Wednesday, December 12, 2018

BOOKS WE LIKED 2018: Nick Hanover, Sara L. Jewell, Jason Sacks, and Mark Stack

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. That’s right -- it’s BEST OF season when comic sites large and small churn out their lists, anointing subjective BESTS and, thereby, relegating thousands upon thousands of unlisted comics to the long box of Misfit Toys.

We here at Your Chicken Enemy are uncomfortable with these implications of creating BEST OF lists. Instead, we focus on celebrating ALL that is good in small press/self-published comics. Our site is built on an appreciation for diversity, admiration of artists, respect for the craft, and, of course, sandwiches.  

So, in lieu of the traditional BEST OF list, Publisher and EiC of YCE, Daniel Elkin, has gathered his flock of (Chicken) Enemies and asked them for their contributions to Your Chicken Enemy’s inaugural
Today’s BOOKS WE LIKED 2018 features books liked by Nick Hanover, Sara L. Jewell, Jason Sacks, and Mark Stack

Make sure to check out Tuesday's Favorites from Ryan CareyPhilippe LeBlancSteve Morris, and Austin Lanari.

And Monday's Favorites from Rob CloughKim JoohaAlex Hoffman, and Keith Silva.

Nick Hanover: 
Cartoon Dialectics #3
By Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark
Published by Uncivilized Books
Available HERE

Cartoon Dialectics #3 looks like a humble, unobtrusive work-- it’s packaged like a zine, printed in purple, black and white with an occasional splash of yellow on somewhat thick, matte paper. But what Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark provide between its covers is powerful, invigorating stuff, connecting the dots between our society’s retromania and the rise of neo-fascism, while also acknowledging how easy it is for anyone to fall prey to the dangerous allure of nostalgia. 

The written content itself is sharp and refreshingly clear, but it’s the contrast of Kaczynski’s architect eye and Jetsmark’s borderline cubist approach to design that makes the material triumph the way it does. Even the most detailed and complex analysis in Cartoon Dialectics goes down easy because of how eye-catching and blunt the art is, like a lecture carried out by performance artists. Bold in its aesthetic and literal simplicity and paradoxically educational and surreal, Cartoon Dialectics #3 did a far better job investigating where we are now and why in its few pages than the entirety of the New York Times this year.


Vampire Horse
By Madeline McGrane
Self-published
Read It HERE

I had a hard time mustering up much enthusiasm for comics this year. Between the seemingly endless stories of sexual harassment and assault on both the mainstream and indie levels and the growing sense that we were living in the end times, I mostly wanted to do anything but read comics, let alone write about them. So whenever something popped up that felt, well, fun, it was like being thrown an oxygen mask and tank while sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Madeline McGrane’s Vampire Horse was perhaps my most unexpected comics salvation this year. Appearing on Twitter in March, and then magically reappearing on my feed at several dire points in the rest of my year, Vampire Horse provided exactly what it promised: the adventure of a horse turned into a vampire and the vampire cowgirl who befriends it. McGrane’s stark, unfussed over art is naturally relaxing but McGrane’s highly expressive character designs keep things exciting and complex, wringing far more depth and tension out what would be a one-note joke in lesser hands. Vampire Horse might prompt a reflexive snicker at first glance but read it and tell me it doesn’t feel like a lifesaver in this tire fire of a year.


An Actual Goblin
By Pete Toms
Self-published
Available HERE

I suspect that satirists and surrealists are having a particularly difficult time creating material when reality itself feels like the bleakest possible joke. So props to Pete Toms for finding a way to stay inspired, relevant and, most importantly, goddamn funny here at the end of the world with An Actual Goblin.

Like most of Toms’ work, An Actual Goblin explores the absurdity of living multiple lives at once-- work, home, and social media. In this case, that’s through the perspective of a woman fired for being a little too woke at a Medieval Times-esque gimmick restaurant, whose drunken decision to release her equine coworkers on the town results in severed digits (swiftly becoming a signature Toms motif), escalating conspiracy theories from the local authorities and unnatural partnerships between human and animal (not in the way you’re thinking, you pervert). 


What makes An Actual Goblin standout in Toms’ work and otherwise is how masterfully it strikes a balance between constant laugh out loud entertainment and heady philosophizing. An Actual Goblin is heavily detailed, but not in a cluttered way, with Toms getting humor and tension out of things as simple and subtle as t-shirts characters wear (a favorite of mine just says “TOONS”) while also providing nauseating moments of body horror, ranging from worm infestations to melting faces. Put simply, An Actual Goblin is a disturbingly accurate representation of the headspace of this rotten age, in all its terror and all its comedy.

