Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Doing DiNK 2018: Chase Magnett and Daniel Elkin Take A Look Back At The Denver Independent Comics And Art Expo

The third Denver Independent Comics and Art Expo (DiNK) took place on April 14-15th. Located on all three floors of the McNichols Civic Center. The expo filled the top two with artists from every stripe of the comics industry in North America and the bottommost floor with panels and special exhibitions. Chase Magnett and Daniel Elkin, longtime convention buddies, comics fans, and critics of small press and self-published comics, were in attendance for their first time. After a long weekend of great comics, food, and friends, they’re finally prepared to debrief their DiNK experience. 
Chase Magnett: I’ve begun to divide comics conventions into two distinct categories: work conventions and self-care conventions. The former are ones I attend primarily to provide coverage and collect interviews. They’re ones that tend to attract publishers, big announcements, and large crowds—the San Diego’s and New York’s of the world. The latter are the ones I attend to remind myself why I love comics. They remain focused on the art and craft of comics and seem to attract a much more eclectic set of creators. Neither version is bad; they both tend to be busy, packed with socializing, and offer opportunities. I enjoy both styles of convention for different reasons, but I’m so glad that DiNK fell firmly into the category of self-care. 

Over the past four months, I have fallen down a rabbit hole after making comics writing my only source of income. I really love the work I do for big entertainment sites, but it’s easy to lose perspective in the weekly flurry of pitches, reviews, and interviews along with the neverending news cycle of new comics and superhero movies. A couple of days in Denver allowed me to step back and remember why I started working in comics in the first place. 

Comics are an artform that we can still touch and interact with on a human level in the United States. All you need to do is attend one of those work conventions to realize that even television shows or movies with minor followings are impossibly obfuscated from the public eye. Stars and writers are goods, packaged into photo sessions and carefully planned panels. They are not artists most people can interact with as much as they are commodities. That might be true for a handful of creators in comics, but they’re the exception to the rule. 

There was no one person at DiNK who you could not have a conversation with, and the convention possessed some real star power. Joe Kelly wrote the film adaptation of the recently released I Kill Giants, but he made time to engage with everyone that swung by his table. It’s clear that he’s still firmly grounded in this weird, niche of an artform we love and that has kept him grounded as a human being. 

Our friend Jason Sacks is likely to give me some side-eye for not conducting any interviews, but it was super nice to wander and make chit chat without any agenda. The range of talent on display was truly remarkable and I want to dig into some of the people we met or reconnected with later. Right here I just want to note what a unique opportunity it is to meet the creators of your favorite indie strip right alongside some impressive names from the biggest American comics publishers. We might have had press badges, but we certainly didn’t need them to take advantage of the intimate nature of DiNK. 

That’s my big picture take away from the weekend. I have a lot of stories and moments still rattling around in my brain, but first I want to hear what you thought of DiNK. 
Friday Night in Denver before DiNK begins
Left to Right: Mark O. Stack, Leda Zawacki, Andrea Shockling, Alex Magnett, Daniel Elkin, and Chase Magnett
Daniel Elkin: DiNK was a self-care convention for me as well, Chase, though, perhaps, for slightly different reasons than it was for you. The small puddle in the larger lake of comics that is the small press and self-publishing niche is all about humanity and connecting the artist to the work and the work to you. DiNK was not about shepherding corporate IPs or huckstering plastic baubles and gewgaws or high-priced photo ops with hungover has-beens who still can’t believe that this is their lives now (though John Leguizamo was there?). Up and down the aisles of DiNK there were the myriad of soft souls offering up their work which was themselves, which was you, and me, and all of us. 

When you have just let go of something precious, you need to find something real to hold on to. 

These small press conventions give those of us in the know the opportunity to band together in that which we love. They also give access to the outsiders to come on in and join the jubilee. It’s all about the positive, the moment of linkage, the aesthetic saturnalia that occurs when groups gather around a common connection to art. 

Because it is art first at DiNK. Yes, money exchanges hands from audience to artist, creators gotta eat after all, and, sure, cash is a motivating factor for standing behind a table all day as people casually stroll past making personal judgments on your merit. But I like to think that the true purpose of a show like DiNK is to reinforce community — to gather, to share, to experience, and to celebrate. 

Comics tends to be a culture that exists in isolation. Books leave their creators and float into the vapor, only to land later in the small rooms of the houses of others, consumed alone. The bridge that this art constructs is long and the wind drowns out the calls from other side. An occasion like DiNK turns that expanse into a handshake and eye contact and the free flow of words. The connection can become a conversation, and the art is there to envelop us all. 

