Thursday, June 30, 2016

Foxing Reprints #4: Olga Volozova

The Golem of Gabirol, by Olga Volozova. This comic was one of the first published by Sparkplug after the death of Dylan Williams, and the discovery of a talent like Olga Volozova's is a testament to Williams' eye for comics that are unusual, intensely personal and poetic. Her The Golem of Gabirol is based on "the legends around the name of the Hebrew poet, scholar, Kabbalist Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who lived in Moorish Spain in the 11th century C.E.". It's a powerful story about a young woman sent to stay with her uncle, and the unusual Reb Solomon that she meets. It's a story about the intersection between words and reality done in what I call the "immersive" style of comics, wherein text merges with image for both decorative and narrative purposes and there's almost no negative space on the page. In a story where Solomon creates a "golem" version of the protagonist, Zuleicha, that intersection becomes all the more powerful, because golems are created out of clay and brought to life thanks to words that are written on their foreheads. 

Volozova digs deep into folklore to tell a story about the love triangle between Zuleicha, the facially disfigured Reb Solomon, and Zuleicha's cousin Nusret, who falls in love with her and marries her. There's a magnificent page early in the book where a speech by Solomon that claims that "letters are the elements that God created the world with" makes up the tree that she and Solomon happen to be sitting under. It's a transformative moment for her, because it makes her lose her fear of death while simultaneously imparting her with a thirst to understand poetry as the building block of creation. Solomon creates the golem (with Zuleicha's features) when Zuleicha gets married, which leads to him fleeing for suspicion of using dark magic. From there, the book becomes a journey for Zuleicha, who can see the fabled "old kings" of the earth who preceded Adam. In Volozova's immersive style, the spirit world and its manifestations (including the old kings) appear where negative space might appear in another comic. Like Zuleicha, the reader is allowed to see what is unseen by others, a disorienting technique that takes some getting used to. Indeed, most immersive books fairly demand that the reader approach them on the book's own terms or not at all. 

Tragedy strikes in the end, as Zuleicha loses both Solomon and her jealous husband. She manages to go unscathed in a sense, even after she has obtained forbidden knowledge and awareness of history and how the world truly is. She is left with the question of why Solomon eventually chose to break his golem and wonders whom he loved more--her or the golem? As to the latter, she's asked a question in return: whom did Adam love more, Eve or Lilith (who was cast out of paradise)? As to the former, she understands that "why" is the wrong question to ask. She believes he would have said "We are all made of words and need to have our stories told"; in essence, every human being is their own sentient story. In the case of his golem, she was in danger of being possessed by the ruler of the city instead of having any kind of free will of her own, of having any ability to tell her own story. In a sense, she was a cautionary version of Zuleicha herself, who as a woman had little in the way of rights or freedoms. That she wound up relatively free was largely due to her own strong sense of her personal narrative while managing to evade being overly molded and shaped by external architects. For Volozova herself (who dedicated the book to her late husband, who was also a rabbi), The Golem of Gabirol represents her own attempt to create life using text., in order to honor an old legend, to establish a memorial for her husband and to construct a feminist narrative where she builds a creative space for herself and Zuleicha, word by word.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mini-Anthologies: What's Your Sign, Girl?, Bad Boyfriends, Trailer Blaze

What's Your Sign, Girl? This is the latest ambitious anthology from Rob Kirby, who as per usual invited a fascinating collection of artists to contribute to this specifically limited comic. Kirby has an uncanny sense of how to assemble his line-ups, which is a tribute to his skills as a networker and editor in order to have a wide array of artists to choose from as well as an idea of who would fit in best with a particular theme. This time around, the theme is the zodiac, and each sign in the comic is represented by a different cartoonist. Each cartoonist has a different level of knowledge and/or belief in their celestial sign, which is one of the elements that makes it so interesting. Like many, my interest is a passing one, finding it interesting to think about but not necessarily putting much stock into it. That point of view is shared by a number of cartoonists in the book, but they all find different ways to express it. Others talk about their signs and how they seem to relate directly to their personalities and lives. That's true of Delaine Derry Green, for example, rattling off her Aries traits in her upbeat, stripped-down style. Whit Taylor takes on her Gemini sign in a similar manner, but only Green's white-on-black, cluttered approach, Taylor prefers a more wide-open design and clarity above all else. She really gets at the duality of this sign, and depicts the internal struggle of feeling like two contradictory people. Taylor does this with a great deal of wit, as either her illustrations or the captions/dialogue for same all have amusing gags.

Tyler Cohen and Kirby himself talk about their difficulties accepting their own signs, which are Capricorn and Virgo, respectively. For Cohen, a big part of that resistance was related to the sexist and patriarchal "reading" that her sign was given by a famous astrology book. Upon getting a professional reading, she kept in mind what it said regarding her future, and it landed some pretty solid hits. Her vowing to "keep walking sideways" is a perfect metaphor for how she as a crab navigates life. Kirby's strip is typically chatty and upbeat, with that rubbery quality to his line giving every character a little extra bounce. For Kirby, being a Virgo means being fussy, a worker, and an analyzer, lacking the dreamier or more visionary quality of other signs. While he identifies with these labels to an extent, it seems like for him the Zodiac hits certain surface qualities but can't cover everything, as one's individual qualities always stand out.

Cara Bean and Eric Kostiuk Williams both embraced their signs fully as they encountered the animal forms of their signs in their stories. Bean gets advice from a Leo that comes out of the clouds to lead the pack but to be careful how one's actions are interpreted. Williams drew a psychedelic, ritualistic story about how Scorpio came to fully adopt and prepare him as one of its own: an enigmatic, bold, ambitious searcher. The density and mystical quality of Williams' story sticks out in this anthology, as most of the guests opted to to keep things simpler.

Marnie Galloway and Rick Worley flat-out reject the validity of the zodiac while still sympathizing with those who find it useful. Worley, using his typical anthropomorphic approach, turns the strip over to his severe OCD and contextualizes it as an attempt to make order and balance out of chaos--which winds up being a typical Libra trait. Galloway is an atheist with a degree in philosophy, but she came from a religious background where she tried to fit in. She was struck by the essential core of existentialism--that we one day will cease to exist-- and haunted by it until she realized that because death was unknowable, the only thing we can know is life. Thus, focusing on our day-to-day lives is the only thing we can do to make them better in this regard. Religion and astrology are simply attempts at making our lives easier to understand. This remarks comes as part of a conversation with a person who's devoted to the Zodiac, and after making her final proclamation, her friend rattles off a bunch of Galloway's character traits and declares "You are such a Pisces!", to which Galloway hilariously draws herself grimacing. Galloway's thin, graceful line and her unerring sense of how and when to use negative space gives the comic elaborate decorative qualities as well as her own narrative concerns.

