January 31, 2019

Enemies of the State #001 – Follow Me In by Katriona Chapman

We’re really pleased to announce a brand new project co-sponsored by Your Chicken Enemy and our esteemed colleagues over at Sequential State, entitled Enemies of the State. Enemies of the State is a monthly virtual book club discussion on a recently published comic, featuring a rotating cast of comics critics.

Episode #1 of Enemies of the State features commentary on Katriona Chapman’s debut graphic novel Follow Me In, published by Avery Hill Press in 2018.

On the cast for this episode includes the following critics:

 - Daniel Elkin of Your Chicken Enemy
 - Alex Hoffman of Sequential State
 - Philippe Leblanc of The Comics Beat
 - Rob Clough of High Low

You will be able to subscribe to the podcast soon on iTunes and other podcast apps, but for the moment, the audio is available NOW, here and at Sound Cloud. If you are a comics critic and are interested in joining in on the show, please contact me using my contact form or through the email on my contact page. And of course, if you have any feedback, contact us!

We hope you enjoy the podcast!

January 30, 2019

Deconstructing a Descent into Hell: Philippe Leblanc reviews SATANIA by Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann

The work of Kerascoet and Fabien Vehlmann concerns itself with deconstruction. Beautiful Darkness deconstructs the myth surrounding fairy tales, presenting in its place a bleak portrayal of what happens when the tale ends. Beauty deconstructed another fairy tale, the fairy granting a wish to a woman that eventually turns into a curse. Miss Don’t Touch Me played on the idea of a person seeking justice, or revenge, and how far she went to get what she wanted. Satania, their latest collaboration deconstructs nothing less than the conception of Heaven and Hell. Satania concerns itself with the struggle between theology, science, and the act of living. It’s about the different forces that drive humans to move forward, their goals and their expectation of what life is, or what it should be. Satania presents itself as a literal “descent into Hell”, but it’s overly simplistic to describe it this way. Characters are forced to proceed to deep introspection of themselves, their beliefs, their choices, their ideas, while they explore the bottoms of the Earth. 

The collaborative work of the team of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascöet is some of the most impressive European comics of the decade. Their work is challenging, meticulously illustrated, tackling difficult themes, splendidly colored and layered with a degree of expertise rarely seen elsewhere. Their previous projects, Beautiful Darkness, Miss Don't Touch Me, and Beauty (one of my all-time favorite series) were awe-inspiring. Satania is equally delightful to read and examine, and NBM brought in the entire series in one convenient book. One of the big strengths of their work can be attributed how they layer information in their image. There’s usually something happening in the foreground and background in addition to the characters or action we follow. There’s a lot of depth and textures to their background, with enough details to make it look complex, but not overly so. There’s also a fluidity of movement to the characters which makes them very dynamic. Those elements are usually working in concert with the story to showcase that there are deeper elements at play than just the story. Their watercolor is also another thing of beauty and one of the main appeals of Satania.
Satania tells the tale of Charlotte (mostly referred to as Charlie), as she sets out on an expedition to go find her brother, missing for several weeks after a spelunking expedition gone awry. Her brother theorized that there may be a common lore to the way we depicted demons and Hell throughout history. He set out to prove that what we conceptualize as Hell is simply an underground world where our ancestors have evolved differently, only he has yet to return.  Charlie's crew is exploring depths that have never been seen before and are forced to push deeper after a heavy rainfall propels them further than they anticipated. Their rescue mission is much different than they expected and some aren’t quite ready to face what they might find hidden below. What follows is a tale that forces the reader to consider theology, evolution, family trauma, biology, spirituality, ambition, and mortality in a new light. As Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s explore the psyche of their character, deconstruction happens around the concept of Hell. Rather than being a hellish landscape of demons, pitchfork, and flames, Hell is instead the cavernous depth of Earth, filled with living animals and creatures that may have actually inspired the myths surrounding Hell.  

There’s an ongoing struggle between science and religion as is exemplified by the skeptic Father Monsore and the scientist Lavergne. They each represent two opposing ideas, the first being that evolution simply kept going underground or that humans grew horns to protect their heads from the cavernous ceilings, while the second is that the dark underground and its shifting walls are a ploy of the devil himself to make the explorers mad. These two figures are front and center throughout the whole book, forced to confront their beliefs and prejudice and to soften their positions once they realize neither of them is as right as they’d like to believe. The truth, in this universe at least, is much more nuanced than these characters care to admit. Life is complicated, so is science and so is our understanding of the universe. Perhaps science and what is unknown is more complex, bordering on the supernatural. Rationality itself is overrated since the world works in mysterious ways. Father Monsore, for his part, has to come to terms with the fact that there is a method to the madness of the underworld that goes beyond the divine. Mythology comes from somewhere that may be more real than he originally imagined.
The concept of a descent into hell is exemplified in many different ways throughout Satania. There’s the actual descent as our protagonists are forced to go ever deeper into the cave. This could be read as their actual death following the flooding of the cave as they proceed ever deeper into Hell itself shedding their decency and morals along the way until they vanish. One of the explorers cannot handle the reality of their situation and soon his moral compass breaks and he begins murdering as many people as he can. He’s in a much darker place internally than he is physically. There’s also Charlie’s brother, who’s spent so much time in there that his mind has also begun to unravel into hatred and anger. The darkness in the heart of men might be worse than the one in Hell -- or Hell is other people -- I’m not quite sure which is intended.

