Tuesday, December 5, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #5: Dylan Sparks and Sage Clemmons

Dylan Sparks is a 2024 CCS student whose cartooning occupies the space between love and horror. In particular, their comic Echoed Embrace focuses on body trauma that makes it nearly impossible for the unnamed protagonist to relax and settle into having sex with someone they truly desire. The way Sparks went about this is truly clever. Each attempt at intimacy starts off well, until their being touched summons the physical memory of the hand of a previous abuser/assailant. The protagonist is in black & white, their lover is in pink, and the many disembodied hands from their memories are dark red. Every attempt fails, because when things start to get more intimate and intense, so too does the memory of being held down, squeezed, and even choked. At each failure point, the fantasy respawns like a video game, as the protagonist tries again and again. It's not until the protagonist confronts the memory in a very specific way that things turn out differently. Sparks' line is sketchy and a little rough, but their cartooning is excellent, as they smartly take the tools and tropes of video games and apply them to PTSD. The frustrations and desires expressed are told in an achingly vulnerable but entirely no-nonsense way. 

Tryst is a fantasy story that nonetheless has a lot of similar elements to Echoed Embrace. While it's about a dragon woman who's captured by sadistic men, it's also at heart about a relationship. When the dragon woman's boyfriend shows up, she breaks out of her bonds and brutally kills her captors, all in an effort to show off. However, the narrative follows the boyfriend's thought processes, as he wonders after seeing that she was injured when a captor slapped her if what value he had if he couldn't protect her. It was a perfect moment of male fragility and ego, projecting his own insecurities on her. He does manage to catch himself in the end, but the reversal of gender expectations and roles is clever. The use of what appears to be crayon adds to the fantastical quality of the comic, as crayon tends to make exaggerating the visceral qualities of color much easier. 

Sage Clemmons' Everyone Is Sorry is done in gorgeous green colored pencil. A publication from Parsifal Press (Daryl Seitchik & Dan Nott's new press), this isn't so much a narrative as much as it is a meditation on remorse and what being "sorry" means. It's a sort of comics version of a  tone poem, where on each page, a different person expresses being sorry in a deliberate, downcast manner. There's a tongue-in-cheek quality to the comic as well, like when it's stated that "Your professors are sorry" and on the next page it says, "(very sorry)." It gets more and more abstract, as even tenderness and laughter are sorry. The final image, of a hand offering up a handkerchief, is another hint as to the mix of humor and absurdity with the central, grave concept. Is being sorry feeling remorse? Is it a willingness to offer reparations? Is it grief? Is it self-serving? Clemmons offers no answers, other than going back and reading it again, and enjoying their excellent, naturalistic cartooning.  

Monday, December 4, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #4: Gabrielle Tinnirello and Al Varela

Al Varela's style features big-eyed characters, bright colors, and hearts worn on sleeves. It has a deeply humanistic quality to it, as it's clear that Varela loves all of their characters, whatever their flaws. Skate With Me, Baby! is a mini featuring teens Sandra and Mandy. Sandra is a new employee at a roller rink, and purple-haired Mandy is a frequent customer. What unfolds are the opening moments of a sweet romance that clearly presages a deeper summer relationship. Varela has a way of getting at those opening butterflies and sparks of attraction, especially when someone like Sandra is so shy and awkward. The more aggressive Mandy is nonetheless sweet and patient, and the scene where Mandy teaches Sandra how to skate is both tender and filled with sexual tension. This is less a story than it is a quick character study. The background details of the rink (cheap toys from game tickets, crying kids, an indifferent boss) all add to the magic of the central relationship. Varela's understanding of the relationship between bodies in space and gesture provide the reader with all they really need to know about the story. 

