Wednesday, September 21, 2016

NYRB Comics: Soft City

The good people at the New York Review of Books have been rescuing out-of-print texts for quite some time now, performing an incredibly valuable cultural service. Under the guidance of series editors Gabriel Winslow-Yost (a writer whose work I've reviewed on this blog) and Lucas Adams, their task is to find key comics that are either out of print or have never been published in english. I'll be getting to all of them eventually, but I wanted to begin with one of the more unusual and remarkable stories in the history of comics.

In 1969, a Norwegian cartoonist who had renamed himself Hariton Pushwagner started a book-length comic about an average day in an Orwellian nightmare world titled Soft City. He had to abandon the project for three years, then completed it in 1975. At around that time, he lost all of the original artwork under somewhat vague circumstances. It was found about thirty years later, and after a considerable amount of legal wrangling, it was finally released.  Now, the New York Review is bringing it back into print. The best thing about this development is that they have a long-tail model, wherein their goal is to put quality (if obscure) works out into the market, create a backstock that will continue to slowly draw in readers, and patiently wait for the books to sell over time. The editors are determined to bring as many obscure and out of print works of quality as possible.

Back to the book: writer Martin Herbert, in the afterword, notes that the big influences on the book were Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs. The story, such as it is, is very simple. We look in on a family at sunrise in Soft City, starting with the baby and continuing on with the parents, whose glassy eyes never stop staring straight ahead when they take their mandatory "Life" pill. The nameless father gets ready for work, leaving with lockstep with dozens of others of people living in his concrete, high-rise apartment building. He drives to work, parks, goes to his desk, and works. We then flip to the mother, who is going shopping with thousands of other mothers. The only singular figure we follow is Mr. Soft, head of the monolithic SoftCo. The father leaves work, drives home, eats dinner and the book ends with the sun going down and the moon coming up.

That description, while entirely accurate, only hints at what makes this book interesting. The idea of a nightmare future of conformity isn't exactly new and certainly wasn't new in 1969. What is most interesting about the book, as introduction writer Chris Ware suggests, is this idea of "softness". Burroughs talked about that idea in The Soft Machine, which of course names humans as "soft machines", i.e., we are machines made of meat. Pushwagner is suggesting an entire city, and really, an entire culture that has become "soft". The book is an excoriation of the nameless, faceless city and buildings that we see, to be sure, but they are the symptom of what he's attacking, not the cause. The book is really an attack on the concept of capitalism run amok, commodifying every person in the city by way of Soma-like drugs (shades of Huxley, to be sure), It's also attacking that commodification's "softening" of language itself, the building block of culture and knowledge. Borrowing a trick from Burroughs, the very little dialog that we see is nothing more than words picked at random that nonetheless make sense in the context of the book. That approximate sense of meaning, or perhaps words being softened thanks to the soporific effects of drugs, batters the reader as it screams from the newspaper and billboards.

Herbert describes the book, despite its crushing and soulless qualities, as beautiful to look at because of Pushwagner's relentless images. I would have to disagree on how we each looked at the images. If Pushwagner had tried to draft these images with tools instead of drawing them by hand, I might agree with that assessment. Indeed, despite Ware's admiration for the book, Pushwagner's aesthetic couldn't be more unlike Ware's. Even though Ware draws everything by hand, there's a wonderful precision to his work. It might be melancholy, but it always celebrates the essence of life and the act of him bringing it to life. These are sharp, concretized images, and in Ware's work, it creates a charming panorama that often works in contrast to the content of the images as well as the text. For Pushwagner, everything is soft, including the cars and buildings. He is not trying to draft images of technology or draw tightly-rendered and detailed buildings. Instead, the drawings are "soft": loosely rendered, with a slightly wobbly hand. For example, on the page where we see the man waving goodbye to his family, there are dozens of windows drawn on a two-page layout. The effect, rather than being beautiful, is almost nauseating.

That effect gets even worse in the sequence where he drives to work, as dozens turn into hundreds of tiny, hand-rendered windows that disappear into a vanishing point. The cars are just as awful, as they are crammed together on the streets, each one containing four people, slowly moving to the same company for work. The massive parking garage makes the effect even more upsetting, as this monstrosity of a structure is dizzying to navigate as a reader. The vanishing point perspective frequently reappears in the comic, and the effect each time is vertiginous, as though one was falling into a void.

