Friday, August 30, 2013

Braving The Wedge: Science Fiction

Joe Ollmann is a funny cartoonist who makes the most out of his scribbly, expressive drawing style. I thought his last book, Mid-Life, was a bit on the bloated side despite some very sharp character work and lots of gags. There are times I get the sense where he falls too in love with the sound of his characters' voices when a "less-is-more" approach would be more appropriate. He also had the tendency to lay on the shtick too thick to the detriment of his characters. That's why I thought his latest book, Science Fiction (Conundrum), was so successful. Just over a hundred pages, Ollmann has plenty of time to set up protagonist Mark and his girlfriend Sue, planting hints regarding their mildly dysfunctional relationship before he drops in a plot-advancing bomb.

That bomb, revealed a quarter of the way through the book, is that while watching a movie about alien abduction, Mark has a near nervous breakdown. The reason is because the movie triggers a memory of being abducted by unknown beings when he was younger. The genius of the book is that Ollmann never does anything to confirm nor deny this belief of his. Though entertaining, that's really a mcguffin for the book. Instead, this book is about how differing beliefs can drive a wedge between couples, especially if that couple has poor communication skills to begin with. At its heart, the book is about empathy. Though from an objective standpoint, Mark's belief is insane, the fact that he's a lifelong stable skeptic makes that belief something to at least engage with. At the same time, he refuses therapy because of the absolute clarity he receives from the experience. Sue is unable to believe in his belief, and that essential wedge broadens the cracks in the relationship that were already there.

Science Fiction is a fascinating account at the ways in which little lies and deceptions can accrue It's also a fascinating account of the ways in which an obsession can drive a wedge into a relationship, alienating the partner who simply can't relate to this all-consuming relationship. When Sue comes home from work to find Mark (who has not bothered to show up to work in weeks) on skype with fellow abductee "survivors", it drives the wedge in a little further. She's driven to seek solace in the attentions of her boss at work, who turns being a good listener into a chance to try to start an affair that ends when she kisses him. Mark suspects the affair but Sue deflects that back to Mark's crazy behavior, further hammering in that wedge. Again, it's the accumulation of details that make the book work so well, because Ollmann painstakingly reveals the couple's daily rituals and then details how those rituals are systematically wrecked. Perhaps the most emotionally painful admission that comes from Sue is just how low-stakes her relationship was and how willing she was to accept something boring but stable as a way of not being alone, even if she had the inkling that she was more in love with him than he with her. Ollmann leaves the fate of their relationship an open question. It's in tatters by the end of the book as more revelations come out but more lies are told (some with no ill will meant), but Ollmann also demonstrates just how much of a factor inertia can play in keeping a relationship together. It takes this incredibly powerful wedge of ironclad delusion to smash the relationship; the question that Ollmann leaves with the reader is if Mark and Sue care enough about each other to rebuild the relationship from scratch. Ollmann punctuates this despair with humor, bizarre details and character voices that are fully realized and further advanced by his scratchy character design that owes a bit to Peter Bagge.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

More Worthy Kickstarters: Star Fruit and Cartozia Tales

Let's begin with Robyn Chapman's modest kickstarter proposal for Star Fruit, a comic by animator/cartoonist Gretta Johnson. This is a gorgeous looking comic that Chapman is publishing through her own Paper Rocket Minicomics. It has reached its goal, but additional money could mean printing additional copies or other possible stretch goals.

 The other fundraiser I'd like to mention is the one for Cartozia Tales. This is a unique, all-ages fantasy anthology with eight regular cartoonists and two guest cartoonists per issue. Each artist gets assigned a quadrant of the map of their fantasy realm per issue, and they switch in the next issue. The lineup includes Mike Wenthe & Isaac Cates, Shawn Cheng, Jen Vaughn, Lucy Bellwood, Lupi McGinty, Tom Motley, and Sarah Becan. There's a lot of collaboration between the cartoonists, as one will pick up the stories of a character created and designed by someone else. The goal here is quite ambitious at $39,000 dollars. However, their plan is well thought out. This money will fund a full ten issues of the series, including printing and paying the artists a page rate, as well as commissioning full color covers from other artists. I did the math and it works out to be roughly a $45 page rate for each artist over the course of the series, which is a decent but hardly exorbitant rate. The project is a third of the way to being funded at the time I'm writing this, and I would encourage any reader interested in quality, intelligent fantasy comics to consider pitching in.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Closing Loops: Over The Wall

Peter Wartman's YA fantasy comic, Over the Wall (Uncivilized Books), is a fine first effort that's remarkably lean and terse with regard to its world-building and myth-making. It hits on any number of familiar YA and fantasy tropes--rites of passage, the power of names and naming things, the hopeless quest, the unlikely ally--and finds fresh ways of using them. There are even clever bits of genre subversion to be found in this fully-realized fantasy story. It follows a girl who sets out on a quest to find her missing brother in a city long abandoned by her fellow villagers. There's no prologue or preamble, cutting straight to the chase, as it were. When she encounters a demon on the walls of the abandoned city, that's when Wartman begins his skillful process of doing story backfill. However, when we learn how and why the people abandoned the city to the demons, we hear the story from both her and a demon, and their accounts of what happened are quite different. Wartman hints that the truth is somewhere in-between, as it tends to be during times of war.

There's more than a little Jeff Smith flavor in these proceedings, which means that the DNA of Smith's influences (Carl Barks and Walt Kelly) can also be seen. The characters have a certain rounded cuteness to them, even the fiercer and more monstrous ones. The action and panel transitions are seamless and fluid, as when the girl and her demon friend run to escape a Named demon. The story is also quite compact at just 100 pages; Wartman wastes no time in getting to the premise, then to the action, then to the climax and a final reveal of information. The book's atmosphere is another of its strong points. The story takes place at night, and so the book heavily dips into blacks and a sort of light purple wash over everything else. That lends the book some of its eerie atmosphere, one navigated by a fearless, clever and single-minded girl. One other thing I like about the book is that though the girl succeeds in her quest, the story's constraints set things up so that she can never actually be quite sure if the boy she brings back is actually her brother. The ways in which memories can trick us and become warped is a running theme in the book, especially when those unreliable memories harden and become malignant. While neither the reader nor the heroine can know for sure if she was really successful in what she set out to do, she was still successful in saving someone thanks to her purity of intent, and she even manages to bestow a significant gift on her unexpected ally.

There's just a wonderful sense of restraint to be found in nearly every one of Wartman's storytelling decisions. The fact that the lead is a girl actually has some pointed gender implications in the course of the story, revealing both her bravery and wit in a subtle feminist statement. Wartman doesn't reveal the lead's interior monologue; we as readers only know what she says out loud. The demon ally's motivations are kept unclear even as its actions point to unlikely and low-key heroism. As allies, the two small and relatively weak protagonists manage to hurt and then outwit a formidable opponent. At the same time, Wartman's art has an understated elegance to it. Even the girl's clothing is simple but beautiful, with an ornate belt and loops in her hair. The abandoned city shows a slew of influences, from Mayan to African and Wartman's own imagination. Instead of deluging the reader with extraneous details just to share the full scope of his world, Wartman instead just gives hints and tidbits: enough to make the reader curious to hear more and savor revelations when they pop up. I'd be intrigued to read Wartman's further explorations in this world or a new one of his own creation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sublime Reference: You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack

Tom Gauld's collection of gag cartoons from The Guardian, You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack (Drawn & Quarterly), is very much unlike most of his his other work. Unlike his mostly wordless strips about biblical figures, cavemen, guards and robots, Jetpack is almost entirely beholden to references, be they pop culture, historical or literary. This book is a shorter, punchier version of the sort of thing that Kate Beaton likes to do, especially in the way that he mashes up historical and modern references to art, history, music and literature. My favorite example is captioned "Attitudes Toward Sex In The Middle Ages: Figure 1, Geoffrey Chaucer, c1370." The strip features a man riding on the horse. The man sings "(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" by James Brown, with the horse acting as his call-and-response Bobby Byrd. The strip "The Street Tom Waits Grew Up On" is a hilarious imagining of the weird buildings all in a row that surely must have inspired the singer's weird lyrical imagery.

