Monday, September 17, 2018

Reclamation Project: Rob Clough reviews Josh Bayer's RM

Josh Bayer's manic, scrawled art overwhelms the eye at first glance, daring you to immerse yourself in the images until the moment arrives that reveals a rock-solid sense of structure underlying all of its madness. His figure work can be as alien as it is familiar, the work of a cartoonist who has clearly spent hours studying a wide variety of comics art, merging any number of disparate influences in a single page. In one way, it’s as if Bayer effectively captures the energy of a comic drawn by a ten-year-old boy. One can sense the immediacy of each drawing and the simple urge to draw page after page, the images exploding out of his pen. That immediacy, even intimacy, is shored up by Bayer's obvious foundational skill and craft.


It is unfortunate that he is best known at this point for his All-Time Comics series with Fantagraphics. Those comics tend more toward teenage testosterone than a thoughtful reclamation, and they're a pale reflection of Bayer's latest, a reinterpretation of obscure Marvel comic books. In RM, he takes a couple of long-forgotten comic books and winds them into an intense and personal story about a disaffected kid obsessed with superhero comics. This "cover version" includes Bayer rewriting and redrawing the story from beginning to end in his own style.


RM starts with the artist, his face obscured by a dark scrawl, furiously attempting to come up with a name for this very project. The reader gets a sense of the artist's impatience and frustration in trying to do something that's obviously important to him, until he goes the most direct route: simply calling his book RM and telling the reader that it's an adaptation of a comic written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema. Some of Mantlo's sad story is related in the introduction by his daughter; he quit comics, became an attorney specializing in social justice, and got hit by a car while jogging. He is alive but requires around-the-clock care.


Mantlo was a Marvel workhorse in the late 70s and early 80s, writing as many as four titles a month and filling in on others. Like many writers of the era, he had a tendency to overwrite, with much of his prose turning out rather purple. At the same time, he was obsessed with social justice in his stories, even if he obviously felt the odds were stacked against people trying to do the right thing. As a result, his stories always had a grim, fatalistic quality. Rom was a comic based on a toy, which quickly became Mantlo's pet project--a fable about paranoia that later transitioned into an epic about how war inevitably scars all its participants. Buscema drew the initial run, and the pairing was fitting given his status as Marvel's workhorse artist. While known for his speed and the stiffness of his characters' body language, he's also a tremendous storyteller with a powerful sense of anatomy. One was never confused about what was happening in a Sal Buscema-drawn comic book, even if the art wasn't dazzling by the standards of the time.


Bayer internalizes the solidity of that structure and storytelling in his comic; the quality of his line is obviously influenced by Gary Panter and Robert Crumb, but Buscema's figurework and storytelling sense shine through. That said, Bayer's art is so idiosyncratic that even when interpreting a specific artist's work, his own eccentricities pop up on every page. The silver, alien Spaceknight Rom here is a chunky, hulking figure frequently hunched over with sadness and resignation. The story is a typically downbeat Mantlo tale: Rom, after burying one of his fellow Spaceknights, flies off to a small town with a strange radiation signature, only to find a family dying of radiation poisoning. There's an obligatory fight with an old Hulk villain that is really a conflict about victimization.  


Bayer infuses this story with skewed perspectives, grotesque figure distortions, odd beats of humor and a rawness to the proceedings that fit snugly with the original story but add a filthy, underground quality. He gently mocks some of the dialogue by slapping the word "Exposition" on top of it, but the essence of the story remains the same. His use of color only adds to the grotesque quality of the story; the sickly greens and bruise-colored purples are in stark contrast to the typical brightening effect color has in a superhero comic. reflecting the disease and rot explored in the comic.


The end of the story bleeds into the reality of a teen named Seth, who wears a ski mask that mirrors the helmet of his hero RM. The grotesque quality of the comic he's reading is reflected in his reality, with his mother disapproving of him reading comics and lecturing him. The irony is her critiquing him for reading "dark" comics, considering how miserable his daily life was with his family and doubly so at school. The ways in which colors and lines bleed into each other in this comic reflect the manner in which the downbeat quality of the comic bleeds into Seth's life. He runs through the halls of his school with his ski mask on as though he was a hero, but he's really just trying to outrun everyone making fun of him. His real world has the same sickly, unpleasant colors as his comic book did, reflecting the role of comics in his world as a mirror, not an escapist fantasy.


