Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Author's Voice And The Artists: Dennis Eichhorn's Extra Good Stuff

Dennis Eichhorn has always very much been the mirror image of Harvey Pekar. He's a writer who has worked with a panopoly of artists to illustrate his real-life anecdotes. Unlike Pekar, however, who focused on the beauty of the mundane to an extreme degree, Eichhorn prefers to use the wilder episodes from his life as fodder for his stories. If it involved sex, drugs, violence, crime, and/or the weirdoes that he'd met and the unusual jobs he'd had, then Eichhorn wrote about it. Eichhorn has begun writing comics again after a long hiatus, with 2013's Real Good Stuff a welcome return to form. His newest comic is Extra Good Stuff, published by Last Gasp. It reprints a few of his 90s stories published in various anthologies and also has a number of new stories by younger artists who nonetheless fit into his aesthetic model like a grungy glove.

What's interesting about this issue is that Eichhorn, now seventy years old, is starting to confront the issue of morality.The key piece in the comic was "What Next?", drawn by R.L. Crabb. It's a story about Eichhorn checking into the hospital a few years back for an angioplasty. Crabb really manages to get at the chaotic dissonance one can hear on a hospital ward--especially one that was playing Fox News non-stop. The extensive use of negative space, even in the figure design, contributed to the strangeness of the story's surroundings. While in bed, he learned that Pekar had passed away, and there was a fantastic sequence where the Grim Reaper strolls into his room and isn't sure whether to pick Eichhorn or the man in the next bed--so he just picks the other man. For a man who has always depicted himself as being pretty close to indestructible, it's a fascinating admission of mortality, albeit one packed with a punchline at the end.

Of the other new stories, it's just obvious that cartoonists like Noah Van Sciver, Max Clotfelter and Tom Van Deusen were essentially born to collaborate with Eichhorn. All three have that ragged, labored-but-cartoony quality to their line that adds a touch of the grotesque and the ridiculous to their stories. Van Deusen's art on "It's Good To See The King" sets up an elder care center as a sort of zombieland and then gets truly strange when he encounters an Elvis impersonator. It's the ne plus ultra of weirdo Eichhorn encounters/crazy job stories, and Van Deusen makes it count. Van Sciver's "Gold Dust Twins" plays to his strengths in depicting sad, desperate and slightly pathetic people, as the story depicts Eichhorn getting mixed up in an insane gold-mining scheme that naturally goes horribly awry. One detail I love about Van Sciver's art is that he's great at drawing people with bad teeth. Clotfelter's heavily cross-hatched art creates a slightly manic vibe in "Taxi Driver", as Eichhorn once again encounters a sleazy and seedy scene in a motel as a cab driver, yet not only gets paid but also gets a tip! Creating an atmosphere where something horrible could happen at any moment but then doesn't is a punchline of its own, especially in Clotfelter's hands.

My favorite collaboration in the book is the most unlikely one: a strip with the eccentric style of Gerald Jablonski, a cult cartoonist if there ever was one. The story of Eichhorn's tenure as a "Spud Scout" is perfect fodder for the kind of kid-adult patter Jablonski's so adept at. David Lasky's one-pager about an unwelcome late-night phone call is typical of Lasky's formal cleverness. I imagine that while Eichhorn picks his artists carefully depending on the story's tone, it seems obvious that he gives them a tremendous amount of leeway in how they draw and design it.

The reprints and stories by Eichhorn regulars here are also excellent, as we get to see an older version of Ivan Brunetti's figure drawing (circa Schizo #3) in a story about Eichhorn working at the weirdo publisher Loompanics Unlimited. JR Williams has a crazy anecdote about Eichhorn trying to find a toilet in San Francisco and winding up in a urination fetish club. The Pat Moriarity/David Collier duo is incredible in Eichhorn's story about an inspiration for grunge, as one gets to see the playfulness of Moriarity and the detail of Collier combine in a series of memorable images. Dame Darcy draws against type in a story about luring Mormons over to a friend's father's house, who wound up shooting at them. Finally, Stan W. Shaw's wispy, Alex Toth-inspired story about observing Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his City Lights bookstore accept an unsolicited manuscript with great solemnity, only to throw it on a pile when the writer left, sums up Eichhorn's work in a single gag. Eichhorn simultaneously builds up his own mythology while satirizing it and taking the piss out of the baby boomer generation in general.

Two Highly Worthy Fundraisers: Mike Dawson and Tom Spurgeon

I first of all want to thank everyone who donated to this website after my fundraising call. Your donations made a bigger impact than you can even imagine.

One of the people who beat the drum loudest on my behalf, without even asking him, is Tom Spurgeon. Tom is one of the key figures in comics coverage, with his Comics Reporter an invaluable part of comics culture and a nexus for alt-comics links, news and commentary in particular. When I became fully invested in my career as a critic nearly a decade ago (!), I reached out to Tom for advice and he was generous with his time. His linking to my work has been a crucial part of growing my audience. Tom is looking to get back to what he does best: write about comics. To that end, he has set up a Patreon account to help him fund the time he needs to make this goal happen. Please consider becoming one of his patrons.

