Friday, July 30, 2021

Reilly Hadden's Fellas

One of Reilly Hadden's long-term projects as an artist is examining masculinity. Even in Astral Birth Canal, which featured fantasy scenarios, one of the central relationships was that of a father and his son. In his Krikkit comics, the titular character gently explores his environment and his relationships. In his new mini Fellas, he explores masculinity and brotherly love between two professional wrestlers. The comic's dialogue is taken verbatim from a video clip taken after a huge match.



The wrestlers in question are Sheamus, the Celtic Warrior, and Cesaro, the Swiss Superman. In storyline, they were once bitter enemies who were forced to become a tag team called The Bar ("We don't set the bar...we are the Bar!") who became one of the WWE's greatest tag teams. At a certain point, the team was split up. It's important to note that in storyline, they were ruthless heels (bad guys); in essence, the epitome of toxic masculinity. 

The comic picks up after Sheamus lost to his former best friend Drew McIntyre in a fantastic, hard-hitting match. Wrestling is a hybrid of combat sports, improv, theater, burlesque, and a variety of other carny arts, designed to create a powerful emotional response through a visceral narrative. In the comic, Sheamus sees his old friend Cesaro after this nearly overwhelming experience with this match and breaks down crying. In the video, it was a beautiful moment of vulnerability and intimacy between two friends. Hadden heightens this emotion through an art style that emphasizes the sheer, sweaty physicality of the two men. 

The magic of wrestling is that kayfabe (keeping true to the narrative) is a marvelous confluence of honest feelings and an exaggerated story. Sheamus and Cesaro knew they were being filmed, but the constancy of the performance (in and out of the ring) simply fell away in that moment. The camera no longer mattered. It was two friends who understood what had just happened on a deep level that outsiders couldn't really comprehend. It was two friends who had shared months on the road who were put on different shows, sharing that moment and expressing their love and grief related to their separation. It's a moment of incredible tenderness, of words being expressed through tears and Cesaro's words of praise for the match meaning everything. Their characters are caricatures,expressed loudly and simply enough so that a fan in the book row can understand what's going on. However, the men, the performers are real. It's the thrill and the stress and anxiety of being a particular kind of performer, and only a man who had become your chosen family truly understanding. Hadden captures all of this beautifully, with the sheer size and muscular physique of the two men emphasizing, rather than belying, their physical and emotional intimacy. If these two powerhouses can allow themselves this kind of emotional openness, why can't all men relate to each other in this way?

Friday, July 9, 2021

Whit Taylor's Montana Diary

I've been following Whit Taylor's career for quite a long time. With Montana Diary (Silver Sprocket), she's published her finest work to date. Taylor has always been a thoughtful and intelligent writer, but there's a remarkable sense of confidence not just in the way she wrote about the frequently-horrific background of this memoir about a vacation to Montana with her husband, but in the way she drew it. It's exciting to see a cartoonist put it all together, and that's the case with this comic. 



In terms of format, it's not necessarily anything new. She's done this kind of historical/geographical exploration before. Whit's always been a thoughtful and restrained writer, offering perspective and wisdom with regard to her historical and cultural observations. She's also never been terribly didactic in her conclusions, allowing the reader to make up their own minds. While all of that was true here as well, there's a kind of funny swagger she displays, an almost unhinged and bizarre sense of humor that makes her the clear comedic focus of the comic. It pushes her husband as the straight man. However, even that narrative falls short of what's really going on. As a Black woman, it feels as though her presence in the whitest of states puts her into full-fledged survival mode, deferring to her husband and shrinking behind him in ways she never otherwise do. Taylor giddily engages with tourism even as she denounces the idea of not being American enough. She pointedly nails this narrative when her narrative caption calmly declares "I hate feeling like have to prove my Americanness. I'm descended from slaves, slave owners, and native peoples." The dialog she indignantly spouts off to her husband is "I am American as fuck."


Taylor goes in a lot of directions, but the main theme is how beauty and ugliness co-exist. Big Sky country was beautiful, but global warming is having an irrevocable impact on it, as one glacier will disappear in the next thirty years. A dive into the history of Lewis & Clark's expedition reveals exploitation and the virulently prevalent concept of Manifest Destiny. Even visiting the local native reservation reveals that the tribe was only left their land because the government didn't have any use for it. Taylor plays down her intellect and emphasizes how little she knows about history, which is a way of saying that few people in the country have a real sense of its history. Despite all of this, she acknowledges the hard truth that in America, the poison of its past and its persistence of its toxic structures is in direct opposition to its ideals, its beauty, and most importantly, its people. That said, this book isn't a screed; it's a vacation. It's funny time spent with her husband. It's hikes and meals and boat rides. Taylor balances all of these elements effortlessly.


Part of that is because her own persona here is so carefree and silly at times; in fact, there's almost an insistence on it despite her fear of white nationalists (and bears). There is no question that she was only able to sell this because her line was so expertly rendered. Taylor's line is clear and concise, as she leaned into her greatest skill: drawing expressions. Her tight talking-head focus was also a clever narrative technique, but she rewards the readers with a far greater range of expressions than usual in one of her autobio stories, with her husband a tight-lipped straight man. However, Taylor's clarity and skill in depicting her environment was absolutely essential in selling the rest of the story. Her line is not only clear, it's frequently beautiful in its simplicity in detailing forests, wildlife, and the people she meets. While her pages are full of detail, she avoids cluttering up her pages. In terms of layout, she used an open-page layout built on grid principles, providing both structure and freedom for her storytelling.  This story is in terms funny, personal, vulnerable, instructive, historical, and grim. Like John Porcellino, it's highly sophisticated and emotive storytelling that looks simplistic at first blush. However, there are hidden depths to be found in Montana Diary, rewarding multiple readings. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Escaping The Labyrinth: M.S. Harkness' Desperate Pleasures

The experience of childhood sexual trauma is one that rewires one's brain to such a degree that the result is going through life walking through a labyrinth. It's an especially insidious labyrinth because one can't perceive the walls around you or even that you're in a labyrinth at all. However, one still backtracks, goes off-kilter, chooses dead-ends, and repeats the same paths even if they tend to wind up in the same monstrous predicaments. M.S. Harkness writes about this experience in great detail in her memoir Desperate Pleasures, and it points to the way how different people respond to this kind of trauma in different ways. Not unsurprisingly for her as a young adult, it meant a hypersexual focus coupled with difficulty in actually experiencing true love or intimacy. While that was partly rooted in the kind of emotionally unavailable men that she chose to pursue, her choice to pursue them was intrinsically wrapped up in the feelings of worthlessness that trauma creates.

Harkness explored this in a more lighthearted way in her comic Tinderella, which focused more on the weirdoes she dated and several men she knew were bad for her emotionally but whom she couldn't stop seeing. Desperate Pleasures is thematically richer and features greater formal complexity, especially in the way she repeats certain scenes and memories and adds new contexts to them throughout the book. The book is set a few years earlier, where Harkness is in and out of school and trying to figure out what to do with her life. To make ends meet, she engages as a "sugar baby," meaning that she dated older men who would give her money. It's not unlike being an escort, only without the formal labels. It's often referred to these days as a "mutually beneficial relationship," and the dating aspect of it is as important as the sexual aspect, which distinguishes it from more traditional sex work.

