September 28, 2015

Books in Bites 5: Three Comics Worth Your Attention (SPX Special)

Quick Reviews of Three Books you may be interested in.
(note: I picked up all 3 of these books at this year’s SPX)

by Nick Francis Potter
Published by Potter Press
Available Here

The danger in standing paralyzed thinking about Death is giving Death the opportunity to start thinking about you.” Conrad Dillinger comes to this and other conclusions in Nick Francis Potter’s 35 page ambient existential comic called Conrad Dillinger’s Inevitable Death. It is as much a meditation on death, as it is a meditation on existence, as it is a meditation on inaction, as it is an exploration on the comics medium itself. Wrapped up in the confines of the nine panel grid, most of what is conveyed in the text is through stasis and potential rather than any formal action.

Yet in this quietness, it shouts loudly in our faces.

Think of Warhol’s Screen Tests. Warhol would set up his 16mm Bolex and shoot 100 feet of black and white film of his subject as they sat solidly before the camera. The longer they sat there, the more their pretenses would collapse and, by the end of the film, the audience were able to engage with the core of the individual on the screen. Potter’s presentation is of the same thrust in this book. We have Conrad Dillinger facing the reader relatively unchanged for 315 panels (35 nine panel pages), and, by the end, he is transformed both literally and figuratively. It’s contemplative and confrontational all at the same time, to the point where the panel borders themselves even begin to become part of the revelatory process. There is a claustrophobia inherent in repetition, yet Potter is able to avoid this, making the tight place of sameness seem open and expansive.

Potter is obviously experimenting here. There is a sense that he is trying to figure out how to tell a highly emotional story that features a fully realized character by placing much of the onus on the reader to fill in the blanks left unsaid in the gutters of each nine panel grid. The term “virtuoso” seems almost grandiose here, but Potter is one as much as Warhol was one, and that, of course, is the subject of both debate and interpretation. What is certain is that Potter is pushing the medium by deletion more than addition. He’s taking the epic hollering of the 9 panel page and turning it into a soft haiku that punches even harder by not swinging at all.

You can pick up a copy of Conrad Dillinger’s Inevitable Death here.

by Alan King and Jamie Vayda
Published by Birdcage Bottom Books
Available Here

So much of Alan King and Jamie Vayda’s Left Empty undulates with the rhythm of sobbing and the weight of absence. The past collaborations between these two artists, such as The Rats Were Bad That Year and the wonderful short “The Time I Shit My Pants at a Motorhead Show" in Loud Comix #3, all seem to have been a wild spree, preparation for the nakedness of Left Empty. While this is King’s story, it is Vayda who does the majority of the storytelling. There is wrenching clarity to Vayda’s lines and choices that when King’s words do finally intrude upon the narrative, it is almost shocking.

Book One of Left Empty is a brutal tale of the after effects of loss, the regret that blankets every second guess, and the destructiveness of the abyss. King does little to paint himself as a role model and Vayda portrays the downward spiral with such visceral power that you almost smell the decay that you are witnessing in his pages.

And then there are these dream sequence pages that push everything into the realm of the archetype. These pages remind us that there is horror always lurking, that chaos is the force that moves the world forward, that all of our ideas of safety and control are only an illusion, and that the only certainty is death. When she or he whom you love is forever stolen from you it is not only that person that has died. King and Vayda’s comic softly hisses this in your ear. This is not a book you give to those seeking solace or comfort. Each page hurts.

Jamie Vayda’s art has never been this crisp. Each beat is on target, every emotion conveyed, nothing is wasted. These two guys are working in tandem, playing to each other’s strengths, bringing out the best in each other. King has said of Left Empty, “It’s a story that’s not always easy to tell, but one that needs telling.” Whether it serves a cathartic need for King, or provide some sort of closure for him, I wouldn’t hazard a guess. All I can say is that we are all the better for him having taken to tell this story, and all the better for him choosing Vayda to help him do just that.

You can pick up a copy of Left Empty: Book One here.

by Aleks Sennwald
Published by Ray-Ray Books
Available Here

While Aleks Sennwald’s Steepest Descent has been out for nearly a year, SPX was the first time I had ever seen it. Once I did , I knew I had to have it for my collection.  

