Monday, March 31, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews: The Index

For those who asked about a meta-post containing an index of everything I did during my 31 Days of Short Reviews, here we go:

1. Phil McAndrew.

2. Renaud Dillies

3. Margaret De Heer.

4. David J. Zelman.

5. Lilli Carre' and Thereza Rowe.

6. Batton Lash.

7. Nick Andors.

8. Victor Kerlow.

9. Jeff Zwirek.

10. Veronica Mautner

11. Jimmy Gownley.

12. Joe Infurnari.

13. Josh Simmons.

14. Jason Walz.

15. Caitlin Cass.

16. Mike Maihack.

17. Dark Revelation.

18. Dave Kelly/Laura Antal.

19. Team Society League.

20. Yuichi Yokoyama.

21. Hellbound.

22. Junko Mizuno.

23. Kevin Scalzo.

24. Waller/Worley/Vance.

25. Basil Wolverton.

26. Guido Crepax.

27. Not Your Mother's Meatloaf.

28. Logicomix.

29. Shigeru Sugiura.

30. St Louis Ink & Drink.

31. Seo Kim.

31 Days of Short Reviews #31: Seo Kim

Seo Kim's Cat Person (Koyama Press) is a consistently hilarious debut. Each page features a series of loose, autobiographical gags centering around Kim's cat, life as an artist and person in a long-distance relationship. The first section, about her cat Jimmy, had the potential to be enormously lame and cliched (how many cartoon books about cats do we really need?), but Kim finds ways to elicit genuine laughs thanks to the way she portrays her cat's behavior and because of her drawing style. Anyone who has a cat knows that they are cute, fluffy little fur-shedding murder machines who view the hunt as a form of play. Cats domesticate humans, not the other way around--they expect food, drink and a clean litter box at all times, and then they might deign to interact with you. The first strip in the book features Kim showing her cat a huge bug that she wants him to get rid of. The cat takes his time, plays with his prey, pops it in his mouth, lets it crawl out again and then pops it back in, chewing it up. The final panel shows Kim peeking around the corner, a look of total disgust on her face. Another strip's first panel depicts a beaming Kim holding her cat in a hug, blissed out from the experience. The second panel depicts an equally happy look on the cat's face, only he's buried his claws deep into her back and drawn considerable blood. Her understanding of the weirdness of cat behavior, like mewing frantically because his food bowl doesn't have precisely the right amount of kibble in it, drew another knowing laugh.

Kim's art sells every gag. She basically uses two in this book. The first is a simple, almost stick-figure approach. Those are the strips that rely upon the concept for the gag, with the art there only to support it. The second is a slightly more detailed and more grotesque approach, such as in that gag with her cat eating the bug. She has a way of drawing her face scrunched up in fear, anger or despair that is absolutely hilarious, especially when she adds dabs of red or pink. The way she draws her nose like a set of three knuckles adds to that weird distinctiveness. There's another strip titled "Asian Glow" wherein she turns red after one drink, leading one friend to ask her if she's drunk (which she denies) and then another to scream it at her (which she angrily denies). In that latter scene, Kim's burning red cheeks and exaggerated facial expression once again sell the joke completely. There's nothing especially innovative about any of these strips. Autobio comics about one's cat, solitary existence as an artist and long-distance relationships are pretty much de rigeur, especially on the web. What sets Kim's work apart is her absolute control over her line and use of color and the fact that she is undeniably funny. One gets the sense that no matter what kind of comic she chooses to do next, it will be just as funny, skilled and fun to look at.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #30: St. Louis Ink & Drink Anthologies

The St. Louis-based Ink and Drink collective has been publishing a couple of genre-themed anthologies every year since 2010. As one would expect from mostly amateur cartoonists doing genre comics, the results are all over the place. The running serial that somehow appears in every issue involving a teen and the tentacle monster that lives in his comics box, written by Jon Scorfina and drawn by Stephanie Main, feels like bottom-drawer webcomic fodder, mistaking references to pop culture for actual jokes. Then there are the workhorses like Carlos Gabriel Ruiz and writer/editor Jason Green. Their stories are all decent genre stuff; nothing revelatory, but nothing embarrassing either. Ruiz in particular is the one artist who has noticeably improved as a draftsman over the three year period that these books represent. Most of the stories in these books slid out of my consciousness the moment I read them, though a few artists caught my attention and my interest from volume to volume.

First and foremost is cover artist Adam Davenport. Working in the classic pulp/Frank Frazetta style, his covers for the collections are so on-the-nose with regard to the theme that they're tongue-in-cheek. I especially enjoyed the cover of Blasted!, the science fiction anthology. Yes, the "drink" portion of the collective means that every title is alcohol-related: Spirits of St. Louis (horror), Shots In The Dark (crime), Off The Wagon (western) and Hammered (fantasy). His occasional work on interior stories is also study and attractive, though it begged for color. My favorite artists in the anthology in every issue were Sam and Noah Washburn. Sam is the illustrator and Noah the writer, and their mesh of idosyncrasies stand out each time. "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" from the horror anthology is a comic that's stylish and crude, with an unusual use of close-ups and spotting blacks. The story is one of the few that's actually strange and unsettling in that book. "Case 481" in the crime anthology is a nice mix of crime and horror, with a two page spread jammed with disorienting, terrifying panels when we learn what's behind a seemingly routine insurance investigation. The way they suddenly end the hard-boiled narrative of the story's main character is especially inspired. "Alien Attack" is yet another visceral story that highlights the way that S.Washburn can make a panel funny through exaggeration. "Great Moments In Herding History" is just plain funny, as both Washburns quickly abandon the concept to just write and draw wacky stuff. The other interesting artistic find is Christina "Steenz" Stewart, who rapidly improved her cartoony, expressive style between a couple of issues to find her footing as an artist whose work is inspired by animation (and it seems, Kyle Baker in particular) but still maintains its storytelling fluidity. The other artist of note that I wanted to mention is Kevin Wolf. His "Elephant Graveyard Blackjack" is both viscerally unsettling (as a dead man and a dead elephant wager body parts and skin in a game of blackjack) and visually striking with its thick linework and scratchy details. I know that their most recent editions involve romance and stories local to St. Louis; I'll be curious to see if the artists were able to raise their game above the level of standard genre tropes in engaging those subjects.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #29: Shigeru Sugiura

Last of the Mohicans, the first (and unfortunately last) book in the "10 Cent Manga" series from the now-defunct PictureBox, is not only an intriguing comic but a fantastic work of scholarship. Editor Ryan Holmberg not only translated this very odd adaptation by popular cartoonist Shigeru Sugiura of the novel by James Fenimore Cooper, he wrote a long essay on the context of the book in terms of Sugiura's career and manga in general. This was actually a comeback book for Sugiura in 1973 after he had done a more cartoony and silly adaptation in 1953. Reading the book before reading the explanatory essay, I was struck by the way that Sugiura dizzyingly switched between bigfoot cartooning, typical wide-eyed manga tropes and naturalistically-depicted characters and lush backgrounds. Sometimes he did this all in the same panel, as he drew quickly-paced and humorous action sequences drizzled with pure comic relief and gritty violence. The mix of Eastern and Western drawing styles is obvious even to a reader such as myself who isn't an expert on the artist or the manga scene at that time.

Holmberg goes into great detail with an incredible wealth of artistic evidence, just how and from where Sugiura drew his inspiration. He looked at a lot of Alex Toth, Jesse Marsh, and Fred Ray Western-genre comics, whose work couldn't have been more different from the traditional manga style. From Toth he adapted the ways bodies moved in space and certain other structural qualities. From Ray he took a lot of action sequences. From Marsh he took the lush backgrounds. He mashed all of this up with his own popular "funny" style (as opposed to the more straight-ahead drawings of Osamu Tezuka), leading to a perfectly composed and visually discordant and anarchic final product that may have relied too much on racial caricatures, but applied those grotesque distortions to whites as well as Native Americans. From Sugiura's perspective, everything was open for that kind of depiction, just as he depicted several of the Native American heroes and villains in a heroic style. Seeing heroic characters side-by-side with wacky caricatures, all in the same cause of trying to kill each other was wonderfully disorienting, an effect that was entirely intentional on Sugiura's part. It was all a part of the way that Japan absorbed American culture and then created something new, weird and wonderful as a result. Hopefully, another smart published will continue the series, because I've never seen the precise appeal of particular manga artists explicated in such a clear and entertaining fashion.

