Friday, August 31, 2018

Retrofit: Tara Booth's How To Be Alive

Tara Booth's uniquely and deliberately crude, quotidian and hilarious comics have always impressed me with both their sincerity and their willingness to go over the top at a moment's notice. In her longest collection of comics yet, How To Be Alive (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics), Booth really managed to stretch out a bit in her comics that look less like drawings and more like painted constructions cut out and slapped on top of a page. It's this aesthetic that works so well for her, because any movement on these pages feels weird, exaggerated and yet somehow still agreeable. The character Booth inhabits on the page is goofy, gross, sweet and absurd, and she always lets the reader in on the finest details of her everyday life.

The comic is entirely silent, which makes sense because Booth is such an extraordinary visual storyteller. Her self-caricature is weird and sometimes off-putting because the way she crudely draws her eyes and mouth is in distinct contrast to her loving renderings of complex patterns on clothes and backgrounds. Indeed, the way she draws herself naked has a similar quality of crude absurdity; she has a strong understanding of the ridiculousness of being embodied while totally embracing it as she shares this experience with the reader. The first image of the book features Booth (or her stand-in; I will refer to her as "Booth" for reasons of convenience) sitting down and reading a guide called "How 2 Write A Fucking Book". It's a serious statement of purpose as he clearly wanted to stretch herself but it's also a way to prick the balloon of pretentiousness.

Booth uses an open-page format for her mostly one-page strips. This provides a fluid reading experience, both as individual images but also as a collective punchlines. From the first two pages which simply feature her put on lovingly-rendered and painted clothes to the next strip, where she tapes up her breasts in order to elevate them a bit. Even though the way she draws her eyes and mouth are deliberately simple, it doesn't mean that they're not expressive; indeed, in this strip, her narrowed eyes and frown carry the storytelling day.

Much of the comic centers around her being alone finding ways to engage herself while dealing with many emotions and mental states. There's a page where she lines up all of her medications and forces a cheesy grin while crying. That use of an open format is especially revealing when she draws herself flitting from place to place in her apartment throughout the day, trying to keep busy. There's a sort of divine and colorful clutter in her apartment that makes these strips stand out from those with just white backgrounds: Booth wants to be understood as part of the context clues her surroundings evoke, as well as the way her apartment makes her feel secure. As she loosens up in the book, Booth draws more gag strips like getting sunburned on the beach, turning her apartment into a disaster prepper's stronghold, and feeling coins fall out of her thighs after going bottomless  in her apartment. That's a hilarious and embarrassing image, but Booth has a way of killing shame in her work and making it just one more quotidian detail to absorb and laugh at.

Booth's take on sex and her own sexuality is as funny as the rest of the book. There's a strip where she squats over a mirror, solemnly considering her own genitalia. Another strip finds her on her period, as she angrily eats an entire bag of cheetos, getting her mouth stained in orange powder while working on a journal called "Feelings". Later, she experiences an equal amount of stress when she's extremely late for her period and swallows a whole packet of birth control pills. Booth switches from silly (pulling out every sock from her dresser, unable to find a match) to funny (buying a bunch of pointless stuff online while high) to the deeply poignant and absurd (constructing her own bedmate boyfriend out of a pool noodle, paper plate and discarded clothes). As I've noted before, the essential sweetness in these strips ties into her willingness to confront issues that are hidden or couched in terms of shame. On the saddest and happiness of strips, Booth forgives and celebrates herself. She allows herself to be human and to be alive, and it's that self-affirmation that acknowledges the title and shines on every scrawled but carefully-assembled page.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Glynnis Fawkes' Alle Ego

Glynnis Fawkes mini Alle Ego is the middle chapter of a longer work about becoming an archeological illlustrator, but it's also a story about personal agency. As the book begins, Fawkes (at the time, a recent college grad) is on her way to Athens, pondering her relationship with her fiance'. The trip was a working one at the American School, but Fawkes' wandering eye (and feet) led her off on the first of her many side adventures when she arrived. She quickly met Svetlana, a Russian woman whose strong personality and fierce independence combined with great empathy and perceptiveness made her a close friend right away. In many respects, Svet served as her own personal Greek chorus, causing Fawkes to rethink a number of her choices without directly trying to influence her.

