March 30, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 3/25/19 to 3/29/19

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


* Edwin Turner reviews KINGDOM by Jon McNaught (Nobrow Press), writing "What does happen though is difficult to pin down here in language though---which is fitting, as one of Kingdom's themes is the failure of articulated language to effectively communicate. What McNaught gives us in Kingdom is a feeling fraught with ambiguity---restless tranquility, joyful melancholy, pleasant waves of boredom."

* Alex Hoffman on PIERO by Edmond Baudoin (New York Review Comics), "a love letter, both to Baudoin’s brother, and to artmaking. It is an intimate vision of [Baudoin's] childhood, and an introduction to the artist he would become."

* Hoffman also writes about THE SEA by Rikke Villadsen (Fantagraphics), writing "In her strange and lilting world, Villadsen uses the fisherman as a stand-in for a toxic masculinity seen all too often across the globe. The events of The Sea lay bare that toxicity and show its inherent worthlessness. Pride and boasting cannot steer a ship, and no amount of tattoos or pipe smoking can make a man a sailor. In this symbolism, Villadsen exposes the fraudulent nature of toxic masculinity. More precisely, not only is the fisherman a fraud, but his fraudulence leads to his demise.

* Robert Kirby reviews BLOSSOMS IN AUTUMN (SelfMadeHero) by Zidrou and Aimée de Jongh which "captures the poetry of human relationships along with the belief that life might hold a few surprises in store, should we allow ourselves to welcome them."

* Kevin Bramer talks about DODO COMICS #5 by Grant Thomas.


* No offense to Justin F. Martin (or maybe ALL the offense), but sweet holy hell THIS is not ...  you know ... good.

* Sara L. Jewell interviews CARTA MONIR for The MNT.

* Hillary Brown interviews BOX BROWN about his new book Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America.

* Mark Newgarden interviews BILL GRIFFITH about his new book Nobody's Fool.

* Jonathan Dyck has a comic up on Popula called LENT.

* Trying to figure out exactly WHAT the Futures of Comics is...

* Three Poems by Marshall Mallicoat.

March 27, 2019

Dispiriting Disbelief: Rob Clough reviews CHICKEN RISING by D.Boyd

D. Boyd is an interesting example of an artist getting into comics later in life, as a kind of creative second act. Boyd worked in advertising and filmmaking for a number of years before working on Chicken Rising (Conundrum Press), a memoir of her time growing up in rural New Brunswick. From the very beginning of the book, Boyd establishes that her relationship with her parents was deeply dysfunctional. At the same time, she establishes how unusual the dynamic was. It's not spelled out until later, but she's the only child of much older parents, and the generational divide is especially stark given that the book is set in 1970. Her father owned a chicken restaurant that the whole family was part of, but he's either a profane and abusive presence or an absentee father. Boyd's mother was relentless in her needling criticism couched in trying to improve her, but she was also desperately lonely and clung to her daughter. 

Throughout Chicken Rising, there are several competing emotional themes. One is that Boyd was a strong-willed child who bucked against authority. She had a well-formed sense of justice and often felt she's the aggrieved party but was never believed. At the same time, she spent most of her time with her parents and wanted nothing more than to please them. Her mother belittled Boyd's choices for careers and simultaneously criticized her for not having any friends while later criticizing the friends she made. Her mom encouraged her to not be shy while warning her against any activity with the slightest bit of danger, like riding a bicycle. Boyd shows all this with no retrospective narrative captions emphasizing this behavior; instead, she simply lets it unfold over time and slowly lets the reader in on her life and its general weirdness.
Not everything in Chicken Rising is grim, though. There are lots of humorous moments with her family, like the Christmas where she got a tape recorder. She later used it to record a family card game and the absurd, profane things her family said, getting a laugh from everyone. There was a genuine joy for her in growing up surrounded by nature, especially as a lonely child who looked for things to do. She loved drawing and art in general. She always had the sense that she wasn't like her family, as the things she loved they disapproved of and vice-versa. She hated the idea of hunting and fishing, as these activities caused pain to living things. When her father killed a bat that had come into the house, it was traumatizing for her. At the same time, she hated girly things and wanted to be more rough-and-tumble. 

