Thursday, May 17, 2018

Koyama Press: Jessica Campbell's XTC69

In Jessica Campbell's first book, Hot or Not?, she took on sexism and the male gaze in the art world by judging artists by their looks and overall sex appeal. It was a blunt-force object of satire, taking its premise to its limits and beyond by actually making the satire funny and a willingness to stay in character the entire time. Her new book, XTC69, is a brutal take-down of the kind of science fiction novel that's sexist to the point of misogyny. The way she drew the cover (a woman in another woman's arms, a crew member fighting a zombie, a spaceship whooshing by) was meant to evoke those sort of books from the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Heinlein in particular is a target, both his simpler books like S Is For Space and his more "mature" work like Stranger In A Strange Land.

Those books tend to be power fantasies, with the handsome, brave space captain as a stand-in for the author, who inevitably has sex with whatever female character or characters whom might be introduced. Campbell does that one better: the protagonist of the story is Captain Jessica Campbell from another planet, and the female love interest also turns out to be Jessica Campbell, frozen in a cryo-chamber on earth for seven hundred years. Captain Campbell and her crew are looking for mates to help repopulate their all-female planet. Despite all the silliness in the book, Campbell plays fair and has her trio of alien women act very seriously, and the slow reveal of the plot also reflects a carefully assembled bit of scaffolding that surrounds the commentary.

After they take earth Jessica (whom they dub JC2, since the name "Jessica Campbell" was a title won through bloody combat on her planet) with them on their search, they find the last planet that can save them: Mxpx. Along the way, Campbell subtly sets up romance between the book's Jessicas, with a detour into a gag where the captain asks JC2 about the Hadron Collider and quantum physics (getting no results) and then asks about "Harry Potter, Boy Lizard", setting up a twelve hour lecture from JC2. That's a bit of silliness, along with the food available to eat and the aliens' preferred cuisine, "glug glug", which turns out to be pizza. When they find their destination, Campbell goes back to the blunt-force object approach, as the main continent on the planet of only men is shaped like a giant penis and there is some kind of football-like object at its north pole.

When after a period of trial and error that resembled an all-male version of the film Idiocracy, they meet President Chad, who helpfully tells the reader that women long ago abandoned the planet, "because those ingrate bitches wouldn't give us nice guys a chance." They get ordered around a bit, and JC2 gets bombarded with questions like "Why aren't females funny?", "Could you smile? You have resting bitch face" and simply "Blowjob?" The commander is so enraged that she orders the planet to be destroyed, seemingly dooming her planet until a deux ex machina of sorts pops up, albeit one that's totally consistent with the plot and its clues. The two Jessicas kiss in triumph at the very end, in the way the hero usually gets the girl but all the mushy stuff is left for the very end.

Perhaps the funniest part of the book came on the acknowledgements page, where she did a strip where someone asked her if the book was "misogynist against men" (in itself a hilarious turn of phrase). Campbell replied that "A man read it and said it was fine" and that "...some of my best friends are men." That was a rhetorical extra point after the touchdown that was the rest of the book, crushing the kind of arguments men have used for justifying sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. in their own work. Campbell's critique is pointed, even as she dresses it up with gags and sci-fi tropes. For example, she makes a sharp rebuke of transphobia when she has Captain Campbell relate that on her planet, people chose their genders based on their own personal revolution, and to force someone to be a man (because of course everyone would want to lean toward being a woman), to go against their own construction of gender, would be an act of cruelty.

Visually, Campbell keeps her pages simple, with a 2 x 3 grid and a thick, expressive line. Her self-caricature (in her trademark striped shirt and bushy hair) is one of my favorite in comics. Her character design is distinctive, with the page full of asshole guys questioning her containing hilarious and various "bro" types. Campbell's comedic timing is sharp, as she uses panel beats to heighten the awkwardness of a situation, like when Jessica first appears out of the cryogenic tube. The book is also breezily paced despite the occasional info-dump, especially such instances were usually incorporated with some bit of silliness. What Campbell has achieved in this book is a delightful balance of satire, absurdity and sharply-observed witticisms. That she achieved this with a plot that makes far more sense than most science fiction stories was just icing on the cake (or if you prefer, more cheese on the glug glug).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Minis: Matthew Kelly

Goulash 1-3, by Matthew Kelly. These comics are less drawn than scrawled, befitting a loosely-connected series of anecdotes that involve children and their perspectives. In the first issue, that’s especially true in a strip where a young boy is punished for saying a “bad word” by a teacher, and then given a lecture that his parents are unfit to raise him. The strip simply ends with the boy hanging his head and saying, “Sorry, sir”. It’s a brutal encapsulation of the ways in which authority figures misuse their power in a fit of self-righteousness, without understanding or caring about the ramifications of their actions. Later, there are a series of self-portraits of someone named “Didi”, with a crude attempt at realism producing a character all clad in black; then a rainbow stick figure; then a shadowy figure in panel full of scribbles and finally a pitch-black figure in a black panel. The stark simplicity and total disinterest in any further kind of explication gets across a lot of information in a series of anecdotes that are often about trauma but also about aspirations.

