Friday, December 31, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #35: Michael Sweater

Michael Sweater's comics are often aggressively cute. That cuteness is cut by his funny satires of hipster culture, making what initially looks like YA comics into classic slacker slice-of-life comics. His collection of "Please Keep Warm" comics, This Must Be the Place., has a line-up of quirky and mostly lovable writers, kids, punks, toughs, weirdos, and working people. Using a formula that goes back to Peter Bagge and Hate, and more recently Simon Hanselmann with Meg, Mogg, and Owl, Sweater gently pokes fun at his characters while also clearly displaying a great deal of affection for them. 

The comic is a series of vignettes featuring an inquisitive kid named Clover, her Uncle Stan (a writer with perpetual writer's block), an accountant-type named Catman, and a slacker woman named Flower. They're all housemates whose relationships are undefined in the way group houses often are. They're visited by a punk anarchist type named Kevin, a trucker hat-wearing, cigarette-smoking chicken, and have all sorts of adventures. It's all done in an anthropomorphic style that's all about strong expressions and gestures. 

Sweater keeps the stories short and snappy, with plenty of humor before eventual punchlines. For example, Clover decides to record a black metal demo and gets a bad review on Pitchfork, prompting Catman to try to cheer her up by regaling her about his goth days in high school. Stan, Clover, and Catman go on a camping trip without inviting Flower, causing her to get depressed. She's cheered by punk rabbit James, who is a marvel of character design with multiple piercings in one of his very long ears. Stan is always trying to write a novel but finds multiple excuses and reasons not to work.  

It's all very leisurely paced, which is part of its appeal. No one is in much of a hurry to do anything, inviting the reader to do the same as they stroll through the lives of character archetypes who will be familiar to many. It's Punk Lite in the best sense of what that means, poking gentle fun at the scene and the kind of group houses so familiar to people in their youth. Sweater's character design and storytelling chops are what make it feel so lively and polished. 

31 Days Of CCS #40: Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle keeps cranking out oblique, bizarre takes on capitalism and culture in the form of a world-exploring video game called Andalusian Dog, and he released four issues of the comic named after the game between February of 2021 and January of 2022. The word "surreal" gets over-used in popular culture to mean "weird" or "uncanny," but the roots of the art movement are deeply involved in an exploration of the unconscious mind and its symbols. How we encounter and process these symbols is not the same as it was a century ago when the movement began, and Cockle's comics are a response to both modern art and technological movements, their intersection, and their being co-opted by industry and capitalism.


The February 2021 issue of Andalusian Dog is titled "Ladder of Fire," a reference to the Rene Magritte painting of a key, an egg, and a wad of what looks like paper all on fire. Ordinary objects, all in the process of change and possible purification; ordinary objects in the process of being destroyed. In this issue, the paranoia and conspiracy attached to the game take on a different aspect as the narrator is dropped off in Los Angeles with a tent, a sleeping bag, a $100 gift card, and a backpack. His first move is to download Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and then overlay Andalusian Dog over it. The overlay lists the narrator's own health while providing a map to navigate his environment (since the game was based on Los Angeles). The distance between game and reality becomes nil, and the whole experience is a punishment for various crimes--real and imaginary. There's a desperate sense in this story and the next of secretly and surreptitiously working on borrowed laptops about theories of salvation; in the former story, it's the Ladder. In both stories, there's a sense of total societal abjection for the narrator, of being thrown down and thrown out of society. Yet there's a kind of desperate freedom in that. 

The November 2021 issue may be my single favorite issue of the series. Titled, "The Pit," there's once again a press-ganged aspect of the story as the narrator must help build a structure where the pit must be as deep as the tower is high, and the wall must be as long as the height of the tower. It's all for a mysterious Count as Cockle heads straight into Kafka territory, as he talks to his friends and becomes the founding and sole member of the Franz Kafka Fan Fiction Society. Later, he is thrown out of his own organization, of which he is still the sole member. Later still, he and his friends (all labeled X) are sent on a mission to an outpost for for work, Finding the outpost abandoned, part of the group searches for the group that left the outpost, leading to more abandoned outposts, more lost people, and more expeditions. Eventually, it becomes an existential game where one's own identity is in question, a sort of open-world video game where the mission eats itself. Cockle overlays maps and diagrams with less to do with standard cartography and more with game logic. 

The December 2021 issue goes back to Chile, a frequent setting in Cockle's comics. The makers and developers of the game find that the game is affecting real life, and real life is affecting game play, and they don't know how this happened. Cockle himself is a character, referring to his own comics and finding reviews of work that he's never published or even conceptualized. Once again, there's a sense of always being on unfamiliar or dubiously claimed ground, squatting in abandoned houses and finding ways to work and even throw parties. All along, the images are nightmarish but clinical; office buildings, cubicles, strange geometry in a Lovecraftian sense. Cockle is deliberately conflating dream logic with virtual reality, trying to find the line between the two--if there even is one. 

Finally, the January 2022 issue betrays almost a kind of mania, as huge walls of text appear on each page, overlaid with diagrams, sketches and scribbles that sometimes border on the abstract. It's difficult to even begin to parse, as it's a stream-of-consciousness journal about traveling to Chile once again. The back half of the issue goes in the opposite direction: oblique bursts of text paired with clip-art, diagrams, photos, blotches of ink, maps, and other ephemera. Providing an appendix perhaps only for himself, there are also excerpts from an essay about Kafka and The Decameron. This is the most oblique and self-referential of all of Cockle's comics, seeming lost in its own maze of logic, having long ago abandoned clarity with regard to narrative and plot. It's also barely what I would consider to be a comic. 

31 Days Of CCS, #32: Less Than Secret

I enjoy anthologies that are a true team effort. This is something that's one of the major first-year requirements at CCS, as students are split into teams to make an anthology in a particular style, like Golden Age adventure or romance comics or 90s style Shonen Jump manga work. Because most alternative cartoonists are solo acts, forcing this kind of collaboration can be useful and teach a lot of lessons. Less Than Secret is an anthology from several CCS grads and several other cartoonists. Beyond their contributions in terms of the stories they drew, many of the book's cartoonists had other duties related to publishing. 

CCS grads Rainer Kannenstine and Ben Wright-Heumann served as its publishers. They were there to make sure the book was on schedule, obtain funding and consider distribution. JD Laclede was the editor, working directly with talent and sequencing the stories. Erienne McCray did the design, while Kelci Crawford acted as the crowdfunding manager. Angela Boyle was an anthology consultant, which makes sense considering her years assembling the Awesome Possum anthology. That collective sense of responsibility on what was clearly a labor of love is present and strengthens the overall anthology. 

