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!

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