July 15, 2019

"I Print The Work I Want To See Celebrated": Rob Clough interviews CARTA MONIR.

Carta Monir is a cartoonist, critic, editor, podcaster, and most recently, a publisher. Her Diskette Press, based out of Ann Arbor, focuses on beautiful-looking minicomics published on her Risograph printer in various color tones. Monir is an incisive critic and challenging cartoonist, and much of her work centers around confronting past trauma and the challenges she faced and faces as a trans woman. She's created a space for other queer and trans artists and has been an essential element of the burgeoning comics scene in Ann Arbor. This interview focuses on the works she's publishing and her thoughts on the comics, the scene, and her various skills and interests with regard to art.

Rob Clough: When you started drawing comics, did you already have ideas like publishing and criticism in mind, or did that develop later?

Carta Monir: I actually started my “professional” career as a critic, doing really clumsy criticism right out of college. I didn’t really know anyone in the community and I pitched to a site that my friend recommended. I wrote some middling criticism there for a couple of years and then got tired of people I admired shouting at me, haha. This was all before I transitioned. I guess I came into the larger comics scene as a combination artist/critic because as I was published around the time that I started recording We Should Be Friends, a now mostly-defunct book club podcast I hosted with a few close friends in Ann Arbor.

RC: That show was an enormous amount of fun and points to your eclectic interests. What did you find most rewarding about it?

CM: It was so much fun to hang out with my friends every week-ish! We have great chemistry. Several of us had college radio experience, so we felt pretty comfortable on the microphone from the beginning. And the show really achieved its purpose! We became friends with so many of the cartoonists we talked about. I’m grateful that we were received so positively.

RC: What intellectual itch does writing criticism satisfy in particular? What is your approach as a critic?

CM: Mostly just the itch to talk about work I love, and to share things that stick in my brain. I love talking about comics! I always have. It’s nice to have an outlet for that.

RC: What aspects of your creative self do publishing and criticism satisfy in a way that's different from actually doing comics?

CM: I don’t generally… maybe ever… want to make comics in response to a comic I just read. I want to talk about it with my friends! Criticism feels more like that kind of conversation. I know there are people who think that comics should be answered with comics or whatever, but that’s tedious. I use comics to tell my stories, nobody wants to read my illustrated opinions on someone else’s book.

RC: Do you have a particular style or method as a critic? Does this depend on what you're critiquing?

CM: In the past, my answer would have been “direct” or “mean,” but I’ve been trying to pivot to “celebratory.” There aren’t many comics with enough cultural impact for me to talk shit about if I hate them, you know? If someone makes a bad comic that only maybe a hundred people will read, I don’t need to take the time to get angry about it. I’d rather celebrate and promote the comics that move me, and that makes me excited about the possibilities of the medium.
RC: What provided the impetus to start Diskette Press?

CM: I bought a risograph!! Once I started printing my own comics, it felt like a natural step to start printing other people’s comics also.

RC: Were you already familiar with how to use a Risograph, or was there a learning curve?

CM: I had never touched a risograph. I had barely even seen one! I didn’t know if the one I was buying was like a good model… I got very lucky. The first several months of riso ownership were filled with a lot of frustrated tinkering and very little printing. But I did learn, and I got it up and running! And when I eventually was able to hire an employee, Renée Cymry, to act as my print tech, she learned everything too. We’re both the de facto GR3770 experts in this part of the country!

RC: The comics scene in Ann Arbor seems to be hopping, and you seem to be at the center of it. How much of it is something you've cultivated as a publisher and presence?

CM: It’s been building! I really like meeting other artists and building community, so as soon as I moved here I started looking for other cartoonists. I was very lucky to find Casey Nowak early on, and several friends (including Emma Jayne) moved to Ann Arbor after we did. We’ve built a scene from the ground up!

RC: How often do you all get to meet? Do you have jam sessions or critiques? Are there any local zine fests or small press shows?

CM: We hang out all the time! I live with Casey, and Emma is just across town. All of us are kind of private about what we’re working on, but we frequently invite each other to read a script or look at thumbnails. Emma comes over and draws for hours at a time… she puts my productivity to shame!! There are some local shows, but Casey is the only one who really participates in them. There’s a local show called A2CAF and a zine fair in Grand Rapids, which is only an hour and a bit away.
RC: How has being a publisher affected your output and method as a cartoonist? 

CM: It’s definitely shifted my focus a little, but I don’t know if it’s slowed my output too much. I was never a fast cartoonist, and honestly, it’s nice to have something new at every show I go to, even if it’s not my work! I’m so proud of the artists we publish and I like putting in the time to make their work look good.

Diskette Press -- The Books
Dreameater by Emma Jayne 

Emma Jayne's bold, clear line combined with her crisp dialogue sets up what appears to be a story about three friends struggling to keep a band together post-high school. That is actually an accurate but vague description of what happens in the book. After several pages of quickly establishing the relationships between Cassi, Seb, and Char, the story takes a sudden left turn into the realm of fantasy. It's a turn that commits to this fully-realized world of magic that runs in families, sinister familiars, and dream-eating monsters. 

When Cassi accidentally summons a Dreameater when trying to wish that her bass was fixed, it sets off a course of action that forces each character to confront hard truths about themselves and their friends. Magic is a part of their world, as familiar as unrequited crushes and finding venues for a young band to play. While the supernatural aspects of the story are entertaining, well-crafted, and genuinely unsettling, the real draw of this book is the raw, uncompromising, and messy quality of the relationships Jayne depicts. Long-simmering tensions erupt and are then not neatly resolved. Indeed, Emma Jayne's refusal to tack on a pat ending adds a level of emotional complexity while still serving its plot.   