Oftentimes, when speaking about these types of self-care conventions, I feel obligated to quote one of my favorite comics critics out there, Keith Silva, who said of SPX 2015 “People over product, always.” It is what I love the most about these things. 
"Sex Muppet Burt Reynolds" colored by Chase Magnett
Chase Magnett: Let me just start by defending John Leguizamo, who was there with a comic he created. While he stood out as the celebrity presence of the weekend, he didn’t arrive just to sign off autographs. I’m giving DiNK a big thumbs up for requiring even a movie star to bring their own comics. 

What you were saying about our unique place in comics, often inter-mingled with fandom, media, and creation, makes me think about the experience outside of our heads. We’re veterans at this sort of thing who can quote favorite observations from friends and sort conventions into categories like work and self-care. I don’t think we’re pretentious, but we’re certainly at risk of crossing that line if we don’t remain self-aware. As much as I love the opportunities that any comics convention, but especially a convention like DiNK, affords us, I’m much more interested in how those outside of the industry engage with it. At the end of the day, the two of us can e-mail a publisher or creator for copies of these comics or an interview, but for many individuals this is a unique opportunity to engage with the form.

That’s what made observing the evolution of my wife’s sketchbook over the weekend such a thrill. Alex has been going to conventions with me for many years now, but comics remain my thing as much as video games are hers. There’s some overlap, but she has no interest in the sort of work we do. Conventions are as much of an excuse to take a small vacation when we go together as anything else. This year she decided to start her own sketchbook to meet more artists and essentially craft her own scavenger hunt for these weekends. It’s themed around our dog, Tetra (who is an angel), with artists drawing their interpretation based on Instagram photos. 
Tetra by Morgan Beem
She collected a really stunning set of new sketches from artists Morgan Beem, Box Brown, Chuck Forsman, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Jim Mahfood, Sarah Stern, and Leda Zawacki. I honestly tried to narrow the list down to three examples, but it felt wrong to exclude any one of those individuals. Together they represent such a large range of talent covering the largest publishers in American comics to some of the most impressive self-published comics of today. It is already a very impressive looking little book, but what struck me more was the consistently positive experiences Alex had talking to artists she had never met. 
Tetra by Box Brown
Every creator she approached was friendly, happy to share their time, and interested in discussing dogs. I’ve interviewed some of them before, like Brown and Lemire, but was often busy with other things when Alex went seeking these sketches. She recounted a story to me about the sketch Lemire had done and followed up by asking if any of his comics might appeal to her. We’ll see how Sweet Tooth goes over (pitched as The Road, but slightly less depressing and with more animals), but the thing that struck me from this and many other interactions was how they created additional interest in comics art. 
Tetra by Jim Mahfood
It goes to the heart of why these conventions exist? Outside of the purely capitalist answers behind autograph mills, it feels like there has to be a bigger reason behind so many people getting together to share their time and energy, especially when most of us are out money by the end of the weekend. I think it boils down to the human connection. Comics can be an all-consuming career where everyone you interact with, editors, co-creators, friends, and, sometimes even, family, are also engaged with comics. A comics convention can ironically be a place to put some perspective on that placement. The people who come to meet new and favorite artists are inspired by their work for reasons outside of the medium itself. These creations have the power to do something as simple as remind us of our love for dogs or get us through the most difficult periods in life. There’s a symbiotic value in recognizing that connection between artist and reader, providing the former with understanding of their work’s impact and the latter with chances to reaffirm that impact and discover new opportunities. 

Daniel Elkin: Well said, Chase, and, yes, Tetra is a wonderful dog. I, too, loved seeing how all the sketches that Alex collected over the weekend not only brought out all that was Tetra about Tetra, but also displayed the range of possibilities that each artist brought to the task; each sketch was as much about the cartoonist as it was about your dog. 

And that’s another piece to this conversation about conventions, Chase, so I’m glad you brought it up. These small, art-focused, self-care conventions have, at their core, spectacular examples of the myriad of possibilities this medium offers for artists and audience alike. From the quiet to the bombastic, the expansive to the personal, from the mythology of the autobio to the mythology of the grand design, all these ideas and styles and nuances are on display, all in one place, for you to wander through and digest. It can be overwhelming as much as it is comforting, always on the precipice of aesthetic overload. 

I mean, just look at the diversity of themes and approaches to be found in the books I brought home from the show: 
If you haven’t read Cait ZellersNimue yet, please correct that oversight in your life right this moment (then come back, thank me, and read the rest of this piece). This “re-imagining of the Camelot legend from the perspective of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake” is a powerful work of feminist literature that features some of the most stunning use of the basic bones of comics I’ve seen in quite some time. Zellers’ use of panel layouts displays an intuitiveness to its construct that pushes its possibilities to places I’ve never seen. 

