July 29, 2019

“Peaking” At The Right Time: Ryan Carey reviews BICYCLE DAY by Brian Blomerth

With his debut graphic novel, Bicycle Day, Brooklyn-based cartoonist and commercial illustrator Brian Blomerth has set for himself a fairly daunting challenge: to not just illustrate, but to visually communicate, a historical "first." And not just any historical "first", but one that involved entering another state of consciousness altogether ---  the world's very first acid trip, deliberately undertaken by Swiss chemist/armchair mystic Albert Hofmann on April 19th, 1943, ostensibly as part of his daily research duties for the Sandoz pharmaceutical corporation.

The first thing he did after "turning on"? Apologies to Freddie Mercury, but --- get on his bike and ride!

Of course, any number of rock album/poster artists (of which Blomerth can number himself) have produced deliberately "trippy" images over the years, but by and large the "target market" for this type of artwork, and the recordings and/or concerts it advertises, is composed of people who have already "turned on" at least a time or two. In this day and age, however, with LSD use having plummeted to a depressing degree as young people have swapped out consciousness-expanding drugs in favor of consciousness-negating drugs such as crystal meth, it's fair to say that a good chunk of Blomerth's prospective readership has never tripped --- and that's all well and good, I suppose, because the protagonist in this handsome Anthology Editions-published book never had when we meet him, either.
Cue, in the early going, what one would expect in terms of kaleidoscopic line art and rich, fluid color, albeit to a far greater degree --- telling his story entirely by means of double-page spreads, Blomerth quite simply never lets up, establishing a tone of unreality early on (Hoffman, and all other "human" characters in the book, being portrayed as anthropomorphic dogs) and then going from there through various ebbs, valleys, highways, and byways of the psychedelic experience in a (to invoke the obvious term) mind-bending succession of arresting, utterly inexplicable imagery that evokes not just the look and feel but, most essentially, the character of the LSD experience for a first-time user. Hell, for THE first-time user.

Shapes that aren't shapes move and/or stay perfectly still, sometimes simultaneously, in front of, behind, or even within backgrounds that might be foregrounds which might be real that might be unreal that --- honestly, a few pages in (after some cursory introductory "dialogue" composed primarily of yodeling), Blomerth forces the reader to stop attempting to define, demarcate, discern, or even describe what they are seeing, and simply go with the gently inexorable flow, which is about as authentic an approximation of the LSD experience as one is likely to find committed to paper. Unless we're talking about blotter paper.
There's most definitely a progression in the first "act" (I term I use very loosely) here, and a "wind-down" near the end, but, by and large, it's not like Blomerth necessarily commits to "one-upping" himself with each successive spread. Things tone down then ramp back up without warning and without regard to expectation, the ideas of "pacing" and "narrative thrust" are left as far behind in the Day-Glo dust as consensus reality itself, again intuitively mimicking the very nature of every acid trip (at least every one I've  ever taken, never having experienced the mythical "bad trip" myself --- which, like the "acid flashback," I've always, and probably accurately, dismissed as just so much "just say no" propaganda), while utilizing Hoffman’s bike ride and the perspective of a true “first-timer” to present it all through fresh eyes.

Veterans of the psychedelic experience may be tempted, at the point, to think that there must be something of an "LSD For Beginners" vibe to Blomerth's comic, and that's not entirely inaccurate, but I'd implore such readers to keep an open mind (shouldn't be too tough if you're an experienced "acid head") and think back to their very first trip. Wouldn't it be amazing to feel something like that all over again? That's the effect Blomerth is going for --- and, to his great credit, he manages to pull it off more often than not.
As a matter of fact, whether such was Blomerth's intention or not (and bonus points to him if it was), this book functions as a very successful piece of "pro-drug" -- specifically pro-psychedelic -- propaganda, portraying the experience as not only something inherently beneficial and expansive, but also as something that's been so from the very start. As such, then, it not only serves as a kind of visual travelogue through altered and heightened states of consciousness, but as a necessary, even long-overdue, counterpoint to the anti-drug hysteria that the American public has been inundated with for decades, resulting in one generation after another of too few people who have “turned on.”

The Forward written by ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna aside (not that it's poorly written, mind you, anything but), the book even has something of a youthful, future-focused quality to it. Blomerth's deliberately Disney-esque characters and his utilization of modern digital coloring techniques are elements that should very much appeal to younger readers out there.

