Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews, Bonus: Drawn And Quarterly: Twenty Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels

The Drawn and Quarterly 25th anniversary anthology (henceforth (D&Q25) is a massive book that's scattered, lacks a cohesive focus but bears examination from a number of angles. As such, here are a number of scattered thoughts about this fascinating monster of a publication.

* This book is a sprawling, joyful exercise in both back-patting and celebration of its departing publisher, Chris Oliveros. As such, the many critical essays in the book aren't exactly hard-hitting, and I thought the way some of the essays rewrote history a bit so as to minimize the efforts of other alt-comics publishers during this period (especially Fantagraphics) bordered on being disingenuous. In defense of this unwieldy cudgel of a book, there is really no attempt at coherency to be found in its production. It's more a victory lap than an anthology, highlighting the many aesthetic (and even a few commercial) victories in Oliveros' reign as publisher. There is the germ of a great anthology to be found here. There were also the beginnings of an authentic history of the publisher, but that history tended to smooth over or ignore the bumps in D&Qs road, except when to mention them would valorize Oliveros and his crew. It's a testament to the quality of D&Q's contributors over the years that this glorified vanity project is so often such a compelling thing to read. For that matter, there are a number of excellent comics in among the more standard-issue tributes.

* The design of the book is typical in that it is beautiful; this is not surprising, given that D&Q brought a beautiful design sense to comics for the first time. Opening up with Tom Gauld's droll minimalism and Dan Zettwoch's elaborate chart-making tendencies gave the book a certain sense of self-effacement and restraint.

* The Sean Rogers-penned History of D&Q hits all the major highlights, especially in terms of zeroing in on D&Q's early reputation as a publisher mostly interested in autobio comics. While the problem of comics as a boy's club is addressed, Rogers overlooks the frequently problematic comics of Joe Matt as a symptom of that club.

* The book is jammed full of testimonials, most of which are at least well-written, if not especially revelatory. The exceptions are those of former employees like Rebecca Rosen, since they really convey precisely what it was like to work at D&Q and what the world of comics was like in general.

* I like that the book connects D&Q's publishing history with that of alternative comics in general, especially in terms of aggressively courting the bookstore market.

* The book goes out of its way to not play favorites in terms of its praise of its roster of artists, which I found understandable if evasive. Every one of their artists is simply awesome, though the book makes no mention of artists leaving D&Q for other publishers or D&Q ceasing to publish authors that had been on their roster for years, like Michel Rabagliati or David Collier. I don't know the whys and wherefores of their departure, but these were two key artists that stopped publishing with D&Q and started publishing with Conundrum Press instead. An honest word or two about how and why the modern roster was constructed and the ways in which business may have interfered with art would have been appreciated.

* I found most of the interviews to be revealing and was surprised at how little overlap there was. Interviewing retiring publisher Chris Oliveros of course made sense, as did new publishers Peggy Burns & Tom Devlin. However, I thought the interview with translator Helga Dascher was a bit much in an already oversized book.

* There were four kinds of comics in this book. There were strips about or in honor of D&Q's 25th anniversary, strips about other subjects, reprints of little seen work and reprints of widely-seen D&Q material.

* The Jillian Tamaki strip about a young women turning her internship at D&Q into a lucrative blogging and then film career is hilariously over the top. Kate Beaton's strip about her "formula" is a gag that's right on the nose, while James Sturm's full story about a "sponsor" for cartoonists kvetching about the success of others is almost a shaggy dog tale, given its punchline. Kevin Huizenga's strip highlights his mordant sense of humor, as he gives a "future history" of his involvement with comics.

* Some of the essays on the artists themselves were quite good, with Joe "Jog" McCullough's essay on Huizenga being particularly instructive. It was a nice touch to have an artist profiled, then to have that artist profile a classic cartoonist whose work was being reprinted, like Chris Ware with the Walt & Skeezix books or Adriane Tomine with Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

* There were a number of interesting "other" strips, including a classic bit by R.Sikoryak, mashing up Walt Whitman with Jack Kirby. Zettwoch's strip typically covers an aspect of Americana without sentiment and with cut-away drawings. Genevieve Castree's story about blankets is probably the most standout in the whole book, as she uses clever design and heart-rending reveals to discuss the roles different blankets have played in her emotional life.

* One of the more interesting features of the book is how it presents little-seen material from its big stars. Chester Brown has two such strips (along with three separate appreciations!), while there's material from a forthcoming book from Tatsumi, new stuff from Ware, etc. There's also brand-new work from Joe Matt that is probably a few years old at this point in terms of when he drew it. The appreciations of Seth by Lemony Snicket and Leslie Stein (respectively) were among the best in the whole book. There's also some interesting archival material from Lynda Barry regarding her novel Cruddy.

* The other reprints mostly mined old issues of the Drawn & Quarterly series, as well as several other books. I found this material to be the most disposable, though I can see why for the sake of completeness it was kept in the book. That inclusion made this an interesting historical document, but not a better anthology.

* Indeed, this may as well have been called the Encyclopedia D&Q, given the number of essays and historical pieces.

* This book is a victory lap and a bit of well-earned log rolling for a company that defied the odds in both surviving and thriving.

* The book is far too unwieldy to read in a single sitting like a typical anthology; it's best digested in fifty page chunks.

* I did appreciate the genuine effort made to give the reader material that, if not new, at least was obscure.

* I thought the balance between D&Q's "big five" cartoonists (Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine) and the more recent successes like Beaton and Barry was reasonable, although I thought the long section on Art Spiegelman (who has published exactly one book with the publisher) was perhaps a bit overblown.

* I found myself wishing for a more warts 'n all treatment of D&Q, its mistakes (remember the flop of Crumb's napkin sketch book?) as well as its triumphs. This is an interesting oral history, but a highly filtered one.

* In some ways, this book should be thought of as an artifact, something to be referred to in the future as a wonderful bonus. It's an 800 page lagniappe.

* I was baffled that there was no mention of publishing Tani Gevinson's highly successful Rookie books.

