Saturday, August 18, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 8/10/18 to 8/17/18

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


* Alex Hoffman writes a mixed review of YELLOW LIGHT #1 by Raziel Puma which "is bogged down by production issues and a few pieces that don’t pass muster. But with that said, for a first book, I think Yellow Light #1 has a lot going for it."

* Tegan O'Neil on HASIB AND THE QUEEN OF SERPENTS by David B., "a stylized version of age of the stories without indulging in stereotype or essentialist fantasy. "

* John Seven on ALL THE SAD SONGS by Summer Pierre, writing "At the center of Pierre’s longing is the desire to be loved, to not be alone, to feel a kind of togetherness with a human being that replicates how music can engulf her being and make her feel part of something larger."

* Andy Oliver reviews GREENHOUSE by Debbie Fong, "a subtle, nuanced and uncompromising read from an artist whose verbal economy proves a potent storytelling tool."

* James Smart has this very short review of SHIT IS REAL by Aisha Franz, "a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion."

* Christa Seely writes this pretty straight-forward review of PINKY AND PEPPER FOREVER by Ivy Atoms, calling it "a wild ride of a story."

* Daniel Gehen on DUMB: LIVING WITHOUT A VOICE by Georgia Webber, calling it "a stark reminder that no one, no matter how young or old, is invincible."

* Ryan Carey on GRIP by Lale Westvind which "seems to eschew dialogue, captions, sound effects, and related ephemera (barring the occasional, expertly-placed exception) as a matter of sheer necessity, recognizing them less as an unnecessary encumbrance that would only get in the way of the tale being told, but as outright obstacles that would actually detract from the proceedings." Ryan also reviews Tara Booth's HOW TO BE ALIVE which is one of my favorite books of recent years.

* Rob Clough looks at TINDERELLA by M. S. Harkness, writing "Harkness shows that whatever solace one takes in being alone also brings about pain, while being with someone can lead to huge compromises and heartbreak."


* One of my favorite cartoonists, Simon Moreton, previews his new zine, MINOR LEAGUES #6, "a big, long autobiographical exploration of life, death, grief, memory and childhood, explored through the lens of the South Shropshire countryside where I grew up, and told through comics, prose, photos, drawings, paintings and collage."

* Speaking of Simon Moreton, over on the Avery Hill blog he continues his conversation with fellow cartoonist TIM BIRD "about their work and practice."

* Tim Hodler talks to Fantagraphics associate publisher, ERIC REYNOLDS, about the ComiXology Originals announcement that essentially puts Amazon in the position, by publishing comics both digitally and by print-on-demand, to have a ripple effect on the comics industry.

* Caitlin Rosberg interviews KATE GAVINO about her new book, Sanpaku, and "to discuss the book’s pattern work, her approach to pacing and how leaving Texas made her fall in love with the state after all."

* Edith Zimmerman talks to AUBREY NOLAN about how she makes comics.

* Gabrielle Bell has a new comic up on Spiralbound called HOW I MAKE MY COMICS.

* There's a new Tara Booth comic on Vice called BEDBUGS.

* Speaking of comics on Vice, you know that if there is a new Seo Kim featured there, I'm going to link to it. So.. in four panels, here is PTERANODON.

* Anne Roiphe wrote an essay for Tablet called MY FAVORITE ANTI-SEMITE: EDITH WHARTON which is part of "an occasional series of tributes to writers, artists, philosophers, and others who hate us and to why we still find value in their work."

Friday, August 17, 2018

No Solid Ground: Ryan Carey Reviews GENEROUS BOSOM PART THREE by Conor Stechschulte

Where do your ideas come from?

It's the most basic question, of course, and one that all novelists, artists, filmmakers, poets, and cartoonists (among others) hear all the time. I would imagine it must get pretty frustrating -- after all, it's both the easiest and most difficult thing in the world to answer. 

The easy answer to this question is: "well, from my brain, of course." But that easy answer leads to some difficult follow-ups that are as inevitable as they are ever-more-specific: “how do they get into your brain? What experiences gave rise to them? If your ideas are about things entirely outside your experience, how did they come to you? What influences gave rise to them? Why are your specific ideas different to those influences?” It's like Russian dolls or something -- it literally never ends.

