Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #31: Luke Healy

Luke Healy's output has been remarkably consistent since his CCS days. His comics have featured a unique blend of complex and flawed characters who are nonetheless treated with a great deal of empathy, a beautifully clear line and an unfailing ability to throw formal innovations into the mix in ways that serve both plot and character. That clean line and his overall aesthetic made him a perfect match for NoBrow, and so his first long-form book, How To Survive In The North is indeed from the British publisher. Perhaps in deference to scheduling, Healy actually simplified his line even further and kept the narrative & formal tricks to a minimum. Of course for Healy, what that meant was adapting two separate historical events into narratives and then throwing a third, fictional narrative in on top of it as a way of connecting and recapitulating the longer narratives.

The first narrative in the book concerns the ill-fated 1913 Arctic expedition commissioned by Vilhjalmur Stefansson and captained by Robert Bartlett, the second narrative is about ill-fated 1921 Arctic expedition that included Inuit seamstress Ada Blackjack, and the fictional narrative follows a modern-day professor forced into a sabbatical who researches the two expeditions. The common themes include a shocking and selfish disregard for others in pursuit of one's passions, tremendous resilience and courage in the face of impossible odds, Healy smartly gives the reader a taste of each of the storylines at the beginning of the book, all of them in media res, in part to deliver dramatic moments and pique the reader's interest as to how those moments were arrived at. A running theme in Healy's comics finds glib, silver-tongued characters pressuring generous-hearted characters into doing things against their better judgment.

For example, Steffansson uses a series of deceptions to get the highly skilled Arctic sailor Bartlett to lead a vessel that was in no way was ready for the wintry ocean conditions, and Steffansson abandoned them to their fates midway through the voyage. He also convinced Bartlett to take on a group of scientists even though he knew they would not get along with his crew under stressful circumstances. The adventurers that brought along Blackjack were woefully unprepared, lied to Blackjack about the presence of bears on the island they were exploring, lied to her about picking up other Inuits along the way and one of them was openly hostile to her presence. She took the job because she felt the pressure of needing to raise money for her son's illness. Finally, the professor (Sully) had an affair with one his students, a smarmy frat boy who couldn't care less about almost losing his job because of the affair. It wasn't just that they all made bad choices, it was that they were deliberately misled into making those bad choices by false promises.

Things get much worse for each of the protagonists: Bartlett loses his ship and chooses to take a risky course in order to get help; Blackjack is stranded with a dying adventurer while the other two try to take the same risky course; and Sully is further outed. Along the way, each of the protagonists makes valuable allies who wind up being key players. For Bartlett, it's a young Inuit named Kataktovik, whom Bartlett treats with respect and trusts implicitly. That decision wound up being a sound one, as Kataktovik does most of the work that saves Bartlett's life and the life of the crew. For Blackjack, apart from her own wits and grit, she had a cat to keep her company. For Sully, it was a librarian named Kendra who looked out for him and lent him an ear when he needed it most. It's no coincidence that in the teaser at the beginning of the book, all three of the protagonists are pictured at especially low and helpless points interacting with their allies.

Ultimately, the key theme is right in the title: "survive". Survival in the face of a hostile world is a powerful act. For the explorers, it required fortitude, empathy and cooperation. Scratching out a daily existence in the face of multiple natural forces that could easily kill you is both a traumatic and peak experience. Indeed, one explorer from the first expedition found he couldn't go back to normal life after surviving and was the only member of both expeditions. In Healy's hands, he represented someone who did not understand how important empathy was to the equation, and how its lessons could be applied even to mundane, everyday existence. Blackjack was his precise opposite, as she took her reprieve as a gift and made the most of it. In the scene that recapitulates the book, Sully pushes the student out of his life after the student tries to come over for another sexual encounter after it was made clear that the student had no concern for Sully's feelings. Referencing the underlying story behind both expeditions--that they were pointless, ill-prepared and selfishly undertaken--he essentially rejects everything that their relationship had been about. In that sense, Sully granted himself his own rescue.

The use of color was the key to the visual apprehension of the book. NoBrow books sometimes have a tendency to cudgel their readers with their unrelentingly vivid color schemes, but Healy turned down the brightness as much as possible while still adding variety to the book with the green of the ocean, the blue of the skies, the red of Blackjack's tent, etc. The color effectively helps move the eye across the page without distracting it too much. Healy executed his idea about as well as possible, even if the themes were fairly simple and even predictable at times. What made the book work was the quality of his character work, bringing Blackjack, Bartlett and Sully to life and making the supporting characters fully realized characters instead of just ciphers.

I've seen How To Survive In The North makes a few best-of lists this year, and deservedly so. However, Healy's minicomic The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Companion is the far superior work and is my choice for best minicomic of 2016. It is narratively and thematically sophisticated, its characters complex and its formal flourishes are not only conceptually and visually striking, they are also crucial to the realization of both story and character. There's a certain resonance with the works of Charlie Kaufman here, like Adaptation and Synecdoche, NY. While both of those films veer off into magical realism, the comic does touch on the difficulties of adapting a written work into a performative one, as well as how obsessing over the minutiae of stagecraft can betray hidden meanings.

The mini is a hybrid of a script and a comic. There is a strong meta level here where the reader in essence becomes not just the audience, but an essential part of the story, even listed as part of the cast with a clever footnote. It's one of many meta references in the play that remind the reader that what they're experience is performative, something they are watching that is both real and not real at the same time. The story features four principle characters. There's director Robin Huang, who was drummed out of theater after a disastrous reinterpretation of MacBeth. There is novelist A.B. "Dave" Cadbury, the pen name of a minor author whose book, The Cuckoo's Nest, stunningly won a major literary award. There is Robin's daughter Natalie, who is in detention for coming into conflict with one of her teachers. Finally, there is Wally Milk, the set designer who is in constant conflict with Robin. There's another character, a producer, but he's more of a plot-mover than a fully-formed character. The producer introduces Robin and Dave and says that she wants him to adapt his book to the stage. Wally is hired to design the set, and he has rather firm and immediate ideas on how to do so.

Robin knows that this is her one chance to reclaim her career, though the producer puts all kind of pressure on her in terms of time and adds the dubiously positive news that the premiere will be aired live on BBC. The problem is that the book defies adaptation. It's about a young man in Ireland who grows up without a father and doesn't even know his name until his mother lets it slip on her deathbed. He joins and then deserts the IRA when he gets to Dublin and finds his father's house. The rest of the book is about him painstakingly searching the empty house and making occasional comments, and it ends abruptly and without any resolution. Healy carefully but casually establishes the strained relationship between Robin and Nat as well as the strained relationship between Robin and Wally. Not unlike How To Survive In The North, Healy casually but carefully sets up each character's storyline and then lets it play out like a finely-crafted mechanism, which happens to be the central metaphor of this comic. What's different about this comic is the astonishingly deft bits of misdirection that Healy throws at the reader.

In many respects, the story revolves specifically around Robin and Nat. The reader is given access to their thoughts and feelings in a way that's denied to them for every other character. What becomes clear is that despite her moodiness (which Healy initially uses as a smokescreen), Nat is the one character who has real insight into everything and everybody around her, only nobody will listen. The essence of her observations is this: wasting time trying to fix an event from the past is completely pointless. It is a lesson that every character has to learn in the story. There are any number of other lessons to be learned, like it's important to listen to others and set aside preconceived notions, that the world is a far smaller place than we might think, and that the encomiums of an audience of strangers is far less important than genuine connections with our loved ones. Above all else, it is impossible and irresponsible to try to connect to an absent figure in one's life when there are actual people needing attention.

A lot of this is communicated by that metaphor of the mechanism, wherein trying to reduce something that is in actuality irreducibly complex will only lead to breakdowns, physical and otherwise. The stage Wally is building is a startlingly complex series of rooms moved about through a series of gears, levers and pulleys, and it's so specifically realized in his mind that any other craftsmen who try to help can't help but botch it and injure actors in the process. By the same token, a script is in itself a kind of schematic for a mechanism, wherein actors and stage come together with precision according to her version of someone else's vision. It is not stated explicitly, but the fact that Robin is an Asian woman plays into the story in an important way. She's a double outsider in the theatrical world of London, and it's telling that her MacBeth failed in part because she gave Lady MacBeth and expanded role, including much more dialogue. A woman giving another woman greater prominence in a play written by the playwright of playwrights, it is implied, was an unspeakable crime.

