Saturday, October 20, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 10/13/18 to 10/19/18

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 reviews INCISION by HTMLflowers, writing "These diaries are horrifying and heart-breaking. But more importantly, they are necessary. They are a bright voice from a place we would rather stay dark."

* Robin Enrico on Coco Picard's THE CHRONICLES OF FORTUNE which "slowly but steadily build towards its climax and quiet denouement shows just how much clarity of vision Picard has a storyteller. She is an artist who fully grasps that sometimes it takes magical realism to fully express the magic and loss of real life."

* John Seven reviews ONE DIRTY TREE by Noah Van Sciver, which he describes as "Van Sciver working things out, and it’s gracious of him to share this level of introspection. Though he attempts to give the childhood stories some amount of joy, at least in regard to the moments he lived his own life, none of this can escape the saturating sadness of the book, and it’s all peppered with an understandable anger and frustration."

* Dominic Umile on ALL THE SAD SONGS by Summer Pierre, which "recounts ... the start of lasting friendships and lost loves over the years that shaped the person she’s become. But while everything here is connected to the records and songs that stopped her in her tracks, Pierre’s comic is increasingly concerned with discoveries that are larger than those made through mixtapes."

* Ryan Carey reviews August Lipp's LOTTA LIPP COMICS #1 which "is as inquisitive, as resonant, as smart as funny books get".

* Austin Lanari is back(?) writing about comics(?) penning this review(?) of THE PRINCE by Liam Cobb, calling it "the one with the guy shitting out hundreds of frog eggs before getting forked in his fucking EAR-FACE". Just read the review. You'll get it.

* Gregory Smith reviews SABRINA by Nick Drnaso, calling it "a thoughtful exploration of what many people in the United States are experiencing in 2018." 


* Robin McConnell interviews KEREN KATZ

* Ken Eppstein of Nix Comics breaks down the numbers regarding sales at "events" in a piece called SHOP TALK: FIVE YEARS OF GROSS SALES and it's kind of depressing.

* New Seo Kim comic on Vice! It's called CLEAN ROOM.

* New Tara Booth comic on Vice! It's called CLOGGED DRAIN.

* New Gabrielle Bell comic on Spiralbound! It's called MANIFESTATION.

* Lauren Weinstein has a comic on Popula called THE NIGHT MEN.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Laughter Is On Her Side: Rob Clough reviews CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts

On the face of things, little has changed in Keiler Roberts' work from her earliest days doing her Powdered Milk minicomics. Using an immediate, expressive, naturalistic style, Roberts emphasizes small moments in her life and tells them in brief, anecdotal bites. There's not much in the way of an overarching, personal narrative. She tells stories about her perfectly ordinary and reasonably comfortable life in the suburbs as part of a family of cartoonists, her young daughter, and her friends. Roberts also dives back into her memories to pluck out the occasional narrative. Throughout it all, Roberts maintains a comedic tone that is bone-dry. 

Of course, because Roberts' work is predicated upon small, subtle changes over time introduced with little fanfare, it requires a careful look at her comics in order to see precisely how she's evolved as an artist since her early days. The key to understanding her work is that though she talks about subjects that are sometimes quotidian and sometimes deeply personal and serious, Roberts always thinks like a performer. However deadpan she might be on a page, she tends to think of whether or not an audience might find this interesting or funny. I recently interviewed her as part of a panel at SPX on writing about having bipolar disorder, and when she really went off on a subject, she was hilarious. Her success as a humorist is a reflection of her overall wit and ability to think on her feet, combined with a sense later of how to capture moments like that on the page. She's not flashy as a performer or cartoonist and reminds me a great deal of Gabrielle Bell in that regard, only Roberts' perspective and subject matter is completely different. That said, they both seek to entertain their audiences.

