Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Short Run Offers A Self-Publishing Grant

The exciting new comics festival Short Run in Seattle has introduced The Dash, a publishing grant plus some remarkable perks. If you're planning to make it there anyway, then this grant is perfect for minicomics makers.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Comics-as-Poetry Anthology Now Accepting Submissions

The excellent UK cartoonist Tom Humberstone asked me to pass this along to interested parties: He and poet Chrissy Williams received a grant to publish an anthology of comics-as-poetry and they're looking for submissions. Here's more info:

"Main points:
1. The deadline is June 12th
2. The comic can be anything between 1-6 pages long
3. The page specifications are: 230mm (h) x 152mm (w) with a 3mm bleed.
4. Preferably saved as 600dpi CMYK TIF files.
5. If the poem comic is selected for publication in the anthology, we will be able to offer £50 ($78) per page.
6. The work must be previously unpublished." 

Go here for more information.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Minicomics Round-Up: Fulton, R.Jordan, Willems, Van Deusen

Hone, Brothers and We'm, by Andrew Fulton. Fulton loves to work small, and these three minis are very much in the same vein as his other weird, visceral and slightly disgusting but cute work. Brothers is a surprisingly touching comic that starts off with the horror of one's brother turning into a huge, formless blob of a creature, then turns into a matter-of-fact description of living with him and ends on a warm note of familial love. Fulton's cute line and use of effects like spot color and zip-a-tone spice up what is otherwise a sparely-illustrated comic. Hone is a sort of mad scientist break-up comic, wherein a handyman uses a giant phone to send himself across the line to an ex-girlfriend now living with another man. He's scrambled and reduced to thousands of tiny versions of himself, several of whom manage to wind up on her. It's a creepily endearing comic, especially in the way he drew the tiny floating men to look almost like sheep. We'm is another unsettingly cute comic about the last survivor of humanity landing on a far-off planet and discovering that he'd been cloned, and that the clones kept coming--except most of them were defective. It's a story about loneliness, company and doing what is necessary to not only survive, but also to recreate civilization. This one uses a thicker but also more fragile line, reflecting the tenuous nature of that society.

Then What and Progress Reports, by Robyn Jordan. Jordan is a thoughtful memoirist with a line that reminds me a bit of Ellen Forney's appealing and simplistic style, especially with regard to her character design. Then What is in full color, featuring two stories about loss. "Ten Lives" is about grieving and connections, as a beloved cat became attached to Jordan's father-in-law before his death. There's an amazing page where Jordan and her partner take their cat to the vet to put him to sleep, only to see him die precisely when they arrived. The text is straightforward and the page features the two of them drinking wine on a couch, but the backgrounds feature a thunderstorm, the rain on a left-to-right slant that pushes the reader's eye across the page. The expressionist and fanciful use of muted tones provides the emotion absent from the text and only hinted at by the figurework, giving a sense of both restraint and pouring out emotion. "Just The Two Of Us" is about dealing with the grief of a miscarriage, but it's also about one's relationship with one's own physical form. A session of cranial-sacral massage brings the two together in a dramatic, painful but ultimately cathartic manner, and her color scheme of body and self being two different, independent colors comes to a dramatic close.

Progress Reports is another in the burgeoning memoir sub-genre of teacher comics. Along with Aron Nels Steinke and Cara Bean (to name two), That Forney influence is even more evident in the way she draws kids and works in black & white, but her sense of pacing and humor is certainly her own. The comic is a mix of Jordan's own anxiety about teaching and the obvious comedy gold that is interacting with young children. What's interesting about this comic is her focus on special needs-kids and the ways in which schools can let them down, and even well-meaning individuals clash with others on how best to work with them. Her experience with affluent schools as well as inner-city schools provides her a unique perspective.

Scorched Earth #2 and Eat Eat Eat, by Tom Van Deusen. These are hilariously brutal, take-no-prisoners satire that puts a torch to braggadocio and swagger. Van Deusen's comics are nastily self-deprecatory but avoid the "woe-is-me-why-won't-these-mean-girls-have-sex-with-me" templates of other cartoonists, including clear inspiration Robert Crumb. The prior issue of Scorched Earth featured the loathsome "Tom" character having a one-night-stand but revealed the perpetually lonely but highly deluded loser thought he had a girlfriend. This issue showed off Tom's narcissism in increasingly nasty ways, ditching his roommate when he couldn't get into a bar, comically getting thrown out of a bar when he clumsily buys cocaine, and best of all, exploring polyamory. Pretending she was his "primary" while trying to hit on college women at a party was especially squirm-inducing. It's like this character is every worst instinct Van Deusen could think of regarding the "dude-bro" mentality. It all crests when he buys a fedora and snake-skin boots and then realizes he doesn't have enough money to actually take his date to dinner and she breaks up with him. The subsequent chapter, when he wishes cancer on her, is amazingly over the top and awful--but not as bad as the "happy" ending where he learns absolutely nothing.

