Saturday, December 8, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 12/1/18 to 12/7/18

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


* Sarah Horrocks reviews GRAVE HORTICULTURE #1 by Paul Jon Milne " in which, through a tornado of iridescent regressions, progressions, and digressions, Milne sets out to tell the story of a phantasmic group of ghouls tasked with that age old problem of a world under cosmographic threat."

* Alenka Figa looks at CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts, writing "Roberts’ work will delight readers interested in humorous meditations on illness and its effect on everyday life."

* Alex Hoffman reviews THINGS GO WRONG #1 by Jason Bradshaw, " a remarkably nihilistic comic that seems to be less about some strange parasite than about chronic depression, a disease that’s very common." He also reviews BY MONDAY I'LL BE FLOATING IN THE HUDSON WITH THE OTHER GARBAGE by Laura Lannes which is "both heartbreaking and very funny, and that combination exacts a higher emotional toll from the reader. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower."

* Scott Cederlund reviews LITTLE LEAGUES VOLUME ONE by Simon Moreton, "a wonderful record of October 2018, creating an impression of Moreton’s life during those days without creating a mere journal of his experiences during that trip." 

* Matt Seneca looks at OUTDOORS by Yuichi Yokoyama which "has a theme that can be broadly stated and tracked down without much difficulty: that of man versus nature. But this isn't Hemingway - the "versus" according to Yokoyama indicates not a moment in time or a flashpoint of conflict so much as a constantly evolving process of mutual accommodation."

* Kim Jooha on the work of SAMMY STEIN, who "is at the forefront of the new French Abstract Formalist Comics (or French Structural Comics), which employ minimalist, geometric, and graphic style with abstract narratives focusing on the formal structure of comics, similar to Structural Films from the 1970s."

* Kevin Bramer on MY PRETTY VAMPIRE by Katie Skelly.

* Dominic Umile on some of the work of cartoonist KARL STEVENS.


* Annie Mok interviews YUMI SAKUGAWA.

* Gil Roth interviews SUMMER PIERRE.

* Dakota McFadzean has a comic on The New Yorker site called THE REVOLUTION WILL ALSO BE VEGAN.

* Tara Booth comic on Vice called S.A.D. LAMP.

* Joe Decie has a comic up on Popula called IT'S NOT A LIE.

* Mimi Pond has a comic up on Topic called WHEN THE MENOPAUSE CARNIVAL COMES TO TOWN.

* Churning out those Top Ten lists! Here's Ryan Carey's FOUR COLOR APOCALYPSE 2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: TOP TEN SINGLE ISSUES as well as his picks for TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS.

* An interesting mix marks THE 25 BEST COMIC BOOKS OF 2018 over on Paste.

* Steve Morris asked "Almost 100 comic critics ... to submit their personal choice of the Top Ten Single Issues they’ve ever read" and is compiling one bonkers list called THE TOP 100 COMIC BOOK ISSUES

* Margaret Crocker has a poem on As It Ought To Be called THE ART OF ACQUIESCENCE.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Hearth And Home: Rob Clough reviews RETROGRADE ORBIT by Kristyna Baczynski

Kristyna Baczynski's debut book, Retrograde Orbit (published by Avery Hill), asks the question, what is home for an immigrant? This is obviously a timely issue, but Baczynski is able to bring this science-fiction story to life on its own terms, not just as a metaphor.

Immigration stories are personal narratives, handed down across generations. That's one reason why they're so effective and also why a story about one family can stand in for many others. The more specific the details, the more relatable it can be. That's because even though cultural details vary from group to group, what is true is that every culture has its own particular set of practices, beliefs, food, and overarching practices. Specificity is crucial because it allows different cultures to simply substitute their own details when thinking about the story, whereas a more generic story doesn't have that kind of hook.

Retrograde Orbit is about three generations of women from a planet called Doma. The grandmother (Baba) had to flee as a child because of a nuclear war. As the story begins, her daughter has just left her husband and took her young daughter with her. The girl is named Flint and has an affinity for her never-seen home planet that draws rebukes from her teachers and scorn from her classmates. Flint's mom has a job as a miner and later gets her daughter a job as one as well. Flint's mom is the sort of person who lives in the moment, making the best of her life. Doma was never home to her. Flint, on the other hand, feels unmoored and nostalgic for something she never even experienced, and this creates the book's central conflict. 
Baczynski’s main storytelling device is jumping through time a few years from chapter to chapter, accompanied by a color shift. It's a clever device, since it's a literal redshift, starting from green, going to teal, to light purple, to dark purple, to red-purple and then to red. Redshift occurs when observing an object moving away from the observer. In this case, the color shift is a reflection of the way Flint starts distancing herself from her adopted planet and everyone on it, but most especially her mother. 

