Monday, December 26, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #26: Fantology Volume 3

Kristen Shull and Emily Zea have produced another winning edition of Fantology, with probably the strongest issue from top to bottom. Its central conceit is that the artists have to work within an established world delineated by a map, which of course is similar to but not as rigidly prescribed as the fantasy minicomic series Cartozia Tales. The theme for this issue is "treasure," and that's a solid basis for stories because it instantly gives protagonists something to want.  

Kat Ghastly's "Lore" kicks things off, and their inventive layouts and page composition make this piece truly stand out. It's as much horror as it is fantasy, as it details a deadly prophecy concerning the new sorceress of the kingdom. Ghastly uses open page layouts, zooms in and out on key characters, uses tiny details to provide narrative and decorative flourishes, and provides rich and provocative characterization. This feels like a long book in the offing. Tay James' work is text-heavy, but the weird lettering choices and bonkers page design help with the light-hearted humor of the piece. Sage Clemmons' entry alternating illustrations with hand-written letters detailing a couple separated by life circumstances is deeply emotional, and ideal for an anthology. Natalie Norris' wordless tale of two mermaid lovers discovering a trove of human treasure is the emotional and narrative opposite: two lovers with no regard to the outside world, inseparable. The treasure amounts to simple baubles for them, instead of life-or-death plunder, and if there's one thing Norris is aces at drawing, it's slender, elegant, beautiful women. 

Emily Claire's piece about disaffected undead employees in a dungeon is funny and has a sharp punchline, although the dependence on grayscale shading made the visuals bland. A pet is a major aid in that story and in Chelsi Fiore's entry about an elf and his small steed being trapped in an underground city. These are breezy transition pieces that lead to the third chapter of Shull's ongoing fantasy story about two accidental traveling companions who both carry secrets. Shull's boisterous and bawdy style of fantasy is propulsively fun, as she pairs a serious (but horny) character with a light-hearted (but also horny) character who loves carousing, singing, dancing, and playing games of chance. Shull has a way of adding a slice-of-life touch to fantasy proceedings that centers the story around her protagonists, and both of them are memorable--both in terms of how they're drawn and their personalities. Hopefully, this makes it into a book one day. 

Michael Beachy's treasure-hunter story is a little visually overwrought, but he reins it in just enough to tell a clear and funny story. Mona's story about a bored wizard staging a tournament because he loves violence is heavy on pen-and-ink pyrotechnics, but her command over her line and clever storytelling techniques makes this fun, right on down to its cut-off ending. I get that it's part of a larger story, but not having any real closure in the story was distracting. The scratchiness of that story is followed by Stephen Pellnat's painstaking detail in service of some dynamic storytelling about a cat adventurer getting more than he bargained for on his adventure, and learning a valuable lesson along the way. There's another stylistic shift, to a sketchy, hatching-heavy story by Jackson Maceo Schleicher about a lack of honor among thieves as they look for a wishing egg. 

Rainer Kannenstine's piece is yet another visual shift, as it looks like scratchout white-on-black, with a simple, blocky line to tell this story of a grappler named Urta whose use of brute force eliminates the need for skill or magic in taking a dragon's treasure. She also has no problem declaring herself the sole recipient of the treasure and turns the dragon into her pet. My vote for most improved feature is Alex Washburn's newest entry about Clan Zargs. These ragtag adventurers get into genuine trouble, and Washburn tightens up everything here: his line, the storytelling, and even the characterizations. On the other hand, co-editor Zea's piece about a pirate challenging her family's lineage with the help of her hostage/protege/niece feels overblown and self-indulgent. She seems so delighted in her Captain Trub character that everyone else in the story is a means to the end of extolling her awesomeness. The story is still well-drawn, although the use of digital lettering takes me out of the actual story. 

While that story was a misfire, Fantology 3 not only holds up well on a story-to-story basis, the sequencing is also fluid and creates contrasts that make each story stronger. For an anthology with an open submissions policy, they did a remarkable job of putting together such a strong group of creators. It helps that there are regulars to anchor it, but this was the best all-around group to be featured in an issue so far. The conceit of Bartlebee the Bard introducing each chapter is fun, but it seems wholly unnecessary for one-shots. Given that some strips are in their third chapter, a summary of prior chapters would have been useful for readers. This volume will definitely delight readers looking for something a bit off-beat in their fantasy comics. 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #25 Andy Warner

Andy Warner's versatile and pleasing line has led him to a cottage industry of writing the histories of familiar things. His first book was A Brief History Of Everyday Objects, and he's back in his wheelhouse with Andy Warner's Oddball Histories: Pests And Pets. Overall, this is a densely text-heavy comic that is still a light read thanks to just enough visual space and an amiable writing style that makes a reader want to turn the page and see what's next. 

In a non-narrative book that is essentially just a collection of interesting anecdotes, Warner nonetheless is able to establish a throughline in this comic. By focusing specifically on animals associated with humans, he's able to make this comic as much about people as it is about animals. Raising and domesticating animals has been crucial for food and companionship since the dawn of civilization. In fact, Warner makes a compelling that civilization as we understand it would not be possible without humans domesticating animals, and horses in particular. He also notes the side-effects of civilization attracting pests that are highly adaptive. 

Dividing the book into "creatures we find cute," "creatures we find useful," and "creatures that find us useful" clarifies this narrative, and he further whets the reader's appetite at the beginning of each chapter by noting a fact about an animal and giving the page number where this is explained. It's a clever way to keep things moving and pique interest in the subjects, by baiting the reader with weird facts and anecdotes while still referring to the overarching narrative of how humans and animals are connected. 

It helps that Warner's line has a nice, thick weight to it, and that fellow CCS grad Luke Healy did the colors for the book. The colors are bright but not overly vibrant, and they never interfere with Warner's line. Warner also adds a lot of humor into the book, giving the animals funny dialogue without going overboard. That humor helps leaven things like animals bringing the plague, the ways animals are frequently used for war, and of course the way humans hunt some animals to extinction. None of these things are the focus of the book, but Warner is careful to include them. The result is a funny, informative, colorful collection of facts that hang together because of Warner's overall organizing precepts. Warner has a knack for whittling down mountains of research and information into a readable gestalt.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #24: Michael Sweater, Good Boy!

Michael Sweater embodies the aesthetic of much of Silver Sprocket's publishing output. I'm not exactly sure what to call this--cutepunk? Nerdpunk? Stonergeek? What his work in particular reminds me of most is an update on comics like Hate!, only updated for a modern audience and drawn in an anthropomorphic style. In his Everything Sucks! comic, stoner housemates Noah and Calla go in search of a crappy fast-food burger. Noah is the classic Buddy Bradley irascible nerd with a secret sensitive side. Calla is a free spirit like Lisa, and their annoying, shit-stirring friend Brad is in the mold of Stinky. Brad urges them to get tacos instead, but Noah has that self-righteous, faux-rugged individualist energy that pushes him to ignore the feelings of everyone else. A disgusting act from Brad is later followed by his accidentally starting a grease fire, an escalation of comedic circumstances. Noah winds up unhappy in the end, of course. 

