Friday, August 29, 2014

High-Low Fall Fundraiser

Fans of High-Low with a few extra coins rattling around in their digital pockets might wish to consider donating to the site. I have a lot planned in the upcoming weeks, including a Comics-As-Poetry week, a week devoted to recent work by Josh Bayer, Michael DeForge and Sam Alden, SPX coverage and much more.

My family has continued to face health issues this past summer, though things are looking up now. Donations will help defray assorted hospital costs. I also plan to commission an artist to do background art for High-Low, and money will go to that cause as well. I continue to be enormously grateful to those who have donated in the past (I still have a pile of thank-you cards I'm filling out that's nearly as big as my review pile!) and am grateful in general to have a readership. Thanks for your consideration.

The donation button is to your right, if you are so moved.

Chicago Week: Links Within Links: Building Stories

Since finishing Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware's main project as an artist has been spent exploring two concepts: memory and empathy. Jimmy Corrigan was a was a way for Ware in part to explore some autobiographical issues, like fantasizing about what it might be like to meet his father, who had disappeared from his life years earlier. It was an exploration of family and how betrayals can reach across generations, but also the ways in which the same person can make a horrible decision that hurts one person but make another that winds up giving them a rich, wonderful life. It's also an exploration of longing, of depression and the feeling of being worthless and trying on different lives on for size. It is intensely personal and almost entirely told from a male point of view. Though Jimmy's newly-discovered sister Amy does play an important role, we don't really see things from her eyes.

Since that time, Ware has worked primarily on two projects, both of which were far more ambitious in scope than Jimmy Corrigan. In some ways, Building Stories is a scaled-down version of what will prove to be his real epic, Rusty Brown. The former follows a young woman, a married couple and their older landlady in an ancient Chicago brownstone. It then branches off and follows the young woman in greater detail. Rusty Brown, on the other hand, starts off by introducing us to its seven principal characters in a school setting for two chapters, and then proceeds to go character by character in extended chapters that follow their lives in unusual ways. (To date, only four chapters have been published, including two character spotlights.) Building Stories feels like a sort of warm-up for that kind of intensely detailed storytelling, especially with regard to characters who don't necessarily share a lot in common with Ware. The young woman's range of experiences only overlap with Ware's in that she went to art school, but her life following that was radically different. The married man in the building is a brutish wannabe musician who emotionally abuses his wife, a woman who dumped an emotionally needy guy in favor of someone she saw as being more exciting. The landlady has essentially never left the building after being forced to take care of her sickly and needy mother. There are echoes of Jimmy Corrigan to be found here, echoes that would be muffled in Rusty Brown.

Let's go into more detail about empathy. It is easy to empathize with those who are like us. It's not hard to emphasize with the young woman, who has a partially amputated leg. Indeed, the trick with her is not to idealize her. She is flawed: selfish, judgmental, self-destructive and self-pitying. She is also kind, generous, bright and forgiving In other words, Ware seems to argue, she is human. Ware also asks us to empathize not only with the young woman, but also the abusive husband. Empathize is not the same thing as "condone" or "forgive", but simply to understand how a particular person wound up in the place that they did, doing the things that they do, and how they might well be different. The man is frustrated with his life, frustrated that he's not a famous musician and that he has no money. He takes it out on his wife, regularly cutting down her looks and chastising her for things that aren't her fault. Ware gives us a bit of background on this guy; he's an asshole, to be sure, but even assholes need love and are capable of kindness. His biggest flaw as a character is his complete lack of empathy, and that has poisoned the well with his wife. Even when he comes home from work and wants to share a weird story about encountering a nest of raccoons, he can't help slipping in an insult that proves to be one too many.

The husband and wife receive the least amount of attention in Building Stories, and they feel underwritten in comparison to the young woman, the landlady and even Branford Bee, the anthropomorphized sad sack who plays a part in all of these interconnected stories. Ware doesn't quite convince the reader to fully empathize with either of them in the way that he does with Woody Brown and Jordan Lint in the Rusty Brown serial. Both of those latter characters are contemptible and awful in many ways; Lint is the sort of alpha male character that Ware no doubt grew up despising and Woody's contempt toward his family is despicable. However, Ware proved up to the challenge of portraying Lint as a fully-formed human who has harbored deep-seated hurts and nurses bad memories in a way that has an obvious effect on how he treated people later. One can even feel for him as he goes through ups and downs, though Ware pointedly notes that no character's story ends until they are in the grave. There's no such thing as a "happy ending", only a happy moment that is often fleeting. That's certainly true of the young woman, and it's a big advantage of the format for Building Stories.

Rather than a single, linear narrative, Building Stories is broken up into fifteen readable objects, which includes the oversized box it comes in (there are some short strips on the side of the box). There are fold-outs no longer than a minicomic, huge broadsheets, a long hardback, a shorter journal of a single day in the building produced as a sort of Golden Book, a folding "boardgame" comic that has blueprints of each floor on one side and a comic on the back and various shorter comics. No order is suggested by the author in which to read them. This is not just a gimmick; rather, it is a clever formal solution to getting across the other key aspect of this work: the vagueness and emotional unreliability of memory. Memory is a jumble that is far from linear, and it changes over time as our cognitive steady-state shifts. Our subconscious also distorts, alters or buries memories too painful or embarrassing to confront on a daily basis.

That's precisely how things play out in Building Stories, as the young woman is contacted by an old high school boyfriend. At first, she's flattered by the attention. Then, she becomes annoyed by his neediness (a recurring motif for some of the men in the book) but remembers that she broke up with him on their prom night, an act of cruelty that she had wiped away. Memories of being miserable and living alone are wiped away when she experiences a moment of unhappiness being a mother and wife. Being angry at a friend for mocking her living in suburbia is buried when said friend commits suicide.

In general, the shorter pieces do a better job of getting across that sensation of memory being a burst of emotionally charged information than the broadsheets. The longer book (an updated version of Acme Novelty Library #18) is by itself a tour-de-force, as it focuses on the young woman right after college when she's a nanny. The formatting of these pages is Ware at his problem solving best. A lot of the comics in Building Stories have panel designs such that they tend to loop around, hop around and guide the reader like they were "reading" a board game.  Ware's facility and vision is such that they remain easy to navigate despite some of his wilder ideas, like making every two pages a gestalt image with a single image anchoring its center. It's the ultimate and most literal use of the grid, giving every two pages its own distinctive theme. We learn other things as well, like the details of her first real relationship as an 18 year old, a pregnancy scare, the death of a beloved pet and finally a real pregnancy that leads to an abortion and eventually a break-up. The book fills in details that other parts of Building Stories allude to and leaves open other topics that are picked up again later. Building Stories also takes a frank look at sex and how one's attitudes toward it change and shift with age, but also how losing physical intimacy is a telltale sign of a troubled relationship.

