Monday, November 30, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #30: Irene

In the sixth volume of the premier CCS anthology Irene, editors DW, Dakota McFadzean and Andy Warner continue to bring together established but overlooked talents, up-and-coming cartoonists, and artists from all over the world into one challenging volume. The fact that each of the three editors has a totally different aesthetic (both in terms of the contributors they bring in as well as their own work), yet they somehow work together to create something coherent and disquieting.

Part of that coherency is the use of two different sets of interstitial material. One is a silent narrative from Jai Granofsky, wherein a rabid man running from a rabid tiger is eviscerated, creates a smaller version of himself, is eaten by a penguin, gets the penguin sick and comes out as an ice cube and finally gets put in a drink. It's a funny palate cleanser of a story, as each panel gets one page and plenty of negative space around it so as to create clear divisions between stories. The other recurring feature is a series of one-page strips from Kramer's Ergot veteran Leif Goldberg in crisp, cartoony and silly pencils. Each of the strips is about consumption in some way, be it squirrels collecting nuts, police eating sentient hot dogs after a crash, a robot collecting bananas for a rave or a man pondering a love potion.

Marta Chudolinska's "Genesis" splits neatly into bored aliens working a shitty job and the life they accidentally create on the backwater planet they visit, combining greyscaling with cartoony figures. Carolyn Nowak's "Girl Town" starts off with the premise that three young women started living together after being "kicked out of astronaut school for being too good-looking to be sent into space". Mixing slice-of-life narratives, ritualistic oddness, and painful romantic feelings in an amusing and heartfelt stew, Nowak's confident and sharp line fits both the strange and mundane aspects of the story.

Tillie Walden's "Dreaming" is a completely different aesthetic approach: a naturalistic line that employs an extensive use of negative space surrounding the protagonist's face. It's a series of interlocking nightmares that bleed into each other and daily life, as Walden makes the clever move of not differentiating the visuals from nightmare to nightmare. Lebanese cartoonist Lena Merhej's story mixes a dream-like reverie with abstracted women's bodies that focus on genitalia.

While Irene is certainly anchored by narrative, there are certainly more abstract and non-narrative pieces as well. Natsuko Yoshino's drawings feature swirling human bodies interacting with each other, while Marc Bell's typically loopy drawings are pointedly titled "Not Comics Department". Bell's sly sense of humor is certainly on display here, both in terms of how he titled it and the hilariously daffy internal logic in each drawing. Ben Juers' "Flowerpot Heads" features beautiful, strange figures juxtaposed against each other in a fluid manner. Of course, there's DW himself, whose piece combines his intense pattern work, simple figures and repurposed text.

There are several works that touch on personal reportage and political issues. Nick Cartwright's "Station Life", for example, is a funny and sometimes unsettling account of life in an Antarctic station during both summer and winter. His thin and scratchy pencil drawings in an open-page layout add to the sense of vast whiteness, stillness and isolation, with funny visual interpretations of text leavening the sheer anxiety of life at the South Pole. Warner's own "An Unravelling" encapsulates the idea of "the personal is political" as he relates a story of travel during his stay in Lebanon. With his typical naturalistic style, he drew parallels between old civil wars in Lebanon, the current civil war in Syria (including a town he visited with friends) and the real collateral damage that's been done to his friends who are still there, all while connecting it to his own career and ideas. It's one of his best stories to date. Egyptian artist Shennawy's scribbly and distorted silent story concerns the real human cost of political demagoguery. Ben Passmore's funny "It's Not About You" is about a guy being introduced to a female-appearing person who goes by a they/them pronoun, provoking a paroxysm of anxiety, doubt and resentment that is only resolved in his head when his inner mentor tries to eat him. I love Passmore's sweaty and cartoony line that nonetheless has rock-solid fundamentals.

It's hard to describe McFadzean's own aesthetic sometimes, but "personal and unsettling stories set in isolated locales" comes close. His "Good Find" is a slice-of-life story about two kids looking for stuff in an abandoned (and possibly haunted) house. What goes unexplained is that every character is grotesquely disfigured, with various boils and growths on their bodies. It's meant to throw the reader off-balance, to given them something to think about in addition to the pleasant little escapade they just read. Along the same lines is No Tan Parecidos' "Indian Rope", which is a story about waiting with each character rendered in a distorted and elongated fashion. It's more a fragment than a story, but it adds to the book's atmosphere.

Luke Howard's "You Come To A Strange Town" is the book's best story, and it certainly fits in the McFadzean wing of aesthetics. Drawn using a minimalist and angular style that recalls John Porcellino and Warren Craghead, Howard spins vignette after vignette about a small town and the weird things that happen in it. From the woman who can't get off a swingset to a taxi with no driver to a hotel that traps certain of its guests to the hilarious story of the Ghost Bike (it shouts "Human Blood" while threatening no one at all), Howard nurtures a bunch of disparate gags, images and characters into a single, coherent environmental narrative.

There are also a number of more personal stories. Norwegian cartoonist Froydis Sollid Simonsen's "Siberian Stillness" cleverly transposes an anecdote about life in ancient Siberia with a turbulent relationship. Katie Parrish's "Drink More Water" smartly uses word balloons to describe thoughts gone awry in a relationship with a scrawled, intense line. Lucy Bellwood's "Salt Soap" and Jackie Roche's "Hopes Up" are more conventional slice-of life stories, with the former being about slowly recovering from a bad break-up and the latter about the continual disappointments of being in school. Both employ a smooth, naturalistic line. Sean Knickerbocker's "Killbuck" excerpt shows him at his best: depicting the hopes and fears of young people in small towns who are desperately hoping for something better.

Finally, there's an in-your-face, underground inspired piece by Kevin Uehlein called "Dozens of Cousins", which features anthropomorophic characters doing disgusting things. Uehlein's own sense of self-awareness has him doing meta-jokes about hillbillies that turn into a series of hilarious running gags. It's a scatological romp with brains. It also points out that the editors may have their own tastes, but they've gone out of their way to include as many different approaches to comics (in terms of style and aesthetic as well as making sure it was balanced in terms of gender and had an international bent as well) as possible.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Kazimir Lee

Kazimir Lee is one of the more versatile and polished of CCS grads, and his output reviewed here certainly reflects that variety of styles and facility in any number of genres. For example, End Of A Century is a marvelously well-realized mash-up of superheroics and slice-of-life drama. Using an appealling, cartoony line with character design reminiscent of the sort of thing that Brandon Graham (by way of Bob Fingerman) does-- that mix of manga, street art and Archie comics. Lee cleverly makes slow reveals in this story, as we first meet Ethel and the equivalent of her conscience /Microsoft paperclip. We immediately see that this is a futuristic world, that Ethel was formerly a superhero, and finally that she's a robot. The fact that she has to upgrade her "self-esteem software" is both a running joke and a clever plot point. Lee manages a genuinely exciting action climax and a quiet character moment at the end.