Sweater has always been one to organize with others, and in the most recent instance of this, he's co-editing the anthology Good Boy! with Benji Nate. I've actually reviewed the second issue of this, which was stronger than the first issue, which I'm examining now. Unsurprisingly, Nate's comic (which leads off the issue) is one of the standouts. Nate has been extremely prolific and continues to evolve as a cartoonist; this story is about a former Magical Girl who was part of a Sailor Moon-type team who is now trying to figure out life as the mother of a teen, especially as the former leader of her group is now mega-successful AND a mother. The story ends abruptly, which makes me think it's part of a larger project. This would be quite welcome, as Nate has a knack for translating that Naoko Takeuchi energy into a more naturalistic and far sadder setting. 

Flower Alligator's story takes the cute to a meandering extreme, while Konstantinos Moutzouvis' story feels stylistically derivative of Ron Rege' in a way that's largely incoherent. CCS grad Daniel Rinylo's stories about cats and frogs are beautifully spare, strange, and funny. The pencils vary between fragile and dense, while the added drawings at the bottom of the page add to the odd quality of these stories. Dave Mercier's comic about the Mario character feels like more filler. Sam Grinberg's story of anthropomorphic geometric figures obnoxiously getting in conflicts at a casino is interesting to look at, but the cringe humor falls flat. Bastian Najdek's three page sci-fi story is yet more filler. 

Fortunately, the back half of the anthology is pretty strong. Steve Thueson is another good example of this nerdpunk aesthetic, though he writes for a YA audience. His story is about a space messenger named Jake who gets roped into helping a rebel alliance. It is completely silly and absurd, but it works because Thueson has a deadly-serious approach to depicting the actual action. The character design and characters themselves can be silly and cartoony, but the stakes are absolutely life-and-death, which gives his story a great deal of energy. Joseph Romagano's lettering project out in the wild is the kind of experimentation I'd like to see more of in this anthology. 

Sweater's own "Everything Sucks!" story concerns Calla and Phillipe, the latter of whom gave Calla a ride in the comic reviewed above. This story involves them camping out in a cemetery and a highly casual offer from Calla to make out, which Phillipe objects to because he feels like a last option instead of something she really wants to do. Of course, this all leads to them encountering a serial killer whom Calla falls for and starts making out with. I normally associate Ashley Robin Franklin with horror, but her black-and-white story about a creep trying to capture a wild Catboy is absolutely hilarious. Of course, there is a total gross-out moment (it is Franklin, after all) but it just makes it funnier. 

The issue concludes with two artists that are among my favorite in the newer group of Silver Sprocket cartoonists. Alex Krokus nails that Peter Bagge-style of fucked-up, weirdo housemates even more acutely that Sweater, as he makes sure to include the dilapidated brownstone as part of this particular roommate drama. His harsher use of color and less cute character design (they are still anthropomorphic animals, like many of the characters in this anthology) adds a gritty quality that makes it funnier. Finally, Grayson Bear's mix of cute and psychedelia is some of the strongest work visually in the anthology, as their use of red wash and zip-a-tone adds a great deal of weight and depth to the page.  

The most interesting thing about Sweater and Good Boy! is this kind of cultural blender approach he takes with his work. This is a generation of young artists who have grown up reading and watching everything--generations of comics at their fingertips, all kinds of cartoons streaming, etc. The result is a genre mishmash that ranges from cluttered and confused to innovative and hilarious, mixing ideas and images from outside of comics as well as being deeply rooted in their history. 

Friday, December 23, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #23: Masha Zhdanova & April Malig

April Malig's zines are closer in spirit to classic perzines of the late 80s and 90s than typical diary minicomics, in part because she frequently eschews typical line art in favor of photos heightened with color changes. There's a wonderful, revealing chattiness to these zines, as Malig in the zine Leftovers says "I just made this for fun and to make something pretty (I feel like that shouldn't be such a weird thing to say?)" Indeed not--for Malig, there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Malig tends to favor bright and soft colors, taking photos and altering them to emphasize pinks, blues, and purples. A lot of Malig's zines and comics are about travel, especially in Asia, and she has a way of capturing the bustle of other places with both enthusiasm and respect. 

I Didn't Write Enough Postcards is Malig's travel zine about Singapore and Taiwan. It's text followed by a photo on its opposite page, and there's a wonderful breathlessness to Malig's narration. She's unconcerned with typical tourist interests; she's there to eat and buy manga and see friends, and other fun activities along the way (like seeing a Museum of Miniatures) are a byproduct of this point of view. There's an unspoken poignancy to all of this, as it was two months before COVID shut everything down. April's Food Zine #2 is great because it's so intensely local to her in Queens, and the reviews are so quirky, like a coffee shop that sells onigiri with a chatty, dad-like guy running it. You find that Malig doesn't care about "authenticity" in the least even as her palate is quite adventurous. Malig is after delicious food and doesn't care where it comes from, including a 7-11 with some surprising fare. 

Some Tender Nothing is a combo abstract drawing/photo zine that goes into full neon colors, mimicking the night markets and street lighting she sees. All I Do is Play Animal Crossing and Online Shop is a COVID journal that captures what that particular video game did for a lot of people: provide blissful distraction, pleasant interactions with friends, and a brief halt to thinking about grief and death. It's a mix of black & white cartooning and images taken from the game itself, which Malig deliberately blurs with reality. Finally, Rotten Roses 2 continues the story of four friends in a group chat who are obsessed with a particular boys love manga and its various adaptations into other media. There are two things of note here (beyond Malig's sharp character design): the celebration of fan fiction as a creative group exercise, and the ways in which a highly specific set of mutual and obscure interests can create lasting bonds. One tends to reveal oneself through the way one makes art, but fan obsessions can also expose intimate and personal details as well. All of this is somewhat impenetrable to a reader, but the specifics of the fandom are less important than the emotions it invokes. 

Like Malig, Masha Zhdanova's tastes are highly informed by manga, among many other sources. In her micro-mini A Comics Mixtape, Zhdanova offers an unfolding map of how and which comics influenced her over the years, starting with Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost, in part because it made her think she could draw her own comics. Zhdanova cleverly takes the reader's eye across the page, including "downstairs" as she continues to descend into her mind. She namechecks manga, webcomics, books, and frames from Soviet cartoons her father used to show her. 

Zhdanova emigrated to the US at age two, something she explores in A Grey Mountainous Curly Wall. This is about a song sung to her as a child and her subsequent feelings of alienation toward her old country. It's not just that she was socialized as an American; the fact that she's queer, Jewish, and progressive meant that she realized she'd never feel welcome. This comic represents an attempt to connect with the music of her childhood, music directly connected to resistance in its own way. 

