Monday, March 19, 2018

Turning Gifts Into Presents: Rob Clough reviews Leslie Stein's PRESENT

When I think of autobiographical cartoonists who make sheer beauty through craft a priority in their work, Leslie Stein's name immediately comes to mind. Stein's earlier black and white comics were marked by extremely delicate linework combined with an intense stippling technique that was no doubt incredibly work-intensive. She was the only notable cartoonist I could recall who still used such a technique after Drew Friedman abandoned it years ago. Recently, Stein has switched to a watercolor-and-ink technique notable for its brightness and spareness. Her comics in her Eye Of The Majestic Creature series always had a magical realist bent, with anthropomorphic musical instruments and other whimsical and experimental elements fitting in with stories based on her actual life. There's a sense in which her watercolor comics (mostly done for Vice magazine online) also have a fantastical element, but it's entirely in terms of form instead of content. 

That element is the reader looking through Stein's eyes at the world and finding it a magical, colorful place. There is a strong sense of intentionality at work here, as Stein hints that she draws this way in part to combat her fears. In this regard, the title of her newest collection of strips, Present (Drawn and Quarterly), has a double meaning. In the introduction to Present, Stein talks about her attempting to flip a switch in her brain when doing something unpleasant and changing her outlook on the activity. In particular, when drawing comics, she flips the switch from "challenge" to "gift". Being able to create is a gift (or present) she gives herself and others, and in order to do so, she must remain present, or focused on singular moments. She alludes to depression and finding few activities that bring her joy, with drawing and drinking at the top of the list. Those are interests that both serve to alter here, albeit in vastly different ways and with diverging consequences. Stein also reveals that despite the fact that she mostly lives a nocturnal existence as a bartender and musician, the night has always made her fearful and afraid to be alone. That's especially troubling for Stein, whose entire body of work has addressed her intense introversion that borders on solipsism with a contradictory need for connection and belonging. 

In that sense, each of the short, delightful stories in this volume act as a sort of buffer against fear, a candle lit instead of cursing the darkness. Whereas some of her previous stories about her childhood focused on darker and more uncertain aspects of the experience, this volume sees an older Stein who's come to terms with that past and has embraced her family in full. Stories like "Daughter's Day", "Mom Guilt", "True Success" and "Thanksgiving" explore that past and revel in the closeness of her present relationships. "True Success" is about visiting her father and going to a Smokey Robinson concert whose surprising sexual lyrical contents ("Love Bath"!) made for a hilarious level of discomfort. "Daughter's Day" and "Mom Guilt" are both about remote communication with her mother and how much her mother not only loves Leslie, but how much she admires her as an artist. The same was true with the story about her father, as she received unexpected praise. "Thanksgiving" reveals that her parents split up shortly after she was born, so she never saw them together, making the holiday with them and her brother so delightfully strange. 
For these comics, Stein uses an open-page format, with no panels or structure. The drawings simply flow into one another. It's rare that a comic employs color to do so much of the heavy lifting of storytelling, but Stein's minimalist and restrained use of both line and hue makes it easy for the reader to not only quickly move from image to image, but to fill in gaps in shape and form. That commitment to clarity allows Stein to occasionally step outside of those bounds. For example, when her mother asks for a drawing from her for Christmas, there's a beat where Stein looks at the camera (with tiny dots for eyes and a sliver of a line for a nose) and then she melts into a puddle of happiness on the final panel of the page. Cleverly, the next page picks up in a bar, where the image is of a spilled drink, continuing that image from the previous page in a next context. Additionally, Stein's lettering is very much a part of the drawing, as she'll occasionally switch from her normal handwriting to use larger letters in a different color for emphasis. She'll also catch the reader's eye by putting in some background watercolors underneath the letters. The paper in this book is also important; it's a sort of cream-colored paper that adds a warmth to each page that a brighter, shinier page would not. 