One of the recurring images in Satania is of Charlie’s mother and her red wool, knitting in the distance, constantly taunting Charlie with dark secrets and unavowed secrets and desires. This image appears early on to imply that the reasons she wishes to save her brother may be selfish, perhaps love or incest, or a latent desire for him. Her descent is more related to how her sexual awakening brings about uncomfortable truths about desire and lust. Her need to connect with someone, emotionally and physically, is exemplified with her relationship with the demon. This was perhaps one of the most befuddling elements of the book, the illustration of Charlie indicates she’s relatively young, and coupled with the many references to “Young Charlie” made for a very uncomfortable read.

I don’t often mention these things, but I was surprised by the obvious typos contained within this edition. Letters which should be there simply aren’t, forcing the reader to read such word as “nally” when it should be obviously read “finally”. Examples of this are numerous in the book and distract from the work. I thought it was only my copy that had issues, but it turns out multiple copies, possibly the entire first print run had this issue. It’s distracting more than anything else. NBM confirmed they fixed the issue for subsequent print runs though. Kudos to the publisher for fixing it moving forward.
Satania is not the excellent work I wanted it to be. Perhaps it’s because, near the end, Charlie’s brother is actually deconstructed as he falls into the literal abyss of Satania. It could also be because it ends up being coy about its themes. Beliefs are wrong, science will get you nowhere you need to be. The world is trash, the targets change place all the time. You’re never going to get anywhere. In the end, Charlie is trapped, even as tries to leave the tunnels, decades later, still trying to find a way out. It becomes more nihilistic than I could handle. Perhaps I wasn’t interested as much in the premise as I thought would be. It’s probably one of Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann’s weakest collaboration, but it remains an exceptional book. Is the worst work of a master any less than masterful? Satania deserves future reading, but I will re-read Beauty for the umpteenth time first.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie, and art comics at night and writes about them for The Comics Beat and Your Chicken Enemy.

January 28, 2019

Work and Workspace: Rob Clough reviews NOBROW 10

NoBrow began as a publisher putting out anthologies of beautiful illustration work. It wasn't long before they started branching out into comics, launching the careers of cartoonists like Luke Pearson and Jon McNaught. Their tenth-anniversary anthology is a throwback to the early days, as it's almost entirely illustrations instead of comics. That said, there's much in here to discuss with regard to the way cartoonists see themselves and their workspaces. NoBrow 10 is also a strong statement about the publisher's aesthetic that's strongly guided their approach during that time. 

The theme of NoBrow 10 is "Studio Dreams". There were a set of patterns regarding how each artist interpreted what this might mean. For some, it meant what their dream studio might look like without regard to reality or limitations. A number of them fantasized about treehouses as their studios, such as Jarom Vogel, Dustin Harbin, and Jan Van Der Veken. Many more imagined them in a house in a forest, surrounded by vegetation. Others fantasized about a lake or ocean view. A general rule of thumb for most of the entries is that the more detailed the environment was in their drawings, the less detailed their actual workspaces were. That was especially true for naturalistic styles like Bianca Bagnarelli, whose drawing emphasizes the house and the surroundings she works in, but only offers up a tiny silhouette of her actual workspace. On the other extreme, Jim Stoten's illustration is heavy on presenting the tiniest details of his workspace, even if some are imaginary. 
Regarding the details of the space, a number of illustrators chose to draw the most minimalist of spaces for a work area. Matthew The Horse's drawing was of a giant rainbow that he saw outside, as he stood, half-naked, in front of a blank canvas. David Doran's entry is a plain table with some papers and books on it; his drawing was more concerned with looking at the sea. Sarah Soh's illustration had her sitting on a couch, away from a humble table with a work computer on it. On the other hand, Virginie Morgand's workspace wraps around the entire room and the drawing itself, cleverly drawing the reader's eye in a circle from the foreground to the background. Noa Snur's illustration is a celebration of workspaces of all kinds, from painting to music to cartooning to writing and more. Joe Todd Stanton's piece is another departure, using muted dark greens to highlight peeks through brightly lit windows, each with a different artist at work in a different way. 
Another interesting detail was how the artists drew themselves in their workspace. Malika Favre didn't draw herself at all. Neither did James Wilson, whose drawing was a set of floating shapes. Andrew Rae was one of the few who drew himself in the same proportions as the environment, although he was in a mechanical contraption that allowed him to do everything at once. Daniel Locke was the only illustrator to draw a comic with text, one where the scene shifted in every panel. Some artists drew themselves in a busy coffee shop, like Rebecca Crane. Steve Scott's strip was very funny, as he drew a fictional illustration studio that included a demonic shrine, a research department going off in a submarine, and an armed invoice collection squad. Perhaps my favorite drawing was that of Shannon Wright; she drew herself taking up most of the space in her drawing, with a board in front of her with a work in progress. Zhang Liang imagined a studio with a guy and a gal each indulging their favorite activities while taking turns drawing. Zosia Dzierzawska's drawing is a departure from the rest: she dominates the illustration, which is filled with muted colors and scrawled lines. 
I think it's important to key in on the second word of the subtitle, "dreams" with regard to the differences in how the artists drew themselves vs how they drew their studio space. From an editorial perspective, it's implicit in the title that the illustrators were asked to draw an idealized version of their workspace. I think for some artists, the lush surroundings they drew for their workspace vs the way they minimized themselves was an indication that they would prefer to draw anything other than themselves.  However, I think most just preferred to really indulge themselves in the direction given to them by the theme, creating an artist's utopia in image after image. 

