Wednesday, 6 January 2016

One last thing: reflecting on comics 2015

For the past few years, like many sites, I've run an end of year 'notable comics' compilation, in which various people are kind enough to contribute their thoughts on a single comics work -released in the year just gone by- that struck them in some way. This year I changed things up a little and instead asked people to share anything comics-related that was significant to them in 2015: a trend or discussion, a specific panel, a line of dialogue, a person, an experience. Those recountings are collected below, followed by my own at the very end. There's some fine, fine writing here, and I like the idea of this piece existing as a small time capsule that captures certain moods and feelings of a particular time; I was surprised at some of the commonalities that surfaced. I'd like to extend my deep and sincere thanks to everyone who took part; it's hugely appreciated.

“This is like Hoarders... BURIED ALIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!”

The last part she shouted directly into my face, wide-eyed and red. She'd wept when she saw how many books I had.

On the 30th of November, every occupant of my building was told we had one month to vacate. Finding another place was not so great a concern to me as figuring out how to move all of my things: books; comics; minicomics; manga digests; Japanese magazines; French albums; VHS tapes made by and for Williamsburg hipsters; a student film a correspondent had sent me on DVD in 2007, insisting it was a 'comic' as a conceptual flourish; advance reader xeroxes; Kramers Ergot 7, under which you could shield a kindergartner from inclimate weather, up to and including small hail; other books of similar size; more.

My mother had wept when she saw it all.

I had tried to pack up most of it in boxes, and when Wal-Mart and Home Depot had run out of stock, I settled on black contractor bags. “You didn't write anything on the boxes!” she said. “You can't tell these bags apart, and that's how I know you don't want these things! It's just stuff! It scares me.”

In retrospect, it was insane to think of my stock as a peccadillo discreet to my life; it was demonstrably more than I could move alone before the deadline, and by god I put people to work. I should have just hired movers, but I saw my comics as my thing, in my control. My sister showed me the bruises that dotted her legs from hoisting and balancing teeming towers of work.

You accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, and value dictates that you not treat this so much as ephemera, because it is costly, but as investment – intellectual, I guess, or curatorial, if I'm flattering myself. “You could get rich selling all this stuff,” my brother-in-law told me, but I know that's not true. Instead, it was like a history of myself, crammed into so small a space that I could recall the circumstances of individual days simply by lifting stacks.

I had filled the place with me, and assumed, logically, that I would be left alone, wanting for nobody.

For years I'd been good at directing people away from my home.

“When you were little,” she said, holding dusty pot lids in her hands, “the way I imagined you grown was I thought you would cook. I always thought of you cooking in here. But I know you just eat out.” 

Growing up, I couldn’t stand watching TV shows where people were constantly fighting. I didn’t enjoy most media like that - instead I loved filler episodes in shonen anime, I liked wandering around in empty fields in video games, I would read food scenes in fantasy novels over and over. When I first started working in comics, I was super self-conscious about this. Wasn’t it childish to prefer stories where nothing bad happens?

Recently, though, it feels like people, creators and readers alike, are coming out of the woodwork, admitting this is the kind of work they love, too. It’s such a relief. I was always afraid of having boring taste, but suddenly here’s a whole audience that wants these comics and calls them nice things like “gentle” and “soothing” and, my favorite way to describe them, “healing”. Healing comics are not necessarily comics without conflict or a linear plot. I see them rather as understanding the benefits of letting a story breathe. I’m talking about Balderdash!, Bug Boys, Yotsuba&! - there’s a growing, fantastic body of quiet character-and-environment driven work. Pages are spent on conversations. A whole story arc is just about a walk in the woods. I can see how that would be boring to some, but why wouldn’t you want to take the time to appreciate the world you’ve so lovingly built with your own hands? Shigeru Miyamoto famously wanted his video games to feel like playgrounds you could pull out of your drawer. Healing comics feel like this for me. You can visit somewhere beautiful and meet kind friends whenever you want, just by reading a comic. You can take some time off from your journey, and sit and heal instead.

