Thursday, November 16, 2017

Catching Up With Liz Suburbia

Liz Suburbia's Cyanide Milkshake is perhaps my favorite one-person anthology minicomic of the past several years. Throwing in a serial, autobio stuff, jokes, and other assorted weirdness, she always stuffs each issue full of viscerally enjoyable entertainment. With the eighth issue, she has decided to close it down (as of late 2016) and move on. The issue explains some of those reasons, but let's look at a couple of other side-projects first.

Teen Dream Tragedy was a quickly scrawled out mini about the passion of Britney Spears, roughly speaking. On the back cover, Suburbia claims she drew this in 28 minutes and I can sort of believe that, given how she seems to be drawing from a few internet reference photos and takes it from there. Lots of text is crossed out in a move that looks deliberate, not a series of mistakes, as Suburbia is using sous rature as a method of exploring the transition between her traditional lyrical style and something far darker. The final revelation of a knife falling down from the heavens, its eventual (but unknown) use and its final disposal turns this into a story about striking out against the hierarchical forces arrayed against her own sense of agency.

What A Dog Wears is a perfect, goofy delight, demonstrating costume after increasingly absurd costume a individual can wear in order to help with "struggling w/articulating yr personal style". This mini is just a chance for Suburbia to joyfully goof off and draw fun and funny things for twenty or so pages. It starts to get really ridiculous with "SK8 Sandwich", which is two skateboards, one in front and one in back. "The Blood of Mine Enemies" (cheerfully subtitled "Goes with everything!") is a dense, disturbing image, matched only by "Apex Predator", which is a person with a shark out of water devouring most of their body. Funniest of all is the truly unnerving "A Mascot Suit Of Yourself", complete with two eye peering out behind the "mouth" of the mascot. Suburbia has formidable cartooning and drawing skills, but it was nice to see the illustration part of her drawing take center stage with these concepts.

Cyanide Milkshake #8 is an extremely revealing but also very silly comic, and that's a dynamic that sums up Suburbia nicely. She did a flip book in the bottom right hand corner of each page of Batman licking himself in a sensitive area like a cat. She talked about shoplifting groceries from a nearby market and laments how expensive the mustard she once stole was. There's just gag after gag on some pages, like the buttons on Jughead's hat (him fucking a burger, of course), wearing her partner's face at his funeral, a joking-not-joking bit about wanting to do watersports, etc. Then in "No Identity", she gets serious, revealing that pushing herself to finish her book Sacred Heart broke her, as her lack of self-care produced depression and severe anhedonia. It got to the point that the thought of making comics was upsetting to her, and she preferred to live life for a while pursuing the most basic, visceral experiences: eating, sleeping, exercising and having sex. The end of the story had no end, other than hesitant attempts to get back in the game (like this) that were still limited, as she chose to end the series with this issue. There's one last ode to her dogs and the wrap-up of her dimension-travelling zombie story that ends with a glorious deus ex machina. Suburbia really does give her reader a lot to chew on, especially in terms of comedy, and in her own way, Cyanide Milkshake was sort of her version of Love and Rockets. There's the angle of serialized stories, a mutual love of Archie comics, strange one-offs and a punk attitude, only Suburbia's comics are even more personal in some ways. To put a finer point on it, she allowed herself to do whatever she wanted--no rules, no restrictions--and she blossomed as a cartoonist with the freedom she gave herself to experiment. The series will be collected at some point soon, but I'm hoping she's able to return to the sequel to Sacred Heart in due time.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NBM: Satania, by Kerascoet & Fabien Vehlmann

With regard to the French husband-wife creative team Kerascoet (Marie Pommepuy & Sebastien Cosset), their subject matter seems to be uniformly grim and perverse whether they're working with writing collaborators Hubert or Fabien Vehlmann. In their latest release in English, Satania, they are back with Vehlmann after their supremely creepy collaboration, Beautiful Darkness. It's not just that their comics are filled with visceral and frequently unsettling violence; in many of their comics, each page is a fight for basic survival for each of the characters, and the odds are stacked against them. Each of their books also tends to center around a quasi-innocent young woman who turns out to be tough as nails, as she fends off the dangers of her environment as well as a long line of men who threaten them sexually. The other commonality is that Kerascoet's command of color produces pure eye candy. Their line is cartoony, almost ranging into classic Gallic bigfoot style. That said, it's color that dominates every page, sometimes almost entirely overwhelming line.

Satania begins with two pages of near-darkness underground, until we meet a spelunking priest whose goal was to find a party that foolishly set out in dangerous caves. That party includes a scientist named Lavergne and the sister of an explorer who had disappeared in the caves. She's a redhead nicknamed Charlie, and she's the prototypical spunky Kerascoet hero who's in way over her head but finds a way to persist. She's in search of her brother, who has theorized that hell is a real place, only it has a scientific explanation: an offshoot of humanity found a way to live deep in the bowels of the earth. After a flood comes that wipes out half the party and takes away most of their supplies, the result is a story that's part Jules Verne's A Journey To The Center Of The Earth and part Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A key character in the book is a hallucination: Charlie and Christopher's mother. As it turns out, she claimed to have been raped by a demon, which led Christopher to his wild theories about an underground civilization of creatures that looked like demons. Charlie knew that the truth was far more prosaic (a drunk, red-headed farmer at a party), but it turned out that Christopher accidentally stumbled on the truth. The party, whose composition with a doubting priest and a scientist burning with belief made it a walking but highly unusual debate, encountered all sorts of bizarre sights. There was a man-made utopia not too far under the ground called Ultimate Thule that an insane member of the party destroys; said member naturally turns rapacious toward Charlie when he reasons that he will be going to paradise so that his actions now have no further consequences. There was the appearance of what seemed to be actual demons, which led the remaining members of a party on a long and perilous chase. There were extremes of heat and cold, tornadoes, razor-sharp ice cities, oceans of magma, roots suspended from vaulted ceilings, and giant sloth-like creatures that one could hitch a ride on. The book is a relentless visual feast of crazy action sequences that never allow the characters or reader more than a moment of rest before the status quo changes. Things really start to get interesting once the breathless pace of the book eases and Charlie (whose black dot eyes along with the red hair make her a ringer for Little Orphan Annie) finds evidence that Christopher is still alive. When the priest and Charlie finally find what seems to be a secure location, she encounters a demon whose horn she had partially lopped off earlier in the book--only the creature is not only attracted to her, he's submissive to her and enjoys being hit. By this point, Charlie's half-naked and she's turned on by the beast and has sex with him. That only intensifies the guilty hallucinations of her mother, who taunts her for actually having sex with a demon. This is the beginning of the complete breakdown in structure with the characters, as the priest imprisons them, believing that it wasn't safe to leave. He had created his own little utopia, a running theme in the book as every time a character believes they've managed to achieve this, it gets smashed to bits. The end of the book brings up certain moral issues not unlike Conrad's. When they finally find Christopher, it's slowly revealed that being in this environment has revealed him for what he truly is: a monstrous, selfish manipulator. Unlike Conrad, that transformation becomes literal in a series of horrifying pages that Charlie barely survives. Christopher never has a "the horror, the horror" moment; instead, he falls into that abyss that he gazed into in a figurative and literal sense. The world of Satania is a sentient but completely amoral ecosystem that exists to move, thrash around and destroy, but the obvious point that Vehlmann and Kerascoet make is that it's really not that much different from the surface world. Or rather, it's a difference of degree and not kind, but in neither case is it to be lauded as something utopian. That's really punched home with the final pages, where getting back to the surface is less a matter of returning to civilization than it is making a choice between two different worlds with different rules regarding cultural mores but surprisingly similar rules regarding survival. Unlike Beautiful Darkness, whose ending seems happy at first but is actually horrific upon further contemplation, the ending of this book isn't so much happy as it is an acknowledgment that we ultimately are responsible for our own choices, and it's that agency that Charlie relies upon throughout the book that saves her. She's the only character uninfected by cold science or fervid beliefs that negate humanity; she has the flexibility of her brother with regard to adapting to her environment without his evangelical embrace of the id-ruled nihilism that Satania represents. That fits neatly into Kerascoet and their collaborators writing books about violence, horror and deviancy that wind up finding the conventions and authorities of society every bit as monstrous and dangerous. The ending of Beautiful Darkness is horrible not because the main character found a "home" with the giant, but rather because this conventional love she felt was for a person who had killed her host. In Satania, it's Charlie's flexibility and unflappability that allow her to overcome both the physical and philosophical dangers she's presented with.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

mini-Kus!: Niewiadomski, Koch, Bulling/Hoffmann

mini-Kus! #59: Share The Love, by Paula Bulling & Nina Hoffmann. This is an unusual mini in that the central characters (Philip and Simone) are represented differently in different segments of the comic. Initially, they are barely sketched-characters with a yellow wash, a man and a woman in a Berlin bar being amusingly harangued by a local who gives them all sorts of unsolicited advice and opinions. The second segment finds them at dinner, this time drawn as anthropomorphic animals, with Simone throwing all sorts of hints at Philip that she'd like to be in a physical relationship with him and him managing to deflect them all (resulting in a hilarious head slap onto the table by Simone). The third segment finds them in bed together, as Simone is trying to negotiate the possibility of sex from someone who's obviously become attached to, and vice-versa, and then switches to Simone at a nude beach with Philip's daughter.

In addition to being a fascinating visual survey that uses its images to reflect the mood of each scene (the funny animal scene reflects the goofy nature of their interaction in the bar, for example), there's a remarkable frankness in the way the comic explores the nature of relationships removed from the romantic ideal that a first marriage brings. Philip celebrates that he no longer is programmed to remember what his ex-wife is wearing when he sees her to exchange custody of their kids, while Simone is hoping for precisely that kind of connection. The final segment sees Simone in that odd maternal/friend role with Philip's child, a different and budding kind of love relationship.

mini-Kus! #61: Daughter, by Aidan Koch. Koch is well known for her use of erasure and a thin line in many of her comics that border on the abstract, but this is a straight-ahead narrative in many ways. Nonetheless, the ever-innovative Koch uses color in a fascinating manner, as a kind of counter to the dull, blue-gray wash of everyday existence in a space satellite colony. In the story, a young girl feels compelled to draw, in the most vivid of colors, things like flowers, insects, trees, and animals. These are things she has never seen, yet she feels divinely inspired to record them. It's as though the collected unconscious of humanity was working through her as a kind of not just playback system, but an interactive studio of creativity. She is discouraged in this endeavor by one of many humans who are all clearly made to look as alike as possible, but the shimmering visions never leave her mind. She can't help but see them in her mind's eye, and Koch draws page after page of subtly gorgeous colors encapsulating familiar forms.

The end of the story presents an opportunity to explore the world outside the satellite, a journey that the protagonist will surely not turn down. There's a luxurious quality to the book's pacing, as there's little in the way in terms of plot or exposition and a number of pages that focus on this vision that is worthwhile to the girl simply because she believes that god is showing it to her. It's a question of aesthetic beliefs over utilitarian needs, and her aesthetics are so finely honed that it becomes her source of psychological and emotional well-being. Being given a chance to put that to the test in a utilitarian environment is both an exciting opportunity as well as opening up the possibility of losing her connection to the beauty of her connection.

mini-Kus! #62: Jonah 2017, by Tomasz Niewiadomski. As noted on the back cover, this trippy story is loosely based on the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. There's a magical undersea kingdom where some fish are played like harps, octopuses and crayfish wonder after robots with hourglasses that measure time and death, and cat-women & hawk-women stand guard. All of that is threatened by some scuba divers looking for the source of some magical disturbance. After multiple dives, the diver discovers a factory producing "harmful sugar cubes of time" that he destroys. Whether or not the diver's mission is in fact beneficial or malignant is unclear; what it is made obvious is that he slaughtered a whole bunch of sea creatures, then flew away to outer space for his next mission. There are a whole lot of funny images and sequences involving the undersea cast of characters, but it's ultimately an unsettling story, as though it were told by a four-year-old who constantly shifted the narrative and abandoned it altogether after blowing it up. It's a story about the destructive potential of storytelling and how capricious it is, rendered in a style that mixes naturalism and the occasional highly cartoony image.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Minis From Holly Simple

Let's take at some recent mini-comics from Holly Simple. Killing Carrot Top is pretty self-explanatory, as Simple has a fantasy scenario where she's working a show for the infamous body-building prop comedian who's wearing a speedo that doesn't contain his genitalia at all. In a style and color scheme not unlike Meghan Turbitt's craziest comics, Simple can no longer tolerate the worship he received, especially from extremely sexually willing female fans. Her prayers are literally answered by a divine being who hands her a blade that she uses to slice and dice him in the most visceral but cartoonish manner possible. Just at the peak moment of her triumph, she sees that the cross around his neck has suddenly taken on his facial features: she's turned Carrot Top into Jesus! It's a hilarious twist ending worthy of an especially deranged EC horror comic. The comic works because Carrot Top has become such a bizarre figure who was a hacky comedian to begin with.

Simple's comics often have perfectly benign premises that somehow wind up in limb-rending violence. Take Serenity Retreat, for instance. Simple's powerful sense of design bonks the reader over the head with her over-the-top sensory experiences of going on a nature hike and smelling Smores being made at a campfire. In her frenzy to cool off the metal blade she's used to make her marshmallow/chocolate treat, she accidentally manages to cut everyone else around the campfire to ribbons. The huge and unsettling nostril image she used throughout the comic (to convey the delicious smell of the Smores) was suddenly filled with the charnel stench of the burning, dead bodies cooking at the campfire. Simple accidentally becomes the Smores Grim Reaper, another moment of realization that horrifies her as much as the Carrot Top revelation in the other comic.

Finally, How Many Calories In Trichotilomania? combines the exploration of hunger as an almost violent force with her revulsion for much of humanity as she is happily traipsing around the city until she gets hungry. After buying a bagel, she runs to catch a subway train. As she's about to eat her bagel (the theme of almost getting what she wants runs through many of her comics), an extremely gross guy doing gross things with something stuck in his face (I couldn't quite tell if it was just a long and unruly hair or a jagged piece of glass) gets her so nauseated that she vomits uncontrollably all over herself and worse, her bagel. The lurid colors and over-the-top nature of the action makes the other two comics reviewed here seem reserved in nature. Simple has a way of depicting simple wants and needs in a dramatic, in-your-face manner that focuses on the tiniest details and blows them up beyond recognition. There's a sense of righteousness that's opposed at every moment in her comics, or else her own attempts at making things right and joyful in the world going horribly awry. Simple is less about going after a fanciful, weird world than she is in simply drawing a powerful, visceral reaction.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Patreon Reviews: The Master List

So I've been doing a review a week since I established my Patreon that's exclusive to my Patrons. Here's a master list of those reviews. I am happy to send older reviews to new Patrons, if they're interested.

1. Beauty, by Hubert & Kerascoet.
2. Minis by Robb Mirsky, Dan Mazur, Jake Roth, Jacob Mazer
3. Anything That Loves, edited by Charles "Zan" Christensen
4. If You Steal, by Jason.
5. The Collected Cat Rackham, by Steve Wolfhard.

6. A Walk In Eden, by Anders Nilsen.
7. Forming 2, by Jesse Moynihan.
8. Feline Classics & Canine Classics, edited by Tom Pomplun.
9. Delusional, by Farel Dalrymple.
10. Some Comics, by Steven Collins.

11. The Collected John G. Miller: 1980-1989.
12. Steve Jobs: Insanely Great, by Jessie Hartland.
13. In The Frame 2012-2014, by Tom Humberstone.
14. Loiterers, by Simon Bosse.
15. The Search for Charley Butters, by Zach Worton.

16. Love and Rockets New Stories (Volume 3) #8, by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez.
17. Confetti, by Ginette Lapalme.
18. Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, by Joe Ollman.
19. Zap Comix #19, by R.Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton, et al.
20. Eisner Special I: How To Talk To Girls At Parties, by Neil Gaiman, Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba; The Fix #1 by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber, et al; Love Addict, by Koren Shadmi;

21. Eisner Special II: The Arab Of The Future 2, by Riad Sattouf; Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", by Miles Hyman; March Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell;
22. Eisner Special III: 5,000 km per second, by Manuele Fior; Snow White, by Matt Phelan; Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain.
23. Eisner Special IV: Agatha, by Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeau & Alexandre Franc; Black Dahlia, by Rick Geary; James Joyce, by Alfonso Zapico; Muhammad Ali, by Sybille Titeux and Amazing Ameziane . 
24. Eisner Special V: The Nameless City V 1, by Faith Erin Hicks; Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke; Ape and Armadillo Take Over The World, by James Sturm; Dark Night: A True Batman Story, by Paul Dini & Eduardo Risso; Millarworld Annual 2016 by various; Broken Frontier Anthology, edited by Tyler Chin-Tanner and Frederik Hautain; The Tipping Point, edited by Alex Donoghue & Tim Pilcher.
25. Almost Completely Baxter, by Glen Baxter; & The Complete Peanuts volume 27, by Charles Schulz.

26. Love & Rockets V4 #2, by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez.
27. Berlin #19 & #20, by Jason Lutes.
28. Untitled Ape's Epic Adventures, by Steven Tillotson.
29. What Am I Doing Here?, by Abner Dean.
30. Science Comics: Volcanoes, by Jon Chad.

31. Glenn Gould: A Life Off-Tempo, by Sandrine Revel.
32. Strange Growths #14, by Jenny Zervakis.
33. The Cross-Eyed Mutt, by Etienne Davodeau.
34. The Lighthouse, by Paco Roca.
35. Volcano Trash, by Ben Sears.

36. California Dreamin', by Penelope Bagieu.
37. True Stories Volume 2, by Derf Backderf.
38. Wombgenda, by Tatiana Gill.
39. Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, by Chester Brown.
40. Not My Small Diary #19, edited by Delaine Derry Green.

41. Eel Mansions, by Derek Von Gieson.
42. As You Were Volume 4, edited by Avi Ehrlich and Mitch Clem.
43. Sky In Stereo, by Sacha Mardou.
44. Iceland, by Yuichi Yokoyama.
45. Palookaville #23, by Seth.

46. Look, by Jon Nielsen.
47. The Unquotable Trump, by R.Sikoryak.
48. Calla Cthulhu, by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, and Erin Humiston.
49. Benevolence, by Kyle Baker.
50. Billie The Bee Preview, by Mary Fleener.

51. 30 Miles of Crazy: Another Round, by Karl Christian Krumholz.
52. Love & Rockets Volume 4, #3, by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez.
53. Long Black Veil, by Isabella Rotman.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Minis: Mardou, Drew Lerman

Some Day My Witch Will Come, by Mardou. Sacha Mardou rarely does autobio comics, though it's obvious that her slice-of-life comics have always had an autobiographical bent to them, be it through adapting direct experience or adapting the experiences of others she knows. This comic is about Mardou turning forty years old two years ago, and in most respects, it was a great time. Her first book was published, she has a wonderful family, and stability. Despite all of this, she was feeling a nameless anxiety and was suffering from acne out of the blue. What followed was a journey that reminded me of a less severe version of John Porcellino's The Hospital Suite, as Mardou went from one homeopathic cure to another in order to fix her acne and eventually realized that she had hit upon a well of trauma that she had never dealt with.

Trauma is an odd thing. It can lie dormant for years as one can consciously push it down, but it will always emerge eventually and frequently has a somatic component as well as an emotional component. When she was getting acupuncture for her acne, she started bursting into huge, wracking sobs for no apparent reason; what was actually happening was Mardou allowing that trauma to start to escape, a little at a time. Or rather, that trauma forced itself to the surface and exploded, especially when she started to try meditation. Mardou zeroes in on facing the witch archetype and how she initially feared it (in part because of the trauma surrounding her religious background). Learning to accept that archetype as always being present in her life and to embrace it as a way of navigating that trauma was a fascinating tool that Mardou started to use, as well as being more aware of her dreams and what they were trying to tell her. She notes one dream where she's at a wedding where two young teens are getting hitched but the flower girl was throwing a fit. She reached out to comfort her and felt a sense of happiness. It wasn't until later that she understood the dream--her parents were teens when they were married and the little girl was her--and she was able to comfort herself.

That's a powerful image. In a therapeutic setting where a patient has a hard time forgiving themselves or loving themselves after going through extreme trauma at a young age, it's not unusual for a therapist to ask if the young version of them was worth saving. Coming to terms with that truth, where one is able to return love to oneself as a child unconditionally is an unbelievably powerful feeling akin to that of the feeling one has for their own children. In Mardou's case, communicating with her inner child meant wanting to play with her young daughter, and that she was able to play with her in the same way she would play as a child only added to that sense of healing and joy. Mardou's layout choices were interesting--open page layout with stacked horizontal panels, anywhere from two to four of them. The looseness of the format contrasts the tightness of her drawings. Certainly, Mardou always maintains a certain ratty looseness in her drawings as part of her style, but there was a boldness and confidence in her line here that made everything look crisper and more fully-realized. I wouldn't say that I'd equate this comic with therapy, but it is a vivid recreation of a therapeutic experience that packs a wallop.

Milk Debt & Boucher's House, by Drew Lerman. Lerman is a rarity: an alternative comics cartoonist from my hometown of Miami, which has never had a discernible scene. He's done Frank Santoro's correspondence course and his work has obviously been strongly both by the grid and the vivid use of color so many Rowhouse students like to employ. In Milk Debt, Lerman tells the story of some fourth graders who speak in a remarkably florid style, the most interesting of which is Hector, a psychopathic bully who has a demon living in his chest. At the same time, Lerman, creating a grotesque atmosphere both in terms of character design and his lurid use of color, skillfully depicts the notion of "fairness" that obsesses children of that age. Rules, deals, and promises have a powerful sense of meaning for them, and trying to retract same has horrible repercussions. That's true in this comic, as when one friend bets another $20 that he'll never French kiss a particular girl. His friend does kiss the girl, who immediately wants a gift (that later turns out not to exist). That sets off a chain of events that leads Hector to buy the debt and punish the kid who owed the $20, only to have his skin ripped open and the demon freed.

This comic works on a number of levels. There may be an eight-panel grid (constantly recentering the page), but it's an open-page format, so there's more of a sense of bleed between the panels and events. Lerman's use of children reminds me a bit of Steve Weissman's, where there's a sense of extreme exaggeration but also a great deal of accuracy with regard to the way children truly interact with each other. There's also the sense of how each child is very much not only in their own world, but actively narrating their stories until they get interrupted by someone else's narrative, often with disastrous consequences. The kids in this story don't so much interact as they do cross paths and engage in power struggles for the right to impose their version of reality on the world.

Boucher's House keeps the eight-panel grid but smashes the panels together to instantly create a sense of suffocation for the reader. The coloring, which was crisp and neat in Milk Debt, is splattered and expressionist, more along the lines of what Dash Shaw does. This comic is a satire of fragile masculinity, as an older man with a young wife is constantly jealous and paranoid that she's out to get him somehow. Whereas it's obvious that she's loving and patient with his frequently toxic but ultimately impotent gestures. I wish there had been a bit more to her character than the patient sex bomb, but I understood what Lerman was getting at in this satire, especially in the hilarious scene where the titular Boucher visits a friend to earn some sympathy and is dealt back the same kind of macho nonsense. Lerman's sense of humor is at once exaggerated and bone-dry, and his line matches those qualities.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Minis: N. Van Sciver, E.Luce/M.Wobensmith

His Last Comic, by Noah Van Sciver. This is Mini-Kus! #60, and it's a jokey story from Van Sciver that he ran on his Facebook page. Van Sciver excels at drawing schlubs and losers, and this is a sort of second cousin to Dan Clowes' old Dan Pussey stories. It's about a worker drone who's been self-publishing his shitty superhero comics to no acclaim for years, and he wonders if he should just give up on his dreams of being famous and getting to go out with this particular woman at his job. In a plot twist that hinges on EC Comics' Old Witch selling him a magical potion which will solve all of his problems. When he pours the potion into the ink that's used to print his comic, he finds that no one can resist the actual object...but no one cares about the story. This is a hilarious send-up of comics as a speculator's item, wherein their perceived "value" was more important than their feelings about the story and art. The main character is an exaggerated loser with no redeeming qualities (even Van Sciver's sad-sack narcissist character Fante Bukowski was likable in some ways), existing to serve a gag and to get his just desserts with an EC-style twist ending. For such a goof of a story, Van Sciver can't help but make beautiful pages that actually add pathos to the narrative. The above image of the artist walking in the snow is gorgeously rendered, giving the reader a sense of the fully-developed world that the artist lives in but can't quite see because his imagination is occupied by adolescent nonsense.

Wuvable Oaf #5, by Ed Luce & Matt Wobensmith. Three years in the making, this 40 page comic book-formatted effort sees Luce going in some different directions, even as he continues to be a genre and boundary-smashing artist. It's not just that this is a gay romance comic; it's a gay romance comic that's about death metal, pro wrestling and features a number of characters who are "bears", or large, hairy men. There's also a strong magical realist component to the comic which resembles Jaime Hernandez's work a bit, only in a different context. Oh, and kitties.

The first few issues of the series focused on the titular Oaf, a former professional wrestler, who developed a huge crush on Eiffel, the diminutive lead singer of death metal band Ejaculoid. The last issue featured their (despite all sorts of weirdness) adorable first date, and the back-up story beginning in this issue deals with the ramifications of Oaf and Eiffel being in a couple while Ejaculoid is on tour. There's a reason why the story is titled "Yokoaf Onoaf", which is one of my all-time favorite story puns. Luce is a skilled illustrator and cartoonist, and there's an astonishing two page spread filled with literally flowery detail when Oaf walks into the hotel holding the gig and finds it filled with flowers and ferns. It's precisely the opposite of the sort of grit and grime usually seen in this comic and it's a marvelous comedic turn. After singing "Fatty Daddy Baby Batter" (an ode to sexy, chubby dads), we are introduced to Marx, who apparently commands black, magical mind-control tentacles but is mostly looking to get laid on Ejaculoid's tour as its manager. (He hooks up with Simon Hanselmann's Megg character here, for instance.) It's silly, it's weird, and it's funny, even as Luce cooks up some band melodrama for further episodes.

On the other hand, the other side of the comic (it's a flip book) follows Smusherrrr, the "artist" who once was obsessed with Oaf to the point of stalking and is now obsessed with Oaf's friend Bufu. This section was written by Wobensmith, and Smusherrrr is presented as a character who is desperately in search of an identity, and often tries to find that identity in his obsessions with others. There's a hilariously creepy scene where Bufu, who is African-American, is "accidentally" run into by Smusherrrr and his grocery cart, which contains nothing but chocolate items. After an over-the-top and uncomfortable scene where Smush essentially begs Bufu to be his, there's a hilarious drug sequence (inspired by smoking hair of various people and animals) where he confronts aspects of himself that he was unwilling to come to terms with. This leads up to his attending a support group for fake people; in other words, people who appropriate or fetishize other cultures and races. The best character there is Killrrrrr, who is drawn like a grown-up Charlie Brown (including using the same lettering style as Schulz!) wearing a Dodgers jersey and a do-rag whose biggest ambition is to break into "the inner circle of Hollywood gangster character actor extras." Satirizing racial and ethnic  stereotypes & appropriation is a tricky matter, but Luce does a lot to make it work with his exaggerated, cartoony drawings. He's an exceptional caricaturist (it's perhaps his greatest skill) and putting in jokes like adding in the Tupac hologram (from Coachella 2012) as a literally fake racial persona went a long way in making the situation funny, rather than relying on drawing a lot of stereotypes. I'm not sure what the ultimate point of this storyline will be (an epiphany for Smusherrrr? a tour of racist appropriations throughout history? leaving Smusherrrr as a clueless, narcissistic parasite?), but Luce has thus far heightened the humor and defused what could have been a number of problematic elements.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Minis: D.Edwards, M.Feazell, K.Wirick, T.Breed

Nervenkrank #2, by Katherine Wirick. This is the second chapter of Wirick's long-form work about Dada artist John Heartfield, aka Helmut Hertzfeld. The first issue discussed his time just after being released from a mental hospital after a breakdown during World War I as a German soldier. This issue sees him being brought back into the army as a sick ward attendant. Wirick gets right to the heart of the Dada ethos when she shows the utter pointlessness of the conflict and nationalism as a whole through his eyes. Dada was in large part a reaction to the War, born in the middle of the conflict in Switzerland from those dodging the conflict and then spreading through Europe and then to America in different forms. Wirick runs the story's narrative spine across the relationship between Heartfield and his brother Wieland, as the latter was absolutely steadfast in his support of his brother's career as an artist. The constant specter of death that loomed over them as they were both soldiers eased as Wieland was injured severely enough to earn an honorable discharge, and he used that time with his brother to introduce him to George Grosz at the end of this issue. Grosz and Heartfield would go on to found German Dada, but more to the point, it pushed Heartfield to create again after losing all desire to paint in the face of his anxiety and wartime realities. Wirick's use of grayscale is expressive and moody, providing a counterpoint to her naturalistic figure work. She's able to get across the fragility of both men in her drawings in the face of a nightmare, but also portrays Wieland's quiet strength and John's tenacity despite everything. She takes her time in telling this story, but it's clear that establishing Heartfield's circumstances was crucial in understanding the way in which he chose to express himself.

The Amazing Cynicalman #43, by Matt Feazell. The Rembrandt of stick-figure mini-comics continues to draw his signature character in minicomics form. This series reprints weekly comics that are either four or eight panels long. Feazell's humor is extremely silly, as Cynicalman (always with a straight line for a mouth--neither smiling nor frowning) is always dealing with an annoying, disappointing world. Yet he keeps chugging along no matter what, both in his normal day-to-day activities and in his role in the Board of Superheros (sic). There are other regulars that Feazell draws, like teens Spud n Ernie, Stupid Boy, Cute Girl, and Anti-Social Man. Feazell's comics are interesting because of his refinement of stick-figure drawing, which is both wonderfully precise and expressive. His ability to balance elements in each panel's composition is remarkable, be it text, negative space to express a beat of time, or background elements that are key to understanding the gags. Feazell can't afford to waste a single line, yet there's something attractive about the way he draws a page. Feazell is one of the earliest minicomics makers who's still drawing on a regular basis, and the result is a formula that's refined to such a fine point that it's reached the level that once you start reading, you can't stop reading.

