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.


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