Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Cathy G. Johnson brings the talent

Gorgeous
By Cathy G. Johnson
Published by Koyama Press



Jeremiah
By Cathy G. Johnson
Published by One Percent Press



Cathy G. Johnson was a special guest at CAKE this year, and while I had looked at their art in previous years and thought it was really nice looking, now that I've actually read some of their comics, I can see why my fellow organizers wanted to highlight their work. Johnson has some great cartooning skill, utilizing simple lines for character art and delineating faces with dot eyes and triangle noses, but also filling panels with gorgeously moody shadows and evocative watercolors. Johnson's art and storytelling leave a lot unsaid, forcing readers to puzzle out what characters might be feeling, but making them compelling enough that we want to do so.

Gorgeous is an interesting character piece following a couple of rebellious young punks who get chased out of a house party, get into a car accident due to their stupidity, and end up hanging out with the girl who they crashed into as she waits for a mechanic shop to open in the morning so she can get her car fixed. It's an interesting portrait of disaffected, carefree youth, one in which these characters hint that maybe there's something going on under the surface, but then reverse themselves suddenly and turn out to be worse than we expected. And fascinatingly, Johnson chooses to leave them there and follow the other character instead, providing a glimpse of things from the other side of the equation and an understanding of how people's actions affect others, both positively and negatively.

Jeremiah is another somewhat minimalist graphic novel, following the title character as he lives and works on his father's farm, has a strange, at least somewhat sexual relationship with a younger girl that seems like she might be related to him, and becomes enamored with the stranger that his father hires to help out. It's an odd story, one that gets odder as it progresses and things start happening that don't really make sense, but the way that Johnson details Jeremiah's confusion, uncertainty, and inner struggles makes him compelling, and when he finally takes an action to pursue his desires instead of letting others rule him, it's thrilling. I'm still not sure what the symbolism of everything means (maybe something about the oppression of small-town life or a religious upbringing?), but it's a fascinating work to consider, and it's full of absolutely beautiful watercolors that capture the alternating bright beauty and oppressive shadows of Jeremiah's life.

It's obvious from reading these two books that Johnson is a young talent to be reckoned with, and they have cartooning skill to spare. I'm always amazed when an artist can do so much with what seems like so little, and Johnson is a perfect exemplar of finding just the right line and tone to evoke emotion or draw the reader in and make them examine their characters. I'm excited to see someone like this continue to develop and mature as an artist, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Moving, Silly, and Cute

Sit and Think About What You've Done
By M.R. Trower
Self-published



Transgender people seem to be in the spotlight in the United States at the moment, but as with any minority, it can be hard to understand them when you're coming at the subject from a position like mine; that is from the perspective of a white male heterosexual whose experience is deemed the "default" and who doesn't have to question how they fit in to society. That's why I find stories in which members of minority groups describe their experience so valuable; they provide me with understanding that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Of course, that perspective makes these stories all about me, which is the opposite of their usual intent. I don't need my sensibilities catered to; I have pretty much the entirety of western literature available for that. But I still get a lot out of this type of story, and I'm glad that people are willing to share them with me.

That's what M.R. Trower does with this minicomic; it's a sort of diary of their experience following their top surgery, a detailed look at the physical toll the surgery took on their body, the swirl of emotions that they felt, the support received from friends, and the fact this is just one step along the way in their life. It's moving stuff, full of raw emotion that doesn't pull any punches, a nearly direct pouring of feeling from Trower's head onto the paper, and it's a beautiful document of humanity, a glimpse into another person's experience that's immersive and heartfelt. I applaud Trower for their courage in sharing this story, and even though I don't think it's purpose is to educate people about the lives and travails of trans people, I found it immensely rewarding to get to share a bit of a life that's so foreign from my own.
-----

Papa Time
By Max Weiss
Self-published (although I got it from One Percent Press)



And now for something completely different. This one is just silly, a stream-of-consciousness story (literally; Max Weiss notes on the inside from cover that he scripted it in this manner, then later adapted it to comics form using techniques learned in Frank Santoro's correspondence course), about a young woman who meets a friend in a diner and tells her about a guy she just met and fell in love with. He's a nondescript, balding, middle-aged fellow, but she is now in love with him, and the reasons for that, as well as the rivalries she soon finds for his affections, all sort of make sense, at least from a comedy perspective. It's goofy, funny stuff, and Weiss's fairly simple art makes it all work by highlighting the characters' expressions in a humorous manner and mixing simple character art with fairly dense shading and texture in the backgrounds. There's really not much to this thing, but what's there is pretty enjoyable in its strangeness. I liked it well enough.
-----

