Monday, November 12, 2018

Minis: Eli "Hob" Bishop's Busybody

Busybody #1 is an excellent collection of Eli "Hob" Bishop's dreamy, visceral comics that almost all seem to involve body horror, body modification and/or bodily transformation. Bishop's page layout shifts and breaks on each page, running alongside other narratives. For example, "The Therapist" is a wordless, cartoony story in color about a couples therapist whose method involves mad science: putting them into a machine that combines them into a single, happy entity. Of course, when another couple with problems, the whole process goes horribly awry, until a surprise ending with a happy twist. Bishop contains the narrative to small panels that almost float along the page. "Discovery" runs along the top of these pages, and it's in stark black & white with heavy hatching. It's a shaggy dog joke of sorts about a man who falls in love with a woman but never manages to learn her name. There are no panels in this story; instead, it's an open layout that bleeds together. It's an interesting juxtaposition, as this story has a running series of narrative captions while "Therapist" has none. Both strips are funny with grim elements, and both have a strong punchline.

"Refresher" is a full color strip built on a relatively simple nine panel grid told from a first person perspective via narrative captions. It's the sort of story where the reader is kept in the dark for as long as possible as to exactly what's happening, and the moment of discovery for the reader is also the story's climax. It's about someone who lives in a remote area traveling to the city for something, and we don't learn what it is until the end. Then everything else up until that moment becomes clear. Bishop's line is extremely cartoonish here, looking more like a fantasy comic than anything else.

The centerpiece of the comic is "Shift Report", which has four different but related running narratives, stacked on top of each other on page after page. It's a black & white comic with subtle beige spot-colors that add a deliberate drabness to the proceedings. The setting is a hospital inpatient ward. The top row follows two patients, the second row follows a nurse from the time she wakes up til she's on the job, the third row doesn't even coalesce until later as a dream sequence, and the bottom row follows another nurse from the middle of his day til the end. The story is heavy on minutiae, because that's precisely what a hospital ward is all about: the small, tedious details. Bishop is deliberately stingy with personal details for each of the characters, revealing only what we see when everyone is either at work or laid up in the hospital. Tiny details do indeed emerge with regard to ambitions, relationships, errors and personal characteristics, but they are entirely mediated by the story's beats. It's a fascinating, ambitious way to capture a sort of liminal state of being and the stewards of that experience. I'll be curious to see how the narrative continues to proceed.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Youth In Decline: Lovers Only #2

The first edition of Lovers Only, published by Youth In Decline was a classic. The second issue has one brilliant story supported by two lighter, breezier stories. The brilliant story, one of the best I've read this year, was Sophia Foster-Dimino's clever "Lauren Oscar Veronica Eli Roverto Sarah Olivia Noah Lindsey Yasmin" (or LOVERS ONLY). Foster-Dimino is in the first rank of today's young cartoonists, both because of her uncanny verisimilitude with regard to dialogue and relationships as well as her formal boldness. Each page of the story features a different character mentioned by name interacting with another character. That second character becomes the focus of the next page as they interact with a new character, and so on. Foster-Dimino uses an open-page format as she builds the structure of each page around the first letter of the name of the character, writ large. (That's what eventually spells out "LOVERS ONLY").

The formal cleverness of the story supports the theme and characters. The open page format, for example, is a way of making the fluidity of the narrative and the relationships between the characters clearer. The characters and their stories bleed and loop into each other, with bits of info here and there being passed along off-panel. That's a smart move that heightens the emotional impact of each page, as the reader knows what's happened already and they then get fast-forwarded to the emotional punch of those events. The story is essentially about desire, and the ways in which each pair of characters on a page fit or don't fit together.

Yasmin loves Lauren in the first story--and the entirety of Lauren's dialogue here is "Mmph" and "Mm-hm". Lauren is a picture of self-loathing, which is heightened even more in the next section when she's with the cruel Oscar. Lauren doesn't love Yasmin, but she takes advantage of her for sex; she desires her. Oscar desires Lauren. Oscar gets a fetish fulfilled by Veronica and further passes on the poison of gossip with her. There are many different kinds of relationships shown here, some sexual and some platonic, but there's always a power imbalance of some kind. The last strip loops back around to Yasmin, having heard everything said about her, weeping on the lap of her silent friend. So many of the strips have completely silent characters, and even where there's a conversation most of the strips really are monologues. The agency flows only one way in each case, and on each page it seems like it flips from one character to the next like a line of dominoes tipping over.

Foster-Dimino's mastery of gesture and body language reveals something else. There's more than one way to hold up the upper hand in a series of power exchanges. Yasmin may have dominated the conversation on the first page of the story with Lauren, but there was no doubt that it was Lauren who held the upper hand. Similarly, Yasmin may have been distraught on the last page of the story, but she dominated the narrative in the way she was being comforted by Lindsey. The theme of this issue is "Love Triange", but Foster-Dimino turned it into a Love Tesseract.

Zacchilli's piece is about a woman who's in sort of a triangle with herself in terms of her attention. She dreams of being poisoned by her doctor but interprets it as a sex dream. Her job is to draw dogs but she's constantly thinking about who knows her best and least--and she can't figure it out, no matter how much she graphs it out. As always, Zacchilli's art looks like scrawl at first glance, but her pages have rock-solid composition, pacing and clarity.

Monir's piece is simple in concept that carries layers of deep, frustrated longing. It's about a character named Jason who attends a New Year's Eve party with a woman named Eri, who they're clearly in love with/attracted to. The party is hosted by Holly, who is attracted to Eri but is close friends with Jason. Eri and Holly wind up having sex in the same room where Jason is, and he winds up leaving the room. Interestingly, the title refers to "3 Girls On New Year's Eve", implying that Jason is really trans and hasn't come to grips with that yet. Beyond that, Monir deeply explores the ways in which being excluded from desire in a friendship is deeply wounding, especially when the objects of one's affection don't show much interest in restraining themselves. The feeling Monir gets across is a sharp and stinging one, of a betrayal of empathy. There's a visceral quality to Monir's art that cuts to the heart of the matter, amplifying those emotions and zeroing in on them as they have a somatic effect. Her story is a fitting bookend to Foster-Dimino's, as it recapitulates and focuses some of the emotion of the first story in a more concentrated form.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Minis: Jenny Zervakis, Whit Taylor

Strange Growths #16 1/2, by Jenny Zervakis. Zervakis threw this one together shortly before the Zine Machine show so as to have something new, so it's a bit shorter than a usual issue at just twelve pages. Zervakis hasn't been able to do many comics in recent years, so getting this issue was a treat. Most of the issue is about a beach trip she took with her daughters and a friend & her daughters. The cover is one of her best: a drawing of her daughters on vacation, the wind near the beach whipping through the  palm trees and their hair. It's the perfect blend of Zervakis' knack for drawing vegetation and capturing the likeness, personality and body language of her girls.

There's always been a reserved quality to Zervakis' work. There's not much in the way of surface flash in her drawing or writing style. However, I'm inexorably drawn to it because of her quirky, meditative observations and her spontaneous, expressive line. Even pondering such quirky Americana like the tourist trap South of the Border, Zervakis manages to imbue it with a poetic quality. Most of what she writes about in this story is fairly quotidian: what she and her daughters did on their vacation in Myrtle Beach. That said, the essence of her daughters' personalities comes through both in terms of how she draws them as well as little quirks regarding the things they wanted to do. Zervakis' zines have always been personal and intimate while usually being deliberately spare regarding specific details, but this issue finds her opening up a little about her divorce and the ways in which certain rituals and public appearances may seem routine to others but trigger sadness in her.

