Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 30: Iris Yan

Iris Yan is a CCS grad who specializes in autobiographical comics, but they always have a peculiar angle. For example, Capulanas And Sweets is about her time spent on the tiny island of Mozambique. Friends is about a variety of friends she lost touch with. Hotline is about her time spent in graduate school as a "liner" for the school's crisis hotline center. Each project sees her use a different visual approach. When the focus is on the personal and a degree of anonymity is important, she draws all of her characters as anthropomorphic animals (her own "totem animal") is a pig. In Capulanas and Sweets, it was important to get across a great deal of detail about her location, so she used a more naturalistic style.

Let's start with that comic first. Capulanas And Sweets is about Yan's time as a volunteer in Mozambique; her job was identifying potential tourist locations for the future community foundation. That's a fancy way of saying that she got to be a tourist who was exploring the local culture and had the ear of what turned out to be a prominent community leader. The comic is divided into small vignettes, as Yan (who is Brazilian with Chinese parents) negotiated a culture where she was very clearly an outsider. Part of that negotiation was learning that hygiene was an issue on the island, from people defecating on the beach because of a lack of toilets to sand appearing in food because it wasn't washed properly. Dealing with politics and political parties was a regular part of life, especially on the many national holidays the island held. While trying to be a creative problem-solver, Yan never held herself apart from the island's population, and was thrilled when prices started to mysteriously drop for her at the marketplace--especially for her beloved capulanas--bright pieces of colorful cloth that could serve as wraps, blankets or be made into virtually anything. Yan has a self-deprecating and disarming way of describing other cultures that serves her well, because unlike the comics of a Guy Delisle, she never comes off as a smug Westerner. Her lifetime of being an "other" both made her accustomed to the treatment she received but also far more respectful of the locals, their customs and traditions. While not a great naturalistic artst, her simple drawings here got the job done in an expressive and stripped-down manner.

Friends was prompted when Yan looked through her phonebook and wondered about the many people she was no longer in touch with, and decided to tell the stories of her friendships with them. It's a fascinating cross-section that cuts across youth to graduate school to the present. The cuteness of her animal figures belies the frequently serious and disturbing breakdowns in relationships, like one friend exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, prompting Yan to put her on a plane to her parents' place. Others include a guy whose breaking up with his girlfriend and leaving town was a happy occasion because Yan was pals with his girlfriend, a boyfriend who prompted her to become a vegetarian, and a friend with few social boundaries who tested her ability to deal with people in general. Throughout the book, Yan keenly examines her own behaviors and role in friendships and love relationships going sour, like unconsciously trying to make one boyfriend look bad in front of her parents and friends. Hints of Yan's spiritual and ethical decision-making are present as well, like being a kid and having a friend who was a Jehovah's Witness try to convert her with Bible stories, or being an adult and learning how to read auras as she alienated a hardcore atheist friend of hers. Yan's matter-of-fact about these conflicts, in part because of the way she draws herself as fairly unflappable. This is not to say that she's emotionless, just that her first instinct is to stay calm in these stories.

Hotline is my favorite of the three comics here. Originally serialized in Maple Key Comics, there's a more assured sense of flow in this comic than in her other work, which tends to meander at times. This comic about joining a finely-honed group of "liners" in helping callers help themselves through a series of mirroring and parroting techniques is fascinating, mostly because the liners themselves have so many psychological problems. (Yan is referred to as "generally fucked up".) Nailing the quotidian details of how training worked, how an average night worked, and how it all ended along with the specifics of how the friendships created with her fellow liners gave more direct insight into Yan's personality and experienced than the two other autobio comics referenced in this article. Part of that is that this comic isn't explicitly about her, but rather an experience she shared. That gave her room to insert her point of view strongly as a way of becoming an entry point for readers. The other reason, I believe, is that this was simply a much more personal comic that deal with sensitive and personal issues. Certain issues that were dodged in the other two comics were an important part of Hotline. Once again, Yan's balance of the absurd and the near-tragic while keeping a deadpan affect throughout is the key to her appeal, with her placid animals characters the perfect mirrors for this approach.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 29: Irene 4, 5

Irene continues to be a consistently well-edited, designed and produced anthology. Each issue is a self-contained and coherent entity, even as certain themes and artists tend to pop up from issue to issue. Editors DW, Dakota McFadzean and Andy Warner are the essence of the anthology, as each brings elements of their own aesthetics and methods to the book, both in terms of the actual stories and the contributors who are selected for each issue. Warner's naturalism, McFadzean's emphasis on open spaces and how they can be haunted (both figuratively and literally) and DW's mark-making weirdness make for a surprisingly even blend, in part because all three show a remarkable amount of flexibility and respect with regard to the points of view of their fellow editors.

Irene 4 features a number of stories that can be called personal, even if they aren't directly autobiographical. For example, Jan Burger's fanciful tale of his child being called forth from his wife's womb by the family cat is a warm and wonderful story about waking up to the demons that keep us distracted from what's important: being creative. Burger's supple line makes it perfect for fantasy stories such as this. Then there are directly autobiographical stories like Georgia Webber's "Access", which is about the injury she suffered that made it hard for her to speak. In this short, she talks about social media and how easy it is for her to get lost in it, because she doesn't have to be conscious of her injury. At the same time, in this story full of cascading windows, she understands that a life filled with nothing but social media is an empty one. Jai Granofsky's "Cauliflower" walks the line between the two, as a series of dream sketches and gags about pizza, what "comics" are and the logic of cauliflower.

Warner's interest in reportage drew in a couple of entries. Emi Gennis is well-known for her interest in unusual deaths, and in "Nyos" she reports, in her typical naturalistic style, of how an eruption of carbon dioxide from a nearby lake killed nearly everyone in an African village. The point she hits on that's interesting is that the mysteriousness of the event made the very few survivors think that the world had ended, and wondered when they left if anyone would be there to see them. Jackie Roche's "Black Boots" takes a micro view of a big event: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You might know that he was taken to a room across the street; what you might not know is that the room was a boarding room rented to a soldier named William T. Clarke, who later charged admission to his room for morbidly curious onlookers. "A Dream", by Warner & McFadzean, has the feel of reportage, as it's about a woman recalling a dream she had about imprisoning her brother, only to have her situation reversed. It's very much a "tell not show" story, as the artists are more interested in evoking the sense of a story being told then telling that specific story.

