June 17, 2019

Radiating Deceptively Sweet, Innocent Vibes: Fred McNamara Reviews TWO OF US by Jessi Zabarsky

Jessi Zabarsky’s Two of Us is a deceitful comic. It’s all-ages charm masks a deeper, more emotionally entangled story of adapting to environments and mentalities outside of one’s comfort zone. On the surface, it’s a tale of a magical, ragamuffin heroine, Frebry, trying to fit into a normal school, with expectedly hilarious results. However, when taking all of the characters in Two of Us into consideration, Frebry isn’t the only character at play here who’s forced to mature in unexpected ways.

Zabarsky’s simple, direct story-telling comes with an empathetic heft that intertwines Frebry’s journey of maturity and self-discovery with a similar arc for her mother. The owner of a shop full of magical artifacts, Frebry’s mother is seemingly resplendent in wisdom and experience as she encourages Frebry to try her hand at Mundane School instead of magic school. This opening scene not only establishes the sweetly deadpan tone of Two of Us, but it also deceptively confirms the layered approach to the comic’s story. The scene depicting Frebry’s frustration at being sent to a different school may seem to focus on her, but placing her mother in the frame also positions her own mini-arc of growth in the story, as her own frustrations arise from positioning themselves within a world that’s harsher and less empathetic to them than their regular, more magical world.
Two of Us carries a central message of maturity, of how Frebry’s experiences in both regular and magical schools allow her to gain sympathy for her single, ever-working mother by magically splitting into two versions of herself. The act of multiplying feels like a reflection of Frebry’s introspection and her getting to grips with understanding herself, bolstered by having to exist in two different worlds - magical and non-magical. It’s a handsomely crafted arc for Frebry, one that doesn’t push the boundaries of believing how self-aware a child can be.

Her maturity rests on the backbone of her relationship with her mother, who provides the platform to make Frebry grow up. The comic’s title then doesn’t refer solely to the two versions of Frebry in that context, but it could also refer to Frebry and her mother. Two of Us becomes much more emotionally well-rounded when read as a story about a daughter and her mother, rather than purely a story about Frebry. 
This slick trick Zabarsky pulls in the comic gives it a genuine depth. There’s something bittersweet in how innocently prepared Frebry’s mother is in sending her daughter off into the real world when she herself has far more trouble blending in than Frebry. Where Frebry clearly doesn’t adapt to the confines of the real world, she at least forms a close friendship. Her mother fails to do even that, but only through the assistance of their daughters do Frebry and her friend’s own mother break down their prejudices against each other. In such few pages, Zabarsky delivers a deceptively deep narrative in which child and adult play off against each other’s attempts at adapting to new, uncharted, frightening worlds they’re not experienced in.

Zabarsky’s art suits the vibes of the comic to perfection. She illustrates locations and architecture with only the barest detail, yet she makes those details count. She’s more invested in portraying her characters than her landscapes, focusing on Frebry and her mother by illustrating a warm, comical sense of character from the pair of them. Frebry is an absolute riot, drawn with a shock of uncontrollable, fluffy hair to reflect her boundaryless persona and gawking anime eyes that tap into that classic, gargantuan wonder a child can have with the world. At the other end of the spectrum is her mother. Zabarsky draws her with as more slender and graceful than Frebry, there’s a joint sense of weariness and optimism in her face from raising her deliriously uncontrollable daughter. It’s wonderfully illustrated, but again, with minimalism, and yet with all the right detail. There’s not a beat missed in these characters. Zabarsky also makes use of a limited color palette that never overwhelms the comic’s compact, stripped back style.  
Everything about Two of Us is clear, concise, and hits home. It pinpoints its emotional targets with great subtlety, yet that subtlety is precise throughout. Zabarsky’s direct story-telling gives the comic clarity to be enjoyed by younger readers, but its layered, character-driven story can easily be appreciated by older readers who may be able to spot these tactics better than youngsters. 

Beyond these analyses, however, Two of Us is a warm, jovial tale of the hardships of being both young and old. It’s a brief enough story to never lose track of this, and it’s sweetly deadpan vibe matched with the thick, blocky art lends the comic a firm tone. Two of Us stands as a comical yet gentle affirmation of how persevering in unknown situations and landscapes can increase maturity without destroying individuality. Within Zabarksy’s controlled artistic platform, Frebry’s gleeful journey is a pocket-sized joy to behold.
Fred McNamara thoroughly enjoys writing about comic books and TV shows you've never heard of. His love of indie/small press comics arose through his role as senior editor for the superhero/comic book hub A Place To Hang Your Cape. He's currently enduring a prolonged period of sleepless nights as his debut book, Spectrum is Indestructible, is gearing up for publication later this year from Chinbeard Books.

June 16, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/10/19 to 6/14/19

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught our eye over the past week.


* Rob McMonigal reviews BLACK IS THE COLOR by Julia Gfrörer, appreciating "how well the mood of the story is expressed in the art. There's a real sense of oppression in the theme and having the extensive lines adds to that. Yet at the same time, Gfrorer doesn't try to overdo the details."