The theme here is cryptids, or animals that some people claim to exist but whose existence has never been proven. It's fitting that Steve Bissette, the master monster-maker, penned a funny intro explaining his interest in monsters from a young age. Crawford's "A Day In The Life Of Mothman" is played for laughs, as a woman is followed by the legendary creature, whose presence foretells potential disaster. However, she can sense him, and it allows her to prevent a guy from being killed by a car, avoiding a fight at a diner, and preventing her from eating a bad hot dog. Crawford's line is crisp and expressive, with a lot of grayscale shading to add weight to the page. 

McCray's comic about the "Fresno Nightcrawler" (essentially a big baseball with legs) is also played for laughs, as this cryptid is more ridiculous than scary. They added a nice touch having the Loch Ness Monsters as its roommate and Bigfoot taunt it. McCray's line is fluid and a nice match for the kind of dynamic silliness that this ridiculous creature (wearing a fedora, even!) demands. Wright-Heumann is a horror guy, and he did a sort of Western/fantasy fusion with a family of Elves fending off a group of chupacabra mysteriously attacking them. The ending is grimly clever. His scratchy line was appropriate for the subject matter, though the extensive use of grayscale was distracting at times. This was a story that cried out for color. 

I'm not crazy about comics that insert huge blocks of typewritten text, but Angela Boyle's cartooning is so sharp in her story of the odd little elwetritsch that it wasn't too distracting. Moreover, using that text as the main character's interior monologue actually made this a useful device, commenting on the comic set around it. Boyle manages to sneak an entire murder mystery into this little comic with an unassuming old woman and her strange "pet." Ian Klesch and Andrew Small's story about how a lycanthrope used a dating app to fool a woman into being his prey was funny and grisly. The figure drawing was crude at points in a way that was distracting, and some of that was due to over-drawing in an effort to bolster a shaky line. 

Rainer Kannenstine's piece about the Dover Demon went in yet another direction: how messing with weird cryptids is likely to bite you in the ass in horrible ways. It's the story of a bully who attacks the creature in the forest with a ball, then gets his head crushed in revenge. He used some digital effects in interesting ways, including a "syrup brush" for some of the background fills that added to the story's atmosphere. Jess Johnson had perhaps the silliest story in the book, as an emo kid is befriended by his sister's new boyfriend: "JD," or the infamous Jersey Devil. Johnson turned the creature into an actual hockey player and made this a romance/family story where everyone took JD's presence for granted. It's hard not to see Johnson's strong shojo manga influence, giving this a radically different look and feel from the other stories in the anthology. However, it's not a slavish adherence to the style; rather, it's a launching point into Johnson's own style. 

There's plenty of backmatter in the anthology, including full biographies and behind-the-scenes stuff that's somewhat interesting, but at 20 pages (compared to 90 pages for the rest of the book) it feels like a lot of padding. That said, the interviews asking each creator why they chose their cryptid, their creative methods, etc. was at least thoughtfully done. Overall, this is a breezy anthology that I wished had been a bit longer. 

31 Days Of CCS, #31: Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen has two entries here. The big one is the art job he did for The Good Fight, written by Ted Staunton. It is an unfortunately timely book set in 1933 Toronto, at a time when Nazis were starting to take hold. Toronto is known now as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world, but this era showed how fraught that status was, and still is, to an extent. As such, the cast is very Toronto: a Jewish kid named Sid and an Italian kid named Plug, whose families live together, try to hustle their way into helping their families during the Depression. 

The essence of this book is a shifting idea of ethical behavior in the face of poverty, systematic white supremacy, and police corruption. Sid and Plug start the book hooking up with Tommy as part of a pickpocketing trio. Tommy is Jewish but pretends he's Irish, because it's better to identity with more traditionally Anglo-Saxon ethnicities than staying true to your own identity--especially as a grifter. His patter, his swagger, and his braggadocio were things that Sid and Plug were dazzled by, even as they slowly started to understand that he would (and later did) sell them out at a moment's notice. 

When Sid and Plug were pinched and ended up at the police station, they were quickly wisened up about how the world really worked. The cops couldn't care less about some teen yeggs. What they were after (and had been watching the boys over) was the identities of labor leaders, so they could crush them. They not only couldn't care less about the ethnic minorities who were banding together in order to get better working conditions, they were happy to let the burgeoning Nazi presence in Toronto take care of their job for them. 

The book's climax was the real-world Riot at Christie Pits. It putatively started as related to a hotly-contested softball game but led to what was supposed to be a massacre of Jews, Italians, and other minorities as the cops stood by and did nothing. Instead, the marginalized groups fought back and the pro-labor Mayor was able to use this to help get control over the police, and labor gained a number of concessions. In the 21st century, this is all somehow next verse, same as the first, as various forces continue to work against labor and the general voice and betterment of marginalized peoples. 

Of course, this is all framed through the eyes of the kids in order to bring it within the purview of YA fiction. This is where Rosen steps in so ably. He has a spare but expressive cartoony style that maximizes the expressions of his characters while keeping a foot in naturalism. The color palette is admirably restrained, emphasizing Rosen's line art instead of dominating it. The characters, especially the antagonists, are on the exaggerated side at times, although Plug, Sid, and Plug's sister Rosie are well-realized. It felt like Rosie was a character Staunton wanted to do more with but couldn't quite figure out how, and her status is somewhere between central character and a side character who adds a bit of color. This amounts to Rosen's PhD in comics in some ways, as it's his first full-length book after doing a lot of minis. His style is no-frills, but it told the story ably and aptly. 

Rosen also included Wrestle Club!, a fun zine where he invented an all-women's wrestling federation. He alternated between profiles and short comics involving the wrestlers, and it's a delight. The federation (the All Girls Fight League or AGFL) is a bit like Japanese feds like Stardom where most of the fighters are pretty young (and mostly teenagers), and Rosen really keys in on how each character's gimmick is informed by their personality. This seems like a perfect future YA project; I hope Rosen pursues it. 

31 Days Of CCS, #34: Ben Wright-Heuman

Ben Wright-Heuman is a highly versatile cartoonist, writing everything from gag strips about cosplay and comics conventions to horror to suspense thrillers. The Letters Of The Devil II: The Legacy of L is certainly in the latter category, and it's a sequel to his clever original about a cop and a childhood friend engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse. The titular L delivers letters to others giving up incriminating information about someone else, and Wright-Heuman keeps the reader guessing til the end about who the protagonist of the story is--or if there even is one. 

For the sequel, Wright-Heuman takes a bit of a page out of the Scream films and adds a distinctly meta element to the proceedings. This time, there is most definitely a protagonist: a first-year Criminology student named Malina who decides to study the case surrounding L, which had become a media sensation. In particular, L's obsession with truth and justice superseding the law resonated for many. She's aided by some inside info: her mother is chief of police, and the corrupt cop at the center of the first book worked under her. When one of her friends commits suicide when she receives a chiding letter from someone who appears to be L, it opens up a brand-new can of worms. 