DW's presence can certainly be felt as well. He crafted a story surrounding the interstitial characters from a prior issue, "Veronica And The Good Guys" that Warner drew in his mixed cartoony/ naturalistic style, about a rock band being chased by a planet full of "bad guys" hungry for their skins. Amy Lockhart's "Drawings" fit in with DW's aesthetic; this weird mix of stippled, naturalistic anatomy with big foot/big nose qualities warps reader expectations. Carlista Martin's gender-bending, highly detailed drawings tread similar ground but with an entirely different approach. "Generals and Gods" features McFadzean writing and DW drawing a story of possibly misplaced mercy. The Mat Brinkman-inspired line is the only visual approach I could have imagined for this story. "Walk Like You Mean It" combines DW's cut-up text technique with the drawings of Power Paola, and the resulting cute/weird imagery looks like something out of Paper Rodeo.

Finally, the stories that defy categorization. Mazen Kerbaj (almost certainly brought in by Warner) has a story called "Boats", which is a hilarious treatment of boats as anthropomorphic beings that actually hate water. Luke Howard's "Zapruder 313" is about two guys sitting around watching the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy getting killed. It's less a morbid exercise than it is a simple exploration of the idea of how things can be one way one second and then radically different the next. James Hindle's "Yellow Plastic" is Hindle's best-ever story. It's a story about a teen meeting a mysterious girl who appears and disappears suddenly from his life, the sort of person who leaves a mark on a guy even if their interactions were brief. Laura Terry's "The Dark" is a visceral, disturbing story about addiction and self-destruction couched as a fantasy about a shadow creature encouraging such behavior in a woman desperate to get away from it. It's one of her most powerful stories, one that still uses her witty and clear line but subverts it for emotionally devastating effect.

Irene #5 follows a similar path in terms of genre, mark-making, illustration personal stories and reportage. The cast of characters, other than the three editors, is entirely different. "Fire Truck Duck" is by Warner, and it's a touching bit of quite sincere nostalgia regarding how their father used to tell them stories, and how the occasional recording, preserved today, recreates the experience to a degree. Dave Ortega's "como un tren" is a different kind of memoir, one about his family's journey from Mexico to El Paso and religious freedom. The sketchiness of the art reflects the artist's own struggle in telling the story of someone else, of knowing when to invoke creative license and when to stick precisely to the facts.

After that is an incredibly clever cartoon by R.Sikoryak mashing together the long-running Simpsons with the Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill's semiautobiographical play, A Long Day's Journey Into Night. The idea of Homer as James Tyrone (a successful actor pigeonholed into a single role) parallels the notion of the Simpsons becoming cultural icons at the expense of the overall quality of the series. That, and some Bosch-inspired drawings by Emanuel Schongut, provide a palate-cleanser for the longest piece in the book: a story written by the FDZ and drawn by Fouad Mezher called "The Fifth Column". It's a story set in Lebanon, by Lebanese cartoonists (once again, Warner's connections come into play here). It's a story that starts as something personal, then political, and then slowly descends into total horror. That horror is born of reality, of roaming packs of dogs and checkpoints, which makes it all the more chilling.

Following that bit of naturalistically-drawn genre is a bit of mark-making lunacy with DW and Mark Connery. Luke Healy's "Mountain Take Me" is another cornerstone of this issue, one that I've covered elsewhere. After a bit of comedic weirdness from James Stanton and Bailey Sharp (the former in the tradition of underground artists, the latter more like Anders Nilsen), Pat Barrett's "You Are We" is a tremendous bit of sci-fi combined with the possibilities and difficulties surrounding identity. Jon Chad's "Compleet Pwner" is a hilarious, nasty and deliciously drawn fine-line extravaganza featuring monsters, spaceships and the moon. In other words, all the things he does well. DW follows these two genre stories with something that's purely him: mark-making and pattern-creation in the service of exploring consciousness through the use of repurposed text.

Finally, Dan Rinylo and McFadzean contribute two stories that dwell on ontological concerns. For Rinylo, it's being given an absurd and meaningless tour of the world by a higher being, who shows him his total insignificance in the face of things when he complains about the stupid stuff he's being show. For McFadzean, it's a memory of using clay to create creatures called Gnoshlox; it's a child's magical realist memory that supersedes anything that came earlier. In both cases, pondering meaning is fruitless, even though it's something we either can't resist trying or can't stop from entering our minds. McFadzean's stories always linger in one's mind when he talks about the lives of children, not unlike an Eleanor Davis. That's why it's so exciting to see him collaborate with like minds as well as creators he respects who work in an entirely different style; it's clear that editing Irene has stretched all three of the editors.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 28: Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle's two series, Annotated and Word & Voice, both carry a mysterious and frequently apocalyptic quality that centers around language. Using an elliptic storytelling style that deliberately presents the narrative as a series of loosely connected fragments and images, his comics are challenging, poetic and haunting.The first six issues of Word & Voice saw a man silently navigating what appeared to be a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, until he found a woman and her family. When they finally spoke, what emerged from their mouths was gobbledygook.

Issues seven through twelve flash back to the possible source of the virus (a transmission from a space station), the silent recreation of a society on earth now through pure survivalist tactics, the way that a love relationship gone horribly wrong may have spurred the crisis, the horror of the breakdown of all languages, one by one, a shadowy and conspiratorial explanation for how the whole thing may have evolved and the ways in which the semiotic breakdown of reality may have caused an actual breakdown in reality. In other words, when language disappeared, the things that language represented sometimes disappeared as well. Cockle alternates ideas and images with each issue; one issue focuses entirely on survivors, while another shows the breakdown of language. His visuals are rough, but they get the job done and use a clever sense of design to orient and then disorient the reader on each page.