In a city where even language has been corrupted as a means of self-expression, the only ones immune are the babies. It is telling that Pushwagner begins and ends the story from the viewpoint of the toddler. Not having been assimilated into society, his actions are unpredictable, even as he retains the wide-eyed wonder of innocence. When the mothers go shopping at the sort of big-box store that did not exist at that time but certainly does now, all of them have that straight ahead, dead-eyed stare and a ramrod-straight posture. It's their children who are looking back, looking at each other and squirming around. Pushwagner also reveals certain cracks in the system, as a few workers fantasize on their way to work, only their fantasies bypass language and are pure visuals: living on a tropical island, being a fighter pilot, etc. This is a society where the exploitative nature of the military-industrial complex (there's a scene where Mr. Soft looks over his holdings on a variety of TV screens, and missiles are among them) reduces every adult to mere shells of living beings, and that includes Mr. Soft himself. Pushwagner evokes a hopeless situation with the tiniest amount of mitigation through the power of imagination. He suggests that a society entirely dominated by commodification and exploitation almost entirely crushes the possibility of unmediated, personal, aesthetic experiences. The only possible forms of resistance are intimate communication, empathetic understanding and the courage to find the possibility of the aesthetic experience. Pushwagner is less interested in a story where enough people find that courage than he is in laying out how things would work where most people find themselves being forced to conform.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Twelve Publishers and Creators To Seek Out as SPX 2016

I will be attending SPX in North Bethesda, MD this weekend, which will make my sixteenth time at the show. I'll be moderating two panels: one on independent publishing with Annie Koyama, Raighne Hogan, Kevin Czapewski, and C. Spike Trotman; and also one on truth-telling in autobio comics with Gina Wynbrandt, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Kris Mukai, and Anna Selheim. As always, I will be picking up comics for review, and will once again be picking up comics for my Thirty Days of CCS feature. Hope to see you all there; I will be wearing a grey hat. Below are some artists and publishers to seek out at this year's show:

1. Anuj Shrestha. With an exquisitely grotesque drawing style, his Genus series is one of the best body horror comics around.

2. Centrala. This Polish publisher (by way of the UK) has some startling original comics. I recommend Fertility if you want a disturbing experience or Moscow if you want a rollicking one.

3. Gabriel Winslow-Yost. A fine cartoonist in his own right, Winslow-Yost is also the editor of the New York Review of Books' comics line. Debuting at this show is the astounding Soft City by Norwegian artist Haritat Pushwagner.

4. Gina Wynbrandt. An Ignatz nominee last year, Wynbrandt will be on my autobio panel on Saturday at 4:30pm. Her hilarious book, Someone Please Have Sex With Me, is one of the top five comics of the year.

5. Hazel Newlevant. Best known for editing the popular Chainmail Bikini anthology, Newlevant's autobiographical and biographical series are all excellent.

6. Kevin Budnik. Budnik deals with some pretty severe issues related to mental illness (including OCD and anorexia) in his excellent diary comics, along with many other topics.

7. Kevin Czapewski. Publisher of Czap Books, Czapewski has published or distributed some of the most fascinating and challenging comics of the past few years.

8. Luke Healy. CCS grad Healy's aesthetic is a perfect fit with NoBrow, and he will debut How To Survive In The North with that publisher.

9. Luke Howard. Another CCS grad and current instructor there, Howard will have new books from Retrofit (Our Mother) as well as AdHouse (Talk Dirty To Me).

10. Meghan Turbitt. This hilarious cartoonist will debut Self at the show this year. Her over-the-top and fictionalized autobio stories are rivaled only by Wynbrandt's.

11. Tom Hart. He'll be here with students from the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW). His book, Rosalie Lightning, is easily my choice for best book of the year, and it's baffling and disappointing that it was not nominated for an Ignatz.

12. Kilgore Books. Quietly publishing more and more great comics, publisher Dan Stafford will be here with Noah Van Sciver and his new comic (Blammo #9), as well as up-and-comer Tom Van Deusen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Alternative; Kevin Scalzo, Jon Allen


Sugar Booger #2, by Kevin Scalzo. The oddest thing about reading the most recent issue of Sugar Booger is that Scalzo's gross-out/fairy tale aesthetic feels almost mainstream these days. The jokes involving the titular character blowing candy snot out of his nose, to the delight of the children, still carry that edge to them, thanks to mixing an ultra-cute drawing style with gross jokes that still fit entirely within the logic of the strip. In other words, nothing here is gross to the people involved in the story; it's only gross to outsiders. It seems obvious that Scalzo had to be a big inspiration (along with Marc Bell) for the TV show Adventure Time, which often uses precisely the same kind of gross/cute contrast for comedic effect. The only difference is that Adventure Time throws in a lot of bro humor parody along with action sequences. There's another big technical difference in terms of the drawings: Scalzo plays up the cute factor with the squarish heads and huge eyes of each character, while relentlessly adding sweat beads in order to simultaneously (but slightly) undermine the over-the-top cuteness elements of the story. The frequently melting environment brings to mind the melting/body horror elements of fantasy comics influenced by Adventure Time and its related spin-offs. What really puts Sugar Booger over the top and what continues to make it an unsettling read is that Scalzo never once winks at the audience. The absurdity of the characters is presented at face value in an almost deadpan fashion, daring the reader to find something strange about it. Scalzo's skill in character design within his aesthetic and the ways he uses strange angles and perspectives adds to the comic's dizzying qualities, constantly keeping the reader off-balance even as the actual storytelling is rock-solid and straightforward.