RC: Let's start with the most prolific cartoonist from Diskette Press, Emma Jayne. Dreameater caught me completely by surprise. I was expecting something along the lines of her version of Jaime Hernandez's Locas saga, wherein a bunch of post-high school kids are drifting a bit and center their lives around a band. That was all in there, of course, but the extremely detailed and lived-in fantasy/horror milieu that the story is set in was a fantastic swerve. You've mentioned enjoying off-beat horror and fantasy; what about this story made it a project you wanted to publish? It's the first and only novel-length project you've published, which made it quite a commitment.

CM: So full disclosure, Dreameater is a book Diskette is selling, but it’s not technically one that we published. Emma self-published it. It’s 100% her hard work that made her project come to life in such an amazing way. I watched her work on this book tirelessly over several years, and I’m so impressed with how it came together. The reason Diskette didn’t print this book is that it was really long… Risograph printing requires you to make a master [which is like a one-time use print screen] for every two pages in the book. If a book is 200 pages long, that’s going to be 400 masters if it’s printed in a single color. That takes forever and is very easy to mess up at that scale… we also didn’t have a great way to bind a book that large. Emma wisely went with a local print shop that was able to perfect bind her books in a short time, and they turned out really great.

RC: What do you see as Emma's greatest strengths as an artist?

CM: She’s relentless. She’s always drawing and always improving. I’ve known her for nearly ten years now, and her output has been consistently amazing. And she’s funny, too. Her storytelling is just getting better and better.

RC: As a publisher, how closely have you worked with your artists as an editor? Emma's work, in particular, seems so fully-formed.

CM: I’m trying to find a balance between “do what you want” and “let me see what I’m printing, please,” haha! I like artists to feel like they have creative freedom. I do like to keep a close watch on how a project is developing, and I’m very available to give feedback if an artist feels stuck or wants my opinion. But mostly I want to facilitate the creation of new and inventive work, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.

RC: What are some examples of the kind of feedback an artist has requested, and what sort of feedback or opinions have you given?

CM: When I was working with Victor Martins, he asked me a lot of questions about pacing and clarity. Other artists, like Elliott G., asked more technical questions about bookbinding and layout. I try to make myself available for any kind of feedback because I want every artist to feel that we’ve done their book justice.
In An Empty City by Emma Jayne

This is a follow-up to Dreameater, featuring Char and Cassi now living in the city, playing in a band as a duo. It doesn't touch on the fantasy elements that much but, instead, focuses on Cassi's loneliness and alienation in her new surroundings. In just twelve pages, Emma Jayne gives the reader a sense of the bond between the two young women, their frustrations, and their quiet joys. The single blue tone from the RIsograph adds some needed contrast for Jayne's fairly thick line weight, especially since she doesn't use cross-hatching or grayscaling. This also helps in bringing gesture and body language into sharper relief and providing greater nuance for the story. This comic feels like a fragment of a larger story, but it adeptly makes the reader understand and care about these characters in short order.   

RC: Emma certainly has a talent for creating vividly realized characters. Her mini In An Empty City picks up from Dreameater, with a focus on the two female leads. I read this before I read Dreameater, and her clarity of storytelling is such that it was easy to follow. Do you see future books coming featuring Char and Cassi? 

CM: I hope so! I know how much Emma loves Jaime Hernandez’s work, and I’d love to see her expand the universes she’s building. Whether or not she continues with Char and Cassi though, I’m confident that she’ll make something great!
Trans Girls Hit The Town by Emma Jayne 

This is Emma Jayne's newest comic, and it feels like her most personal work to date. It's about two trans women going out for a night, a proposition that is fraught with anxiety. That's especially true for Cleo, who rarely goes out in public, and who lacks the apparent self-confidence of her friend Winnie. Emma Jayne's dialogue is note-perfect, as the ease of their friendship and their hilarious rapport is instantly winning. It's an evening with some fun moments like video games and drinks, but it also has anxieties about bathrooms, misgendering, and a creepy chaser dude who wigs out Cleo. There are tears at the end of the evening for both women, as Cleo feels alone in her experience and Winnie feels guilty for inadvertently hurting her friend. Emma Jayne hits at something that should be obvious but needed to be said: the experience of every trans woman as they transition is different. Each woman faces different challenges based on any number of factors, including body type and overall dysmorphia. At the same time, as Winnie points out, though we can never truly know what someone else is going through (even, in her case, another trans woman), it's important to note that there are enough similarities to provide support and even advice if wanted. 

There's a magnificent clarity to Emma Jayne's work no matter the genre or subject. Her line is always precise but warm and inviting. Her layouts are clear but varied enough to interest the eye as she leads it across the page. Her figures are dynamic and stand out on the page because of her sophisticated mastery of gesture. Though her style is naturalistic, there is just enough of a cartoony touch to her characters to draw the reader in. Emma Jayne is a good artist but an even better writer, as the verisimilitude of her dialogue is what makes her comics so compelling. These are real people, and she makes the reader care about them.

RC: Emma Jayne's dialogue is so effective because of its high degree of verisimilitude. Trans Girls Hit The Town in particular works because as a reader, Winnie and Cleo feel real. That makes Cleo's struggles, in particular, all the more affecting because the reader is already on her side. That said, these are stories that are not necessarily widely-told in the wider culture, much less comics. How important has it been to you as a publisher to provide a spotlight for these kinds of stories?

CM: It’s my highest priority. I want to publish stories that aren’t being told elsewhere. I’m especially interested in messy stories without clean resolutions… there’s so much saccharine queer media designed to reassure cishet audiences. I’m not particularly interested in adding to that pool of work.

RC: Do you see a lot of those kinds of saccharine stories in comics? 

CM: I think straight, cis editors really like them. You see them a lot in more corporate books; stories where a character calmly explains statistics to the audience, as if they’re giving a powerpoint with a rainbow flag background. There’s a space for these stories, but I get very frustrated when they’re the only queer narratives that are allowed to exist.

RC: Every artist you publish has a radically different style. Do you have a personal aesthetic as a publisher that emerges in the artists that you choose to publish? Or do you have broad tastes that are reflected in artists that haven't received opportunities elsewhere, much the same way Annie Koyama (and Dylan Williams before her) operates?