There are also a few sketches of her kids and pets, along with a series of cartoons from her older daughter Penelope that are darkly hilarious. Everything about this issue feels spontaneous and loose, as Zervakis noted to me that she was doing it on a time crunch. To my eye, that freed her up to not fuss over things and instead trust in her instincts as a storyteller. Zervakis played to her strengths here as an artist, and the result was a series of images that were lovely on their own and even more effective in conjunction with the text.

Fizzle #2, by Whit Taylor. The second issue of Taylor's slice-of-life series about a disaffected young woman named Claire. She works in a boutique tea shop, she has a rich stoner boyfriend, and she has no idea what to do with her life. One of the questions that Taylor raises here is if there's a difference between existential malaise and depression. After all, there's nothing "wrong" with her life, but it's made clear that she's desperate to have a "thing" to make her own. A hobby, a belief, a creative outlet--something. Taylor seems to suggest that there is certainly a link between the two concepts of malaise and depression, with the former leading to the latter at times. Indeed, many therapists recognize situational depression as a diagnosis different than major depression. That said, the character of Claire is in more of a holding pattern in this comic, trying to fight the feeling of "meh", with anything, even something as silly as making gourmet popsicles.

There's a panel where Claire made her popsicles out of different kinds of fruit, she tries it and fireworks go off around her head. It's a brief, sublime moment. There's that moment of possibility that's then spoiled by her boyfriend and her awful boss, but it's a memorable moment nonetheless. A Shark Tank-style reality show introduced toward the end makes me think the comic will go in that direction, but even if it doesn't Taylor's wry comedic chops are on display here, as her send-up of popular and youth culture in general is sharp. She's really locked into her style as an artist as well, with expressive faces that center around lips and eyebrows. There's a smooth confidence to her work that can be seen all-around in her page design and backgrounds. In a comic that's mostly talking heads, her ability to make create compelling expressions was the key to the comic's success.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Minis: Ed Luce

WANC: Hell On Ice Special, by Ed Luce. This is a black & white version of what will be a full color feature in Luce's upcoming Wuvable Oaf volume for Fantagraphics. One thing I've always liked about Luce's work is that he's innovated all sorts of clever gimmicks (not unlike a wrestling gimmick) in self-publishing his work. From special lanyards for the bands featured in the comic to centerfolds and all sorts of special editions, Luce has always had an eye on catching the eye of casual fans with something spectacular. Here, he mimics the old WWF magazine as the story follows Oaf from his days as a professional wrestler in WANC (Wrasslin' Association of National Champions). It even has a centerfold featuring Goteblud and Luce as a referee.

While Wuvable Oaf has always been a romance comic first and foremost, it's also been a comic about pro wrestling and a comic about death metal, all with queer themes. It's been Luce's mission to show queer characters doing things you wouldn't necessarily see in either mainstream or queer-themed work. He goes out of his way to feature characters who are "bears", for one thing, and the model on the cover of the magazine portraying Oaf (as his wrestling character Goteblud) is there in all his hairy glory. Luce also has a strong understanding of the ring psychology and storytelling that are a part of wrestling, only his imaginary territory is one far more open to queer characters than most wrestling associations these days. (That is changing a bit, though...)

Most of the issue is an absurd gimmick match between Goteblud and his opponent, Dr. Avalanche, in a "Hell on Ice" match where the ring was coated in ice. The entirety of the issue features this match, but Luce also works in a romance angle, a backstage business intrigue angle, and the tension that Dr. Avalanche wasn't going to let his young foe "get over", i.e., he wasn't going to let him win even thought that's what the script said. Where Luce was most successful here was presenting absurd, over-the-top action while still making the story all about character and incorporating queer themes throughout. Now, those themes are somewhat subordinated to this particular story, but that will even out in the upcoming book, I would imagine. Fans of the Oaf will want this no matter what; casual fans can wait til the book comes out. That said, it's a pleasure to see the fine details of Luce's line art on display.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Minis: Haleigh Buck's I Feel Weird #3

I Feel Weird, Haleigh Buck's continuing series about "depression, anxiety and hopefully getting over it!" is about as raw and real as it gets. That's both in terms of talking about those feelings as well as the long, hard process of therapy. Buck sharing about what brought her to bottoming out in previous issues was certainly harrowing, but that's a narrative that is a familiar one in a sense. Lots of attention is paid in mental health narratives to "this is where I was, I needed help, and I got help" (which is valid and important, certainly), but much less is paid to the long, incremental process of getting better. That's especially true thanks to how frequently difficult it is to actually get therapy in a time when getting health insurance in general is so difficult, especially if one doesn't have the means to do so.

Issue three is her most ambitious, centered and focused effort to date. It must first be said that her level of craft is just outstanding. She can go cartoony to hyperrealistic naturalism and it all fits together. Her page design choices are consistently interesting, using blacks as a way of overpowering the reader and getting across that sense of anxiety that permeates every bit of her work. Buck jams a lot of words onto each page and even makes that crowding a decorative aspect of her work.  With dense hatching and cross-hatching to add detail and depth to her work, Buck just likes slinging ink and makes it work for her. In the Will Elder tradition, she also adds a lot of funny eye pops to each page. Indeed, while Buck's work is visually dense, by no means is it dour. She's a funny writer who can take the darkest topic and make it funny. For example, the back cover has a bunch of comics and a coffin with an interesting and particular shape that's captioned "Thanks for keeping me out of life's longbox." It's a great image, and Buck's attention to detail, as always, is important in getting the joke to land.

In the rest of the issue, Buck goes back and forth from the psychotherapy session that began in the previous issue and other stories. The first story is about a New Year's Eve hookup that disappoints because the guy she's with announces that he doesn't want a relationship the next day. She tries to laugh it off in the story itself while informing the reader that she is upset. There's a brief strip about the sort of responses one gets when others learn that you've tried to commit suicide, which is scorched-earth on-point and darkly hilarious at the same time. There's an anecdote about Buck's especially dysfunctional younger sister who had just had a baby--and Buck's other sister was understandably concerned for the baby's welfare. The anecdote concerns some psychopathic behavior evinced by their younger sister as a child, and it's an understandable concern. The art here slides between caricature and near-photorealism, and the effect is astounding.

Of course, the main attraction in this issue is the therapy session, with a therapist who's using a prescribed method (including tagging patients as being a particular kind of tree?) and is not exactly the essence of empathy. The therapy session runs in a narrow row of panels at the top of the page, and the rest of the page is taken up by the history of depression and its treatment from antiquity to now. It's a sobering reminder of just how primitive medicine was (and still is, in some ways), especially with regard to mental health. Buck's illustrations are funny and weird, giving the reader a lot to look at. In the next therapy chapter, her anxiety is addressed, and there's an amazing page where her therapist asks her what makes her anxious. Buck replies, "Everything" and then spends an entire page, with white lettering atop a black page, listing dozens and dozens of triggers. It's page that doesn't even need to be read from top to bottom--the simple acknowledgment of the scope of her triggers makes it a powerful image, with a small self-caricature in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Incredibly, the story ends with the therapist asking how often Buck prays. What separates this issue from the earlier two is Buck's focus is much sharper, allowing her to really zero in on key issues and render them in the form of a narrative. There's no question that she's a major talent, as this comic shows off her storytelling, drawing and writing chops.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Minis: E.Lindner

Pitching A Fit In The Big City was partly a walk down memory lane for me, as I've been reading Ellen Linder's work since the very beginning of her career. This collects stories from 2001-2016, published in various minis and anthologies, as well as a couple of new stories. Lindner has always been a great writer in particular, even in her earliest stories like "Pieces", where she talked about the memory of her grandfather talking at her, cutting her to metaphorical bits because of her relative unimportance in the interaction. Lindner used a big, chunky line in the early days, like in her memoir about 9/11. It was a striking approach, but she's evolved and has used a number of different approaches. Her story about working at the Museum of Modern Art was fun because of the way she incorporated so many of the holdings as visual elements in her narrative.