Flint experiments with a number of different paths in trying to find herself. She spends time with her best friend and his family but realizes that she'll never truly be one of them. She sleeps around some and clearly finds that to be unsatisfying. She studies texts about Doma in secret, but that only makes her yearn for it more. She reaches out to her father and realizes that he's not going to help with that yearning in her heart, either. That redshift starts to stretch, and it's not just stretching out over time. She's being stretched further and further away from feeling rooted and centered. Flint wants to go home and find her purpose, but that seems like an impossible dream. 
The turning point of the book is when Flint learns that workers get communication credits, something that her mother kept from her. Flint resents this but also understands that her mom didn't want her trying to contact dead air, night after night--which is exactly what Flint does. The one moment in the book that feels contrived is the dramatic moment when Flint's mother and grandmother scrape up the money to help Flint get her own place, an act which would mean setting down roots. At that very moment, Flint hears a voice over her communicator, indicating that life survived on Doma. This scene feels contrived because Baczynski is so careful to avoid that kind of coincidence in the rest of the book, as Flint was trying to find meaning in her life. Having this pop up just as she faces a life-altering decision feels too convenient. That she then wavers on going to Doma feels even more contrived, until her mother gives her the money to go because "It's for a place of your own. Wherever that is." This is a nice sentiment that repairs the gap between them, but it once again feels a bit pat after her mother's opposition throughout the book.

Baczynski's stylish art is key in establishing the emotional and chronological narratives. While the colors in Retrograde Orbit are beautiful and play a key part of the story's emotional narrative, Baczysnki's clear-line style is gorgeous on page after page. That's especially true regarding her character design, as she clearly thought out the appearance of the many alien races that appear in the book. The warmth of her storytelling is stretched by the weirdness of so many of the different races, which is indeed something that was central to the story's metaphor. While Flint faces prejudice from others growing up, Baczynski makes it clear that this isn’t why Flint wants to leave. Indeed, Flint is happy with her friendships and relationships. She just isn’t happy overall with her life. Like the title of the book suggests, everyone on the planet goes one way and she goes in the opposite direction. It isn’t her choice to be born on this world, but she is given the choice to return to her roots. Baczynski also makes it clear that this decision is a personal one on the part of Flint, not the "right" one. Her mother is happy on her new planet. It is home to her. The question at hand is one of choice and fit, and in the end, both characters find that fit.
If the climax feels contrived, then the denouement finds Baczynski righting the ship. There's a beautiful series of pages as Flint hops from planet to planet, showing off on a grander scale the kind of detail Baczynski has packed into every page. Baczysnki's line is put into service to make Flint's adopted world feel lived in. It is jammed with the sort of detail that can make cities come alive, from the utilitarian shape of buildings to vegetation to job sites. It is mundane detail for the most part, but Baczynski nailed the confusion on the part of Flint's mom as to why her daughter wants to leave because there is so much there to enjoy. The end of Retrograde Orbit reunites Flint with her mother, but it also reinforces what they both already know: that home is a different place for each of them. 

Home is not just where they live, but it also means the kind of life they want to lead. 
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

Monday, December 3, 2018

When "Chug, Crush, Toss" Fails: Rob Clough reviews RX by Rachel Lindsay

What does living with bipolar disorder look like?

Formerly known as "manic-depression", this disorder is becoming part of the greater overall comics literature regarding mental health, which is in itself part of the Graphic Medicine movement. Graphic Medicine is the embodiment of the idea that there are no illnesses--only sick people. Every sick person has their own unique narrative with regard to how they experience serious illness and treatment. The function of these stories is to reduce a sense of isolation, and for the reader (and author) to feel seen and understood. Mental illness, in particular, can be especially isolating given its invisibility and the taboos that still exist in our culture with regard to talking about it openly. 

