May 28, 2018

Review: GREENHOUSE by Debbie Fong

Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending so much time alone lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve gone days at a stretch without uttering a word to another human being. Maybe it’s because the world outside is seemingly more and more hostile and merciless. 

Or maybe it’s because it is a really great work of art.

Whatever the reason, reading Brooklyn-based cartoonist Debbie Fong’s new risograph-printed mini-comic GREENHOUSE was a keenly visceral experience for me. In 24 pages of panels awash in black, white, gray, teal, and straw-colored art, Fong lays bare withdrawal and madness and delves deep into both obsession and botany with equal skill. In Greenhouse, Fong asks questions about the ramifications of a life steeped in a technology that allows us to disconnect from others as we connect to the world. When we no longer step outside, what becomes of our world within? If our inner self has collapsed in a world that asks little of us outside, where do we reach for help?
Everything in Greenhouse works in tandem to define both tone and theme. Fong’s thin lines suggest the fragility of her narrator. Her layouts expand and contract adding to the sense of pacing -- speeding up and slowing down as needed. Panel frames have rounded corners or sharp edges as need be, or disappear altogether. Fong’s use of a limited color palette heightens the isolation and claustrophobia inherent in the story she is telling. 

Fong also breaks up the narrative of Greenhouse with meticulously rendered pages from The Botanist's Guide to Tropical Plants 3rd Edition. Here, too, she is making artistic choices to further her intent. When I asked Fong about these choices, she wrote back saying, “I wanted to use those as a way to kind of benchmark the girl’s mental decline as the first few entries are mundane, common plants and then they get progressively more exotic and surreal-feeling. The two exceptions are the Albizia Saman and the Nightshade at the end -- these are both meant to reveal plot elements in the story.”
Ultimately, Greenhouse offers little in terms of solutions, rather, it serves as a cautionary tale. As actual human interactions become less and less necessary -- from Grubhub to Amazon Fresh to Netflix to Comixology to Etsy -- not to mention the ubiquity of social media -- there becomes fewer and fewer reasons to leave your house. Fong’s character even remarks, “It’s hard to believe what you can order online these days.” This convenience comes at a cost, though.

The safety networks that face-to-face interactions provide slowly disappear if you never leave your house. Someone suffering from a severe mental health crisis can stay locked away, isolated, with nobody being the wiser until, perhaps, it becomes too late.

 I sometimes wonder in my loneliness about what would happen to me were I to choke on my dinner. How long would it take before someone would wonder where I was? How long would it be before someone discovered my body?

Greenhouse reminds the reader of the importance of connection, of the need to be seen, of the paramountcy of mattering to someone other than ourselves. It posits the truth that we grow best in the open among other flourishing things, not confined to a limited sphere, shut in, regulated, alone. 

It also reminds us that mental health, at times, can be as delicate as a Nymphaea tetragona.

Greenhouse will be available soon from Pommo Press.

May 25, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/18/18 to 5/25/18

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


* RJ Casey on Nick Drnaso's SABRINA: "With this graphic novel, Drnaso somehow begins to dissect how technology and the hyperspeed news cycle create a recipe for numbness, aided by his flat expressions, clean line, and adept coloring."

* Robin Enrico reviews MY DEAD MOTHER by Clara Jetsmark, "a work that functions well from surface level all the way down to its depths, with multiple re-readings revealing many subtle details" and one that deserves wider attention.

* Shea Hennum on A. Degen's SOFT X-RAY/MINDHUNTERS, writing "But giving yourself over to a comic and simply enjoying what it offers -- the process of thinking about what various images could mean rather than being told what they do mean -- is a rare pleasure."

* Irene Velentzas reviews THE WINNER by Karl Stevens, which "marks a new form for Stevens that makes Stevens' self-documented life and experience the bedrock of the book and organically shows how imaginative and existential creations are born from the reality of our everyday experiences and relationships."

* Angelica Frey takes a look at Ellen Forney's ROCK STEADY: BRILLIANT ADVICE FROM MY BI-POLAR LIFE, which is "easy and comforting to consult for some issue-specific advice and relief."

* Robert Kirby reviews Jessica Campbell's XTC69, which holds "a mirror up to male chauvinism and misogyny and reflecting it back with merciless aim."

* Andy Oliver on UNFINISHED ... 3 POEMS by Tom Neely which opens up "fascinating questions about the symbiotic relationship between artist and audience in terms of original intention and both reader interpretation of and interaction with the work."

