Thursday, February 22, 2018

Max Huffman and Garage Island

I've been following Max Huffman's work since he was a teenager, and now he's a graduate of SVA's comics program. It's difficult to pin down exactly what he's doing, other than to note that it's extremely funny and highly stylized. A few years back, he did an issue of Bootleg Jughead (#1), which features highly polished and grotesque images in the ballpark of Michael DeForge and certain Meathaus alumni (I sense some Brandon Graham deep in the DNA of his drawings). However, his sense of humor and comic timing are entirely his own. There's an intensity in his writing that demands multiple rereads, even as the action on the page flies by.

Huffman puts every genre in his comics and sets it to puree, as there's detective noir, science-fiction, comedy nerd stuff, slice of life and pure action. Bootleg Jughead also revealed perhaps his greatest strength: his willingness to go to great ends for a gag, especially if it somehow involved violence. There's a scene where Jughead imagines himself slam dunking a ball (drawn in stylized but mostly naturalistic manner) only to realize that he dunked on a light fixture. That total and unexpected demolition of previously established logic is his go-to gimmick. It's a sort of warped storytelling logic in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, where each character looks like a beloved and familiar figure that's been warped and turned into a caricature. That was obviously necessary when writing his comic about Jughead, but it was continuing this technique into his Crim Coblend's Garage Island series that really made it funny.

It is a series of gags tied around the loose premise of a Johnny Carson-style talk show, only its host (the titular Crim Coblend) is also the dictator of the small island country where it's filmed. The first issue is a micro-mini, something like 4" x 3". Huffman often uses the thinnest of line weights in some of his drawings, especially in drawing bodies. The heads are often grotesque, inhuman, drawn from a Cubist perspective or otherwise falling apart. The second issue gets bigger, at 5" x 8" and continues the use of almost lurid one and two color looks, often alternating between brick red and a light, vaguely nauseating green. The narrative is propulsive and even uses elements of continuity, but it's also nonsensical, as a detective in the employ of his family is looking for his missing uncle. Meanwhile, a roaming journalist makes his life miserable. There's a great gag that when the detective returns to his office, it was clear that some people had picked it over, inadvertently making it a little nicer looking in the process. One character exercises his true nature as being part airplane. The journalist (in a two page interlude with a cool, blue wash) winds up at a scenester party where after a dip in a pool consisting of olive oil, she's handed a loaf of bread to wipe off with. The action makes sense within each panel in a very clear manner, which means that it's not at all a confusing read. It's just that the further back you thinking about the story, the more absurd it becomes.

The third issue is in regular comic book forat, only with a lot of gutter space at the top and bottom of each page. The colors can be described as psychedelic pastels: soft and warm at first, but also disorienting and meant to be looked at as much as absorbed as part of the narrative. There's a return to the talk show setting and a long digression with the band leader, Doctor Website, who enters a Steve Ditko-like dimension for adventures there. Reading the previous issues is both helpful and entirely irrelevant; it's the former less because of the narrative and more to help get into the flow of Huffman's storytelling style, and irrelevant because Huffman himself informs the reader not to worry about the cast or story. Indeed, entering into scenarios in media res is another common tactic for Huffman, starting the action and gags first and letting story catch up to it later. Though I've thrown a few names out for comparison, Huffman's influences are also steeped in fine art and comedy as much as any comic, but there's a wonderful sense of geometry in his comics. Weird angles, squiggles, distorted figures and other techniques that make it feel like Huffman is illustrating some of warped view of reality in his own head, one that's both relentlessly unsettling and hilarious.

