Monday, July 31, 2017

Fantagraphics: Tardi & Malet's Fog Over Toliac Bridge

Fantagraphics' sadly-deceased co-publisher made it his life's mission to get the books of Jacques Tardi translated into English, but it took him a long time to build any kind of audience in the US for this kind of work. An early attempt came in serializing a story in the now-defunct Graphic Story Monthly, one that he translated himself. Years later, Thompson finally achieved success in getting Tardi recognition with nine volumes, including a few that won Eisner awards. It's only now that Fantagraphics has gotten around to publishing Thompson's translation from Graphic Story Magazine, Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, as the tenth volume in the Tardi series.

This was one of several books that Tardi illustrated, as he was fascinated by hard-boiled detective stories set in Paris. Leo' Malet wrote it, and it's full of detective-story cliches, racist caricatures (in this case, a common one of referring to Roma as "gypsies" and depicting them as unrelentingly violent and immoral), and hard-boiled action. There's also something very French about it as well, as detective Nestor Burma is trying to find out who killed a friend of his from his former anarchist days. Set in the 1950s, the image of the bomb-throwing anarchist was as fresh then as the concept of the terrorist is today.

The book is pretty much the pinnacle of genre fiction, or what Thompson might call "good crap". The source material is fine, as Burma gets tangled with a Roma woman who was befriended by his dead former comrade, gets mixed up with other former anarchist friends of his whom might have had something to do with his friend's murder, and has to outwit cops who are circling around him at the same time. Burma is a detective with no special, poetic qualities; he's just a man trying to do his best by others. What makes the book special is Tardi's immersive, evocative art. Every brick, every cobblestone and every archway feels real and trod upon. The reader smells the smoke of pipes and cigarettes, feels the icy rain, feels the punches thrown and tastes the wine thrown back. It's not just that Tardi has a compelling, realistic style, it's that he knows precisely how much to render on a building to make it come alive on the page. He's a master of perspective, switching between foreground, middleground and background with his characters as he turns a corner. There's one scene where Burma and Belita (his Roma love interest in the story) are questioning a ragman who knew his friend. In the story, he was a bust as a witness. Tardi framed this by putting their encounter in the middle ground, with the bustle of the street in the foreground and various buildings dwarfing the characters in the background. It's a clever note that subtly accentuated the text, one of many in the book.

The verisimilitude of the setting is contrasted by Tardi's cartoony, exaggerated faces. Burma has ears like the handles on a trophy, but Tardi is especially good at drawing middle-aged men with comb-overs and narrow faces. That stylization of character allows Tardi to exaggerate action here and there when he needs to, as well as provide the audience a point of reference that they should be concentrating on. Tardi's work is dense, exciting and captivating, powerfully evincing the experience of times past, even though the reader has no connection to this time or place. It's a satisfying bit of comic book junk food that goes down easy but still pleasantly lingers long afterward.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Minis: M.Aushenker and M.Collar

Michael Aushenker and Marcus Collar have worked together before, but let's take a look at some recent solo projects and collaborations with others:

Pool Care Handbook, by Marcus Collar and Joe Collar. The central narrative that runs through the book is that a version of the Creature From The Black Lagoon has taken a job as a swimming pool cleaner. He's friends with various other monsters, all of whom inhabit a typically drab suburban neighborhood that freaks out when they appear. There's also a running narrative that follows a family that goes camping and encounters a benevolent bigfoot. Video games later get interpolated into rock 'n roll dreams with Funkadelic references and laser shootouts with aliens, and the kid from the family is later hunted by actual werewolves and saved by the yeti. It's a weird and wacky series of events that's mostly played straight, which is to the benefit of the material. The art is almost entirely naturalistic, with even eyeball monsters rendered with the same kind of detail as people and buildings.

The fact that the Collars never wink at the reader in telling these nonsensical stories is what makes them work, even as the pacing of the stories is sometimes a little wonky. There are also points where I'm not sure whether the reader's knowledge of what is about to happen matters much, like in a drawn-out story involving a fishing expedition and the yeti. The tone of the book is clearly comedic, but it's written almost like a slice-of-life comic, only with monsters interacting with often-terrified humans. There's also a clear narrative through-line that is mostly just hinted at in this issue, as the Collars were more interested in establishing tone and character than anything else. Overall, this is a well-produced, quirky comic that isn't quite sure what it's going to be just yet, which is both intriguing and distracting at the same time.

The War On Dental, by Michael Aushenker. When Aushenker grabs hold of a concept, no matter how silly it may be, he goes all the way with it. In this completely wacko comic, he riffs off the infamous story of the American dentist who killed a beloved, protected lion named Cecil and turns it into an apocalyptic tale. The story begins with a dentist stealing the teeth from Cecil, father of dragons, and taking them home as a trophy. From the very first page, Aushenker assaults the reader with a garish color scheme designed to make the whole book look larger than life. As the narrative begins, he switches from a thin line to his usual ultra-thick line that is matched in his lettering, with every panel being composed conservatively but featuring highly stylized images. In the story, the rest of earth's dragons decide to get even with the dentist. The way he depicts the dragons is hilarious, as a cross between a biker gang and a hipster enclave. Aushenker's style of humor is almost entirely visual, as there aren't so much jokes or even a funny story as there is something weird and humorous in every panel, often as a sidebar to the actual narrative. An example is the absurdity of the Pacific Palisades community in California, going to extremes in depicting its bizarre "small-town charms".