There's a lot of great drawing in this anthology. However, the candy-colored NoBrow house style resulted in most of these drawings bleeding into each other. NoBrow's comics, for the most part, have a bright, friendly palette: oranges, reds, yellows, pinks, light purples, etc. It's a pastel parade that eschews darker colors in general and shading techniques like hatching in particular. There's a lack of density or weight in many of these illustrations as a result. It's not unusual for a publisher to have an overall aesthetic defined over time. Drawn & Quarterly, especially when Chris Oliveros was still the publisher, was strongly influenced by a combination of classic American comic strips and Franco-Belgian cartooning. 2DCloud is known for its willingness to take risks on comics that eschew narrative. Even Fantagraphics, which publishes a wide array of styles, has always had a strong connection to the underground era's dense drawing techniques. 
However, the aesthetics of a line have an effect on how those comics are perceived. Drawn and Quarterly is often perceived as having a more refined aesthetic than other publishers, even if it isn't always true. The opposite is the case with Fantagraphics, where folks think of their publications as edgy or transgressive. In the case of NoBrow, the unbending brightness of the color schemes and their dominance over line gives them the look of children's books, which certainly wasn't true in their earlier days. However, they've leaned into that aesthetic to the point of establishing a separate children's imprint called Flying Eye. Other than their content, most of those books don't look significantly different from their main line of comics. A closer look reveals a variety of storytelling techniques, just like a closer look at this anthology reveals dozens of subtle differences from drawing to drawing. NoBrow 10 is a book best examined slowly, just a piece or two at a time, and it rewards multiple reads with new details emerging each time. This is a book to be cherished for its production values, its commitment to giving its illustrators all the space they need, and a firm commitment to the aesthetics that are the bedrock of the publisher. 
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).

January 26, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 1/19/19 to 1/25/19

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


* Philippe LeBlanc on Niv Sekar's YOUR MOTHER'S FOX, a book "about the impact of loss and trying to return to something familiar when you feel lost and confused. It’s also about finding a place to belong in the face of loss." Your Mother's Fox is an amazing comic and absolutely one of the BOOKS WE LIKED in 2018. 

* Alex Hoffman on RED WINTER by Anneli Furmark, wherein "Furmark plays with the idea of what is seen and unseen by the reader themselves, and this feature of the comic elevates its storytelling."

* Chris Mautner reviews TINDERELLA by M.S. Harkness, writing "by aiming for more than the usual 'hoo boy, dating is tough' storyline to evoke a pain more substantive and resonant than being unlucky in love, Harkness proves she is cartoonist worth watching."

* Rob Clough on Laurel Lynn Leake's SUSPENSION which "is reflective both of her sensitive and humane approach to character and world building as well as the craft of design."

* Kate Kosturski looks at BECOMING ANDY WARHOL by Nick Bertozzi and Pierce Hargan which "showcase(s) the moment when, by stubborn force of personality and sheer burgeoning talent, Warhol went up against the creative establishment and emerged to become one of the most significant artists of the 20th century."

* John Seven reviews Julie Delporte's THIS WOMAN'S WORK, writing that Delporte "is still impeccable at laying out an unmappable thought process that feels like a profound journey into the unknown, where she creates bridges connecting the intensely personal with the completely universal, where cultural elements and her own obsessions and landscapes and the lives of others collide into a psychological landscape all its own that may be hard to parse out the individual aspects, but leaves you feeling the enormity of what she’s put down on paper."

