Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Koyama For Kids: John Martz & Britt Wilson

Annie Koyama continues to expand her reach into the children's comics arm of the market, and her two publishing choices have entirely different approaches: one is built on gags, and the other is built on propulsive action. John Martz is a gag technician. He has an astonishingly fine-tuned sense of how a drawing can convey humor in as few lines as possible. He's quite skilled at coming up with simple but memorable character designs created to be as flexible as possible. While I've enjoyed much of his other gag work (mostly in Team Society League), his kid's book A Cat Named Tim And Other Stories may well be his best comic. Each gag is well-designed, easy to understand and packs a genuine laugh. I tested the book on my five-year-old daughter to see if she could follow it (she's just learning to read), and the way that Martz continually subverted audiences expectations led to laugh after laugh.

While she enjoyed the adventure comic starring Doug the Duck and his mouse friend, the lack of a specific punchline made it of less interest to her. I found the strip to be flawlessly executed in terms of page composition and the characters had a charming Lewis Trondheim-esque quality to them, but it was less about the gag than it was the journey. On the other hand a basketball gag involving Tim the cat and a trampoline used a simple subversion of expectation and finished with an over-the-top sight gag that had her rolling. Similarly, a gag involving a chemistry experiment and transformations into other characters and different sizes delighted her so much that she demanded multiple readings of these two pages. Martz's cartooning rhythm is so steady that even an inexperienced reader could pick up on how to follow it.

My favorite character was easily Connie the bunny girl, which I felt was one of the best-designed characters I've ever seen in a kid's book. The bunny ears, huge eyes, triangle dress with a plaid pattern and straight hair are so compact, even I could produce a reasonable facsimile of the character. With a character both funny and cute, Martz had room to do some strips that didn't have specific gags (like a day in the life featuring Connie that had a sort of Rube Goldberg quality in terms of all the machines that did things for her) but also put her in more jokey situations, like trying to fish. The book's real masterpiece gag is the last one, featuring Mr and Mrs Hamhock, two pigs waiting for a bus. Using the familiar trope of seasons passing as they waited, Martz carefully let the reader fall into his trap of expecting that passage of time to trigger the joke and then pulls the rug out from under the reader and throws two separate punchlines at the reader. Once again, Martz's mastery of rhythm on the comics page was key in making his constructs effective.

Britt Wilson is less interested in the interlocking nature of static images to create a gag than she is in creating a fluid chain of increasingly frenetic events to create wave after crazy wave of situation-based humor. Her Cat Dad: King of the Goblins, starts off with certain absurd givens that fuel much of the book's humor without needing to provide much explanation. The book follows a family of four and a friend of the kids. Of course, the mom has turned the dad into a cat, and the kids' friend is a talking frog. Using a frantic and elastic character design style reminiscent of Kyle Baker, Wilson's bright colors pop at the reader as much as her linework does. The book follows the disappearance of their dad into a linen closet that's the gateway to the kingdom of the Goblins, who have named Dad as their new leader.

The kids endeavor to get him back in a series of chase sequences, narrow escapes and generalized peril. There's no real sense of danger, however, as Wilson is careful to make even the Goblins look sort of cute, even if they are trying to menace them. Eyes bulge, bodies stretch and distort as they go into motion and are propelled both by the environment and their own energy, yanking the reader along with them. Once the adventure starts, the book's pacing is breathless. That said, the brightness of the colors and Wilson's rendering skills give the book a flamboyant decorative quality that nonetheless doesn't interfere with the book's pacing. The reader is encouraged to stop and take a look around, but not for too long. One unstated aspect of the book that I found pleasant was that this is a family of color (possibly multiracial), a factoid that had no bearing on the story but was still unusual enough in such books to stand out.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Help Out Sparkplug Comic Books

I've been following Sparkplug since its inception over a decade ago. Publisher Virginia Paine is running a kickstarter to help fund the publication of two books: the collected Vortex by William Cardini and the final issue of Reich, by Elijah Brubaker. Both are worthy projects that have received multiple positive reviews here at High-Low, so please consider donating to the cause.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Some Ramblings on SPX 2014

This is year four of the Warren Bernard era of SPX, and the show remains as strong as ever. I've been discussing the show with some long-time veterans, and it's interesting to see how the show has evolved over twenty years. There are several distinct generations of exhibitors and attendees that have slowly changed the show's character in some ways, even as the fundamental tension of a (mostly) non-juried show has remained the same. Let's break that down a little in terms of various generations:

1. The Underground and First-Wave Alt-Cartoonists. They've never been a part of the show's social culture, but their presence always looms when they are special guests or pop in to get a table. I know that this year's theme, Alt-Weekly Cartoonists of the 1980s, was a personal pet project of his, but I'd say 80% of the attendees didn't care about the older cartoonists. The Drew Friedman panel I moderated, for example, had an audience turnout of maybe two dozen. This is not a critique; indeed, I think it was important to have this kind of focus on that kind of cartooning. It's just that SPX is a show where it's possible for several different people to have several different kind of experiences, and the ones skewing toward older cartoonists was highly specialized.

