Monday, April 16, 2018

Minis: A.Meuse, R.Scheer, T.Jones

You're Garbage Fired!, by Adam Meuse. This is a collection of "some post-election sketchbook pages" by the talented and funny Meuse, published by Birdcage Bottom Books. I believe this is the first time Meuse has been published by someone else, and it's certainly well-deserved. The drawings and strips here reflect the rage and despair felt by many in the wake of Donald Trump winning the presidency, and the mini is well-served by being in full-color. That makes the scatological joke of a soiled diaper strongly resembling the shape and color of Trump effective; it's not an especially smart take on Trump, but it certainly does reflect Meuse's visceral rage. His portraits of folks like Steve Bannon and Kelly Conaway have an almost undead feel to them: they are rotting human beings. Mike Pence bleeding from every pore is a genuinely unsettling image, as though he were an antichrist. Angry portraits of the president by his two young daughters and a final strip where he scrolls through the news of the day one last time and goes to bed, saying, "Ok, I sufficiently hate everything and everyone" cap the collection with the same kind of grim but bright humor. Meuse is an incredible caricaturist, but it's the way he captures the essential awfulness of each figure that's really impressive. The only artist doing something comparable is Warren Craghead, who draws grotesque caricatures of Trump and his lackeys every day.

Cats Of The White House and The Hanukkah Fire, 1992, by Rachel Scheer. The first mini was written by Danny Noonan and drawn by Scheer, and it's really an illustrated zine about presidential cats. It's interesting in the way it reveals a side of the presidents that's not widely known historically, even as "First Pets" command a great deal of attention from the press while their owners are in power. The stories about Abraham Lincoln being obsessed by his cats to the point where it annoyed his wife were amusing, as was the account of Teddy Roosevelt forbidding anyone on the White House staff from disturbing his cat at any time.

Scheer works in a stripped-down, cartoony tradition where spotting blacks and slightly exaggerated facial expressions do much of the narrative heavy lifting. That's especially true in the latter comic, a charming memory of a long-ago Hanukkah caught on film and brought back to life here with the use of spot color and photo collage. The incident in question was really an excuse for Scheer to think about her family history and the ways in which ethnic practices supersede religious ones. She notes that her grandfather was a Polish refugee who wound up living in a community in Shanghai, China, which I found fascinating. There was a smooth, easy transition to that family history to the incident in question, in which a home-made menorah catches fire and gets tossed in the sink. It's a memory that's representative of the ways in which Scheer and her family felt Jewish even if they had no religious connection to the faith at all. Here, the gesture of the family trying to go through the ceremony with stuff made by the kids is more important than the actual ceremony itself. Scheer has a strong command over her page design even as her drawings mostly stay in the functional range. Again, she's not trying to dazzle the reader with her draftsmanship; instead, she's trying to clearly tell a story, and she uses a variety of approaches to do so clearly.

22 Tapes, by Toby Jones. I was delighted to see this comic show up in the mail, as Jones has mostly been working on animation projects for the past several years. His Memory Foam minis were some of the most entertaining autobio comics I had ever read, so it was interesting to see him come back to it, albeit in a highly unusual fashion. The premise of the comic is that Jones got a bunch of Hi-8 tapes that he had made in his childhood digitized, and he had the idea of watching them one-by-one and improvise comics with regard to what he remembered and felt of the tapes. He was between 11 and 17 when he made these tapes, and the result was unearthing a lot of increasingly unpleasant memories of his life at that time.

Jones zeroes in on the fact that his younger self was obsessed with the idea of creating entertainment. Whether it was in the form of skits, crude animations or childlike weirdness, his younger self just wanted to be on camera. Jones is unsparing in his commentary on his younger self, but he is happy when he managed to collaborate and put together something that was half-decent. That was especially true of some of those early animations, a few of which even had things like B-stories and callbacks. The comics sometimes went on tangents to discuss the relationships he had with certain friends and why some of those friendships faded.

Eventually, Jones gets around to discussing why he was really doing this comic: after years of working as a professional animator to create a polished mainstream product, he wanted a chance to return to that essential urge to create something just for himself, without caring what anyone else thought of it. He revealed that at the time he was making the videos, he was being bullied in school and had a horrible home life. Those tapes were his only real escape at the time, as they gave him a chance to exercise total control of his environment. Jones gave himself that same kind of relief in doing this comic, only this time it was relief from the pressure of having his work scrutinized, edited and controlled. What's most interesting about this mix of still photos from films and Jones' own drawings is that Jones didn't consciously go into it knowing how emotional and exhausting reliving the past would be. At the same time, the way he wrote about these emotions was hilarious. This was an interesting experiment that bore some fascinating fruit.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Return of mini-Kus!: A.Diaz, P.Franz, F. Lobo, R.Muradov

Let's take a look at the latest from everyone's favorite Latvian comics publisher:

mini-Kus! #63: Nausea, by Abraham Diaz. This story by Mexican native Diaz is grotesque in every sense of the word. The way that Diaz writes about Mexico City is as though it is a single, decaying organism and the people in the story are simply malignant parasites eating away at it from within. There's a miserable convenience store clerk, a sleazy male and female couple, a couple of thugs looking to rob the store, and a cranky single dad just trying to dodge the city's dangers. Like a more lurid version of a Raymond Carver story, their separate narratives cross and have an effect on each other, usually for ill. Diaz's art features sickly color backgrounds, lumpy & cartoony figures that remind me a bit of Peter Bagge's work, made even dingier by a persistent & needling rain. The titular nausea refers to the irrelevance of the actions or intentions of any of the characters. The father makes dinner that seems to have killed him and his daughter by accident. With regard to the lovers, the man constantly imagines himself or his lover to be a rotting corpse, both during and after sex. The only characters left alive are the predatory robbers, who are still miserable and caught out in the rain. This is less a story than a look at a series of ugly wounds, but every page is vivid, riveting and grimly funny. Indeed, Diaz's point of view of all this is ugliness is as something absurd, not tragic.

