Wednesday, December 28, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #28: Leeah Swift

Leeah Swift crafted a number of beautifully-drawn, confrontational, and hilarious comics for her CCS thesis package, but the one that sums up their work the best is probably Freex. Subtitled "Somewhat of an artist's statement/pseudo-manifesto," this comic gets at the very heart of cartooning itself. Swift likes to draw figures that can be described as grotesque: distorted, rubbery, weird, monstrous, fluid, and fantastical. She says she likes this style because "freaks allow me to be more honest than most of the social and moral conventions of the world do." This reminds me of some drawings that Marnie Galloway recently published on her Substack. She drew herself at the board--a basic, realistic drawing. It was accurate, she said, but not true. She drew another one of herself as a snail, with her three loving but demanding kids reminding her that she is going at a steady snail's pace in her work. This was true, but not accurate. Then she drew herself as a werewolf for fun--neither accurate, nor true. 

Leeah Swift draws comics that are not accurate, but they are true. And the weirder she gets, the more vulnerable and intimate the comics feel. Those terms fit better than something as nebulous as "true" is when describing anything, much less a subjective set of feelings around art. Swift zeroes in on something else: the spontaneity and immediacy of drawings that may be "mistakes"; their energy often brings something that is absent in a more labored, craft-centric drawing. At a deeper level, and from the perspective of a trans woman, these drawings make her question beauty standards and how they can promote cruelty. Concluding this series of illustrations by saying "Love every freak," it's a challenge for both herself and the reader. 

Swift describes a lot of her comics as "stream-of-consciousness." This is especially effective with several of the shorter, beautiful little art objects she creates, like I. Drawn like an ever-expanding maze, it's about being caught in an emotional labyrinth where things don't matter much. For Swift, who usually goes pretty big in terms of images, this micro-mini relies solely on a minimalist line. Butt Or What is a color experiment with a short, singular punchline that Swift critiques with a character coming saying it's merely "mildly amusing." Swift's self-caricature has a marvelously deranged quality to it, especially in the way her eyes bug out. Once again: freaky. Wiggle Water is a series of images with a Seussian labeling scheme, going from "wiggle water" to "cannon fodder" to "helpful otter." There's a precision of line, absurdity of character design, and restraint in color scheme that reminds me a bit of Paul Hornschemeier's early comics. The last of these shorter comics is Aaahh, Yes! I'm Back On My Medication!. It's another comic that shows off the crispness of her line and the vivid but tasteful use of color, as she feels invincible back on her meds, then goes off her meds because she feels invincible. 

The first of her two longer works is a eulogy/history about the punk-cabaret singer Jack Terricloth, aka Peter Ventantonio, titled I Want To Know That It Mattered. He's exactly the kind of cult figure that a teenage Leeah needs: a weirdo who defies and walks amongst conventions, veering between the sincerity of a crooner, the sneer of a punk rocker, and the self-aware showmanship of a carny barker and tent preacher. His music and performances not only had a profound influence on Swift, they also let her be a part of his cult fanbase, giving her a sense of safety in a setting where everyone was constantly redefining themselves. Swift's tone veers from personal to historical/analytical and goes straight to crass, grief-deflecting humor. She recalls she and her friends snickering at Terricloth's bulging dick in a tight-fitting suit, and then wonders allowed if she could have saved him if she had given him a blowjob. Swift is quite self-aware with what she's doing here, and her liquid and fantastical art reflects it as we see her melt into goo. Jack Terricloth mattered to her, and that's what's important. 

Leeah Swift's Stream-Of-Consciousness Comics is essentially Swift's brand at the moment: fantastical, intellectually curious, slightly lurid, and confessional. Graduating from CCS reveals an artist with considerable technical skill, a deep understanding of comics storytelling, and a probing mind. It's still not entirely clear what kind of cartoonist Swift will be. Confessional memoir? Short, humorous stories? Detailed historical analysis along the lines of what Sasha Velour was doing before she went into drag performance full time? I could see Swift doing any and all of that; their drawing and cartooning skill is such that she could go in a more commercial direction if she wanted for some projects but stay in freak realm for more personal work. In this comic, she writes an interesting essay critiquing Marvel movies but also detailing why these movies have personal significance. This is probably the weakest entry in the book, in part because the art feels a little less out-there than in their other work. Conversely, Swift's comics essay on why they find Nick Cave and his music simultaneously irresistible and problematic, with a detour into a critique of queer people desperately trying to find crumbs of queer content in otherwise aggressively mainstream work while ignoring scores of actual freaky, queer artists. The other strips are about turning 30 and also getting sober, thinking about her future, and turning away from the cynicism of her past. Both are short and sweet and a fitting end to a decade and a sustained thesis. Leeah Swift's best comics are certainly yet to come, but the path she's taken is well worth examining.