Saturday, March 25, 2017

In Lieu Of Reviews

Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comic Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column

This week, in lieu of reviews, I’m just unloading all the fantastic books that have been sitting around in my “TO REVIEW” pile for embarrassingly too long. These all deserve thoughtful reviews, but I’ve either been overwhelmed by all the great books being published of late or unable to find the right words to describe these gems. Please know that if they are featured here, they are spectacular works and deserve your attention.

(Ed. Note: All text featured below comes via the respective publishers)

By Isabel Greenberg
Published by Little, Brown, and Company
Available HERE

In the tradition of The Arabian Nights, a beautifully illustrated tapestry of folk tales and myths about the secret legacy of female storytellers in an imagined medieval world.

In the Empire of Migdal Bavel, Cherry is married to Jerome, a wicked man who makes a diabolical wager with his friend Manfred: if Manfred can seduce Cherry in one hundred nights, he can have his castle--and Cherry.

But what Jerome doesn't know is that Cherry is in love with her maid Hero. The two women hatch a plan: Hero, a member of the League of Secret Story Tellers, will distract Manfred by regaling him with a mesmerizing tale each night for 100 nights, keeping him at bay. Those tales are beautifully depicted here, touching on themes of love and betrayal and loyalty and madness.

As intricate and richly imagined as the works of Chris Ware, and leavened with a dry wit that rivals Kate Beaton's in Hark! A Vagrant, Isabel Greenberg's One Hundred Nights of Hero will capture readers' hearts and minds, taking them through a magical medieval world.

By MariNaomi
Published by 2dcloud
Available HERE

MariNaomi’s newest graphic novel tours the mid-90’s US and Japanese illegal hostess bar scene and her own personal cultural awakening.

By ElevatorTeeth
Published by Hardcore Ambient Press
Available HERE

TEENAGE GRAPHICS is a collection standalone images possibly with an overriding theme but possibly without. All of the images were created in silence between this year and last year.

By Eric Kostiuk Williams
Published by Retrofit/Big Planet
Available HERE

In Babybel Wax Bodysuit, cartoonist Eric Kostiuk Williams presents a collection of short stories delving into self-worth, Internet culture, and the fascinating grotesqueries offered up by our science-fiction present, all rendered in what curator Luis Jacob ("Form Follows Fiction: Art and Artists in Toronto") has referred to as a "unique visual style, narrated in a fabulous spirit of liquid intelligence."

In this issue: our author, as a closeted teen, navigates comic book message boards and befriends a Pentecostal Christian! Keith Haring fights off gentrification in the 1980's East Village! A familiar pop star breaks free of her Las Vegas promoters, one hundred years in the future! And more...

By Patt Kelley
Available HERE

An ecosystem emerges from a sink full of dirty dishes. Eighties mall rats kidnap an unsuspecting man and love ensues. A fart catastrophically ends Thanksgiving Dinner. And Then There Was Nothing is a collection of short stories previously published in various anthologies or seen somewhere on the internet.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 3/13/17 to 3/19/17

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


* Katie Skelly on Eleanor Davis' LIBBY'S DAD, which "explores the landscapes between language and reality, threat and violence."

* Andy Oliver on Eleanor Crewes' THE TIMES I KNEW I WAS GAY, in which "every section reads like a little aside to the audience, replete with small and seemingly inconsequential details that nevertheless take on a deeper intimacy and relevance as the reader becomes more invested..."

* Lucy Bourton draws attention to the fact that Andy Rementer has a new zine out called GOOD MORNING.


* Kevin Budnik talks to KELSEY WROTEN about "the grand philosophy of storytelling through comics, and a little peek at Kelsey's book with Uncivilized Books slated to come out in 2018."

* NOU, SARAH FERRICK, MAGGIE UMBER, and RAIGHNE HOGAN talk about the 2dcloud Spring Collection Kickstarter.

* Tom Spurgeon interviews RONALD WIMBERLY.

* Adam Griffiths interviews SALLY CANTIRINO.

* The Nib put up a piece called NEVER AGAIN? which features five Jewish cartoonists on the use of holocaust imagery in Trump's America. 

