Friday, March 27, 2020

The Minis Of Fifi Martinez

The best autobiographical cartoonists are willing to put it all out there, being honest about their pain and their lives and how they depict it on the page. Fifi Martinez goes the extra mile in her comics. Her intense dedication to depicting the rawness of her emotional state is palpable on the page. It's You, Beautiful And Sad (Diskette Press) is an account of a one-night-stand with a man she deliberately alienates after they sleep together, in order to avoid being dumped by him first. The raw ache she feels throughout is powerful. First, there's her worrying about being weird and awkward, begging herself to "act normal." When they have sex, it's a powerful, transcendent experience for her--so much so, that it's almost frightening. It's Martinez's cartooning that makes this so effective; the scribbles that veer into abstraction on some of the pages tell more of the story than the text does.
Silver Lake is a shorter comic that abstracts some personal details and takes away specifics. It's about a couple that finds ways to hurt each other but is still inexorably drawn to each other. Once again, the manic energy behind the scribbles pulses on every page. In particular, the way Martinez draws eyes as sunken voids expresses the sense of both connection and desperation in this comic. Too much damage has been done. I Hope You Have A Nice Day focuses more on mental illness and an internal monologue; she also dabbles with more of a traditional grid on some of the pages as a way of sectioning off both time and emotion. The comic is a little less immediate and intense as a result, and the drawings are more polished in the first half. In particular, it touches on the agony of being surrounded by so much beauty (and beautiful people) and feeling so horribly "sad and ugly inside." It's a feeling that warps perception, can induce anhedonia, and spur self-harm in a variety of different ways. Martinez tackles this head-on in her comics.
It Felt Like Nothing (2dCloud) repurposes a few pages from I Hope You Have A Nice Day and adds other material in a visually sophisticated way. Martinez throws the kitchen sink at the reader: sepia wash over cut-up images, deliberate erasure of text and image on the page (either with white-out or scribbling into child-like images), a double-exposure technique, some standard comics in a traditional grid, and other effects that get across that sense of not just a broken connection, but a sense of the impossibility of connection. The variety of approaches makes this her single most powerful work, as she keeps the reader off-balance while staying on-point with her themes. Every comic she does is visually sophisticated and honest to the point of pain.


Friday, March 20, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan's An Embarrassment Of Witches

Working with her writing partner Jenn Jordan (a medieval history scholar), Sophie Goldstein started her career drawing a webcomic titled Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell. It's a light-hearted, meandering strip about a modern world where every mythological creature and belief system is actually real. It's an enthusiastic, if unfocused, first work for both creators. Goldstein went on to win three Ignatz awards for The Oven and House Of Women. While those comics incorporated genre elements, their downbeat focus was in sharp relief to Jordan's cheery magical environments. That's true for virtually everything I've read of Goldstein in stories that focus on women, bodies, children and childbirth, and personal integrity. In most of these stories, the outcomes are grim at best and inevitably tragic at worse.

It's interesting to see certain hallmarks of her work, like long, severe faces and slightly grotesque figure design merged with the aesthetic and comedic sensibility of her new collaboration with Jordan, An Embarrassment Of Witches. (Top Shelf) While there's plenty of personal and family drama at work here that results in all sorts of awkwardness, all of the characters generally mean well. They make mistakes, harbor grudges, and take people for granted, but this is a cast that genuinely loves each other. That warmth paired with the harshness of Goldstein's designs works well, as Goldstein prevents the story and its characters from being overly cutesy.

The book takes place where magic is real and the subject of ecological and academic study. It focuses on two young women just graduating from college: Rory and Angela. Rory is set on traveling to Australia with her boyfriend to help him with dragon conversation. She's fun, bold, and energetic, but she's also flighty, aimless, and self-obsessed. Angela has a prestigious internship with Rory's mom, who is a famous professor who is an expert in cryptozoology. The plot is set into motion when Rory's boyfriend suggests they start seeing other people, and she runs screaming. Rory hides this from her mom while developing a crush on Angela's new roommate, but Angela discovers that working for Rory's very severe mother isn't what she expected.