Using a jet-black sense of humor, she noted that she also fucked lots of other guys, "Unpaid. For exposure, I guess." Any freelancer has to grimly laugh at that concept. Sex, once she realized t was a genuine act of pleasure (and ANY pleasure was one to grasp onto), became her outlet for her trauma. The problem was that the men thought of her, to quote Heidegger, as Zuhandenheit or "Ready-to-hand." This means seeing the people and objects we encounter in the world solely for their use-value. With regard to people, it means not seeing their existence as beings. The key sequence in the book ends with the two guys Harkness was sleeping with asking if they could buy weed from her--and she invited both of them over at the same time, as a petty, passive-aggressive way of striking out at their treatment of her as an object at hand.

That sequence followed a hilarious, bleak, and crucial imaginary one-woman-show she was putting on called "Tinderella," wherein she talked about discovering that her abuse hadn't damaged her ability to feel pleasure, but rather that her father was so bad at sex that he didn't know how to touch her. When she went to the gynecologist for the first time, she discovered to her great surprise how sensitive she was. Harkness depicts her audience walking out on her while telling this story, saying, "If you're not laughing, I can't do anything for you." This also hits on the concept of those traumatized as being "brave." There is no bravery or valorization in being sexually assaulted, especially as a child. There is only survival or death. There is only finding a way to cope, no matter how unhealthy it might ultimately be, or not. 

This is a stark realization, but when one is made aware that you're in a labyrinth, one can act on it--although it is very difficult. Harkness goes back and forth in time and cleverly changes her rendering style a number of different times. Her base style is a highly-cartoony rendering of herself where her eyes and mouth are barely perceptible as dots. It's a self-image that's easy to get behind, since it's abstracted from reality. Her hair is more fully-defined than her facial features. In other portions of the book, when things get a lot more "real," he uses a highly naturalistic style. The irony is that this more realistic version of herself is in many ways a put-on, an illusion for the rest of the world. She uses a hazy, dreamy style that relies heavily on shadows for flashbacks to her parents, including how her mother reacted to her abusive father. Harkness ties it back to seeing her father coming back from shore leave or deploying again, clearly as moments of simultaneous dread and excitement. There is a fundamental confusion and sense of cognitive dissonance in coming to terms with abuse at that age, and Harkness depicts it as reality-warping. 

Harkness early on drops hints as to the things that can help her escape the labyrinth. First, despite everything, she desperately wants to make a connection that goes beyond sex. When she tells one of her lovers that she's in love with him on the phone, it's clear he's incapable of reciprocation. Actually telling him this, however, was the one true act of bravery she performed in the book. Second, the warmth she shows to her younger brother in helping him on physical training extends his role from Tinderella; he gives Harkness unconditional love and never judges her. The most important key is hinted at at the beginning and followed through at the end: Harkness' decision to become a physical trainer. While Harkness is a smart and sensitive artist, her stories are always about her need to express herself physically. She escaped the labyrinth not through her own workouts but rather through guiding others through their own journeys. Harkness might be self-deprecating with regard to her self-worth and rejects the idea of her courageousness, but there's a tremendous generosity of spirit and a desire to build others up that seems integral to her self-narrative. How does she help herself? By trusting herself enough to help others and breaking her tendency to go in circles. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Mathew New's Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers

I read Mathew New's YA book Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers in minicomics form. The book, published by Capstone, expertly tightens up the original stories without losing a bit of its absurd energy. The title alone betrays the total ridiculousness of its concept as a kind of send-up of Tintin and Indiana Jones. However, like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Donjon, all of that silliness is rooted in a plot that is rock-solid and deadly serious. All of this is aided by New's unfussy and cartoony line along with a clear, distinct color palette. 



From time to time, I like to show YA books to my 12-year-old, Pen. They really took to this book for a number of reasons. They liked its humor and propulsive action sequences that seemed to look to Carl Barks for inspiration. What they liked about all else were the mysteries that New set up. Indeed, the mysteries are the backbone for the otherwise completely silly stories, as they lend weight and depth to the adventures.



In this book, Billy is a teen explorer ala Tintin, and his companion is a talking duck named Barrace who happens to be a professor. They go on various adventures, and we learn that Billy's parents were famous adventurers. Their actual fate was never revealed, but Billy's inability to bring back proof of his adventures prevents him from joining the Explorer's League that his parents were part of. Indeed, Billy has to settle for being a janitor. Barrace is a college professor, and if a talking duck professor seems weird, the book fully acknowledges this without actually explaining it. Indeed, the book strongly hints that Barrace isn't really a duck at all. 



In a book filled with spoofs and self-aware humor, New also establishes that there are no throwaway lines or situations. In the first adventure, where they find the lost city of the Monkey People, the book's whole mystery is established when a mysterious blue spirit entity helps them and reappears throughout the book. In a hilarious take on the magic item quest, Billy and Barrace encounter a Lara Croft-style adventurer-thief as they have to take back a ring because it turned out to be cursed. A desert quest for an apparently-extinct type of bear once again brings Billy to disappointment, even as he manages to bungle a wish-giving magic lamp. A heroic quest that's Heroes Journey 101 reveals Billy's own desperation for fame and his insecurity. Billy has an overpowering retractable sword that he calls "Mr. Jabbers," an absurd name for such a relic.



Indeed, New rejects macho, toxic representations of heroism and instead focuses on the friendship between Billy and Barrace. Despite his impulsiveness and glory-seeking, Billy grows as a character throughout the book. He doesn't get what he wants (fame, glory, and entrance into the Explorer's Club as a member), but he gets what he needs (love and support from his best friend). 

My kid was angry that the book ended on a cliffhanger, as the blue spirit confronts the mysterious hooded figure who was trying to steal the cursed ring. The hooded figure refers to him as Spirit Eater, and had feared his arrival, as evidenced by his dialog and warning systems. That spurred an hour's worth of discussion from Pen, who came up with elaborate theories about the blue spirit/alien, the identities of the red and yellow figures we saw in etchings in the Monkey People temple, what happened to Billy's parents, what Barrace is exactly, who the hooded person is, etc. 

Ultimately, while New has a number of inspirations, it's clear that that he's created here is entirely his own thing. Far from being just a spoof, it trades on jokes about familiar ideas and subverts them. He always tells the story with a straight face (there are no narrative captions that indicate how the audience should feel), even (and especially) when it degenerates into total nonsense. Even the nonsense has surprising repercussions, like the cursed ring disappearing from view. New also adds just enough interstitital material to tie together disparate stories, and introduces the book with a two-page performance by Billy as he creates a theme song for himself and the professor. The funny things in the book have a tender quality to them, and the exciting parts of the story all have funny barriers thrown in the way of the protagonists. There's very little in the way of violence in this story, as it favors the sort of Barksian hijinks of a Donald Duck story to more visceral storytelling. This shouldn't work as well as it does, and yet New has a way of anticipating story problems and anticipating solutions, all while balancing a surprisingly complex web of plots and interpersonal relationships. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Announcing The North Street Book Prize


Aimed at creators of self-published comics and graphic novels/memoirs, art books, and five other genre categories, the North Street Book Prize offers cash awards to artists. Now in its seventh year, 
The North Street Book Prize vales entries which portray lives underrepresented in traditional media; diverse characters and themes are especially welcome. 

The Grand Prize is $5,000 and the First Prize in each entry category is $1,000. Grand Prize and First Prize winners also receive a marketing consultation with a book publicity expert. Seven Honorable Mentions win $250 each. The 2021 deadline is June 30th, and the entry fee is $65. It can be submitted online or by mail.

Recent winners include Ingrid Pierre, for her graphic memoir Do Not Resuscitate, and Dmitri Jackson, for his slice-of-life comic Blackwax Boulevard. I reviewed the latter comic on High-Low here

The prize is sponsored by the website Winning Writers in partnership with the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), a designation for "contests which are organized for the benefit of the author rather than the profit of the organizer." Winning Writers has been running writing contests for over 20 years. We are one of Writer's Digest's Top 8 Online Resources for Publishing and Marketing. We seek to be a welcoming place for diverse authors and stories, with a culture of listening to people of all genders, backgrounds, and abilities. We look for high-quality original writing that portrays under-represented perspectives with sensitivity, accuracy, and passion.


Please note that this post is sponsored by Winning Writers. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

CCS: Mannie Murphy's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

Mannie Murphy is one of those ten-year overnight successes as a cartoonist. Her comic that she completed after her one year at the Center For Cartoon Studies, I Still Live, was absolutely astounding in how fully-formed, thoughtful, and restless her voice was as a creator. Murphy has a towering, probing intellect that is both deliberate and intentional in the way she dissects her subject matter, because it's all personal. There is a barely-restrained sense of fury in the way she addresses many topics, even appearing dispassionate at times. Murphy is simply careful and thorough in how she researches her subjects, scrupulously fair in how she approaches them from multiple angles. But make no mistake: Murphy keeps all the receipts, as the saying goes, and she is devastating once she lays them all out and connects the dots.

If systematic oppression is sometimes a kind of shell game, where the oppressors distract their victims in hopes that they'll forget certain events, Murphy is a dutiful observer who knows where the ball is at all times. All of this leads up to her first book, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. Even the title has multiple layers. The original phrase comes from singer Lynn Anderson, and it's a sort of glib way of talking about how bad times are going to come. That phrase was later adapted into a semi-autobiographical story about a teen girl's battle with schizophrenia. For Murphy, the International Rose Test Garden is a huge tourist attraction in her hometown of Portland. The local home arena with Portland's beloved NBA team, the Trail Blazers, was named the Rose Garden for many years. They are symbols of Portland's affluence, the flip side of the quirky "Portlandia" narrative that's been nurtured by the city ("Keep Portland Weird.") 


Murphy's wide-ranging narrative connects her own personal experience of a particular high school, various Hollywood stars, the rise of white supremacy, murders, and the real history of Portland and Oregon. It's written like a journal or a diary, with each page featuring her handwriting on lined paper, accompanied by blue-wash illustrations so dense that there are parts where the bleed-through is emphasized. It's almost a watery image (hence the bleed), as though she had scratched the image into the page and let the wash flow over it as though it was her tears. I read and reviewed the minicomics that contained the bulk of the book that Murphy started publishing six years ago. While not materially different in terms of content, the design, the paper, and the use of color make it a completely different work. It's the difference between a series of zines and a book designed to look like a journal, and the result is something that feels more intimate. It's as though Murphy is taking us aside and sharing secrets. 


In a sense, she is. Starting with the death of River Phoenix, Murphy connects the dots to his hometown of Portland and his relationship with director Gus Van Sant. It's here that the dots she connects become very interesting, as she delves into Portland's history of pressing young queer men seeking a new life into being sex workers. Queer men who "acted" and looked straight were especially prized. Van Sant loved surrounding himself with young men, offering them money and luxury in exchange for their youth and cool. Among these men included Ken "Death" Mieske, a charismatic young white supremacist who was a disciple of Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi skinhead and former Klan member. Mieske and two other skinheads and members of East Side White Pride murdered Mulugeta Seraw and were in a high-profile trial that wound up making them martyrs for the movement.


Murphy connected the skinheads to the punk scene in Portland and certain benefactors like Van Sant and a club owner she referred to as Mr. X. Far from an outlier or coincidence, Murphy connected the dots back to the founding of Portland and Oregon. The whites who settled there aimed to make it a white utopia, intentionally settling on native land and using their diseases to wipe out that population. When some natives killed some settlers in retaliation, the white settlers were able to use that to their advantage and not only gain statehood, they also wrote laws forbidding Blacks and Asians into their constitution. Not just racism, but actual white supremacy was nakedly baked into the very fiber of Oregon. Murphy argues that this has never been truly reckoned with, despite fierce protests by some of its citizens, and it perpetuated itself in the face of the KKK in the early 20th century and the skinhead movement of the late 20th century. What was most frightening about the latter, Murphy revealed, was that despite the image of Nazi punks being outlaws and rejected by society, the reality is that this group signed up for the police and military in droves--and it was Metzger himself who coldly declared his victory when he was on trial. 


Murphy wrote about this six years ago. The national wave of police violence against Black people and other minorities and their sympathy for white supremacists made this observation even more chilling with the book published in March of 2021. Murphy doesn't make a direct connection here, but there's also an extremely laissez-faire attitude that pervades Portland, one that favors those who already carry a lot of privilege. It's the attitude of unchecked capitalism and an abandonment of protecting the weak and vulnerable. Murphy's high school was run under experimental rules encouraging free thought and questioning authority. It also created an environment where skinheads like Ken Death were allowed to roam unchecked. The difference between an atmosphere where creativity and free thinking are encouraged and one where all attempts at exploring and instilling community virtues could be plainly seen. It's a false binary and an abandonment of education, especially for those populations who were vulnerable. Murphy does note that in Portland's culture, being queer certainly didn't make one enlightened, especially if you were white, male, and in contact with privilege. Murphy's own connection to the school, her classmates who died there, and a disastrous camping trip where those who listened to authority died revealed that no adult ever gave them a good reason to trust them. The quirky freedom of "Portlandia" was a myth and harbored snakes in its bosom.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of cults, especially in terms of power exchanges. River Phoenix grew up in the predatory Children of God cult, which emphasized incest and underage sex as part of its teachings. The white supremacists were hucksters who offered homeless, frequently queer, young hustlers a line of bullshit they knew they would believe. That they wanted to believe, because it freed them of personal responsibility and transferred the blame to different races, nationalities, and religions. Murphy points to groupthink as a kind of collective way of frequently making horrifying moral decisions, because it defuses personal responsibility and warps simple logic. 

Murphy's dissection of the mechanics of how this works is flawless, just as the thoroughness of her research with regard to history is staggering. However, she's a native. This is all personal to her, because she's seen how all of this can and has been resisted, even against unbelievable odds. She's not an unbiased observer and has no interest in that role, often adding personal comments to her record of historical events. This doesn't weaken her arguments, because she's not arguing emotively. She's calmly laying down connection after connection and creates a sophisticated historical argument rooted in primary documents. Even the personal aspects of the narrative, like her recounting River Phoenix's story, prove to be recapitulations of her larger arguments in microcosm. Murphy doesn't attempt to simplify or minimize the problems she raises; she simply provides context and shines a light on them. In many ways, going back to the title, the "you" refers to Portland itself, as she strips away its mythos and lays bare its rot. It's up to everyone to clean away that rot. It's not quite a hate letter to Portland (because there are things she loves and wants to fight for)...but it's close.    

