December 31, 2014

Five Moments in Comics That Left an Impression in 2014 -- Part 3 -- Talking with The Sheehan Brothers

I don't need to tell you that life is complicated. The amount of data we pull in over the course of a year is staggering. Reflection is more of a guessing game than a science. Still, some things linger, events gain significance in hindsight, and the prick of a moment can fester or bloom. Here's 5 moments from 2014 that left an impression.

Talking with The Sheehan Brothers

For me, first there was their six-page short “A Day At The Races” in the New Zealand comic anthology Faction #2. Then there was their precursor work, a graphic novel told in four parts called The Inhabitants. Finally, there was their longer work Into The Dark Woods. Having had exposure to the archetype of comfortable discomfort that the Sheehan Brothers were working with made me have to know more.

In my 2014 interview with these two New Zealand comic book creators, we explored the concept of “The Anxiety of Influences” – how we are bombarded with pop-culture references which causes us to be perpetually in a state of trying on new personalities, calling into question matters of identity, which then makes it harder and harder for us to connect to others on a fundamental level.

Both Kelly and Darren acknowledged that sampling influences is part of their process --- not a reaction to, but a synthesis of, which then adds up to “something unique and your own … a story guided by (your) vision.” In a way, they stress the primacy of the individual as the creator, in their choices and understandings.

December 30, 2014

Five Moments in Comics That Left an Impression in 2014 -- Part 2 -- Stumbling Into the World of Theo Ellsworth

I don't need to tell you that life is complicated. The amount of data we pull in over the course of a year is staggering. Reflection is more of a guessing game than a science. Still, some things linger, events gain significance in hindsight, and the prick of a moment can fester or bloom. Here's 5 moments from 2014 that left an impression.

Stumbling Into the World of Theo Ellsworth

There's that weird moment when you stumble upon a work of art that just grabs you by your thought senses and tumbles you into that gelatinous place where you lose contact with the person you thought you were only moments before. It becomes even weirder when you start pursuing other works from that artist and all of it seems to be specifically talking to you – directly – face to face, over drinks at your kitchen table.

Such was my experience “finding” the work of Theo Ellsworth late in 2014.

And I can't even tell you how it happened. Somehow I ended up with Ellsworth's book Capacity #8 in my ever expanding “To Read” pile a few months ago. I don't remember buying it. I don't remember it getting sent to me in the mail. It was just there, having made its own way to me – because it was what I needed without even knowing it.

Trying to talk about an Ellsworth comic is almost impossible as our available lexicon breaks down quickly. It's like what James Ryerson wrote in his introduction to David Foster Wallace: Fate, Time, and Language about Wittgenstein's response to solipsism, “language is seen as a messy human phenomenon, part of social reality – a rich variety of everyday practices that you figure out the way a child does.” When you encounter something so wildly outside of that “social reality” then, by their very nature, words fail.

December 29, 2014

Five Moments in Comics That Left an Impression in 2014 -- Part 1 -- Leslie Stein's Diary Comics

I don't need to tell you that life is complicated. The amount of data we pull in over the course of a year is staggering. Reflection is more of a guessing game than a science. Still, some things linger, events gain significance in hindsight, and the prick of a moment can fester or bloom. Here's 5 moments from 2014 that left an impression.

Leslie Stein's Diary Comics

Leslie Stein is best known as the artist behind the Eyeof the Majestic Creature series and playing in the band Prince Rupert's Drops, but in 2014 I got to know her as a creator of a poignant pastiche of diary comics. As creator of Eye of the Majestic Creature, Leslie Stein is a voice for a certain aspect of her generation, the ones you see feigning ironic detachment while inside they are either all honest excitement or vast empathy. While it's just so much easier and cooler not to get emotionally involved, for people like Stein, that's just really not possible. As a detached observer full of heart, it is interesting to see what happens when she observes herself directly.

Stein's diary comics are imbued with an openness of experience, as they are awash in the colors of particular moments. They are also confessional in that they record in that same detached, yet intimate way Stein cannot help but create. Diary comics can often bog down in a need for meaning, but Stein works from the heart, poignancy without pedantry, making statements in the midst of a deceptively simple quiet, full of an innocence that could easily be mislabeled “cute” were it not for the depth of feeling they possess.

I want to call these comics “moments that emote,” but I worry that could easily be mislabeled “cute” too.

