Wednesday, August 31, 2016

NoBrow: Jen Lee, Bianca Bagnarelli

Vacancy, by Jen Lee. This is one of NoBrow's "17x23" line, a sort of deluxe mini-comic, complete with French flaps. Because it's a NoBrow book, color is the most important aspect of its aesthetic, using a bright and warm palette draw the reader in and quickly differentiate characters. Lee uses a fairly uniform and thin line weight in order to emphasize not just color, but also gesture, body language and the ways the characters relate to each other in space and from different perspective. There's one panel (above, second page, panel 3) where the visual field of the protagonist goes from eye level to looking straight up, and Lee orients the reader partly threw the use of a light green sky's negative space. That allows her to frame the panel with the back of the dog's head at the bottom of the panel and the top of the deer's head at the top, creating a pleasingly balanced composition. Note that in the last panel on the page, when the deer is crashing through the fence, that Lee switches the background color from light green to white, in an effort to really draw the reader's eye to the action with a starker choice for negative space.

The story involves a house dog who's been abandoned, hoping every day that his people will join him but also feeling the pull of the wild. When a deer and raccoon happen by, he begs them to take him along and teach him the ways of the forest. The obnoxious raccoon constantly leads the dog astray, while the good-natured deer has nothing but bad advice. Of course, when a pack of coyotes comes to prey on them, it's the dog's familiarity with home turf that winds up saving the day. Lee cleverly informs the reader of exactly why the dog was abandoned in a chillingly casual way and reinforces it as we see abandoned house after abandoned house. The anthropomorphic animals pause at the end as they take up residence in the dog's house, looking at their human-appearing shadows, understanding that they're truly the ones who are living in the house and the suburb. Lee's character design is sort of like a cuter Michael DeForge, but still containing a hint of danger and visceral animal behavior.

Fish, by Bianca Bagnarelli. This is in the same format as Vacancy and is similarly dependent on colors to push forward its narrative, but in an entirely different way. The dominant colors here are light purples, pinks and oranges, all of which have an almost sickly tint. That's fitting for a comic that features a teen named Milo who is in the process of trying to deal with the deaths of his parents. Handling grief as an adult is difficult enough, but for a teen who's already trying to deal with hormones and exaggerated emotions, it's almost impossible to wrap one's head around it. Different people will cope in different ways, and for Milo, it's musing on the fragility of life on a visceral level. That is, what is keeping our very organs from bursting forth? When he's ridiculed by his cousin, Milo attacks him. There's a great dinner scene where everywhere Milo turns, his eye turns toward death or decay: wilting flowers, the visceral quality of the food and even lingering on his aging grandfather. The book's climax comes when he's faced with the dead body of a girl who had gone missing and he reacts by vomiting. It's a cathartic moment though not a comforting one, as he gets confirmation that we really are all just meat and that our illusion of control is just that--an illusion. That said, when his grandfather picks him up at the end, there's a moment of comfort, as his aging grandfather is still alive and still capable of being there for him. The sickly hues are key to understanding Milo's view of the world: not so much a dark and gloomy one, but rather one where the veneer of reality conceals that we are all potentially sick and beginning to rot. Like the titular fish, we're either meat or predator, depending on circumstance. Milo understanding this fact and starting to accept it demonstrated that he was on his way to actually processing his grief.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Koyama: Ben Sears, Alex Schubert

Blobby Boys Two, by Alex Schubert. Frank Santoro really nailed it in this slim collection of Blobby Boys comics, in that Schubert's aesthetic resembles that of a crude video game, with weird bits of debris and unused artifacts hanging flatly in the background. There are certainly cartoons and other comics that have come along since Schubert debuted his strange characters that use the same kind of "attitude" and shock value, but few can match the intelligence and care that Schubert packs into each panel of his comics. Everything in Schubert's comics is flat: the characters, the colors, and certainly everyone's emotions. He rides the line between having his green, alien, stoner hipster title characters ride roughshod over their environment with no repercussions like Evan Dorkin's Milk & Cheese and having them constantly dealing with their feelings like Simon Hanselmann's characters. That was seen in a strip where a big fan of the Blobby Boys band joined the group, only to get terrorized by the actions of the band in a number of hilarious scenes. The more deadpan the strip became, the more Schubert could get away with.

