Friday, April 12, 2024

CRAM Week, Part 2: CRAM #1

The underground/alternative comics anthology is a tradition dating back close to sixty years that has birthed movements and introduced exciting new talent to a larger audience. Beginning with Zap!, Bijou Funnies, Wimmen's Comix, and Arcade, future decades saw Heavy Metal, Buzzard, Gay Comix, RAW, Weirdo, Zero Zero, Drawn & Quarterly, Action Girl Comics, Kramer's Ergot, MOME, and NOW (among others) as significant and fairly long-running anthologies that highlighted all of the significant talent of their eras.

The younger underground cartoonists emerging now are an interesting bunch. They seem much more influenced (as a whole) in work from the late 80s and early 90s than any of the trends from the last 20 or 30 years. Fascinating new anthologies have emerged like Reptile House, Jaywalk, Datura Magazine, Vacuum Decay, Clusterfux, Tinfoil, Poison Pill, Death Spark and others, but the most interesting at the moment is CRAM, edited by Andrew Alexander. CRAM seems to be both a culmination and a distillation of the entire Risograph comics movement that started about a decade ago. It featured an intense DIY work ethic, often focusing on the comic more as an art object than in its actual content. Formal innovation has often been a hallmark of cutting-edge anthologies (Kramer's and RAW are good examples), and the best of them have always found a way to bring it back 'round to narrative. CRAM is very much in this vein. 



The cover is a real statement of intent. It's by RAW and Blab veteran David Sandlin, and it's got a lighthearted Riso spirit in its use of color amidst the undersea monsters and decay. Reaching back to the past, with a prominent New York artist, no less, also lets the reader know that this is a statement by a set of (mostly) New York cartoonists. There's a single-page piece by Stipan Tadić, a Croatian painter and cartoonist that's set in a most familiar setting: an Uber ride in New York. Replacing the more familiar New York taxi ride, this strip crams 24 panels into a single page and loads them up with text. It's a deliberately intimate and slightly suffocating visual experience that works because Tadić provides just enough breathing room while spinning a funny conversation between a Croatian and a native of India. It's a great story because it captures something specific about the immigrant experience in New York, as the driver launches on a rant about American women even as he reveals that he studies pick-up artist material. There's no judgment--it's just another experience. It's also an introduction to the wildly disparate visual aesthetics that Alexander is about to throw at the reader. 



Alexander's own piece is an excerpt from a longer story. I normally hate this kind of thing in anthologies, but Alexander provides enough context in this story about him and a friend attending a state fair in New York to allow it to stand on its own. Alexander's use of color is varied but still restrained, which isn't always true of many Riso comics that are trying to draw in eyeballs. Alexander's figurework is the most interesting aspect of his comics, as he loves using distorted scales and perspectives as his characters navigate their environment. There's one great panel where a goat rushes by him and his eyeballs are on one side of his face like a Cubist image. Alexander's stand-in character has this twitchy, anxious energy that's almost awkward to read, but he reins it in before it derails the story. The highlight is when the couple attends a demolition derby event, with two pages of glorious open-page layouts and a filthy kaleidoscope's array of colors. It's much like Alexander's other memoir stuff: sweaty, nervous, but ultimately open to intense experiences. 



Kade McClement's "The Freelancer" feels like some bizarre 80s story that Jason Levian might unearth for a Floating World comic. The weird and frequently off-kilter lettering and strange character design that looks inspired by weird Golden Age comics with their grotesque and rushed-looking qualities. The crazy story about a freelancer art courier who gets mixed up with murder, a bandaged crime boss's wife and other foolishness feels like a more modern touch, but it's got all the noir qualities of a Jack Cole crime comic. Putting this in a beautiful Riso comic feels almost like a deliberate act of comic provocation. 

Max Huffman and Alexander have worked together for some time, including on other anthologies. Huffman also has an excerpt here, and it also works well on its own. Like a lot of younger cartoonists, Huffman rejects easy categorization in terms of his style, especially with regard to his contemporaries. If anything, his use of flat shapes and simple colors is reminiscient of Gene Deitch and the UPA school of animation. This excerpt is part of what seems to be a sci-fi caper or espionage story involving a man trying to sneak through security. To throw authorities off his trail, he infects the man ahead of him with a "clout virus" that gains him entrance--but the man in front of him is reduced to liquid. Huffman has done a lot of short-form work, so seeing a part of a longer narrative will be interesting, especially with the denseness of his narrative style. 



Clair Gunther's "Cecilia & Rebecca" is a visual and narrative palate-cleanser after several intensely colored stories. Simply rendered with a sort of metallic gold-brown background, it's about a piano teacher whose lessons with a kid named Bridget is interrupted by her titular little sisters. Hoping to add them as a clients, she mentions it to their mother, who nervously says she'll ask them. When the mother later tells the teacher they'd rather do dance, it leads to a wholly unexpected and strange twist that is nonetheless deeply felt. Gunther smartly takes what seems to be a fairly straight-ahead narrative in a 12-panel grid and turns it into something beautifully odd. 

The first issue ends with Alexander Laird's totally bonkers "Goblin 64." Laird has his own publishing shingle with Frog Farm (and he does regular events with other cartoonists), but this story is a demented cross between aspects of Paper Rad's cultural raids and shitty video game magazines from the 80s. It took me a minute to see what Laird was doing here, in this article by "Caleb Humus" about a game called Maze Goblin, done precisely in the style of those magazines, down to the grainy images of the games that are supposed to be mind-blowing but look badly antiquated by today's standards. The drawings Laird makes of this imaginary game featuring a character named Ebubobo the Goblin are very funny and fit so totally into the aesthetic that I was hooked for a moment. The gameplay slowly gets stranger and stranger as it's clear this demo the author is playing has sinister overtones until the piece pivots into a review of a game called "Caleb," reviewed by Ebubobo the Goblin! It's a fantastic concept piece that works because of the attention to detail paid to its source material and the wild swerve that nonetheless makes sense. 

It's a wild way to conclude the issue, but it demonstrates rather definitively that anything goes with CRAM and what Alexander is willing to do with regard to publishing different narrative styles. Wisely, Alexander steers away from excerpts in future issues, but there's just a wonderful sense of freshness in this anthology. Alexander isn't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel or challenge the very concept of narrative the way that Sammy Harkham did in Kramer's. Instead, Alexander is more concerned with the very best production values supporting the aims of some disparate narrative styles. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

CRAM Week, Part 1: Andrew Alexander

One of the most interesting new publishers is CRAM Books, helmed by Andrew Alexander. To date, he's published three volumes of his CRAM anthology, as well as minis by himself, Angela Fanche, and Allee Errico. These are exciting comics that rework traditional forms like the diary comic into something much more interesting and push the medium in other ways. 

