Monday, October 14, 2019

Top Shelf: Penny Nichols

Slice-of-life fiction is something I see a lot less of in comics these days, especially compared to its heyday in the 90s. A lot of it was perhaps thinly-veiled autobiography, only with a stronger narrative structure and/or more defined character arcs. Most fictional comics these days tend to be genre-inflected, even if the genre elements are in the background and the stories are heavily-character oriented. Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell are good examples of doing that at a high level. On the other hand, while MK Reed has done her share of genre work, she started her career working on slice-of-life books, and her big breakthrough was her love letter to libraries, Americus.

Her latest book, Penny Nichols, was written with frequent writing partner Greg "Clutch McBastard" Means and drawn by long-time minicomics stalwart Matt Wiegle. It's about a smart but aimless 26-year-old woman (the titular Penny Nichols) who is working a series of pointless temp jobs and going on the occasional horrible date. In reading it, this book is truly aimed at that mid-20s person who hasn't found their purpose in life. They don't have the ambition, ability, or interest to hook into the business world, but they've also faced a lifetime of discouragement in trying to do anything else. Their liberal arts degree seems pointless. They don't just want to hop on the marriage train and start having kids, but they don't know what they want.

In the case of Penny, she gets mixed up with a troupe of horror movie filmmakers who have plenty of vision and creativity, but they are missing the essential element of a single organizational brain. Reed and Means create a vibrant cast of horror geeks, over-acting theater guys, and dreamers who want a taste of something beyond their service or office jobs. Penny soon learns that much of the group, especially the two guys running Satan's Fingers Productions (or is it Killshot Films?) are long on ideas and short on actual follow-through. The spine of the narrative is built around making a horror film in time for a big indy horror-film event called Splatterfest.

Along the way, Reed & Means keep the focus on Penny and her life. That includes her adversarial relationship with her roommate, her dysfunctional relationship with her prim sister, and her own self-esteem as a person. The cover of the book is a neat summary of the narrative: Penny is there making directorial notes, adding make-up touches, holding a boom mic, assisting with blood for special effects, and then mopping up the whole thing. She's in blue while everything else is in yellow, a nice trick that focuses the reader's eye and makes them understand that the same person is in all of these roles. Penny helps write the script and do the storyboards, goes out and looks for costumes, scouts locations, and reads up on how to make a film. More to the point: she was encouraged to do this, and encouragement was all that she ever wanted and needed. She wanted to be part of something creative and to find a community that valued her for her creative instincts. Moreover, Penny Nichols hammers home one specific point: nothing you ever do will ever live up to your own ideal of what you wanted, so the most important thing to do is finish it.

Indeed, the final day of filming is one where Penny has to take over the most significant role: directing itself. The flaky director, whose anxiety always rose directly the closer he got to actually completing any project, didn't show up. Instead, Penny takes the reins and not only gets through it, she even manages to come to an understanding of sorts with her sister. Reed and Means keep the characterizations relatively simple but still allow each character to feel satisfied with themselves for their own contributions to the film. From the young special effects guy to the actress hungry for real structure, the crew manages to find workarounds for everything, both in terms of props, location, and even the story itself.

If all of this sounds like a metaphor for the comics community, that's because it is. Splatterfest itself is a love letter to events like SPX. Indeed, there's a time gap between the last day of filming and the convention, which opens with a young woman flagging down Penny and lavishing praise on the film. We learn that they didn't win the competition, but they did get a lot of attention and interest. Every artist and writer knows that feeling of someone coming up to you and telling them how important their work is to them. It's a sense of validation and belonging that was heretofore missing in the lives of so many. While that validation and camaraderie feels good and can be sustaining, Penny Nichols is firm in asserting the idea that it's the work itself that's most important.

Speaking of collaborations, Wiegle's cartoony, exaggerated style is ideal for a comic about making a horror movie. While a lot of his comics have dealt with fantasy or genre concepts, Wiegle at heart is a gag man. This is a book that has a lot of funny character moments, and Wiegle delivers a host of quirky, bizarre, and amusing character designs. Penny herself is gloriously frumpy, with hair piled on top of her head in somewhat haphazard fashion. Wiegle's varied line weights allow for a lot of precision character details as well as denser, more expressive lines when they film a bunch of the blood-splattering scenes. There is a sense of joy at the heart of this book, as the collaboration of the artist and writers reflects the enthusiasm of the cast of characters. Penny Nichols is about the joy of creation from concept to problem-solving to finished product, and it reflects how this shared passion can unite a disparate group of people in such an ebullient fashion. 

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