A children's book about LSD? Hey, stranger things have happened --- but you certainly don't need to be a kid to glean a tremendous amount from Bicycle Day. Whether you've tripped hundreds of times, only tried acid a time or two, or have never touched the stuff, Blomerth creates a universal first-time experience to which anyone can relate, and some may even feel compelled to replicate for themselves. If any readers out there have a decent LSD connection, please don't hesitate to hit me up --- I'm middle-aged and every "dealer" I ever knew has moved on to the same straight-laced world of 9-to-5 that I find myself in. Until I can get ahold of another hit of purple microdot (or whatever is out there these days) myself, though, Blomerth's explosion of visual invention is a more than acceptable substitute for, and evocation of, the very best that the psychedelic experience has to offer.
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 22, 2019

“I Haven't Made Any Concessions”: Nicholas Burman in Conversation with MAIA MATCHES, Comix Artist and Amsterdam’s City Illustrator

Amsterdam based, Canadian born cartoonist and comics creator Maia Matches is a prominent name in the Dutch capital’s comix scene. Alongside her numerous zines, collaborative newspapers, and long-form sequential works, she also regularly produces posters for concerts and club nights. 

Her work can generally be split into two categories. Firstly, the sex satire, inspired by cartoonists such as R. Crumb but told from a staunchly female perspective. Her “The Bitch” character is one such example: a no-nonsense, S&M loving, INCEL-fighting action woman. She also produces journalistic work, often regarding the squatting and autonomous communities that were once a hallmark of Dutch culture, and often also depicts broader social discourses ranging from migrant crises and immigrant rights to sex and gender politics. 

It is perhaps because of this interest in the political, combined with a track record of cooperative work and journalistic integrity, which won her the title of Stadstekenaar van Amsterdam (City Illustrator of Amsterdam) for 2019. This position finds her and her work being brought into much more mainstream spaces than most comix creators are used to, but also shows that there is still some interest in the halls of city’s government buildings to promote some of the rebellious spirit that drew Maia to the city in the early 2000s. 

I caught up with Maia over email, and at her studio in De Pijp, an Amsterdam neighborhood currently succumbing to rapid gentrification, to discuss her work, her role as City Illustrator, and the importance of social spaces for zine culture and artists. 

Nicholas Burman: Your work is orientated around various feminist topics and is quite focused on sex (and sexual organs). What's your goal with these portrayals, and what are you aiming to bring to the page that you think is missing, or misrepresented, elsewhere? 

Maia Matches: The goal is to intensify the representation of the female gaze. At every comics festival I attend, all over the world, I look for "The Other Bitch". I couldn’t believe that I was the only female artist using a big-breasted, overly assertive, and evil woman as a protagonist, and I have found a few examples from other artists. I love the drawings of Heather Benjamin and Chloë Perkins, but I struggle to see the narrative in their work. There are, of course, many more “Bitches” out there. I salute Super Bitch, Planet Bitch, Big Bitch ... but those comix were written by men! Where are the modern fem/non-binary narratives? That’s where my work comes in.
NB: How did you become the Stadstekenaar, and how you have found being a public figure in a broader way than a lot of comix artists are? 

MM: I became the Stadstekenaar somewhat by coincidence. One fine morning I received a phone call from the City Archives of Amsterdam. It was an invitation to present my work to the board (the Commissie van Tekeningen). To my surprise, I had been nominated, along with two other artists, for the position of Stadstekenaar for 2019. The board keeps a long list of emerging artists (mostly students from the city’s art school, the Rietveld Academy, or so I've heard), which is reduced to a short list, and so forth. 

I'm not 100% certain why I was chosen, perhaps my general contributions to the city are being awarded? I was once an initiator/editor of the Amsterdam Comic Newspapers (2012-2016), and I contributed artwork for a graphic novel de Kraker, de Agent, de Jurist en de Stad (unfortunately this book only exists in Dutch). Whatever the case, the city made a bold choice by appointing me to the job. 

At first, I really thought, “seriously!? Is this a bad joke?” I'm a comic artist, I make sexually explicit comix, which have a blatant cynicism towards the patriarchal system. I haven't forgotten what an enormous privilege it is to have this opportunity, to write freely and to a direct and large audience through having strips the spreads in the national daily newspaper Het Parool. I receive an honorarium for the work, but it doesn't cover all my costs, I will have to work abroad this summer to feed my bank account. 