That's why Roberts was initially reluctant to talk about having bipolar: she thought it might bore her audience. Powdered Milk was initially built on the wacky things that her young daughter Xia said and did, giving her an incredible amount of cute-kid material. However, Keiler's depression couldn't help but bleed through in her early work as she frequently drew herself crying without any context. Ultimately, she decided it was an important thing to share and naturally found ways to draw humor from depressive episodes later, as she was able to think about them from a different perspective. At that SPX panel, she joked that she made sure to develop a new disease or condition for each new book. Miseryland introduced bipolar, while Sunburning explored that further and introduced a host of neurological problems. Her new book, Chlorine Gardens (Koyama Press) introduced Multiple Sclerosis to the mix, and she joked that her next book will be about ringworm. 
Chlorine Gardens seems like more of the same at first. She does indeed explore what it means to possibly have MS. There are strips about her husband Scott, her daughter Xia, and her parents. However, this book represents a big shift in her work in that for the first time, Roberts makes herself the star of her own comic. Certainly, it's always been from her point of view and she was honest about her feelings and experiences, but she was often the straight woman in her own gag strip. The biggest difference is that Xia, who was the star of Miseryland and still a major character in Sunburning, is relegated to being more of a funny side character here. That's due in part to Roberts talking about stepping back from focusing on her as a gag machine because she's older and aware of what her mom is doing. Roberts replaces that void by talking much more and more directly about herself and positioning herself as the comedic star of the book. Roberts also uses a slightly more formal structure in creating longer, themed comedic stories instead of the loose flow of her other books.

For example, the book opens with nine pages devoted to her recollection of the birth of Xia. While there are wacky characters like her doctor, Roberts' own observations (and they are often withering) are far more important with her narrative captions than what the other characters do. Indeed, whereas in past books she tended to eschew first-person narrative captions, this book is dominated by that storytelling technique. There is still a great deal of fluidity in Roberts' storytelling in terms of how she lands on one idea or memory and then jumps to another, but the structure of the mini-chapter makes those connections more concrete. The first chapter ends with Roberts talking about her poor short-term memory and how it is a constant source of anxiety. She manages to play it for laughs, as per usual, but there's something about the anxiety she feels during unstructured time that feels familiar and disturbing. That sense where one knows something is wrong but can't quite remember what is wrong is agonizing, like an itch you can't quite reach or a sneeze that's trapped. 
A trademark of Roberts that is continued in this book is her utter deconstruction of anything involving sentimentality. Roberts loves animals, yet she loves depicting her (admittedly very strange) dog Crooky as frequently being a terrible pet. This idea of Roberts as an iconoclast is played up the most in the section where she explores that tendency of hers to want to be alone almost as much as she wants to make connections with others, expressed in the crankiest ways possible. It's not just that she wants to be alone, but that sometimes her entire aesthetic viewpoint is completely divorced from others. In the bit that kicks off this chapter, she laughs at a sign that says "This Thanksgiving, you don't want to be my pants" because she imagines it to be about someone shitting their pants. It's part of a magnificent page in a crowded mini-van where she goes on and on about this idea, laughing until she was crying while everyone around sat in stony silence. It's one of the few times Roberts has used a deliberately awkward but comedic set-up for laughs, as opposed to being relentlessly dry and deadpan. Of course, in the follow-up to this page, she sees the sign again and laughs till she cries once again, but notes that the physical act of crying actually makes her feel sad afterward. It's a brutally honest observation that acts as kind of a landmine for both herself and the reader. 

Other pages in the chapter feature her asking her husband Scott when he was planning to leave the room, being angry at a friend for moving away, Scott catching her being on-brand when she says "Our marriage has been an eternity" and promptly putting it on Facebook, and that misanthropy being reflected back at her when Xia simply grabs a blanket that Roberts was using and walking away with it. Roberts obviously plays it up to get laughs, but it was interesting to see her feature this aspect of her persona in such a concentrated dose. The chapter where she and her family travel to Ireland for a gallery show, only for Roberts to reveal how much she hates traveling, further plays this cranky aspect of her personality for laughs. At the same time, Roberts digs a little deeper beyond the punchlines to reveal genuine anxiety about being overwhelmed in new environments. Whereas before Roberts made a point of examining mental illness front and center and in short bursts, in Chlorine Gardens she's made it a secondary aspect of nearly every chapter. 
Though Roberts' drawing style is restrained and naturalistic, that's not to say that she doesn't choose specific images to draw a reaction. In a story about "favorite things", she talks about her disinterest in sports: "I've never had a favorite athlete or team. I don't understand the strategy, or even the rules of any sport." The image she used for this panel was that of fitness guru Richard Simmons, who not only has nothing to do with any sport but is the polar opposite of the macho sports mindset. Making that her choice as an avatar for all of sports was a hilarious, deadpan choice that both mocked her own ignorance and emphasized her total indifference. 

