Friday, July 29, 2016

First Second: Lucy Knisley's Something New

Having followed Lucy Knisley's career closely since her first book, I've at times felt both drawn to and frustrated by her autobio comics. On the one hand, she has a beautiful, clean line that grabs the reader and doesn't let go. She's witty and knows how to tell a story. The problem, as one friend of mine noted, is that she didn't seem willing or able to "spill some ink", to really find a way to express some deeper emotional truths without coming across as privileged. Trying to get a grip on precisely why her comics haven't worked for me, I thought to compare them to Gabrielle Bell's own travel comics. The reality is that both women are not wealthy but have had some amazing opportunities to travel that most people don't have because of their capacity as artists. In Bell's case, she's an outsider no matter where she goes, so her reportage always carries a fish-out-of-water element that still allows the reader to get a sense of place. In Knisley's case, her travelogues are often bogged down by her feelings about being in a place (usually about how awesome it is, or else complaining about some details about an otherwise amazing trip) getting in the way of actually conveying an experience to her readers. She also has a way of spelling out what she thinks are the themes of a work that feel superficial or contrived.

The main exception to this is Relish, which is autobiography told through a love of food. By concentrating on food and letting the autobiographical details flow in around that tight focus, Knisley was far more successful in conveying the importance of relationships in her life than her other books did. The problem with the other travel books is that they were far too self-obsessed, and if you're going to focus on your own thoughts, you'd better have a sharply defined and unusual point of view (like Bell), or else you wind up with something self-indulgent. When I started reading her newest memoir, Something New, I knew it was about being reunited with her ex-boyfriend and their wedding. I dreaded another self-indulgent exercise. While there was some of that, I was pleasantly surprised at how homing in on an experience that was so specific, introspective and personal was so widely relatable and emotionally powerful.

I think there are a few reasons why this was so. First, doing this with another person meant changing her perspective from going it solo to being part of a team. Second, she was brutally honest with what went wrong with her boyfriend (she wanted kids and he didn't) and how things slowly changed over time. Not that Knisley hasn't expressed her feelings in past books, but in Something New, she goes much, much deeper and becomes a sympathetic character in her writings for the first time. Third, the honest push-and-pull regarding weddings and the institution of marriage itself made for some interesting frisson in the story, as she had to explore a lot of conflicting feelings. Finally, her always unfailing eye for detail broke up the very long and winding narrative with all sorts of hilarious interstitial material regarding the institution of marriage.

Emotional tone is something that's often been off in Knisley's comics. She talks about her emotions and having strong feelings, but there's an odd, almost clinical reserve in how she goes about depicting this on the page. Part of that, I think, is that her line is so unfailingly smoothed out (bordering on relentlessly cute) and her color scheme so pleasant (lots of pastels) that those feelings are visually muted. To her credit, when she talked about her feelings for her future husband John and the difficulties they endured, Knisley's use of body language (especially in how she and John related to each other in space) is what sold it to me as a reader. Something that Knisley reveals along the way is that the experience of planning the ceremony, with a lot of conflicting feelings and political ideals at play, was so overwhelmingly emotional that she felt herself distancing herself from her feelings in the moment. It wasn't until the moment itself came that the catharsis of emotion was able to emerge, and she was insightful in how she related this experience to the reader.

The book's main flaw is that it's bloated at almost 300 pages. I recognize that in part, she tried to relay her own particular experience with the mechanics of getting married in a systematic matter, but there were too many self-indulgent sequences that slowed the book down to a crawl. There was a conflict between simply relating an emotional narrative and the need she felt to focus on wedding details, customs and history, almost as a form of reportage. The entire DIY chapter could have been jettisoned with no impact on the narrative (emotional or otherwise), especially as eight pages of it felt like reading someone's Pinterest board. There's also a weird dichotomy regarding discussing money in the book. The book's title suggests that she's a "makeshift bride", and there were a lot of remarkable DIY elements at work in her wedding experience. For example, the ceremony was held in a barn on her mother's property that the two of them helped build themselves. For some of the less expensive things (especially things she made), Knisley is quite upfront about how much they cost, but she's more vague regarding other things she had to buy, like her dress, the food, the wedding planner, etc. It would have been interesting to compare what she had to spend with the average price of weddings (which she discusses in detail), if only to play up the possibilities that are available if one is creative and has a community of people that are willing to help. Again, it's understandable for someone not to discuss the financials in a public forum, but the fact that she discussed some but not all of the details was a lost opportunity.

There are some interesting emotional tensions at play in the book, especially between Knisley and her mother. She discusses screaming arguments and stress, as her mom tried to wrest control of the wedding away from her at times, but Knisley also discusses the gratitude she feels for her mother hosting the event and going above and beyond to help make it work. That said, Knisley frequently portrays her mom as being petulant, petty and obsessed with control, and I would have been curious to see how her mother perceived the same events--especially when Knisley leaves for 36 hours to have her bachelorette party. Related to that is Knisley's barely-disguised contempt for the wedding planner that was foisted on her by her mom. While the ever even-handed and self-analytical Knisley tries her best to describe the ways in which she was helpful, the actual depiction of her is of a slightly bumbling, scatterbrained person who was overly familiar and didn't have great boundaries. The nature of the conflict between Knisley and her mom as depicted in the book was actually a fundamental question of the book: who is the wedding for, exactly? Is it for the bride and groom, is it for the family, or is it for the community? What is the relationship between money and control in this equation? That is, if someone is paying for something with regard to the ceremony, do they have the right to supersede the wishes of the bride and groom?