Dan Mazur talks about having his own chart done and feeling ambivalent about it. On the one hand, he felt like the chart was sometimes contradictory (both selfish and generous?) and designed to flatter its recipient. On the other, he saw its value in providing a structure, framework and even measuring stick. Aron Nels Steinke related a funny anecdote where his Aries wife helped him break out of his typical, rigid Aquarian behavior. Kevin Budnik cleverly overlaid text from an astrology book with a header describing particular Taurean character traits (stubborn, independent, practical, fearing of change, etc.) underneath each panel on each page. That allowed him to create an entire narrative that showed how each descriptor fit his life without it feeling forced or artificial. Budnik's skill as a diarist is really on display here, as his different formal approaches to doing autobio comics made him an ideal fit for the anthology. Speaking of well-suited, Annie Murphy is once again an anthology MVP with a fascinating, thorough and well-researched history of her sign of Capricorn. Murphy's greatest skill as a writer is connecting historical data with her personal experiences. Going back into mythology for the origin of Capricorn's nature as a goat-fish, she makes connections with the god Pan and concepts like pantheism and pansexuality. It's not just that Capricorns have a number of contradictory traits (happy/sad, driven/playful, earth/water) that must be justified, but rather that the contradictions themselves are illusory. Murphy notes that Capricorns must understand that it's OK to be more than one thing at the same time and accept this rather than resist it. Working with a white-on-black setting, there's a richness to the images that Murphy chooses that make it easy to understand why she was so successful as one of the creators The Collective Tarot. Like Budnik with autobio, talking about symbols in a meaningful way is entirely in Murphy's wheelhouse. Kirby's ability to pick out cartoonists who would work well with the material makes this perhaps his best small press anthology to date.

Trailer Blaze. Spearheaded by Kelly Froh & Eroyn Franklin, this anthology neatly demonstrates just how deep a bench there is for cartoonists in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular. This anthology is a snapshot of some of the work done at an all-women comics residency called Trailer Blaze, organized by Seattle's indispensable Short Run festival. About a dozen women went to the Sou'Wester trailer park and lodge for around a week. One of the things that stuck out in this anthology is that this arrangement not only gave the cartoonists a chance to bond and share ideas, but it also gave them an equal amount of time for solitude out in nature. Liz Prince, in her diary comics included here, discusses how long walks centered her and made her better company, especially when conflict was concerned. For Robyn Jordan, the week gave her an opportunity to work on her watercolors, with the nearby beach serving as inspiration. Megan Kelso drew portraits of her and her friends at a restaurant, posing them so as to look similar to an old photograph of a group eating and drinking there. Janelle Hessig was her usual wacky self, drawing a hilarious take on the old joke "Everyone is getting laid except for you." While Kelly Froh zeroed in a couple of images and blew them up, Emilie Bess and Gillian Rhodes created what were essentially lists of interesting or funny details about their experience. Finally, Sarah Leavitt did a manifesto about finding ways to work around writer's block and other delays by working slowly and steadily every day, seeking out new inspirations and learning how to finish small tasks and celebrate them. I'll be curious to see if the residency spawned more expansive work later in the future, but this mini served as an advertisement for the experience as much as it did a working diary.

Bad Boyfriends. Edited by Laura Lannes, this is a powerful collection of stories of survival. What's really remarkable about it is how well it stands up as a work of art, not just as a work of personal expression. From decorative touches like the hand-stenciled cover and gold cardstock underlay to the large variety of visual approaches the artists used, every woman in this book contributed something remarkable. Celine Loup's art on a story from an anonymous writer makes uses negative space to create some sharp images, especially since the woman in the story was dark-skinned and her abuser was quite pale. The panel-to-panel transitions were especially devastating, as she felt shame when she orgasmed after he forced herself on her in their last encounter. Even the lettering contributed to that feeling of being shattered, which was later contrasted against her grim, silent resolve. Hazel Newlevant took a different tact; rather than recall the entirety of the relationship with her ex, she instead noted one particular incident that not only encapsulated her feelings about being used but also revealed how little her ex understood her feelings.

Lannes takes a minimalist approach in not only recalling the details of her abusive relationship, but other events that primed her for such abuse. Her use of negative space to represent the depth of her pain and astonishment is especially stark. Julia Gfroerer's two-page spread depicting the nine levels of hell a la Dante is especially devastating, as she turns the horrifying details of her abuse into the events experienced at each level. Her abuser's destruction of her art is an especially grim detail. Hannah Kaplan's story, which also has an anonymous writer, has a surprisingly warm feel, thanks to the way she used pencil shading effects, something she cuts back on and replaces with negative space as the details of the abuse become more and more stark. While there's a happy ending in that the new relationship is a loving one, the scars of being made to feel worthless and undesirable are still haunting. Mariana Paraizo's epic with 24 panels per page is the most intense and suffocating piece in the book, as she intersperses black-on-white and white-on-black panels in an effort to not only separate day from night, but also to occasionally create gestalt images over the span of two or three panels. The story concerns a charming, lying man who had a way of creating intimacy and then disappearing for long periods of time. Cathy Johnson's text quote about how psychology privileges the point of view of men with an illustration is an interesting interstitial piece. Laerte's piece on having a jealous boyfriend who lied both to himself about his sexuality as well as her closes out the book on an ambiguous note. The comic is important because unless these stories are told, believed and assimilated by both men and women, the abuse will continue.

Along the same lines, Lannes' own The Basil Plant is a modern fable that takes an unexpected turn midway through but really follows through on it. The story begins with Lannes trying to find ways to ameliorate her crippling anxiety. At first, eating a pear outside helped, but when the weather turned, she tried to start a garden. When that failed, she started pulling out her hair, which alienated her roommates and boyfriend. That hair was a signifier of her femininity and female identity, and when she abandoned it, she was abandoned in her relationships. When she realizes that it was her identity as a woman that was causing her anxiety, she became a hulking muscleman with a gigantic penis, and luxuriated in all the benefits that masculinity gave her in a patriarchal society. Concluding "I peed on the world", this beautifully stripped-down and frequently restrained story went all the way over the top at the end, cleverly satirizing the difficulties she faced.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Foxing Reprints #3: Elijah Brubaker

Reich #11, by Elijah Brubaker.  Brubaker is nearing the end of his series about the controversial Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose theories about "orgone radiation" led him to make some radical claims. Brubaker's take on Reich is neither hagiography nor a sensationalist expose'. Indeed, Brubaker tries to be as matter-of-fact as possible regarding the increasingly eccentric nature of Reich's claims, including that aliens were infecting earth with negative orgone energy. The story is told through Reich's eyes and experiences, but this also includes his failings as a human. Brubaker hammers home Reich's hypocrisy regarding his jealousy toward a lover that he accused of cheating on him. His free love ideas didn't seem to apply to those whom he viewed possessively. His absolutist and almost cultish demand for belief from his colleagues led him to alienate many former friends and supporters.

In this issue, the reader is introduced to the beginning of the end for Reich. The Food & Drug Administration was coming down hard on him, a process that would eventually see Reich sent to prison and reams of research destroyed. However, it's hard to have much sympathy for Reich at the beginning of the story, as he once again demands that his ex-lover admit to an affair, and she once again denies it before he hits her. For a man whose position with regard to so many issues was feminist in a manner that was way ahead of its time, Brubaker presents this act as the ultimate form of betrayal and hypocrisy. It's portrayed partly in silhouette, with Reich's arm stretched out almost casually. The brutishness of the act is contrasted with just how easy it was for Reich to descend to that level.

One by one, his friends, followers and family start to leave. There's yet another revealing scene where he meets by chance the widow of the man he thought was having an affair with his ex-lover. When she invites him over for a picnic, they each have different things on their mind. For Reich, he anticipates a sexual encounter. For the widow of modest means, it's a chance to ask Reich for money, which he flatly declines. It's yet another example of the almost casual cruelty of which he was capable. 

