Thursday, January 19, 2017

Slipping Through The Shadows With Roman Muradov

Roman Muradov is one of the few cartoonists I can think of who is somehow an appropriate fit for NoBrow, Uncivilized Books, Kus! and Retrofit. Take Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art (Uncivilized), for example. The mystery angle, satirical elements and stark black & white drawings are all perfect fits for the highbrow/lowbrow mix that Uncivilized is known for. (In A Sense) Lost & Found  (NoBrow) is far more clearly laid out and an easier read in general, and its use of color and its lush design puts it firmly in that NoBrow aesthetic. The End Of A Fence is a smaller-sized art object in vivid color, making it a nice fit in the Kus! family. They're all unmistakably Muradov in terms of the whimsical, angular drawings; a continuous use of shadow; and a bone-dry sense of humor that occasionally veers into too-clever preciousness.

Jacob Bladders is a sort of noir parody set in a ruthless 1940s publishing world where illustrators can get roughed up to get at their work. Even if it's the mediocre work of the titular cartoonist, whose drawing of "career ladders" for the New York Daily News provides steady filler. In many ways, this entire book is a shaggy dog joke, as it imagines Twitter existing in a slightly different form in that era (called Tweeter), with certain elite tweeterers being named as Twitterateurs, leading to the punchline of a book heavily influenced by the aesthetic of painter Paul Klee. The book claims that his ink-and-watercolor piece The Twittering Machine (below) was a satire of Tweeter, providing a groaner of an end for that shaggy dog joke. While Muradov's figures sometimes resemble that of Klee's fellow Der Blaue Reiter member Wassily Kandinsky, the famous Klee smudges are omnipresent in this comic, often deliberately obscuring dialogue and even action. This is a book about conspiracies at a high level, thuggishness and brute force at a low level, and art theory at an abstract and concrete level, with the drawings in an Expressionist style and the narrative being all about the value and meaning of art, especially with regard to how it interacts with commerce. This is decidedly the densest of Muradov's comics, and there are points when visual and narrative thickness becomes nearly incoherent, but Muradov is always able to bring it clearly back around to the narrative just in time.
The End Of A Fence has a pretty simple high concept: a world where one can be redirected to a different area where one can meet one's perfect match. The book starts with a break-up and a woman with a perfectly coiffed bun hairstyle going elsewhere. In this book, the characters are smooth and essentially piles of geometric figures carefully arranged to create what looks like people. The story is fairly predictable, as the protagonist learns that it's the differences that make relationships interesting, and too much agreement is not only boring, but can lead to conflict on its own. This was what I meant by Muradov's comics being a bit on the precious side, because if it wasn't for the remarkable use of color, this would be a fairly generic story. Indeed, Muradov's juxtaposition of colors makes the characters shimmer and shine on the page. The way Muradov dips colors into pitch black and out again is a particular visual highlight, as is his unusual lettering and neologisms that develop out of text that's slightly altered and bent. In Muradov's comics, reality has a slightly elastic quality, and the dance of color forms across the page is what makes this comic fun to look at; the actual text is of far lesser importance.

(In A Sense) Lost & Found felt like a kind of middle ground, wherein Muradov used a traditional comics grid (9 panels) and a russet-brown/deep purple color wash to tell this story of lurking in the city's shadows. Muradov is fond of doing homages to other artists and writers, and the introductory line of this comic ("F. Premise awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find that her innocence had gone missing...") seems to be a direct reference to Franz Kafka's classic The Metamorphosis, wherein "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." In the case of Ms. Premise, that transformation was similar to poor Gregor's in that she instantly became an outcast; her father told her to not ever leave the house now that it was gone. Exactly what "innocence" meant in the context of the story is left deliberately vague; it could be an awareness of how the world works (especially with regard to how women are treated), it could be one's virginity, but it's definitely something specific to being a woman.

She launches a quest to track it down, leading her to a fatalistically depressed bookseller who saves her from an angry mob. From there, she follows a clue to an underground series of merchants where she learns that her innocence had been taken to a certain address. She's forced to put on a pair of baggy pants to disguise her gender before she goes out, however. Eventually, she discovers her innocence has been mass-produced to make neckerchiefs, at which point she realizes she doesn't need it anymore. After that final, life-changing encounter, she negotiates her environment that shifts from the nightmare world of Pablo Picasso's Guernica to The Dance, by Henri Matisse. In other words, from the brutality of a judgmental world to a way of reclaiming her innocence on her own terms. Unlike Gregor Samsa, F. Premise lives through the nightmare and comes out the other side, thanks entirely to her own newfound understanding of her self and the power that not caring about social mores gives one. At the very end, she is literally writing her own story as she repeats the first line of the book's narrative, an indicator that her identity is something that can never be taken away from her, but it can be given away. The result of her quest was discovering that she had indeed never really lost it in the first place, but rather it had transformed into something she, and only she, had control over. Once again, the use of the grid and the mixture of total storytelling clarity mixed in with shadows, darkness and visual chaos made for a perfect blend in representing someone who started to see the familiar world as something new and confusing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fantagraphics: Anya Davidson's Band For Life

