Monday, December 31, 2018

It's late 2018 and I Can't Stop Reading Comics

Robert Boyd

I am a 55-year-old man who should have outgrown comics when I was 13. I sort of did. I pretty much stopped reading them throughout high school. What was happening with the Avengers just no longer felt relevant to me. But in college I rediscovered comics thanks to my roommate Hal, who had somehow stumbled across an English comic called Warrior featuring the mind-blowing comics of a guy named Alan Moore. Shortly after that, I found issue 2 of Love & Rockets at a comic store and it changed my life. And I was lucky to come along just as comics were growing more sophisticated and diverse by leaps and bounds, year after year. Because of this, I've never had a reason to quit reading them.

The first three I'm going to write about are published by a tiny English Press called Shortbox. Shortbox is the project of a young woman named Zainab Akhtar, who previously ran a review site called Comics & Cola, which she shut down in 2017. She was someone who was discovering comics and writing about those discoveries in real time. Unfortunately, she did so while being Muslim and a woman, which reportedly brought the fucking worst in the internet. She was not a victim of the racist, sexist movement known as "Comicsgate" (they coalesced a little bit after she shut down) but apparently of similar assholes. ("Comicsgate" will make an appearance a little later in this post, however.) When she announced she was shutting down Comics & Cola (in March, 2016), there was an outpouring of disappointment and sympathy. Heidi McDonald, who runs the comics site The Beat, wrote the following:
When Zainab first started writing for me, she was optimistic and idealistic, or at least expressed that most of the time. Over three years, via social media, I watched all that optimism and idealism wash away in a sea of  fatigue over daily battles, battles that should quite rightly never have had to be fought.
That said, posts kept appearing on her blog, The last one appeared in October 2017. She obviously didn't stop loving comics or wanting to engage with them.Sometime in the past couple of years, she started a small publishing outfit called Shortbox. I believe the blog was still happening when she started. Its name comes from a standard-size comic book storage box, which is slightly ironic since none of the comics she publishes seem to be "standard" size. The three I have all have small trim-sizes and are in full color. They are tiny beautiful objects.

And they are all decidedly alternative comics--they make no concession to mainstream comics tastes. And all three are by women cartoonists, although her entire catalog has plenty of male cartoonists. It's just that I happened to pick these three when I was shopping.

Starting a publishing company takes gumption. But in the past few years, quite a few new small publishers have appeared on the scene, and I am glad to see it. Good luck, Shortbox!

The Island by Joy San (Shortbox, 2018). Drawn with crayon or pastels, Jay San's The Island has dense color that reminds me a little of the great Lorenzo Mattotti. The story takes place partly on a dangerous desert island. A young woman goes to the island with a seed that was given her by her great uncle who had been stranded on the island.. He gave her several seed which she was never able to grow. Down to her last seed, she decides to try to grow it on the island of its origin.

The island seems to be forbidden or off-limits. The bird that transports her there refuses to land on the island. It drops the woman off without touching the earth. She grows the seed using pieces of her own body (at the request of the plant) which then produces a duplicate body, identical to the young woman's. A little like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the duplicate takes the place of the woman. It returns to civilization and lives a happy life, ironically. The woman is left stranded on the island.

The Island is a minor but likable fable. Joy San is an artist to watch.

The Worst by Molly Mendoza (Shortbox, 2016). Two girls, Sam and Jen, on a swim team are close friends. Jamie (I think) convinces Jen to drop Sam as a friend. We see this happening through the dialogue of two gossips, one of whom admits, "I'm only in it for the drama."

Mendoza's art is quite stylized and illustrational.It doesn't have standard comic book panel-to-panel progressions. Instead it is a series of images that more-or-less illustrates the drama of Sam and Jen as it unfolds. Lots of images of girls in pools in their one-piece swim-team bathing suits. She likes to draw the distortions of a body partly submerged in clear pool water.

Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll (Shortbox, February 2019). Emily Carrol specializes in somewhat disturbing fairy-tale-like stories. In this one, the characters are all wolf-like anthropomorphic figures. A young woman attends a party thrown by a man. The environment is one of wealth and finery, recalling perhaps the 18th century. The characters are never named.

