June 30, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/24/19 to 6/28/19

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


* Rob Kirby reviews MOTEL UNIVERSE by Joakim Drescher, saying "all of this is so wildly imagined and rendered with such good humor that it creates a comfortable distance for the reader. We never have to take any of the allegorical elements terribly seriously if we don’t want to, but we’re invited to thoroughly enjoy it when the heroes manage to seize control and mete out some richly deserved revenge upon some of the villains."

* Alex Hoffman on WAVES by Ingrid Chabbert and Carole Maurel which "is just as much the story of a complicated pregnancy and the death of a child as it is the recovery of a broken home. There’s a linkage in this book between losing what you could have had and losing what you currently have that remains lurking in my mind as I think about the story."

* Alex Hoffman also reviews GINSENG ROOTS #1 by Craig Thompson, writing "Overall I think Ginseng Roots shows a lot of promise as a story; the intersection of global markets and personal experience is a fascinating exercise, and going back to his childhood stories is an area he has already shown facility in. Ginseng Roots doesn’t seem to have the melodramatic flair of Thompson’s earlier writing, probably for the better. And truly, Thompson’s beautiful art is a welcome embrace, a reminder of what he can do, given the opportunity. But I still don’t know that I can trust Thompson to tell this story without significant issues."

* And, finally, Hoffman's review of BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore sets the high bar for a critical response to this book.

* Steve Foxe has this short review of THE AMERICAN DREAM?: A JOURNEY ON ROUTE 66 by Shing YinKhor which " is Khor’s attempt, now that she calls Los Angeles home, to confront both sides of America by traveling the entire expanse of that iconic road, beginning in Santa Monica and ending in Chicago. And what begins as a road trip (with small dog in tow) ends up as something more like a pilgrimage in search of an American landscape that seems forever shifting, forever out of place."

* Alea Perez on LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (one of the most beautiful works of cartooning we've seen in a long time), calling it "a story of self-discovery and friendship, and the perils of losing yourself to and in another person while chasing a dream of what could be but isn’t likely to be."

* Dominic Umile looks at BICYCLE DAY by Brian Blomerth, writing "Working in the grandiose, psychedelic style that he has for years, Blomerth’s “Bicycle Day” imports Hofmann’s riveting yarn from the annals of medical history to comics with busy panels and rampant anthropomorphism."

* Chris Gavaler on PRESS ENTER TO CONTINUE by Ana Galvañ, "a welcome expansion of the familiar but still-rich genre of hi-tech futures on the fritz."

* Rob Clough reviews SLIGHTLY PLURAL by Marnie Galloway, which "covers the full gamut of Galloway's skills as a draftsman, cartoonist, and storyteller, as there are poetic comics, gag comics, straightforward autobiographical comics, densely illustrated stories, and minimalist pieces. She keeps each story short for maximum impact as she builds up to an overarching narrative regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood."

* Caitlin Rosberg on THIS WAS OUR PACT by Ryan Andrews which "establishes itself as a nearly universal experience: children pushing past the limits of what they’re supposed to do, daring each other to go farther from home in order to gain some vague knowledge they don’t really need."

* Arpad Okay kinda gushes over COYOTE DOGGIRL by Lisa Hanawalt, calling it "a series of encyclopedia bookplates on badlands mescaline. Capturing the spirit of the frontier for academic purposes. Head of canine, body of woman, tail, tall, barefoot, armed, frosting pink. Folk art, but where the girl rides on her back, facing the wrong way, flying two birds to the world at large, searching for home."

* Andy Oliver looks at SEVEN STORIES #3, the new issue of O Panda Gordo's anthology series and writes, "If alternative comics are your area of interest then this collection is an essential acquisition." 

* Dan Schindel on BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore which "blends discussions around race relations, cultural appropriation, and urban injustice with a creepy plot centered around a mysterious force which metaphorically feeds on those very phenomena."

* Brian Selznick reviews CLYDE FANS by Seth, writing "There’s no room for nostalgia in Seth’s vision. The past is as sharp and painful as the present. In fact, the past is the present, conjured in words and pictures, existing in the spaces between what’s said and unsaid, what’s seen and unseen. It’s in these spaces where Seth knows alchemical reactions occur."

* Andy Oliver on DESOLATION WILDERNESS by Claire Scully, writing "There’s a beauty to the natural world in these pages that speaks of our tangential relationship to its majesty. Desolation Wilderness asks questions of how the echoes of remembrance shape our perceptions and in so doing creates a truly unique sequential narrative experience."


* Andrea Shockling has Part Five of her BARIATRIC DIARY up this week as part of her Subjective Line Weight series.