First up are two older diary comic zines from Alexander, DECMBR 2018 and SEVENTH OF MAY 2019.  l liked both of these quite a bit, in part because Alexander immediately starts questioning exactly what he's going after in these comics. DCEMBR 2018 is a traditional daily diary collection done in something resembling the traditional four-panel format. Alexander frequently blurs the composition, as some panels flow into each other in interesting ways. Alexander's drawing is wonderfully raw, grotesque, and expressive, and his character designs are consistently interesting. While there's plenty of written scrawl in most of these strips, it's his drawing that really stands out. He manages to pack a lot of action in these strips with exaggerated perspectives and anatomy, varying line weights to create different expressions, and relating awkward anecdotes where he's in uncomfortable situations, like visiting his family. Alexander does another interesting thing, where his commentary about life starts to tangent away from the actual situations he's drawing, creating some two-track narratives. He's an unreliable narrator and he wants you to know it. 

SEVENTH OF MAY 2019, as one might expect, covers the events of a busy day. It's thankfully not formatted in the style of hourly comics day, but rather simply flows with an introduction that lets the reader know that he's already tired, working a lot at a RISO print shop, trying to draw, and still have a social life. All of this is just a set-up for the real through-line of the first half of the comic: a phone argument with his mother. The argument sees Alexander walking the streets of New York, cutting to his mother driving around. The substance is absurd: his mother is telling him about a friend of hers that she's mad at because her friend was using a holistic trauma healing technique without proper training. Once again, the facial expressions drive everything here, and Alexander manages to add clarity to some text-heavy pages by smartly employing an open-page layout. 

The second half features a weary Alexander delivering a piece and then being cajoled into going out drinking with his client. It's a perfect set of story beats: his friend inviting him out to drinks at a fancy bar over the clear protests of his girlfriend, borrowing a suit in order to fit in, meeting assorted weirdos and posers along the way, and then being met with a big surprise in the form of the bill. It's an interesting set of events on their own, but Alexander's character design once again is his secret weapon, helping add to the sense of absurd momentum that sometimes happens when you're out on the town. Weird things just start to happen around you, and you have to go with it. The final images of Alexander drunk and exhausted on a subway car are the perfect capper to a story that relies on energy derived purely from adrenaline. These two comics are what I would call minor works compared to Alexander's larger project as an editor and publisher, but it shows how his aesthetic as a cartoonist is entirely in line with those he chooses to publish. 


Monday, March 18, 2024

Poison Pill

Poison Pill was one of the more exciting comics of 2023 because it had this kind of young guns energy going for it, as six young cartoonists who are all entering mature phases of their careers made this anthology together. The fact that it's all women doesn't really come as much of a surprise, given how much the demographics of young cartoonists have shifted so much in the last decade. There's not much that this line-up--Caroline Cash, M.S. Harkness, Sam Szabo, Victoria Douglas, Audra Stang, and Heather Loase--have in common with each other in terms of style or subject matter, other than the fact that all of these stories were autobiographical. Each approaches memoir in a completely different way, aiming for different effects. 


Caroline Cash's art has an inherent coolness that's still charged with genuine emotion, but that coolness is a distancing device. "First Date" is actually a rather sweet story about Cash's first date with a woman in Octoboer 2020; it's also her first date since the COVID quarantine began. Cash dials up stylized figures, simplified figures, and cartoony figures as a way to modulate emotion, mixing her manga influences with modern alt-comics style. The story itself is completely straightforward and is more of an anecdote about a particular moment and feeling than an actual narrative. That's what Cash seems to be going for her--relating this one, wonderful, strange moment in all of its awkward, sweaty glory. The stacked horizontal panels where Cash and her date kiss start off as tender, but Cash can't help herself and goes cartoony-zany in the last panel. It all fits, because it's the payoff to an idea about living in a time and place where hesitating is no longer a luxury we possess. 


Sam Szabo's story was next, and the transition between stories couldn't have been more jarring. The slick precision of Cash was succeeded by the expressive scrawl of Szabo. The small moment of intimacy in Cas's comic was followed by a huge turning point in Szabo's life, when they realized they were trans when wearing a dress as "a bit" for an Insane Clown Posse concert. If there was a little distance in Cash's style, Szabo immediately lays it all on the line as everything they knew about their reality and identity changed right before their eyes. Szabo's line is so energetic that the reader can't help but get swept up. However, that crude line belies rock-solid storytelling and clear page & panel composition. The six-panel grid, the thick line that highlights every drawing, and Szabo's sharp sense of timing gives this story a beautiful flow. The tonal shift between existential crisis, hilarious plot happenings (dropping acid alone at an ICP concert), and a gradual but beautiful sense of self-acceptance are all part of Szabo's smart storytelling. 



Victoria Douglas' social media lament was the most technically dazzling and visually exciting story in the anthology, but it was also the most predictable and cliched entry as well. While her concept of being loaded into the "content cannon" on social media was funny and cleverly executed, the idea of someone being fed up with social media engagement isn't exactly original or very interesting. Even the follow-up punchline doesn't land, and the story might have been better off without it. 

M.S. Harkness is certainly the cartoonist in this anthology who's on the biggest roll at the moment, with her Fantagraphics-published memoir Time Under Tension earning a number of accolades in 2023. Her "Feu de Joie" ("fire of joy") is a cleverly assembled series of anecdotes about the 4th of July told in chronological order. The brief snapshot of a holiday and the hot, sticky unpleasantness that is July allow Harkness to include crucial context clues about her life at that time. Told in her typical dense, black-heavy style with highly stylized character designs, the first story reaches back to her childhood and the clear sense of just how unsupervised she was as a pre-teen: playing with M-80s, watching adults have a fistfight, sneaking in jello shots. The next story finds her in her early 20s as a summer camp counselor, breaking the heart of a date who had become fond of her while fireworks fired over a lake. The next one came during the tumultuous summer of 2020 in Minneapolis as she was biking her way through smoke and read all of the local complaints about fireworks. The final story is a sweet exchange between Harkness and her fiance as they watch fireworks on a bridge. Pretty much every aspect of Harkness' storytelling is bawdy, crude, direct, and gross, as she's not interested in pulling any punches. This was partly a mechanism to deflect her true feelings, which she'd parcel out to the reader a bit at a time. Despite her in-your-face style, there is an essential sweetness and yearning in all of her comics, and this short story features a little bit of both.