* The final irony of this anthology is that the way in which its many editorial voices contributed to its incoherency is amusing, considering that that the publisher was known for 25 years of having a single, distinct editorial and aesthetic voice. To be fair, Burns and Devlin have done much to expand and change that aesthetic since their arrival, creating the beautiful mutant Highwater/D&Q/webcomics creation that marks the publisher today.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #30: Michael Aushenker

Humorist Michael Aushenker has never been afraid to get weird. He has a penchant for the silly, the grotesque and the just plain strange in his comics, as he's not afraid to chase the punchlines he finds amusing. The first two issues of his three issue comic book series, Go, Genius, Go! find Aushenker working in slightly different territory. With artist Marcus Collar handling the actual cartooning, Aushenker has crafted an off-kilter workplace comedy about a schlub named Derick. A movie blogger, his girlfriend walks out on him at the beginning of the story and it's revealed that he lives in the guest cottage in a retirement community. He bluffs his way into getting a job at an internet start-up thanks to his friends sending him info via bluetooth, and this yields a great salary, the sexual attentions of his beautiful boss, and an unrequited crush from a fellow worker. Everything's going his way until his girlfriend finds out he's a fraud, and his whole scheme unravels.

The detail from the story that I particularly enjoyed, however, was Derick taking advantage of a pricing error at a high-end grocery store in order to get some expensive cheese. Despite having enough money to buy it at full price, he can't help but be a scammer. At the end, even that's taken away from him. While I enjoyed the overall loopiness of the story, Collar's work was stiff and amateurish. His naturalistic approach didn't seem to suit the story, whose over-the-top nature would have been much better off with Aushenker's own grotesque line. I will be curious to see where Aushenker takes the story in its final issue.

Back in his comfort zone, Trolls features Aushenker doing both story and art, and it features various anthropomorphic characters behaving badly. The story is in full, lurid color, something Aushenker takes full advantage of in this story about a pair of slacker air traffic controllers who come up with the bright idea of hosting a wild party at work. The duo, Edward and Wayward, find themselves dodging landlords badgering them for rent, psychotic drug dealers looking for money owed, and sneaking around their draconian supervisor. Aushenker starts the story off crazy and continues to elevate it, as the debauchery depicted at the party is hilarious, drawn in Aushenker's dense line and saturated in his intense color schemes. The images of planes falling from the sky while the duo falls asleep on the job as a party rages around them is just the right kind of crazy. The backups, featuring his Unstoppable Rogues characters, trade in much the same territory: things getting out of hand in the workplace and leading to orgies, or else the main characters trying to score but sniffing glue until they pass out. There's something about the sheer, gleeful loudness in Aushenker's comics that I find to be fun; there's a lack of slickness and structure that actually helps some of his more familiar story elements find new life in his iteration of them.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #29: The Story of Lee, Volume 2

The Story of Lee (published by NBM) is a romantic manga written by Scottish writer Sean Michael Wilson and drawn by Japanese artist Nami Tamura. It is in most respects a fairly ordinary boy-meets-girl story with a few interesting deviations. For example, this volume essentially tackles "happily ever after". After the first volume, where the titular character leaves her native Hong Kong to be with the young man she fell in love with, Matt, and also attend university in his native Edinburgh, this volume deals with the reality of achieving her dream. Lee had always wanted to go to the UK, but this book heaps some heavy doses of reality on the character. Her boyfriend, upon whom she depends as a sort of cultural lifeline, is moody and impatient with her. He's also jealous of her when she goes backstage and hangs out with a band she likes. The book also makes the unusual move of establishing a sort of homoerotic relationship between Matt and his best friend Richard, turning this into a love triangle of sorts.

The pace is pleasingly slow and relaxed, with an absence of huge, dramatic moments. Instead, there's an accrual of smaller moments that sometimes blow up and sometimes are repressed. There are long, knowing looks, uncomfortable body language and other meaningful exchanges that go beyond what is merely said. The focus on the culture clash between East and West also focuses on gender politics as well, which feeds into different communication styles. Wilson's dialog is a bit stilted at times, as it doesn't often sound like things someone would say out loud. That's exacerbated by Tamura's competent but utterly bland storytelling, especially with regard to facial expressions. Everything in this book feels stiff and mechanical, even as the themes explored are interesting and unusual for this kind of genre. One gets the sense that both artists are more comfortable doing other kinds of comics but that this is a dream project for them, one they don't quite have a grasp on as of yet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #28: Wailed

Annie Koyama is an interesting publisher because she's willing to take risks in publishing books that she finds to be visually interesting. Whether or not they're comics in the familiar sense is not all that important to her. Indeed, many of the earliest books she published could be deemed as art books, with comics only becoming a focus for her later on. In publishing Robin Nishio's photography book Wailed, she's taking both a short and long-term view. In the short term, this is a book, as cartoonist Michael DeForge notes in the afterword, that captures cartoonists in the rare times when they are not isolating themselves in front of their drawing desks.

These photos zero in on specifics, peculiarities like odd socks or special tattoos. They are all in black and white, capturing a certain timeless starkness in the proceedings. We see three alt-comics participants three to a bed at a convention, trying to desperately catch a few minutes of sleep. We see them playing music, we see them at karaoke, and we see them at dinner. In a particularly funny and telling photo, Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo are sharing some sort of torta at a restaurant. Jo's recoiling reaction as she sees that a fly has alighted on it is priceless, and it's reflective of the almost desperate way cartoonists wind up eating at shows when they have little time. There are pictures of cartoonists doing nearly everything but drawing. The shots taken outside are especially telling, but every photo is interesting simply because it's not just of a cartoonist not at work, but of a cartoonist participating in and creating a culture and a scene.

That's the short-view version of the book: a snapshot of how the creators of today's alt-comics culture are like when their tribes come together on rare occasions. The long-view version will be even more interesting, as this book could become a crucial anthropological and historical touchstone. Fifty years from now, this book will provide context for a particular period of art and artists. Whether that context will be part of a continuum, or whether it will be of interest because of its status as an extinct phenomenon is an open question, but this book shows that documenting this period is important.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #27: Three Stories

Victor Edison's mini Three Stories has a common thread in each story: there is something falling up, or down, in each one. The conditions under which this happens and the ultimate outcome of each vary greatly. In "Falling", a man leaps from the top of a building, presumably to engineer his own death, only to find himself immersed in language, Japanese kanji to be specific. It's as though that immersion in language, in belief, in structure gave him abilities to soar that he didn't understand until he was truly put to the test.

"A Dandelion" follows the path taken by a flowery puff blown into the air by a little girl. It zips in and out and around people, cities and fields until it final alights on a grave. One can imagine an unseen connection between the girl and the departed, at least in terms of providing a small offering for them. "Upside Down" finds a man who wakes up with the world literally upside down, as he wakes up on the ceiling with gravity affecting him completely differently than everything else in the world. Edison takes this to its logical extreme when the man cautiously steps out of his house, sees another man obeying the laws of physics, and then falls up...and up and up. Like the other stories, it's entirely silent, and it's all about displacement, about being thrust into a new world where everything we understand about it is wrong. The stories are cleverly told, as Edison's style is a sort of bland naturalism that gets the job done without leaving a particular stylistic mark. These stories are about the impact of the themes and ideas behind them, and Edison is able to string together events in such a way that makes these themes apparent without hammering them home.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #26: I Saw Him

Nate McDonough's book I Saw Him reads like a Grimm's fairy tale, the sort of story that induces a trickle of sweat down one's neck from anxiety down to the very end. This is a story of a man being kicked out of the house of a kind person who took him after finding him dead drunk and being sent home in the middle of a harsh winter. The bulk of the story follows that trek home through the forest, and all of the dangers and companions he happens across.

The book is at once direct and naturalistic, but also grotesque and filled with magical realist flourishes. Early in the trek, he realizes that he's being tracked by a wolf. That wolf is slowly joined by more and more members of its pack as they slowly but inexorably follow him through the snow. He is joined by a man who tries to defy his surroundings and is punished by them. He's later joined by what seems to be a madman who suddenly pops out of the forest but later leaves him to jump in a frozen lake, in order to throw off the wolves. He then encounters a man with an air of royalty about him who becomes his companion, making all sorts of puzzling comments as he quizzes him about his fear of death. The pair of travelers arrive safely at his house, only to set off an even stranger set of inquiries and a horrific final reveal.

The comic is one long meditation on not just fear of death, but fear of uselessness. At one point, the traveler bemoans that he had not done a "worthwhile thing since he had woke". The wolves represented not just that fear of death, but a sense that his entire worthless life, a life spent quavering in fear (afraid of the dark and the unknown--of trying new things) was coming to a close without him being an active participant in it. The man was a drunk, a wastrel. But even wastrels can understand their lack of worth, even if they seem unwilling to do anything about it. The crazy old man who took a leap of faith and jumped in the lake survived and threw death off his trail through sheer faith and commitment, two things the traveler lacked. The traveler instead chose to simply trudge along doing exactly what he had been doing, hoping that his fears wouldn't catch up to him if he simply tried to ignore them. McDonough showed that one's fears always catch up to you if you don't face them, especially when one is afraid of the unknown. McDonough's drawings of the wolves as snarling, monstrous creatures helps create that sense of impending doom. His figure drawings are lumpy, with thick, swirling black lines forming faces that stand in sharp contrast with the snowy forest but meld into the shadows of the traveler's home. McDonough's line is not precise and the proportions of his figures are a bit wonky at times, and the lettering is problematically sloppy on some pages. Still, there's a terrifyingly majestic sweep to this comic that was crafted from both the tone of the images and the precise way he used language.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #25: Magic Whistle #14

Sam Henderson remains one of the top humorists in comics. One of the very best things about Marc Arsenault taking over Alternative Comics is that it means Henderson having a regular publisher again, especially one that was willing to put out single issues of Henderson's long-running Magic Whistle like this. In issue #14, Henderson comes out blazing, with a New Yorker-style single page gag that hinges on getting fucked in the ass, and a "He Aims To Please!" strip that turns apps into pick-up lines in the most hilarious manner possible. Henderson tends to go in one of two directions in his strips: either building a gag around a single image or concept for a slow burn, or else barraging the audience with gags and meta-gags.

Henderson is also the absolute master of breaking down a gag to its base components, like on the page called "4 Easy Ways To Ruin A Joke". He literally explains the punchlines in a couple of the gags; in one of them, the joke is explained by two bystanders, one of whom says, "I get it, but it's still stupid." It's akin to a magician explaining how he does a trick as he's performing it, yet still getting over with their audience, because the utter seriousness of the explanation is what creates the humorous context. "Coming This Fall" uses the always-fecund concept of fake TV shows and runs with it, with programs like "Ass In The City" and "Movin' In", a sitcom where two guys move into a woman's vagina because of the economic crunch.

Henderson's longer stories, like "Lame On Acid", are every bit as good, spoofing a certain kind of slice of life story as two guys drop acid and do stupid stuff. It reads like someone who has babysat people tripping before, in terms of the ridiculous things people on acid say, the way they can get wrapped up in paranoia at the drop of a hat, and especially the outcomes of "brilliant" ideas. ("The next day: 'What in god's ass is this?1 IT SUCKS!!'") "High School Urban Sex Legends" shows off Henderson's ability to repeatedly up the ante on a joke, starting with the urban legend about a woman who broke off a dildo inside of her and had to call 911. Each version of the story gets more and more complicated and ridiculous, until the earth gets literally coated in a semen tsunami and every woman gets pregnant from it. The issue also features a strip from a young cartoonist named Jack Case, one from the archives of 1900 by Carl Hauser, and plenty of other one-off gags.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #24: Street View

Published as a double-sided flip accordion-style book, Pascal Rabate's Street View is certainly a triumph of form, if not content. Published by NBM, Street View is an unapologetic homage to Alfred Hitchcock's film Rear Window. That film was all about the voyeuristic tendencies of a thrill-seeking photographer confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, and how the tight quarter's of his neighborhood's apartments made for interesting viewing. The way Hitchcock framed each apartment was not unlike a panel in a comic strip come to life, each with their own narrative attached to them. Rabate' removes the viewer-surrogate character and dials back on the murder-mystery aspect of the film. Instead, each narrative in the comic is of equal importance, as Rabate' wordlessly provides all sorts of clues as to what happens to each of the characters across time.

One side of the book is "Mornings" and the other side is "Evenings", and the pluralizations of these words provide clues on how to read the book. The "Mornings" side doesn't refer to a single day, but rather a series of mornings. And on the corresponding side, each "Evening" refers to a separate evening. There are all sorts of clues that set this up, from obvious ones like the first-floor bar getting repainted to slightly more subtle ones, like the escalation of a series of arguments between a man and a woman into murder and an attempted disposal of the body in a carpet on the street. The comic, in many respects, is less a standard narrative and more a series of interlocking puzzles that the reader must solve in order to see the story's big picture, such as it is.

Some of the story's flourishes are a little too cute for their own good, like the portly figure meant to resemble Hitchcock, or the woman who is watching a marathon of Hitchcock films. Rabate' imports many of the tableau's from Rear Window into this comic, from the lonely man considering suicide to the musician having a wild party. Of course, he's able to bring the sex front and center, as the wife of the bar's owner is fooling around with the musician when he's at work. There's a painter hard at work with his muse, a married couple with a perfect life that makes them oblivious to nearly everything else, and a laundromat that does some work carrying forward the plot. Most of these felt familiar to the point of cliche', though the one interesting exception was a family of three. It took the most work to discern what was going on in what seemed to be a happy setup, but Rabate' instead subtly depicts a marriage in crisis. The body language of the husband and wife is frequently strained and awkward, but the giveaway is a single panel where we see her with the musician in their apartment, semi-clad, while the husband and child are out for a walk. The final page of the book sees them standing as far apart from each other as possible, each looking out the window.

