Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lives In Motion: Rob Clough Reviews Three Comics from Kilgore Books -- BLAMMO #10 by Noah Van Sciver, BASELINE BLVD by Emi Gennis, and SEPTEMBER 12TH AND OTHER STORIES by Robert Sergel


BLAMMO #10 by Noah Van Sciver 
The one-man anthology series Blammo has long been Noah Van Sciver's personal laboratory. It's where he's honed his drawing chops as well as developed his storytelling skills. Each issue has seen noticeable growth in Van Sciver as an artist, with #9 being not just his best issue but one of the best comics of 2016. The tenth issue is the first in a while where he hasn't exponentially gotten better since the early days of the series, but that's no knock on its quality. Instead, it's clear that Van Sciver has reached a steady creative groove, and he's become comfortable trying different kinds of experiments. 

As a series, Blammo is a throwback to 80s and 90s comics like Eightball (Dan Clowes), Crap (JR Williams), Dirty Plotte (Julie Doucet), and Big Mouth (Pat Moriarity), all of which were one-person anthologies that crammed short stories, the occasional serial, doodles, interesting letter columns and other ephemera into every inch of the comic. Each issue of Blammo has been carefully paced and arranged so as to provide a cohesive reading experience, and the glue tends to be selected shorter pieces. In issue #10, it's "Pre Social Media Days", which are thinly-veiled autobio pieces from Van Sciver's teen years in the vein of his hilarious comic My Hot Date. Van Sciver's stories about his huge, poverty-stricken family and friends from horrible homes have always struck a balance between poignancy and total absurdity, especially with regard to how he presents himself as a wannabe skater who tries to sound hip. 
Van Sciver emphasizes "Pre Social Media" because there's a restless suburban aimlessness with regard to the sort of things he did with his friends. Indeed, the first story was pretty much a "Can Mike come out and play" scenario, only the "swimming hole" they went to might have been full of sewer water. Still, there's absurd teenage boasting about sex, lots of swearing, and dysfunctional family interactions that cover up deep ennui and a desperate desire to connect. Another episode features Noah's stand-in Ben going out trying to raise money by selling newspapers with a "sponsor". It's another poke in the eye to the concept of suburbia and adulthood itself, as the adults in the story are losers and Ben just wants to go home and play with his friends. There's a delightfully loose, scribbly quality to these stories that make them look rougher than his other work, a quality that fits right in with the sense of pointlessness about the culture surrounding him growing up. 

Van Sciver can't quite help plunging back into autobiographical stories about his current life (complete with his current character design's ridiculous feather duster of a mustache) that inevitably discuss his career as a cartoonist or what he perceives as a lack of same. He takes that ouroboros quality and really doubles down on it in "The Hypo", which is a classic cringe comedy story about finding a used copy of his first book in a store and deciding to buy it. That leads him to a series of reminiscences about art school triggered by going to a gallery opening with horrible but successful art. Van Sciver isn't exactly covering new ground here, with a potential romance that goes awkwardly awry and an embarrassing incident in a bookstore. The most interesting part of the story is a memory of a phone call he got from his older brother Ethan, then one of the most successful mainstream cartoonists in the world, telling Noah to stop doing paintings and get back to being a cartoonist. It was good advice, but it was also telling in how Ethan saw the world as being full of "enemies". There's a certain Seth-like quality to this story as well, with lots of scenes of Van Sciver walking and big splash pages focusing on nature and the neighborhoods he's exploring. The atmosphere he creates is as important as the story or dialogue because he's trying to evoke a feeling as much as he is creating a narrative. 
One thing I love about Van Sciver's work is when he starts obsessing about something and feels compelled to adapt it into comics. In this case, it's the 19th-century humorist Artemus Ward and his visit to Salt Lake City in the late 1800s. This story fits into Van Sciver's fascination with his Mormon past as well as popular humorists from bygone eras. Van Sciver's affinity for the grit and grime of American life at the time (which he captured so vividly in The Hypo) is suitably captured by his dense hatching and cross-hatching, and his use of color adds a bit more life to the proceedings. It's easy to see what drew Van Sciver to Ward's work; like Ward, he is a cynical humorist with a dire view of most things. However, he's also someone who's willing to give everyone an even shake, especially those who are widely misunderstood. This emerged in Ward's descriptions of hanging out with Brigham Young and other elders, going to one of their balls, and catching Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Ward’s story is the archetypical Blammo story, one that wouldn't really fit anywhere else and make any sense, yet feels right at home in the context of the issue and series.

