Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Comics From SAW, 2016: Part 1

Last year at SPX, I picked up a number of comics from the latest group of students from the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), in Gainesville, Florida. This is, of course, Tom Hart's school that takes the principles of the pedagogy he's been developing for years and puts it into a different structure. After years of teaching at the School For Visual Arts (SVA), he wanted a chance to teach comics in an affordable city and at an affordable price. The school has no formal accreditation, which is really to say that those who chose to attend are doing it because they want to learn about comics first and foremost and aren't interested in getting the degree that would allow them to formally teach. Hart's faculty are excellent, the guest faculty and lecturers stack up against anyone in the country, and the students bond in the same way small programs like the Center for Cartoon Studies do. The school accepts interested students with a wide variety of experience and ability, so I thought it would be interesting to check in after my three years ago.

Ouroboros, by Roxanne Palmer. Referring to the snake eating its own tail, this mini is a meditation on anger and its positive and negative qualities. Palmer makes great use of a Risograph here, juxtaposing the blue ink of a figure with the red ink (and zip-a-tone) of a monstrous, snake-filled version of the same person. It's a brief story about trying to release anger, finding that something about this process doesn't work, and then realizing that if used right, anger can be a source of power. All along, Palmer uses that red/blue contrast as the figure takes the snake and devours it for a positive purpose. There are also story fragments including a dream of being at a huge new Confederate memorial as well as a man talking matter-of-factly about receiving calls from the Andromeda galaxy. Palmer has an effectively ragged and thin line ala CF, and it works well for her storytelling.

No Cops, by Alisha Rae. This is an intense, raw and no frills account of being jailed after protesting the nth iteration of police brutality in this country; in this case, Baton Rouge. What was interesting about her take on these sorts of protests is that in addition to being a first person account, she chose to not depict any riot police, SWAT members or prison correctional officers. Other than a fiendishly grinning cop in a helmet on the cover for contrast, Rae instead focuses on the other women who were arrested alongside her. This is a story about being pushed around the cops only up to a point, but it quickly transforms into a story of camaraderie and the sharing of an intense experience that brings people together. That it was done in the name of social justice made those bonds all the more intense. It's also a very instructive, moment-by-moment account of what it's like to be thrown to the ground, bound, arrested and then taken to jail. Rae wisely lets the events speak for themselves as much as possible. She let the dialogue she recalled fly around the page, reflecting the nature of being in a room with a lot of people, yet she nicely captured the uncertainty, fear and steely resolution of the protesters. Her line may be crude, but there's an immediacy to it that lends it a great deal of power.

Mysteries, by Sally Cantirino. Cantirino always brings an intense amount of detail to her work, This mini is a fascinating account not just of the rise of an indy-rock band and its growing cult following (and followers), it's also a meditation on time, creativity, and the power of playing & listening to music as a kind of magic. Cantirino brings a stylish kind of naturalism to the page that heavily emphasizes spotting blacks as a way of getting across the atmosphere of small club gigs and the night culture surrounding the band. Cantirino teases that connection between magic and music at the very beginning of the story ("A song as a spell.") She then plants the seed of the whacked-out ending in an interview with the lead singer of the band that's the subject of the comic (Magnets and the Sun). He talks about the vagueness of parts of his lyrics, how he doesn't quite know where some of his ideas come from and how he has a sense of wanting to be remembered that is different from fame. Cantirino then follows the narrative throughline with a group of fans waiting in line and then back to the show itself, which closes a series of time loops in an entirely satisfying way. Cantirino has a knack for magical realism that's entirely grounded in naturalism, making it all the more surprising when it does appear.

The Devil and the Deep Blue SeaAdrift and The Burden, by Miguel Yurrita. Yurrita did a number of formally interesting things in these comics. There were times where he didn't quite stick the landing in terms of being clever and coherent, but they are fascinating experiments nonetheless. One of Yurrita's interesting tricks is flipping the "camera" placement in a given panel. In The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea/Adrift, for example, is a flip book where you read only the right-hand side of a given two-page set. The first page sees a woman trying to flag down a ship, sinking below the waves and fighting a monstrous worm, only to meet her doom. Flip the book upside down and start again, and this time the narrative starts with her drowning, then fighting the worm, and then rising to the surface. It's a simple conceit, executed with precision. It would have been worked better as an accordion-style book where we couldn't see the left-hand-side pages, but once I got the gist of the book's rhythms, it all made sense.

