Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Comics From Sophie Yanow

Sophie Yanow is one of the best, most original autobio cartoonists working today, especially when she also turns her attention to journalistic and political topics. Her book with Retrofit/Big Planet, What Is A Glacier? is remarkably personal and actually exposes a lot more personal information in a more straightforward way than she usually does in her autobio comics, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. The comic focuses a lot on her own anxiety and the way it creates a feedback loop. This is also a comic about global warming and the struggle to come to terms with what we can do regarding this issue. It's in the form of a tourist trip to Iceland with Hannah, a friend who met her there on her way to visit family in Europe. 

Yanow is a thinker on the page in a way that most cartoonists aren't. That is, she freely admits when she doesn't know something and is constantly trying to figure out how and why things work. Her anxiety affects her both regard to how she thinks about the world she's living in with regard to environmental and social justic. e issues as well as her own personal happiness in a romantic relationship. Yanow's work here seems more relaxed than usual; it's less deliberately angular and it's even scribbly at times in a way I don't generally associate with her work. The way she draws Hannah's hair, for example, is especially scribbly and quick. There's a sense that Yanow is trying to capture thoughts and feelings as quickly as possible in the moment rather than chew on them at length later on. Of course, while the drawings have that wild immediacy, the actual storytelling is told in a rigid 2 x 3 grid that forces the reader into a deliberate pace. It creates a sense of neutral ease that belies the artist's anxiety.

Hannah and Yanow grapple with how Iceland's new identity as a tourist destination is creating an increased carbon footprint that is threatening the very resources that they are using to draw in tourists. A lot of the book centers around Yanow learning about glaciers, wondering about her relationship to the environment she's encountering and debating with herself whether or not she should spend the money to see glaciers up close. All the while, the two women experience the alien Icelandic terrain while dealing with the odd kinds and amount of light at that time of the year. There's a gorgeous two page spread that pins that alien metaphor with them listening to David Bowie's song "Life On Mars"; the drawings are almost entirely abstract shapes formed by solid blacks and white spaces, framed by zip-a-tone grays.

Yanow demonstrates the ways she's in her own head, musing about her ex-girlfriend, her father and how fatalistic he was regarding death, as it had been a part of his life early on. There's one scene where she's asked to make a salad, and she spends the next few minutes looking up glaciers instead, connecting them as a measure of the ways in which climate change affects sea level. It was one of many thought processes that led to her getting obsessed not only with her father's potentially imminent death, but also the end of the world in general. That led to a series of debilitating anxiety attacks when she was in Canada, as her visa had been flagged and she was in constant fear of being deported. That anxiety was directly connected to a relationship that was plagued by her own sense of insecurity (in every sense of the word); constant fears of abandonment, of being sent home, of things ending and not being able to deal with them. So a lot of the anxiety was self-inflicted when she pressured her girlfriend, for example, but it was also obviously true that they saw the relationship framed in different ways. That didn't make the end any less painful, as Yanow depicts on several grueling pages of wishing she was being texted goodnight and then the end itself which came with being glued to her bed, crying, holding her own as in agony, screaming, etc.

All of this had a point--Yanow talked about grief and how she had rituals and a language for break-ups, unpleasant as it was, but didn't have ways to deal with other kinds of grief, like losing a friendship, being away from her parents and confronting the possibility of the end of the world. In the end, that's what this comic is all about: finding and framing an attitude that made sense and worked for her regarding potential future catastrophes. The end of the comic takes that topic on directly, as she talks about a variety of theories asking whether or not it's too late to act with regard to climate change, and how that might affect our decision-making. In a comic where she talks about her difficulty with endings in general, the end of this comic is perfect: reading that one last book that says it may be too late to effect change, but that doesn't mean trying isn't important, in ways that may not be apparent until much later. Resistance in the face of the inevitable is an important act of authenticity as a human being, and Yanow gets this point across and avoids being pedantic at the same time.

Her mini Cozy is a short, wordless story about exploring harsh winter environments with a housemate, finding a pet red bird struggling against the elements and bringing it back into their warm home. The stunning use of red in an otherwise black & white comic makes those scenes pop with a powerful sense of warmth in the emotional sense, and the scenes back in the apartment pick up on that and match it with physical warmth. It's a delightfully cheerful little story.

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