mini-Kus! #64: Collection, by Pedro Franz. Inspired by a famous bookshop that collected ephemera from artists, this mini is a collection of memories. There's a memory of how a tooth got jagged, because when he drew he constantly put pressure on it. There's a list of being in a bookshop and pulling out a huge stack of great books and comics; instead of drawing the scene, he listed the books as though they were stacked one atop the other. Then there was a series, or almost a museum gallery really, of various physical scars from throughout his life. The action ranged from still lives to comic book sound effects, and the clear through-line is not just a certain carelessness in life, but rather a refusal to listen to platitudes regarding danger that were yammered at him. There's a stop at the bookshop (where the famous "other" in its name is crossed out and replaced by "comics") and finally a lingering look at a photograph from long ago of his father and his then-baby sister. Like everything else in the comic, Franz emphasizes the "thing"-ness of each object. The photo is especially because there's a huge water stain on it, but the image of his father and sister persists. The scars are permanent mementos on the museum of his body. The images are bold and striking, with deep, rich colors that emphasize the concepts that need strong visual representation.

mini-Kus! #65: Master Song, by Francisco Sousa Lobo. This is one of the oddest iterations of mini-Kus!, and that's saying something. It's told in rhyme, as the main character recites it in a sing-song fashion. The panels themselves are in a strict 2x2 grid on every page. Red and blue alternate as the dominant colors in the book, with the narrator (a nanny named Emily) dressed in red. The song is really a cry for a young woman who understood that she was a sub after reading (ugh) Fifty Shades of Grey, yet is unable to find a dominant partner. Then all of a sudden, she reveals how much she hates working for her family, who are Jewish ("their faith I despise"). There are vague allusions to Palestine but nothing more specific to her particular brand of anti-Semitism. A random sexual encounter is of course unsatisfying, because she's unable to convey her needs as a sub. When she talks about the torture of going to synagogue the next day and secretly dreaming of revenge as she blames her employers for Palestine's woes, the odd synergy becomes a little clearer. She is, in effect, torturing herself in all aspects of her life. She works for people she hates and has sex with men she has no interest in. She's a sub without agency of her own, and so inadvertently becomes her own master and doles out punishment to herself. The ouroboros on the back page is a sign that makes this arrangement clearer, as this is a rhyme and a song that will only repeat itself.

mini-Kus! #66: Resident Lover, by Roman Muradov. Well, this is a Roman Muradov comic, which means there will be clever uses of color, shape, line and perspective. There are times when his comics are on the twee side and perhaps too clever for their own sake, but that's certainly not true in this comic. I've found that Muradov's comics work best when they are shortest, and he hit on a series of concepts here that inspired wonder. This is a comic about connections, especially distant and tenuous ones. This is a story within a story, as the narrator (with his lover, and his ex-lover, and his ex-lover's lover) goes to a particular store and then the house owned by a particular pair of women who were the daughters of the owners of the store's founders. He tells a story of them mimicking each other's behavior every day and even sharing the same lover; balance was everything to these women who came to be called sisters.

That played out in the candles they lit atop the department store every night, which they watched to make sure they burned out in a balanced fashion. What is left unsaid at the end is that the narrator stomped on a bunch of the candles at random, and while he did so in no particular pattern, it was left unknown if he upset the balance. Much as the mentioned but unseen is his former lover's lover's lover is a person whose existence perpetuates this kind of infinite progression of connections going outward, the sisters sought to isolate their relationships inward, creating a balance that doesn't really exist in real life, one that's almost hermetically sealed. For them, the patterns of daily life mean something and must be obeyed; for the narrator, it is decoration: line and shape and color that fall to the side in comparison to the complexity and absurdity of human relationships. Muradov allows all this to play out in as straightforward a manner as I've ever seen him deliver in terms of narrative, and it served him well.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

D&Q: Anna Haifisch's Von Spatz

Anna Haifisch is tough to pin down. Her art clearly owes a lot to early twentieth century animation and cartooning, but it's impossible to really narrow it down beyond understanding that this is part of her aesthetic. Her ragged, cartoony line is simultaneously off-putting and yet impossible to look away from. That helps create the essential sensibility of her work, which uses deadpan and occasionally absurd humor as the engine that propels the characters and their emotional narrative. The plot supposes that Walt Disney did not die in the mid 1960s. Instead, he had a breakdown and went to recover at the eccentric Von Spatz Rehab Center in California. The center, run by a German immigrant family fleeing Nazi Germany, had some delightfully strange features.

Meant for artists (and cartoonists in particular), the center was notable for its huge penguin pool, its hot dog cart, and its art supply store. Therapy was conducted in a group setting by one of the key characters, a young hippie Von Spatz named Margarete. Disney found himself with great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and children's book illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Initially resenting their presence, the book follows this trio as they become friends and bond with each other. The story is told in short vignettes (Haifisch's go-to method), with an early one "The Exercise" doing a lot of story and character duty in a hilarious fashion, as each artist is challenged to do a story with three elements, and Disney's turns out to be the most dark and disturbing by far.

The story lopes and moseys at its own pace, following the odd rhythms of rehab life. The presence of the penguins cheers some of the patients up but annoys Disney. Haifisch cuts between Disney, Steinberg and Ungerer, each dealing with their own problems in terms of confidence and ability to deal with the outside world. There's a great strip titled "Prozac" that essentially shows how radically different each of their reactions to the drug is, with each man having thought balloons dominated entirely by colors and patterns, each one radically different. There's an exhibition important to the center that the artists manage to ruin, as well as a lot of attention paid to Margarete's private life. That includes an affair with someone else at the center and an exasperated phone call to her European mentor regarding her patients.

Haifisch's project to date has been about the life of the artist. She is well aware of how twee that kind of self-reflexivity can come across and is sensitive to pretension and egomania. At the same time, there is something inherently strange and absurd about being an artist for a living and depending on the tastes and whims of others who support you. Especially those who act as gatekeepers. This book focuses on monetarily successful artists who can do whatever they want but still find themselves struggling. Disney here represents not the theme-park building multimillionaire, but rather the soul of someone who is always doubting himself no matter what. Working oneself to death, no matter the profit, only works for a short period of time. This is a book that is fundamentally about self-care, about camaraderie, about love and about non-monetized self-expression. The boys ruin the exhibition precisely because they just don't care about art and money anymore, nor the hoops one must jump through in order to make it.