Then there's "Hygienic Sex", a bawdy and hilarious memoir about a past relationship and its complications. Lindner's autobiographical tone has often had an amusingly formal feel to it, especially when she's deliberately trying to be funny. The tone is almost that of an old-time romance comic, paired with a raunchy and crude series of events. Lindner is a long-time city dweller, and her settings are often in flats, subways and the claustrophobic living conditions in a city. "What The Iguana Saw" was about dealing with a peeping Tom, an apathetic police response, and a totally random question asked by a cop. Lindner has a way of supporting funny moments, crystallizing the essence and leading it up to it with amusing details.

Lindner is also great at taking on a specific topic and building a story around it. In "Me And My Sari", Lindner talks about the garment given to her by her mother-in-law, the times she's worn it and why, and responses she's received by wearing it. "Bill Murray's Doughnut" is interesting because it details her experience as an extra on a film set, hoping for an encounter with Murray. A story about a facebook connection became interesting when she realized that a close friend of hers in England knew someone she dated in high school. Lindner took that coincidence and realized that a lot of negative perceptions she had about her experience weren't his fault. "Goodbye" was the most recent story in the issue and certainly the most devastating and raw. Here, Lindner talked about her tendency to used bake goods as a way of showing affection and recalling a time when a misunderstanding regarding this made an abusive ex-boyfriend flip out and put his hands around her throat. Lindner details her naivete and trusting nature, and how she was so baffled and stunned and hurt by the experience. Lindner then abandoned her typical, fluid line and switched to herself in the present day, drawn in a naturalistic style with a gray wash, as she talked about coming to terms with this story. This was a beautiful and haunting story that was a fantastic capper for this one-woman anthology, demonstrating Lindner's growth as an artist.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Minis: G. Fawkes

Hitting some more interesting minis...

Exit Archaeology, by Glynnis Fawkes. This is both a self-contained work and a sequel to her much longer Greek Diary as well as a companion piece to her other comics about being an illustrator at an archaeological site in Greece. Greece is a country that holds a great deal of meaning for Fawkes, and Kenchreai in particular. That's the eastern port of Corinth, where she had for nearly a decade worked drawing pottery shards and other items from an excavation site of Roman items. One of the running themes in Fawkes' comics is the notion of how difficult agency can be as a creative person. While artistic freedom and freedom in general is important, Fawkes found herself drawn to a job that had no creative nor academic value to her personally. She was an artisan, paid to do a job as an illustrator. No more, no less.

Being freed from the pressure of academia or comics deadlines--and even the responsibilities of having a family--was hard to give up. She could simply work, swim, sketch, drink and explore the area with friends. One gets the sense that Fawkes is constantly restless, her mind going in a million different directions. Only a mindless physical activity like her job or walking around seemed to soothe that buzzing brain. Even at that, the fact that she knew that she couldn't justify another trip out for this job ate at her a little, as time suddenly became a limiting factor for what was usually a more open-ended experience.

Her sketches of the local area are delightfully vivid and loose, as are her drawings of her friends. Indeed, the one major change is that this comic was much less of an interior exercise than some past efforts, and the second half of the comic focuses on the camaraderie of her work group. It wasn't just the labor that was important to her but also the fact that she was part of a team. She was an important cog making the machine run smoothly, and she took great pleasure in bouncing off of people who had become close friends over the years. More than anything, that's what Fawkes emphasized in this comic. Just as working in Corinth had become something she did for herself, so too is this comic a gift for herself. It's slowly paced and has a number of sketches of local sights. It lacks the interpersonal or family drama of her other comics set in Greece, and its only structure is that of the time spent in Greece itself. It's a breezy read at 44 pages, but it could have been even shorter without losing the essence of the story. Of course, self-indulgence was not only a theme of the comic, it was also the format of the comic. This is a comic that invites the reader to stop, slow down, and breathe as we join Fawkes soaking it all in as much as she could.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Minis: K.Roberts, M.S. Harkness/Y.Kwon, G.Vasile

Once more into the minicomics breach...

We Watched Wrestling, by M.S. Harkness and Yewon Kwon. There is certainly an intersection between alt-comics and wrestling fandoms, and there has been for a long time. Jaime Hernandez is a great example of this, understanding the relationship between telenovelas and lucha libre in his Love & Rockets stories. One of the key characters in Reilly Hadden's Astral Birth Canal is a female wrestler. The titular character in Ed Luce's death metal romance Wuvable Oaf is a retired wrestler. For M.S. Harkness, best known for her autobio comic Tinderella, it's all about fandom. She & fellow fan Yewon Kwon decided to do a weekly diary of the WWE shows leading up to their big Summerslam event.

Harkness and Kwon both watch wrestling in part because of its sex appeal, and they both fully understand and embrace the total silliness of it. Harkness watched the RAW wrestling show, and it's in red ink because that's the trademark color of the brand. Her commentary was hilarious and often personal, like fantasizing about a wrestling faction consisting only of "brunette, bearded babes". Harkness' angular character design mixed with fluid page composition made for a consistently entertaining read, even if the reader didn't know what was happening. There's a measured balance her genuine interest and investment in what she's watching and her mockery of same; the former is what allows her to do the latter without seeing too snarky. Kwon's comics are a bit more naturalistic than Harkness' and use a thinner line weight. The commentary is also more spare and more serious, but it's a nice complement to what Harkness did. The centerfold is about a wrestling tournament in Japan by an artist named Chaack, which provides yet another color-coding for the comic and a more rapid-fire accounting of events. All told, this is probably best enjoyed by wrestling fans, but it certainly made me want to read weekly recaps of the matches by this duo.

Paintings, by Keiler Roberts. Roberts posted some of these on Facebook, and they are an interesting companion piece to her comics in part because they hearken back to an earlier creative outlet of hers in painting. Some of the paintings are direct recreations of panels that appeared in her comics, like the funny and heartbreaking image of Roberts laying down in the laundry, crying, as her husband encourages her to take a walk. The image here is a little more vague, and her muted color palette is interesting because it conjures up an image of suburban living. This is an ordinary person in a nice home who is clearly struggling. The image of her crying while lifting weights in the basement is telling in that regard, for example. At the same time, there are images of a woman trying to take joy in life and routine as well, as she plays with her dog and daughter. There are images of houseplants, the despair of a dirty stove, the solace of her dog as she's curled up on the couch. The cheerfulness of the colors often belies the sadness of the situation, and I think that's intentional. Mental illness can't be seen, and there's often no "reason" why someone should be depressed. At the same time, Roberts is also simply living her life as best she can.

It's interesting to look at these, both in and out of context with the rest of Roberts' work. They tell their own story, but it's a more simplified version of what Roberts writes about. What they tend to lack most out of context is Roberts' sense of humor and the immediacy of her drawing style. That said, the paintings are lively on their own thanks to their own lack of fussiness with regard to form combined with a great deal of thought regarding the choices of color. There's also the matter of still lives of domestic objects behind on the left-hand side of each double-page spread, and images of her and her family on the right. While meant to be looked at in a non-sequential manner, they nonetheless are part of a greater whole. This was an interesting experiment, and it would be fascinating to see Keiler use spot color in her books in the future, perhaps with the chapter-demarcating images she drew in her most recent book Chlorine Gardens.

