Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Minis: The Yeah Dude Comics Box

Philadelphia's Pat Aulisio has been steadily publishing his own work as well as the work of others for quite a while. The beautifully constructed cardboard box that houses the Yeah Dude Comics mini-sampler is quite the attention-getter for a variety of comics. Aulisio essentially constructed a portable mini-library for these comics.

Most of them are very short and raw. Going in order of the table of contents, Josh Bayer leads off with Hot Desert Fever. It's one of his riffs on Sylvester Stallone and Stan Lee, as he imagines Stallone desperately wanting to write comic books like Lee. The resulting Human Torch story is a classic Bayer parody: altered character design (the Torch wears a helmet and carries a gas can), scatological humor, and visceral violence. Bayer's ability to fully inhabit the minds of these hyper-masculine, ridiculous characters and somehow make them come alive on the page is one of his greatest talents. Even in a story as absurd as this one, where Stallone has a butler that he names as Jarvis or Alfred, depending on the panel, and where he grows a tiny version of himself as Rocky to give him advice and encouragement, Bayer's always working within an internal set of logical rules.

Ian Harker's Face Force is a parody of 90s era Image Comics, with Rob Liefeld in particular being a touchstone. Nothing much actually happens in this comic, which makes it a particularly apt satire. McDonald's National Cemetary (sic), by Michael Gerkovich, is a series of strange images and clip art surrounding the idea of McDonald's going back to ancient Egypt, and to imagine what one would find if a site was excavated. Some of them riff off McDonald's iconography, like a Hamburglar looking through a telescope or a pharaoh having Ronald McDonald makeup on. The actual images match the meaningless absurdity of the concept itself, and Gerkovich gleefully runs with it. Josh Burggraf's International Geographic cleverly takes the you-are-there anthropological premise of the source material it's parodying with similar shots of nature, candid shots of "native" life, and the rituals from an alien world that are as baffling to the reader here as indigenous societies are to western societies. Burggraf's skill as an illustrator sells the joke, which is short enough to not outstay its welcome.        
Aulisio's Diabolik! is a parody of the Italian anti-hero, and he nails the way the narrative in the comic spells everything out. Getting pushed aside by his girlfriend Eva was also amusing in the way he puts everything in annoyingly modern speech patterns. The use of shadows and effects like zip-a-tone also made it reminiscent of its source material. Tara Booth's Daily Routine reminded me a lot of Jerry Smith's Rattletrap: extremely crudely-drawn comics, printed at tiny size, that hilariously and disgustingly address quotidian issues. Booth holds absolutely nothing back, like an early strip where she's over at a friends' place, falls asleep on her couch and accidentally urinates on it while asleep. When she wakes up, she leaves as fast as possible, as the caption "Run away from pee couch" indicated with a combination of shame and glee. Booth isn't afraid to get absurd or exaggerated, like in her strip where her face resembles two eggs and bacon, another where her dog licked her face off, and a truly disgusting entry where she gives birth to a "food baby". The cheery wave the food baby gives is what puts the strip over the top. There's an essential sweetness to these strips despite the frequently disgusting and scatological subject matter, and that sweetness ties in to her willingness to confront issues that normally are couched in terms of shame. She forgives herself and allows herself to be human, and that shines on every scrawled page.

Issue one of Box Brown's Softcore is something I have reviewed elsewhere, Skuds McKinley's Korgok is straight-up, visceral sword-and-sorcery. After an epic-establishing introduction, the actual comic is all highly-detailed violence. Keenan Marshall Keller's The Goiter #1 is another standout in this collection. Keller's work is not unlike Ben Marra's in that he uses hyperviolent and exaggerated situations for humorous intent, only that humor is bone-dry and at times indistinguishable from the actual genre comics and movies that he is paying homage to. In this case, Keller starts out doing a story about stoners and transforms it into a supernatural/horror story, as a young man who's working for an elderly woman hears a voice coming from the enormous tumor on her head. Keller leaves open the possibility that the young man is insane & hallucinating, which makes the scene where he "frees" the tumor by cutting it off, leaving her body spurting blood, all the more disturbing (and yet hilarious because of its ridiculous nature). Keller goes over the top in his figure work, deliberately overdrawing and cluttering up his page in an effort to keep the reader off-balance.

Finally, Erika Davidson's enigmatic Hadaka is a dreamy, surreal version of the Japanese festival where a minimal amount of clothing is worn. All the figures here are women, as they walk into rooms filled with or filled up by various women's erogenous zones. It's a brief mini whose mission seems to have been getting down those images on paper, of putting something that came from dream logic and fantasy and making it partially tangible. Thomas Toye's Entering A Room Full Of People is another visceral horror story, this time involving a frightening, serpentine home intruder who encounters a voracious plant that has killed the family living in the home. This almost entirely silent comic is typical of the works found in this box: rough, visceral, iconoclastic, visually distinctive, uncompromising and entertaining. The actual quality of each comic varies, as does its ability to sustain interest after a single read, but this was a great sample of a particular kind of comics aesthetic that a number of artists are currently pursuing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

mini-Kus! Of The Week #6: Mikkel Sommer, Theo Ellsworth, Lai Tat Tat Wing

The weekly mini-Kus! column will take a hiatus during December, since that will be devoted entirely to the Center for Cartoon Studies, and will pick up again in January.

mini-Kus! #34: Limonchik, by Mikkel Sommer. This is a reimagining of the story of Laika, the first dog in space on Sputnik-2. Of course, Laika met a grim fate in space, dying in her capsule from overheating mere hours into her flight. Her journey was a propaganda victory for the Soviets, even if the true nature of her fate wasn't revealed until years later. In this mini, Sommer imagines something different: Laika's craft crashing to earth years later, only the dog was not only alive, but was floating around after gaining vast powers. Using a soft, muted palette and a very cute character design, Sommer turns on a dime as the dog's eyes begin to glow and it systematically destroys the entire planet. It's a revenge story, to be sure, but one almost gets the sense that Laika was more of an exterminator, preventing the plague of humanity from ever spreading. There was little anger in the dog, as she even forgave the man who put her in the spacecraft in the comic's only line of dialogue. She simply went about her business in that single-minded way that dogs possess.

mini-Kus! #35: Birthday, by Theo Ellsworth. Many of Ellworth's comics are about rituals, siege perilous moments, rites of passage and other activities designed to give wisdom through extreme experiences. This mini is no different, as we are told the very nervous protagonist is about to undergo something called the Inner-Space Birth Ritual. Anyone familiar with Ellsworth's work knows that he almost obsessively never leaves any negative space on his pages. Everything is filled up with intense color, detailed patterns, dense cross-hatching, etc. It's Ellsworth's way of completely submerging the reader into his world, forcing them to address the images they see on their own terms rather than simply waiting to be led around by a conventional narrative. That said, Ellsworth's comics are not incoherent; rather, they have their own internal sense of logic driven by human understanding of rituals and quests, and that is certainly the case for this short story. The hero signs some kind of waiver and consents to sit in an ornately decorated chair in order to have a special helmet placed atop his head. Another Ellsworth specialty is the juxtaposition of the inner world and the outer world, and in this comic, we see the man sitting in the chair with images flashing across the helmet. In his mind, he's going down a terrifying slide to an unknown destination until very slowly, he begins to regress back to his birth state: warm, safe, comfortable and nurtured. Even a cake is presented to commemorate the event. All of Ellsworth's comics mix that sense of the harrowing and frightening with the possibility of enlightenment and peace at the end of an ordeal, and he does it with an almost rococo sense of design. It's as though the design and decorative aspects of the comic are indistinguishable from the structure and even the narrative he creates.