The second issue is about identity and impostor syndrome. In each of the stories, it's shown that lies and fears about being called out form the make-up of the relationship. In the first, it's about two people who meet on a hiking trail, where the narrator talks about meeting every question with a lie in order to disguise their "true" self, which is implied is repulsive and hurtful. The second story is about a kid who doesn't understand anything his older brothers say, but he pretends that he does anyway. The third story is about body dysmorphia, as the main character has their head replaced as a youngster because doctors said it wasn't right. Even after getting a head transplant later in life, the character questions not just their identity but the veracity of everything. There's a sense that in each story, the root cause of this self-loathing is a fundamental disconnect between children and their parents, with the latter abandoning or failing the children in some way. 

The third issue is a recapitulation of the first two issues, with a single narrative about a kid who portrays themself as Frankenstein's monster, swinging back and forth from feeling like a monster and feeling like a kid, even as their peers reverse course and say that they're just a little kid. In so many situations like this, once the precedent has been set to negatively identify someone in a particular way, that label sticks hard. Even after the label has been proven false or otherwise contradicted, internalizing shame and self-hatred comes easily once it's been implanted, and attempts to uproot it are met with suspicion. The second story is about the self: what is it to be oneself, or not oneself? What does it mean to try on different personas, and how real are these masks? Using scrawled text, sharp images and collage, Kelly gets at the impossibility of this question, just as most of the issues he broaches have no solutions. Kelly's rawness empowers the emotional quality of these comics; if anything, Kelly needs to learn how to simplify and pare things down even more in order to deliver his message. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Uncivilized Books: Tim Sievert's The Clandestinauts

Uncivilized Books has never been afraid to publish unconventional genre comics, especially in the realm of fantasy. Tim Sievert’s book The Clandestinauts combines high fantasy with grit and guts; it’s like seeing how the sausage of a fantasy quest is made. The book’s promotional materials make a number of references to Dungeons and Dragons, and the narrative has the twists and turns of an especially sadistic game master and players expertly and accurately acting on the chaotic and evil natures of their characters. The reader is thrown into the narrative in media res, so the book starts with a battle rather than the boring stuff of how the party was hired, etc. Characterization is doled out in the middle of and after fights, which are exceptionally gory—on the level of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit series.

The reader is given a roster of characters and a brief description, and there’s the usual group of fighters, wizards, fighter-wizards, a humanoid slug-creature and even a fighting construct. In this world, becoming a warlock means forming a pact with a demon, entailing one’s eventual doom. The narrative itself is quite simple: the titular group is on a quest to steal a chalice from a powerful wizard and bring it back for a huge reward. Of course, nothing is ever quite that easy, as one member dies and is sent to hell right away. One of the members of the party is a bandaged warlock named Ganglion the Grim, and he’s the kind of wild card that has his own agenda.

What makes this book entertaining is the sheer unpredictability of its twists and turns, as well as a modern-day sensibility in terms of its humor. Indeed, the book reads like a gorier version of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series, as there’s a level of self-awareness at play here in the way genre customs are being warped, but never so much that it breaks the fourth wall. Indeed, this world has its own unpleasant logic and rules, which the characters react to and defy as much as they can. Like Dungeon, the art is cartoony in terms of its character design but otherwise naturalistic, in order to truly capture the visceral quality of its violence and putrid environments. It also asks an important question: if a party has characters who are at each other’s throats, then why do they stay together? If they answer is “money”, then what happens when their reward shrivels up? Sievert plays that scenario fairly as the group falls apart at the end. Speaking of which, while there is a conclusion to this story, it feels like Sievert could easily write a number of sequels. There are any number of dangling plot threads that could be picked up again, and in this way it feels like it’s an adventure that’s part of a greater overall campaign. Readers looking for comics that are inspired by D&D’s nastier elements should seek this out, but this book isn’t aimed at a general audience.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

mini-Kus!: GG, A.Magan, P.Kyle, E.Androutsopoulos

I missed a recent early round of recent releases from our friends from Latvia:

mini-Kus! #55: Valley, by GG. The artist creates narratives out of contrasts and atmosphere. A story by GG inevitably becomes a lost world of some kind, a desire to cross a threshold that should not be crossed. In this story, a young woman gets a text from a friend that she and others are camping in a nearby valley but ran out of food. She asks her friend to bring them food so they can stick around. Of course, when the young woman arrives at the valley, her phone has no service and a dense fog has rolled in. In a series of light, airy panels, she negotiates the terrain, a driving downpour and hallucinating that a nearby volcanic steam opening was talking to her. She gets lost in all of this but calmly reacts by going for a swim. It's obvious that her coming out alone to rescue her friends was ill-considered, to say the least, which leads one to think about her motives. GG hints at her wanting to disappear but still wanting an overall goal to rein her back in. When her friend texts her that they decided to leave after all, she has nothing left to do, leaving her in an existential quandary as much as she's in a geographic one. GG's line is delicate to the point of disappearing on the page at times, in order to push color to the forefront. The ending is less downbeat than it is open-ended, with the main character's fate and path yet to be written.                               

mini-Kus! #56: A Friend, by Andres Magan. Done in a deliberately stiff style that emphasizes line above all else, this story is about a man and his missing dog. There are levels within levels at play here, and it’s unclear if those levels are all in the man’s mind or if they play out at all in real life. There’s a sense in which him losing his dog and reporting it to a police officer in the park is a cataclysmic event for the man, an event that triggers a lifetime’s worth of guilt and judgment. When he goes home after having lost his dog, a rock crashes through his wind with a note that says “Where is your dog?”. He accidentally (?) cuts himself on the glass when he picks it up, but the day seems to be saved when the policeman brings by his dog.

However, he rejects the dog out of hand; but is it because he has rejected his identity and the key relationship that defines it, or because he believes that is not his dog? The dog asks him “Where is your dog?” and we flash to his father, mother and sister all asking him the same question. Again, there is a collection of guilt that builds up to another rock coming through the window, this time with a card that matches the cuts he received on his hand. As though it were stigmata, his hand starts bleeding profusely all over the place, until we cut back to the park. The only difference this time is that the man expresses to the officer just how much the dog means to him. The dog had become the receptacle for all of his feelings, something he had to come to grips with lest guilt consume him. Whether or not his dog is found isn’t important; what’s important is that this emotionally stunted person was able to express his emotions in a positive way.

mini-Kus! #57: Night Door, by Patrick Kyle. Kyle’s warped, cartoony line requires careful attention, because there’s a clear narrative here underneath the extreme and cartoony stylization. Thematically, it’s a case of being careful of what you wish for, because you might just get it. A creature (looking like some sort of Disney nightmare) approaches the titular door, seeking admittance. He finds a tube sticking out of the door, and some sort of gas is emitted from it that allows him to go in. Through various twists and turns, he makes it through the underground maze until he comes to what seems to be a dead end as he’s neck-deep in water. He grabs for an object that lifts him, reduces him to a gas, and is captured in a pump. We see a man with a pump then push its contents through a certain tube. Kyle’s entire project has involved the subversion of the hero’s journey, and this is another take on the circularity and fruitlessness of the heroic quest. Kyle also writes a lot about isolation and how maddening it is, and this comic is thus a reflection and rejection of that quest as a means for an individual to somehow obtain greater knowledge or power.

mini-Kus! #58: Eviction, by Evangelos Androutsopoulos. This is a story about a man who heard a story from a man who became involved with a group of politically active squatters near the docks. It is implied that a number of them may be immigrants. It’s a story consumed by atmosphere by way of the balance between the shifting colors against a strong line but stripped-down character design. That atmosphere helps convey the vagaries of memory and how those details are possibly warped in the retelling. The original story is quite emotional, as the man believes his courage is insufficient and that he’s kind of a fake, unlike those who actually live in the squat. Eventually, the squat is broken up as the police use violence to clear it out. The man narrating the story to the reader visits the place and tries to square his idea of the place with the actual place—just as the reader tries to square fact and fiction. There’s no indication that this is based on a true story, yet it’s entirely believable. Just as the narrator is unable to put himself into the prior narrative, so too is the reader left on the outside, wondering.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Minis: Michael Aushenker, Kelly Kusumoto

Trolls: Operation Great Wall, by Michael Aushenker. Michael Aushenker not only likes to go over the top in his humor, he builds the wall extra high and then goes over the top. The composition of his drawings, the frantically scrawled quality of his lettering, and the lurid nature of his colors hammer the reader from the beginning and don't stop. He's clearly going for a Warner Bros. cartoon on acid (or maybe PCP) here, as his anthropomorphic air traffic controllers Wayward and Edward have exaggerated actions and conversations starting on the very first page. Aushenker pushes the reader into parsing the pages (his lettering sometimes gets out of control to the point where it eats up panels) and blasting them through the narrative.

