Thursday, December 14, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #14: Rachel Dukes, Kori Michele Handwerker, Penina Gal

Some shorter works for today's entries.

Kori Michele Handwerker, by their own admission, is an artist who isn't quite sure what kind of cartoonist they should be. In their solo collection, I Would Like To Experience Less, Thanks., Handwerker gets to this very problem right away in "True Form." They lament that while they have experience at all levels of creation and production with regard to comics, they have yet to establish their identity as a cartoonist. They rattle off a half-dozen different kinds of things they could be doing but don't feel drawn to any one of them more than another. In the end, they conclude that they are making comics in order to figure themselves out, and that's enough for now. As a reader, however, this claim is belied by some of the other work in this collection. "Little Things" is a piffle of an anecdote; it's the kind of story that's amusing to the author but doesn't have enough bite to draw in a reader. "True Form" itself is so text-heavy that it fairly drowns out the images in many panels. On the other hand, "Rite Hand" is an astoundingly composed story about their husband's traumatic stay in the hospital for a liver transplant. It takes a fairly standard diary comic format and reworks it such that it begins in the middle and flips various days around to create a tense, compelling narrative. In this instance, when Handwerker found something they really needed to talk about, their skill as a cartoonist became obvious. 

The same is true of I Like Masking, Actually. Handwerker's character design and line are both so assured for a story that's essentially a series of throwaway observations about the pandemic. It's fine, and it makes sense that Handwerker seems drawn to these sorts of small, bite-sized stories, but it also seems obvious that they have the chops for something more ambitious. As a reader and fan of their work, I'm excited to see what this could be. 

Rachel Dukes details their own health difficulties and how it's affected their work as a cartoonist. In Poppy Seeds, Dukes did a series of diary comics as they started to emerge from an illness-induced absence from cartooning. Some of them veer away from comics and are more of illustrated zine-writing, but on the pages where they get down to drawing again, it's easy to see the incredible charm of their line. Dukes has been cartooning for a long time, and I recall reviewing their Side A and Side B anthologies they edited when they were still a teenager, in addition to their best-known comics about their cat Frankie. Their cartooning, even after struggling with illness, remains elegant, expressive, and versatile in approach. Dukes is also an excellent illustrator, as their interview zine with Lauren Denitzio makes clear; they are as comfortable with naturalistic approaches as they are with the most cartoony of techniques. 

Penina Gal is another longtime favorite who started their career with a YA fantasy story then veered over into comics-as-poetry. Their mini Baller Baby represents a move toward YA-style memoir, as it's about growing up in 1990s New York as a fan of the Knicks and the game in general, but also as someone who hated dresses and being feminized in very specific ways. Part of Paper Rocket's Mini Memoir Project, Gal's line here mixes sketchy immediacy with bold, thick ink lines. The drawings are lively and rubbery, which helps accentuate the way that the younger version of Gal loves to move with the ball. The contrast with their cousin E. sets a perfect thematic tone, as the active E allows Gal to be brave and try things they might not have otherwise, because they were shy. (The panel where they talk about that has a wonderful drawing of an engaged and curious but slightly shrinking Gal.) Gal took what was essentially a series of anecdotes and imbues it with thematic resonance without sacrificing any of the innocent exuberance that was at their heart. 


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