Beyond the spankings with a wooden spoon that were "for her own good," it's obvious that the real heart of the problem was that Boyd never felt heard or believed. Her mother demanded rigid honesty but never forgave Boyd's childish fibs and frequently ignored what would later be serious concerns. A child who feels like they aren't being heard is one who will begin to keep secrets. Moreover, that's a child who won't share their traumatic experiences with their parents and get help. This is exactly what happened to Boyd, and there's a climactic scene where she had horrible premenstrual cramping prior to menarche, but her mother accused her of faking them. When Boyd's period arrived and she was cleaning her own sheets, which in itself is a pointed act -- she didn't come to her mother for help. When her mother realized that she was telling the truth, years of frustration spilled out of Boyd: "You never believe me! I'm afraid to tell you anything! Everything's my fault! Nothing's ever good enough!" This panel perfectly encapsulates Boyd's style as a cartoonist: cartoony and slightly grotesque, emphasizing distinctive facial features like her nose. 
What is interesting about that final confrontation is that while it did initiate a sea change in their relationship, it was still far too late to fix old damage. That was expressed by her mother apologizing in a fascinating series of statements. There's an apology, then an expression of trying to toughen up her daughter because it's a cruel world, then blaming herself, then expressing that she had turned out like her own mother and was inflicting that on Boyd. There's the final, pathetic hope that Boyd might understand one day when she had children, which leads to Boyd talking about how she never wanted children and hated being a girl. After that, they stayed up later and watched movies, her mother asking her to stay up even when Boyd initially stated she was going to bed. This is a subtle expression of her mother's loneliness but also an expression of how she saw her daughter more like an adult now. This had multiple implications, positive and negative. Boyd’s mother may have started taking her more seriously, but it was clear that she was going to make emotional demands on Boyd that weren't necessarily appropriate.

And as noted earlier, it was too late to fix old damage. Bonds that should have been there all along in regards to trust had been shattered, and the result is that we start to see Boyd pull away. This is symbolized by her secretly starting smoking at the end of the book, as well as her wanting to spend more time alone in the house. For better or worse, Boyd was now about to fiercely declare her own independence as a person and turn her gaze outward. Indeed, that notion is reflected in the final iteration of a running motif in the book, where she declares what she wanted to be when she grew up. Most of the time, she told her mother this, and she shot down the notion. Be it artist or astronaut, her relentlessly negative mother found some way to negate her daughter. So it is telling that the final time she mentions it in the book, she tells her friend that she is going to be a psychiatrist. In her mind at the time, a psychiatrist was no doubt not just someone who strove to understand human behavior and pathology, but this choice of career also gave her the authority to fix it. She saw constant dysfunction around her, so it's no wonder that she'd want a job that gave her control over that wider societal dysfunction.
Indeed, Boyd makes a point of showing how awful most adults around her were. As an only child (a clear rarity at that time and in that part of Canada), she was constantly being preemptively criticized for being spoiled and willful. This was often by people she didn't know, like smarmy waiters and kids in class. The fact that she was constantly being sexually harassed and assaulted is finally addressed at the end of the book when she makes an adult believe her. There is one scene where a boy knocks her down in the snow and rubs her face in it, and when she pleads as to why, he coldly says, "Because I want to." Boyd had an intuitive sense that this kind of horrific behavior didn't arise out of nowhere, and even she herself felt this urge to strike out when she destroyed some of her toys. This is a telling scene because she felt horrible about that violent urge and later buried the evidence. Even at her most detached state as a pre-teen, she found a way to express independence, feel better about herself and concoct a plan to fix the world around her. She wants others to be heard and believed in a way that she never was. 

It is clear that by the end of the book, a lifetime of not being heard made Boyd cynical. 

This is the essence of the book, in fact. It wasn't one or two incidents that broke Boyd of her trust and faith, it was years' worth of having dreams snuffed out, of arbitrary restrictions, of needling criticisms, and, especially, of being accused of lying. Boyd is careful not to make Chicken Rising simply an airing of grievances. She recognizes her mother in particular as a flawed, but loving, individual who desperately craved love herself. She depicts her mother as standing up for her at times and, at the very least, always being there. However, Boyd makes it clear that a lifetime of disbelief was dispiriting and hardening, and hints that it would later lead to bad choices. The vivid quality of her depictions and the revealing amount of personal detail is what makes Chicken Rising such a memorable reading experience. 
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

March 25, 2019

Outstandingly Delightful: Oliver Gerlach reviews LITTLEST FRIENDS by Timothy Winchester

The world of 2019 can often look a bit bleak and hostile. Sometimes, the easiest way to find hope is to turn to fiction for solace. Unfortunately, the world of fiction also seems awash with darkness, violence, and “mature” storytelling. As such, any small beacon of hope and whimsy stands out brightly and begs to be discussed and amplified. Timothy Winchester’s Littlest Friends, functioning both as a sporadic webcomic and as an expanding collection of self-published print comics, is one of these beacons. A work of pure, distilled charm, Littlest Friends can extract a smile from almost anyone on even the darkest of days. Why? Because it’s so outstandingly delightful.