Stein's art in these comics is light and airy, so much more than her work in Eye of the Majestic Creature. Adding depth, her color work swirls in a tight manner reflecting the unavoidable chaos inherent in daily life. In these she eschews panel borders to allow each flash to flow into the next with the fluidity of time passing. Causation and comment mix effortlessly. But the most effective artistic choice Stein makes is reducing her portrayal of herself to an iconic openness – registering as nothing more than two wide eyes for her face – thus universalizing her experience, giving us all access, making her experiences ours as much as hers. Indeed, “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,” as Walt Whitman wrote a century ago.

December 23, 2014

Writing More Blurbs About EEL MANSIONS for More Top Ten Lists

eel mansions table 470x715 Erotic Agents, Multiverses and Pop Assassins: 10 Comics We Loved This Year
Eel Mansions
by Derek van Gieson
Derek Van Gieson’s Eel Mansions is the journal entry you feverishly write down upon awakening from  dreams that seemingly border between the three point intersection of nightmarish moments filled with spittle-dripping demons, your most turgid and undulating dance party romances, and the ones where you’re sharing a delicious sandwich with Edvard Munch in a dive bar along the Akerselven. It’s a series that is reminiscent of the hell-gate Porter at Inverness Castle who tells you about drink and lechery, it makes you stand to and not stand to, all accompanied by The Hit Pack singing “Never Say No To My Baby”. It is collision. It is unfathomable. It is the Eggman and the Walrus. And it is you as much as it is me. Koo-koo-kachoo.
2014 marked the end of this initial six issue series salvo, and Van Gieson concluded it with beginnings, possibilities, left-turns, right-turns, and, above all else, a kiss. He’s an artist who, with his creation, masters the art of equivocation and goes thick groove whirling down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire while sticking his thumbs under his overalls with the confidence of the man winking in the dark. Here, it is the creator who commands the landing, and you approach it understanding that without faith there is no real art. Eel Mansions is that trust exercise waiting to catch you as you fall. It may not be gentle, but you’ll be safe in its arms.

December 17, 2014

Peter Pan Collars Don't Lie: The Deceptive Simplicity of Operation Margarine (A Review by Keith Silva)

Keith Silva's Review Originally Ran on INTERESTED IN SOPHISTICATED FUN

Cartoonist: Katie Skelly
Publisher: AdHouse Books

Katie Skelly knows her way around exploitation: what to show, who not to cover up, where to put the accents, when to be bold and how much of each. Her 2012 debut graphic novel,Nurse Nurse, was a tease in all the best ways, a goofy nitrous high of see through strips held together by a barely there narrative, but the charm, oh, the charm. Skelly’s characters possess all the pathos of Shultz’s Peanuts with the charisma of a Daniel Clowes or a James Kochalka oddball. Operation Margarine sees Skelly pin the needle to the right and give a throaty roar of a creator in full.  

The lives of bad good girl Margarine (sounds like bombazine or aubergine) and bad ass Bon-Bon have become dead ends, or worse, cul-de-sacs. Margarine is a society gal (Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night wearing Mia Farrow’s pixie cut from Rosemary’s Baby) fresh from a recent breakout from a psych ward, Bellefrew. Bon-Bon bears the scars of too many bad relationships with other women’s men, she steals, favors black leather biker jackets and alcohol. Margarine and Bon-Bon want the same thing: escape. Their problem is neither one knows where nor what they’re escaping to.

Operation Margarine plays like Skelly’s riff on truth or dare, expect ‘dare’ is the only option. For Margarine and Bon-Bon, truth (especially the past) is a fink, painful, messy and best put in the rearview mirror. When Margarine asks Bon-Bon, "So, where you from?" the response she gets says a lot, "Marge, I have an idea. Let's skip this part. Let's just be ... new people." In other words, 'nuff said. The motorcycles they ride, the clothes they wear and cigarettes they smoke act as signifiers, these girls are bad, sure, but they’re not drawn that way; those peter pan collars don’t lie.

Skelly’s work is a study in deceptive simplicity. From her line to her writing and from her character development to her panel composition, all of it aims to exploit the reader’s expectations, to write off a lack of realism for a lack of depth. To read a Katie Skelly comic is to pay attention to small details. As austere as each panel may be each one contains all the information the reader needs and nothing less. Skelly’s neatness and orderliness is her tell. Like her characters, Skelly seems to say, ‘go on, underestimate me, I dare you.’ Like the man sez, “the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws.”

December 10, 2014

Top 10 Comics (I reviewed) of 2014

Click on the titles to read the full reviews.

