August 29, 2018

Stretching The Passage of Time: Philippe LeBlanc reviews THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FORGETTING and LEPIDOPTERA by Sara L. Jewell

(Editor's Note: Sara Jewell is a frequent contributor to YCE)
There’s an interesting quality to Sara Jewell’s comics work, particularly in her approach to the flow of time, how memories are represented, and how they start to fade and break apart. I’ve had the chance to read two of Sara Jewell’s comics, The Impossibility of Forgetting and Lepidoptera and I’ve been taken aback by them. The Impossibility of Forgetting is striking in how narratively experimental it gets while Lepidoptera’s inherent sadness stunned me.

The Impossibility of Forgetting is a personal story about loss, the erosion of relationships, and time. As readers, we feel the passage of time and understand how it is unfolding at an accelerated pace. We witness Jewell’s remembering a friend that disappeared from her life over time. We harken back to her memory and conversations between them. The memories Jewell is alluding to are from long ago. They’re improperly recalled and slowly vanishing from existence. What must have really occurred is now a blur, like remembering something a friend said years ago that made everyone laugh, but not really remembering the context, who was there, or why. It’s an interesting look at memory and how time transforms it over time.

Another, perhaps even more interesting aspect of this comic is that this slow and stretched passage of time appears to be an unrelated consequence of the complexity of making comics. Comics are labor intensive and it requires time to plan, write, and illustrate a comic, even a short one like this. While reading, there was this really interesting push and pull between the urgency of the story about friendship and loss and what we see on the pages. It’s as if the mind of Jewell was running faster than her drawing hands. It’s like following a train of thought, it leaves the reader to complete the piece where there might be a gap. It also helped to hammer home the theme of the comic, that time is fleeting, memories are inconsistent and loss happens to us, whether it’s losing friends or our own faculties. It’s a surprisingly deep comic for only an 8-page minicomic.

Jewell also brings this sort of energy to her art by using a sort of “collage-panel” for lack of a better term. Each page of The Impossibility of Forgetting is divided around these memories and how they curve and fold in additional layers or panels on top of what we see. There’s a striking image of a woman lying down, and there is a single panel featuring a teacup blocking the full view of the subject. It’s like memories appearing on top of other memories, distantly related. It helps tell the story and is also an interesting visual trick

Lepidoptera, on the other hand, is a comic about suffering and is a much more traditional narrative comic. It weaves an interesting tale of depression, childhood obsession, and psychosomatic and undiagnosed disease. It’s an autobiography of someone who has suffered and has caused suffering; suffering from depression, inflicting pain on an insect. Jewell’s juxtaposition of these two elements, the pain of depression and the pain of hurting, combines visually using a butterfly motif. There’s a nice symbolic link between the butterflies, trapped in a jar to slowly suffocate, and someone with depression, also trapped in a different space, unable to get out and suffocating. Lepidoptera juggles these thematic elements. , The pace is much slower in this book. The “train of thought” pacing of The Impossibility of Forgetting is replaced with a more deliberate dual perspective in Lepidoptera. It feels more focused.

Lepidoptera is printed on a brown-colored paper which makes the comics even more depressing than the short description made it out to be. Those illustrations of butterflies and fairies look beautiful and should shine, but they are brought down to a level where this sense of wonder is hampered by the background color. It’s quite incredible and unexpected how the theme of depression aligns itself so well with the brown-colored paper.