* Chris Kuzma is doing this week's A CARTOONIST'S DIARY over on TCJ.

* Hilary Brown interviews EZRA CLAYTAN DANIELS and BEN PASSMORE "about process, ideas, inspiration and tacos."

* Ken Parille takes a deep dive on TCJ in a piece called STEVE DITKO AND THE COMIC-BOOK PEOPLE.

* Wait.... don't tell us that there's a market for mid-year "Best Of..." lists? Gawd, this is troubling. It seems so.... so... unnecessary. Whatever. Leave it to the AV Club to give us THE BEST COMICS OF 2019 SO FAR

* The list of SPECIAL GUESTS for this year's upcoming Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD is seriously impressive, and we have a feeling it's only going to get better.

* Kawai Shen has a piece on The Walrus called CHINA, PROSPERITY, AND STEREOTYPES THAT WON'T DIE whose subtitle is "Today’s prejudice is just an updated version of the same old racism"

* Steven Hyden interviews DAVID BERMAN about where he's been, why he's been there, and his new album, "Purple Mountains"

* "CHANSONS D'AMOUR" -- a video of the new song by Mike Patton and Jean-Claude Vannier from their upcoming release, Corpse Flower

* TWO POEMS by Tyler Sowa.

June 26, 2019

Lost in Time: Tom Shapira reviews CLYDE FANS by Seth

Clyde Fans begins like a piece of drone music. For almost 100 pages, Abe Matchcard talks to the reader about salesmanship while he goes about his daily routine. Rising from the bed, putting in his dentures, making breakfast, drinking coffee, going up and down the stairs, arranging furniture, etc. Not a detail is spared. Every action is broken down to its tiniest possible fracture until time slows down to a crawl. It’s a dull read, intentionally so. It seemingly tries to break down the reader’s awareness of temporality as if to prepare him for what is coming; the first chapter is the crucible, if you’ve made it through you are possibly strong enough to withstand the pressures of time travel.

Time seems to be the leading function throughout this “picture novel” (the fact that it is called that instead of a “graphic novel” is actually important to the narrative). On the diegetic level, we spend the length of the book skipping from one period to another – traveling across the 20th century as the Clyde Fans company’s fortunes rise and fall. The two protagonists, brothers Abe and Simon, are meant to represent two differing relations to the concept of time in society. Yet for all their philosophical differences the brothers are just two sides of the same coin. The main issue of Clyde Fans is that is unable to see beyond its protagonists, these well-off middle-aged, white men, and how the issues it deals with affect society as a whole. Seth would like to see these two brothers as a microcosm of existence without understanding the relative privilege of their conditions.  

Abe is the salesman, who thinks of time as money and hates to see it wasted. He is the march of the future, the growth of industry, and, unbeknownst even to himself, he also represents the company’s demise. It grows and grows until it is no longer able to sustain itself and falls apart. I don’t know if Seth was aiming to illustrate maxims of communist ideology, but this is exactly what he did here. Time becomes industry, the capital, something that is not allowed to be wasted. 

Simon is the dreamer, for him time is something to ponder rather than use. When he goes on his first and only sales trip, the reader sees him wasting time, constantly. Whenever he tries to sell something, he freezes. Which means he stops making money. Over and over again, he becomes just like the old postcards he so loves to collect – stuck in time while the world of sales and money rolls on by. Throughout the trip, Simon lives in terrible fear of the telephone, the machine that will connect him to his brother and force him to reveal the terrible truth about is wasteful behavior. 

As Philosopher and Marxist activist Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “It is an immanent law of the capitalist method of production that it strives to materially bind together the most distant places […] and eventually transform the entire world into one firmly joined productive mechanism.” Simon is hunted by the phone, the specter of capitalism which connects him to the office of his brother. No matter how far away he travels, the new, modernized world will not allow him to escape. 

Simon fears the future. The reader sees him growing quickly attached to any piece of memorabilia coming his way; he ends up spending his life alongside physical tokens, one of which is his ailing mother. His mother, suffering from some degenerative illness, is hardly able to create new memories herself and constantly lives in the past when Simon was just a boy. Though he makes a great show of anger when his brother comes to take her away to a home, always away on business and never visiting her before, Simon is actually as dependent on his mother as she is on him. He doesn’t want her taken away for selfish reasons, because she is another link in his chain of memories. 

