May 29, 2019

Death and Praxes: Sara L. Jewell reviews CRIMES by Kelsey Wroten

If you’re queer, there’s no doubt some part of Kelsey Wroten’s debut graphic novella Crimes that will strike a blow to your heart. The back cover blurb of Crimes bills it as a book that “confronts selfish desire, intimacy, loss, and the unconventional ways in which we try to find connection in others”. The “unconventional” connection around which the narrative orbits is narrator Willa’s inexorable crush on her friend Simon’s girlfriend, the young, enigmatic and straightforward poet Bas, but all of this is filtered through the specter of death with which the book opens, foregrounding its examination of existential and romantic uncertainty that is complicated by an internalized condemnation of the self.

Wroten opens Crimes with a flashback to a conversation between Willa and her father, in which they discuss belief in God. Willa, a budding atheist, believes there is no logical sense to faith; there’s no proof that God exists. Her father presents an alternative view, which, unacknowledged by him, is Pascal’s wager; the believer stands to lose a measurable amount of material and pleasure in life by following religious tenets, whilst gaining resplendent eternity, whereas the atheist stands to gain only oblivion if she is right, and hell if she is wrong.
This conversation sets the stage for Willa’s uncertainty about her place in the world, one built upon a foundation of spirituality which condemns her and all mankind as inherently sinful. Interestingly enough, it also presents faith and skepticism not as an opposition between wishful hope and reason, but as two diametrically opposed mathematical equations, each with the same unknown variables.

This maybe/maybe-not of faith serves as an intriguing parallel to Willa’s crush on Bas which exists in the space of queer uncertainty over whom can even be considered a potential romantic partner. When Bas finds out Willa is gay, she immediately asks “How do you know when “stuff” between women is over? With men it’s pretty obvious…”  -  foreshadowing Willa and Bas’s later falling out over Simon’s untimely death - Willa admits it is more difficult “knowing when something begins” when you’re queer.  “When there’s a chance something might happen at first, possibilities are obfuscated by both desire and conjecture, then you wait for it to tip. For the crucial exchange of mutual interest. Sometimes it never happens, even when the pieces are all there,” she says. In a heteronormative culture, romantic possibility hovers over almost any two adults on opposite ends of the gender binary, which is not the case with other interpersonal dynamics. “I find it hard to deal with developing feelings in general because there’s a huge question of ‘Is it even possible she could be into me too? With straight people there is so much ground that is covered for you. Any energy can be read as romantic by default, even when it isn’t.”
Elsewhere, Wroten interrogates how duality characterized by ambivalence and contradiction play into uncertainty as endemic to the human condition, invoking Simon’s fascination with herpetology. Wroten’s mastery of visual language emerges beautifully here as a cinematic match cut between panels transitions from one inky frame of Willa’s crossed paint strokes to a second panel of a two-headed snake. As a metaphor that calls to mind both original sin and warring halves of the divided self, Willa narrates Simon’s description of axial bifurcation in snakes, a condition in which the ordinarily solitary milk snake is born with two heads, each one believing itself to be the “true” snake. In the end, Simon tells Willa, one snake will likely cannibalize the other as the two heads will hardly ever be able to agree – subsequently killing both of them.
Willa’s powerful attraction to Bas undergoes just such a constant and agonizing tug-of-war, as she can neither seem to initiate anything with Bas nor deny the force of her infatuation over the course of their many encounters, during which they discuss art, sex, and how both are implicated in identity. In many ways, they contrast one another.
Bas’s romantic and physical gravity draws Willa in even as she resists the pull, conflicted over Bas’s relationship with Simon, whom in addition to being Willa’s friend, is also a widower. Willa and Bas’ inevitable intimacy at the book’s climax is punctuated by the news of Simon’s death, which seems almost punitive, like a divine judgment. Like Simon, who lost his first wife, and Willa, who is, as Bas indelicately puts it early in the book, “an orphan” (“it’ll happen to you too, eventually,” Willa retorts), Bas, too, now experiences the cruelty of a death in close emotional proximity. Death, as Willa describes it in the opening (post-Simon’s death) is “perfect dark”, the interior of an ever-present coffin – and she wakes up sometimes in the dark feeling like she’s already underground. As Willa tries to watch a relaxing video and take part in a visualization exercise where she imagines a place of “,” images of childhood hide-and-seek are quickly supplanted by a flashback to her romantic interlude with Bas. No sooner does she envision Bas’s face, than the doorbell rings, delivering a posthumous package from Simon, like a rebuke from the afterlife. 
Wroten’s visuals in this book appear to depart from her more recently full-length graphic novel Cannonball which came out last month and sold out its first run. Cannonball is colorful, more conventionally stylized, and neater than Crimes, which has a rough, inky feel to its black-and-white pages. In both works, Wroten’s writing really shines through her dialogue, which is funny, dark and organic. She has a knack for writing conversations that humanize her characters even as they self-deprecate or make awkward attempts at witticism.