Come Back Soon
By Rachel Bard
Self-published



If I was going to give out an award for the cutest comic I got at CAKE 2016, this would win hands down. It's tiny, measuring about 1 inch by 2 inches, and it's one of those little minicomics that's formed by folding a single piece of paper into a short comic that's only a few pages long. What makes this one special though is that Rachel Bard manages to use this limited space to tell a cute story about a lizard going on a trip to an island, checking out all the animals he saw there, and drawing pictures of them. Then, he makes a little comic of his own called "New Animals that I Found", and Bard includes it as an even tinier minicomic tucked into the last page of the comic! It's a beautiful little piece of art that tells a simple story, and an ingenious use of a comic within a comic to demonstrate both Bard's creativity and that of her character. I loved it, and I love that this is the kind of amazing work I can find at CAKE each year.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Jon Drawdoer does some cool drawings

Mindfulness Comics #2
Hello
By Jon Drawdoer
Self-published



Jon Drawdoer is a fellow CAKE helper-outer and all around nice guy, and he's gifted me with several of the comics that he's made over the past few years, so it's about time I got around to writing about them. Jon is an interesting fellow, and I'm loving the way he is using the comics format to explore some of his inner thoughts in Mindfulness Comics. In this issue, he ruminates on his "second adolescence and interpersonal communication, but the bulk of the issue is taken up with a sort of visual essay about how he tries to consider the way his mind works as a function of his body's physical processes, and how looking at things this way is kind of liberating, since it allows him to refrain from getting too upset if his emotions get out of control or he becomes too self-critical. Since these are functions of his body's chemicals (or as he puts it, drugs going through tubes), taking their actions personally would be like getting angry over a sneeze.

As someone who has had my own struggles with depression and controlling my emotions, I find this to be fascinating, and the way Jon looks at things is definitely worthy of consideration. He details his own process of meditation, demonstrating the value of taking the time to understand why he feels the way he feels and thinks the way he thinks.

And since this is a comic, the visuals play as much of a part as the words here. Jon fills pages with intricate, near-abstract swirls of imagery that play off what he is saying beautifully, illustrating the snarl of the mind's inner workings and the attempts to begin to understand it, if not actually control it. It makes for a lovely, near-breathtaking illustration of a concept that's hard to wrap your head around. I'm really glad I read it, and it will continue to give me plenty to think about.



With Jon's newest comic, Hello, he seems to go in a more stream-of-consciousness direction, using mostly wordless imagery to depict all sorts of odd transformations and scene changes. It would probably make a cool animated short, with one odd tableau leading to another and lots of clever shifts between styles. It's in bright, striking color, and it appears to have been created digitally, making use of computer-created art alongside hand-drawn imagery (and maybe even some photo manipulation) to come together into a strange, fascinating whole. I dig it.



With these two releases, I feel like Jon has really come into his own as an artist to watch, and I'm excited to read more of his work.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Ben Passmore is smart, yet playful

Your Black Friend
Dead, Dead, Dead
By Ben Passmore
Self-published



I discovered Ben Passmore a couple years ago at CAKE, and I've been excited to pick up some new comics from him each new year. He's got a great style that's full of expressive cartooning and dynamic action, and his writing is a mix of philosophy, goofy jokes, highly particular pop culture references, and cynicism about the world (there's a definite reason why so many of his comics take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland) leavened with poking fun at himself.

Interestingly, his new minicomic Your Black Friend strays away from that template. It's more of a treatise on race in our society, and its incredibly instructive and insightful, taking the point of view of a black person who has friends who are white and liberal, yet still do plenty of clueless things that drive him crazy. I've seen plenty of essays about this subject over the past several years, and as a white person who tries (and probably regularly fails) to be aware of how easy my life is in comparison to those of other races, I'm glad to have regular reminders of the fine line that many African Americans have to walk in our society and the stupid attitudes that I need to adjust.