* Robin Enrico looks at BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore which "is not only an artistic highpoint for both its creators; it is a stunning reminder of the power of comics to explode the reader’s imagination. Daniels and Passmore both establish the mash-up genre of Splat-stick Gentrification Horror Comedy and create a work that utterly defines it."

* Chris Gavaler also looks at BTTM FDRS, writing "that's the whole point of horror -- to drag up our culture's biggest, ugliest globs of unconscious sewage and spread it across a white page for us to see and acknowledge."

* Megan N. Liberty on BASQUIAT: A GRAPHIC NOVEL written and illustrated by Italian author Paolo Parisi, writing "It’s this type of visual, verbal, textural play that makes the graphic novel an interesting form for the Basquiat story."

* Rob Clough reviews SUPERVILLAINS by Michael Kupperman, writing "By using contrasts, defying expectations, assaulting the reader with bizarre images, and mining premises for all that they're worth, Kupperman has created a winning formula."

* Ryan Carey on Sergio Ponchione's MEMORABILIA: "Any work predicated upon stylistic appropriation — no matter how convincing that appropriation may be — is bound to come up short in terms of conveying the inspiration behind that which it’s referencing, of course, and I don’t fault Ponchione in the least for his inability to channel the inner artistic “souls” of his heroes. What I do fault him for is his absolute inability to communicate any sense of what makes their work so special to him, personally, beyond “they were all really good artists.”

* Tegan O'Neil reviews LORNA by Benji Nate which "carries the kind of remit that makes reviews of this nature potentially dangerous: like I say, you don’t really want to overstate and risk burying the book under sophistry. It’s a fun story with a memorable character, produced with wit and no small degree of craft. It’s a pleasant package. I could read five more just like it, and really, can you think of a nicer thing to say about any book? "

* Kevin Bramer on Lisa Hanawalt's HOT DOG TASTE TEST which he found hysterical.

* Tanner Tafelski looks at Jon B. Cooke’s THE BOOK OF WEIRDO: A RETROSPECTIVE OF R. CRUMB'S LEGENDARY HUMOR COMICS ANTHOLOGY which "attempts to resuscitate a comic book anthology’s legacy, smoothing over its more repellant facets."


* Meredith Li-Vollmer interviews GLYNNIS FAWKES about her "unusual pathway to comics—via archaeology—and her two books that will be published this year, Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre and Persephone’s Garden."

* Alenka Figa interviews KAT VERHOEVEN about her webcomic, Meat and Bone, being published by Conundrum Press.

* Kim Jooha interviews AARTHI PARTHASARATHY, "an artist, filmmaker, and writer based in Bangalore, India." 

* Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada interviews VIVEK SHRAYA about "the origins of (her latest book) Death Threat, her and (artist Ness) Lee’s collaborative process, and the craft of the graphic novel."

* Philippe LeBlanc has this SMALL PRESS UPDATE tracking the latest developments of various publishers.

* Avery Kaplan writes a piece for The MNT titled GETTING QUEER COMICS INTO LIBRARIES.

June 12, 2019

More Than A Wank Book: Jason Sacks reviews DOLL by Guy Colwell

Pornographic comics were once seen as the salvation of a dying comics industry. As you might expect, many of those comics aren’t high art; instead, they exist to serve just one purpose, after all. But some of those porno comics were actually pretty good, and at least one was legitimately great.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several small press and indie comics publishers started publishing lines of porno comics. Eros Comics was probably the best-known of the group, but there were a slew of others. Most offered pretty much what you might expect: illustrated versions of the whole panoply of sex acts you might find on PornHub these days, with just about the same amount of plot as something like “stepmom discovers stepson in the shower” or “naked pizza delivery”.

As one might expect, few of those porno comics illuminated the human experience in any really meaningful way. One of these comics did stand out, though. Guy Colwell’s Doll mixes explicit sex with a profoundly upsetting meditation on sexuality, obsession, and the ways men idealize anonymous women. Fantagraphics has recently released a collection of Doll which makes a strong case for it as perhaps the best of all the porno comics.

The new Fantagraphics collection of Doll collects the eight issues originally published between 1989 and 1992. Those eight issues present a fascinating story, made all the more powerful due to tight continuity between stories. Colwell’s masterwork emphasizes the horror of the chase and the powerlessness of people driven mad by their sexual passions.
In the opening pages of Doll, the reader meets sculptor Wiley Waxman. Waxman is hosting an exhibition of his art at an upscale gallery, and he has a nice turnout for the show. One of the people who turns out for the event is a man named Evergood Crepspok. Crepspok stands out from the crowd because he is hideously disfigured. He begs Waxman to create a woman who can tolerate his horrible looks and provide him with satisfying sexual experiences for the rest of what promises to be his short life. Waxman demurs but finds himself fascinated by the man’s story. After a porn mogul offers to fund the project, Waxman creates the doll, complete with human-feeling skin and a vagina with a lubricating mechanism. With Waxman’s invention, Crepspok is finally able to have something approaching a normal sex life… until the porn producer double-crosses him and tries to steal the doll himself. The producer fails in his attempt to steal the doll,l and suddenly there is a horrible, violent free-for-all as friends and strangers try to capture the doll for their own use.

Thus the main “character”, so to speak, of this graphic novel, is the doll, an anatomically perfect sex toy created to mimic every orifice and body feature of a woman. The doll’s breasts feel like real breasts, its lips feel like real lips, and its vagina comes with several different configurations to fit any sexual need or requirement. The only thing the doll lacks is a brain.

It also lacks one more important attribute: the doll lacks agency. Its whole role is to provide sexual pleasure to men (well, mainly men, there are a couple of lesbian scenes but this is a highly male-centered work). It has no brain of its own or ability to learn or change or leave an abusive relationship. It is simply a passive object. 

And yet this passive object obsesses nearly everyone who encounters it.
Everybody wants to fuck the doll. Everybody. The obsessives span every type of person and every walk of life: the sleazy porn mogul, the hideously disfigured man, an obnoxious intellectual, a homeless man, and dozens of others. Everybody wants to possess this doll and everybody wants to use her for their own sexual gratification. They are willing to beg, steal, even kill to seize the doll. It’s not spoiling much to say that one character even commits suicide rather than lose the doll. This sex object absolutely obsesses everyone who encounters her.

Though some characters are portrayed as having had normal sex lives, her presence causes people to obsess about the doll. They all have a deep compulsion for her, seemingly unsatisfied unless they are having sex with her or near her. Consequently, once they are exposed to her, nearly every sex scene in this 230-page book includes the doll. She is at the center of everybody’s lives and yet has no life of her own. She is a blank slate. People of both genders see what they want to see inside that blank slate, and her bottomless internal void triggers infinite levels of obsession.

There’s never any talk of strange mystical abilities in the doll or any other comic-booky explanation of the lust she incites. Instead, there is simply this implacable lust constantly simmering up from the human characters at the mere sight of Doll.

As one character says around the midpoint of the book, “It looks like you’ve created a monster that brings out some very weird energies in men. They make such objects out of women already, but now you’ve removed the woman and left the object… it… it seems to switch on some kind of unrestrained old brain aggression.

It is a smart statement which illuminates the fascinating core idea of this book: how does the simple display of an objectified female form contrast with the sharing of true intimacy? How does simple, guilt-free, no-strings-attached sex contrast with the messy and complicated aspects of real human sexuality? Do people truly lust for what is simple? Can they willingly trade the comforting, complex pain of real life for the blank void of simple lust?

The word “aggression” is also appropriate in this context because the lust to possess (though never to own) the doll leads to destruction wherever the doll is taken. Colwell depicts a tremendous amount of aggression and determination among those vying to possess it, and yet the artificial creature at its center always escapes unscathed. She has no soul so she can never be destroyed. Only her artificial flesh can possibly be damaged, but it’s nearly impregnable because her flesh is the fulfillment of men's dreams.

The doll is a tabula rasa. She fulfills dreams because she is a receptacle for dreams as well as bodily fluids. In the eyes of so many of the characters in this book, the doll represents a sort of perfection which they aspire to hold, even if briefly. The reactions to her show the shallowness of mere lust. Sex with the doll provides physical intimacy but the kind of physical intimacy she provides also deliberately avoids the kind of emotional intimacy which can provide true happiness. She can provide perfection for a time, but, eventually, the void at her center prevents true happiness.

One of the most interesting sequences of the book takes place at a meditation retreat where acolytes are sworn to celibacy. One of the religious followers discovers the doll in the woods and brings it to the retreat, where its naked body is used to tempt the religious men and women to prove their commitment to God. One by one, all the men succumb to her charms and realize they can’t leave behind their grounded, human lives.

This is a haunting sequence because the doll literally changes the way these men view their worlds. She upsets a lifetime of study, years of meditation and thought, simply because she is in the same physical location as them. She is impossible to ignore. Her vagina is too much for them to resist, and so, in turn, everyone succumbs to base sexuality over spiritual fulfillment. 
Since all these tableaux are presented with a straight face and little editorializing, the reader is confronted with the task of assessing the impact of this doll. The serious tone and Colwell’s unadorned artwork set this story firmly in the real world, albeit a real world before cell phones and one in which a doll like this could be created. I’m inclined to see the key story beats as intentional and for the themes of the story to be as Colwell intended. A thoughtful interview between Colwell and cartoonist Katie Skelly closes out this book. In that interview, Colwell talks about how he wanted to create more than a wank book. Instead, he wanted to create a comic which illuminated themes he explored in his social-realist painting and in his acclaimed comic Inner City Romance

One of those key themes is that while everybody seeks the doll, and many people possess it for short periods of time, no-one ever actually owns it. Like the idea of lust or the concept that even a white-hot passion will eventually cool, the fixation on the doll simply can’t be held by one single person for more than a short time. Though everyone seeks the anonymous pleasures of the doll, nobody actually possesses it. They simply cannot possess it. Like the idea of lust itself, there is nothing about the doll which can actually be possessed forever once the powers of its flesh become normalized. There is no space for the doll once the passion cools. Ultimately, there is no way to have a positive relationship centered exclusively around sex. Once passion and raw sexuality settle into everyday prosaic sexuality and the need for something more fulfilling in a relationship arises, the need for an unthinking sex doll dissipates. She fills a gap for a time, but eventually the need to fill that gap disappears.

