I couldn't go to the Small Press Expo (aka SPX), which makes this year no different from the last 20-odd years. Reports I've heard describe it as eventful. Someone posted a blog post about artists to check out who were exhibiting their work at SPX, so I went online and bought a bunch of their books, concentrating on female cartoonists whose work I had never read before. I wanted to keep it fresh.
But time passed and I read other comics, and then Retrofit/Big Planet sent me a pile of comics because I supported their Kickstarter, so this post has nothing to do with SPX at this point except that all the comics here are literally small press comics (unless you don't consider Fantagraphics Books a small press).
Tinderella by M.S. Harkness (Kilgore Books, April 2018). The subject matter is timely--dating in the age of Tinder. M.S. Harkness writes this as an autobiographical comic, although I suspect a lot of it is fictional. I mean, in the first scene in the book, she picks up a "muscle hottie" at the gym and they fuck on the tanning bed, leaving her half burned/half pale. Maybe that happened, but it seems unlikely. And it is perhaps a little weird for me (as a guy) reading about a woman who thinks about potential sex partners more or less the same way men do--looks are the first criteria. But in a way, that's what Tinder forces its users to do--you judge people by their photos, after all. This takes place during her last year of college and as she becomes independent. There are interesting bits about her mother, but she's not fleshed out. It's mostly about Harness's ongoing attempts to get laid by a muscular bearded hottie.
I wasn't wowed by it, even though there were entertaining bits. I don't like her art--it reminded me a little bit of the art of Pete Sickman-Garner, a largely forgotten cartoonist from the late 90s and early 2000s. I don't know if Harkness is destined to become a forgotten cartoonist from this era much as Sickman-Garner is from his, but her art is, like Sickman-Garner's, second rate and lacking in an interesting or highly personal style. But sometimes artists are rough when they start out and blossom later.
Gulag Casual by Austin English (2dcloud, April 2016). I've had this on my "to read" shelf for a while and finally pulled the trigger. The book consists of five stories drawn between 2010 and 2015. The drawing is so extravagant that it blows away any other quality that the stories have. And they do have other qualities--they are stories after all. The stories are fragmentary and somewhat dreamlike (not surreal, but disjointed like the narratives in dreams often are). But they are otherwise straightforward narratives for the most part.
Austin English, page 8 from "My Friend Perry", 2011
The drawing however is very modernist and improvisational. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it shares elements of Wols and the COBRA artists (Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinsky)--improvisation, a certain childish quality, but also an energy that resembles post-war abstract painting in the USA. There aren't really any comics artists who are exactly similar, although Gary Panter and Anke Feuchtenberger are on the same trolley route.
But the difference between English and Panter and Feuchtenberger is that there is no connection between his drawing and the narrative he's layered on top of the drawings. At least, none that is apparent to this reader. One can vaguely relate what is depicted in each panel to what is happening in the narrative (for instance, if two people are talking, you will observe two figures in the panel), but the connection is barely there.
Austin English, page 5 of "Freddy's Dead", 2011-2012
The exception to this disconnect is the story "Freddy's Dead"--in it, the protagonists Freddy and Carmello are on the subway and a beggar comes on board, throws broken glass on the ground and rolls around in it. This is depicted in a disturbing full-page image. It doesn't feel as improvisational as most of the other images in the book.
Anyway, I would say this is a book to read for the pictures, not for the comics narratives. I like English's drawing a lot.
All the Sad Songs by Summer Pierre (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). I had never heard of Summer Pierre until I heard an interview with her on a podcast talking about All the Sad Songs. She described it as being about making mixtapes, which is a thing that people of a certain age used to do, me included. She depicts herself now (a woman in her 40s, I think) with a streak of white in her hair. (I looked up her photo online, and while she has some grey, she doesn't have a streak of white--that was presumably an artistic device to help the reader distinguish now Summer from young Summer). She talks about how she made mixtapes for herself, her friends, boys she had crushes on and even her parents while she was in college. She lists the contents of some of them, and her tastes were eclectic but unformed. But in 1994, she hears Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Hole's Live Through This and they change her world. She becomes obsessed with girls with guitars and gets one herself and teaches herself the rudiments. Shortly after that, she meets Tom, who becomes a serious boyfriend for her. She's living in Boston and going to open mic nights to play her songs, becoming familiar with the singer-songwriters on the scene. She does a great job depicting this subculture, but what she really does well is depict her terrible relationship with Tom, who is kind of a cad.
The story alternates between the folk scene and Pierre's disastrous love life and the two sides of the story become completely intertwined. After her breakup with Tom, she suffers anxiety and starts seeing a therapist. Her sessions with therapists is a third stream in this memoir, and Pierre makes it interesting, using interesting visuals to depict her state of mind. The memoir ends in 2005 when she falls in love with a man name Graham (who also falls for her) but they never become a couple because Graham knows he is moving away shortly. The feeling the reader is left with is that because Summer doesn't freak out about this, she has learned to handle her romantic anxiety. I would say this book as a whole is ample proof of that. In the "about the author" at the end, you learn that Pierre is now married to a man and they have a son.
The art is simple but tells the story well. It seems to come out of the tradition of other autobiographical cartoonists like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet and Joe Matt, and has hints of classic pre-War comic strips like The Bungle Family and Gasoline Alley. It's light-hearted even in the most emotional parts, which works really well for this book.
I Love You by Sara Lautman (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). A short collection of mildly humorous stories. The desired effect seems to be wryness, but the stories rarely rise to the level of actually funny. Lautman seems to acknowledge this in her first story, "Cow Tools". She is referring to a notorious panel by Gary Larson in the Far Side. The comic in question showed a cow posing with a variety of very crude tools. Larson relates the story of the perplexed public reaction to the panel in The PreHistory of The Far Side.So the protagonist to the story decides to get a tattoo of the perplexing Far Side cartoon, and people who see the tattoo are as confused as the readers of the original newspaper cartoon. She kind of uses people's reactions as a reason to judge them.
Understanding by Becca Tobin (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018).This collection of lighthearted stories has really cartoony, somewhat psychedelic artwork. The seven stories pretty much lack pathos or cleverness. Tobin seems to be trying for playful encounters of her odd characters. Some of it is quite cosmic--in "Skinny Dipping", two figures go swimming and lose their skins before ascending into the sky as glowing yellow creatures.
Becca Tobin, "Skinny Dipping" page 2, 2018
In a weird way, the aimlessness of these stories reminds me a little of Geoff Dyer's novel The Colour of Memory: A Novel. But compared to the Dyer novel, Understanding adds up tp very little. Some interesting images, and that's about all.
Drawn To Berlin: Comic Workshops In Refugee Shelters And Other Store by Ali Fitzgerald (Fantagraphics Books, October 2018). I first became aware of Ali Fitzgerald's art when she was painting and creating installations in Austin, Texas. She moved to Berlin and started drawing comics there. As Syrian refugees started pouring into Berlin as the civil war in Syria grew worse, she volunteered to teach art classes at The Bubble, a refugee center in Northern Berlin. At first, she relates, Germany was quite welcoming but things soon turned sour. Things took a decided turn for the worse after a large number of sexual assaults were committed by roving groups of migrants (mostly from North Africa) in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve 2015. Over the course of Fitzgerald's meandering story, we see life getting harder for the refugees and the rise of the far right party Alternative for Germany (AFD) and its attractive leader, Frauke Petry, whom Fitzgerald describes as "petite and pixied." Petry's descriptions of the refugees doesn't jibe with Fitzgerald's first-hand experience.
Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p, 84
Fitgerald has several exceedingly interesting digressions. She describes at length Joseph Roth's descriptions of Jewish Berlin, particularly of the refugees from the pogroms of Russia. The parallels with the modern refugees seems particularly apt and chilling--we know what happened to those earlier refugees, after all. And then she has a lengthy diversion on fonts--specifically Fraktur, a very old fashioned Germanic-looking font that fell out of favor after the World War II. (One notable exception--novelist Gunter Grass insisted on Fraktur for his novels). It was abandoned for more sleek, less overtly Germanic fonts.Ironically, Hitler personally decreed that Fraktur be replaced with the more modern looking Anitqua in 1933. He thought it would be an easier sell in territories conquered by the Nazis. Fitzgerald notes the gradual and seemingly apolitical return of Fraktur into public life in Germany--simultaneous with the return of the ultra-right to politics, as represented by the AFD.
Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p,91
Fitzgerald shows her students work by Charles Burns and references the comics of Joe Sacco, whose classic "How I Loved the War" from 1992 (reprinted in the book Notes From a Defeatist) was a first person account of Sacco's time in Berlin during the run-up to the Gulf War. Sacco shares a German class with several Palestinian students, which seems to foreshadow Fitzgerald's own experience--two American cartoonists in Berlin encountering refugees from the Middle East. Sacco is a more innovative cartoonist, but it is undeniable that Fitzgerald's experience is the deeper one. She spent significant time with her students and got to know them and befriend them.
Throughout she focuses on her students, who flit in and out of her life as they are cycled through the refugee apparatus. There is an interesting scene where she has second thoughts about recording these stories--an issue that many memoir author faces. She did change people's names, though.
Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p, 185
The title Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From the New Europe is terrible. The pun is weak, the subtitle too long and overly-explanatory. But if you can get past that, this is a powerful and moving comic.
The Prince by Liam Cobb ( Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). Liam Cobb is a London illustrator whose specialty is drawings of architecture, interior and exterior. I've seen images of a dystopian story called Death of a Crow, which reminded me superficially of The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James. But The Prince is more of a horror story set in a city of boxy Miesian high rise buildings (it reminded me of Chicago), and the interiors are all midcentury Modern. The protagonist is a woman named May in an unhappy relationship with the horrible Adrian. Adrian starts off cruel, but over the course of the story tips over into seriously abusive.
May discovers a frog in the barren hallway of their apartment building and take it in. Adrian is repulsed by it. He makes May get rid of it. The frog seems as fragile as any frog in real life would be--when May leaves him outside by the river, it is quickly eaten by a bird. But the frog keeps returning, to Adrian's extreme displeasure.
The story of not told in a linear fashion. It keeps switching back and forward in time, and we readers have to decide what is "real" and not. Some episodes seem like fantasy (Adrian attacked by a giant monster frog). Some involve violence committed by May against pushy assaulty men. The question the reader has is has May become an avenging angel killing men who have mistreated her (inspired by her "prince", the frog)? Or is there a supernatural frog creature going around killing men who abuse May? Or is it all an hallucination?
The open, minimal detail and bizarre content remind me a little of Olivier Schrauwen, but Liam Cobb doesn't commit to surrealism to the degree that Schrauwen does. But The Prince was interesting and amusing.