Ohio Is For Sale, by Jon Allen. This series of stories about a trio of slacker roommates feels familiar at first in terms of the ennui and hijinks the twentysomething guys who live together engage in. However, things get much darker as the book proceeds while still mining the same kinds of laughs, making the humor all the more disturbing.The first story begins, after establishing the boring, suburban neighborhood the guys live in, with the writing frustrations of one of the main characters. He's constantly swinging between egomania and self-hatred, and the opportunity to make a late-night run to the 7-11 was irresistible at that point. Allen very quickly starts introducing the sort of quirky character that provides the protagonists someone to bounce off of in a clerk who offers a maniacal laugh and a refusal to sell cigarettes or provide change. After slowly easing the reader into this world, Allen then jolts the reader by having one of the character's car catch on fire while is friend is nonchalantly sipping on a Slurpee.That leads to the guy who left his cigarette burning in the car being forced to get a job, which he's fired from within minutes. All's well that ends well, however, as he simply steals the car of the person who got him fired.

That first strip was typical of the rest of the book. What starts off as typical slacker humor quickly zig-zags into an ever-escalating series of weird and sometimes terrible events. In the second story, for example, one of the guys accidentally kills his friend when a swing of a baseball bat goes awry. It would seem the strip would get as weird and dark as it could get when his other two friends bury his body, only we follow the dead guy to hell, where he meets a bro-tastic Satan who's desperate for company. The angst generated in this strip comes entirely from Satan, whose quote "Christ--I miss college" had me laughing out loud. The humor here is as dark as certain issues of Peter Bagge's Hate, like the one where Stinky accidentally shoots himself in the head and Butch panics.

Mental illness is a major topic of these strips, like in one strip where the writer character simply gets in the car and drives away, with no destination in mind, as a way of dealing with his depression. The fact that all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals only makes the emotions feel bigger and more intense, as Allen keeps his line simple and direct. The end of this story, where the writer encounters a deer who's dying on the side of the road, is as bleak as it gets. He notes that he comes home not because he's reached an epiphany or solved his problems, but because the realization that anywhere he goes will be more-or-less the same as the place he just left, so he might as well go home.

The final story ties up a lot of loose story threads as the sister of one of the housemates comes to visit, which winds up including her asshole boyfriend. Soon, the visit turns into a party that divides the guys along different lines. The writer is drawn in by the asshole boyfriend's macho nihilism, while the other guys are repulsed. The story incorporates fireworks purchased in an earlier story, demons from hell that escaped in that earlier story, and a simmering ennui and rage that makes itself manifest in a fistfight. After the party renders the house unliveable, the writer simply states "Let's just burn the house down." It's a fitting end for a story whose nihilism is barely kept at bay by the simple and symbiotic relationship of the housemates, though even those relationships are fragile and fraught with almost thoughtless cruelty. This isn't the freewheeling brotherhood of Boys Club, or even the codependent but at least somewhat hopeful relationships of Megahex. All these guys have is each other, and Allen intimates that that is nowhere near enough. Along the way, Allen delivers absurd and sharp-witted gags, perceptive character work that really nails the banality of certain kinds of dialogue, and a starkly illustrated (lots of blacks and thick ink), deceptively breezy storytelling style.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Floating World: Anna Ehlremark, Carlos Gonzalez