* Zainab Akhtar is over on the AV Club pointing out 10 FEMALE CARTOONISTS YOU NEED TO KNOW

* Clayton Purdom introduces us to this 20-minute documentary by Kyrre Lien called THE INTERNET WARRIORS.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Heads in the 2dcloud

Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column


By Tommi Parrish
Published by 2dcloud
Available HERE

Late last December, Kim Jooha asked Australian cartoonist Tommi Parrish what their new book from Minneapolis-based publisher 2dcloud, Perfect Hair, was about. Parrish answered, “Surviving.” What might come off as being a flippant response to a complex question became, after reading Perfect Hair, a momentous answer.

Perfect Hair is a seemingly disjointed narrative about the stories surrounding the divided lives of two friends, Nicola and Cleary, as they struggle to make both connections and sense of the world around them. Navigating the complex dichotomies of desire and identity, of participation and observance, of the stories they tell themselves and the stories they tell others, becomes, at its heart, a narrative of surviving. What is at stake is losing the self to expectations and meaninglessness. Being passed by. Just taking up space.

Parrish accomplishes this through her distinctive cartooning style. Bodies are huge, bulky and hulking. Heads are tiny and round with faces rendered abstractly, their features oftentimes expressionless or non-existent. Backgrounds fluctuate from tightly detailed to swaths of colors. Some pages are gently washed in soft watercolors, others contain panels of expressive pencil lines, and yet others become intermingled inked bodies undulating in negative space. This flow of styles adds to the rhythm of the narrative, providing poignant beats to the dissonance through which these characters are maneuvering.

Throughout Perfect Hair lingers ghosts, that vague feeling that something outside is looking in, adding to the voyeuristic sensibility inherent in a book of this type. Through the abstraction of the cartooning and the disjointed nature of the narrative, the reader is purposefully made to feel apart from what is happening, even as Parrish draws you in. Even moments of interior monologue allow for little access, even less connection. Yet somehow the book is still immersive, deeply engaging, recognizable in a deep-seated manner. Nicola and Cleary as characters are funhouse mirror reflections of the basic need to be part of something larger that the reader cannot help but see themselves magnified in, all flaws amplified, every imperfection cast in a bright light.

In Perfect Hair you see what you hate most about yourself, and it reminds you how strong you are as you make your way through. The last panel of this book, moody and dark as it is, reinforces the fact that you’re not alone.

It may only be the middle of March, but Perfect Hair is already in the running for this reviewer’s “Best Of 2017” list and Tommi Parrish has cemented their place in my pantheon of Artists to Watch. Buy it. Read it. See for yourself.

-- Daniel Elkin @DanielElkin


By Maggie Umber
Published by 2dcloud
Available as part of 2dcloud’s Spring Collection Kickstarter

Recently I’ve been learning mindfulness meditation. In my mindfulness training I’ve learned to transport my mind from my everyday stressors to a place that fills me with bliss. My perfect place is called Baker Lake. On my recent hike around Baker Lake, I was able to achieve a near-perfect solitude. There was literally no person within five miles of me in any direction, so I felt a deep sense of serenity as being a lone interloper in the midst of majestic, unspoiled, natural beauty. I felt embraced in the divine peace of a perfectly calm natural scene, blissfully silent except for fish thrashing in the river and eagles screeching above my head.

In a real way, my day at the lake was a vision of the sublime, a moment in which all my quotidian detritus slipped away into its insignificance and I could bask in the steadfast infinity of nature’s complex gifts.

Which brings me to Maggie Umber’s gorgeous new graphic novel Sound of Snow Falling, released by 2dcloud.

Umber delivers a graphic novel similar to my perfect day: a visit to nature to observe the simple, untrammeled splendor of forest life. Its protagonists are a family of owls, but these are not the kinds of cartoonish owls one might find in a kids’ comic. Instead, the owls, porcupines, raccoons, deer and other animals in this book are illustrated realistically, as they live their daily lives as painted by Umber.

Umber does a wonderful job of bringing her scenes to life. In one gorgeous sixteen-panel sequence that crosses two pages, we witness one of the owls slowly and deliberately build a nest, sometimes drawn in the middle of the panel and sometimes away from view but always in action. The effect is similar to the finest nature shows -- Planet Earth, say, but with a graceful storytelling sense that reflects a smart sense of comic book art and design.