The narrative is slight, with just enough story to get the characters moving. Wayward's fiance' Winda (a lisping, Chinese tweety-bird sort of character) gets kidnapped by her controlling parents and taken back to China. Wayward and Edward hijack a plane and crash it into the Great Wall, where more assorted hijinks occur as they wind up in prison. They are eventually freed because they inadvertently uncovered a terrorist cell while an absurdly racist and sexist Bill Clinton (an anthropomorphic pig) is there to make all sorts of inappropriate comments. Aushenker goes as far as to use the softened version of the n-word here, though the other characters make it clear that he shouldn't be saying it. The Clinton character goes on to insult every ethnic and religious group possible as a way to get cheap heat, essentially. Aushenker was trying to cast Clinton as the epitome of the uncouth ugly American, but it didn't quite scan and instead detracted from the overall story. That's unfortunate, because the manic energy of the narrative didn't need that extra bit of offensiveness in order to be effective.

Art Is My Joby, by Kelly Kusomoto. Aushenker tipped me to her lovely four-panel gag/diary work, which is simple and direct in its execution. What I especially liked about this comic is that Kusomoto varied her topics and tone from strip to strip. Some of them were melancholy, like when she bemoans being single but still gets a gag out of it when her dog thinks "What is she talking about? I'm right in front of her." Indeed, she gets a lot of mileage out of her dog, whether it's for silly or sentimental purposes. The simple shape she designed for her dog is yet another triumph of design, as her use of expression and body language is so precise that she can get across an enormous amount of information and emotion with just a few lines.

Other strips revealed her anxiety about stress and pressure she feels in her life but also talks about her love of being a wrestler and how it changed her life for the better. Some of the strips talked about self-care and how bad she is at it, while others talked about the frustrations she feels as a graphic designer. It's not diary work in the sense of taking the reader through a specific day and set of days over time. Instead, Kusomoto peppers the reader with anecdotes that build on each other, though many of the strips could have been rearranged with great ease. The comic left me wanting more, in part because each strip was so pleasant and made me want to read another one, but also because I got the sense that Kusomoto's work would have its greatest impact consumed in larger chunks. She doesn't quite spill a lot of ink about herself here, slowly revealing things about her life and history, but I think a clearer picture would emerge over time and a greater aggregation of comics. There's definitely something promising about her upbeat but emotionally sincere comics.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Josh Pettinger's Goiter #2

It's always enjoyable to read a good comic from an artist that I'm unfamiliar with, as was the case with Goiter #2. It's easy to trace his influences (DeForge, Ware, Clowes, perhaps Box Brown), but he goes in different directions than any of those cartoonists. This issue features a single story, "Henry Kildare". This is a story about helplessness and being manipulated by forces beyond one's control. Pettinger uses a 12-panel grid on most pages, slowly moving his characters across the page as there is very little action. Usually, a lot of panels on a page indicates a lot of activity in terms of panel-to-panel transitions. Here, Pettinger forces the reader to endure the same kind of ennui that the titular character experiences as well. There's also a certain rumpled quality to Kildare, a sense that he's been beaten down a bit. It's in his shoulders as well as his schlubby appearance.

Kildare is traveling across the country by bus, occasionally making phone calls to a girlfriend who never answers. After an arduous trek to a small town, we learn that he's a comedian who's headlining a club, and that he is a ventriloquist to boot. Again there's that theme of being a "dummy" to forces beyond one's control. That plays out when Kildare does mushrooms with the bartender at the club, which she does as a sort of ploy to seduce him but only turns out making him sick. He lies down in a park and then goes back to his room when events start spinning out of control. A pair of a young girl's underwear was stuck to his back, and they happened to belong to a girl who was missing. Suddenly, the small town turned on Kildare, quickly sending him to prison in a series of harrowing but hilarious scenes. Kildare only makes things worse when he tries to run away initially, but he's eventually released when police find the actual body. The coda of the story finds him finally making it back home, where he not only finds himself alone, but is still blamed by the mother of the dead girl despite being exonerated.

That speaks to another key factor: the ways in which pre-determined narratives affect our ability to deal with the actual data at hand. Upon telling a driver he was from Chicago, he was told it was a "war zone" and that his nice little town was nothing like that. The town was practically begging for a big-city outsider to take the rap for the crime, twitchy Kildare fit the bill perfectly. So much so, that they ignored the actual facts to create a narrative that made sense to them. Alternative facts, as it were. Kildare himself is a sad-sack character who is put-upon from the very beginning of the story until the end, unable to assert his agency in any meaningful way. That he was a punching bag of a character made it all the easier for the town to turn against him. Pettinger's deadpan drawing style makes the humor in this comic extra dry, as he lets the events themselves drive the humor, rather than funny drawings. Pettinger is clearly trying to find his own voice and he's not quite there yet, but you can see his skill, wit and understanding of storytelling on display.

