February 20, 2019

"I Try To Find The Funny In Everything:" -- Rob Clough interviews NOVEMBER GARCIA

November Garcia is one of the freshest and funniest voice in autobiographical comics. While she's skilled at playing up her wacky escapades with her husband Roy, the joke-generating machine that is her mom and her initial insecurity in approaching the indy comics community, the reality is that she is one of the most skilled humorists in comics. After several misfires earlier in her career, she's in a groove right now that's seen her published by Hic & Hoc, PEN America, and Popula. She won the Dash Grant from Short Run Seattle. Her most recent work saw her emerge as a fully-formed voice, yet she's worked hard to improve at aspects of her craft that she's been dissatisfied with. That said, she emerged with a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity in her comedic voice. She's fearless in tackling difficult subjects, using certain deflective and self-deprecatory techniques to prevent her comics from becoming maudlin. She has a way of boiling down anecdotes to their humorous essence in a way that doesn't feel stilted or fake. Her figure drawing is rubbery and expressive. Garcia's mixture of enthusiasm and glee for the things she loves and visceral disgust for the things she doesn't comes across vividly on the page. In this interview, we'll examine Garcia's roots and provide critical context for her work.


Family and Background

Rob Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you?

November Garcia: I was born and raised in a little suburb in Manila, Philippines. We call them “villages” here. They’re just suburbs, not like huts or anything like that. My elementary school and high school were in that same village, and all my friends lived in that same village. So I never had a reason to leave the village. 

I’m now 41 and am proud to say that many moons ago I escaped the village to a magical city 6,963 miles away for 13 years. I have since moved back… to a different village.

RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends with whom you read comics?

NG: As a child, I grew up reading Archie, Garfield, and Peanuts. The usual hits, because that’s all we could get over here. I found a photo where I was reading Woody Woodpecker and am proud of that. Every kid growing up in the ‘80s here pretty much read the same comics.

In my teens, I would buy comics from Tower Records when my family went on holiday in the US. That’s when I got into Sandman and Tank Girl. Yeah, yeah, I know, quit laughing.

RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings and friends?

NG: I always drew. I’d make up stories in my head and just draw them out nonsensically. My dad was the president of an ad agency, and his desk always had a stack of newsprint and a cup of sharpened pencils––that was my favorite place in the world to draw. At home, I’d whine: “Mom, I’m booooored! Can I have a pencil and paper?”.

I actually made a lot of teen drama comics with dogs as the characters (maybe an Archie influence). I recently unearthed some “ads” I drew as inserts, like dogs selling toilet paper. I really loved dogs. 

My two sisters were more into ballet, piano, Barbies, and drawing fashion dresses. I’m the son that my dad never had.

RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

NG: Honestly, I was a spoiled brat, being the baby of the family. (I was a... er... surprise/blessing having been born 6 years after my second sister). I rebelled a lot in my teens and beyond—and coming from a decent family, I couldn’t understand what my problem was. Today, after living on my own in a major American city, I realize that it was the repression and the monotony and the “sheep mentality” all around me. I was itching for more but didn’t know what, exactly.

RC: Your mom is one of your go-to characters in Malarkey. She even contacts you with complaints after reading some of your strips. What does she think of you putting her in your strips in general? Has she been supportive of your career as a cartoonist?

NG: She only gets mad when I write about Jesus, drinking, or drugs. Otherwise, she’s fine with it (although sometimes she’ll say the quintessential “Don’t make a comic about this!”). My parents have always supported my creative endeavors. Being a creative person himself, my dad always said, “Thank God none of you girls became boring doctors or lawyers!”. He probably regrets that now, though.

The mom comics actually began as a Christmas gift to my dad. I did a dad book full of strips about him and had it printed professionally. He loved it, so the next year, I made him a mom book. There are a lot of gems in that one which I wished I had put in Malarkey but they all live somewhere in the Tumblr and on my dad’s coffee table.

RC: Do you plan to do strips about your dad in the future? He's conspicuous by his absence in your current work.

NG: I would if he did something funny –– my mom just keeps stealing the show. There are definitely memories worth making strips about. Maybe I’ll look through that dad book I made to see if there’s something there.

RC: Did you study art in high school or college?

NG: Our high school here is like elementary school in the sense that you don’t get to choose subjects. And you’re in the same damn classroom all day. So I just had the generic art classes in high school where you make a dumb collage or something.

I was kind of a burnout, so I didn’t get into the best (and only) art college here. They had a talent test where, if you passed, it would supersede your failure of what is the equivalent of the SATs in the States. I also failed the talent test, so I guess I was a really bad artist. I ended up going to my “back-up” college, which I’d previously vowed that I would never attend — but my mom forced me to take the entrance exam anyway: “In case you end up with no school!”. When I needed to declare a major, I checked the box for “advertising” only because my cousin did.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up privileged, and, after college, I convinced my dad to send me to art school in San Francisco. I chose the school solely on the location and turned down his offer to send me to London or New York. I dropped out after one year because I eloped with a guy I met at that art school. Poor dad.

But I returned in my late 20s with a vengeance, determined to finish what I started. I switched to a program that had Graphic Design classes, which saved my life and got me out of the pet care industry. 


Early Days

RC: You've written that you started doing comics in your early twenties and even submitted them to various publishers. What were those comics like?

NG: I was going through my psychedelic phase, so they were these awful comics with a character named Bean who had misadventures in an incense and peppermints world. It had no words and was pure “eye candy” with swirls, heavy stippling, wild patterns, and bendy trees. 

I was so delusional that when I bought my first Frank comic by Jim Woodring, I proclaimed “Great! Now the world will think I’m copying this guy!”

I only ever submitted my comics to ONE publisher: Fantagraphics. Haha! And when they sent their rejection letter, I had the gall to email Peter Bagge for his opinion as to why. I asked, “Is it the art or the writing?” and he said “Both”.

Yes, I had huge balls and nothing resembling a clue back then.

