Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Yet More From Aaron Lange

Let's take a look at another round of minis from Philadelphia's own Aaron Lange:

Cash Grab #4-6. This series is Lange's grab-bag of sketchbook stuff, out-of-print material and other ephemera. #4 is a sketchbook issue wherein Lange starts to play with color, mostly of either people he knows personally or actors that interest him for some reason. Lange is an exceptionally perceptive portrait artist, even when working from photos, and he is able to nail eyes in particular. The other thing about Lange is that there's no gag or pun too dumb enough for him; once he grabs on to it, he doesn't let go, like in "Spock of Seagulls" or "Adamantium" (featuring the singer as Wolverine). On the other hand, some of these jokes are laugh-out-loud inspired, like the psychedelic, full color "Wuv Me 2 Times", a Jim Morrison drawing by way of Margaret Keane's big eyes-style. My favorite drawing was that of his portrait of the great Mary Fleener, when she confessed, "'Trim' means pussy?! No shit."

The fifth issue is more focused, as it's portraits from movies that made an impact on him as a teen, from Hollywood productions to b-movies. It's a case of autobiography by way of the artists that spoke to him. In many cases, he tends to add a touch of angularity to his poses, like the way Gillian Anderson's face is framed, or the way the hair on Milla Jovovich is drawn. He also has a way of touching on the most noir characteristics of his subjects, partly through his use of effects like dense hatching, spotting blacks and even stippling. The latter was true for his drawing of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, for example. That darkness and even a tinge of madness is especially present in the slightly uneven way he drew her eyes. It's not all darkness, however; his drawing of Miranda July befits her whimsical nature, and the way the lettering of her name melts and frames her head perfectly completes the overall quirkiness of the composition.

Issue #6 is his "deep cuts" grab-bag, including an interesting strip called "Time Release" about a pill-addicted comics retailer. Lange's drawing would get both more refined and more stylized later on, but he captures the degradation of the dealer trying to score pills off of a cosplaying Star Trek fan that ends in violence. The final joke, that the pills aren't what he expected, just added to the absurdity and nihilism of the story. Lange taps into that desperate loser vibe in his stories in much the same way that Noah Van Sciver does, getting across a real sense of empathy. As Lange notes, he very well could have ended up like that dealer if his life had taken a slightly different turn. Other than his film reviews (which are excellent), most of the rest of the issue consists of fairly disposable gags and anecdotes.

Those comics are interesting, especially for Lange fans, but the real main event is Trim #5. This is his current one-man anthology that has seen him take a step up in terms of sophistication and ambition as a writer. Starting with an incredible letters column that features praise from R.Crumb and an admonition from Van Sciver to cut back on his more juvenile, shock-value material. I think the sweet spot for Lange is somewhere in the middle, telling biographical or autobiographical stories that explore disturbing events or unusual people. Take "Pastor Dan!", for example. I loved the touch that made the title look like an old-time MAD title a la Harvey Kurtzman. This story details Lange's childhood as an altar boy at his church and his favorite pastor, the titular Dan. Lange was drawn to this weirdo, who recommended a Monty Python movie to him, recounted killing a cat as a youngster and generally was a positive if odd adult presence in Lange's life. Lange is very much one to provide little commentary in his stories beyond moving along the narrative, preferring to let the reader ponder what it all might mean.

Another sweet spot for Lange's sensibilities are his "Art School" short strips. They are roughly autobiographical and aren't a repudiation of art school like Dan Clowes, but rather a hilarious exploration of who he was at the time and what the rest of the school's culture was like. From hissing at a bunch of hackey-sack hippies to dropping acid at the wrong time in class to an exquisitely drawn weirdo classmate smoking dope with an "x" carved in his head, Lange has a real sense for surveying sheer weirdness and making it funny. It also helps that he takes aim at himself as a butt of jokes as much as he does anyone. There's another story about him coming home drunk and coked up, watching porn and then throwing out his entire collection--only to get locked outside in his underwear. Lange's ability to range between naturalism and exaggeration helps to establish place and tone while still allowing ground for absurdity.

There are a couple of stand-out longer pieces. "Blood and Soil" is another in a series of strips about his family that examines his German heritage, including his great-uncle Erich who was in the Luftwaffe in World War II. He did his job as a pilot but was not accepted to college because of his "perceived political leanings" (anti-Nazi?). Amusingly, his great aunt once told his father that she never had children because "she couldn't stand to bring another German into the world", which is hilarious and awful all at once. Lange is at once fascinated by German military imagery, uniforms and pins while being acutely aware of their impact and the ways others appropriated the imagery to spread terror or to simply shock. Lange neither glorifies nor wishes to forget his family's history, poking fun at it with pop culture and rock references.

"Parco Dei Mostri" is a tribute to his skill as an artist, as he brings to life a monstrous sculpture garden dating back to the 16th century but only recently rehabilitated as a tourist destination. This is an excellent example of the sharpness but also slight distance of Lange's narrative voice. As a writer, Lange clearly spends a lot of time thinking about his subjects. The way this story was arranged, as images taken from his mom's vacation, frames these pieces once considered to be pornographic by his contemporaries but are now harmless and for the whole family. No matter what kind of artifice is at work in one of Lange's stories, he compulsively pulls away the curtain to let the reader in on exactly what's happening and why.

Monday, August 28, 2017

D&Q: Poppies of Iraq

There's a gentleness to Brigitte Findakly's narrative voice that makes her descriptions of growing up in Iraq, in territory now occupied by ISIL/Daesh, feel understated and restrained. Poppies of Iraq is the third major memoir regarding growing up in the Middle East produced in the west (along with Marjane Satrapi's famous Persepolis, of course, and Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future), and it's so much more compact and less focused on tons of personal minutia than those other books. Findakly's past is every bit as painful and shattered as any ex-pat, but it's clear that these events feel a lot more distant to her now.

Co-written and illustrated by her partner Lewis Trondheim and colored by her (she's a professional colorist, not a writer), it has the feel of a fascinating, narrated family album. That's magnified by the chapter-ending photos that she provides of herself and her family. Findakly's narrative is straightforward, as she opts to portray her life and family as ordinary in nearly every sense but also affected by extraordinary times. Her father was a dentist, and it was not unusual at the time in the Middle East for those seeking higher education to obtain it in Europe. Her father met her mother in France, and she returned to Mosul when he was ready to start his practice as well as work for the military. The history of post-World War I Iraq is one of a nation being freed from years of Ottoman Empire rule and a great deal of continued foreign occupation. It is unsurprising that there might be instability in an ancient, proud country after years of colonial interference, and so in Iraq there were military coups and deposed monarchs, all leading up to the Saddam Hussein era.

