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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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I was happily surprised to learn last spring that another university press has ventured into the expanding field of comics publishing. The Pennsylvania State University Press released Sarah Lightman’s graphic memoir The Book of Sarah under its Graphic Medicine imprint, one that’s been around since 2015. While I look forward to perusing the dozen or so other titles, Lightman is an ideal starting point for readers interested in sequential art that doesn’t fit the conventions of traditional comics. That’s why I’m including four of her pages in the anthology section of my and Leigh Ann Beaver’s Creating Comics textbook due out next year from Bloomsbury.

Each of Lightman’s eight chapters feature a Torah-related title, emphasizing the religious focus of her upbringing—one that resulted, directly or indirectly, in her suffering decades of anxiety and insecurity. Or maybe she would have suffered the same if she had grown-up in another religion or in none at all. Still, the absence of a biblical Book of Sarah speaks metaphorical volumes.

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Unlike most comics creators, Lightman is not interested in layout norms that treat a page as a multi-image unit. Most of her pages feature a single work of art, and when they include two, it seems to be due to the width of the images requiring (or at least inviting) a pair to be positioned in a column. She rarely includes more than two—though the exceptions are striking: a family portrait redrawn in incomplete fragments:

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A repeating half-full, half-empty water glass providing a visual metaphor for her shifting optimism:

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She extends beyond a 2×2 structure only once: two page-spread of Warhol-like grid of self-portraits in varying styles, but all with vague backgrounds that she uses to emphasize her inability to engage fully in her life:

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Lightman also eliminates the related comics norms of drawn frames, instead letting the white of an image background bleed into the white of the page or, if the image is drawn to its edges or on cream-colored paper, letting the image float freely in the whiteness. The visual approach emphasizes the images as artwork rather than just pieces in a narrative—though they function at that level too. Lightman’s narration appears beneath most images, ranging between four words (“Smile, said the midwife.”) and 140 (in an atypically long account of her grandparents’ immigration to England from Lithuania). Lightman uses a handwriting-imitating font, which is a nice gesture, but the perfectly identical letters and spacing is an imperfect match to the intensively hand-created images above each, some of which include their own hand-drawn words.

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But the font choice also establishes a sense of two-worlds, the visual and the verbal, playing against each other. Here’s where Lightman’s proves herself not simply an accomplished artist, but specifically an accomplished comics author. While the art world is full of excellent artists who could fill a similarly sized book with equally well-crafted drawings, few have the comics savvy to construct the sort of complex narratives and image-text relationships that Lightman achieves in her memoir.

She narrates, “Things and spaces speak for me,” a reflection on the form of the graphic memoir, especially in her ability to shape her experiences into visual meanings. After describing reading The Hungry Caterpillar to her son, she begins a litany of the foods she ate as expressions of her former insecurities, moving into other kinds of objects, the gift of a plant, a boyfriend’s toothbrush, her cell phone as she waits for him to call, the bench she sits on, and finally a two-page spread of its pencil-gray view.

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The images match her words—and yet Lightman is absent. Her cellphone floats in the white of the page instead of the palm of her hand. She draws the bench twice too, but never herself on it—an absence that poignantly contradicts her own narration. When she does finally draw herself, in a three-image zoom-in of a framed photograph that begins with blanks spaces where her and her former lover’s faces belong, it is a sudden, full-color close-up that visually states far more than the word “happy” repeated in the narration below it can.

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Elsewhere Lightman’s word-image combinations are even more inventive. She writes that her “scaffolding of self was barely holding up” below a self-portrait that includes scaffolding in the background. Assuming the image is drawn from a photograph (as it and many others presumably were), did the incidental inclusion of the background detail prompt Lightman to develop scaffolding into a verbal metaphor or did she write the sentence first and seek an image to match it, possibly adding the scaffolding? While such process-focused questions are usually non-essential to a final product, they are more revealing for Lightman since her memoir is about process in multiple senses.

At times she seems to be selecting images from her pre-existing work to include as needed, while at other times she seems to be drawing in order to fill a narrative need. And there are even moments when an image seems to be included for its own sake, making the narrative flow bend around it. All three approaches are intriguing, but their combination is even more so. Since Lightman is depicting her years-long struggles with depression and her varying attempts to overcome it, the vacillating approaches take on further significance.