RC: You've listed Peter Bagge as one of your earliest influences. What other cartoonists were formative for your work?

NG: Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory. I only discovered them when I got to San Francisco. My ex was into comics too (he got me into Crumb) and tried to get me into Angry Youth Comix and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac but those didn’t stick.

RC: You note Bagge as an influence, yet your recent work is autobiographical. Have you ever considered doing humorous fiction?

NG: I guess I cite him as a huge influence because I’m so invested in his characters, especially the HATE series and The Bradleys. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-read that series. I know my work looks nothing like his, like I’m horrible at feathering, which he does a lot of. But I love his art and writing.

I wish I could do humorous fiction but I don’t think my writing skills are good enough. I stick with the “write what you know” approach, and even then, it’s a struggle. The material comes easily, but autobio can be so self-serving ... I constantly have to find ways to avoid navel-gazing. The question “Why should anyone give a shit?” always helps.

RC: Did you quit comics for any period of time after that? If so, for how long? What led to your quitting?   

NG: As I entered my late 20s, I didn’t exactly quit — I just did it more sporadically. I got a corporate job and spent most of my spare time feeding my “tattoo artist” phase. Roy was friends with a bunch of tattooers. He bought all this tattoo equipment and we’d practice on pigskin. I thought this would be my new “out”... just waltz into a shop and say “Hey dudes, check out my awesome portfolio.” I call it “Fantagraphics Submission Delusion: Part Two”.

I actually enjoyed making the designs but all that machinery and hullabaloo was just not in the cards for me.

During this time, I did make a comic series called “Catholic Girls” about my high school experiences and it went viral in Manila. There were heated debates in the comments section of my blog. My drawing was horrible and I used computer lettering so just don’t google it. (But I bet you will! Argh)

RC: You know that I had to. It reads like a more labored version of what you do now, with lots more cross-hatching and such, but it's still the same voice. Have you thought about revisiting and revising this material?

NG: Perhaps. I touched a bit on it in my PEN America comic but I’m open to doing some vignettes. It’s just hard for me to remember a lot of things from that time and I rely a lot on my friends’ memories from high school. I probably blocked out a lot of it from trauma.

RC: How old were you when you moved from the Philippines to the US? What was that transition like?

NG: I didn’t graduate with an art degree so I couldn’t apply for a Masters. I got a second degree instead, so at 23, I was the oldest person in my dorm. 

I arrived in San Francisco with too much confidence ... I thought I was so cool because I was one of the “edgiest” people in my village, haha! There was definitely a learning curve, culturally. Simple things like having to walk up and talk to strangers to make friends (people aren’t as forward in Manila). I also did a lot of naive things because I was used to being in a safe bubble where you couldn’t get into any serious trouble. My ignorance literally almost landed me in prison (a possible future comic and also, sorry mom and dad), mugged, sexually harassed, or beat up. I’m a fast learner though, so I assimilated quickly.

RC: That sounds like an entire book's worth of experiences. Any plans to write about that soon?

NG: I always wanted to do a strip about the close call with ending up in jail, but it’s so heavy and loaded with dark events. I have to figure out how to do it in my writing style, keeping it light. The same goes for the sexual harassment ... I just don’t see any way of writing about that without being heavy. I wrote about some of the other stuff in Foggy Notions, like being held at gunpoint, the black eye, etc. so I probably won’t do another book of San Francisco-specific experiences. 

Foggy Notions

Published by Hic and Hoc, Foggy Notions is Garcia's second comic but her official debut. It's a departure from her self-published work in that it's a series of interrelated, longer-form vignettes about her time living in San Francisco. While not gag-oriented, it's still funny because Garcia focuses on the weird, the inappropriate and the extreme--and that's just with regard to her own behavior. "My First Black Eye" is the prototypical Garcia story, as a woman on a bus tries to steal her phone and punches Garcia in the face. A black eye in her case was a serious thing, given that she's almost blind in the eye that wasn't punched. The mix of outrageousness and anxiety gives the piece tense energy and sets the tone for the rest of the book. 

"Everlast" may be about a homeless person she and Roy saw all the time, but it's also a walking tour of San Francisco that sets the stage for documenting a city that was about to be forever altered by gentrification. Here we see Garcia's difficulty with backgrounds inhibiting the story a bit because it doesn't give the reader enough of the unique aspects of the city. However, her cartooning with regard to people is excellent, especially with regard to facial expressions, body language and figures interacting in space. 

RC: Foggy Notions was your first comic released by a publisher, correct? Other than Malarkey, did you self-publish any comics before this?

NG: No, in fact, Malarkey just came into existence because my publisher asked me if I had anything lying around that he could give away at SPX. So I compiled a bunch of comics from my Tumblr into a zine and mailed them to him. That’s the first comic you ever read from me too!

RC: Matt Moses handed it to me and talked you up, but it was remarkably assured work considering it was your first go. How long you had been doing comics on Tumblr at that time?

NG: I was posting comics here and there on my blog for years but was only posting on Tumblr for a few months. They weren’t very good, but after Matt took me under his wing he gave me good advice [about cartoonists to emulate.] That really helped me approach comics in a more mature way going forward and I also made them more frequently. Those are the strips that went into that first Malarkey.  

RC: How did you come to work with Matt Moses of Hic andHoc?

NG: In 2015, my website was down so I started a Tumblr account and posted a bunch of comics on there. I saw Hic and Hoc in my network and they had a submissions button, so I sent two awful strips which were rejected. I had just gotten over the blighted ovum incident and the comics were very dark. Thankfully, this at least got me on Matt’s radar and he must have seen some potential in other stuff I posted after that. Eventually, he contacted me about trying something out.

RC: Foggy Notions is different from most of your self-published work. While it's funny, the stories are longer and are all set during your time living in San Francisco. Was this part of your pitch, or was this something that Matt wanted?

NG: Matt wanted something cohesive so I pitched a couple of themes and we settled on the San Francisco stories. I really enjoy longer narrative writing and Malarkey is more of my “release” from that ... just stuff for laughs and fun in between the serious work. I’ve been meaning to do more narrative stuff like Rookie Moves. My comics on PEN America and Popula that came out recently are reflective of what I want to do next.

RC: How long was it after you left San Francisco that you wrote these comics? Were you aware that you were documenting a city that no longer exists?

NG: I had just moved back to the Philippines when I started writing those, probably 3 years in. I always knew I had some stories to tell and that things were changing, especially after I moved. I just didn’t know the extent and the quickness of how the city was changing during the period that I was writing the comics from here.

RC: "Everlast" is a story whose central gag relies on a homeless man wearing an Everlast jacket. It also serves as a walking tour of San Francisco. Was it important for you to give the reader a strong sense of the city's flavor during the course of the comic?

NG: I didn’t really overthink it. It was just another part of my life living there and a running joke between me and Roy (other people in the neighborhood knew him too, like the guy who does my tattoos and Roy’s friend who owns a vintage clothing store). 

It was the first story I pitched to Matt because it was the most mundane storyline, and I wanted to prove that I could write beyond pure spectacle. Today, I do regret not having shown more of my neighborhood for that comic, but my skills back then were very limited.
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RC: Do you feel that writing about the "pure spectacle" aspects of your life is somehow cheating as a creator, like it's an easy shortcut?

NG: If the story of spectacle is one hell of a story, then I’m all for writing about it. I only think it’s cheating if you rely on spectacle alone to write all your stories. Gabrielle Bell is a master storyteller in my opinion because she could literally be watching paint dry and write an amazing story about that.

RC: As an author, you have an interesting relationship with the excesses of your own behavior. You seem to walk a line between worried about it and playing it up for laughs. Are there past stories that you read and cringe at, or is it all just fodder for good storytelling?

NG: I definitely cringe at past stories, especially from Malarkey #2 when I was going through a tough time. I try to avoid whiney autobio. But that’s where I was at at the time so that’s what I wrote about. In Malarkey #3, there are practically no substance abuse stories (not that I’m saying they didn’t happen, yuk! yuk!).

I’ve always had an impulsive and addictive personality, which is not a good combination, but at the same time I’m reasonable enough to remain a “functioning adult”. So there’s that conundrum of not really having a serious problem — by cutting it off right at the limit. 

Let’s change the subject, haha!

RC: Okay. How did you develop your lettering style? Your letter size is bigger than most cartoonists, and you use interesting loops in places.

NG: I’ve always had horrible handwriting, so I have no idea where that came from. I do remember that in school, my friends would crack up at how neat my handwriting was when I had to write out visual presentations.

As they say, “Lettering is Drawing” so that probably explains that. I do hate that my lettering is so huge and I’ve been trying to adjust it, but it’s really hard for me.

February 18, 2019

Blood's Thicker Than Mud: Rob Clough reviews Rina Ayuyang's BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE

On the surface, Rina Ayuyang's autobiographical vignettes in her book Blame This On The Boogie (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018) are breezier than most memoir comics. She grew up in a loving family and still gets to see them all the time. She has a wonderful life in the Bay Area with her husband and son. She has lots of passionate interests and has the time and opportunity to obsess over them in amusing ways. A deeper reading of the book, though, reveals that her hobbies are a way of coping with anxiety. Her family has long been a bulwark against creeping depression, aiding her in coping with racism. There's also a larger theme of how being a part of a team can provide an individual with the kind of support needed to overcome life's obstacles. 

The tone of Blame This On The Boogie is upbeat and funny. Ayuyang clearly loves to poke fun at her family and friends, but she also depicts them giving as good as they get. Her parents emigrated from the Philippines to America, and Ayuyang grew up very Americanized, even as her classmates often bullied her for her ethnicity and made her feel like an outsider. The first half of Blame This On The Boogie covers her childhood in Pittsburgh as the youngest of four children. From the very beginning of the book, Ayuyang goes all-in on creating a vividly bright world using colored pencils. Considering that she started her career working in an intense woodcut style, it was interesting to see her embrace this radiant use of color. Make no mistake — it wasn't just the use of color that is significant but also the clearly scrawled-out quality of her coloring. It is obvious that the visceral quality of the coloring is a feature of what she is doing, complementing her cartoony line while granting the entire project a childlike sense of wonder.
That use of color also had a specific purpose: creating a slightly wobbly version of reality where fantasy elements can be introduced without disturbing the visual continuity of the story. In particular, Ayuyang makes use of this in depicting one of the key running themes in the book: her love of dance. After a long section that introduces her family, Ayuyang notably uses a disco dance routine by her godparents to frame the title section of the book. It's a deliberately cinematic move, one of many in the book. When young Ayuyang is introduced to the films of Fred Astaire as a child, she's hooked by the artistry, the pageantry and the choreography of the dance routines. The sheer joy of those films, along with the frequent dance parties she had with her older sisters, was a counterpoint to her mostly miserable experience in Catholic school. As well as being taunted by other kids for being Asian, her teachers terrorized her. 

Ayuyang uses dance as a visual motif signifying transitions and time moving on. It's the most essential form of sequential art: following a body moving through space and time. She simply uses that motion as a metaphor, especially in the second half of the book. The first half of the book is all about her experience as the youngest member of the family, being part of this team that loved and aggravated each other in equal measure, and finally winding up being together with all of them again in San Francisco when her siblings moved there, one by one. The final page of the first half has them at a big table in a restaurant, jabbering at each other. Everyone's married and babies are on the way. It's a perfect pivot point.
The second half of Blame This On The Boogie is a series of smaller vignettes that center around Ayuyang's new life as a mother. Much of the book focuses on the mixture of joy and anxiety she feels in watching her son, Finn, grow up as a fun-loving, popular kid in school. She's relieved that he loves school so much and does so well there, but she's constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's also a focus of time flipping by too quickly, as she despairs at not being able to stay in the moment and enjoy being a mother. There is guilt about doing her comics and any activity that takes her away from her family, but there is also a sense of accomplishment when she gets her fledgling publishing company off the ground. 
Working in the present tense means that Ayuyang also focuses on her anxiety and occasional bouts with depression. She's anxious about maintaining her career as an artist. She feels like a failure as a mother, especially in the early going. That's when she reaches out to the world of dance once more, becoming a superfan of the TV show Dancing With The Stars because of the presence of former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward. The world of the show becomes her world via the internet, as even her son and husband get swept along with her fervor. Her response to Ward's dance routines with his partner Kym reaches a level of intensity that's almost childlike. It takes her back to her love of Steelers’ football as well as the dance routines of her youth, and the competitive nature of the program only heightens her excitement. 