Passmore's version of this type of essay is a good one, looking at the subject from several angles, with his main character demonstrating anger over the casual racism that he sees every day, expressing frustration over how his friends act enlightened but still view him as a sort of exotic accessory and co-opt his identity without thinking, and even feeling somewhat distanced from other black people due to the way he acts and dresses. That's what really makes this work, I think: Passmore doesn't try to sell this as an example of the universal black experience; he looks at one person's experience and notes the difficulties that he faces every day, both from others and himself. And he does it in a manner that conveys anger, sadness, uncertainty, and even humor, offering some great insights for the reader. I think it's really something special.

With Dead, Dead, Dead, Passmore is back in his comfort zone, presenting a series of somewhat goofy stories in his usual post-apocalyptic hellscape and touching on religion, art, consumerism, and violence in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. Most of the story follows his "Nolimitz" character, a drifter who keeps running into people who want to kill him, at which point he ends up beating them to death in action scenes that rival most any superhero smackdown.

There's plenty of symbolism/commentary going on here, with my favorite bit being a corporate executive offering food to the character, but having his goons literally take an arm and a leg first, then giving him a peg leg, saying that the company values their customers' sense of well being. It's a ghastly look at how the rich treat the poor, and the comeuppance the bad guys receive is enjoyably therapeutic.

I also liked a bit in which we come across Jesus hanging on the cross, arguing with God (who appears as a giant disembodied hand) about how antiquated and ridiculous the Christian religion is, before Nolimitz shows up and beats them both up. It's pretty funny, and I love the way Passmore depicts the action, with his character making crazy jumps and cutting people in half with his machete. This whole minicomic is full of that sort of thing, and it's a delight. I don't always fully understand what Passmore is saying, but I love his passion and how he seems to be having so much fun creating mayhem and destroying the various philosophical ideas he evokes. I'm always up for more of this sort of thing, so here's hoping he'll have more to offer at next year's CAKE.

Friday, June 17, 2016

CAKE 2016: What a haul!

The fifth annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) took place last weekend, and it was a blast. I've gotten more and more involved in helping out with the festival over the past few years, and this year, once again, I handled the official CAKE social media accounts, so if you're interested in what I saw during the fest, I recommend heading over to the @CAKEChicago account on Twitter.

As for what I ended up bringing home, here's what ended up being a pretty massive pile of comics:


Let's see if I can detail all of this comics goodness:

Along the top row:
  • A tote bag promoting the Charles Schulz Library and a "Toonie" t-shirt, both from the Center for Cartoon Studies.
  • A print from the "CAKE Not Dead" comics reading that took place on Saturday night, featuring art by Ben Marcus.
  • CAKE's minicomics incentive giveaway print for this year, featuring art by Ezra Claytan Daniels.
  • The Great Green House and Other Stories, by Henry Guerra.
Next row:
Next row:
Next row (if it can be called that; this "row" sort of ends in the middle of the pile, just to the left of Nori and the Bats in the House):
Next row (what the hell, we'll just call this the last row): 
And that appears to be everything. Whew! I'll be trying to get some more blogs about some of these cool comics up over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. And now we can start planning for CAKE 2017!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

One Piece: Aargh, why do I have to wait for the NEXT volume for the awesomeness?

One Piece, Volume 78
By Eiichiro Oda
Published by Viz Media



Writing about each new volume of One Piece is kind of difficult, since it's tough to do it in a way that's not just "And then this cool thing happens! And check out this other bit of awesomeness!" The series has gone on for so long that it can be hard to come up with other things to say. Not that it's not still great; every new volume is tons of fun, full of crazy action, funny jokes, and emotional character moments, and this one is no exception.

So: how about a summary? This is what seems to be the penultimate volume in the current storyline, in which the Straw Hat Pirates are fighting the evil Don Quixote Doflamingo, who has been tyrannically ruling the kingdom of Dressrosa for ten years. The battle has raged throughout the last several volumes, but Luffy and his allies (who have grown in number here to include not just the Straw Hats, but the kingdom's former royal family and a bunch of other gladiators and pirates) have defeated most of the bad guys, with only a few of them remaining.

As usually happens in this point of these stories, various one-on-one matchups occur, and the ones we get here are pretty great. We get to see the gladiator Kyros (who spent the last ten years and most of the last several volumes in the form of a toy soldier, but has now been restored to his full, if one-legged, form as a total badass) face off against a guy named Diamante, who murdered Kyros' wife. Diamante has a weird power where he can turn things into paper (or some two-dimensional form) and back again, and he uses an attack where he shoots a bunch of confetti up into the air then turns it into a weapon:



But that's no real obstacle to Kyros, who refuses to be harmed by such cowardly tricks:



Diamante shoots Kyros in the leg, leaving him open to damage, but he won't stop coming, demonstrating some intensely righteous badassery:




I love that sort of stuff. Also good is Zolo's fight against a guy named Pica, who has taken the form of a giant stone version of himself and is about to attack the former King Riku and stop any opposition to Doflamingo's rule. But by the time Zolo realizes what's going on, Pica is halfway across the town, so his only way to stop him is by getting one of his gladiator allies to throw him the entire distance:






That's actually not the end of the fight; it goes on for several more pages as Zolo continues to fight Pica's stone form in mid-air, and it's awesome.

And then there's the big final battle between Luffy and Doflamingo, which seems to come to a climax here but looks like it's going to stretch into at least the first few chapters of the next volume. It's one of those high-energy fights that Eiichiro Oda does so well, somehow managing to keep raising the stakes further than they already are throughout, with Doflamingo beginning to make the "birdcage" surrounding the kingdom contract, which will eventually end up killing everyone inside, and the seemingly-defeated Trafalgar Law managing to strike more blows against Doflamingo at the last moment. But Doflamingo is cunning and resilient, and he manages to survive even though Luffy keeps doing awesome stuff like this:




So that means Luffy has to shift his powers into "Gear Four". We had previously seen him use additional "gears" when he came up with new levels of his abilities, but this one is especially weird and goofy. It involves him pumping his body up into a form that resembles a muscular balloon and then using his psychic "Haki" powers to armor himself up and resist any damage. This allows him to basically fly and keep attacking, but he can also sort of telescope his arms to deal incredibly powerful blows:



It's one of those signature One Piece moments that's silly but effective, and Oda sells it by demonstrating Luffy's anger and determination. He also throws in some extra drama by having King Riku exhort his citizens to not give up, even though their situation seems hopeless:




Those are the sorts of moments that I love in this manga; scenes that are awe-inspiring in their awesomeness and plain in their emotions, while still retaining a sense of fun and adventure even in the midst of high-stakes battles. This series continues to be pretty great, and I can't wait to cheer at what I expect to be the resolution to this long storyline in the next volume. And then it'll be back to waiting for a few more years for the next big moment like this, but based on past experience, it will all be worth it.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Something New: It's good for when you're feeling Something Blue

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride
By Lucy Knisley
Published by First Second



I love Lucy Knisley's comics. I've been following her work for years (I first mentioned her on this blog way back in 2008), and it's been wonderful to see her continued success as she has published multiple books. Since she uses her comics to tell autobiographical stories that offer a lot of insights into who she is, I feel like I've gotten to know her as a sort of friend, and with books like this (and her next book, which will be about her experience with pregnancy), which cover major life experiences, I feel like I get to celebrate them along with her.

As the title indicates, this particular book is all about Knisley's wedding, and she covers the experience in her usual fashion, not just detailing the event itself, but also examining her feelings about marriage and weddings, looking at things from the perspective of a modern-day feminist and trying to find a way to satisfy her own wants and needs alongside those of her family and friends. She's as insightful as ever, examining her reservations about weddings by looking at the sometimes-unsettling history of marriage where brides were treated as property and the ongoing struggles of certain marginalized groups who didn't always have the freedom she does to marry the person she loves, as well as all the weird baggage that societal expectations and the wedding industry bring to the affair. She also delves into her own feelings about subjects as varied as shopping for a wedding dress, clashing with her mother about plans for the ceremony and reception, and, of course, the food that will be served, using her lovely illustrations to ensure that it's never boring.



And this doesn't all happen in a vacuum, either. Rather than just jumping in to the story as planning for the wedding is beginning, Knisley takes the time to detail the history of her relationship with her husband and how, even after ending their long-term relationship because they felt the disagreed about what they wanted for their lives, they ended up engaged and planning a life together. It's a touching story, and one that pulls the reader in and gets them invested in the event itself, providing understanding of why it's so important to everyone involved.

Knisley also finds plenty of humor in everything, whether she's pointing out her own bridal foibles that come from the stress of wanting everything to be perfect or throwing in amusing collections of wedding-related products (custom-engraved bullets!), explanations of various traditions, or wedding themes that she considered (The X-Files!). As emotional as all of this can get, she keeps the tone light, and as the book gets closer to the big day, I was cheering her on as she solved problems, put her crafting skills to work to create decorations and handmade gifts, and gathered her friends and family together in celebration.

And here's where I'm going to do something I don't do too often here and discuss my personal life. Right now, after a 14-year marriage and three children, my wife and I are in the midst of a divorce, which makes my choice to read and review this book at this time somewhat perverse. Divorce is difficult at the best of times, and while I don't feel the need to go into details about mine, I'll just say that this is not the best of times. With all the hurt and betrayal that I'm feeling right now, just thinking about weddings and marriage brings up all sorts of emotions, with many of them being pretty negative. But Knisley is so good at what she does that this book overcomes all of that baggage and makes me feel like celebrating love again. I'm glad I get to experience the beauty and joy of two people who want to celebrate their life together, and that's a real gift.

I'm regularly amazed at the openness and honesty that Knisley displays in her comics and how much she is willing to reveal about herself. She obviously puts a lot of thought into every comic she makes, and it really shows; she's not only entertaining and funny, but she creates beautiful images that utilize the comics format wonderfully to tell stories that examine both her internal and external life. I'm happy that I get to follow her as she shares her journey through life, and I'm always looking forward to the insights that she brings to each stop along the way.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

I Hate Fairyland: For pretty good reasons

I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After
By Skottie Young
Published by Image Comics



Skottie Young is one hell of a talented cartoonist, able to bring a liveliness to his characters and settings that make his images really enjoyable to look at. While he usually works in a cute, expressive style that's fun and kid-friendly (as evidenced by his regular "baby variant" covers for Marvel or his work adapting the Oz books), it seems like he might have gotten tired of the kiddie stuff and wanted to unleash his id, and I Hate Fairyland is the result.

With this creator-owned series, Young still works in a cutesy style, but he twists it into an exuberant nastiness, telling the story of Gertrude, a little girl who gets transported to a magical kingdom and sent on a journey to retrieve a key that will allow her to go home, but instead of a quick, exciting adventure, her quest drags on for 27 years. When we join her after all this time, she's a jaded, profane, hard-edged force of nature, rampaging through this magical world in her ever-futile search for her magical MacGuffin, but still stuck in the body of a six year old.

That setup gives Young a chance to just go nuts with violence and come up with all sorts of crazy variations on this type of portal fantasy story, filling the world with weird creatures and landscapes, and then having Gertrude destroy them in ever more inspired ways. His cartoony expressiveness goes so over the top that it becomes grotesque, and each new issue of the series gives him a chance to see how far he can go. If Gertrude faces some sort of barbarian character, it's not enough to give him one or two giant battle-axes; he needs 10 huge weapons strapped to his back. If Gertrude gets maimed in a fight, she doesn't just have a black eye, she looks like she's been run over by a steamroller (luckily, by Fairyland rules, she's able to shrug off most any bodily harm). It's pretty hilarious to see what sort of craziness Young will come up with next, and since he's obviously having so much fun, the reader can't help but go along for the ride.



Young also works in plenty of good running gags, like the way Gertrude manages to kill a succession of cute narrator characters, or how her constant swearing is replaced by terms like "muffin fluffer" or "what the spell". And the driving plot of the book works well too; rather than just being a violent rampage through a magical world, he gives Gertrude obstacles to overcome and enemies to face, all leading up to a climactic conflict that's pretty satisfying while also setting up an interesting direction for future volumes.



Overall, this comic ends up being highly enjoyable, if only because Young's exuberance is highly contagious. His funny, mean-spirited take on these familiar tropes is tons of fun, and it's a great way to exorcise demons and push back against the cutesiness of these types of stories. I'm excited to see where he goes next, and with the imagination that's on display here, I expect it will be great fun to accompany him on his continuing journey.