Just take a look at this page and you’ll see what I mean: 
Through just the use of panel breaks, Zellers expresses time, action, and emotion in a profoundly communicative way, There is so much happening on this page in, what is for all extents and purposes, a single image, just through her ingenious use of panel breaks, playing on the expectations inherent therein and using how we read comics to further her narrative, character, and theme.
I also picked up Volumes Five and Six of Denver-based cartoonist Karl Christian Krumpholz’s 30 Miles of Crazy, a series I have written about a number of times already. Krumpholz’s art and storytelling have only gotten better in his later work. This series, mostly focused on the people he has encountered in the various bars and back alleys that dot one of Denver’s most celebrated and notorious streets, Colfax Avenue, continues to be about the people who make up a place told with empathy, admiration, and a basic humanity that is revelatory about the kind of person Krumpholz is. Krumpholz’s table at DiNK was almost always packed with people sharing stories, admiring his books, and, above all else, laughing in such a way that made you want to be part of this community. This may be partially because of Krumpholz’s notoriety as a local cartoonist, but I also suspect that it is because his work speaks that core of our shared humanity. 
Another stand-out book I brought home is the latest collection from Coin-Op Books, Coin-Op Number 7: The Doppler Issue. Brother and sister cartoonists, Peter and Maria Hoey, are creating interesting, detailed, surreal, and delightful books through their publishing entity, and this issue continues to demonstrate that they are some of the best and most inventive creators out there. The Hoeys are forcing the framework of the form to open wider into uncharted territory with a deft hand and a certainty of purpose, and I, for one, am overjoyed to be taken along. With each Volume coming out, the Hoeys just seem to be getting better and better. 

Other books of note that I packed in my suitcase were Inbetweiners by Amalia DeGirolamo, a deceptively simple book about “Somewhere between what is and what will be is the mysterious and sometimes terrifying space of uncertainty” that, for all of DeGirolamo’s all-ages cartooning style, delves into some significant and substantial musings about place, purpose, and person; The Octopus by Leda Zawacki, ostensibly a book “about a young girl who gets possessed by an octopus", but is also about self-determination, creativity, and acceptance, which features the graceful linework that is a hallmark of Zawacki’s work; A Picture of Me written by Lilah Sturges and drawn by Andrea Shockling, a poetically beautiful book both in the the lyricism of Sturges’ writing and the wonderful artwork of Shockling, that presents all of the emotional challenges around acceptance of and within an individual and their gender identity in a very raw and cogent manner; Mixtape #3, another collection of diary comics from the enormously talented Jamaica Dyer; and finally, RM by Josh Bayer, which is sort of a reimagining of Bill Mantlo’s amazing work on ROM for Marvel Comics, but also follows Bayer’s recurring character (and, perhaps, author stand-in), Theth. Finding this book at the Tinto Press table at DiNK was a complete surprise, as I had no idea it was out yet. This book is all I hoped it would be — messy, weird, reverential, and complex. 
Finally, though, the work that most captured the spirit of a self-care convention like DiNK is this totally off-the-wall, bonkers, depraved, offensive, puerile, and jaw-dropping series by Denver artist Jake Fairly called This Is Heavy Metal. I’m still not sure if there are really any merits to this work in and of itself (though Fairly is a pretty amazing cartoonist) — it drips with the toxic masculinity of teen white boy’s power fantasies on almost every page. What sold me on this comic was the fact that Fairly was unabashedly, audaciously, and unhesitatingly ALL FUCKING IN on this thing. The obvious joy and enthusiasm emanating from Fairly as he talked about his comics was so authentic and genuine that it was almost hypnotic. As tone-deaf as his work appears to be in today’s society, his motivation for creating was so pure, so celebratory, so FUCKING METAL, that my interactions with him were some of my favorite moments of the entire show. 

I’m not lauding his comics, but I am lauding what is behind them. The glee and elation of creating and sharing that Fairly represented encapsulated so much that is great about the world of small press and self-published comics to me. As bonkers as his books were, they came from his heart and his desire to celebrate and, most importantly, to share this bat-shit insane thing that he loved with me, with you, with anyone who would walk by. The guilelessness of Fairly was so clean that it washed away so much of the burdens I was feeling coming into the weekend, and it was so refreshing and honest that all the heartbreaking garbage that can be found in the world of comics was, at least momentarily, set aside, and all that was good about comics shone through once again. 

So, yeah, Chase, DiNK was a self-care comics convention. And having that experience with you and Alex and all of our other friends — why, it was just what I needed. 

Chase Magnett: Honest to god, I think you wrote a fine conclusion to this reflection right there, but you’re the boss and I want to be sure you get your money’s worth of my thoughts. So I’m going to take a crack at an epilogue. 