Wroten’s exploration of uncertainty and existential confrontation through expressive art takes on an interesting dimension as a graphic narrative that involves two characters making, individually, work that is visual (Willa) and textual (Bas).   “The magic of poetry,” Bas pontificates after Willa sees her perform for the first time, “is in the arrangement of words in a new way…I believe in it. These days, there is a growing shame associated with hope and earnestness.” With Crimes, however, Wroten suggests that isn’t a shame-worthy sin to believe in something – only naïve. Bas, young and incapable of fully appreciating death, can put her faith in the redemptive power of words. Willa, on the other hands, paints. “I am inept at expression” she admits, trying to make a painting for Bas and the late Simon, and envying Bas her poetic facility with language. Like Wroten’s haunting cover illustration for Crimes, Willa’s painting embraces uncertainty as one of life’s few absolutes, and suggests that Willa’s inability to confront herself fully through artistic expression is the result of a self-image that precludes the possibility of redemption. Not just for Willa, but for all of us. 
Sara L. Jewell is a freelance writer, artist, comic creator, and educator based in New Jersey. You can find her at or rambling on twitter @1_saraluna. All email inquiries can be sent to

May 27, 2019

I Am An Observer At Heart: Rob Clough interviews WHIT TAYLOR

Whit Taylor has been self-publishing comics for a decade. During that period, she's been remarkably prolific and wide-ranging in her interests. She began her career as a humorist, mining her laughs from pop culture and her friends. She's since branched out into autobiography, fiction, reportage, science, and political commentary. Taylor is also an accomplished critic and editor, assembling two anthologies, including co-editing the award-winning Comics For Choice. Her most recent comic, Fizzle, will be published by Radiator Comics. She discusses her roots as a cartoonist, her varied interests, and then takes a deep dive into her back catalog. Taylor is a perfect example of a cartoonist whose work ethic has led them to develop their own voice and style, and her relentless curiosity about the world and willingness to explore it through comics indicates that the best is yet to come from her.

Rob Clough for YCE: How old were you when you started reading comics? What were you reading?

Whit Taylor: I started reading comics in 2nd grade. My mother took me to our local comic shop, thinking that getting into comics might get me into reading prose more (I loved non-fiction books, but had trouble focusing on novels...hasn’t changed). My mother was an Archie Comics fan as a child and passed that love along to me. My first comics were Archie’s, particularly Betty and Veronica comics. I was also into some Marvel comics, particularly Generation X.
RC: Did you grow up reading comics with others, like friends or your brother? Did you grow up drawing with anyone else?

WT: I grew up reading comics with my brother, who is three years younger than me. We also collected the Marvel trading cards and watched the animated show, so that added to the fun of getting to know the characters and being invested in their relationships.

I drew regularly with my brother as well as one of my elementary school friends who I had a comic series with called “Debbie’s Diner”. It was about...a diner. I’m from New Jersey, haha.

RC: Were you encouraged to draw or play music as a child or teen?

WT: I was encouraged to draw by my parents as a kid, but at a certain point academics overtook that. I was a kid who had varied interests. One minute I wanted to be a fashion designer and the next an astronaut or biomedical engineer. My parents worked in health care, so I think my Dad, in particular, got my interest in science and encouraged that. 
I played instruments and sang too. Choir for years. I played cello for about 6 years and dabbled in bass guitar for a few years. I wouldn’t say they’re passions or talents really though!

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

WT: My childhood was both great and challenging. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and spent a lot of time outdoors around nature and made lots of art at home. NYC was a place to make day trips to, and I would enjoy going to black art shows there, because my Mom has always been a collector of black art. We also made regular visits to my grandparents in Long Island and annual ones to New Orleans (really until Katrina). My maternal grandparents had a small farm in Mississippi and spending time there are some of my fondest memories.

I went to an academically rigorous elementary school where I was doing 6 hours of homework every night starting from like 4th grade. I wouldn’t say I naturally had an easy time in school but had to discipline myself to get “good” at it. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t had that much pressure, but at the time, my parents felt it was the best option. I switched to public school for high school, which I liked. 

I was always a very anxious kid: generalized, social, and OCD for a period. At times it was debilitating. I was bullied for being the tallest kid, for my weight, for my hair, for being black. I struggled to feel like I belonged as a multiracial black kid. I think that’s why I became a daydreamer who was always coming up with stories. I found comfort in reading about other cultures and countries, nature, outer space, science stuff. And, of course, storytelling.
RC: Did you study art in high school or college?   

WT: I was considered “artistic” in elementary school. And I remember one day these folks came to our school to assess for artistic ability. I took some sort of “drawing test” and they concluded that I had no technical ability but was good as a freehand drawer. Being judged that early stuck with me and probably charted much of the course of my art career. I took an art class in high school and didn’t continue because I didn’t like my art teacher (she wasn’t particularly nice). I pretty much stopped drawing in high school and focused my attention on stage crew/musicals, sports, and playing music. 

When I got to college, I took a studio foundation course at Brown, as well as screenwriting and some film classes. At the time, I wanted to make socio-cultural documentaries. I wanted to get into RISD courses because my school had an arrangement with them, but those classes were almost impossible to get into, so I never took any. During my studio foundation course though, we were required to go to a talk at RISD, where I saw Roz Chast speak. That was a game changer for me. Harvey Pekar also came to visit Brown to talk about the American Splendor movie. I met him and talked with him a bit too and he encouraged me to make comics. After those experiences, I started drawing again. 
RC: What did you think of Pekar's comics when you finally got your hands on them? Did you find them to be an influence later on?