Jewell, in addition to being a comic artist and illustrator, also reviews comics for this very site. I found it intriguing to see how her understanding of the medium is reflected in her work. Jewell’s description of her own work tends to be somewhat detached but also aims to explain her choices. Here’s what she says about Lepidoptera for example: 
"Paracosm utilizes a spectrum of visual and literary techniques. Lepidoptera, perhaps the work’s most traditional narrative piece, employs a conventional voice in memoir, the autographer's retrospective, but juxtaposes this with diegetic dialogue and imagery for a nuanced, multilayered exploration of undiagnosed illness. The visual motif of the butterfly is by turns symbolic and diegetically relevant.” 
She has an awareness that makes her artistic choices feel both deliberate and somewhat unfocused depending on which technique is at work, but there’s no doubt that she is aware of the goals she’s trying to accomplish. For instance, The Impossibility of Forgetting showcases an interesting way to depict time, but on first reading, this feels almost unfocused. I had to take a step back and return to the beginning of the book, slow down and re-read the story. On second reading, it became more apparent that this was a calculated element to stretch the passage of time, but my first impression left me cold with this comic until a second reading made the comic much clearer. It’s baffling because even with the knowledge that Jewell wishes to explore time, it didn’t fully accomplish that goal. However, in Lepidoptera, Jewell’s choice of the recurring butterfly symbol and the mix of medium (ink and highlighter) works surprisingly well. She mentions in her description of her comic that the materials used, the brown paper and the mix of ink and highlights “allows this story … the greatest degree of tonal depth”. And sure enough, she’s right, I felt it in the reading long before finding this blurb to prepare this review.

Sara Jewell’s understanding of how comics work allows her to make deliberate creative choices for effect, even if it’s not always absolutely successful. It’s always great to see an artist experiment with different techniques to improve their craft.  

Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie, and art comics at night and writes about them for The Comics Beat and Your Chicken Enemy

August 28, 2018

Small Press Expo Announces 2018 Ignatz Award Nominees: Press Release

The Small Press Expo (SPX), the preeminent showcase for the exhibition of independent comics, graphic novels and alternative political cartoons, is pleased to announce the 2018 nominees for the annual presentation of the Ignatz Awards, a celebration of outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning. 

The Ignatz, named after George Herriman's brick-wielding mouse from his long-running comic strip Krazy Kat, recognizes exceptional work that challenges popular notions of what comics can achieve, both as an art form and as a means of personal expression. The Ignatz Awards are a festival prize, the first of such in the United States comic book industry.

The nominees for the ballot were determined by a panel of five of the best of today's comic artists, Mita Mahato, Carolyn Nowak, kevin czap, Leila Abdelrazaq, and Taneka Stotts.

Congratulations to all our nominees!, with the votes cast for the awards by the attendees during SPX. The Ignatz Awards will be presented at the gala Ignatz Awards ceremony held on Saturday, September 15, 2018 at 9:30 P.M.

Ignatz image by 2017 Promising New Talent winner Bianca Xunise.

Outstanding Artist
  • Yvan Alagbé Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
  • Ivy Atoms - Pinky & Pepper Forever
  • Tommi Parrish - The Lie and How We Told It
  • Richie Pope -  The Box We Sit On
  • Sophie Standing - Anxiety is Really Strange

Outstanding Collection
  • Beirut Won’t Cry – Mazen Kerbaj
  • Blackbird Days – Manuele Fior
  • Language Barrier – Hannah K. Lee
  • Sex Fantasy – Sophia Foster-Dimino
  • Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition – Julia Kaye

Outstanding Anthology
  • La Raza Anthology: Unidos y Fuertes – ed. by Kat Fajardo & Pablo Castro
  • Comics for Choice – ed. by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor and Ø.K. Fox
  • Ink Brick #8 – ed. by Alexander Rothmans, Paul K. Tunis, and Alexey Sokolin
  • Bottoms Up, Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom – ed. by J.T. Yost
  • Lovers Only – ed. by Mickey Zacchilli

Outstanding Graphic Novel
  • Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
  • Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom – Marcelo D’Salete
  • Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-sik Hong
  • The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
  • Anti-Gone – Connor Willumsen

Outstanding Series
  • Ley Lines – Czap Books
  • Nori – Rumi Hara
  • Bug Boys – Laura Knetzger
  • Gumballs – Erin Nations
  • Frontier – Youth in Decline

Outstanding Minicomic
  • Dog Nurse – Margot Ferrick
  • Greenhouse – Debbie Fong
  • Common Blessings & Common Curses – Maritsa Patrinos
  • Mothball 88 – Kevin Reilly
  • Say It With Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food – Shing Yin Khor

Outstanding Comic
  • Recollection – Alyssa Berg
  • How to Be Alive – Tara Booth
  • Hot Summer Nights – Freddy Carrasco
  • Whatsa Paintoonist – Jerry Moriarty
  • Baopu – Yao Xiao