The issue ends with Reich in Washington, trying to attach himself romantically to a younger woman. The final scene is with his beloved son Peter in a hotel room, as Reich first engages in orgone-related jargon with his son and then confesses that he might have to take his own life if men come "to take me away in chains". For the first time, he completely breaks down as his son tries to comfort him. It's one of the rare scenes where Reich shows vulnerability as a human being rather than attempt to portray himself as being above others.

Brubaker's shadowy, sketchy and angular style is a deft match for the bizarre world of Reich. There's an almost haunting, static quality in each of the panels, even when there is movement involved. Brubaker wants the reader to focus in on each character's body language in each panel as a counter-point to the dialogue. The sketchiness of the line allows the reader to focus on the expressionistic qualities of the character design, and the extensive use of shadow effects contributes to the downbeat mood of the comic. There will likely be a couple of more issues before Brubaker wraps up the series and likely collects it. Reich is one of the more impressive feats of comics biography that I've read and certainly the most interesting since Chester Brown's Lous Riel, which was obviously a huge influence. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Saying Good-Bye To Sparkplug: Lee, Sakugawa, Smith, Cardini

Nearly five years after the death of Dylan Williams, his eventual successor Virginia Paine has decided to shutter Sparkplug Comic Books. In the interim, she published a few projects that had been ongoing and introduced the world to some interesting young cartoonists. She did a fine job of continuing in Williams' memory by being true to her own aesthetic and interests and published some strong work as a result. This column will review the last few original publications from Sparkplug.

Vortex, by William Cardini. This is the collected edition of Cardini's interesting four-issue series that was more about texture and shape than it was character and story. That's OK, because watching Cardini cycle through his Mat Brinkman influence by drawing the entire thing on a computer asks the reader to consider each image as an image, both in terms of its over gestalt as well as its individual component. He works so big that the dots in the zip-a-tone effects he uses are enormous, reminding the reader that what they're seeing is computer-generated. That trick offers a layer of humor to the proceedings, as the story's protagonist (The Miizzzard) at one point bites the arm of an opponent and eats it. It's more like a video game effect than the more visceral experience one might get from the "warmer" environments that Brinkman creates. The story follows the galactic traveler The Miizzzard to a planet of living weapons who beg him to destroy their central control circuitry. That's pretty much the entire plot, as the Miizzzard has to go through a series of trials that attack his sense of reality and identity, expressed by Cardini as a series of wavy lines, repeated patterns and psychedelic effects. Here, the artificiality of the line and the "cold" effect the reader feels actually advances the narrative, as the Miizzzard must break through the illusion. Only the Miizzzard is continuously depicted with a thick, defining line, befitting his status as the most solid, "real" character in the story. Most of the other characters are grey-scaled blobs without that sort of defining line, which allows them to melt and warp on the page. Above all else, what this shares most with the Fort Thunder aesthetic is that this comic is an exploration of space and environment, only Cardini finds a way to depict its total otherness and alien qualities rather than warmly taking the reader on a tour. Only the Miizzzard stands in for the reader, and he's as baffled by what he sees and experiences as the reader is. The ultimate result is Cardini's most ambitious, eccentric and amusing project to date.

Ce/Ze, by Suzette Smith. This is a fascinating, unsettling story about two high school girls who become friends and share the same dream: of one of the girls dying in a girl accident. They come to believe that they're aliens who have lived past lives, which informs their friendship, their relationships with other friends and how they act around their parents. I love the way that Smith draws each figure: Amelia wears huge, almost bug-eyed glasses, while Honey's appearance is almost always deadpan. They both have a sort of alien, almost reptilian, presence at times. Smith strikes a balance between a portrayal of the ways in which friends can develop their own language and identity apart from societal approval and understanding with a genuinely fantastical story that unspools itself, bit by bit. That said, Smith always leaves a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. Are Honey and Amelia really remembering their past lives together? Did Amelia get murdered several times in different lives by a male, kingly figure? Are they aliens, fairies, or something else? Will the outcome be different this time around? Is there fantasy relationship a sublimation of their attraction for each other? Smith provides no easy answers, but does create fascinating connections between the characters. Whether or not those connections are real, synchronicity or pure fantasy is left for the reader to decide, but there are certainly enough clues to tantalize the reader. The muddy, murky drawings in pages with panel-less borders adds to the dreamy quality of this comic, as Smith wants a slightly strange, disorienting visual experience for the reader.

Bird Girl And Fox Girl, by Yumi Sakugawa. I was greatly impressed by Sakagawa's recent Ikebana, and one can see the leap she made from this comic to her more recent work. This comic is a sort of modern fable that begins with the relationship between the titular characters being severed, and the rest of the comic is the fallout from these events. We never learn why they were torn apart, only that it scarred both of them so deeply that they literally became different beings as a result. Bird Girl got an operation that turned her into a human, got married and had kids, which is as clear a metaphor for identity self-erasure as I've ever seen. Fox Girl becomes a model who specializes in dangerous settings, a drive toward self-destruction by way of conforming to gender stereotypes. The two eventually find their conventional lives fragmenting, leading them both back to the desert from whence they came, but their reunion only recapitulates the pain they felt. Sakugawa's voice and point of view are sharp and bold, but her line isn't quite as refined as it would later become. Simply put, there are a lot of drawings that just don't work in the context that she's trying to create, and it's distracting. An example is a drawing of Fox Girl wearing a mask, only her mouth is clearly drawn too far to the right on her face. There are a lot of images that are clearly meant to be singular and striking, but they just don't have the impact that was perhaps intended. Still, this is a fascinating comic from a thematic point of view, and Sakugawa's deadpan, almost cold narrative voice is an interesting contrast from the actual events of the comic.

A Wretch Like Me, by Ebin Lee. This is not a narrative, per se, in the sense that there's not a linear narrative on a page to page basis. However, there's no question that Lee is telling a powerful story in these pages. The subtitle of this comic is "Sad/Black/Ugly/Queer", and it's all about the ways in which feeling like the Other in a space dominated by the dominant hierarchy can be so devastatingly alienating. I'm not sure if the dysphoria that Lee refers to is gender dysphoria (feeling like one is in entirely the wrong body) or a more generalized dysphoria, a general dissatisfaction with one's own skin in general. Regardless, the above image encapsulates that sense of frustration that one can't simply choose another body to take off the rack. Another theme that Lee elucidates is being black in white spaces, with a nightmarish image of hands tearing at his head with the caption of "Can I touch your hair" indicating the way that sort of microaggression can be amplified in an unsafe space. There are images of Lee's face melting as he looks in the mirror, another where Lee is trying to rescue a black shadow of himself. Lee's images are often so dense that they appear to be etched, like in a two page spread of a "mammy" on one page and a crying face eating watermelon on the next, captioned "Trapped in the white imagination". Another page notes the pain of invisibility (erase of race, gender, and identity) with the danger of visibility in a public space. This comic is a howl of truth, flipping from painful image to painful image almost like a fever dream.

Friday, June 24, 2016

More Aussie Comics: Squires, Gooch, Linton

Here are a few more comics the esteemed Matt Emery put into my hands at SPX 2014 from Australia:

Snasnakes, by James Squires. This is a series of one to two page gags that usually wind up with something horrible happening in the punchline The cover image, of a man floating in a raft floating on an ocean of snakes, captures precisely the sort of nightmarish imagery that Squires seems to gleefully enjoying depicting. In one gag, when a wife tells a husband he's driving "to fast", he mocks her for her spelling error (the fact that she said it aloud but that he picked up on it is part of the gag, since he "saw" her mistake) until he smashes into a tree, killing them both. Squires' simple line makes the idea of horror more important than actually drawing horrible things; indeed, even his drawings of snakes are simple and even cute. That's why a strip like "Blood Snake" is so effective; the snake looks cute as one of the pith-hat wearing, bearded English explorers tries to face the harmless-looking animal down until it spits red blood (with color appearing for the first and only time in the comic) in his face. Squires loves the absurd (the explorers start to make out with a deadly "Most Venom Snake" in one strip) and jokes about taxonomy ("Secret Box", featuring that title over a box, gets turned into "Thumbtack Box" at the end when someone spills the beans). He also just enjoys being randomly mean to his characters, with two separate injury-to-the-eye motif gags as a way of escalating an expected injury into something truly horrific. Squires is one of the funnier cartoonists I've encountered in quite some time, and I was left wanting more.
Lucki Aki in the New Stone Age, by Barry Linton. This comic was originally done in 2003 (and reprinted by Emery's Pikitia Press in 2014), and Linton's been drawing comics since the 1970s. With Robert Crumb as an obvious influence, Linton's account of a boy and his aunt in a sea voyage during the neolithic era is bursting with energy and joy. Linton's technical skill, with heavy hatching and cross-hatching and working in tiny details, doesn't conflict with his proficiency as a cartoonist, with lively character design, innovative page layouts and fluid panel-to-panel transitions. I enjoyed Linton's approach to approximating the patois and slang of different islanders using EC Segar style-"I yams", as well as the lettering that was altered just slightly to give off a "stone-age" appearance. Linton is an ace at drawing boats, and his jagged panel design during a thunderstorm subtly helped create a sense of being tossed to and fro for the reader. There's a pleasant, meandering quality to the story, where Linton frames each page with a small title to indicate that they're units that can be processed independently--not unlike a Sunday comic strip that picks up the story from week to week. That story structure gives the comic an episodic feel, even if Linton doesn't use that form in order to create suspense, but rather to emphasize the joy of discovery, exploration and sharing of knowledge. There are other fascinating details, like each island's culture being matrilineal, and in fact often setting up the "mother" of the village as a sort of goddess. I've never read anything quite like this: a fully-formed take on an underexplored part of history with colorful characters and well-researched details.

Gasoline Eye Drops and Hidden, by Chris Gooch. Gooch is a young cartoonist (twenty when these were published two years ago) with a tremendous amount of promise. It took me a while to figure out whose comics his remind me of, at least in terms of form, and it's Paul Grist. The character design is similar, as is their extensive use of negative space. However, Grist is a genre cartoonist (albeit a highly quirky one), and Gooch goes in rather different directions. That said, Hidden is certainly a genre comic of a kind (horror), one of the rare genres that Grist hasn't tried. It starts off as a police procedural, as a young man is being questioned for what apparently is a murder. Gooch uses a sickening yellow wash on top of mostly employing a 2 x 2 grid, giving the comic a claustrophobic, unsettling quality even before considering its contents. The young man tells his story in flashbacks, as he's a filmmaker who was making a sort of porn/horror mash-up in a remote location. There was tension on the set, and after a sex scene, things started to get weird as creatures descended on the set, and they were hungry. Gooch's character design on these one-eyed, toothy and shadowy humanoids is especially creepy. The story turns out to be a deconstruction of horror tropes, because after he manages to escape the creatures, he now starts to understand that his ordeal has only truly begun. Gooch is equally adept in building suspense and applying some jaw-dropping gore in equal measures, though the latter is only used sparingly and in an almost deadpan manner.

Gasoline Eye Drops is a horror comic of a different kind, as it follows a highly dysfunctional love triangle to its uneasy conclusion. What's interesting is that the story is told from the point of view of a young woman named Sarah's new boyfriend, and we are privy to his deepest, darkest thoughts as we see him talk to a therapist. We only see Sarah's point of view through him, and we never actually see the third member of the triangle, Sarah's ex who constantly tries to manipulate her through suicide threats. Indeed, she kept word of her relationship with her new boyfriend secret for fear of upsetting her old boyfriend for a long time. While Simon, the new boyfriend, keeps quiet about his concerns and later his extreme feelings of anger toward Isaac, the old boyfriend, Those feelings escalate throughout the story, but he's reluctant to let her know just how angry or order her to stop talking to him, even though that's what he desperately wants to do. His feelings of beating up and then later killing Isaac keep growing, spreading into his dreams. One gets the sense that admitting these feelings out loud to his therapist is the only thing that keeps him sane, in contrast to Isaac, who has resisted therapy and has no one to talk to. The book's climax, when Isaac finally hurts Sarah off-panel, features her calling Simon for help in picking her up. The weird ambiguity of the situation (who was the woman who was with her?) finally leads Simon to snarl that she's to never see him again, to which she snarls back "Of course I'm never seeing him again." There is certainly a sense in which Sarah has used Simon, just as she let Isaac use her, and one gets the sense that the happy ending we see is highly temporary. Gooch implies that neither Sarah nor Simon are stable enough individuals to make the relationship work, and it's clear that the cycle could very well repeat. The dream scenes where Simon attacks Isaac are visceral and disturbing, as we see Simon's id totally unleashed. The scene where Simon and Sarah snarl at each other features their faces twisting into ugly, multi-lined masks. The orange wash that Gooch uses helps create a feeling of unease in the reader; it's the color of low-level alarm. The most clever device of the comic is that the reader is put into the place of Simon's therapist or roommate: involved observers who have no influence on what will happen, but are horrified nonetheless. The emotions and situations here are over the top at times, which is not surprising for a young cartoonist, but Gooch's skill in making everything feel authentic shows that he's one to watch.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Foxing Reprints #2: Whit Taylor

Continuing my reprints of columns I did for Foxing Quarterly:

The Anthropologists, by Whit Taylor (Sparkplug Comic Books).  Virginia Paine was Dylan Williams' employee at Sparkplug Comic Books and is now the publisher after his death in 2011. After a long period of adjustment where Paine co-published along with Tom Neely and Emily Nilsson, Paine is now in the process of putting her own stamp on one of the more eclectic and unpredictable catalogs in comics. Apropos with regard to cost and her sphere of interests, she's launched a Sparkplug Minis Series as an official complement to some other recent, shorter releases. 

Sparkplug has long been a place where young cartoonists are chosen because of their promise and given the opportunity to become better in the public eye. As such, Whit Taylor's The Anthropologists is a perfect selection for this series. The comic features Taylor's autobio stand-in character Wren during her college days, when she traveled to western Australia as part of a study abroad program. The idea was to study and talk to Aboriginal people as part of their cultural anthropology program. Paired with a hyperenthusiastic fellow American student and filled with ambivalence about the trip, Wren's anxiety is really just an expression of her own cultural, racial and identity issues in microcosm.  

