Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Kilgore: Emi Gennis, Tom Van Deusen

The Plunge, by Emi Gennis (Kilgore Books). Gennis' line and prose are extremely similar: precise, clear and fluid. Gennis is known for her sharply-paced historical comics that often dwell on morbid subjects, so she actually had me in suspense in reading the story of Annie Edson Taylor, who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901. While the story was very much a procedural on how she came to the idea, how she designed the special barrel and what happened during and after her attempt, this comic is really about all of the things that really made Taylor interesting. She claimed to be 43 but was really 63, and what she hoped to accomplish as an unmarried, older woman was to make enough money to essentially set up her retirement fund. She claimed to have been all over the country, teaching and founding various schools, even though her claims were invalidated. What was clear was that she was single, was clever and was a survivor above all else. The tragedy of the story was how this independent, intelligent woman was ultimately exploited and tricked by a con man, denying her the legacy and security she so feverishly worked for. Of course, she was trying to exploit her own shock-value hucksterism, but in a time when women had so few channels for achieving material success and security, it's no wonder. Visually, Gennis chiefly uses two tricks: dense hatching and claustrophobic page design and panel composition when she's confined, and the use of a lot of negative space (implying that freedom she hungered for) on most of the the other pages. This is a compelling, well-told story with a number of different angles, both factual and anthropological.

Scorched Earth, by Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books). This is viciously funny satire, with autobiography-as-fiction informing these stories of a Tom who is a slovenly and grotesque figure whose worst features are his massive sense of entitlement, infantile emotional development, and a narcissistic streak that's a mile wide. In reviews here and here, I compared him to a sociopathic Peter Bagge character like Stinky Brown, or perhaps more precisely the logical extreme of beta male who feels like they're being persecuted. When given the slightest amount of encouragement or power, Tom abuses it in some extreme but completely realistic ways. He fancies his one-night-stand as a girlfriend that he can brag about to his mom, then turns her polyamory as a way to hit on younger girls at a party. There is a disturbing level of authenticity in terms of "Tom's" speech patterns, behavior and thought processes, as though Van Deusen dredged the depths of his desires and imagination and came up with his worst possible impulses as fuel for satire.

The material that wasn't in the first two issues of Scorched Earth goes even further in some ways, though Van Deusen makes it very clear that his Tom character is meant to be a buffoon and not taken seriously. One could draw that conclusion from his earlier strips, but there was just enough ambiguity to really give his comics a surprising level of shock value. The strip where he's talked into getting an absurd, dangerous and expensive vaping device makes him like like an obvious idiot, even as the salesman plays him like a drum. He falls for rhetoric praising his taste, his masculinity and his "executive" status, and eventually winds up catching on fire. In another story, he does a youtube unboxing video for a new katana he bought (sort of like people do for toys), mostly to insult another youtube user. Van Deusen does something interesting here, as most office comedies tend to focus on a protagonist working against an irritant.

Here, the irritant (Tom) is the protagonist, which is done to deliberately make the reader feel uncomfortable while giving him characters to bounce off of, as he incredibly brings his sword to work and proves to be insufferable to his rational co-workers. In another work story, he's given that tiniest modicum of authority (interviewing a job candidate) and it immediately gives him a god complex, as he tries to fire a co-worker who annoys him and he starts the interview in the bathroom in a misguided attempt to see if the interviewee can think on his toes. It's cringe humor at its best, as is the follow-up to the story where he gets dumped and decides to hire someone to harass the guy whom he thinks is going out with his girlfriend. Here, Van Deusen goes beyond the plausibly douchey and goes straight to absurdity, even as the tone of the story remains entirely consistent. This is where Bagge's influence makes itself clear, as there's an escalating series of poor decisions and deals with unstable wild cards that ultimately make a situation turn absolutely bonkers. This comic is very much an antidote and answer to autobio comics where the actions of the author go largely self-unexamined. Van Deusen's storytelling and sometimes wobbly line add to the whole aesthetic of depicting someone who is just moments away from saying or doing something horrible, or having his entire life collapse around him.

Monday, January 30, 2017

mini-Kus! Of The Week #10: Booger, Lacko, Van Gheluwe

mini-Kus! #48: Nul, by Olive Booger. This is a harrowing account of one young man's crush being swept up in a whirlwind of inexplicable savagery. It follows the diary of a young man who is pursuing a young woman who seems mostly indifferent to his intentions. He starts stalking her and learns that she's left the country for a job. Managing to weasel her Skype address out of her cousin, he is surprised to find how much she seems to miss him on the call--and she invites him to come out to the island where she's working for a job of his own. From there, comedy turns into confusion as he doesn't understand the language and is perplexed at taking tests that ask him seemingly randomly whether a particular thing is cool or "nul" (stupid). Confusion turns into horror when he realizes he will never see his crush, he's assigned a wife, and learns that being considered nul is a license for execution.

Using a ratty line similar to Gary Panter and a nauseating palette that also resembles Panter at his most disturbing, Booger's strict six-panel grid creates a suffocating effect on each page from the very beginning of the comic. It's as though the reader is meant to see the world through the eyes of the protagonist: a paranoid, suffocating world where he's the one doing the oppressing. His world is grotesque and distorted, which is one reason why he only realizes what's happening to him on the island after it's far too late. His is a world of self-delusion driven to insanity from repeated trauma, and when he's reduced to animal status by the end of the story, he barely contests the idea. It's a remarkably dense, powerful attack on conflating obsession with romance and how those who choose to not ask questions inevitably wind up being sacrificed. There's a bit where he's allowed to go back to France in order to become a suicide bomber against "nuls", and all he can focus on is how happy he is to be eating Oreos again. As he descends into savagery and madness, he continues to fixate on those cookies as a symbol of how essentially he misses when his life was cool.

mini-Kus! #49: Call of Cthulhu, by Martin Lacko (adapted from H.P. Lovecraft). Yes, this is indeed a highly abbreviated adaption of the Lovecraft story done in MS Paint. Lacko distills the most essential elements of the story (a group of sailors accidentally letting monstrous elder god Cthulhu out of his crypt), which is important because what Lovecraft is known best for is thousands of words' worth of world building and scene descriptions. Beyond that, he intentionally uses the thickness of his prose as a way of creating this sort of dread mythology of hidden and madness-inducing knowledge becoming visible just very briefly. In many respects, he's the ultimate "tell, don't show" author. What Lacko does is totally demystify that entire process, laying it bare as the silly monster story that it truly is. Cthulhu here is a big, green squid-like monster with a slight grin. The story essentially boils down to a chase scene and an unexpected maneuver that saves the few remaining sailors from the monsters, though as Lovecraft would tell you, they were irrevocably changed. Doing it with the crudeness of MS Paint is not only funny, it was a way for the artist to deliberately handicap himself when drawing Lovecraft's world. In other words, he certainly could have drawn a properly scary and monstrous Cthulhu, but the reality is that no illustration of the monster has ever looked quite right because Lovecraft was deliberate in trying to describe something that could not quite be described or apprehended by the human mind. So rather than attempt to do so, Lacko went in the other direction, with the crudest possible drawings made without even the direct influence of his own hand. It's a good joke and does reveal that there's a lot of suggestion and stylization in Lovecraft and very little substance, but in an odd way it's also strangely reverent to Lovecraft in acknowledging that it takes an alien or artificial hand to depict the reality-bending world of Cthulhu.