 Some artists have such singularly brilliant and unique ideas, though, that I don't think I could resist such a query (although I'd probably try to word it a bit differently, just to sound less pedestrian) if given the opportunity. I'd ask it of David Lynch, for instance. I'd ask it of William Blake if he were still around. Ditto for Goya. I'd ask it of Mark Beyer. I'd ask it of Jorg Buttgereit. I'd ask it of Gerald Jablonski. I'd ask it of David Tibet. I'd ask it of Conor Stechschulte.
Seriously, how could I not? After all, his annually-issued ongoing comic psychodrama, Generous Bosom, is so intricately plotted, both visually and narratively, down to its smallest, most minute detail, that I am genuinely curious to know how much of what we're seeing unfold came to him fully-formed in flash of inspiration and how much is being improvised, "felt through," as he goes along. I'm well and truly dying to know, even if the answer would give away part of the mystery -- but, to be honest, I don't think it would, given the sheer conceptual density of this work.

Who, apart from the cartoonist himself, could possibly have foreseen how we'd end up in the latest installment, 2018's Part Three (to say nothing of where we find ourselves by the time it's over) from this comic's insular, scaled-down introduction at the outset of Part One? It seems like so long ago that our "everyman" protagonist, Glen, was humble-bragging to his pal about an unusual sexual liaison over a beer. Since Stechschulte's endlessly-inventive visual "cueing" showed us where and how the story as related via that barstool deviated from the actuality of what happened the night Glen found himself in bed with the vaguely-traumatized Cyndi with the full permission -- hell, at the insistence of -- her much-older and sexually-impotent husband, Art.

From there, it's been an endless series of out-of-left-field and often contradictory body blows that shuffled back and forth between the present day and Cyndi’s teenage years. It's been a truly dizzying ride -- and all that was before the bottom fell out of everything at the end of Part Two, when we learned that all of this may be part of something much larger than most (hell, any) readers ever could have guessed at.
All of that is minor-league stuff compared to the volley of jarring developments in Part Three, though. While In Part Two of Generous Bosom. Stechschulte wanted us to ask fundamental questions about what was happening, Part Three is about getting us to ask fundamental questions about who the people it's happening to even are.

New characters are introduced whose reasons for being involved in the story aren't apparent until later; the reliability of the "memories" we've been privy to is shown to be very "iffy" indeed; political machinations of both the broadly conspiratorial and the disturbingly prosaic variety are hinted at; a key character may not be an actual individual, but an amalgamation of two different people coalesced into a single figure in the mind of someone else. We're in serious "MK-ULTRA" territory here, or so it would seem -- but at this point I'm not willing to say that what seems to be and what is are one and the same in regards to just about anything.

Somehow, though, I'm still hanging on to the hope that the relationship (whatever its actual parameters may be) that we see forming, uneasily, between the now-temporarily-paralyzed Glen and Cyndi holds not only the answers to what we're seeing play out, but maybe even the possibility of something approximating redemption. Yet, mostly what I'm left with in terms of having a grip on what's happening -- and it's a fingernail-straining grip, trust me -- is the glorious feeling of complete unease that Stechschulte so masterfully weaves. This is a work that leaves me wonderfully perplexed as to not only where I am (or might be) within it, but where I am in relation to it. Who we're supposed to sympathize with, for instance, is fairly clear, but is there anyone we're really meant to like? What are the motivations of most of the various players? How long has this scenario been planned out? To what end? Who benefits from all this, how do they do so, and why?
One thing I do actually know is that Stechschulte's cartooning is so remarkably attuned to the visual language of sequential storytelling that his pages are a master-class in form and function rivaled only, perhaps, by the work of David Mazzucchelli. His layouts, his structure and blocking within panels, his subtly emotive facial expressions, his intricate linework -- these all tell so much of  the story -- and when you're jumping around from past to present, from location to location, from reality to potential unreality the way this book does, the ability to communicate all this to the eye of the viewer in a way that intuitively draws you in rather than just confuses the living shit out of you takes more than mere “skill,” it takes vision. The essential contribution of the riso printing performed by publisher Breakdown Press plays a huge part in the efficacy of this comic as well, it has to be said. The colors communicate where and when we are (or, again, are at least meant to think we are), and I'm assuming those printing choices are in line with the cartoonist's directives. Those directives are, in a word, flawless. Which is a pretty fair summation of this book's entire aesthetic presentation, now that I think of it.