* Michelle White on NOD AWAY by Joshua Cotter.

* Alex Thomas on REEL LOVE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION by Owen Michael Johnson, which "is packed full of the kind of heart felt moments and real human drama that the best on-screen rites of passage tales use so well – and they work just as well in print. Unlike most movie trilogies, Owen saves the best chapter for last and creates a poignant and emotionally truthful look at one man’s love of the movies."

* Chris Gavaler on Michael DeForge's BRAT, writing "I'm not sure 'story' is the best word to describe these graphic narratives. Or rather, Brat is one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what's most interesting about DeForge's art."

* Ryan Carey reviews BAD FRIENDS by Ancco, "a legitimately remarkable work of comics art in every sense. It’s a book you’ll return to again and again, not because it’s comfortable, but because it’s undeniable."


* Over on Women Write About Comics, Wendy Browne interviews educators JILL GERBER AND MERYL JAFFE for a great piece called Comics Academe: The Evolution of Comics in Education Educators.

* Andrea Shockling has a new SUBJECTIVE LINE WEIGHT comic written by Daria Phoebe Brashear that I think everyone should read.

* There's a new Tara Booth comic over on Vice called TSA.

* Also on Vice, there's ALIEN BODY by Valentine Gallardo.

* Jonathan Dyck has a comic on Popula called NO GOALS.

* Andrew Simmons pens this interesting piece called WHAT TO DO AFTER DECADES OF TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD WRONG?

* Stephen Roger Powers' poem DOLLY FLOATS.

January 23, 2019

The Most Subtle Traps Are The Most Insidious: Ryan Carey Reviews JOHN, DEAR by Laura Lannes

"There is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on."

So Rod Serling told us, at any rate, but there's simply no convincing the subconscious mind of that, is there? As a result, darkness, through no fault of its own, has become the go-to metaphor for negativity, depression, evil, you name it. Difficult or challenging times in life are "dark" times. The historical era dominated by superstition and anti-intellectualism is referred to as the "Dark Ages." Encroaching despair is the "darkness closing in on us."

It's primal. It's instinctive. Our rational minds know that it makes no sense, but nevertheless --- darkness isn't just symbolic of fear, it's symbolic of all fear, of the fear. The fear of losing ourselves into all-encompassing, all-devouring nothingness.
Laura Lannes understands this more intuitively than any cartoonist working today, and I say that without a moment's hesitation. Her strips in the anthologies Bad Boyfriends (which she edited) and Mirror Mirror II (which she didn't) hinted at the darkness that can slowly, inexorably creep into unhealthy relationships, but her recent solo release from Retrofit/Big Planet, John, Dear goes the full distance, charting in brief but exacting detail something well beyond the simple loss of individuality, the loss of identity, that are part and parcel of too many interpersonal relationships --- rather, her protagonist undergoes a process of complete and total self-negation the likes of which, I again say without hesitation, have never been committed to the page in so harrowing a fashion.

She meets a guy. Things seem okay at first, He's reasonably attentive and seems accepting of her flaws and foibles, but, in truth, he's silently cataloging her insecurities for later use as wedges to metaphorically burrow into her and, ultimately, hollow her out. He moves into her place with little or no discussion, bringing, figuratively and literally, almost nothing of his own. His small talk turns to cutting insults. His facile flattery morphs into neglect --- emotional, physical, sexual. And, of course, when pressed, he makes it known this is all her fault.
Somewhere along the way, subtly at first, of course, the body horror starts. Something is wrong with this young woman's physical form, strange changes are happening to her, clearly and inarguably an external manifestation of her inner turmoil. It's hinted, as these grotesque transformations escalate, that maybe it's only happening in her mind, but you know what? Even if that's the case, it's no less real. Her thoughts, her feelings, her wishes, her self --- they're all slipping away. And the darkness that's been bleeding in from the margins is starting to consume her being even as she becomes utterly unrecognizable to herself.

For some, I would suppose, interjecting the visceral horror of bodily mutation (let's just call it what it is) into a psychodrama plenty terrifying enough on its own terms may seem too heavy-handed, too obvious, but don't doubt for a moment that, thanks to the quiet power of Lannes' graphite illustrations and the absolute precision of her sparse text, it not only works, it's absolutely essential to the proceedings. The changes undergone increase in their severity even as the imagery is increasingly taken over by shadow, until shadow becomes complete and inescapable blackness, the woman whose loss of everything she was, is, ever will be subsumed from without precisely at the moment she's consumed from within.
Needless to say, comics (or, if we want to be precise about this book's format, illustrated short stories) don't get more soul-shattering than this, but Lannes also understands, intuitively, the seductive power of the darkness she's both channeling and utilizing here, so much so that there is most certainly an uncomfortably seductive quality to her horrifically beautiful (a contradiction in terms only on paper, I assure you) drawings --- and this slow seduction becomes a key component of the narrative itself, the ease with which one is drawn into the dark communicating so much of our protagonist's fracturing, shattering state of mind.  Less-confident cartoonists would rely, no doubt clumsily, on the text to convey this --- Lannes has no need for such a crutch.

