Friday, May 17, 2024

Bubbles Con: Reimagining The Comics Festival

Bubbles Con, billed as "a symposium of interviews and talks on comics and manga," was held at the Richmond Public Library on May 5th, 2024. Organized to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the fanzine of the same name published by Brian Baynes, the event was unusual in that it wasn't designed in the same way as most comics shows. The aim at most shows is to provide a place for artists to display their wares. At more mainstream shows, this doesn't even mean comics much of the time, as you'll find people hawking prints, keychains, t-shirts, mugs, and other images that aren't even original to the artist. Even at print-centric shows like SPX or CXC, the problem is that the artists have to stay at their tables as much as possible and can't participate very actively in programming and workshop tracks. 

Baynes used a symposium model that made the various artist interviews the main attraction of the event. There was still plenty of commerce to be had, as Bubbles had its own table with the works of the special guests, as well as tables from Chris Pitzer (featuring AdHouse stock and things from his own extensive zine collection), Toybox Coffin (run by Noel Friebert and also acting as a limited distro), and Cerebral Vortex, which may have the most astonishing array of underground and alternative comics I've ever seen. Their tables were active between talks, as well as before and after the event. All of this was held in one room in the library's basement, so everyone had a chance to see every panel. It's a variant of a model that Bill Fick, Eric Knisley, and I used when we held DICE in Durham a decade ago, where we had a full day of panels and workshops that the artists could attend while volunteers sold their books. 

The night before the show, there was a reading at the library featuring a number of mostly local artists. It was reasonably well-attended, which bade well for the next day. Indeed, even though Bubbles Con got going at 9:30 am, the room was full for most of the day, and a number of folks traveled to attend the show. A contingent from Philly containing new co-editor Sally Madden and artist Ina Parsons was there, for example, as was Drawn & Quarterly co-publisher Tom Devlin. I won't go into too much detail on each panel, because Baynes recorded them and will transcribe them for a future issue of Bubbles, but I thought I'd give a few impressions here and there. 

First up was scholar Mark Shubert on the cartoonist George H. Ben Johnson, a Black cartoonist who did political comics for the Richmond Planet (a local Black newspaper) a century ago. Shubert's presentation was fascinating, including the suggestion that Johnson may have well used the phrase "Black Power" decades before anyone else. Shubert did a number of strips that certainly upset the status quo and was also interested in the revolution in Ethiopia. I asked Shubert if it was known if he had any contact with Ethiopians, and he said that this wasn't known. This was a fascinating slice of local history packed with historical context and plenty of examples of Johnson's excellence. I've always thought that for small comics events, it's important to take advantage of resources and the greater culture that makes your city unique, and Baynes certainly added this flavor to kick off the symposium. 

Second was manga translator Ryan Holmberg. Holmberg has practically been a one-man industry in bringing gekiga and other manga aimed at adults to English-speaking audiences. Rather than talk about any particular manga he translated and wrote about, he instead spent the hour detailing exactly what he did. He discussed his different clients, how he made money, how much he charged, etc, and it was a fascinating look at the work of someone who is comics-adjacent (not a writer or artist) who nonetheless plays a huge role in bringing them to life. There was an amusing moment when Holmberg noted that Devlin (who he's worked with a lot at D&Q) was in the audience and that he hadn't met him before--and that he had to watch what he said! (Devlin replied that Holmberg could say anything he wanted.) Of greatest interest was Holmberg talking about how he was trying to translate and reprint certain kinds of manga that were in the public domain, and there's a lot of this kind of material. He also talked about how fruitful his relationship working with Bubbles was, as they had published two books together and announced a third was on the way. 

Baynes then interviewed Jenny Zervakis, the first cartoonist to be interviewed of the day. Zervakis' work is highly influential and was reintroduced to a wider audience a decade ago when John Porcellino published a collection of her Strange Growths comic. (There's a wide-ranging interview in the back that I conducted with her.) Baynes was trying to connect with Zervakis' background as much as possible, and she's not really one to give expansive answers. Zervakis has always been amusingly straightforward regarding her techniqes and influences, but she gave a lot of insight into the early days of modern zine culture in the late 80s and early 90s. In particular, she connects zine culture with the wider DIY punk culture that mostly took place by way of the US mail--a hidden revolution. 

