Friday, December 3, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #3, Masha Zhdanova

Masha Zhdanova deals in science-fiction stories that focus on the effects of technology on human relationships. In Golly, for example, a lonely young woman named Cordy learns about what real friendships should look like after venting to a "companion bot" at a local restaurant chain. The Ollybot is programmed to remember its customers, listen, and make occasional promotional statements. For Cordy, these are things she needed but didn't get, especially from her friend Anise, who had left town to become a model. Anise only tolerated Cordy because of their mutual friend Kam, but a fawning Cordy would do anything for Anise. 

When Anise came to town (after she lost a key gig), she tried to keep that paradigm going. It took the Ollybot being decommissioned to make Cordy understand what she needed and wasn't getting from Anise. While I'm not an expert on the style, it seems clear that Zhdanova's clearly influenced by shojo manga in her character design, mixed with that strong CCS storytelling that all of its grads are trained extensively in. The drawing is stiff and awkward at times, but Zhdanova's storytelling is clear and her ability to portray emotion carries the comic.

Visiting Is Good, But Home Is Better is the best kind of autobiographical comic: one that's fictional. Zhdanova was born in Russia and still has family there, but she was mostly raised in America. In this mini, a child named Nika leaves Rustica with her family to go out as part of a colony on Setsunia. Her parents split up not long after the move and returns to Rustica. The comic is a series of visits by Nika back to Rustica over several years. Each time, the way she feels about Rustica changes as she grows older and builds a life on Setsunia. Her father marries again and has another kid, and Nika finds it harder and harder to keep up with a language she doesn't speak as much anymore. 

More than anything, this mini is about perspective and relationships. Places become part of your essence, and one's daily habits and relationships alter one's neural pathways. Returning to old places causes cognitive dissonance; not only because nothing remains the same forever, but because even familiar things aren't the same because you're no longer the same person. Zhdanova's art had to carry a lot of unspoken aspects of the narrative, and it was more than up to the task, even on pages where her line was a bit wobbly. I suspect as she continues to draw comics, her own style will emerge and smooth out her line. 

What's important, as evidenced in the micro-minis Memories Of K-Pop and Single Lines Of Songs I Know Completely Without Context Because My Family Sings Just These Lines All The Time, is that her line is highly expressive. Her initial, fast sketches capture a lot of emotion. They key will be refining that line slightly and experimenting with how bodies relate to each other in space, as well as how bodies relate to their environment. 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #2: Cuyler Keating

Cuyler Keating had two entries for 31 Days of CCS this year. First is an all-color autobiographical mini titled Light Left On. There are three brief stories that dip into comics-as-poetry territory. "March 19th, 2020" is a COVID/lockdown comic, the kind I've seen a lot of in comics form. The clever bit of imagery here was noting that the annual spring infestation of ladybugs was met with apathy. Keating then got a bit too on the nose, talking about the Trump administration and the lockout itself; this was understandable, but jarring, given the way she had set up the strip. 

The other two stories, "Worn Down," and "Room For The Road," get at her overall aesthetic a little more directly. Written after moving into a remote farmhouse in Vermont, these comics mix word and image together seamlessly, vibrantly employing colored pencil to add contours, depth, and weight to the page. They're about a lot of things all at once: the new house, the sense of distance, her husband, and her own attempts at embracing this new, rural lifestyle. This type of comic is a departure for Keating, and it was interesting to see her flex a different kind of comics muscle, even if she's not completely comfortable with it as of yet. 

Returning to her wheelhouse, culturally subversive fantasy comics, Keating also submitted the second issue of Food For Worms. This is an epic about a society of anthropomorphic frogs living in a fearful time as a poisonous "miasma" surrounds their environs. (Even when not writing about the pandemic, Keating is writing about the pandemic.) The wild card here is a young human woman named Margeaux, who was discovered in the forest as a baby and raised by the ruler of the Font, a sort of holy religious order. 

Keating is exploring a particular kind of intersection: an ancient theocracy in its crumbling decline, confronted by an existential threat. Margeaux is in the middle of all this, as she's treated as a curiosity at best and a wage slave at worse. In the second issue, Keating starts to pull some narrative strings together, as Margeaux makes it clear that she wants to learn how to make the perfume that protects people from the toxic air of the miasma. Beyond that, her yearning is an ontological one; she wants to know all of the secrets of the frog people, in part because she has no real idea what she is. "What am I?" is as basic a question as it gets, and Margeaux faces not only opposition in understanding this, but a racist undercurrent that asks if she even deserves to live. It is othering painted with a broad brush, but I sense that Keating is going further than simply exploring that surface-level narrative. 

