Monday, December 30, 2013

Going Underground: Chudolinska, Rice, Kirsch

Last Playlist, by Marta Chudolinska. I'm a sucker for "prepping for the apocalypse" stories, such as the film Last Night. This mini is somewhat along those lines, as it focuses less on the cause of the apocalypse (revealed on the final page) and more on the dynamics of a group of friends. The rendering here is simple and basic, as Chudolinska wisely decides against over-rendering and instead focuses her attention on body language and character interactions in space. The result is an intimate, desperately honest set of decisions among close friends, one whose focus is on the small moments because those are all that are available to the characters in question. There is conflict, there are resolutions in the face of oblivion and there is a sense of warmth and camaraderie felt in the waning moments of the world. This comic is modest in its ambitions yet hits every note, and I'd be curious to see more of Chudolinska's character work.

The Daily Compulsion #5, by Nathan Rice. This is a crude, powerful howl of a personal zine. Rice apologizes up front for the seven year (!) delay between issues, but the jumble of stories, diary strips, jokes, flashbacks and vignettes quickly susses out why: Rice was going through recovery for alcoholism, a process he's still clearly square in the middle of. Rice faces up to every demon imaginable in this comic without flinching, including suicide, the uneasy camaraderie found in rehab clinics, stultifying boredom, a loss of identity, abandoning friends because they were uncomfortable with his drinking and much more. It's all done in a slightly detached, jokey matter, which only serves to heighten the artist's sense of loneliness and isolation. Rice's linework is crude at best, but there's an undeniable power and energy to be found on his pages, especially in terms of how he draws himself. Rice's voice as an artist is distinctive and creates a fascinating tension between dwelling in the moments of his misery and feeling a million miles away from it at the same time.

Teej Comix, by T.J. Kirsch. A frequent collaborator of Jonathan Baylis, Kirsch has developed a cartoony, visceral style of his own. This is a collection of dream strips and other oddities. From the cartoony splatter of cow parts in the full-color "Beefed" to the nightmarish scenarios encountered by his character Slim Johnson, Kirsch's dream comics are full of violent, paranoid and bizarre images that are concretized as animals, outdoor scenes and copious amounts of sweat. My favorite story was "la mort et le sable", which involves a woman in furs in the desert and a cartoony, googly-eyed man bringing her water and attempting to kill a crow. The naturalistically drawn woman juxtaposed against the googly-eyed man is a funny, memorable image, even as it draws in Kirsch's preferred imagery of the mysterious, vaguely malevolent birds. It's an interesting first shot at storytelling and takes advantage of Kirsch's versatility as an artist.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Total Culture: Hip-Hop Family Tree

I've been following Ed Piskor's career for quite some time, and he's managed to turn his obsessions into his art. Nowhere is that clearer than with the first volume of what promises to be a five volume history, Hip-Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics). In many respects, Piskor's theoretical and historical mouthpiece in the book is Fab Five Freddy, the influential graffiti artist who intuitively understood the connection between rapping, graffiti, fashion and breakdancing as part of a cultural whole and their overall vibrancy. This was not a new idea; Richard Wagner created the term Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art") to reflect the way that he thought operatic productions must fuse with music to expose greater cultural truths. It wasn't even a new idea in African-American culture, but rather a continuation of what writer Leroi Jones calls "assimilation-revitalization syndrome". This is when a marginalized culture, but in particular African-American culture, creates a new form of aesthetic expression. That expression inevitably is initially demonized by the dominant culture before it is accepted, assimilated and made popular, often at the expense of the form's originators. One could see that play out with blues, jazz, R&B, and rock 'n roll. What was initially different about funk music of the late 60s and early 70s was that it was in part a joyful expression of the gains made thanks to the civil rights movement. James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud" was the harbinger for a new renaissance of music, fashion, dance, art and literature centering around the communal and improvisational nature of funk music. Once again, however, assimilation came in the face of disco, which took the danceability of certain funk records and fused them with the gay, underground club scene in cities like New York. Putting the music in the hands of producers and taking away venues and jobs for live performers essentially destroyed the funk music, and the crippling poverty and economic recession of the late 70s further stalled gains made by African-Americans. When Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980 and quickly gutted a score of social programs that had been crucial to the development and advancement of the urban underclass, we were left with where Piskor began his book.

There's no doubt that Piskor is scrupulously accurate about showing the good, bad and ugly of the world surrounding hip-hop and providing interesting theories as to why rap proliferated the way it did at certain times. For example, a city-wide blackout led to some electronics stores getting looted and dozens of people suddenly getting their hands on the kinds of equipment needed to start spinning records as DJs and rhyming as MCs. I do wish that he had provided a little more historical background regarding hip-hop's cultural and economic roots, especially given that many of his ideas and the ideas of those he discusses in the book are rooted in earlier theories and schools of thought. That said, Piskor manages to juggle an insane amount of information regarding key players, influences, flashes-in-the-pan and backroom players in hip-hop's history. What began as a subculture is now simply culture, fully assimilated and established as the dominant cultural force. Every kid listens to rap, lots of kids use Beats by Dre headphones and wear clothing designed by hip-hop artists. Hip-hop is a dominant form of dance, taught at all levels. The story of hip-hop is the story of culture, post-1980.

If you've read the strips at Boing-Boing, then you still haven't really read the book as Piskor truly intends. Piskor, a design fiend, is using the exact proportions and cover design of the old Marvel Treasury Editions. The lettering, coloring (love those pre-yellowed pages!), character design and overall dynamics of the book are meant to emulate Marvel comics from the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, parts of the book look like they were drawn by Sal Buscema or Herb Trimpe. The drawings of key early MC Melle Mel often feature the wide-open mouth and saliva lines common to Buscema's figures, for example. This is something that undoubtedly comes naturally for Piskor, who was trained at the Kubert School. That school generally trains artists to become mainstream superhero cartoonists, but Piskor's interest in underground comics combined with his own specific set of obsessions set him on a different thematic path, even as his character design and interest in creating visually exciting pages remained firmly rooted in mainstream comics. That tendency makes a number of the characters have a certain larger-than-life quality, and Piskor doesn't shy away from comparing hip-hop culture to superhero culture in a back-up strip in this volume.

The problem with that approach is that some of his figure work is jarring, with character proportions out of whack, especially when juxtaposing people of different sizes. Piskor also seems to have difficulty drawing children, especially with how they relate in space to each other and adults. There are some pages that simply look wrong as a result of these problems with proportions. For the most part, however, Piskor ingeniously and quickly picks up on each character's distinctive characteristics and plays them up. Rap producer, promoter and manager Russell "Rush" Simmons wore a particular type of hat, had a lazy eye and talked with a pronounced lisp. Piskor mercilessly and often hilariously depicts the ridiculousness of those traits while giving due respect to Simmons' smarts, ambition and sense of timing. The book isn't all about big names and those who would later become big names, though Chuck D of Public Enemy, the future KRS-ONE and Dr Dre all get introduced here, among others, while Russell Simmons' little brother DJ Run is frequently depicted as a background character. Instead, the book focuses on folks like DJ Kool Herc, the first superstar DJ, along with Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. It discusses how hip-hop shows were initially held on basketball courts, rec rooms and other cheap or free public areas as a way of having fun in a relatively safe environment. The relationship between artist and audience was entirely symbiotic and interactive, as MC's literally came up out of the audience to rap while the DJ was busy doing his thing. B-boys would breakdance while the DJ spun records.