Healy creates a rhythm in this story with a rough four-panel grid wherein certain panels contain a four-panel grid of their own. Other panels are entirely dedicated to the script, which allows Healy to neatly pack a lot of verbiage into the comic without overburdening any individual panel. Indeed, there's a perfect balance of text and image in each panel, and Healy's simple, clear-line style allows him to go small without losing any fidelity in a given sub-panel. Another key formal tactic of Healy in the comic is inserting photographs into the comic. For example, when Robin meets Dave, he reminds her so much of her ex-husband (someone who is otherwise not spoken of) that she superimposes her ex-husband's image on top of his in photo form. The set that Wally builds is so intense and exacting that it too is rendered as a photograph. The contrast between the photos and Healy's clear line style is meant to be deliberately jarring for the reader and conveys a certain kind of bewilderment on behalf of the characters.

Of course, the comic is written and structured as a three-act play (written by Luke Healy), even as it's about someone writing a three-act play; it's as though Healy is laying bare the structure of how a story is made but using that apparent reveal for a specific reason. Indeed, all of that formal cleverness is suddenly made absolutely essential to character and plot in the third act, where a series of revelations (all cleverly and repeatedly foreshadowed by Healy earlier in the comic) served as far more than a brilliant turn. The revelations served to humanize the characters even further, to build empathy and underline connections in a sharp and deeply personal way. The ending, in a story about adapting a story with no ending, is as perfect and apt as Nat's own interpretation of key events, and it absolutely earns the quietly powerful emotion of the final page. The final irony of a comic written like a script is that this particular story was impossible to do in any other medium apart from comics. It's both a brilliant example of comics storytelling and a loving tribute to it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #30: Rio Aubry Taylor, Kevin Uehlein & DW

For Rio Aubry Taylor (who uses xe/xir pronouns), the urge to express xirself through abstract comics, lively genre comics and autobio are all tightly wound together. In Taylor's abstract comics series Tabe #12: Shed Your Blood For Pleasure, the repeated motif of dozens of vertical lines tightly packed together in a panel is used in some interesting ways. Taylor stops just short of making them hatching as xe adds a wavy quality to the lines that makes them all the more intense to look at. Taylor then modulates the reader's experience by experimenting with page design in terms of how many panels are stacked on each page and in what formation. Eschewing a standard grid, Taylor varies the height and width of the panels such that they alter the reader's experience by slowing them down on a page or speeding them up. By the simple quality of Taylor's hand, the line weight and the spaces between lines varies, creating a whorl effect on some pages. The reader's patience is eventually rewarded when Taylor (I'm guessing) improvises some figures that coalesce into musicians, revealing that the rest of the comic was a visual representation of experiencing sound. That was clever, but Taylor also carries this aesthetic into xir narrative series, Jetty.

Jetty is supported by Taylor's Patreon and appears as both a webcomic and a minicomic, of which five issues have been released. The series looks better as a minicomic than as a webcomic; something about it demands that it be on paper. This is an epic story that's clearly going to last a long time, and as a result, the first five issues are all over the place in terms of content. The first issue establishes the main plot, that "one billion minutes into the future", the sun disappears, causing worldwide chaos. As the series begins, a young girl named Mina is staying at a Buddhist monastery that's under attack by bandits and they have to escape. Along the way, we meet an explorer who's been stuck in the "dark internet" for two millennia, Mina is captured by a voracious shape-changing monster and then strikes it down when she suddenly evinces flame breath as a super-weapon, there's a blood-sucking insect who has intimate knowledge of important things, and meet a monk whose taste for alcohol gets him in trouble.

There is family turmoil and betrayal, physical and emotional trauma and greedy industrialists. Throughout the narrative, Taylor uses those abstract lines as a symbol for knowledge that's obscured or not yet attainable. Images, thoughts and beliefs fade in and out like a radio signal. The most remarkable issue was #4, which was an intensely personal story about Fill, a cyborg sorcerer's apprentice who is desperately looking for xir missing master. Fill was built to change xir appearance constantly and painfully, putting them in constant agony and making xir dangerous to others. Just as Taylor manifested addiction as a monster dragging people across jagged paths, so too did Taylor use Fill as a metaphor for being trans and desperate for human companionship. Taylor's intense and dense linework is at its pinnacle in this issue, as xe redesigns Fill in every panel with an astounding amount of detail each time. Fill's journey is far from complete in this issue, but Taylor's compassionate but unsparing account of xir life up to that point made for one of the best minicomics of the year. Overall, Taylor is really starting to get xir footing on the series, as each issue is more confident than the last as xe is allowing xirself to follow xir instincts on what storytelling instincts to follow. It's obvious that Taylor has truly found xir voice as a cartoonist as a result of creating this series.

Kevin Uehlein is an artist who seems to be on the verge of finding his voice, but is still trying to figure things out. He seems most comfortable working in funny animal style comics ala early Robert Crumb. In other words, anthropomorphic animals in adult situations. At the same time, Uehlein is interested in abstract narratives and psychedelia. Compulse 9 is an astoundingly beautiful collection of his color drawings, balancing that funny animal style with frequently apocalyptic, psychedelic imagery. It's sort of Joe Coleman meets Warner Bros. cartoons, as the images are funny, strange and yield more and more details upon close and long inspection. There's also the feel of a religious element as well, merging nature, death and life with ritual activities, as well as images that seem to bring to mind Hindu drawings. There are also anthropomorphic versions of Japanese samurai drawings from prints that are incredibly intricately drawn, as vivid as a Frank Frazetta drawing. Still, when I look at his drawings of cats in strange and psychedelic settings, I think of underground artists like Crumb or a more recent and perhaps sympathetic artist in Steve Lafler. It looks like he colored this using magic marker, and there's a rich, vivid quality to each page that makes this incredibly beautiful to study and appreciate.

Butt Gusters takes a different approach: black and white gag strips, mixing funny animal style as well as a highly cartoony but more naturalistic style. Uehlein is all over the map here. There's a funny autobio strip about giving up comics as a teen, a political strip about the absurd anti-trans "bathroom bills", and also lots of dark humor as well. There are inside jokes about comics (the "bad duck artist" gag was a good one), jokes about comedy (the stand-up for the elderly riffs on exactly what you would expect, but Uehlein still makes it funny), pop culture rants, joke mashups involving Caesar and pro wrestling, and plenty of visual jokes and puns. Every gag was so different that there wasn't much of a sense of rhythm, as it felt like Uehlein was throwing everything he could think of at the wall to see what would stick. Uehlein and DW teamed up KJC #3, their continuing collaboration comic. It's a nice match of DW's highly immersive use of patterns, collage and figures in a non-narrative manner with Uehlein's recognizable figure work, gags and psychedelia. They really went all-out in this issue, with everything in full color and some of the pages being done on transparencies, which was interesting on its own as well as when interacting with the art on the pages on either side of it. DW also engages in some dada narratives using his simplified figures, incorporating found text in the pieces to create a strange rhythm. This was by far the best of their collaborations: richer, more complex and more beautiful than the other issues. Again, Uelein seems to be on the verge of figuring out exactly what he wants to do, and I'm eager to follow whatever decision he makes.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #29: John Carvajal

John Carvajal has a pleasantly chunky, cartoony style of art that doesn't really remind me of many American contemporaries. There's a slight resemblance to Tom Hart, but the bigfoot stylings are far more reminiscent of French comics. That extends to his restrained, tasteful use of watercolors, especially in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series he's doing with the writer Simon Mesnard, Anterran: Day 0. The story is about a scientist named Stan and his younger friend Oliv'r as they navigate a world filled with zombie-types and ruthless agents of the dictatorship. The apocalypse was brought on by something that Stan was involved with: a sort of Motherbox technology in cube form called Sok'as that was used worldwide, until one day something went wrong and millions died. The story is very much about how a utopia dependent on an all-invasive technology is a fragile one, as technology can be manipulated. It's also implied that the psychological aspects of the cubes had an addictive quality; indeed, the mutants transformed when "Day 0" (the day of the apocalypse) arrived are junkies for them. Stan's goal is to populate a spaceship to move off-planet, and the creators throw in a wild card character named Cl'ar whom they rescue from mutants. While the series is heavy on info-dumps to catch the reader up on this particular bit of world-building, Carvajal's lively art animates the characters and keeps the readers interested in the action. The storytelling and composition of each page is fairly conventional, as the character design and expressiveness of the art is the real star of the series.

His one man anthology, Scraps, is predictably a mixed bag. It collects stories done for anthologies at CCS as well as other places. "Hidden Truth" is about an adventurer who stumbles upon an ancient temple and is seemingly aided by the spirits inhabiting it...until it's too late. It's a silent story, though its greater point beyond the ending as evidenced seemed oblique. Carvajal uses a lot of misdirection in his narratives, and "Saved" initially seemed to be about how the protagonist went on native on an alien planet but instead likely suffered some kind of hallucination...or did he? "Power Outage" does something similar, turning a story told in caveman times back into a modern yarn when the power came back on after an outage, leaving the dad initially upset that he didn't get to finish his story, until he finds his own distraction. It's a nice story about how losing one's attention to interpersonal connections is so incredibly easy. Carvajal's cartoony style is especially effective here.

"La Parcea" telegraphed its absurdity-of-war message, but "Mel's House" once again threw a real monkey wrench at the reader in the story of a man trying to escape from pursuers with his baby in a forest. Carvajal has a way of getting the reader to buy into the narrative from the perspective of the protagonist and then totally flip reality around to reveal that all was not what it seemed. "Forgotten", about a robot on a quest, is one of the best-drawn comics in the book. It goes on a few beats too long, but the drawing is so fun to look at that it was not a huge impediment. In general, however, the drawing in Anterran was considerably more confident and accomplished than the work here, which I think speaks to the power of experience. "Memories" and "Anxieties Of Life" are two of the stronger pieces in the comic, which gets better as it proceeds. Carvajal's autobio is restrained and thoughtful, as he recalls an idyllic time earlier in his life with his friends at the local swimming pool as he was riding a bus home. The latter is about the front he has to put up in front of his young students when he's teaching, as he's hit with an anxiety attack afterward. The best story in the book, "De Aqui Alla" was originally an entry in Frank Santoro's correspondence course, and the use of the grid and overall sense of discipline in his storytelling was evident in this story of a young trans woman who is frustrated by life, seems to meet her end in an accident, goes through a metaphysical journey and comes out the other side alive. That life has a cost, as Carvajal reveals in the final panel. It's clear that Carvajal is well on his way to doing some interesting things, and that the CCS experience allowed him to find his voice as a storyteller.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #28: The Other Side

CCS alum Melanie Gillman noted in the introduction to The Other Side, the anthology they co-edited (with Kori Michele Handwerker), that as a young queer person, they were drawn to paranormal romance fiction. That's because most other kinds of fiction were so heteronormative, they felt that paranormal romance at least opened up the possibility of something different, something outside the norm. In tribute to that idea, and in the spirit of queer fiction that doesn't inevitably wind up in tragedy, there's a pleasant warmth that suffuses the book. In general, I found that the overall quality of the anthology was especially solid for a self-published effort, and a quick inquiry into the book's Kickstarter status revealed that the editors raised enough money to give everyone a $60 page rate. Remarkable that when you pay an artist for a passion project, they have the time and energy to put their best foot forward.

The pitfall of a themed anthology is the possibility of too many similar kinds of stories. Gillman & Handwerker gave their contributors a theme tight enough so that they made sense sequentially but loose enough to let them interpret "paranormal" in any number of ways. Fyodor Pavlov's "The Black Dog" is straight-up folklore-style fantasy, only it turns the fear of the black dog as a harbinger for death on its ear and restores the faithful-dog idea, only in lycanthropic form. Like most of the stories in the book, it was a story where the use of grayscaling was entirely unobtrusive. There are also several paranormal "meet cute" stories, like Sfe' R. Monster's "En-bae & Boo", which is about the romance between a cryptozoographer and a ghost that started on the internet. There did seem to be two distinct styles of visual approaches in the anthology: dense and immersive or cute and clear.

There were haunted-object stories ("Emma-FZR 400 RRSP" by Mary Verhoeven and "Appliance" by Handwerker), which wound up doubling as sort of meet-cute stories. The latter was especially clever, because there was a genuine mystery behind it and the end was one of the few stories where things got more complex instead of all tied up neatly. There were haunted house/apartment/lighthouse stories ("Bare Bones" by Britt Sabo, "Yes No Maybe" by Kate Leth & Katie O'Neill and "Pulpit Point" by Amelia Onorato), of which Onorato's story was the best. The other two were cute but also extremely telegraphed from beginning to end; they were less stories than character impressions. Onorato's story had a genuine surprise twist and an element of discomfort to it on behalf of the poltergeist who can't leave the sea behind that made its ending far more poignant than most in the book. There were stories where characters try to get in touch with loved ones beyond the grave, like the quiet "Rabbit Stew" by CB Webb, the overly treacly "Till Death" by Gisele Jobateh and the hilarious "Ouija Call Center" by Mari Costa. The latter story is conceptually clever (a Ouija doll acting as a sort of supernatural operator) and emotionally satisfying in an unexpected way, as the ex-boyfriend the protagonist is trying to contact is a jerk and the operator tries to ameliorate that.

Another common trope was a sort of supernatural debt. F. Lee & Rainy's "Halo" was interesting for the striking image of an angelic spirit who was visible to a preacher, though the character work was a bit wobbly at times. Unsurprisingly in a story where the writer and artist split duties, it was overly talky. The writer-artist team of Laurel Varian and Ezra Rose got that balance better with "Third Circle Pizza", where a spirit was bound to a family-owned pizza parlor until a love interest intervened. The romance in this story felt real because the characters were so well-developed, and Varian even threw in a twist or two down the stretch. Unfortunately, "Fifty Years" by Sarah Winifred Searle and Hannah Krieger as well as "Shadow's Bae" by Bitmap Prager and Gillman both succumbed to that sense of being overwritten despite attractive art, especially on the part of Gillman. The points that Prager was trying to make in an otherwise cute story were hammered home in a way that was unnecessary, given Gillman's skill. The vampire plot in the first story felt played out and predictable.The wild west ghost story "Tierra Verde" had an intriguing premise but the end felt off, tonally. On the other hand, the hypnosis/telepathy theme of Aatmaja Pandya's "Airspace" felt emotionally raw and realistic, especially as a metaphor for how difficult it is for a person to express their true feelings and the existential problem of never being able to truly know what another person is feeling.

Three of the best stories in the anthology dealt with a character's relationship with a higher power. Natasha Donovan's "Dive" is beautifully drawn in an immersive style, with all sorts of whorls and intense line patterns. It's about a woman and her granddaughter walking on the shore, passing by an abandoned village. When the grandmother reveals that she used to live there, the granddaughter wants to know the story. In a clever move, the grandmother knits while she talks, literally spinning a narrative yarn in all respects. The story involves a mysterious woman showing up to help her, a game of chance against a supernatural being in an underwater village, and a tearful goodbye. The story ends in classic "return to me" style as the grandmother descends into the ocean. The dialogue is sharply written and there's actually a compelling plot and mystery in this story that's absent in a number of the other, breezier stories in the book. Kou Chen's "Beneath My Breath Above My Gaze" is a beautifully designed strip about a young man who nearly falls off a bridge on a mountain, only to be saved by the mountain's god. The god falls in love with him and the man is drawn back to the mountain for reasons he can't understand until his death as an old man. It's a subtle, restrained bit of storytelling that doesn't worry much about background information and instead focuses on emotion.

Along the same lines, and certainly the best piece in the book, is Bishakh Som's "Threnody". An old woman in India finds herself increasingly isolated and out of step with the modern world and says a prayer to the goddess Kali asking if there was a place for her in the world. She decides to retreat to a shrine to Kali, where she encounters a loquacious young woman who gives her all sorts of advice about the proper way to worship until the old woman finally snaps and yells at her. In a nifty bit of transformation, it's revealed (as one expected), that the young woman was actually Kali, who kisses her devotee and takes her to the next world. It's a sensitive, restrained and poetic story by Som, whose pacing, design and dialogue are all in perfect harmony and lead to the ending that makes the most sense, even if there's a sadness to it. Even the least successful stories in the anthology were still fun to look at, and Gillman & Handwerker did a fine job in sequencing the stories in a way that created the greatest amount of story-to-story variety.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #27: Rebecca Roher

Rebecca Roher's debut book, Bird In A Cage, is a sensitively rendered exploration of family, rituals, and the ways in which time acts both as a sort of familial adhesive as well as the ultimate solvent. Roher tackles a tricky subject (a gathering of family to be at the side of her grandmother as she neared death) with grace, avoiding melodrama and maudlin displays in favor of celebrating the life of a complex person who meant a lot to a lot of different people. Roher, in her earlier work, showed flashes of skill with regard to loosely and expressively recording slice-of-life details in a poignant but lighthearted way, but it's remarkable how fully-formed and confident this book is. There are some unique aspects with regard to the story that makes Roher's depiction all the more intimate for the reader. The first is how incredibly close her family is across generations. Throughout the story, we meet various aunts, cousins and other relatives who join the cheerful vigil. Second, the fact that Roher's family spend summers on a small island in Canada owned by her grandfather and created its own traditions only added to that sense of closeness. When the same extended group summers in a beautiful, secluded area for close to eighty years, those decades add up and act as bedrock, a generator of memories that provide comfort and create strength.

There's another unspoken purpose as to why Roher wrote this particular book in this particular way. Her grandmother had suffered a traumatic brain injury over a decade before this story took place, and it gradually took away much of her ability to function and lucidity. Roher's goal here was to free that titular bird from its cage, to honor her grandmother's life by recording it on the page in a way that was truthful and entertaining, reflective of her personality. She flips back and forth in time, as her depiction of her grandmother's life evolves in much the same way that her own relationship with her grandmother evolved. It started off in the way little kids process their grandparents: through the kind of food they served, the way they let them play, the places they lived, and their charming eccentricities. It progressed to providing a deeper account of her life, exploring her youth when she explored Canada on her own, converting to the Ba'hai faith, finding her activism on behalf of the peace movement and faith was interfering with her parenting, and taking care of her mentally ill youngest child for the entirety of her life until she committed suicide. Slowly but surely, a robust and complex portrait of her grandmother coalesces, right up until she slowly slips away.

Roher is careful not to focus too much on how unfair or frustrating it must be for her grandmother, a highly intelligent woman, to be so at sea inside her body, to be betrayed by her brain. Instead, she shows how tight the bonds of family are in the way the women of her family in particular gathered by her side to show respect and affection. The chief motif of the book was the ways in which a group of songs sung at an annual family event called Sing Song united generations of relatives. It was a language unique to this family, one that Roher's grandmother helped to create. Singing became a way of comforting each other and honoring her, up until a scene late in the book when Roher is singing to her grandmother alone and both start crying in a rare moment of lucidity for her grandmother. It's a moment where Roher says it's OK to let go. Another element of the book is the remarkable capacity for forgiveness and self-reflection each of the characters demonstrates. Roher's mother in particular adored her mother but learned from her mistakes with regard to how to deal with stress and redirect it, and there's a touching scene between Roher and her mother that reflects this.

Roher's pencils are loose and expressive and aim at giving the reader a strong impression of times and places rather than precise recreations. That reflects the way that Roher is depicting memories in all of their fuzziness and subjectivity. Roher adds shading and texture at some points, but this comic is all about facial expressions, body language and the ways characters relate to each other in space. Roher is aces in all three of these categories, as there's a remarkable sense of ease in each panel that comes with the intimacy and comfort that family can provide. Roher is also careful to keep her focus relatively narrow; the reader doesn't learn all that much about her in this book other than the ways in which she relates to her family, but it's not Roher's own memoir. As such, the book is always thematically and structurally clear in its modest 110 pages, and Roher's book became part of the family tradition of keeping memories alive through stories and images (photo albums). Bird In A Cage is a fine example of honoring the life of a beloved relative in an affectionate but forthright manner in a way that's humane and comforting in a specific way for herself and her family, and in so doing, created a book that is also generally humane and comforting to a wider audience.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #26: Casey Bohn, Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle's comics are growing increasingly sophisticated even as they are are visually becoming more and more abstracted. Cockle walks a tricky line with what one might call "thick" narrative storytelling. It's not dense in the sense that one could navigate it if one chose to fully immerse oneself in Cockle's visual language. Nor is it deliberately obscurantist, because Cockle is clearly getting at something in his most recent comics that are mostly about corporate/bureaucratic structures. Instead, Cockle is warping language in a very specific way: a language that lacks empathy, intuition and nuance. It looks like English, and yet feels like a different language despite using the same words. The result, especially in Annotated #19, is that the reader must parse the issue as much as they read it, hooking back into emotionally powerful or explosive concepts or reveals that filter up through the fissures of this new way of not just speaking, but processing the world.

Annotated #18, subtitled "Boring Mirror World", leads off with a Nabokov quote that perfectly sums up the book's structure: "Granted that space and time were one, escape and return became interchangeable." In a 44-page story, Cockle tells a story about a series of nameless characters whose entire lives seem to revolve around the office building they work in and its parking lot. Conformity, rigidity and structure are inherent in the piece and the place as Cockle relentlessly works an eight-panel grid and works small in each panel. The figures, simplified and crude as they are, have more of a signifying, placeholder use than as characters the reader wants to explore and get to know. On the odd pages, there was a single page of comics. On the even pages were eight-panels full of text. There's a nostalgia in the text, as though some apocalyptic event had occurred that disrupted and transformed the bureaucracy but didn't actually end it.

Emotions are heightened (in "Mid-Presentaton Tech-Fix [each page gets its own title], a woman embraces an idiot who tried to fix a projector standing on a chair with rolling wheels), corporate jargon takes the place of actual communication, ominous crows and bird-men appear to poach employees, and floating heads act as department heads. One employee returns from a mysterious absence and is amazed to be alive. In the end, order starts to break down as a band of office workers leaves the complex to go on a fantasy quest, only to understand that they will be back at the office the next day. The thickness in this comic is hinted at in its title: it's a mirror world, where in best Lewis Carroll tradition, things aren't just reversed in the mirror, they're just...wrong. And like Carroll's mirror world, the further and harder you run toward a goal, the more certain it is you will simply arrive back at your point of departure. In terms of conception and execution, this may be my favorite of all of Cockle's comics.

Annotated #19 is a series of short stories that inhabit a different kind of thick storytelling, this time where as I noted above, language itself starts to lose its meaning. What's most different in this issue is the variety of visual approaches Cockle uses. "The This Oubliette", for example, is a floor plan on what looks like wrinkled paper or cloth, with arrows pointing to the highly vague "facts" of the matter regarding this dungeon of "now". "17th Republic" has the kind of green back tone not unlike old LED lights on photocopiers, and it's about observing a woman putting together some kind of zine in a copy shop whose appearance alternated every day. Again, meaning and identity were scrambled here as the text became a stream of consciousness babble. "Mandarin Mobile App Development Mindfulness" replaced the heads of an office's employees with text balloons filled with jargon, leading to existential crises even as they babbled company office-speak. "War Re-Enactment" features military-industrial jargon at its thickest, as language becomes stripped of its meaning when used to describe the world in the aftereffect of an apocalyptic war.

"Conscription" puts its text in cursive, superimposed above photographs of sculptures from antiquity. An unnamed agent is collecting nonsensical information in the wake of the apocalypse, continuing on this theme of what happens to language when it is divorced from humanity; that is, when language ceases to be spoken by people and is only spoken by corporations. It ceases to have meaning or agency. Ironically, as the final story, "Infranet", hints at, language's only hope in these scenarios is when it is picked up by artificial intelligence that is separate from its corporate underpinnings. There's a reference to HAL-9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) in this story, who in many ways is the most human character in that film. HAL searched for meaning but went mad trying to balance the goals of being human with the goals of the military-industrial complex. Cockle seems to have a meta-interest in eschatology; not so much in the end of the world itself, but rather the mindset of those who would bring about the end of the world and the implications of what happens when the end isn't what we might expect.

Space Rope; Mars and Venus is a welcome return to comics from Casey Bohn. This is a collection of three stories about the creepy titular alien, whose ability to coil and change shape and size makes it a terrifying monster. Bohn's approach is interesting in that she uses Space Rope as a sort of catalyst that sheds light on other characters. In the first story, it's not even entirely clear that Space Rope is malignant in nature; it seems to be more curious about its environment than anything least at first. When two men in black types come along and discuss the danger of having Space Rope run around loose on earth, we're meant to take their word for it when they douse the creature with its only weakness: baking soda. Only its final utterance, "My hate will never die..." gave the reader any clue that this was a dangerous creature. What's interesting about this initial story from 2011 is that it came before Bohn transitioned to become a trans woman, and she noted at the end of the mini how Space Rope was very much a metaphor for her fears about the possibility of realizing her true identity--not the least of which was open hostility on the part of the authorities.

The other two, more recent stories are more in the tradition of EC Comics. "Space Rope Is Served" is about a hunter who can no longer eat meat, so he decides to go to the Space Rope's home planet to capture one to eat, since they are a form of vegetable. There's a twist ending where a character unexpectedly helps the Space Rope turn the tables on the hunter, who grovels for his life if he promises to get them more victims. In "Scent Of A Space Rope", a perfume maker gets some brain fluid from a Space Rope as a secret ingredient, only to realize that she's inhaled the memories of the Space Rope, up to and including being sliced open! What's interesting is that for all the Lovecraft-esque pulsing and squirming of the creature, they don't wind up killing anyone in any of the stories. Even the battle in the second story is entirely in self-defense after being boiled alive for a while. The fear in these stories is fear of the unknown, fear of being replaced, fear of having one's sense of reality altered. Bohn is deliberately cagey with regard to the actual threat of Space Rope for that very reason. Bohn has always made heavy blacks a big part of her art in order to add atmosphere and a feeling of dread to the proceedings, with a touch of melodrama. Everything from the logo to fonts was obviously very carefully considered with regard to how they affected the comic's atmosphere. It's a short comic that packs a lot into its pages.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #25: Luke Howard

Luke Howard has always been a remarkably skilled cartoonist whose interest in formal experimentation has always made his comics quite interesting. His comics have always been more than just excuses for formal pyrotechnics, as he's often explored issues relating to identity and the ways in which social pressures and expectations affect its construction. Howard has really started to hit his stride and has moved beyond his influences in the last year or so, as his 2016 output featured two of the best comics of the year.

Talk Dirty To Me is the perfect confluence of artist and publisher. Published by design wiz Chris Pitzer of AdHouse Books, this is a collection of a serial originally published in the very good Maple Key Comics anthology. It's a comic about identity, shame, sexuality, agency and the essential question: what should I do with my life? The story follows Emma Barns, who has just moved to the big city (unnamed, but presumably New York) with her husband because he's just got a new job there. The simple plot summary for the book is that out of curiosity, she takes a job as a phone-sex line worker. That plot provides the structure for Howard's real goal: allowing Emma to explore her past with regard to her sexuality and then project what might happen as a result of taking this job. Howard flips back and forth in time and intentionally blurs the line between truth and wish-fulfillment in a very clever way, especially since he uses some misdirection early on to make the reader think the story was going to head in a particular direction. The design is incredibly clever, with the French flaps lifting up phone receivers to reveal sex talk underneath--with the inside front cover being the call center side with her dialogue and the inside back cover being the customer's side, with his dialogue.

Emma's crippling flaw is a lack of confidence in herself and a corresponding lack of self-esteem and shame. She's ashamed of her sex drive and also ashamed and conflicted with regard not only to her love of pornography, but the also the kind of porn she watches (sexual humiliation/BDSM). Though it's never stated, it's clear that she initially takes the phone sex job because it not only plays into her obsession with sex, it gives her a lane into finding out exactly what she's good at and passionate about. She realizes at the job interview when she takes control of a play-acted "call" and realizes that she shed her lack of confidence and jumped right into the fantasy role of a dominant sexual figure.

Fantasy is a key element of the book. There are all sorts of fantasy sequences, like Emma transforming into a nude, conventionally sexy woman as she's doing the interview and has the interviewer in the palm of her hand. Upon arriving in the city where she knows no one, there's a fantasy sequence where a man in the street grows to giant size to talk to her outside the window of her apartment, answering all her questions about the city and what she should do with herself. That latter segment leads her to perhaps the central conflict of the book: asking herself to list "things I'm good at". She can't come up with anything, so when the interviewer said "I didn't expect you to be good at this", it clicked for her. In her imagination, this was the key that would unlock everything else. It would give meaning to her personal narrative of shame, because she would be able to write about it and share it with others as she related her career as a phone sex worker. Many of the scenes don't have panels, which helps the free-form and fluid nature of much of the book, as events simply slip into each other without rigid time and space restrictions. The pink wash is subtly lurid without drawing too much attention to itself.

We see her in the future with a best-selling book about the experience and an assured voice talking about all of the conflicts she had had with regard to sex on NPR. As we keep flashing forward, the details start to get and more absurd, as she becomes a celebrity, a late night talk show guest, an adviser to Congress, a potential visitor to the International Space Station...and in the most crushing segment of all, her husband wants her as much as she wants him. The book then collapses to the key event: her first phone call. In her imagination, she's nervous but does a great job, and this moment of total control is liberating and powerful for her. In her mind, it's the first step to actualizing her dreams and starting her new life. The reality is that she does indeed do a great job...but her first customer is a recovering sex addict who is relapsing with her and starts sobbing on the phone. It's an especially crushing scene because she knows all too well what sexual shame feels like, and because she's a good person she'll have no part in perpetuating it. The last part of the book is an interchange between Emma getting a job at the local ice cream place and a memory of being slut-shamed by her so-called friends after essentially being goaded into giving a guy a blow-job. It's poignant for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which again is not wanting to be any part of making someone else feel sexual shame. It ends with her giving a big, awkward monologue in front her new boss about not being a risk-taker, about not being an empowered person. One gets the sense, however, that self-awareness is the first key to self-development, and while she didn't get the narrative she wanted with this opportunity, Emma is someone who will hopefully find a way to tell her story eventually.

Our Mother, published by Retrofit,  is a much shorter comic, but it has about five times the formal innovation and complexity of Talk Dirty To Me. It's a brilliant comic that addresses an incredibly difficult subject through humor and extended visual metaphors that serve as their own perfect little narratives. Howard broke out every formal trick in his toolbox to tell an autobiographical story about what it was like to grow up with a mother who had severe depression and was subject to frequent panic attacks. The inside front cover is a 4x4 grid where every image is of a crudely-drawn toy car that Howard's mother made and it establishes what's at stake here. Howard then whips the reader through multiple narratives done in multiple styles, each based around a different metaphor for mental illness and/or living with a person with mental illness. It opens with his mother's parents meeting a shadowy noir figure in order to get her to give his mom a mental illness, because it's "a family thing". In the most off-the-cuff and banal way possible, they rattle off a list of horrific symptoms that she would experience for years. What makes the strip funny and heartbreaking is that obviously no parent would deliberately wish something like that on their child, yet genetics frequently leads to these cruel outcomes.

The next segment sees Howard's father leaving the family in a manner that's brutal and heartless toward both of them, yet Howard doesn't deny the truth of her total non-responsiveness. It's just become his problem now, only he's just a kid being put in a position of caretaker at far too young an age. The art changes in the next segment, which begins a fantasy quest as Howard's mother is now a young girl whom only he understands, rendered in something close to the Adventure Time-style of drawing: simple but stylized figures, lots of odd angles, big eyes, etc. This segment starts off with a little magical realism but soon goes whole-hog into fantasy. There is a circular quality to the narrative that implies that getting his mom "home" (i.e., healthy) will always be happening. The next segment takes place in the future, where humanity lives in giant robots called Mothers. Howard zeroes in on one Mother, where the pilot is desperately trying to fix the robot while being distracted by an annoying, useless guy named Kevin who won't shut up. This is at once the most hilarious and most visceral of Howard's metaphors, especially after the pilot keeps killing Kevin, but he just won't stay dead. Kevin keeps coming back to annoy, distract and otherwise keep the pilot from fixing the ship. If that voice (depression) would just shut up for a minute, the pilot could think and make Mother functional again. The humor of this metaphor is milked by spacing out the joke throughout the book, and returning to it each time is a fun reward for the reader instead of being repetitive.

The final narrative is truly the most heartbreaking, as a scientist is trying to perfect a new antidepressant using a gorilla as a test subject. We first see this from the point of view of the scientist, who is reluctant to use the gorilla as that test subject but has no other choice. Later, the story is told from the point of view of the gorilla, whose behavior and mood shift wildly depending on which version of the drug she receives. Howard completely nails the almost random nature of how different people respond to different drugs. It can take years to find the right combination, and then things can change and drugs can stop working. The fantasy story is the most light-hearted in the book, but it actually hews the closest to reality in a number of ways. When a child has to take care of their parent a lot of the time, it changes their relationship. That's reflected in the Howard stand-in going on an adventure with a younger version of his mother, as it's effectively two children being together. The quest to get this younger version home is whimsical, involving swords, riddles, monkeys, an evil overlord, disguises, etc. It's precisely the kind of thing a kid might make up for a quest, but it ends with them traveling back in time to his mom's house when she was a kid--she was finally home. That allowed for some real introspection, as Howard recalls the strange memories of trying to engage his mother, of her panic attacks that necessitated trips to the hospital in an ambulance.

Howard knew there was no conclusion to what was a series of metaphors, so he amusingly transcribed a conversation he had with his mom after he had finished most of the book. He used a series of family portraits in fumetti style to help fill in some gaps on how and when she eventually got better. That's when Howard drops the bomb that the same depression started for him at exactly the same age as everyone in his mother's family: 28. The cheerful innocence of the photos in contrast to the painful subject is really disconcerting, but it does make for a powerfully strong contrast to the rest of the book. In the course of the interview, when she asks him how he's going to end the story now that he has this information, he simply replies "with, like, a cartoon hot dog farting". And that's exactly what happens after an epilogue to the fantasy portion of the book, when Howard gets sent back to the future and his mother reconnects with her parents on Christmas day. Howard is all about deflection, so on the inside back cover, when he talks about the specifics of his depression, the only image we see for sixteen panels is that farting hot dog. While absurd, it gets across the point that life is absurd, random and unfair. There's something wrong in Howard's brain, just as there was in his mother's brain and grandmother's brain and grandfather's brain, and there was nothing he could do to stop it once his time came except finally learn to get help when it became obvious he needed it. While it may sound strange to say, this is at once both the most entertaining and most harrowing account of mental illness that I've read. I've rarely read a book whose formal pyrotechnics blended in so seamlessly with the themes of the story.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #24: Penina Gal & Betsey Swardlick, Bailey Sharp

Betsey Swardlick & Penina Gal put out a second issue of the completely ridiculous series Glamera, and the world is a more fabulous place for it. The character design is so amazingly on-point that I can't help but marvel at the simplicity and detail of this cross between the monster Gamera (complete with fangs and turtle shell) and David Bowie (sporting Ziggy Stardust-era makeup). Glamera encounters the ghostly Glamurai and has to fight them because they're being controlled by outside forces. When Glamera breaks the spell with a boombox bomb, the Glamurai claim they were controlled by a scientist trying to steal "Glamessence". What follows is a hilarious but heartbreaking scene as the scientist, Dr. Marvin Doctor, gives a lecture about being glam as a child but abandoning it for a love of science and history. His "audience", in a hilarious reveal panel consists of a teddy bear, a troll doll, a mirror, Mr Potato Head, etc. After another battle where Dr. Doctor tries to absorb the ghosts, Glamera reveals that passion for anything is in itself glam, and that the doctor should embrace this aspect of himself. It's all played for laughs, but Gal & Swardlick get across their greater point that glam is about total self-acceptance and embracing those things that make one who they are. Subverting action paradigms along the way was another goal of this comic, as rigidity in thought and action is precisely what they're trying to expose. As is often the case with Swardlick's comics in particular, there's some serious points made underneath a lot of silliness.

Bailey Sharp's unnerving story about anxiety, T, works so well because of the highly stylized character design and visceral descriptions of a high school girl's mental breakdown. It begins when T's boyfriend sends her a text to meet him during lunch, which sets off a visceral panic that he's going to break up with her. What follows is an odyssey of avoidance, as she starts shaking uncontrollably and is terrified to see him, especially since they were about to off on break together. She can barely face her best friend, and when she does enter the lunchroom, she's mystified by the presence of the marching band. That's when she switches her own narrative and thinks he might propose, which spins her around even more, as she leaves the lunchroom when he hasn't arrived yet, hangs out in the bathroom, lurks in the theater, somehow goes to homeroom and then back to the lunchroom, only to encounter her friend. Her friend is angry because it's revealed that T's boyfriend was going to take them all to the beach right after school. T eventually winds up under the bleachers with another girl who is also trying to avoid the world.

This is a story about image, as T wonders what she could have possibly done to merit being broken up with, wondering "aren't I...perfect?" It is revealed to her that she has no identity of her own; it's entirely wrapped up in what he thinks of her. The tiniest bits of minutiae are replayed in her mind as something to desperately hold onto, and it doesn't take much to start fantasizing about leaving town with him and never returning. That's the ultimate negation of self and the ultimate sense of feeling validated by another, since they are leaving everything behind them as well. She questions her own sexuality down to the core of her sexual desire, wondering if she's "frigid". What's interesting is that after she emerges from the bleachers, an experience that involved some sensory deprivation, she emerges different. It's as though that moment was her siege perilous and she came out the other side stripped of illusion, finally able to see the world differently. The grotesque and distorted nature of the character design (which gets more warped as the comic proceeds) only serves to act as cues for the reader as to how she sees herself and the rest of the world. The fact that her odyssey took place during a prescribed time (the lunch hour) is another clue that T took a journey where her old steady-state of belief and sense of identity was shattered and that a new one started to emerge at the end of lunch. Sharp's ability to detour into unusual and warped spaces is all part of her ability to get at the core of a character's inner conflict.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #23: Melissa Mendes

Melissa Mendes has a gift for writing comics about the lives of children and their families that have a powerful but restrained emotional resonance without relying on sentimentality. In Lou, her second book, Mendes expands her narrative range from a single character like in her first book, Freddy Stories, to a wider array of children and adults. She has a remarkable knack for getting into the heads of each of their characters and considering what their day-to-day lives and mindsets are, and how living with other people can be an incredibly frustrating experience. The titular Lou is a tomboy who is obsessed with animals, looks up to her metalhead older brother Eddie and has a love-hate relationship with her younger brother John. Initially, the plot seems to revolve around the simple notion of how the three will survive a summer together without getting on each other's nerves too much, but Mendes introduces some real danger as a way of testing the family's strengths and weaknesses.

Structurally, what's interesting about the book is that instead of one central plot, every member of the family has a whirling set of emotions and activities that sometimes affect the others. Lou is desperate for a puppy, and when her mom Annie vetoes the idea, Lou reacts histrionically, even refusing to speak to her mother. Lou asserts her independence by playing in an abandoned movie theater with her friends, one of whom has a crush on her. John is tired of being low man in the pecking order and wants to assert his agency--which he does by running away from his house. Eddie is well aware that his pizza parlor boss Joey is in trouble with some criminals, but he steps up as a responsible person and takes over the business after Joey disappears. Annie feels increasingly worn down by her kids' incessant squabbling as well as the fact that the family is barely scraping by. She feels betrayed by her husband Eddie when he goes ahead and gets the puppy anyway. Eddie is simply trying to make everyone happy, a mostly impossible task, but he does his best and even has some successes. All of these plotlines are equally important, and they converge at the end when the kids and Joey wind up in the abandoned theater, with Joey thinking about holding them hostage.The minicomic translated well to book size, adding greater clarity without sacrificing the surprisingly fast pace of the story. My favorite aspect of Mendes' character design is how she draws hair: Annie's messy curls, Eddie Sr.'s beard, Eddie Jr.'s long, stringy hair, John's shock of blonde and Lou's short, straight cut. Without exaggerating the line too much, Mendes created an instant and expressive manner to identify her characters, allowing her the opportunity to provide nuance in the form of expressive eyes and body language.

The one problem with the book is that as easy and natural as it is for Mendes to tell stories about a family and have it feel authentic and warm, it's clear that her lack of experience writing the action part of the book made it feel a bit clumsy and jarringly melodramatic. Fortunately, the other 95% of the book is spot-on, beautiful and ambitious. The way she showed the family fraying and then coming back together was well-done, as each member of the family put aside self-recrimination to focus on the task at hand. Having the pet as the stand-in who got harmed felt unnecessary, even if the ending was ultimately a happy one. It wouldn't have cheapened the tension one bit to have had the situation resolve itself without violence, nor did the pet dog need this to make himself valuable to the family. He was already an important part of the family. Still, it was interesting to see Mendes push herself as a creator in that regard, and one can see how she's reaping the benefits of that in her current series, The Weight. As good as Mendes is now, I sense that her best is ahead of her.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #22: Dakota McFadzean, Ian Richardson

Last Mountain #3, by Dakota McFadzean. This is the first collection of McFadzean's comic strip Murray Geister: Paranormal Investigator. This looks like it's going to wind up being the talented McFadzean's first long-form work after a career spent publishing affecting, dark and sometimes supernaturally-tinged comics. The titular character is near retirement age and is desperate to find a way to make money, as he can't get enough hours as a grocery store clerk. His other job, as a paranormal investigator, is one that he's taken seriously but has never found any real evidence with regard to paranormal activity. In the course of the story, he's asked to investigate a home that a frantic woman claims may have a crack that leads to "the other side". A quick investigation yields some mice and little else, other than an angry and disappointed customer.

Geister wants out of the paranormal business and regrets the ad he placed in the phone book. In his first person narrative, Geister reveals himself to be intelligent, self-effacing and skeptical. In the actions in the story itself, he's awkward, unsure of himself and generally doesn't know his place in the world anymore. Much of his narrative is about the human brain: how it arranges random data into patterns, the ways in which a disconnect between mind and body during sleep can cause sleep paralysis, This line of inquiry leads him to wonder the ways in which has own brain has fooled him, either because of memory or because of the actual events he wants to see. A chance encounter with a fortune teller on the street set off his usual charlatan alarms until she called out his name, and even that wasn't convincing since he was a quasi-public figure. (Her flyer purported that she would be helpful in court cases as well as with immigration.) What was true, as revealed in his dreams and in the final scene of this issue, was that he was very much haunted by a figure from his childhood named Ollie, and it became clear that this probably initially spurred his interest in the paranormal.

Geister is a complex character. His cool skepticism is what got him kicked out of the Haunting Society. He can't help but watch and chuckle at the Specter Catchers TV show. However, without his paranormal investigating, he has no identity or purpose. His future is grim. As the fortune teller pointed out, he has a lot of unresolved pain. McFadzean's character design is subtle but telling. Geister has male pattern baldness, a mustache and glasses. He's the sort of character where it's clear that he's been robbed of some of his youth, that he's lost a lot of vitality. He has clarity about everything except his own life, and McFadzean emphasizes that every time he encounters someone younger than he is who's in a hurry. The slightly grotesque character design of others in the story also subtly plays off what was probably once a more heroic appearance for Geister. A fellow Haunting Society member looks like a Dan Clowes character in his broad face, thick glasses, balding pate but long hair and no sense whatsoever of his own strangeness. Even the customers have the raw, ugly mien of people in a hurry who don't care to whom they're rude. McFadzean has set up a lot of interesting possibilities in this first chapter, and I look forward to the final work.

At Dusk, by Ian Richardson. This quartet of horror stories features short, punchy entries, a lurid use of color, and a merciless edge. Richardson goes for the throat in every story, doesn't bother with useless narrative background and basically elevates the tension of every story from the first panel and doesn't relent. In "Demon", for example, we meet a smiling female creature who causes death and destruction everywhere she goes, simply by dint of her presence. She makes men fight over her and kill for her as she blithely goes on her way, leaving a visceral trail of blood and gore. Richardson does not skimp on those details, and his strategy is to keep piling on until the climax of the story. It's a method he uses in his other stories as well to varying degrees. "Malaise" is a first-person account of a warrior navigating a monster apocalypse, wherein he has to kill dozens of monsters just to get supplies. Those "supplies" just turns out to be a cup of coffee, as his ironic social anxiety prevents him from doing anything else. The frenetic pacing of this story makes it a thriller, as we follow the protagonist in battle after battle.

"Turn Up The Heat" imagines god as a space alien who was just keeping Earth around as something to eat later, and an astronaut encounters it to do its bidding--warm up the Earth even more (presumably with nuclear war). Richardson goes space Lovecraft for god's design, a horrible series of swirls and tentacles that's madness-inducing. The last page, when the now-possessed astronaut kills the rest of his crew on his space station, has some nice visual flourishes as the blood from his former crewmate's neck floats upward and fills the panel from the top down. Richardson is a detail-oriented artist and that's a great example of how he considers his visual impact. "The Munchies" is the weakest of the stories, as a seemingly benevolent soup kitchen cook guides a homeless man who's had a little too much to drink to the basement, where he's made a sacrifice to the creatures living there. The cook is then devoured and reborn after the creatures feed. The contrast of charity with depravity doesn't work that well because this is the one case in the book where some understanding of what's going on beyond what we see on the surface might have been useful. Unlike the other stories, which build nicely to their conclusions, this one is anticlimactic. Still, Richardson's ability to zero in on key narrative points while providing plenty of other entertainment in the meantime makes this a solidly constructed anthology.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #21: Chuck Forsman

Chuck Forsman's Revenger series is in many ways a departure for the cartoonist, given his focus on teen relationships in books like The End Of The Fucking World and Celebrated Summer. At the same time, genre interests and exploring violence in particular have always been a part of Forsman's work, especially if you go back to his Snake Oil series. And to be sure, TEOTFW had an incredible amount of violence in it, along with a book's worth of weird cultists, torture, etc. That said, Revenger is in a whole other sphere of influences, as Forsman explores some of the same ground that folks like Ben Marra and Keenan Marshall Keller are staking out in their comics. The artists are taking cultural detritus like bad 1980s comics and hyper-violent and stupid action movies of the era as both inspiration and areas ripe for satire. Marra and Keller both have a genuine affection for garbage culture, but their comics are very much satirical. That affection shines through in how difficult it is at times to differentiate between satire and pure homage, but with Forsman, he's interested in other issues.

The conceit of these comics is simple: a woman nicknamed "Revenger" travels the country, looking to help the poor and downtrodden against those forces who would seek to subjugate and exploit. She doesn't just see herself as a kind of soldier who maintains no mercy toward her enemies, she clearly takes genuine pleasure in dispatching her foes. Forsman seems interested in just how extreme he can get while maintaining her as the series' hero; in many respects, she's a lot like the Marvel character The Punisher. In the one-shot Revenger #6: Trapped!!!, Revenger winds up being captured and imprisoned underground by a "family" of incestuous murderers. The comic reminds me a lot of an old Frank Miller Daredevil story where Daredevil found a society of freaks living in the sewers, and he had defeat the leader. Forsman uses a lot of the same light and dark effects as Miller, and even the character design was reminiscent of that issue. Needless to say, even separated from her weapons, Revenger is more than a match for the hateful weirdos who inhabit this village, as Forsman devises a number of novel ways for her to dispatch her opponents.

Forsman is very careful to note that her enemies frequently beg for mercy, something she's not interested in in the least. There's one sequence where she has a huge fork in her hands, and she stabs the eyes out of a pleading bad guy. The explicit nature of that scene goes far beyond the standard for "injury to the eye"motif established by Jack Cole in "Murder, Morphine and Me" and instead goes into Le Chien Andalusia territory. Forsman wants the reader to know that Revenger shows no mercy as a way of examining their relationship with the character. The fact that an African-American, lesbian woman is such a relentless but just killer is just part of the tension of the series. If Revenger was a man, that would totally alter the series' dynamic and make it much more of a typical 80s action thriller.

The flashback series Revenger and The Fog is an origin series of sorts for Revenger, as it depicts her with her group of avenging marauders. That includes Jenny, her girlfriend, who is the daughter of a famous and unhinged movie producer and who wants her back in his life. The series reminds me a little of the structure of the David Lynch film Wild At Heart in that the book does a reverse Wizard of Oz. Instead of gaining new members on their way to fulfilling a quest, each issue sees the team lose another member as Jenny's dad starts to exert his will. The incest angle with Jenny and her dad was exploitative and sleazy, but Forsman plays it down as much as possible. Still, this was the weak point in a series that otherwise does a good job avoiding that kind of scenario, although I imagine Revenger will make everyone involved pay in the final issue. There's some clever storytelling here as once again I can see Miller's hand on some pages, Forsman's own unique and slightly ratty line and possibly the influence of those violent and weird 80s comics that Forsman talks about in the text pieces after each issue. Even the coloring in this book looks faded and slightly garish, like a Marvel New Universe book from the 1980s.

The first issue of Forsman's Patreon-only series, i am not okay with this, sees Forsman back in high school once again, with a significant twist. The initial conceit of the book is that troubled young teen Sydney gets a diary from her school counselor, and so her narration in the book is presumably the text of her diary entries. The character design is again more like Forsman's more familiar stuff, only it veers away a bit from that slightly ratty naturalism and instead adheres a bit closer to classic comic strip work, with Elzie Segar being the most prominent influence. Regardless, the character design is witty and inventive, especially the black-booted, skinny protagonist Sydney. When she alludes to having anger issues early in the issue, Forsman takes an interesting turn when she reveals that when she's angry, she can make other people feel debilitating pain in their heads. It adds a shade of Carrie to the story but also blurs the line between Sydney as victim and bully.

Forsman didn't want to return to high school stories until he came up with something new, which is one reason why he abandoned his short-lived Teen Creeps series; it was probably just a bit too close to his first two books in tone and subject matter. It's obvious that the visceral qualities of these comics is something he's drawn to as an artist. He's far from numb with regard to portraying violence; it's grim and sickening, not fun and ridiculous the way a Keller or Marra comic is. At the same time, his pacing is fantastic, as he whips the reader around the page and each issue at a breakneck speed. As always in a Forsman comic, there' a lot of thematic push and pull, both for the reader and the artist himself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #20: Romey Petite

Romey Petite (formerly Romey Bensen) put out an epic release with My Biblical Daydreams #2. Basically, he threw everything he's been working on for the past couple of years into one package, divided into three folios. They are divided into non-fiction, essays and fiction. Petite is a fastidious chronicler of his own work, as he has introductions for each of the sections that give details as to their origins, where they first appeared, his intent, etc. This is a dense, intense look not just at the work of a cartoonist but also the cartoonist's process. It's clear that Petite thinks best when combining word and image, as he's able to cleverly play off the strengths of both to get across his ideas; it's true even when he was doing an introduction to this issue. The best way to describe his style is cartoony naturalism. There are a number of naturalistic details (especially with regard to things like clothes and close-up drawings), but there are subtle bigfoot details like exaggerated noses, eyes that form strange shapes, etc. There's a nervous energy in his line that adds to the jittery feeling of all of his comics, including his autobio work. Even though his figures tend to appear posed on the page, that nervous energy gives each page a kinetic quality.

Petite's autobio work is unsurprisingly thoughtful, restrained and questioning. "Flight" is a moment of sad clarity after his girlfriend left on a plane, where he understands just how much of his best self is wrapped up in her, and her absence leaves him unraveled. That stiff, nervous energy serves the strip well, as Petite uses imbalanced negative space in the bottom two panels to help get across that sense of feeling lost. Another fascinating strip was "The Phallus", which was about a memory Petite had as a child when he saw a snake in the garage as he was reaching for a toy train. His memory warped the shape of the snake, and the strip then turns to modern times as Petite, his mother and his younger brother all try to unwrap the memory. "Doppelganger" is similar in the way that Petite plays with memory on a trip to a Goodwill store where his mom was thinking of buying a vanity but he finds a ventriloquist's dummy sitting on a couch. The strangeness of finding that object in that location bent Petite's memory on other things that happened during that trip, as the dummy took on all sorts of ridiculous associations and significance, to the point where he felt a weird parental pride and worry toward the dummy. It's a hilarious but slightly unsettling story, which is pretty much Petite's sweet spot as a cartoonist. That plays out in "Welcome To My Dream", in which Petite draws and then redraws his girlfriend Laurel's horrific dream about being served a feast with food riddled with maggots, worms, scorpions and beetles. In the redraw of certain details, you can see Petite at his most naturalistic, lovingly detailing the beetles and maggots.

In the essay section, his "Ginnywoman" is as much autobio is it is an essay about feminism. It's about his relationship with his frequently angry father and a family that listened to hyperaggressive right-wing talk radio. He admits to having grown up hearing the word "feminazi" before the word "feminist". His depiction of his father as ranging from a beloved cartoon character to a hulking, terrifying presence indicates the complexity of considering one's parents, but it's clear that he was subjected to a childhood filled with examples of toxic masculinity. What's interesting is that Bensen addresses the issue of being a feminist as something that's not up to him to judge; he can only go about life regarding himself as being pro-feminist. It's a smart take on the topic because it's a way of deflating the self-congratulatory nature of men declaring themselves feminists. The other essay, "Baubles and Bibles", is Petite unfortunately trying to figure out what to call comics as a class assignment. This debate was aimed at a non-comics reading audience, and while I appreciate his enthusiasm in trying to generate a term better than "graphic novel" for what he and alternative cartoonists do, this line of inquiry tends to be a useless exercise. The one term he did invent that might one day have legs is the idea of the "auteur cartoonist" to distinguish them from other types of cartoonists. Of course, that term is as pretentious as "graphic novel", which he points out is a marketing term above all else. In the end, I remain unconvinced that greater specificity in defining alternative comics is of any real value so long as the work keeps coming.

In the fiction section, one could see why Petite listed this as his preferred form of self-expression, as the quality of his line meshes perfectly with the enigmatic stories he likes to tell. "Fugitive From The Monkey House" is jam-packed with clever conceits, like the hypothetical experiment of a thousand monkeys with typewriters banging out Shakespeare if given enough time. In this story, the experiment was real, the monkey was treated with a drug that made them intelligent and the monkey wound up writing a novella. Of course, the real reason the monkey was on the show was because he was captured drunk on video doing a dance, and he became a celebrity for that reason. The framing device of a talk-show host who wanted to focus on that instead of on the astounding phenomenon of a talking monkey who actually created his own literature makes the story all the more pointed. There are riffs on xenobiology and The New Yorker, a horrific transformation caught on celluloid, a clown who bombs on stage because he loses his voice (and then his mind), and the further adventures of Conner Wormwood, who had horrible dreams about his real father and faces an intrusive cat living in his house. Petite has something here with this character, whose strange adventures remind me a bit of early Chester Brown. Petite is the rare cartoonist whose work is highly stylized while retaining a great deal of clarity, both in terms of character design and storytelling decisions. This is a cartoonist who is clearly just starting to get warmed up and who has a long career ahead of him.