Friday, December 1, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #1: Ashley Jablonski

I am kicking off this year's feature on the students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies by first announcing that due to the volume of work I've received, I'm extending it out to 45 days. Starting the series is a rare treat: the entire thesis package of Ashley Jablonski, down to the elaborately painted box the whole thing arrived in. This kind of flourish is not surprising from the painterly Jablonski, whose decorative touches are a key element of their work as a cartoonist. 

The thesis is a fascinating document in an attempt at a very specific kind of project that Jablonski was unable to complete for several reasons, mental health being among them. Jablonski displayed a few different kinds of comics in the thesis package, but the central idea was a memoir surrounding a specific event: Jablonski's otherwise-beloved father picking up a knife and trying to kill them, due to symptoms surrounding his paranoid schizophrenia. It is a heartbreaking story, but Jablonski realized that they were still too close to the event, still too traumatized, to gain the distance they needed to properly turn it into a narrative. A key element of making memoir work is understanding that it is a genre like any other, and in order to tell stories about difficult events, it is necessary to remember that the character in your memoir is not you. It may be based on your experiences, but even one's literal memories don't form a coherent narrative. They have to be shaped like any character narrative is shaped, and some experiences need distance in order to use them in such a detached way. 

The thesis winds up being about why they couldn't do this particular story, as well as some other potential future paths for Jablonski. It's clear that Jablonski has an interest in horror. This Journal Belongs To Frederick Ransom cleverly uses plain brown paper for the cover and has the name hand-written. The story itself is the diary of an early 19th century man done in a painted style with the edges of each page torn and/or burned. Each entry details the young man getting sicker without understanding why, until it becomes clear that he's becoming a vampire. The ending is abrupt and amusing. What's interesting about this is Jablonski's use of visual flourishes to bring a fairly simple concept to life and make the eventual gag even more effective. 

Danou is a four-pager about a vampire who develops a crush on Jablonski, done in vivid reds and greens, with blood dripping from each panel. Once again, it's horror with a dash of humor. Starseeds is a dream comic where Jablonski imagines waking up on the star Vega, They received telepathic messages from the former inhabitants, who revealed that this used to be their home. Once again, Jablonski manages to inject humor at the end of this otherwise contemplative, dreamy narrative. Their use of watercolors is an immense strength as a cartoonist, amplifying the emotional narrative in subtle but distinctive ways. 

Those are looks at potential future paths for Jablonski. However, their current path still lies in memoir, and the four other comics included are all reflections of their larger project regarding their father, but also their interest in reportage and other techniques surrounding memoir. Their Sketchbook Of Ashley Jablonski 2022 features an interview and subsequent sketches made for a story about a feature on stone carving with the Vermont Folklife Center. There are a few other random sketches and drawings as well; this one is purely a process zine that nonetheless is clearly part of a search for what kind of cartoonist Jablonski is trying to be. Similarly, their zine Aries: A Collection Of Meanderings isn't so much a comic as it is a zine using found images as Jablonski performs a post-mortem of a failed and toxic relationship. Using rhyme and a blunt expression of feelings, Jablonski paints a picture of being present for someone who continuously tried to distance himself from them. Jablonski notes that making the zine was a way of reclaiming their power. 

The true substance and heart of the thesis are the mini In Between This and In Between Diary Comics. Both are less about the actual incident (although it is extensively explored) and more about the dawning understanding of complex PTSD. The latter diagnosis, Jablonski's therapy for same, and their utter frustration at how it affects everything in their life, forms the bulk of the narrative that lurches forward and then backward in fits and starts. In Between This is Jablonski's attempt at writing the story, beginning with a letter they wrote to him about it and then a series of comics that take on this epistolary format. The repeated "Dear Dads," wishing for nothing else but to go back in time, are heartbreaking. But they can't. They can't move forward, they can't move back--hence, in-between. The rest of the mini dips into some of Jablonski's diary comics regarding their ambivalence toward therapy. 

The diary comics are the main event of this package, and it's one of the better collections of such comics that I've read. While there's plenty of quotidian detail here typical of the form, there's an underlying tension throughout that occasionally explodes on the page. In addition to dealing with the PTSD surrounding their father, Jablonski is also trying to go to school at CCS during the middle of COVID, at a time when travel and other restrictions were just starting to lift. Nothing here is "normal," even as Jablonski's own nature is to revel with delight at beauty and in the company of their friends. CCS should have represented a triumphant time, as they were totally going for it in the quest to become a cartoonist, but it instead was an experience filled with confusion and an increasing inability to deal with trauma.

They noted that when the incident with their father first occurred, they were able to focus away from it as an undergraduate, pushing down the feelings and dissociating past them in order to succeed as a student. What they learned is that this kind of coping mechanism has a price that is paid when least expected. Jablonski explores a number of topics in the collection, including life as a student, coming to terms with their gender identity, sorting through the ashes of a toxic relationship, an unnamed crush, exploring Vermont, taking delight in their friendships, and a nightmarish trip back home to see their father. Jablonski doesn't bother to draw every day, instead taking the wiser tact of drawing when inspired. The diary eventually segues into an intense account of therapy, trauma, and facing up to the immense pain and despair they feel, a sense of feeling totally unmoored. It is here that it becomes obvious why Jablonski can't write this story, at least not yet. However, what they did write is a more-than-worthy substitute: a real-time grappling with trauma that sees them finally starting to understand what has happened to them and why. With thick, expressive lines and a loose immediacy to their drawing, Jablonski's comics have a raw and sensitive quality that still retain an innate brightness in the face of chaos and trauma. 

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