So, yeah, I know that much, but beyond that all I want to do -- hell, all I can do -- is ask: Conor Stechschulte, where do your ideas come from?

Ryan Carey lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He writes about comics for Daily Grindhouse, Graphic Policy, and at his own blog. He also maintains a long-running film review blog, Trash Film Guru.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Game of Trust: A Review GENEROUS BOSOM PART TWO by Conor Stechschulte

(Editor's Note: This is a reprint of a review originally published
March 2016)
The last time I was confronted with Conor Stechschulte’s Generous Bosom, I needed the help of Jason Sacks to help me unpack my reaction to it. What Stechschulte is doing in this series demands a completely different kind of careful reading than almost any other book I’ve encountered. There are strata of storytelling that require an abdication of conception and a surrender to the moment that is virally uncomfortable, almost a renunciation of cohesion, an immersion into the pure artistic moment.

Not to belabor the point, but in Generous Bosom there is a fog to comprehension, a wading into a miasma and effluvium of risographed diagonals of nausea-inducing colors and almost sketched moments of heart-rending trauma, as if pieces of a puzzle are strewn about the room in order to ape some sort of madhouse feng shui. There’s a moist desperation that occurs in the experience of reading it as if apperception is foot race you’re running with shin splints.
And yet it pulls you in and straps you down. Stechschulte is pressing the launch button, shooting you into dense places outside your grasp. It’s thrilling and fascinating and acts as a wake-up call experience that almost makes it seem as if all that you’ve been reading prior has been produced by somnambulists.

Breakdown Press calls Generous Bosoman erotic psychological thriller charting the fallout following a stranded motorist’s unexpected encounter with a strange, isolated couple.” Yes. This is what’s at the center of this book, but Stechschulte is playing with reveals and motivations and secrets as much as he is imparting a plot, and the end of Part Two seems to point in unfathomable directions given where the story has dwelled up until then.

In part, Generous Bosom is a game of trust. With each turn of the page, you are left falling backward with your eyes closed and your arms folded against your heart hoping that Stechschulte is an honest enough artist to catch you and keep your skull from splitting open on the concrete. Stechschulte has earned my trust with books like The Amateurs, so I’ll keep reading Generous Bosom and leave my crash helmet to gather dust on the top shelf of the hall closet.

You can (and should) pick up a copy of Generous Bosom Part Two here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Risograph Effect: Jason Sacks and Daniel Elkin in Discussion about Conor Stechschulte's GENEROUS BOSOM Part One

