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.

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