Once that's set into motion, there are various betrayals, miscommunications, unrequited crushes, and long-held resentments that finally come to light. What Jordan does best is revealing every character to be human, especially Rory's parents. Rory had long resented her for divorcing her father, but she finds out in the course of the book that it was because he cheated on her. Rory learns that Angela resented her for being selfish and being a bad friend. Part of this plays out in Rory and Angela's familiars squabbling with each other.  Rory has an owl who's very much over her dramatics, while Angela has a bossy hedgehog who steamrolls over her in exactly the same way everyone else does. Everyone learns hard lessons about honesty, sticking up for yourself, and taking the time necessary to find out what they want to do.

The book works because Jordan and Goldstein focus on the characters instead of the background mythology. Also, those mythological and magical elements, like the familiars, prove important to both plot and character development. The minutia of magic is a smart substitute for the particulars of grad school, involving tons of prerequisites and tedious work, frequently with little chance of career success. There are smart thematic elements that are funny and tie the narrative together, like a magical paper fortune teller that not only works but also has a snarky sense of humor. Goldstein's visuals amplify the emotions of each character, from Rory's pleasantly bland features frequently erupting into tears to the softness of some of the character designs being a shorthand for passivity. The severity of Rory's overbearing, demanding mom is perfectly expressed with Goldstein's sharp, angular facial structure; she could have easily been a character in House Of Women.  

Jordan gives her characters a lot of room to make mistakes and say hurtful things, but no one (other than Rory's ex-boyfriend) is a bad person, per se. They are just all people who make bad decisions and then compound those bad decisions because it's hard to reverse course.  The reconciliations at the end of the book feel earned, precisely because they aren't neat or definitive. They take a lot of forgiveness and emotional labor on the part of all the characters involved, along with a willingness to question assumptions. This emotional vagueness makes it a perfect example of post-graduate malaise fiction, one where the creators don't let their characters get away with self-absorption.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Sage Persing's Searching For Brandon Teena

I somehow managed to overlook the excellent Searching For Brandon Teena when I was reviewing Sage Persing's comics last winter. This mini is perhaps the most heartfelt and focused of Persing's many comics about the trans experience. This is a raw, ugly, honest comic about a young trans person desperately looking for representation in media. Persing comes across Boys Don't Cry, which won Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar for portraying trans man Brandon Teena. There were no trans people on the cast or crew of the film, which is typical, but there was something about the simple concept of seeing the representation of a trans person onscreen, living their life. 
Indeed, one thing that Persing alludes to with regard to trans representation, and queer cinema and media in general, is the proliferation of art that represents queer and trans people as vessels of suffering. They are victims who aren't allowed to simply live their lives. They are punished by a narrow-minded, vindictive, brutal, and stupid culture. This is all true, to an extent, of course. But for a young person who is looking for examples of people living their truths instead of simply dying for them, it's enormously discouraging. That these stories are often created and acted out by straight/cis people only makes it more problematic.

At the same time, Persing notes that there were crumbs of details of Teena's life that they found that sustained them. Small details from his childhood, glowing stories from ex-girlfriends, and narratives about what Teena wanted to do with his life drove Persing to seek out more of this information. There is also audio of Teena giving an account of his sexual assault to a brutal, misgendering police officer. Persing notes that it's massively upsetting, even if being able to hear Teena's voice was important. Persing wonders if this grieving is a kind of love as they desperately try to draw some kind of conclusions and establish some kind of through-line. When they admit that they're not sure there is one, it's a devastating but honest evaluation of their own emotions and experiences.
This mini is about Persing trying to place themselves in a narrative continuum. It's also about Persing's slow understanding that there may be no overarching narrative, no feel-good moments that sum everything up. There is pain and frustration, and all Persing can do is record their own feelings as honestly and accurately as they can. That's what they do in this mini, with page after page of densely-rendered, slightly grotesque figures. There is no idealization here, no attempts at providing easy answers. There aren't any. There is the search for representation, and in that search, Persing is helping to establish that representation for others.   