(Editor's Note: This is a reprint of a conversation originally published April 2015)
Daniel Elkin: Sometimes you come across a work by an artist that completely ensnares you. Their work lingers long after you experience it, suffusing your day-to-day in subtle ways, causing you to look at the world with a new sensibility, askance and askew.
Conor Stechschulte is such an artist. Last year, his debut graphic novel, The Amateurs, was, for lack of a better term, monumental. I had a purely visceral reaction to it that required some deep thoughtful unpacking to make sense of. In the end, I chose it as my favorite book published last year.
Even now, The Amateurs continues to linger in my conceptions, and I remain a vocal advocate for the work of Conor Stechschulte.
That being said, a few months ago I found out that London based Breakdown Press had published part one of Stechschulte’s “ambitious series” called Generous Bosom, which Breakdown calls “an erotic psychological thriller about the rain-soaked night a stranded motorist is forced to spend with a strange, isolated couple.
And it’s that. This is a simple encapsulation of the narrative of the book. But, like The Amateurs, it’s also something more. And it’s in that “something” that continues to churn in my noggin.
I’ve been sitting with this book for months now, knowing I needed to write about it in order to process it in some manner, yet every time I tried to put words to my reaction I found myself flummoxed by an inability to say anything at all. The crux of the issue? There’re no words for vague notions of partial ideas ill-formed in the ether.
See, there’s a thickness to every aspect of this book, as if gravity itself is exerting some different type of influence on these pages. There’s a disturbing weight to it, as if it were a singularity unto itself, composed, metaphorically, of an infinite density.
And this underlying heaviness confounds me, reduces me to babble and fills my head with colors and patterns, not words.
Generous Bosom 1
For some reason I want to call this The Risograph Effect. Not just because Generous Bosom is Risograph printed, but because somehow the process of Risograph printing echoes the difficulties I am having reviewing this book.
Why Risograph? Well, our good friends at Wikipedia talk about the Risograph process thusly:
The original is scanned through the machine and a master is created, by means of tiny heat spots on a thermal plate burning voids (corresponding to image areas) in a master sheet. This master is then wrapped around a drum and ink is forced through the voids in the master.
Think of something aesthetically profound as the thermal plate. Think of your response to it as the ink. That response, being forced through the voids in the plate as it is, does not make for a lucid response. Something else ends up happening and a writer is left with little other than writing about his or her inability to write anything at all.
Joyce Carol Oates once said, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” With Generous Bosom, though, because of its pull, I’m trapped in this Risograph Effect. Perhaps, Sacks, you can force the ink through the void so it resembles actual words to which I can respond. Hopefully, that response makes sense. Surely then I can talk about this book.
Jason Sacks: What a beautiful analogy, Elkin. The Risograph Effect, produced by voids in the master. That perfectly fits this book in so many ways
As you say, Generous Bosom resonates in ways that are disturbing. There’s a weight to this story that comes from a psychological complexity and specific reality of its characters that is thoroughly grounded in a quiet, squalid place of deep loss and profound isolation. There’re odd implications of magic and intent in the middle of this story, and I hope we get into that later on in our discussion. But for me, the real power of this book comes from how so much of it is about life’s major and minor misses, about how things don’t go as planned.
All the characters at the center of this book have major misses in their lives. Glen, our narrator, seems to drift through his life. Cyndi has been lost since high school when she impulsively fell in love with her teacher and lost her childhood and her adulthood in one fell swoop. And finally Art, the teacher who had his life broken by the experience and struggles with deep depression and an intense sense of loss. These people are all isolated: from each other, from their larger society, and even from themselves. They are broken in a fundamental way and this book chronicles that broken state in a way that honors the characters as complex people.
At the center of this book is the extended sex scene, which is as real as any sex scene I’ve ever seen in any media. After a long, rather painful and awkward conversation about trust, the two characters decide they want to break their “cold spell” by having sex. For a moment, it all goes great. There’s a great attraction between man and woman, clothes come off quickly, and they seem to be in sync. As readers, we’re conditioned to expect that we’re going to see a perfect coupling between these two people.
