Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Avery Hill Week: Artificial Flowers

Rachael Smith's Artificial Flowers represents another leap forward for the cartoonist. Her specialty is zeroing in on and mocking the angst of twentysomething artist types, like in her previous book, House Party. While her characters are certainly quirky and overwrought in fun ways, Smith's starting to write them as more than just a collection of quirks. The book is about an artist named Siobhan, who's trying to establish herself in the London art world while sponging off of her parents for an allowance. Smith quickly establishes her world as she spends much of her allowance at the nearby bar and is struggling to get her paintings any attention. Her parents then drop off her teenage brother because they want to go on a cruise and can't deal with his pyromania and general antisocial tendencies. The narrative gets its big push when Chris gets angry at Siobhan and burns part of her paintings. She's initially furious, until Madison, the head of a gallery, (that Siobhan happens to have a crush on) deems the charred paintings brilliant and gives Siobhan her own show.

The structure of the book is roughly two acts and an epilogue. The first act is all character-building, as we are meant to find Siobhan to be a sympathetic character--up to a point. Sure, she has to deal with art-world nonsense (and to be sure, making fun of the art world is like shooting fish in a barrel), but she's lazy and selfish. One never gets the sense of just how unstable Chris really is, or if his bad behavior has more to do with his parents. The first act ends when Chris burns the paintings, and the second act details Siobhan's dizzying rise in the art world, as Chris becomes her secret collaborator. Siobhan starts spending all of her earnings on her new girlfriend Madison and putting on airs, until it all collapses when her parents find out about Siobhan encouraging Chris to play with fire and put an end to everything. Smith's pacing and gags ramp up in this section, and the art keeps up accordingly, with splash pages and bugged-out eyes. Bryan Lee O'Malley remains an obvious influence on her work, but Smith's line has started to take a more rubbery quality befitting the frantic nature of her sense of humor. The happy endings that are doled out are all satisfying and well-earned, as her characters grow in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. While Smith's line has become more lively to be sure, her calling card continues to be her use of color. She's toned it down a bit in saturating every page in dense colors, but her characters pop on the page thanks to their color scheme. Smith has simply muted her overall palette, especially in terms of backgrounds. That allows the linework to be more effective on the page, but Smith can always turn up the bright reds whenever she wants to back up extremes of emotion or action in the story. Smith's greatest skill as a writer is making a mess of her characters' lives and then figuring out the pieces of the puzzle that will put them back together.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Avery Hill Week: The Rabbit

In The Rabbit, Rachael Smith makes a departure from telling farcical stories of young people dealing with fitting into the modern world and instead dips into psychological horror. Leaning heavily on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland as a starting point, it follows the adventures of sisters Eleanor and Kathy as they've run away from home and are living in the wilderness. Smith thrusts the reader into their adventure in media res, providing bits of context and clues as to how and why they got there along the way. In every one of Smith's books, the main characters have a transformative arc, wherein lessons are learned and follies are corrected. What transforms the characters is certainly the circumstances related to the plot, but that's just the mechanism of change. What really transforms them is that they learn to accept the truth about themselves, something about which they've been in denial.

In The Rabbit, Eleanor views herself as Kathy's protector but also sees Kathy as her subordinate, an accessory piece in her own (literally) heroic narrative where she's slaying a dragon or has become a dragon and is ready to burn a nearby village down. Nowhere is that more evident than in "the monster game", in which Eleanor is a monster who relentlessly scares her sister. The book sees them wandering around, dealing with some neighborhood boys who discover them in the forest and then discover a tiny rabbit that they've accidentally harmed. Just like things went upside-down for Alice when she discovered a rabbit, so too do Eleanor and Kathy's lives get much weirder when the rabbit (whom Kathy names Craig) arrives. Soon, they discover the rabbit can talk, and it has a voracious appetite. With the rabbit promising them a safe cave to stay in, they accompany (and start wheeling around) the ever-more demanding creature.

The scene where the now-gigantic and toothy rabbit demands that they come into the rabbit's warren (not exactly a cave!) and we see a bacchanal of rabbits and other rodents in progress is hilariously creepy. One running plot device in the book is that the girls' father is continuously trying to call Eleanor, and she keeps declining the call. When the rabbit discovers she has a phone, he takes it from her and demands they steal food and liquor from the local convenience store. Their story has now become an anti-heroic quest, and when they devour food at the store and fall asleep, they've clearly crossed a line. Despite everything, they (and Eleanor in particular) doesn't make the transition in character until she finds the boys again after the rabbit has terrorized them and they run away, chastising them for running away. That dawning bit of awareness leads to the highly effective climax of the book, when Craig and an entire host of frightening critters are chasing them through the forest, as Eleanor finally taking the call from her father literally saves the day. Along the way, the dynamic between the sisters changes for the better.

Exactly what caused them to leave him is only hinted at, but it had to to do with the death of their mother and the reaction of their father. But that was neither here nor there, as the book was really about the denial of reality and the retreat into fantasy and denial that is part of that, as well as shifting negative emotions onto a trusting victim. Using a lushly-colored forest as an almost storybook backdrop was highly effective in getting at this, especially with lots of silent beats thrown into the story that made the reader stop and slow down. Smith has become adept at using the restraint of these silent beats to make the frantic climaxes that are her trademark all the more effective.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Youth in Decline Week: Dream Tube

Rebekka Dunlap's Dream Tube is Youth in Decline's third book (Rav by Mickey Zacchilli and Snackies by Nick Sumida were the first two). The three stories in this collection explore the tropes of fantasy, dreams and science-fiction with an eye that's at various points both whimsical and horrible. With figures that are stylized and distorted in a manner that's not unlike that of Dash Shaw, Dunlap's stories always involve coupling at their cores, and the ways in which couples fall apart or get torn apart. "Brooklyn Witch Treats" is the funniest story, as it doesn't follow a single character as it does a scene, transposing Brooklyn hipsters into a supernatural setting in a remarkably effortless fashion. Casting a spell in a bathroom is akin to doing lines of coke (only the witch was in the wrong bathroom). Various monsters and magical creatures dance in the club, while a hooded man winds up sleeping with the witch, who devours him when she asks him if he wants to see her void. The second half of the story concerns a voyeuristic creature with an eye for a head (an appropriate fetish) who watches eye-BDSM porn ("Bad eyes don't get solution!") and has a crush on a beautiful witch from afar. It's implied that his insinuating gaze disrupts her own attempts at "broadcasting", a wide form of expression. This is less a narrative than a loosely-connected series of events that creates a tone and illustrates a particular aesthetic.

"Cities And Spaces And" is about a couple living in a remote location and a dream she had. In the dream, they were living in a city, they didn't know each other, and the city was under attack. Essentially, she created a romance for them that didn't exist in their daily lives, one that included danger, daring, new sights, togetherness but also a certain amount of distance in terms of intimacy. Dunlap's stylizations are especially vivid here, emphasizing angles and grids set against inexplicable shapes. It's wish fulfillment and a reaction against their present living arrangement, where even the man's hair is rigidly stylized.