Issues 13 and 16 of Annotated are part of a single storyline, which is about various other perspectives about the "soft coup" from Annotated #10. #13 features a plane (and plan) in flight as an inventory of items necessary to make the coup go forward are read. Once again, the relationship between word and action is a key part of understanding Cockle's comics, as a seemingly mundane list is really an inventory of destruction and terror--even if the "great man" perpetrating it claims to be "just and benevolent". Of course, the video game consisting of triangles that we see the key woman in the story playing is really a powerful system that's destroying buildings and the opposition in general. In #16, one of the key individuals is captured and interrogated by, one would presume, the US government. The phrase "You know how this works" is repeated twice, as though the interrogator has already created a reality where she gives him information simply by invoking it. That dependence on code, that certainty that we have in language, in ideas and concepts, is lost by both sides here, as the mysterious "white", "grey" and "black" boxes of the terrorists either go down, take themselves down by their own volition or otherwise act in unexpected ways. The sins of the terrorists, it is implied, is not so much a moral one but one of vanity: the vanity and arrogance of certainty. Cockle grounds it all in the fallibility of human relationships, of how power is at the basis of the relationships even in this new utopia. Using mostly tight shots and profile drawings of characters, Cockle gets away with a limited display of the apocalypse by allowing us to see his characters' reaction to it instead.

Annotated 12 starts with a split narrative, "Deer Park/Loon Lake". The intersection between the two is unclear; the figure in the narrative on the left side of the page is bandaged (and a frequently recurring character/motif in this series), while the figures on the right appear to be lovers. Is the "he" mentioned by the bandaged woman on page 1 on the phone the man in the other narrative? What is the relationship between the two of them? Are they mother and son, as the woman reading a biography of Edgar Allen Poe might seem to indicate? Both stories are entirely mundane, yet contain a sense of desperation on the one hand and dangerous frisson on the other. There's a mundane tension that's almost unbearable. In the second half ot he issue, "U.S.A. 2014", Cockle uncorks a series of very funny short strips that explore the same sort of territory that Tom Kaczynski does in his strips: architecture and its effect on the psyche, the stilted nature of human interaction, and the relationship between technology and alienation. As heavy as all this sounds, Cockle treats these ideas in a joking manner, even managing to leave off strips with a punchline.

Annotated 14 features a more stripped-down, abstract style that continues to play on themes of architecture with stick-figure characters. Another running theme in Annotated is the use of characters giving presentations or committees presenting findings about information that's just a bit outside the reader's grasp, as there's a lecture commenting on the work of a man whose ideas were mentioned in the first story in the issue. Annotated is never meta for its own sake or to be clever; rather, it is constantly referencing a host of outside concepts that sometimes naturally intersect, sometimes in the interest of a narrative.

Finally, Annotated #15 is in many ways the most straightforward of the series. Titled "Surveillance", we see a group of people despairing that a group of "giants" are coming to crush them. A middle-manager (of the hilariously-named "Building Robert Gates") dresses down a scientist to losing to Building Donald Rumsfeld, bemoaning their lack of "good apps". Cockle nails whiny manager-speak to a "t", here, even as we slowly learn that the scientist and her colleague have the grim job of extermination put forth before them. It's a chilling tale told with the emotion and regret of the scientists, only their feelings have little to do with feeling sympathy for their subjects. Cockle's fascinating with geometry and graphs (especially the x-y-z axes) plays out extensively in this comic, once again giving it a unique visual presentation even if the actual draftsmanship is on the rough side.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 27: Dog City 3

Dog City, edited by Juan Fernandez, Luke Healy and Simon Reinhardt, is the perfect blend of aesthetics and content, a sort of McSweeney's for minicomics. There's also a strong Chris Ware/ Jordan Crane influence at work, in that every aspect of the package is a comic or an illustration. The central conceit of Dog City is that rather than publish a conventional anthology, the editors preferred to create a package full of individual minicomics, a magazine, a broadsheet, a poster, prints and other visual goodies. The cast of contributors includes CCS students and alums, of course, but it also reaches out to other scenes (Pittsburgh's fertile ground in particular). A popular item at shows, each mini is silkscreened and lovingly produced, with the sales pitch that the combined package is a bargain at $20 considering how much is in there.

Healy's own Starlight mini is one I covered in his own spotlight article, but the cover of the Dog City version is colored differently. Reinhardt's How We Ride is a quotidian tribute to a group of three small-town friends depicted as anthropomorphic dogs. These teens ride around, listen to music, play dice and cards, and "stand around a lot in parking lots". Reinhardt captures both the energy and ennui of friends stuck in a place who nonetheless refuse to stand still, and the simplicity of his line works to his advantage. Laurel Lynn Leake's triptych poster and Steven Krall's print are both bright and attractive, though I'm not sure they add much to the overall package.

Strands by Sophie Goldstein is an unusual outing for the artist. It's rendered in a very simplistic style that emphasizes the flat colors, which seems to be a deliberate choice. I think this is because the subject matter is about the false promises and fronts of commerce and how they can be conflated with real connections, often with disastrous results. They Won't Get To You, by DW and Juan Fernandez, is at its heart a mark-making comic about a dog trying to escape its demonic pursuers and ultimately turning the tables on them. It seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the sort of narratives and visual styles seen in the rest of the anthology, as Fernandez' scratchy and visceral art is a perfect match for DW's loose story. Going In Blind is clever in that two different cartoonists took differing views of the lead-up to the same story: a blind date between Beth and Derek. It's a flip book, as Allison Bannister covers Beth's story and Tom O'Brien handles Derek's story. Naturally, the lead-up is very different for both, as both individuals process nerves and excitement differently. O'Brien's half was distracting in that it had these weird grey scale effects; it seemed clear that the comic was meant to be in color. Bannister's half is clearer and cleaner, making it flow in a more organic fashion.

Caitlin Rose Boyle's (Mice) is an autobio mini about having to deal with the visceral reality of having to deal with pests and the guilt seeing an actual dead animal can trigger. There are some striking images here, like a rising tide of mice and the author being stuck in glue and drowning just like a mouse did. Her cartoony but warm style (she's sort of in the Kate Beaton school) was a perfect choice for this sort of story. Jennifer Lisa's Garrettsville was one of the best minis in this batch, as it's about her dead-end hometown and how growing up there as a near-invisible introvert had a profound effect on her development and current personality. The comfort level of knowing every inch of a place was superseded by the anxiety of remembering who she was and how she was treated when she lived there. The rough pencil drawings are wonderfully expressive, especially when she hits on the "phantom girl" metaphor and then later learns much of the town caught fire and burned down. I was unfamiliar with Lisa's work prior to this mini, but this is a bold effort.

