Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Minis From CAKE: S.Roberts, C.Hannah, M.Galloway, J.Campbell

The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) was one of the better shows I've ever attended. Here are a few minis I picked up, with this batch from locals.

Body Magik, by Scott Roberts. I reviewed an earlier comic by Roberts (Chemtrails), but I get the sense that this new comic is much more closely related to his real project as an artist. I was fortunate enough to talk extensively with him about his artistic interest and methods, and a lot of that conversation revolved around Gary Panter as an inspiration. Roberts is definitely in that "mark-making" school of cartooning, where the imperfection of the line itself is an important part of the aesthetic--much more so than its pure representational value. It's an aesthetic that borrows some aspects from abstract expressionism in that the line is an expression of emotion, but it's one where narrative is still a key aspect of that expression.

In the case of this comic, it's about a group of old friends who visit their now ultra-rich and somewhat spaced-out friend who created some kind of life-changing app. Printed on a Risograph, Roberts uses a two-color approach (blue and orange) as well as decorative effects that affect the actual narrative. There's an interesting tension between form & figure and environment, especially with regard to depicting hallucinogenic effects that warp perception and reality. Roberts starts the reader off on shifting sands when introducing them into the rich man's home: it's strange and almost alien in character. Then things get even stranger when he introduces them to an app that reads one's desires and creates a new, 3D-printed, perfected body.

The rest of the comic explores these new bodies: a centaur, a lumpy but masculine mass, a furry bear, a couple sharing the same body in the most intimate ways possible, etc. Roberts naturally explores the downside of this app. The couple sharing the body has become completely cut off from the outside world. The centaur runs away from intimacy. The man who became the bear did it only for his lover, whose near appearance as male is distressing to him. That leads to an interesting debate: "Did you love me or my body?", with the remarkably honest answer being "I don't know...both?" Throughout this series of explorations, Roberts is careful to continue to focus on the figures while providing decorative subtext that push themselves into text, like the character who becomes a caterpillar suddenly bursting into life as a butterfly. It's the ultimate symbol of unambiguously joyous transformation, and to see it juxtaposed against someone regretting their own change was an interesting narrative strategy. It also points to the idea that subconscious desires may not match up with one's own conscious narrative.

My Erotic Life, by Jessica Campbell. Humor comics are something I take very seriously, if I may venture into contradictory territory. I can enjoy something that's a humor comic even if I don't laugh out loud; I can generally enjoy them on a more conceptual level, even if it's tough to make me laugh like that. Of course, when I do find a cartoonist that elicits that reaction (Ivan Brunetti, Michael Kupperman, Lisa Hanawalt, Gina Wynbrandt, Lauren Weinstein, Peter Bagge), they become instant favorites. So is it also the case with Jessica Campbell. Her Hot or Not was a brilliant work of satire, and I've enjoyed her other illustrated minis that were mostly not entirely comics. But this collection of four-panel strips (the building block of humor) shows the artist going strictly for punchlines--and a lot of them land hard. The great thing about the strip titled "Oh, this old thing? It's just..." is not that she escalated the absurdity to build to a crescendo, but rather that she immediately elevated the absurdity and kept it a high level. From "Cheetos sprinkled on my feet" to "A trash bag with nipple holes" (with hilarious accompanying illustrations, this was the best gag in the mini.

Not all of her gags are conceptual. A drawing of her own tongue writhing in her mouth begins with the question "How hard is it to swallow your own tongue?" and ends with the statement "I smoked a little pot", giving perfect context to the prior four panels, especially since that kind of pointless tangent and staring off into space is precisely what happens when getting stoned. Campbell has clearly been working on her cartooning and drawing, as it is way more confident than it was even in her book. A side effect of that work provided another strong gag, where she starts off wanting to learn how to draw a nude man. She opens up a Google rabbit hole, simply saying "Huh!" for the next eight hours. As Campbell continues to refine her line, she has the opportunity to continue to clearly merge the visual aspects of her humor with the already razor-sharp wit that she possesses.

Nest, by Marnie Galloway. Rarely do I encounter cartoonists with a high degree of technical illustrating skill who also possess an intuitive, humane approach to art the way that Marnie Galloway does. Her Burrow was a personal meditation on motherhood (though not an autobiographical one) that explored the relationship between early motherhood, sleep deprivation, and the dream-like state (bordering on psychosis) that often occurs as a result of that lack of sleep. Nest is a non-narrative companion piece, juxtaposing drawings against Galloway writing out the Sophie Jewett poem "To A Child" on pages opposite the drawings. The drawings are similar to her Burrow style: Megan Kelso-esque in the use of a clear line, the bulky bodies with a powerful presence, the pastoral imagery of mothers and infants asleep together. It was printed on a Risograph, with green (of course) being the single color at work here. The most beautiful thing about this comic is its stillness: mothers and children asleep together: safe, becoming rested and rejuvenated, and sheltered. There's a sense of beautiful dreams chasing away the confusion of Burrow, if only for a little while.

Chicago In The Fall, by Cathy Hannah. Hannah's being doing memoir comics for a long time,but with her recent Springtime In Chicago and its sequel, she's really started to hit a new stride. Each daily strip is just four panels long, and she is careful with regard to what she chooses to talk about each day. This volume is a raw, honest look at her love life, as she still pines for one co-worker while sleeping with another one, a man whom some of her friends worry about with regard to his temper. Hannah has found her stride in part because she's found a way to simplify her line without sacrificing coherency or emotional content. Working with what looks like a fine-line marker, she's also attained a level of panel-to-panel consistency that resonates with the reader--especially her own self-caricature. With a few lines for bangs, dots for eyes, and a prominent nose, her profile pops on the page.

Hannah switches subject matter from her current job, to job interviews, to therapy sessions (mostly talking about jobs, the guy she's sleeping with, and the guy she's still obsessed with), time alone with her ailing cats, and eventually anxiety over the 2016 presidential election. There's a strip where she turns away from sex because her partner is drunk; initially she thinks to do it just to get over with then realizes that's precisely the wrong thing to do. This later leads to a fight, which leads her to question why she's even in this arrangement, other than for sex: "Trust me, it's not that glamorous". Strips like that are balanced with Hannah experiencing delight with regard to things coming in the mail or getting goofy with friends, as it's clear that personal connections are a big part of her happiness, even as she tends to be a homebody by nature. Hannah goes round and round a bit and even cops to it at the end: there's no conclusion to this comic because her life wasn't wrapping up neatly either. There's a sense that this comic is one long holding pattern, waiting for other shoes to drop: Trump, the health of her cats, her job, the guy she's dating, and the guy she's in love with. The fact that none of the shoes other than Trump dropped, so to speak, add a certain amount of tension to her life, but it's clear by the tone of the strips that simply writing about these events is therapeutic in its own way.

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