Monday, June 27, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Jon Drawdoer does some cool drawings

Mindfulness Comics #2
By Jon Drawdoer

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

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.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Kitchen: Another nail in the Vertigo coffin

The Kitchen
Written by Ollie Masters
Art by Ming Doyle
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Remember when the Vertigo label on a comic book used to mean something? It's not that every comic released by DC's mature readers imprint was great, but there was a certain level of quality to be expected. And there were many pretty great comics, from the early days of Sandman, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Shade the Changing Man, through to 100 Bullets, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, and Fables. But these days, the imprint seems to be a victim of the continuing terrible management decisions made by DC (including the recent kerfuffle surrounding the firing of longtime Vertigo editor Shelly Bond), and if you want an example of how far Vertigo has fallen, The Kitchen is a perfect example.

The premise behind this series seems solid: in New York in the 1970s, three members of the Irish mob get sent to jail, and their wives end up taking over their business dealings, which leads to lots of power struggles and violence. It would probably make for a decent movie (although more of a middling crime drama than a prestige picture), but in this form, the story just kind of sits there on the page, without being very engaging or making the characters and their motivations compelling.

So: there's Kath, who starts out as the ringleader that convinces the other two women to take up their husbands' business while they're indisposed, mostly as a way to make ends meet for their families (although I think Kath is the only one with children, and they remain pretty much unseen until they play into a climactic moment between her and her husband, so there's not really anything in the way of stakes to get the reader on board for why they need to do this). Raven, Kath's sister, is initially hesitant, but somewhere down the line she turns ruthless and violent, a character arc that happens without much in the way of motivation. As the third member of the crew, Angie starts out kind of scared, but she quickly becomes enamored with the lifestyle and seems to revel in the violence.

As the plot proceeds, it takes all the turns you would expect: meetings with more established mafia figures, deals struck in order to solidify power, assassinations of rival gang members, and so on. When the husbands are unexpectedly released from prison (for no real reason other than dramatic purposes), this kicks off a war as the wives fight to keep their hard-gotten gains from being taken away from them. This is supposed to be the moment of actualization, in which they are faced with the choice of going back to their old lives as housewives or continuing down the path that they have forged as independent women (while the book is set in the 70s, the era of Women's Lib, there's little acknowledgement of the politics of the era; the time period is really just an excuse for costuming choices). Instead, it seems like they're going through the motions; there has to be a big enemy to face in order to have a dramatic climax, and while the series does throw in some late flashbacks in an attempt to flesh out the women's relationships with their husbands, it's too little, too late in the way of character development.

So there's little to speak of in the way of plot or character, but gangster stories are all about style, so if the execution is good, sometimes shakiness in other areas can be forgiven. However, as much as I think Ming Doyle is a pretty good artist, either this type of story is not her forte, or she was too rushed to turn in work that added much to the series. While much of the art is fine, with fairly realistic body language and facial expressions, there are many bits of awkwardness that draw attention away from the impact of the story and leave the reader with the feeling of watching mannequins trying to mimic human actions and failing. This includes characters that don't seem to be able to drink from glasses correctly:

Doors being kicked in with oddly stiff legs:

Punches that look like hands being awkwardly thrust into people's faces:

A sex scene in which the characters' legs don't seem to follow any recognizable human anatomy:

And all manner of choreography that doen't make sense, like this bit in which a guy is apparently backhanding Kath with his left hand while somehow bruising her right eye:

Doyle also seems to struggle with guns, which often don't seem to fit into characters' hands very well. Here's a bit in which a character shoots her lover, and she apparently manages to hook her hand through her purse's handle, pull out the gun, shoot it, and then remove her finger from the trigger between panels:

And here's another odd moment, in which I think what's supposed to be happening is that the man is being hesitant about shooting the woman, so she takes the gun away from him, but it comes off more like the gun just jumps from one person to another between panels:

If the man is supposed to be hesitant, his forceful manner in the second panel seems to go against that idea, leaving any hesitation to be (poorly) demonstrated by the depiction of his hands in the third panel. Or maybe he was surprised when the phone started ringing, giving her the chance to grab the gun? If that's the case, the blase sound effects don't help; they don't seem like a jarring, distracting interruption. Instead of a loud "BRRRRIIINNGGG!" it's almost like someone is standing off-panel and saying the words "ring ring".