Like any good author of a thriller, Wright-Heuman doesn't cheat with regard to clues; they're all hiding in plain sight, if you're willing to pay attention. One of the clever meta-elements of the book is that serial killer types like L tend to spawn copycats, In this case, it inspired something far beyond that, once again invoking supernatural elements as a tease but certainly using the trappings of cultists. The ending was a bit over-the-top (especially with regard to the cult leader), but then truth is usually stranger than fiction. That's how QAnon became a viral belief system; why not the cult of L?

Heuman is limited as a draftsman, but his storytelling is solid. His use of pacing, gesture, and character interaction was solid, and his characters were highly expressive. The use of red as a contrast color and as L's signature continued to be clever. However, I found the relentlessness of the greyscale shading to be a distraction. Rather than add a sense of weight to a page and filling in dead space, Wright-Heuman drowned the whole narrative in greyscale; it served as a distraction from his storytelling, rather than an enhancement. His storytelling is strong enough that this narrative simply didn't need it. Indeed, this book was a relentless page-turner thanks to his understanding of story structure, motivation, and how to swerve the audience without it feeling cheap. A simple and limited line should be embraced in this situation, because it will provide the easiest access to that first-line/best-line expressiveness that simplicity offers. I'll be intrigued to see how Wright-Heuman continues this particular story and what new directions he can find for it. 

31 Days Of CCS, #38: Ian Richardson

Serial killers, as a genre, were played out a long time ago. There are only so many ways one can twist the concept that's not outrageously sexist, racist, and/or homophobic. There's also something lurid and exploitative about these kinds of fictional stories, and they tend to bring out justifications of godhood in these delusional, pathetic killers. Ian Richardson turns serial killer tropes on their head with his very clever On Mondays I Murder. It's told in the form of a first-person day planner, which virtually every panel being a reference either to a classic painting or something in pop culture, only with the likeness of one of the three main characters in the book. 

The first couple of chapters are a play on American Psycho-style serial killer narratives. The killer goes into loving detail about his "calling," as just another way of casually flaunting conspicuous wealth. He is above the law because he's white and rich; it's implied that he killed his own rich father in order to fund his lifestyle. When his next target mysteriously disappears, it throws off his rhythm and sense of well-being as though his calendar controlled him, and not the other way around--and to a degree, this is true. 

He eventually finds a secret diary written by his target, which reveals her as someone who's every bit as nihilistic as he is. She's constantly being objectified and finds the concept of love to be a joke. Her prey happens to be any man interviewing her for a job; it's a game for her to seduce him. The serial killer deduces that she may have been kidnapped by another serial killer, and he's right. 

Rather than shift the narrative to the other killer, it instead shifts to the "victim," as she announces that she's just killed two guys. In the long and intricate process the rich killer undertakes to attack and then convert the second killer to his cause, he never thought for a moment about the victim as anything other as a means to an end. It's the ultimate kind of depersonalization and detachment necessary for killers to operate; not only are their victims othered, every living thing is othered. She uses that against them and winds up replacing them, killing on her own terms. 

This comic gets into a highly bleak, nihilistic frame of mind and combines that with pitch-black humor. It's a satire of wealth, it's a satire of having a higher purpose, and at its heart it's a warning against the kind of isolation that a capitalist society frequently engenders. Their cynicism and contempt for others fuels their isolation, to the point where it warps them into only being able to think of others as objects at hand in the most extreme ways possible. In a warped, demented way, killing is the only time they have a glimmer of connection with someone else, and even that is heavily mediated by control rather than freely making themselves vulnerable. In the eyes of each character, even before they started to kill, the world was a binary of causing or receiving pain--and they chose to do the latter. The twist in this book is clever, as is leaving it open-ended isn't any kind of endorsement of her choice; indeed, she's become exactly the same kind of banal monster who thinks she's above it all. 

31 Days Of CCS, #33: Luke Kruger-Howard

Goes #1 is the innovative collection of comics from Luke Kruger-Howard, built on a non-profit model. I did an extensive interview with him on the model at SOLRAD, but I'm going to discuss the actual content of the book here. Howard's a talented draftsman who can work a number of different styles, but he's found something that works well for him with blocky, bulky, and distorted figures. There's an intentional distortion of naturalism at work here that emphasizes the actual quality and shape of the lines and figures. It's a self-conscious technique that pushes the experience of line qua line on the reader, making them experience the figures as both part of the story and as actual drawings. It's a delicate balancing act, but that bit of abstraction away from naturalism ironically allows the cartoonist to imbue his figures with greater emotional energy. Kruger-Howard's line is certainly up to that task.

That sensitivity is crucial for a collection whose theme is "touch." Kruger-Howard explores non-romantic, non-erotic touch through the issue in a variety of ways. The main piece is "Men's Holding Group," which can best be described as the antithesis of the way many many misinterpret "Fight Club," embracing its machismo while ignoring it as a satire of capitalism. In Kruger-Howard's story, we have a story that's every bit as subversive, using non-romantic touch and intimacy between men as a way of attacking the barriers that cultural mores have erected against this kind of closeness. The story follows an organizer of and a new member of this "Men's holding group," whose purpose is to not just ask the question as to why men don't show affection toward each other, but also engage deliberately in ways to change that with hugs and holding hands--again, all in non-romantic ways. Throughout the issue, including an excerpt from a fake zine from the future, that lack of touch is labeled as a sort of emotional starvation that begins with the lack of affection many fathers have with their sons. The story is sweet and funny and awkward, as everyone acknowledges both that the whole thing is weird--but that it's also sad that it is weird. There are segues to hyper-masculine settings--the gym, football locker rooms, even the show "Friends"--and how creating a culture of friendly touch also opens up the door to greater emotional intimacy, improves communication, and creates stronger bonds between friends.

"Dead Dog" is an autobiographical story about the recent death of Kruger-Howard's family dog, Whimbly. One of Kruger-Howard's best assets as a creator is his total willingness to confront tragic and emotionally devastating revelations with gallows humor. In this story, for example, as he's hefting the corpse of his big, beloved dog, he recalls a childhood anecdote where his mom made a hilariously horrifying joke when he was trying to put his childhood dog's body into a car. At the same time, Kruger-Howard gives himself permission to write a parallel narrative where Whimbly is getting all of the food, walks, fresh air, and comfy dog beds that he wants in the afterlife--but he can never quite settle in because his people aren't there. Kruger-Howard ends the story with a look back to when he first met Whimbly as a way of expressing how our affection towards pets and each other creates a narrative that never ends. 