The doll leaves a trail of destruction everywhere she goes. This volume starts with a delightful and happily consensual sex scene between Wiley and his wife Alicia. By the end of the book, though, Wiley and Alicia are divorced. The porn mogul is a millionaire at the beginning of Doll but penniless by the end. Poor Crepspok dies of cancer. The book even ends with a riot in the streets and the ominous comment “we’re not going to find her. Like a perpetual, tortured obsessive desire that can never be satisfied, she will gnaw away at the serenity of the world.”  The emotions created by the doll are implacable. Once unleashed, they can never be stopped.

Doll may have been published as part of a line of wank books, but creator Guy Colwell delivers much more than mere sexual thrills. In fact, he delivers a comic that is nearly the precise opposite of what it promises. In the end, Doll reads like a warning that excessive blind lust will corrupt minds, destroy lives, kill relationships, and act as slow poison for society. It’s a sobering book which contains themes that are as contemporary as they were thirty years ago. Kudos to Fantagraphics for reviving this important, intriguing work. Based on the work reprinted here and in the Inner City Romance volume, Guy Colwell is an unsung talent who has delivered some of the most provocative comics ever published. 
Jason Sacks is the host of the Classic Comics Cavalcade podcast. He writes books about comics history, including the forthcoming Steve Gerber: Conversations (due July 2019), Jim Shooter: Conversations, The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1990s and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz, or tracking down lost treasure.  

June 11, 2019

Enemies of the State #004 – THIS WOMAN'S WORK by Julie Delporte

Enemies of the State is a monthly virtual book club discussion on a recently published comic, featuring a rotating cast of comics critics.

Episode #4 of Enemies of the State features commentary on Julie Delporte’s This Woman’s Work, published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2019. This Woman’s Work is Delporte’s third major publication in English, originally published by Editions Pow Pow in 2017. Delporte is a prolific creator whose work includes the publication of the magazine Tristesse in Quebec. This Woman’s Work is a feminist autobiographical essay where Delporte’s intimate concerns resonate with the society in which we live.

The cast for this episode includes the following critics:
Daniel Elkin of Your Chicken Enemy
Alex Hoffman of Sequential State
Jules Bakes, freelance critic
Rob Clough of High Low

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, and other podcast apps or listen here and at Sound Cloud. 

If you are a comics critic and are interested in joining in on the show, please contact us at YCEReviews@gmail.com

And of course, if you have any feedback, contact us!
We hope you enjoy the podcast!

June 10, 2019

Asserting Your Own Weirdness: Rob Clough reviews NEARLY MISS by Cristina Portolano

Cristina Portolano's Nearly Miss is an Italian second cousin to D.Boyd's Chicken Rising. Both are autobiographical stories about the pre-adolescence of girls who don’t fit in with the rest of society, particularly with regard to gender roles and expectations. Both feature parents (especially fathers) who don’t understand their daughters very well. Both feature young women with a talent and passion for drawing and limitless imaginations. But of the two, Portolano's book is more directly a first-person narrative that is at turns whimsical, silly, and brutally frank. It's also a story about how growing up in a place with a strong sense of culture creates an indelible mark on a person, for good and ill. 

Portolano is hilariously blunt in documenting her eccentricities as a child, which she clung to despite the ways in which her environment often served to beat her down, including her love-hate relationship with her older brother. He acted as big brothers often do: dismissive of this adoring girl who wanted to be his shadow, but he was also highly influential in terms of comics, music, and brutal truth-telling. Much worse than her brother, though, was her experience in school, both at the hands of other kids and the nuns at her Catholic school. 

On her first day of kindergarten, Portolano made herself a necklace, went out on the playground to make friends, and promptly got her ass kicked by a girl who wanted the necklace. It was a rude introduction to life outside her family bubble, a recurring theme in the book. When she told her brother, he first admonished her and then encouraged her to play a fighting video game to learn how to defend herself — and she won. It's a page of sheer cartooning joy, which speaks to Portolano's skill as a cartoonist. It's a 2 x 3 grid panel layout, only there are no grid lines. This creates an interesting tension because it feels light and airy in terms of layout, but a closer look reveals a tight structure. The color scheme in the book is done entirely in orange, dark green, blue-green and yellow, giving the book a sunny feel no matter what was happening. That lightness of color goes hand-in-hand with the open-page layout in establishing that upbeat, almost innocent tone. Here, the video game set-up dominates the first panel, bleeding over a bit into the rest of the page. This helpfully establishes the action, allowing the other five panels to focus directly on her brother and herself. In this scene, Portolano's expert use of body language and subtle facial expressions gets across the closeness between the siblings in a way that their conversation doesn't. 
In Nearly Miss, Portolano's character has a natural curiosity about sex. There is a brutal early scene where she goes off with a young male classmate to show each other their genitals, only to be caught by a nun who spanks Portolano until she wets herself. Without having to spell it out further, it is incidents like this that sparked Portolano's life-long distrust of religion and authority in general. Like Boyd, it speaks to the way that casual cruelty perpetrated on the young, innocent, and impressionable always winds up having severe repercussions down the line. It can harden or deaden people and lead them to make bad choices. 

Portolano grew up in Naples, and this ancient Italian city was an indelible part of her personality. In many ways, this comic is a love letter to the city, especially when she draws the old buildings and narrow streets that created a complex, enticing maze to navigate. At the same time, her family's own apartment is depicted as small and homey--even cramped. Portolano draws everything with a slightly shabby quality, as though every building is slowly decaying before her eyes. Still, the bright colors in the book counteract any sort of cynicism regarding her surroundings, creating a juxtaposition of an adult's understanding of how a city ages and a child's enthusiasm for seeing all of these things for the first time. 

A running through-line in the book is the way a child gets swept up in the excitement of a local sports team doing well. Just after Portolano was born, the Naples football team won their first league championship, and her family was swept up in the mania. Portolano gets right at the heart of it — supporting the local team means that their success is the city's success and thus everyone's success. There's a funny sequence in Nearly Miss where the whole family is celebrating a goal and her mom accidentally knocks baby Portolano over while she is in her high chair. This leads to my favorite part of the book — Portolano's long, imaginary discussions with the club's superstar, infamous soccer legend Diego Maradona. Here, interestingly, she notes that "people always talked so much about him, I felt like he was part of the family."
These sequences also form key transition points in the book. They also serve as a commentary about whatever trouble Maradona was getting into at the time. Portolano upbraids him for testing positive for drugs one time and then tells him that he needs to behave because she is trying to be better too. As Portolano struggles with her transition into adolescence, Maradona says goodbye but also tells her not to "let anyone have an influence on you. And don't be ashamed, whatever you want to do or be." It's one of many funny, affecting sequences in the book that doubled as marvelously positive self-talk.

As Portolano grew older, she was constantly being told that she had to shape up and be more ladylike, because she was "nearly a miss." That meant that she was almost a teen instead of a girl, and as a result, Portolano was dreading the advent of menarche. Being a miss meant dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, looking a certain way and having a body that changed in a way that brought unwanted attention. By the book's end, Portolano's rebellion against every expectation is fully-formed when menarche finally arrived. She is going to look and act exactly how she wants, but that strength (or as she notes, the strength she was pretending to possess) comes at a price.
As funny as this book is, its creation was an act of mourning. Portolano says that she mourned not being a kid anymore at the very end of the book, and this book feels like a way of coming to terms with that grief. Portolano depicts her personality in this book as sweet and whimsical, but the only person who didn't have expectations of what she should be was her brother. He was often brusque and dismissive, but he also clearly loved her and wanted to make her life better. He didn't want her to be hurt, so he played the fighting game with her. He wanted her to have more freedom, so he taught her how to ride a bicycle. There are loving drawings of the two of them posed together in various Halloween costumes over the years that silently acknowledge the depth of their bond and how their conflicts made that bond stronger. Her brother didn't care about her being a good "miss"; he just wanted her to be the best version of who she was. He wanted her to know the truth about things (like her pet duck being taken to the butcher) instead of letting his parents keep her in the dark — even if it was hurtful. That strength and support helped Portolano find her own strength, and when he started to pull away from the family, she listened to his records and read his comics and was educated anew. 

Nearly Miss is ultimately a book about finding ways to bear inevitable burdens while mapping out one's own identity and destiny. It maps out scenes of joy and discovery as well as pain and cruelty. It's about understanding that grief extends not just to sad events, but also to happy memories of a time that is no longer available or memorable. It's drawn in a manner that emphasizes the sunny, vivid quality of childhood memories that overlap with moments of pain. It's a book that balances an expressive use of line and color with rock-solid storytelling fundamentals. It's a powerful debut for a highly skilled cartoonist whose quirky sense of humor and understanding of her own inner weirdness is on full display. 
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com,
sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).

June 9, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/3/19 to 6/7/19

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught our eye over the past week.


* Alex Hoffman reviews THE PERINEUM TECHNIQUE by Ruppert and Mulot, in which he concludes "If you’re willing to spend time thinking about what is strange about intimacy in our terminally online existence, The Perineum Technique will be a welcome read."

* Andy Oliver on PARK BENCH KENSINGTON by Peony Gent, calling it "an impression of an experience and one that becomes so resonant for a detachment that ironically makes it all the more compelling.

* Tom Shapira on WHEN I ARRIVED AT THE CASTLE by Emily Carroll who "has always been one the finer artists of her generation, casually translating a sense of darkness into beautiful illustrations that are mesmerizing in their monstrosity, but this is just something else."

* Ryan Carey looks at RED ULTRAMARINE by Manuele Fior, writing "the revelations one arrives at when considering this book are earned — as is its author’s reputation."

* Chris Gavaler reviews ALIENATION by Ines Estrada.

* Dominic Umile writes for the Los Angeles Times about ANGOLA JANGA: KINGDOM OF RUNAWAY SLAVES by Brazilian artist and writer Marcelo D'Salete.

* J.M. Suarez reviews CLYDE FANS by Seth which "achieves in not only telling a story rife with poignant and memorable moments, but it also conveys with sophistication a depth of feeling. There is sentimentality without cloying emotion, just as there are bitter shame and remorse without devolving into a depressive tome."

* Then James Smart reviews CLYDE FANS for The Guardian saying it "balances rosiness and realism, making precious fiction from the stuff of ordinary lives."

* Finally, on TCJ, seven comics scholars and Seth experts discuss the long-awaited, twenty-years-in-the-making complete collection of Seth’s CLYDE FANS

* Rob Clough reviews ONE DIRTY TREE by Noah Van Sciver, writing "Thinking about it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a child who grows up without basics like food and a reliable shelter will struggle later in life. What makes the book so compelling is the way that Van Sciver ties these struggles to specific kinds of homes and reflects on how the everyday experience of these environments had a profound effect on him."

* There's a review on Publishers Weekly of ROOFTOP STEW by Max Clotfelter that calls it "a yawp of a book that highlights Clotfelter’s willingness to confront his demons head-on and turn them into visceral and emotionally affecting art. "

* Jenny Robins on MARBLE CAKE by Scott Jason Smith, writing "Repeating motifs do underline a theme of collective humanity, but it’s the way that the author playfully invokes and subverts narrative tropes that kept me turning the pages here."

* Peter Dabbene has this short review of GRAVITY'S PULL by MariNaomi, writing "MariNaomi’s art is deceptively pared-down, at first appearing fairly simple and straightforward. But there’s much more at work here, and her thoughtful layouts and willingness to experiment prove highly effective in conveying emotions and essential information while preserving the sense of suspense that permeates the book."

* And finally, while not small press comics, David Harper has this great piece on SKTCHD called LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF NEXTWAVE: A LOOK AT THE MAKING AND MAGIC OF A COMIC BOOK CULT CLASSIC.


* Kelsey Wroten has a personal essay up on the Powells Books Blog called A QUEER LOVE LETTER TO INDIE COMICS.

* So the 2dCloud Kickstarter was canceled right before it was scheduled to end, having raised only a little over 10% of its very lofty $85,000 goal, but apparently Maggie and Raighne still have plans to keep the operation going. You can read THEIR STATEMENT HERE and then draw your own conclusions.

* AJ Dungo is doing this week's A CARTOONIST'S DIARY over on TCJ

* Leela Corman has a new comic up on The Believer called VICTORY GARDEN.

* Also on The Believer, Mira Jacob has a comic called THE MENOPAUSE.

* Andrea Shockling has posted part three of her auto-bio comic titled ANDREA'S BARIATRIC DIARY as part of her Subjective Line Weight series.

* Keiler Roberts posted THIS.

* Alex Dueben interviews KAT VERHOEVEN "about how she worked, Toronto, and Jane Fonda."

* Marie Anello interviews TANEKA STOTTS about "her insights on creating comics, her upcoming projects, and her advice for new creators."

* TWO POEMS by Cynthia X. Hua

June 5, 2019

Becoming What You Already Are: Matt Vadnais on BLOOD AND DRUGS by Lance Ward

Nietzsche described two conditions relevant to fiction that I find myself talking about a lot when I talk about comics. First, he suggested that we live in a “world of becoming” where nothing is a single thing because everything is always in the process of becoming something else. Second, he asserted that the purpose of tragedy is to allow safe passage into and out of the Dionysian world of intoxication, mania, madness, and formlessness that is usually held at bay by the Apollonian world of order, fixed identity, and sober daylight. While one could be forgiven for being skeptical of such claims given Nietzsche’s personal relationship with the Dionysian, his Birth of Tragedy suggests that Dionysian tragedy allows us to better negotiate our Apollonian lives by excising our Dionysian impulses. Like a lot of my favorite comics of the last few years, Lance Ward’s Blood and Drugs contemplates a character attempting to emerge from the realms of madness and addiction; like a lot of my favorite writers, Ward depicts a world of becoming where everything and everyone is in-process. However, unlike many of the comics I am thinking about –Liu’s Monstress and Ferris’s My Favorite thing is Monsters, for example – Blood and Drugs fits squarely in the genre of realism.

Realism is the invisible genre, supposedly guided by no rules or conventions beyond depicting the world as it is. Upon closer inspection, though, realism does offer rules that tend to reinforce the notion that things are what they are, often for implicitly political reasons because definitions tend to come from those who have power: criminals are inherently bad, wealth is inherently desirable, and on and on as definitions extend to race and gender. Realism is less prepared for things that are defined – always already, to borrow wording from postmodern theory – as being in the process of becoming other things. In the context of stories about recovery – despite the number of memoirs and support groups suggesting that recovery is an ongoing and unending process – realism as a genre exerts pressure for a story to settle on one side or the other of the question of whether or not a character is an addict or a recovered addict. Though Blood and Drugs adheres to realism by setting the story of the main character, Buster, getting clean and returning to the art world in a very real Minnesota, Ward complicates the genre in a few important ways that allow its characters to exist in a liminal state simultaneously deserving of the claim to a fixed identity but also very much on the way to that identity.
Ward conjoins the story of Buster’s recovery from addiction and the injury that derailed his career as an artist to the story of his roommate – trans woman Nance – and her transition; though Nance is presented to the reader, immediately and always, as a woman, her identity as a woman is complicated by those around her. Her transition is blocked by insurance companies and complicated by depression; she begins the story living in the group home with Buster. It is only because the group home continues to misgender her that she is Buster’s roommate; Ward shows Buster struggling to recognize Nance as she is and desires to be understood. Like Buster’s recovery, Nance’s gender identity is depicted as paradoxical; she is simultaneously always a woman and always in the process of being understood and treated as a woman. 
A second way that Ward uses realism to depict paradoxes of identity involves his formal decision to follow the 12 Step Program as a table of contents. Each section takes its name from one of the steps of recovery; importantly, though, these titles are all rendered in the past tense, asserting the step has been completed even as the chapters themselves demonstrate ways in which the steps are far from finished. By framing each chapter as a completed step that is also indicative of the need for additional work, Ward frames being recovered as a process dependent on the continual acknowledgment of one’s addiction. Like the recovery process itself, Buster’s narrative begins with the story of the hand injury that put his comics career on hold after initial success which then led to an escalating addiction on pain killers that cost him his wife and family. Beyond framing the narrative at the beginning of the recovery process, Ward’s choice to show Buster telling the story of his addiction in a past-tense chapter titled “Admitted We were Powerless” reveals that the identities of addict and recovered addict are both about transformation and process and that the two identities remain coterminous even as one, forever, completes the process of being the latter.
This chapter also does something else. By establishing Buster’s addiction as part of a different change in identity – from one who makes art to one who no longer makes art other than to sell for drugs – Ward sets readers up to pay attention to ways that even that change in identity is a process. Throughout the comic, Buster is recognized as the Buster who makes comics even as he no longer identifies as that man. The title of the comic we are reading also refers to a comic that Buster made about his experience of addiction, one that readers see with different margins and slightly different art, inside the pages of Blood and Drugs. The story of Ward’s Blood and Drugs is also about the long road to publication for Buster’s very different Blood and Drugs.

Perhaps most importantly, the art of Ward’s Blood and Drugs renders Buster’s world in a style that rhymes with Buster’s description of his post-accident artistic difficulties; because his drawing hand was damaged, he consistently asserts that he can’t draw and struggles with precision. Ward’s art, though perhaps a bit more precise than the pages we see of Buster’s, is likewise comic strip-y and often unrealistic. While both artists demonstrate a tremendous amount of talent and intentionality in terms of composition and panel layout, neither art styles emphasize technique. Beyond providing a perfect conduit for depicting the Dionysian world as one that imbues the Apollonian in the way that Buster’s Minnesota of busses and group homes exists in and amongst the middle-class city where I was born – we both bought music at Electric Fetus, for example – the shared art styles imply a lack of distance between Buster and Ward that would move the story from being real to being true.
Because another rule of realism is that theme is more fully tied to plot than it might be in other ostensibly more experimental genres, I am hesitant to talk about the conclusion to any of the characters’ journeys other than to say that I found them immensely satisfying and earned. In keeping with the other ways that Ward complicates the realistic impulse to show things in a fixed state, however, it matters that the comic ends in a way that does not undermine the suggestion that the story isn’t actually over. In any case, Blood and Drugs is a rare bit of realism that simultaneously attempts to tell a real story while also explaining exactly how and why it appears as it does on the page.

When it comes to stories of recovery, claims of honesty are probably safe and, therefore, nearly meaningless criticism. However, I remain convinced that Blood and Drugs is one of the most honest comics I’ve read in years, particularly in the ways that Ward manages to show not only the real world but the rules by which he and Buster are creating and negotiating those rules, rules that, in every page of both versions of Blood and Drugs, forward a kind of realism that would appeal to Nietzsche as much as it did to me, a reader much more accustomed to Law and Order and other, less experimental, depictions of reality. 
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

June 3, 2019

“Uncomfortable in a Good Way”: Rob Kirby reviews OFF SEASON by James Sturm

In Off Season, James Sturm examines — and lays bare — the charged emotions of a working-class man named Mark, recently separated from his wife, Lisa. Mark’s already intense personal circumstances unfold against the backdrop of the rancorous 2016 presidential elections, and he absorbs the warped political culture around him, which seems to only magnify all the wrongness in his life. 

This is an emotionally harrowing tale, rendered in artfully composed cameo-like panels, awash in moody greys. Oh, and all the characters are cast as dogs—providing an important distance to the narrative. The result? Sturm captures our fraught sociopolitical moment so acutely it can be downright uncomfortable to read (but, you know, in a good way). 

Off Season begins in the final weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Mark is an independent housing contractor and his estranged wife, Lisa, is an educator. They have two children, Suzie and Jeremy. Mark has recently moved into his own apartment and sees the kids on weekends; the couple is teetering on the brink of divorce while Mark teeters on the brink of financial disaster. The stage is set. 

As is the tenor of the day, Mark and Lisa’s feelings reflect the omnipresent political drama playing out around them: conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, Trump vs. Hillary, male vs. female. Mark, once an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter (along with Lisa, who now favors Hillary Clinton), feels deflated: “Unlike Lisa, it’s hard for me to get enthusiastic about any of it anymore. Yeah, Trump is a walking sack of bullshit but Hillary is just more of the same old crap (…) Not that I’d vote for Trump but at least he’s his own man.” 

When tween-aged daughter Suzie presses him on who he is voting for, Mark is first ambiguous, then contradicts himself: 

Mark: There are other people running. Maybe I’m what is called an “undecided voter.”

Suzie: You have to pick someone.

Mark: I did pick someone.

Sturm never reveals who Mark ultimately votes for, but this passage deftly illustrates Mark’s conflicted, feckless nature and how his feelings increasingly clash with Lisa’s political views. 

In the following weeks and months, Mark’s simmering anger becomes more apparent and Sturm skillfully exposes the underlying tension in scenes of everyday life, using narrative captions in ironic juxtaposition to the action in the panels. In a vignette called “The Hungry Giant,” for example, Mark indulges in a familiar game of horseplay with his kids during a weekend visit, playing a scary giant who awakens hungry and chases after them, to their terrified delight. In the game, the giant must be placated and put back to sleep . . . but then he wakes up and the game begins again. In the captions, Mark tells an alternate narrative, describing how his brother Alan, twice-divorced, has been urging Mark to “lawyer up.” But Mark believes the respect Lisa and he share will see them through the separation. Perhaps Mark is being naïve and in denial; by not listening to his brother, he risks “waking a sleeping giant.” Or perhaps not. 
Eventually, Mark’s anger towards Lisa grows and spills over into his feelings about Clinton’s candidacy; we suspect a possible grudging allegiance to Trump, perhaps as revenge. This focus of Off Season feels particularly current. In the two-plus years since the election, many progressives (me included), have become increasingly frustrated by the seeming proliferation of media profiles of white, male Trump supporters, meant ostensibly to “promote understanding,” while minimizing or ignoring their subjects’ underlying misogyny and/or racism (don’t even get started on the fact that these white men are always the mainstream media’s default for such profiles in the first place). That said, Mark is a fascinating, well-rounded character study, practically a template for the Disaffected-Working-Class-White-Male-Voter. Through him, Sturm weaves issues of class and gender relations seamlessly into the narrative; unlike our media, Sturm refuses pat characterizations or easy answers. 

It’s been said that once you truly understand someone it is much harder to dislike them. Though Mark often displays misplaced anger and irrationality, his love for his wife and children is always evident, shining through his darker impulses. We see and appreciate his struggles to remain afloat in situations where he is rendered powerless. For example, while he tries to bring integrity and professionalism to his work, he’s stuck with a smarmy project coordinator named Mick who flat-out lies to him, continually offering excuses about his ability to pay Mark adequately, while posting photos on social media of his expensive weekend getaways. Mark has our sympathies when he finally confronts Mick, albeit not in the destructive way in which he does so. Sturm illustrates this sequence with cool restraint, presenting it as a dark still-life. Somehow keeping the action off-camera adds to its impact:
Sturm provides generous background to Mark and Lisa’s history, which includes Lisa’s history with major depression and her one-time affair. Like Mark, she is presented as a decent but complicated person. Though the story is told entirely from Mark’s perspective, Sturm’s significant skills with character and nuance flesh out Lisa and the rest of the characters considerably. 

Off Season ends after the election, in December, when Mark and Lisa decide to convey a united, harmonious front in order to spend Christmas with Mark’s family. When Mark’s father receives a MAGA hat as a gift, it’s a particularly awful moment for Lisa, but Mark’s empathy leaps to the fore, and he later discretely hides the cap away to avoid further upsetting her (and tellingly, not upsetting anyone else either—Mark’s political leanings remain opaque). We’re left thinking perhaps there’s a little hope for these two yet (whether there’s hope for the US body politic is another question altogether). An odd epilogue titled “Watching a cat cough up a hairball during Suzie’s piano lesson,” depicts exactly what it sounds like: a metaphor for getting all the bad stuff out. Sturm hints at a sound resolution to this troubled marriage, then further suggests that striving towards even a fake solidarity or understanding is better than not trying at all. In teasing out ambiguities and insisting on the humanity of his flawed but deeply human protagonist, Sturm has created both an anxious document of our political moment and one of the best graphic novels of the year. 
Rob Kirby is a cartoonist, editor, and writer who lives in Minneapolis. He is the author of Curbside Boys and editor/creator of anthologies such as the Ignatz Award-winning QU33R, the Ignatz-nominated series THREE, What’s Your Sign, Girl? Cartoonists Talk About Their Sun Signs, and The Shirley Jackson Project: Comics About Her Life and Work. He also writes for TCJ.com, Publishers Weekly, and other venues. Rob is currently at work on the graphic memoir Marry Me a Little.