Sunday, October 29, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Francis Desharnais' Little Russia

Francis Desharnais' Little Russia is the final volume I'm looking at in this series on Pow Pow Books. That publisher certainly has a particular aesthetic, as the four different artists whose work I've reviewed feel like they're part of a larger tradition of Montreal cartoonists. I'm thinking of folks like Michel Rabagliati, who use a slightly cartoony style, a fairly thin line, and an otherwise naturalistic approach. Desharnais, in this book, is writing about his grandparents, who were settlers in the wilds of Quebec in the 1940s. This was all part of a government experiment where the settlers would go in, cut lumber, and share the proceeds equally to help build houses and start farms. It was dubbed "Little Russia" by some because it was a boldly socialist experiment that required not only total buy-in by all involved, it also made every man an equal in determining how their commune would be run. 

One of the interesting things about this account is how pointed the use of every "man" is here. Women were part of the community but had no say in public matters for decades. Desharnais' grandmother Antoinette did her duty as a good Catholic, giving birth to eleven kids, but her story is one of gradually losing her patience with the quite literal patriarchy determining her every move. Indeed, a priest was one of the chief leaders of this community of Gueyenne, even if he didn't actually live there. 

Desharnais deftly turns what could have been a dry and episodic account into a smooth narrative with a number of repeating themes. The lack of a voice for women is one of them in this supposed utopian community is one of them. Another is the inevitable lack of community spirit when people obtained their goals of having a home. Desharnais' grandfather Marcel was committed to being a farmer, and the lack of commitment of so many others forced him out of the community after more than 20 years. This book, above all else, is about the inevitable decline of communities when individual needs and greed supersede the understanding that the greater good of a community nourishes all. The spirit that saw the men save a fellow townsman's house from a fire ebbed when there were opportunities to make money elsewhere. A town's spirit cannot survive when everyone is isolated. 

There's a matter-of-factness to the narrative and a cartooniness to the character design that reminds me a lot of another Quebec artist: Guy Delisle. Desharnais, however, adds depth and detail to his backgrounds in a way that Delisle doesn't, especially with regard to the forests. There's an almost oppressive quality to the land that's a key element of the narrative and Desharnais captures the almost inevitable event of the land opposing the settlers at every turn. Even on his own farm, there's a sequence where Marcel hits a hidden stump while trying to sow seed and he goes berserk with fury. It captures the hopes and dreams of Marcel and Antoinette as well as their slow but stubborn understanding that their dream has faded and no one cares about the potential of the experiment anymore. Throughout Little Russia, Desharnais' drawings may not be spectacular, but he makes smart and subtle decisions throughout that honor a legacy while telling a compelling story. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Éloïse Marseille's Naked: The Confessions Of A Normal Woman

Éloïse Marseille's Naked: The Confessions Of A Normal Woman is a chronicle not just of her history of desire and sex, but also a memoir chiefly focusing on guilt and shame. It's a variation of what MariNaomi did in Kiss and Tell or David Heatley with his sexual history story, only it's from someone who's much younger and is just starting to gain some perspective. The wounds are fresh here, as the 27-year-old Marseille is just starting to process the years of shame and self-hatred at the end. While the story is mostly pretty light-hearted, the ending not only sees an outpouring of grief, it doesn't offer an easy out for the reader (or author, for that matter). 

In many ways, Naked is less a narrative and more one long therapy session, albeit one that has plenty of laughs at the artist's expense. Indeed, Marseille notes that she hopes that by sharing her own history of shame and guilt in a very public way, she can help others who feel the same way. That's a key element of the narrative: people suffering in silence and isolation are what lead to shame. However, when we are vulnerable enough to share, it's remarkable to see just how many people can relate to our struggles. The digressions into graphic medicine (like when she goes into some details regarding herpes when she learns that she's contracted it) are interesting, but sometimes at odds with other aspects of the story.

The therapeutic aspect of the comic somewhat limits the way Marseille approaches the narrative. With so little time to truly absorb everything she learned in a relatively short period of time regarding her self-esteem, there's a sense of "that's the way I used to be, and I'm so much different now" in much of the narrative. This approach makes the reader rush through the narrative, as Marseille tells the reader ahead of time how things are going to go. This is especially true when she talks about her first long-term relationship, which she throws herself into to the point where she ignores her own identity. It's clear that Marseille has to address this in order to get to the end, where her younger self confronts her current self, but it's part of the problem of the book trying to be several things at once and not quite succeeding. 