The man is pale green and the woman is orange, and Carroll uses that to isolate the two in some of the party scenes. He asks her to join him beneath the Dead Oak Tree, which she declines to do. But curious, she follows him out there where she sees he has brought another young woman. Our heroine witnesses the man murdering the woman. She keeps this fact to herself (for some reason). The man continues his pursuit of her but never again asks her to go under the Dead Oak Tree. Eventually he asks her to marry him, and on their wedding night, she extracts a bloody revenge on him. It somewhat recalls the fairy tale of Bluebeard, except that Bluebeard murdered his wives. Here, being the man's wife seems to protect the woman.

The artwork is, like all of Carroll's art, elegant and lovely, but the story seems kind of a trifle. It strives for the universality of a fairy tale, but the motives seem obscure. Why does he murder? Why does she not tell anyone he is a murderer? How does he act with impunity? And why does she kill him in the end?

If I had to characterize Shirtbox comics on the basis of these three titles, it would be comics where the artwork if foregrounded over storytelling and plot. They are beautiful to look at.

One Dirty Tree by Noah Van Sciver (Uncivilized Books, 2018). I said Comicsgate would rear it's ugly head again, and it does quite obliquely here in One Dirty Tree. Noah Van Sciver is an extremely talented alternative cartoonist probably best known for his hilarious series of books about his poet-manque character who calls himself Fante Bukowski. One Dirty Tree is about his growing up in a run-down rental house in New Jersey. the street address was 133, and it had a dead tree in the front yard which lead one of his brothers to name it One Dirty Tree. He was from a Mormon family with 7 brothers and sisters, including Ethan Van Sciver, who has become one of the faces of Comicsgate. Ethan is a very talented artist who was quite successful for a while drawing mainstream superhero comic books. But he drifted over into far right politics and online harassment, burning many bridges. Noah never mentions this aspect of Ethan's life in the book, but he does depict Ethan as a budding comics artist creating his character Cyberfrog while still a teenager. Amazingly (or maybe not), Ethan is still trying to make a go of Cyberfrog, crowdfunding it to self-publish it. To me, these two brothers are exemplars of the difference between mainstream and alternative comics. Not because of Ethan's politics (although there has always been a whiff of the fascist in superhero comics), but in that Noah has advanced to a much more subtle and adult type of storytelling while Ethan, a 44 year-old man, is still drawing fucking Cyberfrog, a character he made up in high school.

But I didn't love this book, although it feels stronger on rereading. Even Noah has mixed feelings about it because he feels a little guilty about putting his mentally ill father down on the page (he said as much in an interview on the podcast The Comics Alternative). This is always the danger of doing autobiographical comics is that you may end up depicting people you know and love in ways they wouldn't necessarily want.

But what is appealing is how Noah switches back and forth in time with the kids in the 133 and the future when he is a young man full of self-doubt because he has chosen the spectacularly unremunerative career of alternative cartoonist. It makes him feel like he can't live up to his more conventionally employed girlfriend. I think this is a feeling many cartoonists (and artists) have felt.

Survive 300,000,000: Serpentine Captives by Pat Aulisio (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2018). I wrote about the first part of this series in an earlier post, and this is more of the same. The cyborg and his son Blaze have been captured and transported to Mars. The meet new allies and fight thier way to freedom. And I really don't care!

Our Wretched Town Hall by Eric Kostiuk Williams (Retrofit/Big Planet, 2018). This is a series of vignettes dealing with gay life in Toronto. What I noticed right away was how psychedelic the art was--it reminded me of certain comics artists from the 60s and 70s--Jim Steranko, for example, or  Frank Brunner when he was drawing Dr. Strange. It made me think for the first time about how queer that art was with it's art nouveau-inspired excesses.

The title story seems to refer to a dance club (whether the club is actually called "Our Wretched Town Hall" is not clear). But Williams makes a case for it being an other place, a kind of artificial home. "Together we've made this a home away from home where you can be free . . . fearless!"

Williams is an artsy guy--one of the stories is a tribute to a defunct art space called Videofag, and in another he draws and discusses David Wojnarowicz. And conflicts between gay and straight, conservative and flamboyant show up, as does the specter of turning from a twink to a twank. But what pulled me along was the extravagant artwork.

