Thursday, February 15, 2018

Winter Fundraiser

My family is facing some hopefully temporary financial difficulties at the moment, so any kind of help from supporters of the site would be greatly appreciated. For those interested, this would be a great time to join my Patreon or perhaps just donate through PayPal at the button on the right. I've written over sixty pieces of criticism exclusively for my Patrons--one a week. As promised, I had my annual 30 Days of CCS feature about artists from the Center for Cartoon Studies. New reviews will be up tonight and tomorrow, and this weekend will see a couple of new Patron reviews.  Thanks for your consideration. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Short Box: Jeremy Sorese's The Tar Pit

First, a note about Zainab Akhtar's Short Box comics service. It's a periodic box of comics that she publishes, often up and coming talent that she is helping to bring before a larger audience. After that initial release, the artists are free to sell the comic on their own. That was the case for The Tar Pit, by Jeremy Sorese. I'm not exactly sure what Sorese uses, but the effect in this comic is a dense charcoal. It's evocative of a time long gone; it's thick and atmospheric, as though one was watching an old black & white film. That gritty charcoal effect is also in effect in the book's many night scenes, as the darkness threatens to swallow the light on each page. The grit and space-filling quality of that effect is in sharp contrast to Sorese's character designs, which are highly stylized and include a great deal of negative space in the faces, which are simplified to the point where they almost look like they belong to puppets. While this is a character piece and there's not a lot of focus on backgrounds, Sorese clearly did his research with regard to fashions, hairstyle and other time-specific elements of the time, which is the early 1950s.

The setting is a house where famous Hollywood actors Burt and Fred lived with Vivienne, in an arrangement that was supposed to reflect her dating both men and in reality was a beard arrangement for the lovers. In return, she received decent and well-paying movie roles, albeit ones that had no speaking lines. One of her "boyfriends" inevitably had the hero role in those films, of course. The book opens with a "Barbershop" party; that is, one where the boys and others with similar arrangements could be themselves for a little while. The plot is very simple but its ramifications are intensely complicated. Vivienne grows increasingly disenchanted and lonely living with a couple, especially given their frequent fights and indiscretion when having loud sex. On one frustrating night, a writer who had been haunting the outside of the house cajoled her into admitting on the record that Burt and Fred were gay, right before admitting he was gay as well. In one of the few exaggerated scenes, Sorese depicts Vivienne feeling like everyone in the diner she was talking to the writer in was gay and laughing at her.

The story gets published but quickly squashed. Vivienne slowly loses her roles. She starts to get work in advertising on TV, as color becomes popular. At the same time, the comic switches over to full color illustrations, done in what looks like colored pencil. When Burt dies of a drug overdose, Fred makes a fictionalized film that features a Vivian character who dominates everyone else and threatens violence, and whose outing of them leads to them losing their careers. The book works its way to Vivienne working with the actress who played her in the movie, thirty years later. when the topic of Fred (who had just died of AIDS) comes up, Vivienne utters an unforgivable homophobic slur. The final scene is one of tragedy and hope, combining her inability to come to terms with her life and her deep-seated homophobia.

To be sure, this is not just a story about her homophobia. It's a story about how self-hating gay men used to make money outing other gay men. More than that, it's a story about deep-seated misogyny. Vivienne got more love from Fred's dopey chihuahua than from either men, and it's clear that it wasn't sex that she was missing, but intimacy. She was treated as a convenience, an object, someone they only paid attention to when there was a camera pointed in their direction. She was stuck, as the title implies, in a comfortable but miserable arrangement. She wanted to sell out her roommates and was just looking for a buyer; in reality, she got nothing, other than her own freedom in a way. The irony of the film that Fred did is that it pointed her as the villain all along, while she of course was a non-talking player in real life as well as in film. Yet it showed her as a powerful, dominant woman who had all the best lines, which is why Vivienne liked it so much; it's whom she always wanted to be.

Burt and Fred never copped to their roles in making Vivienne unhappy. At the same time, neither did Vivienne come to terms with what she did. Instead of feeling regret for betraying people she spent so much time with, she simply doubled down on her homophobia. Or rather, homophobia became the reason she gave herself for hating the two men, when the reality was that she was lonely. That she was lonely was not their fault, but it was also true that they didn't seem to give the slightest thought to how she felt about things. In the end, her unwillingness to see past her feelings, insecurities and prejudices choked off her ability to show empathy, as the final, heartbreaking scene indicates. She poured her emotions into her dog and couldn't forgive or admit her own complicity in a relationship from decades before that still clearly defined her in many ways. Without that ability to forgive and accept responsibility for her own actions at key moments in her life, she remained hardened. It's the kind of story that was more common in the 80s and 90s, but I think Sorese was wise to reinforce the basics, given that homophobia never truly goes away. 