Even better than the Blobby Boys strips was the Fashion Cat epic. This ridiculous character is every fashion model cliche' rolled into one, as he goes from hyper-aggressive and arrogant in one moment to hyper-insecure the next. That whiplash effect is used repeatedly throughout the story, like when he pours out his heart to a flight attendant in one beat and then asks her if she's "trying to suck my cat dick" in the next--and then tells her to get out of his face when she says no. Schubert has a knack for drawing humor from the most entitled and abusive of characters, getting laughs from their over-the-top actions while understanding that their position means that they will never get a real comeuppance. If the Blobby Boys are a sort of nihilistic set of punchlines, then Fashion Cat represents the ways in which outrageous privilege conveys a similar set of reality-warping values, where every whim can be indulged and the possibility of meaning becomes ever more elusive. Schubert's comics are great because they work both as visceral, transgressive gags and deadpan satire.

Night Air, by Ben Sears. This is a breezy little sci-fi/fantasy/humor romp about a young guy named Plus Man and his robot friend. Sears' overall aesthetic is sort of like if Farel Dalrymple's comics were a lot more light-hearted, as they share a similar, subtle palette as well as a vivid imagination. Plotwise, Night Air is as boilerplate as it gets: a young rogue escapes those he swindled at a card game and then gets drawn into trying to find treasure at a castle. He gets overconfident at the castle and winds up imprisoned. While the tropes are all familiar, Sears makes this comic entertaining but slightly warping those stale story elements with gags that aren't quite as self-reflexive as the sort of thing that Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar do in Dungeon, but they're wacky enough to draw laughs and subvert reader expectations. For example, the evil master of the dungeon wanted to capture heroes for the purpose of having enough attractions to open up his castle as a haunted house. There's also the fun of Plus Man actually being kind of dumb and making rash decisions, and encountering allies like a severed floating hand, a shrunken head and a haunted typewriter. Sears clearly doesn't take anything in the book very seriously, with the exception of the actual aesthetics of his story. Sears certainly has the goods with regard to his drawing chops, his page design and character design. I founding myself wanting a more substantive story despite enjoying what I had read, given his obvious talent. At 56 pages (and with some pin-ups in the back to fill up some space), this felt like a teaser of Sears' talent, and I'd love to see him build up a more substantive world with characters who are better defined.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Koyama: Ryan Dodgson, John Martz

Laurels of Xenon, by Ryan Dodgson. Though the title suggests some kind of sci-fi story, this is a book of meditative color drawings. The artist notes in a preface that they were done away from a city setting and were purposeful meditations on "memory, consciousness, depression and anxiety". I engaged each page of colorforms and quickly saw that that way the shapes were arranged (indeed, the fact that they were arranged in a particular way to create cohesive shapes) and in particular the ways in which the colors interacted had a powerful emotional effect. Like a Mark Rothko painting, the colors don't necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence with particular emotions, nor do the shapes and forms have reified meanings. The shapes are frequently unbalanced but still represent a harmonically defined structure. The way the the lines of color work together in parallel and slip in and out of each other in some of the pieces feels like a smoothly-working pattern at work, a beneficent system of some kind. More rigid shapes feel more oppressive somehow, especially when they don't all interact with each other. It paid off to look at each piece as a whole and then break it down shape by shape. Using this kind of hermeneutic approach had a powerful emotional effect for reasons I can't quite articulate, beyond the actual aesthetic experience itself. It had something to do with the ways in which the colors interacted, forming some kind of feedback loop that mixed grief and joy in equal measures. What makes the most sense to say about these pieces is that they all seem to be tools created by the artist for his own use, and in so doing he left their utility, beauty and function up to each individual reader.

Burt's Way Home, by John Martz. Martz is great at writing children's books that don't insult the intelligence of their readers, he's proficient at creating funny gags, and he's always good with a twist. This sweet and sad story is a cleverly framed and humane look at unthinkable loss. It follows young Burt, an anthropomorphic bird who's lost both of his parents to an accident, as he's sent to live with an anthropomorphic mouse named Lydia. Burt processes their deaths by believing with all his heart that he and his parents were in fact actually time-travelling aliens, and that he had to find a way to get home. His process of trying to find ways to get home and "rebuild" his technology reminded me a bit of what Lewis Trondheim did in Astronauts of the Future, only in that case the fantasy turned out to be incontrovertibly true. While Martz does leave a tiny bit of hope in this story, the truth can be found in the narrative from Lydia's point of view: that she can't imagine Burt's pain, she wishes she could help, and she would do anything to comfort him. In the book's climax, what's important is that Burt expresses some of his emotions to Lydia and understands for the first time what home means to him now. What makes the book so heartbreaking and emotionally authentic is the detail Martz spends on Burt's plan, as he cannibalizes a bunch of household electronic appliances in order to make his gadget. Every aspect of Burt's plan is carried out in his own spoken narrative with word balloons, whereas Lydia's narrative is printed on the face following each image, indicating a level of distance and perspective she has about what's going on. Martz's combination of clever storytelling and empathy for his characters makes his comics consistently winning.