"Let Me Show You Around" is a clever story about therapy and anxiety. A very of Luke invites a therapist named Edith inside his "house," aka, his brain, to help him fix it. Meanwhile, the house very much has its own agenda, even as it constantly worries about falling into the ocean. It's moments like this when Kruger-Howard's work has an absurd, almost detached sense of humor, echoing the sense of fatalism he feels with regard to mental health. Of course, this story has a brightness to it in that the "house" can be repaired and fixed up. The final story, "Goes," recapitulates the book's theme in a sweet way. It's about his son turning one year old and him remembering the various ways he held him at various ages, with the last panel being his son running away. "He still quickly goes." Holding an infant isn't just about intimacy; it's a way of comforting the child, helping them sleep, digest food, and so much else. While a constant need for this sort of touch must be pushed aside as a child become independent, the entire point of this issue is that it shouldn't be entirely abandoned, either. Touch remains nourishing, invigorating, and comforting, and there's no reason why it should ever stop being any of these things. This is a moving and entertaining comic, and it's radical both in terms of how it came to be and of the ideas it espouses. 

31 Days Of CCS, #41: Good Boy! Magazine

The spouse duo of Michael Sweater and Benji Nate (literally married in a ceremony at SPX) are astoundingly prolific. Both are as interested in working with others as they are on their own comics, and both subscribe to what I can only describe as a punk-cute aesthetic. Good Boy! Magazine #1 is representative of their publisher, Silver Sprocket, as a whole. The punk/DIY lifestyle, anti-capitalism, anti-cop, pro-LGBTQIA+, etc. ethos underpins most of these artists at least to some extent, regardless of genre. 

One of the best artists in Silver Sprocket and one of the best artists in this anthology is Ashley Robin Franklin. "Fairy Circles" is typical of her work, as it's fantasy-horror intersecting with stories about queer women. It's terrifying, as a woman named Jillian is looking for a missing friend in a forest, one whom she has a crush on. When she steps into a fairy circle, what seems to be an idyllic (and erotic) wish-fulfillment scenario has a dark secret. Franklin takes the reader through a lot: pleasure, desire, fear, magic, mystery, and body horror, and it's all done with a sense of restraint until it's time for a big reveal. Her use of color supports her ultra-cute fairy character design, one that again straddles the line between delight, desire, and decay.

Bonnie Guerra's "Duel For Roses" is a mash-up between combat card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and supernatural elements, and it's the first part of a longer story. Guerra's evil villain is drawn with such an over-the-top Evil Sneer that I wasn't sure if this was supposed to be a parody. This story felt like it drew out obvious elements way too long. On the other hand, Benji Nate's story boils down one element (revenge for rape) and mixes it with another (a female vampire feeding) and turns it into something else (hinting at a friendship or partnership). Nate provides a minimum of information about these characters--just enough to understand motivation and plot, and her cute aesthetic blends well with the violence depicted. 

Sean Mac's cartoony take on the beginning of the movie Scream is very amusing, as the murderer gets bullied into become the blonde girl's submissive boyfriend. It's a silly bit of fluff, but it works well in terms of the book's sequencing. The anthology also has other features, like an interview with the graffiti artist Stacy, a series of drawings from Dalton Stark, and an interview with Gerard Way. Rebecca Kirby's dreamy comic about a woman and her dying dog is done in a bright, sunny yellow and expresses joy. That serves as another transitional piece to Sweater's longer piece. 

This is Sweater at his max: it's about an alien who visits Earth, confident that watching thousands of hours of TV would allow this little green man to fit right in. Instead, he gets harassed (and helped) by homeless people, shouted at by parents, tricked into shoplifting, and forced to run from brutalizing cops. In a quiet moment, he gets his eye pecked at by a bird. Sweater uses fat lines and bright colors to crank up the "noise" and chaos in this city comic; it's meant to be a cheerful assault on the senses. I'll be curious to see how he continues this larger story. Finally, Alex Krokus' "42Q Fakestreet" is a hilarious recapitulation of young punk living, as Claire looks for a job just to feel useful and runs through a series of scammers, homeless, overachieving trust-fund kids, criminals, and more. While the story had a relatively definitive ending, I wanted to see so much more of these characters. It was a good bookend to Franklin's comic, which depicted a different kind of scene, but one that was no less magical and no less dangerous. That sums up the anthology as a whole: whimsical but hazardous. 

31 Days Of CCS, #39: Luke Healy

There's no question that Luke Healy is one of the most interesting of the CCS grads, as he seems to have managed the depiction of interpersonal awkwardness to such an acute degree that it is almost painful to read. On top of all this is a density of plot that weaves his characters together in unexpected ways. This was especially true in The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Guide, particularly in its original form as a mini, but it's also true in his newest, not-at-all autobiographical book from D&Q, The Con Artists

Healy's sense of humor is bone-dry while at the same time luxuriating in hilariously over-the-top tropes. For example, in the comics introduction, he tells the reader that he's been asked to read a prepared statement about the book being fictional, and any resemblance to real people being coincidental, etc. As he's saying this, he changes into the clothes the character Frank wears and puts on a ridiculous fake mustache. It's a kind of prop comedy that feeds directly into the way the Frank character struggles with his stand-up comedy. 

Frank and his best friend Ro (a woman who notably practices healthy boundaries, and hence is only a minor character in this story) are planning their big sets for the Edinburgh comedy festival when Frank takes a call from his childhood friend Giorgio. Like him, Giorgio is Irish and living in London, gay, and attention-seeking. Giorgio calls him after he's been hit by a bus. 

What follows is an incremental dissolution of boundaries, outright manipulation, grifting, and just enough plausible deniability to induce a great deal of guilt. Frank feels obliged to take care of Giorgio, who has broken his arm in a bus accident. Giorgio takes advantage of Frank at every turn, even making him cut up his pizza. Frank learns that Giorgio is a grifter who has packages sent to a vacant apartment next door, claims he never got them, then sells them on ebay. 

This puts Frank in a tizzy. Did Giorgio intentionally get hit because he was depressed? Or drunk? Or worse, because he knew he'd be able to get Frank to do his bidding? When Frank sneaks out of Giorgio's life instead of directly confronting him, Giorgio reacts by attending one of Frank's shows and being an asshole. When Frank gets dragged back into Giorgio's life after another accident (?) that caused some brain damage, he calls Giorgio's father against his wishes. Giorgio lies to his parents about a huge debt, which they "pay off," and Giorgio "forgives" Frank. 

