Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Minicomics: MariNaomi, Sean T Collins/Julia Gfroerer, Spencer Hicks

Interview With Alison Bechdel and Said While Talking, by MariNaomi. This is a minicomic version of a feature that originally appeared on, and it's part zine, part comic. While MariNaomi conducts the interview in a loose, conversational style that cleverly draws on the similarities between her work and Bechdels as memoirists, I couldn't help but wish the entire thing had been done as a comic. That's partly because she didn't simply make this a talking heads piece on the page, but rather used the illustrations to sometimes show what was being talked about in the course of the conversation. For example, she was able to illustrate how in comics it's not practical or desirable to show every wrinkle and detail of one's face, but that such softening had a "touch-up effect". There were other such opportunities to similarly illustrate interesting aspects of their work later on, but I get the sense that this was a time-crunch assignment that didn't give her the chance to fully illustrate each section. That's unfortunate and a rare opportunity that was lost, but the illustrated and personal bits of the interview that the reader does get to see are funny and revealing both of subject and interviewer.

Said While Talking's short vignettes originally appeared at, and they're meant to be a light and comedic counter to the sort of strips she ran in her column at The Rumpus. She uses an interesting technique in a number of these strips (perhaps as a time-saving method) where she eschews the use of panel borders and full figures, often using either floating heads or head-and-shoulders shots. It's a way of paring down strips to their absolute essentials, focusing on the elements necessary for the eventual gag and nothing else. Reading her more serious and dramatic works like Kiss And Tell or her Rumpus strip (to be collected in a book by 2D Cloud called Dragon's Breath), it's interesting to read short vignettes about dating that are actually funny instead of sad or even tragic. A series of strips regarding Mari dating a hippy are especially amusing, as her minimalist style here still manages to capture the pretension of this guy and the ridiculousness of situations where he doesn't want to go down on her because "It doesn't feel very vegan"! The strips with her husband Gary are also inevitably amusing, especially since they take on a sort of Charlie Brown/Lucy dynamic at times. For example, when Gary suggests that there's a "direct correlation between how pretty something is and what a jerk it is", there's a beat and a perturbed Mari replies "Somehow, I think I ought to be offended by that statement." What makes the punchline perfect and perfectly Schulzian is the slight smile that creeps across Gary's face when she says that. While these strips are played for laughs, they're still revealing in many ways, like the ones in which she discusses her antipathy toward babies. MariNaomi notes that the strips also provide a therapeutic service, taking her away from the more downbeat themes of her other comics; it also allows her to exercise different kinds of cartooning muscles.

In Pace Requiescat, by Sean T Collins and Julia Gfrörer.  First off, one must read Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado" for this story to make any sense. The mini picks up where the story left off, adding a new ending that has all sorts of implications. The story itself is about a man named Montresor who vows revenge on a man named Fortunato for a variety of unnamed offenses. That revenge eventually comes when he takes Fortunato deep into the vaults of his family home to sample a Spanish sherry. The dampness of the vaults makes Fortunato cough, and Montresor gets him drunk to ease the cough. Finally, they happen upon a small vault that's a dungeon of some kind and Montresor quickly puts his foe's leg in irons, and soon begins to brick up the alcove he's in, gaining his revenge by eventually starving and dehydrating Fortunato.

Now, the end of the story finds Montresor calling out Fortunato's name a couple of times, only to gain no answer. This was after Fortunato begged and pleaded Montresor to stop, hoping it was a sick joke. However, there's an implication that Fortunato's final refusal to engage was a sort of silent revenge of its own, because Montresor, confessing the act years later in the narrative, feels sick. Either because revenge itself doesn't feel as good as he thought it might, once he puts that final brick in, or because he failed to get the last word. In the comic, Montresor puts in the final brick, then pauses and pushes in a brick at about waist level. From there, Montresor encourages Fortunato to come forward, he reaches in and then there's a six-page blowjob sequence peppered with clever references to the original story. (I especially liked comparing Fortunato's penis to a serpent, given that Montresor's family crest was a foot striking a serpent biting its heel.)

What to make of this new ending? First off, there was no artist more appropriate for this kind of story than Gfrörer. Her scratchy, nervous line evoked the dampness and darkness of the vaults, and no artist depicts sex so viscerally. With a twelve panel grid on each page, the reader is pushed through panel after panel of this horrific but erotically charged scene, creating an uncomfortable reading experience that's also a sort of shaggy dog story. The use of sound effects is also clever, taking full advantage of the fact that in the story Fortunato is wearing a jester's outfit with bells; the "jingle jingle jingle" of the unseen Fortunato being fellated in what amounts to a gloryhole sequence is somehow both disturbing and hilarious. Beyond those qualities, one gets the sense that Montresor gets the last word this time, so to speak, but Collins also opens up the possibility of revealing Fortunato's "crime" against Montresor: rejecting his advances and/or affections. While those shaggy dog qualities are certainly there and shock value is a part of the experience, it's clear that there are other questions that Collins wanted to address, and he made an already complex and ambiguous story even moreso here, ably complemented by the skill of Gfrörer.