"Colony" is about paranoia and the problematic nature of colonization, as a scientist is increasingly concerned with the ethical implications about the presence of her team, especially as initially innocent exploration turned into something far different. It's also about friendship and betrayal, with imagery and ideas not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the lead character tries to anticipate and outsmart the forced arrayed against her. It's also a story about guilt, as her friend who came with her on the interstellar journey wound up being a sort of sacrifice as he merged with the alien forces. Dunlap is remarkably skilled as both illustrator and cartoonist, and I think the similarity to Shaw's work may come in a mutual interest in manga. What's especially interesting about Dunlap's work is that she wrote three stories with very different concerns and tones using roughly the same visual techniques, but the way she arranged images and wrote each story led to wildly different tones. To be sure, there are funny asides and eye pops in each story, but the first story's anarchy, the second story's intimacy and the third story's paranoia led to wildly different reading experiences.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 10-12

Frontier #10 (2015), by Michael DeForge. I've read a lot of stories by DeForge, but this is the first one that I'd classify as heartbreaking. The premise itself is absurd but has a germ of paranoid plausibility that makes it such an effective work of satire. It's about a woman who's a former radical who now works as a kind of deep cover agent for a real estate company. Years ahead of developing quiet neighborhoods, they send her in to blend in and become part of the local community, and then to reshape and ultimately destabilize any attempts at protesting or resisting the ultimate encroachment of developers. On page after page, the nameless, faceless (we see her only in profile) woman lists detail after detail of her method, as she starts off as shy and "blossoms" thanks to the aid of her neighbors and husband, whom she meets and marries as part of the plan. The level of detail and disassociation necessary for her to succeed is almost psychotic, as DeForge paints a photo of a false transformation. That fact that she was a radical but is now a willing servant to an especially brutal and exploitative company shows a very different kind of transformation, one where money and status for one's employers is all-important. However, she reveals that the lives she creates and the tears she sheds are real; she is not unfeeling. Indeed, it is the fact that she can simultaneously live a life that looks and feels authentic while living at different life at the same time that makes the story so devastating and enraging. Visually, DeForge decided to continue with full page illustrations with text at the bottom, not unlike First Year Healthy. There's still "DeForge Detritus" on nearly every page, but his figures are now so pared down that they're nearly abstract. The brightness of the colors and generally pleasing quality of the shapes belie the coldness of the narrative text, as it becomes clear that not only does she feel emotions while on the job, it may well be the only time she is capable of doing so. DeForge's writing is becoming more sophisticated even as his use of imagery is becoming more simplified.

Frontier #11 (2016), by Eleanor Davis. Another issue by a comics heavy-hitter, this story is simply titled "BDSM". It's about appearance vs. reality, identity and (of course) sexual expression. On the set of a porn set, Victoria plays a dom and Alexa plays a sub. The director demands that each actress pay better attention to the details of their roles (Victoria must be crueler, Alexa must be more innocent) in order to create a better scene (for which he's ridiculed by a co-worker). Throughout the rest of the issue, there is a tension between the two actresses as Alexa's obvious delight in playing a servile role in real life bothers Victoria, even as Alexa sloughs it off as liking to be nice. In the final third of the story, Alexa loses her keys and has Victoria drive her home, where Alexa seduces her. Throughout the entire story, it's obvious that Alexa was engaging in "topping from the bottom", wherein the submissive partner is actually in control of the situation and manipulates the dominant partner. In this case, the reason she was doing this was spelled out quite clearly at the end: Alexa wants Victoria know that it's OK if she wants to hit her--and it's OK if she wants to be hit. Davis clearly sets the story on a porn set as a way of first establishing these acts under the auspices of a sex as a pure act of objectification--a job, as it were. Alexa is a character that transfers and transforms an act done for the pleasure of others (especially men) into a private, intimate and emotional act that is still highly charged. That she teaches Victoria to do this for her own pleasure and embrace this side of her sexuality is the truly transgressive act, and that's what makes this such a sharp commentary. Davis' figurework is brilliant in the way it recapitulates the essence of the main characters: Victoria is all harsh angles, and Alexa is doe-eyed and all curves. The way Davis spots blacks and makes extensive use of negative space further emphasizes the differences between the two characters and sets them apart from everything else in the comic. Davis prefers an economy of line in most panels, but her use of gesture and body language is so direct that she only needs a line or two to pack in a lot of information.

Frontier #12 (2016), by Kelly Kwang. This issue is a return to earlier entries that didn't have conventional narratives, per se. Instead, Kwang explores issues of identity in the guise of the "Space Youth Cadets", a heavily video game-influenced concept that allows for the idea of exploring a space or an object rather than focusing on a particular character as a narrative hook. Kwang uses a dense pencil style that fills up a number of the pages with tiny panel insets, decorative computer screen icons, random characters talking in the corner of the page, and other eye pops that enrich the overall experience. When she wants to concentrate on the action at hand, like when a character wants to be encased in "internet jelly", the details suddenly fall away in favor of Kwang's crisp, rich shading. The epic story references that are only hinted at remind a bit of the sort of thing that Ryan Cecil Smith does, but Kwang's approach is almost an archaeological one, as the reader is given bits of information second-hand, as interpreted by the "screens" that attend so many of the images. Like video games, we get to see a roster of different character types, their vital stats, and their overall aesthetic (which is as important as anything else here). What we might see from page to page is unpredictable, as once the concept is introduced, we simply see snippets of the lives of various cadets. It's a clever experience in turning a digital experience into analog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 7-9

Frontier #7 (2015), by Jillian Tamaki. This issue won an Ignatz Award for best story in 2015. "Sex Coven" is perhaps the quintessential Youth In Decline publication in the way it addresses the themes of transformation, materialism, utopianism and horror. Tamaki has every tool needed for comics greatness, as her comics have expressive characters with a fluid design that overlaps between cartoony and naturalistic; her page design is innovative, but always with a greater purpose in mind; her understanding of gesture, anatomy and how bodies relate in space makes every panel intuitively easy to understand even without words; and her skill as an illustrator is top-shelf. While she's best known for the comics she's done with her cousin Mariko, I prefer Tamaki's comics that she writes herself, like SuperMutant Magic Academy and this sly satirical dig at youth culture.

The story's title refers to a file uploaded to a computer that contained a six-hour long droning sound. The comic is framed as someone doing research on the file, which was renamed "Sex Coven", and the effect it had on culture. When teens listened to it, it had psychotropic effects such that it spawned "CovenCrawls" where kids would go out in the woods and listen to the file. When a kid dies by accident walking into traffic, Tamaki expertly nails the ways in which these sorts of crazes turn into orgies of parental and authoritarian paranoia--especially since the file only seemed to have a powerful effect on those under 25 years old. The story transitions to a group of Reddit-style SexCoven code experts who drop out of society to carry out the "final directives of The Data": form a utopian group out in the desert. We learn a lot of details from an ex-member of the group who left out partly out of jealousy, but mostly because of her lingering desire to remain connected to the structures of the outside world. The paradox of the story and the group was that it claimed to seek enlightenment away from the artificiality of constructs like capitalism and religion while still maintaining a clearly rigid, hierarchical and most likely patriarchal set-up. It's a denial that they were still of the world while they all clearly were, dropping out while still being in range of being able to buy ramen from the nearby gas station. Using a series of small panels (much like screens on a computer) with a larger background illustration on each page allowed Tamaki to tell the story three ways: with the narrative text, with each individual panel, and with the underlying illustration. Quite often, they are in conflict with each other, or the presence of each in the same space changes the meaning of the other. It's a clever, compelling story.

Frontier #8 (2015), by Anna DeFlorian. DeFlorian, an Italian cartoonist, directly addresses the concept of transformation through the twin lenses of fitness and fashion. Everything about this comic obliquely mimics the aesthetic of fashion magazines: flat, stiff and colorful. The two nameless young women in this comic work out in a gym with progressive night classes like "Free Speech In Squat". That's followed by an incredibly awkward but funny sex scene that's very much about invasion of privacy. The back half of the comic is a veritable fashion show in a variety of colors, patterns and anguished facial expressions as the two women clearly are trying to work out a violation of trust after the one woman has a clearly dangerous sexual encounter. Here, the reliance on fashion and exercise is taking on a false identity, one that belies and obfuscates the original connection the two women had. It's less a distinct narrative than it is narrative bursts followed by provocative and oblique images.