mini-Kus! #50: Spectacular Vermacular, by Mathilde Van Gheluwe. This is a lovely story about being in one place in life and feeling tremendous sadness for a time in the past that was very much betwixt and between. Vlad the talking cat is a famous film star who appears on a talk show and was shown an old photo, when he was the mascot of the witch/stage magician Spectacular Vermacular. Van Gheluwe heart-breakingly depicts the moments after the photo was taken, when Vermacular decided to move on with her life and go to Vegas in search of her career. It's a devastating moment because what is left unsaid is how their partnership dissolved and why, but it's clear that Vlad made it big and she didn't. There's a look of guilt and remorse on Vlad's face, but there's something else as well--a look of wistfulness. In a bright and cartoony style, Van Gheluwe uses that cheery quality to get at that sense of wish for a time that is now in the past, and worst of all, wasn't properly appreciated at the time. The level of detail with regard to the hopes, dreams and frustrations of the witch makes the ending especially poignant, even if Van Gheluwe winks at the audience just a bit by going over the top.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Minis From Marnie Galloway

Marnie Galloway is one of the most significant new talents of the last five years, and after finishing the highly work-intensive book In The Sounds And Seas, she's unsurprisingly become much more prolific. Regarding the third and final self-published volume of that series, Galloway's narrative becomes quite grim in its allegory about the struggle of trying to create something. The central and repeating motif of this series is weaving, as the three central women of the narrative at first weave their voices together in song, appearing as fish, birds and rabbits. Their eventual goal became making and sailing a ship, with one of the three women becoming literally intertwined with the ship as its captain as her crewmates wove the ship's ropes into her long hair. The voyage to an unspecified location (deliberately so) was a success when they had their harbinger of good luck, a crow, with them. When the crow died, disaster struck.

Disaster came in the form of a brutal story that was the visual highlight of the entire series. Galloway's use of the grid became more and more expansive, varying from four panels to entire pages per panel. Her dense hatching and cross-hatching created a foreboding atmosphere, and the thick blacks helped create a sense of total, blind panic. One of the crew was swept overboard, and the other crewmember tied herself to the captain's hair/rope in order to dive in after her in the midst of the howling storm. The result was for naught, as both crewmembers were lost, and the weeping captain turned the ship around in an effort to find them. After days of dropping anchor and her hair in hopes of them being alive, she brought the ship aground on an island. She then spent days without purpose, acting solely in survival mode as she lay on the hammock, slept, woke and wept. When she accidentally set the ship on fire, she had to cut off her long hair to free herself from the ropes. This sent her back to the drawing board in designing another ship. Meanwhile, the reader discovers that one of the crew is still alive, hanging on some flotsam, until she dives beneath the waves to merge into that wave of fish, birds and rabbits from early in the story.

What Galloway seems to be getting at in this series is an examination of creativity, collaboration and sisterhood. The three women may not literally be sisters, but they are comrades in heeding and feeling the call to create something together. The song whose notes they sing in harmony is about living things, the urge to explore nature and one's environment. It's a song that never ends, as long as one is willing to give over one's life to it. The voyage doesn't have a goal because the destination is the journey itself: the time spent together, working together, playing together. It's a delicate balance that can be thrown off course or even destroyed by bad luck, circumstance and tragedy. In the end, the remaining sisters find themselves starting from square one as creators, because there is no differentiation between creation and asserting one's existence and quest for meaning. It is telling that Galloway's first major work as a cartoonist is about  the process of creation and the hard, boring and work-intensive nature of that process in the form of tying knots and constructing a boat. The song is the joyous spark of inspiration, which is followed by drudgery that eventually has a payoff. The fact that she drew this in the most work-intensive manner possible short of stippling every image shows how she perhaps thought of this five-year process as her own rocky maiden voyage, with her collaborators being different aspects of her self. The fact that the ship seems to fail at the end of the story seems to reflect the way that nearly every work by an artist never matches up to the idealism form from their imagination--that song of inspiration. The end seems to be a way of saying that this sort of failure was OK and even necessary, and that everyone simply needed to get back to work. It's a beautiful shot across the proverbial bow for a young cartoonist announcing her skill, her work ethic, her storytelling prowess and her sheer ambition.

What one discovers in her other minis is that by making the choice to make her first major work silent, Galloway decided to work with one hand behind her back, because she's a lyrical writer. Particle/Wave, for example, is an autobio comic published by So What? Press, and it's a heartbreaking story of familial loss with a high concept that goes beyond simply being clever and is in fact essential to the way the story is told. It's a flip comic, with each of its two stories meeting in the middle in a two-page spread of the moon. The title refers to the dual nature of light, which behaves in some ways like a series of particles and behaves in other ways like a wave--depending on how one observes it. One story features Galloway talking about her missing brother, who chose to remove himself from the lives of his family, a little at a time. Galloway is truly a formalist tinkerer in terms of layout, and there's a restlessness on each page that mimics Galloway's general sense of unease that she expresses throughout. On the first two pages, she flips between images of her waiting for her brother with black panels with white text, as the reader slowly comes to understand what's going on. The third page's first two panels have no borders, as her inability to sleep is made literal on the page with the intensity of the hatching on the blanket. After that interruption, she resumes the panel/black panel flip until we finally learn it's her brother that she's talking about.

The rest of the story is devoted to a mourning ritual, as she smokes one of his cigars, drinks his whiskey and listens to his music under a cold night sky. Tears mix with the visceral experience of the cigar, the whiskey and the cold, her every sense being pounded as she comes to the understanding that the ritual can never let her actually let her say good-bye to him. Her brother is the wave displacing particles, not caring about the effect he's having. In the flip story, Galloway goes big in discussing the origin of the Earth and moon, which is that the Earth collided with a smaller-sized planet, resulting in its remains revolving around Earth after both bodies cooled down. Galloway noted that an astronomer named that body Theia, after the Greek Titan that gave birth to the sun, dawn and earth, but that in so doing, erased her story since the planet was destroyed. "What a bro move", she wryly noted. In this story Galloway once again brought up family, this time in the face of the impending birth of her son. The images depicted the impact and the bodies smoothing over after a long period of time, while her text reflected stories of how her mother raised her, of how blowing a kiss off the moon became a family tradition, and wondering how her son will see the moon. In other words, how will she connect with him on a personal level, and how will she be able to find ways to connect him to missing loved ones, like her brother? Here, she and her son are both waves, spreading out throughout the universe, with an uncertain impact. There's a sense of hope but also trepidation to be found in a story where every page is a fairly detailed space drawing, providing a perfect counterpoint to the way she went small in the other story.

Burrow finds Galloway working in fiction but also drawing from her own experience in some ways. This is an interesting comic because Galloway eschewed a lot of her heavier effects and instead went for a clear-line style in the tradition of Megan Kelso. Indeed, some of the lettering effects, the bulky figure work, and even the faces remind me a lot of Kelso's best comics. Despite those similarities, Galloways' authorial voice is very much her own in this story of a single mother coming home late at night with her infant and settling in, exhausted, into her burrow. There's a flashback to time spent in the jungle as a mycologist and a relationship that started falling apart. Galloway draws parallels between the species she observed as a scientist and the raw animal quality of being a mother taking care of her young like any other species. The mother is depicted as a powerful woman with a body that has some gravitas to it. Galloway is one of the few cartoonists I've ever seen draw a woman's body after pregnancy right: filled out in certain places, scars in others, and constantly coiled like a spring to protect her child.