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Minis: Colin Lidston's The Age Of Elves #5

Having read the conclusion of Colin Lidston's slice-of-life comic The Age Of Elves, it's clear what kind of story he was actually telling. The plot involves a group of teenagers and their trip to GenCon, a huge gaming convention. Set twenty years ago, it came at a point just a few years before geek culture became the dominant culture, and this was intentional. This is a story about social anxiety, first and foremost. Every member of the gaming group is extremely socially awkward in their own way, and they find their own ways of coping. Sarah, the most "normal" member of the group and the only girl, finds the limits of her willingness to explore outside the group, even as she tires of them. Bram uses intellectualization to mediate social interactions, preferring to layer on a template of rules and gameplay because he has no idea how to interact otherwise. Evan is the burnout of the group, who drinks hard when he experiences social anxiety. Jamie becomes prickly and aggressive, as most of the boys in the group do. 



Indeed, this is an interesting examination of how just because someone is socially awkward, it doesn't justify their behavior. One can see in the modern-day phenomenon like InCels and other geek subcultures are every bit as vindictive, hierarchical, and (above all else) misogynistic as mainstream society. Worse, geeks are so often gatekeepers to their secret hobbies that the open resistance to diversity and change is frequently despicable. There are shades of that here, but there's also the palpable sense of camaraderie in the way that they all have each other. 



The previous four issues consisted of Sarah questioning her commitment to the group. She's an artist who felt her work went unappreciated by her friends, but she dreamed that upon meeting her fantasy illustration idol at the con, she'd get the spark to her career that she needed. Of course, when she did find new friends at the con as she sought to branch out, they turned out to be middle-aged swingers who tried to seduce her. Note: she was 17 years old. So she's already been burned once with trying to get out of her comfort zone, which is not surprising because the age difference is so huge at the show. Again: this was 2000 when most gamers were older and a generation hadn't been brought up gaming with the easy-to-learn 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. And to be frank, it's not like that older generation had social skills that were any better developed. It was a sea of people, many on the spectrum, lacking an understanding of their own neurodiversity and proper coping mechanisms. All they could was try to emulate neurotypical behavior as best they could, which was often not well. 

Sarah was burned yet again when her idol took one look at her portfolio and gently tore it to shreds. She also gently ignored Sarah's request to help make her get started, as she even asked for her phone number! However, the illustrator gave her a piece of sound, if difficult advice: think of something you really love, then make something that "makes you feel even more like that." The question for Sarah was, what exactly did she love? 



Lidston's art throughout is a great example of how to incorporate gesture and body language to do the bulk of your storytelling. Every angle Sarah stands or sits at betrays her anxiety and awkwardness. When she dresses up as Death (from Sandman) at the costume contest, she doesn't sell it in the least; she looks mortified to be onstage. What made it even worse was Bram coming after she told her friends not to, giving her an unsolicited gift (which included a lecture on things to choose in a particular game) and then expressed his attraction for her in the most awkward way possible. Sarah absolutely exploded at this, already having faced sexualization at the hands of people she thought were becoming her friends. Like her friends before her, she just reached her limit. The scene where Bram offers a hug is painful and hilarious, as she turns him down--again, Lidston's naturalistic style that borrows just a touch from the grotesque does most of the job in relating the narrative.

The denouement is clever. On the car ride back, all the things they got mad about were basically swept under the rug. That said--no one was ready for their regular game night just yet. When Sarah got home, her mother left her a book of paintings from Cezanne. Sarah hit upon one with four gamers sitting at a table with a grizzled sense of camaraderie. She obviously saw herself and her friends in this painting, for better or for worse. Any thought that she may have had that she was somehow better than her friends had been completely erased; all of them proved to be at their worst in a number of ways on the trip, yet they all still made it home together. For now, at least, these were her people. How much any of them learn or grow in the future was left entirely up in the air. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Keiler Roberts shares My Begging Chart

In Keiler Roberts' newest book, My Begging Chart, there's both more and less of what regular readers have come to expect. There are more gags but fewer long stories. There are more quiet moments that are single-page images that aren't stories or gags at all, but serve as a kind of interstitial rest stop. There's more of her daughter Xia with full agency in expressing her feelings and her own dry sense of humor, and fewer strips where Xia's experiences are mediated by Roberts as a parent. There are fewer direct references to Roberts' experience with bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis and more quotidian accounts of how her life has changed on an everyday basis as a result of her health. 



Even without specific narratives to follow, My Begging Chart has a consistent emotional narrative. There is a sense of grudging acceptance of her circumstances that results in art that feels spontaneous, loose, and highly expressive. Roberts is still a loveable, truth-telling crank as always, but the frustration that felt palpable in her other books gives way to simply being OK with needing to rest and stare off into space more often. There's another dynamic at work here as well, where her daughter's sense of agency has changed the way they relate. There's an intense closeness which was always there, but Xia's greater independence but also greater sense of empathy and understanding of her mother deepens their relationship in interesting ways. Above all else, the close sense of control that Roberts tried to cultivate through cleaning and organizing is greatly relaxed as she comes to accept her current circumstances and realizes that she can't be bothered to do things like dust a ceiling fan.



The opening narrative is about Roberts' annoyance with Xia's imaginary friends taking up real space. Her unwillingness to even entertain their existence is hilarious, even as she recalls the superhero Robin as her own imaginary friend, mostly to take the blame for things she did. This segues into an extended series of strips where Roberts is playing Barbie dolls with Xia. There's an eagerness on Roberts' part now that Xia was old enough to really engage in mutual and extemporaneous play with dolls that she get in on that action. Her own love of dolls and play is funny, in part because she wanted to push Xia and see how quickly she could improvise elaborate backstories. There's always a deeply cynical edge to all of Roberts' humor, but there is also sheer delight in having this milestone unlocked at last. It's a way for them to truly connect on a level where the agency of both parties is equally important. Of course, in the context of the book, Roberts doesn't care about that parenting milestone jazz. She's put in a lot of years of work as a mother, and it's about time it paid off with some fun play. 

Roberts is a smart-ass and an authority figure. Xia is also a smart-ass and is proving she can match what her mom dishes out, like when Roberts tells Xia they aren't going to buy anything at the bookstore they're visiting. Sure enough, Xia peppers her mom with requests until Roberts demands they leave, bemoaning that she just wanted to visit her friend there. Xia responds, "You'd be a better friend if you bought more books from her." There's no comeback from that one, and Roberts simply takes the loss there. 



This is another essential aspect of Roberts' humor: while she will make acidic or sarcastic remarks about people for a laugh, she makes herself a target of the jokes most of the time. As always: punching down is cruel, punching up can be didactic, but punching yourself is always funny. Roberts is never cruel, but has no patience for bullshit or things she doesn't care about. There's an undercurrent in the book where she has no interest in wasting a single second on things that are boring to her. Why should she? Time is very important in this book. There's a sense of time getting away from her, of time being wasted. However, there's also a sense where she's stopped caring about making every moment meaningful. Sometimes, like on pages where she draws herself in a towel, standing with her mom and her husband Scott, that serves no narrative function nor any humorous function, really. It's clearly just a moment in time that she liked and wanted to record. In terms of the book, these are breather spots. Both the artist and reader don't have to do any "work" on those pages in terms of interpreting something or making the reader laugh. It's a page where she can just be, which is another subtheme of the book. 