Frontier #9 (2015), by Becca Tobin. Here's another comic in that body horror/transformation wheelhouse of Sands', this time with a far more whimsical visual approach. UK cartoonist Tobin's squiggly, colorful and at times vibratory line pairs up an irresistible cuteness with a touch of the grotesque. In a story that could easily fit into the logic of an episode of Adventure Time or Steven Universe, musician Butter Road is trying to create a living instrument out of clay as a way of getting her band Eurobe the impetus it needs to successfully stay together. Butter desperately wants the music so much that she's willing to overlook being famous, even as she fantasizes about somehow merging with a wall. When she uses her own blood to create the instrument, she succeeds beyond her wildest dreams. In a series of beautiful and bright watercolors, Tobin creates a gorgeous wave of sound in depicting the way the creature becomes part of the band, until its need for blood puts Butter in danger. The ending is unexpected, clever and disturbing, as Tobin doesn't drag the story out any more than needed. It's interesting to see a visual approach that's so radically different from anything seen in Frontier thus far (though not unusual in the world of alt-comics, to be sure) still encapsulate the same ideas and even the same sense of dread as many of the other issues.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 4-6

Frontier #4 (2014) is by illustrator Ping Zhu. It's perhaps the biggest outlier in the series in terms of theme, though it does fit into publisher Ryan Sand's aesthetic of being interested in pure illustration and allowing the reader to put their own narrative and emotional spin on them. It's more difficult to do that with Ping's drawings because they are simple crayon drawings for the most part of animals and vegetation with the occasional lush, painted figure thrown in for contrast. It has the look and feel of a sketchbook by an artist with a remarkable command of anatomy, bodies in motion and gesture.

Frontier #5 (2014) is by talented young artist Sam Alden and is a companion piece to Hollow, an emotional horror story about a family and the bizarre sinkhole that seems to follow them around. Alden absolutely nails how dread-inducing the hole is, as it's literally the abyss, an absence of anything that threatens to swallow its protagonists whole. At the same time, this issue is very much a coming-of-age story that fits perfectly into Sands' interest in stories of transformation. The story follows two sisters on a beach and shows just how carefully Alden uses color as a powerful emotional and narrative signifier. The issue follows two sisters who are sharing that both of them can see the hollow, and Alden uses a flashback device dependent on color to clue the reader in as to when things were flashing back to the present. There's a clever sequence where the two sisters are talking about whether their mother holds in secrets where a flashback starts in the middle of the modern-day panel as a door starting to open with their mother peering out. The flashback concerns the girl's mother looking in disapprovingly as the girl may have been masturbating under a blanket, and the girl resolutely tries to explain herself to her mother, who is uninterested in talking about it further. Going back to the present on the beach, a sinkhole opens up and nearly swallows up the girl who had been flashing back, with a color pattern on the sinkhole identical to that of the chair her mother had been sitting in when she dismissed her. The sinkhole suggests that it's a physical manifestation of the family's guilt, repression, anxiety, trauma and secrets. The sinkhole appearing was akin to a panic attack nearly swallowing her up. None of this is mentioned, but the girl's reaction to it appearing was "It heard us", a horrific realization that her anger, guilt and fear could swallow her up at any time. With his stripped-down style, Alden continues to be an ace with regard to gesture and figures interacting in space.

Frontier #6 (2014) is by horror cartoonist Emily Carroll. It's based on a true-life Ontario murder/haunting of a woman named Ann Herron. Like all the best horror stories, it has one foot in reality and another foot in possibility. It generates fear by slowly and carefully building up facts and anecdotes, first starting with how to play the children's game "Ann-By-The-Bed", a sort of summoning activity not unlike playing with a Oujia board. Carroll cleverly shifts back and forth from drawing photographs (later showing them stained with blood) to traditional comics panels to a floor plan that acts in much the same way a grid might. The comic shifts between recounting the tragic life of Herron and the way that she apparently appears by the bed of those who summon her, with a number of different accounts given as to what she looked like, what the experience felt like, etc. Carroll recounts her own experience of dreaming about Ann and then waking up and finding her on her chest. This is a common manifestation of sleep paralysis, but it's no less frightening in context. Carroll considers other rumors about her death, that it might have been her brother-in-law killing her. She looks at odd details like Herron's blood apparently being found in every room in the house or the supposition that the family was cursed, and ends with a chilling warning. Carroll's mastery of atmosphere, pacing and keeping the reader off-balance with a barrage of different visual approaches (the switch from black and white to color and back is especially jarring) transforms an ordinary ghostly urban legend into something legitimately frightening.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 1-3

Of the newer alt-comics publishers, Youth In Decline's Ryan Sands reminds me the most of the late Dylan Williams of Sparkplug Comics. First, he has a particular aesthetic that guides his publishing choices above all other considerations. Second, he always has an eye on up-and-coming talent. Third, he not only is open to diversity in whom he publishes, it's clear that he seeks it out. In the first twelve issues of YID's anthology talent showcase, Frontier, Sands has published the work of eight women. Four issues have featured Americans, four issues have featured Canadians, and the rest have come from all over Europe. Some of the artists have submitted a single story for this mini-comic size publication (about 6.5 x 8"), while others have submitted several shorter stories. Some artists eschewed narratives altogether, preferring illustrations that have a sort of fractured narrative quality. All of them are in Sands' aesthetic wheelhouse, which can be described as an overlapping appreciation for what some might consider banal or limited genres like horror or erotica. Really, what Sands is most interested in is narratives and imagery about transformation, ritual, and identity. The approach each artist might use was less important than a certain bold willingness to take difficult and sometimes problematic ideas as far as they will go.

In Frontier #1 (2013), Russian artist Uno Moralez is featured. His character designs range from cartoony to naturalistic as they depict David Lynch-inspired torch singers, religious iconography as part of a visceral battle between good and evil, and scenes of voyeurism met with sheer, unrelenting horror. There's not a cohesive narrative connection between all of the images, but they have a thematic similarity in that Moralez is showing us a fallen world that's still met with pockets of desperate belief. For every moment of hope, there's an image of corruption, dissolution, and abject terror. What seems beautiful and desirable is destructive, and what is pure is eventually destroyed. The image of a boy with a telescope seeing a horrendous female demon with an almost prehensile tongue is especially terrifying, as she simply appears in front of him and chases him. We don't see her catch him, but we do see his head tilt at a sickening angle, with a demented grin spreading across is face. Many of the illustrations have a pixelated quality, as though Moralez wants the reader to understand the artificial nature of what they're seeing. That connection between image and reality is driven home at the end with a photo of Laura Dern ugly-crying in a scene from David Lynch's Wild At Heart, which is a film about a quest that slowly breaks down.

Frontier #2 (2013) features Hellen Jo in a comic filled with images of girl gangs in a sort of mythical California. Again, there's no particular story here other than imagining what might have led to the moments captured in time that Jo depicts, like one image of a group called the Bang Gang where one girl is putting on lipstick in a public bathroom while another is washing blood out of her mouth. Jo indicates in an afterword that these are fantasy figures based on girls she saw, feared and respected growing up, desiring the power and freedom they wielded. Jo's skill as an illustrator is remarkable, as she tells a lot of story with body language and the placement of figures in space. The details of what the girls are doing is less important than their poses and how they're doing it. Jo favors lavender and blue as her go-to colors for many of the illustrations, soft colors that both belies the toughness of the girls and underscores the fact that they are still young girls. Two girls who call themselves the Shit Twins stand against a wall with blank expressions, blue hair and fairly typical clothes--but one of them is wearing an eyepatch. There's another two page spread where a member of the Scalps is getting her hair buzzed while eating a lollipop and another is looking at art on a wall. Every illustration shares that weird tension between adulthood and childhood, one that Jo is careful not to sexualize in an exploitative manner. Indeed, the girls here are defiant and clearly do not give a fuck about anyone else's view of them. They have transformed from whatever they were before into something different, powerful and self-determining.

