Tuesday, January 15, 2019

We Shouldn't Fear Hurting: Justin Giampaoli reviews HAMLET IS OKAY by Lora Root

There are times when you feel like a comic is made just for you. I've always had a soft spot for The Bard, having played a rousing rendition of Romeo in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, and thanks in no small part to Mr. Lindbergh, another high school AP English teacher who dedicated an entire semester to unpacking Hamlet around the time the Mel Gibson movie came out (I even wrote a movie review for my school newspaper). I've always been partial to the tragedy of my favorite character Mercutio ("a plague on both your houses!" and all that), so this particular comic was very much in my wheelhouse and I was so there for this reimaging of everyone's favorite brooding Shakespearean emo protag. 

Hamlet Is Okay is a modern day reinterpretation of the Prince of Denmark, wracked with grief over the death of his late father, not only seeing ghostly manifestations of dear old dad's wispy tales of murder and conspiratorial plots against the crown, but walking the streets begging for a speeding car to put him out of his misery. It takes place in lived-in pubs and flats that push clever twists like Mercutio being something of a hipster bartender, which displays a penetrating understanding of the original character's charisma and tick-tock inner workings. All of this might play like clever fanfic on paper, but what sells it is the execution of the cartooning by Lora Root
The writer/artist is able to avoid many of the common pitfalls of entry-level comics professionals. Root's ability to capture lively facial expressions and crystal clear panel transitions provides a foundation from which to operate. From there, she fills the swift-moving 50-page story with generous background details and an ornate fine line, is careful to use a variety of panel layouts that range from full-page splashes to double-page spreads, panels sans borders, use of negative space, skewed panels to emphasize something awry, to all manner of horizontal and vertical panel compositions. 
Perhaps my favorite skill that Root displays in her efforts is the ability to consistently alter the figure scale. There an old adage I heard from one comics artist that "at least once per page, you should be able to see a character's feet." This guideline will help ensure figure scale variation engaging the eye to zoom in and out, and avoid a monotonous series of talking heads. I'm not sure how much of this skill is an innate ability on Root's part, or the result of her studies at Michigan State University under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Ryan Claytor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

For more than a decade, Claytor has been a presence at MSU, offering comics studio courses that build toward a minor in the field, helming the annual MSU Comics Forum, offering deep-dive interviews of award-winning creators via the MSU Comic Art & Graphic Novel Podcast, all in addition to his steady self-published output at Elephant Eater Comics. Claytor teaches the fundamentals of the comics making craft, but also provides tutelage concerning the business end of comics, from the economics of printing, to organizing signing tours and tabling at shows, to basic marketing and self-promotion. There's an entire generation of young cartoonists passing through this corner of the comics world with a very clear and distinct ethos. It leaves me wondering if future comics historians will be able to look back and identify a discernible style or movement in the vein of RISD's fabled "Fort Thunder" aesthetic. 

Digression aside, Hamlet is Okay playfully alters the structure of the original play, while maintaining critical elements like the ghost of Hamlet's father. We're left wondering if the ghost is an actual apparition, or exists only in Hamlet's mind's eye as a mental manifestation of loss, grief, or regret. We question if it's real or simply a coping mechanism pushing Hamlet toward vengeance as a shortcut to right a perceived wrong and make sense of the lack of control he feels in a world filled with seemingly random senseless acts.
Root also emphasizes the thematic takeaway of the simple importance of friendship. When we're dealing with the loss of a loved one, there's a human inclination to withdraw as a means of self-defense. Yet this is paradoxically when we need people the most. It's the realization that sometimes being strong means asking for help. It's the knowledge that we shouldn't fear hurting as a component of the human experience. It's also the knowledge that if you see someone hurting, an earnest offer of help, even if it requires repeating - to the point of insistence, can make all the difference in someone else's life. 
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. The first movie he saw in a theatre was The Black Hole. The first mini-comic he ever read was Henry by Tim Goody

Monday, January 14, 2019

Everything, Nothing, And All Points In Between: Ryan Carey Reviews IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST by Mike Taylor

Navigating the present social, political, and economic reality is tough enough --- how are you supposed to get your own head together in the midst of all this chaos?

