Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Review -- SUTRA: SONGS FROM THE WORLD OF OM by Andy Barron

There are words from other languages that have been incorporated into English because English is limited in its ability to quickly summarize vague emotions or broad contexts. Words like schadenfreude, kowtow, and aficionado all come from languages other than English because they filled a need -- expressed an idea that English had yet to contain. Once devoured by English, though, the language confines it with connotations that otherwise would not have existed prior. 

Spirituality is one of those regions where the lexicon of English especially fails. Having so much of its development under the auspices of Christianity, English has a limited view of spiritual connectedness. Rather, it focuses on the struggles of the day-to-day and the rewards of an afterlife. When English speakers seek some other sort of spiritual sensibility, they find their vocabulary constrained and often have to turn to other languages in order to express that which they wish to explore. By stepping out of the confines of English, native speakers discover not only new words but new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. In doing so, perhaps, they gain fresh insights and, more importantly, original stories to make sense of existence.

All of this leads to, finally, a review of SUTRA: SONGS FROM THE WORLD OF OM by Andy Barron. In Hinduism, a sutra is “a collection of aphorisms relating to some aspect of the conduct of life.” In Sutra’s 46 pages of beautifully colored cartooning, Barron collects seven wordless short stories all taking place in a fantastic world he has created called Om. Each of Sutra’s short stories acts as an aphorism and, while interconnected, stands on its own in terms conveying meaning, theme, and understanding.
There’s both a charm and a grotesqueness to Barron’s cartooning. Flushed in vibrant pinks, reds, and purples, there’s a fluidity to his character design and world building. Everything has rounded edges, density, and even a certain moistness, all of which helps Barron shape his characters and clearly define their emotions. Wordless comics demand a deft hand on the part of the cartoonist in order for any semblance of narrative to work. Barron has that hand, everything he does is in service of story, and, in that, in service of theme.

Much is made of cycles in Sutra. One of the stories in the book is even called “Samsara,” another Sanskrit word which refers to the cyclical nature of death and rebirth that all creatures are bound to in the material world. In Barron’s world, forces work in rhythms, sequences, and successions. That which dies gives birth to something new. Dictatorial rule is undermined by a natural law. Avarice is punished by community. In Sutra, Baron conveys his themes through his storytelling which is manifested through his art which, here, is presented as songs. These are songs of experience. They are songs of innocence. They are songs of myself. They are large, and, in the parlance of the times, they contain multitudes.
And yet even as he preaches, Barron never falls into didacticism or moralizing. Much as with the rounded edges of his cartooning, there is a softness to his message. As striking as the contrasts are in Sutra between good and evil, justification and “rightness” flow from some larger source than just dictates and rules cobbled together in order for society to function. Rather, in Sutra, morality is based on patience and quietness, meditation and rhythm. The world of Om rights itself when it is allowed to proceed unimpeded, neither overthought nor overwrought.

By borrowing its title from another language, Sutra opens doors to thinking that may have been previously unavailable to English speakers. By placing it in a spiritual context, it forces readers to move past the concerns of the physical. By making the comic wordless, Barron chooses to allow all languages to be heard. By exploring the ideas in the manner that it does, Sutra responds with beauty to the rising authoritarianism being swung like a bludgeon in so many modern Christian nations, giving a quiet voice to empathy, kindness, and love.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Pattern Language: Francesca Lyn on Identity, Ephemera, and Nostalgia in Whit Taylor’s WALLPAPER

In 2015 it was announced that actor Lupita Nyong’o would play a character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nyong’o, best known for her Academy Award-winning role as an enslaved woman named Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013), would portray Maz Kanata, a CGI character, through voice and motion capture. Some fans of Nyong’o were upset that she would not actually be visible onscreen, citing the pervasive lack of representation of black women in film, particularly in fantasy or science fiction. However, Nyong’o’s reasoning for taking the role was outlined in an interview done by Buzzfeed News, claiming that there was  “a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question.” Though Nyong’o may have been simply tired of being scrutinized, her reasons for taking the role of Maz Kanata to resonate with a hopeful possibility and suggest a desire to take a more expansive view of how black women can be depicted. In 12 Years a Slave,  Nyong’o’s role is one of significant physicality - Patsey is continually abused, raped, and brutally beaten. By playing Maz Kanata, Nyong’o was trying to escape the hypervisibility of Black womanhood. Nyong’o’s reasoning is one of creative resistance that strategically stresses the possibilities of black women on the screen.

Similarly, themes of liberation and possibility are prevalent in the work of cartoonist Whit Taylor. Taylor, a black cartoonist and health educator, frequently engages with issues of race and identity. In “Finding Your Roots,” a webcomic published by The Nib, Taylor explores race and identity through the hairstyle choices of black women. Taylor centers her comic on her experience transitioning from chemically straightened hair to learning how to embrace her hair’s natural texture. She has also collaborated with fellow cartoonist Chris Kindred on the nonfiction comic “African-Americans Are More Likely to Distrust the Medical System. Blame the Tuskegee Experiment.” Published by The Nib on February 26, 2018, this comic presents the history of the Tuskegee Experiment, a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service where black men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge. Kindred and Taylor outline the study and its aftermath, emphasizing it’s unethical nature and lasting impact on the black community. 

