July 30, 2018

Getting Off The Treadmill: Rob Clough reviews SHIT IS REAL by Aisha Franz

Aisha Franz's Shit Is Real is a gloriously smudgy, dream-shrouded, and surprisingly warm story about loneliness, self-loathing, jealousy, paranoia, and, ultimately, empathy. In some ways, it's a companion piece to stories like GG's I'm Not Here and Joanna Hellgren's story "Neighbors" from the Tusen Hjartan Stark anthology. All three stories involve a woman gaining access to the apartment of another woman, allowing them to live out different life fantasies. Hellgren's protagonist is simply happy to have the space, away from her husband. She doesn't want to become her absent neighbor, she just wants the same absolute mastery over her own space and time. GG's protagonist is fascinated by the woman who looks like she could be her double, only completely self-reliant and independent, in part because she's stuck taking care of her abusive parents. However, the protagonist only briefly dared to pretend to impersonate the woman in the apartment she started illicitly spending time in, only fleetingly living another life. In Shit Is Real, though, a young woman named Selma is given the opportunity to take over her absent next-door neighbor’s living space and life and seizes it with a series of consequences both grim and hilarious. Shit Is Real is all about shattering the idea that the capitalist culture of always wanting more leads to happiness; indeed, it's impossible to achieve happiness in such a state. It's not just that it's impossible to achieve happiness through constant desire; it's that empathy and kindness are their own rewards

In the other stories mentioned above, there's a certain necessary opacity to the personal narratives of the protagonists. In both cases, it's to preserve a certain sense of mystery, but it's also to make clear how unknowable the life, dreams, and consciousness of another person is. For Shit Is Real, Franz goes in the opposite direction with Selma. Not only is the audience made privy to her every desire, Franz drowns the reader in layer upon layer of Selma's dream life. Fantasies, dreams, and hallucinations all blend together creating narrative callbacks that provide surprising levels of coherency and connectedness. All throughout the book, a sharp contrast is made between living the life of a primitive and living in the frequently alienating modern world. That distinction often becomes an absurd one and creates much of the book's outrageous humor. Being disconnected from the civilization of conspicuous consumption is not only a sign of weakness in Selma's imagination; it's a sign of being less than human.
The book's title is a key to unlocking this sense of humor mixed with a feeling of total abjection. Shit Is Real begins with what turns out to be a recurring dream sequence in which Selma is in the desert, locked out of and rejected by civilization--including her social-climbing best friend Yumi and Selma's boyfriend Max. The latter, an anthropomorphic animal of some kind, unceremoniously breaks up with her by changing the key-card locks on his door and gives her a small box of her stuff when she shows up, clueless as to his intentions. When she protests, he also gives her a painting they bought together that says "Shit Is Real", which is precisely the sort of pointless, pretentious work of "art" that a hipster couple with disposable income might buy. Yet its message is unwittingly prophetic for Selma, as shit does indeed get real for her in a series of reversals of fortune. The painting itself is not aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, or viscerally satisfying; it's a smarmy statement of useless self-importance that signifies only someone's ability to buy it. Sitting on Selma's wall, it's a recapitulation of everything wrong with her life and desires. 

At the beginning of the book when Selma's dreams about being in the desert (away from the shining city full of technology) get wrapped up in reality, it's a classic case of a character being abjected -- literally meaning "thrown down", it's not just a reversal of fortune, but being thrown down from atop one's comfortable position in society. She lost her boyfriend, her apartment, and her job, all in short order. Franz makes it clear that this kind of loss of status is also a loss of identity, of being able to function in society. There's a running series of gags in the book where everything is now pretty much being run by 3D touch screens generated by electronic devices, only the crappy versions of these don't really work--like washing machines. It's one of the many complex, overlapping, and interweaving themes and motifs in the book. Each of them gets a series of callbacks and narrative progressions, but each theme subtly affects the others as the book goes on. Franz's control over the narrative is so precise that the reader doesn't notice the artifice unless one is looking hard for it. 
Instead, Franz's focus on Selma and her frequent slapstick adventures keeps the pages turning and the mood light, until Franz makes certain subtle tonal and narrative shifts. The plot can basically be boiled down to Selma realizing that her mysterious next door neighbor is the same woman she saw dump a cute guy (named Anders) in a restaurant she was eating at with her best friend Yumi. When the woman leaves town, she accidentally leaves behind the key card to her apartment--which Selma eventually uses as she slowly takes over the woman’s apartment and attempts to replicate her cool life. That includes casually introducing herself to her neighbor's ex-boyfriend, striking up a romance with him, and attending cool parties that are totally out of her league. While her infatuation with Anders started when she identified with him being dumped, it is transformed into her attempt to almost reverse time by taking on the characteristics of his ex. In so doing, she attempts to reverse her own rejection, rather than actually dealing with it. It's also important to note that the character of Max is a cipher and Selma spends little time thinking of him. What he represents is Selma being rejected by society itself, and thus access to the trappings of wealth and status.

That narrative is mixed in with the recurring desert motif, wherein Yumi goes from disapproving friend to taskmaster to something very different. There's also an extended series of fantasy sequences wherein Selma imagines joining a fish in the tank at the restaurant that she keeps returning to. The desolate quality of the desert in her imagination represents the way she feels isolated and thirsty for a certain kind of belonging; it's an almost pathetic yearning. The sequences in the fish tank mirror her love-related fantasies; the watery immersiveness of her daydreams is in stark contrast to the arid quality of her nightmares. Both of these fantasy narratives bleed into her real life, as they as represent her fears (the desert) and dreams (the water tank). Dreams and fears motivate her to take over someone else's life, leading to the odd parties she attends and the relationships she cultivates as a result of being motivated by these fantasies.
Shit Is Real's most powerful, pervasive visual metaphor is also its cover image. Selma creates it by accidentally drilling a huge slit-shaped hole in her apartment wall that's part peephole and part vulvar reference. That hole is not just a way of Selma spying on her neighbor, it's a kind of metaphorical gateway for transformation as she appropriates the signifiers of femininity of her neighbor in response to her own femininity and personhood being taken away. This repeating visual motif also explores the relationship between fantasy and reality, between growth and rot. There's one sequence where the reader sees Selma totally taking over the neighbor's apartment: eating her food, wearing her clothes (including a pair of heels with a distinctive click-clack sound), using her washing machine, and otherwise trying out this new identity that's not hers. At the same time, Franz takes the reader through the peephole in the other direction to see that Selma’s old apartment has dishes sitting in the sink with insects buzzing around, trash everywhere, and an almost Picture of Dorian Gray feeling that this reflects the actuality of the situation. Her barren apartment is representative of her at this point in time, for better or worse, and it's decaying while she enjoys the veneer of her new, fake life. 

At the same time, it's easy to sympathize with Selma. She's been abandoned by her friends, and there's one brutal sequence in a nightclub where one of her "friends" thoughtlessly rattles off everything that's gone wrong in Selma's life before talking about how great things are in her own. The turning point of Shit Is Real is when Selma is walking with her secret crush, Anders, and Yumi happens upon them, mistaking them as a couple. Anders plays along as they accept an invitation to Yumi's house for dinner. This is another example of reality being warped, this time by both Selma's deception and copious amounts of alcohol. Franz abandons the grid in favor of off-kilter panels with wavy lines as everyone gets progressively drunker. Yumi tipsily kisses Selma in the bathroom and laughs it off, and then sits down on the toilet and pees in front of her. It's a further blurring of accepted, expected behavior.
Selma and Anders leave to attend a hipster party and the two of them wind up on the rooftop together. He's smoking and blows smoke-rings of the image of his stylish ex-girlfriend (Selma's neighbor) right before he and Selma have sex. It is an incredibly clever visual that reveals the subconscious desires of both: they both want Selma to become his ex-girlfriend in the flesh. The next morning, Selma wakes up with only one shoe (the magical click-clacking pumps that her neighbor wore) ala Cinderella. The rest of the chapter is devoted to her tissue-thin grip on reality being torn asunder as she imagines the fish bringing her her missing shoe, before a long segment underwater that eventually leads back to the desert. Her entire facade collapsed in on itself; not because she was found out, but because she finally understood the meaninglessness of the persona that she had imitated. In her desert dream this time around, Selma saves Yumi. 

In real life, the story jumps ahead in time and we learn that Yumi's been dumped by her boyfriend in much the same way that Selma was, which is a pointed commentary on the ways in which relationships have a sense of equality that's still very much controlled by the person who controls the money--and it's often a man. When he chooses to cut someone out of his life, it creates that sense of abjection. The difference here is that Selma felt empathy for her friend and had her move in with her; she may have resented Yumi before, but at least she was never entirely abandoned by her, either. Selma now has a job and has created her own new identity, even if she still lives in her neighbor's space.
When Selma runs into Anders again at a party, she is forced to choose between the fantasy of living another person's life and a life of service and kindness to her friend. She chooses the latter, and her tortured desert dreams suddenly become a tranquil environment where she and Yumi look at the night sky together. The hole in the wall has been bricked over, and Yumi is now living in Selma's old place, in more ways than one. In the end, when Selma gets into bed with her sleeping friend, the "Shit Is Real" painting suddenly takes on another meaning. Selma is now living as authentically as she can, for better and worse. Another symbol of the book, her neighbor's cat, finally seems relatively content after acting as a silent judge of the tumult she caused for herself. 

The book's coda finds Selma's neighbor returning from a long trip out of town, looking as stylish as ever. When she can't find her card key, she suddenly faces the same kind of abjection; indeed, reality warps around her in on the next-to-last page of the book. The lights are harsh and unfriendly. The windows are all dark and foreboding. Everything is at odd angles in connection to each other. It's pure chaos, and it represents her life as she's forced to face the same kind of loss of self as Selma and Yumi. It's also a reminder that everyone is just a few steps away from living in that kind of chaos, but that's especially true for women. The final page sees Selma and Yumi in the desert, which is now an inviting, calm environment. Selma and Yumi find peace by rejecting the fetishisms of capitalism: gadgets, prestige, fashion, status, etc. 

There's a recognition that capitalism and patriarchal thinking interfere with our capacity to achieve happiness by building connections with others. Empathy and kindness are values that are in direct opposition to those of capitalism's culture of conflict and competitiveness. Selma's slow, halting attempts at empathy and kindness not only allow her to get off that treadmill of consumption, her reaching out also allows Yumi to do the same. Kindness is a binding social agent while competitiveness aims to separate and isolate. Capitalistic fetishism makes us want things without understanding why, as the forces of scarcity push us into a zero-sum game. Franz asks the reader to consider that choosing empathy is intuitive and requires no enticement other than the feeling itself, though choosing to get off that treadmill after a lifetime of conditioning is difficult to achieve. One must make the leap to empathy and kindness for their own sake, which in this world --or any other-- is an extraordinary if straightforward decision. 

Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com,
sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).

July 27, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 7/20/18 to 7/27/18

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


* Dominic Umile reviews Carol Tyler's FAB4 MANIA: A BEATLES OBSESSION AND THE CONCERT OF A LIFETIME which "communicates the frenzy of navigating adolescence with grace and lyrical heft."

* Andy Oliver on NEVER BEEN REBORN by William Powers, calling it "darkly introspective; a bleak tale that wades through themes of solitude, personal journey and discovery." Oliver also has a piece on COSMO HOTEL by Bethany Hall which "is silent and delicately paced with visuals that, oddly enough, feel as dreamlike in the earlier sequences rooted in a more recognisable world as they do in the surreal otherworldliness the comics slowly transforms itself into."

* Sally Ingraham takes a look at Lale Westvind's GRIP VOLUME 1 which explores "how the work of the moment, the task at hand, is transformed by the inner fantasies and landscapes of the heart, the joyous and violent riot of thought that leads to action or survival." 

* John Seven reviews LIGHTNESS by Catherine Meurisse "which depicts her emotional state following the Charlie Hebdo murders and her efforts to deal with what she witnessed."

* Sam Ombiri on ANTI-GONE by Conor Willumsen which "has a horrifically calm space where everything is desperately made to be as satisfactory as possible. The twist in this case is that we don’t see the desperation – the ideal environment is rendered without any question."

* Scott Cederlund looks at THE WINNER by Karl Stevens, wherein "Karl Stevens asks us to explore his relationship to art with him. Creator, gallery guard, portraitist, teacher, cartoonist, snob and audience, Stevens uses his relationship with his wife as an entryway into trying to figure out who he is when it comes to art"

* Robin Enrico on MariNaomi's LOSING THE GIRL, a book that "is smart and nuanced in a way that not only avoids the trap of patronizing its intended audience, but also provides older readers with a way to reflect on the interconnectedness of their own lives."

* Ryan Carey takes a look at the first four issues of Elijah Brubaker's REICH for his site, Four Color Apocalypse. Carey also reviews Anneli Furmark's RED WINTER for YCE.

* Jason Sacks writes this short review of OUT OF NOTHING by David Locke and David Blandy which "reminds readers of the important verities of life, providing a long view that shows that despite it all, mankind can still find grace in its own history."

* Kevin Bramer on Edward Parker Boman's NOBLE HEAD FUNNIES #6 which I've never heard of, seems weird as heck, and is therefore totally on my radar now.

 * Two of my favorite cartoonists, TIM BIRD and SIMON MORETON in conversation about their work.

* Alex Dueben interviews BEN PASSMORE about all the things he's been working on.

* Alec Berry profiles DAVID BROTHERSmostly about his new gig at Viz Media.

* Robin McConnell interviews PAUL KIRCHNER, mostly about his latest book, "collection of a range of his comics work called Awaiting the Collapse."


* Lynda Barry has a new comic called MENOPOSITIVE!

* Anders Nilsen posted some images from his SKETCHBOOK which readily shows you just why you should be buying Anders Nilsen comics. Nilsen also writes a very moving piece for TCJ " describes the experience and labor of helping to bring Geneviève Castrée’s final book, A Bubble, to publication" called FUCK YOU, DEATH: THOUGHTS ON FINISHING MY FRIEND'S LAST BOOK

* Andrea Shockling has finished up part 3 of the latest Subjective Line Weight called STARVING AWAY THE BLACK.

* Seo Kim has a new comic on Vice called DAY THIEVES.

* Hassan Otsmane- Elhaou just announced that PanelXPanel will be producing a new monograph series called PANELXPANEL: ONE SHOTS

* Annie Koyama announces that she will be shutting down KOYAMA PRESS in 2021.

* Claire Napier has some smart words on The Guardian about Nick Drnaso's Sabrina being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in a piece titled A COMIC UP FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE? ABOUT TIME TOO.

* Lucy Bourton introduces the idea and the creators behind TINTED WINDOW, "a new publication with an editorial angle that focuses on one person, place or object."

July 23, 2018

The Ballad Of Siv And Ulrik: Ryan Carey Reviews Anneli Furmark’s RED WINTER

Like love itself, there is a poetry and beauty to Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark's 2018 graphic novel  Red Winter (the first of her works to be translated into English, courtesy of its North American publisher, Drawn+Quarterly) --- but it's often understated, unobtrusive, a "part of the scenery," if you will, that necessarily informs all people, places, and things it touches. Which isn't to say that the particular parameters that necessarily "wall in" the love affair at the center of this story aren't as electrified as the cliched "third rail" --- they most certainly are, given one of the paramours is married --- but, as with all things Scandinavian, even if and when the shit hits the fan, the consequences will, to one degree or another, be sublimated, put in something like their "proper" place, smoothed-over to fit into a new status quo.

First, though, protagonists Ulrik (young, idealistic, Communist factory worker) and Siv (a mother of three 14 years his senior who works for/with the just-deposed Social Democrats) have to survive a politically and socially turbulent late-1970s Swedish winter in the isolated northern village that she's lived in most (perhaps all, it's never exactly clear) of her life, and which he's just been effectively "deployed" to by his ostensible SKP (a Maoist political party) "superiors." The question of who, then, fears discovery most --- who perceives themselves as having the greatest amount to lose --- is one of the richest veins of narrative tension that Furmark has at her disposal to mine.
Siv would be the most obvious choice, of course --- she's the one with the family, after all --- but Ulrik's comrades are fucking zealots of the sort that make even a Marxist-leaning individual like yours truly feel a little bit nervous. The structure of their organization is decidedly hierarchical, bordering on the downright tyrannical, and if you think a bunch of hardliners who micromanage their junior charges to the point of counting up how many party newspapers each manages to sell standing on street-corners on any given day are going to simply "go with the flow" if and when it's discovered that one of said acolytes is involved with a rather milquetoast Socialist who doesn't share their views and ideals, well --- I've got a bridge to sell you. And it spans a frozen river in Sweden.

Told by means of a series of linearly-structured vignettes from the point of view of several individual characters (including Siv's kids, which makes for some seriously interesting reading), for what is undoubtedly a love story first and foremost, Furmark's book definitely has the thematic flavor of a thriller to it --- but it's a subtle one, a sympathetic one, a humanistic one. The affair is already well underway on page one --- a wise choice that establishes the previously-mentioned pattern of things taken as a given right from the outset --- and the passion the two have for each other is at obvious as it is unyielding, but the tensions limning it in are immediately present and accounted for as well : ideology, responsibility, routine. The "tender traps," as it were.
Furmark's approach is remarkably frank and free of judgment, though, but not without passion --- she simply doesn't hit you over the head with a flood of manipulative scenarios designed to tug your heartstrings in one direction or another. She has too much faith in the ability of her readers to figure all that out for themselves, it would seem, yet that doesn't mean she isn't keenly aware of the emotional power of every exchange from the warmest embrace to the most fleeting and furtive glance --- or, for that matter, that she doesn't understand, and communicate, the small little "soul death" that occurs when one lies to their partner or to their children.

Is this, then, a doomed love? Logic would dictate that it absolutely must be --- but since when does logic enter into the equation when it comes to affairs of the heart? Furmark's lush, expressive, detailed cartooning --- awash as it is in nigh-on lyrical, but never any less than appropriately dim and, dare I say it, "wintry" watercolors --- has the look and feel of true passion to it, but, more crucially, of a passion as "under wraps" as most other strongly-held emotions in the icy Swedish hinterlands. To that end, then, perhaps just as great a threat to this love's ability to endure comes from within as from without --- forget the husband, the kids, the Maoist true believers, and ponder the question of whether or not Siv and Ulrik can find a way to make this thing work if they can't even make sense of it themselves.
And since we're tallying up a list of open questions, an equally big one you'll have to puzzle out on your own is whether or not you, as a reader, think they should keep their affair going. Not whether or not you want them to, that's another matter entirely --- there's definitely something real and  true and even necessary that binds them together, but is this the sort of love story that will work best for both if it becomes a (sorry to be blunt, but) "full-time thing," or would it be better for it to be a brief-but-passionate fling that they each remember fondly, even glowingly, for the rest of their lives? Because, let's face it, we all need those, too.

After two readings of Red Winter, I admit to still having no firm answers as to how I feel about Siv and Ulrik's situation beyond liking them both a whole lot and wanting the best for them, whatever that may be. Do they get that in the end? It's hard to say, and I don't want to go down the "spoiler" road because this is a book you should feel your way through --- as opposed to merely "read" --- for yourself. I do know, however, that Furmark's resolution, to the extent that she provides one, feels as true-to-form and authentic as all the events, large and small, that lead up to it, and that she has crafted an extraordinarily smart and heartfelt story that will no doubt endure as a personal favorite for many years to come.


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 20, 2018

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 7/13/18 to 7/20/18

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


* Alex Hoffman on MECHABOYS by James Kochalka, calling it "an uneven comic that tries to be dumb funny, but ends up just being dumb."  Hoffman also reviews RUNAWAY HEARTS by Sean Christensen, writing "There’s an easiness to the work that defies expectation."

* Also on Sequential State, Shawn Starr reviews PERFECT HAIR by Tommi Parrish, "Quiet moments and even quieter gestures. Perfect Hair lives in these."

* Greg Hunter reviews SABRINA by Nick Drnaso which "provides a space apart from the internet in which to contemplate how people process tragedy through the internet — including the failures of empathy that such processing often entails."

* Rob Clough on I HATE YOU -- YOU JUST DON'T KNOW IT YET by Nadine Redlich, a book "balanced between running gags that skewer platitudes, funny drawings of people with bulbous noses, and genuine expressions of rage, loneliness and despair hidden in the jokey quality of the material. "

Ayana Arnette Underwood writes about the law of attraction in ANYA'S GHOST by Vera Brosgol.

* John Seven reviews SONG OF AGLAIA by French cartoonist Ann Simon which traces "the fairy tale life of a water nymph as she finds herself outside the world she was raised in, facing cruelty and working to overcome the darkness of the world."

* Henry Chamberlain on THE WINNER by Karl Stevens in which he sees "an artist/writer of high caliber flexing his muscles and testing things out."

* Francesca Lyn writes about Identity, Ephemera, and Nostalgia in Whit Taylor’s WALLPAPER which "demonstrates how small moments and unanswered questions can have a powerful emotional resonance."

* Ryan C. on Jerome Ruillier's new book THE STRANGE, noting "The struggles here are authentic. The fears palpable. The loneliness, desperation, alienation, disaffection far more personal and immediate than the third-hand narrative accounts would lead one to believe — and the same is true of the acts of kindness, generosity, and empathy that shine through both the darkness of prejudice and the dimness of uncaring bureaucracy." As well, Ryan reviews KINGDOM/ORDER by Reid Psaltis for The Comics Journal.

* It's great when you fall into the target audience -- SHITTY DARK KNIGHT

* Speaking of me (and considering this column is now being rehosted on Comics Bulletin on Mondays), I wrote about SUTRA: SONGS FROM THE WORLD OF OM by Andy Barron.

* While his writing is mostly about superhero comics, it's so great to have one of my favorite critics, Colin Smith, back up and writing again -- he's started a new site called THEM DARNED SUPERPEOPLE which you should bookmark right away so as to enjoy all Smith's great writing. 


* Carta Monir has a comic on Polygon about MAGIC POCKETS, "A forgotten DOS game that helped [her] cope with childhood." Like most things Monir does, this one is pretty spectacular.

* Over on Spiralbound, Edith Zimmerman shares THE ILLUSTRATED INTERVIEW: JAMAICA DYER.

* TWO new comics by Seo Kim on Vice -- one called EGG PRAYER and another called TRIPLETING. Have I mentioned in the past how much I love Seo Kim comics?

* Alex Dueben interviews PETER AND MARIA HOEY from Coin-Op Studios.

* Annie Mok interviews RONALD WIMBERLY.

* Rachel Miller has this great essay over on The MNT that you should read right now titled (IN)VISIBLE WOMEN IN COMICS.

* SHORTBOX #9 is available for Pre-Order.

* Christopher George has a new bit of flash fiction over on his site. This one is called STAR PERSON.

* If you are eligible, please make sure you REGISTER TO VOTE.

* Finally, one of my former students (who's also the son of one of my dear friends) needs a BONE MARROW TRANSPLANT. The family has put together a Facebook Fund Raiser to help offset the tremendous costs associated with such a procedure. I hope that you might consider kicking in a few bucks to help. Click HERE for the link.

July 18, 2018

Review -- SUTRA: SONGS FROM THE WORLD OF OM by Andy Barron

There are words from other languages that have been incorporated into English because English is limited in its ability to quickly summarize vague emotions or broad contexts. Words like schadenfreude, kowtow, and aficionado all come from languages other than English because they filled a need -- expressed an idea that English had yet to contain. Once devoured by English, though, the language confines it with connotations that otherwise would not have existed prior. 

Spirituality is one of those regions where the lexicon of English especially fails. Having so much of its development under the auspices of Christianity, English has a limited view of spiritual connectedness. Rather, it focuses on the struggles of the day-to-day and the rewards of an afterlife. When English speakers seek some other sort of spiritual sensibility, they find their vocabulary constrained and often have to turn to other languages in order to express that which they wish to explore. By stepping out of the confines of English, native speakers discover not only new words but new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. In doing so, perhaps, they gain fresh insights and, more importantly, original stories to make sense of existence.

All of this leads to, finally, a review of SUTRA: SONGS FROM THE WORLD OF OM by Andy Barron. In Hinduism, a sutra is “a collection of aphorisms relating to some aspect of the conduct of life.” In Sutra’s 46 pages of beautifully colored cartooning, Barron collects seven wordless short stories all taking place in a fantastic world he has created called Om. Each of Sutra’s short stories acts as an aphorism and, while interconnected, stands on its own in terms conveying meaning, theme, and understanding.
There’s both a charm and a grotesqueness to Barron’s cartooning. Flushed in vibrant pinks, reds, and purples, there’s a fluidity to his character design and world building. Everything has rounded edges, density, and even a certain moistness, all of which helps Barron shape his characters and clearly define their emotions. Wordless comics demand a deft hand on the part of the cartoonist in order for any semblance of narrative to work. Barron has that hand, everything he does is in service of story, and, in that, in service of theme.

Much is made of cycles in Sutra. One of the stories in the book is even called “Samsara,” another Sanskrit word which refers to the cyclical nature of death and rebirth that all creatures are bound to in the material world. In Barron’s world, forces work in rhythms, sequences, and successions. That which dies gives birth to something new. Dictatorial rule is undermined by a natural law. Avarice is punished by community. In Sutra, Baron conveys his themes through his storytelling which is manifested through his art which, here, is presented as songs. These are songs of experience. They are songs of innocence. They are songs of myself. They are large, and, in the parlance of the times, they contain multitudes.
And yet even as he preaches, Barron never falls into didacticism or moralizing. Much as with the rounded edges of his cartooning, there is a softness to his message. As striking as the contrasts are in Sutra between good and evil, justification and “rightness” flow from some larger source than just dictates and rules cobbled together in order for society to function. Rather, in Sutra, morality is based on patience and quietness, meditation and rhythm. The world of Om rights itself when it is allowed to proceed unimpeded, neither overthought nor overwrought.

By borrowing its title from another language, Sutra opens doors to thinking that may have been previously unavailable to English speakers. By placing it in a spiritual context, it forces readers to move past the concerns of the physical. By making the comic wordless, Barron chooses to allow all languages to be heard. By exploring the ideas in the manner that it does, Sutra responds with beauty to the rising authoritarianism being swung like a bludgeon in so many modern Christian nations, giving a quiet voice to empathy, kindness, and love.

July 16, 2018

A Pattern Language: Francesca Lyn on Identity, Ephemera, and Nostalgia in Whit Taylor’s WALLPAPER

In 2015 it was announced that actor Lupita Nyong’o would play a character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nyong’o, best known for her Academy Award-winning role as an enslaved woman named Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013), would portray Maz Kanata, a CGI character, through voice and motion capture. Some fans of Nyong’o were upset that she would not actually be visible onscreen, citing the pervasive lack of representation of black women in film, particularly in fantasy or science fiction. However, Nyong’o’s reasoning for taking the role was outlined in an interview done by Buzzfeed News, claiming that there was  “a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question.” Though Nyong’o may have been simply tired of being scrutinized, her reasons for taking the role of Maz Kanata to resonate with a hopeful possibility and suggest a desire to take a more expansive view of how black women can be depicted. In 12 Years a Slave,  Nyong’o’s role is one of significant physicality - Patsey is continually abused, raped, and brutally beaten. By playing Maz Kanata, Nyong’o was trying to escape the hypervisibility of Black womanhood. Nyong’o’s reasoning is one of creative resistance that strategically stresses the possibilities of black women on the screen.

Similarly, themes of liberation and possibility are prevalent in the work of cartoonist Whit Taylor. Taylor, a black cartoonist and health educator, frequently engages with issues of race and identity. In “Finding Your Roots,” a webcomic published by The Nib, Taylor explores race and identity through the hairstyle choices of black women. Taylor centers her comic on her experience transitioning from chemically straightened hair to learning how to embrace her hair’s natural texture. She has also collaborated with fellow cartoonist Chris Kindred on the nonfiction comic “African-Americans Are More Likely to Distrust the Medical System. Blame the Tuskegee Experiment.” Published by The Nib on February 26, 2018, this comic presents the history of the Tuskegee Experiment, a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service where black men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge. Kindred and Taylor outline the study and its aftermath, emphasizing it’s unethical nature and lasting impact on the black community. 

Taylor is very aware of how race and representation factor into her life and art. In a 2015 interview with Artworks Blog, she stated, “In my work, I explore issues of identity frequently. Being a black woman, issues of race and gender are things that I find myself coming back to because they have and continue to shape who I am and how I perceive the world.” 

Using varying degrees of representation, Taylor strategically makes blackness absent and present, engaging with what scholar Deborah Whaley refers to as an “affective progression of blackness” - embedding and layering images to create meaning. This is significant because mainstream media culture still predominantly presents whiteness as the default. Characters are usually thought of as white unless described otherwise. 
In her 2016 book Wallpaper, Taylor does not directly code the protagonist as black. Though told in a confessional, almost diary-like style, Wallpaper is not an explicitly autobiographical work. However, the unnamed protagonist does share some similarities with her creator. For example, Taylor is also from New Jersey and has a brother. However, this omission should not be dismissed as an oversight. Taylor’s past work indicates that she is obviously well-versed in racial politics.  Watermelon...And Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable As a Black Person (2011) is an autobiographical work that directly addresses and challenges stereotypes Taylor and other black people have experienced. Wallpaper, though, might seem like a departure in both format and content. 

Taylor’s Wallpaper is a meditative, conceptual comic that uses patterns and abstraction for narrative starting points. Wallpaper is notable for its particularly intimate presentation; it is small even by the standards of a minicomic. The cover of the comic depicts a pink and green pattern that is bordered by a striped, repeated delicate floral motif. This unapologetically decorative, feminine cover combined with the small format of the comic makes you feel like you have stumbled upon something secret and precious. 

Beyond its small, intimate format, Wallpaper breaks a lot of rules and common expectations of cartooning. It has no panels. Words and images are never presented on the same page. Rather, the left spread contains the narrative text and the right contains a full-bleed drawing of a significant pattern or texture. In Wallpaper, these everyday patterns are used as starting points for the protagonist’s musings. This narrative has the effect of contemplative remembrances, evoking a strong sense of nostalgia in the reader. 
Taylor has used unconventional compositional strategies in other comics. For instance, Taylor’s comic “Alternatives to Avocado Toast for 2018” offers wry commentary on how we receive information from the news media. A creative interpretation on trends and the major events of 2017, this comic is arranged vertically with pieces of toast functioning as panels. By putting all of these ideas on toast, Taylor employs an absurdist sense of humor that emphasizes the strangeness of living in contemporary times. In this comic, reports on the use of fidget spinners, handheld devices meant to help people focus, are juxtaposed with stories on climate change. By putting all of these events and trends on toast, it appears to flatten them out and effectively starts to equalize them. Taylor also titles one toast “Escapism Toast.” This toast has a unicorn horn and a mermaid tail, linking these trends to nostalgia and the idea that millennials are turning to imagery from their childhood to provide comfort in an increasingly uncertain, chaotic world. 

Wallpaper, on the other hand, focuses on personal rather than collective nostalgia. The first pattern that the comic displays depicts white flowers with greenery against a brown background, representing the wallpaper in the kitchen. The narration on the facing page explains that the protagonist’s mother removed much of the house’s patterns, which were decorative choices by the previous owner. Subsequent patterns are derived from other pieces of the house - tile floors, examples of linoleum, and carpet. However, not every drawing is something that the protagonist physically encountered. One pattern depicts the lickable wallpaper from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Taylor’s presentation results in flattening them out. By presenting them side by side, Taylor suggests that these fragments all seem to run together for the protagonist, with something remembered from a movie given equal weight to a “real” experience. 

Wallpaper progresses with the protagonist continuing to examine the patterns that surround her. We learn more about her family, including a visit to her grandmother’s house and a family vacation to Cape May. As Wallpaper progresses, it becomes apparent that the protagonist is documenting patterns that are disappearing from the house. There is a pervasive sense of loss throughout the piece; it is apparent that things are changing beyond home renovations. Her grandmother moves to an assisted living facility and is later hospitalized. 
First published in 1977, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction delineates structural patterns which are viewed as timeless entities. Written by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein of the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California, A Pattern Language attempts to put forth elegant solutions to problems regarding architecture, building, and community livability. It argues that, when considered together, these patterns form a sort of language for building and planning structures. The book itself is organized in a consistent format with a picture illustrating the pattern followed by a paragraph description.  While operating on a much smaller scale, Taylor also begins to create her own structural patterns that become language, organizing her comic in a way that more closely resembles fragmented memories. Like A Pattern Language, Taylor uses a consistent format throughout the comic. With the rigidity of this, Wallpaper becomes a microcosm that encapsulates the elliptical nature of difficult memories. Particularly traumatic memories may be virtually impossible to articulate. 

Wallpaper uses significant sensory memory, particularly descriptions of taste, to great effect. For instance, when the protagonist recalls dreaming about the edible wallpaper, she also mentions eating a Fruit Roll-Up for breakfast. Later, she describes the walls of the newly repainted den as being the color of Hershey’s chocolate bars and describes accidentally smearing some on a copy of Pride and Prejudice. In Wallpaper, the sweetness of these junk food treats contrast with the more somber mood of the narrative, giving them a cloying rather than indulgent connotation. When the family later goes out for pizza after seeing the grandmother in the hospital, it’s not an entirely unexpected that the protagonist is sick on the car ride back. 
Wallpaper concludes with the floral wallpaper in the kitchen getting replaced with beige paint. The protagonist has a strong reaction to this, getting upset with her mother and storming out. The last pattern in the comic is a scrap of wallpaper. The narration reveals that this scrap is actually from a dollhouse. The protagonist explains that she found the dollhouse and fixes it with help from her mom. This dollhouse wallpaper fragment is a fitting ending to a comic done on such a small scale. 

Just as A Pattern Language illustrates how simple structures can become components of complex networks, Wallpaper demonstrates how small moments and unanswered questions can have a powerful emotional resonance. Reading the protagonist as a black woman makes sense not only because of Taylor’s own racial identity, it also provides greater resonance as to why the comic is structured the way it is. Taylor does not depict any bodies, letting patterns and the words of the protagonist tell the entire story, creating a rhythm for the dissonance of trauma to reverberate against. Additionally, the black female body is not the focus here. We cannot scrutinize how she chose to depict the protagonist or if she resembles Taylor. Instead, we are given a story which subtly suggests that whiteness is not the default as it delicately limns the struggles of adolescence. 


Francesca Lyn is currently a doctoral candidate in Media, Art, and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Her dissertation “Graphic Intimacies: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color” examines five texts by women of color written in the new millennium. She is interested in how autobiographical comics offer a new framework for exploring transgenerational trauma through the complex and intersecting themes of race and gender. She created and teaches the interdisciplinary courses  “Gender, Race, and Comics” and “Gender in Comics”. In these courses, students learn how to do comics research with special emphasis on utilizing VCU’s Comic Arts Collection. In her free time, she enjoys performing standup comedy and creating her own comics.