The excellent and thoughtful cartoonist Mike Dawson has been doing all sorts of personal strips about being a father, political issues and more on his own site as well as other sites for the last year or two. He's ready to self-publish this work and has set up a kickstarter to this end. Please consider donating to that kickstarter, because I really want to see his book Rules For Dating My Daughter become a reality.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Autobio and Collaboration: Jonathan Baylis

Jonathan Baylis has been plugging away at his autobio series, So Buttons, for a number of years. He's put together a handsome and well-organized collection, titled So Buttons: Man of Like, A Dozen Faces, that's greater than the sum of its parts. Inspired by the Harvey Pekar formula of having a stable of illustrators to collaborate with depending on the sort of story he wants to tell, Baylis has become more and more adept at pulling back on over-writing (and indeed, writing over) the art and trusting his collaborators to "show, not tell." The book is organized into sections on childhood, working in comics, his thoughts on film, his relationships and his love of animals, among others. When some of these pieces originally appeared in his minicomics series, they stuck out in a discordant manner. Recontextualized in this book, these strips are far smoother and make much more sense.

Baylis is less interested in "spilling ink" about his deepest feelings and more interested in relating anecdotes and opinions. Indeed, in one strip where he talks about a doomed relationship in the context of a trip to Los Angeles and the discovery of what appeared to be a body on the beach, his musings on how the trip cemented the notion where he and his girlfriend were drifting apart seems wedged in unnaturally. Better to provide a little less information and let the reader pick up on context clues than repeatedly try to hammer home symbolism. On the other hand, Baylis reveals a lot more of himself when he simply relates funny stories about trying to edit the work of his professional comedian wife, or plays off his OCD tendencies as a gag. When he shifts into overly-sincere mode and feels the need to explain darker emotions, his stories just don't ring as true.

Fortunately, he keeps things on a fairly light but entirely sincere basis for most of the book. My favorite stories tended to be those that focused on his reaction to works of art, be they film, comics or paintings. The "Basquiat Jam", a trio of stories drawn by Victor Kerlow and Becky Hawkins, get at the heart of how seeing Basquiat paintings in Spain affected him at a deep level, both because of the art and because of the way it connected him to his native New York City. "So...Crumby", about a friend of his who shared R.Crumb's passion for obscure records, was drawn by Crumb descendant Joseph Remnant, who actually goes a little cartoony at times in this story. Indeed, Baylis reveals much about himself in the stories he chooses to tell about others, like his father, his mother and his wife. That's true of little memory fragments from his childhood, surprising revelations and details about the ways in which he was loved and loves them.

There is an essential warmth at the heart of Baylis's comics that's best exemplified by his ongoing collaboration with cartoonist T.J. Kirsch. It's accessible and slightly cartoony. The storytelling is solid and clear. Kirsch has a way with body language that's a perfect match for Baylis' character-driven stories, creating a naturalism that a more realistic style wouldn't necessarily convey. It's pleasing to the eye without trying to be funny. When Baylis is going for a specific kind of laugh, that's where Noah Van Sciver and Rick Parker come in. Van Sciver's wobbly style is perfect for embarrassment-related humor, while Parker's skill as a caricaturist who can go over the top makes him ideal for more outlandish anecdotes. Stories about his days as a Marvel intern are fittingly drawn by fan art legend Fred Hembeck.

While Baylis and his collaborators don't always stick the landing on every strip, what makes this such a delightful read is the obvious care and thought that went into each collaboration as well as the design of the book. Outstanding cartooonist and designer Will Dinski designed the book, showing off some of the drawings of Baylis that he commissioned from the likes of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, Ed Piskor, MariNaomi and Jim Steranko (!). The book looks great and reads smoothly, so much so that even some of the more disposable strips feel added value rather than wastes of time. That Baylis has chosen so wisely and so well in his choice of artists speaks well of his eye for talent that works well with his project. That said, I expect Baylis to continue to grow as a writer, developing an even stronger sense of how to write visually without overloading his comics with text.

Friday, August 21, 2015

More Autobio: Durham Comics Project, Give Thanks, Grant Thomas

Give Thanks, by Philip Weiss. This is the first published comic of an artist who spent time at SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop), and while aspects of it are raw, it's clear that Weiss already has a few things going for him as a cartoonist. First, he's embraced his own style of cartooning and focuses on what's important on each page. Second, he understands how to depict body language, especially his own slumped body posture. Third, he understands how best to use restraint as a cartoonist. He doesn't over-render or over-explain this story. It's about Weiss avoiding his mother for some unspecified reason and spending Thanksgiving by himself. After watching TV and puts a lasagna in the oven, he goes out on a bike ride and eventually comes face-to-face with a bison. When he comes back home, he calls his mother and starts to unpack why he was avoiding her. The reason is never stated, nor was it necessary. The life-and-death nature of encountering such a huge and majestic creature and silently acknowledging each other's presence is not discussed, only depicted. Whether it was fear, or awe, or shock or some combination thereof, this was an experience that motivated Weiss from avoiding emotions to feeling them. It was obviously a potent enough memory to commit to the page.

The Durham Comics Project, edited by Amy Godfrey. I wrote the blurb for this anthology, and I think it's worth reprinting here: "The stories submitted for The Durham Comics Project range between whimsical observations about daily life, personal demons that make every day a struggle, a child's delight or disappointment in learning something new about the words, and an adult realizing that the world they live in is bigger than they think. Encouraging non-artists to express themselves on paper as well as publishing seasoned cartoonists, The Durham Comics Project is a fascinating mix of styles and visual approaches. In each case, the joy of self-expression and the opportunity to relate personal stories is evident in both the scrawled cartoons of young children and the fine lines of experienced artists."

