to sketch revision ideas on & show him my (very rough) thumbnails for upcoming pages. I always emailed him my scripts before I got started on a new comic to get input from him about what to add, remove, revise, etc. before I started drawing. His comments were thoughtful & he never tried to dramatically change what I was trying to achieve with a scene or line of dialogue. He was always very respectful of my work - he was encouraging & his suggestions were mostly in line with what I was going for.

RCHow much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

SS: It's hard to say exactly how much of an influence Alex had on me as an artist - he was really much more into guiding me through my own way of working than telling me explicitly how to do things. If he felt something wasn't quite right with how I had done a panel,line of dialogue or gag, he'd often give me a few suggestions as to how he'd do it & leave it up to me to figure out my angle on it. He was always responsive if I came to him with a problem I couldn't solve, but mostly let me do my own work & guided or encouraged me whenever I'd give him a new batch of pages. He never imposed the ALEX ROBINSON WAY OF DOING THINGS on me, but rather helped me to further realize my own vision for my work.

RC:. How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked on you on your thesis?

SS: Box Office Poison - being one of the first books that got me into indie comics - had a pretty big impact on me; I'd say most of the Alex Robinson influence on my work was pre-existing. As stated previously, as an adviser Alex seemed interested in helping me continue to develop my own style & voice.

RC: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

SS: First and foremost, giving my work to one of my favorite cartoonists was a big deal for me - I had never done anything of the sort until I gave Alex my CCS first year final project at MoCCA 2008. (I'm relatively "green" when it comes to cartooning - I didn't really start seriously pursuing it until right before I had been accepted to CCS.) Having him actually agree to be my adviser after reading it was also a huge deal - hey, he
thinks my stuff is worthwhile enough to spend a year helping me get better at it! Working with him gave me the confidence I needed to not only trust my instincts but also to keep at it & push myself to improve.

Alex Robinson

RC: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

SS: I really didn't have a frustrating experience with Alex at all - he was responsive & encouraging.

RC: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

SS: My advice to future CCS cartoonists when choosing an adviser? Look at what some of the cartoonists you like are doing well that you'd like to see yourself do better. Don't be afraid to choose someone whose style isn't exactly like yours - look for someone who excels at the stuff you want to improve at.

Casey Bohn

RC: Why did you choose Paul Karasik as your advisor?

CB: I had previous positive experience working with Paul on a class project in my first year. Beyond that, I felt that an editor, especially one of Paul's standing within the industry, would be the best choice for an advisor. Someone who is expressly a cartoonist isn't necessarily able to explain in words how something is or isn't working. Paul has a lot of experience doing exactly that.

RC: What was/is the process of working with Karasik like? How hands-on was he?

CB: Paul was most involved in revising sketch versions of my comics. I would email him sketches, he would give me notes, I would revise it again, and he would give me more notes, until he was completely satisfied. The magic words were, "This is looking good. Now start pencilling." From my second book on I pencilled from blowups of my thumbnails, and while I showed Paul my pencils every time, once I started doing that there was very little that needed to be said.

RC: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

CB: Paul's focus was graphic storytelling. Does it make sense, does it read smoothly, is it getting the intended message across, is it compelling? These were the unspoken maxims that every critique was predicated upon, and I intend on taking a lot of that to heart from here on.

RC: What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?

CB: Getting to hear him laugh. We spoke on the phone twice and in person once, and hearing him laugh at the funny bits I had written was really satisfying. It was also much easier to…

RC: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

CB: Disagreeing with Paul. I didn't want to ever have to do it. Just before inter break he sent me suggestions for new endings of my second book, and I ddn't like any of them, but I didn't want to tell him that. So I just said I would table my thesis until after winter break. He came to the school in January for Visiting Artist Seminar and he read over the last email he had sent me about my thesis, and he couldn't believe his suggestions, either. "Was I high?" he asked with disbelief. I preferred to wait until Paul could
disagree with himself than to speak against him.