Dash Shaw opened up the afternoon with Baynes interviewing him about his practice as a cartoonist and animator. Shaw lives in Richmond, adding more local flavor to the show, though he's obviously one of the most accomplished and innovative cartoonists in the world. He discussed his upcoming book Blurry, to be published by New York Review Comics, and noted he liked the idea of how making seemingly inconsequential decisions on a daily basis, or struggling to make those decisons, can have a ripple effect down the line. More than most cartoonists I've known, Shaw has a tendency to not only downplay past work, but to forget many of their details altogether. That was true when someone asked about Bodyworld, and he couldn't quite remember much about its sleazy protagonist, Paulie Panther. He noted that he struggled with his Civil War letter adaptation, Discipline, because he wanted to make sure he didn't put modern thoughts in the heads of his characters. Shaw is among the most thoughtful and deliberate cartoonists with regard to his practice, and he's always thinking ahead. He also talked about the Richmond Animation Festival that he organized at the historic Byrd Theater, another exciting way that locals artists are drawing more attention to comics & animation. The last note to mention is that someone referenced Shaw imagining a manga & animation in Richmond featuring Ryan Holmberg nearly a decade ago in his comic Cosplayers!

The penultimate talk was Dr. Francesca Lyn interviewing the great Gabrielle Bell. Lyn took a funny approach with Bell, and both were self-aware about the format and the sort of things discussed during these sorts of interviews. Bell is actually a great talker, even if she's always slightly squirmy on stage. It's pretty obvious that she's someone who likes to observe more than being the center of attention. Bell talked about being in a somewhat fallow period now in terms of comics, though she continues her surreptitious illustration practice. 

The final talk was a real showstopper. C.F. was introduced by cartoonist (and now retailer/distro guy) Noel Friebert, and he had some real tales to tell. He talked about being a kid in the 90s and starting his own miniseries while still in high school. He was bold in seeking out his heroes and finding the kind of comics he wanted to ignite his imagination, noting that he would travel to Million Year Picnic, drop off some of his minis, and then buy whatever the newest, most exciting comics were--and then immediately head home. He once went to New York as a teen, cold-called Gary Panter, and finagled an invitation to visit him in his studio. Panter took a look at C.F.'s comics ("He was very kind") and then watched what was essentially a private performance of Panter's latest multimedia light show. In later years, he decided he wanted to collaborate with the artists of Fort Thunder. This was in the late 90s, and the legendary art space/living of Brian Ralph, Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg and others did not have the internet. There was a single landline for the whole house, and C.F. didn't even know the real names of many of the artists he wanted to work with!

The best story, and one that tied the whole day together, came when Friebert asked C.F. about his first series, Low Tide. C.F. published it for years before moving into PWR MSTRS. When asked about the title of the series, C.F. noted that he had taken from a letter in an issue of Chester Brown's Yummy Fur when he was asking readers to suggest a title for his next series (which would eventually be Underwater). One letter writer had a number of suggestions that included "Low Tide," which C.F. adopted. The person who wrote the letter? It was Jenny Zervakis. Comics is the smallest of worlds sometimes, especially during that time. C.F. will have a new collection of comics, titled Distant Ruptures, this fall. 

The afterparty for the event was held at a performance space called the Warehouse. It was a noise show that C.F. headlined as Universal Cell Unlock. The mood was giddy at the overall success of the show, and the performance was fascinating and intense. Baynes was noncommital regarding the possibility of another iteration of Bubbles Con, but it was thrilling to see an event that celebrated the aesthetics and connections of comics over decades of time while still allowing for sales. It was a refreshing and invigorating event. 

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Olga Volozova's Chachanar Desert Tales

Olga Volozova is a cartoonist and illustrator whose comics work is dense and tends to incorporate the text as part of the art. Her illustration work, like her collection of fairy tales Chachanar Desert Tales, (Pegasus Publishing) goes in the opposite direction: the art becomes part of the text, dreamily and moodily modifying it. Volozova creates something quite delightful here: a suite of series built around the concept of a desert that "you can visit when dreaming." Describing a whimsical series of methods of how to get there, she notes that the result differs for each person, and that this book simply represents the stories that she brought back.

