Friday, January 19, 2018

Cities As Symbols: Philippe LeBlanc on STRUCTURES from Uncivilized Books

(Editor's Note: I've been following Philippe LeBlanc's writing over at The Beat for quite some time now, and I've always been impressed with his ability to write reviews about small press comics that come from a clear critical eye and a certain fearlessness in taking on difficult work. When Philippe said he'd like to write about the Structures series from Uncivilized Books for this site, I gave him carte blanche, as I knew he'd write something spectacular. As you can read below, I wasn't wrong.)

The first illustration comes next to the ominous words Cyclopean outpost. We see minuscule human shapes walking towards a massive metropolis, humongous in size. The figures are featureless, they barely register. How can a person matter when facing such an enormous city? We are minuscule, meaningless. These first pages marks the start of a multiyear, multi-artist project called Structures published via Uncivilized Books.

I remember meeting Tom Kazcynski, the publisher of Uncivilized books and cartoonist, at TCAF in 2014 and talking about the Structures project was going to materialize and now, four years later, I am reading Structures 1-11, the building block of this series.The book takes place in an immaterial void reflecting only a sliver of reality and not bound to a specific time of publishing. It is timeless. It’s about the structures we built and how we see them once they’re built. They become symbols. 

Art by Tom Kaczynski, Structures 1-11

I remember visiting Toronto for the first time and how being in the city felt. I’m from Quebec City, a much smaller city in comparison to Toronto’s enormous size. It was massive, tall and expanding into infinity. I remember the overwhelming feeling of invisibility, of worthlessness amongst a sea of human beings walking through the core of downtown in the winter, surrounded by towers hovering so far above me, I could barely register where they ended. I had been to major cities before, Montreal or New York are close relatives after all, but Toronto was something else. Perhaps it was this heterogeneous architecture, one that seems empty of planning or logic, skyscrapers surrounding townhouses, a lake with very little waterfront access on the ground (at least downtown directly), and other varied odd bits of patchwork creating the city. I remember when I first saw Denis Villeneuve’s film Enemy, it captured similar feelings as he depicted Toronto as a cage, a massive city with streetcars electrical grids constantly overhead, claustrophobia abounds. I wondered how a Metropolis such as this could have expanded this way, and how the modern wonders of architecture felt so dehumanizing and oppressive. 

Structures 1-11 stands as the foundation of this exploration of objects, space, and big ideas and it comes in deceptively small packages. It is not interested in depicting reality, but rather, it explores concepts on the outskirt of reality. What do our modern cities look like? What would the end of days look like? What is reality? All of those are contained within this series through abstraction and cryptic notes. The juxtaposition of words on a blank page and drawings on another is an interesting way to explore these concepts and a reminder of how comic books work. Comics are really just words over drawings, but what you can do with that is endless. 

Another example of these cryptic explorations of structures as symbol echoes across the two pages depicting The Tomb of Jack Kirby. It's a beautiful reminder of the massive legacy Kirby has left the comic book world. I remember reading about Kirby for the first-time in the pre-internet era of my childhood (in a copy of Wizard #33. I think). I believe it was a sort of a tribute issue, complete with a massive array of praise from a number of comics artists, editors, etc. Without having even seen his art, I knew how important his legacy was and how much comics owed to him. His creations fuel the big publishers to this day and his concepts are still the object of admiration. Depicting his legacy as a towering edifice of grief and wonder is bold and spot-on. Kaczynski creates a futuristic metropolis just on the edge of reality filled with tall concepts and ideas. Exploring our relationship with our landscapes and urban environment in our modern ages in 11 images is incredible. That four other cartoonists explored similar concepts is remarkable. 

Art by Vincent Stall, Structures 12-23

The following issues follow in the footsteps cleared by Kaczynski. Each artist tackles big, bold ideas about our modern world, and explores them in their own way. The recurring element of each comic is the structure of the comic itself, a blank page with text followed by a page with an illustration. Vincent Stall’s Structures 12-23 begins with a seeming collapse of civilization, leaving the world in ruins. From these ruins, a new type of architecture rises to impose its grotesque will on nature. We only see the structures built by the survivors as they cannibalized the past, the landscape, and nature itself to create a series of temporary habitats. Stall focuses on the way we accommodate ourselves by repurposing our surroundings. 

