Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Grace Kroll's Tulpa

Grace Kroll's incendiary debut comic, Tulpa, grabs the reader by the throat on the first page and never lets go. A tulpa is a kind of manifestation or doppelganger, and Kroll is tormented by their own tulpa, as the cover itself reveals. Kroll is at war with themselves and their mental health, and the first story sees their tulpa whispering to them that they're damaged and should just die. In a dream, Kroll imagines being at the top of a tall building for a suicide attempt but they don't follow through. Waking brings no solace; indeed, Kroll thinks "If I was dead, I wouldn't have to feel anything." This is all expressed through a series of chiaroscuro drawings mixed with their blank self-caricature.

In a series of short vignettes, Kroll explores their depression, body image, fantasy life, sexual needs, and their own productivity as an artist. While many of the images and stories are disturbing, it's fascinating to see Kroll wrestle with the darkest impulses of their id and work through them. It's not so much therapy as it is an exorcism, exposing what they hate and fear about themself and the world in such a direct and visceral manner. In "Skin," for example, Kroll sits in front of a mirror and compulsively picks at the skin on their face as their tulpa berates them. The images become more and more graphic, including a detailed schematic of the skin's many layers, and Kroll can muster no defense at being referred to as stupid and disgusting.
In "Fantasy" and "Session," Kroll's tulpas seem to have a lot less ammunition. "Fantasy" is about their giving themselves permission to fantasize about whatever they want, no matter how lurid, because it's not hurting anyone. Their tulpa has to admit that it seems to be pretty satisfying. "Session" involves them being consensually tied up and flogged, and how freeing it feels. Their sexual tulpas (including a furry) try to make fun of them for all of this, but they're not having it; being in that submissive space is healing for them. "No Critique" features a wave of distractions and haters preventing them from drawing, but one of them (who redrew a page) actually provides a useful perspective. Who's the tulpa and who's the real Grace? Kroll deliberately blurs that line.

"Body Talk" is perhaps the roughest of all the strips, as this tulpa is so unrelentingly vicious to Kroll during a workout. It makes them push too hard, degrades their body as worthless, and pushes them to purge. The tulpa just wants Kroll's full attention, knowing that purging allows them to "feel a semblance of fucking control over your body." Of course, nothing ever really works, as the sight of their own body is too much for them to bear. Every aspect of this strip is painful and disturbing, and Kroll doesn't spare themselves at all. They are honest in every inch and every panel that overcoming these feelings isn't even on the menu; simply expressing them honestly is a powerful statement.

Kroll's mastery over body language adds to the emotional impact of these comics. A shorter comic, Dancers, is a gag story that uses the flattening, abstract forms of modern dance to tell the story of one lover asking another dancing lover to get them Milano cookies. There's a hilarious bit of dialogue along the way that leads to a funny conclusion, as the one thing that was unwanted occurs. Kroll has remarkable control over the page, whether it's disconcerting and grotesque naturalism or light-hearted cartoony work. This is an exciting debut.

Monday, February 24, 2020

November Garcia's Malarkey #4

At this stage of her career, November Garcia's one-woman anthology Malarkey is mostly comprised of reprints from other venues. Popula, Pen America, and The New Yorker featured some of the stories here, and it speaks to her versatility as a cartoonist in how she tailored each of them for publication while still retaining her essential irreverence. Of course, there are plenty of her own strips in Malakey #4, and they are very much in keeping with past work. For example, there's her obsession with the band FIDLAR, a loud and trashy rock band whose fans tended to be teens. Her obsession and crush on the lead singer are funny, but Garcia also notes that as a middle-aged woman, she's right on track for regressive behavior.

No one does self-deprecation funnier than Garcia. Take her story about being a young cartoonist and submitting a book to Fantagraphics, for example. Convinced of her own genius, she had the chutzpah to send it to her idol Peter Bagge (along with the rejection letter) and asked if the problem was the story or the art. His reply, "It is both," led to her thinking "With that, I officially entered adulthood." Garcia's willingness to deeply mine her memories of embarrassing events is what makes her so funny. A key element of that humor is her subtle mastery of pacing, Even in stories that are mostly dialogue and text captions, Garcia has a way of making them easy to absorb thanks to her understanding of how to use negative space.

"Travel Tips From A Tokyo Trip" was originally published in The New Yorker, and Garcia is much more reserved than usual. It's still a funny strip with a good punchline, but the tightness of the strip and punchline is different from her typical pleasant meanderings. Compare that to the next, wordless story. Garcia drops a nameless drug at the beach, listens to music, and rocks out. "Blind Faith," from Pen America, is about her religious upbringing and Catholic school days. Garcia smartly notes how omnipresent religious practices are when virtually everyone in the same country is brought up Catholic. A Filipina, Garcia shed her beliefs when she moved to America, but what was interesting was how lazy her own parents' practice was. Sure, they had to pray the rosary growing up, but it was ok to wait til after Melrose Place. No issue of Malarkey is complete without a funny story about Garcia's mom, and this issue featured a story about her mom's obsession with beauty regimens, culminating in something horrific called a "blood facial."

"Hole Number One" is a companion piece to "Blind Faith," as Garcia talks about trying to get laid as a teen and finding it hard to get privacy. Garcia talks about using confession as a way of getting rid of her sex-related guilt so this story takes the reader from under her bed to abandoned houses, a park, and finally a golf course. A neatly-trimmed green works every time. The final strip involves Garcia giving advice to her younger self about hard living, being cool, and how she will never lead a conventional life. Garcia's use of color throughout the comic adds a lot to each story; her use of blank space invites conventional, psychedelic, and decorative uses of color. Garcia's increasing confidence and command over her page makes all of this work some of the most entertaining autobio currently being published.