Sunday, December 19, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #19: Emil O Melia

Emil O Melia is an example of a first-year CCS student who makes the most of the standard assignments. In On The Market, for example, this is the Aesop's Fable assignment about a young mouse who thought a rooster was threatening and a cat was friendly, until her mother told her not to judge appearances. Melia drew a story featuring anthropomorphic characters, as a mouse named Yon took a job at a farmer's market and was immediately seduced by a cat. The next day, when she was befriended by a rooster, the cat revealed that she was just trying to make her girlfriend jealous when she made out with Yon. It's a gentle jab of a story, one where Melia's delicate touch with their pencil and vivid use of colors carried the gently amusing narrative. 


Ilex is the classic CCS application comic, which must feature a robot, a snowman, and a piece of fruit. Melia turned it into a horror comic. Melia spotted a snowman with a tangled piece of downed power line as an arm on a walk after contracting food poisoning. What they slowly realized was that the snowman's arm was dropping poisonous holly berries into their meds and tea in an effort to murder them. The comic doesn't outlive its welcome, and though it looks like it was drawn quickly and digitally, there's a spontaneity to the line that's appealing. 


Twin Flame is the Ed Emberley assignment. Melia really got into the spirit of absolute minimalism, with the slight cheat of relying heavily on color for narrative clarity. It's a story of two best friends who seem to have some kind of godlike or spiritual role in the world. Separated by distance, they meet in dreams and in the forms of their creations, who are all in their image. It's a touching, gentle romance of a story. Melia is clearly just trying to figure things out as an artist, but there's a light touch to their storytelling that's highly appealing. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #18: Leeah Swift

Leeah Swift's comics have a searing quality owing to her willingness to churn through a lot of issues in public, especially with regard to mental health. As a result, I braced myself for the stories in her collection Tit Bits, given the plethora of content warnings at the beginning and an apologia at the end. However, the collection felt quite restrained and reserved, leaving much to the imagination in its examination of various kinds of tensions. Which is not to say that they weren't interesting or emotionally resonant, just not as heavy as Swift implied.

"A Talk" was my favorite of the three stories. It depicts an outdoors adventure with two trans women, Violet and Jane, who have diametrically opposed ideas as to what it means to live as a trans person. Of course, the ridiculous adventure, including tiptoeing over a suspension bridge, going over rough ground, and up rope ladders, was all a funny visual metaphor for the rough ground they were experiencing as friends. Jane couldn't stop framing every idea and personal interaction as a political one, and Violet was tired of jargon and politics and just wanted to be a woman. Moreover, she didn't want to be talked down to just because she didn't want to engage politically. In the afterword, Swift said she didn't want to make specific, grand statements about being trans; while that may be true, she still touched on something that really landed here. 



"A Joke" is about a deeply depressed and anxious woman named Luna, and the story is about not just the awkwardness of social interactions and social anxiety in general, but about how sometimes the possibility of communication seems impossible. This plays out in the form of a joke that Luna tells after she's late for work yet again, and it also points to the ways in which boundaries play out in situations like this. Swift's distorted, grotesque, and funny cartooning is the star here, especially as Luna's face twists into grimaces and forced smiles. 

"A Show" is the simplest of the three stories, but also the most emotionally powerful in its way. It's about a trans woman named Alexa who simply wants to get a bite to eat before she walks home from work and her fear in being pursued by an overbearing asshole. It speaks to both the possibility of sexual violence that women face in situations like this, and how this is often even more dangerous for trans women. In the story, she makes it home safely (thanks in part to a bit of magical realism and a lamp post that helps hide her) and texts someone who cares about her. That last page, a splash page where she's safely in bed, is an expression of not just relief but connection. Swift's storytelling is an absolute delight, and its singular stylistic quality will actually work for any number of stories. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #17: Violet Kitchen

Violet Kitchen, another first-year CCS student, definitely has the goods. She submitted five comics for review, and they're all quite good. You Are These Streets And These Streets Are You is comics-as-poetry with a memorable palette consisting of violet, blue, and yellow. The water metaphor is used in an interesting way; rather than the constant rain being depressing, Kitchen instead talks about mirroring the malleability of water and literally going with the flow, "ready to pour myself out to the nearest passerby, to prove that water has a memory." Matching the text with images of rain pouring from the sky, umbrellas in the street, and water running down drains as a sort of visual metonomy is clever and heartfelt. 