Lightman herself seems to be more than one person—or rather herself at different moments in her evolving life. Her self-portraits and varying styles capture this effect, but her verbal narration emphasizes it too. At times she speaks retrospectively, looking back on past events from a present tense grounded somewhere around 2015: “From where I draw now, I can see a church and a synagogue.” At other times her present-tense narration is a diary-like account of past events as they seem to be happening: “I asked a stupid question in a talk. I feel bad about it now two hours later.” She offers no visual cues (a change of fonts, a sudden shift in the visual style of an accompanying image), but the effect is subtle and so no obstacle to reading, while also offering rewards to greater attentiveness. It also makes the words image-like, snippets seemingly pulled from the same sketchbooks as many of the images.

Ultimately, Lightman finds herself, metaphorically but also visually, as her later self-portraits suggest. She even addresses “young Sarah” as a separate entity she wishes to console. This is not a narrative surprise, since the shifting time perspective reveals her marriage and child’s birth midway through the memoir, even as it then wanders back to lonelier times—when “the hole inside” parallels more empty-faced, incomplete portraits of herself attempting to be a good daughter and granddaughter and niece and girlfriend to variously less-interested boyfriends. It’s also no surprise that she’s no longer an Orthodox Jew by the end—though her spiritual life seems more complexly deep after she becomes a mother.

There is so much more here worth analysis and praise—the use of a carton of eggs in a reverie about contemplating pregnancy; the distantly rhymed images of her therapist’s shoes, the first male, the second tellingly female—but I will leave it to readers to explore themselves.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]





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I’m on sabbatical this year, completing the textbook Creating Comics with Leigh Ann Beavers based on the spring term course we developed and taught together. Here’s the draft of a section on how to make images stand-out on a page.

Ivan Brunetti calls a grid “democratic” because panels “are all exactly the same size … from which we can infer their equal weight and value in the ‘grand scheme’ of the page” (2011: 45). But Joseph Witek warns that “highly regular grids tend inevitably toward both visual monotony and flatness in narrative action” (2009: 153). Abel and Madden recommend a middle position, working with “a basic grid of equal-sized panels” but also varying from it “by introducing a tilted panel, to name one variation, the effect is much more powerful because the tilted panel jumps out at the reader to emphasize a mood, plot point, or dynamic motion” (2008: 71).

Comics creators have a range of techniques for accenting images. Here are nine. The key is scarcity. A page can include one and sometimes two accented images before the layout becomes so irregular that nothing stands out because there is no underlying norm. While accents prevent visual monotony, they also give greater attention to the story content of the accented image:

  1. Size is the most obvious means for establishing a panel’s importance over other panels on the same page. The larger the panel, the greater the implied significance of its content.
  2. If frames are rectangular and aligned with page edges, frame tilt is a visual accent mark, drawing attention to an otherwise identical panel. In film, tilting a frame means tilting only the content of the frame while the frame itself must remain unchanged. In comics, an artist instead has three tilt options: tilt the frame and the content; tilt the frame but not the content; or tilt the content but not the frame. All three work as accents.
  3. Because perpendicular rectangles are the overwhelming norm, individual images may be accented by any variation in shape.
  4. As discussed above, if gutters are otherwise parallel, individual panels may be highlighted by differences in spacing.
  5. A reverse technique to spacing, images can draw attention by appearing to be placed overtop other images, creating the effect of playing cards arranged with their corners or edges overlapping.
  6. Insets, which appear as if placed entirely within the borders of a larger image, are a variation of overlapping.
  7. Even if images are similarly sized, shaped and arranged, the drawn quality of frames can highlight content.
  8. Frames can also accent image content if elements of the content are drawn as if breaking the frames and entering the negative space of the gutter and possibly the space of other images—and so another form of overlapping. Broken frames are often used to depict movement and violence, as if the frame is unable to contain the image subject due to the subject’s speed and power.
  9. If images contrast other images through differences in style, they may stand out in the page composition too.

