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. 

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