As far as being a public figure... well, I haven't been aware of (what I expected would be) more recognition (if that's what you mean). I have to work very hard to promote my work to a new audience while keeping a few loyal fans updated about upcoming publications. It's a juggling act. Plus, I regularly get requests for small commissions, mostly for charity (my loyalty towards subculture often doesn't allow me to say “no” to these jobs). It's been really hard to make ends meet (I need an agent). 
NB: What encouraged you to move to Amsterdam in the first place? 

MM: I was born and raised in Toronto by immigrant parents. When my father offered me a Dutch passport at the age of 18 I didn't hesitate to move across the ocean. I don't know what made me do it, I was just a naïve kid looking for adventure abroad. I stayed with a host family (friends of my parents) for the first nine months. They lived in Drunen, a small town in Brabant. I learned to speak Dutch pretty quickly there. Soon, I was accepted into the art school of 's-Hertogenbosch, where I studied sculpture and joined the squatting community. I lived in Den Bosch for eight years before I could finally move to Amsterdam, where I was sure to become a famous comics artist (!). 

NB: You speak about that friction between being "underground" and "mainstream". This seems suspiciously close to the position that comics as a medium has, being both populist and also anti-popular, in a sense. How have you negotiated this friction in your own self since becoming the Stadstekenaar, discussing anti-establishment topics in strips for newspapers and public exhibitions? 

MM: I haven't made any concessions regarding the content or style of my comix for the sake of the city. When I asked the archive board what they found offensive/worthy of censorship, the reply was "don't mix sex with religion". So... no Popes getting BJs?! Eventually, I decided to censor myself and quit drawing erect penises in every scene. I have permitted myself to draw boobs and butts. I can't quit the visual power of naked bodies, I use it to express vulnerability and power in my comix. 
NB: For those who don't know the history of the city, could you speak a bit about the "alternative" and counterculture side to Amsterdam, and how this has inspired your work? It's a very clean and commercial city these days, so new arrivals and visitors are unlikely to get a sense of the culture you're part of... 

MM: Squatting is about creating a community, and it is a political act. Amsterdam has a strong history of squatting, though nowadays squats are likely to be evicted within a few months of being founded, and often quite violently. To give a relatively recent example: ADM was a legendary and autonomous community-based in the far west of the city. It was home to artists and activists, acted as a venue for events, and a flourishing ecosystem grew over the 21 years it was occupied. Following a long and complicated battle with the municipality in court, on 7 January 2019, the hundred-or-so residents were forcibly removed from their self-built town by police and bulldozers, hired by the terrain’s new owners to demolish the various caravans, houses, and installations, which of course simultaneously disrupted the local ecosystem. 

Currently, Amsterdam is promoting itself as a living museum and attracts around 18 million tourists per year. Here, you can buy a waffle in every third shop on the Warmoesstraat, while the authentic “brown-cafés” are being replaced by hipster brunch patios. Also, there is a banner campaign to stop tourists drinking/pissing in the street, which warns of a €140 euro fine if you empty your bladder into a canal. It just seems evident to me that the council is predominantly seeking to accommodate the growing number of expats and tourists, and in the process is putting profit before people. I suppose it's just a matter of time before artists like myself are driven out of the city center, and perhaps the city totally. 

Back in 2012, a small group of us started a zine library in the basement of the Fort van Sjakoo, an anarchist bookshop on the Jodenbreestraat. We were eight feminists, POC, trans/non-binary comics artists with a love for zines, coffee, and activism. After three years, we were no longer able to use the basement to host Saturday meet-ups, and that's when our original Zsa Zsa Zine project, unfortunately, fell apart. One of the things I love about my job as the Stadstekenaar is reconnecting with those friends, such as Amsterdam city council member Vreer, Transgender Netwerk Nederland’s communications manager Nora, refugee shelter co-ordinator Pablo, IT expert Jiro, and so many others. It's really inspiring to see their activism continue in a constructive way. Few are as lucky as I am, to have met as many heroes as I have over the past thirteen years. 
NB: Given your experiences of Fort van Sjakoo and Lambiek in Amsterdam, have you got any thoughts on comic/books shops as community and social spaces? How that works, or, if it currently isn't, how it could? 