2. The Xeric Generation. This is a generation of cartoonists who started their careers anywhere from 1990 through 1999, which was roughly the bulk of the former comics grant's prime years. This is the generation that built SPX, especially in terms of its culture, and is now anywhere between 35 and 50 years old. Think Tom Hart, Megan Kelso, Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Tom Devlin's Highwater Books, James Kochalka, etc. Members of this generation have sometimes faded away from the show after they were no longer its lifeblood, only to return in more recent years. Also in this group were the wave of more mainstream cartoonists who happened to be small pressers, creating a split for both exhibitors and attendees alike. This split has been repeated along similar lines but by different means in later years.

3. The Kramer's Generation. This is a small group of slightly younger cartoonists who started attending the show roughly between 2000 and 2005. This was when the current renaissance of alt-comics was just beginning to flower and mainstream book publishers started tossing around book deals in an effort to cash in. I'm thinking Julia Wertz, Mike Dawson, Liz Baillie, etc.

4. The CCS Generation. Marking the move of the show from Bethesda to North Bethesda in its current location, a new generation of young cartoonists, led in increasing numbers each year by the Center for Cartoon Studies, established a new culture at SPX. This was the first time the show became jarringly younger, which was fitting given SPX passing the ten year mark. Many people grew up going to the show and were now ready to make their mark. This also gave birth to a new split in the show: alternative cartoonists vs webcartoonists. Many of the latter did the sort of more mainstream comics that used to be embraced by a whole different crowd at SPX; Kate Beaton is a great example. For the first time, it started to become difficult to actually cover the entire show. The influence of the Kramer's Generation waned here, even as some of them stuck it out and became significant presences. Chuck Forsman, Joseph Lambert and many others from comics programs that started to become serious about publishing are represented here.

5. The Tumblr Generation. Covering roughly the past five years, this represents an entire generation of cartoonists who publish online prior to working in print. This also applies to their fans, many of whom are teens. This is the most diverse of all generations, in terms of gender, race and sexual orientation. Sam Alden and Michael DeForge are good examples. While this generation is also the most diverse in terms of subject matter, they seem to have less crossover with prior generations than any other age group. The new influx of micropublishers are an exception to this rule.

So my old truism about two different kinds of fans having entirely different kinds of shows at SPX has now split even further. To be sure, there's plenty of crossover in generations from both the more mainstream and alternative sides of the fence, but there are plenty of Sam Alden fans who seemed to have no interest in Fantagraphics' offerings, and vice-versa.

With all of these groups present at the show, and the subsequent and sensible expansion of the show as a result, it's no longer remotely possible to see everything one wants if someone had a broad range of interests. I'm not sure if it would be cost effective, but SPX needs a third day. The show didn't quite have the huge critical mass of two years ago (with Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers), but it didn't really need it, either. Most of the creators I talked to did well. Some did record numbers, some did slightly less well than in recent years, and many were relatively pleased but not overwhelmed. A few reported dismal sales. This is pretty much the new steady-state at the show. It's not going to get any bigger in terms of its physical space, nor will there be more cartoonists exhibiting. However, in a show where 700 cartoonists are competing for the money of fewer than 5,000 attendees, the reality is that even though SPX's congoers come armed with cash, there's only so much money to go around.

What's interesting is that a lot of buyers are looking for value over quantity. A solid $20 collection of stories was as likely to go as a $2 mini. Several folks I talked to who are six or seven issues into their minicomics series found a few buyers wanting to buy the whole run. Prints sold extremely well. What all of this adds up to is that the new, bigger SPX (now in its second year) is for the most part economically sustainable. I think what we'll wind up seeing is that those who suffered from the dilution effect of there being so much competition will choose to drop out of the lottery and instead attend other events. Their place will be eagerly taken by yet another young cartoonist eager to show after attending the event. The programming and floor plan alleviated any significant logjams on the floor. Things were busy, but my movement was never impeded. Putting the big publishers with signings that would attract lines near the exits was a big help in this regard. Warren Bernard and his brain trust thought a lot of things through and have done as much as possible to create a comfortable environment for exhibitors and attendees alike.

