Friday, June 28, 2013

Doing The Work: Gonzo

Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith did an interesting in their Hunter S. Thompson biography, Gonzo. They opted not only to eschew the glorification of Thompson as a drug and boozed-soaked lunatic, but to focus solely on what made him important: his work as a journalist. The foreword by his former editor, Alan Rinzler, speaks directly to this. Rinzler laments the mess that Thompson made of himself and how much of his talent he squandered. He feels that Thompson played too much into his pirate/outlaw persona and churned out prose of little consequence in the last 25-30 years of his career. This is an extremely harsh but not totally inaccurate assessment of Thompson's career. Thompson never failed to be wildly entertaining, even when writing fluff for His turns of phrase and wild-eyed & righteous rants kept a reader hooked on every word. The problem with Thompson, as Bingley and Hope-Smith delve into, is that somewhere along the way he simply had done too much damage to himself and those close to him. He lacked the ability or desire to attempt to make a difference again, to use his fearless observational style to, in his words, "get at truth rather than facts". While Thompson's writing was very funny, his real image should have been a figure inspiring fear in the privileged, like the old journalism saying that they want to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Instead, he wound up as a clown, the seriousness of his great works forgotten.

Bingley and Hope-Smith weave a tight narrative in a fairly brisk 180 pages. It's written from Thompson's point of view in narrative captions. It starts off with an anecdote involving Thompson encountering and standing up to the FBI when he was just nine years old, beginning a lifelong distrust and loathing of authority. From there, it details his early struggles to land work that he could respect (his resignation letter from his first job as a sportswriter in New Jersey is hilarious), later finding himself as part of a wave of protests in the sixties along with the likes of Alan Ginsberg. From there, the book goes from triumph to triumph. First up was his career-making book on the Hell's Angels and the accompanying blowback and beating he received as a result of his description of an Angels gang-rape. Then there was his run for mayor of Aspen, in which he promised to decriminalize marijuana and rip up every attempt at new developers coming in. Amazingly, it took the combined efforts of the Democrats and Republicans to beat him. The next big career touchstone was the classic story "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved", which is one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting ever cobbled together and began his collaboration with the great illustrator Ralph Steadman. From there came his near-disastrous attempt at aiding a Latino uprising in LA with his friend Oscar Acosta and their subsequent and iconic journey to Las Vegas, immortalized in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. In this book, little time is spent on the events depicted in the book, as once again Thompson notes that truth is more important than facts. What he does get at is the immutable notion that his generation had had a chance at effecting real change and simply blew it.

Thompson's last chance at fixing that lost opportunity was documented in the pages of  Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, '72. It discusses his understanding that the only way Richard Nixon was going to lose was if the youth vote came out to oppose him, and it was his influence with that demographic that enabled progressive candidate George McGovern to win the nomination for the Democrats. The ultimate failure of that campaign broke Thompson, I think. "Gonzo" journalism stopped standing for that notion of truth being more important than facts and simply became a sideshow, spawning a wave of incoherent imitators who used it as a platform to talk less about the truth than to bring attention to themselves. The book whips through the 80s, 90s and 00s as a period totally inconsequential to Thompson other than to reveal that his wife left him and hint at the enormous amount of physical pain that he was in. Perhaps in imitation of his hero, Ernest Hemingway, Thompson famously shot and killed himself. That sent a shockwave through a community of writers, bemoaning the fact that a man who had fought so hard had given up. What Bingley and Hope-Smith advance is that Thompson in many ways had given up years earlier. Bingley whips the reader from event to event, using Thompson's voice but downplaying its flourishes and excesses. Hope-Smith's moody drawings are expressive but also stay firmly in the camp of realism, aiming to ground Thompson's adventures and provide a sharp counterpoint to Bingley's mostly terse prose. This is a biography stripped of frippery, and is really more a biography of Thompson's greatest achievements as a serious writer than it is a full account of the man himself. In the end, that's all that's left of him.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cat Story: Fanny & Romeo

Andy Brown's taste in publishing is pretty spot-on for his Conundrum Press, even when it comes to lighter fare. Yves Pelletier & Pascal Girard's Fanny & Romeo is in essence a romantic comedy that has a number of side-alleys, but the author-artist duo keep it from drifting into cliche' or sloppy sentiment. It's cute, to be sure, but never quite strays into being unbearably twee. In part, that's because the two leads in the story (Fanny and Fabien) are not entirely sympathetic throughout the book, even if there's frequently good reason for their mutual antagonism. These aren't two nice, perfect people who are led through a series of merry mix-ups and contrived conflicts in order to attach a spine of a plot to the book. Instead, these are two damaged, conflicted people who frequently act out in inappropriate ways as a means to avoid confronting their real problems.

Fanny desperately wants to have a baby with her boyfriend Fabien. Fabien wants to wait until their lives are more stable--which is in some ways code for saying he wants her to be more stable as a person. When Fanny adopts a stray cat from a friend leaving the country, she instantly starts treating him like a person, as a sort of weird hybrid between boyfriend and child that sometimes happens when people substitute the affection of animals for humans. Fabien is allergic to the cat and gets sick around it (which Fanny blithely ignores much of the time), but he's also dismissive toward Fanny and doesn't respect her needs. Fabien grows increasingly frustrated when Fanny starts transferring all of her affection toward the cat, going as far as to rent a separate apartment for her to take care of the cat in. Pelletier does a nice job of playing up the sheer ridiculousness of Fanny's behavior while leaving a little room to offer some understanding of her desperate need to share love and receive it from her pet. Pelletier also notes that Fanny's stubborn need to have the cat forces her to grow up and put her talents as a graphic designer to real use.

One of the big themes in the book is infidelity. Fanny's old boyfriend cheated on her (and she similarly was unable to get him to have kids--something that immediately changed with his new girlfriend's pregnancy), and she constantly suspects Fabien of stepping out on her as well. Just as her old boyfriend didn't want to have a kid with her, she sees Fabien inevitably following in his footsteps in other ways and seeing other women -- and his old girlfriend Kim in particular. Fanny's success and ability to cope while being alone is only heightened when she discovers that her cat isn't exactly faithful to her, either, as she is shocked to learn that the cat really belongs to a whole other family. The book ends with a reunion that while a bit soapy, is totally earned on the part of Fanny and mostly believable on the part of Fabien. Girard is really at his best here, channeling his inner Joann Sfar in the way he draws animals and uses color to flesh out characters' emotional states. The simplicity and clarity of his slightly ragged line matched with the softness of the watercolors adds a lot of restraint to the proceedings, whereas a more cutesy approach with digital color might have made the book unbearable. Instead, it's a clever, cute and entertaining book with some wise observations folded into the silly scenarios. It's a lightweight bit of fun that is firmly in the camp of what Kim Thompson once referred to as "good crap": stories aimed at a mainstream audience that are solidly constructed, entertaining and fun to look at.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In The Stars: Obituary Man

Andy Brown and Conundrum Press are unearthing all sorts of interesting cartoonists. Philippe Girard's clever and touching Obituary Man works because of the simple sophistication of Girard's brush stylings in creating an array of interesting characters. It's about an ordinary man with an ordinary life named Maurice. One day, he feels a sense of strange dread and reads his horoscope, which warns him of danger with some maddeningly vague references to Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. When he sees the obituary for a boyhood friend, he goes to his funeral. In that awkward moment when the officiant invites people up to speak, no one does...except for Maurice. Out comes an inspiring torrent of words that comfort and heal the family, almost like magic. This invigorates him like nothing else in his life, as the terror following him dissipates as he is elated at his astonishing new ability.