The second half of the book, "RM: Cell Division", begins with another Bayer "cover version" of a Marvel comic, this time Rom 31-32. Bayer has a real eye for the weirder and more unsettling Marvel comics of the 80s, and these comics are some of the darkest of that era. Rom was in many respects an ode to the paranoia of 1950s (and later 1970s) science-fiction, as it was about a cyborg from space hunting his enemies, a race of shape-shifting aliens who had infiltrated the earth. When one of them had a child with a human mother, he became an H.R. Geiger nightmare named Hybrid. Rom teamed with various mutants to stop the creature.


Bayer took those elements and reshaped the characters. Hybrid was now Metastasis, a word meaning an incurable cancer that has spread throughout the body. The mutant Rogue is now a Wendy O. Williams lookalike, while Mystique becomes a dead ringer for Fletcher Hanks' Phantoma. This is a typical Bayer technique: taking familiar characters and connecting them with either punk imagery or else idiosyncratic comics characters. Apart from these stylistic changes, some dialog changes (much less exposition, much more dialog in actual vernacular that sounds like a real person would say), a few story details being condensed, and, of course, Bayer's own blocky, dense, and grotesquely comic interpretation of the characters, the story unfolds pretty much like the original issues did.


Details like Metastasis taking some convicts who happened upon his house and flaying the skin off their bodies or his plans to turn mutant women into "breeding sows" in his rape camps are straight from Mantlo in comics intended for children. (Comics Code approved!) Other details, like Metastasis tempting Rom with pleasures of the flesh, are also straight from Mantlo.


Bayer veers from an open page format with no panels to hand-drawn panels. He carefully employs a lot of negative space in order to let his drawings breathe a little and to make the otherwise blocky aspect of his figures more legible in terms of their actions on the page. Bayer is once again interpreting the drawings of Sal Buscema here, a master storyteller in terms of pacing, panel-to-panel transitions, and clarity, and he maintains these aspects of the original art while putting his own unique stamp.


The backup story to "RM: Cell Division" features Seth reading this issue of RM in class as part of the larger drama involving his status as an outcast, his desperate desire to connect with others, and his anger at being rejected. When his teacher has her concert tickets stolen from her purse, the other students immediately suspect Seth who is cagey until the end and beyond. In this world, that suspicion momentarily makes him popular--a fact that he understands and completely rejects. For Seth, popularity is less important than his own personal sense of integrity, another key touchstone of punk.

RM reflects the punk aesthetic in the sense that it strips away pretension in favor of reality. Seth's reality is grim and unpleasant, but he's come to terms as to what kind of life he wants to live. He takes solace from the uncompromising harshness of the comics he reads, even if no one else cares about or understands them. These are not unfamiliar ideas, to be sure, but the way Bayer subsumes these ideas entirely within his explosive and non-intuitive color sense and his seemingly-frenzied scrawl on each page reveals a rich visual language that amplifies and distorts its text.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com,
sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).

Monday, September 10, 2018

Change Too Often Comes At A Cost To Those Who Have No Debt To Be Paid: David Fairbanks reviews MARSUPIAL MATCH by Ana Hinojosa

Do you know who Ana Hinojosa is? If you're reading Your Chicken Enemy, you presumably like comics, and if you like comics, you should know who Ana Hinojosa is. While it was her Bedroom 2017-2018 prints that caught my eye at CAKE 2018, the "read me" sign stuck in an open copy of Marsupial Match brought out my wallet. I picked up the display copy and its smooth-but-not-too-smooth texture reminded how important every aspect of a minicomic can be; Marsupial Match was new, yet already it felt familiar. I slipped my thumb under the cover and opened to an inner cover of pink gridlines and a first page that tells quite the story on its own:
What you don't get in the picture above is the cartoonist herself saying "it's a story about a boy named Gustavo, raised in a family of opossum hunters, who decides he doesn't want to hunt opossums." And that's all it really took. I swiped my card, slid the bagged comic into my tote, and went about the festival. 

Marsupial Match wasn't done with me, however. 