The New Yorker Cartoons by Johnny Ryan (Mirror Editions, 2018). This is a very unusual little book. I have no idea who Mirror Editions is. There is no information in the book. The design is very spare and elegant (the design is credited to "H. Patel"), which is in extreme contrast to the cartoons themselves. They take the form of classic New Yorker cartoons--an image and a caption, which is usually the words of a character is the image. Like New Yorker cartoons, the images are black and white, unframed so they float on a white background, and often feature a grey tone. This format is a signifier of polite, bourgeois wry humor; what Johnny Ryan does with the form is ironic. Ryan's comics are filthy and objectionable. Another cartoonist who has done similar deconstructions of the polite New Yorker-style cartoon is Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist who matches Ryan for filth but who not-so-secretly loves the New Yorker esthetic--he done very respectful comics about James Thurber and has even drawn covers for the New Yorker. It is impossible to imagine Johnny Ryan ever drawing a cover for the New Yorker. (Brunetti's New Yorker-style atrocities are collected into a very funny book called Ho!: The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti)

I think some of the funniest cartoons in this collection are about Nazis. The thing about Nazi-themed humor you have to ask yourself is, would a Nazi find it funny? If yes, then maybe it's beyond the pale. And in these two cases, Ryan certainly skates that line. Neither of these make fun of Nazis or satirize them.

However, the second one is most typical of the cartoons in this tiny volume. It makes fun of the fad for adding politics to ones artwork or entertainment product regardless of whether or not it works. It seems of the moment. And making the art stripping and the politics Nazism makes the idea of left wing art or Alt-right art seem, well, ridiculous. Which is what good satire does.

These cartoons were originally published on Ryan's Instagram feed, outlawscumfudge. Needless to say, it was always a race against time to see how long they would be up before the gnomes of Instagram deleted them. Thank God we still have books--a platform that is diffuse enough that they can't really be censored by a monolithic corporate master, like Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, etc.

I have a couple of more comics to write about, but I want to get this up in 2018. This is the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2018

35 Russian Poems

Robert Boyd

Back in August, I got Lev Rubenstein's Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties and started reading it. When I bought it, I thought it might be comic stories based on its title (and my lack of research), but it is instead a book of 35 poems. Reading the introduction, I learned he was involved with Moscow Conceptualism, the movement that started in the 70s. The earliest poem here is from 1975. Rubenstein was an unofficial artist during the Soviet period. (This encouraged me to learn a bit more about Moscow Conceptualism before continuing. I wrote about that here.)

The poems are uniformly composed of separate lines which were originally written on separate card (which Rubenstein apparently got from his day job as a librarian). So reading them in a book, all on a page, is a different experience from how they were made. Indeed, they were performed for friends, which is typical of much of the avant garde work of the time. Ilya Kabakov read his albums out loud to friends in his apartment. Andrei Monastyrsky arranged performances in parks and fields or the countryside that only small numbers of invited friends would see and participate in. These strategies were developed in part because the Soviet state remained hostile to unofficial art--performing it for trusted friends was a way to avoid official trouble. But in Rubenstein's case, it affects the way the poems are constructed and read. He remarks, "A pack of cards is a dimensional, spatial object, It is a NON-book, it is the offspring of the 'extra-Gutenbergian' existence of possible culture." And in a society, where books are controlled by a centralized police state, an extra-Gutenbergian existence is called for.

The poems do lean towards the comedic. They are composed of series of sentences, sometimes building on one another, sometimes in dialogue with other lines. Often they build on a repeated phrase or pattern, as in "First It's One Thing, Then Another" from 1985.
First it's one thing.
Then another.
Then something else.
And on top of that, something else yet...

First it's too specific.
Then it's too general.
Then neither this nor that.
And on top of that, they peep over your shoulder...
And this goes on for 29 parts in total, each numbered, all following the same basic pattern. Sometimes the subject matter seems slightly paranoid (as in the poem above), but I may be reading my own feelings about the Soviet Union into them. Often they seem to deal with quotidian bits of everyday life. In their format and subject matters, they remind me a little of Joe Brainard's epic I Remember. But Rubinstein's formats are not quite as rigid as Brainard's, where every line starts exactly the same way.