What makes this mini interesting is the way Galloway captures the near-psychosis that sleep deprivation can induce in a new mother, and in this case it's a poetic hallucination of the jungle and her living room sharing her same space, even as her body merges with the jungle. It's an elegant, extended visual metaphor that fits in with the staccato quality of the mother's narrative voice--almost a chant or a drone about a sense of hyperawareness of one's state, of once again feeling like an animal when her baby is feeding, of the sensation of burrowing like an animal to stay safe in a dangerous forest. Living in a world of limited sleep, being awakened in the middle of the night and being a part of new and incredibly important rituals is all a part of the dreamlike quality of having newborns. In a dream world, so much more is possible.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Breakdown Press: Anna Haifisch, Richard Short

The Artist, by Anna Haifisch. Haifisch's work bears a superficial resemblance to that of Michael Deforge's with her thin line, background detritus and distorted figure work. Though originally printed in Vice, these comics certainly fit in with the Breakdown Press aesthetic. The use of color is slightly off-kilter, the humor is bleak and yet there's a certain propulsive quality at work here with regard to the nameless protagonist. To a degree, a strip making fun of the art world and those whom inhabit its margins is shooting fish in a barrel. However, Haifisch is careful to never let the punchline stray very far from the Artist  himself, a lean, pale and bedraggled figure with four frizzled strands of hair extending from his head and bloodshot eyes. The book consists of short vignettes, with a splash introduction and then a two-page story. That keeps the book moving quickly, as Haifisch has to get to her punchlines without dawdling. The second story, where the artist goes to a gallery show, is hilarious, especially when he says "The world was waiting for this, Marcel 'Douche"-Champ" in response to a ripped campus with a neon light behind it. The visceral disgust toward a naked guy doing performance art was particularly delightful.

Much of the rest of the book focuses on the artist's natural agoraphobia, inability to finish assignments, and overall crippling depression inhibiting his ability to create. A strip about a smug rejection letter from a gallery sees a sinister figure smash the artist's head down. The worst part about the rejection letter was the gallery sending cheap candy and a toy as compensation for the rejection, as though the artist was going to a birthday party and getting a goodie bag. An anxious group dinner leads the artist to say something, no matter how stupid, just to make himself known. A trip home to his loving parents turns humiliating as they tell him their plan to try to encourage the family dentist to buy one of his paintings by putting it in their bathroom when he visits for dinner. The artist's drone art concept turns into tragedy, complete with broken glass and a dead pet. A court judges him for "withdrawn artsy behavior" and finds him guilty for "total uselessness", especially after he reveals his income. After this combination of self-flagellation and sharply observed humor (often preceded by an image invoking a classic work of art), the final strip is both satirical and sweet in its admonition for people to take care of the poor artists in their lives. This is a perfectly-realized book that doesn't wear out its welcome, with a sharp sense of design, engaged sense of humor and a self-awareness that punctures every ounce of pretension possible in the discussion of art and the life of an artist.

Klaus Magazine No. 2, by Richard Short, et al. Short's whimsical, poetic and sometimes bleak comics start from a Charles Schulz template but grow increasingly complex, philosophical and beautiful. As I've noted before, the earthy and sometimes coarse humor as well as the bizarre, anthropomorphic animals remind me a bit of Jon Lewis' classic True Swamp, and the greater sense of continuity in the stories here just reinforced that pleasant association. The book starts off with the titular cat waxing philosophic while laying indolently in the fields, until he happens upon a horse that he secretly falls in love with. The main theme of this issue is what happens when intense desires go unfulfilled, starting with the seemingly calm Klaus being in reality a seething cauldron of lust and hunger. Short often springs images like Klaus badly wanting to eat the bird friend next to him who asks him what he's thinking but managing to restrain himself. What makes the gag so effective is that in response the bird says, "I understand--to name a feeling is to lose it..."

Short takes that theme and expands on it in the story "Fancy", which is all about unrequited love/desire and the sense of being alienated from both one's past and present circumstances. The story revolved around Klaus' desire for Lovely Horse, Lawrence the duck's sad love for a pet cat gone astray named Fancy, and Fancy's intense conflict between freedom and being a pet again. For Klaus, he suffers in sweaty silence, as he always does. For drunkard Lawrence, he attaches himself to the cat in any way possible. Fancy is the character lying to himself and others, as he concocts a plan to free the neighborhood dogs as a ruse for getting rid of the dog that blocks his way back into his old house. It's the sway of a demagogue, with only Klaus being disinterested. The story ends with no one being satisfied, as even Fancy's plans go awry and he's forced to embrace being feral in order to survive. In terms of the oddity of the character design and the expressiveness of the characters, Short's comics are endlessly entertaining, plumbing the character's emotional depths and providing the fodder for some remarkable punchlines.

There are also a number of other features in the magazine, including guest Klaus strips by Michael DeForge (who concentrates on the horror of visual representation) and Alice Socal (whose entry is closer in spirit to Short's). It was fascinating to see Short collaborate with Joe Kessler (the superstar of Breakdown Press), with Kessler's bright and discordant color schemes merging with Short's poetic,existential storytelling. Their story is about conflicts in the nature of identity being conflated with being embodied, with a dog running in the desert representing the height of dogness because of its total commitment to running, as opposed to Klaus and the stray wanting to be freed from their bodies, which they viewed as prisons. The final Klaus strips find Short really exploring the limits of the four-panel grid, exploding the imagery in an almost psychedelic manner in some panels. There's a density to this comic that makes it an especially satisfying read, with both its visuals and its writing equally significant in creating the humor and pathos that make up Short's work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

mini-Kus! Of The Week #9: Michael DeForge, Daria Tessler and Daniel Lima

mini-Kus! #43: Meat Locker, by Michael DeForge. It was a pleasure to see what appears to be slowly coalescing into DeForge's mature style on display in this comic. DeForge managed to cram three thematically connected short stories into one mini, and each one was satisfying in their own way. The first was "Meet Your Personal Trainer", a series of panels featuring what amounted to a personal ad for a personal trainer. In this particular reality, jocks are a marginalized sub-culture like punks or bookworms are in our reality, and DeForge's particular form of body distortion is a snug fit for these poor, desperate characters. The personal trainers may as well be sex workers, given how marginalized they are and how eager to make money they seem to be. People tend to forget just how funny DeForge is as they focus in on the quality of his drawings, but lines like "I have been fired from my past two gyms for falling in love with my clients. Pick me if you want a passionate personal trainer who loves mixing boundaries with pleasure!"

 "Getting Big" features some sly visual jokes from DeForge. Sure, it builds on the trainer-as-sex-worker premise from the first story, this time in the form of a "phone sex" trainer, but it's DeForge making this musclebound character slightly resemble Linus Van Pelt from Peanuts that made me laugh out loud. The pitch-black mouth in an undulating shape that formed on the protagonist's face while screaming about making "the legs of women turn into warm jelly, for passerby to slip on pools of it on the floor" combined DeForge's wit on multiple levels. Adding a layer of hatching behind the figure only made it more intense.