Outstanding Online Comic
  • Woman World – Aminder Dhaliwal
  • The Wolves Outside – Jesse England
  • A Fire Story – Brian Files
  • Lara Croft Was My Family – Carta Monir
  • A Part of Me is Still Unknown – Meg O’Shea

Promising New Talent
  • Yasmin Omar Ata – Mis(h)adra
  • Tara Booth – How to Be Alive
  • Xia Gordon – The Fashion of 2004Harvest
  • Rumi Hara – Nori and The Rabbits of the Moon
  • Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It

Outstanding Story
  • Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures – Yvan Alabge
  • Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
  • Rhode Island Me – Michael DeForge
  • How the Best Hunter in the Village Met Her Death – Molly Ostertag
  • The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish

August 25, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 8/17/18 to 8/24/18

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


* Louis Skye writes a mixed review of A PROJECTION by Seekan Hui, at one point stating "Where writer and artist Seekan Hui could have easily hammered in the book’s theme, she instead chooses to reveal details slowly. One gets to dwell in the atmosphere of the surreal setting before realizing that there is more happening here than meets the eye. And there is a lot happening in this book."

* Alex Hoffman looks at OUTSIDE WITH THE CUTIES by Mariana Pita, saying "These comics are joyful and strange, like a flower blooming at night."

* Mackenzie Pitcock has this personal review of MY SOLO EXCHANGE DIARY by Nagata Kabi, writing "Nagata has come a long way with herself, but still has a long and arduous path of healing ahead of her, and the reader is not left with much confidence that she’ll be able to succeed."

* Rachel Cooke names Liv Strömquist’s FRUIT OF KNOWLEDGE the Graphic Novel of the Month over at The Guardian, saying "If her strips are clever, angry, funny and righteous, they’re also informative to an eye-popping degree."

* Billie Muraben writes about Kaye Blegvad's DOG YEARS: "The book, 'a story about owning a dog', is a visual essay about experiencing depression, told via the metaphor of owning a bad dog and learning how to live with it."

* John Seven reviews THE GREAT NORTH WOOD by Tim Bird, noting that "Bird has concocted a beautiful book with invigorating research and poetic observation. It’s brief and deceptively simple, but it gives a sprawling examination of human history — and the human future — in terms of artful depth that might inspire any of us to take a closer look around at our surroundings."

* Matt Seneca looks at POOCHYTOWN by Jim Woodring, writing "Through it all, perhaps the most impressive thing is how the story never stops unfolding, how Woodring keeps us moving through his world alongside his characters, chasing after something that we can't identify because it doesn't exist in reality. "

* Andy Oliver on Lucy Sullivan's 1IN4 ZINES, "For a set of zines that eschew panels this is still a project that embodies the purest form of comics, the perfect union of words, imagery and the tools unique to the form, even if the sequential element is largely within the confines of a single illustration."  Oliver also reviews Ryan Heshka's MEAN GIRLS CLUB: PINK DAWN which "gives us a comics parable that, for all its sense of ’50s warped nostalgia, has very contemporary echoes."

* Philippe LeBlanc reviews Pat Aulisio's INFINITE BOWMAN, saying "it manages to become an absolutely stunning sci-fi epic that interrogates how power corrupts, how boredom overtakes even the gods and how the pettiness and shortsighted nature of man refrains us from accomplishing great things."

* Ryan Carey looks at ANGLOID by Alex Graham, "the tone Graham adopts can often veer toward the bleak — but it’s never dull, never without its moments of keen observational wit, and never too far removed from the prospect of complete metaphysical transformation."

* Kevin Bramer on Caitlin Cass' REST STOP BROCHURES FOR THE NOT-SO-DISTANT FUTURE, writing "Sure, it’s bleak at times, but these are still some darkly hilarious comics. And if you can’t laugh at times like these… well, that’s probably healthy. Still, you should at least try to laugh."

Rob Clough reviews three comics from Kilgore Books -- BLAMMO #10 by Noah Van Sciver, BASELINE BLVD by Emi Gennis, and SEPTEMBER 12TH AND OTHER STORIES by Robert Sergel

* (shameless plug alert) I review the upcoming book by Tara Booth from 2dCloud called NOCTURNE.



* Oliver Sava has this preview of Keiler Roberts' new book coming out from Koyama Press called CHLORINE GARDENS.

* It's another week, so, thankfully, that means ANOTHER Seo Kim comic on Vice. This one is a little gem called URINE SAMPLE.

* Another comic on Vice is by Tara Booth -- this one titled BYE DARLA wherein Booth pays tribute to her beloved dog.

* Jamaica Dyer has put up this beautiful watercolored comic on Spiralbound called TOTAL MADNESS that is something you should certainly read right now.

August 22, 2018

Lives In Motion: Rob Clough Reviews Three Comics from Kilgore Books -- BLAMMO #10 by Noah Van Sciver, BASELINE BLVD by Emi Gennis, and SEPTEMBER 12TH AND OTHER STORIES by Robert Sergel

BLAMMO #10 by Noah Van Sciver 
The one-man anthology series Blammo has long been Noah Van Sciver's personal laboratory. It's where he's honed his drawing chops as well as developed his storytelling skills. Each issue has seen noticeable growth in Van Sciver as an artist, with #9 being not just his best issue but one of the best comics of 2016. The tenth issue is the first in a while where he hasn't exponentially gotten better since the early days of the series, but that's no knock on its quality. Instead, it's clear that Van Sciver has reached a steady creative groove, and he's become comfortable trying different kinds of experiments. 

As a series, Blammo is a throwback to 80s and 90s comics like Eightball (Dan Clowes), Crap (JR Williams), Dirty Plotte (Julie Doucet), and Big Mouth (Pat Moriarity), all of which were one-person anthologies that crammed short stories, the occasional serial, doodles, interesting letter columns and other ephemera into every inch of the comic. Each issue of Blammo has been carefully paced and arranged so as to provide a cohesive reading experience, and the glue tends to be selected shorter pieces. In issue #10, it's "Pre Social Media Days", which are thinly-veiled autobio pieces from Van Sciver's teen years in the vein of his hilarious comic My Hot Date. Van Sciver's stories about his huge, poverty-stricken family and friends from horrible homes have always struck a balance between poignancy and total absurdity, especially with regard to how he presents himself as a wannabe skater who tries to sound hip. 
Van Sciver emphasizes "Pre Social Media" because there's a restless suburban aimlessness with regard to the sort of things he did with his friends. Indeed, the first story was pretty much a "Can Mike come out and play" scenario, only the "swimming hole" they went to might have been full of sewer water. Still, there's absurd teenage boasting about sex, lots of swearing, and dysfunctional family interactions that cover up deep ennui and a desperate desire to connect. Another episode features Noah's stand-in Ben going out trying to raise money by selling newspapers with a "sponsor". It's another poke in the eye to the concept of suburbia and adulthood itself, as the adults in the story are losers and Ben just wants to go home and play with his friends. There's a delightfully loose, scribbly quality to these stories that make them look rougher than his other work, a quality that fits right in with the sense of pointlessness about the culture surrounding him growing up. 

Van Sciver can't quite help plunging back into autobiographical stories about his current life (complete with his current character design's ridiculous feather duster of a mustache) that inevitably discuss his career as a cartoonist or what he perceives as a lack of same. He takes that ouroboros quality and really doubles down on it in "The Hypo", which is a classic cringe comedy story about finding a used copy of his first book in a store and deciding to buy it. That leads him to a series of reminiscences about art school triggered by going to a gallery opening with horrible but successful art. Van Sciver isn't exactly covering new ground here, with a potential romance that goes awkwardly awry and an embarrassing incident in a bookstore. The most interesting part of the story is a memory of a phone call he got from his older brother Ethan, then one of the most successful mainstream cartoonists in the world, telling Noah to stop doing paintings and get back to being a cartoonist. It was good advice, but it was also telling in how Ethan saw the world as being full of "enemies". There's a certain Seth-like quality to this story as well, with lots of scenes of Van Sciver walking and big splash pages focusing on nature and the neighborhoods he's exploring. The atmosphere he creates is as important as the story or dialogue because he's trying to evoke a feeling as much as he is creating a narrative. 
One thing I love about Van Sciver's work is when he starts obsessing about something and feels compelled to adapt it into comics. In this case, it's the 19th-century humorist Artemus Ward and his visit to Salt Lake City in the late 1800s. This story fits into Van Sciver's fascination with his Mormon past as well as popular humorists from bygone eras. Van Sciver's affinity for the grit and grime of American life at the time (which he captured so vividly in The Hypo) is suitably captured by his dense hatching and cross-hatching, and his use of color adds a bit more life to the proceedings. It's easy to see what drew Van Sciver to Ward's work; like Ward, he is a cynical humorist with a dire view of most things. However, he's also someone who's willing to give everyone an even shake, especially those who are widely misunderstood. This emerged in Ward's descriptions of hanging out with Brigham Young and other elders, going to one of their balls, and catching Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Ward’s story is the archetypical Blammo story, one that wouldn't really fit anywhere else and make any sense, yet feels right at home in the context of the issue and series.