Gauld is also willing to be absurd in making his references, with some of them ending up more in Michael Kupperman territory. Kupperman loves making references to old things that don't actually exist as well as utterly warping history in crazy fashion, like in his Twain and Einstein stories. Similarly, in Gauld's hands, Charles Dickens is an action hero whose "Dickensmobile" rides on tracks under London. In another strip, "The Multifaceted Mister Dickens", there are Steampunk, Song And Dance and Sexy versions of the author. Gauld also loves having god talk or react to to famous atheists like Phillip Pullman, the fantasy author whose His Dark Materials novels are notably anti-religion; in one strip, god tells Pullman what to write for his next book, with Jesus and the holy ghost wanting in on the action as well. Noted atheist author Richard Dawkins is another common subject, as Jesus tells god not to take Dawkins' book The God Delusion personally up in heaven.

The title of the book comes from a strip where a character in a space suit labeled "science-fiction" says this to a group of tut-tutting normal people labeled "proper literature". It's a fitting title, because Gauld loves genre tropes and tries to incorporate so many of them in his strips to get a laugh. Sometimes this is done in a straightforward manner and other times it's one of his many metafictional jokes and slow reveals. His ultra-simple line and restrained use of color make each strip instantly comprehensible as a gestalt, allowing the reader to get to whatever reference he's making that much faster. Gauld makes a lot of references to film and video games, imagining Pip from Great Expectations in a first person quest video game or the Bronte sisters in a multiplayer game. He spoofs political cartoons and their frequently arbitrary drawings and labels. He makes clear the relationship between art and commerce. Probably the funniest strip in the book is an artist who's designed new covers for D.H. Lawrence's books, claiming that he chose "images that represent Lawrence's key themes: class, nature and capitalism". After a silent panel, he says "Just kidding! They're all pictures of sexy ladies!" to which his publishers exclaim "Hooray!" The hit-to-miss ratio in this book is quite strong and his art is so appealing that it's easy to simply tear through the book. While Gauld's long-form comics are more ambitious and rewarding, he's astonishingly good at the art of the sophisticated gag that draws simultaneously from high and low art references.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Autoptic and Everything Before in Minneapolis

From Friday 8/16 to Sunday 8/18, Minneapolis was the alt-comics capital of the US. Combining the resources of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), the minds behind PFC and the organizing committee behind Autoptic, comics fans were treated with a true comics arts festival. The focus was on guest of honor Jaime Hernandez, who gave a talk on Friday at MCAD in support of the closing of his exhibit in the MCAD gallery. However, collaboration was the theme of the weekend, as a week's worth of collaborations between North American and European artists was on display on Saturday. All of these artists attended the inaugural Autoptic show. Let's take a closer look at each event.

1. Jaime Hernandez exhibit and talk at MCAD. Friday night was the closing of the Zak Sally-curated exhibition of Jaime Hernandez' work, with the artist himself giving a talk in a packed auditorium. I had an opportunity to go through the show slowly before the crowds arrived. While I've never been a big proponent of comics in galleries, I thought Sally did a fine job in giving interested parties a good reason to study the show closely. Before one entered the main exhibition room, there was a wall dedicated to media coverage about "Los Bros" as well as posters and other ephemera. Sally sensibly arranged the art to reflect Hernandez's evolution as an artist over the years, dividing it into a variety of eras. He was careful to select a few stories here and there and display several pages in sequence, a decision that helped preserve the sequential nature of the work. There were also displays of the original, self-published Love and Rockets #1 and dozens of issues and collections under glass.
The top two pages were cut up and combined into the bottom page for "Spring 1982".

Hernandez is known as one of the greatest comics draftsmen in the world, so getting to see original art was fascinating. In the early days, he actually used quite a bit of whiteout. In the pages I saw from the recent story "The Love Bunglers", there was almost none. The real discovery of this exhibit is that Hernandez had a few out-take pages from several stories, including the only extant original art from "Flies On The Ceiling" (the originals were "lost" after being displayed in a gallery). Another outtake from "Jerusalem Crickets" was thrown out because it depicts Hopey writing a letter to Maggie while she's touring; Jaime realized that Hopey simply wasn't the kind of person who writes letters and scrapped the idea. Other pages were simply abandoned after a panel or two. It was also interesting to see him draw a couple of pages and later cannibalize them, combining them into a single page as he switched around or threw away panels. Also on display were a few pages from his scripts, which he continues to write on yellow legal pads. He used to throw them away until someone urged him to keep them. He told me he now has a huge stack of them and doesn't know what to do with them. I suggested he donate them to one of the many universities now collecting comics-related work. He said he's thought about that, but that he's also thought about selling them (he's selling some of his art now).
Outtake from "Jerusalem Crickets".

Stories highlighted in the exhibition include the aforementioned, "Spring 1982", "Home School"; and "The Death of Speedy"; Sally hit the highlights hard. At the end of the exhibition, there were two couches and a bookshelf with various volumes of L&R for readers to peruse. The crowd then streamed into the building's big auditorium on the campus of MCAD. It was standing room only in the hall, with a video feed being piped into the overflow room next door. Sally interviewed Hernandez in his heartfelt, passionate style, and it was clear that the artists had established a clear connection in working together on this project. As Sally enthused later, Hernandez indeed told stories he hadn't heard before. A big focus was on the role of his family in becoming a cartoonist. Jaime talked at length about his mother, who used to collect comics in the 40s and 50s but had to hide them from her own mother. He talked about drawing with his brothers one day, and his mom brought out a stack of drawings she had made of various comic book and comic strip characters. He and his brothers were awed by the fact that she had done this and it became something very cool to them.
The author in the reading section of the exhibition.

He noted that he and his brothers had simply always drawn comics. "It was just what we did. Get up, eat breakfast, draw comics". It was a cheap way to get a bunch of little kids to quiet down for a while. His older brothers did it, so he had to do it too. Sally made a joke about wanting to have introduced the Crumb brothers to the Hernandez brothers. I ran with that idea and asked Jaime about the hierarchy in the family, noting that Charles Crumb was the comics boss of the family and the other two brothers followed along. I wondered if he was ever told to draw a certain way, or if he was told he was doing something wrong. Jaime replied that it was never like that. Instead, it was just a constant sense of excitement from his brothers, but especially Gilbert:. "Hey, let's draw!" There were suggestions about fun things they could draw together but never orders.
An outtake from "Flies on the Ceiling".

Jaime said that during the academic year, comics were frequently forbidden until they got their grades up. When summer rolled around, his mom would take out a huge bag of Archies, Dells, Gold Keys, etc. (Mario's Marvel collection was considered to be "the good stuff" and off-limits for rough re-readings.) Those frequent re-readings refined Jaime's eye and made him realize what excited him. He remembered an issue of Dennis The Menace (most likely drawn by Al Wiseman) where Dennis and Joey walk down a street, having a conversation. This excited young Jaime for reasons he didn't understand, but he started to love the scenes in super-hero comics were they were in civilian clothes instead of the fight scenes. That launched him on his way.

Zak Sally and Jaime Hernandez. Photo by June Julien Morrisey.