I did, in fact, have an opportunity to read Nimue already. I read it on the walk between the convention and our hotel, and again on the long ride home. Everything you noted about this short volume is true and it served as a significant reminder of how easy it is to miss great work in comics. After reading it I became aware that several people whose taste I trust were already big fans of the comic. It was our mutual friend Mark O. Stack who first pointed me towards it at DiNK, and I’m glad we happened to pass Cait Zellers’ booth together for that exact reason. The cover is gorgeous, but I don’t know if I would have made the leap to purchasing it without a strong recommendation. 
Comics writer and YCE contributor Mark O. Stack at his table at DiNK 2018
That makes me think of the purpose of conventions like DiNK and other elements surrounding small press and self-published comics. Looking at all of the comics you discovered and the ones I brought home, it’s clear that DiNK is successfully curating a collection of talent that encourages comics readers to discover new things. Thinking of the arrangement this year with invited guests on the top floor and many new tabling artists below, the convention was purposefully crafted to expose attendees to as much as possible. Reaching Joe Kelly or Jeff Lemire required attendees to walk through lots of talent they might not be exposed to otherwise. We are there to explore as much as possible, but even the most dedicated autograph hunter will be compelled to interact with new work. 

Reviewing the guest list for the show, it’s clear that a lot of thought went into how they could best curate the space. Diversity occurred on multiple levels. There’s the obvious mix of new artists and more popular draws, but that’s only the surface. Looking around at who was creating these comics it was clear that the convention had purposefully sought out artists who could reflect a wide range of experiences. It was one of the most diverse artist’s alley arrangements I have ever witnessed. That is reflected in the work as well with the subjects, styles, and formats really showing off the many possibilities to be found within comics. 

That’s why I love well-curated conventions like DiNK. The self-care aspect evolves naturally from the passion and care put into presenting the comics medium. It doesn’t matter who you are walking into DiNK, whether you’re a veteran of the weekly superhero grind or just discovering your first comic book, it wants to show you more. That makes shows like this precious, as I’ve only encountered a handful that really pull of the task. 

It also reminds me of why I’m grateful for a site like Your Chicken Enemy where people can encounter a similar level of curation and care, especially if they can’t afford to travel. There’s very little space or money in the already cramped and poor world of comics journalism, so any site that can boost comics like Nimue is just as precious of a gem as DiNK. They both require dedicated and passionate individuals willing to put some skin in the game to push interesting work. Those people are the reason I’ll keep traveling to small press conventions and clicking on this site.

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Prepare To Meet Your Maker: Ryan Carey reviews GODHEAD by Ho Che Anderson

What do you do when you absolutely love a comic, but think it's undercut by things entirely outside the parameters of the story and art itself? 

Ho Che Anderson's Godhead Volume One (a second is apparently on the way next year, fingers crossed) is a work of borderline-brilliant dystopian sci-fi, a logical extrapolation of the current privatization of every resource under the sun (although hey, watch, the fucking corporations will probably set their sights on the sun soon enough), a breathtakingly cinematic action spectacle, a compelling tale of sleazy boardroom intrigue, and a fascinating character study. It's drawn in a wide variety of styles that vary from scene to scene according to the dictates of what's happening on the page, it moves at breakneck speed, and it has deep socio-political resonances throughout. Sounds pretty well flawless, does it not? 

And when it's firing on all cylinders --- as it usually is --- that's a pretty fair assessment. Anderson is a cartoonist whose body of work has been defined by a kind of full-time restlessness, a refusal to pigeonhole himself down to one "type" of comic --- how else do you explain going from King to I Want To Be Your Dog? In a very real sense, this developing epic feels like the story he's been building up to for the last couple of decades. The near-future world he's constructed here feels incredibly well- thought-through, we're talking down to the last detail, with every character, every interaction, very nearly every line of dialogue rooted in a detailed history we're only somewhat privy to (and rightly so), but that Anderson himself more than likely has broken down, Alan Moore-style, on a massive flowchart somewhere. If this story is a puzzle, then the first of the two chapters in this book puts the outer-edge pieces in place, while the second starts to fill the middle in. That's entirely as it should be, of course --- but it's also a bit of a problem. 
Not an insurmountable one, mind you --- not even close --- but I really do think the "graphic novel" format does this material a disservice. Sure, the oversized dimensions of the book, the glossy paper, etc. are all nice --- but they might be a little bit too nice. Anderson has been doing serialized graphic novels since before pretty much anyone else, of course, so it's natural that he'd go that route again, but I can't help but think that this work would present so much cooler as four individual "floppy" single issues, printed on something a bit closer to newsprint, than it does as two big, fancy books. For one thing, the textured grayscale art would have a much more tactile and "pulpy" feel to it --- and hence a greater sense of immediacy --- on less slick paper stock, and the story really is broken down into single discrete chapters. Which brings us to the second problem not entirely (perhaps not even remotely) of Anderson's making --- 