The book is full of strange moments like this, little continuity errors like a guy who in one panel has a gag over his mouth but doesn't in the next, or characters that are much too easy to confuse with each other (in one bit involving a truck heist, I was sure that a character that was hiding in the truck was the mob boss that had hired the women, but that apparently wasn't the case). The dialogue is often poorly edited too, full of phrases come off as stilted rather than realistic like "Stay the fuck out've this, lady!" (why make "out've" a contraction, since the character is saying "out of" rather than "out have"? Wouldn't "outta" sound better?). And while I'm nitpicking, why is the image on the book's cover made to appear as if it has been creased? Is it supposed to be a magazine pinup that the characters posed for that somebody tore out and folded up to keep in their wallet?

It's this kind of poor quality control that seems indicative of a huge drop in Vertigo's fortunes. I can't believe somebody in the editing department looked at this book and said, "Yes, this is exactly what we want to publish." I don't think this was ever going to be a great series, but its failures on nearly every level, from plot, to characterization, to art, to basic copy editing, are kind of astounding when coming from an imprint that used to be synonymous with a certain level of quality. With this pointless dreck, I think I can officially say that those days are over.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sacred Heart: The kids either are or aren't all right

Sacred Heart
By Liz Suburbia
Published by Fantagraphics Books

Is Liz Suburbia the next Jaime Hernandez? That may seem like a bold claim, but with this graphic novel, Suburbia cements herself as a great cartoonist who seems to be following in the path laid down by Love and Rockets, creating a believable sense of place and capturing her characters' emotional lives, while inserting just a bit of the fantastical. This book is an assured debut, and it sees Suburbia mature from a creator of interesting minicomics into a full-fledged talent that will hopefully be delivering quality comics for years to come.

This book follows the lives of several teenage characters in a small town, but it focuses mostly on a girl named Ben and her relationships with the kids around her. She has a platonic friendship with a boy named Otto that morphs into something else, but isn't necessarily a deeper connection. She also worries about her sister, Empathy, who she doesn't see as much as she would like, and she nurses a crush on a popular boy who seems to be out of her league in more ways than one.

As the book progresses, Suburbia mostly just lets us see Ben and the other kids' lives play out, and we watch as they fall into and out of relationships, worry about dumb stuff like who is going to which party, and congregate around the requisite local rock band. But there's something odd and kind of sinister going on under the surface: dead bodies keep showing up, and the kids seem oddly accustomed to this happening. Plus, it takes a while to realize this, but there don't seem to be any adults around. Is this taking place in modern-day America, or is it actually post-apocalyptic (possibly after the Rapture)?

Suburbia mostly leaves the answers to these questions ambiguous, which allows them to function symbolically, making teenage issues like fitting in, growing up, and forming adult relationships seem like the most important thing in the world, which is exactly how they feel to someone at that age. But she doesn't hit readers over the head with all of this, instead opting to leave things mostly unsaid and just let us watch as the kids live their lives and try to figure out their place in the world.

And that's where the book really shines. These characters all seem fully realized, acting like actual teenagers who are still figuring out who they are. Sometimes they're obnoxious and dumb, and other times they demonstrate real love for each other; in other words, they seem almost painfully real. And we don't just get this feeling about the main characters; Suburbia often creates montage scenes that check in with a number of kids in the community, demonstrating that each and every one of them is someone worth caring about:

I especially like how this isn't just an exercise in teen angst or boredom (although the characters do spend time laying around and watching movies); Suburbia makes these kids' lives seem fun as they get excited about the next concert, party, or school dance. The kids drink alcohol and have sex and just goof around, enjoying the freedom that youth provides. The future may not be certain, and things get more uncertain and ominous as the book heads toward a close, but they'll enjoy their lives while they can, which seems like an appropriate outlook for the future in 2016.

I haven't talked much about the art here, but it's a key part of what makes everything work, from the relatable setting, to the body language, to the slightly surreal feeling that pervades throughout. One thing that I love is the way Suburbia depicts music, with the sound created by a rockin' band taking the form of blobs of energy emanating from the stage:

Everything in this book is just incredibly well done, creating a story and characters that are relatable while still remaining a bit off-putting, which, as an adult, is kind of how I view teenagers anyway. There's plenty here to marvel at, and Suburbia handles it all with such assurance that I can't help but feel that I'm seeing a cartoonist in complete control of their medium. If she's this good her first time out of the gate, I can't wait to see what she does next.