Cartoonist Mike Taylor's stand-in/protagonist Adam (and, yes, eventually that's revealed to be as obvious a choice of name as you're already imagining it to be), our one and only point of reference in and, in a very real sense, entry into, the metaphysical realms beyond and within detailed in the new graphic novel In Christ There Is No East Or West, is tasked with such a challenge and has the added burden of having been conscripted into this impromptu bit of soul-searching by none other than God himself --- but not until after he discards his ever-present "smart" phone at The Almighty's insistence.

Taylor has, of course, long been on a very public journey of self-discovery in the pages of his justly-legendary Late Era Clash self-published comics 'zine, but whereas that publication generally eschews anything approaching the lofty status of a "grand unifying theory of everything," this book seems to be every bit as much about the destination as it is about the circuitous paths that lead there. It's a heady, thought-provoking experience, to be sure, but to Taylor's great credit it's also a highly and entertainingly accessible one, and while it might come off as too inherently dismissive to call this "metaphysics for the masses," that's exactly what it is --- and that's meant as a compliment.
Gary Groth's "street cred" imprint, Fantagraphics Underground, has pulled out all the stops in terms of production values here and the fold-out poster that slips around the cover is not only jaw-droppingly gorgeous but sets the tone for the deeply personal, yet undeniably universal, explorations that play out on the book's generously over-sized pages. Taylor obviously had complete freedom to follow his creative impulses wherever they led him here --- not to mention however they did so --- and, to that end, expect a wide, at times even breathtaking, array of art styles that range from the near-abstract to the "scratchy" to the detailed to the downright lush, as well as transitions from black and white to rich, vibrant color and back again depending on where Adam finds himself. A great deal of flexibility is required on the part of the reader to absorb all these transitions, but it's actually easy enough to go with the flow Taylor establishes here given the organic fluidity of his sparse, borderline-poetic scripting. Words aren't plentiful, but they're chosen with care and employed with precise intent, as necessary tools to guide along a process that absolutely must be handled with utmost care.

And yet, there's an underlying sense of playfulness in the midst of this thick phantasmagorical jungle of the mind and heart, a Zen-like calm at the center that lets you know that even if everything may not ultimately be okay, it's at the very least going to be whatever it is, and learning to accept that --- to accept anything, really --- is the key to something more than mere prosaic survival; it's the key to progress, to evolution, to becoming.

Of course, "Becoming what?" is the natural-enough question that follows on from that, and Taylor offers no easy answers to it, but then nothing about Adam's "vision quest" (or whatever we want to call it) is what anyone would call easy, from his night spent in a castle made of ice occupied by a grumpy and isolated old-timer who shits something very much like chess pieces (yes, you read that right) to transforming into a plant to attending the strangest dinner party perhaps ever committed to paper --- but it's all rewarding, enlightening, and very frequently quite funny. Even if you're one of those readers for whom challenging yourself is inherently off-putting, there's nothing on offer here that's actively going to put you off --- and plenty that will, inexorably, draw you in.
I'm not suggesting that everyone's "third eye" will open, mind you --- although it's an easily-available option should you wish it --- but when Adam meets a version of himself (I think?) that has been through that process, you won't question it. Taylor has a way of getting you to "buy in" to his idiosyncratic narrative style without a hint of force being applied, and while a lot of that is down to his virtuoso pacing (really, he puts on a veritable clinic in the art and science of it) that gets your toes wet before submerging your feet and going up from there, in truth there is a hidden element to the spell he casts right from page one that speaks to some sort of ability on his part to "tune in" to realms beyond to a far greater extent than he clearly feels he can. I'm loathed to invoke the supernatural as a matter of course --- art, for all its majesty, is still a thoroughly practical process, more often than not --- but dammit, I know magic when I see it, feel it, experience it, and this book positively oozes it from its paper pores.
If, at this point, it seems this critic is being too effusive in his praise, is frankly gushing a bit too much, rest assured: every superlative I freely offer is entirely earned by this bold, inquisitive, humane, beautifully-illustrated work. In Christ There Is No East Or West is everything I look for in comics: equal parts challenging and accepting, "far out" and grounded, mysterious and easy to relate to. It isn't "about" anything specifically, perhaps, but encompasses nearly everything within its expansive, but in no way intimidating, scope. And if calling it "magic" is a bridge too far for you sober rationalists out there, fair enough, I'm prepared to happily call it a work of undeniable genius and leave it at that.
Ryan Carey lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He writes about comics for Daily Grindhouse, Graphic Policy, and at his own blog. He also maintains a long-running film review blog, Trash Film Guru.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 1/7/19 to 1/11/19