Rubenstein might not have been thinking of his poems as a book when he wrote them out of separate index cards, but he parodies books in some of them. "Thirty-Five new Pages" from 1981 is just that--35 pages that each contain one footnote, but that are otherwise blank. For example, page 14's footnote says "Here something should be written." Page 33 tells us in a footnote, "Should express the Author's very specific position." Both are especially funny to me because they are adding the notes to blank pages on which nothing is written or expressed. "The Regular Program" from 1975 (the earliest poem in the book) seems to be a primer on how to write an essay--specifically, this essay.
Paragraph One,
Speaks for itself;

Paragraph Two,
Outlines the basic concepts;

Paragraph Three,
Continue to outline the basic concepts;

Paragraph Twenty-two,
Testifies to the decision of the Author to date the Regular Program: December, 1975;
"Index of Poetry" (1980) is arranged like an index of first lines of poems (without page numbers). They are of course fictitious poems, but by combining these putative lines in this arrangement creates another poetic object all together.

I found this book literally slow going. I'm not a big reader of poetry, and it's hard to get my head around the act. I would read one or two poems then set it down to return to it later. And I think not having a grounding in Russian literary history was a problem--in the afterward, the translators Philip Matres and Tatiana Tulchinsky explain many of the Russian expressions, phrases, puns and allusions in the poems, but explain, "The following notes only gesture toward the enormously complex and allusive nature of Rubinstein's poetic texts."

But despite my shortcomings as a reader, I was often amused by the poems and found it useful in thinking about the absurd and comic nature of conceptual art in Moscow during the waning years of the Soviet empire.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What I Got at Zine Fest 2018 In Order of Size

Robert Boyd

Zine Fest was held on November 17. I wanted to write about my haul, but it's taken longer than I hoped because I just got a new job which has sucked up a lot of my time. But here it is finally--everything I got at Zine Fest from smallest to largest. (I was mostly anchored behind my table where I debuted my new zine, Money, which can be purchased on my online store.)

Free Acid Lick Here sticker by Chris Cascio. 3 1/2" square. Chris took a photo of a patch and made a sticker out of it. It fits in with his oeuvre--druggy, nostalgic, low brow.

Some Truth About Depression by Chastity Porter (Dormalou Project) One page unfolded, 8 1/2" x 11". 2 1/2" x 4" folded. A collage of thoughts about depression. The words feel a little like a kidnapper's note from a Hollywood film--words cut out and assembled. They are layered over a dense doodle and a brown burlap-looking texture. It looks great but it makes me worried about Chastity. I hope she's not depressed!


Broom_Zine vol. 1 and vol. 2 by Jason Dibley. 3 1/2" x 5". 20 pages each. Black-and-white photos of brooms, mostly in situ. Staggeringly banal!

Robots in Ties by Hanna Schroy (published by Elefluff.) 4" x 5". 12 pages, full color. I saw the title and expected pictures of robots wearing ties. But even better--it's robots in bondage! The artist is from Fort Worth.

Badlands by Gabriel Martinez (published by Paratext, a collective of artists from Alabama Song). 4 3/4" square. 22 pages, black and white. A very oblique comics story by Alabama Song honcho and former Core Fellow Gabriel Martinez. Set in a trailer park, a bearded man notices a truck parked outside. "This truck's been here all week. Someone movin' out?" he asks his father.

SPOILER ALERT: In the end, we see in kind of an x-ray view that there is a man laying down in the tuck. Is he asleep? Dead? It's not explained and that lack of explanation makes it mysterious and intriguing. If that was the end of the story, it would be a very interesting, ambiguous end. But I asked Martinez and he said there are four more issues to come.

Thin King by Ruslan Kalitan (Mirchek Comics). 8 1/2" x 5 1/2". 26 pages, color. I don't know anything about Ruslan Kalitan, except that I suspect he may be from a country that uses a Cyrillic alphabet. On the Mirchek Comics site, he has this statement:
Меня зовут Руслан Калитин и я рисую комиксы
Я не читаю и не рисую комиксы про супер-героев! Мои супер-герои — это обычные люди без спецэффектов, я прозвал их «серебряные седаны». В последнее время я рисую и издаю книги в США. Их можно купить с доставкой по всему миру — см. раздел shop
The comic is a bunch of short disconnected pieces, some having to do with travel. In one page, he writes that many of the stories were "created behind the bar counter of Molly Gwynn's, a pub in Moscow, Russia." I met the artist briefly at the end of zine fest--he came by the table and asked if I wanted to trade publications. He had an accent--Russian, presumably.

