Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Minis: E.Davis, L.Nichols, K.Froh, A.Shrestha, S.Lautman

Libby's Dad, by Eleanor Davis. This Retrofit release is further proof of Davis' versatility. Her issue of Frontier ("BDSM") showed off her black & white chops, while this comic looks like it was done entirely in colored pencils. Davis' comics are usually pointed in terms of her themes and the emotions she wants to explore, but she deflects away from hammering that point home through a series of interesting strategies. This comic is about the complexities surrounding emotional spousal abuse and how its fallout affects children. Davis' strategy was to tell this story entirely through the daughter of that estranged couple (Libby) and her friends during the course of a sleepover. The essential conflict of the story is that one of the members of the group was forbidden to come over to over by her mother because Libby's father had threatened to shoot Libby's mom. The rest of the story (told from the perspective of Libby's friend Alex) is essentially a debate as to whether or not that could possibly be true.

The genius of the book is Davis' unfailingly accurate depiction of children and the way they interact, with all the innocence and casual cruelty that implies. Davis' character design and her use of colored pencil gives the book the feel of a children's book, with exaggerated facial expressions, cheery colors and uncannily precise body language that gets across the energy that kids generate when they're in this kind of environment--especially since Libby's dad bought a house with a swimming pool and bought them all lunch. A running theme in Davis' comics is the way that adults try to keep secrets from children and fail to trust their ability to understand difficult situations. What the adults fail to understand is that children hear and understand far more than they might realize, only without context that knowledge can be warped. That's certainly the case here, as Libby's friends debate whether or not Libby's dad was nice or a monster and whether Libby's mom was a potential victim or a liar (there was no middle ground). The comic comes to a head when night falls and the colors turn from friendly greens, yellows and light blues to dark and oppressive midnight blue. There's another color whose presence is a constant in the book: blood red. It becomes especially prominent in the slumber party scene, especially when a spilled bottle of nail polish splatters the carpet like blood. Suddenly, jokes about Libby's dad and his gun turn into pure fear, as the white image of a gun against the dark blue background is a clear indicator of their mutual panic.

An exasperated Libby, who has been mostly silent up until this point, gets up and tells her weeping friends to shut up, and declares that her dad's not scary. There's a chilling two-page spread where her friends are in the bottom left corner of one page and Libby goes out the foreboding door in the upper-right hand corner of the next page, indicating a gulf between them as well as a sense of things not ever being the same when she returns from her dangerous quest. Their fears peak as the next two pages are devoid of backgrounds as they imagine her dead shooting all of them, shrouded in shadows. Davis comes back from that image with Libby's dad cheerfully cleaning up the mess in a room with the light on, bathed in a comforting yellow. That act is "proof" to Alex that "Libby's mom is crazy and a liar", and the girls are now free to have a carefree good time. Of course, what Davis is getting at is how women are made to feel crazy for responding to abuse, for people assuming they are lying or exaggerating and in general doubting the stories of survivors. There's also a larger question of complexity: Libby's dad may treat her well, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't abusive toward his mom, even if that threat was an empty one. The way the girls react can be explained in part because they are just children, but Davis' larger point is that it wasn't just them who reacted that way, as the parents of the other children had no problem with them spending time at Libby's dad's house. This is a story about abuse and the ways in which so many people prefer to believe that it doesn't happen, and Davis' use of color masterfully takes us through every element of the narrative, modulating emotion along the way.

Senior Time, by Kelly Froh. If one of Davis' special skills as a cartoonists is portraying children, then one of Froh's is portraying the elderly. This mini is about failing upwards, beginning with Froh fervently hoping she was going to get laid off because her desk job was debilitating her, both mentally and physically. Coming to terms with the idea as someone over forty that they weren't ever going to make a lot of money is difficult in a society driven by financial success as a measure of overall success. Froh struggles with that idea but counters it by embracing her role in the arts as well as time spent helping the elderly and teaching comics. Each page features a single image, some typeset text and Froh's own cursive script. The latter was especially important in establishing an intimate line of communication with the reader, but it also represented the kinds of relationships she was having with her clients.

Froh balances the tremendous respect she has for her elderly clients with her cartoony and slightly grotesque character design, and the gentle humor she records in this comic is modulated by her thoughtful and gentle voice as a narrator. Above all else, she listens, and she responds with respect but also humor. The variety of mental and emotional states among those living in retirement homes dictates some of Froh's work here, as one woman who kept asking "Then what?" whenever Froh would tell her what came next led to Froh expounding on what was really her own life goal: a full life, meaningful relationships, love and happiness. When the reply to that was "Then what?", what else could Froh say but, "Then, you die". I'm not sure if that last conversation happened verbatim, but that's not really important; what was important was the way Froh was encouraging and optimistic but also realistic and accepting of our ultimate fate. This comic is about process, and for Froh, it's processing the richness she feels in her current role, even as she is just barely able to piece things together.