Inspiration Point, by Spencer Hicks. This is an unassuming mini drawn in a simple still that favors slightly cartoony, even grotesque character designs. It sees an unnamed protagonist waking up to go for a run on a trail, and the reader is given an uncensored and unedited look at his stream of consciousness. Like the slightly schlubby design of the man himself, that look inside his brain is not especially flattering. He regards his live-in girlfriend with antipathy even as parts of this run are made to impress her in some bizarre way. Indeed, this unseen woman is a central character in some ways, as he thinks to "punish" her by not bringing her coffee, only to find that she's not there when he returns home. The run itself is full of projections, as he wonders if everyone he meets is a creep as a way of dealing with his own creepy thoughts. Sometimes that stream of consciousness goes down amusing paths, like when he wonders about the evolutionary purpose of white tails on rabbits might be. When he's cleaning his glasses in his girlfriend's car and a passerby thinks he's masturbating, his furious attempts at proving otherwise are hilarious. In short, this is a comic about social anxiety without being labeled as such, and its title of course ironically refers to the utter lack of inspiration that he derives at any point in the story. Hicks' reserved style of storytelling is low impact, but it deserves a bit of scrutiny to really get at what's going on with the main character.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Worthy Fundraiser: Maple Key Comics

It's no surprise to me that one of the most ambitious of all classes at the Center for Cartoon Studies (2014) is embarking on an ambitious comics project. That would be Maple Key Comics,edited by Joyana McDiarmid. The project is for an anthology, and it's based on the old Mome model. That is, the book will come out more than once a year (an incredibly bi-monthly, in this case), and it will be a mix of serialized stories, short stories, and a focus on a particular "star" artist. The first issue features Jon Chad, author of Leo Geo. The contributor list relies heavily on CCS alum (though Neil Brideau is in there as well), though the list doesn't overlap with Chuck Forsman's Oily Comics at all. That goes to show just how deep the talent pool is at CCS, especially as this anthology focuses on the classes of 2014 and 2015 first and foremost in the initial issue. I imagine that reach will extend as future issues are published.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Process: Weekend Alone

Noah van Sciver is one of those lifer cartoonists who simply can't stop drawing. In addition to working on graphic novels, minicomics, webcomics due to become graphic novels, strips for a local newspaper and his own comic book, he also frequently posts sketchbook-style comics on his own website. He's advanced as a cartoonist such that even his sketchbook comics and illustrations are well worth examining. The new micropublisher (and distributor) Tinto Press is publishing Van Sciver's sketchbooks in full color in a digest-sized format. The first volume, Weekend Alone, painstakingly gets every detail right. It's a beautiful little book to look at, and it's just the right length. Sketchbooks can wear out their welcome if they're too long or lack variety, and Van Sciver certainly doesn't skimp on the latter. There are single-page strips, long narratives, cover recreations, illustrations, life drawings, diary comics and bits of random weirdness. Van Sciver's Blammo! comic has shown that he has no interest in settling on a single style or genre for storytelling purposes, and the sketchbook reads like warm-ups or outtakes for Blammo !in some ways, or stories that didn't quite fit for one reason or another.

The best known story in the book is the hilarious "King of Comic Books". That's the one where Noah goes back into time to visit Fantagraphics in 1992, hoping to get them to publish Blammo! This one was widely circulated on the internet, and for good reason--Van Sciver's deadpan and hilarious caricatures of Gary Groth and Kim Thompson were particularly memorable, as was his over-the-top depiction of "slacker" life in early 1990s Seattle. As always, the biggest target in a Van Sciver comic is Van Sciver himself, as he's forced to sleep by a dumpster and get yelled at by everyone he meets. The punchline is a bit predictable but no less funny for a strip that may be a little "inside baseball" with regard to comics but still has plenty of other jokes to offer.

The one page strips are the best thing in the book, however. "How I Lost My Virginity", "How I Became A Cartoonist", "How You Know You've Had Too Much To Drink" and "How To Recover From A Brutal Break-Up" are all loosely autobiographical and veer off into dark and absurd places. I've often thought that the nearest artistic cousin to Van Sciver's output is Evan Dorkin. Dorkin is more of a pure humorist suffused in a childhood of horror, superhero and sci-fi obsessions, but there's that similar sense of brutally bitter humor in his autobio and even straight humor pieces. Even when Van Sciver is working through negative feelings and engaging in autobiographical self-flagellation, he can't help but make it funny. He also has the added bonus of being fascinated by his surroundings and other people, especially other cartoonists. His adaptation of a Comics Journal interview with Spain reveals that fascination with history and lives lived outrageously.