* Andy Oliver ALSO review Cat Sims' BLACK MATTER, writing that it "plays on a combination of pop cultural standards and stark social commentary, presenting a story that uses zombie horror overtones to embellish its psychogeographical explorations." 

* Ryan C. looks at a bunch of books by WHIT TAYLOR, highlighting Taylor's unique voice and cartooning.


* Rachel Cooke interviews NICK DRNASO and interweaves it with some thoughts about Drnaso latest book, Sabrina.

* Carta Monir has a piece up on Them called I'M A DISABLED TRANS WOMAN WHO LOVES TAKING SELFIES. She subtitled this, "Taking selfies has helped me fight gender dysphoria and gain control over my own image and visibility."

* Christian Hoffer talks shop with comics retailer JAKE SHAPIRO, owner of Fantom Comics located in Washington D.C., "about inventory management and how his store deals with unsold backstock."

* There's a new Tara Booth comic on Vice called TRYING TO BE POSITIVE.

* Meg Lemke presents three excerpts from Marnie Galloway's book SLIGHTLY PLURAL. 

* Elisabeth Cohen writes about "books that shine light on the inequities and absurdities of the capitalist machine" in her piece called 7 OVER-THE-TOP COMEDIES THAT CRITIQUE CAPITALISM.

* The Tablet site devotes itself to REMEMBERING PHILIP ROTH.

* And finally, given the news, Gabriel Roth has a previously published piece revamped for Slate called A GUIDE TO THE MANY, MANY BOOKS OF PHILIP ROTH. Any piece that refers to American Pastoral as "Roth's most fully realized work" is clearly written by someone who understood the author's oeuvre. 

May 23, 2018

Focus For Funding: SMALL HOURS by Grace Helmer -- "a graphic novel about death, dating, and drawing"

SMALL HOURS by Grace Helmer is looking for funding on Unbound. 

It's a graphic novel about death, dating, and drawing set over a London summer.

‘Small Hours’ is a story based on a summer a few years ago where I quit my job, went on Tinder dates, and my Granddad died... all within the space of a few weeks.
Set in South London not too long ago, me and my friends graduated into rising rents and zero-hour contracts. Already in a tenuous financial position, I quit my rubbish part-time job in the hopes of illustrating full-time. I soon got addicted to swiping for potential boyfriends and set up a bunch of Tinder dates, before my Granddad died suddenly and left me struggling to keep it together. Beginning with an awkward morning-after, the comic follows the messy relationships with friends, family and myself, while trying to grow up.
The comic is a passion project that I have been developing over a couple of years, self-publishing small installments every now and then. When everything was happening that summer, I found it difficult to open up and express how I was feeling, so looked to stories by people who had experienced similar things. I was looking for guidance on how to act and feel - if it was okay to laugh as well as all the crying I was doing.
Making it was initially a way to try and process the events that happened to me but has also led to lots of conversations with people who have shared their own experiences of loss, bad jobs, and bad dates. I hope to carry on learning and having those conversations as I continue with the story.

You can support SMALL HOURS 
by going to UNBOUND.

May 21, 2018

The Transfer of Trauma: Rob Clough reviews Michael Kupperman's ALL THE ANSWERS

All The Answers, Michael Kupperman’s biography of his father Joel (once America’s most famous child prodigy), is also an autobiography. It unflinchingly asks the question: what do parents owe their children? It repeatedly demonstrates how often parents fail their children for any number of reasons. It’s a book with a bitterly ironic title, as former Quiz Kid Joel was starting to slip into dementia as Michael started interviewing him for this book, delving into a topic that had long been taboo in their family. Kupperman wound up with very few answers directly from his father and fewer moments of the kind of closure that typical memoirs of this nature frequently aim for. Kupperman gained insight into why his father acted the way he did, but it certainly didn’t make him or anyone else feel better. Indeed, there was a sense of having stirred up old trauma that was perhaps better left alone, rather than a cathartic, restorative project.

Michael Kupperman is best known for his wildly absurd and deadpan humor comics featuring characters like Snake ‘n Bacon, Pagus, and the duo of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. There is an intense, labored quality to his art that acts in direct contrast to its light silliness; as you read about Rabid District Attorney, the reader is almost overwhelmed by the dense cross-hatching, heavy use of shadow, decorative effects that come straight from some unidentifiable “old-timey” influence and deliberately stiff character design. References to pop culture are often hopelessly outdated or mutated beyond recognition, like a whole round of Quincy references, Roger Daltry looking to shag some birds but only being offered actual birds to have sex with, and Pablo Picasso threatening to cut things into “leetle cubes”. Kupperman’s whole aesthetic looks to an imaginary past in an effort to disorient the reader and make them feel like they should be understanding nonsensical references.