Seeing a live taping of the show with her relatives closes a loop for her, both as the logical outcome of her fandom as well as making her interest that much more personal and visceral. She gets to see "The Big Show" and experience life as a series of dramatic moments that nonetheless stack up neatly. It is another of many pivot moments in the book, as though she starts one dance, ends it, and then smoothly transitions into a different routine. That sense of rhythm is life-sustaining in Blame This On The Boogie. It gives Ayuyang a pattern she can follow and emulate. It gives her life structure and a respite for her anxiety. It allows her to think of the time slipping away from her as another act to savor and remember, even though "It's hard to reminisce when memories are constantly being replaced by new ones."
Ayuyang's comic timing is sharp. One thing that's clear is that every member of her family is a champion shit-talker, giving as good as they get. While this level of aggressiveness (albeit affectionate) can be annoying, it's also fodder for all kinds of witty banter. She and her friend Josh Frankel have a number of hilarious exchanges when he calls her out for spending so much time on Facebook on a group dedicated to Hines Ward and Kym Johnson. Ayuyang usually makes herself the target of her jokes, even as she sputters in trying to defend herself. It contributes to the book's breezy, fast pace. On every page, Ayuyang either lands a joke or draws people in motion as a way of keeping the book away from simple talking heads. 

How do movie musicals end? With a show-stopping finale, of course. That's just what Ayuyang does here, as we see Finn dancing like his mother through life. When she walks away after dropping him off at his beloved school, she dissolves into a series of colorful squiggles that emphasize pure form and movement. This eventually coalesces into her reappearing with her husband in a choreographed series of movements in a restaurant and a Busby Berkeley- style fantasy sequence involving Ayuyang in a fancy outfit and a giant fountain. After stepping away from that fantasy, she's joined by her husband, her family … and ... Hines Ward in a giant group dance number that ends the book. It's a funny and charming sequence that is a lovely ode to the sort of Stanley Donen musicals she references in Blame This On The Boogie. Reality flips into something else for just a few precious moments to be savored. Moreover, musicals traditionally have people break out into song and dance numbers when their emotions are simply too powerful to express otherwise. 
For Ayuyang, thinking about dance and music gave her emotions and anxieties a much-needed outlet as a child. Being able to share that love of dance & music with her family served to strengthen her bond with them. As she started her own family, dance and musicals helped with different anxieties, especially surrounding her son. Her fears that he would suffer from similar kinds of problems that she did hung over her, but the reality is that he possesses her same upbeat personality and love of dance and movement. He sees the world as she does: a constant, shifting series of beautiful miracles, only he doesn't have the same level of anxiety or have to face the same sort of difficulties as she did at this stage of his life. It's that realization that kicks off the final "dance number" in the book: a celebration of everyone in her life who's on her team. 
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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).

February 13, 2019

One Thousand Images for a Single Idea: Fred McNamara reviews WHAT IS 'HOME'? by Anja Uhren

The quotation marks in the title of Anja Uhren’s comic What Is ‘Home’? serve as a gateway into its thematic exploration. The emphasis placed on the word home forces the reader to consider what exactly constitutes a ‘home’? When reading Uhren’s efforts, it’s clear that a sense of subjectivity is at the heart of the book, since part of What is ‘Home’?’s construction relies on the artist bringing onboard numerous contributors to the comic’s questioning title. This collaboration makes What is ‘Home’? a world away from her other works. Here, Uhren presents an intensely subjective piece of sequential work. The nature of the comic ensures that no answer is the same, no answer is right or wrong.

Uhren utilizes the far-reaching answers to her titular question to craft a visual journey, skipping from page to page, bringing a variety of different answers to life. What is ‘Home’? may be brief, clocking in at 35 pages, but each page packs in a world’s worth of answers via a divergent, intriguing selection of ideas and Uhren’s characteristically melancholic artwork. Nearly every page in What is ‘Home’? serves as a splash page, a canvas built to incorporate multiple sets of answers which, while separate, complement each other enough for Uhren to fashion an overall idea. While the definitions of “home” may stand apart from each other, there isn’t a sense of jarring ideologies from the comic’s participants. Uhren knows how to categorize ideas based on their tone and the image of home they conjure forth.
The result is an eloquent, intimate flow through literal and metaphorical depictions of home. Some of the answers Uhren uses are straight-forward, unflinching in their directness, while others are more abstract, more reminiscent. Throughout, though, Uhren anchors her illustrations with an exaggerated sense of shape and perspective that lends the comic a rather dream-like quality. Each image is held together by a limited color palette, which helps to cement the overall mood of that page. Uhren’s visual sensitivity is in full flow here. Lighter colors are used to reflect happier, pleasant musings on the meaning of home, while darker, pensive colors illuminate the more negative or unsure connotations.

Uhren’s use of shape and shadow, in particular, helps give What is ‘Home’? a sense of depth and scale. The architecture of Uhren’s various homes is often seen shrouded in murky shadow, as if to comfort or confine the individuals inside, depending on the accompanying definition of the term. There’s a quiet confidence in how Uhren takes these similar visual combinations and pulls forth separate moods from them. Answers and art may be working in tandem here, but moments like these show how Uhren’s craft is very much in charge.
The uncategorized pace of the comic means that, as a reader, you’re never quite sure what manner of answer you’ll be getting with each page turn, and What is ‘Home’? is all the better for it. Rather than coming across as erratic, there’s a sense of ebb and flow to the book, swaying from light to dark and back again. With such a wide variety of ideas to bring to life with her artwork, it’s a testament to Uhren’s skills as a visual storyteller that What is ‘Home’? bears a serene, almost calming sensibility.

Of course, Uhren isn’t the sole voice in this work. If anything, she’s rarely heard at all, as she allows her 50+ contributors to wax lyrical over their personal definitions of home. The variety of answers makes What is ‘Home’? read like an anthology, but Uhren’s cohesive style gives it a potent, sequential definition. Uhren herself acts as something of a curator for these thoughts and musings, as the definitions span a variety of lengths. Some consist of a single sentence, while others form numerous paragraphs, giving What is ‘Home’? an all-encompassing narrative depth.
The answers themselves boast an inquisitive sensitivity. Some define home as a literal, definitive object; a “big blue house”. Others take a more lyrical approach, linking the physical definitions of home to an emotional state: “Home means more today than it did yesterday and it’ll mean more tomorrow than it did today”. Uhren’s openness in bringing together clashing perspectives gives What is ‘Home’? a universal mood, as if every conceivable emotion tied to the idea of home is represented here. That variety of answers also ensures that the comic’s tone is kept in flux. Both positive and negative depictions of what home exactly means are scattered throughout the book, meaning that despite the comic’s overall melancholic mood, it rarely lingers on one specific feeling for too long.

Yet the text itself remains somewhat underserved by Uhren’s art. Her caricatured visuals dwarf the accompanying text, to the point where it’s occasionally impractical. The text is at its most effective when it’s ingrained into the furniture of Uhren’s panels, and when there are panels rather than splash pages. In Uhren’s splash pages, the text appears somewhat loose and untamed. On one level, that informal attitude adds to the low-key, sketchbook feel of What is ‘Home’?, but the narrative of the comic is at its most muscular when its visual structure is at work. The playful integration of the text amid Uhren’s diverse images illuminate their message, and also allows Uhren’s flexible style to unwind, adding to the exuberant intimacy of this endearing comic.
What is ‘Home’? is a spellbindingly distinct read. Its romantic qualities give even the darker moments an immersive feel. Its unique structure and gorgeous visuals fuse together into a charmingly sweet comic book. Uhren’s talents have always been well-tailored to visual narratives. Here, though, she allows her own narrative to take a step back and allow for a collaborative spectrum of ideas, musings, and poetry from which to build her comic.

What is ‘Home’? doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question it poses, but it isn’t meant to. Rather, What is ‘Home’? shows that a word many might think to have a universally appreciated meaning has, instead, wildly diverse ones which Uhren explores to great effect. Her sublime artwork has little difficulty conjuring forth the multitude of emotions stated in the myriad of definitions. With melancholic colors and distorted shapes crafted to exquisite effect, the book’s overall message is executed with razor-sharp clarity. What is ‘Home’? stands as an enjoyably eclectic, experimental entry in Uhren’s growing back catalog of warm, hypnotic visual narratives.
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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.

February 11, 2019

Demystifying Illness: Rob Clough on the GRAPHIC MEDICINE: COMICS AS A MEDIUM FOR NARRATIVES OF ILLNESS show at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery

It's been interesting to track Graphic Medicine as a comics movement over the past decade. The term was coined by Welsh physician Ian Williams, who wrote comics under the nom de plume of Thom Ferrier until he chose to start using his real name. I'm not sure if it was just part of the zeitgeist, but the advent of Graphic Medicine came at a time when autobiographical comics switched from quotidian material to a more direct examination of experiences like illness, parenthood, and mental health. Williams' iconic "I Am A Shit Doctor" image is symbolic of the movement from the caregiver's perspective. It directly reflects Graphic Medicine's aim of humanizing medicine and creating a sense of empathy between doctor and patient. That's especially true in the UK, where thanks to the National Health Service, everyone is entitled to free healthcare. Being a doctor isn't a gateway to making a lot of money like it is in the US, and there is a corresponding decrease in prestige as a result. That said, the discipline is the same, as is the corresponding level of stress that accompanies it. 

Williams teamed up with an American nurse named M.K. Czerwiec, who works in hospice care and HIV/AIDS, to formalize the movement and give it an academic bent. There have been yearly conferences since 2010, and the comics have gone from self-published minis and webcomics to having major publishers. What's interesting is that all of this has gone on in parallel to both mainstream comics and alternative comics. When I mentioned it off-handedly to a comics publisher last year, her ears perked up because she had never heard of the term before. Graphic Medicine is partly an academic movement and partly a true mainstream movement. Part of its focus is to get both potential readers and artists to recognize comics as a legitimate art form. It should be noted that a central part of its mission is to empower health care professionals and patients alike so that they can tell their stories.

Medicine and cartooning complement each other well, in part, because it's easy to think of disease in narrative terms. It often has a beginning, middle, and end. It offers dramatic struggles, setbacks, and successes. It's open to a variety of visual approaches, from graphic naturalism to magical realism. Even mental illness, whose depiction is perhaps the backbone of Graphic Medicine, can be depicted in a variety of ways despite being an outwardly internalized struggle. The trick is to get potential artists thinking like cartoonists as opposed to illustrators. Not everyone can be taught to be a great draftsman, but anyone can be taught the fundamentals of cartooning. 
That certainly is true when one looks at the length and breadth of the books that fall within this category. Interestingly, the story that's considered to be the foundation of modern autobio is explicitly wrapped up with mental health: Justin Green's 1972 classic "Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary". That story details Green's struggle with crippling OCD and how it got wrapped up in Catholic iconography. Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack's Our Cancer Year in 1994 was the first cancer narrative, and it's still the best. As oncology has evolved to provide better outcomes for patients, the social and emotional well-being of the patients has become increasingly important. This book illustrates why, as cancer has a powerfully disruptive effect on both patients and their familial caretakers. Other examples include David B's 1996 book Epileptic (which is not only about his epileptic older brother but also about the lifestyle changes his family his family adopted in an effort to help him) and Ellen Forney's Marbles (2012), which is one of many first-person accounts of bipolar disorder. 

While encouraging patients to tell their stories is a crucial aspect of Graphic Medicine, I'd argue that at its core, it's still more of an academic and vocational movement. It's giving voice to a particular expression of how one can combine medicine and the humanities, one that has a unique power. That power stems from the paradox of telling one's own story: the more particular and personal its details, the wider its overall appeal becomes. I believe this is true because of basic human empathy. When reading someone's story and realizing they're revealing something personal and vulnerable ("spilling some ink", as Rob Kirby and I like to put it), it's easier to empathize and thus identify with that story than a more generic story. Even if that experience comes from a completely different point of view, it doesn't matter. 
As comics has continued to become part and parcel of academic curriculums in the US, so too has Graphic Medicine expanded. At Duke University, recent grads Kelsey Graywill and Omar Khan recently unveiled a new show at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery titled "Graphic Medicine: Comics as a Medium for Narratives of Illness." That duo taught a house course on the subject in the spring of 2018, and Graywill, in particular, is an interesting talent. As an undergrad, she created her own major: "Creating Meaning: Empirical & Evolutionary Neuroaesthetics." Throughout her life, she's always focused on working in science & medicine, as well as being an artist, finding ways to integrate them and bring them to a wider audience. 

With Czerwiec as a mentor, she branched off into cartooning from a variety of perspectives. She's been an EMT, so she's seen its crises from that perspective. She's done stories about her own bipolar disorder. She's drawn comics about being a pre-med student observing a surgery and being told how a doctor must always think of their patient as a person rather than the latest set of body parts that relate to their technique. All of these comics were in the Louise Jones Brown Gallery show, and each one is in a different style. Her EMT comic is a single-panel gag strip, albeit one with a dark punchline. The story about observing a surgery is a typically formatted comic. Her strip about being bipolar is stripped down in terms of its imagery, with its blown-up panels instead focusing on different kinds of negative space in order to make an impact. 
Graywill told me that one of the most important parts of co-curating the show was giving the artists the confidence and freedom to be cartoonists instead of worrying about their draftsmanship. That showed in the innovative way they laid out a number of the strips. In the explanatory text for many of the pieces, the cartoonists drew self-caricatures, and the text was designed as a word balloon. Rather than simply slapping original art on the wall with no context, Graywill and Khan instead blew each piece up in size and made sure each told its own story. Some of them were single-panel strips, but there were a number of longer pieces as well. In Alina Walling's Something's Wrong, for example, the artist focuses on the experience of being in an emergency waiting room, knowing that something was deeply wrong with her despite being told otherwise by doctors who weren't listening to her. The use of spot reds against black and white art stood out in a clear manner as she went back and forth from being a red dot in a waiting room to a patient with a serious issue. Caroline Bay's strip about rehab showed past, harmful behavior on a top row of panels and current, healthy behavior on a bottom row; each panel was catty-corner to the other. 

Some offerings, like Ashley Manigo's "The Face of HIV", used color and text to complement each other in a single, striking image. Dr. Nathan Gray's single-panel gag strips wouldn't be out of place in the New Yorker, given his skill and trenchant wit. While most of the artists in the exhibit were either pre-med undergrads or medical students, Gray is a practicing physician at Duke. He specializes in palliative medicine, a discipline that calls for a great deal of empathy in its practice. "Bad News" focuses on this disconnect between medicine and empathy, especially at an institution like Duke that specializes in rare and unusual diseases. He uses a tight perspective in "Empathy Robot" to emphasize the cramped nature of an exam room, as the clearly uncomfortable doctor eschews even an attempt at empathy as he turns it over to a robot. 
Manigo, Gray, and Graywill were the standouts of the exhibition, and it's not surprising that each had multiple pieces in the show. Even the lesser pieces saw attempts at visual innovation, though some bordered on cliche'. There was a bit of repetition in terms of themes, especially regarding mental illness, without much variation in terms of style. Still, the show's execution of its intent was entirely effective. Aimed at a general audience but focusing particularly on students, the show could be navigated in less than a half hour, reading every piece. The language of the exhibit seemed particularly aimed at undergraduates majoring in STEM fields and medical students, encouraging them to incorporate the humanities into their studies and explore a new kind of self-expression. 

While some of the language around the exhibit is condescending ("Graphic Medicine...explores how we can use silly things to understand serious things, by combining comics with medicine"), its intent is subversive. By creating a narrative of empathy around stigmatized illnesses in particular (like HIV or mental illness), Graphic Medicine blunts the way that society has tended to isolate and silence suffering individuals. By creating a narrative of empathy between caregivers and patients, Graphic Medicine blunts the inequitable hierarchy between physician and patient. By creating powerful visual narratives that operate at clear visual and metaphorical levels, Graphic Medicine can demystify illnesses shrouded in mystery, jargon, and fear. While Graphic Medicine has been receiving international attention by way of the wave of books being published on the subject, its true impact is on the local level in shows like this.
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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).

February 6, 2019

Why Is There Something Instead Of Nothing? Matt Vadnais on Form and Void in Gareth A. Hopkins’ THE INTERCORSTAL: EXTENSION

Composer Steve Reich, often thought of as the father of American minimalism, has famously scoffed at the nomenclature of the sub-genre he ostensibly created. His argument undermines the notion that music without melody or crescendo is somehow “less than” compositions created largely in service of those things. Approached differently, his argument suggests that music like his – textured repetition of drones and a-tonal rhythms – is not offering minimized aspects of conventional music so much as it is relying on the listener to find depth, melody, and the stuff of “maximal” music in unlikely places. Reich’s rejection of minimalism as a “team name” suggests that a comparison of less and more is the wrong way to frame the sub-genre and its relationship to the larger genre of classical music that it is working in and against.

Minimalism certainly isn’t the only sub-genre to end up with a moniker implying that so-called work is missing something essential to the art form. Abstract or non-representational art – or, in the case of Gareth A. Hopkins’ ambitiously bleak The Intercorstal: Extension, abstract comics – is also named in such a way that suggests one should not expect it to do the things that art is often thought to be for, namely representing the world as it is. It is worth acknowledging the utility of such nomenclature: thought of most generously, such language serves as a briefing for potential readers regarding the kinds of experience they should expect to have by suggesting that the ways one evaluates a block of color or a matrix of dots should differ from the way one considers a painting of a sunset or airplane crash. 
Along these lines, it’s worth considering that Hopkins embraces the title and describes The Intercorstal as an abstract comic, a self-definition that perhaps calls into question my choice to think about abstraction in the context of Reich’s rejection of his minimalist tag. And yet, experiencing the series of two page layouts comprised of stills and monochromatic patterns that negotiate stark paradoxes – motion and stillness, connection and isolation, negative space and compact, busy loci – one might wonder if the best way to demark this work from the larger genre of comics really has to do with abstraction and a lack of representation. Put another way, it is hard to imagine a comic that more accurately represents what this particular political and cultural moment feels like. Defenders of abstract art as a meaningful demarcation would likely suggest that such a sentiment is splitting hairs because such art works to represent abstract concepts, ideas, or feelings; this may be true, but how abstract, really, is the feeling of time stopping after one loses control of a vehicle on ice or realizes one is in a cockpit of a plane that is inevitably going to crash?

My focus on nomenclature is perhaps misguided, but the fact remains that critics and readers often conflate abstraction – and minimalism for that matter – with a lack of precision; The Intercorstal: Extension is exceptionally precise. Even if Hopkins describes a process in which improvisation and accident play a large role in the creation of the two-page spreads that drive his work, the results suggest a specificity and rightness that belie the sense that anything about this work is abstracted. For this reader, the real difference between this comic and more conventional work is not about the relationship between the image and the world but about the relationship between the image and the role of the author. If conventional comics use panel layout to sequence images in such a way that the gaps between panels invite a reader to connect them according to narrative logic, The Intercorstal seems to live in and expand the in-between space; one might think about the intercostal spaces between one’s ribs. This liminal effect does suggest that one shouldn’t approach these images looking for story, but it also suggests that these images are somehow created but un-authored, begotten not made, drawn from an automatic space where what we are getting has not been filtered according to a narrative drive belonging to someone attempting to say something.
This is not to say that the art of The Intercorstal is without subject. However, shapes and patterns – one might be reminded of Richard Case’s backgrounds in Doom Patrol – are more significant than any objects a reader might recognize in a panel. The visual language of The Intercorstal is that of aggregate data, the visual world as a sum total; most of the images are composites built from human-made angles and shapes evoking skylines and cityscapes and airplane cockpits as well as human hands and clown faces, presenting them kaleidoscopically as if such things were as natural (or abstract) as a beaver dam or pattern in a honeycomb. To the extent that The Intercorstal’s visual lexicon is abstract, it is so not because it has no reference to things in our world but because all of those references collapse upon each other. We see the world all at once but, somehow, a panel at a time. 

Where The Intercorstal’s visual idiom creates dissonance between itself and the world we know by overloading each panel with potential signifiers, the comic’s use of text is much more, for lack of a better word, minimalist, built from short sentences and fragments. Like the comic’s visual arsenal, these utterances do not obviously refer to a specific subject matter. However, unlike the comic’s use of imagistic overabundance, the spare verbiage does create a recognizable subject matter through the use of negative space. Lines like “Dust floating in the light,” “and “Give the pipes the blame” both offer potential rationalizations of the unexplainable or paranormal. “It’s worse at night, obviously,” suggests that the comic is about how one hears or tries not to hear ghosts. The Intercorstal is about the process of hearing the nefarious in the mundane – or the melodic in the minimal – and the power of subjective reception. It is ultimately a listener’s decision whether they are hearing ghosts or pipes, music or noise, minimalism or something else.
Set against images that are both kinetic and frozen, functioning according to a physics that is not in service of an authored narrative, the result feels like an observation of our current world freed from the notion that it should make sense. Again, one might be reminded of the Morrison run of Doom Patrol; however, the tension in that comic had to do with a superhero team trapped in a genre in which they were obligated, at least at first, to fight the forces of chaos and disorder. Here, the disorder is rendered as value-neutral; if a reader is ultimately always responsible for making meaning, what really is the value difference between meaning and meaninglessness? 

Such a description, again, sounds abstract. However, a rendering of the chaos created by human attempts to forge and expand order into a disordered universe is actually a depiction of a hyper-specific subject: it is the removal of the values created by the assertion that the world is a complex place that is disorienting.  Accordingly, the comic – though black and white – creates its patterns out of the binary by refusing to work with value; there are no grays here that imply the translation of a multi-colored world into black and white. There is only presence and absence, form and void. This resistance to value is thematically in line with a description of The Intercorstal: Extension as being about disorientation or de-familiarization and the representational world, but it is perhaps a paradox to find a stark binary at the heart of a comic with a titular ambition to exist in the in-between. It is worth noting here that patterns of alternated form and void invite the reader to understand an image as having value; one perceives fine black and white lines as grey even if the values at work are only one and zero.
A perhaps unrelated Google of “corstal” reveals that it was the name of a mineral in Forgotten Realms. Though one cannot be certain that Hopkins is referencing this material, it seems relevant that the mineral is most noteworthy for retaining proximal light and glowing after exposure. In other words, something that is “inter-corstal” would exist between the spark and its echo.

That space, between energy and a material preservation of that energy, perfectly describes where this comic lives; even if I am over-reading here, this is a comic that, to mind at least, is about how we (over)read and (over)understand the world. However, none of that undoes the fact that the underlying world is terrifying and worst without the light that allows us to see it at all.

