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.

No comments:

Post a Comment