Also included in this issue was a short mini, with a story titled "Dollybird". Pettinger's drawing style is a bit different here, looking more like Archie comics than anything else. With a single image per page, Pettinger aims to have the reader linger not just on each image, but each step of the story. It's about a man who goes online to find someone who can fulfill his specific kink: being beaten up by another man. The exploration of that kink in the man's narrative captions is juxtaposed by his verbally abusive behavior toward his wife. That juxtaposition reveals the disconnect between his desire for a kink that he can't explain and how he acts out his anger through his kink as he's punished for it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Minis: S.Lautman, T.Van Deusen

Black & White Diary Comics December-February 2017, by Sara Lautman. Lautman helpfully explains the entire premise of the mini in the title, and Birdcage Bottom Books published this collection. Lautman's comics have always been funny and strange, as she has always resolutely told her stories from a point of view that she never tries to explain or justify. Visually, her comics have always had a rock-solid and conventional formal sense of design, allowing her to get as wildly expressive as she wants with regard to figure drawing. Lautman is also consistently funny; sometimes it's dry humor and other times there's an over-the-top sense of "How can this be happening?" A good example is the first strip, "Crisis Hotline". Lautman, with an cartoonishly exaggerated nose and scribbly hair, calls up a crisis talk line. Lautman spills her problem to the person at the other end of the line (which was redacted) gets silence for a moment, and then a request for FaceTime (!). In one of those unbelievable moments, the call monitor is wearing a dog puppet on her arm and speaks in a dog voice ("That must be rrrruff!") until she breaks off in a fit of coughing. Tack on an awkward denouement, and you have a perfectly structured gag.

Lautman often builds her stories around a vague sense of discomfort. Whether it's singing alone at a karaoke night and trying to connect to some bros standing up, or a feeling of extreme anxiety as she steps in as a band's new drummer, Lautman always manages to feel out of place. There's a hilarious scene where she confesses to her friends what a horrible job she did and how sorry she was, and all she got was wonderful feedback. "Stupid supportive friends" she thinks, as she slinks away, as no one will feed her sense of inadequacy. That said, Lautman doesn't wallow, at least not without trying to generate laughs. There are also absurd, silly anecdotes, like attending "Gum Brunch" (which is exactly what it sounds like) and discussing the history and reverberations Gum Brunch has stirred up. There's another story where an older man approaches her in a bar, compliments her on the band t-shirt she's wearing, then walks away when she says the shirt was a gift and she wasn't really a fan. That all seemed standard until a woman runs up to them and says that that man was her uncle, and that this was the first thing he had said in thirty years! Lautman writes herself as a weirdness magnet even as she's finding it hard to deal with normal life, but she deals with both with a sort of deadpan humor that's accentuated by that appealingly scratchy, scribbly style.

I Wish I Was Joking, by Tom Van Deusen. This is a collection of odds and ends from Van Deusen from various anthologies; and as such, it has a slightly scattered feel. Van Deusen's favorite new character seems to be head Jeff Bezos, and he is portrayed as barely able to interact with other people. There's a running joke about a disturbing relationship with his AI device Alexa (culminating in a great gag on the back cover) as well as him wrecking Seattle in his "Bezos-Bot"; essentially, it's Mecha-Bezos. It's sort of like a toddler having godlike influence on his world. A lot of the humor in the anthology is centered less on Van Deusen (usually the star and main target of his stories) and more on various celebrities. There's an uncomfortable, extended sequence where Van Deusen visits the home of Dave Matthews, who as it turns out (in this story, at least) is a coprophile and discusses this at length. Then there's a visit to an old Real World house, which has fallen into total savagery since the cameras left. It's a bit of low-hanging fruit for Van Deusen.

More amusing are "Undercover Grandpa" (exactly what it sounds like), which gets especially weird when the grandpa dies and leaves his grandson his head in a jar, which is then programmed to say all kinds of disturbing things. Then there's a strip where Van Deusen goes to the doctor, who winds up being a lab-coat wearing, stethoscope-wielding duck. It's not an anthropomorphic duck either--just a duck. It's total lunacy, as the duck goes wild and tries to attack Van Deusen. Overall, Van Deusen's best strips are the "autobio" strips where he portrays himself as an awful person, because they are both funnier and cut deeper, even when they stray into total fiction.