I'm not one for block-cap "screaming" in my reviews, but DO NOT READ THE BACK-COVER PROMO BLURB ON THIS BOOK UNTIL YOU'VE FINISHED THE FIRST CHAPTER. And DON'T GO ANY FURTHER with this review if you don't want key plot points "spoiled" (and here you thought I was just casually disregarding the old "don't give your verdict until the end of the review" rule, but no, there's a method to my madness here, and I got the "buy this, it's great!" part out of the way first on purpose) --- which is precisely what that back-cover promo blurb does. The first chapter limns the outskirts of an almost unfathomably-complex scenario --- a high-power corporate CEO is kidnapped under mysterious circumstances, then escapes under equally-mysterious circumstances after getting roughed up a little bit; an ex-soldier (maybe an ex-con, too?) is struggling between staying on the straight and narrow for the sake of his relationship with his girlfriend and falling back into what he was trained to do; a scientist is working on a massive project that almost no one even dares speak about in anything other than hushed tones; there's some kind of robot army being built that people do talk about; the CEO's security chief seems to take an extra-curricular interest in both said scientific project and every aspect of her boss' life --- what does it all mean? 

This, of course, would be plenty to mull over as you wait for issue two, but there's no wait, you just jump right into it, and the story nearly does a 180 : we get flashbacks to a war in Colombia some years prior, which Anderson cuts into and out of with deft precision, that ties some of these individuals together; we discover the CEO and the scientist have an "undercover" romantic relationship going on; our former soldier (and possibly con?) goes back to his former ways; the security chief is an agent of some hidden, shadowy, cult-ish power --- oh, and that top-secret project? They're building a machine that allows people to --- I shit you not --- talk to God. 
It's a major plot twist. The crux of the story. The grandiose concept to end all grandiose concepts. And that back cover blurb I won't quit bitching about? It gives it away and sucks all the power out of the book's key revelation. 

Anderson's work deserves better. The title of the book makes sense once you know this fact, of course, but if you go in "blind," I would argue that just why this thing is called Godhead would stand as yet one more enticing mystery among many as chapter one plays out. Letting the cat out of the bag this explicitly is a decision that, for the life of me, I simply can't explain.My other grip, about the format of the book itself at least has one thing going for it : Anderson's original full-color pages, completed before the decision (one that, for both the record and whatever it's worth, I fully support) was made to go the black-and-white route, are presented in the back looking big, gorgeous, and bold. Had they stuck with printing this book in color, this format would make sense, and still does for the "bonus" material. But telling prospective readers about the whole "machine-that-talks-to-God" thing before they even crack the book open? I can't really see any upside to that, I'm sorry. 

Fortunately, the work itself is strong enough to overcome this marketing decision. As you'd probably expect, the "guinea pigs" chosen to be subjected to the titular Godhead machine are all in pretty rough shape, mentally --- that is, if they're even still alive --- and the scenes depicting their abject terror rank right up there with the numerous hyper-violent and impactful action sequences as Anderson's best cartooning in a book full of damn good cartooning that is ultimately anchored, believe it or not, in an (admittedly polished) ethos of individuality. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the human element would be easy to lose sight of in a work this sprawling, this stylish, but no --- everyone here is given such a unique, individual look that their own expressions propel the narrative forward visually every bit as much as whatever they are doing/having done to them does. And speaking of unique and individual, where the heck does Anderson come up with these amazing names? They range from the alliterative (security chief Birdey Brooks) to the too-cool-for-school (former soldier Racer Calhoun) to the inexplicable (female scientist James Fancy) to the appropriately non-descript (the CEO is just, you guessed it, the CEO), to the yes-that's-perfect-for-a-comic-book (deceased company founder Jackson Jackson). This is straight-up genius stuff. 
And “genius” may not be a bad description of Godhead on the whole. It depends on where it all goes, of course, but a first half this imaginative, this confident, this striking, this bold --- I don't think Anderson's going to blow the landing. There's a little bit of a Michael Mann feel to these proceedings with the gut-punch immediacy of the action and crisp modern noir atmosphere, and in terms of tone and content I'm reminded a bit of Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski's apparently-aborted (which is a real shame) Image Comics series Sex, what with its high-finance intrigues, secret cults, and CEO protagonist, but by and large this feels like something utterly unto itself. A world where the captains of industry are vying for control of every aspect of reality itself and where the idea of talking to God seems like a very real --- and very frightening --- possibility. 

I just hope that if God shows up in volume in two, he or she isn't too pissed off about having their existence given away on the back cover.


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.

Friday, April 20, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 4/13/18 to 4/20/18

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


* Alenka Figa writes about the end of Michael DeForge's LEAVING RICHARD'S VALLEY strip which he has been posting on Twitter and Instagram since mid-February of 2017, in which "DeForge has created a world that initially feels simple but is quite expansive; the development of these likeable but conceited, oblivious characters, the commentary on displacement and gentrification, on cults, on the search for self-identity within groups of all kinds, show his understanding and skill in using webcomics as a medium."

* Jenny Robins on Eleanor Davis' WHY ART? in which "Davis demonstrates the wideness of Art's possible definitions by categorizing it into baldly arbitrary and unusual categories, then smashing those categories back together."