Most of the other stories in Present are about being a single woman living and working alone in the city. There's an aching melancholy pervading each of these stories, even as Stein tries to find a way to either dull that feeling or actively seek the kind of engagement that she knows is difficult but ultimately rewarding. "Vanguard", for example, sees Stein teaching art and then taking her own lessons to heart as she stumbles upon a jazz club and draws, just as she told her students to. "Perfect Day" extends that idea, as she meets a friend for an unofficial date that winds up turning into a day filled with beautiful memories, culminating with a show watching a schizophrenic trumpet player. "Night Out" sees two close male friends pulling her out of her isolation into a great evening, making her feel loved. 
In many of the stories, the occasional sadness of this life is also addressed. "The Architect" finds Stein helping a drunk and confused woman get home safely, because she knows that she had been that person on many occasions. In "The Bridge", a lonely Stein is walking across the Manhattan Bridge, wonders how many people jump off of it, and makes a joking reference to suicide on Instagram that alarms her friends. Seeing a comedian do a hilarious but in-your-face about suicide right after that helps reset her mood positively. In "Exes" and "Omakase", Stein ponders past relationships. The former story finds a lonely and insomniac Stein asking to sleep at an ex's place and confronting the feeling that she might wind up alone. The latter story is set at a sushi restaurant where she's eating delicious food (a running theme in the book) and thinking about the one ex she's not still friends with: her ex-fiance'. Again, there's a sense of the bitter and the sweet in this comic that's the essence of the book. There is pain and loneliness, but there are friends, beloved customers and delightful weirdness to experience. There is existential isolation but also joys to be experienced by all the senses, including art, food, drink and music. 

The unspoken theme of Present, as it is in much of Stein's work, is the role drinking plays and played in her life as a kind of self-medicating act. She alludes to it constantly, though in this book a lot of it is in the past tense, as her ability and willingness to accept pain has made it possible for her to also fully open herself up to accepting joy. That joy is then channeled into her art, providing a gift both for herself and her readers. 


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Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com, sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).

Monday, March 12, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 3/5/18 to 3/11/18

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Rob Clough on LOSING THE GIRL: LIFE ON EARTH BOOK 1 by MariNaomi, writing "There are many familiar elements of teen romance here, to be sure, but MariNaomi approaches with a level of sophistication and humanity that's rare for any story of this kind."

* Irene Velentzas explores Joseph Remnant's CARTOON CLOUDS which "seems to champion making art, period, no matter how volatile the surrounding culture, fickle the reception, or seemingly simplistic its style."

* Nick Couture reviews EXPANSION by Matt Sheehan and Malachi Ward which "has a real brain and heart and ideas that transcend it's (sic) genre trappings."

* Tom Spurgeon on Lauren Weinstein's NORMEL PERSON, saying "that no matter the approach, no matter the opinion expressed, no matter how she herself is portrayed, Weinstein has the great comedian's knack for communicating her essential decency."

* Robin Enrico reviews SOMEONE PLEASE HAVE SEX WITH ME by Gina Wynbrandt in which "Wynbrandt uses her tightly controlled lines to dig deeper into the ways in which the lives lived in our bodies and the lives lived in our heads are intertwined."

* Alex Hoffman on Anne Pomel's BEFORE THE RAIN, where Pomel "focuses on the capture of image and sound throughout the book." 

* Ryan C. on New York-based cartoonist Zach Hazard Vaupen's COMBED CLAP OF THUNDER and Thu Tran's DUST PAM, two books I really wanted to write about but was never able to find the words. Luckily, Ryan did not suffer from this problem.

* John Seven on Eric Haven's new collection of short works, COMPULSIVE COMICS, which "offers good laughs and vigorous surrealism, and you can easily enjoy it for those two things and walk away from it entertained and cheerful. But if you let your brain linger a while as you read it and allow the text and panels take you by the hand and lead you along, it will reveal the multi-dimensional underbelly of his work, with clear indication of how his unconscious unfolds in his work and winds its way through like a philosophical thread."