"Jocks" is the true standout of the three, as DeForge's use of color and character design are lurid, heartbreaking and hilarious all at once. Seeing the poor jocks just trying to get a workout or a run in and get harassed by everyone was incredible fun, especially when a gang of jocks goes to the beach and we see all sorts of body types: legs up to the neck, totally musclebound, tanned & toned. They fantasize about jocks running the world, as "People would line up for blocks to watch sports! We'd have athletes on t-shirts!" What's remarkable is the incredibly convincing arguments DeForge makes for them regarding their marginalization and how neatly that narrative fits in when compared to our world, and how hilariously emo the jocks get regarding their own sense of identity. That the final scene contained an emotional speech between two naked jocks in the shower only added to the ridiculousness of the story.

mini-Kus! #45: Music Of Changes, by Daria Tessler. The art here reminds me a bit of Gilbert Hernandez's really odd stuff, with weird shapes, bug-eyed characters, shadowy forms flying across the page and a conceptually absurd premise. Tessler's aesthetic is very much her own, as the soft pastels and fiendishly clever visual and written plays on words all serve the surprisingly tight narrative. This is a story about a farm that grows plants engineered to randomly sprout a number of different forms on its trunk, which are then turned into glass to create sculptures. This was conceptually fascinating idea on its own for a mini, but Tessler was interested in exploring order vs chaos where the expectations from the reader were flipped. Here, the protesters, dressed in all black garb, were the ones who were protesting against chaos and wanted the sculptures destroyed on general principles. Instead of those in control being rigid and orderly, they preferred weapons of chaos that were often quite whimsical. Those weapons included Dance Gas, which created little dancers that cut their targets but also entered into their bodies on a cellular level. Amusingly, a couple of protesters slipped away to a bar called Plato's Cave, a place where naturally knowledge becomes less certain in the shadows of a magic show. A magician claims that determinism exists with a large enough intellect to oversee seemingly random choices, but he's as much a victim of entropy as anyone else when he shrinks and then tries to restore the two protesters. This is an example of an issue of mini-Kus! where the anything-goes nature of the series really lends itself to going way out on a limb with strange ideas.

mini-Kus! #47: Sutrama, by Daniel Lima. This is an adaptation of a scene from the Robert Bresson film, Le Diable Probablement, wherein an analyst is asking questions of a woman who appears to be either naked with the body paint of a suit on her or else wearing entirely translucent clothing. I would guess that Lima added that detail to create some visual frisson in a story that is otherwise mostly talking heads. The session the two are having is as much philosophical debate as it is therapy, with nothing less than a quest for meaning being at stake. Every page finds Lima setting up another unusual tableau for the woman to be a part of, as though she were posing for a still life on every page. Her willingness to expose herself in terms of the provocative nature of her poses parallels her willingness to open herself up on an existential level. Lima's line is crude and direct, with colored pencil being used to fill in spaces on most pages. In the end, the analyst, after having run through the analysand's sex life, parents, etc, hits upon suicide as the solution that's most desired. When there's some protest to this (only on the grounds that death is as awful as life), the analyst simply takes over and guides her through. It's a disturbing ending, as it implies a genuine sense of inquisitiveness on the part of the woman that's subsumed and ignored by the analyst, who seems to be plotting her annihilation all along. The fragility of the line (not unlike C.F.) seems related to that imminent sense of extinction.

Monday, January 23, 2017

2dcloud: Will Dinski's Trying Not To Notice

Will Dinski's new book is one of his best. One of Dinski's go-to themes has been the ways in which people's lives become intertwined in unexpected and frequently toxic ways. In Trying Not To Notice, each of its four chapters are told from the point of view of one of four principal characters: a struggling stand-up comedian named John, his grizzled veteran comic friend Kyle; John's wife Amanda, who is unable to use her legs; and John's co-worker Summer. At first, it's not clear who's leading the narrative with each chapter title; for example, the first chapter is "My friend Kyle has it all figured out." It takes a couple of pages before it's clear that while the title refers to John's relationship with Kyle, it's all from Kyle's point of view.

Dinski's art has always relied on the elaboration of basic shapes to create his characters. For example, Kyle's head is essentially an upside-down triangle, while John has a classic square jaw. The simplicity of the characters is juxtaposed against Dinski's wildly inventive page compositions that vary from page to page. There are three panel pages, splash pages, seven panel pages, pages where the panels are in small circles and other techniques designed to keep the reader off-balance. As the story proceeds and gets continuously stranger, Dinski makes sure that the reader is ready for anything. The central brilliance of the book is that Dinski builds up a narrative where it seems like all of the central characters are trapped in situations that make them unhappy, with little to no hope of things changing, but Dinski reverses those expectations in unexpected ways while making the reader ask if things really are for the better.

For example, we learn from Kyle that John is a nice guy and terrible comedian who has been trying to become a successful stand-up for quite some time. Kyle tolerates John's presence and gives him meaningless advice as he badgers him into buying drinks for everyone since he has a day job. Meanwhile, we learn that Kyle is depressed because his career is stuck in neutral and he can't even get laid. There is a moment in the narrative, when Kyle is too drunk to go on and the ever-sober John has informed his friends that he's completely re-worked his set, where John takes his place and absolutely murders the room. It's an unexpected reversal of fortune that eventually helps Kyle as he finally get a girlfriend as well, as John becomes the proverbial rising tide (or in this case, a tsunami) that lifts all boats. Beneath his blank expression and lack of guile lies raw, naked ambition.

We see that start to play out in the next chapter, "My co-worker Summer has a bright future". The essential narrative of John is that a large part of his success is finding the right people to associate with, taking advantage of those relationships but also rewarding those who helped him. In the case of Summer, she assisted John with fixing the books of a Hollywood producer but then later lost her job and was embarrassingly escorted out of the building by her boss. Her reversal of fortune came when she was brought into a meeting by John with the producer, who was so attractive that Dinski drew him as having an entirely blank face. In other words, whatever one's physical ideal might be, the reader could simply imagine it. In gratitude for her help but also as a way to demonstrate his ability to get anything he wanted (including walking up to her and kissing her), he bought the firm that fired her and installed her as the new boss.

The story gets stranger in "My wife, Amanda, can do anything". There's a sense where the chapter titles are less descriptive than predictive, as her job as a photographer for digital advertisers starts to give her frightening amounts of power. After witnessing a man hitting his dog, she posted photos to an animal rights group's message board and gave out his information, which led to him being badly beaten. She was witness, judge and essentially the executioner. As her husband gets more and more famous, she finds herself paranoid about his activities and farther away from him than ever. She can do anything, despite her disabled condition, but that doesn't mean that she should.

We finally see the world through John's eyes in "My life is just the way I want", as he looks at himself in the mirror and sees a sculpted body when his average frame is reality, yet everything he writes on his to-do list winds up becoming true thanks to his relentless belief, cultivation and relationship and ruthlessness in seizing advantages. Now a big enough star that he needs to go out in public in sunglasses, he meets Summer for lunch. She has transformed from someone who said that she was more than just her job in a merciless shark who physically threatens a man in public and crushes his cell phone as she's accompanied by a phalanx of accounting cronies. He buys yet another chair for Amanda from the woman she thought he was cheating on her with, but he was entirely pure of heart despite her paranoia. He and Kyle share some ecstatic moments as John tries out new material at his old club. John and the producer toss around ideas, with a money-making super-hero role being proffered.

There's a moment at the end where his reach exceeded his grasp and his fantasy of his wife walking with him on to his set was wiped out when she was left at the bottom of a flight of stairs. For just a moment, we see the anger, worry and hostility of the people around him, until he changes his outlook (and thus, theirs as well) back to all-sunny, all the time. His wife disappeared in that scenario, but it was a matter of recalibrating the way he wanted his life rather than actually solving a problem or engaging in a conflict in any way. The fact that this chapter is silent is no accident, because John in reality is a terrible communicator, and the way he looks at the world is that he's "trying not to notice" the things that bother him. What's remarkable is how doing this enabled him to remake the world in his image like Rupert Pupkin from King of Comedy. Illusions and lies, if you can get enough people to believe in them, can become a new form of consensus reality. What Dinski suggests is that the further he went in propagating his new version of reality, the more warped it made those closest to him, though he would never see them as anything less than completely happy because he was completely happy. It's a tricky, disturbing narrative that Dinski loads with details that tell the story if one is willing to look closely enough.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Slipping Through The Shadows With Roman Muradov

Roman Muradov is one of the few cartoonists I can think of who is somehow an appropriate fit for NoBrow, Uncivilized Books, Kus! and Retrofit. Take Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art (Uncivilized), for example. The mystery angle, satirical elements and stark black & white drawings are all perfect fits for the highbrow/lowbrow mix that Uncivilized is known for. (In A Sense) Lost & Found  (NoBrow) is far more clearly laid out and an easier read in general, and its use of color and its lush design puts it firmly in that NoBrow aesthetic. The End Of A Fence is a smaller-sized art object in vivid color, making it a nice fit in the Kus! family. They're all unmistakably Muradov in terms of the whimsical, angular drawings; a continuous use of shadow; and a bone-dry sense of humor that occasionally veers into too-clever preciousness.