* Robin Enrico reviews LOUD AND SMART by Alex Krokus, writing "Krokus digs deep into the humor of discomfort and depression to create a series of gag strips where we laugh not because we also know the timely cultural reference but because we are well versed in the anxiousness of living in an era of uncertainty and cynicism."

* Ryan C. on Johnny Ryan's PRISON PIT BOOK SIX, in which "Ryan doesn't posit any solution to -- well, anything. And he's probably not the guy to do that. But he does force us to stare into the abyss and to admit that it's also staring back."

* Tom Murphy reviews ANTI-GONE by Connor Willumsen, which "demands on almost every page that you work hard to unlock the significance of Connor Willumsen's choices. But that work brings its rewards."

* Ben Howard looks at Katherine Lang's SOUL TO CALL, which is "engaging in its colorful, gruesome art that envisions a truly hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape. Yet it also differentiates itself from the pack with incredibly unique characters that form strong bonds with each other."

* John Seven reviews THE NEW WORLD by Chris Reynolds.

* Rob Clough on the comics of KEVIN BUDNIK, writing "Budnik's revealed thoughts are not of his basest desires, but rather of his deepest fears and the ongoing, active experience of living with mental illness."


* Daphne Milner talks to TARA BOOTH about her upcoming book, Nocturne, and features a number of preview pages that look spectacular.

* Kevin Budnik interviews NICK DRNASO about "his new book Sabrina, and his relationship with the inward and outward facing aspects of being a working cartoonist."

* Zack Soto and Mike Dawson talk to KEREN KATZ over on Process Party about her first book, The Academic Hour, and "her early days as a dance, obsession with flying, being an eternal student, art school days, to her current jet setting life as a cartoonist and performer."

* Alex Dueben interviews ELEANOR DAVIS about her latest book, Why Art?, "political activism, PowerPoint, and much more."

* CAT FIGHT, a comic by Anya Davidson, is featured over on Vice.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SHORTBOX #8 is available for Pre-Order

SHORTBOX, a collection of comics curated and published by Zainab Akhtar, has announced that you can pre-order the newest releases until April 27th, with a scheduled shipping date in June. 

Akhtar has an eye for great comics, and her boxes have always had works that have challenged me as a reader, opened my eyes to creators I might never have otherwise come across, impressed me with their quality and diversity.

If you are a fan of independent comics, you should be investing in what ShortBox is offering every three months.

Check out what is included this time around:

'Your Mother's Fox' by Niv Sekar 36pp, colour.
A woman sets out to see America the way her mother did: on the back of a giant fox. And while a
 giant fox may be better than any car for a roadtrip, the fox is old, and America is its own land. A thoughtful and poignant treatise on place, identity, and belonging.

The River Bank by George Mager, colour, 40pp, french flap cover.
 George Mager brings his uniquely charming whimsy to this long-term passion project: an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic, The Wind in the Willows. Follow Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger in an exuberantly lively and fresh journey, that will have you ready for the joys of spring.

Homunculus by Joe Sparrow, 70pp, colour.
A machine at the end of the world... In the near future, a young scientist and her sentient creation struggle to understand, and be understood by, the world around them. A story about love and learning, death and time, told across the years.

Summer Break by Lottie Pencheon 90pp colour, perfect bound, spot gloss cover.
Lottie's been feeling ill, or 'off' at the least, the difficulty of articulating exactly what's wrong leaving her even more isolated within herself. A break away with her family in the crisp, green goodness of nature seems like it could shake off any cobwebs, but it becomes apparent that what she's facing is very real, and that there's no quick fix.

What Are You Thinking About by Anatola Howard, 32pp colour and black and white.
A collection of stream-of-consciousness vignettes and short stories from one of the most exciting up and coming cartoonists in North America.

Monday, April 16, 2018

It's What You Leave Out: David Fairbanks on The Poetry of Absence in CHANGE by Ales Kot, Morgan Jeske, and Sloane Leong

Flip open a comic to a random page. Perhaps the first thing you notice are the seas of color or blackness greeting you. Perhaps something incredibly dynamic is happening and your eye is drawn to the "motion" of a punch through visual cues. Perhaps a character is giving a lengthy speech that leaves the page dominated by word balloons. The visual nature of the medium leads to a focus on those visual elements, but the majority of comics function rely on an absence, an anti-visual element of the page: the gutter. 

As comics have mostly moved away from a more rigid formalism, they have begun to walk the path of free verse poetry by making incredible and innovative use of panel placement and the breaks between panels. Ask a poet why they broke their line in a certain way and they are just as likely to say "because it felt right" as they are to offer a straight answer regarding form and sound and image and surprise. While the medium of comics and the responses of creators to questions about page composition and gutter placement is similar, there is nowhere near as lively a conversation around the insertion of absences (or the absence of absences) into a page of comics as there are the breaking of lines in a poem.