WT: I was inspired by the frankness in Pekar’s storytelling. Memoir/autobio is always curated and shaped by our own self-perceptions and limitations. I like how Pekar was never scared to get uncomfortable or even ugly in his work. It was brave and refreshing storytelling to me. So yes, I would say he’s an influence!

RC: When you started drawing as an adult, was there any style in particular you were emulating?

WT: When I started drawing in college, I wouldn’t say I was trying to emulate a style in particular, but more of an overall feel? I was still influenced heavily by Archie (which I feel had a hand in Madtown High happening) but was reading graphic novels from the early/mid-00s: Alex Robinson, Jeffrey Brown, Jessica Abel, Craig Thompson, Charles Burns. I wouldn’t say my work really looks like any of theirs, but I instantly was attracted to DIY/rough looking art and production. I’ve never really been drawn to slick looking work. It’s never been a goal of mine to emulate others but to try to do the best version of what I do and to keep trying to improve and push myself towards whatever that is.

RC: It's interesting that you list Charles Burns as someone you like since his work is incredibly slick. Were you more drawn into the teen dynamics of Black Hole than the art?

WT: I mean, I have an appreciation for slick, beautiful art! It’s just not what I see for myself. But how can you not love Charles Burns’ art? It’s fantastic. The story was very appealing too for the reason you mentioned.
RC: Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?

WT: I would say I lean towards being a writer who draws. I lead with my writing because it’s what usually inspires me to make a comic. You know, a personal experience, a concept, something I want to learn more about or I think is important for others to understand.  

RC: Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?

WT: I do. There are certain things I am drawn to drawing, such as flora and faces. I don’t draw apart from making comics these days as much as I’d like and as much as I used to, but I do keep a sketchbook and recently got an iPad, which I’m having fun playing around on.

RC: Is drawing in general a therapeutic activity for you?

WT: Drawing has been a therapeutic activity for me, as well as a challenge. Right after I moved to LA in 2007 I injured my right thumb and ended up having to get surgery to make it fully functional. I was in a cast for a while. Once I was further healed, I started drawing a lot and I truly believe that it helped me regain more function. So literally therapeutic.

But as being a cartoonist has shifted from a hobby to a job, my relationship with making comics and drawing has changed a bit. To me, it’s like any other relationship. It goes through shifts. Sometimes it’s great, and other times I don’t enjoy it as much. Sometimes I feel inspired, and other times I grasp for a spark. I’m committed to it, but it’s not always easy.
RC: A common theme, especially in your early autobio comics, is that of personal identity. You express a lot of confusion about it, and being multiracial is only the tip of it. You describe yourself as both a nerd and a jock. You're an academic and scientist as well as an artist. Do you feel like your identity has coalesced as you've grown older and gotten married, or do you still feel this struggle?

WT: I’ve always been a bit all over the place, interest-wise. I like ideas! I don’t REALLY believe in astrology, but I am a Gemini, haha. I wouldn’t say I’m a jock, even though I played sports. I was strong but uncoordinated. But a nerd, yes. 

Understanding my multiracial identity is lifelong for me. I’m not biracial, but both of my parents are from multiracial black families. I was raised in a predominantly white NJ suburb, and have extended family all over the country. So identity and culture wise, I always feel like I’ve lived in a space where I’ve never fully belonged or felt understood. Now that I’m living closer to my parents again, I am trying to learn more about family history and to gain a better understanding of where I came from. I’m sure that’ll show up in my comics down the line. 

I have always felt a pull between science and art, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the potential of combining the two. That’s why I like the growing Graphic Medicine movement. It allows me to use my background in Public Health and to take academic and often dry stuff and try to make it appealing and understandable in graphic form. It also makes me feel like getting a Masters in Public Health wasn’t a waste, haha.

I wouldn’t say that getting married changed any of those internal struggles that much. I don’t expect my partner to solve those issues for me. But my husband is my best friend who accepts me for who I am and appreciates my unquiet mind. So that’s nice! 

I think the biggest challenge for me is day to day. When I worked as a teacher and health educator, I felt satisfied in the sense that I was directly helping people. All I ever really wanted was to be in a helping profession, similar to my parents. Now as a freelancer, I spend lots of time alone, which can be hard. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m helping people or contributing anything meaningful to the world. But I truly believe in what comics can do to educate, inspire, and entertain.

RC: You mentioned Graphic Medicine. What do you see that movement accomplishing now, and what do you see as its future potential?

WT: Graphic Medicine is interdisciplinary, which I believe is vital to its utility. Comics and the academic world can be so insular at times, which is a turn-off considering the richness they both have to offer to the greater world. The annual Comics and Medicine Conferences bring together medical professionals, artists, patients, etc. and use the medium of comics to improve communication, educate, and humanize health conditions. So many amazing things are coming out of Graphic Medicine right now.
RC: What has being a part of the small-press community been like for you, both at the beginning of your career and now? Do you enjoy going to shows like SPX? 