To add a little background, Godfrey is a children's librarian here in Durham, NC. She's also a cartoonist. She's organized countless Drink 'n Draws and comics-related events at the library, including the yearly Comic Fest which has brought in the likes of Jason Lutes, Raina Telgemeier, Nate Powell, Nick Bertozzi, Willow Dawson and many others. She commissioned the creation of a device known as the Comics Contraption, an "infinite jam comics machine" that advances one panel at a time, so each person draws a single, large panel on a long scroll. The Durham Comics Project was born out of her interest in giving people who had never told their stories a chance to do so in comics form, as she ran classes and encouraged all comers to draw, regardless of ability. The end result was an anthology that's a snapshot of a particular group of people at a certain time and place. It's less interesting as comics qua comics than it is as a cultural document, since so many of the pieces were drawn by absolute newcomers, but it is intriguing nonetheless. The pieces by experienced cartoonists like Eric Knisley, Jape and M.R. Trower were unsurprisingly the best, but I loved Jesse Crossen's account of being recognized as the reincarnation of the friend of a famous Indian musician for its matter-of-factness in the face of weirdness. Bernard Liles' stick-figure account of just trying to hold on to his sanity is powerful; one gets the sense that he has rarely had an outlet with which to express himself. It's less an anthology of results and more of an anthology of process, which in itself worthy of interest.

Dodo #4, My Life In Records #3 and #4, by Grant Thomas.  Thomas is a comics formalist, interested in how the plastic qualities of the comic itself affect the narrative and reading experience, as well as how different narrative tricks play out. In Dodo, Thomas, uses a brush and ever-splotchier ink to tell a story about how the raven and the loon got their colors, which involves a brush getting disturbed and flinging ink. "Oblique Strategies" is a palindrome, in which the drawings in the panels read the same backward and forwards, with only the text changing. Then there was a strip, heavily festooned with decorative flourishes that play up the religious art quality of the subject, that's about a monk who "for 3 years kept a stone in his mouth in order to teach himself silence." Thomas uses this as a chance to rapidly cycle through variations on this idea. Here, you can see Thomas stretch and explore comics in clever ways that don't outstay their welcome.

He turned his autobio-by-way-of-music into what he describes as thinly-veiled autobio in his series My Life In Records. Each square-bound mini is meant to mimic an old fashioned CD booklet. The concept of each issue is fascinating: the third issue is about how Star Wars proved to be a formative experience in different anecdotes surrounding relatives, music and pets. It's less about the movies than it was about those memories being with his grandfather and brother. The fourth issue is all about growing up Christian and being taught that rock and roll was the devil's music, but also finding inspiration and solace in Christian music. That slight veil of fiction works well in this regard, allowing Thomas some poetic license with regard to specific events and feelings to create a narrative that has an emotional honesty. The problem with these comics is that going to color was a disastrous idea. His color scheme is at once too conventional and way too all over the place, and his line simply isn't strong enough to withstand it. Every page looks like a mess, especially when he tries to draw famous rock stars. This is a case of the production values overwhelming the work rather than enhancing it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Autobio As Spoof: Nick Sumida

On the surface, it may seem strange to cast Nick Sumida's gag-heavy work as being autobiographical, but Snackies, a riotous satire of self-importance and common knowledge, is so successful precisely because Sumida himself is the main character in his stories. Starting the comic off with a filthy Sumida's roommate bringing him a video game called "Snackies", in which "you play this narcissistic millennial with a an art school degree and an addiction to external validation". The collected version is superior to either of the first issues of the same title, in part because the way the book was edited makes it far more cohesive (there are some funny interstitial features) and in part because the color scheme is a perfectly-chosen midnight blue and sea foam green.

The first killer story is "Fake It Til You Make It", wherein Sumida pretends to know how to use PhotoShop in order to get a job. The freak-out Sumida depicts when he realizes that he can't fake his way through is over-the-top (my favorite is a toothy Sumida ordering pizzas, being told "Ma'am, calm down" and Sumida screaming "I'M A BOY!"), and it gets even better when he tries to pass off things like "a picture of a cartoon vagina smoking a joint" as his assignment, to which he replies, "That, I do not recall..." What makes Sumida such an effective humorist is a perfect sense of building and how to build a premise in such a way that the comedic payoff is almost always unexpected. For example, in a strip about how Sumida deals with stress, we are suddenly jolted into his demented brain, as we see him taking a chainsaw to a mannnequin, huffing paint and setting fire to a car. A strip about being disappointed about seeing a potential crush on a subway, only to be disappointed by his haircut turns into increasing levels of crazy, as he repeats the premise only to see him growing Lord Voldemort out of his head and turn into a terrifying monster that licks him. We are then thrust back to the beginning, with Sumida's eyes bugging out, afraid to check out the guy that's really in front of him. Another strip has Sumida as a physical trainer giving practical exercise tips while telling the subject to tapping into their "wellspring of deep emotional trauma". Another variation on this theme finds Sumida giving baking tips while trying to eat his sadness over being alone on Valentine's Day.

Sumida is one of the few cartoonists who manages to engage the concept of social media as a societal force in an original and funny manner. The interstitial bits in the book are iphone chats with God, who is either insulting or uncaring in his communications with Sumida. It's a great running gag, because it's sort of the ultimate check on narcissism. Sumida also plays around with tired old gags such as the ROFL acronym and takes it to absurd places, like ROFWHAMUTSH (Rolling on floor while holding a mirror up to society's hypocrisies). The acronym is funny enough, but Sumida sells it with the drawing--a serious, even self-righteous figure holding up a mirror.