Art by Michael Deforge, Structures 24-34

Michael Deforge pushes these ideas forward in Structures 24-34 by moving away from physical structures and on to ideological ones. Deforge is looking at how nonsensical national myths can be. We take certain things for granted, but what we build as part of our national myth is often arbitrary. Some things are easier to understand, but others seem haphazard. Deforge shows various shapes and forms that are supposed to be items of national significance, whether it’s national ladders or national living rooms, and each image is twisted and unrecognizable. It forces the reader to consider how we build myths and why we take some things for granted when they can be, in fact, just irrational and subjective. Our inspiring stories and symbols are not always self-explanatory, if we’re thinking about some of our Canadian myths and how they take on a significance of national importance, one can understand how Maple syrup or the resilience of the beavers but some other elements are more nebulous than others. Canadian niceness, for example, is one of those that are harder to wrap your head around. Are people nice, or passive-aggressive, and how did this become part of our myths? 

Art by Patrick Kyle, Structures 35-45

In Structures 35-45 Patrick Kyle looks at the twisted structures of our mind. Kyle creates a world where everything is twisted into abstraction. It’s almost like navigating a dream, or a nightmare. You can almost recognize the structures he’s depicting, they are just twisted enough that you see the foundation of a table, or a chair, but the rest is barely decipherable. The text doesn’t talk about a structure, but of a construct of the mind, just bizarre enough to feel familiar, but strange enough to be horrific. My favourite example might be “Several people holding hands in a circle in a park somewhere in a neighbourhood in the city you live in but not in the neighbourhood you live in”. Kyle builds a nightmare for us to consider. How does our mind organize information and what happens if those structures are twisted? Kyle forces us to consider that, much like the construction of myths, habitats and cities, our psyche may not be as structured as we think. 

Structures is a series that has been exploring interesting topics throughout its short publication history. From the creation of modern society, to how we destroy nature for our own purpose, to how we construct myths and how our mind behaves, Structures show that comics can achieve thoughtful explorations of philosophical topics and existential questions even in small formats. The medium is made better by work like these, each piece builds onto the previous one to create something bigger than the sum of its part. Uncivilized Books can be very proud to publish such a strong and experimental comic series.


Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improve 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

Monday, January 15, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 1/8/18 to 1/14/18

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


* Robin Enrico on RALPHIE AND JEANIE VOLUME 1 by Alabaster Pizzo, which "showcases her range as an artist in creating more widely accessible work while still maintaining the emotional core of her earlier heavy-minded work."

* Sayalee KarKare looks at Leslie Stein's collection, PRESENT, saying, "It is these little moments of life, of desperation, loneliness, and connection that Stein specializes in, capturing perfectly the colors of each state of elation, sadness and despair with her broad palette of colors."

* Ardo Omer writes about her reaction to Xia Gordon's KINDLING. I really appreciate the honesty of her review. Reviews that allow me insight into both the work being reviewed and the reviewer writing the review are some of my favorites (as you could probably guess, if you've ever read any of my reviews)

* Christine Ro on MAGRITTE: THIS IS NOT A BIOGRAPHY by Vincent Zabus and Thomas Campi, which is "more interested intensions between the desire to know an artist and the dangers of over-romanticizing them."

Leonard Pierce reviews SLASHER by Charles Forsman, wherein "the raw presentation with which Forsman unspools the narrative, both simple and thoughtful, gives it room to go about its task with plenty of air to knock out of us, and it manages just enough in the way of twists and upheavals to give it some depth of meaning, even as its brutality threatens to crowd it off the page."

* Sam Ombiri has some thoughts about DNA FAILURE: BRITISH WEAPON COMICS by Leon Sadler

* Ryan C. on Tyler Landry's SHIT AND PISS, which inspires him to write, "this is a predatory existence, and when our back is against the wall, we have no choice but to not only accept, but to embrace that fact. The strong will survive, and those who have been too strong for too long will inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction somewhere deep within the by-product of their own excess."

* John Seven looks at Alexis Deacon's GEIS, a "parable of power and authority, by way of the Grimm Brothers, and through the lens of breathtaking illustration work that captures wonder and darkness together."

* Scott Cederlund on MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS by Emil Ferris which "perfectly captures that moment in our lives where we're between seeing the world through a child's eyes and understanding it from an adults point of view."

