Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Minis: S.Lautman, T.Van Deusen

Black & White Diary Comics December-February 2017, by Sara Lautman. Lautman helpfully explains the entire premise of the mini in the title, and Birdcage Bottom Books published this collection. Lautman's comics have always been funny and strange, as she has always resolutely told her stories from a point of view that she never tries to explain or justify. Visually, her comics have always had a rock-solid and conventional formal sense of design, allowing her to get as wildly expressive as she wants with regard to figure drawing. Lautman is also consistently funny; sometimes it's dry humor and other times there's an over-the-top sense of "How can this be happening?" A good example is the first strip, "Crisis Hotline". Lautman, with an cartoonishly exaggerated nose and scribbly hair, calls up a crisis talk line. Lautman spills her problem to the person at the other end of the line (which was redacted) gets silence for a moment, and then a request for FaceTime (!). In one of those unbelievable moments, the call monitor is wearing a dog puppet on her arm and speaks in a dog voice ("That must be rrrruff!") until she breaks off in a fit of coughing. Tack on an awkward denouement, and you have a perfectly structured gag.

Lautman often builds her stories around a vague sense of discomfort. Whether it's singing alone at a karaoke night and trying to connect to some bros standing up, or a feeling of extreme anxiety as she steps in as a band's new drummer, Lautman always manages to feel out of place. There's a hilarious scene where she confesses to her friends what a horrible job she did and how sorry she was, and all she got was wonderful feedback. "Stupid supportive friends" she thinks, as she slinks away, as no one will feed her sense of inadequacy. That said, Lautman doesn't wallow, at least not without trying to generate laughs. There are also absurd, silly anecdotes, like attending "Gum Brunch" (which is exactly what it sounds like) and discussing the history and reverberations Gum Brunch has stirred up. There's another story where an older man approaches her in a bar, compliments her on the band t-shirt she's wearing, then walks away when she says the shirt was a gift and she wasn't really a fan. That all seemed standard until a woman runs up to them and says that that man was her uncle, and that this was the first thing he had said in thirty years! Lautman writes herself as a weirdness magnet even as she's finding it hard to deal with normal life, but she deals with both with a sort of deadpan humor that's accentuated by that appealingly scratchy, scribbly style.

I Wish I Was Joking, by Tom Van Deusen. This is a collection of odds and ends from Van Deusen from various anthologies; and as such, it has a slightly scattered feel. Van Deusen's favorite new character seems to be amazon.com head Jeff Bezos, and he is portrayed as barely able to interact with other people. There's a running joke about a disturbing relationship with his AI device Alexa (culminating in a great gag on the back cover) as well as him wrecking Seattle in his "Bezos-Bot"; essentially, it's Mecha-Bezos. It's sort of like a toddler having godlike influence on his world. A lot of the humor in the anthology is centered less on Van Deusen (usually the star and main target of his stories) and more on various celebrities. There's an uncomfortable, extended sequence where Van Deusen visits the home of Dave Matthews, who as it turns out (in this story, at least) is a coprophile and discusses this at length. Then there's a visit to an old Real World house, which has fallen into total savagery since the cameras left. It's a bit of low-hanging fruit for Van Deusen.

More amusing are "Undercover Grandpa" (exactly what it sounds like), which gets especially weird when the grandpa dies and leaves his grandson his head in a jar, which is then programmed to say all kinds of disturbing things. Then there's a strip where Van Deusen goes to the doctor, who winds up being a lab-coat wearing, stethoscope-wielding duck. It's not an anthropomorphic duck either--just a duck. It's total lunacy, as the duck goes wild and tries to attack Van Deusen. Overall, Van Deusen's best strips are the "autobio" strips where he portrays himself as an awful person, because they are both funnier and cut deeper, even when they stray into total fiction.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Minis: E. Lindner, J. Kieffer

The Cranklet's Chronicle #1, by Ellen Lindner. I've been enjoying Lindner's minis for close to twenty years now. While I've enjoyed her fiction, it's her autobio and reportage that I've always liked the best. That's because her authorial voice is witty and crisp, and her ability to draw people in stylish clothes is rare in comics. I was thus especially delighted to see the first issue of The Cranklet's Chronicle appear in the post, which is a minicomic series devoted to women in baseball. The titular "cranklet" is the feminized version of "crank", an obsolete term for a baseball fan. Lindner's always had an eye for style in any number of eras, so it's no surprise that she'd want to bring back an especially apt and fun description.