Monday, March 16, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Jarad Greene's Scullion

This week, I'm going to do some reviews of recent work from students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies. I generally tend to do this in December, but with some recent work coming in, I thought I'd post it now rather than wait nearly a year.

First up is Jared Greene's debut YA graphic novel, Scullion. From his earliest comics at CCS, it was clear that Greene had all the necessary tools to become a highly successful YA cartoonist. The clarity of his line, the whimsical quality of his ideas, and his distinctive character design marked him as someone who knew what he was doing. He turned his senior year thesis into this first book for Oni Press, and he had the fortune of having Hazel Newlevant as one of his editors.

The plot of Scullion picks up on standard fairy-tale tropes and subverts them in fun ways. The story revolves around two scullions--dishwashers--in the royal kitchen as it prepares for the wedding of the warrior Riqa and her intended, the captain of the royal guards Chapp. The scullions, Darlis and Mae, are trying to find their purpose in life and are inspired by the noble deeds and best-selling advice book from Riqa. In a very amusing send-up of celebrity culture, her fame draws obsessive fan interest and trashy media coverage.

Greene skillfully maneuvers his characters to cause all kinds of confusion. In many ways, this is a story of mistaken identity causing comedy, which goes all the way back to Shakespeare (and earlier!). What makes this book stand out, apart from Greene's art, is the sly way he subverts gender and gender expectations. Riqa is a huge icon for both men and women, and everyone has read her book. Darlis, a teen boy, bears a resemblance to her, and these mistaken identities aren't a big deal besides causing trouble within the context of the plot. No one says a thing about a male resembling a female, nor should they--but it feels like a bold move in a YA book. There are various characters of color in prominent roles, as well as women--and it's simply the foundation of the book.

The book also satirizes exploitative capitalism, as greedy troll bandits concoct all sorts of money-making schemes. When they kidnap Darlis, who through a ridiculous series of coincidences winds up dressed like Riqa, they think they have someone they can hold for ransom. Throughout the book, Darlis, Mae, Riqa, and the missing Chapp all have their own clever and brave moments. Greene smoothly navigates them from one bit of peril to another, even if it's all light-hearted.

Greene uses pages with standard grids, but also splash pages, open-page layouts, overlapping panels, and other layout tricks that reflect the unpredictability of the plot. The end incorporates the characters finding the bravery and resolve to seek out their best selves as well as some clever ecological statements, noting that ambition without moral action is corrupt. There are hints of future conflicts for the characters, and while another book would be welcome, it was a genuine pleasure to read a YA book that wasn't obviously designed to be part one of a twelve-volume epic. Indeed, the relatively low stakes in this book were refreshing, focusing on the character-generated comedy and the mechanics of how they get from one situation to the next. Greene's own quirks as a cartoonist (he often portrays his characters leaning forward while in motion) mark Scullion very much as its own entity, rather than more of the same. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Minis: Michael Aushenker, Jenny Zervakis

Crows, by Jenny Zervakis. This was a zine that Zervakis produced for 2019's Zine Machine show. It's not a comic; instead, there are illustrations on the front and back cover of the Durham skyline and crows flying over it. This is a painfully difficult read, as it's about the slow dissolution of her marriage, yet her writing is intimate and full of wisdom. Zervakis adds the running element of associating her divorce with seeing crows. Though she's not superstitious, she wonders about this. Much of the zine is also dedicated to talking about the women of her family and their strength, and it's suggested that perhaps the crows are ancestors trying to pass on a message. The final lines, "They are neither villains nor ghosts. They are just birds, living their lives. I should be too." are powerful and worth pondering. Creating meaning in random events is a human thing to do, but obsessing on these details can create paralysis. Zervakis' story is a difficult one that emphasizes finding a way to mourn and move on; making this zine is clearly part of the process.