Like his contemporary, Michael DeForge, Sumida is skilled at adding body horror as an over-the-top way of satirizing our common understanding of societal mores. There's a strip about a "how'd we meet" situation that winds up being about ritualistic grisliness. A strip about revealing secrets in a relationship turns hilariously grim when, after a minor revelation from a partner, Sumida reveals that he is, in fact "a pile of seven furby dolls stuffed inside a human skin suit". The fact that furbies are unnerving enough to begin with makes his uncannily accurate drawings all the more effective.

A strip where he obliviously asks others about which pair of glasses to buy while the apocalypse occurs around him has a clever idea, but once again, it's the tiniest of details that he gets right that makes it so hilarious. It's the fact that "Nick" gets self-righteously pissed off that no one's listening to his dilemma, the fact that he has preconceived notions about why any answer is wrong, about how he only starts to freak out when he realizes there's no internet that turn a one-note joke into a delicious self-indictment. Sumida transforms his obvious anxiety and emotional rawness into the stuff of brutally honest and frequently absurd gags. The line between autobiography and what serves the gag is one that ceases to matter, because in Sumida's hands, they become one and the same. His humor is painfully true, and his own anxiety is painfully hilarious. The attention to detail in terms of design and use of color is a tribute both to Sumida and his publisher, Youth In Decline.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Summer Fundraiser For High-Low

After a bit of a time away from this blog and writing in general, readers of this blog may notice that I'm back in a rhythm. Unofficially, I'm in the middle of doing a long series on autobiographical comics. I have about another week left in this series, after which I will tackle comics for kids for a week. After that, I'll finally get to the big profile on Josh Bayer I've been promising for a while.

One reason why my writing output has been lessened is the usual financial pressures made more dire by a variety of medical bills stacking up. Any reader who wishes to make a paypal donation for the site may do so using the button on the right. I would like to thank all of the readers who have made contributions in the past; you don't know how much those contributions, both big and small, have helped me and my family.

Lastly, thanks to said financial pressures, this will be the first year since 1999 that I won't be able to attend a comics festival. I'm usually a mainstay at SPX, but I regret to say that I won't be there this year. Anyone who hoped to pass on their work for review at that show may send it to me at the address at the left. This is especially true for artists at comics programs like SAW, SVA, MCAD, Columbia College and especially the Center for Cartoon Studies. I'd like to continue to make my Thirty Days of CCS an annual tradition, so for any any CCS students and/or alums who see this, please pass it on.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

More Autobio: Park, Lautman, Fricas

Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream #4, by Laura Park. Park is unquestionably one of the most skilled cartoonists around. She's best known for illustrating other people's projects for a living, but her own autobio comics are at once funny, heart-breaking and sharply observed. Her self-caricature is one of the best in comics--especially when she's wearing a hat. Her strips about happiness, loneliness and illness are especially affecting, because Park gets at the essence of her feelings with a minimum of self-pity but a maximum of thought. There's a strip about going to a bra-fitting that's absolutely hilarious, while a strip about not having enough to say or being good enough to do her own comics is powerful. Despite her obvious talent, it's obvious that some of the comics she makes simply don't come out in the manner she imagines. I should note that this issue of the mini (published by Uncivilized Books) is sketchbook-raw, with several images and tiny strips crammed on some of the pages. Happily, Drawn & Quarterly will be publishing a collection of her work.

MacroGroan 6 and Lying And Cursing: 2 Stories, by Sara Lautman. Lautman's images are scrawled and scratched across the page. Her scribbly self-caricature is especially appealing, especially the way she draws her hair as an indistinct blob. MacroGroan is a sketchbook comic featuring mostly humorous observations by the artist. What I like best is the way she experiments with different visual styles. The scribble is always there, but sometimes it's on a page with detailed cross-hatching and background details, creating wobbly and almost vibratory effect. On other pages, the images are still and dominated by heavy use of blacks. Even in her simplest drawings, there's a detail or two that makes the images pop, like the way she draws eyes. Some pages are overlaid with other images, while still others strategically use grey-scaling. Her observations are funny, even when dealing with serious issues like therapy. Lautman's mind goes in a lot of different directions, and her comics reflect this.

Lying and Cursing is part autobio, part fiction. Each page in this 5.5 x 5.5 inch squarebound mini is a single image, which allows those scribbly drawings to breathe a little more. The first story is a history of Lautman's love of swearing, including resistance she's received from doing it as well as musings on the implications of cursing versus blessings (including saying "bless you") after sneezes. The story is a mix between genuine contemplativeness and total silliness. The second story focuses on an idea Lautman had about a story where a bunch of kids convince a naive and gullible friend that ridiculous things are true, like "Jellyfish are immortal", only to find that once she believed it, it automatically changed reality to accommodate this new belief. Describing it as "Amelia Bedelia meets Quantum Leap", Lautman takes the idea to some dark places. Lautman's greatest strength as a storyteller is her ability to make every idea, every story and every journal entry sound like a conversation she's having with you, the reader.