WT: I didn’t go to art school, so I never had an art community until I got into comics. I also entered indie comics around 2009 (that was my first show year), which is a pretty different environment from now. I didn’t really have any mentors but quickly found people and publishers who inspired me. I remember picking up Lisa Hanawalt’s I Want You minicomics at APE, for instance, and falling in love with them. I befriended folks such as Jeremy Whitley, who was just getting started with Princeless. I loved everything Sparkplug Comics was doing and eventually became friendly with Dylan Williams. He was supportive of me from the beginning and encouraged me to keep making comics. I was pen pals with Jeffrey Brown, who I would send my minis to. He always had nice and offered helpful feedback. 

It was different back then because there were so few black creators at indie shows and we pretty much all knew each other. Things are different now. A few years ago a dramatic shift took place. Creators of color, as well as those from other marginalized identities,  have always been here, but now our content is welcome, desirable, and often a marketing “asset”. All of a sudden people WANTED me to make work about race. That’s great, but also feels limiting at times. I’m tired of being on diversity panels. I want to be a cartoonist who writes about race among other things but isn’t defined by it.

That all being said, I love the indie comics community. They are passionate, caring, talented, weird, the best. Some of my best friends are in this community and it’s something that’s given me purpose and a sense of belonging over the years.

RC: I've always enjoyed the fact that your website was called "Whimsical Nobody" because you really do have a whimsical sense of humor that seems to revel in the random, the weird, and even the trashy at times. At the same time, you're a scientist and a keen observer of any number of difficult topics. How have you balanced this divide throughout your life, and how do you balance it today?

WT: I’m glad you get my love of trashy pop culture, haha! 

When I was in college I worked at a video store during the summers and the term “Whimsical Nobody” came from my former coworker. We would have these brief, friendly interactions with customers, where awkward pleasantries were exchanged. My coworker referred to us all as “Whimsical Nobodies” because life is full of short funny encounters with strangers who you never know or see again. I felt that the term applied to making and sharing my comics with readers too.

I am an observer at heart. You learn to be when you’re shy or not someone who fits in easily. And you have to be if you tell stories. I don’t know how I balance the difficult and superfluous. I think both are parts of life. I have had plenty of challenging stuff to deal with in my life and have also been fortunate. Life is unpredictable, so you have to enjoy and delight in the random, weird, funny stuff. I don’t know, my friends say I have a very specific sense of humor. It’s probably why I love Tim and Eric so much.
RC: So you're into aggressively absurdist humor. You made a Space Ghost: Coast-To-Coast reference in Fizzle; were you a fan of that show and others of its ilk in Adult Swim?

WT: One of my good friends was really into Space Ghost, so it’s a nod to him. But yeah, I was into Adult Swim. And I love watching stand-up comedy and sketch comedies as well. Also, unintentionally bad sitcoms and reality television. It’s not a secret that I am sort of obsessed with The Bachelor franchise.

RC: You've taken classes at CCS and did the Santoro course. What did you learn as an artist from these experiences? What techniques and lessons have continued to stick over time?

WT: I didn’t take the Santoro course but did participate in the contest one year, which was a valuable learning experience. You know, learning to work within certain constraints, structure and time wise. I took a CCS course one summer [Carolyn Nowak was in my class! I knew she was going to be a rockstar]. Going to CCS exposed me to a variety of techniques as well as made me realize that I needed to thumbnail to improve my pacing and visual layouts. As a writer, I had thought of drawing and writing as so separate but this really enforced that art is a form of storytelling and that I needed to be more thoughtful in my visual choices.

In the second part of the interview, I ask Taylor about various comics she's made:

May 26, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/20/19 to 5/24/19

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


* Sarah Boslaugh reviews GUANTANAMO KID: THE TRUE STORY OF MOHAMMED EL-GHARANI written by Jérôme Tubiana and illustrated by Alexandre France, "a powerful book that brings attention to the humanity of people who are accused as terrorists and relays the importance of what happens to such people in these times."

* Kevin Bramer on DRAWN TO BERLIN by Ali Fitzgerald calling it "harrowing stuff, hopeful at times but also clearly aware of the systemic problems that seem to be stopping any sort of actual solution."

* Two reviews over at the Pipedream Comics site of note (the authors of which I cannot find), more so for the books, rather than the pieces themselves. The first is BASQUIAT by Julian Moloj and the second is IN WAVES by AJ Dungo.

* John Seven does a much better job reviewing IN WAVES by AJ Dungo, writing "Dungo is able to provide a mechanism for translating the pain he’s expressing into perspective that can help his readers, and that’s a remarkable and gracious achievement for someone’s first graphic novel."

* Robin Enrico reviews RED ULTRAMARINE by Manuele Fior writing "While the themes Fior is engaging with have been explored countless times before, it is his strong expressive cartooning and his daring use of color that make his interpretation of the material he is drawing from stand out."

* Melissa Brinks on WHEN I ARRIVED AT THE CASTLE by Emily Carroll which "feels like slipping into a rich velvet robe only to find that its red color is from centuries of bloodstains."

* Kim Jooha continues her Visual Pleasures column on TCJ. This time, she has a column called A DIALECTIC APPROACH TO COMICS FORM.


* Ryan Carey interviews TANA OSHIMA about "her life, her work, her influences, and her aims"

* Sloane Leong interviews PAM-PAM LIU "about her experience being a cartoonist in Taiwan, her autobio comics, and getting too close to the truth."

* Samantha Puc has a really interesting piece up on The MNT titled EXPLORING HYPER-VIGILANCE IN "MOONSTRUCK"

* Zoe D. Smith writes this great piece for WWAC titled 4 COLORISM, OR, THE ASHINESS OF IT ALL.

* There's not a lot of time left to pledge to the 2dCloud KICKSTARTER.

* Melanie Gillman has been posting her CARTOONIST'S DIARY this week.

May 22, 2019

Death as a Political Mission: Matt Vadnais on FUTURE CORPSE by Eva Müller

In the Future, We are Dead, Eva Müller’s astonishingly morbid treatment of anxiety, artfully avoids narrative and conflict in an effort to thwart futurity and the certainty that any life lived as a linear progression of events must conclude with death. While her most recent comic Future Corpse bears a title that would suggest similar preoccupations and stalling tactics – and it is certainly marked by the same anxiety that permeates In the Future, We are Dead,  including a scene in which Müller graphically and painfully swallows a Japanese anxiety snake – the game has changed. Built from even smaller and increasingly narrative-resistant snippets than its thematic cousin, Future Corpse attempts to solve the problem of futurity by reconfiguring death in socio-economic terms, positioning death as the ultimate defeat of capitalism.
Part of this is punk rock, an aesthetic so woven into about a third of the art and subject matter of the book that there is a pierced-tongue-in-cheek quality to this suggestion. However, the assertion that we (those of us interested in escaping the surly hands of an economic system based on a zero-sum game) will finally win when we are dead also comes off as earnest, particularly in the context of Müller’s last book. If obfuscation, denial, and the meta-creation of a terrific comic weren’t enough to soften the blow of knowing that, eventually, the future is death, why not focus on the fact that the future at least promises an escape from menial labors and the slings and arrows of outrageous economic inequity? Clearly, given the snake swallowing that occupies a very important segment of the comic, this tactic isn’t a viable long term option, but it makes Future Corpse a satisfying coda to In the Future – one that displays a wider variety of art styles, ranging from poster layouts and something approaching one-point perspective realism to nostalgic figure drawing and even a black and white motion rendering of a Roomba vacuuming what may well be a deserted house – that offers an alternative to (or at least an alternative form of) denial.
The image of a Roomba vrooming about a house, passing in front of what appears to be a stone animal, is mostly unexplained; juxtaposed with a very funny series of panels in which Marx buys groceries, the Roomba page seems to represent robotic labor, particularly in the absence of humans on account of their inevitable death, as the end (or at least inevitable conclusion) of capitalism. Perhaps this is the real difference between this terrific comic and Müller’s last (very similarly titled and themed) terrific comic: the narrative bits composing In The Future were framed as thoughtful distractions where, here, even if they do some of the same work, they are taken seriously on their own merit. The threads that stitch these scenes together may look a lot like the anxiety snake she eventually swallows, but they are also the threads of an argument about labor.          
Both scenes – the snake and the Roomba – are depicted in black and white, drained of the brilliant colors that mark the sections depicting Müller becoming a better punk and Marx becoming a better consumer. The connection between anxiety and the image of the person-less labor might undermine my reading of the comic as thinking about that absence as an improvement. However, it’s worth considering anxiety as a generative process: the comic appears to be likening anxieties about a labor-less future and one that ends in death, not necessarily condemning either outcome. In any case, both scenes are united by more than color or the lack thereof: both are studies in motion and stillness.          
While Future Corpse is as occupied by anxiety and trepidation as Müller’s last book, that anxiety itself is reframed slightly here as anticipation. This book is framed by images as ideology including the aggressive and potentially naïve sloganeering of punk patches. However, some of the most exuberant pro-death rhetoric is featured on pages that are laid out to resemble Communist propaganda posters, drawing attention to the relationship between the word corpse and a corps. The comic configures our shared futurity as joining a force for the betterment of the world. Even if this doesn’t prevent – or perhaps induces or is akin to – the author swallowing the anxiety snake, the suggestion that we will do our most important work when we are no longer capable of working at all is one that lingers in the belly like an ingested serpent.
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 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. 

May 20, 2019

A Sense of Life: Michael Bettendorf reviews DESOLATION WILDERNESS by Claire Scully

The Desolation Wilderness is a real place. It’s a massive hunk of federally preserved wilderness in El Dorado County, California. The crest of the Sierra Nevada runs through the Desolation Wilderness, west of Lake Tahoe. It is an amazingly beautiful piece of this earth we live on and the focal point of Claire Scully’s latest installment in a series she started with Internal Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness by Claire Scully is a collection of notably wordless, full-page landscapes that invite readers to experience nature in a unique way. It’s a sort of symbiosis between our memories and our environment. The establishing page of Desolation Wilderness places readers at a vantage point that allows us to see an orange, rocky peak nestled in a grove of Alpine trees. Beyond, treeless hills off in the distance peek into our view under a monotone, expansive sky.

The geography is simply incredible. It represents a topography unique to the American West and is perfect for placing the reader into the setting of the story. It shows the reader glimpses of what’s to come, perhaps more so, what to expect. It’s an invitation.