Inevitably, he picks the wrong funeral to attend and opens his mouth when he should have kept it shut. This leads to his inevitable doom, yet his story is a triumphant one in the end because of those he touched -- and one woman in particular, in an amusing twist that calls back to his horoscope. Obituary Man is a marvel of storytelling economy. In four short chapters and 84 pages, Girard establishes the highs that Maurice reaches as a funeral orator, his eventual and tragic downfall and demise, and the upbeat denouement that reveals his impact and what made him happy in the end. Girard's figure work is simple and stark, getting across the broad strokes of emotion with little exaggeration. That brush of his was adept at showing grief, joy, relief and pure menace. Girard made Maurice come alive so effectively because of his understanding of how to incorporate simple but important details into the narrative: precise descriptions of his never-changing desk and coworkers, the stony countenance of the firm's secretary, the emotional stew of a funeral service, the hulking and intimidating presence of dangerous men. Even a slightly hokey plot twist felt like a genuinely tragic series of events. Girard takes a clever idea and turns it into a humane and beautiful message that is entirely earned because of the adeptness of his storytelling.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Crickets

It's an obvious tack, I think, to compare wunderkind Sammy Harkham to Art Spiegelman. Both are perhaps better known for being editors than artists. Harkham is the editor of the groundbreaking avant-garde anthology Kramer's Ergot, while Spiegelman of course spearheaded RAW. Both are interested in aspects of Judaica. Spiegelman approached the subject from an ethnic/historical point of view in Maus, while Harkham is devoutly religious and this informs much of his work and subject matter. Both artists have a deep appreciation for the history of comics, especially classic early 20th century strips. Spiegelman explicitly named them as a direct influence on his recent In The Shadow Of No Towers, while for Harkham one can see echoes of Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and many other classic artists in his works. Both artists agonize about how slow they are in creating comics.

The age difference and when they started doing comics, however, marks a number of differences as well. While both artists are synthesizers of their many influences, one can see a lot of Gilbert Hernandez, Chester Brown and Daniel Clowes in Harkham's work. The early part of Harkham's career wasn't spent on formalist exploration the way Spiegelman's was--he went straight to crafting a style that he continues to refine today. And the storytelling styles of the above three stalwarts of the 80's clearly had much more of an influence on Harkham than Spiegelman did, and the way he synthesized those influences with that of classic cartooning has produced a very interesting style. His strips have the warm earthiness of classic cartooning (with many of the same interests and visual strategies) and the icy distance that Clowes or Brown often display, especially in their later work. Of course, both Clowes and Brown themselves have a strong interest in classic comics, with Brown's Louis Riel having a direct connection to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie in terms of its visuals.

Crickets, Harkham's new ongoing series from Drawn & Quarterly, reads like it's his playground to really let loose. Most of his stories published to date have had a slightly sedate, restrained and sometimes even mournful quality to them. In Crickets, he's exercising his interest in gags, pratfalls, scatology and a sense of motion & momentum in an adventure setting. The serialized story "Black Death" is a grab-bag of action set-pieces coming together with little explanation and a darkly humorous bent. A strangely indestructible man is being pursued by an unseen army firing volley after volley of arrows into him. He somehow survives multiple arrows being shot into him along with a fall, where he's revived by a golem wandering around a forest. He encounters a man and his boy at night, who are traveling to bury another one of his children. After giving our escapee food, he realizes that he must be the golem's master and demands that he use his magic to resurrect his child. Of course, the man is as clueless as the audience is, which results in a fight where the child accidentally kills his father with a gun and the golem kills the child.

It's a darkly amusing and somewhat shocking scene, given the early tone of the story. Our protagonist looks and acts like an indestructible cartoon character, and the story is propulsive as he goes from place to place. The slightly distant nature of the narrative spills over into the later scene of family tragedy, and that distance is what makes it both funny and horrible. The audience is led to understand the action in a comedic way, but then Harkham turns the tables on us with a grisly end for the family that we meet.

In issue #2, Harkham turns to slapstick with "Black Death", throwing in farts, a comedy of errors in trying to retrieve a naked man out of a well involving pratfalls and characters who can't see, a black & white flashback (meant to evoke the classic film version of Frankenstein, I believe) of the golem's origin and subsequent sad banishment to the woods, the naked man leading them in circles and finally a horrific ending as a huge worm crawls into his ear. The deadpan, reserved nature of Harkham's style makes the slapstick and scatology stand out sharply, especially when he immediately contrasts it with horror or tragedy.

The rest of the strips in #2 are short, punchy and have a raw feel to them. There are a number of autobiographical strips involving Harkham's travels on the convention & book-signing circuit, but they tend to revolve around specific anecdotes with gag punchlines--frequently at his own expense. There's a certain squalid quality to his other strips, but they still follow a classic strip structure. After following the wretched lives of the young couple in "Pregnant Alley", for example, we end on a "plop-take" as the woman pushes away the man for smelling awful. Once again, we have an earthy strip following two pathetic characters, but then Harkham distances the audience with a punchline that falls right into place with the character design. "Mother Fucker" is a Clowesian strip involving a series of rejections.

The funniest strips are the ones based on historical figures. "Napoleon!" is about the conqueror fretting over becoming a comics artist, with using dots for eyes as his particular difficulty. (Of course, this is a frequent Harkham strategy, so it's a commentary on his own work in an absurd context as much as anything). The punchline, where Napoleon kills a man and sees his eyes go from normal to "dots", making him realize that they "do give too much empathy", is hilarious. This is another hot/cold strip--the figures are mostly iconic and distancing, and Napoleon is more obsessed with his own work than with the fact that he must deal with the guilt of killing so many people. "I Am Happy Every Moment Of Every Day" is a gag strip involving John "The Elephant Man" Merrick. In an effort to make his days a little less painful, a doctor suggests to a nurse that she smile at him. The result is him chasing her like a randy character in a slapstick movie, wanting to "chew on that sweet little anus". "Elisha" is about the old testament prophet, retold in a style most directly reminiscent of classic comics, complete with physical humor, sight gags and a humorous use of modern vernacular in a historical setting.

These comics are fascinating to me because Harkham is much less prolific an artist than many of his other contemporaries. I imagine the demands of editing and shaping Kramer's Ergot has had an effect on his own productivity, so seeing him cut loose on the page like this is a treat. I especially enjoy seeing him release his id on the page a bit after seeing so much restraint in most of his other work. Crickets feels like Harkham unblocking a lot of pent-up energy on the comics page, and in this regard, Johnny Ryan may be as big an inspiration for him as any of his comics forerunners. Harkham doesn't quite go as all-out as Ryan does in his strips, always maintaining a certain reserve, but it was funny to see so many of his strips in here delving into earthy matters. The tension between emotional distancing and visceral subject matter, and the interplay between the two, is what makes Crickets so interesting to read. I'll be curious to see what direction he goes in the next issue.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Gag Work: Desmond Reed and Dina Kelberman

Uncles and Fruits & Vegetables, by Desmond Reed. Creepy uncles are not unusual in fiction, but Reed takes it to a whole other level in Uncles. This first issue of what appears to be a multi-part saga sees Reed channeling Basil Wolverton and the highly detailed and ugly MAD school of drawing in sending up zombie fiction in general. When a man and his girlfriend go look for their dog in the dark, they find a trio of deadly uncles lurking by a dumpster. When one of the uncles sticks his tongue in her ear, she sure enough is transformed into a hairy, fat-fingered and altogether unpleasant figure of terror. This is good dumb fun that's lent a bit of weight thanks to Reed's intense hatching style and overall level of detail. The jokes about the unpleasant hairiness of the uncles works because Reed lovingly draws every last follicle in excruciating detail.

Fruits and Vegetables collects his mini small minis from the past few years. Here are my reviews of "Todd", "Aloha" and "The Island", which happen to be some of his stronger gag comics, especially the funny twists of "Todd". Another strong conceptual strip is "The Usual", which is about sentient silverware wondering who's going to be on call fr that night's meal. When fork and knife realize that they have the night off, they briefly chat and then start making out. "Too Late" features sixteen blank panels followed by a robot bemoaning his lateness and wishing for more time, only to run out of panels. "The First Day" and "A Lesson Learned" both feature anthropomorphic objects (mugs and cups in the former, shapes in the latter) trying to find ways to act superior to each other, only to get undercut at the very end. Reed's simple, functional line is designed to deliver the gag as simply as possible, and this collection is a great starting point for a very funny cartoonist.