The Burden is a looping story about consciousness that has a running conversation between either two beings or two aspects of consciousness existing simultaneously, one speaking English and the other Spanish. Starting from a pair of circles that look like eyes and/or part of a circuit board, the text circles and swirls above and around the images until they decide to create together. They take the form of cartoon characters, animals and various other forms of popular culture, which I found interesting as it suggested they had access either to a database or the collective unconscious, or both. After debating the meaning or lack of meaning of creation, destruction and mortality in general, the "higher self" and "lower self" (as they are introduced) flip languages and revert back to their original states, presumably to start the cycle again. Some of the drawing in this comic is a bit on the wobbly side, as Yurrita kind of went berserk in drawing a bunch of popular characters. It distracted from the overall narrative at times and the joke got old quickly. Still, the role of consciousness, agency and creativity as they all relate to each other made for a fascinating topic.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #4: Derik A Badman

Derik A. Badman has been dedicated to creating comics-as-poetry in the form of juxtaposed found imagery and found text. In the past, he's used images from old romance and western comics to create new meanings, but in these issues of his MadInkBeard comic, he goes in a different direction. In #5, he used a black background for his four panel template, blowing it up across two pages to make the small details stand out as much as possible. It's a classic abstract comics technique, creating sequentiality without narrative. In this comic, it's especially interesting because the lines of each panel are slightly different in terms of weight and solidity, creating a viewing experience that is deliberately less fluid. It also sets the reader up for Badman's next move, which is introducing text and images in the panels. There are allusions to nature and explicit mention of the moon and the possibility of its double, leading Badman to explore that imagery, including a panel that makes it appear that the viewer is in the forest.

From there, Badman explores images from washed-out photos from nature and other things, random bursts of color and verbal cues related to nature that are explored through the use of color and shape. There's an especially clever sequence where the cue is "we do not forget attachment" and the third panel has no top border as some blue shapes come pouring through. The fourth panel finds order restored with a top border present, penning in a wash of contoured blue. Badman concludes the issue riffing on the phrase "the three kinds of world", with all sorts of photos teasing this out, then uses erasure techniques in exploring the phrase "the way it manifests itself in everything", striking out one or more of the words in order to create a different context. This issue really worked well, maintaining Badman's restlessness with regard to how best to create images. His use of found images will likely always be a part of his work, but seeing him at least vary the sources made his work seem much fresher than it has been for a while. Not only that, but he played around with the words themselves in a way that was interesting, playing with their simultaneous presence and absence through the use of strike-outs.

Madinkbeard #6 is a fun issue with a clever core idea: taking bits from other artists on the envelopes and other packaging sent with minicomics and creating a narrative of sorts with that, an "unwitting collaboration", as he notes on the cover. Accompanying the images is text from Allan Haverholm that's all about reaching out to others through the mail and with personal notes, putting out information that will outlive one's immediate agency. The various shapes and colors accompanying the text are wonderful, with lots of drawings from Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton in particular. That's a great duo, given the fact that they love doodling in general, but also because of how they are able to break down images to just a few squiggles and lines. Adding the plastic quality of envelopes, tape, post-it notes, etc. gives the comic a lovely texture. Badman sequences things in such a way that images of a kind often appear together, like a series of faces drawn by different artists all seeming to stare off at different boats appearing on the horizon on the right side of the page. The end result is a comic with a sense of warmth that's unusual for Badman's output, in part because it was easy for Badman to pick up on this feeling from the actual materials that he received.

Friday, May 19, 2017

On The Occasion of Two Anniversaries: Personal Observations on Koyama Press and 2dcloud

When I wrote a piece for the Comics Journal after Dylan Williams died in 2011, I made sure to ask two publishers for their thoughts on him and his influence: Annie Koyama (Koyama Press) and Raighne Hogan (2dcloud). I thought of them because apart from Williams' close friend Austin English, Koyama and Hogan have carried on the Sparkplug Comic Book tradition more than any other publisher.

Let's consider Raighne Hogan first. I started writing about comics in 2000 (a review of Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde for Savant magazine, edited at the time by Matt Fraction), but I didn't get really serious about it until early 2006, when I decided to turn my occasional column into a weekly for Sequart.com. So when Raighne sent me the first two issues of his Good Minnesotan anthology, there's a sense in which we were both starting out. Hogan kept going back, eager to improve and expand. From his earliest days, Hogan's mission was championing young and unknown talent, giving them a chance to do whatever they wanted. In the early years, the focus was often on John & Luke Holden and Nicholas Breutzman (his Yearbooks is still one of 2dcloud's best comics). Hogan made a point of finding work by interesting young queer artists as well; Anna Bonbiovanni's Out Of Hollow Water is one of the best comics of the last ten years. He published Noah Van Sciver, MariNaomi and Gina Wynbrandt. Along with one-time co-publisher Justin Skarhus (almost always a part of the operation), Hogan's choices began to become more assured, to the point where a reader could have complete trust in whatever came into their catalog. 2dcloud is now the undisputed avant-garde of American comics, and Hogan publishes books relying on fundraisers so he at least can break even and at the same time determine the audience base for his releases. That 2dcloud continues to thrive despite being so uncompromising is a testament to Hogan's determination and vision.

What to say about Annie Koyama? She's been a force of nature and a champion to Canada's illustrators and up-and-coming stars. Her relationship with Michael DeForge is one where both publisher and artist greatly profited from each other's presence and support. She too has a keen eye for talent and is a remarkably nurturing and positive presence. Annie is very much like Dylan in that respect: someone who always has time for an artist who needs someone to listen to them and get encouragement. I love that she has a stable of artists (DeForge, Patrick Kyle, Jesse Jacobs, John Martz, Jane Mai, Dustin Harbin) but also that she brings in new talent all the time, like Eisner-award nominated Daryl Seitchik. There's no end to the list of artists who want to work with her, and it's especially heartening when a veteran cartoonist in need of a publisher fits in with her, like Julia Wertz. She has long supported the work of queer cartoonists and of course the work of women, actively looking to create diversity in publication while still keeping an eye on getting people to buy them. Then there's all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that she does that's been so important to so many. Koyama's genuine warmth, keen intellect and empathy shines through in her books as well as in person, just as Hogan's innate sweetness and curiosity shines through in his.      

I've had the chance to grow as a critic in part because of the challenging and exciting work that they've published. I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to review virtually everything in their back catalogs. I respect their integrity and am grateful for the respect they've shown my work. They represent what is best about comics, both in terms of aesthetic ambition and personal collaboration. May the next ten years be smooth sailing for them.                                                                            

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Comics As Poetry #3: Comics As Poetry anthology

The origins of comics-as-poetry go way back to the 1960s, at least in terms of poets incorporating illustrations. The origins of what I call comics-as-poetry go back to the 1990s, with Warren Craghead being one of the earliest exemplars of the genre. I first used the phrase in 2009 to describe John Hankiewicz' Asthma and Tom Neely's The Blot. In 2012, New Modern Press published an anthology by the title of Comics as Poetry, edited by Franklin Einspruch. It's a short but solid introduction to the genre, featuring some of its greatest exemplars.

William Corbett's introduction regrettably references superhero comic books and generally lacks a real point, other than "who knows what the future will bring". Fortunately, the first piece is by Paul K. Tunis, who opens and closes the book with a style that brings a decorative quality to text that is well-integrated with its corresponding imagery. His first poem addresses the plastic quality of words, in the sense where all words sound like nonsense or onomatopoeia if said enough. Contrasting that with cartooning representations of said words adds to the fun, playful exercise that this piece is. His final piece is just as playful, using vivid imagery in his description of a relationship between a man and a woman--a relationship that's somewhere between work, romance and mutual aggravation.

Derik A. Badman's piece is his usual stuff: repurposing the work of old cartoonists (usually from romance or western comics) and adding either his own text or text from a completely different source. It's a kind of shtick, but it's a surprisingly effective shtick in that this juxtaposition really does create a new meaning for both image and text. The melodramatic quality of the figures is "cooled" by text that's frequently oblique, but not random. Einspurch's own piece is what I would call more of an illustrated poem rather than comics-as-poetry in that the text could hang entirely on its own without the use of the watercolors of different kinds of flowers he employs in the poem. It's an amusing poem but just doesn't hang together like the other work in the book, and I think part of that may be that he was a poet before he tried cartooning.

Absolutely no one puts together a page like Warren Craghead does. His nautical piece uses carefully drawn images, scrawled lines, odd uses of spot color, a six-panel grid with no outside edges, images that bleed into each other and text that is attached to images and tumbles across the page. Despite the spareness of the drawings and the extensive use of negative space, Craghead's comics have a thickness to them that takes several readings to truly absorb. Jason Overby's comics are like that as well, only he's not afraid to go much more abstract than Craghead. He also makes extensive use of collage, found images, scribbles and repurposed text as he goes meta in a piece titled "Process Is Poetry", referring to process in creating anything, not just a poem.

Kimball Anderson uses a first-person point of view in her piece about riding in a car through the countryside and losing one's sense of self. Not just ego loss, but that sense of being unable to understand the difference between sleep and consciousness. The art here is mostly naturalistic, but the color scheme gives the piece a strange quality, like a sense of being hyper-real as though one is in a psychedelic state. Julie Delporte's story about OCD/pure obsession and tracing it back to her childhood and a fear of being hated by her parents over something she did related to sex is actually one of the more conventional pieces in the book. The accompanying images are quite straightforward, but it's her extensive use of colored pencil and open-page layout that makes it unlike other comics. Finally, Oliver East's feature employs some of that Craghead minimalism and negative space, but then goes in a different direction by providing small cutaways of walks around gardens, tiny slices of quietude that I found to be remarkably moving.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Variations On A Theme: Ibrahim R. Ineke

For Ibrahim R. Ineke, horror is hidden and forgotten knowledge brought to light. It's poking around in the woods and seeing things not meant to be seen. It's encountering ancient beings that look like children whose presence will bring no good. It's forbidden speech being spoken aloud, forbidden rituals made part of the everyday. It's the understanding that civilization is a facade, something that will fall away in time and be overtaken by the forest and its denizens. Ineke has been working and reworking self-published adaptations of Arthur Machen's 1904 story "The White People" over the last couple of years, culminating in a hardback publication issued by Dutch publisher Sherpa in 2015.

Ineke has long used three visual techniques. First, there's his own elegant pen-and-ink line. There's a delicacy, almost a fragility to his line that nonetheless allows for a great deal of naturalistic detail. His faces are mostly naturalistic, though they do have a slightly cartoonish quality that sometimes turn into twisted, terrifying images. His second technique is an extensive use of photocopying to repeat and distort images, often using double and even triple exposure. Along with the increasingly dark images generated by photocopying, Ineke also uses a lot of thinly-applied white-out as a mark-making technique.

In The White People, that white-on-black imagery opens the book as we see a number of figures deep in the woods notable for their lack of presence. They take up white space but have no other definition. Then comes a scene that Ineke has repeated in a number of comics: two boys playing in the woods, playing at being warriors or wizards (one even invokes Lovecraft lore and Cthulhu) and one boy running a little ahead of the other. In a slow burn of one panel stacking atop the other and the images getting bigger, we see one kid sitting in a field, his head half disappeared. Ineke flips from the bright sun illuminating a field to a dark cave (jotted with dots of white-out) with waterfalls. The child is looking at another world and is forever changed. In the book, Ineke then repeats the interaction, this time in color, and then repeats it again, this time with the implication of ritualistic kidnapping. There's a chilling image of a child turning around and their face being the image of a sinister-looking house, one where it's implied all sorts of awful things take place, followed by a full-page shot of a feral child-like thing. The book ends with two detectives looking for the missing boys, with one of them oblivious to his surroundings and the other all too aware of what the woods represent, especially with regard to "the good folk" or fairies.

An earlier minicomics version of the story with the same title included an introduction that made this connection between the city's men of power and their occult connections that involved the ritualistic abuse of children, including a reference to a sequence of symbols that appears in the stories. While this was useful, Ineke's decision to excise that bit made sense given his emphasis on imagery and suggestion over explicit explanation. Witch Route is a short mini with some forest scenes and some key (reprinted) text about testimonials regarding children who had passed through fairy territory and came back horribly changed. Again, it's an establishing text that later became assumed and tacit. White Court is a hand-bound and assembled mini that makes the connection between kids and fairies more explicit, as it starts with a stag hunt that turns on the hunter when he is surrounded, turns to a man playing a flute being seduced by a fairy, and then segues to a different version of the two kids playing at combat with each other, this time in an abandoned building and direct intervention from fairies. There's a more structured division between chapters and additional scenes, none of which are more effective than what wound up in the book.

Also worth mentioning is No Maps, which is a collaboration with Niels Post alternating spam comments from the internet with Ineke's imagery. The images range from spare to intense to horrific to amusing. Eloise is about a missing young woman and starts with violent, ritualistic image at a punk show mashed up with imagery from Catholic ceremonies. That juxtaposition, of rebellion vs tradition, is at the heart of the comic in the way that her story is one of betrayal by those she loved most. It relates to the other comics in the way she rejects the city and what she has known before and instead embraces nature and the outdoors, ending the book climbing a mountain (and perhaps not coincidentally wearing a jacket with the named of the punk group The Damned on it). Here, it's all scribbles and texture with line instead of other effects.

Finally, there's the anthology miniseries Black Books, where every issue also feels like a lab for a larger story. Each issue begins with a reference to Saturn in an astrological sense, and each story has its own twist on horror. The first issue is yet another version of the two boys playing in the woods, this time with an explicitly vicious ending. The second issue is a darkly funny retelling of the fate of Orpheus, his severed head forever alive, meeting up with a Muse who uses his head to perform cunnilingus and then kisses him--and then tosses him away. The third issue returns to the city, where secret arrangements add a sinister quality to interactions between lovers and the custody of children shared between families. The fourth issue lifts dialogue from an earlier comic and makes it an interaction between a lord and a servant, who gives him a report in comic book form that is rejected but triggers a sort of breakdown of reality. The fifth issue is about a heist gone horribly wrong when reaching the forest and includes tales of a Robin Hood-style archer causing mayhem before the reveal of a ghastly child (an image used in The White People). Finally, the sixth issue is about a merciless, pitiless witch deftly outwitting a spiritual world full of male forces.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Moreton of the Week #3: Smoo 8-10

Let's take a look at the last three issues of the self-published series where Simon Moreton got his start, Smoo.

Issue #8, in several small vignettes, talks about different ways Moreton felt the weight of anxiety and stress, and the ways in which he found himself coping. Walking around Washington, DC in the fall, the sight of a snapping turtle on a rock was somehow reassuring. Reading Moreton's work over time, he's become remarkably assured in his minimalist take, as he's not afraid to draw big, bold strokes or use a few strategically placed and confident squiggles around a simply-defined central figure. The vignettes refer to a relationship that's in the process of being redefined and reevaluated on the fly, in the middle of what is ostensibly a vacation. In classic Warren Craghead fashion, when he talks about the pieces of the relationship being taken apart, the very text that proclaims this falls apart, drifting down the page. There's a remarkable segment where he's alone in a bar, where the pages flip open and fold apart, as he feels powerless to stop what's going on in his life, like a "drunken ghost". Finally, there is quiet reconciliation and more contemplative walks, the event of music suddenly breaking out on the street the kind of marvel that reminds us of the random gifts that life can bring.

Smoo #9 introduces a lot of text on its own pages, as a kind of reflection and amplification of the images on other pages. This issue reflects on family and previous states of mind. There's a touch of a regular Moreton theme in the way that friendship endures and in many way freezes one's age with that friend back to childhood, while also being aware of being adults. It's about gatherings of friends and families at wakes. It's about understanding how and why someone isn't doing well at a given time in one's life. In "Doubt", Moreton ponders the notion that he's never really "lived a day in my life". There's a recurring theme in his comics that he feels stuck, running in place and living an inauthentic life. That's countered by the way he observes his environment and treasures his friends, because the ability to perceive and then convey beauty is a remarkable act of authenticity.

The final issue, #10, touches on a number of these themes. There's a lot of text used once again, as he thinks about places he's lived and the visceral qualities of each: sights, sounds, smells, heat, cold, etc. There's an interest in larger forces that shape his days. From lingering in the past to capturing a moment comes Moreton watching a group of birds in the fog, and then following a path with a lover to find a waterfall. This time, it's conveying that sense of aesthetic experience that is both shared and entirely personal, relaying a few moments in time in as stripped-down a manner as possible. It's his way of relaying that sensation of the sublime, when things seem to be moving in slow-motion, seem to make sense and are heart-breakingly beautiful. The issue ends after another nature excursion and then a slow moment at home, saying "We've been changing" That's neither a positive nor a negative statement, simply a fact of mutual experience. In exploring deeply personal and individual thoughts  while clearly trying to put them in a larger context, Moreton has expanded his range as an artist while still working within his strengths in depicting spare and expressive visual stimuli.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Alex Bodea's Six Breakfasts/One Lunch

Alex Bodea's Six Breakfasts/One Lunch is a self-published, hand-constructed book that almost has the feel of a dossier or other official set of documents.. The brown paper is rough on one side, shiny on the other. As an object, it's fascinating to look at, flip through and simply feel. It's a book that takes on macro subjects like worldwide terrorism, fascist totalitarianism and the refugee crisis and looks at them in the most micro manner possible. Bodea describes the minutia of working as a volunteer in Germany at a refugee center for displaced refugees, specifically in helping serve the titular six breakfasts and one lunch during the course of a week. There is no explicit, larger commentary; instead, this is simply the observations of a person helping other people get food.

Bodea's formal choices were interesting. The figures were painted with swift, squiggly brush strokes, providing just enough structure to understand figure, foreground, background and other key items. The text (which almost looks typeset) is circled on just one or two highlighted letters and then is pointed to a panel. With this simple set of tools, Bodea uses a landscape formatting to craft a number of panels about people waiting in line, the kind of food they eat, and what clean-up is like. Most of the refugees don't speak the same language as the coordinator, making some conversations difficult. The volunteer/author is able to help with the situation of one refugee's family, which he thought was being persecuted for having children by a childless couple. The careful smudges and brushstrokes quickly become an elegant kind of shorthand language that's both word and picture in its own way. The images are small and Bodea's strategy is to whip the eye across the page quickly, especially when depicting motion.

It is the details that allow Bodea to tell a bigger story. The refugees are in Germany and hoping for a better life. They have nowhere else to go. They are depending on the kindness of the centers, eager to eat the food in front of them and comfortable enough to complain when something's missing but also paranoid as to whether as to if the sugar is poisoned. Bodea helps someone who speaks the same language as him get to a train station, where they encounter a desperate man who has lost his papers on the underground. You may as well lose your soul or your memory in a situation like this. Bodea's ability to communicate so much with a simple brushstroke speaks to the power of that image as well as finding a way to create a rhythm with it. There are small joys and small heartbreaks, often revolving around children. There is bureaucratic weirdness (the volunteers have to handle certain items, usually for liability reasons), but there's also a genuine sense of caring. In the back of the book, added as inserts, are a couple of cards that detail certain items (the book is heavily object-oriented, meaning different foods and their containers most often) and how they made Bodea feel, as well as another card that has a "list" of characters and where they were from. Above all else, the book reveals the daily life of the dispossessed (and it is hinted that many of them are Muslim), those hoping for a new and better life, and those who haven't quite reached it yet but are being materially aided and not abjected by the people in their potential new homes.