mini-Kus! #36: Pages to Pages, by Lai Tat Tat Wing. Speaking of looking to the structure and meta qualities of comics as lines on paper, Lai's comic is like if Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics had somehow been crossed with the same artist's Destroy! In a city where every building's windows are panels and the otherwise faceless and indistinct main characters (one pink, one blue) have either lines or panels on their faces, an argument emerges between analog vs digital. The blue person buys a tablet that enables them to do all sorts of interesting digital drawing, but the pink person is openly disdainful, as they're all about the printed page. The blue character turns into a monstrous supervillain with oversized hands that have the ability to swipe and alter reality, including killing innocents by moving around panels, opening up huge holes in the street, etc. The pink character merges with their comic book and becomes muscled, using the comic as a cape to confront their former friend. Eventually, the two return to normal even as crowds gather and capture them with their phones. It's a very funny take on being the observer/recorder, being the observed and the ways in which different levels of technology create different relationships with the world. When an artist is drawing the fight, they gather a crowd as they watch them draw on a pad of paper--until the attention of the crowd drives them to run away! Lai's understanding of American superhero tropes is spot-on, even as he subverts and pushes the form in interesting ways. That's especially true of the end, which doesn't have the big finale that solves the problem, but rather the story's denouement is where the capacity for creation, observation and distribution all come together as theory and practice unite.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Conundrum Press: Blackbird

Conundrum International is publisher Andy Brown's imprint where he collects or reprints comics from cartoonists around the world. A particularly fertile source for him is Belgium's L'Employe' Du Moi, which often features cartoonists with deep roots in the zine and minicomics making scenes. Pierre Maurel's Blackbird is a perfect example of such a comic. Originally published in 2011, it's still quite relevant in 2016 in the wake of a trend across both Europe and the US of a hard swing to the political right. Maurel's comic shows how in one stroke of a piece of legislature, people can be turned into outlaws. However, the tone of this comic is not one of inevitable defeat, the Orwellian image of "a boot stamping on a human face - forever", but rather one of inevitable resistance in perpetuity. It also explores the origins of how such laws can push fence-sitters into becoming radicals.

As the story begins, we are introduced to a couple of zinesters going about their rounds: stapling, going to the copy shop, and dropping off their zines at the usual bookstores, record stores, etc. Then Maurel introduces us to a specific kind of conflict: that of the choice of keeping one's independence in making zines and having the opportunity to make a living writing as a professional author. Two partners on a zine called "Blackbird" face that conflict when one is chosen for publication and the other isn't. The one who is chosen finds himself distancing himself from his past more and more as he faces pressure to play respectability politics. When it is announced that the government has passed a law that prohibits all forms of self-publishing, the other zinester is now suddenly a criminal.

The rest of the book follows their other zine-making friends in an attempt at resistance. They steal table-top copiers and toner and keep up their publishing, find underground zine fairs and in general try to keep their ideas going. When one of them assaults someone who won't put up a flyer, that one act of violence enables the authorities to really crack down on the zine-makers, citing them all as violent and dangerous (a classic government tactic used against protesters). A lot of the initial resistance is whimsical and conceptual, like splashing ink on the government members who pushed through the bill and then uploading it to youtube. That was done by a an ex-member of the publishing collective who had walked out years earlier because he felt the rest of the group wasn't radical enough, and now the new law had reunited him with his old friends. What was interesting about him was that the more the government cracked down, the more even he became radicalized. He stopped throwing ink and started throwing Molotov cocktails by the end of the book.

While most of the zine-makers we're introduced to are captured and jailed, everyone else was now radicalized. That includes the bomb-throwing writer who lived off the grid, the now-published author who was pushed to fight what was clearly injustice, and a new, younger set of zine-makers who were ready to go to work. Tellingly, that new group had more women than the old group, because this was very much a male-centric story where the women tended to be sexual partners or potential sexual partners. Maurel does little to glorify that aspect of his characters but instead tells it like it is: it is not unusual for otherwise-enlightened men to exhibit openly sexist behavior in scenes like this.

Visually, Maurel's line is a more detailed and naturalistic version of the scratchy, cartoony art of what I've seen from a lot of Belgian cartoonists who work in black and white. It's lively, expressive and fairly dense & detailed, as Maurel wants the reader to get a sense of life in the city as opposed to solely focusing on his characters. The characters and the city are interconnected, and Maurel reflects that in his drawings squats, alleyways, bookshops, and tiny apartments that the zine-makers find themselves inhabiting. Maurel mostly sticks to a six-panel grid to keep things on a steady rhythm, until there's a tense chase scene. When that happens, Maurel drops the grid altogether and uses an open-page layout, as the action literally spills from one image to the next. The experiences of the white, presumably heterosexual characters in the book reflect Maurel's own understanding, I would imagine, but it's certainly not at all difficult to transfer that to any other group that's going through state-sponsored crackdowns.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Olga Volozova's The Green Zybari Stories

Olga Volozova's comics are dense, immersive narratives that are often inspired by Russian folklore and her own vivid imagination. In The Green Zybari Stories, which purport to be "from the diary of Niusha Ramonova", a high school girl's interactions with local, magical creatures has increasingly darker implications with regard to her and her friends. These stories have such a forceful authenticity to them that I wondered how much, if any, of this was adapted directly from Russian folklore and how much came from Volozova's own remarkable imagination. Regardless, the book consists of three separate but chronologically consecutive stories centered around Niusha and her friends. The book opens with Niusha and her best friend Tasya going to the nearby lake to see if they could spot any Zybari: shimmering, green water sprites. Right away, Volozova establishes that there are links between the Zybari and humans, even if both races lived by entirely different understandings of how the world worked.

Each of the three stories begins with a member of the Zybari tricking, violating or strong-arming Niusha into doing something she didn't want. In "Green Zybari", Niusha initially thinks that she can get knowledge regarding a beloved hat that she lost in exchange for a kiss, not understanding the immutable Zybari customs; she effectively became engaged to the Zybari on the spot, and is forced into a marriage proposal by another Zybari passing as human. There are other men in the story and they don't behave well either, but the Zybari represent something worse, something horrible and primordial at the heart of patriarchal systems that utterly ignores the personhood of women and considers them to be objects or slaves that come and go at their behest. Eventually, Niusha appeals to a Zybari elder, who helps her find a way out of her bind. This story felt familiar, with a happy and instructive ending. Volozova's dense art and lettering helped to create a claustrophobic atmosphere with scratchy character designs and blacks filling in blank spaces, but the story didn't go nearly as far as the next two.

