Monday, August 29, 2022

Two From Kayla E.

Kayla E. is one of the most exciting young talents in the world of alternative and literary comics in quite some time. I've been following her progress in minis and in places like Nat. Brut, but she's gone to another level recently. She's working on a memoir for Fantagraphics, and hints of what will wind up in that book can be found in two recent minicomics: Fun Time Fun Book and Precious Rubbish Vol. 2 No. 1. Kayla E. writes about her horrifying childhood and the unthinkable abuse she suffered, but it's mediated through Ivan Brunetti-style simplicity and filtering her experiences through old Archie and ACG comics. 

In much the same way that her comics collection was her safe haven as a child, so too does the style of people like Harry Lucey and Bob Wickersham inform and guide her through a harrowing juxtaposition of kid comic wholesomeness with mental illness, abuse, family dysfunction, violence, incest, and withholding of emotion. In Fun Time Fun Book, Kayla. E gives the reader word searches, paper dolls, fashion, and crossword puzzles. However, they are all about horrible things, like her mother's borderline personality disorder, Kayla E.'s desperate attempts to please her, and details like her older brother having a peephole into her room. There are also references to her drinking issues and desperate need to imprint on others for love and approval. 

Precious Rubbish is a series of short stories done in the model of ACG stories, MLJ stories, and Archie. Most of them are about her mother and the bizarre behavior she engaged in. Her parents divorced and Kayla mostly lived with her mom, who had little interest in actual parenting. Throughout her stories, religious iconography is crucial, as her own unique interpretation and relationship with Christianity informs her comics now, just as it did her beliefs as a child. There's a heartbreaking sequence where she fantasizes that Jesus is her mother, and she becomes Christ-like, only to have an overwhelming desire to have her insides scraped out so that she becomes someone else. In the Archie-style story involving baking, the dialogue all comes from the book of Job while the captions are all memories of abuse, but also bizarre events like watching her mother go through an exorcism. No fantasy and no nightmare could keep up with actual events that were occurring, and this is a reality barely kept at bay in her comics with her grotesque self-caricature facing a series of impossible trials with little to no reward or any sense of a way out. Yet, the art itself is a reaction, a howl against her experiences, and a statement of purpose. 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Not quite comics: Marvel Big Book of Fun And Games

I have a general policy against reviewing most Marvel & DC stuff, but I'll make an exception with one of the weirder reprints from the 1970s: Marvel Big Book Of Fun And Games. This is a collection of the late 70s comic book that did not feature comics; instead, it featured mazes, word searches, trivia, secret codes, and other activities for kids. For a 10-year-old me obsessed with both comics and puzzles, this was the best thing ever. I had already gotten my hands on The Mighty Marvel Fun Book series that Fireside Books was publishing at around the same time, which had extremely obscure trivia about Marvel characters in addition to things like mazes and crossword puzzles. However, I could buy Fun And Games for 50 cents along with my other comics, and fill it out while waiting with my mother in the grocery store. 

This experiment lasted for 13 issues, and I suspect it died it in part because the newsstand was dying out. I bought my comics from a magical place called The Front Page, a small shop jammed to the gills with magazines, newspapers of all kinds, tobacco, and even the obscure Marvel magazines like Marvel Preview and Epic Illustrated. That place was heaven, the guys who ran it let me hang out as long as I wanted, and a trove of comics was available for just a few bucks. I remember when titles like The Micronauts, Ka-Zar, and Moon Knight were made available to comics shops only in the early 80s. It was just another sign that the newsstand, a haven for kids for well over fifty years, was on its way out. 

The series was drawn and conceived by a Canadian artist named Owen McCarron. He actually pitched the idea to Stan Lee, who was always looking for an angle and a new way to profit from his characters. McCarron already designed his own puzzles and games for his own newspaper in Halifax, and he had been doing them for thirty years. A veteran of Charlton comics and early Marvel work (he was a pinch-hitter here and there), McCarron was given carte blanche on the comic, and he ran with it. His ability as a style mimic was simply remarkable, and his puzzles were just challenging enough. These comics were also funny and sometimes silly; he stroke a perfect tone as he drew in a Marvel house style that touched on Kirby and Ditko but was also in the vein of Win Mortimer's style on Spidey Super Stories (which McCarron also contributed to): simple, sleek and stripped-down. 

The book was published by Abrams, so it looks nice. Some more recent puzzles were added to the book, like strips involving Star-Lord and Groot. It is unfortunate but not surprising that McCarron is not credited anywhere on the cover for nearly 150 pages worth of work that came straight from his pencil. He's only credited by Roy Thomas in his introduction and in the indicia. Obviously, these aren't his characters, but the puzzles and the gags were entirely his. Work-for-hire strikes again, although I imagine this was de rigueur for him. Still, the result is clearly a delightful labor of love, and I'm glad it exists again for kids to enjoy. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bryan Moss' Outer Heaven #1

Outer Heaven #1 is by Bryan Moss, a painter and cartoonist with a wild imagination. Dipping into the same sort of stylized, dystopian, and city-centric art style as a Jamie Hewlett, what sets Moss apart is his wry sense of humor and close attention to detail. Moss' style wouldn't be out of place with the Meathaus cartoonists of the 2000s: thick lines, looping and distorted character design, minimal use of negative space (indeed, there's a maximalist feel in every panel), and incorporating influences from manga and things like Heavy Metal. It's all there, but Moss quickly transcends those influences and turns it into something more interesting. 

Moss begins the comic with a series of pages featuring photocomics collages. In her introduction to the comic, Dr. Rachel Miller notes that much of this comic was done in a transitory period where lots of video tapes and other ephemera was consumed in a time of uncertainty. That low-fi video culture that carried a strong underground element is present here as well. 

The main story concerns an assassin named Broken Nose Betty who prefers what she calls "pacifist kills." She generally only goes after people trying to kill her or dangers to society, but she tricks them into getting themselves killed. The plot concerns a group of dangerous slugs masquerading as people, but Betty is on the case. She edits her Wikipedia entry and trolls her target on Reddit to manipulate him into getting taken out by his own boss. She then tricks a slug assassin into drinking a margarita...with a rim lined with salt. 

Moss's character design is sharp, creating interesting panel compositions by bleeding the colors of his characters into the rest of the panel. His panels are busy and bold but never difficult to parse, thanks to the precision of his use of color. He goes for broke in that regard: bold purples, oranges, sickly greens, and yellows assault the reader, yet every color is perfectly balanced. If there's a color clash, it's intentional. While his actual cartooning is the spine of the comic and gives it its structure, his painterly understanding of color is what gives Outer Heaven its sense of style. It's clear there are a lot more stories to be told in Broken Nose Betty's Void City.