Jacob Bladders is a sort of noir parody set in a ruthless 1940s publishing world where illustrators can get roughed up to get at their work. Even if it's the mediocre work of the titular cartoonist, whose drawing of "career ladders" for the New York Daily News provides steady filler. In many ways, this entire book is a shaggy dog joke, as it imagines Twitter existing in a slightly different form in that era (called Tweeter), with certain elite tweeterers being named as Twitterateurs, leading to the punchline of a book heavily influenced by the aesthetic of painter Paul Klee. The book claims that his ink-and-watercolor piece The Twittering Machine (below) was a satire of Tweeter, providing a groaner of an end for that shaggy dog joke. While Muradov's figures sometimes resemble that of Klee's fellow Der Blaue Reiter member Wassily Kandinsky, the famous Klee smudges are omnipresent in this comic, often deliberately obscuring dialogue and even action. This is a book about conspiracies at a high level, thuggishness and brute force at a low level, and art theory at an abstract and concrete level, with the drawings in an Expressionist style and the narrative being all about the value and meaning of art, especially with regard to how it interacts with commerce. This is decidedly the densest of Muradov's comics, and there are points when visual and narrative thickness becomes nearly incoherent, but Muradov is always able to bring it clearly back around to the narrative just in time.
The End Of A Fence has a pretty simple high concept: a world where one can be redirected to a different area where one can meet one's perfect match. The book starts with a break-up and a woman with a perfectly coiffed bun hairstyle going elsewhere. In this book, the characters are smooth and essentially piles of geometric figures carefully arranged to create what looks like people. The story is fairly predictable, as the protagonist learns that it's the differences that make relationships interesting, and too much agreement is not only boring, but can lead to conflict on its own. This was what I meant by Muradov's comics being a bit on the precious side, because if it wasn't for the remarkable use of color, this would be a fairly generic story. Indeed, Muradov's juxtaposition of colors makes the characters shimmer and shine on the page. The way Muradov dips colors into pitch black and out again is a particular visual highlight, as is his unusual lettering and neologisms that develop out of text that's slightly altered and bent. In Muradov's comics, reality has a slightly elastic quality, and the dance of color forms across the page is what makes this comic fun to look at; the actual text is of far lesser importance.

(In A Sense) Lost & Found felt like a kind of middle ground, wherein Muradov used a traditional comics grid (9 panels) and a russet-brown/deep purple color wash to tell this story of lurking in the city's shadows. Muradov is fond of doing homages to other artists and writers, and the introductory line of this comic ("F. Premise awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find that her innocence had gone missing...") seems to be a direct reference to Franz Kafka's classic The Metamorphosis, wherein "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." In the case of Ms. Premise, that transformation was similar to poor Gregor's in that she instantly became an outcast; her father told her to not ever leave the house now that it was gone. Exactly what "innocence" meant in the context of the story is left deliberately vague; it could be an awareness of how the world works (especially with regard to how women are treated), it could be one's virginity, but it's definitely something specific to being a woman.

She launches a quest to track it down, leading her to a fatalistically depressed bookseller who saves her from an angry mob. From there, she follows a clue to an underground series of merchants where she learns that her innocence had been taken to a certain address. She's forced to put on a pair of baggy pants to disguise her gender before she goes out, however. Eventually, she discovers her innocence has been mass-produced to make neckerchiefs, at which point she realizes she doesn't need it anymore. After that final, life-changing encounter, she negotiates her environment that shifts from the nightmare world of Pablo Picasso's Guernica to The Dance, by Henri Matisse. In other words, from the brutality of a judgmental world to a way of reclaiming her innocence on her own terms. Unlike Gregor Samsa, F. Premise lives through the nightmare and comes out the other side, thanks entirely to her own newfound understanding of her self and the power that not caring about social mores gives one. At the very end, she is literally writing her own story as she repeats the first line of the book's narrative, an indicator that her identity is something that can never be taken away from her, but it can be given away. The result of her quest was discovering that she had indeed never really lost it in the first place, but rather it had transformed into something she, and only she, had control over. Once again, the use of the grid and the mixture of total storytelling clarity mixed in with shadows, darkness and visual chaos made for a perfect blend in representing someone who started to see the familiar world as something new and confusing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fantagraphics: Anya Davidson's Band For Life

A number of the cartoonists who had been publishing through Dan Nadel's PictureBox chose to go to Fantagraphics after Nadel shuttered his business. Given that their aesthetic interests were very closely aligned, this is a move that has made sense. Foremost among the newer artists whose work first appeared with PictureBox is Anya Davidson, whose School Spirits was remarkable in the way it captured teenage friendships, psychedelic weirdness and rock 'n roll. In her new collection of strips, Band For Life, the essence of the book is not the scene or even the music (both of which are left intentionally vague) but rather the camaraderie of the band as it negotiates following one's aesthetic dreams with the realities of daily life as well as the kind of conflicts that can only occur in a highly emotionally charged environment like being in a band.

With a style that's somewhere between Ted May and Pedro Bell (the artist behind the Funkadelic album covers), Davidson creates a world of lovable misfits, mutants and weirdos doing something they love. Davidson clearly has affection for all of her characters, flaws and all, and it's clear that she wants the reader to love them as well. It's a story of people wanting to be someone or somewhere other than where they are right now and how the possibilities that open up in the moment by playing in a band create a new kind of narrative. Davidson has a real talent for juggling multiple character-driven narratives all at once, and it's especially tricky in this story because characters from different narratives often overlap in surprising ways. Over the course of each two to three page episode, Davidson manages to provide equal time for character development for of the members of the band plus a number of the supporting characters as well. If the book has a flaw, it's that it ends right in the middle of an unresolved story. It would have actually been preferable to cut the book off a few pages earlier to give a more cohesive ending, and pick up again with a second volume at a more appropriate starting point.

That's a quibble, because the reality is that I simply never wanted the book to end. There is a very slow-brewing overarching plotline, but what's more important are the day-to-day activities of the band Guntit, their problems, their love lives and the rare but always welcomed gigs. There's Linda, the fiery-tempered lead singer; Renato, the tattoo artist and guitarist who's had an unrequited crush on her for years; Krang, who at first lived in a junkyard and then moved in with his boyfriend; Zot, the sort of anthropomorphic dog who has a lot of family issues to deal with; and Annimal, the alcoholic drummer with young twin girls and a toxic ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone. Annimal screws up on multiple occasions in big ways, but I found her to be the most interesting character by far. She's a mixture of crippling self-doubt and powerful self-expression, as she is constantly battling to try to be her best self and often loses. Unlike Linda, who's passionate but often a one-note character, Annimal veers between sobriety and blackouts, fierce freedom and codependence, and narcissism and empathy. 