Bipolar can have periods of intense, paralyzing lows. There are occasions when simply getting out of bed is an act of supreme will. The periods of mania are often accompanied by feelings of being out of control, or worse: a feeling of total but misplaced confidence leading to impulsive behavior. For a layman who doesn't have this illness, reading multiple accounts of its effects by people of different backgrounds and ages is crucially important. Bipolar is one of many issues that Keiler Roberts addresses in her comics for example, and she makes it clear that for her, it's the depressive episodes that are the most devastating. For Lawrence Lindell, who doesn't have access to therapy or medication, it's the mania that's the biggest problem. He copes through art, music, and connecting to his community. Ellen Forney, on the other hand, took the illness head-on and has made it the focus of her career. She first wrote a book about how she came to her diagnosis, her initial resistance to treatment, and her gradual improvement. Her second book was about coping strategies for people with bipolar.

Rachel Lindsay's experience with bipolar is also quite different. In her harrowing, frequently hilarious and thought-provoking memoir Rx, Lindsay tells a tale not just about having bipolar but also being forced to live one's life in such a way that it's all about maintaining one's sanity in exchange for happiness. Lindsay's storytelling holds nothing back, especially with regard to her own behavior. It opens with a sardonic sequence in a hospital where she's trying to convince a psychiatrist not to commit her, the calmness of her narrative belied by the images accompanying each panel. It's an opening salvo indicative of the helplessness and sense of betrayal she felt by being institutionalized against her will. 
Lindsay then backs up and informs the reader that she got her diagnosis at the age of nineteen, which led her to abandon her plans of being an itinerant artist in order to become an advertising executive. As a patient, she did everything "right": she took her meds, she saw her therapist, and she got a job with the kind of insurance that would allow her to buy medicine and pay a therapist. There's a series of visuals and sound effects accompanying the ritual of medicine that she repeated throughout the book: chug, crush (the small cup of water), toss (the cup into the trash). Her thick, clean line throughout the book has a frenetic energy that's sort of a cross between Roberta Gregory and MAD's Don Martin. It's highly emotionally expressive, especially when conveying negative emotions, but it's also rubbery and absurd. Her gags are barbed, revealing dark truths about herself and the world around her even as she encourages the reader to laugh at them.

Lindsay's job was in advertising, helping to develop various commercials and campaigns. One day, she was rewarded with a promotion that took her to the pharmaceutical wing. She was assigned an antidepressant campaign with a drug designed to treat her very symptoms. Lindsay was great at her job in part because she was intimately familiar with the effects of the drugs of the client's competitors. However, the further she got into the process of crafting these campaigns, observing focus groups of depressed people and realizing how much of the advertising hit her hard, the more triggering it became. Mental health was no longer a positive goal for her, but rather a prison. She railed against the "puppet masters" of advertising to her friends. She began, with a word choice I found interesting, her "ascent" into madness. 

It's a word that makes sense for someone going through a severe manic phase: the sensation of spiraling upward. She isolated herself from friends, family, and relationships. She started spending recklessly. She developed insomnia. These are all classic manic symptoms, but she didn't perceive it as such because she felt entirely justified to feel this way given her job and her overall unhappiness with her life--and in many ways, she wasn't wrong. It all came crashing down one day when she quit her job out of the blue, declaring that she was going to go to Arizona to pursue her dream of being an artist. Human resources called her parents, who tracked her down and called the police to take her to the hospital. There's an image in Rx of Lindsay running away from the restaurant where her parents confronted her and her father tackling her that's haunting. Lindsay lingers on that image and returns to it a couple of times without specific comment, but it is clearly symbolic of the ultimate loss of bodily authority and self-determination. 
The scenes in the hospital depict the sheer boredom, loneliness, despair, and anger engendered by stays in such facilities. Psychiatric hospitals are not designed to help people get better; their only real function is to ensure that the patient has demonstrated that they are not an immediate threat to themselves or others. Getting out is a matter of playing the game and doing what you're told, and Lindsay ostentatiously and often hilariously had no interest in playing that game. From frequent outbursts and swearing at doctors & nurses, she bitterly protested her presence there even as she knew she was hurting her own cause. The way that Lindsay writes it makes sense because not wanting to play the game was entirely consistent with how she got there in the first place. Toward the end, she talks about how she did everything "right" (therapy, meds, job) and still wound up in the hospital. She resents what she saw as a waste of her time, as she struggled to balance her mania with genuine insights into her condition, especially as they relate to her old job. 