Roberts dips into a wide variety of subjects elsewhere in the book: the latest shenanigans from Xia (who is now exhibiting some pre-teen tendencies); funny things her parents and siblings do; grappling with the idea of being special and her creative process; the death of her grandfather; and an extended section on belief and prayer that of course winds up with her ass submerged in a bedpan. The indignities of life are something that greatly amuses Roberts because it's an easy thing to laugh at. That's opposed to, say, having an incurable neurological condition like MS. The chapter where she's getting all sorts of tests has some of her funniest work, starting with a panel where she got "out-deadpanned" by a friend, only it didn't count because Roberts was on valium after an MRI. Roberts integrated all of her usual elements into this chapter: her husband, her dog not comforting her ("you're a dis-service dog"), coping with a new set of symptoms and side-effects, and an experience with a friend at another hospital.
The final three pages recapitulate the whole book. There's a page about Crooky again being an annoying dog before Roberts realizes that her pet might be going deaf, and she says, "Oh Crooky. Are you going to be my next tragedy?" The next page was an MRI report that finally confirmed her MS diagnosis. That's a jet-black way of Roberts saying "womp womp", but she chose not to leave readers on that note. Instead, the last page is a sort of non sequitur of an exchange between Roberts and her mother, about a bunch of blueberries exploding in a freezer. It's a statement that reveals that no matter what health problem or life challenge she encounters, it won't alter Roberts' dedication to telling her story and entertaining her audience. It reminds me of the aphorism from Soren Kierkegaard, where he goes before the gods and is granted one wish. They offer him youth, beauty, power, sex, etc, but he responds that he only wants the laughter on his side. They laugh in response, which is how he knows he got his wish. In response to the question of what is your favorite thing, for Roberts, I think it might be the sublime ability to tell her story honestly and still have it be funny. Her wish has certainly been granted, many times over. 
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, October 13, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 10/6/18 to 10/12/18

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


* Robin Enrico reviews SOMNAMBULANCE by Fiona Smyth, writing "Fascinating historically, vital thematically, gripping artistically, on all levels Somnambulance is a necessary and deeply rewarding read.

* Scott Cederlund on BERLIN by Jason Lutes, noting "His [Lutes] clean line and economical choices almost appear plain on the surface as Lutes doesn’t want to call attention to his style or storytelling. But when you get past that simplicity of the image, you can watch how he builds his sequences and uses the comic page to tell this story in ways that no other artistic medium could.

* Caitlin Rosberg looks at Tillie Walden's ON A SUNBEAM, writing "maturity in this world is measured by emotional competence and understanding consent and respect, which is a powerful message to act as the underpinning for an epic love story."

* Rob Clough on Summer Pierre's ALL THE SAD SONGS which "emphasizes that the experience of art, and music in particular, is an essential part of what it means to be human. Be it listening for that song that hears you or performing music as an expression of living in that joy, music has powerful, positive effects on us. What Pierre points out is that these effects are not the same thing as therapy, no matter how much we channel our emotions into it."

* Sarah Boslaugh on THE MENTAL LOAD: A FEMINIST COMIC by French cartoonist Emma, a book collection of 12 of her comics which cover "a wide variety of issues, from her experience of childbearing to the deaths of nonwhite French men in police custody to the very nature of capitalism."

* Ryan Carey reviews A LONE DEER AT THE END OF THE WORLD by D. Bradford Gambles, calling it "deeply moving, deeply stirring, deeply contemplative stuff." 

* John Seven looks at BASTARD by Belgian cartoonist Max de Radigues wherein "the crime element, though obviously a focal point of the plot, is also in some ways an aside, a device that brings the main characters into contact with people who may or may not be capable of changing their lives, but will almost certainly add to the context and meaning behind the actions of the two characters." 

* Tom Spurgeon has this quick review of FRONTIER #17 by Lauren Weinstein, "one of the two or three best comics [he's] read this year."

* Kevin Bramer draws your attention to Pat Aulisio's GHOSTED and you should be thankful for that?

* Tegan O'Neil on BALD KNOBBER by Robert Sergel, writing "The sense of rigid claustrophobia emanating from shabby circumstances saturated with ambient violence seems very much of the moment..."

