Wednesday, March 27, 2024

CRAM, 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.