Marseille's cartooning is very much in a comedic tradition, with the ridiculous, bulbous claw noses and highly exaggerated expressions. On the one hand, it's a great way of really getting into the weeds with the way she draws bodies and sex, and her own body image issues in particular. Everyone is drawn a little grotesque and distorted; these are comedic figures that have sexual lives, but certainly not images that are sexy in any way. Marseille wisely creates some distance there, because that's not generally the story she's trying to tell, but there are moments where she is genuinely trying to portray her desire that come off a bit silly as a result. That said, Marseille spills a lot of ink in telling a narrative that exudes vulnerability. Above all else, the most startling revelation is not the fear of judgment she faces from her mother or the readers. It's her own judgment of her past self that's the most damning aspect of her narrative, and overcoming that will take much more work. It's that final admission that whatever perspective she's gained on her past, it's still limited. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Sophie Bédard's Lonely Boys

Sophie Bédard's Lonely Boys is a hilariously misleading title, since men barely figure into the narrative at all. Instead, it's another slice-of-life story centering around three women and their often fractious and difficult friendships. Once again, all three of the main characters are massively flawed and often hard to sympathize with, yet it's their flaws that make them feel so human. It's a story about unrequited love, hurt feelings, second chances, betrayals, being paternalistic, acting like a child, and in general people trying to figure out how to be adults. Above all else, it's about how the need to connect plays out in a world where all of our older bonds (family, college) have slipped away and we're trying to figure out who we are. Like Almost Summer, it's compulsively readable; once you start, you don't want to put it down. It's fun to spend time with these three frustrating but ultimately lovable protagonists. 

Lonely Boys centers around roommates Lucie and Jen, who immediately have to contend with the return of Ella, their former roommate who bursts in on them after disappearing for a year with no explanation (and stealing the communal money). The plot centers around why Ella comes back. The cover of the book hints at a lot--three friends looking off in different directions, with Ella turning her back on the others. Jen is fiercely loyal but judgmental, especially of Lucie--almost to the point of infantilizing her. It doesn't help that Lucie starts the book by staying in the tub all night because she still can't get over her ex and refuses to get out when Jen wants to pee. She acts like a child, so Jen treats her like one, with bad boundaries all around. 

Ella's another matter. It's clear that Jen was in love with her, and Ella's cruel departure wounded her badly. Ella is an enigma: on the one hand, she's caring and effortlessly cool. She does what it takes to survive and is willing to hurt others if need be. On the other hand, she genuinely tries to reconnect and right past wrongs when she returns, only she continually chickens out at the last second at doing the right (and hard) thing. It's no surprise that when Ella fights to win her friends back but then leaves again when Jen lays out the truth about her feelings: she's always there for Ella, but Ella uses her "like a pawn." Ella returns in the first place not to make up with her friends, but to have a safe landing spot for an abortion, which leads to a hilarious scene where a neighbor takes her to the clinic, thinking it was a date, and then Lucie and Jen come along, furious that Ella didn't tell them. 

Above all else, Bédard has a great sense of comic timing. Jen is a perfect straight-man character, slowly burning over the shenanigans of Lucie's moods and childish behavior and then Ella's sheer narcissism. Lonely Boys also features an all-timer of a supporting character in Sophie, an insufferable "indigo child" who can see auras, has multiple catering jobs, and is totally sanguine with stalkers because she's a "modern young woman." She's a hilarious bag of hipster cliches all rolled up into one character. Ella likes her because unlike Jen, Ella doesn't like to judge. Ultimately, Ella understands the ways in which she fucked up, as she asks a sleepy Lucie if she's a parasite to her and Jen, but she's not willing to do the work to repair relationships. Worse, she selfishly writes it off as being better for her friends if she just leaves. In the end, Lucie is a little more hardened and Jen a little more sanguine with regard to everything. No matter what their conflicts, they are there for each other, and that's what sets them apart from Ella. 

Once again, Bédard succeeds because of her inventive character design, ear for dialogue, and understanding of just how complicated interpersonal dynamics and histories can be. She's adept at drawing different body types (the tiny Lucie is particularly fun), she's willing to get gross and weird (the pissing revenge plots between Lucie and Jen were hilarious), and she's frank about sex and relationships. By giving each character highly well-defined motivations, it's that clash of motivations that not only creates interesting conflicts, it makes each character sympathetic without excusing their poor judgment. This is a mainstream comic in the best sense of the word. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Sophie Bédard's Almost Summer 1

Moving on to a different Pow Pow Press artist, Sophie Bédard has a style that I can only call "compulsively readable." She specializes in the kind of slice-of-life comic that was very common in the 90s and has fallen out of style in print, though not online. Indeed, her first major work, Almost Summer, had its origins as a popular webcomic. Published in four volumes, the first book establishes the four major characters (Emily, Anthony, Michelle, and Max) as high schoolers beginning another year of classes. The best thing about Almost Summer is that every character, without exception, is awful. They are selfish, self-absorbed assholes. They are also kids who don't know any better, are confused by everything, and desperately cling to each other in spite of it all. This is refreshing, because too many teen-centered narratives depict them as preternaturally wise, whereas kids in reality frequently make stupid and short-sighted decisions. 

