Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #20: Anna Sellheim and Matthew New

Art Model, by Mathew New. This webcomic is a fascinating mix of media in an autobio context. Using the cartoonish style he's best known for, New discusses his career as a nude art model, telling a story both about the process of the experience as well as the way he relates it to his feelings about his own body. New really spills some ink here, talking about a lifetime of negative body image that was only compounded when the only thing he liked (his thinness) started to manifest as an eating disorder. The story is interspersed with different friends of his and their drawings/paintings of him, done in a myriad of styles. New talks about how becoming an art model both required and helped him gain self-confidence. The essential point he makes is that the things one might hate most about themselves are the things that are most interesting to draw, which is a fascinating way of turning self-hatred into not just utility, but the potential for art.

Mindfulness and meditation are often discussed as important therapeutic tools, and New discusses how the reality of being a model means long periods of time where you have to find ways to do nothing but sit or stand there. That means being alone with one's own thoughts and learning how to be still with one's own naked body in that space. New also discusses some of the smaller steps that allowed him to take this big step to become comfortable in his own skin, the thought he puts into particular poses and how it might help artists, and other related information. Being an artist who's worked with live models also instructed his approach and allows him to understand both sides of the equation. That's why the many different artists whose takes on him he reproduced here are so important, because it's active proof of how he was able to inspire each of them to draw something interesting. It's not just the form an artist is drawing, but also a way of approaching a different visual problem and figuring out ways to solve it. It's an active way for artists to develop new ways of thinking, even if their actual work is abstract, cartoonish or otherwise not directly related to figure drawing. New's own hard-won sense of self-validation allowed him to gain further validation in the way his job inspires others.

Moments and various short stories by Anna Sellheim. Sellheim quickly became one of my favorite CCS cartoonists on the strength of the rawness of her work. Her autobio material in particular is no-holds-barred with regard to her own feelings and experiences, and I love the jagged, jarring quality of her line and her self-caricature. Sellheim shared a number of her stories from anthologies. First off are stories from a few volumes of the Square City Comics anthology, which she helped start. "The Best Laid Plans", in volume 1, is a work of slice-of-life fiction. It's a romance story, about a bartender who refuses to date her customers falling for a woman who's part of a group of friends who are regulars at the bar. What makes the story work so well is the way Sellheim makes the reader feel the desperation of Ivy the bartender in keeping her life on track as a recovering addict and how hard she clings to this rigidity. In the end, when her life plan goes off track, she realizes that losing control of this rigidity can be a good thing. Sellheim keeps the grid and the art simple, playing up her use of gesture and characters relating in space. This does everything to sell the emotion on the page.

"Expanding My Horizons" in volume 2 is an autobio story that focuses on her newfound love of superhero comics. There's an almost frantic energy in virtually everything Sellheim does or thinks about, and this history of her relationship with comics is no different. Starting with manga as a ten year old, segueing into art comics in high school and finally trying to find something more lighthearted after the death of her father, she started to become interested in some superhero work. The comic explains what she liked and didn't like and why. Two things stand out here: first, the grotesque quality of her art (her self-caricature here is intentionally self-deprecating) and the sheer importance of her pursuit. Comics matter to her as a way of experiencing the world and focusing her attention and emotions, and it was obvious that finding the right titles at the right time was the most profound of pursuits.

Moments is a profound departure for Sellheim. This mini features her working in color, using a four-color grid to not just depict quiet, quotidian moments in the lives of ordinary people, but to show small but profound changes in expression. In the examples above, we see a person end a phone call, pause and put their head up to their temple. Sellheim here goes after the small moments and the beats between moments, as the pose here went from contemplative to despondent. The scene with the woman on the subway is even subtler, as she's so absorbed in her book that she barely notices the world going by around her. Sellheim here uses color to reinforce line and push the reader's attention to the figure. Color framed that, considering that most of her figures themselves are not colored, drawing the reader to the line art. For an artist who usually depends so heavily on dialogue, it was an interesting and useful exercise.

The same is true for her entry in Square City Comics volume 4, "Rame". That's a word that means "chaotic and joyful", and it's entirely silent. It's about a woman attending a house party/concert. She's timid at first as she negotiates the chaos of so many people and their intense energy, including the unwelcome event of someone flirting with her. There's a panic attack as a result, which leads to her fleeing to another room, but the sheer, raw energy of the band not only helps with that, it encourages her to get right up front and mosh. The character design reminds me a little of Liz Suburbia here; there were points where it seemed like Sellheim struggled a bit in coming up with a large number of different character types, but her tight focus on the main character helped with that problem.

Finally, there are two autobio comics in Sellheim's more typical style, though the second one uses regular figures instead of her stripped-down image. One was in a comics newspaper called Magic Bullet, and it's a funny strip that makes great use of its full-page layout by using a great deal of negative space. It's about her trying to meditate for the first time, with her caricature mostly being white space juxtaposed against the gray scale shading containing every negative thought imaginable about herself. The punchline is both funny and bracing, as the last thing she's achieved is a "new sense of calm" after dealing with those relentless feelings. The second is a strip about how hard depression hit her, to the point where she didn't feel like she was living her life until the age of 25. It gets at the heart of depression: the mental pain that comes with it, and the desire for the pain to just go away. The jagged quality of her line once again serves to give the comic a certain uncomfortable quality, which is a hallmark of her comics. More than any other cartoonist I can think of, Sellheim is figuring out what she wants to do with comics in parallel with what she wants to be as a person. The struggles she feels seem to be working in concert with each other in terms of both life and art, as do the solutions. That she chooses to share both with her readers is our privilege.

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