Another highlight of the book is the anthropomorphic story "What Troubles A Bunny Has". Starring a bunny who may or may not be a Van Sciver stand-in, this is a devastating story that uses its funny animals as a way of slightly distancing narrator and reader while at the same time revealing painful, intimate thoughts and details of his life. By contrast, Van Sciver's own diary comics are more on the reserved side, even when he's revealing details like not having any money; the sense of passion that drives his fictional work seems deliberately muted. Of course, there's also plenty of random images (a naked woman with the caption "Let's Wrestle!", a man walking, drawings of flowers) and half-formed but funny ideas (like the "Dog On Wheels"). Van Sciver warms the reader up with single-page images of various figures and ends the book with a poignant and absurd adaptation of a poem about death featuring a giant rabbit as death's agent. While this may not be the place to start for reading Van Sciver, it's pretty much a must for fans.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sweet Home Chicago: Chenette, Modlin, Galloway, Leipzig, A. Dahm

At Autoptic, I saw a lot of work from some young artists living in Chicago that I wasn't familiar with. Let's examine these minis, artist by artist.

The Ruins, Chapter 0-2, by Amara Leipzig. This is an interesting narrative following an old woman who was seemingly birthed from and nurtured by a vast sprawl of abandoned ruins. The prologue and first two chapters take the reader through the earliest moments of her life and go into great detail regarding the trial and error nature of learning one's environment. As such, these comics have a powerfully visceral quality to them as Leipzig tries to get across the physical sensation of smooth stone, cold rain and ripe fruit--as well as the sensation of vomiting when eating the wrong things. Chapter One is perhaps the most interesting entry, given that it covers the birth of the woman, who was presumably abandoned in the ruins by her actual mother. Leipzig leaves that and many other details deliberately vague at this point, because what's more important is relaying the way a life is lived without any social input. The comic features a parade of problem-solving exercises on how to depict things like hunger without words and heavily relies on motion lines and sound effects to make the reader understand precisely what's going on in each panel on a phenomenological level. Leipzig's line is functional and simple, getting out of the way of her interesting page compositions and getting across information in a direct manner.

In The Sounds and Seas Volume 1, by Marnie Galloway. This a silent comic that speaks volumes. Galloway's intricate but organic style of creating patterns is absolutely beautiful to behold. Opening with a dense but geometrically precise forest, we see three women open their mouths to emit wave after wave of rabbits, birds and fish. Their three strands merge into a larger wave reminiscent of an M.C. Escher drawing, until they coalesce into an actual ocean wave. We then see a young woman in a small, chilly coastal town. She visits what seems to be a combination of museum and workshop in a large barn, marveling at the skeletal models of boats and whales and imagining a whale being made up of that very song/wave that we saw earlier in the book. She asks the curator for three things, and the curator opens up some old trunks in a storage room and dives into them, going to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve a rope, an anchor and a chain. The young woman sees a painting of the three singers from earlier in the book and opens up her mouth hoping for her own song, but finds nothing. Galloway's images are flexible and offer multiple interpretations, but the three women we see earlier are clearly creative spirits, collaborating on a greater work. Whether they're singing or bringing forth life isn't important; the fact that they have their own powerful voices and have learned how to use them together is key. The curator is a guardian of secrets and knowledge who can help the young woman in her search, but cannot actually give her the spark of creativity. Galloway makes that painfully apparent in the final pages here, as she is despondent that she literally doesn't have anything inside her that desperately needs to come out. She has no voice of her own. This is the first of three planned volumes, and I imagine the next two will address this sense of desperation and discovery. This first volume won a richly deserved Xeric grant (one of the last ones awarded), and the quality of the book's design speaks to how much thought Galloway gave to her story. Galloway cleverly ties in the patterns and waves we hear in music with the patterns we see in art and the waves we see in water, blurring the lines between the concrete and the metaphorical. It's a beautiful account of the struggle for meaning, for one's voice as an artist and one's desire to be part of a continuum of creativity.

Melba and Malbik and The Big Sweet, by Talya Modlin. Modlin's brushy, slightly distorted and grotesque character design remind me a bit of Leela Corman by way of Aline Kominski-Crumb. Modlin's gift is being able to uncannily depict the language of teenagers--both in terms of dialogue and body language. In particular, she's adept in depicting how the two are at constant odds in teenagers, with the awkwardness of their bodies and posture belying tough talk and braggadocio. At the same time, she takes those particular sorts of interactions and plants them in slightly off-kilter scenarios. For example, The Big Sweet is about two boys in a grapefruit tree, trash-taking each other as they try to get the best fruit. When one of the kids starts talking about the sexiness of the fruit, it leads to a bizarre and hilarious hallucination after he falls out of the tree. Modlin's touch of the absurd thrown into the proceedings is a perfect counterbalance to the verisimilitude of the dialogue. She goes a step further in part one of Melba and Malbik. It's about a young girl moving into an apartment building with her family. She meets a boy living in the building who takes an immediate shine to her, and this first chapter serves as an effective tour of the building's eccentric inhabitants. Of course, the last inhabitant, a hulking man named Malbik, proves to be the most mysterious and dangerous, given his history of uncontrollable rages and strange behavior. It's unclear if Modlin aims to make this the story of an unusual friendship or something else, but there's a vividness to the way she outlines each character that once again has an almost visceral quality. The reader can almost smell and touch the apartment building, even if much of it is depicted using a shadowy technique that puts the emphasis on atmosphere over clarity. It's a messy place with messy lives, and Modlin gets that across on every page.