Was it a long con, or a predator with an uncanny ability to land on his feet after self-imposed disasters? Ah, but the title of the book is The Con Artists, plural. Why does Frank allow himself to get roped in? Why does Frank let his boundaries get stepped on, and have it affect his career? Why does Frank allow his anxiety to seemingly go off the rails? If Giorgio is fooling everyone else, then Frank is fooling one person: himself. And he cops to it when he reveals why, and he tells Giorgio he loves him. In that moment, Giorgio knows the jig is up and has no power over him anymore. The mustache comes off. The "romance" is over, and Healy reveals himself, and it's a hard thing to admit. The last panel reveals that one of Giorgio's criticisms of Frank--that he uses others to tell stories--becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The entire book, Healy's whole stance on it and himself, is one born out of guilt. Not guilty enough to not do the book of course, but guilt nonetheless. Whether or not he should feel guilty is another question. 

In Healy's other comics, he reveals being self-conscious about his body and weight. He leans into that here, drawing himself as cartoonish and big, and drawing Frank the same way. It's the way he modulates the expressions of his characters will leaving them slightly cartoonish that makes this comic so emotionally powerful. When he sees a smirk on Frank's face when his dad talks about paying his "debt," when he sees how he stages all of his Instagram photos, when he's confronted by someone who masks in a different way than he does but with an equal amount of secret confidence, it's discomfiting. It's discomfiting because he also loves him, but in a way he understands is unhealthy--just as their entire relationship is unhealthy and built on deceptions. Healy's ability to depict this subtly is what makes it such a good comic and makes him a fine cartoonist and cringe-inducing humorist. 

31 Days Of CCS, #37: Steve Thueson

Steve Thueson's kids' comic Timothy Dinoman Saves The Cat works on a number of different levels. It is a parody of just about every James Bond spy trope imaginable. Unlike the way this was spoofed by the Austin Powers movie, the ridiculousness of each trope is more-or-less allowed to stand on its own without a lot of extra silliness or meta humor tacked on. Thueson is totally invested in the action portion of this comic, with its humor inherent in its premise and the side relationships. When Timothy Dinoman is fighting a madman's henchman atop a train, it's serious (if fun!) business. In this regard, this comic moves a lot like a Jeff Smith Bone comic or a Carl Barks Donald Duck comic. 

The premise, which is not explained in the main story, is there's a good-guy spy who is a walking, talking iguanadon, wearing a smart black turtleneck and blazer. He also wears an eyepatch. His mission is to stop a Blofeld-style Bond supervillain named Bowman from stealing a satellite and enacting his evil scheme. Thueson does something very important in how he writes this comic. Most spy storiess suffer from a protagonist problem: their only goal is to fulfill a mission, which doesn't have much emotional impact. In fact, their antagonists usually have a much more impassioned story and reason for doing things. It may be evil, but it is sincere. 

Thueson side-steps this problem by making Timothy's real purpose saving and then adopting the villain's pet cat. It also ties into his friendship with his tech partner and friend Jen, and even cleverly becomes part of the plot when Timothy realizes there's a tracker on the cat that allows Bowman to kidnap her. This adds a layer of emotional depth to the story that's needed, making the mission personal. 

Timothy has to battle Bowman's henchman and outwit a thief Bowman hires, in addition to rescuing his cat and best friend. Thueson's problem-solving in figuring out the mechanics of fights, flying around in jetpacks, fighting on top of a train, and finally using shoe-jets to fight near a blimp are all accentuated by his thick, color-absorbing line. His character design is amusing but he doesn't use funny drawings, per se. It's all part of respecting the genre aspects of the comic while still gently spoofing it. The back-up feature, detailing his origin story, is well-suited to providing a fun info dump, instead of shoehorning it into the main story. It allows for fluid, logical storytelling that doesn't bog down in extra details. All we care about are Timothy, the cat, his friend, and the mission; all other details are extraneous. The silly details he does add (like the thief being obsessed with waffles) simply add to the fun of a successful book for kids. 

31 Days Of CCS, #36: Rust Belt Review Vol 1

Rust Belt Review is an anthology edited and published by CCS grad Sean Knickerbocker, an artist whose work I greatly admire. The first volume opens with a story by his collaborator Andrew Greenstone. kicked it off with a bizarre mix of a cult exit interview and Squid Game with "Prof. Livingston's Labyrinthine Trivia Trials." It kicks off with an FBI raid and an ensuing shootout of a bizarre underground complex. It then segues into a Wikipedia entry on the cult, founded by the titular Professor with the best of ideals. Like most cults, it devolved into a violent, perverted group of extremists that worshipped its leader. Unlike most cults, they started kidnapping people to put them through a series of grueling physical and mental tests involving trivia and physical feats. The story centers around its sole survivor, leaving it on a cliffhanger as it seems the cult has caught up with her after their setback. Greenstone's linework is grotesque and distorted, with a heavy use of effects like zip-a-tone and spotting blocks. They both give the story an especially gritty quality, like watching a fuzzy black-and-white surveillance video. 

Caleb Orecchio's "Kids Playing Outside" reminds me a lot of Steven Weissman's work. The scratchy art and the wiseass kids who are getting up to shenanigans, including a couple of different alpha characters who inevitably come into contact. The drawing is the main attraction here, as the story meanders in ways that aren't especially interesting. Some of the characters feel underwritten, like they're background characters in an animated series. The final, horrifying sequence is jarring, though there's a sense throughout of reality being bent in different directions. 

M.S. Harkness' "The Uncut Gem" takes off from her comics about her sexual encounters with assorted losers to make a comedic detour into a fantasy sequence. When a guy tells her he's uncircumcised and asks if she can "handle" him, she imagines them robbing a bank together and getting trapped on the roof. They're forced to blow up the uncircumcised tip of his penis like a balloon to float away, but a one-eyed police marksman named "Ellen Rage" shoots him down. That pops the fantasy but not before she asks him about banks. Harkness never shies away from hilariously cartoony and explicit images, and she certainly goes all out to get this joke across. 

"The Wind Cries Maria" is an experimental comic by Juan Jose Fernandez, a CCS grad who spends a lot of time in comics education. This comic was done in a 12-panel grid with what looks like ASCII art, interpolated with the lyrics of a song. It's a rumination on life, death, and existence, with each panel acting as its own complex space, frequently with multiple actions occurring. 

Knickerbocker's "Best Of Three" continues his streak of superb writing about scumbags and losers in small-town America. He just has a knack for the kind of guys who go out in the forest and drink beer on discarded furniture. The central character is David Kelly, a mean lowlife who is about to be kicked out of his old friend's house after he decides to move back to town, after years of "almost" getting a landscaping business off the ground. He's a leech and a mooch who happens to inherit a great deal of money after his father died. His father more-or-less abandoned him after he got rich playing the card game Magic: The Gathering. The lawyer who informed him of this seems to have some hidden agenda, as he follows him to the forest in the story's cliffhanger. Knickerbocker's character design speaks volumes for his characters: the stubble, the ratty haircuts, the unkempt beards, and other touches get across a real sense of how morally repulsive his characters are. At the same time, he makes the reader feel a tinge of sympathy for them as well, as so many of them seem to have been doomed from the start. 