Heather Loase's comic about being obsessed with breast-related porn as a teen similarly doesn't pull any punches, working in a frank, funny, and filthy space similar to Gina Wynbrandt (as well as Cash and Harkness). Her line is probably most similar to Szabo's although Szabo's figures are scratchier and more angular (sort of like Kaz) and Loase loves big, exaggerated, curvy lines and figures. It's a dense style of storytelling but she also has deft control over her composition, making each page intense but easy to follow. Loase's story is a familiar one: being drawn to same-sex attraction and researching it online only to be condemned by her parents. As she describes it, it led to her burying "all homoerotic fantasies for the next decade" as she turned her attention to male figures like hobbits and Derek Jeter. She concludes by saying there were still some TV shows, like the ridiculously lurid MTV Spring Break specials, that brought back "that weird feeling." This story, like several of the others in the anthology, is about a turning point regarding identity. Unlike the other stories, Loase's is about losing that sense of finding out who you are, but only up to a point. 


Finally, Audra Stang contributes a fairly rare work of memoir. Recent issues of her series The Audra Show have seen her do more of these sorts of stories after mostly doing fiction in her young career, but they've all been uniformly excellent. This story about Christmas and her family is no exception. It's an understated and nuanced account of horrible family dysfunction and the traumatic effects of poverty. Stang's page composition really takes advantage of the larger page size of Poison Pill (8 x 11 3/4") on pages like one where she's talking about how her schedule would change during Christmas break as she stacked eight horizontal panels on top of each other, each with a small image of young Stang, a caption, and shading filler. It gets across the way that a lack of structure seeped into her life, and how it was a welcome experience. The final pages, where she's away from her judgmental father and helps her mother (desperate to cope with life) on her paper route, culminating in a cup of coffee at a local diner. Her descriptions are matter of fact to the point of being almost icy, but it's a distancing technique that allows the reader to absorb the way she gets across the feelings of despair through her figure work. 

It's a strong ending to a varied collection of stories that are mostly contemplative and even sweet. The interstitial drawings help unite the disparate drawings, with Cash (I think) doing her take on the famous B.Kliban "A cartoonist is coming!" drawing. There are several different drawings featuring each of the artists, which helps contribute to the rock star mythology they're creating for themselves. Poison Pill is a mission statement, a concerted attempt at intimate and challenging storytelling, and a strong visual buffet of different styles.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Pyrite Press, Part 2: K.Wroten's Crimes

K.Wroten is one of the most thoughtful and philosophical cartoonists working today. Their first major full-length book, Crimes, was published by Pyrite Press, and it's remarkable for its complex, ambiguous, and well-realized characters who ruminate on questions essential to their very identity. At its core, it is the tale of Willa, a burnt-out artist in her 30s, and Bas, a young poet and polymath who is just starting her career after a nihilistic adolesence. It's a story of friendship and betrayal, obsession and repulsion, and desperately wanting to be anyone other than who we are. For Wroten, it's a fascinating snapshot in time to when their line was much scratchier and less polished, but their cartooning was still so strong and expressive. 


Wroten plays around with chronology in a way that's a bit confusing at first, until they really dig into the main narrative. We're first introduced to Willa as a teen, arguing the existence of god with her disingenously argumentative father. Then we flash forward to learn that her best friend, Simon, has been found dead on a camping trip, and she is coping badly with it. All she can do is start to paint in is honor, an act that triggers the flashback to how Willa meets Bas. 

Bas was Simon's girlfriend. Simon and Willa were platonic friends, and Willa was immediately repulsed by the clear artifice that went into her persona. At the same time, she was drawn not only to the lengths that Bas went to in the construction of her personality, but also at how effective it was. Wroten depicts a now-smitten Willa with a "badum" sound effect to indicate her rapidly-beating heart, but also a sense of impassioned panic. There is a feeling of inevitability regarding them eventually hooking up, as Simon encourages Bas working in Willa's studio space, and there are seemingly coincidental encounters that draw them together. 


The key segment in Crimes is a conversation Bas and Willa have about whether or not evil exists. Bas reveals that when she was a teen, she sometimes deliberately sought out the company of a group of men because she knew they would do fucked-up things. It's implied that some of them were done to her, but it's explicitly stated that she did a lot of things that she shouldn't, but who cares, right? It was freedom! Wroten hear is hitting on Plato's Ring of Gyges story, where a man finds a magic ring that gives him invisibility and freedom to do whatever he wants. He chooses to rape, kill, and rob because there are no consequences, giving rise to the idea of the degree to which ethical behavior is simply a function of a fear of punishment. For Bas (which is not her real name), she chose to live that way until she didn't--there was a sense of deep down, understanding that what she was doing was counter to the nature of what it is to be human. There was no god to punish her, only her own revulsion and eventual decision to leave it behind. 

Wroten cleverly skips the scene where Bas and Willa hook up, instead moving on to Bas performing a poem about it to a crowd that includes a rapturously supportive and utterly clueless Simon. They both encourage Simon to go on a herpetology camping trip, but even as they earnestly encourage him, Bas knows what she's really doing. She feels guilty but does it anyway, circling back around to this concept of evil. Bas asks Willa to come over since she has a spare key, but it's all a ruse for seduction that Bas knows Willa wants and won't resist. Here, Wroten gives us the sex scene and the important pillow talk afterward, which leads to guilt and an attempt to clear their heads at the beach. Just as Bas nearly broke down (and nearly died of what may have been a drug overdose) years earlier with her depraved friends, she breaks down again when she gets the phone call that Simon's dead. It's the other shoe finally dropping, something the reader had been waiting for the whole time, but the revelations about them pushing him into it, their own betrayals, and an attempt to even justify it are rendered irrelevant in the moment. There is only grief, and guilt, and a profound understanding of how one's choices create one's identity. It also ties into the beginning, where we see Willa trying to cope with her grief but don't see Bas, as it's clear that they've split. 

The intricacy of the characterizations, the verisimilitude of the dialogue, the highly effective plot twists, and the liveliness of the cartooning all make this a strong debut. That said, it is very clearly the work of a young cartoonist who badly needed editing and graphic design help. There are a number of examples of poorly-blocked word balloons, poor flow due to confusing placement of word balloons relative to the characters, shaky lettering, and other technical flaws that could have been cleared up with a good designer. It's telling how much Wroten's technical ability improved with Cannonball, and I would imagine this was due both to greater experience and a stronger editorial hand at Uncivilized Books. Technial problems aside, Wroten's devotion to exploring how philosophical problems play out in relationships makes them one of my favorite young cartoonists.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Pyrite Press, Part 1: Vinnie Neuberg, Haejin Park, Rachel Katz & Stephanie Davidson

Pyrite Press is Brice Gold's publishing concern. I don't think it's currently active in publishing new books, but I did meet Brice at CAKE last year and picked up several books. Part 1 of this review will include three shorter comics, while part 2 will focus in on K.Wroten's book Crimes

Fowl Weather, by Rachel Katz and Stepanie Davidson. What I found interesting about Pyrite Press is that no two books were alike in terms of style or subject matter. This short comic done by a writer-artist team was equal parts meditative and absurd, with Davidson's assured pen-and-ink drawings employing a great deal of negative space. This makes sense, given that the story follows a couple being kept indoors by a massive Boston snowstorm. Davidson's line is spare and elegant, perhaps relying on greyscale shading a bit too much at times. However, she was up to the task of giving punch to the most important visual aspect of the story: a flock of wild turkeys showed up out of nowhere. The main character is fascinated but also somewhat repulsed by them. Mostly, she's baffled at their presence in her life, as they came by every day, pecking the frozen ground. There's a beautiful two-page spread where she manages to watch them launch themselves into the trees next door to sleep, where the many small panels are mostly in black, reflecting the dimming light of the day. 

