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.

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