This is the last page of Thin King.

You Won't Be Seeing Me Again by Joe Frontirre. 6 1/2" x 10 1/4". 26 pages, black and white. This comic book has a highly traditional format as might be expected from a Marvel Comics artist like Frontirre.

The comic consists of a bunch of loosely connected vignettes drawn in a somewhat cartoony but likable chiaroscuro style. The drawing was why I picked it up--that ink-stained style has been one of my favorites for years. It is said to have been invented by cartoonist Noel Sickles, a newspaper strip cartoonist who shared studio space with Milton Caniff. Caniff basically adapted the style and because his comics were infinitely better than Sickles, he was really the one who popularized it. Since then, many of my favorite cartoonists have used variations of it: Frank Robbins, Alex Toth, Alberto Breccia, José Muñoz, and many others. It was interesting to see it used for such quotidian vignettes of everyday life. If there is a theme here, it is perhaps of various forms of toxic masculinity. I'd enjoy reading more. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, I can find nothing about this comic online so I don't know how you can get a copy if you're interested...

 Various Small Geological Controversies by Bill Daniel. 6 1/2" x10 1/2". 40 pages, 3 color risograph printing. Published by Port Aransas Press. Printed by Max Seckel.These pale photos are somewhat overwhelmed by the printing technique. They're printed on a risograph with a really coarse screen. The three colors make each monochrome glow with a particular pink or purplish or greenish hue. The effect is unlike almost any photobook I've ever seen. It looks really cool, especially with these desolate, lonely photos. Bill Daniel, whose photo work I published in EXU, is probably best known for his rock and roll photos.

Looking at this, I wonder about the nature of the collaboration between Bill Daniel and New Orleans-based printer Max Seckel.

Jazzland by Jamell Tate. 8" x 10 1/2". 36 pages, 3 color risograph. Printed by Max Seckel. Another photobook printed by Seckel. This time the subject matter is a little closer to home. Tate photographed the remains of a New Orleans amusement park called Jazz Land. In 2002, Jazz Land became part of the Six Flags chain of amusement parks, and it was closed down after Katrina in 2005. It has remained shut ever since.

Unlike the Bill Daniel photos, these were color photos. Again the screen used for the color separations is quite coarse, but they were printed in full color (presumably with a four-color separation, but I don't know that for sure--it may be three color seps). The printing makes them appear quite pale. Again, I have to assume that is a conscious decision on the part of the photographer in collaboration with the printer. Like the Daniel book, these images have a lonely somewhat-haunted look (hard to avoid given the subject), but Danial is a more interesting photographer.

Fields by Brett Hollis. 8" x 10 1/2". 60 pages, full-color. Hollis is another Exu veteran. This slick, shiny publication was published in 2017. It appears to be full of collages onto which captions were placed afterwards. My sense is that he did the collages first and came up with the captions next without knowing in advance what they would be. I may be way off base here, though.

The collages are full of elements that Hollis drew himself, although occasionally they include found images--photos or in one case a piece from a comic book. In the latter, he makes a joke about cutting up the comic in his caption: "The destruction of its relics is the new "American Passtime". Otherwise, the collage elements are drawn and painted presumably by Hollis himself. He uses airbrush a lot in these color-saturated images.

 Richy Vegas #15 by Richard Alexander. 12" square, 80 pages. This unusual item is by Richard Alexander, an Austin cartoonist who has been documenting his mental illness in comics drawn on paper plates. To call this comic disjointed would be an understatement, but the cumulative effect is to see that Alexander is someone who in the late 80s and 90s was pursuing various women and working various low-level jobs after getting out of college.

The format doesn't lend itself to clear story-telling, but clarity seems beside the point from the point of view of the author. The story can be summarized very briefly in this statement from Alexander's website: "He attended the University of Texas at Austin and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts there in 1988.  He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1991. In 1992, his quixotic pursuit of the wrong woman lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Three years later, another doctor amended the initial diagnosis to schizoaffective disorder." In the end, it's more interesting for its weird format than for the comics within, but I like the fact that Alexander has obsessively produced 16 volumes of this (over 1000 pages by my count).