Monday, June 10, 2024

CRAM, Part 5: Allee Errico's Froggie World

Allee Errico is part of a wave of young cartoonists whose roots feel more connected to the underground alt-comics scene of the late 80s and early 90s than most comics that have been published in the last 20-25 years. One of her teachers was Lauren Weinstein, and you can see that in the way that Errico has embraced using a wavy, distorted, and scribbly style. Also like Weinstein (especially in her early work), there's an anything- goes quality in how she talks about her daily life. Her first collection from CRAM, Froggie World, is a well-curated collection of diary comics revolving around four topics: Love, Angel, Music, and Bike. In the introduction, Errico notes that she started doing diary comics to keep up a daily drawing practice (as many do), but soon found they have the power "to reveal the patterns of life, the universe, etc." Through her careful selection of strips, her merging of intuitive & spontaneous cartooning with intentional storytelling, and the unique color splash that Riso printing provides, Errico produced one of the best collections of diary strips I've ever read. 


There's an intentionality behind it that gives it power and momentum. On the first page, she describes finding a diary in the trash from a hundred years ago and how it inspired her to leave something similar. In Errico's case, it's a life sharply observed. While one can see Weinstein's influence at work here, the tone and page design also remind me a lot of Vanessa Davis' early work in Spaniel Rage. The open page layouts, the languid observations of a young woman lying on a bed in her tiny New York apartment, and the bright splashes of color all evoke the same sort of searching and idealistic artist. 


Right from the get-go in the "Love" section, Errico explores both desire and the ridiculousness of sex, as there's a panel where she digs around inside her vagina for a condom that slipped off inside her and emerged bloody: "I guess I got my period." Another strip contrasts the various tuna melts she got in the new year with sex talk, including one where she says to friends (in front of her lover) that she just ordered a strap-on dildo. In the second sex talk panel, he's fingering her while blathering on about My Chemical Romance. The timing and precision of these jokes are perfect, and the loving attention paid toward illustrating the sandwiches as well as the sex helps the jokes land. 


Later strips are in black & white and have a dense wordiness that is still effective, as Errico explores being a young adult who has rarely not been in a relationship. Throughout some of the strips, the quarantine and COVID lurk, though she rarely dwells on either. Indeed, while each section is roughly in chronological order, Errico only includes the most interesting strips that focus on love, sex, loneliness, and relationships. "Angel" is just two pages, featuring what is likely an image of a deceased pet and a strip about a man who can get pigeons to come to him. 


"Music" is the longest section of the book, because it's really about how experiencing music infiltrates all other aspects of her life. Once again, she starts in 2020, but this time she talks about how music makes her feel relative to the events of her life at the time. As she's struggling at a job, seeing different people, and navigating the city, she becomes obsessed with Nine Inch Nails and then later The Ramones in the way that music can feel like the most important thing in the world and listening to certain songs on repeat feels like it can fix you. Errico effectively juxtaposes events like getting fired with her roommate texting her that a headless, limbless torso outside of her apartment. 


She engages someone demanding her time on the subway in an amusing way right after she's fired and plays "Hurt" to salve the pain. She later starts dating a woman in a metal band and worries about not being metal enough. A lot of these comics are compelling because of the rough immediacy of her storytelling. While lacking some compositional clarity and sophistication in the strips where text dominates everything, she makes up for this with the immediacy of her mark-making. Her obvious skill as a draftsman and cartoonist gives her a lot of leeway in these strips, especially with regard to the more chiaroscuro aspects of her drawing. 


Above all else, as the "Bike" section suggests, Froggie World is about the feeling of being embodied, and how Errico becomes increasingly distanced from it over time. In "Bike," she becomes obsessed with how biking makes her body feel and the overall aggressiveness that biking in New York requires, to the point where she loses interest in sex and confronts that sense of disconnection by embracing the visceral experience of riding. The fact that she listens to Black Sabbath while doing this only makes sense--loud, powerful, and intense music with confrontational lyrics. There is no resolution or solution; her last thought is simply "My body is taking me where I want to go." Errico starts to explore more surreal, Gabrielle Bell-style storytelling in this section in an amusingly self-conscious way that nonetheless still packs a punch. The fact that this comic is labeled "Vol 1" implies that she plans to continue along these lines, and my only hope is that she follows the fancy of her imagination as far as it will take her. The self-assuredness of this debut is impressive, and even when things feel rough visually or in terms of composition, her voice is so strong and compelling that the reader wants to follow where she wants to go. 