In such an experience, one might expect to become close to a fellow student in such a situation. Instead, Taylor shows Wren and the other student, Miriam, as being opposites in nearly every imaginable way. However, their contrasts become more complicated and interesting than simply overly enthusiastic vs ambivalent. Wren is ambivalent about being shown an Aboriginal sacred space as though it were a vacation destination and is even more uncomfortable with getting a photo taken with a wanjina (an Aboriginal symbol). Miriam was constantly peppering people with inappropriate questions and was clearly bothered that Wren didn't share her enthusiasm. In the parlance of the comic, Miriam was comfortable treating the Other as the other, meaning that as an anthropologist she was distinct and separate from her subjects. On the other hand, Miriam wouldn't commit to doing things that actual Aborigines would do: going crabbing, eating whelks, hunting lizards, etc. This was partly because she was a vegan, but the implication here was that these activities were too immersive for her. 

For Wren, doing these things gave her a chance to talk to people in the context of their daily lives, ask them their feelings about how Aborigines are treated, and generally step outside of the comfort of her daily life. When she meets some young women at a party and they say she looks like "a Broome girl", this means that she looks like she's of mixed race, just like many people in the city of Broome. Taylor suggests that it was easy and natural for Miriam to draw a line between herself and the Other, given that she was white. For Wren, who noted that she was racially mixed, drawing that line was much more difficult, especially given the history of racial oppression both in the US and Australia. At the same time, the struggles she had in the book reflected the difficulty she had identifying with any group in particular. 

Taylor gets at these revelations with a great deal of subtlety and humor. Even though Miriam is kind of a ridiculous character and acts as comic relief for the reader, Taylor still treats her with some degree of sympathy. She's depicted as a person, not the embodiment of every American cliche'. Wren's struggles are similarly presented as neither the correct nor incorrect point of view. Instead, it's all about learning to ask the right questions about oneself and the world. Most of all, the way that their guide, Terry, is depicted is fascinating. He's clearly reserved about revealing details about himself, something that Wren respects but Miriam doesn't. He's as much the Other as the Aborigines they meet. 

Taylor's line is crude but functional. Her character design is solid (the way she draws upturned mouths is especially effective in expressing mood) and she has a decent grasp of body language. There were times when it seemed like she wanted the reader to get a sense of the environment, but her chops weren't quite up to drawing lush background scenes. Instead, Taylor stuck to what she could comfortably draw and focused more on character, concepts and nuance. Taylor continues to be an excellent writer and smart cartoonist who is becoming increasingly proficient in working around her limitations as a draftsman to create sophisticated and contemplative work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mini-Comics Grab Bag: Bagnarelli, Ghetti/Schiesaro, Lafler, Alabaster

January The First, by Bianca Bagnarelli. Bagnarelli is a big-time talent from Italy. Her cartooning looks and feels cool and detached even as the actual events of the story are intense and often upsetting. Consider this short story, a first-person retrospective narrator about a young woman going off for a drive with two shifty young men. Bagnarelli uses cool pastels and a stripped-down approach to character design, with a small line and a few simple loops here and there for faces. Those faces rarely betray the uncertainty felt or the later sense of betrayal, as everything and everyone is deadpan. That sense of restraint is almost agonizing, considering the outrageous but absurd level of violation she experiences. This one's from the Italian publisher Delebile.

Myriad, by Lorenzo Ghetti and Ugo Schiesaro. Also from Delebile is this first chapter of what promises to be a longer work. The art here is scratchy and cartoony, giving this story of life on a space station a grimy, lived-in feeling. As the first chapter unfolds, the reader is slowly made to understand the order of things on a station that's been inhabited for years. It's actually modeled on industrial revolution-era family life, where there's a child class, an adult worker class and an elder class. In the case of this ship, the elders are there to provide instruction to the children until they're ready to take over leadership from the adults, who then become the new elder class while the adult women are impregnated and prepare to have children. What happens to the former elder class is the subject of this issue, wherein conflicts between generations are hinted at and something goes horribly wrong when the elders are being "processed". This comic is a great use of genre as a setting, because it allows Ghetti and Schiesaro to create a social engineering experiment and expand upon its implications.

Death In Oaxaca #2 (Alternative Comics) by Steve Lafler. An alt-comics veteran since the 80s, Lafler continues to make great use of the periodical format. He describes the contents of this series in a text feature at the end as "reportage, satire, self-discovery, and surreal fantasy". In other words, it's Lafler as usual. Even his truly crazy series like Dog Boy that were essentially excuses for his id and subconscious to go on a walk together still had elements of political content, autobiography and social commentary. For Lafler, it all goes hand-in-hand, and no one element is more important than the other. That said, his fantastical elements have certainly always stood out, and this series is no exception. The story is about a family of ex-pats moving to the remote, historical city of Oaxaca in Mexico. Along the way, the father, Max, hooks up with a group of local musicians (much like Lafler) and starts having conversations with Death. Death is a musician who jams with him and reveals that he had been here before in a past life.

Meanwhile, Gertie (Max's wife), dons lucha libre tights and decides to fight crime. A friend of theirs is revealed to be an ancient vampire who was Max's father and Gertie's husband in a past life. Along the way, Lafler provides a loving look at the sights and smells of the city, gently mocks ex-pat culture, and generally rambles his way through the issue with episodic little vignettes. Lafler is in no hurry to get anywhere, as scenes in markets and with musicians jamming having a languid quality. At the same time, the issue feels packed, thanks to the weird images and rubbery art that's Lafler's trademark. Lafler's drawing fundamentals are rock solid, especially with regard to anatomy, body language and gesture. That allows him to loosen up his figures, sometimes going dramatic with the occasional use of hatching and detailed, decorative features on the story's more supernatural elements. Lafler's character design looks a lot like Steve Ditko's, especially in the confidence he evinces in the odd and slightly ugly nature of many of his characters. In Lafler's eyes, the world is beautiful just as it is and doesn't need any sort of idealistic sheen being added to it.

Mimi And The Wolves,Act I by Alabaster. I was introduced to Alabaster's work in The Complete Talamaroo, which highlighted the essential frisson in her comics. That is, her delicate line and ultra-cute character design are simply the facade for a much darker, weirder world where sex and/or violence can spring at the reader on a moment's notice. Consider the first few pages of this comic: we see the faces of the characters, and they're all adorably stubby-looking. Even we we meet a spooky figure in the woods, it's more pleasantly eerie than anything else. When we meet the titular Mimi (a sort of cat girl), she's busily gathering flowers with which to make garlands. She then goes off with her self-described mate Bobo (a little dog man), they go to work on the farm of friends and later go into town. It's a little jarring when the characters undress at the end of the day given Alabaster's style, but that should be the reader's first clue. This isn't a fairy tale, but rather a world that's quite real for the characters involved, and they act as anyone might. After that pleasant day, Mimi has a nightmare with some grotesque, violent and sexual imagery out of an Eamon Espey comic--and it turns out this is a recurring nightmare.