Lilac, subtitled "A Horror Comic," plays on some of these themes. It's about a Russian girl whose mother forces her to devour 5-sided lilacs, because it will give you good luck on your exams. It's a horror story that's really about a mother denying her child an opportunity to be herself, as the girl (Lena) falls in love with another girl and they promise to go to school away from their small town. As her mother grows sicker and clingier, it's revealed that there's more than luck going on with Lena eating the lilacs. Zhdanova's line is simple, expressive, and harsh, even as she uses soft colors as a way to create emotional dissonance. Zhdanova has a lot of refinement and greater control of her line to work on, but she already possesses a special touch in writing stories about alienation. 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #22: Andy Lindquist and Kit Anderson

Slipping, by Kit Anderson. Anderson has such a great knack for portraying loneliness, longing, alienation, and liminal places in a way that feels lived-in, gritty, and authentic. There's a question of the connection between reality and insanity and what exactly is real in her comics, a question that is rarely answered directly. Take Slipping, for example. This comic follows the monologue of a character (what seems like a trans man or non-binary person) as they explain the titular concept of "slipping." As relayed by their mother, it's a lack of awareness of one's surroundings that causes the Other Place to reach out and get us. Whether it's hell, oblivion, or something else is unimportant; what is clear is that it represents non-being at an ontological level. Anderson's scratchy line immerses the reader in every slow, painful moment, from stray body hair to pocked skin to slumped gestures. 

The monologue is aimed at a woman named Monday, who lived with the narrator until their neuroses (in the form of filling every empty second with sound) drove them away. Anderson imbues every quotidian moment in the comic (waking up, making breakfast, smoking a cigarette, taking a walk) with unspoken menace, as the reader is led to expect a "slip" for the narrator. When it comes, it hits especially hard because the narrator is making one, last desperate attempt to connect. The character's existential self-absorption inadvertently leads to their final, tragic fate, even as Monday is revealed to be worried about them. 

It's Going Fine and Who Lays The Layman? by Andy Lindquist. Lindquist's own takes on alienation are quite arresting. Lindquist zeroes in on character design, and it's got that slightly grotesque and distorted quality that Dash Shaw and Lillie Carre' both possess. In It's Going Fine, for example, the character of the mother is weathered and bespectacled, hiding years of pain behind those glasses. The story is about her daughter trying to talk to her in a very intentional way, trying to draw out her mother and engage with her as an equal instead of simply being ignored and lectured at. The daughter blows it by losing her tempo, leading her mother on an interesting segue: she tells her daughter about hearing about Sylvia Plath's death as a teenager. It was a shattering experience, so much so that she avoided the kitchen for weeks. It shaped her approach to fear: don't look. When her daughter asks if she's afraid of her, the other simply says that she loves her without answering the question. The horrifying last image is a visual representation of the mother's fear as she sees her daughter walk away. This is a sophisticated and devastating portrayal of generational trauma. 

Who Lays The Layman? is funny and sad, as it's about a superhero groupie who frequently uses a grindr-style app to hook up with a variety of metahumans. When they (a trans man) fall for a gritty superhero named the Sergeant, they feel the foolish, flushed feelings of connection that may not be real. When promises of meeting up again fade and a flirty text gathers dust, the groupie finds other company, and finds it lacking. One of the heroes, Glamorpuss, is hot and outgoing, but is not only lacking in bed, but is chatty in a way that the groupie doesn't connect with. Indeed, there are casually cruel to poor Glamorpuss, who wants to hang out and watch funny videos after sex, but the protagonist just wants to go home. 

There's a remarkable sequence where the protagonist compares being lonely at night and looking at dating apps like being high and watching fast food ads. Nothing seems better in that moment than getting that cheeseburger--and nothing makes you feel worse afterwards. That materializes when they meet a hero named Funny the Strongman, who is not only weird about being queer, he also misgenders them (twice), and then claims that his condom broke. It all ends as horribly and awkwardly as one would think, with our hero swearing off apps for a bit, only to get a text from the Sergeant. Lindquist touching on the essential queerness of superheroes is an homage to Watchmen, of course, but by touching on trans issues and issues related to both BDSM and consent, they take it a step further. In both of their comics here, Lindquist demonstrates razor-sharp storytelling instincts with interesting swerves, bringing a touch of horror into a story about family trauma and bring grief and deep alienation into a story about sex and superheroes. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #21: David Yoder & Amy Burns

David Yoder's best comics have always been his humor comics, and he's focused on that in recent years with his strips that react to movies. His Movies That I Watched minicomic is based on comedian Doug Benson's movie-a-day project where he was going to watch a movie a day for an entire year. Yoder one-upped that by attempting to draw a comic reacting to a movie a day for an entire year. Well, he managed to crank out 45 strips from this idea before succumbing to fatigue. While many of these strips are funny, you can see the fatigue start to build up as the art for the later strips gets sketchier and sketchier. Wisely, Yoder stopped and rethought the whole project.

What wound up happening instead was working with writer David Carter as they'd watch a movie together. Yoder would do a strip a week and Carter would write a full review as a sort of package item. In their David And David At The Movies collections, their collaboration works nicely in bunches, thanks to their different tones, styles, and methods of working. It's not just that Yoder tends to be more succinct than Carter because he's a cartoonist, it's also that he synthesizes that knowledge like a comedian--much like Benson. So his reviews aren't beat-by-beat, but rather feature some visual gags, digressions, and fantasy bits, along with actual analysis of the films. Carter thoroughly critiques each film from the point of view of someone who knows a lot about film history, and it shows. However, his reviews are in the same spirit as Yoder's in that they start as a dive into the particulars of the film along with the prior work of the actors, writers, and directors. Along the way, the reader becomes more aware of the overall aesthetic point of view of both Yoder and Carter. I thought their reviews of Hidden Figures were especially on target, with Yoder bringing the laughs and Carter waxing philosophical about the history of biopics. 

Amy Burns has a cute, spare style that lends itself both to absurdist humor and graphic medicine. With regard to the latter, she collaborated with writer Keilani Lime to do a book called No Spoons For You. This is a reference to Christine Miserandino's "Spoon Theory," a metaphor for those with chronic illness and/or disability to use in order to explain that they have a limited and variable amount of energy on any given day, measured in "spoons." When a person runs out of spoons for the day but still has things to do, they can "borrow" spoons from the next day at a high price, or simply be forced to stop, something that can be quite frustrating.

Lime puts this all in fantasy trappings with Burns giving the whole thing a positive sheen with her approachable and fun linework. There are gremlins that cause brain fog, supportive partners, managing medicines, and other struggles. There are funny repeating motifs (like a blanket, hot water bottle, etc being the main character Sunny's "best friend forever and ever"), but there's not so much a narrative so much as there a sense of trying to make readers understand what a struggle a single day can be without using a miserabilist approach. 