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 tcj.com 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. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

CRAM, Part 3: CRAM #2

Editing and publishing one anthology is hard. Doing multiple issues is a thankless task that requires equal parts vision and determination. It's clear that Andrew Alexander has both, because CRAM #2 once again is on the cutting edge of up-and-coming cartoonists. Alexander takes a step back and only provides the cover, with a mix of colors that highlights how vivid and beautiful the Risograph process can look if you are careful with color separations. Way too often, Riso comics are sloppy and off-grade, and it can be distracting. Alexander is careful to make the anthology as intentional as possible in terms of its production values. 


Alexander wisely starts this issue off with "Herpes Outbreak," by Allee Errico. Errico would later publish her first collection with CRAM, but I'll get to that later. She and fellow CRAM artist Angela Fanche are two of the most compelling autobiographical cartoonists working today, and it's not because of any particular formal innovations. Indeed, both often use the tried-and-true diary comics format that's tedious in the hands of many other cartoonists. What sets Errico apart is a clear affinity for a highly personal, sloppy, and even smeared line and use of color. This is the lens she uses to express her clear, direct, questioning, and impassioned point of view. Like fellow young memoirist Juliette Collet, Errico seems to owe a lot more to late 80s and early 90s alternative & underground artists like Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and perhaps Dori Seda than most comics that have come out in the past 20 years. One of her teachers was Lauren Weinstein, and you can see that same painterly mix of grotesque character designs, expressive cartoooning, and highly intuitive storytelling. Weinstein didn't care much about doing things "right," even as she brought new skills to bear in her first major work "Girl Stories," but she somehow made it feel right. Errico is quite similar.


This story is about waking up with an oral herpes outbreak and a recollection of how she contracted it in the first place back in high school. Errico looks like she used charcoal and pastels here, and her line varies from detailed and naturalistic to cartoony, depending on what was needed. Her visual approach is so compelling that she's able to cram in twelve panels on a page with a ton of dialogue without it feeling cramped. Indeed, the mix of her solid lettering, understanding of the relationship between bodies in space, and overall pacing give the pages an almost propulsive feel. Errico approaches the issue of herpes with her typical and unaffected candor, casting aside shame as she understands just how common herpes is. Indeed, this isn't so much a PSA or rant on herpes as it is mourning a particularly complicated relationship. Then Errico turns that around with a couple of funny side observations about her boyfriend accidentally giving her a backpack with a gun and then segueing into the modern day where she talks about this with other cartoonists. She does a funny drawing of monstrous little herpes sores about to burst through the skin of her lips and then compares them to memories, saying "the past is right here in the beautiful present." It's just an exquisite ending that ties up a lot of different emotional threads and adds a sense of resonance to a story about gossip, shame, teenage drama, and human connection. 


CRAM then pivots to Cedar Van Tassel's "Pleistocene Dreams," a story that is unlike Errico's in nearly every conceivable way. Van Tassel's images and use of color are designed to flatten everything, including affect. Van Tassel makes extensive use of negative space in this autobiographical story about him picking up a friend at an airport and nattering on about the effects of the ice age on Minnesota. Using light pastels (the one piece of continuity with Errico), Van Tassel and his friend have an interesting exchange about why the Pleistocene Era was so interesting and why some people turn this into a deeper thought in their place in civilization today. The story ends with a hilarious, disgusting swerve involving overfed vultures that turns what had been a talking heads story into a gag sequence with thematic resonance. 


Caroline Cash continues the previous story's visual aesthetic with her clear and cartoony style that meshes cartoony exaggeration with solid naturalistic elements to create a polished, breezy diary comic. Indeed, it's an example of Hourly Comics Day, which tends to generate highly forgettable and indulgent anecdotes. Cash plays around with the form, taking advantage of the generous page space to create expansive and exaggerated compositions that usually tend to look much smaller in typical presentations of these sorts of diary strips. As usual in a Cash story, there are equal parts sincere and smart-ass, with nuggets addressing deeper feelings mixed with silly anecdotes. This story feels especially breezy, reveling in moments of mundane amusement. 

Next up is A.T. Pratt, taking the anthology in a dramatically different direction. In an extended parody of te famous "Toronto Three" cartoonist friend group of Joe Matt, Seth, and Chester Brown, Pratt obliterates the clean graphic design style of those three with chaotic, nightmarish, and grossly visceral visuals that pack as many as twenty panels on a page. This story is about as inside baseball as it gets with regard to how much of the humor is based on a reader's familiarity with those cartoonists, but it's clear that Pratt couldn't care less. It's really a story that's about (literally) destroying idols and this kind of chummy best-friends-artists storytelling that is sometimes seen in the work of Matt in particular. The Toronto Three all die grisly, horrible, and funny deaths (I imagine this was done before Matt's actual death) in the story, which doesn't seem to bother Pratt's stand-in all that much. 


The chaotic, cluttered approach continues in the next two stories, starting with Nick Bunch of Reptile House. It's a highly clever way of dealing with two variations on the same gag surrounded by visual clutter that is smartly contextualized by the nature of the joke. As two young women walk to their job at a diner in the city, one of them endlessly natters on about whether or not the whales were saved and then if the rainforest was saved. Her friend has no time for her nonsense as these two brightly-colored figures are surrounded by dense (jungle-like) clutter that's colored a bit more dimly. Bunch's character design is deliberately flat and cartoonish, matching the stylized action on the page. Everything is exaggerated, dense, and over the top in service to a familiar gag of an authority figure being frustrated by the cluelessness of young people. 

Floyd Tangeman (editor of dense underground anthology Tinfoil Comix) brings this dense, cartoony progression to its logical end, as his "Projection Dance" interpolates the 23rd Psalm into a four-panel grid featuring a grotesque, constantly changing and mutating figure that never reaches a goal despite being shown walking left to right in every single panel. The gritty use of pastels induces cognitive dissonance in every panel while never disrupting the overall flow of the story. 

Pete Faecke reverses this trend in the final story while committing to the totally nonsensical quality of the back half of this issue of CRAM with a story about Mr. Bimbo. This was an invisible, unseen character who supposedly lived on Fozzie the Bear's index finger in the film Muppet Treasure Island. The character of Mr. Bimbo is strong, talented, and capable were Fozzie is a goofball. In this story, set in the old west (???) Mr. Bimbo has a feud with another "eligible bachelor" named Tim Timbers. The story concludes with Mr. Bimbo playing Ramones and Lou Reed songs for a group of admiring women. What I like best about this bit of total nonsense is Faecke's absolute commitment to the aesthetics and details of the bit, no matter how silly it is. Indeed, it's that commitment that makes it funny, similar to the sort of thing that Rick Altergott does.

The subtitle of this issue is "casual conversations for brain-fog drunks," and the back half of the issue feels increasingly like the stories becoming increasingly (but deliberately) intoxicated and incoherent, while still never leaving the realm of readability. Nothing here matches Errico's opening story in terms of overall impact and artistry, but it all makes sense together. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

CRAM, Part 2: CRAM #1

The underground/alternative comics anthology is a tradition dating back close to sixty years that has birthed movements and introduced exciting new talent to a larger audience. Beginning with Zap!, Bijou Funnies, Wimmen's Comix, and Arcade, future decades saw Heavy Metal, Buzzard, Gay Comix, RAW, Weirdo, Zero Zero, Drawn & Quarterly, Action Girl Comics, Kramer's Ergot, MOME, and NOW (among others) as significant and fairly long-running anthologies that highlighted all of the significant talent of their eras.

The younger underground cartoonists emerging now are an interesting bunch. They seem much more influenced (as a whole) in work from the late 80s and early 90s than any of the trends from the last 20 or 30 years. Fascinating new anthologies have emerged like Reptile House, Jaywalk, Datura Magazine, Vacuum Decay, Clusterfux, Tinfoil, Poison Pill, Death Spark and others, but the most interesting at the moment is CRAM, edited by Andrew Alexander. CRAM seems to be both a culmination and a distillation of the entire Risograph comics movement that started about a decade ago. It featured an intense DIY work ethic, often focusing on the comic more as an art object than in its actual content. Formal innovation has often been a hallmark of cutting-edge anthologies (Kramer's and RAW are good examples), and the best of them have always found a way to bring it back 'round to narrative. CRAM is very much in this vein. 



The cover is a real statement of intent. It's by RAW and Blab veteran David Sandlin, and it's got a lighthearted Riso spirit in its use of color amidst the undersea monsters and decay. Reaching back to the past, with a prominent New York artist, no less, also lets the reader know that this is a statement by a set of (mostly) New York cartoonists. There's a single-page piece by Stipan Tadić, a Croatian painter and cartoonist that's set in a most familiar setting: an Uber ride in New York. Replacing the more familiar New York taxi ride, this strip crams 24 panels into a single page and loads them up with text. It's a deliberately intimate and slightly suffocating visual experience that works because Tadić provides just enough breathing room while spinning a funny conversation between a Croatian and a native of India. It's a great story because it captures something specific about the immigrant experience in New York, as the driver launches on a rant about American women even as he reveals that he studies pick-up artist material. There's no judgment--it's just another experience. It's also an introduction to the wildly disparate visual aesthetics that Alexander is about to throw at the reader. 



Alexander's own piece is an excerpt from a longer story. I normally hate this kind of thing in anthologies, but Alexander provides enough context in this story about him and a friend attending a state fair in New York to allow it to stand on its own. Alexander's use of color is varied but still restrained, which isn't always true of many Riso comics that are trying to draw in eyeballs. Alexander's figurework is the most interesting aspect of his comics, as he loves using distorted scales and perspectives as his characters navigate their environment. There's one great panel where a goat rushes by him and his eyeballs are on one side of his face like a Cubist image. Alexander's stand-in character has this twitchy, anxious energy that's almost awkward to read, but he reins it in before it derails the story. The highlight is when the couple attends a demolition derby event, with two pages of glorious open-page layouts and a filthy kaleidoscope's array of colors. It's much like Alexander's other memoir stuff: sweaty, nervous, but ultimately open to intense experiences. 



Kade McClement's "The Freelancer" feels like some bizarre 80s story that Jason Levian might unearth for a Floating World comic. The weird and frequently off-kilter lettering and strange character design that looks inspired by weird Golden Age comics with their grotesque and rushed-looking qualities. The crazy story about a freelancer art courier who gets mixed up with murder, a bandaged crime boss's wife and other foolishness feels like a more modern touch, but it's got all the noir qualities of a Jack Cole crime comic. Putting this in a beautiful Riso comic feels almost like a deliberate act of comic provocation. 

Max Huffman and Alexander have worked together for some time, including on other anthologies. Huffman also has an excerpt here, and it also works well on its own. Like a lot of younger cartoonists, Huffman rejects easy categorization in terms of his style, especially with regard to his contemporaries. If anything, his use of flat shapes and simple colors is reminiscient of Gene Deitch and the UPA school of animation. This excerpt is part of what seems to be a sci-fi caper or espionage story involving a man trying to sneak through security. To throw authorities off his trail, he infects the man ahead of him with a "clout virus" that gains him entrance--but the man in front of him is reduced to liquid. Huffman has done a lot of short-form work, so seeing a part of a longer narrative will be interesting, especially with the denseness of his narrative style. 



Clair Gunther's "Cecilia & Rebecca" is a visual and narrative palate-cleanser after several intensely colored stories. Simply rendered with a sort of metallic gold-brown background, it's about a piano teacher whose lessons with a kid named Bridget is interrupted by her titular little sisters. Hoping to add them as a clients, she mentions it to their mother, who nervously says she'll ask them. When the mother later tells the teacher they'd rather do dance, it leads to a wholly unexpected and strange twist that is nonetheless deeply felt. Gunther smartly takes what seems to be a fairly straight-ahead narrative in a 12-panel grid and turns it into something beautifully odd. 

The first issue ends with Alexander Laird's totally bonkers "Goblin 64." Laird has his own publishing shingle with Frog Farm (and he does regular events with other cartoonists), but this story is a demented cross between aspects of Paper Rad's cultural raids and shitty video game magazines from the 80s. It took me a minute to see what Laird was doing here, in this article by "Caleb Humus" about a game called Maze Goblin, done precisely in the style of those magazines, down to the grainy images of the games that are supposed to be mind-blowing but look badly antiquated by today's standards. The drawings Laird makes of this imaginary game featuring a character named Ebubobo the Goblin are very funny and fit so totally into the aesthetic that I was hooked for a moment. The gameplay slowly gets stranger and stranger as it's clear this demo the author is playing has sinister overtones until the piece pivots into a review of a game called "Caleb," reviewed by Ebubobo the Goblin! It's a fantastic concept piece that works because of the attention to detail paid to its source material and the wild swerve that nonetheless makes sense. 

It's a wild way to conclude the issue, but it demonstrates rather definitively that anything goes with CRAM and what Alexander is willing to do with regard to publishing different narrative styles. Wisely, Alexander steers away from excerpts in future issues, but there's just a wonderful sense of freshness in this anthology. Alexander isn't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel or challenge the very concept of narrative the way that Sammy Harkham did in Kramer's. Instead, Alexander is more concerned with the very best production values supporting the aims of some disparate narrative styles. 

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.


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.