As readers continue to venture into Desolation Wilderness, there is an immediate sense of place, but also of a loss of self as readers are immersed in the landscapes and join together not only with other readers, but with the physical environment itself. Desolation Wilderness is presented to readers as, “A sequence of events occurring over a period of time in the search for a location in space.” It is a blending of the relationship between people and place — and how we move through that space. While each landscape depicted on the pages of this comic is unique, they remain familiar — memories of previous pages — vestiges on the periphery of the readers’ mind. Scully creates a sort of meditative state of being, simply being. While readers know they are adventuring through the Desolation Wilderness, there is no indication of a specific location. It’s a sense of wonder. A sense of life. An elusive journey through familiar, yet fresh images.
This is made most apparent by Scully’s consistent use of her color palette: primarily hues of green/blue, yellow/orange, and cream/tan. The reader is continually enveloped in these tones, reminding him or her that while he or she may venture to new surroundings, we’re still in the Desolation Wilderness — continually blending the familiar with the unfamiliar, challenging memories in new environments. It’s a natural state of being for humans. Memories blur as time passes, yet the core of memories remain authentic. Memories change, slightly, develop as we form new ones. New memories tend to fuse to old ones as they’re created and experienced. Bits of the familiar bond to the unfamiliar.

There are a couple of exceptions to this, though, primarily when scenes change from day to night or night to day. Even still, the green alpines, the orange rock formations, and wide-open skies settle the reader in a place that’s recognizable. We’re still in the Desolation Wilderness.
A common thread throughout Desolation Wilderness are the marks on nature by humanity and society. This is first noticeable in the second and third landscapes. Scully shows us a lone house among the hills and as she continues venturing, a small village appears in the distance. The village landscape is unique in that the reader is greeted by a vibrant blue lizard in the foreground resting on a rock. The lizard is in profile, as if it’s showcasing the village like a tour guide. While its vibrant color contrasts with the rock it’s resting on and the rocks of the village’s structures, the lizard’s natural color is at home with the vibrancy of the foliage surrounding it. The lizard belongs as the village belongs. A coexistence displayed beautifully. In Desolation Wilderness, Scully always shows the images of homes and villages at a distance. Humanity is present, but always just out of reach, whereas the flora and fauna, calm lakes and rivers, are always within the reader’s grasp.
The best example of a shared space between humanity and nature is a three-landscape sequence that features detailed patterns inscribed on rocks. The patterns vary, from abstract geometric shapes and swirls to more commonly recognizable patterns like stars, trees, human figures, and the sun. It’s a perfect representation of humans interacting with their environment and leaving their mark. They are reminiscent of prehistoric petroglyphs, perhaps representing the idea that humans and nature have shared their environment since the dawn of human existence. Maybe it’s an inevitability, that humans stake a claim and make their mark on the environment in which they reside because humans can only exist within their environments. They’re dependent upon it, while the environment simply is — with or without humans.
The final landscape is a moonlit scene, viewed from a distance. Readers gaze upon the river valley, full of trees, surrounded by mountains. The peak of the mountain is visible through a band of clouds, with the moon hovering above. A river winds down the middle of the wooded area, but we cannot see the beginning nor the end of it, for the trees and mountains. It’s a beautiful representation of our journey through the Desolation Wilderness, a journey through this massive piece of earth that doesn’t really have a starting or ending point. It’s reflective of memory and is telling of readers’ time spent in the Desolation Wilderness. The memories made will blur into new ones, creating the familiar out of the unfamiliar.
Michael Bettendorf is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Nebraska - a place he will vehemently argue is not a flyover state. You can find some of his previous comics criticism at Comics Bulletin and his current ramblings on Twitter @BeardedBetts

May 19, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/13/19 to 5/17/19

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


* Liam Conlon on Annie Mok's ORGASM ADDICT which "exists in the space between the dreamy, spellbinding lyrics of our favorite songs and the hurried bustle of a life pulled in many directions."

* Alex Hoffman reviews PTSD by French cartoonist Guillaume Singelin which he finds "frustratingly hollow."

* Ryan Carey writes about Tana Oshima's FILTHY which "represents the purest distillation of her ongoing artistic project to date and is not to be missed under any circumstances."

* Caitlin Rosberg reviews ISLAND BOOK by Evan Dahm who "deftly leaves many questions still open by the end of the book, but far from feeling unsatisfactory, the ambiguity is comforting and authentic."

* John Seven on A SHINING BEACON by James Albon which "embraces the idea of the fantasyland of authoritarianism, of countries under suppression as a kind-of nightmarish wonderland that any Alice could wander through. But to its credit, it doesn’t simplify any of its conclusions, and it draws parallels well beyond the specific mode of government it portrays."

* Daniel Elkin reviews VISION PART ONE by Julia Gfrörer, writing "Gfrörer seems to suggest there is some sort of evil energy at the heart of eroticism -- that a woman’s unbridled sexuality is a gateway to powerful forces that can and should upend the status quo."

* Tony Esmond writes about MARBLE CAKE by Scott Jason Smith.