Some compare Van Sciver to R.Crumb in terms of drawing style, but I think Seth may be his most significant influence at the moment. There's a long missive from Seth in the letters column of this issue, and it's plainly clear that the older author felt drawn to Van Sciver's work. Seth basically urged Van Sciver to draw whatever he wanted and not to worry about anything else, and that certainly is true in this and the other recent issues. At the same time, there's a touch of Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken in the excellent "burning brigsby", which is among the best things that Van Sciver has ever done. In it, a fictional cartoonist named Brian Brigsby has just died, and his daughter comes to pay her respects and fulfill his last wish: to destroy his unpublished last book. 

Brigsby was a sort of cross between Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, and Herge' with a series of beloved books that brought him worldwide success and fame. At the height of his fame, he decided to quit doing comics altogether. Along the way, he had an affair and secretly fathered a son, and this story is a battle of will and wits between the siblings regarding his legacy. His daughter is trying to honor his wishes, while his illegitimate son (desperate for money) is trying to determine if there's a last book to publish. There's a great deal of musing about artistic intent, the duty (if any) an artist has to their audience, and a subtle subplot about the relationship that a person of wealth has with their employees. 
The denouement brings a jaw-dropping revelation, especially after what seemed to be a triumphant climax for the story's protagonist. Van Sciver brings to bear every trick and motif he has: distinctive and slightly grotesque character design, an acute understanding of desperate losers trying to dig their way out of bad circumstances, a powerful take on the history of comics and the artists who have been part of this meat-grinder of an industry, and the ways in which money distorts reality and personhood. He even follows this up with a one-page strip about Brigsby's early life, and why turning the one thing in his miserable life that gave him pleasure (drawing comics) into a job was so horrifying for him. There's a subtle use of spot yellows in the main story (the color of rotting newsprint) and the kind of detailed images of forests that have marked Van Sciver’s work of late, adding depth and texture to his stories. The secluded setting is a key part of the plot, and Van Sciver sells it with a precise and visceral level of detail. 

Perhaps the rawest and personal story in the book is "Beverly, New Jersey". It's an autobio story about Noah visiting and reuniting with his estranged father. There's no story artifice here like in his other autobio work, just a burning sincerity that speaks to two men desperate to have a relationship with each other but not quite knowing how. It resonated a bit with his fictional story "The Lizard Laughed", which is also about a young man reuniting with his father, only the father's apologies weren't especially sincere and the son had plans to shoot his dad that he later abandoned. That story is a bundle of raw nerves that's also remarkably nuanced, especially in the way he depicts the pathetic blowhard that is his father. In this story, both men are far more open to each other, with Van Sciver's dad being truly contrite and Van Sciver having the mien of an emotionally fragile child who's finally getting his wish to be with his dad again. Van Sciver's dad is a natural raconteur and is set loose to do so as Van Sciver hangs the story around that tendency. Even the very end of the story is based on that, as Van Sciver's father literally tells a terrible "dad joke" to lighten the mood in a moment as sweet as much as the rest of the story is melancholy. It's a compact, tightly-paced triumph that benefits from its sincerity and straight-ahead visual approach. 

This issue may not have been as cohesive as #9, but its highest highs are some of Van Sciver's best work. Even the lesser material is still of interest, even if it feels more lightweight. Van Sciver is an astoundingly prolific artist, but the care he takes in producing each issue of his "home base" is akin to what Michael DeForge does in his Lose series. It allows Van Sciver to indulge in his ideas freely and either pursue them further or simply abandon them. Some of the ideas he developed here might not fully pay off until he's had a real chance to think about them down the road. Blammo has always been a place where Van Sciver was allowed to get better in public, and that decade of labor has resulted in a showcase worth of appreciation in its own right, not just as a public workshop. 

This comic is a huge departure for Gennis, who started her career with her Spaz! minicomics, which had funny and sometimes bawdy autobio stories about her dating life and other personal issues. Still, Gennis is perhaps best known for her historical comics about unusual deaths, drawing them with a precisely-inked line. Baseline Blvd, though, is personal and revealing in a different manner, and the way it's structured is crucial in its overall emotional impact. Gennis works big here, with just two panels per page, stacked atop each other. Some pages have but a single, large image on them. Instead of the precise inks of her previous work, here Gennis uses a lot of scribbled lines and shaded faces. There is a temporal tug of war going on in this comic, as the main narrative is a slow, deliberate journey that begins with Gennis buying flowers at a grocery store and continues as she drives along increasingly rural back country roads. 
That slow progress is interrupted by a series of memory fragments that begin with what seems to be the tipping point of an abusive relationship: a small statuette being hurled at her by her ex-boyfriend that smashes to bits against a wall. Baseline Blvd is about the tension between past and present, unresolved emotions, and deep ambivalence. It's also about the rituals surrounding death and regrets that one has with regard to past relationships. In this case, those regrets are less of the "I wish I had done something differently" variety and more of the "I am furious that these events occurred and I can't get closure" type. There's an especially harrowing sequence where she recalls him climbing through her bedroom window at night, accusing her of planning to break up with him. His silhouette is in the window during this sequence, and then it's gone, leaving the silhouette of a tree and its gnarled branches in his stead for a beat, then several pages of all-black panels, then two black pages without any panel breaks at all. 
These are images that reveal terror, anger, and shame. After her abuser left, all that's left is for her to sit in the dark with all of these feelings. The flashbacks involving this relationship all deal with various scenes, some positive, but for the most part manipulative or abusive. Gennis' transitions back and forth in time are quick cuts, with one exception: the rolling countryside and a farm that she's driving by in the present warp into an image of a cocoon of sorts, which turns into an ice cube dropping into a drink she's having at a bar. It's this sequence that reveals why she's making this particular journey, mixing sadness and confusion with unspoken but righteous indignation. Baseline Blvd is about that frustrating feeling of never quite being able to come to terms with something, with the last scene being a brief explosion of anger. It didn't solve anything or make the past better; it simply ended a ritual that was entirely about something she had to do for herself. 

Sergel's short stories are in his crisp black and white style with simply-rendered figures given some heft with the heavy use of spotting blacks. Sergel has a bone-dry sense of humor and the storytelling restraint to match it, even if his punchlines themselves can be rather broad. "TSA Cares" is about a protagonist (possibly Sergel) going through security at an airport, only to be asked by the guard if he had "a boner". Twice. The nonchalance of the guard asking the completely inappropriate question (and then patting Sergel down) becomes a key plot point when a complaint written about the experience is ignored as there was no audio being recorded. It's an unsettling story about how people in authority will find ways their abuse their position in the sleaziest of ways, but there's no histrionics in terms of the storytelling.
Indeed, that's why "The Best Eight Seconds Of Every Day" falls short of the mark. It's a one-pager where Sergel wakes up, and for eight seconds he doesn't think about Donald Trump. When he does, it's implied that the rest of the day is ruined. This one is way too on-the-nose and obvious. Sergel did a better job of approaching that kind of low-hanging fruit in "Future Presidents", where he introduced absurd examples like "Cum Sock Puppet" and "A Blood-Stained Minions Backpack" before ending with "Mike Pence". The punchline was obvious when it came, but it didn't matter as much because Sergel was so clearly delighting in coming up with ever-more-extreme examples. 
"Empathy" is about a confrontation Sergel has with an older man who hits his car and then has the audacity to claim that Sergel was "in my spot". Sergel refuses to move, and the man shambles his way to his house. We then see the man regret his actions in his house, look over at an image of his dead wife and a container holding her ashes (spotlighting his sad, empty life) and eventually see him getting ready to apologize...until the reader sees that all of this was a scenario that Sergel was dreaming up. He was the one who was trying to feel empathy for this old crank, but that dried up instantly when he saw a "Gary Johnson '16" bumper sticker on the back of the man's car, and he knew he was wasting his time. It's a good gag, though, again, it's a little more obvious than many of his punchlines. 