Every Littlest Friends story is a short piece of one to four pages in length, usually titled with a single word (e.g. Job or Emojis). They’re tiny scenes in the lives of the eponymous littlest friends, a group of anthropomorphic animals. These characters primarily act as though they’re in their 20s, but not entirely. Sometimes they feel younger and more carefree, and sometimes older. This fluidity gives them a sort of universality and a level of relatability unexpected from a group of protagonists who look like children’s picture book characters.
This picture book aesthetic is clear in Winchester’s art; every character is built on the same armature, with a large circular head (uniformly sized across the cast) and a simplified body. The colors are bright and eye-catching, and they stand out as solid, blocky figures against backgrounds of more restrained colors. Winchester’s rendition of fur and feathers is particularly pleasing, the borderless color blocks of the characters textured with scattered black lines. This clear, childlike sense of character design extends to the naming of the characters – the bear is named Teddy, the frog, Froggy, and in what is either a fit of genius or a truly unforgivable pun assault, the chicken (colored more like a baby chick), is Rebeakah.

To be clear, though, while Littlest Friends is entirely appropriate for readers of any age, the characters are approximately adults, their relatability focused on a greater maturity than the character designs might suggest at first glance. This is the genius of Littlest Friends. If children can have bright, simply designed characters and positive, delightful storytelling centered around broadly drawn characters they can relate to, why shouldn’t adults? Winchester has found an unusual niche here, but it’s one which seems unexpectedly important, particularly now as the world outside seems so grim.
The entirety of Littlest Friends feels like the product of relaxed whimsy. While comics can often give a tangible sense of just how much time and effort has been poured into them, Littlest Friends never hints at such a thing. Instead, it constantly feels like a casual, low-stress form of storytelling that brings just as much calm and joy to Winchester as it does to the audience. To say that the art seems as though Winchester has put little effort into it feels dismissive and reductive, but here this is meant in the most positive and loving way. Littlest Friends strikes the reader as a project which is just as therapeutic for its creator as for its audience, and that’s a valuable thing for any artist to have in their repertoire.

The other important thread running through Littlest Friends perhaps ties into the above discussion of the series’ calming, therapeutic power for all, and that is a constant undercurrent of quiet anxiety. The characters do not go through major dramas, but the narratives are primarily driven by characters worrying about relatively trivial things. The characters suffer through the sort of minor problems that can feel so easily overwhelming for people, but the tone of the comic remains one of friendship and comfort. Winchester’s characters are always there for each other, through all the misunderstandings and embarrassments, and it is that stability that keeps the comic grounded in its wholesome reassuring nature. It would be easy for a comic so focused on the anxieties of its characters to slip into a mockery of their small struggles or to feel worried and uncertain overall, but the characters’ friendships ensure that this undercurrent of anxiety never dominates, instead remaining in the background.
Winchester’s other work is also well worth your time. His other, slightly more serious comics are all stellar, and his (no longer updated) podcast People I Know (in which guests review scented candles with him) is a surreal, soothing, and inexplicably compelling experience. Also, he sells socks which look like dinosaurs, and if that doesn’t immediately appeal then you really need more joy in your life (such as dinosaur socks)! While all of these are similarly pleasing, it is Littlest Friends that brings all of Winchester’s strengths together most effectively. This comic is a reliable spot of warmth and brightness in a cold, dark world, and should be valued as such. The only point of sadness here is that it is such a rare example of its particular genre. The world would be a better, friendlier place if more comics like Littlest Friends existed.
Oliver Gerlach is a feral classicist living wild somewhere in darkest Scotland. He is a comics writer, musician, and teacher (and occasionally several of the above at the same time). He can be found on twitter @olliegerlach, and slightly more professionally at

March 22, 2019

Enemies of the State #002 – EGG CREAM #1 by Liz Suburbia

We’re really pleased to air the second episode of Enemies of the State, a podcast series co-sponsored by Your Chicken Enemy and our esteemed colleagues over at Sequential StateEnemies of the State is a monthly virtual book club discussion on a recently published comic, featuring a rotating cast of comics critics.

Episode #2 of Enemies of the State features commentary on Liz Suburbia’s new annual Egg Cream #1, co-published by Czap Books and Silver Sprocket in 2019. Egg Cream #1 expands the story of Sacred Heart, a comic originally published by Fantagraphics in 2015, and also gives Suburbia a new outlet for the short comics she makes throughout the year.

The cast for this episode includes the following critics:

Daniel Elkin of Your Chicken Enemy
Alex Hoffman of Sequential State
Phillipe Leblanc of The Comics Beat
Sarah Miller of The Sequentialist
Jules Bakes, freelance critic
Ryan C. of Four Color Apocalypse

Subscribe to Enemies of the State on iTunes, Google Podcasts, and other podcast apps or listen here and at Sound Cloud. If you are a comics critic and are interested in joining in on the show, please contact me at And of course, if you have any feedback, contact us!