I'm A Bad Person And So Are You & It Was Fun While It Lasted, by Geoff Vasile. I'm a long-time fan of Vasile's fiction, but his diary comics are just as good. He establishes very quickly that he's not here to talk about what he had for lunch, as he immediately addresses his frustration with his career, his depression, his stressful job in the service industry, his substance use (and abuse), and his frustration with dating. That said, Vasile has the instincts of a humorist, and these four-panel daily strips are continuously funny and have strong punchlines, even when he's writing about something that's fairly dark. There's one especially brutal strip where the woman he's dating casually is jealous over him paying attention to another friend at a bar and gets angry at him, and later wakes up apologetically wanting to have sex. The final thought balloon of his, "Sex is no longer worth the effort it takes to have." is both grim and exactly the sort of thing a middle-aged man might think in that situation.

At the same time, he depicts himself as immediately off-putting and cynical, telling a date that he cherished a memory of a one-night stand where neither person even pretended that they were going to contact them again. Vasile isn't afraid to show himself, warts and all, but not in a way that's begging for sympathy nor in a way that is self-aggrandizing. The second collection goes even deeper into bad dates (one woman tells him to come up with his third-favorite painting in a museum date), bar fights, oversharing of feelings, his own "scummy" behavior with women, quitting his horrible job, self-hatred of various kinds, misanthropy, suicidal ideations, his horrible relationship with his dead parents, going to therapy and getting medicated. All of this is executed in his crisp, clear line (with shades of Jaime Hernandez in his character design) and is far more entertaining than it sounds, because of his tremendous wit. Vasile simply knows how to tell a story, whether it's directly about him or not.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Retrofit/Big Planet Comics: Summer Pierre's All The Sad Songs

Summer Pierre's short autobiographical vignettes in her minicomics series Paper Pencil Life have established her as a sensitive, philosophical and quirky presence in the ever-growing comics memoir genre. Her dedication to exploring her interior life creates its own set of narratives, often complete with punchlines. All The Sad Songs is her first extended work at over a hundred pages, and it's on the surface a love letter to the role that music has played in her life. Of course, what becomes evident about halfway through is that the book is really about Pierre's unprocessed PTSD and her subsequent treatment.

Pierre's art emphasizes a heavy use of black, dense hatching and a strong sense of atmosphere. At the same time, her figures are warm and inviting to look at, drawn in a beautifully clear style that accentuates gesture and expressiveness. The result is deeply intimate, as Pierre warmly welcomes the reader into her story and invites us to be there with her through every moment of pain and joy. There's little use of negative space, as Pierre asks the reader to immerse themselves into her world and memories. It's a daring approach for an entire book, but Pierre's gentle wit assures the reader that the experience will not be a suffocating one.

The running theme throughout the book is not just that music was something that had a powerful effect on her, even as a teen, but that it was something she felt the urge to share with others. As such, the book pays loving attention to the clunky old mix tape. It's a format that's now dead, but at the time, having the power to record music off the radio or an LP was remarkable, especially when portable formats became available. Moreover, a mixtape was a personal message: a juxtaposition of songs given new meaning by the intentionality of the person making them. It's a testament to the fact that editing is its own art form and means of expression, like a good editor with an anthology.

Mixtapes were a way of expressing excitement, affection (especially for new crushes) and friendship. And the technology had something to do with this particular expression, because it was often a tedious, long process to make a mix tape. Furthermore, when you listened to a mix tape, it wasn't easy to simply skip a track and go to another one if you didn't like a song. Listening to a mix tape was just as much of a commitment as making one. There were no other options for recording music until the CD burner came along and the digital music revolution. It's in this setting that Pierre's book takes place.

If her book is really about PTSD, then its twin themes are intentionality and seeking meaning. As a child of a musician and someone in the rock business, music was just something that was part of her natural atmosphere. It was like breathing; she didn't even have to think about it. As such Pierre notes that a lot of the mix tapes she made in her youth and young adulthood were a reflection of that river of music that was was floating down. It surrounded and carried her, rather than being something that felt like it was hers. For a young person, finding that song or band that just gets you can be a crucial process, one that she didn't achieve until the riot grrrl movement of the early and mid 1990s. More to the point, it pushed Pierre from the passive act of listening to actually learning how to play guitar.

That led her to become a part of Boston's folk music scene. She played every open-mic night, every bar, every shop that would let her play. The key section of the book is her articulating chasing the feeling "of being found, of being known, of being heard in songs", looking for a specific kind of sublime aesthetic experience that can't be forced; you must be lucky enough for it to reveal itself to you. It's an experience that binds song and listener together, conjuring from thin air a combination of words and melodies that explains how they feel as someone living in this world. For a moment, that itch in the back of one's brain is finally scratched. We have peeked behind the curtain and saw the glory of creation, and we get to remember it for a little while.

That feeling does not make us immune to pain and trauma, nor is it a cure for it. Leaning on it too heavily can be like any form of self-medication: effective until it reaches the point of diminished returns--and then no longer effective. Pierre describes in detail how denying one's own pain eventually comes at an enormous cost, one with somatic as well as psychological symptoms. For Pierre, she described this feeling of anger and betrayal that led to "the brick"--a feeling in the pit of her stomach that made it hard to breathe. It was a panic attack, brought on by years of PTSD being exacerbated by a continuous loop of bad relationship choices.

Music is something that was recommended to her by her first therapist, who used the "talking cure". At the time, music was the only thing that gave her pleasure and didn't cause anxiety. Her former loves writing and drawing led to those somatic experiences of PTSD as well. The problem was that Pierre sought validation, redemption and tranquility by chasing relationships, no matter how ill-advised they were. The more she chased the sublime as a means of self-medicating, the further away it got from her. It was only when she picked up, moved across the country and got a new therapist who focused on how her mind and body were out of synch that she began to get better. Focusing on mindfulness of her body when she felt anxious, breathing techniques and other meditative therapy made all the difference.

The book emphasizes that the experience of art, and music in particular, is an essential part of what it means to be human. Be it listening for that song that hears you or performing music as an expression of living in that joy, music has powerful, positive effects on us. What Pierre points out is that these effects are not the same thing as therapy, no matter how much we channel our emotions into it. Pain has to be dealt with openly and in a therapeutic setting as a way of putting us on the right course, and/or with the intervention of medication. Doing so allowed Pierre to write her first love song for a man who was leaving town and couldn't get involved with her.

It was a song about that feeling of sadness "without rage", without trying to get someone to do something, without trying to wound or lick a wound. It's a beautiful grace note of an ending, especially with the sly use of the book's framing device. The book was told in past tense as Pierre looked over her old mixtapes and letters, and one of the final images is a current image of her husband and son--and her husband looks an awful lot like that man who had to leave her many years ago. It's a beautiful grace note as she offers up music not as a cure, but as a hook--something that lets us know that we are alive, we are heard and we are seen. Sometimes that's all we need to point us in the right direction to make our lives better.

