Wednesday, June 28, 2017

More Minis From CAKE: N.Garcia, L.Knetzger, S.McMahan

Here are a few more minis from CAKE:

Bug Boys #14, by Laura Knetzger. Knetzger was on my "Place As Character" panel, and I chose her specifically because of the way the forest has taken on an ever-expanding role in this gentle YA series about two bug friends who are slowly finding their way in the world. This issue is a perfect example of the way that Knetzger invites her audience to explore a new space, feeling the rush of excitement and mystery that this new environment has to offer. While the Bug Boys adventures are always fun, the series really is a kind of philosophical diary for Knetzger about identity and growth. This issue starts with the newly-crowned Queen Bee visiting the Bug Boys' village; she was the new queen in part because of the bravery of friends Stag-B and Rhino-B. The issue begins with a simple question of what's in a name, as she's called either the Queen by outsiders or Mother by those in her hive, but had no name for friends.

Apropos of the theme of exploring a new environment, the bee and the bugs take a spill from the top of a raspberry bush and wind up in its root system. Exploring the tunnels together, they happen upon a central chamber that has a giant gem with roots coming out of it. The Queen suggests that maybe it's the soul of the bush, which leads to a discussion about whether plants have souls, and how the queen thinks of herself as the soul of her hive. That's not just in the case of her own individual agency having precedence over everything, but rather imagining her agency as part of the entire hive's needs, wants and dreams. When they emerge from the tunnels (unscathed; there is rarely real danger in this series, and when it happens, it's dramatic because of its typically gentle tone), one of the boys says, "Goodbye, Soul!", and there's a beautiful sequence where the Queen is taken aback in one panel, then realizes the profundity of this statement and is filled with love. This sequence worked in part because Knetzger is not only increasingly confident in her line, but she's also increasingly elegant as well. The Queen is just a lovely figure to look at: graceful, poised and confident. Knetzger's cartoony but naturalistic line, paired with zip-a-tone to give the world depth and texture, allows the reader to easily interact with the characters but also enjoy the majesty of the environment.

Malarkey #2, by November Garcia. Garcia is my favorite new autobio cartoonist, especially given the way she's able to navigate humor and poignant moments with equal aplomb. Malarkey is her catch-all comic where she collects her four-panel gag strips that center around her family, her husband, comics, and life in general in the Philippines. Her mother is perhaps my favorite character, especially in the way Garcia draws her. The glasses she wears obscure her eyes, which I imagine is a deliberate distancing technique for a character that Garcia depicts as odd, abrasive, in-your-face and frequently larger than life. That distance also sets up her storytelling ability, like in a series of strips where her mom describes her childhood. She told the story of "Uncle Doctor", whom her mom hated, because he was a helicopter parent who micromanaged everything they did. Even as an older person, Garcia ably depicts her as a total free spirit, unconcerned with mores and custom in many ways. That wasn't always a good thing, as in the course of their conversation her mom told Garcia about the racial slur she and her family used to refer to her cousin by, as well as her husband on occasion!

Observing these strips carefully, Garcia does something interesting visually to add a bit of context and activity to what is essentially a two-talking heads strip. First, she changes the pose of both of her characters in each panel, carefully adjusting poses them so as to better relate body language. Garcia also adds food and drink in each panel, giving the characters something to react against and giving the reader's eye something else to look at, but it also works on a sequential basis, like when Garcia does a spit-take at the end of one panel. Garcia also loves exaggerating facial expressions in particular, with wide grins, wrinkled-up expressions of fear, and almost sad-clown type frowns. She also captures the fact that her mom is the kind of person who speaks with her hands, so her arms are flying in every other panel.

There are also various strips about drunk adventures (a wine-and-cheese festival was especially amusing) and comics. Being in the Philippines, Garcia naturally feels quite distant from the North American comics scene, so seeing her do strips about listening to podcasts where her comic is mentioned or fantasizing (positively and negatively) about what going to CAKE would be like have that element present in all of Garcia's comics: an element of pure joy & excitement about life balanced with anxiety and in particular regret for things she hasn't actually done yet. That element adds a certain tension to these strips but doesn't dominate it, as her enthusiasm for life is still the dominant element in her work, and it's the engine for her sense of humor.