Davidson's use of color and her truly strange character designs make every panel interesting to look at, which was a crucial strategy because in reality this book is a lot of talking heads. Davidson makes sure that some of the heads look like mutants and that they range from green to orange to purple. The lurid quality of the colors and the way she uses color dissonance to mimic the sonic dissonance of the band is clever. Nothing is too outrageous, and it's this part of the aesthetic that reminds me so much of Pedro Bell by way of the Archies. The Ted May influence refers to the glorious looseness of her line, reminiscent of May's high school heavy metal stories. Influences aside, the complexity of the character narratives are something that Davidson used to great effect in School Spirits and Lovers In The Garden, as the ripple effects from one set of characters carried over to others in interesting and unexpected ways. What's important to understand in the course of reading this book is that Davidson doesn't really seem to have an endgame in mind. Sure, the band goes through ups and downs as Renato is nearly killed by a mobster, Annimal gets kicked out of the band, the band starts writing songs and eventually records a demo that gets picked up by a small label. That's all part of the overarching story that I mentioned, but it takes over 250 pages just to get to this point of Guntit's story. Davidson seems way too invested in these characters, like in the way the Hernandez Brothers are invested in their characters, to want to wrap up their stories any time soon. 

The characters and situations in this book are malleable in such a way that Davidson can use them to tell any kind of story. She can pour on family drama, she can go for laughs, she can address political issues, she can comment on art and music and she can simply pair off different characters at different times just to see what might happen. All of Davidson's work feels personal, but one senses that Band For Life goes even deeper. Like Charles Schulz and Peanuts, I don't think that any one character in particular is a Davidson stand-in, but rather each member of the cast perhaps represents a different aspect of her personality or is a stand-in for someone she knows. Davidson can be as sincere or as satirical as she wants, and the strip can stand up to those kinds of radical shifts in tone. That's because whatever tangent Davidson might lean into for a while, she always snaps back to the characters and their stories before long, keeping the reader engaged. I'm not sure she will keep this up as a life-long work, but these characters are bursting with the kind of ideas and energy that could be kept up indefinitely, providing new surprises along the way for both artist and reader alike.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Minis: Asher Z. and Lillie Craw

Dickless, by Asher Z. Craw. Craw's thin and delicate line paired with dense cross-hatching and themes related to body horror and psychosexual themes have always reminded me of Julia Gfrörer's comics. Craw's comics are not quite as visceral in the same way and go in different directions. For example, Dickless creates a mythology about teeth as the source of one's power. Losing them may mean a personal weakness that causes one's teeth to reject you, or simply a loss of power by losing the tooth that brings about weakness. In any event, Craw segues from that starting point into a young man losing a tooth, and per the narrator's advice, consulting a professional. Amusingly, that professional is a mysterious shopkeeper (pointedly next door to a dentist's office) who goes through a series of steps that include grinding the tooth up. When the client agrees to ingest it, it inspires the shopkeeper to say "Not as dickless as I took you for", implying any number of things: the danger involved in the process (he sees the future as a result), his decreased masculinity as a result of losing the tooth, his bland appearance, etc. Craw opens the reader up to a craft (in every sense of the word) surrounding teeth, where the shopkeeper recalls an earlier time when she sold tools in exchange for a human head full of teeth. This is a comic filled with hints of deep, lost knowledge and an understanding of the order of things known only to a few. That sense of being influenced by forces beyond our understanding is a running theme in all of Craw's comics.

#Blessed, Part One, was written by Craw's wife Lillie and illustrated by Craw himself. This is a brutal satire of celebrity culture where almost all the characters are animals. The comic purports to be the biography of one Party Twink, a former model from The Glitterverse who mooches off his boyfriend/sugar daddy Money Bear. The first half of the comic is a series of illustrations with text on the opposite page that explain each character and their motivations, all of which are 100% awful. The second half is a comic that has the Craws break into the narrative in clarifying precisely how Money Bear's mansion was a recreation of Marie Antoinette's mansion. The comic is a hilarious study of how privilege warps and distorts one's needs in absurd ways, how narcissism is a black hole, and how codependence enables this kind of behavior.

Zebediah Part III, by Asher Z Craw. This can best be described as Craw's magical realist autobiography. This is a remarkably clever and heartbreaking comic, building on the first two issues in unexpected ways while maintaining the tone and theme of the story throughout. The first part followed a couple named Zebediah and Eula-Lee, taking time to fully develop their quirks and obvious connection as well as subtly introduce the magical realist portions of the story in talking animals and mysterious religious figures commenting on them. The second part introduces the idea that after their deaths, Zebediah and Eula-Lee continued to live on in the forms of Asher and Lillie, except that Asher was in the body of a woman. This also introduces the reader to Asher's own autobiographical account of feeling like a stranger in his own body and wanting to die before his transition. Along the way, they are helped by various animals who have been urged by supernatural forces to save them, and they show kindness to all sorts of animals, including a family of possums. The second issue ended with Zebediah and Eula-Lee starting to remember their past lives and fully inhabit the bodies of Asher and Lillie, all while having to deal with a looming evil.

The third and final chapter opens with the couple in bed, trying to cope with the strange, new world in which they were living. While their faith was deep and abiding, they didn't know to what extent they were being protected or pursued by the forces of good and evil. Most of the issue is a game of cat and mouse as they are told to leave Portland and go out to the woods by the forces of good, and the Devil uses his form as a swarm of mosquitoes to subtly push people into attacking, endangering or otherwise dislodging the pair. When they are finally confronted by the Devil, they rely on their faith but mostly in their unwillingness to harm the innocent souls of Asher and Lillie and thwart evil through their selflessness. Every element of the comic is precisely well-constructed in terms of both plot and its visual elements, and it's all anchored by the vivid characterization of its heroes. Zebediah works on a number of levels at once: a supernatural story, a story of faith, a metaphor for being trans and above all else, a love story.

Craw makes a number of interesting decisions regarding page composition, switching between a steady six-panel grid for most of the action and an open-page, dreamy layout when supernatural forces are arrayed. There's a lot of white space involved here when there are talking heads sequences, which makes sense considering that the characters are the focus of the story. When it switches to an action shot, Craw flips again and draws detailed, heavily hatched and cross-hatched backgrounds and dense underbrush. Pose is more important than movement in this comic, as the figures are actually on the stiff side on the page, but that's once again a function of the narrative. The characters are well-aligned with each other in terms of space and body language, but Craw prefers to linger on each image rather than zip the audience along to the next panel. Indeed, that sense of appreciating stillness and each heartbeat & story beat is an essential element of the comic, especially given its twists and forays into the supernatural. Hopefully, this comic will be collected by someone soon.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Uncivilized: Joann Sfar's Pascin

Joann Sfar's idiosyncratic biography of the early 20th century painter Jules Pascin has been critiqued in some circles for glorifying the sexual conquests of male artists and buffing up that kind of macho narrative. Upon reading Pascin, I found the opposite to be true: this was a profoundly sad and meditative study about an artist searching for something that would ever and always be out of his grasp. The other thing to keep in mind about this book is that biographies tend to have autobiographical qualities, as the biographers often tend to seek out and empathize with their subjects, be it a deliberate act or a subconscious one. I see Pascin as a deeply meditative look at an artist who was a clear aesthetic influence on Sfar, digging deep into trying to figure out what made him tick, what made him think, what made him create and ultimately what he feared most. If anything, the book seems a deliberate rejection of the image of the macho artist and toxic masculinity in general.