Iris Yan has emerged as one of my favorite CCS cartoonists, thanks mostly to her witty authorial voice. The Tarot Man makes use of her preference of using animals as characters to tell the story of a penguin with a rigidly-defined life. One day, he gets a card in the mail of a tower being destroyed by lightning: the Tarot card The Tower. This is a symbol of massive change and upheaval but also the possibility of real transformation. The story features him loosening up, allowing him to break out of the prison of his habits and meeting someone. It's a story about how love and transformation often go hand in hand. Along similar lines is Amelia Onorato's clever princess deconstruction Fortes Fortuna, which is about a young king being pressured to marry and his clever declaration that his wife should not speak (among other things). He becomes enchanted by a princess who runs off, doesn't speak and seems his match in every way. When he realizes that he's in love with her, she speaks and lets him know about the economic disadvantages that women face--and they live happily (and justly) ever after. The story is funny but pointed, and Onorato's line is absolutely charming and perfect for a fantasy story.

Dog City and CCS have often been known to celebrate older styles of cartooning. Dan Rinylo's cartooning is very much a throwback to to Milt Gross and George Herriman, with a modern sense of pathos frequently added. He can spin a good gag, like in his Mangy Mutt feature in this comics broadsheet, but his Danny autobio feature contains all the elements of both a classic strip as well as a modern memoir about mental illness. It's a remarkable blend of an older visual style and a modern and personal subject. From homage to archival project comes Who's Zoo, a comic by Tom Dibble, Jr. Dibble was CCS student Reilly Hadden's great-grandfather, and this strip ran in the 1920s. As it turns out, Dibble shared a studio with the great Milt Gross, and there's a bit of Gross' absurdity to be found here. The strip concerns a couple of hawks looking to kidnap a baby duck for ransom and how the baby was eventually recovered by a pistol-packing emu. George Herriman was an obvious inspiration with regard to the visuals, but the whole kidnapping plot felt directly lifted from something similar in Gasoline Alley. The strip is an interesting curio and was certainly well-drawn, but it feels entirely derivative. Dibble was a young man when he drew it, and I imagine that if he had stayed in the strip game before his untimely death, it might have evolved into something more interesting.

Some of this info was revealed in Dog City Magazine, which featured an article by Hadden on his great-greatgrandfather's strip. There's also a retrospective by Reinhardt on Steve Bissette's classic anthology Taboo with Bissette's own recollections and evaluations, an essay by Julia Zuckerberg about the benefits of doing a diary comic and an essay by Nik James on why it's useful to study classic adventure strips. That had the feel of a school assignment (and it may well have been, because I know CCS students are required to critique comics as part of their curriculum) and was a bit on the stiff side. Still, the magazine itself is very much a value-added feature of this excellent package, one that features a handful of outstanding minis and several good to very good ones. The editors embrace a wide variety of styles but make their own aesthetic priorities obvious: every mini should have a strong visual appeal in terms of both packaging and content. Even if the drawing style is stripped-down, of the mark-making school or more naturalistic, the editors eschew conventional, generic drawing approaches.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 26: Annie Murphy, Adam Whittier, Jon Chad, Sean Ford, Rachel Dukes

This CCS entry will focus on odds and ends, things that are more illustration than comics, and a few extra comics that arrived after I wrote an article about the cartoonist.

Adam Whittier's Snake Rapunzel (published by Charlie Clark Books of Portland) is yet another update of the Rapunzel myth. It's a book written and illustrated by Whittier, though it's not a comic. It's not quite a kids' book either, as there are hints of bawdiness throughout. Whittier quickly turns the book from a passive story of waiting to be rescued into an active story of scheming and counter-scheming. On one side is the witch imprisoning Rapunzel. On the other is an unscrupulous grifter who's pretending to be a prince. Then there's poor naive Rapunzel herself, who quickly wises up and displays a remarkable talent at the beauty contest that sits at the story's climax: the ability to drink any man under the table. Finally, there's Belinda the snake and Luther the porcupine, who intersect with all of these characters in unusual and amusing ways. Whittier spins a charming and even exciting story out of this character cloth, with the illustrations looking influenced by Dr Seuss and the prose influenced by Jules Feiffer. It's a combo that works well, as the story carries both traditional and modern touches.

A Cartoonist's Story Unfolding, by Jon Chad. Chad wasn't a CCS student, but he was a lab tech and later on the school's faculty. He may not have been a student there, but he certainly received an education in comics that helped lead him to having multiple books published for different audiences. This is the new recruiting pamphlet for CCS, and it's one of the best. Chad is a formalist who loves making the reader turn books upside down in order to read them and poke through eye pops to get bonus images. As one goes chronologically through Chad's career at CCS, the reader opens up the folded-up comic, flips it upside down and finds both his world as a cartoonist and the comic itself getting bigger and bigger. As with all of Chad's work, it's clever, accessible, funny and extremely well-designed.

Symbology, by Annie Murphy. This is an A-Z compendium of "archetypes and epiphanies", based in part on Murphy's career-long study of pre-patriarchal myths, symbols and rituals related to our understanding of the world. What's remarkable about this comic, and Murphy's comics in general, is the way she's able to make transcultural connections, delving deep into history and then drawing lines to symbols that appear in mythology and sources like the Tarot. One of the key and constant links was the way that feminine symbols and the import of feminine symbols were subverted either into becoming less important than masculine symbols or else transformed into masculine symbols. Murphy's aim here is not to denigrate the masculine, but rather to point out the frequently false binary created in positing the superiority of one over the other. Her "Androgyne" points to an ancient and primordial goddess figure who was both male and female, something that Aristotle also wrote about. (It's also explored in the Gnostic-inspired film/play Hedwig And The Angry Inch). Most of the entries are brief and boldly illustrated, with white text on black paper, until the rune "hagalaz" popped up. She ties this into ancient Germanic runes, Norse mythology, Sumerian goddesses and how they morphed into the archetypical "lady of the three faces" (virgin, mother, crone), witchcraft, modern medicine, Nazi appropriation of ancient peace symbols and the tarot. This is extended comics section was the best thing here, making me wish that more of the comic was similarly integrated into a single narrative, but Murphy does her best to draw connections wherever possible. Murphy's already helped construct a new Tarot (the Collective Tarot), but I'd love to see her bring a narrative to life involving what she knows about the cards.

