Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sequart Reprints: What's Fleener Doing?

Mary Fleener immediately became one of favorite artists upon discovering her work fifteen years ago. Her old SLUTBURGER series for D&Q was in the vanguard of great alt-comics of the 80's; much of it was collected in her LIFE OF THE PARTY collection by Fantagraphics. In the last decade or so, however, Fleener's mostly retreated from the comics world, surfacing here and there in some less-traveled places.

For example, she did a self-titled comic for Matt Groening's Zongo publishing concern that lasted just three issues. She did one issue of a hilarious pornographic series called NIPPLEZ 'N TUM-TUM for Eros after introducing them in the DIRTY STORIES anthology. She popped up with strips in the Comics Journal Specials, and has also contributed work to the Graphic Classics line. She has a standout strip in the new volume of the HOTWIRE anthology, producing a story that could easily have been a SLUTBURGER classic. Fleener's also spent much time in the world of fine art, displaying her paintings in a number of different galleries.

A few years ago, Fleener also started doing a strip for the Surf City Times called Mary-Land. She's collected some of these as ENCINITAS--THE LAST SMALL TOWN ON EARTH, volumes three and four. She also has a fascinating collection of her flyers for rock shows (mostly her own band) called FLYERS BY FLEENER. Fleener is best known for her unusual visual style, a combination of somewhat exaggerated naturalism (punctuated by her use of thick black lines for her character design) and her signature "cubismo", a sort of cubist, distorted technique that serves to hyperexaggerate emotion. By distorting facial features into geometric shapes, it forces the reader into a different interpretive state and heightens the dialogue that's used, especially since it can portray multiple and mixed emotional states simultaneously.

In her Mary-Land strips, Fleener tones down on that sort of stylization for the most part, which is not surprising considering that her stories are mostly observational anecdotes. While she often focuses on the quotidian, she also addresses a number of local political concerns as well. She even comes up some tried-but-true topics that she goes back to more than once, like her "Wish List/Anti-Wish List". The strip understandably has a provincial feel to it, yet it's her very love for her town that makes the strip such an enjoyable read. Like Justin Green's SIGN GAME collection (strips about and for professional sign painters), the minutae of everyday life in Fleener's quirky town is expanded upon with wit, affection and clarity.

Fleener's narrative voice is one of the most distinctive in comics, and it's what initially drew me to her autobiographical stories. Above all else, she has this sort of brassy forthrightness that is both enormously engaging and hilarious. While Mary has seen and done it all, her sense of wonder in finding quirky beauty around her is almost childlike in its enthusiasm. She loves surfing, the art-project mailboxes of her neighbors, her pets and other animals, both wild and domesticated. She uses her strip as a platform to rant against corporate greed and development, hypocritical inspection rules, byzantine regulations, absurd protests (from the left and the right) and obnoxious bicyclists.

It's interesting to see Fleener work in single-page, comic-strip format. It's not something that she's done much of in her career, but she quickly adapted to it and always seemed to have something to say. Fleener did have certain restrictions at play in her strip, especially language as well as sex and drugs references. Indeed, Fleener seemed eager to adapt little anecdotes into strips, the kind of slighter material that she didn't do much of in SLUTBURGER. That said, Fleener excels with longer narratives, and so my favorite story in either volume is "The Landed Immigrant Song", about Mary's childhood years spent in Vancouver after growing up in Southern California. A bit where her mother was distressed that Mary and her brother were using Canadian curse words was especially hilarious. The punchline of that strip, involving an embarrassing incident where Mary was asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance but didn't know it because she grew up in Canada, tied nicely back into her current life.

FLYERS BY FLEENER is a must for any fan of Fleener's art, especially her more decorative aspects. It's a perfect example of her aesthetic: a mix-up of fine art, low art and pop culture detritus, drawn with an enormous amount of skill and verve. From a historical perspective, it was interesting and amusing to see some of her earliest art when she was influenced by Howard the Duck in the late 70's and was trying to "draw 'The Marvel Way'". One can still see her Cubismo sensibilities starting to form even at that time, with one drawing of a superheroic figure taking off his mask to reveal an anthropomorphic guitar-man.

I hold out hope that Fleener will return to comics with a higher-profile project; I know that she has a number of things in the works. She is such a versatile artist that I can see her producing any number of interesting works, from a children's comic for First Second to another autobiographical series to Fantagraphics to something far more abstract and unusual. It's to comics' detriment that she's not currently keeping a higher profile, especially since her visual style is unique, playful and clear. The merging of high and low art techniques and influences in her comics puts her in perfect company with the Kramer's generation while still in line with her underground influences.

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