Immortals is the Ed Emberley assignment, about an immortal being trying to track down another immortal being on an otherwise inhabitated planet. Kitchen goes beyond aspects of the assignment in that everything in the comic is fairly naturalistic with the exception of the protagonist, who is strictly a stick figure. An expressive stick figure, to be sure, but a stick figure nonetheless. Once again, Kitchen's prose is assured, terse, and powerful. 

Do You Believe In Life After Love? is a classic experimental comic, taking pages from many other comics and doing a "mixtape" style cut-up with an entirely new narrative superpositioned over the original images. In this case, it's literally about a mixtape that someone made and is listening to now in an effort to not kill themselves. Kitchen has an interesting and varied bookshelf, especially in terms of color, and it made for a lively experiment. 

Baggage is from an anthology about in-between spaces that Kitchen was part of, and it's yet another polished, smart, and visually striking but restrained narrative. This story is about hotel rooms, clearly inspired by Richard McGuire's classic story "Here." That's a story about a space over a long period of time, as opposed to a set of characters, and there's a particular page where Kitchen depicts snippets of the lives of dozens of people who stayed in that room, echoing the experience of her unseen protagonist, who muses on living out of a suitcase, trying to imprint a little of one's home on a room, and then leaving it all behind. She also muses that we leave something of ourselves in these spaces; dreams, if nothing else. 

Lack. is a personal zine about Kitchen coming to terms with the idea that she is asexual. This was my favorite of Kitchen's work, partly because it was the most personal and partly because the art was more raw. One possible concern for her as an artist is a tendency to be almost too polished at times; I wanted to see something where she spilled a little ink, metaphorically speaking, and had a little more urgency in her line. The is a memoir that discusses a lifetime of feeling like she was missing something because she didn't feel sexual attraction and horror at the prospect of delivering something she didn't want to do with she was older. Combine that with a perpetually youthful appearance, and Kitchen described a sense of being "unfinished." When she finally came to terms with asexuality, she noted that while it was freeing, she's still having trouble fully coming to terms with being romantic but asexeal. Helping others has helped her accept it herself a little, but I appreciated the idea that she hadn't made some hero's journey, where everything was great on the other side. Things are still confusing, uncertain, and fraught. Kitchen's use of black and white and a slightly tremulous line made the story all the more effective, getting across her vulnerability in a way that her confident prose didn't always directly convey. Kitchen can do anything she wants and is on her way to big things; I'll be curious to see her direction.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #16: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden was one of my favorite CCS cartoonists from the moment I saw their first comics. He's in that Chuck Forsman liminal space where it's hard to say exactly what they're doing. It's genre, to be sure. But there's a sheer weirdness and some genuinely frightening aspects to the work that lingers in one's mind. It's like a second cousin to Chester Brown's early work. 


Hadden seems to have really hit their stride with their Kricket series of comics, however. It's a kids' comic with a lighter touch that doesn't give up an ounce of its weirdness, and the new mini, The Mad Dungeon Lord, continues this trend. One can see that Hadden respects and likes genre tropes but is also perfectly willing to take a self-aware wrecking ball to those tropes. It all begins with Reilly's pleasing character designs, from Kricket to Louise (who feels Moomin-inspired) to the various robots to the Mad Dungeon Lord himself. There's also a bit of Tronheim & Sfar's Donjon at work here as well, as Reilly simultaneously spoofs the fantasy genre while also expressing love for it. Like most of the Kricket comics, there's a silly punchline at the end, some non-sequiturs, and a great deal of unexplained strangeness. In other words, your typical Hadden comic. Subverting expectations is Hadden's specialty, and the way the fear on Kricket's face is completely absent in the story is part of why it's funny. Ultimately, I'm looking forward to a big collection of Kricket comics.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #15: Erika Bloomdahl

Erika Bloomdahl is a first-year CCS student, and her work reflects someone curious about a number of different kinds of styles. The Quest Of Grad School is a full-color fantasy story that's a positive self-talk metaphor for grappling with post-graduate education. Bloomdahl may well wind up as a fantasy illustrator because she seemed comfortable with these tropes and her use of color. It Could Happen To You is her take on the Ed Emberley assignment, using only simplified silhouettes in her character design. It tells the tale of a cowgirl out to see the world after her mother died, and her unexpected romance with a sailor. It's an excellent example of how storytelling and gesture have little to do with actual drawing because her use of body language conveys a fairly sophisticated narrative with little detail otherwise. 