The "Golden Book" is another remarkable work in and of itself. It's a journal of a single day in the life of the building, with each page representing a single hour. It's different from the other fragments in that it specifically depicts the way that the residents of the building happen to interact. A broken toilet forces the young woman to call her landlady, who invites her down for tea. The exchanges between the two of them are awkward, with each other thinking that they had somehow offended the other, even though both were desperate to feel some kind of human connection. The man and the young woman meet in the basement when her cat escapes, and their pleasantries hide his own generalized lust for her and her disgust for him (even though she had had a dream about sex with him, to her later horror). Even the building itself is a character, as Ware imbues it with sentience and emotions; it tends to like the women who have lived there more than the men. When the wife of the man walks out in a huff, the building even asks her to come back, much like the talking schoolhouse that used to freak out Sally Brown in Peanuts. The Golden Book format of the book (with two extra thick pressboard covers) allows whimsical aspects like the sentient building while still adhering to the mostly quotidian nature of the story. The final page reveals that in many ways, this fragment was really the story of a day in the life of the building, and the residents just happened to be there.

One thing I admire about the Woody Brown chapter of Rusty Brown (it's my favorite Ware comic of all time) is that Ware provides a lot of subtle visual cues regarding Woody's life and some apparently dissonant material in the long story that takes up most of the chapter. There's plenty that Ware doesn't spell out, in part because the story is told entirely from Woody's perspective, but he leaves enough clues for a reader to figure things out. In Building Stories, he leaves few details unconnected and at times perhaps goes overboard in filling in virtually every detail of the young woman's life (except one--how she lost her leg, which made sense because that's a trauma that she may not fully remember and is subconsciously protecting herself from). In particular, Ware spends a long time detailing her later life in a variety of formats. Some of them are incredibly powerful, like the silent landscaped minicomic that's about her daughter, bookended by various attempts at sleep over a number of years. It's evocative and beautiful, especially for anyone who has children. Another, shorter comic that features her narration isn't quite as powerful, even if it does get at the incredible pain a parent can often feel. A scene where she finds her daughter playing with leaves and dirt all by herself at preschool and learning that this is a common occurrence is absolutely devastating. Other shorts where she is despairing her life are also powerful, in part because it's not clear which side is which; they loop right into each other. It's a deadly accurate way of portraying how living in a particular emotion at a particular moment feels like a Moebius strip: there is only that feeling, there has only ever been that negative feeling, and there will only ever be that feeling. It's a clever way of showing how depression is a trap that you can't argue your way out of. Another clever page is one from many years in the future, where the young woman has a dream about seeing a book about her life in a bookstore that is done in precisely the same format as Building Stories, a bit of metacommentary that's funny but also plays as poignant in this particular context.

I read the Branford fragments as both a different way of exploring memory and Ware satirizing his own material. Memory is played on yet again, but this time it's with insects with incredibly short memories. Branford himself is the prototypical Ware sad-sack, and it turns out Betty is much the same way. "The Daily Bee" paper is the more concise and effective of the two "Bee" efforts, even if they do complement each other in interesting ways. That said, they also give Ware to put his truly dark sense of humor into action. The troubles that the young woman experience are presented in a mostly sober manner, though there are occasions when she realizes that she's sort of the punch line to someone else's unintentional joke. An example is when she thinks the father of the boy she nannies for is about to hit on her and she imagines what that might be like before he fires her because her son has grown too "attached' (read: attracted) to her. The kicker is when the father tells her that this had happened before and they thought it might not happen in her case (because, it is implied she was less attractive in general but also because she was missing a leg). It's a brutal scene, but it has the cadence of a set-up and punchline. With Branford, it's much easier to see him banging around a soda can and getting beat up by other bees. His eventual demise (naturally, at the foot of the alpha male of the story) is no surprise.

Ware is a master of visual and verbal wordplay. Even the title has multiple meanings. It's stories set in a building. The building has stories (floors) and stories on each of those stories, so to speak. Ware himself is building these stories about the building's stories. It's not an accident that the young woman's husband is an architect who is affected by the housing market collapse. He's not just a builder, but someone who designs buildings in a manner similar to the way Ware creates stories in a market where publishing has taken a nosedive. There are blueprints to the building that contain stories. The cover has a giant B and a picture of Branford Bee next to it. You get the idea; Ware piles up all sorts of visual details that stretch across each of the fragments as motifs, like the bright color palette and switch between his cartoony style and a more naturalistic style.

Even Chris Ware's side projects are ridiculously ambitious in scope and daring in terms of form. I'm amazed that he attempted something of this complexity while still working on Rusty Brown. That said, what I have seen of the latter work will prove to be his true master work, as he's internalized the experimental nature of Building Stories and pulled from it its most interesting techniques while expanding on them. In many ways, Building Stories is a sort of dress rehearsal for Rusty Brown, only in Ware's case that means several hundred daring pages of the artist stretching himself thematically as well as in the kind of characters' lives he wants the reader to inhabit and understand. By the end of reading the final document, the reader knows everything about the young woman except her name; we are given full access to her memories and feelings over a 25+ year period. The contradictions of different memories, the clash of emotions over time and the ebbs and flows of a woman dealing with depression, loneliness and alienation as well as connection, motherhood and moments of aesthetic bliss are spilled on the page. The reader is asked to take it all in, nudged by Ware to allow her her faults and to feel the same kind of empathy he clearly does for his own creations.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chicago Week: Lilli Carre'

Lilli Carre', along with Gabrielle Bell, Eleanor Davis and a couple of others, were the young artists whose work dominated the anthology Mome during its run. Heads or Tails (Fantagraphics, 2012) collects that work along with several other short stories in a coherent, witty volume that constantly plays on its title. It refers to 50-50 chances and choices, but it also refers to being in a state where one is unable to distinguish up from down. An animator as well as a cartoonist, Carre' has an angular, cartoony, abstracted and almost geometric style that is as likely to rely on its decorative aspects to reveal its narrative qualities as it is to have color significantly affect the reader's understanding of the story. Her stories are dry but witty, with an occasionally understated sense of the absurd at play. The motions in her strips often have a deliberately herky-jerky quality, as though they were inspired by her animation background and the sense that some of her drawings look like they were constructed out of paper instead of simply being drawn. Thematically, Carre' tells tales of people out place and out of their comfort zone. She offers few judgments as a narrator, other than providing witty obstacles for her characters to grapple with. That said, one senses a deep sense of empathy for each character's confusion and befuddlement.

Despite the seeming austerity of her line, Carre' loves visual jokes. At the front of the book, there's a wall with a number of different portraits of strange looking people. On the following page, we see that they were all actually standing behind the wall, and we get to see their backsides arranged in a preposterous manner. The first story, "Welcome To My Kingdon", eases the reader into the book as the decorative aspects of a single page's panel slowly start to close in on a man who talks about how much room he has. It's a series of images that grow increasingly beautiful even as they grow increasingly funny. "Wishy-Washy" is the first story where someone is forced out of their comfort zone. It's about a flower show judge who lives to pass aesthetic judgments on all things who gets into an accident and loses the urge to have opinions. It's a funny, pointed jab at narrowing one's identity two sharply, as the judge lived his life on his "taste, and strong, deliberate choices." This winds up having hilarious but deadly consequences for him. Carre's palette here is soft, going with pastels except when depicting huge crashes. There, she uses a silly and simple "crash balloon" spread over two pages, with no other art or text, filled in with a solid and strong use of yellow-orange or green.

"Into The Night" is a dream comic where she uses a series of narrative captions to plainly explain how a town's worth of people heard a noise in the middle of the night and had a variety of extreme reactions to it. Some ran around looking for the cause of the noise, some ran away from it, some stayed right where they were and some assumed it was all part of their dream. This densely-hatched story that emphasizes a lot of curly lines reflecting the shadowy, nightmarish world of this story. It's about the absurdity of dread and mass hysteria and another story whose characters only have access to absurd choices.