When the snow subsides, the turkeys go elsewhere. There's no big climax or any attempts to dig into what it all means. Instead, Katz shows a great deal of restraint as a writer and mostly keeps to the observations, with subtle but distinct instances of her comfort indoors vs the turkeys' hardscrabble existence. It culminates in her fantasizing about being outside, pecked to death by the turkeys. The other interesting aspect of the narrative is interrogating her relationship with weather and the environment in general. Even as a Bostonian, with difficult winters, this was out of the norm. All of the old rules seemed irrelevant and alien, as the turkeys seemed to be living in a reality different from hers, and she didn't quite know how to feel about it. Doing nothing is still doing something, and so the reader is left with the narrator's sense of unease, openly defying the idea of a neat or dramatic ending. 

Chicken Boy, by Vinnie Neuberg. This looks a lot like a NoBrow/Flying Eye type kids' book, with a bright orange and blue palette and an absurd, over-the-top story that changes directions every few pages. It starts off with the titular CB getting up and being urged on by everyone, and then arriving at the local sludgeball field to face bullies. Then an evil factory owner shows up and causes a sludgy rain that ruins their next game. CB goes to confront him, only to find his bully enemy imprisoned there, his life force being siphoned to create an army of Chicken Boy clones. Things really go off the rails then, as the evil factory owner powers up to giant size, CB draws power from an angel he hallucinates, and there's a kaiju fight that CB wins. It's all a bunch of whimsical nonsense that's drawn with a great deal of cartoonish exaggeration, but it all works somehow. It's very silly but quite well-executed.


Box, by Haejin Park. This wildly expressionistic and poetic narrative is a parable of sorts about the dueling tendencies toward depraved evil and self-contained purity. The narrative is from the point of view of an unnamed tempter. Whether it's the devil, a real person, or another part of her personality doesn't matter; it's there to corrupt her and have her revel in depravity. However, his potential victim is stronger than she'd like, building a box to protect herself from his temptations. Only food and bathroom breaks left her vulnerable to his voice, but he was quickly able to prey on her secret lusts and break her down. Just when he thought his corruption was complete, she ran off and made a new life. He continued to lurk, however, as it was made clear that her desire for evil was as omnipresent as her desire for good. It's an interesting story, because the essence of her resistance came in the form of self-denial, the ascetic way. She was unable to come to terms with her own desire, and the box helped her deny it in the way a monastic retreat removes temptation. He struck at her with a loving relationship, in the guise of the Big-Headed Boy, and I thought this was the most interesting part of this vividly-painted story. Where is the line between love and lust? Does it matter? For this story, the two are interchangeable enough for him to corrupt her, until she makes a total escape. In the end, it's not even clear if she's aware of her tempter, if she created him, or how effective she thinks her strategy is. Regardless, it's open-ended qualities and overall ambiguity give depth to what is on the surface a straightforward narrative.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Short Mini Reviews: Sean Bieri, Julia Gootzeit, Muchen Wang, Emily Zullo


Emily Zullo is a cartoonist and animator. Her Comics About A Bunny Girl is a funny story about anthropomorphic animals and post-ironic crushes. The otherwise nameless Bunny is at a party (wearing a t-shirt that says "DILF Destroyer") and asks everyone's names. When the guys there all respond and ask for hers, she immediately establishes dominance by saying, "Wouldn't you like to know?" Right after that, she meets a dog-girl and they flirt and kiss until Bunny asks her name--and she gets fed the same line. This three-page intro is in full (and somewhat lurid) color and sets up a longer story that provides a little more insight into Bunny's character. 

She's the sort who gets most of her enjoyment from an ironic distance. When she's invited to a frat party, she assumes that it's an ironic simulation of a frat party, only to realize that it's an actual, stupid, and 100% authentic celebration. To her extreme shock, she sees the girl who so entranced her earlier, only to learn that she lives there and wanted her to come to the party. All of this is a nice setting for a romance with a protagonist who is clueless but in a different way--almost hyperaware of social mores so that she can feel she's above them and manipulate them. Zullo's work is interesting because her page composition is so idiosyncratic. She doesn't adhere to any sort of traditional grid, she stuffs tons of panels on the page with little use of negative space to convey the claustrophobic feel of a party, and then she suddenly drops out whole sections of the page when Bunny and the dog-girl have an intimate moment. Some of the background squiggles and shading don't work to ground the page; especially with a purple wash, they act to distract instead. Zullo's strength is character design--the anthropomorphic style really allows her to go big on things like eyes and exaggerated gestures to get across emotion. The scratchy looseness of the comic as a whole is another thing that makes it work, as it conveys the immediacy and fleeting nature of the feelings one can have at a party.  



Muchen Wang is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and I met her at CAKE in 2023. The Steak is the most experimental, as the unseen narrator realizes that the steak she is about to cook and eat is the reincarnated form of a steak. Exactly what kind of "being" he was is left unclear, but the steak raises an objection, which she ignores, noting that she's going to eat every bite and never digest or pass him. I liked the ambiguity of this comic: is this a form of revenge, a way to carry him with her in a literal way, or something else? The pages are smartly composed and her varied line weights are interesting, but you can tell she doesn't quite have total control over her line just yet. 

That's evident in her two character-oriented comics, Yakult and Hot Dog. Yakult is a beautiful, heart-breaking story about how divorce can wreak havoc on families as well as how bonds can be built. When their parents marry, young Jae and slightly older Chen bond when Chen shows him kindness to bring him out of his shell. Over the years, Jae becomes a heartthrob whose support of his sister never varies, until the very end of the story when her texts to him get rejected. Wang plays a lot with chronology and once again adds an air of ambiguity to the story as the reader figures out relationships and motivations. I wished this story was printed at a larger size, because the mini format smushed the thick lines together, resulting in some segments that seemed dense to the point of blurriness. It also resulted in some tiny lettering. Hot Dog is an achingly bittersweet story of teens dealing with sex, relationships, betrayals, and secrets. The scattershot timeline approach is once again effective as friends Tin and Chen have to deal with why Tin is bleeding--and it's not menstruation. Wang's use of spot blacks is especially effective in creating mood as the cast expands and then contracts once again at the end, as Wang implies a lot but doesn't push the point, in part because Tin doesn't want to push the point. Wang is a talented storyteller who makes a lot of smart compositional decisions; hopefully, she can work a bit bigger in the future to allow her pages to breathe. 