Jade Sarson (cartoonist): Something Noteworthy on Comics 2015- Comics Streaming and Urasawa Naoki’s Manben Series:
Having come into comics at a point when the terms “manga” and “manga artist” were this mysterious entity that you could get little to no information on in the UK (i.e. the early era of Tokyopop comics releases), I have found it so wonderfully refreshing to see more and more humble coverage of comic artists both from Japan and the rest of the world online. It’s no longer the case that you only see an occasional photo from inside an artist’s studio, now it’s more likely that you can watch them create their artwork LIVE as they stream. When I was learning to make comics in the mid-2000’s, there was no where you could watch this sort of thing (that I knew of, anyway). But in 2015, I was so happy to see Urasawa Naoki’s Manben series, a documentary that focuses on a different manga artist and their workday/workspace each episode – and I was delighted to find myself nodding along and laughing at all the familiar anecdotes on working for hours on art in a secluded space. Artists are encouraging each other more to talk about their techniques, and show each other how to improve, not to be secretive and hide away; and wow, if that isn’t the most inspiring development that has arisen from the internet. Now if I’m feeling unmotivated, I will often pick a favourite artist like Yusuke Murata (who often streams his work on One Punch Man), put their stream on and let the hard work of another artist from across the world prompt me to get off my arse and get back to work. Perhaps I should start streaming my work, in the hopes of inspiring someone else…

Clark Burscough (Thought Bubble  Festival Assistant Director, writer 5ivex5 blog):
What is it that defines a superhero? Is it speed, strength, agility, tactical nous, fighting skills, intelligence, or a fearsome arsenal? It is none of these things. The single aspect that makes or breaks a superhero is having a bomb ass theme song.

I’ve not been reading many superhero comics of late - they’re all eventing and rebooting themselves into oblivion, seemingly chasing that ever dwindling light at the end of the tunnel that allows for an uncomfortable transition from paper to celluloid as their primary market; real world heroes, for a real
world setting. Not for me. A few titles, however, have carried on that grand tradition of cape and spandex stories being, well… uniquely silly. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I think, has been the best of these, and certainly the one that made me genuinely belly laugh more than any other this year.

One of the running gags in USG is her co-opting of the classic Spider-Man cartoon theme tune for her own, increasingly lyrically unwieldy theme; and simply by mentioning that tune it’s now stuck in your head, right? I could try and go high concept devil's advocate with this, and argue that television adaptations, that brought with them the theme songs I know and love, signaled the death knell for superhero comics as a “pure” medium, making them stretch to breaking point to satisfy a multimedia audience, but that would be nonsensical.

Superhero comics have always been a pulp medium, there have always been radio, television, and film adaptations of  the characters; it’s dependent on the creators to ignore that and focus in on what makes the genre unique - dependent on them to do it well. Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi do the genre very well. It’s a superhero comic I’d gladly put into the hand  of one of my younger cousins, and I know it would make them laugh as much as me. Squirrel Girl has a theme song, which, to me, makes her a very important superhero indeed.

David Brothers (Series editor and content manager at Image Comics):
This year started with a lot of people yelling that if you don't respect and support offensive cartoons, you're an idiot, a censor, or both. Personal tragedy followed after that, and depression came hot on its heels. The same old thing wasn't working, so I had to switch gears. I spent more time reading than reacting, and rather than devoting a lot of pointless time to one thing, I'd organize my thoughts, speak my mind once, and keep it moving.