CAKE exists in a shared space at the Center on Halsted, which has a seating area on the main floor where CAKE-goers regularly sit down, sort through their hauls, and snack on something from the adjacent Whole Foods. It's here, between bites of salad, that Marsupial Match came back out of the tote and bludgeoned me with feelings in a pretty public space. Uncomfortable with his family's ritualistic hunting and killing, Gustavo flees home and no sooner is he out the door than he meets someone who would be prey to his family: Opossum Opossum. 

Though apprehensive of each other, the two become friendly, leaving neither alone in the wilderness. A sparse, yet convincing wilderness that reminds me of Anders Nilsen, though I hesitate at what feels like an unfair comparison for Hinojosa. Nilsen's subject matter often gives his sparse style a sterility, a coldness that rarely does him any favors; his lines may wobble at times, but his pages simply feel too clean. Hinojosa's blades of grass, on the other hand, look disordered enough to be real; they complement the sparse fur and wayward whiskers of Opossum. The gargantuan leaves of her wilderness look paused mid-breeze, arranged just so, framing Opossum and Gustavo in a scene. Her disarray is a disarray with a purpose.

Hinojosa does a brilliant job of building up the relationship between her two characters, with Opossum living in this unusual space between animal and human. She gives Opossum no dialogue, yet they very clearly respond to each of Gustavo's questions. Opossum has a life that we as readers are not at all privy to, a life that includes a driver's license and at least one joyride in a convertible. 
When tragedy strikes, it comes from both characters reverting to their baser instincts, Gustavo doing so first -- and then reacting more violently -- speaks volumes about his past, about humanity. Gustavo simply pockets the photo of Opossum as if he has a claim to it, sabotaging whatever trust had been gained between these two strangers. Who could blame Opossum for biting the thief, either? Yet that has Gustavo draw a blade, and… you know, a fight between an opossum and a teenager may not sound particularly exciting. And in the hands of a lesser cartoonist, the tension may have been defused, the comic spoiled. But Hinojosa's command of pacing is praiseworthy.
Here again, Hinojosa's sparseness works to great advantage, forcing the reader to see these characters we have briefly grown attached to fall, disappear beneath the water, and then… nothing. When they eventually emerge from the water, Opossum's disheveled fur is now marred by graphite. It would be easy to have the red of the blood be the only piece of color in a comic like this, but there is something about the splotch of black lead spreading from Opossum to Gustavo's hand to his jacket, the soft dark of pencil lead migrating, transferring from skin to skin at first unnoticeably, but with a tenacity familiar to anyone who has picked up a pencil and drawn for more than ten minutes. She creates a metaphor that taps into one of the most common experiences -- the realization that your hand has picked up quite a bit of lead from a drawing you've been working on -- and then says "yes, this is what it is like to grievously wound someone you care about without realizing or meaning to, and it's just as difficult to clean up."

In 16 pages, Marsupial Match introduces us to a pair of characters, tells us just enough to get attached, and subjects the reader to the incredible range of human emotions. Hinojosa makes it easy to see something of ourselves in Gustavo, someone who wishes to be different from, perhaps better than, those who came before him. She presents the idea that a character raised in a toxic environment can change but that it's far from simple and nowhere near easy to do so, and that change too often comes at a cost to those who have no debt to be paid. 

Marsupial Match is unwilling to answer lingering questions about Gustavo and Opossum beyond "have they survived," and it's a testament to the strength of their characterization that I want to know what happens next for them, feel as though I already know, and also want to live in the ambiguity of a wounded opossum left alone in a hospital bed. I don't suspect there will ever be another story with these characters, as Hinojosa deftly recreates the feeling of a person entering and leaving your life, uncertain of whether they will ever return.
You can find Ana Hinojosa online at www.anahin.com.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
David Fairbanks is an artist, poet, and critic who makes a living doing none of those things. David's work has appeared at Loser City, Comics Bulletin, FreezeRay, DayOne, and now Your Chicken Enemy. His handle is bairfanx basically everywhere, and you can learn more at his charming yet infrequently updated website: davidjfairbanks.com.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 9/1/18 to 9/7/18

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM

* Robin Enrico takes a deep dive into ONE DIRTY TREE by Noah Van Sciver, "a work that speaks to complex ideas in a subtle voice. It is a brave approach to take in a genre that is frequently didactic. Yet Van Sciver’s gamble completely pays off here. He masterfully evokes frustration and joy in a way that respects how inseparable the two are from the human experience. Leaving room for the reader to connect to his experience through the parts of it that remind them of their own struggle to create a future for themselves in the face of an ever-present past. In stepping out into difficult territory and handling it with grace he further cements his status as one of the foremost cartoonists working today."