"The Thing About Madeline" is one of the two show-stopper pieces in this book (the other being "The Carnival"), and it's about a woman who leads an ordinary life who one day comes home to find herself already in bed. Shaken by this, she flees the house and starts following her doppelganger around, until it becomes apparent that she's now the doppelganger, having been confronted by her double, her new boyfriend (whom she knew but never had the guts to let into her life) and her neighbor. Carre' shifts the story's background hue from violet to orange as she leaves the city and creates a new identity, only to find a deranged doppelganger staring at her from outside her after a few weeks. It's a brilliantly clever story about a life flipped upside down like a playing card, changing its cycle for no discernible reason at all. Despite the brightness of the story's colors and the cartoony nature of the characters, this is a deeply unsettling account of the way chaos is at the heart of our existence.

"The Carnival" is sort of the flip-side to "The Thing About Madeline". It's about a man living a perfectly comfortable life until a bizarre, apocalyptic plumbing accident afflicts his apartment building. He then takes an hours-long drive in an effort to simply get away and live some other kind of life for a little while. The carnival theme and its games of chance are a deliberate metaphor, as is the fact that the game he tries is rigged, and the winner is a woman he takes a shine to. In this case, he's not really capable of going where the wind takes him (a recurring motif in the story) in the same way that she is, and she recognizes this when she leaves his hotel room the next morning while he's still asleep. He simply can't flip the coin and gets reset back to his old life by story's end, even as she demonstrates her willingness to try on a new life when the wind magically lifts her all the way to his city. As opposed to the single tones used in "Madeline", "The Carnival" reflects its atmosphere with a crazy-quilt of bright but still soft colors.

"Too Hot To Sleep" has one of Carre's better visual jokes in this story about incipient sexuality and frustrated sexuality, when a pre-teen boy and a slightly older girl share a weird flirtation on vacation. There's a rawness to this story that's encapsulated by the boy's total cluelessness about everything, including what the girl was doing. That said, the seashell pattern that he unsuspectingly laid down on her legs while tanning showed that she didn't know everything either. "Rainbow Moment" is a nesting narrative of stories within stories. It begins with a husband telling a story about finding his wife upside in bed (heads/tails, once again) who was flipped out by a story she was told by a bookshop clerk. That story was about how her uncle told her a story about his wife locking herself in a bathroom when her parents were angry at her. Each story flips to a different color, but every one is about the state of being in-between, of being suspended, temporarily absent from one's everyday life. It's the coin that's neither heads nor tails.

The rest of the book is mostly very short stories and illustrations book-ended by a short story called "The Flip", where two identical twins egg each on to ever-more absurd stakes for a coin flip. When they toss the coin in the air, it doesn't come down, and one sister leaves. My favorite of the short pieces is "Marching Band", about loving something that irritates you and then missing it when it's gone. Many of them see Carre' really cutting loose in terms of formal experiments, more exaggerated drawings and crazier use of color. Most of these stories came from the anthology Mome, and the short story format really suits the way she uses narrative in short, thematic bursts. It's less about giving the reader a familiar plot to sink their teeth into and more about picking out a set of emotions or circumstances and exploring the ramifications and consequences of those emotions or circumstances being upset. That state of being betwist, between and sometimes bereft clearly fascinates Carre' and powers her sometimes opaque stories that demand an attentive reader who's ready to ask the same kind of questions that she does.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chicago Week: Linework

11/11/2017: Please note that references to Andy Burkholder have been redacted due to multiple reports of him being connected to sexual assault.

Linework is a student & alumni anthology from Columbia College in Chicago. As befits a student anthology from one of the cartooning capitals of the world and with a great cartoonist like Ivan Brunetti as a faculty advisor, Linework is unusually strong and coherent for student work, and each issue has grown bigger and more ambitious. The magazine boasts strong contributions from its alumni, including the likes of Onsmith and Lilli Carre', along with recent grads like Nick Drnaso, Kevin Budnik and [redacted]. Let's go issue by issue and highlight the most interesting work in each one.

Linework #1, edited by Onsmith, Madalyn Merkey and [redacted].

[Redacted], Onsmith and Budnik are three of the anthology's cornerstones, though Drnaso would contribute remarkable work in the next three anthologies. He hadn't yet developed his mature style in his submission here, and it shows in the way it's a bit of a muddle. Budnik's self-flagellating strip is more in-your-face than his later, gentler style, echoing the work of David Heatley. Onsmith's strip about two kids finding a dead cat is brutal and then turns a magnifying glass on that brutality. He has a way of getting at the white trash living experience and its shocking and casual embrace of violence but is also empathetic enough to delve into the minds of these characters.

There are a number of fine stories by artists with whom I was not already familiar. Kyle Harter's "After These Messages" features a man who can only relate to others in so far as they remind him of television; the cartoony line and the use of TV sets as panels is clever. Rachel Duggan's reminiscence about her father telling her about his rough childhood was fascinating; her rough line and use of colored pencil gives the drawings a child-like quality, even as the stories she was told were entirely inappropriate for children. Kiyomi Negi-Tran's piece comparing the way she relates to her mother to the way she relates to her boyfriend is bracingly honest and heart-rending. She makes great use of color in splitting up her story and uses the cute super-deformed style of character design to powerful effect.

Marc Filerman's "Sasha" is strongly derived from Chris Ware's design style but does have a funny punchline. Jonathan Wilcox's narrative about a man buying increasingly fancy clothes and accoutrements and then getting mugged works because of the small panels, the rhythm of the grid and the simplicity of his character design. Regina Rotondo's "Family Gossip" strip, on the other hand, works because of the idiosyncratic way she draws characters and settings, though this was a story whose impact was blunted a bit by its use of color. Joyce Rice's strip about the hell of working in a convenience store and the desperate need to get out is aided by its mostly steel-blue monochrome approach, which helped to sell monotony. Finally, David Alvarado's strip about a brain on a desert island is whimsical and well-drawn.

Linework #2, edited by Kevin Budnik, Nick Drnaso and Max Morris.
Alvarado switched styles and this time around went for larger panels and figures and brighter colors, though his characters maintained a primitive quality that dovetailed nicely with the weird, gross-out gag about hallucinagenic chicken nuggets. His other strip, about a man who dies on a camping trip, is even better, as it screws around with time and narrative using a beautifully clean line. Budnik eschews dialogue entirely in a detailed strip about exploring an abandoned, wrecked house that nonetheless carries emotional weight and strong connections between its two characters. Joyce Rice contributes a strip where the main character's brother has just died, and she uses a surprisingly bright color palette to get at the weird and conflicting emotions surrounding the event. Drnaso's strip about a depressed clown is staggering; the first page is depressing because of the clown's attempting to buy into corporate while discouraging his son (after it's too late); and the second is just a total meltdown in front of kids. Drnaso has mastered his clear-line style and uses a cheerful palette that belies the darkness of his work. Betty Heredia's strip about her compulsive needs to get and peel away scabs is not only compelling and disturbing in equal measure, it's even philosophical, as she asks what she's doing is self-mutilation if it gives her pleasure. The stark and simple black and white and the small panels move the reader from image to image quickly, as she's less interesting in dwelling on specific images of torn flesh than she is in exploring how she gets there.