RC: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

CB: Choosing someone for their editorial experience really helped me. Settle on a project in the first week, stick to it, and get cracking. Do multiple smaller projects, with the goal being to complete everything you start this year. Don't try to do a graphic novel. The momentous work that gets made by Seniors begins life as a bit of fun that snowballs.

Alex Kim

RC: Why did you choose Chip Kidd as your advisor?

AK: I chose Chip because I greatly admire his work. His book covers are some of my favorite pieces of art out there. Also because he loves comics and understands how they work but isn't a cartoonist himself so I thought his feedback wouldn't get caught up so much in the mechanics of my process, which I knew I would get a lot of in school, and more on the final product.
RC: What was the process of working with this person like? How hands-on were they?

AK: Well, the process we set up was that I'd work on my thesis and present when I thought I had enough work to show. It was more presenting finished portions of my comic rather than presenting an outline or thumbnails, etc.... I was able to get a lot of feedback from my teachers and classmates during the process and wanted the use the time w/ my advisor to go over more finished work. I thought this would be more helpful since it would allow me to keep working and working and then get feedback on a chunk of work. This was also driven by how I wanted to work - I wanted to try and get as much drawing done as I could and then take a step back and look at what was produced. I thought it would be an interesting way to work and that there would be a lot I could learn.

RC: How much of an influence do you feel they have had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

AK: A lot and on composition and using words and images together effectively.

RC: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

AK: To draw everyday.

RC: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

AK: I ended up wanting more interaction with Chip. In the end, I think it was my fault. I think he would have been open to more interaction but I had to ask for it.

RC: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

AK: Don't hesitate in asking for more face time with your advisor. Sounds like that goes without saying, but I know I should have asked for more.

Josh Rosen

RC: Why did you choose Aaron Renier as your advisor?

JR: It was James's  (Sturm, head of CCS--RC) idea, actually. It'd been the end of the first year, and I was at sort of a loss for who I wanted for a thesis advisor, so I met with James and asked his advice. And James just started rattling off names, and with almost all of them I was instantly, like, "that's a great idea! Why didn't I think of them!" And Aaron was one of them. On top of which, I remembered Alec Longstreth (who's good friends with Aaron) mentioning that Aaron was really good at "world building," which is something I was really interested in at the time. And I'd heard that Aaron was a really nice, positive person, which seemed like a good thing to have in a thesis advisor to me.

RC: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

JR: I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, partially because I'd heard that the thesis advisor relationship often tended to vary from person to person (which makes sense). I knew I'd be sending them my work in progress over the course of the year, and getting their feedback on that, though I wasn't sure how involved the process would be. And I guess I assumed they would be a good potential resource for professional advice as well? I don't know, I suppose my expectations going in were ultimately sort of vague.

RC: What was the process of working with Renier like? How hands-on was he?

JR: Well Aaron lives in Chicago, which is far enough that we never had a chance to meet in person. However, we managed fairly early on to set up a schedule of meeting on Skype once a week, and having an hour or so long video chat about whatever it was that I was working on at the time. So we ended up working together a fair amount

RC: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

JR: One of the earliest things was that Aaron's influence got me starting to use brush a bit more, something I hadn't had a lot of experience with before (I'd mostly just stuck to nib or technical pens previously). My main project for this past year ended up being doing a large thumbnail draft for a graphic novel that I plan to begin serializing after I graduate, and he ended up having a huge influence on that process as well. Honestly, that whole draft probably wouldn't even have existed without him. He encouraged me to just lay down a straight six panel grid, not to worry about layout or how the drawings look or anything like that, and just fill up the panels. Just write out the story. And the whole process proved extremely liberating, and made the whole writing process easier than it had ever been. It's a way of going about things that probably wouldn't ever have occurred to me on my own, and now I absolutely love it. So that probably turned out to be the biggest influence ultimately, just in terms of process.

RC: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how they worked on you on your thesis?

