Review: Retrofit offers tons of excellent comics by women

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Bear, Bird, and Stag Were Arguing In The Forest and Other Stories by Madeline Flores

Flores offers three philosophical shorter works that come together well in their examination of knowing yourself, living purposefully, understanding where you stand in the universe, seeing the potential in yourself, and lots of other good things, but without being heavy. Instead she moves from hilarity to sweetness.

The title story is like an Aesop’s Fable about power-seeking and greed, and the dynamics behind those that indicate you may not see the big picture. Flores follows with a story about giving even in the wake of tragedy, which segues into a meditation on who a person is and how that person makes their mark in the world. The final is cartoon poetry on the depth of imagination and the power of your own brain.

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Debbie’s Inferno by Anne Emond

Periodically, someone will come along with a riff on Dante’s Inferno, but too often they focus on the  horrors rather than the clarity. That’s a mistake Anne Edmond’s Debbie’s Inferno doesn’t make. Nor does it turn into a finger-wagging tour of other people’s distress, and that’s what truly makes it a great little comic.

The set-up is simple enough. Debbie is wallowing on her bed with her cat when she suddenly feels like she’s drowning and her cat starts to talk. Finding herself and the cat in an underwater scenario, the suggestion is that in order to get back home, they have to keep moving forward. Part of moving forward is, of course, the actual physical activity of doing so, while another part is moving past things, all the weirdness they encounter.

What weirdness? Manifestations of modern gloom, really, the sort of tortuous traits of anyone’s subconscious that threatens to cripple them any moment of the day, but recast in forms both whimsical and absurd. It might be the Desert for Burnt Out Passion, where nude revelers debauch themselves into a mindless blankness. Or it might be the Land of Crowds, a place for people who can’t be alone because any moment of self-reflection elicits their worst terrors.

Unlike many takes on The Inferno, though, Emond’s is amusing, first of all, but more importantly, representative not only of the person taking the tour — Debbie — but the audience reading the journey. Emond’s levels of Hell suggest not that they are aberrations of humanity that bring us all down, but the actual components of a human being. The trick is not declaring one a sin and punishing oneself over it, but accepting all as the levels within us and allowing them to mix in a balanced way.

That may not seem like a big revelation to some people, but in a world of constant imbalance that’s so often in your face, and in context of a funny, independent comic book, it comes off as downright profound. If this isn’t hard knowledge to attain, then why do so few people seem to have it and act on it? And, of those few, is Anne Emond the only one who thought of rendering it so delightfully, where a trip to the Inferno becomes amusing self-introspection and positive reinforcement of the idea that our flaws don’t have to define us — we define them.

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The Experts by Sophie Franz

On a research vessel in the middle of the ocean, the three people working there are haunted by mysterious, pale human-like creatures that swim around the vessel as if they are keeping an eye on the researchers. The three researchers are also having trouble keeping things in their minds straight as they try to get a fix on not only what they are supposed to be doing, but all the other small details of daily life.

And then there are the physical changes. One crew member, Frankie, is morphing into a fish, while Cheron is becoming entranced by the sea creatures after losing one her fingers to them.

It’s a cryptic slice of science fiction, less about the answers than the mood itself and the terror of being bound to a mission without really understanding why. The vessel itself makes a great backdrop that lends a surrealist quality to the situation. Are they trapped in an allegory or is there much more underneath? That’s the nice thing about Franz’s brief story — it will have you debating to yourself which side it falls on, even as it dances on both sides.

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Hellbound Lifestyle by Kaeleigh Forsyth and Alabaster Pizzo

An autobiographical comic transformed into a scattered visual poem with fantasy diversions, Kaeleigh Forsyth lets her life unfold in cartoons via Alabaster Pizzo’s charming skills to create a parade of randomness that eventually causes your heart to go thud by the end.

Forsyth’s meditation is presented in the form of collected notes to herself on her cellphone, which are then illustrated by Pizzo. Forsyth plays up the loser aspect of her being and does so in a funny and absurd way, but what differentiates this from other works that do the same is Pizzo’s contribution. The typical autobiographical comic presents a life seen through one lens, but the inclusion of a collaborator handling the art means that things aren’t always strictly from the memoirist’s point of view. Pizzo brings other points of view to the monologue.

Pizzo’s art in itself, and as seen through other works of hers like the excellent Mimi and The Wolves series, is heavy on whimsy and cuteness, but always manages to never let her twee qualities overtake what comes out of her pen — there are always dark emotions contained in them. With Forsyth’s words, Pizzo helps structure what could have been a cascade of dark laughs, but ends up being something quite affecting.

Through words alone, Forsyth is terribly witty and observant, but partnered with Pizzo, her life has texture and complication, and she doesn’t come off as the self-deprecating lump she presents herself as. Through Pizzo’s eyes, there’s a lot of potential, and that helps the reader embrace Forsyth for her great qualities even as she unloads all her worst ones.

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Ikebana by Yumi Sakugawa

An art class takes unexpected turns when Cassie chooses not to present her portfolio for a final critique class, but instead enact a work of performance that sees her silently posing as an “organic bio painting/ritualized movement piece.”

The spectacle of Cassie standing in a clear glass bowl, wearing nothing but underpants and flower-shaped pasties, with large leaves attached to her back elicits various responses, from the hypercritical, know-it-all sneer of a fellow student to the more gentle, though also patronizing, attempt by her professor to prevent the situation from getting out of hand.

Sakugawa’s parable unfolds as an examination of the extremes of pure art and how far it must go to exist beyond the establishment of the art school world, as well as  how much an artist must give themselves to the work. In portraying this, Sakugawa manages to slip in some funny lampoons of art school culture and city life, even as it heads to an inevitable ending of poetry and darkness.

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Nothing Whatsoever All Out In The Open by Akino Kondah

With a title that promises exactly what you get in unexpected ways, Japanese cartoonist and animator Akino Kondah’s three short pieces swirl with quiet mystery. Kondah’s work features an oblique quality that transforms cryptic confessionals into poetry that seems so personal, no reader will ever completely decipher it.

In Metamorfosa, an obsessive waiting period for an unnamed guest becomes a hallucinatory experience for a girl as she looks back on a childhood encounter with a cicada. In the title story, an evasive monologue becomes a rumination on generations and death, and a struggle to place the narrator emotionally within those processes. The Kid In The Cabinet relates a realistic nightmare that plays out a recurring abduction from bed by a mysterious being. Is it really happening? And does it matter if it is not?

Kondah’s simple lines hide the complexity of her narratives, as well as her talent for utilizing the spare space she depicts in order hint at the psychological as valid a landscape as anything else presented in her stories. The abstractions that go through a person’s mind, including the kinds of emotions we all swim in but can’t exactly describe visually, become the charged backdrops of each monologue, as Kondah’s characters try to place themselves in reality, while being washed away by their own preoccupations.

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Sea Urchin by Laura Knetzger

Is this a contemplation of the self? Or a self-affirmation? Maybe a self-critique? An examination of how we get to where we are? Or a call to preparation for where we are headed?

Knetzger’s Sea Urchin is pretty much all these things, and much more, a sprawling, lively, sometimes playful, sometimes dark, stream of conscious laundry list of what it is to be the inside of a person trying to navigate on the outside.

Knetzger begins by describing variations of depressive behavior that mixes with a level of detachment of the self that allows the examination to unfold. It becomes a rapid fire journey between inadequacies in the real world and fantasy alternatives to the disengagement Knetzger feels. The pace continues as Knetzger’s visuals match her psychological journey, bringing the reader through slices of intimate moments and faraway thoughts.

The power of the book is that we never actually know what is going on with Knetzger, or if anything is going on at all. It’s a visual dialogue that in many ways can match what goes on in any of our heads as we try to place ourselves in context of the universe we inhabit, and finding some meaning to all the things that happen around us, and why exactly we are standing in the middle of it.

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