CM: Annie is my primary inspiration. I’ve looked up to her since I was in college. I guess my method of recruiting artists is currently kind of informal… I find a (usually trans) artist whose work I admire and I ask them to make something for Diskette. It’s not much more complicated than that!! The only challenge is pacing myself.

RC: So it seems clear that you have a wide variety of aesthetic interests with regard to comics. Are there any particular genres or styles that you tend to avoid or actively dislike?

CM: Not really! If someone comes to me with an interesting premise or unusual art, I’m eager to see more. I don’t want to limit myself by saying “I’d never publish superheroes” or whatever because as soon as I said that I’m sure I’d be pitched a really amazing superhero book, you know?
Ebb Tide by Elliott G

This is a beautiful, poetic comic about trauma and recovery. The fragmented layout is reflective of the memory fragments it contains in this "love letter to myself." It's a testament of strength and power in the face of trauma and abuse. The purple and orange color scheme gives the comic a cool and even calm feeling in the face of horror, as each trauma is confronted in turn on the page through a visual representation of the Notepad application. The open-page layouts stack smaller images and those Notepad text boxes atop other images. Some of those are concrete, like beach scenes, while others are more metaphorical and even abstract. 

The stories are about trying to please horrible and abusive men. Even when Elliott G broke free, the feelings of worthlessness and aimlessness remained. There is a powerful sequence recounting that his abusers faced no consequences and are free to live successful lives. That rising anger is addressed and processed so as to let his own self-healing begin. In many ways, this is not so much a love letter as it is an incantation. It's a prayer or a summoning. By professing that he is loved, bright, and strong, he creates his own capacity for love, brightness, and strength. The connection to the earth and the ocean that acts as a running motif in the book is the key to all of this, as that natural connection supersedes the actions of abusers. This is a bracing, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful journey through a frankly-named series of abuses that acknowledges and transcends them.

RC: Ebb Tide, by Elliott G., for example, is a comic that is tonally as different from Emma Jayne's stuff as possible in some ways. Yet, it's in the same emotional continuum with regard to dealing with and overcoming trauma and learning to love oneself. Do you enjoy comics-as-poetry in general? 

CM: Oh absolutely. I love making them and I love reading them. Ebb Tide is one of my favorite books of all time and I’m so honored to have been a part of bringing it to life.

RC: The use of the two tones on the Risograph made this comic in particular look beautiful. How much of that was your guidance, and how much of the color process was Elliott's plan?

CM: Elliott knew what colors we could print with, and adapted his story to work with our palette. The credit for those beautifully printed tones is also Renée’s. She’s a genius at getting our printer to do what it should. Ebb Tide is her baby too, and I’m amazed at what she was able to do with it.

RC: Like much of the work you publish, this is an intense and emotionally challenging comic that nonetheless speaks to self-expression and self-love. Do people bring their work to you first for publishing consideration, or do you tell the artists you work with to simply do something and you'll publish it? 

CM: Both! We’ve printed work that was already finished (like Yllw Yllw Yllw) and we’ve commissioned new work! I might figure out a more formalized process in the future, but for now, I’m printing things that I get excited about.
Yllw Yllw Yllw by Mar Julia

This is a perfectly designed queer romance comic that mixes a beautifully fluid clear line with marvelously loopy and expressive spot colors. It is a story of a burgeoning romance between Sol and Basil, with the latter flaking out each time their level of sexual activity grows hotter. What is interesting is that Basil's emotions, lust, and passion literally bubble out of them in the form of a light-rose series of squiggles, ribbons, stars, and other shapes. It is the other side of the coin from another Diskette book, Erika Price's Disorder 1/3. In both books, one's feelings are made manifest. For Price, it's a dark and nightmarish scenario. For Mar Julia, it's but in a dreamier and more ethereal manner. In Yllw Yllw Yllw, the colors are in the form of discernible patterns as I noted, but the linework here uses no black at all. It takes a moment to even register what's going on, adding to the confusion of poor Sol.

While the frankness of the depiction of sex is refreshing in its relaxed and casual manner, Mar Julia's depiction of friendships and young people hanging out is every bit as powerful. It's important to the narrative as well, as it establishes this community of close, intimate friends who aren't afraid to show each other affection. The use of body language and gesture are also key elements in expressing this intimacy, with the smallest of body movements conveying a great deal of information. The character design is also appealing, with a variety of body types on display. The final conversation between Sol and Basil is cathartic, as each discusses their own difficulties with their emotions. For Basil, their emotions literally bubble over to the surface and thus make them too easy to read. For Sol, she describes herself as "emotionally opaque," making it difficult to read her. Both come to an understanding of their issues in a final splash page image that's warm and expansive. This comic is a burst of warmth that pleasantly ambles along while it picks up emotional steam.

RC: Mar Julia's Yllw Yllw Yllw is another example of the color gradations of the Risograph playing a key role in simply parsing the comic. It's also an example of a comic that's similar in terms of subject matter to others you've published, but with a dramatically different aesthetic approach. Mar Julia's line and use of shading are radically different from Emma Jayne, even if both write about relationships. Color plays a role in the narrative here, literally becoming an expression of emotions made visible. As a publisher and as an artist, how important is formal experimentation to you, especially when it's integral to the narrative?

CM: Mar approached me about printing Yllw Yllw Yllw for TCAF, and was originally inquiring about just getting it printed through us. As soon as I saw it, though, I thought it was so amazing! I asked if we could publish the work instead of just printing it. Again, Renée should get a lot of credit for making it work so beautifully on the printed page. She’s as interested in pushing the technical limits of the Riso as I am.
My Issues Of Being Transgender by Sorren Matarneh 

This is the roughest-looking of the otherwise-polished Diskette entries, However, Matarneh's storytelling and enthusiasm elevate the quality of this comic. There's no poetic license or metaphors at work here, as Matarneh bluntly and matter-of-factly discusses every problem he can think of with regard to being trans. He makes his scribbly style work as part of various creative flourishes, as it's highly expressive and fun to look at. Indeed, despite the many difficulties enumerated in this comic, there's still a sense of joy to be found once you've figured out your sexuality. In the end, after talking about problems with clothes, misgendering, and dysphoria, there's a wistful couple of drawings depicting how the artist hopes they'll look like in a few years' time. There is power in these drawings, and though Matarneh lacks the skill of other artists, his expressiveness, humor, and bluntness come through on every page. 