The thing that impressed me most in comics this year, from my incredibly privileged position, were the conversations I had and pieces I read. I'm disillusioned with cape comics, and I'm convinced that lasting change has to come from below, from us, not from above. I watched the moves of people like Janelle Asselin, Shawn Pryor, Spike Trotman, and my coworker Corey Murphy, the way they spotted a gap, problem, or need and moved to take care of it. I had a lot of good conversations with Zainab (hi Z, sorry if this is awkward!), Christine Dinh from Boom! Studios, Cheryl Lynn Eaton, Julian Lytle of Ignorant Bliss, Jamila Rowser of Girl Gone Geek, and my Funnybook Babylon/4thletter! family to keep me focused and grounded. ("Does this really matter?" is a useful thing to hear when you're hot about something.) I read people like Claire Napier, Emma Houxbois, JA Micheline, @MizCaramelVixen, and more besides.

This year taught me the importance of focus and discernment, of picking your battles to make sure that you're hitting the subject as hard and as well as you possibly can, of not "misusing your influence." For me, 2015 in comics was about learning, and I wouldn't have learned a thing without listening to the people in it. Now I gotta apply that knowledge.

Something "comics" that struck me in 2015?
I can only be short. Very short.
Two months after Charlie Hebdo. A few weeks before first elections of the year. Eight months before the Paris attacks. Nine months before the second elections of the year. And, less geographically centered, right in the middle of the ocean of blood that 2015 has been. Oh, Pantone reference for "blood" is 185C.
Thank you, Ron. I love you.

Kim O'Connor (writer & critic):
Like Donald Trump before he became scary, many politically tinged conversations in comics strike me as repugnant and hilarious at the same time. Probably nothing in comics was so repugnant and hilarious to me in 2015 as the “Saying the Unsayable” issue of the New Statesman that Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer edited last May. There were so many levels, including the dumb cover, Art Spiegelman’s hissy vis-à-vis the magazine’s refusal to reprint his “transgressive” comic, and (of course) Palmer’s essay on Hitler. But the best bit appeared in a piece by Gaiman.

Allow me to set the stage. The issue opened with a ridiculous op-ed in which Gaiman indulged in an elaborate fantasy about his own death at the hands of terrorists. The setting of his martyrdom was the PEN Awards, an event that he and Spiegelman attended in support of Charlie Hebdo. After a long account of shopping for bulletproof vests, we’re treated to a description of what the artists ended up wearing. “I wear a bow tie,” Gaiman wrote. “Art Spiegelman wears his Nancy comic tie, to show that he is a cartoonist….”

I mean, I’ve been laughing at that line for the last six months. I couldn’t write a better parody if I tried. The tone is perfect. The image: perfect. If this sentence were a person, I would marry it. I love it that much.

In the coming year, there’s little doubt that the alt comics establishment (to coin a phrase?) will continue to bemoan the critical movement toward so-called identity politics. They’ll keep conflating it with murder and extremism—anything to avoid interrogating their own values—and I’ll keep writing about all the ways in which these former heroes of mine act like clowns. I try to have a sense of humor about it.

The highlight of comics for me this year were two speeches at award shows. I'm not really a big fan of award shows, but I know they are good for the industry and promoting these things we do. North American award shows are quite fun to attend, there's a lot more whooping and cheering than you get in the UK, a celebration I guess. The first speech that I enjoyed was Lynda Barry at The Doug Wright Awards. Lynda was presenting Best Book award and before announcing she addressed the audience and said "I wanted to sing you a song, because... you can't leave... and I wanted to sing this song to you from the image part and the cartoonist part of me, to the cartoonist part of you, and I mean it with all my heart" she then went on to sing You Are My Sunshine, but with her mouth closed. It was brilliant and daft and profound. She also mentioned that listening to it would take two years off your life. Lucily for you I can't find any videos of it on youtube. The second award show speech was Eleanor Davis winning Outstanding Collection award at SPX. Here's a video of it you should watch.

These two speeches seem so heartfelt and empowering they had a real effect on me. Basically the message I took from them is keep going, we're doing a great thing here. If you ever get a chance to see Lynda or Eleanor talk, you should go, both are excellent performers who say great things. And of course, buy their books too. But that goes without saying because you already own them right?

JA Micheline (writer & critic):
2015 in comics can be summed up in a single word: "No." Or maybe "Hell no." Actually, just plain "Fuck no."