I discovered Julia Gootzeit's work locally at Zine Machine. I liked her work enough to publish her first graphic novel with Fieldmouse Press (Golem Pit 224, fundraising now!), but her shorter work is interesting as well. Back Of The Knee nicely sums up the ambiguity of much of her work. It's about an art student named Helen who works mostly with 3D materials like fabric and wire who gets paired up with a weirdo named Clayton to share studio place. Clayton is homeless and asks if it's OK for him to live in the space. 

Helen is clearly depressed, and Clayton represents an extreme form of living that she is both bewildered by and drawn to. Her housemate Daniel is the voice of reason, rightly questioning him living there, keeping jars of piss, sleeping with women and masturbating while she's walking in, etc. In their one encounter, Clayton views Daniel with contempt, and the feeling is mutual. Helen eventually breaks down and asks how Clayton can live like this, and he has no answer other than some pseudo-scientific idea of shining light on the back of her knees. When Clayton is caught and thrown out, Helen isn't sure what to think. Helen is an interesting protagonist because she doesn't know what she wants--only that she's not happy as she is. As ridiculous and awful a character Clayton is in many respects, he's also sort of harmless and even attempts to be considerate. Gootzeit's absurd visual flourishes for Clayton (ostentatious scarves, facepaint, cut-off t-shirts) lead the reader in one direction, but Gootzeit balances that by making the reader really contemplate the actions of all involved. Gootzeit refuses an easy answer to the question of "What does Helen want?", but it's also clear that Clayton perhaps will have a bigger influence than is immediately obvious. There are a lot of silent panels in the comic that allow for processing time, as Helen is clearly trying to figure things out and start to ask some uncomfortable questions, but she doesn't resolve them in the span of the story. The ending is really the start of her beginning to formulate those questions instead of avoiding them. 

Finally, it was an absolute delight to see a short mini from an old favorite: a very short issue of Jape from Ignatz-nominated cartoonists Sean Bieri. Bieri's strengths have always been his conceptual gags combined with strong cartooning and style mimicry. This 8-pager has a bunch of gags rejected from the New Yorker, many of which are quite strong. The pictured strip is more text-oriented, but it's still funny. My favorite, and the most absurd, is someone being served a "doppio macchiato and a Kia Sorento," a sort of hipster pairing that sounds good when reading it and looks wacky when there's a coffee and a car sitting on a counter. He doesn't quite nail the confluence of word and image that the New Yorker demands, but he's clearly homing in on it. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Noah Van Sciver's Maple Terrace #2

Noah Van Sciver remains in his productive groove of comics with the second issue of Maple Terrace, from Uncivilized Books. The series picks up on Van Sciver at a young age, living in a ramshackle house in New Jersey with his family. Maple Terrace is about poverty, alienation, and cruelty. It's also hilarious, as Van Sciver makes his younger counterpart the tragic target of a number of ridiculous scenarios. What makes it worse is that what seemed to be the temporary triumph of the first issue, built on deceit and theft, comes back to bite him in the ass in a perfectly melodramatic way. 



There's a sense in which these comics are a kind of second cousin to Evan Dorkin's classic Eltingville Club comics, featuring a bunch of guys with an intense shared passion for their niche and nerdy interests turning that passion into petty oneupmanship, petty gatekeeping, and the most pathetic kind of status-seeking imaginable. For Van Sciver in this story, he desperately wants to be considered cool by the people he knows at school, but this is constantly foiled by both his poverty and general weirdness. He's an oversensitive kid from a religious family that is scorned by pretty much everyone on his block, and every attempt at improving his status is foiled. 


In this issue, the comics he stole after an enemy seemingly got his just rewards are suddenly in jeopardy, as someone saw him stealing them. What's worse, this seems to corroborate the idea that he stole food from the house of his best friend, disqualifying him from playing with him again (and going to his farcically awesome birthday party). As he falls further into the web of his own "lies, deceit, and bullshit" (to quote Larry David), he's given an ultimatum to return the comics--only to get into a fight with his younger brother that destroys them. Van Sciver conflating their titanic conflict with the infamously dumb "Death of Superman" comic from the early 90s makes this even funnier. 



Visually, Van Sciver is in total control. His line is deliberately pretty loose here--much looser than in most of his other work. It's a deliberate way to give it a kind of little-kid feel without it devolving into little-kid scrawl (which he amusingly has on the back cover). His character design is varied and interesting, and I especially like his puffy hair matching that of his mother. The capricious art teacher at the school is another marvelous design, with shaggy male-pattern baldness and a walrus mustache, bestowing and taking away "art god" status on a whim. The color looks great on the coarse paper that mimics old comics. Van Sciver continues to mine autobiographical gold from his youth, even as he works on multiple projects at once. 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Caroline Cash's Peepee Poopoo Issue 80085

There's an extent to which this run of very funny and varied issues of the ridiculously titled Peepee Poopoo feels like a warm-up for Caroline Cash. Sure, she's self-consciously harkening back to the tradition of one-person anthologies like Eightball, but I think the better comparison is Michael DeForge's classic series Lose. She's getting her feet wet by allowing herself to go on flights of fancy, gags, diversions, pin-ups, and a letters page without having to worry about doing her big Graphic Novel. Frankly, I wish more young cartoonists still did this. It's nice to see a resurgence in this format, both in terms of minicomics but also cartoonists and publishers starting to return to the comic-book format. 


It also helps that Cash **is** actually ready to do something long-form if she's ready and feels like doing it. (Plenty of artists simply don't like the format.) Cash has a knack for turning the puerile into something deeply personal. The title of the comic is funny and ridiculous, and it stands for both a genuine affinity for these kinds of comics as well as a satire of some of underground comics' more puerile tendencies--especially from men. It's also a deeply regional comic--it's Chicago through and through, though a version of Chicago very specific to her experiences. Nights spent in dive bars, going to house parties in nearby flats, walking around town--it's a love letter to some times that are just recently past. 