A number of the cartoonists who had been publishing through Dan Nadel's PictureBox chose to go to Fantagraphics after Nadel shuttered his business. Given that their aesthetic interests were very closely aligned, this is a move that has made sense. Foremost among the newer artists whose work first appeared with PictureBox is Anya Davidson, whose School Spirits was remarkable in the way it captured teenage friendships, psychedelic weirdness and rock 'n roll. In her new collection of strips, Band For Life, the essence of the book is not the scene or even the music (both of which are left intentionally vague) but rather the camaraderie of the band as it negotiates following one's aesthetic dreams with the realities of daily life as well as the kind of conflicts that can only occur in a highly emotionally charged environment like being in a band.

With a style that's somewhere between Ted May and Pedro Bell (the artist behind the Funkadelic album covers), Davidson creates a world of lovable misfits, mutants and weirdos doing something they love. Davidson clearly has affection for all of her characters, flaws and all, and it's clear that she wants the reader to love them as well. It's a story of people wanting to be someone or somewhere other than where they are right now and how the possibilities that open up in the moment by playing in a band create a new kind of narrative. Davidson has a real talent for juggling multiple character-driven narratives all at once, and it's especially tricky in this story because characters from different narratives often overlap in surprising ways. Over the course of each two to three page episode, Davidson manages to provide equal time for character development for of the members of the band plus a number of the supporting characters as well. If the book has a flaw, it's that it ends right in the middle of an unresolved story. It would have actually been preferable to cut the book off a few pages earlier to give a more cohesive ending, and pick up again with a second volume at a more appropriate starting point.

That's a quibble, because the reality is that I simply never wanted the book to end. There is a very slow-brewing overarching plotline, but what's more important are the day-to-day activities of the band Guntit, their problems, their love lives and the rare but always welcomed gigs. There's Linda, the fiery-tempered lead singer; Renato, the tattoo artist and guitarist who's had an unrequited crush on her for years; Krang, who at first lived in a junkyard and then moved in with his boyfriend; Zot, the sort of anthropomorphic dog who has a lot of family issues to deal with; and Annimal, the alcoholic drummer with young twin girls and a toxic ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone. Annimal screws up on multiple occasions in big ways, but I found her to be the most interesting character by far. She's a mixture of crippling self-doubt and powerful self-expression, as she is constantly battling to try to be her best self and often loses. Unlike Linda, who's passionate but often a one-note character, Annimal veers between sobriety and blackouts, fierce freedom and codependence, and narcissism and empathy. 

Davidson's use of color and her truly strange character designs make every panel interesting to look at, which was a crucial strategy because in reality this book is a lot of talking heads. Davidson makes sure that some of the heads look like mutants and that they range from green to orange to purple. The lurid quality of the colors and the way she uses color dissonance to mimic the sonic dissonance of the band is clever. Nothing is too outrageous, and it's this part of the aesthetic that reminds me so much of Pedro Bell by way of the Archies. The Ted May influence refers to the glorious looseness of her line, reminiscent of May's high school heavy metal stories. Influences aside, the complexity of the character narratives are something that Davidson used to great effect in School Spirits and Lovers In The Garden, as the ripple effects from one set of characters carried over to others in interesting and unexpected ways. What's important to understand in the course of reading this book is that Davidson doesn't really seem to have an endgame in mind. Sure, the band goes through ups and downs as Renato is nearly killed by a mobster, Annimal gets kicked out of the band, the band starts writing songs and eventually records a demo that gets picked up by a small label. That's all part of the overarching story that I mentioned, but it takes over 250 pages just to get to this point of Guntit's story. Davidson seems way too invested in these characters, like in the way the Hernandez Brothers are invested in their characters, to want to wrap up their stories any time soon. 

The characters and situations in this book are malleable in such a way that Davidson can use them to tell any kind of story. She can pour on family drama, she can go for laughs, she can address political issues, she can comment on art and music and she can simply pair off different characters at different times just to see what might happen. All of Davidson's work feels personal, but one senses that Band For Life goes even deeper. Like Charles Schulz and Peanuts, I don't think that any one character in particular is a Davidson stand-in, but rather each member of the cast perhaps represents a different aspect of her personality or is a stand-in for someone she knows. Davidson can be as sincere or as satirical as she wants, and the strip can stand up to those kinds of radical shifts in tone. That's because whatever tangent Davidson might lean into for a while, she always snaps back to the characters and their stories before long, keeping the reader engaged. I'm not sure she will keep this up as a life-long work, but these characters are bursting with the kind of ideas and energy that could be kept up indefinitely, providing new surprises along the way for both artist and reader alike.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Minis: Asher Z. and Lillie Craw