Audra Stang's "Tunnel Vision" is part of her Star Valley stories, featuring teen-age girls Bernie and Adelaide. Bernie is trying to find out more about the sea-themed amusement park in town that fell into disuse from a boy whose great-grandfather built them. Stang's portrayal of teen-age dialogue is painfully raw and often hilarious. Jokes about autoerotic asphyxiation, inappropriate sandbox behavior, and teenage boys scheming to get laid all make sense in the context of this larger story. The way Stang writes about kids reminds me of the Hernandez Brothers. There's Gilbert's willingness to get gross in the way that kids get gross, and Jaime's uncanny ability to depict tension in teen relationships. Her cartooning is lively and expressive, skirting the line between naturalism and caricature. Like many of the other features in this volume, it's part one of a longer story. 

I like the idea of this anthology as mixing a steady line-up of contributors with continuing stories with rotating guest-stars in each issue. The CCS feel is welcome, but giving bright young cartoonists like Stang a steady outlet is certainly also a good thing. Knickerbocker has had an interesting career as a working cartoonist, an editor, and a publisher--and he's good at all three things. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #30: Rachel Bivens

Rachel Bivens is very much a CCS student hunting for her style, playing around with the student assignments in some clever ways. For example, Texture! is a silly story about needing to use three different kinds of textures in a story; Bivens turned it into a meta-assignment. The cartoonists gets a sweater with fuzzy texture and a haircut with feathery texture bur cries when they can't afford a third texture--and the puddle from tears winds up being the third texture for the real assignment. Bivens' lettering is rough, but that fit into the spontaneous nature of the story's energy. 

Sinking is a very clever use of the Ed Emberley assignment with simplified, geometric figures. It's a mostly silent story about a deep-sea diver who has her oxygen line cut, inducing hallucinations until she manages to make it back to the surface. The simplicity of form contributes both to the comic's sense of wonder and terror. 

The most interesting of Bivens' comics was Granite. This sketchy, expressive comic is about a trio of teen girls who go to a beach. The narrator is shy, unathletic, and clearly not into doing things like cliff diving or log rolling. She goes along with most of it because of her clear crush on one of her friends. It's more than that, however; there's an element of feeling you were exactly like one of your friends, but then you encounter them in a different environment and everything changes. There's a beautiful sense of tension and ambiguity in this comic.

The opposite is true in the fantasy/friendship comic Rhubarb's Cold Open. Rhubarb is a messenger going through a scary forest and is accosted by Smallflower and Frog Fruit. They start their friendship by scaring him and spend the entire comic ignoring his boundaries, either by refusing him a moment's respite or actively putting him in dangerous situations. The intent in this comic for kids is to encourage opening oneself up to adventure, but Smallflower and Frog Fruit are so over-the-top and obnoxious that one can hardly blame Rhubarb for wanting to be alone. This is only part one of a larger story, so perhaps this gets resolved, Rhubarb's "friends" don't display much real friendship here. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #29: Kat Leonardo

Over the years, it's been fascinating to me to see how CCS students choose to interpret their assignments. That's especially true of  the Aesop's fable assignments. Kat Leonardo is a young cartoonist with a lot of illustrating skill, and that's readily apparent in The Mouse And The Manticore. It's a variation on "The Mouse And The Lion," wherein a mighty creature shows mercy on a mouse and is later rewarded for a small kindness. It's the details that make this comic pop: the cute mouse endpapers, the delicate and restrained use of watercolors, and the refined use of gesture to tell a simple story. 

The Damselfly is a beautiful, unsettling statement of self, using a powerful visual metaphor. Introducing the titular insect as one that sheds its skin as it grows, evolving past old forms and leaving them behind, Leonardo's character reveals that she cannot leave the past behind, and that's revealed through dozens of hands grabbing her, holding her fast, and surrounding her. It leaves her "hiding in plain sight" and she signs off with the desperate plea of "come find me." Using a simple blue line, Leonardo's visual approach is entirely dependent on that clear line that devolves through the comic to create a horrific effect. The use of hands in this way reminded me a bit of Tom Neely's The Blot.

Anosmia makes use of a mostly blue/gray wash to tell the story of Leonardo losing her sense of smell in 2020. She wasn't sure if it was COVID-19 or not, but the interesting story here is that she used to have what she described as a "superhuman" sense of smell. This is a comic about trade-offs, highs and lows in life. Her sense of smell was so powerful that she could smell flowers from across a room, and eating was a blissful experience. It also meant she was extra sensitive to foul odors, and she was frequently so overwhelmed by smell that it induced debilitating migraines. Things are now more level and there's less pain and discomfort, but Leonardo clearly misses the highest of highs. Her use of ink to depict smells, and additional spot colors to indicate migraines, was a clever storytelling device. One thing I wish she would have discussed is smell's relationship with memory and how that's changed for her. 

Redacted sees Leonardo using yet another technique: colored pencils. In a story about being visited by someone's ghost, or the memory of a person missing from her life, the way that colored pencils blend together and are made even more intense when juxtaposed against entirely negative space is a clever storytelling solution. The intense brightness of her current world contrasted with this memory that's harder to access is powerful. 

Eternal Knight is a love letter to love itself, through time and multiple lifetimes. Leonardo uses her full bag of tricks here: clever endpapers, a wide range of watercolors, interesting page compositions, and a theme that resonates throughout every technique. In telling a story about lovers that continue to find each other, again and again, throughout different lifetimes, Leonardo gets across that sense of interlocking souls that seem to never have enough time together, no matter what. The biggest problem with this comic is that Leonardo goes too over the top with color, and it sometimes overwhelms her line. A more restrained palette would have been more effective in returning the focus to the lovers, rather than their environment. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #28: Jarad Greene

Jarad Greene's semi-autobiographical YA book A-Okay is proof that literal truth is not particularly relevant when it comes to this genre. The narrative is always more important than literal facts (and these facts are actually beyond one's ability to adequately portray them for many reasons), both in terms of the story narrative but doubly so for the book's emotional narrative. 