photo 1 (4)
But Stechschulte doesn’t work that way, and the drama he tells in this story doesn’t follow a predictable path. Instead, it proceeds the way it might in real life. He gets hard, then soft; she gets wet then dries. They try different positions and different techniques but they just can’t connect physically. Stechschulte dwells on this missed coupling, and this extended scene goes from being exciting to painful. We start to feel the depression falling upon these two people, feel that they can’t escape from their real-world problems with a furtive sexual encounter.
They can’t escape themselves. Their lives are a void and the ink won’t pass through it, no matter how they try to force it. These are complex people, broken people, and their lives forbid a lucid response.
Elkin: Well said, Sacks. They can’t escape themselves, can they? In one way, each character is fully stuck because of who they are. But I think there’s also a layer of duplicity to every interaction in this book. It’s as if everyone is also wearing a mask, has an ulterior motive, is manipulating outcomes and is purposefully providing a narrative in the quest of some hidden goal.
This is a story that has rain as one of its central motifs. It pours straight down in blue lines from the heavens to the ground. Soggy. Fecund. It only makes sense that Generous Bosom: Part One begins with a story being told. We discover the greater narrative through a particular narrator. It’s a story filtered through a person who has his own intent, a story told in a bar to an old friend who may or may not be doing “better” in the world. We are given access insomuch as Glen wants us to know.
Generous Bosom also begins with a quote from Japanese writer Abe Kobo’s essay “Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and The Unconscious),” “The night is not an invited guest but rather the air that fills this room.” This sounds poetic and full of portent, which it is when taken out of context, suffusing a certain type of reading of this comic book, filling it with expectation of one set. In his essay, though, it’s my understanding that the “night” Kobo is talking about is what he refers to as Nihilistic skepticism, “the skeptical negation of all assertions”. He’s also talking about chaos, “one that remains indifferent to individuality.” Which adds even more thickness to my thinking about this book. As an epigraph, this does little to clarify. It opens instead of narrows and adds further voids in the master.
Ah yes, the Risograph Effect.
And to add further complexity to the whole, there’re other sudden stories occurring within the frame story. Right in the very middle of the book, in bright green ink printed pages; we are introduced to Shannon who is stuffing toilet paper in her bra to add to her bosom. Then we see a teenage Cyndi at the doctor as he massages her breasts checking for “the hardening of breast tissue”. These two pages interrupt, pause the reader, just as Glen moves through the doorway from his interaction with Art into the bedroom with Cyndi. It provides a breath but bears no relation to the rest of the book.
What is it that Stechschulte wants us to understand here? This isn’t getting any easier, is it Sacks?
Sacks: Elkin, I’m going to sidestep that question with my own prejudice on this topic: authorial intent doesn’t matter. It’s the reader’s interpretation that really matters. And from that standpoint Generous Bosom gives the reader a lot to consider in this most Risograph of books.
The overwhelming sense that a reader gets from this book is the idea of isolation, of people and places being fundamentally apart from each other. The cover shows a house, small and lonely towards the bottom of the image, with the rain from an overwhelming sky falling upon the house like a brooding specter. Set against a gloomy green sky, with an accent of a fall golden orange, there’s a pervasive feeling of the house being apart from society.
Flipping to the title page, we’re shown a bed and window lonely against a sea of white. Again, things feel isolated and lonely, the incongruous sadness of the image accented by the small wheel on one corner of the bed, as if the bed’s placement is ephemeral.
Again and again, characters appear to be together with each other here but also apart from each other. Notice how much of this book is told in dialogue but how few times Stechschulte shows people looking each other in the eye. More often, a conversation puts each character in their own panel, literally inside their own box looking at their counterpart who is in their own box.
photo 2 (4)
