Monday, November 7, 2016

Minis: Haleigh Buck

Haleigh Buck's minis are raw, honest and hilarious, even when delving into the darkest of impulses. Her Cretin Comix is a good place to start, as we get to see a broad range of autobiographical stories explored. "My First" is a gross, grotesque and horrifyingly funny account of Buck's revolting first boyfriend, who was the typical man-baby layabout who preferred playing video games with her little brother than spending time with her. He preyed on her lack of self-esteem until one hilarious night where she finally realized she could simply leave him--and he did, at a convenience store, shouting "I think we should see other people!" as she drove off. There are strips about having to deal with customers taking photos at the bookstore she worked at, complaining about other people's PDA, sleeping too much, sleeping too little, her obsession with buying a recreational vehicle, and the struggles she has with her anthropomorphized brain. She hints at her larger struggles with "Just Your Average Panic Attack", detailing (with almost manic hatching and cross-hatching) the precise physical and mental symptoms that precipitate and make up her debilitating panic attacks.

Buck prefers a dense, detail-rich style that is mostly naturalistic, but also uses a lot of Will Elder-style "eye pops" and little side-jokes. She makes a lot of use of spotting blacks, and there's rarely a space that isn't filled in. That gives her art a dense and occasionally suffocating quality, especially since she crams it all into nine or ten panels on a page. This style works for her, especially since she makes most of her stories short enough to not wear the reader out and give them natural rest points. There's also a "Herman the Hot Dog" story, about an anthropomorphic hot dog going on a camping trip in the woods and getting kidnapped by aliens. It's a silly, grotesque story that makes great use of her skill for exaggerated naturalism and her underground comics-influenced, anything-goes sense of humor.

Her best work, however, is in her two issues of I Feel Weird. It's a narrative of sorts told in vignette form, detailing the way she sought intervention for her mental breakdown and suicidal ideations. What's harrowing about it, as it is in so many near-suicide stories, is how close she depicts herself as being to killing herself. She was in the process of drowning herself in her tub when she heard her dog howling to go outside, and that simple act flipped a switch. All throughout, Buck's acerbic, self-deprecatory sense of humor adds a different layer of tension as she pokes through the maudlin aspects of her story with quotes like, "God damn it! Why is my life and near-death a fucking sideshow?" The panel where she pauses and looks off to the side and (in huge, hand-scripted letters) says "Ok. Fine! I will call for help" is as real as it gets. She even jokes around with the person she asks for help.

What is distinctive and awful about her story is just how little people were willing to actually try to help. The ER clerk was utterly nonchalant. Her mother, when she called her earlier, simply suggested getting a boyfriend to solve her problems. The intake nurse accused her of being a pill-seeker and incredibly told her to leave, which inspired an epic rant from Buck, as she talked about how she wanted to live and make everyone in that hospital suffer. Other vignettes feature Buck talking about moving in with her best friend in an effort to recover, absurd "anxiety cures" that had been foisted on her, the camaraderie she felt with her fellow employees at Atomic Books, the total absurdity of a mental-illness themed rock music show called the "Kooky, Crazy Flashback Hour" and the continuing conflict she feels with her own brain and the way it puts her down. In the notes at the end of the comic, she said that the comics were drawn on her "good days", and it shows, because her art went to another level in I Feel Weird. It's sharper, crisper and more emotionally powerful. She was able to access and express her pain like few artists I've seen, and do it in a way that still somehow managed to be funny in a lot of places.

I Feel Weird #2 comes at the reader with more of the same sort of vignettes, like Buck starting to cry for no reason now (a side-effect of the medication, she wonders?), an anxiety attack in a grocery store after she tried to face her fears, a moment of peace spent outdoors, and some moments of deep connection felt at a New Year's Eve party when a friend drunkenly reached out to her. Her work is not quite as sharp here, as one got the sense that she was trying to simply get as much information on the page as possible, like on one page where she crammed in seventeen panels, each one about a third full of text. When Buck let the page breathe a bit more, like in the astounding "Psychyotherapy Session One", it lets her facility with body language and emotion really jump off the page. The session she describes is jaw-dropping in terms of the surprising lack of empathy and overall cluelessness of the therapist. Buck goes into a lot of detail regarding not just her feelings of worthlessness, but also genuine confusion as to how other people seem to have their act together. The method at the clinic, creating a "personal healing tree" for patients, results first in a stare of disbelief and a cry of "Are you fucking kidding me?" The therapist coldly responds that this is a mandated program, and it's revealed that Buck can't afford other treatment. Toward the end, Buck's brain character is telling her to leave, as the therapist manages to repeatedly screw up getting Buck's name spelled correctly, then he computer froze, and then the session ran out of time. What's remarkable about the end is that despite the anger and frustration welling up in her, she agrees to come back. That last panel is a full page worthy of Phoebe Gloeckner in terms of it simultaneous fidelity to naturalism and its unerring ability to get across a wide variety of emotions.

It's obvious that these comics are an important part of Buck's recovery, which makes how visually accomplished they are all the more remarkable. These comics are a howl, not just on her behalf, but on behalf of everyone who feels so alienated from society and mental health that it's impossible to conceive what living free of anxiety might even look like. Part of Buck's resistance to actually ending her life may lie in her (quite healthy) fear of death, but a larger part of it is an anger at not being able to live her life the way she wants, and these comics are a way of expressing that righteous anger as well as depicting the small moments of clarity an calm. Finally, the fact that her pitch-black sense of humor knows no bounds, especially with regard to her own feelings, makes reading these comics undeniably entertaining, despite all of the pain underlying it. Buck is simply a great storyteller with sharp observational skills who is allowing herself to tell her own story her own way.

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