The comparison that makes the most sense is Max de Radigues' Rough Age, which uses a similar, highly cartoony line for character design. Bédard's line is thicker and more exaggerated, and she plays things for laughs a bit more than de Radigues. Nonetheless, the verisimilitude of the dialogue and aching familiarity of the crushes, conflicts, and pure ennui of being that age make each page just fly by. The heart of the book is the fractious friendship between shy Emily and extremely obnoxious Michelle, aka Mimi. Mimi is just the worst, all bluster and insults, as she drags her friends into her nonsense on a regular basis. Emily is relentlessly negative and unpleasant, which is entirely a defense mechanism for her highly sensitive feelings. She denies even really being friends with Mimi, saying that she just sort of came into her life and stayed there. Of course, this isn't entirely true, because while Mimi is a walking disaster area of uncontrollable feelings, she's also fiercely loyal. People are complicated, especially teens. She's a dream to look at in terms of the drawings: nonstop expressive fun. Bedard is an absolute master of gesture and expression, as Mimi, in particular, is fun because of her huge eyes bulging out from underneath her hair. 

The first book sets up a potential relationship between the dour Emily, whose pining for the guy who has sat in front of her in class for years is one of the running gags in the book. She's also the only character whose internal life the reader is privy to, letting the reader see the underlying love and sensitivity at the core of her character. In the book's funniest sequence, Mimi gets drunk at a party (after vowing to stay sober that night) and makes out with a guy she's unsure of. She calls Emily in the middle of the night to rescue her from the party, and Emily does it, pulling her off the guy and putting her on her bike (despite Mimi's many insults). Mimi has the nerve to be mad at Emily for not taking her around back in case her mom was awake AND asks her to go back and get her coat. (The worst!) As Emily notes, however, Mimi is always there, and that's why she tolerates her. She secretly craves connection, which is why she finally acquiesces and takes a walk with her neighbor Anthony, who is obsessed with her. Almost Summer just aches with inchoate desire, frustrated dreams, and the endless possibilities of youth. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Zviane's Going Under

The melancholy at the heart of Zviane's in For As Long As It Rains is magnified in her previous book, Going Under. The fleeting moments of pleasure and connection in the former are offset by the deep sense of loneliness and isolation felt by its unnamed protagonist. That isolation and sense of total abjection is the primary focus of and it's a potent distillation of existential despair. It is as potent a document of depression that I've ever read. 

The story follows a young woman involved in a job surrounding the classical music industry. The book opens with the moment where she feels like she's "going under"; in other words, when a totally debilitating depression is about to pull her into its grip. The book goes into very little detail about that period, in part because she implies that there is little to say: crying, being unable to move or do anything, barely being able to eat. Existing, not living. 

Instead, Going Under talks about when she "gets better." Functional. Able to work and go out in public. What makes the book so devastating and so barbed is the way Zviane gets at just how tenuous this state is and how "better" does not mean "well" or "good." In fact, in some ways, it's even worse, as the palpable concern people had about you fades as they no longer have to think about your problems. Indeed, others become a drain because the only thing worse than indifference is the feeling that people are talking about you behind your back. 

Zviane's storytelling is sharp. The relentless use of grayscale shading in For As Long As It Rains is largely absent here, as the extensive use of white negative space ironically makes the story feel more repressive, not breezier. Zviane also doesn't fill in faces, which includes the story's protagonist. She smartly understands the reader will fill them in, much as we fill in the expressions and emotions of those around us that we don't really want to know more about. Zviane also uses a clever second-person narrative style that's built around faux-omniscience; she is constantly telling the reader what's going to happen to all of the people around her, including when and how they will die. Of course, this isn't a true device, as a woman she claims earlier in the book she never sees again pops up at the end and winds up triggering a particular trauma that Zviane had clearly thought she had left behind. 