It's also a highly matter-of-fact and amusing take on her life as a lesbian, past and present, in all of its frequently awkward glory. The very "number" of this issue, "80085" is a reference to those numbers resembling the word "boobs" on a calculator. It's juvenile, but Cash plays with this throughout, starting with noting that boobs are one of the simplest, best things about being a lesbian. This isn't exactly a revelation, but it's her cartooning, using an almost chibi style, that sells it. She then pivots to an autobiographical story about going to Victoria's Secret as a teenager in order to buy a bra, after years of being afraid she'd be outed as a pervert if she was caught staring at its window. There are interesting notes throughout the issue, as she mentions being obsessed with manga as a teen, and you can see more of a DeForge influence in a one-pager about a guy who only listens to his own band's cassettes, but Cash has also carved out her own style that I suspect will be highly influential.


In "Dudes Rock," for example, there's a sort of throwback feel in the title font, size, and presentation to the underground era, but the actual page composition and character design feel decidedly modern and unique to her. Cash leans somewhere between grotesque and cute on every page and with every figure, zooming out to make characters more cartooning and zooming in to provide more (and frequently gross) detail. It's also making fun of scenesters without making it painfully obvious since that's generally like shooting fish in a barrel. 


Another thing I like about Cash's work is the delicate balance she maintains between sincerity and smartassery. Her strips about her schedule and life as a freelancer are one part self-deprecating gags and one part genuine reflection. The same is true about her ode to a defunct bar called Danny's; the meandering strip is less a story than a series of anecdotes about the kind of feeling one develops for a place that's the backdrop for one's own personal evolution. Her continuing narrative, "Come Home To Me," is (like the Danny's story) another ode to Chicago, this time with a Liz Phair song as the background for a return to the city and memories of hazy nights spent with questionable company under questionable circumstances. 

Tack on a letters column, some stickers (!), and another full-page illustration done in yet another visual style, and the issue shows the breadth and depth of Cash's style and influences. Her comics are self-assured and funny, even as one gets the sense that she has a few more developmental leaps to make. 

Saturday, February 3, 2024

DOP Anthology

DOP: Comics As Craft is an interesting mini-anthology published by the students of Paul Karasik at a CCS workshop. It's a fitting comic to review after my long CCS feature, although Karasik's methods are his own and he's been teaching for a long time. Karasik has been one of the very best background guys in comics for well over 40 years. He had a huge impact in production and editorial on the seminal anthology RAW, collaborated with David Mazzucchelli on his adaptation of City of Glass, and co-wrote a book about his autistic brother. With regard to DOP, he had a bunch of students who were so fired up about comics that they got down and did the work of putting together an anthology of their work, which is a truly grueling and oft thankless task. 


DOP doesn't list an editor, but Lila Cruz designed and assembled it. She also added the interstitial drawings, where were a nice touch that helped reset the reader's palate between stories, which was important given the wide variety of styles. Brianna Collins' one-pager "Water Glass" is a simple but effective use of a visual metaphor to talk about illness. King Ray (the class TA) contributed an excerpt from their continuing "Insomnia Mansion" story; while this is a funny and effective story, excerpts without any context tend to derail the flow of anthologies. Howell Murray's "Where Am I?" is the first longer entry at 6 pages, with a classic trope of someone waking up in an alien environment with no memory of how they got there. This one ended on a cliffhanger, which once again is annoying to read without any assurance of this being a continuing series, but it at least had a semblance of a complete thought. The art is stiff at points in terms of gesture and body language, but it also effectively uses spot blacks and has an undeniable energy throughout. 

August Bomer-Lawson's "Veridis Quo" is one of the best stories in DOP. The story is affecting without being mawkish, as the narrator recalls his boyhood best friend who started drifting away from him as an adult, coming to a tragic end. Bomer-Lawson effectively establishes the restless protagonist as an older man, returning to his hometown, recalling the past. In short order, he makes his friendship with his friend Pen come alive, drawing the reader into the joy of their navigating the ups and downs of adolescence together. The title is a Latin phrase that roughly means "Where are you going?" but the connotation is more "Why are you going in that direction?" In other words, "Why are you doing this?" Bomer-Lawson effectively establishes character with a series of smart cartooning choices. He keeps the reader off-balance with odd compositional choices, like grids that don't line up, splash pages with circular inset panels, and other tricks that establish that things aren't what they immediately seem.

Malachy Hopkins goes in a completely different direction in a story about anthropomorphic animals getting high and talking shit to the cops. It's a nicely-cartooned ode to punk and underground comics. Bohn Whitaker's one-page about a child watching her mother packs a lot in there, with a left-hand column setting up the rest of the page's grid. It's not just an effective visual trick; it also establishes the child's feelings about her mom as she watches her mom act with a total sense of authenticity. This is a great example of a comic where the drawing is simple but effective, but the actual cartooning is sophisticated. 


Amy Neswald's "Hearts" is another example of how great cartooning (in the form of clever composition) trumps actual drawing. The story is about a group of loved ones literally touching the heart of a dead loved one and connecting to the people he had connected to and the places he had seen. Every page is carefully laid out to provide a vivid, powerful effect. Neswald's actual line and character design are both crude, but it didn't hinder the power of this piece one bit. Dawn Nye's "Frankie" is also about saying goodbye, this time to a beloved cat. Neswald clearly worked from photo reference to clearly and powerfully articulate her cat's expressions--especially his eyes. Once again, an unusual layout (part open-page, part grid, mixed with splash pages) added to the story's visual and emotional impact. 


Durbin's "Comics As Craft" is a sort of recapitulation of the entire anthology. Using a tight four-panel grid but making the panel-to-panel transitions ambiguous at first was a clever tactic, because Durbin created a rhythm that made more sense as the story flowed. It's a beautiful testament to the joy of not just creating, but sharing one's work. Emet Aron's "Bug Theory" is a masterful meditation on one's own gender identity. Aron's drawing chops are undeniable, and they also used unusual layouts (like mismatched grids) and visually exciting diversions (like entire pages devoted to the taxonomy of spiders) that all related to the concept of being genderfluid. The only flaw was relying a bit too much on grayscale shading. Finally, Lila Cruz's exaggerated cartooning provides both a laugh and a poignant moment in talking about her dad's unwillingness to bend to conventionality. 

Like any anthology, some of the pieces in here are better than others, but it really picks up after the couple of cliffhanger pieces to give the reader a variety of heartfelt, thoughtfully conceived and drawn comics. Those interested in ordering a copy can contact Shannon Durbin



Sunday, January 14, 2024

45 Days Of CCS, #45: Aaron Cockle

Let's jump back into the world of Aaron Cockle and Andalusian Dog. Cockle's been hard at work pumping out issues of his enigmatic pastiche of and ode to the work of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, producing six issues in the last couple of years and a related zine, Solar Lottery. The essence of these heavily text-driven zines with sparse and frequently oblique illustrations has revolved around the concept of a VR game called Andalusian Dog. It essentially transforms your own reality into a Grand Theft Auto overlay, with various instructions and missions to perform in real life. 