In the end, this is a book about accepting that some conflicts don't have easy resolutions, and we simply must learn to live with them and compromise as we make choices, understanding that each choice brings its own set of pluses and minuses. Marriage represents losing freedom and absolute, individual choice, but it brings the possibility of building something with someone. (Indeed, the book's title refers overtly to the old wedding rhyme, but Knisley repurposes it at the end as she and John have started to build something new.) Marriage still feels like a rite of passage into adulthood, a concept that was difficult to swallow. Marriage contains all sorts of patriarchal and religious baggage as a couple suddenly joins a club they didn't quite understand they had signed up for. There is only one conflict that utterly and inescapably goes Knisley's way in the book, and that's the decision to have children. While John relented and said he was willing to do it, he's depicted later in the book saying that he was more excited about having a wedding and didn't really want to have children. It's telling that the book's final scene shows Knisley having her birth control implant removed, as the "something new" is clearly not just building a new life with John, but also refers to the possibility of creating a new life with him in the form of a child. Knisley indeed did give birth a few months ago and is also documenting that experience. Knisley's decision to document these events in real time instead of allowing for the possibility of perspective gained after time elapsing is a bold one. It provides a sense of immediacy that sometimes is absent from memoirs drawn for the distant past and also allows for a sense of open-endedness and some questions and concepts simply left unsaid, unresolved and a matter for contemplation by the reader.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Foxing Reprints #12: Caitlin Skaalrud, Derek Von Gieson

Eel Mansions #4-5, by Derek Von Gieson. In the most recent issues of this kitchen sink of a series, Von Gieson simultaneously tightens up his plots by way of slowly releasing backstory that connects many of its disparate elements while continuing to introduce new and crazier elements. The comic is a supernatural adventure a la the X-Files, a supernatural farce, a conspiracy series, a slice-of-life series and a commentary on comics themselves, There are now four series-within-a-series in the pages of Eel Mansions, including "Doomin'" (a pastiche of Tove Jansson and Simon Hanselmann), "Tales of Abstraction House" (a send-up of early 70s horror and comics-as-poetry), "Breakfast In Asgard" (self-explanatory, plus it gives Von Gieson an excuse to draw like Jack Kirby) and "Milk City" (the slice-of-life comic that was demanded by her publishers). These issues feature a journey into hell, a cartoonist's response to a negative interview, two "negative orphans" wandering around and philosophizing, a group of Eric Clapton cultists ("The Slowhanders") and other such weirdness. Eel Mansions is basically Von Gieson's brain in a blender, mixing together dozens of comics and cultural touchstones into one package. It's an excuse for him to show off his style mimicry as well as own deft and dense brushwork. It's easily the best work I've seen from him and it continues to get better from issue to issue. 

Houses of the Holy, by Caitlin Skaalrud. Concluding my look at the recent minicomics output of Uncivilized Books, Houses of the Holy was originally self-published in a larger and more lavish format, this comic still deftly merges its decorative, metaphorical, and poetic aspects. It’s a densely rendered  narrative that follows a young woman reading a book titled “How To Walk Through Fire”. Stripping herself naked yet strangely neutered, she pulls open a trap door and unlocks the heavy doors in the basement, one by one. Narrating what she finds in each room in an obliquely poetic style, Skaalrud is sharing a deeply personal howl with the reader, encoding her fears, hopes, and other feelings in each of the rooms before hesitating in front of room X, and returning to a prison cell with a broken heart before she burns it all down. While there’s a cathartic quality to this comic, it’s not a joyful one, but rather relief earned at great price. It works because her drawing is so sharp and visceral, and the shock of that decidedly desexualized nude figure is so incongruous. It's the mind and body laid bare to itself and the reader, representing childhood in the form of the bow in her hair and adulthood in the form of the trials faced. Zak Sally was an obvious influence here, but Skaalrud works at a level more specifically in the style of comics-as-poetry, giving the verbal-visual tension a quality not unlike that of John Hankiewicz.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

First Second: Box Brown's Tetris

In telling the story of the video game Tetris, Box Brown went into some deep philosophical territory. He begins the book by delving into gaming theory and asks the basic question of why is it that people play games? From that simple question, Brown spins a crazy story involving art, commerce, creativity, cold war politics and outsized personalities. What would seem to be a simple question (how did a particular game get designed?) demanded a timeline of the history of Nintendo, an understanding of the way world economics used to work in the Soviet Union, and an attempt to understand how and why some games become incredibly popular. For game designers, there's even a sense of trying to reverse-engineer successes in an effort to understand why they become so popular.

The book (and the game) begins with a couple of computer-programming friends in 1984 Moscow named Alexey Pajitnov and Vladimir Pokhilko. Pajitnov posits that rather than simply a way to pass the time, games have a specific psychological function. Brown runs with that idea, even making a distinction between the physical aspect of sports versus games. Early sports may have been a way of recapitulating human competition in terms of survival, whereas games are an expression of the same urge that comes from creating art. Games are a merging of competition and the childlike need to process the world and learn about it by way of play. Play is far from a frivolous process; anyone who's ever observed children playing knows that they take it very seriously, as they transport themselves into a world with particular rules with a lot at stake. In the same way that a work of art no longer truly belongs to the artist once they've finished it and displayed it, so too is a game no longer quite the possession of its designer. It becomes part of the imaginations of those it captivates.