Though he made his goal, I'd like to note Huffman's kickstarter campaign for a project called Plaguers Int'l. Huffman continues to push the boundaries of his visuals while using adventure tropes for subversive purposes. This isn't work, at this point of his career, that can be indefinitely or as his signatures. It feels more like him trying to figure things out at a rapid pace until he's ready for something bigger, but the journey there is certainly a great deal of fun.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Fantagraphics: Joseph Remnant's Cartoon Clouds

Joseph Remnant’s Cartoon Clouds is the first book he’s written and illustrated, with Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland being a harbinger of his enormous talent as an artist. He’s very much influenced by underground comics and Robert Crumb’s naturalism in particular, along with his peer Noah Van Sciver. Unlike either of them, Remnant (both here and in his excellent self-published comic, Blindspot) eschews the more cartoony aspects of that kind of work and instead prefers an expressive naturalism that favors gesture, body language and the ways bodies interact with each other in space. Thanks to that skill, Remnant is able to exert a precise degree of control over his characters, but not so much that they appear inert on the page. Indeed, there’s nothing slick about his character work. He also likes adding drawing effects that are very clearly lines on paper, like cross-hatching and shadow effects. There are any number of simply beautiful-looking panels that reflect his intense amount of labor, but they’re not there for him to show off. They are to help him establish atmosphere.

That atmosphere is one of tedium and ennui, as the story follows four friends who have just graduated from a Cincinnati art school, each trying to pursue a career and figure out their lives in different ways. The result is a story that feels all-too-familiar: young, white twentysomethings moping around, trying to find meaning. Despite Remnant’s skill as an artist and storyteller, he falls into too many clichéd traps in the book, mistaking an unlikeable protagonist for being a compelling one. And the main character Seth, is both boring and annoying. He’s a relentless mope who hated art school almost as much as he hated his life after it. Cartoonists’ issues with art school are well-documented at this point, so if you’re going to critique it, you’d either better have a new point of view or at least be funny (like Aaron Lange’s comics about his experiences).

Every character seems narrowly defined and lacking in ambiguity, with the exception of Allison, a fellow student that Seth’s always had a crush on but never did anything about it. She wants a successful career as a gallery artist as much as anyone, but she eventually realizes that the shortcuts she took to get there weren’t worth her integrity. The other characters feel less like living people than cast for an indie film, leaning in hard on their most prominent qualities. Colby, the older, pretentious gallery owner with whom Allison hooks up, is less a character than a aggregation of art-world clichés: disingenuous, hypocritical, jealous of real talent and success, two-faced, secretly sexist, etc. Jeff is Seth’s best friend and he’s the art school grad who immediately stops doing art and starts nursing a prescription drug and later a heroin addiction. Kat is Jeff’s girlfriend who hooks into the art world by coming up with show ideas that have little or nothing to do with the art itself; she starts cheating on Jeff without bothering to actually break up with him. Cameos by an asshole trust fund kid and an aggressively atheist guy at a party add to that sense of caricature over character that plagues the book.

Seth is the protagonist, and it’s his tedious journey that informs the tone of most of the book. He loses his job as an artist’s assistant. He is disgusted when he realizes that art galleries and museums mostly offer unpaid internships to young people who either have a trust fund or else are willing to live in abject poverty in order to maybe make some connections. He takes a job in fast food, stops painting and hooks up with a pot-smoking teenager as his new girlfriend of sorts. It’s not til the end that things begin to pick up, as a lecture from a returning friend and a chance meeting with his idol, the local legend John Pollard. Pollard was supposed to be at an opening of his art but instead was at a working man’s watering hole to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play. Pollard gives him the advice that was obvious to everyone: Seth should pursue something with his comics and drawings instead of his paintings. Pollard is much the stereotypical gruff, older artist, but simply by adding a layer or two to his personality, Remnant immediately made him one of the more complex characters in the book.

The book has its requisite happy endings for the “right” characters (Seth and Allison), as they go off to seek their destinies in new cities. Jeff is very much the “there by the grace of god go I” character, putting himself in a position that he knows will wind up in his death as an addict, sooner rather than later, in order to help his friend. Kat has sold out and is quite happy to do so. It’s an overly neat wrap-up for a book that at 160 pages feels bloated. In many respects, Cartoon Clouds feels like a book that Remnant needed to get out his system, that he sensed that he would only have one shot to write as a young person. It certainly put his craft to the test and found him passing that area with flying colors. Hopefully his next book won’t be about art and artists, as I think he needs a fresh, new area to explore. He certainly has the capacity to do it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Winter Fundraiser

My family is facing some hopefully temporary financial difficulties at the moment, so any kind of help from supporters of the site would be greatly appreciated. For those interested, this would be a great time to join my Patreon or perhaps just donate through PayPal at the button on the right. I've written over sixty pieces of criticism exclusively for my Patrons--one a week. As promised, I had my annual 30 Days of CCS feature about artists from the Center for Cartoon Studies. New reviews will be up tonight and tomorrow, and this weekend will see a couple of new Patron reviews.  Thanks for your consideration. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Short Box: Jeremy Sorese's The Tar Pit

First, a note about Zainab Akhtar's Short Box comics service. It's a periodic box of comics that she publishes, often up and coming talent that she is helping to bring before a larger audience. After that initial release, the artists are free to sell the comic on their own. That was the case for The Tar Pit, by Jeremy Sorese. I'm not exactly sure what Sorese uses, but the effect in this comic is a dense charcoal. It's evocative of a time long gone; it's thick and atmospheric, as though one was watching an old black & white film. That gritty charcoal effect is also in effect in the book's many night scenes, as the darkness threatens to swallow the light on each page. The grit and space-filling quality of that effect is in sharp contrast to Sorese's character designs, which are highly stylized and include a great deal of negative space in the faces, which are simplified to the point where they almost look like they belong to puppets. While this is a character piece and there's not a lot of focus on backgrounds, Sorese clearly did his research with regard to fashions, hairstyle and other time-specific elements of the time, which is the early 1950s.

The setting is a house where famous Hollywood actors Burt and Fred lived with Vivienne, in an arrangement that was supposed to reflect her dating both men and in reality was a beard arrangement for the lovers. In return, she received decent and well-paying movie roles, albeit ones that had no speaking lines. One of her "boyfriends" inevitably had the hero role in those films, of course. The book opens with a "Barbershop" party; that is, one where the boys and others with similar arrangements could be themselves for a little while. The plot is very simple but its ramifications are intensely complicated. Vivienne grows increasingly disenchanted and lonely living with a couple, especially given their frequent fights and indiscretion when having loud sex. On one frustrating night, a writer who had been haunting the outside of the house cajoled her into admitting on the record that Burt and Fred were gay, right before admitting he was gay as well. In one of the few exaggerated scenes, Sorese depicts Vivienne feeling like everyone in the diner she was talking to the writer in was gay and laughing at her.

The story gets published but quickly squashed. Vivienne slowly loses her roles. She starts to get work in advertising on TV, as color becomes popular. At the same time, the comic switches over to full color illustrations, done in what looks like colored pencil. When Burt dies of a drug overdose, Fred makes a fictionalized film that features a Vivian character who dominates everyone else and threatens violence, and whose outing of them leads to them losing their careers. The book works its way to Vivienne working with the actress who played her in the movie, thirty years later. when the topic of Fred (who had just died of AIDS) comes up, Vivienne utters an unforgivable homophobic slur. The final scene is one of tragedy and hope, combining her inability to come to terms with her life and her deep-seated homophobia.

To be sure, this is not just a story about her homophobia. It's a story about how self-hating gay men used to make money outing other gay men. More than that, it's a story about deep-seated misogyny. Vivienne got more love from Fred's dopey chihuahua than from either men, and it's clear that it wasn't sex that she was missing, but intimacy. She was treated as a convenience, an object, someone they only paid attention to when there was a camera pointed in their direction. She was stuck, as the title implies, in a comfortable but miserable arrangement. She wanted to sell out her roommates and was just looking for a buyer; in reality, she got nothing, other than her own freedom in a way. The irony of the film that Fred did is that it pointed her as the villain all along, while she of course was a non-talking player in real life as well as in film. Yet it showed her as a powerful, dominant woman who had all the best lines, which is why Vivienne liked it so much; it's whom she always wanted to be.

Burt and Fred never copped to their roles in making Vivienne unhappy. At the same time, neither did Vivienne come to terms with what she did. Instead of feeling regret for betraying people she spent so much time with, she simply doubled down on her homophobia. Or rather, homophobia became the reason she gave herself for hating the two men, when the reality was that she was lonely. That she was lonely was not their fault, but it was also true that they didn't seem to give the slightest thought to how she felt about things. In the end, her unwillingness to see past her feelings, insecurities and prejudices choked off her ability to show empathy, as the final, heartbreaking scene indicates. She poured her emotions into her dog and couldn't forgive or admit her own complicity in a relationship from decades before that still clearly defined her in many ways. Without that ability to forgive and accept responsibility for her own actions at key moments in her life, she remained hardened. It's the kind of story that was more common in the 80s and 90s, but I think Sorese was wise to reinforce the basics, given that homophobia never truly goes away. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

2dcloud: Laura Lannes

In critiquing autobiographical cartoonists, I will sometimes accuse them of not "spilling enough ink". That is, the cartoonist smooths out too many rough edges, edits out the most embarrassing parts and in general processes it into agreeable pabulum that lacks bite. With Laura Lannes' intricately-assembled By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, (2dcloud) she not only spilled some ink, she emptied out the bottle and had to get more. "Confessional" only begins to describe what she does in this memoir of a month spent pining after a guy she had developed a surprisingly quick emotional and sexual attachment to who was nonetheless unavailable. The story of the highs and lows of that relationship makes up the bulk of this spiral-bound, legal paper-sized comic, and it feels like Lannes is incapable of not revealing herself on page after page.

It's hard to explain what she's doing and why. A compulsion? Oversharing? Performance? Therapy? Sickness? I think there are elements of all of these things at work here, plus a fiendishly wicked sense of humor and a sense of rising to the occasion as an artist. On the first page, she establishes every key element of the comic. There's the 3 x 4 grid, the light orange spot-coloring that proves to be a crucial visual element, and the grey wash that almost looks liquid in some panels. She also establishes her sense of humor (in one panel, her dialogue argues with her narrative caption) as well as the relationship with the man, named Francesco, with whom she falls in love with. She ends the page with a gag at her own expense, one of dozens in the comic.
Lannes is frank, upfront and unsparing about her sex life--both with regard to her own needs and foibles as well as her partners. She's lonely and horny and gets excited when an old lover texts her ("I'm gonna get a dick appointment!"), only to realize that he's too high to actually have sex. In a comedic sequence worthy of the Marx Brothers in terms of its progression, she sorts through a drawer only to realize that her vibrator ("Roger Rabbit") is out of batteries, and her plug-in Hitachi somehow caught on fire. There's a panel that's perfect in the way it describes her body language as she realizes that she's not up to doing "manual labor", and the last panel is her getting back to work.

Lannes slowly writes through the story of her fitful relationship with Francesco, struggling as a freelancer for companies that get bought and sold and try to slough off the responsibility of paying their invoices. There are Tinder chats that turn into long arguments. There are her attempts at being involved with various socialist groups. The details of her life provide a robust account of what it's like to be young and living in the city as an independent woman. She turns the focus on her sex life that not only zeroes in on the act itself, but also on her feelings about the sex and sometimes awkward conversations before and after. Comparing having sex with Francesco to a Swedish guy she knows provides a vivid and blunt reflection and comparison of the two experiences. Fran is jealous of Laura seeing other men despite the obvious hypocrisy evident in that statement and she pushes back.

