Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Minicomics Round-Up: Roberts, Sharpe, R.Smith, Fleener, McMahan

There's no through-line in the minis reviewed in this column this time around, other than I found them all to be quite good.

Powdered Milk #11, by Keiler Roberts. This mini is an especially sharp and subtle bit of storytelling. Roberts has been doing comics about being an artist and a mother for a few years now and hasn't flinched in detailing her struggles with post-partum depression along with the ups and downs of being a parent. This issue is a tightly-drawn series of rapid-fire comments from her toddler daughter, and while many of the comments are hilarious and played for laughs, it's clear that Roberts is drawing these comics as a way of letting off steam as well. Having your child yell at you, hit you, bite you and just do inexplicably destructive things is maddening  Children are also quite intuitive and can pick up on emotional signals both subtle and not so subtle, and they are quite willing to confront you on them, like when Roberts' daughter asked why her eyes are crying. Roberts also hints at the difficulties of being a primary caregiver, especially when one is trying to be an artist. There's a page where Roberts tells her daughter "You're supposed to be napping" when she's drawing a strip, only to meet with curiosity from her daughter. When she sees the strip is about her, she says "Thank you for drawing that, Mommy". It's the situation in a nutshell: guilt, joy, frustration, astonishment. In strip after strip, Roberts gets across what it's really like to be a parent.

Viewotron #2, by Sam Sharpe. Employing frequently deadpan anthropomorphic animals as a storytelling device not unlike the artist Jason, this is a devastating story about the disintegration of the relationship between a son and his schizophrenic mother that seems to be at least partly autobiographical. Sharpe opens the comic depicting himself as a child, talking about his mother being missing with a friend, as well as the odd fact that his father let him read the strange, convoluted and paranoid letters she sent to her boy. From there, we see the hopeful reconnection between mother and son as we're privy to Sharpe's nervousness and uncertainty about what, exactly, he wanted from the relationship. Sharpe slowly, painfully details the way his mother's mind starts its descent back into paranoid delusions, as she thinks that her son is part of the "Sharpe crime family" and wants him to disassociate from his father and family completely. He humors her and tries to change the subject as much as possible, helping her when a friend of hers from therapy suddenly commits suicide. The end of the comic is chilling, as Sharpe is forced to confront his mother's mental illness with her when she demands to know if he's seen the horrible things she hallucinated at his house. Even then, the connection he wants to have with her (as opposed to the actual connection) is so strong that he patiently tells her that they just see things differently and that she has a mental illness. At that point, she starts laughing hysterically, writing him off as a duplicate and telling him that her son is dead. Even drawing his characters as anthropomorphic dogs does little to blunt the emotional impact of the scene, and one senses that drawing his characters in this way was as much for Sharpe's benefit as it was for the readers. Sharpe uses a 2x3 panel grid to maintain the same sense of rhythm and pace no matter what the situation, so even the rougher scenes aren't lingered on for very long by either artist or reader. This is a powerful comic that's told with confidence, skill and even flair.

I Am Fire, by Rachael Smith. This is a full-color mini about a couple of wildly dysfunctional teens who develop a crush on each other. British artist Smith has a nicely-honed sense of comic timing and manages to create a pair of protagonists who are near-sociopaths yet strangely likable at the same time. The story follows a girl named Jenny, who creates havoc doing an internship of sorts in a department store, and Chris, a pyromaniac who somehow winds up as an intern for a fire-prevention outfit. While the cover certainly has an apocalyptic feel to it, the actual circumstances of how Chris winds up wearing that sign are quite amusing. Smith is unrelenting in these forty pages when it comes to the obnoxiousness of her characters and the shtick that surrounds them, as the cast includes an obsessed fire safety officer, an alpha male fireman, a dotty saleslady and various other somewhat one-dimensional character types. Smith manages to insert a bit of humanity into the proceedings in a way that doesn't seem ham-fisted, unearned or sentimental, and that rescues the comic from falling into cliche'. Indeed, it provides some rather amusing surprises for a number of characters. Smith's bug-eyed characters remind me a bit of a slicker Kate Beaton or perhaps Raina Telgemeier. That smooth, slick line actually goes nicely with her acerbic sense of humor. Given the way she writes her characters, I thought her use of color was a bit over-the-top, however. Nearly every page had dense, rich colors that at times overpowered the eye, especially on pages where nothing much was actually happening. A more muted palette would have been appropriate for much of the book and might have allowed the reader a better chance to take in the loveliness of her drawing style. There's no question that Smith is funny and talented but a smidgen of restraint could have made this comic even funnier.

You Were Swell, by Sophie McMahan. Getting this comic in the mail is one of those rare occasions when you get a comic that's completely bonkers and fantastic from an artist you've never heard of. This is an amazing series of strips mashing together 50s advertising art and romance comics tropes with modern body horror/body dysmorphia that together give a scathing, hilarious critique of gender norms and roles. "Other Self" illustrates a seemingly happy, white 1950s family with heads that split off, as the narrative caption posits the question "Do you ever feel split between two selves?" It's an arrow aimed right at societal and consensus constructions of "normal" and acts both as a declaration by the artist and a hand extended to the reader. In "What If?", McMahan takes an idyllic scene of three women enjoying ice cream, inserts a traditionally handsome male making a crude remark, and then has the women disintegrate him with a laser eye blast. I found this comic to be hilarious, partly because the wish fulfillment is so obvious but mostly because of the way she juxtaposes bland figures with crazy action. "Winner", which details a beauty queen winning first prize, goes in a similar direction, as she loses all of her teeth upon getting the crown, though no one seems to notice. It's a funny image to begin with, but it also pokes fun at the ways in which beauty is so obviously a socially constructed concept, something the pageant setting makes quite clear.

"Bad Thoughts" is the central piece of the comic, where McMahan explores and admits that the hateful thoughts she has about others are literally ugly and a reflection of her own self-hatred. This comic is a way of acknowledging this tendency and destroying the notion that we are abnormal if we have negative feelings. McMahan subverts and undermines this notion at every turn, like in one strip where a handsome guy tells a beautiful girl with lovely lashes that mascara is made out of bat feces, or another "perfect date" where the couple's faces melt at the end. This remarkable comic covers a lot of ground and hammers home a lot of provocative ideas thanks to McMahan's command over her line and willingness to explore the grotesque. That facade of beauty that she punctures again and again is set up perfectly, as McMahan has an unerring grip both on what makes such art and imagery appealing as well as how it is also innately revolting. That sense of revulsion is almost palpable throughout the comic, whose commentary is less overtly political (though there is a political and satirical element to it) and much more deeply personal. McMahan has an interesting career ahead of her.

The Less You Know, The Better You Feel #2, by Mary Fleener. This early alt-comics era standout continues to draw political comics for The Coast News, focusing in on local government greed and calling them out for getting in bed with big developers trying to extract every dollar possible from her idyllic and arts-oriented beach town in California. Fleener's at her best when she gets into particulars, like in the above strip about the right of every citizen to speak for three minutes at every city council meeting. Another strip gives advice on how to be effective when given that platform. Fleener also veers away from politics to offer amusingly-illustrated recipes, complain about aggressive bikers (those strips are especially hilarious), talk about the local flora and fauna or whatever strikes her fancy. Still learning on the job as a political cartoonist, she's making much better use of simple and striking images and cutting back on fussy over-labeling and complicated drawings. Strips where she compares a local politician named Stocks to MacBeth (complete with the three witches and their cauldron) are a good example of this powerful image-making. Fleener is a naturally funny cartoonist, and it's been interesting to see how she's allowed her whimsical nature to merge with her sharp, focused political instincts to provide cartoons that are memorable and brutal. She's not afraid to repeatedly get out the long knives to carve up hypocrites and greedy politicians who would prefer that the public simply ignore what they're doing.

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