Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Koyama Press

Koyama Press is scheduled to close shop by 2021, adding a bittersweetness to each new but last release. It’s like watching the final season of your favorite TV show–or your favorite network, since Koyama’s final batch of books looks like a prime-time schedule heavy on returning hit series. Keiler Roberts, Michael DeForge, and Patrick Kyle have each been with the press for several years. But only Roberts’ Rat Time is literally a continuing saga, picking up where her graphic memoir Chlorine Gardens left off in 2018.

Image result for Roberts’ Rat Time

Roberts draws her school-age daughter Xia a little taller, but the rest of her cast of family and friends are the familiar minimalist line drawings of before, their world still composed of the same thin black lines as the gutters framing it. Though the effect is a species of realism, Roberts has no patience for crosshatching, leaving the interiors of her shapes intentionally flat and shadowless. Though animals and Barbie doll faces tend to be more precise than humans, when Roberts fully breaks style with a suddenly detailed and naturalistically rendered image (always, it seems, of a dead family pet), it’s a reminder that the rest of the book’s rough shapes and choppy lines are not determined by the limits of her skill but by the choices of her stripped-bare aesthetic.

Image result for Roberts’ Rat Time

Lisa Hanawalt on the back-cover blurb calls Roberts’ books “diary comics,” but I disagree. For an actual example of a diary comic, checkout Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road, which was composed as an actual diary one entry at a time. The flow and arc of Rat Time are too artful to be the product of daily happenstance. These aren’t snapshots in a family photo album either, because Roberts wanders unannounced into memories ranging from playing with her childhood dolls to teaching her first catastrophically bad community college course. The transitions are brief and intuitive, providing just enough structure for the juxtapositions (Xia plays with dolls too; skeletons are more useful than cadavers when teaching drawing) to do the storytelling.

Image result for Roberts’ Rat Time

Maybe “story” is the wrong word. Although the one- and two-page family vignettes are punctuated with scenes in her therapist’s office as Roberts continues to struggle with bipolar disorder and early stages of MS (plot points carried over from last season), the book doesn’t feel plotted and certainly not dramatic. Roberts is aiming for the opposite effects, rendering a kind of gently comic, low-suspense universe made more realistic by its absence of artifice.

When Roberts attempts to write fiction, it has an uncanny resemblance to the nonfiction of her life. Even when she plays dolls with Xia (it must be an inheritable trait), Roberts can’t escape mundane realism. That’s a good thing. Though she foreshadows the book’s likely closure point when her narrator declares, “I’m either going to figure out how to write fiction or get a better idea of why I don’t,” neither of the promised outcomes transpires. That’s because foreshadowing is for fiction. She already knows why she doesn’t write fiction. It’s too contrived. So is traditional memoir, which is why she’s a master of understatement and inference.

Image result for Roberts’ Rat Time

Roberts doesn’t have to tell her readers that all of these recollections of dead pets are about her aging parents and the not-yet-detectable decay of her own body. Stating it would make it too dramatic, too obvious, too much like fiction. The pets are also about the pets. Roberts’ mother worries she touched the dog more than she touched Roberts as a child, but that’s okay. The transitory companionship of animals is superior to human companionship in many ways. Some of the most touching moments in Rat Time are full-page, uncaptioned images of pets and humans in quiet contact. Since backyard burials and memorial photos are an ever-expanding multi-generational tradition, it’s good that pet shops provide an endless supply of dogs and rats (the Roberts family has a thing for rats).

The phrase “Rat time” originated as the after-dinner time when Xia played with her pets. After she cycles through a few almost identically named rodents, “rat time” comes to resonate with absence too. While Chlorine Gardens readers will recall the recent death of Roberts’ grandfather, Rat Time only nods at that fact through his unacknowledged absence and her grandmother’s unremarkable singleness. This is just how things are. No need for drama or commentary. When Roberts showed Michelangelo’s Pieta to her first Art History class, she was embarrassed because she had nothing to say about it. Though “Let’s all just look at it for a few minutes” isn’t the best lesson plan, it’s not a bad life strategy.

Roberts takes us through a curated set of vignettes, creating a fragmented but still cohesive flow of events that resists the norms of plot while still providing its pleasures. There as so many small and touching and gently comical moments: a fond memory of a self-effacing professor, her imaginary Dear Gratitude Journal filled with ironic absurdities, cracking her therapist up by saying their work here is done, cooking and tampon catastrophes, a list of things that make her cry, a list that makes her happy.

The book itself has the logic of a list, as though Roberts is still assembling it, still thinking through each entry even as she jumps to the next. The past has that open-ended feel too. That self-effacing professor accidentally lost a ring while lecturing, and the sound of it bouncing away stays with Roberts. She still wonders if the women ever found it. One of my favorite images is Roberts sitting on her bed surrounded by open books with the narrated caption: “It doesn’t bother me to read parts of books and never finish them.”

Again, not a great lesson plan, but it’s the only life strategy there is.

Image result for Keiler Roberts cartoonist

 

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

Tags: , ,

I may have odd taste in graphic novels. If forced to choose between formal experimentation and clarity of storytelling, I’d go with experimentation every time. It’s just more fun. Comics are an inherently odd, hybrid form that merges the alien DNA of words and pictures, and so I enjoy the idiosyncratic ways each artist slices and sutures those visual materials on the surgical table of the page. But sometimes that inherent oddness gets flattened under the reflexive clarity of conventions: the same panels, the same gutters, the same reading paths, the same word containers, the same drawing styles, the same cartooning norms.

