February 28, 2019


After three years of producing some of our most favorite comics out there, Zainab Akhtar and her crew have just announced the release of ShortBox the TENTH featuring a brand new title from James Stokoe about a massive crocodile god; their first dedicated all-ages title from Jessi Zabarsky, and a risograph-printed mech and alien fight-em-up from Wren McDonald. They're also debuting feature-length work from two new cartoonists, Michelle Kwon and Alivia Horsley. 

If you are unfamiliar with ShortBox:

  • ShortBox is an independent, mail-order comics box that releases twice a year. It is not a subscription service. There is no signing up. It's unique in that the comics contained in the box are ones they publish: brand new releases created especially for the box. You buy a box, and that's that - there's no further commitment to anything else. 
  • Pre-orders will run for a 14-day period ending at midnight on March 10th. This is the only way to get the box. They don't remake boxes.
  • The box will ship in April. 

Exclusive A4 static-cling PVC poster

Sobek by James Stokoe, foil embossed cover, 36pp, full-color, oversized. 
Life is pretty good being a gigantic crocodile god: spend your days lazing on the riverbeds of the Nile while your devotees shower praise and juicy offerings upon you. But Sobek's idyll is broken and he must limber into action when a distraught priest relays news of affront and vandalism from the followers of Set.  An all-new, unmissable stunner from James Stokoe. This book comes with an exclusive static-cling A4 PVC poster (colored but transparent, to be stuck on surfaces), which will only be available via the box.

Visiting by Alivia Horsley, dust jacket cover, 42pp, full-colour.
Dylan has been preparing for a visit to her beloved Auntie. Moments together are precious, and lots of time spent reminiscing, eating, gardening. All the while, Dylan's trying to build up the courage to ask Auntie a big question on behalf of her mum, even as she wrestles with the idea of it herself.

Resort on Caelum by Wren McDonald. risograph printed, 32pp.
Tobin is one of a group of fresh new recruits landing on Caelum working for Sinensis to build a new resort on the planet, and he's excited to meet the fighter mech-pilots he idolizes and to become one himself. Until it comes to battle, and it's not clear what exactly they're fighting, and why... 
(This print run of Resort on Caelum will be exclusive to ShortBox #10 only)

Boogsy by Michelle Kwon, spot gloss cover, 58pp, perfect bound.
Does sticky have to be icky? Mac's at one of life's dead-ends: no job, no motivation, no idea about what to do, and living at her twin sister's place while she (sort of) tries to figure it out. Into this picture arrives Boogsy- a boyfriend made up entirely of her apparently sentient boogers. The two instantly embark on a relationship, and, it seems, down a path of further self-destructive behaviors. 

Two of Us by Jessi Zabarsky, 44pp, full-colour. 
Febry has always wanted to be just like their enchantress mother: using magic to help people and do neat things, and going to magic school is a much-anticipated first step towards that. Febry's mum, long fascinated with the mundane world, has enrolled Febry to mundane school, much to their horror. Can the two worlds meet, or more pertinently, can the mundane world handle Febry... ShortBox is proud to present their very first dedicated, all-ages title by the wonderful Jessi Zabarksy!

'Rainy Day' by Jon McNaught. A4 print with silver foiling, exclusive to box only.

Order ShortBox #10 here.

February 25, 2019

Looking At Him Looking: Daniel Elkin reviews THROUGH A LIFE by Tom Haugomat

How'd you know I was looking at you
If you weren't looking at me?
-- Mr. Bungle, “Egg” 

We are all, in some sense, voyeurs. It’s inevitable as we watch the world before us unfold. Yet, never before have we had such access to the lives of others. And as we willingly and carefully curate and document our own lives for the edification of others, privacy becomes a tenuous space. Still, the act of watching others is how we learn: learn to grow, learn to hope, learn to dream. But what is the value of watching others as they watch their world? What do we learn from this?

In Tom Haugomat’s beautiful new book from Nowbrow Press, Through A Life, the answer seems to be that through this act of voyeurism, we learn that growing, hoping, and dreaming ultimately leads us nowhere except to disappointment.
Told through a series of single-page illustrations, Haugomat places his main character, Rodney, in time and space and then, thorough point-of-view, focuses the reader on what this character is seeing. Each page turn marches the perspective through a lifetime, year after year, from earliest memories to final moments, the full range of a life lived. By this, we are given access to the creation of Rodney’s hopes, the development of his dreams, and the brutal realities of eventual disappointment.

Haugomat is, first and foremost, an illustrator whose background in animation is instantly apparent in this book. Paring his visual cues down to their essentials, Haugomat works in forms mostly, eschewing detail in order to broaden the reader’s connection to the work. But what his illustration lacks in specificity, it makes up in his use of color. Suffused with a consistent palette throughout featuring a bold blue, a pale yellow, an inky black, and an amazingly vivid red, Haugomat’s work pops from the page, as if it is a series of propaganda posters advocating for a carefully constructed political platform that is, at its heart, a vision of an idealized world unobtainable, an illusion, a fraud.
Rodney spends his life looking through…” begins the blurb on the back of Through A Life. He’s an observer whose observations gives him a distance, sets up a barrier between himself and his experiences. As such, the emotional beats of the book seem as detached from the truth as Rodney himself is from the reality of his life. As he grows and hopes and dreams, there is an inevitability to the loss he encounters, but, because of the manner Haugomat has framed this work, the visceral impact of these losses on the reader are lessened. We are only observing someone else observing, after all.
There’s an interesting, albeit well-worn exploration of the juxtaposition of the micro with the macro in Through A Life, as Haugomat tries to bring the reader’s attention to (while raising the value of) the small moments in life by placing them in contrast to the vastness of space and the notion of grand exploration. But, once again, through the distance engendered by Haugomat’s narrative and artistic choices, this, too, seems a specious and misleading propaganda. It’s as if nothing ends up mattering in the end -- that in reality, everything is disappointing because we expect too much from it all.

Perhaps this is the parable of our times.

Perhaps, too, the value of Through A Life is not just in its striking beauty as a work of craftsmanship and art, but in the fact that its lies are so blatant while its truths are so revelatory.
Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, Shelfdust, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches and that Tusk is the best Fleetwood Mac album.

February 23, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/18/19 to 2/22/19

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


* Andy Oliver reviews BODY MAGIK by Scott Roberts, "a quietly thoughtful convergence of social relevance and more metaphysical issues of identity, made all the more pertinent for the symbolism of Roberts’ art."

* Kevin Bramer writes this short review of CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts, calling it "engrossing, hilarious while being occasionally heartbreaking (sometimes in the same panel) and just a damned entertaining read."

* Robin Enrico reviews DEMENTIA 21 by Shintaro Kago, "a surprising graphic novel in that it takes [Kago's] well-known ability to render characters in grotesque situations and uses it as a way tackle deeply fraught subjects.

* Chris Mautner on BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE by Rina Ayuyang, "a warm, loving portrait of American life, nailing the way the small, silly stuff that hipsters (like me) like to mock -- reality television, sporting events -- and showing the simple happiness seeming it can bring to our lives."

* Oliver Sava reviews OFF SEASON by James Strum which reinforces "how partisan allegiances impact personal interactions even when no one is talking about the government."

* Carol Borden on MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS by Emil Ferris, writing "It is easy to try to separate everything into good or bad and choose a side. But things are complicated and people are complex. And the stories that save us sometimes justify doing terrible things."

* Tom Murphy on Simon Moreton's MINOR LEAGUES #7, writing "Moreton weaves the personal, the geographical and the anthropological with skill, while his more poetic flourishes generally pull up short of preciousness or self-indulgence. He uses his research well, unearthing and polishing little nuggets of history or folklore to highlight the sense of place."

* John Seven reviews PTSD by Guillaume Singelin which "ends up being a hopeful work that calls for blind compassion, and a mix of communal healing and self-sufficiency."

* Rob Clough on Hellen Jo's JIN AND JAM, writing "Jo comes at the reader with all kinds of crazy angles and perspectives, pushing motion and energy on the reader instead of making them think about the actual drawings. There’s also a certain propulsiveness to what she’s doing, pushing the reader along the page."


* The Festival Workers Association has published an OPEN LETTER calling on conventions to have greater financial transparency, give participants a more equal footing, and make formal commitments to diversity and inclusion.

* Robin McConnell interviews KARL STEVENS over on Inkstuds.

* Jamaica Dyer -- MIXTAPE FOUR: ALBUMS I HAVE LOVED -- need I say more? I don't think so.

* Andrea Shockling has a powerful new installment of SUBJECTIVE LINE WEIGHT up on her site written by Mariah McCourt about her ED and BDD.

* M.S. Harkness has a new WEBSITE and uses it to introduce herself and talk about some of her upcoming projects.

* Anya Davidson has a comic in the Chicago Reader called DOOR TO DOOR.

* Rozi Hathaway has a comic up on the Good Comics site called BEAR.

* Margot Ferrick has a comic up on Vice called MILK SKIN.