It’s mainly in the sex scene where Stechschulte has his characters make meaningful eye contact, but that’s the scene where nothing seems to quite go right. It’s as if the sincerity and human connection of that moment is sublimated by the duplicitous approach of the characters. Their manifold flaws result in a missed connection despite the sincerity. Cyndi and Glen want to connect but they can’t get their bodies to obey their brains in the way that they want them to. And though all of us in middle age can say that we’ve been in situations where our bodies have failed us, there’s a profound sadness to this missed connection that implies a deeper plan foiled.
You ask what Stechschulte wants us to understand. I submit to you that one of his themes is that loneliness is the air that Abe Kobo describes in his quote.
Elkin: Authorial intent doesn’t matter? You’re wearing your big boy pants now, Sacks, and stomping hard on the terra.
Okay, let’s put authorial intent aside. Let’s drop Stechschulte out of the equation and turn to the pages of Generous Bosom. I, too, believe that a work of art can speak for itself, that if an audience sees some thematic or symbolic moment in the work, then it’s there, regardless of what the artist’s intentions may have been. The work is communicating by itself.
But what is Generous Bosom communicating? Is it really isolation and that visceral, stomach- tightening desire to connect with others? Is this really some sort of parable regarding the social animal? Or, as I said before, is there something more nefarious at play here?
I think the ending of this book speaks to that. Actually, it shouts it. I’m not going to play the spoiler-monkey and reveal what happens, but it certainly points to plans, machinations and ill intent.
And is Glen any different? He plays the hapless good fella, but isn’t he kissing and telling? Isn’t he the one through whom we hear this story. It’s a “fuck story”, after all – one man telling another man about his “conquest”. Is Glen really a sympathetic character? The more you think about him and his motivations, the more skeevy he becomes.
Instead of that admonition to “only connect”, Generous Bosom seems to be saying that all our interactions derive from selfish motivations – that we use the people in our lives to further our own. The fact that there’re consequences to this doesn’t stop us from doing it, rather those consequences are what we end up calling “life”.
Maybe this is why I’ve had so many problems writing about this book. Maybe I prefer to watch the shadows dance on the cave wall. Maybe this generous bosom does not seek to give life through its lactation, but rather it’s a murdering minister that turns this milk for gall.
Sacks: I refuse to see myself in the people shown in this comic. I can appreciate them and try to understand them, and perhaps see some aspects of my personality that overlap with these people, but I’m not Glen or Art or, for that matter, Cyndi. Partially that’s because these are just fictional characters on the page. But partially that’s also because Stechschulte does such a marvelous job of making these characters feel very real and specific. They feel three-dimensional because of their flaws, of their kiss-and-tell (and exaggerate) and manipulation and deep sexual longing. They feel three-dimensional because of the lack of sympathy that we often feel for them – as we do our friends and, often, ourselves.
The thing is I don’t think that Stechschulte is admonishing us to “only connect”. It would be completely incongruous with the intent of a book like this to leave readers with a shallow admonition like that, especially since these characters never really connect with each other.
Yeah, the ending (and the whole business with the nails in the road and the rainstorm) places this book in a different light than my interpretation. This may be one of those cases where Act Two places everything we’ve seen in Act One in a completely different light. But to me, the core of this bewitching book is connections missed. It’s in the way that we manipulate others – and often ourselves – to get what we want. It’s in the lies we tell, the moves we make, the stories we convey, which only sometimes overlap with objective reality.
And maybe I do see Plato’s shadows at play and see my own shape in those shadows. This generous bosom has the milk of human complexity.
Elkin: You’re right, Sacks. This is indeed only Act One. Breakdown Press tells us that “this is the first in an ambitious series, several years in the making” so we should really be looking at this book as set-up, not an entirety in itself.
With such heft, such portent in just this first installment, needless to say, I’m already standing in line for Book Two. Regardless of how hard it’s raining. Regardless of how dark the night has become. No matter what comes next being forced through the voids in the plate.
Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, and PanelXPanel. He's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