That includes a lot of value-added stuff. The SPX Prom, a dance event, made sense given the "camp comics" vibe of the weekend and the overall youth of its participants. There was the hilarious Simon Hanselmann "wedding to comics" that followed the Ignatz Awards, complete with a five-piece brass band. Then there was the food and usual chocolate fountain. There's one suggestion so obvious for an afterparty event that I'm stunned that the organizers haven't implemented it yet: SPX karaoke. This used to be a tradition at the show about a decade ago, but it was always at a club away from the show. Setting up one of the meeting rooms with a machine seems like a slam dunk.

Regarding the Ignatz awards, Rob Kirby's QU33R winning best anthology is a milestone. Kirby was only the second queer-identified creator to win an Ignatz, and this book is an uncompromising look at queer comics of the present. To win a mainstream award says a lot both about the quality and appeal of the book as well as the kind of voters present at the show. As another breakthrough, Cathy Johnson became the third person self-identified as queer to win a brick and the second at this show. Jason Shiga and Sam Alden joined the multiple brick club with their second Ignatz wins. Only 35 artists have won more than once. Jillian Tamaki impressively joined the four brick club, tying her with Michael DeForge and James Kochalka. Only four cartoonists have won more than four. Many of the winners reflect the necessity of a strong internet presence. That's certainly true for Sam Bosma and Meredith Gran, but Jason Shiga's Demon has gained a lot of steam on the web, and Sophie Goldstein was smart enough to put her House of Women online for free the week prior to the awards.

One of the best things about the Bernard era is his commitment to an international presence at the show. This was a hallmark of the show in its early days, thanks in part to SPX's former alliance with ICAF, but it dropped off for a while after that. Once again, there were cartoonists from England, Australia and New Zealand, with Pikitia Press doing a great job of representing both of the latter countries. However, the presence of Fremok (a Franco-Belgian publisher) and Revista Larva (from Columbia) was the most exciting for me because this was the first appearance of both at SPX. Fremok's jam-packed little table had some astounding gems; I picked up the (heretofore unknown to me) fifth issue of the two-man anthology Eiland, as well as books featuring Dominique Goblet and Yvan Alagbe. I had an extended conversation with the folks at Revista Larva, who talked to me about how alternative comics are spreading across Latin America, ripe to be translated into English for some enterprising publisher.

Perhaps course-correcting for the show's focus on the work of cartoonists from thirty years ago, Bernard announced that next year's show will focus on 21st century cartooning. The line-up will include Michael DeForge, Luke Pearson, Matt Bors, and Lilli Carre'. That's a nice line-up of creators, to be sure, but it's not much different from the line-up from the last couple of years. I'll be curious to see how Bernard is able to spice this up a bit more. All indications point to few other changes: the lottery/juried mix will continue to be in effect, as will the increased number of tables. I imagine they'll keep the prom and hopefully expand on afterparty activities as I suggested above. The only other thing I can suggest is to add Fridays back to the show, keeping it open from something like 2pm to 8pm. The vast majority of the cartoonists are at the show already on Friday, and there could be another social event Friday night (perhaps the aforementioned karaoke that I suggested) or a big speaker. I know that this would be a big step in terms of cost for the show, but given the increased difficulty in navigating the room now (Bernard himself calculated that one is limited to three minutes per table if every table was to be visited!), it might be time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Catching Up With Sam Alden

Sam Alden has come a long way since I reviewed some of his earlier work, deservedly winning the Promising New Talent award at the Ignatz Awards in 2013. He's since proven to be a restless talent, constantly looking to refine his work in new and interesting ways.

Let's begin with It Never Happened Again, his release from Uncivilized Books. It contains two stories: "Hawaii 1997" (which was nominated for an Ignatz last year and was in many ways his stylistic breakthrough) and "Anime" (a far more ambiguous story that reflects many of his current storytelling concerns). When I first wrote about Alden, he was drawing in the highly naturalistic, detailed style of a Craig Thompson or Nate Powell. An initial breakthrough came in the crazy Brazilian anthology GBGB and his surreal, viscerally erotic story "Fluxo"; this story seemed to find Alden giving himself permission to break a lot of cartooning rules and start to simplify his line. "Hawaii 1997" not only finds Alden stripping his line all the way down to pencils, it's done in the most spontaneous, expressive manner possible. The story really looks like what many artists would consider to be breakdowns for a story they redraw in greater detail later, but the nature of this particular story demanded a different approach.