Here are four pages by our students, each with a different layout, different accent techniques, and accents on different action sequence parts:

1. Hung begins with three rows of slightly irregular heights. Although the first two are divided into two panels each, the bottom full-width panel is less accented by size because the middle panels are taller. The primary accent is instead the overlapping panel positioned in the center of the top four panels. It is also tilted, and its black background with white letters stylistically contrasts the rest of the page.

The page details Hung’s main character’s acceptance into a soccer team, with images of him performing multiple actions: getting the news on the phone, jumping for joy afterward, flying in an airplane, and arriving at the team’s city. There’s also a panel of a sign with the team logo and the accented caption panel with the words he presumably says to his parents after the first phone call. In terms of sequences, the accented panel is its own one-panel action, since nothing else on the page depicts that phone conversation. The news he delivers to his parents shakes up the status quo and so is both disruption and climax.

2. Grace begins with an irregular four-row layout, progressing from two to four to three panels in each row, before the final accented panel. While the circular shape clearly breaks the rectangular norm, Grace further accents it with wide areas of white space on both sides. And though the gutters are consistent width above it, the gutter shapes create an additional overlap effect, suggesting that the last panel occupies the space that would otherwise belong to the third row.

Grace’s page also tells a complete story that combines at least three actions. The first row disrupts the character’s walk home; the second depicts the emergence of the cat from the garbage; the third depicts their first interaction; and the final, accented image skips a range of implied actions—walking the rest of the way home, putting away groceries, etc.—to end on a new balance that resolves the combined plot of the whole page. The wide white margins of the final spacing also seem to relate to the narrative leap to that much later moment in a different location, as if additional gutter space is needed conceptually too.

3. Henry draws a regular 3×2 grid—with every panel identical in size, shape, frame, tilt and spacing, with no overlapping or frame-breaking elements and no insets. Henry instead accents the bottom left panel through a stylistic difference. The background of the fifth panel is heavily shaded in black, a sharp contrast to the white and uncrosshatched backgrounds of the five other panels.

The page continues an action sequence from a previous page, with the narrator being electrocuted in an attempt to trigger his mutant powers. The first three panels complete that action, followed by a one-panel action of the guards untying him and giving him water, before the torture continues in the last row. The accented panel includes captioned narration explaining that every time he nearly falls asleep he is jolted awake as shown in the last panel. The last row then is a two-panel action sequence, beginning in balance and ending in disruption, with the climax and new imbalance left implied as well as cyclical. By accenting the first balance panel, Henry highlights the character’s moments of near peace.

4. For his second layout, Hung uses a mixed path approach, beginning with a two-panel column paired with an unframed second column, and ending with a bottom row of three panels. The lack of a frame around the second column accents it through contrast with the other framed panel, while also effectively expanding the image content by merging its background with the white of the page and so accenting it by size too. To a less degree, Hung also accents the first panel in the bottom row with a contrastingly thicker frame.

Like Hung’s previous page, this one includes the narrator performing at least three actions, each condensed to one or two images: receiving a pass and then scoring; speaking to his father on the phone; and reading in his new home. Again, Hung accents the phone conversation to a parent, establishing a link between pages that creates a suggestive pattern about the main character. If the panel of him scoring was accented instead, it would appear that winning was more important than connection to family. The secondary accent is also on the high five between players, further emphasizing relationships over the sport itself.

The above set of comics images shows a range of Leigh Ann and my students’ approaches to combining word rendering, word containers, and word placement:

1) While drawing all words in the same style, Grace gives her two characters different kinds of speech containers. Their shapes are the same, but their line qualities differ. This would allow a reader to recognize who was speaking even if the speech tail pointed out of frame or the panel was black to indicate darkness. Grace also leaves the lower containers empty to suggest that the two characters continue talking—but it’s not really the content of their conversation that matters. The gestalt hinge connecting the panels also adds to the plot tension of their growing closeness, especially since the reading path crosses back and forth over the gutter to follow dialogue.