Brown breaks this idea down further, suggesting that games excite the pre-frontal cortex, the brain's executive functioning center. It strengthens one's brain while tricking it into learning through fun. In learning and becoming drawn into a game, it can improve one's higher-order processing and decision-making. Unlike the way we resist rote memorization as a means of learning, learning through game-playing combines the practice necessary in order to excel at anything through repeated gameplay with constant stimulation of the brain in a way that's motivating and pleasurable. Brown does not state this, but one of the arguments of the book is that it's more important than ever for adults to play games that motivate them and not abandon them as childish things.

Brown parallels the history of Nintendo (which started as a card game company) with the history of Tetris' design, because it gets to the heart of development in a capitalistic society vs a communist society. What's interesting is how Brown played up a number of similarities that led to success for both. Nintendo became successful in the electronics and video game markets because of visionary CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi and genius engineer Gunpei Yokoi. The successes came because Yamauchi trusted Yokoi's creativity and ingenuity as assets that would allow Nintendo a leg up in the market. When video games took the world by storm, they hired a conceptual artist named Shigeru Miyamoto to come up with ideas for games and leave it to Yokoi to figure them out. That process led to the insanely popular Donkey Kong, which later led to a huge empire based off of the original game. Video games touched a nerve, as good ones demanded problem solving skills and heightened hand-eye coordination. In a capitalist society, demand is at the heart of profit. Brown goes on to discuss a number of Nintendo's other moves, including conceptualizing handheld games that could travel with the game (that eventually became the Gameboy). The greater the number of platforms available for a game (gaming system, computer, arcade game, handheld device) meant that there were more and more rights to secure, making the process cutthroat at times.

By contrast, Pajitnov created Tetris because he felt compelled. He was obsessed with the shapes, the way they interlocked and how clearing out a row was such a fulfilling feeling. He did it on his own time and simply gave away copies for free, because he wasn't eligible to sell something of his own creation in the Soviet state. The game was such a hit that some businesses had to ban it from their computers because it killed productivity. The genius of it was that by removing violent, genre or competitive aspects of the game, it appealed to an incredibly wide demographic. Licensing the game or the idea of inventing different platforms for distribution never even occurred to him, yet the game was a success, like Nintendo was a success, because the creative talent was left alone to build the game as they saw fit. The genius of Yamauchi was that he recognized that he didn't know everything and instead surrounded himself with smart people that he trusted. 

The second half of the book is a dizzying account of the quasi-legal nature of foreign software companies trying to get the license to the game going up against Soviet bureaucracy at its best. There were billionaires, bullshit artists, and children of moguls going up against a Soviet group that on the one hand was trying to nickel and dime them but on the other didn't fully understand the nature of what they had. The most colorful personality was Henk Rogers, a game designer who got frustrated trying to deal with the man who apparently had the foreign rights to Tetris, so he simply fly to Moscow unannounced in an effort to make a deal. Brown emphasized that the way he barged in was simply not the way they did things in the Soviet Union, but the fact that there was a new, shrewd chief in charge of the game in Moscow made things interesting. There were double-crosses, companies making illegal versions of the game and all kinds of other crazy chicanery. There was even an attempt to get back the market rights when a billionaire made an appeal to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as a federal court decision that decided who had game rights: Nintendo or Atari.

Brown weaves a taut tale with all of these crazy events and synchronicities with his trademark restraint and stripped-down, iconic figures. Yellow is the only color used, giving the whole book an odd, slightly artificial feel that mimics screen time. Brown provides breaks when introducing new players in the story on an otherwise black page, allowing the eye to rest as he tore through the book at a fast pace. That sense of pacing is what makes this history book with deeply philosophical underpinnings so successful. With no real action on the page, Brown made things interesting simply by making the reader's eye whip across the page, trying to take in the story as quickly as possible. It helped that there was tension in the real-life narrative that gave the book a tight second-half structure, as opposed to the more episodic set-up of the first half. The tension between companies and countries about the game spoke to the way that the need to play stimulating games crossed cultures; the demand for the experience is what made everything so high stakes. The book is a success, and more successful than his Andre The Giant book, because with Tetris, Brown found a way to take a popular subject and plunge into its depths while making a number of fascinating connections. In the Andre book, there just wasn't enough there to go deep, and while that "star is unknowable" concept wound up being part of the book's point, the actual execution simply felt like a series of well-told but barely-connected anecdotes. In Tetris, Brown found a way to bind any number of characters to the book's central theme, with the anecdotes providing a climax to key tension points instead of wandering. Brown really stepped up his game in this book, and it's clear he's found an interesting niche in the world of comics. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Foxing Reprints #11: Tom Kaczynski, Vincent Stall, Alex Holden

Structures 1-11, by Tom Kaczynski and Structures 12-23, by Vincent Stall (Uncivilized Books). Of all the small press publishers, Tom Kaczynski's Uncivilized Books best fits my own personal aesthetics. All of his books and minicomics are impeccably designed with a minimum of fuss, creating images that are eye-catching but not overwhelming. Kaczynski's minicomics line is especially interesting, because he's willing to take chances on unusual projects in a low-key, low-risk manner in this format. TheStructures series is a good example. Architecture has always been a key interest of Kaczynski's in his comics, strictly from an aesthetic point of view. The way that geometry plays itself out in a three-dimensional context holds great power and mystery in Kaczynski's hands, and his issue features eleven structures that highlight his heavy use of brushwork and a surprising lack of angularity. That's because each of these structures is "unnatural", "unstable", "incoherent" or else a formation created from nature. Here, Kaczynski involves the almost supernatural power of architecture as a form of incantation in favor of nature taking its course in unusual ways over time; he even winks at his own brush work in "The Tomb Of Jack Kirby", a design with heavy blacks that looks like something out of New Gods.