The solicitation for the book reads, “In the desert, science and technology come head to head with magic and mystery as a mother and daughter attempt to bridge the gap.” It’s a vague pitch, to say the least, but it encapsulates only part of the theme Sennwald is dabbling with here. For Steepest Descent is also about the procreative power, not only that which is inherent in the biology of women, but also that which is in the mind of the dreamer and the artist.

The book is celebratory in intent. It has a central conceit of creating life through destruction, as well as the whole science/magic binary dance, but it strikes me also as a book mainly about women -- their power and how threatening that can be to men. Men in this book can only steal, they cannot create. Yet it is this act of theft that provides the catalyst for the magic of the book to occur. Had I a stronger background in this type of thinking, I’m sure that there is a philosophical notion that makes sense of this seeming juxtaposition.

I’m not one to step into waters I don’t know enough about, as I’m bound to sully the system more than swim smoothly across.

So let’s leave it at this: Steepest Descent is one of those books that you will read a number of times as each time you immerse in its pages, you rise from the depths with something new clenched between your teeth. There is power here that has been carefully crafted by Sennwald to vibrate with the imaginable. In this book, what is tragic sets the stage for something evolutionary, both here among us, and even further out into the universe.

It’s something worth spending solitary moments spellbound.

You can pick up a copy of Steepest Descent here.

September 24, 2015

The Joy of the (Next) Moment: SPX 2015 -- A Convention Report

So Keith Silva, Chase Magnett, and I went to the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD this past weekend and the three of us were suitably impressed by all that went on there. We wrote about it for Comics Bulletin.

Right after the Ignatz awards, SPX Exhibitors Coordinator Sam Marx said to me something to the effect of how walking around the floor on Saturday made him wonder how anyone could possibly still be talking about the lack of diversity in the medium. He said something like, “If you are complaining about representation in comics, you’re reading the wrong books.” I couldn’t agree with him more. It makes me wonder why anyone still even bothers reading books from Marvel or DC looking for characters and situations that reflect our modern world. Those are books that have been telling the same story over and over again for over half a century. The world has changed significantly in that time, yet that song remains the same. At SPX, though, you grab hold of the zeitgeist, the now. There you have creativity unfettered, voices singing the song of ourselves, pure and loud and strong. Ensconced in that conference hall there in Bethesda were all the stories still to be told about everyone and all of us and people you have only yet to meet.

September 18, 2015

One House, Many Rooms: Derek Van Gieson's EEL MANSIONS

I'm on a plane headed to Bethesda for SPX right now, but that won't stop me from plugging my new book!

And when I say "my", I really mean Keith Silva, David Fairbanks, Taylor Lilley, Justin Giampaoli, and mine.

ONE HOUSE, MANY ROOMS is a critical discussion of Eel Mansions, containing new essays, an "interview" with Van Gieson, and other assorted gimcracks and gewgaws. 

PLUS, it features an original cover by Derek Van Gieson! 

September 17, 2015

Too "Try Hard": A Review of INTRO TO ALIEN INVASION

Over on Comics Bulletin, Michael Bettendorf and I wade through the dreck of a rather terrible OGN from Scribner Press called INTRO TO ALIEN INVASION.

Here, in this book, the characters and the setting and the narrative and the drama all bottom feed on the worst aspects of each trope it gels its hair with. Everything is piled on in such a manner that none of it rings true, as if King and Poirier were writing what they overheard instead of writing what they know. There is such an absence of connection points in Intro to Alien Invasion, everything seems covered in plastic, like my grandmother’s furniture, or behind glass, like an octopus at the aquarium. There is no direct experience.
Intro to Alien Invasion is ersatz comicing in so many ways.
My teenage son introduced me to the term “try hard” not all that long ago. From what I could discern through his guttural mutterings, “try hard” is when someone wants to be either socially relevant or controversial or outlandish or “deep” so badly that the intent overshadows the final product. Whatever they create rings false because it is not a true creative vision, rather it’s the approximation of the vision of others — like really bad performance art or post-ironic comedy or indie films that just reek of desperation instead of imagination. The fakeness of “try hard” comes from a level of pathos, I think, as if the need for validation of being part of a group is more important than validation for being yourself. It lacks any sort of authenticity.
Intro to Alien Invasion has “try hard” stink wafting off of nearly every page. King and Poirier have taken on too much in order to swim in a lake they have no business wading into because they never learned to doggie paddle. I felt a little sorry for Nancy Ahn, as her art struggled to keep up with the increasing ridiculous missteps of the narrative.
But bless them all for trying, even if it is “try hard”.