Bloomdahl also submitted a one-page, black and white comic that's a mix of horror and comedy. She creates a genuinely tense build about thunderstorms but calm seas in a seaside town, as parents tell their children to avoid the ocean during this time. The fears built up about what monster could reside there are first deflated (as it's a giant young woman wearing a knit hat) and then amplified (as her teeth are razor-sharp). As a drawing assignment, it's a further example of her chops (there's even extensive stippling!), but it's a strong piece overall. Her lettering is inconsistent and a bit messy and the actual panel layout doesn't quite line up, but those are small technical matters that can be ironed out later. Bloomdahl seems ready to tackles something bigger, and I suspect some kind of fantasy or horror story (with a twist of some kind) may well be what she excels at. Of course, there's no reason why she can't try everything, as a few cartoonists (Eleanor Davis, Mike Dawson) do. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #14: Juniper Kim

Juniper Kim is a promising first-year student at CCS. She's embraced a wide variety of styles and genres and has shown a great deal of skill in all of them. She submitted a number of short comics for this project.



In the category of "narrative comics," Kim (who also goes by Betty Kim, or Betty J. Kim), started with "Laborers Of Love." I'd say this is as poetic as it is about narrative, and it seems obliquely about pandemic times, as well as imagining a life in a post-capitalist world. It's about human connection and an understanding of how those structures directly impede it, and her use of wavy lines a pink-purple wash doubled down on this emotion. Some of the line art in the panels was obscured by the wash at times, but for the most part, it worked well in intensifying it. "Head/Heartaches" is a bit of autobio where Kim reflects on mental illness and physical pain, and how accepting one's imperfections instead of trying to rid yourself of them is crucial to self-acceptance. Kim's immersive style is highly effective here, as the moody purple and use of shadows effectively conveys this inner conflict. "Every Flavor A Ghost," written by Noah Cho, sees Kim use a different visual technique. It's a more standard grid, as she's relaying Cho's sensory memories and how they connect him to his grandmother. The colors are more balanced and varied while still quite vivid, and Kim successfully adapted a more naturalistic style. 



Kim also submitted three "political cartoons." The first, "Psychiatrist's Office," is actually a pretty good gag. The background features a tearful patient (presumably Kim, but it doesn't matter), while the foreground sees the psychiatrist doodling cubes and fancy logos like a junior high schooler. "All My Flaws And Why They're Not My Fault" is a simple Venn diagram, cleverly inverting the negative stereotypes of being Asian, "womanly," and bisexual to explain her poor driving, tardiness, and impulsivity. When traits are reified by society, why not turn them around? "Making Friends As A Person Of Color In Vermont" has Kim introducing herself and the woman she's being introduced to pouring out a litany of liberal concerns that ignores her actual personhood. The only problem with the gag is that it's mostly textual. 



There were also two diary comics, both short (the best kind of diary comic). "I Want To Be A Girlboss But" is in black and white with grayscale shading, and Kim really shows off her line and clever use of a gird here. It's Kim in a shower, thinking about what's important and what's not, and how difficult it is to engage in things like hygiene when depressed. Like all of Kim's work, though, it's less about personal depression and more about existential malaise in general, especially with regard to the expectations of others with regard to "work." "Vacation Brain" may be her best piece; it's about self-reflection and overthinking in the context of how car rides and day trips keep her from going totally over the edge. There's an interesting take on the concept of vacation and how approaching vacation time as something totally great avoids the idea of returning to your regular, terrible life. It's another existentialist thought, akin to the idea of angst in confronting the idea of the void. I thought some of the storytelling was a big cramped; I wished for a bigger page to let some of those early panels breathe and get a real sense of the Vermont countryside. 

Kim submitted three comics-as-poetry pieces. "ACH" is a black and white piece with shifting pencil tones, possibly indicating light and/or wind in a vague environment, spread over a six-panel grid. Kim's command over her pencil makes this piece interesting to look at. "Alienation Triptych" is a collage of various colorful images from daily life and the environment, assembled in a jagged, abstract manner. The text relates to Kim's theme throughout: the thorny issue of mental illness, conformity, and "neat" vs "messy" living. It's ultimately about the desperate urge to connect. "Love Letter" is not a letter to a particular person, but to Love itself. It's about the desire not just to love in the moment, but also to have the sense of a tomorrow that will come where love will also exist. Kim paints it as delusional but necessary, and her blurry use of deep, bruised purples backs up this conflation of love and deep, sleepy darkness. 