* Michelle White on SHEETS by Brenna Thummler, "a lovely read that sneaks up on you, crafting a beautiful and recognizable world that’s full of personal history"

* Julia Alekseyeva reviews CARTOON DIALECTICS by Tom Kaczynski, writing "The past cannot return, the present cannot be “great again,” but, with a critical mindset and a healthy dash of reflective nostalgia, it can help soothe the alienation of our increasingly alienated lives."

* Andrea Tessie looks at SONG OF AGLAIA by Anne Simon, "a timeless tale, filled with a witty, feminist agenda that openly showcases the protagonist’s triumphs and failures.  Aglaia’s story highlights the universal truth that there are many people who lose sight of their values when dealing with everyday life, simply because they let their emotions take over.  There is wisdom in trying to control these emotions, however, sometimes it’s not always possible."

* Henry Chamberlain reviews A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns, writing "The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same."

* Rob Clough on the Taneka Slotts edited anthology, ELEMENTS: FIRE, "an ideal survey of the current generation of genre comics artists mostly working on the web or for smaller publishers." 

* Scott Cederlund reviews POOCHYTOWN by Jim Woodring, writing "Following the plot of one of Woodring’s story is following Frank discovering something new in his world, trying to figure out what it means for him as he experiences it and then having to deal with the consequences that usually leads to something new in this world."

* Dan Schindel on BERLIN by Jason Lutes, writing "It is timely not just in our current tumultuous era, but for as long as societal deprivations build until clashing ideologies come to a head. The characters in the book frequently speak as if their fight will definitively settle the direction of world history. The events of the ’30s were not a specific warning for us, but part of an ever-in-motion cycle of consequences. "

* Andy Oliver takes a look at SPINNING by Tillie Walden, writing "Heartbreak, loneliness, devastation, trepidation and quiet moments of childhood joy are just some of the feelings that will engulf the reader with an undeniable potency as they journey through Spinning‘s pages. It’s simply a masterpiece of comics narrative and an outstanding graphic memoir."

* Ryan Carey on issues one through four of Robert Sergel's BALD KNOBBER.

* John Seven reviews Nathan Gelgud's debut graphic novel A HOUSE IN THE JUNGLE where "Each moment becomes a building block for what follows, and Gelgud peppers these depictions with some calm psychedelics to bring outwards what we couldn’t possibly see otherwise. He also maps out a wonderful, colorful narrative space, filled with luscious jungle land that at times takes over the pages with extreme and forceful beauty, hinting that what might be at the center of all this is nature itself, with ourselves as just creatures merely touching the surface of a much deeper, more complicated secret."


WHATNOT

* Over on The MNT web site, there's a reprint of Steve Morris' interview with ZAINAB AKHTAR, publisher of ShortBox

* Tara Booth has a new comic up on Vice called MOTEL and, since it's a Tara Booth comic, you know I had to include it here.

* Philippe LeBlanc has another SMALL PRESS AND INDIE COMICS GALORE round-up column over on The Beat. Someday I'll remember if I post these under the "Comics Criticism" or "Whatnot" sections. Regardless, Philippe consistently does a much better job of this sort of thing than I. I hope he's privy to some of that sweet Lion Forge cash for his efforts.

* Christine Ro writes about Matthieu Gasfou's photography collection H+: TRANSHUMANISM(S).

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Kickstart Your Part: MOON by Rozi Hathaway

MOON 
is "an ethereal and enchanting short comic story printed in a mini-tabloid newpaper format" by Rozi Hathaway

Hathaway is the cartoonist behind the quiet, meditative, and wonderful COSMOS AND OTHER STORIES published last year by Good Comics.