February 20, 2019

"I Try To Find The Funny In Everything:" -- Rob Clough interviews NOVEMBER GARCIA

November Garcia is one of the freshest and funniest voice in autobiographical comics. While she's skilled at playing up her wacky escapades with her husband Roy, the joke-generating machine that is her mom and her initial insecurity in approaching the indy comics community, the reality is that she is one of the most skilled humorists in comics. After several misfires earlier in her career, she's in a groove right now that's seen her published by Hic & Hoc, PEN America, and Popula. She won the Dash Grant from Short Run Seattle. Her most recent work saw her emerge as a fully-formed voice, yet she's worked hard to improve at aspects of her craft that she's been dissatisfied with. That said, she emerged with a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity in her comedic voice. She's fearless in tackling difficult subjects, using certain deflective and self-deprecatory techniques to prevent her comics from becoming maudlin. She has a way of boiling down anecdotes to their humorous essence in a way that doesn't feel stilted or fake. Her figure drawing is rubbery and expressive. Garcia's mixture of enthusiasm and glee for the things she loves and visceral disgust for the things she doesn't comes across vividly on the page. In this interview, we'll examine Garcia's roots and provide critical context for her work.

Family and Background

Rob Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you?

November Garcia: I was born and raised in a little suburb in Manila, Philippines. We call them “villages” here. They’re just suburbs, not like huts or anything like that. My elementary school and high school were in that same village, and all my friends lived in that same village. So I never had a reason to leave the village. 

I’m now 41 and am proud to say that many moons ago I escaped the village to a magical city 6,963 miles away for 13 years. I have since moved back… to a different village.

RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends with whom you read comics?

NG: As a child, I grew up reading Archie, Garfield, and Peanuts. The usual hits, because that’s all we could get over here. I found a photo where I was reading Woody Woodpecker and am proud of that. Every kid growing up in the ‘80s here pretty much read the same comics.

In my teens, I would buy comics from Tower Records when my family went on holiday in the US. That’s when I got into Sandman and Tank Girl. Yeah, yeah, I know, quit laughing.

RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings and friends?

NG: I always drew. I’d make up stories in my head and just draw them out nonsensically. My dad was the president of an ad agency, and his desk always had a stack of newsprint and a cup of sharpened pencils––that was my favorite place in the world to draw. At home, I’d whine: “Mom, I’m booooored! Can I have a pencil and paper?”.

I actually made a lot of teen drama comics with dogs as the characters (maybe an Archie influence). I recently unearthed some “ads” I drew as inserts, like dogs selling toilet paper. I really loved dogs. 

My two sisters were more into ballet, piano, Barbies, and drawing fashion dresses. I’m the son that my dad never had.

RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

NG: Honestly, I was a spoiled brat, being the baby of the family. (I was a... er... surprise/blessing having been born 6 years after my second sister). I rebelled a lot in my teens and beyond—and coming from a decent family, I couldn’t understand what my problem was. Today, after living on my own in a major American city, I realize that it was the repression and the monotony and the “sheep mentality” all around me. I was itching for more but didn’t know what, exactly.

RC: Your mom is one of your go-to characters in Malarkey. She even contacts you with complaints after reading some of your strips. What does she think of you putting her in your strips in general? Has she been supportive of your career as a cartoonist?

NG: She only gets mad when I write about Jesus, drinking, or drugs. Otherwise, she’s fine with it (although sometimes she’ll say the quintessential “Don’t make a comic about this!”). My parents have always supported my creative endeavors. Being a creative person himself, my dad always said, “Thank God none of you girls became boring doctors or lawyers!”. He probably regrets that now, though.

The mom comics actually began as a Christmas gift to my dad. I did a dad book full of strips about him and had it printed professionally. He loved it, so the next year, I made him a mom book. There are a lot of gems in that one which I wished I had put in Malarkey but they all live somewhere in the Tumblr and on my dad’s coffee table.

RC: Do you plan to do strips about your dad in the future? He's conspicuous by his absence in your current work.

NG: I would if he did something funny –– my mom just keeps stealing the show. There are definitely memories worth making strips about. Maybe I’ll look through that dad book I made to see if there’s something there.

RC: Did you study art in high school or college?

NG: Our high school here is like elementary school in the sense that you don’t get to choose subjects. And you’re in the same damn classroom all day. So I just had the generic art classes in high school where you make a dumb collage or something.

I was kind of a burnout, so I didn’t get into the best (and only) art college here. They had a talent test where, if you passed, it would supersede your failure of what is the equivalent of the SATs in the States. I also failed the talent test, so I guess I was a really bad artist. I ended up going to my “back-up” college, which I’d previously vowed that I would never attend — but my mom forced me to take the entrance exam anyway: “In case you end up with no school!”. When I needed to declare a major, I checked the box for “advertising” only because my cousin did.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up privileged, and, after college, I convinced my dad to send me to art school in San Francisco. I chose the school solely on the location and turned down his offer to send me to London or New York. I dropped out after one year because I eloped with a guy I met at that art school. Poor dad.

But I returned in my late 20s with a vengeance, determined to finish what I started. I switched to a program that had Graphic Design classes, which saved my life and got me out of the pet care industry. 

Early Days

RC: You've written that you started doing comics in your early twenties and even submitted them to various publishers. What were those comics like?

NG: I was going through my psychedelic phase, so they were these awful comics with a character named Bean who had misadventures in an incense and peppermints world. It had no words and was pure “eye candy” with swirls, heavy stippling, wild patterns, and bendy trees. 

I was so delusional that when I bought my first Frank comic by Jim Woodring, I proclaimed “Great! Now the world will think I’m copying this guy!”

I only ever submitted my comics to ONE publisher: Fantagraphics. Haha! And when they sent their rejection letter, I had the gall to email Peter Bagge for his opinion as to why. I asked, “Is it the art or the writing?” and he said “Both”.

Yes, I had huge balls and nothing resembling a clue back then.

RC: You've listed Peter Bagge as one of your earliest influences. What other cartoonists were formative for your work?

NG: Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory. I only discovered them when I got to San Francisco. My ex was into comics too (he got me into Crumb) and tried to get me into Angry Youth Comix and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac but those didn’t stick.

RC: You note Bagge as an influence, yet your recent work is autobiographical. Have you ever considered doing humorous fiction?

NG: I guess I cite him as a huge influence because I’m so invested in his characters, especially the HATE series and The Bradleys. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-read that series. I know my work looks nothing like his, like I’m horrible at feathering, which he does a lot of. But I love his art and writing.

I wish I could do humorous fiction but I don’t think my writing skills are good enough. I stick with the “write what you know” approach, and even then, it’s a struggle. The material comes easily, but autobio can be so self-serving ... I constantly have to find ways to avoid navel-gazing. The question “Why should anyone give a shit?” always helps.

RC: Did you quit comics for any period of time after that? If so, for how long? What led to your quitting?   

NG: As I entered my late 20s, I didn’t exactly quit — I just did it more sporadically. I got a corporate job and spent most of my spare time feeding my “tattoo artist” phase. Roy was friends with a bunch of tattooers. He bought all this tattoo equipment and we’d practice on pigskin. I thought this would be my new “out”... just waltz into a shop and say “Hey dudes, check out my awesome portfolio.” I call it “Fantagraphics Submission Delusion: Part Two”.

I actually enjoyed making the designs but all that machinery and hullabaloo was just not in the cards for me.

During this time, I did make a comic series called “Catholic Girls” about my high school experiences and it went viral in Manila. There were heated debates in the comments section of my blog. My drawing was horrible and I used computer lettering so just don’t google it. (But I bet you will! Argh)

RC: You know that I had to. It reads like a more labored version of what you do now, with lots more cross-hatching and such, but it's still the same voice. Have you thought about revisiting and revising this material?

NG: Perhaps. I touched a bit on it in my PEN America comic but I’m open to doing some vignettes. It’s just hard for me to remember a lot of things from that time and I rely a lot on my friends’ memories from high school. I probably blocked out a lot of it from trauma.

RC: How old were you when you moved from the Philippines to the US? What was that transition like?

NG: I didn’t graduate with an art degree so I couldn’t apply for a Masters. I got a second degree instead, so at 23, I was the oldest person in my dorm. 

I arrived in San Francisco with too much confidence ... I thought I was so cool because I was one of the “edgiest” people in my village, haha! There was definitely a learning curve, culturally. Simple things like having to walk up and talk to strangers to make friends (people aren’t as forward in Manila). I also did a lot of naive things because I was used to being in a safe bubble where you couldn’t get into any serious trouble. My ignorance literally almost landed me in prison (a possible future comic and also, sorry mom and dad), mugged, sexually harassed, or beat up. I’m a fast learner though, so I assimilated quickly.

RC: That sounds like an entire book's worth of experiences. Any plans to write about that soon?

NG: I always wanted to do a strip about the close call with ending up in jail, but it’s so heavy and loaded with dark events. I have to figure out how to do it in my writing style, keeping it light. The same goes for the sexual harassment ... I just don’t see any way of writing about that without being heavy. I wrote about some of the other stuff in Foggy Notions, like being held at gunpoint, the black eye, etc. so I probably won’t do another book of San Francisco-specific experiences. 