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


* Alenka Figa looks at Yumi Sakugawa's FASHION FORECASTS, writing "The future Sakugawa envisions and offers through the clothing presented in Fashion Forecasts has gone beyond acceptance of difference and moved into a realm where personal identity and self-esteem are valued as part of the simple act of wearing clothing."

* H.W. Thurston has this mixed review of VANISHING ACT by Roman Muradov, writing "Ultimately, Vanishing Act is undeniably successful as both an object d’art and as something wrestling with some very big ideas in a thorough yet lighthearted way. It’s a testament to the work that there is far more to say about it than could fit in this space. Yet I had trouble getting excited about it. Perhaps because I kept asking myself: why? Why this work now? It adopts the aesthetic of “the avant-garde,” but is it actually doing anything new? It’s not that an artwork needs a reason to exist, or needs to be relevant to the present moment. If the artist wanted to make it, that’s reason enough. But the thing is that postmodernism has been around for a while, and by now is a bit of a true-but-boring insight. It’s nihilistic in a way that runs the risk of getting old. So for a work to dive off the deep end in engaging with it, especially in a way that is almost “retro,” it feels--fair or not--like there needs to be a reason."

* Over on The Beat, Philippe LeBlanc also reviews Muradov's VANISHING ACT, but he doesn't care for it much. LeBlanc writes, "It’s rare that I dislike a book to the point of feeling like it’s an absolute slog to get through. It’s disheartening to see such an incredible display of artistry ultimately being about such a navel-gazing idea, a book about itself, its own importance and the artistic skill of the creator." Personally, I loved this book and even chose it as one of my THE BEST COMICS OF 2018 over on The Comics Journal. To each their own, I guess.

* Andy Oliver on MY FATHER WAS A FISHERMAN by Dáire Lawlor, "a most impressive first long-form sequential art offering." Oliver also reviews CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts, writing "Roberts’ clear, uncomplicated visuals always have an expressive clarity and the most telling of visual characterisation, and Chlorine Gardens is another collection of incisive short strips from one of the finest autobio practitioners working in the medium."

* Caleb Orecchio on STRAY CATS by Ted Echterling which is "like a dream (a fever-dream of a young Doctor Moreau) that wakes you up to a feeling of nausea. It lingers in your mind and puts you into a funk for the rest of the day."

* Chris Gavaler reviews A HOUSE IN THE JUNGLE by Nathan Gelgud which "isn't just a story—it's a comics story exploring the comics form that contains it."

* John Seven looks at KINGDOM by Jon McNaught, writing "it’s not so much a criticism of the modern human world as a rectifying of the divide between it and the natural world. There’s an idea that pollution is part of nature because it is human-made and man is part of nature. Agree or disagree with the actual premise, it becomes a philosophical question about the nature of what belongs in the universe, of where humans stand. It is possible to tag one circumstance as good and one as bad, but when you move past the judgments and examine the situations, without passion, you find that the human experience and all its shallow technological clingings are as much a part of the world and an experience within the world as a bird hunting and killing a rodent."