Here, After is another sort of mash-up: horror and existential character drama. It's the story of a young man housesitting for the family of his dead best friend. With character design that once again employs a sort of cartoony, grotesque doodle, Lee creates an atmosphere of tortured guilt and thick suspense as the reader is left guessing what's real and what's imagination. It's a story about someone who's adrift in part because of his guilt, and partly because the relationship he had with his friend was so ambiguous and clearly tortured. The metaphor that Lee employed, of the protagonist being unable to relate to his friend's love of horror movies, resonated as him being unable to connect to his friend while acting as the story's horrific fuel.

The City That Cried Wolf! was an Aesop's Fable assignment at CCS that Lee turned into a Black Lives Matter metaphor. The shepherd in this case was a kid who fabricated evidence against wolves, inciting city-wide fear and resentment against them that led to real rioting. While the story is far from subtle, the cleverness of Lee's visual set-ups mixed both modern and ancient appects of the story in an amusing but pointed manner.

Curtain Call is "adapted from writings by A.M.L" and is certainly a thematic departure. It's a "same time, next year" story about a drama professor's sexual encounter with a former student in a hotel room. This time around, Lee uses a brushy approach with a cartoony style that looks a bit like a New Yorker strip. It's frankly sexual but not erotic, as the thick and curvy lines, pointy noses and other anatomical exaggerations tell the story in a manner that's emotionally realistic but not exploitative. Lee nails the swirling emotions as well as the small talk and the pillow talk here.

Finally, Lee was the editor of the CCS anthology It Is The Bad Time, whose theme was dread. Dread is very carefully selected as opposed to horror, because dread is a feeling of anxiety and fear of the unknown as much as it is the actual experience of horror. Emily Parrish's "Monstrum" connects a young woman's encounter with a possibly cursed bracelet with certain growing and unpleasant appetites. Anna Selheim's "Wasted" is about a young writer frittering away her time, only be visited by a ghastly spirit who warns her about this. The ending is predictable but still high-impact, especially given her emotionally resonant character design. Cooper Whittlesey's "Autopoesis" is a manically scrawled story of survivalism gone horribly wrong, while Lee's own "Ugly Boy" is about bullying, bad parenting, a monster in a pool and the way children manage to still love their parents in even the worst of circumstances.

Tillie Walden's one-pager "Muscles" uses dense cross-hatching to get across the fear of feeling one's tendons and muscles simply snap, while JD Lunt's "State College" uses the metaphor of a college football town to express the horror of crowds and cults of personality in a dizzying swirl of silhouettes, shadows and bizarre images. Finally, Angela Boyle's "Spores" is a fitting capper, as her pleasing line soon turns to utterly disquieting and nightmarish images as a young woman is slowly infected by a monstrous creature disguised as an old woman. The device of the barking dog as a warning sign that's ignored is especially effective here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Ben Wright-Heuman

Ben Wright-Heuman is unusual for a CCS cartoonist in that his concentration on horror. Perhaps it's not so unusual in that Steve Bissette is a long-time faculty member at CCS and is one of the most notable of horror cartoonists, and it's clear that Bissette's gritty style is a strong influence. CCS of course requires cartoonists to experiment in a number of different genres.

Phantom is an autobiographical story that's almost a mission statement of sorts. It's about Wright-Heuman making a friend with a musician in college and becoming part of a welcoming guitar circle. His friend, a native New Orleansian, wrote a song about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought on his city. That song became a local sensation, even if the author was always and ever unsatisfied with it. The story is really about the power of creation, collaboration and inspiration. Wright-Heuman is not especially comfortable as a naturalistic artist, so he was wise to concentrate on color and contour instead of line.

Trinary is a wordless story about robots in the future who create art in a factory, and a robot who rebels against her programming. The story's extended metaphor about free expression and the oppressiveness of conformity is heavy-handed, but Wright-Heuman's scribbly line and use of browns and oranges livens up an otherwise predictable story. Predictable isn't so bad when a story is well-executed, and that's certainly the case for Wendigo. In that classic scratchy, Bissette line, Wright-Heuman does a compelling job in telling the myth of the Wendigo, a voracious, cannibalistic deep woods spirit that infects those unlucky enough to come near it. Wright-Heuman uses a couple of clever tricks to make the story interesting, as he first keeps the reader in suspense by narrating the story from the point of view of a man who didn't believe in the Wendigo--and then continuing that narration when he becomes one of them.

The Light Outside The Window is Wright-Heuman's best-realized work. With a scribbly but detailed line and a highly effective use of digital coloring. Based on legends surrounding his own college, the story is about a college freshman who moves into her dormitory, only to learn that it's haunted in an especially unnerving way. During the winter, the room grew especially hot, as a young female ghost would appear, begging to be let inside. What was especially clever about the story was that after the backstory reveal, the story takes an unexpected and even humane turn as the protagonist becomes friends with the poor ghost, which made the final twist all the more chilling. Figure drawing is Wright-Heuman's biggest weakness as an artist, and finding a way to create his own particular style instead of relying on over-rendering in a naturalistic manner will be the key to his future development. He certainly has solid storytelling chops.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #27: Jai Granofsky

Jai Granofsky's Waiting For Baby is ostensibly the story of Granofsky and his partner Shira coming together and going through the process of having a baby. What it really is is a frequently disturbing, bracing and brutally honest account of depression, addiction, despair and the light at the end of the tunnel. Granofsky's account of his own self-loathing and bad behavior is almost wince-inducing, even as he punctuates it with moments of humor and a remarkably even-keeled, even dispassionate overall tone. Everything is at stake in terms of happiness and meaning, yet Granofsky fights that pressure by depicting himself almost as a bystander in events that concern him but in some ways are happening to someone else.

The story starts with the anxious, exciting early moments of a relationship, the blissful honeymoon period, and the joyful reveal that his girlfriend Shira was pregnant. That early excitement turned into anxiety about the future, which turned into full-blown depression that manifested as relentless hatred toward everything and everybody--especially himself. There's an early climax where Jai takes Shira's annoying dog for a walk after he saw it chew up a book, the dog jumped on someone, and he snapped and punched the dog. It's a shocking scene, one that is magnified when he decides to smoke pot again after having quit.

Things don't exactly get resolved, but the book turns more toward discussion of the future baby, family, names and getting rid of the dog, that turns into Jai "practicing" killing himself with a belt and eventually getting help. As the book speeds to the inevitable birth, I was amazed at how Jai was just barely able to keep himself together, unable to feel like he could trust himself as a father while anxiously wondering if his baby would one day kill him. Cleverly, Granofsky doesn't give the reader a specific resolution, ending the story just as his son was about to be born and he was ready to use the one thing that kept him sane and in the world: his ability to draw.