In another set of panels, an open two-page sequence with a gorgeous sense of movement, Umber shows a mating ritual between the two owls. In a moment that mirrors human behavior without anthropomorphizing the birds, one owl offers the other a mouse as a tiny, wriggling token of love. Similarly, Umber delivers another two-page spread that juxtaposes the gestation of an owl egg against a parallel image of the phases of the moon. In both sequences, she conveys complicated ideas and timelines with designs the user intuitively understands.

Umber presents her vision of the natural sublime with a wonderful painterly eye for color and detail. Daytime scenes are a riot of color while nighttime scenes are silhouetted in a deep and empathetic blue. The birds are rendered as much by their implied shapes as by their actual appearances, and the effect is both invigorating and reassuring.

Which brings me back to my perfect place, my ideal alpine lake in the woods. I meditate on that lake because it reminds me of the glorious imperfect perfection of nature just a couple of hours drive from my house. Sound of Snow Falling is a gorgeous reminder of that same perfection. In this delightful book, Umber has captured a small reflection of the natural divine.

-- Jason Sacks @jasonsacks

Sunday, March 12, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 3/6/17 to 3/12/17

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


* Bob Levin reviews TURKISH TRILOGY by Wostok and "friends" which sounds absolutely bonkers.

*Rob Clough takes a look at the minicomics of CATHY HANNAH, who uses her comics "not just as a kind of self-therapy, but also as a powerful feminist manifesto rooted in vulnerability."

* Rob Kirby reviews THE BEST WE COULD DO by Thi Bui, a timely piece that "depicts, with unsparing candor, the multiple traumas associated with being forced out of one's country into the unknown."


*Minneapolis-based small press publisher 2dcloud is running its SPRING 2017 CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN. No other publisher is taking the kind of risks to put out the kind of beautiful books 2dcloud is. YOU SHOULD SUPPORT THAT SORT OF THING.

* Speaking of 2dcloud, Philippe LeBlanc interviews MAGGIE UMBER about her latest book, Sound of Snow, which is offered as part of the Spring 2017 Collection.

* Phoebe Gloeckner interviews JULIA GFRORER



Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lovers and Secrets

This week's Tiny Pages Made of Ashes for Comics Bulletin
By Anya Davidson
Published by Retrofit/Big Planet
Available HERE

There’s a profound sense of longing at the heart of Anya Davidson’s Lovers in the Garden, one that’s coupled with an endearing self-defeating optimism. Characters find themselves stuck in a nebulous state of existence, either pining for that next, higher plateau, or aspiring to break free of their circumstance altogether. Utilizing a tandem narrative, Davidson is able to explore the perspectives and desires of multiple protagonists that culminate in a shared climax that tacitly examines both kismet and tragedy.

It’s this structure, this multi-faceted reflection of the same longing to either climb the ladder or jump off the ladder, which prevented me from ever putting the book down. Lovers in the Garden feels like a sort of rotating peep show into the vulnerabilities of its cast, and the sense of voyeurism is addictive. While reading, I was less interested in seeing how its disparate parts would form a whole than I was in continuing each individual perspective to their natural conclusions, and yet Davidson supplies both with ease. It’s intimate and honest, yes, but it’s surprisingly light in tone. It’s…funny. Or at least, it’s funny in that awkward way of seeing reflections of yourself so clearly presented in fictional characters for you to both laugh and cringe at. There’s an irreverent tone in Davidson’s work, a bluntness to the relevant and familiar truths as we chuckle at the comically poor choices made by Shephard and as we empathize with the devastatingly poor choices made by Elyse.

The 1975 New York City setting is indispensable to informing the motivations of the myriad cast. I was born nine years after this specific era, but growing up a New Yorker you become aware of a shared history that lingers in its denizens and in its streets. That time is still visible despite the temporal distance, and Davidson’s combination of markers and colored pencils, reinforce that 70’s grit and psychedelia to a tee, while also mirroring the narrative structure in how they blend in and out of each other. It was an era of rising expectations where women, including women of color, could see advancement in the workplace as something actually achievable against the backdrop of cultural revolution and the end of a deeply unpopular war.