Cockle took this idea and meshed it with the concepts behind several Dick novels (including VALIS, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Clans Of The Alphane Moon, The Penultimate Truth, Ubik, and others) and fuses it with modern technology to spin an oblique narrative and metanarrative. It revolves around alien intelligences, sex cults, drugs, office drudgery, and the total destabilization of society. Frequently quoting from Dick directly, Cockle focuses on the fear, paranoia, and inherently destructive and isolating qualities of late capitalism and how technology can be used as another tool of dehumanization that is an essential element of this nihilistic death cult. 


Like Dick, Cockle sees the future, and it is grim. From self-replicating androids designed to replace humans to horrifying drugs that permanently alter one's sense of reality, there's no escape once you've been caught up in this conspiratorial web. At the same time, there's a sense that it's the only game in town. It's the only way to remain relevant. We are willing consumers of our own annihilation. Cockle implies that there is resistance here and there, but even this resistance has its own agenda. The individual has no chance because they have been reduced to mere individuality. Once again, much of this work stretches the very definition of comics or sequential art; it's closer to comics-as-poetry than anything else in terms of how there is something important about the illustrations and collages he uses with regard to how they interact with the text, but that relationship isn't necessarily easy to understand or parse. It's as though Cockle is working on a deeply subconscious level, hoping to trigger connections and even memories (ala VALIS) in an effort to wake us up. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

45 Days Of CCS, #44: Natalie Norris

Natalie Norris has been producing memoir about trauma since before she started at CCS. Even in her earliest assignments at the school, she turned standard first-year assignments like adapting a fable from Aesop or doing a comic in the style of Ed Emberley into frank, bold, and highly vulnerable narratives about her traumatic experiences. It's no surprise that her first long-form memoir, Dear Mini, should not only expand on her struggles, but it's also the one where she reveals, in an achingly intimate manner, her most formative traumatic experience. 


Norris uses a very clever narrative technique in making this an epistolary memoir for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that it allows her to comment on events from the past from the perspective of the future, which is what differentiates it from the most obvious comparable book, Ulli Lust's This Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life. That's another memoir about a teenage girl out of her depth in Europe who is raped, but Lust chooses to convey that experience in the present tense for a different kind of impact. Norris not only adds commentary from the future in the form of huge, floating decorative lettering, but her dreamy open-page layout style gives the entire memoir a magical storybook feel until things start to go very wrong. 



Secondly, by addressing it to her Austrian friend Mini, whom she feels inadvertently betrayed her, she puts the narrative power in her own hands rather than grant it to her nameless rapist. This is an unflinching account of being sexually assaulted and its aftermath and reverberations across the years, but more importantly, it's an attempt to connect and truly reach out to someone who meant a lot to her. This narrative is Norris's own, and she's sharing it with Mini.


Norris noted in the afterword of this first volume that she had reams of diaries and photos that documented her time in Europe, but for the most part, she chose to rely on her memory. This made for a much more emotionally rich narrative, as it followed the path of memories that she allowed herself to unlock by drawing them rather than compelling her to commit to a more "true" account of those events. Of course, even a diary or journal from that time, while more immediate, isn't necessarily more accurate. Indeed, as Norris points out, she deliberately downplayed most of the key moments of trauma in those journals.


The plot summary for part one of Dear Mini goes like this: Natalie is 17 years old and suffers from chronic pain and depression, among other issues. Natalie was quite used to the attention given to her by older men, which was a form of flattery she sometimes chased but was also frequently repulsed by it. Her mother suggested that she try a language immersion summer program in France as a way of trying to push her away from getting drunk and high with local older guys. Upon arriving, she met an Austrian girl named Mini, and they became thick as thieves, constantly pushing against the rules in order to go out dancing and drinking as well as meeting guys. Norris was young enough to conflate desire with love in an environment where sex, generally speaking, was treated as far more casual than in American culture. 

This invoked the key line of the book: as she found herself treated with contempt by the boys who used her sexually, she convinced herself that "this was just what happened to girls like me." That her desire made her worthless and unworthy of expressing her own agency. That lesser forms of horrible treatment by men were somehow OK because they were "nicer" to her than out-and-out assailants. The flip side of constantly wanting to be drunk or high as a way of numbing these feelings had the double whammy of not only being ultimately ineffective, it also made her far more vulnerable. Eventually, after the program, Natalie spent time in Italy and then made a side trip to see Mini in Vienna.

That's where the bulk of the narrative really picks up and slows down, as Norris goes day by day in great detail with regard to this fateful visit. She alludes to the event, the birthday party of one of Mini's friends, multiple times (even referring to it as an execution), yet her depiction of the rape itself is far more harrowing, direct, and graphic than I could have imagined, even given how frank she was about everything else. It reads as though Norris was disgorging a malignant tumor in the most painful way possible; an excruciating experience in every way as a reader and one would imagine, as an artist, yet one where at least the malignancy was out in the open. As awful as this depiction of this all was, the events afterward (where she internalizes everything and hides it from Mini and then winds up fooling around with another guy just to not be alone with her thoughts) are terrible in their own way. All of this is made even more devastating in Norris' bright, colorful, and dreamy style. 

Norris alludes to having discussed this with Mini over the years, with Mini not understanding Norris' anger to not only being abandoned at this party but virtually being pushed into the clutches of her rapist. The nature of this disconnect is something that I imagine will be discussed in part two. While I can understand the split, it feels like doing this in a single volume would have done more justice to the narrative as a whole. There are some other problems with the book that reveal Norris as a relatively inexperienced cartoonist, but this is stuff that should have been corrected by an editor. Basic design issues like word balloon flow, word balloon blocking, large lettering being split by a figure and making it hard to read, and even a typo are all distractions. Norris' character design for figures other than herself seems a bit undercooked at times, which is not unusual for young artists having to introduce multiple characters in a longer narrative. 

Those are mostly nitpicks. What Norris does here is unlock a tremendously powerful narrative about the ways in which memory can be warped and poisoned as it is obliterated by shame, trauma, and misogyny. Her use of color, her understanding of how using decorative drawings can influence the narrative, and her strong & distinctive authorial voice all drive this memoir to an unflinching place that eventually grants herself and women who have similar stories a sense of grace and absolution that no one else has given them.


Friday, January 12, 2024

45 Days Of CCS, #43: Rust Belt Review, Beth Hetland

The latest issue of Sean Knickerbocker's Rust Belt Review (#5) is light on CCS content but heavy on other interesting stories. Knickerbocker runs a blend of one-shot stories as well as serials, with his own "Best of 3" being the most prominent serial. It's probably my favorite story by Knickerbocker to date, as he incorporates the usual small-town losers, sleazebags, and lowlifes into a story that escalates into a genuinely thrilling murder mystery. His drawing has leveled up to match his ambition, as the yacht and other background details are drawn with a level of intense accuracy that enhances the action. This particular episode featured a yacht on fire thanks to a Molotov cocktail, a daring escape by the villains, and the start of a stressful quest. 