It's about a ten-year-old Alden on vacation with his family and just beginning to become curious about sex, as the opening sequence with him shyly peeping on an older girl sunbathing reveals. Later, he leaves his beachside room when everyone else was asleep to take in the vista of the ocean at night. Here, we can see how his visual strategy pays off: there are times when one's surroundings take on a visual quality that seems magical, almost hyper-real. In expressing these memories and the various senses involved in the experience, Alden plays with the reader a bit. At one point, young Sam takes off his glasses, turning the nearby hotel into a smudge on the page. With his glasses back on, it's remarkable how clear the pencil drawing is in depicting the setting, even if the drawings are simplified. Of course, this is all prologue to the real meat of the story: meeting a girl about his age who simultaneously harangues and flirts with him. When she suddenly decides to run through the fairly dense palm trees on the beach, he chases after her. At this point, the "camera" points away from Sam and instead we see through his eyes, watching the shadows and bright starlight cascade across her running form. We can almost feel him running, hear his strained breath as he pursues her. When she finally stops, he awkwardly introduces himself. That simply prompts her to run away again, and before she disappears entirely on a golf course, she says "You will spend the rest of your life trying to find me." It's simply the best and worst thing anyone could say to another person; it's a phrase that burns into one's consciousness and is the first of two reasons why the collection is titled the way it is.

"Anime" opens with a girl named Janet planning her escape in the form of a vacation to Tokyo with her boyfriend. She's an outsider who's a huge anime enthusiast, imagining that a trip to the promised land will finally put her in a place and a culture where she finally fits in and is understood. Here, Alden mixes sympathy and derision for his character; he's obviously sympathetic toward her feelings of alienation (especially as she's frequently derided in her tourist-oriented job), but is less forgiving of her attempts at cultural appropriation in lieu of having an actual personality of her own. That's especially true when it comes at the expense of her connections with others, especially her boyfriend. Still, the last panel of the story, where she receives a huge compliment, once again ties into the book's title: a moment that is pure and wonderful but entirely fleeting. This is where the reader is left, even as one senses that things are not going to go well for her. Once again, light and shadow play a huge role in this story, as the passage of time is often aided by their interplay. Alden shows more facial detail in this story, which is both crucial to the story (reading Janet's emotional expressions is a powerful indicator of the story's narrative) and appropriate given that the softer pencil work in the first story befits the fuzzier memories of a child.

Alden's story Household was another big breakthrough that came out a bit after "Hawaii 1997". It's a far darker story, almost a horrible mirror image of "Hawaii 1997" wistful memories being warped into an ugly adulthood where grown-up children have no sense of emotional or physical boundaries because of trauma. Here, Alden's pencil style focuses even further on light and shadow, with a remarkable amount of hatching giving physical form to the seething emotions just under the surface. The simplified drawing style also gives Alden the freedom to go a bit broad when his characters express emotion--especially when those emotions are raw and ugly. The story follows a young man named Tim visiting his older sister Celeste in New Orleans; the aim is to stay with her for an open and extended period of time. Family troubles are alluded to early in the story, with Celeste diminishing them. When the physical and emotional boundaries between the two break down in inappropriate ways, Tim acts out, gets intentionally fired from his job and threatens to leave, even as specific images flash through his head of him and his sister. The story concludes with an extended look back at Tim and Celeste as kids, kidnapped by their father and kept in a seedy hotel room.

The critic Sean T. Collins thought that Alden came down way too hard on Celeste seducing her brother in an interview. That's not how I read the story, though. I saw Celeste as every bit as damaged as Tim, and the role she played in his life was always that of a flawed protector. As a kid, she did what her dad told her to do, which obviously had a traumatic effect quite separate from what Tim experienced. At the same time, she protected her brother and was both a mother and sister figure to him at times. However, her own father issues (and physical & sexual abuse is at the very least implied, especially with regard to the way she acted out sexually in later life) made her exactly the wrong kind of person to be in his life, especially since she wasn't able to set a boundary to stop Tim's obviously unresolved feelings for her. Neither of them had the capacity to function as adults in terms of relationships, which further makes sense in the way that Tim acted out to get fired instead of simply quitting. The one flaw in the story is that Alden felt the need to use the metaphor of a bird building a nest on a ladder and then stacking twigs from the ground up in a vain effort to stabilize an already tenable situation. At the end of the story, we see the ladder and nest are both gone, just as Tim's attempts at creating a stable life have been demolished. While an interesting visual, it felt just a bit too obvious.

