Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Top Shelf: Carolyn Nowak's Girl Town

Carolyn Nowak's first collection of short stories, Girl Town, points to an artist whose comics operate on a number of levels. First and foremost, she's writing stories about women and women's relationships to each other in particular. There are crushes, there are partnerships, there are romances, there are friendships and there are people who are emotional supports for each other. There is also conflict, jealousy and fear. Nowak has a confident, inviting line that invites the reader in with its warmth and wit. Her narratives are light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with a certain playfulness at work in each story. Nowak makes her work seem lighthearted and even breezy on the surface, but the reality is that her work is emotionally and intellectually dense.

Take the collection's title. It's the title of the first story, of course, but it also encompasses the other stories as well: her book is an environment entirely devoted to the stories of women and girls. The cover image is an homage to the 1896 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out Of Her Well Armed With A Whip To Chastise Mankind, only the figure here is Betsy from "Girl Town". Betsy is very much a force of nature in that story, but what is she chastising mankind about? I would say that it's the one common theme in every story: trauma.

How each of the women deals with trauma, or rather, how most of them don't actively process their trauma, forms the underpinning of each emotional narrative. "Girl Town" is about a group of women who are kicked out of astronaut school because they are too beautiful and a group of weird women who are their next-door neighbors and putative antagonists. Each story also has an absurd or fantastical premise as a kind of humorous smokescreen for the darker events and emotions that lie underneath. There's a character in the story who loses an arm for unspecified reasons, a trauma whose origin is never explored. The story's narrator never really goes into detail regarding how being tossed out of astronaut school made her feel. That trauma is wrapped up in the narrator humiliating Betsy by fat-shaming her, despite her attraction to her. It's something she doesn't specifically respond to; instead, her friend gets revenge by taking a comfort object. Every move here is a passive-aggressive one, attacking unspoken vulnerabilities and traumas. At the end, the conflicts are revealed to be artificial, allowing for moments of affection and intimacy. 

In "Radishes", a story with a fantasy setting, teen friends Beth and Kelly skip school in order to go to the town's market. Body image is another theme Nowak addresses, from Betsy on the cover in a crop-top shirt to Beth's clear insecurity with her body a part of her overall shyness. Kelly is thin and gregarious. The story is a series of funny anecdotes that reveal how each of them care for each other emotionally. In this story, Beth's trauma is hinted at but not directly stated, but Nowak uses a clever device to get at a crucial moment of healing. The girls are eating magical fruit: some of it causes them to levitate and some of it causes hair to disappear. The titular radishes create a magical, mute double whose only ambition is to hug you. For Kelly, accepting this kind of self-love wasn't difficult. When Beth hugged her double, there was a profound moment of sadness as she could only apologize over and over to herself. At the same time, it was a moment of catharsis that Kelly tried to laugh off as she left with her friend. Once again, the brightness of the story's colors, the cheerful nature of the market, and Nowak's polished and expressive character designs mask all of this until the moment of truth, making that moment all the more powerful. 

"Diana's Electric Tongue" focuses on the titular character's "companion robot", an intelligent model designed for friendship as well as sex. Diana is getting over a bad break-up with a famous actor/scientist, and she uses the robot Harbor as a way of combating her loneliness. The narrative follows the fumbling, sweet awkwardness of their interactions as Harbor is able to figure out Diana's needs, even composing a poem for her. With every bit of sweetness, however, there's a barb, and the last line of the poem is "I will be with her until she doesn't want me anymore." Harbor has no agency or free will of his own; he wouldn't be there unless Diana paid for him. He wouldn't be there if she hadn't paid for him, in precisely the same way being with a sex worker or a therapist buys you their time and attention. 

The reality is that Harbor is really a therapeutic device for Diana, whose titular electric tongue was installed when she was in a horrible accident. That accident, and the requisite needs she had afterward, are what caused the break-up. Her celebrity boyfriend could only keep her in his life insofar as he didn't need to do any labor, emotional or otherwise. The story's title refers to the tongue, not the robot, because it is that physical and emotional trauma that drives every decision of Diana. She downplays it throughout the story, even playing up how cool her new tongue is until she reveals that it doesn't work very well with regard to taste. Both physical and emotional traumas were debilitating, and her relationship with Harbor allowed her to talk out her feelings and heal. Nowak drew a parallel between Diana's relationship with Blue, the celebrity, and with Harbor. Diana didn't feel like Blue's equal at any time, especially with regard to her agency within the relationship. Similarly, Harbor had no agency with Diana, something that clearly made her uncomfortable at times. She treated him as well as she could, but as sweet as the story is, Nowak made it clear that this wasn't actual love. That said, Blue is portrayed as kind of an awful person, one whose own short attention span and sheer whims could destroy lives. Truth emerges to indirectly chastise him.