Filerman's strip about eating cat food as a child and vomiting is funny and weird, especially as he ties it into the anxiety of being punished by his father. Rachel Duggan's sketchbook drawings are excellent, reminiscent of Eleanor Davis' work. Claire McCarthy's "Robert" is a cleverly-design series of small anecdotes about a local homeless man that's surprising in some parts and sadly predictable in others. Angela Caggiano's "House on Lombard" is designed to look like a photo album in her tribute to her grandfather; the character design and overall presentation reminds me a bit of Carol Tyler. Michelle West's "The Receiving End" is crudely drawn but sharply conceived, as she relates an amazing roommate horror story that's also hilarious. Liz Gollner's smoothly-rendered story about a pilot crash-landing and losing his memory makes skillful use of greys and a restrained, fragile line in its tiny panels. It's in many ways a more traditional comics story than most in this anthology, but it's artfully done.

Linework #3, edited by Kevin Budnik & Nick Drnaso.

This is probably the best all-around issue of Linework, thanks in part to contributions by Brunetti and Carre'. Still, the students and other alum acquit themselves quite well here. Both of Drnaso's features are strong. The cover features four cheerleaders, and the flaps tell their life stories, with selected images from their lives charted to a graph that measures "happy" or "sad" over time. It's an ingenious idea that's well-executed. "Chatter" is a far more low-key effort, as Drnaso transcribed an interview with someone who placed a "Missed Connections" ad and drawing it as though the two of them were sitting across from each other. The level of awkwardness he achieves with body language belying speech is remarkable. Alvarado hit on his preferred style in this issue: flat color with Ben Day dot effects. That style allowed him to get really weird, as one strip features a kid making an impromptu sex doll whose face he accidentally tears before completion, and the other strip features two weird kidnappers and their obsessions while navigating the fate of their captive. Both strips offer strange and brief glimpses into their characters with a unique and powerful visual presentation.

Matt Novak's hilariously awkward story about mangling sex-related language as a youngster is another highlight, especially thanks to the crudeness of his line. Brunetti's autobiographical story about coming to terms with diabetes is typically excellent, as he manages a remarkable level of detail in a strip that's supposed to be stripped down. Equally good is his profile of designer/artist Alvin Lustig, a restless fellow who succumbed to diabetes. Budnik's story about crushes is more in line with his current, confessional style, and the use of black & white and a more restrained line allows him to inject more emotional power into his drawings. Carre's panel-less story about forgetting someone's face is fascinating, as she shows a drawing slowly mutating into something recognizable after twenty iterations. It ends by talking about how only the present moment is at all recognizable. Onsmith similarly contributes a strip about the mutation of form in the face of comfortable tedium, employing those sharp and askew angles that disorient the reader.

There are many different visual styles at work in this issue. Michelle West keeps it simple with another horrifying encounter with a neighbor in "G String Man"; she really has a way of working up disgust and contempt in her strips. Max Morris' "Tsar Bomba" is a color-soaked account of the microseconds that go by in a nuclear blast and what happens to skin, buildings and bones in the process. Heredia's dream about a freeway that becomes a rollercoaster is sharply angular and claustrophobic, and it winds up being about finding out how to let go. Filerman's gender-bending space opera is over the top from the word go, using his simple character design, bright colors and a rhythm that doesn't let the reader ask too many questions to push it along.

Linework #4, edited by Marieke McClendon, Erik Lundquist and Pete Clodfelter.

The fourth issue switched to an entirely new editorial team and got even bigger. Alvarado's strip about a couple running over a man in a furry suit is hilarious and unsettling. He has a way of starting strips and throwing a monkey wrench into a very particular and defined set of social interactions and expectations. Budnik's strip about the "Mayan apocalypse" is typically thoughtful and smart, as it addresses his obsessive need for ritual. Ryan Duggan's gag about tattoos, "Permanent Solutions For Temporary Problems" is well-drawn and hilarious. Joyce Rice's "Hoosier Valley" finds the artist in peak form in this slice-of-life teen comic that cuts close to the bone with regard to the way relationships and friendships can suddenly shift and implode. Her use of color enriches the reading experience, especially at the end when one of the characters takes a long look at the night sky in awe and wonder.

Brunetti's strip about fearing he might have oral cancer is neurotic, self-obsessed Brunetti at his best; the panel where his head swells to dwarf his body is especially funny. Sam McMorris' strip, "The Adventures of the Oblivious Sexual Conqueror" is hilarious in its depiction of awkwardness around the opposite sex; the verisimilitude of the dialogue is especially painful, while the cartoony style allows him to warp faces and still keep the strip recognizable. Onsmith's bizarre strip about a man made out of paper who has a phone inside of him that is used to call a help desk is both funny and unsettling, primarily because of his angular drawings and the slightly sickening color palette he used. Matt Novak's tremulous line gives his strip about being dumped, finding a slightly unstable person for a rebound relationship and learning that he had a brain aneurysm both a humorous and emotional sense of resonance.

Drnaso is once again the biggest stand-out. His "Play Pen" is a masterfully created, subtle and unsettling story about a police officer who deciphered a seemingly innocent toy catalog and realized that it was peddling children for sex. There's a level of detail that's almost mundane, reflecting the nature of the investigation, but there's also a level of nausea in this strip that's palpable. Other strong strips in the issue include Betty (credited here as Beatriz) Heredia's strip about encountering an old man, a crow and a chair that caught her foot when she went inside. Her brush really went wild in this strip even as she continued to use small, cramped panels to maximize that sense of being trapped, even when outside.  Chris Dazzo's strip about an awful roommate is cleverly constructed ala Chris Ware, where the drawing is meant to be looked at panel-by-panel as well as a single gestalt. Pete Clodfelter's manic, detailed drawings and sense of the grotesque are enabled by the sickly orange-yellow color scheme he employs. Max Morris' Gary Panter-stylings and musing on punk get at the heart of the "now" nature of the music and scene and how quickly disposable it is. Sanya Glisic wavers between sharp angles and grotesquely melting flesh in a story about escape, confrontation and change.

Every detail is considered carefully in the anthology. Even details like endpapers (a clever visual call and response between Drnaso and Budnik) are given maximum effort. Not every entry is of interest, but it's been interesting to observe the evolution and improvement from issue to issue, because every artist is obviously trying to pitch their "A" material as much as possible. I think by this time the tradition of the anthology has created a culture of excellence and pride surrounding it, with every new editorial team trying to outdo the next.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Chicago Week: Kevin Budnik, Nick Drnaso

Kevin Budnik's first book, Our Ever Improving Living Room, one of the earliest releases from young publishing company Yeti Press. It recorded what is a rite of passage for many young cartoonists: doing a daily comics diary for a year. While wobbly at points, it retained a remarkably strong comic voice (Budnik was committed to turning anecdotes into gags with recognizable beats and rhythms), but it also hinted at deeper issues. Those deeper issues are explored in full in the floppy-sized series Dust Motes (two issues to date), also published by Yeti.