In point of fact, it's entirely fair to say that Lannes' aesthetic choices do something more than tell a story: they approximate, as closely as possible, the experience her character is going through within the mind of the reader. Lannes’ deft deployment --- in an artistic sense, and for entirely different purposes --- mirrors many of the same techniques of the emotional and psychologically manipulative abuser lulling us, with something less than our consent but no actual resistance on our part, into what we know, from the outset, will be as far from a "happy ending" as one can possibly imagine.

There's absolutely no way that the crafting of John, Dear could have been anything other than a fucking terrible experience --- it's too powerful, too searing, too authentic not to have come from a place of deep understanding. The act of exorcizing it must have left its own series of intensely-painful scars. It certainly leaves plenty of 'em on the reader. And yet, as portrayals of abuse go, they don't come any more realistic than this. 

Putting work this personal and this demanding in terms of its execution out into the world for others to experience is an act of bravery in and of itself, one for which Lannes is to be not just applauded but thanked --- but don't for a moment go into it thinking that just because it's one of the most unforgettable, and frankly best, comics in recent memory that it's anything other than one of the most challenging, unsettling, even devastating. This book is the abyss that doesn't just gaze back --- it sucks you in and swallows you whole. Even, yes, when you read it with all the lights on.
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.

January 21, 2019

Matt Vadnais on Theo Macdonald's BLAH, BLAH, BLAH: NOTES TOWARD AN IGGY POP BASED ART PRACTICE as a Dionysian Essay

In Blah, Blah, Blah: Notes Toward an Iggy Pop Based Art Practice, Theo Macdonald describes Iggy Pop as looking “so broken” in late-night television interview footage from the 1980s. In a particular interview filmed in 1982, recorded while Pop was missing a front tooth, Iggy suggests that this brokenness is part of the point, claiming that his aesthetic is wholly Dionysian. When given the opportunity to clarify, Pop differentiates Dionysian art from the Apollonian by framing it as temporary and event-based; he compares the erection (!) of a fifty-foot paper phallus in the context of a drunken festival to the creation of a more permanent sculpture. The interview is free-wheeling enough that Pop doesn’t get a chance to more fully outline the dichotomy he is drawing which, as far as I can tell, owes itself to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. For Nietzsche, the binary has to do with order and disorder; one gazes as long as one can into the Dionysian realms of madness, fluidity, and darkness in order to be able to endure the ordered, logical dictums of the Apollonian light that, for a number of reasons, have found more traction in the institutions and practices of the modern world. Though Pop doesn’t finish the comparison in words, he consciously or subconsciously offers himself as an example of the Dionysian by smiling his partially-toothed smile into the camera as says “many people would be terrified to be me, but for me, it’s quite fun.”
Macdonald’s thoughtful and potent visual essay is, on its surface, less interested in this binary than it is in exploring the challenges of capturing movement – and by extension, Iggy Pop himself, whom the comic describes as “a caricature of motion” – in the confines of a static medium. However, by defining comics as a medium by which time is conveyed in vertical and horizontal space – and adhering to a regular, six-panel grid throughout – Macdonald not only attempts to describe and understand an inherently kinetic essence in a medium not perfectly built to preserve movement, he attempts to reckon with an inherently Dionysian artist by using the Apollonian tools of strict panel boundaries, consistent page layouts, and even source citations. As such, the insights that come from individual panels and Macdonald’s well-considered analysis of Pop’s aesthetic as a singular, coherent aesthetic that can be understood in language and static image are in some ways less profound than the bits of the Dionysian that Macdonald sneaks into the medium.
For starters, the individual panels, which borrow (and source) approaches from a variety of artistic traditions, are all exactly the same size. Despite suggesting – if only because this is how one reads a comic that looks like this – that a traditional, linear movement through these panels will reveal meaning, the identical panel size invites one to read each image of Pop as a part of a composite in which the never-revealed portrait of Iggy Pop comprises every image at once; the apparent order of the page invites the reader to construct a kind of flip book of the mind in which one image morphs seamlessly into another. This trick not only holds what is perhaps Macdonald’s real assertion about creating movement in comics, but it also manages to destabilize the notion that Iggy Pop is a singular, Apollonian entity, instead presenting him as an elastic Dionysian polymorph. These images themselves are delightfully human and abstract in equal measure, working with blank space and shape to evoke creative possibility and kinetic energy. 
As importantly, Macdonald abandons the borders of the panel three times: he introduces the title on page one, creates a space half-way through to return our attention to Iggy Pop, and ends the comic with a reminder that what one has been reading is just notes and not a finished product. It is appropriately Dionysian that the most overt nod to an academic structure – the transition back to Pop as a subject – draws attention to itself as a panel without a boundary. Likewise, the final panel’s reminder that this comic is intentionally incomplete uses its lack of a border to bleed into the general space of the page and push into the future. By doing so, Macdonald draws upon another Nietzschean notion that animates the life and work of Iggy Pop, the idea that we do not live in a world of fixed being where things are things, but rather, we live in a world of becoming where nothing is ever finished changing.          
In a world of being, Iggy Pop’s most recognizable song, “Lust for Life,” is a decadent artifact of Dionysian life, wielding frenetic handclaps to a tale of debauched nightlife where one dances “like hypnotizing chickens.” However, the song never stopped becoming, morphing first into the somewhat-predictable anthem made once-again famous by the movie Trainspotting before much less predictably becoming an advertising jingle for a distinctly non-Dionysian cruise line in a series of commercials very much selling the illusion of the Apollonian signified by the bright sunshine and status symbol that is a vacation made possible by the invisible labor of thousands of people. Though it is certainly ironic, a cruise ship selling nearly identical experiences by using a song written by “the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches only to destroy” is in many ways a perfect distillation of what Nietzsche described as the purpose of the Dionysian: to linger in the shadows and provide meaning by contrast.           
All told, Macdonald’s short comic accomplishes much in the way of thinking about artistic modes and media; it functions as a primer to Pop’s oeuvre in a similar way that Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics – which the piece cites – functions as a thesis about the medium of comics. Unlike McCloud’s book, however, Macdonald very much invites the reader to take up these notes and add to them by revisiting Pop’s work – and specifically footage of him dancing – for themselves. This kind of a viral collaboration, in which an art object cannot be viewed without seeding further acts of creation, appears to be the real Iggy Pop based art practice; Macdonald, without saying as much, convincingly invites the reader to participate.
It has been a long time since I have read something that so completely left me wanting to get up and make something.

Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays.

January 19, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 1/12/19 to 1/18/19

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


* Rob Clough reviews COIN-OP SPECIAL: KARL MARX BOLAN by Peter and Maria Hoey, writing " In just eight pages, they tell a story with an epic sweep that touches on raw early 50s rock, 70s glam rock and funk. It's a funny statement about the potential power of music apart from its status as capitalist commodity."

* Alex Hoffman on DARK ANGELS OF DARKNESS by Al Gofa, "a comic that is wry, and a little weird, but ultimately it is a comic that is about affection – Gofa’s affection for a specific type of comics." Hoffman also reviews GIRL TOWN by Carolyn Nowak, "a step left and a step forward from the world we all inhabit; these comics are weird, a little off kilter, different than expected. The way the world Nowak’s characters inhabit operates is a little strange. But that strangeness is not a distraction – rather, it heightens the reader’s awareness of the core of Nowak’s cartooning, which is to say, the way her characters build relationships and deal with trauma." 

* John Seven has short reviews of three books you might be interested in over on The Beat in a round-up called INDIE VIEW. While there are some interesting books featured here, can we all finally agree to retire the word "Indie" at last? Is it me, or is it just inherently a terrible word? Seven also reviews SEVEN PLACES WITHOUT YOU by Spanish cartoonist Juan Berrio, "which addresses the emotional turmoil of a break-up with something unexpected — contemplation."
* Henry Chamberlain on HI JAX AND HI JINX: LIFE'S A PITCH -- AND THEN YOU LIVE FOREVER by Dame Darcy.

* Justin Giampaoli reviews HAMLET IS OKAY by Lora Root, which "emphasizes the thematic takeaway of the simple importance of friendship."

* Ryan Carey on IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST by Mike Taylor, writing "there's an underlying sense of playfulness in the midst of this thick phantasmagorical jungle of the mind and heart, a Zen-like calm at the center that lets you know that even if everything may not ultimately be okay, it's at the very least going to be whatever it is, and learning to accept that --- to accept anything, really --- is the key to something more than mere prosaic survival; it's the key to progress, to evolution, to becoming."


* The folks at Broken Frontier have chosen their SIX SMALL PRESS CREATORS TO WATCH IN 2019 -- if you're unfamiliar with what this is and its legacy, let me assure you that Andy Oliver and the rest of the Broken Frontier staff have consistently picked some pretty amazing artists to fill this list over the years. 2019 seems to be no exception.