Thoughts Become Things #2, by Danielle Chenette. This is a sketchbook collection of assorted odds and ends, and as such it has a typically rough, immediate quality to it. There's page after page of crisp, expressive figure drawings that really capture the essence of each subject, revealing them as living figures on the page rather than drawn to death. The short story "Cheery Beery" was rendered quickly and simply, and depicts two young men on a boat, with one getting drunk for the first time and diving into the ocean, like a fish ready to be caught on a hook. In her drawings, I especially liked the way Chenette varies her line, going from a fine line to a shadowy scribble that becomes increasingly abstracted as it depicts motion. "Quickly Evolve" depicts an argument between tadpoles wishing to accelerate their development so that they can join in the frog chorus. Using dense, wavy lines, Chenette relates a tale of yearning, jealousy and a failure to heed good advice. This all feels a bit like a series of warm-up exercises rather than polished projects, but one can still see Chenette's promise as a cartoonist.

Sorry If That Was Weird, by Alex Dahm. This is a brief collection of four-panel gag strips, rendered in a crude style that plays up the slightly grotesque nature of Dahm's character design. The bulk of the humor is in the dialogue and set-ups, but it helps that Dahm's drawings are worth looking at in and of themselves. The strip above, where in the final panel we get a close-up of Dahm's face with gaps between her teeth, disheveled hair and a scrunched-up nose is simply a funny image. The strips themselves never overreach into trying to squeeze humor out of everything, like one scene where Dahm is vomiting into a toilet for three panels and is asked by her boyfriend if it was worth it. Dahm is simply reporting on direct, powerful images from her daily life; it just so happens that most of them are funny. As she refines her line and storytelling, Dahm could really make an impact as a humorist. While her character design is great, how the characters relate to each other and their surroundings in space is sometimes on the awkward side; that's the sort of thing that gets sorted out with time.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interview with High-Low


Carl Antonowicz over at the Schulz Library blog did an interview with me regarding my Thirty Days of CCS feature from November of 2013. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Drawn to New York

The cover of Peter Kuper's compendium of New York-related illustrations, short stories and sketches, Drawn To New York (PM Press), reflect the varied approaches by the artist to comic art itself. We see a colored pencil, a Micron pen, a graphite pencil, and a paint brush each spelling out one of the words of the title. It may as well be a snapshot of his toolbox as an artist, because he's proven to be one of the more versatile and visually dynamic illustrators of the past thirty years or so. The theme of the book is simple, because it's one of an easily understood contradiction. A Cleveland boy is dazzled by New York upon visiting it and wants to live there. He comes to understand, however, that the city is as squalid as it is spectacular, and his drawings reflect the reality of crushing capitalism against the creative spirit. Despite the forces arrayed against the middle class and poor, he can never quite escape the rush that living in the city brings. That contradiction becomes even sharper post 9/11, when the city suddenly becomes the unwelcome symbol of interventionist US foreign policy.

Kuper has always wielded his artistic weapons as blunt instruments. He has rarely been subtle, whether in his own books or doing strips for the left-leaning World War III Illustrated, which he founded over thirty years ago. His best strips tend to be in the "show, not tell' category, cleverly letting images dissolve into each other and morph into new but related transformations regarding some essential truth related to poverty and despair, often with a rueful laugh or two thrown in for good measure. He's especially good at using the city itself to relate cyclical stories, like "One Dollar" detailing what happens to a dollar when it leaves the mint: the lives it's briefly part of, the pain that's inflicted just to get it, etc. As always, his jagged figure drawing (inspired in part by street art) is a highlight of any of his strips. "Chains" is a similar strip about the drug trade that pops off the page thanks to his powerful use of colored pencils. "Twenty Four Hours" simply goes through a day in New York City: good, bad, miserable and otherwise, giving the reader a fly's eye view of what can happen.

On the other hand, his autobio strips about 9/11, while containing a sort of powerful immediacy, don't quite hold up as well due to the bluntness of his own writing. That said, "Bombed" is fascinating simply because 9/11 was the fulfillment of the horrible daydreams Kuper had had in the form of comic strips about New York getting bombed, buildings being smashed into by planes, etc; the reality wound up being much worse than his fantasies. Speaking of which, "Jungleland" gets at the heart of his feelings about the city: savage beauty, the fear of that beauty being destroyed, and the fear of being destroyed by that beauty. Throughout the book, Kuper throws example after example of this push-and-pull love and hatred that most New Yorkers feel about their city. There are moments of fleeting beauty, visceral expressions of disgust, extended riffs on decay and corruption, and an understanding of constant and unrelenting change. Kuper depicts a kind of race between the exploiters and the preservers, hoping against hope that the preservers stave off police brutality, the increased divisions between rich and poor, and the potential destruction of the city. Kuper's aesthetic is a melting pot of influences not unlike the city itself: graffiti, collage, line drawing, paint, etc. His drawings featuring a multitude of different colors in colored pencil are especially lively and tend to represent a free expression of his imagination. The heavy, painted drawings tend to represent doom, distopias and the general sense that the city's ecosystem is a fragile one, susceptible to extinction at any moment. Kuper seems to view his own role much like Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fightin' Man": "What can a poor boy do, but to sing in a rock and roll band?" In his case, what can Kuper do but desperately, ecstatically and compulsively record New York as he sees it? It's a case of a cartoonist's blunt style that is limited in terms of nuance being matched up perfectly with its subject: a raucous, energizing, frustrating, depressing bundle of contradictions, a metropolis of codependence, an organism that sustains and feeds on its own.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Address For High-Low