Audra Stang's excellent "Tunnel Vision" serial concludes in this issue, focusing on the character of Bernie, the young documentarian who followed around more familiar characters in the abandoned theme park tunnels that are an essential part of her Star Valley lore. There's an incredible page where Bernie is in the car with her hostile stepmother and then going in the other direction every other panel, talking to her mom. Stang's comics tend to fundamentally be about huge lacks in not just communication, but a willingness to listen and try to understand others. This is personified in power struggles through relationships, as those who are least willing to listen are those that hold tightest to the reins of power. This story would have benefited from (at a minimum) spot color, as the shading here crosses over into being muddy at times, but it's otherwise another great story from a cartoonist who works intentionally in a way that I really enjoy. 

Andrew Greenstone unveils some more wrinkles in his crazy story about cultists, a trivia expert who escaped a nightmarish experience, federal hearings, an attempt at normalcy, and a lot of other stuff. Balancing the craziness with an attempt at normalcy is what gives this serial some serious stakes and balances out his frequently grotesque and absurd character designs (and references to Image artists). The conclusion of Sam Grinberg's "Pancake Jake" gets funnier and more absurd with each passing page. The first part focused on the silliness of urban legends, until two friends who tried to scare their friend Sid with the legend of a breakfast monster called "Pancake Jake" discover its somehow real. This swerves into a witch who owns a diner, an abandoned tower, gentrification, magical constructs, and the healing power of IHOP. Grinberg's art is sharp and the spot blacks really pop on the page, while the character design is rubbery and playful. 

Other stories include Sienna Cittadino's story about a trans teen play soccer and the pointless, hurtful controversy this creates; it's done in a scratchy style with lots of blotchy greyscale shading that reflects the expressiveness of the characters. Alex Nall has his usual story of small-town, awful people drawn in a wacky style that seems to work at cross-purposes with the story. Pat Rooks has a full-color mini that's inset featuring a hilarious, over-the-top bit of slapstick where the futuristic workers inevitably get fucked over. Jordan Speicher-Willis has an interesting story about kids working in the library and trying to complete a quest; the character interactions are very well-observed here. Andy Wieland's story is a Rust Belt special, meaning miserable people oppressed by capitalism being miserable and then dying. John Sammis' line reminds me a bit of Tim Hensley, as he tries to think about differentiating two old Hollywood actors. Finally, Matt MacFarland contributes the first part of a serial devoted to the unfortunate genre of "dudes talking about getting laid." At least his cryptid-inspired art looks good.


Beth Hetland's solo debut graphic novel Tender isn't what it seems at first, but the horror that's touched upon in the story's build-up informs the totally fucked-up events in the back half. The book opens with a creepy shot of the protagonist, Carolanne, softly singing to what appears to be a bundled-up baby. Hetland takes us back and forth in time and reveals that, while Carolanne is clearly a psychopath, the societal and cultural forces that shaped her and her horrific choices are also clearly to blame. 

Tender is a brutal critique of gender roles, social media, cultural pressures & expectations, and the isolation fomented by capitalism. I tend to be bored by horror that seeks to elicit shock value based on breaking taboos that were shocking fifty years ago. I'm talking about random gore, violence rooted in racism or misogyny, and other surface-level shock value tricks that embrace and reinforce cultural mores rather than challenge them. Tender is very much the opposite of this. Even as Carolanne's actions become more extreme and horrifying in her obsession with having a baby, her psychosis has a terrifying logic to it in how it reinforces not just what she has always wanted, but what she thinks is essential to being a woman. 


The narrative follows Carolanne as she seeks to get pregnant with her husband, Lee. It's all very cute and wholesome, as it then quickly cuts to her quitting her job so she can be a full-time mom. Slowly, using a dark blue wash with dense hatching and shading gradients, Hetland starts to reveal that Carolanne's approach to relationships is one where fantasy is more important than reality. She sets out to marry Lee, a co-worker, because it will help her accomplish her goal of the perfect wedding and lead her to the perfect life--all captured by Instagram posts. Hetland doesn't even have to try very hard to critique social media; indeed, social media isn't the issue so much as conflating it for reality is. In the first unsettling sequence of the book, she goes to his Facebook page, prints out a photo, cuts out his head and creates a collage where she and Lee are on their wedding day. All for a person she hadn't yet even spoken to. 

Every time she goes to a friend's engagement party, Carolanne has to practice smiling and rehearse what she's going to say. It's a mechanical response meant to mimic appropriate social behavior, which she's good at enough to garner a real group of friends. About a third of the way through, Hetland introduces a particular coping method she uses--biting off little bits of skin and eating them as a response to anxiety. Hetland periodically modulates the color scheme with purples, reds (especially for chewing on flesh or pulling skin), and yellows to indicate conflict or anxiety. Hetland also uses this creepy upward angle where we see Carolanne looming over something, usually with a blank or grim expression. 

Despite Hetland slowly unveiling not just increasingly unhinged behavior, but a genuine sense from Carolanne that she knows her behavior would frighten others, she and Lee marry, she is pregnant, and then in a devastating and terrifying scene, their baby is stillborn. This sets the events of the last third of the book into motion, as Carolanne increasingly loses touch with reality, drives away Lee, and then starts to become truly unhinged in her destructive and self-destructive behavior. She deludes herself into thinking she's pregnant, denies the death of her first child, and by the end, is in a psychotic world of her own. The visceral, awful, and genuinely unsettling scenes of her carving up her own flesh are all established and amplified by the rhythms Hetland established early in the book. 

Tender is ultimately a tragedy, where a person who simply has no conception of how to actually connect with others finds herself creating a conception of self entirely dependent on cues that are ultimately limiting, shallow, and fleeting at best. The images of self-consumption and total alienation are fitting, given that she never had a real chance of meaningfully interacting with others. Her total lack of empathy manifested in rage mostly aimed at herself, but also at the one creature she had thought of as being connected to her in her cat. It made sense in terms of the plot, but it was also the point where Hetland very deliberately wanted the reader to both cease having sympathy for Carolanne and simultaneously think about the ways in which society's guideposts brought her to that point. Having followed Hetland's career for years, Tender is a massive leveling-up visually, as she brought to bear the increasingly dense storytelling she used in Half-Asleep as well as a sophisticated and affecting color palette. This is the first major project she's written since her CCS days, and there's no question that it's a triumph.