There were any number of other interesting anecdotes as Sally and Hernandez got to the heart of how comics and music were meaningful to them. One common theme to Hernandez talking about his own comics is authenticity; he wants to depict things accurately and honestly. That extends to growing up Mexican-American in Texas and California, to the punk scene in early 80s Los Angeles, to how women think and act, to writing gay and lesbian characters. When I mentioned to him that a mutual cartoonist friend was working as an apartment manager in LA like Maggie, he said that he had run into her and she had told him that story. His main concern: "Did I get it right?" The other interesting theme that emerged about him over the weekend is how important it is to him to be part of the current comics scene. There was a long period where "the phones stopped ringing" and he and Gilbert stopped being hot cartoonists. The show and the reception he got the entire weekend spoke to just how important he is to young fans and cartoonists alike.

2. PFC Exhibition. Coinciding with the Jaime Hernandez show and the Autoptic festival was Pierre Feuille Ciseaux #4, or "Rock Paper Scissors". Organized by the ebullient June Julien Misserey and brought to the US by way of Zak Sally's suggestion, this was a weeklong experimental comics camp that brought together artists from North America and Europe. PFC is all about constraint comics, wherein artists are asked to draw stories given time limits and particular limitations. In one "game", an artist would draw a panel. The next artist would continue the story by drawing a panel above that panel, to the right of the panel and under that panel. The next artist would have to draw five panels, and so on, all the while keeping up the narrative. Another game saw the artists have to draw themselves captured by Wonder Woman's lasso and forced to tell the truth about something. Another game, called "Fuck This Thing" (printed as a free mini) forced each artist to draw the the thing they hated drawing the most until they got sick of it; they got to write "Fuck drawing thing x" as a sort of reward.

The roster of artists included Kevin Huizenga, John Porcellino, Eleanor Davis, Lisa Hanawalt, Genevieve Castree, Jim Rugg, Anders Nilsen, Lilli Carre', Marc Bell, and Tom Kaczynski from the US and Canada. Representing France and Belgium were J.C. Menu, Misserey, David Libens, Max de Radigues, Benoit Pretesille, Domitille Collardey, Eugene Riousse, Sandrine Martin, and Pierre Ferrero. All of these cartoonists have reached their mature style, but all of them are still in their primes. There was a careful balance of styles, from naturalistic to cartoony to minimalist. The artists also collaborated with a group of MCAD students on a number of projects, and the students came up with their own games as well. Something remarkable about this assemblage is that even by Saturday, the last day of PFC, the artists still couldn't stop drawing. A number of professional cartoonists sat in with those stopping by for a public zine/mini making workshop. Lisa Hanawalt and Eleanor Davis made a last-second mini for Autoptic. When I stopped by the main studio on Saturday, the artists were hanging around, helping each spot blacks and make beautiful, accordion-style minicomics.

The Saturday Comics Workshop at MCAD. The author's wife is in the lower left-hand corner. Photo taken from PFC website (presumably by June Misserey).

In speaking to the participating artists, most of them were apprehensive to begin the week. The joke of the situation was that every artist felt like they weren't as good as their neighbor--they couldn't draw as well or as seemingly effortlessly as everyone else. That was true from John Porcellino to Jim Rugg, representing a beautiful and minimalist style to a highly elaborate, detailed line, respectively. Critic Xavier Guilbert  discussed how being forced to work with another cartoonist, especially a stranger, was a way of breaking the ice for you. You each had a project to do and had to find solutions together, which naturally led to talking about everything else. Menu noted that artists from both Europe and North America not only have drawing in common, but the common language of storytelling. Even someone like Marc Bell, who works in a kind of dream logic, is working in that common language of narrative. Being forced to engage in these games forced the artists to work in their most spontaneous and natural styles, putting down their purest line before doubt and the need to clean up lines or the urge to choke a drawing to death took over.
The assignment board for "Break Something".

The ostensible goal of the week was to create a screenprinted comic. Each artist was asked to pick a character from a list. A North American artist was randomly paired up with a European artist (in most cases), combining their two characters with the theme "Break Something".  The screenprinting studio Aesthetic Apparatus printed them and they were cut on site as the artists pitched in with folding and cutting. There are a lot of great collaborations, but the Kevin Huizenga ("The Devil") and Sandrine Martin ("God") was the best, as God was a cartoonist and the Devil kept burning up his work. I also quite enjoyed Eleanor Davis & Max de Radigues doing a Soldier and a Corpse. All of the cartoonists used the sort of rich color screen that popped when screenprinted on thick paper stock.

Another highlight of the day was getting a guided tour to the students' exhibition of their PFC challenges by Barb Schulz, a professor in the comics program at MCAD (I should note that Sally is also a professor there). She talked a bit about particular students and the curriculum for undergraduates. MCAD has offered cartooning as a major since 1997 and they're now up to fifty or so cartooning majors in a school that has about 700 undergraduates. A number of the cartoonists wound up tabling at Autoptic. Mandie Brasington was one interesting artist who runs the Dead Cartoonist's Society, which published an anthology. Dawson Walker is a senior who has serious cartooning chops. Frosh Rosemary Vallero-O'Connell's cartoons for PFC really stood out; despite her lack of publishing experience, it's clear that she has real talent and ambition. I'll have a more detailed MCAD artist report for my High-Low column over at soon, once I plow through the pile of minis I got from the cartoonists who tabled at Autoptic.
L to R: Genevieve Castree, Zak Sally, John Porcellino, Jaime Hernandez, Max de Radigues. Photo by June Julien Misserey.

There was an interesting lightness I observed in the PFC artists as I saw them working. Combining the social aspects of a convention with an environment that demanded actual productivity led to work that was mostly light-hearted and even crude in nature, but there was also a lot of cleverness and truth-telling to be found in the PFC exhibition. The sheer amount of comics they produced was staggering. Even Jaime Hernandez got into the act on Friday night, drawing a couple of images for a Nancy animation and getting in on a couple of games. Lisa Hanawalt naturally started a comic involving a woman's ass, knowing that Jaime was taking part and knowing that he'd "knock it out of the park" when he got to it. (Needless to say, he did.) Porcellino and Misserey both described the week as one of the best of their lives. I imagine a number of the other artists concurred. The lingering memory I'll carry of the day is Porcellino flitting from table to table and room to room, cracking jokes, spotting blacks and whistling Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy".

I'll be curious to see what the future of PFC might be. The last event in France had all sorts of logistical problems, and there was talk that that might have been the last one. Bringing it to the US was a logical move that obviously bore great fruit. I could see the event moving to England for a year, given the now-high concentration of interesting cartoonists there. I could also see it coming back to the US. The Center for Cartoon Studies would be a logical home. SCAD in Savannah might work as well, or perhaps Columbia College in Chicago (Ivan Brunetti would be a total natural in this scenario!). Those institutions might have the money to make this possible. A longshot but interesting possibility might be SAW in Gainesville, which would be fitting because Tom Hart is a longtime OuBaPo participant. This is a worthwhile experiment that foments enthusiasm and productivity, and I hope to see it continue on an annual basis.
The funkiness of the Aria Building.

3. Autoptic. The show itself was a one-day affair held at the Aria Building, a renovated former warehouse and theater that's now an all-purpose event space. Others have raved about the space for the purposes of this show and I have to agree. The exposed brick, the quirky accents and the airy feel of the place reminded me a bit of the Puck Building in the MOCCA festival's early days. The fact that the show was free combined with a sunny day meant a number of curious passers-by came to take a look, given that the building is in a walkable part of downtown near the Mississippi River. The organizers of the show smartly had a hot dog stand and a food truck set up outside the show, and there were raves about both. There was clearly a great deal of thought that went into any number of decisions related to the show, even as they ran into some last-minute snafus.For example, the programming for the show was supposed to be at Alliance Francaise next door, but there was a mix-up in scheduling on their part that froze out Autoptic after 4pm. So the organizers quickly made a room in the back of Aria into a makeshift programming area. This had mixed results, as the microphones were all hand-held and the ambient noise out in the hall muffled a number of panel members. Luckily, the room was small enough that most information got across.