The climax of the book is a look at what happened right before her massive depressive breakdown. Fighting her depression and sense of worthlessness, she willed herself out of bed to go see a lecture she had organized from a famous musicologist. She stopped just before she went in, worried that everyone would comment about her being too sick to work, but not too sick to see the lecture. Getting caught up in that trap is what sent her under, and being given an opportunity to see the lecturer in the present day led to her detecting "that smell of water again." There is a sense that the only thing worse than being seen is not being seen, and the protagonist can't bear either one but knows that isolation is a killer. However, Zviane leaves the reader wondering if connection is even possible at all, and if we should even bother trying. It's bleak and harrowing, and Zviane's crisp, precise linework boldly captures this sense of despair. 

Monday, October 16, 2023

Pow Pow Week: Zviane's For As Long As It Rains

There's a rich tradition of comics from Montreal that takes its shape both in a wild & unruly underground (most notably with the late Henriette Valium) and a smoother, more traditionally Franco-Belgian form. There's a mix of naturalistic storytelling with stripped-down and slightly cartoony & exaggerated linework. Drawn & Quarterly and Conundrum have certainly published their share of locals, and Pow Pow Press is another. Recently trying to re-emerge into the American market, Francois Vigneault gave me a number of their books at SPX. They are all uniformly pleasant to look at, with sharp cartooning and some innovative storytelling ideas. At the same time, there's a strong adherence to that highly cartoony character design, especially in the way faces are drawn. 

Opening up with Sylvia-Anne "Zviane"Ménard and her book For As Long As It Rains. It's in turns playful, erotic, emotionally tense, fractious, and ultimately despairing. It's about two lovers staying for a weekend in a house in Europe. Their banter is playful, sexy, aggressive, and funny. The more we learn about this nameless couple (a deliberate choice), the more we learn that their connection is ephemeral. They are cheating on their partners and have been for quite some time, slipping away every few months to see each other in highly-charged sexual encounters. We get hints of how it started; they are both talented pianists and think in musical terms. For each lover, the creeping concerns of the outside world encroach in different ways. She is worried about being discarded by her lover, who is not always communicative when they don't see each other. He's content to be her secondary lover and notes that she should be as well. She's chosen to have another life, but she still feels jealous. 

The book focuses on two key sequences. The first is when they play "Scaramouche," a musical suite for two pianos, in the luxurious house they're staying in. Like everything else in their relationship, there's a lot of push-pull, a lot of shit talk, but also a certain ease that leads to joyful and playful improvisation as they play together. Later, she jokes about being able to have musical scores for sex that people could recreate. One gets the impression that their chemistry is special, which is why they continue to be drawn to each other, even if neither is willing to commit. Zviane cleverly comes up with "sheet music" for her characters in an extended sex scene, where different body parts and sex acts have different notations. It's all painstakingly drawn, out of a sense of going all the way with a joke as much as anything else.

However, that scene represents something else: it's the end of a moment. He gets a phone call from his partner right after they have sex, and she's left alone in the bed, as the rain outside has stopped. This moment, and all their moments together, are fleeting moments of illusion. She has a hard, aggressive edge to her personality throughout the book, and it seems like it's a defense mechanism over her acknowledged understanding that she's in love with him but this will never amount to anything except a series of stolen moments. For him, that's enough. For her, it's no longer enough, and it's heartbreaking. 

Zviane relies heavily on grayscale shading to add depth and weight to her pages, but I found it actively distracted from her linework. It feels like a botched compromise from relying on her admittedly thin line and trying to introduce mood through shading. A more naturalistic style or a brush technique would have served that kind of attempt at mood much better. A clear line that allowed Zviane's expressive character work a chance to really shine would also have been more effective. Maybe it would have left her figures a bit more naked, but the slow reveal of each character's vulnerabilities was the whole point of the book. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Brian Canini's Airbag #1

Brian Canini's Airbag is the sort of one-person anthology series that was initially popular in the 80s and 90s and has seen a resurgence in recent years. It's a format I'm quite fond of, giving artists a chance to air out shorter ideas in an age where the graphic novel has become the be-all, end-all for the market. Canini goes all-in on this idea, complete with a letters page and recommended reading. It's the classic John Porcellino format, or perhaps HATE or Eightball

The stories here are all about emotional conflicts stemming largely from inertia and stubbornness. Canini is largely a naturalistic storyteller, but he counters that with a highly cartoony, exaggerated style of character design. In the first story ("Where Do We Go From Here?"), for example, the story is about a middle-aged man meeting his diminutive father for lunch at a diner. His tiny father's oversized head and exaggerated eyebrows make him an immediate comedic figure. This is further emphasized by his jokey demeanor, in contrast to his son's dour expression. Then, things get real. 