Eat Eat Eat also features a slightly different version of Tom, one who shares the ridiculous swagger in Scorched Earth but is a tiny bit more human. This Tom has an eating (and of course) a self-image problem, one that he plays for laughs but also for pathos. The art here is a bit rough at first, as Van Deusen notes it was done over a four-year period, but his mature, sparer but grotesque style is in full effect by midway through the comic. When Tom realizes that he's fat, his attempts at working out are mercilessly cruel but also hilarious. Once again, Van Deusen springs a "happy" ending on the reader despite a drunken accident and coma, comically equivocating the wasting away of a coma with actually losing weight in a healthy way. Van Deusen's comics are incredibly mean, but he lands solid and smartly-aimed barbs again and again. The relentlessness of the humor can be overwhelming at times, as he doesn't allow the reader to sympathize with his self-destructive character, only to laugh at his pathetic qualities. The way he sells the acidic nature of his attacks with the exaggeration of his line contributes to the overwhelming nature of the comic: a double-barreled blast of and against narcissism and misogyny.

The Fatal Marksman Act II, by Jaime Willems. The second part of this adaptation is even more sure-footed visually than the first. That's especially true with regard to the craggy, heavily-lined faces that dominate the book. Willems went all-in with regard to her line width creating an almost grotesque effect. That grotesque quality makes it easy for Willems to have her characters wear their hearts on their metaphorical sleeves, as jealousy, delight, rage and fear are etched on their faces. Her lettering is also appropriately unsettling, battering the reader with its textual qualities as well as the actual words spoken. The page compositions are loose and fluid, with the powerful use of blacks creating an overall atmosphere of dread. All of this shows up in the literal text, as the man who made a deal with a demonic figure in order to win his love's hand is now forced to pay up, with disastrous results in this issue. Willems isn't afraid to go big on every page, in terms of both drawing and in terms of doubling down on the fairy tale nature of the story.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Minicomics Round-Up: Guerra/Diaz, Taylor, Sikoryak, Alvarez, Purins

Rotland Dreadfuls #10: Sadistic Comics, by R.Sikoryak. Sikoryak is the greatest of all style mimics, and his mash-ups of classic literature and comics never fail to amuse. This comic from Ryan Standfest's Rotland Press is a mash-up of The Marquis de Sade's Justine and William Moulton Marston/Harry Peter's Wonder Woman. Using the covers inspired by the 1940s comics, Sikoryak hilariously skims the plot of Justine, transplanting the many terrors she faced into the type of S&M follies that Wonder Woman fell into. Considering That Marston was fascinated by S&M and bondage in particular (hence Wonder Woman constantly getting tied up), this pairing was low-hanging fruit as far as Sikoryak's mash-ups go. That said, it was the details that made it so funny, down to the chicken on "Just Justine's" bodice (symbolic of France) rather than the American eagle, as well as fleur-de-lis instead of stars on her costume. It would have been nice to have seen this in glorious color, but Sikoryak nails so many other details (his ability to match lettering styles in particular has always astounded me) that it scarcely matters.

Berries, by Whit Taylor.This is a lovely and weird encounter between the legendary Jersey Devil and a ruined stockbroker out to lose himself out in the woods. While the usual caveats apply to Taylor's art (the backgrounds in particular are rough), this is still quite a moving comic because of her focus on facial expressions. Even though one of the faces is that of a monstrous, dragon-like creature, Taylor makes sure that to let the reader know that it's a sad, lonely creature who could express kindness and experience camaraderie if only given a chance--especially since it speaks perfect English. This story is really a mutual expression and expression of despair and how breaking out of isolation is one of the few ways to get through it. The genre trappings really only add to that sense of despair, as the ridiculousness of the Devil's story is given a counterbalance of poignancy by the end of the comic. This is a little gem of a comic.