Dickless, by Asher Z. Craw. Craw's thin and delicate line paired with dense cross-hatching and themes related to body horror and psychosexual themes have always reminded me of Julia Gfrörer's comics. Craw's comics are not quite as visceral in the same way and go in different directions. For example, Dickless creates a mythology about teeth as the source of one's power. Losing them may mean a personal weakness that causes one's teeth to reject you, or simply a loss of power by losing the tooth that brings about weakness. In any event, Craw segues from that starting point into a young man losing a tooth, and per the narrator's advice, consulting a professional. Amusingly, that professional is a mysterious shopkeeper (pointedly next door to a dentist's office) who goes through a series of steps that include grinding the tooth up. When the client agrees to ingest it, it inspires the shopkeeper to say "Not as dickless as I took you for", implying any number of things: the danger involved in the process (he sees the future as a result), his decreased masculinity as a result of losing the tooth, his bland appearance, etc. Craw opens the reader up to a craft (in every sense of the word) surrounding teeth, where the shopkeeper recalls an earlier time when she sold tools in exchange for a human head full of teeth. This is a comic filled with hints of deep, lost knowledge and an understanding of the order of things known only to a few. That sense of being influenced by forces beyond our understanding is a running theme in all of Craw's comics.

#Blessed, Part One, was written by Craw's wife Lillie and illustrated by Craw himself. This is a brutal satire of celebrity culture where almost all the characters are animals. The comic purports to be the biography of one Party Twink, a former model from The Glitterverse who mooches off his boyfriend/sugar daddy Money Bear. The first half of the comic is a series of illustrations with text on the opposite page that explain each character and their motivations, all of which are 100% awful. The second half is a comic that has the Craws break into the narrative in clarifying precisely how Money Bear's mansion was a recreation of Marie Antoinette's mansion. The comic is a hilarious study of how privilege warps and distorts one's needs in absurd ways, how narcissism is a black hole, and how codependence enables this kind of behavior.

Zebediah Part III, by Asher Z Craw. This can best be described as Craw's magical realist autobiography. This is a remarkably clever and heartbreaking comic, building on the first two issues in unexpected ways while maintaining the tone and theme of the story throughout. The first part followed a couple named Zebediah and Eula-Lee, taking time to fully develop their quirks and obvious connection as well as subtly introduce the magical realist portions of the story in talking animals and mysterious religious figures commenting on them. The second part introduces the idea that after their deaths, Zebediah and Eula-Lee continued to live on in the forms of Asher and Lillie, except that Asher was in the body of a woman. This also introduces the reader to Asher's own autobiographical account of feeling like a stranger in his own body and wanting to die before his transition. Along the way, they are helped by various animals who have been urged by supernatural forces to save them, and they show kindness to all sorts of animals, including a family of possums. The second issue ended with Zebediah and Eula-Lee starting to remember their past lives and fully inhabit the bodies of Asher and Lillie, all while having to deal with a looming evil.

The third and final chapter opens with the couple in bed, trying to cope with the strange, new world in which they were living. While their faith was deep and abiding, they didn't know to what extent they were being protected or pursued by the forces of good and evil. Most of the issue is a game of cat and mouse as they are told to leave Portland and go out to the woods by the forces of good, and the Devil uses his form as a swarm of mosquitoes to subtly push people into attacking, endangering or otherwise dislodging the pair. When they are finally confronted by the Devil, they rely on their faith but mostly in their unwillingness to harm the innocent souls of Asher and Lillie and thwart evil through their selflessness. Every element of the comic is precisely well-constructed in terms of both plot and its visual elements, and it's all anchored by the vivid characterization of its heroes. Zebediah works on a number of levels at once: a supernatural story, a story of faith, a metaphor for being trans and above all else, a love story.

Craw makes a number of interesting decisions regarding page composition, switching between a steady six-panel grid for most of the action and an open-page, dreamy layout when supernatural forces are arrayed. There's a lot of white space involved here when there are talking heads sequences, which makes sense considering that the characters are the focus of the story. When it switches to an action shot, Craw flips again and draws detailed, heavily hatched and cross-hatched backgrounds and dense underbrush. Pose is more important than movement in this comic, as the figures are actually on the stiff side on the page, but that's once again a function of the narrative. The characters are well-aligned with each other in terms of space and body language, but Craw prefers to linger on each image rather than zip the audience along to the next panel. Indeed, that sense of appreciating stillness and each heartbeat & story beat is an essential element of the comic, especially given its twists and forays into the supernatural. Hopefully, this comic will be collected by someone soon.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Uncivilized: Joann Sfar's Pascin

Joann Sfar's idiosyncratic biography of the early 20th century painter Jules Pascin has been critiqued in some circles for glorifying the sexual conquests of male artists and buffing up that kind of macho narrative. Upon reading Pascin, I found the opposite to be true: this was a profoundly sad and meditative study about an artist searching for something that would ever and always be out of his grasp. The other thing to keep in mind about this book is that biographies tend to have autobiographical qualities, as the biographers often tend to seek out and empathize with their subjects, be it a deliberate act or a subconscious one. I see Pascin as a deeply meditative look at an artist who was a clear aesthetic influence on Sfar, digging deep into trying to figure out what made him tick, what made him think, what made him create and ultimately what he feared most. If anything, the book seems a deliberate rejection of the image of the macho artist and toxic masculinity in general.

One example is Pascin meeting young Ernest Hemingway (the patron saint of macho artists) and humiliating him simply be calling out exactly what he knew Hemingway wanted: to not just have sex with one of the two women in Pascian's company, but to act as the white knight savior. In another example, one of Pascin's friends in the book is a gangster named Toussaint. He is the embodiment of the use of force to get one's way, but he hangs around Pascin because he's jealous of the painter's power of creation. Sfar is careful not to elevate what Pascin does over Toussaint's brutality; instead, there's a telling sequence where Pascin talks about how drawing is a kind of sexual substitute, a way of grasping at life and creating it on one's own and doing whatever one wants with it. In the philosophical discussions of art Pascin has with other painters like Antanas and Soutine, the question of just how to bring life to an image is the most crucial aspect of art. It's not just a matter of simultaneity on multiple planes like in Cubism, but rather an attempt at rendering all aspects of a subject in a phenomenological manner. Or as Antanas says, "You have to walk all the way around it to get the full picture" in order to get many viewpoints to resolve in a single image. The ability to do so, Pascin seems to be arguing, is no more or less noble or remarkable than seducing someone or beating them up.

This gets to the heart of the tragedy of Pascin as a character: he is desperately searching for something because he's been broken for a long time, but can't get it through either sex or art. Contrast Pascin to his friends Soutine or Marc Chagall, especially in the scene where all three get together for Yom Kippur. As a Jewish person, Sfar has spent much of his career exploring what it means to be a Jew, both in a religious sense and in an ethnic sense. He's explored many different ethnic variations and traditions surrounding Judaism, and his characters have engaged in the language of the religion, which is the language of debate. The debate, and the holiday itself, which is the day of atonement, revealed interesting things about all three men. Chagall was clearly leading the healthiest life, with a loving wife and a sense of purpose that embraced the power of the aesthetic without being consumed by it. Soutine was a misanthrope who was all too aware of his misanthropy and had come to accept it as he indulged his artistic obsessions.

Pascin told a long story about a time when he was a child and stole from his father in order to visit a brothel. Unlike his friends, who had hard early lives and risked everything for their art, Pascin was dismissive of his own ability. As would be revealed later, he simply wanted to be better at fucking than his father, wanted the power notoriety that going to a brothel would give him in school, and didn't care about the consequences. All throughout telling the story, Pascin angered Chagall with hilarious blasphemies, until he reached the end of the story, when he revealed that another man was blamed for stealing the money and he hanged himself out of humiliation. That was an obvious flashpoint for him that sent him down a path mixed with desperation and a love-hate relationship with art and sex. He became great at both (" a true pervert", his ex would say), having sex with men and women alike, as a kind of unspoken, eternal contest he had with himself and his father. Drawing and sex were two sides of the same coin, one leading to the other in a feedback loop.

Sfar's art has never looked better. It loosens up so much on some pages as to become almost abstracted; it's deeply expressive and packs a relentless emotional punch. At the same time, much about the story and his visual approach is funny, filthy and whimsical. Pascin externalized his fears through a razor-sharp wit and and relentless charismatic manner. He was much more a personality than his other artist friends and was resigned to the self-pitying misanthrope Soutine coming around and begging him to help him in the social realm. The women in the story range from naive to brilliant, with other historical figures like Kike de Montparnasse having key roles and engaging in the same kind of philosophical discussions as Pascin. For Pascin, some of them mean little to him and some (like the married Lucy) are loved with all he can give. It is clear that in many respects, they remain as much a mystery to him (if a familiar, comfortable mystery) as they were the first time he visited that brothel. He was chasing an experience he could never have, creating art to scratch an itch that could never be satisfied. Sfar helps create that sense of inner turbulence by varying his line: thicky and brushy on some pages, clear line on others, open layouts on some pages, grids on others, gray-scale on some pages, spotting blacks on others, cartoony on some pages, naturalistic and grittily detailed on others. It's an affectionate but clear-eyed take on an artist, warts and all, and the kind of questions about aesthetics that vexed Pascin and clearly vex Sfar as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

NoBrow: SP4RX

SP4RX is a tight little cyberpunk thriller that maximizes story economy and minimizes everything else while still retaining its satirical edge. The world that creator Wren McDonald introduces is a familiar one, where a corporation has its fingers in everything and introduces cybernetic program that allows "lower level" workers to take up to 36 hour shifts. Other nefarious characters want to take control of these lower level, refitted workers to make them into their own personal mind-controlled and high-powered army. The satire in this book is mostly seen in its margins, much like the Paul Verhoeven film Robocop. The grimy quality of this future city reminds me a bit of Moebius and Moebius-influenced artists like Brandon Graham, only it's rendered in a more typical NoBrow style. The characters are mostly rendered in a cute style where their faces are pretty much just dots and lines, but McDonald gets a lot of mileage out the essential looseness of his figure drawing.The light purple wash in the story gives everything an odd appearance, but not in a way that sticks out too much.

SP4RX follows a prototypical sinister corporation that has made life "better" by introducing "cybernetic efficiency public-aid program" ELPIS, essentially designed to turn workers living in the Lower Levels of the city into hyper-efficient workers that can go for 36 hours at a time. Even more sinister is a conspiracy to take over their programming and turn them into a tireless, durable army. A hacker named SP4RX is hired to find a piece of hardware that winds up being crucial in this regard, both to the conspiracy and the resistance against them. The best thing McDonald does with SP4RX is make him utterly apathetic to the ideals of the revolution; he just wants to live quietly off the grid, hang out with his best friend CL1PP3R, and make money. Circumstances don't allow this to happen, as he's manipulated by both the state and the resistance into making various moves, until he is finally able to play his own game.

Though the action in the book is fairly dark and brutal, McDonald is able to inject some pitch-black levity into a number of the scenes. The ELPIS cyborgs are of course turned into weapons that murder humans, but only after asking them "How do you contribute to the efficiency of this level?" Watching the ELPIS cyborgs run amok is one of the funnest things to follow in a book that's filled with fluid & visceral fight & chase scenes. In many respects, McDonald pays the most attention to the action going on in the city itself, as it's the most fleshed-out "character" in the book. SP4RX is little more than a grim, terse loner who does the right thing in the end for his own reasons. McDonald depicts the leader of the resistance as kind of a kook who rambles on about principles that no one cares about, like freedom. The villains are comically corrupt and over-the-top, but even this was a reflection of the authority they usually feel. Both heroes and villains use the same kind of ruthless methods, which McDonald subtly but pointedly demonstrates in the course of the book. Changing the world would mean a total paradigm shift that integrated humanity and artificial intelligence in a meaningful way, and this book depicts a bump in the road on the way to the paradigm shift. In sacrificing himself, SP4RX inadvertently found a way to alter his world and integrate man and machine in new ways. That's only hinted at that at the end, but that kind of vagueness of motivation is what makes the book so much fun to read in the end.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

D&Q: Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts

The defining element of Gonzo journalism, as originated by Hunter S. Thompson, was that the illusion of objectivity was cast aside in favor of an acknowledgment that the journalist, in reporting the story, becomes part of the story. This is not to suggest that journalism, even Gonzo journalism, doesn't have its own rules and even standards. However, it is a way of letting the reader know that this was a specific set of circumstances interpreted in a particular way by a journalist. Making this acknowledgment is a way of cutting off at the knees the possibility of making an argument by way of anecdote, which is the weakest yet most common rhetorical method of argument. It puts the lie to the notion that the journalist has special knowledge or insight. All the journalist can hope is that their account, bias and narrow scope and all, is compelling enough not to give the reader all the answers, but to give them enough information to start asking more questions.

In Sarah Glidden's first book, How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less, Glidden clearly had the journalist urge without the journalistic tools to address her Birthright trip to Israel. She knew going in that Birthright was at least in part a propaganda exercise, but she was surprised at how emotional so many aspects of that trip made her. The weird artificiality of the setting made the book feel staged at times, even if she was trying to resist that staging. The book wound up being more memoir than a work of journalism, though the seeds were clearly planted to follow up later. In particular, she wanted to talk to people directly who didn't have a particular, prescribed political agenda they wanted to peddle to her. In the end, she was no less clear about her feelings and opinions about Israel than she was when she started, but she stayed true to that conclusion and did try for a pat answer.

That desire to talk to others, a curiosity about the nuts and bolts of the actual journalistic process, and a constant slamming on the metaphorical breaks regarding any kind of smooth narrative that emerged on a trip to the Middle East make up the bulk of Glidden's new book, Rolling Blackouts. This book is a work of meta-journalism, as she followed members of the Seattle Globalist to Turkey, Kurdish Iraq and Syria and documented their process. Throughout the book, there are two separate dynamics: the dynamic between the Globalist crew and the people they interview and use as contacts, and the dynamic between Sarah Stuteville of the Globalist and her friend Dan, an ex-marine who saw time in Iraq who happened to be one of her oldest friends. Glidden stood as an outsider in both sets of dynamics, in part because she didn't want to interfere with the work the Globalist journalists were attempting to accomplish. While Glidden was obviously a character in this book, she very pointedly noted that this wasn't a memoir. She got to shape it the way she wanted and wasn't obligated to share her feelings about anything in particular. As such, we never hear Glidden's feelings about being an American in the countries they traveled to, nor how she felt as a Jewish person in those countries. Indeed, her ethnic background wasn't brought up a single time in the book. Glidden the person in this book is a very intelligent and perceptive cipher, and that's as it should be.

It was interesting to see the differences in what Stuteville did and what Joe Sacco does in his comics journalism. Sacco inserts himself into the scene but never hesitates in making friends with the locals as he often stays in one place for months. There are also times when he's as ruthless as he needs to be in finding the story he's looking for, as depicted in Footnotes In Gaza. Stuteville is a more traditional journalist, as getting to spend a lot of her time with her subjects is unusual and there's not always the opportunity to engage in social interaction. It did happen on occasion, where Stuteville attended parties at people's homes and danced, or went out to get drinks. Glidden depicts Stuteville as professional but empathetic, probing but kind and a mix of supreme confidence and self-doubt. Some of her subjects were happy to talk to an American journalist, while others took the opportunity to use her as a vessel for venting their hatred of what the American army did to their country. In both instances, Glidden depicted Stuteville as almost infinitely patient and unflappable, always allowing her subjects to vent without once trying to justify what had happened. In almost every case shown, even the most vociferously hostile subjects would calm down and realize that it wasn't her fault and recognized that she was there to hear their stories.

By way of contrast, the way Stuteville interacted with Dan reflected the full weight of their history and the ways in which she no longer understood him. As media-savvy individuals, they were both going after certain stories and were aware that the other was trying to shape the story in a particular way. For Dan, who had been as peace-loving as anyone in high school, he viewed enlisting as a way of trying to personally influence events in Iraq. It was a way of doing more than just protesting; in his view, it was a way of effecting real change. What Stuteville was looking for was him starting with perhaps that narrative and then seeing that narrative change when he met people who had been affected by the war. His immediate reaction, which he repeated again and again, was to say that the war hadn't affected him negatively at all, he was glad that he performed this service, didn't regret his actions at all and didn't feel any guilt. He was answering questions that weren't even asked, which immediately caused Stuteville to want to chase down the things he denied.

That led to a series of ever-more-frustrating, passive-aggressive interviews. Stuteville was constantly trying to figure out a way of circling around and drawing him out (even chastising Glidden for directly questioning him on some sensitive material when she didn't think it was an appropriate time). Every time, she would get stonewalled. Ironically, it wasn't until the very end of the book, when Dan heard some Iraqi refugees in Syria decry America, that he admitted that coming to Iraq was a mistake. The irony was that he told this to Glidden, not Stuteville, and Glidden was incisive in her analysis: Dan was looking for absolution from someone, anyone, and it would never come. Stuteville later talked about the mistakes she made in trying to interview Dan, acknowledging that she was simply too close to the subject to be truly objective. This interpersonal conflict added some spice to what was otherwise a fairly straightforward narrative. Many of the stories presented were interesting, but what the reader saw was the bare bones of that story that would later be turned into something more coherent. It was the equivalent of watching an unedited film, which was interesting up to a point but repetitive after a while.

The book picks up when the crew meets Sam, an Iraqi native who had lived in Seattle for a number of years before being deported. Technically, he was deported for falsifying aspects of his application, but the reality is that he was seemingly connected to a key Al-Qaeda member who helped mastermind the 9/11 terrorist attack. Sam claimed innocence and ignorance, which seemed fishy to the group until they actually spent a lot of time with him. This was an interesting bit of give and take, as the group sensed that while his story had some inconsistencies, the essential truth of him being innocent felt true to them. The amount of time spent with him in the book, small touches like him being obsessed with being able to have access to American snacks and his sheer lack of guile gave the reader the same kind of intimacy that the group felt with him. Glidden really shines in creating these scenes, creating a sense of ease on the page that was casual but also weighed with the seriousness of the charges and the sadness of Sam being separated from his wife and children. Glidden also gets at the idea of a sticky truth where it's impossible to know all of the factors that went into the arrest, like the politics influencing the US officials.

The final segment of the book in Syria is closer to what one would expect about a book set in the Middle East: focusing on human misery, the ramifications of war and individual tales of despair and hope. As grim as the refugees' lives were in Syria, the reality of Syria today is far more upsetting, given the horrific civil war and genocide. Entering Syria meant encountering state-enforced admiration of Assad, which was amusing for a while until it became clear that state surveillance was a real thing. There were moments of humor in this book, to be sure, but it was laughing in the dark. The title of the book refers to a phenomenon in Iraq where they were planned, brief blackouts at night, because there wasn't enough power to keep the city lit all at the same time. It became Glidden's metaphor for journalists facing long periods of uncertainty, often foisted intentionally on them, followed by moments of insight. It also refers to their perspective as Americans, and Dan in particular. The last big blowout argument between Stuteville and Dan took place during a blackout, where Dan makes the case that someone needed to stop Saddam Hussein, and Stuteville counters that it wasn't our place to do so, especially without any real sense of how to fix what happened next. The lights blinked on after that moment as the argument ended, a moment of enlightenment or at least having one's cards all out on the table achieved.

Whereas Joe Sacco combines incredible skill with a pen and a sense of when to bend naturalism toward a more cartoony style, Glidden keeps everything sketchy and loose. Her use of color is key to the book, as mellow pastels dominate backgrounds and keep the book on an even keel in terms of tone. No matter what kind of story is being discussed, Glidden's consistency in this regard gives the book cohesion and adds a sense of restraint to the book. This makes sense, because the book is less about the Middle East than it is a book about process and craft. Glidden balances that discussion of process with interpersonal relationships, which was crucial in preventing the book from becoming too dry or academic. The book does drag here and there, and there are a few story tangents that don't quite go anywhere, but for the most part Glidden is able to turn quiet moments into important ones because they flesh out interpersonal relationships. Glidden does a fine job overall of humanizing a difficult job, providing context and understanding of how an important job is done, and explaining why it's as important as it is.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retrofit: Anya Davidson and Leela Corman

Lovers In The Garden, by Anya Davidson. This bonkers crime-romance comic set in the 1970s reminds me of the sort of thing that Elmore Leonard might write. It's a series of character vignettes tied together by a central plot of two hitmen being sent to kill their latest target. The construction of that plot is seamless, even as Davidson throws in a number of twists that alter the balance of the story. That said, the plot really exists as a way for Davidson to explore a series of different kinds of relationships. The first is the relationship between a reporter and a story subject, as Elyse Saint-Michel interviews a man named Flashback, who happens to be a hitman. She's trying to get him to give her some info on his boss, a scummy heroin dealer named Dog, and he winds up telling her some of his life story. The second relationship we see is that of the other hitman, Shephard, and a young woman named Coral Gables. They are in love, so much so that Shephard wants to quit the business.

The next relationship moves the plot forward a bit, as Dog asks the hitmen to do one last job, and he'll allow Shephard to quit. After they leave, he tells another employee, a woman named Mystic Blue, to kill them both after they complete the job. When we meet Elyse's boyfriend Chip, when we see that Coral is actually an undercover copy, and that Mystic wants to double-cross her boss, one of the themes of the story clearly emerges: broken relationships that actively choke off trust and support in the face of ambition and greed. It's not even a good vs evil issue, as Elyse and Coral are very much using others to get what they want, even if their goals are noble. Davidson actually plants doubt even there, as the "good" characters want to get the big scoop or bust a drug dealer, but they're doing it to advance, not because they are focused on doing the right thing. Another theme that Davidson hints at is how sexual love can be ephemeral and even deceptive. The sexual relationships between Coral and Shephard and Elyse & her boyfriend had no real depth.

The setting is another interesting factor in this comic. The 1970s was an era of a revolution of rising expectations, as women and people of different races started seeing social and cultural advancement as a real possibility. As such, two of the key characters in the story are African-American women, and the key antagonist (Mystic Blue) is a woman who is fed up with her position in Dog's gang. Force is a means to an end. Davidson moves the story to an explosive and tense climax, switching points of view so that the reader can better see exactly how which people with guns are in facing each other and in what position. All of that serves as a way of revealing who the true lovers are, in a fraternal but still remarkably deep way: Flashback and Shephard. When the shooting starts, we flash back to Viet Nam, where Flashback saves Shephard. They faced trauma together and still had each other as homeless people when they were taken in by the drug lord, who started them slowly until he moved them up to hitmen. One of the best lines in the story comes from Flashback: "Like a lobster in a pot of water. The temperature rose so gradually I didn't realize I was being boiled alive." Dog exploited them until they were too much in his debt and his thrall for them to do anything different. In an era where being able to define oneself was its hallmark, Shephard and Flashback were the only two characters who weren't able to do this, until Flashback found the same kind of courage that served him in saving Shephard in Viet Nam. Theirs is the only love story with a happy ending (for as long as it might last) in the book.

The line is Davidson's usual expressive, loose and and even cartoony style. Interestingly, it's mostly the characters who get solid black line drawings. Everything else is done in colored pencil, including most of the backgrounds and even many of the street scenes. It's a clever way of pushing the characters forward ahead of everything else, even as the colors themselves have a slightly ratty and psychedelic character to them. It's that mix of punk and psychedelia that is Davidson's trademark, and it's an especially clever strategy given the book's obsession with artifice vs reality. Davidson suggests that it's all artifice on one level, everything but the kind of true friendship that lasts through bullets and bombs and through madness and destitution. Despite all of the sleaze and backbiting in this comic, it still retains an almost sweet level of optimism in the face of everything, precisely because of that true friendship.

