It’s hard to convince me to not contribute to the growing number of small press comic subscriptions–every season there seems to be even more great material I want to get my hands onto, and it’s a rather addicting cycle of excitement whenever there’s a new package at my door. Oily has proven to be an exceptionally versatile publisher with their subscriptions—the form of their pocket-size, digestible mini-comics has parlayed a habit-forming nature in their readership that stays true to the internal logic of comics. Series like Melissa Mendes’s Lou and Charles Forsman’s TEOTFW have hooked many a fan in, including myself, allowing a sense of gratification and appreciation that hasn’t always been as accessible in indie comics. There is something quite rewarding about receiving an Oily bundle; the mini-comics are neighborly crafted and packaged to make you feel welcome from the outset.
The idea for Miss Hennipin, a new release from Sonatina’s Andy Douglas Day, began as a summer day’s unassuming illustrative dalliance and briskly developed into Day’s main creative output. Now fully realized into a loaded 164 page, color-filled book, Miss Hennipin is another supplement to the diverse and teeming indie comics milieu, upholding the kind of innovative enthusiasm that creators like Austin English, CF, and Jason Overby cranked out during the initial influx of “new minimalism” comics. Similar to his previous comic, Chauncey, Day constructs an omnibus of vignettes detailing the life of its eccentric and cantankerous title character and her mask-donning moppet Mokumbo. It’s a cureless attempt to cipher any direct path of meaning or narrative from Miss Hennipin, and I might go as far to say pushing to do so takes away from what the comic sagaciously thrives in. Purely expressive and endearingly strange, Miss Hennipin is an abstract sketch not meant to be unraveled.
Upon first impression of Fumio Obata’s new graphic novel, Just So Happens, I was struck with a lot of similar impressions that arose whilst reading a related, albeit a hastily associated work, Glyn Dillon’s Nao of Brown. Sure, both recount stories about a Japanese woman who now call London home and likewise are authored by men who have a history of working in animation, but these correlations are as redundant as clumping their narratives into the category of ‘graphic novels’, or even as mere examples of international comics. Where Just So Happens splits from its resemblance to The Nao of Brown is in how it emerges as an end product that investigates cultural identity within globalization in a way that fruitfully hones its roots in not only Japan but also as largely influenced by European visual history. Yumiko takes the lead in the story and upon returning home for her father’s abrupt funeral, finds herself immersed in a confrontation of personal cultural difference, manifesting in reality as well as in the mystic esthetics of Noh theatre. Just So Happens is a unique graphic undertaking in the concept of transcultural works. Obata visually and thematically blends Japanese and European visual culture to compose a tale that is dynamic in its hybridity, and thereby conceives a poignant graphic narrative that exposes cultural identity as a process of constant change. [Read more…]
“Culture seeks narrators and fiction is a narrative prerogative.”
This quote is supplemented above a two image spread, each featuring brushstrokes of a blackened sea of blank and blurred faces, an anonymous audience awaiting some kind of address, be it from a political leader or a band frontman, and yet what is captured in the crowd’s lost faces is a voiceless, directionless wasteland.
In his first solo exhibition and accompanied artist book, both titled NO/FUTURE, Mike Taylor posits an interplay between visual and verbal ambiguities to create a narrative that aims to destabilize the viewers’ conception of memory within pop-culture mythologies. Using grotesque contradictions of text and image, Taylor deconstructs conventional meaning by constructing a new, cryptic historical record that confronts the viewer as an interpreter of his slippery narrative, thereby challenging a reflection upon our own beliefs, values, and presumptions. Opening last month at Booklyn Artist Alliance, Taylor experiments with his vast background in zine culture to develop an exhibition that merges how gallery art, comics, and zines utilize communicative expression.
Amidst the flurry of hatchling conventions and festivals vying for big names and even bigger turnouts, this past Saturday’s Paper Jam Small Press Festival was a welcome arrival to the growing list of comics and zine fairs. Nestled within Bushwick’s multi-functional arts and music venue, The Silent Barn, Paper Jam marked a refreshing intersection of underground self-publishing and the increasingly visual uptick in the world of zines.