While the story fairly cries out for color (especially the scenes with stained-glass depictions of religious figures), Keating's use of grayscale-shading is highly effective. Of course, none of that would work without her excellent character design. She truly understands how they frog people look, act, and move on a fundamental level. She's able to render them in an entirely serious way, even if they look cute. This is part of the point, I believe; their own self-perception is utterly grave, because why wouldn't it be? This marked the end of chapter 1 of the larger story, and Keating laid down a great deal of character development and a framework for the world. Now she's going to ask the key question: what does the protagonist want? She wants to make the perfume, and she's stolen a book that will let her do so. The rest of the story will no doubt follow from this, and I'm eager to see how it will play out. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #1: Denis St. John

Kicking off another year of reviews of comics by alumni and current students of the Center for Cartoon Studies, let's begin with a long-time favorite: Denis St. John. One of a few CCS alums specializing in horror and monsters, St. John has always brought a cartoony and playful edge to his work. His newest, Heart Of The Night Monster, is no exception. One of the things that makes his comics work is that while there are monsters and weird supernatural elements, they are always grounded in the foibles of his human characters. In this comic, the main character is a borderline-feral woman named Rowan. She's obsessed with being in the forest but has no actual idea how to survive there. 

St. John has a way of stacking true weirdness on top of awkwardness. For example, after she's seen shoplifting and biting the shopkeeper, she feeds some bread to a strange little monster. When the cops catch her, she sees the outline of a larger version of that creature above the forest. Rowan is mentally ill and totally unstable, but she is disinterested in living any kind of normal life and only wants to be in the forest. When she bolts from her treatment facility, she immediately heads for the woods. Once again, she has no clue or plan, and she is attacked and nearly suffocated by a tree with plastic bags. A monster emerges to save her, cutting her from the tree and dousing her in a river, melting the bags away. 

When found by the treatment facility, she's soaking wet and has trash in her hair, but she's sanguine about the whole experience. Her roommate, Elisa, demonstrates that she might be more than she seems. This wouldn't be surprising, given her resemblance to certain characters from prior St. John comics. Rowan thought she looked like the hostess of a creature-feature program named Hella'Rella, and St. John stapled in a "secret comic" that was a mini printed on newsprint. It featured a hilariously exaggerated adventure where the horror hostess encounters a Scooby-Doo gang and systemically kills them in all kinds of cheesy ways. It's a love letter to fun schlock. In this comic and the main story, St. John really excels with regard to character design. Bugged-out eyes and a certain rubbery quality in the characters' limbs add to that sense of magical realism. This worked decently enough as a one-shot, but it feels like there will be more chapters of this. That's fine by me, because this type of wandering narrative is St. John at his most interesting, as he introduces then contextualizes new elements. This is well-crafted and highly entertaining cheesy schlock that both celebrates and engages in the tropes that make this kind of horror fun. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Rachael Smith's Quarantine Comix

Diary and memoir comics have become an extremely popular genre for cartoonists, especially in the form of webcomics or as Instagram posts. What's odd to me about this is that their ideal form is as a temporary way of helping cartoonists get through writer's block and helping them get over being too precious with their line. The classic four-panel, daily set-up forces cartoonists to crystalize the quotidian moments of their day into a narrative of some kind, complete with panel-to-panel transitions in order to create a kind of rhythm. While James Kochalka popularized the daily diary strip, Lynda Barry has spoken about how and why they're useful. Specifically, she talked about them having a limited shelf life; ideally, they should last no more than a year. 

Anything more than that, and you start to find it to be an overwhelming grind. Your line starts to break down. In essence, you are hacking them out. There are other ways in which such strips can wear out their welcome, especially if they drop any sense of narrative, or even worse, settle into a kind of smugness. That can be smug self-deprecation (this is intolerable, especially when this devolves into humblebrags) or a total lack of awareness regarding privilege. No matter how good you are, no one wants to read about your dreams, your cool kids, or the love of your life for years. Make no mistake: though diary comics are drawn from one's real life experiences, they are not the same thing as real life. They are a crafted narrative, and making those strips without regard for an audience is a guaranteed way to deliver something that becomes rote and twee. (Note: Kochalka.)