Vincent Stall takes a different approach. His drawings are unlabeled but very much in keeping with his "king of rubble" approach of drawing backgrounds. Unlike Kaczynksi's remote, monolithic structures that stand the test of time, Stall's structures are broken and decaying, reclaimed in part by their environment or repurposed by those now living there. Stall's line weight is thinner and more fragile than Kaczynski's, which makes sense, and there's also a much more restrained use of blacks. Each of these minis is crisply printed on paper that makes the most of the linework of each artist.

Skyway Sleepless, by Tom Kaczynski (Uncivilized Books).  This coverless mini is a reprint of a Kaczynski story published elsewhere. It takes an actual downtown Minneapolis phenomenon--skyways that connect buildings so as to prevent one from having to brave the hellish winters in that city--and extrapolates it in a noir/aesthetics thriller. Kaczysnki pokes a little fun at some of his more serious stories here as the lead character, a skyway security guard, is confronted by mysterious chalk outlines in the skyway and subsequent people passing out in the outlines. Conspiracy theories, ritualized architectural magic and other supernatural ideas get thrown around, and even though they all wind up being a McGuffin for the real mystery, the ending seems to confirm that sometimes spoof has a way of becoming reality. There's a wonderful spareness to Kaczynski's line here, as he relies on thin diagonal lines, zip-a-tone and his typical lurching figurework. When his characters are in motion, there's a rigidity in their movements that matches up with the backgrounds around them, creating new geometric structures within each panel. His characters are tall and slender and don't lack expressiveness; indeed, there's a touch of Jack Kirby to be found in many of his creations. That expressiveness is balanced by the coolness and reserved nature of Kaczynski's page structure, which is always tidy and balanced even when crazy things are happening. 

West Side Improvements, by Alex Holden (Uncivilized Books). Holden fits in nicely with this sort of urban theme. His own series, Magic Hour, was all about the supernatural in an urban setting. West Side Improvements is a work of reportage originally published in the Syncopated anthology, and it's about the tunnels underneath Riverside Park in New York and the community of artists and homeless who made it their own. The focus is on Chris "Freedom" Pape, a graffiti artist who made a series of elaborate portraits in the tunnels, many of which were visible in the grates above the old railroad tracks. The comic goes on to chronicle the community of artists that grew to work together in the tunnels as well as the so-called "mole people"--the homeless who lived there and who drew media attention when a book was written about them. Amtrak, who owned the tracks, announced that the tunnels would be closed, but not before the homeless were relocated to public housing. This is a thorough, thoughtful take on a forgotten and hidden part of New York, a reflection of the way that the city has slowly snuffed out artistic reclamation of old spaces in favor of corporate reclamation. The art in this mini is less effective printed at a smaller size, especially since so many panels are crammed onto the page. That's especially true when trying to show the scope of the murals painted by Pape. The smaller scale doesn't hurt Holden's characters as much, given that he tends to use a cartoony and minimalist approach in depicting them. The mini does include a great deal of bonus material, including several pages of reference photos taken by Holden.

Monday, July 25, 2016

First Second For Kids: Sturm/Frederick-Frost/Arnold, Reed/Flood, Wicks

Ogres Awake!, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. This is the latest in the Adventures In Cartooning! series headed up by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies and two alumni. Ostensibly designed to teach the basics of cartooning to kids, the trio of artists has also released a series of fun adventure books starring the knight who popped up in the actual instructional books. I had the benefit of my seven-year-old daughter asking me to read this book to her, sight unseen, and she loved the book's humor and sheer "loudness". The book opens with the crisis of the knight seeing a meadow full of giant, sleeping ogres, and the rest of the book is essentially a mad dash by the knight in an effort to thwart the crisis. About midway through, the artists come up with a counter plotline, wherein the knight's clamoring for battle is funneled into the knight helping to harvest food from a garden and chop vegetables, as the wise king beats the ogres by feeding them. The book is chock full of verbal and visual jokes, and Frederick-Frost's thick, brushy line sturdily carries the narrative without being overwhelmed by the book's bright colors. The endpapers, which contain brief tutorials on how to draw the characters and funny poses they can get into, were a particular favorite of my daughter, who loved the natural progression from utilitarian suggestions to sheer silliness, like a horse as a space explorer. It's the rare kids' book that goes all-out in an effort to be simply funny, without worrying about anything else.

Science Comics: Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, by MK Reed and Joe Flood. The Reed-Flood team's last collaboration was the character-centered romance The Cute Girl Network. Flood's preferred thing to draw is more in the realm of monsters, which makes this clever and page-turning account of the history of paleontology right in his wheelhouse. Kicking off First Second's Science Comics line, each cartoonist will have the conundrum of just how to present their given subject in a way that draws in younger readers. Reed's solution was to create a narrative based not so much on the history and qualities of dinosaurs (although that's all here as well), but rather on the history of how scientists (as well as grifters, hucksters and thieves) have understood and classified dinosaurs. Reed focuses on the colorful personalities that populated the world of paleontology in the early days, like amateur fossil collector Mary Anning (who did not receive the credit due her), arch-rivals Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen (the latter of whom sought to discredit the former in academia), and arch-rivals Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope (whose field teams threw rocks at each other).