Of her new book that she is trying to fund through Kickstarter, Hathaway writes: 
"Moon is an ethereal and enchanting original comic story about childhood, curiosity and love. I came up with the idea from one of many conversations with my partner's four-year-old son when we saw a large disc inside a storage container on a building site and he told me it looked like the moon. I decided to create this story because I think we all need some child-like fascination and magic in our lives. My wish is for someone to pick up Moon and be transported away from his/her/their troubles and become lost in a dream. There is always time to worry about school, work, money or relationships, and we all deserve to escape. "

The Kickstarter for MOON runs until September 9, 2018


Monday, September 3, 2018

“Locked in the Trunk of a Car": Matt Vadnais on the Subversion of American Mythology in Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins’s GRASS KINGS


In the months immediately following Donald Trump’s election, countless pundits who had been surprised by his victory ran pieces contemplating the motives and realities of a swath of Americans who, because they had been ignored for decades, lashed out at the ballot box. Major news outlets were suddenly obsessed with the white working class, running think pieces and, in many cases, suggesting that progressive platforms had become too interested in “identity politics” to speak to angry, often uneducated, white voters in rural America. Leaving aside the absurd supposition that the “white working class” is somehow a category of identity not bound by identity politics, the ironic thing about all of these articles is that the last half-century of American popular culture has not only been dominated by portrayals of such Americans, the default operating principle of these works has been to define their white, working-class (usually male) protagonists in such a way that they are stand-ins for the universal human condition. From the music of Bruce Springsteen and the Tragically Hip to the television populism of Friday Night Lights to the blue-collar literature of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, much of American Realism is about the plight of honest white folks trying to hang onto their dignity and agency in the contexts of a changing world and an indifferent government. The preoccupation with the identity of the plain-spoken white man who simply wants the freedom to drink a beer in the kingdom of his own castle is strong enough that its shadow colors depictions of characters ranging from Han Solo in Star Wars to the historical Robert the Bruce in Braveheart. Published during the first 15 months of the Trump administration, Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins’s Grass Kings – a fifteen-issue chronicle of the final days of a survivalist compound – might be understood as an attempt to humanize the ostensibly invisible population that has, in actuality, already been serving as a “universal” stand-in for humanity. 
And yet, despite the flurry of pieces about how American media has supposedly ignored the anger and resentment of characters like the Godkins brothers at the center of this book, Grass Kings is a tough sell to folks who believe that these stories are not only already ubiquitous but that such ubiquity has served to exclude the anger and resentment of actually marginalized populations. However, Grass Kings does succeed. Jenkins’s terrific watercolors convert internal emotion into viscera. Kindt’s acute awareness of the literary and musical traditions he is drawing on extends the scope of the book beyond the Grass Kingdom. Kindt and Jenkins ask compelling questions about the relationship between self-agency and connections to other people, ultimately suggesting that freedom is meaningless without empathy. 
In the first issue of Grass Kings, Lo, a spy from the neighboring town of Cargill, is given a rough ride in the back of a police car. As he is warned never to come back to the Grass Kingdom, Lo serves as a surrogate for the reader; the warning he is given by Bruce – a man whose name and scruffy sheriff persona invokes protagonists from across Springsteen’s discography – provides the reader a tour of the dilapidated buildings, stacks of shipping containers, and houseboats suspended from trees that constitute The Grass Kingdom, an off-the-grid community that owes its name to the Tragically Hip song “Wheat Kings.” The rusted and repurposed structures, like the people Lo sees Bruce talk to, including a retired crime writer, Bruce’s younger brother, and a sniper keeping watch on the Kingdom’s borders, are all rendered in Tyler Jenkins’s mournful watercolors, blotted and stained. However, Jenkins’s work is best highlighted by the end of the issue when Bruce’s brother Robert – busy drinking himself to death mourning the accidental drowning of his daughter – is interrupted by the arrival of a woman swimming her way to refuge. In these panels, the man’s shame and grief infuse the sky around him. When he wades into the lake that has taken so much from him, he is literally immersed in a wash of colors that readers have been led to understand as externalized reflections of his emotional state.
Part of what makes Grass Kings work is that for a book about a pseudo-Utopia threatened by “the Feds” and other wolves at the gate, the biggest threats to these characters’ sense of self is internal: Jenkins paints this world so that everything in the Kingdom barely holds onto the distinctions that define it. Because this world is only seen through the murk of memory, regret, and loss experienced by its residents, the infamous anger and resentment that launched a thousand think pieces following the election infuses the Grass Kingdom itself. Jenkins’s art is the primary way that Grass Kings rises above the contradictions implied by its existence and attempts to chronicle the struggles of an oft-chronicled population; Grass Kings becomes a compelling story because it never attempts to justify the angst of its protagonists, choosing instead so ask readers to care about characters trying to survive a hostile world created, at least in part, by their own emotions. 