For Findakly and her family, there were simply long periods of living a relatively carefree and fun life. She discusses going to public school and wanting to learn from the Quran like her friends (even though she was a Christian). There was her best friend who lived next door, with whom she played constantly. Throughout the book, Findakly jumps back and forth in time, revealing the fate of various friends, adding context to relationships that she only became aware of much later, and examining the irony of so many friends having to call her in Paris to make sure she was safe after the latest attack. As her narrative slowly moves forward, she reveals details about how her family was affected by whatever the latest coup was. When Christian-led forces had control of Iraq, her family was feared and mistrusted. When a Muslim-led government was ascendant, there were moments of great danger. In both cases, her father's status as a member of the army saved her family from a potentially harsh fate.

Findakly also addresses her betwixt and between quality as part French, part Iraqi. Her parents were able to use their status to get groceries and supplies that many others didn't have in times of crisis, but Findakly always wanted to have what the other kids were having. It was especially amusing to see her want margarine instead of butter! There were also little side-strips called "In Iraq", wherein Findakly would share a tidbit or two about one of her country's idiosyncrasies, like injections always being considered superior to pills, or families blessed with multiple children sometimes giving a new baby to someone in the family who can't conceive.

Her family left for France for good in 1972 because of the slowly crumbling infrastructure and increasingly corrupt government that was taxing her father unfairly. Findakly reverses the usual "we were happier in the west!" narrative by explaining how difficult her family had it. Her father couldn't practice dentistry in France; her mother's family cut her off when she went to Iraq; and it was difficult for her to adjust to an all-French classroom. Over the years, Findakly could sense growing unhappiness among her relatives when she'd visit, while at the same time she felt more and more comfortable asserting herself in France. She went to protests, she explored her talent in art, and eventually moved out on her own. She still felt drawn to what she considered to be her home country and even considered a drawing gig doing a children's book for the Ministry of Culture until she realized that it would mean working for Saddam Hussein. By the end of the book, her remaining friends and family in Iraq were shells of their former selves after the American occupation and its ensuing chaos, while the family members living abroad had their own prejudices. Findakly, remarkably, was able to empathize with them and their situation and tried not to judge, because everyone was affected by Iraq's chaos differently.

What's interesting about the book is that it's quietly about seizing control of one's own life and agency in subtle, gradual ways. Whereas the young Marjane character in Persepolis is bratty and unbearable as a teen, young Findakly is friendly & agreeable and carries those traits into adulthood. The art by Trondheim well-matches his skill in drawing from life (especially big, sweeping backgrounds) and his friendly, gentle character designs are a snug fit for the fondness she has for her family, extended family and friends. There was not much internal drama for Findakly growing up, and the move to France actually cat a time when she was champing at the bit for more freedom. In terms of what Trondheim did on the page, he used an open-format six panel grid that often collapsed panels. This contributed to the book's light, breezy feel that sometimes masked the more serious aspects of the story. This book doesn't try to be a major event or a profound commentary on the Middle East; its lack of such pretensions and focus on particular details make them all the more memorable and funny, as Findakly tries to connect her own story to any other story about growing up in any kind of unusual environment.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 3

Closing out my look at Caitlin Cass's Postal Constituent comics...

R.R. Whitehead (Volume 7, #2). Following a month spent at the Byrdcliffe Guild in Woodstock, NY, Cass wrote this very cheeky account of its co-founder, R.R. Whitehead. A dreamer from a young age, he had enormous family wealth that allowed him to act on his dreams. Cass portrayed him as both pliable and impressionable in terms of ideas but also rigid and dictatorial with regard to how he put his ideals of a utopian artists's colony into practice. On the one hand, women had freedoms that were totally unheard of in the colony, including openly accepted lesbian relationships. On the other hand, he drove off members of the colony by refusing to compromise on how things were run on a day-to-day basis. He was also obsessed with rejecting anything resembling modern manufacturing or making money, which stopped printmaking and similar arts at Byrdcliffe. Whitehead was certainly not immune from criticism, as the artists (including his wife!) used to draw him as a figure with an enormously long neck (his head in the clouds) in everything they did, which is a very funny running joke. Cass always shares some sympathy for dreamer-types like Whitehead, admiring their iconoclastic character as much as their failed ambitions.

Cassie Chadwick: Queen Of Cleveland (Volume 7, #3). Cass loves dreamers but also loves schemers and grifters who have style. This funny comic about a woman who went through multiple husbands, multiple identities and a couple of stints in prison in the early 20th century also speaks to something else: women trying to find ways to escape their inevitable fate as either near-slave laborers or else entirely dependent on their husbands. Chadwick cleverly took advantage of people's willingness to trade in on the reputations of the rich, as the rumor she herself started that she was the illegitimate daughter of tycoon Andrew Carnegie allowed her to walk into banks and just receive piles of money. She spent the money as fast as she got it, both for her own personal delight and also to keep up appearances as someone who is ridiculously rich. The single-tone light pink Cass used her was a perfect way of introducing a lot of negative space into the piece, allowing her to focus on character.


Mill Girls (Volume 7, #4). This is a full-color fantasy piece where Cass once again focuses in on the oppressed more than the ideas of an oppressor. It's a short comic that imagines the hard-working and exploited mill worker women going on strike against the men exploiting them, cutting open the men's cotton-cocoons and finding money sewn inside. It's a remarkable image, as justice is achieved until it isn't, and the monstrous industrialists grow huge and literally crush them. It's a story that played out often during the 19th and 20th centuries, as labor sought to assert their rights against an owner's relentless exploitation. It's just a story that's now out of fashion and no longer celebrated. That's thanks in parts to later corruption and incompetence on the part of many unions, but it's also due to corporations trying to scale back those gains over time. Cass painted this comic, and that quality lent it some of its magical realist qualities as things went in a strange direction very quickly, but it made sense in the formal continuity of the story.

Ivy Lee: Founder of Public Relations (Volume 7, #5). This is another short comic from Cass that's a short biography of a man with a questionable legacy: the founder of public relations. He was there who helped changed John D. Rockefeller from a man whose actions killed miners and their families into a folksy, "man of the people" type in the public eye. The concept of image being more important than substance is obviously frighteningly relevant today, and the person who controls their own image controls information and often public opinion. The cardstock and folding accordion formal qualities of the comic give it a little value added for this story of moral relativism.

Rock Thoughts, Volume Two (Volume 7, #6). Cass takes a different approach in this volume of the thinking rock. It's full color, one panel per page, with the story taking up the whole issue. It's a meditation on existence itself. The rock wonders ahead to when all life on earth will end and it will just be rocks again. Taking this kind of long view, where the rock considers time from a geological point of view and looks at life as a kind of short, fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying blip is another way of looking at consciousness, humanity and the urge to be remembered as ultimately futile and pointless thing that we do. It's pointless, yet the rock (and Cass) can't help but have a fondness for existence and consciousness, and the rock doth protest too much.