Xia has always sort of been the star of Roberts' books, with Keiler as sort of the straight man who reacts to the funny things a little kid did. Xia took a back seat the past couple of books as Roberts explored more personal issues but was also trying to build a little separation for her kid as she started to develop her own sense of agency. In this book, Xia reclaims her stardom in funny ways. There are times when she deliberately annoys her mother, knowing what kind of reaction she'll get. There are times when Roberts deliberately teases or grouses at her, like when she says "Let's pretend your homeschooled and make a schedule!" as a way of entertaining a bored Xia. More interesting is Xia's understanding of her mother's limitations but not abandoning their connection, like when an exhausted Roberts is too tired to play dolls but engages Xia when she plays "the acting game," wherein Xia acts out an emotion. It's a scene that has likely played out many times, as Xia didn't complain or bat an eye when her mom couldn't move. Instead, they created a new kind of memory, one funny enough for Roberts to record for many reasons.



There are different ways to perceive time and to record narratives around it. A quotidian, tight focus creates a sense of immediacy without necessarily providing much context. Pulling back to create a smoother narrative sacrifices some verisimilitude in favor of storytelling. For an artist, a project like this has a certain immediacy, but it must also be said that it's the latest entry in a long career. There's an internal context that the book has with its strips, but the external context with how this book is part of a continuum must also be considered, as well as how it will read when Roberts publishes more books. My Begging Chart feels like a series of subtle turning points in how she approaches everything in her life, not just art. Roberts is still about the gag above all else, make no mistake, but the quiet moments she records with no dialogue, no plot, and no point other than to savor them are acts of gratitude. They are also gifts for the reader, which is where her closed autobiographical style really pays off. She's been telling her story with relatively little context her entire career, so these context-free single-page drawings of her lying down with Xia or snuggling with her dog Crooky don't feel at all out of place. In many respects, they are more personally revealing than her actual stories, which are mediated by narrative and humorous concerns. 


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Tatiana Gill's Head Meds

There's open memoir, closed memoir, and then there's the memoir of Tatiana Gill. Every memoir she does not only tends to have a strong guiding theme to provide structure, but it also gives an astonishing amount of detail and context. It's almost overwhelming how open she is about drug use, addiction, self-harm, and other issues. At the same time, it makes a great deal of sense, because she's writing this from the perspective of an addict in recovery and working the 12 steps. "Rigorous honesty" is a hallmark of such programs, but like any other structured belief system, it is fueled by personal narratives. Gill has embraced this fully, to the point where the thoroughness and messiness of her recording her narrative obstructs actually telling a smoothed-out and readable narrative. There are a lot of rough edges that she refuses to smooth out in service to her story, which makes this particular memoir, Head Meds, such a compelling read.


The hook of this particular book is a systematic exploration of every drug she's ever taken for prescribed, psychiatric reasons and how these drugs have affected her, for good or ill. Gill hits on an extraordinary insight:certain medications eased the pain of her depression but gave her no real insight as to the roots of her trauma. They simply allowed her to feel better and therefore party more, doing a variety of recreational drugs and engaging in risky behavior. Different therapist and the benefit of more years passing have allowed Gill to figure out what works for her, more or less, but she noted that she's still vulnerable to trauma and relapses. She also readily admits that having a home with a loving partner and a pet, along with being on his insurance and overall support, is a luxury that she understands that not everyone has. 


Indeed, after discovering that running and reducing stress generally make her happier, she is careful not to preach some kind of formula or claim any kind of narrative closure. Instead, she thanks her luck and realizes that in trying to write a history of her use of SSRI's and other antidepressants, there's no way she can tell what was caused by her brain chemistry and what was exacerbated by her lifestyle choices. At the same time, detailing her story reveals how complex mental health can be and that attempts at reductionism are inevitably doomed to failure. 


There's something else that's remarkable about this book: Gill tackles her past and manages to do so with a minimum of shame. As a result, there's no defensiveness at work here. She freely admits to what she did, she freely admits to her current struggles, and she understands how lucky she is. There's a strong understanding that her choices, even the bad ones, don't make her a bad person, because she can always make different choices--especially with the proper support and health regimens. 

The first half of the book, where she deals with this narrative in a chronological fashion, has an almost frantic pacing and tone. It's as though she's trying to race through these details as quickly as possible in order to get them on the page. The second half of the book leans more on her drawing, as each page is a brief anecdote or syllogism related to recovery, good boundaries, and forgiveness--especially self-forgiveness. Much of it is dedicated to anger, a difficult emotion for those dealing with trauma to process. Interstingly, even though there's no narrative flow whatsoever in the second half of the book, it nonetheless highlights,illustrates, and recapitulates the narrative from the first half of the book, providing a more human and present context for things she rushed through here and there. The two halves complement each other loosely, and the spontaneity of her line helps project her unflagging optimism despite everything. I've read a number of cleaner, more calculating books on mental health that aim to be guide books, but Gill's warts 'n all presentation feels more effective in discussing these issues. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Andrew Neal's Meeting Comics

Andrew Neal was the owner of Chapel Hill Comics, one of the best comics stores in a America, for a number of years. When he sold the store, he eventually took a new job, and that job one day inspired him to do a loosely-sketched, four-panel comic about an office meeting that took place during the apocalypse. Just as surely as Charles Schulz's first Peanuts strip ("Charlie Brown...Oh how I hate him!") set the tone for years of work, so too did Neal's wobbly line establish the absurdity and sheer ridiculousness of office life. Also like Schulz, Neal slowly shaped his characters into complex, funny, and memorable personalities with long-running stories. Throughout his run on Meeting Comics, Neal has never deviated from making this a gag strip, even when the jokes are dark and the subject matter is satirical. 


A collection of the first six issues of the minicomic was published by AdHouse, and it unsurprisingly looks great, just like all Chris Pitzer-designed books do. Neal kept it simple, as a squarebound paperback printing each strip chronologically, with plenty of extra material in the back. The strip also appears on Neal's Patreon, in minicomics form (I believe it's up to #19 at the moment), and earlier strips are appearing on Solrad. Neal hustles this strip, and it's easy to understand why: his storytelling is so brisk, his characters' designs are so clever, and his gags so smooth that it approaches the status of compulsively readable.


Upon reaching the end of the collection, I also read issues #8 and 9 (I'm missing #7 and haven't seen #10 and up yet) and a related mini called 320 Shades Of Greg. The first dozen or so strips all have that hastily-sketched, spontaneous feel to them, and they are unpolished as a result. While Neal had been drawing on and off for years, it's obvious that it took a little while for him to grow into Meeting Comics as his first true, long-range project. It takes a little while for archetypes to evolve into characters and for gags to first become recurring gags, and then characters of their own. A good example of that is the HR robot Rob, who began as a gag and then became a regular member of the cast as the ex-boyfriend of Val. (There's a later joke about "on-again, off-again" relationships that's particularly inspired.)