Friday, March 28, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #28: Logicomix

Logicomix is an unusual comic given that it's both a biographical comic about a famous logician/philosopher, a comic about the history of logic and an autobiographical comic about the story's creative team debating its approach with regard to its subject. It has moments of being quite gripping and other moments where the creators seem to lose their footing, especially in those autobiographical segments. The premise is an intriguing one: it's about the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell and his tireless quest to create a logical set of first principles in mathetmatics. At the same time, the principle writer Apostolos Doxiadis is engaged with his friend and theoretical computer scientist Christos H. Papadimitriou regarding key aspects of the story, debating him throughout about the nature of Russell's struggle as well as occasionally clarifying and doing some further explication of the stakes involved in this struggle.

The framing device they used was ingenious: a Russell lecture prior in an American university prior to American involvement in World War II. Russell was known for his pacifism and protests regarding World War I, and he was asked by a number of anti-war protesters to speak out against America joining World War II. He responded with a lecture on "The Role of Logic on Human Affairs" that began with him going over his life's story. That lecture allowed the occasional interruption by the authors and various other segues. The bits about Russell being raised by a stern grandmother who kept the fate of his parents a secret from him until he discovered it on his own were absolutely riveting. Russell's antipathy toward his religious education and immediate excitement upon being taught how to do his first mathematical proof were other interesting biographical markers. I did find it interesting that the authors mostly chose to skip over Russell's loudly avowed atheism, because this to me seemed part of the fuel for his refusal to accept any kind of first principle on faith.

The whole point of Russell's lecture was that reconciling logic and human nature is just as doomed as his quest to provide first principles of mathematics made of unshakable logic. His own logical paradox that he created that obliterated the usefulness of set theory as a potential foundational pillar set him about on a fruitless quest to somehow circumnavigate his own objection. He agreed with his former student Ludwig Wittgenstein that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", in that the most important problems are those that cannot be addressed by logic (and language). A running theme throughout the book is Papadatos wondering out loud why so many logicians' lives ended in madness, paranoia and outright tragedy, as though their descent into pure reason cut them off from their emotional lives. Papadimitriou disagrees, saying that while logic may not have gotten its foundation, its thinkers went in the opposite direction to create the computers that have changed the world for the better.The creative crew tried to dovetail the essential problems of this foundational quest with a performance of Aeschylus' Oresteia, a play that's all about resolving paradoxes with lateral thinking, in much the same way as a computer can be seen as a way of cutting through the suppression of knowledge. It's an interesting idea that is not resolved; instead, it merely serves to tantalize the reader. The problem with Logicomix is that it's neither fish nor fowl. It's not a fleshed-out work of philosophy (indeed, its dependence on the tiresome nature of analytical philosophy and insistence on ignoring continental philosophy or quantum physics got on my nerves). It fails as a biography of Russell, even as it reveals a number of interesting facts about him. The artwork is entirely perfunctory: functional but blandly attractive at every turn, with page compositions that merely support the text rather than add much to it. It's not a successful or fleshed-out debate between Papdatos and Papadimitriou, nor does it do much to advance Papadatos' journalistic interest in the connection between logic and madness. It tries to do too much while resolving too little. Its scope and ambition is impressive, but as a reader I sensed that the book got away from its creators very early on and the resulting product was a kind of failed attempt to get it back under their control--much like Russell and collaborator Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, the failed attempt to reconcile Russell's paradox while providing a foundational theorem.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #27: Not Your Mother's Meatloaf

The artists Saiya Miller and Liza Bley set out to make a sex education book based not so much on charts, figures and prescriptive behavior but rather individual experiences. Their idea was to nudge along their own fledgling careers as cartoonists by collecting stories from over fifty writers and cartoonists, divvying them up into appropriate categories. The result is a sort of punk rock version of "Free To Be, You And Me" called Not Your Mother's Meatloaf. Miller and Bley actually do very little cartooning themselves in the book, instead providing just spot illos in their chapters where they talk about their personal experiences with one of their chosen topics. Those include Beginnings, Bodies, Health, Identity, Age, Endings and Personal Best. As a reader, I was disappointed that the 181 page book had so much room devoted to pure text, mostly because the transition was sometimes jarring. There was a certain power in how much Miller and Bley poured their hearts out in a confessional manner throughout the book, but they also tended to repeat themselves a bit at certain intervals. I found myself skimming their commentary that marked the beginning of each chapter in order to get to the comics, which created a somewhat disjointed reading experience.

That said, their choices for contributors for the most part were spot-on, even as the vast majority of them were first-timers or amateurs. The only name I recognized was the excellent Mat Defiler, whose work looked the sharpest and most organized. Defiler's strip about ageism with regard to sex was funny and sharp, pointing out the unfairness of excluding the elderly from the discourse regarding sex. However, the many other strips are crude and raw, both in terms of skill level and content. In the context of this book, that's not a bad thing, because that immediacy, that rawness is exactly what Bley and Miller are going for. And as the book's foreword writer Joyce Farmer notes, "Not everyone will like every story. If this happens to you, just open yourself to a new perspective. Or just turn the page."

Indeed, I found some of the stories to be pretentious and not at all in the spirit of what the editors were trying to accomplish. That was especially true of the pieces that were essentially a single illustration accompanied by a long piece of scrawled-out text. On the other hand, there were a couple of dozen delightful discoveries in this book, some from cartoonists who preferred not to use their full or real names. (It was unfortunate that there was no actual contributor's list for those who did want others to find out more about their comics.) Basha Smolen's anecdote about going to nude beaches as a child was witty and cleverly drawn. Timothy Sinaguglia's story about the excitement yielded when he used to dress up as a girl and stare in the mirror was incredibly intimate and delicately drawn. The artist Kate's "Trouble With My Body" is one of many stories revealing the pain felt in dealing with societal standards and lacking an outlet to express them. The same is true for Jessica Ryan's "The Appointment" (drawn by Nik Masonfield), which is about a horrendous experience at a gynecologist's office, one that was invasive of her personal space and breached trust issues. The book is notable in how many of the stories come from a queer perspective as well as different racial perspectives. The book also goes into detail regarding relationships, giving voice to the various kinds of abuse one can suffer in a toxic relationship--especially emotional abuse. It also talks about kinks and fetishes in a healthy and relaxed manner. Overall, Bley and Miller have created something that is educational but rarely didactic, because so many of the stories are so personal. I can imagine that for queer youth in particular, this book will seem like a miracle. However, for any young person, hearing stories from other young people will be empowering and lead to better sexual and emotional decision-making. It's not a perfect package and it has a lot of rough edges, but the sincerity that went into this book can be felt on every page.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #26: Guido Crepax

Guido Crepax's adaptation of Pauline Raege's The Story of O matches up an artist with astounding skills with subject matter I have little interest in. The Italian artist was well-known for his psychedelic/erotic style of art in his Valentina series, but The Story of O takes that to another level. Years before the pedestrian Fifty Shades of Grey series, The Story of O brought bondage & discipline/sado-masochism (BDSM) to public consciousness like a hammer. It is a perfect marriage of text and image, as Crepax correctly focuses on the degradation and humiliation aspects of the sexual transactions rather than emphasize the actual erotic quality of the sexual acts themselves. His women are beautiful but slender and the men range from beautiful to trollish, which in itself is a function of how degrading their floggings, forced penetrations, and general state of being dominated at any given time happen to be. The very spare plot starts with the titular O being "trained" at a house called Roissy, then moves on to her lover sharing her with his half-brother (an even cruel master), then moves on to her seducing another woman into the lifestyle, and concludes with her being branded and experiencing the thrill of total submission. The comic simply illustrates, in loving detail and with a dizzying array of complicated page layouts, every act of pain and humiliation that O experiences. It makes no attempt whatsoever at trying to explain how or why she got into this relationship or why submission is something she wanted so desperately, as the book simply starts off at Roissy. Her lovers indicate that she's free to leave at any time, but if she's to stay with them, she must submit totally. The book's greatest triumph is that it manages to balance its pleasure schedule, so to speak, to both dominants and submissives, as the book is told from the point of view at both at various times. This book unapologetically gets at the heart of BDSM from the very first page and is totally unrelenting. For some, this will be a bonus. For others, this adaptation released multiple times from NBM's Eurotica line will be good reason to stay away.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #25: Basil Wolverton