It's a conversation I would like to start. 

Discussion of page layout and panel composition most often focuses on grids -- a critic's discovery of a comic plotted mostly on a grid or a creator's announcement that their comic was put on a grid with some purpose. David Hine and Shaky Kane used a 4-panel grid for a Burroughsian cut-up experiment in Bulletproof Coffin (inspired by 4-panel grids in older Jack Kirby comics), Frank Miller used 16-panel grids in Dark Knight Returns, and Tom King seems inexplicably intent on using 9-panel grids with multiple artists on multiple comics. And critics talk about them. A little. There is a certain point at which the discussion of the grid -- much like its continued use page after page -- gets repetitive and a little boring. So I won't be talking about grids, except perhaps for the ways in which they do something innovative. 

Change (Kot, Jeske, Leong, and Brisson) was certainly not the first comic to get creative with panel placement, gutters, and page layout, but it was the first time I took notice of what panel placement and arrangement can do for the communication of the story. It was the first time I felt it, and it might be easier to start with an example. 
This page has some of the clearest examples of Change taking advantage of readers' familiarity with comics and how they are read. Occurring in the prologue, this snippet lets Morgan Jeske and Sloane Leong accomplish more in one(ish) panel than many comics do in a single page, condensing heightened emotions and tensions into a single panel instead of a series of talking heads -- and in this panel, there are two trios of inset panels emphasizing the characters' eyes and mouths as the conversation gets heated. Jeske is saying "yes, this conversation is occurring now, but also so are these facial movements," and the contrasting colors brought by Leong allow these microscopic panels to command a reader's attention. Constructing a panel this way requires a certain level of faith in the reader -- after all, there are comics readers who simply follow the word balloons from top left to bottom right and then turn the page, like listening to a TV show as your eyes are elsewhere -- but the combination of the contrasting colors and the placement in line with the word balloons makes it more likely for a reader to pick up what Jeske and Leong are putting down. 

If I were to extrapolate the idea of the gutter as comics' line break further, that would leave a page as an equivalent to a stanza. What, then, is going on with those inset panels? They have clearly defined panel borders with space between them, but they are laid on top of other, relevant art. They are taking the advantages of breaking a panel -- creating discrete ideas/emotions and presenting them to the reader -- without the formless void that exists in the typical gutter. It's an example of having your cake and eating it too, and it is a technique that poets like Mica Woods and Chrissy Martin do incredibly well. 

In the third of Mica Woods' "Three Poems from Now/Here," she incorporates the forward slash (typically used for marking line breaks in poetry transcribed as prose) to break the line without really breaking it: 
suspicion on the train from one stop / to the next an American train / on a German train once / the woman across from me and B thought we were German / until we told her we weren’t / this was perhaps flattery / to no end except kindness in a version of a haunted house centipede / the great / murder mysteries and robberies should happen on trains not in mansions / nor banks / the path is inevitable / unless it hits a cow or car and these things are usually considered / replaceable parts / so all plots are resting / places everyone can catch their breath / in the arc as it appro/aches infinity, which is always (a) suspect for this reason / you’ll need / a good feast of an intermission to gut out the suspense within an unstoppable train / we know / where it’s going / five bodies will be on the floor and at least four / will not get up into the shuddering air of humanity again 
This creates the effect of a boundary without fully separating the text from the rest of its line. It encourages a reader to hold multiple ideas in their head at once, in much the same way that the inset panels in the panel of Change. One could make the argument that word balloons work similarly to this application of panels within panels, but there are unfortunately few examples of word balloons with distinctly non-textual elements in them. 

Chrissy Martin's poem "Flexible," on the other hand, encourages the holding of potentially conflicting ideas, leading a reader where she wants them to go while massaging that reader's lexicon in a way that might give them a bit of empathy toward women and a better understanding of the expectations placed upon them: 
We are girls scrawling words across collarbones, my body is instrumental no no not ornamental / how then so many hands decide to pluck pluck / decide to perform their favorite songs / high notes on the tightness of our thighs / lows in the resonance of empty bellies / girls that are playable / pliable / malleable / see flexible / see supple / see stars from hunger / i.e. thin / i.e. desirable / girls someplace between mace and home / carrying catchphrases, 
The conflict brought up by Jeske and Leong on the third page of Change is more visual than conceptual, for while the inset panels clearly work in concert with the dialogue and facial expressions in the main panel, it's the color contrast that makes the panel work as a whole. 

There are three other techniques on display in this image alone: panels overlapping each other and spilling out into the gutter, a panel that has been sliced into discrete chunks to effectively slow the transition to the next panel, and a consistently inconsistent panel size that dispels notions of uniformity throughout the entire work. 