Wicked Chicken Queen, a book published by Retrofit, combines Alden's pencils-only approach with the surrealism of Fluxo. Alden is big on using single-panel splash pages and tends to avoid using a grid, giving his comics an open feel that emphasizes each page as a single unit and image. Wicked Chicken Queen has the flavor of being a children's book in terms of its fairy tale qualities along with the way it leads the reader's eye across the page in a deliberate, winding manner. The character design is killer, with the denizens of the story's small island having a single, huge eye in lieu of other facial features. Alden works sloppy and loose with the figures when they're running around but tightens up when it comes to the fairy tale backgrounds, a juxtaposition that works well because it causes the eye to move in different ways. The story itself, which is about a woman finding an egg that eventually hatches into a "slithering monstrosity" but grows into a beautiful and intelligent chicken. She eventually marries the woman who discovers her, and then disappears from public view when her wife dies. The story then jumps ahead, as the island's society grows into a modern one and forgets the Chicken Queen, until she suddenly emerges and starts wreaking havoc before her death. It's a story about faith and foundations that lurk in a society's collective unconscious that emerge in surprising and often disturbing ways. It's also a bit like the Shelley poem Ozymandias in that it's about a powerful cultural force that has been forgotten in the sands of time, though in this case the power of that force is such that it had a lingering influence. The title itself is intentionally deceptive, as the Chicken Queen is quite noble for most of the story and only becomes destructive after she was forgotten, lonely and near death. That loneliness is recapitulated by the narrating character at the end of the story, who feels a lack in herself but can't quite pin it down. This is the comic, and Alden's career, in its essence: trying to find and hold onto moments of connection in an avalanche of loneliness and alienation.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Seventeen Creators and Publishers To See at SPX 2014

I've been doing SPX preview columns for a long time now, yet I never run out of new creators to spotlight. I don't need to tell readers to drop by Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Sparkplug, Tugboat, Koyama (especially Koyama--all of their new debuts are excellent), 2D Cloud, Uncivilized Books, NoBrow, Self-Made Hero, Oily Comics, Revival House, AdHouse, Secret Acres, etc. Michael DeForge, Sam Alden, Josh Bayer, John Porcellino and Noah Van Sciver will be at the show; my list of cartoonists to seek out stands at over 200! Here are some highlights and some cartoonists you may not have heard of, plus a few plugs for projects I was involved in and the panel I'm moderating.

1. Press Gang. (Table J4) The combined forces of StudyGroup magazine (Zack Soto, above, middle), Floating World Comics (Jason Levian, above, left) and Francois Vigneault's (above, right) comics are represented at a single table. The big debut is that of StudyGroup Magazine #3D, in which I have an article about publisher/writer/editor Ryan Sands. This gorgeous art object will likely be one of the books of the show, my contributions aside. They'll be hot off the press and just in time for the show.

2. Pikitia Press. (Table B4) Located in Melbourne, Australia, Matt Emery's publishing concern features work from the most cutting-edge and avant garde of both Australian and New Zealand comics. At a minimum, I'd recommend Deep Park by David Mahler and Sarah Laing's comics.

3. Mari Naomi. (Table M9) I blurbed Mari's latest book, Dragon's Breath. It's a co-production of Minneapolis publishers Uncivilized Books and 2D Cloud. Here's what I had to say about it: "In Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories, MariNaomi weaves a crazy-quilt of despair, hope, lost loves, new beginnings, horrible regrets, hilarious memories, and above all else, survival. Her beautiful, spare line imparts the greatest possible emotional impact, creating a delicate storytelling rhythm built on restraint, subtlety and total vulnerability. Her short autobiographical anecdotes create a gestalt of a person who has lived and viewed life with a curious intellect and her heart on her sleeve." This about sums it up. I would that this book is an interesting mix of the people she's encountered in her life that have either hurt her or whom she may have inadvertently hurt, like in "What's New Pussycat?", a story about an awkward guy that she yelled at about his weird behavior who later killed himself. Another strip about hearing a violently abusive fight in a hotel room brought to mind her own past in abusive relationships and how the noise made must have affected (or not affected) others. This is a heartbreaking yet emotionally cathartic comic, and her stripped-down style is a beautiful fit for the keen focus of her emotional experiences. She'll be at the 2D Cloud table.

4. Drew Friedman. (Table 57-61) Friedman is a legend, and I feel like his first appearance at SPX isn't getting quite enough hype. I'll be moderating his Q&A panel on Saturday at 5pm in the White Oak Room. We'll be talking about his new book, Heroes of the Comics, as well as other highlights from his career and the new comics story he just had published. Friedman is a great storyteller as well as an amazing artist, so I expect this to be a witty, fast-moving panel. Friedman will also be at the Fantagraphics table.