Basil Wolverton is of course a legendary cartoonist and one of the bigger influences on Robert Crumb's style. His mixture of cartoony and grotesque also influenced cartoonists like Big Daddy Roth and a host of other alternative cartoonists. One of Wolverton's longest-running features was a single-page strip called The Culture Corner, which ran in the back of Whiz and the Marvel Family series published by Fawcett from 1945 to 1952. The strip combined three great things: the Rube Goldberg-inspired idea of coming up with a complicated (yet stupid) solution to a fairly easy problem, Wolverton's relentlessly goofy and grotesque line, and Wolverton's love of clever patter, which included lots of alliteration and rhyming. The 2010 collection published by Fantagraphics not only contains every published strip, it also contains the original roughs he did for each strip in order to gain editorial approval. Of course, a Wolverton rough is pretty close to a lot of cartoonist's finished work, so it's fascinating to compare them side by side, as Fantagraphics presents them here.

Wolverton's son Monte (a fine cartoonist in his own right) provided all of these material, which included Wolverton's fastidious bookkeeping as to the order he did the strips, as well as a list of rejects. Those rejected strips are included in rough form at the end of the book, and you can see where Wolverton rejected some of them because they borrowed too much from older strips. With each strip introduced by the cross-eyed, bearded and bald Croucher Q Conk, QOC (Queer Old Coot), the reader was given instruction on how to do things like eat soup without slurping (it involves boiling it dry) and avoiding the slurping which can cause "sip lip" and "suction pump hump". In this strip, we can see Wolverton doing his favorite kind of figure drawing, which involves distorting already funny-looking characters. He went to far greater extremes in other strips. What's interesting about his work is that the drawings are funny and intelligible on their own for the most part, but the same is true for his narrative captions. There's not quite the perfect fusion of word and image as one would find in a Goldberg invention strip, and there is absolutely no sense of restraint or dryness in his humor. Wolverton's strips are all-out assaults from the very first panel, and he only tries to up the ante from panel to panel. The result of this is a bit of reader fatigue if you read too many of them at once, but a perfect bomb of funny in small doses (as they were originally published). The additional material is interesting, but the volume in general is more for Wolverton super-fans than a casual reader.

Monday, March 24, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #24: Waller/Worley/Vance

Omaha The Cat Dancer (NBM) is one of those forgotten alt-comics series from the 1980s, but in its time it had as many fans as Love and Rockets. The introduction to the book by writer James Vance and artist Reed Waller details the history of the book, one as complicated and personally intricate as the series' many plots. After original writer Kate Worley married Vance (leaving Waller), the series stalled as Worley was beginning a new life with Vance (including children) and it became difficult to rekindle the same creative chemistry. Toward the end of Worley's life (she died of cancer shortly before completing the book), she and Waller decided to try one more time to finish up Omaha, knowing that it was their legacy project. She died before she could complete it, but she left finishing up the book to her husband. So this final volume of Omaha, volume eight, stands as a monument to the love the two men had for Worley, knowing that they had to finish it for her. That sense of emotion and earnest sincerity permeates the book, carrying it through its rougher and soapier patches.

Furry comics were quite popular in the 80s, and Omaha became both celebrated as a fairly intelligent slice-of-life drama that didn't skimp out on sexual content and notorious as being a comic that necessitated the existence of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, thanks to a comic shop owner being arrested for selling it. The comic was conceived as one where sex is a normal part of everyone's life and should be depicted as such, though it must be said that the sex scenes are far from naturalistic. Instead, they feel more like the sex scenes in a cable-TV potboiler from the 1980s: meant to look good for the camera first rather than show how actual people (or in this case, actual anthropomorphic animals) have sex. The depiction of the characters' bodies is so close to human that I'm not sure why this was done as a furry series in the first place, other than being a popular style of the time. There's certainly a titillation factor at work here that goes above and beyond simply depicting characters having sex; indeed, it owes a closer debt to network soap operas than a more mature work.

The subplots involving conspiracy, murder, and greed all certainly fit within that soap opera context, as does the sprawling cast of characters. Robert Crumb once did a parody of this comic called "Wichita", which harped on the "previously in..." caption reading like utter nonsense to a new reader as well as the pace being so slow that one wondered if anything would ever happen. I certainly don't mind a languid pace that showcases character interactions, but the many plot and character threads tended to add rather tick together. Still, this meant that the book was a breakneck pace, relatively speaking, with characters dealing with an exploding building and various long-held mysteries. Despite the clunky sex scenes, despite Waller's line that has become less fluid over the years and despite the pile of exposition, Omaha is a comic that generates a lot of good will. There's a commitment to diversity across the board in the book's cast, and most of the characters have a degree of complexity that puts them above simple hero or villain capacity. The soap opera overtones actually helped to provide structure and gave the reader a few genuine surprises, acting as a catalyst for action in a series where characters would otherwise prefer to sit around, or sit around and have sex. Above all else, the genuine love for the characters shines through on each page, giving the assorted happy endings a sense of feeling deserved. Omaha is not a great comics series, but it occupies that middle tier that Kim Thompson once described as "good crap"; it's soap-opera genre material done with a maximum of attention on its characters inner lives in a richly detailed environment. If its excesses detract from the quality of the work, it can be forgiven because the series is all about excess, after all.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #23: Kevin Scalzo

There's something fundamentally wrong about Kevin Scalzo's comics. I mean that in the sense that simply looking at his drawings is disturbing for reasons that aren't immediately clear. Take the recent Sugar Booger #1 from the reborn Alternative Comics, for example. It follows the adventures of the Tele-Tubby shaped titular creature, which consist of eating a lot of candy and then pulling out long, sugar-rich boogers for all to enjoy. The concept of that is gross enough, but what truly makes the comic creepy is the way Scalzo draws the characters. They are covered in sweat, and once they consume candy, their eyes bulge out manically. Scalzo plays off the inherent weirdness of so much of children's television and uses that to fuel the humor of his comic but is careful to keep Sugar Booger's activities entirely within the limits of the character's conceptual state. That is, he's not a monster or a pedophile; he simply wants to give children the treat of his delicious nose candy. Just as every weird cartoon's concept is similarly sealed-off, so does Sugar Booger never question his actions relative to the reality in which he lives. Of course, Scalzo gets to point out this insanity in the form of the sweatiness that resembles nothing less than a coke binge, as well as the ways in which the alarmed parents of the children eventually find them and pull away their children in apoplectic horror.It's a strange little comic that's one-note in its sense of humor, but Scalzo doesn't linger on it for very long, keeping the comic short and punchy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #22: Junko Mizuno

Junko Mizuno's comics are a jaw-dropping combination of erotica, pathos & poignancy, and over-the-top humor. In her Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu series, of which I received just the second volume, the titular character is a little fuzzball alien who has come to earth in order to find a bride and have a baby. Living in poverty and squalor in Tokyo, each chapter features a different misadventure with Pelu and his scruffy homeless friend Su-San. The first thing one noices about Mizuno's work is that there's an almost unbearable, loopy cuteness to it reminiscent of most shojo manga. Mizuno subverts that cuteness on nearly every page, first by adding frequently crazy sexual content and then by frequently adding a violent or downbeat plot that makes what is cute shocking.