It was a year of sexism, racism, transmisogyny, queerphobia, and ableism--which, in truth, is just an ordinary year, but what makes this one notable is the concerted pushback by marginalized readers, critics, and creators alike.

Admittedly, we saw it begin at the very end of last year, after a strong cadre of trans voices spoke up against the transphobic themes that appeared in Batgirl #37. In March, female fans gave a great big "hell no" to a misogynistic variant cover from DC Comics. I was joined by several people of color in criticizing the racial insensitivity of Strange Fruit, while trans women across the internet condemned the way they were depicted in Airboy #2. Marvel Comics suffered the wrath of black and queer critics for their appropriative hip-hop covers, as well as their Editor-in-Chief's insistence that bisexual character Hercules was actually straight. And that's just the stuff I can remember.

Just another year in comics, but again, the difference is, that things did change. The Batgirl creators listened, apologized, and changed the offending scene for the trade edition. DC pulled its misogynist cover. Strange Fruit all but vanished into the ether. Airboy #2's protest elicited a statement from GLAAD and an apology from the creators. And Marvel--well, Marvel stayed Marvel for the most part, but several of us are still refusing to hand them a penny until things change.

These victories are small and there is a great distance to go, but they are victories nonetheless. They tried to spit in our faces and we came at them with everything we had, fire and blood, with risk of bridges burnt.

So here's to another year of saying no, another year of saying "fuck you," another year of revolution.

2016, here we come.

I taught a comics writing class at Portland State University this fall. For the final project, I had each student write a script for a 20-to-24-page comic book, draw another student's script, and print and staple copies of the comic they'd drawn for the entire class. This caused some consternation--a lot of the students didn't think of themselves as artists--but I assured them that they would be graded on the quality of their writing but only on the fact of their drawing, and that stick figures, for instance, were perfectly acceptable. (I also had each of them come up with some prompts for the classmate who would be drawing the story they'd be drawing.)
They stressed and fretted and complained. (One asked: wouldn't it make more sense just to upload their artwork to a server?) But, ultimately, they did the work. And then they convened for the final class, and handed out the comics they'd drawn, and beamed at the glories of what they had created. Each of them had come up with a story, and then someone else had drawn it and made it real, and now they each had two comic books they'd helped to make. They spent the rest of the class just staring at the way their partners had turned their words into images, and excitedly looking at each other's comics and asking how their classmates had done it, and (in a few cases) scheming about what comics they were going to make next. I was so proud of all of them.

I’d like to take up the allocated 200-300 words to talk about all the comics I didn’t read this year. If you’re at all familiar with me and my work, this statement shouldn’t come as a shock—I take great pains to stay clear of all that’s on the tip of the tongue, preferring instead to fumble at the peripheries of the given palette.

Art begins and ends with miscommunication. I’ve always believed that, but nowadays it takes a lot of effort to remain willfully ignorant of what's hep and hot. It should be done though, perhaps not permanently, but in contained stretches of monastic seclusion. In order to make original, diverse and exciting comics one has to stop reading comics.

This idea of ignoring your colleagues was at the heart of my first elective class that I pitched and wrote and orchestrated in the Fall. Ostensibly a cartooning class, it had almost no comics in the syllabus, instead I dissected Lydia Davis and Vladimir Nabokov, dragged my babies to experimental poetry readings, showed them semi-obscure Russian zines and total abstractions, in short, did all the things you wouldn’t normally encounter in CCA’s illustration program. I urged my students to consume more art than they produce, and for that purpose I didn’t give them any homework between assignments, encouraging them to go out, read books without pictures in them, make regrettable decisions, do anything other than work. The results, I think, speak for themselves.

PS. Oh all right! I did read Jason's latest and Arab of the Future. Excellent, both.