Taylor is very aware of how race and representation factor into her life and art. In a 2015 interview with Artworks Blog, she stated, “In my work, I explore issues of identity frequently. Being a black woman, issues of race and gender are things that I find myself coming back to because they have and continue to shape who I am and how I perceive the world.” 

Using varying degrees of representation, Taylor strategically makes blackness absent and present, engaging with what scholar Deborah Whaley refers to as an “affective progression of blackness” - embedding and layering images to create meaning. This is significant because mainstream media culture still predominantly presents whiteness as the default. Characters are usually thought of as white unless described otherwise. 
In her 2016 book Wallpaper, Taylor does not directly code the protagonist as black. Though told in a confessional, almost diary-like style, Wallpaper is not an explicitly autobiographical work. However, the unnamed protagonist does share some similarities with her creator. For example, Taylor is also from New Jersey and has a brother. However, this omission should not be dismissed as an oversight. Taylor’s past work indicates that she is obviously well-versed in racial politics.  Watermelon...And Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable As a Black Person (2011) is an autobiographical work that directly addresses and challenges stereotypes Taylor and other black people have experienced. Wallpaper, though, might seem like a departure in both format and content. 

Taylor’s Wallpaper is a meditative, conceptual comic that uses patterns and abstraction for narrative starting points. Wallpaper is notable for its particularly intimate presentation; it is small even by the standards of a minicomic. The cover of the comic depicts a pink and green pattern that is bordered by a striped, repeated delicate floral motif. This unapologetically decorative, feminine cover combined with the small format of the comic makes you feel like you have stumbled upon something secret and precious. 

Beyond its small, intimate format, Wallpaper breaks a lot of rules and common expectations of cartooning. It has no panels. Words and images are never presented on the same page. Rather, the left spread contains the narrative text and the right contains a full-bleed drawing of a significant pattern or texture. In Wallpaper, these everyday patterns are used as starting points for the protagonist’s musings. This narrative has the effect of contemplative remembrances, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia in the reader. 
Taylor has used unconventional compositional strategies in other comics. For instance, Taylor’s comic “Alternatives to Avocado Toast for 2018” offers wry commentary on how we receive information from the news media. A creative interpretation on trends and the major events of 2017, this comic is arranged vertically with pieces of toast functioning as panels. By putting all of these ideas on toast, Taylor employs an absurdist sense of humor that emphasizes the strangeness of living in contemporary times. In this comic, reports on the use of fidget spinners, handheld devices meant to help people focus, are juxtaposed with stories on climate change. By putting all of these events and trends on toast, it appears to flatten them out and effectively starts to equalize them. Taylor also titles one toast “Escapism Toast.” This toast has a unicorn horn and a mermaid tail, linking these trends to nostalgia and the idea that millennials are turning to imagery from their childhood to provide comfort in an increasingly uncertain, chaotic world. 

Wallpaper, on the other hand, focuses on personal rather than collective nostalgia. The first pattern that the comic displays depicts white flowers with greenery against a brown background, representing the wallpaper in the kitchen. The narration on the facing page explains that the protagonist’s mother removed much of the house’s patterns, which were decorative choices by the previous owner. Subsequent patterns are derived from other pieces of the house - tile floors, examples of linoleum, and carpet. However, not every drawing is something that the protagonist physically encountered. One pattern depicts the lickable wallpaper from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Taylor’s presentation results in flattening them out. By presenting them side by side, Taylor suggests that these fragments all seem to run together for the protagonist, with something remembered from a movie given equal weight to a “real” experience. 

Wallpaper progresses with the protagonist continuing to examine the patterns that surround her. We learn more about her family, including a visit to her grandmother’s house and a family vacation to Cape May. As Wallpaper progresses, it becomes apparent that the protagonist is documenting patterns that are disappearing from the house. There is a pervasive sense of loss throughout the piece; it is apparent that things are changing beyond home renovations. Her grandmother moves to an assisted living facility and is later hospitalized. 
First published in 1977, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction delineates structural patterns which are viewed as timeless entities. Written by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein of the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California, A Pattern Language attempts to put forth elegant solutions to problems regarding architecture, building, and community livability. It argues that, when considered together, these patterns form a sort of language for building and planning structures. The book itself is organized in a consistent format with a picture illustrating the pattern followed by a paragraph description.  While operating on a much smaller scale, Taylor also begins to create her own structural patterns that become language, organizing her comic in a way that more closely resembles fragmented memories. Like A Pattern Language, Taylor uses a consistent format throughout the comic. With the rigidity of this, Wallpaper becomes a microcosm that encapsulates the elliptical nature of difficult memories. Particularly traumatic memories may be virtually impossible to articulate. 