* Simon Moreton's MINOR LEAGUES 7 is available for pre-order!

* John Porcellino is publishing comics in The Reader out of Chicago under the title PRAIRIE POTHOLE.

* Rebecca Kirby has a comic up on Vice called NUTTER BUTTER FARTER.

* Sarah Miller has this great piece on Popula about attending a Guns N' Roses show in 2017 titled WHERE DO WE GO NOW that, if you're of a certain age, hits hard (with a knowing grin on its face).

* Allison Meier talks about AMERICAN INTERIORS, the new book by photographer M L Casteel that examines the psychological repercussions of military service through the cars of veterans.

* Finally, there's this pretty great interview of Twitter's JACK DORSEY conducted by Ashley Feinberg that I think everyone who uses Twitter should read. I'd be happy to hear what you think of it.

January 15, 2019

We Shouldn't Fear Hurting: Justin Giampaoli reviews HAMLET IS OKAY by Lora Root

There are times when you feel like a comic is made just for you. I've always had a soft spot for The Bard, having played a rousing rendition of Romeo in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, and thanks in no small part to Mr. Lindbergh, another high school AP English teacher who dedicated an entire semester to unpacking Hamlet around the time the Mel Gibson movie came out (I even wrote a movie review for my school newspaper). I've always been partial to the tragedy of my favorite character Mercutio ("a plague on both your houses!" and all that), so this particular comic was very much in my wheelhouse and I was so there for this reimaging of everyone's favorite brooding Shakespearean emo protag. 

Hamlet Is Okay is a modern day reinterpretation of the Prince of Denmark, wracked with grief over the death of his late father, not only seeing ghostly manifestations of dear old dad's wispy tales of murder and conspiratorial plots against the crown, but walking the streets begging for a speeding car to put him out of his misery. It takes place in lived-in pubs and flats that push clever twists like Mercutio being something of a hipster bartender, which displays a penetrating understanding of the original character's charisma and tick-tock inner workings. All of this might play like clever fanfic on paper, but what sells it is the execution of the cartooning by Lora Root
The writer/artist is able to avoid many of the common pitfalls of entry-level comics professionals. Root's ability to capture lively facial expressions and crystal clear panel transitions provides a foundation from which to operate. From there, she fills the swift-moving 50-page story with generous background details and an ornate fine line, is careful to use a variety of panel layouts that range from full-page splashes to double-page spreads, panels sans borders, use of negative space, skewed panels to emphasize something awry, to all manner of horizontal and vertical panel compositions. 
Perhaps my favorite skill that Root displays in her efforts is the ability to consistently alter the figure scale. There an old adage I heard from one comics artist that "at least once per page, you should be able to see a character's feet." This guideline will help ensure figure scale variation engaging the eye to zoom in and out, and avoid a monotonous series of talking heads. I'm not sure how much of this skill is an innate ability on Root's part, or the result of her studies at Michigan State University under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Ryan Claytor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

For more than a decade, Claytor has been a presence at MSU, offering comics studio courses that build toward a minor in the field, helming the annual MSU Comics Forum, offering deep-dive interviews of award-winning creators via the MSU Comic Art & Graphic Novel Podcast, all in addition to his steady self-published output at Elephant Eater Comics. Claytor teaches the fundamentals of the comics making craft, but also provides tutelage concerning the business end of comics, from the economics of printing, to organizing signing tours and tabling at shows, to basic marketing and self-promotion. There's an entire generation of young cartoonists passing through this corner of the comics world with a very clear and distinct ethos. It leaves me wondering if future comics historians will be able to look back and identify a discernible style or movement in the vein of RISD's fabled "Fort Thunder" aesthetic. 

Digression aside, Hamlet is Okay playfully alters the structure of the original play, while maintaining critical elements like the ghost of Hamlet's father. We're left wondering if the ghost is an actual apparition, or exists only in Hamlet's mind's eye as a mental manifestation of loss, grief, or regret. We question if it's real or simply a coping mechanism pushing Hamlet toward vengeance as a shortcut to right a perceived wrong and make sense of the lack of control he feels in a world filled with seemingly random senseless acts.
Root also emphasizes the thematic takeaway of the simple importance of friendship. When we're dealing with the loss of a loved one, there's a human inclination to withdraw as a means of self-defense. Yet this is paradoxically when we need people the most. It's the realization that sometimes being strong means asking for help. It's the knowledge that we shouldn't fear hurting as a component of the human experience. It's also the knowledge that if you see someone hurting, an earnest offer of help, even if it requires repeating - to the point of insistence, can make all the difference in someone else's life. 
Justin Giampaoli grew up on 1970s Bruce Springsteen tracks and Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons. The first movie he saw in a theatre was The Black Hole. The first mini-comic he ever read was Henry by Tim Goody

January 14, 2019

Everything, Nothing, And All Points In Between: Ryan Carey Reviews IN CHRIST THERE IS NO EAST OR WEST by Mike Taylor

Navigating the present social, political, and economic reality is tough enough --- how are you supposed to get your own head together in the midst of all this chaos?

