Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #15: Anna Sellheim, Tillie Walden

Anna Sellheim is an example of a cartoonist whose versatility and willingness to explore different kinds of stylization make allow her to modulate the emotional content of her comics. Her comics are also powerfully intimate, even those that are genre or fiction. For example, Malai is a story about a space explorer writing a letter to a close friend. When Sellheim is drawing the astronaut dictating her letter, it's in crisp black & white. When she talks about the planets that she visited, it's in glorious, melting color. The key sequence is when she visited a planet where one's emotions take physical form when you are on the planet's surface. For some, they felt wonder and joy, and they had a great time. For the explorer, she was gripped by fear, which brought on pain, despair and panic as physical forms that tried to snuff her out. Sellheim then takes a narrative left turn as thinking about that experience made her realize that what she was really feeling hurt about was the friendship she felt disintegrating, and that experienced forced her to speak plainly about her feelings. It's as good a metaphor for anxiety as I've ever read, as well as a prescription for boldly living. It was that contrast of styles that made the metaphor really come to life.

Fractured is a first-person slice-of-life comic about a woman with overwhelming social anxiety who has just left a party. Whether or not this is Sellheim's actual experience is not relevant, because what she captures on the page is so remarkably true-to-life. Essentially, it's about a horrendous anxiety attack that has a painful, somatic component. In the throes of pain and confusion, all she wishes for is her death, the gift of simply not existing. What helps her resist acting on that feeling is a sort of sense of pride and of wanting to control her own narrative. Killing herself would end her narrative in an unsatisfying way, so the only choice she has is to wait for the feeling to pass and hope things get better. In this comic, Sellheim mostly uses a naturalistic style with heavy black and white contrasts on each page after the party, which is intentionally bright and airy. Like Malai, Sellheim sets up a single point related to the possibility of human connection and brings it home hard after a small bit of narrative misdirection.

There For Us was originally a webcomic done in collaboration with Tillie Walden. It's about each of their experiences visiting Planned Parenthood; Sellheim to check out a lump under her breast and Walden to address debilitating menstrual cramps. Using a more naturalistic style, Sellheim uses a very thin line weight and makes extensive use of black & white contrasts to explore her understanding of Planned Parenthood as a child and how friendly and welcoming the experience was for her as an adult. Walden's contribution is in her typical thin, long line that veers from sharply detailed to ghostly and sketchy--especially her character designs. Growing up in Texas, she had been fed negative propaganda regarding PP, and she was delighted to get a doctor who listened to her concerns, felt empathy for her and then worked out a solution. It is astounding how rare that can be sometimes, especially with regard to issues related to women's health. The mini was done in support of Planned Parenthood after Congress was threatening to defund it.

While these were all solid comics, the real meat of Sellheim's work is her highly stylized autobio work, and Everything's Fine: And On And On is a perfect example. Her avatar for these comics is a figure in a red hoodie with a face made of interwoven fibers and no human features. All of her friends get their own brand of stylization as well, but Sellheim's avatar is a shorthand for the defenses she puts up against the world. These comics are all about Sellheim trying to figure herself out and how best to deal with life considering that she struggles with mental illness. Beyond the vivid use of color and unusual character design, what sets these comics apart is Sellheim's pitch-black sense of humor. She also manages to adapt instances of intensely awkward interactions into painfully awkward humor, like one strip where she talks about not wanting to date a particular guy because he's a terrible writer. When pressed, she sticks her foot in mouth and states she doesn't want to date any artists, period because they are "over-sensitive entitled babies". Of course, she said this to a carload full of artists and added a weak " offense". Sellheim ponders her own sexuality and wonders if she may be asexual while being bombarded by love songs on the radio and also relates a couple of examples of dating-related interactions that remind her why she hates it so much. When the prospective guy says "I really like Dilbert, Frank Miller & Frank Cho" and she responds "...I see.", I laughed out loud. The comic closes on a therapeutic technique that actually works, which further demonstrates the flexibility of this approach. Sellheim can veer from the darkly comedic to the sincere, and the stylization allows for both.

Finally, Sellheim's short story "You Were Beautiful" is an interesting departure, as she uses a grey wash and fairly naturalistic drawing in this depiction of a woman talking about her life after a relationship that slowly went south, but it was one she tolerated because she was so attracted to him. Sellheim really gets into anatomy here: noses, lips, torsos, backs, and more. It's a depiction of a kind of romanticized objectification that allowed her to ignore his less pleasant tendencies. It's a bitter little vignette, where the protagonist delivers that bitterness mostly to herself.

No comments:

Post a Comment