Lindsay does note the one positive thing about hospital life: she got her guitar and art supplies, which meant she finally had the time to play and draw all she wanted. She had no other responsibilities getting in the way, nor any work taking up her brain-space. When she finally broke down and contacted her parents, she did it because she had no other choice, not because there was a fake, emotional narrative where she had an epiphany. Even years later, when Lindsay was in a better place in every sense of the phrase, she reveals in the book that revenge was a significant motivational factor for wanting to write it. The irony that being hospitalized indirectly led to doing exactly what she wanted to do all along is not lost on her. Though Lindsay concludes the book with a number of positive updates about her life, one can't escape the scorched-earth qualities of this book.
What does living with bipolar disorder look like for Rachel Lindsay? It's about anger, first and foremost. Lindsay is angry at her therapist (there is an especially unflattering drawing of him), her parents, her old job, the staff and doctors at the hospital, and the disorder itself. She is angry at being locked into a job that made her worse even as it was paying for her therapy. She is angry at having her freedom and autonomy taken away. She is angry at having her illness and hospitalization exposed to others without her consent or knowledge. She is angry at not having the opportunity to try to live her own life, on her own terms--no matter how hard that could be. This book is about expressing that anger so she can finally feel something else and find ways to engage in meaningful self-care (including medication) without sacrificing the integrity and autonomy that she desperately craves. Lindsay is unflinching in revealing her own mistakes, expressing her anger openly while acknowledging her mania, and finding ways to laugh at it all. Lindsay does this with a barrage of visual and verbal gags that reveal a bold comedic sensibility combined with a raw, steadfast commitment to emotional honesty.   
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

Saturday, December 1, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 11/24/18 to 11/30/18

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


* After a long absence, Leon K. is back writing about comics, this time turning an eye to the world of YA comics with a look at RETURN TO HOUNDSTOOTH COLLEGE by Catriona Drummond, noting "With its honing in on the specific liminal moment between adolescence and adulthood where one is forced to come to terms with the chimera that is the pull towards an idealised, supposedly simpler period of one’s former youth, Houndstooth is a coming-of-age story that fits into the last decade’s swell of comics-form fiction created to cater to the relevant issues and concerns faced by readers perched on the verge of adulthood – I’m thinking specifically of the output exemplified by publishers like First Second or Scholastic – but which pitches itself to an audience who can identify with the perspective of someone looking backwards, parsing their memories of the disappeared moments from their time spent on this precipice."

* John Seven reviews WOLF by Rachael Ball which "finds the people forced into change typically learn to adapt, and people faced with darkness typically learn how to live with it."

* Ryan Carey looks at UNDERSTANDING by Becca Tobin, writing "Artifice, acquisition, and gluttony are easy enough concepts to shower with disdain, of course, especially when they become ritualized norms, but Understanding does something entirely different by acknowledging the inherent appeal of this ritualization while refusing to either take it too seriously or let it off the hook."

* Rob Clough reviews FRONTIER #17: MOTHER'S WALK by Lauren Weinstein, writing "Weinstein's commitment to being present with her fears and dreams in the moment was a constant on every page, anchoring its flights of fancy with almost painfully visceral images."

* Kevin Bramer reviews GOITER #3 by Josh Pettinger


* Abraham Riesman interviews OLIVIA JAIMES, the cartoonist creating the new Nancy strips, "about the secret origin of her much-memedSluggo is lit” panel, the contents of her iPhone notes about strip ideas, and the overlap between “Nancy” and The Good Place."

* Robin McConnell interviews LEIF GOLDBERG "about his new book from 2dcloud, Lost In The Fun Zone. We also cover a range of work including his time in Fort Thunder, recent mini comics, yearly calendars and animation."

* Jennifer Hayden interviews MARIA AND PETER HOEY about their Coin-Op series.

Derek Royal and Stergios Botzakis interview KATRIONA CHAPMAN about her amazing new book from Avery Hill, Follow Me In.

* Alex Dueben interviews DAVID SMALL about his new book, Home After Dark, "its long process, and his love of irresolution."

* Karl Stevens has a comic up on The New Yorker site called A CAT LIES IN WAIT.

* There's a new Seo Kim comic on Vice called HOW TO TRICK YOUR CATS.

* And a new Tara Booth comic on Vice called HOROSCOPE.

* Joseph Dottino has a comic up on The Believer site called THE BAKER.

* Not comics, but it is Nick Hanover, and he's written this wonderful and personal piece for The Cultural Gutter called WALKING ARM IN ARM WITH A LIE: VELVET GOLDMINE AT 20.

* It's Starting! It's "Best Of" Season! There have probably been others, but the first one I've seen out in the wild is on the AV Club site. Oliver Sava and Caitlin Rosberg provide an interesting mix of comics big and small (and web) in their THE BEST COMICS OF 2018.

* Matt O'Keefe writes this informative piece for The Beat titled THE FRAUD PHENOMENON: HOW IMPOSTER SYNDROM PLAGUES CREATIVES.

* And finally, this long THREAD by Evan Dorkin kinda broke my heart this week.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Four New Books from Avery Hill Publishing for 2019 Announced

Avery Hill Publishing has announced news about four publications for 2019!

Desolation Wilderness
By Claire Scully
32 pages, full color
Release date: June 13, 2019

Desolation Wilderness is part of an ongoing project looking at landscape and memory – our relationship with the environment, effects we have on the world and space around us, and, in turn, its profound effect on our own memory and emotions. Each of these landscapes is a starting point to a much bigger adventure that strives to answer the question of what lays beyond the horizon.

This book is the second part of a series that began in Internal Wilderness, Scully's piece from 2016 that examined memory and imagination through visual ideas and explored the idea that within the space on each sheet of paper, a world can be created either from a distant memory of a childhood holiday or from the desire to see parts of the world that for now are only dreamed about.

By Shanti Rai
100 pages, full color
Release date: June 13, 2019

Sennen’s life is mostly perfect – spending her days tending the fields in her idyllic village and her evenings with her beloved family, all tucked into the crook of a green and beautiful valley. And if it wasn’t for the masked figures descending from the hills with increasingly regularity to take their harvested food to deliver to their Gods, she’d have no worries at all. But when the demands for tribute strike closer to home, Sennen is forced to flee the paradise of her valley and venture into the home of the Gods to save her family and their way of life – only to discover that those we worship are not always what they seem, and the lives we lead are not always so simplistic after all.

Sennen, the debut graphic novel from British author and artist Shanti Rai, tells a timeless tale of adventure and the discoveries we make as we explore beyond the boundaries of our childhood into the uncertainty of the adult world.

Marble Cake
By Scott Jason Smith
108 pages, full color
Release date: June 13, 2019

Have you ever wished you could glimpse into the lives of strangers – those anonymous faces passed in the produce aisle of the local supermarket, those shadows lurking behind the closed curtains of their homes? Would you be surprised by the rich mixture of personalities, strange habits, and unexpected insecurities? Perhaps, like you, they’re also baking blind, with no recipe to follow. You might produce a perfect cake, or you might end up throwing the mix in the trash and starting again. And again. And again.

Marble Cake, the debut graphic novel from British author and artist Scott Jason Smith, cuts a slice through everyday life and takes a bite out of the layers concealed beneath the icing, all told with the acerbic wit and keen eye.

Internet Crusader
By George Wylesol
100 pages, full color
Release date: September 2019

Ever have one of those days where you're talking to a "smokin' hot chick" online and she turns out to be a robot working for an evil cult... and that "hot chick" sends a computer virus masked as dirty pictures... and that computer virus allows Satan to come through everyone's computers and hypnotize them... but the family computer has parental locks on it so you don't get the virus... and then God messages you to say you're the only person on earth who can save human existence? Anyway, that's the set up for this part art book, part graphic novel, and 100% true deep dive into early internet culture from the creator of Ghosts, Etc., George Wylesol!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Sifting Through Fiction and Truth: Scott Cederlund reviews FIELDER #1 by Kevin Huizenga

Have you ever sat at the edge of your bed in the morning, half awake and far more than half stuck in a dream?  Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before and your brain and muscles just did not want to work. They got you into a sitting up position but the rest was up to you without the energy to do anything but fall back down into your bed. Your mind was trying to will you up as it tries to organize the sensations around you. Even at that time in the morning, a nagging feeling that the day was already shot and you may just as well give up crept into the back of your mind. For the last number of years, Kevin Huizenga has been fascinated by sleep or, more precisely, the lack of sleep. His multi-year, six-issue series Ganges simulated all the jumbled thoughts that run through your head when you can’t sleep.  But for every sleepless night, there’s the morning when you need to get up and for that, Huizenga’s newest comic Fielder #1 is the cold dose of reality that reminds you that a peaceful sleep is still hours away as you have to get through a very real day.