After their last time together (they agree to stop because he doesn't want to stop seeing this other woman and won't make Laura his primary partner), the rest of the comic is a series of events where she is miserable and trying to shake it off, with varying degrees of success. There's a fascinating sequence where she goes off to Mardi Gras with a guy she hooks up with when they're both single and coming off a break-up, only they somehow manage to not have sex the entire time they're there. Fran sends Laura an over-the-top, emotional email that she hilariously comments on bit-by-bit. They have a romantic last text session to say goodbye ("Time does what it can, it passes"), which is ruined by the messiness of real life when she has to tell him that a sex partner had passed chlamydia on to her, and he was now at risk. The last page is somehow heart-rending and cruelly funny all at once, where she's crying, then masturbating, and crying while masturbating, then crying out in grief after she orgasms.

Lannes has an acute understanding of the fact that love, sex, and romance are all inherently ridiculous and that there's no dignity whatsoever to be found in their pursuit. At the same time, she has an acute understanding of the importance of intimacy, connecting with someone on multiple levels, and grieving it when it's gone. A self-described "emotional tortoise", she came out of her shell and had a wide range of experiences as a result--most of them painful, but all of them vivid, and created something extraordinary by virtue of being willing to accept the experience for what it was. Combining her skill as a cartoonist, her razor-sharp wit, her ability to create a structure around the experience that any reader could understand turned those experiences into one of the best autobiographical comics I've ever read.

Friday, January 26, 2018

NBM: T.J. Kirsch's Pride Of The Decent Man

T.J. Kirsch’s graphic novel debut, Pride Of The Decent Man (NBM), is admirably brief and direct. It is ultimately about intentionality, responsibility and the forces that pull against both. Its principle character is Andy, the kind of loser who tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is easily manipulated by people he thinks are his friends. Andy’s best friend is Whitey, the kind of chaos vortex of a person who sucks people into his craziness and doesn’t let go until something horrible has happened. Not a deliberately bad person, necessarily, just a selfish and stupid one who lives enough of a charmed life to get away with things. Their dynamic forms the basis of the mostly episodic plot.

Andy twice trusts Whitey and gets badly burned twice. The first time, Whitey accidentally burns down the restaurant Andy works at because of his recklessness. The second time, Whitey talks Andy into robbing a convenience store, a scheme that goes horribly awry. Horrified, Andy realizes that there’s a kid in the store with the owner. Andy gets sent to prison and Whitey gets off with a slap on the wrist, thanks to some political connections. The through line and connective tissue of the book is Andy becoming a writer in college, in an effort to capture the world so that he can remember it later. That writing becomes the book’s narrative captions, which comment both directly and indirectly on what we see on the page.

The essence of Andy’s character is that he accepts responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame Whitey for roping him into the caper, or for getting out of jail scot free. Andy understands that even someone without a great deal of agency ultimately does wind up making decisions, even if it’s a decision to drift into the orbit of a sociopath like Whitey. A person is to be judged by their actions but also has the capacity for change and redemption, simply by choosing a different path. Andy is seemingly rewarded when a daughter he never knew opts to come into his life. Suddenly, his life has greater purpose and meaning.

That’s where things become problematic for Kirsch. Instead of figuring out how such a reunion would actually work out in the long run (a much more difficult storytelling choice than what he opted for), he decided on a tragic ending. This wasn’t necessarily a terrible decision, and the denouement of the story is actually quite effective, as his daughter chooses to live in the little shack in which he had resided, proud and happy to have at least met her father and understand his motives and the path he wound up on. The problem is that Kirsch had to come up with a series of plot contrivances that rely all too much on coincidence and convenience, punishing Andy through cheap irony. One can see those devices grinding away on the page, detracting from the genuinely soulful character work done with Andy and his daughter.