Gabrielle Tinnirello's career thus far has been interesting in terms of the minis I've seen from her. She seems more interested in a sort of narrative collage style of storytelling than traditional comics. That's certainly true with 27, a birthday zine celebrating her 27th birthday. The way she arranges her collage elements and then fills in with decorative drawings around them exudes warmth, and in many ways these comics feel like she's trying to put a certain kind of energy into her work. In drawing different playing cards for different people, she's aware of tarot and other divination techniques in terms of setting intentions for them. This whole mini seems to be about setting intentions after her birthday, and they include finding love and working collaboratively with others. I'm hoping to see something resembling even a further veering into comics-as-poetry given her decorative style or a more conventional narrative with lots of visual bells-and-whistles.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #3: Jarad Greene

Jarad Greene is a cartoonist who was obviously going to go on to success doing YA and middle-grade comics even when he was a student at CCS. He's just a natural at that kind of storytelling, be it fantasy fare like Scullion or slice-of-life fiction in A-Okay (and the upcoming A For Effort). His latest mini, This Diary Will Self-Destruct, is a hodgepodge of travel diaries and Hourly Comics Day strips. Hourly Comics Day is more interesting as a discipline than as something to read, since it's almost entirely a series of fairly diffuse anecdotes. That's mostly the case with Greene here, although his hourly strips are beautifully drawn. They're mostly interesting just as a document for his work process, as we see him working on his thesis and then later on various book projects. Later, it transitions as he becomes a teacher at CCS, and the hour-to-hour activities take on a different meaning. Throughout, his line is wonderfully loose and expressive, as he mostly works either in pencil or directly with a pen. The quotidian, anecdotal stuff (meals, exercise) doesn't add up to much, and even interactions with friends feel strictly surface. Greene understands the assignment here and isn't interested in going much deeper; his fictional work feels far more personal than these hourly strips. 

The winter travel diaries, however, feel much more intimate. The sheer difficulty of trying to travel from White River Junction to pretty much anywhere is part of what's interesting here, but the contrast between his hermetically sealed life at Cartoon College and his opportunity to relive his childhood while staying at his parents' house is fascinating. Travel diaries always have a built-in sense of narrative propulsion while still offering moments of personal reflection, which makes them ideal for visual experimentation. The more leisurely pace of these diary comics allows Greene to really go to town on the pencils, as he goes out of his way to make pretty boring events seem so much more interesting because of his highly expressive and exaggerated figure work. Considering the way he has to rein it in a bit in his professional work, it was especially fun to see him distort his figures and use a bunch of different storytelling tricks and techniques. Greene isn't looking to reinvent the wheel here in terms of the stories, he's just looking to have a good time with a few constraints thrown on. 

Greene also contributed the short zine Former Event, a comic with a die-cut front and back cover that give glimpses into the story. It's another memoir zine, but this time it's much more focused than the diary comics. It focuses on the changes he perceives in his life: he no longer reads, eats, works, or reaches out to others with quite the same intensity or frequency that he used to. Greene reaches no particular conclusions about this, other than to note that he feels "breaks and boundaries have taken hold of the steering wheel." In other words, he's naturally course-corrected to not exhaust himself in any category, even pleasant ones, in order to maintain his own health. Indeed, the way Greene portrays himself here is contented, calm, and relaxed. He ponders the ontological question as to his own identity for a moment, then lets it slip away. His line here is as inventive and lively as ever; there's a small sense of irony at work in that it's clear he worked very hard at this mini about working less. 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #2: Johna Mandel

Johna Mandel is from the class of 2023 from CCS, and her mini Capture Culture, is the first time I've gotten to see her work. It's very much in the "applied comics" end of things, and I can see her in the tradition of CCS grad and instructor Dan Nott. This comic thoughtfully threads the needle between memoir and journalism, as Mandel starts off the comic by discussing how many digital photos she takes of her newborn son. It's a lot, and she then starts interrogating what this actually means. If she had taken, developed, and kept physical photographs at the same rate, she'd barely be able to move around her house. 

She notes that the culture surrounding documenting and then keeping everything digitally (especially on the cloud) is behavior similar to hoarding. This is especially true with regard to the emotional attachment people have to these images, with the very idea of deleting feeling horrifying. Mandel doesn't speculate why the urge to capture these images has spiked so severely, which I think is worth investigating, because I don't think it's the convenience of the technology alone. Or perhaps the technology tied into some deeper need that was amplified by convenience. Collecting and looking at images, but especially sharing them, seems to be part of a deeper need to communicate visually. 

Mandel instead shifts, and rightly so, to the environmental impact of this seemingly innocent compulsion. The Cloud is a place that is housed on real servers in real buildings that consume enormous amounts of electricity. Mandel's channeling a bit of Nott's deep dive into the internet in his book Hidden Systems, but it's been a topic of discussion in the general public the last couple of years thanks to cryptocurrency and NFTs. She also brings up other issues like cybersecurity and companies' willingness to share data with the government. All good reasons to let go, she notes, but she adds "I'm not sure I can." It's the personal touch at both the beginning and end that make this such a good comic. Mandel's visual approach is clear and clean, focusing on novel composition with fluid and unfussy linework. The use of pink and blue for spot color is a clever move, considering the initial focus on baby pictures. Mandel is a thoughtful, smart cartoonist whose curiosity and willingness to dig into details could lead to some thought-provoking longer works in the future. 

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. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons #13

There's a real throwback feel to the latest edition of writer Jonathan Baylis' So Buttons. (Poor Baylis chose a silly, throwaway title for this series, and now he's stuck with it as his brand. Cf. Julia Wertz's The Fart Party.) The amiable Baylis is a born networker with an extensive and deep curiosity about the history of comics and cartoonists. Meeting former Harvey Pekar collaborator Joe Zabel at a show led Baylis to hire him for a piece in this issue, which, in turn, led to him working with Gary Dumm and Brian Bram (last seen in American Splendor #2!) Can Alison Bechdel and Alan Moore be far behind? Other 80s indy stalwarts in this issue include Bernie Mireault and Michael T. Gilbert. 

Like Pekar, Baylis has a real sense of what stories to pair with which artists. It's fascinating to see him work with so many of Pekar's former collaborators, because as writers, Baylis and Pekar couldn't be any more different. Pekar's work, while deeply humanistic, was often cynical and even miserablist. However, he was also a keen observer of others and excelled in telling their stories. He was also the classic working-class intellectual, as his reviews of jazz records and literature in his comics revealed. Baylis doesn't truck with irony or spend much time wallowing in sadness (though there are hints of it); instead, he prefers to look at beauty, joy, and deep moments of connection with others and with art. As his story with Zabel revealed, what he does share with Pekar is a deep need to be a writer, and to have his thoughts expressed visually. Baylis' stories are almost always centered around himself, either in terms of the action or his reaction to same. I think this stems from his deep need to be a storyteller first and foremost, unlike Pekar, who was more interested in being an observer. What sets Baylis apart from other writers who collaborated with cartoonists like Pekar, Dennis Eichorn, or David Greenberger is a total sense of sincerity. Every one of these stories is important to him, and it's clear he spends a lot of time thinking about how each one will look. 

Tony Wolf was a good choice for "So...Swampy," given his affection for mainstream comics. This one-pager is more a style exercise than a story; it doesn't amount to more than "my grandma sent me some comics at camp when I was miserable and one of them was an Alan Moore Swamp Thing." On the other hand, "So...Premiered" (with art by Zabel and Dumm) is a meaty story that Baylis refers to as an "origin story." Baylis' background is interesting because while he loves comics, he went to film school at NYU. As such, he's had a number of gigs in the entertainment world, including with the Sundance Channel. That allowed him to meet Harvey Pekar at the premiere of American Splendor, where the writer gave Baylis encouragement. The story is full of funny visual flourishes that I'm guessing Baylis put in his script, like drawing Pekar as Dr. Octopus as part of an extended shtick. 

Baylis is frequently clever in his transitions from story to story. He follows this Sundance story with another one (drawn with flair by Mireault) about seeing the movie 28 Days Later at midnight and enjoying it because of the way he and the audience reacted together. It's a sharp observation of why seeing movies in a theater can be so rewarding. He follows that zombie story with one about his wife and kid drawn by Whit Taylor. Taylor is great at drawing stories about parenting, and this gag about a "zombified" Baylis walking in is set up nicely, complete with a plop-take at the end. Stories about being friends with Eli Roth as a film student and being delighted by his performance in Inglourious Basterds and a brief documentary bit with a memorable New York character fall more into the "anecdote" category as opposed to an actual story, and they feel a bit thinner as a result than some of the other stories. 

However, "So...It's A Viscous Cycle," featuring Maria & Peter Hoey, is the unquestioned highlight of the issue. Those two are extremely clever cartoonists and storytellers, and Baylis sets them up with a great premise regarding not just his vision, but the process of getting Lazik surgery because a film looked blurry. Keeping with the film theme, a piece on composer Enrique Morricone was interesting because Baylis notes that hearing his music just didn't sound right without accompanying film. Artist Rick Parker is a capable comedic cartoonist, but I thought a lot of the gags (did an image of John Cage need to be put next to an actual birdcage?) distracted from the overall content of the story. 

The other major highlight of the issue was his easy and natural collaboration with Karl Christian Krumpholz. It's a story within a story, told at a bar between Baylis and Krumpholz at SPX, about a particular, rare sort of bourbon that Baylis managed to acquire. It works as a captivating yarn and also provides some insight into their friendship, as well. Krumpholz' highly stylized character design and moody palette make this feel like a true collaboration. Speaking of which, it wouldn't be an issue of So Buttons without a team-up between Baylis and longtime collaborator TJ Kirsch. The latter's design for another Baylis strip about someone who shares his birthday (in this case, former baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan) was clever, riffing on Ryan using pickle brine to help strengthen the skin on his hands. 

Baylis has a pretty deep well of stories to turn to. This one hit a little bit more on his love of movies and life in the entertainment industry than usual. I'd be interested in seeing more stories hitting on fatherhood, relationships, and friendships. More bar stories with Krumpholz would also be fun. There are some artists he just seems to vibe with more than others, and the Hoeys and Krumpholz are definitely on that widening list. The other thing it would be interesting to see from Baylis is a longer narrative. I'm not quite sure what that story would be, but one senses that he's got a few of those laying around. Baylis' commitment to craft, design, and editorial coherency are on clear display, as his writing and editing chops have matured to the point where he's willing to take risks. Not everything worked in this issue, but even some of the misfires were at least interesting to look at. Baylis wasn't interested in playing it safe, and one hopes that this trend continues for future issues. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Alaina Ewins' Night Things

Night Moves, by Alaina Ewins, is a delightful romance comic in a fantasy/magic setting. The plot, surrounding classmates Spica and Muna, sees them secretly preparing glamour spells for the big Valentine's Day dance. The complicating factor is that Muna develops a crush on the charismatic Spica. Ewins then deftly drops in the big plot device: if you don't cast glamour with pure intent, the "consequences can be dire!" Inevitably, the glam duo has a fun time at the dance but things go horribly awry as everyone at the dance is drawn and attracted to them--very aggressively! The cute confession that seems to fix everything dissolves into a surprise ending. 

The plot structure is cleverly constructed, but the real star of this mini is Ewins' character design. The attention to detail regarding garments, hair, and a variety of different faces and body types is essential to conveying the emotion and attraction between the characters. Despite this being in a fantasy setting, Ewins' attention to dialogue and high school social dynamics adds to the verisimilitude necessary to pull this off without feeling forced or cloying. Instead, the stress that Muna feels combined with her ambition in trying to impress Spica with glamour imbues the plot with real comedic tension. Ewins' drawing style is dense, with lots of hatching, spotting blacks, and a minimal use of negative space. Despite that density, Ewins' is an adept storyteller whose composition never confuses the eye, even if it does deliberately distract it with a lot of decorative touches. This immersive style works at quickly placing the reader right in the middle of this world that her characters are in without having to do much in terms of excessive narrative explanation. Ewins seems poised for longer and more complex stories of this nature. 

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. 

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.