We have a trio of women each motivated to move upwards: Rosa to earn a promotion, Elyse to nail the big break, and Mystic Blue to screw over her boss. With the male characters - who delightfully turn out to be the titular lovers (not romantically, but equally intimate as brothers in arms) - we have Flashback and Shephard looking to escape the gradually boiling pot in which they’re trapped. For Flashback that means returning to the freedom of who he was before the war forever changed him, to be the free loving roadie that saw only possibilities ahead. For Shephard, well, it’s the microcosm desire that every character here has: to be able to control one’s own destiny and define one’s own identity.

Through it all, Lovers in the Garden takes these longings and doles out various perspectives on the means and motivations to achieve them. Davidson constantly pushes the edges of her characters’ lives inward, so that the question of what is tangential and what is significant becomes hazier. What are the big moments in our lives that shape the future? Are they as mundane as changing your usual lunch order? Are they about realizing how ephemeral the relationships we thought we needed truly are?  It’s like the fortune in the cookie we all laugh at for its ambiguity at the table, but then gets secretly put in your wallet with the hopes that perhaps there’s some great wisdom, some truth in fate, that will sneak its way into your life. Lovers in the Garden tells you that it’s not likely, but there’s just as much harm in hoping as there is not.

-- Alex Mansfield @Focusedtotality

Edited by Megan Purdy, Ardo Omer, and Amanda Vail
Published by Bleating Hearts Press
Available HERE

What does it mean to “have a voice”? The idea of “voice” is different than the idea of “ words”. We understand the power words can have, but when powerful words are used by the voiceless, they often go unheard. To have a voice means to have influence and the ability to exert it  —  to not just be heard, but to be listened to.

When those in power take away someone’s voice, that person becomes discounted. When the marginalized find their voice once more, the powerful try to silence them, spewing madness like, “Don’t raise your voice to me!”

Is “voice” then the sound of confidence?

I ask all this because I recently got a review copy of the new literary zine from Bleating Hearts Press, Secrets of the Goat People #1. Bleating Hearts Press is the publishing arm of Women Write About Comics, one of the great comics criticism sites on the web right now. Stretching out into the world of publishing is a way of bringing further awareness of the many amazing critical and creative perspectives that have found a home at WWAC and to amplify their reach.

As WWAC and Bleating Hearts Press Editor in Chief Megan Purdy writes in her introduction to Secrets of the Goat People #1, “For the first issue of our first print project ... we decided to go back to the start, to state firmly, again, that we’re here. That’s why the theme we’ve chosen for Goat People #1 is simply: voice.”

This inaugural issue is a declaration, a shot across the bow, a statement of purpose that is saying, in effect, “This is Us.” The 40 plus pages of original comics, illustrations, and prose from 17 international creators that make up this zine all point to giving power to intent, to demonstrate that here are individuals that have something to say, that here are voices that will be heard.

Sometimes the voices here are loud or messy or painfully young in development, but each is earnest, each speaks a truth, each deserves to be heard. Whether it’s the beautiful artwork of Zed Alexandra in “L A G”, the profound exploration of “My Russian Voice” by Masha Zhdanova, or innovative prose of Coral Moore’s “Most AIs are Jerks”, there is a breadth of expression here, a cornucopia of voices.

Secrets of the Goat People #1 is mostly about opportunity and amplification. It’s not perfect and some of the pieces it contains seem amateurish and awkward. But what Bleating Hearts Press is doing is providing a platform for voices that may otherwise have no other venue.

And sometimes when you amplify voices that have been quiet for so long, they come out seemingly too loud at first, maybe too rough around the edges, unrefined, immature, sloppy, or “unprofessional”. This happens a few times in this first issue of Secrets of the Goat People. Some of the pieces suffer from the poor execution of a powerful idea. Some of the pieces falter just as they start becoming something more. A couple of the pieces simply are just not good, really. But each piece creates a spectrum; what works well helps point to the possibilities of what doesn’t, what doesn’t, in turn, adds strength to what does in comparison.