* Andy Oliver on KATZINE: THE GUATEMALA ISSUE by Katriona Champman, "comprising gentle social commetary, addictive trivia and small insights into her everyday routine, it's alost a sequential art Sunday supplement version of Chapman's life."

* If you hadn't noticed, I tried as best as I could to avoid linking to any "Best Of ..." type posts in this round-up over the past month or so, but I will make an exception here because it's Alex Hoffman and he frames it as COMICS THAT CHALLENGED ME IN 2017


* Broken Frontier announces its SIX SMALL PRESS CREATORS TO WATCH IN 2018, all of which seem to be hugely talented. 

* In response to a series of tweets by Erik Larsen, one of the founders of Image Comics, Chase Magnett writes this editorial titled THE DANGEROUS IDEA OF A COMICS MERITOCRACY

* Art Vinyl announces THE BEST RECORD COVER ARTWORK OF 2017.

* Ben Yagoda writes a piece for Slate called THE REVIEWER'S FALLACY: WHEN CRITICS AREN'T CRITICAL ENOUGH which, while I don't agree with everything Yagoda says, is at least worth a read.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Fantasy of Fascism Hides Behind a Mask: Chase Magnett on TWILIGHT OF THE BAT by Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck

(Editor's Note: Batman is awful for a number of reasons, so when Chase Magnett pitched me the idea of reviewing Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck's Twilight of the Bat as being an examination of the fascist reality of superheroes like Batman, how could I say no? Read what Chase has to say below, and feel free to @ me about how much you hate Batman too.)

2017 was the year where superhero comics proved they were not up to the task of handling fascism. Their status quo of heroism, their need to please all possible readers, and their simple one-two solutions were exposed as farcical in the face of a genuinely daunting historical moment. None of this is news though. The superhero genre has always been a power fantasy, one that too often flirts with fascism. Fantasies like those dressed in capes are personal things and best expose our hopes, desires, and dreams, for better or worse. 

That is the understanding Twilight of the Bat brings to the genre. This 20-page story, written by Josh Simmons and drawn by Patrick Keck, tells the story of a familiar hero named “The Bat” who is alone in the wasteland of G- City until he finds its only other surviving inhabitant, “Joke Man”. The pair resembles two of the most popular comic book characters of the past century exactly as their names suggest, and their personalities clash along similar lines when left to endure a barren hellscape together. 

In spite of the obvious hook—something that might be spun as an Elseworlds tale by DC Comics—Simmons and Keck are largely uninterested in the idea of asking “what if” about Batman and The Joker. Rather, they are much more engaged by what this pair represents, even when read outside of the context of a 75-year-old ongoing series. The Bat is as much an archetypal superhero as a Batman analog, the same for Joke Man in his role as supervillain. If anything, the Batman comparisons more easily connect with the darker, more violent aspects of superhero stories than say those of Superman or Wonder Woman. Batman is defined as a vigilante, a seeker of justice, and a figure of fear. He is the popular superhero most easily associated with the fascist tendencies within the genre. Batman seeks to impose his worldview upon society, and he values order above all else. His methods are based in violence and fear in order to make Gotham City align with what he believes it ought to be — a fundamentally fascist fantasy. 

In Twilight of the Bat, the post-apocalyptic wasteland detailed by Keck effectively ends The Bat’s raison d'être. It’s apparent in the first couple of pages that nothing else lives in the streets of G- City now, with every aspect of the city taking on the texture of burnt wood and its citizens nothing but soot-covered bones. How The Bat and Joke Man survived is beside the point; there is nothing else left in this world. So how does The Bat choose to live when there’s no more justice to inflict or criminals to frighten? The sad answer in Twilight of the Bat is that he doesn’t change a thing. 

In a scenario where law and order have ceased to hold meaning, The Bat views Joke Man as an opportunity to recreate his mission. Everything Joke Man does is an opening for The Bat to summon his disgust and anger once more. In the context of a Batman comic, this might make sense as the villian would poison the reservoir or take children hostages, but in Twilight of the Bat, Simmons and Keck make it clear that the superhero urge is driven by an instinct to control not to protect. 

Joke Man is the sympathetic foil required by this narrative. His face is that of a burn victim and his actions are regularly repulsive, but there’s nothing inherently evil about this human being. When examined carefully, Joke Man becomes the caretaker and empathetic soul of the story. Everything he does is as an action of love. Joke Man repeatedly tells The Bat that he loves him. He makes a fool of himself, painting lipstick with his own blood and smearing himself with feces, in order to make The Bat laugh. He even goes through a dramatic routine at night, baking cupcakes and putting footprints in the snow, to provide The Bat with hope. Like some deranged mother, Joke Man perceives and reacts to the needs of The Bat at every turn. 

