Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #1: April Malig

April Malig is one of the most distinctive stylists to graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies, and I always look forward to what she's going to come up with when I'm preparing my annual feature on graduates of CCS.

I Didn't Have Instagram When I Lived In Seoul is a series of dizzyingly colorful photographs and a few comics made with a Risograph. What's fascinating about this zine is that the bright photographs and interesting composition of her photos (lots of framing around public structures) are an interesting match for her other comics, which tend to be heavy on saturated colors and poetic language. Shape and color are the most important elements of Malig's comics, as they convey the emotional content of what she's trying to express instead of using narrative and line. This zine is actually an exception in that regard, as the comics here are conventionally drawn and quotidian in their observations: it's as though the experience of living in Seoul was so strange in so many ways that she had to concretize her daily experiences as much as possible: drinking green tea lattes, bundling up to a ridiculous extent during winter, getting big stalks of celery at the supermarket and pretending it was a sword. Those are snapshot moments burned in memory and related as plainly as possible, as opposed to the near-abstraction of the actual snapshots she took of the city. The streets and buildings are recognizable as such, only Malig pushes certain color schemes in such a way as to make them look strange and unfamiliar, like walking through Times Square under the influence of psychedelics. In other words, things do look strange in an objective sense, but the nature of those things is warped by one's own perceptions. It's Malig's way of looking at the world.

Moon Banana carries that way of looking at the world further, as Malig has page after page of Riso-heavy work that's immersive in the best possible way. Malig has a knack for using the brightest of colors, like pinks and yellows, in the most fluid and least lurid manner possible. Instead, there's a beauty in images where she's breathing out colors and the text, integrated with the images, reads "All I want, really, is to breathe out/A tiny piece of me/And have it/Find its way to you". In another strip, this time in a nine-panel grid, she uses color patterns to depict speed and have it segue into its natural state on the page, which is stillness. It's a clever twisting of reader observation and expectation. On other pages, Malig abandons bright colors and instead focuses on light/dark contrasts shifting between positive and negative space, like in the way the leaves and branches of a forest flickered in and out. In another strip, Malig's use of text splayed across the page was the visual focus of the piece, with the sea foam photo underneath underscoring the poem she wrote about identity. Yet another piece is a mix of the bright Riso colors and the extensive use of negative/positive space, with two faceless figures separated by a wall.

Bad Feelings Zine #1 is similar to Moon Banana, only the poetic observations she makes are all on the darker side. Sometimes the observations are directed at the reader, sometimes they are directed to the artist as though from someone else, and sometimes they aren't aimed at anyone in particular, like the one series of overlapping, colored circles within a hand with the captions "Feelings fade,/And all that's left is that familiar relief." Another page is in black and white with a light green background, depicting a sea of hands with the caption "Some days just feel like ones you have to swim through". The sentiments and imagery veer from cynicism to fatalism to an almost bemused kind of hope. The feelings expressed her are certainly personal, but they're more on an existential level than anything else, as they talk about the limits of human perception, the frailty of human sanity and how getting out of the now is so risky because of what might await us. Malig's pitch-black sense of humor prevents these observations from becoming overly morbid or self-indulgent, and her keen design sense makes every page worth looking at.

So, I Fucked Up and I've Watched A Lot of Wong Kar Wai Movies are more recent photocomics from Malig. Malig's clearly hit on something with these photo zines. Once again, the highly saturated and exaggerated use of color for the photos turns them from something that's purely descriptive to something that occupies a kind of in-between space, a space between dream and reality. The first zine details a number of mistakes that start small and unassuming, like sprained fingers and a cataract stemming from embarrassing situations. Then came a far deeper confession, followed by this heartbreaking passage "Misplacing my affection in those that no had desire to hold, to keep, or even acknowledge it." The image is a distorted flower, which was remarkably apt given a flower's symbolic place in love and romance. The second mini is about the kind of relationship one might see in the titular director's movies: vividly depicted but doomed romances. Like the other mini, this one focuses on mistakes made but ultimately ends on a note of redemption, or at least self-affirmation and forgiveness. The photos have a way of externalizing the expression of Malig's emotions that words or even drawings alone could not capture: that sense of living in a larger-than-life, trippy world were things often seem more and less real at the same time.

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