Burning Rivers (Volume 8, #1). Most everyone has heard about Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire in the late 60s as a symbol of both the dawn of the environmental movement and the decline of Cleveland. In this comic, Cass colorfully and dutifully records the many other times that not only Cleveland's main river caught on fire, but also those of Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit. They were all industrial cities who dumped waste, oil and alcohol into the nearby river without thinking twice, so it wasn't surprising that they caught on fire multiple times. The comic is as much about the movement as it is the fires, as people figured out how to clean the rivers and even bring back fish. Cass suggests that technology is neither good nor evil on its own, but rather that what's important is understanding it in a purely ethical sense: how does using this technology affect others, with "others" including the entire ecosystem?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass: Part 2

Continuing my look at Caitlin Cass' minis:

Rock Thoughts Volume One (Volume 6, #1). This is a funny comic about a rock that somehow attains consciousness but is otherwise just a rock. It's Cass' take on the mind-body split and identity. It also gave her a chance to use a thin line and a nine-panel grid in order to do gag strips. The rock goes through all sorts of stages of emotional well-being, starting off with "positive visualization" (which ends with a seagull shitting on him), feeling self-conscious and needy, feeling defiant and then eventually zeroing in on consciousness itself. It wonders if "the other rocks are playing a 1.7 billion year prank on me" by not having consciousness and then concluding "This consciousness thing is bullshit." Cass is exploring the idea that consciousness without agency plus incredibly expansive time is essentially torture, no matter how one tries to think one's way out of it. Even the end, when the rock has been put in a hamster cage and the rock finds comfort in the hamster and her constant motion in a wheel is thwarted when the hamster drops dead, puncturing yet another soliloquy with random cruelty. Obviously drawing a rock isn't that difficult, but it's the fine, little details that Cass adds to the comic that help add a degree of naturalism. The scenes she's creating, if devoid of the rock's word balloons, would look just like scenes of stillness in panel after panel. Adding a nicely-drawn child's hand or a fastidiously-detailed hamster wheel brings the reader into the rock's world and perspective. Cass is also making fun of rhetoric and speech-making in this comic, as a fancy speech or theory without an audience is essentially meaningless.


Portals (Volume 6, #2). This is a none-too-subtle parable about a woman who stared into readily available portals all day long. Portals "into teacup auctions...obscure historical events,...alternative lives...", etc. When she got upset one day, she flew "to the place where portals become objects", called "the cacophany (sic) of things". She was charmed by the singular nature of each object she saw until she saw a weird guy go by, and she flew back, frightened. Of course, this is a story about the internet, television and our modern obsession with screens in general. Cass is arguing that despite the wonder this technology inspires, the amazing things it can show us, it also cuts us off from human contact. While the present-ness of having a thing in one's possession is part of that experience that's lost, it's really negotiating a world full of others and having to face ethical questions that makes us more than mere rocks on a shoreline. Cass notes that uncontrolled, an addiction to screens can permanently impair our ability to negotiate the world in a meaningful way that has the capacity to bring joy that simply watching something cannot. Her use of an open-page format gives it the feeling of a child's fairy tale book, a sense of reality being fluid.


Poking The Bubble (Volume 6, #3). This is a rare autobio comic by Cass, wherein she talks about her project to date, her current activities as a teacher, and some doubts about the nature of her project. Cass went to St. John's College in Baltimore, whose curriculum was the Great Books of the Western World. In other words, she spent a long time studying the works of dead (mostly white) males. She notes that her project has been humorously pointing out the failures of the ideas of these figures, for anyone steeped in philosophy knows that its history is one system replacing another ad infinitum, until theories arise that look to wipe out philosophy at its very root. That said, there's a telling panel in this open-page layout where Cass yells at the Great Books: "Ha ha, you're gonna fail even though you tried!" and the books respond "Ha ha, you can't say anything without referencing us first." It's a compelling argument that dawns on Cass, as she's set up her project in opposition to thoughts generated within a patriarchal bubble. It's only through teaching at an all-girls' school that exploring ideas doesn't have to be in opposition to anything. Instead of poking that titular bubble of the patriarchy, she realizes that she can have hope that her students find new and innovative ways of looking at the world. It's a beautiful moment of self-actualization.


Effie Stevens (Volume 6, #6). The expanded version of this story is a beautiful, full-color comic. It's about an entirely forgotten woman in a small town who left no mark on the world save one: a huge, expansive quilt wherein she drew every single person she could remember going about their day, as well as their name. This is a beautiful, poetic comic that really comes to life with color. It's also smartly arranged in small vignettes that capture aspects of the quilt and her life as though one were considering facets of a gem. The quilt gave her purpose in a life that was otherwise meaningless and unconnected, though Cass notes that while it helped, it was not a substitute for real human contact. The quilt outlived her, however, as it was found, displayed as a local object of wonder, and eventually cut up and sold to become part of other family's traditions. It's a fascinating meditation on memory and how quickly the influence of any life has within generations of its disappearance. The color on each patch of the quilt pops off the page, giving life to the beautiful object that Stevens was creating. Cass raised another question here: the difference between art and craft, and if there is a meaningful difference.


Little Mister (Volume 7, #1). This is a story about how one's creation can be perverted and exploited, especially when men have an opportunity to do so with regard to women. It's about a cartoonist/writer who creates a despicable character called "Little Mister" who "always comes out on top" and "takes from the less deserving." Starting as a satire on women's roles in society, it got turned into a literal celebration of men's rightful place as being dominant and even a fetish item for good luck and fortune. When it got further twisted into white nationalist propaganda (ala Pete and Matt Furie), the artist essentially swore off men and moved away, but the ideas followed her. This is a nasty, trenchant and oh-so-realistic story that's told with Cass' old-timey flair, as she's especially adept at drawing late 19th century and early 20th century buildings and fashions.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 1

Let's catch up with one of my favorite cartoonist-historians, Caitlin Cass. She's a remarkably prolific cartoonist, as she's managed to stick with her Postal Constituent mail-order minicomic service for years, now going into an eighth volume. Her ongoing series, Great Moments In Western Civilization, is a monument to her formal creativity, unceasing curiosity, wry sense of humor and intellectual rigor as a historian. Let's take a quick look at each of these minis to see where her interests wandered:

The Seven Liberal Arts. (Volume 4, #6). This small mini is an expansion of a highly compressed diagram on its first page, as the practitioners of the titular liberal arts all essentially get gags in, either at their own expense or that of others. The Geometry department re-abstracts their ideas in an effort to trick the Astronomy team a level above them to "convince themselves that they see us in the stars". Philosophy is at the top, of course, and it winds up being an elaborate ski lift for the other liberal arts, which is as good a metaphor as I've ever heard for it. The imagery, which is reminiscent of something approaching Dante's vision of hell, is clever in how Cass uses cutaways and incomplete data to give the reader just a glimpse of what's happening.

Great American Inventions (Volume 5, #3) is a poster folded down to mini size. Folded back out, this white-on-black series of drawings features Cass' sardonic comments on items like The TV Dinner, the Machine Gun, and the Cotton Gin ("A New Reason to Enslave People!"). This poster falls into Cass' larger project of critiquing notions like progress, especially when paired with capitalism. In other words, innovation and capitalism on their own have no moral compass and shouldn't be celebrated simply for being new, efficient and money-making.

