Monday, October 21, 2013

Minicomics: Nichols, Cantirino, Remnant, Gfrorer, Reklaw

Flocks, Chapters 2 and 3, by L.Nichols. These are the next two chapters in Nichols' meditation and exploration of faith and growing up as a queer born-again Christian. Each issue tends to cover similar ground, circling back to a variation on a theme. For example, the second issue, subtitled "body of conflict", gets at Nichols' body-image issues, knowing exactly what she wanted to look like as a kid but knowing it "wasn't OK". Using her distinctive rag doll self-caricature, Nichols depicts the forces and pressures she felt as a child and teen using the nomenclature of physics, though those arrows bearing down on her pierced and drew blood. The comic is heartbreaking in that she has a strong sense of identity but prays desperately to change, to conform, to not be a sinner. It never works, and at the end of the issue she goes back out into nature with the animals and woods that provide her so much comfort because they allow her to be herself as she is.

The third issue ("Nature vs Nurture") focuses less on body image and more on faith itself. A constant, running theme throughout this comic is Nichols refusing to demonize faith and religion, despite her experiences. She talks about the feeling of community she frequently felt, the power and mystical intensity of gospel services, and the comfort she felt in the idea that god was all around. At the beginning of this issue, she quotes a pastor quoting the Bible, referring to the "still, small voice of God". This concept made sense to her, that almost Buddhist idea that she was "part of something larger".Once again, that voice was best heard out in nature, where it was easier to see oneself as part of something larger instead of hearing the loud, angry voices decrying homosexuality and sinners. As Nichols notes, those were the voices of man, not God. While Nichols works through a lot of pain in these comics, it's not done in anger, but rather in appreciating beauty. Nichols' approach is to match the hate she felt for herself and the hate she felt from others with gentleness and care. Her use of full color to depict just how vibrant her environment was to her is a key to the success of these comics, because one can sense the joy radiating from those sequences. These comics are not a chance for revenge, but rather a plea for understanding. I hope she keeps going.

Turnpike Divides Part 2, by Sally Cantirino. The first issue sets up a story about a young man returning home to New Jersey to attend the funeral of his best friend, with the strong sense that said friend drove his car deliberately into a pole. This issue picks up on the ramifications of this event, as the man (Alec) tries to gain comfort from his ex-girlfriend (Lily). Cantirino nails the ways in which twenty-somethings relate to each other as they find themselves drifting through life, and this comic takes dead aim at narcissism and self-pity. Alec tries to find ways to blame himself for his friend's death and condemns those around him for not mourning him sufficiently, before Lily reveals a key fact about his death and generally puts him in his place. It's also about no longer being part of a place, about its relevance to one's life being entirely in the past. Cantirino's line is a little on the busy side, making the pages a bit denser to read than they need to be, but she does capture a sense of time and place. She notes that she used a lot of reference to real places for this story, and it's easy to see that; the spaces here look lived-in and well-trod. She also has a real knack for drawing night scenes and snow, which added a lot of atmosphere to the story. A student at the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), her ambition as a cartoonist is clear.

Blindspot #3, by Joseph Remnant. The latest issue of the talented Remnant's one-man anthology focuses on autobio stories this time around, but each of the four has a very specific tone and purpose. At the same time, each of them fervently questions both himself and the cultural values surrounding him. In "L.A. Coffee Shop", Remnant takes aim at all of the "creative types" who fulfill every LA stereotype one can imagine, both in terms of the way they dress and the things they say. Of course, Remnant takes a step back and aims those barbs for himself as well, letting the other artist he saw in the cafe draw a picture of Remnant looking like an idiot. "Pappy Ron's Pizza" takes dead square aim at the controversy over Papa John's Pizza refusing to comply with the Affordable Healthcare Act because it would eat into their profits and "force" a small increase of the price of pizza. Here, Remnant watches a "news" report from a right-wing TV network that fully supports "Pappy Ron". From there, driving to various locations during con season leads him to choosing that pizza joint...but he just can't quite go through with it. It's a strip where Remnant is literally nauseated by the patter the Pappy Ron employee is forced to spew out, but it's also a story where Remnant follows through on his principles.

"Elevator" finds Remnant confronting his past in the face of an old friend and an odd interaction with him, as well as going back to his old school. This unsettling story then quickly resolves in a way that makes sense, and the jarring ending doesn't feel like a cop-out because of the warning Remnant receives during the course of the narrative.  The story that sort of recapitulates all the others is "You Are Here", which is about depression and how Remnant used meditative hiking up a hill as a form of therapy. Walks have a way of first stirring up bad thoughts and then dissolving them through sheer physical exertion, and Remnant works through his miasma and depression by forcing himself through. It's a story that touches on John Porcellino and his zen comics poetry, using many silent panels to create a rhythm that Remnant feels while walking. The slow, steady progression from panel to panel is modulated by the density of Remnant's cross-hatching, especially when Remnant walks slowly through shadowy parts of a forest. It's interesting to contrast the relative calm and quiet of that darkness to the darkness Remnant wakes up to in "Elevator". As always, Remnant's skill as a cartoonist is superb, with complete control over his line and his page. Like many artists inspired by underground cartoonists, Remnant's layouts are relatively straightforward, though he does something unusual on many pages with a 3-2-3 grid. The reader tends to go to the center of the page in grid set-ups, but Remnant deflects the reader's eye with two central panels in the middle of the page, forcing them to take in both of the central panels as a single image and then the rest of the page. Remnant wants the reader to look at every panel and follow its rhythm to the next, even when there are silent beats and delays. The way he formats the page makes the reader do this if they want to follow the story, and he faithfully puts a lot of clear but detailed information in every panel. Location, mood and body language are all keys in Remnant's comics and it's obvious that he wants the reader to closely follow all three. Even though this issue is autobiographical, Remnant is less interested in being confessional than sharing relatable stories.

Black Light, by Julia Gfrorer. Ever since publishing her first book with Sparkplug, Gfrorer has been creating one astounding, unsettling and frequently erotic story after another. This mini collects four short stories from a variety of sources, and what's remarkable about it is the way she takes tired fantasy and horror tropes (a vampire, Death, a deadly water nymph, and a magical bear) and transforms them into something that's actually frightening and real. That's because while the genre trope is often part of the story's big reveal, it's never the most frightening thing about the story. For example, "River of Tears" starts with the sort of party scene that Gfrorer excels at depicting, but soon segues into a series of texts from a suicidal junkie girlfriend. The horror here is not the Grim Reaper coming to take her away, but rather the mind-rending horror of dealing with that kind of emotional manipulation. "Phosphorus" is horrifying not because there's a monster in a pond, but rather because it's about sexual violence and humiliation."All Is Lost" is a downbeat story because it flips around the expectation of a monster menacing a child and suggests that it's the mother who is really the monster. Finally, "Unclean" and its ultimate monstrous revelation only works because of the way Gfrorer sets up and details the woman's betrayal. Indeed, she even suggests that the vampire is less of a predator than the woman's cheating ex-boyfriend. Her line is scratchy, harsh and dense, all befitting the kinds of stories she tells. Gfrorer is a smart storyteller above all else; one can sense just how much thought goes into each story and how certain elements, once revealed, will resonate for the reader. Her work rewards multiple readings because of its thoughtfulness and attention to detail, as well as her deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics and how they become dysfunctional.

LOVF New York: Destination Crisis., by Jesse Reklaw. This is a harrowing, intense account of Reklaw journeying to New York City and inadvertently going off his meds and becoming homeless for a period of time. Published by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket Minicomics, it's a beautiful, full-color minicomic that contains comics, sketches, collaborations with others and tenuous threads of narrative. It's a comic that's as much about the process of making a comic as it is the material itself, because the original pages got rained on at one point and the colors bled into each other. It's a collaboration with the elements as well as other artists, and a document of Reklaw going through a manic phase when he was off his meds. The line between typical member of society and being homeless is shown to be remarkably thin, especially when someone is dealing with mental illness. This comic rewards multiple readings simply because each page is so dense and filled with detail, scrawled jokes, background gags and references to New York. The city plays a huge role, given how unforgiving it is to the poor, but also because Reklaw went to the city to try and do business, even going to the weekly open tryout at The New Yorker. This comic represents a side of Reklaw I've never seen before. He's an artist whose comics are generally neat and ordered, hewing to strict grids and other formal constraints. Here, he's all over the place in spectacular fashion.

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