Important Comics Vol 2, by Dina Kelberman.This one came out in 2011 and is a fairly direct sequel to her series of cut-up observations from her website. Once again, Kelberman's tiny cylindrical character and little blob character with hair (both extensions of Kelberman herself) cut up at each other's expense, bemoaning a lack of motivation and interest in the world while desperately clinging to it. Her dramatic and decorative lettering, non-intuitive and at times garish use of color, and her weird page and panel design make her comics as disconcerting as ever, keeping the reader off-balance on a continual basis. For Kelberman, process is everything. The comic isn't so much about reaching a particular destination nor even the journey itself, but rather the moments of distraction. Kelberman's all about in-between time, what happens to characters when they go off-stage and passive-agressive confrontations. It helps her cause greatly that she has a sharp wit and has really refined these strips (as much as they can be refined) to something almost resembling a formula that works time and again. These are also some of my favorite strips about what it means to be lonely, what it means to encounter frustration when trying to express oneself, and what it means to repeatedly sabotage oneself. Combining this themes with the comics equivalent of having brightly-colored flashlights dance all over the page while you're reading it adds to the sense of discord that Kelberman is clearly trying to invoke. Kelberman is really in a category by herself.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Three On The Inside: Primates

Once again, Jim Ottaviani has created an incredibly compelling narrative surrounding bold, innovative scientists in Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute' Galdikas. Once again, however, he is ill-served by his illustrator. Maris Wicks has a cute, clear line that, when combined with the slickness of the coloring typical to many First Second books, gives Ottaviani's story a twee quality that I don't think he was aiming for. I'm not sure if Ottaviani was going after an all-ages audience when he started wrote this book about a very earthy subject, but it feels like it was shaped that way at times in terms of how adult matters are shuttled off-panel. I'm all for stylization in an otherwise straightforward narrative, but I was repeatedly put off by how Wicks drew people, making them look less like adults than big kids. On the other hand, I was impressed by the way she drew animals; there was a note at the end about how hard she worked to get her drawings of the animals as accurate as possible, and she did a fine job in capturing the essences of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Those segments of the book really crackled on the page, as Wicks labored to capture the quiet dignity of the animals in their natural habitats, as opposed to how we think of seeing primates at a zoo. That's why it was so unfortunate that she wasn't able to do the same for the three trailblazing scientists that Ottaviani went to such great lengths to humanize. While the animals are an important component of the book, Primates is really about the three women at the heart of the research and their unusual stories.

The book details how renowned anthropologist/archeologist Louis Leakey sought out and assisted three very different women in researching primates in Africa. Jane Goodall was sent to monitor chimpanzee behavior, and her observations changed a number of assumptions regarding primates. For example, she observed chimps using tools and eating meat, with the former distinction once being an assumed dividing line between human and ape. Following Goodall was Dian Fossey, who not only observed gorilla behavior but became a famed and fierce conservationist and protector of the primate. Her murder was glossed over in the book for some reason, even though Ottaviani was careful to note that her fractious personality alienated both friends but especially her many foes in the world of poaching. The final scientist discussed was Birute' Galdikas, who made a number of important discoveries regarding the orangutan. She was the only member of the trio that Leakey didn't try to hit on (she was married), an interesting anecdote that humanizes Leakey and cements his reputation as a sort of smooth talker in general. Ottaviani does a fine job of fictionalizing certain aspects of their story, neatly summarizing their accomplishments and focusing on their unconventional paths to becoming scientists. That's especially true given that it was so difficult for women to pursue degrees in science at the time, which is a testament to the fire and intellect of these three remarkable women as well as the vision that Leakey had in finding the right opportunities for them. I just wish that the visual aspect of the story had clashed less with Ottaviani's narrative.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Few Words About Kim Thompson

My reprint article today is on a few entries from the Ignatz line that Fantagraphics began and abandoned after sales didn't keep supporting it. Published in conjunction with Igort and Coconino Press, it was the quintessential Kim Thompson project. Thompson, who passed away yesterday after a short and brutal bout with cancer, made it his mission as a publisher to find a way to bring the great comics and cartoonists of Europe to American audiences. In the 80s, when this skilled polyglot (English, Danish, French, Norwegian, Dutch and some Italian, if I'm not mistaken) attempted to bring the work of the great French cartoonist to American audiences in the pages of Graphic Story Monthly, this mission seemed to be a quixotic one. The same thing happened when Thompson tried to get American audiences to appreciate the work of another great Frenchman, Lewis Trondheim. Both the comic series The Nimrod and translations of two Trondheim Lapinot albums (The Hoodoodad and Harum Scarum) proved to be tough sells for Fantagraphics.

Thompson never gave up, and he finally had a big hit with the works of fellow Scandinavian Jason. That success was concurrent with Fantagraphics getting the license to reprint Peanuts, which gave them the capital to take some risks. With comics establishing themselves in the book market, an audience slowly grew and allowed Thompson to translate and publish nine Tardi books (plus more on the way), plus dozens more of his personal favorites and new favorites like Ulli Lust. Even if he had had no other role in his comics career, simply by being an advocate, publisher and translator of these works would have marked him as a hugely influential person in the world of comics.

Of course, Thompson's influence goes far deeper than that. He became Gary Groth's partner at The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books very early in the game. He was intelligent and affable but also had a no-bullshit attitude that made him a perfect partner for Groth. Thompson was also never afraid of doing the dirty work, from the beginning with the journal to the countless number of comics and books that he edited and published. There are literally dozens of cartoonists who owe their careers to Thompson; Joe Sacco was about to quit comics before the success of Safe Area Gorazde, which Thompson happened to edit. When I congratulated Thompson on the book, he modestly said "It wasn't that hard. Sacco would turn in a page, I'd say 'Looks good, Joe' and that would be it." The fact of the matter is that it took guts for Fantagraphics to publish a book by an author who had never had any commercial success, and Kim made sure it looked good. If Kim Thompson believed in you, he pulled out all the stops to help make your book look as good as possible. He was a big booster of Carol Tyler (calling Late Bloomer one of the four best looking books Fanta had ever published at the time) and fierce early champion of Johnny Ryan.

I didn't know him all that well personally but always looked forward to saying hello to him at shows like SPX, where he always had a kind and encouraging word for me. The outpouring of emotion on the internet points to just how beloved he was. Some people act as a kind of bedrock in the lives of others, and Thompson obviously held that role for so many. That's why his death, though not unexpected, was such a gut-punch: someone dependable, stable and treasured has been removed from their lives. For fans of comics, especially American fans of European comics, this is an incalculable loss. Other translators will come along, but few will have the taste, editorial instincts and bold ability to translate jargon that Thompson possessed. He did everything idiosyncratically and his methods will never be duplicated. The publisher, editor, translator, fan and reader were all one and the same in Kim Thompson, and there are thousands of readers who should be grateful for the great works he helped bring into being or brought to American shores. I hope that an award or a foundation or a library is established in his honor, one that reflects what he did to make comics viable as an art form.

Sequart Reprints: Comic Art #8, #9

The forces that have made possible a new golden age in comics publishing have also led to similar riches in publications about comics. The Comics Journal is still the model for such publications, but it's been forced to adapt to a new generation of comics-related magazines. Windy Corner is my favorite of these publications for its eccentricity and focus on artists writing about artists. Comics Comics stands out for its tabloid format and distinct editorial point of view far outside of any orthodoxy. In many respects, the most ambitious magazine of this kind has been Comic Art, edited by Todd Hignite. In its older, periodical form, Comic Art distinguished itself with its production values, the depth of its analysis, and the worldwide search for interesting and sometimes forgotten cartoonists to profile.

With the last two issues, Comic Art became even more ambitious. It switched to an annual, bound format; issues #8 and #9 are around 200 pages each. Additionally, each issue has a bonus publication by a prominent cartoonist attached to it. The result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes for comics fans and for comics historians in particular. Those who aren't students of the genre may find some of the articles a slog to read, but the illustrations themselves (as arranged by designer and cartoonist Jonathan Bennett) are top-notch. What follows are some observations about the two issues.

* Perhaps unintentionally, these two issues feel like a RAW reunion, with extensive profiles on Richard McGuire, Jerry Moriarty, Kaz and Drew Friedman. The interview with McGuire was probably the single most stunning article in these two issues, due in no small part to McGuire's peerless and instantly affecting sense of graphic design. The interview with McGuire leads off with a reprint of his classic strip "Here", a work that was a direct influence on Chris Ware's diagramatic comics. The Moriarty piece led off issue #9, and the artist essentially narrated his own progress as an artist, commenting on his own work. It felt like it could have been a chapter in a sequel to In The Studio, Hignite's coffee table book that had artists talking about their own work.