At the age of six, Joel Kupperman became a regular on a competitive radio trivia program for children called The Quiz Kids. In All the Answers, Michael puts the era in context: child prodigies were a kind of lottery ticket for their lucky parents during this era, as they received a great deal of attention from the press and public. The bubbly and cute Joel became an instant sensation thanks to his ability to compute math problems. He received stacks of fan mail. Famous athletes and entertainers wanted to meet him and shower him with gifts. Yet, it was his mother who was the engine behind all of this, pushing Joel hard even after the experience was no longer any fun for the child. Joel and the other kids were also important for the war effort, urging people to buy war bonds. Joel revealed that he felt certain that one reason he was pushed so hard, in particular, was as a way of fighting anti-Semitism, becoming a sort of Model Jew that all Americans could admire. The show's producer, George Cowan, was Jewish and in charge of a great deal of government propaganda. He saw World War II as possibly an extinction event for Jews and fought it anyway. A meeting requested by industrialist and noted anti-Semite Henry Ford with Joel was a particular highlight of this effort to get the wider public to think of Jews as Americans, first and foremost. Seeing a young Jewish boy support the war effort with the power of his American brain was exactly what the producers wanted, and the fact that Joel was so personable made their job that much easier.                                                                             
The problem was that eventually, Joel stopped being young and cute, but his mother and the producers still kept him on the show—even when it transitioned to television. As there was no national cause to tie to it anymore, kids started to hate the very thought of Joel Kupperman, as he was often held up as an exemplar of behavior by parents that they failed to live up to. Michael seems to think that while all of that was unpleasant, the event that truly traumatized Joel was going on a quiz show after college in an effort to make real money (he earned a pittance as a Quiz Kid), only to get caught up in the TV quiz show scandal of the 1950s. Michael notes that after that event, Joel disappeared from public life and became a successful philosophy professor, living out in the Connecticut woods. The problem, as Michael notes, was that his father had never truly confronted the trauma from his past, and the result was Joel’s cold and detached parenting style.

The impetus for this book was Joel freely recalling Abbott and Costello giving him a dog when he was a kid, prompting Michael to interview him about it. It was at this point, though, that Fate intervened in a cruel manner --Joel was diagnosed with dementia -- which meant Michael’s project had a ticking clock. It was another bitter irony that just when his father was ready to start talking about his experiences, his mind started to fade. It seems that the book was written for Michael himself as much as it was for anyone, as a way of confronting his own feelings growing up in an angry, distant household and how it wound up encouraging any number of destructive behaviors on his own part. If Joel couldn’t come to terms with the past, perhaps Michael could. And if the whole exercise sounds selfish and self-indulgent, Michael might be the first to agree with you. Even after it was done, he felt a mixture of pride and dread putting it out in the world, as he’s noted in several tweets.

Either intentionally or by good fortune, Kupperman’s art in the book wound up perfectly matching its distant, detached emotional tenor. The book was carefully designed to tie in elements on a thematic level, as each chapter leads off with an image of a bulletin board filled with old articles and a quote by a famous person that related to Joel Kupperman in some way (Philip Roth and J.D. Salinger both made mention of Joel in their fiction). Michael was likely inspired in that regard by a series of scrapbooks that preserved every detail of Joel’s fame (kept by Joel’s mother, of course), he knew he had hit the motherlode. They were hidden deep in his father's personal library. This is true in terms of the facts of the story, but at the same time, it also inspired the visual motifs of the book. This book’s panel-to-panel transitions and character design are deliberately stiff—as though they, too, were part of a scrapbook. Michael’s own self-caricature has beady eyes and a blank expression that shocks the reader a bit when emotion clearly comes over it. On the other hand, the way he draws Joel looks closer to photo-reference, as though his relationship with his father is mediated by the image of what he once was. At the same time, conversations between Joel and Michael have a zip-a-tone background, breaking up negative space with a technique that’s pure comics artifice.
This is a story that’s told in a mostly chronological, straightforward manner, yet its implications and motivations are complex, even to the author. Michael went into the book thinking that his father’s career as a prodigy was a traumatic experience, and his research bore that out. However, the story wasn’t quite as clear-cut as that. The book is about memory and its relationship to trauma, first and foremost. Uncovering the scrapbooks revealed that when Joel was a little kid, being on Quiz Kids was fun. It was an adventure. Everyone was nice to him, and he was (as Orson Welles noted!) entirely unaffected by it all. The difficulty came when he started getting older, particularly with regard to executive functioning. When other people tell you what to do all the time and you are rewarded for your compliance, creating and maintaining one’s own agency can be difficult. Joel stayed on the show because that’s what people wanted him to do, even if he had grown tired of it as a teen. It never occurred to him to just quit and leave the country in order to avoid the kind of abuse he endured on campus from his peers. There’s one harrowing scene where a bunch of guys accost him, yank off his clothes, throw garbage on him, etc, as he all the while tells them that he’s not reacting and he’s in control.