MM: Lambiek is still a social space for the comic artists of Amsterdam. As for Fort, it lasted for a time, until those spaces were no longer able to facilitate us. Lambiek moved to a smaller location, and Fort found other (paying) tenants for their basement. Other comics shops, such as Beeldverhaal, can host exhibitions, although I find that they are not particularly "inclusive" when it comes to showing the diversity of comics and comics makers. The DIY community has proven itself very capable in this department, but it takes a lot of dedication to maintain initiatives without a budget or stable venue (I learned that the hard way). 

When Chad Bilyeu (of Chad in Amsterdam ) and I organized the zine fair STRIPCLUB in September 2018, we had a venue called BAUT at our disposal, and a bit of cash to make a run of posters and flyers. Fortunately, Chad has a brain for business and a long history in the local club scene as a producer and event facilitator. Combined with my extensive list of cool Amsterdam comics artists, we had thought of a plausible concept to promote comics to a new audience. In the end, all the table participants made a profit in sales, as they were not required to pay for the venue, tablespace, or their own travel costs. I had hoped that attendance would hit the roof, but when you have to rely on social media and a sporadic poster trail, we expected that a try-out event such as this would not make media headlines. Nonetheless, I would love to see STRIPCLUB make a comeback and become a regular event in Amsterdam. 

A great deal can be accomplished with proper funding, including curating an event that hosts comic artists from other countries. Language is not really an issue, I've gotten by OK so far with English as a primary language. Evidently, even hosting an “international” event does not necessarily require funding, as we've seen Italian comics collective Döner Club accomplish recently at another Amsterdam venue, the OT301. For artists willing to improvise on sleeping arrangements and travel, it is possible to find events where you will be welcomed. 

NB: I was struck by the amount of variety in the Amsterdam Comic Newspapers, the contributors delivered a really diverse range of impressions and thoughts on their local environment. Did you give them guidelines, and more generally, how did you curate the content? 

MM: Artists were encouraged to find their own connection to the neighborhood. Of course, I had to be sure that no one subject matter would be repeated by two or more comic artists, so it was imperative that the artists communicated their ideas to me before starting, and that I also had a list of story ideas ready to inspire them. I hosted several group brainstorming sessions to discuss content (there was cake) and I regularly checked in to get progress reports from the artists. Simultaneously, I worked on a layout plan of the newspaper to determine the flow of the various stories and eventually the pages fell into place... (that makes it sound magical, but really, it was damn stressful!) 
NB: How would you summarise the current Dutch comix scene? Are there particular cartoonists whose work you think is deserving of greater attention? 

MM: (I find this to be a difficult question...) The Dutch comic scene is small, and perhaps I feel somewhat alienated from it. Over the last decade, I have worked obsessively to promote comics art as a norm for consuming information (such as via the comic newspapers). Now that I'm focussing on putting my own work forward, I find myself wishing there were more opportunities to highlight the diversity of comics. There just aren't enough mainstream platforms publishing comics in this country. 

One collaborative project worth mentioning is the graphic journalism website, Drawing the Times. They are showcasing comics artists from all over the world, but the initiative was Amsterdam-born, and it is presently run by two women Eva Hilhorst and Merel Barends, who are also comics artists. Thanks to Drawing the Times, I reworked the FOMO series I had made in 2017 by adding statistics, etc, in order for it to have a more journalistic tone. They have a vision, and that is saving the world with comics... what's not to love about that? 

NB: How do you distribute your work, do you get it into shops, or is online retail more of a focus for you? 

MM: Actually, I'm working on a new website which will finally include a webshop but, for the moment, I have pages to fill for Het Parool newspaper, and that is, frankly, the best method of distribution for my work that I can think of, in that it will expose my comics to a wide range and number of humans. Maybe they'll give me a column next year so I can continue bashing politicians. 
Nicholas Burman is currently based in Amsterdam, from where he writes about comics, experimental music, ambient artistic practices, and DIY culture for The Comics Journal, MusicMap, and Amsterdam Alternative, among others. You can find his portfolio at:https://nicholascburman.com/

July 17, 2019

An Anthropological Examination Of Family Dysfunction: Ryan Carey Reviews MONKS MOUND by Conor Stechschulte

Oblique connections are a recurring theme in Conor Stechschulte's ongoing Generous Bosom graphic novel series, but the disparate threads that run parallel to each other in that multi-faceted narrative appear to be heading for some sort of convergence as the sure-to-be-big finale approaches. In his latest self-published standalone comic, though, entitled Monks Mound (or, if you prefer, "Monk's Mound," as the titular location is referred to in the text of the book itself), the connective tissues linking one of the stories to the other are left entirely in the hands of the reader to either discover or, as is more likely to be the case, intuit for themselves. The end result is a challenging and deliberately disjointed read, part family drama and part history lecture, the overall tone and feel of which is something akin to an ABC After School Special written and directed by David Lynch.