In one of the most telling monologues in the book, Simon explains his obsession for postcards and what they represent:
I recall, as a young man, trying to “fix” myself in a moment in time. Walking down a street I would concentrate and think. “I am now in this moment. This is me. In five minutes I will be passing the tea-shop and I will have travelled forward in time. Then, moments later, when I did pass the tea shop, I would mentally return to that “fixed” moment and try to connect to the person I had been then."
Simon, in many ways an avatar of the author, wishes to hold back progress. Like the protagonists of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, he wants to put a rod through the wheel of industry before it flattens him entirely. Unlike these protagonists, however, Simon cannot summon his will to act. Instead, he becomes a prisoner in a cage he has made. He allows his brother to roll over him (only to be rolled over in turn by the future). Clyde Fans is a picture novel because it is literally a novel about relating to pictures, about our idea of a golden age and our unwillingness to let go. This is the story of weak men.

The protagonists of The Monkey Wrench Gang acted out of concern for the world as a whole, their philosophy guiding their actions. The protagonists of Clyde Fans are guided by middle-age ennui, leading to inaction. There is no need for the book to become an activist manifesto; however, there seems to be a lack of ability to contextualize the issues of the characters in the larger scheme of things: this is a book about the problems of capitalism and industrialization in which the most concerning issues are the emotional hang-ups of upper-middle-class white men. The striking employees that force Abe to close down the factory are barely in the story. The scenes with the striking employees are all about his pain, his tragedy.  Seth has all the time in the world for the brothers and almost none for anyone else.
The other dimension of time that inhabits Clyde Fans is the extradiegetic one. Famously, Seth took over 20 years to complete Clyde Fans, standing in opposition to the mainstream comic-book industry where artists are often treated like cogs in an industrial machine and expected to produce art in a timely manner. The long-winded process is, therefore, a part of the legend of this picture novel, another proof of its greatness. It rejects industrialized time and becomes art. But being able to reject industrialized time is, by itself, a privilege. 

In a review of a different time-prohibitive work by a highly regarded artists, Art Spiegelman's In The Shadow of No Towers, scholar Julian Darius notes how, in the high echelons of the art-world, extended time is seen as mark of quality: “here we see the familiar elitist notion that rapid artistic production is always and automatically shoddy artistic production[...] In elite circles, real art must take time, and the more time the better.” In Clyde Fans, Simon, in several ways an avatar of the author, rejects capitalism, yet we do not see him homeless or desolate; if his house is shabby-looking, it is because he wants it to be. He can afford not to work. 
In a quote on the back of the slipcase of the book, writer and critic Douglas Coupland claims that “Clyde Fans is a masterpiece of storytelling that reinvents the medium as it goes along.” There is nothing here, factually, that reinvents the medium, though. It is a well-made piece of comics, almost exceedingly so. Seth has always been a fine artist and designer and he shows all the skills he mastered throughout the years here, but, contrary to Coupland’s assertion, there is little that sets it apart from previous efforts by the author. There seems to be this expectation that mere investment of time that was allowed to Seth for this project would lead to greater artistic endeavor.  

Ironically enough, for a creation engaged in a dialogue with the problems of industry, the fact that it took such a long time to create Clyde Fans quickly becomes a promotional tool, which is to say – another part of the machinery of publication. Time is money, it is the hottest commodity around.  But the other side of this idea is that time is privilege, very few artists could afford to spend twenty years on a single project. 
And for good or ill, Clyde Fans is dripping with privilege. Not that Seth is unaware of the fact: One of Solomon’s most treasured keepsakes, one that the book returns to over and over again, is a little racist doll, an exaggerated image of a black man. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Seth describes how it took him a long time to notice what, in fact, he had drawn: “[…] when I was working on the book, I missed an obvious point there, that Halloween toy is clearly a black racial figure.”  And while Seth is certainly aware of it now, it is hard to ignore how casually the book treats the appearance this little thing, as if the author never expected a black person to actually sit and read it. The work, as a whole, suffers from a rather limited vision of life - a narrow scope of human existence. 

That is the grand problem at the heart of Clyde Fans. It is aware of issues, of the problems of capitalism and racism, but it cannot muster any passion to deal with them. Like the characters contained within its handsomely packaged pages, it is a tired story. To read it is to be weighed down by the years. For all the craft it has to offer, for all skill Seth shows in capturing space and time, for all the investment in its production values (and it is a very handsome package, a square hardback bounded within a cardboard slipcase, surely it was not cheap to make), and for all the time in the world, it still lacks one of the highest virtue of any work of art – passion.
Tom Shapira is a freelance critic writing about comics for Haaretz, The Comics Journal, Multiversity, Sequart, and others. He is also the author of Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's The Filth in the 21st Century (Sequart Press, 2013).

June 24, 2019

Overworked and Overstimulated: Nicholas Burman on FRIENDS IN MANY PLACES by Sander Ettema

Sander Ettema’s hyperactive and disorientating debut, Friends in Many Places, is a fine example of when a printed comic is penetrated by, and made a mediator of, online culture and many of its real-life consequences. The artist submerses the reader into a world of an impossible amount of interruptions and expectations. Here, phrases such as “RISE AND SHINE” appear as if from a horror comic. Indeed, Friends feels like a millennial responding to the horror of online life, and going back through the rubble of internets yore to craft a therapeutic control mechanism for their current predicament, that of being overwhelmed by social media and surveillance capitalism. 

Ettema, a Dutch artist, used the project as a way to creatively meditate on society’s demands for us to be constantly efficient and overworked. Additionally, he also wanted to alleviate the stress stemming from the fact that, as the foreword states, “the comments of peers, clients and just whatever I would read online would weigh heavily on my shoulders.” In the digital world of constant contact and self “branding”, there is a sense that people are always watching, and, in this environment, the self becomes anxious and self-conscious in equal measure.
The book’s narrative is split between five acts which have their own theme, antagonists, and color palettes. The protagonist is an overworked, constantly morphing humanoid who sports a bowl haircut. Their journey takes place in a diegesis which is both part a hyperreal equivalent of the reader’s own screen-dominated epoch, and part a projection of the character’s various (sub)conscious fears and anxieties developed thanks to the same stimuli. Friends uses comics’ power of sequential association to suggest that the overlords of this world are a society of faceless, bubble-bodied mannequins, who Ettema portrays via a handful of splash pages. Their emotionless work ethic stands in stark contrast to the pained expressions of the nameless protagonist, whom Ettema depicts in hectic environments and a range of claustrophobic panels. The fifth act is dominated by a moon-faced automaton who provides the protagonist with a destabilizing cup of coffee, its malignant act of companionship results in a darkly comic and downbeat ending to the work: the protagonist’s self-combustion.

The change in colour scheme for each chapter is especially vital, and is, on first thumbing through the book, the immediate clue that this is a work of and about contrasts: the contrast between the hyper-real and the concrete; between expectations and reality; and between a state of calm pleasure and a state of over stimulation. Act I is shaded in pastel colors, giving it a sense of childhood innocence, befitting the fact that this section of the story is being told from Generation Z’s equivalent of a post-Garden of Eden Adam. Act IV’s pinks, greens, and blues, meanwhile, are much more clinical. Perhaps it is no surprise that that chapter ends with a lab rat discovering it’s stuck in an exitless maze not of its own design.
The bright, neon colors, typical of the risograph printing process, heighten the sense of hyper-awareness. In Friends, they seem to arrive via the subjectivity of the protagonist, whose googly eyes are always alert. The dreamy, sometimes translucent coloring also adds a hallucinatory edge to the work.

Ettema computer-generates nearly every inch of his work, only relying on pen and paper for when certain creatures need to look especially fluid. Rather than attempting to create an “organic” feeling with his digital drawings, figures and icons are created from the “basic” shapes available to him at a click of a mouse. Various images of textures and patterns are used as backgrounds and decontextualized to the point where they become highly ambiguous. Visual intertextual references, such as a hard-hatted Lego minifigure, are also sampled into this dayglo world. In other words, Friends in Many Places loudly presents an example of nearly every innovative function that digital illustration software has provided artists since its inception in the late 1980s. In this book, the process is the work. In our daily lives we are unable to escape the influence of technology, and neither can Friends, a comic made by an artist making a work which critiques his own tools. 
Friends wouldn’t work as a webcomic because much of the web already has the same, breathless impact. It is a success as a printed book because it transfers that environment into a space where it is tamed, made “human” again, thanks to the fact that the artist is in control of the color, the speed, and types of interactions between the various elements. And, finally, the reader is in control of turning the pages. In much the same way that the work was an attempt by the author to capture his own anxieties and stress, and making them manageable objects, the book also attempts to subdue the hectic, attention-grabbing aspects of the modern world which cause such emotions to arise. 

While the story of a generally aimless individual negotiating various (economic) stumbling blocks and societal pressures is one for our times, it’s the aesthetic which does much of the talking. Ettema is inspired by the digital designs of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Taking cues from a time before the influence of Apple’s iOS and Instagram aesthetics transformed digital environments into sterile and utilitarian spaces, he takes great pleasure in emulating the slight inaccuracies of Microsoft Paint and so-bad-they’re-good WordArt fonts. The relative simplicity of those times is exaggerated here. By being cut and pasted and warped, each element, including the protagonist, fights against the tide which pushes towards an ever-depleting space. Towards the end of the book, the spatial design of the elements on the pages seem more collage than comics; frames are dispensed with, and the reader is left to navigate a stream of consciousness, through associative rather than chronological, page designs. 
The effects of online culture and digital technology on the generations that have never known life without either are only just starting to be understood. To avoid the apocalyptic fate of Friends’ protagonist, we too must take control of the labyrinthine world of networks and digital signals that surrounds us. Probably the most telling point of the book is that there aren’t actually any friends in Friends. Rather, it suggests that we’ll just have to look elsewhere, likely away from both the screen and the page, to find them.

Friends in Many Places is printed by Jumbo Press, a risograph specialist that also produces large format prints and merchandise from its base in London, UK.
Nicholas Burman is currently based in Amsterdam, from where he writes about comics, experimental music, ambient artistic practices, and DIY culture for The Comics Journal, MusicMap, and Amsterdam Alternative, among others. You can find his portfolio at: https://nicholascburman.com/

June 23, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/17/19 to 6/21/19

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


* John Seven reviews O JOSEPHINE by Jason, writing that collectively, the stories it contains "seem transitional, testing out some previously unexplored creative pathways and seeking future direction." 

* Rob Clough on BILLIE THE BEE by Mary Fleener which "feels like a slightly foul-mouthed educational aid as much as it does a narrative. It also feels like a book one might sneak to a kid on the sly; they would enjoy it because of its visuals and the thrill of reading something that's not age-appropriate.

* Nola Pfau reviews TRANS GIRLS HIT THE TOWN by Emma Jayne which "can be difficult reading for those of us who are trans, but not generally worse than a given day-to-day experience, and it’s validating to know that even some of the darker feelings I experience are mirrored elsewhere. I think it’s also the kind of thing that would honestly be invaluable for cis allies to read and understand—in fact it feels so deeply true that I find myself wanting to buy stacks of it to hand out to folks in need of education."

* Alex Hoffman has this microreview of RUST BELT by Sean Knickerbocker whose tragedy "is in its familiarity, and the understanding that, as Knickerbocker suggests, a lot of people are one good kick away from falling into the pit. These characters are all right on the edge. Knickerbocker applies the foot, and makes his reader watch them fall."

* Justin McGuire on ALIENATION by Ines Estrada who has "an anarchist imagination that keeps the viewer off-balance. She’s not afraid of psychedelia, and doesn’t see technology as the pure enemy."

* Keith Silva reviews the recent Fantagraphics release of THE COMPLETE LIFE AND TIMES OF $CROOGE MCDUCK by Don Rosa, calling it "an exemplar of the exploitation cartoonists and other contractors endure to keep the corporate comics making machine running"

* Wendy Browne on ALICE AT NAPTIME by Shea Proulx, writing "Seeing moms like Proulx find a way to use sequential art to tell their stories reminds us that the trials and tribulations and beauty of parenting in general and motherhood in particular are universal."

* Henry Chamberlain looks at JEREMIAH by Cathy G. Johnson whose "work has a beauty that looks effortless and pure. In the span of 160 pages, she mesmerizes the reader with her gentle yet powerful watercolor comics."


* Kirsten Thompson interviews DOMINIQUE DUONG "about her work, her approach, and her process."

* Hillary Brown interviews SETH for Paste "about his process, his dreams, his rivalry with Jason Lutes and whether or not he’s a square."

* Simon Abrams interviews MICHAEL KUPPERMAN "about the reception and release of his work, from his early comics ‘zine contributions in Hodags and Hodaddies (under the pseudonym “P. Revess”) to All the Answers."

* Andrea Shockling has PART FOUR of her comic Andrea's Bariatric Diary up on her website.

* THE TOM WAITS MAP"An interactive guide to every location Tom Waits has sung about in his life." As well, Waits has curated his own 76-song SPOTIFY PLAYLIST by way of an introduction to his music.

June 19, 2019

“Held together with glue:” Matt Vadnais on Scott Jason Smith’s MARBLE CAKE and the Mundane Miracle that is Urban Living

If Scott Jason Smith’s Marble Cake features a protagonist, she is Sally, a woman who opens the book with an internal monologue extolling the joy of finding refuge on the “disabled toilet.” Her solace comes in a place that is simultaneously out of view of her fellow Londoners and – as we are reminded by the initial pages that zoom in on the bathroom door and its signage – proclaims something definitive, and in this case incorrect, about the identity of all who use it. Though the book provides many, many moments of interiority, – both for Sally and for many of the people who live in London but share haunts and habits in the way one might expect from the residents of a small town – Sally never clues us in regarding the extent to which she derives comfort or pleasure from using a restroom that signals something inaccurate about who she is. Nonetheless, she is, throughout the book, preoccupied with some version of the question raised by her use of a toilet designed and marked as being for someone with different needs; again and again, she contemplates the difference between what she knows of other people and some other version of their own stories or roles in other people’s stories. Though the details of her plot matter to what Scott Jason Smith is doing in Marble Cake, they aren’t handled in a way that makes her the main character of the story; she is our protagonist largely because her thought process provides a significant clue as to how one is supposed to read the book. As she contemplates the lives and identities of people who buy various items from her at the grocery store where she works – all of whom are given scenes and internal monologues of their own – Scott Jason Smith instructs the reader to contemplate the relationship between the aspects of one’s story that are legible to others and the rich, though often mundane, interiority that is not.
Sally, a reader learns early in the book, suffers from a pronounced though ultimately not-that-bad toothache. Questions about the nature of pain – perhaps even more than questions about whether or not we all perceive the color red in the same way – provide an intro-to-philosophy gateway to contemplating the differences between one’s sense of self and one’s sense of others: is pain real? Does pain exist in the mind or in the tooth that aches, in a sensory experience of that tooth, or everywhere that one feels that pain radiating? How does one know that others are in pain, especially if others aren’t experiencing pain in ways that seem consistent with one’s own experience of pain?  To be clear, in Marble Cake Sally doesn’t ask any of these questions; still, her musing about stories that remain illegible despite her knowing what people buy – “I always wonder what goes on with the customers behind closed doors” she thinks to herself – serves as a signal that Marble Cake is a story about the secret lives of others.
More specifically, Marble Cake is a book about the ways we misread or fail to read the pain, fears, and desires of other people. Smith doesn’t simply show us Sally thinking about the experiences of others that she does not have immediate access to; he extends this difficulty to the reader, complicating the way we understand what is happening in each of the characters’ heads. Many books that are about the difficulty of knowing others are content to let readers know the book’s characters better than the characters do; Smith goes out of his way to make his characters as hard to read for us as they are for each other. One result of this choice is that the book ends up far more experimental than the story itself would suggest. We have a conventional plot, complete with rising action, climax, and denouement. However, because of Smith’s decision to focus on multiple characters at the same time while obfuscating or truncating important scenes, Sally’s story is not nearly as central to the way Smith makes his point as one might expect.   
If this were a more conventional book, it would be about Sally’s decisions and the consequences of those decisions. Sally, in other words, does things absolutely worthy of being a protagonist in a more conventional story. In order to think about the way that plot – and its relatively obscured place in Marble Cake – serves to emphasize one of the most profound things that Scott Jason Smith is doing here, it is necessary to give away the books ending (or lack of ending). Consider yourself warned that a significant spoiler is coming after this lovely example of the book’s art; if you want to stop reading this and go read the book before continuing, I understand and will only say that you should. Marble Cake is terrific.
So. Spoilers. Throughout the 120 pages of Marble Cake, Sally begins, perhaps, to fall in love, though it’s worth noting that the reader is denied meaningful dialogue between her and her potential romantic partner through the brilliant use of faded and empty dialogue bubbles. Despite not getting to spend much time with her and her “not boyfriend,” the reader has access to Sally’s thoughts and the thoughts of her potential partner: they are both interested in a relationship. Despite having had multiple dates that the reader can only assume were charming and comfortable in equal measure, Sally drinks more than she intended to at a party and has a sexual encounter with a near stranger. Circumstances work out in such a way that the encounter itself could remain a secret known only to her; she contemplates the murkiness of whether or not the encounter was a kind of infidelity since she – though maybe she’s falling in love – is technically single. However, any chance she has to begin a relationship without revealing that she had sex is dashed by her realization that she is pregnant; the pregnancy is obviously going to make her situation much more complicated by making her private choice to go to bed with her friend’s cousin legible to her potential boyfriend.
If Scott Jason Smith were telling a conventional story, we would see the consequences of her actions in terms of her budding relationship; instead, the book ends with her about to tell her prospective partner the facts that he, soon, will be able to read on her body. This scene – which, again, the reader is denied – is one of the only moments in the book where someone shares a private truth to someone before it becomes an obvious part of their legible identity. Smith cuts from the scene to an image of a mother pushing a stroller, emphasizing the semiotics of motherhood. In addition to replacing Sally’s difficult conversation with imagery that explicitly suggests a potential future for her, Smith uses a similar technique to emphasize the stakes of this conversation. Throughout the book, the reader sees the impact of missing and ineffective fathers. Though the reader is given no real suggestion as to whether Sally’s child will know either a father or a potential step-father, Smith augments the stakes of this personal conversation with societal and community stakes depicted throughout the book.
However, Smith’s decision to withhold the most important details of Sally’s plot does not feel like trickery. By this point in Marble Cake, the reader has been taught to think about the story as the swirl of lives happening in this part of London and not as the consequences of Sally’s choices. Throughout the book, characters notice a series of disappearances – one of which is explained in a sort of magical way as a girl who followed a soccer ball into a tree and ostensibly stayed there for days or weeks – and are threatened by a mysterious backpack thief who targets people in train stations and public places. Readers are trained to see the constant news reports and mentions of this man who uses some kind of blade to cut a backpack from his victim as evidence that he will play a key role in the plot. In keeping with Smith’s experimental approach to plotting, however, the backpack bandit functions primarily as a metaphorical proxy for the reader trying to figure out who these characters are by reading the artifacts of their lives. Though we do get access to many characters’ thoughts, most of those thoughts are no more revealing than the physical detritus of their lives, detritus that could, in most cases, fit into a backpack.
Though, in order to talk about how good this book is, I felt it necessary to spoil the plot details that stay just out of Smith’s primary focus. In light of the way that Smith contemplates the legibility of experience, however, sharing the interiority of my reaction feels unfair and prescriptive. Instead, taking a cue from Smith’s remarkable, potent, and ethereal first book, I will end on a simile, somewhat borrowed from its pages: reading Marble Cake was like watching strangers I suddenly and inexplicably care about struggle to keep their belongings dry while it rains much harder than any of us expected.
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

June 17, 2019

Radiating Deceptively Sweet, Innocent Vibes: Fred McNamara Reviews TWO OF US by Jessi Zabarsky

Jessi Zabarsky’s Two of Us is a deceitful comic. It’s all-ages charm masks a deeper, more emotionally entangled story of adapting to environments and mentalities outside of one’s comfort zone. On the surface, it’s a tale of a magical, ragamuffin heroine, Frebry, trying to fit into a normal school, with expectedly hilarious results. However, when taking all of the characters in Two of Us into consideration, Frebry isn’t the only character at play here who’s forced to mature in unexpected ways.

Zabarsky’s simple, direct story-telling comes with an empathetic heft that intertwines Frebry’s journey of maturity and self-discovery with a similar arc for her mother. The owner of a shop full of magical artifacts, Frebry’s mother is seemingly resplendent in wisdom and experience as she encourages Frebry to try her hand at Mundane School instead of magic school. This opening scene not only establishes the sweetly deadpan tone of Two of Us, but it also deceptively confirms the layered approach to the comic’s story. The scene depicting Frebry’s frustration at being sent to a different school may seem to focus on her, but placing her mother in the frame also positions her own mini-arc of growth in the story, as her own frustrations arise from positioning themselves within a world that’s harsher and less empathetic to them than their regular, more magical world.
Two of Us carries a central message of maturity, of how Frebry’s experiences in both regular and magical schools allow her to gain sympathy for her single, ever-working mother by magically splitting into two versions of herself. The act of multiplying feels like a reflection of Frebry’s introspection and her getting to grips with understanding herself, bolstered by having to exist in two different worlds - magical and non-magical. It’s a handsomely crafted arc for Frebry, one that doesn’t push the boundaries of believing how self-aware a child can be.

Her maturity rests on the backbone of her relationship with her mother, who provides the platform to make Frebry grow up. The comic’s title then doesn’t refer solely to the two versions of Frebry in that context, but it could also refer to Frebry and her mother. Two of Us becomes much more emotionally well-rounded when read as a story about a daughter and her mother, rather than purely a story about Frebry. 
This slick trick Zabarsky pulls in the comic gives it a genuine depth. There’s something bittersweet in how innocently prepared Frebry’s mother is in sending her daughter off into the real world when she herself has far more trouble blending in than Frebry. Where Frebry clearly doesn’t adapt to the confines of the real world, she at least forms a close friendship. Her mother fails to do even that, but only through the assistance of their daughters do Frebry and her friend’s own mother break down their prejudices against each other. In such few pages, Zabarsky delivers a deceptively deep narrative in which child and adult play off against each other’s attempts at adapting to new, uncharted, frightening worlds they’re not experienced in.

Zabarsky’s art suits the vibes of the comic to perfection. She illustrates locations and architecture with only the barest detail, yet she makes those details count. She’s more invested in portraying her characters than her landscapes, focusing on Frebry and her mother by illustrating a warm, comical sense of character from the pair of them. Frebry is an absolute riot, drawn with a shock of uncontrollable, fluffy hair to reflect her boundaryless persona and gawking anime eyes that tap into that classic, gargantuan wonder a child can have with the world. At the other end of the spectrum is her mother. Zabarsky draws her with as more slender and graceful than Frebry, there’s a joint sense of weariness and optimism in her face from raising her deliriously uncontrollable daughter. It’s wonderfully illustrated, but again, with minimalism, and yet with all the right detail. There’s not a beat missed in these characters. Zabarsky also makes use of a limited color palette that never overwhelms the comic’s compact, stripped back style.  
Everything about Two of Us is clear, concise, and hits home. It pinpoints its emotional targets with great subtlety, yet that subtlety is precise throughout. Zabarsky’s direct story-telling gives the comic clarity to be enjoyed by younger readers, but its layered, character-driven story can easily be appreciated by older readers who may be able to spot these tactics better than youngsters. 

Beyond these analyses, however, Two of Us is a warm, jovial tale of the hardships of being both young and old. It’s a brief enough story to never lose track of this, and it’s sweetly deadpan vibe matched with the thick, blocky art lends the comic a firm tone. Two of Us stands as a comical yet gentle affirmation of how persevering in unknown situations and landscapes can increase maturity without destroying individuality. Within Zabarksy’s controlled artistic platform, Frebry’s gleeful journey is a pocket-sized joy to behold.
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.

June 16, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 6/10/19 to 6/14/19

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


* Rob McMonigal reviews BLACK IS THE COLOR by Julia Gfrörer, appreciating "how well the mood of the story is expressed in the art. There's a real sense of oppression in the theme and having the extensive lines adds to that. Yet at the same time, Gfrorer doesn't try to overdo the details."

* Robin Enrico looks at BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore which "is not only an artistic highpoint for both its creators; it is a stunning reminder of the power of comics to explode the reader’s imagination. Daniels and Passmore both establish the mash-up genre of Splat-stick Gentrification Horror Comedy and create a work that utterly defines it."

* Chris Gavaler also looks at BTTM FDRS, writing "that's the whole point of horror -- to drag up our culture's biggest, ugliest globs of unconscious sewage and spread it across a white page for us to see and acknowledge."

* Megan N. Liberty on BASQUIAT: A GRAPHIC NOVEL written and illustrated by Italian author Paolo Parisi, writing "It’s this type of visual, verbal, textural play that makes the graphic novel an interesting form for the Basquiat story."

* Rob Clough reviews SUPERVILLAINS by Michael Kupperman, writing "By using contrasts, defying expectations, assaulting the reader with bizarre images, and mining premises for all that they're worth, Kupperman has created a winning formula."

* Ryan Carey on Sergio Ponchione's MEMORABILIA: "Any work predicated upon stylistic appropriation — no matter how convincing that appropriation may be — is bound to come up short in terms of conveying the inspiration behind that which it’s referencing, of course, and I don’t fault Ponchione in the least for his inability to channel the inner artistic “souls” of his heroes. What I do fault him for is his absolute inability to communicate any sense of what makes their work so special to him, personally, beyond “they were all really good artists.”

* Tegan O'Neil reviews LORNA by Benji Nate which "carries the kind of remit that makes reviews of this nature potentially dangerous: like I say, you don’t really want to overstate and risk burying the book under sophistry. It’s a fun story with a memorable character, produced with wit and no small degree of craft. It’s a pleasant package. I could read five more just like it, and really, can you think of a nicer thing to say about any book? "

* Kevin Bramer on Lisa Hanawalt's HOT DOG TASTE TEST which he found hysterical.

* Tanner Tafelski looks at Jon B. Cooke’s THE BOOK OF WEIRDO: A RETROSPECTIVE OF R. CRUMB'S LEGENDARY HUMOR COMICS ANTHOLOGY which "attempts to resuscitate a comic book anthology’s legacy, smoothing over its more repellant facets."


* Meredith Li-Vollmer interviews GLYNNIS FAWKES about her "unusual pathway to comics—via archaeology—and her two books that will be published this year, Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre and Persephone’s Garden."

* Alenka Figa interviews KAT VERHOEVEN about her webcomic, Meat and Bone, being published by Conundrum Press.

* Kim Jooha interviews AARTHI PARTHASARATHY, "an artist, filmmaker, and writer based in Bangalore, India." 

* Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada interviews VIVEK SHRAYA about "the origins of (her latest book) Death Threat, her and (artist Ness) Lee’s collaborative process, and the craft of the graphic novel."

* Philippe LeBlanc has this SMALL PRESS UPDATE tracking the latest developments of various publishers.

* Avery Kaplan writes a piece for The MNT titled GETTING QUEER COMICS INTO LIBRARIES.