Burns' own work tends toward poetic examinations of their own medical issues or absurdist fantasy shenanigans. You'll Never Find The Sun is an effective allegory about ontology, imagining a time not only before one's existence, but before the existence of anything. Then the big bang is compared to one's birth, finding one's parent, finding one's parent...but not finding the sun. It's explained that this comic is a reaction to discovering a diagnosis of lupus, a disease that is associated with sensitivity to sunlight. The problem with the otherwise beautiful presentation is that this expression of grief feels private; the connection to lupus, to being unable to find the sun in the comic feels entirely unconnected. There's nothing wrong with a poetic and private expression of grief, but the explanation afterwards felt tacked-on. 

On the other hand, Belly Wō Belly: Bard Search, is absurd at every level. It's about a sentient stomach who is captain of the Queen's Royal Guard, who wears a human body as its armor. He's obsessed with gummies, who are both food and messengers, and his own ego. He begs the Queen to hire a bard to regale the People with tales of his glory, and Belly runs the search. He doesn't find a bard, but he does fill other open positions in the Queen's court, like Director of Waste Management. There are even sillier and delightfully self-indulgent digressions along the way, which only makes sense. If you're going to do a silly comic, you may as well go all the way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #20: Sam Held, Isabella M. Hall, Colleen Frakes

Attercop, by Sam Held. Anyone who's ever read The Hobbit knows that an attercop is a sort of insulting term for a spider, as it holds a double meaning as a disagreeable person. In Held's comic, there is a monstrous giant spider who wears an adorable straw hat who is kind and polite. Held's use of color makes this comic sing, as the spider goes about its day in the forest, being careful not to hurt smaller creatures as it looks around. The spider finds a book on gardening and is able to deduce its meaning from the images in it, and sets out to make their own garden, complete with scarecrow. This is just a delightful story that isn't much in terms of plot but still gives the reader some stakes as the spider is on a quest to make things beautiful. It seems like a perfect introduction for a wider series of adventures. 

Life With Diabetes! and Pawdust by Isabella M. Hall. Hall works in a clearly manga-inspired style; I'm not sure I could name the specific influences, but it's obvious this is the subgenre she's comfortable drawing in. Her Life With Diabetes! comic is presented as a rant, but it's honestly more of an entirely reasonable set of facts about type 1 and 2 diabetes, along with some very mild complaints about not feeling seen. (The irony is that this is actually the third minicomic I've seen from CCS grads on this very subject as living with type 1 diabetes; Sam Gaskin's Sugarcube and Nomi Kane's Sugar Baby are the others.)

So the comic revolves around seeing a social media post about the movie Turning Red and seeing one of the young characters wearing a diabetes patch. Hall goes into detail about how diabetes works, including the symptoms as well as the science behind it. Hall then goes back to the reference in Turning Red, and how few instances of a patch are in media. Hall says some other interesting things, as she regards being diabetic as part of her identity, and that if there were some catch-all cure, she wouldn't take it. In part, it's because she wants to be a visible role model--hence, this comic. The problem with this comic is that it's neither fish nor fowl; there's a tenuous personal narrative that is only really emphasized toward the very end. There's fairly basic graphic medicine content that's not really connected to any other narrative. There are instances of personal connections, like the diabetic teddy bear children receive to practice given injections on, but it's yet another fragment, not part of something bigger. It's a rant in the sense that it feels spontaneous and all over the place, but it feels restrained as well. There's a disconnect with Hall's dynamic art style, which makes it feel like more should be happening on a given page. 

If graphic medicine doesn't quite seem to be Hall's bag just yet, it's clear that their comic Pawdust shows off what they excels at. This is only the first book of a much longer story, From the very first play of this mother-son story, Hall's command over color is arresting but tasteful. She doesn't sacrifice her line to color, as the first scene is beautifully composed. The story blurs from black and white to blurs of color, with highly expressive characters in this story of a boy who has a connection to dying animals. Finding a dying bird on the seashore, his mom comforts him and tells him about how everything goes in cycles, and death is part of this. When they do a little ritual for the bird's soul, he sees it fly off, establishing a future plot point while finishing a key emotional beat. The story is set in the present, but there's something hazy about it, like there are lots of tricks of memory for the boy that flash into his mind's eye. There are plenty of visually spectacular sequences in the comic, but the key note here is Hall's overall sense of taste and restraint. 

Colleen Frakes is perhaps the most prolific of all CCS grads, considering her status as a member of its initial graduating class. She's also been one of its most consistent artists, as she long ago found a niche as someone who used fantasy genre trappings to tell stories with a deeply feminist bent. Her stories are often about families: dysfunctional families, found families, loving families, and families stretched to their limits. The perils they face are often faceless, terrifying, random, and merciless. Sometimes people are just in the way of monstrous appetites with no regard for life. Frakes can switch gears and do autobio with the best of them, however, and I've long admired her self-caricature for its expressiveness. Her line is so lively and is usually thick enough to add some real heft to her drawings. Let's take a look at her most recent minis. 

Clever Hanne Saves Her Sister From The Troll King is very typical of her work, and it was done over the span of a month in October of 2018. This is less a comic than it is a series of illustrations with captions at the bottom, telling the story of a young woman whose sister is kidnapped by trolls. As she pursues the troll to find her sister, she does various kindnesses along the way for various creatures she encounters and receives an assortment of useful items. When she reaches the troll cave, the Troll King turns her sister into a troll. The twist here is that the Troll Queen turns against her husband, turns her sister back into a human, and then later becomes part of the young woman's family. There are familiar elements from fairy tales, but the ending subverts aspects of these familiar stories. 

Iron Scars vol 6 and vol 7. Encompassing chapters 4, 5, and 6 of her epic series about a conflict between a family of witches and dark fey on an island, Frakes uses her own experiences in conveying the sense of isolation and weirdness of growing up with a bunch of other families in a remote location. The evil elves (of the Unseelie Court) are kidnapping kids from the village, including the kin of witches. These chapters represent the efforts of some of the kids to fight back by trying to learn the name of the Queen of the Unseelie Court to get power over her. There's also a chapter about the Sand Witch working to try to parley with the Unseelie Court, before they have to do something like go to war. Frakes' line is a delightful combination of thick, bold lines with sketched-out figures that allow the reader to fill in gaps. Her use of gesture in particular is a big part of what makes her comics fun to read. 

Your Mom Friend Is Not Okay is an infrequent example of Frakes doing memoir, something she only tends to do when she really has something to say. In this case, she writes about her harrowing experience giving birth. I've read a number of birthing stories in comics form (it's fantastic that it's become fairly common), but there's a sense where Frakes published this out of sheer frustration. Along the way, there are still some funny observations that have everything to do with an idealized conception of childbirth that rarely materializes. 

