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