April 8, 2019

Rob Clough reviews Six New Titles from GLOM PRESS

Glom Press is an exciting new publishing concern located in Melbourne, Australia. The people behind it are Marc Pearson and Michael Hawkins, both of whom are cartoonists in their own right.  They specialize in beautiful Risograph-printed comics, and a recent fundraising campaign produced a half-dozen strange and interesting books. It's hard to pin down their aesthetic as a publisher, other than they are clearly drawn to personal work that explores human empathy and alienation. The comics Glom publishes have a rough edge to them in terms of both storytelling and mark-making, creating an intense level of intimacy between creator and reader. However, the genres and approaches each artist adopts are radically different in some cases, making each book a unique experience. 
Eloise Grills' Sexy Female Murderesses is an example of a Glom artist choosing to focus on alienation mutating into completely antisocial behavior. Grills' use of an almost smeared dark green and purple in the comic makes the pages feel like bruises. Her fascination with the titular subject of the murderesses veers off into her own feelings and life, as she uses them to explore the ways in which women have historically snapped in the face of oppression and boredom. Grills is as interested in the history of people writing about this subject as she is in the women themselves, quoting several men with regard to women who murder. The quotes often mention women poisoning their victims (usually their families) and posits this as a preferred method because women lack the "courage, willpower and strength" to murder in other ways. These quotes are revelatory as they demean women even when it comes to such monstrous, immoral activities. 

Sexy Female Murderesses is a long, funny, and disturbing ramble on the subject that's not unlike the work of Jessica Campbell in terms of her expressive, smudgy line. Grills' personal tangents reveal that this is really a book about not only how she relates to the idea of feeling the need for control in her life but also about how the power of life and death over others -- especially innocents like children -- is the ultimate form of control. It's not just having power, but it's also the idea of flying in the face of everything that is expected of women in society. She relates dreams she's had about being Tonya Harding performing at the Olympics, knowing about the crime she's committed. There's that sense of being consumed by guilt but also understanding that women are ultimately judged for how they look and how they perform. Grills examines the perniciousness of the male gaze as not just objectifying in a reductive, sexual manner but actually forcing women to conform to this soulless, vapid, and dehumanizing gender construct. The rejection of this control, no matter how pathological it might be, is not celebrated by Grills because it is pathological. It is celebrated because it so clearly reveals the ways in which the deck is stacked against women.
Mandy Ord's Galápagos is an autobiographical story about her experience watching two different television shows: The Walking Dead and a David Attenborough documentary about life on the Galápagos Islands. Using a grotesque style for character design, this comic is about Ord's visceral reaction to a number of different things all at once. The grisly zombie violence of The Walking Dead has always represented a sort of exaggeration of society at large, and Ord started watching in spite of herself because of the possibility of resisting the zombies and killing them. That resistance was a denial of death itself, but it was also an affirmation of humanity coming together to resist extermination. When the show started to have humans kill other humans (the old "we were the real monsters all along!" trope), Ord found herself unable to watch. It was too much of a betrayal, and the visceral thrills she experienced were erased by being reminded of the horror that humanity perpetrates against itself. 

Of course, the Attenborough documentary features snakes devouring newborn iguanas, and the camera follows them devouring them like those zombies went after human brains. It triggers the same kind of reaction from Ord, who decides to go to bed. The final scenes depict her imagining snakes and zombies in her bed, a reminder not just of her own mortality but of the fragile nature of the social order in general. The green tone Ord uses for this comic is appropriate: a kind of sickly, unpleasant color that goes along with Ord's exaggerated, grotesque self-caricature.
Psychic Hotline, by Leonie Brialey, is perhaps the oddest entry in this idiosyncratic sextet of books from Glom Press. Consisting of a series of single-page images, it's also a quiet and melancholy story about trauma, depression, and connection. There are two primary characters: a ghostly and depressed figure frequently seen melting into his environment, and a woman working for the titular psychic hotline who talks to him on the phone. She explains that it's her "job to know the exact thing that is wrong with someone before they've even said anything" and then offer them advice without further triggering any trauma. The book is a series of conversations between the two of them, as well as the operator's own musings on her job. 

Brialey takes a minimalist approach and takes care to explore her line both in terms of pure mark-making as well as the emotional impact of each image. There are many zoom-ins and zoom-outs as part of page-long sequences, as well as a number of shots lingering on the ghost on page after page. Brialey here seems to want the reader to really remain in the ghost's sadness and feel that sense of desperation, even in the face of so much empathy and understanding.  Brialey's careful and almost agonizingly slow pacing goes hand in hand with the vast amount of negative space on each page. There's a sense in which any mark on the page is a kind of triumph against the void, just as reaching out and seeking help is its own kind of triumph. Human connection helps but doesn't fix everything, and it's telling that no matter how therapeutic her advice to the ghost is regarding their fractured relationship with their father, it is unclear if it ultimately helps. The final images are of the ghost just sort of going blank and becoming one with the earth.
Sometimes a comic is notable for what isn't said or seen but what is suggested. Such is the case with Rachel Ang's Swimsuit, a slice-of-life comic about a young woman who goes to a public pool with an ex-boyfriend. Everything about this comic is subtext, and Ang's expressive line that emphasizes shadow and the way bodies relate to each other in space serves to highlight hidden emotions and broken relationships. The woman, Jenny, is clearly interested in potentially getting back together with her ex, which Ang communicates by the way Jenny primps before he arrives. When he drops the bomb that he's dating someone new in the least sensitive and most oblivious way possible, one can see her entire mien sink into despair. Her shoulders slump, her arms are crossed, and it's clear that she starts to hate the way her body looks after her ex shows her a photo of his new girlfriend. The only way in which she reveals her feelings is when she says, "I didn't know that was your type" regarding the photo. He doesn't understand what she means by that and she feigns ignorance, but it's clear that she means "I wasn't your type."