It’s unfortunate that Kirsch didn’t quite stick the landing, because there’s so much to like in this story. Kirsch’s figurework is solid, even blocky at times in a way that reflects on how much Andy changed his body while in prison, going from skinny to built like a cement block. Kirsch excels at exploring small details, but never loses panel-to-panel transitions nor individual panel composition. He excels at depicting bodies in space, interpersonal interaction and gesture, using an unfussy drawing style that simply gets the job done in its mix of naturalism and Clowes-like flatness. More than anything, Kirsch draws Andy as a man who’s not quite in step with his environment, and that’s symbolized by this huge man with a small pen and notebook in his powerful hands, attempting to gently create something beautiful with ill-equipped instruments and comically bad luck.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Joe Decie's Collecting Sticks

Joe Decie's quotidian memoir strips have always tended to be more on the comedic than serious side, and his fractured use of time makes it easy to set up his gags as very short vignettes. His first graphic memoir, Collecting Sticks (Jonathan Cape), doubles down on his gag work as the driving element of a single, extended narrative. Every aspect of the story is played for laughs from beginning to end, even as the subtext is that of a loving family with certain tics that play out on the page. Decie has the hairbrained idea of going camping with his wife and son for a cheap holiday, but his wife remembers all too well how miserable it was to stay in a tent for several days and was never going to do it again.

So when Decie, with puppy-like enthusiasm, not only suggests camping again but also says that they had fun doing it before, his wife seized hold of the narrative. She booked them for "glamping" ("glamorous camping") before he could even object to its price or ask to think it over. Throughout the book, his wife Steph acts mostly as the straight woman, his son Sam is a sort of wild force of nature, and he's the well-meaning bumbler. Decie has such a dry sense of humor that he's able to get away with this for a book's length, though it does wear from time to time on the reader. The book is essentially an inventory of things that went wrong but that didn't spoil their good time, like Decie's OCD taking forever for them to get out of the house or his son's reluctance to get dressed and do anything but play with Legos. When Decie passed on the responsibility of packing to his son (very much a kid thing to do), his son packed up a bunch of sticks, a recurrent activity for him in the book.

Decie goes to great lengths to portray himself as a fool, from his hilariously awful abilities as a navigator to his inability to create a fire, as he says things like "Getting lost is fun!" and pulls out graph paper from a D&D set to create a new map. There are times when going this broad starts to wear thin, as though he was advised to amp up the comedy as much as possible instead of Decie's occasional forays into more meditative fare. That said, his juxtaposition of bone-dry narrative and wacky visual antics made the gags that much more effective, as did the sober but expressive nature of his grey wash and fragile line.

Once they get to the cabin, things pick up, and by that I mean absolutely nothing of real interest happens, but Decie manages to make it funny anyway. A walk to find a quaint local market for supplies winds up being an expedition to a big-box grocery store, where they got essentials like smoked paprika. Though it's disguised in a series of generational disconnects, the central relationship explored in the book is between Decie and Sam, as they wander off together being very silly. There are funny bits about the cautious Decie having to reel in his daredevil and inquisitive son in from time to time, but it goes unsaid just how satisfying it is for Decie to spend this kind of extended time with his child.

Decie starts to throw in some funny bits to enhance the humor, like a sign at the beach that says "No Photography/No Sketching" after he and Steph had been doing both for hours. Sam is only at the very edge of being whiny, knowing just when to stop (like complaining about going to the pub because it's boring and then remembering he can get a drink with a straw there). There's also the droll, loving relationship between Decie and Steph, both of whom have the same dry and slightly absurd sense of humor, with Steph being just a step ahead at nearly all times. There are also moments when Decie jokingly brings up his very real problems with anxiety that are played straight but also treated with humor, as he fully understands how much of a problem it is even as he's helpless to indulge in it.

This is a lightweight book, by design. It's meant to capture one's attention and keep it with funny bits at the expense of the protagonist, and the grey wash helps the reader quickly fall into the story's rhythms and quirks. It doesn't feel overly long or like there's too much filler, because honestly, the whole story is filler. It's a book that has a handle on its non-essential qualities and invites the reader to hang out anyway. The result is a pleasant journey and a better understanding of Decie through his humor, because framing reality through that lens is what makes the family comedy effective.