Friday, October 5, 2018

mini-Kus!: Kvam, Pita, Krause, Vitina

Latvia marches on with more issues of mini-Kus!....

mini-Kus! #67: Day Tour, by Mariana Pita. Pita's line is as loose as it gets, cohering around a pleasant arrangement of pastels. It's about a young woman desperately seeking self-validation and her football-loving talking dog. As she goes to give blood, they have to navigate a busy city made busier by rabid fans ready to take in the match. The comic really is about how we choose to confront anxiety and its effects on our everyday life. Simply leaving the house was a big step for the protagonist, much less finishing the job of actually giving blood. Even when she's not able to give a full amount, she knows that she's done everything she can. Her dog represents a sort of negation of the search for meaning, as he can't give blood and is obsessed with the game. It's his way of dealing with reality, but he's outside of the camaraderie of fandom and instead faces its more alienating qualties. All of this is done in the most welcoming, friendly prose possible, as it digs into some dark places.

mini-Kus! #68: Weekend, by Erlend Peder Kvam. This is as unhinged a comic as I've ever read, with a strange logic that's shouted at a million decibels and intense colors. The comic is a combination of brutal satire and sincere weirdness, as a boss with a cultish following among his workers must entertain his twin nephews (?) over the weekend. Every figure is distorted (with lots of foreshortening), has spiky-headed features and threatens to jump off the page. There's even a parody of criticism, as the boss is revolted by the work of one nephew as that of a "try-hard" and is drawn to the silly weirdness of the other nephew. There's no doubt a heavy sense of intentionality to every line and word (done in an electronic font), but it's so deliberately strange and off-putting that it almost dares the reader to engage it.

mini-Kus! #69: Maud, by Marlene Krause. This is a straightforward but interesting biographical comic about Maud Wagner, one of the first female tattoo artists. A circus acrobat throughout her life, she initially agreed to date her future husband Gus in exchange for lessons on how to do the manual "stick and poke" tattoo. Done in bright colored pencil, Krause emphasizes the sheer joy of their interactions as he shared his past as a sailor traveling around the world and she revealed her desire to see the sorts of thing he had experienced. They eventually became well known as a pair of master tattoo artists who were themselves covered in art. Krause does a great job condensing their lives into key moments, including the birth of their daughter Lotteva and Maud extracting a vow that Gus would never tattoo her. As a result, their daughter would become a skilled tattoo artist in her own right, only she never got a drop of ink herself because the only person she ever wanted to do it was her father, and he had died. Those story beats were filled out by more quotidian anecdotes that talked about the yearnings of each character, with beautiful and cartoonish renderings on each page.

mini-Kus! #70: Worms, Clouds, Everything, by Lote Vilma Vitina. Reminiscent of the small renderings of Souther Salazar, this book has dozens of small, scratchy but beautiful drawings of nature as observed by a hermit in the wilderness. The hermit is obsessed with mushroom hunting, from the thrill of the hunt itself to the delicious things he makes to the psychedelic experiences he has by eating certain kinds of fungi. There are some deliberate parallels to the work of Henry David Thoreau here, as the hermit talks about his surroundings and the feelings they invoke in great detail. Color contrasts are important as different pages are on different color stocks, creating different visual effects without the use of very much actual color. This is a comic about filling in the blanks and creating new ways of looking at the world every day.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Minis: R.Petersman, F.Lyn/S.Cantirino

Some more recent minis from SPX to ponder...

Summer Sketches, by Rachel Petersman. I understood this to be Petersman's first official comic, but this humble photocopied mini of black & white pencil sketches shows a young artist who has already developed her own observational voice. Petersman has also developed a strikingly effective visual language predicated upon narrowing each page down to a single, central image. For example, on one page where she's seeing a band play, she zeroes in on the lead singer prowling on the stage. It's clear that she's using some photoreference as well as simple observation of her city's environs, but the results feel lived in rather than stiff. Her style is naturalistic, but she doesn't make the mistake of overrendering. She's perhaps too reliant on naturalism in drawing faces without quite having the chops to pull off differentiating figures at this point; a more cartoonish but definitively drawn set of expressions would have made it easier for her to get across emotions in close-ups. That said, her writing evokes the sadness and sweetness of being a young person in the city, struggling with anxiety but determined to make the most of the environment around them.

Flower Girls, by Francesca Lyn and Sally Cantirino. A post-modern take on "magical girl" comics is a strikingly original idea, especially when addressed in such a humane and loving way as in this comic. It poses the question: what happens when a bunch of magical girls grow up and stop having adventures? How do they adjust to the world at large? Lyn introduces us to Rose, now an adult but formerly the leader of a group of such girls who now lives with her cousin in the city. Right from the start, the reader is introduced to the idea of not only her being a magical girl in real life, but that the ancillary materials like best-selling dolls were a part of their daily existence as well. Negotiating fantasy with the ugly, harsh reality of capitalism is a theme of this comic, especially in the sense of exploring the problem of conflating purpose with financial success.

That said, Rose is drifting, and encounters with former teammates Prism and Skye (now a couple) do little to assuage her anxieties. She has dreams about encountering the goddess who gave her her powers, which have now faded with the years. There are allusions to one team member who fell out of contact and another who totally abandoned them. There's a mysterious segment where her cousin disappeared, only to turn up in the hospital without memories of how he got there--only to make a mysterious phone call indicating that Rose had been fooled. The comic left the reader with a lot of questions and certainly had me wanting more. Cantirino was a perfect choice as collaborator, as the SAW grad is equally adept at depicting the grittiness of daily urban life with the feathery, airy quality of fantasy realms.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Some SPX Minis: J. Baylis, A. Stang, R. Ullman

I can never resist reading minis from old favorites right after SPX. Here are some examples...

So Buttons #9, by Jonathan Baylis, et al. Baylis writes with increasing confidence and a Harvey Pekar-like ability to pick the right artists for the right kind of stories. That's not a coincidence, as Pekar is one of his major influences. Baylis and long-time collaborator Noah Van Sciver in "So...Carl" play on the structure of the famous Pekar/R.Crumb story "The Harvey Pekar Name Story", yet the structure actually serves a purpose in discussing his father Carl and his same-named cousin. While Baylis often plays his personal anecdotes for laughs, there's often a deeply personal and even cathartic quality to many of them as well; in this case, it was going to the funeral of his uncle with his sick father and freaking out that "Carl Baylis" was dead.

Two other long-time Baylis collaborators also shine in different ways. The simplicity of T.J. Kirsch is perfect for an anecdote about Baylis' young son talking about how he loved The Flash, his mom...and that's it. Thomas Boatwright returned in a follow-up about Baylis' old ambition of being a horror movie make-up artist, with exaggerated, cartoonish figures and a bright use of color contributing to an upbeat story of meeting one of his heroes and having it go well. Summer Pierre was a perfect choice for a sweet story about Baylis talking to his son about music. A story about getting rare roast beef from the Second Avenue Deli in New York was fittingly done by one of the best in depicting the city in James Romberger. Fred Hembeck continues to illustrate Baylis' time as an intern in comics, which was littered with disastrous stories. This time around, it was at Valiant Comics, where he watched staffer after staffer get fired by despondent publisher Bob Layton. Hembeck's deep knowledge of comics was put to good use in some clever panels, like one where he referenced the famous image of an alcoholic Tony Stark from an issue of Iron Man that Layton co-wrote and inked. I'm not sure if Baylis suggested that connection or if Hembeck came up with it, but it's the sort of thing that happens all the time in Baylis' comics. Baylis has a love of comics and its history that's coupled with an eyes-wide-open understanding of the industry's foibles. Combining that with an intuitive sense of not only what kind of anecdotes from his life make for a good story, but how to tell that story economically, has made him one of my favorite recent memoirists.

The Audra Show #1, by Audra Stang. Everything about this little mini is perfectly designed, from Stang's cheery self-caricature on the cover to the intense use of reds, blues and yellows. It was clear from the beginning that Stang was a talent to watch, and it's interesting to see her stretch out and work so extensively with color. Her biggest strengths remain dialogue and character interaction, as there's a great degree of verisimilitude. This comic begins with a wink to Daniel Clowes' Ghost World in that there are two teenage girls at a diner in 1988 who harass a schlubby, mustachioed waiter named Owen. The story takes place from the point of view of the waiter, who has a crush on a waitress named Bea. When they part after hanging out after work one night, she happens to see him him jump off the dock into the ocean...and when he doesn't come up after several minutes, she gets worried. The ending is a sublime moment of magical realism that nonetheless is a smooth fit with the rest of the story and even resolves the romantic tension between the two characters.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales #3, by Robert Ullman. Ullman's sports comics get more and more confident as he wrings out every bit of story and character to be found in the oft-eccentric National Hockey League. With this third issue, he's close to putting together enough material to assemble a book (around 70 pages so far). Ullman's clear, smooth line is ideally suited for this kind of storytelling, as he varies line weights to emphasize contact and action. The comic picks and chooses between the ridiculous, the beautiful, and the horrifying, as the early NHL had a Wild West feel in terms of its on-ice violence but also featured an intensity that created a deep connection with fans.

