Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Autobio: Jep, Hayden, Nichols, Bean/Viola

Jep Comix 4, by Jep. The cartoonist draws slice-of-life autobio vignettes featuring a stripped-down self-caricature and frequent anthropomorphic versions of friends. These are comics featuring small but pointed moments, like a memory from high school spent playing a video game, avoiding his father. Another interesting bit was one where the cartoonist has a number of awkward interactions with a man from across the street who weirdly hits on him after he tells him he's getting married. Even a talking head strip featuring him talking to his sister about flooding basements and Moses parting the Red Sea is interesting because of his thick, simple line that's not unlike a Sam Brown figure. These comics are modest, charming and utterly lacking in pretension.

Rushes, by Jennifer Hayden. This is a collection of good ol' four-panel diary comics. They remind me a bit of Jesse Reklaw's strips in that the reader is more or less dropped in media res into Hayden's life and expected to figure things out as she goes along and that it's a process strip. That is, it's Hayden recording her progress finishing a long book about her experience with breast cancer (The Story Of My Tits, out in September from IDW/Top Shelf), as well as a document of everyday family life. This particular volume is also an account of the preparations for as well as an actual trip to London and Paris, so that gives the reader a bit of value-added above simply watching Hayden draw comics or talk on the phone for several panels. Hayden's voice is distinct and powerful, and it's well-matched to her stripped-down but still dense style of cartooning. Her use of negative space in particular is impressive in depicting a busy, cluttered and full life with comics, her family, playing music and a clear identity as the family organizer. Allowing the reader to fill in some lines allows her comics some space to breathe, letting the eye pass quicker from panel to panel without getting bogged down in each panel's details. The personal details are mostly of a quotidian nature, with occasional reminders about her surviving cancer; in these strips, Hayden is more interested in getting down the basics than reflecting too long on what it all means. That immediacy is what makes the strip-to-strip flow so effective.

Heart Farts, by Cara Bean and Rebecca & Jason Viola. This is a two-woman anthology featuring Bean and R.Viola (comics drawn by her husband Jason). The strips are pleasant and lightweight, featuring topics like dreams about Tom Brady and the satisfaction received in creating bento boxes for others' lunches. One of the bigger treats here is a chance to see more of Bean's classroom comics and her bean-shaped self-caricature; one of the strips is about being a teacher and trying to get her students to love what she's teaching as much as she does, getting away from the feeling that she's torturing them. The Violas' bento box strip is about how having an opportunity to make something unique and nourishing for someone else is in itself a nourishing activity. Bean's classroom strip addressed the idea of "flow": how purposeful, creative activity creates positive energy not only for oneself, but for one's associates as well. While Viola's comic doesn't address this explicitly, there's no question that her comic is a demonstration of this idea in action. That synergy of ideas makes the mini greater than the sum of its parts, as it features slightly diverging points of view on the same set of ideas. The versatility of Jason Viola meant that Rebecca could write about anything and the result would inevitably look great.

Flocks 4, by L.Nichols.This is the most powerful chapter yet in Nichols' account of growing up queer and Christian. In this issue, Nichols lays out why simply excoriating her parents and others in their rural Louisiana community for condemning homosexuality isn't so simple. Their parents, teachers and people in their church, who made Nichols' life hellish in some respects, were the same people who encouraged them to excel in school. Being an intellectual of size in school made Nichols an easy target, and that support from adults turned out to be a crucial factor in becoming a success and realizing their dream of attending MIT. In one sense, Flocks is a document about pain: the pain of not fitting in, the pain of knowing that those people you love might not love you for what you truly are.

In another sense, Flocks is about pressure and balance, cleverly represented through mathematical notations. It's about the pressures that all of the various groups of whom we are a member put on us, for good ("you can do it!") and ill ("nerd!", "queer!", etc) and how to balance the negative pressures with the positive support. Nichols describes how they "fit in enough not to be rejected" and "fit in enough to gain support when needed" in hopes that "everything would get better one day". However, this wasn't simply a matter of things getting better by means of escape. Rather, things got better in part because of Nichols' amazing ability to take what nourished them and discard the rest. Even now, the even-handedness regarding faith, family and Nichols' upbringing is remarkable, considering how easy it would to be bitter. As per usual, Nichols' self-caricature as a sort of rag doll remains one of my favorites in autobio comics; it's a figure that's both capable of absorbing a tremendous amount of abuse as well as a tremendous amount of love, often from the same person. Though each issue stood on its own well, the cumulative effect really pays off in this issue in particular, since Nichols so wisely lays out that relationships are far more complicated than they seem on the surface and that the same person can give out support in one way and unwittingly undermine you in another.

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