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. 

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