What's interesting is that Frakes did this using some prompts. For Hourly Comics Day in 2019, she used the mechanics of doing a comic every hour to talk about her birth experience, which was horrific. The strip serves as an introduction to the rest of the comic, as she notes that an emergency c-section incision was made before her epidural anesthetic kicked in, her midwives never listen to her, and her baby had to have an emergency blood transfusion. There was a hippie midwife who downplayed her fears, having to deal with a pain scale she didn't understand, and a friend who told her that babies freak him out and they were gross. (In other words, what NOT to say.)

Frakes also details how having a baby gave other people a sense of entitlement to her experience--especially her mom, who was angry that someone threw Frakes a baby shower but didn't think to invite a bunch of people that she wanted there. Frakes shows her mom a diagram of how to treat people in crisis; sending comfort and support to "outer rings" (friends to family to partner to patient) and move that in, and send complaints and "what about me" feelings outward. Thus the person in crisis doesn't have to deal with other feelings, and people at various stages in the circles have outlets. Frakes' strip about this is very funny, as her mom replies "Your grandma wouldn't like this," leading to a plop take. There are strips about introducing formula (always a touchy subject), her midwife's dismissal of her symptoms nearly leading to tragedy, going to the hospital anyway, and a rapid escalation of symptoms. Her mom was there to "help" and tried to walk off in a huff when she felt unappreciated. The comic concludes a year later with another hourly comic strip, shifting into a different new normal that is still stressful, right before COVID hits. Throughout it all, her line art shines, with her thick line for figures and finer line for expressions and features the bedrock of her lively cartooning. Frakes is generally a fairly serious storyteller, but this makes her moments of humor all the more effective; she's not so much trying to tell gags as she is relate the frustrating absurdity of certain situations.

Monday, December 19, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #19: Andi Santagata & Beth Hetland

Beth Hetland has been illustrating and co-writing some big projects in the past few years, but now she's gotten back to writing and drawing her own material. (The book she's working on right now is going to make people's heads explode!) Fallow Fields is a minicomic about a figure in a field, struggling with trying to make something grow. At the same time, she is beset by a torrent of platitudes, questionable statements of "support," comments that make it all about the speaker, and also genuine expressions of concern and support. All the while, the figure pulls out weeds, fervently tilling the land in an effort to clear it out--to no avail. She collapses, weeping, even as the platitudes pile up. She starts to grow and fill up the tract around her, and tiny versions of her start to clip and mow and tend to her. There is a tacit feeling of radical acceptance at the end, as the voices of others echo away. There are any number of ways to interpret this (though a few seem more likely than others), so I won't speculate as to specific meanings. This comic is really about sitting with a certain reality and coming to terms with it. The white ink on blue background adds to its sense of melancholy, There is a powerful, visceral quality to the cartooning, as Hetland's line is thick and the figure she uses is drawn as desperately strong. There is an intimacy here that I haven't seen in Hetland's past work, and she's bold in expressing vulnerability.

Andi Santagata is a lot of things as a cartoonist, but what I like best about his work is his sense of humor. While he mostly draws horror or horror-inspired comics, at heart, he's a humorist. This is also true of his two memoir minicomics, The Compleat Trans Man Walking and Yennefer's Body. There is a tension in his scratchy, scribbly expressive work between a brash & funny humorist and a person programmed to say as little and take up as little space as possible. Trans Man Walking is a 2016 journal of his initial transition, his battles with his mom, and adjusting to life as a man. There's also a very funny version of the CCS audition comic, involving a robot and a snowman, and Santagata turns it into a gag that's also hilariously tragic. That's true of much of this comic, though there are small moments of triumph like the delight at casually being referred to as a "fella" by a bartender. Santagata's art is so beautifully scratchy and his caricatures so exaggerated that he would have made a fine editorial cartoonist in a different era. 

If Trans Man Walking reflects the way it was assembled (haphazardly, and as part of an immediate engagement with the internet), then Yennefer's Body reflects a great amount of thematic care and planning. This is a sequel and continuation of the story from Trans Man Walking, but it more closely fits the themes related to laughing things off, especially pain, so as not to draw attention of any kind. Of course, this approach led Santagata to ignore a huge tumor that eventually caused an enormous amount of blood loss and nearly killed him. The entire comic is an attempt to come to terms with that mortality, mediated through video games and TV shows. The video game Dragon Age is the biggest touchstone, especially as its main character has to find a way to cheat death against the will of her mother. Despite his near-death, Santagata can't shake the feeling that he was still somehow making a big deal out of nothing. There is an obvious mirror here established in his previous comics, where Santagata's mother takes his transition, his tattoos, and every avenue of self-expression as a personal offense. 

This is explored further here a bit more obliquely, on blood-red pages splattered and smeared with black ink that approximates a female shape. There's a torrent of abusive, inappropriate, and narcissistic language that Santagata obviously ignored that blames him and accuses him of trying to make his mom "look bad." That's entirely in line with Santagata going an entire day as a kid with a broken arm that no one notices because he doesn't complain. (Santagata cleverly ties this in with an episode of Malcolm In The Middle where Malcolm stops complaining but then develops a stomach ulcer.) It is Yennefer, a character from the show The Witcher, who is the final touchstone, as she also has to undergo a highly painful transformation that renders her infertile. Santagata is finally given a chance to get on testosterone, something that had been unavailable to him during his transition, as a life-saving measure against the tumor and losing so much blood. The result of this also made him infertile, something he's OK with...but it's still a change. The whole thing is a pun on the feminist comedy-horror film Jennifer's Body, which is about a woman turned into a succubus who must be stopped by her best friend. That is another film about transformation, trauma, and refusing to listen to marginalized people. 

This is a horror story, and the aesthetic matches it: black pages, red ink, scratchy & monstrous figures, and the comics equivalent of jump scares. It's also funny and sweet, as the sheer obliviousness of Santagata's stand-ins, who are so thoroughly programmed to not complain and minimize everything, literally have to be taken to the edge of death and beyond to acknowledge and live in that trauma. This comic represents every angle Santagata can think of in approaching that journey into entirely-avoidable near-oblivion, and the examples he picks do something very important: they emphasize the danger instead of minimize it. These two comics are a hell of a one-two graphic medicine punch.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #18: Anna McGlynn & Chuck Forsman

There are a lot of cartoonists who love to mine cheesy exploitation movies because it's easy to get a cheap pop by referencing kung-fu movies, blaxploitation films, grindhouse/revenge films, etc. Other artists might refer to it satirically, while still getting all the juice and frisson from the frequently transgressive or offensive content from the source material. Chuck Forsman is not one of those artists. His interest in downbeat, violent, and frequently nihilistic fare was there from the very beginning of his career, and he's refined it to focus on the most visceral and blunt aspects of this kind of storytelling in comics like Revenger. There's no irony or distance in that comic; indeed, the moral aspects of the story are essentially kill-or-be-killed, with the protagonist on a righteous path of destruction. 