Sara L. Jewell:
Cave Dreams 
by Carta Monir 
Published on Polygon
Read It HERE

I discovered Monir’s excellent comics for the first time this year and eagerly sought out her work across the internet. Her comics frequently interrogate or utilize the ways in which modern-day experiences are increasingly mediated or deeply influenced by digital arenas and interfaces. Cave Dreams, a recent piece published on Polygon, explores video games as liminal spaces and “imperfect mirrors” through a childhood experience of a 1991 DOS game - Magic Pockets - with its own meta-dimensional mechanic: the protagonist can jump into his pant’s pocket and enter a different dimension. Monir’s effortless line and deliberate scrolled reveal of each subsequent panel draw the reader, not coincidentally, deeper into their screens as she captures the feeling of entering a virtual world that subsequently enters you, becoming entangled somewhere deep in your subconscious. One of the Monir’s great strengths as a cartoonist is her ability to evoke a sense of what being in a virtual world feels like. It’s never more evident than in Cave Dreams, a comic that rejects the idea of “perfect safety” in any space, real or imagined. 


Flocks 
by L. Nichols 
Published by Secret Acres
Available HERE

Nichols’ memoir about growing up queer in a conservative Christian community really struck a chord with me. Flocks rejects easy answers to the question of what to do when the communities you depend on to uplift you would just as soon strike you down if they knew who you truly were. Over the course of the book, wherein Nichols depicts himself as a doll with button-eyes, he belongs to many shepherded groups (as the title might suggest) and frequently feels the discomfort of not-quite-belonging. Nichols contention at one point, that we can belong to these communities in some ways but not others, that we can take what’s good from fellowship and leave the rest behind, is deeply poignant in the context of his life, as he charts his journey from ashamed young person to happy, confident father, artist, and graduate. 


Upgrade Soul 
by Ezra Claytan Daniels 
Published by Lion Forge
Available HERE

A disturbing look at how we define human potential, Daniels' superbly drawn science fiction opus follows Hank and Molly Nonnar, an elderly couple who undergo a cutting-edge procedure in the hopes of perfecting and rejuvenating themselves. Not merely a fountain of youth or a return to halcyon days, the treatment aims to genetically “perfect” the pair in every possible way, but instead creates two horrific, alien-looking clones, whose intellectual and emotional sophistication strains the claim that they could possibly, even with the pair’s memories, be Hank and Molly any longer. What follows is a tale rife with body horror that asks uncomfortable questions about what makes us who we are, what constitutes a flaw, and what it means to achieve our “best” selves. Daniels' narrative is unsettling, engaging, and frequently emotional. His characters are fully realized and feel completely authentic. Upgrade Soul is a book that absolutely does not shy away from the metaphysically intricate ideas it introduces. 

Jason Sacks:
Adult Crash Comix
By Jim Kettner
Available HERE

Jim Kettner’s Adult Crash Comix is a revelation. A work of technical and emotional precision, this is also a moving first chapter of an intriguing graphic novel.

Kettner’s linework is excellent, precise but loose enough to keep the focus on the humanity of the characters. His use of single-color highlights is well used to accentuate key settings like the bland pleasantness of hospital waiting rooms and the suffocating closeness of grandma's house. As well, his use of full- and two-page spreads does a powerful job of accentuating important story beats.

The aspect of the book that really resonates with me is the larger story Kettner depicts.

Kettner tells about how a hospital visit to his critically ill grandmother reminds him of a terrible childhood experience. In doing so, he helps to render universal an experience most of us feel throughout our lives: the tremendous disappointments our families visit upon us and the myriad ways human weakness becomes apparent as we become more cognizant of our world. Those themes then resonate as we are flip the story in order to provide sympathy for those who disappointed us. In the inversion of experience, we are moved to have a moment of revelation about our own weaknesses. That epiphany gives Adult Crash real emotional power.


The Secret Voice
By Zack Soto
Published by Study Group Comics
Available HERE

The Secret Voice is the most fun graphic novel I read in 2018. This epic fantasy offers thrilling action, fascinating characters, and thoughtful worldbuilding. This book is an exciting page-turner, but it also delivers more than is shown on the surface.

The independent vision of creator Zack Soto is what makes this book truly special. The Secret Voice mainly focuses on the bandaged mystery man, Doctor Gallapagos, as he battles the mysterious Red College. 

Gallapagos provides the true center of this book. Readers are shown from his first moments on the page that the bandaged man is a tenacious warrior. But as Soto pulls us along in his story, he shows readers the massive costs that fighting spirit has cost this great warrior. Gallapagos is beaten down in his body, his soul, and his love life. His weaknesses make him intriguing. His inner fragility pulls the reader in and encourages empathy.

Soto’s discursive wanderings are just as compelling: he places readers into troll villages which hint at a full society. He gives us intriguing, elusive references to past battles, old broken romances, and the implications of deep emotional and physical damage. The Secret Voice treads the elusive line between an improvisational indie vision and a fun epic fantasy.


That Box We Sit On
by Richie Pope
Self-Published
Available HERE

When I was in elementary school, my friends and I once found an odd box in the middle of a country field. We spent hours debating the box, its importance and where it came from. Ultimately the mystery evaporated when a neighbor told us it was just a piece from a milking machine. 

Richie Pope’s “That Box We Sit On” takes a similar experience and spins a beguiling comic from it. This smart mini presents a dialogue which seems to be about a mysterious box in the middle of a field but which actually is about friendship and the power of imagination.

Pope delivers his comic as six-panel grids which provide a metronomic beat to the conversation between two friends as they throw out ideas about the box’s composition. That rhythm gives the book its backbone and its sense of warmth, as the friends show their obvious affection for each other, share a few laughs, and go down tangents such as their love for spicy sunflower seeds.

“That Box” seems simple, but it is as complicated as the relationship between two friends. That emotional resonance makes this a memorable, powerful work of comics art.

Mark Stack:
Battery Acid Chapter 1 
Written by J Doyle, art by Y Zhou 
Self-Published
Find Out More HERE

The sports comic is bigger than the superhero comic from a global perspective. Unfortunately, the sports comic is not as big of a figure in the American comics industry, and thus the biggest successes in the genre in the States are with imported series such as Haruichi Furdudate’s Haikyu!. As with a lot of blockbuster comics, there’s a particular idiom that that series works within with the successful elements coming from the unique application of character dynamics. Battery Acid, a self-published North-American comic, is certainly working within that Japanese idiom while also striving to add dimension to the antagonistic relationship between the two players who lead the book. The first chapter of this comic sets up a larger ongoing, establishing the abusive dynamic between the timid Hasegawa and the hotheaded Ono when the former gives up a game-winning hit in a key baseball game before flashing forward two years. Visually, this comic sets itself apart from its North American peers with its deft visual vocabulary that, while lacking somewhat in detail at times, always accentuates the strengths of the book through the dynamic staging of the leads. The excitement for this book, functionally a standalone as a first chapter even as it leaves threads open to being developed in later chapters, comes in the way these two have changed since that important game. Their interactions tell a story of lingering fear and regret between them that will need to be resolved in order for them to create a functional team. It’s a potent cocktail.


Crimes 
by Kelsey Wroten 
Published by Pyrite Press
Available HERE

There probably isn’t enough said about how the cover, as more than a marketing tool, serves as the first taste of a comic. The cover for Crimes presents a melancholy so overbearing that it depresses at the onset even as the warm colors invite you in. You want to keep looking at it, but all it does is make you feel sadder. That’s the case for protagonist Willa as she falls for Bas, her best friend Simon’s younger girlfriend. Bas is at once extremely cool and unattainable from her work as an artist and detached attitude. Her aloofness vexes Willa as the two get closer as she remains unreadable with the poor girl worrying about what she is and isn’t projecting onto her. Willa, shaped by an upbringing in which her father seemed to go out of his way to prove that he was smarter than a child and then criticizing her in the next breath, sees herself in stark black and white. She is either good or bad, and there is a tremendous degree of shame wrapped up in her attraction to Bas (who, for her part, is much more comfortable with her sexuality, not using labels or attempting to define it within herself, than Willa who struggles to sputter out that she isn’t attracted to men). The crimes of the title may very well refer to the moments of intimacy between Willa and Bas as they embark on an affair that is at first intimate and suddenly sexual, leaving Willa to worry that her pursuing something that might make her feel good is a sin. As Bas asks Willa in the form of a poem, “You keep portraits of great thinkers by your bed/Black and white/Why are there no portraits of great thinkers in color?” The reader is prepared to see the color in Willa’s black and white world as the cover prepares them to read Willa and Bas’ hair as the same shade of platinum blonde and the colors of the beach that the finale is staged at as warmer than the events might indicate even as they are not visible within the pages themselves.


Tinderella 
by M.S. Harkness 
Published by Kilgore Books
Available HERE


Much of Tinderella, as the name would suggest, follows Harkness through her (assumedly) autobiographical history of dating app hook-ups like she’s a horny Scott McCloud in a world full of inhospitable dick. The range of style found in this book really does recall the range shown in the quintessential comics textbook Understanding Comics, but with an exciting application into storytelling that even McCloud couldn’t quite achieve with works like The Sculptor. Harkness shifts the depiction of herself radically over the course of the book to fit the tone of her latest misadventure, almost always appearing a shade more “cartoony” than her scene partners. It’s a tremendous breath of fresh air to follow a woman who at times presents herself as gross and miserable without having to take brutal shots at herself to almost apologize or contextualize the portrayal. This is something men often get to do in their own work, but practically never this potently self-aware, good-humored, and considered. Harkness’ skill as a storyteller truly shines late in the book in a capstone sequence where the events of Wrestlemania X-Seven’s match between Vince and Shane McMahon are played out before being followed by a harrowing flashback to Harkness’ mother attempting to get her and her brother’s name’s changed following her ex-husband’s charge of sexual assault. It’s a bravura sequence as the absurdly presented story of righteous child versus scumbag father plays out with the former overcoming while the flashback to court shows him succeeding for the moment. A lesser work would play that wrestling match for catharsis. Instead, Harkness embraces the mess of emotions found in the story and the denial of a similar resolution in her own life. Expect to see Harkness on lists like this every year she puts out a book.

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