Friday, April 21, 2023

Keith Knight's Good On Both Sides

Gentleman Cartoonist Keith Knight is a polymath. From his days as a musician, to his TV show Woke (based on his own life), to his prolific career as a cartoonist, he's always been doing it all, all the time. As a cartoonist, he has three different outlets. The Knight Life is his syndicated strip, and he has the three or four panel approach for the punchline down pat. The K Chronicles is his classic single-page strip, usually with multiple panels that talk about something personal or cultural. Then there's (th)ink, his single-panel editorial strip. While political and cultural issues are essential to all of his work, especially with regard to race and police brutality, (th)ink is notable because of its format. Knight excels at clever turns of phrase and images with regard to some contemporary issue.

His latest (th)ink collection, Good On Both Sides, tackles the fertile subject of the latter years of the Donald Trump presidency. Reading a collection of these strips, one understands that Trump was almost too fertile a subject for scorn and parody. When you have a person who feels no shame whatsoever, loves attention, and changes the outrage narrative every single day, it makes a satirist's job nearly impossible. As such, some of the comics in Good On Both Sides reference events that I can't remember. The tidal wave of toxic nonsense was just too great to keep track of everything, and there's only so much a political cartoonist can do to explain a reference without it resulting in literally spelling out every aspect of a joke. 

Knight mostly manages to get around that problem by using clever visuals to take a specific reference and apply it to Trump's wider universe of greed, sexual harassment, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, out-and-out lies, and the general alternate reality that the ex-president and his supporters live in. If Trump's an easy target, it's because he's too vast to possibly ignore, and too crudely stupid to resist direct hits. Knight's skill is taking an outrage point (like Trump saying there were "very fine people on both sides" with regard to a white nationalist rally) and shifting the joke (there's an angel and a devil on either side of him, and Trump is feeling up the angel). Knight's stumpy, cartoony figures are exaggerated and rubbery, giving his characters a kind of sweaty, neurotic energy. Knight is not only funny, he draws funny, and he rarely varies from this style in all of his material. There's an almost gentle, welcome quality to his drawing style, providing a little distance for when he goes all-in, like his incredible "White Power Rangers" gag. He's also proficient at taking a news item (like a golf club calling the cops on a group of black women playing on the course) and pulling out a dagger of a punchline ("...they're swinging at something WHITE!")

There are also moments of sincerity, as Knight honors figures like Bill Nunn, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall with naturalistic portraits and key quotes. In this political climate, simply honoring Black figures from American history is a political act. Knight suggests that like it or not, simply being Black is a political act, and he's not afraid to say this out loud. He's even more unsparing in his lectures about police violence; if anything, he mostly pulls his punches and goes for gags in (th)ink; he could be a lot meaner. The final comics in the collection address the then-incipient Coronavirus; he nailed the conspiracy thinking surrounding it from the very beginning. Despite the fact that so much of this book is so contemporaneous of roughly 2018-2020, the strips relating to race are not only still relevant but are even somewhat understated when one considers right-wing attempts at whitewashing everything. Knight's foresight, comic timing, and cartooning skill elevate Good On Both Sides from a standard collection of editorial cartoons.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Julia Gfrörer's bleak Vision

An underlooked part of evaluating comics (and a highly subjective one) is the sheer visual appeal of the art. What is appealing is subjective, as some people can love the ligne claire style of drawing, some love Gary Panter's ratty line, and others like exaggerated and rubbery cartooning like Peter Bagge. As both a reader and critic, I appreciate a style that is idiosyncratic and personal for the artist, especially after reading so many mainstream graphic novels that use the same line weight, styles, and color schemes. (Note to YA cartoonists, in particular: mix it up!) As such, there are some artists whose lines are simply a sheer pleasure for me to look at, regardless of story or subject matter. One of them is most definitely Julia Gfrörer.

Having followed her career from the beginning, I've always appreciated her fragile, ratty line that often seems like it's about to disintegrate at any given moment. Given that she loves to explore the intersection between sex, bodies, and horror, her drawings have a visceral quality that is at once erotically charged, disturbing, and desperately familiar. All of this is on display in Vision, her 2020 book from Fantagraphics. At its heart, this is a story about desperate loneliness and yearning, mixed with a series of betrayals and boundary violations. It's also deeply steeped in BDSM concepts, as the lead character Eleanor is a widow tending to her perpetually-ill sister-in-law and her distracted brother. She also regularly talks to a demonic spirit in a mirror, who orders her to strip naked and pleasure herself, even as he calls her out as someone who desperately wants to be used and degraded. 

Set in the 19th century, Eleanor's choices are even more limited because of the era, and how her voice is constantly silenced by those around her. All the while, her vision is starting to go thanks to cataracts, leading to an encounter with the eye doctor that is at once a violation and arousing because it is a violation. One of the best things about Gfrörer's work is that her narrators are often unreliable, and that the reader must follow what they do rather than what they say. For Eleanor, despite all of her stiff-upper-lip performative strength, she's a shattered woman clinging only to her desire for meaning. That desire is toxic and unsustainable, whether one takes the supernatural elements of the story at face value or sees them as a manifestation of her own insanity. In the end, it doesn't matter. 

She's not allowed to grieve her husband openly, and any emotions she feels are immediately shot down by her sister-in-law Cora and her brother Robert. While the book opens with her talking to her magical, quasi-demonic mirror that is her effective voyeur dom, she really does have the best interests of her family at heart. Her brother, it is implied visually, is sexually assaulting his physically and mentally ill wife in her sleep, tearing open her nightshirt that Eleanor rebuttons. For both Eleanor and Robert, there's a sense that their desires cannot be contained and are making both of them want to act with no restraint. Only Robert is allowed to get away with it openly, however.  

When Eleanor tells the ghost in the mirror that she wants to go where he is, it's a desire to be touched and act on her sexual impulses--but it's also implied that this is a self-annihilating act. The ghost is dead, in hell, or someplace even worse, and Eleanor has a firm suspicion that she's hellbound no matter what. With her self-cutting early in the book, it's clear that she's trying to externalize the pain and scarring she feels emotionally, but the ghost feels like a chance to evade this. The ghost makes her feel desired and reads her for what she truly is: a submissive who seeks out pain, seeks out degradation, seeks out and wants to revel in sexual debasement. For a sub, being able to access this kind of emotional space with a trusted partner can be deeply healing; for Eleanor, she only has more pain to look forward to. 

When the doctor treats her cataract, the ghost demands she describe the pain in detail, with the procedure described in such a way as a dom controls and gives pain to a sub. The ghost's reaction mirrors her own in a way; it cracks, mimicking Eleanor cutting herself earlier. The mirror is possessive and jealous of Eleanor, and what remained her sole outlet for her desire is cruelly cut off. The leads to her spiralling, as her tolerance for her situation evaporates. She welcomes advances from the doctor (despite the ghost smashing a paperweight in protest), poisons her sister, and gets lost in laudanum dreams as she fantasizes about joining her ghost lover. In the end, her ghost lover never returns, and she makes a fateful decision for her brother and herself. 

This is perhaps the grimmest of all of Gfrörer's stories, and the one with the least humor. While her protagonists either tend to be in bleak situations, victims of outside forces, or predators in their own right, Eleanor is doomed from the beginning. She's grieving but given no space to grieve; her desire, need, and loneliness are all subsumed to the needs of her family; and there's no real way out. Even the doctor who wants her cares less about social calls (despite his veneer of respectability) and more about dominating her. A soft dom, perhaps, but a dom nonetheless. The only being who understands her is either a figment of her imagination or a largely malignant spirit. In the end, it doesn't matter, given the hopelessness that she understands all too well. She chooses self-annihilation over misery, as she can't see a way out. The pain expressed in this book lingers long after it's read.