The comic is a cross between absolutely academic rigor with regard to places, people and dates and a whimsically fluid series of fantasy sequences where Fawkes sees herself in the past. The key sequence is one where Fawkes tells Svet that her fiance' Ingo "has a hold on me." In the fantasy, she's a Minoan in occupied Knossos and her fiance' is a conquering Mycenean. The Mycenean way was not just to conquer an area, but to utterly dominate them culturally, starting with their iconography on the pottery and sculptures. The pictorial, ornate Minoan drawings were out, and the abstract Mycenean methods were in. This is all historically true, but it also served as an extended metaphor for a man who basically told Fawkes what to do, how to paint, what to eat...everything. It isn't stated, but this behavior is clearly abusive and controlling. 

Now there are dominance and submission relationships where the dom dictates a number of things, but that's done within the specific and understood rules of the relationship as a mutual and loving exchange, not as a one-sided way of controlling your partner's every move. Fawkes, who is clearly an intelligent and independent woman, hints about this to some degree when she notes that in her fantasy "I don't mind Mycenean domination!..In fact, it's what I've been waiting for my whole life. Clear rules about how things are done. No more self-doubt. And he...cares about me." Intentional or not, this is very much the language of a sub, of someone who longs to enjoy that paradoxical sense of freedom felt when surrendering to a trusted other. It's the agency of choosing to give that control to others. 

That sense of agency pervades the comic, as Fawkes is paradoxically a rebel who doesn't want to go along with all of the touristy stuff and stereotypical nights out with the other Americans at the bars, but at the same fantasizes about that sense of total, willing surrender. She relates a story of when she was younger and in Italy, having drunk something particularly potent. She went outside for air and the numerous lecherous men in Italy immediately started hitting on her and one started making out with her...but she found herself totally drawn into the experience before a friend came along and rescued her from a potentially dangerous fate. Fawkes once again returns to mythology and speaks longingly of the idea of being a Maenad, one of the followers of Dionysus, whom in the context of ritual are completely uninhibited in terms of raving, running, drinking (and presumably) fucking. As she explained this to Svet, she wondered which part of her was going to be with her fiance'--the Maenad, or the "sane and decent" Nymph, to which Svet replied "Aren't you always both?" 

It's a fascinating and open-ended exchange, as Fawkes makes herself quite vulnerable here in discussing the ways in which her desires contradicted her rational self and fiercely independent academic identity. Svet's reply implies that until Fawkes was able to reconcile all of her different selves, she wouldn't truly be happy. The very title of the book can mean both "good friend" and "other self". Svet fills the bill for both of these roles, but Fawkes being honest about her desires and sense of feeling split also refers to her various other selves. This comic (and chapter) feels like a kind of crucible of self, where Fawkes did a lot of the hard work on her discovery quest but didn't quite put it all together yet. I'll be curious to see how these themes conclude when she finishes her larger project. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Two Minis From Adam Meuse

Adam Meuse is slowly but surely starting to get more attention for his funny, clever and often poignant mini-comics. His recent comic Ball Of Shit has an obviously startlingly scatological title, but the comic itself is actually quite thoughtful and philosophical. It takes the literal action of a man rolling a ball of shit on a beach and pondering what he's doing and connects it to Egyptian mythology and their obsession with scarab beetles. The scarab rolls balls of its dung and their creation god similarly rolled the sun across the sky. On a more literal basis, scarab dung contains scarab eggs, which hatch and eat the dung before emerging. Meuse then ties this back around to the man rolling the ball on the beach, as the hope is to clean the environment and for new life to emerge.

It's a remarkably visceral little comic, printed on thick card stock with approximately 3" x 3" dimensions. It alternates image and text on facing pages and creates a rhythm that doesn't flinch from talking about shit and waste in general as things that must be confronted, understood and even embraced. Meuse doesn't overreach here in terms of his philosophical territory; indeed, the simplicity of his drawing style and the comic's title are designed to keep pretension to a minimum. That said, this fits into his larger project of connecting our most basic belief systems with the biological factors that underlie them, even if those factors are not always taken into account. In other words, Meuse posits that there is no such thing as abstract thought, and that those who think otherwise are kidding themselves. This is not to say that conceptual beauty and thought don't exist, but rather that their agents are always and inevitably embodied.

Faults is a collection of loosely-connected gag strips. Some of them aren't even gags, like his account of the Karl ńĆapek play Rossum's Universal Robots, which is less about robots as machines than as workers that were exploited because it was assumed they had no souls. Meuse uses an angry red for this color. Immediately following that was a gag regarding the price ballerinas have to pay for dancing in terms of disfigured feet, but in this case her foot was that of a reptile and the guy in the strip says, "'re a lizard person", with the last panel featuring a long, forked tongue flick into view. There's a strip about fried potatoes which is funny but also reveals a great deal of thought that went into it. There are some dark strips about red blood cells complaining about traffic until it lightens a bit, only to reveal a person who's slit their wrists in the final panel. There's also a truly grisly Dudley Do-Right parody where Nell Fenwick doesn't quite escape from being tied to a log. 

Though a nimble draftsman, Meuse's experiments with color always fascinate me. He uses them for geological purposes in drawing different kinds of faults (i.e., connected to earthquakes), until the last panel reverts to the more familiar meaning of the word "fault". This mini is a good introduction to his work overall, because it's hard to pin him down. He does strips that depend on old cultural references, whimsical studies about food, autobiographical observations and memories, strips featuring insects, animals and microbes, completely silly nonsense and comics-as-poetry. Meuse is simultaneously ambitious and probing as a cartoonist and yet completely unpretentious. He's willing to experiment formally but never for the mere sake of experimentation. Meuse looks at concepts and images with the same lens, as he's fastidious with his drawings qua drawings yet never goes completely abstract. Indeed, exploring the shape of things and thinking about familiar shapes in new, funny ways goes to the heart of his project as an artist. His greatest skill is his ability to understand what formal approach works best with what idea, be it color, shape, line weight or use of negative space. The result is one where concept and drawing complement each other well. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

First Second: Drew Weing's Margo Maloo 2: The Monster Mall

I was happy to see Drew Weing's Margo Maloo series get a second volume with First Second; not every good book published there has seen sequels. The high concept for the book was established after the first volume: a pre-teen blogger and "kids' rights activist" named Charles moves to Echo City and soon learns that there's a monster in his ancient building. He is connected to "monster mediator" Margo Maloo, who helps him with his problem and then decides to take him on as an intern, in exchange for his willingness to share information with kids and only other kids. That set the status quo for solving monster-related problems as well as discovering the hidden monster society of Echo City.

The second volume starts to hint at the past of Margo herself, a rare South Asian protagonist in kids lit (Interestingly enough, the book credits Weing's wife and occasional collaborator Eleanor Davis with co-creating her). The reader gets to see her home, a gloomy mansion slightly reminiscent of Dr. Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum. We meet her Uncle Vikram, a beloved relative who is slipping into dementia. We see her massive case files. At the end of the book, we get a hint at how she started doing this: one or both of her parents acted as monster mediators, and she apparently took over the job when they died or disappeared. Her tough exterior covers up anxiety about keeping up the Code that separates monsters from humans. As closed off as she is, Charles is an open book: he quickly warms to the idea of the world of monsters (sometimes disobeying Margo when she tells him to stay back), is game for Margo telling him to do nearly anything, and is warm and friendly with his friend Kevin and the ogre who threatened to eat him in an misunderstanding in the first book. He's earnest and inquisitive, only wanting to empower kids.

The two stories in this edition involve a creature in a shiny new suburban home playing pranks on two children. This effectively served to set up a new supporting character, an imp named Fyo. This speaks to one of Weing's strengths: organically using sturdy plot devices and story tropes to slowly expand the cast of a wide-ranging series. The second story involves a group of teen vampires hiding out in an abandoned mall having to deal with a bunch of humans invading their space. In both stories, Weing introduces an amusing plot swerve (in the latter, the humans turn out to be a goth band looking to shoot a video--and the vampires themselves have a fledgling band of their own), but he also carefully lays down some storytelling pipe for the future. Weing doesn't go too far into the metaphorical aspects of the story, but they're there if you look for them regarding a group having to keep itself hidden and secret in order to maintain its safety.

The book is formatted landscape style, which suits Weing's roots in webcomics as well as his interest in classic comic strips. As I've noted before, if this was fifty years ago, Weing would be a syndicated cartoonist with a daily strip. Most of the comic was done by hand, and it shows in the spontaneity of the drawings combined with his usual skill as a draftsman. Character design in particular is his biggest strength; Charles looks like a comic book character--the big eyes, ballcap, collared short-sleeve shirt, slightly tubby shape. So does Margo: the sharply feathered hair, the billowing coat, the graceful body language and movements. Charles is all curves and Margo is all angles, and they look great interacting with each other. The use of color feels natural and basic; Weing isn't looking to overwhelm the page with color and is much more interested in the figures on his page. For a book about monsters, Weing has a way of keeping things fairly low-key while still dropping bread crumbs of more menacing events down the line.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

NoBrow: Hilda and the Hidden People

Hilda And The Hidden People is not a new book by series creator Luke Pearson. It is instead an illustrated novelization of the upcoming Netflix series based on his original series. It basically mashes together Hilda and the Troll and Hilda and the Midnight Giant into one bigger story. The adaptation was written by Stephen Davies and illustrated by Seaerra Miller. I know that NoBrow owns the media rights to Hilda, which undoubtedly covered things like novelizations. Pearson was an important part of the cartoon show from what I understand, so I imagine this was just another way for NoBrow to publicize and profit from the original material.

The best way to describe the book is "competent". So much of the Hilda series was dependent on Pearson's vivid visual imagination and long series of silent panels that it was going to be an uphill battle to adapt it as a novel, but Davies did a solid job. It all managed to hang together, and Davies brought some extra humor to characters like the Wood Man with his descriptions. The illustrations are perfunctory and not much else, and they don't have the vivid quality of Pearson's originals.

Happily, I have an on-hand test audience for books like this: my nine-year-old daughter Pen. She was already crazy for the individual Hilda books. In fact, these books are what truly hooked her on reading. She keeps them in her room now and often wakes up in order to read them. She is beyond excited for the upcoming cartoon. So I read a chapter a night to her from the book, and while she certainly enjoyed it, it hasn't quite stuck the way that actual comics have. She hasn't asked me to re-read it in the way she has with certain comics, nor has she looked at it again herself. In other words: this book does its job but no more than that.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Kilgore: M.S. Harkness' Tinderella

For M.S. Harkness, it's all about the angles. She begins her first book, Tinderella, about dating using the infamous Tinder phone app about an encounter in a gym where she eyes a hot guy like a predator, her eyes squinting into laser focus and corners of her mouth curling up to expose her teeth. It's a look of pure, deranged lust that depicts a face drawn in a hardened and jagged manner--not softly focused. The next scene sees her fucking a guy on a running tanning bed, hilariously making only half of her body slightly tan for a few days. In this story, Harkness is a college student who is devoted to her time in the classroom as well as the gym, but she wants something between random gym sex and a devoted relationship that takes up a lot of time. So she reactivates her Tinder account, an app that specifically is aimed at enabling hook-ups.

The arc of this book is interesting. It starts from the most anonymous sex scene possible (we know nothing about her at the beginning) and transitions into a hilarious series of depictions of the kind of sleazebags one finds on a dating app. Harkness makes it clear that while she may be demanding in the kind of guy she wants (cut, full beard, fully employed), she slowly starts to reveal her vulnerability as the book proceeds and she opens up to the reader and those around her. That juxtaposition between Harkness' flinty, sarcastic defense mechanisms and her later vulnerability and loneliness is telling. The fact that there is no easy remedy to this makes the book all the more devastating.

The trail of weirdos and perverts who dog her on Tinder is already funny, but Harkness makes them funnier by depicting the men as ghosts and even fish. When she meets someone semi-sane and had a night date with him, it seems as though she's found what she's looking for. Despite a reasonably nice date and hot sex (depicted in ways both graphic and hilarious), he eventually ghosted her after he offered to help her move. Everything seemed fine even then, but he simply stopped talking to her. That's when Harkness starts heaping bad luck on her character, like getting pink eye and finding herself alone on Christmas Eve.     

That led to the bad decision of succumbing to the seductive powers of the man she nicknamed "Night Call", who only ever called her up for random sex. This is a masterful yet totally ridiculous bit of storytelling, as they watch an old Wrestlemania event that involved a battle between company owner Vince McMahon and his son Shane. With that blaring in the background, Night Call asked about her dad, leading to a horrifying flashback where her mother was trying to change their last names away from their father's who was convicted for molesting children. Suddenly vulnerable, she reached out for emotional support & empathy and got met with a dude who went to sleep ten minutes after he had an orgasm. Things get even more devastating when she goes home, finds herself locked out, finds a way in and defiantly masturbates as she yells about not needing anyone. The final panel where her face is twisted in both agony and ecstasy is particularly telling. At the same time, Harkness mixes her pain with well-timed gags, like her vibrator having a rip cord like a chainsaw.

Harkness bookends things nicely with another lunch with her brother and a knowing look from that same guy at the gym she had fucked before. This time around, the final scene sees her phone flying across the room and breaking. She didn't find love or something even resembling it. She revealed that her emotional needs are far deeper than she wanted to admit. At the same time, she did get over a huge emotional trigger point in Christmas and went back to her regular routine. Tossing that phone meant she wasn't going to waste time chasing something that simply wasn't in the cards for her at that point in time. Harkness made it clear that it was her only inner conflict regarding what she needed (intimacy and connection without commitment) that made it so difficult to find someone, yet she also made it clear that the odds were against her in general with regard to finding someone that she liked. It was a surrender to this reality, one that she made clear wasn't going to change anytime soon. It's a downbeat but not depressing ending that simply acknowledged the way things had to be, but it was still jarring after the series of laughs throughout the book. Harkness shows that whatever solace one takes in being alone also brings about pain, while being with someone can lead to huge compromises and heartbreak. That she approaches both scenarios with a sharply developed wit and an aggressive style of art makes this book a great success.                                                                             

Monday, August 6, 2018

Minis From Daniel Spottswood

Daniel Spottswood uses a Raymond Carver-style overlapping series of individual narratives that meet at certain key points in his minicomics. There's a mix of slow-burn narrative but also a certain repetitive series of gags surrounding his characters, as the reader always expects certain things when a particular character is spotlighted. Visually, Spottswood uses a cute, simple style that emphasizes one or two features for each of his characters. He also puts in sly references to Marvel comics and other pop culture, like the cover of Disquietville Showcase #1 being a reference to an old series of Marvel covers during one month. Mostly, Spottswood gives the reader a set of slice-of-life narratives that start to become familiar and welcome fairly quickly. His ability to get to the essence of a character allows the reader to understand them thoroughly and look forward to what they might say or do next, especially as they interact with other characters.

For example, in Disquietville Tales #1, we're introduced to Owen and Patrick, a father-son duo who each act problematically in their own way, yet show each other unconditional love. There's Patrick, the artist, who is followed around by the silent ghost of his ex-girlfriend, presented on the page as just a series of dashes. Glen's a nerd who prizes getting a rare toy instead of the winter coat he badly needs. In the middle of the comic, it folds out for a tale of gathering spot "Pablo's Diner", where a number of these narratives intersect or give the reader a taste of what's to come later. It's intricate and overwhelming, but Spottswood is careful to bring the reader along gradually in and out of these narratives.

My favorite character in the book is Margie, the anxious and put-upon waitress who's always showing up late, fibbing to her boyfriend as a result of her forgetfulness and constantly anxious about her inability to focus on what she really wants to do in life. She's the embodiment of ambition undercut by anxiety-driven procrastination. Her design, with hairbows and short pig-tails, really fits her cute exterior that belies that mixture of worry and hedonism.

Disquietville Showcase Featuring Doug #1 is all about a particular misanthrope who works in the convenience store and is friends with Glen. Some people are born misanthropes, but in the case of the permanently unshaven Doug, his hatred of the world was created by lazy co-workers who took advantage of his good nature and team spirit. It didn't take long for him to take his revenge on them through never leaving the job and making them miserable. There's a centerfold feature about that history and his horrible coworkers, one of whom calls him a "faggot". There's a surprising sense of ease with which Spottswood uses homophobic language, but it's always either said by an obviously awful person or else it's actually corrected by another character.

Unstuck is a series of presumably autobiographical, single-page images that are memories (like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) that are "unstuck" from time. From being introduced to his baby brother to remembering an especially amazing Christmas gift to losing his job to a particular sexual encounter to meeting a future girlfriend for the first time, each image is powerful on its own. Spottswood's gift here is conveying a great deal of information in a single panel with a minimum of dialogue. The reader knows that they're jumping back and forth in time, and we see the same images of important people at different times. Spottswood's understanding of the complexity of emotion and memory, especially with regard to family, is hard to explain and understand, as an image of his father hitting him and a later image of him praying that his father doesn't die illustrates. The use of blue wash adds just enough of a touch to illustrate how the images are linked together, giving a sense of being slightly faded and flickering, like an old TV set. Spottswood's comics take advantage of his invitingly cute character design and allow him to inject a number of adult themes without ever losing track of their appealing, welcoming quality.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rent Emergency

Personal update: I retired from my job of 29 years in April, not entirely willingly. Thankfully, I've had the support of my Patreon to help offset the lack of regular income, as I've become a fulltime freelance writer. Today is payout today for Patreon, but my largest individual donor's ($200) card was declined today. My rent is due today, and I was depending on this to help pay my rent. If any readers who care to donate something to help off set this, I would greatly appreciate this--and I apologize for the inconvenience...

Best Life: King-Cat #78

John Porcellino keeps rolling on with his King-Cat Comics and Stories, and this issue has a lightness to it that's in line with recent issues. The beautiful cover is Porcellino's take on the unknown artist of the Flammarion wood engraving, drawing with a level of detail unusual for this comic. It's a "cover version" that's pure joy, both in terms of the original depiction of the atmosphere as well as the joy of drawing that comes through in his version. That joy is evident throughout the issue, as Porcellino in this stage of his career is as much a naturalist as he is a cartoonist, a modern-day Henry David Thoreau in terms of nature's importance to him. It's not all meditation and poetic observations, though as Porcellino takes delight in writing about his pets and the general ridiculousness of the human body.

Indeed, being embodied and thoroughly embracing that reality seem directly related to Porcellino's study of Zen Buddhism. There's a brief poem that opens up the issue, and anyone who's ever heard Porcellino do a reading of his work can hear the slightly somber, wistful tone of his voice as the words appear on the page. Later on, he revealed the "The Making Of" that poem, wherein he was sitting on the toilet, thinking about an image from his past. Hilariously, he yelled out to his girlfriend that he had written a poem on the toilet, and she replied "Are you going to share it with the class?". His cat Big Boy was in there with him, and his blinking as he read it meant that he approved. There is a sense of connection in this otherwise amusing strip that's indicative of the issue's overall tone.

Porcellino is always sincere in his observations. It's just that sometimes he's sincerely silly, like when he dropped a bunch of corny jokes as part of his illustrated Nature Notes. There's another making of strip, this time of another cat, Michi. In the original strip, Porcellino says to her, "You look like a possum". The cat replies, "Good, because I want to look like a possum", which is a very Zen and cat-like thing to say. The making of strip reveals Porcellino's imagination as he saw her eat. There's alsoa a goofy drawing of him, half-asleep, talking to his dogs as he wake up to feed them.

Picking up again on that theme of the joy of drawing, this issue is heavy with his nature illustrations. There's drawings of vegetation, birds and an elaborate series of drawings about the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly as part of a story he wrote about trying to breed them in his back yard. Porcellino, as always, embraces and loves the natural word but isn't separate from the concerns of the greater world, as in one strip about his dogs he pauses to pray for the salvation of the world. Furthering that idea of connection is his letters column, which was slightly dialed back in length but still furthered his idea of connecting with his readers and friends, and connecting them to each other on his letters page. There's a letter from Jeff Zenick, for example, and a long letter from raconteur Eduardo Bak Garcia, along with drawings from Jenny Zervakis and Megan Kelso.

The key story in this issue was its final one, "Lost And Found In The Woods". It's a classic Porcellino walking story, this time a slow hike in the woods where he comes across a random guy and birds, and reminisces about past times he had been through the same area. He writes poetic observations and above all else is present both in his observations and his memories. As a result, the reader is too. Indeed, while this is very a journal of his observations, this issue also feels like an open invitation to come and sit on the porch with him for a while and just listen to nature. Ending the issue with a single-page Zen master gag just recapitulates the experience of the issue itself: self-aware, funny and keenly observant.