Foggy Notions

Published by Hic and Hoc, Foggy Notions is Garcia's second comic but her official debut. It's a departure from her self-published work in that it's a series of interrelated, longer-form vignettes about her time living in San Francisco. While not gag-oriented, it's still funny because Garcia focuses on the weird, the inappropriate and the extreme--and that's just with regard to her own behavior. "My First Black Eye" is the prototypical Garcia story, as a woman on a bus tries to steal her phone and punches Garcia in the face. A black eye in her case was a serious thing, given that she's almost blind in the eye that wasn't punched. The mix of outrageousness and anxiety gives the piece tense energy and sets the tone for the rest of the book. 

"Everlast" may be about a homeless person she and Roy saw all the time, but it's also a walking tour of San Francisco that sets the stage for documenting a city that was about to be forever altered by gentrification. Here we see Garcia's difficulty with backgrounds inhibiting the story a bit because it doesn't give the reader enough of the unique aspects of the city. However, her cartooning with regard to people is excellent, especially with regard to facial expressions, body language and figures interacting in space. 

RC: Foggy Notions was your first comic released by a publisher, correct? Other than Malarkey, did you self-publish any comics before this?

NG: No, in fact, Malarkey just came into existence because my publisher asked me if I had anything lying around that he could give away at SPX. So I compiled a bunch of comics from my Tumblr into a zine and mailed them to him. That’s the first comic you ever read from me too!

RC: Matt Moses handed it to me and talked you up, but it was remarkably assured work considering it was your first go. How long you had been doing comics on Tumblr at that time?

NG: I was posting comics here and there on my blog for years but was only posting on Tumblr for a few months. They weren’t very good, but after Matt took me under his wing he gave me good advice [about cartoonists to emulate.] That really helped me approach comics in a more mature way going forward and I also made them more frequently. Those are the strips that went into that first Malarkey.  

RC: How did you come to work with Matt Moses of Hic andHoc?

NG: In 2015, my website was down so I started a Tumblr account and posted a bunch of comics on there. I saw Hic and Hoc in my network and they had a submissions button, so I sent two awful strips which were rejected. I had just gotten over the blighted ovum incident and the comics were very dark. Thankfully, this at least got me on Matt’s radar and he must have seen some potential in other stuff I posted after that. Eventually, he contacted me about trying something out.

RC: Foggy Notions is different from most of your self-published work. While it's funny, the stories are longer and are all set during your time living in San Francisco. Was this part of your pitch, or was this something that Matt wanted?

NG: Matt wanted something cohesive so I pitched a couple of themes and we settled on the San Francisco stories. I really enjoy longer narrative writing and Malarkey is more of my “release” from that ... just stuff for laughs and fun in between the serious work. I’ve been meaning to do more narrative stuff like Rookie Moves. My comics on PEN America and Popula that came out recently are reflective of what I want to do next.

RC: How long was it after you left San Francisco that you wrote these comics? Were you aware that you were documenting a city that no longer exists?

NG: I had just moved back to the Philippines when I started writing those, probably 3 years in. I always knew I had some stories to tell and that things were changing, especially after I moved. I just didn’t know the extent and the quickness of how the city was changing during the period that I was writing the comics from here.

RC: "Everlast" is a story whose central gag relies on a homeless man wearing an Everlast jacket. It also serves as a walking tour of San Francisco. Was it important for you to give the reader a strong sense of the city's flavor during the course of the comic?

NG: I didn’t really overthink it. It was just another part of my life living there and a running joke between me and Roy (other people in the neighborhood knew him too, like the guy who does my tattoos and Roy’s friend who owns a vintage clothing store). 

It was the first story I pitched to Matt because it was the most mundane storyline, and I wanted to prove that I could write beyond pure spectacle. Today, I do regret not having shown more of my neighborhood for that comic, but my skills back then were very limited.
RC: Do you feel that writing about the "pure spectacle" aspects of your life is somehow cheating as a creator, like it's an easy shortcut?

NG: If the story of spectacle is one hell of a story, then I’m all for writing about it. I only think it’s cheating if you rely on spectacle alone to write all your stories. Gabrielle Bell is a master storyteller in my opinion because she could literally be watching paint dry and write an amazing story about that.

RC: As an author, you have an interesting relationship with the excesses of your own behavior. You seem to walk a line between worried about it and playing it up for laughs. Are there past stories that you read and cringe at, or is it all just fodder for good storytelling?