September 14, 2015

Books in Bites 4: Three Comics Worth Your Attention (SF Zine Fest Special)

Quick Reviews of Three Books you may be interested in.
(note: I picked up all 3 of these books at the recent and wonderful SF Zine Fest)

by Mark Badger
Available Here

Kirby’s visual vocabulary carried comics to greatness and made them live. He’s the bass line for almost every comic drawn in America. In pulling comics and Kirby’s work into abstraction, I’m looking to mix his bass with some wonkiness.” This is how Mark Badger introduces his book, Abstract Kirby 2, and it perfectly sums up this reverential and revelatory series that Badger has been creating as a tribute project to comics legend Jack “King” Kirby. When I saw these books at SF Zine Fest this year, I was floored by what Badger is doing here. Flipping through the pages, I knew I had to bring these books home with me.

Badger has succeed in abstracting Kirby’s powerful and distinctive style in a way reminiscent of the way a great jazz musician takes a standard and makes it his or her own. It’s like that first track of Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet -- you recognize the initial structure and sound of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, but it expands quickly out its original confines into new vibrations that transcends the original while still keeping you comforted by glimpses of the familiar.

So much about Kirby’s art was about movement and power. There was a thickness to his figures that emphasized the force they contained. Each gesture of a Kirby character could result in explosive dynamism. In Abstract Kirby, Badger is able to convey all of this latent and potential energy into forms and contours and simulacrums that bop off of each panel like a Kirby punch or a Kirby leap or a Kirby krackle. It’s jazz alright and it’s incredible.

Abstract Kirby is neither sequential narrative nor chronology, but it tells a story about art and artists and our apperceptions of both. A reader appreciates Abstract Kirby for what it shows us about our relationship with the possibilities of depiction and how style speaks to the universal humanity of all audiences. As Badger said, Kirby was certainly the bass line for American comics. With Abstract Kirby, Badger adds reverb and volume to the beat. It is essence presented on a page, and these books remind you why we still call Kirby “King”.

You can pick up copies of Abstract Kirby 1 here and Abstract Kirby 2 here

by Johnny Herber
Published by Sawdust Press
Available Here

Johnny Herber’s Escargoteric is kind of hard to define exactly. It’s a surreal tale of vengeance, death, decisions, and repercussions that twists and turns and takes you places you could never have conceived of on your own. You needed Herber to open your brain to his vision, you needed his talents to allow you access to this story. It is Herber’s story told with his unique sensibility and style, but it has enough of all of our dreams and visions and desires and understandings to make it digestible, as if eating our own hands.

Herber’s line work is precise and his figures and backgrounds evoke the same panel playground as Brandon Graham and Tom Gauld, dense with distraction and pointed with purpose. Escargoteric builds worlds that cannot exist anywhere but in fiction, yet must exist somewhere in our dreams. It is centered in that place just outside comprehension where the epic and the absurd frantically copulate to tell the history of our understandings. It is funny, profound, confusing, frustrating, impossible, beautiful, and spectacular. Herber is singular in his amalgamation of the influences he has garnered through his years, and Escargoteric is a product unique, deserving of your attention and time.

Just don’t expect to be holding on to your tired understandings of reality when you’ve finished reading it.

You can pick up a copy of Escargoteric here.

by Pat Tong
Published by House of Tong
Contact Them Here

I recently wrote a response “review” of Ricardo Cavolo’s 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die in which I posited how its diary structure was revealing of the true self, how the music Cavolo gravitates towards expresses his character through its connection to his inner beat. This type of autobiographical comic can also be seen in Pat Tong’s I Love Sandwiches.