WHATNOT

* Friend of YCE and all-around good guy Mark O. Stack is looking to fund WEEKEND WARRIOR, "a five-part, 60-page superhero webcomic about an interplanetary long distance relationship."

* Also seeking funding is KILGORE BOOKS AND COMICS. Kilgore is hoping to publish nine new books this year, and they can't do it without your support!

* Speaking of Kilgore, publisher Dan Stafford wrote a post called WHY DO WE PUBLISH COMICS? that more than sorta could be read as an explanation of why I write about comics.

* Anya Davidson interviews TOMMI PARRISH, discussing "their artmaking strategies, mental health tips, lifelong love of learning, and much more!"

* Philippe LeBlanc talks to KEVIN CZAP AND L NICHOLS about Ley Lines 2018.

* Alex Dueben interviews ANNELI FURMARK about her book, Red Winter, and how she works.

* Juan Fernandez has "some thoughts on EXAMINING WHAT IT MEANS TO WRITE WHEN MAKING COMICS".

* Slate announces THE 2018 CARTOONIST STUDIO PRIZE SHORTLISTS, "The best print and web comics of 2017".

* TWO POEMS by Ralph Monday.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Particularly Unpleasant Wizard: Oliver Gerlach reviews MIAS AND ELLE VOLUME 1 by Jenny Clements

In the last couple of years, I have spent a lot of time browsing the artists’ alleys of the UK’s comic conventions, and by last year’s Thought Bubble I was growing somewhat disillusioned with the scene. I was feeling like almost everything out there was assembled by all-white, all-male creative teams who wanted to tell stories about slightly cooler versions of themselves in slightly more exciting settings. Sometimes, when a field is looking somewhat tedious, a book comes along that revitalizes it for you. Jenny ClementsMias and Elle volume 1: Taken (printed by Dormaeus Publishing) did that very effectively for me. 
Originating as a webcomic before coming to print, Mias and Elle looks at first glance like the sort of teen-targeted, haphazardly serialized story that has come to be emblematic of the webcomics of the last decade or so. There is, however, a lot more depth on display here than you might initially think. On the surface, Mias and Elle follows a fairly familiar and standard story found in a great deal of young adult fantasy: Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be wizard, boy kidnaps girl, everyone has a terrible time. What makes this book interesting is how that terrible time is presented. 

What Mias and Elle achieves is the introduction of a particularly unpleasant wizard to a relatively child-friendly story, without ever forcing the tone of the story into something excessively dark. Let’s talk about really sketchy wizards for a bit. Wizards are inherently suspect on some level. Even the “good” ones such as Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Merlin aren’t quite trustworthy; they exist on higher planes of power, knowledge, and society than most characters, and they tend towards the manipulative and unempathetic. They’re also primarily found in children's’ fiction. But what about the explicitly morally dubious ones? The self-interested, dangerous bastards like John Constantine who treat regular humans as cannon fodder? What really separates those from the “good” wizards? 

Well, seemingly, not all that much at all, apart from the restrictions of genre classification. “Good” wizards are found in children’s literature, while “bad” wizards are in adult fiction. As characters, however, they’re pretty much the same; the only real difference is that adult fiction allows more explicit portrayals of the moral bankruptcy of magicians. 

In Jenny Clements’ take on the trope, it’s clear from his very first appearance that Mias is an arrogant and unfriendly wizard; he storms around a room, face thunderous, eyebrows arched, overly dramatic eyeshadow on point from the moment he wakes up. He is also charismatic, expressive, and deeply charming. All of this looks, on the surface, like an attractive bad-boy wizard ready for a quick redemption arc and/or a romantic plot. The subtle acting visible in Clements’ art, however, indicates something quite different. Mias emotes primarily through his eyes; he rarely looks anyone directly in the eye and prefers to glower out from under his magnificent eyebrows, looking anywhere but at the person to whom he speaks. His charm is a front; underneath, he just looks shifty and unpleasant. Even Clements’ lettering helps to sell his unpleasantness, doing so in a manner that hints at the underlying problems with all wizards. Whenever Mias casts a spell, he does so in thin, spidery white text on a black, scribble-edged balloon. It’s a subtle way to clearly convey a sense of danger and malevolence; this doesn’t just look magical, but actively evil. This is very reminiscent of Hellblazer; the charming magician, followed by an unshakeable feeling that everyone he interacts with will end up dead, and he won’t care in the slightest. 
Inserting the amoral, “adult” wizardry of the Constantine-style magician into a more young adult story is something which should destabilize the surrounding narrative and friendly tone. Yet Clements manages this very effectively by keeping Mias’ evils restrained to the subtle elements discussed above. The surface which covers the sinister elements of the story remains consistently bright and energetic; all of this subtle malevolence lies under an attractive, almost animated-looking art style. Characters emote on a large scale, faces deforming and contorting like cartoon characters, bodies moving in an exaggerated manner. Every movement and facial expression exudes charm and energy, drawing the reader in and reassuring them, all while gently hinting that all is not right. It is all deftly handled, keeping the book fun, child-friendly and appealing, but never quite losing that sense of impending wizard-induced disaster. 

Perhaps that sense of amorality and disaster is always present in stories about wizards. Hobbits who travel with Gandalf invariably return home changed, unable to quite return to normal life. The world of Harry Potter is rife with danger, constantly ready to spill out into regular society as soon as one clueless wizard makes a mistake. Inevitably, wizards either fail to understand the concerns of ordinary people or cynically choose to manipulate them for their own ends. This underlying danger is always there, but is easier to keep firmly buried out of sight in prose, where facial expressions and lettering cannot betray a wizard’s cruelty; imagine a comics Gandalf lettered with a sinister font, for example. Nothing would change about the character, but his inhumanity would rise closer to the surface. 
In Clements’ hands, the clash of worlds between Mias’ dangerous fantasy origins and Elle’s sleepy modern English town only serves to highlight the inherent danger of wizards; transposing a character who can literally rewrite the rules of reality into a setting defined by its staid, pastoral lack of change can only wreak havoc on the town. Of course, it’s possible to portray the introduction of a magical force of change to an inflexible environment as a force for good, but that does not seem the case here at all, even when the action moves from England to the fantasy world. Beneath his charms and delightful character design, Mias can only lead to disaster for those around him. This is a recurring feature of the book: Elle has been abducted against her will, and nothing Mias does is ever likely to have any positive outcome for her. Despite never losing sight of the wide age range of the target audience, Clements relentlessly portrays Mias as a disastrous force of change, storming through the world and leaving chaos in his wake with no thought for the consequences or for anybody other than himself. 
Overall, this first volume of Mias and Elle proves Jenny Clements to be an artistic force to be reckoned with. The charming, friendly style of her art prevents the underlying malevolence of Mias from ever rising to the surface of the story; it is always an adventure story first and foremost, with the sense of impending disaster maintained as a background presence. This is a very effective combination of two disparate approaches to morally dubious wizards, inserting a complex and unpleasant character into a more reassuring plot without ever destabilising the narrative. This forms a fascinating addition to the substantial body of work dealing with wizards; the vast majority of stories either focus on the horror of magic or conceal it to the point of near-extinction. It’s also worth noting that Clements is very enthusiastic about drawing pictures of Mias as the world’s most excessively eyeshadowed cat if you happen to buy a copy from her in person. Not that cat-Mias is particularly relevant to the story, but it’s a delightful and hilarious addition to the book. 

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Oliver Gerlach is a feral classicist living wild somewhere in darkest Scotland. He is also a musician, writer, and cosplayer (and occasionally several of the above at the same time). He can be found on twitter @olliegerlach, and should probably build himself a proper website at some point

Monday, March 5, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/26/18 to 3/418

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

COMICS CRITICISM 

* Hillary Brown on TOTAL JAZZ by Blutch, writing "What this book is actually about is synesthesia, or at least the process by which humans can translate one art form into another (as well as how they fail at it)."

* Matt Seneca reviews GOOD NEWS BIBLE: THE DEADLINE STRIPS OF SHAKY KANE published by Breakdown Press, calling it "the connoisseur's choice, unfiltered and very strange."

* Michelle White on THE INTERVIEW by Manuele Fior, writing "The unhurried pacing has us wandering through a story that asks questions about fidelity, human connection, and generation gaps."

* Andrea Ayres previews A QUICK AND EASY GUIDE TO THEY/THEM PRONOUNS by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. "It's a great handbook for those looking to use pronouns in a more inclusive and welcoming way. It also has wonderful tips for those who use gender-neutral pronouns."

* Rob Clough on Hannah K. Lee's LANGUAGE BARRIER, where "language goes from being humorously foolish to actively dangerous and destructive, rendering people into objects."

* Shea Hennum reviews RESIDENT LOVER (mini kus! #66) by Roman Muradov, writing that within Muradov's art "simplicity conceals ambiguity, and elegance conceals emotional fissures."

* Scott Cederlund also reviews RESIDENT LOVER (mini kus! #66) by Roman Muradov, "a story about the forms of these connections we make with people and places."

* Andy Oliver on THREADS: FROM THE REFUGE CRISIS by Kate Evans which "documents life in the Calais Jungle -- the much-publicised refugee settlement in France -- from the perspective of a volunteer helper, fully exploiting the empathetic qualities of that artist/reader bond to present an uncompromising piece of graphic journalism."

* Alex Hoffman writes about CHICKEN BOY by Vinnie Neuberg, writing "None of it feels new, specifically, but it's a synthesis of a lot of different inputs that works really well."

* Robert Kirby presents a story called "Scott County Memories", an excerpt from cartoonist John Porcellino's FROM LONE MOUNTAIN.

* And while not about a small press comic per se, Veronique Emma Houxbois' review of Amancay Nahuelpan/Matteo Pizzolo's CALEXIT #2 from Black Mask Studios is the kind of critical analysis that more and more people should be reading/writing/supporting. Of it, Houxbois says it's "on how the conversation and policy on immigration has changed between issues of Calexit and how comics as a medium is the best place for dystopian and speculative fiction for rapidly changing times." IT'S THIS WEEK'S MUST READ.

WHATNOT 

* Over on her Mindkiller podcast, Anya Davidson interviews MARGOT FERRICK, "a moving and far-ranging talk about motherhood, prayer, ballet, Long Island, sex, Catholic ritual, the enduring appeal of Eva Hesse and much more."

* Andy Oliver interviews KATRIONA CHAPMAN on Katzine, Self-Publishing, and her new Graphic Memoir Follow Me In from Avery Hill.

* All week, Katie Skelly has been doing a CARTOONIST'S DIARY over on The Comics Journal.

* Ida Neverdahl has a comic on Vice called ANXIETY which is pretty interesting.

* According to J. A. Micheline, Shing Yin Khor's comic SAY IT WITH NOODLES; ON LEARNING TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD "is a best of 2018 comic and it's only February." Trust JAM on this one, folks.

* Philippe LeBlanc has posted another installment of his wide-ranging round-up over on The Beat called SMALL PRESS AND INDIE COMICS GALORE.

* Steven Hendricks on SALAMANDER: A BESTIARY which is a collection of poems by Leonard Schwartz highlighted by woodcut prints by Simon Carr.

* Introducing It's Nice That's ONES TO WATCH 2018, "which shines a light on 12 emerging talents who [they] think will conquer the creative world in 2018."