Piskor also gets at hip-hop that was essentially a youth-focused activity, with only a few enterprising older men and women entering the game when they saw that there was money to be made. My favorite character in the first volume is ruthless producer Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, the woman who pretty much helped create the first hit rap record out of thin air. Rather than do the legwork to find the best MCs in the New York area, she stumbled upon Big Bank Hank (a minor figure who cribbed rhymes from other, better rappers) and created the Sugar Hill Gang and "Rapper's Delight". The other two members of the group joined simply because they came up to the car where Hank was rapping over the Chic song "Good Times" and had the guts to approach and say they wanted to rap, too. Piskor gets across the importance of the record not as a work of art, but as something that shifted the historical importance from DJs to MCs as recording suddenly became every bit as important as performing.

Doing a weekly strip for Boing Boing dictated that Piskor make every page a stand-alone piece. Whether by design or by chance, this structure works beautifully for a comic that jumps from performer to performer yet finds ways to eventually tighten narrative and thematic strings. It also gives the book a propulsive, exciting quality that feels like Piskor is spinning yarns instead of doling out history lessons. He treats the subject with appropriate reverence and gravity but also injects each page with humor, befitting the frequent silliness and lunacy present in hip-hop's early days. For example, the battle between the Sugar Hill Gang and the Furious Five over who would get to use a particular breakbeat came down to them playing a game of football. Pages where we see Grandmaster Flash's reaction to "Rapper's Delight" on the radio are hilarious in and of themselves, as one of the coolest men in the business is agog at this development. Every page depicting rap battles and brutal put-downs is also quite funny and indicative of Piskor's deep research into hip-hop's history and understanding of how important the early bootleg concert tapes were.

Still, the fact that Piskor spends a lot of time with Fab Five Freddy and his connections to "downtown" art culture and figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring shows that his main concern is creating that titular family tree. He's fascinated by connections between artists, managers, rappers, djs, egomaniacal and privileged figures like Rick Rubin who turned a love of punk rock and hip hop into a career, and the people outside of hip-hop circles who immediately picked up on its potential and did their best to either further it or exploit (and sometimes both). He's interested in its immediate and multigenerational impact, as the first MCs and DJs had a quick influence on rappers in high school or living with their parents (the stories of Busy Bee Starski's mom pulling him out of clubs were hilarious) but also had an influence on ten year olds as well. This first volume is about creating something beautiful out of nothing, out of creating a tapestry of sound, self-expression and movement with the most limited of tools and equipment. To be sure, there were egos, beefs and exploiters from the very beginning, but there was also the sense of everyone making up rules as they went along. Piskor expertly captures the energy and excitement of the unlimited possibility to be creative in hip-hop's early days, and it's that Marvel-inflected style that gives him a solid set of visual short-cuts that allow him to keep the story moving briskly without losing the reader.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Funding Sparkplug and a La Mano Sale

First, let's hear from the publisher of Sparkplug Comic Books, Virginia Paine. Since the death of Dylan Williams in 2011, Sparkplug has just barely managed to stay afloat, first as a triumvirate with Paine, Emily Nilsson and Tom Neely and now with Paine as the sole proprietor. She's managed to publish a few things but announced below that in order for Sparkplug to continue and publish new work, it will need crowdfunded support. In addition to good news like finishing up Elijah Brubaker's excellent Reich series and (at last!) publishing the second volume of Orchid (adapting G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday), Paine is at last striking out on her own with the new Sparkplug Minis series. See below for more info and what you can do.

 "Hello friends of Sparkplug! We hope you’ve had a good 2013. It’s been another year of big changes for us—the most significant, of course, being my coming into ownership of Sparkplug. This year has been a reflective one; though our publishing output was smaller than past seasons, we have made some great additions to our distro catalog, attended a lot of fantastic shows, and given a lot of thought to the future of Sparkplug.

 As I am writing this in November, however, we are not in good shape financially. I’ve had to stop paying myself, and though I wasn’t paying myself much, that money did make a significant contribution to my income; it’s going to be more difficult to continue as a publisher when I’m relying solely on my minimum wage retail job. But I’ll be fine—I’m more concerned about our publishing schedule for next year.

We have some awesome books planned! We’re going to finish Elijah Brubaker’s Reich series, hopefully by fall 2014. I would like for Orchid 2 to (finally) be released by then as well. In addition to completing two of Dylan’s projects, I am looking forward to starting some projects of my own. In February, we are planning to launch the Sparkplug Minis series, a collection of limited edition short-run minicomics by up-and-coming artists. The first book will be Portland artist Asher Craw’s Hungry Summer, which will finally answer the question of what happens when a bro-dude meets Baba Yoga. Hungry Summer will be ready in time to debut at LA Zine Fest in February. The second book, Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi’s Smoking Spaceships #1, will debut at CAKE in late May. Suvarnasuddhi sent me some preliminary sketches, and let me tell you, they are gorgeous! I have two more issues in this series tentatively planned for summer and fall. Get them while you can, because once they run out, we won’t be reprinting them. If this series does well enough, I will likely add a subscription option in 2015. Finally, if you’ve been following William Cardini’s Vortex series, you’ll be excited to know that we’ll be publishing a collection of all four minis in the summer of 2014. Cardini’s work is great—a weird mash-up of psychedelia and 8-bit sci-fi—and I’m so stoked to be doing this book. So those are our plans, and I hope you’re as excited as I am.

To make these books happen, though, we are going to need a lot of support from our fans and friends. As always, you can make a donation directly to us via the Donate button on the right-hand side of our blog ( These donations are so greatly appreciated and go directly toward producing our books. I’m also going to offer preorders for our books, which will be the best way for you to help us and add some great comics to your library simultaneously. Reich #11 preorders start today! Please, just look at that cover and tell me it’s not one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. Visit to get your issue and contribute to a good cause."

Second, the great Zak Sally is celebrating 21 years of making comics with a big sale at his La Mano store. Recidivist #3 and Sammy the Mouse are some of my favorite comics of all time, and his Like A Dog collection is also quite good. In addition, the John Porcellino Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man is must-reading.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Journeys and Tranformations: Ullman, Dabaie, Newlevant

Diamonds Are A Girl's Worst Enemy, by Rob Ullman. Rob Ullman pays most of his bills through his illustration work these days,which is too bad because his clean and appealing style make him an ideal choice for so many other kinds of comics. His comics about hockey, for example, are impeccably researched, funny, fast-moving and a pleasure to simply look at. Of course, Ullman has the distinction of being skilled at a certain kind of cheesecake art, one that seems more honest and refreshing in the way he renders women than the more "realistic" good-girl artists or what passes for rendering women for most mainstream superhero comics. Indeed, this story is about a superhero named "Double Diamond" who's got all the male superheroes going ga-ga over her because of her skimpy outfit and flirtatious attitude. This infuriates the other women on the team, one of whom has a modest figure and the other who doesn't dressing in a revealing fashion despite having the figure for it. Ullman slyly comments on objectification and celebrity culture when the secret identity of a powerful jewel thief is revealed, critiquing both sexist behavior in men and the ways in which women internalize being objectified and use it as a weapon against other women. There is certainly a level at which Ullman is having his cake in presenting these critiques and eating it too in terms of drawing sexy women, but he doesn't go into the realm of bad taste or titillation in this comic. Indeed, take away the content related to sex in this comic and it's easy to see Ullman drawing a successful all-ages superhero or genre comic, given his understanding of body language and chops.