Take "I Married a Puppet-Master", for instance. This one concerns a woman who is concerned that her husband, once a loving man, is now going off to work and returning each day looking more and more disfigured--and refusing to talk about it. To comfort herself, she knits cute critters out of yarn, which eventually come to life, befriend Pelu (one even promises to have a baby with him) and plan to murder the husband's evil bosses. It's a story about a complete psychotic breakdown and its grim, violent repercussions. Another story finds Pelu more-or-less held captive by a family of three generations of nymphomaniacs and essentially forced to copulate multiple times a day. There's plenty of sex and pretty women in that story, but the creepy control aspects of it (and hints that something even more sinister might be going on) and the pathos of the youngest girl in the family lend this story a brooding, melancholy quality. The stories get even weirder when a fellow alien's children wind up turning themselves into sausage so as to revive her, or when Su-san starts to hallucinate on his way to a grim ending. Another story features Pelu going on one of those wacky Japanese game shows in order to perhaps get a meal, fueled by the rage and frustration he feels for being reduced to a cute object rather than a serious potential sexual partner.

Pelu is an over-the-top soap opera that has no limits in terms of subject matter or how far to take particular concepts. It's at once farce, sex comedy, and straightforward exploration of sex, sexuality and sexual identity. There's a wonderful sense of fluidity in the storytelling that is well suited to the fluidity of sexuality that's explicated in the stories themselves, wherein the author invites the reader to explore what lies beneath the surface of her cute drawings. The focus is usually on Pelu himself, but Mizuno isn't afraid to take long digressions into the lives of people like the "soap girl" who changes gender, the Kappa (a sort of impish creature) abandoned by her fiance', or the motivations of the husband of one of the family of nymphomaniacs. No matter what tangent she may go down as part of her story, Mizuno always has a firm hand on the plot, frequently throwing in a twist or two as she brings things back to Pelu and his dilemma. Concluding each chapter with a jaunty theme song, Mizuno shows that she doesn't take all of this too seriously, even as the serious content of the books has emotional resonance.

Friday, March 21, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #21: Hellbound #3 and #4

The Boston Comics Roundtable's annual Hellbound anthologies have grown increasingly stylish in presentation. The 2012 edition, "Darkness" starts out especially strong with stories by Janaka Stucky/Josh Wallis and Kimball Anderson. The former, "Blackout", follows a mortician confronted by a group of bodies who start whispering "You are dead but your body is still dying", which leads to a narrative side bar of discussing a sect in India that believes that in order to avoid reincarnation, we must transcend duality by embracing the most depraved of practices. Ultimately, it is hinted that he becomes one of them in a story that varies its visual styles from stark realism to shadowy expressionism. Anderson's "no, he can come" is a frightening but simple story about a young man negotiating a fog; everything he sees is in shadowy gray and black. He is invited to explore an old factory with what he thinks is a group of friends and reluctantly agrees to come along...until he has the chilling realization that he doesn't actually know them. It's a perfectly timed story made all the more effective thanks to its use of grey and black.

Of the other stories, Adrian Rodriguez's "Pedestrian" is silent and spooky in depicting the ways in which abandoned city streets can be terrifying; the Lindsay Moore/Donna Martinez/Joey Peters story "Garbage" effectively subverts the dynamic between the wholesome, perfect schoolgirl and the tough girl who's always in trouble; and the Gregery Miller/Jacob Oley story "Vinshaw" is mostly nonsense in terms of the story, but Oley's delicate and disgusting line art is a genuine pleasure to behold. The worst piece in the book was Jon Clark's "Void", which was less a horror piece than a bit of misogynist torture porn.

On the other, hand, Gulp!, the fourth volume of Hellbound, is an attractive, well-executed anthology that makes the most of its Risograph printing. Every story is scary or funny or both, and the mix of artistic styles makes looking at every story a genuine pleasure. It starts strong with Dan Moynihan's story about kids trying to avoid monsters on the way to getting cookies and Rachel Dukes' story about a ghost cat going from being cute to horrifying as they both grow up. Old Highwater favorites like Jef Czekaj and Greg Cook contribute cute stories in their "cute-brute" style, while Owen Heitmann, John Lechner and Jerel Dye go more in the direction of horror-adventure stories. There are no clunkers in this collection and the editing by Moynihan and Dan Flynn carefully shuffles the stories so as to avoid repeating themes on a story-to-story basis. The duo-tone orange and blue from the Risograph printing adds to the attractiveness of the overall work. This was by far the most skilled set of contributors and the most attractive presentation of stories yet conceived for this series, a trend that I hope continues for 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #20: Yuichi Yokoyoma

The latest book by Yuichi Yokoyama, World Map Room, is an odd hybrid of his books Travel and Garden. Once again, the plot is very simple: three men set out on a journey in a city with which they are unfamiliar. Walking around, they manage to get a ride on a boat to the building at which they were expected. In the building, they meet the owner walk around and examine the books in a library and then walk to a built-in pond. A boat is sunk in the middle of the pond. The end. As always, the plot in a Yokoyama book is far less important than the qualities of each page and the ways in which he tries to engage the senses. Travel, for example, was all about the exhilarating sensation of movement and navigating an environment. The distortion of shapes to create this sensation was key. Garden, on the other hand, is all about the sensation of color that one experiences in navigating a floral space. World Map Room is Yokoyama's attempt at depicting sound.

There's a repeating event in the book where planes launched from an airport in the center of the city fly slow low that they leave behind a roaring backwash of sound that rattles buildings and people. It's the emblem of the strangeness that the three men, all of whom, as Yokoyama notes have the sort of circular heads of a slightly different race of beings. Indeed, their outfits and the city itself are heavily stylized in a strange and futuristic manner that's designed to have a maximum of attention-grabbing qualities. The patterns are garish and intense, especially from the men alien to the city. Yokoyama designs many of the sequences where each panel takes up a horizontal third of a two-page spread. This allows the reder to fully experience the sensation of intense sounds and sights washing over them. When they finally reach their destination, the clamor and clangor of the city is replaced by the quiet of what would one guess is the titular room. Even in a library, each of the books roars to life as the reader follows along in tomes about typhoons. The conversations the men have are deliberately inane, like in a Stanley Kubrick film. It's perfunctory dialog, designed to move the men from room to room and discuss little more than surface issues about what's around them. Their desires, needs and goals are all left unknown and unknowable; drowned out, as it were by the cacophony they encounter. It is fitting that the book ends with looking at the mostly sunken boat, because that is an image of implacable stillness, especially since the owner notes that the boat cannot be retrieved.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #19: Team Society League

The Team Society League is a collective of artists working in the same style and same general set of characters to draw the filthiest, funniest gags they can conceive of. This group of Canadian cartoonists consists of John Martz, Aaron Costain, Zach Worton and Steve Wolfhard. A collection of their work was published by Annie Koyama, but there have been additional minicomics published since then (Team Society League IV and V) that are every bit as funny as that release. The gags are all silent and indulge in every violent, absurd and scatological premise imaginable. An anthropomorphic hot dog who continually loses the meat from his bun in painful and humiliating ways is perhaps my favorite character, because he exists simply to be punished.

Some of the gags here are fairly conceptual, like a panel with Tarzan, a panel with an ape, a panel with the two of them colliding swing on vines and then a panel of the last scene of Planet of the Apes is an especially effective cartoon. There were more pop culture parodies here than showed up in the Koyama collection, which I imagine is for legal reasons. As such, it was a treat to see a character dressed as Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" command the broom to go up his ass. It was a bam-bam, two panel gag that spent no more time than necessary in crafting and executing the joke. Team Society League serves as a kind of joke outlet, steam valve and goof-off activity from other assignments, but it's become its own dependably well-crafted entity. Each of the artists must maintain a certain standard of outrageousness, of course, but they must also maintain a certain stand of gag creation as well. It's not so much the grossness or transgressiveness of the cartoons that TSL creates, but the lengths they go to in order to make the funniest possible joke surround a gross or shocking concept.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #18: Dave Kelly & Lara Antal

Dave Kelly and Lara Antal's Tales of the Night Watchman is a clever hybrid of super-heroics, horror and slice-of-life storytelling. Its structure allows for an episodic quality to the stories as well as a larger overall storyline, as it follows a man named Charlie who happens to be possessed by a mystical, protective force called the Night Watchman. Essentially, in terms of design and concept, he's kind of a hybrid between The Spirit and The Spectre. Antal's drawing at times is crude, but it's always clear and particularly well-suited to the many quiet and funny character moments. Indeed, this comic is as much about life working as a barista as it is about fighting the forces of the supernatural.