Two Toms, by Pablo Guerra and Henry Diaz. This mini was the only English-language release at the Revista Larva table at SPX 2015. The Colombian cartoonists had a fascinating anthology, and this mini contained the first four chapters of an upcoming book by Guerra (the writer) and Diaz (the artist). Diaz' work reminds me a lot of Brandon Graham: lots of sumptuously curvy lines influenced by graffiti art and perhaps even some of Graham's primary influence, Vaughn Bode. This is a science-fiction story that banks heavily on the nature of gender and sexuality, as a female researcher mistakenly (at least at first) has sex with an alien who resembled a missing crew member, which leads to all sorts of complications with her higher-ups. It's an enormously appealing and intriguing story, with just a touch of a blue wash to give the comic a bit more flavor. I'll be curious to see the finished version.

The Co-Dependent Tree and Hypno-Spiral Comics #2, by M.Jacob Alvarez. Alvarez is a relentless gag writer whose punchlines often rely on genre conventions. He also picks his share of comedic low-hanging fruit, like the titular "Co-Dependent Tree" being a send-up of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. Alvarez's visuals are difficult to process thanks to the thick line and little variance in line weight that is present in nearly all of his work. A gag about comparing hipsters to bees is difficult to parse because it was impossible to figure out what was going on without the words, and even then that amount of labor killed the joke. Alvarez is at his best when he keeps things simple and direct, like the various "Tattoos I Don't Have The Balls To Get" and "You Got Your Shit Together Charlie Brown". When he returns to that thick and stiff line (to which he often inexplicably adds hatching, making it even harder to quickly process), there's an extra second that divides the gag's visuals and its text. That disconnect lasts just long enough to disrupt a number of genuinely funny lines. My favorite of his stories was the genuinely weird "Chambara Punk", about a samurai-movie loving punk who gets in a convenience-store fight with a lacrosse-playing, knuckle-dragging jock. Here, the thick line seems to make sense with regard to the exaggerated nature of the story's sheer loudness. Alvarez is a funny writer who's trying to find his way as an illustrator and isn't quite there yet.

Zombre #3, by Ansis Purins. This beautiful, oversized comic has all of the standard features of a Purins comic: visceral, disgusting horror; hilarious gags; bigfoot drawing; a highly skilled and controlled line in the service of pure silliness; and over-the-top satire. Visually, this is an exciting book to behold, as the color scheme changes from a blue wash to a green wash to full color and keeps changing from there. Purins makes extensive use of zip-a-tone, which both adds density to each page and gives them a more cartoony quality. That fusion of styles reminds me a bit of Chris Cilla or Mark Newgarden, where old-style and flat cartooning is juxtaposed against weird angles and weirder story ideas that are nonetheless treated with an entirely straight face. There's also a quite coherent storyline here as well, demented as it is. Purins starts all over the place: a lost dog, a benevolent zombie, a hippie park ranger who's terrified of losing his job but still is mostly shiftless, his hard ass boss who is some kind of mystic being, a giant spider and its attendants, and some redneck hunters all enter the same forest. As Purins starts to pull together the threads of his narrative, the story gets crazier and at times terrifying, before resolving into a happy ending. Purins is a longtime cartoonist and is doing his best work to date.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Tying Up Knots: Dungeon Twilight Volume 4

The Lewis Trondheim/Joann Sfar epic series, Dungeon, was finally tied up with a frenetic, over-the-top conclusion that lived up to the many prior volumes. These books are best read back-to-back, because there are so many characters and plot twists that it's hard to crack open a new volume and be expected to remember everything--especially six chapters into this story. Dungeon has always been Sfar and Trondheim's fantasy playground series, wherein they get to play around with genre conventions while gently tweaking them at the same time. The heart of the series surrounds lazy duck Herbert and badass dragon Marvin; their ascent began in the "Zenith" series of the Dungeon books. The origins of the fully-stocked Dungeon were told in the "Early Years" series. While the authors jokingly noted that there would be a hundred volumes in each series, they wound up producing a still incredibly-impressive forty volumes, when you throw in the various Monstres, Parade and other affiliated series.

The first of two collected volumes in the 4th volume of NBM's Dungeon Twilight collection is titled High Septentrion. Essentially, Sfar and Trondheim caused the end of the world in previous volumes, seemingly as a way for them to come up with one of their never-ending storytelling solutions to thorny plot twists. The genius of the Dungeon series is that each chapter's plot-dependent twist is inevitably a wacky gag that is nonetheless treated with deadly seriousness. In this case, the twist is wiry rabbit warrior Marvin the Red continually switching bodies with the zaftig cat-woman Zakutu. The reason why is so that some objects of power stay safe, but it allows Sfar and Trondheim to go nuts with Marvin fondling his new body at every opportunity. The other thing that made this series great was not just the frenzied action (there's actually an incredibly tense climax in this book) or the wacky gags, but the way Sfar & Trondheim cleverly developed every character. There's a density of character built up through book after book that makes the denouement of this book especially pleasant, as a changed Zakutu and Marvin the Red go off to find adventure together. The artist Alfred handled the visuals in this story, hewing close to the character designs set down by Trondheim but adding bits of flair here and there.