A Voyage To Panjikant, by Marguerite Dabaie. This is the first dozen or so pages of what will be a longer work for Dabaie. It follows a 7th century merchant family from Sogdiana, a country that's now roughly where Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are today. It's a comic that plays to Dabaie's strengths as a storyteller: an attention to detail, especially in terms of fashion; a vibrant but never garish understanding of how to use color; and a level of research that brings a little-known (to most English-speakers, at least) culture to life without bogging it down in mere detail. She's able to do this because she has a knack for creating a vivid family portrait in just a few storytelling strokes. There's the merchant father, patient but nonetheless frustrated by his goofball son. That son, despite his best efforts, can't help but screw up an important sales trip. There's the clearly intelligent daughter who shares her father's sense of frustration but isn't quite in a position to act on it yet. Dabaie offers hints of life in Sogdiana and how merchants have to have a clear understanding of any number of religions and cultures in order to interact with and build good will with them. I'm hoping that the final product will be bigger, in order to show off the intricate nature of her drawings (especially the designs on clothing, which are remarkable) and the impact of her use of color.

Curio #2, Mariposa and If This Be Sin, by Hazel Newlevant. Newlevant's comics are frequently about gender fluidity in a variety of forms. If This Be Sin, for example, is about the blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, who openly performed in male drag and wrote songs about blurring genders and her attraction to women in the 1930s. Newlevant's character design and page composition are both highly effective here, giving the page a certain fuzzy softness, evoking both buried memories and a time that in some ways was hard to believe was real. Though Bentley later reportedly "cured" herself by taking hormones to "become a woman again", Newlevant hints at a lingering sadness in her story, suggesting that the change was a desperate attempt to fit in and avoid persecution. Mariposa, done in conjunction with Jesse Reklaw, is about the parallel narratives of a scientist discovering a new genus of butterfly with ambiguous genitalia and the polymorphously perverse young woman who lives in his apartment building. The mini evokes both Reklaw and Newlevant's love of clever formal packaging, given its butterfly shape and the way the reader must unfold it to create the full effect. The ambiguous ending implies that the scientist himself goes through a process of frequently uncomfortable metamorphosis in order to become something much more beautiful; it can be taken as a moment of magical realism or a metaphorical transformation that sees the scientist understanding that how she lives her life is not so much random or self-indulgent as it is totally embracing a certain kind of freedom of and from identity.

Curio #2 is a collection of one-page strips, sketchbook drawings and other experiments, many of them done in collaboration with others. Newlevant experiments with going small, going big, using a sketchy & loose style, and using a more naturalistic line. Some of the strips are gags and goofs, while others zero in on personal and autobiographical details, like "3 Years of Open Relationships". The latter is a brutally honest self-appraisal of polyamory and the ways in which it can be an emotional rollercoaster. The page design is clever, with some panels turning out to be thought-balloon flashbacks and others acting as mirrors or callbacks to earlier parts of the emotional narrative. "Maidenhood" is a hilarious, weird story that is similarly clever to look at; it has the qualities of a dream comic and an extended period of time thinking about vaginal skin and the mechanics and implications of the decision to have sex or not have sex. Other strips feel more disposable, like "The Royal Matchmaker", which has the cute idea of matching up an alien with someone on earth in what turns out to be a pet relationship; there's a lot of effort to get to a mildly amusing punchline. What's obvious is that Newlevant is very much feeling her way around comics, trying on different styles and working relationships as she attempts to figure out what kind of artist she wants to be. There's a certain restless adventurousness at work in her comics, and it will be interesting to see how she harnesses that ambition.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Another Vein Extracted: Mineshaft #29

Mineshaft continues to roll on with another issue filled with unexpected treasures. This issue is comics and photography-heavy, with no poetry or short stories in the mix. I imagine editors Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieiri take what they can get as far as that goes, but it's interesting to see how they build those contributions into a coherent whole. As I noted in my presentation about Mineshaft at DICE in November, Rand and Palmieri really are in a position where they are bringing up esoteric, buried and hidden treasures into sharper view. That's especially true of artists who want an outlet for short stories or pieces that don't necessarily fit into the rest of what they do. For other artists, they contribute to support Mineshaft's mission and keep their own visibility intact.

For example, the issue starts with a typically amiable and sharp strip by David Collier about the end of the use of film in movie theaters. It's a warm and witty take that's very much a personal one, and he even skewers himself and his obsession with film in the final panel. That's followed by six single-panel political cartoons from Mary Fleener, who's been reprinting her work off and on in Mineshaft for quite some time. She included some of her best cartoons here, some of which have nothing to directly do with politics at all. The relative sobriety of those features is broken up by one of Aaron Lange's hilarious, profane and slickly-drawn comics that incorporates the same kind of flat, advertising art/romance comic art-related imagery that influenced folks like Dan Clowes.

Different styles of short comics keep coming at the reader, including an interesting digression from Aleksandar Zograf (on Eastern Europe's upcoming role in bridging the gap between Europe and Asia), Christoph Mueller (in an astounding strip that's sort of a cross between Chris Ware and Robert Crumb) and a sketchbook from the late Spain Rodriguez, which he sent to Mineshaft shortly before he died. This was extensively cleaned up by Pat Moriarty, and there are some truly remarkable drawings here, especially the crowd scenes which seemed partly sketched from life and partly as a satirical pastiche.  The rest of the issue is filled up with more of Crumb's dream diaries, which are both amusing and vaguely disturbing, as one would expect, as well as a photo essay on blues artists from the 1960s. These were taken during the folk explosion that dug up countless bluesmen, many of whom had had to take other jobs in the intervening years. The photos of legends like Son House are especially powerful, capturing, his elegance and wry sense of humor. That said, the spread is considerably less esoteric than the average Mineshaft photo feature, even if the photos themselves are artfully composed. The issue concludes, in a more typical Mineshaft fashion, with a Charles Bukowski poem illustrated by Moriarty and inked by Collier. That kind of collaboration and the platform that Mineshaft provides for it sums up the zine's mission and is also the reason why it receives so much support from the alt and underground comics communities.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shades of Autobio: Baylis, Martin, Runkle

So Buttons #6, by Jonathan Baylis and various artists. This is yet another solid issue of bite-sized anecdotes related by Baylis and rendered by an increasingly-impressive group of collaborators. Fred Hembeck continues to be an ideal artist for Baylis' stories about his time as an intern at Marvel Comics, and printing this story in full color adds to its effectiveness. Baylis has a front-line view of exactly how Marvel treated its most talented creators, and the anecdote here where he chose to give Joe Simon a couple of Golden Age comics that Simon himself did not possess instead of just getting them autographed shows how a fan treated the creators with more compassion than Marvel itself. Baylis made an interesting choice by also running the superb Josh Bayer story "Trimpe Survives", originally printed in black & white in the Rub The Blood anthology broadsheet. Printed in color and on a smaller scale, this story that interpolates a fantasy sequence with Trimpe's real struggle to get work from Marvel in the 90s is in turns profane, poignant and hilarious. It also dovetailed nicely with the first story. "So Begrudgingly" and "So This Is Where I Got It From" (drawn by Sam Spina and T.J. Kirsch, respectively), are the sort of short, gag-oriented strips that Baylis does well. Spina in particular adds exaggerated body language and flopsweat to a story about living well being the best revenge (but tweeting about it not hurting things).

The centerpiece of the issue is "So Basquiat". One of my early criticisms of Baylis' writing, especially with regard to longer, more serious pieces, is that he tended to overwrite. Too much narrative caption text and too little room for the artist to do more other than functionally describe that text was a frequent problem, though not a surprising one for a writer trying to figure out how to write a comic. As Baylis has evolved, he's come to trust his artists more and more; in turn, the artists he's working with are more adept at taking what he's written and transforming it into something visually striking. This suite of three stories works so well because it begins with Baylis' own personal experiences discovering Jean Michel Basquiat, the famous graffiti artist/painter who emerged in the 1980s. Baylis discovered his work through the biopic about his life, which tied into his own unsatisfying experience at NYU film school and that the downtown art scene was not what he had hoped. That segues into a sequence drawn by Becky Hawkins (jammed full of eye-pops) that saw a naive but enthusiastic Baylis take the money he got after being downsized by Topps to go to the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. The cartoony nature of Hawkins' line and the soft use of color was a perfect match for the delightful weirdness of the museum's design, and Baylis let the art do the talking as much as possible while still adding in key expository points that talked more about his emotions than actual events. Victor Kerlow did the first and third segments, and his comparatively, scratchy & dirty line further communicated how much seeing the museum and Basquiat's pieces there affected him as a person, creating a sense of not necessarily relating to him but getting a sense of what they had in common. This story is a true breakthrough for Baylis, and when you tack on the cover by Jay Lynch (combining Topps' imagery with Basquiat's likeness) and a back cover portrait by Noah Van Sciver, you have his strongest issue to date.

Runx Tales #3, by Matt Runkle. Runkle is a fine general-interest storyteller who moves seamlessly from talking about a beloved drug store that closed to weird spots in San Jose to an interview with a beloved author to a series of anecdotes about a couple of ex-lovers. There's something pleasingly crude and beautifully ugly about the way he draws people: bug-eyes, stubble, skewed mouths and slouched, often amorphously drawn bodies. I think the best way to categorize him as a visual essayist, as he eloquently and colorfully spins yarns about things that interest him. His extended essay about seeing Prince on the day that fringe Christian Harold Camping claimed the world would end was jam-packed with interesting bits of trivia that went off on fascinating tangents. It was like reading a personal, emotional version of Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, stripped of its hyperbolic qualities. That was especially true when he segued into discussing the famous Winchester House. The story goes that Mary Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, kept on adding to the house in order to appease the ghosts of those killed by the rifles. Runkle goes deeper, discussing Winchester's roots in theosophy and spiritualism but also making note of her innovative architectural concepts.

The interview with author Jincy Willett is also tremendous, combining quotes from her novels, quotes from the interview, a variety of cleverly-composed illustrations and some solid literary criticism. The feature on the bizarre variety store SuperLongs was a bit tougher to swallow because of how esoteric its subject was and how text-heavy the feature turned out to be, but it did give Runkle a chance to draw the interesting objects one could find in there. Finally, "My Two Daddies" finds Runkle literally cutting a horizontal line in the middle of the page to create dual flip-books about two life-changing relationships when he was a "failed rent boy". It's a fascinating look at Runkle coming to terms with a stereotype, dealing with the racial implications of his relationships (he's white, but both of those sugar daddies were African-American), and how injecting money into personal and sexual relationships made things more complicated, not less so. It's a beautiful, haunting and bracingly honest account of his past and just the sort of story that makes him such a sharp writer.

Driftwood City, by Jason Martin. This is a 100-page collection of Martin's Laterborn minicomics series. Martin's comics are all about capturing small, powerful and poignant motions. Above all else, they are about trying to capture particular strong feelings. "Lily, or Save Your Pity" is about being a teen and meeting a girl with whom he had an intense phone-and-letter relationship with for a couple of months. It eventually fizzled out, but Martin really gets at that feeling of going through an experience that has an indelible impact on one's experiences and memories. It's a personality-forming experience. In the first section of the book, "Home", the stories inevitably turn to either brief, funny anecdotes or life-changing experiences or individuals. The strip about his class reciting the lyrics to "The Humpty Dance" to a teacher who inadvertently says the first line of the song is hilarious. "Who Are You" is about a teacher who inspired him to be a better human being, one more empathetic, caring and courageous. Martin himself would downplay this, as some of the strips in the book depict a breakdown of his own moral courage, but there's no question that there's a sense of being more evolved than the average high schooler.

"The College Years" gets at the heart of Martin's stories, which is the relationship between him and his friends. He had the fortune of meeting and cultivating a group of friends that had a nourishing and sustaining effect on his life, and he likewise for them. The strips here are about small moments, shared moments of beauty, funny stories, and the ways in which emotions from grief to joy are felt. It's clear that Martin is powerfully affected by what the philosopher Kant refers to as the "sublime" experience, which is a moment where one is overwhelmed by beauty. The moment can be talked about and around, but the moment itself is beyond descriptive language. Sharing these moments through the poetic language of comics, in a manner similar to John Porcellino, is one of the best ways of attempting to communicate the experience.

Martin's line is crude but functional. He's allowed himself to try to draw less and less in terms of detail and lines, which has made his actual comics look better. Some of his more labored drawings get in the way of understanding the feelings and experiences he's trying to relate, but for the most part his sense of restraint as both writer and illustrator meshes well enough to get across his meaning. That's true in some clever strips, like "The San Joaquin Route" and "Nocturnal Waltz", where his drawings and page design have qualities that affect the narrative. The third section of the book, "Drifting/Nocturnal Waltz" was my favorite because it wasn't tethered to a particular chronological era in his life, but instead allowed him to jump from anecdote to anecdote about traveling, especially traveling with others. The book concludes with Martin once again expressing his devotion to his friends, old and new, and the ways in which they obviously drive and affect his art. This is a deceptively simple and beautifully sincere book with many moments of wry humor and more moments of how wonderful and difficult it is to be alive and interact with others.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Assorted Fundraisers and Sales: SAW, PictureBox, Hic & Hoc, Shalom Kenneth, Sophie Yanow

Let me mention a few worthy fundraisers and sales: The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), overseen by Tom Hart, is doing their annual fundraiser to expand their mission and make their classes more affordable. What Hart is doing in Gainesville with limited funds is remarkable and worthy of your support.

Visionary publisher PictureBox is shutting down operations, but not before offering many of their finest titles at a price designed to move: 50% off. I particularly recommend Matthew Thurber's 1-800-MICE (one of my favorite comics of all time) and his new Infomaniacs (a short-lister for book of the year).

Excellent, emerging publisher Hic & Hoc is also having a sale. I particularly recommend the books by Alabaster, dw, Philippa Rice and Dina Kelberman.

The excellent and innovative autobio cartoonist just had her laptop stolen, so please consider buying something from her shop (I recommend In Situ) to help make up for that loss.

Finally, the young Canadian cartoonist Shalom Kenneth is trying to raise funds for his book through kickstarter.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Banding Together: Faction, Volume 1

Faction is a full-color, crowd-funded anthology from New Zealand, designed to spotlight that country's emerging comics scene. It's reminiscent of the old Monkeysuit anthology series in that most of the cartoonists here work in other creative industries. Most of the Monkeysuit gang were animators, while many of the cartoonists in Faction happen to work for homegrown special effects studio Weta. There are also some similarities to the early SPX anthologies in which mainstream, serialized work is presented side-by-side (and seemingly at random) with alt-comics work. With such a small pool of talent, Faction has the tendency of feeling thrown together with little else to connect these stories other than a shared national origin. A number of the stories are quite intriguing, while many others are borderline unreadable.

The production values of the anthology work against the success of some of the stories. Printed on thick, glossy paper, the anthology is designed to make the fantasy-oriented stories pop out. Unfortunately, Nani Mahal's "Search for the Phoenix" Mark Holland's "The Aegean Sea: Origins" are exactly what I find least interesting about fantasy. They are slick, valuing color density over storytelling clarity in the vein of Kaz Kazubishi, but not nearly at his skill level. The fonts chosen for the long, long information dumps have that faux-fantasy script that makes them difficult to read, especially with the way the rest of the page is colored. The size of the dialogue font in Mahal's story is too big in some places, too small in others. Holland's story feels more like a storyboard and less like a comic. Neither gives the slightest bit of a satisfying chunk of story, as both are pure, overwhelming exposition. Czepta's "Zion//Eye" is similarly slick in that Flight-style, but the storytelling chops demonstrated are far more refined, with color taking a back seat to figure and story. The digital font used here is annoying, but it is at least legible. The story, involving a young herbalist in a jungle setting, is predictable but amusingly told.

The best stories here are the simplest. Karl Wills' "Connie Radar" is a funny Antarctic adventure whose central mystery is only obliquely addressed, told in a style deliberately evocative of Herge'. The thin, slightly ratty line and black & white crispness accentuates Wills' sense of humor. Matt and Sam Emery's "Do You Want To Talk About It" starts with what seems to be a simply-rendered post-apocalytpic nightmare tinged with moments of happiness. The final twist is tragic on a number of levels, as the protagonist is sad to let go of that happiness that in many ways reveals deeper problems. Ralphi's "Ricky and Lyle" is my favorite story in the book, as the titular leads (a skater dude and his anthropomorphic cat) negotiate their weird but logically consistent environment with a combination of total disinterest and sublimated desperation. The simplicity of the line is deceptive, as the elongated nature of the figures and the single-tone, sickly green create an atmosphere of malaise.

Some of the pieces used color quite smartly. Jonathan King's "Bookish" is a fantasy police procedural story that uses muted colors so as to crate an atmosphere of dread and mystery.  There are some genuinely fascinating twists to be found in this story, and King makes sure to establish its lead's humanity and vulnerabilities early in the story. Ant Sang's "June + Bug" is just two pages long, but the relationship between conjoined twins and their eventual demise is treated with delicate care, leading to a moving ending that makes the most out of its use of dark colors. Co-editor Damon Keen's "One Giant Leap", about an astronaut's dilemma, similarly uses gradients of black to tell its bleakly humorous story. A nasty sense of humor is certainly not in short supply in this comic, as Ned Wenlock's "Migraine" and Christian Pearce's "Has Beams" demonstrate. Wenlock's simplistic style has a certain Adult Swim feel to it, with the weird crystal, random violence and gleefully nihilistic attitudes of the brothers adding to that sense of chaos. Pearce's story about lasers simply takes a joke's core concept and writes it (literally) large across the page.  Of course, Roger Langridge's one-page Fred The Clown offering is typically funny, crisply-drawn and elegantly silly. There's no question that this anthology has potential, but at some point the editors need to do some hard thinking about just what kind of reading experience they're trying to create and what kind of aesthetic they're hoping to promote.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Rhythm of Color: Chico and Rita

Chico and Rita (Self-Made Hero) is the rare graphic novel adapted from an animated feature.A collaboration between writer/director Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal, it's an extended love letter to Havana, New York, jazz and romance itself. Indeed, the titular characters are a piano player and singer who are separated a number of times during their lives, but their romance and musical collaboration always wind up drawing them back together. The story itself is familiar and even predictable, as Chico's initial inability to stay true and later feelings of jealousy wind up wrecking the relationship the first time, while outside forces force them apart a second time. This is less a narrative than an extended atmosphere piece, and as such it has a frothy, light quality. Certainly, there are snide references to life under Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba as well as more serious narrative events related to the racism endemic in both America and Cuba in the 1950s, but those are secondary to the imagery surrounding the lights and musical magic taking place in New York and Havana at that time.

It's in those sequences where the book shines. The book's colors are vibrant but not garish or overly slick, allowing the reader's eye to fully engage them and bring the night cityscapes of Havana and New York to life. The book is especially adept at giving cities a sort of buzzing life of their own, an electricity that's felt by all involved and that sweeps them away. That buzz combines with the crackle of creativity and musical innovation to create a wave of pure pleasure; the way Mariscal draws musical venues makes the bigger halls look like cathedrals and the small clubs look like earthy, pulsating chambers of energy. The best sequence in the book is a dream that's reminiscent of the fantasy sequence in the film Singing In The Rain (indeed, the similarity is no doubt intentional). As Chico is on a boat to New York in search of his lost love Rita, he dreams jealous dreams of her dancing with Fred Astaire before he's gunned down by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. The colors gloriously overwhelm the linework here, spilling over and becoming tangible forces of their own. There's also a frenzied quality to the drawings that's unlike the slower pace of the rest of the book, as when Fred Astaire spins Rita around until her dress pops off and she is dressed like Josephine Baker doing her banana dance.

The characters are mostly of the stock variety, with villainous and rapacious rich industry types actively working against Chico and Rita being together, a betrayal by Chico's best friend and manager, a jealous girlfriend getting in a fight with Rita, etc. Chico and Rita themselves don't get much development outside of their abilities as musicians and their magnetic attraction toward each other. They wind up getting a happy ending that in many ways reflects the ways in which American audiences "rediscovered" a lost generation of Cuban jazz musicians after the revolution of 1959 in the last decade or so (as documented in films like The Buena Vista Social Club). Chico's rediscovery leads to that happy ending, as both characters are finally free of ego, jealousy and the machinations of others. The reader feels sorry for their situation, even if much of it is self-inflicted (especially on the part of Chico) because of a total lack of communication. However, the flatness of the characters limits a feeling of being connected to them, so that final scene simply registers as a nice moment rather than an emotionally powerful one. Those moments are reserved for the fleeting and glorious moments onstage and soaking up the nightlife, as Mariscal & Trueba get across the sense of excitement and limitless possibility. The actual events of the book are less interesting than what those images suggested.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Once Removed: Couch Tag

Jesse Reklaw's Couch Tag is an example of what I call mediated autobiography. In each of the five chapters of the book, Reklaw uses a particular narrative structure and an accompanying aesthetic & decorative strategy in order to get at certain deep, painful feelings and events in his life. Much like in his highly-structured, year-long daily memoir comic Ten Thousand Things To Do, Reklaw uses these structures as a kind of safe space and even distraction that allows him to get at powerful, formative memories and how they relate to his current life. The core question that eats away at him is identity and how it is created relative to one's friends and family, and what the state of his identity is as he struggles with mental illness. The rawness of his emotions, especially as the book winds on to its conclusion, tend to spill over and swamp his structure, leading to some narrative and pictorial unevenness as his current mental state at the time of drawing the stories about his past has everything to do with how the story appears on the page.

In the first chapter, "Thirteen Cats of My Childhood", Reklaw introduces the reader to his family by way of listing every cat they had as pets. This is an ideal device, given the way people tend to project their emotions and fears onto their pets and use them as an outlet for affection, especially when that affection is difficult to come by at home. While Reklaw stays within this framework, the emotions and fears immediately come spilling out, as he reveals how his father's tempo frightened him as a child and how his family completely disintegrated when his mother divorced his father and his sister moved out of the house at the same time. The breakdown of his family is disguised by the trope of the Cute Cat Strip, complete with each cat getting its own personal logo and quips on either side of that logo. One of the repeated themes of the book is how Reklaw's young mind was unable to fully process and understand the chaos occurring around him, leading him to the the family "nothing" (in the words of his sister). The only way to get to these feelings, even now, is to trick them by capturing them with these literary devices.

The way each chapter addresses slightly different but overlapping concerns leads to some repetition in the memoir, but only in the sense that certain events and people are viewed from differing perspectives from chapter to chapter. For example, the second chapter, "Toys I Loved", rewinds from the divorce discussed at the end of chapter one and examines his family and life growing up yet again. The first chapter also established how many times Reklaw's family moved and how he often felt rootless and lonely as a result. The second chapter, with each section compartmentalized with a memory of a particular beloved toy, is all about his experiences in each of these locations, focusing on his young sexual history, as well as the way sex in general was brought up in his house growing up. With hippie parents who established few boundaries but also declined to make the world less mysterious, Reklaw was bombarded by a lot of information that was difficult to process. Some of that played out in terms of the "dirty" games he enjoyed playing with some of his friends, but he mostly portrays that as simple childhood pleasures that are rarely discussed as opposed to something pathological. This chapter is also about power and hierarchy, and how he often felt powerless against his older sister when he fought and the time he whipped a friend with a belt just to understand what that sensation felt like. The writer Michel Foucault explicitly connects power and sex in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, and this chapter very much plays out this way, as sex and sexuality are used and abused with regard to children based on hierarchy, power, familial superiority and other exploitative ways.

The third chapter, "The Fred Robinson Story" is about the ways in which friendships, especially male friendships that don't always allow for open expressions of affection and intimacy as children, are often mediated through activities like play and sports. In Reklaw's case with his friend Brendan, this chapter is a kind of love letter to the history of their friendship that was mediated through games, creative projects and music. It's also a love letter to comics in general, both the superhero comics of Reklaw's youth that obsessed him and the possibilities that comics opened up to him as a creative person and a collaborator. It's a chapter that intersects with the rest of the book in terms of talking about his family and interests, but it's also a chapter that very much works entirely on its own. It's tonally different than the other chapters, which tend to wind up being more downbeat and more explicitly about disintegration, decay and disarray. This is also the funniest chapter, as it details all sorts of collaborative pranks and shenanigans that wound up being a kind of special language spoken by Reklaw and his friend Brendan. There is a kind of bittersweet tone at the end as the friendship faded a little over time, but it concludes in the present day and notes that the friendship has endured.

The fourth chapter, "The Stacked Deck" is a family history in the form of all of the card games Reklaw learned to play as a child. Each anecdote starts with the rules of the game, a quick story about learning to play it, and then a family story related to the game. Once again, the chapter jumps back and forth but is roughly in chronological order. Some of the games mentioned (especially games involving working with a partner) resonate with the anecdote discussed, while others feel like a more cursory attempt to stick with the chapter's high concept and then move on to the story he really wanted to tell. Reklaw cleverly connects the element of chance in the games he played with the random element we must face when dealing with our extended families; the vagaries of genetics often lead to strange, seemingly arbitrary connections. At the same time, the deck was stacked against Reklaw growing both because of genetics but also the family history itself. Reklaw also talks about his regrets in not doing more to get to know his beloved grandparents in a real way as an adult, in part because he wanted little to do with so many of his crazy aunts and uncles. It's the first time the book touches on mortality, as this chapter turns characters in Reklaw's own internal narrative into real people who disappear and are unknowable.

Finally, "Lessoned" really gets to the heart of the matter in this memoir. It's a chapter about mental illness in his family and himself, told in the form of an A to Z primer.  The style of art here is the collaborative, rough, full color and sketchbook-style seen in his minicomic LOVF. The above gif is from his girlfriend Hazel Newlevant's blog, as she did the underlying blue pencils and Reklaw added the rest. It's fitting that even in his own memoir, Reklaw sought out others to work with him. This is a difficult chapter to process in many ways because it's so viscerally concerned with pain. If Reklaw's entire life was marked by chaos, a lack of structure and disorder, then many of his comics bear the mark of someone using a tidy, neat grid and a restrained, relaxed line. That's certainly true of the earlier chapters in this book, which are unusually smooth-looking even for Reklaw. However, all of that chaos simply spills over as Reklaw can no longer contain that pain, or perhaps is no longer interested in trying to conceal it. The book ends with an anecdote from his youth where he talks about an extended illness and a simple decision to no longer be sick. Couch Tag similarly is an exercise in personal agency. Designated as "the nothing" by his sister--a passive bystander who still managed to suck up emotional energy--his entire career as an artist can be seen as Reklaw creating something out of nothing. It's a portrait of an artist creating his own portrait that begins with formalist tricks, as though Reklaw is trying to trick himself into writing about these things by removing their immediacy by making them about something else on the surface. By the end of the book, that artifice is only superficially present as Reklaw's acknowledgment of his own struggles goes hand in hand with asserting his worthiness as a human being, all mediated and assisted by the way he creates art. If the book is uneven in tone and feels like it loses its way narratively at times, it's a side effect of artistic and personal freedom and agency. That raw self-discovery and revelation more than makes up for the book's rougher edges.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanks For The Fundraising Help!

Thank you all so much for the help with my family's recent financial difficulties. We received a rapid and astonishing response from friends, readers, artists and so many others who have enjoyed my work here at High-Low as well as my other writings. At the moment, the money we've received will recover all of our expenses, and I'm happy to say that as a result, the crisis has passed. As a result, there's no imminent need to make any more donations. I'll leave the button up for the future in case folks randomly feel like making a donation on behalf of my efforts, but as I said, the crisis is over. My wife and I feel like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's A Wonderful Life and are simply astonished by the caring and generosity expressed by so many. Thanks again.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Elastic History: Woman Rebel

Tom Spurgeon and others have written extensively about how Peter Bagge was one of the first rank, most influential alt-cartoonists in the world in the 1990s. Bagge was not only a preeminent humorist, he was also a fine editor, first at Weirdo and then again in the latter issues of Hate, when he started printing work by the likes of Rick Altergott and Johnny Ryan. Indeed, Bagge mentioned that he almost thought about keeping Hate going as an anthology periodical, but he saw the handwriting on the wall at the time: the market would no longer support a comics periodical in numbers large enough to sustain a viable professional career. Bagge was also a tastemaker, as a mention from him in Hate was enough to help launch a dozen careers. Even as he was drawing Buddy Bradley's misadventures, I always sensed a restlessness from him and a probing intellect. This played out in ending Hate to pursue any number of other projects and interests, from writing a couple of kids' series for DC (Yeah!, Sweatshop) to writing & drawing a couple of series for Dark Horse (Reset, Apocalypse Nerd) to creating an original graphic novel for DC/Vertigo (Other Lives). Of course, Bagge was also active on any number of websites, with his political strips for Reason winding up in the fine collection Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me.

These projects have had varying degrees of financial and aesthetic success, but the pieces that resonated most for me as a reader were his biographies. The backup strip for Apocalypse Nerd, "Founding Fathers Funnies", were spot-on historically and absolutely hilarious; indeed, I preferred them to the funny main story. In the new edition of Everybody Is Stupid..., the standout piece is "I.M.P", a short biography of literary critic and iconoclastic libertarian Isabel Mary Patterson. Writing about these historical figures, especially women who struggled against sexism and stupidity in general, seemed to really bring out not just Bagge's best satirical bite, it also gave his art far more energy than it did in his recent fictional stories. Bagge seemed genuinely excited to tell Patterson's story, and he did an expert job in picking out just the right anecdotes to keep a reader completely unaware of her achievements interested.

Working with Drawn & Quarterly for the first time, he pitched some ideas about other female historical figures he wanted to write about, and the creator of the birth control movement, Margaret Sanger, was the most favored idea. Bagge was fortunate to have a wealth of biographical information about this crucial, misunderstood and (today) forgotten figure available to him, as well as the good judgment to choose a subject who lived such a crazy life. There's an argument to be made that Sanger bettered the lives of women worldwide like no other figure in the 20th century, and her life is a crazy-quilt of meetings with famous historical, political and cultural figures. Like Patterson, Sanger was an iconoclast who was stubborn to a fault, an intellectual hurricane who did not suffer fools gladly, and a passionate woman with a disdain for antiquated morals. All of that resulted in some great storytelling fodder, as Bagge details her affairs with men like H.G. Wells and sexologist Havelock Ellis. The latter is recounted in a hilarious scene where he reveals his utter disinterest in actual sex, other than in watching women urinate. The eagerness with which she volunteers to do so felt like something Lisa Leavenworth might have done in the pages of Hate.