Dreaming Of Johnny, by Sophie McMahan. This is a collection of reprints from McMahan's outstanding You Were Swell series as well as a few other stories I hadn't seen before, all printed beautifully on a Risograph. The colors make the original strips pop even more, like "Winner"'s beauty-pageant nightmare. McMahan explores 1950s romance comics and advertising art in her work, and the candy-colored quality of the riso's coloring adds to that sense of the grotesque as she subverts that imagery. In "Please Go", she uses ornate, immersive lettering to say "Wondering when this empty feeling will leave/I hope it's not here to stay" in a posed family photo of three girls. Their eyes are blank in both shots, with what looks like tears or vitreous humor being forced from their eyes.

McMahan explores body dysmorphia through body horror, like multiple eyes on a beauty-queen type, teeth falling out and faces & bodies warping through distorted self-perception. It's also a brutal satire on societal norms and expectations creating an unobtainable image and idea of what one's self-worth should be like. "Lothario From The Black Lagoon" is perhaps my all-time favorite comic of hers, as the titular monster is depicted as a sleazy guy using tired pick-up lines like "Come here often?" and concludes by saying "Another day, another girl. You now how it goes." There's almost a sense of resignation in his own sense of emptiness and alienation, even as he takes advantage of women by saying all the right things. McMahan has a powerfully realized aesthetic that she's refined even further in this comic, one that addresses her own internalized feelings of worthlessness as well as the societal forces that shape them. Her comics are an innovative way of externalizing those feelings by subverting the very kinds of images that helped to create them.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Minis From CAKE: S.Roberts, C.Hannah, M.Galloway, J.Campbell

The Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) was one of the better shows I've ever attended. Here are a few minis I picked up, with this batch from locals.

Body Magik, by Scott Roberts. I reviewed an earlier comic by Roberts (Chemtrails), but I get the sense that this new comic is much more closely related to his real project as an artist. I was fortunate enough to talk extensively with him about his artistic interest and methods, and a lot of that conversation revolved around Gary Panter as an inspiration. Roberts is definitely in that "mark-making" school of cartooning, where the imperfection of the line itself is an important part of the aesthetic--much more so than its pure representational value. It's an aesthetic that borrows some aspects from abstract expressionism in that the line is an expression of emotion, but it's one where narrative is still a key aspect of that expression.

In the case of this comic, it's about a group of old friends who visit their now ultra-rich and somewhat spaced-out friend who created some kind of life-changing app. Printed on a Risograph, Roberts uses a two-color approach (blue and orange) as well as decorative effects that affect the actual narrative. There's an interesting tension between form & figure and environment, especially with regard to depicting hallucinogenic effects that warp perception and reality. Roberts starts the reader off on shifting sands when introducing them into the rich man's home: it's strange and almost alien in character. Then things get even stranger when he introduces them to an app that reads one's desires and creates a new, 3D-printed, perfected body.

The rest of the comic explores these new bodies: a centaur, a lumpy but masculine mass, a furry bear, a couple sharing the same body in the most intimate ways possible, etc. Roberts naturally explores the downside of this app. The couple sharing the body has become completely cut off from the outside world. The centaur runs away from intimacy. The man who became the bear did it only for his lover, whose near appearance as male is distressing to him. That leads to an interesting debate: "Did you love me or my body?", with the remarkably honest answer being "I don't know...both?" Throughout this series of explorations, Roberts is careful to continue to focus on the figures while providing decorative subtext that push themselves into text, like the character who becomes a caterpillar suddenly bursting into life as a butterfly. It's the ultimate symbol of unambiguously joyous transformation, and to see it juxtaposed against someone regretting their own change was an interesting narrative strategy. It also points to the idea that subconscious desires may not match up with one's own conscious narrative.

My Erotic Life, by Jessica Campbell. Humor comics are something I take very seriously, if I may venture into contradictory territory. I can enjoy something that's a humor comic even if I don't laugh out loud; I can generally enjoy them on a more conceptual level, even if it's tough to make me laugh like that. Of course, when I do find a cartoonist that elicits that reaction (Ivan Brunetti, Michael Kupperman, Lisa Hanawalt, Gina Wynbrandt, Lauren Weinstein, Peter Bagge), they become instant favorites. So is it also the case with Jessica Campbell. Her Hot or Not was a brilliant work of satire, and I've enjoyed her other illustrated minis that were mostly not entirely comics. But this collection of four-panel strips (the building block of humor) shows the artist going strictly for punchlines--and a lot of them land hard. The great thing about the strip titled "Oh, this old thing? It's just..." is not that she escalated the absurdity to build to a crescendo, but rather that she immediately elevated the absurdity and kept it a high level. From "Cheetos sprinkled on my feet" to "A trash bag with nipple holes" (with hilarious accompanying illustrations, this was the best gag in the mini.