The best stories are "Power" and the titular "September 12th". The latter captures the absurdity of the post 9/11 landscape in New York City, that sense of total disorientation. What's more, Sergel's stand-in reveals that he had only been living in NYC for a week before 9/11 happened, which made it an even bigger wrecking ball to one's reality. The best way to combat this sort of nightmare was to indulge in something completely stupid, and so Sergel ducked into a theater (showing all movies for free) and watched the sex farce American Pie 2. Here, Sergel's restraint as a narrator is key because otherwise the gag simply would not have worked at the very end. He establishes the scenario with as little information as possible, even making it unclear just what kind of story this was going to be, and then delivers a killer punchline.

"Power" is the most structurally ambitious of the stories in September 12th. The narrative captions are that of a self-help guru's lecture on how to achieve power, but the actual scenes feature a schlub who had shelled out for a weekend at a hotel attending the guru's seminar. He realizes that he's been completely fished in by nonsense, and his increasingly unhinged behavior as he still subscribes to the letter of the lectures is both unsettling and hilarious. Literalizing the violent imagery of the lectures and using them against the guru himself was a clever idea in how it satirized the kind of language used in reductive, simplistic self-help systems. In reducing success and failure to a matter of will and a willingness to seize power, the philosophy preached sheer fascism: the strong prey on the weak and the powerful deserve to take what they want. It's the kind of unhinged philosophy that destroys and denies the very idea of a social contract, and, in many ways, it's the most trenchant critique of Trump and his ilk in the comic, even if it doesn't refer to them by name. It's the most substantive story in a collection that's mostly filled with more lightweight material, but it doesn't sacrifice humor in exchange for its philosophical impact. 

August 20, 2018

Review: NOCTURNE by Tara Booth

When it’s all said and done, Tara Booth’s new book, NOCTURNE, published by 2dCloud, is, at its heart, a dirty joke told in long form for 64 wordless pages of painted images that almost garishly swirl with undulating blues and reds that highlight Booth’s knack for self-mockery and heartfelt exploration of both the mundane and the surreal. In its telling, though, Nocturne touches upon issues of consent, sexual politics, gender norms, insomnia, pharmacology, and communal living. Even with all this, though, Booth has created a book that ultimately ends on a note of acceptance, joy, and positivity.

Speaking about Nocturne to Daphne Milner in an April 2018 interview for It’s Nice That, Booth said,  “It’s important for women and non-binary people to share their desires and sexual experiences since representations of eroticism in comics and illustration are dominated by the cis-male perspective. The moment I start to feel embarrassed or afraid to share an illustration, the clearer it becomes to me that I need to get it out there … I wanted to push myself to be fully open about my sexuality, find power in it, but also continue to embrace the silliness of it all.”
All of this is infused throughout the book. Organized in a manner that reads quickly and succinctly, even in its most hallucinatory moments, Nocturne demands a slower second read in order to parse the intricacies of Booth’s art. Her use of gouache adds a liminal element, residing as it does between watercolor and acrylics, and is perfectly suited to add to the in-between element central to Booth’s narrative. Opening with a scene exploring a clear reversal of gender norms and ideas of control, consent, and power, it shifts quickly to the visceral frustration engendered by an insomniac’s dilemma. When the central character (and Booth stand-in) attempts to deal with that frustration by turning to sleeping pills, Nocturne turns surreal and phantasmagoric, highlighting the unreality of the Western approach to medicine of ignoring the cause and treating the symptoms. Within this dream structure, the main character acts in a different reality, one that has consequences, though, within the real world and threatens the crafted social order that is basic to living within a larger group.