Friday, August 26, 2016

D&Q: Gilbert Hernandez

The only person who is Gilbert Hernandez's equal in accurately representing the ways in which children think, speak and act is his brother Jaime. The feeling that Gilbert creates is different from his brother's; it's more Charles Schulz than Hank Ketcham at times. The characters are a little sadder and a little meaner, and the world makes a bit less sense. His semi-autobiographical Marble Season depicted a sort of Kingdom of Summer ruled by the experiences of kids, for good and ill. The sense of wonder and awe with regard to small details was mixed with dread and pain regarding other areas of life, but the mythos of childhood was intact all along, with the numbing realities of adulthood not yet creeping in. His character design is magnificent, with the use of gesture and body language at the center of his storytelling. Keeping certain poses, like the lead character with his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, provides not only continuity but a key to understanding the true emotional states of his characters.

His second book for D&Q, Bumperhead, starts once again with the wonder and weirdness of childhood but this time keeps going all the way into old age, following a boy name Bobby and his friends through the prism of music and the ways in which identities tend to become wrapped up in scenes. Once again, this book has autobiographical elements, as Bobby is approximately the same age as Gilbert and listened to the same kind of music, but Hernandez throws in a number of quirks. Never afraid to throw in a bit of magical realism, there's a running gag in the story that warps the reader's perception as to when the story is set. That's because when we meet young Bobby, his friend has an iPad and promises to show him dirty images of the Pope. When the reader suddenly understands that the book shifts to the sixties and seventies, the iPad is suddenly referred to as the "magical predicting machine" and eventually dismissed as merely a child's toy. It's a great gag designed to unsettle the reader out of certain assumptions as well as subverting certain children's lit tropes that set stories in Anytime, Anytown, USA.

Bobby, cruelly nicknamed "Bumperhead" by some bullies who later become his friends because of his huge forehead, is a child not unlike his mother in that he's one extreme or other. He's either grimly pensive with a flatness of affect and energy or else finds ways to crank himself up to extremes. His father doesn't speak English all that well and pretty much runs out on his son the minute he's old enough to take care of himself on the pretext of having business to take care of in Mexico, leading to a life of isolation and disconnection alternating with a desperate desire to find a scene to fit into. That search leads to him identifying with various musical scenes, as he devours rock, pop and glam before settling into early punk. Punk rock was obviously very important to Hernandez himself and one can see how the punk ethos invigorated Bobby in the comic. There is an amazing page with four horizontal panels as Bobby is watching a punk band play and his eyes are wide as saucers with an expression that's beyond joy, beyond excited. It's like he's been electrified with so much juice he can barely control himself, and the dialog reads "I am alive again. No, I am fucking alive again."

The book does not end on that high point, however. It's more of a temporary jolt for a character whose detached nature leads him to ignore his own health throughout the book, as his weight see-saws thanks to habits like speed and alcohol. Bobby gets in a relationship but doesn't find it nearly as simple as his high school relationships, and it in fact comes to a head in paranoia and anger on her part. The joy of the creative possibilities of punk are muted by his lack of ambition and creative outlets; he's a walking example of the dangers of being part of a scene and then finding the scene changing into something one doesn't recognize. When his father returns from Mexico and reveals that he started a second family, it becomes a focal point for Bobby's incoherent rage. It's a rage that's as self-directed and existential as it as against his father. It's a rage against life.

Just as Hernandez doesn't end the book on the climax of discovering punk rock, he doesn't end it on that note either. Instead, Bobby simply gets older and finds it harder and harder to tap into that kind of anger. Walking with a cane after having a couple of heart attacks, old age is simply about acceptance. Even when he confronts his father on a daily basis, it's almost a routine by this point. He knows what answers he will get and isn't prepared for anything else. Music, Bobby's identity nexus in the other chapters, is hardly mentioned in the final chapter. Music for Bobby was a way of expressing things he couldn't say, giving himself a voice he couldn't otherwise articulate. In old age, he found himself needing to express himself and his anger less and less, and so did music fall by the wayside--with the sole exception of hating on the jazz music of someone he'd known and despised for years. Though unspoken, that conflict said a lot about Bobby. He hated his rival's garage music and later jazz stylings, in part because he saw them as technique unattached to real expression. His rival hated punk because he saw it as posing without talent and saw non-musician Bobby purely as a scenester. It points directly to the difference between Bobby and Hernandez himself, as Gilbert was part of a scene but was inspired by its DIY ethos to actually put in the effort to create something. Punk is not about not working hard, but rather it's about working hard on something you care about and finding ways to get it out there as directly as possible. Bumperhead is a meditation on a number of roads not taken and a number of paths that Hernandez no doubt so arrayed ahead of him. With the benefit of hindsight, Hernandez is not too cruel to Bobby, because he could have been a version of Bobby. Bobby made a lot of bad choices (when he wasn't drifting along), which Hernandez emphasizes doesn't make him a bad person. In the end, it makes him a human being, no better or worse than those people he grew up with.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Announcing The AAEC and Satire Festival in Durham!

I will be attending and covering many of these events. Come on out!

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DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University and the Association of American Editorial 
Cartoonists (AAEC) will jointly host a political satire festival on 
Duke’s campus Sept. 22-24.

The three-day festival will feature panel discussions, screenings, 
student-cartoonist improv and sketch comedy performances, art 
exhibitions and more. Several of these events are free and open to the 

One topical issue to be explored is "Bathroom Humor: National 
Cartoonists Take on HB2." This will include a collection of visual 
commentary on sexual identity, gender stereotyping, the right to privacy 
and the appropriateness and practicality of government intervention in 
such matters. The collections will be shown at Horse & Buggy Press in 
downtown Durham from Aug. 19-Sep. 25 and in Duke’s Bryan Center from 
Sept. 20-25. There will also be an HB2 panel discussion with editorial 
cartoonists at 2 p.m. Sept. 23 in Reynolds Theater in Duke’s Bryan Center.

There will also be live cartooning on the Bryan Center Plaza from 
12:30-2 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23.

Two featured evening performances will take place in Page Auditorium and 
tickets are required. They are:

— Sketchy Comedy!, Thursday, Sept. 22, 8-9:30 p.m. Live sketch comedy 
and cartooning performances at Duke’s Page Auditorium. Hosted by Duke 
improv group “The Inside Joke,” the show will feature editorial 
cartoonists performing on stage while meeting deadlines. Cost: $10.

— An Evening with The Simpsons, Friday, Sept. 23, 7:30-9 p.m. Writers, 
directors and producers of the long-running TV show will share their 
stories and insights from their special contribution to American humor. 
Cost: $15.

Visit the Duke Box Office at or call (919) 684-4444 to 
purchase tickets.

The Duke Political Cartoon and Satire Festival is jointly sponsored by 
the AAEC; POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and 
Service; the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy; and the 
Sanford School of Public Policy.

A complete schedule can be found at Here are the 


Unless otherwise noted, all events will take place in Reynolds 
Auditorium in the Bryan University Center. All panels and presentations 
on campus during the day are free and open to the public.

Panel: “Making Satire Great Again”
—Discussing the challenges, joys, and oddities of covering the first 
celebrity billionaire nominee and the first female nominee. Featuring 
Pulitzer winners Jack Ohman, David Horsey and friends.

Panel: “Likes, Loves and Lynch Mobs: Cartooning in the digital world of 
social media”
—Ann Telnaes and Joel Pett, among others, will share their experiences 
of viral cartoon controversies and death threats from the past year.

Live cartooning on the Bryan Center Plaza.
—Join Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher and other cartoonists as they draw in the wild.

Panel: “Cartoons and Cops”
—Cartooning on the #blacklivesmatter movement and the issues of police 
brutality, race and social justice. Featuring provocative cartoonists 
Keith Knight and Darrin Bell, and other guests.

Panel: “Finding the Elephant’s Funny Bone”
—Busting the myth that there is a humor gap among Republicans. Featuring 
some of the nation’s funniest conservative cartoonists.

Sketchy Comedy!
—Come to Duke’s Page Auditorium to see an exciting night of live sketch 
comedy and cartooning performances. Hosted by Duke University’s comedy 
troupe Inside Joke and improv group DUI, the show will feature your 
cartooning colleagues performing on stage meeting deadlines! Ticketed event.


Panel: “Small Hands and Big Hair”
—Dive into the art of political illustration and caricature in this 
crazy election year. Come and get inspired by a panel of nationally 
renowned illustrators and artists Victor Juhasz, Steve Brodner and Tom 

Live cartooning on the Bryan Center Plaza.
—Join Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher and other cartoonists as they draw in the wild.