In these pre-waking moments, our minds are capable of playing odd tricks on us.  For Huizenga, that odd trick is recreating an old Sam Glanzman comic in spirit if not in reality.  “Bona” riffs on old 1960s comics and sci-fi, telling the story of a modern scientific family trapped in the ancient past of Neanderthals and dinosaurs.  In a lot of his comics, Huizenga is fascinated with the language of comics, but in this opening story he seems far more interested in the straight out adventure of comics than any of his previous work has hinted at.  Glanzman’s Kona debuted in early 1962, three years later than the 1959 that Huizenga credits “Bona” as being from. While an easy detail to overlook in Fielder #1, that date discrepancy hints strongly at the cartoonist’s lack of desire to create a history of comics as opposed to cartooning a comic that explores what comics can do with history and the past.  All through this issue, Huizenga rewrites the history of comics, including his own history as a cartoonist in a later piece. As a storyteller, Huizenga is his own unreliable narrator. These are comics; they’re made up.  They draw inspiration from life, games, and other comics, but these aren’t life, games, or other comics. Huizenga synthesizes all of those, taking them in and working out his own neuroses on the comic page.

Alternating with the “Bona” stories, Huizenga returns to his Everyman character, Glenn Ganges.  Starting a new story, “Fielder, Michiana,” Huizenga seemingly picks up from where his last series, Ganges, left off and explores the disorientation of waking up after a troubled night of sleep.  For much of the story, Glenn sits at the edge of his bed, trying to will himself to stand up before his brain can even fully function.  The narrator turns our intrusion into Glenn’s morning into a Wild Kingdom episode, providing order for the reader and even encouragement to Glenn, as Huizenga’s drawings map out the disorientation and heaviness that come along with that waking tiredness.  Huizenga’s prose offers stability even as his drawings keep us as disoriented as the character. As we hear the calming, orderly words of the unseen narrator, Huizenga’s cartooning diagrams the restless heaviness and uncertainty that comes with waking up in the morning.  

But Fielder #1 isn’t history, nor is it autobiography, but at times Huizenga cartoons with such a personal voice that it’s hard not to imagine his long-time character Glenn Ganges as a slightly altered version of himself.  Part of that is a lingering effect from past Glenn Ganges comics, where Huizenga transferred some elements of his own life to the comic character. Glenn has never been Huizenga, but there are more than a few similarities between the cartoon and the cartoonist. It is easy to get mixed up between reality and fiction in parts of this comic as Huizenga draws from a personal perspective. But when you get beyond the need to classify parts of this as fiction and nonfiction (especially when it’s all fiction), you can start to see these stories not so much in the terms of comic narratives but as comic forms.  The “Bona” stories, a remixing of older comics, are one example of that form; the more personal Glenn Ganges stories are another example of the comic form. The “Fight and Run” stories, a game-logic type of story, are a third type.

“My Career in Comics,” the final story in this issue, blurs the lines the most between the forms of story.  Told by Glenn Ganges quite literally ruminating from his own grave, Glenn comes maybe the closest he is in this whole issue to being Huizenga himself.  “I started out drawing ‘minicomics’ in high school, inspired by the work of John Porcellino and Adrian Tomine…,” Glenn declares, echoing sentiments that Huizenga has expressed in some interviews of his own history.  The story starts out as the cartoonist looking back at his career, but it turns strange when Glenn recounts how, when remastering his old work in Photoshop, he became obsessed with drawing hair and how hair was depicted in comics.  The story recounts how the cartoonist, in the latter half of his career, found a new world of storytelling possibilities in his characters’ hairlines. It doesn’t really seem that far-fetched; maybe this really is Huizenga and maybe he is just way too much into drawing different types of hairstyles.  But eventually, Huizenga tips his hand. “... and the resource wars began.  Everything changed. Comics grew popular again as cheap, light entertainment for the soldier-citizens.  I still had old friends in the industry who threw fill-in work my way.”  The fiction of the story intrudes on our desire for this to be a story about Huizenga and his own life.

Huizenga knows just how much his Glenn Ganges stories are mistaken for autobiography, so now he is just messing with his readers’ minds.  Even earlier in the comic, in Glenn’s waking morning during “Fielder, Michiana,” Huizenga tosses off the line, “Sometimes people talk about him, what do they say?  Sometimes Glenn talks about himself and repeats certain words.  When I talk about Glenn, or— am I Glenn?”  As a cartoonist, Huizenga is an untrustworthy source of truth.  There was never a Bona comic, as he’s reworking a later comic by Sam Glanzman and twisting it.  Glenn Ganges isn’t Huizenga, or is he? Is there any truth to the cartoonist’s fascination with drawing hair?  In Huizenga’s comics, is there any need for or value to the truth?

Maybe the most honest Huizenga stories are his “Fight or Run” comics, usually featuring two characters who either fight or run.  The game-like simplicity to these rely purely on action and consequence, but that doesn’t stop Huizenga from using moving the characters McSkulls and Chopper around the pages like chess pieces, working within the constraints of the comic strip even as the strip becomes just another element of the story.  This “Fight or Run” comic turns into an experiment to break the panel-to-panel progression of a comic free from the restraints of plot to become a stream of conscious narrative. These comics are Huizenga cartooning without restraint. They feel like they’re crafted without the safety net of a plot and exist purely on an instinctual level for both the cartoonist and the reader.  As he does throughout the whole book, these stories are about the language of comics and how that language can distort our own perceptions until we’re wondering if we’re reading about something real or something purely made up.

Fielder #1 is a comic full of alternative facts as Huizenga reshifts the history of comics and his own history in comics to examine just how malleable the truth is in comics.  It’s not that the truth does not matter; it’s just that it doesn’t matter here. History and autobiography are just starting points for Huizenga. They are jumping off points for the act of creating stories, seeing how far you can push images to create fiction.  Kevin Huizenga’s Glenn Ganges stories begin in situations that are pulled from life, but instead of making simple autobio stories, Huizenga uses images to draw the essence of the experiences. He’s not simply reporting on an event that happened but is recreating the impression of the experience with words and pictures.  The stories in this comic work in your brain the same way that the same ways that dreams do; they feel so real at the moment, but when you look back on them you can see how the creative mind imposes its will on these impressions of reality.


Scott Cederlund is a recovering English literature major, spending the past 10 years writing about comics. Truthfully, he just doesn't know what to do with his time other than writing about comics. It's a sickness. He currently writes for Panel Patter. Scott can be found on Twitter.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Anxiety as Timelessness: Matt Vadnais reviews IN THE FUTURE, WE ARE DEAD by Eva Müller

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, college professor J.A.K. Gladney adopts a simple but radical philosophy in response to his profound fear of death: because all plots end in death, he strives for a life free from such literary entanglements. For the first twenty chapters of the book, the strategy works. Nothing that Gladney reports or observes in one chapter creates tension that follows him or his makeshift family into the next. Though the episodes are numbered, they resist the consequentialism of chapters; the days pass but they do not accrue. In the second section of the book, however, DeLillo disrupts Gladney’s routines and defense mechanisms by introducing an airborne toxic event that demands a single, extended chapter. Even after the weather changes, the threat passes, emergency management teams leave, the college town returns to its normal state of affairs, and DeLillo returns to shorter chapters, Gladney is no longer capable of seeing or describing his life in disconnected, isolated moments freed from causation; despite his best intentions, Gladney cannot help but acknowledge the passing of time as a narrative. He begins to plan and scheme, like any other protagonist, as he finds himself at the center of a more traditional story complete with a rising action, climax, and dénouement. Gladney seeks a means of actively confronting his fear of death at precisely the same pace that DeLillo succumbs to the conventions of the novel as a literary genre. 

Eva Müller’s fabulous poltergeist of a book, In the Future, We are Dead, makes no such concessions. Featuring an ostensibly autobiographical character who is every bit as anxious about and obsessed with death as DeLillo’s protagonist, Müller’s collection of nine “stories” – linked in rumination and obsession but neither by chronological nor narrative logic – successfully walls itself off from her own actual death by housing the inevitable in a prison of syntax that ensures it will never arrive: though the title understands that we, all of us, are dead, we are only dead in the future.
Like Gladney, Müller realizes that the real enemy facing someone obsessed with the finality of death is linear time; however, where Gladney is helpless to DeLillo’s authorial needs, Müller functions both as creator and character.  Müller, creator of the artifact that is In the Future, We are Dead, kindly accommodates her own needs as a character by disrupting, suspending, and otherwise thwarting temporality in a number of ways that also subvert the sequential and generic logic typically central to the creation of a comic book. Part of this disruption has to do with a use of form and structure not dissimilar from White Noise; Müller creates nine distinct sections but only numbers four of them, rendering the notion of “chapter” as ineffectual or at least incomplete. Likewise, Müller creates vignettes that, like DeLillo’s first twenty chapters, resist readers’ attempts to create a single story. However, by alternating between “chapters” that are black and white and “chapters” that feature five carefully controlled colors, Müller takes advantages of an element unavailable to DeLillo to draw attention to cycles and patterns of repetition while managing to do what DeLillo could not, fending off plot completely.