Things get more intricate and complicated, as the story takes on feminist undertones given the reactionary and controlling actions of Bobo when she starts to explore her dream and meets up with wolves who claim to worship the woman that Mimi sees in her dreams. When Mimi and Bobo break up at the end of this first chapter, she essentially cuts off her last tether to society as she knows it--and she says "I feel free." That said, the wolves seem to be on the up-and-up, but it's clear that they're not telling her everything. This comic is all about the freedom to explore one's true self and how that sometimes leads to uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations and confrontations. Alabaster creates a world that's bursting with life, with each page cluttered in all the right ways. She's careful to leave a lot of negative space in each panel so as not to get in the way of her storytelling, but the small panels and lack of gutter space between them is a strategy that allows her to use a lot of quiet moments at a fast pace.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Foxing Reprints #1: Daryl Seitchik

A couple of years back, I was reviewing minicomics for Foxing Quarterly's blog. Unfortunately, that site no longer contains my original content, so I've been rescuing it from old email queues and the internet wayback machine. Here's the results of my first dig:

Missy #1, by Daryl Seitchik (Oily Comics). The cheeky tagline for Seitchik on Oily's site is "Your new favorite cartoonist". Of course, it's 100% true. In a short period of time, Seitchik has made a huge leap in her autobio and semi-auto-bio/allegorical comics, with a simple but refined & expressive line that she's in total control of. Seitchik was Gabrielle Bell's intern, and some of those sensibilities can be seen in her work, especially the deadpan quality of her sense of humor. This issue is the diary written by eight-year-old Seitchik to herself ("Missy"), and the strips range from angst over the divorce of her parents, to anger toward her sister, to the politics of dating for the pre-tween set. Every one of these strips is brutal, with streaks of pitch-black humor. They're emotionally savage precisely because of Seitchik's restraint as an artist. The subtle placement of Missy's dot-pupils speaks volumes as to her emotional state, especially since Seitchik so frequently draws her as stone-faced. The intentional misspellings of certain words and the intensity of the emotions felt add a sense of verisimilitude to these comics, as though they were drawn at the time and not sixteen years later.

Missy #2, by Daryl Seitchik (Oily Comics). The second, expanded format issue of Missy takes the reader up through her nineteenth year. There are always visual and other callbacks in Seitchik's strips; they aren't so crucial that they demand the reader remember them, but they add an additional layer to the story when read all at once. Here, the diary entries pick up later, as Missy is now disgusted by writing about a boy she had a crush on. While Missy is the protagonist of her own story, she's far from heroic, as recounted in a strip about a boy declaring they were going out and how repulsed she was by this. Indeed, the casual cruelty of children is a running theme throughout these comics, and Missy isn't immune to doling out punishment. At the same time, she understands the hierarchical nature of relationships, and when a senior she has a crush on declares her "his favorite freshman", she imagines herself as a sort of pet dog, coming and going at his beck and call, waiting for a pat on the head.

The mini goes into detail about the uncomfortable nature of sex ed in school, the ways in which she felt nothing kissing a particular boy, and an epic section about James McMurphy, her first serious relationship. The first two pages where he's introduced are entirely silent, except that every third panel his name is simply spelled out. It's a brilliant bit of storytelling that tells the reader everything they need to know: this was an important person in Daryl's life, he cut a striking figure, was a bit of a nerd, etc. Things go downhill after a while, when his academics cut her out of his life, and then she dumps him unceremoniously, with a laugh that's betrayed by the look of sheer fear in her eyes. it's a raw and ugly scene, one that deliberately leaves out a lot of details to get to the emotional climax. The last few strips are about a living situation where Missy is in love with her apartment-mate, whose girlfriend also lives with them. The weirdness of Missy having seen him as a nude model prior to becoming friends with him is lingered on as a tantalizing bit of forbidden fruit, one that leaves her stuck writing and writing "until my hands fall off". She eventually takes the last page of her journal, rips it out, and turns it into a paper airplane--something that's mimicked in the actual comic by having its last page torn out by hand. It's a message to no one in particular, reflecting on the impotence of simply writing in a journal instead of doing something about her feelings.​

Middle School Missy, by Daryl Seitchik. This comic of Seitchik's retraces its steps back to age thirteen, which is generally one of the toughest transition years for any teen. She was no exception. The slightly tremulous girl of the first issue of Missy is replaced by an angry young girl who lashes out because she got braces (whose existence inhibits her ability to make out), boredom, and dealing with boys in animation class (ameliorated by being with one of her best friends and spinning chairs). There's a hilarious strip about her "studying" for a Spanish test, as she goofs off in various ways while talking about them in Spanish, until her mom comes in and spoils the fun. There's a hilarious strip about getting her period that's highlighted by her use of orange to depict her having to wear a pad that feels like a diaper and an overall descent into hell. Another strip interpolates the film Titanic with drifting away from her friends (though not her stuffed animal. These strips are a little wilder than the material in her Oily comics and much less restrained; at times, it's like a different person is writing them, even as Missy's dead-eye stare, modulated only by those dot-pupil eyes that say so much with so little. Even when things get crazy on the page, as Seitchik draws Missy wearing a diaper like an infant (complete with pacifier) and wandering through lava, that gaze never alters.

477 Bright Circle, by Daryl Seitchik. This comic is more in the vein of Seitchik's breakthrough comic, Sub. It's surreal autobio, as an adult Seitchik bikes by a store called Now that is seemingly never open. When she rides by and its "closed" sign has finally changed, she finds herself transforming into a little girl and waking up in a field of what at first appears to be grass. (This is neatly foreshadowed by the choppy way Seitchik drew grass earlier in the story.) Of course, it's not grass, and when she picks a "blade", she is transported to the house she grew up in and a particular set of childhood memories. From there, it's an elegant, wordless series of transformations using the simplest of lines to create environments, not unlike Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon. The final panels reveal that this adventure into the past ultimately yielded nothing, that this store purporting to sell the experience of "now" can only sell the past as a consumer article. Seitchik only drops clues as to what's happening, using her usual storytelling restraint to leave it up to the reader as to what she gains from the experience, if anything. She says at the end "I got nothing", but does she mean she purchased nothing, received nothing, got nothing out of the experience of reliving an important moment from her past, or simply has nothing to say about it? For an artist whose MO is slightly detached, spare drawing, there are any number of visceral, heart-stopping moments in this comic, like when the reader takes her view as she's running and panting toward the door of her old house. Drawing slightly bigger than usual, her eye-dots are even more powerful, especially the look of utter shock when she looks up to see her old house. This is a deep, rich comic that's indicative of Seitchik's status as a rising star.​

Monday, June 20, 2016

Feelin' Minnesota: Dinski, Nilsen, Gillmer/Thompson

Minneapolis is one of the most fertile of cartooning cities. That's due in part to the presence of two of my favorite alt-comics publishers (2D Cloud and Uncivilized Books), as well as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I'll have features on those publishers soon, but here are a few comics from locals.

God And The Devil At War In The Garden/Conversation Gardening, by Anders Nilsen. Nilsen doesn't generally do a lot of his own minicomics these days, given that he has a couple of different publishers, but this one was a special occasion. This 9 x 13" comic on a cardstock cover and interior paper that soaks up Nilsen's line nicely, and it also contains another minicomic (Conversation Gardening) within. That minicomic is done in the style of Nilsen's Monologues comics: with a stick-figure smart ass and a surprising number of gags. The gags are rather pointed, however, and are aimed squarely at's suppression of books not only critical of it, but of other books by the same publisher. Of course, their business model was predicated on wiping out independent bookstores in order to obtain a near-monopoly. While Nilsen's critique is on-point, he notes that his real purpose here was to continue what he calls "the conversation": the millennia-long interaction between authors and readers. Thus, he offered to anyone who sent him a receipt of one of his books purchased at an actual brick-and-mortar store a chance to send him a question/idea/thought, and he'd send the reader back a drawing in response to it. It's a clever idea to confront naked greed with creativity.