Gigi D.G. is one of our greatest living cartoonists, and Cucumber Quest, her all-ages fantasy webcomic, is as innovative in concept as it is brilliant in execution. I could pontificate for hours on its clever lettering, its thoughtful character designs, its subversion of the Hero’s Journey, its expansion of “all ages” storytelling, and/or its cunning balance of humor and melancholy—often within the same page.  And I have. It’s not hard to, when every update ranks among the best comics published on any given week.

But it is D.G.’s use of color that most often leaves me starry-eyed. She wields color, thinks in color, speaks color as its own language. Moody teals impart tender reflection as deftly as they do loneliness. Stark black, white, and red, lit as though by spotlight, tense a scene of mind control and betrayal. Acidic neons reveal the superficiality of a scene’s levity. Lush sunset gradients bring an enemy’s concealed benevolence to the fore. It is color interpreted on a level of skill, nuance, and vision that few cartoonists ever reach. It is color given full and uncompromising respect. And it’s online, updated three times per week, for free. We, as the comics-reading public, aren’t just lucky to have Cucumber Quest—we are positively spoiled.

Becca Tobin (cartoonist):
In 2015 I’ve been very into artists that have really distinct symbolic and visual languages in their storytelling. This year I’ve seen cartoonists dealing with heavy real issues in abstracted and beautiful ways, and I love the expansive magic quality these comics offer. Heartfelt, powerful poetic comics!!

One of my favourite artists for this is Sophia Foster-Dimino and this has been a killer year for her, storming the Ignatz Awards in early September, building a house with those bricks! I love the meditation on relationship and connection in Sophia’s work, and her short comic for Future Shock Zero is and example of this: a self contained and dreamy exploration. The worlds of Sophia’s comics are idiosyncratic and sensual: textures and lines and tiny devices. Characters explore each other, squashed between panels, in nooks, touching and weeping. The realness of the connection and disconnection weaves so smoothly with alien worlds we’re invited to explore.

Iasmin Omar Ata is another artist who really stuck with me this year for their weaving of real and symbolic. Their webcomic Mis(h)adra finished in the spring, a story about living with epilepsy drawn deeply from the life of the creator. This has been one of my favourite comics to follow the past few years, beautiful illuminating and personal. Iasmin has a real mastery of colour, the tone of Mis(h)adra is guided by harsh sunset tones, purples and cyans. The protagonist Isaac battles with epilepsy depicted as binding daggers, the explosive colour pulls you through seizures and recoveries and gives a realness and physicality to the condition. The comic is available to read online and also to purchase as a PDF and is powerful in style and story.

Claire Napier (writer & critic):
I was in a group chat where David Fairbanks from Loser City and Mark Stack from Comics Bulletin were talking about panic at the disco today, so this is going round my mind: This ain't a scene, it's an arms race. And that's what struck me about comics, in the human sense, this year. Nobody knows who anybody is, there's no centralised authority or supportive pillars of respect, and there are no rules. None of us have to answer to anyone. And far too many of us use this as an excuse to behave in a rather small fashion. I believe that many, many of us use "well it's just comics, after all" as an excuse not to pay heed to... Whoever. Self-sabotage!

I mean this in macro, obviously. "Comics", as a cultural field of response, is over-modulated and has no mods. In terms of discovery, validation, finding the section of an international community of medium-enjoyers which actually feels like /your community/, it's every kid for themselves. This is an incredible drag and it leaves us all exhausted, feeling isolated, feeling irrelevant and humiliated. I'm not sure if I'm speaking as a critic or a reader, but I think it's probably both. I don't believe there's enough communication in the background of comics commentary. I think "we" need regular mixers. Let's do brunch, peers.
Every year I get to work with amazing artists that I really admire, some I've been a fan of for years and it's definitely my favourite thing about doing CBSP. The real treat though is discovering people who's work you've never seen before but are new favourites. This year I met Lottie Pencheon and Mathilde Vangelhewe. Lottie had been loosely on my radar as someone who interacted with CBSP a bunch on social media so when she introduced herself at ELCAF and told me was a comic artist I knew I had to see it! Mathilde I met in Lucerne at Fumetto, a Swiss comics festival we were both attending, I saw her work there an then and offered her a slot in our next project on the spot. They're both these super talented and excited comic artists who have so much going for them an they both did really beautiful work for Greasy's Guide to Nookie. While each comic was coloured in pencil the effect was totally different. I loved how bold as bright Mathilde's four pages were while Lottie's softer approach felt like a children's book which was just what it needed to contrast with the 'adult' content of the comics.