The Index, #6 (Volume 5, #4) is the latest issue of Cass' subseries about meaning and purpose, where a man and a woman argue about the best way to go about it. Susan collects blank note cards that reflect the potential of a single person. Richard fills the cards with his thoughts and starts indexing them. The series has introduced magical realist elements, like the couple summoning the library of Alexandria, indexer Paul Otlet, and the philosopher Diogenes. This issue introduces Virginia Woolf into the equation, as Susan attacks Richard's argument by saying that one's works cannot be reduced to a single sentence. Instead, it's the small details of a life lived that give a person worth. What I love about this issue is that the way Cass is willing to subvert arguments with the very rhetorical devices that have been introduced. In this case, it's Woolf herself that questions looking to her as an inspiration on how to live, given that she wound up killing herself. Like with every other issue, nothing is resolved with regard to the philosophical argument, even as Cass' line grows ever more confident and even elaborate at times.

Benjamin Rathbun Builds Buffalo is a folded broadsheet talking about the con man whose ability to scam others got a number of important buildings created in Buffalo, NY, including the very jail that he was sentenced to. What's funny about this story is that it's a familiar and relevant one even today: a visionary in search of start-up capital. In his case, he simply forged the names of other people in order to get loans. Cass works big on the page here, and it suits her work, especially with regard to the way she spots blacks. The main problem with her smaller comics is that her line is not yet fine or flexible enough to fully breathe given those space constraints. Cass obviously has some affection for the con man's vision, as she later depicts his effort to build what is essentially modern-day Niagara Falls.

Bestiary Of Ordinary Americans (Volume 5, #6) is almost a response from Susan (from The Index), although it's an unrelated project. A bestiary is a compendium of mythical creatures, often with a moralizing tone. In Cass' hands, it's a quotidian detail about a number of different people, yet it's a detail that reveals something important in some way. Whether it's Sarah's hatred for ballet, Glenna inexplicably buying boxes of cereal despite hating cereal, or Amy's internet addiction, every anecdote is revealing as it shows the reader the true nature of each person, many of whom wish they could be different people or make different decisions--yet they feel compelled to do otherwise. These are some of Cass' warmest drawings, but it's a shame she couldn't print the whole issue in color, because it looks like she may have been working with colored pencil here.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Zoe Taylor's Joyride

Zoƫ Taylor's Joyride is a wonderfully brushy, scribbly and visceral story about a young woman at a party who makes a bold decision. Taylor does the absolute minimum to establish characters and motive, and she doesn't have to. After beginning the story with the odd image of a dressed-up woman sitting in the middle of a forest, it shifts to a lavish party, a woman getting ready for that party, and a sportscar speeding along to get to the party at the mansion. There are relationships that are left vague; there's an implication that one of the women is the daughter (or perhaps the sister) of the hostess, as the hostess even says to a friend, "That's her disguise." Nonetheless, the action at the party continues: people laughing, drinking and otherwise enjoying the moment. That is, until the first woman leaves the party and steals the sportscar that we saw in the first scene.

The hostess exclaims "She hot-wired the car!", and it's telling that no one at the party looks very surprised. What follows is an exhilarating, visceral series of full splash pages worth of speed lines and a blurred car. She eventually loses control and wraps the car around a tree in the forest. She walks away from the crashed car, which soon catches on fire and explodes. The other woman has followed her and is looking for her in the forest with someone who is presumably her boyfriend, but her flashlight-aided search fails.

That's more or less the whole story, but the level of ambiguity in the story is maddening. The story had a car crash as its climactic event, but the lack of context deliberately robbed the reader of drawing any conclusions from it other than raptly absorbing the images as images. We don't know why the first woman stole the car or her relationship to the other woman and her boyfriend. We don't know if this is the climax of a lifetime of erratic behavior or just another weekend. We don't know what will become of the woman after the car crash. Once again, Taylor forces the reader to simply experience the images and what is certain. There was a woman. She stole a car. She drove it fast, crashed it, and walked away. Any other conclusions to be drawn from the story are mere suppositions. One can make some connections regarding wealth, family and dysfunction, but that's all connotation--and mostly guesswork at that. If Taylor had felt like leaving more clues or leading the reader in a different direction, she would have. Instead, she focuses strictly on the action and takes the reader along with her, thanks to her expressive, immediate style and the cheap newsprint that soaks up those thick, black lines.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #11: Inkbrick #5

After a strong fourth issue, the fifth issue of Inkbrick was mostly forgettable. Most of the pieces weren't out-and-out bad, but some were too short to make much of an impact. Others were just not visually exciting. The highlight of the issue was a specially colored section featuring work from Jenny Zervakis, one of the earliest practitioners of comics-as-poetry. Her section, introduced by John Porcellino (who just published a big collection of Zervakis' work), stands out for its depictions of stillness and beauty, as well as a reserved but beautiful use of language. "Chuparossa" is an emotional reflection on a bird's song, its resilience and its motivations. It's a poem about intentionality, beauty and being present, with a marvelously subdued use of color. Zervakis was also an early practitioner of dream comics; here, there's a softly-colored one about her mother being a highly proficient gardener. There's also a deliberately ugly, bruise-colored strip that takes place at night and depicts a car accident, with the identity of the victim switching at the last moment. It's a dream about uncomfortable, raw emotions.

The recurring bit that held this issue together was that of a series of strips from Samplerman. He's best known for his collages of golden age comics and is especially interesting not just for juxtaposing images in unusual ways, but in experimenting by using clumps of comics as formal and decorative tools. In one story, the images form fractals. In another strip, the gutters take on character shapes, with the images of the strips turning into negative space. Other strips form loops raining down from above, or rooms full of strange objects. There's a sense of delightful experimentation and joy on each of these pages as Samplerman takes on the rich, lurid nature of the original colors and repurposes it in fascinating ways. Samplerman is able to retain enough of the original imagery to let the reader easily understand its original source material while at the same time divorcing the images from their original contexts. And there's no doubt that what he's doing is still comics; indeed, he relies heavily on the grid in order for the reader to understand the nature of the patterns he's playing with.

Other highlights in the issue include Courtney Loberg's mysterious, evocative strip about "sistering" (the use of water magic to recall specific visions) and a bizarre event seen while driving down a road. Her smudged, light sepia tones add an extra air of mystery to the proceedings, especially with her thin line weights with regard to her characters. Kurt Ankeny also uses a thin line weight effectively, albeit his method involved colored pencils. His story is about older people contemplating heights and also their inevitable ends. The way Ankeny juxtaposed the lines of the people's faces with the lines forming fields and buildings below was especially clever, as was a comparison of blades of grass to swords. Winnie T. Frick's red-and-lime "interview" with someone's double touched on all sorts of interesting ideas, including the concept of being a container for ideas for another person as well as the idea of shifting selves and identities. There's a sense of identity fracture here, with some hints that part of it is due to capitalism, and it was interesting to see this explored by way of a direct interview with her but not the "original". Publisher Alexander Rothman continues to impress, as his imagery of spring in the woods and the text regarding closeness and later othering play against each other in interesting ways.

Paul Tunis has made some interesting choices as editor, but his recent contributions have left me cold. The images are little more than decorative and don't have much impact on their own. The paint-spattering and photography of Alexey Sokolin and the textile/text experiment of Deshan Tennekoon & Thilini Perera just left me cold. They're too slick for the eye to grab onto, and that goes double for the actual plastic qualities of the text itself. Most of the rest of the issue either didn't combine text and image in interesting ways, or they were so fleeting that they simply didn't have much impact. This issue speaks to how difficult it can be to put together strong issues on a consistent basis without repeating too many of the same contributors.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Minis: Summer Pierre, Colin Lidston


Paper Pencil Life #5, by Summer Pierre. Pierre's quickly become one of my favorite autobio artists, thanks to an approach that is full of warmth, wit and intelligence. Pierre's ability to balance light and dark on a page, as well as her cartoony self-caricature with figures drawn from photo reference, make every page a pleasurable experience to read. That ability to balance form and content in such an intuitive manner is rare, even in the rare strip that's heavy on text. Pierre works in vignettes focusing on a single topic, like "Dappled Light". I've reviewed this elsewhere, but its focus on the family TV sitcom as a form of escape for young Pierre was both poignant and understated, as her cute-as-a-button child caricature roved around the world of Leave It To Beaver, eating cake and taking naps in the Cleaver household as her abusive father was left behind.

"Radio Radio" is one of the wordier pieces, yet Pierre's skill in evoking the warmth she feels in not only hearing the songs that radio stations across the nation play, but also the sense of location and community they create, makes this comic enormously satisfying. Music is a big touchstone in this issue, as another story about her finding an old mixtape and remembering the friendship and incredible depth of musical knowledge of someone from years earlier once again was evoked by Pierre's use of blacks as she depicted a night drive. Pierre's ability to zero in on small but important moments, both past and present, is in the tradition of John Porcellino and Harvey Pekar. Whereas Porcellino is most interested in the poetry of the moment and Pekar the profundity that can be found in the ordinary, Pierre seems to be fascinated with mindfulness and soaking in the joy of a moment. Whether that moment is a series of fun thing she spontaneously did with her son or if it was remembering a moment that she felt lost as a person, there's a fundamental sense of gratitude, of being glad for the joy of existing that can be felt in her work.

The second half of the comic is interesting because it addresses the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, quotidian and timeless observations became rooted in specific events. It reminded me, to a much lesser degree, of the career of Jen Sorensen. She mostly did silly, funny cartoons until George W. Bush got elected, and then went full-on political and hasn't stopped since. I don't think Pierre will ever move in that direction, but she did clearly start to use her drawing board as a kind of escape and therapy from how upset she felt about the election's results. Interestingly, her non-political strips really got back to basics: doing a strip about taking a run and the way it made her feel in the moment, as well as a "24 hours in the life" comic that crammed 40 panels into two pages. There were more comics about her son and family (like a touching story about her uncle). The strips were more directly about comfort, like drawing a scene from Love & Rockets are having a day to herself. The issue finishes up with "I'll Never Be Cool", a hilarious list of how and why Pierre is a hopeless square, and a comic about a party she attends in New York with Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman that takes a rather astounding turn before the reader is clued in on what's happening. That was Pierre having a little chuckle at the reader's expense, a sort of cheery wink at the reader that reveals that her sense of humor is more than intact. It's a great capper for a collection that's over fifty pages but never once feels stale or repetitive. Pierre is in a great groove right now, and hopefully she will keep it going.


The Age of Elves Issue Two, by Colin Lidston. This continues the slice of life saga of four high school friends who are avid role playing gamers, set in 2000. This comic is once again interesting because of the incredible amount of detail Lidston devotes to showing off his understanding of gaming, yet despite that it's not really about gaming. It's about relationships, and how the sort of person who views gaming as a major part of their lifestyle and identity interacts with others. There's social awkwardness to be sure, but there are also more nuanced, intragroup conflicts that arise thanks to seemingly trivial differences between group members. It's the paradox of gamer culture both being welcoming of outsiders but also frequently rigid with regard to thinking. That plays out in this comic in a long road trip to a huge gaming convention, as nerdy thought questions turn into arguments, with the two more conservative members of the group teaming up against the Goth guy.

Lidston reveals that there are both cracks and connections with everyone in the group, as the sole girl (Sarah) gets into it with the others when she critiques the awful writing from a panel description. There are times that the art got a little murky, as Lidston chose to go with a fairly heavy line weight throughout the issue. It didn't help that Lidston also chose to spot a lot of blacks on already-dense pages. That said, Lidston's line also had a spontaneous quality that allowed for expressive figure drawings. There's a sense that Lidston knows everything about these characters, down to the tiniest details, and that shows up on the page in terms of their body language and small facial expressions. That's the key to this comic, as long-term friendships among teens (especially among boys) are often dependent on that kind of visual signifier if they're unwilling to actually talk about their feelings.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Minis: X.Gordon, S.Hanselmann, K.Czap, Nou

100, by Nou. This comic plays around with figure and text in a way that's meant to confront the reader. The figure, a young, nude girl whose anatomy is kept bare, looks out at the reader in various poses. We see her on the left-hand side of each two-page spread, and big blocky letters on the right side. There's a sense of trying to reach out, of knowing that the general We is out there, but at once being resisted by the reader and the girl gazing at us. Her poses are as disarming as her words are confrontational, and the way she moves from image to image invites the reader to flip the pages like a flip book to see her in action. It implies a sense of near-simultaneity in these words and movements, a sense of action that the reader can't immediately answer because it happens so quickly.

The New Cast, by Kevin Czap. This comic is a fusion of Czap's interest in creative/cooperative reality shows like Project Runway and their own utopian take on any number of topics. That metaphor allows Czap to examine the ways in which local creative scenes grow, ebb and flow over time, something that's especially pertinent to comics. Czap and Czap Books are one of the ascendant small-press publishers of the moment; in a real sense, Czap's artists are the new cast. Czap has always made the characters in his book incredibly diverse, as they all tend to be genderfluid and multiracial. Binaries don't really exist in Czap's comics. Even the new/old binary is explored in detail here, as there's a sense of joyful interaction in the new season between the casts, but one-by-one the old cast members drop off and go on to do their own thing outside of the purview of group activity. That kind of communal living and working together is difficult to maintain as one grows older, interests change and other things become more important. As an artist, there's also an awareness of one's audience, and that's reflected in the comic by some viewers staying on and others moving to different shows. Because it's a Czap comic and things tend to turn out for the best, the new cast gets it together at the end and essentially becomes the new vanguard. Visually speaking, what I found most interesting about the comic was the way that Czap was able to make scenes where the characters were in motion and scenes where they were just hanging out equally interesting, thanks to their understanding of body language and gesture. Small gestures sometimes pack as much visual wallop as intense activity.