Finally, Professor Foxglove's Fungal Fantasia is a mini drawn in the style of a kids' comic, even if the professor in question is exposed to magical, musical mushrooms. This is a trippy, weird bit of fun, but it also displayed Kim's range in proving she's adept at multiple kinds of storytelling. She can pretty much do whatever she wants in comics; she'll just need to figure out what it is she wants to do. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #13: Daryl Seitchik

Daryl Seitchik was a great cartoonist a long time before she enrolled at CCS, and she continues to publish a varied and fascinating array of comics. She did the latest in the CCS-published "graphic guide" series, part of CCS's initiative regarding what James Sturm refers to as "applied cartooning." It's his belief that comics can be made part of nearly any profession, especially when it has educational, training, or advocacy as part of its mission. Past CCS guide series have included mental health, navigating the health care system, and voting & governance. Seitchik took on literacy in How We Read

Seitchik is a sharp author. Drawn in her friendly Moon Bunnies style, the comic follows a girl who is frustrated in her attempts to read, a spider who drops in to teach her, and anthropomorphic letters that turn into sounds. Visually, it's clearly designed and friendly, with big panels and clear lettering. One would think that these would be necessities, but Seitchik is clearly trying to appeal to people who don't necessarily read comics. Starting with the miraculous process by which we turn sounds into symbols and signifiers, Seitchik takes the extra step by using her pleasing, cartoony style to break down how the brain works with regard to language. She then takes on a tour of the history of language and crucially notes that speech preceded written language by thousands of years. 


However, it was that creation of written language, roughly simultaneously in different spots around the world, that proved to be the bellwether for the advancement of human civilization. Seitchik briefly elaborates on how reading helps expand our minds and helps us learn more, while carefully noting that the age and the rate at which we learn to read has nothing to do with our overall intelligence. It's just that our brains work differently. From there, Seitchick cleverly breaks down the process of how we read according to the best available science and contrasts that with ineffective methods often used in schools that focus on memorization instead of breaking words down phonetically. Seitchik also touches on issues related to diversity, subject matter, and special accommodations for those who need them. It's all told with Seitchik's typical level of restraint, brightened up by her tasteful use of color. It's also sweet and funny, making it easy medicine indeed. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #12: Mac Maclean

Mac Maclean's comics have revolved around their father, who died in 2017. The three comics they presented here are part of their thesis, titled Now I Can Get A Word In. It's a funny and bittersweet title by a young artist who's trying to figure out both their relationship with their father as well as their own shifting identity as a trans person. The minis are part of this larger puzzle, yet each one is distinctly packaged and serves as its own unique entity. 


In The Stain, for example, Maclean quickly established that their father was a minister who died in 2017. I'm pegging this as either an intro chapter or something very close to that, because Maclean established their dad's personality as well as aspects of their dynamic with an incredible sight gag. As Maclean and their brother fidgeted as their father delivered a sermon, their brother noticed a growing red stain developing on his white vestment laid on his chest. The congregation started to panic until their brother yelled at his dad, and he pulled out a red, felt-tipped marker that he had left uncapped in his pocket. It was a great joke, but it also added foreshadowing to the sense his dad had that he wasn't going to live a long life. It was part of the indecipherable enigma that their dad presented.


Suit was about outward presentation. It started with the suit they buried their father in, the suit he wore all the time in his role as professor and pastor. There's a great page where Maclean has an imaginary action figure of their dad in a box labeled "G.I. DAD." The suit was a uniform; uncomfortable, but it looked good and projected the image he wanted. Maclean details each part of the uniform and then recalls the suit they wore to a wedding, wondering about feeling comfortable not just in a suit, but in their own body. All along, they confessed to wanting more from him, More intimacy. Being more present. 

Maybe He Did further touched on his enigmatic qualities, as it focused on times in his life where he nearly died and tried to hide it as much as possible from his children. When Maclean was at college, their brother had to call them to tell them to let them know that their father was getting heart surgery. In the end, Maclean asked: did he know he was going to die? Their brother said he hadn't been feeling well, but he preferred to do nothing than bother anyone else about it. It's another case of their father very deliberately keeping others out with a smile and a bit of dismissiveness and a great deal of secrecy. In response, Maclean's narrative is all about wanting little more than being let in. 