Things only get worse from there. There's a moment of shocking violence when a bunch of white kids attack a black kid in the pool and pretend that he started it. Her ex looks on impassively, saying things like "I'm sure they're just playing" instead of acting. She damns herself for her own impassivity, mirroring the impassivity she evinces when she doesn't reveal her feelings. That's true even when he presses and asks if they're "cool", once again oblivious to the situation and her own feelings. When he finally gets the sense that this was a fucked-up situation and he half-heartedly apologizes that "it wasn't a nice time," he adds "I feel like whenever I'm around you, something heavy happens!" Jenny maintains that mix of rage and impassivity by half-jokingly saying "Yeah, I'm a fucking shit magnet!" and then walking away. It's a desolating moment of self-hatred and frustration. 

The final pages, when Jenny goes home, undresses, and then sinks into her bed, highlight her utter devastation. That sinking feeling is conveyed through Ang's use of color. Throughout most of the comic, Ang uses a dark purplish blue for her scratchy line, with the exception of the water in the pool. She uses a light green for those sequences, only the water isn't depicted as comforting. It looks oppressive and claustrophobic in its whorls. That same green appears at the end as she sinks into her bed, looking for comfort but finding only despair. Ang's use of narrative restraint, body language, and visual cues make this story deeply affecting. 
Aaron Billings' Mystical Boy Scout is the tonal opposite of Ang's work. It's literally a balls-out, hilarious, and over-the-top story mixing magic and queer culture in the most wonderful and ridiculous ways possible. It's a high fantasy story involving the latest in a series of Mystical Boy Scouts, a magical being "imbued with the oratory skills of Demosthenes, the wit of Oscar Wilde, the allure of St. Sebastian, and blessed with the greatest capacity for anal penetration in the world.

MBS has to defend his shared space for queers against a housing inspection. He utilizes the diamond he keeps in his ass, a magical smoke being who can summon cigarettes, magical flying prostate power, and the Soviet dog Laika to defeat his opponents. Billings' line is delightfully wobbly and his character design is a mixture of absurdly cartoony and sensitively naturalistic. This is a comic that manages to be a whole lot of things at once: silly adventure, tender romance, queer activism, and bawdy fun. 
My favorite of the six books from Glom Press, though, is the thirty page comic My Big Life by Bailey Sharp. I've been following Sharp's work since her days at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and her work has only become more daring and unusual. Billed as "somebody's memoir," it's an incredibly dense, philosophical, and unpredictable journey through mental health, capitalism, petty crime, tourist economies, and so much more. The nearest comparison I can think of to describe Sharp's work is Gabrielle Bell, only more grotesque and absurd. Her rubbery, elongated line gives her main character an almost serpentine quality, especially since she has just one extended eye that we can see at all times. 

The book begins with its narrator falling out of love, literally crawling out of bed and down the street, and finding a new job at a bookstore. The story touches on her emotionally abusive boss who demanded she read books that he'd quiz her on. The fact that nearly every book was about sad young men with unsated lust is a very witty commentary on gatekeeping in general and how canons are established. Sharp's storytelling is every bit as fluid as her line, as the narrator keeps sliding from scenario to scenario. She goes from living above the bookstore to living with a woman who turns out to be a con artist. That character, Luanne, is a marvel of design. With a conical head, heavy eyelashes, and hair put up in a ponytail, she resembles a bizarre muppet of some kind. 

From there, Sharp accelerates the narrative. The narrator buys a property in a town with achingly beautiful sunsets and starts a tourist industry around it. She meets up with Luanne again. All throughout the book, Sharp keeps things moving using a nine-panel grid. At this point, each panel becomes an entire narrative of its own, like "worked on a ranch" followed by "got caught stealing" followed by "learned to swim." Sharp's narrator comments on all of these events as they relate to her constant headaches and the slow drag of time in reality. Her bullet-pointed version goes by quickly for the reader, but she assures us that it is all very tedious. The final page circles back to the beginning of the book and satirically grants her peace through simplicity. It's especially funny because the break-up she mentions as "her big regret" that caused her so much misery is not described in any detail. We have no idea why the relationship was so significant, what her boyfriend was like, or anything else. In the end, neither does she.
Every one of these books from Glom Press is worth reading. It's clear that Pearson and Hawkins favor the kind of line that goes well with Risograph printing: some version of ratty, minimalist, expressive, or grotesque. The themes are personal and the commentary is pointed. These books are beautiful art objects as well as well-designed for reading. They have the look and feel of minicomics but with no set length; indeed, one of their goals as a publisher is to provide a bridge between classic zines and slicker graphic novels. Their celebration of their artists' idiosyncrasies and the way they make each book look its best are a testament to their belief in the work and the overall alt-comics scene in Australia. 
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).

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