Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 30: Iris Yan

Iris Yan is a CCS grad who specializes in autobiographical comics, but they always have a peculiar angle. For example, Capulanas And Sweets is about her time spent on the tiny island of Mozambique. Friends is about a variety of friends she lost touch with. Hotline is about her time spent in graduate school as a "liner" for the school's crisis hotline center. Each project sees her use a different visual approach. When the focus is on the personal and a degree of anonymity is important, she draws all of her characters as anthropomorphic animals (her own "totem animal") is a pig. In Capulanas and Sweets, it was important to get across a great deal of detail about her location, so she used a more naturalistic style.

Let's start with that comic first. Capulanas And Sweets is about Yan's time as a volunteer in Mozambique; her job was identifying potential tourist locations for the future community foundation. That's a fancy way of saying that she got to be a tourist who was exploring the local culture and had the ear of what turned out to be a prominent community leader. The comic is divided into small vignettes, as Yan (who is Brazilian with Chinese parents) negotiated a culture where she was very clearly an outsider. Part of that negotiation was learning that hygiene was an issue on the island, from people defecating on the beach because of a lack of toilets to sand appearing in food because it wasn't washed properly. Dealing with politics and political parties was a regular part of life, especially on the many national holidays the island held. While trying to be a creative problem-solver, Yan never held herself apart from the island's population, and was thrilled when prices started to mysteriously drop for her at the marketplace--especially for her beloved capulanas--bright pieces of colorful cloth that could serve as wraps, blankets or be made into virtually anything. Yan has a self-deprecating and disarming way of describing other cultures that serves her well, because unlike the comics of a Guy Delisle, she never comes off as a smug Westerner. Her lifetime of being an "other" both made her accustomed to the treatment she received but also far more respectful of the locals, their customs and traditions. While not a great naturalistic artst, her simple drawings here got the job done in an expressive and stripped-down manner.

Friends was prompted when Yan looked through her phonebook and wondered about the many people she was no longer in touch with, and decided to tell the stories of her friendships with them. It's a fascinating cross-section that cuts across youth to graduate school to the present. The cuteness of her animal figures belies the frequently serious and disturbing breakdowns in relationships, like one friend exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, prompting Yan to put her on a plane to her parents' place. Others include a guy whose breaking up with his girlfriend and leaving town was a happy occasion because Yan was pals with his girlfriend, a boyfriend who prompted her to become a vegetarian, and a friend with few social boundaries who tested her ability to deal with people in general. Throughout the book, Yan keenly examines her own behaviors and role in friendships and love relationships going sour, like unconsciously trying to make one boyfriend look bad in front of her parents and friends. Hints of Yan's spiritual and ethical decision-making are present as well, like being a kid and having a friend who was a Jehovah's Witness try to convert her with Bible stories, or being an adult and learning how to read auras as she alienated a hardcore atheist friend of hers. Yan's matter-of-fact about these conflicts, in part because of the way she draws herself as fairly unflappable. This is not to say that she's emotionless, just that her first instinct is to stay calm in these stories.

Hotline is my favorite of the three comics here. Originally serialized in Maple Key Comics, there's a more assured sense of flow in this comic than in her other work, which tends to meander at times. This comic about joining a finely-honed group of "liners" in helping callers help themselves through a series of mirroring and parroting techniques is fascinating, mostly because the liners themselves have so many psychological problems. (Yan is referred to as "generally fucked up".) Nailing the quotidian details of how training worked, how an average night worked, and how it all ended along with the specifics of how the friendships created with her fellow liners gave more direct insight into Yan's personality and experienced than the two other autobio comics referenced in this article. Part of that is that this comic isn't explicitly about her, but rather an experience she shared. That gave her room to insert her point of view strongly as a way of becoming an entry point for readers. The other reason, I believe, is that this was simply a much more personal comic that deal with sensitive and personal issues. Certain issues that were dodged in the other two comics were an important part of Hotline. Once again, Yan's balance of the absurd and the near-tragic while keeping a deadpan affect throughout is the key to her appeal, with her placid animals characters the perfect mirrors for this approach.

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