We All Wish For Deadly Force, by Leela Corman. It's remarkable how much thematic cohesion there is in this collection of Leela Corman's short stories. I've been reading Corman's comics for nearly twenty years, when she started out with her Flim-Flam minicomics and early books like Subway Series and Queen's Day. Since that time, her work has become more explicitly about gender, cultural mores, personal and ethnic identity, class and sexism. All of these topic were explored in her book Unterzakhn, as Corman has almost always written fiction. As such, I was surprised to see so much autobio in this book, even if it addressed most of the same issues she's always been interested in. For example, the bonds of family are a crucial element in the book, and in particular the way family carries on after trauma and tragedy.

Consider "The Wound That Never Heals" and "Yahrzeit". The former directly addresses the sudden death of her toddler daughter Rosalie and the latter addresses her grandfather possibly witnessing his family dying during World War II. Corman is an especially sharp writer, and she approaches these horrors from a number of different angles. There is the immediate, visceral approach, where she depicts the hypervigilance that results from PTSD as being a sort of shadowy force that forces her to appear normal. There's the clinical approach, where she breaks down precisely what's happening in her brain and why. There's the philosophical approach, which leads to the title descriptor of the first story. There's also the generational approach, wherein she imagines her grandfather carrying around the dead as a burden or like a phantom limb, just as she does. She also imagines another world where her daughter is alive and wonders if her grandfather ever did the same.In both stories, she makes the point that what others view as strength is simply our survival instinct as animals, and acceptance of the permanence of trauma is the only thing that can help one accept it. The former story vividly uses color in unconventional ways, contrasting horror with bright backgrounds as a way of highlighting the dissonance of looking normal while living with PTSD. The latter story is a more traditional Corman creation, as the contrast here is with her usual thin line and the roughly-penned outline of the dead.

Corman's identity as a Jewish person is also key in this collection. It's something that ties into identity and as a narrative for loss. Even a lightweight story like "Brooklyn Bellydance Adventure", which was about Corman teaching the discipline to Jewish women of Russian descent, is incredibly sharply-observed in terms of what they shared and what was foreign. "This Way To Progress" is about her grandparents, through the device of the kind of furniture she chooses to have and the way it reminds her of her family. A chair is emblematic of a place to sit and reflect in one's home, and the modernist chairs her grandparents chose reflected their progressivism, of leaving behind horror and tragedy, of an openness to new ideas. "Irreducibles" similarly starts off in a lighthearted manner as it talks about certain essential aspects of Jewish identity, joking about being in a cabal or craving gefilte fish. What is unique about Jewish culture is that despite its many rules that are inexplicable to outsiders, the idea of what being a "good Jew" means is remarkably open to interpretation. Corman seizes on the idea that kvetching (complaining) is one of these "irreducibles", for the sheer pleasure of the act--even if the complaint has been assuaged. Seizing on these lighthearted ideas develops into the darker aspects, like an ever-present feeling of doom that everything could collapse and Jews could be rounded up again. Once again, Corman advocates not resisting or ignoring that feeling, but rather accepting it and using it effectively. "The Book Of The Dead" seizes on that idea and talks about the exile from France her grandparents faced and how living in Brooklyn altered family dynamics forever.

An unstated theme in the book is guilt. Survivor's guilt for Corman being alive and and her daughter not, guilt for being alive while a number of her relatives died in the Holocaust, guilt for what she acknowledges is the privilege of being an artist, and guilt for accidentally getting to live in a time and place that's given her some semblance of security and consistence. That is addressed specifically in "The Book Of The Dead", as the artist and a survivor can only do their best to honor the dead, show gratitude toward those who gave her an opportunity to create and acknowledge one's debts. Acceptance of guilt, acceptance of trauma, and acceptance of the full beauty and horror regarding the implications of one's ethnic heritage are the only way out of the inevitable side effects of trauma, Corman suggests. The only way out is through. The interstitial pieces in the book, done in colored pencil, are raw and visceral memories of Rosalie and current anecdotes about missing her and dealing with monstrous people in public who lack any sense of empathy toward children.

Corman, partly through her bellydancer friend Luna of Cairo, also discusses the ways in which women have and are ignored, humiliated and outright abused in society. While the particular brand of sexism she faces in Egypt is particular to that country and culture, it is not to suggest that America or any other country is any less openly sexist and abusive toward women, and that society at large tolerates sexual assault and harassment. One of Luna's stories involves women working hard to elect a presidential candidate who did a great deal to help fight back against sexual assault, making an example out of a public gang rape on a city street. In the story "It's Always Been Here", Corman details the history of a well that was a part of a shrine to Aphrodite and the generations of women who came with supplications regarding having children, dealing with abusive husbands, etc. All of these stories reflect ways in which women have and can care for other women in a position of strength and authority. The latter story hints at ways in which that authority can be weakened over time but also suggests that it's something that can be tapped into again at any time. Corman explores a lot of dark places in this book, both within and without her, but the last resonant theme is that of survival. She may play down the strength necessary to survive, but what Corman does as an artist in this book is not just convey survival, but articulate the ways she has managed to cope with the weight of her own traumas in a manner that's remarkably beautiful, expressive and powerful.