Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #18: Leise Hook and Kori Michele Handwerker

Bristlehead, The Surfer, and City Mouse And Country Mouse, by Leise Hook. Bristlehead is an interesting shot across the bow of a comic; it's just four pages but packs an enormous visual punch. Hook is a stylish cartoonist who makes extensive use of spotting blacks in her work. In this comic, we are introduced to a woman putting on makeup. Each page grows progressively stranger, as a "client" comes through who is there to get his hair brushed by hair, until a final transformation that is in turns horrific and mystifying.

The Surfer is Hook's Ed Emberley project, using basic, simple geometric figures to draw her figures. This is the story of an office worker who was drawn out by dolphins to seek the perfect wave, a quest that eventually took her away from her old life forever.  Hook took nicely to this style, while she used a dynamic page layout style that went between emphasizing big moments and pushing action along quickly. Hook simply has great cartooning chops, which working in this style tends to emphasize. Her panel-to-panel transitions are fluid, her characters interact well in space, and her use of gesture is key to understanding the story's emotional beats. City Mouse and Country Mouse is her take on the Aesop's Fables project, and here Hook makes great use of negative space and wonderfully funny animal character designs. Hook exaggerates the individual things that horrify the cousins about their respective urban and rural environments and uses all sorts of subtle visual cues to play that up. It's clear that Hook is a solid storyteller and has a strong visual style, so I'm curious to see just what kind of cartoonist she becomes.

Most of the time, when I'm reviewing work from CCS students, I'm reading material from artists who are just starting to find their voice. Most of them have at least some experience doing comics, but usually not at an extensive basis. When I read Kori Michele Handwerker's comics for this feature, I saw an artist who was in transition, trying to figure out what kind of cartoonist they wanted to be now. Handwerker's been doing popular comics, mostly on the web, since 2011. They've finished two webseries, edited an anthology and generally been extremely prolific. Artists generally go to CCS for two reasons: first, because they want to learn from the ground up how to do comics; and second, to get an MFA so they can teach. I can't speak to Handwerker's motives, but judging by their comics, I see an artist who doesn't quite know what they want to do next, and they're working that out by trying a bunch of different things.

Some of their comics are intensely personal and relate to their gender and sexual identity. Handwerker's Fuck You I'm Trans is a little howl of a mini, talking about how being trans is something that is defined by each individual, not anyone else. Handwerker did this zine for themselves as well as for others--giving everyone permission to be femme and nonbinary, or whatever they need to do. Each page is a little statement of purpose or power, done on a risograph with bright backgrounds. My Pronouns Are They/Them is a personal guide for others to follow regarding how Handwerker wishes to be called, and they note that others may have different approaches.

Most of the other comics here are personal, diary-style comics related to depression, political issues and quotidian observations. Snowpool features some interesting visual ideas, like a strip about visiting a friend of theirs that only features images of the environment around them. The strips about taking care of a loved one and waiting around in hospitals mine humor out of the tedium and stress of being in such environments. The strips about their first day of school at CCS was excellent, nailing the excitement, stress and awkwardness of the event in a funny way. The hourly comics here are interesting because they reveal their problematic sleeping habits, funny anecdotes from lectures, and other well-chosen bits of a day spent.

One thing I've noticed about Handwerker is that their comics have a greater impact when they emphasize visuals over text. The text-heavy pieces, while clearly expressing ideas and emotions that are important to them, don't work as well as their more visually-oriented pieces. Handwerker gets to the heart of their creative crisis in Face The Abyss, when they state "For me, comics is a perpetual identity crisis." That comes through in the way they write about and around mental illness, for example, but fall back on spelling out feelings more than working it out through their art. That changes a bit midway when they work out the process on the page, as their self-caricature morphs from hamster to bear to rabbit, to one wearing glasses, adding a word balloon and then piling on more details before turning to the idea of whether they have ever screamed. All of this was done directly to ink without penciling, and there's a raw expressiveness hear that doesn't necessarily appear in other of their similar strips.

So Much features more political work as well as more hourly comics day strips. This comic feels a little more visually fleshed-out, with the hourly comics in particular forming a more coherent narrative rather than a series of anecdotes. There's a great two-page spread reflecting their hairstyles over the years that shows off their excellent character design and use of gesture. There's a confidence here that was absent on some of the other pages, a confidence matched in "Things That Have Very Nearly Brought Me To Tears This Week". That's a series of three horizontal panels stretching across two pages. One involves their husband in a hospital bed, another is an angry and despairing observation in nature, and another imagines satellites falling in love with each other. Their more explicitly political comics are interesting because they go back to Handwerker's dilemma of just who they are and why they're an artist--if it's a worthwhile activity at all in this horrible world.

Finally, Ice Skaters Kissing features some recent work, including an excerpt from a genre story called "Fire Island", which is about a bar and the aliens who come visit it. In just a few pages, Handwerker establishes character, setting and even conflict in a way that feels natural and entirely connected to character. Their line is sharp and bold and the themes related to xenophobia are laid out in an organic fashion. This is Handwerker truly working in their element, in a way that wasn't evident in their more directly political work. The same is true for the two pages of "Ice Skaters Kissing", a title that sends up the beloved Yuri On Ice series but also allows them to work more in that style, using a lot more grayscale shading. Handwerker is obviously talented, and it will be interesting to see them figure out what they want to do in their thesis year at CCS.

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