Each of the stories is accompanied by her painted illustrations that evoke the text like fever dreams, or more precisely, mirages. Indeed, the final story, "The Mirage Makers," is about the origin of mirages. A tribe of Gray Camels was given the responsibility by the gods-sent White Falcon to use a Mirage Machine to help dreams become reality. The lead camel, Old Rom, accidentally lost the stone that powered the machine, leading to people staying away from the desert and dreams starting to fade. When he recovers it at the end after falling into a state of total despair, it signals a return to dreams, and is a wonderful capstone to the book in general. 

Volozova's stories involve a young witch who makes dresses out of sand, a boy who discovers how waiting for snow in the desert is the key to happiness, how a wizard married a young woman cursed by a snake, and how a whistling young girl turned a bird into a man and eventually became his companion. There were times I wished the book was twice as long and had more illustrations, but there are a number of beautiful full-page illustrations that bring Volozova's stories to life. Like any good fairy tale, each of the stories is whimsical, exciting, and tinged with darkness as well as brightened by hope.

Monday, May 13, 2024

CRAM, Part 4: CRAM #3

CRAM #3 has one of the funniest covers I've ever seen for an anthology. In an image that encompasses both front and back covers, artist Laura Lannes (her work is missed!) has a fairly familiar image on the right-hand (front) side: a young woman, lying down, reading a comic. It's something out of NON from some years ago. However, a closer look reveals that the image is...odd. Her legs are up in the air and there's a random hand on her left thigh. Opening the whole thing up reveals that someone is going down on her while the cover woman's attention is on the comic. It's a solid gag. 

There's the usual array of vastly different styles on display here, Alexander doesn't have any art in this issue, which isn't surprising, considering how hard putting together an anthology is. Angela Fanche opens up the issue on the inside front cover with a short comic; it's a good space for this kind of tightly-compacted storytelling. Her style continues to evolve, going from more basic diary comics to this slightly fantastical anecdote about a memory that acts as a song stuck in her head. She plays on this metaphor until it transforms into music and nearly suffocates her partner. Fanche's drawing is so delightfully scratchy and spare in some panels, and then she swoops in with big swathes of black patterns in others. It's a fascinating strip to attempt to decode. 

Steve Grove's "Potboilers" is done in the sort of unfussy, slightly cartoony naturalism that I see in a lot of comics these days. It's the kind of story where the characters have one narrative, but there's another narrative at play with the visuals and backgrounds, in particular. The premise of the story is that there's an agency that will send someone over to boil water for you so when you arrive back home, you have a boiling pot of water ready to go for cooking. While this is an absurd and funny idea, the premise is far less interesting than the interplay between the employees. The strident Peggy, trying to make a sale over the phone, has to deal with the distraction of boil specialist Bumphus' failure out in the field. She loses the sale, he goes off the deep end, and she does a "reset" by looking at violent imagery on the internet and then fantasizing about him being killed in a variety of ways. All around them, the house they're working out of is mysteriously dilapidated, and the final scene sees Bumphus on the sidewalk, slumped over after he's clearly slit his wrists with a broken bottle. Everything about this story is off-kilter and anxious in a way that requires multiple readings to absorb its nuances. 

Audra Stang's short comic features a couple of her "Star Valley" characters cozily watching a fantasy show of some kind. In pages with a 20-panel grid, Stang offers pieces of the show with no dialogue, creating a sort of bubble of fascination for the duo that's broken when a commercial comes on and they make a crude joke about it. Stang has an uncanny sense of recreating that sense of mundane magic felt at that age when two friends can share a common obsession together; it's a sort of ritual that still lets them be teens. 

Jack Lloyd's cartoony "Pickles" fantasy story reminds me a lot of Vaughn Bode's stuff, down to the color scheme and eccentric character design. It also has a touch of futuristic urban stories that touch on graffitti as a cornerstone aesthetic. It's one of many stories in the anthology where that aesthetic is more important than the actual narrative. Michelle Kwon's "Autobio" is another such story and self-consciously so. She starts off by declaring that she's tired of drawing herself and so chooses to draw herself as a sort of cute anthropomorphic animal. This is after she turns down other potential character designs, as though she's building a character in a video game. The comic itself is all about treasuring memories on her travels despite her anxiety about the future, and the cute characters turn what is otherwise a routine diary comic into something that's fun to look at visually. 