After getting revenge on the dentist and his family with fiery righteousness, the dragons decide to destroy the entire city. Then they decide to kill every dentist on earth, just in case. That leads to various militaries and the usual Aushenker weirdo-characters (this time around, it's "Jump Boy Olson" and "Fancy Youngin") getting into the fight. They wind up deciding to destroy Korea and Iraq, sparking an all-out war that destroys everything. There's something satisfying about the lunacy of this comic. Aushenker never lets up, but he does allow for enough silly moments to make the comic more than a simple exercise in drawing mayhem. Although to be sure, there's plenty of that as well. Aushenker had a vision of complete ridiculousness when he started this comic, and he more than lived up to that goal with page after page of brightly-colored, silly and frequently nonsensical mayhem.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mini-Kus! of the Week #15: M.Jordan, Samplerman, L.Kandevica, C.Serrao, J.Pallasvuo

I'm wrapping up the Mini-Kus series (for now), until the next release and/or I fill in the few remaining gaps.

mini-Kus! #18: This No Place To Stay, by Michael Jordan. The German cartoonist is one of my new, recent favorites. His style reminds me a bit of Olivier Schrauwen a bit, in his ability to bring a kind of naturalism to the absurd. There's a wonderful sense of solidity and place in this completely bonkers narrative following a man who comes to a mountain for some kind of treatment. He takes a harrowing journey through his coffee cup and exits the medical facility through a friendly nurse's "stigmata of time". It's a Kafkaesque story, only the protagonist is aide by friendly, if random forces amidst the chaos swirling around him. Jordan captures the strangeness of hospitals and hospital waiting rooms, operating in a language and a reality that seems strange and somewhat heightened. That sense of the familiar and the strange is captured perfectly in the oppressive drabness of the hospital waiting room and the bizarre nature of all those around him. This comic is a meditation on illness, and how it alienates us from our own bodies and forces us to interact with strangers who speak in a confusing, jargon-based language.

mini-Kus! #51: Mirror Stage, by Jaakko Pallasvuo.This is a comic about finding one's purpose as a creator and a person. It's about enjoying traveling because it ensures that we will feel out of place for a good reason, instead of having that feeling of alienation at home. Using a scribbly line for his self-caricature, vivid colors that bleed into each other and the occasional use of collage, Pallasvuo pounds the reader with his existential crisis. The result is candy-colored angst that quickly flips and becomes something else when he encounters himself in a mirror and takes a trip into that world. His mirror consciousness is as settled and peaceful as his real-world consciousness is chaotic and anxious. The key moment of the comic comes when the artist criticizes this comic for lacking a theme even as he's writing it, but quickly moves on from that critique to find something resembling contentment. In the mirror world, even squiggles are just squiggles, even if they talk. It's a neat trick of mental focus, as Pallasvuo is able to convince the reader of his mental state using drawings, no matter what else is going on..
mini-Kus! #52: Acquisition, by Catia Serrao. This Portuguese cartoonist fills up the first few pages with the uncertain energy and delay tactics that surround a major exam of some kind, until the test finally begins. The test begins with a single question: "What does the duck say?"and proceeds to unravel the difference between the signifier and the signified, creating codes built on new alphabets and then designing equations around those codes. The art is deliberately flat and artificial, looking like it was designed in something like MS Paint as something meant to look modern but dated. There's a weird intimacy created between the questioner and the questioned, as the nature of their interaction is more exploratory than didactic. That said, the outcome of the test seems to fall in favor of the questioner, as though it were a zero-sum game between the two of them. It's completely absurd and totally serious at the same time, like all great absurd art. The use of color is disorienting and gratuitous in the sense where the color added no useful information or even decoration; it was there because it was an expected part of the computer's bells and whistles.
mini-Kus! #53: Yellow, by Liva Kandevica. This comic is another existential nightmare, as the protagonist finds himself trapped in a room surrounded by yellow. The story reminds me a little of astronaut Dave Bowman finding himself in a white room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, unsure of what was next other than fulfilling biological needs. There's a terrifying sequence when the man in the room pokes the wall, finds it squishy, and accidentally tears a hole in it, filling the room up with a sickening yellow fluid. The comic then segues to the man cutting up lemons in a close-up (providing the link to the drowning sequence), calmly enjoying a the same room. Which is real? The panic and paranoia of his strange environment, or a sense of everything being normal despite how strange it is? Kandevica provides no answers as she pounds the reader with her use of color and clear, elegant line that nonetheless creates a sense of the grotesque and unusual.

mini-Kus! #54: Bad Ball, by Samplerman. Yvan "Samplerman" Guillo uses public-domain images and merges them with his own drawings, as his pseudonym suggests: like a DJ sampling a song to get certain effects. He often leans on golden age comics, and there's an interesting synthesis between the already-bonkers quality of those comics and his own ideas. This comic, which features the titular Bad Ball, reimagines a character like the Human Torch going on a misunderstood adventure mistaken for a rampage, only it's a ball that stretches, opens up, talks, mutates and creates objects out of thin air. Working a strict 2 x 3 grid, the ball goes through a bizarre series of adventures, with each panel bringing new and delightfully strange images and dangers. There's a few different ways to read this comic: as quickly as possible, letting the images wash over you, and carefully examining each panel. Samplerman packs an incredible amount of detail into the comic, obscured a little by the deliberate flatness of the coloring. Samplerman uses reader expectation as a key aspect of his storytelling, as one's familiarity with what a superhero story of this era should look like is used against the reader when he crams so much bizarre imagery on every page. It has the spectacular, dazzling feel of a great DJ, but it's still very recognizably comics in structure and even emotional tone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fantagraphics: Noah Van Sciver's Fante Bukowski 2

Noah Van Sciver took punches at writing, publishing and the macho, bullshit pretensions often wrapped up in both as well as himself by proxy in his satire Fante Bukowski. Van Sciver doubles down on all of this in the book's sequel, only he introduces himself as an actual character to beat up on, which was funny on any number of levels but primarily because it turned the book into a romantic comedy. At the same time, Van Sciver address a lot of issues about writing itself: What does it mean to be "good"? What does it mean to be "successful"? How do these factors influence the act of writing itself?

That's the constant push and pull of this book. The titular character is a no-talent blowhard  who nonetheless walks away from a cushy job in order to pursue his dream as a writer, naming himself after two famous masculine/sensitive writers. The reason why Fante is so pathetic is not that he's a bad writer (though he is), but that he writes for all the wrong reasons. He wants to be rich and famous because of his writing. He wants respect, money and accolades from his writing. He's bought into the American myth of the writer as the swaggering, rugged individual who struggles but ultimately succeeds because of his sheer talent and authenticity. He doesn't actually love writing; he loves being a writer and all that entails. Or at least, all that he feels it should entail, as this book is pretty much a constant smackdown on poor Fante until the very end, with a hilarious twist that reminds me a little of the Martin Scorcese film The King of Comedy.

The book begins with Fante going to Columbus, OH (where Van Sciver currently resides) to make his fortune. Soon, this poseur has his credit card cut off by his parents and he's out on the streets, desperately trying to sell copies of his self-published poetry zine. Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend Audrey has written a spectacularly successful second novel that makes her the toast of the literary world. Her success only makes her more miserable, despite the open loathing her first novel evinced. Her publisher pressures her to sell the movie rights and to get to work on her next novel. She hangs around people wanting her opinion on things who couldn't have cared less about her before she published her book, like a sleazy agent, a starfucking fellow author and a tedious critic.

At a book-signing, she meets cartoonist "Noah Van Sciver", and they begin dating. As I noted in my review of the first volume, "Punching down is frowned upon, punching up can be pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny." Van Sciver doubles down on this idea by introducing a needy, whiny and selfish version of himself as Audrey's new love interest. He's jealous of her success and needles her to put in a good word with her agent and with critics. He won't even help Audrey with her luggage because of his delicate cartoonist hands. A running sub-theme of the book is gratitude, with each of the more successful characters in the book unable to feel it because of their need to chase something else: fame, fortune, or a return to a more innocent time. For Audrey, Fante represents that more innocent time, as she actually even based one of her characters on him. She can't appreciate what she's achieved because of the demands that have been placed on her, "Van Sciver" can't appreciate his success as a cartoonist because he wants that same brass ring that Fante wants: money, fame, Hollywood. He's also incapable of taking joy in the success of anyone around him.

Van Sciver structures this book in a way that rambles much less than the first (much of which was improvised), laying down a story template that draws characters in and out in funny ways. When Audrey starts looking for Fante, the latter is trying to get away from her because by the shambles his life has become. Van Sciver really pummels Fante, as he's kicked out of his hilariously sketchy motel room (complete with dozens of peep holes) and later burns it down by accident. He has sex with a prostitute named Lady, whom in the mythology of Van Sciver's Columbus has sex with every famous writer (of whom there are dozens) that live there or pass through town. He berates a poor copy shop worker into helping him make his zine perfect way after he was supposed to get off work (and on his birthday, no less!). His staggering lack of self-awareness in some ways is almost endearing; there's a purity to his delusions of grandeur despite his lack of both talent and work ethic.

Of course, as Van Sciver implies throughout the book, talent and work ethic aren't a guarantee for success beyond one's own satisfaction and sheer need to express oneself. The rest is often kind of random, as the end implies when a suspiciously favorable review helps Fante reach the level of hack instead of homeless person. In many ways, what led Fante to getting that review was the one truly selfless act he commits in the book (helping a famous critic get out of a jam with his wife), and it's what winds up helping him the most. The rom-com structure leads to Audrey and Fante meeting up again, with Fante's cowardice and lack of integrity putting him in a hilarious position (stuck in a bathroom window, trying to escape from her). At least this time around, Audrey gets the final word, until Fante's magical rise.

This book is very much about literary authors and their books as commodities. As such, the design serves to remind the reader of this fact at every turn, with genius book designer Keeli McCarthy basing the cover image on the Black Sparrow Press edition of Charles Bukowski's novel Factotum. The whole book is designed to give off a used bookstore feel, from the texture of the cover's paper to the sticker on the back to the handwritten "1st ed/rare OOP" inside the front cover. It's joking that it's a bust even before it came out, doomed to the dusty and increasingly rare used bookstores in town. And yet, it was published. For whatever self-deprecation Van Sciver throws at himself, the sheer enthusiasm he has for the material is palpable on every page. I've never seen his figures look more alive and active than in this book; they're expressive and big, as some of Van Sciver's time as a gag artist at MAD seems to be in operation here as well. The colors are lush and saturate every page. The figures are almost caricatures but grab on to the reader's eye and don't let go. Van Sciver even "draws funny" in an effort to get laughs on some page, something he's mostly avoided in his mature style. Here, it works. He may be mean to his characters, but it's obvious he has a lot of affection for figures with genuine (if fucked up) motivations like Fante & Audrey, and it shows in their body language, the way they're drawn and the way they interact.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Feeling Good With Kriota Wilberg

Kriota Willberg teaches anatomy and has drawn amusing comics for cartoonists on how to avoid work-related injuries. She's since branched out and done a lot of comics about a subject rich in material: the history of medicine. The Wandering Uterus, for example, is a heavily-researched, lushly-illustrated account of the phenomenon where doctors believed that any pain a woman felt was caused by their uterus literally wandering around their body. There's a hilarious quote from Plato wherein he describes the uterus as being an animal that gets angry if it's not making babies. Later, more modern medicine used foul-smelling scents to drive the uterus away from the head to help with headaches, or fragrant herbs to entice it back to to the pelvis. There's a recurring punchline from the anonymous woman who's looking for pain relief: "Any system in use for centuries must be safe and effective", as the most ridiculous "remedies" are applied. Willberg's critique here is not so much of the science at the time, but of the lack of rigor scientists used. They didn't actually listen to the patient (something that still frequently happens to women today) and gather data, nor did they actually pay attention to results. Integrative and holistic medicine techniques are fine when they actually show verifiable results; quackery is a result of putting one's prejudices ahead of the data.

In Zoonosis And Tipsy Nephrologists & At Least We Have Our Health!, Willberg goes the gag strip route, including a series of gags about why one might think twice about petting the cat (toxoplasmosis, bubonic plague, ringworm, rabies, etc) with drawings that are hilarious and descriptions that are positively unnerving. The first zine also has lots of specialty-specific gags, wherein a drunk oncologist or orthopedist is trying to pronounce an especially difficult word while soused. The latter comic has tons of New Yorker-style gags (including the style of drawing, use of grayscale and captions underneath each strip) with punchlines that require some specific scientific knowledge in order to understand. Happily, Willberg provides "Humor Analysis" for each gag, which in itself is a pretty funny deconstruction of the oft-inscrutable New Yorker gags. Some of the strips find Willberg just trying to create a rhyme with medical drawings, like the range of cell degeneration that can lead to cancer, and the latter word rhyming with dancer. Willberg is a playful cartoonist and writer who chuckles at her own less-successful attempts at rhymes and gags, disarming the reader as they understand that she's figuring this out as she goes along.

It's important to remember just how skilled Willberg is as a medical illustrator, and she often finds ways to juxtapose that skill with cartooning and storytelling. Anatomical Triangles Of The Neck takes a variety of muscular and neurological "triangles" (important for surgeons), which Willberg rearranges into love triangles. It's actually a funny and convoluted mnemonic, as she assigns the letters used to abbreviate anatomical structures to names. Pictorial Anatomy Of The Cute takes drawings of highly cute kittens and provides cutaway drawings of muscular, skeletal and neurological structures. It's both funny and unsettling, but mostly it's a way of reminding the reader that all animals are flesh and bone. The contrast with the otherwise adorable drawings and poses only serves to highlight this reminder.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mini-Kus! of the Week #14: T.Lehikoinen, E.Ostergren, L.Kenins

mini-Kus! #14: The Pernicious Kiss, by Tiina Lehikoinen. All three of the entries in this review are intensely sad in their own way. Lehikoinen tells the story of a young man who grows up with a horse's head, and she focuses on the dangers of him attempting to kiss a human woman. The comic is grotesque but deeply sad precisely because of Lehikoinen's remarkably exacting specificity and detail when it comes to his teeth, his gums, the shape of his mouth and head, the foam that might form and the pain that could result for his partner. Where Lehikoinen really twists the knife is depicting the anxiety that the horse-headed young man feels with regard to his own natural desire and possibility that he might accidentally devour someone he's kissing. It goes from being a metaphor for any self-perceived flaws and insecurities and dives deep into the specific anxieties unique to the protagonist. The lettering is especially remarkable in this comic, appearing as not just scrawled and immersive, but almost carved into the page, as if it was an act of desperate graffiti. At the same time, the audience is not asked to feel repulsed by or even pity the horse-headed man, but rather to simply empathize with him. If the narrative captions are a little distant at times, it's only to put us a bit further into the shows of this character rather than "other" him.

mini-Kus! #16: Runaway Dog, by Emilie Ostergren. On the one hand, this comic is about the rescue of a sad dog that receives total love and acceptance from his new owner, who also happens to keep an entire family's worth of "rescues" in his tiny forest house. There's a kind of charming, rambling logic to this story that almost completely eschews the use of negative space for an immersive but friendly storytelling style that thrusts the reader into this strange world where the gnome-like lead treats the dog with great kindness, and the other members of the family (who all live in vases and ewers). The dog takes them all for a ride on his back as they talk about retreating from a society where they were constantly afraid, and the dog decries the feeling of being a slave. The dialogue is all a bit odd if heartwarming, until the final panel where the little girl who owned the dog is weeping at his absence. It's Ostergren's clever way of showing the ways in which grief is not an emotion isolated to a single person, but a phenomenon that connects us in ways we often choose to ignore. Was the dog really treated like a slave? Is he truly being treated better now? Are the feelings of the little girl valid or rendered unimportant because of the dog's feelings? Ostergren raises these questions in her cartoony, ratty and expressive line and leaves them to the reader to work out.

mini-Kus! #42: Alien Beings, by Laura Kenins. Working in colored pencil, this is a painful story about conflating a childhood love of unexplained phenomena with events that may have led to her parents' divorce. It's unclear if this is an autobiographical story, but it doesn't really matter because of the emotional authenticity of the narrative. That's especially true because of the slightly crude and expressive quality of the art, which is entirely dependent on color, not line, making it look more like the work of a child than an adult despite the sophistication of the design. That's an intentional effect, as Kenins makes an effort to put the reader into the mindset of the protagonist, down to very era-specific music and (especially) TV shows like The X-Files. She wants to believe that what she perceived as an encounter with strange lights and a UFO had an immediate and negative effect on her parents' relationship instead of it fracturing for other reasons. Steeped in pop culture, she even goes as far to manipulate a situation where her parents "run into each other". Instead of resparking their love, it simply irritates them. This is a comic that sets out to explain the unexplained in a literal way at first, but eventually in a metaphorical fashion as well. Better that aliens caused the breakup than it being her fault (the go-to for children) or worse, it being no one's fault. Kenins perfectly captures that urge of trying to make sense of a strange world with hidden knowledge and an adventurer's spirit, with a feeling of just being a clue or two away from cracking the case.

Monday, July 17, 2017

NoBrow: Lorena Alvarez' Nightlights

I'm constantly amazed by NoBrow's ability to find artists from across the globe who fit into their clean, cartoony and colorful aesthetic. Lorena Alvarez' book Nightlights is certainly no exception, as she does her own take on that aesthetic and adds a few twists of her own. The story is inspired by the Colombian's own childhood spent in Catholic school, as it follows Sandy, a girl who's more interested in the worlds she creates with her drawings than with school or fitting in with others. The book opens with a cartooning masterclass on how to use negative space: a two page spread where a couple of pages of drawings are on the left-hand-side page, and more pages are scattered on the right-hand-side page, with Sandy herself laying down at an angle on the page and drawing. There's a pot holding flowers in the upper-left-hand side of the page that counterbalances everything else and tugs against Sandy's gaze being taken up by her mother calling her. Throughout the book, Alvarez solves storytelling problems by creating some extreme angles and character points-of-view to yank the reader's eye around.

Alvarez ability to balance panel and page compositions give the book a pleasing feel, even as she creates tension in various ways. The book's first twist is that she sees little lights above her in bed that she catches and transforms into a huge host of of creations that come straight from her imagination. There's another two-page spread where she's in the lower-left hand side of the left-hand-side page, and ideas come rocketing out of her in an almost conical fashion, getting bigger and bigger as they fly off the far right side of the right-hand-side page--with her riding on a creature, carrying a huge banner. These opening pages are an expression of pure joy and creativity, as her creations literally take her on a ride until she falls asleep.

When she meets a new girl with purple eyes and purple hair the next day, she's delighted to make a friend who is genuinely interested in her talent as an artist, even going so far as to ask for one of the drawings. Alvarez quickly makes it clear that the new girl, Morfia, is a magical being, but she takes the plot in an unexpected direction. Instead of Morfia becoming her new best friend for real, she turns out to be a kind of spirit parasite that's out to isolate Sandy from her family and anything except drawing. With Morfia's dream influence, Sandy's ideas start to become ugly and frightening.

When Sandy meets Morfia again in real life, it's after a particularly unpleasant day at school, and Morfia finds her in detention. She's a perfect, rule-breaking playmate. as they create worlds together in the seriousness of their play. Sandy's ready to simply reject school life and expectations when she gets home, especially when her mother tells her that she knows about the trouble she's in and tries to lend a sympathetic ear. What Alvarez captures perfectly is Sandy's own confusion about herself and her own identity, especially as she's being slowly manipulated by Morfia. When her friend comes to her window and takes her deep into the forest, there's a horrifying sequences of images that show Morfia's deep and abiding hunger for Sandy's imagination and her willingness to keep her there forever. Sandy's quick thinking that showed she was actually paying attention to a key concept in school saves her life, and a return to school that introduces the concept of the atom proves to be just the catalyst she needs to merge her love of drawing with her love of learning.

There are certain superficial similarities between this book and Luke Pearson's Hilda series, especially a willingness to go deep in expressing danger and even terror. Both share a similar sense of whimsy. Both are about familial relationships. Pearson's had a chance to go a little deeper than Alvarez in exploring the character and her friends, but Alvarez' natural affinity for what in many ways is a stand-in means that I could see more adventures starring Sandy. The best part of each book is that despite the extensive and beautiful use of color, neither artist loses track of line. The characters have a solidity to them that grounds the fantasy aspects of the series and draws in the reader. There are times when I read a NoBrow book and can't remember much about it afterward, but Alvarez's storytelling choices and the verisimilitude of the Catholic girls' school lingered on long after reading it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Introducing High-Low Intersection: #1: Whit Taylor Interviews Miranda Harmon

Welcome to the first edition of High-Low Intersection, an occasional (and hopefully soon to be regular) feature that will highlight reviews, essays and interviews by other writers about comics, specifically for this site. They will be posted on High-Low's regular blank day (Friday) when they appear. There are so many excellent writers about comics and too few of them have a regular outlet for their work. On to our first feature: artist and writer Whit Taylor interviews up-and-coming cartoonist Miranda Harmon.
Miranda Harmon first caught my attention a few years ago on Tumblr. Her cute, but fierce character design, paired with her relatable one panel comics and autobio stories about feelings and relating to the world, show a young cartoonist with a fearlessness towards tackling the trickier parts of being a human. I recently spoke with her about how she got into comics, her process, and what she’s been up to lately.

  1. What’s your comics origin story? (aka. When and why did you start making comics?)
The first comics I remember making were heavily inspired by Garfield, my first obsession. I was around age 8 or 9, and my main character was named Marie, and she was a blue cat with Powerpuff Girl eyes. She was in love with a cat who was named after a boy from my school who I had a crush on!
I started drawing journal comics when I was in my senior year of high school, and they’re all very embarrassing now. I was introspective in the same way all 17-year-olds are. Then I went to Goucher College and studied fine arts and art history, expecting to go into academia or curatorial studies. While I was there I learned about indie comics.

I went to NYCC in 2011 and met some webcomics people, and it seemed like a good time. Then I went to my first SPX in 2013, and I started to make comics friends through twitter. That sealed the deal for me! I was surprised that I could participate as well as be a fan, and I was so happy to find a community.

Even though I wasn’t published, nobody could stop me from making zines and that was exciting to me. I liked that comics was separate from my academic career, in that way it felt like I had control over this new part of my life. My professors were supportive but didn’t know what to tell me, besides to keep going.

  1. It seems like in the last year or so, your comics have exploded in popularity, especially on Tumblr and Twitter. What do you attribute this to?
In late 2015 I finished a long, sincere journal comic about an experience I had with a podcast. I miscalculated and thought that nobody would care about that comic, but it turns out a lot of people connected to my story. After that I started to get more opportunities and eyes on my work. It feels like I’m oversimplifying but I really do look back on that one comic and the response to it, and I think that was a turning point for me.

I became much more confident about sharing my work after that. I started to believe in myself as an artist. For the first time making a comic made me feel powerful and strong, and I want to keep chasing that feeling forever.  

Whit: Are you referring to Harmontown?

Yep, that’s the one!

  1. Much of your work focuses on your emotional realm, including self-worth, relating the outside world, relationships, and mental health. What has your experience been with sharing this publicly, both for you and others?

When I make quick journal comics in my sketchbook, I try to make every part of the process as easy and fast as possible. Part of that is trying not to worry about any audience reaction. I feel like that way I am able to be more honest.

But when I sit down and spend time making something with more intent, it can be difficult because I don’t want to hurt anyone with my work. In one journal comic, I show myself explaining to a therapist that I feel, “rotten.” After I made this comic and put it online, a friend who almost never reads any comics at all sat me down and, crying, told me I’m not rotten and that she was worried about me. I was surprised because I nearly forgot that when I put a comic online, it can be read by anyone! I still think that when I make something it’s only for me and a handful of my friends to see, but the reality is different.

I haven’t made anything yet about real people in my life hurting each other. That’s something I want to do in the future and something that has the potential to really harm those close to me. I don’t know how to best proceed but I think I’ll have to find a way. Autobio doesn’t need to do the same thing for everyone, and I’ve used it as therapy as well as a way to gain some control over how I am received by the world. Both of those are valid but I think I’m at a point where I’d like to do more.
All of my favorite autobio stories are full of conflict, and I know I can’t keep making stories about just my own feelings about myself forever. If I’m being honest about my life and the stories I want to tell, they will be full of messy relationships and embarrassing, horrible moments. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about work by MariNaomi, where she shares her romantic history. I think those stories are fascinating and have a real impact on people, and I want to work towards sharing my own life like that.  

  1. Your artistic style is really charming! I like how it combines thoughtful character design with simplicity. How did you develop your style?

Thank you! I like to draw quickly and I’ve tried to build a visual shorthand that works for me, and I really think I just copied everything I love to look at.

I fell in love with webcomics in the mid 2000’s! The first webcomic I ever read was called VG Cats by Scott Ramsoomair. It was a comic about video games and the two main characters were anthropomorphic cats. I never play a lot of video games so I didn’t get the jokes, but I remember copying the drawing style when I was 14 and something new clicked. It’s been a long time but I think it’s still there in the way I draw! Is that embarrassing? I can’t tell! Sorry to Scott Ramsoomair if he ever reads this.

Luckily I found a lot of different webcomics and each one felt like a little place I could go, and almost none of them were about video games. I spent a lot of time reading KC Green’s work and I still look at my copy of his book, Anime Club, when I want to draw something important. I was also influenced by the comics of Meredith Gran, Magnolia Porter and Kate Beaton. The Internet was an incredible resource when I was a teenager. There were always new things to learn and I could go look at these artists’ work and study it as long as I wanted to.

The book that most changed the way I draw and think about drawing is Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat. I bought it in college and read it over and over. It’s full of all these panels like little chaotic worlds that work perfectly. I’m also in love with Sally Cruikshank’s work. Honestly there are so many great illustrators who I owe a lot to, I could keep listing names for a long time! Especially Tove Jansson.

  1. You recently graduated from SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop). What was your experience like and how has it influenced your comics making?

SAW was really perfect for me! I didn’t go to art school but by the end of my undergrad experience I wished I had. When I graduated from college I knew what I wanted to do and didn’t feel like I had spent any time preparing for it. Luckily I went straight to SAW right after Goucher College. I’m from Florida so it was nice to live close to home.

My classmates who I spent all year with were incredible and from all different ages and experience levels. I learned a lot from them, and we had a good chemistry as a class.

Tom Hart, the main teacher and founder of the school, is a big influence on me. He’s a great cartoonist but also a great person, and it was a big deal for me to watch how working artists actually live. During my year at SAW I was able to think a lot about what kind of person I want to be. I learned that I love being part of a community and I can’t do this alone. I want to be the kind of person who brings people together and helps others. I will never forget that Tom told us once, “The best reason to make comics is to show those fuckers.” I think about that every day and it helps guide my work still.

Gainesville was the last place I lived before I moved to LA, and while I don’t regret moving at all, it’ll always hold a place in my heart. I spent ages 22-24 there and I feel it’s where I finally became a person who I’m proud of.

  1. You recently moved to Los Angeles. How are you liking it?

I love it here more than I thought I could love living anywhere! I’ve never lived in a big city before and I’m excited by how much there is to do and how many people there are. I’m tired all the time because I need to work a lot and I feel like I’m always on, but I can tell that even though I’m not producing as much work as before, I’m thriving.

The other day I was on top of my friend Heather’s roof, the sun was setting and it was cool and windy even though it’s the middle of June. The sunsets here are so unbelievable. I could see Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood sign, and everything, and I kept asking myself in my head over and over if it was real. I knew I wanted to live here for years, and it was a big jump. I’m lucky to have so many people supporting me.

  1. What are some of your hopes and goals going forward with your comics?

I want to really sit down and work on a longer fictional narrative. I love making autobio work and I don’t want to stop but I want to get better at fiction. I have some ideas and I’m a little afraid to begin, but I know I need to take those steps! I think I’ve gotten away with doing what comes easy for me for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with easy but I want to stretch more and get stronger in other areas.

  1. What comics are you reading right now?

Currently I’m reading Ariol, the Three Donkeys by Emmanuel Guilbert and Marc Boutavant, and Spaniel Rage by Vanessa Davis. I love Vanessa Davis’ work, I am very inspired by the way she draws and records her life. I also just read through all of Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran again because it ended. Octopus Pie is my favorite comic ever made, I can’t stop thinking about it!

  1. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?

Not really! In the past year, I’ve been focused on moving and surviving. Unfortunately, I’ve pushed my personal comics work to the back for a little bit, but I feel like I’m finally stable enough to get back on that horse. I’d like to make a new minicomic before OC zine fest in August. I’m thinking it’ll be about a monster who goes to an important business lunch and messes everything up. I’ve also working on a couple of webcomic ideas that I’d like to get started before too long, and I have a picture book idea that I’m developing. And of course there’s also always journal comics I want to make, I really want to document this time in my life as best as I can because I want to remember it and process it fully.

  1. What advice would you give to fans of your work who are looking to make their own comics?

People should come before work if you can help it. When you’re making friends, find your peers instead of chasing down your heroes. Keep reminding everyone that you exist by making comics and showing up. It can feel lonely at first but in my experience people respond to sincerity and kindness. Really listen and get to know people and draw from your own experiences when you make comics.

I would also say that it’s not the worst thing in the world to make a bad drawing! It can be intimidating because when you put something out on the Internet, there’s the potential for a lot of people to look at it. But don’t let that scare you away from making things. Everyone at some point has looked back on old work and felt embarrassed. The best thing I made a year ago makes me cringe to look at now and I’m prepared for that to always be the case!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Silver Sprocket: M.Sweater, L.Prince, J.Stanton

Please Destroy My Enemies, by Michael Sweater. For a publisher that focuses on punk, Silver Sprocket releases a number of comics with a high cute factor. Michael Sweater (nee' King) is a good example of this sense of being betwixt and between, as his comics are indeed very cute, but they also have a fairly dark quality as well. In a series of four-panel gags, the titular entry finds the little girl praying to god and then finding the corpse of one of her enemies as she holds his skull with a self-satisfied smile. That sets the tone for the rest of the book, as Sweater acts as a kind of train station operator, either pulling a narrative in a somewhat expected manner and then going over the top to sell the gag, or else switching tracks at the last second as a way to create the punchline.

Whether it's a vampire buying a lamp, a dog somehow talking its way into taking a driving test, a rabbit hating its dietary choices, a picture frame being hung in a way that makes the house crooked or a zoo where all the animals are obvious fakes, these strips make up Sweater's strongest work. They're conceptually precise and punchy, and he knows just how to draw out the laugh. His linework is neutral and tells the story without interfering or adding to the final outcome that much. Sweater also experiments with some three panel daily strips that don't pack the same punch and are less interesting visually. Sweater's at his best when he works big, works in a cartoony style and keeps his figures simple & direct. There are some hints of Aron Nels Steinke in his work especially in the way he draws big, cheesy smiles. Sweater has hit upon a formula that works very well for him, and the result is a funny book with some bite.

Be Your Own Backing Band, by Liz Prince. I've often found Prince's autobio work about her relationships to be derivative and too often slanted in a direction that's alienating to the reader. Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? tries for Jeffrey Brown-style warts 'n all honesty, but it strays too far and often into giddy silliness. Alone Forever has precisely the opposite problem: after a series of break-ups and relationship failures, this book wallows in self-pitying melodrama until Prince is able to make a tentative peace with her status. The real problem with both books is that there's too much stuff about relationships and not enough about what makes Prince tick. That's been solved by her very good Tomboy memoir (about gender identity and appearance) and this new collection of strips originally printed in Razorcake. Prince talks a bit about how finding punk and DIY had a huge, positive impact on her life. These strips are a sort of contemporary snapshot of how punk continues to influence her life at age thirty and beyond.

Prince is a curmudgeon about public displays of affection at shows (oh, irony!) and people taking selfies, which a friend points out is simply a different kind of enjoying the experience than Prince had. For the most part, Prince is wildly enthusiastic in sharing her experiences managing to get into shows, seeing friends, eating food and generally disrupting her life and sleep in order to have these powerful aesthetic experiences that center around camaraderie above all else. While some of the strips are about specific bands and why their music is important, more of them are about specific adventures Prince had with particular friends in order to get to a show or after a show. Many of the strips are about her friendships with the musicians, as Prince took to drawing concert fliers and such to become a part of the scene when it was clear that she had no musical talent. In many respects, having punk as a focus gives Prince the ability to tell stories about her relationships, her feelings about gender and how that's evolved, her feelings about art and her feelings about community. Punk mediates each of these aspects of her personality without her going too far down any particular rabbit hole. It gives her a constraint to work against, which makes her comics more dynamic and interesting. It's also obvious that writing about punk is an expression of pure joy for her, channeling all of her emotions (positive and negative) onto the page. There will always be a central sweetness to Prince's work that borders on twee, but this book never crosses that divide.

Squatters Of Trash Island, by James The Stanton. Stanton often writes about monsters and the apocalypse in a breezy, funny way. The end of the world is inevitable; it's just the "how" that's in question. And as such, there will always be people who cling to and exploit the slow or fast doomsdays that afflict the planet. This mini is about the strange and few who live on trash heaps in the ocean, trying to survive and even thrive in horrible conditions in a remarkably cheery manner. Some adjust by having sex with dolphins. Some distill disgusting substances into a kind of liquor. When a couple of representatives from a cola company come by to scrape the labels off their bottles (bad PR), they are horrified at the "society" they find living there, consisting of cannibals, perverts and outcasts. Of course, the cola company is as complicit in causing this breakdown of society as anyone, a point that Stanton drives home in contrasting the straightforward (if demented) moral code of the squatters with the sleaziness of the workers. Stanton further drives everything home with his relentlessly grotesque (but cartoony) art. There are weird figures, disgusting fluids or nausea-inducing colors on virtually every page, but it's still Stanton's writing that's the funniest thing about his comics. It's smart and over the top, but there's truth in every weird twist.