Thursday, November 3, 2016

Old North State Comics: Audra Stang, Triangle Printed Matter Club

There's a small but growing scene in North Carolina, clustered in its larger towns like Durham, Greensboro, and Asheville. Durham's neighbors, Chapel Hill & Raleigh, are also important cultural centers thanks to the university communities in those towns, but scenes are popping up all over, featuring drink and draws, readings and other social groups that emphasize drawing.

Love Me Like An Autograph, April 2008, June 2008, and Pale, Sick & Magic, by Audra Stang. Stang is an artist from Greensboro who's been through Frank Santoro's Comics Workbook Rowhouse Residency program. It's evident from her most recent work that she's really studied the grid and taken its lessons to heart. Stang has an exceptional ear for dialogue and has an ability to bring a scene to life (in the case of these comics, either high school or the milieu of a traveling band). Her figure drawing has all the right elements: attention to body language, attention to the way characters interact in space, the nuances of gesture, etc. She also shows an enormous amount of restraint as a storyteller, sometimes even leaving backstories deliberately oblique. Stang has little interest in backstory, except when she's ready to reveal a detail that has an especially pertinent impact on the story at that moment.

Love Me Like An Autograph follows a tour of a fairly popular indy band, focusing on its lead singer and guitarist, a chubby, big guy named Oliver. He is a talented singer and performer with a crippling fear of playing before crowds, so much so that he pukes on stage at the beginning of the story. That push-pull with the crowds, with himself and with his best friend and fellow bandmate Luke. Their relationship is the key to this story, as it's clear that they've been in each other's lives forever and have that unique ability to both call each other out on their bullshit as well as needle the other in very specific ways. That aggression is a mask for their mutual affection, as it's clear their friendship runs deep. Their are physical altercations, screaming matches, bouncing on hotel beds, drinking cheap bar and roaming around the towns they're touring in in search of fun (some of Greensboro's key cultural hotspots, like Acme Comics and Ed McKay's books are name-dropped). The story is really about how Oliver has trouble processing being an artist who is actually loved by a small group of fans; indeed, he seems to have trouble processing any emotions that run counter to his obvious lack of self-esteem. The one guy in his corner at all times is Luke, even if Luke is an asshole and has trouble expressing his affection in ways that aren't hyper-aggressive and obnoxious. The story follows them slowly working it out, with the end of the story mirroring the beginning as the band goes on for another show. There's so much going on here formally that's interesting: the use of an eight-panel grid on every page except a page at the beginning and at the end when Oliver's performing, when the grid is broken up; this reflects Oliver's dreamy entrance into the bliss of actually playing and accepting himself in the moment. The comic is a downward-scrolling read, and there are all sorts of clever references, like a big fight taking place in a motel off Battleground Avenue in Greensboro. It looks like this was originally done in color for the web, and the smudgy greyscaling doesn't look great on a lot of the pages, but Stang's line is strong enough to counteract that.

As a sort of prequel to Love Me Like An Autograph, Stang did two short minis, April 2008 and June 2008. Both are set in the early years of high school and feature characters named Bryson and Adelaide, the latter of whom is a cartoonist. The first mini once again really plays to Stang's strengths: setting a scene, using body language and gesture to convey information, and then supplementing and contrasting that with pitch-perfect dialogue. Her use of a sort varying color wash for each character in each panel quietly adds to the sense of mood without taking the reader out of the story. The story is simply about character interactions: a bigger guy named Jesse wants Adelaide to draw him a picture. There's some tension between Adelaide and Bryson regarding a potential mutual attraction framed in such a way that depicts them declaring their lack of interest. Stang just nails that awkward sense of longing mediated by aggression and disinterest as a shield. June 2008 adds Oliver to the still-awkward friendship pairing of Adelaide and Bryson, as the three of them go off to set off home-made fireworks. In the span of a few months, Adelaide's energy is very different; she has a mischievous and impish quality to her not unlike Little Lulu; in fact, she even looks a little like her. This one's not in color and it loses a little in that translation, but once again Stang's character design is so distinctive that it doesn't matter much.

Pale, Sick and Magic is Stang's best work to date. It features some of that oblique storytelling at first, but later adds greater clarity to the proceedings without sacrificing storytelling restraint. Stang is simply more confident and assured in this comic, and it shows in terms of her character design and sharper plotting skills. Simply put, there's no waste or anything superfluous in this story, yet it still unfolds at Stang's usual languid pace. The plot concerns a missing high school boy and two girls who knew him, but Stang subverts typical reader expectations in terms of whom the protagonist of the story is. When he eventually is found dead, the person he haunts (in their dreams) is Lindsey, a popular mean-girl type who is trying to leave that past behind. Melanie used to be close to the boy, named Michael, before they had a falling-out. Initially, it's unclear why Melanie is so hostile to Lindsey, who seems like a perfectly nice person. When it's revealed that Lindsey used to torture Melanie about her weight and really put the boot in after Melanie confessed her feelings toward Michael and was rejected, Stang skillfully finds a way for the reader to feel sympathetic towards all parties. The scenes with Lindsey and Michael are wonderfully awkward; he's happy to talk to anyone at this point, but the two really have nothing to say to each other. Melanie's scored-earth reactions as Lindsey desperately tries to atone for her past are pitch-perfect, especially since Lindsey had so much to do with Melanie developing and honing her verbal defenses over the years. There is no magical, happy ending. Something bad happened, and it was too late for someone else to make up for their own bad behavior. Stang uses the nine-panel grid here, and each center panel is used to either provide a pivot point for the rest of the page in terms of raising its energy, or conversely providing a single resting point for an otherwise busy page. Stang clearly carefully thinks her way through each page, and her development at this point is simply a matter of further refinement and slightly greater clarity as she continues to develop her own, distinctive style.

Conversations with Strangers, by the Triangle Printed Matter Club. Local to Durham, this group of zinesters, cartoonists and general aficionados of small press comics meets twice a month to discuss comics, share their work and collaborate. This anthology was the result of the club's first major collaboration. The theme does a great job of uniting the many different kinds of short entries in this zine, from comics to prose to collage to poetry. It's fairly crude in execution in a lot of spots, but there's a tremendous sense of cohesion, as it's a surprisingly fluid read. Some of the highlights include C. May Spivey's cleverly-designed two-pager about helping out a man while she was camping, despite her well-founded fears. Creating a trail between two circular panels on opposite pages and surrounding them with thought balloons created tension and balanced the pages nicely. Michelle Dove and Jeff Stern both did "overheard conversations" text pieces, while KBlanK did a provocative photo collage centered around fishing and objectification. Julia Harmon's "Getting To Know You" is an intriguing image of three women in bed together, rendered in greyscaled watercolors. Rio Aubry Taylor used zir trademark "wide-hatching" technique to create a swirling set of figures and buildings melting into each other, while Ije O'ma's pregnancy and childbirth images were created solely out of text. Allie Mullin's mix of text and image really gets at how empaths can be overridden by strangers who take over their emotional space with their own toxic, narcissistic stew. It's the quintessential piece for this book, as it mixed comics and text in a visually striking and powerful manner.

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