Charlie winds up going to an apartment he had lived in sixty years earlier, only to find it occupied by Nora. In a manner as yet unexplained in the series, she agreed to help him by letting him stay there in exchange for him working at the coffee shop. Nora is a political blogger following the progressive political actions of a particular councilman everyone hoped would run for mayor. Kelly sort of telegraphed from the start that this man wasn't what he seemed but quickly takes that notion way over the top and into the land of the supernatural. The best aspect of the book is the chemistry between Nora and Charlie that is nonetheless platonic. Indeed, that chemistry has more to do with their mutual curiosity about the unknown. The one-shot "The Night Collector" (drawn by Molly Ostertag) is similarly slightly crude in its attempts at naturalism, but crude always beats slick when it comes to horror. This is a clever, unsettling story about romantic betrayals and vampires that takes some interesting twists and turns. The ending is actually quite surprising, as even though the chief vampire is slain, it's not exactly a happy ending. I like the way in which vampires are treated as almost like feral animals, as well as the ways in which this story revolves around sex but isn't the least bit titillating. These are solid and well-told comics, and while there are plenty of rough edges in every aspect of the storytelling, there's also a sincerity and belief in these characters that comes through on every page.

Monday, March 17, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #17: Dark Revelation

Dark Revelation, published by small independent studio Anarchy Comics, is an odd throwback to 90s-style Top Cow T&A horror comics. Like the comics it's trying to emulate (think Witchblade or The Darkness), there's a germ of a clever idea buried under an avalanche of anatomically strained cheesecake drawings, a slow-developing plot and cliched dialog. The high concept here is that that a teen named Candy Clark is actually the product of a demon raping a woman. The series was created by "creative director" Aaron Steele-Nicholson (an idea man?) and writer Justin Olson, and the first issue was drawn by Koi Turnball, who clearly looked to Top Cow's brokeback poses for how he chose to draw women. The second issue, drawn by Roderick Thornton (yes, I thought it odd that a three-issue miniseries had two different artists from the first to second issue) is slightly moodier and less slick, actually creating an atmosphere of dread rather than an atmosphere of eye-rolling ass shots with some demons thrown in for good measure.

Obviously, I am not the target audience for a comic like this. However, this comic had basic structural problems that made it difficult to parse. There were frequent times when dialog and the art on the page didn't match up, like when a nemesis of Candy's confronts her in a locker room (both just wearing towels, of course), the facial expressions and actual movements don't make much sense when compared to what is actually said. The artist in the first issue only seemed capable of drawing women (and even most men) as looking like teenager, resulting in Candy's mother drawn to look like someone as young as her sister. (I understand that she gave birth to Candy at a young age, but 35 year olds do not look like 18 year olds.) There's a side plot regarding a group of Church-organized demon hunters that is brought up and then immediately discarded. I gathered from the back cover of the second issue that there's a plot twist or two coming up, but the dialog and character development here is akin to that of an 80s slasher picture. It's simultaneously perfunctory and tedious, as nothing Olson does makes Candy an interesting character. Really, the only interesting character in the book is a priest with a smoking problem, one who starts as a comedic character and then turns into something more important. As I said, there are interesting ideas in the book but something was lost in the translation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #16: Mike Maihack

Scholastic is launching yet another series of young adult adventure comics in Cleopatra In Space. The first volume, Target Practice, consists almost entirely of set-up, apart from an exciting opening sequence. As such, the book almost screams "infodump" as it introduces its premise and supporting characters. Despite being able to see through the book's structure, it works because it's charming in every way. Despite the fact that this is commercial work, it's obvious that the artist, Mike Maihack, loves drawing pretty but not overly sexualized girls, cats and ray guns. The plot is total nonsense: Cleopatra is thrust forward into the future at the age of fifteen in order to serve as the savior of a galactic civilization that's being threatened by a dread, information-devouring empire. Maihack unapologetically makes Cleo speak like a typical teenager, with modern teenage problems. The real Cleopatra was just seven years away from seducing Julius Caesar and securing her grip on the Egyptian throne, but Cleo in this book laments being confined to the palace and wants a life of adventure.

Prior to all that, that opening sequence is straight out of the Indiana Jones playbook, as Cleo takes a stolen item and tries to escape an entire tribe of cute but dangerous aliens, barely getting out of situation by the skin of her teeth, thanks to the talking cat that's driving her sphinx-shaped rocket vehicle. Yes, the book starts out silly but grounds every one of its future plot points in the expositional pipe that's laid down after that opening sequence. We meet the talking cats of the future and get some hints at discord in the talking-animal council; we meet the characters who prove to be Cleo's best friend and potential love interest in the future, and we see how Cleo's expertise with a slingshot transfers into an expertise with ray guns. This is a book aimed at 8-12 year olds, and it seems like it would have immediate appeal to that age group--both boys and girls. Maihack's line is cartoony and has the appeal of a certain kind of stripped-down style inspired by animation, but it feels like it was drawn, rather than assembled. The color accents the work but doesn't dominate Maihack's line. Cleo is funny and sassy but also flawed as she and everyone else tries to figure out how the prophecy that brought her there will actually enable this teenager to save the universe. There's a fluidity in the storytelling and character development that makes this a light and breezy read from beginning to end, as Maihack never lets the plot-driven need to introduce new characters and subplot detract from the delightful energy on every page that surrounds his Cleopatra.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #15: Caitlin Cass

Caitlin Cass continues to make comics about the classics in an irreverent yet critically clever and forthright manner. Comics about philosophers are inexplicably in vogue these days, but only Cass has the actual training in philosophy and eye as a humorist to create comics that fully explore the possibilities behind both the people behind the ideas and the implications of the ideas themselves. In Those Indolent Greeks, Cass shows off her talents as an illustrator, as each page features a different Greek thinker, done in blue tones and designed to reflect the images of these men as is known but also attempting to soften their features. Each of the lines of dialog is reflective of what the thinker is known for, expressed in terms of their regrets, their fears and their secret desires to do anything but be a philosopher. With Euclid saying things like "I don't even like geometry" and Socrates saying "So it turns out that knowing you know nothing leads to crippling self-doubt and eventual death by the state...oh well!", Cass strikes at the heart of the doubt that afflicts every artist and thinker.

In the fifth issue of what seems to be a 20+ issue story, The Index, the antagonists (Susan and John) explore the Library of Alexandria that seems to have magically appeared. Talking to the great critic Diogenes, Susan looks through the scrolls and sees they're filled with snippets of books that she has read. Slowly, she understands that they've discovered an imaginary environment, one that's entirely "in our heads". This series is consistently odd and funny, as it seems to be Cass' own inner argument regarding truth, meaning, purpose and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Her sequential storytelling is less interesting to look at than her static illustrations, as there are times when she tries to make up for a lack of cartooning skill by drawing extra lines. Her panel-to-panel transitions aren't especially fluid and her characters still look a bit stiff. On the other hand, the quirky, almost decorative quality of her lettering adds a lot to the visual presentation of her comics. The ideas are more interesting to look at than the art, all told, but this is such a fascinating premise and Cass' visual strengths are so unique that the series can't help but gain momentum as it proceeds, becoming her longest and most developed work to date.

Friday, March 14, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #14: Jason Walz

Jason Walz just had a kid, so as a way to keep in touch with making comics while he's unable to work on a longer work, he's instead publishing Crap Shoot, an anthology with comics, interviews, and even links to download music. Each issue is themed, and in honor of his new arrival, the first issue's theme is "love". Walz' own "Second Chance" is a melodramatic story with a rather predictable happy ending. What makes it palatable is the cleverness of the story structure and eye-catching nature of the page design. In particular, Walz's use of blacks to divide up panels and create a bleak atmosphere gives way to using negative white space to brighten up the page when things start to look up for its protagonist. This is a story that might have been more effective if Walz didn't oversell his narrative with plaintive narrative captions.

The conversation with Brown is notable for the warmth and friendliness between the artists, especially as they discuss how one's creative process changes when children come along. It also included a sneak-peek at Brown's then-new book, A Matter of Life. Walz's short story "Cosplay" is one of his best, cleverly interweaving two romantic storylines expressed in dramatically different ways through conversational and body language cues. The story works well because Walz gives the reader a lot to look at with all of the costumes, but still manages to focus attention on the key players. I was less impressed by the story he published by Trung Le Nguyen, "The Deliberation of Psyche In Love and Mortality". The short was as labored and overworked as its title, as the detailed linework didn't make up for the static imagery and panel-to-panel flatness.

The theme of the second issue was "lies". Once again, when Walz writes a dramatic story (as in "Antlers", he overdoes it. This is a story about guilt in the form of a creature wearing antlers haunting a woman who cheated on her boyfriend. Walz simply pounds the story's ideas into the ground, suffocating the reader with a clever idea that suffers from his need to spell everything out. On the other hand, when Walz goes back to humor, as in "Fortune", he nails the mix of interpersonal drama and a killer concept as three young people get oddly-specific fortunes that seem designed to foment tension among their tight-knit group. I was less interested to read Walz' interview with Laurie Sandell, whose book about her father with a fake identity was marred by her use of the language of twelve-stepping. Finally, the short story "Moses" by Dean Westerfield and Jeff Guarino, is a promising augur of their longer narrative that's still in the works. The concept and execution of this publication is something that's needed in comics, as Walz tries to introduce the reader to new work that he finds interesting, has an outlet to publish his own short stories and tries to learn more about other artists and their feelings about particular ideas.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #13: Josh Simmons

Moreso than any other horror artist I can think of, Josh Simmons draws comics that are genuinely upsetting. At the same time, his comics can be funny, poignant and deeply strange. Chuck Forsman's Oily Comics imprint published its first "giant-size" mini in publishing an anthology of Simmons' work in Habit #1. An anthology of Simmons' work at a size that flatters his intricate linework and knockout images was one of Forsman's best ideas as a publisher, and this was one of the best minicomics of 2013.

The first story, "Seaside Home", is an example of Simmons' use of character and environmental detail as a kind of misdirection for something awful, inexplicable and lethal occurring, like in his book House. The sadness of the little girl who's the protagonist of the story, the callousness of her parents and the majesty of their seaside home are all subject to the random and inexorable forces of nature and the suffocating, unrelenting qualities of water. This story is a gut punch because Simmons makes the readers care about the little girl in the span of just a few panels before unleashing the unthinkable.

Habit also includes the latest episodes of his serials "The White Rhinoceros" and "Jessica Farm". The former serial appeared in the pages of Mome, while the latter has been published by both Fantagraphics and by Simmons himself. "The White Rhinoceros" is written by "The Partridge in a Pear Tree" and is a crazy fantasy story wherein Paul Lynde and Rosie o'Donnell (never named but fairly explicitly referenced) wind up in Racelandia, confronted by a cute baby pink Polack and a young boy in search of "racial magic". It's a hilarious, over-the-top exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes repurposed such that the meaning of each word has been totally altered and put in a fantasy context. Horrible slurs become monsters or harmless creatures, and a cup of racism is a life-giving drink. A bit of history and context is provided in this issue, but the hows and whys of Racelandia are still unexplained. The delicacy and even cuteness of Simmons' line is absolutely perfect for the bizarre and disorienting storyline and satire. This episode of "Jessica Farm", on the other hand, sees Simmons at his most visceral. He mixes whimsical character design with cringe-worthy gore and violence, as what seems to be a magical world for its protagonist is in fact filled with great danger. The other stories, "Behemoth" and "The Choice Is Clear" (illustrated by Wendy Chin), see Simmons creating an atmosphere of creepy mystery that may be malevolent or just simply strange. This mini is a showcase for Simmons' talent and the variety of material he's interested in as an artist.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #12: Joe Infurnari

Joe Infurnari is a talented cartoonist whose style is a sort of marriage of Mort Drucker-style exaggerated caricatures and the grotesque qualities of modern humor comics. Pretty much every line is over the top, ridiculous and expressive, assaulting the viewer with his form of virtuoso linework. In  Vs., co-written with Alexis Sottile, Infurnari details the various horrific living situations he dealt with in the New York area, reimagined as hulking and disgusting monsters. There's a frantic quality to his work that's straight out of MAD, both in terms of the rubbery and explosive nature of the drawings themselves but also because of the way he uses Bernie Krigstein-style shadows to amusingly heighten the drama in each sequence.

In his series Time Fucker, Infurnari uses a high concept more reminiscent of another humor magazine: National Lampoon. A schlub name Sal is haunted by the specter of his younger brother Dick, who not only could do no wrong but had sex with Sal's object of his affection, a girl named Sally. So naturally Sal finds Thomas Edison's Peepshow Time Machine (which requires its user to mount it to make it work) and comes up with the idea of having sex with the mom of everyone who ever wronged him, starting with his brother, in order to blot them out of existence. It's a ludicrous concept that works because Infurnari takes every joke as far as he can go. For example, he learns that Dick's dad is actually the flamboyant R&B singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who cockblocks him when he tries to have sex with his own mom. When he tries to erase Screamin' Jay Hawkins from existence, he learns that the entire line of his ancestry beats the crap out of him, until he finds a prehistoric relative ("Missin' Link Lucy") whom he manages to subjugate. Naturally, that triggers a future where hamsters rule the earth.

That sort of convoluted logic gets even crazier in the second issue, where he succeeds in his quest but finds (after a series of hilariously-drawn sex scenes, with each position being given a silly name) that things are complicated than he initially thought. The comic was originally published online at Dean Haspiel's Trip City website, and it has the feel of a web comic on the page. That is, it seems  like Infurnari feels compelled to grab the reader's attention in every single panel on every single page. Part of this is a function of his line, which leans toward the grotesque and distorted in every drawing, but it's also a function of working hard to make every last line look funny. As a result, reading these comics was enjoyable but also exhausting, as the eye had no place to pause or rest on any given page. Even pages and panels where gags weren't needed or part of the story at that moment still get funny-looking, labored drawings, which at times makes it difficult to differentiate between sequences that are actually funny and those that simply look funny. The concept and execution of this series is outrageous enough without having to sell it on every page. To his credit, Infurnari relaxes a bit toward the end of the second issue, mixing in crazed fight sequences with drawings that are still intense but don't take the reader out of the narrative.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #11: Jimmy Gownley

Jimmy Gownley has been doing all-ages comics for about fifteen years, with his Amelia Rules! being his best known and most successful work. His latest comic, The Dumbest Idea Ever, basically draws from the Raina Telgemeier playbook in terms of structuring autobiographical stories in a carefully and rigidly prescribed manner. Indeed, Telgemeier herself blurbs this release by her fellow Scholastic author, and one can't help but think of Scholastic trying to expand their successful brand of autobio that Telgemeier pioneered for the all-ages crowd. Whereas Telgemeier's first two books were about specific kinds of trauma and the pitfalls we experience when trying to make friends (Smile) and a fictional account of her experience as a drama club techie (Drama), Gownley's book is more of an origin story for how he became an artist.

Gownley's soft figure design is attractive, clean and expressive. He designed a large number of characters for this book and does a fine job in making each one distinctive. The book's story structure, partly told in flashback, is an effective framing device that gives the reader a sense of what to expect right away without giving away too many details. Ultimately, this is a book about finding one's own way as a person and flailing about for something that makes one special and unique. A long bout with illness turns him from an academic overachiever to a bit of a slacker, until he finally realizes that he can make his own comic book. When he starts out with a dumb fantasy/sci-fi comic that his best friend doesn't have the heart to tell him is awful, Gownley is inspired by said friend to create stories about everyday life. For an alt-comix reader, this isn't exactly a revelation, but for its target audience of 10-12 year olds, it's mean to be an astounding concept.

The problem with this book is that at 236 pages, it's astoundingly padded. The pacing is often glacial, and while Gownley tries to be as self-deprecatory as possible, there's a creeping sense of self-congratulation that pervades the book. Gownley even addresses this when he receives a lot of attention in town for the book and alienates his friends, until he realizes that compared to real artists, he has no talent. Of course, it's easy to look back at one's work and come to this conclusion, but the back cover describes Gownley as a "renowned" comics creator and his own bio mentions the "rave reviews" that Amelia Rules! received. He's obviously quite proud of this book and already views it as a successful part of his mission to inspire other kids to create comics. While this will undoubtedly be the case, I couldn't help wishing that the book was better and showed more storytelling restraint. While Gownley tries to build atmosphere and develop the camaraderie between his childhood self and former rivals turned friends, there's a sense of repetitiveness at work here. The same goes for the scenes with his childhood girlfriend Ellen, though those pages are heightened with a sense of tension and importance that at least gives them some momentum. Emotions are hammered home with lettering tricks and characters mugging on the page like actors staring into a camera. There are hints of Gownley's meditative side to be found in the book, but they're drowned out by the larger narrative. The most important message--that finding one's creative spark is more important than worrying about "success"--is drowned out both in terms of the book's own narrative and Gownley's own success as a cartoonist, a success that he quantifies on the front cover as a "New York Times Bestselling Author".

Monday, March 10, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #10: Veronica Mautner

Veronica Mautner, teenage daughter of my colleague Chris Mautner, handed out copies of her debut Indefinable: Book One. Unsurprisingly, there's a thank-you at the end to Annie Koyama, whose benevolence and munificence is everywhere in the world of comics. It's a solid and ambitious first effort, as Mautner clearly wants this to be the first part of a longer epic. The story concerns a war-torn world of some kind and a girl named Lark. When she is told that she has magic powers and must go on a quest to save her ruined father, Mautner puts her character through the paces of training and ultimately the beginning of her journey. This chapter ends with her first confrontation with a hooded adversary named The Void, who is responsible for all of the death and destruction across various worlds.

Mautner is a beginner, so her art is understandably rough. It looks like she mostly drew it in magic marker, and she crams her panels together in a manner that looks disjointed. Her figure drawing is lively and expressive, though she hasn't mastered how to draw bodies interacting with each other in space. The story is certainly figure-heavy, and I found myself wishing she drew more in the way of backgrounds and atmosphere, especially in a fantasy setting. In terms of the story itself, Mautner does a nice job in terms of setting up dread and fear and contrasting that with childlike simplicity and innocence--especially with Lark's younger sister, Dawn. The various mentors and magical teachers are sort of tossed into the narrative without too much background, and as a result, they serve mostly as plot constructs instead of fleshed-out characters. One could sense Mautner wanting to get to the good stuff in the story but feeling compelled to explain how Lark developed her abitiies--in other words, Mautner was compelled to provide an origin sequence. I found myself wishing for less of that and more of Lark actually exploring and doing things, as the comic just started to get interesting when it ended. That's especially true of the relationship between Lark and Dawn, where the older Lark is not nearly as clever and experienced as she appears to be in front of her sister. Mautner clearly put a lot of thought into this comic, especially in terms of effects like spot color, which was quite effective. I hope she continues to hammer out this story as long as she continues to enjoy it, because Mautner already has a sense of story structure, gesture, character expressiveness and intriguing plot ideas.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #9: Jeff Zwirek

Jeff Zwirek's Kickstarter-powered collection of his Burning Building Comix minicomics series deftly takes on the challenge of "stacking" the original comics in a manner that makes the reading experience of it unique. It's a book that's formatted landscape style, but is meant to be read sideways, and from the bottom up. Each row represents a different tenant on a different floor in an apartment building that catches on fire. The reader is meant to start at the bottom "floor", reading left to right as they turn the pages, and then turn back to the beginning and start at the next floor. Each story is self-contained, as they describe how each tenant manages to escape and the perils they face in doing so, but some stories are more closely linked than others.

Zwirek's figure drawing is straight out of the playbook conceived of by fellow Chicago residents Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti. Brunetti's influence is especially pronounced, with the squat characters with oversized heads and generally cartoony, exaggerated forms. Brunetti is an acknowledged friend and mentor of Zwirek, but beyond the easy figure comparison, Brunetti's more profound influence is that of silent problem-solving on the page. Each of the character's stories is told without using dialog or caption, with the exception of pictorial word balloons. It's an excellent method, because it strips away all that is unnecessary on the page and allows the reader to figure out what's happening in each story before and as each apartment catches on fire. It's especially effective because the physical action in each panel is propulsive and panicky, a combination that leads to a number of funny sight gags. At the same time, Zwirek puts in an astonishing amount of background detail in every panel as a way of offering clues as to each character's life and even possible connections to other tenants in the building.

Most of the strips rely on easy-to-understand sight gag jokes, like the dog trying to rouse his sleeping elderly owner or the obese man trying to squeeze out of the apartment. The bit where he hopes on a long-abandoned exercise bike in order to desperately lose a pound or two to slide out of the apartment was especially amusing. The tale of a Satanist trying with a gas-masked topped goat's head on his wall is even funnier, as he thinks he's summoned real hellfire after a ritual fizzled out, and the masks of the firemen build a truly inspired visual gag. Zwirek ties everything together with a love story in the final two "stories" of the building, as two people in relationships that have just failed realize that they're in love with each other when the fire builds--and both run to save the other, only to find the other isn't there. It's propulsive screwball comedy at its best, and the thicker panel weights indicating a flashback (which Zwirek helpfully points out in the book's notes) seamlessly lead the reader along this narrative path. The book is one long formal gimmick, but it's an inspired gimmick that's perfectly designed and executed. That includes the use of color in this edition, which is restrained, tasteful and attractive--a perfect complement to the frantic nature of the narrative itself.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #8: Victor Kerlow

Victor Kerlow's Everything Takes Forever (Koyama Press) is a fascinatingly scratchy and casual series of short stories by the well-known illustrator for the New York Times and New Yorker that serve as a way to explore variations on body size, dreams and mutations in a fantastical setting. "Little Guy" is the lead story and examines a common fantasy concept: waking up to find oneself tiny and naked. The main character, Frank, finds himself next to a full-sized version of his naked girlfriend Laura, and the obvious thoughts about how sex might work are squelched when the sleeping woman absent-mindedly flicks him away from her nipple. Kerlow explores the ramifications and possible cause of this as the comic proceeds, and while there's nothing mind-blowing about the comic, there's an exciting rawness that pulses from each page, thanks to his chunky figure drawing. "Big Mouth" seems inspired by the grotesque surrealism of the great Bill Plympton that segues into a stream-of-consciousness narrative by the Frank character waking up out of a dream.

Sleeping, dreaming and the sometimes unreal connection between the two is a constant through-line in these short stories, as "Weird Things, Downstairs" is about Frank's almost visceral inability to fall asleep and the accompanying sense of frustration. "Big Crocodile Tears" and "Understanding" both involve monsters in mundane situations, as Frank tells off a clingy monster ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend's to get out in the former story and negotiates wisdom in the latter. Kerlow loves drawing monsters almost as much as he loves drawing the nude human form and especially enjoys low-key, low-stakes interactions between the two. In his other strips, Kerlow explores characters who express themselves in aggressive but absurd terms. His Taco Head character (featured on the cover) is silly but totally aware of his own weird appearance. The strip where he goes to a restaurant and orders a taco is both bizarre and a fascinating example of squirm humor, as the profane character is relentlessly in the face of anyone who questions him for a second, as well as more passive characters like his friend Toast Head. "The Aggravator" features a guy perched on top of his car taunting a cop who is eager to arrest him, before another car crashes into them and turns a verbal confrontation into a grisly, visceral scene of carnage.

 In all of these bizarre stories that emphasize shadows, grit and unexpected turns on reality, there's an essential mundane quality that grounds the work and is the real source of Kerlow's inspiration. In these sloppy, sketchy and spontaneous works.collected here, the reader gets a look into ideas that seem like obsessions for Kerlow. Bodies are both sexualized forms and sacks of meat in Kerlow's cartoons; dreams range from the fantastic to the deadly dull; things that are horrific and transformations that are monstrous all carry a quotidian essence that makes them part of business as usual. That sense of understatement, above all else, is what makes these comics funny.

Friday, March 7, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #7: Nick Andors

Nick Andors' debut A Frozen World is a gritty howl of a comic, one that's perhaps too dependent on shock value and twists and not confident enough in its character-building. The story links together four different character narratives that take place in the distopian city of Irongates, which is partly a metaphor for urban life and partly a metaphor for prison, though for Andors the difference between the two can be considered negligible. The first story is short and mostly serves as set-up for the rest of the narratives, as it depicts what life is like in the city and how some people find ways to escape the mandatory "lock-up" at night and wander around the city. The second story follows a member of the "body patrol", a worker whose job it is to pick up the many corpses that litter the streets of the city. This particular patrolman has been mute to most partners for years after his pregnant wife was murdered in the streets on the day he got married. This story loads up on the pathos and doubles down on misery, though it does allow its protagonist a sweet ending of sorts.

Of course, that's all warm-up for the main narrative, a story about a deadly woman named Anneka. She's introduced to us at a low point, as a contract put out on her life is fulfilled by a group of thugs. Much of the story is a flashback to her childhood and the painful headaches and voice she hears in her head, assuaged only by the occasional ministrations of her neighbor Ivan. Her family life makes that of the character Precious in Push look like a birthday party. The father is overbearingly abusive, both physically and emotionally, while the mother is a crackhead who spends the entire day zoned out. When her father tries to kill her by slicing up his face, she transforms into a killer of killers by cutting off his head. Andors isn't afraid to get dirty, gritty and visceral in these scenes of violence. There's nothing pretty or exciting about them; they are simply horrific and graphic, like when she cuts off a rapist/killer's penis and shows it to him. There are a few twists here that aren't too hard to predict, including the weird twist of the misshapen Ivan never seeming to grow old, and the eventual reveal in the fourth part of the book as to who he actually is.

There is potential to be found in this first work by an artist who clearly poured everything he had into this book. Visually, the resemblance to Farel Dalrymple's realistic but occasionally grotesque and fantastic rendering style is pronounced. There's a heavy reliance on spotting blacks as a means of creating the book's relentlessly downbeat atmosphere. Andors' chops are not quite up to the task of maintaining steady character rendering on page after page, with some figures looking cruder than others. The shock value employed on a number of pages was less interesting than his actual attempts at character development, especially with regard to Anneka. She's an interesting character despite the cliches of her background, and the certain death she faces at the end (without revealing her actual fate) was a clever resolution of her storyline. This book might have had a great emotional impact if Andors had been a bit more restrained in his use of gore and violence, and it seems that in general as a cartoonist, restraint and greater simplicity would be useful watchwords for him.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #6: Batton Lash

Batton Lash has been doing his legal/horror spoof Supernatural Law (formerly Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre) for thirty-five years now, going through virtually every form of comics publishing imaginable. What started as a comic strip in a local newspaper and then a law journal became a black-and-white comic book. When trade paperbacks became a popular way of keeping one's work in print, Lash started collecting his comics. When the market changed such that alternative comic books as such were no longer a viable model to make money on a consistent basis, Supernatural Law moved to the web. With crowdfunding services like Kickstarter on the rise, Lash conducted such a campaign to put together a complete graphic novel in color, The Werewolf of New York.

Lash's comics have always had an amiably amusing quality. His targets for satire have always tended to be easy ones, especially in the way he tends to portray them for the most effective comedic beat-downs. For example, the villains in this story are the People for the Rights, Interests and Concerns of Shapeshifters, or PRICS. This is a PETA stand-in that objects to court-ordered rehab for a werewolf that had been seen running around New York City. Lash couldn't quite stop at making the PRICS annoying because they valued a werewolf's freedom over the safety of the city; instead, he took the further step of making their methods far more nefarious. Gilding the lily in that fashion led to a plot twist that was pretty easy to see coming but that added little to the narrative itself, but it did help the comic end in a more pat fashion. One of the problems with the book is that this particular story didn't seem to merit lasting over a hundred pages. To be sure, there were nice character moments with Lash's well-established cast of characters, like their secretary Mavis. Dipping into the personal lives of the lawyers Wolff and Byrd has often been the most fun part of reading this comic, with the supernatural case law shtick feeling like more of a structural foundation instead of the real focus of the series. This book puts the plot front and center, and it's not interesting or varied enough to carry the book. The other problem with this volume is that printing it in color didn't do much for Lash's art. Indeed, I've always enjoyed the crispness of his black-and-white work, as it complemented his Dan DeCarlo-influenced character design without looking too bright. The use of color here overwhelmed Lash's thin line in some spots. Hopefully, future volumes will return to shorter vignettes with more character subplots running through them as well as a return to Lash's moody-but-cheerful black and white line.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #5: Lilli Carre' and Thereza Rowe

The hardcover comics aimed at new readers from Toon Books have always uniformly done two things well. First, the design has always been impeccable, making each book its own little unique art object. They're simply beautiful to look at. Second, they are rock-solid in terms of comics storytelling fundamentals. The two most recent books from Francoise Mouly's publishing collaboration with Candlewick Press, Hearts and Tippy and the Night Parade, are no exception. Each book is visually distinctive in its own way. Hearts, which was created by Thereza Rowe, features characters put together with cut paper on the page. It's an elegant and beautiful approach that compensates for the slight stiffness of its figures with a propulsive, exciting story. Like a film beginning its narrative with credits rolling over it, so does Hearts set up its book-long chase sequence with protagonist Penelope the fox having her heart broken when her friend leaves on a rocketship. The book consists of her losing her broken heart and chasing a variety of characters who briefly wind up with it, including dolphins, birds, a paper airplane, and a king and queen. This is a Level 1 Toon Book, so it's aimed at emerging readers, and thus the dialogue is quite simple and limited. That makes Rowe's spectacular and varied use of color in particular a crucial part of the storytelling. Indeed, having Rowe do a book injects a bit of the NoBrow aesthetic into the Toon Books line: clear, bright and colorful.

Lilli Carre's background in animation was obviously of great help to her in creating her first book for children. If Hearts was a race, then Carre's Tippy and the Night Parade is a slow and gentle procession, one that keeps looping around on itself. Like Hearts, the narrative for Tippy begins on the inside front cover, when we seed an odd procession of animals strolling across the page, until we see a bird sleeping on someone's head. It turns out to be the titular Tippy, whose room is a mess and filled with an odd assortment of animals and plants. Tippy remembers nothing but going to sleep, and then kicks the narrative into gear by imagining what she might have done: take a walk on the dock, get lost in the mist, hop across lily pads, fall in a big hole, go through a cactus patch, etc. Along the way, a variety of creatures start following her, until we wind up back at her house and precisely the same situation that started the book. Carre's use of dark blues for night is one of her trademarks; few cartoonists create a night as evocative and mysterious as hers. In this book, night is a welcoming blanket of wonder, albeit one that Tippy doesn't experience consciously. The fact that she's doing something a bit "bad" but doesn't remember the hows or whys is undoubtedly appealing to children. Once again, the simplicity of the narrative, pushing readers along a straight line that is actually more of a curve, makes it easy for them to understand what's going on and connect words to images. Toon Books is building a truly impressive library of books, as the savvy Mouly cultivates her connections in the worlds of children's literature, illustration and alternative comics to find the best possible candidates to create memorable books.