* The best-written pieces in the issues were by Ben Schwartz, who wrote about Kaz and Friedman. Apart from being remarkably thorough histories of those two artists (both of whom were students at the School of Visual Arts at the same time), Schwartz crucially contextualizes the work of both men. While the interests and styles of the artists couldn't be any more different, both created comics that were intrinsically connected to a time and a place: New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. Schwartz is careful to analyze the actual content of the images, how it was influenced by the artist's surroundings, and how those images commented on larger cultural issues. Friedman used an hyperrealistic style to both expose and celebrate ugliness, while Kaz went the abstract route. Schwartz then took great pains to interview a number of figures crucial to their stories, adding further context.

* There are plenty of comics in these issues as well. There are new pieces by Dan Zettwoch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Tim Hensley (who drew the demented cover for #9) and a comics essay by Zak Sally. That latter piece, "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood", is another triumph. It absorbs the tropes of the detective genre into an autobiographical account of meeting a man who published the great former EC artist late in his career--but wouldn't let Wood collect those strips. It's a story of inspiration and desperation, one familiar to many cartoonists, and Sally's straight-ahead, clipped prose and washed-out pencils are an ideal match.

* There's a lot of attention paid in these volumes to classic strip and magazine cartooning. Tom DeHaven's essay on Chester Gould was gripping because it presented and defended a strong & personal point of view on the best eras of Dick Tracy. He articulated precisely why he preferred those eras and backed it up with page after page of illustrations and examples. The production values of Comic Art make this sort of essay possible.

* Most of the other articles on classic cartoonists are written from a more academic perspective, like Theirry Smolderen's exhaustively researched history of the word balloon and essay on Lyonel Feininger. The former article is really for the most hardcore of academics on the subject, but the latter is a revealing profile on the fine artist who began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist. In both articles, Smolderen's research unearthed all sorts of rare images and correspondence.

* There really is a sort of murderer's row of great writers about comics in these pages. The great Donald Phelps (author of Reading The Funnies and one of the first serious comics critics) contributes essays on Edd Cartier and George Clark. Phelps in particular makes a convincing case for the importance of the latter artist, analyzing both the era and the creator and contextualizing the kind of family satire he was pushing through in his strips. He was less convincing in his painstaking profile on pulp artist Cartier, whose work had more to do with illustration than comics.

* Another member of that "murderer's row" is Jeet Heer. Yet another essay seeking to provide context for the inspirations of cartoonists was his article on Navajo Country and its influence on George Herriman, Frank King and other artists who made the trek out to the American southwest in the 1920s. This was before trains made it easier to see things like the Grand Canyon and Monument Park. Heer also wrote an article about the famed New Yorker cartoonist Gluyas Williams and his friendship with writer E.B. White. Williams' work was subtle and refined to an extreme degree, revealing a lot about the personality of the cartoonist as a result.

* There's really something for any kind of fan of comics in these issues. Douglas Wolk broke down why he found Jim Starlin's Adam Warlock to be so strangely alluring. There's a long feature on German avant-garde cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger that's another triumph. Ken Parille wrote a feature on Abner Dean that delved deep into analyses of particular drawings (including their psychological impact). There are features on the prank art familiar to any long-time comic book reader, the long-buried teenage comics of S. Clay Wilson, the Mystery Men strips of Richard Taylor, German publication Simplicissimus, French humor magazine La Rire and more. I especially enjoyed Adrian Tomine interviewing Gilbert Hernandez about why he liked former Tarzan artist Jesse Marsh's work so much.

* Lastly, the small booklets by Seth ("Forty Cartoon Books of Interest") and Ivan Brunetti ("Cartooning") are both fantastic. I've reviewed the latter book elsewhere, but Seth's book is a testament to a lifetime of collecting. He begins the book with a strip on his obsession and how he misses the "thrill of the hunt" in dusty old bookstores (obviated by the internet). The book itself shows us an illustration from a cartoon book and his thoughts on it. None of them are all that obscure, yet he also avoided making obvious selections as well.

Seth's essay reminded me why I enjoy reading cartoonists talking about other cartoonists, and it's perhaps the one thing I'd like to see more of in Comic Art. The main critique that's been made in other corners about Comic Art is that it eschews negative critiques. I don't really see that as a pertinent critique, because that's simply not the magazine's mission. All I ask for from a comics essay is an author who is willing to truly engage the material he's analyzing and do the hard work of unpacking it. When you combine this willingness from its writers with its production values, it's no wonder why the release of a new issue is always so eagerly anticipated

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Life and Death: Keiler Roberts and Jason Walz

Powdered Milk, by Keiler Roberts. The thing that sets apart Keiler Roberts' autobio comics from others is the resonance of her authorial voice. She's got this direct, firm, dry but funny and slightly detached way of looking at the world and herself. The early strips in this collection of minicomics are a bit more free-flowing regarding her family history, journeys through time to meet her younger self, etc, but things really get cooking when she announces that she's pregnant. Roberts eventually reveals in a fairly nonchalant manner that she had previously had a miscarriage, an event that induces a lot of anxiety that carries through her pregnancy and into her first year of motherhood. Indeed, this comic is a fascinating account of managing post-partum depression along with a curious kind of neurological disconnection, like her peripheral vision creating weird illusions and forgetting the names of everyday objects. Through it all, Roberts maintains a wicked and even occasionally abrasive sense of humor, like in a strip that's supposedly about her being wrong but is later revealed to be partially fictitious on her part (the fictitious part being that she was sorry!).

Seeing someone as witty and vital as she is absolutely fall apart is jarring, like when her mother asks her why she's crying and she says "I have no idea. It's what I do." Her anxiety prevents her from sleeping, which only ramps up anxiety and depression even more. What's interesting is the dispassionate way she records all of this information, almost as if it was happening to someone else. Eventually, partly through the intervention of therapy & medicine and partly through the passage of time, she snaps out of it. While the book never got heavy or maudlin while she was discussing her illness (Roberts has the instincts of a gagsmith and kept that up throughout), there's a noticeable lightness in her work after her daughter turned one and eventually started to talk. Kids are an endless font of random, funny nonsense and Roberts adapted only the best material for this section. I admire Roberts' low-fi, simple pencil drawings. Everything about her work eschews fussiness and frills, leaving only the meat of her sharp observations about herself and others, observations that spare no one while still softening a little of the impact with affection and humor.

Homesick, by Jason Walz. On paper, Homesick should have been the sort of book I dislike. Cancer comics in general can be a cheap way to create drama on the page while deifying flawed human beings who happen to suffer from a disease. While there have been some excellent comics that dealt with cancer (like Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner), most tend to gloss over the very real emotional and personal collateral damage that the disease can create. Thankfully, Walz goes in a different direction here, using three separate devices to tell his story. First, there's the dream/metaphor of a cosmonaut dying in space, trying to get in contact with someone back on earth. That thought is put into Walz' head by one of his students, who told them about some mysterious signals in space that some thought might have been a failed Soviet manned space mission. Second is the straightforward account of his mother's latest bout with cancer coming at a time when Walz should have been at his happiest, thanks to getting engaged. Her eventual deterioration and the way the family came together were all pretty standard fare for this kind of story, but understandably necessary. The details of her struggle were actually underplayed with due restraint, if anything.