Using a light and dark blue wash, Lindner introduces this issue's main story by noting that in many ways, baseball is sexist. Yet she grew up a fan, just like her mom, and when her attention turned to the role of women in the game, she learned that the founder of her favorite team, the New York Mets, was one Joan Whitney Payson. The rest of the issue tells her story, as a woman born into wealth and obsessed with the New York Giants, just like her mom. Lindner really hits on the idea that sports (and baseball in particular) is largely a generational phenomenon, where one generation passes on the love of the game but also a lifetime of memories spent together enjoying the game. Later on, Payson bought shares of the Giants and witnessed the likes of Willie Mays making his famous over-the-shoulder catch in the World Series.

When several east coast teams got the idea to head west (as Lindner points out, this only happened because of post-war advances in air travel), the majority owner of the Giants turned down an offer from Payson to buy the team and keep it there and instead moved it to San Francisco. Lindner offered up a juicy fact that there was a move to start a new league to rival Major League Baseball, and Payson was encouraged to buy in. Before any of that came to pass, MLB headed off that potential crisis by offering New York a new expansion team and inviting Payson to be the owner. That team would be the Metropolitans, or Mets, and they actually played at the Polo Grounds (the Giants' old stadium) before they moved to Shea Stadium in Queens. What makes this story so fun in Lindner's hands is that she knows which anecdotes to play up, like Payson's fan superstitions amusing the crowd or manager Gil Hodges walking out of a room in anger after being mocked by a roomful of sportswriters. Lindner later cleverly tied Payson's devotion to the 1969 World Series champs to her own mom's who recalled sitting in a room with a bunch of other nurses in the clinching day game.

Lindner hits on all the emotional aspects of sports and how they intertwine with the game itself. Baseball games are long and the season is incredibly long. For a devoted fan, this creates a nice rhythm, a natural rise and fall that simultaneously makes the players a part of their daily life. The connection between different generations of fans and then the way in which the fans' overall excitement can energize a city--especially a city where everyone walks, like New York--are phenomena that go beyond the simplicity of a game and serve a function as a kind of shared belief system that everyone is part of. Lindner also includes a brief interview with (gasp!) a fan of the New York Yankees (the leviathan of baseball), asking about her fandom, the way it related to her fandom, etc. Lindner wrote this in such a way that non-sports fans could appreciate it, though it will obviously resonate more with fans of either baseball or sport in general.

Cabbagetown 1-3 and Drawing Thinking Of You Dancing, by Jason Kieffer. Jason Kieffer is at his best when he's writing and drawing about the down & out and dispossessed people of Toronto. I found myself disappointed in this minicomics version of that sort of story. Kieffer essentially indulges three different storytelling urges in each issue: the "real" origin of city-related symbology, tales of Native American gods like Coyote, and his more typical interactions with Toronto's homeless. The first bit, where he analyzes items like the statue in front of the police station or goes on about the Queen of England still being the real ruler of Canada, sound like typical conspiracy theory fodder. That there's Masonic imagery everywhere isn't exactly news, for example. The fact that he threw in a casual transphobic joke in the middle of one of his investigations certainly didn't add anything positive to these rants.

The Coyote stories he chose to tell were usually focused on sex and/or scatology, and that got old fairly quickly. The effect wasn't even shocking as much as it was juvenile. The stories that were focused elsewhere lacked cleverness, with every moment of the story being telegraphed from the very start. The best of his stories about locals was about "Ursula" in #2, which told her story with a degree of sensitivity and kindness that was in marked contrast with the far more aggressive "Jen" in #3. Kieffer positions himself as a fellow member of Toronto's underclass and positions himself on the sidewalk for "people-watching". The truth seems to be that he's more of a dabbler in that world than the real inhabitants of the underclass who are trying to cope (poorly) with mental illness and addiction, who lack that self-awareness that Kieffer possesses. As such, they are always filtered through Kieffer's own sense of safety and awareness. He doesn't mock his subjects, but they are very much "othered", even if it's done in a sympathetic manner. That said, that he engages with them at all is affirming their humanity in a way that most aren't willing to do.

The mini about dancing (co-credited to the dancer, Mairi Greig) is interesting in the way that an illustrated poem is interesting. It is an adornment entirely exterior to the original work of art itself. It is amusing and possibly interesting but unnecessary. In the case of this mini, it was interesting to see Kieffer try to capture the movements and sounds of a long dance routine, but the way he did it made him incapable of expressing what it is a dancer does with their body to create expression. It's similar to an illustrated poem vs comics-as-poetry; the first slaps an image on top of text, and there's no real two-way interplay. The second takes the rhythms of poetry and translates them (both textually and visually) into comics form, aiming for the effect of poetry rather than simply its form. Similarly, it is possible to draw comics-as-dance (Keren Katz does this), where the ways in which bodies are flattened and contorted as dancers are transformed into shapes on the page. This was an interesting experiment for Kieffer and Grieg that ultimately wound up being tedious in its repetitiveness.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Minis: A.Meuse, R.Scheer, T.Jones

You're Garbage Fired!, by Adam Meuse. This is a collection of "some post-election sketchbook pages" by the talented and funny Meuse, published by Birdcage Bottom Books. I believe this is the first time Meuse has been published by someone else, and it's certainly well-deserved. The drawings and strips here reflect the rage and despair felt by many in the wake of Donald Trump winning the presidency, and the mini is well-served by being in full-color. That makes the scatological joke of a soiled diaper strongly resembling the shape and color of Trump effective; it's not an especially smart take on Trump, but it certainly does reflect Meuse's visceral rage. His portraits of folks like Steve Bannon and Kelly Conaway have an almost undead feel to them: they are rotting human beings. Mike Pence bleeding from every pore is a genuinely unsettling image, as though he were an antichrist. Angry portraits of the president by his two young daughters and a final strip where he scrolls through the news of the day one last time and goes to bed, saying, "Ok, I sufficiently hate everything and everyone" cap the collection with the same kind of grim but bright humor. Meuse is an incredible caricaturist, but it's the way he captures the essential awfulness of each figure that's really impressive. The only artist doing something comparable is Warren Craghead, who draws grotesque caricatures of Trump and his lackeys every day.

Cats Of The White House and The Hanukkah Fire, 1992, by Rachel Scheer. The first mini was written by Danny Noonan and drawn by Scheer, and it's really an illustrated zine about presidential cats. It's interesting in the way it reveals a side of the presidents that's not widely known historically, even as "First Pets" command a great deal of attention from the press while their owners are in power. The stories about Abraham Lincoln being obsessed by his cats to the point where it annoyed his wife were amusing, as was the account of Teddy Roosevelt forbidding anyone on the White House staff from disturbing his cat at any time.