This issue featured statistical oddities embodied by players like Ken Doraty, whose career was notable for his overtime heroics and little else. The story of the "Curse of Muldoon", which supposedly prevented the Chicago Black Hawks from finishing in first place, was hilariously revealed to be a newspaper-created hoax. Ullman uses a grey wash to create an old newsreel feel in telling the story of Larry Kwang, the first Chinese-Canadian (and minority of any kind) man to play in the NHL. It's a story that's predictably filled with racist incidents, yet Kwang found different ways to rise above them in his life. In recent years, his story has been more widely told. There's also the story of Ace Bailey, who nearly died in an on-ice fight after taking a blind cheap shot, but later forgave the man who struck him. Ullman crams a lot of stories into 26 pages, and his ability to snappily get at the heart of each story without wasting a line makes this one-man anthology a compelling read.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Kid Lit: Martz, Sowa/Kotomycko, Wilson

Let's take a look at a few books for kids that have come my way recently:

Evie And The Truth About Witches, by John Martz (Koyama Press). This is an illustrated picture book by Martz. Its small size belies the sharpness of its wit, the gentleness of its big plot swerve, and the shock of its ending. Unlike the other books in this article, the tightness of the plot is absolutely crucial to its success. As it says on the back, "Evie wanted to be scared." To that end, she went to a bookstore, where she found a book called "The Truth About Witches". She was told that no matter what, do not read the last page of the book aloud. The book was about the usual witch stories: how they are horrible and cruel and want to eat children.

Martz' page detail is fiendishly clever and thorough. When she reads the book, a witch appears and takes her away to a far-away land. The witch compels her to move to a house where she's told the other witches are very hungry. Evie thinks she's done for until the witches reveal that the book was propaganda, and that witches are kind. She proves it with a wonderful montage of parties, playtime in the park, gardening and lavish feasts. Everyone is kind to her that she wants to be a witch, too, and there's a cute segment where the first witch we meet gives her her hat. Then comes the end twist (which I won't reveal), which works so incredibly well because of Martz' masterful use of misdirection. He pulls the reader one way (witches are evil, beware the book!), then pulls them in another direction (witches are delightful!), then ends the book with a specific reference to the book. This is a great kids' book for those who might want a conceptual scare.

That Night A Monster, by Marzena Sowa & Berenika Kotomycko (Odod Books). You have to hand it to Tom Kaczynski. He resolutely resists formula in his publishing decisions, especially with regard to his kid lit imprint, Odod Books. This book by two Polish artists (a writer-artist duo) is genuinely bizarre, surprising and hilarious. Of the three books featured in this column, this is the one my daughter enjoyed the most, both because of the pacing and the strange mystery surrounding the book. It's that pacing and weirdness that carries the day, because there's no real plot; it's just an episodic day in the life of a family. Except that young Tommy walks into his parent's bedroom to wake them and sees that his mother has been replaced by a big fern. The genius of this book is that makes no distinction between Tommy's imagination and his anxieties, seeing them as part of the whole package.

Despite the promise of action in this book, most of that is left in the imagination of the child as he thinks of worst-case scenarios. When the fern explains that his mom is still there under all that foliage, that kicks off the magical-realism aspects of the story. The fern is not a metaphor or a dream; the fern is a fern. Tommy's mom had gone to a party where her friends messed with her hair and she (presumably) got drunk. It certainly gives the term "potted" a new meaning! The end, when his mom gets a cactus-inspired hairstyle is one of many quirky moments in the book. My daughter loved this book, howling with laughter at the silly parts and tensing up with suspense at its initial mysteries. The elaborate, painted designs of Kotomycka are essential in crafting this fully-realized world that's both mundane and strange, along with figures that are stripped down but highly expressive. This is a "sticky" book, meaning that even though the plot is a mere trifle, it lingers in the memory.

Ghost Queen, by Britt Wilson (Koyama Press). Wilson's work is bigger, broader and louder than the other books on this list. It's a family magic book, where the children of a witch and their anthropomorphic frog friend have to confront the legacy of an ancient menace. Wilson's comics for Koyama always have a supernatural element, but their essence is really that of a family caper. It's the classic trope of kids being given responsibility, kids then blowing that responsibility and creating a huge mess, and then the kids ultimately figuring things out and cleaning things up at the eleventh hour. Books like this feature the kids trying to crack a kind of code in order to clean up, and the action and pacing is cranked way up to give the book a sense of manic energy. The actual characterizations are thin, and in this book, they are specifically meant to match the characters we meet from the past in the prologue. The titular villain is less a character than a plot contrivance designed to cause as much chaos as possible.

In that sense, this book has some Dr. Seuss qualities in terms of its exponentially stacking series of calamities, fake-out solutions and funny twists. More than anything, there's that shared anarchic energy, where the story feels like it's about to go completely off the rails into total lunacy. The big, loopy, rubbery character designs match that energy and give it a safe harbor for younger readers. Even the ghost queen herself is big and squishy; it's still a threat, but it's a cute one. My nine-year-old daughter read it and enjoyed it, but it didn't capture her imagination beyond that in the way that Luke Pearson's Hilda books or Lewis Trondheim's Monster books do. That would be assessment as well: pleasant enough to read but not especially memorable. Everything goes by so fast that it's hard to hook on to anything, even when there are a couple of small character moments.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Ramblings On SPX 2018

* All involved noted that this was a particularly emotional SPX for many. As I'm now a member of the executive committee as part of the Programming Troika (along with Danithan Mejia and Anna Pedersen), my perspective on the show has changed. It's no longer possible for me to objectively evaluate the show as I once did, and there's behind-the-scenes stuff that's not for public consumption.

* That said, I still spent most of the show doing what I do: looking for comics for review. I now have a giant bag of comics ready to go for my annual Thirty-One Days of CCS feature that will launch on December 1st. Plenty of time for more entries, however.

* I've been moderating panels at SPX for well over a decade now. I owe a debt to Bill Kartalopoulos for asking me to moderate panels when he was running programming. He did a great job for a number of years in assembling thought-provoking panels that were more than just perfunctory space-fillers, and in being part of the group in charge of programming this year, I often thought of his example. I also thought of the Heidi MacDonald statement, "In order to be inclusive, you have to include people."

* The only directive given with regard to programming is to offer every special guest a spot on a panel. With thirty special guests this year, that made for an interesting challenge, but we were able to find appropriate panels for everyone. The two panels I moderated both played on themes I've been interested in for years.

* "Family, Memory and Trauma" was remarkable for the way in which each panelist gave so much of themselves. Consisting of David Small, Carol Tyler and Rina Ayuyang, When I saw that both Tyler and Small were on this panel, along with my friend J.P. Trostle, this was an easy panel to assemble. Trostle unfortunately had to bow out because of the hurricane, but the panel was intense and intimate. I like to put a wild card on every panel that approaches the theme in a different way, and Ayuyang was that person here. Her new book, Blame This On The Boogie, is not about trauma, but it is about memory and the ways in which music and dance served to connect her to her world as she grew up as an outsider (her family was from the Philippines) in Pittsburgh.