While Jenkins implies how fully the world of Grass Kings is embodied by the characters’ internal states, Kindt demonstrates how fully the world has been shaped by stories about similar worlds and people. The fifteen issues of Grass Kings weave several familiar stories together, each of which is referenced explicitly. The back covers of every issue feature lyrics from a song about rural violence. Moreover, a story of three brothers squabbling while an inherited Kingdom threatens to crumble invokes Shakespeare’s King Lear; this King Lear is set in a North American town featuring people “spitting off a bridge just to see how far down it really is” which invokes yet another Tragically Hip song, this time “Cordelia.” Likewise, Kindt’s choice to name the two oldest brothers Robert and Bruce draws attention to the Braveheart story and the subsequent white, masculine everyman. Characters who eventually escape the Kingdom by starting a band are shown listening to the Springsteen album Nebraska; the song they are listening to is about a conflict between brothers, one of whom is a law officer, regarding a woman who shares a name with the character who emerged from the lake in the first issue. Another character conducts an illicit affair of the mind by hiding letters in copies of books by Nabokov. Finally, a character who has moved to the Kingdom to write about it is called Hemingway. Kindt’s references and meta-textual elements suggest that the Grass Kingdom is under siege in part because of the self-fulfilling prophecy created by the tendency of white, male authors to imagine these sorts of characters and their simple, plainspoken life, as constantly under siege. Because Grass Kings is so aware of the canon of blue-collar freedom literature, Kindt and Jenkins are somehow able to tell a story about these freedom-loving brothers without reifying a falsely romanticized notion of unrestrained white masculinity as the epitome of freedom.
Kindt and Jenkins avoid treating the Godkins brothers as stand-ins for humanity in part by populating the rest of the Kingdom with compelling characters including an undocumented immigrant, a black teenager, and a number of women who take on traditionally masculine roles central to solving the mystery at the heart of the Grass Kings. Though they traffic in a number of familiar tropes, Jenkins and Kindt draw attention to these tropes in order to subvert them. Maria appears in the lake in a way that, according to the rules of the genre, suggests that she will serve a purpose largely ancillary to the desires and needs of the man who finds her; however, Kindt and Jenkins not only give her agency to impulsively do things that drive the plot, Robert recognizes and respects her needs for space and freedom to be more important than anything he might need from her. Likewise, an issue ends in such a way that seems to conform to a tendency to kill the book’s most prominent black character to create drama for surviving white characters; however, the brilliantly named Pinball not only survives the attack, he goes on to play a central role in the defense of the Grass Kingdom while defining the terms of his relationships with those around him.
Ultimately, Grass Kings is compelling art because it does not take it for granted that readers will care about isolationists fending off and/or killing those who would threaten it. Instead, it uses conflict with the outside world to house stories of personal growth wherein characters realize that the Kingdom of their own making has less to do with land than it does with truly understanding the people who choose to live there. While it is hard to talk about this book without talking about simple people whose agency and freedom are threatened, the book’s real strength is the way that it shows characters in the process of recovering from having been told, by stories that have seeped into their worlds, that their stories, agency, and freedom are the only things that matter. 
----------------------------------------------------------------------
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 8/24/18 to 8/31/18

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM

* Andy Oliver looks at PERMANENT PRESS by Luke Healy and writes "A graphic novel that somehow simultaneously manages to be entertainingly self-indulgent and carefully insightful it’s a book that will no doubt both underline Luke Healy’s status as one of the most exciting newer prospects in comics and also, as if it needs saying at this point, just what a banner year 2018 is proving to be for Avery Hill."

* Caleb Orecchio has a brief take on Lale Westvind's GRIP which "harnesses the bold visual whacky-ness of the Golden Age while maintaining the solid structure of the Silver Age, and blasts forward and upward as a work of immediacy that speaks to today’s consciousness."