2) Mims’ two characters are speaking in sign language as they sit next to each other in math class. While their hand arrangements communicate words, Mims also draws accompanying English words in the spaces both outside and inside their hands and arms. The hands and arms then are word containers, and they provide the contour lines that the words follow. The word content also combines three different types: they are like speech, but since they indicate no sound, they could be understood as the characters’ thoughts or as third-person narration translating their conversation for the reader.

3) Anna’s panel is the second in a three-panel sequence and includes the middle word in the phrase “ON YOUR MARK” shouted at a track meet. Though it’s speech, there is no talk balloon and no pointer indicating from whom or what direction the word is heard. While the capitalization and size of the letters suggest volume, the vacillating use of black and white lines against the contrasting background integrates the letters into the image to a degree usually associated with comics titles or other graphic design.

4) Henry’s character is chained while forced to listen to blaring music—the words of which are scribbled over his body. Letter style, size, and placement all suggest the overpowering sound of the lyrics. The words are difficult to understand, which matches the situation. Henry also placed the “O” in the word “HOVER” so that is circles the character’s head like an internal frame near the center of the frame, drawing the viewer’s eye first.

5) Coleman’s memoir narration appears in a caption box at the top of the panel. The box is made of the same lines that create the panel and so suggests a deeper level of connection than a word container drawn as if placed over the image content. After completing the artwork, Coleman scanned it and digitally inserted his narration in a pre-made font with a hand-drawn quality that matches the style of the drawing.

6) Grace draws the title of her comic “LONE” in white letters against a black panel, while also merging the letter “O” into the story world by isolating a single figure inside it. The angle of the letters also add to the literally off-balance feel of the one-panel scene.

7) For her essay about gender in Dracula film adaptions, Anna draws a three-row layout with irregular panels that contain either images or words. If Groensteen is correct that the first, center, and final panels of a page are visually privileged, the layout accents the word containers. The containers and panels also share the same curving and fringed frame style, suggesting that words and images are essentially alike. Grace also includes white words and arrows in the black margins that link to and comment on the image content. Because the gutter words are not in containers or rows that create a rigid reading path, viewers may read them in different orders. The gutter words may also lead a viewer to the last image in the second row before the middle image, further disrupting the layout’s expected z path.

8) Grace draws the onomatopoeia sound effect “BAM” next to the jagged emanata lines around the mouth of an overturned trash can. The letters also follow and are shaped by the triangular path the main character is walking in the background, creating a kind of word container that is also part of the story world and that the bottom of the letters break as they reverse color. Because the word is read left to right, it also works as a kind of arrow leading the viewer’s eye to the main character who is turning her head. Though drawn as a single moment of time, the image actually includes at least two moments: the can falls and makes a noise, and the character turns to look in reaction to the noise.

9) Daisy draws words and numbers inside the rectangular container created by the combination of the panel frame and the lines dividing the bedroom wall within the image. Though the writing could be part of the story world if the character had decorated his apartment with them, they instead represent his thoughts as he lies in bed. Despite not existing visually in the story world, the words and numbers appear to be blocked by the bed and table as they would be if actually written on the wall. Also notice how the white space around the lamp creates the effect of a glow because the writing is a kind of crosshatch shading.

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Fantagraphics Books has a thing for technological dystopias (Estrada’s Alienation, Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives, Daniels and Passmore’s BTTM FDRS). Or maybe that’s just what happens when you’re a publisher in the second decade of the 21st century. Their latest virtual nightmare was spawned in Spain, through the accomplished hands of comics artist Ana Galvañ. Her work is a welcome expansion of the familiar but still-rich genre of high-tech futures on the fritz.

Though marketed to Dark Mirror fans, Galvañ’s Press Enter to Continue flows from the older tradition of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. But even that resemblance is misleading. Galvañ’s tales would not make good TV. I mean that as a compliment—and with no implied insult to TV (I’m Dark Mirror fan too). Galvañ’s images are not simply storyboards presenting a visual narrative one snapshot at a time. They’re much weirder.

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Most comics images seem straightforward: each depicts a moment in a sequenced event unfolding panel by panel in a world essentially like ours (or ours if ours had things like dragons or superpowered crime-fighters). That’s so obvious it seems silly to mention. Yet Galvañ’s images, while still performing that storyboard function, also challenge it at times and nearly overturn it at others.