Let’s bring that image back again to focus on something a little different: panels that either spill out into the gutter or overlap other panels. Panels overlapping panels creates the sort of simultaneity I’ve already discussed -- it’s what allows a reader to hold those transforming emotions in mind while also experiencing the static image on the page. When they overlap with each other, however, those smaller panels create something of an order of operations that suggests a reader should move down the stack to the next overlapped panel, refusing to allow a reader’s brain to fill in the gap. What is arguably more interesting, however, is when the overlapping panel spills into a gutter and does the comics equivalent of a long line (Scott McCloud might argue the comics equivalent of the long line is the infinite canvas. He is wrong). The work of Walt Whitman is perhaps best defined by the long line, represented on the page like so:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 

     and measure them, 

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with 

     much applause in the lecture-room, 

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Those indentations allow poets to both utilize the line break and demand a reader’s attention for longer than the page’s apparent limitations. Comics can certainly do this with panel size alone, elongating it to the edge of the page, but the problem then becomes the opposite of increased attention: readers often spend more time when they have more panels, and less time when there are fewer panels to read. The solution, then, is to slap a panel over or under your current panel to take advantage of the break in image without being forced to place a gutter between them. 

There is, of course, another way: 
Both in the original example and here, Change takes an image and slices it into panels of varying widths (and, if you’ll notice, slightly varying heights as well), requesting the reader to slow themselves as they move left to right, panel to panel. This might be one of the most common artistic techniques found in comics, and it calls to mind poets who utilize the short line and/or frequent line breaks to feed the reader in such small bites as to finish and not realize they’ve been eating a person from the toes up: 
Buffalo Bill ’s 

          who used to 

          ride a watersmooth-silver 


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat 


he was a handsome man 

                                              and what i want to know is 

how do you like your blue-eyed boy 

Mister Death
We could talk about the placement of words on the page, here -- you almost always can with e e cummings -- but for now simply look at what the reader is being fed and where it ends up. In comics, there is rarely so grand a reveal as to call it a volta, but the realm of digital comics and guided view could change that. Imagine seeing those slices of eye above, piece by piece, until your comics viewer zoomed out to show the full panel. Either way, slicing an image takes advantage of the pacing, elongating a reader’s experience with the panel while actually removing parts of the whole image. 

I’ve examined only half a page, but I think it’s clear something is going on that bridges the gap between two seemingly disparate media. While not unique to Change, this was a comic helmed primarily by relative newcomers to mainstream comics who likely held less rigid ideas of what a comic is and how it is made, who have interests outside the medium as well as within it. Here is one more example of Change doing something interesting with its panel progression and page layout: 
Though not necessarily a chaotic arrangement, Kot/Jeske/Leong offer up a different way to look at a fight, perhaps a more honest one than the finely choreographed conflicts Michel Fiffe discusses on his blog or that some comics legends are known for (see that grid there, too?). The arrangement you see above contains sixteen panels with a loose indication of how one might read them after the large one on the left. It’s glimpses and flashes, and the result is eventually revealed to the reader, But the process? Well, it’s a mess, and it should be. 

Though people will discuss time “slowing down” in a chaotic or fearful moment, this occurs from the activity of the amygdala and its laying down of extra memories to be recalled alongside those the brain might normally preserve. Change puts to page what one would experience in that fight instead of what an onlooker may see, mimicking through image and arrangement. There are ways for poets to create similar effects, but few seem as skilled at transitioning from order to disorder and back to order as Douglas Kearney
No two poets are the same, and yet the most common desire I’ve heard from friends and teachers, professional poets and amateurs, is one to be understood beyond the limits of language through the use of language alone. You could argue that Kearney’s poem uses something more than language as it turns into a lexical soup, but I don’t. It all bleeds together, and you can stare until you’re convinced it makes sense, but know that this is a lie your brain tells you so you can move on and finish the thing you were reading and get on with your damn life. 

To recreate an emotion or experience for a human being through their interaction with a piece of work…? I can think of no better way to describe “art,” and I believe all of the areas where Change overlaps with these poetic ideas are just that. There is a philosophical belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but that is a mistranslation of Kurt Koffka that has stuck around for some time due to people’s inability to break down and comprehend overly complex ideas and the incorrect assumption that an absence lacks sufficient thingness to be summed up. Koffka’s original intention -- that the whole is other than the sum of its parts -- might more accurately account for this creative dark matter. 

In comics, in poetry, what we put in matters -- and sometimes a nothingness is put in. Put simply, what is left out can contribute as much if not more than what is included. These are the absences that allow a reader to fill in and become a part of the work, for it to transform them and them to transform it. They are perhaps the key to the persistence of these mostly niche mediums. 
David Fairbanks is an artist, poet, and critic who makes a living doing none of those things. David's work has appeared at Loser City, Comics Bulletin, FreezeRay, DayOne, and now Your Chicken Enemy. His handle is bairfanx basically everywhere, and you can learn more at his charming yet infrequently updated website: davidjfairbanks.com.