That Night: This Must Be The Place, by Tony Breed. This is a quiet, elegant and deeply felt story about the grieving process. It's about the associations music and relationships have, and how a musical cue can both exacerbate and ease pain, depending on the context. As Breed reveals in the course of the comic, his husband died six months before this story was set, and the Talking Heads song "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" comes up because it was a reading for their wedding. A different version of it comes to Breed's attention in a positive way, and as he walked home from a bar, he listened to it (with the key line "Love me till I am dead" especially resonating) and saw what seemed to be a fox on the way. There's a funny epilogue where a friend tries to pinprick that scenario but asserting it was likely a coyote, not a fox, but Breed squashes it by noting that it wasn't really important as to what it was--the important thing is that it was personally significant for him. This sums up the comic, as we seek meaning and connections in the face of grief as part of the mourning process. Everything about this comic was simple: a standard 2x3 panel format, typical grayscaling, and expressive art that stays within the range of naturalism. This wasn't a comic where Breed was looking to reinvent the form; rather, Breed was working within the comfort of the form to approach some difficult emotions in a way that didn't overwhelm the reader (or him) but still got at the heart of his grief and his attempts to experience and move past that grief.

QAT Person #2, by Dylan Edwards. This is Edwards' own anthology series of short stories as a man who identifies as transgender and asexual. Edwards has come a long way as a cartoonist since his first book, Transposes, which was published five years ago. Working in full color, these comics are sharper and have a much more confident and bold line than his earlier work. They also work better as narrative, as each short story packs a powerful punch in just a few pages. The first story details Edwards' history coming to terms with not only his sexual orientation and his gender orientation, but also dealing with the enormous pressure of being made to feel less than because he only rarely felt sexually attracted to others. When a wise doctor said that this situation should only be considered problematic if it bothered the individual in question, it gave Edwards permission to eventually embrace his identity as an "ace". Edwards also points out that asexual does not automatically mean aromantic, and this creates its own set of challenges.

This story is both intensely personal (going all the way back to childhood and an evangelical christian background) and written with a great amount of clarity with regard to explaining what all of this means to people who might not be familiar with these terms or this experience. There's also a short strip grappling with the reality of having Donald Trump as president and what this means to queer people, as well as a short, fascinating strip about visiting Japan and discussing trans issues with an activist/DJ/bar owner. In particular, they note that insurance frequently doesn't cover trans-related health care in both of their countries. Edwards has always clearly had the urge to be an educator, and his comics have a pedagogical quality to them. However, Edwards has also become a top-notch storyteller, using an economy of words and lines to pack an enormous emotional punch as well as as relating clearly-delineated ideas.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Anders Nilsen's Tongues #1

Since finishing up Rage of Poseidon, Anders Nilsen's output has mostly been one-shot mini-comics, albeit in a large page size. But he's now going full-throttle with a new series called Tongues. He began his own No Miracles Press in partnership with musician/publicist Jackie Westfall to produce this comic and other future work; I imagine it's a way of controlling the means of his production.  The series is pretty much peak-level Nilsen, but what immediately struck me about this 48 page comic is how it mixes and matches various Nilsen themes and approaches from over the years. There's the apocalyptic quality of his mythological work like Rage of Poseidon and his classic short story "Sisyphus" from Kramer's Ergot. There's the typical wrecked and bombed-out backgrounds of Big Questions, complete with intelligent animals. There's even the central character from Dogs and Water on a walkabout, his teddy bear still strapped to his backpack. It's a recapitulation of his entire career, yet it still feels fresh and bold. His use of color in particular is exciting, but there's also a narrative through-line that was introduced with a promise of future conflict and world-building that's unusual for Nilsen's usually quieter fare.

The issue is published in roughly the same format as the former Ignatz line of books that was co-published by Fantagraphics and Coconino Press. Nilsen did his first issue of The End with that line, in fact, which is much missed. It's a large format with French flaps and beautiful inside cover art. It's accompanied by a Process Zine with all sorts of sketches and other preparatory drawings for the actual book. This is another Nilsen trademark, adding something handmade that breaks down his creation process, only it's coming out in real time with the release of each issue. In a sense, Tongues is simultaneously a recapitulation of his career to date as well as an ambitious story with an epic scope. Like many of his comics, there's a sense of a background conflict looming over it. There was a war that ended but still has a strong stamp on current events, as well as a sense of a conflict yet to come. There are desolate landscapes with signs of life struggling to survive.

The three different chapters represent three different but intersecting narratives. The first, "The Prisoner", follows an eagle intently examining several overturned vehicles in the middle of a desert. He finds a monkey in a jeep that he frees before he goes about his real business: tearing out the liver of the titan Prometheus. Yes, the very same god who gave humans fire and protected them from the vicissitudes of the gods. In this story, the eagle and Prometheus became friends, with the eagle performing his daily duty with reluctance. This is by far the most visually ambitious chapter, as Prometheus relates a dream of finding a young girl in the mud of a river. Each of the dream pages is formatted around the silhouette of a different animal, along with drawings of different anatomical systems: digestive, neurological, respiratory, etc. They reflect the nature of the animals the eagle encountered and included the young girl. The formal qualities of each page are eye-catching and demand a lot of reader attention in order to absorb everything Nilsen is depicting.