Booth then pulls from the beginning of Nocturne in order for her character to navigate and ameliorate the new reality created out of the previous unreality, and, in this, further comments on ideas of sexual politics, consent, and norms, as well as nails the punch-line of the joke that has driven the narrative in the first place.
It’s a tight ship that Tara Booth is sailing with Nocturne -- complicated, profound, easily digestible, and fun. Nocturne also shows Booth’s growth as a cartoonist, especially when placed beside her 2017 release from Retrofit/Big Planet, How To Be Alive. As such, Nocturne should easily show up on a number of “Best Books of 2018” lists and should stand as the marker of when Tara Booth went from a great artist to a spectacular one.

August 18, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 8/10/18 to 8/17/18

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


* Alex Hoffman writes a mixed review of YELLOW LIGHT #1 by Raziel Puma which "is bogged down by production issues and a few pieces that don’t pass muster. But with that said, for a first book, I think Yellow Light #1 has a lot going for it."

* Tegan O'Neil on HASIB AND THE QUEEN OF SERPENTS by David B., "a stylized version of age of the stories without indulging in stereotype or essentialist fantasy. "

* John Seven on ALL THE SAD SONGS by Summer Pierre, writing "At the center of Pierre’s longing is the desire to be loved, to not be alone, to feel a kind of togetherness with a human being that replicates how music can engulf her being and make her feel part of something larger."

* Andy Oliver reviews GREENHOUSE by Debbie Fong, "a subtle, nuanced and uncompromising read from an artist whose verbal economy proves a potent storytelling tool."

* James Smart has this very short review of SHIT IS REAL by Aisha Franz, "a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion."

* Christa Seely writes this pretty straight-forward review of PINKY AND PEPPER FOREVER by Ivy Atoms, calling it "a wild ride of a story."

* Daniel Gehen on DUMB: LIVING WITHOUT A VOICE by Georgia Webber, calling it "a stark reminder that no one, no matter how young or old, is invincible."

* Ryan Carey on GRIP by Lale Westvind which "seems to eschew dialogue, captions, sound effects, and related ephemera (barring the occasional, expertly-placed exception) as a matter of sheer necessity, recognizing them less as an unnecessary encumbrance that would only get in the way of the tale being told, but as outright obstacles that would actually detract from the proceedings." Ryan also reviews Tara Booth's HOW TO BE ALIVE which is one of my favorite books of recent years.

* Rob Clough looks at TINDERELLA by M. S. Harkness, writing "Harkness shows that whatever solace one takes in being alone also brings about pain, while being with someone can lead to huge compromises and heartbreak."


* One of my favorite cartoonists, Simon Moreton, previews his new zine, MINOR LEAGUES #6, "a big, long autobiographical exploration of life, death, grief, memory and childhood, explored through the lens of the South Shropshire countryside where I grew up, and told through comics, prose, photos, drawings, paintings and collage."

* Speaking of Simon Moreton, over on the Avery Hill blog he continues his conversation with fellow cartoonist TIM BIRD "about their work and practice."

* Tim Hodler talks to Fantagraphics associate publisher, ERIC REYNOLDS, about the ComiXology Originals announcement that essentially puts Amazon in the position, by publishing comics both digitally and by print-on-demand, to have a ripple effect on the comics industry.

* Caitlin Rosberg interviews KATE GAVINO about her new book, Sanpaku, and "to discuss the book’s pattern work, her approach to pacing and how leaving Texas made her fall in love with the state after all."

* Edith Zimmerman talks to AUBREY NOLAN about how she makes comics.

* Gabrielle Bell has a new comic up on Spiralbound called HOW I MAKE MY COMICS.

* There's a new Tara Booth comic on Vice called BEDBUGS.

* Speaking of comics on Vice, you know that if there is a new Seo Kim featured there, I'm going to link to it. So.. in four panels, here is PTERANODON.

* Anne Roiphe wrote an essay for Tablet called MY FAVORITE ANTI-SEMITE: EDITH WHARTON which is part of "an occasional series of tributes to writers, artists, philosophers, and others who hate us and to why we still find value in their work."