So when I started Rachael Smith's Quarantine Comix, it was with a bit of trepidation that it might be more of the same. Fortunately, Smith has a lot of tricks in her bag. First and foremost, she had COVID and the pandemic to work off of, and reactions to the first few months of quarantine are interesting. Second, she had a built-in narrative of being separated from her boyfriend because of the pandemic and how she coped with that. When they reunited, she didn't go much further; in part, I'm guessing, because there was no real story there. Third, Quarantine Comix is part of a continuum of autobiographical comics about her mental illness, along with Wired Up Wrong and Stand In Your Power. It's funny to read Smith talk about her own self-doubts and occasional self-loathing, considering how bad-ass she writes some of her fictional characters (though they have flaws as well). That includes the trope of a black dog representing her negative self-talk and self-loathing, and a white dog representing a more rational way of looking at yourself. In the context of DBT, this is a Wise Mind approach, where you acknowledge the negative feelings but try to connect them to something more rational. It's an approach woven into the strips here. 

There's more to recommend about this book, even if in terms of its observations and events, it is extremely mundane. That's because of circumstance, of course, but the observations mostly stay simple and on a surface level. Smith is funny and tries to add a punchline to as many of her observations as she can. She also eschews the four-panel grid on every page, often adding or subtracting panels, based on what the story needs. There are also full-color pages that are just illustrations of overall themes. There's one other key to the book's success: Smith doesn't date her strips, nor does she feel the need to include a strip from every day. That's often the curse of a diary strip that's gone on too long. Also, this technique spoke to the amorphous nature of time when typical structures like work and weekends started to become meaningless. 

Smith's drawing is charming and exaggerated, frequently adding to the humor of each piece. Like any good diary comic, there are subtle background elements that are more pronounced if one thinks about them. There's an underlying sense of worry about Smith's mental health from her family and friends, and it's clear that some of her friends make it their mission to check in on her. Some of the humor (like talking to her cat and it talking back) is a little on the contrived side, forcing gags on situations where there aren't really any. Worse, some of the anecdotes seemed to be used because a punchline seemed to be there, but the joke wasn't really strong enough to justify it. 

However, it's Smith's perseverance in the face of despair, ennui, and fear that's the real star of the show. In many ways, it's a class in how to seek out help with a mental illness, as Smith reaches out to friends and family, is gentle with herself as much as possible regarding productivity, and is even relatively sanguine about weight gain. The eventual reward, when she's reunited with her boyfriend, feels entirely earned, especially as she's respected the laws regarding the lockdown. While a large part of the book's appeal is its status as a historical curiosity (something that will become of greater interest as time marches on, I suspect), Smith's understanding of her own mental health issues and willingness to talk about them in public makes this a powerful work of graphic medicine in the guise of a very funny set of anecdotes. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Abby Jame's Emotional Data Test Tube Sugar Baby

The most interesting aspect of Abby Jame's hilariously titled Emotional Data Test Tube Sugar Baby is its reliance on social media culture to simultaneously critique and revel in its banality. That's the meat of the comic, but the scaffolding is a rock-solid cyberpunk plot with interesting twists and turns. The reader is thrown right into the middle of the narrative, as bored young woman Tink and her sentient computer teddy bear are bored and hungry. When she texts her sugar daddy Greg for money, it sets off a bizarre series of events that include the apocalypse (for starters), being grown in a test tube, sugar daddy incest, being used as a tool by both the government and the resistance, and a great deal of hot girl ennui. 

Jame is a member of the Michael DeForge school of thin-line characters and maximum environmental detritus. The character designs are distinct and cartoony, with her entire world stylized to the nth degree. The colors are pastel to the point of nearly being cotton candy, changing on nearly a panel-by-panel basis. The matter-of-factness with which Tink regards her fantastic environment is integral to the humor of the book, which is the essence of the work. Tink is a character with very few fucks to give and is unimpressed with the potential end of the world, the government conspiracy, or much else beyond her own personal gratification. Yet, this is the way she was raised and designed. When her apparent contact in the underground, a woman named Mits, shows her their secret weapon, a fantastic artificial being named Amanda, Tink's reaction had me howling: "She looks fun and slutty." An indignant Mits replied, "She's not that," but Tink said, "I know a fun slut when I see one." While this was a ridiculous sequence, it actually rolled directly into the plot in an unexpected way.