RC: My Issues Of Being Transgender by Sorren Matarneh is a visual departure for Diskette in that it's much rougher in terms of line. However, it's tonally right in line with the other comics that you publish. Is this a case of you encouraging a young artist to publish, or did you find Sorren bursting to express himself? 

CM: Both! I’ve known Sorren for several years. He’s seventeen right now, and this is his first-ever published work. I’ve been excited about his comics since I met him when he was twelve. I think it’s really exciting to show off a young artist with a lot of potential!
Disorder 1/3 by Erika Price

This is a horror comic that focuses on body horror in particular as a manifestation of dysmorphia. Price's line weight is exceedingly fine, allowing her to create a level of detail so dense that it's almost suffocating. This is the desired effect, as this is the story of a monster seeking to destroy itself. In page after page of visceral, heart-rending detail, the spiked monster rends its own flesh, stabs itself with its own spiky protuberances, and otherwise revolts against its very embodiment. It is the manifestation of psychological pain made physical. The final segment switches from heavy spotted blacks to a white background with the densest drawings of an already dense comic. It is the image of a destroyer spurning simple entropy, carrying with it one thought: "To destroy. To rebuild." It's the one kernel of hope in an otherwise bleak howl of a comic. There is still pain and ugliness, but there is the possibility of something new arising out of it. These final pages in particular feature masterful page layouts, as Price stuffs individual panels full of lined details but also creates a gestalt of an image that merges each panel together. Disorder 1/3 is lyrical in its despair as it confronts the reader with Price's pain on a number of different levels.

RC: Dysmorphia is a recurring theme in the comics you publish, expressed in radically different ways. For Sorren, it's refreshingly and endearingly blunt: "Here's one problem with being trans. Here's another problem, etc." Erika Price's Disorder 1/3, on the other hand, is a horror comic where a self-destructive monster is a metaphor for dysphoria. Given your love of horror, how much did Disorder affect you on a visceral level the first time you saw it?

CM: Oh yeah! Erika is amazing and Disorder is so unlike any other comics I’ve ever seen. It’s horror and it’s also just a very raw autobio comic about living with chronic illness and dysphoria. It really speaks to me. It was also a real technical challenge to print! Riso has trouble with large color fills, and it took a lot of tinkering to make this very inky book look right! Again, huge kudos to Renée.
See Me by E.Jackson

This single-toned Risographed minicomic addresses the thorny topic of body dysmorphia by way of exploring sex and sexuality. The character of Arsene is a self-described "trans boy" who navigates fantasies about his best friend and his relationship with his self-identified asexuality. Above all else, he grapples with the idea of being seen, in all senses of the word. Primarily, it's embracing the idea of being seen as a sexual being by others, as well as allowing himself to open up emotionally. 

See Me's layout is fluid, reflecting both the narrative and the character. The second page, for example, is technically a four-panel grid. However, the upper two panels are merged into a single image with no panel borders (it's of Arsene and his best friend), and that image bleeds into the bottom two panels, which are close-ups of fantasized groping. When Arsene snaps out of that fantasy, the next page has three horizontal panels. Notably, the second page has white negative space, giving the sense of the image bursting out of the page; and the third page has dark negative space, giving the sense of the page closing in on the image. Later pages with sexual fantasies abandon the grid altogether, with images smashing into each other featuring overlapping touching arms and legs and genitalia. Once again, the page is filled with white negative space as those fantasies are rushing from Arsene's imagination. 

There are other clever formal tricks, where screens act as bordered panels. For example, Arsene watching porn on his phone features a panel of the images on the phone. The same goes for Arsene's brief fling with Tinder, the hook-up dating application. Layout is everything in this comic, especially since Jackson uses stripped-down and scribbly character designs in order to further facilitate the immediacy of the images. See Me is about Arsene's being uncomfortable with being seen, yet Jackson's storytelling creates an intimate environment that's all about being seen.
Pretty Girl by Carta Monir

This is a tiny mini by the publisher that's a series of selfies and photos with commentary. Control of one's own image is a crucial aspect of change for a trans person, after years of feeling alienated from their self-representations. Monir challenges this notion head on, wanting to take pictures of herself for herself but also wanting to be seen and found to be pretty. I found the last statement to be simultaneously sincere and ironic, as Monir undoubtedly couldn't care less about the gaze of others but at the same time recognizes the cultural standards of what it looks like to be a woman. This is a comic about still feeling not at home in one's body and the way it looks but sharing that vulnerability with the world. 

RC: One thing you've talked about in comics is a more frank depiction of sex and sexuality. In many regards, E.Jackson's See Me is a perfect encapsulation of this idea. The slightly disembodied depictions of the narrator's body engaging in sexual acts, the shots of porn and the quick-cut quality of the storytelling are all an ideal vehicle for engaging in fantasy while still navigating your friendships. Above all else, it's all about being seen, which is also expressed in your mini Pretty Girl. That seems to be the essence of Diskette Press: giving visibility to people who have not had it. What would you say is the guiding ethos of Diskette?

CM: Hmmmmm…. probably just “print the work I want to see celebrated.” I want to uplift and promote interesting creators and I want to help them make some money from their work. That’s pretty much all I want!!

RC: Speaking of money, are the people you publish paid a flat fee up front, or do they get royalties from sales? 

CM: I try to be very generous with royalties. When I started out I only got 10% of the proceeds of my book, which meant 80 cents on an $8.00 book. I can’t afford to pay artists an advance at the present time, but I do make sure that they keep 50-60% of all proceeds from any book I publish for them. I’m covering my own expenses and labor, but my profits don’t come at the expense of my artists. I want them to feel like we’re collaborating, not like I’m taking advantage of their hard work.

RC: What are your future goals as a publisher?

CM: I want to publish a lot more straightforward queer pornography like Leyland did with titles like Meatmen. There’s really nothing happening in North American porn comics that interests me right now, and I want to change that. I think we have the potential to make some really interesting and provocative work.
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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).

July 10, 2019

Darkness On The Edge Of Town: Ryan Carey Reviews RUST BELT by Sean Knickerbocker

There's a sickness at the heart of what used to be called the "American Dream," and we all know it: the consolidation of wealth among the so-called "one percent" has left a wide swath of devastation in its wake, entire regions of the country have been cast aside like so much detritus while the rich wall themselves off from the effects of their greed in secure suburban sub-divisions, the people they've tossed on the economic trash heap as out of sight as they are out of mind.  The modern-day robber barons need these folks every four years, of course, to vote for their latest demagogue of choice --- a hollow exercise that amounts to the devastated giving assent to their destroyers --- but that's never much of a problem: draconian cuts to education budgets, media consolidation, and ginned-up religious and cultural fervor have done the job of convincing large chunks of the working and non-working poor that the real threats to their ever-deteriorating way of life come from south of the border, across the pond, or the ranks of the "other" (racial, sexual, ethnic, religious) within their midst.

Now, don't get me wrong: profiles of the white, male, Trump supporter in the popular press have been done to death, and the idea of "shining a light" on a lot of these folks' retrograde attitudes and opinions amounts to little more than a literal case of "sympathy for the devil," but the ubiquitous nature of these overly-generous "human interest stories," (a phenomenon even comics haven't managed to escape from entirely --- I'm looking at you, James Sturm) and the sad but true fact that the disaffected and dispossessed have always been easy pickings for would-be "strongmen," doesn't negate the reality that for quite literally millions of Americans, the end of the world is no longer an abstraction, it's something that's already happened to their communities; maybe even something that continues to happen every day.

Roll call: factories that employed everyone for miles going dark. Opioid and amphetamine addiction. Home foreclosure. Loss of health insurance. Younger generations fleeing the town, the county, even the state. All that's left? Economic, cultural, and social wastelands where the word "opportunity" is thought of strictly in the past tense.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary cartoonist, Sean Knickerbocker has his finger on the pulse of what's derisively scoffed at as "flyover country," having spent a considerable amount of time in the bleak (in every sense of that term) hinterland of Blue Earth County, Minnesota. To date, he's conveyed the stories of the post-apocalyptic survivors of areas like the one he once called home over the years in the pages of his debut graphic novel, Killbuck, as well as in his intermittently-published series, Rust Belt, portions of which --- in addition to strips culled from parts various and sundry --- have just been collected by Secret Acres in a book that shares that same title. It's a briskly-paced read, to be sure, but one that leaves a mark by dint of Knickerbocker's sheer facility with characterization and his sympathetic (but not less accurate for that fact) portrayal of the sorts of lives that are deliberately ignored by those in power --- unless and until they need to fashion them into reactionary voting blocs.

Stylistically, Knickerbocker's work falls somewhere comfortably within the Charles Forsman/Max de Radigues continuum, and his work addresses many of the same concerns explored not only by said contemporaries but also the likes of Noah Van Sciver. Yet Knickerbocker's elegantly-delineated minimalism is utilized in service of narratives that tend to depict the realities of those from whom alienation and inchoate, unfocused rage aren't a potentially-passing phase of youth. Rather, they have become the inescapable underpinnings of their very existence.
All of which is to say that whether we're talking about an aging alcoholic who's still dependent on his sister, a soon-to-be-demoted retail manager, an underemployed woman caring for a sick parent who has to turn to the local food shelf for assistance, or a plumber trying to make a name for himself as a MAGA YouTuber only to discover that there's no pot of gold at the end of the alt-right rainbow, the authenticity of this collection's protagonists and their situations is as universal as it is uncomfortable to face.  This perpetual unease is conveyed in the book’s aesthetic, as well: accentuated by a rotating selection of single colors that reflect the tone and tenor of the strips upon which they're deployed pitch-perfectly, there's no slack in Knickerbocker's act as his holistic approach to visual storytelling offers no conceivable way to turn a blind eye to the everyday indignities he not only depicts, but digs into deeply.

Are some of these people at least partially culpable for their own existential misery? Of course. But living where they do, under the circumstances that they find themselves, it's not like they're offered much by way of alternatives. Work at Wal-Mart or starve. Seek chemical and/or pharmaceutical escape or wallow in hopelessness. Cling to the past or face up to the fact that you've got no future. Taken in total, Knickerbocker paints a grim picture in Rust Belt, to be sure --- but also an accurate one. And it amounts to probably the most savage and thorough-going critique of capitalism comics have seen in quite some time.
If the whole thing sounds too heavy for you, then fair enough, it probably is --- and far be it from me to shame you if your reading tastes are primarily escapist in nature. But if hard (yet hardly heartless) looks at the world as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, are within your aesthetic wheelhouse, then Rust Belt will immediately leap to the forefront as one of the most vital, most accomplished, most unforgettable, and most absolutely necessary comics you'll read this year --- perhaps even in the last several. Knickerbocker has justly enjoyed a reputation as something of a "cartoonist to keep an eye on" for some time; with this collection, he's come fully into his own and it's high time for everyone to start paying attention to one of the medium's most singular, distinctive, and honest voices.
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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.

July 8, 2019

Living in the Moment when the Moment is the Problem: Matt Vadnais on NOVELTY by Mohar Kalra

The cover of Mohar Kalra’s Novelty looks like poster art from a World’s Fair or state tourism campaign. Replete with spheres that look like unified and peaceful planets, the image appears to be selling unity and joy. The word “novelty!” – written in a buoyant and futuristic font deserving of “Sunny California” or “Cities of Tomorrow!” – erupts from a mustard yellow and suggests that readers will find some kind of innovation inside the pages of the book. The stylized and stylish design elements of the cover mask, at least for a moment, the much more serious image that they frame. Two figures share a bench in the rain. One man is bedraggled and haggard in an ill-fitting coat; the other is a featureless, white humanoid with terrific posture.
            
Taken as a whole, the cover suggests that this is a story about the remarkable invention of an unlikely friendship. Such an assertion isn’t far from what happens in the comic; however, unless one knows what to look for, the cover does little to communicate to the reader that both figures sharing the bench are aspects of the same person, an undergraduate named Allen who spends the book navigating a mental health odyssey initiated by having been cut loose from college counseling services because of budget cuts. In the hands of someone else, the cover might feel like false advertising or a trick of Tyler Durden-sized proportions. However, Kalra treats both figures – figures that correlate loosely but hardly exactly with mania and depression – with such respect and gratitude that a reader is invited to trust the visual metaphor. While Allen himself spends a lot less time on the page than either of these voices or personas or aspects of his personality – Kalra doesn’t spoon-feed readers the antecedents of the metaphor – both are rendered as real. Neither is a demon to banish nor a voice to silence. 
            
For me, at least, the result is one of the most affecting depictions of mental health that I’ve encountered. Too often, art interested in negotiating a crisis of depression, mania, or anxiety ends up suggesting that such things can be tamed or defeated, the way an adversary might be thwarted in a cape comic. Sure, Kalra’s simple but ambitious line work draws from the superhero genre, particularly in the Silver Surfer-esque stature of Allen’s bolder companion, as well as in the way that his weather-beaten friend begins to melt and blob in the face of complication. However, such choices allow Kalra to depict Allen’s mental health as a power set, suggesting that the purpose of therapy is not to treat weakness but to negotiate the complications created by one’s strengths.  
The comic opens with the bold, featureless version of Allen standing at the edge of a cliff. Kalra explains the narration as things Allen is saying to the therapist, just before being left to his own devices. Allen explains that falling is much less upsetting than the notion that he might be caught by a safety net before impact. By conflating self-harm with a kind of freedom, and by re-thinking a reprieve from death as the true object of fear, this short fantasy sequence effectively draws this particular iconographic depiction of Allen as impulsive and bold but hardly happy. Throughout Novelty, this embodiment of Allen, this alter ego, has big, important thoughts, announces himself as a kind of aesthete, and serves as a tour guide for some of the most visually poetic sequences of Kalra’s art, usually rendered in take-you-by-surprise, two-page spreads that are legitimately staggering. Though Kalra suggests that this alter ego has existed long before the therapist’s office, this featureless version of Allen can be understood as a creation of Allen’s psyche that allows Allen to do exactly what his therapist told him to do: live in the moment. This version of Allen appears to have the ability to literally sink into images, to speak directly to the audience, and to engage with ideas regardless of social convention or anxieties. He can go where Allen cannot. 
            
Kalra draws attention to the abilities of this featureless void by paring them with another alter ego, Allen’s shabbily dressed counterpart who is much less eloquent: mostly, he says “fuck” multiple times in the same panel while attempting, desperately, to melt and disappear from any moment he is in. The characterization of one aspect of Allen informs the other so that this downtrodden, blobby manifestation does not come off as ill-defined or oversimplified but as someone having an earned reaction every time he cusses or begins to melt. In other words, Kalra manages the neat trick where, because of Allen’s particular cocktail of invasive thoughts, his less equipped avatar constantly has to cash the checks written by aspects of himself so preoccupied with the beautiful chaos of the world that they have little time to consider the consequences. For example, the featureless alter ego stands motionless as he watches a white man chase a black child into traffic in order to observe what will happen because it seems interesting; this decision will torment Allen for several pages. Kalra depicts this memory as a painting in an art gallery that serves as a proxy for Allen’s mind; even the memory is something that the featureless thinker can marvel at, hand on his chin, while the other Allen is tormented on the opposite page.          
This is not the only scene that features Kalra melding images of Allen – any version of Allen – into other kinds of imagery. Cinema, photography, fine art, and the poster design of the cover are all used to suggest dissociation. I was reminded of a question in the survey I needed to fill out before receiving a single therapy session as an undergraduate – does your life feel like a movie? – only to discover, like Allen, that my very real concerns weren’t serious enough to warrant an ongoing relationship with student services. Like myself and dozens of similar students I have encountered as a professor, Allen is given little option but to try to find his way to follow the advice generated in this single session, advice that is little more than a cliché. 

Thanks to Kalra’s brilliant art, the reader comes to understand that this advice itself is complicated for Allen; throughout Novelty, he sinks too deeply into individual moments, so much so that he ceases to look like Allen or exist in an image that looks like his “real” world. Throughout the comic, Kalra provides narration that sometimes belongs to one of Allen’s alter-egos and sometimes floats above the action as a disembodied third person; Allen, until the very end, is not able to provide words to describe or frame his own story. By showing the complicated distinctions between living in, being fearful of, and being distracted by “the moment,” Kalra quietly comments on how fully dissociation is misunderstood as disinterest and again complicates the idea that mental illness is somehow about weakness. While a reader might be tempted to understand the over-confident, solipsistic void-like alter ego as a coping mechanism designed to offset the anxiety embodied by Allen’s melting and blobby alter ego, it’s just as possible to understand the relationship as inverted: Kalra presents Allen’s weakest self as a coping mechanism, making this especially clear in a moment where the shabbily dressed avatar physically supports the exhausted and overwhelmed alter ego. It is this moment that leads Allen to emerge as Allen when he asked to take a picture of two people.  
On the one hand, the fact that Allen is able to find some kind of momentary unification and genuine happiness at the comic’s end might suggest that he is fully capable of negotiating his mental health without professional help or that the counselor’s assessment of his crisis was accurate. However, at least for this reader, the genius of Novelty is that, though the moment of peace is presented as a kind of breakthrough or novelty, the book reads as an origin story. Kalra hasn’t written a story about Allen coming to any kind of destination, so much as he has outlined the ways in which – and the reasons why – Allen will be the beleaguered and unwise hero of his own story from here on. The moment is new and it is, as Allen tells the reader in the only moment where he speaks as his own narrator, good enough; his fearful self has powers too, able to comfort and focus the part of him that is so interested in the moment that he’s willing to relinquish himself to it.
Still, this moment is only a moment. And even this moment is presented with a helping of dissociation, rendered as yet another photographic representation of living that Allen is literally sucked into, complete with a shark and an octopus. As such, Novelty is truly a novelty, the rare piece of art about mental health that does not pretend that the peace one might find with one’s self has to be any more lasting than the moments of chaos that come before it in order to be real and meaningful.
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Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

July 3, 2019

Taking Maturity Into Your Own Hands: Fred McNamara Reviews VISITING by Alivia Horsley

The sparse nature of Alivia Horsley’s Visiting lies somewhere between relaxed and tense. The laid-back and seemingly inconsequential holiday of the protagonist, Dylan, who is visiting his grandparents, is riddled with a soft sense of unease as he continuously avoids having to ask them an important question dictated by his mother. Visiting touches upon themes of domestic unrest and of families making decisions on behalf of others in an attempt to better them, Horsley channels these complex, arresting themes through trimmed, succinct visuals and story-telling. However, that trimmed style serves as Visting’s weakest flaw. Such is the delicacy in Horsley’s execution of the comic’s story, it’s constantly in danger of buckling under the weight of its dense themes.

Visiting’s visuals lend weight to its subtle emotions. Horsley gives Visiting a sparse appearance, using thinly drawn details and panels, sometimes eschewing panels completely. This open space allows for reflective, meditative moods to sink in. Often, the characters themselves are the only things filling up the page space, their wordless expressions emitting the beats of the story. It’s often a quiet comic, with many pages featuring minimal or no dialogue. One wonders if Visiting would be a more robust read if there was greater detailing to the characters themselves since their body language and facial expressions become almost the sole method of carrying the narrative. 
Still, Horsley manages to give Visiting a cohesiveness by enhancing everything with the same minimal detail, but given the comic’s mature emotions, they’re left suspended in mid-air in the comic’s open space thanks to the faintly-sketched characters. Horsley injects just the right amount of detail into the characters to carry the story along, but the general sparseness adds to the overall tension scattered throughout the comic. Dialogue and emotions aren’t masked in any form, they’re left out in the open for all to see. If there was less empty space throughout the comic, those emotions might have registered with a leaner and more immediate impact.

The flipside of all of this is that Visiting’s charming appearance allows its straight-faced ideas to be wrapped in a sweetly digestible casing. While Horsley's artwork is limiting, it gives Visiting an intimate, urban charm. Equally charming is Dylan himself, whose struggles make him a character easy to empathize with. He’s caught in a pointless crossfire between two clashing generational perspectives. His grandparents are content to live out their twilight years as leisurely as possible, reflecting their elderly state. 
Conversely, his mother radiates a different attitude. Despite not making a single appearance in the comic itself, Horsley effortlessly crafts a distinct personality from the mother via the barrage of harassing texts she sends to Dylan. Horsley paints Dylan’s mother as someone seemingly with the world on her shoulders, forced to care for both her son and her own parents. It’s a testament to Horsley's narrative skills how she’s able to craft this persona for the mother solely through text messages. The unnecessary burden the mother places upon her son feel like a natural extension of her world-weariness, whilst the self-inflicted drawing-out of Dylan’s aversion in asking his grandparents to move in with himself and his mother is heartfelt. 

Horsley is slight in depicting Dylan’s moods throughout the comic. Though they are skeletal, they work. Whether it’s an upturned eyebrow, a bead of sweat, or a wrinkled frown, she effortlessly conjures forth Dylan’s conflicting emotions. He’s the most fully realized character of the comic. His unseen yet ever-texting mother and his relaxed, oblivious grandparents are miles apart from each other in their fleshed-out state compared to Dylan, yet their characteristics serve the story well.

Dylan’s own miniature arc in taking the decision about his grandparent’s potential move into his own hands is another element of Visiting that bears its warm, well-paced flow. His eventual choice in deciding how to handle the situation results in him being fashioned into a link between his mother and grandparents, while also elevating his maturity. This is where the mostly sparse narrative is at its strongest, as Dylan sees how happy his grandparents are with their current lifestyle. His desire to not disrupt their happiness cements his own maturity and resilience against his otherwise stern mother. Even with that resilience in mind, it balances out the equilibrium within the family itself. Dylan’s act of selflessness relieves some of his mother’s self-inflicted burden, resulting in Horsley writing a happy ending for all concerned, not just the grandparents.
Horsley creates a natural of growth to Dylan that locks in the emotional weight of the comic. She clearly makes no secret about investing the most into Dylan, and the care and attention she applies to the character are heartwarming to see. He’s clearly the youngest character in the story, and ultimately makes the most mature and sensible decision in improving his extended family’s welfare. 

Likewise, the story itself has a pleasant flow about it. The aforementioned sparseness may make the character’s emotions float rather than hit home, yet, at the same time, it gives the story room to stretch and stroll along at its unhurried pace. This is one of the comic’s greater strengths, as nothing about Visiting feeling rushed or forced. As well, the anthropomorphism of the characters gives the story’s tone a welcome touch of light-hearted humor that adds to the overall delicate nature of the comic. That delicacy makes Visiting all the more charming to read, cushioning the comic’s taught, mature themes.