Rabate's work in this book is incredibly clever, like in one evening page where there's a blackout, or a morning page where the sun's glare is blinding. He plays around with wind in some panels and is always careful to account for each of his characters and what they're doing. His use of gesture and body language is masterful and goes a long way in helping to establish his narrative. While the characterizations are mostly on the surface in this book, Rabate' does establish that human connection is essential to thriving as a fully evolved being. What prevents the book from going deeper is Rabate's insistence that the reader know that this was all artifice ("a wordless play in ten scenes and one set") at all times, partly as a way to show off his incredible skill and clever use of imagery and partly as a way to remind the reader of his source material.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #23: Weird Crime Theater

Kumar Sivasubramanian and Mulele Jarvis' Weird Crime Theater collection is exactly the sort of book I used to see at SPX, circa 1998. It follows the adventures of assassin/warriors/subcontractors "Granny" Kinkade and Melissa the Conqueror as they battle a variety of supervillains, monsters, time-travelling figures who disappeared from history and other assorted genre spoofs. Granny is drawn with a huge pompadour, while Melissa is drawn with Top Cow-style panty shots as a Strong Female Heroine, a cross between a high school girl in uniform and Conan the Barbarian. That sort of thing was good for a mild chuckle once or twice, but an entire book worth of this sort of thing was truly a slog to get through.

The barrage of pop culture and occasional historical references are done no favors by the hyper-stylized drawings of Jarvis. While the actual figure drawings are sometimes clever, their relation to each other in space is frequently so cluttered and unclear that it's occasionally difficult to discern what's happening in a given panel. Perhaps the oddest thing about this comic is that it features a guest appearance by Cerebus, drawn and lettered by Dave Sim. It's a riff on Cerebus-in-retirement (wearing a robe), acting as an informant for Granny, and it does provide a moment of genuine weirdness in a sea of routine decapitations, disembowlings, and other hack-and-slash mayhem capped with attempts at witty dialogue in the form of puns. The essential problem with the book is that its smartass, ironic breeziness undermines the attempt to present a clever, coherent genre narrative. At the same time, it simply isn't funny enough to deal with all of the genre clutter.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews, #22: Sophia Wiedeman

Sophia Wiedeman's comics explore dark places and spaces with a deft, feathery touch. Her latest collection of short stories, Born, Not Raised, continues her tendency to frame her stories as reconsidered and reconstituted myths. She always has one foot in what it means to be a woman in terms of how gender is constructed, how boundaries are violated and how aspects of our culture associated with feminimity are devauled. Her take on the Leda/Zeus myth speaks to the way the masculine aspect of aggression through rape is excused because of Zeus' godhood, when "who cares that he was a god if he has made a hen out of me?" Those words are stretched across a 12-panel grid, where each image is related to each other across time.

"How To Eat A Chicken" speaks to the responsibility a young girl is made to feel when her mother leaves her to tend to her dead grandmother. It's phrased as a "how-to" comic, but what it's really about is not falling apart. Using food as a metaphor for the ways in which families unite around certain rituals, it speaks to the importance of work that is not otherwise rewarded. There's also an amusing story about young Sophia refusing to be badgered into saying "I love you" to her father when her mother wasn't there to tuck her into bed. The use of shadow and cross-hatching gives the story a certain dark density, but Wiedeman's use of black dots for eyes allows the reader to make their own judgments about emotions expressed and unexpressed.

Another story, this one silent, that dips into the darkness and mysterious of the forest finds a man and a woman going for a walk. The woman goes off on her own for a bit, and when she returns, she reveals a gunshot wound in her torso. The man, instead of helping her, is hell-bent on instead exacting revenge, only to find that his aggression has led him down a dead end and to his own doom. There's an especially telling panel when the woman is talking to him, but the word balloon is empty. Her words had no weight or impact on what he had already decided to do: indulge anger over compassion. Wiedeman's work continues to become sharper even as her symbology becomes more elliptical.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #21: 30 Miles of Crazy!

Karl Christian Krumholz's 30 Miles of Crazy! is dedicated to the ways in which a particular place can have a sort of debauched culture that creates and rolls up its own colorful mythology. In this case, it's Denver's Colfax Avenue, known for its sleazy bars, sex workers, drugs, creeps, lunatics and shady motels. It is also a street with its own unique aesthetic sense and set of regulars who knew how to navigate its dangers while reveling in its pleasures.

Krumholz's perspective is very much that of an outsider. A Boston native (another city with a powerful sense of place tied to identity), he came to Denver to be with his girlfriend, and so looks up Colfax and its history with the cool detachment of an outsider who has found his tribe. He uses a two-tier, six panel grid for most of his stories; a weakness of the book's overall design is the way it feels more like a collection of web comics than something that's been properly adapted for print. The repetition of the address sign (even when it changes when he travels to other cities) gets tedious and takes up too much of the page. That said, the actual art is expressive and lively, mixing naturalism with regard to the setting and going flat-out bonkers with regard to his figures. His figure work reminds me a bit of Evan Dorkin in terms of gesture and body language, even down to the way he uses blank eyes on occasion in the same manner as Dorkin.

The anecdotes themselves work because Krumholz doesn't have to go out of his way to mythologize or exaggerate. He allows Colfax to slowly reveal itself to the reader, because nearly everyone he talks to has a least one Colfax story. Stories are a kind of currency, as random souls walking by a fixed location will often try to trade one for money. There are stories about finding dead men in toilets, a cattle drive in the middle of the city, a homeless woman whose sob story for money involved her being pregnant--for 16 months, and the slim difference between a person raving incoherently on the street and someone you might meet at a comics convention. While Krumholz goes mostly for comedy, there's also a remarkable sense of warmth in this comic, as his girlfriend is portrayed as an especially delightful sort of character and his friends help him form a unit that's become its own outpost on Colfax. The strips where Krumholz talks about going back to Boston for a funeral and other visits mostly maintains the format while allowing him to give the reader more depth and insight into who he is, what he's doing and why. The book never quite descends into repetition, though patterns repeat and the kind of brief anecdotes he tells start to coalesce a bit. That's again the danger of a web series instead of a longer narrative approach, but it's to Krumholz's credit that he's in control of the stories he tells about Colfax within his larger narrative as a person and "citizen of Colfax", instead of simply allowing this to be a series of outrageous anecdotes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #20: Long Red Hair

Meags Fitzgerald's first quasi-memoir, Photobooth, was mostly about her interest in analog photo booths, but it also addressed her own life in some regards. Her newest memoir, Long Red Hair, (Conundrum Books) is a fascinating take on relationships, sexuality, attraction and individual boundaries. Flashing back to her childhood and teen years and then flashing forward to a close friendship, we see how Fitzgerald was always allowed by her parents to express her own individuality in many ways, but still felt and feels constrained by many of society's expectations.

One key early section involves Fitzgerald bursting in on her mom (on the toilet, no less) and expressing her anger over not having been told about menstruation. Fitzgerald considered this no less than a betrayal by her body and was angry that men didn't have to go through it as well. That leads to her horrible realization that "It's better to be a boy than a girl". That said, Fitzgerald eventually embraced being a girl, especially in how her friendships made her feel and how they were when they were together, like they "didn't have to behave".

There's a running theme of magic in this book. Dungeons and Dragons was a family tradition, and she became a magic-user, using her high score in intelligence rather than charisma (because she wanted her character to be pretty). That became a rather obvious metaphor in how Fitzgerald's life has played out, but magic became something slightly different. There's a fascinating scene where Fitzgerald has a pretty friend over for a sleepover, and she suggests to her friends that they pretend to be witches. There's a sexual undercurrent to all of this (though still perfectly innocent), which may have contributed to her friend's discomfort, along with the "satanic" overtones. For Fitzgerald, the concept of magic was a binding force, a secret language for girls to speak. Indeed, the last line spoken by her friend Elise is "You'll figure it out, Meags. You've got lots of magic in you".

What Fitzgerald is trying to figure out is not so much her sexuality, especially as her big announcement to her family that she was bisexual was met with no drama whatsoever. (Indeed, the humor of that scene was just how hard Fitzgerald was trying to shock her parents, to no avail.) Instead, the dilemma left at the end is just how to negotiate a successful relationship path without losing herself. Polyamory is mentioned as one model, but what's left unsaid is that the friendship between Fitzgerald and Elise is a kind of relationship. Not a sexual or romantic one, per se, but still an intimate friendship. This book is an interesting departure point of sorts, as what Fitzgerald ultimately does is reject easy binary distinctions in favor of something a little fuzzier and intersectional. This book is less about revelations and big moments than it is a number of smaller moments connected across time in unexpected ways. Fitzgerald's beautiful pencil art and use of color in her gently naturalistic drawings makes reading the book a real pleasure, even moreso than Photobooth. Ultimately, this book shows how identity can continue to evolve over time, even as circumstances and choices from the path still influence the future.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #19: Cold Heat Special #10

William Cardini is a natural as a choice for a Cold Heat Special. His stripped-down, Fort Thunder style of art and Risographed color choices fit right into the aesthetic of the original series and the follow-ups. He also has a refined sense of how to put together genre concepts into an avant-garde framework, as can easily be seen in any number of his own projects (but Vortex is the best example of this).

This issue involves a woman hunting a minotaur in a labyrinth. There's a clever visual here as her sword contains a sort of GPS system that guides her through the maze and takes her to her target. The way in which Cardini alternates between pink and blue creates quite a trippy experience for the reader. His figure drawing is actually more conventional than usual here, as the figure of the woman is stripped down to a few bold brushstrokes here and there. The actual maze has that sort of wavy line he uses so much, allowing the reader to know that what they're reading is pure artifice while it's creating its own world. The comic goes into some truly wacky directions after she discovers the corpse, as spiders come out. One is cut in half, only to reveal a rare record that starts playing, starting a sort of impromptu dance party. At just twelve pages, this is the perfect length for the kind of silly weirdness on display.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #18: The Legend of Bold Riley #1

Published by Northwest Press, The Legend of Bold Riley #1 is a follow-up to the longer work of the same name. It's unusual in a couple of regards: the titular hero is a woman of color (her name and garb suggest of South Asian descent, even as the setting is entirely fictional), and she also happens to be a lesbian. What's great about it is that while these are indelible facts about her, they are very much in the background with regard to the story. It's taken for granted that she's a dashing hero who sweeps the ladies off their feet; it's part of her colorful personality. However, the story itself isn't in any way didactic; all it's interested in is providing an entertaining, exciting adventure narrative.

In that regard, it certainly succeeds. Writer Leia Weathington has an excellent grasp on this character as one part swashbuckler, one part slightly tragic and lovelorn figure. In this issue, she finds a tiny bone that talks to her and tells her that she's thirsty. When she dips it into mug after mug of ale (and Bold Riley gets sloshed along with the bone), it finally tells her a tale of woe. That leads her to reunite the bone, that belonged to a young man, with his lost beloved. There's a lovely moment of reunion, followed by an almost hilarious but certainly dreadful turn on that feeling, as Bold Riley must deal with a watery demon. It's a clever story that deftly mixes action, humor and emotion. Artist Jonathan Dalton has a wonderfully stylized line that's somewhere between cartoony and naturalistic. Even with full color, it eschews the sort of slickness that can be a huge turn-off in this sort of comic. It very much looks like it comes from his hand, with all the quirks that go along with it, and the story is all the better for it. At the end of the story, I wanted to read more, which is the ultimate sign of success for a genre story.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Thirty Days Of Short Reviews #17: Amy Godfrey

Amy Godfrey's a comics mover-and-shaker. She's the founder of the Durham Comics Project, which used an outreach approach to encourage newcomers to draw stories about their lives. She organizes numerous Drink 'n Draws in Durham and was the driving force behind the annual ComicsFest at the local library. She's also a cartoonist in her own right, using a simple, smooth line and exaggerated, blacked-in eyes (not unlike Neil Fitzpatrick) to give her characters an animated quality, despite the naturalistic nature of her work.

In Between #1, written by John Godfrey, is narrated by a cat and focuses on cats and their many lives. It's a highly clever conceit, as the cat in question says that cats have many more than nine lives, and that in fact, cats just on life #9 are still pretty stupid. Godfrey's illustrations of this are especially funny--a cat chewing a live wire and another knocking over a lit candle. It's all lighthearted until the very last page, where the cat reveals that dying isn't so bad. It's getting stuck "in-between" life and death that's bad, and he knows because he can see them in the mirror. It's a delightfully creepy reveal.

The Laundromat is an older quickie of a comic in which Godfrey and her partner are sitting at a table, and she tells him she's drawing what they're doing. But he protests that "But I'm not saying this". It's a clever little point of view that riffs on quotidian moments and autobio and briefly reveals the artifice behind even the most naturalistic of comics. One can see how Godfrey's line has developed between this comic and In Between: It's smoother, bolder and more confident.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #16: Purgatory Pub

Gabriel Dunston's Purgatory Pub (Book 1) is a clear labor of love, as it depicts an unusual friendship between two supernatural beings whose jobs are at odds: one is an angel charged with guiding his charges (or "marks", as they're called in the book) to goodness, and the other a demon whose task is to tempt his mark. This is a book about contrasts, relationships and perceptions, as the two navigate their friendship despite living in completely different circumstances. There's a great scene early in the book where the angel and the demon are walking "uptown" toward heaven to pick up some cigars. The angel perceives that there is no gate keeping him out and St. Peter is a jovial sort, whereas the demon sees a huge gate and St. Peter wears shades and is intent on seeing if his name is in his book. It's the sort of clever contrast that's made throughout the book, depicting the richness of a relationship that thrives against all odds.

The book centers around the two supernatural workers meeting at the titular pub, getting drinks and smoking cigars. They take a trip "downtown" because the angel wants to see a death metal show, a kind of music the demon despises. There are also lengthy interludes with Lucifer, aka Samael, for whom the demon wrote his latest speech. Upon meeting the "boss", the demon notes this, only to have Samael deny this. The scenes in hell are hilarious, as they are not unlike living in the worst parts of New York City, with a shitty roommate, terrible bartenders and surly convenience store proprietors. Dunston does a great job getting at each character's underlying sadness: the demon just wants his work recognized, while the angel is angry with religion in general. Dunston does an especially impressive job with getting to the root of Lucifer's sadness by way of both flashbacks and the final scene in the book. It emphasizes that this book is really about love that's been betrayed, and Dunston indicates that because Michael (the eventual warrior angel who would best Lucifer) didn't have a purpose before Lucifer's betrayal, he knew all along that Lucifer would betray him. It's an awful trick, even as one can sense that God was not happy to have to do this while still completely emphasizing with Lucifer that he was being replaced. The book also emphasizes the public self and the private self, and how those two frequently don't line up.

The problem with the book is Dunston's art. The slick style that's similar to much webcomic-style genre art looks flat-out ugly in the greyscaled black-and-white art. Compare that to the cover's vivid colors that fully inhabit the thick, rubbery line. On the page itself, the characters simply don't have the same life. While I'm not crazy about this sort of computer-drawn art in the first place, it seems obvious that this style needs color to be effective. Hopefully, a future edition of the book will be able to correct this.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #15: Comics Cookbook

Centrala, the Polish (by way of England) publisher, certainly releases a wide variety of books. Its latest anthology of sorts, Comics Cookbook, is exactly what it sounds like: a number of cartoonists offering up recipes in pictorial form. The most interesting entries were the ones that eschewed simply choosing to depict a recipe in typical sequential format. Some, like Curcija Vina's recipe for a "Croatian delicacy" called Strukli, offer up a gestalt of image and words, as the ingredients form a sort of anthropomorphic version of the rolled-up dessert. Then there are some more expressionistic pages, like a recipe for pancakes from Katarzyna Rucinska that simply has its ingredients spill onto a griddle and then onto a plate. On the more absurd end of things is Fraet ComicPopart's "Grilled Rattlesnake", which simply depicts a cowboy, a spit over a fire, and a diced-up snake on the spit.

Some artists worked a dense, scratchy style and others a lush, illustrative technique. Some had the diagrammatic precision of a Chris Ware while others employed a minimalist line. It's really a book that's better to look at than attempt to actually read, since there's almost no narrative content whatsoever, but there's certainly no skimping on production values. That said, my favorite part of the book, otherwise arranged by "side dishes", "desserts", "drinks", etc, is the "abstracts" section. This included a strip by Grzegorz Janusz & Tomasz Niewiadomski called "Feast For Two", in which a loaf of bread and some black dye are employed to create a chess set. Maja Starakiewicz's use of bizarre, spiky and spongy imagery combined with nonsense words that nonetheless carry an intelligible syntax ("Exrcill flacful of doshes") is fascinating, especially in the way the words "translate" a loopy script. Joanna Witek's "Futurist Cooking" is a take-off on F.T. Marinetti's original "Futurist Cooking" work, depicting the familiar Futurist whooshes and cold, steely images. There's an avalanche of interesting young cartoonists in Eastern Europe these days, and this book is just a brief sampler of what they have to offer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #14: The Tiny Report 2013

Robyn Chapman has long been a stalwart in the world of minicomics and micropublishing. From her early days self-publishing her own comics to co-editing two volumes of the True Porn anthology to starting her own publishing concern in Paper Rocket Minicomics, Chapman has embodied the journey that many cartoonists undertake. One interesting thing about Chapman is that she's always been interested in making connections among cartoonists. She was part of a collective called Artists With Problems, which sponsored a number of cartoonist get-togethers for drawing. She reprinted Ariel Bordeaux's Deep Girl minis in a paperback because she didn't want the past of comics publishing to get lost. Her most recent project, The Tiny Report, is already on its way to becoming a crucial publication for the future.

Published in 2015, it's a yearbook of micropress activity in 2013. She sought out a huge number of micropress publishers and made a chart of their publishing activity for the year, as well as offering up other details like their website, physical location, titles of publications, etc. Because Chapman is interested in history, she also offered up an essay about the subject by way of introduction, presented some graphs related to a publisher survey she sent to them and listed the three most popular micropresses of the year. (For 2013, it was Chuck Forsman's Oily Press). The questions included their biggest challenge (distribution and funding were the winners), the types of comics they publish, how they print them and if they make a profit. This mini is useful now for young cartoonists looking for potential publishers, it's useful for me as a critic and reader to see what I might have missed, and it will be useful in the future when research is being done on publication in this era.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #13: Pictorial Anatomy of 007

The first and only anatomical and exercise adviser for cartoonists, Kriota Willberg, has created a hilarious comic that's useful for both understanding the basics of anatomy and how muscles unfold in space. Pictorial Anatomy of 007 began as a 24-hour comic and merged her twin love of anatomical drawing and James Bond movies. The diagrams of scenes where Bond has a tarantula crawling on him, is lying in bed with a lover or is trying to electrocute Jaws with a lamp are all wittily annotated. Willberg took the original scenes and then drew a cutaway diagram depicting key parts of the muscular anatomy and explores how they all interrelate. This is an amusing goof of a mini that nonetheless has been thoroughly vetted for accuracy. In fact, it's how unsparing she is with anatomical details that makes the captions amusing, like noting that Jaws' impressively large salivary glands "surely provide him with plenty of lubrication and digestive enzymes for whatever he gnashes with his teeth". Her deep appreciation of the Bond films also allows her to gently mock them as well, creating a perfect outlet for her aesthetic interests.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #12: Step Aside, Pops

What can one say about Kate Beaton's new book, Step Aside, Pops? It's #3 in the New York Times list of "Graphic Hardcovers". Her previous book, Hark! A Vagrant is still on that list as well, at #8. While the phenomenon of a cartoonist achieving this much success by making jokes about classical music composers, historical figures and literary characters still utterly baffles me, it does speak to the power of word of mouth through her webcomic. Beaton has found an audience receptive to her work, and it's remarkably broad. The fact that her cartoons are excellent, erudite and hilarious is in fact a great relief and proves that sometimes, the public is right.

Overall, this volume is better than the first. It goes deeper down the rabbit hole of Beaton's imagination and makes me wish that six-strip suites featuring friends Chopin and Liszt, two egomaniacs who were big-headed in entirely ways, was expanded into a full book. Instead, Beaton goes straight to a send-up of Julius Caesar (that is entirely accurate, at the same time) and then flips to a story about Lois Lane that mocks Superman. Just when one thinks Beaton is stepping back into easy genre riffs, she unleashes a deep cut as she writes about the relationship between Maximilian (Napoleon III's appointed Emperor of Mexico) and his enemy, Benito Juarez, who eventually ordered his death. Beaton has an eye for absurd historical figures, and Maximilian was surely one of them.

Beaton's "Strong Female Characters" and "Straw Feminists" strips are some of her funniest. Beaton's scratchy line makes the absurd "brokeback' pose for the former characters even more hilarious, as tits and asses are exaggerated in ridiculous ways while the characters declare that "sexism is over!". The latter strip, with hissing, reptilian feminist figures are even better. In one strip, they say, "You don't want a training bra, little girl. You want all the men in the world to be dead." It's exactly the sort of leap in logic that anti-feminists love to make.

Other highlights include her version of "Wuthering Heights" (Beaton literally has to stop herself before the crazy events of that novel compel her to take up half the book with her gags), writing strips based on the covers of Nancy Drew novels, and putting the Founding Fathers of the US in absurd settings, like shopping malls or amusement parks. What I like best about Beaton is that all of these gags are pointed, as they frequently point out sexism and classism. At the same time, she has sympathy for some of history's crazier people, even while depicting them as nutty. The way she highlights lesser-known historical figures (especially women) is at once hilarious, educational and sad, in that these figures aren't as well-known as they should be. Beaton is a master at generating laughs through facial exaggerations and over-the-top lettering. Indeed, her lettering is a key component of her humor, especially when it's in bold. Combining the aesthetics of old-time cartoonists with modern dialect is another reason her strips are so funny; an example is when the Black Prince says "Bro I am STOKED" because after all, he is a sixteen year old. I would still dearly love to see Beaton zero in on an entire book devoted to a single parody or set of historical figures, but it's clear that letting her attention wander has still allowed her to create a fairly cohesive collection.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #11: The Divine

Based on a haunting photograph and a news story out of Asia about two young twin brothers who had become the leaders of a resistance movement, The Divine is a mix of the cliched and the clever. What can't be questioned is the consistently spectacular imagery that brothers Tomer & Asaf Hanuka provide on page after page. In particular, their ability to contrast the natural beauty of the fictional southeast Asian country of "Quanlom" and the grisly, visceral violence on so many of its pages is a remarkable balancing act. All of it looks both beautiful and terrible. It's revolting and riveting, as the reader cannot look away.

The story centers around two explosives experts: Mark, a principled man with a pregnant wife and a need for money after being transferred to an undesirable office; and his friend Jason, a hypermasculine, brutal adrenaline junkie. Jason offers him a black ops job in Quanlom to set up explosives to blow up a cave. Things get complicated from there, as Mark gets captured by The Divine, two young brothers with powers who claim that the mountain is the home of a dragon. Luke and Thomas smoke cigarettes and lead a group of children who survived their village being massacred by the government. Things get hairier and hairier, as Mark agrees to aid them, only to see the cave exploded by remote. There's a huge confrontation between the children and the military, which later leads to a final conflict between Mark and Jason.

The central problem with the book is that one never gets a sense of why the meek Mark and meathead Jason would ever be friends in the first place. Every single one of their interactions is hostile and confrontational. The plot device of the pregnant wife spurring a man into action is as old as the hills. If the creators were trying to show Mark trying to assert his masculinity in a misguided attempt to provide for his family, the way they did it was convoluted and self-contradictory. The key sequence in the beginning of the book is a dream that Mark has where he and his wife are in a chamber that's about to explode, and he can't prevent it. That spurs him to take the job, but that leap felt like little more than a plot device to get to the stuff the authors really found interesting: the boys themselves. The characters of Mark and Jason are little more than a narrative framework to wrap a story around the mystery of the twins, and not an especially compelling framework at that. That said, the sequences with Luke and Thomas are sensational. The action is gripping, the tragedies surrounding them are compelling and the mystery surrounding their claims is especially fascinating--although the reader is clued in right at the start that the dragon is real. A story that truly featured the twins could have been fascinating, but the title and cover characters are pretty much relegated to a supporting status. The resulting book is never less than a joy to look at and marvel at, but in the end it's just so much blood-spattered cotton candy.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #10: Towerkind

Originally published as a series of short Oily Comics-style minis, Kat Verhoeven's Towerkind is a comic that's both highly specific to a setting but also demonstrative of the wider importance of the concept of diversity. It's set in the Toronto neighborhood of St. James Town, which is made up of about 25,000 people in 23 different apartment towers and buildings. It's an incredibly densely populated area and one that's home to a number of different immigrant families, low-income individuals, etc. In other words, a true melting pot of interesting experiences, cultures and ideas. Verhoeven's series follows the lives of a number of characters whose lives inevitably intersect. There's more than a touch of the supernatural in this story, which also carries the kind of densely packed paranoia as the J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise. However, nearly every character here is a kid or a teen, giving it the kind of innocent resonance of a Max de Radigues, Chuck Forsman or Melissa Mendes story.

There's Ty, the self-proclaimed King of the neighborhood (his Kobe Bryant jersey is a tell-tale sign of his arrogance). There's Moses, the sensitive polyglot who gets accosted by Moses. There's Dina, the Muslim adventurer. There's MacKenzie, who can talk to dead animals. There's Maha, who sees visions of the apocalypse, and the "twins" DukDaniel, who learn to feel everything the other is experiencing remotely. Moses starts to notice animals dying mysteriously, including birds just dropping from the sky. Verhoeven deftly moves from quiet character studies to moments that nudge the plot forward slowly. Her multi-ethnic cast doesn't sidestep issues of ethnic identity as either character or plot points, yet the fact that there are so many different people in this area is simple an organic fact of life.

The mysteries surrounding the dead birds and the general weirdness in the air becomes a uniting factor; indeed, seeing through differences to make cross-cultural allies is the underlying theme of the series so far. Again, Verhoeven manages to do this in a natural, unobtrusive and informal manner, thanks to how sharply she defines her characters through what makes them unusual. Her drawing style is cartoony, but her line weight is thicker than any of the artists I've mentioned save Mendes. In her line, she combines a bit of cute with an air of menace, a description that can be used to sum up the series in general. The end of the story takes what seemed to be metaphor in the background of the characters' daily lives and makes it quite real, tying together each of their unique qualities and giving each of them a special purpose. Each difference becomes a strength, and saves this unusual aggregation of people when most everyone else is lost. Verhoeven combines admirable storytelling restraint through much of the book in order to create tension, unleashing a visceral barrage of images only at the very end of the story. As a result, it's an ending that feels well-deserved.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #9: Lowriders In Space

Cathy Camper and illustrator Raul the Third have created a wonderfully weird children's book in Lowriders In Space. The structure and character design, along with the wonderful sense of glee on every page, reminds me a bit of the late, lamented YEAH!, a series by Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez. With a three-person group, an interstellar car competition and triumphing over meager beginnings, the team of Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack Octopus, and Elirio Malaria have similar sorts of adventures and hijinks as the gang from YEAH!. The anthropomorphic character design is markedly different from that other book, and it's one of the chief draws of the book. Camper and Raul put their characters front and center on nearly every page, emphasizing the animal qualities of each in clever ways. For example, Elirio is a car painter and detailer, and makes great use of his long proboscis in his work. Flapjack uses his eight arms as an ace polisher. Lupi Impala is the Maggie Chascarillo (from Love & Rockets) figure in this book, as a talented young mechanic who happens to be a young woman.

That's not the only similarity to Love and Rockets that this book has, however. The book is all about lowrider cars and their importance in Latino culture. These "low and slow" cars known for using a suspension system that allows the cars to bounce. Camper peppers the book with a mix of English and Spanish, translating some phrases and allowing context to define others. Combining this mix of the familiar and the specific to something fantastic and whimsical is a clever idea. It's asking the reader to immerse themselves in what is potentially a different cultural experience while still delivering a fanciful but still easily relatable experience. That the characters are Latinos isn't directly discussed; it's simply part of the understood background of the story.

That said, what sets this book apart is the work of Raul the Third and the overall design of the book. Printed on thick, pulpy paper that looks like it's been intentionally discolored, it only adds to the sense that this book is an artifact of sorts. The rock-solid character designs are animation-cute without being cloying, but it's the spot coloring (in reds and blues) that again gives the book that artifact look, as though someone took a black and white book and colored in it. It's yet another factor that gives the book its most quality: warmth. The panel-to-panel transitions, page design and overall fluidity of the narrative ensure that this is not a stiff or slick comic. This is a deeply welcoming, cheerful book that takes the reader along its swooping journeys into space. It celebrates Latino culture and invites the reader to celebrate along with its characters.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #8: The Little Grey Spot, Sleepless Knight, Lolly Poppet's Lousy Year

Lolly Poppet's Lousy Year, by Lupi McGinty. The talented cartoonist, best known by me for her contributions to Cartozia Tales, has crafted a book with irresistibly-drawn characters. It's not comics in the sequential sense, but each page is most certainly cartooned rather than illustrated in the typical sense. There's an amusing progression from page to page as the titular character has all sorts of failures in her efforts to have fun during the year, from a spilled popsicle to getting covered in grass clippings that she hoped would scatter like leaves. The winning expressions of Lolly are what make the book work, along with that cartoonist's sense of creating motion with just a single image. The book is translated into both English and Spanish, and my main quibble with it is the printed text. Hand-drawn text would have been warmer and more in keeping with the rest of the book's aesthetic.

Sleepless Knight, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. The latest entry from the Adventures in Cartooning! narrative/instructional series for kids, this book is heavy on the story and light on instruction. If there's one lesson the book is trying to impart, it's learning how to draw a particular character engaged in a number of different activities. Finding out how the character moves in space, what their body language is like, and simply experimenting with them doing different things can help young cartoonists solve a lot of problems on the page and make their characters come alive. The actual narrative is a funny story about a series of self-inflicted woes, as the titular knight is out on a camping trip with his horse and can't get to sleep because he can't find his teddy bear. It's a sort of hero's journey in reverse, as the knight meets a rabbit and a bear but manages to anger both of them instead of creating new allies for his quest. Indeed, the knight's tale winds up being incidental to the outcome, as the poor, beleaguered horse winds up having fun and eating marshmallows with the other animals. I read this one along with my daughter, who is learning to read. I was impressed by how the images provided excellent scaffolding for her to look at a word and instantly understand its context, giving her the confidence to shout it out. She also appreciated the humor and empathized with the anxiety caused by losing a sleep-comfort object. The brushy line of Frederick-Frost is a key to the book's success, as he keeps things simple but rock-solid in terms of storytelling.

The Little Grey Splot, by Nicholas Alan Straight. Published by Jordan Shiveley's Grimalkin Press, this is a straight-up kid's book without a specific comics narrative. Like McGinty's book, however, it is very much a book that was cartooned. Straight uses a cute design with the titular figure being greyscaled in contrast to the other bright blobs of paint that make up the other figures. Every other page of the book encourages doodling, scribbling and drawing in the book itself, giving the young reader examples to model and then encouraging them to use their own imaginations. The Little Grey Splot draws faces, bodies in motion, fears, ocean creatures and aliens and overcomes its lack of color with its imagination. I like the idea of a kids' book that encourages such active participation, with the added innovation of not being a coloring book but still giving kids direction and restrictions.