The only thing Tink did care about was a boy named Brad, and specifically, their social media relationship. When Brad texted her, she was outraged that all he said was "how r u?," declaring that to be hostile. She fretted over Brad unfollowing and refollowing another girl when the world was at stake and she was confronting her test-tube dad/sugar daddy. When told her destiny was to be uploaded with a program that would destroy the government, but it would kill her, she only agreed after Brad hooked up with Gretchen. There's a surprising psychedelic sequence that ties into the story and the REAL story (her social media life), culminating in an interplanetary journey. In the end, she looks for more boys. This is a story that is so totally of this moment in the zeitgeist and yet completely cognizant of this, all while transcending it in a remarkable series of gags. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Andrew Neal's Where The Rent Went

Andrew Neal's evolution as a cartoonist in his Meeting Comics strip has been fascinating to watch. He transformed it from an inchoate series of gag panels to an absurd but fully fleshed-out narrative chock full of complex, layered characters. Of these, Val Cannon became his breakout star, thanks to her give-no-fucks attitude and full possession of her sexuality. One of the fun things in Meeting Comics is when Neal randomly reveals a new fact about one of his characters. With Val, it's that she was the lead singer of a punk band called Titty Blud. 

Neal went down a rabbit hole with Meeting Comics #21: it's a one-and-done story titled "Where The Rent Went," featuring Val in 1996. Couch-surfing in precisely the kind of post-college house familiar to the sort of person still figuring things out after graduation, the story was set in a house party where Val performed. When one of the housemates reported that the envelope containing the rent was missing, the story suddenly turned into a combination of a detective story and a romance/sex saga. 

It's compelling as both. Interviewing the housemates led to a wide array of people with varying motives, which she eliminated one-by-one. Neal is thorough in not cheating with regard to providing clues but doesn't telegraph it, either. It also serves as a kind of origin story for Val as a sexual being, where she becomes aware of how much everyone in her house is into her. Cleverly, Neal solves the story's mystery but leaves the issue on a cliffhanger. 

One of the reasons why Val is so compelling is her character design. Her glasses obscure her eyes, making her seem more opaque and mysterious. Even with a mohawk and a tight leopard-print dress, she retained that air of mystery that was a big part of her attractiveness. Every character in this issue feels very much like an archetype, like long-haired Ricky with six-pack abs or a concert nuisance dubbed Dick-Out Daryl. Neal uses a pretty thick line and a lot of greyscale shading that gives his comics a sludgy feel that fits the overall mood of his work. His character design is highly stylized and wouldn't really work with a lot of cross-hatching. 

VALue Added is a bonus mini that discusses Neal's process. He goes into detail regarding Val's background and how he slowly added to it, changes he made to the script as he expanded the story, and photos back from his days living in a Chapel Hill house not unlike this. Neal also captures a certain feeling of being that age, when rather than feeling the possibilities of youth, one instead feels like life is already passing you by. That it's nearly too late to do something interesting with one's life. It's a suffocating feeling, but Val is the one character who always smoothly navigates it, no matter what. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

Ellen Lindner's Lost Diamonds Part One

Anyone who's read this blog over the years knows how much I've enjoyed Ellen Lindner's evolution as a cartoonist. One of the things I find most interesting about her work is her devotion to baseball, and in particular, her research into the role of women (or female-presenting people, as she notes) in the history of the game. Lost Diamonds is subtitled "A History Of Gender Rebellion In American Baseball," and she examines this through a particular critical lens. Rather than accept the premise that there are no female baseball players, she instead asks the question: "Why aren't there any female baseball players? What structures have prevented this from happening?"

Baseball is one of the few sports, even today, where women don't play it at any organized level other than Little League, and even that took a number of lawsuits. The only other sport where that's the case is American football, and even that has been slowly changing on a high school level, albeit in fits and starts. Sure, there's softball, but it's not the same sport. Lindner makes the case that the same individuals and forces who conspired against being inclusive of women with regard to baseball were the same ones who banned black players from major league baseball for close to sixty years. They wanted to keep it white and male, and they even created narratives around this idea and propagated it through the press and the very companies that created baseball-related products. 

Indeed, Lindner notes that the origins of baseball date back to the 1700s and were both imported from Europe and combined with extant indigenous ball-and-stick games. It's just that the ball-and-stick games played in Europe were often played by women and sometimes by all genders together. Baseball became a national obsession in the US and drew interest from everyone. Just as there were well-known male barnstorming teams that went from town-to-town, so too there were women's teams, including one out of Philadelphia that was all black women. Racist press coverage diminished their nationwide appeal. At the same time, baseball teams started popping up on all-women's colleges in the northeast US. The forces that propagated the idea that baseball was "invented" by Abner Doubleday instead of being a comglomeration of many different but similar games became reified as a way of making baseball the exclusive province of white men. 

Lindner also notes that the fashion of wearing corsets, giving women extremely restricted movement, didn't help during the late 19th century. Narratives about the "fragility" of women propagated through the press also didn't help. Through it all, Lindner inserts herself as an amiable narrator, gently guiding the reader through a great deal of historical injustice with a smile. However, she's unsparing with regard to the facts, and she wields that historical record (and the attempts to alter this narrative) like a slugger. Lindner's strength as an artist has always been her skill in drawing clothing and fashion, especially from different historical eras. That's on full display here, and the blue wash adds to that sense of this being a historical document. 

This is a fascinating piece of comics journalism, and it's striking that there aren't more of these kinds of comics when it comes to sports. Sports has its share of built-in narratives with regard to the games themselves, but the behind-the-scenes events and the weird characters in the game make it an incredibly easy transfer for comics. I hope Lindner is able to eventually get a book out of this. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Molly Ostertag's The Girl From The Sea

In thinking about Molly Ostertag's fantasy graphic novel The Girl From The Sea, it's important to consider three things beyond the work itself. First, there's no other way to describe this book as anything other than frothy, very lightweight entertainment. However, there's nothing wrong with that kind of book; it's the very definition of what the late Kim Thompson would describe as Good Crap. This is a well-drawn and sharply-designed book with a refined color palette and impeccable use of fashion. Ostertag has a lively line that's accentuated but not overwhelmed by color, and her use of gesture in particular is top notch. Second, this is a queer fantasy romance aimed at a young adult audience, and there is absolutely nothing momentous about this. It is now an expectation that this is what YA fiction is going to encompass. As such, and third, a frothy YA book with conflicts that are fairly easily resolved and an utter lack of queer misery is in itself a novelty. This is a book that is ultimately about queer joy and acceptance that doesn't dip into harder questions or unresolved relationships. There are plenty of those kinds of books around (see: Fun Home), and we're reaching a point in comics where stories about marginalized groups don't all have to follow the same miserablist formula.

So as a reader and critic, it's not so much that I wanted bad things to happen to its protagonist Morgan or the selkie named Keltie, or for tragedy to befall them. It's that I felt like I was given the barest but most tantalizing outline of an exciting set of characters, and I wanted so much more. Morgan is a girl living on an island near Canada who is a closeted lesbian, a secret she keeps from even her closest friends. Those friends include the Rich One, the Funny One, and the Shy One, and they serve as little more than a sort of texting Greek Chorus. Despite that, Ostertag embues them with enough personality (and absolutely killer character designs) to make me wish they were more complex and fleshed-out. Morgan's parents are divorced and her brother is acting out. All Morgan wants to do is finish high school, leave for the big city, and then come out and live her life openly. 

That's complicated when she meets Keltie, a selkie. That's a sort of were-seal, who only can become human every seven years and can only walk on land with a true love's kiss. Keltie saves Morgan when she falls into the ocean, and she kisses her. She then pops up and declares herself bound to Morgan. Their interactions are given the most depth and complexity in the book, which makes sense. That said, it speaks to a fundamental flaw in the book's structure. When thinking about a plot, the essential question to ask is this: What does the protagonist want? In this case, Morgan wants to be closeted until she can leave. What is preventing her from doing this? Keltie. The key conflict in the book is also its most central relationship.

Every other conflict in the book--her brother's behavior, coming out to her parents, isolating herself from her friends, and even the tacked-on conflict of Keltie needing to save the seals' rookery--is easily solved and shoved to the side. The only conflict that matter is given a cute romance with a few fights and moments of confusion which are also solved with a hug and an apology. The problem is that the reader is meant to feel as though all of these other conflicts were intractable, but instead they easily melt away. It's wish-fulfillment with the lowest of stakes. Which is fine. Not every romance needs to be life or death. However, The Girl From The Sea had the potential to be so much more than it was, and it wouldn't have taken much of a structural change to get there. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Minis: Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #11

Jonathan Baylis's anthology memoir series So Buttons continues to truck along, as he just released his eleventh issue. As per usual, he has a strong eye for choosing the right artist collaborator for the right story. Perhaps the best in this issue was his collaboration with legendary UK cartoonist Phil Elliott, a mainstay of the burgeoning 80s British indy cartooning scene. Appropriately, Elliott illustrated the story of Baylis' time in London doing a semester abroad program. His charmingly sketchy style was perfect for this tale of Baylis meeting Bruce "Skinny Melink" Paley, a Brooklyn ex-pat who ran a comics store. Baylis followed up that anecdote with some surprising connections he later learned about as they connected to Elliott, Carol Swain, and others. 