Visiting is a comic that leaves the reader wanting more, in every possible sense. It doesn’t have any problems telling its story, but it’s how the story is visually presented that makes the comic feel lacking in substance. It skeletal appearance is lacking against its mature narrative, yet the colors and shapes of its appearance remain adoringly intoxicating.

It’s innocent tone and the arc of growth for Dylan ultimately save the comic, making it a sweetly natured read that tugs at the heart. Adding to this, Horsley’s depiction of the characters as anthropomorphic animals adds a sprinkling of surface-level cuteness to an otherwise gut-wrenching situation forced upon Dylan. His actions throughout the comic make him a well-rounded protagonist to carry the comic’s story. His awkwardness around his grandparents and hesitations in answering his mother’s texts make him a naturally flawed individual, yet he eventually resolves the problem before him in a simple manner that pleases everyone. This all helps to give the story itself a clear and definite beginning, middle, and end. Visiting doesn’t have all the tools at its disposal to be the comic it wants to be, yet it makes an honest, endearing effort to be exactly what it is.
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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.

July 1, 2019

Comics As Dance, Comics As Place: Rob Clough on THE BACKSTAGE OF A DISHWASHING WEBSHOW by Keren Katz

Keren Katz's new book, The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, has a linear narrative that is advanced by the images the text interacts with. However, that plot (along with its characters) shifts, bends, and loops around much like her drawings do. The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow opens with an extended prologue about an opera house. Every show for their season was set up in stages that were right next to each other, and each show practiced simultaneously. In order for the actors to get to their show, they went through a vast, backstage area, going through the backdrops of other shows. The actors had to take care not to have the words or images of other shows seep into their thoughts. This prologue is otherwise unconnected to the action elsewhere in the book, but it is integral to understanding Katz's project here. 

This is a story that is both narrative and meta-narrative. It's like reading Tom Stoppard's play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead without having Hamlet to refer to and understand as its source material. It's about the times and spaces behind and in-between; indeed, it's about giving up on the narrative of one's own life in order to devote it to the machinery of someone else's narrative. It's life as a perpetual backstage scene. To this end, Katz eschews conventional comics page structure. There are neither panel grids nor word balloons. By doing so, Katz creates an interesting tension between static image and sequentiality that's at play throughout the book
The images themselves are flattened and twisted around themselves. The characters are always at odd angles, contorted into strange positions that highlight distorted anatomy. Unlike artists like Chris Ware who describe comics being like music in the sense that there are rhythms to it; there's a sense of flow, it's all there, waiting on the page for a reader to bring it to life as though it were sheet music, for Katz, comics are more like dance, and modern dance in particular. This involves the kind of deliberate distortion and flattening of form on stage to create forms that resemble abstract shapes more than they do people. Motion is essential to dance, yet modern dance paradoxically looks to create this flattening of time and space where individual poses are as important as the movements themselves. Typically, comics is a static medium that looks to create ways to depict motion and sequentiality. What Katz accomplishes is quite a trick: simultaneously creating powerfully abstract and static images in a way that reminds the reader of their sequentiality and the illusion of motion. 

As well, Katz's use of color adds to this tension. Katz's line is thin and delicate, but her use of color is in-your-face on almost every page. It is also entirely decorative and expressive, serving to add weight and beauty to each image. 

The main character of The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, Rivi, works as an air traffic controller for a time and writes to her long-distance boyfriend, Yakov. She's sent to Mount Scopus, a "school specializing in transmutation," after she was fired from her job for "lack of focus." Transmutation implies transformation, but it goes further than that: the school actively inhibits any kind of certainty of self, especially with regard to temporal focus. Moments of time and interactions, in general, are flattened and abstracted by the strange architecture of the school. How long an activity takes is solely determined by the size and shape of the room of its occurrence. 
Understandably, Rivi and the other students are constantly unmoored. It's why Rivi quickly becomes a sort of shadow to her roommate's webshow, wherein she films herself doing dishes. The students crave the tiniest of gestures and objects as a way to root themselves against the school's relentlessly shifting qualities, and the webshow provides just that sort of structure. Like everything else in the book, however, it is a performance. Its consequences are fictional, as her roommate thinks of the dishes as props, not as actual dishes. This ties back into the prologue because nothing is real. Everything is a prop.

Indeed, the rest of the book recapitulates the prologue, with one notable exception. Backstage, the actors "keep their eyes down, as not to be seduced by the wrong settings for the wrong words."  Seduction is a recurring theme here, especially of the inadvertent kind. Rivi seduces her long-distance boyfriend Yakov with her descriptions of violence. Rivi's roommate seduces their neighbor (also named Yakov) with her webshow. They all wind up in this play of life with not only the wrong words, but they also do not even know who they are playing anymore. Indeed, the problem is that many of them don’t even have a part to play.
The strangest thing about Keren Katz's strange comics is that they all seem to be based on true-life experiences. She really did have a friend who had a webshow wherein she would wash dishes. Katz did serve two years in the Israeli military, and the accounts of her character working in an air traffic control tower no doubt come from her actual doings. It's clear that the "transmutation academy" discussed in the book is based in part on the Center For Cartoon Studies as much as it is Harry Potter, as Katz just finished up a fellowship at CCS. These experiences are all unusual on their own, but Katz's fundamental approach to storytelling is so singular that these details and anecdotes are secondary to her overpowering visual aesthetic.

Throughout The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, there are running visual motifs, like chickens as props. They express action and emotion but have nothing to do with the actual narrative. It's a repeating motif that's the absurd essence of this fundamentally absurd book. Meaning not only constantly shifts, but it's also possible that meaning itself is a trick. It's a prop, it's a script, it's the behind-the-scenes footage of the illusion. It's a desperate attempt to create meaning through movement and repetition, to flatten form and form a map of what's possible to understand about the world. Even as identities shift and change and people disappear, the goal is to keep dancing. In the end, Katz, through The Backstage Of A Dishwashing Webshow, tells us that we must keep our heads down and keep moving in the face of these metaphysically shifting sands in order to create our own patterns in the world.
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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).