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.