Monday, June 3, 2013

Minicomics Round-Up: White, Drawdoer, Gamboa, Enrico, Cass, Wiedeman

We Will Remain, by Andrew White.The theme of this comic is the journey. Some of these journeys were to a particular geographical location, some to states of being, and others concern journeys through time around a single object. A graduate of the Frank Santoro course, White uses the grid to interesting effect in several different ways. In "The Deep End", a story of a young boy watching an older woman swim at a public swimming pool, he uses a strict nine-panel grid. Every center grid is an action panel--usually the woman swimming, or leaving a wake, or emerging from water. On page three of the story, White deviates from this with a four panel grid on the second tier of the page: the middle of the page summarizes the action of the story as noted in the captions on either side of these silent images: "She swims. He watches." Those two center images set up the dynamic for the rest of the story, a relationship whose motives are deliberately vague. The final page is a kind of metaphor for the boy's thoughts and fantasies mirroring hers: a crossover into adulthood. White uses a sort of smudged pencil effect in this story that's meant to simulate the murkiness of being underwater.

"Travel" is a narrative about an astronaut dematerializing across space, except that we only see what is being seen on the journey: stars, Kirby effects, etc. The actual character drops away, other than his narrative captions. Some of the images are close to abstractions, but they are given context by the reader's understanding of the story. "As Leaves Change Color" superimposes loosely-rendered but inked figures over smudgy penciled backgrounds, an effect that places our eye on the characters as they are both part of but removed from their environments. This effect is useful, as the story is about a woman feeling displaced after an accident who discovers a hidden garden. The story flips back and forth in time, as we discover that there's someone in the woman's life steering her toward recovery (including magically creating the garden) who is also trying to repair the woman's relationship with her brother. The title story returns to that nine-panel grid and the technique of superimposed inked figures over a lighter background. This time, however, the background image takes up the entire page, with the figures operating through time and space in the grid. It's a clever technique that tells the story of a single, unusual space through thousands of years. When a statue is built out of the area's rock, it has the effect of inspiring devotion, awe and eventually madness. Without explaining the hows and whys of the statue, White gets across the message that something about the area inspires a connection to this concept of an eternal thing that one may as well call god. Every one of these journeys that White depicts is a mysterious one, though one that each adventurer feels inexplicably and inexorably drawn to. In this Retrofit comic, White neatly ties together a number of complex ideas while leaving the essentially meaning of each story up to the reader, though he is careful to leave many clues.

Miss Lonely Hearts 2, by Gabrielle Gamboa . This second issue of Gamboa's adaptation of the 1931 novel by Nathanael West doesn't dip into the same kind of cartoony well as the first issue did. Instead, this issue features two stories dealing with the main character's existential despair as it relates to his belief in Christ. As the story begins, the Miss Lonelyhearts writer is despondent from reading letters from the desperate all day long and retires to a speakeasy after work, where he is accosted by a dandy friend of his who won't stop talking about all sorts of nonsense, which is clearly what Miss Lonelyhearts craved. A bizarre tableau follows, as the dandy engages his girlfriend and Miss Lonelyhearts in some hilarious babble about religion (a constant running throughline in the series), carnal concerns and how one man was using an adding machine as a means of prayer for a man condemned to be executed. The second story involves MLH in bed, praying to his crucifix and chanting "Jesus Christ", having a dream about a drunken collegiate romp with a pair of Humpty-Dumpties that leads to sacrificing a lamb. With all of its crazy events, the second chapter was far more interesting to look at than the first, despite Gamboa's best efforts to use a number of different shading effects to draw in the reader's eye. In both chapters, it starts to become clear that MLH has an uneasy relationship with the rest of humanity. He wants to be able to love all people but finds them just too much to bear. He wishes to be carefree and hedonistic but is weighed down by his own sense of guilt and propriety. Even in his own dreams, a day of drunken fun turns into a gruesome animal sacrifice, as MLH is forced to batter the lamb's head in with a rock: MLH feels so guilty about his desires that he imagines that he's killing Jesus' stand-in himself. Gamboa's figures are a little stiff at times and her panel-to-panel narrative flow can be a little creaky, but she's a solid storyteller overall who's taking a piece that's obviously difficult to translate into comics and bringing a lot of her own personal style to the task, which I hope she's able to complete.

Jam In The Band 3, #3, by Robin Enrico. Enrico is starting to veer toward the conclusion of this series and finally gives the reader a bit of hope with regard to Bianca, the former lead singer of the band Pitch Girl, whose adventures comprised the first two volumes of this series.What this comic is really about and what the series has really become is a story about writer's block and the dark places that paralysis can lead to, as well as growing older and growing up (which aren't necessarily the same thing). If the second volume of the book was about the things that distract from the pure joy of creating and the camaraderie that creates, the third volume is about rediscovering the joy of simply making music with your friends as a fun thing to do, as opposed to be rich and famous. The parallels with making comics are so obvious that I don't think I need to draw them out. The other former Pitch Girl bandmates Tiara and Corbin were able to rediscover that simple sense of joy together in their new projects, something that Bianca was able to rediscover in this issue, even as her friends were getting married and having children. Enrico wisely depicts each of these decisions as trade-offs in terms of how one's freedom becomes limited by marriage and children but how much can be gained in the process. Enrico's greatest character, hedonist musician/philosopher Becky Vice, spells all of this out pretty clearly as she accepts Bianca because they've shared the same kind of despair and the same disinterest in family. I'll be curious to see where Bianca ends up in the final issue.