The larger comic is done in Nilsen's fare more work-intensive style that involves dense hatching and even stippling here and there. It also includes his single page silhouette style that he used for Rage Of Poseidon wherein he takes on the story of Lucifer.  It's a sympathetic take on Lucifer's downfall, as he viewed himself as god's partner in creativity rather than a servant. When god created man (in his own image, which Lucifer noted in man's eyes) and noted that he might sing, Lucifer laughed. That leads to a great panel where we see a black-on-white composition where Lucifer's wings have been shorn off as he's falling from paradise. At the end of the story, we're left with Lucifer's potential reconciliation with god and his return to heaven--but not yet. The other pieces are also interesting, like "Anatomy Of A Vacant Lot", which is a witty deconstruction of the ways in which gentrification can lead to blight when the money runs out. "A Frailty Overhead" (written by Kyle Beachy) is a densely drawn account of the remnants of a resistance force being doomed by a grenade thrown down by a young girl. Nilsen captures the desperation, the detritus of their attempts to stay alive, and their resignation as each makes visible their last, dying wishes.

Intimacy Test, An Honest Performance and Quick & Painless, by Will Dinski. Any long-time reader of any incarnation of High-Low will know how much I've enjoyed Dinski's many formal experiments and decorative flourishes paired with his frequently bleak and cynical sensibilities. His latest comics are no exception.

Intimacy Test is printed on heavy cardstock with a color cardstock dustcover. Dinski has often used a stripped down, stylized approach to character design, but this comic takes that to a new extreme. Dinski's line is scratchy and ragged, designed to get across the idea of this story about a story is trying to express and nothing else. This comic is a shaggy dog story about unlikely revenge, as a possessive asshole is embarrassed by a guy talking to his girlfriend at a bar. It's narrated by the guy who embarrassed him, but the truly tragic figure in the story is his sister, whom the asshole deliberately befriends and dates (despite having a girlfriend he feels is out of his league!) in order to find information to get revenge. Thus, the emotional climax of the story wasn't when the awful guy got his petty revenge (though it's a darkly hilarious moment as the punchline of the shaggy dog joke), it's when the sister tries out her titular test on the asshole, a test whose reaction determines where she thinks a relationship is headed. Of course, the information the asshole gleaned from the test wound up fueling his revenge, and his reaction was simply to walk away without a word--the cruelest and most inexplicable reaction possible.

An Honest Performance is another emotionally brutal comic, this time told in the first person by a musician. Instead of starting the story in the middle, Dinski begins toward the very end, as the musician is discussing the final stages of a documentary about his life with a great deal of bitterness. Along the way, we learn that his wife has left him and that the crew essentially took her side in things. Throughout the comic, the musician wrestles with the word "honesty". He's praised for his honesty by the director and various people on the red carpet while noting that during one scene in his house, he figures out that he's not actually being recorded--a lack of honesty. As the story proceeds, he begins to understand that when he's being praised for his honesty, it really means something else--and it's not something that's a virtue. In fact, it's more of an acknowledgment of letting his character flaws show so broadly, of revealing himself so totally that everyone's aware of every poor decision he made and every awful thing he said. That's why the ending, where he leaves the premiere of the documentary and goes to a bar, ties the story up so neatly; at last, he can stop being honest. While the style of art here is very much the same as in Intimacy Test, the images Dinski chooses to draw are more static: he draws objects as much as he does people, and there's a deliberate lack of panel-to-panel flow on a number of pages. It's more akin to a group of photographs than a film or a comic, as those moments are frozen in time for the musician.

Quick and Painless is a collection of Dinski's short stories and minicomics, with some new material. In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the introduction for this collection. I've reviewed many of the stories here on High-Low over the years: "Wait", "A Fine Job On The Execution", "The Pressman", "Get Away From Me", "Routine", "Are You Often Impulsive In Your Behavior?", "Covered In Confusion", and "Errand Service". For this volume, Dinski added a number of two-page stories drawn in a stick-figure style as interstitial material. They remind me a little of the gag strips that Tom Gauld does, both in terms of the stripped-down and tiny line as well as the sardonic nature of the gags. In strips like "At The End Of An Action Movie" and "At The End Of An Adventure Movie", Dinski wittily deconstructs both genres. A lot of Dinski's humor is pretty grim, like in "A Few Of My Favorite Things", wherein a group of friends unwittingly aid a friend's suicide by being astoundingly unobservant. "He Fighter Wins" is a very Gauld kind of strip, as Dinski deflates a fantasy saga by having its hero talk its villain into chilling out and taking credit for vanquishing him. There are thirteen of these interstitial strips in all, and they're the perfect kind of connecting material for the disparate material found in the book. While Dinski notes on the cover that the stories therein are "mostly about death", there's a wide enough disparity in mood and subject matter that having these palate cleansers is an effective reset, time after time. Speaking of making connections, Dinski also creates an unexpected connection between a couple of the stories that's a hilarious, fourth-wall-breaking gag. It's all part of a showcase of Dinski's shorter, punchier work that demonstrates that he's as effective in executing a sharp shock as he is setting up a long-burning narrative.

BFD 2-3, by Scotty Gillmer and Carl Thompson. This good old fashioned slice of-life comic manages to transcend its influences in crafting carefully-considered and well-rounded characters. The first issue established the Minnesota high school setting and the time period (2006) as well as the six main characters. It also introduced two bits of drama, as a generally passive girl named Kelly broke up with her loutish boyfriend Bradley, and a girl named Ava sparked a potential relationship with a cool punker named Tre. This issue follows Kelly and Ava a bit further, giving them room to narrate their own stories in their own way. Kelly's story, "Stupid Loop", is written in the form of a journal entry as she negotiates her own decision-making as it relates to her anxiety disorder, her lack of self-esteem, her therapy and her occasional suicidal ideations. Thompson's art is reminiscent of Jaime Hernandez (character design, use of blacks) and Chester Brown (delicate line weights, facial construction), as he focuses on gesture and emotional expression. Gillmer has a clear understanding of how mental illness works, with the titular "stupid loop" being an excellent model of how anxiety can supersede rationality.  "A Poem For A Boy I Know" features Ava meeting up with Tre at a political event related to Tre's mother, and they initially bond over feeling out of place at the event and head out into the rain. This story is a document of a perfect, small moment that nonetheless starts to become a poem in Ava's mind even as it's still going on. The device of seeing Ava cross out words in her mind and replacing them with different ones as she was composing the poem for him was a clever technique. While there's nothing groundbreaking about this series, there's a sensitivity and sincerity in its construction that's refreshing.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Notable Kickstarter: Steve Lafler

Steve Lafler has long been one of my favorite cartoonists. However, I also happen to own three of his paintings, which are every bit as lively and witty as his comics are. He's doing a modest kickstarter to fund a book of his paintings of daily life in Oaxaca, and there are some incredible rewards for reasonable donations. Check it out at this link.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Heavy Hitters, Part 2: Thurber, May

Men's Feelings #2, by Ted May (Revival House). May's sardonic strips about men and men's culture are always hilariously dead-on, whether they stray into absurdity or border on the poignant. His loose, cartoony line is a big part of his appeal, as what appears to be a plain, no-frills style works because of subtle flourishes, steady expressiveness, and a flat approach that creates a deadpan effect for much of the book's humor. "Reflections", for example (the book's opener), features a man shaving--one of the manliest of activities. When he looks into a mirror and sees three faces staring at him (somehow, companies can install one-way glass in people's homes that sometimes gets revealed as there being a secret room there), the man goes into the fetal position on the floor. It's a fantastic gag to start off the issue, as May dials up and down absurdity, poignancy and pettiness in equal measure.