* Ryan Carey on THE NEW WORLD: COMICS FROM MAURETENIA by Chris Reynolds, where "these stories are the closest thing to actual dreams on paper that I’ve ever seen. They play out in the exact same way that dreams do  — there are elements that can’t adequately be described; key events are tantalizingly hinted at but never directly followed up on; time moves entirely differently, more tethered to events that are happening than to an arbitrary and unforgiving clock; everything is oddly familiar but just a bit off. Nothing is as it should be in these comics, but that realization dawns upon you slowly and incrementally."

* Over on WWAC, they pick their FAVORITE SMALL PRESS COMICS OF 2018.

* Over on Sequential State, Alex Hoffman has just finished up his annual COMICS THAT CHALLENGED ME series for this year with a pretty amazing list of comics. Also, while checking out Sequential State, make sure you marvel at the new header for the site created by Xia Gordon.


* SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: Your Chicken Enemy is hoping to double the content offered weekly on the site, and, to that end, YCE has created a PATREON for you!

* There's a new Seo Kim comic on Vice called IT WASN'T THE CHAIR, IT WAS ME.

* Also on Vice, there's a new Tara Booth comic called DON'T BE AN ASSHOLE.

* Ellen Lindner is the featured cartoonist this week for A CARTOONIST'S DIARY over on TCJ.

* Michael Kupperman has this TALK at Google(?) about his book, All the Answers.

* One of the best sources of comics journalism, The MNT, has ANNOUNCED that it is moving from a newsletter format to publishing new content directly on its website. It's an interesting and understandable move, and I'll be interested to see how this develops and evolves.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Attraction Between Five Bodies: Rob Clough reviews GRAVITY’S PULL by MariNaomi

MariNaomi is best known for her confessional and revealing autobiographical comics that center around relationships, friendships, and personal identity. In her young adult, fictional series Life On Earth, she uses those themes to tell the stories of four teens in a small town. There's also a fifth teen who is the catalyst of the series; her disappearance in the first book was its central plot point and her return in the second book drives its narrative. MariNaomi strongly hints that her vanishing may have had something to do with aliens, but she does make it clear that something weird is going on, even if it's mostly in the background. The real story in the first two volumes is the way these teens interact with each other, and how they find themselves alternately attracted and repelled at various points.

In both books, we are first introduced to Nigel, an African-American guy who's a skater with a minimalist aesthetic. He has a crush on Emily in the first book (Losing The Girl) and develops one on the mysterious returning girl, Claudia. His arc in the first volume saw him maturing and learning how to be a friend instead of just a player, even as he was dealing with the pain of his parents separating and essentially leaving him to fend for himself. Emily was involved with Brett, a jock who was also a sensitive artist, but things went south with their relationship after she got pregnant and had an abortion. Emily's best friend was Paula, but Paula felt like she was constantly being taken advantage of by her. It didn't help that Paula had her own crush on Brett. Brett mostly refused to share his feelings as he was dealing with a mentally ill mother who was on her deathbed.

That's a lot of emotional and personal narrative to lay down, especially in a visual, talking-heads format. To do this, MariNaomi had to solve two problems: how to make these characters feel like something beyond tropes and how to present this information in a visually compelling manner. Her solution was to double down on the idea that everyone sees the world from their own distinct point of view. Thus, each chapter is not only focused on a specific character's narrative, and each chapter is done in a different visual style unique to that character. That aesthetic approach extends to lettering, line weights, shading, page format, and a variety of other choices that help each character stand out. This style is a clever metaphor for the way we think of others as part of our story, shaping them to fit into how we see the world.
In Gravity's Pull, MariNaomi continues to use this metaphor, with the new presence of Claudia affecting everyone else in visually arresting ways. Nigel kicks the book off once again, and the art continues to reflect his point of view. The art is minimalist, given some weight by the extensive use of shading. Nigel's own self-caricature often drops down to something as simple as dot eyes and a line mouth, with his dreadlocks drawn as bulbous protuberances. Visually, things change when he first spies Claudia: he's drawn to her for reasons he can't understand, and when he sees her, she's surrounded by a yellow glow in her eyes. It's a sudden use of spot color that instantly conveys his attraction and the way her weirdness makes him feel weird; it's fitting that the yellow is deliberately made to look eerie and alien. It also indicates something else for each of the characters: a surprising level of empathy and wisdom for the problems of others. Nigel ends the chapter comforting Paula's asshole ex-boyfriend, even as it's clear that he's surprised that he's doing it. He glows yellow when he's dispensing advice and his figure is even more cartoonish than in the rest of the chapter, which once again cleverly indicates what's happening without spelling it out.