"Zybarik" establishes her feud with various classmates, as several accuse her of being a witch. She runs out to the lake and promptly falls asleep and is then raped by a Zybari who sloughs off any responsibility as he informs her she might get pregnant. What follows is a jaw-dropping narrative that's part nightmare, part absolutely endearing, as it only took a week for the Zybari to come to term. Tasya helps Niusha as a midwife as the baby is born invisible, the rest of the story follows his rapid growth, the ways in which the baby boy was mistreated by others, his incredible abilities (like making a time machine), and how she readjusts to regular life when he rapidly grows up and leaves. There's a powerful emotional resonance that rings throughout the story as Volozova closely relates the relationship between mother and son as it develops, even as Niusha is desperately trying not to flunk out of school.

The third story expands the cast considerably and is far more complex, as it is revealed that all humans have various levels of souls, and the most essential is each human's animal soul. After throwing a tantrum over a misunderstanding over something Tasya said, Niusha once again rushes to the lake. She is charged by a spirit at the lake to use a powder to turn one of her rivals into a mouse soul, but she refuses and in turn becomes like a mouse. That leads to her being shunned and ignored by her friends, as she learns her mother and grandmother shared the same spirit. It slowly becomes clear that many of her classmates are not only aware of this magic, they are actively trying to transform others. In a series of twists and turns, Niusha finally gets turned back to normal and reclaims her friendship with Tasya, but she also experiences a great deal of abuse and bullying. Her relentlessly optimistic nature propels her through all three stories, as does her amazing sense of empathy.

The one thing I wished for when reading this book was that it was larger, and in color. While the small scale (4.5 x 8") gave the book a certain sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that aided the stories, it also wound up cramping a lot of the pages and made them hard to understand the action and/or dialogue in each panel. Opening up the page up a bit would have made it breathe better without sacrificing tone. While Volozova is skilled with using black and white art, the greyscale used here doesn't do much to aid the story. Some subtle use of color, perhaps a two-tone wash, would have helped sustain the atmosphere that Volozova was trying to create. Despite that, the almost feverish quality of her storytelling made for an intense and compelling read, with each page bringing forth both new shocks and beautiful expressions of emotion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Minis: Keiler and Scott Roberts

A few minis from the collected Team Roberts:

Powered Milk, volumes 14 + 15, by Keiler Roberts. These are from 2014 and 2016, respectively. Roberts' autobio comics are so engaging because of her dry wit and willingness to be forthcoming about her experiences in a way that doesn't seem contrived. There are a number of comics about motherhood out these days, but hers are among the most honest about how difficult it can be as well as some of the most hilarious. Her willingness to discuss her living with bipolar disorder and social anxiety is another notable feature about her work, especially since she manages to talk about them within the flow of her work and never segues into didacticism. Powdered Milk 14 is a kind of greatest-hits collection, featuring a number of strips that were collected in her book Miseryland. Roberts' drawing is naturalistic but sketchy, as she aims to create snapshots of events and then move on quickly. She doesn't want the mold of memory to harden too much, so to speak, because spontaneity is at the heart of her work.

One interesting thing I've noticed about Roberts' work is that while most of her strips tend to have a talking heads quality, she clearly tries to find ways to keep the reader interested at a visual level. There's a strip where she and her husband Scott are having a conversation about her reluctance to discuss her bipolar disorder, in part because she can't find a way to make it interesting. In the background, there's a smooth series of panel to panel transitions where they both pull out cups, pour drinks into the cups, add flavorings to them, and then show them drinking. She could have easily cut all of that out, but it's as though she was working through making her discussing making her mental health discussion interesting by making the figures in her panels active instead of passive. This certainly wasn't a one-off, either; Keiler keeps that background activity flowing in many of her strips, and sometimes it even comes into the foreground.

Issue 15 shows how her daughter Xia is still very funny, not so much now because of her malapropisms, but simply because of her focus as a four-year-old goes in some interesting directions--especially when she feels wronged. Roberts discusses how her mental lapses (her mind wandering in extreme ways) affects her everyday life and her mood, noting the first occurrence as a pre-teen and a recent occurrence when she almost dosed her daughter with the wrong medicine. She also discusses her overall clumsiness as a result of that distractibility, playing it partly for laughs but mostly as a serious thing that makes everyday living difficult at times. There are also schools about touring Montessori schools and hoping that it might be a good fit for her daughter, which leads to her remembering her own educational experiences. There are also a number of great back-and-forth discussions with Scott as they exchange quips. The way she tries to shut down some of his jokes is a source of humor in itself. Roberts continues to grow more assured as a memoirist, always thinking of ways to make her work funny and engaging.

Happy Trails, by Scott Roberts. Roberts teaches both comics and animation, and it's easy to see how the latter informs the former in his work. This comic about conspiracy-theory favorite chemtrails functions as a comic in terms of its page-to-page transitions, but it also functions as an "animated" flip book, creating the illusion of motion in that tradition. The bright pinks and greens from what looks like a Risograph printing help create a trippy world, one that feels vibrant and unstoppably propulsive in the way that a Yuichi Yokoyama book might. In other words, once the tone is set at the beginning of the book ("walk and talk"), there's no stopping the book's momentum until the very end, when the characters all high-five. Speed, fluidity and motion are all used to engage the environment, and the reader's choice to either read it a page at a time or else push themselves along by flipping gives it a unique sense of energy. Of course, the bright, cheery energy of the comic and its unnamed characters is juxtaposed at the diabolical nature of the science they propose: releasing chemicals via jets to control the weather and influence the population by ways of those chemicals. The reasons why this mini works so well is because conspiracies are usually shadowy affairs conducted in private rooms, not amped-up open air jaunts. What better way to conduct a conspiracy than in plain sight, and what better way to discuss a conspiracy than by applying layers of visual distractions? The way Roberts integrated narrative and art object in the same package was extremely clever, as the story can't be properly read or understood except in this format.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

mini-Kus! of the Week #5: Amanda Vahamaki, Lala Albert, Marie Jacotey

Marching on through issues of mini-Kus!:

mini-Kus! #31: It's Tuesday, by Amanda Vahamaki. The excellent Finnish cartoonist's work has always had a quality of erase as well as things not being what they seem. That's certainly true of this quotidian comic centered around a market in Finland. Throughout what should be treasured routines is an air of disquiet and dissatisfaction. A thrift shop worker can't be bothered to look through new bags of clothes. An art student is dissatisfied with her work and her teacher and is restless leaving the studio. Two moms discuss some kind of pervert in the woods who's been exposing himself to girls at a camp, and one of them feels the other is trying to force her to buy an ugly jacket for her daughter. Teenage girls are feeling dissatisfaction toward their parents and the world. It's a little comic filled with first world problems, essentially, but the disquiet her is an existential one. There's no sense of belonging, no sense of outreach and the comic is filled with alienation and isolation. All of this is subtle, almost banal, as Vahamaki is careful to focus on meaningless details as a way of establishing how far away her characters are from really dealing with true meaning. The bright and colorful nature of the comic, with lots of red-cheeked faces and attractive scenery, is another way of getting at how the characters in the comic don't really want to see what's around them.

mini-Kus! #32: R.A.T., by Lala Albert. Albert's comic is a kind of second cousin to Vahamaki's, only instead of the friendly, benign character design of Vahamaki's Albert's are more jagged and jarring. Whereas Vahamaki's use of color is warm, Albert's is often cold. It makes sense, given that the story is about a guy who has managed to have a woman download a program that allows him to observe her whenever she is sitting at her laptop. It's purely for voyeuristic reasons (he's not trying to get her passwords or money), but it's still obviously a monstrous invasion of privacy. What's interesting is that she has a sense that she's being watched, so much so that she starts researching surveillance software and downloads the same program that's monitoring her. Albert's character dynamics are fascinating here, as the man watching her objectifies her in a strangely idealized manner, as though she were a on a pedestal. When he realizes that she's watching other people, he's crushed that she would act in such a crass manner (ie, like him). When she realizes that she's been watched by him, she gets her revenge. What's especially fascinating about this comic is the way it addresses the concept of the gaze. In theory, looking in someone's eyes and knowing that they're looking back is something that's supposed to engender empathy. In this context, it has an almost reflective, narcissistic quality to it, creating a false sense of intimacy. Albert's deconstruction of this idea and the way she shifts the power balance is jarring and powerful.

mini-Kus! #33: BFF, by Marie Jacotey. This colored pencil extravaganza is a fairly straightforward love triangle story about a guy named Rob whose best friend Stan just slept with a woman named Amy whom he had been obsessed with but never officially went out with. The mini shifts relationship axes every few pages in a book that's entirely about avoiding conflict. Rob tells Stan that's it fine that he's seeing her but runs out on the two of them. Amy clearly still has feelings for Rob and ditches Stan without telling him. Amy and Rob run into each other and inevitably hook up after a very funny scene where a lot of tension is relieved thanks to overhearing a dumb conversation on the train. Of course, Stan tries to contact Rob and the latter declines to talk to him. It's like a parody of the film Jules and Jim, only if all three characters were relentlessly passive-aggressive and narcissistic. The only "real" thing in the comic is a child's drawing of Rob & Stan, where Rob is stabbing Stan with a sword; the drawing hangs in Rob's apartment. The comic on the surface doesn't judge its characters, but that drawing and a deeper examination of each character's actions (especially Rob and Amy) reveals a pretty savage attack on Jacotey's part. The naturalism of the character design is given an expressive shimmer thanks to the use of color, creating just the kind of dreamland that its characters would like to inhabit.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Minis: Catching Up With Rob Jackson

I've been reviewing Rob Jackson's work for a decade now, and the British cartoonist's comics are just as strange and funny now as they were then. Pinning down exactly what he does is impossible, because he flips between genres effortlessly, even including quotidian slice-of-life comics. While he's happy to tell those genre stories in a straightforward way, the crude quality of his line and his sardonic wit always make whatever kind of story he's telling ridiculous on the face of it.

Take the four issues of his Flying Sausage Academy miniseries, for example. It's Jackson's mutated take on high school dramas mixed with supernatural/mutant high school genre material. The genius of the series, which begins as a punk rebel named Daryl is sent to his new school, is that it makes no attempt whatsoever to explain away the weirdness inherent in the series. His schoolyard nemesis is a kid nicknamed King Penguin, who has a bird's head. The headmaster wears wizard's robes as a way of impressing the students. One of Daryl's best friends is a skull-faced boy named "Lord of Despair, Devourer of Worlds, Jr." There are numerous student gangs like the Tough Girls, the Math Genii, the Alien Abductees, the Fashion Victims, etc--and they tend to have regular rumbles. When Dayrl is forced to be an informant for the headmaster, that's when things really take off as all sorts of weirdness emerges. Jackson's plots are remarkably tight for all of their silliness, and this is no exception as the reader slowly learns about the secrets of the school, the reasons why there are gangs, and why both giant spiders and music class play such prominent roles. Through it all, the usual high school drama is front and center, only it's far more seedy and less romantic than Harry Potter-style proceedings. Jackson's method here is to whip the reader through the story by cramming ten or eleven panels on each page. Jackson's line is deceptively simple: every panel is well-balanced, the character designs are memorably odd, and there are even moments of well-placed cross-hatching to add variety to the aesthetics of the story.

Ragnar The Cheesemonger is a classic Jackson story, in that he seems to have a special interest in stories set in the Middle Ages and a talent for emphasizing the mundane, unpleasant aspects of those times. This one's set in a small Viking village and involves the titular cheesemonger (a very funny variation on using a bad-ass name with a powerful-sounding title, like say "Conan the Barbarian") being threatened by a lunatic warrior. The entire plot revolves around Ragnar wishing he could get away from the warrior's challenge, yet won't accept the alternative--falsely apologizing for his cheese getting him sick. While the plot twists and turns in all sorts of unexpected ways, the heart of the piece is in the quotidian routines of Ragnar and the other villagers. The evil warrior is also a very funny character and brings an anarchic presence that drives the humor of the piece, as everyone else is a reasonably sensible person who's willing to talk through their problems. That style of humor is exactly the opposite of Flying Sausage Academy, where Jackson the one sensible character was the protagonist. It was up to him to navigate that chaos and ride it out. On the other hand, Ragnar had the whole of consensus polite society backing him up and he almost didn't make it past the chaos agent that affected everyone in the village.

Jackson's also been involved as an editor of various anthologies, including the third and fourth (and final) issues of Rhizome. They lean toward genre comics a bit but aren't necessarily restricted in any particular way. Issue three features a typical William Cardini story where a scribbly boulder becomes a troll and attacks what turns out to be a wizard. Cardini's comics always emphasize that these are marks on a page and play on those qualities in as visceral a manner as possible. Kyle Baddeley-Read uses his deliberately stiff figure drawing style to create a horrible scenario where everyone is happy all the time, no matter what. His other story uses grotesquely cute character design to create a horrible world where only a drug can restore that cutesy fantasy world. Both stories juxtapose that friendly line and open layouts to create remarkably grim, nihilistic worlds. Jackson's story is a departure, making it an illustrated walking guide in an icy, wintertime England. It's reminiscent of the sort of thing Oliver East does so well in exploring an environment and describing it in beautiful, poetic detail. Nick Soucek's does his own end-of-the-world piece, as what appeared at first to be a training exercise later turned out to be the real thing. It's a bit predictable in its execution and isn't especially memorable visually, either.

The final issue, #4, opens with Desmond Reed channeling Gilbert Hernandez with an awesomely gross story about a "disgusting man" named Ronald who's kidnapped by aliens. He winds up getting his owners pregnant, and the offspring are deposited on a suitably ugly world. It's Reed's level of detail that makes the strip so repulsively funny. Jackson's comic takes the rough plot of Star Wars (shepherd goes on a space adventure to save a princess with rebels) and then reverses every assumption the reader makes about who's good and who's evil. It's hilarious, even as the "good" guys turn out to be pretty brutal themselves once they've come into power. Once again, Jackson's wacky character design is the star here, as he makes most of the cast grotesque and deliberately avoids aesthetically appealing character and prop designs. Soucek's "Response" is extremely clever, as he stripped down his line even more than he did in #3 to tell a story of a guy growing up who is aware that someone is watching him at all times, and his disclosure to her that this is the case is a surprise that triggers a series of strange events. Baddeley-Read offers up more of his cute/grotesque nihilism, David Shenton's highly detailed superhero parody runs out of steam quickly, while Adam Smith's densely crude story about a robot war is funny at times but does not flow well. That said, it points out Jackson's willingness to give younger artists a showcase, something that this anthology did throughout its run.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Short Reviews: Gilbert Hernandez, Ed Piskor, Steven Cerio