Winners, by Anna Ehlremark. The excellent comics store Floating World (in Portland, OR) has been publishing their own comics for quite some time now in addition to being one of the best comics stores in the US. Publisher Jason Leivian has made it a point to publish comics from the most obscure and challenging margins of the alt-comics world, and his most recent batch is no exception. Winners, by Swedish native Ehlremark, is unlike anything else I've seen from that country. Part of that reason might be because she's spent a lot of time in the Balkans like Serbia and Croatia, and it's clear that the political and social unrest in those countries over the past twenty years has had a profound effect upon her work. Croatian-Canadian cartoonist Nina Bunjevac says as much in her afterword, and it's a bit of illumination after the unrelentingly grim but absurd world that her short stories take place in. These aren't so much traditional narratives as they are narrative fragments that are more about time, emotion and powerful images than a specifically resolved plot with sharply defined characters. There are oppressors, the oppressed, and a disturbing third category where the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Ehrlemark's art is marked by its reliance on blacks as well as distorted, grotesque figures. The book starts off on a disturbing note with "My Sister", which establishes a world with advanced technology, as the narrator notes that her sister was created in a lab to resemble her exactly but that she was the original, a sentiment that leads her to murder in the most savage way possible: hitting someone on the head with a rock. It's a Biblical allusion to Cain and Abel, but in this case her sibling's only crime was to exist. The starkness and bluntness of Ehlremark's art is leavened by the darkest of humorous notes, like the silhouette of a penis spurting out droplets "that jumped into the opening of a lusty lady". Things only get darker from there. "Prologue" is one of many silent stories in the book, and it's all about a future where bioengineering is real but is creating horrors, with women and girls the primary victims.

"Wake Up" is a very in-between kind of story about a woman in and out of consciousness in what looks like a wartime infirmary. "No" is one of the many stories that's simply a howl against the patriarchal qualities of the world, technology, sex, and the forces of rationality itself, opposing it with ritual and an allowance for creating one's own identity. In many ways, "Abundance" is the creepiest story in the book. It follows a group of what appear to be homeless people or outcasts scraping by for survival, until one of them is offered a chance to go with a stereotypically beautiful woman who offers them an opulent lifestyle. This story is a brutal takedown of capitalism and the "I got mine, don't worry about his" qualities that it creates. The book is full of stories about the apparent unity of a group or a couple being disrupted or completely ignored when the slightest of advantages presents itself, like in "The Big Escape".

Toward the end of the book, Ehlremark starts to suggest that the only way to properly resist the bonds of the new, ugly world is to escape to its margins. "Brothers" is about an unconventional relationship, where two brothers are together with the same woman, impregnating her at the same time as part of an entirely willing arrangement. "Pioneer" surrealistically suggests a new world forming at a sub-atomic level after being brutally sent out of this one. "Happy Ending" suggests the fragility of this world and that forces will always be arrayed against those on the margins. The book's title is heavily charged in and of itself, as the idea of winning and losing in life is heavily influenced by the competition engendered by capitalism, especially since the book strongly implies that there's no point in playing the game because it's already been rigged.

Test Tube, by Carlos Gonzalez. A musician/cartoonist/performance artist/filmmaker, Gonzalez picked up on a more recent wave of Providence hybrid creations following the initial impact of Fort Thunder in the 1990s. This collection of a three-issue minicomic series feels familiar and strange all at once. One can see that Gonzalez has soaked up influences from across the culture, both high and low, and the result is a style that feels familiar and evokes a great deal of deja vu', yet it's impossible to pin down specifics. It's fitting that Matthew Thurber blurbed the book because it's not a bad comparison, but the structure of Gonzalez' work and the overall tone is much different. I see echoes of Gilbert Hernandez and Dan Clowes as much as I do early 90s comic books, but most of all I see a singular aesthetic that's designed to tell a story in a fairly straightforward way while also totally baffling and unsettling the reader.

Gonzalez uses a clever storytelling trick designed to keep the audience guessing as he introduces a character, follows their narrative around for a little while, and then cuts to a seemingly completely unrelated character. It doesn't take long for him to tie the narratives together and to do so with a bizarre but quite clear plot point that lets the reader know precisely what's going on. The book embraces sleaze, as the proprietor of a decrepit movie theater finds himself drawn to a strange and run-down strip club with some unusual private shows. We then meet a woman who's drawn to a weirdo at her flea market stall as she's trying to sell records, temporarily hallucinating that there's a wasp on her hand and that a photo of a dog is a nude photo of herself fusing with a tree. We meet a journalist investigating weirdness, and a sex addict triggered by some TV nudity to go down to that strip club. Gonzalez also fools the reader a bit by shifting around time, so that even though the woman (Jill) is introduced later in the book, everything she does precedes the events that the men in the story experience.

In each narrative and throughout the book, every panel is littered with visual detritus. It's a fascinating move, because it's not so distracting that one can't read the panel (indeed, Gonzalez is a clear and direct storyteller who uses standard grid templates). However, the smudges, shapes, squiggles and random lines have an additive effect even as one's eye screens them off after a few pages. They contribute to the feeling of alienation and strangeness on every page, that feeling of familiar things seeming wrong somehow. It's a creeping feeling just out of sight and mind that's incredibly anxiety-inducing. All of that is simply the background for this story; Gonzalez isn't doing weird for weird's sake or deliberately trying to confuse the reader; indeed, he starts exploring and explaining the plot about halfway through. His own character design is stiff and stilted, freezing characters in place with a simplistic style that makes good use of so many other strange elements in a panel. It all makes for a perfect visual gestalt.