Wallpaper uses significant sensory memory, particularly descriptions of taste, to great effect. For instance, when the protagonist recalls dreaming about the edible wallpaper, she also mentions eating a Fruit Roll-Up for breakfast. Later, she describes the walls of the newly repainted den as being the color of Hershey’s chocolate bars and describes accidentally smearing some on a copy of Pride and Prejudice. In Wallpaper, the sweetness of these junk food treats contrast with the more somber mood of the narrative, giving them a cloying rather than indulgent connotation. When the family later goes out for pizza after seeing the grandmother in the hospital, it’s not an entirely unexpected that the protagonist is sick on the car ride back. 
Wallpaper concludes with the floral wallpaper in the kitchen getting replaced with beige paint. The protagonist has a strong reaction to this, getting upset with her mother and storming out. The last pattern in the comic is a scrap of wallpaper. The narration reveals that this scrap is actually from a dollhouse. The protagonist explains that she found the dollhouse and fixes it with help from her mom. This dollhouse wallpaper fragment is a fitting ending to a comic done on such a small scale. 

Just as A Pattern Language illustrates how simple structures can become components of complex networks, Wallpaper demonstrates how small moments and unanswered questions can have a powerful emotional resonance. Reading the protagonist as a black woman makes sense not only because of Taylor’s own racial identity, it also provides greater resonance as to why the comic is structured the way it is. Taylor does not depict any bodies, letting patterns and the words of the protagonist tell the entire story, creating a rhythm for the dissonance of trauma to reverberate against. Additionally, the black female body is not the focus here. We cannot scrutinize how she chose to depict the protagonist or if she resembles Taylor. Instead, we are given a story which subtly suggests that whiteness is not the default as it delicately limns the struggles of adolescence. 


Francesca Lyn is currently a doctoral candidate in Media, Art, and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Her dissertation “Graphic Intimacies: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color” examines five texts by women of color written in the new millennium. She is interested in how autobiographical comics offer a new framework for exploring transgenerational trauma through the complex and intersecting themes of race and gender. She created and teaches the interdisciplinary courses  “Gender, Race, and Comics” and “Gender in Comics”. In these courses, students learn how to do comics research with special emphasis on utilizing VCU’s Comic Arts Collection. In her free time, she enjoys performing standup comedy and creating her own comics.

Friday, July 13, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 7/6/18 to 7/13/18

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


* Sam Ombiri has been reading and re-reading GANGES 4 by Kevin Huizenga, leading him to write "There’s an aspect of this method of sequencing that resonates with the idea of seeking the truth or the essence of the moment by cutting crucial aspects. By implying that there’s a comic to read, that the reader has been reading. Then this comic that’s at the service of a construct, that has intricate rhythm, suddenly deprives the reader of moments the reader has been made so keen to read. The comic plays with the reader’s patience."

* Tom Kaczynski looks at EDDY CURRENT by Ted McKeever for his Event Horizon Column at TCJ

* John Seven on Gipi's LAND OF THE SONS, saying it is "the story of the first step to regaining some aspect of humanity, which will only come from a genuine connection. Connection is the only way that information is transferred and qualified, it’s the only way that wider priorities are created." Seven also has this review of Aaron Costain's ENTROPY which he ends by writing "If entropy is an inevitable disorder in the universe, Costain suggests that it is created by the human desire for order — and that is the creation we should be concerned with."

* Wayne Alan Brenner has this great write up regarding THE WINNER by Karl Stevens, writing "it can be said of Stevens that he’s like if Samuel Johnson were simultaneously his own Boswell: He’s living his life and creating the work, and, in much of that work, recording and commenting on living his life and creating the work."

* Rob Clough reviews the third issue of NERVENKRANT, Katherine Wirick's minicomics serial about Dada artist John Heartfield, writing "Wirick is creating a history of one man's wrestling with enormous concepts like art, beauty, nationalism, madness that aren't just abstract ideals--they are factors crashing into his every day life." 

* Jason Sacks on BIZARRE ROMANCE by Eddie Campbell and Audrey Niffenegger which has "an off-kilter sort of energy, as if the couple were slowly getting to know each other better through their art."

* Robin Enrico writes about 30 MILES OF CRAZY! #5 - 6 by Karl Christian Krumpholz, writing that in these issues, Krumpholz "demonstrates not only a keen ear but also a clear eye for how to use his cartooning to capture a certain ecstatic truth about his world."

* Tegan O'Neil on A PROJECTION by Seekan Hui saying "Hui’s character designs stretch the limits of legibility, but her skill with color and composition means that the book looks beautiful even when you find yourself spending a minute staring at a page that stubbornly refuses to cohere into narrative."


* Robin McConnell interviews FIONA SMYTH about her work.

* Jamaica Dyer has a comic up on Spiralbound called THE BALCONY.

* Ron Rege Jr. has a comic over on Popula called EVERYTHING IS FREE.