As of 1/18/14, my new address will be:

Rob Clough
815 B West Markham Ave.
Durham, NC 27701

Don't worry if you've already sent something; I'll be picking up mail at the old location through early February and a change of address form has already been set up.

Stylizations: Life Through The Lens and Revolver

Life Through The Lens #1, by Kent Olsen and Sabine ten Lohuis. There are a lot of interesting ideas in this comic about two TV film critics who also happen to share an apartment together in Chicago. The writer of this comic, Olsen (curiously, he doesn't credit illustrator ten Lohuis on the cover), holds a degree in philosophy and film studies and originally wrote this as a screenplay. This is the first of what promises to be a dozen or so issues, and as such, doesn't really cohere into much beyond setting up the initial friendship and fracture between the two men. Hilariously, ten Lohuis depicts the two men as being model-handsome, which is not exactly the rule in the critic business. Of course, ten Lohuis makes all sorts of curious choices with regard to the art, starting with the cheesecake drawings of the woman who shared the apartment with them on New Year's Eve and went down on one of them while they were cracking wise and watching movies. The scene was pitched in part to get across the sense that their relationship was uncrackable by outsiders (and especially girlfriends), but the casual nature of the drawing and the repartee that wasn't exactly deep or obscure made it feel more misogynistic than anything. Similarly, their on-air tiff about a disagreement regarding a film that sounds very much like the crazy Southland Tales eventually resolves itself as a bare-chested tickle/wrestling match. There's homoerotic subtext, and then there's the sort of pointless homoeroticism as depicted here. Of course, another problem with this issue is that the conflict promised on the back cover "Their intense film watching begins to erode their hold on reality. Jerald succumbs to the extremities of delusion putting pressure on Richard to maintain a balance." doesn't unfold in this actual comic book. I'd say telegraphing the entire premise of the comic in such a way is a dubious idea to begin with, but doing so without actually having the story unfold in that manner is simply confusing. That said, the relationship between Jerald and Richard is an interesting one, as the latter's formal training makes the former both jealous and frustrated. On the whole, the writer and artist seemed poorly matched to each other, while Olsen seemed to have trouble settling down on his many ideas regarding the nature of watching stories unfold.

Revolver One, by Salgood Sam. Max Douglas, who goes by the nom de plume Salgood Sam, has always employed art that's dense and naturalistic, yet carries dreamy fantasy qualities as well. Similar artists might include Farel Dalrymple and others from the illustration-heavy Meathaus collective. Revolver is a collection of his heavily stylized stories, many of which he did not write himself. Despite that, they are all very much him: open layout, intense and heavily packed city scenes, odd character angles designed as though he was playing around with a camera, and an overall sense of even the most real experiences having a slightly fantastic edge. My favorite story in the book is Salgood Sam's own "Pin City", which is about a man arriving by airship to a city with no memories of how or why he got there, but he found that he was expected and given opportunities to thrive. The beauty of the story was that the character bereft of memory chose to record the memories of a city, as he wrote down all that he observed. It was less about himself than what he saw, but it was all an attempt to externalize the memories he never had.

John O'Brien's "The Rise and Fall of It All" similarly takes on a man negotiating a city alone, but this time it's a man who's been abjected from a position of comfortability at a job. Both stories make great use of a restrained color palette, shifting from blue to brown to green. The stories he adapts from A.J. Duric feel a bit more cramped, as there are more panels on the page on his other stories. "Misplaced" lacks the color accents that did so much to guide the reader through the story. Most of the rest of the book consists of visual poem adaptations, jam work and other short material. "Where The Wild Things Went" is notable for the artist's particular deftness in depicting motion through dance and expressing it in such a way that one can't take one's eyes off the page. This comic in general is the kind of odds and ends an illustrator without a particular long-form project on their drawing table winds up with, but it still reflects the restlessness and fascination with time and place the artist is known for.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New Work From Me at Infinity

I'm pleased to announce that the online comics publication Infinity will be reprinting various of my review from High-Low, in addition to printing a treasure trove of other articles and reviews. My review of Ulli Lust's Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life is up with issue #5, which is available via ipad (preferred) or in .pdf form here.Take a look!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Behind the Curtain: Black Is The Color

The key phrase in Julia Gfrorer's remarkable book from Fantagraphics, Black Is The Color, comes when the two protagonists (a doomed sailor and a mermaid) are cuddling together in a boat. After coaxing all sorts of stories and confessions out of him, she tells him that he really doesn't want to know about her. When pressed, she replies "You think you do, but you'll be happier if I let you wonder about it." The reason why this phrase is so important is that it underlines the relationship between mermaids and humans: the mermaids have their own society filled with precisely the same sort of petty concerns and backbiting as human society, but the mermaids prefer to be fantasy figures to the humans. In that way, they remain above them. Sure, the mermaids are objectified and reduced to fantasy objects, but in Gfrorer's world here, they always maintain the upper hand. They regard humans as a kind of entertainment, as it's cruelly revealed when a crowd of mermaids and mermen float in choppy waters in order to see a lightning storm set a ship on fire. Its puerile, mean-spirited entertainment, yet the mermaids also display the capacity for compassion and beauty as well. Gfrorer offers only hints of mermaid society, but she reveals enough to let the reader know that mermaid society and modern society are fairly interchangeable. It's not an accident that the book's cover features the mermaids and mermen floating in the ocean, waiting for something to come along and entertain them. Preferably something gruesome.

I've included Gfrorer as one of the stalwarts of what I've dubbed the "Coal Mine School": artists who plumb the depths of despair, torment and degradation to find nuggets of beauty and even humor. (Others include JT Dockery, Anna Bongiovanni, Chris Wright and Caitlin Skaalrud). Indeed, every one of Gfrorer's comics is told with the same pitch-black sense of humor, especially in terms of its dialogue. I especially enjoy the frequently anachronistically modern dialogue she employs in tales from the past; it heightens the sense of humor and distance even as the reader is dragged straight into tragedy and suffering. In this story, Warren is forced out to sea by his captain because of diminishing provisions; it's essentially a death sentence. Things get worse when Warren contracts tuberculosis from his fellow cast-off. In Warren's mind, whether or not the mermaid is real is an open question, but the comfort he receives makes this irrelevant. There's no doubt that the mermaid is real, given the scenes that Gfrorer depicts of mermaid society. I suppose that the entire back half of the book could be an elaborate hallucination, but Gfrorer plays fair with her readers.

The most interesting segment in the book comes when it seems like Warren has somehow made it home to his wife and baby. He shakes off any warmth in order to immediately have sex with her, a need that Gfroer makes palpable and desperate on the page. It's a passionate, tender scene that of course is revealed to be a dream--or is it, given that we see his wife wake up with salt water in her mouth? Is it her dream, his dream, or a gift from the mermaids as he's dragged down under when he does? Gfrorer wisely leaves that to the reader's imagination, as Warren is dragged down into the depths of the ocean that become blacker and blacker until they become white. There's no question that the scratchy intensity of Gfrorer's line is the key to the book's success. What she tries to get across on many of its pages is the view that Warren sees as he goes in and out of consciousness: the sea, the sky, the clouds, a set of lines that become more abstract as they are frequently the only thing he sees. There is stultifying boredom relieved by visits from the mermaid, but even those visits are a kind of assault on his sanity as he understands it. Every line is an assault, from the tiny stilettos that comprise the dense waves to the darkness of night that is almost invasive. Warren doesn't get to live on like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but he does get a last chance at comfort and goes out on his own terms. In a story where death is a certainty, that kind of dignity represents a kind of triumph, one more authentic than if Gfrorer had let the happy ending be real.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Two From Yeah Dude: Emma Louthan, Laura Knetzger

Pat Aulisio's tastes as a publisher are so all over the map that it's impossible to predict what one of his books will be like. I'm guessing he wouldn't have it any other way. Case in point with these two minis, Catburglar Cream and Three Fates. The former comic, by Laura Knetzger,  is a cutesy story of a jewelry thief who works with his cat to temporarily "borrow" an enormous gem that happened to be filled with ancient, delicious ice cream. Everything about this comic is clean, cartoony and devoid of sharp edges. It stops just short of being twee thanks to its sense of restraint in terms of both length and stylization. It's a comic that's less about plot or even character than it is a funny idea, that of a catburglar who uses an actual cat to commit his crimes.

It's hard to believe that the same publisher would release Emma Louthan's Three Fates, which is a scratchy, weird, crass, hilarious, pornographic and philosophical narrative. It's a vision quest comic of sorts that starts with a raunchy man and the mystical strippers/prostitutes who happen to adore his rough, weird ways. Louthan, using a dense and crude pencil line that gives the deliberately pornographic nature of her images a completely different meaning, uses the strippers in a mythological fashion, as they are both Fates manipulating the life of the man and a Greek chorus commenting on it. Seeing the women go on in poetic fashion while in a variety of sexual poses and positions but rendered in a distorted and even occasionally grotesque fashion is both disconcerting and funny, adding a layer of sweetness and almost innocence to the proceedings. Nothing is "dirty" in this comic; rather, it's all part of a natural order being observed by others, until they deem that it's time to stop.

That's when the comic stops on a dime and the man is reincarnated as a woman named Nadya who amusingly becomes a stripper in order to get free time to sit around and watch TV (much like she did when she was a man). This part of the comic is a direct commentary on the first half, but it also acts as a distinct, clever and even touching narrative of its own. Louthan's pages have a powerfully immersive quality, wherein text has a decorative quality and is directly integrated into the page's visual impact and images can be read individually or as part of the gestalt of the entire page. The closest referents I can think of are John Brodowski and Juliacks, but Louthan has a different storytelling agenda. There is a stirring purity and a refreshing lack of apology in the way her characters delve into their sexual lives; it's a life stripped of shame that accepts sex and sexualization as part of the natural order. At the same time, Louthan satirizes the actual poses found in porn and stripping, exaggerating them in frequently ridiculous fashions. At its heart, Three Fates is about the possibility of creativity and the ways in which sexuality can be both a help and hindrance in this regard. It's also consistently funny and fascinating to look at.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Going Underground Again: Lange, Schubert, Valasco

Misc., by Liz Valasco. This is a mysterious little six-page mini about a bullying incident on a bus involving a kid with a Moon Pie for a head. Valasco's cramped, scribbly style is a good match for the story that begins with the absurd, moves into the tragic and ends on a mystical note. The Moon Pie kid, it is hinted, is some kind of immortal being who nonetheless appears to be a child and who goes to school with other children. Valasco's dialogue is pitch-perfect in the way that she depicts a particular kind of cruelty, one that's almost inquisitive and inviting, and then turns on a dime into fantasy material. It's solid work.

Blobby Boys, by Alex Schubert (Koyama Press). I've been seeing dribs and drabs of this comic in anthologies, minicomics and various other places for quite some time. Even this slim, collected edition feels like yet more prologue to a larger, denser work. I'll repeat what I said in an earlier review: "Schubert is a funny cartoonist whose work seems heavily influenced by Dan Clowes' early Eightball work. There's a large array of gag-oriented strips that take on cultural detritus that feature cartoony, grotesque characters. Schubert also touches on true absurdity in his takedowns of tough post-modernist posing with his title characters, who are literally slime-shaped people who get into all sorts of mischief, including killing members of a rival band after a gig at a club. With characters like Aging Hipster ("Have you heard the new Arcade Fire?") and Punk Dad as well as Schubert's own observations like Paper Blog and a review of a bizarre musician called The Spoiler, there's a tremendous amount of skill and polish on display here for such a young cartoonist." There's additional material in here involving Cyber Surfer and Killer Driller, wherein Schubert invokes some Michael DeForge style "drippy drawing" in a more overtly humorous and deliberately stiff style. There's also an extended strip featuring Art Critic, another Clowesian send-up that aims to generate more laughs than particular satirical points. Indeed, even if many of Schubert's comics have an aesthetic or cultural point of view and make that point in a forceful manner, the joke is still the thing. His peculiar drawing style transcends his influences as they mesh together computer drawings, graffiti, video games, album cover art and other cultural touchstones outside of but related to comics. I could read another 200 pages of gags set in this particular visual world.

Trim #1, by Aaron Lange. Speaking of Clowes, Lange draws his visual inspiration not so much directly from Clowes but from the sort of art that inspired him: advertising art, romance comics, and junk culture. Lange is a smart storyteller and observer whose work is a sort of second cousin to that of Tim Lane's, as he documents and interacts with people who are outsiders, cast out of and away from society. Take "Vietnam Tom", a story wherein Lange listens to the rantings of a Viet Nam veteran that show moments of clarity and sensitivity in-between moments of sheer, ridiculous madness. Lange keeps it light in this story, setting up the anecdotes as a series of gags.What I like best about Lange's comics is that he has an interest in underground culture without necessarily revering it. For example, "When I Grow Up I Wanna Be Like...William S. Burroughs" takes a wrecking ball to the legendary writer's mystique and hilariously catalogs all of the awful things the writer did and had happen to him. Worst of all: "be read by idiots".

There's no question that the highlight of the issue is "Dog and Kitty", an epic autobio story that reads sort of like a Denny Eichhorn story (or maybe Peter Bagge's Stinky Brown), only one where he makes nothing but bad decisions. It's a story too ludicrous to be faked, as it involves Lange and his burgeoning heroin addiction some time back, and the violent, psychopath dealer he hung out with from time to time ("Dog") as well as his crazed, bestiality-loving girlfriend ("Kitty"). It's a story that involves guns, Nazi fetish porn, accepting an offer to let Dog grow pot in Lange's basement, and the horrible numbness to everything that comes along with being a junkie. Trim has the feel of being an exploitation comic, only Lange is exploiting himself and his own observations and experiences for maximum comic effect.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best of 2013: Top 25 Long-Form and Top 50 Short Form Comics

This is my short, description-free list of best long form and short form comics of 2013. Please note that there are many comics sent to me in 2013 that I have not yet read or reviewed.

Long-Form Comics

1. Infomaniacs, by Matthew Thurber (PictureBox)
2. Hagelbarger and That Nightmare Goat, by Renee French (Yam Books).
3. New School, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics).
4. Sammy The Mouse volume 2, by Zak Sally (Uncivilized).
5. Out of Hollow Water, by Anna Bongiovanni (2D Cloud).
6. Incidents In the Night, by David B (Uncivilized).
7. Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life, by Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics)
8. Very Casual, by Michael DeForge (Koyama Press).
9. Eye of the Majestic Creature Volume 2, by Leslie Stein (Fantagraphics)
10. Couch Tag, by Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics).
11. Celebrated Summer, by Chuck Forsman (Fantagraphics).
12. Susceptible, by Genevieve Castree (Drawn & Quarterly)
13. Aesthetics, by Ivan Brunetti (Yale U Press)
14. Pompei, by Frank Santoro (PictureBox)
15. Barrel of Monkeys, by Ruppert and Mulot (Rebus Books)
16. Black Eye volume 2, edited by Ryan Standfest.
17. Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On, by Dakota McFadzean (Conundrum)
18. Hip Hop Family Tree volume 1 by Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics)
19. Marble Season, by Gilbert Hernandez (Drawn & Quarterly)
20. Beta Testing the Apocalypse, by Tom Kaczynski (Fantagraphics)
21. Woman Rebel, by Peter Bagge (Drawn & Quarterly)
22. Black is the Color, by Julia Gfrorer (Fantagraphics)
23. My Dirty Dumb Eyes, by Lisa Hanawalt (Drawn & Quarterly)
24. The End of the Fucking World, by Chuck Forsman (Fantagraphics)
25. Lost Cat, by Jason (Fantagraphics)

Hon Mention: Tune volume 2, by Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine; Fran, by Jim Woodring; Hic and Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humor Volume 1: The United States, edited by Lauren Barnett and Nate Bulmer; You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, by Tom Gauld;

Short-Form Comics (Includes minicomics anthologies)

1. Zebediah #1-2, by Asher Craw.
2. Houses of the Holy, by Caitlin Skaalrud.
3. Party Plans #2, by Ze Jian Shen.
4. View-o-Tron #2, by Sam Sharpe.
5. Household, by Sam Alden.
6. Wuvable Oaf #4, by Ed Luce.
7. Dog City volume 2, by various.
8. Hungry Bottom Comics: 2Fags 2Furious, by Eric Kostiuk Williams
9. Sky in Stereo #2, by Mardou (Yam Books)
10. Monster, edited by Paul Lyons and Roby Newton.
11. Three Fates, by Emma Louthan (Yeah Dude).
12. Raw Power #2, by Josh Bayer.
13. LOVF, by Jesse Reklaw (Paper Rocket)
14. Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales, by Luke Healy.
15. Cartozia Tales #1-2, edited by Isaac Cates.
16. S.F., by Ryan Cecil Smith (Koyama Press)
17. Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream #3, by Laura Park.
18. Men's Feelings, by Ted May. (Revival House).
19. Blammo #8, by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Press).
20. Magic Whistle #13, by Sam Henderson (Alternative Comics).
21. Irene volume 3, by various.
22. Lou, by Melissa Mendes (Oily Comics)
23. Sub, by Daryl Seitchik.
24. Stonewall: Mark #1, by Sasha Steinberg.
25. House of Women #1, by Sophia Goldstein.
26. Annotated #10, by Aaron Cockle.
27. Rom: Prison Riot, by Josh Bayer.
28. Powdered Milk #11, by Keiler Roberts.
29. Henry and Glenn, Forever and Ever #3, edited by Tom Neely.
30. Smoo #7, by Simon Moreton.
31. It Will All Hurt, by Farel Dalryumple (Press Gang)
32. Blacklight, by Julia Gfrorer.
33. Blindspot #3, by Joseph Remnant (Kilgore Comics)
34. Selfie, by Anna Bongiovanni.
35. Keep Fresh, by Ze Jian Shen (Retrofit).
36. Queerotica, by various.
37. Jam In The Band 3, #1-2, by Robin Enrico.
38. Katherine, by Kitty Berry.
39. Autonoetic, by Dawson Walker.
40. Unfortunate Relationships, by Rachel Topka.
41. Long Division, by Joyana McDiarmid.
42. Tablegeddon, edited by Rob Kirby.
43. Crushable: John Doe, by Janice Shapiro.
44. Eel Mansions #1-3, by Derek Von Gieson (Uncivilized).
45. Gorilla Year #2, by Cara Bean.
46. Secret Voice #1, by Zack Soto.
47. 17 Weddings, by Robyn Jordan.
48. Alamo Value Plus #1, by Rusty Jordan (Revival House).
49. Deep Forest #1-2, by Laurel Lynn Leake.
50. The Black Feather Falls #1, by Ellen Lindner (Soaring Penguin Press).