Panel: “Bathroom Banter”
—A hard look at both sides of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy, 
co-sponsored by the NC Humanities Council. Featuring the Charlotte 
Observers' Kevin Siers, with coordinating HB2 cartoon show in the lobby 
of the Bryan University Center.

Panel: “International Ink”
—Cartoonists GADO of Kenya, MK Perker of Turkey and Rod Emmerson of New 
Zealand discuss the challenges of being a visual satirist in today’s 
uncertain world.

Night of The Simpsons: A Celebration of Satire
— A team of directors, producers and writers from The Simpsons come to 
Page Auditorium. Caroline Omine, Jeff Westbrook, and Stewart Burns will 
share clips, discuss stories and provide insights from the longest 
running show on TV. Ticketed event.


Panel: “Facts and Comedy”
—Moderator Bill Adair will guide an engaging talk in White Lecture Hall 
with Adam Chodikoff, Senior Producer of The Daily Show; Naureen Kahn, 
Lead Researcher at Full Frontal with Samantha Bee; and Ishan Thakore, 
Fact-Checker, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Free and open to the public.

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In addition, the following exhibits are part of the 2016 Political 
Cartoon & Satire Festival, from August until October. All are free and 
open to the public.

"Dwane Powell: The Art of Politics
40 Years of Editorial Cartoons & Then Some"
Power Plant Gallery, American Tobacco Campus, Durham
September 13 – October 8

Cartoonist Dwane Powell has been a stalwart presence in the pages of The 
News & Observer from the late 1970s until today. This career 
retrospective encompasses the high (and low) points of a changing North 
Carolina, and takes a snarky, ink-stained look at the Tarheel state and 
beyond. From Jesse Helms to Pat McCrory, gun control to HB2, this 
exhibit is a perfect run up to this year's Presidential Election. "Dwane 
Powell: The Art of Politics" is part of the 2016 Political Cartoon and 
Satire Festival at Duke University, Sept. 22-24, and includes an 
artist's talk on Friday, Sept. 16.

Third Friday reception with Artist Talk at 6:30pm.

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Bathroom Humor: National Cartoonists Take on HB2 [2 locations!]
Horse & Buggy Press, Durham
August 19 – September 25

When Gov. McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law in March 2016, North 
Carolina was plunged into a swirling political and social maelstrom. The 
legal and economic effects of the so-called “bathroom bill” have 
reverberated across the state and nation ever since, and the controversy 
has provided ripe material for the country’s editorial cartoonists. The 
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists presents "Bathroom Humor," 
a collection of visual commentary on sexual identity, gender 
stereotyping, the right to privacy, women’s safety, and the practicality 
of government intervention in personal matters. The show, curated by 
Indy Week cartoonist Cullum Rogers, will be on display at two locations: 
Horse & Buggy Press in downtown Durham, Aug. 19-Sept. 25, and also on 
the campus of Duke University at the Bryan Center, Sept. 20-25.

Horse & Buggy Press, 401–B Foster St., Durham • • 

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"How I Learned to Draw: Cartoons from Five Decades by V.C. Rogers"
Horse & Buggy Press, Durham
August 27 – September 30

Long-time readers of various Triangle newspapers are familiar with the 
loose style and dry wit of cartoonist Cullum Rogers. Under the signature 
V.C. Rogers, he has been skewering politicians since the mid-1970s. The 
retrospective at Horse & Buggy Press traces Rogers' artistic growth from 
rank amateurism to near-competence through a selection of political 
cartoons from the Durham Morning Herald, the Spectator, the Independent 
Weekly and other publications. Rogers, a two-time winner of the 
Association of Alternative Newsmedia's award for cartooning, is also the 
co-host of the upcoming 2016 Political Cartoon and Satire Festival at 
Duke University, September 21-24.

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"THIS CAMPAIGN IS YUUUGE!: Cartoonists Tackle the 2016 Presidential Race"
Rubenstein Hall, Duke University
September – October 2016

On loan from the Tooneum in Pittsburgh, PA, "THIS CAMPAIGN IS YUUUGE!: 
Cartoonists Tackle the 2016 Presidential Race" is a collection of the 
best election year cartoons by American political cartoonists whose work 
regularly appears in major daily newspapers and online. The show 
features more than 50 original cartoons, prints and sketches on this 
year’s race for president, including work by Jack Ohman, Signe 
Wilkinson, Joel Pett, Matt Wuerker, Ann Telnaes, Matt Davies, Steve Sack 
and many more. The exhibit will be on display on the ground floor of 
Rubenstein Hall during office hours during the Political Cartoon and 
Satire Festival, and will remain up until sometime before election day.