These Are Butchers After All: Daniel Elkin reviews THE AMATEURS by Conor Stechschulte

(Editor's Note: This is a reprint of a review that originally ran June 2014)

Violent dreams unnerve the dreamer. They discombobulate as much as give pause. Does the dreamer secretly harbor a savage side? Does the repression of murderous tendencies which are inherent in our gizmo, a repression foisted upon us by the needs of societal stability, find an outlet in our subconscious and, when it does, cause us to stare horrified at our own riotous reflection there in the morning mirror?
We are beasts, after all.
The Amateurs
And yet, as with all of the discomforting aspects of our brutishness, we manifest our Cartesian Dualism through an exploration, the creative act, stamping universal truths on the forehead of the ape, smug in our control, distancing ourselves from ourselves through judiciousness.
Once we cage our chaos in form, the art therein becomes a gift for other apes to ponder as they secretly shudder at the self-portrait it casts back.
Such is the stuff of Conor Stechschulte's debut graphic novel, The Amateurs, a book that explores the nature of self as defined by action, as much as it reveals the simian beneath.
Ostensibly, The Amateurs is about two butchers who have forgotten how to do their job. It is encased in a framing device hinting at witchcraft and burgeoning female sexuality, and is sub-plotted by a brief commentary on the repression inherent in the roles we are expected to place in our day-to-day. It is surreal, it is engaging, and it is violent.
It is also art.
Stechschulte's black and white, kinetic, and inky pages push you through the narrative. His main characters, Jim and Winston the butchers, are amplified through their abstraction. As they are less specific in detail, they become more universalized. Thus, though they are themselves, they are all of us together, stumbling through the miasma having lost the specific knowledge of who they are as they no longer recollect what it is that they do. Having lost the spurs of their social definition, they resort to their true selves, violent, petty, and brutish. They descend, awash in offal, blood, and horror.
These are butchers after all.
The Amateurs
In the absence of experience, we are all amateurs. But unlike the Blakean sense of Innocence asking us to pipe a song about a lamb, in Stechschulte's world, here in our innocence we are monsters. When we forget how we are supposed to act, he is suggesting, the horrors we do.
Everything about The Amateurs verges on the taboo, yet Stechschulte is able to teeter on the scaffolding to keep us engaged in his construction. The idea of memory is the refrain. His framing device is excerpts from the diary of Anne E. Nemeth, student, Lyre School for Girls. As all diarists know, the act of writing down experience helps keep the past alive in some manner. It is a document of memory, a written recollection of who we were to provide us access into who we have become. It is important only insomuch as it maps our definitions.
As the framing device, the excerpts from Anne's diary are full of clues to the larger narrative. The first excerpt recounts her experience finding a severed head on the banks of the river which spoke to her, admonishing her to “Look Back”. While a severed head on a river bank is already teeming with metaphorical heft, its forewarning provides the necessary context as introduction.
Her next diary entry documents when she stumbled upon two of her fellow students carving a love message into the shell of a live turtle. This experience too spurs reflection not only about Anne's own development, “What have I to look forward to in my oncoming maturity? What other abominations have I yet to see...” – but it also echoes the ape within, adding commentary to the larger story of the butchers who, by then, are covered in blood and shit, having lost chunks of themselves in the process.
The Amateurs
The final diary entry completes its function as a framing device. Here is ritual, rite of passage, the demarcation between innocence and experience. “What binds is what scatters, what scatters is what binds.” This is the central construct of this book and, through its exploration, The Amateurs is revelatory. Rivers and ribbons, innocence and experience, social constructs and our bestial nature, Stechschulte spelunks the dichotomies inherent in imposition, constructed through memory.
Were Stechschulte to have chosen to only give us the story of our amnesiac butchers, then The Amateurs would be nothing more than satire, farce, or even low comedy. But Stechschulte has more than this in mind. As an artist, he seems inherently to understand that his role is not only to provide access and create a reaction, but also cup his hands, hold the water, and dare us to drink.
In an interview he did with CBR, Stechschulte describes his book off-handily as “a horror/comedy story about two butchers with amnesia. Also I might say it's 'weird,' and maybe 'a little gory.'” This is your access, easy to define. But as the interview continues, he says, “I felt I had to approach its themes from an oblique angle. It worked best to place the content of the book in the space between those two or three stories.” Here is the water he is offering, this is the dare he is tendering.
The Amateurs
Be forewarned, though, there are consequences to drinking this water, cool and revitalizing, fresh from the river in the woods. After a feverish night, you may wake up the next morning forgetful of how you are supposed to act. Once so unencumbered, you are free to be who you are.
And who are you? Well, that may just be the subject of another horror/comedy story, my friend.

Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Why Art?, Indeed: Ryan Carey Reviews TINTERING by Conor Stechschulte

"Art is always about 'something hidden.' But does it help us connect with that hidden something? I think it moves us away from it."

So begins anarchist theorist John Zerzan's widely-discussed (in some circles, at any rate) essay "The Case Against Art." Zerzan, being one of the leading scholars and spokespeople of the "anarcho-primitivist," or "Green Anarchist" movements, essentially extrapolates upon the conclusion that he serves up in the first paragraph of his essay for several pages, but as ludicrous as his central premise may seem on its face to most readers coming to it from outside his milieu, he manages to advance some reasonably thought-provoking, if fairly basic, arguments in defense of the idea that art --- indeed, all forms of symbolic representation --- are inherently inferior facsimiles of actual things already-extant in the natural world (a painting of a sunrise, no matter how gorgeously executed, will never be as awe-inspiring as an actual sunrise, etc.), and that the idea of reducing something or someone of infinite complexity to lines on paper or strokes on a canvas is necessarily tyrannical almost by definition.