Macrogroan #7, by Sara Lautman. Lautman has slightly refined her scratchy, sloppy scribbly line just enough to make her comics more easily intelligible but not so much as to lose their spontaneity and pure beauty. Simply as a personal aesthetic preference, I love artists who have mastered the ability to create characters using expressive scribbles because that spontaneity is key to making the characters come alive. They have a wobbly, vibratory quality to them that creates a sense of motion and energy on the page, even when the images themselves depict a silent character sitting on a stoop. Like Jules Feiffer, both Lautman's line and her handwritten lettering are beautifully sloppy in an inspiring way. It also helps that she has a sharp sense of humor, ranging from self-deprecation to crafting a shaggy dog story for the sake of a pun. The way she draws herself as frequently slumped over, with a pointy nose and messy hair, only adds to the sheer pleasure I get from looking at her drawings. When she uses grayscale, she often just uses her pencil to gray-out some backgrounds so as to give her drawings some more weight. There's also a great deal of charm in her strips, like one in which she enthuses about a "classic date spot" in New York (The Cloisters), which turns out to be from a banned lesbian young adult novel from the early 80s--which her friend calls her on. Lautman's autobio reminds me a bit of Sophie Yanow's, only less angular and less political. Lautman's comics explore comic and quotidian aspects of city life with occasional forays into surrealism. She's become a much better storyteller, especially in terms of panel-to-panel transitions. It's pretty clear that she could do something long form or collect strips thematically, much like Gabrielle Bell does. She's certainly hit on a winning formula.

Genus, by Anuj Shrestha. This batch of one to two page stories and illustrations is separate from the body horror/conspiracy series of the same name, but the aesthetic is very much the same. In this zine, that aesthetic of people slowly having their faces completely subsumed by a wriggling, plant-like growth is entirely ignored, especially in terms of the narratives that Shrestha spins. The first story is about a young girl's experiences in school as an avid participant--almost too avid. In this and other strips, the growths seem to be a visual metaphor for a kind of inner ugliness made external, except that everyone experienced it the same way. It's a stripping away of innocence and a reflection of the parasitic or codependent nature of our relationships. The more materially and financially accomplished a person became, as in the story "Company Dinner", the more disfigured and inhuman each person became, until their heads stopped being recognizable as human. The illustrations are all of fashionable, hip looking people whose faces have become entirely transformed into that mass of writhing tentacles/stalks. The final strip, "Genus Company Policy" reveals that the system is rigged from the start. Shrestha's line drawings are exquisite as always, as they add a level of chilly distance to the everyday activities they depict.

Flocks, Chapter Five, by L.Nichols. Nichols' incredibly empathetic and humane autobio series about the various groups that have had an impact on their life reaches an almost unbearable point of agony and then resolves in an unexpected but remarkably hopeful way. Growing up in rural Louisiana as a queer kid led to all sorts of feelings of self-hatred, even as the local church community often provided her tremendous support and encouragement. Nichols rejects all binary arguments and instead embraces the contradictions that surround us. It was possible for people in their church and their family to support them in some ways but make them inadvertently feel like a sinner in others. They were often a shield for them and encouraged their budding academic talents in the face of bullying from the other kids at school. Their parents were another set of contradictions, simultaneously encouraging Nichols and making them feel worthless. This volume follows up on hints laid down in earlier volumes, as Nichols' father asks for a divorce, leading Nichols' mom to leave the house with all the prescription drugs. Nichols details the ways in which their parents put them in the middle, each attacking the other.

Nichols depicts themself as a rag doll in their autobio comics buffeted by the inexorable forces of physics. This is an especially apt metaphor given the way Nichols felt pushed and pulled, reducing them to a pile of stuffing. Nichols details the ways in which their church helped them and their mother out, no questions asked: food, clothes, shelter, etc. Even with the weight of being queer bearing down on them as a young teen, Nichols' faith was still a comfort in the face of extreme anxiety. Nichols finally gets relief when they're accepted into the state Science, Math & The Arts high school. Here, Nichols meets a new flock. No longer an outsider due to their intellect and interests, Nichols finds unconditional support for the first time in their life. There's a remarkable scene when one of Nichols' friends basically tells them to come out, that everyone knew they were interested in girls--and it was OK. The pressure arrows bearing down on Nichols disappeared as the one thing they thought they'd never get and didn't deserve--true acceptance--was freely given. After extending empathy, compassion, understanding and the benefit of the doubt to everyone else, Nichols finally gave it to themself. The joy and radiance in Nichols' line at this point fairly bursts off the page as they were able to extend and receive the trust that had been broken with their parents.

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