Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Minicomics of Cathy Hannah

Chicago-area cartoonist Cathy Hannah has been remarkably prolific over the past few years. Her autobio comics tackle topics that range from body image to depression to eating disorders to simply finding one's purpose in life. Let's take a look at her recent output, starting with three one-off minis. Sometimes an autobio cartoonist is afraid to, as my fellow critic Rob Kirby likes to say, "spill some ink". In other words, go really deep about their feelings and thoughts, no matter how ugly or embarrassing. Hannah has absolutely no problem going deep, using her comics not just as a kind of self-therapy, but also as a powerful feminist manifesto rooted in vulnerability. In Kitten Pits, for example, she talks about her history with her own body hair and how much she hated it and felt disgusted by it. There's even an embarrassing anecdote about having an infected hair follicle which she has to have seen by her doctor, which was kind of an intense distillation of a lifetime of viewing herself as imperfect. The ending, where she stops shaving, finds a moment of validation that's powerful.

Uglyfat takes on body image and eating disorder issues directly, as Hannah reveals that she hated her nose and thought she was too fat from a very early age, thanks to comments on the schoolyard and media. Using an eight-panel grid and a highly expressive, sketchy style, Hannah whips the reader through a life where she was judged for her size and appearance, which only amplified her self-hatred when she did find people who wanted to be with her. Simply put, she wasn't wrong when she saw thin  and conventionally attractive girls get preferential treatment. When she finally did lose weight (in order to become a better skater for the roller derby team she hoped to join), it wasn't the validation she needed. Instead, the mini ended in a spiral of depression.

We Are Gonna Be Friends touches on a lifetime of not just being sad, but actually chasing that feeling. It starts with an anecdote about wanting to watch Old Yeller again and again, which then moves to the modern day, where that sadness has metastasized in the form of being unable to understand how someone could possibly consider giving birth, knowing that your child will suffer and die. It's almost a sort of hyper-empathy that in Hannah's case stopped being functional. This mini is inked with a much thicker line and there's a wash that gives it a nice texture. Like most empathetic people, Hannah immediately perks up when she learns her brother and his wife were going to have a child, because she could be the cool, empowering aunt. When given a chance to nurture others, she was there in a shot, even if there was still a great deal of anxiety. Hannah is actually quite skillful at transforming her anxiety and awkwardness into highly effective cringe humor, like in a scene where she drunkenly shocks her sister-in-law's conservative, religious mom by suggesting they name the boy Lucifer. Hannah avoids easy, convenient endings in her work, so the mini ends with her attempting to bond with her nephew but still not feeling 100% sure about her feelings about bringing a baby into the world or that its mere existence would make her happy, though she just can't help feeling warmth regarding her nephew.

Alas is Hannah's main autobio series, consisting of short stories, story fragments and observations. The essence of this highly self-aware artist is something she talks about in a special convention issue of Alas, in which she notes that she lives a very easy, privileged life: she doesn't have to worry about food, has a fun job, gets to bike to work, is supported by her parents, etc and yet is still deeply depressed and unsatisfied. This is because she still doesn't feel she has a purpose, and also because she feels terribly lonely and wants the validation a relationship can bring as well as an opportunity to heap affection on another person. In other words, the idea of a relationship is just as important to her as the actual potential person. The first issue of the regular series starts an occasional serial about her father's experiences in Viet Nam, but it's also about the ways she depends on him as a source of strength and validation. Hannah often speaks about herself through the language of depression, as she catastrophizes, declares herself useless and an idiot. Of course, the reality is that Hannah is inquisitive, philosophical and mindful of social justice and the circumstances that affect others' lives; as noted before, she's an empath who is unable (because of her mental illness) to turn a little of that empathy on herself.

The second issue focuses on the details of a 2012 march in Chicago against NATO and war in general, and Hannah's observations of what she saw and heard were especially astute. For someone who is so passionate about her cause, she has a remarkable sense of overall fairness and went out of her way to record the thoughts of the police, for example. Contrasting the stories of war veterans apologizing for their actions to her father's memories of the sheer banality of being in the war made everything political in this comic that much more personal, down to romantic protester vibe that she witnessed and secretly wished was a part of. The third issue matches up her father's war stories with her recollection of 9/11; her observations about fatalism creeping into pop culture were especially interesting.