Budnik's strips deal with his incipient and worsening depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorder. An early Halloween strip where he declares that "I still can't let go of childhood" as a 23-year-old man is a telling one, as he seeks comfort in old patterns and rituals with his family. Many of these strips are painful and uncomfortable to read, especially since Budnik simply lays them out cold without any other sort of context. He'll go from a contemplative strip to a funny strip to a strip where the relationship between him and his long-time roommate starts to show strain because of Budnik's increasing OCD behavior and anxiety. The way he starts withdrawing from his friends is evident when he reluctantly goes out after gleefully planning a night of solo TV watching. His initial rage when his family shows concern about his eating habits melts away when he can see his heart beating through his now-skeletal chest.

Budnik also delivers snippets of the path to recovery. There's a remarkable four panel strip that alternates between his physician and his therapist, as they deliver a crucial speech regarding understanding how eating disorders provide a means of control for people who feel they have no other form of control over their life. The therapist talks about anxiety-driven thoughts, the pathways they create in the brain, and how to reroute them. Budnik has to go through rejecting his difficulties being "bullshit problems" and accepting them as both something that can be overcome (not the end of the world) but also something that is troubling him in particular. The recovery is slow and painful, though Budnik starts to emerge a bit from the haze of depression to want to create again. More of the strips regain a sense of whimsy deep into the second issue, like a strip about whistling (either to show happiness or one's skill at whistling--no other reasons!). There are difficulties with friends (including a series of brutal texts at the end of an argument from a friend, and another friend weeping when she sees "how not OK you really are), problems with his family and urges to worry about calorie counting. On the whole, he's able to appreciate friends, work and art  again and understand both the struggle that he came through and how much work maintaining those gains is. All through, his cartooning is excellent; a simple and slightly cartoony line influenced in equal parts by Charles Schulz and Ivan Brunetti (his mentor). He adds a delightful sense of detail and clutter to his panels that neither of those cartoonists employed, and by not varying line weights, he creates an atmosphere where both character and background have equal importance for the reader. That comes in especially handy when he draws scenes outside.

Budnik has co-edited the Columbia College anthology, Linework, with fellow alum Nick Drnaso for a few years. Drnaso is a remarkable young talent in his own right. His Oily comic, Young, Dumb & Full of Cum is one of the most hilariously downbeat bits of autobio that I've ever read. Drnaso uses a clear-line style that is given a sense of weight and dread by his unsparing spotting of blacks. "How To Dress Up As Me On Halloween" is a vicious bit of self-critique regarding his cynicism, negativity and self-pity, all while delivering the darkest of punchlines. Other strips, like "The Wonder Years" offer devastating critiques of high school and its essential sexism, all with the driest of wits. Dnraso's wit is not unlike Brunetti's, but his formal techniques (he loves the grid) echo those of Chris Ware. In another Oily comic, Tell God To Blow The Wind From The West, Drnaso uses a 911 call taken on 9/11/11 to create a grim, terrifying comic. It's made all the more effective because throughout the comic and its unyielding four-panel grid, we never see people; instead, we only see rooms and buildings. The cold, almost sterile quality of the drawings belies the desperation mixed with mundane problem-solving of the transcript.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Chicago Week: King-Cat #74

John Porcellino's long-running and influential minicomics series King Cat hit its 25th year of publication in 2014, and the upcoming KC #75's release should come at around the same time his all-new book, The Hospital Suite, is due to debut in the fall. Porcellino will go on tour with those books as well as Root Hog Or Die, the documentary that Dan Stafford made about him. I did want to discuss King Cat #74 before all of this hoopla kicks off, in part because there's a gentle, more centered and even playful quality to this issue that's been absent in some of the heavier issues that dealt more directly with depression, illness and turmoil in his life. I chose this comic to kick off a week's worth of Chicago-related comics; even if he's not technically living within city limits, I regard his work as having that distinct Midwestern feel.

"B.O." is a good example of this. It relates an anecdote regarding his giving up deodorants as a young adult because of the aluminum in them. This is a hilarious story about his later sweaty humiliation at a high school where he gave a lecture about cartooning, made funnier by his trademark minimalist style. When John writes gags in his comics, it's not unlike a more serious Matt Feazell in terms of the way he still manages to incorporate body language as part of his cartooning. The promise at the end of the story after he bought some organic deodorant ("So now if you meet me, I'll smell like springtime and roses!") just added to the squirm quality of the situation.

"Batty Batty Batty" is a life update comic, talking about moving into his girlfriend's apartment after his small place started to flood but miraculously spared all of his comics stock. When a bat is encountered, it spawns a complicated chain of events that involves them driving out to a couple that essentially fosters bats. It's the kind of weird John P. meeting that he seeks out, in part because of his enormous empathy for animals and indeed all living things.

"F For Fear", "Insomnia" and "Tennessee" are more along the lines of his comics-as-poetry that has been an important part of his work for some time. Porcellino makes the first two strips especially unsettling in the way they express his anxieties while trying to sleep. On the other hand, "Bridges of South Beloit" displays Porcellino's natural curiosity about his surroundings and how deep he's willing to go with regard to finding out as much as possible about a particular subject. With regard to that story, he's fascinated by the workmanship, utility and aesthetics of the various bridges. He wonders about and researches why some bridges fall out of use and why others get refurbished. More than anything, John Porcellino looks, really looks, at his environment. His ability and willingness to truly observe and distill the essence of his environment is what makes Porcellino such a fine cartoonist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Minicomics Round-Up: Kelly/Antal, Kowalczuk, Callahan, Tripodi

Scrambled Circuits 1-4, by Cameron Callahan. These are interesting comics in that they represent a creative ground zero for a new cartoonist. Callahan simply started making comics one day to express himself, and while the results are understandably raw, there's definitely something compelling about them. These comics are clearly autobiographical, but Callahan features robot, lizard and monster stand-ins for all of his characters. His own stand-in is Primus, a robot who wears a Ninja Turtle-style mask, while his parents are giant lizards. It's a gimmicky choice that works, because Callahan can draw simple and expressive monsters in a way that he's not quite able to do while drawing people. It also adds a layer of fantasy to his real-life strips, allowing him perhaps to say and draw things that would be more uncomfortable if he was actually drawing those close to him. It's more than a gimmick, though, because one also gets the sense that Callahan feels confused and alienated by the world and his circumstances, and the drawings get across this feeling without being too obvious about it.

The results can be seen in the actual stories. The first issue features anecdotes from working in a bookstore and then later moving to the desert to take care of his dying grandfather, a move that put him in maddening isolation. The second issue contains essays about how we develop personalities, how to deal with bullies and the inception of creativity. The third goes back to more quotidian information, as he moves in with his father, starts art school, starts going out with a girl (in a series of very sweet strips) and gives dating advice to his best friend. The fourth issue sees Callahan going to a bigger format and using other artists to draw his stories. While it's a different look to be sure (and I thought Dylan Canfield's story was perhaps the most effective in the book), I didn't find it more effective than Callahan's own line. Callahan's own chops as a writer have certainly improved from issue to issue. Instead of slightly rambling anecdotes, he's begun to add more structure and more obvious story rhythms to give these stories more punch. That's certainly true in the story about going to a video store with his dad as a teen and being denied a chance to watch anime, as well as a hilarious story about two mothers seeing Callahan and his friends play and discuss esoterica regarding a fantasy card game. The final story, where he shows his mom and his step-dad some of his comics and they read them on the spot, had some remarkable emotional resonance. Callahan is clearly a young artist dedicated to the form, getting better in public and grappling with emotional truths from a number of different angles.