* Chris Gavaler on the new release from Abrams ComicArts LIVE OAK, WITH MOSS, a poem by Walt Whitman that features illustrations by Brian Selznick. In it, "Selznick responds to Whitman's numbered but non-narratively ordered cluster by developing its verbal imagery into tightly sequenced and linked visual progressions."


* Alec Berry has the latest update on the CODY PICKRODT LAWSUIT. Good news!

* Koyama Press announces its FALL 2019/WINTER 2020 SEASON! So many great books!

* Andrea Shockling has a powerful new comic up on her Subjective Line Weight site called ANDREA'S BARIATRIC DIARY.

* Alex Dueben interviews MARIKO TAMAKI about her new book with artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me.

* Brian Hibbs takes his annual look at numbers from BOOKSCAN. Always a fascinating inside look at comics publishing.

* Michael Cella talks to and explores the taxidermy/ceramic art of HOLLIE DILLEY.

May 17, 2019

Justin Giampaoli reviews MY BODY FEELS AMAZING by Elevator Teeth

Published by TINY SPLENDOR 2019 
26 pages, 7.5" x 10.5"
Risograph w/ clear coated cover 

My Body Feels Amazing is the latest offering by the enigmatic Elevator Teeth. To my knowledge, this is the largest physical object published by the creator to date, confidently charging into your consciousness at near-standard-sized comic proportions. The paper stock is immediately noticeable, thick with a coarse sheen and overall heft lending a workmanlike quality to the whole affair.

Although rendered in old-school 2D, My Body Feels Amazing, like many Elevator Teeth projects, feels like a fully-enveloping 3D sensory experience that washes over you. It seems to vibrate off the page with energy, pulsing with rhythmic sexuality, as organic forms ebb and flow, geometric patterns repeat and recede, bright pops of color punctuate emotional responses, and carefully chosen phrases sear themselves into your brain. 

"I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DISAPPEAR" is an early example of words juxtaposed against a symbolic crimson horizon that seems to simultaneously communicate sorrowful resignation with a hint of the exciting unknown that awaits us. Elevator Teeth has never followed traditional comic book craft, eschewing common construction, distribution, and narrative methods, perhaps reflecting a similar rejection of personal social expectations. 
To wit, much of the book culminates in a double page spread intentionally placed at the exact mid-point of the book, which is a daring mental billboard of slightly off-kilter thought-graffiti. "NOT BEING WHAT THEY SEE" functions as an ethos, perhaps for this creator, and perhaps for those that the sentiment will surely resonate with, a continual exercise in reconciling the heartfelt dichotomy between our self-image and acquired public perception, a dynamic endemic to the human experience.
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

May 15, 2019

Somewhere in the Wreckage: Sara L. Jewell Interviews CAROLYN NOWAK

Carolyn C. Nowak is an Ignatz-award winning and Eisner-nominated cartoonist based on Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work explores horror, sex, science fiction, and fantasy. You can check out her website and buy her books here and follow her work on Patreon here
Sara L. Jewell for YCE: For those who might not be familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Carolyn C. Nowak: Oh, um...ha! I have a hard time summarizing. It's...magical realism? Genre stuff? Short weird things? I have no manifesto to draw from.

Jewell: What’s your comic-making process like?

Nowak: It changes a lot in the minutiae but it always starts with like 4 or 5 google docs that are just clusters of ideas. Then I go hard on one and inevitably abandon it because it gets stiff. Then I find a new thing, somewhere, in the wreckage. The drawing part changes all the time, the only consistency there is that I am always late and panicked and I never get to do the job I want. And I never will, because the thing I want to do is perfect.
Jewell: Girl Town, your comics collection published by Top Shelf last year, centers - as the title suggests - stories about women and their complex relationships with one other; stories that cartoonist Carta Monir characterizes in the introduction as being about “women whose friendships with other women are their lifeline”. What other through-lines do you feel hold these stories together?

Nowak: Fear of intimacy, I guess. A fear of life in general. Fear! It's hard to think about at this point because I didn't intend them all as a collection, so any answer I give you is going to probably be something someone else projected upon the work.

Jewell: One of the first things I read by you (and adored) was Diana’s Electric Tongue which I picked up at SPX after it won an Ignatz in 2017 before I’d even heard of Zainab Akhtar’s incredible ShortBox publications. How did you initially get involved with Shortbox?

Nowak: Zainab saw fit to invite me to participate! (Prayer hands emoji) I think she first saw my work when I did something for hourly comic day in like...2015.

Jewell: Of the many things that blew me away about Diana’s Electric Tongue, one was the proliferation of small futuristic details you included in an offhand way, from Diana’s underwater hotel to Blue’s laughter onions. What, if anything, did you take inspiration from in realizing this world that’s ahead of or apart from our own in all of these sorts of idiosyncratic ways?

Nowak: I thought a lot about the movie Ex Machina -- and when people ask me about the inspiration for DET I inevitably bring this movie up. It's got some nice futurism, ok, yeah, but Alex Garland thinks he's saying something big about the human condition and all I can hear is "I'm really horny for robots". And I was like, yeah bro, me too. The other specific sci-fi details..."underwater hotel"...I don't know! It's mostly random shit that sounded fun- and all that stuff, I don't know, it feels like you could swap it for almost anything, so you might as well plug in the fun thing.