Drone, by Simon Hanselmann. This story appears in Hanselmann's new book, One More Year. Starring Werewolf Jones and Megg from his Megahex series, this is a story about two lonely people who are desperate to having some kind of expressive, creative outlet while self-medicating themselves as hard as possible in order to numb any kind of emotional response as much as possible. Jones is an especially pathetic character throughout the series, but here there's an almost heart-breaking attempt at him trying to do something positive with his life for just a moment. Megg is a far more complicated character, and this story deals with her relationship with her mother. She's worried that her mom might be in seriously bad shape (or even dead) after getting out of rehab when she doesn't answer a call on Mother's Day. The story progresses as the duo actually makes some progress on their hilariously over-the-top music (with Jones wanting to be as offensive as possible at all times and Megg voting him down), even as they sabotage themselves when they use subox (a substance used to wean people off heroin) that causes them to vomit every few minutes. When Megg's mom eventually contacts her, the nature of that contact is heartbreaking as well, and only the promise of losing herself in something pure and joyous in the music is able to help her. There's something about the smudged, cramped version of this story in minicomics form (published by 2dcloud) that adds to the atmosphere, as Hanselmann's line is fat and even looks smeared across the page at times.

Kindling, by Xia Gordon. This mostly abstract comic done in red and blue is in many respects a creative shot across the bow by a talented young cartoonist. The sense of the comic capturing something utterly timeless and yet yoked to a specific time and specific place gives the story a sense of a benign push and pull, or rather a hermeneutic understanding of how it's both things at once, and how it can be neither thing without both aspects working together. It's both timeless and specific, this feeling it evokes of being at a beach, watching a night sky, being part of a group that's exchanging an ineffable energy among its members. There's a series of pages of looping lines in the middle of the comic which alternate between looking like a woman's hair and the wind whipping through that hair, until it resolves into a figure walking amidst a rainstorm on the beach. Gordon has incredible chops and a way of looking at the universe that reminds me a little of Aidan Koch, only there's a remarkable warmth and sense of engagement that unites her images that might otherwise seem cold, disconnected and emotionless.  The title of the comic itself brings to mind something that's going to be used to spark a life-giving fire, as though the creation of this comic itself being fuel for future works. Her work fits nicely with 2dcloud's aesthetic.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Minis: C.Browning, M.J. Alvarez, M.Pearson & M.Hawkins

Grey Fug, by Chris Browning. This is less a comic than it is a series of captioned illustrations, detailing Browning's struggle with depression. Each single-page illustration is crammed either with detail, spotted blacks or dense cross-hatching. The conceit of the comic is explaining his depression to his two beloved cats, and there's a sense in which each panel represents a different window, a different look into his mind. He even views each of his cats' personalities as analogous to his own, with an older one with a cynical kind of tough love and the other with constant, wide-eyed enthusiasm. Taking them on this tour also brought on echoes of Dante being led by Virgil through the circles of hell, as each layer of depression is more difficult than the next to process. Browning takes us through mental clutter, self-recrimination over unfinished projects, deep regrets, and self-loathing (especially with regard to body image and comfort eating).


Browning is mindful enough to recognize his positive aspects, but is also aware that things can go downhill with no warning, thanks to both anxiety and his Asperger's syndrome, which means that of his neurological wiring is off-kilter to begin with. Browning identifies a huge key in combating depression: understanding that both its biggest catalyst and fuel is not just isolation, but also the idea that there is no one out there to reach out to. The comic demonstrates just how he reaches out, and how that gives him hope each time he falls into that "grey fug". There's a powerful sense of reaching out on each of the pages as well; he's telling a secret on himself, which is often a key aspect of negotiating the isolation urge. The comic is a literal demonstration that he has nothing to hide while simultaneously providing a path for him to tread when he's looking for a way out.

Hypnospiral Comics #8, by M. Jacob Alvarez. This is a series of single-panel gag comics, with Alvarez using an extremely heavy line weight for all of his drawings. It's a little distracting at times, as his gags don't have a lot of room to breathe in some of his selections here. His three panel-strips are similarly cramped thanks to dense line weights, but there's no doubt that he has solid ideas and knows how to match his drawings with his concepts. That is, he doesn't "draw funny" so much as his gags land because he's skillfully able to nail his ideas on the page. For example, one of the best gags was that of two t-rexes. One was obviously old because of his dialogue, cane and checkered cap, and the other young because of his baseball cap. However, the real gag was that the older one was standing and the younger one was bent over, which is funny because that crouch is the newer, but more scientifically correct, understanding of how the T-Rex carried itself. There's another good gag about a hero-swap between Frodo Baggins and Conan the Barbarian, and just how badly that would have gone. Alvarez has solid comedic and cartooning chops. All he needs now is to give his drawings a little more room and perhaps cut back on his line weights just a tad.

Long Necked Bird 1, by Marc Pearson. Pearson and Michael Hawkins (below) make up Melbourne, Australia's Glom Press. They're a Risograph operation that makes lovely comics. Pearson's comic features the titular, silent bird who is an outcast with his own fellow birds but is friends with a frog. The frog comes up with a personal helicopter as an invention, so he can fly like his friend. Later, the bird sees a huge, bizarre creature that he later realizes could yield a reward. Pearson really goes to town with the Riso, using a different color on nearly every page to help express mood and time. The story itself is just the beginning of what is clearly a much longer saga, but there's an anxious sweetness to it that offers push and pull for the reader.


The Nap and Secret Song, by Michael Hawkins. Hawkins combines bigfoot cartooning with bizarre, highly sexualized shapes and psychedelia. The results look familiar but divorced from any one influence in particular, as Hawkins' voice is at once folksy and dreamy. Secret Song asks the question of what forces set us in motion? Are they chemical? Supernatural? Something else? The Nap similarly a mix of the sensuous and the existential, as a young woman coming home from work goes to sleep and ponders the implications of that state of unconsciousness, the way it makes her feel afterward ("like the debris from a glacier") and its ultimate connection to death. Hawkins sticks with a single color for this comic, but he's all over the place in Secret Song, with oranges, purples and golds that almost look embossed. He goes a bit over the top with color in that comic, to the point where it nearly obliterates his line in several places. It also distracts from the storytelling and nearly erases some of the lettering. Still, one can see the sheer enthusiasm at the possibilities that the Riso gives to tell a story, and it only makes sense to test those limits. It didn't work in this case, but there were still a number of interesting images and effects that I'd love to see repeated later.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Comics-as-Poetry #10: Inkbrick #4

The comics-as-poetry anthology Inkbrick's fourth issue was the best to date, thanks to powerhouse bookend entries from Keren Katz and Sasha Steinberg. The former's "Marks On The Attendance Sheet" is a tense, sexually charged story about a teacher and a student told from the student's perspective. Katz's use of impossible angles on an open-page layout creates the illusion of there being panels on the page, only it looks like they're caving in and/or putting the characters into these extreme, oblique angles. There's a lack of neat order on each of the pages, which is further exacerbated by Katz's intense and textural use of color, to the point where it looks like she's exploring the aesthetic of textiles. Arms and legs bend at strange angles, boot-tips droop, colors and patterns surround line and a number of other visual signifiers are at work to express the sense of feeling upside down that the narrator is experiencing. She's feeling unbalanced and dizzy in this relationship, feeling thrills and doubts and disappointment all at once. It's a brilliant short piece, probably the best in Inkbrick to date.