10. Eternal Warrior#8 by Greg Pak, Robert Gill, Mark Pennington, Guy Major, John Rauch, Dave Sharpe, and Valiant Comics

Eternal Warrior #8 is the kind of comic that you can give to your friends and say, “This. This is how comics can be great.”

9. PoopOffice from Naked Grape Comics 

What could be easily dismissed as simple gag comics easily refract under scrutiny into social commentary of the highest order. By casting the everyman as shit, Poop Office goes swiftly Swiftian in its satire.

Through page after page of diatribe disguised as one-liners, Poop Office dissects the modern world better than any social commentator or political pundit. You have to be open to this shit to let it seep in, and once it does, the stink of its message will bring you to tears.”

8. Loud Comix written by a group of leading lights from the Southern Punk Rock scene and illustrated by Jamie Vayda 

These are Comix, after all, and Comix don’t take no crap. Comix ain’t for the sensitive or the dainty or the social justice advocate; they are all about tits and booze and cocks and drugs and fucking and shitting and screaming. And Loud Comix is hollering all this louder than anything else you got going on right now. A matter of fact, it’s got its own PA system and they’ve turned those volume knobs all the way up.

7. SafariHoneymoon by Jesse Jacobs

The mid-twentieth century Italian writer and translator Cesare Pavese once wrote,“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Jesse Jacobs' new graphic novel, Safari Honeymoon, from Koyama Press upends Pavese's idea to a certain extent. In Safari Honeymoon even the things we hope to see as eternal have become almost unrecognizable, beyond perhaps what we can understand. Part jungle adventure, part “psychedelic sojourn”, part biblical allegory, part gender study, part contemporary commentary, Safari Honeymoon is much more than the sum of its parts; it becomes its own thing by being unlike almost anything else.

December 8, 2014

An Audacity of Authenticity -- Convenient Truths: SETH'S DOMINION

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life.  That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining.  Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human.  Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friends Eric Hoffman and Jason Sacks bypass Netflix entirely and talk about an opportunity they had to view 2014’s Seth’s Dominion by director Luc Chamberland.
Daniel Elkin: We live in a golden age, Hoffman and Sacks, where there are people who want to make quality crafted documentaries about odd-ball Canadian cartoonists and then share these films with the world.A
Seth’s Dominion is such a film. Ostensibly it is a documentary about the artist Seth, who’s the creator of one of my favorite books, the semi-autobiographical comic It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. The film spends much of its running time allowing Seth to talk about his process and the themes most important to his work. It also features interviews with a number of Seth’s contemporaries, as well as beautiful animations of some of Seth’s stories. The film is one of those documentaries that satisfies all my criteria for a great film, insomuch as it allows the subject to tell his own story, puts him in context with his times through examples of his work and discussions with others, and provides an objective view through its editing.  Seth’s Dominion is a great introduction to the man and his art.
But, more importantly, it’s a film about quiet moments of creation and how memories shape us.
The film opens with Seth saying “There is something very lovely about the stillness of a comic book page… the little people trapped in time.” This Keatsian view of comics as a “a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” brings up not only the beauty/truth conundrum, but harks as well to the silent mockery of the “still unravish’d bride of quietness” – that which remains, a repository of the past, “in the midst of other woe.” There is that permanence that putting images to paper ensures. The past and the present collide over and over again.
An exploration of memory is Seth’s world – it is part of his dominion as much as comics. Most of it is a response to the loss that is inevitable onslaught of time. His art forces questions. As experiences fade from our faces, what do we hold on to in our minds? Why do we become enmeshed in the process? How does memory define us? In all of his work, in comics, in illustration, in his models and puppets, Seth tries to answer these questions for himself. Whatever answers he arrives upon for himself he is able to communicate, and it turns out that as we become his audience, they may just be the answers we are looking for ourselves.
Eric Hoffman: Near the beginning of this charming documentary, comic artist Seth – perhaps not surprisingly, given his rather inclusive defense of comic art within the larger spectrum of classical arts – includes among his influences (which, incidentally, also count among forebears as diverse as Canadian landscape artist Thoreau MacDonald, Jack Kirby and Charles Schulz) the French Impressionists, as these artists prized “feeling” above “detail.” Looking at Seth’s art, both in the three dimensional comics page and in its sumptuous two-dimensional evocation in the animated segments of this film, the viewer is at once struck by the degree of emotional resonance Seth manages to evoke while utilizing minimal visual components. Seth defends this impressionistic cartooning by describing them as “memory drawings.” The description is an apt one, I think, as one’s memory is defined in large part by those details that are forgotten. What remains, therefore, must be brought into sharper focus if it is to fill in the blanks of those lost details. These rescued images then become, in Seth’s description, “iconic,” in much the same way that Snoopy’s doghouse, the baseball mound and the wall in Schulz’s Peanuts are iconic. These rescued images – for Seth a “flash of captured experience,” become for Seth a “shorthand for language” – and therefore a shorthand for a shorthand – a frame-by-frame, page-by-page recording comprised of a limited palette of action.