The Lettuce Girl #3, by Sophia Wiedeman. Wiedeman reminds me a bit of Julia Gfrorer in the way she reimagines fairy tales in a wider cultural context. The third issue of this new take on the story of Rapunzel (grown in a lettuce patch by a witch) adds in another element: the story of Hansel and Gretel. The girl in question finally escapes from her tower, only to find the warnings of her "mother' to be surprisingly accurate: the world is a cold, dark and dangerous place. Each issue of the series is slowly paced, as Wiedeman is interested in establishing place and mood in great detail. Wiedeman's rendering has become quite good; her characters remain slightly blank and cartoony in the best sense, while her backgrounds have become lush and dense, with lots of crosshatching acting as a counter-balance to the simplicity of her character's line. There's a certain grimness to this story about the darker side of motherhood that makes one wonder about the ultimate fate of these characters. The witch literally creates her children for sinister ends, yet raises and nurtures them up to a point. Is she evil, selfish or merely controlling? Wiedeman adds further complexity to this question by introducing the carnivorous witch who treats the girl sweetly and feeds her sweets in order to fatten her up for her oven. It's hard to tell just where Wiedeman is going to ultimately take this story, but the richness of her storytelling and unsettling imagery make this a consistently intriguing read.

The Index #3, The Text, The Salon, by Caitlin Cass. The Text expands upon Cass's life-long obsession with and fear of texts. In this mini, she explores the history of language and her uneasy relationship with its dogmatic control over meaning. What something "really" means and what it meant to be an informed person were questions that vexed her so fiercely that she went to St. John's College, where the "Great Books" of the Western World are taught in their original form. It's interesting that her drawings (and even her spelling, something else she rails against as a dogmatic concept) are so fuzzy and tossed-off; it's like comics became her escape hatch from this curse of needing to conform to the reality of the text as she understood it. Comics are a kind of way of communicating at a more basic, intuitive and even poetic level (at times), though Cass' own comics's writing style tends to be more direct rather than poetic.

Despite her discomfort with the text, she is fascinated by ideas and thinkers in particular. The Salon is a spread of famous thinkers and writers all trying to come to terms with what they have created and achieve immortality in the own ways and with varying degrees of success. Each thinker is in their own (literal) frame on this oversized, cardstock  For example, Adam Smith is despondent looking upon his works, because he realized "that no one ever read past the first chapter of his book", and he sees capitalism run amok. Isaac Newton used only "ink and geometry" to "create a ladder to infinity". Cass cleverly draws the thinkers as men dealing with ink, books, words and the detritus of ideas; it's one of her best pieces.

I have mixed feelings regarding the third issue of The Index.I love this series as a crazy mix of ideas, with the text-phobic nature of Susan clashing with the need to order and index everything that John possesses. I enjoyed the side trips the series takes and how it introduced the index writer Otlet into the cast of characters, summoning him from a fire as they all mused about the library at Alexandria. Cass notes how the library became more useless the more information that was stuffed into it, as there was little regard as to the quality of that information. The problem I had with this issue in particular is that Cass overstuffed it with ideas, characters, and information; there's hardly any room for the reader to breathe. There's also the problem of the drawing itself; while Cass is undeniably improving as a draftsman, she's over-rendering too many of her pages when a more simple approach might have been more appropriate. Her lettering and word balloon placement also drive me crazy at times, as words are squeezed into balloons and sometimes spill out. It doesn't seem to be a deliberate effect (if it is, it's distracting). The real issue I had is that after three issues, I'm starting to lose track of the characters qua characters, as opposed to mouthpieces for certain states of mind. These is the first story of hers that I've read with original and fictional characters, and it seems like she's still trying to find the right balance between concept and character. That said, she continues to take the ideas of the series in fascinating directions.


Be The Love, Be The Comics, Buck, and Drawdoer's Best American Comics 2013, by Jon Drawdoer. This large array of comics are mostly of the gag variety. Be The Comics is a series of gag strips headlined by the title story, which is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of why one should become a cartoonist. It should be said up front that Drawdoer is not a great draftsman and few of his jokes land because of his visual sense. However, he can draw well enough to tell a story and shape his jokes, which makes lines like "Not many people know this, but every so often, when they reach a certain age, Los Bros [Hernandez] hold open auditions for a new brother" really stand out. Drawdoer likes drawing distinctions between high and low, like making a joke about pubic hair with regard to Downton Abbey. Buck is a different look at the 1980s TV version of Buck Rogers interpolated with The Shining; there are some decent gags here, but the crudity of the work distracts from the references he's trying to get the audience to understand. Be The Love #1 saw Drawdoer start to refine his line a bit, trying different line weights and textures in different stories. He also continues a story begun in Be The Comics about "Chubby Meltdowns": the phenomenon wherein children have a meltdown when children have Chubby Checker's music taken away from them. There's also a hilarious strip about being on the wrong side of history throughout history. The Chubby Checker saga is continued in Best American Comics, as Drawdoer also makes an extended pun on the awful movie B.A.P.S., with B.A.P.S.tist churches proliferating and sermons ending with statements like "We must all serve the plot!". This issue really starts to get impressively self-reflexive and complex, as the cultural references start warping into something other than simple and cheap gags. He's starting to get at something here, but his ambition is still outstripping his ability in terms of what he wants to depict on the page. That said, he's come a long way in a short period of time, especially since he seems to be publishing a minicomic a month.

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