JR: I think the influence Aaron has had on my work came out more through working with him than anything pre-existing before. I of course really admired his work before, and I would look at a drawing by him and be like "woah, I wish I could do that." But I don't think I really tried to consciously emulate his work until I started working with him during my thesis year. And I think part of that is because his work is so obviously brush-y, and I really only started working with brush over the course of the past year. And part of that as well is just that when you're working with someone really talented like Aaron, you sort of can't help but be like "Aaron does this really well. Maybe I should try doing something a bit like that too, while he's still around, and see what tips he might have on that." And the influence that comes about just through going through that process.

RC: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

JR: Oh, lord. I'm not sure, I find it hard to gage what's "most valuable" at this point. Again, starting to use the brush and the altered thumbnailing process I took from him both spring to mind as pretty big things. Um, I think setting personal deadlines was a pretty important thing Aaron helped me to learn a bit too. As soon as we decided to start setting deadlines for the project I was working on, my productivity went way up. And I don't know, there's little stuff too, like when he encouraged me to try to just draw the shading on a rock or something now and then. I suspect that stuff'll stick with me too.

RC: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

JR: Um, well I think we both tend to occasionally be somewhat absent-minded (and overly busy) people, so even though we did manage to more or less maintain a weekly meeting schedule we did both have a bad habit of occasionally accidentally missing, or needing to last-minute reschedule meetings, or even just changing the day we were supposed to be regularly meeting on several times over the course of the year. Which could occasionally become a little frustrating. Haha, but whatever, I think we were both just as guilty in regards to that, so what can you do.
Aaron Renier (on the left)

RC: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

JR: Well originally I was imagining it to be absolutely magical and full of rainbows, and we would become instant best friends and dance off into the sunset. Haha, which, you know, wasn't entirely accurate. Although on occasion I felt like it would come close! Heh. But yeah. It was still fun. And I still consider everything I learnt from it to be pretty much invaluable.

RC: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

JR: I'd say if you can figure out a regular schedule for talking/meeting with your advisor, and if you can establish a good rapport, then you're already a huge chunk of the way there. And, you know, remember that your thesis advisor is a person too, and they also have their own work and their own life. So remember to allow them time for all that.

Finally, here's the view from one of the advisors, Jeffrey Brown:

RC: What was it about this role that appealed to you enough to take it on, given your busy schedule?

JB: There were a few reasons. One, I feel like I've been extremely fortunate to have an older generation of cartoonists who have mentored me in various ways to various extents, and I think it's good to pass that on. I also think that there's a lot one can learn from trying to help someone else understand their work, things which can then help one see their own work in new ways. I've also thought about the possibility of teaching, and this seemed like a good baby step toward seeing if that's something I'd really like to do.

RC: What did you see as your role with regard to the student, or did you leave that up to each individual?

JB: For the most part, I tried to let the student guide things. I saw my role as having two basic components. One, that I would respond to any questions or needs the student expressed, be a foil to them in examining their own work, and give any insight I could that they may not be able to get elsewhere. Two, I felt that I could be a system of support as a fellow cartoonist, and as someone who'd been through what they're going through.

RC: What was your understanding of what the mentor role would entail when you agreed to participate, and how did that change over time?

JB: I don't think my understanding changed at all, except that maybe I felt less pressure as time went on, and I became more comfortable with the student-mentor relationship, as well as getting to know each other better. I saw my role as somewhat reactive rather than proactive; that is, to respond to the student's needs and desires, without being any kind of taskmaster or trying to push the student in a particular direction. After my experience, I felt like this was the right way to go about it, and that I was more helpful in that way - just being available and offering feedback, rather than telling the student what they need to do.

RC: What has been the most satisfying part of being a mentor?

JB: Seeing a student's work improve, as well as seeing their working methods improve, and feeling that I played a role in helping that happen. It's nice to know that I could have a positive impact like that.

RC: What has been the most frustrating part of being a mentor?

JB: Schedule-wise it's tough, and that was a constant frustration - both sides forgetting their was a phone call schedule, one or the other of us not responding too quickly. That said, those were relatively minor frustrations and tended to not distract from the experience at all, I think.