The story is really about a convoluted scientific/aesthetic collaboration to create tones and words that will immediately change, mutate and evolve those people who listen to it. It's revealed that the experiments went horribly awry years ago, but that they're being continued now in strip clubs, bars and small performances. Gonzalez leaves it up to the reader to decide if the nature of this evolution is positive or negative, but he does make it clear that it's something that's feared and resisted by many. The plot is resolved, but it's a remarkably open-ended story that could go in any number of directions. Gonzalez isn't the least bit interested in telling the reader what to think about what just happened in the book or judge the characters, nor is he clearly coming out in favor of or against the "evolution" that's depicted in the book. What he is interested in doing is depicting the struggle and urge to create and the process and possibilities of doing this in the underground. Sleazy bars, strip joints, and broken down theaters are all perfect venues for affecting a few people in a profound fashion, making the process depicted in the book a possible metaphor for his own work. Regardless, Gonzalez' tapping into body horror and (in essence) mad science is as traditional as it gets, and the way he plays off of and warps tradition is what makes the book so interesting.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantagraphics: Matt Furie, Simon Hanselmann

Boy's Club, by Matt Furie. There have been countless slice-of-life comics devoted to twentysomething slacker dudes who get high and/or drunk, eat pizza, play videogames and fart on each other. Matt Furie's Boys Club is the apotheosis of this sort of story for a number of reasons. Portraying the slackers here as cute, anthropomorphic animals gives their antics a sense of innocence that would have been impossible if they had been rendered in a naturalistic style. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that Pepe the Frog has become an internet meme.) Second, Furie deftly toes the line between satire and and genuine affection for these goofballs. Third, Furie's comic timing is superb, as he turns antics that might have been tedious into great gags. Finally, the sheer joy the characters in this book feel in being around each other is real and palpable. That sense of being young and knowing that you've found your tribe and absolutely reveling in that fact is liberating and exhilarating. Everyone knows that this can't last forever, but the expiration date on this experience is so far off at this point that it doesn't seem real.

That's why the funny-animal aspect of this book is so important. It's a land of make-believe wherein pranks, fart jokes, acid trips, filthy group houses are the only reality that matters. It really does feel like characters from children's literature grew up and partied together. The lighthearted nature of it all makes it feel like an extended, dirty and drug-infused episode of The Monkees. That show had a sense of its own ridiculousness, and it's obvious that Furie isn't presenting any of these characters as anything to aspire to. Indeed, he's constantly and subtly mocking these characters' speech patterns, musical references (e.g., The Black Eyed Peas), jokes, fashion interests, etc. However, he also uses their anthropomorphic qualities as a base for forays into psychedelic weirdness. The cute characters transform into monstrous versions of themselves as they stare off into space, Pepe's eyeballs pop out of his head and slink away, still attached by the optic nerve. Landwolf gets naked and dances with a strobe light flashing, spinning his penis into a circle. Most of the stories are just one to two page vignettes, with the exception of a story featuring Landwolf wanting to commemorate an especially large bowel movement. Furie's skill in being able to draw characters that draw the eye in and won't let go is a big key to the success of the series, and the single-color linework adds a touch of eye candy as the choice of color shifts every few pages. This is certainly a book about bros, but they're by far the most charming and harmless bros I've ever seen depicted.


Megahex and Megg & Mogg In Amsterdam, by Simon Hanselmann. Hanselmann's slacker comics feel like a response to Furie's work in some regards, especially in terms of what happens when living an aimless and hedonistic lifestyle extends past its expiration date. Hanselmann draws from a number of disparate influences, including what appear to be some autobiographical events, to tell the story of three housemates and their slacker, degenerate friends. The most obvious and celebrated is the Meg and Mog children's series by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski. Hanselmann takes Furie's concept of cartoon characters growing up to become degenerate slackers and runs with it, using characters more familiar to UK and Australian audiences than American. In particular, the odious Werewolf Jones appears to be a response to Furie's Landwolf, the most obnoxious of the Boy's Club quartet.

The Megahex stories are filled with psychedelia, pranks, slacker slovenliness and young people refusing to grow up. While Hanselmann's comic is frequently far funnier than Furie's, it's devoid of the satire Furie employed so deftly in his book. Instead, Megahex is a meditation on the dark side of living this kind of lifestyle. The relationship between Megg (the redheaded witch), Mogg (her housecat and lover, which gets exactly as uncomfortable as one would expect) and Owl (an anthropomorphic Owl who's the only one who has a job and some pretense at trying to grow up) is frequently quite abusive. Werewolf Jones in particular is the epitome of the out-of-control, aimless, obnoxious and ubiquitous asshole who latches on to people, exploits them, abuses them and then is offended when people get angry at him. He initially establishes his worth by providing drugs and outrageous party hijinks, but there's a difference between being amused by someone like that from a distance and actually having them in your life.