This issue was printed in 2015, a couple of years before Sasha Steinberg achieved international fame as Sasha Velour, the drag artist. However, this piece should be easily accessible to fans of Steinberg's drag work, given that it works with Velour's trademark bald head. The piece, "What Now?" is about Steinberg grieving his recently-deceased mother, and it makes extensive use of negative white space. Alternating between huge swaths of red, black and green, we see Sasha going from room to room (in his mother's house presumably), dizzyingly processing (one word per panel) the new reality of her absence. Later, a series of panels alternate between Steinberg spreading her ashes in the snow and melting away in the house. The last two panels are killers: another silhouette of a dress, this time with a hat, with the next panel being a photo of his mother in precisely the same position. It's a beautiful, touching exploration of what it means to exist in one moment and to disappear the next, and what those ideas mean when you leave a loved one behind you. This was the first comics-as-poetry piece I had seen from Steinberg, and it was powerful and sincere.

Another welcome presence in the issue was that of David Lasky, a pioneer of comics-as-poetry. This issue featured an experiment in juxtaposing a textual memory against unrelated images; in this case, it was several images he redrew from London's National Gallery. The best poetry, in my opinion, is that which has concrete images. That's why Lasky's later piece, which provides simple descriptions of activities "Streetlight walks, Electric fan in the hall, Shadows and breeze" is so powerful, particularly since the images take off from those concrete descriptions and becomes plays of light and shadow, focusing on small, singular images that almost look concrete out of context.

Many of the cartoonists make good use of the fact that Inkbrick is in full color. Laurel Lynn Leake's juxtaposition of color as representative of environment is abstracted in part because of the way she compares it to depression and that "thoughts can trap you". There's the implication that staying mindful is crucial even when being presented with the pure beauty of one's environment. Isuri Merenchi Hewage & Deshan Tennekoon are more direct in their piece "August In Pasikuda", as a single color, displayed on each page in different patterns but all in a grid, represent a different time of day and different activity in the same locale. The use of light, texture and an especially rich mix of colors, along with the concrete descriptions, powerfully evoke a sense of time and place in an almost visceral manner. It's interesting that they concretize color to create a sense of time and place, whereas Leake abstracts the same color patterns we see in nature to reflect inward.

Kate Schneider's "May" takes familiar, comforting images as a kind of bulwark against the stress she felt regarding an upcoming surgical procedure. It starts with lightly-drawn pictures of her cat, then the trees outside, and finally simply the night sky. It's not as sophisticated, visually or otherwise, as the other pieces in the book, but there's a sincerity to it that makes it work. Not every use of color is effective. Hayley Fiddler's "Waves" uses light blue as the sole tone in her poem about infidelity that switches from an undersea oyster to a couple getting ready. The use of color is obvious here and doesn't add anything when she switches from under the water to a bedroom, and the idea for the poem is not especially remarkable. The same is true about Paul Tunis' otherwise clever piece about pomegranates; it would have conveyed precisely the same information if it was in black and white.

A lot of the pieces involve melting, shifting and otherwise transforming into something new. William Cardini's piece takes his garish, computer-generated imagery and creates something quite beautiful with it, as his creature talks about being thrown into the river and their mud mind compressing. That's followed up with an image of the creature's mind turning into layers of sedimentary rock, each one constructed of the words they describe them: "to chalk, to coal, to marl, to shale". Louise Aleksiejew's piece, other than resembling Michael DeForge a bit, is all about a transformation from losing all her drawings and pictures into seeing a witch who gave her a magic item as a kind of replacement. There's a sense of whimsy, not fear, at work here, which fits with the melting art style. Gary Jackson & David Willet's "The Midnight Marauder Contemplates Retirement" is a naturalist image of a crimefighter having beaten up some criminals, but the action in the piece takes place in the graffiti in the background, reflecting a change of emotional states. It's a clever device that leads the reader across the page expertly.

Alexander Rothman's own "Honey Locust" speaks to the increasing complexity and beauty in his pieces, as his use of colored pencil combined with a strong sense of negative space makes for an eye-catching piece, as he combines the particular scent of the honey locust tree and imagines mastodons ages ago trying to get at its buttery scent. Michel Losier's strip is text-heavy and doesn't let its images breathe, while Aurelien Leif's piece is an excerpt from a longer work that's hard to approach because of the swirling chaos on each page. The experimental piece from Alexey Sokolin and Angel Chen was clever, using sentence mapping to create alternative versions of ideas, all leading into different, separate, images. All told, there was very little filler in this issue. Most of the cartoonists made some powerful statements and the editorial team of Rothman & Tunis kept the issue flowing with a variety of different visual approaches, being careful not to arrange pieces that were too similar to each other too close to each other in the anthology. This was really the first issue I felt like I could hand to someone and say that it was a pretty thorough survey of comics-as-poetry at this moment in time.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Malachi Ward, Part 2: From Now On

Concluding a two-week look at Malachi Ward, here's a review of his collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories, From Now On. 


This is a surprisingly coherent collection of stories. Some of that is intentional, as a particular story is told from the point of view of three different characters. One of them is the time traveler from "Top Five", which I reviewed last week. Adding texture and context to that story are "The Oviraptor" and "Disconnect", which follow the stories of the two other time travelers. We learn, for example, that the group badly overshot their goal of going back to watch early humans and neanderthals interact, instead going back to a much earlier era where dinosaurs were still active. One of the travelers permanently exiled herself from her only remaining compatriot, and "The Oviraptor" offers a touching attempt by the other traveler to reach her when he came across a bird-like dinosaur, after she had earlier mourned that she would never see a bird again. "Disconnect" is one of the best stories in the whole book, as it follows the arc of another traveler, as she faced a lifetime of alienation and loneliness before she went on the mission. She wound up getting there about forty years before the rest of her group, and the year-by-year narrative (including being visited and living with aliens, and then fleeing when some more aliens came along to attack them) that runs panel-by-panel is an effective and clever device. She spends the whole time trying to find her compatriots, not knowing that they weren't there yet, and there's a heartbreaking ending when she sees them after they've just arrived--still young. The deeply muted colors and naturalistic style reflect that sense of loneliness, and the color does a lot of the narrative work when Ward starts cramming panels on each page.

In terms of Ward displaying sheer drawing chops, nothing beats one of his earliest stories, "Utu". It established a number of Ward's favorite techniques. There's a double genre-flip, as it starts out as a fantasy story, then it's revealed to really be a sci-fi story, and then that turns into a sad-boy comic. There's the colonial urge shown by its main character, who uses his position of being from the future in an effort to change the past, thinking he knows better than the savages of yore. There's that sense of dystopian ennui, as all the advantages of the future don't make it any easier for the time-fiddler to escape his own sense of loneliness and inability to relate to women. Ward also shows off his drawing and design chops, especially in the way he transitions from light to darkness and drops a variety of revelations on the reader. "Hero Of Science" is simultaneously a more refined and more visceral version of these concepts in a manner similar to Jesse Moynihan's Forming comics. The character design is a tad cartoonier, but the commentary is more pointed. The story is about a yet another time traveler who has "gone native" with a primitive tribe, and he stages a murderous attack on other travelers from the future who are looking for him. It's in many ways not unlike a Mr. Kurtz situation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where it's not so much that a colonizer goes mad with power so much as it is the painful revelation that colonization is in and of itself an act of violence. What the traveler does here is just a logical extension of that premise.

Stories like "Henix", "Beasts of Kay-7" and "The Scout" all have double-twists after the initial premise seems obvious. Or rather, the consequences of the twist are unexpected. In "Henix", the High Protectorate (aka the queen) is visited by an elf that tells her that there was a prisoner in her dungeon that she needed to see. When the prisoner, half-elf and half-human, tells her that his father was a member of her court and put him in prison, she accepts his service in exchange for his service in perpetuity. The twist in the story is not the identify of his father, but rather her reaction when she finds out. This story is comparatively spare for Ward, focusing more on character than world-building.

"Beasts of Kay-7" features a scientist whose flexibility of thinking prevents him and his crew from being turned into food by a group of monstrous aliens on the planet they're exploring. Notably, the scientist is one of the few characters in the book who's pure of motive. He doesn't want to conquer or colonize; rather, he simply wants to understand the life that's on the planet for the sheer sake of learning. He's an abrasive and insensitive character at times, but his dedication to science and the mission at hand give him a purity that the other characters in the volume don't possess. Once again, Ward's skill as a draftsman is on full display, as the bizarre half animal/half plant creatures on the planet are terrifying. The punchline of the story--that the mere act of observation and recording is a kind of intervention on its own--is clever and well-designed, especially in the way it shows how easy it is to not only become dependent on technology, but to take its existence entirely for granted.

"The Scout" is about the way in which colonization leads to inevitable violence, told through incredibly clever trope of an explorer's clone being repeatedly sent to a cave that looks promising for annexing. What keeps killing the clones? The originals, one after another, coming to the conclusion that what it's doing is wrong. Here, the genre doesn't flip as much as the story's point of view does. It's a neat trick and part of Ward's career-long exploration of when people should leave well enough alone but choose not to. Ward is always careful to come up with a premise and then carry it out in an entirely logical way. It's not quite so-called "hard" science-fiction, but rather, science-fiction that comes with a set of rules that it must follow and carry the structure of the narrative within that set of rules. Character is still more important than world-building, because the latter is just the scaffolding that the ugly human emotions at the heart of each story reside. Ward's mastery of that scaffolding allows him to craft increasingly intricate stories that explore the edge of morality and ethics.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sabin Cauldron's Maleficium

Sabin Cauldron's minicomics series Maleficium is the lesbian separatist witch comic I never knew I needed. It's a funny, action-packed and over-the-top trip through a number of different sub-genres that reminds me a bit of Ben Marra's stuff. In fact, his hyper-masculine action comics satires are a kind of mirror image to what Cauldron is doing here. Both artists take their genres quite seriously, but there's a ridiculousness to it all that's told with a straight face.

The first issue, set in 1969, is a send-up of horror/detective stories. "Lesbian Renegade Witch" Lobussa Thirst has to track down a killer that cleanly decapitated the head of a friend of hers, and the stories follow those beats until she tracks him down. Turns out she knows him, because she helped create him when she was getting her own head lopped off during the French Revolution. She inadvertently made him into a Human Guillotine, with the actual mechanism of how he accomplished it turning into a remarkably grotesque image. When she manages to seduce him, it's all over, as the story goes in a markedly different direction with a full-tilt series of occult rituals that bind him to her will. Cauldron only winks at the reader a couple of times (like with the epilogue), but the gritty, naturalistic art lends gravitas to a story that could have been much more ridiculous (and not in a good way) in different hands.

The second issue puts the rest of Lobussa's coven in the spotlight as they are forced to go up against a gang of biker werewolves whose bikes are also lycanthropes. The latter revelation made me laugh out loud, one of many funny moments in this satire of biker exploitation films crossed with a similar kind of witchsploitation film during the same era. This issue also makes use of psychedelic imagery, especially in its use of splash pages for some of the more outrageous scenes. The fight scenes are interesting in the way that Cauldron plays around with page design, putting the panels at jagged edges next to each other. Cauldron also makes nice use of negative space, flipping between positive and negative space in the most violent of scenes to lessen the impact a bit. There was even a bit of over-the-top poetry at work, as the comic began with an ode to the unpredictable power of electricity and ends with the witches triumphing over the wolves thanks to a live wire.

The third and fourth issues are even wilder. One of the witches, Caprina, was bitten by a werewolf and the result was that her head became that of a goat's. Later, she's dragged forward into time (into the far reaches of 1996), as San Francisco is becoming big on tech. She hooks up with a group of women anarchists in a squat and opposes a mysterious hooded figure who uses superpowered creatures like Finjas (merman martial artists) and an armored figure that's a Judge Dredd send-up called Kill-O-Byte. Throughout the issue, Cauldron drops dozens of easter eggs with images that refer to the women's alternative comics of the time. It's funny to see Carrie McNinch laying on a sofa in the squat as Caprina comes in. The hooded figure is trying to control the then-developing world wide web through Caprina, until the latter blows it up at the end of the issue.

Caprina is blasted forward to 2016, and virtually every character looks like a famous cartoon character, with Nancy giving a real estate tour to Daddy Warbucks. Caprina's therapist is "Dr. A.Kominsky", with Cauldron nailing the cartoonist's slightly grotesque self-image but not taking the reader too far outside familiar territory. When Caprina tracks down the hooded figure, a monstrous ball of energy emerges and destroys her old foe--but later comes for her. There's a lot of intrigue and running plotlines in this issue, as Caprina has to figure out why it seems like her partner is plotting against her. There's an amazing scene where she seeks out her former coven member Starlite, who complains that "black, brown and asian witches [are] used for emotional labor" when asked for a favor. The end of the issue reveals the origin of the energy creature that started stalking her as well as a surprise climax. For all the bombast and absurdity of the story, it's actually quite tightly plotted. There's also romance, betrayal, the ways in which gender identity changed over the years and much more. Though each issue stands alone, the running storyline becomes more compelling with each issue. Despite all the visual silliness, Cauldron never drops a straight narrative face in doing the comic, which makes the more dramatic portions of the comic all that more tense