Behind the bright, fluorescent palettes and at times overwhelming visual blitz of both familiar and obscured images, the anthology Spider’s Pee-Paw #2 takes a stab at staging a refreshing take on the rather jockey presence of Tumblr aesthetics, unabashedly moshing together pieces that explore the moments where visual and material culture interface. Edited by Char Esme and Ben Mendelewicz, this follow up features the same troupe of cartoonists and artists as the first Spider’s Pee-Paw, as they continue pushing towards a sensory overload for a prevailingly distracted audience. Digitized photo-montage, mixed media collage, and even traditional pen-and-ink comics all co-mingle and assimilate within this distinctly millennial collection,as these young artists both celebrate and scrutinize the phenomenon of our network age high-low plurality. Many of the pieces fall between sketches of a cartoon psychedelic trip with a sense of Photoshop assisted abstract expressionism. While these works are quite fractured and occasionally meandering in their articulation, Spider’s Pee-Paw #2 undeniably makes a case for the potential unchartered experimentation in comics, voicing the emergent individuality of creators who are open to the constantly shifting context of comic’s visual nature.
Taking a look at 2013’s releases from London-based indie publisher, Breakdown Press, it becomes quite clear that their roster of up-and-coming artists are dedicated to exploring the medium of comics as more than merely an object to be read. Joe Kessler’s two volume collection Windowpane has received the kind of acclaim for its incomparable risograph printing and compounded display of genres that has established Breakdown Press as an ambitious and visionary comic conquest, as equally impassioned for the act of visual storytelling as it is in manifesting an art object. Released stateside at CAB, Antoine Cosse’s J.1137 signifies a melding of the pictoric nature of comics and film, employing a transmedia-inspired tale that weaves together cinematic visual storytelling and metafictive narrative, all the while contemplating the representation of fictional illusion and reality. J.1137 successfully demonstrates the diverse potential of the comics form, as Cosse’s fearless style explores and expands upon the accepted norms of the medium.
It’s been more than a year since Alison Bechdel and Hillary Chute publicly convened at 2012’s momentous Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference, an event personally significant to both Chute and Bechdel due in part to their collaborative efforts in originating the influential assemblage along with their own partnership in teaching a University of Chicago course titled “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” Since then, Bechdel’s ARE YOU MY MOTHER? has gone on to amass an endless expanse of recognition, her previous book FUN HOME: A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC has been adapted into a musical, and her own name was compounded into its own definitive stamp to gauge the active presence of female characters in film—the Bechdel Test, having most recently been adopted as a movie rating system in Sweden. Accordingly, it was a celebrated occasion when Chute and Bechdel reconvened for an illuminating lecture at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. During their discussion, the pair touched on everything from chronicling the history and thought processes of the different forms of their work to divulging the current and future states of their individual and shared endeavors.
On the surface, Leah Wishnia’s anthology GUT FEELINGS visually reads as a tornado of frenetic and (at times) grotesque imagery, brimming with a stream of both rambunctious and tortured characters who are pitched in a mosaic of revolving hallucinogenic experience. It could easily be shelved amongst the vast anthologies from fellow young underground cartoonists, as her rebelliously aggressive style falls in line with a lot of the anarchistic, counterculture-influenced artwork coming from many of her peers. However, to offer such a conclusive generalization would be a naïve and haphazard judgement, ignoring Wishnia as the true erudite artist that she is shaping out to be. A vocal promotor for the use of comics as means to critique society in all its forms, Wishnia is vibrantly aware and entirely unapologetic of the subjects she tackles in GUT FEELINGS, her artistic voice echoing a resounding deference to the idea that “the political is personal.” A combination of memoir, dreamlike make-believe, and penetratingly raw humor, her collection introduces Wishnia as a promising cartoonist and storyteller, paving a future for budding artists to create material that is richly thought-provoking and resisting of the status quo.
Marking one of the last comics festivals of the year, Comic Arts Brooklyn dashed through Brooklyn, beginning with an array of exhibitions and animation screenings, and culminating in the day long celebration of today’s current indie comics as well as those of generations past. Mirroring the now defunct BCGF, this years CAB remained on trend with the bustling crowds of attendees at both Mt. Carmel Church and The Knitting Factory, further attesting to the undeniable growing robustness of these comic events. This year’s programming was limited to three presentations, and although each were insightfully well curated in trying to capture the same spirit of BCGF, they lacked the gusto and articulated assay of graphic narrative that was so captivating in last year’s panels. CAB seemed more representative of American comics and creators alike, whereas 2012’s BCGF was a noticeable blend of New York-based figures and international artists, both young and old. This isn’t to say that this was a weak point for CAB, yet after I let the initial feel-good post-con high subside, I couldn’t help but feel like the show didn’t hold up in terms of the erudite impact that similar indie festivals like TCAF and SPX have nurtured in the past year. Granted, as much as I try to liken CAB to its predecessor, what I keep reminding myself is that the show is an entirely new manifestation, harkening more to the curatorial mindset of its organizer, Gabe Fowler, and his incredible shop Desert Island—and thusly CAB characterizes a festival richly rooted in the New York (perhaps more specifically Brooklyn) comics community.
Underground comics have made household names for a number of comics creators, whom at the forefront exposed a new era of radically unorthodox drawing styles and subject matters, but also whose eccentric personalities and antics made them as recognizable as the work they were putting out. It’s hard to fully comprehend a work like CEREBUS without envisioning the dynamism and often contentious nature of Dave Sim, or to imagine where the comic book form would be without the subversive, LSD-inspired neurosis of R. Crumb. In the alternative comics world of today, we are wrought with a constant stream of cartoonist tumblrs/twitters/blogs that seamlessly expose us with a familiarity of specific artist’s works and their given musings at any moment. This social media phenomenon has enabled the kind of uncensored voyeuristic spirit that made creators like Sim and Crumb so progressive and exceptional readily available for anyone to engage with or to originate all on their own.
Out of all the stunning and various paraphernalia I hauled away from last year’s BCGF, one of the books that clung most to my mind’s eye was the London micropublisher Breakdown Press‘s debut endeavor, WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what element of the book was the most striking—Kessler imaginatively accomplished a spectrum of pictorial and allegorical experiments, honing a talented capacity of surreal coloring along with evoking a sense of storytelling inspired by such literary wordsmiths as Italo Calvino and Ray Bradbury. An ambitious work at its core, Kessler continues his pursuit of visual and narrative query with his follow-up, WINDOWPANE 2, an all new anthology collecting three emblematic comic tales, including a follow-up to his collaboration with Reuben Mwaura. [Read more…]
Since its inception into the vast Tumblr-sphere, Comics Workbook has profoundly reshaped and reinvigorated the communal mold of social blogging for cartoonists and readers alike. While the phenomenon of Tumblr has already served to blossom the indie comics community, Comics Workbook has proven to be an exceptional outlet for different comics creators to display the many stages of creative process, converse and reflect through interviews or essays, as well as using comics as a means of (often hilarious) critique. Now, the next frontier for the web magazine is its print offshoot, Comics Workbook Magazine.
From the ongoing serial PARTY PLANS to her editorial handiwork in the anthology DIMENSIONS, the resounding and gripping nature of Zejian Shen’s work have marked her as a luminary young cartoonist to keep your eyes peeled on. At the core of her comics is the undeniably imaginative and surreal design of her characters; their distorted and grotesque figures imbue a spectrum of reactive sensations ranging from terror and aversion to humorous glee and wonder. When I first took note of Zejian’s aesthetic stylings via her VICE one-offs, I was most taken with her blown-up panels that fully featured her inventive, anthropomorphic characters which were always bizarrely alien as well as an on point representation of a contemporary 21st century young person (the array of trendy eyewear and hairstylings modeled on her blog are a notable feature of Zejian’s design). It’s hard not to be engrossed by the enticing twinkle in her characters’ stare, even if such is being depicted in a moment of savage bloodshed.
Image Wrestling and Whispering: Lynda Barry’s Kaleidoscopic Modus in Girlhood Through the Looking Glass
The swing of this year’s SDCC has finally begun to wind down, and while there was inarguably no lack in the immense influx of comics/movie/merchandise-related news, there was amazingly still a capacity for SDCC to focus on and feature the burgeoning comic academic scene. Along with this year’s Comics Art Conference, the Eisner Awards have recognized a number of comics criticism in the category “Best Educational/Academic Work,” and this year’s awardee was none other than Susan E. Kirtley’s LYNDA BARRY: GIRLHOOD THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Kirtley, a Portland based author and professor, penned the first comprehensive exposition on the acclaimed alternative cartoonist and artist, a fully-realized critique of the evolution of Barry as creator and the hybrid, polyscopic nature behind such illustrious works like ONE HUNDRED DEMONS, CRUDDY, and PICTURE THIS to name a few. Kirtley resourcefully provides a much-needed overview of Barry’s career long dedication to subverting the “sugar and spice,” romanticized notions of femininity, choosing instead to depict realistic, flawed females from all ranges of life that triumph in the exploration of their own imaginative creativity. GIRLHOOD THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS succeeds because of Kirtley’s meticulous attention to the recurrent images of girls theme, producing a commentary which is serious enough to further legitimatize comics scholarship while at the same time being absorbing enough for readers unfamiliar with the comics discipline.
As part of the University Press of Mississippi’s “Great Comics Artist Series” (which have included critical writing on Alan Moore, Chris Ware, Rodolphe Töpffer, and Osamu Tezuka), Lynda Barry is the first female cartoonist to have a volume solely focused on her work, no doubt a vital addition to the repertoire of UPM’s superb comics-related publications. While there has been a number of scholarly writing on Barry’s shifting styles and the variation of her chosen mediums, few have contemplated or prioritized Barry’s self-described “image wrangling” technique and its relationship to her portrayal of girls on the verge of adulthood. Kirtley dismantles this vital precipice in Barry’s storytelling by tackling, from beginning to end, every stage of Barry’s experimental development and the subsequent work composed. Barry has often been included within the dialogue of autobiographical cartoonists, frequently in the company of authors like Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, Marjane Satrapi, and Aline Kowinsky-Crumb. Kirtley dedicates a portion of the first chapter to introduce and acknowledge these cartoonists, yet she makes it a point to distinguish Barry’s difference, avoiding the lumping of and generalization that most female cartoonists are pursuing similar forms of execution and subject matter. Alternatively, Kirtley positions Barry as a creator who “constantly changes styles, techniques, tools, and genres, never quite settling in any one place; and her ever-evolving means of expression frustrates any attempts at classification.” (5) This sets the groundwork for the rest of the book, presenting Barry as an outsider by choice, and from this perspective, highlights the context of Barry’s images of girls that struggle in the liminal stages of maturation as they grapple with racism, identity, class inequality, distorted ideals of beauty, and the overall chaos and absurdity of life. Kirtley is concise in demonstrating Barry’s true mastery of capturing what it is like to be young, tracking from the manifestation of girlhood present since her first book, TWO SISTERS COMEEK.
Another strength in GIRLHOOD THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is Kirtley’s utilization of a multi-disciplinary analysis in examining the multiple visual and verbal ways of seeing. As a professor of rhetoric and composition, Kirtley could easily have contained her anyalysis within literary theory, limiting the complexity of not only the comics medium, but also Barry’s vast word and image cross-discursivity. Kirtley does not debate previously established literariness and terminology that many scholars have ushered into the still-evolving canon of comics academia, instead utilizing numerous theories from well-known Franco-Belgian and American critics such as Pascal Lefevre, Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, Hillary Chute, and WJT Mitchell. Also included is commentary from a number of well respected cartoonists and contemporary writers, ushering a dexterous reflection from the perspective of a creator. This allows for a study that encompasses semiotics, feminist studies, visual/narrative signification, narratology, psychoanalysis, and the overall form of comic art. In turn, through this multi-disciplinary application, Kirtley presents Barry as an icon, a boundary-treading master creator who blends the high/low cultural placement of comics, and whose work allows the reader to “see visually and read narratively…[and] feel both textually and texturally.”(153) Barry’s comics can be deceptively simple and superficially labeled as lacking artistic aptitude, but Kirtley excels at explicating the unique and playful ways that Barry deconstructs language and how her style embodies and reflects the imaginative spirit of true girlhood. Through the detailed dissection of Barry’s process, Kirtley tracks the advancements of method and technique from everything from the binocular double vision of THE GOOD TIMES ARE KILLING ME to the use of multiple focalizers in ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK. Just as Barry’s work can be read as a “fun-house maze of mirrors,” (81) Kirtley debunks any notions of conventionality or simplicity, highlighting the labyrinthine essence of Barry’s comics to similarly mimic the complicatedness of being a youth trapped in an adult world.
The past decade has proven the strength and growth in the study of autobiographical comics scholarship, and Barry is an undeniable force in pushing the limits of the form. In chapter four titled “Through a Glass Darkley,” Kirtley dedicates an investigation into what Barry dubs “autobifictionalography” and its relation to the true and authentic reflections of the real. Perhaps what makes this “autobifictionalography” so pertinent to the study of comics is, as Kirtley describes, the reader’s ability to interact and engage with the material. Utilizing one of Barry’s darkest works, CRUDDY, Kirtley presents how Barry dismantles the romance of girlhood by “call[ing] on the reader to fashion his or her own mental image of the girl, acting as yet another mirror, another interpretation, another illusion.” (78) Blurring the lines of fiction and reality, the reader becomes actively involved with the character Roberta Rohbeson and must interrogate the grim artifacts of narrative, piecing and shaping Roberta’s selfhood as they are fragmentarily revealed. It is a rare feat for a reader to become an amalgamation of witness/confident/author, but Kirtley succeeds in examining just how Barry places the reader in a position to create their own representation of Roberta by calling upon their own experiences. The reader must continually question the “truths” of the images and text presented, as Kirtley attests that the theme of audience participation is just as manifest as the various symbols of girlhood. More than just substantiating Barry’s inbuilt duality of word and image in comics, Kirtley offers an irrefutable critique of the power of autobiographical comics form in their potential to create a dialogue about the instability of the self, an eventuality that the comics medium exclusively produces.
While Kirtley excels at microscopically scrutinizing the overarching theme of girlhood present throughout Barry’s oeuvre, at times this argument seems too overplayed, resembling a repetitive thesis rather than a definitive exposition. The accessibility and organization of Kirtley’s writing make GIRLHOOD THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS an excellent resource to introduce the complexity of a cult creator like Barry, but it leaves an inclination for further study. Perhaps the weakness of the text lays in the fact that this was Kirtley’s first foray into comics scholarship, and while she does an impressive job at setting the groundwork and timeline of an investigation into Barry’s career, the book does leave a few things to be desired. Much of her analysis is a reiteration of previous interpretations, and while they are extremely enlightening, Kirtley’s own voice is slightly silenced amongst the intellectuals she cites. As can be seen in recent Drawn and Quarterly’s publishing of PICTURE THIS or WHAT IT IS, Barry’s work is spectrally sweeping, her art transcends panel limitations and often times amasses a page’s entirety. Whilst Kirtley’s writing is meant to be for a scholastic treatment, it seems an injustice to not present images in their entirety and on such a small scale. However, these faults only compose a slight margin of error, and overall Kirtley demonstrates a scrupulous and critical achievement in a text that enriches the scholarly discussion of the many ways that Barry examines the artifice of girlhood along with celebrating her method of creativity for her subjects and readership. What Kirtley leaves us with is a true mirror of the effect of Barry’s work—a visceral, emotional self-excavation of the ontology of girlhood and the inspirational essence of imaginative creativity.
With the induction of the MFA in comics program one year in, California College of the Arts have launched an ambitious and altogether stirring month-long lecture series, entitled COMICS IN THE CITY, showcasing four select comic creators with diversified industry backgrounds to speak about a range of topics surrounding the comics medium today. Taking place every Friday for the month of July, the inaugural guest of honor was none other than Cathy Malkasian, an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist whose work also includes directing in such seminal ’90s cartoons like RUGRATS and THE WILD THORNBERRYS film. Using her newest graphic novel WAKE UP, PERCY GLOOM as a model to examine the construction of character within a graphic narrative, Cathy delved into her own complex process of attributing layered meaning and purpose in every character as well as the distinct relationship these characters have within the comics framework.