Some compare Van Sciver to R.Crumb in terms of drawing style, but I think Seth may be his most significant influence at the moment. There's a long missive from Seth in the letters column of this issue, and it's plainly clear that the older author felt drawn to Van Sciver's work. Seth basically urged Van Sciver to draw whatever he wanted and not to worry about anything else, and that certainly is true in this and the other recent issues. At the same time, there's a touch of Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken in the excellent "burning brigsby", which is among the best things that Van Sciver has ever done. In it, a fictional cartoonist named Brian Brigsby has just died, and his daughter comes to pay her respects and fulfill his last wish: to destroy his unpublished last book. 

Brigsby was a sort of cross between Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, and Herge' with a series of beloved books that brought him worldwide success and fame. At the height of his fame, he decided to quit doing comics altogether. Along the way, he had an affair and secretly fathered a son, and this story is a battle of will and wits between the siblings regarding his legacy. His daughter is trying to honor his wishes, while his illegitimate son (desperate for money) is trying to determine if there's a last book to publish. There's a great deal of musing about artistic intent, the duty (if any) an artist has to their audience, and a subtle subplot about the relationship that a person of wealth has with their employees. 
The denouement brings a jaw-dropping revelation, especially after what seemed to be a triumphant climax for the story's protagonist. Van Sciver brings to bear every trick and motif he has: distinctive and slightly grotesque character design, an acute understanding of desperate losers trying to dig their way out of bad circumstances, a powerful take on the history of comics and the artists who have been part of this meat-grinder of an industry, and the ways in which money distorts reality and personhood. He even follows this up with a one-page strip about Brigsby's early life, and why turning the one thing in his miserable life that gave him pleasure (drawing comics) into a job was so horrifying for him. There's a subtle use of spot yellows in the main story (the color of rotting newsprint) and the kind of detailed images of forests that have marked Van Sciver’s work of late, adding depth and texture to his stories. The secluded setting is a key part of the plot, and Van Sciver sells it with a precise and visceral level of detail. 

Perhaps the rawest and personal story in the book is "Beverly, New Jersey". It's an autobio story about Noah visiting and reuniting with his estranged father. There's no story artifice here like in his other autobio work, just a burning sincerity that speaks to two men desperate to have a relationship with each other but not quite knowing how. It resonated a bit with his fictional story "The Lizard Laughed", which is also about a young man reuniting with his father, only the father's apologies weren't especially sincere and the son had plans to shoot his dad that he later abandoned. That story is a bundle of raw nerves that's also remarkably nuanced, especially in the way he depicts the pathetic blowhard that is his father. In this story, both men are far more open to each other, with Van Sciver's dad being truly contrite and Van Sciver having the mien of an emotionally fragile child who's finally getting his wish to be with his dad again. Van Sciver's dad is a natural raconteur and is set loose to do so as Van Sciver hangs the story around that tendency. Even the very end of the story is based on that, as Van Sciver's father literally tells a terrible "dad joke" to lighten the mood in a moment as sweet as much as the rest of the story is melancholy. It's a compact, tightly-paced triumph that benefits from its sincerity and straight-ahead visual approach. 

This issue may not have been as cohesive as #9, but its highest highs are some of Van Sciver's best work. Even the lesser material is still of interest, even if it feels more lightweight. Van Sciver is an astoundingly prolific artist, but the care he takes in producing each issue of his "home base" is akin to what Michael DeForge does in his Lose series. It allows Van Sciver to indulge in his ideas freely and either pursue them further or simply abandon them. Some of the ideas he developed here might not fully pay off until he's had a real chance to think about them down the road. Blammo has always been a place where Van Sciver was allowed to get better in public, and that decade of labor has resulted in a showcase worth of appreciation in its own right, not just as a public workshop. 

BASELINE BLVD by Emi Gennis
This comic is a huge departure for Gennis, who started her career with her Spaz! minicomics, which had funny and sometimes bawdy autobio stories about her dating life and other personal issues. Still, Gennis is perhaps best known for her historical comics about unusual deaths, drawing them with a precisely-inked line. Baseline Blvd, though, is personal and revealing in a different manner, and the way it's structured is crucial in its overall emotional impact. Gennis works big here, with just two panels per page, stacked atop each other. Some pages have but a single, large image on them. Instead of the precise inks of her previous work, here Gennis uses a lot of scribbled lines and shaded faces. There is a temporal tug of war going on in this comic, as the main narrative is a slow, deliberate journey that begins with Gennis buying flowers at a grocery store and continues as she drives along increasingly rural back country roads. 
That slow progress is interrupted by a series of memory fragments that begin with what seems to be the tipping point of an abusive relationship: a small statuette being hurled at her by her ex-boyfriend that smashes to bits against a wall. Baseline Blvd is about the tension between past and present, unresolved emotions, and deep ambivalence. It's also about the rituals surrounding death and regrets that one has with regard to past relationships. In this case, those regrets are less of the "I wish I had done something differently" variety and more of the "I am furious that these events occurred and I can't get closure" type. There's an especially harrowing sequence where she recalls him climbing through her bedroom window at night, accusing her of planning to break up with him. His silhouette is in the window during this sequence, and then it's gone, leaving the silhouette of a tree and its gnarled branches in his stead for a beat, then several pages of all-black panels, then two black pages without any panel breaks at all. 
These are images that reveal terror, anger, and shame. After her abuser left, all that's left is for her to sit in the dark with all of these feelings. The flashbacks involving this relationship all deal with various scenes, some positive, but for the most part manipulative or abusive. Gennis' transitions back and forth in time are quick cuts, with one exception: the rolling countryside and a farm that she's driving by in the present warp into an image of a cocoon of sorts, which turns into an ice cube dropping into a drink she's having at a bar. It's this sequence that reveals why she's making this particular journey, mixing sadness and confusion with unspoken but righteous indignation. Baseline Blvd is about that frustrating feeling of never quite being able to come to terms with something, with the last scene being a brief explosion of anger. It didn't solve anything or make the past better; it simply ended a ritual that was entirely about something she had to do for herself. 

SEPTEMBER 12TH AND OTHER STORIES by Robert Sergel 
Sergel's short stories are in his crisp black and white style with simply-rendered figures given some heft with the heavy use of spotting blacks. Sergel has a bone-dry sense of humor and the storytelling restraint to match it, even if his punchlines themselves can be rather broad. "TSA Cares" is about a protagonist (possibly Sergel) going through security at an airport, only to be asked by the guard if he had "a boner". Twice. The nonchalance of the guard asking the completely inappropriate question (and then patting Sergel down) becomes a key plot point when a complaint written about the experience is ignored as there was no audio being recorded. It's an unsettling story about how people in authority will find ways their abuse their position in the sleaziest of ways, but there's no histrionics in terms of the storytelling.
Indeed, that's why "The Best Eight Seconds Of Every Day" falls short of the mark. It's a one-pager where Sergel wakes up, and for eight seconds he doesn't think about Donald Trump. When he does, it's implied that the rest of the day is ruined. This one is way too on-the-nose and obvious. Sergel did a better job of approaching that kind of low-hanging fruit in "Future Presidents", where he introduced absurd examples like "Cum Sock Puppet" and "A Blood-Stained Minions Backpack" before ending with "Mike Pence". The punchline was obvious when it came, but it didn't matter as much because Sergel was so clearly delighting in coming up with ever-more-extreme examples. 
"Empathy" is about a confrontation Sergel has with an older man who hits his car and then has the audacity to claim that Sergel was "in my spot". Sergel refuses to move, and the man shambles his way to his house. We then see the man regret his actions in his house, look over at an image of his dead wife and a container holding her ashes (spotlighting his sad, empty life) and eventually see him getting ready to apologize...until the reader sees that all of this was a scenario that Sergel was dreaming up. He was the one who was trying to feel empathy for this old crank, but that dried up instantly when he saw a "Gary Johnson '16" bumper sticker on the back of the man's car, and he knew he was wasting his time. It's a good gag, though, again, it's a little more obvious than many of his punchlines. 

The best stories are "Power" and the titular "September 12th". The latter captures the absurdity of the post 9/11 landscape in New York City, that sense of total disorientation. What's more, Sergel's stand-in reveals that he had only been living in NYC for a week before 9/11 happened, which made it an even bigger wrecking ball to one's reality. The best way to combat this sort of nightmare was to indulge in something completely stupid, and so Sergel ducked into a theater (showing all movies for free) and watched the sex farce American Pie 2. Here, Sergel's restraint as a narrator is key because otherwise the gag simply would not have worked at the very end. He establishes the scenario with as little information as possible, even making it unclear just what kind of story this was going to be, and then delivers a killer punchline.

"Power" is the most structurally ambitious of the stories in September 12th. The narrative captions are that of a self-help guru's lecture on how to achieve power, but the actual scenes feature a schlub who had shelled out for a weekend at a hotel attending the guru's seminar. He realizes that he's been completely fished in by nonsense, and his increasingly unhinged behavior as he still subscribes to the letter of the lectures is both unsettling and hilarious. Literalizing the violent imagery of the lectures and using them against the guru himself was a clever idea in how it satirized the kind of language used in reductive, simplistic self-help systems. In reducing success and failure to a matter of will and a willingness to seize power, the philosophy preached sheer fascism: the strong prey on the weak and the powerful deserve to take what they want. It's the kind of unhinged philosophy that destroys and denies the very idea of a social contract, and, in many ways, it's the most trenchant critique of Trump and his ilk in the comic, even if it doesn't refer to them by name. It's the most substantive story in a collection that's mostly filled with more lightweight material, but it doesn't sacrifice humor in exchange for its philosophical impact. 

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