In addition to the formally innovative efforts to free her own story from temporality, Müller employs two strategies to cater to her anxieties concerning the way that all stories must end. First, the episodes recorded in In the Future, We are Dead all feature dreams, visions, memories, and other meditations that, like the book’s title, suspend events and happenings in a present-tense where everything is now and nothing can change. Even if Müller evolves throughout her life in order to eventually accept ways in which she, every day, is living with death, she creates the book in such a way that death is free to simultaneously accompany her as an idea or fact while never arriving as a material reality; thanks to the literary present, she is in these pages, forever now, always already with death but never headed toward the future where she is dead. Death functions as an obsessive train of thought and an omnipresent subject of obsession; conversely and poignantly though, this strategy comes with its own tyranny. The present-tense benefits of embracing her anxiety in such a way that renders the future moot also traps Müller in episodes – her life in punk rock, her brief relationship with a woman who wouldn’t leave her house, and her complicated experiences with Yoga – that depict a life nearly devoid of a life story.
The perils and advantages of a carefully designed but, in turn, inescapable present-tense through which the past and future are both available only as ideas is most evident in the second mechanism through which Müller attempts to conquer time and sequentialism: the full-page panel. Again and again, Müller creates full-page layouts that look like early modern woodcuttings or paintings; unlike conventional full-page comic layouts, these pages do not feature complex or revelatory actions so much as they serve to fossilize moments as a-temporal religious iconography or text-book illustrations. Such pages resemble early Christian depictions of the Catholic saints and dare the reader to question the difference between accommodating one’s fear of death and living a life of self-martyrdom. The results are compelling, disturbing, sad, and resolute-if-not-triumphant in equal measure. As a reader who experiences his own anxiety disorder as a kind of solipsism, I found the book to be one of the most honest representations of the disability I have ever encountered: anxiety is a problem that presents itself as a tool to solve the real problem.  

Returning to the color scheme, black and white sections – often associated with dissociation or depression – give way to and eventually reclaim sections that carefully introduce red, white, and blue. Though Müller wrote the book in German and it is never set in the United States, the book is hard to read, at least in her English translation, without thinking about the American flag. Thinking about existentialism as a genre and its premise that freedom is the real source of dread concerning life and its inevitable ending, the consistent and abstracted presence of these disembodied colors draw attention to the way that, both in creating the artifact of In the Future, We are Dead and in existing inside of it, every choice that Eva Müller makes is over-determined by her anxiety in order to resist the terror that is true freedom. 
If it feels like a stretch to read Müller’s use of red, white, and blue – and only red, white, and blue – as a conscious attempt to associate anxiety with freedom as it is purportedly exported by America, it is worth noting that, in White Noise, DeLillo similarly correlates anxiety with invasive Americana. The opening section – featuring the twenty chapters most stylistically similar to In the Future, We are Dead   is titled “Waves and Radiation.” In lieu of plot development, the reader gets extended litanies of product names and a series of musings about consumer detritus. In other words, anxiety is framed as a byproduct of late-stage capitalism that seeps into the natural world. While Müller may be doing something similar by featuring an American color scheme that threatens to encroach and overtake a black and white world, anxiety is depicted as much older post-modernity. For DeLillo, anxiety is generated, or at least heightened, by trends to understand capitalist consumption as a proxy for the pursuit of happiness. Müller, on the other hand, appears to understand anxiety as coterminous with the notion that happiness must or even can be pursued in the context of a finite lifespan. If DeLillo depicts anxiety as a man-made contagion produced by progress, Müeller sees it as a fundamental component of humanity endowed by a creator, the lack thereof, or even – if we take solipsism seriously – one’s own mind. What pollutes the world of White Noise creates and embodies the world of In the Future, We are Dead in which all objects, natural or otherwise, are haunted by an observer’s knowledge that nothing lasts forever.  
Throughout In the Future, We are Dead, anxiety is simultaneously an infliction that inhibits living and a mechanism by which one copes with having to be alive and eventually die. Seeing death everywhere, every day, as Müller does, is a product of anxiety, but it is also a way to endow the physical world with its own ghost in the off-chance that spirits are not subject to the laws of nature. 

Many books are haunted.

In the Future, We are Dead is haunted – stubbornly, completely – by design.

Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays.