Monday, February 22, 2021

Sweet Home Miami: Spiny Orb Weaver #1 & Sun And Sand

Modern narratives about Miami are often about drug violence, glitzy nightclubs, and excessive & conspicuous consumption. And that's all true to an extent. I am a rare beast: a native of the Magic City, born when great swathes of unincorporated Dade county were still just strawberry fields. Miami isn't a city that produces anything; it processes things. It is reliant on tourists and suckers. It's where grifts are hatched and schemes are dashed. There are two overarching narratives about Miami that tend to go untold: it's a place where you can easily create a new persona and it's a place that's one major event away from being reclaimed by the swamp. 

If you live in a tropical paradise, who has time to create art? In spite of that, the arts have stubbornly been a part of the city's culture since its inception, especially tied to its historically strong sense of gay culture. One thing Miami has lacked is a strong comics culture. There are reasons for that. Miami is a highly decentralized place. Even former arts enclaves like Coconut Grove succumbed to hipster development that priced out the actual artists long ago. For a big city, Miami is deeply suburban. It's hard to put together a scene in a city when there aren't natural gathering places. Hard, but not impossible.

Thanks in part to Neil Brideau putting intentionality to work in creating pop-up shops with his Radiator Comics publishing concern, as well as various comics-making events, a community has begun to coalesce and publish. The best way to showcase young talent in a city like this is the tried-and-true method of the comics anthology. For Free Comic Book Day in 2020, Radiator Comics teamed with another powerful young publishing force in Miami, Jamila Rowser's Black Josei Press, to put together a free anthology titled Sun And Sand

Sure, that's an easy play on Miami's beach culture image, and that culture is certainly real. However, the comics themselves dive much deeper than that. I appreciated that in the credits, the authors were very specific about what part of South Florida they lived in. Miami is laid out as a grid in three different quadrants (the fourth quadrant is in the ocean, essentially), and so it's easy to know where someone lives based on an address or the particular sub-city, like Hialeah, Miami Beach, North Miami, etc. Culturally, there are areas of Miami that are remarkably self-contained; there are huge swathes where all businesses and even media are conducted and expressed in Spanish, for example. The result is that there are many Miamis and thus many potential stories. 

Carina Vo's "Mango Season" amusingly gets at a number of Miami truths. It is exceedingly easy to have your own tropical fruit tree in your yard, although it can be hard to keep track of them when the fruit starts to fall from the tree. Who "owns" the fruit is a matter of little interest to the abundant flora in the area, and Vo's clear line and spot reds amplify this. Jessica "Miss Jaws" Garcia has that big, bulky Johnny Negron/Michael DeForge-style character design in her story debating the superiority of the swimming pool vs the beach, with the potential wildlife in the latter being unnerving. Garcia makes effective use of extreme close-ups in this witty story.

Estrella Vega's story speaks to my earlier reference of Miami being close to returning to swampland, given the right set of events. Her illustrations juxtaposing daily life in Miami with a ghost level of flooding and corresponding invasion of critters is a sobering one. There was a reason why we weren't allowed to play near canals as children. Isai Oviedo's story about purloined croquetas played on the many crime stories set in Miami as well as amusing stereotypes of the sort of people who live there. Oviedo gets across the greasy deliciousness of that particular snack; Cuban food has a particular stick-to-the-bones quality to it. 

I've followed Drew Lerman's career for a while, and his Roy & Dav characters were particularly delightful in this anthology, channelling the golden age of cartooning in terms of their speech patterns and ragged-line. Brideu's "Critters" was interesting to read because for a transplanted Miami like him, the preponderance of fauna not found in other parts of the country can be overwhelming. I miss the friendly gecko lizards, personally. Miriam Rae-Silver's "HOA" speaks to both that fauna, including the invincible, omnipresent gators, as well as Miami's obsession with wealth and appearances. P.C. de la Cruz's fantasy of his uncle being attacked by a python on a fishing trip speaks to a real presence of these snakes who have no natural predators infiltrating the Everglades. 

Horror artist Jorge Lantigua's "Colada" combines his cartoony but menacing line in depicting the bewitching power of this particular Cuban coffee. Jamilla Rowser wrote and Vo drew a lovely story about snorkeling and the astounding worlds that await just below the ocean's surface. It's a lovely capper to an anthology that understands the essence of its city and the people who live there, as opposed to its image.

The Brideau-edited anthology Spiny Orb Weaver #1 plays on his fascination with the local creatures, as this is a spider that spins beautiful, intricate webs. It's a fitting metaphor for cartoonists. There are three features. The first is a long story by Jessica "Miss Jaws" Garcia titled "Just A Walk Around The Block." Her character design is superb, as her female lead has a powerful presence that provides visual irony given how socially anxious she is. The story is a dialogue between her and her dog, who chastises her inability to make friends and allow him to to get to interact with the world. When he later loses control when he sees another dog, he reveals that he was never socialized with other dogs and is afraid of them...much like she is. In the final scene, where she makes friends with someone who pets her dog, Garcia pulls back. After a story full of fairly tight close-ups that illustrated how closed-off her world was, that final scene framed her as part of the larger world. 

Garcia's subsequent interview is revealing, as she discusses her training in illustration and animation and how this led her to comics. It was telling that she revealed that she's from Palm Beach county, which is two hours away from Miami. It's still South Florida and separate from the rest of the state, but it's also different from the wilder aspect of Miami. She also talks a lot about isolation, rejection, and trying to find a local scene. Tana Oshima's illustrated essay on paradise was fascinating as it compared her time living in Miami to living in Japan, bringing up the concept of asking for permission to be in certain spaces. Once again, Oshima is an artist who recognized Miami's almost feral, wild qualities that many people pretend aren't there in favor of luxury. Oshima's use of stark black and white contrasts speaks to the raw contrasts in poverty and luxury in Miami, going neighborhood by neighborhood. Even in the poorest of neighborhoods, however, there is a flowering abundance of hope and imagination. It's Brideau's mission, I believe, to highlight this abundance as an editor, publisher, creator, and enthusiast of comics.

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