"The Big Burning House" is a masterpiece of narrative complexity in the way it incorporates social media culture and its technological aesthetic. It's also a hilarious parody of that culture, as two young women start a podcast about an obscure movie that's nevertheless gained a cult following because it's impossible to find, the force of personality of its director, and the multiple endings that were filmed. What the story was really about was the kind of symbiotic, protective friendship that blossoms between the two into a collaborative, creative project and sense of identity. The story gets at a root trauma and how her friend protected her, creating a long-lasting bond through a piece of culture that mirrors some of their own lives. Interestingly, Nowak alternates between traumas incurred during adulthood vs traumas suffered during childhood in her stories. 

"Please Sleep Over" is an interesting mix of the two, as one of the characters recalls some childhood trauma but is also dealing with a divorce. She spends time at her parents' old house with her new girlfriend trying to process their judgment as well as the bewildering state she's in being divorced. There's a wacky neighbor who comes over uninvited who they later see pouring out her heart during karaoke. It's a reminder that you never know what someone else has been through. The story culminates in a dream where she is looking for her girlfriend and/or her ex-husband in the house, finding her girlfriend hiding in the bathroom. When her frightened girlfriend says that there's someone else in there with them, the main character looks blankly in the mirror and says, "I can see her." That's the last panel of the last story of the book. The "someone else" is her past self that she clearly fears but comes to terms with at the end. The truth emerges here not to chastise, but to shed light and provide comfort. 

In nearly every story, Nowak provides one or more hilarious segues that do nothing to advance the story but do everything to make the reader understand why the people in question are close. Laughter binds us, and the jokes told or situations negotiated show the reader why the women in question are close. Indeed, each story hints at the ways in which trauma can be isolating but provides the reader with a counterexample as to why it's important to reach out anyway. Each woman doesn't let her trauma from preventing her from acting; indeed, at the point we meet them, they've already reached out to others in order to help effect their own change. In Girl Town, Nowak creates a world of bold women who have already made a decision to change their fates; the reader is there to help them see things through.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Youth In Decline: Lauren Weinstein's Frontier #17

This week on High-Low, I'm going to talk about three of the best books of the year. We'll begin with Frontier #17: Mother's Walk, by Lauren Weinstein. Weinstein has long been a favorite of mine, thanks in part to what can be perceived as a lack of any kind of filter. She has a frequently raunchy, vulgar sense of humor that is mixed with a healthy dollop of absurdism. Her autobiographical work finds her exposing things about her past and present with no hesitation whatsoever. Her mixture of painting, scribbles and cartooning gives her work a unique look. Her comics about her marriage and children are raw and open, omitting most details related to conflict while keeping the emotional content and context of that conflict. There are more memoirs from a woman's perspective these days than ever before, but the way Weinstein found a way to be intellectually present for the events of this comic was astonishing.

This comic is the birthing story of her second child with her husband Tim. Weinstein was devoted to the idea of recording the experience before it faded from memory, and her willingness to spill ink (and paint) in every panel on every page made me feel privileged as a reader. It read like she was taking the entire reading public into her confidence, telling them secrets and trusting them with them. The comic is in equal parts beautiful, harrowing, funny, and absurd. Her scrawled pencils feel like they're being quickly scribbled on the page as though I was watching her try to tell this story as quickly as she could, before it all faded away.

What ultimately makes the story so effective is Weinstein's ability to detach herself from the narrative enough to make it coherent. Her sensibilities as a storyteller couldn't help but form a narrative around the experience and shape it into something that flowed in a way that made sense. This is also Weinstein's presence as someone churning over their own story, offering herself commentary and reflection. She's the type who mulls over everything, but the effect here is useful and steadying when compared to the chaos of the visual presentation. While there is some detachment, she turns that critical eye on the events and feelings as they happened and held very little back. She pulls away and pulls the reader in at the same time.

The baby's due date had passed but her parents were there visiting, and there's a hilarious sequence where she sends them back home so that she and Tim could have sex in an effort to induce labor. There's an astounding two-page sequence where they are both reaching orgasm accompanied by six floating, circular panels showing a close-up of ejaculation on one side and "the cosmic door of life and death" opening on the other. It's Weinstein's fascination with the recapitulation of larger cosmic mysteries by way of the mystery of sex (or as Elvis Costello would say, the "Mystery Dance"). It's the convergence of psychedelic transcendence with intimate physicality, and this is the heart of her work. The tiniest details of life recapitulate the most glorious mysteries. The most absurd daily events represent existential meaninglessness. As above, so below.