We hope you enjoy the podcast!

March 20, 2019

When Reality Slips into Fantasy: Fred McNamara reviews TAEMONS by Kim Salt

Published as part of last year’s ShortBox #9 collection, Kim Salt’s TAEMONS employs its intimate themes of self-discovery to flex the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Adding to the immediate quirkiness of the comic, Taemons’ definition of reality itself is enjoyably blurred. Taemons tells the story of a nameless woman’s journey into untangling her introversion via an app, one that quite literally pits her against her inner demons. It’s a pleasingly quirksome take on the well-tread trope of traveling to another world as a metaphor for inner reflection. 

Color is integral to Taemons’ separation of the real and the unreal. Salt depicts the true world in black-and-white, while she illuminates the fantasy world the main character is escorted to in a tense shade of orange as if to highlight the urgency of the world she’s placed into. Demons and aliens populate this world. Shape is a factor as well; Salt creates the fantasy world with a riot of curves, from the creature within to the table and chairs they sit at alike. Even the steam radiating from the tea is a billowing mass of untamed form.
Counteracting this is how Salt depicts the real world. Salt places the panels of the comic into the very architecture of the story’s landscape. Buildings and walls become snapshots of the characters’ lives, containing flashbacks to their pasts. Happy, sad, thoughtful, their lives are condensed into the very structure of their world. It’s as if the monochrome color scheme is there to reflect the drabness of the main character’s life, yet the meta-esque breakdown of paneling reads like an inner probe of her own confused mental state. The swirling state of the fantasy world becomes a much deeper probing, an active exploration of her mental state, compared to the passive, immovable structures of the real world. There’s a taut sense of confidence in the symbolic nature of Salt’s artwork. It leads to an emotionally precise read that offers a firm grip on its journey.

Elsewhere, the story Salt tells is a little more heavy-handed and less subtle than the story it shows. Taemons shows its emotions and ideas with cool, youthful clarity. However, things become sticky when it attempts to communicate those feelings verbally. The dialogue between the main character and her friend, who introduces her to the "Taemons app", feels clunky, almost heavy-handed. The reader already understands the disconnect the heroine feels via her internal monologue and the gorgeously inventive panel structures. The overall result is Taemons’ unintentional emphasis on its own inquisitive visuals acting as the comic’s strongest elements. However, the dialogue in the comic remains sincere in its confirmation of the book’s wider themes.
That sincerity spreads to the characters themselves. They’re introspective, self-aware of their own broken-down emotions. Salt’s evocative artwork may open the door, but it’s the characters that make us step through into Taemons’ world. Salt writes her characters with a touching keenness about them, how they’re not afraid to confide in each other, wanting to untangle themselves, and taking the necessary steps in doing so. Or rather, in Taemons’ case, taking the necessary sips of tea. That delicate touch of personality gives Taemons a sense of immense scale when placed next to its quirky, all-encompassing visuals.  

Taemons’ climax provides further emphasis on its eloquence by showing rather than telling. Trapped in a far-flung world and verbally toyed with by her demons, the main character initially bows down to her hosts, an added slice of sincerity on her part. However, her submissive attitude evaporates as her turmoil in this strange land continues. Knife in hand, she leaps from her position at a Mad Hatter-esque teatime and lunges for her metaphorical self. Salt illustrates this burst of confidence via a handful of evocative splash pages that place her nameless protagonist firmly in the center of focus.

This burst of confidence mellows into tenderness when the character unmasks her demons and discovers she is fighting herself. Taemons concludes with an open-ended scenario, displaying the lead’s now more rounded awareness of her own issues, while also acknowledging the long road ahead that she needs to take to overcome her difficulties. This open-ended attitude gives Taemons a sense of maturity in how it doesn’t need to provide a clean, happy ending for all concerned. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Taemons is how it shows that mental health can be an unexpected journey with little end in sight. As the main character’s journey demonstrates, it can be no easy route, often fraught with chaotic bends in the road, with the destination being a better understanding of yourself. In fact, the main character’s uncovering her disguised self is the closest Taemons comes to a happy ending.
A final, subtle shade Salt gives her lead character comes in the form of a 12-panel page, with her filling in the entire page, running back towards reality. Each panel bears a separate shade of color, suggesting that all of her pieces are there, they just need filling in with a unified color. Perhaps this is a symbol of her unfinished state, how her mission of self-realization has only just begun. Or perhaps her pieces aren’t meant to be filled in at all. Is she running away from her demons, or running towards overcoming her fears? Salt’s dialogue here suggests the former. Then again, an answer more in-tune with Taemons may well be that there can never be a straightforward answer. Salt’s narration intertwines with the visuals to create something of a misleading march into the subconsciousness, landing in a place that provokes a vague atmosphere with no easy answers. 