Reed didn't separate the book into chapters per se, but rather reset things based on the changing nature of scientific paradigms. Starting off in 1800, for example, it is considered to be a fact that the earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs perished in the Great Flood, and there are no examples of them today. Every reset changed those assumptions dramatically, as science not only became more sophisticated but also started to admit to the ways in which new evidence can shatter old paradigms. Amusingly, that was backed up when Reed wrote a chapter that noted how the brontosaurus never really existed, only to have to add an endnote that said that the bronto's existence had been proven. Flood went to town drawing double-page splashes with dinosaurs but was equally up to the task of drawing historical figures. Reed keeps the narrative going with an arsenal of fascinating anecdotes, both about dinosaurs and the people who discovered their fossils. She even manages to explain some of the basics of geology along the way, thanks to her wit. While there are the occasional funny asides, Reed doesn't overdo and trusts in the narrative. Starting off a series about science that demonstrates how science is actually carried out was a smart move, as the clash between staying true to the scientific method and the human need for certainty is key to understanding paradigm shifts and the ways in which human bias can affect knowledge.

Science Comics: Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, by Maris Wicks. Wicks had a taller order than Reed in talking about the science of coral reefs. Without a narrative to latch onto (other than the ecological one that essentially amounts to "Recycle and ride your bike!"), Wicks was essentially reduced to narrating a slightly whimsical nature documentary. The essence of that documentary was that despite coral reefs occupying a tiny portion of the earth, they are home to a majority of the earth's biodiversity. Once that point is made, she goes into a basic biological explication of the various phyla that can be found in and around coral reefs, all narrated by a fish wearing glasses. It's page after page of slightly cartoony drawings of sea life with amusing asides, scatological jokes and witticisms from the creatures themselves. The book picks up again when it gets into facts about the water cycle and ecological concerns, which is presented earnestly but without preaching. It's simply a matter-of-fact presentation of facts, one that presupposes a great deal of faith in the reader to do the right thing. A bit more restraint on forcing jokes might have made this a smoother read, though as I noted earlier Wicks was in a tough spot and relied on her storytelling instincts to work her way out of it. It's just that at around 120 pages, the book simply flagged once she started rattling off different species and felt padded.

Friday, July 22, 2016

First Second: Drew Weing

From the beginning of his career about fifteen years ago after he graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Drew Weing stood out from other cartoonists in his age range thanks to his remarkable versatility and skill. He did a couple of years' worth of a diary comic to hone his chops, did some interesting early webcomics experiments (Pup), and had a densely-hatched book published by Fantagraphics (Set To Sea). He co-wrote a kids' book with his wife Eleanor Davis (Flop To The Top) and helped her with her own YA book, The Secret Science Alliance. Despite his facility with the web, Weing is a throwback in many other respects. Fifty years ago, he would have likely been a syndicated daily cartoonist. His art takes its cues more from classic strip cartooning than modern superhero or even alt-comics. He has superb chops as a draftsman but is a cartoonist first and foremost, focusing on character design, body language, and gesture above all else.

His first book for First Second, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, is a set-up for a series told in episodic fashion. A young boy named Charles moves to a big city that feels like a cross between New York and San Francisco called Echo City with his family. He learns that his family is moving into a nearly century-old building that his father is fixing up. Weing takes up about fifteen pages carefully establishing the character as skeptical of the whole enterprise and annoyed with his gently needling parents who constantly try to push him into doing new, weird things and encourage him to get rid of some of his stuff. Weing then gives the reader one last piece of information before really starting the story: Charles is a blogger who fancies himself a reporter on "the frontlines of the battle for kids' rights." The agency of children is a key theme throughout the book, especially as the stage for kids being forced to deal with a strange world on their own becomes a dramatic plot point.

When Charles sees a huge monster at his bedside as he tried to go to sleep and his father offered him a "magic wristwatch" for protection, that was a sign that Charles was on his own. From there, Weing expands the cast a bit by introducing Kevin, a fellow kid from the building who mixes eccentricities (he constantly tries to set weird world records) with plot-device usefulness. When Kevin gives him a card for a "monster mediator" named Margo Maloo, that's when the book really takes off. Margo's presence as a hyper-competent, knowledgeable but enigmatic expert is perfectly set off by Charles' role as a stand-in for the reader, and the ideal reader at that: someone who is intelligent but knows nothing about the subject at hand.

From there, the book is simply a series of problems that need to be solved with equal emphasis on the "monster" and "mediator" aspects of Margo's job. She's the ultimate kid with agency, armed with knowledge of how things really are, knowledge that's kept hidden from adults. What Weing does especially well is slowly develop the partnership between Margo and Charles. When introduced to the monstrous troll named Marcus who menaced Charles at his bedside, the conflict is eased when both Charles and Marcus realize they have a common interest in a collectible game-toy. The other chapters address an especially annoying ghost that's captured some unruly teens and then take the reader on a tour on the monster underground: a grocery store for monsters, the monster postal system, a favorite monster bar, where monsters like to hide, etc, all in the name of finding a missing baby monster. To be sure, there's much about the book that follows a familiar formula, but Weing's attention to detail, in-depth characterization and overall cleverness as a craftsman makes this book a genre stand-out. Hopefully, there will be future volumes that allow Weing to flesh out his characters and this world a little more.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Foxing Reprints #10: Dawson Walker

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2dcloud: Austin English's Gulag Casual

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. This column closes out the 2dcloud feature.