The third storytelling arm was the most interesting to me. Walz reveals his sickly childhood, having suffered from epileptic seizures that especially manifested if he came into any rough contact to his head. His mother protected him in such a manner that left him not only forever grateful and close to her, but in some ways left him very much a child. I found this to be a refreshingly honest and open take on why we are sometimes so reluctant to let loved ones go: because we need them and don't know what we'd do without them. The cosmonaut metaphor was Walz's way of mediating this intense fear and disconnect, allowing him to find a way to let go and thus become an adult. The story of his mother and the story of the cosmonaut are both narratives about an inevitable fate and how it can be navigated. Walz doesn't make his mother out to be a hero, saint or noble figure because of her disease; she's simply a very good mother who never stopped being a good mother, even when he didn't need her in the same way. Walz's book acknowledges this and his cosmonaut device allows him to acknowledge his own fears without seeming maudlin or selfish. His art is very self-assured, with pull-quote contributor Jeff Lemire an obvious influence. Walz's uses of slightly cartoony and distorted figures, along with blank eyes, gives his work an extra layer of distance from the intensity and desperation of the emotions felt, which worked perfectly for this story. On the other side of things, Walz connects with the reader by showing them how he became engaged to his future wife in a wordless sequence and what life is like as someone who teaches kids on the autism spectrum. Both sequences serve the narrative in specific ways, but the way he drew them out also gave us a sense of who he is now as a person, in contrast to his childhood flashbacks. In terms of narrative structure, thematic structure and emotional structure, this is a strong, effective and touching book and a solid debut.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sequart Reprints: The Ignatz Line: Sally, Igort, Giandelli, Sala

I've stated more than once that the Ignatz line of comics are undervalued and underdiscussed. The all-star lineup of artists (matched with an exquisite format, nice paper and top-notch production values) delivers issue after issue of superb reading. It's a particular treat to be exposed to so many non-American artists, especially the Italian artists whose work is particularly flattered by this format. I'm guessing the price point scares off some readers ($8 for 30 or 40 pages), as does the fact that these are serialized comics, not "graphic novels". These books, in my view, have single-handed revitalized the relevance of comics as periodicals, even if their overall impact has been muted.

Let's start with Delphine #3, the latest issue in Richard Sala's demented take on the Snow White fairy tale, told from the perspective of the male lead. The way that Sala obliquely refers to Snow White (a poisonous apple, deranged dwarves, a menacing forest) while reframing the story as a Sala-style tale of horror is truly inspired. As much as this book is a dark reworking of a fairy tale, it's also very much touches on horror-movie tropes. The protagonist experiences multiple dream fake-outs (twice dreaming he was reunited with his lost love Delphine, and twice waking to horror), unexplained danger (he'e never given the slightest clue as to what's happening or why), and an array of grotesque but familiar creatures who dog his every step. Sala's scratchy, wobbly line is a perfect fit for this kind of fractured fairy tale, both cartoony and grotesque. The brown color tone contributes to the dirty, grungy feel of this story.

The main weakness of this issue is that it felt much less like a complete story (which Sala had managed in the first two issues) and very much like a whiplash ride that leads to a cliffhanger. The hero met the one figure from Snow White we hadn't yet seen in the story (the wicked Queen), and it'll be interesting to see how Sala wraps up the story. Sala's protagonists are always very active and propulsive, but their actions don't necessarily always lead up to solutions. Given the relentless darkness of the series to date, it'll be interesting to see if the hero manages to actually find Delphine, and if so, what the nature of their reunion will be like.

Baobab #3, by series editor Igort, is another pitch-perfect, achingly beautiful comic. Igort's sense of composition alone is worth the price of admission; BAOBAB is the most strikingly attractive of the Ignatz books, where every page is worthy of simply being stared at. This is a deliberately-paced story involving multiple threads and locations and will take a while, I'm sensing to fully coalesce. Most of the action has centered on cartoonist Celestino of the fictional South American island nation of Parador. Thus far, Igort has thrown the kitchen sink at the reader in terms of themes, motifs and storytelling concerns.

The storyline involving Celestino is about the power of comics (including many pages of Celestino's own comics), the struggle to create art, the way art survives under an oppressive government, the nature of friendship and family, the relationship between science and spirituality, and the ways in which the unconscious guides everything. There's a sequence in which a mesmerist accidentally coaxes Celestino into confessing his love for his longtime friend Tecla that fits perfectly with Igort's exploration of spiritualist practices of the early 20th century and his obvious affection for his characters. On top of everything else, Igort's use of negative space is ingenious. In one panel where Celestino describes bad news as though he "had been kicked in the face by a willful mule", Igort draws an image of a man being kicked (with a starburst impact) by a donkey, the men rendered only in terms of shadow and light. He returned twice more to that particular visual motif, going from violence to understanding to cooperation.

We also get another glimpse of the young Japanese boy Hiroshi, who learns that his grandmother is dying. These pages incorporate some traditions of Japanese art, like the emphasis on landscape vs figure drawing, where the background becomes an important character in its own right. It's a bit frustrating as a reader to be given so little forward momentum regarding this part of the story, but the key to engaging BAOBAB is simply to enjoy the ride as best as possible without worrying too much about where things are headed.

In the last pages of Interiorae #3, the languidly-paced bit of mythology by Gabriella Giandelli, we finally start to get an explanation of why there was an anthropomorphic rabbit feeding dreams to a creature living in an apartment building's basement. This is a comic with a number of sharp contrasts that don't fully emerge until after it's been read. It's the story of the lives of the people in the building: quotidian dramas that seem like life and death to them, but seem rather quiet and muted when compared to this mysterious, ominous mythological narrative. The creature that feeds on dreams is a kind of godlike being, and the rabbit is his go-between. The implication is that he's performing some kind of service, and the fact that some people are able to detect him is a bad sign. The figures are simply but expressively, but the intensity of the hatching and shading on each page adds a sort of neurotic underpinning to everyone's lives. What seemed like the most rambling and episodic book in the Ignatz line may well end up having one of its most conventional narratives; the next issue will conclude the series.

Zak Sally's comics have always had a powerfully visceral quality to them, especially with regard to pain and confusion. I'm not talking about emotional pain, but rather the feel of splitting headaches, bones splintering, waves of nausea and the like. What's more is that he's able to play these sensations off for dark laughs, like in his gloriously rambling Sammy The Mouse #2. The opening sequence, where poor Sammy is in a field and gets poked in the head by the finger of god, was a hilarious one--especially when he's jolted out of a fitful sleep and awakes with a deadly hangover. Sally structurally takes us back to the first issue, where an unwelcome visitor demands that Sammy leave his house, and a voice from above tells him he must do so.

Like in the previous issue, the person rousting him from sleep is a lunatic. This time, it's a woman that Sammy has never met who insists that she knows him and must drag him off to a picnic. Sally's line is gloriously ragged and expressive, once again evoking a world suggestive of classic comic strips, only much grimier and more frightening. Sammy is constantly being propelled forward against his will, but finds ways to bend back against that influence. The woman (who oddly wears a fake mustache to look more "exotic") is an especially frustrating influence: she claims to know him, demands his time, never listens and never stops shouting enthusiastically. Meanwhile, there's all sorts of weirdness going on in the background: a short man with sharp teeth emerging from the ocean (who in the last issue mysteriously fired a gun), the disappearance of Sammy's friend Puppy-Boy, and some kind of oceanic prison. Above all else, it's frequently gruesomely funny. The scene where a rabbit buries a nail into the forehead of a drunken duck who was taunting him made me both flinch and laugh, which roughly sums up the experience of reading this book so far. I'm not sure where the narrative is going, but Sally's stories, no matter how odd they may seem, tend to eventually cohere.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Scales: Transposes

Artist Dylan Edwards has broken new and important ground in his Northwest Press-published book, Transposes.In documenting the lives of seven queer female to male transgender individuals (QFTM), Edwards explodes the myth of binary sexuality and opens up the need to see sexuality, sexual identity, sexual preference, etc as something that is fluid and unique to each individual. Sexual preference and sexual identity are frequently not the same thing, as its repeatedly discussed in this book. The book is full of people born as women who identify as men, but just because they identify as men doesn't mean that they're attracted to women. The book also touches on other sexuality scales, like monogamy vs polyamory as well as kinky vs non-fetishistic sex, but the real focus is on identity and desire.

The book gets off to a rough start thanks to an awkward, borderline embarrassing comedy strip that sees Edwards as an announcer, talking about the book. I get that he wanted to start with a laugh for anyone uncomfortable with the content of the book, but it fell totally flat. It sounded a discordant note because the strip was so painfully dire, and I was worried about how he was going to go about crafting the true stories of the seven people he interviewed for the book. Fortunately, Edwards quickly recovers once we get into each story, and he cleverly arranges each narrative in a manner that reflects the subject. For example, for "Henry", a genderfluid individual who is attracted to both men and women, Edwards crafts a museum of exhibits devoted solely to Henry as a framing device. It fits Henry's OCD nature like a glove, and the result is a hilarious story that demonstrates that labels are arbitrary and sometimes dangerous.