Professor Mrs. Miniver, by Michael Aushenker. A good rule of thumb for Michael Aushenker's comics: the more ludicrous the premise, the more entertaining the actual comic. And the three premises for Professor Mrs. Miniver are among his zaniest. The first imagines a third volume in the Mrs. Miniver film series (from 1942!), conflating the character's relationships with the actress who played her. Greer Garson, who played the feisty titular character, had an affair with the much younger actor who played her son. In Aushenker's version, she fakes her own death, goes to college, parties naked, and manipulates her "son's" love into committing an extremely minor crime. Then she goes off into the sunset with the Nazi she supposedly killed at the end of the first film. It's all total nonsense that's made even more hilariously lurid with his use of color.

"Lincoln Horse" asks the question: "What is Abraham Lincoln had been transformed into a centaur?" Well, he would have personally ended the civil war, been in threesomes, and gotten a new owner. Aushenker keeps this silliness to a tight five pages. His Unstoppable Rogues also get a story as McDonald's employees, and the expected chaos ensues. Tonally, Aushenker likes his images, colors, and action as loud as possible. This sometimes belies the cleverness of his craft, especially his verbal gags, but it also befits the overall silliness of his ideas. From premise to execution, every aspect of this comic is designed to make the reader asks "WTF?"

Friday, March 6, 2020

Whit Taylor's Fizzle #3

The third issue of Whit Taylor's story of twenty-something ennui, Fizzle, continues to follow its protagonist Claire as she tries to figure out her life. Fizzle is now being published by Neil Brideau's Radiator Comics, an outfit that's slowly making waves in Miami. Claire works in a tea shop with an overbearing, pompous owner. Her boyfriend is a stoner from a super-rich family. Her boss and her boyfriend represent extremes that Claire is repulsed by. Her boss takes her role as a sort of tea lifestyle expert quite seriously. She is insufferable as she carries her employees in her wake, demanding that they share her enthusiasm. Her boyfriend hates his family's trappings of wealth but has no interests or ambitions of his own. The events of Fizzle chronicle her reactions to these extremes.

In the first two issues, Claire happens upon an idea for her own business: popsicles made from real fruit, with unusual blends. It's all related to her fantasy of being on this entrepreneur reality show not unlike Shark Tank, where investors fund ideas that they like. The third issue takes ideas that were on a slow boil early on and makes them more prominent. In the first part of the comic, her boss holds a tea tasting with the author of a ridiculous self-help book that uses a life jacket as a poundingly obvious metaphor.

The middle of the book details how Claire met her boyfriend Andy in college; not surprisingly, it involved getting high. It's implied that things didn't ever get much deeper than that. There's a well-designed sequence where Claire listens to the self-help book, and it strikes a chord with her. She's not happy with Andy, she fantasizes about her co-worker, and she's desperate to feel passionate about something, anything.
She attends the birthday dinner of Andy's dad and takes a deep breath before interacting with his family. Taylor makes them not so much monstrous as banal, especially Andy's priggish brother Rich. Rich loves his father but also clearly loves being the favored son. Andy plays golf with his dad to appease him but doesn't understand how easily he slips in and out of this life of privilege. The only person who talks to Claire like a person is Andy's grandfather, who takes an interest in her study of fruit. The final scene in the book is her receiving a book on the subject from him.
Andy gets drunk at the party and Claire confronts him on him trying to distance himself from his brother, who is having a fourth child. As dull as Rich is, he knows what he wants: family and material success. When asked point-blank about what he wants, he doesn't know--and then asks her the same question. At this moment, it becomes crystal-clear that a mutual lack of ambition is all that's keeping them together, an orbit of laziness and apathy. It's not his fault that she's chosen to stay in this orbit, but it's clear that she has the capacity to break out of it if she wants to. Receiving the book in the mail not only means important information that she can use, but it also represents an important sense of affirmation. Someone believes in what she's doing and takes it seriously, and this hasn't happened before. We'll see how quickly the plot spins around this one scene. Through it all, Taylor's cartooning is becoming increasingly whimsical and fun to look at, aside from telling the story.