NG: I definitely cringe at past stories, especially from Malarkey #2 when I was going through a tough time. I try to avoid whiney autobio. But that’s where I was at at the time so that’s what I wrote about. In Malarkey #3, there are practically no substance abuse stories (not that I’m saying they didn’t happen, yuk! yuk!).

I’ve always had an impulsive and addictive personality, which is not a good combination, but at the same time I’m reasonable enough to remain a “functioning adult”. So there’s that conundrum of not really having a serious problem — by cutting it off right at the limit. 

Let’s change the subject, haha!

RC: Okay. How did you develop your lettering style? Your letter size is bigger than most cartoonists, and you use interesting loops in places.

NG: I’ve always had horrible handwriting, so I have no idea where that came from. I do remember that in school, my friends would crack up at how neat my handwriting was when I had to write out visual presentations.

As they say, “Lettering is Drawing” so that probably explains that. I do hate that my lettering is so huge and I’ve been trying to adjust it, but it’s really hard for me.

February 18, 2019

Blood's Thicker Than Mud: Rob Clough reviews Rina Ayuyang's BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE

On the surface, Rina Ayuyang's autobiographical vignettes in her book Blame This On The Boogie (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018) are breezier than most memoir comics. She grew up in a loving family and still gets to see them all the time. She has a wonderful life in the Bay Area with her husband and son. She has lots of passionate interests and has the time and opportunity to obsess over them in amusing ways. A deeper reading of the book, though, reveals that her hobbies are a way of coping with anxiety. Her family has long been a bulwark against creeping depression, aiding her in coping with racism. There's also a larger theme of how being a part of a team can provide an individual with the kind of support needed to overcome life's obstacles. 

The tone of Blame This On The Boogie is upbeat and funny. Ayuyang clearly loves to poke fun at her family and friends, but she also depicts them giving as good as they get. Her parents emigrated from the Philippines to America, and Ayuyang grew up very Americanized, even as her classmates often bullied her for her ethnicity and made her feel like an outsider. The first half of Blame This On The Boogie covers her childhood in Pittsburgh as the youngest of four children. From the very beginning of the book, Ayuyang goes all-in on creating a vividly bright world using colored pencils. Considering that she started her career working in an intense woodcut style, it was interesting to see her embrace this radiant use of color. Make no mistake — it wasn't just the use of color that is significant but also the clearly scrawled-out quality of her coloring. It is obvious that the visceral quality of the coloring is a feature of what she is doing, complementing her cartoony line while granting the entire project a childlike sense of wonder.
That use of color also had a specific purpose: creating a slightly wobbly version of reality where fantasy elements can be introduced without disturbing the visual continuity of the story. In particular, Ayuyang makes use of this in depicting one of the key running themes in the book: her love of dance. After a long section that introduces her family, Ayuyang notably uses a disco dance routine by her godparents to frame the title section of the book. It's a deliberately cinematic move, one of many in the book. When young Ayuyang is introduced to the films of Fred Astaire as a child, she's hooked by the artistry, the pageantry and the choreography of the dance routines. The sheer joy of those films, along with the frequent dance parties she had with her older sisters, was a counterpoint to her mostly miserable experience in Catholic school. As well as being taunted by other kids for being Asian, her teachers terrorized her. 

Ayuyang uses dance as a visual motif signifying transitions and time moving on. It's the most essential form of sequential art: following a body moving through space and time. She simply uses that motion as a metaphor, especially in the second half of the book. The first half of the book is all about her experience as the youngest member of the family, being part of this team that loved and aggravated each other in equal measure, and finally winding up being together with all of them again in San Francisco when her siblings moved there, one by one. The final page of the first half has them at a big table in a restaurant, jabbering at each other. Everyone's married and babies are on the way. It's a perfect pivot point.
The second half of Blame This On The Boogie is a series of smaller vignettes that center around Ayuyang's new life as a mother. Much of the book focuses on the mixture of joy and anxiety she feels in watching her son, Finn, grow up as a fun-loving, popular kid in school. She's relieved that he loves school so much and does so well there, but she's constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's also a focus of time flipping by too quickly, as she despairs at not being able to stay in the moment and enjoy being a mother. There is guilt about doing her comics and any activity that takes her away from her family, but there is also a sense of accomplishment when she gets her fledgling publishing company off the ground. 
Working in the present tense means that Ayuyang also focuses on her anxiety and occasional bouts with depression. She's anxious about maintaining her career as an artist. She feels like a failure as a mother, especially in the early going. That's when she reaches out to the world of dance once more, becoming a superfan of the TV show Dancing With The Stars because of the presence of former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward. The world of the show becomes her world via the internet, as even her son and husband get swept along with her fervor. Her response to Ward's dance routines with his partner Kym reaches a level of intensity that's almost childlike. It takes her back to her love of Steelers’ football as well as the dance routines of her youth, and the competitive nature of the program only heightens her excitement. 