Take the first page of her fist story: a woman walks across a room in four panels. Or I assume she’s a woman, because the ponytail and short dress are standard cartoon gender markers (though here happily non-sexualized). But where’s her mouth and chin? While not outside cartoon norms (missing noses and even necks are also a standard for female cartoon figures), the effect is ambiguous: is this person actually devoid of these body parts, or is that just how she’s drawn and we’re to understand that she actually does have a mouth and chin? And when her figure doubles in the second panel and then nearly divides in two in the next, are those movement-suggesting blurgits (like motion lines trailing behind Superman in flight) or is the character in the storyworld actually becoming two bodies—and then three?

Usually a comics viewer doesn’t have to contemplate the relationship between the apparent image content and the metaphysical facts of its world. Usually images are secondary to words, with narration and/or dialogue doing the majority of the world-building work. But Galvañ ‘s eight-page story is wordless—and even title-less. The collection’s table of contents consists of five panels (four diamonds and one circle) with images excerpted from her five tales and a superimposed page number in each. Not a word anywhere. The other four stories do include words (three with dialogue, one with first-person narration), but that first story establishes a visual approach that pervades them all: what you see is not necessarily what you get.

That theme is central to the collection’s technological focus, where reality is never simply reality, but a constructed experience dependent on computers and other scifi gadgetry that scrambles identity into ambiguous parts. What does it mean when the female figure turns off the TV at the end? Were all of the images as imaginary as the ones on her screen or did one of her subdivided selves actually get eaten by a subdividing tiger? That we don’t know is part of the dystopian horror.

The other stories are equally strong, though I admire the wordless most. While Galvañ’s translator, Jamie Richards, provides effortless English, I again prefer the wordless sections of the second tale about a new member of a circus falling for the mysteriously masked Human Doll. Though I doubted whether her cartoon face actually was a mask (again, are the images like photographs of a weird world or weird interpretations of an unknowable world?), her secret is even stranger. I’m generally not a fan of sex scenes, but Galvañ’s sequence of geometric abstractions stray so far from erotica, human bodies are barely involved—and I’m not even sure the Human Doll is human. Again, the disturbing fun is not quite knowing.

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The third tale features a Kafka-esque job interview. While I accept that in the world of the story it’s perfectly normal for people to enter and exit buildings by crawling through oversized pet doors, the weird thing is a carryover from the first two stories: what do those geometric shapes of color mean? Rather than dividing colors according to the ink shapes of her characters and their environments, Galvañ incorporates free-floating circles and triangles that seem to be independent of the story worlds. While some suggest lines of vision or directions of movement or areas of visual interest, others seem merely decorative—yet in a way that intentionally undermines a sense of story coherence. Are the walls changing colors or, again, do they just look like they are? As odd as that may sound, it’s an old norm of superhero comics, where panels backgrounds shift at the whim of bored colorists. Galvañ just makes that oddness feel oddly tangible.

The fourth tale (seriously, they’re not titled) is the most traditionally futuristic with playfully named “gliders” and “liquid crystal doors” and “marvapends” and “sinusoidal analysis machines.” What these objects are supposed to be is as ambiguous as ever, but by giving them names (I can only imagine the translation challenges Richards faced) they become improbably familiar, almost clichés, the usual scifi stuff. While I enjoyed the effect less than the wordless ones, I appreciate the juxtaposition, an illustration of how powerfully words influence our understanding of stories, even comics stories that are supposedly more visual than linguistic.

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Galvañ ends the collection as strongly as ever, with another bewildered protagonist haunted by the ambiguities of what to her should be familiar technology. Is the ghost-child forming pixel-by-pixel on her screens a repressed memory, a government-induced hallucination, or something weirder still? Galvañ, as usual, leaves it to us to decide—or to not decide.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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I’ve been exploring the wonderful limitations of the now literally defunct Microsoft Paint and discovering some weird ways to make images from photographs. All of these portraits are from newspaper articles about impeachment testimonies and isolate individual aides, police officers, and witnesses as they walk the gauntlet of journalists between the elevator and the door to the restricted area for the hearings. I’m especially curious about the sweet spot where abstraction begins to collapse resemblance and yet the faces and bodies still somehow register as faces and bodies.