Vreckless Vrestlers #1, by Lukasz Kowalczuk. This is a gleeful bit of nonsense from Polish cartoonist Kowalczuk. It combines the cartoonish and melodramatic glee of professional wrestling with the visceral, nihilistic violence of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit series. They're also a form of cartooning problem-solving, as Kowalczuk tries to make each bout different while finding ways to highlight each of the combatant's abilities in an interesting and clear manner while finishing each one in a satisfying manner. In this issue, The Eye battles the Crimean Crab in a splattering bloodfest that incorporates ringwork, chopped-off hands replaced with sharp implements and a grotesque final-panel reveal. It also features a character named Vegan Cat overcoming the noxious fumes of the Flatwood Monster and shredding it to bit. The reveal here is also pretty nifty, though it comes earlier in the story, robbing it of some of the power the first story possessed. Kowalczuk delights in using a chunky line and over-the-top character dynamics and revels in the sort of American pop culture melange he's created here by combining monsters, pro wrestling and gladiatorial combat.

Black Sheep and Melee, by Diego Tripodi. Tripodi is an Argentinian cartoonist heavily influenced by the likes of Frank Miller and Will Eisner. Mood, shadow and density are the hallmarks of his pages. In Black Sheep, he's also very much influenced by director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune (even naming the locale after the latter) in this story of a man who sacrificed being a samurai to spare a friend and raise his own family. The story opens as the samurai have finally tracked him down and he and his family have to deal with their fate. It's formulaic if well-executed, with all sorts of zip-a-tone, dense and shadowy hatching, ink smudges, extensive use of silhouettes, cinematic transitions and other tricks adding visual excitement to each page There's also an interesting climax with a couple of clever twists.

Melee is an anthology of his short stories and collaborations. The most intriguing one is "Slower Burning", a collaboration with his publisher Jeremy Baum. It's about two young vampires and a painting that captures their image, with one desperate to break out of her circumstances. The use of color is especially effective. "Toy Box Queen" is a sweeter story dominated by brighter colors but also highly influenced by Miller's character design style. It's about a toy soldier and a female doll and their efforts to be together. "Smoke Signal" is a more surreal tale dominated by red and black about the woman in the moon. Once again, it's heavy on Eisner-style noir atmosphere. "Avalanche", about aliens rescuing a man and a dog in the snow, references a lot of European comics, with a touch of Moebius in there for sure. Tripodi seems to be cycling through his influences rapidly, and he would be an ideal illustrator for a long-form fantasy comic.

Tales of the Night Watchman: Staycation and It Came From the Gowanus Canal, by Dave Kelly, Lara Antal & Molly Ostertag. The Kelly-written and Antal-drawn Night Watchman "franchise" is marked by its superhero and supernatural tropes, but it's really a good old-fashioned slice-of-life comic, the kind that used to be far more common twenty years ago. Staycation eschews all of the supernatural aspects of the series and focuses instead on Nora and a friend going on a beach adventure. This is a slight little tale about personal reflection, friendship, loneliness, escape and betrayal. It acts as a prologue for the larger series, and it's interesting that Kelly and Antal have chosen to write so many interstitial stories surrounding the larger stories. It's clear that they want to flesh out the characters as much as possible as well as get to tell stories outside of what is clearly a tighter story arc in the main comic.

It Came From The Gowanus Canal is more of a "monster of the week" story that contains elements of noir and horror along with developing its characters. It's a clever twist on the old mobster movie trope of "cement overshoes", as those murdered by the mob and dumped in the river come to life as the "Gowanus Golem", killing the children of the vicious mobster and his cronies who killed them. It deepens the relationship between the Night Watchman's alter ego (Charlie) and Serena, the young punk who's working in the coffee shop that Nora manages. It adds a level of complication to the relationship between Nora and Charlie, the former of whom wants to be involved in his adventures and the latter who wants to keep her safe and away from danger. It also adds tantalizing clues as to his past and his missing memory. The art from Molly Ostertag is solid, though the action sequences are stiff. The comic also fairly cried for color, as the use of shading was on the dull side. Overall, this is a nice hybrid of the quotidian and the creepy with modest aims.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Two From Conundrum: Alex Fellows and Jimmy Beaulieu

My Neighbour's Bikini, by Jimmy Beaulieu. Originally published by French press Les 400 Coups, this is part of Conundrums BDANG series that translates European comics into English. This is a novella that's about slowing down and looking at one's surroundings; as such, Beaulieu's art is such that almost every panel and page is one that almost demands that the reader linger on it. It looks like the book was shot directly from his soft pencils with no inks. The lively, spontaneous line is given some weight and depth with pencil shading and subtle greyscaling effects. The book's concept is simple: a power outage in Montreal leads a young man to screw up the courage to talk to the young woman who lives across the street from him, as both of them decide to spend time together since the power outage has effectively ended their days.

For the man, slowing down means being less frantic about his writing and need to work. For the woman, it's about calming down and helping others. Their "meet cute" is highly awkward, as he squawks out a series of dumb remarks, but the woman sees enough in his character to tell him some surprisingly intimate stories. When they decide to head to the swimming pool, the story slows down even further, in such a way where one gets the sense that both parties know where this is going and are happy that it's going to happen. The predictability of the story is beside the point; its essence is in freezing that moment, including a reverie the man has where he hopes that this is going to be a great relationship. Beaulieu's affection for the young woman is obvious by the loving way he draws her as a beacon of beauty but especially grace. At the same time, the story is rooted in simple desire, as several sex scenes indicate. It's an easygoing story about slowing down, taking chances, getting off the treadmill of work and really looking around and seeing the world. The book is a feathery trifle, to be sure, but it's a beautiful looking trifle.

Spain And Morocco, by Alex Fellows. This is a crazy book that shifts its gears several times, to ever-more bewildering effect. It's about two guys in their early 20s who decide to blow a bunch of money and go to Spain for a vacation. Walt is a slender, homely and bespectacled artist who loves stealing art supplies from his job who is sexually frustrated but wary of come-ons from women he's not interested. He's the proverbial "nice guy" who in reality has a sleazy and almost predatory quality. Dan is a portly schlub who doesn't have much going on, and Walt has to talk him into going. From the very beginning of the book, both of these characters fully capture the desperation of horny young men in all its unpleasantness. Their behavior is never portrayed as cute or excused as just boys being boys, and there are consequences for their actions. They also don't understand that their lives, tedious though they may be, were at least insulated by a certain set of rules.

On vacation, those rules go out the window when they consort with fellow Americans who are similarly out to ditch their moorings. Once Walt & Dan hit Spain, they meet two young women who seem to be a perfect opportunity to get laid. Things very quickly bizarre when the four go to a restaurant and the owner/waiter/chef starts hitting on one of the women (who happens to be married), while the other, her sister Delphine, sees right through Walt's "nice guy" persona. The waiter disappears, makes Dan chop onions and abandons the party to make time with the woman on the roof. That strange scene devolves into Dan leaving, getting drunk and falling in with a couple of scoundrels on a beach, and Walt going home with Delphine.