Of course, the real heart of the series is Herbert and Marvin the Dragon. They are the stars of the final volume, The End Of Dungeon. It's a worthy final entry, as the two old friends fight together and against each other, get captured, pull of an incredible escape and finally finish off the "Dark Entity" that caused them so much trouble. The exact plot details are incredibly convoluted for any newcomers, but suffice it to say that there's not only a satisfying ending, there's also a lovely coda about the nature of fame worthy of Shelley. Once again, all of that is less important than the focus on the two main characters and the genuine affection they share for each other over many years. Sfar and Trondheim also slip in an extended bathroom joke that fits in perfectly with the frequently vulgar humor the series has always possessed. That's been a key element in their spoofing the fantasy genre: establishing their characters as human (or anthropomorphic animals, as the case may be), with human desires, frailties and physical qualities. These quests are based in mud and dirt and all the characters are essentially bags of meat and bones, all of which will fade away. That sense that everything great will eventually come to a bitter end, that there's no such thing as an ending (happy or otherwise), adds a sense of pervading sadness to the proceedings. Serving up the tart with the sweetness of comedy and action is another reason why Dungeon is the greatest genre series of all time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Minicomics Round-Up: Baylis, Carter, Gennis

So Buttons #7, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. Baylis continues on in the Harvey Pekar mode of shifting story content over to different artistic collaborators, with the trick being finding the right artist for the right story. He certainly nailed "So... Crumby", an account that purports to be about his degrees of separation from R.Crumb but was really about a friend who knew Crumb. Drawing in that Crumb style is Joseph Remnant, the young and super-talented artist whose underground-inspired work is very much in Crumb's tradition. The friend was "Citizen Kafka", one of those New York characters who's been everywhere and seen everything. The Crumb-style talking head panels are further accentuated by the color palette, which was very rich and dense, just like Remnant's pencils. It thrusts the reader into this particular world and does so with wit and warmth--two of Baylis' trademarks as a writer.

The second story, "So...Embarrassed", is a nice piece of design work by artist Paul Westover, who frames this story about the transition between being a normal kid and a target for bullies in the style of Star Wars cards of the era. His clean, cartoony style nicely encapsulates the little-kid setting, as do the lighter colors. This is a funny, self-deprecating story that nonetheless does little to mask how the feeling of embarrassment he felt in front of his class and teacher still stings to this day. The final story, "So...Smiley", features evocative, realistic art by David Beyer, Jr. This is just a two-pager, and it's less a story than it is a brief statement about how certain sensations bring about a simple feeling of contentment. Throw in a funny and lurid Danny Hellman cover (an ode to EC Comics) and you once again have a carefully-crafted and planned bit of autobio that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Life Was Hard, by Kirk Carter. I was charmed by these autobiographical vignettes about growing up in the harsh winters of Maine. For a comic that almost certainly looks like it was drawn using a computer, it has a restrained, simple style that retains a sense of the artist's hand. Rather than try to overrender or get flashy, Carter keeps the lines utilitarian but funny (there are a lot of funny-looking kids in this comic) and uses a very light color palette as a way to embellish and make the images pop a bit. The background colors are pastels and the clothing is a shade or two darker, and this simple formula works in strip after strip. The vignettes, memories and observations are nothing earth-shattering, but therein lies their appeal: watching TV and being confused by the Canadian channels, ordering only the first, free volumes of encyclopedias and thus retaining all sorts of facts about things starting with the letter "A", playing with siblings and "cousints" (their vernacular for "cousins"), and the ridiculous things that happened in cold weather. Carter's ambitions were modest in this comic and he certainly exceeded them with a number of amusing and memorable anecdotes.

Trepanation, by Emi Gennis. Two quick observations about Gennis's comics: they continue to look sharper and their subject matter continues to grow weirder. Her character design in particular is expressive and naturalistic at the same time, allowing for that aforementioned weirdness to really take root. Her use of hatching is a little less precise and takes the reader out of the panel a bit because it looks like an art effect rather than looking like the shading on an object; really, her control over her line is such that she hardly needs hatching. With regard to the subject matter, this is an even-handed look at the history and current practice of trepanation, a type of surgery design to drill a hole in one's head. It's an ancient practice, and some apparently swear that it can cure depression, end headaches and boost energy, though there's no particular reason why it should do so. Gennis gives every point of view ample room to state its case, though it's clear that the damning counterpoints of standard medicine are difficult to refute. The benefits of trepanation are anecdotal at best and may well be a result of the placebo effect, but each of the testimonials are interesting and compelling in their own way. What's clear is that Gennis had a great deal of fun drawing people getting holes drilled in their head and perhaps had even more fun sharing her research on the subject.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Recent Titles From So What? Press

Let's take a look at the fledgling publisher So What? Press and some recent releases.

7 or 8, by Lara Antal. This autobio comic about a failed job interview was later fictionalized in Antal's Night Watchman comic. It's about turns of bad luck, the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job and the sheer weirdness that life presents us with sometimes. Antal's line is a mix between naturalism (especially in close-ups on faces) and cartoony exaggeration, like when she starts to get rained on and her shoulders slump dramatically or when she cringes in horror when she first meets a potential new employer. This is a short comic that's less about specific events and more about the feelings the author has about her station in life.

Tales of the Night Watchman #3, by Dave Kelly, Lara Antal and Amanda Scurti. From the very beginning, Kelly has written stories for artists other than co-creator Antal for this supernatural slice-of-life series. It's been a bit of a risky proposition, because not every artist has been a great fit. Take Scurti in "The Dwellers of Big Bogie", for example. The story idea, of a creepy supernatural creature luring children down to the sewers, is solid enough. However, Scurti's character work is badly in need of someone else's inking, because the faces are too sketchy and indistinct. It would have worked fine if this comic was in color, but the greyscaling combined with her often too-light line widths made faces disappear into the page at times. Antal is actually less skilled as an artist than Scurti, but her thick line and slightly clumsy way she stages her characters simply fits this group of weirdo characters much better. Each one of the main three characters is trying to figure out their life. Street kid Serena doesn't understand what an opportunity she's been given, and it's obvious that life will have to inflict a few more lessons before she does. Charlie, the titular Night Watchman, is a dead man trying to regain his memories while protecting New York from various supernatural menaces. Nora, the barista and manager of a coffee shop, is trying to get a job that befits her actual skill set as a journalist, with no success. This installment is mostly just set-up, character building and laying down some future plot points in a rambling, charming manner. This is a genre comic I can get behind.

Crawlspace, by Timothy Sinaguglia. So What? has proven to be highly unpredictable as to what sort of comics they publish. Crawlspace almost feels like a Domino book (complete with a blurb from publisher Austin English on the back), as Sinaguglia's eccentric storytelling style is given free reign in these two stories. The first, "She Smiled Back" is a fascinating account of adolescent sexual awakening paired with a new awareness of sexual identity. It follows a teen boy trying to figure out sex getting the idea to try on women's clothing and stare at himself for hours. It's remarkably honest and almost pure in how it distills this dawning self awareness. Visually, Sinaguglia goes heavy on hatching, especially with regard to noses. The hatching indicates the artist's fascination with creating both ugly and worked-over images and contrasting them with beauty. The second story, Trudy, is far more elliptical, as it follows a girl venturing outside for an unusual walk, dealing with elements that are vaguely threatening yet not unsettling to her. It's as though the female persona of the first story went out for a walk on her own, always aware that she was a double of someone else. There's something aching about Sinaguglia's comics; they are not sad, per se, but there's a sense of yearning and incompletion that haunts each beautiful page.

City Chickens, by Jess Ruliffson. One story at a time, Ruliffson is telling the stories that belong to a city and its frequently bruised and traumatized residents. This story is a bit more upbeat than some of her other comics, detailing the specifics of how to raise chickens at a particular community garden in Brooklyn. Born out of the wreckage of old properties, it provides a vital green space for its residents, a space where life grows amidst concrete and steel. Ruliffson's line is lively and expressive while still focusing on the matter at hand: a naturalistic depiction of her subjects for documentarian purposes. By sticking to a narrow question (how, when and why to raise chickens in the city), she helps focus her narrative while allowing herself to veer off a bit here and there to provide context and depth. I like that Ruliffson is honing her chops on these small stories, but I'd say she's ready for a bigger assignment.