* Simon Moreton has announced that he has a new zine, LITTLE LEAGUES #1, available for sale. "This is the sister zine to 'Minor Leagues', where smaller stories, little experiments, weird stuff, or things that just don't quite fit in 'Minor Leagues' can find a home. This one is a story told in prose, comics and photos about being in Japan, making chutney, and experiencing Autumn."

* Sara Jewell has this great interview with SHIVANA SOOKDEO over on The Beat.

* Alex Dueben interviews L. NICHOLS about Flocks, "Beethoven, engineering and religion"

* Hillary Brown interviews JASON LUTES about his epic Berlin.

* Sophie Yanow is serializing her new comic THE CONTRADICTIONS, updating daily, which is something you should be not only checking out daily, but celebrating hourly.

* There's a Margot Ferrick comic up on Vice this week called MY DAY that you should go read right now.

* Popula has a Ron Rege', Jr. comic up called THINKING OF DREAMING that you should go read right now.

Showcasing the talent and work of BME Artists and Writers, the MISSING PANELS ZINE collects 5 comics about experiences accessing healthcare in the UK. There's an event where you can come meet the artists, all of whom explore the racial or cultural barriers in the NHS in their work on November 10th, 2018 at 6.30pm at The Attenborough Arts Centre

Each year, in recognition of the self-publishing and DIY roots of independent comics, The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) celebrates the hard work and talents of our exhibitors with MICE MINI-GRANTS in order to complete or enhance the printing of their work. This is going to serve as my shopping list for the convention. Hope to see some of you there!

* Alex Hoffman writes about his experience at this year's CARTOON CROSSROADS COLUMBUS (CXC).

Saturday, October 6, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 9/29/18 to 10/5/18

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


* Shea Hennum reviews THE WHISTLING FACTORY by Jesse McManus, a book that is "defined by its pockmarked discontinuities and disturbances, its absences, avoidances, and alienations. It is a book where something isn’t quite right, where things cannot be made whole."

* Andy Oliver on Lottie Pencheon's SUMMER BREAK, "one of the most important comics explorations of living with mental health issues that I’ve read in that time. A quietly powerful masterpiece of the purest of comics storytelling." Oliver also reviews Simon Moreton's MINOR LEAGUES #6 which "is about local legends and history, about memories and their complex relationship with location, how the places we live in shape us and how we too shape them, but at its heart, it’s about a son’s love for his father. Universal in theme but deeply personal in specificity it’s an outstanding and expansively structured piece of autobio work; a zine that underlines that within that particularly rich seam of UK small press practice Moreton remains its most innovative, important and, crucially, most relatable artist."

* Jazmine Joyner looks at THAT BOX WE SIT ON by Richie Pope, "a refreshing and well-written comic, that expertly captures the dynamic of the two main characters with relatable and funny moments sprinkled throughout."

* Joe McCulloch writes this amazing review of Lale Westvind's GRIP VOLUME 1, saying it "stands alone as a remarkable statement, one in which the artist's own hands seem to hold the entirety of American comic book history." 

* Chris Gavaler reviews CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts, "a fractured chronicle of self-deprecatingly hilarious yet harrowingly moving vignettes from the edge of her private yet oh-so-familiar abyss." 

* John Seven on Nora Krug's BELONGING: A GERMAN RECKONS WITH HISTORY AND HOME, a book that is "as valuable as it is personable, a reminder that humans are the ones living through history and that their lives seldom live up to the binary demands of our right or wrong way of thinking."

* Alex Hoffman writes about MOTHER'S WALK by Lauren Weinstein which "celebrates the creation of new life and the beginning of a new story, but does so fully aware that one day we will either see that story end, or see our own story end."

* Alex Thomas reviews I FEEL MACHINE, a new anthology from SelfMadeHero, which "feels more like a collection of one shots than it does an anthology and with the calibration of creators on show this allows them to explore quite complex ideas in a very interesting way, without being ham strung by a short page count."

* Kevin Bramer on Dave Kiersh's LAST CHANCE FOR LOVE, "a collection of some of his selected drawings from 2015-2017."

* Ryan Carey reviews TINDERELLA by M.S. Harkness, writing "Harkness doesn’t shy away from honest depictions of her own superficiality or insecurity, but unlike a lot of the predominantly-male autobio cartoonists of my generation and the ones preceding it, she doesn’t wallow in her flaws, either."