I love this comic. 
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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. 

February 4, 2019

The Waiting Room: Sara L. Jewell reviews DID YOU SEE ME? by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Shorter but just as, if not more, sophisticated than Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Shortbox book Did You See Me? is another 2018 comic that calls into question our experiences of lived reality in the digital age. Underpinned by concepts that flirt with Jungian psychoanalytic theory, Foster-Dimino pens a story about an unusual distance romance to explore how we currently define liminal spaces and emotional infidelity, as well as our complex identification with isolation and fantasy.

Did You See Me? follows David, an editorial assistant by day, self-described avid reader and the host of a fiction podcast - Twitter bio that bespeaks a definite tendency to dive deep into fantasy. He has a fairly active Twitter following of about two and a half thousand people, and one day he receives a cryptic reply to one of his tweets: a user who goes by “emma” accuses him of failing to apologize for knocking her over…in a dream. David, initially skeptical and more than a little unnerved by Emma’s outrageous messages, writes her off as a troll and muses over the internet’s function as a “great equalizer” to his girlfriend, Claudia, who jokes in turn that if David saw Emma in person he’d be able to tell immediately that she was someone to avoid.
Our ability to hold what happens online – as we might with dreams – as “unreal” is what allows users to be callous and cruel on the internet in ways they would never be in real life. The degrees of separation between the self and the avatar is what allows David to write "emma" off in the beginning. If he hurt her by what he said online or what he did within a shared dream, it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t even remember, and it wasn’t real. In his second dream with "emma", when he apologizes for knocking her down on the first night, David admits that he was “feeling like a kid – no empathy”, and it’s not irrelevant that this statement could also apply to any number of ageless, anonymous internet trolls.

But the implication that "emma"’s Twitter and dream presence is an idealized avatar, and not her actual self (which David would know to avoid), does indeed come into play near the end of the book. As the story progresses, David begins, reluctantly at first, to acknowledge that "emma" is in some way present during his nocturnal sojourns into the dreamscape. David becomes involved with "emma" romantically and sexually, but “only” in dreams, and, to a very limited degree, online. He breaks up with Claudia and makes plans to meet "emma" in the “real” world.

Did You See Me? is most interested in liminal spaces, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. But where we might assume that David’s dreams are that kind of in-between time, that sleep is liminal, the story complicates this reading. Foster-Dimino’s bright, saturated art clearly demarcates the three spaces which we see David occupy. The story begins on his phone screen, alternating between full-page splashes of David’s phone on, with Twitter open, and the empty black void of either the back of the phone or the phone off. There is no hint, visually, of anything existing outside of the phone – significantly, we don’t see David’s hand holding the device, even when he’s in the middle of composing a tweet.

When we see the “real” world, Foster-Dimino switches to more conventional panels, albeit without gutters – David’s days bleed together, sets of isolated moments in the office, with Claudia, commuting, and in bed on his phone. These moments seem like they are frozen in time, that reality itself is liminal in its function as the period intervening between David’s trysts with "emma". In his dreams, conversely, David is unboxed. The distinct illustrative dream style eschews borders, word balloons, and uniform line art, instead opting for a chaotic and mutable world in which David and "emma", whose bodies are as visually mercurial as the rest of the dreamscape, leap between objects, animals, places, food, and Escherian stairwells.
Whereas David is always engaged with others on his phone or in his dreams with "emma", in “reality” he is starkly isolated from the world around him, lost in screens or staring into space as life happens on the periphery of his awareness. In general, the characters rarely make eye contact with each other in social spaces, and David seems impervious to the emotional presence of people in his vicinity – even Claudia’s explosive anger when he admits he’s cheating on her doesn’t appear to penetrate his unruffled exterior very much.
Foster-Dimino’s sophisticated approach to emotional infidelity shows David gradually come to the realization that even though he isn’t “cheating” in the physical sense, his mind and heart have begun to orbit his connection to "emma" and distance him from his real-world relationship. When he breaks up with Claudia, he claims that “he didn’t realize it was happening until it was too late”. The question of whether David’s dreams of “emma” are really the tête-à-têtes they appear is irrelevant, though visually we, the audience, see David and "emma" have sexual encounters, David asking Emma “are you really real right now?” In shifting some of the responsibility away from David for how he is pulled, inexorably, into his Twitter DMs and then into dreams, Foster-Dimino asks us to question the influence of passing liminality, not on our bodies but, in a deeper sense, on our lives.

We spend approximately one-third of our lifetimes sleeping, and recent studies report that we spend nearly six hours a day on connected devices, a number that’s rising steadily with each passing year. The time we discount as banal – liminal time during which we are waiting to reach the main event – is increasingly the very fabric of our lives. David’s contention, that his engagement with a mysterious and alluring internet stranger has accidentally become something with the power to displace his relationship, could be any of ours.

The idealized avatar "emma" inhabits, which turns out to be a screencap of a celebrity from a television show, coupled with the fact that "emma" and David admit, at separate points in the story, that they know nothing about each other, speaks to reality’s foil: fantasy. The real appeal of the internet, Foster-Dimino seems to say, is that we can indulge our fantasies without their most outlandish components ever being exposed. We can believe that we “know” the celebrities that we follow on Instagram. We can believe that the potential romantic partners we see from afar are perfect in the ways that we need them to be. And we can identify with the mysterious and the inscrutable by projecting ourselves onto it.

But in the end, as the title suggests, this calls into question whether we are present, genuinely, with anything. Did anyone in this comic see anyone else? Or did they only see themselves, and their own impossible desires, reflected back at them? As much as the internet connects us, it also gives us the perpetual option to retreat from one another into our fantasies. Are you still watching? asks a tiny subtitle at the bottom of the blank final page, just like Netflix does after you’ve fallen asleep.
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Sara L. Jewell is a freelance writer, artist, comic creator, and educator based in New Jersey. You can find her at saraljewell.com or rambling on twitter @1_saraluna. All email inquiries can be sent to