One thing that I love about these books is that Hanselmann makes absolutely no apologies for his characters, but he also presents them as complicated and broken. There's one brutal scene where Megg, Mogg and Werewolf Jones present a birthday "surprise" to Owl, which turns out to be Jones trying to sexually assault him. Even Megg and Mogg knew things went too far that time as they buy Owl a present as a form of apology, but they refuse to acknowledge its importance later on in the book. The pranks they pull on Owl often wind up landing him in jail, in the hospital or fired from his job. They have the same flavor as the meanest of Johnny Ryan scenes, only Hanselmann pulls back and makes everyone involved realize that these are horrible things that the characters are doing. As the book proceeds, vignette by vignette (some are one-pagers, some go on for much longer), Hanselmann reveals that every character in this book is a broken person in some way.

Both Megg and Mogg are on antidepressants, but Megg still often falls prey to crippling bouts of depression that land her on her "sadness mattress", unable to even get up and use the toilet. Megg also sees a therapist whose behavior and methods start off as head-scratching and devolve into hilarously inappropriate, especially when Megg ambushes Mogg into coming to a session for couples therapy. Mogg frequently asked for sexual acts that made Megg uncomfortable and was intensely insecure about his own sexual capabilities. They were the working definition of a codependent couple, and when she tried to break up with him, they both realized they had nowhere else to go. Mogg's hilarious and pathetically sad "solution" was to wear a Hamburglar mask. Owl consistently sabotaged his own sobriety and ambitions (modest as they were) by choosing to keep these people in his life, in part because his own feelings of worthlessness no doubt contributed to him accepting the abuse that was constantly heaped upon him. Werewolf Jones proved to be the most broken character of all, unable to hold down a place to live and being the world's worst father to his out-of-control sons. The scene where Jones starts crying and tells Owl that he has feelings for him leads to one of the best comic breaks in the book, as we see Owl on a plane to Amsterdam in the panel right after that revelation. What makes each character's behavior even more difficult to bear is that they are all capable of moments of kindness and empathy (even and especially Werewolf Jones), but they choose to do so rarely.

The moments that being drunk or high that provide  joy, relief and escape are just that--moments. Hanselmann depicts an increasing amount of ennui, paranoia and worst of all--pointlessness. When Owl decides to quit drinking alcohol at one point in the book, Megg and Mogg secretly get him drunk with a "health smoothie", leading to a hilarious and awful sequence where Owl berates a couple in a video store for their choice of movie and then laughs off a punch in the face. Owl's flaw is that he's driven by fear, especially a fear of his own success. Like the others, he drowns out the buzzing feeling of self-hatred in his head through stoner and drunk rituals, until the end of the first book when he's decided he's had enough abuse at the hands of his so-called "friends". It's an interesting character moment, because it was made clear in the second book that Megg & Mogg are essentially helpless without Owl at least partially tethering them to reality.

The structure of the book, sliced into vignettes, means that Hanselmann can simply reset and choose any road to go down with regard to the emotional content of the strip. In a given story, you might see a short gag, a longer vignette focusing on the darker side of one of the characters, a story that ties into the overall emotional continuity of the book, or a spectacular visual sequence that embraces the psychedelic aspects of the narrative. The magical realist nature of the characters allows Hanselmann a great deal of leeway here, as the initial premise of the book and its characters is highly elastic. It's easy to snap back to the three housemates sitting in their living room at the beginning of a story without taking the reader out of the narrative. The same is true for Hanselmann's visual approach to his stories, as he has a central style that features an 8 - 12 panel grid, a fairly thin line weight and and an active (if muted) use of color. Depending on the mood and demands of the story, he might switch to a 16 or 20 panel grid (he had 35 panels on a few pages!) in order to accelerate the narrative, which usually zips along pretty quickly for a comic where a lot of people sit around on many of its pages. The color in some of the stories is richer and more vivid than in others, but Hanselmann never lets things get too far away from his template. Even the guest artists like Furie himself and Sammy Harkham fit right into Hanselmann's overall aesthetic.