Indeed, having a protagonist as dynamic and short-tempered as Sanger allowed Bagge to use his trademark rubbery, expressionistic style to its fullest. There are plop takes, eyes bulging out of heads, distorted limbs and other typical Bagge visual cues, but none of them feel forced or extraneous. Indeed, the craziness of Sanger's life makes one feel that Bagge is the only cartoonist able to bend reality to his will in such a way as to depict it properly! Bagge is sympathetic, perhaps to a fault, regarding some of Sanger's more controversial positions, though he points out in the afterword that some of that controversy is misinformation placed on the behalf of her arch-enemies, which included the Catholic church. Sanger didn't actually approve of abortion, but the mere act of supporting birth control and giving equal access to information for women of every socioeconomic stripe was an astoundingly radical idea. That led to her giving a lecture to the Ku Klux Klan's "ladies auxillary" a dubious choice then and now, but one she defended at the time because she thought every group of women deserved to have this information. There's also her murky connection with the eugenics movement, but evidence seems scarce that she favored birth control in order to discourage the poor from breeding. Regardless, Bagge tries to touch on these issues but more-or-less lets Sanger off the hook. It's hard to blame him, because her influence and the organization that she helped create (which later became Planned Parenthood) has been astounding. And like all good heroes, her own hubris, pride and arrogance cost her dearly in her lifetime, even as she lived life to the fullest. Bagge captures all of that, and it's amazing to see him excel in his second and third act as a cartoonist.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fundraising For High-Low

You may have noticed that I've placed a paypal Donate button under my profile to the right. As much as it pains me to make mention of this, the Clough family is having some financial difficulties at the moment: our rental house is being sold in the next couple of months (it will take a couple of thousand dollars to move and put down a security deposit), we just learned that we have to invest $3000 worth of repairs into the car we just bought, and we have had some medical bills popping up. It's a perfect storm of expenses, and at this point I'm trying to raise money any way I can. Thus, if readers have enjoyed my work here at High-Low over the years, I might ask them to kick in a few bucks if they feel so inclined. Thank you so much for your attention.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS: The Index

Thanks to all who read my "Thirty Days of CCS" feature, which was thirty days' worth of reviews of students and alums of the Center for Cartoon Studies.  Tom Spurgeon made the sensible suggestion of having an aggregate link post, so here we go with articles talking about 44 different cartoonists, not including the anthologies:

1.   Paul Swartz
2.   Sophie Goldstein
3.   Sasha Steinberg
4.   Laurel Lynn Leake
5.   Aaron Cockle
6.   Melissa Mendes
7.   Joseph Lambert
8.   Amelia Onorato
9.   Sean Ford, Chuck Forsman, Alex Kim, Dane Martin, JP Coovert, Sam Gaskin
10. April Malig
11. Josh Rosen
12. Joyana McDiarmid
13. Cole Closser
14. Penina Gal, Betsey Swardlick, Moody
15. Steve Seck, Pat Barrett, Garry Paul Bonesteel
16. Melanie Gillman, Allie Kleber
17. Jesse Mead, Carl Antonowicz
18. Lena Chandhok
19. Andy Warner, Adam Whittier, Josh Kramer 20. Beth Hetland, Colleen Frakes
21. Luke Healy, Max Riffner, Mathew New, Simon Reinhardt
22. Chuck Forsman
23. Bingo Baby (collaborative story)
24. Queerotica (anthology)
25. Max Mose, Rio Aubry Taylor, Casey Bohn, Bill Bedard
26. Awesome Sound, Can't Lose, Stranger Knights #4 (anthologies)
27. Luke Howard
28. Adventures in Cartooning, CCS Pamphlet, Jai Granofski, Ian Richardson, Dan Archer
29. Irene #3 (anthology)
30. Dakota McFadzean

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #30: Dakota McFadzean

Dakota McFadzean came into CCS as an already fully-formed talent, but it's clear that his experience there only served to bolster his confidence and encourage him to take even more chances as a creator. In his first collection of short stories, Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On, McFadzean manages to create a surprisingly coherent meta-narrative. McFadzean is not unlike Joseph Lambert in that many of his stories have to do with the ways in which children engage the world in magical realist terms, but there's a certain melancholy that pervades his work in ways that it doesn't for Lambert. A big part of that is McFadzean's work is marked by its sense of restraint and subtlety, even in the craziest of situations.

For example, the opening story "Standing Water" is about a kid navigating a world that's frozen in time, as though he were the only one who could travel through a world that's entirely underwater. Friends, family and pets float limply in the water, and his attempts at interacting with the world reveal a hidden well of meanings that have lost all their significance in the wake of what is essentially the end of the world. What seem to be acts of revenge or cruelty lose their meaning, leading him to a sense of sad resignation in a totally absurd situation. There's no background or explanation given here, because the emotional resonance of this world is what's important.

The same is true in "Unkindness", which is one of McFadzean's very best stories. It's typical of his work in that it depicts small town life in Canada in an entirely unromanticized fashion and also contains unexplained elements of magical realism. While there's a strong streak of naturalism running through his work (the world he creates feels quite solid and real), his character design here is looser and more expressive. He allows for a certain rubbery quality of reality that gives him the opportunity to mold and bend it. An "unkindness" is what is referred to as a gathering of ravens, and there is indeed a mysterious and surprising visitation by the birds in the dead of winter. The birds observe, feed and even communicate (one says "goodbye" to a little boy), often by creating a series of mysterious lines and circles in the snow. The title also refers to small acts of unkindness in the story, leading up to a mother essentially telling her teenage daughter that she was a mistake. There's a sureness to the way in which McFadzean flips from character to character in this story, each of whom are just trying their best to get by in life without a whole lot of happiness or fulfillment. When one character tells another "I'm going home to run out the damn clock like I do every damn day", it's a brutal statement of how life is that comes after a joke that covers up that fact. There's also a sort of hidden momentum and tension in this story generated by the wild card factor of the birds and the repressed emotions that well up as the story unfolds, exploding in a manner that is unexpected. It's also a story about different entities being at cross-purposes and being unable or unwilling to fully communicate their desires. That's made literal in the mystery of the ravens--there's no real sense of what their purpose is or if they mean harm to the humans in the town, but it's also expressed in the way that characters talk past each other. McFadzean never spells out the secrets and mysteries in his stories, preferring that they hold a charge for the reader to interpret as they see fit.

One running theme in the book is that of loss or the sense that something is about to end. That's true in "Boxes" (about a young woman leaving a town and the people she sees on the bus behind) and "Skeletons" (about a boy telling his best friend he's going to move). The former story concerns the boxes we put other people in as we classify them, the ways in which others see us that we don't understand, and the ways in which categories in general limit us. The latter involves a supernatural element, as the titular skeletons refer to what happens when we look back. If that seems like a heavy-handed metaphor, it's mitigated by the way in which McFadzean uncannily is able to get at the ways in which kids actually behave toward each other as well as the genuinely spooky nature of his imagery. "Seelie Court" is a different take on this kind of relationship, where two friends share their difficulties as young adults in a context of wishing magic was true. While McFadzean offers a visual hint regarding this magic, the real power here is in the way the two boys are able to talk to and relate to each other in an honest manner, while still retaining the profane, slightly distancing tactics that boys have with regard to their feelings.

Another story about loss and memory is "Ghost Rabbit". This story features the parallel narrative of a young girl growing up in a house where her mother struggles with her own mentally decaying mother along with an anthropomorphic rabbit haunted by the titular ghost rabbit. The lingering images of memory loom large in this story and they're elegantly portrayed by McFadzean. McFadzean implies that the anthropomorphic rabbit's narrative is a product of the girl's imagination as she processes the repeated phone conversations her mother has with her grandmother, until she actually sees a rabbit in the wild. Initially, that real-life meeting leads to a joyous fantasy sequence (featuring two pages of the characters dancing with each other excitedly in a manner not unlike that of Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson characters) but the ghost lingers further when she understands that the rabbit is sick and soon dies. We see that small ghost hop after her when she comes inside after covering the dead rabbit with leaves, as the girl has acquired the same sort of ghost that she imagines her mother is burdened with. This is a simple, elegant and poetic story.

McFadzean also seems to be fascinated by the human capacity for cruelty. "Everything You Can Think Of Is True" is about a child who can literally think a weird, child's version of anything he wants into existence--only he's being held by scientists for experiments. McFadzean's primitive line used for the things the child imagines is almost heartbreaking in its execution, especially when the child literally disappears into his fantasies. "Brokenface" is another more fanciful tale involving a man without a face and the assorted cartoonish indignities he suffers as a result; the story has the rhythm of a Milt Gross strip, even as it grows weirder and more contemplative by its conclusion. "Snotgurgle" transfers McFadzean's interest in the real lives of fantastic creatures like gnomes into a nightmarish torture scenario, one whose seemingly happy ending is a cruel fake-out of its own. "And The Horse You Rode In On" is an Archie pastiche that features extended segments about a lone horseman riding out on the prairies by himself, relishing his solitude. This is the daydream of a nebbish who is manipulated, abused and/or ignorde by school administrators, fellow students and his parents. He has a laughable lack of agency even as he's drawn to fit in a kind of Archie-verse, content to flit from embarrassment to embarrassment even as he refuses to truly knuckle under to anyone else's desires. There's a delicious, unresolved tension at the end of the story where the protagonist is given a chance to renounce his "purity" once and for all with a bag of weed that was given to him, but it's unclear what path he will choose.

The oddest story in the book is "Leave Luck To Heaven". It's about a young man visiting a slightly older person to have a "session" playing a video game. The structure of the session is more like Lacanian psychotherapy, wherein the analyst is often cold and demanding, threatening to throw out the analysand if they detect inauthentic action or speech. This has the rhythm of therapy, with the interesting detail that the reader can't see the eyes of either character. The corpulent, slovenly and highly erudite analyst has long hair that obscures his eyes, while the analysand is wearing glasses that deflect the reader's gaze. This device prevents the reader from getting a clear idea of either character's motives, forcing one to rely entirely on body language and what is actually said. The story also features the only color portion of the book, which plays out in a Chris Ware-style diagram that's also a sort of circuitry sketch. The story sums up McFadzean's work in a nutshell: subtle, bizarre, restrained, probing, melancholy, hopeful and mysterious. Like the analyst, McFadzean has no interest in giving readers pat answers to the scenarios he introduces. Instead, he wants readers to experience the isolation, loneliness, tenderness, familiarity and strangeness of the environments he creates and the people he introduces. Thanks to his skill as a draftsman, storyteller and writer of dialogue, each and every story is a success, and each story builds on the momentum of the next.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Irene 3

Irene is currently the best of all the CCS-related anthologies. The editorial crew of Andy Warner, DW and Dakota McFadzean is not only a talented group in their own right as artists, they also seem to have a great sense of how to bring each of their aesthetic approaches to bear in the anthology in a manner that produces a cohesive final product instead of a bunch of stories that clash. For example, DW's scribble aesthetic and repurposing of text for decorative reasons is in line with the old Fort Thunder group, so it only makes sense that Leif Goldberg should contribute a story here. In "Newton's Mist", we see a figure battling against the forces of physics in a magical forest; though just two pages, the images are primitive and powerful. DW himself takes on what I like to call the Mat Brinkman spot in the anthology: creating a series of related interstitial images. In this case, it's scrawled, funny images of a band called "Veronica and the Good Guys". Some of the drawings are tiny and fine, while others are blown way up in order to give the reader a sense of the thickness of the line. Indeed, the essence of DW's drawings is to constantly remind readers that they are drawings, that they're made out of ink.

Andy Warner's influence can be felt with the presence of Barack Rima, a Libyan cartoonist and filmmaker whose dream comic "Nap Before Noon" is a fascinating trip not only through his own subconscious, but through the cultural and political landscape of Libya. The shadowy, hand-constructed look of each page certainly bears the mark of his cinematic influence, yet he's interested in the single, striking image above all else on page after page. This story held down the middle portion of the book, and it served as a fascinating change of pace, resembling nothing else in the book. Warner's "Boatlife", by contrast, is a slice-of-life story told in his typical naturalistic style. Relating two teenage girls hanging out in a cemetery, it's the sort of "nothing happens" story that's nonetheless full of crucial emotional beats and events that create lasting memories.

McFadzean's closest aesthetic compatriot in this comic is Sophie Goldstein, whose "Edna II" I reviewed here. Like McFadzean, Goldstein's storytelling is crisp, clean and assured, which allows her to go off on flights of fancy or use cartoony figures in a story that is otherwise naturalistically told. McFadzean drew DW's story "Ten Minutes' Break", a fascinating and funny workplace strip about three creatures essentially dealing with creation myths and alien civilizations. However, it's entirely from the point of view of working stiffs taking a break from their otherwise endless labors. McFadzean's every bit as good drawing fantastic characters and weird scenery as he is drawing average people and the plains of Saskatchewan.

Certainly, there are creators present here who cross lines. Alabaster's "Gin" combines the fanciful, beautiful and cartoony art with a story that's emotionally painful and raw, all wrapped in a quirky, decoratively interesting package. Jess Worby's "The Sasquatch In Brooklyn" has a heavily-shaded, ramshackle aesthetic that fits right in with DW, but it's easy to see how its humor and characterizations fit in with the other editors. The same is true for Mark Connery's "Whots It Mean", bringing more of that ragged art that brings a bawdy sense of humor to the proceedings. I would guess that the origin of this fused editorial aesthetic is that the CCS experience is one that encourages artists to understand and appreciate the work of artists whose approaches are radically different from their own. I would also guess that the editors deliberately sought out work that combined different aspects of their own aesthetic interests.

The stories by Luke Howard and Ben Horak are other good examples of this. Howard's "Dance Yourself To Death" is perhaps his most original, best-realized story to date. Using a slightly flat line and character design style, this story of the dark ways in which artists gain inspiration has a powerful payoff at the story's climax and then another shock in its denouement. In an anthology filled with downbeat and often disturbing stories, it was the perfect capper for the book. Horak's "What're Fiends For?" is a more broadly comic story, but no less dark than Howard's work. It's the ultimate example of a well-meaning but utterly destructive friend. Horak impressively manages to up the ante of menace in a rhythm not unlike that of a Looney Tunes cartoon, only with a viscerally disturbing ending.

It's likely that Kramer's Ergot and perhaps Non are significant influences on Irene. Both of those anthologies were fueled in part by Fort Thunder's influence and contributors; Goldberg himself is a KE alumnus, of course. It's certainly not a straight copy, but rather an influence in the sense that the editors wanted certain kinds of aesthetic approaches to comics to be present in the anthology, and once selected, they wanted those artists to have total freedom. For example, Dan Rinylo's "Find 'Sleepy'" is less a story than a reader activity, as they must find the one "sleepy" ghost on page after page of other ghosts. Cleverly, the pages are designed to make the reader's eye explore a space in much the same way a Brian Ralph or Brian Chippendale story might, only it could easily appear in Highlights or the old Nickelodeon magazines as well. Irene continues to be an anthology that's greater than the sum of its parts, a statement that's all the more impressive when one considers how individually excellent many of the stories are.