Secrets of the Goat People #1 all adds up to something important: an assertion that this is a zine that will have power, will have something to say, will be worth listening to, and will not be silenced.

It only stands to reason that the theme of issue #2 is “Resistance” -- they are accepting submissions until March 31st.

-- Daniel Elkin @DanielElkin

Sunday, March 5, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/27/17 to 3/5/17

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


* Alex Hoffman reviews STARSEEDS by Charles Glaubitz, whose "defining characteristic ... is its ability to mix genre with the metaphysical, and in doing so, it generates an otherworldliness that is strange and compelling."

* Ray Sonne reviews R. Sikoryak's TERMS AND CONDITIONS of which she says, "Unless already invested in comics history or law, you will not find the reading experience smooth."

* Rob Clough takes a look at a number of mini-comics from BEN PASSMORE.

* Andy Oliver reviews THE PALACE OF CHAMPIONS, the new hardcover collection of Henriette Valium, aka Patrick Henley, one of the most important French-Canadian cartoonists of all time. The book is huge, 9 x 14, "a size that is essential in order to capture the astonishingly intricate illustrative style of this creator."


* Bleating Heart Press, the publishing arm of Women Write About Comics, has put out a CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS for its literary zine, Secrets of the Goat People.

* The Queers and Comics Travel Fund is raising money to support creators who could not otherwise attend and present at the Queers and Comics Conference being held in San Francisco on April 14-15. Some great rewards for donating!

* AUTOPTIC 2017 will be held in 2018 instead. I'll see you there.


* Sam Ombiri writes about the idea of INFLUENCES.

* David Frick's INSIDE LOU REED'S REVELATORY NEW PUBLIC ARCHIVE in which Laurie Anderson and archivist Don Flemming talk about Lou's papers and recordings that have recently been donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

* Bari Weiss'  A TEST FOR THE ANTI-TRUMP MOVEMENT has, as a subheading, "Do Jews Have To Make Common Cause With People Who Want To Kill Them?"

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Vast Possibilities of the Small Press

This week's Tiny Pages Made of Ashes from Comics Bulletin
By Leela Corman
Published by Retrofit Comics
Available HERE
My friend Megan Purdy and I talked about We All Wish for Deadly Force for three hours before I’d even read it. She was working on a review (which turned out quite well) and wanted to talk it out to get a better idea of what there was for her to say about the book. I like talking things out; fielding questions and going on tangents is an essential part of me finding out what is or isn’t there. So I asked Megan questions and the most interesting things she said were about the book’s design and how the collection of shorts was organized beautifully. I must be easily influenced, because I have to say that upon reading it, the organization of this collection immediately stood out to me even after what must have been a couple months.

There’s no table of contents in this book and there very well shouldn’t be. This isn’t a collection designed for a reader to thumb around the various comics in order of shortest to longest. Like a museum’s collection is curated and organized into what will hopefully be the most effective delivery for visitors, this collection guides you through it with purpose. The names and details change as the line between semiautobio and autobio is erased and redrawn, but a larger narrative develops because it’s the same voice singing the songs.

Corman’s first comic in this collection, “The Wound That Never Heals,” is part medical pamphlet and part confessional about the effects of the long-term effects of PTSD that the author has lived with following the death of her daughter. Corman illustrates the concept of hypervigilance as the titular wound that never heals; it’s a compelling image onto which even readers who haven’t experienced PTSD can project their own personal experiences whether they’d like to or not. It’s a world-ender.

Hypervigilance and triggers become an integral part of the collection as longer pieces are punctuated by a strip centered on a moment in time when the author’s grief was triggered so that the reader remains vigilant as well. The belly-dancing stories in this collection live side-by-side with Corman recalling a traumatic event at a grocery store because the price coincides with the date it occured. It’s the gift of Corman’s cartooning that made me feel I could understand the emotions she was expressing, but it’s the strength of this organization simulating the effects of triggers and hypervigilance that made them intimately real.

The story that concludes the collection, “The Book of the Dead,” is a great work on its own about the necessary sacrifices made by forbearers that create distance between them and their children. The Holocaust weighs heavy on Corman’s family tree, having inflicted a wound that never heals even as each generation responds to it in their own necessarily different way. That weight carries over into Corman’s work as she playfully questions what makes someone a good/bad Jew or ponders what the living have to offer the dead for their sacrifices. “The Book of the Dead” serves as a statement (not final, never final) about Corman’s use of art as an offering to the living and the dead. It carries an additional weight after these questions have been intimated for the reader to unconsciously consider in the previous stories. This final comic can not simply be boiled down to Corman reacting to one or even two things after the reader has been presented with a rich portrait of her life and personal history. It could not come at the beginning. Placing it there would be tantamount to instructing the reader how to interpret the following comics rather than encouraging them to create connections between them that are then illuminated further by the final comic after the initial experience has already been forged. It’s the sum of all the stories; the autobios, the belly dancers, the extended metaphors.

Corman spills blood on the page in order to commune, and her book speaks to the reader. A short comic exploring trauma through the visual metaphor of a forest being contained inside of someone might be inscrutable if presented in isolation, but one understands it as this book is largely a conversation between Corman and the reader about reactions to trauma. There is no forward, no afterword. All the words for understanding Corman are in the work itself and it’s up to the reader to listen.

-- MARK STACK @MarkOStack

By Katriona Chapman
Published by Tomatito Press
Available HERE
In his short story “The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson,” American Naturalist writer Frank Norris explores the fragility of human personality. In this tale, the titular character, a Methodist Preacher, becomes a cut-throat pirate after suffering a blackout due to heat stroke, only to later return to his preacher ways after a blow to the head. It’s the kind of story that makes you wonder how we define who we are as it points to the idea that no matter how sure we are of ourselves, that “self” is fleeting; we are constantly evolving.

I look back at the cock-sure, punk kid that I was in the 80s and I have no idea who he was. He has given way to a softer, kinder, more understanding and fearful man in the year 2017. I’m the same person, yet I am not as I was.

Who will I be tomorrow?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tenuous nature of identity, especially as it relates to the relationship between an artist and their art. If art is a fundamental expression of the self, but that “self” is ephemeral, then what is the lasting meaning of all artistic endeavor?

Strangely then, as if on cue, British cartoonist Katriona Chapman sent me copies of her softly-rendered, solidly-produced autobio zine series, Katzine. At first I wasn’t really sure what to make of these. In page after page of subdued and washed graphite drawings suffused with meticulously hand lettered text, Chapman presents herself. She does this not only through straight-up facts about who she “is” and what her life consists of as if part of a get-to-know-you type interview, but also by stepping back and documenting her interactions with her life, specifically her world travels and the people she encounters along the way.

As a person, I was initially uncomfortable with the forthrightness of Chapman’s presumption that her life is important enough to bear such scrutiny and light. I was worried that she was giving truth to a self that, for all extents and purposes, is a lie, a construct, mutable and inconsistent.

But as a reader I was pulled in, awash in this artist’s understanding of herself as it stood in the moment of creation, and how her lens allows for a particularity of perception. For example, in Katzine issue #4, Chapman uses a 12 panel page featuring aspect-to-aspect transitions to indicate how quickly the days go by on her vacation. Chapman chooses to show particular things in each panel give a sense of place, but also give a sense of a single perceptive lens. The choices indicate a particular point-of-view that “becomes” in the moment of making that choice.

It is as if the primacy of the self, the fundamental underpinning of so many autobio comics, became secondary to the presentation of information that reveals an understanding. While certainly you learn about “who” Katriona Chapman is through the pages of Katzine, her “self” is a cipher for decoding experience in the larger sense of understanding perception. The act of mimicking experience through her art allows her to be the person she becomes. In effect, living life and transferring those moments into a method of conveyance transforms not only that experience, but the self itself.

While I assume Katzine is not meant to answer questions of the lasting meaning of artistic endeavor, through it Chapman explores the nature of the artists.  And perhaps this is what makes all art important — how it relates to the individual. It functions as a lens that allows us all to peer at the minutiae of life. Katzine points to the fact that it’s not just the sum of experience that creates the person, it’s the perspective one uses to both make sense of those moments and the stories we convey afterwards that make the self.

And that is pretty powerful stuff. I’m glad that Katzine exists and that Katriona Chapman felt the need to share her “self” as it stands.

The world looks a lot brighter to me now that I’ve looked through this lens.

-- DANIEL ELKIN @DanielElkin

By David Biskup
Available HERE
David Biskup’s Seagram opens with a fellow walking in front of Mark Rothko’s painting Black on Maroon and taking a bunch of pills.  His blurred silhouette — another veritable black on maroon — haunts the pages that follow, as do many other things.  When reading up on the Seagram murals both after and during my experience, one of Jones’ descriptions of Black on Maroon in this piece stuck out.  Referring to the window-pane-like maroon shapes in the painting, Jones mentions how one might expect that “it ought to allow the mind egress.”  And of course, the same can be said of the past.

I cannot fathom what PTSD must be like for those whom it inflicts.  It acts as a real haunting; a master of ceremonies lies dormant in your mind, taking their cue to conjure not from you, but from the way light reflects from across the room, or a particular smell of a passerby, or as in the subject of this book, the sound of a ripped dress.

Seagram is a direct, unambiguous comparison between the restoration of a brutally un-esoteric painting and the rehabilitation of Biskup’s wife on her journey to cope with PTSD.  As such, it occurred to me that this work might feel ham-fisted to some; but, despite the apparent convenience of the metaphor (and the clumsy way that Biskup emphatically gestures at the book’s end towards the chance meeting between dealing with his wife and picking up a Rothko biography), it is perhaps the most promising gateway into understanding why Biskup is able to dig deep in these pages.  The crudest question you might come away from this work with is, I think, the right question:

Why bother?

In Seagram, Biskup makes a conscious decision to include the pages in which Rothko sets up to commit suicide.  While in one way it functions simply to display the tragically serendipitous arrival of the Seagram collection at the Tate gallery on the very same day as Rothko’s suicide, it also stands in serious contrast to the main thread of the book in which Biskup tries, unflinchingly, to help his wife continue her life.

The answer to, “why bother?” as Biskup presents it, is certainly not, “because this shit is easy.”  His wife’s trauma, whether things are falling apart or improving, is presented on the page in a striking fashion.  The initial trigger of her trauma is presented as fragments of relevant memories, haphazardly mixed with increasingly obtuse echoes of themselves, which then fade out into juxtaposed evocations of Rothko’s work.  The effect is an appropriate one in which it feels like not only has the dam broken, but some semblance of meaning has been lost.  The rest of his wife’s struggle -- save for a moment of peace with a cigarette and the empty question of what the hell is supposed to come next -- is presented in this fashion.  Rothko achieves a powerful effect with these layouts: he makes the reader feel as if -- both in spite of and because of the frenetic visual structure -- the reader has a better grasp on what’s going on than the people in the story.

Meanwhile, Black on Maroon, a work I would not have thought about twice if I had looked at it three times prior,  suddenly feels imbued with a great deal of meaning.  A painting that initially smacked of a knee-jerk restrictive definition of art (“art?  But I could paint that!”), is contextualized not just by the inclusion of Rothko’s fate, but also by the juxtaposition of reductive cartoonish exploits within the painting’s sub-particles (via Bertha the Barium Ion) with the much more sombre Biskup family tale.  In Seagram, Black on Maroon comes out feeling oddly humanized.

Compared to the obvious fragility of art (grab a pencil and you can literally just destroy invaluable things), the fragility of a human is something that permeates their entire existence, both the things unseen and those pieces of them that stretch outward into the world through experience.  Moreover, fragility is shared.  One of the reasons Biskup’s depiction of his wife’s trauma does not feel out of place or out of turn is because he depicts his own perception of the situation in the identical style to the traumatic episode itself.  Once trauma is conjured, the spell is not kind enough to keep to a single mind. Biskup is careful to depict his wife’s experience on a continuum with his own.  As a result, a book built on a tenuous metaphor succeeds at both of that metaphor’s ends, helping readers find life in an inaccessible work, and meaning in a common struggle.

-- AUSTIN LANARI @AustinLanari