Scheer works in a stripped-down, cartoony tradition where spotting blacks and slightly exaggerated facial expressions do much of the narrative heavy lifting. That's especially true in the latter comic, a charming memory of a long-ago Hanukkah caught on film and brought back to life here with the use of spot color and photo collage. The incident in question was really an excuse for Scheer to think about her family history and the ways in which ethnic practices supersede religious ones. She notes that her grandfather was a Polish refugee who wound up living in a community in Shanghai, China, which I found fascinating. There was a smooth, easy transition to that family history to the incident in question, in which a home-made menorah catches fire and gets tossed in the sink. It's a memory that's representative of the ways in which Scheer and her family felt Jewish even if they had no religious connection to the faith at all. Here, the gesture of the family trying to go through the ceremony with stuff made by the kids is more important than the actual ceremony itself. Scheer has a strong command over her page design even as her drawings mostly stay in the functional range. Again, she's not trying to dazzle the reader with her draftsmanship; instead, she's trying to clearly tell a story, and she uses a variety of approaches to do so clearly.

22 Tapes, by Toby Jones. I was delighted to see this comic show up in the mail, as Jones has mostly been working on animation projects for the past several years. His Memory Foam minis were some of the most entertaining autobio comics I had ever read, so it was interesting to see him come back to it, albeit in a highly unusual fashion. The premise of the comic is that Jones got a bunch of Hi-8 tapes that he had made in his childhood digitized, and he had the idea of watching them one-by-one and improvise comics with regard to what he remembered and felt of the tapes. He was between 11 and 17 when he made these tapes, and the result was unearthing a lot of increasingly unpleasant memories of his life at that time.

Jones zeroes in on the fact that his younger self was obsessed with the idea of creating entertainment. Whether it was in the form of skits, crude animations or childlike weirdness, his younger self just wanted to be on camera. Jones is unsparing in his commentary on his younger self, but he is happy when he managed to collaborate and put together something that was half-decent. That was especially true of some of those early animations, a few of which even had things like B-stories and callbacks. The comics sometimes went on tangents to discuss the relationships he had with certain friends and why some of those friendships faded.

Eventually, Jones gets around to discussing why he was really doing this comic: after years of working as a professional animator to create a polished mainstream product, he wanted a chance to return to that essential urge to create something just for himself, without caring what anyone else thought of it. He revealed that at the time he was making the videos, he was being bullied in school and had a horrible home life. Those tapes were his only real escape at the time, as they gave him a chance to exercise total control of his environment. Jones gave himself that same kind of relief in doing this comic, only this time it was relief from the pressure of having his work scrutinized, edited and controlled. What's most interesting about this mix of still photos from films and Jones' own drawings is that Jones didn't consciously go into it knowing how emotional and exhausting reliving the past would be. At the same time, the way he wrote about these emotions was hilarious. This was an interesting experiment that bore some fascinating fruit.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Return of mini-Kus!: A.Diaz, P.Franz, F. Lobo, R.Muradov

Let's take a look at the latest from everyone's favorite Latvian comics publisher:

mini-Kus! #63: Nausea, by Abraham Diaz. This story by Mexican native Diaz is grotesque in every sense of the word. The way that Diaz writes about Mexico City is as though it is a single, decaying organism and the people in the story are simply malignant parasites eating away at it from within. There's a miserable convenience store clerk, a sleazy male and female couple, a couple of thugs looking to rob the store, and a cranky single dad just trying to dodge the city's dangers. Like a more lurid version of a Raymond Carver story, their separate narratives cross and have an effect on each other, usually for ill. Diaz's art features sickly color backgrounds, lumpy & cartoony figures that remind me a bit of Peter Bagge's work, made even dingier by a persistent & needling rain. The titular nausea refers to the irrelevance of the actions or intentions of any of the characters. The father makes dinner that seems to have killed him and his daughter by accident. With regard to the lovers, the man constantly imagines himself or his lover to be a rotting corpse, both during and after sex. The only characters left alive are the predatory robbers, who are still miserable and caught out in the rain. This is less a story than a look at a series of ugly wounds, but every page is vivid, riveting and grimly funny. Indeed, Diaz's point of view of all this is ugliness is as something absurd, not tragic.

mini-Kus! #64: Collection, by Pedro Franz. Inspired by a famous bookshop that collected ephemera from artists, this mini is a collection of memories. There's a memory of how a tooth got jagged, because when he drew he constantly put pressure on it. There's a list of being in a bookshop and pulling out a huge stack of great books and comics; instead of drawing the scene, he listed the books as though they were stacked one atop the other. Then there was a series, or almost a museum gallery really, of various physical scars from throughout his life. The action ranged from still lives to comic book sound effects, and the clear through-line is not just a certain carelessness in life, but rather a refusal to listen to platitudes regarding danger that were yammered at him. There's a stop at the bookshop (where the famous "other" in its name is crossed out and replaced by "comics") and finally a lingering look at a photograph from long ago of his father and his then-baby sister. Like everything else in the comic, Franz emphasizes the "thing"-ness of each object. The photo is especially because there's a huge water stain on it, but the image of his father and sister persists. The scars are permanent mementos on the museum of his body. The images are bold and striking, with deep, rich colors that emphasize the concepts that need strong visual representation.

mini-Kus! #65: Master Song, by Francisco Sousa Lobo. This is one of the oddest iterations of mini-Kus!, and that's saying something. It's told in rhyme, as the main character recites it in a sing-song fashion. The panels themselves are in a strict 2x2 grid on every page. Red and blue alternate as the dominant colors in the book, with the narrator (a nanny named Emily) dressed in red. The song is really a cry for a young woman who understood that she was a sub after reading (ugh) Fifty Shades of Grey, yet is unable to find a dominant partner. Then all of a sudden, she reveals how much she hates working for her family, who are Jewish ("their faith I despise"). There are vague allusions to Palestine but nothing more specific to her particular brand of anti-Semitism. A random sexual encounter is of course unsatisfying, because she's unable to convey her needs as a sub. When she talks about the torture of going to synagogue the next day and secretly dreaming of revenge as she blames her employers for Palestine's woes, the odd synergy becomes a little clearer. She is, in effect, torturing herself in all aspects of her life. She works for people she hates and has sex with men she has no interest in. She's a sub without agency of her own, and so inadvertently becomes her own master and doles out punishment to herself. The ouroboros on the back page is a sign that makes this arrangement clearer, as this is a rhyme and a song that will only repeat itself.

mini-Kus! #66: Resident Lover, by Roman Muradov. Well, this is a Roman Muradov comic, which means there will be clever uses of color, shape, line and perspective. There are times when his comics are on the twee side and perhaps too clever for their own sake, but that's certainly not true in this comic. I've found that Muradov's comics work best when they are shortest, and he hit on a series of concepts here that inspired wonder. This is a comic about connections, especially distant and tenuous ones. This is a story within a story, as the narrator (with his lover, and his ex-lover, and his ex-lover's lover) goes to a particular store and then the house owned by a particular pair of women who were the daughters of the owners of the store's founders. He tells a story of them mimicking each other's behavior every day and even sharing the same lover; balance was everything to these women who came to be called sisters.

That played out in the candles they lit atop the department store every night, which they watched to make sure they burned out in a balanced fashion. What is left unsaid at the end is that the narrator stomped on a bunch of the candles at random, and while he did so in no particular pattern, it was left unknown if he upset the balance. Much as the mentioned but unseen is his former lover's lover's lover is a person whose existence perpetuates this kind of infinite progression of connections going outward, the sisters sought to isolate their relationships inward, creating a balance that doesn't really exist in real life, one that's almost hermetically sealed. For them, the patterns of daily life mean something and must be obeyed; for the narrator, it is decoration: line and shape and color that fall to the side in comparison to the complexity and absurdity of human relationships. Muradov allows all this to play out in as straightforward a manner as I've ever seen him deliver in terms of narrative, and it served him well.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

D&Q: Anna Haifisch's Von Spatz

Anna Haifisch is tough to pin down. Her art clearly owes a lot to early twentieth century animation and cartooning, but it's impossible to really narrow it down beyond understanding that this is part of her aesthetic. Her ragged, cartoony line is simultaneously off-putting and yet impossible to look away from. That helps create the essential sensibility of her work, which uses deadpan and occasionally absurd humor as the engine that propels the characters and their emotional narrative. The plot supposes that Walt Disney did not die in the mid 1960s. Instead, he had a breakdown and went to recover at the eccentric Von Spatz Rehab Center in California. The center, run by a German immigrant family fleeing Nazi Germany, had some delightfully strange features.

Meant for artists (and cartoonists in particular), the center was notable for its huge penguin pool, its hot dog cart, and its art supply store. Therapy was conducted in a group setting by one of the key characters, a young hippie Von Spatz named Margarete. Disney found himself with great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and children's book illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Initially resenting their presence, the book follows this trio as they become friends and bond with each other. The story is told in short vignettes (Haifisch's go-to method), with an early one "The Exercise" doing a lot of story and character duty in a hilarious fashion, as each artist is challenged to do a story with three elements, and Disney's turns out to be the most dark and disturbing by far.

The story lopes and moseys at its own pace, following the odd rhythms of rehab life. The presence of the penguins cheers some of the patients up but annoys Disney. Haifisch cuts between Disney, Steinberg and Ungerer, each dealing with their own problems in terms of confidence and ability to deal with the outside world. There's a great strip titled "Prozac" that essentially shows how radically different each of their reactions to the drug is, with each man having thought balloons dominated entirely by colors and patterns, each one radically different. There's an exhibition important to the center that the artists manage to ruin, as well as a lot of attention paid to Margarete's private life. That includes an affair with someone else at the center and an exasperated phone call to her European mentor regarding her patients.

Haifisch's project to date has been about the life of the artist. She is well aware of how twee that kind of self-reflexivity can come across and is sensitive to pretension and egomania. At the same time, there is something inherently strange and absurd about being an artist for a living and depending on the tastes and whims of others who support you. Especially those who act as gatekeepers. This book focuses on monetarily successful artists who can do whatever they want but still find themselves struggling. Disney here represents not the theme-park building multimillionaire, but rather the soul of someone who is always doubting himself no matter what. Working oneself to death, no matter the profit, only works for a short period of time. This is a book that is fundamentally about self-care, about camaraderie, about love and about non-monetized self-expression. The boys ruin the exhibition precisely because they just don't care about art and money anymore, nor the hoops one must jump through in order to make it.

It's also about the importance of mental health and how quickly it can slip away, especially since creative types tend to be more susceptible to depression on average. Haifisch has a tremendous amount of affection for all the characters in this book, especially the caregiver Margarete, who is trying to figure things out on the fly. Haifisch intermingles sincerity with absurdity, kindness with sharp barbs, and wonder with weariness to create a kind of artist's Shangri-La. It's what the center represents in the course of the story as well as a kind of fantasy Haifisch no doubt wishes really existed, especially since she lists herself as a future patient in the endflaps.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

First Second: Penelope Bagieu's Brazen

French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu has carved out an interesting career doing biographical comics. Her book about Cass Elliott was exceedingly well-drawn, particularly since what Bagieu does best is exaggeration. A big personality like Elliott's was perfect for that kind of story, even if it felt like the book delivered its message in a heavy-handed way at times. Her new book, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World, sees Bagieu select subjects who had to defy society simply to achieve what they wanted. In this collection, Bagieu is able to create incredibly vivid biographical portrayals of historical figures using no more than five to eight pages. Even with the two page, bright portrayal of each figure in-between chapters, this is an extremely dense book that delivers a lot of information. That's a tribute to the sheer intensity of Bagieu's research, and as such, this isn't really a book that's mean to be read all at once. Indeed, in its original format, each entry appeared once a week. 

There is value, however, in reading it relatively quickly, because one can see the thematic through-line of the book appearing quite clearly. Bagieu went out of her way to tell the stories of women throughout history and all over the world. Freeing the book from a simple Eurocentric bent made the stories all the richer while making it clear that the kinds of challenges and gains that women have made tend to be similar no matter what the era. There are stories of women from Africa, Asia, and South America and the Middle East. It's not just women in their youth who are profiled, but also women whose primary impact came at a more advanced age. I'm happy that Bagieu also included Christine Jorgensen, the most famous trans woman in the world in the mid-twentieth century. Bagieu is also careful not to feature too many of the more obvious candidates. There's no Susan B. Anthony or Tina Turner, for example. No Joan of Arc, Cleopatra or Catherine the Great. Instead, we get Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo & Matamba (roughly modern Angola), who seized power in a system that did not allow for a queen and waged war against the Portuguese. We get Wu Zetian, the first and only Empress of China. Through sheer intelligence, guile and willpower, they navigated the minefield of the patriarchy to rule their countries. In Wu Zetian's case, she was especially concerned with improving the plight of the poor. 

Bagieu presents us with actors (Margaret Hamilton, Hedy Lamarr{who was also a brilliant inventor}), public servants (social worker Leymah Gbowee's story is amazing), artists (Tove Jansson), musicians (The Shaggs, Betty Davis, Sonita Alizadeh), scientists and physicians (Agnodice, Katia Krafft, Mae Jemison), revolutionaries (Las Mariposas, Therese Clerc, Naziq al-Abid) and more that's hard to categorize. Indeed, some of the most delightful entries included Giorgina Reid, who saved the Montauk Point lighthouse because of her innovative technique that fought off beach erosion. She had no engineering degree or special training, just remarkable intelligence, vision and persistence. Then there's Frances Glessner Lee, who overcame the frustration of a lifetime of being able to use her brain for something useful to inheriting money that funded a school of forensic medicine at Harvard. She created crime scene miniatures that were so detailed, down to the tiniest minutia, that they are still in use today. Even virtual simulations can't match them. 

These stories are not all breezy and fun. Not all of these women lived long lives, due to being killed, like Las Mariposas. There is a lot of blood and violence in these stories, and women are often the victims. The essence of what she hits on for each of these women is that they were aware of the ways in which the deck was stacked against them and figured out ways to beat the system, because their ideas were that important to them. These were women who wanted to express themselves and had no time for sexism (and in some cases, racism) to deter them as they boldly defied mores and even laws. Even The Shaggs, who recorded music because of their tyrannical father, created a sound that influenced a number of different musicians later on because of its unique qualities. The women in this book seized their own agency and definitively put the lie to the notion that women were in any way incapable of doing anything a man could. Even the women in the book who had support from the men in their lives still found obstacles placed in front of them by society's institutions, all of which were informed by patriarchal thinking. That so many of the women in the book are unfamiliar only goes to show how history is written and why.

Bagieu's line is delightful in the clear-line tradition, even when depicting violence and tragedy. Her use of color greatly aided her in such situations, as she was able to subtly shade a scene that touched on darker material. Though she mostly uses a variation on a nine-panel grid, she uses an open-panel format that allows the work to breathe a little, no matter how much detail she crams into a panel. These are text-heavy stories, and Bagieu struggles at times to balance word and image on the page. Thankfully, her line is so skillful and her use of color so tasteful, she's able to get away with it most of the time. It also helps that she unleashes these beautiful two-page drawings encapsulating each subject following each story, acting as a much-needed palate cleanser. Her character design is consistently clever and lively, using exaggeration to sell emotions and situations. This is a book that will appeal to its YA target audience but also keep the interest of adults as well. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Minis: Mastantuono, Steshenko

Screwed Up, by Konstantin Steshkenko (AdHouse Books). What do you get when you cross cringe humor with gross-out humor? You get this mini by Steshkenko, who uses a simplified line and character design as a way of reducing the visceral shock of the gross-out humor and amplifying the intensity of the social awkwardness in this comic. It takes place in a subway, as a clueless and clumsy guy named Jeremy is desperately trying to create sparks with a woman named Stephanie. After a long monologue where he declares his love for her in the most meandering way possible, he gets down on one knee to propose at precisely the same time she tells him that she's dating his former best friend. From there, the humor turns anxious as he fumbles the ring onto the tracks, finds it after rifling through garbage, and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that there's a train bearing down on him. That sets the stage for the second half of the comic, where Steshkenko keeps upping the stakes and grossing out the reader.

The genius of the comic is that the grossly visceral details are always less uncomfortable to the reader than the increasingly-cringeworthy actions of all three characters in the love triangle. even though the character work is simple, Steshkenko makes extensive use of background characters to provide both verisimilitude and then a kind of Greek chorus to react to the ensuing mayhem. There is a final, hilarious gag that is both over the top and entirely in keeping with the rest of the story. It's the sort of joke that would be a keeper in a rom-com in terms of establishing a relationship. Here, the joke simply elicits horrified laughs. At a deeper level, the character of Jimmy represents the earnest but clueless guy who is completely uninterested in the fact that this woman that he's declared his love to does not want him in any way, shape or form. The horrible fate he suffers is not so much justice as it is a heightening of his totally undeserved confidence and entitlement at a time when he should simply be screaming in pain. This is a sharply observed and smartly designed comic.     

The Guest House, by Jon Mastantuono. This is a dense and clearly deeply personal comic by Mastantuono about identity, mindfulness and desire. It is not presented as autobiography, though it clearly has autobiographical elements. That vagueness was important to the story, as there is a sequence where the reader is given access to the thoughts of a character other than the protagonist, and it's key to understanding the narrative. The narrator begins the comic by talking about a common practice recommended by many: to let in all feelings, desires and strange thoughts and not reject them. Over time, he noticed that doing this eventually eroded his self-worth, in part because he had never addressed the self-loathing he had felt as a bisexual kid in junior high school, inappropriately feeling up guys when playing basketball. One can absorb feelings and choose how to react in a given situation, but that becomes much harder when trauma is involved, and the sheer rejection he felt from so many was deeply traumatic.
The narrator joins a gay support group and meets Trent, who tells the group about feeling empty as a human being as a child and learning how to fill himself up with the interests and personalities of others to become cool. The narrator stops paying attention to him as he starts to fantasize about him, even as he also wonders what Trent thinks when he sees him. There's then a remarkable chapter about the buzz of desire with clever formal framing, like thoughts cut up into images like grinding gears the eye follows around the page or drawing a page of stars and talking about feeling their displacement. However, the one thing he knew how to do was build a "guest house" where he could pretend to be confident and full of life, and this made it easy for him to ask Trent out. There's an intense first date scene where the narrator reveals to Trent that he seriously dated a couple ("unicorning") for three years, and that's when we get to hear Trent's thoughts and trepidation about the narrator. Again, there's some emotionally resonant formal trickery going on here as the focus shifts from one person to another and then some word & thought balloons completely obliterate the other person's when the focus shifts.

The two characters are drawn and lettered using entirely different colors, which is not only an aid to differentiate them, but also represents a fundamental divide between them that can never be crossed. After they hook up, it ends badly, as it turns out Trent stole some items from the narrator after they hooked up. It's a jarring realization that's matched with some discordant drawings, as he comes to understand that the judgment he fears from others spurs him to judge others. The narrator suggests that it's time to learn how to negotiate encounters with others that are more than those grinding gears of desire and judgment, of using and being used, of trying to be soft instead of hard. Mastantuono really gets across the terror and thrill of having sex with someone new and then the later, horrible realization that occurs when it's clear you just don't fit with them. The interplay between self-doubt and self-loathing vs desire and the illusion of a solid self is at the heart of the comic with the possibility of kindness being so hard to comprehend make this a bracing but familiar story.