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.

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