Frontier #3 (2014) includes three stories published in English for the first time by German artist Sascha Hommer. In an afterword, he says that his biggest influences are Chris Ware and Yuichi Yokoyama, and that's made clear by his simplified use of character design as well as an interest in oblique imagery. He uses a lot of zip-a-tone effects in "Drifter", which is essentially a shaggy-dog story about an escaped convict on what appears to be an alien planet. The story starts off with a jailer bitching about the convict's complaints about his room, and the story tensely follows his journey after escaping, only to reveal that he got what he really wanted in the end. In a story where every page was a nine-panel grid, Hommer always used the middle panel in the page not necessarily as a climax point, but as a tension point: his pursuers blown up, moving forward in a ridiculous disguise in a diner, wondering if the police would catch him, etc. "Transit" is about aliens investigating a small town in Austria for their mysterious purposes ("transit"--colonization?). Instead of simply following around a figure, the story has an almost clinical air about it, as we see computer screen images the aliens are following. The figures we do meet have a lumpy, almost bigfoot quality to them. "The Black Lord" is about a board game's main piece that we see over a long period of time, using that familiar Richard McGuire time-splintering effect that Ware has long favored. The ultimate fate of the figure is reflective of the game's theme of conquest and randomness. The latter two stories are all about transformation, while the first story is about the illusion of change.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hazel Newlevant: Chainmail Bikini

We unfortunately live in a world where Chainmail Bikini's theme as an anthology (women's gamers) is a political statement. Unfortunately, in the wake of unrelenting hostility, misogyny and out-and-out threats on women who happen to play and write about video games, a public admission of being a gamer is an act of bravery. Indeed, that was one of the primary statements of purpose during the book's Kickstarter campaign. The book is a way of saying that gaming isn't and shouldn't be something that's reserved only for men, that there are a number of women who enjoy it, and that gaming communities shouldn't be hostile environments for women. In that sense, the book's existence makes it an unqualified success.

At the same time, it's also that most unpredictable of comics phenomena: the open-call anthology. For an editor and a project like this, it's difficult to turn down earnest contributions. Unfortunately, the resulting 200 page anthology was far too long for such a specialized subject and a wide variety of skill levels on display. The resulting read can be a slog, because while everyone's story is slightly different, there are too many stories and approaches that overlap in terms of style and intent. For example, one often-used narrative trick in the anthology talks about how important video or role-playing games were or are to them, and then draws the characters from a campaign having an adventure. Katie Longua, Anna Anthropy/Jeremy Boydell, Anna Rose, MK Reed, Becca Hillburn, Diana Nock, Liane Pyper, Sarah Stern and Jade Lee all did this, to a certain extent. Reed's was the sharpest written of the bunch, since as the Dungeon Master she took an all-male group of players playing an all-female group of characters through an adventure that had hilariously menstrual overtones. Stern's story involved a new DM in an established group of guys who stood her ground with them while giving them the best adventure they'd ever been on. Hillburn's story was sharply-drawn, featuring the ridiculous character of "Pretty Paladin Critical Missy" hogging the spotlight, as the other players accused her of grandstanding. Starting the story with the fantasy narrative and only switching over to the players later on was an especially effective technique.

There were several stories involving gender, identity and how gaming affected it. Anthropy's story touched on it, but the visuals for the story simply weren't up to portraying how magical the game she played was for her and the digital lettering was distracting. On the other hand, The K.A. Kelly-Colon/June Viganis collaboration about a teen boy realizing that the female monster character he played in a game felt more like the real version of them than their birth gender uses clever page design choices while getting across the message. Kori Michele's story is a rant against the way many handheld games demanded that you enter your gender before playing, especially as a person who was "deep into my gender confusion".

Some of the best stories addressed gaming and mental health. Jane Mai's "Ikachan" is remarkable in the way it incorporates the bizarre game Mola Mola's suicidal aspects and how she connected it to a memory of learning how to swim. The scrawled text and lush images are quite affecting. Elizabeth Simins' "Manic Pixel Dream Girl gaiden: guitar heroine" details the artist's experience with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and helped distract her from her increasingly paralyzing OCD events that often revolved around death. There's no happy ending here, just a depiction of the struggle. Caitlyn Rose Boyle's exquisitely-drawn "Connections" champions the idea of video games as a way of moving the mind away from depression, even if they are "sweet and silly things". Her linework and lettering are crystal-clear and confident, as she makes extensive use of negative space to highlight those figure drawings. Sera Stanton's strip is about how she thought healers were pointless video game characters but how she wished she could do it in real life; her pages suffered from clutter that made them difficult to read.

Several stories dealt with sexism and misogyny head-on. Maggie Siegel-Berele's story talks about the slow progress being made in reining in misogyny and creating safe spaces for women and LGBT folk in Live Action Role Playing (LARP) communities in a straightforward, somewhat didactic fashion. Laura Lannes' strip about the feminist implications of the game Portal is a master class in deconstructing the symbols of a piece of culture and revealing its meanings in addressing the concept of patriarchy, although I wish the visuals had been a bit less bland. Sarah Winifred Searle's story about misogyny in the play-by-post role-playing community is pointed in its use of real-life examples, smoothly-designed and honest about the positives and negatives to be found in her pursuit.

A number of stories were simply about how the artist felt alienated from others until they found gaming, and then they had the sense that they found their people. Molly Ostertag's LARPing story from her teen years puts a clever spin on it by making it a third-person narrative, retaining the lessons she learned and confidence she gained in her schooling and career. Rachel Ordway's story is about how making up a game with her brothers bonded them over a summer, while Natalie Dupile's is about how a LARP variant at a summer camp brought people together because it didn't take itself too seriously and allowed for a lot of free expression. Kate Craig's story is another one about LARPing that involves romance; it's rather straightforward but with expressive figurework that carries the thin plot. Yao Xiao and Kinoko Evans both did strips about growing up and turning to video games for support, confidence and even personal growth.

Yao's strip talks about having parents disapproving of gaming. Newlevant touches on that subject with a strip about playing a dumb hack-and-slash video game but loving it because it was a particular kind of bonding experience with friends. Amanda Scurti's strip about pretending to avoid doing violent things on video games with her mother was hilarious, especially as a moment of self-reflection about enjoying violence ended with her gleefully going along with her brother to look at a violent game. Sophie Yanow's story is less about gaming as identity and more about her group fluidly accepted gaming as just another thing they did. Newlevant's other strip pointed to the idea that she could do an entire book of stories like this on her own as an autobiographical device, because her other story was completely different. That involved playing Vampire: The Masquerade and having to play a seduction on a non-player character--which essentially meant role-playing a seduction with her GM. It's a funny story that has just a tinge of the interplay being for real. I wish more of the anthology's stories had taken their cue from Newlevant in not trying to be quite so literal or didactic about their involvement in gaming and focused a bit more on trying to create an interesting narrative. That said, I admire the anthology's undeniable sincerity, the variety of visual approaches, the general lack of slickness and/or overdrawing, and the way so many of the cartoonists were willing to share so much of themselves.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hazel Newlevant: If This Be Sin

Funded by a Prism Comics Queer Press Grant, If This Be Sin is Hazel Newlevant's first fully-fleshed out work. Each of the three stories in the collection connects queer identity with the arts, with the first two stories based on actual events and the latter containing similar emotional details. The book's formal qualities are interesting. Newlevant apparently uses a brush to draw her figures, giving them a denseness and solidity with a thick line that allows her to be relatively sparse when it comes to actual detail. Her use of watercolors runs with that initial density of line, as it allows her to pick and choose her color scheme to emphasize the book's emotional narrative as much as it does the chronological narrative. All of this is framed in a design that's unpredictable from page. Some pages have an open layout where one image bleeds into another to portray the passage of time (especially when music is being played), while others use a kind of floating grid where the gutters stretch and bend around panels. There are times when her figures are stiff and the body language isn't fluid, especially in how characters relate to each other in space. That hurts the emotional realism of the book at times, but Newlevant manages to get around that with many dramatically staged panels and a touch of magical realism that plays off of that stiffness. It greatly helps that Newlevant doesn't over-write here, adding redundant narration or overly expository dialog. She trusts the reader to figure things out on their own, especially as each story has painfully bittersweet qualities.