What was once a tense mystery is explained in detail, as it's revealed the man's father (and mother) hate their son's wife, blaming her for keeping their grandchildren away from them. The details of who did what and when are less important than Canini's vivid attention to gesture. The son's face is comparatively boring compared to his father's; his oval head and simple lines to convey aging (like bags under his eyes) belie his integrity, loyalty, and an urgent desire to make things right. As the son calmly but firmly lays out the problems, his father's once-friendly expression twists into rage. It's a ridiculous sight, as the father clearly has no conception of himself. It's clear he sees himself as bursting with righteous fury, but instead, he's just an impotent and pathetic baby. The rain bursting on the window at this time is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose in echoing his barely restrained anger. The son's reaction--to walk away and say "I'm ashamed of you"--was the one thing he could have said to deflate his father. Canini leaves the father at an inflection point. 

The same is true in the second story, "Lost Mountains." It opens with a woman named Claire walking out on her boyfriend Mark for his lack of ambition. Years later, she still haunts him, even as he looks exactly the same (a long, scraggly beard is symbolic of his inertia). His frustrated friend calls him out on this, shows him an opportunity to meet someone new, and Mark just ignores it, preferring to wallow. He's still miserable, and as he ponders suicide, he's given a bit of advice by a homeless man asking him for money: stop looking backward. Once again, Canini leaves this miserable person at an inflection point, only this time, he's the protagonist, and the reader is privy to his self-pitying inner monologue. Mark is both insufferable and totally relatable, making him an uncomfortable protagonist. At the end of the story, neither the reader nor Mark really know what he wants, other than something other than his current life. 

"Broken Like Achilles" finds Canini switching around protagonists in the middle of the story. It initially seems to be Rob, a college student crashing a frat party with his friends. He's uncomfortable crashing the party and talking to people until a beefy jock named Tony strikes up a conversation with him. An unlikely friendship is formed, as Tony becomes the real protagonist, all because Rob engages him in a way that he needs to be engaged. Tony forcefully breaking up a fight clearly leads to a true friendship. This time around, the inflection point is at the beginning of the story, where on 9/11 someone is trying to reach Tony, with the implication being that he died. The ambiguity adds tension to the story, and once again, Canini refuses to let the reader off the hook with a neat ending. All of these stories are messy and sad, including the prologue story about an ice fisherman (designed to look a lot like a combination of Bluto and Captain Haddock) who bemoans his romantic fate, only to find himself facing total disaster. Like the rest of the issue, it's remarkably bleak, even as most of the protagonists and antagonists make their own fate. Canini's storytelling is excellent, although I feel like he can push the extremes of his character design even further. 

Friday, October 13, 2023

Danny Ochoa's Molly & Jo

Danny Ochoa's Molly & Jo In: "Let's Sell Some Meth" is definitely a throwback. The title (and the story, to some degree) feels like a reference to Peter Bagge's classic HATE #26, "Let's Start A Crackhouse!" There's also some element of Gilbert Shelton in there as well, substituting meth for weed, of course. Ochoa works very much in the Bagge tradition of extreme stylization and exaggeration in his character design and gestures. The frantic energy is not unlike an old Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon. 

The influences are clear, but Ochoa distinguishes himself in his willingness to go all the way with the concept. The title couple is broke, and Molly (armed with knowledge from an uncle, Breaking Bad, and Reddit), decides to cook up and sell meth in order to deal with their mounting debt. Despite an initial promise not to actually smoke any themselves, Jo's failure to sell on a street corner leads them both into a hilarious, horrifying spiral of watching Smurf-themed porn and ten straight days of getting high. A brief moment of clarity leads them to reason that they should stop, but that moment is short-lived as they descend into madness after another eight days of meth. This leads to them seeing "the shadow people" and sleep deprivation psychosis. The ending is very Gilbert Shelton, as an ex-freeloader roommate arrives with a proposition that they grow magic mushrooms. 

The comic doesn't overstay its welcome, quickly escalating and focusing on sex, drugs, and comedic degradation. Ochoa's inking is top-notch, giving his line a muscular but rubbery quality that exaggerates every gag, comedic act of violence, and over-the-top wackiness. Ochoa just goes for it, with characters that are more delivery systems for gags than they are fully-formed as people. The result works less because of the premise (which is not especially original) but because of Ochoa's execution, which is actually painstakingly careful and deliberate in every aspect of cartooning, from character design to lettering to page composition.