Val is the Snoopy of the series, the wild break-out character. With her trademark hair in a bun and big earrings, it's also interesting that this lead character is a Black woman. The diversity in the strip is pretty casual and woven into the humor. Don is an older gay man, while Thomas is a Black man who has to deal with a lot of shit--but also has a secret identity as the Ribbon Cutter, a superhero who foils the mayor's attempts to cut ribbons at openings. But Val is a fearless, funny, ass-kicker and hedonist. That said, Kevin is often the focus of the strip, as a manager who lives a conflicted double-life as an activist and musician. Even douchey Gil, a management bro, is a fully-realized character. 

The key to the success of the strip is that Neal passes no judgments on these characters. They are most certainly Part of the Problem as managers in a corporation with unstated aims (it's part of the joke that they don't quite know what the business does), but they are also people who need to make money to live. Neal is casual about the company's corruption and evil, because these things are understood. How each person navigates it for their own personal hustle is what makes the strip funny. These characters drink, date, fuck, gossip, and seek out some degree of connection along the way. Even when Jesus shows up as a character and joins the company, it makes sense. That makes side projects like the bizarre and hilarious 320 Shades Of Greg so funny; the story is weird on its own, but the actual punchline is an awesome groaner. 

Neal is funny, and what also helps make the strip compelling is that he can go to a few different wells in any given strip. A punchline might be a pun (there's a gag about an old ska band becoming janitors that made me laugh out loud), a funny image (Val hiding from her mother in a filing cabinet), or a carefully-constructed bit of character humor. The slightly surreal quality of the comic makes it easy for a reader to accept all of this as part of its reality. One gets the sense that the best is yet to come from Neal, both in this strip and future projects. It's certainly been a lot of fun watching him figure it out on the page.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Matt Lubchansky's The Antifa Super-Soldier Cookbook

Matt Lubchansky's The Antifa Super-Soldier Cookbook (Silver Sprocket) has a killer high concept: what if this loosely-organized group opposing fascism, state-sponsored violence, and racism was actually a highly-trained paramilitary unit? In other words, what if it was actually what far-right media and politicians claim that it is, only moreso? This comic goes over the top in depicting Antifa as a sinister, well-connected boogieman out to destroy proper American values. Telling the parallel stories of a young Antifa member who is "called up" to become a cyborg super-soldier and a cop who rises through the ranks to destroy them, Lubchansky strikes a ridiculous tone throughout.


There is a bit of cognitive dissonance at work here, however. Everything about Antifa is told from essentially the viewpoint of a right-wing fantasy, and Lubchansky is clearly satirizing that view. However, their depiction of the police is inconsistent. On the one hand, as they note at the end, a lot of the more extreme behavior and plots from the police are disturbingly real. However, there are times when they seem to be spoofing the left's understanding of the police as much as they are parodying the right's understanding of resistance movements, and it's a false equivalency I'm not sure they intended.


Beyond that Lubchansky stretches the gag too far, and as a result the story feels bloated by the end. The joke repeated throughout the book--that leftists are sneaky, violent liars who are brainwashing our youth--doesn't get funnier through repetition. The characters, by design, are one-dimensional, but that lack of depth also wears on the narrative by the end. Lubchansky's satire also tends to hit a lot of obvious beats, never going much beyond their initial premise. This would have been far more effective as a ten-page story instead of a 60-page graphic novella. The visuals are functional but otherwise unremarkable, and the garish use of color didn't add much to the narrative.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Mass Market Noah Van Sciver

Noah Van Sciver has become such an interesting cartoonist because he's so versatile. He can do straight-up illustration jobs like his Johnny Appleseed or Grateful Dead books and bring them to life in interesting ways. He's adept at interesting biographies, like Abraham Lincoln in The Hypo and his upcoming epic about Joseph Smith. He excels at dramas about doomed losers like Saint Cole. He's a funny and self-effacing autobiographical cartoonist. At heart, however, Van Sciver is a gag man. That was true of his earliest comics and it's still true now, as his choices as an artist take him down some unusual detours. Drawing random comics for the newspaper Columbus Alive!, each one on their own ranges from hilarious to mildly amusing.


However, their collective impact is greater than the sum of its parts, especially when fruitfully paired with frequent collaborator and ace designer Keeli McCarthy. Van Sciver's vision of creating something like an old Peanuts paperback filled with random strips is brought to life with every element of the design. Even the absurd title, Please Don't Step On My JNCO Jeans, is evocative of the kind of snappy title that you might see for a random collection of some comic strip. The generic yellow background and the absurd image of an adult Van Sciver (complete with trademark mustache) wearing these faddish jeans from the 90s. The cliched yet entirely accurate copy on the back cover, complete with nonsensical poses of a dancing Van Sciver, also contributes to this aesthetic, which is simultaneously nostalgic and utterly square. Even the size and embossed edges of the pages are all part of the fun.

The actual comics are a glorious hodgepodge. In addition to that, there are a host of funny interstitial drawings of Van Sciver as various monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and others. There are funny (and usually embarrassing) stories from his childhood, along with the occasional triumph like a TastyCake driver randomly throwing him an entire box of baked treats. There are funny moments with his partner, Amy, including a long riff on the tool and phrase "stud finder" that deliberately steers into dad joke territory before a hilarious final swerve. A running gag throughout the book is Van Sciver trying to do something new and finding himself drawing fencing, French-speaking cats. His ability to find different ways to work a gag reflects the relentless nature of his cartooning. In a collection that is essentially just a lark, Van Sciver's serious commitment to a coherent aesthetic package elevates the work in a way that he didn't have to do. However, the design, careful sequencing, and the illustrations all reflect a desire to make sense of seemingly disparate material over a span of time. If the newspaper strips reflected his fancy at that moment in time, the book represented his overall aesthetic understanding of his own work during this period as well as a personal journal of sorts.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Full Hanawalt: I Want You

I've been comparing each of Lisa Hanawalt's books to her minicomics series I Want You with regard to how far they go with regard to their gags, sheer weirdness, and overall filth. While My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hot Dog Taste Test, and Coyote Doggirl all have their merits, none of them had quite the same unhinged energy as I Want You. It was with delight and surprise that I learned that D&Q was going to reprint this material, in part because so much of it informs her later design work on BoJack Horseman and her own series, Tuca and Bertie. Sure, it's a shameless cash-in (and the promotion reflects that), but this will be a real eye-opener for Hanawalt fans who never got a chance to read her minis. 



As a bonus, Hanawalt drew a hilarious six-page introduction that also serves as one of the better artist meditations I've read about the relationship an author has with old work. Hanawalt revealing that the work's connection with her relationships and life circumstances at that time sheds a great deal of light on why certain gags may be uncomfortable to revisit, even if a reader has no connection to this information. Hanawalt also praises her younger self for a lot of the material while chastising jokes that feel shallow or easy (like lots of dick jokes). What I've always found interesting about Hanawalt's work is the clear intellect at work in crafting her gags and thinking about the world, but her willingness to go deep into her id in a way that's gross, revealing, frequently unflattering, hilarious, and perverted is fascinating. That's especially true because her process feels so intuitive at times; when she grabs onto an idea, she runs with it and keeps going, well past a point where one expects but never losing the energy of the gag.