I can't wait to work them both again and I can't wait to see who's work I discover and fall in love with next year!

Jamila Rowser (writer and blogger Girl Gone Geek): Oyasumi Punpun by Inio Asano and Ore Monogatari!! written by Kazune Kawahara and illustrated by Aruko:
In the beginning of 2015 I wanted my sadness to consume me. For that, I turned to Inio Asano’s Oyasumi Punpun. When the sadness became too much, I turned to Ore Monogatari!! written by Kazune Kawahara and illustrated by Aruko.

Oyasumi Punpun follows the life of Punpun Punyama (later Onodera) from childhood through his early 20s, and all of the love and pain that happens in-between. All the while, he’s portrayed as a childishly drawn bird while the rest of the characters and world are illustrated realistically and beautifully.

Punpun comforted me when I needed it the most; however, that comfort wasn’t uplifting. It helped me justify my depression and made me feel like I wasn’t sitting alone in the dark. But though I found refuge in the dark, I knew I had to let in some light. That light was Ore Monogatari!!.

Ore Monogatari!! is a romantic comedy manga about a much larger than average teenager Takeo Gōda, his tiny and timid girlfriend Rinko Yamato and his quiet and handsome best friend Makoto Sunakawa.

If Punpun was a series of heartbreaks, Ore Monogatari!! was a series of first loves, with each chapter renewing my faith in love. But it wasn’t just Ore Monogatari’s cotton candy romance and heartwarming friendship that hooked me. It also showed me that I, just like Takeo, was deserving of that love and the happiness that it brings.

At times I feel like I’ve turned these manga into therapy, or that I may be reading too deep into their stories¬– but sometimes, things are that deep. Last year, I felt like I was lost at sea. Oyasumi Punpun and Ore Monogatari!! were my ebb and flow… Without them, I would have never made it to shore.

Writing about comics this year was much more of a slog than ever before: one of the main reasons of which was being impacted by an increasingly virulent Islamophobic and racist culture, and seeing that permeate comics in a more overt manner, post-Charlie Hebdo. I grew tired of being upset and hurt all the time; I grew tired of my exhaustion and hurt; of being perceived as negative and aggressive, and I grew tired of being tired. I reached the point where I didn't even want improvement, per se: just an absence of shittiness. If you're tired of hearing about it, rest assured I am doubly -triply- tired of feeling and espousing it. Functioning in comics in 2015 on a day-to-day basis as a brown, Muslim woman has been intensely draining and damaging in a way, that to be honest, I didn't think possible. Perhaps it's ignorance, but I never thought writing about comics on the internet would impact my mental and physical health to a degree where I had to actively work to combat those effects. As a result, my whole year in comics writing felt like a spluttering tap that coughed and spat but never flowed. I'm still here, and the only reason I can give as to why is it doesn't feel like the end yet. Maybe I've not been fully broken. 

I'm not saying change isn't happening. Maybe it is. But it doesn't happen fast enough for everyone. It happens unevenly. It happens falsely. 


  1. Thank you for articulating here, however briefly, the post-Hebdo landscape for Muslims-in-comics. It's ugly, and nasty, and that ugliness often goes unseen because it hides behind funny pictures, 'harmless' or 'honest' cartoons shared on social media.

    Peace be upon you.

  2. That is not how comics are meant to be, and I appreciate your tenacity in the face of such a terrible challenge. I hope 2016 is better for you. For us all.