Monday, October 24, 2016

Minis: Summer Pierre

I had the pleasure of meeting Summer Pierre at this year's SPX, and she gave me a couple of her minis. I first became aware of her when it was revealed that she was a judge at this year's show, and I wondered how she had escaped my notice considering that her kind of work is right up my alley and I know a lot of people in her circle. Her Paper Pencil Life #4 is a reflective, easy-going account of being an artist, a mother and a person with an inquisitive and open mind. It's difficult sometimes for me to put my finger on what makes a diary comic successful or interesting, but reading Pierre's comics started to make that clear: it's the quality of writing. There is always artifice in doing diary comics, as it is only "true" as far is it describes a certain event at a certain time from one person's perspective. The key is in that artifice to take some risks, to spill some ink and open up a space of vulnerability.

From the very first strip, the clarity of her writing and point of view shines through on the very topic of writing itself. Working from photo reference, she draws a number of female writers at work through the years, imagining herself in the same position. The irony of the strip is that its conclusion talks about how she gave up writing, knowing it would never happen, only to find her voice as a cartoonist. Pierre's usual working style is a Frank Santoro-style 3x3 grid, with elegant flourishes here and there and a penchant for filling up her panels with detail but also giving them just enough breathing room. In a strip where she used a lot of cross-hatching, the narrative captions are in white in order to easy the burden on the reader's eye. In another strip that had more negative white space, she used black captions with white print. Her line is simple, malleable and expressive, reminiscent of Jessica Abel's work. It's also clear that she's looked at John Porcellino's work, as she has a penchant for trying to be in the moment and write & draw about that. Pierre never gets to Porcellino's level of stillness, but it's obviously something she thinks about while her brain is whirring.

There's one interesting strip where she abandoned her naturalistic and expressive style for an Ivan Brunetti-style geometric approach, and it was a fascinating departure because it worked remarkably well. That style was a bit colder than her usual approach, however, and that warmth is key to her overall storytelling aims. Pierre isn't talking at the reader nor keeping them at arm's length; instead, one feels warmly welcomed, as though Pierre was a long-time friend who was catching us up on her life. Even that level of intimacy involves a certain performative aspect, as Pierre often couches her observations in funny stories like being constantly mistaken for Tina Fey. The same is true for "Kiss (Extended)", which is a meditation on the way friendships continue in gifts given--especially the gift of music, because it's a way of quickly accessing old memories. "How I Came To Comics" is another funny story, this time about Pierre's relationship with various arts in the form of anthropomorphic versions of comics, poetry, painting, music and fiction. This is Pierre at her best, her wit showing both in terms of the slightly ratty line and the funny conceptual nature of the strip.

While those are strong strips, I enjoy her quieter, more quotidian strips as well. Pierre's strips about improving her health and fitness, her obsession with coffee (a tired subject to be sure, but one that Pierre acquits herself well on), time spent with her friends, and musing on the town's energy after a big storm. While her son and husband show up quite a bit, they are very much secondary characters, as she prefers to think about her own reactions and feelings rather than delve too much into what they might be thinking. That said, family is something she thinks about a lot, usually in the context of a photo or other object that jogs a memory loose. That really gets at the heart of this comic, which finds Pierre either exploring a memory or desperately trying to stay present enough to hold onto that memory. The final strip more thoroughly explores that idea, as a long drive made mostly in silence finds her thinking about other trips and small kindnesses, as well as how different and better her life is now.

Memory is another key factor in her travel diary Souvenirs, as she points out that that word is French for "memories". Pierre discusses her struggle between trying to stay in the moment and connect with the various friends she was with on her trips to The Hague, Amsterdam and Paris and then later trying to record these memories. That struggle is evident on the page, as her drawing is understandably more rushed and far less confident than her other strips, especially as the book goes on. Her writing feels more scattered and there are fewer clever through-lines, and she finds few hooks in exploring the cities she's in as anything but a tourist (which is something she's trying to avoid). Pierre had trouble finding ways to distill the essence of each place she visited on the page in a meaningful way. What did come across loud and clear, especially in the Paris section, was just how much her friends meant to her. Especially as someone in her forties who doesn't have the benefit of being around old, close friends as much as they would like, that sense of living in a bubble of fun when hanging around them now was both giddy while she was in it and heartbreaking when she had to leave. She and her friend Mindy in Paris bonded mostly over food and simply being in each other's presence, and that got at something a cab driver said later in the book. He and others said that no Parisian is ever happy living there, that it's only a good place to visit. Pierre reflected on that without necessarily drawing any conclusions, but as someone who grew up in a place that depended a great deal on its tourist trade, tourist-oriented activities are almost always invisible to natives. It's impossible to stay present and focus on the beauty of a city like that when the city makes money off its beauty. Pierre asks, "It's still a kind of love, isn't it?" for a tourist to love a city, and it is. But it's not a lasting love; rather, it's a souvenir.

Even in an effort handicapped by illness, jetlag, fatigue and activity, Pierre's intelligence and inquisitive mind is on display. She's not afraid to to ask questions for which there are no immediate answers. There's a remarkable comfort in her drawing style, which mixes solid chops and excellent storytelling. In the ideal Pierre comic, everything moves at its own, languid pace, giving her the time and space to reflect both on the moment and the memories it triggers. Pierre certainly puts the lie to the notion that not having a traumatic life can make autobio boring, because she's making observations that anyone can relate to, even if their lives are nowhere near as comfortable as hers. Pierre's ability to write multipage stories does lead me to wonder if she's got the itch to do a longer narrative focusing on some key memories in her life; given her way of weaving themes in and out of her stories, I imagine it could be quite successful.

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