Is that me complimenting the work? Most assuredly. But "work" is the key word here, and a reader better come into this beautifully offset-printed (in metallic grey and blue/black inks on suitably atmospheric cream-colored paper) comic prepared to do some.
The focal point here is college student Emily, returning home on a school break to visit her possibly-mentally-deteriorating mother (who's never given a name), and not-really-recovering gambling addict brother, Mikey, who appears to be a few years her senior. One of mom's forgetful spells results in her leaving an envelope full of cash meant to pay a handyman/contractor sitting out in plain sight, and Mikey being the sort of guy he is, well --- you know which way this is headed, I'm sure. Nobody in this country is more than about a 30-minute drive from a casino at this point.

Concurrent with this --- I think, at any rate, although precisely when it's taking place is unclear --- a park ranger gives a guided tour of a Mississippian mound site that may or may not be located somewhere near to where the little tragedy-in-the-making is playing out, not that proximity is really necessary to make this intriguingly experimental "split-screen" structure work. The only hard-and-fast connection between the two? Stechschulte's inventively-delineated "sound of the wind" effect that both blows and flows between panels, occasionally obscuring specific words of dialogue, but always accentuating the actual meaning of what's being said.
Those familiar with Stechschulte's cartooning oeuvre will be well familiar with these sorts of contradictions that are anything but, as well as his frequently dense panel layouts and precise utilization of negative space, but to say he's firing on all cylinders with these Mazzuchellian tropes is an understatement --- there is no doubt, from panel one of page one onward, that the reader is in the hands of a master of visual storytelling operating at the full height of his considerable powers in this comic. It's so literate, in fact, that even the most comics-illiterate reader will have precisely zero difficulties "picking up" what Stechschulte is "laying down."

I did, however, say that the reader would be well served to bring a hardhat and lunch pail with them to this one, and so it is --- as events move toward a conclusion that can best be described as both entirely surprising and anything but (again with the contradictions!), it's up to each reader to decide for themselves whether or not the "twist" Stechschulte deploys either represents the apex of irony, or its complete negation, as well as whether or not the guided tour of the mound is a device meant to amplify or neuter said "twist." By my count, then, that means there are at least four separate obvious readings one can subscribe to when it comes to this book, each no doubt effective, and which one a reader decides is correct likely says as much about them as it does the comic itself. How's that for an open-ended narrative?
Which isn't at all to say that events are in any way confusing or unclear here --- anything but, it's all pretty cut-and-dried on the surface. But, like the archaeological site it's named after, once a reader start digging a bit deeper, new discoveries that may upset and overturn their already-established view of things present themselves, and how to assemble them into a new, perhaps more accurate, paradigm is huge part of the challenge --- and dare I say the fun (although, admittedly, I have a weird idea of what "fun" is) --- inherent in this work. A detailed forensic analysis leads to more questions than answers, and while I don't wish to "spoil" anything, the "happy" ending Stechschulte serves up is one tinged with considerable unease given that it leaves a major problem unaddressed simply because it engenders the most temporary of positive outcomes.

One more contradiction before all is said and done here, and this one comes about as a result of a considered reading of the book (several of them, truth be told) rather than being contained within it per se --- I could go on and on for some time yet about the wonders, those both hidden and those in plain sight, on offer in these exquisitely-thought-through (and just as exquisitely-presented) pages, but I honestly feel as though I may have said too much already. What I think is one thing --- and I think very highly of Monks Mound indeed, as I'm sure is painfully plain as day --- but this is a comic a reader literally needs to experience, and even more importantly to evaluate, for themselves. Odds are better than good that they’ll find themselves loving it as much as I did --- but frankly, even if they don't, they will at the very least come away from it mightily impressed at the formal skill of Stechschulte's cartooning prowess.  I guess there's no such thing as a "social archaeologist," but if there were, Stechschulte would probably be sitting very near the top of the field; as an artist, however, he may just be in a class by himself.
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 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.
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).