December 5, 2014

Thick With Possibility -- A Review of Antoine Cosse's HAROLD from Retrofit/Big Planet

Antoine Cosse's newest book, Harold, published through Retrofit/Big Planet, is one of those books that requires multiple readings in order to … not so much understand really, but feel comfortable with. There is a preponderance of narratives weighing heavy in this book, each one somehow playing into and off of the other, but none of them are fully complete in terms of closure.

Which, of course, can be frustrating as much as it can fascinating. And that's the thing with a book like Harold. It makes you examine yourself as a reader as much as it makes you examine what you're reading.

Retrofit's solicitation for Harold doesn't help much in unpacking things. It reads:

As packs of wild dogs roam through a quiet city, a mysterious man and his hulking driver Harold wait outside a luxury hotel. When their car is surrounded by paparazzi looking for a princess staying at the hotel, Harold begins to tell the tale of the rebellion against the princess's father. Mysteries of the past slowly unfold against the strangeness of their present.

So yea... that.

Harold is the kind of book that forces questions of intent as much as it raises concerns about choices. Everything is thick with possibility in the book, yet resolution is only to be found in the pages Cosse hasn't drawn.

Here's a small sampling of the notes I took while reading through Harold the first time:

December 4, 2014

December 3, 2014

The Rawboned Line in Eddie Wright and Jesse Balmer's TYRANNY OF THE MUSE #2

In This Issue: Frank starts writing. It doesn't go well.

It's been awhile since issue 1 of Eddie Wright and Jesse Balmer's Tyranny of the Muse came out. Hell, I've moved twice since I last wrote a review of it at the end of August 2012. My, how far we've come.

So the premise behind Tyranny of the Muse is that inspiration can be used (and, of course, abused) like a drug. The story follows Frank Fisher, a wannabe writer, who hooks up with a “muse” named Bonnie. In her role as a muse, Bonnie injects inspiration into Frank's brain through a festering wound in his forehead. This gets Frank rolling, as it were.

I realize, writing it out like that, it kinda sounds hamfisted and thickly obvious in a cheap and easy sort of way. But it's not like that. Between Wright's words and Balmer's pictures, these boys are playing it cool and dirty. They know addicts like they know artists and understand the rawboned line that distinguishes each from the other.

And those of you who have hung out with either or both know that when he or she yells, “I'm writing the screenplay!” it's time to take stock or walk away or hide the knives.

December 1, 2014

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF DISTANCING THE SELF? A Review of Timothy Sinaguglia's CRAWLSPACE from So What? Press

Published by So What? Press, Timothy Sinaguglia's Crawlspace is an quietly complex little book that explores both burgeoning sexuality and the interior life of modern day ennui in two short vignettes.

Entering into the cluttered world of Autobio or Confessional Comix, the first story, “She Smiled Back” unpacks what, for all intents and purposes, is another artist coming to terms with his own libidinous awakening. For Sinaguglia, the process was one of exploration because, as he writes, “in the early nineteen eighties, nobody talked about sex all that much.” It is as much a harkening back to the days of pre-internet porn, as it is an expedition into how the discovery of one's own sexual consciousness can be a significant moment in understanding one's self. For Sinaguglia, it becomes a moment fraught with narcissistic overtones, yet also suffused with questions of gender identity. In “She Smiled Back”, sexuality is part performance, part imagination, part control, and an encapsulation of the concept of “division”. Who is the woman who smiles back, really? And why, out of all the things that Sinaguglia was discovering on his journey to understanding, was it this act that led to things finally falling “into place”?

Which begs larger questions for me. What form does fantasy take in the mind of an artist? What is he or she really creating and what is the price of distancing the self from the immediate?

Sinaguglia explores these final questions a little further in the second three-part story in Crawlspace, “Trudy”. “Trudy” follows the movement of the titular character as she goes... well … basically nowhere. Trudy wanders into the world in her white t-shirt and black skirt, observing the bare realities of her experience and making grand statements such as: “The sky is so black,” “God, it's sweltering,” “I have a nice window,” and such. She engages the world by commenting on it, but for the most part she draws no conclusions from the experiences.