Paula is drawn using open-page layouts, one image blending into the next as she drifts and dreams her way through her day. MariNaomi makes frequent use of extreme close-ups as visual metanyms, like a shot of Paula's lips representing her entire person as she shouts out the name of her crush. Throughout the course of this chapter, as Paula kisses her crush Johanna for the first time, MariNaomi keeps a lot of tight close-ups on the talking heads, stripping away all but the most essential elements of the feelings being expressed: eyes, mouth, nose. When she pulls back a bit, she's also pulling back emotionally for a second, as Paula (and the reader) take a moment to reflect. The thin quality of the line is representative of Paula's fragility. She can't let her crush on Brett go, and when she tells him she's with Johanna now (not knowing about Brett's own obsession with Johanna), Brett gets angry and tells her to leave. The final self-image of Paula is warped and ugly as she thinks “I am unlovable”.
Brett is the focus of the next chapter, and it's all dramatic grayscale shading, as his emotions simmer in a miasma of gloom. As little as he shares with others, his own internal monologue is morose and despondent. The scenes with his dying mother are heartbreaking, and MariNaomi draws Brett's mother as he sees her in the last scene: an almost mummified corpse.

Emily in many respects was the central character of the first book, and her narrative once again takes up a lot of space in Gravity's Pull. The visual approach here is the most conventional: standard grids, crisp black and white, bold line weights, and a mix of naturalist drawing (especially in close-ups) and more minimalist drawings. The story picks up with her at a party, bitching about Paula, and making out with a guy. When she doesn't want to have sex, he turns his attention to another friend, and Emily later finds her being raped by him. It's done subtly and without exploitative images; instead, the focus is on Emily's rage. Emily calls Brett and Nigel to help her drunk friend get out of there. The images here are stark and hard, but Claudia's influence is suddenly felt at the end of the chapter when Emily starts to boldly comfort Brett. Her figure is filled up with a warm red, and as she kindly tells him that there are people who want to help him, the glow surrounds them and their figures suddenly look like iconographic, blue alien figures with big red eyes. In the final panel of the chapter, we can see Claudia and her two mysterious companions looking at the house Emily's in.
In Claudia's chapter, nothing is really explained about her but much is revealed. She sees the world as a series of colored pencil drawings on graph paper: a beautiful, pixelated world where she can see the thoughts and emotions of others as clearly as anything else. When Emily comes over to talk to her on Nigel's behalf, Claudia effortlessly probes her mind and gets at her deepest flaws, an experience that momentarily puts Emily in a mild trance. The end result is Emily getting Claudia's phone number for Nigel so that she can tutor him. It's a nice cliffhanger that sets up the third and final volume of the series.

On the surface, MariNaomi makes sure to include a number of topics that its YA audience can relate to: the fragile quality of friendships, the confusing nature of relationships, abortion, sexual assault, parties, family strife and the beautiful ache of love. She approaches each topic in a humane and kind manner, never reducing her characters to stereotypes or placeholders for narrative scaffolding. 
However, this book isn't a checklist of teens and their problems. Instead, its theme is that the essence of being human is creating connections with others. Isolation leads to depression, acting out against others, and an inability to express one's real needs. In Gravity's Pull, Claudia seems to be acting as a catalyst to make certain characters brave enough to let down their guard and act compassionately toward others. She is the impetus that helps bonds start to coalesce, easing through pain and vulnerability. The most masterfully executed aspect of the book is that MariNaomi is able to get across these themes purely through her use of visuals, from line to format to color. Her creative visual language changes shape and tone whenever needed in support of the dialogue and narrative. The warmth and love MariNaomi shows for each of her characters are palpable, as she allows them to be flawed while never judging them for being human. That warmth is extended in turn to the reader, who is reminded through her use of metaphorical imagery of the importance of human connection and empathy.

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).

Monday, January 7, 2019

Embracing the Nonsense: Nick Hanover reviews AN ACTUAL GOBLIN by Pete Toms

Did you ever think the end of the world would feel so maladroit? We yuk it up on tiny interconnected supercomputers, but as the days press on it really does feel more and more like we’re in that final Sweeps Week push of some product placement drenched three-camera sitcom, cackling over how clumsy and stupid each joke life throws our way is. I could die tomorrow via a piano landing on my head and I wouldn’t express an ounce of shock to whoever came to collect my soul. I’d simply ask what took so long.

No one dies that way in Pete Toms An Actual Goblin, but I’d bet real money its main characters would have similar reactions if they did. The world of An Actual Goblin isn’t quite our own, but it’s close enough that the effect is like, to paraphrase one of its minor characters, watching someone on a phone screen on a sunny day while they’re standing right in the glare. It is a comic of mirrored and hazy images, its humans wobbly and sagging, its only sharpness coming in its ample brand signage and Toms’ wit. It makes no sense yet it makes all the sense in the world.
At the fuzzy center of it all is a “servtainer” at a Medieval Times-esque restaurant called The Dark Ages. She’s living with her mom at 45 and “still talks like a 30-year-old playing a 17-year-old on a one-hour teen drama.” In a drunken fit after getting fired, she releases The Dark Ages’ horses, causing her to lose a finger to one after asking it “why the long face” before it runs off with its herd to alternately terrorize the town’s residents and entrance them with equine majesty. 

On the way to a town hall meeting to discuss the problem of the rogue horses, our defeated protagonist hangs out with her fellow ex-employee Perc, who continues to wear his Dark Ages priest attire while quoting Lord Byron, gets into a one-sided dance-off with a fiscally conservative street gang, and maybe sees Jesus in some tree branches. There’s a whole lot of activity here but, by design, no actual momentum: our slacker lead is stuck in spiritual tar and paradoxically distraught and thrilled by that.
If there’s a specific message to be glommed from An Actual Goblin, it comes in the form of a Sartre quote hidden amongst all those horses and a shitload of fast food signs: “I confused things with their name. That is belief.” Toms’ figures are distinct but uniformly lumpy, like the modern reincarnation of the Bokonon mud people origin belief from Cat’s Cradle, but the brand names in the background are crisp, bold, and impossible to miss, drawing the actual reader’s eye as much as they define the environment and personalities of these doomed late capitalism serfs. No one knows what they’re doing or why, but they appreciate that the monotony of their existence is so structured, even if that structure comes from an endless array of brands and literally brain dead sitcoms.
And then unspeakable violence breaks out and the illusion is shattered, maybe forever. Blood sprays, heads roll, bodies are trampled. Here, Toms portrays the chaos in the half-legible shouts and screeches of the mob as much as he does in the visuals of the violent acts, a far more effective representation of mass confusion than the tilted cameras and bumpy blurs of found footage films. While you can see the incidents that cause the mob in relative clarity, the effects of the mob are less visible, perceived more in the suggestion of the cacophony than anything else.
Toms’ provides an ending just as confounding and inexplicable, pessimistically suggesting the only way to really survive humanity is to opt out of it altogether. Maybe An Actual Goblin isn’t the most uplifting text for Armageddon, there are certainly many other works that will instill at least some hope or possibility for perseverance. But there is a peace that can come from seeing the absurdity of modern existence laid out so bluntly, of seeing some other fuck up trying to make sense of everything before saying "fuck it" and embracing the nonsense. Because as the saying goes, why beat ‘em when you can join ‘em? Though in the case of An Actual Goblin, I guarantee the joining that happens is not what most of you have in mind.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Your Chicken Enemy as well as at Comicosity, Loser City and Ovrld, the latter of which focuses on the Austin music scene. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover