Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Season's greetings: see you in 2015

I know some of you have been very disappointed at the gradual sidelining of the promised '& Cola' title remit, so this one's for you: a Coca-Cola ad from 1952, which makes me smile because who could have foreseen 'thirst' taking on the alternate meaning it has today? Also, there's sorta a sequential, grid-y thing going on in the background there. Comics & Cola will be back on (checks calendar) Thursday the 1st of January with the usual noise, changes and exciting news (to me , anyhow). I don't want to go on, but thank you to everyone who read and supported the blog in any way; this year has been phenomenal for me in terms of comics writing (337 articles on here -and that's not including work for Publisher's Weekly and Comics Alliance. 2015 focus: quality > quantity) and seeing this little space grow and be appreciated is so gratifying. It's an odd place to perhaps find what you want to do -writing about comics- but I honestly love it- I'm not very good at articulating just how much, really-, and knowing that some of what I do connects with a couple of people makes it a little less echo-chambery. Have an excellent holiday.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The best comics and graphic novels of 2014

It bewilders me somewhat that 'best of' lists have become a point of contention in recent years- it seems like we're at a stage where we have to defend the making of a year end /best of list, or mark it with a litany of disclaimers: 'Subjective!' 'Not definitive!' 'I didn't read everything!'. I have to admit, I've never really thought too deeply about them- I mean- of course they're not definitive, of course they are subjective; who on earth could have read every comic published each year. Some people find the lists too mainstream, others point to the commercial aspect of them, but for me it's just a fun way to look back at the year, to consider and recognise some of the impressive work done, and bookmark potentially interesting things for further investigation. I enjoy reading them, I enjoy writing them. So, without further ado, below are what I consider the 20 best comics of 2014. My parameters for the list were simply that the comic had to be published in 2014; floppies, single issues, collections are all included here.

Titles of books are hyper-linked to artists or publishers store-fronts, and where applicable, I've linked to any reviews I've written of said book at the end of each entry (should you want to know more)- that's applicable to half the books here- it's been another bumper year in terms of the volume of releases, and the volume of good to very good releases. The list is not in an order of any kind- apart from the order in which it is in! If you'd like to comment on this, and discuss your own choices, you can do so here.

Polina by Bastien Vives, published by Jonathan Cape: The most criminally under-looked book this year, Polina released early in the year- January- and when you couple that with the fact that it's a French translation superficially about ballet, you may see some potential reasons people were perhaps put off. Vives is an outstanding talent, and he manages to make a formulaic bildungsroman narrative into an outstanding and affirming universal tale of the potential of life and its beauty. It's lifted by his exceptional art and superb figure work, lending the work both light and weight where needed. I think it's a testament that I read my review copy in December and it stayed with me over the 12 months to date- it was one of the first that came to mind when compiling this list. Seek it out. (Read the review)

Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann, published by Drawn & Quarterly: Since it's release in February, I have discussed Beautiful Darkness so often in reviews and articles, and seen it discussed, that I feel by now surely everyone knows how special this book is. It's rare that a text deserves all the praise or hype surrounding it, but Beautiful Darkness is that anomaly. Kerascoët's beautifully painted art blindsides the reader into confronting the juxtapositions between image and reality, nature and conformity, and the everyday choices we have to make, as a group of tiny beings fight for survival in the woods. (Read the review)

Here by Richard McGuire, published by Pantheon: I sometimes wonder which of the comics I read will stand the test of time, and a few decades down the line, be considered great. There's no way of telling, but if I were to put money on one, McGuire's Here would be it. A work truly set apart, its ambition is matched by execution and pay-off, at once personal and widely encompassing,  the history of a whole world is divulged by observing one small place in time. There are few comics that utilise the medium in such a way that they could not be told in any other way; Here is one of those. And if you think that's overly effusive, you should read the reviews and quotes its been generating.

This One Summer bu Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second: This One Summer was notable in that it saw the remarkable Jillian Tamaki step up yet another staggering level of brilliance, to the envy and astonishment of all. Her lush, evocative, purple tones added to wistful achiness of Mariko Tamaki's perfectly pitched portrayal of two young girls on the opposite cusps of growing up. The accomplishment of taking what can be a very particular narrative, and making it appreciable on a wider scale was only emphasised by a parallel sub-plot reminding readers that adulthood is no guarantee of certainties of any kind.

Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson, published by Flying Eye Books: I think perhaps this year I learnt the meaning of 'all-ages' somewhat better: books that offer equally to readers of any and all ages, and this certainly qualifies, with bells on. Pearson's most accomplished Hilda book to date sees the blue-haired heroine take on the dual challenges of assimilating into a new neighbourhood and  looking into the appearance of the titular black hound- as well as a home-sprite without a home. There are few superlatives left that haven't already been cast in the Hilda series' direction: delightful, charming, individual, and increasingly wonderful to look at; I would say Perason's books are the kind I wished I had available when I was a child, bit I don't feel the slightest bit short-changed in being able to enjoy and appreciate them now. (Read the review)

Janus by Lala Albert, published by Breakdown Press: Nobody does alienation of self better than Albert: in both subject and literal depiction, and Janus is another eerie, compelling work in which her character chooses to wear a mask to alter the way she is perceived as well as the way she perceives herself, whilst exploring the paradoxes of being. The stark contrast provided between the blue, black, and white is beautiful and otherworldly; enmeshing the separate facets of clinical, submersion, and the unknown into one fluctuating stage. Her best work yet.

Sock Monkey Treasury by Tony Millionaire, published by Fantagraphics: Sock Monkey may be considered the more accessible of Millionaire's work, say- in comparison to Maakies, and yet it is perhaps the more accomplished in having to be more subtle and less obvious, less direct in its intentions and approach. It's astonishing, too, in that it marries an assortment of truly odd characters and influences with a wide range of topics: china dolls, a stuffed crow, a monkey made from a sock, who deal with murder and exploitation, suicide, and guilt, and responsibility- all while drawing richly from the often dark and strange undercurrent present in children's stories. Millionaire's illustrations are equally encompassing: from the beautifully coloured The Glass Doorknob reflecting the innocent wonderment of a new household addition, to the more heavily textured, prescient black and white intimating unease and dread.

How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis, published by Fantagraphics: Davis is one of those cartoonists who is talked about often as at the forefront of her medium, and as hyperbolic as such statements can be, this first collection of her work proves exactly why that's true. Her mastery over line, shape and colour is matched by the emotional intelligence imbued in them and the organic manner in which narrative and subject unfold; her work is an excellent example of how comics speak through the melding of pictures and words.  (Read the review)

Treasure Island 2 by Connor Willumsen, published by Breakdown Press: Willumsen is quietly doing something incredibly special with Treasure Island (and his work in general is exceptional); I picked up the first volume of this series after hearing very good things, and eagerly snapped up the second upon release. Where the first found scientist/explorer Joy tethered to the place where she's working, the second pulls the narrative in a whole other direction as we meet Joy's mother and brother- one of whom may be poisoning the other. Willumsen's fine lines coupled with the risograph printing give it a present yet otherworldly feel, reinforced by the madcap genius of the bonus dog strip at the end. Difficult to describe and encapsulate, but astoundingly impressive.

Missy 2 by Daryl Seitchik, published by Oily Comics: I read Darryl Seitchik's Missy comics at a point where I'd gone through a stack of books, none of which offended, but all of whom were forgotten as soon as they ended. Seitchik's diary collection of a growing young girl's entries into her 'Missy,' as she navigates her thoughts and relationships, pondering people's behaviours and her own reactions remains almost sweet in its curiosity and awareness even into adulthood. Seithcik's manipulation of layouts and semantics underlines that poignancy and depth. (Read the review)

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs, published by Koyama Press: Jacobs' tale of a newlywed couple eager to take in the sights and experiences of the first class safari for which they've signed up weaves man's separation, distrust, and exerted dominance over nature with slyly absurd humour and invasive body horror, as the brash confidence of the humans clashes with the unaware, overly naive jungle beings. But it's the art that elevates it into exceptional territory; appropriately lush, splendidly intricate sequences- each page gorgeously psychedelic with much to pore over.

Commuter by Kris Muka, self-published: Following Mukai's work has been a highlight this year, and this collection of strips around the dubious joys and challenges of travelling on public transport is all the more hilarious and recongisable for the accuracy with which it represents the peculiarity of commuter culture. Mukai's people drawing is simply some of the best around- her expressions, postures, and style characterful and engaging. The balance between comedy and a degree of brevity is the hardest to achieve, but it's perfectly done here. (Read the review)

Avengers #1, Marvel 100th anniversary special by James Stokoe, published by Marvel: Rumours of Stokoe working on a Marvel book were abound long before it was announced, and the hype, for a change, was able to match the comic subsequently produced. Looking into the possible  future of Marvel's A-team, Stokoe added some yellow, blue and red to his gradiented palette and it seemed like the magic increased further. It was everything you could want from a single-issue: accessible to all, beautifully composed, meticulously drawn, funny, affirming, rich with extra detail and touches, and not without a little heft. If he only produced 28 pages a year like this, I'd still be happy. (Read the review)

She Hulk by Javier Pulido, Charles Soule, Muntsa Vicente, Kevin Wada, Ronald Wimberley: I began reading She-Hulk with no expectations and it quickly became my go-to book for a fun, engaging read with lovely art. Everything seemed to come together- Wada's stunning, high-fashion covers, guest issues illustrated by Ron Wimberly, and Pullido's gorgeous, bold art, perfectly coloured by Vicente. For a first-time reader of the She-Hulk character, she was an immensley attractive character: humorous, no-bullshit, smart, and the ability to turn big and green when needed- something Soule used sparingly and wisely. The court showdown with Daredevil was a highlight, and in Alice and her monkey, Soule has created a side-character with a lot of intriguing potential. There should be a future for this series, but even if there isn't, it's been a run that will be remembered.

Nobrow 9 Os So Quiet by various, published by Nobrow: Nobrow release a volume of their flagship flip anthology of half comics/half illustration each year, and while it may not be the most experimental, its strength is derived from its delivery of solid excellence. The 'theme' for this edition was 'silence'- its interpretations and implications, and with contributions from Bianca Bagnarelli, Mikkel Sommer, Disa Wallander, Hellen Jo, and Kyla Vanderklught amongst others, the quality and conistency is indisputable. Pinks, -and purples especially- seemed to be the dominant colour-ways of the year, but few used it to as exquisite effect as shown by the array of work here. (Read the review)

Blacksad Amarillo by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published by Dark Horse: I was looking forward to the new and fifth volume of Blacksad since it released in French and Spanish in December last year, and it didn't disappoint. The'change of tone provided by the 'road trip' storyline proved to be a shot in the arm, while Blacksad himself remained as familiar as ever (albeit a tad more mellow), this time managing to find trouble as he's tasked with the safe delivery of a car across country. Few can match the beauty of Guarnido's paintings,  or the utter brilliance of his anthropomorphic character work, which does so much to completely immerse the reader into Blacksad's world for a little while. (Read the review)

Internal Affairs: what is love? by Patrick Crotty, published by Peow! Studio: Peow Studio continue to release some of the freshest work within the medium; comics that genuinely excite the reader in terms of art and production, and remind you of what you loved about it in the first place. I was unexpectedly taken by the first installment of Crotty's adventures of an onion office intern last year, and this second book was even stronger in narrative and art- especially the art- in its ability to do so much with what appears to be so little: the half-tones, naive, incongruous scribbles and shapes, the spiky, collaged illustrations- it's a very singular language he's creating and it works tenfold here. (Read the review)

Diana by Ron Rege Jr, self-published:  This promptly sold out of its initial print run, so when a second printing was released, I didn't hesitate, despite it being a 28-page adaption of the Wonder Woman origin story- a character I've never really been able to connect with. Regé, manages to invigorate new life into the story, adding in historical context about the creators, intelligent commentary, as well as the mythic strands of its DNA. That freshness is mirrored in his crisp, Mucha-lite, linear style and it results in a fine comic that informs and captivates.

Demon by Jason Shiga, self-published: Along with The Short Con, Shiga's latest was the only other online comic that maintained an enthralling grip from update to  update: beginning with the suicide of its protagonist, only for the reader to return next week and find him miraculously alive once more. This cycle continued for a while, and the mystery surrounding this odd circumstance fit the episodic nature of updating web-comic very well. Things got more complicated, as the title began to impress its leanings on matters, Shiga being Shiga, mathematics came into the equation, too. Funny, crude, and as smart as hell.

The Absence by Martin Stiff, published by Titan: Stiff's tale of a man, already a pariah in his town, who leaves for war only to be the single soldier to return alive, horribly disfigured and still hated by all, is taut, intriguing, and maintains a grip on the attention throughout. It reads like a British prose novel in the tone and atmosphere he creates, veering into a host of genres and yet retains the ability to surprise. Stiff had been working on, and releasing the issues periodically and this year Titan collected them all into one dense and satisfying volume.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Snapshot thoughts: Christophe Blain's The Speed Abater

One of my favourite exercises in writing about comics is to pull panels from comics and just talk about them loosely (hence the take 3 panels feature). I find I don't re-read comics in a whole manner, i.e. sitting down with a book and going through it cover-to-cover once more, but often sit at my bookshelves pulling various things off and looking through texts in parts, minus the emphasis to take in everything at once and get to the story; this is when I tend to notice more, and when my appreciation of a work deepens. For me this approach works, particularly in relation to the art, because my mind's not really in operating within the confines of 'reading mode'- it's more open and loose and receptive. So in that vein, I thought I would talk a little about Christophe Blain's The Speed Abater - some of the passages and panels that interested me.

The Speed Abater, released by NBM in 2003, was Blain's first work to be made available in the English language and it's quite the introduction. Unusually for US and North American publishers, it was printed in the original, large format album size so you get to appreciate Blain's art in all it's glory; in addition to it mirroring the scale and vastness of the ship, it also brings to the fore the nuances of cabin fever, paranoia, claustrophobia and the imagination. The Speed Abater follows young oceanographer George Guilbert as he embarks on his maiden voyage aboard the legendary battleship Bellicose, having volunteered as a helmsman for the French navy. George makes friends with Sam and Loius both of whom are also new sailors, and the three become sea-sick and unable to do much. They decide to travel to the bowels of the ship (despite this being a forbidden, restricted area) where apparently the motion of the ship isn't felt as much, but end up getting lost and stuck as they wander deeper and deeper into the mass of humming machinery. It's a curious, slightly odd, sweet, but really good book -very specific, in a way- and one that rewards multiple readings- especially on the illustrative front, as is usually the case with Blain.

The Speed Abater is book-ended with two short passages of life ashore, sandwiched between the pressure cooker events aboard the ship itself: beginning calmly with normality and ending that way, and thrusting even more of a weird, strange, hallucinatory aspect on the time spent on the ship. This panel shows a group of sailors -navy officers- riding a bus into the docks. Bound together bu the dark blue, white, red and gold of the uniforms, there's an air of relaxed, quiet camaraderie as they peer out of the windows to catch a glimpse of the ship and sea. The perspective of the panel is angled so you get a look at a bunch of faces: the way they're all leaning forward slightly in anticipation, looking outwards, the morning light shining in on them favourably, while the white space lends a feeling of crispness, freshness and possibility. I love the touch of the man in the lower-left corner, a cigarette drooping from his mouth as he looks in the opposite direction: the flat line of his mouth (the only mouth in this panel, despite the presence of seven other faces), and the manner in which the black around his eyes is painted to give him a more grizzled, sea-dog type appearance. he offers some contrast in comparison to the eager, wide-eyed appearance of the others,  

I have two favourite books set on ships (it's a rather specific thing)-  Ian Edginton and D'Israeli's Leviathan, and this. Both manage to convey the monumental size of the engines, the scale of pipes and machines, the heat and grime, the noise, the knots of metal, the atmosphere. Much like spacecraft in sci-fi films like Alien, the ship here is a character in itself, and these are the innards; the belly of the beast which set the tone of what's to come as the men become lost and confused, delving further into their psyches. Blain's gone hatching happy in this panel: it's the first time the men are seeing below deck and the combination of impressive grandeur and realistic depiction is on point- all twisty, bronze pipes, looming space, steam and shade. 

One of the primary things associated with Blain's work is his movement and energy; much of that is down to his lines which are fast, loose, but a measure of it is also down to smaller, stylistic additions- motion indicators, sfx, and clouds. He uses clouds to convey a range of emotions, but here the simple few surprise/shock lines around the men's heads at the top, and the three clouds of gas/steam give the  whole panel another dimension; remove them and it becomes more tight in atmosphere and tone, contained and quiet. Along with these and the jagged strap of bright yellow with contrasting bold black 'BROOOO' letters (the noise of the engines and machinery) running across the top- the loud, almost invasive, constancy of it, they provide a sense of  life and liveliness to proceedings. Notice how instead of a full, unbroken circle, he uses dashes to circle around the lights to make them a wavering, flickering pool amidst the dark, instead of a sure, steady beam. That sort of tiny thing that you perhaps don't notice but works to build what you get from the whole picture: here a sense of smallness, that the conditions are delicate, aren't really safe, the light is sporadic.

This passage is  amazingly evocative, its typography reminiscent of that of Greek vases. Blain renders George's acute sickness, fever and pain effectively in his dreams and delusions. Wet-snouted jackals gnaw at his stomach, tearing it out in chunks as he lies naked and prone, unable to do anything. He thinks he's been saved by the arrival of the ship which scatters the animals, only to be laughed at by the seasoned sailors who crowd around him similarly to the dogs, mocking his weakness and novice status. That inferiority/insecurity and vulnerability is reinforced by his nakedness and the phallic symbolism of the ship as it drops down- the sailors are all proper men, and he's not. They then literally leave him dismembered, as the jackals return once more. The inky blacks against the orange and red feed into this feverish tone perfectly, imbuing a primal heat, as the panels close in, getting smaller and tighter. In the very next panels (not shown here), he begins dreaming about a woman having sex with him as he continues to lay in the same prone position, no doubt in an attempt to restore his manhood.

Amongst other qualities, what makes Blain a great cartoonist is his ability to switch up his art style according to what's happening whilst retaining an essence of what makes him him, so the effect isn't jarring. Here, in another surreal sequence, George narrates a story from his younger years in which his class had the opportunity to dissect a beached whale that had washed up on shore. The 2-panel sequence at the top is striking in that it combines outlandish humour with a stark viscerality: you have the whale and its enormity being measured against 2 jauntily coloured buses, and then a team of white-coated people sawing and cutting into the shiny black meat of the body, the flash of white bone and red cartilage, as bright red blood pours down. What really pushed it out of the standard is the cheeriness of the orange background, which by the second panel has begun to take on distrustful ominous undertone, like the fixed smile of a clown. The mixed messages and queer whimsy of the sequence play into the unreal situation- 'we dissected a whale!' On the very next page, with George now having segued into another tale he heard of a squid who smothered a whale, the two stuck together, is more epic/mythic in nature: the stylised blue whorls of the sea, the appropriate contrast of the orange and black more traditionally illustrated.

A final panel from the end, taken from the penultimate page is idyllic in its calm, showing a return to both land and sanity. Note the differences in colour palette when on the ship and when on shore: the latter given softer, lighter shades- no extremities. George situated centrally, and despite being relatively small in relation to all else around him, his gait, coat and hat, the bags he's carrying hint at an air of greater confidence. He's moving literally, and looking to move on. Looking at this panel, everything seems so far away already -for the reader too- like when returning from holiday as if you never left. The Speed Abater is an homage to a type of vessel and the life-style and customs surrounding it as much as it is anything else, no doubt informed by Blain's own time as naval officer, and this loving shot of the docks encompasses the character and specific beauty of the place. It's a nice juncture at which to part.

Third time's the charm: 'Trilogy USA' by Hermann and Yves H [preview]

I believe this hit stores both virtual and mortar this week: Hermann's Trilogy USA, penned by his son and now frequent collaborator, Yves H, and as evident  from the pages below, once more masterfully illustrated by himself.  Dark Horse have collected the three stories, all set in the US, and published them in a single, English language volume for the first time. I've only read  2 Hermann books: Afrika, and Station 16, and art aside, neither really left me convinced. I need to read Afrika (the last book Hermann himself wrote) again, but it was curious for the question it presented- as Joe McCulloch succinctly put it: 'How do you deal with a white man who’s made himself the ultra-capable guardian of foreign territory, in opposition to the cruel and greedy machinations of non-white political interests?' I know Joe saw his eventual blow-out as the white man being rightfully forgotten, and Iseko as triumphant but why did she have to leave Afrika to succeed? Why did a white man have to save her? Why the focus on her wanting him to buy her material things? Certainly there's nothing wrong with wanting money, but are these hard choices made to get out of tough situations, or does it feed into negative assumptions? I need to re-read it  to bring it back and get at the nuances.

In the meantime, I may pick this up; I'll definitely be giving it a small read at the store first after being disappointed with Station 16. Trilogy USA is apparently a 'viciously satirical look at the dark side of the American soul. From the evil that stalks the Eastern Seaboard setting of “Blood Ties” to the crime-ridden Los Angeles of “Girl from Ipanema,” these three stories paint a picture of a new Babylon.' It sounds good, and I'm always up for a bit if noir and satire (the latter heavily depending on how it's wielded). The last two pages of the preview here are very nice to look at indeed.

Afu Chan, Giannis Milonogiannis, Josh Tierney announce sci-fi mini-series 'HaloGen'

I saw the news of this over at Multiversity Comics, and it piqued my interest, largely due to the creative team working on it. Set to be a 4-issue mini-series, HaloGen reunites Spera artists Afu Chan and Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues, Prophet) with writer Josh Tierney on a sci-fi story which sees HaloGen agent Rell investigate rumours (and should it be required: retrieval) of a gigantic, dead god found floating in space. I've got to admit, I really like that as a hook. Tierney will be scripting the book, with Chan on artistic duties, while Milonogiannis is listed as a co-creator and has contributed covers. I like the sound of this, but what I'm most excited about is seeing Afu Chan's work on another book- it's difficult to tell from that cover image alone (his is on the left, the one on the right is a variant by Milionogiannis), but it looks like he may have switched up his style a little for this, but the prospect of him on a sci-fi book, taking it away with world-building and potential spacey scenarios is impossible to resist. If you haven't already, or are wondering what I'm talking about, simply wander over to his site and gaze awhile. HaloGen will be published by Boom! and begin serialisation in March next year.

(via Multiversity)

UK comics imprint Great Beast closes its doors

UK publishing imprint, Great Beast, have announced they'll be closing up shop, with January 7th serving as the final day of business. Founded by cartoonists Adam Cadwell and Marc Ellerby in 2012,  Great Beast was initially intended as a place for the artists to publish their own work, but grew to home a self-publishing collective that included Robert Ball, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Rachael Smith, Isabel Greenberg, Dan Berry, John Cei-Douglas and more. Ellerby left Great Beast earlier this year as his comics and illustration commitments picked up pace, and now Cadwell is following suit, which means there is no one left with the time and knowledge to run the imprint. And as Great Beast has been more a group of artists publishing their own work under an umbrella name, the option to hire someone to take over and continue isn't financially viable anyway. It's hard to be sad about this, as it seems for Cadwell and Ellerby, the venture more than served its purpose and has now naturally come to an end as they've grown and become busier with work- which is a good thing. No doubt the other artists involved will also still be producing their own comics, as well.

'On 7th January 2015 Great Beast Comics will close it doors for the foreseeable future.

This means that all of our creators will no longer self publish comics under the Great Beast banner and our online store will close. All our creators will sell their titles personally until the end of their print runs. Our titles will only remain available digitally on Comixology.

The reason behind this decision is that the Beast has grown too big for us to handle. As the group got bigger, as the books became more successful and as we widened the range of shops we sold to there became more of a need for the management and promotion to come from one or two people and Marc Ellerby and I (Adam Cadwell) happily took up that role. However, as time went on we found that the time spent working for the benefit of the group was getting in the way of us actually making our own comics, which is why we started the group in the first place. In Summer, Marc stepped back from the ‘publishing’ side of things to focus on his freelance work and his comics and now as 2014 draws to a close I feel like it’s time for me to do the same.

We looked at many ways of monetising the group so we could pay someone to run things whilst still giving the creators the bulk of the profits but we just couldn’t find a fair way to make it work. I wish we could find a business minded person who loved our comics (but didn’t make comics themselves) who could find a way to make the model financially viable and take over but I can’t imagine who that would be or how it would work.'

In the meantime, there's a 25% off everything sale at the online store with the code 'shutitdown': I highly recommend Robert Ball's Winter's Knight, and Ellerby's Chloe Noonan comics.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How to be Happy: the bittersweet symphony of life

How to be happy. It's a good title, isn't it? Instantly evokes the language of self-help/improvement guide/living manuals/whatever you want to call them, and with it the feelings you have for that particular genre: disdain, maybe. Scepticism. Ambivalence. Interest. Hope. Paired with the bright, cheery colours of Davis'c over and the foremost image of a mother picking flowers with a baby; the associations of nature and nurture and earthiness: what many would consider a bit new-age and hippy-dippy. But look closer, past the mother and child, and you'll see a man falling out of the sky, a woman clutching her head in her hands, another sat pensively on a roof, her knees to her chest, two men with their hands at each others throats- perhaps in an embrace, perhaps not.

This is the first major collection of Davis' work, and as indicated, a number of the comics within explore a string of related themes: mental health and well-being, the nature of people, the behaviour, manouvering and justification of self, social expectations, the things we tell ourselves to get by, the day-today give and take, even concerns about depletion and the environment- poisoning nature and by extension ourselves. Like the 'self-help' angle, I'm aware some of those subjects can sound very dry, particularly as they can often carry a lot of negative presumptions with them: pompous, faffy ideals, but Davis is too good a cartoonist to allow that to happen. Take the opening story, In Our Eden. In it, a group of people have moved from the city to live in a woodland, country area, with a view to leaving behind material, worldly objects and concepts, free from social constructs, to become closer to nature and one another. The leader of this commune seems to be Adam (formerly Darryl), a man who becomes increasingly extreme, dictating harsher and harsher rules: nothing industrially made is allowed, no tools, no meat, punishment for those who argue as conflict is 'unnatural' -gradually isolating the group one by one so that they leave.

The 'Eden' and 'Adam' imply connections of old: a desire to return to goodness and nature, where evil is removed, 'Before the fall was bliss,' says Adam, but that nirvana is unachievable because hestill harbours the human, where judgement and shame still exists. In a way he embodies the unholy trinity: god, satan and man: the first demanding perfection from an imperfect set-up, the second shown in menacing, silent panels in which his whole body turns a wrathful red, and yet ultimately remaining just a man and all that that encompasses. And he -man- is to blame. 'Eve' here is a secondary character, a loving, supporting companion, willing to believe in Adam and his vision until the end. Eden is coloured  in a lush, beautiful range of shades in a style reminiscent of folkloric, wood-cut prints, reinforcing the primitive natural. Eden suggests that while the people and their desire to change is well-intentioned, and practicable to a degree, if you can't first change within yourself, it doesn't really matter where you are, or how little or much you have, or how far you're willing to go. 

Nita Goes Home espouses similar commentary and though. In an eco-futuristic world in which healthy, green areas are sealed off from vast, poisonous, crowded slum-like cities, Nita, returns to the city in which she grew up to visit her dying father. There's tension between her Nita and her sister who still resides in the city, as Nita makes horrified comments about the harmful mass-produced food and the effect it has. She's upset when her sister points out not everyone is lucky as her and are unable to afford the much more expensive, organic fruit, seeing it as jab at her more privileged lifestyle. It's difficult not to view her as ridiculous as she weeps, 'I believe everyone should have the right to eat gais-grown!' Again, the ideal is well-intentioned, but far-off from the reality of many, many people. Nita's defensive reaction to what she perceives to be her sister's judgement, belies some of her guilt at being in a better position, but her lack of awareness is also rather galling- more so, perhaps when you consider she's from the same background. I really like the designs in this story- Davis manages to really create a unique impression of the future: a highly saturated, very rich colour palette which is a far cry from the clean, clinical blue/green/grey so often used in sci-fi, the tox-off suits which keep out poisonous fumes are robe-like- the colours, hoods and draping reminiscent of saris, whilst remaining futuristic, the floating squares of digital interfaces all around.

Nita ties together the concept of betterment through nature: in looking after nature we look after ourselves. If Eden and the past was a garden, the future is a barren techno-wasteland. The state of nature is inextricably tied to the state of humans- our future depends on preserving, retaining, or being able to replicate our resources and environment. And yet our relationship with nature has been largely destructive and exploitative. Perhaps if we were able to change that we would be able to change ourselves, or if we were able to change ourselves we would be able to change that. Davis comics then continue to explore and negotiate a holistic approach, moving on to looking into people: the emotional, spiritual. How do you deal with life? Do you feel an emptiness? How do you fill it? What gets you through each day? Are you happy? What makes you happy? Are you content? Why? What is your purpose? One of the strongest pages which struck me is a simple 4 panel comic placed in the center of a page of stark, blank white. Each panel shows the same woman at different stages in her life, getting older, facing the reader- addressing them directly:

'I used to be so unhappy.  But then I got prozac.'
'I used to be so unhappy. But then I took up meditation.'
'I used to be so unhappy. But then I had a baby.'
'I used to be so unhappy. But then I tried yoga.'

And immediately on the next page a full page illustration of an incredibly distressed, weeping woman, clutching at her face. How are we supposed to feel towards this woman- sad that she seems to be unfulfilled, sad about her continuing search to find something, anything that gives here a sense of anchorage and purpose, or is it okay that at different stages she looks to different things to help her get by. Are we supposed to judge or understand? Is it okay or scary to think that perhaps meaning is never really found, and what is the appropriate response to that? The repetition of her statements replicates self-help mantras- the idea that people are told to stand in front of the mirror and repeat affirming statements to boost confidence and belief- like rolling beads, the more you repeat and roll the more tangible and embedded it becomes. Repetition is used for emphasis, to reiterate, and yet there is something unsure and unconvincing in the woman's speech. Davis asks these questions throughout in the shorter comics- who has things figured out? Is there a universal nirvana to which we must all work towards? Why should it cause so much pain? It should be okay to not be okay, to not be there, or any particular place.  What is this idea that's being sold to us-  the notion of happiness as the ultimate pinnacle to be reached is a false one. Do what you have to do to get by, however small, however pathetic it may seem to others. It hurts to read this book.

If you've never come across Davis' work before, Happy shows off her artistic prowess splendidly- she's able to draw really well in a range of styles, and uses colour and shape so cleverly. Two of the other comics I'd like to mention here are Stick and String, and Seven Sacks, both of which are more folk fable in strain. Stick and String is gorgeous, the brown and orange tones lovely and et off by the looser style. A man wanders through the woods playing his ukulele, the flowy musical bubbles wafting from his instrument. And then he comes across something strange: a group of strange, wild beasts- semi-human- playing their own music and dancing around a fire. He's drawn to one of these- a female, whom he lures out and into his home via his ukulele. 'Bed,' he points. 'Window.' 'Rafters.' he cooks for her, and then plays some music while she dances. They have sex and falls asleep, but he's awoken by the sounds of her clawing at the walls in distress; she feels literally boxed in and trapped. there is an oft-quoted line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's the little Prince- 'You are responsible, forever, for what you tame.' The man plays his ukulele to calm her and she falls asleep once more on his chest, the closing, tired, dawning expression on his face as he realises that this is what he must maintain if he hopes to keep her, to 'tame' her. But it is he that wanted her, he that removed her from her happy home and natural environment and now he's stuck, resentful. That quote could easily be applied to man's exertion of dominance over nature.

Davis employs a similar style and colour palette for Seven Sacks, another story heavily fable-ish in tone. A boatman is asked by a skunk-like rodent creature to take him and his load across the river. He does so, they make small talk, and after a pleasant trip, he returns to find another even curiouser passenger waiting, clawed and upright, but wearing a large bird pelt that covers his face and shoulders. He too, has a load in bag, but his is squirming and alive -'rabbits,' he says- and he delivers swift kicks to it as the boatman takes him across the river uneasily.  this back and forth continues, with the boatman making several trips, his passengers growing stranger, larger, their loads bigger. The man suspects more, suspects worse, but carries on taking the money he is offered to do his job, purposely remaining blind to the sinister implications of what's occurring. On the last page, he stands still for a moment looking out to the horizon, his oar at rest 'rabbits' he things. And then again, this time with a full-stop and finality, 'rabbits.' as he pushes off, deciding to believe in the lie. The creatures are all easily identifiable as grotesque, monsterish, inhuman. is the man to be praised for not judging them by their appearance, not making presumptions about their sacks and loads or should he have acted on his strong suspicions. 

I could praise what Davis achieves in this book all day- it's as fine comicking as you could hope to come across: the enmeshing of wonderful art with good, strong narrative that naturally prompts and drives discussion and thought without it feeling overt or jaggedly superficial, is superb. Exceptional cartooning is when those elements come together in a cohesive manner, and Davis' work is on that plane. I haven't come across any comics that raise similar themes and ideas and yet How to be Happy is widely, deeply applicable and resonant. It works and works and works some more. For many people this volume will be their introduction to Elenaor Davis' work; I can't imagine anyone coming away unimpressed.

What's a Nonplayer

The comics internet was all a-excite yesterday over the news Nate Simpson had finally finished the second issue of Nonplayer. Which is great. I like when people get shit done. But being the hibernating comics snail I am, I did wonder who Simpson is and what Nonplayer was. And it's a simple enough story: prodigious talent produces excellent first issue of a new comic, but due to various circumstances is unable to return to work and complete on further issues. Simpson wrote and illustrated the first (of what was intended to be a 6 part mini-series) issue of Nonplayer, publishing it with Image in April 2011 (fun fact: also the month and year in which this blog came into bloody being) and has now finished work on the second issue, which will be due for release in May 2015. In a post on his website, titled 'Halley's comic returns,' Simpson is honest and upfront about the delays and challenges he faced in getting the second installment done: finances, time, motivation, life: having a child, and so forth- it makes for interesting reading. 

In addition to once again reading a comic artist's experience of struggling with creating for any number of reasons, on my part I was a little agog to see something which seems very much in my ballpark in terms of appeal, art and certain facets, seemingly come out of nowhere. I always feel like I should know, or be told, about these things- there's a lapse in the chain here somewhere, folks. As has no doubt been mentioned repeatedly, Simpson has an incredible style that evokes Geoff Darrow (especially in the beasts/creatures he draws) and Terry Dodson- a pared back (in colour and detail) Seth Fisher- one of the aspects he stresses in his blogpost is an unwillingness to compromise on quality on a project of love (he mentions the first issue took a year to complete) and that shows- just look at these images from Nonplayer #1:

So what's the comic actually about? A sci-fi fantasy story centering around Dana Stevens, a brilliant young woman who chooses to spend every free moment role-playing as a fearless warrior in a luscious video game fantasy world called Jarvath, that may have more to it than meets the eye. Dana is not alone in her pursuits and before long her adventures begin to cat-and-mouse back and forth between the two worlds. It sounds good; it looks good- I'm on board.

Although Nonplayers #1 went into a second printing at the time, it's now out of print and selling for the predictably extortionate prices on places like Ebay. Simpson's been in touch with publishers Image about re-releasing it, either digitally or in print -or both- but is yet to hear back. I think it's a safe bet that will happen- this is a special comic that will be easily saleable, not to mention that Image are in far better position with a much large audience then they were 3 years ago; it can only benefit them to give newly interested people the starting point for the story. Something else to look forward to in 2015.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Art Wall: pretty them comics

Some nice art, because it's Monday and because not much is interesting me at the moment and because I like it and because I need a reprieve post wedged between two long text pieces (the Lizz Hickey essay and the forthcoming How to be Happy review). I used to do these kind of posts early in the blog's conception, and then stopped, probably because I thought my producing writing was more important...

I need this rad lady to be in a super-spy librarian comic, stat. By Roman Muradov.

Dr Doom by Toby Cypress, whose art I'm into in a big way right now.

I think I've shared this Matt Forsythe painting on every social media platform I'm on, I love it that much.

A few quick thoughts on Lizz Hickey's crowd-funding cartoon

Tom Spurgeon linked to a comic by Lizz Hickey last week, which a lot of people had push-back to; I've included the whole thing above, as Hickey subsequently removed it from her site, but its obviously to the brief discussion that follows here.

As with James Sturm's The Sponsor comic, one of the issues here surrounds authorial intent and possible interpretations. On my part, Hickey's style is clearly an exaggerated, super-caustic tone, taking the subject she's railing against to a super-angry nth: it's not wholly literal. There's some humour and some insecurity in there. What I initially read was a general dislike and suspicion towards crowd-funding for artists, but there's also no denying the general intimation that art should be made for the sake of art, and money isn't -or shouldn't be- required: 'Who needs constant donations to draw and follow your passion? Fuck! Get a job bagging groceries! You aren't homeless!! You have electricity and pens and a computer! print your zine at your mommy and daddy's house!' This is the passage that causes contention: the concept of follow your passion is too close to follow your dream/do what you love and those notions are mired in problematic ideals. Generously, this could read as do the best you can with what you have; make art anyway, but even that is incredibly presumptuous.

There are a couple of rough things to unpack here:
  • the idea that art or 'following your passion' doesn't require money
  • the idea that crowd-funding is bad

Art (and I realise that's a very broad term) has traditionally suffered from legitimacy issues, and one of the most harmful concepts to emerge from the culture is that of the passionate, martyr-like artist. The artist is a semi-crazed caricature, unfathomable to others, driven by muses and passion and thunderbolts of inspiration, his lifestyle unique, his work special, he is set apart from social norms and understanding, and crucially: he doesn't care about money- he cares only about the art. The starving artist, if you will, who goes to great lengths in pursuit of his craft. This is an archaic, unsupportable, and harmful ideal, that plays into the way we view art and artists and what they should be: that art stems from a need: something you have to do, to get out from within yourself; its not unlocked by money, money only taints it, it's good and pure if you don't make money from it, and doing otherwise is selling out. It appears this is still something that people want to buy into (ironically): that their art is created from the love of it, and so in turn, artists promoting themselves, working to sell their work, acting in a way that might benefit them financially, is viewed as 'bad' thing, degrading and derogatory. 

With regards to crowd-funding and donations, the gist of what Hickey says resonates and I even agree with. On my part, donations are not something I'm comfortable with; I'm happy to back campaigns that are attempting to publish comics and use such platforms as pre-orders, but I have been wary, infuriated, and quite frankly flabbergast at what people will ask money for- from plane tickets for their partners, to money for new shoes, to rent and gas, and how often. Digital rewards of behind-the-scenes material- looks at rough sketches and concept designs, can feel a bit thin, intangible. But donations are made at the choice of benefactors- it's mildly insulting in the least to imply that people are not intelligent enough to be aware of what they're paying for. or mindlessly exploited, but comics seems to have so very many of these drives running. In the short time I have been involved in this community, I have seen how deeply kind and generous it is, but the increasing numbers and asking- the range of it, also makes me uncomfortable. And there are people taking advantage of that kindness, and while it's nice to think that such drives would easily be recognised for what they are, it doesn't always happen.

At the same time,online funding has been freeing for many artists, allowing them to give up the jobs they had and make art full-time, untethered; I'd guess the majority of artists are making a little bit extra from donations that eases their living costs somewhat, or pays for printing and so forth. To return to Hickey, artists are making art in the first instance- there is no petulant, throwing toys out of the pram exercises -'I'm going to stop making things if you don't support me financially!' but that is a reality that many artists are faced with- at some point making art in the spare time you find around jobs and commitments is simply no longer financially sustainable. How many artists has comics in particular lost to that road? If crowd-funding and donations is a way to temporarily supplant that, then why not? There shouldn't be any shame in that choice. Wanting to be supported and paid for what you do is perfectly valid, and it's kind of sad that we still have to justify that. Money isn't required to make art, or even for validation, but as a tool for food and shelter and time and living, it works just fine. 

Your relationship with donations and giving probably reflects your relationship with money, and how that has developed and grown- how much of it you have had, and have. I come from a working class background, and my parents drilled into me that asking for anything, especially money, was a bad thing to do. Working hard, and helping oneself out was the preferred method to achievement.  And parts of that schooling remain with me today and always will, even as I know that simply working hard, doing good work, being talented doesn't equate to a pay-off of any kind, and is possibly  up there with the fallacy of do what you love: a different mantra from and for a different demographic. On my part, I haven't taken to Patreon because a) I feel uneasy with asking 'people' or 'readers' and b) whether this is my psychology or otherwise, I don't like being beholden: the idea that I will have to produce x amount of articles within a certain amount of time as people are paying for it.

Hickey had a few responses to the criticism she received for her comic on Twitter: 'I only feel bad that I wasn't able to fully express what I meant with that comic and wasn't specific enough.' 'I work two jobs, so I couldn't care less about this conversation. My drawn dumb comic persona is exaggerated and a joke.' 'The punchline is that I use negativity to fuel my own art. It's just a joke and something I drew in like 5 minutes as reaction.'

I like Hickey's work, and please don't confuse me in thinking 'bad' or 'stupid' opinions are brave (I'm not saying Hickey's ideas are either), but even beyond Hickey, I do think we too quickly shoot down people who discuss things openly and honestly. This doesn't necessarily mean that they align with that position hardcore, 100%; the very idea of art is that it allows you to explore ideas and concepts that aren't decided upon. Art would be much more boring if intent and message was laid out clearly and cut and dried, or it espoused values and notions we all thought good and agreed upon. I'm of the opinion conversations need to be more about discussion and listening and working towards improvement rather than about 'winning' or being 'right'- more times than not, there's not always a right or wrong (certainly the model of crowd-funding and online donations is the most interesting thing- still relatively new and in flux, and may evolve- how sustainable is it in the long-run?). Sure, point out flaws and counter-arguments, but I don't know, I'm wary against quick judgements and writing off- I get the impulse (I've probably even done it), and the nature of online culture probably amplifies that reaction, but it seems counter-productive to moving forward and betterment. I'm aware I sound like somebody who stands in the middle and shouts 'Can't we all just be civilised about this?!', but the reason I don't participate with this kind of 'opinion' article regularly is that nuance and shades are so rarely allowed or acknowledged- you have to pick a side and it has to be the right one or else condemnation follows. I'm not fussed about vilification, but nor am I interested in things that can be this or that- one thing only; that's not my experience of life.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Black Comix Arts Festival (BCAF) launches with inaugural 2015 event

There's another new comics show hitting the circuit in 2015: the Black Comix Arts Festival, or BCAF, will be hosting its inaugural event in January over the weekend of the 18/19th at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens. The festival is funded by the Northern California Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Foundation, a charitable organisation who aim to put Dr King's vision into practice in helping people to connect to community and services via a variety of ongoing and targeted initiatives, of which BACF is the latest. The event  and activities are free for all to attend and the programming sounds strong; in addition to the main show which will see the likes of LeSean Thomas (animation director of Black Dynamite, The Bondooks), Afu Richardson (Genius), Tony Puryear (Concrete Park), Erika Alexander (Concrete Park, and more in attendance, there's also a range of kids activities, film screenings, panels and cosplay- for a fuller, more detailed look at what's on, visit the website here. I think table applications are also still open, if you're interested in exhibiting- again for further information and prices, the site is the pace to go.
'BCAF’s mission is to celebrate the creativity and subjectivity of African Americans in the comic arts and popular visual culture and is dedicated to the notion that all audiences deserve to be subject in the culture in which we participate.'
I used to be pretty ignorant regarding this type of identification: 'queer anthology,' 'short stories by black writers,' 'poems by Muslim women'  and so forth, thinking it further boxed in and reinforced labels applied by others, and that a person is a person and should be defined as such, but the reality is we live in a world which hasn't progressed to that level. What it does allow people to do is not only own and appropriate the label for themselves, but also to celebrate who they are, what they do in a hugely affirming way, and to create spaces that frankly aren't always available elsewhere. These are the kind of events and creators that support should be thrown behind, if you're truly interested in seeing comics from artists of colour, rather than vague, superficial attempts at 'diversity.' I can see BCAF being well-attended -comics audiences, at least, have grown more and more diverse-  and I hope it is, and that it's the first of many.

Friday visual goodness: Manddy Wyckens' elegant people sketches

I just feel like sharing some nice art today, so let's do that- it is Friday after all. I've been looking at  -and loving- the people studies Manddy Wyckens has been doing in her sketchbooks. They're lovely and elegant and fine-lined. There's an effortless quality to them; she seems to have great control over the lines despite them not appearing overly loose. I'm a sucker for these kind of drawings, especially when artists pay attention to fashion and style; it doesn't have to be anything huge or dramatic- a blue puffa jacket, an Adidas track top with a beanie hat, a woolen scarf worn with a cargo jacket, a ribbed crop top- it's that easy to add interest and character. And it's expressive, too- really impressive work. This is the reason I love Margaux Motin so much- she's super at this, and I treasure her one, excellent English language graphic novel, But I Really Wanted to be an Anthropologist. Oh, to see another comic drawn in this style...  Wyckens is a visual development artist currently residing in France and has worked for places like Laika/house and Disney Feature. You can find more of  her work at her website.