Blabbermouth 1, by Katie Fricas. It's not unusual for autobio cartoonists to write about sex, or even do a history of their sexuality. What's different about Fricas' work is that it's as much about rudimentary feelings of desire that one feels as a child as it is about actual sexual experiences. In a highly expressive scrawl that looks like it's ripped straight from her id, Fricas goes in chronological order to discuess being referred to as a pervert by someone's mother at the age of ten, seeing girls in summer clothes at the age of eleven, writing stories about sex and then ripping them to pieces at fifteen, etc. The page about losing her virginity is just a drawing of the stucco ceiling above her; the image itself is fascinating, highly detailed and beautiful in its own way--as opposed to the actual experience. There are drug-laden encounters, dizzying experiences and moments seared into her memory. There's also a sequence where her mother tells her that she had a child much earlier in her life and gave it up for adoption. Fricas spills a lot of ink in this comic, both literally and figuratively. Her splotched line gets at the emotional content of an experience, the part that's most closely associated with memory, as opposed to trying to accurately recreate the "real" experience.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Joe Decie's Comfortable Schlubbiness

Joe Decie's latest humor-driven collection of autobio strips, The Listening Agent (Blank Slate Books), is not so much a diary of daily events or a record of significant moments in the lives of Decie and his family. Instead, it's a sort of clearing-house for his brain. Some of the bits of weirdness that float out of his brain are indeed personal and even touching (like one where he and his young son are eating cheap sandwiches on the street and his son says "Well Daddy, this is the life"), but many of them are just gags that he can't wait to unleash on the world in the same restrained, pithy and even lazy manner as he does with his more personal observations.

Of course, the ease in reading his comics belies the amount of labor Decie puts into them. His grey-washed, realistic style is highly expressive and even lovely to look at. His understanding of body language and use of gesture is key to making strips that feature very little in the way of movement nonetheless come alive. The other key to this book's success is simply that Decie is not only hilarious, but is quite skilled at the craft of setting up a joke. In a strip entitled "Parents Tips No. 95: Relax", we see Decie and his son play with Decie's old Star Wars toys, the reader expects Decie to talk about letting his son play rough with his toys. Instead, he's outraged that his son isn't "playing right" with R2-D2. Another example includes Decie's odd behavior at his office, only to reveal in the final panel that he doesn't work in an office but does enjoy daily trips to the "office furniture megastore".

That dry sense of restraint powers strips after strip, allowing Decie to pull the rug out from under readers more than once. He frequently zigs when the reader expects him to zag, like in a strip where he's complaining about the dangers of his house (spiders, asbestos, lead in the pipes, a boiler potentially exploding) that ends in a panel that reads "And who left all these dirty needles in the shower?" Decie sometimes goes for the absurd joke or situation, but keeps his material grounded enough to be directly relatable as a series of strips about being a father. Despite his material being joke-oriented, Decie reveals a great deal about himself and his family in his work precisely because jokes and humor are such an essential part of his life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Highs and Lows With Mister V

The cartoonist Mister V is often at his best when writing his profane, revealing and detailed memoir comics that always have a specific focus. His DNR series concentrated on his work life as a patient transporter and later a patient processor at a medical center. His more recent autobio comics have been more focused and more potent as a result. Poser, his account of being bullied during eighth grade, is terrifying in its description of just how random a bully's victim can be. It's a brutal story about popularity, hierarchy and sheer social Darwinism. Unlike the more straightforward DNR, there's a more interesting framing device in this story, one that wraps the story of eight grade inside his thirtieth birthday party. Ultimately, Mister V has the young Matt (his real first name) meet adult Matt in a magical realist sequence that's remarkably cathartic, both for the reader and Matt himself.

Many of Mister V's comics are about traumatic events. Poser is the ur-story about his trauma, and how being bullied caused him to distrust authority and strangers for the rest of his life and helped him to become irritable, paranoid and defensive. When he asks his younger self why he never went to his parents, a teacher or anyone else about being bullied, the simple defense was "I ain't no fuckin' narc." The need to conform, to adhere to an ethical system that no one else took seriously, all in an effort to gain popularity, shows just how powerful that kind of peer pressure can be. The most insidious thing about it is that much of this pressure comes from within. Mister V has a remarkable way of relating his memories with a great deal of verisimilitude, perfectly echoing the sheer foulness of teenagers and their interactions in a manner that was at once funny, cruel and entirely credible. When he simply drops out of the race to be popular toward the end of the year (signified by cutting his hair short) and finds that his drawing ability gave him the attention he had been seeking all along, the modern day Mister V muses about how just being yourself in order to be popular sounds like the sappiest of afterschool specials.

Despite Mister V's highly sarcastic, detached persona, his comics actually explore the complexity and pain of emotions on a regular basis. There are any number of panels involving Mister V crying in Poser, for example. The same is true in the first volume of his new trilogy, Mile High: Adventures In Colorado Medical Marijuana. Once again, he wraps the narrative around a potential future where he catches his niece smoking pot from an electronic device, but she catches him smoking from a bong. From there, Mister V goes into a focused, hilarious and frequently insane rant about the hoops he had to jump through in order to obtain medicinal marijuana. Suffering from constant irritable bowel syndrome accompanied by pain and anxiety, pot was one of the few things that ever gave him relief. Mister V takes the reader into the sketchiest of neighborhoods, the sleaziest of scam artists and the fear of being busted by agenda-serving federal agents. The scene where he breaks the news that he's using medicinal marijuana to his generally-disapproving parents is the funniest in the book, as he's soon disabused of the notion that he was going to shock his pot-smoking dad by making this revelation. What I loved most about this book is not that Mister V was extolling the virtues of pot because he loved getting high, but because it genuinely had a positive impact on his life. On his wedding day, for example, he had a huge IBS flare-up that was quieted down by just a few puffs, creating a magical environment that allowed him to live his life in health rather than see him in agony. This book isn't necessarily an argument for marijuana's legalization per se, but rather it's a personal account of the way it's improved his life and the ridiculous bureaucracy he had to wade through in order to get there.

Mister V's art is highly cartoony and stylized (indeed, it's as though Jim Davis drew comics about a foul-mouthed teenager), but he adds a number of effects to give his work more weight and solidity. His use of facial exaggerations and contortions is his go-to signature as an artist, but his increased use of greyscale tones and thick panel borders gives each individual image a greater overall impact. As an artist, Mister V is a plugger, relentlessly drawing page after page until he's gotten better by way of sheer effort. He's developed his own style and voice, and most importantly has begun to learn how to edit himself properly. He could strip things down even further and be even more effective, but there's something to be said for his "more is more" approach as well. His narrative voice is abrasive but amiable, self-deprecating but proud, and harsh but full of unexpected warmth.

Monday, August 10, 2015

High and Dry: Corinne Mucha's Get Over It

Get Over It was an unusual choice for Secret Acres, a publisher that has tended to eschew autobio comics during its ten-odd years publishing books. Corinne Mucha's book is a very specific kind of autobio: a book about the experience of mourning a powerfully important romantic relationship over a period of several years. Mucha's approach is to break it down as a series of amusing vignettes, mythbusting lectures and visceral outpourings of emotion. Mucha simultaneously tells the story with a layer of distance, as though she's a fictional character and this is a "once upon a time" and gives each painful moment a quality of unavoidable immediacy. It's as though retelling the story caused Mucha to relive each moment--or at least allow her to occupy a mental and emotional space that allows her to convey this state to her readers.

Get Over It isn't simply a bitch session about her ex-boyfriend, though he certainly comes off as being cold, insensitive and detached. What's interesting about their break-up is that it stemmed from her asking him a simple question: "Where do you see our relationship going?" When he said that he wanted to get married one day, just not to her, it was a moment of stark and brutal honesty that set off a chain reaction of anxiety, misery and self-loathing in Mucha. It also set up an on-again, off-again paradigm that was obviously unhealthy for both of them. As the mother of a friend once said regarding relationships: "Don't ooze out, get out!" This book is all about oozing: the emotional equivalent of pulling the band-aid off, a micron at a time.

The fractured and episodic nature of the book is both its biggest strength and greatest weakness. A blow-by-blow, chronological account of the break-up would have been unbelievably tedious, and Mucha wisely avoids that approach. Each vignette, while roughly occurring in chronological order, tackles a different concept. That includes the phenomenon of Mucha suffering from a burst ovarian cyst smack in the middle of the breakup, drawing an interesting line between emotional tumult and physical side effects; the feeling of experiencing a "new normal"; and the concept of being "destined" to be in a particular relationship. The problem is that this fractured narrative fails to sustain itself over the course of the book, becoming repetitive and even tedious over time, especially since Mucha talks about the aftereffects of the breakup instead of the issues at hand that failed to make it work.

Instead, Mucha shares the ways in which her brain "ran laps" inside her head, which was less about actual insight and more about wrestling with her own jumbled emotions. When she managed to make it funny, like drawing her brain and heart as anthropomorphic entities, the comic is frequently hilarious. When it's just Mucha drawing herself on a couch crying and wondering why this is happening (again), those scenes simply have less impact as they're repeated through various stages of the story. Those are also the least visually interesting scenes as well. Throughout the book, the decorative quality of her lettering and the way it merges with her images creates an expressive gestalt that's engaging and witty. When she abandons this approach, her stripped-down drawings suffer in comparison. Ultimately, this is an interesting autobio comic that feels a bit padded. It examines a number of emotional issues in detail, though it's often at the expense of providing the reader a clear emotional understanding of both her own real flaws and strengths as well as those of her boyfriends. As such, too much of this book skims the emotional surface of a deeply powerful, devastating emotional experience.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sam Spina's Diary Training Ground

If Dustin Harbin's diary comics were a form of personal obfuscation in the form of a lark, then Sam Spina's diary comics are a lark that wound up having unexpected and personally beneficial side-effects for the artist. After claiming to be done with diary comics after the third volume (not to mention the fourth volume), Spina kept coming back to this exercise. Fortunately for the reader, Spina no longer felt the need to do a strip every day (something that resulted in a lot of bad entries), nor did he abide by the classic James Kochalka/American Elf model of a four-panel strip. In the fourth volume of Spinadoodles (I'm Zonin) and the fifth and supposedly final volume (Know Me Now), Spina balances gags, observations regarding his daily life as an artist and as a waiter, life with his fiancee and later wife Samantha as he slowly transforms a strip that began as quotidian work into something with greater depth and resonance.

Spina did this in a manner more akin to Jesse Reklaw's classic diary strip Ten Thousand Things To Do as opposed to Harbin's strips. That is, unlike Harbin's tendency to suddenly turn on a dime and become suddenly introspective and meta after weeks of the usual gags, he instead slowly lets his deeper concerns and fears become part of the background. Reklaw's strip was really about the artist's attempt to deal with fatigue, pain and depression while constantly keeping himself busy. Similarly, the jocular Spina's record of his life really becomes about his lack of self-confidence as an artist, even when he starts to get significant opportunities from Nickelodeon. One of the most memorable sequences in the book comes when he does an interview with a newspaper about his animation job, one in which he not only put himself down, he also was fairly negative about the process itself. That drew the ire of the network and caused some soul-searching as to why he did these things.

Such revelations came in bits and pieces as he slowly started to grow up, but he never pushed these themes on the reader in an obvious fashion, instead trusting the reader to tease this out. What he does as a memoirist is focus on the details of his relationships with others, especially Samantha. About half of the strips in the book touch on the amusing nature of their relationship, but it also touches on arguments, stubbornness, emotional breakdowns and their differences as people while revealing a deep and abiding mutual sense of love and respect. Spina doesn't merely tell us that Samantha and his friends are important; instead, he shows us the specifics of how and why they're important. That's conveyed so effectively that it's entirely unnecessary to know anything about the history or context of these relationships.

One of the keys to the success of these volumes is that Spina's visual approach is lively and eye-catching. There's a lot of ink, clutter and detail in nearly every panel, but Spina keeps his storytelling clear with simple and expressive figures. His bug-eyed characters, pointy noses and fluid lines, as I've noted before, remind me a bit of Kate Beaton. The eye simply wants to look at these figures. It's not a surprise to know that Spina is a graphic designer and has experience in animation, but the slickness that often afflicts cartoonists with those backgrounds is nowhere to be seen. The grit on each page keeps the images immediate, sharpening the punchlines or emotions Spina is featuring. In his final strip, Spina notes that comics gave him, a perennial shy kid, a voice and a way to express himself. That expression may not be especially profound (in one strip, he talks about his paintings always sucking because he has nothing to say), but it's honest, funny and earnest. .

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Overboard: Lucy Knisley's Displacement

Lucy Knisley has cranked out four travelogue/food/memoir comics in addition to doing a number of other similar comics on her website. Her storytelling abilities, clarity and tasteful color sense are all undeniable. What is unfortunate, and in clear evidence in her most recent memoir comic Displacement, is that she continues to repeat herself from book to book and is bogged down by navel-gazing that borders on narcissism. That navel-gazing is aggravated by the clear lack of subtlety and restraint that literally sees her spell out her books' themes on the page itself. Indeed, Knisley looks back wistfully on a trip to Europe, saying "That trip was about INDEPENDENCE, SEX, YOUTH and ADVENTURE. This trip is about PATIENCE, CARE, MORTALITY, RESPECT, SYMPATHY and LOVE."

In this book, Knisley decides to accompany her elderly (both 90+ years old) grandparents on a Caribbean cruise they signed up for in their nursing home. While Knisley's affection for her grandparents is made clear, she also goes out of her way to wear martyr's stripes throughout much of the book--especially when comparing herself to the rest of the family, who worry about her grandparents but don't do much to help. Early in the book, she even wonders out loud what kind of narrative she'll end up with, ranging from "bonding time with my grands" to "a frustration fest". The most interesting part of the book is Knisley reprinting excerpts from a war autobiography that her grandfather wrote for his children as well as her. It's one of the few times in the book that any real insight into the character of her grandparents is revealed. Like most of her other comics, they are not so much about the subject at hand as they are about her feelings about the subject at hand. At a fundamental level, Knisley seems incapable of making any observations about the world surrounding her without going into great detail about her surface feelings about the matter. She teases at exploring her emotions in depth but generally tends to revert to her normally breezy style when things start to get heavy.

In other words, Displacement doesn't work as a travel/food memoir (which is how she bills herself, despite the fact that her descriptions of places rarely goes beyond surface details), nor does it work as a more personal work. Her greatest strength as a cartoonist--her ability to create a fluid, casual narrative--often is her greatest weakness, because her attempts at emotional honesty frequently come off as spoiled, bratty whining. She sneers at the other tourists on the ship (especially ones that are overweight). She complains about being on the ship and not being able to have any fun. When she's able to get out of her own head and actually report about the cruise itself, the book has moments both poignant and amusing. The absurdity of the on-ship entertainment is portrayed in funny detail, and the decline of her grandparents is at times heartbreaking. There are some delightful moments, when she encourages her grandparents to go swimming and discovers that her grandmother really takes to it. When her grandfather tells her at the end that he'd do it all again if she could come with them, it's a wonderful moment of warmth. There weren't quite enough of these moments, and I had the nagging sense that this book really should have been a 20 page short story rather than a 160-page book that had a lot of filler. Unfortunately for the reader, that filler mostly took the form of that whining about being on a luxury liner and navel-gazing. Contrasted to the sharper Relish, which had a strong editorial hand at First Second, and one can see that the greater freedom Knisley received in working with Fantagraphics wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Writing, Mothering and Looking Back: Sarah Laing's Let Me Be Frank

As I've written before, Sarah Laing's first issue of Let Me Be Frank reminded me a great deal of Keiler Roberts' comics about motherhood and creativity.Issues three, four and five each have their own autobiographical themes. The third issue is "Writing", and it's about Laing's experience as an cartoonist, a novelist and an exhibiting artist. There's the requisite strip about attending a zinefest that has an added humorous element because she's worried that her young son will outsell her with his own comics once again. Amusingly, her earnings immediately translated into new sneakers. There's a long, funny story about going to a writer's retreat with a friend that turns into a disaster of getting sick and not getting much work done. My favorite strips in the issue included one where dissatisfaction in her own work transforms into a monster taunting her, and another where she decides to revise her novel, which has become a feral creature living in her closet. While Laing mostly uses a simple line meant to convey information clearly above all else (the way she draws eyebrows as a quick means of portraying emotions is an especially effective technique), this doesn't limit her visual imagination one bit. The "dissatisfaction monster" is cleverly designed, and it spews forth the kind of self-abuse that every creative person feels. The "feral novel" is an especially amusing metaphor, as she must teach it how to drink tea and help it withstand bright light.

The fourth issue, "Celebrity", is all about fame, image and self-image. Balancing her own feminist ideals with the pressures society puts on women to look a certain way. Amusingly, the strip is kicked off with a discussion of Brazilian waxes, with Laing chuckling to herself that she's a slattern (a dirty, untidy woman). There are strips about seeing bands, with the color strips about Flight of the Conchords and Morrissey being the best. There's a follow-up to the Morrissey strip where she realizes that she's on the same plane as the musician, and her inner fangirl gets the best of her as she tries to screw up the courage to meet him but is rebuffed by his handler. Laing's work pops off the page in her color strips, giving a bit more form and weight to her sketchy line. That said, the immediacy one feels when reading one of her especially heart-felt strips is palpable, as it feels like the images on the page have been ripped directly from her imagination and scrawled on the page. Throughout this issue, Laing reveals how fascinated she is by celebrity, how much seeing live performances means to her even though she feels increasingly out of place, and the happy but somewhat wistfulness-inducing nature of her current life as a writer and artist.

The fifth issue is called "When I Was", and these are all stories from Laing's childhood and youth. This was the most cohesive issue of the issues, in part because of Laing's use of color throughout the comic. "On The Radio" is especially revealing, as it traces her musical tastes from her youth to college. Growing up in New Zealand, with a limited number of radio stations, had a profound impact on her tastes (she thought she was more up to date than her friends because she listened to Anne Murray). As she gained new friends who helped expand her tastes, so too did she find herself growing up and being exposed to cultures and ideas that she wasn't aware of growing up in a small, suburban area. The story ends with the conclusion of her first graveyard shift as a college DJ. There's also a story about a children's book about having time stolen that resonated with her as an adult, a strip about making her own clothes and growing up with a mother who made all of her clothes, and a story about possums showing up at odd intervals in her life.

One of the reasons these comics are so effective is that Laing has enough perspective on these events to add a layer of humor, warmth and most importantly, honesty. When a young person writes about the bands they see, it tends to have a quality that's partly immersive but also partly absurd, because there's little else in the world that is as important as this to them. Same goes for romance, travel, friendships, etc. Laing's experiences as a creative person, a mother and citizen of the world gives her work a resonance and solidity sometimes lacking in the work of younger cartoonists. She's able to home in on key, formative memories and shape them to form a cohesive narrative, instead of just flailing around while wondering what it all means. While often self-deprecating and sometimes wistful (the strips where she admits being jealous of the success of others is especially sharp and honest), one gets the sense that Laing is pretty comfortable in her own skin, or at least comfortable battling her own particular set of demons.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Writing In Recovery: Kevin Budnik

Kevin Budnik is yet another cartoonist whose work has focused on autobiographical diary comics. Unlike most of them however, Budnik's quotidian observations frequently have a great deal to do with his recovery from anorexia and anxiety. He's been a prolific cartoonist throughout his illness and recovery, and three recent minis show Budnik using a variety of approaches in presenting his story. In Flower Grow, he republishes a number of strips first seen elsewhere. In this comic, Budnik experiments with color, using what looks like colored pencil. A number of the strips veer between past and present, giving a glimpse of his life in the form of emotional conversations, witty observations, a road trip, and hard talk about how he and a friend were so very different. It's a sort of emotional narrative, especially in the way that Budnik strings strips together that don't necessarily have anything to do with each other in a conventional manner; he creates that connection by way of proximity. As a young twenty-something, Budnik frequently touches on the idea of being an adult and how far removed he feels from being grown-up. From things like buying suits to the weirdness of attending weddings, this comic depicts him as being betwixt and between identities and states of health.

In Old Gum Wrappers and Grocery Lists, Budnik collects a couple of years' worth of diary comics, presenting them in chronological order. These comics are most like his first collection, Our Ever-Expanding Living Room. There's a lot more attention paid to single-page/single-panel drawings and observations as well as more attention paid to his daily schedule. However, Budnik never feels obligated to stay leashed to the Kochalka-style four-panel daily diary (usually with a punchline or conclusion of some kind each day). Instead, these comics "sound" more like John Porcellino's work. It's less poetic than Porcellino's comics and generally more direct, but many of his musings are just that: free-form thoughts that, over the course of the book, cohere to form a separate, more interesting emotional narrative. There are occasional dates, there is work, there are walks and bike rides, and there are also several emotionally charged conversations with friends. Knowing the entire context of these encounters isn't what's import from Budnik's perspective, only that there is a lot at stake emotionally and that everyone speaks from the heart. If there's an occasional sense of tonal sameness and repetition at times in this collection, that flaw is mitigated by Budnik's unflinching honesty and willingness to admit that he frequently feels confused, depressed and without any steady sense of being moored. Recovery isn't discussed a lot in this collection, but it remains an underlying theme that pops up unexpectedly. That's especially true when Budnik struggles with his tendency to isolate himself, and much of this comic simply sees him using what's known as "opposite action" to combat this unhealthy behavior.

Hand Book #1 is a short mini that addresses his recovery head-on. Working in full color, Budnik looks back on old journals and comics he did while doing the work of recovery. From the slightly uncomfortable sensation of understanding that people were happy to see him at a party because he hadn't been out in public for months to detailing the many OCD rituals that at once gave him comfort and trapped him to revisiting the feelings of loss of control and body discomfort he faced when eating, Budnik treats each emotional piece with a sense of restraint and respect. There's a scene where he thinks about looking in a closet and finding a measuring tape with which he measured his waist, and the present-day sense of revulsion he now feels. Budnik struggles with the idea of relationships, his own self-worth and freaking out that he's no longer at the vanguard of youth culture ("It blows my mind that there are 19 year olds.") He ends on a scene where he recalls being confronted at his extreme skinniness, denying that there's a problem. Each page is a gut punch, but Budnik is careful to space out the harder blows with more amusing and benign observations. Each of these three comics is designed with different impacts and ends in mind, and Budnik stays true to his sense of authentic engagement in each one.