* Sarah Horrocks has been putting up some amazing work as part of TCJ's A CARTOONIST'S DIARY this week.

* Nina Vandenbempt has a comic up on Vice called THE FRIDGE IS A TEMPORARY KINGDOM.

* A couple Kickstarters of note: BATTLEARC 2088 -- a 40-page one-shot cyberpunk comic by Danny Djeljosevic and Brett Marcus Cook -- and WE HAVE TO GO BACK --  a post-apocalyptic romance comic about the effects of stress and shifting dynamics in a long-term relationship created by Jordan Alsaqa and Sally Cantirino.

* Chase Magnett quietly sneaks some really good books into his THE 10 BEST COMICS OF 2018 SO FAR over on

* Megan Abbott has this interesting essay on Slate called THE BIG SEEP: READING RAYMOND CHANDLER IN THE AGE OF #METOO.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: THE WINNER by Karl Stevens

The Winner, Karl Stevens new book from Retrofit/Big Planet, is a beautifully rendered, cranky celebration of the power of inspiration. While autobiographical in nature, it is ultimately a book that explores as it reveres the healing power of the creative muse, while questioning the concept of what one has to give up in order to be “saved”. 

One could easily fill a thousand word review of The Winner just lauding Stevens’ art. Ranging from meticulously crosshatched pencils to vibrant and alive watercolors to delicately inked brushwork, Stevens’ cartooning is, by far, some of the best work being produced in the industry, hands down. His fine arts background shows itself well in The Winner, and even becomes a central part of the narrative, at one point he even asks his wife, “Am I a painter, or am I a cartoonist? I need to choose. The fine art world thinks I’m just an illustrator, and the comics world thinks I’m a painter.” 
This question of place, of where one fits in, circles back to the larger themes surrounding creativity and connection that suffuse The Winner. While Stevens often mocks his own pretentions surrounding notions of being an “artist”, deep down this book is a powerful statement about the importance of art itself. Stevens fills The Winner with images of his wife, Alex, the person that acts as his foil, his muse, and, most interestingly, as his savior. She provides Stevens with material to explore, a subject to scrutinize, and a reason to be better to himself. In the narrative of The Winner, Stevens admits having had a problem with alcohol when he first met Alex. She provided him the inspiration to give up drinking and to lead a more healthy lifestyle. His love for her gave him the incentive to move away from self-destructive behavior and move into a more modulated space. 

And yet, even throughout his embrace of a more life-affirming attitude, Stevens constantly complains about the world, its hypocrisy, and his lack of a firm footing in it. There is an insular tone to The Winner as a result. The claustrophobic interiors of Stevens’ job as a security guard at a museum only add to this, pulling the space in. The wall of monitors watching patrons as they walk through the museum adds another layer of distance between Stevens and the world around him. The idea of watching people as they look at art increases a further dimension and commentary about the nature of art itself and Stevens’ own place within. 
Much of the book is about the interactions Stevens has with Alex. He even casts her in the lead role in one of the fantasy stories that operate within the book. Through these interactions, Stevens gives the reader a filtered access to the small moments of his life with his wife, and in doing so, shows the power she holds as a creative force for him. Essentially, Stevens casts his wife as a muse and a large part of The Winner is an artist learning to understand both the possibilities of interacting with his inspiration and becoming worthy of that spark. It’s a love story to his wife, it’s an honoring of his craft, and it’s a cry against the insecurities people feel that keeps them from connecting to the world. 

The Winner is a ravishing and sublime book to look at. In being so, it doubles down on that which it is trying to convey.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Artfully Wage War on Nostalgia: Nick Hanover reviews CARTOON DIALECTICS #3 by Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark

There is an envelope in the mailbox. You pick it up, intrigued by its handwritten address. This is nothing you’ve ordered. It is an artifact from another time. You open it. A nearly monochromatic little comic slips out. Purple and white dominate the page. The paper feels raw, there’s no gloss to it, but also none of that try-too-hard matte. As you flip through it something else slips out, a postcard-sized print that only says “Nostalgic Blob.” You grin because that little blob gets you in too many ways. You proceed.


Inside the pages of Cartoon Dialectics #3, Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark force you to consider the cheerful yet ominous reach of the nostalgic blob, that cultural motivator that compels us to look backward even as we’re moving forward. Connecting nostalgia to Trump’s Make America Great Again movement as well as the styles and tastes of progressives and, in its potent final section, Kaczynski’s own relationship with his past, the central question of Cartoon Dialectics’ third installment isn’t “How did we get here?” but “Why do we keep returning here?”

When I spoke to Kaczynski in 2013, that question weighed heavily on both our minds, running through our discussions of gentrification, global warming, the mystification of technology and beyond. Kaczynski told me that the frequently bleak stories collected in his impressive work Beta Testing the Apocalypse were inspired not by dystopian works but his interest in utopian fiction and his time growing up under communism, a system that was itself utopian in design but nonetheless broke down in execution. Responding to a point I made about the negative outcomes of his stories, Kaczynski said: “If my stories seem really negative, it's only because I'm examining the negative to see if a positive can be teased out eventually.” 