One example is Pascin meeting young Ernest Hemingway (the patron saint of macho artists) and humiliating him simply be calling out exactly what he knew Hemingway wanted: to not just have sex with one of the two women in Pascian's company, but to act as the white knight savior. In another example, one of Pascin's friends in the book is a gangster named Toussaint. He is the embodiment of the use of force to get one's way, but he hangs around Pascin because he's jealous of the painter's power of creation. Sfar is careful not to elevate what Pascin does over Toussaint's brutality; instead, there's a telling sequence where Pascin talks about how drawing is a kind of sexual substitute, a way of grasping at life and creating it on one's own and doing whatever one wants with it. In the philosophical discussions of art Pascin has with other painters like Antanas and Soutine, the question of just how to bring life to an image is the most crucial aspect of art. It's not just a matter of simultaneity on multiple planes like in Cubism, but rather an attempt at rendering all aspects of a subject in a phenomenological manner. Or as Antanas says, "You have to walk all the way around it to get the full picture" in order to get many viewpoints to resolve in a single image. The ability to do so, Pascin seems to be arguing, is no more or less noble or remarkable than seducing someone or beating them up.

This gets to the heart of the tragedy of Pascin as a character: he is desperately searching for something because he's been broken for a long time, but can't get it through either sex or art. Contrast Pascin to his friends Soutine or Marc Chagall, especially in the scene where all three get together for Yom Kippur. As a Jewish person, Sfar has spent much of his career exploring what it means to be a Jew, both in a religious sense and in an ethnic sense. He's explored many different ethnic variations and traditions surrounding Judaism, and his characters have engaged in the language of the religion, which is the language of debate. The debate, and the holiday itself, which is the day of atonement, revealed interesting things about all three men. Chagall was clearly leading the healthiest life, with a loving wife and a sense of purpose that embraced the power of the aesthetic without being consumed by it. Soutine was a misanthrope who was all too aware of his misanthropy and had come to accept it as he indulged his artistic obsessions.

Pascin told a long story about a time when he was a child and stole from his father in order to visit a brothel. Unlike his friends, who had hard early lives and risked everything for their art, Pascin was dismissive of his own ability. As would be revealed later, he simply wanted to be better at fucking than his father, wanted the power notoriety that going to a brothel would give him in school, and didn't care about the consequences. All throughout telling the story, Pascin angered Chagall with hilarious blasphemies, until he reached the end of the story, when he revealed that another man was blamed for stealing the money and he hanged himself out of humiliation. That was an obvious flashpoint for him that sent him down a path mixed with desperation and a love-hate relationship with art and sex. He became great at both (" a true pervert", his ex would say), having sex with men and women alike, as a kind of unspoken, eternal contest he had with himself and his father. Drawing and sex were two sides of the same coin, one leading to the other in a feedback loop.

Sfar's art has never looked better. It loosens up so much on some pages as to become almost abstracted; it's deeply expressive and packs a relentless emotional punch. At the same time, much about the story and his visual approach is funny, filthy and whimsical. Pascin externalized his fears through a razor-sharp wit and and relentless charismatic manner. He was much more a personality than his other artist friends and was resigned to the self-pitying misanthrope Soutine coming around and begging him to help him in the social realm. The women in the story range from naive to brilliant, with other historical figures like Kike de Montparnasse having key roles and engaging in the same kind of philosophical discussions as Pascin. For Pascin, some of them mean little to him and some (like the married Lucy) are loved with all he can give. It is clear that in many respects, they remain as much a mystery to him (if a familiar, comfortable mystery) as they were the first time he visited that brothel. He was chasing an experience he could never have, creating art to scratch an itch that could never be satisfied. Sfar helps create that sense of inner turbulence by varying his line: thicky and brushy on some pages, clear line on others, open layouts on some pages, grids on others, gray-scale on some pages, spotting blacks on others, cartoony on some pages, naturalistic and grittily detailed on others. It's an affectionate but clear-eyed take on an artist, warts and all, and the kind of questions about aesthetics that vexed Pascin and clearly vex Sfar as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

NoBrow: SP4RX

SP4RX is a tight little cyberpunk thriller that maximizes story economy and minimizes everything else while still retaining its satirical edge. The world that creator Wren McDonald introduces is a familiar one, where a corporation has its fingers in everything and introduces cybernetic program that allows "lower level" workers to take up to 36 hour shifts. Other nefarious characters want to take control of these lower level, refitted workers to make them into their own personal mind-controlled and high-powered army. The satire in this book is mostly seen in its margins, much like the Paul Verhoeven film Robocop. The grimy quality of this future city reminds me a bit of Moebius and Moebius-influenced artists like Brandon Graham, only it's rendered in a more typical NoBrow style. The characters are mostly rendered in a cute style where their faces are pretty much just dots and lines, but McDonald gets a lot of mileage out the essential looseness of his figure drawing.The light purple wash in the story gives everything an odd appearance, but not in a way that sticks out too much.

SP4RX follows a prototypical sinister corporation that has made life "better" by introducing "cybernetic efficiency public-aid program" ELPIS, essentially designed to turn workers living in the Lower Levels of the city into hyper-efficient workers that can go for 36 hours at a time. Even more sinister is a conspiracy to take over their programming and turn them into a tireless, durable army. A hacker named SP4RX is hired to find a piece of hardware that winds up being crucial in this regard, both to the conspiracy and the resistance against them. The best thing McDonald does with SP4RX is make him utterly apathetic to the ideals of the revolution; he just wants to live quietly off the grid, hang out with his best friend CL1PP3R, and make money. Circumstances don't allow this to happen, as he's manipulated by both the state and the resistance into making various moves, until he is finally able to play his own game.

Though the action in the book is fairly dark and brutal, McDonald is able to inject some pitch-black levity into a number of the scenes. The ELPIS cyborgs are of course turned into weapons that murder humans, but only after asking them "How do you contribute to the efficiency of this level?" Watching the ELPIS cyborgs run amok is one of the funnest things to follow in a book that's filled with fluid & visceral fight & chase scenes. In many respects, McDonald pays the most attention to the action going on in the city itself, as it's the most fleshed-out "character" in the book. SP4RX is little more than a grim, terse loner who does the right thing in the end for his own reasons. McDonald depicts the leader of the resistance as kind of a kook who rambles on about principles that no one cares about, like freedom. The villains are comically corrupt and over-the-top, but even this was a reflection of the authority they usually feel. Both heroes and villains use the same kind of ruthless methods, which McDonald subtly but pointedly demonstrates in the course of the book. Changing the world would mean a total paradigm shift that integrated humanity and artificial intelligence in a meaningful way, and this book depicts a bump in the road on the way to the paradigm shift. In sacrificing himself, SP4RX inadvertently found a way to alter his world and integrate man and machine in new ways. That's only hinted at that at the end, but that kind of vagueness of motivation is what makes the book so much fun to read in the end.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

D&Q: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts

The defining element of Gonzo journalism, as originated by Hunter S. Thompson, was that the illusion of objectivity was cast aside in favor of an acknowledgment that the journalist, in reporting the story, becomes part of the story. This is not to suggest that journalism, even Gonzo journalism, doesn't have its own rules and even standards. However, it is a way of letting the reader know that this was a specific set of circumstances interpreted in a particular way by a journalist. Making this acknowledgment is a way of cutting off at the knees the possibility of making an argument by way of anecdote, which is the weakest yet most common rhetorical method of argument. It puts the lie to the notion that the journalist has special knowledge or insight. All the journalist can hope is that their account, bias and narrow scope and all, is compelling enough not to give the reader all the answers, but to give them enough information to start asking more questions.

