Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Visit To The Center For Cartoon Studies

This past week I attended Industry Day at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which occurs late in the spring semester and brings editors, publishers, critics and agents together to do a two-hour panel on the state of the comics industry as well as several hours worth of one-on-one portfolio reviews. Here are some scattered thoughts regarding the experience.

** I actually went up a day early because there was a vicious Nor'easter coming across New York that cancelled my flight. I flew south to Atlanta and then all the way up to Manchester, New Hampshire. Thanks to Jarad Greene and Dave Lloyd for putting that bit of magic together. Students Pat Leonhard and Kori Michele Handwerker picked me up and drove me the 1.5 hours to get to White River Junction.

** The Hotel Coolidge is a very old (1849 originally) place that CCS puts its guests up in, since it's right across the street from the school. A number of students live in the hostel section of the hotel, reputed to be haunted. It was old and creaky and wonderful.

** I was happy to get in a day early so I could sit in on the first-year crits performed by Steve Bissette and Sophie Yanow. The senior class has ten people and the first year class is double that size. Without getting into the specifics of the crits, I was impressed by the thoroughness and practicality of the commentary. I read every one of the pieces for the assignment, which was non-fiction comics. I was extremely impressed by the overall ambition and skill present in the works I saw, and it's obvious that this class has the potential to make a big splash.

** That's not to sell the seniors short. I've written about Daryl Seitchik extensively, as well as Mary Shyne, Dan Nott, Rainer Kannenstine, and others. I was happy to meet the very talented Alex Fuller for the first time.

** I was asked to moderate a panel that included Andrea Colvin (an editor for up-and-coming publisher, Lion Forge); Patrick Crotty (publisher at Peow Studio), Tracy Hurren (editor, Drawn & Quarterly) and Kelly Sonnack (an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.). I had not met any of them before, but I'm pleased to say that they all had interesting (and often opposing) views on comics.

** Lion Forge is an interesting case. They are based out of St. Louis, and the company is owned by two wealthy African-American men (Dave Steward II and Carl Reed), who started it six years ago with the imperative to bring more diversity to both content and creators in comics. That started with mostly superhero comics, but they've since brought in a bunch of new editors (including Colvin) and will be publishing a wide array of comics. This is a publisher to keep an eye on, and Colvin's good taste will have a significant impact on what they publish.

** Peow represented the small press model, where they tend to select their very few artists selectively and personally. The personable Crotty was a source of enthusiasm the entire time.

** Hurren and D&Q represented more of an auteur model, as she said they publish artists more than they do books. That means little to no editing, which is precisely the opposite of what Colvin and Sonnack do with their clients. Colvin in particular advocated how positive a good artist-editor relationship can be.

** What was very interesting (and only for the ears of those in that room, as were many other details) was that each publisher talked very candidly about different kinds of contracts, with details regarding royalties, advances, up-front payments and other details.

** We also traced the ups and downs in comics publishing since the late 1980s, as I was interested in getting everyone's take on what the keys to the present, somewhat upward tick in the market might be.

** The crits were fascinating to do, as every student I talked to had a different and compelling story as to how they got there. My advice, especially to the first-years, was to basically use this time to figure what you want to do. It's OK to cycle through your influences, because your own style will emerge eventually. For those cartoonists who were struggling with writing, I advised them to read Lynda Barry's What It Is and follow its exercises. I also advised a number of the cartoonists to do a daily journal for a month after the school year ends in order to keep them going and experiment with some storytelling basics.

** Seeing and being able to hang out in the Schulz Comics Library (pictures above and below) was almost overwhelming. I initially focused on looking at some school projects, in particular the Golden Age projects where students are grouped together and they have to come up with an approximation of a comic that resembled something from Dell, Gold Key, EC or even the superhero publishers. A lot of them were interesting because of the names involved, and a few were genuinely good. They did a manga phonebook this year that was really well-done.

** Everyone should spend time in the library. Their minicomics collection is impressive, and they have so many oddities that I could have spent days there. That's how I felt about CCS in general: I could have spent several more days there. I treasured my time spent with Michelle Ollie and a big group after dinner one night and was happy to see James Sturm, who had been out of town. The portraits of past librarians is a who's-who of cartoonists.

** Above all else, I have to thank Luke Howard for inviting me and facilitating the entire trip. He wasn't just organized and professional; he was incredibly kind and involved. He's an excellent cartoonist to boot, but I will never forget his hospitality. I had never been to CCS before (to which everyone there said, "How can this be?"), and it's Luke who made that happen.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Mooz Boosh: More Spinadoodles From Sam Spina

There's never a question that any autobio strip that Sam Spina happens to put down is going to be full of goofy humor, and his new collection of his "Spinadoodles" strips, Mooz Boosh, is no exception. He and his wife Samantha are often depicted as acting like big kids for comedic effect. What's changed over the years is that each year's collection of new strips has become slimmer as he is now a full-time writer and artist working for the Cartoon Network. Instead of writing a strip a day, every day, he's only doing them as inspiration strikes, and the result is a consistently funny personal narrative with an undertone of personal dissatisfaction. That's actually been a running theme, first when he was an aspiring cartoonist/animator who worked a waiter job and now that he got a job as a pro. The difference now is that there's a self-awareness of the #firstworldproblem nature of his unhappiness: he has a great job, a great wife, a nice apartment, etc--why should he complain? The answer is that one's dreams matter, and his dream of having his own show was dashed twice (off-panel) in the course of the year. There's a sense of him struggling with negative emotions in general as a subtext in these strips, but that sense of feeling that he's not entitled to his emotions is palpable.

Spina's always used a cluttered approach to the page, filling up any negative space with a gray wash. What's changed over the years is his growing confidence as a draftsman. In "Stung", for example, his over-the-top foreshortening of his thumb getting stung has images of bug-eyed Sam freaking out, but also a perfectly-rendered hand in one panel. Indeed, there are plenty of pages that can be navigated solely from a visual perspective, especially when Samantha and her many expressive faces are involved. Spina also threw in some sketchbook doodles to fill up space but also to give the reader a sense of the sort of thing he's working on. One gets the sense that Spina has once again come to a betwixt and between portion of his life, where he's an adult but hasn't yet punched every square on the adult bingo card (own a house, have kids, etc), but he's way past being a young adult. There's career ambitions being thwarted but also a sense that he has plenty of time. One also gets the sense that he hasn't forgotten how much joy he gets out of simply drawing, and that really comes out in his Hourly Comics Day strips.

Doubling down on cat jokes and fart jokes is both consistent with everything Spina has done to this point and a sense that he may well feel compelled to write about other things in the future. In the meantime, Spina's depiction of his job and his relationship are both quite compelling and illustrative. Not only do we get a sense of what Samantha is like, the reader also comes to understand their chemistry and bond. And while there's plenty of goofing around at work, there are also meetings about redoing a script that he's been working on for a year with someone. One almost doesn't notice when Spina actually dwells on something serious, because he's so good at the structure of making virtually any kind of anecdote into something with a comedic structure. I hope he keeps doing these strips forever.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

All-Time Comics: Blind Justice #2

In some respects, Josh Bayer getting Fantagraphics to publish his line of 80s throwback superhero comics may have been a bad thing for the project. It put a sheen of respectability on a project that was inherently bizarre and trashy. Indeed, it's odd that these are now Bayer's best-known comics, considering how much better his Raw Power and Theth series are. They also trade in on superhero tropes but from a completely different perspective, incorporating the juvenile aspects of reading them as part of the experience and warping them through Bayer's "cover versions" of obscure comics. Bayer's idea to mix alternative cartoonists with older mainstream cartoonists was an interesting one in theory, but there have been a lot of hiccups along the way. Indeed, the first issue of Blind Justice, to be penciled by Rich Buckler and his son, is one of the most incoherent comics I've ever read.

The over-the-top violence and misogynistic elements of the other All-Time comics, combined with the fact that the entire first wave was done by men, made them an easy target for criticism. Bayer's attempt to combine frequently nihilistic and raw 80s comics with the dumb ultraviolence of 80s cinema as a kind of goof removed both Bayer's own satirical viewpoint as well as artists like Ben Marra, whose work walks a fine line between satire and sexism. The character Justice is in the tradition of inexorable, intelligent, vengeance-seeking crusaders. The twist is that his secret identity is that of a unresponsive cranial injury victim living in a ward. When he hears about crime, he builds himself armor out of things like old newspapers and phone books, cobbles together a club, and looks like a bulky, bandaged figure in a suit. Having a hero literally built out of decay and newsprint is a fun metaphor, especially one as single-minded as an avenging Steve Ditko character.

The second issue follows a psychopathic killer who enters a home and asks "Hey buddies...who wants to lay down and make this easier for me? Who wants to lay down on my altar?" The killer, named Miller, is a kind of goof on Bayer's version of G. Gordon Liddy, ranting about raw power and viewing killing as a part of nature, that he exists to eliminate weaker species. Of course, he's gone rogue from a typically evil corporation. The first big action piece is Justice infiltrating the company to get information and escaping from a small army of guards. The clever thing about the storytelling here is Justice essentially bullshitting his way through his enemies with a combination of trickery and outrageous confidence, as he proceeds as though he's invincible even though he has no powers. The same was true for his showdown with Miller, except this time the villain saw through the disguise but underestimated Justice's cleverness and relentlessness.

The story, while violent, actually tracks quite nicely. Part of this is due to the unlikely but highly efficient art team of Noah Van Sciver and Al Milgrom as penciler and inker, respectively. Van Sciver goes to town with all sorts of weird page grids and formal oddities, like the bottom of a panel "giving out" underneath a punk's foot. Milgrom's inks essentially smooth Van Sciver out a bit, adding a bit of fluidity to fight scenes, while retaining the essential character of Van Sciver's work. Milgrom was the essence of the meat-and-potatoes Marvel inker and penciler who could work super fast and tell a story, even if the art itself wasn't flashy or attractive. The eccentric coloring job by Paul Lyons and Jason T. Miles (whose work is about as far away from this as one can imagine) only increased the weirdness of the book, as Miller was purple, Justice's shirt was yellow, and the sky during the showdown ranged between yellow, orange and red. The use of color was so deliberate, yet they kept it the same four-color flat colors of early 80s comics in order to duplicate that atmosphere, only the sheer wonkiness of it served to remind the reader of the comic book essence of the proceedings. It was meant to be anything but realistic and a little bit ugly and weird as well. It feels like Bayer also really nailed the tone of this comic in a way he hadn't in other All-Time issues. I have a feeling that the second run of All Time Comics will wind up being much more interesting in the first, especially with comics drawn by Gabrielle Bell and Julia Grfoerer.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Down & Away

Katherine Wirick's long-term project has been a book about Dada artist John Heartfield. However, as she notes in this illustrated zine, her entire artistic output from 2015 were the few drawings that appear here. The reason is revealed on the first page: she committed herself to a neuropsychiatric ward because her depression had led her to suicidal ideations. Her journal of this experience, Down And Away, is at once heart-rending, hilarious and simply fascinating. As someone who has spent many hours visiting people held in such wards, every aspect of her experience there felt familiar, from the items banned for inpatients to those ubiquitous socks with gripping pads on them. Wirick is an exceptional writer, unflinchingly documenting her experience as a way of helping to create a public discourse about mental illness.

She goes into some detail about this, noting that discussing cancer publicly used to be taboo, something that seems unthinkable now in the age of valorizing cancer patients. Obviously, AIDS is another disease that used to be taboo and is still sometimes discussed in whispers in some corners. A greater awareness of mental illness and a willingness to make it part of the public discourse, but Wirick notes that it shouldn't be up to laymen to help the mentally ill. They are simply not prepared or trained to help them, not to mention that the boundary between therapist and patient is there for the therapist's sake as much as the patient. Wirick states unequivocally that only through cheap meds, easily available therapy and well-funded inpatient facilities can mental illness be dealt with. It is a matter of public health, one with clear solutions that go beyond simple platitudes.

Wirick never once sentimentalizes her experience, nor does she suffer the kind of platitudes associated with hospitalization. It wasn't the love of her husband who made her smile for the first time after she was committed, it was a joke on Spongebob Squarepants. She simultaneously refrained from killing herself because of her husband's love and regretted the decision. Love doesn't fix mental illness anymore than it does cancer or the flu. Wirick also notes that there was an intense amount of boredom in the ward but it was also difficult to get much rest, as nurses constantly came into your room (which had no locks). She vividly describes the many people she met in various states of distress and illness, as well as the oasis that occupational therapy provided for her as an artist. Above all else, her acidic wit comes through on every page; her humor isn't there so much to distract from the reality of what her situation was, but rather to affirm it. Even the title of the journal is an inside joke with herself, as Wirick is a huge baseball fan and "down and away" refers to a part of the strike zone that is especially hard to hit. And of course, she was down emotionally and put herself away. This is required reading for anyone who's ever suffered from depression or suicidal ideations.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Koyama: GG's I'm Not Here

I'm Not Here was my first real exposure to the work of the Canadian artist gg, other than an anthology story here and there. There's something vertiginous about reading her comics, thanks to a push-and-pull in style and tone. On the one hand, her naturalistic style is so precisely rendered that there's never any question about what the reader is looking at. At the same time she draws the reader in, she simultaneously pushes them away by creating a cold environment that defies inspection from the reader. The story itself is very simple: a nameless young woman is taking care of her emotionally abusive mother and also trying to take care of her father, who seems increasingly addled by dementia but also incredibly mean-spirited. The young woman has photography as a hobby, and one day she takes a photo of a young woman who looks very much like her, in front of an apartment complex. She goes to the apartment complex and gets let in by the elderly landlady, who mistakes her for the actual tenant, who was supposed to be out of town. She luxuriates in the apartment, even sleeping in her doppelganger's bed. She has a series of horrible dreams/reminiscences.At the very end, her landlady offers her a chance to extend her lease.

The cold, almost sterile drawing style of gg is a deliberate tactic for this story. This is the story of a woman who had learned to push her emotions all the way down and numbed herself to the way her mother so nonchalantly and unrelentingly put her down. At the same time, she is trapped, with seemingly no way out. It's the "life of quiet desperation" that Thoreau talks about. Everything about this comic relates to seeing and being seen, and the panel-to-panel transitions more closely resemble a series of photographs than a more typical comics-oriented transition that's more fluid. The page-to-page transitions have more to do with film than comics: lots of fade-ins and fade-outs, blackouts, the camera lingering on a single image. The opening two pages provide a number of clues, we fade-in on the young woman methodically putting her hair up, her back to the reader's gaze. Even when we first see her face, it's mediated through the surface of a mirror. There is then a quote about "to live is to be somebody else", meaning that we must change on a day-to-day basis in order to be able to feel.

Later, when a street vendor questions her about her photography hobby, she responds that she's trying to capture how things are. His reply is that how things are is always changing; in other words, attempting to capture that sense of change by freezing it is foolish. That's when she sees her "double" and she begins to think about this other person, this other world. That feeling is accentuated when her mother essentially tells her that she's a failure, unlike her younger sister, in the most blase' tones possible. Then she encounters her father driving around at night, confused and belligerent. The photos she takes aren't really to capture how things are, but rather to capture an idealized version of how things are that don't truly exist. It's her refuge.

Receiving an invitation into someone's life is a kind of continuation of that refuge, and it's in that escape that she's able to not only confront years worth of abuse, she's able to cry because of it. There are multiple fade-ins and fade-outs to painful memories (drawn with a lighter tone of wash than the present-day events, which are by nature more solid), including one where she finally moved to act after being berated by her mother. gg leaves the story open-ended; she's essentially given an opportunity to be this other woman (where she went is unknown is unclear: did she move to escape her own life as well). Given a chance to truly confront her feelings and learning that her double was more of an opposite than a twin makes that choice far more difficult than one would think. The cover itself provides a clue, as the other woman wears her hair down (a symbol, perhaps of her more carefree but uncaring nature) and the two hairstyle are lined up, but upside down from each other. It's not just a mirror image, but almost a mutation or transformation, at work here. She's left to wonder not just what kind of person she wants to be, but also what kind of world she wants to live in, as the book fades to black. This is the kind of book that reveals itself to the reader slowly, and over multiple attempts; but once it does, it is a treasure trove of ideas related to family, identity, duty and ethics.