Given Baylis' own circuitous history in comics, it's a story that makes sense. He spent years as an intern at various publishers, and this issue covers his time at Topps. It's bookended by illustrations from Fred Hembeck and Rick Parker, two veteran humor/gag cartoonists. The one by Parker is done in the classic Bazooka Joe style in a tribute to Baylis' friend Jay Lynch, who was a Topps veteran. Baylis is very much someone who has all sorts of geek fandoms in his wheelhouse, and the main story (drawn by Jeff Zapata) ties them together amusingly. Here's where the high production values Baylis uses for his comic strongly worked in his favor, because Zapata's smudged style would have looked messy in a black & white comic. However, the four-color palette was ideal for evoking that bright Topps aesthetic.

Baylis is a guy who's met a lot of interesting people through his various jobs. He talked about working as a coordinator for the Make-A-Wish foundation and coordinating a kid's lunch visit with John Cleese. Baylis is a sharp observer, and his comments on Cleese perhaps finding it necessary to be extra loquacious because he was nervous or needed to entertain were interesting. He also turns it from simply a name-dropping exercise into a human moment when he revealed a moment of real human tenderness in how Cleese wordlessly helped the child cut up his meal while continuing to entertain. A.T. Pratt and Garrett Gilchrist bookended the story with Cleese illustrations (lots of Monty Python stuff) and B.Mure drew it. Mure's use of what look like watercolors gave the story a sweetness to it.

When you need an illustrator to draw a story about whiskey, who else would you choose but November Garcia? This led off the issue, and it was an appropriate opener: very silly and funny, as Baylis recounted his quest to get his hands on a particular vintage of scotch. Garcia just went to town here with funny drawings; I'd be curious to see what the script's directions were for her in terms of some of the visual jokes. Finally, there was a one-page story about Baylis slipping into nostalgia for a Waldenbooks-turned-bank in New York drawn by his longtime collaborator T.J. Kirsch. Kirsch always hits that sweet spot between naturalism and cartooniness that fits so many of the affable Baylis' stories. Having Jim Rugg do a Basil Wolverton impersonation for the cover was also a real grabber, and it was a stroke of genius to commission Rugg to do it, given his extremely broad skill set. Baylis has grown extremely confident as a writer and long ago figured out the best way to play to each artist's strengths. I never get the sense that he's over-writing, which can be common in writer-artist collaborations. Despite the fact that these anecdotes are usually fairly breezy, the open nature of his writing makes them feel surprisingly chummy and even intimate. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Miranda Harmon's Spring Cakes

Miranda Harmon, from the very start of her cartooning career, had a fully-formed style. She has a lively, fluid line that lends itself to cute but expressive drawings. It's no surprise that she's worked in animation in addition to doing comics. In a lot of her early comics, however, she had a style that was looking for a narrative at times. Her new book with Holiday House, Spring Cakes, shows just how much she's been able to lean into this style for a book aimed at new readers. This is part of their "I Like To Read" comics line that is a pretty shameless copy of what Francoise Mouly does with Toon Books, right down to the fancy endpapers and hardback format.

Nothing wrong with copying success; indeed, Mouly patterned her line after Golden Books. Little kids like hardbacks, and they are much easier to shelve than a comic book and much harder to destroy. It's just the right size for small hands to flip through. With Spring Cakes, Harmon overwhelms the reader with cuteness along with some low-stakes conflicts as three girls (Ginger, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg) help their mother make a special cake by going on an adventure to find the right ingredients. 

The thing that young cartoonists tend to struggle the most with, especially when they are working digitally like Harmon here, is not overwhelm their line with garish color. It's to Harmon's credit that while this book is one long bombardment of pastels, she keeps the colors balanced and surprisingly nuanced. It's clear she thought a lot about color and color theory to enhance her bold line without detracting from the narrative power of that line. In some panels, she uses an interesting technique where the top half of the panel is white, but it slowly fades into a light pastel. This avoids too much blank space without overwhelming the panel with a lot of color. Her character design is simple and expressive, with a sophisticated understanding of how to render garments. The book's tone is loving and warm, with little touches of tension throughout that are quickly resolved without being treacly. Harmon has really found her voice with the book, although I think her future will eventually lie in YA instead of early-grade books. 

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.