Granofsky's work and slightly dispassionate but intense storytelling style reminds me a bit of Chester Brown. There's a plainness to his character design that reflects life as it's lived, not an idealized version of it. Even Granofsky's use of color is muted, more for informational purposes than to liven up the story. Ultimately, this story is one of simply living from one day to the next, understanding that there are no simple answers and that anxiety can be faced down but never eliminated. It's in that simple honesty that the story has its power, as Granofsky's admitting his own sense of hopelessness and helplessness on paper clearly aids him in coming to grips with his own demons as well as the new responsibility in front of him.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #26: Dean Sudarsky

Dean Sudarsky will be graduating from CCS in 2016 and has tried a number of different ways to express himself through comics. Side A: Work Dance/Side B: Sinkhole sees him experimenting with comics-as-poetry. "Work Dance", drawn in a scratchy, angular and open style not unlike Sophie Yanow, ritualizes the act of getting ready to go to work, with the text being both suspicious of "work" in the context of a societal whole and grateful for work done on a personal level. "Sinkhole" is a denser, darker story that addresses the mind/body split, with every facial expression a rictus of agony. The image of the body being so pressurized that it's practically liquid is a vivid one, with clever lines like "I'm just so ambitious! I won't stop 'til I secrete success" getting at that sense of being pushed and pulled. Sudarsky's line is thicker and his use of zip-a-tone and other effects helps create that oppressive atmosphere.

Sudarsky submitted some short and incomplete work as well. One of my favorites was about a rock band called The Bureau started by agent 3181 of some government agency in order to infiltrate the underground music scene. While they were a failure, their music got sent back in time to 1979 and became highly influential, so by the time the band was formed, they suddenly became popular. The art is a mix between Yanow and Tom Kaczynski, with Sudarsky's own biting sense of humor. "The Dysfunctionals" is a single page strip done in the style of a Sunday old-school drama/romance comic, in full color. Sudarsky goes to town on using the formal elements of the strip for humorous purposes, like the middle column being variations on the same tearful pose, distorted body positions and absurd situations. It subverts romance comic tropes with modern relationship politics. "Song Of The Left Hand" seems to be a sort of tribute to Jim Woodring's "What The Left Hand Did": surreal autobio that incorporates Sudarsky's interest in using background text as a way of commenting on the story as a sort of Greek chorus. Here, the "left hand" is essentially the invisible hand of fate, pushing Sudarsky to and fro with regard to where he goes, whom he meets and what he cares about, illustrating the ways in which he feels like he's drifting through life. Offered a doomsday weapon that allows him to wipe out his own world, he eventually pushes it while imagining this fantasy person he's singing to in the background urging him out. It's a clever strip that combines despair, loneliness and that sense of drifting that comes with being depressed, drawn with a combination of his angular style and a more naturalistic style.

His comic Lachrymator is a collection of brief, mean, political, funny and often existential strips, mostly drawn in a flat and naturalistic style that again owes a lot to old comics pages. "Dawn Of The Red Sun" sees a downtrodden Superman buying fair-trade chips as a way of being "a considerate and well-informed citizen", only to be foiled by a kid wearing a propeller beanie who says "There's no such thing as ethical consumerism under late capitalism". The strips are somewhere between the nihilism of Ivan Brunetti's early work, David Rees' pointed and scorched-earth political commentary, and Evan Dorkin's blunt and frequently visceral sense of humor. His nameless art commentary comic featuring horses committing acts of violence is profane and rough much like a western, but it gets at the heart of why creating is not about a pose or being liked, but rather is about expressing truth and experiencing the joy of creation. Finally, Murderworld Comix was my favorite of Sudarsky's work in this batch. A series of interconnected strips, it starts off with the President declaring all crime to be legal, which created a field day of murder. He zips between genres in each of the strips, hilariously and viscerally satirizing both genre and culture in a Hobbesian nightmare. Sudarsky is a smart, promising cartoonist who has a lot to say and the tools with which to succeed no matter what direction he chooses.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #25: Aaron Cockle

As Aaron Cockle's storytelling aims become ever more opaque, his actual storytelling has ironically become clearer and clearer. That's primarily because he has a greater understanding of how to make his limitations as a draftsman work for him by simplifying and even abstracting his line in the service of his mystifying tales of paranoia, conspiracy and intelligences beyond human comprehension. In particular, Cockle writes about the use of language itself as a weapon and the ways in which subject and object blur and intermingle. In his ongoing series, Annotated,  #17 features a series of interrelated and even interlocking short stories.

The first story, about a woman who attends a luncheon with coworkers she despises, is suddenly abjected from her understanding of reality when the entire party leaves when she's in the bathroom and no one in the restaurant acknowledged their existence. That led into an amazing short story that featured a text narrative wherein a woman is being questioned about going into a particular sub-basement and what actually happens when she does, which is communing with an intelligent chair looking for a human to work as their agent. All of this starts to coalesce with other stories about surveillance, chairs, art, zine-making and the stultifying routines of office life taking on new and sinister contexts. As the comic proceeds, we learn more about the conflict between chairs and the corporation, with the latter becoming acutely aware of their enemies and the ways they work to subvert knowledge through means like office porn. The essence of the stories is the way they ultimately address the intentional alienation of the individual by the corporate identity, by way of separating and isolating its participants. Cockle gets at this with dizzying formal decisions: lots of shadows, lots of unusual angles that stretch the eye across the page and a method that instills mundane items like chairs with a sense of dread.

Cockle was also kind enough to pass along the latest installment of an anthology he's involved with entitled Derring Do. This issue focused on "True Crime/False Crime", which covered a range of activities, both true and unverifiable. There's a lot of excellent young talent in this anthology with a wide range of approaches. E.A. Bethea (an artist I became aware of through Austin English) had a remarkable story that began with the artist Vigee Le Brun drawing portraits of Marie Antoinette that segues into Bethea recalling a school friend who later went missing. The fact that her friend was African-American meant that fewer people in the media and police cared, a chilling understanding that Bethea tries to process through drawing the story. The final story, by Jude Killory, focused on a brilliant sex worker friend of his who was murdered and had connections to local politicians. Both stories point out the astounding lack of empathy for those of color or do whatever they can to survive. Josh Bayer is always an MVP of any anthology he's in, and his scrawled, manic accounts of John Hinckley and Richard Nixon as deeply disturbed individuals from an early age speak to how mental health warps decision-making.

Jennifer Camper's account of a woman who murdered her children inadvertently becoming an art gallery star points to any number of different crimes--the murders, of course, but also exploitation. Sarah Schneider's story is an oblique, silent account of a crime with an axe; Laurus gets silly with a story about a soiled book that she tries to get rid of; and Carlo Quispe relates a personal tale about stealing a pen, getting harshly punished and it being all worth it. Cockle uses giant pixelated imagery that further deals with paranoia and government inquests regarding uncertain topics. Other highlights include Sara Lautman's scribbly account of a dinosaur being exploited by Thomas Edison, Whit Taylor's grim account of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson chilling meeting with Charles Manson prior to Manson becoming infamous, Brendan Leach's futuristic account of a junk bond trader deftly exploiting others and Katie Fricas' hilarious and speculative story about Nancy Kerrigan meeting up with Tonya Harding years after their ill-fated dust-up. Her grotesque, exaggerated line and absurd resolution to the story still managed to incorporate everything that was hilarious and terrible about the original incident.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #24: Sophie Goldstein

In the span of just a few publications, Sophie Goldstein has distinguished herself as one of the top cartoonists to ever graduate from CCS. What's interesting is that the work that garnered her so many accolades, The Oven, isn't nearly as accomplished or complex as her other ongoing work, House of Women. Let's look at each in turn.

Originally serialized in the Maple Key Comics anthology, Chris Pitzer's AdHouse picked it up for publication, giving it a sort of 70s sci-fi image with the spare cover and choice of font. The Oven starts off with a mild sci-fi twist: a couple travel to a remote commune on a planet with two brutal suns in order to have the opportunity to have a child, something denied them in mainstream society because of increasingly-stringent and absurd laws. What they find is either utopia in the form of a pathetic, glorified garbage dump or something of pure and noble intent inevitably corrupted by outside influences.

In terms of theme, her sense of storytelling restraint and general subject matter, the closest thematic comparison to Goldstein is Megan Kelso. Both are interested in the personal and political implications of motherhood, both in terms of raising children and having them. Goldstein has become a more accomplished writer as she's let the characters act as flawed humans instead of mouthpieces, allowing the reader to make their own interpretation of the work. There's also a spare and beautiful quality to Goldstein's line (not unlike Kelso's) that's bold, confident and crisp.

Goldstein's themes also dovetail a bit with Eleanor Davis in terms of using science fiction tropes as a way of dramatizing certain themes, but only as a way of setting the stage. While Goldstein has an eye for detail and the reader gets a strong feel for the character of each fantasy setting, she's not so much interested in world-building as she is figuring out how her characters will react to the restraints and possibilities each environment provides.  In terms of the quality of the line itself, The Oven's characters were clearly influenced by the Archie artists in terms of cartoony simplicity. A sleazy, lazy drug dealer looks like Jughead Jones if he grew his hair out, for example.

The book's title refers to the deadly environment the couple comes to live in, as it's unprotected from the double sun's deadly rays. It's also a double-entendre, as "oven" also refers to a woman's uterus, especially when she is pregnant. There is a lot of push and pull here in terms of the choices characters make and the kind of life they think they are leading. Some are dirtbags simply there to live outside the law. Some are idealists there to raise families in natural environments, though the way the politics work out seem regressive. Life in the Oven is hard, farming work; this raises the question of whether it's worth it.

The key piece of information that Goldstein gives the reader is that Eric was the reason why he and his partner, Syd, weren't allowed to have children. When he found out about the Oven, he suggested moving there to realize their dream (or was it his dream?) of having children. In the end, he chooses a life of disconnection as he gets high and misses the technology that made life so easy, but he simply can't stand the nature of the community he has found. She chooses to stay and create a community on her own terms. One gets the sense that she's not going to become "one of them", as he fears, but rather has figured out a slightly different path.

The Oven is nuanced and well-executed but ultimately a relatively simple story. It is no knock to say that it's not as complex as House Of Women, because the latter story is remarkably intricate and even more ethically ambiguous. The second issue continues the story of four women sent from The Empire (which combines both church and state in the manner in which it colonizes other worlds). Goldstein's skill as a designer and providing intricate, decorative flourishes that don't interfere with her actual storytelling is remarkable. With a double die-cut cover that features three separate images as the reader turns the cover and the first page, Goldstein imparts the reader with both the sense of warmth the Empire's emissaries feel and the lingering sense of menace on the planet.

Once again, Goldstein is quick to establish that the protagonists are not necessarily heroes. The book thoughtfully but subtly examines the dynamics produced by colonialism, paternalism, science without empathy, religious dogmatism and the way that sex throws a monkey wrench into everything. Above all else, the book is about the nature of gender and motherhood. Once again, the science-fiction tropes of having four-eyed, feathered humanoid aliens as stand-ins for any number of oppressed and exploited people during history allows Goldstein to go to extremes in exploring the logical outcomes of certain experiments in creating a new society.

Goldstein creates easily-understandable, almost archetypical characters for this story, ranging from mother figure to crone to seductress to the main character, who is something in-between. The only male-identified character first appears as a sort of fantasy figure for the main protagonist but also becomes an object of obsession for the scientist character who is cold with regard to their subjects but almost sociopathically obsessed with the male character. The second issue rudely brings reality crashing down on the all-female environment the Empire has created, as the aliens they're working with are all women--because the men are warlike. Goldstein layers conflict on conflict here, with the smaller interpersonal conflicts being every bit as important as the larger plot.

Goldstein's stunningly crisp, clean line is elegant but also functional. Her use of black and white contrasts, especially in depicting long shots of environments, is used to often dizzying or menacing effect. Despite these visual pyrotechnics, her use of gesture and expression is what's most remarkable about her art. Harkening back once again to the Archie influence, the art here has the precision of Jaime Hernandez with the wild expressiveness of Gilbert. When this book is inevitably sold to a publisher, I hope that they're able to retain Goldstein's DIY flourishes and print it on paper that best shows off the sharpness of her images.

QUICK UPDATE, 3/24: Goldstein is selling the original art from The Oven on her website.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #23: Laurel Lynn Leake

Laurel Lynn Leake is an artist exploring a number of different storytelling strategies and themes. Her ongoing Poly Morphous series is about mental health, and the casual, scribbly line creates an intimate relationship between text and reader. Her Poly character here is struggling with the sense of being broken as someone with mental illness, as feeling as they have no worth or value. Fighting through that feeling, acknowledging that feeling for what it is and still retaining some sense of worth is the end goal. It's not denying the illness, but accepting it and embracing it as one part of being human. Leake here is sharing information that's both confessional and prescriptive, as she is forgiving herself for being human and asks the reader that they do it too.

Her the welt's awoken is comics-as-poetry, with jagged lines mimicking roots and lightning and the color splotches evoking blood and water. It's a comic about survival and isolation, and how the latter sometimes can help with the former--but not always. Suspension is a standard narrative short story, one about a work crew in the future that touches on diversity and body image being codified directly into the economy. Leake very deliberately creates a world where the workers represent a broad swathe of gender, race and ethnicity, but the real issue is regard to the suits that the workers are wearing. If they gain weight, they automatically make less money for "wear and tear", a direct statement about the inevitability of corporations finding any way possible to limit the rights of workers. Her expressive, naturalistic style is key to the success of this piece, and the green wash is a clever device that makes everyone the same color while informing the reader of the sort of greenhouse nature of their dangerous job.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #22: Simon Reinhardt

Simon Reinhardt has been learning, little by little, how to tell a compelling story with limited drafting skills. By simplifying and stylizing everything and incorporating a more poetic approach to his comics, he's created some compelling recent work. Starting with Trash Ghost, Reinhardt confounds expectations regarding rock band road trip stories. Using a scribbly line, Reinhardt relates a road trip undertaken by Trash Ghost, "New England's Premier Ghost Rock Band!". The put-upon drummer who's driving the band's van is confounded by the fog, as the lead singer and drummer make up excuses as to why they can't drive. When the lead singer goes out and sucks up the ghostly fog, her head swells comically, as though it were to float away like a balloon. It works, and it inspires the band's song for their recording session. This is a silly comic that nonetheless has its own punk style, as the furious scribbles and strange events create their own visual logic and establish a world.

That world is the same as is presented in Reinhardt's Mystery Town comics. This is a Pickle-style zine that purports to be an official town newsletter with a variety of story types. It begins with a funny contest regarding decorated mailboxes and then switches to a running series called "Nite Time Music", involving someone trying to chase down a tune they hear in the night. The first one features a record executive trying to chase it down and getting clubbed for his troubles. There's the dread of the "Endless Hallway" serial that resembles an EC story and the gleeful nihilism of "Savage Skies", which resembles a Blobby Boys comic with its vicious and hilarious "Drone Gang" fulfilling one man's existential dread in a way he never expected.

The second issue touches more on the absurdly Lovecraftian nature of Mystery Town, with the two ice cream trucks whose clashing jingles cause madness. There's more Drone Gang silliness, more Endless Hallway dread, but also some poetic comics in the form of Nite Time Music, catching the powerful and immediate feeling of the sentence "All My Favorite DJs Are Passing Cars" as we see a dancer next to a window, music blasting through. There's also a strip about a man who studies the human face at mural sizes to the exclusion of all else. Mystery Town is all about extremes, obsessions, absurdity writ large and life as both a horrifying mystery that is to be dreaded and a fascinating mystery that is to be gratefully explored. It's a grab-bag of cliches turned on their head, of feeling horrified at funny things and laughing at the horrific.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Summer

Summer is an anthology that was produced by CCS students while still in school. This is a themed anthology organized around the titular season, and the results vary widely from explorations of mythology to "what I did on my summer vacation" autobio pieces. The results vary wildly, especially since each piece is just four pages. The anthology starts off slow, with Laura Martin's slick art and slim story, along with three stories in a row that deal with being roasted and/or being eaten. The anthology picks up a little steam with the amusing one-page vignettes from Alex Karr entitled "My Mermaid Roommate", which talk about mermaids in their original sense, as devouring the lost at seas. Karr's line is crude but effective, especially in terms of relaying body language.

Andy Shuping and Dean Sudarsky both focus on the feeling of being away from school, with Shuping's sloppy line effectively getting across his sense of simultaneously isolating himself and feeling abandoned, and Sudarsky's sparse, expressive line taking the piss out of his experience as an intern at Fantagraphics. Ben Wright-Herman's comic about Persephone going back to Hades was so well-written that I wanted to read the next episode, though the actual drawings felt a little overprocessed. On the other hand, Kotaline Jones' "Ephemera" has some of the sharpest and most confident cartooning in the whole book, with a well-developed and witty voice.

I thought Joe Davidson's summer diary was also interesting for different reasons; his line is chunkier and more cartoony, and he actively used hilariously strange avatars in his self-caricature. The last two comics couldn't be more different. Kelly Swann's photo album uses a highly skilled naturalistic approach to show how hard the cartoonist worked over summers in his life on activities that he enjoyed, until we reach the final panel and punchline as he sits in an office. It's a neat and perfectly organized strip with a clear and coherent gag. On the other hand, there's Cooper Whittlesey's scrawled-out "A Bit Of Tomfoolery". It's about calling a telephone number from a lurid bit of graffiti at a rest stop and a prank getting totally out of control. It's a hilarious mess of a story, with Whittlesey's art being so smudged and sloppy that it almost resembles graffiti itself.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #20:My Pace

Rod and Cone is the publishing imprint of Anna McGlynn and Iona Fox, and My Pace is their latest anthology that's mostly from CCS students and grads. It's a very nicely curated anthology whose contents manage to fit together well despite veering from confessional autobio to visceral weirdness. There's a scrawled, intimate quality common to all of the work here, beginning with Hannah Kaplan's "Summer Diary". These are almost embarrassingly confessional in nature, as Kaplan lets her insecurities and her sexual encounters out into the open and on to the page. She's not afraid to plainly draw her own nude body as well as those of her lovers, but the effect is raw and immediate, as opposed to titillating. Kaplan deals with the loss of an important relationship, the confusion of sleeping with her boss and the emotional challenge of living around in a loose, freehand pencil style that's all about capturing emotion through image as quickly as possible.

Cooper Whittlesey's four-panel and one panel strips veer somewhere between intensely personal and intimate and absurd at a Sam Henderson level. His drawing style is a sort of frenzied scrawl, with lots of difficult-to-read lettering and smudged images. Like Kaplan, it's like he's trying to get these thoughts about sex and "photos of every man she's ever been with--with erections!" out of his head an onto paper as quickly as possible. After the harshness of the first two artists, Fox's own "November Diary" is a smooth counterpoint. It's a lovely account of a trip from Vermont to Quebec for a zine fest, though not before Fox (who is also a farmer) stops off to examine a farm in Quebec. These strips are every bit as intimate if not as revealing as the other strips, as Fox doesn't stop to provide context to the information she discusses, nor does she seek to conceal anything. Her self-caricature is amusing, with a loop of hair on her head, and one gets a sense of contentment with considerable labors and struggles by the end of the story.

McGlynn keeps up the diary theme, only she goes back in time with "My Future Boyfriend", written by a fictional character named Vivian Howard. The rhythm of the narration is meant to mimic both a diary as well as a director's notes for a movie. The writing is beautiful and painful, as Vivian is spun around in a million directions by her own brain, her own hormones and the wonderful and terrible confusion of adolescent being. Drawing the strip on lined paper gave it a certain authenticity, and the use of imagery not directly related to the narration was clever and hinted at the way Vivian fought off feelings of jealousy and distrust and embraced those around her.

Reilly Hadden's "Land Grove" uses his thin, cartoony line to create another story about a dangerous, unstable environment and attempts to find safety in it. When a man goes out in a bicycle away from his partner and their tent, how he negotiates danger and the reward he receives is not unlike an Aesop's fable. Stephanie Kwok's textual diary provides yet another take on the concept, as she uses a variety of fonts to create a visual framing device for her rambling thoughts and observations. Throughout, the theme of wanting to connect but feeling isolated is repeated, her own shouts into the void an act of defiance against loneliness. Sophie Yanow's "Gaslight", featuring a figure off-panel talking to a prone figure on-panel, offers a different take on intimacy. The figure off-panel conflates honesty with intimacy, as though being honest about doing horrible things excused the horrible things we do. It's an appropriate capper to an anthology where every artist explored their emotions, their limits and their struggles in each story in an attempt at authenticity. Yanow reminds us that authenticity without humanity is no virtue. As always, her command over her line is so precise that she uses a handful of tremulous slashes and geometric figures to get at that sense of being devastated. All told, this is one of the strongest CCS-related anthologies I've read.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #19: Ben Horak & Pat Barrett

Ben Horak and Pat Barrett, two masters of nasty satire, teamed up for Thanks For The Sour Persimmons, Cousin (an all-time great reference to the classic cartoon, Duck Amuck). They lay on the visceral gristle in a story about a blobby angel (a go-to special for Barrett) who isn't very good at his job: instilling a sense of unity in a humanity that absolutely hates itself. The opening scene, on a crowded bus where everyone is yelling and acting hatefully, stops on a dime when the angel appears to work his magic. When the results go horribly awry, he goes back to his wife in a sitcom-derived scene (complete with laugh track and background "awwws") that demonstrates how sometimes following your dream perhaps isn't the best idea. The lurid pinks and purples are almost nauseating on the page, and that's the whole idea.

Horak's work has gone to another level of hilarious and brutal in its examination of human nature in his Grump Toast #5. The running story "Them Are Bad" features a situation where a person overreacts to an insult by killing the offending party, only for the story to reveal that this was an alien simulator designed to train potential secret agents on how best to fit in and infiltrate society for future conquest. Horak doesn't spare the detail in making the aliens grotesque while doubling down on the humor of what turned from an over-the-top response to a slight to essentially a bit of office humor. There's a second strip that involves the bad employee simply laughing at someone offensive dying and getting reprimanded, and the final strip puts a final, pathetic spin on the whole enterprise that reveals what's really going on.

"Never Mention Rope To A Hangman" sees Horak going silent, with images filling up thought balloons instead of words. It's about a pizza delivery man who thinks he's getting shorted on a tip, only to find he got a hundred dollar bill. When he starts to feel guilty about getting it and fantasizes that it might make the grumpy, ugly old man who gave it to him wind up in poverty, he turns around, goes back to the house, walks in and puts the money on a table. Then he makes a jaw-droppingly horrifying and hilarious discovery about the man he just delivered the pizza to, which then leads to a series of events far worse than anything he could have imagined. This is Horak doing what he does best--using the tools of his narratives to set up the reader in how things are flowing, then throwing in an over-the-top twist, and then returning to those tools with a new spin on how to interpret them.

"If It Wasn't For The Nights" almost defies description, as it's about a would-be hipster using highly dated "jazz" lingo in order to try to get women to pay attention to him at a night club. When every attempt fizzles, he winds up in a nightclub for cats (daddio!), a cute gag that Horak then takes to yet another visceral extreme when he winds up at the doctor later on. When the jaw-dropping revelation is made, Horak once again uses a gesture from earlier in the story as a callback meant to signal that everything was cool, only at the end of this story it was a pathetic attempt at justifying behavior beyond the pale.

At heart, Horak is a simple gag man. What sets him apart is the loving amount of labor he puts into each drawing in order to set up the gag, along with his razor-sharp understanding of using long form improv instincts to build up to the eventual punchline. He favors visceral, violent and revolting humor built on rock-solid comedic constructs, where no matter how absurd or disgusting the gag, the joke is so beautifully told that one must appreciate it. Take "Back In The Day...", which is essentially an extended beer ad for something called "Rat Brew", which contained "cheap but strong alcohol as well as a live, vicious rat fighting to free itself from its cold aluminum prison". That premise is so nonsensical as to defy description, not to mention good taste, yet Horak's genius in generating an ad copy buzz phrase in "The bite's the best part" gets at the core of what advertising does: sell people on the idea that being bitten by a vicious rat is the stuff memories are made of.

Another pure (if dark) gag strip is "Caroline". Here, Horak distracts the reader with the end of a sex scene with a chatty guy and a silent woman. Little by little, the details of how the encounter came to be are revealed, and the end of the story is a masterful execution (in all senses of the word) of distracting the reader through visceral visual details (not just assorted fluids, but the way in which the bed stand is cross-hatched draws in the eye) and babbling dialogue until the last crucial bit of data is revealed before the final punchline.

The book's epic story is "This Will Be Our Year", and it follows the structure of similar Horak stories from earlier issues. An abusive, unpleasant loser is physically beaten by his wife and infant son and forced to clean the house and throw out the garbage before he runs away. (The single page of pro wrestling moves the baby executes on his dad are hilarious and meticulously drawn.) From there, the man is beaten up, laughed up and begins starving before he goes to a fast food restaurant. Unable to pay for the food, he gets a job and is subjected to an array of disgusting humiliations before he's fired and thrown into the street. At this point in the story, Horak is just getting warmed up, as he stumbles upon a Scientology-type center and goes through a battery of tests before he's "approved". What he's approved for is sacrifice by a demonic cult that takes him to the woods and rips out his heart. What follows appears to be that character's redemption run, as he becomes an all-powerful being that wreaks havoc and revenge upon the city and his old job before he returns to his wife and son. Horak ends the strip with a gag that is predictable only in the shaggy dog sense, but it's perfectly executed. Along the way, there's mass destruction, lots of oozing, skeletons, people being burned, etc. What I like most about Horak, whose sense of humor is certainly distinct and certainly not for all tastes, is his absolute commitment to his craft, both in terms of fastidious attention to detail in his linework as well as the structure and set-up of each gag.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #18: Max Mose

Max Mose's EC-throwback comic Terror Terror Terror Terror (the fourth "terror" makes it funny) is his typical blend of political commentary cloaked in over-the-top horror. "Where Do They Come From" starts with a skeleton rising from the grave, going to a hardware store to get some duct tape, and then taping on a bunch of steaks to his frame to restore his "meat" form. The horror in this case is the skeleton being a former CEO who exacts his revenge, then takes his seat back at the head of the company. The story's climax comes when the bloodthirsty monster feeds by firing all of his employees after their hard work resulted in record-breaking profits. He then goes on to write a best-selling book about what he did, a hilarious and entirely accurate satire on the vampiric relationship that executives have with their companies.

"Contempt of Congress" lays on the satire thick, as the real and monstrous Congress meets to discuss how best to exploit their war dead, how to keep firing up the war machine (as Senator WarEagle, an eagle with a medal around his neck featuring a bomb, explains), and inventing new techniques like "terror drones". The coloring here is especially lurid, with sickening greens and oranges, and the proceedings get increasingly and darkly absurd, like a senator who was hollowed out by a colony of termites who "funded his candidacy and bought him a private jet". It wraps up with legislating, which occurs when the Dark Gods are summoned and laws are dumped into its mouth--which are then enacted "when it makes its out of the backend of that beast". That's as good a metaphor for Congress as I've ever seen.

"The End Is Really The Beginning, Only Seen With A Slanted View" was my favorite of the three stories, as it expertly apes the tone of a typical EC science-fiction story. There's a know-it-all explorer in his spaceship, trying to get to a new planet ahead of a hunter, a braggart who uses discoveries to further his own ego and a developer that wipes out life on a planet in order to terraform it. What's the explorer's angle? Why he's a photographer trying to record life (and sell photos to collectors with "discerning" tastes), whose process causes all life on the planet to be burnt to a crisp. The hilariously ironic way he meets his end really captures that EC feeling, but it's not exactly a happy ending, either, as the creatures on the planet are still colonized. Mose's pencils are on the rough side, but experience has taught him to draw with fewer lines and lean on his use of color to create more coherent narratives. His writing is wickedly funny, and the EC device allows him to hammer home ideas within a parodic framework that doesn't feel like he's overstating the obvious.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #17: Allison Bannister

Allison Bannister takes an avid interest in revisionist fantasy, but unlike many other CCS grads, her take is a lighthearted one. Her recent Kickstarter-powered project, Wits End, is a book that sees her essentially getting her real comics education in public. It follows an astute young man who begins the story taking his new job as Royal Scribe to young Francis, a whimsical and silly young woman who is nonetheless quite sharp when it comes to actually ruling the kingdom. In a world where magic is quite real, the scribe, immediately dubbed "Scribbulous" by the queen and her wacky court, does his best to do the queen's bidding while trying to figure out what's causing the weird goings-on in the castle. There's a knight/wizard who's in love with the queen, the absent king who's left the kingdom to his daughter so he can play golf, the queen's best friend who is an endless supply of bad jokes, and the servant who's related to the queen and resents her openly.

Characters get turned invisible, love potions cause chaos, a cursed book almost causes disaster, and there are lovelorn characters all around. This book reminds me less of a standard fairy tale and more like a Shakespeare comedy of errors, where mistaken identities and silliness abound. The pacing is leisurely, as Bannister makes sure that the reader really gets to know each of the characters in detail before drawing together plot points. What sets the story apart is that the characters are deeper than they initially appear, as Bannister uses that initial silliness and confusion to mask their real emotional complexity. It's not at all heavy-handed, but that emotional depth is what makes the story's ending especially satisfying.

In terms of the visuals, Bannister's draftsmanship skills are basic and rudimentary. Her character design is not especially distinct, but she makes up for that with her use of color and easy-to-differentiate items like clothing and hairstyles. That use of color helped to differentiate characters and even aided with visual effects that related to specific plot points, like magical potions or magical glimmers. That color at times oversaturates the page and detracts from the more dramatic use of color, which is one danger of computer coloring. On the other hand, it's obvious that Bannister clearly understood her own limitations and stuck within them, not trying to overcompensate by drawing too much. Instead, she focused on clarity of page design, panel-to-panel transitions and the ways in which bodies in space interact. There's still quite a bit of awkward negative space, but the color at least drew the eye away from that. The end result is a charming, amusing fantasy caper.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Tom O'Brien

Tom O'Brien is an interesting CCS case, in part because his book Rita features a character that one would assume is out of his wheelhouse. The titular character is of South Asian descent and happens to be a lesbian, qualities that prove to be important but not central to this modest slice-of-life story. There are few big dramatic twists and turns in this story, as O'Brien is more interested in exploring the friendship between Rita and her college roommate Molly. Molly is consistently outgoing and supportive of the slightly shy and reticent Rita, who as the story unfolds is clearly just starting to become comfortable with her sexual identity in public. Again, this is not a "message comic" that pounds this story home; rather, O'Brien is careful to stick to character details instead of resorting to cliche.

Along the way, Rita develops a crush on a liquor store clerk named Lisa and has to dodge the attentions of an ultra-creepy student named Adam. The latter character leers at Rita when she's modeling nude for his drawing class. While he's a familiar sort of creep, the cliched way he's both drawn and acts lacks the kind of nuance that every other character in the book receives. It's obvious that he's a boor with no social skills, but did O'Brien have to draw him with a finger jammed up his nose to hammer that point home? On the other hand, Rita, Molly and Rita's coffee shop boss Jon  are all well-rounded and have inner lives. That's especially true of Rita, who wavers between being an overachiever and a nervous wreck.

Rita eventually drunkenly hooks up with Lisa and they date for a short time, before Lisa breaks up with her. That devastates Rita in the book's best sequences, as her friends try to draw her out of her depressed shell with kind and tender attention. They also note that while Rita starts creative writing again as a result of the break-up, they're concerned because the writing is awful--a hilarious and all-too-true observation regarding overwrought writing during such experiences. Lisa later walks into Rita's coffee shop with her new boyfriend Adam, which is about as explosive as this story gets. That Adam was depicted as little more than a lump with a libido makes this scenario less than plausible, but O'Brien is able to squeeze it both for laughs and poignancy as the book transitions into a trip home for the protagonist. Assailed by her relatives asking her if she's met any cute guys, she has a tender moment with her grandmother who has an understanding of who Rita really is. It's a lovely ending for a book with a languid pace. In terms of the visuals, it's printed in blue for some reason, which doesn't add much and is even a bit distracting. While O'Brien's storytelling is solid, his character design and overall grasp of body language is tenuous. It's clear that this was a book that saw him figuring things out as a cartoonist, getting better in public.

Madam Geneva, O'Brien's history of gin, is more ambitious in terms of its drawings. There's a pleasing scrawl in his character designs and drawings of buildings, as O'Brien is more interested in the impressions of things than the things themselves. His narrative about gin's history as first a medicinal liquid and then later a liquor that inspired crazes and government rebuke, is solidly structured while still retaining plenty of whimsy. It's another way that he found to stretch his muscles as a cartoonist, breaking out of talking heads and settling on history.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #15: Mishra, Taylor, Parrish, Carvajal

Thanks once again to my pal Craig Fischer for lending me these comics (with the exception of the preview by Taylor).

Dust, by J.A. Carvajal. Carvajal uses a fairly unobtrusive sci-fi conceit (robots that act as caretakers, especially for the elderly) as a key aspect of this downbeat story about a daughter who is worried that her father is going insane. He's become obsessed with the idea that dust contains some kind of virulent species, and we learn that he believes that they are what killed his wife. As such, he's constantly cleaning in an effort to get rid of the dust. I like Carvajal's line, as it's simple and stark with a touch of the grotesque in the character design. The tragic end of the comic is aided by the robot caretaker's logic being without any understanding or empathy for what's really happening.

The Night Time, by Emily Parrish. Parrish is an excellent example of someone who came up with a way to vividly and strikingly illustrate a story with a minimum of actual drawing. Experimenting in a manner similar to both David Lasky and Aaron Cockle, Parrish uses a twelve-panel grid to tell the story of how night slowly got longer and longer each night on earth, the harbinger of a slow apocalypse. Many of the panels were either all-white or all-black, creating different kinds of story beats on the relentless grid. Some of the panels just had text, and others had a single image referring back to that text. On the final page, when she refers to the end of the world as "a slow dimming", she cleverly uses a dark sunburst--every panel seems black at first, until you notice that they are dim rays from the sun. Parrish's use of color is important in this comic, as a way of breaking up the black and white contrasts created by the rhythm of the page structure. Each color panel is a little jolt for the reader, and while some of the images are merely reiterations of the text, there are others that veer off into an almost poetic abstraction.

It's All For You, by Shashwat Mishra. This is an interesting collection of "romantic short stories", with each entry done in a different style. "Numbers" is drawn in manga style, and Mishra nails the angularity of the figures as well as the nature of the story's hook. There's a guy who sees numbers above other people's heads, and he knows they mean different things: their age, how much money they have, etc. He happens upon a woman that he figures out has the same ability and strikes up a conversation. Her number talent allows her to see how many lies a person has told in their life. In exploring this interesting concept, he learns--in the most heartbreaking way possible--what his numbers are actually telling him. "Distance" is drawn in an open-page format (no panel borders) with a cute, stripped-down approach that emphasizes both the playfulness and the seriousness of a couple coming together in the middle of a long-distance relationship. "Time" is a dense, shadowy story about someone at the end of their rope after a failed relationship, while "Elevate" takes the conceit of using the reader's view of a couple in an elevator be a surveillance camera; hilariously, it takes them through the entirety of a relationship and back again as the elevator is stuck. The elongated nature of the view and the clipped and jarring movements forward in time make it seem as though the reader is watching a film get fast-forwarded and then played for brief bits before being jolted ahead into time again. "Fame" is the most melodramatic and over-the-top story, as it's a naturalistically-depicted story of a rock star who's just lost his true love. There are certainly some interesting experiments in here, as Mishra was clearly fishing around for ideas that worked.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #14: Annie Murphy

Annie Murphy has long been one of the most thoughtful and intelligent cartoonists in comics. She has a particular talent for relating biography to larger cultural, spiritual and political issues. Her latest project, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, is a biography both of the city of Portland itself as well as key figures who passed in and out of the Rose City. Murphy's voice is a rare one in that she spends a great deal of time processing and synthesizing facts and history, making interesting and bold connections and challenging the reader with forceful opinions based on this synthesis. Murphy is that seemingly-rare animal: a native of Portland. (I can relate to this as I am a native of Miami, another "weird" city with a transient population and a dubious history of racism, exploitation and an inflated sense of its own identity.) As such, she has little time for Portlandia quirkiness and instead delves into Portland's secret, dark past and murky present.

The first issue, "My Own Private Portland", spends a great deal of time talking about the actor River Phoenix and his death in 1994. The first eleven pages are essentially a glowing evaluation of Phoenix's impact as an actor, especially on her as she was growing up. Then she makes the connection: he was born in Oregon and lived in Portland during the filming of Gus Van Sant's film My Own Private Idaho. That was a movie based in part on Phoenix's own life, as a young hustler and busker who used his youth and intense charisma in order to survive and support his family. Murphy neatly lines up the dots: Van Sant was fascinated by lost young boys with secrets, the openly bisexual Phoenix made for a magnetic lead, especially opposite Keanu Reaves, and Portland's relatively pleasant weather drew a lot of homeless kids from the Northwest. Van Sant was white and wealthy, dabbling in the lives of kids from the streets and letting them stay in his big house. Murphy also points out certain racist aspects of Van Sant's films while noting that Portland's long had a history of an underground sex industry--particular one that had young "straight-looking and acting" men selling their bodies to older men.

From there, Murphy connects other dots: Van Sant fancying himself a modern-day William S. Burroughs (without considering the negative connotations of what that meant), the introduction of heroin into street culture, and Van Sant's favorite "hunting ground" for finding street boys to put into his movies, which just so happened to be Murphy's own high school. There's an amazing passage, set to drawings of high school yearbook photos, that describes their fates: "Many never made it out of Portland. They wound up in the Willamette River, or under the Suicide Bridge...on a gurney with a swollen arm, in front of a speeding train". Murphy ends the issue by calling out Van Sant for depicting heroin use as a "blissful, sub-urban dream" when the reality was convulsions and death. She also connects another dot: the protagonist of Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy was based on a neo-nazi friend of his named Ken Death.

That leads into the second issue, "Ken Death Is Dead". Murphy relates the deaths of Phoenix ("my Kurt") and Kurt Cobain (just three months apart) to each other, and then goes into more details about Phoenix's life as a child. In particular, she relates the way he was sexually exploited from a very early age, thanks to the cult his parents were a member of. It gave him hard-won lessons that made him keenly aware of life's bullshit, but they took a brutal emotional toll. Murphy talks about his experiences making the film Stand By Me (including the incredible story of Rob Reiner asking him if an adult ever let him down and betrayed him before a particular scene, resulting in raw emotion in the next take) and how it was the first time he had a circle of friends who truly accept him for who he was. And then she fast-forwards to Portland and Phoenix hanging out with Keanu Reaves during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, as part of this sort of utopian Portlandia.

Then Murphy talks about a brutal, racially-motivated murder perpetrated by skinheads, one of whom was Ken Death. She doesn't go into detail about this, but Oregon was initially founded as a white utopia, with African-Americans not welcome or invited in. As such, the lack of racial diversity in the state and in Portland in general was deliberately engineered, and when immigrants started to arrive their presence was not welcome. Indeed, immigrants and young men entering the city were often forcibly introduced into the city's thriving underground sex trade. She then draws up all the lines connected by the dots and talks very specifically about how Oregon is a "goldmine" for white supremacist movement recruitment, drawing a comparison between that recruitment of young men and the way abusers select their marks. She also points to something else: giving media attention to white supremacists by way of the trial didn't make them pariahs; instead, it made them heroes and martyrs. The result of the trial was irrelevant, because the movement in laid-back, liberal Portland was now given extensive free advertising.

In her account of this history, Murphy is in turns academic, impassioned, despondent and sardonic. These are not comics per se; they are instead half-page images with her own cursive scrips on the bottom half, written on lined paper. The fact that it's scrawled in her hand-writing is an important aspect of the overall work, adding to the warmth of each page. It's history as though it came from Murphy's own secret diary, and her own swirling, muddy drawings add to the overall intimacy of the project. These are drawings of things that Murphy knows only too well: people and places she loves as well as people and places she despises for what they represent. Murphy's really going somewhere in this series, and it will be interesting to see her continue to widen the scope of her inquiries.