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. 

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