Megahex is not just about the sensation in one's life where it feels like the party's about to end, it's also about the feeling that the party wasn't very good in the first place. It's filled with characters who are not only totally out of equilibrium with themselves and others, it's not clear that they were ever healthy or in sync. It's funny and sad in the same way and at the same time, because the things that people do when they're sad are every bit as ridiculous as the things they do when they're happy. For a series about slackers, these books are remarkably emotionally visceral and intense.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fantagraphics: Conor Stechschulte, Robert Triptow


The Amateurs, by Conor Stechschulte. I reviewed the self-published version of this book already, but the updated version has a few changes that are worth mentioning. Stechschulte tossed out the original prologue involving a couple of men finding a severed head that was talking. Instead, it became two young women who found the head near the sinister river, a shift that became especially effective thanks to the addition of some new interstitial material in the form of (presumably) the same woman's library. Adding the diary sequences also helped tie in the secondary plotline of the two women who visited the butcher's shop and added more mystery and depth to the symbology of the river. Stechschulte also makes the whole thing in black and white, removing the abstract, color interstitial pieces that divided up the story and replacing them with the diary pieces. The story is still entirely ambiguous, it's just ambiguous now in a different way. The book is so disturbing for two reasons: first, because the characters in the story are constantly either forgetting what's happened or pretending to forget what's happened in the interest of preserving a veneer of sanity and reality as usual. Second, the river is a powerful force in this story, as the normally beneficial aspects of a river are not only absent, Stechschulte implies that the river is a tool of an actively malevolent force. The book is so disturbing not just because of the gore (which is still largely played for laughs), but because of the sinister, silent forces that inspired it.

Class Photo, by Robert Triptow. Triptow is a long-time underground artist and one of the former editors of the crucial Gay Comix anthology. The concept behind this, his first book, was the explication of an old high school class photograph from the 1930s, imagining the names and backstory of every single person in the photo (and several who weren't). Triptow hit upon an important narrative idea, which is that the best part of any story about high school or college is the epilogue, where we learned what happened to each character. Well, this book consists almost entirely of that, with just enough information to make the reader aware of what they were like in high school. What Triptow does in the course of this book is get set silly and then sillier as his characters endure typical high school cruelties and then go on to live atypical lives. Triptow's writing is sort of like long-form improv, as he weaves characters in and out of each other's lives, makes callbacks to earlier jokes and characters, and drops one narrative only to pick it up mid-stream later in the book. With each person in the photo providing a blank slate, he was able to create a remarkably complex (if totally nuts) series of plots and subplots.


Take Rudolph Valentino Kominsky, for instance. Ridiculed by other kids for his name, he vowed vengeance on them all and became a spy for the Nazis during World War II. His narrative drops away until we meet Fritz Beauhacker, "the only US civilian killed during World War II". Kominsky winds up shooting him. Then there are the members of the Bad Girls club, Stella Jakov and Trixie Trotlikk. A gay character doesn't notice the girl who's in love with him because he's in love with a boy who doesn't react well when a pass is made at him. Triptow makes it work in part because his knowledge of the era is exacting enough that he could make references that made sense and became a key component of his gags. At the same time, he was loose enough to let flights of fancy take him wherever they directed, be it about clairvoyants, exchange students, ultra-rich kids, thick accents and being so unmemorable that folks didn't even know she was there. There's no question that Triptow's art does a lot of the heavy narrative lifting in this book, adding a surprising amount of warmth to go along with caustic satire of New York bourgeoisie.

Triptow's art reminded me of any number of cartoonists, but Robert Crumb is the most obvious. There's also shades of Roberta Gregory, Justin Green (in a big way) and others in his cartoony but still naturalistic style. It wasn't so much that his drawings were inherently funny (like a Will Elder0, but rather that he drew funny things that disarmed readers with charm, wit and the occasional streak of cruelty. One senses that he could have made up new characters and folded them into loose narrative indefinitely, but the further the book went on, the more that Triptow started to close the ranks a bit so he could tell the final story. Triptow's hilarious mocking of hypocrisy is at the heart of the post-high school lives of these characters, as he is more than happy to make fun of familiar high school tropes and melodrama. For a quirky (almost) vanity project, it's remarkable how wide-raging and all-expansive the world Triptow created is. It's also consistently funny from beginning to end, as Triptow's exaggerated style works in concert with his instincts as a gag man. It's a testament to his skill that he was able to turn a solid high concept into reality on page after page of this ridiculous novella, as well as the fact that despite a certain expected nastiness on the page, Triptow shows a remarkable amount of empathy for his creations.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Secret Acres: MK Reed, Robert Sergel

Palefire, by MK Reed & Farel Dalrymple. Secret Acres has built their backlist on collecting minicomics into full-length books. MK Reed and Farel Dalrymple's Palefire is something more unusual, as it's a comics novella originally written and drawn by Reed and now adapted by Dalrymple. Dalrymple has collaborated with Reed on other projects and strikes me as an ideal partner because his ability to depict naturalism and body language fits nicely with Reed's dialogue-driven comics about relationship conflicts. This one's about a teen named Alison who is interested in Darren, a suspected firebug that everyone warns her about. The book follows their interactions at a party and then what happens afterward when they leave.