Steven Christie's "Punchline Sinker" might be my favorite story in this issue. It's a sci-fi story abot a young woman named Zander who recalls her first job, which was a fulfillment center in a satellite orbiting Earth. She worked the job with her friend Peanut, and at first the story seems like a pleasant bit of slice-of-life fiction. She announces to Peanut that she's going to quit in order to get married at precisely the same time Peanut's girlfriend breaks up with her. This leads Peanut to snap as she comes up with a theory: whenever something goes well for one of them, something bad happens to the other. This leads to a surprising and clever turn of events, which turns the story from slice-of-life to a tense action story. Christie uses a classic 9-panel grid to create a particular tempo, and then stays with it as the tension ramps up, but the reader (and protagonist) are unclear on where this is all going. Christie's thin line and limited pallette all help play into this aesthetic repetition. 

After the first half of the issue was mostly conventional narrative, Alexander returned to the weird stuff in the second half. Nicole Rodrigues' "We Hold On To Things" is a colorful bit of comics poetry, using an open page layout and a narrative mostly told in captions that illustrate the feelings of the narrator. She's depicted as a monarch in her own mind, even as she has to fend off her own destructive feelings. The textual meter sets the pacing in this comic, as opposed to a truly integrative approach between word and image. Grayson Bear's "Relatable Richard" is a lampoon of diary comics, featuring a lisping protagonist who sets off on a date, only to slip on a banana peel, fall down a mountain, and get sliced to pieces. The Riso colors are all jacked up to neon levels in four pages of pain hilariously piled on its protagonist. 

After non-traditional-narratives, Sam Sharpe offers "Annie and Alex at the Heartland Cafe." It's one of those narratives that appears to be one thing at first, then quickly becomes something else. A waiter is having a normal day at his job until a man and woman dine at a table outside. It quickly becomes apparent that he's autistic and she's his aide, taking him out for a meal. However, he's disregulated, which manifests as shouting, then throwing his food on the ground, and then eventually punching his aide in the face. All of this is being seen from the waiter's point of view, who is at a loss at what to do, until the aide tells him pointedly: "Don't get involved and do not touch him!" She calms him down, they pay, and then leave. What makes the story interesting is that the waiter can't let this go, and when he sees the woman at the train station, he expresses his remorse for not doing anything. She reminds him that it had nothing to do with him--all of his machismo, all of his need to be a main character (so to speak), was irrelevant. Sharpe's cartooning is top notch as always, blending a slightly cartooning quality into what is otherwise naturalistic work. 

The anthology ends with a trio of stories that are more about sensory impressions than story. "Rangers," by Ethan Means & Ashton Carless, is a gritty black & white war story that may be in some kind of post-apocalyptic setting. A group of soldiers (or prisoners?) sets out to tag things with bright yellow happy faces, until they try and head back. Brendan Leach (a welcome presence!) offers up "Storm and Stress," about a violenist who sees one of her colleagues menaced by a guy on a subway car, but she winds up looking away despite her colleague's pleading eyes. The bright splashes of color contrasted with the black & white images of her anxiety lead to a loose, free-floating sense of guilt and despair. Finally, Aidan Fitzgerald's "Contestants" uses deliberately crude, 8-bit digitally-created color images of contestants in some bizarre game show. The game is about slowly rising while recounting a memory, with that memory being judged by a panel. Fitzgerald is riffing on the public distillation of memory and identity (on social media, presumably) but doing it in a way that doesn't repeat the obvious downsides to social media participation. 

Alexander seems determined to never do the same issue twice, and the result is an anthology that's greater than the sum of its parts. The pieces by Bear, Rodrigues, Means/Carless are somewhat slight on their own, but they make a great deal of sense within the context of the issue. Alexander is adept at pairing more conventional (if odd!) narratives with more experimental pieces, resulting in an anthology that's challenging at points but also entirely readable.