Taemons is a thoughtful, bracing, stately introspection that delights in playing with perspective. It’s smart enough to offer no one easy interpretation of the questions it asks, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. Salt’s strengths as an illustrator radiate throughout Taemons. The stripped-back approach to color and detail allows for a bold, eccentric structure that reflects the moods and ideas scattered throughout. Emotionally, Taemons acts like something akin to an outstretched hand, inviting you to explore our own inner demons. If your own journey is as sweetly-natured and oddly fun as Taemons, it will be worth the trip.
Fred McNamara thoroughly enjoys writing about comic books and TV shows you've never heard of. His love of indie/small press comics arose through his role as senior editor for the superhero/comic book hub A Place To Hang Your Cape. He's currently enduring a prolonged period of sleepless nights as his debut book, Spectrum is Indestructible, is gearing up for publication later this year from Chinbeard Books.

March 18, 2019

Biography As Memoir: Jason Sacks reviews NOBODY'S FOOL by Bill Griffith

It’s funny, the things which never occur to you.

I’ve read Zippy the Pinhead comic strips and stories since the 1980s, amused by creator Bill Griffith’s absurdist humor and off-kilter view of society. Comic strips generally represented a normatively conformant kind of art, reinforcing the societal status quo and not challenging its foundations. Griffith, on the other hand, exposed the shaky roots of modern American conformity by showcasing the absurdity of modern American thought. Griffith’s Zippy presented a worldview that was just plain weird and was imbued with a kind of counterculture anger mixed with old-fashioned preposterous whimsy.

But as I enjoyed the themes Griffith presented, and as I appreciated reading his counterculture leanings on the pages of the daily newspaper and comic book pages, I never really stopped to consider the characters Griffith depicted, not really. Oh, I interpreted the Pinhead at the center of the strip, a victim of Microcephaly, as a proxy for readers. I felt Zippy’s confusion and laughed at his non-sequiturs and odd comments because he represented my own confusion and amazement at the peculiarities of our society. Zippy as a character represented a kind of absurdist societal id. He was a virtual child in a world of complicated sophisticates, lost and contemplating the most quotidian of events. Thus Griffith was able to satirize the fascinating and often bizarre impact of an over-commercialized and strange society, providing a window into the truth behind its own lies. The fact that the central character of the strip was a literal outsider, as different from my happy suburban life as a space alien might be, allowed me the distance necessary to not be troubled by his bizarre appearance.
One of the things I found comforting about Zippy was that I didn’t need to think too much about the character at its center. Zippy, the lead character, was a void, a symbol, a surrogate for the reader to see him or herself embodied within. Zippy was unique in that he sometimes seemed more symbol than living character. He inhabited the comics page but, unlike many of his fellow comic strip colleagues, he never came alive on the page. He was never an eternally depressed Charlie Brown nor a haggard Beetle Bailey nor an imaginative Calvin. Nobody was rushing to create plush toys of Zippy or to present It’s a Zippy Christmas, complete with wildly maudlin, conformity-reinforcing Christmas wishes.

There was simply nothing like Zippy the Pinhead in American newspapers, and, at its peak (in hundreds of newspapers worldwide), Griffith’s vision had the eyes of millions of readers per day. Zippy the Pinhead, a humble American comic strip, approached high art.

But at the center of Zippy was a conceit and odd exploitation. Zippy has little agency of his own. He has friends and minders and people who loved him, but Zippy represents Bill Griffith’s inner life rather than his own. Zippy’s own mind and thoughts are mysteries to readers. That void gives his comic strip a strong dollop of humorous tension, but it leaves some crucial issues unresolved upon reflection.

Griffith’s new graphic novel, Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams ComicArts, tells the life story of the pinhead upon which Griffith based Zippy. The new book is a straightforward and truthful depiction of the life of Schlitzie the Pinhead, or at least as much of the truth as Griffith was able to piece together over the years. It’s a biography which serves at least two purposes: to tell the story of this very unique human being, as well as explain why Schlitzie became Griffith’s life-long obsession. Along the way, Griffith takes readers on a journey through a fascinating lost America, one in which poor and worried immigrant parents could sell their handicapped children to the circus, one in which small-town rubes would turn out in droves for freakshows, and one in which pre-Internet era communications would allow secrets to remain unstirred.