One of the big reasons why it works is the careful use of grayscale and spot color in creating atmosphere, tone, and weight. That is all secondary to the real achievement: Maclean's choices in character design and their use of gesture. The exaggerated, cartoony, and outsized character design for both their father and themselves is almost comical-looking; it's a funny shape, and their father's glasses and mustache are equally funny. It's part of the aesthetic. At the same time, the use of body language and gesture is exquisite and frequently devastating, like Maclean squeezing their eyes in grief, sadness, and frustration when hearing their dad was going to be in surgery. This is all a highly promising beginning for the memoir, and I imagine the finished product will be excellent. 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #11: Rebecca Schuchat

Rebecca Schuchat's work at CCS has been interesting because I'm not quite sure what kind of cartoonist she wants to be, and I'm not sure she is either. She has wisely used her time at CCS to explore a lot of different approaches to cartooning. One thing that is clear is that she has an observer's sharp eye. In Train, for example, this is a landscape-formatted comic that's spiral-bound, with a plastic cover. Using watercolors, she tells the story of the kind of people who get on the Q train in New York, starting with Coney Island and ending on 96th Street in Manhattan. 


It's an entirely wordless comic, (other than announcements from the PA) but it's not without communication. Indeed, she follows each of the passengers with thought balloons that contain images. This is what carries the narrative, and they vary from people thinking about food, sex, pets, aliens, Karl Marx to everyone thinking about flowers when someone walks in with a big bouquet. Schuchat's use of color is bright and bold but still restrained, as that particular technique lends itself to a more nuanced use of palette than standard computer coloring. However, what really stands out here is Schuchat's use of line. Even with a relatively stripped-down figure drawing style, Schuchat's thick line is highly effective in not letting color overwhelm her pages, and her use of gesture and body language is top-notch. 


Her other entry, an accordion version of a webcomic called The Filibuster, is straight-up comics journalism and advocacy. ("Applied comics," as they would say at CCS.) It's well-researched and well-written, as she creates a compelling case for why the Congressional filibuster needs to be ended. She lands a particularly good point when she says that the spirit of the filibuster--lively debate--is all but dead, given that people no longer actually discuss issues and can actually do it online. That said, it's not especially visually compelling. I realize that Schuchat was trying to go for red and blue to represent the parties, but the light blue and purplish-red acted as distractions, especially with the zip-a-tone effect that she used. Schuchat had to use a lot of caricature and naturalistic drawing, which I don't think is a particular strength. Of course, this comic (originally published at The Guardian) had a wider audience, and her storytelling was certainly clear enough to do the job, especially with her use of infinite scroll instead of a standard grid. The art felt secondary to her writing and bordered on being illustration instead of being a comic. That said, her even-handed descriptions of hot-topic events make her well-suited for comics journalism, but a more interesting visual approach would better serve her advocacy. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #10: Faith Cox

Faith Cox's comics stroll into comics-as-poetry territory a bit, especially with regard to how she uses prose. In Vermont Comic, she uses single-panel pages to illustrate her frustration with moving, with a lack of having a home space of her own. There's a sense of living hand-to-mouth, of impermanence that's palpable here. The images are sharp and simple and merge well with Cox's hand lettering. It ends on a bit of a gag, but the sentiment is real. 



In Serotinous, Cox ruminates on place and its relationship to identity. She thinks of herself on the east coast, no longer connecting with it or her memories. She describes home as not a place but "a time long gone." Home is a feeling more than a location, and it's obvious the changes she went through and are still going through have left her restless. There's a clever visual metaphor she uses in describing how the term serotiny refers to plants that bloom late. Some trees only bloom after extreme heat, waiting "for a spark to ignite." For Cox, being a late bloomer is like being on fire. But this is a flame of rebirth, of forging something through destruction and heat. Both of these are a metaphor for an illustrator who's just getting started with her career and prove to be an apt metaphor for where she stands in her process as an artist. While she's skilled, these comics are almost a little too slick; you can see the illustrator in her covering up the rough edges. I'd like to see her get more raw on the page and indulge in first-line/best-line, and then return to her professional chops later.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #9: Maya Escobar

Maya Escobar is a first-year CCS student and a former librarian who specialized in YA fiction, but she especially loved comics. She decided to throw her hat into the cartooning ring and the early results are promising. Sucks To Be U is the CCS Aesop's fable assignment, this time around based on "The Crow And The Pitcher." That's the one where a thirsty bird dropped pebbles into a narrow-necked pitcher, until the water was high enough for them to drink. Escobar's version shows that she's certainly got chops as a cartoonist, and she's funny to boot. The crow wears a little Clash t-shirt for some reason, and there's a marvelous physicality in how she draws the crow picking up what seem to be odd-shaped rocks. Of course, they turn out to be something else altogether, adding an additional dark gag to what is usually portrayed as an upbeat, aspirational story.