* Oliver Sava reviews SHIT IS REAL by Aisha Franz, a story imbued "with ingenuity thanks to a surreal perspective that blurs the line between reality and dreaming."

* Rob Clough on Tara Booth's HOW TO BE ALIVE in which "the essential sweetness in these strips ties into her willingness to confront issues that are hidden or couched in terms of shame. In the saddest and happiness of strips, Booth forgives and celebrates herself. She allows herself to be human and to be alive, and it's that self-affirmation that acknowledges the title and shines on every scrawled but carefully-assembled page."

Philippe LeBlanc reviews THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FORGETTING and LEPIDOPTERA by Sara L. Jewell, writing "Sara Jewell’s understanding of how comics work allows her to make deliberate creative choices for effect, even if it’s not always absolutely successful. It’s always great to see an artist experiment with different techniques to improve their craft."

* John Seven looks at Javi Rey's OUT IN THE OPEN which gives him the opportunity to write "Pain is a process through which the opposite can be achieved, but it’s a slow, debilitating one that begs focus and clarity to make the full journey."

* Ryan Carey on Alex Nall's LAWNS "A supremely confident, fully-realized work that engages both heart and mind from its first page to its last."

WHATNOT

* Robin McConnell interviews LISA MAAS about her debut graphic novel, Forward, "a really effective look at recovering from loss and how to move on and make connections. "

* This piece by Paste Comics Editorial called COMICSGATE WON'T BE DEFEATED BY WELL-INTENTIONED TWEETS ALONE is a pretty good run-down of that particular comics shit-show.

* As well, Tom Spurgeon has this succinct and well-said response to the aforementioned shit-show called PLEASE GOD LET'S NOT RECAST COMICSGATE GOOFBALLS AS CRITICS.

* I'm going to belabor this point a bit here by also linking to Kieran Shiach's piece titled TOP COMICS CREATORS DENOUNCE 'COMICSGATE' FOR THE FIRST TIME, as well as Abraham Riesman's piece titled COMICSGATE IS A NIGHTMARE TEARING COMICS FANDOM APART -- SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and Ada Byron's piece on The Mary Sue called LEGENDARY COMICS ARTIST BILL SIENKIEWICZ PENS SCORCHING REBUKE OF "COMICSGATE" because I am so tired of and horrified by hate, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and idiocy in fandoms of any kind, especially when it is fueled by some sort of puerile toxic masculinity that finds its validation in the persecution and fear of marginalized groups. SHUT THIS SHIT DOWN WHEN YOU SEE IT HAPPENING in any arena that should be a place where people should find community, safety, and solace.

* Edith Zimmerman has this illustrated interview with TOM DALY.

* Karl Stevens has been doing A CARTOONIST'S DIARY on TCJ all week.

* Seo Kim has a new comic on Vice called EYES, NOSE, NIPS so, of course, I'll link to it.

* And when Tara Booth has new comics on Vice, I'll link to that too. Check out EXTREME SNACKS.

* Ben Evans is the first featured cartoonist over on Tablet's TUESDAY COMICS.

* Sarah Miller is back on Popula with a piece called REACTOR MAN which you should read right now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Stretching The Passage of Time: Philippe LeBlanc reviews THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FORGETTING and LEPIDOPTERA by Sara L. Jewell


(Editor's Note: Sara Jewell is a frequent contributor to YCE)
There’s an interesting quality to Sara Jewell’s comics work, particularly in her approach to the flow of time, how memories are represented, and how they start to fade and break apart. I’ve had the chance to read two of Sara Jewell’s comics, The Impossibility of Forgetting and Lepidoptera and I’ve been taken aback by them. The Impossibility of Forgetting is striking in how narratively experimental it gets while Lepidoptera’s inherent sadness stunned me.

The Impossibility of Forgetting is a personal story about loss, the erosion of relationships, and time. As readers, we feel the passage of time and understand how it is unfolding at an accelerated pace. We witness Jewell’s remembering a friend that disappeared from her life over time. We harken back to her memory and conversations between them. The memories Jewell is alluding to are from long ago. They’re improperly recalled and slowly vanishing from existence. What must have really occurred is now a blur, like remembering something a friend said years ago that made everyone laugh, but not really remembering the context, who was there, or why. It’s an interesting look at memory and how time transforms it over time.

Another, perhaps even more interesting aspect of this comic is that this slow and stretched passage of time appears to be an unrelated consequence of the complexity of making comics. Comics are labor intensive and it requires time to plan, write, and illustrate a comic, even a short one like this. While reading, there was this really interesting push and pull between the urgency of the story about friendship and loss and what we see on the pages. It’s as if the mind of Jewell was running faster than her drawing hands. It’s like following a train of thought, it leaves the reader to complete the piece where there might be a gap. It also helped to hammer home the theme of the comic, that time is fleeting, memories are inconsistent and loss happens to us, whether it’s losing friends or our own faculties. It’s a surprisingly deep comic for only an 8-page minicomic.

Jewell also brings this sort of energy to her art by using a sort of “collage-panel” for lack of a better term. Each page of The Impossibility of Forgetting is divided around these memories and how they curve and fold in additional layers or panels on top of what we see. There’s a striking image of a woman lying down, and there is a single panel featuring a teacup blocking the full view of the subject. It’s like memories appearing on top of other memories, distantly related. It helps tell the story and is also an interesting visual trick

Lepidoptera, on the other hand, is a comic about suffering and is a much more traditional narrative comic. It weaves an interesting tale of depression, childhood obsession, and psychosomatic and undiagnosed disease. It’s an autobiography of someone who has suffered and has caused suffering; suffering from depression, inflicting pain on an insect. Jewell’s juxtaposition of these two elements, the pain of depression and the pain of hurting, combines visually using a butterfly motif. There’s a nice symbolic link between the butterflies, trapped in a jar to slowly suffocate, and someone with depression, also trapped in a different space, unable to get out and suffocating. Lepidoptera juggles these thematic elements. , The pace is much slower in this book. The “train of thought” pacing of The Impossibility of Forgetting is replaced with a more deliberate dual perspective in Lepidoptera. It feels more focused.

Lepidoptera is printed on a brown-colored paper which makes the comics even more depressing than the short description made it out to be. Those illustrations of butterflies and fairies look beautiful and should shine, but they are brought down to a level where this sense of wonder is hampered by the background color. It’s quite incredible and unexpected how the theme of depression aligns itself so well with the brown-colored paper.

Jewell, in addition to being a comic artist and illustrator, also reviews comics for this very site. I found it intriguing to see how her understanding of the medium is reflected in her work. Jewell’s description of her own work tends to be somewhat detached but also aims to explain her choices. Here’s what she says about Lepidoptera for example: 
"Paracosm utilizes a spectrum of visual and literary techniques. Lepidoptera, perhaps the work’s most traditional narrative piece, employs a conventional voice in memoir, the autographer's retrospective, but juxtaposes this with diegetic dialogue and imagery for a nuanced, multilayered exploration of undiagnosed illness. The visual motif of the butterfly is by turns symbolic and diegetically relevant.” 
She has an awareness that makes her artistic choices feel both deliberate and somewhat unfocused depending on which technique is at work, but there’s no doubt that she is aware of the goals she’s trying to accomplish. For instance, The Impossibility of Forgetting showcases an interesting way to depict time, but on first reading, this feels almost unfocused. I had to take a step back and return to the beginning of the book, slow down and re-read the story. On second reading, it became more apparent that this was a calculated element to stretch the passage of time, but my first impression left me cold with this comic until a second reading made the comic much clearer. It’s baffling because even with the knowledge that Jewell wishes to explore time, it didn’t fully accomplish that goal. However, in Lepidoptera, Jewell’s choice of the recurring butterfly symbol and the mix of medium (ink and highlighter) works surprisingly well. She mentions in her description of her comic that the materials used, the brown paper and the mix of ink and highlights “allows this story … the greatest degree of tonal depth”. And sure enough, she’s right, I felt it in the reading long before finding this blurb to prepare this review.

Sara Jewell’s understanding of how comics work allows her to make deliberate creative choices for effect, even if it’s not always absolutely successful. It’s always great to see an artist experiment with different techniques to improve their craft.  
-----------------------------------------------------

Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie, and art comics at night and writes about them for The Comics Beat and Your Chicken Enemy