Shadow Hills #5, by Sean Ford. This seems to be a pivotal issue in terms of setting up conflicts. The town is stricken by the terrifyingly-depicted 'black ink" attacks, but Ford draws back from that after reminding the reader that this is happening, focusing on the back story of a key character and a big decision she makes as she literally climbs into a huge void of a hole to look for another key character who had been swallowed up by the hole. Finally, the odd boy from the first issue takes mushrooms with his protector, and they descend into another hole. Ford's just on point in this comic, using visual cues to set up bold thematic parallels. This comic is all about not just messing with the unknown, but the unknown messing back, but more than the horror of the of "black ink" is the horror of human indifference. I'm eager to see how this one finishes up.

Frankie Comics Issue Three, by Rachel Dukes. More cat comics from Dukes, whose stripped down but expressive line is perfect for preserving the cute content that she's going for here. The comics about trying to give her cat a bath are especially amusing, as the first sees the cat miraculously leap her way out of a shower stall while the second sees her happily sinking into a tub. These strips are less about trying to draw a punchline about cats every time and more about the quotidian details that having a beloved pet engenders. These strange, annoying and delightful animals (they contain multitudes, they contradict themselves) are beings we spend a lot of time with, but Dukes has a special skill with regard to telling stories about her cat that are true to life and delightful but also quite realistic as to how animals behave. Soon she'll have a book full of these cartoons, and I predict that book will be quite successful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 25: Luke Healy and Simon Reinhardt

Luke Healy is one of my favorite of the recent CCS grads, both in terms of his line and his dark sense of humor. Like many recent CCS grads, he often reaches into genre tropes to generate ideas. One such example is the first chapter (of three) of The Exquisite Corpse. The high concept is ingenious: personal fitness trainers literally swap consciousnesses with clients so that they can get their bodies fit over a several month period. The trainer in this story also has the difficulty of dealing with his client's smoking addiction, which leads him to violate some rules before he's accused of murdering his client. Healy sticks to a crisp 3 x 2 grid on each page, giving this story a steady rhythm with a simple line. Starlight doubles as a fan club publication for the world's #1 pop star, one who is obsessed with cake and her missing mother. This mini veers off into some truly weird directions as it explores fame, memory and what it means to be stricken from the public record. Both of these stories can be found in anthologies; the former will be in Maple Key volume 4 and the latter in Dog City 3.

Mountain, Take Me is a story about a group of teens who follow a woman who predicts that the end of the world will occur on that particular day. It's really about a girl who returns to her small town after several years away, and how difficult it is to integrate herself back into the community. In many ways, she clearly feels for this outcast woman who hikes to the top of a mountain in order to meet her maker. It's also pitch-perfect in the way he gets at the way teens talk. LCD finds Healy satirizing blogger culture in a hilarious but dark manner, as a stand-in character moves to a new city and finds it hard to meet people and generate material for his blog. A TV with a particular, pornographic image burned into that he received for free stops becoming a conversation piece and takes over his life bit by bit, until the final, inevitable scene. The superimposition of images from the TV that then starts superimposing itself on his consciousness and vision is a clever visual conceit, especially thanks to Healy's slightly smudged pencils.

Bob is my favorite of Healy's comics. It's the one that stretched him the most as a draftsman, as he worked a number of different styles into this Walter Mitty-esque story of a man who imagined himself as the protagonist in all kinds of different scenarios: a worker clone whose DNA was based on Jackie Gleason, a Seinfeld-style sitcom, a tavern-based soap opera and several other TV-related tropes. It's a sad and funny story about a man trying to break out of his shell who gets his heart a little broken, but in the end gets something from the experience. The drawing is excellent, as Healy is enough of a style mimic to make the transition from trope to trope easily understandable and leave quite an impact.

Simon Reinhardt's recent work is clearly the best of his young career. While always conceptually interesting, his minis suffered from some of his technical limitations. Take At The DJ Screw Museum, for example. His rendering is once again crude, but his use of color to create both positive and negative space brings this mutation of a story by Donald Barthelme to life. It's a hilarious send-up of museum design as well as a loving tribute to the mixtape master. On the other hand, his collection of his absurdist strip Detectives doesn't quite work because the color seems more perfunctory here, and the crudeness of the rendering combined with the aimlessness of the humor give the whole thing an undercooked quality.

On the other hand, that loose crudeness actually aids Superstition, the story about what happened when James Kidd disappeared. A quiet man, he simply disappeared on a trip one day and had no heirs or relatives. Eventually, a will was found in his effects that left his money to whomever could prove that the soul was real and could be photographed when leaving the body at death. Reinhardt actually clips a copy of his will inside the comic on yellow paper, adding a nice primary source touch. Reinhardt gives the facts as they were known, but he also muses on the nature of mysteries in general, relishing their existence.

The best mini in his bunch, the excellent Lost Films, picks up on this film of what is lost and unknown in a fascinating way. A writer is recruited by an eccentric and wealthy man for a mysterious project. He's informed that most silent films from the 1920s and 1930s no longer exist, but that it's his mission to recreate these films with his own director, cast and crew. It's an incredible concept that's visually exciting, as each character is more or less represented by a color form in all but close-up panels. It's a sort of visual shorthand that makes instant sense, as do other uses of this sort of shorthand in the rest of the comic. That use of color extends to the narrative captions, instantly cluing the reader in on who's speaking. Reinhardt gets across the central theme of this comic (longing for what cannot be attained) quite clearly and forcefully while spinning a clever fantasy built out of actual facts.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 24: Kevin Uehlein, Red House

Kevin Uehlein's comics fall somewhere between the mark-making and underground traditions. Each of the minis he sent me looked ripped straight from his sketchbook, giving them a certain sense of freshness and immediacy. At the same time, there's little in the way of coherency or continuity to be found, though this didn't seem to be his goal to begin with. For example, Compulse 6 and 7 are pure sketchbook work, repeating themes and images. Uehlein experimented with color, form and variations on a theme: cute girls, bearded creatures, cat creatures, wolf creatures, etc. That underground impulse is strong, even if his attention to explicitly sexual issues is tangential at best. These are exercises of the imagination, not just the id.

Dumbass Dog In "Smell The Roses" makes a couple of winking nods to R.Crumb as it employs anthropomorphic animals, one of whom does a variation of the "Keep On Truckin'" pose. Trying to roust his horrible friend, Disgusting Duck, to go out on a walk, the comic goes as scatological as one can imagine, only there's a clever joke he manages to conjure out of the situation. The comic ends with what seemed like it might be a sad-sack climax, only to reverse reader expectations by making its protagonist a profoundly satisfying winner against a bully. This was my favorite of Uehlein's comics, partly because of the character design and partly because of the odd turns the story took.

Compulse 5: Hideous is a cross between autobio and sketchbook mini, as Uehlein ponders a day spent in Los Angeles as a recently minted thirty year old. The page design of this comic is especially interesting, as he crams up to a couple of dozen panels on each page of wildly varying size. George Herriman is as much a touchstone as Crumb in these comics, as there's a poetic quality to each page, both in terms of the images and the actual text. The use of funny animals allows him a certain flexibility regarding the depiction of reality, giving him a chance to get weird at the drop of a hat without jarring the reader. At the same time, the comic is clearly personal and a way to work out issues related to loneliness and a sense of purpose.

Finally, KJC #1 is a jam between Uehlein and fellow CCS classmate DW. It's a pretty exquisite merging of aesthetic sensibilities, The two color pages in particular are a surprisingly tasteful psychedelic explosion, mixing the sheer density of a DW page with the more open and cartoony Uehlein drawings, along with the typical DW use of collage and repurposed text. It's more interesting to parse and scan than actually read, which is true of much of Uehlein's work here.

Uehlein does lead off the mini anthology Red House, a funny and gross collection of misfortunes and misadventures. With his Disgusting Duck character, Uehlein goes way over the top in depicting a string of utterly disgusting events (including a street vendor selling vomit for some reason), leading to the duck's job at Subway and an unexpected punchline. Pat Barrett's shit-related interstitial material is brutal in terms of its satiric punch, especially the ones aimed at religion and belief systems in general. Beth Hetland's atypically nasty strip about a tiny female creature that torments humans in ways big and small is just a series of escalating jokes that simply keeps going. Ben Horak's "Fun Fun With Dumb Dumb" is a typically masterful account of a horrible person trying to get over on a girl by putting a squirrel in his pants (to emphasize his "masculinity"), only to traumatize the animal that eventually comes back for revenge. It's the tiny visual details (like the squirrel shivering in the shower or tentatively peeking outside while wearing a robe and smoking a cigarette) that make Horak's work so funny. Josh Kramer's joke about a raccoon as a chef in a fancy restaurant doesn't have quite enough of a wind-up to make it effective, but Dakota McFadzean's take on a Casper the Friendly Ghost type character is hilarious and terrifying at the same time. This group of CCS alumni is clearly quite simpatico, even when some of them worked a little out of their wheelhouse with regard to subject matter. Uehlein's sensibilities clearly set the stage for this anthology, as his piece didn't vary much at all from his regular work.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 23: Rebecca Roher, Jonathan Rotsztain, Peter Audry

Let's turn to some of the most recent CCS students.

Rebecca Roher's comics use a thick line and simple character design to relate observations about life, nature and human interaction. Her work reminds me a little of Eleanor Davis' in that she freely mixes in certain fantasy elements while keeping the character work grounded and personal. In Gotta Get My Veg, her brushy figures are lively and expressive, carrying a story that veers toward the twee at times. (The phrase "Gotta get my veg" is overused to the point of annoyance.) Still, there's a combination of gentleness and empathy toward her characters combined with a hint of mischief that makes the story worth reading. Short Stories features a mix of sketchbook-quality art that was hastily but expressively drawn, lush color work, fantasy stories with an open-page layout and autobio stories. One of the color stories, "Fireworks", is a slight but beautiful observation of the sky when fireworks went off; nothing more, nothing less, other than trying to convey a sense of beauty and awe she felt. Roher experiments by using a fuzzy line in a dream sequence in a different story, but much of her work has the running theme of conveying little moments of wonder.

The story Lost In The Sublime was the most interesting of the three minis and deals directly with this concept of beauty as defined by Immanuel Kant, the notion of the sublime. It is beauty so great that the nature of encountering it cannot be truly communicated. One can talk about, or react to, or think about the sublime experience, but all of these post facto activities are not the experience itself. For Kant, this experience of beauty was mystical in nature, despite that experience being rooted in temporality and corporeality. In other words, we encounter something at a particular time that looks or sounds a particular way, and it moves us as something sublime, something that we apprehend at a level beyond simply our five senses. This mini describes this experience as felt by Roher at various times, beginning with acutely feeling a sense of scale in nature: her smallness against the bigness of nature. The same was true when she closely observed an ecosystem and the way that insects, plants and animals interacted with it. It concludes with an acid trip, one where the interconnectedness of all things is seen as both painful and beautiful. Here, her character design is especially simple but engaging. While Roher is not nearly as innovative as Davis was even in her earliest days as a cartoonist, one senses a similar level of potential in drawing comics about what it means to be human and to interact with the world.

Jonathan Rotsztain, Roher's partner and a fellow CCS student, takes an entirely different approach to comics. His early autobio catalog/comic, Everything That's Wrong With My Body, is a bracing account of everything he finds disgusting or weird about his own nude body. It's an interesting exercise, almost a sort of autobio palate-cleanser that got a lot of self-loathing out of the way early on. The crudeness of Rotsztain's line lends a certain power and authenticity to the proceedings. That crudeness doesn't work quite as well in the autobio piece The Subjective Way, an account of his time as an employee of the popular fast food chain. It's really a story about trying to find his way as a human being who found himself drifting through life, dealing with the luxury and guilt of having the safety net of his parents the entire time he was working fast food as a young adult in his early 20s. Rotsztain is acutely aware of the nature of his "slumming", dealing with that sense of privilege with a tad bit of guilt by way of a lot of self-deprecating comments.

Indeed, self-worth is a running theme of his comics. In his truly strange A TailTale Tale, he creates an amalgamation of Archie Comics and Jack Chick tracts. Rotsztain imagines a world where humans never lost their vestigial tails, one that disappears in utero. This comic describes a world where the size of one's tail is essential to one's social status. A man with a stubby tail or a woman with a big tail is considered a freak. What's fascinating about this comic is the level of detail that Rotsztain provides in creating this world. It's obvious he's thought long and hard about the implications of having a tail, but beyond that, he nails the language of tracts and self-help books. He doesn't quite have the chops as a draftsman to pull it off seamlessly, but the sheer, crude energy of his line gets the idea across with deadpan humor and a certain relentless earnestness. Rotsztain certainly knows how to tell a story, but it will take him time to develop a style that fits with abilities as a draftsman in a more seamless manner.

Finally, there's Peter Audry. His collection of daily strips, Spirit Shack Vol. 1, is one of the more intriguingly scattered comics I've come across from a CCS cartoonist. Most daily comics tend to be about mundane, slice-of-life matters. There's some of that in here, to be sure. But Audry strings together bizarre narratives involving a baby character that acts as a stand-in as well as anthropomorphic weirdos who go on a quest to find the "Double Rainbow" guy. There are psychedelic ramblings, pointed satirical strips, echoes of character designs from a dozen other cartoonists, pop-culture parodies, studies from life and some plain old great gags. This is what a daily strip should be: a free-flowing lab for ideas and experiments. Like Roher and Rotzstain, Audry is at an exciting period in his career, as he throws any number of ideas and techniques against the wall to see what will stick. I could see him concentrating on any number of directions seen in this comic, or going in a completely different direction. It's fascinating to watch artists with potential flounder a bit, daring to get better in public as they figure out what they're doing on the fly. I quite like the quality of Audry's line, as it wavers between cartoony, dense and realistic. That versatility will serve him well down the road.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 22: Sasha Steinberg

Sasha Steinberg is one of the smartest cartoonists to emerge from CCS and certainly one of its most ambitious. Combining literary aspirations, a keen political and historical consciousness and a wicked sense of humor, Steinberg's projects have ranged from exploring the history of the Stonewall riot of 1969 to a thoughtful, edgy and personal exploration of drag. Sasha Velour collects a number of stories about his drag alter-ego; what's interesting about his comics is that Steinberg closely associates the act of drawing with the act of transformation that marks drag. That is, creating one's drag persona is both a personal and political act, a transgressive action against gender and cultural conformity and "microaggressions". It's a statement of freedom, an act of self-liberation as well as a kind of aesthetic Molotov cocktail.

Sasha Velour is mostly comprised of short stories Steinberg did about his drag self in various anthologies. The melting lips on the cover are an homage to that early trans-inspired film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There's a similar sense of camp, wild freedom and a hint of danger to be found in Steinberg's comics. Sasha Velour is an alien made of crystal with a magical ring capable of transforming the mundane to the fabulous; in the first story, he transforms a homophobe into a unicorn during a segment where the story shifts from black & white to full color as Sasha turns a "Wal-Mark" into a crystalline paradise. This is actually one of Steinberg's rougher, less accomplished stories in terms of the drawing and overall concept, but it still gets its point across. Much more complex is a Phantom-inspired piece done for Suspect Device that speaks to a historical continuum of queer ancestors and the brutal struggles they faced, framed by a clever series of tattoos and body-circumscribed drawings.Another strips where Sasha transforms into his human self is more interesting still, as Steinberg is less interested in manipulating line as he is color. Yet another strip mixes slice-of-life discussions about sex between a Hispanic mother and her gay son and three young Orthodox Jewish women, only to be interrupted by the absurdity of a dinosaur run rampant in the park. It's no coincidence that Sasha herself is sitting on a park bench.

In contrast, the comic/zine Vym has a much different aesthetic and political mission. Steinberg has noted that he's dedicated to a critique of white, affluent cis gay men and the ways in which they've allowed themselves to be mainstreamed and at the same time frequently reduced to being little more than comic relief in the wider culture, a sort of burlesque act. Billed as "The Drag Magazine", Vym explores through comics, essays and photos the ways in which drag may be defined, once again matching up the personal and DIY nature of drag to that of alternative comics: "a self-published magazine that celebrates self-published identities". The editor of Vym is actually Steinberg's partner John Jacob "Johnny Velour" Lee, another whip-smart writer with personal experience as a dancer/performer. While the comics and illustrations in the book (by Jon Chad, Laurel Lynn Leake, Romey Bensen and especially Eric Kostiuk Williams) are good, it's the photo essays that really strike a chord.

The first-person essay of drag performer Donald C. Shorter Jr is especially eloquent, as the photos highlight the transformative part of drag as part of the stage performance--the actual process of putting on makeup, adding layers of clothing, etc. It's meant to humanize instead of minstrelize, which drag is currently in danger of becoming as it becomes part of mainstream culture. That's why each of the photo essays keys in on humanizing each of the participants, from Shorter to another photo essay that features Steinberg's own transformation into Sasha Velour to K.James completing a drag transformation into male form. An interview and photo essay with Veronica Bleaus further recontextualizes images of the self-professed "worst drag queen in the Midwest" with funny and odd elements of collage. It all works, adding a touch of absurd humor to a drag queen whose stock in trade is self-deprecation with total self-respect and self-possession. The centerpiece of the issue was Leake's excellent teasing out of what drag means in its many forms. Leake notes that it's not just a matter of transformation, but of confronting the very notion of binary gender definitions. To engage in such gender-fuckery is a personal and political act of defiance. It's not being something you're not; rather, it's being yourself in the most authentic way possible. Vym promises to spotlight that authenticity using any number of styles and voices, and the first issue is a promising start.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 21: Dan Rinylo

Dan Rinylo's influences are remarkably broad. There's confessional cartooning, a deep and abiding interest in classic cartooning, a strong affinity for Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, a certain emotionally raw and surreal storytelling urge similar to Dane Martin (and his ancestor, Mark Beyer), and a strong commitment to gags both light and dark. His excellent and stylish 2013 broadsheet Mangy Mutt is as beautiful a mini as I've seen in a long time. Much like fellow CCS alum Cole Closser, Rinylo has a knack for recreating the look and feel of classic comics. Instead of a direct take on those comics, Rinylo instead modernizes them, using a slightly grotesque but still delicately-rendered take on funny animal comics to create a weird fusion of disparate visual and conceptual influences. In his Mangy Mutt broadsheet, he evinces an amazing amount of control on the visuals: each face looks timelessly old, surrounded by flop sweat and spare but striking minor background details. His Murray the Mangy Mutt and trusty cat friend Shmedley beg for money to buy cigarettes, play terrible music to earn cash and get their pants pulled down by "Pantsy", one of many Nancy-surrogates Rinylo loves to play around with. Murray also has sex with aliens to horrifying results, ponders his mortality with glee, tries to serenade a girl he likes with horrible results and many more classically-structured gags that go in dark directions. This is funny, accomplished work.

Nothing Should Be Precious is Rinylo's grab-bag comic. It's a little more uneven and leans more heavily on the grotesque and violent end of the comedic spectrum, but there's still a tremendous amount of visual and conceptual ingenuity at work. Or rather, at play: Rinylo seems to take particular delight in playing around with familar comics and comedic tropes and images and mangling them until they are much darker and weirder. The countless Nancy variations speak to this; Rinylo seems a natural for Josh Bayer's frequently Nancy-inspired Suspect Device anthology. Rinylo's own self-caricature variants often send the reader into extended, disturbing stories. In one, an embittered Rinylo is working at a diner. Elsewhere, a man is pushed to his breaking point when he's fired from his job, he discovers his wife cheating on him and his pet fish dies. The man enters the diner just as Rinylo takes a smoke break; tragedy and mayhem break out, allowing the Rinylo stand-in to take full advantage of the situation.

There are gags involving a fish monster and a bully near a river; a hilarious BD/SM joke, various forms of body horror humor and transformations, and brutal takes on sex and relationships. The drawing ranges from sketchbook-loose and immediate to immaculately and studiously polished (no matter how simple the actual drawings are). There's a sense of a powerful outpouring of ideas in this minicomic, as Rinylo is all over the place in trying to work out his ideas on paper. It's an interesting companion piece to Mangy Mutt, because the polish in that work can be seen in some places in Nothing Should Be Precious, but both are rife with the same kind of cynical, pitch-black kinds of jokes and visuals. It was a pleasure to get to know Rinylo's work, as it struck any number of sympathetic aesthetic markers of mine.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 20: Jeff Lok, Ben Horak & Alex Kim

There's a small but growing "sick humor" arm of CCS grads. It's work that veers between humor and horror. Jeff Lok and Ben Horak personify the humor-as-horror side of things, while Alex Kim works the angle of horror-as-humor.

In Gag Rag #3, Lok's collection of strips and effluvia isn't quite as pointed and raw as earlier issues of his one-man anthology. The drawing is loose and in the tradition of classic comics: lots of bigfoot drawings, bulbous noses, spaghetti arms, and distorted figures. My favorite thing in this issue are the series of "Old Testament" strips that posit god as a sort of baker who has to deal with the bureaucracies of time and doesn't quite know what to do with his new creation, Adam. There are brutal strips about chickens, a Friday Night Lights parody that's entirely on-point about the horrible behavior of the kids and the totally unflappable nature of the coach, and several one-off single-panel gags that draw genuine laughs. That includes a gleeful, running pig squealing "I'm cured!" that works because his face is so genuinely joyful. There's a slightly lesser gag where a cop in handcuffs says "I've uncovered a ring of police impersonators! I'm the leader!" The drawing is functional at best, serving only to deliver the textual gag's excellent punchline. Lok's skill is taking familiar comedic elements and injecting them with an underlying and anarchic sense of nihilism. His difficulty is in maintaining that strong voice when he ventures off into other kinds of storytelling; a strip about a prison ship drawn in this style felt forced and mannered. A compromise of sorts could be found in his Oily comic Ox & Co. It's about an elevator operator in an old-time department store, set in the past. The vernacular of his characters makes it feel like a cousin to one of Milt Gross's many comics, but the sheer weirdness of the set-up is uniquely Lok. The brief comic works because of its density, its commitment to maintaining the integrity of its time and setting, and the darkly idiosyncratic nature of Lok's sense of humor.

Kim's Oily series Dumpling King has been astonishing me with surprises in every issue. In the span of just ten pages per issue, Kim has advanced the story from a noir mystery surrounding murder, a powerful family, an alluring woman and dumpling delivery to something entirely different. All of those elements are still present, only Kim has added mysticism, dragons, magic, witches and their towers and other craziness. All of this is done with a mix of cartoony drawings (Kim loves angular faces) and surprising amounts of detail (he loves stippling even more), and the consistency of the reality he's creating on a visual level allows for the sudden and dramatic shift from a realistic scenario to a fantastic one. The cover alone of #3, with the stippling of a cloudy night sky using negative space to indicate the moon, contrasted against the cartoony face of one of the characters gets at Kim's aesthetic. He's simultaneously creating mood while bending the reality of his world to his will. Kim is a bit slow, so savor each issue when it's published.

Horak is a fine gross-out cartoonist who likes to employ cute images in disturbing ways, and his skill with drawing only heightens both the humor and gross-out nature of his work. His best strips in his one-man anthology Grump Toast #4 are the long-form ones. The "Business Baby and Infant Insidious" are pretty much Goofus and Gallant with slightly more evil intent, as the villainous character actually wears a top hat and black cape. Horak's "autobio" take on being lost at a curiosity shop as a boy and wondering what it would have been like if his parents had taken home a lizard corpse passed off as him was hilarious because of the details: the corpse playing Little League, graduating high school, getting married, etc. Speaking of detail, the "Pinky Palms" strip, featuring a variety of monstrous and anthropomorphic creatures throws the kitchen sink at the reader in terms of weird visual gross-out gags, then reveals that it's all misdirection as it follows home the bartender to follow his seemingly idyllic life. The payoffs for this strip are tremendous, as watching bat-winged chainsaws tear through his family was both awful and hilarious. The other long-form piece, "The Bitchin' Trials and Tribulations of Cheese Hammy Sammy", is a silent, existential biker epic. It details the titular character's (everyone here is a form of anthropomorphic food, Jon Vermilyea-style) horrible and over-the-top deeds, his bun-flipping reformation and his eventual doom as the pigeons come home to roost. Horak continues to mature and refine the sheer horror of his work, and this has allowed it to become effective at multiple levels.