Jewell: Are there any science/speculative fiction comics (or other media) that you really love and/or are inspired by?

Nowak: Star TREK...sTaR TREK!! As far as comics go: Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen and Alienation by Ines Estrada.
Jewell: In your adult comic from Silver Sprocket, No Better Words, (recently nominated for an Eisner!) your protagonist remarks on the inadequacy of language to express herself, though she narrates the story primarily through metaphor. Do you feel like comics are a more effective way of telling stories than prose?

Nowak: Not particularly. Comics just take so much time and they're so hard to edit and also almost nobody reads them. And,'s easy to get turned off by art, even art that's really effective. And people generally, maybe just in America, I don't know -- they don't know how to read art. Everyone takes English Lit in high school, you have to figure out why Catcher in the Rye is supposed to be great, but nobody's doing that for like, Barnett Newman paintings -- nobody seems to be doing that in a serious way for art that is even a little bit oblique. In order for a storytelling medium to be effective at all, the greater population has to have some, literacy for the thing. I hope I don't sound shame-y, I don't mean it that way. It just seems true -- and it was certainly true for me for a long time. I wouldn't read a comic that didn't have "good" art -- and for me, and I think for a lot of people, that means a really specific thing. It means Alex Ross or James Jean. Good "draftsmanship", I guess!

Jewell: I *wish* I’d had an art literacy class in school! So, many of your stories, in Girl Town and otherwise, kind of make this ominous tonal shift near the conclusion that’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t read them. Can you speak on your purpose in ending some of your comics this way, and what goes into evoking a certain tone in your comics to begin with?

Nowak: Haha, not really. I'm just gimmicky, I guess. When I think of a story I have this image in my head of...all the elements of the story, in a bucket, on a rope, and I'm holding onto the other end of the rope and I start twirling really fast. And then I try to let go of the rope at exactly the right moment so that the bucket hits someone in the face, or goes off a cliff or something. I just don't know how to end a story otherwise... probably because I don't read much.

Jewell: Something I really enjoy about your work visually is the fluidity of your line, especially your figurative line when depicting the body – do you intentionally avoid hard or sharp angles?

Nowak: No, I just do whatever is easiest. Also, I think the last 3 stories in Girl Town were drawn with "Manga Studio debut"- a super shitty old drawing program with this specific pen I came to love that just happened to make really ugly straight lines. You just couldn't draw any kind of sharp angle without it looking like total dogshit.

Jewell: Many of your depictions of women have what I would describe as contempt for the male gaze, starting with your cover which references “truth coming out of her well”, a painting that apparently justifies its male-gazey nudity as a gesture towards the idiom “the naked truth”. What’s your intention, if any, in depicting naked women in Girl Town?

Nowak: Bleh, I was just drawing people. Everything being framed as this weird opposition to maleness kind of distracts from the actual content of the book -- don't you think? Sometimes I get fucked up and confused by people talking about the work this way -- like my brand is now anti-men. Especially after that Comics Journal review. Like, I went off a little, on how the book is for women and not men but honestly, there was no intention in either direction. And acting that way, unfortunately, sort of mirrored the expectations of the reviewer - like, "yeah, fuck you! boo, men!! It's a girl book!!" It's not a girl book, I know it's called Girl Town but it's just a book I made about being alive and I happen to have been assigned this particular gender and these are some stories that reflect that experience. Some of them explore relationships with men because I've been emotionally and physically intimate with some men. I don't care about alienating them with my work, but I'm not making it with that specific purpose.
Jewell: I don't really see your work as in opposition to maleness or men (some of it, to the contrary) - I just feel like work that presents naked women in a way that isn't about men's sexual gratification is unfortunately still pretty outside of the norm, and the titular story especially did that in a way that I really appreciated as a queer woman. That segues really well into my next question though: much was written about that infamous review of Girl Town which, among other things, subjected us to a man repeatedly using the word “gynocentric” to describe your work. In terms of people, usually white cis men, expecting art, which more often than not has historically centered people like them, to “universalize” experience when they feel it does not – do you think this is a fair expectation?

Nowak: Nope. And that shit gets in my head all the time, it’s impossible for it *not* to. Men are in power pretty much everywhere’s hard to tell yourself that’s not just an inevitable fact of life. I’m desperate for their approval and love, honestly. I would love to make something that earned their praise and respect. But it’s just so fucking conditiona -l- I never get it right. And trying makes me completely crazy.

Jewell: Any new or upcoming work that you’d like to share details about?

Nowak: Not really! Everything is sort of as nascent as it could possibly be, but I’m excited nonetheless. I’m getting better at comics all the time. I’m getting smarter and more ruthless and more efficient.

Jewell: I can’t wait to read whatever’s next! So, what’s in *your* to-read pile and what are you currently reading?

Nowak: I just read Gretchen Felker-Martin’s No End Will Be Found and I’m looking forward to reading her longer book, Ego Homini Lupus. Dark, delicious stuff.
Sara L. Jewell is a freelance writer, artist, comic creator, and educator based in New Jersey. You can find her at or rambling on twitter @1_saraluna. All email inquiries can be sent to