In Sarah Glidden's first book, How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less, Glidden clearly had the journalist urge without the journalistic tools to address her Birthright trip to Israel. She knew going in that Birthright was at least in part a propaganda exercise, but she was surprised at how emotional so many aspects of that trip made her. The weird artificiality of the setting made the book feel staged at times, even if she was trying to resist that staging. The book wound up being more memoir than a work of journalism, though the seeds were clearly planted to follow up later. In particular, she wanted to talk to people directly who didn't have a particular, prescribed political agenda they wanted to peddle to her. In the end, she was no less clear about her feelings and opinions about Israel than she was when she started, but she stayed true to that conclusion and did try for a pat answer.

That desire to talk to others, a curiosity about the nuts and bolts of the actual journalistic process, and a constant slamming on the metaphorical breaks regarding any kind of smooth narrative that emerged on a trip to the Middle East make up the bulk of Glidden's new book, Rolling Blackouts. This book is a work of meta-journalism, as she followed members of the Seattle Globalist to Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Syria and documented their process. Throughout the book, there are two separate dynamics: the dynamic between the Globalist crew and the people they interview and use as contacts, and the dynamic between Sarah Stuteville of the Globalist and her friend Dan, an ex-marine who saw time in Iraq who happened to be one of her oldest friends. Glidden stood as an outsider in both sets of dynamics, in part because she didn't want to interfere with the work the Globalist journalists were attempting to accomplish. While Glidden was obviously a character in this book, she very pointedly noted that this wasn't a memoir. She got to shape it the way she wanted and wasn't obligated to share her feelings about anything in particular. As such, we never hear Glidden's feelings about being an American in the countries they traveled to, nor how she felt as a Jewish person in those countries. Indeed, her ethnic background wasn't brought up a single time in the book. Glidden the person in this book is a very intelligent and perceptive cipher, and that's as it should be.

It was interesting to see the differences in what Stuteville did and what Joe Sacco does in his comics journalism. Sacco inserts himself into the scene but never hesitates in making friends with the locals as he often stays in one place for months. There are also times when he's as ruthless as he needs to be in finding the story he's looking for, as depicted in Footnotes In Gaza. Stuteville is a more traditional journalist, as getting to spend a lot of her time with her subjects is unusual and there's not always the opportunity to engage in social interaction. It did happen on occasion, where Stuteville attended parties at people's homes and danced, or went out to get drinks. Glidden depicts Stuteville as professional but empathetic, probing but kind and a mix of supreme confidence and self-doubt. Some of her subjects were happy to talk to an American journalist, while others took the opportunity to use her as a vessel for venting their hatred of what the American army did to their country. In both instances, Glidden depicted Stuteville as almost infinitely patient and unflappable, always allowing her subjects to vent without once trying to justify what had happened. In almost every case shown, even the most vociferously hostile subjects would calm down and realize that it wasn't her fault and recognized that she was there to hear their stories.

By way of contrast, the way Stuteville interacted with Dan reflected the full weight of their history and the ways in which she no longer understood him. As media-savvy individuals, they were both going after certain stories and were aware that the other was trying to shape the story in a particular way. For Dan, who had been as peace-loving as anyone in high school, he viewed enlisting as a way of trying to personally influence events in Iraq. It was a way of doing more than just protesting; in his view, it was a way of effecting real change. What Stuteville was looking for was him starting with perhaps that narrative and then seeing that narrative change when he met people who had been affected by the war. His immediate reaction, which he repeated again and again, was to say that the war hadn't affected him negatively at all, he was glad that he performed this service, didn't regret his actions at all and didn't feel any guilt. He was answering questions that weren't even asked, which immediately caused Stuteville to want to chase down the things he denied.

That led to a series of ever-more-frustrating, passive-aggressive interviews. Stuteville was constantly trying to figure out a way of circling around and drawing him out (even chastising Glidden for directly questioning him on some sensitive material when she didn't think it was an appropriate time). Every time, she would get stonewalled. Ironically, it wasn't until the very end of the book, when Dan heard some Iraqi refugees in Syria decry America, that he admitted that coming to Iraq was a mistake. The irony was that he told this to Glidden, not Stuteville, and Glidden was incisive in her analysis: Dan was looking for absolution from someone, anyone, and it would never come. Stuteville later talked about the mistakes she made in trying to interview Dan, acknowledging that she was simply too close to the subject to be truly objective. This interpersonal conflict added some spice to what was otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative. Many of the stories presented were interesting, but what the reader saw was the bare bones of that story that would later be turned into something more coherent. It was the equivalent of watching an unedited film, which was interesting up to a point but repetitive after a while.

The book picks up when the crew meets Sam, an Iraqi native who had lived in Seattle for a number of years before being deported. Technically, he was deported for falsifying aspects of his application, but the reality is that he was seemingly connected to a key Al-Qaeda member who helped mastermind the 9/11 terrorist attack. Sam claimed innocence and ignorance, which seemed fishy to the group until they actually spent a lot of time with him. This was an interesting bit of give and take, as the group sensed that while his story had some inconsistencies, the essential truth of him being innocent felt true to them. The amount of time spent with him in the book, small touches like him being obsessed with being able to have access to American snacks and his sheer lack of guile gave the reader the same kind of intimacy that the group felt with him. Glidden really shines in creating these scenes, creating a sense of ease on the page that was casual but also weighed with the seriousness of the charges and the sadness of Sam being separated from his wife and children. Glidden also gets at the idea of a sticky truth where it's impossible to know all of the factors that went into the arrest, like the politics influencing the US officials.

The final segment of the book in Syria is closer to what one would expect about a book set in the Middle East: focusing on human misery, the ramifications of war and individual tales of despair and hope. As grim as the refugees' lives were in Syria, the reality of Syria today is far more upsetting, given the horrific civil war and genocide. Entering Syria meant encountering state-enforced admiration of Assad, which was amusing for a while until it became clear that state surveillance was a real thing. There were moments of humor in this book, to be sure, but it was laughing in the dark. The title of the book refers to a phenomenon in Iraq where they were planned, brief blackouts at night, because there wasn't enough power to keep the city lit all at the same time. It became Glidden's metaphor for journalists facing long periods of uncertainty, often foisted intentionally on them, followed by moments of insight. It also refers to their perspective as Americans, and Dan in particular. The last big blowout argument between Stuteville and Dan took place during a blackout, where Dan makes the case that someone needed to stop Saddam Hussein, and Stuteville counters that it wasn't our place to do so, especially without any real sense of how to fix what happened next. The lights blinked on after that moment as the argument ended, a moment of enlightenment or at least having one's cards all out on the table achieved.

Whereas Joe Sacco combines incredible skill with a pen and a sense of when to bend naturalism toward a more cartoony style, Glidden keeps everything sketchy and loose. Her use of color is key to the book, as mellow pastels dominate backgrounds and keep the book on an even keel in terms of tone. No matter what kind of story is being discussed, Glidden's consistency in this regard gives the book cohesion and adds a sense of restraint to the book. This makes sense, because the book is less about the Middle East than it is a book about process and craft. Glidden balances that discussion of process with interpersonal relationships, which was crucial in preventing the book from becoming too dry or academic. The book does drag here and there, and there are a few story tangents that don't quite go anywhere, but for the most part Glidden is able to turn quiet moments into important ones because they flesh out interpersonal relationships. Glidden does a fine job overall of humanizing a difficult job, providing context and understanding of how an important job is done, and explaining why it's as important as it is.