Weinstein then rewinds to the decision whether or not to have another baby and the time that went by while considering it, until she unintentionally got pregnant. Weinstein's willingness to share her emotions by way of showing them in panels rather than talking about them abstractly is another thing that gave the comic such an intimate feel. For example, she talks about about a long walk with her husband helping to clear the air between the two, but she also provides a couple of snippets of dialogue that reinforced this point. Speaking of which, there's no more effusive character in the book than her older daughter Ramona. Her sheer delight in knowing that she would have a sibling is fascinating when compared to her mother and grandmother's joyful embrace of life. Weinstein's mother is a political activist; Weinstein herself is a prolific artist and writer; and Ramona's saying "Now I will have responsibilities! And that will make me not lonely!" is a fascinating recapitulation of both her mother and grandmother. For Weinstein, an only child, giving her daughter this experience was not only important to her, but she revealed it was interesting as something to observe while it was happening, since she didn't experience it herself.

The birth experience as Weinstein described it was fascinating--inbetween and out of time, where breathing and waves of pain intermingled with musings on god. Weinstein notes that "if god exists, god is a creator and a destroyer". She's on the verge of needing an epidural when she talks to Ramona on the phone, and that allows her to let go. There's a merging of the mystical and the scatological as she imagines life about to be born while needing to take a shit (a part of childbirth that doesn't tend to wind up being highlighted). There are so many unforgettable drawings here. There's the rough and intense drawing of happiness on Weinstein's face as she holds her baby for the first time--her eyes and mouth just black strokes of pencil. There's the brief, touching moment of Tim holding the baby and giving her a kiss before he leaves to go take care of the dog and bring over Ramona. There's the simple grin of baby Sylvia. Best of all is the drawing of Ramona holding her sister, a beatific image that Weinstein refers to as "the best moment of my life". Ramona holding her sister saying, "My prayers have been answered" was unforgettable: a moment of pure, innocent joy and caring.

There's a lot of other stuff at work here, including talking about the life and death of their dog, to whom Ramona had grown close. There's the very different experience of Weinstein's friend Rami, who did not receive the same kind of support she did. There are small gestures and expressions, like the simply-drawn smile on Ramona's face walking out of the hospital. The shifting color scheme takes the reader on different phases of the experience. While Weinstein does create a story here, I never felt emotionally manipulated as a reader. It's the difference between art and artifice, as Weinstein's commitment to being present with her fears and dreams in the moment was a constant on every page, anchoring its flights of fancy with almost painfully visceral images.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Rotopol: Rita Fürstenau's In Winter

Germany's Rotopol strikes again with another beautiful comic/art object, with Rita Fürstenau's comic In Winter. It's a fable of sorts, rendered in a stark gray wash on sturdy cream paper. There's a dark grittiness to this winter tale that's about cold hearts and bitter reactions. The story is also a loop that's all about cycles and events coming around again and again. Fürstenau's line is gorgeous and stark as she depicts a beautiful hawk and a poor, starving cat. The cat is taken by Death, who pities her, and turns her into a beautiful owl. The hawk falls in love with the owl, who tolerates the attention until one night she claws out his eyes and leaves him. The wind became the lonely owl's companion, but it was relentlessly insistent and drained her. Finally, she came upon a cat in the forest and her heart melted, reminding her of the friendship that she had needed in the first place.

This is a book about  perpetuating the cycle of abuse. The hawk is cruel to the cat, who becomes cruel to the hawk when transformed into an owl. That cruelty leads others to shun the owl. Becoming friends with the wind is an elegant metaphor for falling in love with an idea, of adoring ephemera instead of substance. It may be exhilarating for a while, but it is draining instead of sustaining. There's no give and take, no opportunity for mercy or grace. There's just the wind and acceleration. Fürstenau makes frequent use of visual metanyms in the story, as the feather takes the place of the hawk, Death is represented by the inky void, an empty nest stands in for the owl that appears later, and tracks stand in place of the new cat and the owl. This is her way of establishing the elusive and ephemeral qualities of intimacy; we can't quite grasp it in the moment and can only remember flashes of it afterward.

