Thursday, September 28, 2023

Leigh Luna's Clementine Fox

Back in 2013, I wrote this of Leigh Luna, who at the time was still an undergrad at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD): "Luna seems ready to cut her teeth on a longer character narrative, and a story involving anthropomorphic animals might suit her best." That was after I had read her first minicomic featuring Clementine Fox and her friends, going on an adventure at sea. A decade later, Luna's Clementine Fox And The Great Island Adventure was published by Scholastic, and it's an engagingly dense and complex character narrative aimed at a middle-grade audience. 

Like a lot of middle-grade comics (and especially those from Scholastic), there's definitely a message at work here. Luna says a lot about friendship, trust, and communication in this comic, but the real message is with regard to learning. Young Clementine hates math, is confused by it, and isn't taking at all to the way it's being taught by her. This actually spurs her to make her journey to an island where her aunt lives, stowing away on a giant turtle with her friends that she strong-arms into coming with her. Facing the idea of school as a kind of dead-end prison where roadblocks like this exist only to frustrate her otherwise creative mind is enough to get her to flee. 

Clementine is a wonderfully obnoxious protagonist. She's a creative dreamer & schemer who's pushy and blows by her friends' boundaries on a regular basis, but she is also fiercely loyal and giving. Clementine is the kind of charismatic leader of a group who makes everything into an adventure, even if it's by the seat of her pants. Her friend Nubbins (a squirrel) is the perfect sidekick: equally curious and adventurous but defers to Clementine's plans. Her other close friend Penelope (a rabbit) is cautious and cerebral, and she's occasionally resentful at Clementine's aggressive attitude. She's the perfect foil to Clementine's recklessness, just as Clementine nudges her out of over-cautiousness.  

This push-pull dynamic between Clementine and Penelope fuels the narrative, as Nubbins tells Penelope about going to the dangerous island, and she appears in order to talk them out of it. Instead, she gets peer-pressured into joining them. Assorted hijinks ensue, as everyone's parents find out about the escapade and the friends discover a race of plant-based faeries on the island and inadvertently get the island's stone giant hooked on delicious croissants. Every new plot development is carefully developed, especially when new characters and dynamics are also introduced. Luna's sense of humor and character dynamics are sometimes surprisingly tart, as slights and mean words aren't allowed to pass without some sense of reckoning. Math is a plot point throughout, and Luna slips this in seamlessly as a plot device, including the climax where it becomes crucial. 

The cartooning is sophisticated and beautiful. The character design is unrelentingly cute, which serves to soften some of the harder emotions felt in the book. The crazily detailed and colorful establishing shots (especially on the island)  are absolutely dazzling, but Luna is also adept at grounding the pages with less detail & talking heads with smartly selected pastels. The big action sequences at the end are enhanced with spectacular and complex uses of color and line. Her line weight is perhaps a tad too thin on some of the pages, but the color doesn't overwhelm it. There are just some images that would have had a stronger impact with a thicker line. Overall, this was an extremely satisfying read and one that will resonate with readers who need different kinds of educational approaches to succeed. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Six Mini Comics from M.S. Harkness

There's no question that M.S. Harkness is on a hot streak right now. Her latest memoir, Time Under Tension, is about to be published by Fantagraphics. Her willingness to be totally vulnerable and totally ridiculous about her sex life and body is the set-up for the raw, emotional vulnerability she expresses throughout. Her recent self-published collection, Six Mini Comics, collects a number of stories outside of the narratives in her longer memoirs, but they certainly are a snug fit with her overall project. 

Harkness mixes in photos of many of the events and people we see in these stories. The most wholesome was from a story from NOW #10, "Go Big Then Stay Home." It's a COVID/lockdown story, and unlike 95% of comics about this topic, it's extremely engaging. It's a departure for Harkness, as most of their stories tend to delve into their cynical relationships with others or else their own issues. This is about Harkness supporting her power-lifting friend Elis at a competition that was held in March of 2020, just as the lockdown began. The competition (the "Arnold Expo") still went on, and the support Harkness gave her friend was endearing. It was also a detailed look at competitions that aren't a part of the popular consciousness and the mechanics behind them, especially as a competitor. Harkness has really honed her character design style to a fine point, and her visual cartoony silliness is a sharp contrast to the visceral qualities of much of her subject matter. A lot of them may be about sex or bodies, but none of them are sexy. She's very much in the Peter Bagge school of exaggerated, rubbery figures that allow for a highly expressionistic style of cartooning. 

Speaking of sex, "Six Foot Six" plays on Harkness' character often choosing sexual partners for purely aesthetic, rather than intellectual reasons. The himbo she hooks up with in this story is fooled by her joking suggestion that she might be famous art provocateur Banky, and the last panel connects one of Banky's latest outrages with her own personal desires. Above all else, Harkness is hilarious, even when writing about painful subjects. Perhaps especially when writing about painful subjects. 

Along the same lines is "The Uncut Gem," which takes some idiot asking her if she can "handle" an uncircumcised guy and turning it into a hilarious heist fantasy where she blows up his foreskin like a balloon. It is an absolutely absurd image that once again transforms the almost cartoonist machismo she finds in many of her partners into comedy fodder. 

"Plunderbird" is part of this short suite of stories, but it opens up the discussion of Harkness' past experiences with "sugar dating, " which she hilariously addresses in a setting where her character is sitting in a plush overstuffed chair by a fireplace with a glass of wine, as though she were on "Masterpiece Theater" or something. She immediately brings up the elephant in the room of "you must have so many stories!" by relating a somewhat slight anecdote that's worth it for the ridiculous Native American tattoos he had all over his body. 

Harkness saves the real storytelling for two epic shorts that pretty much epitomize her most frequently-discussed topics: drugs and her vagina. Of course, there's much more to these stories than these crude reductions, and Harkness' wit and exaggerated line is what makes them interesting, but it is true that they start from that place. "A Savage Journey To The Heart Of An Anime Convention" is her take on gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson-style storytelling. Shortly after getting her BFA, Harkness accompanies a friend to an anime convention, where the friend makes bank doing commissions and selling art. Harkness only agrees to come along if she can be high, but some highly questionable edibles turn the experience into a stomach-churning, mind-destroying ordeal. It doesn't help that the con hotel is one where she had had a number of clients as a sugar baby. This is an especially fun story because Harkness gets to dial up the exaggerated quality of her line all the way, in a manner that she can't in her more serious, longer narratives. 

Finally, the true anchor piece is "Rotten." It's pretty much got everything. There are art school-era shenanigans, including a party that's right out of HATE. Only this time, it's Harkness and her friend Pete who are the (hilarious) assholes at the party, as they do a wrestling routine that concludes with Pete pumping off the roof of the house. There is an extensive discussion of Harkness' struggles with endometriosis, including almost unimaginable pain and indifferent doctors. There are dope sales to WWE wrestlers. there's the lead-up to the US Presidential election in 2016 and its horrifying result. There is inexplicable vaginal bleeding/discharge/odor amidst a harrowing trip to a quasi-celebrity sugar daddy client. There's Harkness barely paying attention at her lifeguard job. Most of all, there is the unforgettable scene of a tampon stuck way up inside of her causing all of these problems. The scene where the doctor is examining her, drawn as though it's a mechanic getting under the hood of a car, is exactly the kind of absurd, visually clever, and yet narratively resonant cartooning that she's so good at. Harkness, at heart, is all about the gag, even (and usually especially) when the joke's on her.