Hanawalt opened with a list gag, this time of "Mistakes We Made At The Grocery Store." It's mildly funny and absurd, but other iterations of this form would be more effective later. The real first shot across the bow in this book is "One Day At Work." In a highly naturalistic style, Hanawalt draws herself typing at a keyboard, only to find some of the keys are sticking. The culprits: sex bugs, gumming up the works with their fucking and semen. One of them ejaculates onto her face, which a coworker mistakes for mayonnaise and proceeds to wipe it of her face and eat it (!), which makes Hanawalt puke on the keyboard, which leads to the bugs thanking her for the lube. The rhythm of outrageous calamities at play here and the escalation of events, along with his taboo-busting power, gives this strip its gross power. It is sex, and filth, and gross, hidden things, and violating boundaries. It's a bizarre fantasy of the id, yet one that doesn't seek any victims; it's content in turning that fantasy inward. As I've said before with regard to humor, punching down is simply cruel, punching up can feel like hectoring, but punching yourself is always funny. 



It's not even self-deprecatory humor, either. Just an acknowledgment and celebration of one's own deep weirdness. Not all of it is gross or even internal, as Hanawalt just really likes drawing anthropomorphic characters in a naturalistic style, with particular attention paid to their clothing. The results are bizarre and endearing, and it's this aesthetic which drives much of her animation work. Sex is never far from her mind in these strips, although in the least erotic ways possible. For example, another list strip, "Common Dirty Talk and the Questions It Raises" dives right into that rawest of sexual raw materials, dirty talk meant to inflame desire. Hanawalt instead gets into the gears of it with deliberate reversals, like "You are filthy and your man meat is saltier than anything. Q: Is this really the best time to be criticizing my restaurant?" This is all accompanied by a drawing of a meal. Hanawalt can't help but subvert not just desire, but reality itself.



The ultimate Hanawalt list comic is "Things We Are Sorry We Did Last Night," which includes an item about murdering other Lisa Hanawalts and an extended section about shitty dances she came up with. It's a subversion of "bad decisions" type stories that features top-notch drawings that are inextricably bound with each gag. Even weaker material is boosted by her total commitment to the gag through her drawings, but her mastery of callback humor really comes into play here as well. Overall, there's no separation between writing and drawing for Hanawalt; they are just two complementary aspects of the same form of expression. 



Hanwalt's "Worst Sandwiches" feature really emphasizes her drawing in setting up gags like "Sandwich That Can't Hold You Close At Night" and "Peanut Butter Sandwich That Doesn't Taste Right" (because it's full of maggots). "How To Get A Haircut" presages the sort of work she'd start to do later when she was getting paid to do features like movie reviews. So much of the book isn't even directly gag-related; they are just drawings of things that Hanawalt likes, or the adventures of her BoJack-presaging He-Horse and She-Moose, who are always endeavoring to get laid. In retrospect, the gags in the book represented Hanawalt cycling through comedic interests and laying the groundwork for further refinement. The almostly palpably nervous energy present in these books, the sheer weird horniness and desire to follow her id on the page, was refined and redirected in future work. Rather than go to the id well one too many times, she instead found other ways to follow her funny obsessions, especially as her storytelling became more sophisticated. That said, fans of Hanawalt's work will find this book to be absolutely essential, both because it's as funny as any comics I've ever read and because of the roads she continued to pursue and the avenues she chose to abandon. 


Monday, March 15, 2021

Checking In With John Porcellino

Let's take a look at some of John Porcellino's output from the last year. The long-time force between highly influential mini King-Cat Comics and Stories, Porcellino has been publishing it continuously since 1989, although a host of health problems and struggles have slowed his output. Indeed, he published 50 issues of the comic in just seven years and only thirty more in the past 24. However, Porcellino's mastery of his art makes each new issue an event. Along the way, Porcellino also completed several books apart from his minicomic, including his epic memoir The Hospital Suite. Readers of his work will know just how difficult it became for him to draw and how part of his journey as an artist has been finding his way through mental and physical illness.

Before I review the most recent King-Cat, let's celebrate the welcome news that his previous collections from Drawn & Quarterly are being reprinted in a slightly different size and format. The first volume has already been published: King-Cat Classix, covering King-Cat #1-50. The new version is in softcover (as opposed to the original's hardcover) and slightly smaller page size. Neither of these changes has much of an impact on the material; in fact, Porcellino's work feels more natural in a softcover collection. The actual comics see the author as a young man finding novel ways to express himself. Many of the strips were about his experience as a mosquito abatement technician, and they were also collected elsewhere. Some of the strips about high school were collected in Perfect Example, which is also getting reprinted by D&Q. 


From a craft perspective, it's fascinating to watch his line and style evolve with relentless drawing. Like many young cartoonists, he didn't have a real sense of what he was doing in his early years, and the result is a lot of wonky drawings that he attempted to support in his earliest years with some over-rendering and spotting blacks. Eventually, he abandoned that approach and simply let his drawings be as she slowly refined and simplified his line. By the end of the volume, Porcellino is close to his modern style, creating an almost serene line ideal for his more frequent zen and poetic strips. While his best work was certainly yet to come, the raw enthusiasm on the page is exciting to follow. Fans of the artist who haven't examined this work should certainly take a look, understanding that in the early 90s, these comics were a powerful influence on a network of like-minded young cartoonists.


It's fascinating to compare it to King-Cat #80, the most recent issue from November of 2020. Porcellino's absolute mastery over his line is evident on every page, even in an issue that has a relaxed pace. Porcellino has noted that each issue has its own character, understanding that some might not have as many emotionally powerful stories as his most memorable work. Those issues aren't filler so much as a way of documenting and respecting quieter times. 

That's especially true since Porcellino is in a pleasantly domestic and quiet period of his life. He notes in the beginning that he married Stephanie, his partner of nearly a decade. The ups and downs of his relationships have always been a part of his work, but Stephanie's presence has always been more subtle. Indeed, King-Cat now is much less about relationships than it is about what they share together on a daily basis, especially their many pets. Porcellino has always been interested in nature, but his reports on the flora and fauna of South Beloit now occupy a significant amount of his attention as an artist.

In this issue, for example, the opener concerns a beloved Porcellino staple; the changing of seasons. The dawn of spring, the jack-in-the-pulpits blooming are typical of the sort of thing Porcellino always appreciated, but there are extra little notes about appreciating the smell of the kitchen after Steph made coffee and taking his dog Iris outside to listen to the birds. There's a powerful sense of belonging and gratitude evident in this story, as he spends a few moments outside before starting his day. Listening is a key element in this issue; there are strips about listening to nature and trucks with the same ears, and another strip about hearing his cat purr on his chest while they listened to the mice scratching in the walls. His line is especially spare in that latter strip, yet it's still powerfully evocative--especially as part of the larger theme.


Porcellino's love of animals fills this issue up. There's a brief note about the death of he and Steph's dog Gibby--an event so painful that he wasn't ready to draw him again just yet. However, that segued into them getting a new rescue they named Arlo, who fit right into their menagerie of cats and dogs. There are the usual "nature notes" of animals he spots, specifics about their pets (like their beloved toys), a fascinating list of dreams, letters, and his usual Top 40 list. This is a long-held part of the rhythm of the typical issue of King-Cat, and the way he arranged so many features around the death of a pet and how he coped with it tell their own story in a tacit manner. It's a familiar Porcellino trope, but it's also clear how comforting embracing nature in its most sublime manner is healing for him.