Delphine has her own agenda, however, and it involves stringing Walt along as much as possible and including him in a shoplifting scam. She tires of his constant advances, slapping him away when he tries to force himself on her in an inept manner. This leads Walt and Dan to go to Morocco, and that's when the book gets really weird. A woman who takes a shine to Dan is blown up by a bomb mere hours after entering the country. Walt dreams that the Devil has told him that he wants him to suffer because it creates better art and believes this is real. When Dan thinks Walt has gone crazy, the Devil shows up in their hotel room and offers them a deal. He will get them laid if they write down a humiliating memory for him to feast upon.

The next thing they know, they're on a bus and meet two willing American women who astoundingly invite them to stay at their villa. A woman named Trisha has sex with Dan pretty much right away, in a manner almost precisely like how Dan told the Devil he wanted (a minimum of complication and conversation); after he orgasms, she appears to him to be the Devil, all pink and flesh, squirming on top of him. Of course, Dan himself turns into the Devil after devouring a particularly awful memory of high school that Walt illustrated in a totally over-the-top bit of ridiculousness that transforms their experiences from a possible shared hallucination into out-and-out madness. That madness is entirely in thematic keeping with the rest of the book however, so when it happens, it's shocking but logical. The trip brought to the fore a lifetime's worth of embarrassing moments, awkward and painful memories and the naked realization that Dan and Walt weren't much more than pathetic creatures with frustrated desires.

Visually, Spain and Morocco is a demented feast. Fellows' line reminds me a lot of Tim Krieder's: lots of long faces, angular jaws and brows and squinty eyes. There's a fine level of detail here whose purpose is to disgust and never to titillate. Compare this to the loving, lush pencils of Beaulieu that celebrate and objectify bodies: here, the bodies are nothing but objects that look more like pieces of flesh than actual human beings at times. Fellows' use of color is almost always given over to create a contrast between the mostly black and white and fine-line character design. That contrast is meant to evoke the bewildering effect of being in a foreign country; all natives have their skin color depicted but all English-speaking characters are given an ashen appearance. The grotesqueness of the character design mimics the banally debased nature of the characters, as they really give a resigned Devil very little to work with. In the end, the characters don't learn lessons; instead, they simply survive their experiences in a scarred manner that clearly gives them pause. They gave the Devil what he wanted, after all, and it's unclear what their fate is after this.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Brit Comics: The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humour: Volume 2

The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humour Volume Two: The United Kingdom, is a follow-up to the publisher's first volume of humorists from the United States. One of the reasons why Hic & Hoc is one of my favorite new publishers is Matt Moses' dedication to printing actual humor comics, something that had gone out of style for many publishers over time. This volume, edited by Lizz Lunney and Joe List, focuses on quick-punch single page stories for the most part. A few key contributors have multiple strips throughout the book, giving it a nice rhythm while varying the style of humor. Some of the pieces are outright gags, while others are more humorous slice-of-life stories. I'm going to go creator by creator and focus on the most interesting strips in the book.

Luke Pearson: The NoBrow star is better known as being whimsical rather than out-and-out funny. In this book, however, he goes to all sorts of extremes. His first strip is a gross-out effort built around the expectation of a different punchline, subverting the comedy of manners that is the explicit punchline. His second strip once again subverts an initial interaction and goes in a far more absurd direction, as a man ends up in a romantic relationship with a robin and winds up falling out of what turns out to be a tree after sex. His third strip borrows from the Michael DeForge playbook, as what appears to be a personal ad written by a cartoonist is in fact written by a horrifying monster that's a DeForgian nightmare. The fourth strip also plays with his style in a different way, looking more like something out of Paper Rad, as a snooping roommate looks at someone's internet cache and finds some rather distressing search histories. Pearson really stretches his cartooning muscles here rather than do what is expected of him, and as a result he shines the brightest here. 

Lizz Lunney: Lunney's "Alternative Greeting Cards" are one of the funniest things in the book, with entries like "Congratulations on finding your long lost father/commiserations on finding out he's dead" being one of the darker and funnier bits. She uses a simple line to get across her humor that ranges from the absurd to the morbid.

Joe Decie: The autobio cartoonist consistently delivers the laughs here, whether he's talking about the "untidy Decie DNA" that afflicts three generations of slobs, a gag about his brain needing a system update, burying a remote battery and digging it up a week later to gain the satisfaction of having a working remote again, and (best of all) advising the reader to sell things to door-to-door solicitors as a means of driving them away. That's an especially artfully delivered strip, even with the backfire of having one of the salesmen enjoy the comic that Decie tries to sell to him. As always, Decie's slightly scratchy and naturalistic style and extensive use of greys creates a dreamy, pleasant atmosphere for the reader to latch on to.

Philippa Rice: Her strips about sisters are pleasantly grotesque and knowing about familial relationships; here, two sisters try to trick each other into putting raw eggs into tea and cereal. Rice employs a scribbly, scrawled style here where those scribbles filling in space are meant to be apparent. These are funny drawings meant to be looked at as drawings that nonetheless get across a certain kind of familial emotional truth.

Kristyna Baczynski: Her strips about aliens shopping and fossils arguing about whose eternal view is worse are mildly funny, but they are exceptionally well-drawn. Her funny and exaggerated style sells most of the jokes in both cases.

There are some strange strips that aren't conventionally funny, but they are of interest because of their sheer weirdness. Becky Barnicoat's entry about a bear who tries to make friends with children is lovingly rendered with a level of detail not unlike Anders Nilsen; the poor bear makes bizarre statues of children that partly frighten them but mostly drive the brats to get their parents to drive the bear away. James Downing's story of a demented child's show host who has a woman on to recite Pi is the single weirdest story, as she fails and goes on to hide on a mountain for a hundred years. The exaggerated character design and absurd (and occasionally non sequitur nature of the jokes) remind me a lot of Paper Rad. Donya Todd's story about crash landing on a planet is along the same lines visually, leaning toward more DeForge-style use of tiny, squiggly arms in what turns out to be a romp. Isaac Lenkiewicz has an anthropomorphic walrus attacked by naked children, creating a weird atmosphere where they accuse him of being a pervert. It's a story without a pat resolution that is nonetheless absurd in the most anxiety-provoking sense of the word, aided by his clean, beautiful line.