* Tegan O'Neil on PASSING FOR HUMAN by Liana Finck, which "gains much power from the rhythm of recurring themes and figures. The structurally ambitious framing narrative of Finck’s own attempt to tell her family’s story give the book the momentum of an orange being slowly peeled apart, skin by slice by seed. "


* Bill Kartalopoulous has the run-down on what's included in THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2018.

* Anya Davidson has a new comic up on Popula called DOUBLE CROSSED?!.

* Gabrielle Bell has a new comic up on Spiralbound called THE STORY OF NO. 16, THE 43-YEAR-OLD SPIDER.

* J. A. Micheline writes this personal and celebratory CON DIARY: THOUGHT BUBBLE 2018.

* Billie Muraben on JONATHAN DJOB NKONDO's new animation for Uniqlo's Ultra Light Down called Comfort Zone.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Books in Bites 20: HALLO SPACEBOY by Beth Barnett, A LONE DEER AT THE END OF THE WORLD by D. Bradford Gambles, and DOG NURSE by Margot Ferrick

Quick Reviews of Some Books I Picked Up at SPX 2018

By Beth Barnett

The earnestness of Beth Barnett’s Hallo Spaceboy is what sets it apart. Part autobio, part ode, this short, self-published comic is a love letter to an idealized David Bowie and his place in Barnett’s life as the “creative parent”. As an exploration of identity, this collection of three short comics points to the importance of influence; how, in the midst of feeling like an outsider, the greatest gift a person can receive is someone with whom they can identify. When Ziggy Stardust cries out “Oh no, love, you’re not alone … Gimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful” there is connection, affirmation, and purpose. This becomes a powerful spur towards self-validation and a boost to the creative impulse. Barnett lays this bare here, and, in doing so, she connects herself to the larger group -- to those of us who found community in the idea of Bowie.
Adding to this, Barnett viscerally captures the experience of January 11. 2016, when so many of us awoke to news of Bowie’s death. Walking through a snow-covered park, Barnett thinks “Why am I taking this so hard?” and the answers she finds are the answers so many of us found on that day. Like Barnett, I, too, “drowned” in Blackstar that day, trying to find that last piece of truth that I felt that I needed from a man I’d never met and yet had played such a pivotal role in my life. Barnett’s cartooning, with its simple lines and compelling use of negative space, carries the poignance of the emotions of this day with fragility and reverence. 

Hallo Spaceboy’s value is in its devotion, its sincerity, and its earnestness. It embraces a shared experience and conveys it unabashedly. And in this, it allows us to remember that we’re not alone, and, even more importantly, we are, indeed, wonderful.

By D. Bradford Gambles
Published by Birdcage Bottom Books

In the midst of a post-apocalyptic winter, a lone deer wanders out of the woods and into an abandoned shopping mall. What happens next is a savage take-down of the hollowness and vanity inherent in consumer culture. Rendered in sumptuous colors and crisp cartooning, A Lone Deer at the End of the World lays bare the contrast between the serenity of the natural world and humanity’s disconnected push to exploit, reshape, and acquire all that nature offers. D. Bradford Gambles drops any pretext of subtlety in the pages of this comic, choosing rather to smack his readers in the face with his message. In this, his polemic gains power.

In Gambles’ hands, this diatribe is a plea to humanity to slow down, reassess, re-prioritize, and embrace that which truly has value. He asks us to recognize the inherent vapidness of the pursuit of things to bring meaning to our lives. He asserts that the hunt for futile significance can only lead to our eventual destruction.
It’s heavy-handed stuff, yet the book never becomes ham-fisted thanks to Gambles’ artistry. Through the use of silence, pacing, and an amazing command of his color palette, his book points dramatically at repercussions, but not into his readers’ faces. Throughout, Gambles acknowledges that his reader already knows the truth he is revealing. His storytelling highlights hopefulness even amidst the wasteland he has created.

By Margot Ferrick
Published by Perfectly Acceptable Press

Inscrutable, triumphant, and beautiful, Margot Ferrick’s Dog Nurse seems, like so much of her work, both incredibly personal and yet held at arm’s length. As a narrative, the comic is concerned with the story of Songy, a child that “has a grotesque, dynamic nose and an ailment called mumblemouth that makes her speech difficult to comprehend.” A caretaker named Dog Nurse is hired to take care of her. 