5. Fremok. (Table W69) This Franco-Belgian publisher is also set to make their first appearance at SPX, repped by Yvan Alagbe (above, left) and Dominique Goblet (above, right). The former will debut his new book Ecole de la Misere and the latter Plus Si Entente. This is the cutting edge of Eurocomics.

6. Closed Caption Comics. (Table K4) Ryan Cecil Smith (above), Noel Freibert and Conor Stechschulte are all scheduled to appear for this group of former MICA students who banded together in the form of anthologies and individual works. These three artists offer their own bizarre takes on science-fiction, horror and other genre work, using a broad array of cultural influences to make these works personal while slyly and satirically commenting on their tropes.

7. Jason Shiga. (Table N1-2) One of my ten favorite cartoonists in the world, Shiga's Demon series just finished its fifth issue. Shiga's work is funny, frequently absurd, and deeply nihilistic at times. He finds ways to keep the reader engaged, whether it's through his choose-your-own-adventure books, his warped takes on genre comics or even his hilarious semi-autobiographical comics. There's no one quite like him.

8. Revista Larva. (Table M12) This Columbia-based anthology series has some of the most interesting work being published in South America. The international scope of SPX has always been one of its greatest strengths, and there's a large group of Latin American cartoonists who will be present at the show.

9. The CCS-oriented critical mass of Table L. The Center for Cartoon Studies has maintained a strong presence at SPX since its inception, and when they get to sit en masse, they make quite an impact. This year, Table L alone will feature Rachel Dukes, Laura Terry, Romey Benson, Josh Lees, Laurel Lynn Leake (above, right), Laurel Holden, Melanie Gillman, April Malig (above, left), Luke Howard, Sasha Steinberg, Adam Whittier, Allie Kleber, Joyana McDiarmid, Amelia Onorato, Alexis Cornell, Colleen Frakes and Carl Antonowicz. Table N will have a cluster featuring Beth Hetland, Josh Kramer, Dakota McFadzean, Pat Barrett, Ben Horak, and JP Coovert. There's also Oily Comics with Chuck Forsman and Melissa Mendes. Sean Ford will be with Secret Acres. There will undoubtedly be more not on the official list, and each of these artists is worthy of your attention.

10. Sophie Yanow. (Table M10-11--Uncivilized Books). One of my favorite young autobio cartoonists, Yanow's smart takes on politics and culture surround her own personal observations about protests and trying to make the political personal. Her sharp, sketchy and angular artwork is wonderful to behold.

11. Daryl Seitchik. (Table N7) Another outstanding young semi-autobio cartoonist, Seitchik's takes on growing up are funny, melancholy and pointed. Her minimalist style carries a surprising amount of power and impact. She'll have a new issue of her excellent Missy series, out from Oily Comics (Table J1)

12. Andrea Tsurumi, Alex Rothman and the Comics-as-Poetry table. (Table A13) I strongly recommend the Rothman-edited Inkbrick anthology, but these artists are among the few who actively engage in comics-as-poetry as the bulk of their work. The godfather of comics-as-poetry, Warren Craghead, will also be at the show.

13. Ed Luce. (Table K7) One of the premier young cartoonists, his Wuvable Oaf series is a spectacular take on music scenes, romance and cultural weirdness. It's one of several comics with queer themes that has a big crossover audience.

14. Marnie Galloway. (Table N12) Her beautiful and lyrical series In The Sounds And Seas, will see a second issue debut at the show. Galloway is a superb draftsman who creates hypnotic visual patterns that recapitulate the poetic themes of her work.

15. Sam Sharpe. (Table C7) His View-O-Tron #2 is a deserving Ignatz nominee and one of the best comics I read last year. It's an anthropomorphic comic (much like Jason's work) about his mom's mental illness and how it has affected him over the years.

16. Sophie Goldstein.  (Table C6) I wanted to single her out amongst the many other CCS cartoonists in part because she's up for an Ignatz award, but also because of the general excellence of her work. I've rarely seen a cartoonist make a huge leap from good to excellent in such a short span of time. Her use of sci-fi tropes to tell stories about women is fascinating and part of a larger movement to reclaim genre fiction and bend it in a more personal direction.