At that point, less than a year into Obama’s second term, the concept of “failed utopias” was more theoretical but, looking back on it now, it seems clear that Kaczynski instinctively knew catastrophe was looming and, more importantly, realized that it would come in large part because of our fetishization of a nonexistent, utopic past. 

That aspect of Kaczynski’s vision, both as a comics creator and a comics curator, is most explicit in the opening story of Cartoon Dialectics #3, “Trump and Nostalgia,” created with Jetsmark for The Nib in October of 2016, shortly before the election when most experts emphatically stated Trump had no real hope of winning. Rather than tackle Trump’s prospects as a candidate, “Trump and Nostalgia” bluntly examines his now ubiquitous slogan at face value, wondering when the “Again” aspect actually refers to.
For most of the past couple years, The Nib has been a toothless, overly simplistic purveyor of progressive editorial cartoons, and though “Trump and Nostalgia” certainly doesn’t erase that history, it does serve as a reminder of what the publication is capable of when it is at its best. Avoiding the trap of merely stating some variation of “America has never been great/has not yet achieved greatness,” “Trump and Nostalgia” achieves the twin goals of proving the slogan’s vagueness is a core part of its success because it allows the target audience to fill in the blank themselves, and that for Trump, in particular, it hearkens back to the Reagan era both in terms of the semantics (it was lifted wholesale from a Reagan speech) and in terms of when Trump’s dog whistle politics actually became mainstream.

The stark but emotive art helps the complexity of the “Trump and Nostalgia” arguments land with minimal effort. This is notable because even now, Democratic and Republican leadership try to argue that Trump’s approach to politics is new and unexpected, and that we must listen to his rabid base in order to appease them. In a mere 14 laid-back pages, Kaczynski and Jetsmark not only destroy that claim, they did so before the election even happened. The nostalgia half of the title, therefore, doesn’t just critique the bigots who voted in Trump, but it also critiques Democrats and Republicans both for nostalgizing a nonexistent time when politics were “clean” and naively falling prey to bad faith opponents.
The follow-up to “Trump and Nostalgia”  in Cartoon Dialectics #3, simply titled “Nostalgia,” has Kaczynski expertly laying out the culture-wide retromania that set the stage for our utopian aspirations to break down. Rougher in linework and more lecturely than Kaczynski’s usual material, “Nostalgia” nonetheless moves at a brisk pace as it details nostalgia’s growth from an actual malady afflicting touring Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century to its modern development as a viral, commercialized impulse. 

While it recycles some quotes and panels from “Trump and Nostalgia,” the section waxes more philosophical than historical, weaving in quotes from cultural theorists Svetlana Boym and Simon Reynolds, the latter of whom coined the term “retromania” specifically in regards to music but, as Kaczynski shows, it’s a useful theory for everything from politics to comics’ own terminal nostalgia infliction
Kaczynski also connects Boym and Reynolds’ work to Alvin Toffler’s “future shock” theory which essentially states that as we become more technologically advanced, we will suffer a kind of cultural shock that will prompt many of us to latch on to regressive ideas and lash out at intelligence in general. Kaczynski’s style is perfectly suited to illustrating this phenomenon, with his lines seamlessly transitioning between architectural precision and scribbled looseness to drive home the escalating divisions between thought and feeling. 

Later in Cartoon Dialectics #3, in “The Nostalgic-Critical Method: Praxis,” Kaczynski even provides some yoga-esque suggestions for recognizing and controlling your nostalgic impulses as they happen. The key, according to Kaczynski, is to allow yourself to notice the nostalgia as it appears and then isolate the memory triggered by it rather than simply giving in to the compulsion to purchase goods related to the nostalgia.

That’s likely what Kaczynski is doing on some level with “Skyway Sleepless,” the fictional yet personal story that makes up the entire second half of Cartoon Dialectics. Set in a near-future city where people can live in “skyways,” bridge communities situated above and between streets that function a bit like terrestrial space stations, “Skyway Sleepless” is a love letter to Kaczynski’s own past as an architecture student. More specifically, it’s an intense and deep interrogation of Kaczynski’s internal architect/artist conflict.

One of the first interactions in “Skyway Sleepless” is between the protagonist and Professor Ecke, who calls the protagonist his “best pupil” before immediately lamenting his protege’s choice to never become an architect. Prof. Ecke’s missing arm makes it clear he’s modeled on famed Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson, head of the University of Minnesota architecture program from 1954 to 1984. Kaczynski told me in that interview in 2013, before “Skyway Sleepless” was originally published, that Rapson’s academic interactions with Kaczynski, as well as his contributions to the aesthetic of Minnesota, had caused a fictional version of Rapson to loom large in his stories.

But “Skyway Sleepless” seems to confront Rapson’s influence on Kaczynski’s art far more directly than anything in Kaczynski’s other material, portraying Ecke as both a genius mentor and a villain of sorts, while the unnamed protagonist struggles to find his own identity within what is essentially Ecke’s city. “Skyway Sleepless” also provides an impressive platform for Kaczynski’s Escher-like tendencies, the titular setting twisting into physical and mental labyrinths, with Ecke at the center, putting the citizens to sleep as part of some grand artistic statement.

Architecture and urban design are really interesting to me, because that's where we live and that's where we form our character, our ideas,” Kaczynski explained to me back then in our interview, stating that architecture is “something that we don't know overtly and we struggle with it, and if we knew what it was maybe we wouldn't struggle so much.” 

That struggle is at the core of “Skyway Sleepless,” as the protagonist appears to lose his grip on reality as a result of probing it. But on the meta-level, it’s Kaczynski’s application of his own Nostalgic-Critical Method that is the driving force, isolating the memory of the person who had an influence on his meta-city fiction and confronting it rather than seeking out the more immediate pleasure of, say, a model of one of Rapson’s designs.

The resolution at the end of “Skyway Sleepless” is as nebulous and mysterious as the nostalgic blob Kaczynski cutely drops into random panels, squeezing its way out of definitively stating whether the revived interest in Ecke’s design work is good or bad. But it fits perfectly with the question connecting all of Cartoon Dialectics: why do we keep returning to certain places, certain culture, certain objects, even when we know they won’t fix anything and might actually make things worse? And it’s even more fitting that Cartoon Dialectics offers no real answer, except that perhaps to overcome our past, we must look ahead more often than we look behind.


You put the book down. You look at the old posters on the walls. The vinyl gathering dust in the corner. The trinkets on the shelves. You pick up the Nostalgic Blob print. You smirk. You stick it to the fridge. You stare at it. It reminds you of one of the ghosts that would chase Pac-Man in the arcade cabinet at the pizza place you used to go to after school. You wonder if maybe you can buy it as an enamel pin. 


Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Your Chicken Enemy as well as at Comicosity, Loser City and Ovrld, the latter of which focuses on the Austin music scene. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover

Friday, July 6, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/29/18 to 7/6/18

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


* Rob Clough looks at GODA #1 - 2 by Goda Trakumaite and says, "Trakumaite yanks the reader by the hand into her world, and the reader simply has to take in each page on her terms."

* James Smart has this short review of THE STRANGE by Jérôme Ruillier in which he writes "The simple colours and economically drawn animals might suggest innocence, but threats lurk on every page in a compelling account of life on society’s edge. "

* Angelica Frey on WHY ART? by Eleanor Davis, saying "Davis actually lives up to the high bar of her title, eschewing a “philosophy 101” approach to answer the question in her own clever manner."

* John Seven reviews THE WINNER by Karl Stevens, wherein he writes "Stevens might be presenting this as autobiography, but it’s really the examination of a duality that is crucial to his mode of creation."

* Robin Enrico looks at PINKY AND PEPPER FOREVER by Ivy Atoms, calling it "a work that charms the reader so as to disarm them, allowing it to be all the more cutting in its critique."

* Frank Young reviews EARTHA by Cathy Malkasian, saying "Despite the narrative clichés—country vs. city, fish out of water, the evil empire that must be toppled—Eartha surprises the reader with its loving deviations from the genre ticker-tape. Malkasian enjoys building scenes around cranky, self-absorbed characters. Virtuous or villainous, Eartha’s cast relishes their opportunities to vent their spleens, ramble about the events of the past or pass time with chit-chat."

* Scott Cederlund reviews YOUNG FRANCES by Harley Lin, writing "Crafting an incredibly rich cast around Frances, we get to know her through her experiences, being able to share her story with her rather than just reading it from the distance between eye and page."

* Andy Oliver on Laurel Pettitt's QUIET MOMENTS, "what is so intriguing here is that we are often asked to create our own wider narrative concerning each sequence; to not just fill in those spaces between the panels but the one that exists around them as well."


* B. David Zarley has this kind of strange, stilted email interview with NICK DRNASO.

* Corissa Haury conducts a round-table discussion under the title HIRING CREATORS: INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS HAVE A CHAT, featuring Taneka Stotts (founder of Beyond Press), Steenz Stewart (Associate Editor of Lion Forge), Marcos Martin (co-founder of Panel Syndicate), Spike Trotman (founder of Iron Circus Comics), and Michael Sanchez (Editorial Director of Scout Comics).

* Philippe LeBlanc is back with his (extremely thorough and very Canadian) SMALL PRESS AND INDIE COMICS GALORE roundup on The Beat.

* Andy Oliver has a preview of BROKEN FRONTIER SMALL PRESS YEARBOOK 2018 which you should all go a pre-order now.

* Andrea Shockling has a new chapter of SUBJECTIVE LINE WEIGHT that is pretty spectacular. This one was written by Casey Gilly and adapted and drawn by Shockling.


* David Sax has a short essay up on Tablet called NOT JEWISH: THE INTERNET which tries to explain "Why any worthwhile Jewish experience will always be analog, not digital."

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: LAWNS by Alex Nall

And I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The often mythologized “small town America living” can be suffocating. The idea that everywhere you go, you end up running into someone you know, and that particular someone knows you too, gives a person living in a small town very little room to develop or hide or recreate. You end up being the person you’ve always been in everyone else’s eyes. Any attempt to step outside of the box that others have put you in is hamstrung the moment the stride begins.

Small towns all across America also mask as many human horrors as any urban setting can conjure, and the idealized safety they supposedly engender only makes the realization of this horror all that more powerful. 

Such is the stuff of great swaths of American artistic endeavor. From Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to Grant Wood’s American Gothic to David Baker’s “The Truth about Small Towns” to the comics of Nick Drnaso, these explorations of the unsettling underbelly of small town life tend to deliver a larger truth about the hopes and dreams of people in general, but Americans in particular. When an artist delves into the mythologies of a society and lays bare the truth about its inherent ugliness, their art becomes political as much as it is an exercise in either aesthetics or emotional understanding.

So it is with Alex Nall’s newest comic, LAWNS, published by Kilgore Books.

The blurb on the back of Lawns reads, “Lawns is the story of a small town mayoral election gone awry. As public tension mounts over the strange behavior of one of its citizens, the town's prejudices, fears, and hidden pasts are revealed to showcase an American landscape that may be all too familiar”. 

In 108 pages of black and white cartooning, Nall explores issues surrounding rural living. Poverty and economic collapse are at the center of this exploration, but Nall expands out into issues of abuse, power, mental health, and isolation -- each circle forming a rippling Venn Diagram that is the constant truth of modern America. As wealth and power congeal in the hands of the few, huge parts of the country are left scratching its head and stabbing fingers of unfocused anger into the faces of anyone less powerful than they. Capitalism feeds upon its underclass, churning it up like chum in a shark tank while distracting it with false dreams of social mobility, the comforts of the aesthetics of conformity, and the shiny allure of gimcracks and gewgaws.

There is, therefore, a certain nobility to the individual who refuses to mow his or her lawn. There is, perhaps, a certain dignity in the act of letting one’s dog run free in the woods. To step out of the expected flow of behavior in an existence that prospers through acquiescence is nothing if not a political act. The ramifications for doing so can be ostracising or even dangerous, especially in a small town where the dictates of compliance are drawn in the same ink as the boundaries on the map. In Lawns, Nall lets all this unfold through simultaneous narratives and an open cartooning style that relies on negative space to create tension and timing.

As corporate engineered divisiveness seems to be the status quo in an ever-diminishing America, Alex Nall’s voice is almost a mirror reflecting upon itself, a diatribe in a language so familiar it almost ceases to be understood. And yet, in a country where red hats glare at rainbow flags and the dominant culture sees itself under attack while perpetuating the very system that keeps it in power, Nall’s becomes a voice that deserves amplification, if only to maybe be heard above the screams of a country in the midst of stabbing itself in its heart.

Monday, July 2, 2018

For the Record: Seeing is Disbelieving -- Sara L. Jewell reviews SABRINA by Nick Drnaso

 My new book Sabrina comes out today.
There will be a release event at Quimby’s in Chicago this Thursday, the 24th. I’ll be having a conversation with my friend Jessica Campbell and signing books.
I’ll be a guest at CAKE the following weekend, where...

What is the function of a record? To what extent does any record – the video of a murder, a mental health survey form, a graphic novel, even – operate as a trustworthy document of reality in an age of doctored videos and fake news? If fiction teaches anything, it’s first that a deftly crafted story can sometimes feel more real than reality itself, more real than what goes on beneath the ever-darkening political cloud over contemporary America – a shadow beneath which, increasingly, all media is consumed.

Much has been written about Sabrina, in the short span since its release – coupled with a back-cover blurb from Zadie Smith calling the book a masterpiece, expectations run high as you dive into this topical, arresting book, author Nick Drnaso’s follow-up to LA Times Book Prize-winning Beverly. Sabrina is a record of something, that much is sure. Superficially, it’s a record of the emotional fallout of the kind of highly publicized, viral violence carried out by men with Reddit manifestos against the innocent and therefore vulnerable. But beneath the surface, Sabrina is a book of implications, in both senses of the word – Drnaso is a master of suggestion, and, in many places, he implicates the reader as a member of a society that has a morbid and enduring fascination with senseless, brutal violence.

Sabrina’s visual style lies somewhere between Chris Ware’s meticulous drawings and an airplane safety pamphlet: flat colors, attenuated but uniform lines, people whose expressions rarely deviate from neutral affability. The moments when their expressions do change are leant a certain gravitas in contrast. Drnaso’s economical drawings belie the profusion of deliberate detail in Sabrina.
The book opens on its eponymous character with her sister, Sandra. Their conversation is quotidian and genial. Sabrina fluctuates between long, silent stretches of characters engaged with mundane daily tasks and authentic dialogue. The opposition of fake vs. real is introduced early and subtly in these first few pages – Sandra picks up fruit from a bowl, and remarks that she’d forgotten they were fake – Sabrina admits to repainting them. “Don’t they look real?” she asks, pleased at the tiny deception. The moment is small, and the narrative moves steadily past it, but like so many details in Sabrina, it wants us to question the potential for harm in every comfortable domestic veneer. Sandra asks Sabrina if she would accompany her on a lengthy bike trip around the Great Lakes in the coming spring. Sabrina, while drawn in by the chance to get away from the city and the internet, initially expresses some doubts about the dangers of precipitous cliffs and wild animals. Sandra counters with an anecdote about being away from home at nineteen and being stalked and sexually harassed by three men who were “out hunting”. “Don’t worry about riding a bike through the woods,” she tells Sabrina ominously, “the fucking wild animals stay in hotels.”
This statement foreshadows Sabrina’s subsequent disappearance and death at the hands of a man who lives a block away from her, but it also implies that the danger, the real danger, lies not in the natural world but rather in the fabric of American culture itself. The danger is men, men who look harmless, but like a painted ersatz apple, are not at all what they seem.

Toxic masculinity underscores everything in Sabrina – it is not insignificant that it is an innocent woman who is the victim of Timothy Yancey, a man who went on “long vitriolic rants” on MRA message boards, whose suicide note is a long list of his favorite movies, and who lived a block away from Sabrina but didn’t actually know her. In the video of Sabrina’s murder, which we never see, Yancey characterizes her death as a “means to an end” so that his voice will be heard “above the din of chatter”. “No one,” Yancey laments in the video’s preamble “is going to enjoy this less than me”. But just as for the viewers who can’t help but click on the snuff film Yancey makes, enjoyment is hardly the point.

As the news of Sabrina’s disappearance turns to the news of her death on tape, her grieving boyfriend Teddy isolates himself completely from the outside world and even from Calvin, his estranged childhood friend, host, and only companion during his private unraveling. Teddy’s sole, distorted window into the world becomes a conspiracy-theorist with a talk radio program, to the point that we wonder if he, like Yancey, will lash out randomly and violently against the duplicity and ignorance they have come to see as inherent in the outside world, lurking beneath the facade of normalcy. In a particularly brilliant set of pages, Drnaso draws a beautiful visual parallel between Calvin reaching for a doorknob and Teddy raising a knife. In both Yancey and Teddy, we witness the nadir of toxic masculinity in two men who have come to see violence as literally the only way that they can express themselves and connect – Yancey because he believes that his violent act will finally draw attention to him (as it does) and Teddy, who cannot find or imagine any place for his grief and anger at Sabrina’s pointless and horrific death.  

This exploration of isolation engendered by the weird entanglements of the public and private are explored through Sandra as well. Like a teen who’d rather toss Snaps into the void than talk to a friend one-on-one, Sabrina’s sister feels more comfortable delivering her story to a crowd of strangers than talking privately with her close friend. She eventually excoriates Teddy for failing to connect to her as someone wading through the same trauma, perhaps the only person who really understands.
Calvin tries meanwhile to keep a handle on his own degenerating situation. He’s a “boundary technician” working a desk job in the air force, estranged from his ex-wife and young daughter. Each workday he fills out a mental health survey that asks him to rate his stress level and the likeliness of suicidal ideation by filling in bubbles. Drnaso takes this opportunity to explore the toxic conflation of mental illness and weakness as it relates to masculine identity. Like many men who perceive asking for help, especially with mental health issues, as an unacceptable sign of weakness, Calvin never writes on the lines below that ask him to elaborate on his answers, never asks to speak with a clinical psychologist, even when he inevitably fills out the bubbles for highest stress, lowest mood, greatest risk. Calvin and Teddy occupy the same house for most of the book, and they both grapple with depression, loss, and anxiety, but they never have a meaningful conversation about it. Drnaso conveys their states of mind through body language, long silences, a sense of building tension and desperation.

Sabrina warns us of the consequence of a toxic culture that has impressed on men that they must never connect genuinely and nonviolently with other people because there is nothing more emasculating than vulnerability. What is the function of a record? Sabrina suggests that a record exists not to tell us an absolute truth, but to give us an idea of where we went wrong. Where we looked in the wrong places for fidelity, where we sought a balm but found poison - where we might have trusted someone, talked to them, connected face-to-face, but instead we told, wrote, showed, or read a short-term, comforting lie and withdrew into ourselves.  It is an unsettling, important, and painfully relevant book in 2018.  
Sara L. Jewell is a freelance writer, artist, comic creator, and educator based in New Jersey. You can find her at or rambling on twitter @1_saraluna. All email inquiries can be sent to