The second chapter brings back the main character from Dogs and Water, once again hiking out in the middle of nowhere for unknown reasons. He does mumble to himself about having a plan and sticking it to some guy who was doubting him, This chapter represented a bit of the goofy side of Nilsen, as the hiker is a clumsy goof who literally trips over his own shoelaces. When he sees a convoy of military vehicles pass by on the road, he tries to flag them down but they all ignore him...with the exception of one jeep. The driver is amused by the sheer lunacy of traveling by foot and essentially demands to have him come with them so he can hear his story. This chapter is titled "Hercules" and one wonders if the hiker is going on some epic set of labors or if he's just highly deluded. Of note with regard to the rest of the book: the vehicles in this chapter are the same as the wrecked ones we see in chapters one and three, and the monkey that we see in the other two chapters is introduced here.

The final chapter is "The Murderer" and introduces us to the young African girl we saw in Prometheus' dream in chapter one. Like the other two chapters, Nilsen here is establishing new characters and their environs. She pushes her way out of what may have been a locked military vehicle, gets food from where the monkey's hiding out and talks to a chicken about her quest. The chicken is quite insistent that she meet her up with her sister before she tries to kill her adversary. There's an elevation to and almost a florid quality in the dialog here, as Nilsen is writing this portion like a fantasy story. She's on a quest, and she's being directed to places she doesn't necessarily want to go as part of that quest. Her goal is to kill someone who's presumably horrible, but is it Prometheus? What becomes of the hiker? Who is the girl's "sister"?

Nilsen plays with time in each of the three stories. The first pays close attention to the ritualistic, daily character of the eagle's quest. We know it's coming, that it's been going on for a long time, and that it will continue to happen. The second story is another quest, whose purpose is known only to the hiker (and even then there's some question that he knows what he's doing). He's in the desert for an interminable period of time, but we also know that this narrative is headed for disaster. Finally, the girl is both tied to a specific time and place when she emerges from the car but also seems magical, as though time doesn't quite have the same effect or meaning when it comes to her. That chronological unraveling contributes to the entropic feel of this comic, where whatever order is perceived in each story is on the verge of falling apart. This has the potential to be Nilsen's best work yet, and I will be fascinated to see how the narrative continues.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Catching Up With Rob Jackson

I've been reviewing Rob Jackson's comics pretty much as long as there's been a High-Low, and his wonderfully eccentric sense of humor continues to drift into new narrative directions. His three issue series Volunteers has the look and feel of someone who has some direct knowledge of (quite literally) trainspotting, or at least the industry born out of nostalgia for old modes of transportation that include trains. Jackson starts with a simple premise: a group of highly disparate people are volunteers for an old-fashioned railroad line that provides some folks with transportation, but it's mostly a local tourist attraction, with movie nights, gourmet nights, etc. The volunteers conduct the steam trains, shoveling in coal, polishing them, repairing them, etc. One thing that was obvious in reading this series is that Jackson really enjoys drawing trains and drew them freehand but with a remarkable amount of detail.

Jackson piled a romance story and a gangster story on top of this otherwise cute and eccentric milieu, as one of the volunteers hesitantly begins seeing another, who happens to be the son of a city councilman. No matter the genre, Jackson's trademark has always been piling narrative on top of narrative in order to create interesting interactions between characters and unexpected situations. Sally and her boyfriend Tristram go through the usual ups and downs of people getting into a relationship, but they also go undercover to investigate the office of a shady businessman who threatens the existence of the train's business. The story is a funny one, but Jackson adds down notes like Tristram genuinely getting disillusioned when he realizes his father is corrupt, or how sad and lonely Old Dan's life is. At the same time, everyone gets to have a role in saving the train line, even including the obnoxious busybody Imogen, who saves the day by delaying a deal from going through simply by walking into a meeting and blabbering on. It's a wonderfully ridiculous scene and precisely the sort of thing that Jackson's so good at. There's also something incredibly British about this comic, not just in terms of vernacular but also culturally. It's all relaxed and low-stakes, as Jackson can't quite help but gently make fun of genre work while producing work that's squarely in that realm.

Japan is a travel zine from Jackson, and it was a nice excuse to craft a souvenir that's part collage, part scribbled drawings and part brushwork. I think there's some magic marker in there as well, but it's all black and white. The difference is in terms of the plastic quality of the line--big, thick and full of energy. He drew various pagodas and nature scenes in this style, trying to capture as much visual information as possible as spontaneously as possible. It works, as I got the sense of the essence of what he was trying to capture without losing any real sense of detail. Jackson talks about things he sees, food he eats and odd things he encounters along the way, great and small. There's one page where there's a copy of the Tokyo metro system, annotated by Jackson to note the things he had done at each stop and favorite bars. Japan reflects his other work in that Jackson shows a genuine curiosity about the entire world and has a knack for turning anything into a narrative that he can't quite take seriously. His crude character designs fit his world just fine as they're expressive, distinctive and functional, especially since he particularly delights in drawing ugly characters. However, Jackson is never deliberately cruel to his characters, even the villains, as everyone is more-or-less part of the joke of existence in his eyes.