That's further established by the way she arranged her figures on the page. They face away from each other when they even do appear on the page, until the very end when the owl allows herself to be vulnerable to the new cat she meets. It takes place in winter because it's the season of death, when every animal is at their most vulnerable but also in the greatest need of help. Death is everywhere, but it's not a malevolent force. It's simply part of the natural cycle of things, but even Death is merciful here, embracing the poor cat completely and transforming her. It accepts the cat , visually absorbing and transforming it through that mercy and intimacy. It isn't until almost complete ego loss for the cat/owl that she can finally allow herself to become vulnerable again, seeing herself in the cat and allowing the cat to see her. If patterns and cycles repeat in this comic, Fürstenau argues that we will always have opportunities to change and break cycles as well as succumb to that pressure.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Minis: Josh Pettinger's Goiter #3

Josh Pettinger is an interesting new talent, working in a variation on the kind of flat, Golden Age style that Dan Clowes made a career out of. The third issue of his series, Goiter, explores some of the same ground as issue #2: misunderstandings, doomed relationships, weird twists of fate and a sense of existential helplessness. He uses a coloring technique that makes the pages look a little bleached and faded, as though this was an old, random issue of some fifties comic that somehow made it into the reader's hands.

The story follows a depressed and aimless young waitress named Sally "celebrating" her thirtieth birthday. As she was walking home, out popped a floating head in the sky named Joe Murphy, who claimed to be her boyfriend. It was a gag worthy of a Michael Kupperman comic, but Pettinger rooted it in science-fiction. Murphy was pulled into the future by a desperate American army in a parallel universe that was losing World War II to act as trench fodder. When captured by the Germans, his fellow prisoners managed to duplicate the dimensional displacement tech and send the appearance of his head into the past.

His purpose: to romance Sally, of course. The reader is treated to four pages of entirely straight-faced yet hilarious pages of romance comics. Then reality comes crashing in, Joe is pulled back into the future, and Sally is left bereft. The twists at the end are worthy of an EC Comic (a clear model of sorts), and yet as Pettinger reveals at the end, the weirdness of this issue was based on real-life events. He's a server at a high-class restaurant where people spend more on meals than he makes in a week. He moved to a new place in search of new meaning, met a new person, and has health problems that he clearly works through in the struggles of Joe. It's fascinating to see him work though this using classic comic book tropes: mad science, war comics, weird science, and montage-style romance segments. What's most interesting about it is that even though the comics's underpinnings are obvious, it is not in the slightest an ironic read. It's not parody or pastiche. Despite the modern sensibilities, the story is as deadly serious as a Golden Age or EC comic, and that is key to its success. Warping his personal problems into familiar tropes was an interesting way of amplifying the intensity of his feelings in a manner that was both absurd and sincere.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Minis: November Garcia

November Garcia made one of her periodic journeys to the US from the Philippines, which meant that another issue of her grab-bag minicomics series Malarkey (#3) made its way to my mailbox. Garcia's confidence grows from issue to issue, and her use of spot color here enhanced the storytelling significantly. Garcia's use of color was not so much decorative as it was for storytelling clarity, as the colors helped lead the eye across the page. Garcia's comics are autobiographical, but there's no telling if she's going to go with a current observation, a dip into childhood, a tale about "My Weepy Ex", or hijinx from her family (and especially her mom).

Garcia is a humorist, first and foremost. When she does a four-panel, single-page story, it's almost always a sign that the fourth panel is going to have a punchline. That said, Garcia isn't afraid to "spill some ink" as a memoirist; that is, she makes herself vulnerable to the audience and provides intimate, personal details about her life. Her comics are funny because life is funny and frequently nonsensical, and she has a knack for distilling these moments. The greater precision of her draftsmanship shows in emphasizing certain images for comedic effect. For example, in a two-page story detailing her difficulties with smoking pot, there's a close-up panel of her bloodshot eyes as she realizes everyone she loves will someday die. There's a rubbery quality to her character work that's reminiscent of Peter Bagge at times, down to the heavy hatching.

That said, her character design (with emphasis on the eyes above all else) and lettering bears her own unique stamp. They're meant to be a little loose and cartoonish, but the reality is that she's careful on each page to have rock-solid storytelling and clearly-defined background jokes. Garcia is especially adept at drawing herself as a child, which can be a difficult task for some. She gets the body language and gestures that children make and just how weird they can be, which she emphasizes in a strip about her own strange behavior as a kid. Garcia is also as much a fan of comics as she is a professional, and there's a funny two page strip about a friend who tells her his animation friends think her work is too whiny. The result is two tight nine-panel grids worth of one-upmanship, as Garcia defends her indie comic turf and rejects the critique because the people making it don't know what they're talking about. The strip is especially funny because Garcia points out her own foibles and hypocrisies along the way. Her ability to do short strips and longer narratives with sensitivity, humor and even the occasional bit of scatology is indicative of her versatility and points to a wide and varied career path.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Minis: Eli "Hob" Bishop's Busybody

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

Youth In Decline: Lovers Only #2

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

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

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

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

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

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