Still, "The Case Against Art" loses me more quickly than most of Zerzan's other work, simply because I think he misses the essential truth of why art is created: Zerzan sticks doggedly to his preconception that art is about reproducing something --- a place, a time, an event, a feeling --- while most folks, myself included, are more of a mind that art is about interpreting any/all of those things, and the artist subsequently expressing that interpretation to others. Truth be told, I'm surprised that Zerzan, as a dedicated anarchist, doesn't (or can't) understand that the creation of art is about as unique and singular an experience as one can undertake. I can see a far more intellectually-sound case being advanced against, say, looking at or otherwise experiencing someone else's art rather than creating your own, but we're getting into some fairly tall and tangled metaphorical weeds if we go down that road, so I'll probably just table it for another time.

Still, I hope it's clear that while I harbor no particular pretensions toward being an art scholar myself, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about art --- not just various works of art, but the nature and purpose of art itself, the reason for its existence in the first place. Along those lines, it’s particularly interesting that modern archaeological scholarship has essentially overturned the time-honored notion that the first things primitive man did were, in order, finding something to eat, finding somewhere to sleep, finding somewhere to shit, and finding a handy cave wall to record it all on. Modern scholarship now posits, instead, that humans didn't adopt any sort of symbolic culture at all for somewhere in the neighborhood of a million years? That means something, in my view, even if I'm not entirely sure what. Maybe art may not be as essential to human existence as I always thought. Maybe Zerzan's more right than I gave him credit for. Maybe art's existence does need to be justified, on some level.

You know who else has given these questions --- or ones very much like them, at any rate --- a lot of thought? Conor Stechschulte.
Regardless of whether or not Stechschute has read Zerzan’s essay (or any of his work, for that matter), his 2017 self-published comic Tintering (its title spliced out of Agnes Miller's unintentionally anarcho-primitivist statement that "artwork has only a tintering of what it attempts to represent to the artist or responsive observers") makes it clear that he's definitely tuned his mind to the question of "why even bother with this shit?" in regards to the creation of art on many occasions, and that he's had some thoughts on the subject.

A key word there: "thoughts". This is no polemic, by any means, and Stechschulte doesn't even suggest any particular answers. Instead, he relates a series of five, for lack of a better term, vignettes, each concerning an artist who invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, probably even money, into highly idiosyncratic projects designed to convey deeply personal messages in public spaces --- only for their creations to ultimately be destroyed. Sometimes by authorities. Sometimes by heirs/surviving family members. And sometimes by the artists themselves.
The ostensible "narrators" for these tales (all of which begin with the word "once") are a succession of inanimate objects in various states of disrepair or decay (a smashed window, a broken-down wheelbarrow, a rotten apple with a bite taken out of it, an inoperative sink, etc.), each designed to highlight Stechschulte's theme of the impermanence, maybe even outright transience, of all things --- artistic inspiration included. His cartooning is no doubt lush, his choice to riso-print it in largely-faded (or, at the very least, fading) shades of blue is not only artistically apropos but downright gorgeous --- this is illustration imbued with a sense of loss to match its melancholy precis. There's something else going on here, though, beneath the surface level, that I think bears some consideration, as well ---

These windows, wheelbarrows, apples, and sinks aren't/weren't works of art, but objects of utility designed not for something so indulgent as interpretation, but for specific purposes. There's no debate over whether or not they once had essential functions, they clearly did --- and if even these objects don't stand the test of time, what chance does something as mercurial as art, which may not even have much value to its creator a few years down the road, have?
Meditations don't come much more --- well, meditative --- than this, but there's a distinct and consistent authorial viewpoint that's apparent throughout. It's one of constantly taking stock of not only the ultimate purpose of artistic creation, but of the need or impulse that gave rise to the said act of creation in the first place. It asks not only "what are we doing?," but "why are we doing it?," and is unflinchingly honest enough to admit that not only are there no "good" answers to those questions, there are no real answers at all apart from those you come up with yourself, of course. Yet even those are likely to be shifting, transitory, maybe even entirely different every time you re-read this comic. And trust me when I say you're going to re-read it a lot.

Tintering sells for $8.00 and is worth ten times that much, at least, in terms of sheer philosophical weight. It can be ordered directly from Conor Stechschulte via his "Crepuscular Archives" Storenvy site.


Ryan Carey lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He writes about comics for Daily Grindhouse, Graphic Policy, and at his own blog. He also maintains a long-running film review blog, Trash Film Guru.