As with Cavolo’s book, I Love Sandwiches tells the story of its author through the sandwiches she has enjoyed through the years, starting with the innocence of her childhood Banana and Mayo sandwich, to the Falafels of the World she sampled as she ventured forth into the world. Each page features a detailed drawing of the sandwich and a quick write up of not only why Tong included this particular choice, but what it meant to her in her development as a person.

The reader understands who Tong is through understanding her sandwiches.

If you’ve been following my writing at all over the years, you probably know about my fondness for sandwiches, so my picking this book up at SF Zine Fest was a no-brainer for me. What I grabbed as a lark, though, ended up being a book that I think shows us a new way in comics. As I wrote in my Covolo review, “It is the direction that autobiographical books can easily go towards in order to strip away the self-deprecation and the self-doubt and the self- loathing that we all swaddle ourselves in so often.”

I love I Love Sandwiches because of what it has to offer. It is more than just sandwiches, it is an artist stripped of pretension there on every page. I also love I Love Sandwiches because, as Derek Van Gieson once said to me, “Who doesn’t like a nice sandwich?”

I couldn’t find a direct link to where you can grab a copy of I Love Sandwiches, but if you contact House of Tong they may be able to help you out. Contact them here.

September 11, 2015

"Everything Seems Amplified, Electric": An Interview with ANT SANG

Early in July, I did a short review of New Zealand cartoonist Ant Sang’s recently re-released epic series The Dharma Punks. It’s one of those books that climbs into your sense of self and, as it lingers there, it rejuvenates and enlightens. Recently, Ant was kind enough to do a little email back and forth interview with me about The Dharma Punks and its message of hope and its embrace of both punk and Buddhism. Ant also talks about audience reaction and what he’s learned during his career.

Daniel Elkin: Let's just jump right into the big question: Why did you make The Dharma Punks and what do you hope your readers understand by the end of it?

Ant Sang: I had been making a minicomic series about a group of punks, called Filth, in the 1990s and it had been a good few years since I had finished with that. I was planning on doing something entirely different next - a kung fu comic. But the story wasn’t progressing at all because I kept coming back to the characters I had created in Filth. I realized that I hadn’t finished with them after all, and decided I needed to do the Filth story to end all Filth stories. That was the genesis of The Dharma Punks. It was my attempt at making sense of that period of my life, when I was looking for some answers to those big questions.

As for what I hoped would be conveyed in the story – I guess I wanted to make a story which had hope. A story which said you could find your way out of the darkness, that there is a point to it all.

Elkin: Do you think that hope is an essential component of the punk mindset, or do you feel that there is an inherent juxtaposition between punk and hope?

Ant: I think punk’s main characteristic is anger, or frustration. A reaction to disillusionment, and a rejection of the accepted status quo, fueled by righteous anger. I don’t think hope is a necessary component of that, but neither is it an impossibility. What interested me was Buddhism is also a reaction to disillusionment, but obviously a very different path. Funny thing is, when I first started exploring Buddhism my first impression was that it was surprisingly nihilistic. The first teaching is something along the lines of ‘life is suffering’ – which is pretty hardcore in its honesty! Anyway, I found it really interesting to explore how, or if, Chopstick could reconcile these two seemingly contradictory aspects of his life.

Elkin: This reconciliation seems to be what is at the heart of Dharma Punks. Do you think that Chopstick (the main character in the book) is able to find that harmony by the end of the book?

Ant: Without wanting to give too much away, I’d say by the end of the story Chopstick has definitely learnt to embrace many of life’s contradictions. It’s really about his journey to accept, or even embrace, the more painful aspects of life - and to rediscover his love for this world, before it’s too late.

Elkin: Does this reflect your personal philosophy? Do you see yourself as a positive person and is that outlook reflected in the art you create?

Ant: Yeah, I guess I am a fairly positive person. I tend to hope for the best case scenario in any given situation. I mean, this world can be a horrific place and without some optimism – both every day and on a larger scale, I’m not sure I would cope well at all.