17. Cartozia. (Table C13-14) Editor Isaac Cates (above, with Bully) will have Shawn Cheng, Mike Wenthe, Lucy Bellwood and Lupi McGinty at his table. I imagine Jen Vaughn will make an appearance at some point as well. This all-ages fantasy series is beautifully conceived and executed and works as both a narrative and a fascinating example of the use of editing to create collaborative comics.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Voyage of the Damned: Ship Of Soiled Doves

Nils Balls is one of the many talented independent cartoonists out of Pittsburgh. His first book, Ship of Soiled Doves, takes on the events of a particularly sordid moment in American history and uses it to expose hypocrisy at the highest levels. During the American Civil War, a steamship was ordered to transport a hundred prostitutes from Nashville to Louisville. Many of them were disease-ridden and all of them were outraged at the indignity of being herded like cattle. Aboard the ship known as the Idahoe, these "Idahoe Gals" quickly turned the order of the hilariously priggish and status-seeking captain into total chaos. This was done in the middle of a particularly brutal summer, so everyone involved was already in a bad mood to begin with. When every port of call refused to accept the "cargo" (with a few exceptions here and there), things got worse and worse on the ship as the already-feeble authority of the captain and the few soldiers granted to him as to keep order were summarily killed or thrown overboard.

Balls' scratchy, expressive style reminds me a great deal of Vanessa Davis' work, especially with regard to the way he's able to draw so many different kinds of women's bodies. Propriety was not exactly a priority for these women, especially in the hot summer, so nudity proved to be the rule for many on the ship. Sex for them was a form of currency but also pleasure, expression, control and power, one they exercised early and often. They are not portrayed monolithically, to be sure; some of the women are vicious killers, others are survivors, and yet others just want to live a life of freedom. There's certainly a line connecting them to outcast pirates, down to the way they take over the ship and run their bloomers up the mast as a flag. The military is portrayed as corrupt when it is not incompetent, which is actually historically quite accurate for the most part. The Union had a huge advantage in terms of population and industrial might in the war, but their incompetent leadership allowed the Confederacy to stretch the war out for years. That's reflected in the humorous newspaper "articles" that Balls has as section breaks. Some of them are facts, like reports on the battle of Gettysburg and Vicksburg tempered by the Union's inexplicable failure to pursue fleeing and desperate Confederate armies. Others are larks, as Balls puts his friends in silly articles. I found myself wishing the printing in the book was a little sharper, as the book lost some of its snap in the way its greys were printed. That said, the landscape format and the loose page layout were both quite clever, as he frequently eschewed the use of a traditional grid or panels. That gave the book a dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) quality.

One can see that Balls has quickly developed as an artist. The minicomic Skeleton Balls Comics is much rougher-looking than Ship of Soiled Doves. Balls shows his interest in history's more delightfully sordid moments early on, as a strip about the history of the beer Porter is funny and drawn in a bigfoot style. There's a later gag that somehow interpolates beer into the plot of It's A Wonderful Life that's also amusing. "All God's Creatures" features some excellent pencil drawings that flip between tight and sketchy as a boat sails across the ocean and the voyagers discover an island filled with friendly natives. Unfortunately, the sailors are invested with germs, cleverly depicted by Balls as bug-sized, and the island's population is decimated. It's a silent strip where Balls' linework carries the whole thing effortlessly. Another Balls specialty is strips where god is depicted as an all-seeing eye. In this silent, impassive form, the acts of god as depicted in the Bible seem especially cruel and capricious. In a final merging of his familiar tropes, there's a funny debate between Jesus and the Devil about drinking, culminating in Christ asking that the bartender get his mother some ice for her Chardonnay. One can see the bigfoot tendencies and predilection for satire present in these earlier strips, and Balls certainly honed the sharpness of both his images and writing for Ship of Soiled Doves.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Idols Under The Microscope: Heroes of the Comics

One of Drew Friedman's greatest assets as an artist is his restlessness. He has a restless eye that finds beauty in cultural detritus, those abandoned by the culture and those that the cultural industries have exploited. His restless hands saw him change his style of expression midway through his career and emerge as an even better artist. He has flipped from comics to illustration to caricature throughout his career, giving even the most banal of commercial assignments a strange sense of depth, even if that depth is less than flattering. As he mentions in a future strip, he is drawn to "cast-off American artifacts" like The Three Stooges, schlocky horror movies and other forms of b-culture. He's also fascinated by artists who continue to persevere into old age and loves to depict the ravages in time, in open defiance of our culture's obsession with youth and youth culture. His Old Jewish Comedians series is proof of that, as he set out to honor dozens of working comedians but not to hide a single wrinkle or liver spot.