In addressing issues like communication, compassion, self-efficacy, parenting, abuse, and innocence, there is both sadness and hope at its core. Ferrick seems to be both exploring trauma and celebrating the discovery of one’s voice. Ferrick seems to create from the subconscious. She presents a dream-like meditation that verges on the revelatory, which ultimately spins into a more universal sensibility. Pushing away direct identification, Dog Nurse operates on the periphery. The reader looks into a mirror, but is unsure that what is reflected is how they want to be seen. Yet it is hard not to recognize outlines of the self.
Dog Nurse is a difficult book to wrap your head around from an intellectual point-of-view. It demands that you open a part of you that is more attuned to the intuitive and instinctual self. Ferrick asks you to return to a time of inexperience, when much of what happens to you can’t be processed through a practiced past. This is a very young and vulnerable time, full of confusion and learning, where you are dependent upon a guide to give meaning to what happens to and around you. What happens when those guides are incapable of providing a sense of knowledge or orientation? This is where one’s own sense of power and self-esteem develop. And that development is, in large part, based upon the will to survive.

Thanks to the amazing production values of Perfectly Acceptable Press, Dog Nurse is presented as an art book with French Fold interiors, a chipboard cover fastened with black brads, and printed in a single edition of 350 copies. This enhances a kind of preciousness about the book and adds to its weight. The combination of the work’s theme and presentation combine to produce something unique; less a book to place upon a shelf and more something to be read and put out for display. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 9/22/18 to 9/28/18

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


* Caitlin Rosberg on Aminder Dhaliwal's WOMAN WORLD which "feels bright and optimistic, silly and emotional and joyous because it can afford to when there is no one to tell women they shouldn’t be."

* Laura Stump looks at HOW TO BE ALIVE by Tara Booth, a book that "explores what a successful comic can be and who can create one."

* Sally Ingraham on SPACE ACADEMY 123 by Mickey Zacchilli, writing "Her drawings contain and transmit the wild rush of strange emotions, the sick sense of failure, the fraying of sanity, and the bold realization of the total absurdity of life."

* John Seven reviews FLOCKS by L. Nichols, writing "Despite what the book portrays, this is a very uplifting work that strives for togetherness more than expressing rage or seeking revenge against those who wronged her. It’s very much an examination of group dynamics and how they can work against individuals, but also how that shouldn’t stop you from remaining open to a like-minded group as you walk through your life. It’s not only about acceptance but about refusing to allow those who hate you to taint your own practice of acceptance and obstruct your own quest for it."

* Paul Lai on Sophia Foster-Dimino's DID YOU SEE ME? writing "this book is asking questions, not wagging fingers, about our social fabrics, dramatically reconfigured by social media, and how they wrap up our quivering hearts."

* Ryan Carey reviews MONKEY CHEF by Mike Freiheit, lauding "Freiheit’s clean and humane cartooning style, his flair for characterization, his smooth and evocative color choices, his self-deprecating wit — but the unforced, naturalistic manner in which he consistently demonstrates correlations between “monkey world” and “people world” definitely stands out as a high point among high points." Carey also reviews THE PRINCE by Liam Cobb which "is probably best viewed as an intriguing experiment that flirts with essential reading status only to occasionally undercut itself by punching outside its weight class."

* Dominic Umile on ESCAPING WARS AND WAVES by Olivier Kugler, writing "The animated pages in Escaping read like composites of several images, where physical geography is represented fractionally and sitting subjects look to be in motion. The story retains a sketchbook-like sensibility rather than that of formal, finalized storytelling. It’s fitting: Everyone is on the move. Their stories are far from over, and some are still waiting to be told."


* Robin Enrico writes about SMALL PRESS EXPO 2018 -- LOOKING BACK AT A WEEKEND OF TRUE COMICS COMMUNITY AT THIS YEAR'S SPX for Broken Frontier. It was so great to finally meet Robin at our little comics critics gathering on Sunday morning. And his write-up here truly captures the mood of the show.

* Seo Kim's comic on Vice this week is called THE FOOD YOU WANT TO EAT WHEN NO OTHER FOOD WILL DO and it is a bit too on the nose for me not to link to.