Austin English is truly a singular cartoonist. While he favors a dense, immersive style that doesn't use negative space in the panels themselves, his style of drawing and his use of color forces the reader to reconsider the rulebook regarding gesture, character design and the ways in which bodies interact in space. To describe his drawings as crude misses the point entirely, because his work isn't a failed attempt at drawing something "normal" or a compensating by overdrawing with a lot of lines for a drawing that didn't look right. Instead, we're seeing shapes and forms entirely from the artist's imagination, and the effect evokes an emotional reaction on page after page, even if the source of that emotion can't be adequately explained. In that respect, English has more in common with painters like Pablo Picasso (warped figures depicting simultaneity of motion and emotions laid bare) or Mark Rothko (with a calculated desire to make color fields evoke certain emotional reactions) than any cartoonist I can think of, with the possible exception of Gary Panter. While Panter's ability as a draftsman is more traditionally refined than English's approach, Panter also clearly approaches his work uninterested in conventional rules and draws to please himself above all else.

The irony of his new collection, Gulag Casual, is that it was clearly pleasurable to draw and mold for English, while at the same time so many of the stories are about being made to feel uncomfortable, even in spaces one once thought were safe. English's comics make the familiar seem strange, the friendly seem threatening and upset notions of stability and sometimes even consensus reality. It's very much a series of stories set in a city, with all of the anxiety that living in a city can bring. Throughout the book, there are unwelcome door-crashers and intruders, people listening in on private conversations and then judging others for the content of their speech, and the particularly unpredictable threat of people who have clearly lost their minds. English taps into the kind of paranoia that someone on drugs might feel, that things are not only no longer safe and familiar, but that the world is starting to actively cave in on you or conspire against you. Everything looks and feels strange as a result.

Consider "A New York Story". This is English's most recent story and the most beautifully drawn, even if the images are warped and odd. Indeed, the image of one character bent over on the sidewalk as he recovers from a verbal thrashing is both funny and disquieting. The story follows someone talking about a person named Melo and then being confronted about what he said by a pair of perfect strangers on the street. That kind of public confrontation in a tight city space is hellish to think about, which is why English zeroes in on that feeling and magnifies it.

"The Disgusting Room", on the other hand, sees English burst free from all restraints as an artist, using paint, fabric, marker, pencil and construction paper to create a narrative of sorts about an expanding series of relationships. This is all about disturbing equilibrium as well as the concept of alienation in tight spaces. The main character seeks to be "good" as she takes on more and more responsibility, only to snap and abandon all of her responsibilities and relationships. It's also a story about mental illness (a running through-line in the book) and its "othering" qualities, both for those who are ill as well as those who are their caretakers.

"My Friend Perry" is all about violations of personal and emotional space as well as the ways in which intimate bonds can be shattered. In it, the main character seeks comfort from his strange and lazy best friend, only to learn that his sister (whom he lives with) has been traumatized by someone breaking into their apartment. This story has English's most expressive figurework, even if his figures resemble lumps and blobs. Despite that visual approach, English draws out fear, anger, affection, paranoia and dread through the ways his figures interact in space as well as his idiosyncratic use of color. "Here I Am" takes that idea of home invasion a step further, as a stranger initially welcomed by a family becomes deranged and threatening, even as English implies that the stranger is imaginary, a metaphor for guilt. Finally, "Freddy's Dead" takes all of that paranoia and strangeness and ratchets them up, as a pair of friends are separated and both wind up hanging around dangerous, unpleasant people they're not sure how to ditch.

The last two stories were done in pencil and hinted, along with the first story, of English starting to slowly refine and gain better control over his style. While "The Disgusting Room" throws the entire visual kitchen sink at the reader with no respite, English starts to focus more on bulbous, warped facial features in his later stories, and there's a strong emotional resonance to them as a result. "A New York Story" also uses negative space in the form of white space around a panel or two on a page, which allowed the story to breathe and encouraged reader identification while still heightening tension. The awkwardness, tenderness, intimacy and tension of human interaction in cramped environments is what English does best, and his evolving approach is only heightening those tendencies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Foxing Reprints #9: Eric Kostiuk Williams

Monday, July 18, 2016

2dcloud: Christopher Adams, Minis from Bongiovanni, Breutzman, Donsker, Miles

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. This column closes out my look at some releases over the past couple of years. 

Strong Eye Contact, by Christopher Adams. One of 2dcloud's virtues as a publisher is their willingness to give emerging artists a platform for unusual and nonintuitive work. Christopher Adams is a perfect example of this, as his work is immersive in a way that's unusual. Instead of demanding that the reader allow a complex page with little negative space to slowly reveal itself to them like many immersive artists, Adams instead offers up variations on narrative that contain a great deal of negative space but focus on quotidian moments and an emotional journey without the anchor of dialogue or narrative captions. Adams walks the line of providing a clear emotional through-line while leaving much of the narrative itself for the reader to decipher. The book is about a stand-up comedian who happens to be African-American; both are interesting choices because Adams seems to be going out of his way to write about someone whose experience is similar to his in some ways and radically different in others. The unnamed comedian is a different race than Adams and specializes in an art that is almost entirely reliant on audience reaction for success. The book's title hints that the story is very much about performance, and the titular "strong eye contact" is a key to a comedian connecting to and engaging with their audience.

The first part of the book alternates between quotidian events in the man's life and abstract patterns that resemble landscapes or wave patterns. The fact that he's a stand-up comic makes the veracity of these events fluid, as some of them seem to be either fodder for stand-up material or Adams' way of getting across a stand-up storytelling comedian. There's one bit where he's in an amusement park with a woman and what appears to be her son, and he winds up accidentally kicking the kid in the face while wearing roller skates. A cameraman in the last panel casts the reality of that sequence into doubt; was this for a TV show? Are the abstract pages reflective of his "real" thought processes, as opposed to the calculated way in which comedy works?