With his new one-shot, New York Ninja (published by Floating World Comics), Forsman is doing something slightly different. The movie of that title was originally filmed in 1984 (right at the height of the ninja movie explosion) but wasn't released until 2021. The original footage had no sound, no storyboards, and no script, but the film restoration/home video company Vinegar Syndrom acquired it. The footage was edited and sound was added, but no additional scenes were added in a film that didn't really have a definitive ending. The story followed a TV news station employee named Liu who puts his martial arts skills to the test after his wife is murdered. He kills a serial killer named the Plutonium Killer at the end. The film gained an instant cult following--including Forsman.

He was so captivated by the film that he wrote Vinegar Syndrome and asked to do a comics sequel, in the style of Marvel Super Specials from the 70s and 80s. Forsman's comic is entirely in the spirit of the film, as the more ridiculous aspects of the film are played completely straight. Forsman simplifies his line a bit, using essentially the same kind of four-color palette of past eras and lots of effects like zip-a-tone. In the comic, Liu is still looking for his wife's killer, but one of the disciples of the Plutonium Killer has survived, as rats enter his body and he finds the radioactive hand of his master. There's a kid who wants to be the Ninja's student, a sleazy nightclub, absurd sci-fi/horror elements, and pretty much everything else you'd want from sleazy 80s entertainment. There's a heart-warming ending and an open ending for more Ninja fun. Forsman's sheer, sincere enthusiasm for the material is infectious, especially for anyone who's ever enjoyed discovering some bizarre bit of cult cinema. The total lack of polish and slickness (in both the movie and the comic) is part of what makes all of this work. 


Diary comics are a dime a dozen. What were originally designed as a way to get your pencil moving and not to fuss too much over one's line has become something of a cottage industry. I blame James Kochalka for this. Lynda Barry, who often talks about doing diary comics as a way of busting through writer's block, said that no artist should do them for more than a year straight, especially not for others to see. There are seriously diminishing returns for both artist and reader. I often advise young cartoonists that if you ever get to the point where you draw that strip about being at the drawing board and having nothing to say, you should quit doing your diary strip immediately. You can always come back to it in a few months, once something has perhaps happened. 

What is the central problem with diary strips? There's little time available to process the events that have happened, and that perspective is crucial in crafting a coherent narrative. Anecdote is not narrative. Quotidian details aren't stories. They're the fertilizer of stories. I say all of this to note that Anna McGlynn's 17 August Days is practically the platonic form of what a good diary comic is. It's not just that a lot of interesting things happen in the course of the diary comics (though they do happen), it's that there's a crackling immediacy to her work that reflects a commitment to getting back to the drawing board after three years while finishing up her last semester of nursing school. She jotted down these frequently hilarious stories in-between classes and hospital shifts, and while her line is crude, it's actually more dynamic than it was earlier in her career. I once described McGlynn's line as functional but not much else, but she more than makes up for it with smart cartooning and storytelling. Even her caricature is fun to look at, with freckles, glasses, hair up in a bun, and limbs that tend to flail around. 

This is classic closed memoir: McGlynn gives the reader nothing at first, throwing them into the deep end of their life as a student while giving very little narrative context as to who they are or why we should care. The sheer force of her character wins the reader over immediately, and she reveals an emotional narrative and even a through-line (a rarity for a diary comic) little by little. We learn that her divorce is final. We see her studying and then going to band practice (!). She delights in the legal demise of Alex Jones. She goes slightly crazy in the Philadelphia heat. She ponders community while visiting the Pine Barrens with friends. She goes to Ireland to visit her mother and stepfather. Her life is so busy that doing a comic seems to be a natural step, a return to something she used to love to do as she's learned to balance her life. Why is she doing this comic and publishing it? Because community and communication are everything, a lesson she learns over and over throughout the comic. Expressing oneself through narrative is an excellent way to create community and reach out to others, and the emotional and informational denseness of this comic sets it apart from others of its ilk.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #17: Aaron Cockle & Bryan Stone

Bugs, by Bryan Stone. Stone is one of the members of CCS's first graduating class, but it's been a while since I've seen his work. This funny mini full of vignettes about bugs is full of sharp storytelling, crisp drawing, and lively cartooning. These are bugs with rich fantasy lives, engaging in awkward cringe humor, and philosophically complex outlooks on lives. They are also bugs who act like bugs, as when a cricket finds himself jumping without much control over their actions. Stone's character design is killer, retaining the anatomy of insects while adding anthropomorphic expressiveness to their eyes and sometimes their movements. His use of hatching and cross-hatching is impeccable, adding depth and weight to the pages in a way that's frequently simply beautiful. Some strips offer more extreme close-ups of the bugs, and Stone shifts to a thick line weight and a simplified design, like in one strip where a bug is teaching their "pet" to fetch, with amusing results. A plot about aliens arriving and a reveal that they wiped out humanity and gave the bugs consciousness is clever but also kept light and irreverent. 

Andalusian Dog, October 2022, by Aaron Cockle. Cockle's back at it with this exploration of a meta-game  in an issue subtitled "The Opposite Of Empathy Is Empathy." The narrative, with a different numbered heading at the top of each page, is about various kinds of tests, including machines testing other machines for empathy and antipathy. It goes into detail about growing up on a moon colony, with images on graph lines, and jagged photos of the moon. There are drug-induced mass emotion experiments during space travel, life back on Earth that includes an appearance on the Dennis Miller Show with Carrot Top, and a film adaptation of an obscure Jack Kirby comic. The intersection between work and art and the concept of work as an immersive, all-encompassing thing that obliterates personal space is a running theme in Cockle's comics, whose visuals continue to become increasingly abstract and sketchy. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #16: Quinn Thomson and Sam Nakahira

Quinn Thomson has quite a future ahead of him doing what he describes as "slice-of-life science fiction." This can be a really effective use of genre as kind of set decoration for character-driven narratives, and with a large cast, the focus can shift from character to character if it's a serial. Evan Dorkin did my favorite example of this with Hectic Planet, which shifted from sci-fi shenanigans to slice-of-life and romance. For Thomson, his stories center around the crew of the Squab, a space cargo vessel. Their actual job is quite unremarkable; they're not soldiers or explorers or adventurers; they are there to deliver goods. 

The central character is Shannon Kent, a "genetically engineered canine" who is one of the toughest and smartest crew members, albeit one insecure about a number of issues. Thomson balances short vignettes centering around gags (like someone who ties a knife to a cleaning drone) and narratives that explore Shannon's emotions. A bit of shore leave turns into a disaster when a kid calls her a doggy and wants to take her home. An embarrassing situation when a human tells her to leave a cafeteria is resolved when she bares her fangs in an attempt to demurely be more aggressive. There are times when her canine nature overrides things, like when a ball is flung in her direction. In Zero Point and Zero Point: Routine (a silent day-in-the-life comic about Shannon), Thomson spins small and gentle stories with a crisp line and attention to detail. Some of his drawings tend to be a bit on the busy side (there's a lot of clutter in addition to grayscale shading), but at this point, this is just his aesthetic. A story where the character's main problem is their own fears about fitting but is actually supported by her friends avoids easy conflicts and their cliched outcomes. This is a perfect hang-out comic, as Thomson's clear enjoyment of these characters comes across on the page. 