There are silly and less interesting gags as well, like Fred Blunt's scrawled monkey & elephant story where they take turns hurling things at each other, Jonathan Edwards' nonsensical story about onion curses, and Gary Northfield's extended sci-fi ass joke. The two outstanding slice-of-life bits both revolve around popular internet memes/games. Timothy Winchester turns a moment of appreciating nature into a typically demented game of "Would you rather?", expertly turning a rant of protest into a clever resolution thanks to a well-placed story beat panel. Stephen Collins' strip about a teenage boy trying to get over on a girl with a game of "Zombie Bunker Apocalypse" is funny and knowing, especially since the boy doesn't come close to getting over. The other really notable strip belongs to Gareth Brookes, even if it is a bit meta: he lists any number of stupid suggestions for comics people have given him over the years, with one example being the only two worthwhile topics: Chelsea and Chelsea Under-21s. The rest either don't really have much of a punchline or fall into the absurd or parody categories. The anthology clocks in at a tight seventy pages but easily could have been fifty pages and had more of an impact. It was nonetheless a solid effort that spotlights a number of young British cartoonists.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Getting Filthy With Aaron Lange

Aaron Lange is one of a handful of the few truly skilled underground comics pornographers. This is a class of cartoonist that goes beyond the merely perverted, like Robert Crumb and later Rick Altergott, and exploits sex for shock and humorous purposes. Whereas Josh Simmons fuses filth with horror (especially body horror) and Robin Bougie's porn is explicitly and unflinchingly satirical, Lange plays it strictly for laughs. For Lange, there are no lines when it comes to jokes; like the brutally acidic stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik, Lange gleefully crosses and erases all lines of propriety and respect for others. His material is frequently racist, sexist (to the point of misogynistic and beyond), homophobic and sometimes anti-Semetic. He is not only unapologetic about this, but in fact gleefully revels in crossing the line. Perhaps the most offensive of his cartoons was "Anorexic Jew", from Romp #3. At the end of this gag, he asks, "Do I have an Eisner Award yet?" acknowledging and sneering at the comics establishment (and really, polite society as a whole) in one fell swoop.

Of course, like Jeselnik, Lange is extremely skilled in how he constructs his taboo jokes. One thing that's true is that while Lange's Romp material in particular is shock humor, he never lets the shock alone act as the humor. He always has a solid, smart punchline crafted that blends perfectly with his superb drawing ability, all in the service of his decidedly politically incorrect jokes. What sets Lange apart from your average smut-peddler is a willingness to really "spill some ink" about himself and his family in his autobiographical pieces, all of which are uniformly excellent and entertaining. Not since Denny Eichorn started Real Stuff has there been an artist tell so many sordid tales about himself and others, only Lange's stories are more organically whole because he handles both writing and art duties. (Not surprisingly, Lange has drawn a couple of features for Eichorn's newest iteration of his series.)

For example, his "My Grandad" (from Razor Burn #?) is a warts-and-all, matter-of-fact account of his beloved grandfather, who happened to be a member of the Hitler Youth who then fought in the German navy in World War II. It revels in his grandfather's contradictions as a human being; a self-professed "hippie" who nonetheless recalled the good old days when everyone had jobs in Germany because of Hitler. That personal complexity is the key to understanding and enjoying Lange's work, because his personal accounts reveal a loving and caring individual who is also neurotic and possessed a huge self-destructive streak in the past. A good example of this playing out is "Second Handed" (also from Razor Burn), a remarkable story about working with junkie grifters as a used record store clerk. It shows tremendous empathy for the junkies and desperate people he encountered without mythologizing or romanticizing them. These stories are Lange at his best.

On the other hand, "Dumb Cunt Funnies" and "LSD Genie" and "Apocalypse Period" are pandering underground fodder. There's not much humor to be found here, as jokes about women on their menstrual cycle were tired a long time ago. Much better are his "Loneliness is..." and "Sexual Frustration is..." features, which combine stereotypes and cliches with real truths, both personal and generalized. His Archie-inspired "Washington Beach" feature is outstanding as it mocks hipster culture. Admittedly, his targets are a little on the easy and obvious side, but his excellent comic rhythm is at its best when channeled through actual characters. Another highlight of the mostly great Razor Burn is "My Dad", another warts-and-all feature about his father. His dad is a far less polarizing figure than his grandfather but is no less full of contradictions. There is real affection in this portrait and a sense of a no-bullshit relationship between the two of them.

The three issues of Romp that Lange sent on have their moments but are generally less interesting than his more personal work. That said, there are a number of inspired moments. "Incest and Peppermints", a tale of brother-sister incest designed as a form of protest, is so over the top that it can't be taken the least bit seriously. Lines like "Take that, Henry Kissinger!" made me laugh out loud. Similarly, the strips featuring his sexual sad-sack character Hesh tend to be some of the strongest work in these comics because of how ridiculous they are. These are the strips that remind me most of Altergott's gross absurdism, with a strip featuring an Indian man eating Hamburger Helper out of a woman's vagina being the most over-the-top and yet undeniably clever. Hesh and his friends Jazz and Veronica (an S&M enthusiast) all try to push the limits in a deadpan manner that becomes ridiculous thanks to Lange's mastery of perverted situation comedy. He wisely positions Hesh as a loser who's the object of pretty much every punchline, be it humiliating "baby play" or being unable to participate in piss play because he's got an erection.

His most recent comic, Trim #2, displays Lange's best and worst instincts as a cartoonist. On the one hand is a weak-sauce gag like "White Male Privilege." It feels less like a strip by a cutting-edge cartoonist and more like one by a Men's Rights activist. In the strip, there are three scenarios: 1) A woman on a date with a man, telling him that sex is out of the question and asking him to pick up the check; 2) A woman telling a professor he's being denied tenure because of a sexual harassment claim; 3) A young black man harassing a white couple on the street. Lange's attempt at deflating the concept of white male privilege fails spectacularly, because even the examples he brings up are lame. The first panel seems to suggest that men are owed sex, especially if they pay for dinner; the second suggests that sexual harassment is either always falsified or else unimportant; the third conflates the discomfort of being harassed on the street with being harassed (or worse, murdered) by police, discriminated against in real ways that affect quality of life, etc. It's Lange punching down against easy straw man targets. The worse part about the strip is not that I disagree with the politics, but the hacky nature of the gags. It's a disingenuous strip.

On the other hand, his fantasy story "Sexy Alcoholic Girlfriend" takes a certain kind of stereotype and personalizes it in such a way that makes it both funny and intimate. "Clear Autumn Day", Lange's encounter with the Church of Scientology, is equally revealing in that it confronts his depression. The "free personality test" promised at Scientology storefronts showed that all of his test scores were deeply in the negative, with the exception of "motivation", which was high. This alarmed the tester, who said "I'm afraid of what you're motivated to do!" Lange's art is at his best here; a cross-eyed self-portrait with beads of sweat flying off his head and the vastness of outer space behind him, really get at dizzying patter that was thrown his way by the scientologist. Lange's "Six Drawings of Zoe Lund" is a fascinating, affectionate take on the actress/writer/model; each image is naturalistic, yet bears Lange's unique illustrative stamp. Lange loves spotting blacks, uses curly & thick lines liberally and stipples details like lipstick and pupils. He nails Lund's mesmerizing on-screen persona, that sense of great intelligence and unpredictability. "Do You Wanna..." is another one of Lange's dirty, Seussian rhyming schemes, this time devoted to getting drunk. It's disposable but amusing at times.

Lange certainly blurs the line between edgy and puerile. There's a certain palpable glee present in his more transgressive material, like a little kid being caught writing dirty words on a bathroom stall. There's an energy present in these comics that lifts many of them above simple pornography, as Lange takes genuine pleasure in drawing filth and making it funny. The energy in his more serious strips is different; it's manic but almost desperate. Lange obviously has things he wants to get off his chest, and while he usually manages to make the worst of situations sound funny, there's no hiding the desperation, the loneliness and the sheer frustration he feels. That defines his work more than anything: he's an underground cartoonist fully capable of unleashing his id in the most puerile way possible, but he's also in touch with his emotions and how to grapple with them on the page. That freeing of the id is balanced by the weighing of his ego, creating a unique reading experience that's often uncomfortable and frequently hilarious.