In Greene's case, there are elements of fact from his life in the character of Jay Violet. Greene was referred to as a "porcelain doll" for having nice skin and dressing well. His severe acne flared up in his senior year of high school and later in college. With regard to his asexuality, it's something that he didn't understand and identify as until his mid-20s. The character of Jay Violet is an 8th grader and confronts both these questions regarding his identity and his appearance during this time. Greene's own experiences obviously informed the events of the book, but A-Okay is a smooth narrative because Greene was less concerned with the precise timeline of these events and more interested in that emotional narrative: the feelings that Jay Violet experiences during the course of the story. 

A-Okay contains multiple storylines. It includes a running plotline about friendships and how they often center around identity, and how they can radically shift in one's teenage years. It's a graphic medicine story not unlike Raina Telgemeier's Smile or Guts, in which Jay relates a specific course of therapy over time for his severe acne and the ways in which it affected other parts of his life. It's a queer story about adolescent relationships, only Jay winds up as an inadvertent antagonist to the romantic feelings of close male and female friends before he understands that he's asexual. Finally, it's about finding your place with your own skills and dreams and finding the right set of people who will support you. 

The book is over 200 pages, so there's plenty of room to cover all of this group. What sets A-Okay apart is that it never feels like Greene is feeding the reader medicine. Indeed, it's so well-paced that it flies by, yet the pacing never feels rushed. If anything, it feels like a languid hang-out book, where getting to know everyone is more important than an overarching plot. In part, that's because the book barely has a plot, and what there is of it is episodic, divided into seasons of the year. 

Other than a bully whom Jay gets a small measure of revenge on late in the book, there aren't really antagonists in the book. Instead, there are lesser or greater levels of confusion and resentment that characters feel toward each other. His best friend Brace is a musician who forms a band and then drifts away from Jay, deliberately pushing him out of his burgeoning new group of friends. Jay's identity centers around art, and he angers a girl named Amy who has feelings for him by not wearing a gift she gave him because of his medication. He also baffles a gay boy named Mark who has a crush on him, until he realizes that he's asexual. This is a book about communication and avoiding isolation above all else, and Jay really needed Brace to work through some of his issues, and Brace wasn't there for him. There was no huge plot development that brought them back together other than a particular project for Brace's band; it was simply through taking the bold step of reaching out and telling the truth that relationships were repaired and misunderstandings smoothed over. 

I found the low stakes of the book to be refreshing. At the same time, I've never read a YA/MG book that delved into a topic like asexuality, nor a graphic medicine book that focused on severe acne. While these were unexplored ideas, they're ones that young people face all the time. Trying to figure out one's sexuality is brutal when you don't understand it yourself and feel freakish for experiencing it. The severe side effects of acne and the brutal treatments for it are something that so many teens experience yet rarely talk about. I also liked that this was a boy who was struggling with body image, something rarely discussed in YA lit but is also extremely common. 

From the first mini I saw of his, it was obvious that Greene's chops were perfect for this market. He simply knows how to draw teens, from clothing to body language to gestures. There's a simple ease to Greene's line that has a direct effect on his storytelling ability. It's smooth without being slick, and every character is distinctively drawn but all within the structure of his style. His page composition varies, going from grids to dutch angles to open-page layouts, depending on what was called for by the story. The fluidity of Greene's work is what makes it so affable; even if you don't have much in common with Jay Violet, you still want to hang out with him and his friends. While a number of kids will identify with this character, many kids won't, and that won't matter because they'll find someone to relate to in this book. By not focusing on any one thing in particular, Greene makes everything seem important without making that importance seem forced or didactic. Greene wrote a book where very little happens, and I enjoyed every moment of these non-events. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #27: Robyn Smith

Publishing, and comics publishing, in particular, is a funny place. A publisher will reject a work from the margins sometimes, not because of its quality, but because "there's no audience for this." That's especially for true with regard to non-genre comics about women and girls. Once extremely commonplace during comics' first 25 years or so, they were almost completely systematically eliminated by super-hero comics. Those who ran comics deliberately tried to make comics deliberately aimed at boys; if some girls happened to like them, that was an accident. 

It always shocks Hollywood or the publishing world when something explicitly aimed at a Black or Asian audience is a smash hit. It's even more surprising that with something like Black Panther, it was a huge cross-over hit. A lesson that seemingly needs to be re-learned on a near-constant basis is that the more specific a story is with regard to its details, the more universal its appeal. It's a paradox, but it's true because a narrative with exquisitely-detailed specifics (even if it's foreign to one's experience) is more appealing than a narrative aimed at being broadly appealing that's entirely generic. In any genre, "truth" is irrelevant. What is important is the appearance of authenticity, and authenticity is generated by describing the minutia of a situation. Raina Telgemeier's Smile was a story about a middle-school girl, her problems with friendship, and her dental issues. It was aimed at the tween girl audience desperate for this kind of story because no one was aiming work at them that they could relate to. It was also a big hit with boys because while they couldn't relate to the specifics of Raina's narrative, it was so highly detailed that it highlighted universal issues with regard to health and friendship. 

This brings us to Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith's Wash Day Diaries. Rowser related Toni Morrison's quote ("If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.") in describing her goals as an author: creating (and publishing) books for Black women. In Smith, she has a collaborator who's more than up to the challenge of depicting these stories--especially with regard to hair. Wash Day started as a mini-comic and was expanded into a full-color book precisely because an audience "magically" appeared that was hungry for stories about Black joy and friendship among women. The original mini was about a moment in time about self-care that was highly specific; the expanded book tells interlocking stories that touch on a number of topics. 

The book opens with the "Wash Day" story, featuring a steely young woman named Kimana (nicknamed Kim) coming home from a night out, and then waking up and washing her expansive hair. That initial image of a seemingly unflappable Kim with her keys splayed in her fingers in case she had to defend herself speaks volumes about not just her, but a specific understanding of what it's like to be a woman walking on the street. Much of this story is about Kim dealing with the daily forces that assail her: casual misogyny in catcallers, a man who won't stop texting her, and her local bodega being affected by a rent increase and passing it on to her. For a moment, for a day, time stands still as she buys some milk and breakfast and takes care of her hair in a very specific manner. Smith shines here in the way she draws hair along with the way she draws different kinds of bodies. She's also aces at body language. 

Each chapter follows the story of a different friend. Tanisha relates the hilarious story of being in an inadvertent love triangle and how she gets out of it; it's once again connected to hair as she tells it in a group chat with Kim and her other two ride-or-die friends as she's getting her hair done. An increasingly self-isolating Davene calls Cookie to cornrow her hair because she missed her hair appointment and reveals that she's gripped by depression--something that Cookie doesn't fully understand. Cookie visits her father's mother in a nursing home, a woman who refused to recognize her as her granddaughter because of her father's affair. The final story ties all of these threads together as the friends gather at one of Kim's concerts and chase off the guy who had been harassing her. The whole thing winds up in a sleepover at Kim's house. 