 


Swap Night is a three-pager that's also a gag comic, albeit one that relies on horror trope. A showdown between a vampire and a werewolf is halted when the vampire accidentally cuts herself with a blade. That results in a stalemate and a surprising trade. Escobar's pencil work here is extremely confident and fluid. There's still some stiffness with regard to how the characters interact with each other in space, but the character design is crisp and attention-getting, while her line feels energetic and spontaneous. The whole thing just has a nice bounce for a story with a very simple gag and payoff. Comedy-horror may well be her path in comics for the moment, and she's well on the way to crafting stories that will no doubt be entertaining. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #8: Meg Selkey

Meg Selkey's offerings for this year both involve children in different contexts. Mothering is a fascinating short mini in full color about the intersection between being an artist and the urge to become a mother. It asks the question: "Is it selfish to want to create a person?" As an artist, Selkey reflects on art and play as a process of creation and nurturing. She also refers to a funny and misogynistic quote decrying women becoming artists, because they already get to create life. Of course, from a philosophical point of view, when a work of art is done, it is only done when it is shared with the public. From that point on, the artist has no control of what the piece means, or rather, no more control than anyone else. This is quite the opposite with a child when they're born, where there is the dueling but congruent tension of guiding and nurturing the child while encouraging their own agency. Selkey's splashy and splattered color mimics a kid at a mini-easel while actually drawing that very thing, before it segues into more muted but gorgeous and expressive line art. 


Matching is a wordless story involving two babies, presumably twins, being presented to each other. Each page features three different moments in time, as they grow up in each other's orbits. Sometimes this is depicted as extreme closeness, sometimes as occupying the same space but not interacting, and later as the kind of intense conflict that only siblings can have. It also has the kind of rapprochement and caring that only siblings can have, as they revert back to their early, physically comforting interactions. There's a beautifully poetic quality to Selkey's work that's tantalizing, given that I've seen so little of it. But I'm curious to see what shape her thesis will take at CCS.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #7: Madi Baker

Madi Baker is a thoughtful young cartoonist with a measured, distinctive voice. Her line is clear, slightly cartoony, and highly assured. It's clear that her future lies in some kind of journalism comics, because her observational powers and ability to convey information are strongly developed, and it's clear that she's willing to do the research and detail work necessary for that kind of endeavor. She submitted three comics for review, each of which was different in terms of topic and approach, yet all were entirely in a singular voice. 


Now Showing is a memoir comic, and it works because Baker finds an effective hook to hang some difficult topics on. In this case, it's her genuine love not just for movies, but for the very particular experience of seeing a film in a theater. Much of the comic, which consists of several different vignettes from across her life, concerns her youth and adolescence, and what movies meant to her. There's an irresistible image, repeated at the beginning and end, of Baker as a young child hiding in a laundry basket near the living room, hunkered down so she could watch movies after her bedtime. She revisited that later, saying that she never remembered actually going back to her room, but she always woke up there. She marveled that it was never mentioned and that she never got in trouble for it. 

The best memoirs purport to be about one thing but are really about something else altogether. Such is the case here. Certainly, the importance of film and the sublime aesthetic experience of the lights coming down to create a transformational experience are essential to this comic. But I'd argue that Baker's difficult relationship with her mother forms the emotional core of the narrative. That's borne out in a story where a heated argument leads her to the comfort of her older brother's room, where she watched Jurassic Park but really got unconditional acceptance as well as warm & smart advice. "Movie Hopping" is the key story, however. There's an amazing line where Baker frankly discussed that she wasn't especially close to her mom, especially in terms of doing stuff together. One time, where she "was a teenager trying to figure out what specific kind of asshole I wanted to be," (great line!) she and her mom went to see a movie. Baker was especially sullen, but her mom surprised her after the movie when they snuck back in and watched a bunch of other films. It was performative in the best possible way, and Baker's cartooning (usually fairly austere) gave it a little extra oomph with some of her mom's physical expressions.


Thorvald Erikson In His Own Words: A Somewhat Historical Retelling is a very funny account of the slightly less famous brother of Leif Erikson, the Icelandic explorer. This was drawn in the classic CCS Ed Emberley assignment mode, wherein the cartoonist had to use the Emberley building blocks of circles, triangles, and squares to draw everything simply. Baker paints this story as a sibling rivalry, where Thorvald was annoyed by his brother hogging all of his father's attention on their journeys. Later, he becomes even more annoying when he becomes a Christian after visiting Norway and tries to foist this off on everyone else. Despite these embellishments, Baker still nails all of the historically accurate details, including that Thorvald became the first recorded European to be killed in North America. Baker used this drawing style to great advantage, with lots of gags and eye pops, as though Thorvald was doodling in the margins of a textbook. 


Fad Pets is part of Baker's larger CCS thesis project, and it shows a clear way forward for her as a cartoonist. While her memoir and gag work was good, she has the potential to be a great comics journalist. There's a measure I often take when a comics journalist takes on something they feel especially passionate about. When their approach is measured and restrained despite that passion, I take notice. It's easy to rant and argue in bad faith or on manipulative & emotions grounds when trying to forward a position that's important to you. Baker resisted every one of these temptations in talking about the "fad pet" phenomenon. This is when some outside media influence creates a high demand for certain kinds of pets. Most notably, she talks about how this happened multiple times for dalmations, after the release and subsequent reboots and sequels of 101 Dalmations

Skillfully interweaving her own experiences growing up with a dalmation as well as currently owning one with statistics, critiques of breeding, and a deep dive into the history of dog shows. What this comic really is a very civil rant about people who buy pets as a form of cheap entertainment instead of understanding that not only is it a frequently difficult commitment, an owner has to meet a pet where they are. Dalmations are destructive and years of inbreeding has led to all kinds of medical issues with them. Pets aren't toys or products, which is what the cartoons make them seem like. Baker doesn't soft-peddle how difficult her dogs were but also notes the benefits--love, companionship, developing empathy--can go far beyond the cheap pop of that initial "awwww" feeling some get when they see a puppy. I'm interested in seeing how this will be expanded, but everything about this is crisp and professional. She reminds me a lot of Dan Nott's approach (and Josh Kramer's, to name another CCS grad who does comics journalism), providing a smooth and compelling take on a subject I know little about it and keeping my interest. 

Monday, December 6, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #6: Sofia Lesage

I only received two very short comics from Sofia Lesage, and one of them was the annual Aesop's fable assignment from CCS, but it's clear that she knows her way around a pencil. Cactus Story is a tiny zine about a young woman emerging from a cactus, doing a handstand, and then hiding under the cactus for shelter when it rains. It's very sweet, even if it mostly seems like a clever way to experiment with a few different effects like grayscale shading and zip-a-tone. Lesage's line is very strong, however, and the effects only enhance the comic. 


The Frog And The Mouse is a silent, sketch, anthropomorphized, and very cutely-drawn version of the story by Aesop. Shooting exclusively from her pencils, Lesage's drawings of the mouse being lured underwater by the frog belie the nastiness inherent in the story until things go horribly wrong. It's all in the details: the lines on a snail the mouse rides, the different kinds of strata on the hills she walks by, and the sketchy simplicity of the pond itself. The mix of naturalism (like a hawk swooping down to grab them both) and cartoony work on the other characters feels organic and balanced, in part because Lesage's chops are more than up to snuff with regard to rendering. However, her storytelling and pacing are also quite good. She's definitely got the chops, and I'm eager to see her tackle longer project. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #5: Leda Zawacki

Even before she entered CCS, Leda Zawacki was making interesting comics. She's only greatly advanced since then, making enigmatic but deeply personal and human comics. They touch on trauma, problematic relationships, and yearning. The deliberate narrative vagueness combined with her light touch as a cartoonist remind me a bit of Gipi and Lilli' Carre. As a draftsman, her style seems fully formed at this point, with a lot of beautiful gestural cartooning that's enhanced by her use of color. Her background in design is fully evident, given the obviously careful consideration to how she prints her comics. For example, she works at around 8.5x11" in publishing her comics, giving them a chance to really breathe on the page. What makes her fully-formed as a cartoonist is her ability to merge form and content; her expressive figure drawing and tasteful use of color directly amplify the emotional narrative of the story, allowing Zawacki to show restraint and amp up tension and ambiguity. 



In Sana & Vega, for example, the narrative hook is simple: a young woman hires a delivery service (another young woman on a motor scooter). While the driver, Vega, initially balks at this (wondering why the other woman didn't just call a rideshare), she agrees to do it when the other woman (named Sana) begs her. The result is a journey filled with both comfort and a degree of romantic tension, but it's also about trauma and loss. There's also some danger on the way, as Sana's mere presence seems to anger random men in a gas station. After Vega drops her off, she waits for her outside of the house--and has to wait a while. The implication is that Sana, carrying a box with some toys for a young child, was seeing her child for a brief period of time, but couldn't stay longer--especially since she emerged from the house crying. The character design is top-notch, as both women have completely different looks and yet fit into a single aesthetic. Zawacki's use of close-ups of their face and the occasional splash page are effective, but where she really excels is the way the characters relate to each other in space. It brings up those feelings of yearning, despair, and comfort, especially when Sana is holding on to Vega on the bike.



The Drain Pipe is a little more conventional, as it's about a young woman going to her father's house in North Carolina during winter break. Zawacki quietly clues the reader in on a number of things: she has a clingy girlfriend that she's obviously thinking about breaking up with; this isn't the house she grew up in, leaving her a bit betwixt and between; and her attraction to one of her friends who invites her out. Despite the fact that this friend (Helen) had a boyfriend, she still found her attractive and thrilled to little gestures like a touch on the shoulder and the attention she paid to her. There's a scene where Helen shows her a nearby drain pipe near her house where she and her friends liked smoking pot. Zawacki transformed this into the feminine unknown as the main (and unnamed) character had an intense sex dream about Helen in said drain pipe. A miscommunication led to her not coming out to smoke the next day, leading to intense pining and yearning for this potential fantasy scenario. In the end, she started reading her girlfriend's (many) texts again.

This is a comic that truly is about being in a transitional phase: dissatisfied with everything in one's life, wishing for some kind of magic or a person to sweep you off your feet. There's an intense sense of verisimilitude in the scenes in the local musical venue (I actually wondered if this was meant to represent Chapel Hill, given that The Cave is an actual venue and everyone in this story felt VERY Chapel Hill/Carrboro to me) and Zawacki expertly evoked that sense of being young and a little lost. Interestingly, both comics, which were both about intense character relationships, did not feature people on their covers. It's a sort of visual metanym: the bike stands in for the women, and the drain pipe stands in for this sense of vague desire. Once again, Zawacki's character design, her tasteful and restrained use of color, and her overall sense of restraint revealed that she is ready for big things. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #4: Mercedes Campos López

Mercedes Campos López is a cartoonist whose work is ideally suited for YA and middle-grade success. Her latest, Sleepover Sleuths: The Eileen Mór Lighthouse Disappearances, has an irresistible hook: three teenage girls (and an annoying but engaged younger brother) have a sleepover in order to discuss their personal theories behind real-life mysteries. In this case, it's about a Lighthouse where the three keepers mysteriously disappeared without a trace, leaving behind a plate with food and beds that were made up. It's a great enigma that's stood the test of time, given a lack of evidence to support one theory over another.


That made it perfect fodder for a story like this. In a comic that mixes the feel of sleepover and sibling dynamics with that of a fun true-crime podcast, López crafts three different narratives for the case, one for each of the three girls. One postulated a murder and tried to back it up with (discredited) logs from the youngest member of the crew. Another suggested the island was cursed and they were sucked into a dimensional rift, while a third suggested the boring but plausible theory of extremely high waves sweeping them away. López deftly added some nice narrative structure when the dad of one of the girls breaks up the party in terrifying fashion. 

The storytelling is solid throughout, However, López's line is shaky at times. She covered some of that up with her use of color, but the color saturation pushed her to use a thicker line, which was not to her advantage as an artist. This is also a case where computer coloring got a little out of hand on some pages, distracting the eye away from the line and character expressions. It seems like López's strengths are as a "first line, best line" cartoonist who is all about using a sketchy style that displays emotion and character relationships as they relate in space; the use of color and excessive embellishment disguises that. I suspect that this is something that will work itself out in time. The comic feels like an attempt at doing a polished YA work but not quite yet having the chops to do so. In terms of storytelling and characterization, López is right there. The devil will just be in the details and continuing to refine her process. 

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.