As to the latter, "Connecting Flight" is a good example. A man who hates flying looks on his neighbor, wearing too much perfume, with contempt. It's not until he dismisses her musical taste out of hand, thinking "Nothing we could possibly have in common", and he sees an Abba best of collection, that he thinks, "I stand corrected." Once again, May takes the piss out of this guy's aggro attitude and diffuses with a less-than-macho musical selection. "Lifetime Subscription" is an example of how May's deadpan style and careful pacing crafts a punchline. When a guy asks a drug store clerk for cigarettes and a copy of Alone magazine, there's a bit of awkwardness when she says they don't. Nine panels of walking home, going upstairs and lighting a cigarette later, he says, "I need to develop a better pickup line." May retroactively adds an extra layer of awkwardness as the reader is made to realize that the bizarre nature of the man's request was his attempt at flirting, especially since the tact was so remarkably pathetic in nature.

The silliest strip was "Finally", which starts off with a man on his deathbed being visited by his departed wife to take him to the great beyond, only to get fussy about the appearance of his body and blow his big chance. May has a way of drawing bug-eyed characters (not unlike Steve Ditko) that later have their irises reduced to dots while the rest of their eye still bulges out. It's his shorthand for an extreme reaction, be it anger, disgust or some other negative emotion. "Call Of Duty" is about a younger sibling managing to carry out the instructions of his mother in a highly indirect way, "putting away" some eggs by feeding them directly to his video-game playing brother. It's a funny, almost sweet little episode that reveals a surprising amount of empathy between siblings. Equally funny and more poignant is "You Can Skip This One", which is a sort of shaggy-dog anecdote about a man trying to make friends with his girlfriend's preteen son. The kid is entirely quiet while the guy hopelessly and painfully babbles on, desperate to make some kind of connection. That's the focus of the story as the man then turns to skipping rocks on the nearby lake, trying to teach the technique to the kid (who fails hilariously), only to wind up accidentally committing an act of destruction that ironically elicits precisely the kind of connection he craved. There's are two glorious splash pages in a row that depict the act of destruction, as May finishes the shaggy-dog joke before adding the final punchline. May is so remarkably assured in his pacing and use of expression, creating a naturalistic environment to act as the underpinning of the gag.

The last big piece, "Wait, What?" is a hilarious send-up of sports fandom and sports announcing. A fan sitting in the stands watching the last play of a football game is also listening to the radio commentary at the same time. May perfectly captures the pompous, over-the-top, life and death nature of sports commentary while creating a ridiculously bizarre end to the game, then deflating it at the very end. Finishing up the issue with a kid being made to say his prayers and expressing his hatred for everyone and everything more-or-less sums up the issue.

Art Comic 1-2, by Matthew Thurber. Thurber's sense of humor and approach land with me like few other cartoonists. His combination of intelligence and absurd sense of humor make every comic he does an incisive commentary as well as something I laugh at on nearly every page. With his new series, Thurber turns his attention to his own sphere: the art world. Having worked in New York art galleries for a number of years and attended art school at Cooper Union, it's safe to say that this is a subject that's well in his wheelhouse. What's interesting is that for all his absurdity, Thurber has shown that he uses the same narrative technique in each of his major works. He starts the story in media res, writes short vignettes about a set of characters and then moves on to another vignette involving completely different characters, and then eventually connects all of them up. The main difference this time around is that a number of his characters are actually real people.

It's perhaps a bit cliche' for a cartoonist to do yet another version of "Art School Confidential", poking fun at the more pretentious and pompous aspects of art school. While Thurber gets off plenty of jokes at the art world's expense, this isn't really his project here. Indeed, Thurber has said that he enjoyed art school because he was encouraged to do a number of different things and he managed to avoid the fate that many cartoonists who were scorned by their professors, especially in the 80s and 90s. This comic is much more about the professional art world, which Thurber has noted is entirely run by money, using a number of different takes on satirizing it.

The first issue is set in 1999 and features Cupcake, a student at Cooper Union, being told by a friend that he spotted the artist Matthew Barney on the street. There's a perfect Thurber panel where they run to find him where Thurber contorts Cupcake's body such that his leg appears above his head; it's a delightfully rubbery image. They get a lecture from a clerk at Kim's Video, go to a Turkish bath filled with Vaseline (something Barney actually used), and realize only too late that the attendant at the baths was Barney himself. It sets the tone for the comic: frantic and absurd, but closer to real life than you would expect.

That's certainly true in the second chapter, where there's an art critique. Cupcake gets lectured for yet another Barney-inspired piece (a gingerbread house of the baths filled with Vaseline), but Thurber quickly segues to an art opening, two gate-crashers from "Drunk TV", and the intervention of three little pigs in a brick house smashing into the gallery. From there, Thurber goes rapid-fire with new characters: Ivanhoe, a knight in armor who is aiming to crash the "Miami Basel Art Faire" with his squire/intern Walter, Ivanhoe's object of affection Tiffany Clydesdale, and Jesus Christ emerging from the cube near Union Square and turning the manager of the local Chase bank into a pack of rats before turning the building into a giant ice cream cone that rains down money. There are also two robot handlers whose charges are directed to have sex.

After Thurber threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick in the first issue, he remarkably tightened up the narrative without losing an ounce of energy in the second issue. For example, he went deep into the story of Password, Cupcake's art professor. Initially a disciple of Robert Rauschenberg (depicted as a tyrant who'd smash you in the head with a bottle), he's revealed to be working for a cabal of veteran artists who want him to undermine any potential future competition from art schools. Naturally, when visited by his master, the master turns into a vampire bat and flies out the window, just as a student whose spirits he had crushed was committing suicide. Ivanhoe is revealed to be a classmate of Cupcake's who was hit on the head and learned that his parents had been accidentally killed by a piece of art, launching a crusade of revenge with one goal in mind: destroying art.

In a story about art, Thurber manages to introduce a quest narrative fueled by a desire for revenge and a shadowy cabal with supernatural connections into a story about the hypocritical nature of an art teacher telling his students not to worry about how to make a living. By heightening the absurdity around the edges of the story and using over-the-top elements, Thurber's able to make his points about greed and the art world without lecturing the reader. Indeed, this is a story about multiple characters with different obsessions and the ways in which those obsessions are being constantly thwarted. His character design is hilarious, from the chainmail that Ivanhoe wears, to Tiffany's beret, to the cartoonishly vile face of the vampire bat artist that has the only dense use of spotting blocks and hatching, to the various artists that he caricatures; Thurber's characters always have a rubbery quality that makes them capable of anything. I enjoy the fact that Thurber continues to release work as periodicals, complete with full color covers and letters pages.