There's a moment in a story about setting up bird and squirrel feeders in the yard where Porcellino stops and acknowledges, "During the quarantine I move even slower, pausing to breathe, to feel fresh air, to let the sunlight warm me." That's what this issue is all about, embracing and leaning into that slowness. That includes a very funny anecdote about warming his cold feet in bed with Steph; Porcellino rarely does gags but has always had a sly, observational sense of humor. That's preceded by an observation and memory of his sick mother, as well as a childhood memory of a neighbor who used to give them ice cream--a pleasantly visceral memory. Porcellino deliberately spends very little time on the past in this issue, but it's as though the warmth he built up prior to this gave him permission to do so. The issue ends in fall in a story that echoes the opener--smelling the seasons changing and spending time with his dog while doing so. The final image is of a one-page comic celebrating the plants on the hill being born, being greeted by the hill, and dying, mourned by the hill. It's a bittersweet grace note that acknowledges the inevitability and fleeting nature of beauty and mortality. 


Porcellino's other recent mini was Christmas Stories, from January 2020. This comic is exactly what it sounds like, with three short stories. "From A Buick '66" is about one of his oldest memories at Christmas time. There's an absolutely perfect panel depicting the wild child energy he felt of him with his mouth and eyes wide open, agog with anticipation. The actual memory--of seeing Santa pull up in a big car and go across the street--is funny and full of awe at the same time. "Mysterious Gift" is all about outsmarting yourself when you think you know what you're getting at Christmas, with a wonderful full-page punchline. The final piece, "Ho, Ho, "Ho" is a now somewhat infrequent memory of his college days when he was partying pretty hard. He had promised to play Santa for a bunch of kids on Christmas eve and promptly forgotten about it, but he showed up extremely hung-over and did the job. These wilder tales are as matter-of-fact as any kind of memory Porcellino writes about, but it was clear that the humor involved made it a pleasure. It also gave him another chance to do drawings of children unhinged by Christmas. It's a genuine pleasure to isolate specific Porcellino images on the page as well as see them in their larger context. That speaks to his understanding of a cartoonist on how the micro and macro moments interact with each other, and how even the smallest moments accrue into larger truths. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Minis: November Garcia

There are a lot of ways to think about the most recent comics from November Garcia, which include Malarkey #5 and (Even) More Diary Comics From A Relative Nobody. The first thing I want to discuss, however, is Garcia's level of craft. Even though many of these comics were done during what was clearly a tumultuous time on top of dealing with the global pandemic, Garcia's drawings qua drawings show her at her peak. In Diary Comics, which is all black and white, there's a level of mastery and control on every page that reflects her comfort in working on fine details when appropriate but never quite leaving behind the rubbery qualities of her line that helps make her comics so funny. Her use of body language, facial expressions, and even the way she letters her comics is simply pleasurable to look at. Malarkey makes extensive use of spot color, usually for reasons of mood or contrast, and it's every bit as effective. Even the non-narrative sequence where she illustrates the lyrics of a song show Garcia returning to her psychedelic roots, only this time there's a much greater use of restraint. 


Diary Comics, like much of Garcia's work, tends toward closed autobiography. There isn't much in the way of context, emotionally or otherwise, but it doesn't matter much because she never cloaks her diary in any kind of coherent gimmick. That total lack of pretension is what makes Garcia's work so refreshing, along with the fact that she's a humorist even in the grimmest of situations. That almost ruthless funniness, usually at her own expense, reminds me a little of what Keiler Roberts does, only with a completely different personal context. What I mean by a lack of a gimmick, Garcia makes it clear that she's dealing with mental illness, addiction, social anxiety, and grief, among other issues, but all of those problems are muted in favor of trying to work them into gags. There's a strip where her therapist decides that Garcia has bipolar disorder, so she gives her Valpros. Garcia shrugs, saying, "Bend my brain, Valpros!" and matter-of-factly reports the drug helping her concentrate but also making her feel indifferent. Garcia is a clever, succinct writer, but it's her drawings that sell the hell out of every panel. Seeing the way she draws her hair alone is a big part of the appeal of her work.



Garcia's comics have also been about her slow entry and acceptance into the world of alternative comics. There's a strip about being named as an Ignatz award juror and having a funny conversation with Gabby Schulz about it. There's a self-deprecating strip about her "process" that touches on her cycle of addiction and fitness. There's a particularly grim strip that shows her completely over herself and her "made-up problems," wondering why people are even buying her comics. There are also more traditional comics about sharing old photos with an ex and making mutually lascivious comments and a hilarious set of exchanges with her dad about modern technology. 



Malarkey #5 I believe is slated to be the final issue, and it's the most substantial one to date. The issue touches on mortality and the time we spend together. As always, any material about Garcia's mother is gold and Garcia could write an entire book about her childhood alone that would be hilarious and weird. In this issue, she discusses how she first encountered death: first through pets, then her grandfather (as she tried to summon up feelings) when she was still quite young, and then her more recent friends and relatives. That makes her think about how she's living her own life, and it's sometimes a grim prospect.


That leads into a long, psychedelic adaptation of the song "Gasoline" by Shovels and Rope. It's a harsh, cynical take on life matched by Garcia's absurd, visceral, and weird drawings. She goes all-out here, playing up lurid, sick colors with the images of rot, decay, and putrescence. The back half of the issue features two examples of Garcia's specialty: the travelogue. Garcia particularly enjoys portraying the more depraved and hilarious aspects of her trip, like sending cocaine to former cartoonist Tom Van Deusen and giving him a bare-ass spanking along with cartoonist Max Clotfelter. It's such a ridiculous sequence of events, with the best part being a panel where he's getting spanked and his face is a mask of pleasure with little hearts surrounding it. The final sequence of a hung-over Garcia looking at a photo of herself elbow-dropping a bible capped off the silliness while giving it all a touch of regret.

More meditative is her account of her trip to Hawai'i with her husband and partner-in-crime Roy as they meet cartoonist Gabby Schulz. Garcia used an open-page layout here, which seemed fitting in this dreamy, meditative story that focused on a hike they all took together. Even the lighter use of color (colored pencils, perhaps?), as opposed to the denser, more saturated hues elsewhere in the book, reflect the gentler, more thoughtful tone at work here. There's still plenty of funny content, once again mostly at Garcia's expense (like having to slog through a deep puddle while the boys manage to mostly skip over it), but it's all a bit of an oasis, both personally and artistically.

The issue concludes with her mom's outrageous statements, told with a metal-blue wash. Garcia assembled something special here, even if it seemed to take an enormous toll in so doing. The raw nature of her observations, the lack of pretense, and her willingness to ramble all give her comics a sense of vulnerability and verisimilitude in a way a smoother narrative doesn't. Indeed, life itself is not a smooth narrative where everything makes, and Garcia's comics reflect that herky-jerky quality in a way that doesn't spare exploration of her most nihilistic thoughts but also allows her to share the absurd delight with which she views the world and the genuine curiosity and affection she feels for others.