Seeing a live taping of the show with her relatives closes a loop for her, both as the logical outcome of her fandom as well as making her interest that much more personal and visceral. She gets to see "The Big Show" and experience life as a series of dramatic moments that nonetheless stack up neatly. It is another of many pivot moments in the book, as though she starts one dance, ends it, and then smoothly transitions into a different routine. That sense of rhythm is life-sustaining in Blame This On The Boogie. It gives Ayuyang a pattern she can follow and emulate. It gives her life structure and a respite for her anxiety. It allows her to think of the time slipping away from her as another act to savor and remember, even though "It's hard to reminisce when memories are constantly being replaced by new ones."
Ayuyang's comic timing is sharp. One thing that's clear is that every member of her family is a champion shit-talker, giving as good as they get. While this level of aggressiveness (albeit affectionate) can be annoying, it's also fodder for all kinds of witty banter. She and her friend Josh Frankel have a number of hilarious exchanges when he calls her out for spending so much time on Facebook on a group dedicated to Hines Ward and Kym Johnson. Ayuyang usually makes herself the target of her jokes, even as she sputters in trying to defend herself. It contributes to the book's breezy, fast pace. On every page, Ayuyang either lands a joke or draws people in motion as a way of keeping the book away from simple talking heads. 

How do movie musicals end? With a show-stopping finale, of course. That's just what Ayuyang does here, as we see Finn dancing like his mother through life. When she walks away after dropping him off at his beloved school, she dissolves into a series of colorful squiggles that emphasize pure form and movement. This eventually coalesces into her reappearing with her husband in a choreographed series of movements in a restaurant and a Busby Berkeley- style fantasy sequence involving Ayuyang in a fancy outfit and a giant fountain. After stepping away from that fantasy, she's joined by her husband, her family … and ... Hines Ward in a giant group dance number that ends the book. It's a funny and charming sequence that is a lovely ode to the sort of Stanley Donen musicals she references in Blame This On The Boogie. Reality flips into something else for just a few precious moments to be savored. Moreover, musicals traditionally have people break out into song and dance numbers when their emotions are simply too powerful to express otherwise. 
For Ayuyang, thinking about dance and music gave her emotions and anxieties a much-needed outlet as a child. Being able to share that love of dance & music with her family served to strengthen her bond with them. As she started her own family, dance and musicals helped with different anxieties, especially surrounding her son. Her fears that he would suffer from similar kinds of problems that she did hung over her, but the reality is that he possesses her same upbeat personality and love of dance and movement. He sees the world as she does: a constant, shifting series of beautiful miracles, only he doesn't have the same level of anxiety or have to face the same sort of difficulties as she did at this stage of his life. It's that realization that kicks off the final "dance number" in the book: a celebration of everyone in her life who's on her team. 
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).

February 13, 2019

One Thousand Images for a Single Idea: Fred McNamara reviews WHAT IS 'HOME'? by Anja Uhren

The quotation marks in the title of Anja Uhren’s comic What Is ‘Home’? serve as a gateway into its thematic exploration. The emphasis placed on the word home forces the reader to consider what exactly constitutes a ‘home’? When reading Uhren’s efforts, it’s clear that a sense of subjectivity is at the heart of the book, since part of What is ‘Home’?’s construction relies on the artist bringing onboard numerous contributors to the comic’s questioning title. This collaboration makes What is ‘Home’? a world away from her other works. Here, Uhren presents an intensely subjective piece of sequential work. The nature of the comic ensures that no answer is the same, no answer is right or wrong.

Uhren utilizes the far-reaching answers to her titular question to craft a visual journey, skipping from page to page, bringing a variety of different answers to life. What is ‘Home’? may be brief, clocking in at 35 pages, but each page packs in a world’s worth of answers via a divergent, intriguing selection of ideas and Uhren’s characteristically melancholic artwork. Nearly every page in What is ‘Home’? serves as a splash page, a canvas built to incorporate multiple sets of answers which, while separate, complement each other enough for Uhren to fashion an overall idea. While the definitions of “home” may stand apart from each other, there isn’t a sense of jarring ideologies from the comic’s participants. Uhren knows how to categorize ideas based on their tone and the image of home they conjure forth.
The result is an eloquent, intimate flow through literal and metaphorical depictions of home. Some of the answers Uhren uses are straight-forward, unflinching in their directness, while others are more abstract, more reminiscent. Throughout, though, Uhren anchors her illustrations with an exaggerated sense of shape and perspective that lends the comic a rather dream-like quality. Each image is held together by a limited color palette, which helps to cement the overall mood of that page. Uhren’s visual sensitivity is in full flow here. Lighter colors are used to reflect happier, pleasant musings on the meaning of home, while darker, pensive colors illuminate the more negative or unsure connotations.

Uhren’s use of shape and shadow, in particular, helps give What is ‘Home’? a sense of depth and scale. The architecture of Uhren’s various homes is often seen shrouded in murky shadow, as if to comfort or confine the individuals inside, depending on the accompanying definition of the term. There’s a quiet confidence in how Uhren takes these similar visual combinations and pulls forth separate moods from them. Answers and art may be working in tandem here, but moments like these show how Uhren’s craft is very much in charge.
The uncategorized pace of the comic means that, as a reader, you’re never quite sure what manner of answer you’ll be getting with each page turn, and What is ‘Home’? is all the better for it. Rather than coming across as erratic, there’s a sense of ebb and flow to the book, swaying from light to dark and back again. With such a wide variety of ideas to bring to life with her artwork, it’s a testament to Uhren’s skills as a visual storyteller that What is ‘Home’? bears a serene, almost calming sensibility.

Of course, Uhren isn’t the sole voice in this work. If anything, she’s rarely heard at all, as she allows her 50+ contributors to wax lyrical over their personal definitions of home. The variety of answers makes What is ‘Home’? read like an anthology, but Uhren’s cohesive style gives it a potent, sequential definition. Uhren herself acts as something of a curator for these thoughts and musings, as the definitions span a variety of lengths. Some consist of a single sentence, while others form numerous paragraphs, giving What is ‘Home’? an all-encompassing narrative depth.
The answers themselves boast an inquisitive sensitivity. Some define home as a literal, definitive object; a “big blue house”. Others take a more lyrical approach, linking the physical definitions of home to an emotional state: “Home means more today than it did yesterday and it’ll mean more tomorrow than it did today”. Uhren’s openness in bringing together clashing perspectives gives What is ‘Home’? a universal mood, as if every conceivable emotion tied to the idea of home is represented here. That variety of answers also ensures that the comic’s tone is kept in flux. Both positive and negative depictions of what home exactly means are scattered throughout the book, meaning that despite the comic’s overall melancholic mood, it rarely lingers on one specific feeling for too long.

Yet the text itself remains somewhat underserved by Uhren’s art. Her caricatured visuals dwarf the accompanying text, to the point where it’s occasionally impractical. The text is at its most effective when it’s ingrained into the furniture of Uhren’s panels, and when there are panels rather than splash pages. In Uhren’s splash pages, the text appears somewhat loose and untamed. On one level, that informal attitude adds to the low-key, sketchbook feel of What is ‘Home’?, but the narrative of the comic is at its most muscular when its visual structure is at work. The playful integration of the text amid Uhren’s diverse images illuminate their message, and also allows Uhren’s flexible style to unwind, adding to the exuberant intimacy of this endearing comic.
What is ‘Home’? is a spellbindingly distinct read. Its romantic qualities give even the darker moments an immersive feel. Its unique structure and gorgeous visuals fuse together into a charmingly sweet comic book. Uhren’s talents have always been well-tailored to visual narratives. Here, though, she allows her own narrative to take a step back and allow for a collaborative spectrum of ideas, musings, and poetry from which to build her comic.

What is ‘Home’? doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question it poses, but it isn’t meant to. Rather, What is ‘Home’? shows that a word many might think to have a universally appreciated meaning has, instead, wildly diverse ones which Uhren explores to great effect. Her sublime artwork has little difficulty conjuring forth the multitude of emotions stated in the myriad of definitions. With melancholic colors and distorted shapes crafted to exquisite effect, the book’s overall message is executed with razor-sharp clarity. What is ‘Home’? stands as an enjoyably eclectic, experimental entry in Uhren’s growing back catalog of warm, hypnotic visual narratives.
Fred McNamara thoroughly enjoys writing about comic books and TV shows you've never heard of. His love of indie/small press comics arose through his role as senior editor for the superhero/comic book hub A Place To Hang Your Cape. He's currently enduring a prolonged period of sleepless nights as his debut book, Spectrum is Indestructible, is gearing up for publication later this year from Chinbeard Books.