These actions are taken as affronts by The Bat, though. He handcuffs Joke Man at night, brutalizes and curses him, and even goes so far as to bite off a finger when angered by Joke Man’s dancing. Joke Man’s dance is not a moral misstep by any reasonable standard. The dance is simply an offense to The Bat’s understanding of order. Faced with the horrors of this world, The Bat’s only response is to remain stoic and dour with even the very hint of laughter causing him to grimace. The Bat does not want to dance or enjoy this moment, and he violently seeks to force Joke Man from doing so either. 

In the end, Joke Man’s ultimate offense is his otherness. This can be seen as a homophobic “othering” at times, as The Bat is clearly disturbed by direct pronouncements of affection from another man. When Joke Man kisses The Bat on the nose or says “I love you”, Keck always leaves an open panel in which The Bat’s expression does not change. He appears incapable of processing or accepting any form of affection. This lack of response becomes disgust given enough time. When Joke Man carries on a monologue or dances for an extended period of time, Keck slowly warps The Bat’s face towards anger until he lashes out. This feeling of disgust ultimately boils over and The Bat murders Joke Man. He rejects his last opportunity to engage with any person or idea outside of himself. 

And in this, Simmons and Keck suggest that the very concepts of life and personality run contrary to The Bat’s mission, offering, as they do, alternatives to the world he desires. His only true happiness come from an adult and child that exist only in his imagination. People are only pure so long as he does not see or speak with them. He can cry out with joy at the thought of them, but breaks the only living thing he encounters. 

Twilight of the Bat is a final chapter. The shell of G- City is a place without people, without otherness; it is the world The Bat created through neverending battles with anything abnormal, specifically anything that does not fit The Bat’s definition of normal. Keck’s ruinous terrain and the final panels of a seemingly endless white expanse swallowing The Bat are visual metaphors for the fantasy of control taken to its furthest logical extent. An endless need for control, the shaping of society to reflect an individual’s single desires, ultimately negates the very concept of society. The Bat abhors anything unlike himself and, when given the choice between life with others or an eternity alone, he chooses the latter. That does not stop him from mourning the decision, but the decision was his and, once made, it cannot be taken back. 

The personal fantasy of enforcing law and order, shaping society to be the thing we deem it ought to be is linked to The Bat’s vision of the world. He desires control without concern for diversity. His fascism is personal and destructive on an intimate scale. While the husk of G- City may not be his responsibility, his ultimate loneliness is. The twilight of this world is his construct, a dream of singular vision and absolute control. It simply cannot abide any other forms of thought or life. 

Power, revenge, and control fantasies are ugly things even when wrapped in a cape. The superhero that seeks to control us cannot save us. A character like The Bat does not offer hope for all, merely a fascist fantasy for the reader who imagines putting the world in their own personal order. Terms like “criminal” and “justice” are tossed around to make the plot sound proper, but they are propaganda encouraging readers to embrace law and order above all else. So Twilight of the Bat transcends an indictment of this form of the superhero genre and strikes at the broader set of fantasies defined by these terms. The proselytization of law and order, rampant homophobia, and urge to suppress anything outside of an internalized “normal” are hallmarks of the modern conservative movement. Just as Batman’s fantasy has been normalized in popular culture, so have the fascist leanings of an entire political party. Their ugliness is exposed in absurdity here, but the truth of the ugliness remains. At the end of Twilight of the Bat, The Bat learns the fatal flaw of this fantasy when left entirely alone, a lesson first offered by Terry Pratchett in the pages of Mort: “There is no justice. Just us.”

Chase Magnett is an educator and freelance writer. You can also find his comics writing at ComicBook.Com and Comics Bulletin, as well YCE. He is currently working his way through grad school to work in public education. If you'd like to hire him, please send an e-mail to

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: KINDLING by Xia Gordon

Sometimes a work of art hits you in a visceral, aesthetic way upon your first encounter with it. That reaction, though, dissipates slowly as you begin to unpack it by applying logic and reasoning to the experience, and, often, as it is wont to do, your new understanding is less fraught and more manageable. 

Yet, in rare occasions, something else happens. 

Kindling, the new book by Brooklyn-based artist Xia Gordon (published by 2dCloud), somehow withstands the loss of its initial emotionally-charged power through analysis. In a way, it gains more of an innate, earnest sensibility through the application of head upon heart, upending the duality, and becoming something more. 

This is a beautiful book. 

The solicitation on the 2dCloud site reads: “Hazy, gesture rich lines explore ideas on love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. Abstract and expressive, visceral and affective, elusive and palpable. A letter to the universe and to oneself: LOVE!” This is the kind of talk that occurs when your language breaks down in order to convey that which you feel the strongest. And yet, what else is there to say? 

Gordon’s art is gesticulation, indication. It allows just enough to appeal to the sense-making structures to operate as they do in order to make meaning, but its true impact is in the way it unwraps loose from the page as if almost to caress, to welcome, to enfold. Two-color risographed in a soft red and blue, Kindling at times hearkens to that 3D Anaglyph effect that requires those plastic glasses that you always ending up losing at some point. This adds to the richness and depth of its communication, both upon thinking about and feeling through it. 
Kindling tells the story of journey. It tells a story of struggle. Ultimately, though, it tells a story of acceptance: acceptance of the self and acceptance that, even with this, the journey continues. Gordon makes the most of her title for this book. It serves as the building blocks to idea, to self, to community, and to affirmation. 

Towards the end of Kindling, Gordon has scratched out a line of text that reads something like (it’s hard to discern through the scribble), “I know you’d feel better(?) if you were here.” and replaces it with “I think you’d like this place.” The simple shift from “I know you’d” to “I think you’d” is all you need to understand what Gordon is after in this book. Reconsidering and choosing not to tell someone the truth of your head, but rather offer them the hope of your heart is the prime mover of Kindling

It is these small signals that show Gordon is in command of her craft and an artist who has something to share.

Monday, January 8, 2018

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

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


* Robin Enrico reviews ORBITING by Penina Gal, "the work of an artist who gained access to the deeper currents of our shared humanity as well as the knowledge of how to pluck those chords with masterful precision."

* Carta Monir examines GG's I'M NOT HERE, saying "It's not just the story about the guilt a daughter feels -- it becomes the story of the nuanced kinds of guilt she might feel in an unlimited number of circumstances."

* Philippe LeBlanc reviews BLANC by Margaux Othats which "feels like a warm blanket, some sweet voice reminding you that the cold is temporary, that the hard times will end and things will get better soon."

* Andy Oliver on Daniel Locke and David Blandy's OUT OF NOTHING, a book "that underlines just how effective the form is in breaking down and exploring profoundly layered ideas with clarity and immediacy."

* Tegan O'Neil reviews SUGAR TOWN by Hazel Newlevant, in which "Every page of the book is infused with an aesthetic understanding of queerness as a way of life defined (at least within these pages) by kindness and respect."

* John Seven takes a look at Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes' THE CASE OF THE MISSING MEN, writing, "As much as it takes its place in the teen investigative pantheon, it also understands its place within it. Teens search and search and seek change, but inevitably get swept up int he chaos that generations before them have tried to keep under control. Becoming an adult is the moment you take on that responsibility, when you work to keep all that came before waging the full scale destruction it always threatens to. Becoming an enlightened adult is that moment when you try to do it a little differently from those who came before you, maybe even understand its fury."

* Matt Lune reviews I LOVE THIS PART by Tillie Walden, " a vulnerable exploration of just how fragile love can be, especially first love, and especially first love between two people discovering their sexuality with each other."

* Ryan C. on CRUST by Sarah Romano Diehl, saying "The innovative style on display in this book may be quiet and unassuming, but it's nevertheless both very real and very refreshing."


* Yair Rosenberg interviews G.WILLOW WILSON in a piece titled, "Why a Muslim Comic Book Writer just introduced a Yeshiva Student and Kosher Food into the Marvel Universe." where Wilson explains what religion can bring to the world of comics.

* Rosie Knight talks to ALES KOT about his upcoming Image book, Days of Hate, and it leads to this amazing piece over on Women Write About Comics.

* Broken Frontier lists TEN UK SMALL PRESS COMICS YOU NEED TO OWN and, with a headline that acts as a command, how can you ignore it? Plus... you know ... it's a pretty damn good list.

* Philippe LeBlanc has put together a hurried but thorough SMALL PRESS AND INDIE COMICS GALORE NEW YEAR'S EDITION for The Beat. Once again, LeBlanc does a much better job of this "round-up" nonsense than I (oh, to be young and Canadian), but I'll keep going, if for no other reason than to link to his list every couple of weeks.

* MUST SEE OF THE WEEK: This comic by Sam Alden called DRAGON YEAR.

* Jon Curley on the new Susan Lewis collection of prose poems, HEISENBERG'S SALON, in which "Lewis refuses causal, casual, transparent notions of relations between concepts, people, or situations. She senses the irrational lurking within every gesture, symbol, structure, and sentiment. She does not exult in confusion and skepticism but dutifully communicates them..."

* Adam O'Fallon Price's piece titled REGARDING THE EM DASH is written -- as if a little gift from the back of my brain -- specifically for me.

* Walter Laqueur's HAVE "LEFT" AND "RIGHT" OUTLIVED THEIR MEANING? which asks the question, "Are we now on the eve of the emergence of a new, Fifth International?"

Friday, January 5, 2018

Black Hole, Son: Mark O. Stack on the Recursive Narrative of Charles Burns' BLACK HOLE

(Editor's Note: As the first post of a new year, it's only fitting that I publish something looking inward at something from the past. This piece by Mark O. Stack began as a Twitter conversation I had with Mark when I saw that he was finally reading Charles Burns' classic OGN, BLACK HOLE. Mark was instantly captured by Burns' recursive narrative technique in this book. At first, I wanted to see Mark's reaction to how Burns chose to end Black Hole, then I goaded him into writing the longer piece I have the pleasure of presenting below.)

It’s common practice for children growing up in the Pacific Northwest to receive a degree of wilderness survival training by the time they’ve left elementary school. The region is thick with trees, making it easy for those who are unprepared to become lost in the woods. If one doesn’t know their way out, they’re likely to find themselves passing by the same landmarks over and over as they get no closer to their destination. 

The teenage protagonists of Charles Burns’ Black Hole spend much of their time lost and in the woods, although it is the lovelorn Chris who holds the distinction of being literally lost in the woods as she finds herself without the guide she previously relied on. When her lover Rob disappears, she wanders uncertain of her path or destination. Burns wanders, too, as he often doubles back to revisit key moments in the narrative from new perspectives that serve to illuminate character and develop arcs.

This technique adds a fullness to the work that might not otherwise be present given the myopic perspectives of the two central figures, Keith and the aforementioned Chris. These characters’ perspectives may be myopic, but it is important to emphasize that the book itself is not, due to its habit of doubling back in time. Keith and Chris can not see past their own lives, never even looking deeply into the interior lives of their romantic partners. Chris in particular speaks about Rob predominantly in terms of her need for him, and Keith’s view of Chris is colored by his “nice guy” projection on her as the perfect girl for him. 

The book opens with Keith passing out during a biology class dissection as the universe more or less opens up before him to reveal his path forward. He recognizes Chris as the only student in the class who isn’t laughing at him, and this begins the development of his idealized vision of her as his soulmate. The whole sequence happens across several pages. However, it’s a scant few panels later when we revisit the scene from Chris’ perspective. She feels a worry for the boy (she is a nice girl when she isn’t buckling under extreme stress), but it isn’t anything deeper than that. A moment that means a lot to one person ends up being just that, a moment, to another. A message (it would be presumptuous to call it the message) is made clear— this isn’t going to be a story about this boy “getting” this girl.

Burns continues returning to events from new perspectives, giving readers Chris and Keith’s perspective of her late-night swim that reveals the physical deformity she’s developed as the result of a fictional sexually transmitted disease. Readers get her perspective as she undresses and swims, they get Keith’s as he hears the story moments later before watching her undress, and they get Chris’ point of view again as she finds out about the accidental unveiling of her previously unknown condition. These scenes don’t merely flow from one directly into the next. There is material in-between, but the book more or less creates a closed loop in a stretch of pages that makes that section the whole story of that one moment. It may have been frustrating for readers of Black Hole as the book was initially serialized to find themselves constantly going back in time to re-explore events, but that structure makes the book sing as a graphic novel collection. 

This technique is not isolated to exploring large moments, either, as Burns uses it to illuminate minor scenes as well. Chris lies drunk in a bed, remembering/dreaming about her missing beau, and for one panel we see that Keith has placed a hand on her stomach before she drifts back into a symbolically loaded dream. That moment where Chris registers Keith’s “warm and needy” hand rubbing her stomach is exactly that— a single moment. What’s happening around it, her dreams of Keith and the beach that she feels fated to return to, are given importance. The moment plays out from Keith’s perspective in the next chapter and this time it comprises an entire page, revealing Keith’s desire to comfort Chris before his hopes of a potential romantic connection are dashed by her continued fixation on Rob. Keith comes off as kind of creepy from both perspectives, but it’s a different kind of creepy. From Chris’ perspective, it’s easy to interpret Keith’s hand on her as a potentially sexual touching with her description of his “warm and needy” hand. From Keith, though, we learn that he thought Chris was sick and was attempting to comfort her without an awareness of physical contact being a boundary crossing act. Intentions and interpretation are made clear. Keith sees himself as coming to the rescue. while Chris reads him as being needy and almost pathetic. Both are accurate, and that single moment becomes all the richer for that shading of the gap between Keith’s intentions and Chris’ interpretations. 

As a collection, Black Hole is a work of art opening up and displaying itself rather than simply guiding the reader through a plot. Things happen, they spring logically out of the moments that come before them, but there’s no sense that it’s necessarily going anywhere heading into the back half. Unfortunately, the final stretch of the book does not maintain this graceful act as Burns’ storytelling technique of doubling back to share different perspectives on events are used for the purpose of merely illuminating… plot. 

In the final quarter of the book, Keith has been allowing a group of physically deformed “sick kids” who have been living in the woods to squat in a home that he has been watching for a couple of family friends. As he smokes weed in the garage, he hears the sound of something like firecrackers before going inside to see that multiple people have been shot to death. The sequence is unsettling as readers experience Keith’s confusion along with him. The push-in on the bullet hole in a dead boy’s cheek is disorienting and enthralling in a way familiar to the experience of getting high and hyper-focusing on a detail. The confusion is sold, but, for once, the randomness of an event as large as this one is distancing rather than enhancing. The reader doesn’t know what could have spurred this on as they haven’t been made privy to the lead-up. For once, it feels like the reader has missed something important. 

The book then shifts perspective late in the game to the little-seen nor heard from Dave, another sick kid who is revealed later to have been infatuated with Chris and has been attempting to distance her from friends and loved ones in order to seduce her. The reader isn’t granted his internal monologue as they have been when following other characters, but they watch him as he collects a bucket of chicken and murders his best friend before contemplating suicide. It’s jarring to suddenly follow a “new” character, deprived of any insight into his thoughts as we would have been granted with any other character in the first half of Black Hole, and track him on this atypically violent journey. 

Keith learns from a sick kid about the events of the shooting in detail, clarifying how it happened and how some people managed to escape it. Finally, the reader learns from Chris that Dave had been plying her with booze in an attempt to woo her before making a confession that he loves her and — brandishing a gun — asserting that no one else can have her. It’s a big statement from what had been a minor character of previously unknown motivation. 

The technique of circling around an event ends up having to do the heavy lifting of showing the readers how and why things are happening. Unlike in earlier segments, where the reader already knows the answer to why things occur, as they spring out of already established elements of the characters’ personalities and relationships, here we’re thrust into the chaos of a moment, shown the character who perpetrated it, see the moment as it plays out, and then find out about the motivation that had not been established prior. It all adds up to a logical turn of events, but the goal of art is not merely to convey a logical turn of events. Nothing new is learned about the characters we have followed throughout the book as they are now artificially pushed into directions that then carry them to the end of their journey. 

And it is worth noting that the book had earlier deployed what appeared to be random violence to great effect as Chris’ boyfriend Rob is murdered in the woods after leaving her for the night. As he dies, a small mouth on his chest (a result of his status as a sick kid) bemoans that things between him and Chris were never going to work out. It’s the tragic pay-off to dreams and previous messages from the mouth that had foretold an inevitably doomed outcome. It works thematically on a level that Dave’s murder of the sick kids simply does not. 

After the shooting, Keith runs off with Eliza, a woman he has fallen in love with, to see the sights of the Southwest that she had regaled him with, and Chris returns to the beach where she had spent her last perfect moment with Rob as she considers whether or not she can move on and return to her old life. Yet, these are not destinations that the characters couldn’t have reached without the shooting as the instigator. Keith’s desire to be with Eliza and escape his town had already been established. The importance of that beach to Chris was given a lot of time to develop. Everyone could have made their choices to head off into the unknown without the deaths of several teenagers as an instigator. Chris’ discomfort with Keith’s attempts at affection could have pushed her out of the house (having already decided to return to the beach eventually as she dreamed drunk in bed with Keith), just as Keith’s chance meeting with a happier Eliza at the grocery store was the true catalyst for him to run off with her.

The storytelling technique that had previously made the book so full of life and had given it a widened perspective here ends up creating a greater air of artificiality that may not have been the case had the details of Dave’s “courtship” of Chris been made known previously. In trying to piece together the chain of events leading to an instance of mass murder, an event that is, of a certain scale, alien to the pages that preceded it, the story and the reader momentarily lose track of character. Thus the reader ends up lost in the woods trying to discern the trees when the book had been guiding them to observe the forest. Whether or not the reader can find their way out of this tangle depends on how well they’ve ingrained Burns’ instruction on how best to read the book prior to that point. To disengage with the narrative when it reveals the machinery that drives it is a natural response. If this momentary loss of grace is enough to send the reader’s attention elsewhere, escaping from the black hole as the protagonists’ journeys reach their fateful end, then that is a fair outcome.


Mark O. Stack is a comics writer based in rural California. You can find out more about his comics work at He is currently preparing a comics project for a crowd-funding campaign in the Spring.

Monday, December 25, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 12/18/17 to 12/24/17

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


* Jenny Robins reviews PORTUGAL by Cyril Pedrosa, writing, "The pages of the book are an absolute joy to enter, despite the ennui of the protagonist, light dances across each page, colours saturated with southern sunshine change in the blink of a panel to eerie starlight."

* Sam Ombiri on Aidan Koch's THE BLONDE WOMAN. "As readers we can circle this emotional space, and we see familiar structures and there's so much information to derive from them. It's not just information, because despite the efficiency of the images there's too much beauty and sincerity coming from the images to refer to what's in the images as 'information'."

* Robin Enrico writes a recap heavy review of FUNERAL PARLOR by Robert Young, and says Young "is able to transcend the trap of a simple nostalgic all back and tap into that deeper moment we all have as children when the story we are being told becomes too scary or too real and we need to be comforted."

* After making a plug for Sequential State's Patreon (which you, like me, should sponsor), Alex Hoffman has a quick post about APARTMENT NUMBER THREE by Pascal Girard.

* Ryan C. on William Cardini's TALES FROM THE HYPERVERSE, "a cosmos-shredding series of interlocked (at least thematically) stories that reduces Kirby-esque interplanetary/interdimensional clashes of absolutes to its barest elements, shakes them up kaleidoscopically, and dares you to figure out exactly what comes out the other end."

* Ryan C. ALSO writes this really great review of TONGUES by Anders Nilsen, who "is doing something supremely confident and just as gutsy here -- filling in very little by way of actual details and trusting entirely in his craft to both inform and mystify us every step of the way, to establish the framework of our expectations and subvert them in equal measure."

* Tegan O'Neil on David Collier's MORTON: A CROSS-COUNTRY RAIL JOURNEY, writing, "The virtues of Collier's work -- the attention to detail, the excoriating honesty, the use of the device of literary regionalism to ground narrative -- are virtues that arose out of a defiance both to mainstream commercial norms (Superman and Donald Duck and the like) as well the hedonism of the Underground scene in which many of the early cartoonists who work in this style cut their teeth."

* Meg Lemke presents Australian cartoonist Sam Wallman's comic IF THEY COULD PAY US LESS, THEY WOULD, "about the world's wealth inequality and how the notion of minimum wage is being contested in the modern era."


* Alex Dueben interviews ANNIE KOYAMA in honor of ten years of Koyama Press.

* Austin Lanari calls out the new wave of comics criticism that relies exclusively on "pointing at something that's happening on a page, regurgitating it uncritically in plain english, and packaging it in a tone and format that makes it seem critical or illuminating" in his piece called COMIC-SPLAINING. This piece led to some great back and forth on Twitter when it came out, and, while I agree with Lanari's basic idea here (though its execution left me a little confused), what I appreciated more was the dialogue that it fostered. Go Read It and let me know what you think.