* Karen Schousboe writes about the new book by Bo Gräslund, Beowulfkvädet. Den nordiska bakgrunden, which dates the epic poem Beowulf back to AD 550 -- which is just what my class of unruly High School Seniors really want to hear right now.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Dark Rooms: Matt Vadnais on Art and Other People’s Stories in Seekan Hui’s A PROJECTION

On its surface, Seekan Hui’s delightful and disorienting A Projection is a story about Cecilia, a character whom Hui carefully and somewhat inexplicably depicts with a second head literally projecting from her primary one. The title suggests that the reader ought to be thinking about identity as a kind of prosthesis, one that is both projected by one’s actions and presence in the world and also functions as a projection created by one’s interlocutors that prevents one from being seen as one truly is. Hui reinforces the title’s emphasis on Cecilia’s identity by crafting a relatively straightforward plot in which Cecilia takes the sort of shitty job one takes between college and one’s career and by making it clear that no one bothers to actually get to know her or acknowledge her complex, two-headed personhood. However, Hui’s use of Cecilia as a protagonist is a deft bit of sleight of hand that projects the linear story of Cecilia’s very bad summer upon a much differently shaped narrative involving the disruption of her boss’s cyclical grief involving the death of a child. Hui uses the relative familiarity of a late-stage coming of age story to get at a story that would crumble under the weight of linearity and, in doing so, creates a visual argument that demonstrates ways humans cannot help but use art to mitigate and control the otherwise overwhelming and incomprehensible intersection of the world and their own emotions.

The comic begins on Cecilia’s first day as she meets her new boss, the mysterious Baba who has taken out an ad looking for a live-in “FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHER” – a position that has clearly been filled many, many times with varying degrees of success – to provide daily documentation and, when needed, supervision of her children. Immediately, Baba shows a lack of regard for Cecilia as a person. She changes Cecilia’s name to two nicknames that she uses throughout the book without permission, introduces the house’s darkroom as the place in which Cecilia “will live,” and asserts that Cecilia’s job is not so much to take pictures influenced by her artistic sensibilities but to take photos similar enough in style that they can join the framed portraits on the wall of her family shrine, photos taken by the implied but unnamed litany of those who have held the job previously. Indeed, Baba extracts as much value from Cecilia as she can before, inevitably, Cecilia quits and Baba is, once again, in need of a family photographer. The house and job function as containers for a hermetically sealed chapter of Cecilia’s life that obeys Aristotle’s unities of storytelling, focusing on a single character, taking place in a single location, and happening during a single season. Consciously or not, readers are trained to understand a story that obeys these unities as being about the protagonist. When read in terms of how Cecilia changes or fails to change, A Projection seems to suffer for a lack of stakes. 
However, Cecilia’s photos and resignation lead Baba to realize that she and her family have been stuck in a cycle of mourning. It is unclear and frankly unimportant whether or not Cecilia is aware that Baba is going to convert the shrine to a playroom; for Cecilia, the story is about her and her work being disrespected. Hui uses conventional, Aristotelian narrative structure to foreground Cecilia’s story of struggle while hiding the story of Baba’s breakthrough.   As such, A Projection is a thrillingly ambitious rumination about the difficulty of understanding the roles one plays in the lives of other people. 
One way that Hui establishes that readers should look past Cecilia’s linear plot when reading A Projection has to do with the book’s art. Much of the book looks like a two-dimensional depiction of a mixed-media assemblage. Things that have been drawn are juxtaposed with things that appear to have been painted or made from paper. Moreover, the minimal use of traditional panels implies a collage-logic at odds with the sequential logic we might expect given a story with such a clear beginning, middle, and end. Some pages feel crafty, like the pages of a scrapbook, while others feel like they are messing with perspective, time, and the path of the reader’s eye in the tradition of museum mainstays like Hannah Höch. Hui begins and ends the book as though this is a story about Cecilia’s bad job; however, in order to extract that linear narrative from the pages itself, one has to work. Hue imbeds – and even camouflages – Cecilia’s narrative into inhospitable, though routinely beautiful, pages, suggesting that, after working to decode such a narrative from the art, one should work again to identify what collage-like story might be embedded in Cecilia’s narrative.
According to the role she plays in Cecilia’s story, Baba is a relatively flat antagonist; even as she says things like “I feel like a newborn baby,” her oppositional role to Cecilia does not waiver. She begins the story misnaming Cecilia and ends the story incapable of understanding ways that she has disrespected her. However, along the way, one is able to perceive, in ways that minimally matter to the oppressed and mistreated Cecilia, that Baba hires and abuses Family Photographers because of the death of a child whom only exists in one, poorly taken picture. If Hui had told the story of Baba’s transformation into an awful boss because of grief in a linear fashion, it would have had to happen so fast that the completeness of that transformation – one occurring over many cycles – would have been at cross-purposes with the moment of growth that happens when she sees pictures Cecilia has taken of the surviving children that somehow include the lost sibling, Sis. By making a reader work to decipher a sequential narrative from the not-particularly sequential art, Hui incentivizes a reader doing the inverse, working to think about how this story might be a single piece of the mosaic story of Baba. The result is compelling and real. Cecilia’s photographs of the family are, from her perspective, disrespected even as, from Baba’s perspective, they lead to a breakthrough where she is able to, for the moment at least, break the cycle of hiring new people while vowing to convert a room that had served as a monument to the past into a playroom to celebrate the present.