"Cal's' story leads off the book, and it's the most straightforward: a QFTM recalls an encounter with a gay man who wanted to be topped by a pre-op trans man. So a few jokes about buying new equipment later, Cal felt good about being able to satisfy his partner and fulfill such a masculine role. "Adam's" story is all too familiar in trans circles: a woman who initially identified as straight because she was attracted to men comes out as a lesbian later on. Her girlfriend starts to understand that Adam has unresolved gender issues, and when he comes to terms with his real identity as a QFTM, it's time to break up. "Blake's" story is also all too familiar, as a new QFTM fools around with a hot guy and contracts an STD for his trouble. "Avery's" story is more complex, as he's poly in part because his "primary partner" is his dissertation, and he drew inspiration from a gay uncle and scorn from a highly homophobic father. The best-constructed piece in the book belongs to Aaron and James. We follow the timeline of the former at the top of the page and the latter at the bottom until they eventually converge when they become a monogamous couple enjoying marital and domestic bliss. Both took very long routes to their current lives (Aaron had a son when he was a woman), pointing out once again that attempts to put sexuality in a box are fraught with danger. Edwards' line is serviceable; the key to making the book work is that he's quite good at being able to draw many different kinds of faces. The figures are a bit stiff at times and there's an occasional lack of fluidity going from panel to panel and page to page, but he makes up for it with his clever page design. More importantly, he did a fine job of turning interviews into stories that read well as stories, as opposed to polemics or simple dry biography.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Delving In: Eric Kostiuk Williams and Mardou

Hungry Bottom Comics: 2Fags 2Furious, by Eric Kostiuk Williams.  First of all, this is clearly the title of the year. Williams is a fantastic young talent whose debut mini was remarkable. There were a number of clever takes on autobio in that comic, which doubled as a soul-searching session. This issue tilts even more in that direction, as the Eric who floated through the gay hookup scene in Toronto found himself increasingly uncomfortable with what he was doing and his own identity. The issue starts with a hilarious take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, with "bears" being used in its alternate meaning in a manner that was both funny and endearing. The problem with the story is that it was fictional in every sense; Williams doesn't have that kind of relationship right now, and in fact took a step back into celibacy.

That celibacy was less a deprivation than it was a kick-start to start exploring different aspects of himself and his community. In "Christeene", Williams discusses his first time doing full drag, with assistance from a close friend not yet comfortable with "dressing out". Williams' fractured panel placement, exquisite decorative touches and rock-solid rendering mesh perfectly on page after page, creating a tumultuous but exciting world of discovery. The account of the concert by trans performer Christeene is hilarious and outrageous: glam rock at its most transgressive. In each of the following chapters, Williams picks up a new persona, all armed with a long knot of hair: Goldilocks, her Britney-esque drag persona, her celibate nun persona, and a masked X-Man, defending him against a world that hates and fears him. That's the persona that responds to gay-bashing and homophobia he encountered on the streets of "tolerant" Toronto, thanks in part to the fluidity of his own gender identity. He points out that the oppressiveness of some aspects of gay culture made him almost as uncomfortable as the heteronormative culture he so dearly wanted to escape. In the end, he notes that there has to be something in-between celibacy and the hook-up culture, and it's obvious that he still has work to do on himself in order to be comfortable and confident with all of these identities while presenting them in public. I loved the way how Williams once again used comics to take a good long look at himself, merging his fantasies and his fears while articulating both in an entertaining, fluid and honest manner. There's no question that he's already become one of the most exciting autobio artists out there.

Sky In Stereo #2, by Mardou.Mardou's coming-of-age story is so true-to-life that it hurts. After a first issue tracking Iris, a young woman in college who works at a fast-food joint for extra money and has an unrequited crush, this issue follows her on an acid trip. I've read many a comic depicting the experience, but Mardou's take is impeccably accurate in so many ways. She captures that sense of being the only person in the world who's awake at 4am, the way that the rapidly approaching light of a sunrise can be a visually stunning experience,and most especially the way that a first acid trip can be a game-changer in terms of how one looks at the world. She also captures how the return to "consensus reality" can be rocky and unpleasant and how long it can take to truly adjust to the filters and guards we put up to defend ourselves from the world. Of course, the simple act of taking a drug doesn't really change anything but one's point of view, and the feeling of just how Important one's thoughts and feelings are on the experience are always exaggerated and often seem silly in the cold light of day.

The other aspect of the comic that was devastatingly effective was the reaction of Iris' mother when she failed to show up for work. The desperation and gratitude in her eyes when Iris told her the truth was heartbreaking, and Mardou captured it perfectly in the way she drew the mother's slightly bulging eyes. The thought that Iris had at that moment, that she wished her mother had covered herself up better, was hilariously and perfectly apt. Throwing her mom's obtuse and abusive boyfriend into the mix (who says charming things like "Right now, I don't care if you live or die") gets at the heart of Iris' central feelings of self-hatred and an overall lack of self-worth. Mardou's always had a knack for getting at real and unpleasant human interactions, but she's truly outdone herself in this series and this issue in particular. This issue was published by Rina Ayuyang's increasingly ambitious Yam Books, which has been releasing an interesting mix of full-length books and minicomics.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sequart Reprints: More MOCCA minicomics (2005)

As I've noted before, it's always a bit awkward reviewing and analyzing comics whose main purpose is being funny. They either make you laugh or they don't, but examining exactly why this is like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. That said, let's take a look at some recent humor minicomics and the different approaches they used.

Summer Fun With Elroy P Dinner is a mini that's an excerpt from an upcoming issue of Sam Henderson's Magic Whistle. Henderson is probably the preeminent gagmaster in this generation of cartoonists. In particular, he's a master at subverting situational humor, either by upending expectations, taking situations to their logical extremes, or by stacking so many absurd elements on top of each other that he destroys any semblance of logic or structure. This mini is his technique in microcosm. It's about a bearded restaurant critic who only gives good reviews to restaurants where everyone involved is wearing a beard. The restaurant owner panders to him by forcing everyone (including customers) to wear fake beards, then has to pander to a pirate food critic and a cowboy yodeling food critic. He then throws in the fact that the restaurant is famous for cat food sandwiches and takes us to the cat food factory (owned by a talking cat, of course). This insanity is made all the more effective by Henderson's crude but expressive characters, all of whom just look inherently funny to my eyes. Henderson flogs a premise until it starts to lose all meaning, and this commitment to a joke while finding a thousand different ways to warp it is what makes him a master. Check out for more.

Matt Wiegle of the Partyka group checks in with Your Karate Vacation. Wiegle's sense of humor is usually a bit dry, but he goes for all-out silliness in this comic. This is an 8-page mini that combines martial arts cliches with travelogue banalities, and the result is very funny. The cover image shows a karate warrior with his leg up, ready to strike--but with a martini balanced on it and standing on a beach. Every page is its own gag, and they're all funny. The best might be one captioned "Some tips on the use of public transportation:" for a diagram that shows our karate master leaping from the street to on top of a passing bus. Wiegle doesn't go for the kitchen sink like Henderson does, instead, he juxtaposes two unlike things and wrings every bit of humor out of them.

As Eavesdropped, Vol 2 by Suzanne Baumann depicts out-of-context scenes and overheard conversations. This works well because of Baumann's timing and rubbery style that gives the eye something to latch onto. The best story is about a movie theatre cashier who receives a compliment from an elderly woman about her politeness, only to get savagely critiqued when she reveals that she's 26, not a teenager: "Why on earth are you working HERE?" This mini is short and sweet, with a great premise.

Speaking of great premises, Teen Boat  #7 continues to follow the ridiculous adventures of the boy who can turn into a boat. John Green and Dave Roman take every 80's-movie cliche and pack them into one comic: the whiny hero who gets great advice from his female best friend who has an unrequited crush on him, the jock who gets all the girls he has a crush on, etc. The fact that he can turn into a boat (and is obsessed with nautical terms) is what makes this comic irresistible. The best thing about this issue, where Teen Boat tries to learn how to drive a car to impress a girl (with predictably disastrous results), is that "TB" is self-centered, obnoxious and a narcissist. This only makes him much funnier, as the audience actually enjoys him getting his comeuppance. I can't wait til this series gets collected, because it's going to be a dynamite "gateway comic" for a lot of readers. Check out for more.

Tom Gauld takes a completely different tact in Guardians of the Kingdom. He's deadpan and dry, but gets all sorts of laughs out of this story of two guards defending a wall from invaders that never come. They build snowmen, throw rocks, brew tea, piss off the wall--anything to alleviate boredom and their simultaneous need for each other's company and resentment of same. Gauld is known for his spare lines, but there's a lushness to this comic, thanks to the manic work he did crosshatching and shading so many of the pages. This comic is beautiful and wistful, but I found myself chuckling on every page as well. I picked up my copy from Buenaventura Press.

Most of the folks in this article are polished veterans. That's why reading Alexander Rocine's Binge of the Space Pig was just an unusual pleasure, because this comic obviously just flowed from the pen of a young artist who just wanted to draw something that made him laugh. The effect is sort of like a cross between Rory Hayes and Monty Python, as a group of pirate teddy bears sail the ocean, the author visits the YMACA (Young Man's Anti-Christian Association, an old Python joke) and winds up hanging out with Satan as he gets a tour of hell from a penguin demon. These comics are crudely-drawn but have an enormous amount of energy and imagination. As Rocine cycles through his influences, refines his style and firmly establishes his own voice, he could become quite a cartoonist. He's already a great stylist and has a no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, not to mention a considerable amount of enthusiasm. His sense of humor combines the absurd and the demented, and a willingness to try anything on the page. Seek out for more.

Last on this list is the one and only Matt Feazell, the Rembrandt of stick-figure mini-comics. I've been reading his work for close to 20 years, and he only keeps getting better. His stick figures are more expressive than most humorists' regular figures, and it's no accident--I've seen some of his test sheets where he perfects his methods. The result is pure storytelling, with no extraneous elements. Anything extra he packs into a panel is either devoted directly to the story, character, or gag--even if it's just a decorative element. The comics I got at MOCCA were The Amazing Cynicalman #15-18. These are collections of his weekly strip, featuring characters he's been writing for years, like Cynicalman, Cute Girl, Stupid Boy, etc. Feazell is pretty conventional when it comes to most of his punchlines, but the clarity of his storytelling is so powerful, that one's eye just can't get enough of what he's doing. On one page, he had a strip that ran for 15 tiny panels to get to its punchline, yet his sense of rhythm and timing is so impeccable that the eye just zipped across the page. Feazell veers from absurd gags (like an elevator to Alpha Centauri), to goofy puns, to clever observations ("Wonders of Domesticaton" traces the evolution of fierce beasts into pets, and ends with the hunter being turned into a sales manager), to sociopolitical commentary, to some jokes with nasty punchlines. Like many of my favorite artists, Feazell's features could only work as comics, and there's something about seeing them in standard 8-page mini form that's very comforting.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

New Comics from Noah Van Sciver and Joseph Remnant

Cartoon Clouds Part 1, by Joseph Remnant. I talked about the web version of this story by the talented Remnant, but he's releasing it in minicomics form. I'm not sure this makes any sense, but the story simply reads better on paper than on the web; it really feels like Remnant is most comfortable with this format. I'm not sure where Remnant is taking this story of a self-pitying recent art school grad named Seth, his fellow students that he mostly despises, and his female best friend on whom he has an obvious crush. From the cloud following Seth around on the cover to his generally miserable demeanor throughout the comic, Remnant makes it clear that Seth is the architect of his own fate in all sorts of ways, even if he is surrounded by an array of hilariously annoying people. Remnant is the master of the awkward social exchange at parties, as Seth has to make it through a gauntlet of privileged assholes going on trust fund-bankrolled European trips to the cutting-edge atheist who bases his entire career on that bit of iconoclastic behavior. Again, I'm not sure where he's going with all this, but he's off to an amusing start.

Blammo #8, by Noah Van Sciver. In this issue of Blammo, Noah Van Sciver returns to a lot of his very old ideas, like his Chicken Strips saga and his Punks vs Lizards feature. What's interesting is that he's become such a confident and skilled artist that these older ideas have taken on a new level of proficiency; they're simply being executed better. Even though these ideas are silly in the extreme, Van Sciver treats them with utter seriousness and really throws himself into them. The results are more tightly-plotted stories, better gags and better overall storytelling. They act as an apertif of sorts for an issue that's otherwise fairly downbeat and contemplative. "Expectations" is yet another excellent relationship comic by Van Sciver, who seems to hit on new emotional angles every time he tackles a new story like this. This one is about a guy who fell apart when his longtime girlfriend suggested "a break" and who completely disappeared from her life and the lives of their friends. The storytelling device of the park that was a pauper's cemetery is incredibly clever, since the whole story is about the past, and in particular, the ways in which we poorly handle our pasts and the people in them. Like Remnant, he has a real knack for getting across the awkwardness but also the potential for magical connections that can be found at a party.

Van Sciver's facility as a draftsman is on display in his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's "The Wolf and the Fox", which is about a wolf and his hostage fox companion. Van Sciver expertly hits all of the key beats in this depiction of an abusive relationship that is escaped both through cleverness and a keen understanding of the weaknesses of one's abuser. The decorative aspects of the story are also beautiful and do a fine job in framing each page, especially the pages with acts of violence. Shorter stories, like the bizarre and funny "She's Losing It" and the "Dog on Wheels" short strips, displaying Van Sciver's continuing affection for the weirder side of his underground comics influences. The former story turns from a creepy and inexplicable relationship between a man and a little person into something that's far more weirdly poignant than one would have expected. The "Dog on Wheels" strips remind me a bit of what Evan Dorkin does in Dork!: mining comedy in the darkest of places with the most benign of set-ups. Throw in a great letters column, a guest strip from Matthew Thurber and other ephemera, and you have a genuinely exciting comic book done by an artist who's really coming into his own.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Will Dinski

Being only vaguely familiar with his name but not much else, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the minicomics I received from Will Dinski. They are by turns elegant, quirky, funny and enigmatic. He reminds me a bit of a young Bill Griffith, more in the "Griffith Observatory" days rather than Zippy. As an aside, make sure to visit his website, which is laid out as a photo page for the 1953 "Fraternity of Graphic Narrative". Make sure to click on each of the highlighted names to get a sort of bonus story. It's the sort of story that delights me in webcomics, something that's not quite possible with a printed comic, that formally demands a different sort of interaction between reader and artist.

Back to more old-fashioned media: I read issues 2 and 3 of his mini-series, Habitual Entertainment. Before I get to that, let's look at "The Midwestern Artist", an 8 page folding comic. It starts with a brief meditation on the notion that midwestern artists tend to be celebrated in the area only when they leave to become famous elsewhere. After reciting an anecdote about F.Scott Fitzgerald holing up in a particular Saint Paul address to write his first successful novel, Dinski does the same and emerges raving about his success as though he were Fitzgerald, causing an accident. It's the sort of dry, offbeat humor that he seems to be best at. It's not a gag, exactly, but it's an unusual and even absurd situation that doesn't have a ready resolution.

Habitual Entertainment #3 ("Bury The Hatchet And The Cross You Bear") is his most recent effort. The layout and presentation is interesting: it's on red paper, with a 5 x 5 grid. Each panel is very small, cramming a lot of information on the page. When he needs to, he expands important images to take up more of the page. He solves his space problem by placing dialogue in entire panels next to images. In order to create breaks in the story, he puts in blank panels to represent pages with a crease in them. The story is about a farmer in the future, having to deal with a son he didn't want because his wife died giving birth to him. The focus of the story seems to be on the relationship between the farmer and his son, then takes a wild left turn as the quasi-sentient machines tilling the soil do something unexpected. Despite that ending, the theme of the story (relationship between father and son, dealing with death) remained intact. There's no pat resolution here, as the anger we see in both father and son and the nature of their conflict remain on the page.

The best of the comics in this set was Habitual Entertainment #2 ("Fool's Gold"). It's a very clever and amusing story of an unemployed actor who gets a call to be a secret shopper as a quickie job. He looks it as an opportunity to act again. Along the way, he invites his ex-fiance and an old rival to his "performance", which he has advertised all over town. Coincidentally, the new boyfriend of his ex happens to work at the very coffee shop that he was to appear at for his secret shopper job. The narrator of the story is a man in an audience of some kind, recounting the events. The ending gives us a double-take and then a triple-take, as Dinski pulls the rug out from the audience.

What makes this such an effective story is the way Dinski manages to create interesting characters that have their own individual quirks, and then puts them through unusual situations. The little character tangents that he makes often wind up tying directly into the resolution of the story, along with his overall themes, even if it seems like extraneous detail at first. There are lots of side-jokes peppered throughout the story, heightening the sense of absurdity that winds up being the comic's overall theme.

As an artist, Dinski knows how to skillfully compose a page. His figures are somewhat stiff, but he compensates for this lack of fluidity by exaggerating facial features, especially absurdly long and pointed noses. That exaggeration also compensates for the sketchiness of his line. The quality of his line is workmanlike; it gets the job done and communicates things clearly and even with some subtlety. One senses that as he continues to gain experience, his draftsmanship will also smooth out a bit; at times, he looks as though he's working hard to make it look simple. One could see his improvement just judging from the transition from HE #2 to #3. His skill as a humorist is obvious, but he's a thinking man's humorist, and that's what makes him someone to watch.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Minis: Kenan Rubenstein, Drew Beckmeyer

Everything Unseen, Parts 6 & 7, by Drew Beckmeyer. Beckmeyer's story about an apocalypse brought on by a proliferation of doppelgangers enters into the beginning of the end here in this deranged, loopy epic. Printed straight from Beckmeyer's pencils, there's a frenetic quality to his art and lettering, as though his life depended on doing this story as quickly as possible. This installment is part road trip/buddy story and part existential journey into self-discovery. In Beckmeyer's world where multiple copies of one's self exist as doppelgangers as part of a caste system, those two stories are really one and the same. Though much of the story is absolutely crazy-sounding when describing it (there's an extended section on how bouillon cubes are manufactured to be a delicacy with sweets), there's an ironclad internal logic at work here and a seriousness of purpose that makes the comic relief all the more effective.

In the first part of the story, the lead doppelganger ("Charles Grodin") encounters the highest-caste version of himself after escaping his role as a war god for a group of tribal savages. The Angel of Death (who had been guiding him toward rebellion all along) sacrifices himself to save Charles, leaving his mask to him. Charles has to deal with a new and far less friendly Angel who wants the mask and wants to kill him, attempting to sow doubt in his mind any way he can. The second part of the book sees Charles, Jim and Jim (the higher and lower caste doppelgangers) on a raft (shades of Huck Finn, no doubt) so that Charles can find Level 1. Upon descending, he finds out where babies are created and judged ahead of time as to what caste they will belong to by a triumvirate. Charles learns that there's a "Level 0" that is self-determining and that all other levels are just "practice". This infuriates him into committing a shocking act of violence that ends the issue, as Beckmeyer really gets at the heart of matters here: are we creatures of free will or predestination? If man is simply a machine perfected over time as part of a process, how can free will defeat that mechanistic process? Does action and agency overcome the inherent flaws of being an inferior being? I can't wait to see how Beckmeyer resolves these questions in this funny, thoughtful, and surprisingly violent saga.

Last Train to Old Town, Chapter 1, by Kenan Rubenstein. The story aside, the design and execution of this mini is beautiful. Landscaped cardboard stock with an image of a train glued on, and then page after page of two-tone color. The color is used quite deliberately: as we meet our protagonist "Two-Shoes", your prototypical, borderline Asperger's nerd. The swarm of students around him is done in light green and uninked, whereas he's inked and seen in a darker green. The effect is repeated throughout the comic and makes the characters pop off the page, emphasizing the actions of the main characters while still keeping them in the larger context of the school. The figures themselves are simple and sketchy, with enough information to clearly and quickly differentiate them. Two-Shoes is harassed by a weird assortment of kids: a goth guy (Stone), a metalhead and a punk rock girl. All give him grief about reading for fun and having no life, but there are a few things that are a bit odd in their school. Two-Shoes doesn't associate with the D&D nerds, scoffing at how anachronistic their scenario is. When Stone and his pals conspire to get Two-Shoes out of school and out to the train station, the reader expects the worst. Is this a high school bullying story? What do these kids (whose identities seem fragile in some respects) want with him? When Stone tells him that they're not going to the city but to Old Town, Two-Shoes says it's dangerous there. At the very end, Rubenstein pulls off an audacious twist as he starts to show us just what kind of people are going to Old Town and then a final page reveal of just how old Old Town actually is. It's an incredibly clever maneuver that flips around the entire nature of the comic. I'm eager to see future chapters.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lost and Found: After School Special

Dave Kiersh's recent book, After School Special, feels like a distillation of his themes with a conclusion that's far more hopeful and perhaps personal than much of his work.This story about two high school kids named Jed and Lisa is still packed with his typical themes: pain, longing, desperation, and alienation, but it allows for a kind of connection that's unusual in Kiersh's comics. Indeed, it almost feels like lonely characters from two separate short stories crossed over into each other's narratives, radically improving the course of events for both of them. As per usual, what makes Kiersh's work interesting is the way he's interested in exploring a particular set of melodramatic, adolescent emotions through the lens of the culture he was weaned on and the blandness of the suburban environment he grew up in. Indeed, the very title of the book refers to the frequently didactic, moralizing TV series aimed at teens, depicting them in trouble with drugs, sex, rebellion, etc. This comic, and much of Kiersh's oeuvre, is a sort of response to that kind of cultural saturation by providing a response from the teen's point of view while dealing with the litany of stressful, alienating circumstances typical of the genre.

In this book, Jed expresses his detachment from  the baby boomer generation, noting the contradiction of the "Leave It To Beaver" blandness they were raised on, their "free love" phase and how they returned to such 50s cliches when it was time to have children of their own. He's living with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, who is constantly telling him to turn down his music until he throws his stereo out the window. Lisa is new in town after having had an abortion, thanks to getting impregnated by a jock. Her "reputation" follows her to her new school, where she randomly meets Jed and they hit it off. At first, they represent a means of escape and/or rebellion, an outlet for frustration. There's a hilarious scene where Lisa's watching the cult classic Slumber Party Massacre 2 (complete with stills!) and Jed calls her up, playing at being the obscene phone caller. As the book proceeds and each segment of the book is introduced by a journal written alternating between the two characters, their relationship deepens and becomes more lyrical.

As with all of Kiersh's comics, there's a sense of the protagonists wanting to freeze their small moments of happiness in time. That sense of not wanting to grow up is another theme in Kiersh's work; like Peter Pan, his characters want to keep flying and "Never land/Neverland". While that's true here as well, as Lisa tells Jed that she's not ready to have sex yet and he replies that he's in "no rush to become an adult", there's also the sense that this couple will find a way to remain in each other's lives. That's unusual for a Kiersh comic, as is the way he portrays both characters as fully sympathetic. Kiersh often portrays what he refers to as "dirtbags": losers with no sense of direction. Jed and Lisa may well have been precisely that kind of character in this book if it wasn't for each other. Both characters start to flourish because each believes in the other and don't judge. The book starts off in Kiersh's simplified line with full color, as Jed melodramatically despairs over his life, but then switches to the dense, smudgy line that Kiersh is best known for now. The simple figures and backgrounds are given weight and power by the thickness of the line that he employs, which allows them to stand out against the shadowy hatching and smudges. The effect is like watching a show on a small black & white television; something that's alien to people over a certain age but possibly quite familiar to Kiersh, who grew up in the 80s. The connections to TV are quite deliberate; the cover looks like an old test pattern and the panels are rounded like an old TV tube. Kiersh's comics have been marinating in the melodrama of outsized teenage emotions for nearly fifteen years, and I feel like this book is the bridge to a new area of exploration, and it's an elegant, frequently poetic bridge at that.