Regarding the art I produce, my main goal is to explore things which interest me. For Dharma Punks, it was looking at the ways we find meaning in our lives, especially when confronted with loss and death. Shaolin Burning, although a kung fu story, was at its core an exploration of how artists’ talents can be both a blessing and a curse - and whether artists can control the creative impulses and fire which burns inside us. I guess my personal philosophies can’t help but be present in my art, but then again I’m currently working on another story which is an exploration of the idea that all people are capable of evil, and I imagine this is going to be a lot less optimistic in its outlook.

Elkin: I'd love to talk about your new book, but just one more Dharma Punks question first. I'm going to assume that the majority of its audience up until now has been in New Zealand. Now that the book is being reissued through Comixology and collected through Conundrum Press, are you getting a lot of feedback from new markets and, if so, how has this new audience's reaction to the book differed (if at all) from what you had been hearing about it beforehand? Do you find that this new audience has a different sort of understanding of the book, or is there a sort of universal sense to what you presented therein?

Ant: The US/UK edition has just been released a week or two ago, so it’s too early to know how the new readers will respond to the work. Dharma Punks is set in a very specific time and place – Auckland, New Zealand in the mid-1990s, and that really appealed to local readers. To see their city reflected back to them really made the story resonate with people who knows those places. But I think the story will be universal enough to speak to international readers. I reckon anyone who has struggled through an early-twenties ‘trying to find yourself’ phase should relate to the story. It’s such an emotional period in one’s life. Everything seems amplified, electric and the world so full of possibilities – that’s what I tried to capture in the story.

Elkin: And I think that's what is the universal appeal of a book like Dharma Punks; it captures that sort of liminal space we occupy as we transition from the passions of our youth to the expectations of maturity. Do you feel that, by the end of the book, Chopstick has lost something important as he comes to his new perspective? Is the ending celebratory or elegiac in this regard?

Ant: I think the ending is both celebratory and elegiac. By the end of the book Chopstick can no longer remain where he is. He’s forced to leave, both in a physical and spiritual sense. And with that comes loss, but also new beginnings.

Elkin: I guess that goes right back to the punk ethos of you have to destroy something in order to create anew.

Let's talk about what you're working on now. Earlier you mentioned the new book as being “an exploration of the idea that all people are capable of evil” – that sort of sounds like a reversal of the optimism that is central to Dharma Punks. Is this a result of changes in your life or in the world or just to try something new?

Ant: Ha, yes good point.

The book is only at a very early stage. It might even end up being a film script before a comic. Whichever form it finally takes, it’s an idea which has interested me for a long time. I’ve long been fascinated by horrific historical events, such as the Holocaust, the My Lai massacre and how ‘ordinary’ people can commit acts of extreme violence and cruelty under certain circumstances. I recently saw some photos from the 1940s - Jewish people stripped naked, being humiliated and beaten on the streets, amongst crowds of laughing spectators and it’s so chilling. Of course, look around at the world today and you can see the human capacity for violence hasn’t dwindled. I really want to explore the conditions of how violence and ‘evil’ can thrive, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps it’s more an extension of the idea of the duality in life. In Dharma Punks Chopstick learns to embrace the co-existence of life’s joy and suffering. Likewise the new story will look at the good and evil which we are all capable of.

Elkin: Sounds like something I would definitely like to read.

I can't thank you enough for taking the time to do this interview, Ant. Before we end it, though, I was wondering if you might have any advice for anyone getting into the comics game. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first started that would have helped you out?

Ant: Thanks Daniel, I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

I made my first mini-comic twenty one years ago, and between then and now I’ve figured out a lot of things by trial and error. I recently gave a Pecha Kucha talk about the things I’ve learnt during my time making comics, but I think one of the key things when starting out is to not be too hard on yourself. Don’t worry about making the perfect comic. Just keep creating and getting your work out. Perfectionism can be a real creativity killer. Also, I wish I had realized earlier, that art doesn’t have to be fun. Art is hard work, and there are times when as an artist, you’re going to feel inadequate and filled with self-doubt. It’s reassuring to know though, that even the best artists have the same feelings, so don’t feel there’s anything wrong with you if you’re finding it a struggle – it really is just part of the process.


You can pick up a copy of The Dharma Punks via Conundrum Press or get the series on Comixology.