As noted earlier, however, it was Joel going on a quiz show just out of college that really did him in. Shows like the $64,000 Question, when they got to a certain point, were rigged in favor of the contestant as a way to please audiences. When this was discovered, it was a huge scandal and everyone connected to these shows, including Joel, was immediately considered suspect. Joel himself did not cheat, as Michael details. The shows were very cunning in how they did this; in Joel’s case, another contestant invited him out for a cup of coffee. Unbeknownst to Joel, this contestant was a confederate of the show who was told to casually bring up select bits of information in conversation. In this particular case, it was famous parts of operas. When Joel was given the question on TV, he froze because he immediately realized what had happened. He knew the answer on his own and chose to answer it, but he then immediately walked away from the show, sickened that he hadn’t walked away earlier. Michael notes that it wasn’t an accident that Joel’s concentration as a philosophy professor was in ethics. In the process of creating this new life and moving into the woods, he had walled off all of the good memories he had had as well as the traumatic ones. As a result, he had no connection to his childhood, but still retained that sense of thinking that something was only important if someone told him that it was.
There is a heartbreaking sequence at the end of the book when Michael finally confronts Joel about being such a distant father. It’s bookended with an early sequence where young Michael (already suspecting the truth) asks his father if he loves him. Joel’s response was “some of the time”, a response that was cruel but not in an intentional manner; indeed, he was simply being honest when he regarded the question. As Michael writes, “He erased everything, but that left him with nothing to share with me.” The sequence at the end is triggered by Michael asking his father why he didn’t tutor him the way his own dad had. Joel responded that he thought Michael was smart and would figure it out on his own…and it didn’t occur to him that he should construct a relationship with his son. No one told him to do this, so he didn’t do it. This may sound absurd on its face, but anyone who has experienced trauma will immediately understand.

As someone who experienced childhood trauma myself, I relate to that sense of detachment, erasure, and survival, as well as that sense of feeling adrift as a child who didn’t have parents to teach me a lot of things. Early childhood trauma with my parents divorcing a few years later and then my mother’s death as a pre-teen, combined in such a way that certain emotions were no longer allowed, like grief; I didn’t actually cry about my mother dying until over twenty years later. One way or another, those feelings and that pain come back eventually. As outlined in All the Answers, Joel essentially sacrificed his relationship with Michael (who speaks only for himself, not his mother or younger sibling) because he refused to confront that pain. Ignoring it in the way he did stunted his emotional development and intelligence. He became a stereotypical absent-minded professor: brilliant in his own field, but often helpless and neglectful in his everyday life.

A running theme in the book is the question of just what intelligence is. Joel didn’t think he was all that special; he had a great memory, a facility for math, and a way with words. However, he noted that when he took a test that measured spatial relationships, he struggled. To be sure, his emotional intelligence was broken, and he was unwilling to repair it. Doing so would have required professional help, something that ironically simply didn’t occur to him. He didn’t even know what he didn’t know. Michael lets slip in the course of the narrative that he’s writing this book in order to understand himself, especially since he went through a difficult childhood and teen years where he badly needed a role model who just wasn’t there. While Michael keeps the majority of the focus on his father and his story, he occasionally reveals anecdotes like coming home from school one day and telling his father that he had been expelled (Joel’s reaction: “Mmm.”), and, upon hearing this, Michael went out and got arrested for shoplifting. He doesn’t discuss this event any further, but it was clearly a desperate attempt at drawing any kind of reaction from his father, as well as the act of a boy who was desperate because he felt lost and didn’t know what he was doing.