The fourth issue is a dense grab-bag: from feeling betrayed at not getting a gallery job despite her many hours spent as a volunteer to more body image exploration and personal history to profiles of obscure artists Hannah clearly finds interesting to her father's war story (this time about hauling a soldier who had been hit by napalm to an evacuation helicopter) to a follow-up to her book from over a decade ago, Winter Beard. That book, which won a Xeric Grant, was about Hannah writing a comic over time to express her feelings to her male best friend. His response was not to express that he was in love with her, but that he was unsure of her real feelings, considering that she was about to move away. The story here follows up on that as she attends his wedding, gets drunk and desperately wants to hook up with someone, to no avail. The story ends as many of her stories do--with Hannah crying and no real sense of closure. The running theme in her comics is that of someone who finds herself relentlessly inadequate, yet she never stops trying to improve herself, to do and try new things and to maintain social contacts. Despite these setbacks, Hannah sets out, Charlie-Brown like, and keeps plugging away.

The fifth issue was my favorite. Hannah's drawing just continued to get better from issue to issue, adding greater moments of depth and texture and varying her line weights to give certain scenes more emotional resonance. Hannah is a talented illustrator as well as a cartoonist, as evidenced by certain of her drawings and her elaborate covers, and each issue of Alas provides a few of those treats to the reader. This issue concerned meeting up with an old flame now in recovery for substance abuse, which made Hannah (someone who likes to drink and who smokes pot every day) highly uneasy. That made for some awkward moments in the story, but it's also the kind of raw honesty that she relays so well. Her frustration with being alone boils over into a hilarious fantasy sequence about being Albert Camus' lover, as her core as an existentialist spills over into her daily life. Being aware of death's inevitability can sure get in the way of one's daily happiness, but that's part of who Hannah is. Finally, the sixth issue flashes back to family: a brilliant aunt who was usually ill when Hannah was a child and her cool older cousin who was kind to her and showed her all sorts of cool stuff. There's some remarkable confessional stuff as well as a harrowing scene of how her father got his Purple Heart (took shrapnel in an explosion).

Hannah's most recent comic is Springtime In Chicago, which sports a beautiful, colorful color and a striking, naturalistic self-portrait. In many respects, it's a companion piece to Winter Beard, but with a number of significant differences. First, she long ago cycled through the Jeffrey Brown influence that marked her earlier work. Second, Hannah used a strict, daily diary comics approach. Third, as seen in the book's third strip, Hannah is in therapy and is making this an important part of the narrative. Of course, the main similarity is that there's a guy at work she has a crush on, and she can't quite work up the courage to tell him--so she does comics about it (and other stuff) instead. There's a hilarious strip where she smells his sweater, is swept up by his scent for a moment, and then immediately castigates herself for her obsessive behavior. There's a running story involving the health of her beloved cat and the helplessness she feels with regard to him, dealing with depressive spells, self-care in the form of baths, and many funny little anecdotes. Working in a four panel strip form pushed Hannah to cartoon like a strip cartoonist, down to using punchlines and packing the biggest punch in the final panel. It worked nicely on a number of levels, especially when Hannah was able to really establish her self-worth in a powerful way and understand how much love she has to give, as opposed to needing love from someone else. There's a lot of radical acceptance in this collection of strips, and that emotional punch that came from the breakthroughs she was making were every bit as important as the comic punchlines that came through in her funny strips.

There was a little more artifice in the way that she structured these strips than in her earlier work. Part of that was the format, to be sure, but there was a solidity to her storytelling that marked a significant change from the more fragmented quality of her earlier comics. While there was always an emotional through-line to follow in those comics, there wasn't much in terms of narrative. The strip format is a concise one, and it clearly forced Hannah to make some difficult choices here and there as to what to include and why. That's important because Hannah has a lot to say as an artist, both with regard to personal and political issues (and their intersection, of course). She could write any number of different kinds of memoirs detailing one or two of these issues, but I think the daily strip format is best-suited for the wide variety of stories she wants to tackle. In many respects, she embodies the existentialist's dilemma: understanding that we are truly alone while at the same time trying to figure out exactly how we should deal with others.

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