The eponymous story is about blues singer/pianist Gladys Bentley, a cross-dressing, African-American, openly lesbian performer who was popular in gay speakeasies during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Newlevant here sees her earn a spot at a nightclub, boldly assert herself sexually and in terms of her talent, and sneer at the women at the church who looked down on her and literally spat in her direction. Newlevant adds a bit of drama with a police raid on the club that Bentley escapes and then cuts to an article she wrote years later about how she was "treated" to achieve a "normal" existence. Newlevant cleverly drops this narration first into an image of a distraught Bentley staring at a mirror after the bust, then into a page that finds this narration published years later in a magazine, and then brings us to later when she appeared on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" show. Bentley was portrayed as every bit the firecracker she was earlier as she fired back improvised lines at the legendarily quick-witted Groucho, but the final panel is a wistful look back at a top hat she sees in her dressing room. The top hat was emblematic of her drag outfit, a daring topper to her allowing herself to express herself as she saw herself. No matter how "normal" she had become thanks to societal and political pressure, Newlevant hints that she paid an enormous price to do so.

The second story, "No it U Lover" is about Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, former members of Prince's band The Revolution. This story got a bit of buzz after Prince's death, and it portrays him as a complicated, ambitious musician with a lot of contradictions. The story details how Wendy and Lisa became key components of Prince's sound and look. For all of Prince's outrageousness on stage, he was a meticulously demanding taskmaster off of it, much like James Brown. At the same time, he was forward-thinking and knew talent when he heard it, like when he heard Wendy playing guitar in her girlfriend Lisa's dressing room. There's a panel where Wendy shows off and starts playing his songs and Newlevant draws Prince with his eyes lighting up, and we knew it wouldn't be long before she was in the band. The sexually ambiguous Prince not only had no problem with Wendy and Lisa's relationship, he even played it up for events like creating a poster for Purple Rain, putting Lisa's arm around Wendy's waist. There's a bit of tension as they were trying to figure out just how public they should be, but in a beautiful two-page spread that's the emotional heart of the story, Wendy, Lisa and Prince become a sort of musical family, freely fusing their talents together.

This is where Newlevant is at her best in shaking off the clumsiness in how she depicted her characters interacting with each other, as she Prince in three different poses in one panel to depict the passage of time, and then the three of them enter a "Dream Factory" space where they are all equals. That wouldn't last long, as Prince would want to go in a different direction and after a confrontation with him, he made it clear that he viewed this as his band--and moreover, that he had created them. Once again, the ending is a wistful one: Wendy and Lisa stand their ground but wind up being tossed aside, especially as they feel like they were exploited in a number of ways. Naturally, Newlevant uses a lot of purple in this story (including depicting their confrontation with Prince taking place on a rainy day), just like she used a lot of dark blue for Bentley's story (about a blues singer).

The final story, "Dance The Blues" is a fictional one that takes place in modern times. It's about a blues dance competition where the main character, Carita, is nervous about how she'll do considering that it's her first time attempting this. She's wary of dancing with a preening egotist, and sure enough, when they are matched up, he tries to upstage her. When paired up with a beautiful woman named Alex, she's very much attracted to her in an unspoken way. When Carita asks her to hang out afterward, Alex reveals she's going home with Todd. The story doesn't have the emotional heft of the other two; it's simply a reminder of the ways in which gender, sexuality and identity are in a pressure cooker dominated by a culture that's defined as heteronormative and patriarchal. None of that is explicitly stated in this sweet, sad story, but it's the subtext of the entire book. Once again, her willingness to show restraint in expressing something she's clearly passionate about was remarkable, as Newlevant let the images and the colors tell the story.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Hazel Newlevant: No Ivy League #1 and Mariposa

Hazel Newlevant is an interesting young cartoonist whose aesthetic eschews the vast majority of prevailing trends. Whereas many cartoonists tend to use a clear line for "cute" character design, drawn on a computer, Newlevant's comics look hand drawn and painted, with a naturalistic bent. There's a certain sense of passion and unrest bubbling under the restraint many of her characters evince. I'll be reviewing her work over the next three days.

The first issue of her series No Ivy League is an autobio strip featuring teenage Newlevant working her first summer job pulling ivy at local parks. While it's autobio, Newlevant is careful to establish themes and smooth out the narrative in such a way to make it clear for the reader. For example, the first page establishes her making out with her boyfriend and being interrupted by his mother, setting up a tension between Hazel and his mom. The second page sees Hazel painting while we meet her parents, who are clearly supportive. Then we quickly learn that she was homeschooled and felt nervous about fitting in with more mainstream high school kids, who are pointedly a highly diverse mix of races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. The rest of the issue is Hazel at her first day of work, interacting with different kids with different results. She bonds with a girl with gauges in her ears but fails to bond with an African-American guy who derides her for trying to look "down" when she asks him about his favorite rappers. While the issue is mostly set-up and background, Newlevant still manages to create emotional stakes right from the start without showing her hand too much. Her character design is pleasingly spare, as it combines a mostly naturalistic approach with faces that are particularly expressive. I'll be curious to see where the series goes from here.

Mariposa is a mini that she did with Jesse Reklaw, during a period where they were regular collaborators. I honestly can't quite tell who did what in this comic, which is a fascinating mash-up of polysexual expression and scientific exploration. Somewhere in Latin America, a lepidopterist is searching for a rare breed of butterfly. Meanwhile, a neighbor from across the hall is having all sorts of sexual adventures with men and women alike. She even flirts with the scientist, who has a one-track mind about what he's doing (as does she!). However, a bit of local intelligence that she provides for him leads to astonishing discoveries about the butterfly's gender and sexual identity, until seeing her with two sexual partners of different genders leads him to a remarkable discovery. This is a smart comic that doesn't view any of its characters as being more worthwhile than any others, even as it gently mocks myopic behavior. The thick lines give the comic a feeling of a weight that's almost comforting, like a blanket. The pages, when opened up, are shaped like a butterfly, which provides some opportunities for some interesting formal tricks, but are almost beside the point with the characters, drawing and the story itself being so compelling on their own.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Anthologies and Collaborations

Bayer is a comics educator at Parsons in addition to being a prolific cartoonist. Apart from being a teacher, he's been a long-time believer in collaborating on comics. His most frequent collaborator is Pat Aulisio, and while their comics often tend to wind up being visceral and scatological, there are occasions where something more interesting emerges.

An example of that is The Greater Good, which is a cousin to Birth Of Horror and Bayer's other comics examining the corporate and cultural history of mainstream comics. This one's all about the iconoclastic Steve Ditko, hard at work in his tiny New York apartment on his own strange comics, refusing to have anything to do with his old work. (This is all of course 100% true.) This story takes the idea of Stan Lee being a demonic creature a step further, making him one of the Lizard People who secretly rule the earth. The mix of outright fiction with truth that is stranger than fiction makes these stories so potent, as Ditko recounts being asked to work with Lee again on the hilarious ill-fated Ravage 2099 project. Aulisio and Bayer once again absolutely nail Lee's carney patter, while capturing Ditko's grim monotone in a figure with its few hairs sticking straight up. Things get worse when Mickey Mouse and Marvel track down Ditko, explaining to him that Marvel owns everything he's ever created, now and after his death, Steve Gerber's Destroyer Duck character (created to help Jack Kirby in his lawsuit against Marvel) comes on and explains how Ditko is now part of the machine again and how he'll continue to do so even after he's dead. Mickey is a steroidal, tattooed bully, carrying around Spider-Man on a chain. This is a nightmarish but hilarious comic that spoofs Ditko's Objectivist tendencies as well as Marvel's utter ruthlessness as a corporate entity.

Along the same lines is Marvel Comics Presents #6, from Drippy Bone Books. Working in a multi-color wash, Bayer contributes yet another story about characters and their creators. The anthology was formatted to mimic a Marvel anthology from the late 1980s and early 1990s, one where minor characters sometimes got spotlights. Bayer begins this story of a team-up of Moondragon, Howard the Duck, Deathlok the Demolisher, Rom, Mastodon, US Agent and the Living Zombie with a modified version of a Marvel classic: the team hanging out and relaxing, trading quips. Of course, Bayer puts that scenario in a strip club and adds a number of scatological jokes centered on Howard. Plastic Man comes from the great beyond to warn each of the characters of their fates, telling them that their creators died unexpectedly and young, were forced out of work, or otherwise driven to madness. Bayer then offers up a hilarious bit of self-critique at the end, as the strippers who were in the story complained about their roles and lack of dialog. Bayer faced some criticism over a strip where two female characters were beaten up because they were cartoonists (the "Stop Cartoonists" thing he did with Pat Aulisio), and I think paused for a moment to acknowledge that his work isn't exactly bristling with female characters.

Keenan Marshall Keller's story about Adam Warlock on acid was almost gilding the lily in terms of how trippy the character would become when it fell into Jim Starlin's hands, but it was still fun. Even funnier was Michael Hawkins story featuring the obscure character D-Man, as he experiences a weird and transcendent day and night with the emotion-manipulating Starfox. I also enjoyed the Bullpen Bulletins parody at the end of the book; these have been done before, but the sheer viciousness of this one made it notable.

Suspect Device is clearly one of Bayer's favorite projects. He sends an invitation to an artist he likes to take clipped-out panels from a classic comic strip, comic book or other art source. He then asks them to draw a strip that theoretically should start with a borrowed panel and end with one as well, with their own work in-between. At 120 pages, SD #2 was a slog to get through. The lack of variation from strip to strip (especially when Nancy and Garfield were the primary inspirations) made the book difficult to get through, though of course there were plenty of gems. There were even a few cartoonists who didn't go after obvious gross-out gags, like Dunja Jankovic. She used her trippy style to have Nancy look at a series of psychedelic patterns on a TV screen. One of the problems with the anthology is that many contributors took the assignment and created something quick and (usually) dirty. The better stories were by artists who took their time to create a coherent (if demented) storyline. like Mykl Sivak's disgusting but beautifully-drawn strip that even includes multiple panels from the original for comedic effect. Noah Van Sciver and Pat Moriarity contributed some of the funnier and clearer entries, while Elizabeth Bethea's gross-out strips were by far the most visceral yet intelligent. Bayer's own strips captured the energy and immediacy of the project in a way that most contributors couldn't match.

SD #3 was trimmed back to a more manageable 70 pages, though that was still about 20 to 30 pages too many. Derf's political background was brought to bear in a 2013 shot at Donald Trump, while James T Stanton's smoothly-drawn strip involving Wimpy and Popeye was puerile but utterly hilarious, thanks to the execution and commitment to the concept of Wimpy fellating a hamburger. Sasha Steinberg brought in his interest in drag in a perfect mimicry of Harold Gray to portray a trans person in combat with Orphan Annie. Steinberg's mastery of Gray's dialog and modern shade-throwing made this a top-notch entry. Sophie Goldstein's ability to use Gray's hatching style made her strip about the ontological underpinnings of the universe ("it's Popeyes all the way down!") was another strong laugh. Adrian Pijoan's "Death shroud" strip made perfect use of the idea of Annie as a sort of "forbidden fruit". Overall, this was a tighter issue that the artists seemed to take more seriously.

Finally, SD #4 opened things up with more Annie, Alley Oop, the Phantom and these amazing Russian tattoo drawings. Mixing a greater variety of characters made the results more varied, with Jason Little's full-color opener blending the three in a sort of bizarre Tijuana Bible. Ben Marra ran with that idea, with the Phantom finding his girlfriend with the demons from the tattoo drawings in a compromising position. Marra's ability to mimic the original look and feel of the strip was once again key to the success. Bethea's strip about the Phantom being a schoolteacher for Annie had the resonance of a Gerald Jablonski strip in its absurdity, while the sheer penciling virtuosity of Mark Burt was another standout. Noah Van Sciver turned in another solid bit of fun, turning the Russian tattoo demons into Communists out to get the Phantom. While the default setting for many cartoonists was to go down a Tijuana Bible-style path mixed in with extreme violence, and there are only so many variations on that idea, the cartoonists who took their time with the strips at least made such ideas funny and well-executed. On occasion, like in Sasha Steinberg's submission in this issue, the borrowed images led to something much more personal. His strips worked off of the tattoo drawings and became statements about identity (sexual and otherwise).

It is the rare cartoonist that is as enthused about collaborating as they are in doing their own solo work. It's also rare to find a cartoonist who can appreciate aspects of mainstream work without fetishizing it as an object of childhood nostalgia, but rather critique its more hackneyed elements while celebrating what made it unusual. Bayer's eye as a teacher is present in all aspects of his work, as his fictional stories are backed up by research and his ability to zero in on precisely what makes a piece of comics art work allow him to incorporate multiple influences while still holding to his own aesthetic at all times. Bayer's style is unmistakable, whether he's covering a Marvel comic, drawing Nancy or drawing one of his own creations. Bayer's critique of commodification more than anything else is central to the punk aspect of his art, but don't mistake that critique for the actual work done by artists. That's one reason he worked with penciler Herb Trimpe before he died in a comic that will be published at a future date, along with inker Al Milgrom and letterer Rick Parker. While there's anger in Bayer's work, there's also a great deal of joy as well. That shows through in the enthusiasm he has for things like Suspect Device, but it also extends down to his students. I've seen some of his student work and have also seen him in action as a teacher, and his combination of enthusiasm, encouragement and extremely sharp tips on how to construct comics is infectious. I still feel like Bayer is only just starting to get warmed up, and while he's published a number of excellent comics, that his best work is ahead of him. You can see more at Bayer's own website.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: The Big Books

Today I'll be looking at what I consider to be the meat of Bayer's career: the comics featuring a quasi-autobiographical stand-in named Seth and the further adventures of G. Gordon Liddy in Raw Power 2. This is Bayer at his densest, most human and most complex as a storyteller.

ROM: Prison Riot is a sequel to that original ROM comic. The first part of the comic is another Bayer "cover version" of a Marvel comic, this time Rom 31-32. Bayer has a real eye for the weirder and more unsettling Marvel comics of the time, and while some think of Bill Mantlo as a plodder who wrote unremarkable comics, the truth is that his real instincts were fairly dark. Rom, a series based on a toy that Mantlo made his own personal playground as an ode to the paranoia of 1950s (and later 1970s) science-fiction, was about a cyborg from space who was hunting his enemies, a race of shape-shifting aliens who had infiltrated the earth. When one of them had a child with a human mother, he became an H.R. Geiger nightmare named Hybrid. In these issues, Hybrid pops up again and gets entangled with the mutants Rogue, Mystique and Destiny, who eventually wind up teaming up with Rom to stop the monster.

Bayer took those elements and reshaped the characters. Hybrid was now Mestasis (although I think he was looking for the word "metastasis", or cancer that has spread away from its primary site). Rogue was now a Wendy O. Williams lookalike, while Mystique became a dead ringer for Fletcher Hanks' Phantoma. This is a classic Bayer move, taking familiar characters and connecting them either with punk or else with a much older comics character. Apart from these stylistic changes, some dialog changes (much less exposition, much more dialog in actual vernacular that sounds like a real person would say), a few story details being condense and of course Bayer's own blocky, dense and grotesquely comic interpretation of the characters, the story unfolds pretty much like the original issues did. Details like Mestasis taking some convicts who happened upon his house and flaying the skin off their bodies or his plans to turn mutant women into "breeding sows" in his rape camps are straight from Mantlo in comics intended for children. (Comics Code approved!) Other details, like Mestasis tempting Rom with pleasures of the flesh, are also straight from Mantlo.

Bayer veers from an open page format with no panels to hand-drawn panels. Once again, he carefully employs a lot of negative space in order to let his drawings breathe a little and to make the otherwise denseness of his figures more legible in terms of their actions on the page. Bayer is interpreting the drawings of Sal Buscema here, a master storyteller in terms of pacing, panel-to-panel transitions and clarity, and he maintains these aspects of the original art while putting his own unique stamp. The backup story features Seth reading this issue of Rom in class as part of a larger drama involving his status as an outcast, his desperate desire to connect with others, and his anger at being rejected. When his teacher has her concert tickets stolen from her purse, Seth is immediately suspected and is cagey til the end and beyond, but that suspicion momentarily makes him popular--a fact that he understands and completely rejects. Seth may be a weirdo in some regards (wearing an outfit that mimics Rom's), but he's a normal kid in others (he wants to get laid), but one thing that's certainly true about him is his sense of integrity.

That carries over into Theth, an absolutely brutal account of Seth in school and in home, and the sheer desperation he feels at all times. The only plot hook here, and it's entirely a red herring, is that the story takes place around the same time that John Lennon was shot. That's simply something to hang the details of the story on, as Seth is alienated from his classmates, from his dad and step-mom (a truly loathsome character), from his little brother and from the culture at large. Unprovoked, he is savagely beaten by a fellow outcast classmate who insisted to his teacher that John Lennon was stabbed. After lying to his step-mom about not hanging out in the local drug story in order to read comics, she and his father burn his comics, wipe their asses with them and/or tear them up right in his face. Unlike the other comics that delved into the comics cover versions and had Seth's story as a framing device, this comic is all about Seth with comics as the framing device. It's funny to see Bayer's comedic touches, like referencing Charlie Brown when Seth sees the spinner rack of comics and says "Wotta beautiful gorey layout!!!"--a direct quote from Peanuts.

The dichotomy between Seth mostly being quiet in school and the agony he puts himself through at school is particularly acute, especially since it's obvious in the way Seth is portrayed in the story that he's dealing with anxiety disorder and ADHD. The obsessive nature of his anxiety, when he thinks the trees might be flames licking the house, is a huge clue. Also a giveaway is Seth's habit of laying with his head on the desk and knocking on it so that the vibration fills his head--this is classic sensory-seeking behavior. While it's never said out loud, this is a kid who needs understanding, redirection and treatment who receives abuse and scorn at home and in school. Only his fantasy life and sheer will power keeps him going, and the Rom "face mask" he wears is symbolic of that fantasy life keeping the world at bay. Here, the denseness of Bayer's hatching actually softens the blow of how brutal a read this is, as Bayer allows the reader the luxury of seeing drawings as drawings in addition to telling this gut-wrenching narrative.

Mr Incompleto begins with Seth reading an issue of the titular comic-book, whose guest star character, Zero Sum (Chance Alphax), would appear in Seth's reverie after he was beaten. Once again, Bayer selects a weird comic (Marvel Two-In-One #69, starring the Thing, written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Ron Wilson) and puts his own spin on it. He renames and slightly alters every character in the book, turning the original Guardians of the Galaxy into the Saturn Seven. Vance Astro (in the book, Chance Alphax) was an astronaut on a thousand-year mission to Alpha Centauri. The problem was that his body was in stasis, his mind accidentally woke up, causing him to go insane over and over again, along with triggering his mutant telekinetic powers. This issue involves him going back in time and desperately trying to convince his younger self not to become an astronaut.

This comic is all about loneliness and despair, along with the tragedy of loving an abusive parent. There's a threat thrown in as a mysterious fog encases the earth, which the Saturn Six think is Chance interfering with time but which later turns out to be young Chance ready to accept his powers early. Bayer actually improves and expands upon the story's original action, including the climax when future Chance confronts his father. Mr Incompleto himself is an affable if bizarre figure, with his chest having a cigar-chomping Jack Kirby face on it, his head covered by a sack, and a huge crucifix swinging around his neck. The character design here is a feast, as Bayer channels Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Raymond Pettibon, Gary Panter, Mat Brinkman and more in drawing these blocky, chunky, scribbly characters who vibrate, ooze and pulse across the page. This is the comic where Bayer's energy really comes alive in terms of the action on the page itself, where the result isn't so much satire as it is reinterpretation.

Finally, Raw Power 2 lives up to the original both in terms of its satirical qualities and the intense nature of his sometimes disturbing images. It follows Terry (the Cat Man) ten years after he's sent to prison for his brutal crimes, as well as a now-faded G.Gordon Liddy. While Terry at first vows to try to to eschew violence and become a new man, it doesn't take long for the unforgiving world he's entered back into to cause him to snap. Meanwhile, Liddy, whose books Terry studied closely, denies any responsibility as he sees himself retired from trying to do anything for his version of the American dream. After Terry snaps, Liddy hunts him down just as Terry was resigned to his fate. Bayer is clearly fascinated by ideologues so devoted to their principles that they are willing to engage in almost casual violence to defend them. The dogma is so strong and black & white that for minds like Liddy and Terry, empirical evidence is no longer one of their concerns. What Bayer also makes stunningly clear is that for all of the patriotic rhetoric that Liddy spits and all of the righteous paranoid lunacy that Terry espouses, Liddy views Terry as part of the problem and doesn't understand that his own methods are identical to Terry's. And for all the flowery language, that method is entirely Hobbesian in nature: Might Makes Right. The strong should rule the weak.

Bayer also advances the idea that for all Liddy's bravado about the methods he used to overcome his fears like lightning and rats (look it up!), he was still afraid of dogs and couldn't fool them. Liddy's machismo and bluster was just an attempt to wash the stink of fear that he could never relinquish, just as his violent ideology was a sign of a lack of imagination and of total dysfunction. Just as Terry might have reached a point where he was willing to accept that his ideology might be completely misguided, his idol snuffed out his life--and Terry never even knew it. But Liddy was still living in fear and as Bayer surmises, knew that fact all too well.