Early in the All the Answers, Kupperman discussed a period in his 30s where he felt like a total failure and actually cried during dinner with his parents. Their reaction was to pretend it didn’t happen. Michael then met someone, got married, and had a son. This book is as much about his son as it is about his father or himself because Michael is trying to figure out how to be the kind of father his son needs. He understands that children absorb everything from their parents, even as they develop their own agency. In my own life, I can see some of the things that I struggled with in terms of executive functioning in my daughter, only my daughter is getting therapy that’s helped her life immeasurably. Michael’s bond with his son is powerful, even as he notes that he’s already learned how to be a difficult artist from him. At the same time, his question at the end of the book, “Does {writing this book} make me a good son, or a bad one?” is also a referendum on being a father. He really doesn’t know if he’s a good son or not because he has no model of what being a good father is like. Like his own father, he was forced into a position of figuring things out for himself while trying to survive.

All The Answers isn’t just about the somewhat vague concept of fatherhood. It is very specifically about child-rearing and the ways in which a parent can mold and manipulate a child. In a real sense, Joel Kupperman was manufactured to be the most famous child prodigy in America. He was told what to read, where to go, what to do. He was brilliant in some ways, average in other ways, and painfully naïve and poorly taught when it came to emotional intelligence. He meant a lot to many people, and there’s no question that using him to help combat anti-Semitism was effective for a while. Michael is careful to note that it certainly wasn’t all bad for his father, but being taught to be obedient had a negative effect on him. And of course, fame brings both well-wishers and those who despise you, and he was not equipped to deal with the latter.

When a child goes through a traumatic childhood thanks in part to the strategies their parents used, the natural reaction when they eventually become a parent is to do everything the opposite of the way their parents did. For good or ill. Michael implies that he all but begged for guidance and direction as a child, but Joel did the opposite of what his parents did: he declined to directly influence or mold his son in any way. In his case, this may not have been a conscious decision, but it’s certainly how it played out. So the questions remain: did Michael Kupperman do right by his father and family in digging up this story? Was it a selfish act on his part? Tacitly, the book is also about Michael’s fear of failing his own son, which is an outcome he won’t know for years, if ever. It is because Michael Kupperman understands and grapples with the notion that these questions don’t have easy answers that makes this a great book. He told his father’s story as authentically as he could, but the fact that he had the guts to admit that this didn’t lead to a magical catharsis doesn’t puncture a hole in the narrative; it simply grounds it in reality.

Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (

May 18, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/11/18 to 5/18/18

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


* Elias Rosner reviews SEA URCHIN by Laura Knetzger, writing "This comic is achingly truthful and meditative and filled with moments that resonated with me when I first read this and resonate still."

* Robin Enrico on Ada Price's CALIGULA, "a work that while non-functional as a history lesson is deeply evocative as a piece of historical fiction."

* Alenka Figa looks at Jessica Campbell's XTC69, "a pure delight all the way through."

* Meanwhile, over on his High-Low site, Rob Clough ALSO takes a look at XTC69, calling it "a delightful balance of satire, absurdity and sharply-observed witticisms."

* John Seven reviews Reid Psaltis' KINGDOM/ORDER. "It suggests that barriers between humans and the natural world are real because we have made them so, but that doesn't mean the experiences in either are necessarily doomed to be exclusive.".

* Kevin Bramer takes a short, plot-heavy look at BALD KNOBBER by Robert Sergel, which was never on my radar but now suddenly is.

* Henry Chamberlain reviews M.F.K. by Nilah Magruder, calling it "one of the most unusual and mysterious comics I've ever read."

* Edward Haynes on Luke Healy's PERMANENT PRESS, writing "Healy innovates and pushes the boundaries of comics while mocking those that put too much weight in just deconstruction, and manages to keep the book personal, funny and emotional."

* Over on the site coolyeahalright, there's a very short review of ORANGE CHEST by Nou, a book that seems very interesting by a cartoonist whose work I love.

* Nathan Chazan reviews DIE LAUGHING by Andre Franquin, saying "Franquin does not put himself or anyone else above the calamity he plays for laughs."

* Brett Schenker has this video review of ALL THE ANSWERS by Michael Kupperman, "a fascinating account of mid-century radio and early television history, the pro-Jewish propaganda entertainment used to counteract anti-Semitism, and the early age of modern celebrity culture."

* Sam Ombiri a story by Gabrielle Bell from Kramer's Ergot 8 called "CODY".

* Andy Oliver reviews YOU DON'T NEED THIS by Elizabeth Querstret, which "explores our relationship with the thing we own, the advertising world that tells us we need them, and invites us to think about whether they truly enhance our existences or help us define ourselves."