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Though I didn’t figure it out until finishing the last page of Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s graphic novel BTTM FDRS and flipping to the cover, I don’t think it’s giving anything away to reveal that the title is a variation on “bottom feeders,” the racist nickname for folks from the semi-fictional Bottomyards district of inner Chicago. As the main character Darla says, “Bottomfeeders come in all types”—including the giant slithering kind.

Though her father grew up in the area and is financing her as she tries to make it as a fashion designer, Darla and her white roommate Cynthia are fresh from art school and moving into a soon-to-be-gentrified apartment complex. Except why aren’t there any windows? And what are those noises inside the walls? And why is that freaky white guy always lurking at the entrance? And are those entrails in the toilet?

Based on BTTM FDRS’s race-fueled, scifi-horror premise, Ezra Claytan Daniels would find a happy home on the writing team for Jordan Peele’s rebooted Twilight Zone. He’s well partnered with Ben Passmore whose art is also all about color—in both senses. It’s a diverse cast, but Passmore tellingly avoids the most common marker of ethnicity: skin color. Old school comics color separation produces blocks of solid hues divided by object shapes: shirt, face, hair, background wall. Photoshop makes the technique that much easier, but Passmore twists it for more subtle effects, filling whole panels and pages into single colors, with internal shapes varying only by degrees.

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The approach seems natural enough at first, usually suggestive of changing light sources as characters move from windowless room to windowless stairwell to windowless basement. Yet why exactly is the hallway all greens? And when the panels later vacillate between all purples and all yellows, is that because the light fixtures are pulsing like police strobes? If so, why doesn’t Passmore draw the fixtures—and why doesn’t Daniels write dialogue so we know that the characters notice it too? The effect is quietly surreal, an unacknowledged ambiguity darkening the fabric of the story’s already horror-tinged reality.

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Passmore’s characters are cartoonish, but not outlandishly exaggerated and so not able to break the bounds of their otherwise naturalistic world. Though cartoons often morph to reflect their internal thoughts and emotions, Passmore’s characters are consistently solid. Instead of drawing a violence-obscuring dust bubble around the exploitative white landlord as he’s dragged through a too-small opening, Passmore lets us witness arms popping from shoulder sockets in atypical cartoon gore. His cartoons also never break from their story’s prison-like panel gutters, which vary but mostly maintain a loose 2×2 base pattern. Interestingly though, Passmore’s orientates the entire book ninety degrees so the spine is bound along what would normally be the top edge, producing wide instead of tall pages. The story literally goes sideways.

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For all the novel’s early creepiness and eventual full-blown monstrous spectacle, the real horror bubbling under its white gutters is a different kind of whiteness. As her new neighbor, the problematically ironic rapper Plymouth Rock, tells Darla: “Can we just agree for now that the real threat is white people?”

He doesn’t mean in the Charlottesville Klan rally sense. Probably the 911 dispatcher wasn’t trying to be racist when she tells Darla: “You’re calling from the Bottomyards. We can’t send a car all the way down there unless there’s an actual emergency.” And Hadley, the white woman who might hire Darla and Cynthia for her fashion firm, she just doesn’t know any better when she remarks: “You live in the Bottomyards now? Jesus, aren’t you scared? That part of town is like a WAR-ZONE! … I have a friend who drove through there once and it was like crazy!” And doesn’t Hadley practically make up for it when she decides to rent an apartment in the complex for her visiting designers: “For, like, a totally AUTHENTIC Chicago experience, you know?”

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Sadly though, the worst is Cynthia, the prototypically good-intentioned but clueless white liberal who thinks having a black friend is basically the same as being black: “I know I wasn’t the one they called the n-word in elementary school, but I was usually right next to you when it happened, and it was embarrassing for me, too.” After Cynthia refuses to move in as planned, fawns over Julio (Plymouth Rock’s actual name), and uses Darla to score cool points with Hadley, Darla dumps her. Cynthia returns the next day with her version of an apology, which ends with a familiar refrain: “But that doesn’t make me a racist, and I’m like super hurt that you think that. I’d feel a lot better if you apologized, too, actually. For calling me a racist.”

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What’s this have to do with the entrails monster haunting the building’s vents? Literally everything—though readers wary of spoilers should stop now and go buy a copy of the novel. It turns out there’s a reason for the complex’s hidden surveillance cameras, lack of windows, and general prison-like architecture.

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It’s a prison. Or was. I won’t recount the entire backstory (it’s even weirder than you’re thinking), because it’s all a pleasantly elaborate conceit to reflect back on Cynthia and the world of white privilege she represents.

A wall of walking entrails, the ultimate bottom feeder, is awakened by the influx of new excrement to eat and, when Cynthia wanders through the wrong broken hatch, merges with her. As the gently deranged son of a former tenant explains: “It’s a BUNCH of things all living in symbiosis. … I’m thinking that’s what happened to your friend. She got sucked into the symbiosis.“

In addition to straight-up horror trope, symbiosis is a good metaphor for U.S. race relations. Call it the deepest, darkest entrails of white privilege that need to unconsciously believe in black inferiority to survive. Or as Cynthia remarks as she’s hanging from the ceiling: “It’s uncomfortable but like not in a bad way. I don’t know what it’s putting in me, but it makes it feel okay.”

Of course she feels okay. She’s had her BBF black friend to lovingly undermine her entire white life. The monster just makes that literal, killing Julio in a jealous rage, blocking the exist when Darla tries to flee, resulting in yet another ineffective apology: “Ugh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, either. I saw you running toward the door and couldn’t help it.” Since Cynthia is incapable of changing her own monstrousness, it’s up to Darla to save them both, resulting in Daniels’ two best lines of dialogue in the novel:

“Cynthia, I have an idea,” says Darla. “I’m not gonna tell you what it is though because you’ll probably subconsciously sabotage me.

“I don’t know why I keep doing that.”

Of course she doesn’t. That’s the whole point of white privilege. And that’s the whole point of horror–to drag up our culture’s biggest, ugliest globs of unconscious sewage and spread it across a white page for us to acknowledge. Ultimately, Daniels and Passmore are optimists though, opting only for a temporary kind of horror, the sort that resolves in hospital bedrooms instead of sealed basements. Even Passmore’s color scheme reboots to the comics standard, a range of blues and greens and yellows and reds, all in the same happily integrated panels.

Until the very last page offers a final, purple warning to Cynthia …


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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]






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When I received a review copy of Estrada’s Alienation last June, I liked it so much that I contacted the publisher for permission to include four pages in the anthology section of Leigh Ann Beaver’s and my forthcoming textbook Creating Comics (Bloomsbury 2020). Here’s why:

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Maybe 2054 won’t be so bad. Press a button and a fully prepared meal appears. Nap while your bed-shaped car drives you to work. Answer calls without picking up a phone. Let your Googleland brain implant monitor and adjust your chemical health, while McBody takes care of the rest. Watch a livefeed of the solar eclipse in the privacy of your own VR. Attend a Jimi Hendrix concert. Travel to fantastical landscapes and transform into impossible creatures. Have polar bear sex. Have snail sex. Set your implant to methelendioxymethamphetamine mode.

There are some downsides too. The north pole is floating in the center of the Arctic Ocean. All the pizzas and tacos and sushi you’re eating are made from fungus because most animals are extinct and nuclear waste poisoned the oceans that flooded the coasts. The world supply of oil will run out in a few years, and you were just laid off from the last refinery that wasn’t run by robots. Unpredictable extreme storms have eliminated all air travel. You stopped playing Call of Duty because the advanced levels may be secretly hooked to military drones for actual combat missions run by the government. Commercials happen directly to you, with annoying company mascots literally in your face. The content is suggested by your recent thoughts. Oh, and that livefeed of the solar eclipse was from a Starbucks satellite orbiting above permanent clouds of pollution.

This dystopic future is the product of Inés Estrada’s disturbingly plausible imagination, beamed indirectly into readers’ heads via the antiquated analog technology of ink and paper. When her characters Eliza and Charly logout from the solar eclipse, Estrada draws the Starbucks logo flashing inside their eyes. Readers just have to turn the page. The physicality of the book is always an appeal of graphic novels, but it is rarely so thematically critical to the story it contains. Eliza and Charly are trapped in an alienatingly virtual reality while we view them inside Estrada’s 3×2 comics grids.

That two-worldness plays out the level of style too. Estrada typically draws Eliza and Carlos as rudimentary cartoons, the lines of their bodies, like the lines of their apartment walls, containing little crosshatched detail. They’re literally and metaphorically empty. But when they go online, Estrada upgrades the CGI to detailed naturalism. Eliza floats in layers of meticulously inked cloud banks, the progression of their evolving shapes receiving their own page grid of near abstraction. When she gazes at her reflection in a forest pond, the surrounding vegetation approaches photorealism.

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Estrada captures the quality of light reflected off of gently bobbing water as Charly floats, every kink of his hair precisely etched. When they are talking in their apartment, Estrada renders their bodies with sack-like simplicity, their anatomy more implied than shown. But when virtually floating underwater, the careful contours of their forms reveal the depth of Estrada’s drawing skill.

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Though their real world is less real than their virtual worlds, Estrada breaks that norm at key moments. The two-page spread of Charly’s bayside oil refinery and the remaining fragments of polar ice surrounding it are as detailed as anything in their VR escapades. And Charly’s full-page commute through the raised highways looping through edge-to-edge skyscrapers of once-rural Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is too.

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In contrast, Eliza never physically leaves their apartment, while working as a unicorn-horned, thong-bikinied, virtual porn star. If Estrada were a male artist, I might have found the porn choice exploitive, but she seems fully aware of and in charge of her novel’s politics. As one of Eliza’s NPC (non-player character) friends says, “Most AI are misogynists, just like the humans who programmed them.” That also helps to explain why all of the NPG characters in the virtual dance club are white people. As Eliza’s porn avatar dances, talk balloons from unseen viewers ask, “What’s your ethnicity?” (she’s Inuit), and offer to “pay u to fix your teeth.” Her grandfather calls her (by his hand-held cell phone) about the bad omen of a beached whale, extending their tribe’s colonization by Europeans and their descendants to the level of technological exploitation as their bodies are invaded by artificial organs.

Like Estrada, Charly is from Mexico. When he virtually visits home, half of the dialogue is in Spanish with footnote translations breaking the narrative flow for monolingual readers such as myself. It’s a smart choice because it pushes against the kind of effortless absorption that the virtual technology represents. Sometimes it’s good to have to work harder.

The footnotes also include the proto-links of choose-your-own-adventure technology, with six of the virtual scenes ending with a direction to “Return to pages 86-87” where the two-page spread offers a mid-story table-of-contents of the time-killing activities Eliza and Charly employ while waiting out the most recent storm. Only this time the storm waits out them when they lose internet connection for days. This result is boredom, actual rather than virtual sex, and, most importantly, dreams—the original, biological version of VR.

The problem is Eliza and Charly have already been having trouble distinguishing what is real and not real, and whether the distinction still means anything. Charly’s violent past has been haunting him in hallucinogenic flashes of Eliza’s corpse (a fear that briefly comes true). Estrada explores the theme at the meta level too, with Eliza asking, “Why do I feel like I’m still being watched?” (because she is, by us). Later she notices the fourth wall of her own comics panel and climbs out of the grid and into the open page—only to startle herself awake. More subtlety but weirdly, she refers to one of her earlier virtual adventures (an unfortunately R. Crumb-esque pornographic one) as something she read in a comic—which it was for readers, but not for her.

There’s a central plotline involving Eliza’s brain transplant getting hacked and the world’s A.I.s searching for a human host to create a hybrid biological/artificially-conscious baby. Though Estrada’s glossary-like endnotes assure readers “Don’t take anything too seriously, after all …. this is just a comic!,” she also refers to the “current exponential development of AI,” and, oddly sandwiched between the copyright and ISBN notices, “Climate change is real. The earth is alive and we’re killing her. Technology is not the enemy: oppression, greed, & exploitation are.”

It’s a fitting final word to her not-so futuristic dystopia.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]





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