The second section is in scrawled crayon and tells a single story. Compared to the crisp and sharp drawing and coloring of the first section, the second is deliberately jarring as it depicts the comedian playing mini-golf, getting locked out of his car, dealing with the cops and eventually making it home. Adams piles woe after woe on his protagonist, with the use of crayon simplifying the narrative and making it plainer for the reader. The final section is heavily cross-hatched to an almost abstract idea, as the patterns the cross-hatching creates are recognizable as drawings but also have their own plastic identity as a series of interlocking shapes. The section is not so much a narrative as it is a series of stills (photographs? post cards?) that tell a fractured story of travel and adventure. It's yet one level further removed from the reader, as the "strong eye contact" is nonexistent in this section, even if on a meta level it's still about performance. There's a short interview mini that goes with the book, as then co-publisher Justin Skarhus interviews Adams and the two grapple with the book's content and how to promote it. 

Yule Log, by Christopher Adams. Adams goes in a completely different direction here, emphasizing a lush  pencil line in this story about a man hired to be Santa Claus aboard an airplane that then crashes in the mountains. The book is very much about conspicuous and crass consumption, as the private jet features champagne being popped and every luxury imaginable. Adams then uses several pages to get across the awesome and indifferent power of nature, as the man manages to survive the wreck, calling out the names of loved ones (presumably his children) as he crawls through the snow. He passes out when he sees the Northern Lights, only to wake up tied to a Christmas tree that's being towed by a snowmobile. Santa's work is never done, as he sees a small shack and two kids jumping up and down in the distance. The cover, featuring masking tape over rolls of toilet paper, is hilarious, getting at the essence of the conflation of holidays (and human interaction and closeness) and commerce. Adams' pencil work here is unbelievably detailed but lively, as he emphasizes visually arresting events though he notably leaves out the visceral aspects of the crash itself.

The 2dcloud minis are a fascinating mixed bag. How It Happened is an autobio comic by Jason T. Miles that details the first time he went to Fantagraphics co-publisher Eric Reynolds' house. Reynolds is never mentioned by name, but Miles drops enough hints to make it pretty obvious. I've always loved Miles' use of negative space and giving shadows a visceral quality. Miles goes after nervous energy in this comic, as he's trying to stay cool in meeting someone that he clearly admires. The use of text as part of the drawing adds to the slightly claustrophobic nature of the story, which has a funny punchline when he reads a truly disgusting comic that Reynolds did.

Adams' Easter Island features the artist engaging in comics-as-poetry, as he constructs comics "sculptures" on each page, with text horizontally bifurcating the text on each row. Each image is responsive to the nature of being split in half, with each page documenting a memorable moment in time. Mayme Donsker's The Arborist's companion uses single-page photos to create a narrative of a person interacting with a tree: looking at it, sawing a branch off, and essentially doing other things to ponder or prune it. Like many 2dcloud works, it asks the reader to consider wordless art and contextualize it.

Nicholas Breutzman's Harvest is a viscerally drawn, cartoony account of some ranchers gathering calves' testicles and bringing them to a local bar and grill. A bunch of oilmen come in and start a fight (a big mistake), and things only come to a close when the "Rocky Mountain Oysters" are fried up and ready. It's a hilarious, rollicking read that sees Breutzman really cutting loose on the page. Bongiovanni's Cavities and Crevices is visceral in another way, as it addresses the idea of penetration, consent and rape, beginning with a witch who "is lustful but not young". It's about the power of naming things and power dynamics in general. It's unsettling and powerful, and Bongiovanni's spare, scratchy art burns itself into the reader's mind.

Friday, July 15, 2016

2dcloud: Mark Connery and Luke & John Holden

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. Here are some reviews of releases from the past couple of years.

Rudy, by Mark Connery. This collection of minicomics by Canadian cartoonist Connery is like being handed a Rosetta stone of comics influences over the past twenty-five years. Mixing punk culture, zine culture, Dada, old-school comic-strips, philosophy, and correspondence art, Connery created a remarkably coherent emotional and narrative continuity of sorts over twenty-five years' worth of minis, many of which had miniscule distribution. Marc Bell (who edited the book) and Matthew Thurber are examples of artists that Connery obviously influenced, not to mention Ben Jones/Paper Rad. Throughout this at times overwhelming collection, Connery's storytelling is remarkably clear. Despite experimenting with a wide variety of visual approaches over the years, from an almost geometric simplicity a la Chris Ware to densely drawn environments in a Mat Brinkman vein, Connery's page design was quite conventional, preferring to draw on the traditions of newspaper gag strips above all else. I think that simplicity may also have been tied to his unusual distribution methods; some of these comics were copied and placed under the windshields of cars, for example. Like a Jack Chick comic with an entirely different mission, he wanted anyone to be able to pick these comics up and instantly understand its formal qualities, even if its content was baffling and mind-blowing.

The characters in the strip were simply defined, allowing for a variety of approaches in how they interacted. There was Rudy the cat, Ken the fish with legs, Phil the triangle/heart creature, and the awesomely dumb villain Cybernaut. The characters shift and warp shapes, genders and identities. Connery puts pop culture in a blender with strange references and distortions (he was probably the first to do disturbing Family Circus parodies, for example). Connery used classic cut-and-paste collage that reminded me as much as Greg Hill's Principia Discordia as it did a comic book. However, the irresistible readability of his comics reminded me a bit of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, which was once described as harder to not read than to read once you saw it. On the same page with a dumb gag, you might see a literary reference or a chopped-up image. What one must understand about the comics in this book is that they are relentlessly interactive. In addition to giving away a lot of his comics, Connery also published in local newspapers and printed his address in everything he did, inviting correspondence and trades. Connery sought not just an audience, but a like-minded community, and he did it entirely on his own terms.

It helps that Connery is one of the funniest cartoonists ever. On one level, he's a perfectly fine traditional gag cartoonist. He could easily have been a syndicated cartoonist who crafted odd but conventional jokes seven days a week. From that foundation, Connery wrote strips that took an initial premise and diverted it into an existential series of musings and into an absurd, frequently violent and/or sexual punchline. Cartoonish plans of violence and revenge are turned into elaborately-staged campaigns that go on for several pages. Connery creates mythology out of whole cloth but is kind enough to occasionally throw in a silly gag that subverts the seriousness of the story. That's a line he rides the entire time, as his characters do mean and petty things to each other by defying logic and physics in order to do so. Psychedelia is certainly another influence to be found in this book, and Connery is careful to closely hew to rules that characters must follow while at the same time finding ways to subvert those rules in the funniest ways possible. There's a self-awareness among the characters that something is just plain wrong with reality and that they have no control whatsoever over it. The best they can do is go with it and meet each example of dream logic with a dream response.

Examples of the oddness that abounds include Rudy defeating a duck vampire, only to adopt her children that he dubs R.U.D.Y.S: Rude Ugly Duckling Youth. Phil goes to a mall and falls in love with Trudy, the female version of Rudy, only to find out it's Rudy in women's clothing. The gang solves mysteries, gets kidnapped by weirdos and pull pranks on each other. Connery includes scraps of poetry that he scrawlsed on various pages, and they often become part of the story. By confining particular jokes to the original 8-page minicomic, Connery created a tapestry of comic weirdness that allowed for creative connections to appear organically in the collection. What seemed to be a throwaway gag in one mini was later seized upon and run with a future story. Bell's decision to group them by his own aesthetic sensibility rather than chronologically steadies the book from the beginning. While some of the chronology is lost along the way, the characters are mutable enough that it doesn't matter, which allowed Bell to create an unerringly steady flow of silliness. The book is best read in twenty to thirty page bursts in order to cleanse one's palate, but the overall effect is a level of comedic sublimity I've seen in few places.

Detrimental Information, by John & Luke Holden. This is another collection of zines, this time by the Holden Brothers. They've been linked with 2dcloud since the earliest days when all they published was the Good Minnesotan anthology. The collection has a nebulous quality that's not quite prose and not quite comics. The prose is hand-lettered, with big squishy letters that are not filled in. The illustrations are all variations on the monstrous, lumpy, naked little creatures that sometimes actively address the prose and sometimes go off in an entirely different direction. Each chapter has multiple vignettes that generally fall into three categories: stories about growing up, stories about people the Holdens may have met, and stories about working with the mentally disabled. The Holdens have little in the way of a filter, and many of the stories don't exactly put the protagonists in a flattering light. To be sure, this is very much a "point of view" comic that basks in, the essentially grotesque and visceral qualities that life has to offer. It's gross but real, across the board.

There's a hilarious story about being at school and having a police officer come in and explain what he does, only to see it morph into a story where the cop guns down perpetrators. When the teacher takes him to task for the story and showing up drunk, he winds up arresting her in front of the class. Another school story features one of the Holdens (John, I believe) talking about messing with the plumbing in a school bathroom and peeing in the corner as his was of passive-aggressively "evening the score" against a teacher that he hated. The scene where the principal takes them to an assembly and tries to scare them into confessing is also funny, especially since he feels no guilt whatsoever and is unimpressed by the threat of God knowing.

The stories about working with people with different kinds of disabilities were interesting primarily because of how little sympathy Holden displayed. A paraplegic ex-football player who had been nicknamed "The Mutilator" was now helpless as Holden had to remove his stool, gasping for air as he had to be off his ventilator during that period. Holden's takeaway: "I believe a spinal cord injury would benefit many arrogant, aggressive football playing men." There's a story about doing a seventeen-hour shift at a home for the developmentally disabled and simply equating it with being in Hell--only he's an employee there and walking around with a pitchfork. Another story featured a schizophrenic that Holden took out for the day, and how he was alarmed that the man tried to buy a car. Yet another story featured a seemingly benign patient who started choking Holden, wrapping his legs around him in an effort to prevent him from escaping.

This book is about being an outsider, experiencing it personally and experiencing with people even further on the margins than oneself. It addresses abuse and mistreatment with a restrained, even emotionally distant voice--both in terms of things that happened to Holden as well as the abuse he heaped on others. (That includes several stories where John was extremely cruel to his younger brother Luke in some pretty funny ways). It's a book that aims to tell uncomfortable truths about the ways that children treat each other, especially for being different. It tells the same uncomfortable truths about the ways in which adults repeat the behaviors that they've learned and stay in the same kind of power roles. His stories about working with the disabled, rather than trying to make himself look good, are all about the ways in which it can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to interact with those on the far fringes of society. The impatience and lack of empathy displayed in these stories partly came about from what seemed to be years of working the job and having the illusions that he could make a difference in their lives smashed to bits. Like them, and like everyone on the margins in this book, every day is simply about survival and having a sense of humor regarding the chaos of our world. The drawings simply reflect the emotional truth of humanity, which is both ugly and funny (and to our horror, sometimes funny because it is ugly).