* Way back in early May (so, not technically posted between 5/11 and 5/18, but whatever, and thanks to Dominic Umile for pointing me in its direction), Ed Park wrote about THE COMICS OF CHRIS REYNOLDS for the Paris Review. It's pretty great. 

* And finally, though not about a small press or self-published title, Nick Hanover's look back at the Steve Gerber character FOOLKILLER is a MUST READ. In it, Hanover writes, "The best commentary Gerber provides in Foolkiller is this notion that white male rage can justify any target it wants to, that the men who succumb to it are capable of transforming reality so that they become not only the true victims but also the only people with the ability to 'save” reality.' Given this, and so much more, you can see why I'm all in on this piece.


* The great comics critic and YCE contributor Rob Clough conducts a two-part, wide-ranging interview with JOHN PORCELLINO that is nothing short of spectacular.

* All of Jamie Coveille's recordings from the PANELS AT TCAF are available over on The Beat. Of particular note is Ronald Wimberly and David Brothers talking about the "Radical Application of Black Aesthetics".

* Speaking of TCAF, writer for the Beat (and YCE contributor) Philippe LeBlanc has posted his NOTES FROM THE FLOOR.

* In this short video from Tinto Press, JOSH BAYER talks about his book RM.

* Greg Hunter interviews the publisher at Uncivilized Books, TOM KACZYNSKI, about "the New Gods, comic shops, memes, nostalgia, and more."

* Priya Sridhar interviews HOPE LARSON about her new book, All Summer Long.

* Eric Farwell interviews MICHAEL KUPPERMAN about his new book, All the Answers.

* There are Tara Booth comics up on Vice called COMICS ABOUT COMPANIONSHIP AND SELF-CARE.

* There is also a Margot Ferrick comic there called PETSO.

* Over on WWAC, Corissa Haury breaks down the latest trash-fire in comics that is #COMICSGATE

* And speaking of the latest trash-fire in comics, Pia Guerra has this cartoon on The Nib called #COMICSGATE SPEAKS TRUTH TO POWER.

* Daniel and Mark Oppenheimer write MICHAEL CHABON, STOP BEING THE WORLD'S BEST DAD, YOU'RE KILLING US in response to the author's collection of essays, Pops.

May 14, 2018

The Pool is Now Our Prison: Austin Lanari reviews ARCHITECTURE OF AN ATOM by Juliacks

I can’t write about comics. 

Ok, that’s dramatic: I find it very difficult to sit down and write about comics anymore. 

At the beginning of this year I told myself I’d write something every week, and if I failed to do so, I’d quit. In my lack of writing about comics qua art as was intended, you could say I have unintentionally followed my own ultimatum. Instead, I’ve become a serial tweet-threader; a semi-professional micro-blogger with mostly one thing on my mind: the stale (to be generous) economic position of cartoonists, and a culture that is implicitly hell-bent on distributing resources—including the two most precious ones, time and attention—to everything except this very same staleness and immobility: 

A most mundane plundering. 

And so, every time I try to start writing—every time I try to put my fingers to my 1980’s Diamond Flower Inc. keyboard and try to evince some semblance of some kind of opinion about something artsy—all my little doubts and ticks and procrastinations spiral, inevitably, into a question: Why do I do this? 

-2, +2, +4, +6 
Published by 2dcloud, Architecture of an Atom by Juliacks opens with a love affair—or, at least, one side of one. Two of the story’s more important characters—Frida and Cohl—contemplate a move to France from the nebulous version of Winnipeg they may or may not be inhabiting in the opening pages. Cohl’s affection for Frida and his uncertainty about both her future and his future with her are the subjects of several densely poetic pages before the characters arrive in France. 

Once there, we meet all eleven characters. Eventually, I think readers will agree, that there is a twelfth character as well: “The Metal”—or, “The Infinite Whistle.” If I were to follow the atom analogy through and be a little too on the nose, I would suggest that the human characters are themselves electrons and The Metal is a big fat proton: it lies at the center of the story in a way that is hard to miss, but is impossible to explain beyond its existence as a powerful, compelling force that pushes the characters in directions that are hard for us to understand. 

In order for me to explain any of the plot--in order for me to explain The Infinite Whistle, or the adult children, or what death means in this book—requires being able to speak Architecture of an Atom’s language. 

Luckily, fairly early in the book, Juliacks offers us some clues. 


I guess I write about comics because so many have moved me in ways that, over time, have felt more and more tangible. As the medium began to make sense to me and I felt like I could share that connection with others, what better way to evangelize people than to yank at the threads that weave together the most exciting work of the medium and jam them in the eye-sockets of unwitting friends who… probably… probably aren’t going to read this anyway. 

I didn’t keep writing to make other people excited about comics. I very much doubt and am skeptical of my capacity to do that at a scale that is significant, even when I’m at my best. Even if I did have a further reach, I’m also skeptical of that being worth anything, especially as a critic. After all, I’m not in marketing… am I? 

And even after all of that, surely I didn’t go into this trying to get others excited, for before I dove in and started writing, I didn’t know how any of this worked. Why did I start doing this again?… 

-3, +3, +5 

Early on, Juliacks makes use of a rectangle in the middle of her composition, filled with amorphous shapes that just barely come together to form a four-sided shape taller than it is wide. When it first appears on the second page of Frida and Cohl’s prologue, it is an ephemeral destination: a cross-section of the horizon, a doorway to open-ended possibilities for the characters as they drive off into the distance. Just a few pages later it encases the coagulated “red and purple” that make up our organs, “healthy, beating hard.” 

Once all of our characters are together in France, the rectangle is revealed in its true essence (or at least the truest one that Juliacks gives us for free): a swimming pool. All of the students—our eleven strange characters—are not considered to have a sufficient amount of integration within France, and so they must naturalize by taking a course. The curriculum? “Swimming Pool.” 

After reading the letter of naturalization, the reader turns the page, seeing a two-page spread dedicated to generic images of children swimming, separated by a banner of words from more detailed renderings of the characters below. The words in the banner read: “Today we learn to breathe.” 

The sequence that follows is my favorite in the book. An admittedly strange but otherwise mundane scenario of kids learning to swim in order to obtain citizenship rapidly descends into madness. The tone of the sequence largely speaks for itself, thanks to Juliacks’ ability to iterate on the liberties she takes with any given page. Some of what thrills me is hard to describe without sounding pedantic, but one obvious thing that carries through in the sequence is the continuous callback to that same rectangular stamp: 

The Swimming Pool. 

By the time the students have ended up lost in the mountains and crashed, they come upon an abandoned pool. Suddenly, the very image that Juliacks has been using as a callback is now something that yanks the reader into the characters’ present circumstance. Just then, when the characters register the presence of the abandoned pool, the readers are treated to a spread that depicts the new pool, fleshing out the splotchy rectangle with the colors one might expect to find in a mountainous forest. The pools are vertically flanked by the words “There is a pool in the mountains; There is wind in your nostrils.” 

Earlier, when trying to naturalize into a man-made nation, the children had to learn to breathe. Here, in the mountains, the wind is just… in their nostrils. There is nothing to learn. “Your hair blooms like flowers,” it says, on the bottom of the same page. The world of these children has changed from an imperative one to a declarative one, and the very next moment, along with all moments that follow, spin out of this dichotomy. The closest I can get to speaking the lyrical-yet-broken language of Architecture of an Atom is in fully witnessing that first breath of fresh air. 


How ironic that I should finally publicly confront this material tension in the comics discourse when I have the chance to write about a book that would largely not exist if not for a series of internationally, governmentally funded residencies, during which time Juliacks composed not only the conceptual nucleus of this entire work, but swaths of the work itself. The context Juliacks offers at the book’s end—that this is part of a larger project featuring an hour-long film, a series of short films, individual paintings and collages—nests it even further inside of contexts which begin to look like a Russian doll the more you take them seriously. 

Once you have the context [once you touch the metal], Architecture of an Atom becomes more than a comic: it is a series of comics; it is a comic and a coffee table book; it is a window into museums all over the world; it is one part of a larger, interdisciplinary, multimedia art project; it is the best temporal cross-section of the very same overall art project it partially comprises at a single temporal point (its own publication); it is a relic that would not and could not exist without the explicit and sustained support of public art institutions; it is a hard-bound, shiny-black-leaved love letter to comics publishing by a publisher getting the piss beaten out of them by several different brands of toxic comics culture— 

It is a critical paradox. 

That any number of these contextual anchors for Architecture of an Atom are things that would typically only come up in an interview with Juliacks and not in any kind of independent critical investigation of the work itself is an indictment of both the pretentious, hardline anti-intentionalism of people like me and the dry intentionalism of any one of several reductive attempts at reverse-engineering any given comic or comics page. 

-3, +3, +5 

Your body shakes when you touch the metal.” 

There is something lumberingly evocative about this book. Pages of more traditional-appearing, halting sequentials crescendo suddenly into spreads that themselves give way to poetic breaks in what once seemed to be building action. Architecture of an Atom frequently steps back from itself, explicitly putting a pot of feelings built up from groups of atomized character expressions on simmer so that the reader can sit with them in a way that is more self-reflective. 

Various two, four, six, and eight-page sequences could easily appear within anthologies like Ink Brick or kus’s s series and readers wouldn’t think twice. Architecture of an Atom has been instrumental in smashing my cold, formalist, admittedly prescriptivist ideas about the medium regarding whether or not a comic can be comprised of proper parts that we might also consider comics. To focus, as a critic, on ontological nitpicking and “rules of the medium” in the case of Architecture of an Atom would be a great example of the kind of steadfast critical perching that we need to forcefully shed. 

It is a fact that this book is made up of several different narratives that were packaged together, regardless of whether the author took the time to make them more internally cohesive. It is a fact that several of the proper parts that stitch this all together were distinct works of art hung in a gallery setting. 

And what a challenge that presents to us as readers! What an absolute dare. This book dares you to open it to any sequence you like. It dares you to use your imagination to piece together the very language of each character, both as they appear on the page and in their literal words. It dares you, at its end, to actually consider what it meant for the creator to produce it. For many of us, this is the dare which we will ignore. 

I started writing about comics because I wanted to be a comics writer, or a comics editor: anything but an artist (I do not enjoy drawing). And that’s fine, yeah? Everybody loves something. Everybody has to make a living. 

But this means-to-an-end-ism is a major strain in the culture of comics, arguably one of the largest, and it is, by its very nature, only ever (at best) tangential to the nature of producing comics, at least in any way that centers and sustains creators. Architecture of an Atom is significant in that it recenters comics as a medium within a broader multimedia context at a time when comics at large are treated as launchpads to multi-billion dollar franchises and multi...thousand dollar festivals for everybody EXCEPT cartoonists. 

No individual critic is at fault purely for focusing on art or on craft when dissecting a work; but, we are collectively at fault when we collectively ignore this kind of radical manipulation and recentering of context: in ignoring the real circumstances of this kind of project we shift the focus and the discourse in and around the medium in such a way that it ends up necessitating these kinds of context-shifts in the first place. And this is part-and-parcel with our active support of the plundering of cultural capital from comics, both intellectual and economical. 

-1, +1, +3, +5, +7 

Just before Frida and Cohl die, the book steps into a more free set of poetic sequences that, despite their more experimental nature, function as the same kind of higher level syntactic thread you would find in a more traditional, meticulously outlined comic. The mode of communicating with loose watercolors accompanied by hasty, hand-lettered poetry is a formal and thematic callback to Frida and Cohl’s interactions in the prologue. Here, it is a much more brisk calm before the storm: it is used to transpose a sensuous naivety with the chaos that immediately ensues. That Juliacks manages to string together threads that hold up this well within a work that both belongs to a larger work that is not a comic and has scattered pieces of individual works within it is a feat. 

Architecture of an Atom is a feat. 

Eventually, the abandoned pool becomes a metaphorical prison, situated next to a literal prison whose mainstay is the survivalist of the group, Sergei, by far my favorite visual rendering of any single character. Death follows at least one more character in addition to Frida and Cohl. The loss of a nation, the loss of their friends, and the complete fracturing of their language and points of reference for anything resembling society turns each individual character into an arbiter of their own reality. To wit, Juliacks closes the story by rendering each character with their own spread, one by one. 

The intentional depiction of each character--or at least, the ones who lived--in a context in which they are thriving at something in spite of the obvious state of alienation that has defined their existence is so strangely comforting for a book that, at times, leans rather hard into what you might call “Dadaist Lord of the Flies”. it jams together primal themes of idol worship and survivalism with strangely-veiled contemporary political puzzles: these kids are refugees from sensible time and space itself. In many ways, Architecture of an Atom is a bare rendering of that qualia of stepping into a new place for the first time, only in a strange, stirring world where that feeling never actually leaves. 


I can’t write about comics.

Austin Lanari is a programmer by day and a writer by day also. He likes to sleep at night. He’s got a master’s in Philosophy and he’s gainfully employed, so shut up. You can find his writing on Comics Bulletin, Loser City, Comic Bastards, and mostly these days on his own site at Follow him on Twitter .