The overlying plot is pretty thin; one gets the sense that it was reverse-engineered to give some small sense of structure to each story, and that was especially true in the final segment. None of that really matters, because it was the small moments in each story that were important. Davene's interactions with Cookie were particularly interesting. Davene revealed to her friend that her career as a social worker wasn't working out, and there was an implicit reference that going into work wearing her natural hair was going to be problematic. While this is a book about Black joy and friendship for this group of women, it doesn't pretend that racism and misogyny don't exist. The threat of violence from Kim's ex-boyfriend, the aforementioned catcalls, and hateful stares from white people on the subway are all part of the backdrop. It's par for the course, with the weight of it affecting each woman in different ways. Davene clearly feels it the hardest as it contributes to her already-present direction, and Cookie's initial attempt to minimize it and rejecting Davene's thoughts of getting on anti-depressants with a crystal reflected a lack of understanding and actual empathy in that moment. Cookie redeemed herself by actually noticing what Davene needed at Kim's concert and pulled her out of there for the sleep-over. 

Again, Rowser set it up, but Smith knocked it down with her unerring depiction of body language that was easy to interpret without being intrusive or ham-fisted. Each story is involved with hair in some way, with each character helping or being helped with hair, an act of profound compassion and intimate connection. It's both emblematic and symbolic of their connections in a tangible way, mixing aesthetics and ethics together at a fundamental level. That's especially true because Rowser goes out of her way to make each character radically different in terms of personality, weaknesses, desires, and ambitions while still sharing crucial connections as friends. Each story is tonally different, from comic relief (mixed with an unvarnished depiction of sexual freedom) to familial drama & pain to the sheer loneliness of mental illness. It's a book that needed to be created, one that will hopefully open up avenues for others like it. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #26: King Ray

King Ray's comics are oblique and a little terrifying. In Parched, which looks like the Ed Emberley assignment, there's a minimalist figure in the desert--not an uncommon image for this assignment, really. It begins with the figure being desperately thirsty--for water, certainly, but for other things as well. When another person comes along and points them to an oasis, they both hop into a deep source of water, passing jellyfish and whales. The heartbreaking element was the first person emerging on the other side, with no sign of the person who had saved them. An appeal to darker forces was made, which resulted in creating a loop of eternal thirst. Here, Ray's pencils are delightfully spare and a tad smudged, giving the comic an especially desolate feeling. 

my beast, my friend is similarly propulsive in its narrative, only it's rendered in a more naturalistic style. This can only be described as a horror story, detailing the highest highs of deep friendship and love and the lowest lows of abuse, depression, and suicidal ideations. Midway through the comic, the narrator describes being chained to a dark, great beast after "being turned away from the gates of Dionysus after waiting for 200 years." This was a fascinating sequence, as this is a metaphor for indulgence and sobriety, yet the ensuing state was one of melodramatic, self-spawning darkness. The narrator chose the darkness, in fact, but the betrayal came when a chorus of voices told her to disappear--and one of them was the voice of her friend, "pouring poison into the ears of our friends." The finale of the book, with the narrator cuddling up with the beast, utterly alone, is as desolate as it gets. Ray's language is poetic and the images are rendered in that smudgy, minimalist pencil, warping into grotesque figures unexpectedly. Ray has a lot to say, and I'm curious to see them continue to push themselves on the page.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #25: Kori Michele Handwerker

Kori Michele Handwerker's path as a cartoonist is a bit of a swerve. Instead of doing something long-form, or even self-publishing a lot of stand-alone stories, Handwerker went back to the early 90s and has been doing a series of throwback personal zines. Replete with stickers, comics, recipes, old ads, montages, and other classic zine tropes, Hello Friend also serves as a way to connect during the pandemic. As someone who read a lot of zines during this era and participated in an APA, there's something wonderfully both nostalgic and 100% forward-thinking about these zines. 

Virtually every one of Handwerker's cultural and personal touchstones are foreign to my own experience. It doesn't matter. The ancillary material is precisely what provides context for the comics themselves, fleshing out experiences that go beyond simply things that they like. This is an account of how a life is lived and an almost desperate attempt to share that with as many people as possible in an effort to reduce the isolation that the global pandemic has created as well as a modern culture that discourages one-on-one engagement. 

Handwerker's own self-caricature is a perfectly-rendered mix of cuteness and curiosity, and it's an easy entry point for a new reader into their anecdotes and experiences. These range from things that Handwerker gains comfort from as well as serious discussions with regard to gender presentation and identity. Hello Friend #1 came out in early 2021, and Handwerker notes that it's a manifestation of how they helped get through the pandemic: writing letters and staying connected with others. The first story is about the sheer weariness of depression, the desire for rest that never comes. For many, suicidal ideation isn't so much a matter of wanting to die, it's just wanting to not exist for a while. Here, Handwerker admits they have nothing dramatic to say about the subject other than noting that they're going to get up and keep doing it. The next section is about cute sticker books, with Handwerker's nice hand lettering highlight things they found that delighted them. Another strip about depression is followed by tea recommendations and a fill-in-the-word-balloon game for an old men's underwear ad. A silent story depicting themselves drowning in a flood and coming out the other side, appearing and disappearing is followed by an exhortation to make your own zines. 

The second issue of Hello Friend is a music-themed issue, another classic zine trope. However, in this instance, the zine is specifically about the ways in which music has become a powerful tool for survival. The issue has more talk about stickers, a reprint of their Hourly Comics Day experience. It's all inside, as they work from home and enjoy simple pleasures, like their husband reading them fanfiction. There are also a number of mini-zines tucked inside, each with photo montages and lyrics of favorite songs for particular circumstances: feeling lost, feeling hopeless, etc. 

There were other, shorter minicomics. Some were about favorite anime or dramas, and another about finding out one guy wrote a bunch of their favorite K-pop songs. Another is a reminder that You Never Make Comics Alone, meaning that even in this isolated art form, the cartoonist is always informed by and connected to their influences, peers, and overall community. In an isolated age, it's a comforting thought. Unwind is just a bit of fun, as Handwerker turns toward a wordless comic stretched out over several pages, with the final pages revealing two mermaids intertwined. I have a sense that this is Handwerker's eventual destination as a cartoonist, doing queer fantasy. Finally, there's Potential Energy, a zine not only about their non-binary gender identity, but a thoughtful essay on the frequently reductionist quality of binaries to begin with. Not just with regard to gender, but to all sorts of ideas. Handwerker also notes that their current identity doesn't invalidate prior states; it was just another step along the way. This is a comic that I'd like to see expanded upon at a bigger size, because I think it could help a lot of people in the same way Handwerker stated that Melanie Gillman's comic Non-Binary helped them.