Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #5: Joyana McDiarmid, Jarad Greene, Mary Shyne

Jarad Greene has distinguished himself thus far as an excellent YA comics maker, but in his Memories of a Former Porcelain Doll, he relates an autobiographical story about appearances, the cruelty of peers and eventual body dysmorphia. That was in the form of skin problems, which he experienced later than most teens. The irony is that in middle school, his skin was perfect but he still used Clearasil. Only he accidentally used the kind that had concealer in it, leading his classmates to call him a porcelain doll and make fun of him for “wearing makeup”. Things got worse in his senior year when he actually developed acne for real, and it proved resistant to every standard treatment. That forced him to go on Accutane, an effective drug with brutal side effects, including skin so dry that it peels off and horrible arm rashes. 

There are also psychological side effects that he managed to dodge, and the end of the first issue finds him happy and ready to go to college. However, this story is told in flashback, and he let the readers know that his problems would return. He presages that at the very beginning of the story, where it’s not just having skin problems, it’s the fear of them always returning, triggered by any number of factors (including stress and anxiety). Greene uses a simple, clear line in a mostly naturalistic style that still allows him to be expressive when necessary. The occasional bulging eyes, sponge head, skull face and other self-descriptors add to the drama in a way that doesn’t take the reader out of the story. In many respects, they’re a way of Greene telling a ghost story about himself; a tale of his own haunting from mysterious, outside forces that tortured him. 

Joyana McDiarmid's Long Division #5 concludes the bracing, honest and uncompromising look at depression and suicide that was based on true, personal events. The first four issues featured the main character, Elena, in her stay at the psychiatric hospital and flashbacks to what led up to her suicide attempt. Struggling with bipolar disorder, she found herself unable to take care of herself or reach out to others for help. Ingeniously, McDiarmid used the metaphor of the branching nervous system as a way of visualizing her mental state, with her depression slowly blotting out healthy functions. McDiarmid's line is fine and expressive, and she's especially great at character design and drawing clothing.

The last issue is deliberately quiet and understated after the frantic quality of the four issues preceding it, both in terms of the day-to-day events and the stark metaphorical imagery seen in the early issues. It's McDiarmid's way of acknowledging that life is not a neat narrative, and that the struggle with mental illness, even with all the support, therapy and medication that's needed, is one that will always have good days and bad days. This issue features a difficult conversation between Elena and her ex-boyfriend, with whom she discusses her suicide attempt for the first time. Their relationship had been rocky and he had come off as self-righteous, and while an understanding of sorts is reached between the two of them, he tried to make her suicide attempt all about him. "I feel terrible, I really should have seen it coming" is a phrase he repeated, as he in no way tried to show empathy. Unsaid in the narrative is Elena's understanding that while she felt a responsibility to talk to him about it, she was not in any way responsible for his feelings about it.

The rest of the issue features Elena's attempts at self-care: hanging out with friends and family, getting rest, and generally being gentle with herself. We see her struggle with weight gain and her academic work while finding ways to accept those feelings. We can see the background paintings in her room echoing the anatomical imagery McDiarmid used throughout the series. Finally, the imagery of branches meets reality as she climbs up a tree, rests on a firm branch, and simply breathes. The image of disappearing a little with each breath and then reappearing reflects an exercise in acceptance. It's a beautiful, understated way of providing not so an ending as a coda or a grace note.

Incompatible, by Mary Shyne. This is one of the smartest, starkest self-examinations I've ever read when it comes to relationships. The high concept is simple: she includes one example from each of the twelve Zodiac signs of a man she dated with that sign. It's in order of the traditional Zodiac, starting with Aries and finishing with Pisces. It's one page per partner, each page a six-panel grid. Shyne efficiently uses that space to offer highlights, lowlights and particularly visceral and graphic images that really drive home what each relationship was all about. For example, the Aries that she kicked things off with two panels about how she met this particular guy and his impeccable dressing habits, while noting (with raised eyebrows) that his penis was two different colors, "almost like a pudding cup". The last three panels touch on how conscious she was that he never took her out, most likely because of her weight. It's a marvel of great cartooning (clear, bold lines, with an extra thick line weight for her glasses, her dominant accessory) and efficiency, as there are no wasted lines.

Another relationship wound up with her hating herself for how much she wanted one sort of indifferent guy to love her. Another was a platonic relationship where she actually liked the role of Friend that men often assigned to her. There are almosts, guys she broke up with because they needed more than she could give, guys who friend-zoned her, and a guy who made her feel safe but with whom she didn't have a sexual connection. Shyne is great at drawing bodies, and her own self-caricature is both full of clever details (freckles, glasses, shape of nose and eyebrows) and economical in terms of its overall presentation. There are times when her choices regarding negative space (she only spots blacks here and there) give her pages a slightly hollow feel, but her line is so engaging that it doesn't matter much. Above all else, her understanding of gesture, expression and bodies interacting in space is top notch, and that's the key to making this comic work so well. 

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