It's also about the importance of mental health and how quickly it can slip away, especially since creative types tend to be more susceptible to depression on average. Haifisch has a tremendous amount of affection for all the characters in this book, especially the caregiver Margarete, who is trying to figure things out on the fly. Haifisch intermingles sincerity with absurdity, kindness with sharp barbs, and wonder with weariness to create a kind of artist's Shangri-La. It's what the center represents in the course of the story as well as a kind of fantasy Haifisch no doubt wishes really existed, especially since she lists herself as a future patient in the endflaps.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

First Second: Penelope Bagieu's Brazen

French cartoonist Penelope Bagieu has carved out an interesting career doing biographical comics. Her book about Cass Elliott was exceedingly well-drawn, particularly since what Bagieu does best is exaggeration. A big personality like Elliott's was perfect for that kind of story, even if it felt like the book delivered its message in a heavy-handed way at times. Her new book, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World, sees Bagieu select subjects who had to defy society simply to achieve what they wanted. In this collection, Bagieu is able to create incredibly vivid biographical portrayals of historical figures using no more than five to eight pages. Even with the two page, bright portrayal of each figure in-between chapters, this is an extremely dense book that delivers a lot of information. That's a tribute to the sheer intensity of Bagieu's research, and as such, this isn't really a book that's mean to be read all at once. Indeed, in its original format, each entry appeared once a week. 

There is value, however, in reading it relatively quickly, because one can see the thematic through-line of the book appearing quite clearly. Bagieu went out of her way to tell the stories of women throughout history and all over the world. Freeing the book from a simple Eurocentric bent made the stories all the richer while making it clear that the kinds of challenges and gains that women have made tend to be similar no matter what the era. There are stories of women from Africa, Asia, and South America and the Middle East. It's not just women in their youth who are profiled, but also women whose primary impact came at a more advanced age. I'm happy that Bagieu also included Christine Jorgensen, the most famous trans woman in the world in the mid-twentieth century. Bagieu is also careful not to feature too many of the more obvious candidates. There's no Susan B. Anthony or Tina Turner, for example. No Joan of Arc, Cleopatra or Catherine the Great. Instead, we get Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo & Matamba (roughly modern Angola), who seized power in a system that did not allow for a queen and waged war against the Portuguese. We get Wu Zetian, the first and only Empress of China. Through sheer intelligence, guile and willpower, they navigated the minefield of the patriarchy to rule their countries. In Wu Zetian's case, she was especially concerned with improving the plight of the poor. 

Bagieu presents us with actors (Margaret Hamilton, Hedy Lamarr{who was also a brilliant inventor}), public servants (social worker Leymah Gbowee's story is amazing), artists (Tove Jansson), musicians (The Shaggs, Betty Davis, Sonita Alizadeh), scientists and physicians (Agnodice, Katia Krafft, Mae Jemison), revolutionaries (Las Mariposas, Therese Clerc, Naziq al-Abid) and more that's hard to categorize. Indeed, some of the most delightful entries included Giorgina Reid, who saved the Montauk Point lighthouse because of her innovative technique that fought off beach erosion. She had no engineering degree or special training, just remarkable intelligence, vision and persistence. Then there's Frances Glessner Lee, who overcame the frustration of a lifetime of being able to use her brain for something useful to inheriting money that funded a school of forensic medicine at Harvard. She created crime scene miniatures that were so detailed, down to the tiniest minutia, that they are still in use today. Even virtual simulations can't match them. 

These stories are not all breezy and fun. Not all of these women lived long lives, due to being killed, like Las Mariposas. There is a lot of blood and violence in these stories, and women are often the victims. The essence of what she hits on for each of these women is that they were aware of the ways in which the deck was stacked against them and figured out ways to beat the system, because their ideas were that important to them. These were women who wanted to express themselves and had no time for sexism (and in some cases, racism) to deter them as they boldly defied mores and even laws. Even The Shaggs, who recorded music because of their tyrannical father, created a sound that influenced a number of different musicians later on because of its unique qualities. The women in this book seized their own agency and definitively put the lie to the notion that women were in any way incapable of doing anything a man could. Even the women in the book who had support from the men in their lives still found obstacles placed in front of them by society's institutions, all of which were informed by patriarchal thinking. That so many of the women in the book are unfamiliar only goes to show how history is written and why.

Bagieu's line is delightful in the clear-line tradition, even when depicting violence and tragedy. Her use of color greatly aided her in such situations, as she was able to subtly shade a scene that touched on darker material. Though she mostly uses a variation on a nine-panel grid, she uses an open-panel format that allows the work to breathe a little, no matter how much detail she crams into a panel. These are text-heavy stories, and Bagieu struggles at times to balance word and image on the page. Thankfully, her line is so skillful and her use of color so tasteful, she's able to get away with it most of the time. It also helps that she unleashes these beautiful two-page drawings encapsulating each subject following each story, acting as a much-needed palate cleanser. Her character design is consistently clever and lively, using exaggeration to sell emotions and situations. This is a book that will appeal to its YA target audience but also keep the interest of adults as well. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Minis: Mastantuono, Steshenko

Screwed Up, by Konstantin Steshkenko (AdHouse Books). What do you get when you cross cringe humor with gross-out humor? You get this mini by Steshkenko, who uses a simplified line and character design as a way of reducing the visceral shock of the gross-out humor and amplifying the intensity of the social awkwardness in this comic. It takes place in a subway, as a clueless and clumsy guy named Jeremy is desperately trying to create sparks with a woman named Stephanie. After a long monologue where he declares his love for her in the most meandering way possible, he gets down on one knee to propose at precisely the same time she tells him that she's dating his former best friend. From there, the humor turns anxious as he fumbles the ring onto the tracks, finds it after rifling through garbage, and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that there's a train bearing down on him. That sets the stage for the second half of the comic, where Steshkenko keeps upping the stakes and grossing out the reader.

The genius of the comic is that the grossly visceral details are always less uncomfortable to the reader than the increasingly-cringeworthy actions of all three characters in the love triangle. even though the character work is simple, Steshkenko makes extensive use of background characters to provide both verisimilitude and then a kind of Greek chorus to react to the ensuing mayhem. There is a final, hilarious gag that is both over the top and entirely in keeping with the rest of the story. It's the sort of joke that would be a keeper in a rom-com in terms of establishing a relationship. Here, the joke simply elicits horrified laughs. At a deeper level, the character of Jimmy represents the earnest but clueless guy who is completely uninterested in the fact that this woman that he's declared his love to does not want him in any way, shape or form. The horrible fate he suffers is not so much justice as it is a heightening of his totally undeserved confidence and entitlement at a time when he should simply be screaming in pain. This is a sharply observed and smartly designed comic.     

The Guest House, by Jon Mastantuono. This is a dense and clearly deeply personal comic by Mastantuono about identity, mindfulness and desire. It is not presented as autobiography, though it clearly has autobiographical elements. That vagueness was important to the story, as there is a sequence where the reader is given access to the thoughts of a character other than the protagonist, and it's key to understanding the narrative. The narrator begins the comic by talking about a common practice recommended by many: to let in all feelings, desires and strange thoughts and not reject them. Over time, he noticed that doing this eventually eroded his self-worth, in part because he had never addressed the self-loathing he had felt as a bisexual kid in junior high school, inappropriately feeling up guys when playing basketball. One can absorb feelings and choose how to react in a given situation, but that becomes much harder when trauma is involved, and the sheer rejection he felt from so many was deeply traumatic.
The narrator joins a gay support group and meets Trent, who tells the group about feeling empty as a human being as a child and learning how to fill himself up with the interests and personalities of others to become cool. The narrator stops paying attention to him as he starts to fantasize about him, even as he also wonders what Trent thinks when he sees him. There's then a remarkable chapter about the buzz of desire with clever formal framing, like thoughts cut up into images like grinding gears the eye follows around the page or drawing a page of stars and talking about feeling their displacement. However, the one thing he knew how to do was build a "guest house" where he could pretend to be confident and full of life, and this made it easy for him to ask Trent out. There's an intense first date scene where the narrator reveals to Trent that he seriously dated a couple ("unicorning") for three years, and that's when we get to hear Trent's thoughts and trepidation about the narrator. Again, there's some emotionally resonant formal trickery going on here as the focus shifts from one person to another and then some word & thought balloons completely obliterate the other person's when the focus shifts.

The two characters are drawn and lettered using entirely different colors, which is not only an aid to differentiate them, but also represents a fundamental divide between them that can never be crossed. After they hook up, it ends badly, as it turns out Trent stole some items from the narrator after they hooked up. It's a jarring realization that's matched with some discordant drawings, as he comes to understand that the judgment he fears from others spurs him to judge others. The narrator suggests that it's time to learn how to negotiate encounters with others that are more than those grinding gears of desire and judgment, of using and being used, of trying to be soft instead of hard. Mastantuono really gets across the terror and thrill of having sex with someone new and then the later, horrible realization that occurs when it's clear you just don't fit with them. The interplay between self-doubt and self-loathing vs desire and the illusion of a solid self is at the heart of the comic with the possibility of kindness being so hard to comprehend make this a bracing but familiar story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Visit To The Center For Cartoon Studies

This past week I attended Industry Day at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which occurs late in the spring semester and brings editors, publishers, critics and agents together to do a two-hour panel on the state of the comics industry as well as several hours worth of one-on-one portfolio reviews. Here are some scattered thoughts regarding the experience.

** I actually went up a day early because there was a vicious Nor'easter coming across New York that cancelled my flight. I flew south to Atlanta and then all the way up to Manchester, New Hampshire. Thanks to Jarad Greene and Dave Lloyd for putting that bit of magic together. Students Pat Leonhard and Kori Michele Handwerker picked me up and drove me the 1.5 hours to get to White River Junction.

** The Hotel Coolidge is a very old (1849 originally) place that CCS puts its guests up in, since it's right across the street from the school. A number of students live in the hostel section of the hotel, reputed to be haunted. It was old and creaky and wonderful.

** I was happy to get in a day early so I could sit in on the first-year crits performed by Steve Bissette and Sophie Yanow. The senior class has ten people and the first year class is double that size. Without getting into the specifics of the crits, I was impressed by the thoroughness and practicality of the commentary. I read every one of the pieces for the assignment, which was non-fiction comics. I was extremely impressed by the overall ambition and skill present in the works I saw, and it's obvious that this class has the potential to make a big splash.

** That's not to sell the seniors short. I've written about Daryl Seitchik extensively, as well as Mary Shyne, Dan Nott, Rainer Kannenstine, and others. I was happy to meet the very talented Alex Fuller for the first time.

** I was asked to moderate a panel that included Andrea Colvin (an editor for up-and-coming publisher, Lion Forge); Patrick Crotty (publisher at Peow Studio), Tracy Hurren (editor, Drawn & Quarterly) and Kelly Sonnack (an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.). I had not met any of them before, but I'm pleased to say that they all had interesting (and often opposing) views on comics.

** Lion Forge is an interesting case. They are based out of St. Louis, and the company is owned by two wealthy African-American men (Dave Steward II and Carl Reed), who started it six years ago with the imperative to bring more diversity to both content and creators in comics. That started with mostly superhero comics, but they've since brought in a bunch of new editors (including Colvin) and will be publishing a wide array of comics. This is a publisher to keep an eye on, and Colvin's good taste will have a significant impact on what they publish.

** Peow represented the small press model, where they tend to select their very few artists selectively and personally. The personable Crotty was a source of enthusiasm the entire time.

** Hurren and D&Q represented more of an auteur model, as she said they publish artists more than they do books. That means little to no editing, which is precisely the opposite of what Colvin and Sonnack do with their clients. Colvin in particular advocated how positive a good artist-editor relationship can be.

** What was very interesting (and only for the ears of those in that room, as were many other details) was that each publisher talked very candidly about different kinds of contracts, with details regarding royalties, advances, up-front payments and other details.

** We also traced the ups and downs in comics publishing since the late 1980s, as I was interested in getting everyone's take on what the keys to the present, somewhat upward tick in the market might be.

** The crits were fascinating to do, as every student I talked to had a different and compelling story as to how they got there. My advice, especially to the first-years, was to basically use this time to figure what you want to do. It's OK to cycle through your influences, because your own style will emerge eventually. For those cartoonists who were struggling with writing, I advised them to read Lynda Barry's What It Is and follow its exercises. I also advised a number of the cartoonists to do a daily journal for a month after the school year ends in order to keep them going and experiment with some storytelling basics.

** Seeing and being able to hang out in the Schulz Comics Library (pictures above and below) was almost overwhelming. I initially focused on looking at some school projects, in particular the Golden Age projects where students are grouped together and they have to come up with an approximation of a comic that resembled something from Dell, Gold Key, EC or even the superhero publishers. A lot of them were interesting because of the names involved, and a few were genuinely good. They did a manga phonebook this year that was really well-done.

** Everyone should spend time in the library. Their minicomics collection is impressive, and they have so many oddities that I could have spent days there. That's how I felt about CCS in general: I could have spent several more days there. I treasured my time spent with Michelle Ollie and a big group after dinner one night and was happy to see James Sturm, who had been out of town. The portraits of past librarians is a who's-who of cartoonists.

** Above all else, I have to thank Luke Howard for inviting me and facilitating the entire trip. He wasn't just organized and professional; he was incredibly kind and involved. He's an excellent cartoonist to boot, but I will never forget his hospitality. I had never been to CCS before (to which everyone there said, "How can this be?"), and it's Luke who made that happen.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Mooz Boosh: More Spinadoodles From Sam Spina

There's never a question that any autobio strip that Sam Spina happens to put down is going to be full of goofy humor, and his new collection of his "Spinadoodles" strips, Mooz Boosh, is no exception. He and his wife Samantha are often depicted as acting like big kids for comedic effect. What's changed over the years is that each year's collection of new strips has become slimmer as he is now a full-time writer and artist working for the Cartoon Network. Instead of writing a strip a day, every day, he's only doing them as inspiration strikes, and the result is a consistently funny personal narrative with an undertone of personal dissatisfaction. That's actually been a running theme, first when he was an aspiring cartoonist/animator who worked a waiter job and now that he got a job as a pro. The difference now is that there's a self-awareness of the #firstworldproblem nature of his unhappiness: he has a great job, a great wife, a nice apartment, etc--why should he complain? The answer is that one's dreams matter, and his dream of having his own show was dashed twice (off-panel) in the course of the year. There's a sense of him struggling with negative emotions in general as a subtext in these strips, but that sense of feeling that he's not entitled to his emotions is palpable.

Spina's always used a cluttered approach to the page, filling up any negative space with a gray wash. What's changed over the years is his growing confidence as a draftsman. In "Stung", for example, his over-the-top foreshortening of his thumb getting stung has images of bug-eyed Sam freaking out, but also a perfectly-rendered hand in one panel. Indeed, there are plenty of pages that can be navigated solely from a visual perspective, especially when Samantha and her many expressive faces are involved. Spina also threw in some sketchbook doodles to fill up space but also to give the reader a sense of the sort of thing he's working on. One gets the sense that Spina has once again come to a betwixt and between portion of his life, where he's an adult but hasn't yet punched every square on the adult bingo card (own a house, have kids, etc), but he's way past being a young adult. There's career ambitions being thwarted but also a sense that he has plenty of time. One also gets the sense that he hasn't forgotten how much joy he gets out of simply drawing, and that really comes out in his Hourly Comics Day strips.

Doubling down on cat jokes and fart jokes is both consistent with everything Spina has done to this point and a sense that he may well feel compelled to write about other things in the future. In the meantime, Spina's depiction of his job and his relationship are both quite compelling and illustrative. Not only do we get a sense of what Samantha is like, the reader also comes to understand their chemistry and bond. And while there's plenty of goofing around at work, there are also meetings about redoing a script that he's been working on for a year with someone. One almost doesn't notice when Spina actually dwells on something serious, because he's so good at the structure of making virtually any kind of anecdote into something with a comedic structure. I hope he keeps doing these strips forever.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

All-Time Comics: Blind Justice #2

In some respects, Josh Bayer getting Fantagraphics to publish his line of 80s throwback superhero comics may have been a bad thing for the project. It put a sheen of respectability on a project that was inherently bizarre and trashy. Indeed, it's odd that these are now Bayer's best-known comics, considering how much better his Raw Power and Theth series are. They also trade in on superhero tropes but from a completely different perspective, incorporating the juvenile aspects of reading them as part of the experience and warping them through Bayer's "cover versions" of obscure comics. Bayer's idea to mix alternative cartoonists with older mainstream cartoonists was an interesting one in theory, but there have been a lot of hiccups along the way. Indeed, the first issue of Blind Justice, to be penciled by Rich Buckler and his son, is one of the most incoherent comics I've ever read.

The over-the-top violence and misogynistic elements of the other All-Time comics, combined with the fact that the entire first wave was done by men, made them an easy target for criticism. Bayer's attempt to combine frequently nihilistic and raw 80s comics with the dumb ultraviolence of 80s cinema as a kind of goof removed both Bayer's own satirical viewpoint as well as artists like Ben Marra, whose work walks a fine line between satire and sexism. The character Justice is in the tradition of inexorable, intelligent, vengeance-seeking crusaders. The twist is that his secret identity is that of a unresponsive cranial injury victim living in a ward. When he hears about crime, he builds himself armor out of things like old newspapers and phone books, cobbles together a club, and looks like a bulky, bandaged figure in a suit. Having a hero literally built out of decay and newsprint is a fun metaphor, especially one as single-minded as an avenging Steve Ditko character.

The second issue follows a psychopathic killer who enters a home and asks "Hey buddies...who wants to lay down and make this easier for me? Who wants to lay down on my altar?" The killer, named Miller, is a kind of goof on Bayer's version of G. Gordon Liddy, ranting about raw power and viewing killing as a part of nature, that he exists to eliminate weaker species. Of course, he's gone rogue from a typically evil corporation. The first big action piece is Justice infiltrating the company to get information and escaping from a small army of guards. The clever thing about the storytelling here is Justice essentially bullshitting his way through his enemies with a combination of trickery and outrageous confidence, as he proceeds as though he's invincible even though he has no powers. The same was true for his showdown with Miller, except this time the villain saw through the disguise but underestimated Justice's cleverness and relentlessness.

The story, while violent, actually tracks quite nicely. Part of this is due to the unlikely but highly efficient art team of Noah Van Sciver and Al Milgrom as penciler and inker, respectively. Van Sciver goes to town with all sorts of weird page grids and formal oddities, like the bottom of a panel "giving out" underneath a punk's foot. Milgrom's inks essentially smooth Van Sciver out a bit, adding a bit of fluidity to fight scenes, while retaining the essential character of Van Sciver's work. Milgrom was the essence of the meat-and-potatoes Marvel inker and penciler who could work super fast and tell a story, even if the art itself wasn't flashy or attractive. The eccentric coloring job by Paul Lyons and Jason T. Miles (whose work is about as far away from this as one can imagine) only increased the weirdness of the book, as Miller was purple, Justice's shirt was yellow, and the sky during the showdown ranged between yellow, orange and red. The use of color was so deliberate, yet they kept it the same four-color flat colors of early 80s comics in order to duplicate that atmosphere, only the sheer wonkiness of it served to remind the reader of the comic book essence of the proceedings. It was meant to be anything but realistic and a little bit ugly and weird as well. It feels like Bayer also really nailed the tone of this comic in a way he hadn't in other All-Time issues. I have a feeling that the second run of All Time Comics will wind up being much more interesting in the first, especially with comics drawn by Gabrielle Bell and Julia Grfoerer.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Down & Away

Katherine Wirick's long-term project has been a book about Dada artist John Heartfield. However, as she notes in this illustrated zine, her entire artistic output from 2015 were the few drawings that appear here. The reason is revealed on the first page: she committed herself to a neuropsychiatric ward because her depression had led her to suicidal ideations. Her journal of this experience, Down And Away, is at once heart-rending, hilarious and simply fascinating. As someone who has spent many hours visiting people held in such wards, every aspect of her experience there felt familiar, from the items banned for inpatients to those ubiquitous socks with gripping pads on them. Wirick is an exceptional writer, unflinchingly documenting her experience as a way of helping to create a public discourse about mental illness.

She goes into some detail about this, noting that discussing cancer publicly used to be taboo, something that seems unthinkable now in the age of valorizing cancer patients. Obviously, AIDS is another disease that used to be taboo and is still sometimes discussed in whispers in some corners. A greater awareness of mental illness and a willingness to make it part of the public discourse, but Wirick notes that it shouldn't be up to laymen to help the mentally ill. They are simply not prepared or trained to help them, not to mention that the boundary between therapist and patient is there for the therapist's sake as much as the patient. Wirick states unequivocally that only through cheap meds, easily available therapy and well-funded inpatient facilities can mental illness be dealt with. It is a matter of public health, one with clear solutions that go beyond simple platitudes.

Wirick never once sentimentalizes her experience, nor does she suffer the kind of platitudes associated with hospitalization. It wasn't the love of her husband who made her smile for the first time after she was committed, it was a joke on Spongebob Squarepants. She simultaneously refrained from killing herself because of her husband's love and regretted the decision. Love doesn't fix mental illness anymore than it does cancer or the flu. Wirick also notes that there was an intense amount of boredom in the ward but it was also difficult to get much rest, as nurses constantly came into your room (which had no locks). She vividly describes the many people she met in various states of distress and illness, as well as the oasis that occupational therapy provided for her as an artist. Above all else, her acidic wit comes through on every page; her humor isn't there so much to distract from the reality of what her situation was, but rather to affirm it. Even the title of the journal is an inside joke with herself, as Wirick is a huge baseball fan and "down and away" refers to a part of the strike zone that is especially hard to hit. And of course, she was down emotionally and put herself away. This is required reading for anyone who's ever suffered from depression or suicidal ideations.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Koyama: GG's I'm Not Here

I'm Not Here was my first real exposure to the work of the Canadian artist gg, other than an anthology story here and there. There's something vertiginous about reading her comics, thanks to a push-and-pull in style and tone. On the one hand, her naturalistic style is so precisely rendered that there's never any question about what the reader is looking at. At the same time she draws the reader in, she simultaneously pushes them away by creating a cold environment that defies inspection from the reader. The story itself is very simple: a nameless young woman is taking care of her emotionally abusive mother and also trying to take care of her father, who seems increasingly addled by dementia but also incredibly mean-spirited. The young woman has photography as a hobby, and one day she takes a photo of a young woman who looks very much like her, in front of an apartment complex. She goes to the apartment complex and gets let in by the elderly landlady, who mistakes her for the actual tenant, who was supposed to be out of town. She luxuriates in the apartment, even sleeping in her doppelganger's bed. She has a series of horrible dreams/reminiscences.At the very end, her landlady offers her a chance to extend her lease.

The cold, almost sterile drawing style of gg is a deliberate tactic for this story. This is the story of a woman who had learned to push her emotions all the way down and numbed herself to the way her mother so nonchalantly and unrelentingly put her down. At the same time, she is trapped, with seemingly no way out. It's the "life of quiet desperation" that Thoreau talks about. Everything about this comic relates to seeing and being seen, and the panel-to-panel transitions more closely resemble a series of photographs than a more typical comics-oriented transition that's more fluid. The page-to-page transitions have more to do with film than comics: lots of fade-ins and fade-outs, blackouts, the camera lingering on a single image. The opening two pages provide a number of clues, we fade-in on the young woman methodically putting her hair up, her back to the reader's gaze. Even when we first see her face, it's mediated through the surface of a mirror. There is then a quote about "to live is to be somebody else", meaning that we must change on a day-to-day basis in order to be able to feel.

Later, when a street vendor questions her about her photography hobby, she responds that she's trying to capture how things are. His reply is that how things are is always changing; in other words, attempting to capture that sense of change by freezing it is foolish. That's when she sees her "double" and she begins to think about this other person, this other world. That feeling is accentuated when her mother essentially tells her that she's a failure, unlike her younger sister, in the most blase' tones possible. Then she encounters her father driving around at night, confused and belligerent. The photos she takes aren't really to capture how things are, but rather to capture an idealized version of how things are that don't truly exist. It's her refuge.

Receiving an invitation into someone's life is a kind of continuation of that refuge, and it's in that escape that she's able to not only confront years worth of abuse, she's able to cry because of it. There are multiple fade-ins and fade-outs to painful memories (drawn with a lighter tone of wash than the present-day events, which are by nature more solid), including one where she finally moved to act after being berated by her mother. gg leaves the story open-ended; she's essentially given an opportunity to be this other woman (where she went is unknown is unclear: did she move to escape her own life as well). Given a chance to truly confront her feelings and learning that her double was more of an opposite than a twin makes that choice far more difficult than one would think. The cover itself provides a clue, as the other woman wears her hair down (a symbol, perhaps of her more carefree but uncaring nature) and the two hairstyle are lined up, but upside down from each other. It's not just a mirror image, but almost a mutation or transformation, at work here. She's left to wonder not just what kind of person she wants to be, but also what kind of world she wants to live in, as the book fades to black. This is the kind of book that reveals itself to the reader slowly, and over multiple attempts; but once it does, it is a treasure trove of ideas related to family, identity, duty and ethics.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Last Hurrah: Runner Runner #4

After shuttering his excellent and long-running minicomics anthology Papercutter, Greg "Clutch" Means has been doing an annual, free anthology for Free Comic Book Day. Titled Runner Runner, the fourth issue (from 2015) was unfortunately also its last, but it certainly went out with a bang, with the usual mix of ten page stories and single page entries from a wide swath of cartoonists with different styles.

Sam Sharpe's "The Woman From Tuesday" is absolutely top-notch storytelling from a cartoonist who deserves much more recognition. The concept is simple at first: a man talks about him going on dates nearly every night with someone from the internet, interspersed with a memory from an old comic character: Cognito The Super Spy. The latter character essentially recapitulates the history of mysterious, adventurers, from Mandrake to the Shadow to Batman to Rorschach. The theme of the story is shifting identities and disguises, and the ways in which one can forget one's own identity by spending so much time as someone else.

Turns out the guy, named David, classifies each date by type--Deconstructionist (those who talk about the structure of dates on a date), Formalist (asking specific questions in a specific order), etc. Unmentioned but very clearly visible is the fact that David changes his appearance to match that of each date. He wears the same kind of ski hat and scarf as his first date, and puts on a curly wig and glasses to match his second date. The asides to old issues of Cognito perfectly match key moments of his dates in funny ways, especially when he starts thinking about Cognito's boy sidekick, Hypno.
Things get weird when a woman he dates on Thursday turns out to be the woman from Tuesday, in disguise (like he is). From there, the postmodern twists and turns of latter-day Cognito continue to get further wrapped up in the way this man and woman interact and the ouroboros swallows its own tail in a very amusing way. Sharpe's facility for drawing faces and sticking with a steady grid allows him to nimbly go from drawing superheroes to regular folks without jarring the reader once.

Evan Palmer's "The Godins: The Last Meal" is a fantasy story with lots of gray wash used to create mood. It's a flashback to one character's mentor, a hard-as-nails chef who always keeps her eyes on the prize with regard to serving the intimidating masters of the realm, dressed and armed to the teeth. His mentor saves his life when she takes up a sword to help a squadron instead of allowing him to go to certain death. The jarring transition makes the reader think for a moment that it's a reverie that's being interrupted instead of a flashback, which adds to the excitement of the story, until he snaps back in the future. Palmer's figure design is idiosyncratic (especially the odd noses) but smooth, with a clear and crisp line.

If you've ever wondered what one of Joey Alison Sayers' Thingpart strips might look like expanded to full length, then "Silly Town" is for you. It's a fabulously demented tale about a children's music singer named "Jenny Rainbow" who sings the sort of cloying, catchy songs for kids that adults hate. Jenny sings a "concert" for some kids in an alley in a post-apocalyptic city, with her husband reminding her (and filling in the reader) that the government rounded up all the adults, leaving kids to fend for themselves. The bummer-proof Jenny takes that as an opportunity to become the biggest band ever. From there, things get even more absurd, as Paul had actually packed three oboes to take on his survivalist mission. When they get captured, the President himself sentences them to hard labor, but one of their songs has its own revenge on him. The structure of this story is quite clever but the best thing about it was the Jenny character, whose delusional qualities completely took over the strip.

Finally, Andrice Arp has a one-pager making literal the mess in her head when she finishes a project and how sometimes it's best to create in a state of chaos. I've missed her beautiful, detailed line and inventive use of angles and anthropomorphic creatures, bridging naturalism and mythology. Farel Dalrymple does a strip from his Pop Gun War world about a vicious cat, detailing what he's killed while wondering how something so cute can be such a killer. It's effective both as a stand-alone store and a palate cleanser for other Pop Gun War stories. I wish Means had the funding to do a bigger anthology, because he has an uncanny sense of pacing as an editor, knowing just how to create a smooth flow from story to story. Not everything he's published has been great, but it always fit in the context of the anthology at hand, inviting the reader in no matter what its subject matter or style might be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Koyama: Hannah K. Lee's Language Barrier

One of the things that sets Annie Koyama apart from many other publishers is her nearly-unerring eye in sensing what kind of self-published work might make a good collection. Such is the case with Hannah K Lee and her book Language Barrier, which has four separate chapters of "zines, comics and other fragments". It's an excellent description of the book's structure, as there's a little bit of everything from an artist who teaches illustration and also works in design. Her use of text reminds me a bit of Ray Fenwick, who turned the decorative qualities of text into narrative in his short stories in Mome and in two books published by Fantagraphics. That use of text is just one of many tools the incredibly sharp Lee uses to express herself. Even zines without an obviously discernible narrative still have an unspoken storytelling flow from page to page.

"Hey Beautiful" was the most recent of these works, and it's the one that most closely resembles sequential art. This section's about sex, loneliness, desire and the minefield that is negotiating the male gaze and online dating. It starts with a series of strips called "1 Is The Loneliest Number", which hilariously break down that sense of feeling desire and being embodied in situations where one is alone--getting physically ill in an embarrassing way in public, eating alone, going to the movies alone, and then (as though to make fun of her own concept) to be haunted by a spirit alone in bed, one that marveled at the size of your apartment. There are some strips about penises that are also very funny ("a terrible, unknowable surprise") where she imagines each one she sees as a hilariously different shape. Later on, there are some unforgettable images: her body rendered into its sexual components and displayed in a bowl as though it were fruit, with phrases of sexual violence making part by part disappear. There's another image of her lying prone, with assorted mansplaining monologues filling up her ears and drowning her. ("Let me tell you about Kubrick" was laser-like in its precision). Lee veers back toward more lighthearted but still-pointed material with two pages of Valentine's candy hearts with phrases like "I'll Do Emotional Labor" and "Be My Emergency Contact". Concluding with yet another hilarious series of "Interpretations of Emoji Sexts" led to another image of bodies warped, in pieces, on display. What was remarkable about this section was the way Lee arranged sex, identity, and sexual desire in such conflicting ways. It's not just a statement against the male gaze (though it's part of that), it's also a statement about sex in all its weirdness.

"Shoes Over Bills" is much more straight-ahead in its presentation, as it's about various beautiful kinds of shoes on the left-hand side of the page and then some kind of financial obligation written in spectacular script on the right, like "credit card debt". The best part is when Lee had a rate of exchange, like one pair of shoes worth ten boxes of ramen, another pair worth emergency dental work, etc. It's less about the actual shoes and more about how economic inequality (especially for those who chose to become artists) can leave one utterly abjected from market goods, and in a sense as an outsider from society in general. "Everyone Else Is Younger And More Talented" goes into the negative self-feedback look where one is unable to accept positive thoughts about oneself and twists them into vicious insults. As an artist, it's especially deadly, because it is the very definition of falling prey to Lynda Barry's Two Questions: "Is this good? Does this suck?" Unstated but inherent in those questions are two related questions: "Am I good? Do I suck?", where one's self-worth is tied up in one's work. Lee eventually boils it down to "beautiful" vs "We see you", in gorgeous type. Visually, a group of shapes is mirrored by cigarette butts, another indictment of one's art and oneself.

Finally, "Close Encounters" details a relationship through single word or phrase descriptions that snake around and through related images. From "small talk" to "affection" to "attraction", Lee goes through a gamut of experiences as though one was walking through the back yards of one's neighborhood, seeing things that should probably remain hidden. It eventually resolves, in tiny print to "settling in your ways", skips a beat with a page of linked lines (chains?) and then giant print over two pages that screams out "Nowhere to hide". The set of more abstract images that follow resolve in an interesting direction, as "You Don't Owe Anyone Anything" is contrasted to a naturalistic image of a couple kissing--a direct image after the deception of text. Indeed, this all ties into Lee's central theme and the book's title: the barrier here is language itself, forever obfuscating meaning and impeding connection. In this book, language goes from being humorously foolish to actively dangerous and destructive, rendering people into objects. Lee's skill in creating the book's images is what make its themes resonate, as she dances from idea to idea at a breakneck speed, thanks to the ways in which images precede the meaning supplied by text. It's that slight lag that creates cognitive dissonance in the reader and gets them to take another look about both image and word. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Minis: Robin Enrico

Subscribers to my Patreon can see my review of the (finally) collected edition of Robin Enrico's Jam In The Band that was published by Alternative Comics. I've reviewed the individual issues of the comic over its decade or so of production, but I wanted to have a final look at the book after many years of being away from it. Enrico has followed up with two minicomics (and a third one coming, I suspect), featuring several key members of Jam In The Band's cast.

Specifically, the minicomics Post and Quit follow a tour by a band that spun off from JITB's Pitch Girl: an "Electro Booty Jamz" band called Rayd Titties that was comprised of guitarist Corbin, DJ Jennet (another long-running character in the Enricoverse) and bass player Becky Vice, a breakout supporting character who earned her own spinoff miniseries while Enrico was still in the midst of finishing the main comic. Each of the issues is a contemplative inner monologue from the point of view of a different character, striking a very different tone from JITB's jittery, larger-than-life feel. It's obvious that Enrico thought a lot about structure in these comics. As always, he let the story dictate a lot of the format, as the panel structure varied on virtually every page.

Other than the narrative structure, the most notable thing about these comics is the way that Enrico obviously set out to challenge himself as a draftsman. Most of JITB was set in clubs, cafes, bars, etc, with lots of talking heads. In Post and Quit, he draws the backgrounds that one might see in exploring the Pacific Northwest. Lots of nature and lots of weird roadside attractions; it's obvious that he did some research with regard to the latter. Post, Corbin's story, deals with a character who was starved for love and stability in JITB as she tries to comes to terms with the way her old band broke up and how lead singer Bianca left their lives. In this story, a number of the characters consider where they've wound up in life as they start to get older, with some neatly tracking it into their personal narratives and others, like Corbin, who find themselves facing a lot of dark thoughts late at night.

Post's title is a play on words in several respects. It refers to the postcards and letters that Corbin is sending to her friend, zinester and close friend of Bianca, Alec Supernova (an Aaron Cometbus stand-in) through the post office. It's also a reference to this being post-band breakup and part of a transition to a different kind of living. If the ending of JITB made this transition seem easy, these minicomics reveal what happens after the honeymoon period. She can't help but reflect on her life in the old band and how it ended, miserable as it was. There are references to Bianca's imaginary "spirit guide" that she used to talk to and an encounter with a young woman at the end of the tour who was escaping a bad situation in a small town and reminded Corbin very much of a young Bianca.

Corbin is the sort of character who drifts from one situation to another, rather than going out and seizing something in the way that Bianca did. Corbin doesn't just wonder what Bianca's doing; instead, her musings are her way of trying to understand Bianca as well as trying to understand her own motives, especially since she slowed down on her drinking and casual sex. She doesn't want Bianca back in her life, telling her what to do, but there's an almost manic certainty that Bianca possesses something that she simply doesn't comprehend. Enrico himself wrote that by the end of JITB, Bianca was the character whom he understood the least, even if early on she was very much an Enrico stand-in. Time and the vicissitudes of life have a way of changing one's perspective. The key at the end of the comic is that Jennet kisses Bianca, after years of insisting that she wasn't attracted to her but was still her best friend. There is a lot to unpack there, but I sense that will come in Jennet's chapter.

Quit sees things from Becky Vice's point of view. More than anyone, Becky is a character whom at a very young age understood that life was a series of trade-offs, and the choices she made offered her an enormous amount of independence but very little in the way of emotional security. For Becky, this story is one about beginning to feel the weight of time and aging and understanding that even the most independent person needs to have a support system as they grow older. When the tour starts, Becky finds an unopened pack of cigarettes and vows that this will be her last pack, as a sort of tour companion. It's an understanding that she has to start making other trade-offs now in deference to growing older. If she gave up on getting married and having children as a trade-off for having full control of her time, then starting to live a little healthier was the trade-off for giving up a genuine pleasure in smoking.

Becky's thoughts are in big block print, fitting for a larger-than-life character such as she. She's an admirable character in many ways for facing up to her own failures and reminding herself that she chose this life to lead when she starts to get down. At the same time, she's human. She's lonely sometimes, no matter how satisfying being a performer might be. More to the point, she's not just lonely--she chooses to isolate herself, which is very different from both Corbin and Jennet. She confronts that aspect of herself as well, vowing to also get in touch with Alec after the tour. Becky is a glorious marble maze of a person, constantly shifting herself back and forth in an effort to keep the ball rolling and avoid pitfalls. While there will always be something of the hedonist in her, she's a pleasure-seeker who's now starting to understand of certain things that had perhaps escaped her in the past.

In terms of the art, Enrico's distinctly stylized technique is at its peak here. There's a clarity and confidence in his line that wasn't always there, when he would simply fill panels up with detail. He makes great use of negative space in both of these comics, as committing to do a story about the outdoors forced him to do so. His characters were sometimes so stylized as to look stiff, but his line has also become much more fluid. He still likes to throw a lot of eye pops at the reader for comedic or referential effect, but they're less jumbled now. These comics are downbeat and hopeful, restless and realistic, and uncompromising in writing narratives about characters while admitting that people's lives are rarely clean or simple enough to be framed in narrative terms.