And although Griffith skirts around this topic, maybe because he felt uncomfortable with it, this book is also an attempt to bring humanity to this basically unknowable human being, to finally provide three-dimensionality to this character that, as he says in his introduction, he had been drawing “ever since 1963, when I was an art student and first saw Tod Browning’s 1932 film about the sideshow, Freaks.” 
The origins of the real Schlitzie the Pinhead are pretty much lost to history. As Griffith discusses in the book, there were several stories about where he was born, from the outlandish freakshow lies that he was born in Borneo to the prosaic tale Griffith depicts of Schlitzie born in a New York City tenement. As Griffith presents the scene, young Bronx-dwelling Simon Metz, a sufferer from the “pinhead’s disease”, was purchased from his desperately poor immigrant family by a sideshow manager. Whether that origin is true or not, it bespeaks of a dark and damaged version of the American experience in which fear of permanent poverty could lead parents to make terrible choices and in which deformity represented a tremendous emotional and financial burden on already burdened families. In an era when children with mental illness were sent to lifelong stays in an asylum, a choice like selling a pinheaded boy to the circus clearly seemed a rational decision. In Nobody’s Fool, Griffith adds to the pathos of the scene of the sale by emphasizing Schatzie's fascination with a plate painted with the image of the Campbell’s soup cherub, a jarring bit of pop culture strangeness which shows his own connection to a mythical America which never really existed. The plate also symbolizes a benign sort of early-20th-century hucksterism which perhaps reached its apotheosis with carnival barkers.

The pinheaded boy is soon installed as a slideshow regular at Coney Island, where his cohorts include a bearded lady, conjoined twins, and a man born without arms and legs. He soon achieves a small measure of fame as “the last of the wild Aztec children”, performing card tricks and spouting non-sequiturs in his piercingly high voice. It is in the carny sideshow that Nobody’s Fool spends much of its time, and it is in those moments that I found myself most enraptured in Griffith's story and his subtly powerful art.
Griffith’s wonderfully crosshatched artwork, itself apparently hand-drawn and reflecting a straightforward approach which reflects its era, brings Coney Island circa 1920 to complex life with seeming ease. In fact, throughout Nobody’s Fool, Griffith is successful at vividly evoking this lost era of tenements and freakshows. He shows readers period-appropriate asylums, carnivals, and graveyards, among many other strange places, but Griffith’s hand-hewn, detailed art never loses its straightforward attention at depicting settings accurately and powerfully. 

The real fascination and challenge with this book, though, is that the character at its center is basically an enigma even to the people who knew him.. Griffith is skilled at showing emotion in the faces of his secondary characters, presenting angst, anger, amusement, and terror as the scene requires. Even in secondary carnival characters like sword swallower Bill Unks, Griffith seems to find the center of the man and evoke his inner life with a few subtle ink lines.
At its center, though, Schlitzie remains tantalizingly out of reach, perhaps in a symbolic recognition of the enigma that the character has always presented in Griffith's art. It’s nearly impossible to read character in Schlitzie’s cryptic facial gestures and body language, let alone his strange verbal tics. In reading these scenes, the reader begins to understand why Griffith treated Zippy as a blank slate. In fact, Schlitzie was basically a tabula rasa and gave Griffith little to build upon aside from his surface attributes and obsessions. Schlitzie walked and talked, loved to wash dishes and perform card tricks, but at his center, he was a cryptic, haunting void which gives this book much of its piercing power.

But there is power in that cryptic void as well. Schlitzie’s inability to communicate in meaningful ways helps readers feel distant from the character and see him as a pathetic creature. In that way, we could imagine the exploitation of America’s sad sideshow tradition, in which viewers were encouraged to see the people on display as the other, as almost otherworldly, rather than individuals with whom to empathize. In this book, we are never complicit with the people who attend the sideshows, but we can understand the motivation behind that fascination.

This power of this void gains tremendous power in the sections in which Griffith dwells on the 1932 film Freaks. As mentioned, this movie fascinated Griffith while he was in art school. In fact, he depicts his art as being directionless until he discovered the film; the scene in which a viewing of Freaks literally opens Griffith’s eyes to a completely different world is perhaps the finest page in this book. For ten hunting pages, Griffith shares the key scenes from Freaks with an almost religious furiousness. Freaks literally changed his life. As he shows readers, the Bill Griffith after viewing this film was different from the Griffith before viewing it. As he also says, “I was especially fascinated by the pinheads in the film. I wondered if I’d ever be able to understand their garbled dialogue...or is it gibberish? Or did it make a sense all its own?

In that scene, this book veers from biography to memoir, or perhaps to nostalgic tangent. This instant of awakening is treated as a near-religious experience and clearly has been dwelled upon and fetishized over Griffith’s life. Of course, this moment never has been objectively documented -- such a moment can’t be chronicled objectively - but it matches many interviews I’ve read with him. As he describes his conversion, Griffith draws himself looking directly at the reader, showing a sincere connection through direct eye contact which few characters show each other throughout Nobody’s Fool. In that brief moment, the history of this book shifts from objective to subjective, from a more-or-less cold recitation of events on a person who can’t change to a more-or-less warm depiction of events which change the book creator. It shifts from history to nostalgia and I found that shift is both compelling and frustrating. 

This scene also sets up a bit of a tonal shift in the book, as the sideshow circuit begins to die by the early 1970s and Schlitzie’s life becomes more difficult and fraught with troubles, including a terrifying trip to an insane asylum which is depicted with great poignancy.
Though Griffith tried to research the subject in those pre-Internet days, he was never able to really crack the mystery of the pinheads in Freaks. In fact, in significant ways, that confusion really didn’t matter. A case can be made that too much information would have taken away from the artistic side of Griffith’s approach; that by understanding the life of Schlitzie and his cohorts rather than the actual pinheads, he was able to distance himself and create his high art.

This is the central tension at the heart of Griffith’s book: What responsibility does a creator have by placing his key characters into some sort of context? How responsible should he be for presenting the humanity of people different from himself? It’s easy to see the boundaries of that responsibility in the realm of gender or racial roles. It’s much more difficult to see those boundaries when the character being depicted has, at its center, a complex and unknowable world. Because Schlitzie gave few clues about his inner life, especially for a creator unable to perform deep research at the time, these boundaries are monumentally difficult to define.

In effect, with Schlitzie, or Zippy, remaining a void, Griffith filled the character with the only depth he could provide: the artist’s own view of the world. Griffith was free to project himself on to Zippy because the protagonist of the strip had no easily discernible inner life, or at least no inner life which most people could comprehend. Zippy, in effect, became Griffith’s alter ego, albeit through a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) funhouse mirror. By the time Griffith had drawn Zippy strips for many years, the character at its center became a representation of Griffith in the same way Charlie Brown represented a side of Charles Schulz and Calvin and Hobbes represented Bill Watterson. 
Perhaps that identification of artist with his subject is precisely the point of this book. While the life of Schlitzie is the intellectual focus of Nobody’s Fool, its emotional heart is the life of Bill Griffith. With his previous book, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, and this volume, Griffith is slowly publishing his own autobiography through the two figures who perhaps influenced his life the most. It’s an odd paradox that these two relationships are mirror opposites of each other. Griffith knew his mother intimately, but she kept secrets from his family. Griffith never saw Schlitzie in person, but he became his lifetime companion and revealed secrets from his own life. 

Together, these heartfelt and wonderfully rendered graphic novels are perfect companions for each other. Both revel in grotesquerie, period details, and, ultimately, in deeper human truths.  They reveal Griffith’s life obliquely and illuminate the issues and people who shaped him with a deep thirst for knowledge and information in an attempt to reveal his own inner life to himself. It’s a testament to Bill Griffith’s considerable creative skills that he is able to discover deeper truths about himself by exploring a man so unlike himself. Nobody’s Fool may seem a biography, but it is biography masquerading as a memoir.

Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

March 6, 2019

Kickstart Your Part: BIRDCAGE BOTTOM BOOKS 2019

Birdcage Bottom Books is running a Kickstarter for its 2019 publications. This small press has now been around for about a  decade now but their mission statement remains the same: help incredible cartoonists who may be flying under the radar get a wider audience. 

They've published some pretty amazing books in the past and this Kickstarter seems to indicate they are continuing in that tradition.

For 2019. they are featuring books by Max Clotfelter, Eva Müller, and Lance Ward. 

Rooftop Stew collects a plethora of Max Clotfelter’s depraved comics, both fictional and autobiographical, blending ‘60s psychedelic underground comic sensibility with Southern style debauchery. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September. 

Future Corpse collects new short works by Eva Müller covering themes of feminism, anxiety, punk rock, immortality, labor, and robotic vacuums. This should serve as a palette cleanser between last year’s “In The Future, We Are Dead” and her current book about working/labor. Debuting at MoCCA in April.

Blood and Drugs is the story of people on the fringes of society and how a single poor decision changed one man’s life forever. Buster struggles against his heroin addiction, his floundering career in comics and with human relationships in a search for redemption. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September.


March 4, 2019

Top Knot Bun Sporting Yoga Boy: Daniel Elkin reviews DARK PANTS #4 by Matt MacFarland

The routine of normalcy that arises after building a life based on society’s expectations undulates with a monotonous beat. In the quest for stability, often times people lay waste to their drive for excitement, the rush of the unique, the palpitations of exhilaration. Predictability becomes engorged with routine, the hard edges become soft, losing their bite. It’s usually in the midst of the bland realization of success that people make wildly inappropriate decisions and blow up their careers, their families, their lives. The aftermath is shame and the understanding of that which is lost.