Not all of her gags are conceptual. A drawing of her own tongue writhing in her mouth begins with the question "How hard is it to swallow your own tongue?" and ends with the statement "I smoked a little pot", giving perfect context to the prior four panels, especially since that kind of pointless tangent and staring off into space is precisely what happens when getting stoned. Campbell has clearly been working on her cartooning and drawing, as it is way more confident than it was even in her book. A side effect of that work provided another strong gag, where she starts off wanting to learn how to draw a nude man. She opens up a Google rabbit hole, simply saying "Huh!" for the next eight hours. As Campbell continues to refine her line, she has the opportunity to continue to clearly merge the visual aspects of her humor with the already razor-sharp wit that she possesses.

Nest, by Marnie Galloway. Rarely do I encounter cartoonists with a high degree of technical illustrating skill who also possess an intuitive, humane approach to art the way that Marnie Galloway does. Her Burrow was a personal meditation on motherhood (though not an autobiographical one) that explored the relationship between early motherhood, sleep deprivation, and the dream-like state (bordering on psychosis) that often occurs as a result of that lack of sleep. Nest is a non-narrative companion piece, juxtaposing drawings against Galloway writing out the Sophie Jewett poem "To A Child" on pages opposite the drawings. The drawings are similar to her Burrow style: Megan Kelso-esque in the use of a clear line, the bulky bodies with a powerful presence, the pastoral imagery of mothers and infants asleep together. It was printed on a Risograph, with green (of course) being the single color at work here. The most beautiful thing about this comic is its stillness: mothers and children asleep together: safe, becoming rested and rejuvenated, and sheltered. There's a sense of beautiful dreams chasing away the confusion of Burrow, if only for a little while.

Chicago In The Fall, by Cathy Hannah. Hannah's being doing memoir comics for a long time,but with her recent Springtime In Chicago and its sequel, she's really started to hit a new stride. Each daily strip is just four panels long, and she is careful with regard to what she chooses to talk about each day. This volume is a raw, honest look at her love life, as she still pines for one co-worker while sleeping with another one, a man whom some of her friends worry about with regard to his temper. Hannah has found her stride in part because she's found a way to simplify her line without sacrificing coherency or emotional content. Working with what looks like a fine-line marker, she's also attained a level of panel-to-panel consistency that resonates with the reader--especially her own self-caricature. With a few lines for bangs, dots for eyes, and a prominent nose, her profile pops on the page.

Hannah switches subject matter from her current job, to job interviews, to therapy sessions (mostly talking about jobs, the guy she's sleeping with, and the guy she's still obsessed with), time alone with her ailing cats, and eventually anxiety over the 2016 presidential election. There's a strip where she turns away from sex because her partner is drunk; initially she thinks to do it just to get over with then realizes that's precisely the wrong thing to do. This later leads to a fight, which leads her to question why she's even in this arrangement, other than for sex: "Trust me, it's not that glamorous". Strips like that are balanced with Hannah experiencing delight with regard to things coming in the mail or getting goofy with friends, as it's clear that personal connections are a big part of her happiness, even as she tends to be a homebody by nature. Hannah goes round and round a bit and even cops to it at the end: there's no conclusion to this comic because her life wasn't wrapping up neatly either. There's a sense that this comic is one long holding pattern, waiting for other shoes to drop: Trump, the health of her cats, her job, the guy she's dating, and the guy she's in love with. The fact that none of the shoes other than Trump dropped, so to speak, add a certain amount of tension to her life, but it's clear by the tone of the strips that simply writing about these events is therapeutic in its own way.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Two More From Kilgore: Noah Van Sciver & Glynnis Fawkes

Slow Graffiti #3, by Noah Van Sciver. This is a minicomics version of Van Sciver's daily diary strip that his Patreon readers get to see. This one's from November of 2015 through April of 2016, when he was a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies. He famously fictionalized his experience in Blammo #9, depicting his own alienation from the students and how he unintentionally further alienated them, but these diaries depict a somewhat different experience. The reality was that he felt nervous about having to perform and teach, but at the same time, he wanted to connect with them as well. He goes into some detail about how much of this is related to anxiety, and how one student went out of his way to to offer someone to talk to if he needed it. Van Sciver then connected by helping students with a task; at heart, he's always shown that he's a team player.

There are stories about pushing through on drawing tasks, going out in the forest, going to an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner, going to lectures, meeting weird people at shows, and more. This is Van Sciver at his roughest and rawest, and there's a powerful immediacy on each page as a result of that. A cartoonist grappling with depression and anxiety on the page is almost a cliche' at this point, yet the way Van Sciver finds ways out of these states seems directly linked to his ability to draw and write about it. Quite contrary to the cliche' of the whiny autobio cartoonist, Van Sciver's strips are almost always solution-oriented, introspective or self-deprecating in the search of a really good joke. For lack of a better word, the sketchbook reveals a real sense of maturity for Van Sciver, both as an artist and person who is trying to be the best version of himself possible.

Reign of Crumbs, by Glynnis Fawkes. Fawkes has written about her children before, but much of her work tends to focus on either mythology or archaeology. Not in this book, as Fawkes expertly and honestly captures the ways in which children (and pre-teens in particular) are both terrible and wonderful. Her husband makes the occasional appearance as well, but most of the book is about her interacting with her eleven year old son Sylvan and her nine year old daughter Helen. Much of the book looks like it was drawn with a brush pen, giving her spare drawing style a lot of weight and power on each page. The characters are all well-defined as a result, and she fills in other details with a tool that produces a thinner line. There's a real sense of ease and looseness on each page, though it's obvious that she spent a lot of time considering the composition of each individual panel.

Her children are depicted as loving, funny, creative, intelligent and silly. They are also depicted as lazy, incredibly entitled, messy, picky eaters, argumentative and hypersensitive. In other words, human beings at a particularly dramatic stage of development, one where the tug of dependence and the need to be independent create some personality conflicts. It doesn't help that her two children want nothing to do with each other, each (correctly) thinking that the other will monopolize the conversation--especially when they are with their mom. The best scenes were the bedtime tuck-ins, especially when they demand better tuck-ins that she's given. Fawkes points out the ways in which her children are still very much children, and the ways in which they are pushing her away. She depicts herself as a pushover mom who perhaps spoils her kids a bit too much (especially with regard to their eating habits), but she's also aware of this tendency and makes fun of her kids when they take advantage of her or her husband. When "little Helen" requests a last glass of water after being tucked in, Fawkes makes fun of her and Helen simply moves on by yelling "Daddy!". There's a real sense of joy in this comic as the kids are still at an age where the kids are still demanding her presence even if they're pushing back a bit, and Fawkes can still get silly with them and draw a reaction.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stanford GN Project: A Place Among The Stars

I've long been fascinated by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. As far as I can tell, it's a unique endeavor for non art-schools in that it asks a group of students to create an entire, full-length book in just one year. There are further restrictions: it has to be based on real events and have some kind of social justice component. The results have frankly been all over the place, with 2010's Pika-Don (about a man who survived the bomb dropping at both Hiroshima AND Nagasaki) by far the most successful and the best-looking. The time constraints, the fact that many of the students are raw beginners, the distribution of labor (which inevitably is not equal) and many other factors have led to the books being more of a curiosity than something worth reading on its own.

The latest book I've received, 2014's A Place Among The Stars, is right up there with Pika-Don in terms of overall success. Interestingly, it predated the success of the book (and later smash hit film) Hidden Figures, which was about another little-known aspect of NASA, its "human computers" who were women and largely African-American. The book from Stanford is about the Mercury 13: thirteen female pilots who were given an opportunity to train and be evaluated for the possibility of going out into space in the early 1960s. It's an incredibly compelling narrative, and it's unsurprising and unfortunate that it's not common knowledge--especially given the rampant sexism in society and the quasi-military culture of NASA. Another interesting thing about the book is just how little the artists behind the project had to go on with regard to deep knowledge of the program. There were a few reference books, but this is something that really demands an oral history to really get at its deep roots.

That said, given the relative paucity of reference material, the artists did a remarkable job in creating a compelling, fluid narrative by focusing on several key characters and filling in some blanks. Fortunately for them, the key characters were memorable individuals indeed, Jerrie Cobb was a young and accomplished pilot who held a number of world records. Janey Hart was an accomplished pilot who was married to a senator. Randy Lovelace came up with the idea of training female astronauts (thinking they might be better suited to the rigors of space and were smaller than male astronauts) as part of NASA. And Jackie Cochran was the most famous female pilot in America, but a bit past her prime. That simple mix produced a compelling narrative that didn't feel at all dumbed-down, as every character was given shading and nuance.

Reading the end notes, the instructor team of Dan Archer (CCS grad and cartoonist), Scott Hutchins & Shimon Tanaka (writers) made one key change. Instead of having three teams on the book (writers, thumbnailers, artists), they instead made every writer a thumbnailer. Thumbnailing doesn't require drawing skill, but it does require an understanding of cartooning and storytelling. Doing this made it an easier process to translate their initial ideas into a form that was easy for the artists to translate. The actual drawing in the book is frequently shaky, especially with regard to anatomy. However, the cartooning is fine. The characters stayed on model on page after page despite having a number of different pencilers, their characters in relation to space were consistent and body language was well-expressed.

In terms of the writing, the authors did a great job setting up the main characters and their feats as pilots, the excitement of potentially going into space, and the many hurdles they had to face as women. Jealous, alcoholic husbands. Jobs that fired them for taking time off. Taking care of children with no one willing to help. Sexist and flip attitudes from men of all stripes, especially journalists. Indifference and scorn from male astronauts. Being told they weren't qualified because they hadn't flown jets, but being denied that opportunity because it was restricted to the military--which they couldn't join. An interesting twist in the story was that it was Randy Lovelace's idea to begin with, and that a lot of opposition came from a jealous Jackie Cochran, who wanted to be the first woman in space despite not qualifying physically for the opportunity. It all came to a head in a Congressional hearing where Lovelace refused to appear and Cochran stabbed the other pilots in the back. It wasn't just sexism that sank the program, but glory-hogging and grandstanding as well.

Wisely, the authors made sure to include an epilogue that not only followed what the pilots wound up doing after their program was permanently discontinued, but also how the US space program changed to eventually include women. The overall result was a pleasant, page-turning book that was painstakingly researched, nicely-colored in tones that were chosen to match the era. I could easily see a more polished version of this book being published by First Second or Scholastic as part of a historical or science-related YA line. Archer really hit on something by forcing everyone to do at least something that was visual by making the writers thumbnail, and the result was a pleasantly cohesive book that still upheld all of the values of the program.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Two From Kilgore: Unicorns Of Planet Earth, Kilgore Quarterly #7

Unicorns Of Planet Earth, by Lauren Barnett. Barnett doesn't do a lot of minis these days, but there's no question that she's become funnier and funnier over the years. Her latest comic is kind of a conceptual sequel to her excellent I'm A Horse, Bitch, except that it's from the point of view from Barnett as a "unicorn scientist" instead of from the animal's point of view, and it declares horses to be "snooze-fests". Barnett's comedy is mostly conceptual in nature, combining total absurdity with a deadpan quality that's razor-sharp. The crude drawings of unicorns (in full color, no less) are always funny in and of themselves, and made funnier by supporting text like "This unicorn is an alcoholic, though he would say he's just 'going through a rough patch.'" Even better is when she describes the fact that unicorns mate for life, she says, "I love knowing that true love is out there, even for unicorns! It doesn't make me want to stab myself in the face or anything like that. I'm just happy when others find happiness. Super happy."

The comic goes from there, absorbing aspects of the likes of Lisa Hanawalt and Lauren Weinstein and giving them Barnett's own sardonic spin. What makes the comic so successful is Barnett's comedic sense of rhythm and the way she plays it off the bright, colorful and silly imagery. The mini is the perfect delivery system for this kind of humor, as her design and sense of humor is all over it. Barnett is the master at taking a seemingly thin premise and absolutely wringing out every possible laugh.

Kilgore Quarterly #7, edited by Dan Stafford. This latest issue of the in-house anthology collects a number of "orphans"--short stories by various interesting cartoonists that are now hard to find. It opens with a superb Summer Pierre piece, "Dappled Light", that starts off exploring her current relationship with old TV sitcoms from the 1950s (including the humor-free Father Knows Best) and then slips into a reminiscence about how TV was an escape from what was hinted at as a rough and abusive childhood. Pierre's drawing of herself as a girl is perfect in this regard: dots for eyes, a simply-drawn face, long straight hair. In the scene where she imagines herself inhabiting the world of Leave It To Beaver, just for a little while, that simplified self-image perfectly encapsulates her fragile emotional state. To be drawn with any more naturalism would be unbearable.

Tim Lane's "Steve McQueen Has Vanished" is typical of his deeply noir-inflected stories, only with a twist. Drawn in Lane's typical naturalistic, shadowy style, the story sees a drifter approach a roadside motel in a beat-up pick-up truck. The twist is that the drifter might be the missing actor Steve McQueen, who disappeared for a time in the early 70s. Another interesting storytelling decision is Lane himself being the narrator of the story but having the dialogue play out in real time, as though the narrator has no control over it. It's a story about regrets, rivalries, identity and the sinking feeling that one has made the wrong decisions in life. Lane also uses a metanarrative of McQueen's disappearance being on the news program McQueen watches in his motel room, as well as one of his earliest appearances (in the monster movie classic The Blob) being on TV.

Joseph Remnant's "I Told You So" is a story about heartbreak, obsession, falling in love with someone through their work and jumping into a new relationship just to reduce the pain of an old one. He's also an artist who uses a naturalistic style, but unlike Lane, it's more in the R.Crumb tradition of lots of lines and lots of cross-hatching, giving it more of a nervous energy than Lane's cool comics. It's a story about doing everything the wrong way but things turning out for the best anyway, and it's got a mixture of brutally sarcastic supporting characters and impractically idealistic protagonists.

Also in the issue is a hilarious Sam Spina "autobiographical" comic about a fish named Sam Spina who's having trouble getting laid, seguing to the actual Spina who then gets beaten up for looking like a threatening homeless presence. It's wish-fulfillment and anti-wish-fulfillment, all in one story, and in Spina's typically frantic, scratchy style. Leslie Stein's "The Desk" was taken from an Oily Comic she did where she sets up a desk in front of her room as a child made of fake bricks. It's a story about playing being an adult (her mom leaves to go to a meeting) and working through crisis, in the most delightful of ways, as she uses her trademark stippled style. There are also a couple of interviews in the book that are handwritten, featuring the cartoonist Jason and singer Grace Slick (!). This is a nice, tight little anthology that is surprisingly cohesive, given the differing styles and subject matter.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #7: Andrew White, Part III

This time around I'm taking a look at some of Andrew White's earlier work: Black Pillars 1-2, from 2013-14. These comics, as oblique as they are, are still far more conventional than much of White's work, as they play with some standard grids, have a fairly straightforward narrative, and use conventional linework. That said, White still plays around with fracturing that narrative, doing some interesting things with the grid and generally using a handy enigmatic storytelling device to full effect. The plot of the story revolves around thousands of mysterious black pillars appearing all over the earth, defying all explanation. Touching them was not lethal, but it create a sort of dissociation of both mind and body. Eventually, the pillars disappear for no reason whatsoever. The comic follows a few people from one small town, some of whom are displaced by the pillars, and their attempts to understand what was happening.

The opening five pages and the final five pages both feature stark shots of nature: mountains, forests, ruins reclaimed by nature, etc. The implication from these scenes is that the natural world in some ways will always be a mystery, one that humanity tries to tame or ascribe their own meanings to. Whether or not the pillars ever existed is almost meaningless in that context. But exist they did in the story, They are there for both the reader and the characters to ascribe meaning to: the Signifying McGuffin. In the context of this particular story, they serve as a metaphor for identity in the first issue and a metaphor for memory in the second issue.

In particular, they act as a kind of tentpole for a sort of young adult vision quest, the kind where a young person is trying to envision what the rest of their life might look like. Where there are two friends, and one winds up staying in town and the other winds up leaving, and they try to squeeze as much life as possible in the remaining moments they have together. "Let's do something stupid" is their mantra in the comic. Conversations go from being solid if uninformative to simply being blank word balloons. Forms of friends go from being solid to fading out. Some of the young people make understanding the pillars and their activities their life's work, while others simply use them as an excuse to take other actions.

In the second issue, when the pillars have disappeared, the theme shifts from identity to memory, especially with regard to how the latter affects the former. It's years later and the friends reunite for the first time in a while to discuss what it all meant. The beginning of the story features narrative captions describing how it felt for certain elements of humanity to feel like they were reclaiming their dominion over the earth. Similarly, the friends were trying to reclaim a set of experiences by going back over their tracks and remembering them. The reality in both cases is that enumerating certain qualities of a phenomenon is not the same thing as understanding the phenomenon. Just as the first issue finds characters becoming blurry and indistinct, so too does it happen in the second issue as well. It happens because people found themselves missing the enigmatic quality of the pillars, not to mention the way in which it forced humanity to act as a kind of unit in response to their presence as sort of the ultimate team-building exercise that creates bonds through a shared experience. Ultimately, the mountains still stand and the forests still grow, and humanity is no closer to understanding or even beginning to understand how to understand the mysteries of not just nature, but the core of their own selves. Memory provides an illusion of identity and continuity, just as the forced shared experience created a sense of community. White doesn't seem to be commenting one way or another on these matters: they just are, and a phenomenon like the pillars is a simple stand-in for any number of other signifiers we encounter in our lives.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Comics by Carta Monir and Carolyn Nowak

I'll admit to being mischievous when I decided to review the comics of friends and faux-rivals Carta Monir and Carolyn Nowak in the same column, but any sense of self-amusement quickly faded when I engaged with their beautiful, heart-rending work.

Secure Connect, by Carta Monir. I've read many, many comics about the experience of trans people.. Some were direct, personal and informative. Some were funny as well, using humor as a way to defuse some of the pain of the transition process (and life before transition). No comic has given me the opportunity to crawl inside the brain and heart of a trans person the way that Monir's comic did. The conceit is simple: a trans woman is given a computer program by her therapist that will connect her with a highly intimate, virtual support group. It's one where raw honesty is its most important aspect. The comic follows one such session, two months after she received the program.

The support session was divided into three activities: share an image, share a fear, wear an image. One of the keys to the success of the comic was Monir's open-page layout that was designed to replicate the emotional and first-person experience of being in such a session as opposed to the reality (a person sitting at a computer screen). As such, there are close-ups of her eyes, zoom-ins on screens, fractured and iconographic imagery, imagery that repeats as the protagonist imagines and re-imagines them in her mind that looks like pop-up screens, and then more conventional page layouts when there's a sudden narrative aspect to the nature of their interactions. There are a lot of interesting formal elements at work here, but the reader doesn't really notice the scaffolding unless specifically looking for it. Monir's narrative is so compelling and immersive that the reader is simply taken along on the journey.

The first activity featured the women sharing highly erotically charged images that had different meanings. One shared an image of an ex, spread-eagle and masturbating--not as a deliberately provocative act, but to relate her own feelings of disgust and worthlessness. That said, Monir revealing has the protagonist react with desire when she sees each of the sexualized images. It's an interesting juxtaposition, even as the protagonist lies to the others on the call about certain things, Monir lays bare her every emotion, fear and desire for the reader. That especially plays out when the image the protagonist uploads is of herself from six years ago (complete with beard), but she cops out and says it's her ex. She even repeatedly says "I'm sorry" out loud. What I found fascinating about this and a later panel where someone (a potential date) calls, she declines the call and texts to say she'll call back and gets told "don't bother" is the way Monir depicts the push-pull nature of this kind of therapeutic relationship. It's not all hearts and flowers and empowerment. It's messy, raw and makes her frequently feel ambivalent, scared and awkward.

The fears section was entirely verbal, which made it far less intense and visceral than the other two sections but no less difficult. The protagonist talks about her fear of change, or rather a fear of making a big and irrevocably wrong change. I love the sense of antagonism she feels toward the moderator of the group, even as she comes to feel sympathy for her. The last section, "wear your image", was when the comic ironically turned into a more typically-composed page. Monir made sure not to make it a grid so as to keep the reader a little off-balance, but there are regular panels and gutters here. One person sees herself as a super-confident, sexual being. One wears the skin of a guy who essentially asserts the limits of his patriarchal power: the power of life and death. One is a horrible, insensitive beast. The protagonist is a slutty, creepy girl who deserves punishment, and the moderator presents an image of a baby with its hands chopped off, which the protagonist views as "tragedy porn" even as the moderator says it's "to raise awareness". The brilliance of the end is that there is no end; there was an outburst of emotion from the protagonist and kindness from the moderator in return, urging everyone to vent and feel in this space. The final pages are a meditation on the group's mantra: "I will remake myself in my own image", as the protagonist imagines stacked windows being reduced to a simple, blank slate that is in the end, a positive expression of self. It's not an ending, but a first step. Monir not only beautifully expresses her own individual issues as a trans woman, she also brings the reader into the experience of therapy itself, of confronting and evading one's issues, of learning how to be honest with oneself and others. The innovation of her page composition mixed with her clear-line approach makes the book both immersive and entirely clear.

Radishes and Diana's Electric Tongue, by Carolyn Nowak. I first encountered the quirky, gentle and genre-inflected work of Nowak in an issue of the anthology Irene. I was immediately impressed by the way she depicted the push-pull of aggression and attraction and the way she treated each character with humanity and empathy, even as they sometimes did bad things to each other. Beneath the flip and fantastical surface of the comic was a deep well of emotion. That was certainly true for her Ignatz-winning comic Radishes, which is about two high-school age girls in a sort of fantasy setting. They decide to skip school one day and go to the big local market, where they have their run of the place because no one's there yet. One of the friends (Kelly) is tall, thin and confident, while her best friend (Beth) is shorter, plumper and passive. In a series of amusing anecdotes, the real story Nowak tells is how they take care of each other emotionally. Halfway through the story, they find a magical fruit stand whose produce causes them to float, lose their hair and eventually create a double. Kelly laughs off her own friendly double but Beth has a profound experience with hers, weeping as her double embraces her and Beth apologizes to her. It's a moment of profound self-actualization and forgiveness, of gaining a moment of self-acceptance and self-love. Everything Nowak does in the comic leads up to that one moment, and when it's over, the comic quickly ends. It was a powerful metaphor that didn't act as a blunt force object because of how seamlessly it was incorporated into the rest of the comic.

Diana's Electric Tongue takes on more complex themes. There's not much in the way of plot in this story, as Nowak's comics are more character pieces than anything. Instead, Nowak has the reader follow three distinct threads: 1) The fact that the titular character suffered a severe accident that saw her bite off her own tongue in the process, only to be replaced with a cybernetic version. The understated nature of the trauma of that event is a key part of the story. 2) Diana buys a companion robot that's attuned to each individual user; more than a sex robot (though that's part of ), it acts as best friend and confessor as well. 3) Diana is invited to a wedding where her famous ex will be present and decides to bring her robot, Harbor, to the event. Let's break down each thread.

One of the themes of the story is the intersection between physical and emotional trauma. One never gets the sense throughout the story that Diana has actually process her physical trauma. She has a new, fancy tongue, but it doesn't quite work right with regard to taste. The ways in which she tries to downplay this make it even more obvious that this is an issue she's simply chosen not to address. This plays a role in her choice to buy Harbor, who has therapeutic value in his "vault" mode, an uncrackable database for one's deepest secrets. Diana ostensibly bought Harbor to get over the pain of being dumped by her famous ex Blue, but that's only one of the kinds of pain she processes, until the very end of the story, when we see the accident occur, presumably in Diana's mind's eye.  Another theme of the story is shame. Though her friends mock her for it, buying Harbor and bringing him to a public even was a signal from Diana that she was through with shame. It wasn't just a whimsical decision, as she crossed a very specific kind of line with her choice.

Nowak also obliquely addresses another idea, which is the difference between Diana's relationships with Harbor and Blue. It's no accident that Blue does not have a present-tense speaking role in the comic. He's famous. There's a sense in which no matter what his intentions with Diana might have been, there was no chance of real, lasting intimacy between them precisely because he chose to live in the stratified air of celebrity. There are ways in which Diana was far more intimate with Harbor than she ever was with Blue in terms of being able to tell him anything, Harbor's devotion and genuine adaptability to Diana's needs. That plays out when he makes up a poem for her that's incredibly lovely in its own way. At the same time, he has no free will or agency of his own. He wouldn't be there if she hadn't paid for him, in precisely the same way being with a sex worker or a therapist buys you their time and attention. The story is open-ended, but one gets the idea that Diana was perhaps on the way to healing by the end.

The story works well because of Nowak's skill and clear delight in drawing bodies. Diana is big-hipped, her roommate has big legs and everyone in the story has their own particular physical and real-feeling presence. The composition of her panels is frequently quite clever, with not just open page formatting but cutaways where the roof has been lifted off. She keeps the reader off-balance with big splash pages, using negative space to highlight a single panel on a page, and lots of close-ups on faces. Her use of color was spectacular, adding context to the futuristic world she created to make it inviting, exciting, and slightly trippy. She's also great at drawing facial expressions, like the perpetual blush on Diana's face or the blank but benign expression on Harbor's face. This is ultimately a story about survival and recovery, with Nowak's humanity shining through and comforting her characters without sacrificing the pain of their struggles.