Friday, February 2, 2018

2dcloud: Laura Lannes

In critiquing autobiographical cartoonists, I will sometimes accuse them of not "spilling enough ink". That is, the cartoonist smooths out too many rough edges, edits out the most embarrassing parts and in general processes it into agreeable pabulum that lacks bite. With Laura Lannes' intricately-assembled By Monday I'll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage, (2dcloud) she not only spilled some ink, she emptied out the bottle and had to get more. "Confessional" only begins to describe what she does in this memoir of a month spent pining after a guy she had developed a surprisingly quick emotional and sexual attachment to who was nonetheless unavailable. The story of the highs and lows of that relationship makes up the bulk of this spiral-bound, legal paper-sized comic, and it feels like Lannes is incapable of not revealing herself on page after page.

It's hard to explain what she's doing and why. A compulsion? Oversharing? Performance? Therapy? Sickness? I think there are elements of all of these things at work here, plus a fiendishly wicked sense of humor and a sense of rising to the occasion as an artist. On the first page, she establishes every key element of the comic. There's the 3 x 4 grid, the light orange spot-coloring that proves to be a crucial visual element, and the grey wash that almost looks liquid in some panels. She also establishes her sense of humor (in one panel, her dialogue argues with her narrative caption) as well as the relationship with the man, named Francesco, with whom she falls in love with. She ends the page with a gag at her own expense, one of dozens in the comic.
                                                                                                                                                          
Lannes is frank, upfront and unsparing about her sex life--both with regard to her own needs and foibles as well as her partners. She's lonely and horny and gets excited when an old lover texts her ("I'm gonna get a dick appointment!"), only to realize that he's too high to actually have sex. In a comedic sequence worthy of the Marx Brothers in terms of its progression, she sorts through a drawer only to realize that her vibrator ("Roger Rabbit") is out of batteries, and her plug-in Hitachi somehow caught on fire. There's a panel that's perfect in the way it describes her body language as she realizes that she's not up to doing "manual labor", and the last panel is her getting back to work.

Lannes slowly writes through the story of her fitful relationship with Francesco, struggling as a freelancer for companies that get bought and sold and try to slough off the responsibility of paying their invoices. There are Tinder chats that turn into long arguments. There are her attempts at being involved with various socialist groups. The details of her life provide a robust account of what it's like to be young and living in the city as an independent woman. She turns the focus on her sex life that not only zeroes in on the act itself, but also on her feelings about the sex and sometimes awkward conversations before and after. Comparing having sex with Francesco to a Swedish guy she knows provides a vivid and blunt reflection and comparison of the two experiences. Fran is jealous of Laura seeing other men despite the obvious hypocrisy evident in that statement and she pushes back.

After their last time together (they agree to stop because he doesn't want to stop seeing this other woman and won't make Laura his primary partner), the rest of the comic is a series of events where she is miserable and trying to shake it off, with varying degrees of success. There's a fascinating sequence where she goes off to Mardi Gras with a guy she hooks up with when they're both single and coming off a break-up, only they somehow manage to not have sex the entire time they're there. Fran sends Laura an over-the-top, emotional email that she hilariously comments on bit-by-bit. They have a romantic last text session to say goodbye ("Time does what it can, it passes"), which is ruined by the messiness of real life when she has to tell him that a sex partner had passed chlamydia on to her, and he was now at risk. The last page is somehow heart-rending and cruelly funny all at once, where she's crying, then masturbating, and crying while masturbating, then crying out in grief after she orgasms.

Lannes has an acute understanding of the fact that love, sex, and romance are all inherently ridiculous and that there's no dignity whatsoever to be found in their pursuit. At the same time, she has an acute understanding of the importance of intimacy, connecting with someone on multiple levels, and grieving it when it's gone. A self-described "emotional tortoise", she came out of her shell and had a wide range of experiences as a result--most of them painful, but all of them vivid, and created something extraordinary by virtue of being willing to accept the experience for what it was. Combining her skill as a cartoonist, her razor-sharp wit, her ability to create a structure around the experience that any reader could understand turned those experiences into one of the best autobiographical comics I've ever read.