Visually, this is Bayer's best work to date. The comics and cultural references fly fast and furious. When Terry is walking the yard, one guard refers to him by his inmate number and says, "Good ol' 0506...How I hate him", which is of course a reference to the very first Peanuts strip. When someone whacks Terry with a brick, it's done in the same elongated and exaggerated style as George Herriman's Krazy Kat. Herriman's combo of an extremely loose line and energetic layout has clearly been an influence on Bayer as well. When first Terry and then Liddy scale a tall ride at Coney Island, that's straight out of King Kong. Bayer also throws in a new character, Bile Duct, who is based on a child star who essentially dropped out of society. The final images are from yet another "cover version", as Mr Incompleto battles Reflectivix (Bayer goofs and refers to him once by the actual character's name, the Sphinx), a battle of wills that Mr Incompleto is able to stay in because of his sheer decency (a trait he shares with another important Bayer character in Rom), though ultimately he doesn't emerge entirely victorious. Reflectivix's obsession with power and immortality is not unlike that of Liddy's, and both are portrayed ultimately as pathetic characters with pointless existences. It'll be interesting to see if Liddy winds up getting an epilogue. Raw Power 2 is so effective because for all the over-the-top violence in Bayer's other work, it's the sense that the violence here means something makes it far more harrowing and disturbing. This isn't just an artist blowing off some steam on paper, but a thinking satirist taking ideologies to their logical conclusion and showing just how inhumane they can be.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Josh Bayer Week: Mini Madness

In-between other projects, the tireless Bayer releases mini after mini, as though he's trying to get his ideas on paper as quickly as possible.

Bloggers #1 takes Bayer's own Suspect Device technique and puts familiar cartoon characters into violent, strange and demented scenarios. In each of the stories, blogging is somehow involved as a mock panacea. The result is something both totally absurd and pointedly critical at the narcissism that can be involved in airing one's thoughts on the internet. For example, Magneto encourages the Blob to "encase [your feelings] in the margins of your blog", to show humans the way. It's a ridiculous premise made even sillier with Bayer's blocky figures taking up the page. "Dawn of the Blogger" sees Little Orphan Annie running from the giant head of Fred Flintstone, which is disintegrating fellow cartoon characters with death rays shot from his eyes. Annie pauses and gets Rosie the Robot to turn into a computer so she can blog about the event. Garfield becomes a homicidal killer and teams up with Richard Nixon; Gargamel walks away from a bad date with Ziggy to update his alchemy blog; the Green Arrow gets a job at McDonald's to be a real "man of the people", slits Ronald McDonald's throat and then proclaims "I must blog about this to make it right". In each example, blogging is set up as being "the answer", yet is always portrayed as a masturbatory activity that only allows the author to stroke their own ego--precisely BECAUSE the bloggers in question overinflate their own importance. The use of orange as a spot color livens up the most recent edition of this comic (there was an earlier black & white version), giving each strip a garishly lurid appeal.

Transformer, Don't Look Back and Hand of Blood are short, hand-made minis made on card stock. Written in the same rapid, loose scrawl as Bloggers, Transformer stars Sylvester Stallone facing a crisis: he wants to become a cartoonist. He goes to see Stan Lee (played by Richard Nixon--a hilariously awesome caricature by Bayer), who advises Stallone to become a car. Having "transformed", Lee drives the Stallone/car around, sideswiping pedestrians until he spots John Rambo. He urges Stallone to kill his creation, but the Stallone car swerves and crashes, though "Stan Lee never dies" and he escapes. Bayer often uses one of two catchphrases in his works: "Comics are the enemy" and "Comics are the answer". Both aphorisms are satirical and knowing in their absolutism, which is why he uses them almost interchangeably. The idea that a famous actor like Stallone would go to any lengths to be a cartoonist is ridiculous, and Bayer takes it a few steps further with the visceral quality of the events he depicts.

Hand of Blood and Don't Look Back also use that Suspect Device prompt and immediately twist the initial visual premise of a strip into something violent and weird. Don't Look Back stars Little Orphan Annie pulling out a switchblade and slitting the throat of a man who worshipped former President Lyndon Johnson. Hand of Blood starts with a miner upbraiding Nixon for getting bloody fingerprints on the Declaration of Independence, and Nixon responding by defecating all over them. Neither of these comics is as interesting as Transformer, as the initial inspiration provides little in the way of actual story structure.

Transformer Two finds Stallone at it again, this time getting Rocky to grow out of his body to offer encouragement and aid when attacked by the Joker. This is a good example of a Bayer comic as a sort of fever dream: mashing together characters and ideas in ways that don't actually make any sense outside of that fevered reality. There's a hilarious segue as bizarre versions of the Human Torch and Spider-Man fight and and hang out, including Spider-Man defecating on the Torch. (Shitting and cutting are two acts one is most likely to see in a Bayer satire.) It's revealed that this was a Stallone production, and Stallone fights to his last breath to defend himself against the Joker, who's trying to discourage him from doing a comic. The comic is an over-the-top satire of the artist's struggle to create but also a sympathetic portrayal of someone ill-suited to do something in the arts, yet who tries to do it anyway. Bayer's approach inevitably involves someone getting cut, beaten, pounded, shat upon or being kidnapped. His reads are as harrowing as they are fun, and certainly not to every taste, but the sheer energy and craft in each panel is always compelling, in part because he now has much better control over the vision we had seen his earlier works.

Birth of Horror was published as part of Ryan Standfest's Rotland Dreadfuls series, with an earlier version self-published by Bayer with a vellum cover. If the other minis on this list are goof-offs and ways for Bayer to have fun on the page while dropping a few satirical bombs, Birth of Horror is a fully-formed and multi-layered work of social satire that not only brutally exposes the exploitative nature of Stan Lee's relationship with his artists, but the ways in which the wider culture accepts and then rejects certain kinds of entertainment. In this case, it's horror comics, and Lee in the 50s turns to one of his ace creators, Bill Everett (creator of the Sub-Mariner and depicted here as a wizard) for something new. Lee is eventually revealed to be a blood-seeking demon (the line, "Face it tiger, you've burst the blood clot" had me laughing out loud) but Bayer never has him abandoning his familiar carnival barker patter as he drains Everett of his essence and steals the idea for Ghost Rider from former copy boy Gary Friedrich. The comic shifts from the 1950s, when horror was in vogue, to the 1970s, when Comics Code restrictions relaxed and Marvel responded with a huge horror/monster line in response to growing public demand. As Lee himself notes in the comic, "Horror books are always ready to proliferate during war and postwar years. Trust me, there will be a vampire and zombie by the time the twentieth century reaches its bloody apex!"

Bayer could write an entire book on the history of mainstream comics and culture by way of these stories. He wrote about the circumstances and history around horror comics using horror tropes, and it's significant that he wrote about Marvel (and Lee's) reaction as an observer rather than focus on EC Comics, which was essentially reduced to irrelevance after horror comics were shut down after the anti-comics hearings of the 1950s. That story has been told enough that Bayer was more interested in seeing what happened in the margins, like the horror expansion at Marvel being the polar opposite of the sort of comics that Jack Kirby created as Marvel's identity. The comic ends with Rom coming on the scene, slipping into the conversation as the series began as a 1950s sci-fi/horror homage but drawing on the Kirby tradition of having a hero with absolutely pure motives. He then proceeds to kill every monster there, including Lee. That's a bit of cheeky wish fulfillment by Bayer, especially as Rom's formal speech patterns clashed against Lee becoming a flashy hipster. The story is a visual tour-de-force, as Bayer's ability to depict horror, gore and viscera went hand-in-hand with the carefully constructed and constantly-shifting figure of Lee. The dense hatching of Bayer is here, to be sure, but he tightens up his figures and opens up every panel to let it breathe, even while he's pounding the reader with his visuals.  The figure of Lee here represents the actual man, of course, but it also represents the larger corporate exploitation of horror images for cheap shocks and a cheap buck--so it's no surprise that Stan finds a kindred spirit when he meets the young Glenn Danzig. Lee is every carnival barker, every executive, every corporate entity trying to find product and grinding down wizards and copyboys with big dreams in the process.