The show itself was just the right size for a one-day event, with just over a hundred exhibitors. Some of them were printmakers, local radio stations and local independent music labels. A few artists noted that prints seemed to be the biggest sellers in the room. For the most part, the room was still dominated by cartoonists. What I found interesting about the character of this show was that it drew a number of west coast cartoonists who I'd never met who were able to afford a ticket to Minneapolis (and in the case of some, drive there). This show was also a chance for the thriving Minneapolis comics scene to make itself known, especially students and graduates of MCAD. Of course, the American and French PFC artists also tabled at this show and made a big splash. West coast artists on hand included Elijah Brubaker, Rusty Jordan, David King, Greg Means, Tom Neely, and Virginia Paine. There were a number of Chicago artists who made the short trip up, including Sam Sharpe, Laura Park, Keiler Roberts and Marnie Galloway. The locals filled out many of the other spots, including Anna Bongiovanni, Kevin Cannon, Zander Cannon, JP Coovert, Max Mose, Will Dinski, 2D Cloud, Tom Kaczynski, and MCAD students and alumni like Dawson Walker, Leigh Luna, Mandie Brasington, Danielle Chenette, Alexis Cooke, Amara Leipzig, Jay Ragorshek and many others. There were any number of other familiar faces and micropublishers, but seeing that local color in a juried show gave the show an unusually high level of overall quality.
The Dead Cartoonist Society table from MCAD. L to R: Jen Silverman, Joel McKeen, Kitty Berry

Sales ranged from low to solid. John Porcellino said he did quite well and sold a lot of comics to non-comics readers who were curious, including plenty of his own King Cat series. Annie Koyama also reported good sales despite having nothing new for the show. Having Jaime Hernandez on hand certainly helped Fantagraphics (repped by the tireless Jen Vaughn) move a decent number of books. The total attendance for the day neared 1500, which is about what the defunct Minneapolis Indie Expo (MIX) did in its second year. The low sales were perhaps not surprising give the fact that the show drew in lots of local fans who weren't necessarily sophisticated comics readers. However, even a publisher like Secret Acres, which pretty much took a bath at the show, said that they want to come back if possible when the show is held again in two years because of the show's many other attractive aspects.

I had a strong hand in programming the show's panels after volunteering in the early going. Bill Kartalopoulos suggested doing a Q&A with Menu. I didn't get a chance to see it, but Bill said that the Alliance Francaise had a bottle of white wine on the table and the two of them drained it over the course of an hour, leading to a very relaxed panel. I put together the "Impact and Future of Micropublishing" panel and handed it over to the very capable hands of local writer Greg Hunter, who was also a big help in the A/V department during one of my panels. That panel included Justin Skarhus (2D Cloud), Virginia Paine (Sparkplug), Kartalopoulos (Rebus Books), and Barry Matthews (Secret Acres). Zak Sally moderated a panel on "Independent Culture" that included Koyama, a printmaker and a indy record label producer, while Isaac Cates' "Animals as People" panel had Lisa Hanawalt, Anders Nilsen and Sally.
L to R: Max Mose, Anna Bongiovanni, Eamon Espey, Eleanor Davis.

I moderated two panels. The first, "The Dark Roots of Myth" took an unexpected and personal turn in the early going. Featuring Eleanor Davis, Caitlin Skaalrud, Eamon Espey, Max Mose and Anna Bongiovanni, each artist noted that their frequently dark and fictional comics are rooted in autobiographical concerns. For example, Davis said that she is every one of the characters in her stories, and so conflicts presented are really internal conflicts. Espey said that some of his violent, meat-grinding imagery reflects an unpleasant job he was working at the time. Skaalrud and Bongiovanni both said that comics are a way of working through their own personal issues without having to talk about it at a conscious level. Bongiovanni said that she depicts motherhood and babies in the unusual way that she does as a way of working through her own childhood trauma. Mose works through political issues that burn at him (like the Louisiana oil spill) using monsters and horror so as not to be didactic. All of them mentioned using primal imagery as something direct and easy to understand by a reader and easy to translate as a creator.
L to R: Eleanor Davis, Caitlin Skaalrud, the author.

The second panel was a conversation with Jaime Hernandez and Lisa Hanawalt. I was well-prepared for my first panel, but I was mostly winging it here, counting on Lisa to make Jaime laugh for an hour. This is more or less what happened, to my great delight. I had a few questions prepped for them, mostly along the lines of when they first encountered the other's work, what you saw in their work that you wish you could do, etc. Right before the panel, Lisa brought Domitille Collardey up to the panel to participate, to my great delight. Jaime recalled meeting Lisa in a van at Comicon in San Diego, getting a ride with Matt Groening and Lisa to some location. He remembered being thrilled to actually hang out with some of the younger cartoonists. Then he said that he signed up as "an old man" on twitter, stalking his favorite young cartoonists. Domitille said that one of her crowning achievements in life was getting Jaime to favorite a fart joke that she made, but he replied that he favorites all fart jokes on twitter.
 L to R: Domitille Collardey, Lisa Hanawalt, Jaime Hernandez, the author.

The panel was an interesting mix of frivolity and sincerity. After taking up about half the panel with my questions (mostly of the explanatory nature mentioned earlier), I turned it over to Lisa, who had told me she had taken some notes during Jaime's lecture on Friday night. Jaime talked a bit about how embarrassing but true it is that he has a crush on a number of his characters, but especially Maggie, because he "knows" her best. Paradoxically, he puts her through the emotional wringer because he's interested in seeing her display a range of emotions in different situations, but he exclaimed that when he does it, he wants to yell, "I'm with you, Maggie!" He also revealed a couple of simple narrative tricks that were head-slappingly obvious when he talked about them but were things that I had never noticed. Because he knows Maggie, we the reader get full access to her thoughts and feelings, but from the point of view of an outsider. Hopey is a character who is a little more unknowable, and so the reader never gets to see her thought balloons. Ray is a sort of reader substitute so his comics feature first-person narration in captions.

The artists also talked about process, with both Lisa and Domitille both being relieved to hear that Jaime encounters problems he sometimes can't fix when trying to tell a story. Jaime mentioned putting some stories in a drawer and coming back a few months later to see if the problems magically worked themselves out. If not, back in the drawer they go. Lisa described her version of this process as putting her pages in a drawer in order to "let them think about what they did." Lisa and Domitille also talked a bit about Pizza Island, their old studio were all the artists were women, which received some funny publicity as a result. I noted that Pizza Island is the sort of concept that Jaime would have done twenty years ago.

At one point, Jaime suggested that Lisa aim some of the questions meant for him over to Domitille. On cue, Lisa said, "So Domitille, what was it like to grow up as a Mexican-American?" Jaime ended the panel by saying that he was happy to do it to tell the artists how much of a crush he had on their work and to let them know it. Lisa elaborated on a point I made toward the end, in that Jaime is drawing packed rooms and has a lot of younger fans: "Deal with it!"
The Autoptic organizers spelling out "Thanks!!" at the end of the show.

Regarding Autoptic as a whole: as others have noted, the lighting was too low in some parts of the room, there was no easy access to an ATM, and while the crowd was decent, many of them weren't interested in buying comics. Still, there was a tremendous amount of goodwill in the crowd and affection toward the organizers and volunteers (mostly MCAD students) who tried to solve problems and offer help as quickly as they could. Like the city of Minneapolis itself, the home team wanted the out-of-towners to have a great time and love their city and scene as much as they did. The show and the city certainly made a believer out of me.
Critic Xavier Guilbert and the author, both in black, at the kick-off party on Friday night. Photo by June Julien Misserey.

4. The Social Scene. I generally tend not to focus on this sort of thing very much in my convention reports, because it's not generally relevant to the show, and no one really cares unless you were there. That said, the kick-off party, held at the CO Exhibitions building that was housing an Anders Nilsen-curated exhibit of the PFC artists, featured cheap PBR and a number of interesting musical/performance art pieces. This is when guests of the show started showing up en masse, and the place was packed and full of nervous energy. After Autoptic, there was an afterparty at a restaurant/bar called the Red Stag Supper Club. While the ambiance and weather were both absolutely perfect, the restaurant was a bit overwhelmed by the crowds of cartoonists and service was spotty as a result. When the hour grew later, the place emptied out of non-cartoonists patrons and a great time was had by all. The evening benefited from the general good vibes of the show, as crowds ebbed and flowed together and artists of multiple generations entertained each other. Goodbyes were long and lingering, and the conversations ranged from serious discussions of art to fall-down laughing anecdotes. I know of at least one editor who got a cartoonist to quickly sign on to his anthology as a result of their conversation. Even though some cartoonists and publishers didn't make a lot of money, the low-key vibe and relatively small size of the show (the juried guest list was top notch) made for an intimate and pleasant weekend for all and struck a powerful claim for the Minneapolis comics scene as one of the most exciting in North America.

Special thanks to the ever-amazing Laura Jent-Clough for taking photographs (all photos taken by her unless otherwise credited). and to Annie Koyama for being Annie Koyama.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Taking Flight: The Strumpet #2

The second issue of the all-women cartoonist anthology The Strumpet sees editors Ellen Lindner & Jeremy Day reach out beyond the USA and England to include cartoonists from all over the world. The result is another strong issue with a few dead spots here and there. Fitting for a comic whose contributors come from a variety of countries, this issue's theme is travel. That's a time-honored comics anthology theme, but there are definitely some interesting wrinkles in this book. For one thing, The Strumpet has creators with a widely diverging range of ages and even experience. Many of the cartoonists published comics when they were younger, stopped for many years to raise children, and have now gotten back into it. Kickstarter played a major role in getting this book published, and the editors went all-out in providing a dense reading experience at 92 pages, one that still flows reasonably well.

Despite its international cast, at its heart, The Strumpet still feels very British. That's due to its origins in its predecessor, Whores of MENSA. Indeed, eleven of the twenty-two artists in this issue are either from or currently live in Britain. That gave Lindner & Day an easy way to design the issue's story order, as they tended to alternate a UK creator with an artist from another country. The stories range from slice-of-life to flights of fancy and points in-between. For example, Myfanwy Tristram kicks off the issue with a career woman and mother struggling to get her daughter dressed and the garbage out because she's running late for her job...which turns out to be as an astronaut! It's a cute story where Tristram drops all sorts of  hints before the final reveal, and I especially love the plain, blocky character design choices she uses. Robin Ha's "Trenitalia" is a more typical traveler-in-a-foreign land sort of story, one that celebrates what starts off as a traumatic experience on a train in Italy and ends in a bit of romance. Once again, character design is a key to the story's success, as her own self-caricature goes from serene contemplation to exploding in horror and back again, in the face of a cartoonishly tyrannical train conductor. Rachael Ball's densely-penciled "Shadows" does a few interesting things. The text itself has certain storytelling properties, as words are stacked atop each other to mimic things like the flow of water downward. This fantasy story has the feel of a fairy tale in terms of its character design and execution, and there are moments of real dread in it, thanks to the way she draws a gang of menacing crows.

Lindner's own story of being an extra in a film that starred Bill Murray was a particular delight. Her autobio stuff always has a particularly bouncy feel to it, and I've noticed that her line has become a bit thinner and more cartoony. Her pages are still pretty dense thanks to the way she packs in and varies shading, but they're even more breezy and fun to look at than before. Patrice Aggs' long story about a couple quarreling is light on subtlety (the guy is a jackass from the beginning) and drags a bit as a result, but her character drawings are sketchy and lovely. Nicola Streeten's bracing story about an abortion clinic in Thailand is visually stunning, using blotchy water color effects in black and white. The lack of respect she was shown was discouraging, and the fact that so many groups and members of government are conspiring to limit access to legal and safe abortions as a choice makes this story all the more relevant. Dutch-born artist Maartje Schalkx is one of my favorite Strumpet discoveries, as her densely-shadowed pencils are a treat to look at; her story her is a simple reminiscence of her great-grandfather's bike shop.

Karrie Fransman is one of the more clever cartoonists in terms of solving design problems, and her strip that tales her from Brussels to Moscow for comics-related events alternates a line of simply-rendered, similar images with a line of text and then repeats the rest of the way. It's like looking at cave art. Julia Scheele's strip is also formally interesting, as four panels of two women sitting in a bus and having conversation are plastered across a two-page spread of the city itself. The anthology drags a bit with Badaude's comic about a visit to a studio; it's strangled by word balloons, confusingly laid out and feels too long. Tanya Meditzky's piece is moody and interesting to look at, but her use of cursive script for lettering for one of her characters makes it difficult to read.

That's why the transition to comics by Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg and Juhyun Choi were so welcome. Eisenberg's open-line style (almost no blacks or shadows) gives her account of missing her old home a children's book feel, one that makes sense given the magical realist events that occur in the story. Choi's account of her uncle's life and his orchard are serene and serious, aided by a similarly still and straightforward illustration style. Emily Ryan Lerner's simple road trip story similarly uses a stripped-line, basic line, only the story is sillier is more dedicated to the simple thrills of friendship.

The anthology concludes with three radically different stories. Julia Scheele's ode to her bus line features drawings of buildings and streets in London along her route; it's a sort of thank you note to the visual feast she gets to see every day. Marguerite Dabaie's outer space story features crazy character designs and lots of gags centering around glam, while Kat Roberts' fantasy story about what happens to the ashes of the father of two adult children is an absolute delight. Finally, Kripa Joshi's back cover featuring her zaftig character Miss Moti is another visual joy, thanks partly to the use of color.

Throw in the chummy familiarity of the editorial and a couple of pages of comics reviews, and you have an anthology that has the sensibility of an old-fashioned zine while featuring a lot of high-quality work. Not everything here is first-rank material, but almost everything ranges from solid to very good, with the stories by Lindner and Fransman emerging as my favorites. The Strumpet is notable because many of these artists don't have other regular printing outlets, and this anthology is giving them wider and more regular exposure. The anthology really stands out as a result of Lindner and Day taking risks with their choices, and I like that the series will have some regulars appearing in every issue along with new and old talent popping up here and there..

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sequart Reprints: True Porn 2

True Porn Volume 2, edited by Robyn Chapman and Kelli Nelson (Alternative, $19.95). This is a 250-page anthology dedicated to one thing: autobiographical stories about sex. The first volume had a lot of good stories, but also a lot of filler. A number of the stories may have been true, but weren't of much interest (even as porn). The editors, two talented artists known mostly for their minicomics work, did a much better job of selecting material and arranging the 46 stories in a manner that flowed quite well. From the peeping-Tom cover drawn by Chester Brown, we as readers are voyeurs into the worlds of these artists, most of whom are also mini-comics stars, anthology contributors or webcomics creators.

Anthologies are tricky, especially ones that have an open submissions policy like this one. It's easy for the work of one bad artist to taint one's experience of the work as a whole. It's difficult to edit and arrange the stories in a manner that makes sense. Any anthology that is themed often falls prey to repetitiveness, especially when artists tend to mine the same clich├ęs regarding a subject (the 2004 SPX War anthology and all of the awful 9/11 anthologies in particular fell prey to this problem). That's why I was amazed by the overall quality of this anthology, even from artists whose work I generally have no interest in.

The stories in the book did fall into some stratification patterns: serious or humorous, childhood experience, first adult experience or recent experience, cartoony or realistically rendered, demure or hardcore, and satisfying/unsatisfying. Pretty much everything broke down along these lines, and not always in expected ways. For example, Jon Siruno did a story where all the characters were anthropomorphized animals drawn in an iconic style. While this story had its light moments and was not explicit, the ending was remarkably grim. This contrast made this one of the most memorable stories in the book.

The most effective stories overall tended to be either the funny stories or childhood reminiscences. Karen Sneider's "Can't Buy Me Loft" is the most laugh-out-loud story, detailing her fling with a guy she hired to build her a loft in college, with a gag in every panel. Rich Tomasso's "Don't Come In My House" and Fredo's "Circus Peanut" were also hilarious. Yet an all-humor sex anthology wouldn't have worked as well as this did, with the earnestness of some of the pieces contrasting the humor. The whimsy of pieces like Eleanor Davis' "I Wish You Were Tiny", about a silly conversation between her and her boyfriend, proved to be palate-cleansing interludes after a heavy meal of hardcore sex. The editors placed that story after an outrageous, hardcore story, and were wise to do so.

The other memorable pieces were the most bizarre of anecdotes. The talented Nick Jeffrey's story "The Hot Tub", a tale told by a friend of the narrator's that involves a threesome in a hot tub and ends with the suicide of the boyfriend of one of the women involved, is somehow hilarious the whole way through. Justin Hall's "Only In San Francisco", involves three men with quite differing sexual tastes (anal ball insertion, a scrotum licking dog, etc), and a hilarious punchline. The best-written piece may be "Aaron", written by Sharon Lintz. She writes about porn for a living and this tale of a friend of hers in the industry is oddly compelling, as the reader comes to share her admiration of its lead.

Not every story is compelling or even interesting, and that has more to do with the creators than the stories, I imagine. Still, they work in the context of the book, which is a page-turner even with its great length. Talking about one's sexual experiences is a great way for an artist to really demonstrate their basic chops; the rawness of the experience is something anyone should be able to channel, but a good artist should be able to tell a truly compelling story. What's remarkable is that there are so many excellent young artists in this book.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dream Warrior: The Understanding Monster

Theo Ellsworth's Capacity was such a riveting work because it was the first time I read an autobiographical comic that was essentially writing itself. That is, there was a reflexivity to it in that it was composed mostly of fictive elements that were a way for Ellsworth to understand and decode the world at large as well as his own imagination. Many artists talk about the the images or words in their head that they had to get down on paper; this is the blessing of the artist in that they are able to have this mystical experience yet find a way to meaningfully record it for others. Capacity was Ellsworth's story of desperately trying to come to terms with the world as a creative person, a process that was as terrifying as it was exciting. There's a definite sense of rite-of-passage in Ellsworth's stories, as he and his characters not only wind up growing but are aided by any number of companions along the way. Yes, Ellsworth creates the companions and friends and he needs to guide him through the story he's writing.

If The Understanding Monster (once again, Ellsworth published with Secret Acres) takes a step back and removes Ellsworth directly from the narrative, there's still no question that this is an autobiographical comic in an emotional sense. Ellsworth plunges the reader directly into chaos and crisis from the first page, as a mouse is revealed to be the new physical manifestation of an explorer named Izadore. Urged to keep moving in order to fend off doubt and the toxic words of the Mean Kids in the Walls, the mouse at one point is brought up to speed on how he got to be where he was. Faced with toys expressing doubt and a mummy unsure of his purpose, Izadore faces many moments of crisis but it guided through by an explorer in fly form named This Way That Way and a friendly monster named Dr Rollington. Eventually, Izadore is able to function as a mouse and makes it to Toy Mountain, which he must brave and enter to regain other abilities.

Essentially, I see The Understanding Monster as a book about trauma and healing. Ellsworth couches it in dizzying, wonderful fantastic terms and with relentlessly detailed and borderline-psychedelic artwork. However, this is a book about someone who is broken and disconnected, and who relies on a support system that is self-generated and self-sustaining, even if they are not directly part of him. The key phrase in the book is "I am my own missing piece", a discovery that allows for bravery after enduring paralyzing fear and misdirected anger and hostility toward those who were trying to help. I love the way Ellsworth turns this into a science-fiction/fantasy epic but combines it with a kind of low-tech reader interaction, like a paper iPad that encourages Izadore to push buttons and listen to recordings. Ellsworth has harnessed the almost maniacal nature of his drawing style, added a layer of sumptuous color that only serves to make his drawings pop out even more on the page, and created a structure that makes it much easier to absorb and understand than the labyrinthine levels that Capacity sometimes posed for readers. The fact that he chose to serialize this story as a series of slim hardcovers adds to the pulp/comic feel of the story, complete with a "next issue" blurb. Reading an Ellsworth story demands that the reader take a walk with the cartoonist in his dreamscape; The Understanding Monster simply provides landmarks that are easier to understand and process than his other comics.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Why Do They Kill Me?

Why Do They Kill Me?, by Tim Kreider (Fantagraphics, $14.95).

Political humor is very difficult to pull off without it being either hopelessly cliched, didactic or both. Very little political humor is worth reading after its reference point passes. These points are all addressed by Kreider in his author's commentary for the strips. Speaking of why another political cartoon didn't work, he notes "I decided that the cartoonist, like most liberals, just wasn't mean enough. He's angry about the new Republican regime's policies, but he doesn't hate them. He doesn't consider them personal enemies. I do; that's my advantage, my edge as a cartoonist. As the Emperor once said, 'Your hate has made you strong.'"

Of course, it's easy to find plenty of hate-mongering in the world of politics. Most of it is from the right, but there's an increasing amount from the left as well. The problem for both sides is that this vitriol is neither incisive nor even entertaining. A big problem with someone like Rush Limbaugh, who fancies himself a wit, is that he doesn't see himself for the joke that he is. What has made Kreider's body of work so appealing is that he spent years writing cartoons that focused more on being human than politics, and a large amount of the jokes were at his own expense. Even when he includes himself as a character in his political strips, they are largely self-deprecating. This serves to prick the balloon of the author's ego and forces us to concentrate on what he's saying rather than on his persona, which is completely the opposite of what people like Limbaugh do. Furthermore, Kreider is no leftist apologist. He is critical of what he perceives as dopiness and ineffectuality on the left and isn't afraid to go out of lockstep on a number of issues. His post-9/11 cartoons are downright patriotic (in his own manner, of course—he suggested rebuilding three towers that lit up to say "Kiss My Ass" in different languages) and he also does a nasty cartoon about Ralph Nader.

Kreider's viciousness gives his work righteous power. But the fact that he's a superior gag writer and excellent artist is what ultimately makes his work memorable. "How To Draw Political Cartoons" is a primer that takes an absurd drawing (a scientist setting fire to a monkey's ass as he and his humpbacked assistant laugh manically) and demonstrates that one can easily make a political statement by sticking a label on the monkey that says "employees" or "Israel" or "Palestine", one on the scientist that says "corporations" or "Israel" or "Palestine", and one on the lackey that says "government" or "the UN". Or generically, "you", "the man" and "society". Four drawings, all different captions, all excoriating the kind of hackneyed work that would NOT be seen in the book.

Kreider can shock. "Well, Well, Well" is what the Empire State Building is thinking when it sees the World Trade Center is ruined; he ran this a year after 9/11. "Bumper Stickers" features one labeled 'Heritage Not Hate' next to a swastika, ruthlessly mocking the slogan usually seen next to confederate battle flags. "After Hours At The Capitol" sees John Ashcroft nervously about to suck on the breast of the statue that he infamously had covered up. Upon Ronald Reagan's death, we see Kreider corpse-side with a hammer and stake, ready to drive it through Reagan's heart. His friends drag away a screaming Nancy, one calmly noting "It's the only way to make sure". In "The Photos They Won't Let Us See", there is a screamingly funny image of Donald Rumsfeld about to eat a kitten.

Another thing that makes this book so effective and hilarious are the aforementioned commentaries. Regarding the last cartoon, which talked about the torture photos from Iraq, he asks "Whatever your views on Iraq, you look at those photos and you have to ask: Would George Washington approve of this? Would Elvis? Would Superman? The fuck no." Discussing Joe Lieberman in a strip called "Who Wouldn't You Vote For Over George W Bush?", he ends a rant by saying "He ought to be marooned on a desert island with a bag of pork cracklin's, an issue of Black Tail, and a pistol, and left to figure it out for himself".

It must be said that one thing in Kreider's favor that most political cartoonists lack is that he has some serious cartooning chops. While a skilled-enough caricaturist, his real strength is in managing to combine realism with stylization that reveals the truth about the individuals depicted. I especially like the way he draws Cheney and Rumsfeld as vaguely crazed, Ashcroft repressed and desperate, and Bush as befuddled. There's both power and precision in his line that allows him to use a lot of detail while never cluttering up a panel.

I'll conclude by discussing my two favorite cartoons in the book, entries that sum up his worldview and sense of humor. The first is "George W Bush: International Cock-Block!" We see Kreider in Paris, getting rebuffed by a French woman who says that Americans are "unilateralists" and "preemptive" in bed. A fuming Kreider thinks, "This time, he has gone too far". Essentially, he's wondering out loud if Bush' policies are affecting Americans abroad who are trying to get laid, which is tangential politically but nonetheless hilarious. The other cartoon depicts an Aztec pyramid, atop of which is a high priest who has just ripped the heart out of a human sacrifice. Two men are at the foot of the pyramid, one looking sickened by the sight. The other man, with an expression of total moral certitude, puts his hand on his friend's shoulder and says "It may not be a perfect system, but it's still the best one there is." This cartoon sums up Kreider's work in a nutshell: a howl against so-called "moral clarity", suppression of dissent and funny as hell.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Consumed: Digestate -- A Food And Eating Themed Anthology

JT Yost's anthology Digestate contains an interesting concept that gets lost in its bloated pagecount. The anthology is about different cartoonists' relationship with food and eating. Though on a superficial level there are stories from vegans and carnivores alike, the best parts of the anthology take on different aspects of food and how traumatic events can shape what we eat and our subsequent social identities. Unfortunately, at nearly 300 pages, that personal touch got lost in Yost's attempt at cramming in a number of previously published stories and story excerpts that had something, anything to do with food. There are any number of examples of this: pages from Renee French's new book, an entire minicomic reprinted from Daryl Ayo, an excerpt from a comic by Minty Lewis, assorted gag reprints from Keith Knight, Hawk Krall and Dan Piraro, etc. I found these comics distracting and not just because I had read them before. Aside from the back cover being somewhat misleading in getting the reader to think that people like Berke Breathed had contributed new material in this anthology (his strip is actually a photocopy from a collection; I get that it inspired Yost to rethink his own eating habits, but advertising it on the back was a dubious move), those strips stand out in the anthology because they lack the kind of personal touch that the best stories in the anthology possess.

Take Alex Robinson's "That Peanut Butter Kid", for example. Robinson rarely does autobiography, but not only does he explain that he is only capable of eating the blandest, kid-friendly food, he boldly reveals that he suspects it has something to do with being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. One can almost sense the relief on the page as he relates how embarrassing and awkward it's been over the years to explain his very limited palate and relates this to his introversion and preference for staying at home. The gratitude he expresses toward his therapist but especially his wife for slowly, patiently getting him to try new things is also remarkable. It's a powerful story that's still funny (because Robinson is naturally funny). Tod Parkhill's "Picky Picky" is along the same lines, only in his case his eating habits were simply solidified at a young age and he lacked the parental attention needed to correct his palate.

A common theme among many of the meat-eater's stories is guilt for eating meat. Pranas Naujokaitis' "The Tell-Tale Burger" plays this for laughs, as his guilt for eating fast food is mostly in his own head, as his girlfriend doesn't care even as she's cooked chickpea burgers for him. Paul Hoppe's "The Flesh Is Weak, The Meat Is Strong" takes a friend saying "Oh, you're eating meat?" and proselytizing for vegetarianism, which he goes along with until he's hungry and a KFC is up ahead. Cartoonists like Sophie Wiedeman touch on meat eating in terms of sacrifice, as a group of children eat a chicken as a way of keeping up their strength in lieu of their mother leaving to bury their grandmother. It's a touching, intense rite of passage story.

The stories from the vegan/vegetarian side of the fence vary in their fervor. Sam Henderson manages to poke fun at both sides in his inimitable manner; his interstitial strips were important in trying to break up the anthology's unwieldy page count. JT Dockery's ruminations on being a vegetarian are lushly illustrated and funny; he's less interested in preaching than describing what works for him. Liz Prince's autobio account of becoming what she describes a "junk food vegetarian" is also quite funny, thanks in part to her sketchy line and solid comedic timing. Hazel Newlevant rightly points out the connection between veganism and the food-related practices of religions, though she doesn't go all the way in connecting the dots between the fervor of some vegans as a kind of evangelical fervor. At the other end of things, the title of K. Thor Jensen's "Living With Murder" alone tells the reader what's in store for them, as an injury to his daughter puts him in a furious state, with no desire to candy-coat his beliefs. Yost's 25-page illustrated text relating to the slaughterhouse industry is even-handed in tone, though I found it a slog in terms of its repetitiveness. Nicole Georges' "Boycotts" tries to poke fun at her own self-righteousness but doesn't quite get there. Cha's extremely amusingly-drawn fairy-tale screeds may have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but they're still extremely well-done and effective. She absolutely sells every one of her points with illustrations that are both hilarious and horrifying. The same was true of Danny Hellman's typically superb two-page illustration depicting a history of meat consumption.

I could have done with more of that kind of expression than some of the blander attempts at comedy and/or weirdness in the book. I enjoy William Cardini's wacky monster comics as much as anyone, but a strip about the Mizzarrd eating a snack didn't really add much to the proceedings, nor did Aaron Mew's "Ghost Dog" strip. About the only other bit of weirdness that I enjoyed was Josh Bayer's frantically scrawled strips, but even they had relatively little to do with food. I could have used more strips like L.Nichols' "The Wonderful World of Vegetables", which really gets at one woman's experience with eating that's atypical of many Americans.  Jess Ruliffson's "City Chickens" is an excellent bit of reportage in comics form about the history and implications of raising one's own poultry in an urban setting. I got the sense that Yost was trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by bringing in genre stories or stories with a tenuous connection to food. I'd love to see him take another crack at this concept with a tighter focus.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Coming of Ages: New School

Closing out Dash Shaw week here at High-Low, let's take a look at his newest book, New School (Fantagraphics). One of the things that I like best about Shaw's work, especially as he's matured and written longer works, is that every detail is important. That's especially true of seemingly throwaway pop culture references; for example, the background story from Bottomless Belly Button where a celebrity couple falls in love and then breaks up parallels the divorce stories in the book, something I completely missed the first time I read it. New School's plot is quite simple: a teen named Luke is sent to work on a small island nation called X, which is about to open a huge theme park called Clockworld in order to attract tourists. Clockworld is meant to mimic all of human history, essentially, so the attractions and rides feature things like the Coliseum in Rome. When Luke stops returning phone calls and doesn't come back after a year, his parents fear the worst and send his 16-year-old younger brother Danny in an attempt to bring him back. The book follows Danny's experiences on X with Luke, Luke's girlfriend Esther, and the general weirdness of being a young person in a totally foreign culture.

I'm going to take a page out of the Jeet Heer/Ken Parille playbook and look at different themes and motifs in New School, as well as my own theories about them.

Design Details: New School at its heart is a particular kind of take on the coming-of-age and rite-of-passage story, and of course a school figures into the story. So the book is designed to look like a high school yearbook: hardcover, with the sort of color swirls common to them. I like that Shaw's name credit on the side of the book is written in cursive, much like one would write when signing someone else's yearbook. The real function of a yearbook is to act as a time capsule for future viewing, and that's just what happens in this book, as we start in 1990 and work out way up to the present.

Color As A Narrative Device: Shaw has said that the entire book was initially in color, but then he realized that it made the book as a whole more confusing, so it only really starts in earnest when Danny reaches X. (Shaw also noted that this is where the story really starts, so he threw out some of the pages before that. Shaw's book The Mother's Mouth got shortened by Shaw in two subsequent foreign translations, as he cut what he thought was unnecessary material, so this kind of merciless self-editing is not unusual for him.) Color serves a couple of different purposes in the book: pages saturated in a single hue signal one of Danny's precogntive dreams, and pages with a wider color scheme reflect emotional states but also give the reader information about sensations. One also gets the sense that Danny is a synaesthete, who experiences the world in terms of these colors, especially when thrust into such an intensely overwhelming and alienating environment.The use of patterns, lines and stripes for the colors sometimes reflects the narrative as it is perceived by Danny. The more jumbled the colors, the more intense the experience, especially at the end when he is being chased. That leads to time slowing down as he just experiences the sensation of running, and the colors alternating green and red (the colors of 3D) as we just see his legs before he's captured. Sometimes the colors fill in characters (I like the easter egg example used in the book as a clue to the use of color) and scenes, sometimes they are random smears on the page, hovering around the edge of consciousness.

What Are The Inspirations for X? From the clues he provides, X is a little bit like Treasure Island, as a young boy (Danny/Jim Hawkins) goes on a dangerous journey that changes him forever. Both Jurassic Park and Westworld are mentioned as stories about futuristic theme parks where something goes horribly awry. Westworld in particular seems to be a direct influence on the idea of Clockworld, only it expands the Wild West theme and takes us on a journey through history. Jurassic Park's premise is that we don't fully examine the consequences of using new technology, especially when there's money to be made. Indeed, New School critiques the sheer crassness of capitalism, especially in the classroom scenes. The English that Luke is teaching to the young people of X is strictly related to consumer-related exchanges; it's the Disneyfication of an entire country, essentially. Just as Disneyworld is an immersive experience where every inch is calculated to be part of this fantastic other world designed to separate you from your money, so is X a fantasy land whose commitment to this capitalist ideal makes entire segments of its population essentially useless after the park is built.

X and Xians are very much the Other for Danny and westerners in general. The other obvious model for X is Japan, a place where Shaw spent a semester in high school teaching English. This was not in a metropolis like Tokyo, but rather in a small town where he was the only foreigner. The insularity and clannishness of rural Japan (a nation that rose to prominence by rejecting militarism and instead embracing capitalism) is matched by the Xians. Finally, "xian" could be a short hand for "Christian", and a small nation of people with different, clannish beliefs may as well be a whole other religion.   

Baptism and Rite of Passage: Danny loses his hearing temporarily early in the story thanks to Luke dunking him under water during an argument. That turns out to be the trigger that encourages Luke's parents to send him to X. Danny loses his hearing as a result of impacted wax being pushed in by the water. Throughout the story, Danny is dunked or submerged in water a few other times: when he arrives on X, he takes a bath and puts in the ear drops that break up the wax. When trying to break Luke out of jail, a guard plunges Danny's head into water, causing him to lose his hearing again thanks to the wax. At the end of the story, the assumed villain of the story literally puts Danny's head underwater like a minister would in baptizing someone, swims over and sucks the wax out of Danny's ear. This once again restores Danny's hearing in a scene that's wonderfully strange, but it very much "saves" him in the sense that he has language restored to him. Baptism is supposed to be a transformative process, and Danny changed after each of these experiences. First, he was taken away from the brother he idolized after the first "baptism". After the second baptism, he followed his brother's lead and started to behave like a normal, obnoxious teenager. After the final baptism, he returned home and grew into adulthood. How much he actually learned from these experiences is debatable, just as Danny's precognitive abilities gave him no real insights into himself or the world. In many ways, things happen to Danny but he never grows up.

Who Is The Villain of X, or is X Good or Evil? Danny says "This place breeds lies, Luke. It calls out the abyss in man." That reminds me a little of Kurtz and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The reader is led to think that the mastermind behind Clockworld, Otis Sharpe, is a sinister figure. He's a weird figure, to be sure, and it's clear that he doesn't like Americans very much. Looking at things from his perspective and from a more objective stance, the villains of the piece are really Luke and Danny. Luke comes to X to reinvent himself as a regular teenager, one who says "dude" and gets to date hot girls like Esther. This is why he doesn't want to go back (and so the thing that inevitably goes wrong isn't Clockworld, but Luke himself). The self-righteous Danny concludes it's the fault of the place rather than the individual, and this frees them up from any semblance of morality or decency: they steal from all the stores, break into vending machines, vandalize Danny's mural (drawn in an attempt to fit into X and make a contribution), and Luke even despoils one of Clockworld's fountains by defecating in it. In an environment where the boys can make themselves into anything they want, they are both found wanting, just as Kurtz became a merciless killer after fancying himself a civilizing force. It's Plato's Ring of Gyges story yet again: without the laws and restrictions society has to deter us from savage behavior, many people will devolve to their worst instincts. While Sharpe punishes Luke for his actions, he helps Danny regain his hearing and simply has them both kicked off the island. Every one of his actions is done to protect either the island or Esther (he promised her father to watch over her). He's certainly weird and authoritarian, and it can be argued that he's despoiling his own home in an effort to bring in tourists, but he's no villain.

Language Is A Virus: One of the funnier things about this book is that despite being from New Jersey in 1990, Danny and his father speak in this ridiculously grandiloquent speech pattern, one that's highlight in gothic text when something particularly important needs to be expressed. It's like Danny is spouting the dialogue from Treasure Island in a modern setting, or is a member of the X-Men as written by Chris Claremont. This is what makes the first chapter such a bizarre experience, as Danny's father tells him in horrified tones about the terrible things that happen in the novel Jurassic Park. That's what makes him meeting up with Luke on the island so jarring, since his brother now not only has five o'clock shadow but is also swearing and generally acting like an 18 year old. The ability to speak, understand and hear language is a key component of this book. When Danny loses his hearing, it not only removes him a step from being able to interact with his world, it plunges him further into his own headspace. Being on an island where he doesn't know the language (illustrated wonderfully by dozens of word balloons that are blank) puts him in exactly the same headspace. Luke's mission is to transmit the virus of English to the Xians, bringing them in contact with others and infecting them with Western ideas and ideals (especially, as Luke notes salaciously, with regard to sex). Sharpe, who speaks English, knows quite well the potential danger he's exposing his people to, which is why he has a low tolerance for shenanigans.

Deflating Narrative Conflicts: While Shaw hints at things going horribly wrong on Clockworld in the first chapter, he deflates big narrative conflicts at every turn. Every conflict in the book is caused directly by Danny and Luke, and even the climactic rescue and capture scene ends with Sharpe letting them go and their host father driving them away, as Danny sees his future unfold before him. As noted before, the only thing that goes wrong with Clockworld is that Danny and Luke deface it. This approach is very different from Shaw's last big work, Bodyworld, which ends with a huge fire and the death of its protagonist.

Identity: Pretty much everything Shaw's ever done has been about identity in one way or another: merging identities (Bodyworld), one's identity in a family structure (Bottomless Belly Button), identities before and during a relationship (The Mother's Mouth), etc. This book is about trying to figure out one's identity by making it up (Luke) or deceiving oneself about it (Danny) or altering it altogether (Otis Sharpe and his country). Not all life experiences positively shape one's identity, and the rites of passage here are false ones. Even at the end of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins doesn't become an adventurer for life; his violent experiences make him quit that life forever. It's unclear if Danny will ever learn a similar lesson.