His latest project brings Friedman back to comics, his first obsession. In Heroes of the Comics, he drew 83 plates' worth of caricatures of the men and women who were the pioneers of the comic book industry. Each is accompanied by a short biographical essay. Reading the book, a few themes emerge. Friedman isn't shy about addressing those artists who were exploited by the work-for-hire contracts that dictated they receive no share of future earnings in other media. Nor does he shy away from openly discussing controversies about credits for comics, and who deserves to be known for what. Too many of the biographies end with a sentence that reads like "and then he gave up comics in the early sixties to pursue a more lucrative career in advertising". I would have liked to have seen a little more detail for some of the bios; I thought the John Stanley bio glossed over him leaving comics in burned-bridges style, for example. 

That said, the real commentary in the book is found in the illustrations, not the text. The project started as a commission for Will Elder's family. Then he decided to do another caricature of his long-time collaborator, Harvey Kurtzman. That led him to doing portraits of all the EC artists, of whom Friedman was a life-long fan. When he finished those, he realized that he had a book on his hands. The rest of his choices were either obvious choices like Jack Kirby or Siegel & Schuster or else far more obscure choices like Dick Briefer. (The Dan Nadel-edited Art Out Of Time was a frequently name-checked resource for Friedman.) He also went out of his way to include three women and two African-Americans; he was almost apologetic about the parade of white men in the book but did note that there wasn't a tremendous amount of diversity in the early comic book industry.

What's remarkable about so many of the portraits is that Friedman manages to capture something essential about each artist or writer--especially those who met grim fates. For example, consider the Bill Everett portrait. The crooked smile, the cigarette in hand, his slightly wild-eyed expression and the body language all fit in with his status as a cartooning lifer who faced a lot of inner demons and alcohol issues. Will Eisner's portrait is that of a man quite comfortable with his fame and status, even as he's aged way beyond his prime (those liver spots are a tell-tale sign for Friedman). Bob Kane's status as a man who unfairly took credit for the work that Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and many others did over the years is encapsulated by the Joker-like smirk on his face, complete with a purple handkerchief! The sleazier characters in the book are made to look sleazy. Stan Lee looks every bit the carny huckster he's projected as his persona for decades. 
So many of the artists portrayed here look haunted or simply beaten down. The Wally Wood portrait, where we see him looking down, shakily lighting a cigarette, is enough to move one to tears. Even the space background representing his work doesn't mitigate that sense of weariness he obviously wore. Kurtzman's tired expression is one of an artist who never quite got what he deserved when he fought for his rights. For Jack Kirby, we see him staring off into space, contemplating the worlds he has in his imagination.

Friedman often works in details from the artist's work into the portraits. John Stanley can be found sketching Little Lulu into the sand (how's that for a metaphor regarding the impermanence of credit for a comic book artist!). Otto Mesmer's spectacles and slightly bugged-out eyes resemble those of his creation, Felix the Cat. Matt Baker was known to be an artist who drew glamorous women, but he was also a glamorous looking fellow and Friedman emphasizes that handsomeness. The same can be said for Frank Frazetta, who looks ruggedly handsome in the same manner as the barbarians he became known for drawing. A number of the caricatures are drawn in an affectionate manner, like emphasizing Marie Severin's smile and dimples or John Severin's crazy cowboy hat and cigar. My favorite portrait in the book is that of Alex Toth. It's the only one that's in black and white, and it puts Toth in a defiant, aggressive pose. The notoriously independent-minded and sometimes fractious Toth gets a portrait that fits his personality, and the black & white nature of the drawing reflects the best of his work. 

It's not just the faces that Friedman nails in all their craggy, wrinkled glory. I've rarely seen an artist who is able to draw clothing with such an astounding sense of accurate detail but also cartoony exaggeration. That goes double for his mostly restrained use of color, which emphasizes but never overwhelms his powerful line. The way he draws the slick-back haired of these (mostly) men is also remarkable; the slickness is so visceral that one can almost smell the hair tonic. The final plate of the book, which depicts an elderly Dr Frederic Wertham, is one of the most interesting. This "villain" of the comics is shown here in repose on a chair, a blanket pulled up over his chest as he seems to be about to take a nap. In his own mind, he was a hero trying to protect the nation's youth, a stance he perhaps backed away from later when he wrote a book about fanzines. Like so many others depicted in this book, he was a professional who worked hard at what he did, but he certainly put glory ahead of everything else. This made him human and flawed, like Kane and Lee, even if his flaws had real collateral damage. It's a sympathetic portrait in many ways, showing him as fragile and even broken as so many of the older artists depicted in the book, though far less defiant and with a lot less ink on his fingers. Friedman wanted as many portraits as possible done in the artists' studios, because he admired their absolute dedication to their craft when they practiced it above everything else. It's Friedman's grateful but clear-eyed salute to their work, craft that has allowed him to be a lifer like so many in the book.