The strength of Reed's work has always been her ear for dialogue, but I also liked the way she gave every character a fair shake in the book. Darren was obviously a creep, but Reed made him sympathetic. Alison's unwillingness to listen to the judgment of others was her major flaw, but her willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt was her greatest strength. I especially liked the character of Tim, the self-righteously obnoxious junior EMT who rescues Alison at the end and has a huge crush on her. His bluntness and lack of tact made him seem like an almost borderline Asperger's type, only with a bit more social awareness. Still, Reed managed to make this "heroic" figure insufferable and the villainous character sympathetic without warping the story or playing favorites. Everyone in the story is flawed. Dalrymple is adept at making the worst tendencies of each character evident simply through his visual representations without doing it in an obvious way. The way Tim dresses and stands betrays his awkwardness. Darren's posture makes him look like a predator. Alison's trusting nature is revealed through the way she sat relative to Darren. Reed cleverly upset expectations that might have been created thanks to teen-story cliches, as sometimes it is best to trust the instincts and experience of others.

Space, by Robert Sergel. This is the quintessential Secret Acres publication, as they've collected various minicomics by Sergel in one smart-looking package. Considering that these quasi-autobiographical stories are all connected over time, this collection and the way it was edited and arranged made it a particularly appropriate choice for the publisher. Sergel uses a stark, clear line with lots of black and white contrasts but little in the way of greys or hatching. The naturalistic but deadpan drawings combined with the crisp and thin nature of Sergel's line made for a "cool" reading experience in the McLuhan sense. The drawings are restrained in every way, especially emotionally, as Sergel forces the reader to pay close attention to what is being said and done in order to pick up cues as to what's really going on. It's a smart decision, because the strips in this book are actually packed with emotional trauma, anger, and bitter resentment.

It's also frequently quite funny, like the strip where a guy eats lobster's brains and says "I know things". Another example is "The Talk", where the book's protagonist (as a kid) asks his father about sex. His father, watching a baseball game, doesn't even bother looking away from it as he says "It's when a man puts his penis into a woman's vagina". That's followed by the boy asking his dad to explain the infield fly rule. More typical of the tone of the book is "Thirteen Bad Experiences Involving Water", which is funny in a cringe humor sort of why, as the young man encounters a series of humiliations involving water, like being spotted peeing off the side of a boat by some girls or being ridiculed for having to wear ear plugs in the pool.

"My Famous Grey Sweatshirt" is both a chronicle of the most trivial of objects (a beloved article of clothing) but also an account of the main character's obsessiveness. "Up Up Down Down" is a chilling story about him remembering a friend dying in an accident immediately after being dressed down by our familiar protagonist for hurting him by accident. Here, Sergel demonstrates his skill in using the slightest changes in expression to convey far greater emotional meaning, aided in part by his panel-to-panel transitions and tendencies to linger on key images. "Growth" is another fascinating story about coming to grips with mental illness; in this case, it's panic disorder. He goes to a disco as part of immersion therapy to confront his fears. One technique that Sergel used in the book was to have the narration comment on the images in unexpected but sometimes clinical or detached ways. In this story, the symptoms of a panic attack are listed as he's clearly about to lose it, until a bride-to-be at her bachelorette party asks him to dance and then later asks him to spank her. It's about as much of a best-case scenario as can be imagined, until the reader learns that she was doing it as part of a "bachelorette scavenger hunt".

The final story, "It's An Awesome Thing When The Spirit Leaves The Body", was clearly the most directly autobiographical vignette in the book. It's about the protagonist and his mother deciding to track down her black-sheep uncle, who turned out to be an illustrator. It's a delightful story about forming unexpected connections, both for his great-uncle (whose gruff manner was just a cover for his generous spirit and loving nature) and for the protagonist, who was fascinated by the way his great-uncle consistently bucked his family's desires for him to conform. It's also a story about how creating those connections is a powerful comfort in times of loss. It also connects the central theme of the book: the relationship of bodies in relation to each other. He starts off with Ptolemy and ends with Galileo, noting along the way whether the sun revolves around the earth or whether the earth revolves around the sun, metaphorically speaking, is less important than the fact that the two objects have a relationship with each other. In making this comparison, Sergel both acknowledges and cleverly undermines his own position as protagonist (the center of the universe), because their relative places in the heavens, so to speak, was less important to his great uncle than the fact that he had someone there. There is no single story, only a series of orbits in space.