This is the endemic malaise cycle of the privileged and the subsequent breeding ground for the blown-out ego-driven spirituality that leads to events like the Fyre Festival and Burning Man or the profusion of sound healers, crystal shops, and yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods or, say, precious Gold Rush era small towns in Northern California -- it’s also the playground of the Namaste saying, tribal tattooed, top knot bun sporting yoga boy.

You may have seen them around. They are often dramatically sipping herbal teas while telling you that, “Actually, the swastika is an ancient Vedic symbol meaning ‘Good Existence’.” They burn as many calories through their “practice” as they do through cultural appropriation, casual racism, following their “passion”, and shaking their heads at the excess of capitalism. They’re better than you because they understand how the world works without ever really needing to work in the world. They’re as smug as they are fragile; self-aggrandizing bullies who prey on the ignorance and boredom of other discontent people of privilege.
In Matt MacFarland’s DARK PANTS #4, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy is the central focus of the main character’s malaise cycle. Lisa is a successful real estate agent in Eagle Rock, CA who has a beautiful house, a devoted husband, and a couple of rambunctious children. But Lisa’s success leaves her empty -- the life she has built was not the one she had expected when she was younger. All that hard work came at the expense of excitement, the “more” of being a singer, a writer, something other than what she has dedicated so much of herself into creating.

This leads to tensions at home and dissatisfaction at work. It’s led to a quest to fill the void. It’s led to yoga classes. It’s led to Cal, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy who talks about things being “blessed” and asks her about her “passion”. It’s when Lisa puts on the titular Dark Pants in this book that she makes the predictable poor choices -- lying to her husband, belting out karaoke “Born to Run”, being sexually disappointed by Cal (of course), and suffering all the consequences thereof.
Still, MacFarland hints at the end of Dark Pants #4 that all this may have been for the best. By donning the dark pants and wiping out the vestiges of all the disappointments her successful life was built upon, Lisa is free to travel the highway and begin again. Maybe the disappointment of the top knot bun sporting yoga boy helps her get out of the “death trap” and get out while she’s young?

We don’t get answers. We get the ego-driven whine of the spurned top knot bun sporting yoga boy, dark pants in the trashcan, and a Southern California highway lined with wind turbines spinning in the breeze.
In 80 pages of MacFarland’s thick ink lines creating emotive faces, stilted intensity, and the dream-like quality of self-deprecation, Dark Pants #4 plays out not quite as you expect it to, but holds firmly to a sad believability, a condemnation of privilege, and a small celebration of excitement, no matter the cost.
Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

March 2, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/24/19 to 3/1/19

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


* Dominic Umile reviews A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies, a "book-length graphic account [that] details life during and after the second-most destructive wildfire in California history."

* Andy Oliver looks back at an interview he did with Tillie Walden and uses this as a springboard for a great review of ON A SUNBEAM, "a book of resonant echoes, both in terms of its structure and the journeys the characters embark upon, and a celebration of adopted family, friendship and a love that is as expansive as the near infinite reaches of the universe it is a part of."

* Nathan Chazan reviews WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler, "a progressive, nuanced story of the art object and our engagement with media." 

* Rob Clough looks at the latest releases of CASH GRAB by Aaron Lange, saying (of Lange) "He has a way of taking even the most unsympathetic or difficult figures and laying their humanity bare for the reader, generating respect if not affection for them. Lange is an excellent writer and gets at the heart of events and achievements while never losing sight of the underlying and often tortured humanity of his subjects."

* Graham Reid has this short take on RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray, "a quiet graphic novel".

* Chris Gavaler on THIS WOMAN'S WORK by Julie Delporte, writing "The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories."


* Kim O'Connor is doing a weekly Twitter reading group going through Marc Singer's new book, BREAKING THE FRAMES: POPULISM AND PRESTIGE IN COMICS STUDIES -- this week she has some pretty profound observations about Chapter 1: The Myth of Eco.

* Jameson Hampton interviews CARTA MONIR about her new publishing venture, Diskette Press, Risographing, and her friendships.

* Alex Dueben interviews LIZ SUBURBIA over on Smash Pages.

* Hillary Brown interviews JULIE DELPORTE over on Paste.

* There's a new comic on Spiralbound by Glynnis Fawkes called IMMORTAL WILDWOOD.

* Glynnis Fawkes is doing the CARTOONIST'S DIARY this week on TCJ.

* Alec Berry has this update on the PICKRODT LAWSUIT.

* Alejandra Oliva has this piece over on Electric Lit called WALKING INTO THE RIVER which has to do with "Virginia Woolf, the migrant caravan, and the fluid boundaries between people."