Cartoonist Mike Taylor's stand-in/protagonist Adam (and, yes, eventually that's revealed to be as obvious a choice of name as you're already imagining it to be), our one and only point of reference in and, in a very real sense, entry into, the metaphysical realms beyond and within detailed in the new graphic novel In Christ There Is No East Or West, is tasked with such a challenge and has the added burden of having been conscripted into this impromptu bit of soul-searching by none other than God himself --- but not until after he discards his ever-present "smart" phone at The Almighty's insistence.

Taylor has, of course, long been on a very public journey of self-discovery in the pages of his justly-legendary Late Era Clash self-published comics 'zine, but whereas that publication generally eschews anything approaching the lofty status of a "grand unifying theory of everything," this book seems to be every bit as much about the destination as it is about the circuitous paths that lead there. It's a heady, thought-provoking experience, to be sure, but to Taylor's great credit it's also a highly and entertainingly accessible one, and while it might come off as too inherently dismissive to call this "metaphysics for the masses," that's exactly what it is --- and that's meant as a compliment.
Gary Groth's "street cred" imprint, Fantagraphics Underground, has pulled out all the stops in terms of production values here and the fold-out poster that slips around the cover is not only jaw-droppingly gorgeous but sets the tone for the deeply personal, yet undeniably universal, explorations that play out on the book's generously over-sized pages. Taylor obviously had complete freedom to follow his creative impulses wherever they led him here --- not to mention however they did so --- and, to that end, expect a wide, at times even breathtaking, array of art styles that range from the near-abstract to the "scratchy" to the detailed to the downright lush, as well as transitions from black and white to rich, vibrant color and back again depending on where Adam finds himself. A great deal of flexibility is required on the part of the reader to absorb all these transitions, but it's actually easy enough to go with the flow Taylor establishes here given the organic fluidity of his sparse, borderline-poetic scripting. Words aren't plentiful, but they're chosen with care and employed with precise intent, as necessary tools to guide along a process that absolutely must be handled with utmost care.

And yet, there's an underlying sense of playfulness in the midst of this thick phantasmagorical jungle of the mind and heart, a Zen-like calm at the center that lets you know that even if everything may not ultimately be okay, it's at the very least going to be whatever it is, and learning to accept that --- to accept anything, really --- is the key to something more than mere prosaic survival; it's the key to progress, to evolution, to becoming.

Of course, "Becoming what?" is the natural-enough question that follows on from that, and Taylor offers no easy answers to it, but then nothing about Adam's "vision quest" (or whatever we want to call it) is what anyone would call easy, from his night spent in a castle made of ice occupied by a grumpy and isolated old-timer who shits something very much like chess pieces (yes, you read that right) to transforming into a plant to attending the strangest dinner party perhaps ever committed to paper --- but it's all rewarding, enlightening, and very frequently quite funny. Even if you're one of those readers for whom challenging yourself is inherently off-putting, there's nothing on offer here that's actively going to put you off --- and plenty that will, inexorably, draw you in.
I'm not suggesting that everyone's "third eye" will open, mind you --- although it's an easily-available option should you wish it --- but when Adam meets a version of himself (I think?) that has been through that process, you won't question it. Taylor has a way of getting you to "buy in" to his idiosyncratic narrative style without a hint of force being applied, and while a lot of that is down to his virtuoso pacing (really, he puts on a veritable clinic in the art and science of it) that gets your toes wet before submerging your feet and going up from there, in truth there is a hidden element to the spell he casts right from page one that speaks to some sort of ability on his part to "tune in" to realms beyond to a far greater extent than he clearly feels he can. I'm loathed to invoke the supernatural as a matter of course --- art, for all its majesty, is still a thoroughly practical process, more often than not --- but dammit, I know magic when I see it, feel it, experience it, and this book positively oozes it from its paper pores.
If, at this point, it seems this critic is being too effusive in his praise, is frankly gushing a bit too much, rest assured: every superlative I freely offer is entirely earned by this bold, inquisitive, humane, beautifully-illustrated work. In Christ There Is No East Or West is everything I look for in comics: equal parts challenging and accepting, "far out" and grounded, mysterious and easy to relate to. It isn't "about" anything specifically, perhaps, but encompasses nearly everything within its expansive, but in no way intimidating, scope. And if calling it "magic" is a bridge too far for you sober rationalists out there, fair enough, I'm prepared to happily call it a work of undeniable genius and leave it at that.
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.