Thursday, July 20, 2023

Minis: Ruby Carter and Kayla E.

Ruby Carter is a young Chicago cartoonist who is primarily a humorist at this point in her career. For full disclosure, she will be doing a book for Fieldmouse Press in the near future. That future book is quite different from the full-color, psychedelic craziness of her minis Bogue and Oozemart. Bogue is a smaller mini billed as "the world's 1st fashion mag 4 bugs!", and that's precisely what it is. Carter has a great visual wit, and this Riso zine puts its colorful art to good use in depicting insects in fashionable gear. The funniest bit was "Who Wore It Best?" featuring comparisons of spiders and bees wearing pink ribbons, centipedes and dragonflies wearing pink heels, and snails and slugs wearing scarves. Oozemart is a sort of dystopian Riso zine done at larger scale (8.5 x 11), and Carter goes all-out with a colorful assault on the senses that mimics the visual assault of a big-box store. Of course, all of the food is comprised of a colorful ooze that melts away even as one is shopping. This is less a story than a concept brought to vivid (and lurid) life, as the pinks are especially nauseating. 

Ahead of the 2024 release of her book, Kayla E. continues to break brains with excerpts in the form of minicomics that are in themselves interesting objects to read and hold. Precious Rubbish: "Birds 'n Bees" (Vol 2, No. 2) is especially uncomfortable reading, as Kayla appropriates old kids' comics (here, Archie Comics and Sweetie Pie), redraws the art in her style while retaining the composition and action, and then grafts it to horrifying tales of sexual & physical abuse and incest. The bold simplicity of Kayla's line and adherence to gag format is almost unbearable to experience as a reader, as she forces the reader to engage these horrors through a structure that almost forces the reader to think of them as gags. Indeed, Kayla even labels many of these strips as "Surrogate Spouse Syndrome" gags, as both her father and brother walk around with her in a way that sexualizes her and leads others to think that she's their wife. Along the way, there are a number of fake ads that take their cue from Chris Ware's classically brutal ads in Acme Novelty Library #10, but she aims her vitriol at her abuser in things like "Hitman 4 Her." It's Kayla E's skill in making memoir that's a sort of subgenre, in that the homages use art meant for children and give it a warped new meaning that's meant to confront the reader. 

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Sickness: Uncivilized's dip into horror

The first issue of The Sickness, published by Uncivilized Books, looks and feels more like a 90s black & white Image comic than the kind of thing Uncivilized would normally do. At least at first. However, Tom Kaczynski's bunch has been slowly moving into serialized work for a while now, with Craig Thompson's Ginseng Roots, Noah Van Sciver's Maple Terrace, Tom K's own Cartoon Dialectics, and more. However, The Sickness most closely resembles a standard-size comic book, rather than a minicomic. Rather than the work of an auteur, it's done by the team of Jenna Cha, Lonnie Nadler, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Cha is the artist and co-writer, with Nadler. It feels and looks like a lot of other horror books published in that era and the early aughts; everything about it is a throwback, including having multiple covers for the first issue. Knowing Tom K, this isn't a choice made for collectors, but more of an aesthetic one. 

The Sickness follows a kid named Danny in 1945 Stillwater, MN, and then shifts a decade later to Lakewood, CO. In Stillwater, we're introduced to a teen named Danny, who's become increasingly alienated from the rest of his friends. He's seeing things, horrible things, and being around anyone just makes it worse. Cha teases us just a bit with a final panel reveal of a monstrous-looking woman and a mysterious man in the background. In Lakewood, there's a long reveal of a woman listening to records in a living room, talking to a cop, as it's slowly revealed that the woman's sister has murdered her husband, two children, and their dog. Her son survives the attack and is questioned by a psychiatrist, as he tells him that his mom kept seeing holes, said their faces had been warped, and there was someone else in the house. Going back to Danny in the future, he's seeing all of the things that were described by the killer, including a grotesquely warped version of his mother and a mysterious man in the background. 

The whole effect is quite clever, even if the extensive monologue by the psychiatrist and the dense dialogue in general suffocates the narrative a bit. The three part structure of show, don't show, then show again builds tension and slowly gives the reader a set of clues that are built upon without revealing the entire hand. Much of the horror is implied and teased, making the actual monstrous moments all the more effective. The idea of otherwise completely normal people snapping because of some pernicious outside influence is a terrifying idea, especially since the nature of this "sickness" is unclear. Given the slow pace of the issue, I'm guessing that this will go at least seven or eight issues, and that the psychiatrist will be a prominent character. The art is dense and naturalistic, with a lot of smartly-added greyscale shading to go along with hatching and crosshatching. That level of realistic detail makes the monstrous elements more effective, because it feels real to the reader. Limiting the number of those scenes is important precisely because its connection to what seems to be everyday reality is a big key to the comic's success so far. 

Friday, July 14, 2023

Short Reviews Of Short Minis: Desmond Reed, Fredo Noland, Stuart Stratu

Troubled Teen, by Desmond Reed. Reed is at his best when he gets to depict highly detailed, grotesque characters. This is a first-person narrative featuring the titular character, who is pock-marked with acne, has that distinct teen stubble, and comically exaggerated nose and ears. Reed establishes the visual stakes right away with dense hatching and cross-hatching, dragging the reader into a world that is already discomfiting. Immediately upon establishing the character, Reed takes things in a totally absurd direction, starting with "Like most folks, I was discovered in a trash can when I was a baby. I matured over a period of four weeks." It goes from there, as he spawns mini-clones through his acne that he keeps popping and then tortures his little brother, an egg-shaped head atop a torso with disturbing amounts of hair. The whole thing is disgusting in a Basil Wolverton sort of way; there's not much in the way of narrative. It's more a chance for Reed to briefly sketch an amusing, gross idea. 

Stratu's Diary Comix, August 2015, by Stuart Stratu. Stratu is an Australian artist who does crude, full-color, 12-panel diary comics. His self-caricature dominates nearly every panel, and his head dominates the rest of his body. With giant eyes, spiky bangs, a two-tooth smile and lots of exaggerated expressions, Stratu gives the reader something interesting to look at on every page, which is important when one considers the general dullness of daily anecdotes. The text-heavy panels are mostly carried by that memorable self-caricature, as Stratu does at least endeavor to deliver a gag of some kind every three panels. That keeps things moving at a fast clip, and his strong opinions about music and movies keeps things lively. A month's worth of these strips is just about the right amount; a longer collection would be difficult to read. 

Black Sheep #4 by Fred "Fredo" Noland. Fredo was one of my favorite late 90s/early aughts alternative cartoonists, and his mini sees him in fine form. Centering around a music scenester and critic named Ivan, Fredo delves into an incredibly detailed and dense slice-of-life story that sees him being harassed by a woman named Lattie in an ongoing game of "insult tag." Ivan hits the record store. He goes to a punk show, antagonizes people, has difficulty with his own Latino background, and later goes to a record party. Vinyl, of course. Every character is so well-observed and precise, the character design is absolutely top-notch, and the ending is a wonderfully surprising swerve. There's also something wonderfully and painfully familiar about all of these characters and settings; if I didn't know a lot of people like this, then I saw them from across the room. Like the best slice-of-life stories, it was a pleasure to simply hang out with these characters, and I was disappointed when the comic ended.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Minis: Alli Katz

I met Alli Katz at CAKE 2023, and she was kind enough to give me a few of her minis. Two of them focused on pregnancy and the frequently dubious joys of early motherhood. Very Funny Jokes And Some Comics That Make You Think Vol 1, as one might expect, is a grab-bag of random comics. It's hit and miss, which is not unusual for this kind of mini, but some of the hits are solid. "Live Action Carebears" has a realistically-drawn, angry bear with a Carebear symbol on its chest, and simply the concept behind this made me laugh. The execution helps the gag land. There's a good newspaper typo/awkward headline gag that works because Katz just keeps pouring on the weirdness. There's a New Yorker-style gag with the punchline of someone asking "Can you explain it in Harry Potter metaphors?" that I found hilarious considering there's a large segment of the population that seemed unable to do otherwise for quite some time. Most of the actual cartooning isn't especially memorable here, but Katz's skill and timing as a humorist are sharp. 

9 Months But Actually 10 Months But Actually Forever is about Katz's whole pregnancy odyssey, from imagining a sperm giving an egg a pick-up line to the actual birth. This comic is clearly what's in her wheelhouse as a creator: memoir told in short bursts with gag punchlines that still hew closely to the more serious aspects of the experience. Katz's self-caricature (huge glasses that hide her eyes behind blank circles) is especially effective. The comic is closest in spirit to Meghan Turbitt's comics about birth, which makes sense since Turbitt is primarily a humorist. The strips about things she's worried about reflect the way that so many birthing books exist primarily to terrify expecting mothers. There are also a lot of great strips about the way she relates to her partner, especially one strip where they talk about how they think their jokes are "really landing with the doctor." Katz doesn't veer too far away from expressing her emotions in this story in service of a gag; indeed, she leans into them as much as possible, which makes totally sincere pages like having her daughter in her arms all the more effective. 

"Just Pretend Your Boob Is A Hoagie" is all about the highs and lows of breastfeeding. This was the most interesting of the three minis, in part because it's a subject that's not always discussed much, even in the increasing number of mom comics that have been published in the last decade. Katz talks about the struggles of breastfeeding, the difficulties of pumping, the judgmental lectures from lactation consultations, and the feeling of somehow failing your child if you don't breastfeed them. Katz manages to inject a lot of humor into the proceedings, but this is a more serious attempt at coming to terms with the possibility of giving her daughter formula and the shame that this concept invites. In the end, Katz manages to mostly figure it out, and the comic ends on a wistful note when the transition comes in weaning her child. The expressiveness of her figure drawing is especially sharp here. This is promising work from a young cartoonist.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Short Reviews Of Short Minis: Storme Smith & Co; S.C.A.R.

I've recently become reunited with a bunch of minicomics meant for review that had been in storage. It's time to hit that backlog with short reviews of short minicomics. 

Nightmare And Sleepy, by Storme Smith and A. Shay Hahn. This is an ashcan/mini of a longer comic from Buño Books, which seems to be interested in doing public-domain superhero comics, among other things. The titular characters are typical Golden Age heroes that appeared in a blizzard of attempts at creating saleable new characters in the early 1940s. In this case, it's a pro wrestler (Nightmare) and his manager (Sleepy), who fight crime in between bouts in the squared circle. This story sees them fight a group of crooks who can turn into "were-armadillos." It's silly and amusing, but Hahn's art is stiff and amateurish. That somewhat mimics a lot of Golden Age comics, which were not always known as bastions of professionalism (given deadlines and the young ages of the creators), but this mini does little to intrigue.

The Heroic Few #0, by Storme Smith and Matt Lesniewski. (Colors & Letters by Dan Lee). This is a very odd comic. It is essentially the Silver Age Avengers (specifically, the "Cap's Kooky Quartet" team led by Captain America with former bad guys Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch) drawn like early 1990s Image comics. Smith really knows his way around these classic Silver Age stories, and he even makes some interesting changes and connections, like changing around the origin of the Hawkeye analog (Sharpshooter) and hooking it to a variation of the Marvel villains the Circus of Crime. Lesniewski is adept at channeling his inner Rob Liefeld in terms of the character design and the excessive number of lines on the characters. Say what you will about Liefeld's ineptness as a cartoonist, but his work had a genuinely weird energy that practically vibrated off the page, and what Lesniewski does here is pair that energy with the Jack Kirby energy of the originals. He also does a decent job of balancing Smith's extensive infodump of a script and allows the panels to breathe a bit. Smith is introducing a gaggle of new characters, and the plot device of a reporter is actually quite effective; it's just that it's a lot for a new reader to take in, even if they're in on the joke. This is a nice bit of a one-two nostalgia punch that is cleverly written.

The Fuglies, by Steve Carter and Antoinette Ryder, aka S.C.A.R. Published in 2014 by Australian outfit Pikitia Press, this is a whacked-out bit of post-apocalyptic eugenics, mutants, sex, and cannibalism. The artist-writer duo S.C.A.R. stars the proceedings with some gratuitous nudity from a young woman on the run from her best friend, but things aren't quite what they seem. While they have to deal with Fuglies,--carnivorous mutants who are the leftovers of regeneration experimentation--it's revealed that young and beautiful Rae & Gloria are also flesh-eating mutants. It's just that they look more human, are smarter, and craftier. This comic revels in its pulpy ridiculousness, as its gore and violence are depicted in a naturalistic and even heroic-looking manner. The plot takes a few surprising twists and turns that elevate it above your standard zombie/mutant storyline. The art is serviceable if a bit stiff at times; the action feels more like a poster than the fluid cartooning than it needed.