Garden Of The Flesh, by Gilbert Hernandez. This notebook-sized comic with an etched cover made of something like suede, is simply Hernandez turning highlights from the Book of Genesis into straight-up, hardcore porn. There's something about this book that touches a nerve far beyond it simply being porn. In a way, it's a distillation of Robert Crumb's adaptation of the whole Book of Genesis, which played up the truly seedy nature of so many Biblical stories, using that distinctive cross-hatching as a way of creating that filthy atmosphere. Hernandez' approach is different: it's drawn in his typical style, but it's also in full color. Hernandez picks up on the erotic qualities of the Bible (especially the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall), qualities that always seemed heightened to me as a child when I read picture book versions of the Bible. The concept of forbidden fruit and Adam & Eve's first encounter with shame are highly charged, and Hernandez both takes these ideas to their logical conclusion and utterly spoofs the ways in which religion shames sex and nudity. Hernandez also seamlessly overlays the structure of pornographic films onto the episodic structure of the Bible. That is, new characters in new situations were constantly being introduced in the Bible in the same way that new actors appear in porn to offer variety to the viewer. Hernandez brings the lust implicit (and often explicit) in the Bible out into the light while putting it in a format that still has an air of mystery, of something forbidden. In that way, he has his cake and eats it too, playing on how things that are forbidden offer a charge but then doling out as much explicit sex as he possibly can in a tidy hundred pages.

Sunbeams On The Astronaut, by Steven Cerio. This is a collection of short, dense and psychedelic pieces by Cerio, whose style veers from rubbery & cartoony to a deeply immersive series of patterns. The sheer density of the pieces and the use of greyscale instead of color made a number of stories difficult to parse, and the insertion of text instead of hand lettering was distracting and took me out of the reading experience. This book seemed to beg for color to help delineate the forms and add some clarity, but what I could parse was fascinating. In depicting what appear to be otherdimensional experiences, Cerio does so with a relentless sense of optimism and adventure. He's created his own mythological pantheon of characters, some darker than others, but each of their stories carries new possibilities. Tonally, the stories veer from whimsical & silly to darker & portentous as he draws from sources like old folk tales and songs by the Residents.

Hip-Hop Family Tree, Volume 4, by Ed Piskor. The latest volume of Piskor's epic, hugely successful historical series of brief, interconnected vignettes about hip hop's origins reaches a logical resting place for the series by the end. After working on the project mostly non-stop for nearly four years, Piskor declared he was going to focus on other projects for a while after the publication of this volume. It's a move that makes sense, considering that the amount of material that he has to cover has grown exponentially from volume to volume. He had the luxury of taking his time in the earlier volumes and making connections between hip-hop and other forms of African-American culture, as well as the fine arts scene, and for spending most of his time concentrating on the New York scene. In volume 4, Piskor focuses on the next generation of rappers in New York, the expanding LA scene, the small but energetic Philadelphia scene, and even what Luke Skywalker was up to in Miami. This volume also goes into some deal with regard to the way Hollywood tried to exploit what many perceived to be a fad, with films like Breakin', Beat Street and Krush Groove.

Russell "Rush" Simmons is still at the center of everything as the most respected and best-known managerial figure in rap. Now in a full partnership with ambitious college student Rick Rubin, their Def Jam records starts to make real money behind Run-DMC and their new star, LL Cool J (who was just sixteen when his first record was released). One thing that Piskor repeatedly emphasizes is how young so many of the key players were, as they went from rapping in front of their lockers in high school to performing live and getting on records. KRS-ONE was a kid living in a homeless shelter when he hooked up with DJ Scott LaRock, whom he knew as a social worker who would stop by the shelter. Salt 'N Pepa were working at the local Sears when a friend suggested they start their careers as battle MCs recording dis tracks. This is a fascinating period because of the intersection between the still wild west quality of rap and the introduction of real money into the equation. While that certainly led some young rappers to go as pop as possible in order to get on the radio, it's interesting that some refused to go soft on principle, even if hurt their chances at success. For the rapper Schooly D, that stance wound up creating gangsta rap, because he wouldn't soften his lyrics for recording.

Piskor sticks to the same visual formula that made the other volumes so fun to read. Every page is a complete statement, meant to be read and digested as a whole. At the same time, four volumes' worth of characters and their stories start to build as formerly background characters like the Beastie Boys suddenly take center stage. As always, Piskor is more interested in the facts as he's able to get them rather than the legends, as he's upfront about Ice-T's criminal activities and other less-than-savory facts about some of the rappers. There's no specific judgment--it's just people trying to get by--other than for perhaps "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the man who introduced crack cocaine into America and created an epidemic of addicts. Piskor leans heavily on Jack Kirby-inspired visuals, like Kirby Krackle in some panels, heroic and distorted poses and other trademarks like splayed hands. One can also see some of Piskor's other influences like Robert Crumb sneak into some panels, but moreso Drew Friedman's merciless drawings of celebrities. Piskor loves drawing old, out-of-touch white executives and uses some of Friedman's trademark liver spots for them. Piskor eliminated some of the more awkward character poses from earlier volumes but also doubled-down on others to create an exaggerated style that matched the idealism of early hip-hop with the gritty reality it emerged out of.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Shirley Jackson Project

Rob Kirby's anthologies are always interesting at the very least, in large part because he only takes on projects as an editor that are personally important to him. Passion alone does not a great anthology make, however, and it's Kirby's other skills as an editor that tend to make his anthologies so satisfying to read. He has an uncanny sense of which artists to use for a given project, how to get the best out of them and how to sequence their stories. Sequential flow is the most important quality of any given anthology and is easily botched by editors who don't quite understand what they're doing. Even in an anthology with more than one weak piece, Kirby manages to use them as buffers or palate-cleansers. Even when Kirby was editing anthologies featuring only queer cartoonists, he always carefully thought through the artists he asked to participate in an effort to come up with the best balance of styles, themes and visual approaches. That was especially true in his excellent Three anthology, but he's carried that through in his recent series of anthologies that smartly mixed artists from the queer comics world and the alt-comics world (a line that has thankfully become far less relevant) to provide a diversity of experiences, points of view and styles. After putting together the massive QU33R anthology, he went back to doing smaller anthologies that mixed artists as I noted to address topics like accidental, self-inflicted injuries (Pratfall) and astrology (What's Your Sign, Girl?).

Kirby will surely earn some degree-of-difficult points with his The Shirley Jackson Project, an anthology featuring "comics inspired by her life and work". Jackson has been dead for nearly fifty years, but her influence on modern psychological horror remains as strong as ever. A new biography that's just been released has also stirred up more attention to the novelist and short story writer as well. Simply put, this was a passion project for Kirby, who was delighted and surprised to find as many Jackson fans in the alt-comics world as he did who were willing to contribute to this book. I did some research on Jackson's works prior to reviewing the anthology, having only read the famous short story "The Lottery" and her hilarious book about parenting, Life Among The Savages. Most of the stories were inspired by The Haunting of Hill House (the prototypical psychological haunted house story) and We Have Always Lived In The Castle (an especially creepy family thriller). Kirby's task here was to sequence a group of stories that focused almost entirely on her horror stories in a wa that wasn't repetitive.

For the most part, he succeeded. In an anthology full of deep, personal stories with a distinctly dark tone, it was crucial that Kirby was able to lighten the mood from time to time (much as Jackson did herself in her otherwise psychologically tense writing). The major pieces in the book tend to fall into one of two categories: autobiographical reflections on Jackson's work and its relation to the lives of the artists, and fiction pieces that incorporate aspects and/or themes of Jackson's work. Kirby starts off with Annie Murphy, a mainstay in the Kirby anthology stable. This theme couldn't be any deeper in Murphy's wheelhouse, as her first major comic was about a spiritualist that wove in autobiographical details. With black backgrounds and white, cursive lettering, Murphy conjures up a story weaving in her own history of living in haunted places with Jackson's own history of both dealing with haunted places and coping with an abusive mother, elegantly addressing issues surrounding fear and guilt that drive our deepest sense of terror.

Ivan Velez and Jon Macy tell similar stories, with Velez noting how often he would see apparitions of just-deceased relatives at bedside and Macy focusing instead on how many of Jackson's characters' tendency to have rich inner lives in order to combat the world around them. He perceptively notes that this is a metaphor for dealing with abusive parents and describes his own harrowing life story of dealing with a physically and psychologically cruel parent and how he used his own fantasy worlds to escape. What I liked best about Macy's story is its sense of restraint; there was a sense of quiet but seething fury underlining his words, while his art was crisp & smart but hinted at things more than it made things explicit. In that sense, it was very much like Jackson's work.

The husband-wife team of Asher & Lillie Craw did an analysis of Jackson's use of buildings and foods as highly charged objects in her stories. In many respects, it's a comics form of literary analysis, going straight to the original source to back up their theories regarding how Jackson turns what is comfortable and familiar into something eerie and threatening. The brightness and simplicity of their art is in direct opposition to the subject matter, creating one of many unusual juxtapositions in the book. Gabrielle Gamboa looks at food from a different perspective, addressing the ways in which Jackson turned comfort food into deadly threats and then looking at real-life events in which food has mysteriously killed others. Kirby's own imprint is all over the book, with several short pieces including another analytical story where he examines common Jackson character archetypes, illustrated in scratchy form by Michael Fahy.

In terms of the fictional pieces, the two show-stoppers use radically different approaches. Maggie Umber's "The Tooth" is an adaptation of the short story told entirely in shadowy images. Considering that the original story is about a woman's journey to the city to get her tooth removed, only to slowly descend into total ego loss and deterioration of self, Umber cleverly begins the story with a number of concrete images and slowly starts to iconify and even abstract the visuals, as the reader is compelled to start the see the world as she does. Eric Orner's piece about the crumbling relationship between two long-distance friends is chilling in the way the narrator slowly begins to understand his own self-absorption. Orner's balance of text and image in each panel is designed to whip the reader through the story quickly, anticipating with dread what might happen in the friendship. It can be argued, I think, that Jackson's stories are about the ways in which isolation can lead to toxic behavior, which then often supersedes concepts like empathy and kindness.

The other stories act mostly as effective buffers and palate cleansers. Colleen Frakes' story about listening to a radio reading of "The Lottery" as a child and freaking out points to the ways in which some stories really strike a negative chord with their readers, and that authors just have to deal with it. Katie Fricas' gloriously scrawled drawings try to capture individual, self-destructive urges described in Jackson's stories and is a perfect transition piece as it's right between two stories drawn in a fairly naturalistic style. Kirby's own "Cabinet of Blood" is a funny but dark anecdote about Jackson that provides a short rest for the reader after long pieces by Orner and Jennifer Camper. Camper combines elements from a number of different Jackson stories to once again write about identity lost. It doesn't quite cohere, just like Dan Mazur's imagining Jackson herself as a persecuted witch in the woods feels more silly than anything else. W. Woods' imagining a character from We Have Always Lived In The Castle recovering scraps from her burned house goes on a few pages too long, and it's the only piece in the book that feels more like fan fiction than something original. Robert Triptow's adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House, on the other hand, is clever because of its first person perspective and recapitulation of the idea of haunting as a metaphor for abuse. Triptow keeps it short and simple, moving quickly from a powerful set of frightening images to the prospect of hope and escape.

At over 120 pages, this anthology isn't as tightly edited as Kirby's best anthologies. There were several stories that could have been weeded, and even some good stories being left out might have made a stronger, more cohesive project. That said, the best pieces in the book are as good as anything I've read in any anthology this year. Umber, Murphy and Orner in particular all used radically different approaches to create stories I won't soon forget. Kirby took risks in seeing what would stick and almost pulled it off, as the book doesn't lose steam until the end. Even the misfires are interesting in their own way and every piece is reflective of the profound influence Jackson has had on them as well as the way she expressed things in her work that spoke loudly to the experience of others, be it directly related to the supernatural or else the messages behind the metaphors she employed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

mini-Kus! of the Week #4: Disa Wallander, Zane Zlemesa, Terhi Ekebom

mini-Kus! #28: Collector, by Zane Zlemesa. This is an interesting example of non-narrative drawings and collage about a photographer who is obsessed with collecting photos of his customers. What's interesting about the comic, as I interpreted it, is that we're not just seeing his work, we're literally seeing the world from his perspective. It's a world of flashes of light, color patterns, lenses, variations on form, shape, color and shadow, and above all else, the faces of those who fascinate him. There's not a narrative in a panel-to-panel or even page-to-page sense, but the accumulation of images adds up to something if one considers it to be the byproduct of the photographer going about his day, in a visual stream-of-consciousness style. It's an immersive comic that demands that the reader not just pay attention to each page, but to think about how the pages might connect.

mini-Kus! #29: Remember This?, by Disa Wallander. This is a playful but still deadly serious story about the relationship between memory and identity. On the left hand side of each page, we see scribbled plants drawn in red colored pencil, with commentary that's either from the artist or the plants (or some combination thereof). On the right hand side, there are lightly-scrawled figures with a light purple wash who are making comments of their own, most of the clueless variety. The plants are drawn on the page as a way of remembering them, and Wallander posits the idea that without memory, we have no identity. Furthermore, without being remembered by others, our identity similarly is fragile. Without making conscious connections, our own narratives are written on the wind, and it's no accident that this is a story that's been drawn and written down--a permanent record of considering this potentiality of self. What makes this comic so effective and funny is the buffoonish nature of the people on the right-hand side, who babble about drinking "until I couldn't remember my own face". All they can do is confusedly look at the plants and not understand why they're there, until they abandon that project to get further away from identity in the ontological sense. That is, the less authentic their actions (and the less they try to make real connections), the more ephemeral their real sense of being. It's a remarkable little comic, perfectly integrating idea and image in a highly effective style.

mini-Kus! #30: Logbook, by Terhi Ekebom. This is a horror comic whose threat initially feels ephemeral and eventually becomes all-encompassing. It's all the more frightening because the threat, succumbing to a darkness that doesn't just envelop a person, it scratches them out, feels like a metaphor. It could represent a kind of toxicity when a person is beset by mental illness or addiction, or has become abusive. Regardless, in this isolated house in the ocean (shades of Dan Clowes' David Boring), a cure is attempted in the form of light from plant-like ocean pods, to no effect. The two women who are the comic's protagonists have to escape the spread of the darkness in a boat, with the final panel a chilling indicator that all hope was lost. Finish cartoonist Ekebom makes extensive use of colored pencil, eschewing line in many instances in favor of having color both tell the story and add shading. This was one of the best mini-Kus! comics I've read in the series, both in terms of the power of its storytelling as well as the way it packs a lot of in very few pages. It was just the right length to reveal its threat, generate hope for a cure, and then reveal just how doomed its protagonists were.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Minis: Beat Panel, Charles Brubaker, Ian Brauner

Beat Panel, by Anonymous. The artist of this web-to-mini gag strip is anonymous for some reason, which is too bad because there are solidly above-average humor comics. The artist's line is functional and reminiscent of your average humor web comic, but that's less important than the solid sense of comic timing in each of the strips. Beat Panel tends toward the absurd but is built around a familiar set of recurring characters. The joke about two characters singing "Do You Know The Muffin Man?" is turned into a conspiracy gag. There's a joke about David Lynch's breakfast that has just the right beats, and a joke about Superman being in a melodramatic telenovella that's funny because of its use of Spanish and the juxtaposition of the normally virtuous "Hombre de Acero" being a cad. There are jokes about being an adult who plays video games and in many ways still acts like a kid. A favorite recurring bit is having Sauron from The Lord of the Rings as the worst roommate ever. To be sure, there's a lot of familiar ground that the artist covers here, but the execution and thought behind each gag reveals a solid comedic presence. The art is simply there to convey information, and the artist doesn't worry about realistic rendering and avoids over-rendering as a result.

Smallbug Comics and Ask A Cat, by Charles Brubaker. This is more typical webcomic-style humor, featuring witches and gags about furries and cats. The cartoony and stylized character designs have a pleasingly thick line that adds a lot to each scene, but Brubaker's extensive use of hatching and cross-hatching is a distraction. The attempt to add depth and weight to the panels seems pointless, given the silly and simplistic plot lines. The occasional use of spotting blacks that pops up in the strip more than does the job with relation to balancing out panels and giving the composition of each page a little more pop; Brubaker needed to do less with his drawing after that, not more. His characters already present such exaggerated facial expressions and poses that the extra detail actually made some drawings hard to decipher. The jokes themselves are nothing ground-breaking; the stories are competently told but not especially memorable. Connections between characters are assumed without really being explained, and while the relationships can be sussed out after a while, they feel generic. Throw in a mini where Brubaker has cats answer actual questions from readers, and you have a meme-friendly enterprise, especially since the spontaneity of the cat strips gives them a certain energy and tension lacking in Brubaker's other comics.

Spacebird, Muldoon Year One and Prime Puns, by Ian Brauner. Brauner's comics have a smudgy, scribbly charm to them. In terms of subject matter, he's interested in genre, but he's certainly all over the place. Spacebird is a sci-fi story about a high-tech "sheep"-herder on a far-off planet, who has to deal with tedium and a giant whale-squid who threatens to eat his herd. The unapologetic use of scribbles here becomes the default style, and it adds a dynamic quality to the comic. That style perfectly meshes with Brauner's character design, especially the titular character's wavy eyebrows. This is just the first issue of a larger story, but the bit of narrative presented here was a satisfying taste. Muldoon feels like a more primitive version of Brauner's style, as this story about a monster hunter in Africa feels more dashed off, and the small scale of a number of the panels gives the comic a wobbly quality that undermines the action. Prime Puns is a full-color extravaganza of silliness, as Brauner draws visual puns based on Transformers characters, Optimus Prime in particular. The cover image, "The Primes They Are A-Changin'", imagines Optimus Prime as Bob Dylan from the 1960s, and it's truly not an image I had ever expected to see. The best thing about the comic is Brauner's genuinely beautiful use of colored pencils to go with some of the funnier allusions, like Optimus in a guillotine in a Tale of Two Cities play on words captioned "It was the best of Primes, it was the worst of Primes", or the shading in the Fiddler on the Roof spoof "Optimus L'Chaim". They were funnier than the strips where he pairs up Optimus with another geek reference like Star Wars or Star Trek. Brauner is clearly trying to figure out his style in these stories, and I'll be curious to see what his next experiments will be like.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

NBM: Cyril Pedrosa's Equinoxes

Cyril Pedrosa's Equinoxes is a big book featuring a lot of little stories. It's a very Raymond Carver sort of story, zipping in and out of the lives of seemingly unconnected characters, with each of its four chapters devoted to a single season. NBM went all-out in making sure the American version of this book looked every bit as good as the French original, and the hardcover treatment, huge dimensions and lavish use of color make this book look just as it was supposed to, maintaining all of its visual power. Pedrosa provides details as to each of the main characters' lives in drips and drabs, giving the reader a strong taste of an individual moment before switching to another character. What each of the characters has in common is that each has moved pass an irrevocable tipping point, a personal paradigm shift that leaves each of them wondering exactly who they are and what their purpose is--in other words, each character is in search of their new narrative.

Each season (starting with autumn) kicks off with a silent story about a neolithic man who tries to avoid being eaten, struggles to survive winter, finds a cave with drawings on the wall, and luxuriates in the joys of summer as he creates his own musical instrument. While each of those segments is a sort of thematic introduction to the rest of each chapter, Pedrosa surprises the reader by making the cave he discovers a key part of the narrative. The next characters we meet are elderly Louis and the younger Antonio. Louis is a retired political activist who is nearing the end of his life, and Antonio is one of many people that Louis has helped when they needed a place to stay. Watching their arcs intertwine was the loveliest experience of reading the book. There's a subplot in the book where a number of activists were trying to stop an airport from being built in their small seaside town, and they called on Louis for help because of his expertise and former mentorship of Catherine, now a minister in the government. Louis was great because he was at the age where he no longer cared what people thought about him, having evolved past a clear "angry young man phase" of his past. Louis knew his purpose as time started to run out for him, and he only hoped he'd have enough time left for some final good-byes and words of wisdom for those who needed it, even as he misses his long-dead son.

Antonio, on the other hand, is a character who's just starting to figure things out and feels deeply affectionate toward and indebted to Louis. Antonio is more of a cipher/supporting character, as the reader only gets to know him in quick flashes here and there, but he's important as someone that Louis can bounce ideas off of. He's more of a narrative device than a fully-fleshed out character, but Pedrosa still gave him a sort of curious, lost quality. The next major character introduced was the irascible Vincent, the orthodontist. He's the most fun character in the book while being the most emotionally broken, as he's coming to terms with a brutal and contentious divorce and a lot of time spent away from his teenage daughter. Vince is a chiseled, angular man with graying temples--a very typically masculine guy, but also vulnerable and lost, as he's totally lost his narrative. There's a difference between drifting as a young person and being older and having one's narrative yanked away from you, and Pedrosa gets at that pain that's just beneath the surface. The most compelling parts of the book were those featuring Vincent and his younger brother Damien, who had become a priest. Their interactions were fascinating as both men felt lost, even as Damien had the shelter of faith. Pedrosa nailed their sibling interactions, especially once juvenile aggression turned to honest self-reflection. As though to reward Vincent for asking himself the hard questions, providence rewards him by introducing him to a lovely archaeologist who's in charge of the dig at the local cave. Pedrosa's mastery of gesture and body language gets across that magical feeling of initial mutual reaction with a series of subtle but emphatic eye movements.

The other key character, and a sort of authorial short-cut, is a photographer whose ability to capture people so completely leads to long text sections that take that initial emotion that's been captured and runs with it. It's not so much that the text gives away vital information, but rather it provides a powerful picture of each character's interior life. Some are major characters and others are minor, but the photographer's accounts give an unexpected level of insight to each character, be they a high schooler transfixed by art for the first time or a backhoe operator who's just trying to get to retirement age. Pedrosa went to this well a few times too many, as the text stopped the story's momentum hard each time he unveiled it, but at the same time, taking these photos and trying to find a purpose for them later was a key aspect of the character.

Pedrosa's figure work is very much like other European cartoonists: angular, clear-line and naturalistic with exaggerated features. Pedrosa isn't afraid to get good and scribbly at times, but it's his willingness to dip into different styles that makes this book so exquisitely beautiful. The sequences with the neolithic man are done in a Disneyesque style that reflects his experience in animation. Other sequences lean heavily on the seasonal aspect of the story with a single color wash per sequence, from dark browns to frozen blue to the pinks of dawn to the fiery orange of sunset. Despite this virtuoso use of color that modulates emotion, Pedrosa never loses track of his line, in part because the colors never oversaturate the page or distract from the narrative. They pop out at the reader but don't assault the reader, and even the brighter colors still retain a certain warmth that makes the scenes feel intimate instead of ostentatious. The character rewards and revelations in the book are in the form of small epiphanies rather than plot-changing twists, and the story is all the better for it. The characters don't necessarily arrive at answers as to their purpose and narratives, but they at least learn how to ask the right questions. This is a long book at 300 pages, but Pedrosa mostly keeps the book moving briskly thanks to his facility with dialogue, skill with visual pacing and genuine affection for his characters. Over the course of the book, the characters go from stasis to action in their own ways, and it's that moment of true self-examination and risk-taking that gives each of them the chance to advance.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Amy Kurzweil's Flying Couch

In her memoir debut Flying Couch, Amy Kurzweil draws from so many sources and inspirations for her book that her own authorial voice frequently got lost. It's part Maus, part We Are On Our Own, part Are You My Mother?, a smidgen of How To Understand Israel In Thirty Days or less and another half-dozen or so influences, In a book that's supposed to be about three generations of Jewish women, the only woman whose story really rang out was that of Kurzweil's grandmother, Lily, whom she called Bubbe. Kurzweil is nothing if not ambitious. She set out to address cross-generational themes of identity as women, as Jewish people, and as citizens with ties to a number of different places. The best segments of the book echo Maus in that Kurzweil set out to tell her grandmother's stories, a process which gave her grandmother the validation she desperately craved. For years, she had kept stories of how she survived the Holocaust in Poland mostly to herself, in part because her daughter (Kurzweil's mother) wasn't ready to hear them and partly because of the simple effect of trauma. She wanted to move on. As she grew older and saw that the stories were starting to be forgotten, that gave her the impetus to make herself heard.

That's an interesting contrast to Maus, where Art Spiegelman had to more-or-less pry the concentration camp stories out of his father, Vladek. Both books reveal a kind of rawness in the parent-child relationship, and a good portion of Maus is certainly about how difficult that relationship was for Spiegelman. In Flying Couch, young Amy was a willing audience for her grandmother, both as a child and adult. Her grandmother always did the talking, something with annoyed her mother but something that Amy found endearing, which is why her story is told in such a straightforward manner. Of course, and this puts closer to Katin's book, Kurzweil's grandmother never went to a concentration camp. This is not to say that she didn't have a harrowing existence for several years, but the level of trauma and suffering was far less than those who managed to survive the camps. Katin's book similarly told the story of a woman and her young daughter (Katin) who managed to survive on their wits and avoid the camps. 

Bubbe is portrayed as delightful, inspiring, infuriating, overbearing and a singular but kind force. Kurzweil does a fine job of bringing her to life, eccentricities and all. Where this book falters in terms of the writing is how Kurzweil depicted her mother and how Kurzweil depicted herself. Throughout the book, she describes herself as drifting and detached, simultaneously pulled in by and feeling compelled to move away from her family. While I respect the honesty of this depiction, it makes for a weak center of the book. Other than the fact that she's intelligent and has anxiety, the reader never gets a sense as to Kurzweil is. Even during the one section of the book that really focuses on her, which was her Birthright trip to Israel, all we got was a surface account of the experience. She talked about and around the problems she had with Israel and the self-paralysis that came with reading countless books about the subject, but it was one more Kurzweil as a drifting figure who was being pulled by all sorts of influences.

To her credit, there's a strong awareness of how she's being pulled by faith, ideology and science in different directions, and she refused to provide an answer as to how these things might be integrated. For her, there was no specific answer, which may very well have led to her drifting so much. The problem is that in terms of storytelling, that sense of drifting is repeated a number of times throughout its often repetitive 300 pages. With regard to her mother, it's funny that Kurzweil depicts her reading an earlier version of this book (a college thesis) and critiquing how she was portrayed--that she was more than just a therapist. Unfortunately, this is exactly how her mom is shown: as a distant, arrogant, know-it-all who is constantly nagging her daughter about her future. She's the stereotypical therapist who can't see her own problems and how they affect others. While there is certainly affection and respect in their relationship, there was too much unresolved for this to be considered in any way a story about her mother beyond Kurzweil's own narrow understanding and relationship with her. Kurzweil is simply too close to the situation to be able to tell the story with any degree of objectivity, and it seems clear that she was not very interested in trying very hard to do it.

So the narrative was a mess, though it was at least an interesting mess. Kurzweil was all over the place, frequently jumping back and forth in time even as there was a slow journey through Kurzweil's college years and beyond. The real problem with the book is that Kurzweil's chops as a draftswoman were simply not up to par for this kind of story. If I'm correct, she drew most or all of the story on a computer, and it shows. Her figurework is indistinct, her use of perspective often produced strange effects for no discernible reason and her constant use of greyscaling seemed to be in an effort to cover up her weak line, difficulty working with negative space and general difficulty working in a naturalistic style. This is unfortunate, because her open page format was often quite clever, especially when she'd superimpose images on maps and floorplans or compare life events to boardgames. There are a lot of whimsical sequences that involve page composition that don't quite work because, above all else, her faces are not distinct and expressive enough to carry the story. They often look overworked, as she sometimes adds lines just to add them, and the greyscaling does her no favors at all in this regard. If Kurzweil had more fully embraced the grotesque and scribbly qualities of her work like another woman name-checked, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, then I think the book might have been different. But it was obvious in terms of the poses she drew that she thought she was not working in that tradition.  Kurzweil went in too many different directions all at once, inspired by so many different works that she openly name-checks, and the result was a memoir that was neither fish nor fowl. It didn't have a strong authorial voice, nor did it show appropriate storytelling restraint at other times. It was a mess, but a worthwhile mess, to be sure, one that shows an artist who wanted to make a masterpiece right out of the gate but who couldn't quite get things to hold together. I'd love to see her attempt a follow-up to this book sometime in the future, when she both has had the time to continue to hone her craft and has a little more distance and perspective with regard to both herself and her own mother.