Thomson mines the same emotional territory in Delia, a comic that dips into horror tropes. A young man draws a woman who's clearly disguising her features with a hat, sunglasses, and a scarf over her face. When he tries to give her the drawing, she trips and falls, revealing that she's a monstrous, demonic-looking creature. After taking a moment to compose himself, he gives her her hat and the drawing, and they walk home together. There is a sweetness to the story that goes along with a general theme of acceptance in Thomson's stories that's heightened by his facility in drawing monsters, aliens, and anthropomorphic characters. Right now, Thomson is mostly in the mode of writing vignettes without much of a narrative arc, but his narrative arc is usually quite strong in his stories. I'd be curious to see him try a longer story or series of stories. 

Sam Nakahira is an interesting cartoonist because their overall project stretches out over several forms of genre. They have precisely the right voice to do comics journalism and history: curious, questioning, and confident, but not overbearing. Like all good journalists, they let readers fill in the gaps instead of telling them how they should feel. At this point of her career, while much of it has been journalism or history, she seems most confident doing fantasy. This is true in their comic The Moon Jar, which has a delightfully loose line while zeroing in on cleverly-designed monsters and creatures. The story follows a young woman named Diana who inherits her mother's curiosity shop along with her sisters. She relates accidentally breaking a stone that contained a sleeping dragon as a child, and how this informs her respect and awe for creatures--but also makes her a little cocky. 

When a tiny demon (a kappa) tricks her into removing the stone keeping something called The Moon Jar closed, the contents spill out, which includes an octopus who stole a piece of the moon. Diana and her sisters have to consult with an elder (a turtle) and consult local pearl divers for help. The missing piece of the moon is wreaking havoc with the tides and flooding the town, but Diana is able to convince the irascible octopus into trading the piece of the moon for her eye--an eye that can see spirits, as a child of Neptune.The story is well-paced, has a strong narrative arc built around traditional stories, and easily-understood relationships with Diana and her sisters. It feels like the first of many stories with these characters. 

Nakahira also collected a few short stories, which revolve around the indigenous populations of Japan and the ways in which the modern government betrays. A story about the endangered dugong (akin to a manatee) of Okinawa, which is treasued by the indigenous population, evolves into a protest against a joint US-Japanese military base. There's a story about how the Ainu, another indigenous group, created the "umami" savory flavor using a kind of local seaweed called kenbo. When the were colonized by Imperial Japan, they outlawed "primitive" hunting/gathering methods, despite the strong influence kenbo had in trade. Nakahira tells the bizarre story of "Battleship Island," which was once used a dense-packed living area for what was essentially slave labor, especially of Koreans. Nakahira notes a reluctance for the Japanese state and people to own up to its legacy. In terms of technique, this is the best-told of the stories, with a number of striking individual images that bring her point home in a way that she does less of in the first two stories. Finally, her account of the life of Kaneko Fumiko, a 1920s non-person who defied the Imperial government as an anarchist activist. Nakahira's enthusiasm for this story is especially moving, as Kaneko unsurprisingly meets a bad end but leaves a powerful legacy. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #15: Rebecca Schuchat and Juniper Kim

Four short comics by Rebecca Schuchat. These are all 4" x 4" minicomics, each of which is a combination of information and polemics. Prop 22 is a comic about a measure passed in California that essentially repudiated a law passed that forced businesses like Uber and Lyft to pay their employees overtime and give them insurance. Not only did the companies spend over $200 in favor of the measure, they forced their employees to carry bags that were in favor of it. Schuchat has a keen understanding of design. Each page almost always obeyed the 2:1 rule, wherein (other things being equal) each panel should contain no more than 1/3 text to 2/3 image. In places where this wasn't true, Schuchat cleverly cut the text in half so as to make the page more readable. 

In OK, Here Is What You Should Know About Bail, Schuchat works with writer Madi Ordway, and the result is a graphic design mess. There are walls of text on each page, the lettering is hard to follow, and the dark purple wash also makes this hard to read. It's important information regarding a corrupt system and the inequity surrounding bail, but it's hard to read. On the other hand, Schuchat's adaptation of the IWW labor song I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night uses stark imagery and a bold yellow wash to make the lyrics to this standard truly stand out. The Filibuster may be the best comic in the bunch. The red and blue zip-a-tone effects create a wavy pattern throughout the background of the comic, helping to mitigate the heap of text in the comic. It talks about the toxic history of this procedure in Congress, how it's being used to impede democracy now, and how it could be changed. It's strong political cartooning, although the thoroughness of Schuchat's research is such that she could easily write a book about virtually any subject and make it look interesting. 

Juniper Kim is one of the more intriguing recent CCS students. There is something powerfully raw, ugly, and blunt in the way she discusses trauma, identity, gender, and the mixed feelings surrounding desire. A Girl's Guide To Becoming Asian-American is a howl of anger done using collage. It's an emotional narrative that touches on the sheer pain of assimilation and touches on grief, desire, and images of whiteness while also discussing a debt to ancestors. 

Her Koreans Sing In English got nominated for an Ignatz Award, and for good reason. Using a stacked series of three horizontal panels, Kim weaves three related narratives in and out with each other. One is her own narrative, as she jumps back and forth in time and talks about various events that shaped her relationship to music, both as a player (classical violent) and listener. The middle tier narrative is about her father's time in the DMZ as part of his compulsory military service in South Korea. The bottom tier is about the history of South Korea itself. 

This is all done in watercolors that seep and blur into each other, just as each of the three narratives inevitably blur together. This comic, and much of Kim's work, is the ways in which the cultures and governments of Japan and the United States imposed themselves on Korea. It led to a Westernized Japan imposing similar cultural demands on Korea, like making people study and listen to Japanese military songs composed in a classical Western style. For her father, growing up in the 80s, Western pop music was sought after by young South Koreans as a symbol of Western freedom and economic power. The comic centers around a single event: her father patrolling the DMZ alone, with the South Korean side blasting in western rock and the North Korea side blasting in their own propaganda, and he's surrounded in this no-man's-land by flourishing flora and fauna that exists because people aren't there to endanger them. 

Kim incorporates a particular guitar instrumental he heard with the swirling, bruised colors of the sunset, collapsing her tiered panels into a single splash page. Kim's own recollections about her relationship with music, including the feeling that practicing violin was more important than her father playing his guitar, speaks to the kind of anger that pervades all of her work. There's also a tenderness toward her father and his experiences, and a sense of understanding of her parents' country and why its people do the things they do. That same feeling of feeling betwixt and between as an Asian-American and a country whose last 150 years are all about being colonized at every level (including culturally) and by every ideology are the backbone of this provocative, smart, beautiful, and sad comic.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #14: Lillie J. Harris and Coco Fox

Coco Fox is the rare cartoonist whose non-cartooning activities I'll mention in a review, because her upbeat authorial persona is 100% accurate in real life as well. As a host of various follies in White River Junction as well as a workshop leader (including one for me at SPX), she truly is a walking ray of sunshine. Beneath that enthusiasm, however, is a sharp intellect carefully guiding a reader, student, or audience member in interesting and intentional ways. Fox also understands how the decorative aspects of art add value and delight in projects with rock-solid foundations.

At SPX, she sold "Little Ghouls Fortune Telling Cards," a sort of all-ages card deck based on Tarot principles. Accompanied by a minicomic that gives the interpretations of each card (the Mouse, the Rockstar, the Snail, the Ghost, the Pencil, the Detective, etc.), Fox cleverly devised an uplifting and affirming series of creative prompts. It recognizes the negative aspect of each creative urge (the Detective out of balance is bored) and how to get back into balance (for the Detective, it's "crack open a book, baby!"). Fox also sold a mini fitting into this gently spooky theme called "Ghost Jokes," which features her delightfully cute and expressive line and some deliberately groan-inducing punchlines. It's all packaged in a sheer bag decorated with suns and moons, tied off with a ribbon. The whole thing is a delightful package aimed at pre-teens, but it's fun to look at for any audience--like the best lit aimed at kids. Fox's cartooning seems highly intuitive; having followed her career, she's wisely focused on gesture and expression instead of the drawings themselves. As a result, she's developed an irresistible style that pares down lines to their essence while retaining an idiosyncratic quality that makes the final results cute without being cloying.

Wilderness, by Lillie J. Harris. This story has had a couple of different iterations, but it's always revolved around a young man named Roscoe (also known as Jemiah), who sees things a little differently. His second sight was more prominently featured in the prologue comic for this story; this version leaves some of the supernatural elements behind in favor focusing on its human elements. In particular, it centers around Roscoe, who is traumatized from a car accident that cost him his arm; Beau, a prizefighter with a secret, and his sister Ronny, a drifter who is on the run. 

Roscoe and Beau strike up an unlikely friendship, as Roscoe is a painter and Beau likes to whittle. Beau is out in the woods when Roscoe finds him and recognizes that his new friend is out looking for roots and herbs to help him with sleep. These are Roscoe's "tinctures," and they both recognize that they have ways of expressing themselves that are private and personal. The big reveal is that both Beau and Ronny are werewolves, and she joins her brother for the full moon and their transformation. At its heart, this is a story about generational trauma. When Beau and Ronny take in a little kid werewolf who has obviously been mistreated by her mother, it triggers a lot of old feelings for both. As Beau has tried to figure out what to say to his mother, Ronny has avoided dealing with her presence in her life, until she's forced to confront it when they meet the kid. Roscoe has his own issues with her preacher father who tries to downplay his memories and trauma, and that's why Roscoe and Beau are kindred souls. Harris' nightmarish splashes of color, silent pages of traumatic memories, and visceral violence all coalesce to tell a story of family trying to survive their pasts and making unlikely new connections. It uses the tropes of horror in clever ways that only enhance the psychological aspects of the story. It also doesn't feel quite finished; or rather, that a sequel seems to be needed to explore these stories a bit further.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #13: Kevin Reilly and Mac MacLean

Game Over, by Mac MacLean. MacLean's comics are thoughtful and meditative, and often turn toward the topic of loss. This comic takes on death directly, mediated through MacLean's lifelong love of video games. There's an interesting scene early on when MacLean is a young child and the idea of dying in the game freaks them out. They eventually come to understand that no matter how scary a game might be, no matter how visceral their demise, no matter how difficult the action might get to win, death has no permanent consequences. Even in games designed to explore the concepts of grief and loss, they are still mission-based. Things are gamed to make you win eventually. MacLean then goes on to say that only Dungeons and Dragons, in all the games they've played, offers the possibility that their characters might not come back. Everyone processes grief differently, and finding a genuine comfort through a role-playing game makes sense.

MacLean doesn't discuss this, but the reason why D&D can do this is not just that it has random elements, but that it is also profoundly collaborative and character-driven. In a good campaign, your character has a life that you give them, rather than a character determined by a video game. At the same time, when a character dies, they can be mourned by their comrades in the same way that seeking out others is so important to mourning. MacLean does note that the closed-system nature of video games that once was a comfort in the face of grief and negative emotions was having diminishing returns as they grew older and the pain became harder to comprehend. That's because a video game, like many other coping mechanisms, is usually a profoundly isolating experience. MacLean cleverly slips in and out of drawing scenes from video games and incorporates them into their narrative, but the scene where they don armor and discuss seeking legitimacy for their grief reflected in the media they consume is especially effective. They are literally trying to protect themselves and feel safe as they process these feelings. It's clever precisely because it's entirely sincere. 

The Snowman and To Mak Patar, by Kevin Reilly. Reilly is a great example of a cartoonist who almost exclusively does genre work in a way that's consistently thought-provoking and visually exciting. In The Snowman, Reilly tells a tale of a (mostly) utopian far future in a world without disease, war, or mental illness like depression. Children are brought to museums to become educated about past practices and phenomena like farming, war, and trees. This story follows a narrator recalling a visit as a child to see the Hall of Abominations. These were creatures relocated (i.e., imprisoned) when the "global smoothing project began." It includes sandmen, mermen, footmen (literally human heads attached to feet) and others, but the creature that left an impression was the snowman. Snowmen were wild, eating cattle, bringing destruction on human villages, and sometimes singing in groups once a year. When the teacher tells him that the snowman in the display, the last remaining snowman, looks "depressed," the narrator doesn't understand what this means. The class is bummed out by this, so the teacher distracts them with musical robots, but the narrator sees the snowman rise, frost over the window, and return to what he was doing. There's no further commentary, nor is any needed. Reilly's character design and his use of color are both exquisite and delicate. He totally sells the reader on this environment before revealing the price that was paid for it. 

To Mak Patar is an excerpt from a larger book Reilly will be publishing; the new Parsifal Press published this mini. This is a quest story following a young woman named Corinne Jitan, undertaking a forbidden journey with a stolen box to gain the secrets of a mountain. Reilly uses a completely different approach here, with black & white art that features lots of grayscale shading and a delicate line weight. The shapes and creatures she encounters are reminiscent of Jim Woodring's Frank character and his world, but the goal here seems more linear. This portion is a kind of visual problem-solving test, as Corinne strives to use the tools available to her in order to progress, while dealing with monsters and other obstacles. I'll be curious to see it with a wider context.