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.

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