Another way that Hui signals the reader to look beyond the linear narrative with Cecilia as the protagonist has to do with the book’s structure. The endnotes suggest that the book is not a story but “a meditation.” The physical artifact of the comic is shaped like a parabola, bookended by pages including picture frames that are blank but for a set of eyes. At its exact center, Hui places a series of pages that are visually distinct from the rest of the art, a red-hued section where Cecilia develops the pictures of Sis. Despite containing, for readers willing to do the work, a tidy narrative that looks like it is about how Cecilia changes or fails to change, Hui’s formal innovations follow the form of a practice or obsession, something that has a beginning, middle, and ending that allows repetition as opposed to a beginning, middle, and ending that documents change.
Finally, Hui projects Cecilia’s story – which a reader has to project onto the art of the book – onto Baba’s less tidy story by ignoring recent technological innovations in the medium of photography. Surely a person seeking daily documentation of her children and family would find that easier with the instant gratification and editing capabilities that come from working digitally. However, no one in the book acts as though the digital camera has been invented, relying instead on outmoded filmic techniques by which light is projected upon film that is, with the help of a chemical bath, projected onto paper. Beyond extending the projection metaphor in a number of interesting ways, Hui’s choice to stay analog does three related things thematically. First, the use of the darkroom makes the development of photos akin to memory, a kind of conjuring of the past. Second, because of the painstaking time required to develop photographs in this traditional way, it is easier to read Cecilia’s practice as a high art, a reading necessary to foreground ways that photography is hardly a neutral medium through which the world is depicted. Finally, the use of an old-school camera reminds the reader that the eye itself is a kind of camera. Early in the book, Cecilia complains to a friend that all of the photos on the walls of the shrine have eyes that are always watching her, a complaint that draws attention to all of the eyes in the pages that bookend the meditation and asks the reader to think about the ways one’s subjectivity necessarily flattens others into objects.
Ultimately, A Projection is hopeful and upsetting in equal measure. Something about how Cecilia sees the world through photography does disrupt Baba’s preconceived notions of what photography is supposed to do and, in the process, allows her a moment of non-linear growth. However, neither Cecilia nor Baba is fully aware of this exchange of the role that each of them has played in the other’s story. Hui asserts that, despite the obvious power that art has to foster true communication and recognition, humans far too often miss the point and seek out or make art that reinforces things they already believe to be true. If a reader, like Cecilia, enters this text expecting a coming of age story, there is a good chance that is what they will find. However, A Projection offers a number of clues that readers ought to resist what they think they know about this kind of story. By nudging readers to recognize and ultimately reject the way a book like this is supposed to be read, A Projection offers readers a chance to find something in the text that they were not already bringing with them. A Projection is a story about the power of art to offer the surprise transformation; just as importantly, however, A Projection is about how rarely human beings let it happen. Hui offers readers a chance to experience something that she, at least in part, withholds from her characters.
Matt Vadnais lives and teaches college English classes in Milwaukee. His comics-related work has appeared in Your Chicken Enemy and Comics MNT. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver