Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Koyama: Eric Kostiuk Williams' Condo Heartbreak Disco

Eric Kostiuk Williams' debut was technically Babybel Wax Bodysuit with Retrofit, but he's been self-publishing his own smart, funny and visually exciting autobio/anthropological comics for quite some time. What's interesting is his abiding interest in mainstream comics styles and tropes, as well as his desire to subvert and repurpose them. That's exactly what happens in his debut with Koyama Press, Condo Heartbreak Disco. It follows the adventures of two immortal beings, The Willendorf Braid and Komio, who have been companions for centuries but now live in a highly ethnically diverse, inexpensive section of Toronto. It's a fascinating comic because of the way it manages to combine all of Williams' interests, be it queer culture, city life, larger societal trends and the concept of magical helper beings.

Williams goes beyond sheer novelty in presenting this story about a benign, sheltering human braid-creature and a rubbery, shapeshifting creature of vengeance. Komio the shapeshifter hires herself out to people who are being abused, mistreated or otherwise treated poorly by their partners/lovers/flings. The comic begins with Komio pretending to be seduced by a guy at a club, going to his place, and then revealing their true self in horrifying fashion. Komio was hired by several women treated poorly (there's an implication of rape, but it's not explicit) by this guy to torture him for two hours, which they do. Very quickly, the reader learns that this is less a super-hero comic than it is a horror comic in many ways, with ancient beings whose standards of behavior and beliefs is very different from humans.

Williams sets up the story where Komio and the Braid are happily and quietly living with a flatmate in a low-income but ethnically diverse and exciting neighborhood in Toronto. There's a devastating bit of social satire unleashed when a photographer starts taking pictures of people in the area and puts them online, only to have the photos commandeered by a faceless, evil, real estate conglomerate. There's a brilliant twist in the book where we expect Komio to go up against and defeat the conglomerate. However, Komio switches sides when the power behind gentrification is another immortal being whose desire is to slowly eradicate humanity. The condos being built weren't for the rich; they were made to stand empty, slowly driving out every person. It was a way of wiping out the scourge of humanity.

In so doing, Williams revealed some uncomfortable truths about the characters. Komio's years of acting as an agent of vengeance had soured them on humanity as a whole, even if there were a specific few humans that they liked. The Braid's status as a loving nurturer was on hold until the real estate crisis came, and then they became a powerful, humane force for good--especially when Komio disappeared. In the end, the book ends on a note that reminds me of the biblical story of Lot, trying to convince the angels not to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah as he looked for virtuous people. The challenge laid down here is trying to convince Komio that humanity is actually worth saving. Through the Braid, Kostiuk makes a powerful argument on behalf of humanity, showing that crisis has a way of bringing people together. More to the point, the Braid argues that those being exploited by the rich and powerful shouldn't be lumped together with those oppressing them. It's a humane, one-on-one, interpersonal response. It's an ethical position closer to virtue ethics than Komio's almost utilitarian response of wiping out humanity as a kind of ethical equation. It's empathy vs rationality, and it's obvious that Williams meant for both characters to be powerful advocates of their positions but that empathy was ultimately more important.

Williams told me that one of his biggest influences is Joe Sacco. You can see it if you're familiar with Sacco's earlier work in particular, especially the stuff most recently reprinted in But I Like It. Sacco's work is much more stylized and rubbery, even as he maintains a strict naturalism in terms of backgrounds, character design, gesture, etc. Komio and the Braid are weird, larger than life figures in a real-world Toronto who manage to fit into a neighborhood where everyone's a little bit different and foreign but still accepting. Williams' page design flips from homey and warm to skewed and scattered, depending on whether he's trying to focus on warmth or keeping the reader off-balance. In other words, the parts of the story that focus on Komio are chaotic and unpredictable in terms of page design, panel construction and size. The Braid's are in a more standard grid that allows the reader to focus on emotion instead of spectacle. In the panels they shared together, they were wobbly and fantastic at times, but never out of control in the way they became when it was Komio alone. It was a smart shorthand for the emotional lives and impact each of the characters had on each other and their environment. Williams' imagery is intense and splashy, but above all else, he's a thinker as a cartoonist. He's always trying to find a new way to express ideas, combining his personal and political ideas into a potent, visually startling, storytelling experience.

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