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.

No comments:

Post a Comment