Tyler brought a box of tissues to the panel, and each panelist had a moment where it was needed. Tyler's absolutely no-bullshit approach to her family and emotions brought an astounding level of honesty to the panel, even as she was still mourning the death of her parents and sister. Small's account of his journey to reclaim memories of his horrific childhood was matter-of-fact by this point, but he got choked up in recalling the memories of his therapist (and surrogate father), whom he noted "taught me how to be a man". All three used completely different approaches and methods in creating their comics; Ayuyang with musical-bright colors; Small in fastidious, sketchy line with grey wash done at his kitchen table "with a cocktail", and Tyler trying to create a theory of everything with regard to love in her life. This was a panel full of people ready to talk, which makes my job as a moderator 100% easier.

* "Writing Bipolar" was an easy concept to put together that exceeded even my expectations. Ellen Forney's work with Marbles and Rock Steady have made her into a mental health advocate, and she's someone who's not unfamiliar with the rhythms of performance. Keiler Roberts' wry observations about motherhood, mental illness and daily happenings have marked her as one of the freshest and funniest of memoir cartoonists. Oakland's Larwence Lindell was my wild card, as his raw take on being unmedicated and without access to therapy stood in sharp relief to Roberts and Forney. Again, this was a very giving panel. Forney was front and center with her message, but also stopped midway through answering a question to tell Lindell how important his comics were because he was a rarity in the world of comics and its African-American community. (When she asked if she had to answer the question, I replied, "No, I'm just here to fill time!") That got a nice conversation started between the three artists.

Roberts, who was a star on the "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness" panel last year, contributed her dry and hilarious observations while also going along with Lindell in that there are a number of ways of coping, as she rattled off her dream strip mall of therapy which included a place to get a massage, a place to pet puppies, a library, etc. Lindell noted that his comic "I Can't Afford Therapy, So I Made This" initially has a funny effect until he notes, "No, really. I couldn't afford therapy, so I made this (comic)". He talked about how the mania aspect of bipolar is especially difficult for him, so making comics and playing music is what helps him. He also talked about the notion of community, and how being open about being bipolar on the one hand got people from his church community saying things like "Let's pray it away", and he had to gently say, "It doesn't work that way." However, he said that events like this panel are therapeutic for him, noting people in the room nodding their head about things he said. In that moment, there was a tremendous energy running through the room, as both he and people in the crowd clearly felt seen and understood. Indeed, a number of people talked to me afterwards about how much it meant to them because of their own experience or the experience of a relative. Mental health is a topic I plan to return to in different forms every year at SPX.

* Pairing the right moderator with the right subject is part of the fun of doing programming. There are some moderators I know I can depend on to do virtually any kind of panel, mainstays like Michael Cavna, Warren Bernard, Marc Sobel, Isaac Cates, Chris Mautner, Heidi MacDonald, etc. At the same time, it's exciting to get new voices in as moderators, like Carta Monir (on Queer Romance), Hazel Newlevant (on Trans Memoir), J.A. Micheline (on Building The Jungle Gym; she has a special talent for putting together a panel), Francesca Lyn (Feminist Futurism & Fantasy), Robyn Chapman (Adventures In Publishing), and Rachel R. Miller (who absolutely killed in terms of preparation and performance for her spotlight panel with Julie Doucet). There were also successful live podcasts from the Comics Alternative group (with Derek Royal) and the Process Party duo of Zack Soto and Mike Dawson.

* Special thanks go out to my programming partners, Danithan Mejia and Anna Pedersen. Their organizational skill and personability in running each of the programming rooms was key in keeping things smooth and on track. I look forward to crafting the panels for next year's show, the 25th anniversary of SPX. Their working with SPX's indispensable volunteers was another big key to making extremely complex operations run with no problems. That's especially true with regard to the centerpiece of programming, the Universes Of Rebecca Sugar, moderated by her old friend Ryan Sands. There was a wristband system put into place for this panel to cut down on wait times and lines, along with a secondary wristband for an overflow room where the panel was streamed live. Kudos to the SPX video crew for already getting this panel on SPX's youtube channel.

* I would simply urge everyone to watch the Ignatz awards when they come up on the SPX youtube channel. Carol Tyler has a background in comedy, and she put that to use with her boozy truck stop character that she introduced. That set up a light tone for much of the evening, but she also got serious at a number of points. The entire room had to try to follow Ben Passmore presenting Outstanding Artist to Richie Pope; Passmore is brutally honest and incredibly funny. I was partial to Matthew Thurber's unhinged Nikita Kruschev impersonation as well as Josh Cotter's clever scenario involving a service for shy cartoonists during speaking engagements. I got tabbed to present Outstanding Online Comic after Meredith Gran had to bow out, and improvised a bit of nonsense onstage regarding starting out working online as a writer and seeing the rise of online comics. I will admit to being overjoyed in getting to hand the brick to Carta Monir, one of the rising stars in comics.

The acceptance speeches were wonderfully heartfelt, from Monir to Pope to Eleanor Davis' tremulous but rousing call to activism. And obviously, I can't speak much to this for obvious reasons, but the support for #defendthe11 is something I can barely put into words, and the moment we were recognized is something I will never forget. As I told many people, I'm not a joiner and never have been. However, I've been lucky in my life to find my people at several key junctures, and the family of comics has been especially remarkable. That's especially true in my capacity as a critic, where the vast majority of artists want real feedback.

* Special thanks to Zack Soto, Jules Bakes, Dre Grigoropol, Robin Enrico, Tom Spurgeon, Gil Roth, Keiler Roberts, Josh Bayer, M.S. Harkness and others for extended, memorable conversations.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Catching Up With SAW, Part 2

Let's look at some more minis from SAW:

Sketch Zine Twenty-Seventeen, by Miranda Harmon. This comic is chock full of illustrations and short comics taken from Harmon's sketchbook. Harmon is a big-time talent whose frank portrayal of both depression and alienation is marked by a light touch and friendly, inviting line. I liked one strip where she didn't want to buy into the idea that the actors in the tech comedy series Silicon Valley were supposed to be unattractive; her expression is almost one of resentment for what the entertainment industry was trying to get her to accept as true. Harmon uses two different self-caricatures: a scribbly bushy-haired one and her "Lil Onion Head" character. The latter is especially appealing and still manages to capture her essence, without sacrificing any expressiveness. Harmon's skill as an illustrator (especially of cute images) could earn her any number of mainstream jobs, but I hope that whatever long-term projects she takes on, she's able to personalize them as much as she does her autobio strips.

The Way I Look, by Melissa Iuliano. This is a short, cleverly-designed comic about body image. Iuliano makes great use of negative space in this comic, opening up with a couple of pages worth of silhouettes as she describes things she doesn't like about her body and then how she learned to accept it, with one exception. That exception is the discoloration on her upper lip, and the litany of horrors she had to endure in order to attempt to "correct" this. The last two pages are a beautiful expression of frustration and determined acceptance. Iuliano's line has some rough edges, but her storytelling techniques are sophisticated and engaging. Her ability to mesh technique and message in a smooth package is impressive.

Tabitha Waves In..."Your Biggest Fan!", by Kiana Stewart. This modest mini is about an aging anthropomorphic alligator actress (the titular Tabitha) who randomly runs into a fan on the street. The keys to this comic are body language and gesture, and Stewart nails both. At first, the actress is taken aback by the enthusiastic attention of the fan, but it's made clear that she winds up providing something for her that she needed. That's made clear toward the end when the fan gives her a big hug after Tabitha gave her an autograph. In a two-panel set, the first panel shows Tabitha unnerved by the surprise embrace (her eyes wide and her mouth pursed) and the second panel sees her eyes soften and her mouth relax, as though a weight had been lifted off of her. Notably and subtly, you can see her hand in the bottom left of the panel, softly returning the embrace.

Gnome Comix, by Lance "Gnome" Raber. There's a bit of an R.Crumb, id-inflected inspiration in these comics, but with a twist. Raber can draw in any style, from MS-Paint inspired wackiness to highly-detailed, realistic drawings, to grotesque caricatures in-between. There is certainly plenty of that grotesque quality permeating his strips, though the twist is that rather than play out as a series of fantasies being fulfilled, Raber instead specializes in drawing man-children of various shapes and sizes. Some of it is clearly self-effacing, while other strips are a clear critique of toxic masculinity. This mini is just a selection of strips done before Raber's time at SAW; though his talent is obvious, they're also all over the place. I'd be curious to see how he developed after SAW.

The Sculptor 2, by Eric Taylor. I've enjoyed Taylor's comics in the past, but this brutal parody of Scott McCloud's epic misfire is his best comic to date. The comic picks up after the end of The Sculptor, where a guy was given the power to sculpt anything he wanted with his hands by Death, only his life would end sooner. This time around, Death came in the form of Stan Lee to a young cartoonist. The woman he meets beats him up (instead of the absurd "angel" angle of the original book). Everything he does is a male power or sex fantasy fetish, including his savior act at the end. The comic is so effective because it exposes McCloud's original comic so mercilessly. Whatever good intentions McCloud had going into the sculpture were undone by his painfully treacly sentimentality and self-indulgence. There's also a painful lack of awareness of the viewpoints of others. Taylor plays that up while adding all kinds of wacky and obscene sight gags that serve to send up underground comics in general, as he "samples" Crumb and others in certain scenes.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Catching Up With SAW, Part 1

Let's take a look at some recent comics from Tom Hart's Sequential Artists Workshop, or SAW. It's his comics school that aims to have affordable rates without skimping on the actual quality of the education one receives. Like any good comics arts school, it demands that its students be working cartoonists, making minicomics. Let's take a look at the crop from last year.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, by M Parker. This is a shadowy little horror comic in the dense, scratchy and hatched tradition of a Steve Bissette. A horny guy lets in an old lover, who reveals herself to be a horrific figure with fangs and sharp claws that envelops him in a grim, yet also loving and maternal, embrace. The image of row after row after row of teats is interesting because it's both strange and comforting, as though she was an all-mother figure as well as a death figure. It's all a dream, of course, but upon awakening, the guy in the story is in tears.

A Silent Sigh, by Maxine Marie. This is an excellent example of comics-as-poetry, using the metaphor of a hook ensnaring another lodged in the throat of a woman who has lost her voice. Marie uses a thick, simple line and portions of shapes in order to craft her story, with text often opposite a page with that evocative, haunting bit of imagery. The most important image, as the woman saw another woman with a kite issuing forth from her mouth, is that the lodged in her throat and the key used to fishing it out are barbed. They are meant to catch fish, and the barbs are meant to hold them. In this instance, fishing out the key would mean causing an incredible amount of pain and trauma. It's a metaphor for holding in trauma vs the decision to confront it. In the former scenario, she could avoid the pain by ignoring her trauma, but at the cost of her voice. In the latter scenario, she would have the potential for speech again at the cost of great pain. The last image reveals her choice, and Marie's expert command of minimalist gesture makes that panel one to remember.

Minis by Karla Holland. Flash 'Vu is a clever comic involving Holland's daily commute at age 14 and age 24. Each 2-panel page featured the younger Holland on top and the older Holland on bottom. Younger Holland is going to school in a bus and older Holland is going to class in a car...and they spot each other in a splash page that smashes the two narratives together. It's a clever idea that's well-executed, especially in the way that Holland pays so much attention to details like body language.

Facing Back is a series of musings about a beloved childhood friend that she had to move away from and never talked to or saw again...until she saw her pop up on Facebook. What was interesting about this comic was Holland's line of reasoning with regard to getting in touch with her again vs. just letting that part of her life alone. Indeed, every one of Holland's comics is one that reveals a mind that's constantly evaluating every aspect and angle of her life and her choices. This particular mini looks better on the web than on paper, but that's more a formatting issue than anything.

Holland is a versatile artist. Vomics! are strips from working in a sports stadium, with all sorts of amusing observational humor and some absurd premises. The gag about a t-shirt gun gone horribly awry was especially effective. None of the jokes here were revolutionary, but this is a workplace comic in a workplace that's just not commonly seen in comics or our culture in general. Her The World Dance coloring book reflects a dedication to the small details necessary to differentiate clothing that's distinctive to different kinds of dancers in different spots around the world. Even though these are illustrations, not comics, Holland's skill as a cartoonist is such that the body language of each image feels like it's in motion, rather than a static figure dead on the page.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fifteen Artists And Publishers To Seek Out At SPX 2018

As always, it's a pleasure to compile my annual list of artists and publishers to seek out at SPX. I always make an effort never to repeat a name, and that's a tribute to the continuing depth of talent in alt-comics these days. There are also a few veterans here and there who are making their first appearance.

1. Laura Lannes. Table B11-B. This Brazilian autobio cartoonist made a big splash with By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, a painfully honest account of a doomed relationship. Her acidic sense of humor and sharp observations about life as a single person combined with her loose, fuzzy line made for a remarkably coherent & memorable series of vignettes. I believe she'll have a new comic at this show. 

2. Leila Abdelrazaq. Table M13-A. She's a Palestinian cartoonist based in Detroit who specializes in personal and political strips about alienation, persecution and identity. She recently finished as the first-runner up for the Locher Award, given to editorial cartoonists under the age of 25.

3. Conundrum Press. Table W66-B. They are one of the most underrated publishers in comics, consistently releasing daring, unusual comics. They're known for publishing works in English for the first time, giving a platform for young Canadian cartoonists, reprinting key comics and collecting truly strange comics. I don't think publisher Andy Brown will be there, but Max de Radigues will be there, repping his book Weegee.

4. Richie Pope. Table E11-A. Pope's magnificent issue of Frontier about fatherhood was one of the most memorable of the entire series. I'm eager to see his other comics.

5. Perfectly Acceptable Press. Table N13-A. Publisher Matt Davis is one of the premier purveyors of exquisitely-produced art objects (via Risograph) that are also excellent comics.

6. Rina Ayuyang. Table W1-4. Rina's a long-time favorite of mine who is debuting a book from Drawn & Quarterly soon called Blame This On The Boogie. I also have the pleasure of being the moderator for a panel she's on.

7. Silver Sprocket. Table J1. Avi Ehrlich's punk DIY aesthetic is the engine behind this burgeoning publishing concern. He publishes the personal and the political.

8. Iona Fox. Table D13. She's one of the brightest young voices in the embarrassment of riches we as readers are enjoying with regard to memoir and diary comics. She draws from experiences that are quite different from the average city dweller.

9. Matt Emery. Table F2. He's the brains behind Pikitia Press from Australia, and he's introduced me to a number of excellent cartoonists.

10. Summer Pierre. Table I11-A. In a year where the theme of the programming is memoir and there are so many great cartoonists in that area, Pierre stands out as one of the best of the best. Her line is as engaging as her storytelling, which is full of wit and warmth.

11. M.S. Harkness. Table M12-B. Her Tinderella was a hilarious but poignant autobiographical book that was remarkably frank and upfront about desire, loneliness and the sheer indignity of dating.

12. Maria Hoey. Table L14. One half of the Coin-Op team, she will be there with a recent issue of the comic as well as the collection from Top Shelf. She's one of the best illustrators around.

13. Julia Kaye. Table N1-A. Her book Super Late Bloomer is one of my favorites regarding the experience of transitioning. Her line is endlessly fun to look at.

14. Taneka Stotts. Table I1-A. A fine writer in her own right, Stotts is also a superb editor. Her Elements: Fire rightfully won the Eisner award.

15. Fred Noland. Table G5-A. This is "Fredo's" first SPX in some time. His minis from the early 2000s were some of my favorites.