Happily, Connor Willumsen doesn’t make me choose. His Bradley of Him delivers an engagingly idiosyncratic visual approach that challenges comics conventions while still providing the pleasures of a vividly told visual tale.

Image result for bradley of him

Here’s a basic comics expectation: the words in a panel and the image in a panel both refer more-or-less to the same thing. It’s so basic most readers might not even register it as an expectation, until it’s broken—which Willumsen dose on page one. I would say panel one, but there are no panels, not in the traditional sense of framed rectangles separated by the non-space of a gutter. Instead Willumsen draws a twelve-image sequence of a free-floating figure in running clothes performing warm-up stretches. Though his location is undrawn, his multiple images are superimposed over a psychedelic car, a grove of potted plants, and a row of velvet rope stanchions at the center of the page. If that’s not odd enough, according to the words trailing from his speech bubbles, he’s giving an awards-ceremony acceptance speech, though clearly he is not. In the bottom row, a woman leans over him, politely asking if he could use the fitness center instead. He says no.

Image result for bradley of him

What the hell is going on?

As I said, I may have odd taste, but I find this level of ambiguity delightful. For those who prefer storytelling clarity over experimentation though, don’t worry, Willumsen soon pulls it all together for you: the main character is mentally rehearsing an acceptance speech while also preparing for a run by stretching on the lobby floor of the Las Vegas hotel he’s staying at where the weird car, plants and ropes are on display. The initial confusion seems banally simplistic in retrospect, the equivalent of a slightly misaligned camera.

That describes Willumsen’s aesthetic generally. Turn a page and you’re likely to feel an initial moment of visual narrative confusion that soon resolves into some retroactively pleasant clarity.

Image result for bradley of him

Take page four. It opens with an image of a woman (the same one who was at the bottom of page one it turns out) with a phone to her ear with words freely floating above her head (Willumsen never uses caption boxes). According to comics conventions, the words should be the voice in her ear. Willumsen knows that but toys with us further by having the women answer “No” as if in response to a narrated question. Yet she’s actually responding to the unheard (and unprinted) voice on the phone while the main character waits to mail a letter before leaving for his run. The words floating above her head are words from the letter. Willumsen was just misaligning image and text for a playful but quickly-resolved moment of visual tension.

Willumsen maintains the approach. Turn to page eight and suddenly a father is sitting in a stopped car with his daughter in the backseat stressing about some animal he’s struck. Who are these people? How are they related to any of the narrative threads we’ve been following? They aren’t. Or they aren’t until our main character jogs past, refusing to stop and aid them. Page eighteen and we’re in the back of an ambulance listening to the unrelated banter of two EMTs. Why? Because, it soon turns out, they’re following our main character after (we have to infer) the cops shown on a previous page contacted them because our main character is apparently deranged and refusing to stop despite the dangerous heat and distance of his run.

While I find these visual and narrative sleights-of-hand entertaining in themselves, this isn’t just experimental self-indulgence. Willumsen’s misalignments serve a deeper purpose. They reflect his main character’s misaligned mind. I’ve been avoiding naming the “him” of the title because there’s more than one identity in play here. At the surface level “he” might be the real-world athlete Lance Armstrong. On page twenty-eight, we learn that the award ceremony includes the equally real-world Bradley Cooper, a Best Actor nominee for his performance in the film “Stronger: The Story of Lance Armstrong.” So is the jerk who won’t stop jogging to help a distressed driver the actor or the character he’s playing? And then there’s the still more ambiguous “Murray,” whose sister and niece are searching for him in his empty apartment. Is the main character actually Murray pretending he’s Bradley pretending he’s Lance?

Honestly? I don’t know. More oddly, I’m not that worried about it. Since the novel is about misalignments, a simplistic narrative resolution would betray that aesthetic. We’re supposed to be a little confused. Bradley-Lance-Murray is a little confused too. The world is a confusing place. A comic about a confusing world should be confusing.

Willumsen’s inventiveness doesn’t stop there. The looping time structure is equally engaging, making me question whether the award ceremony flashbacks are flashbacks at all. And who exactly is the women he’s writing that letter to? There’s a lot to unpack. Another comics artist might have filled in all these intriguing gaps by expanding the story beyond sixty-four intensive pages. Happily, Willumsen keeps his narrative as lean and off-balance as his maybe-deranged main character.

Image result for bradley of him

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

 

Tags: , ,

Image result for michael deforge stunt

Michael DeForge’s recent graphic novella (Stunt is too short to call a novel) is a compelling combination of excess and restraint. Except for the red letters snaking cage-like around the main character in the cover image, DeForge limits his palette to blue and white on black backgrounds. The dimensions of the physical book are unusually limited too, about 3” x 8”, making each page a small, wide rectangle that DeForge consistently grids into single panels or two equally sized square ones. The book could have been printed in a more standard shape, arranging three rows down each page, but the resulting 24-page comic would be less engaging. Like the title letters, the physical format creates a kind of “stunted” cage holding the main character inside rigid panels made even more unescapable by the ever-present page edges surrounding the black margins.

Image result for michael deforge stunt

And that form is a good match for its story. DeForge’s narrator is a suicidal stunt double trying to escape the confines of his existence. He fantasizes about plunging to his death while shooting a skyscraper scene. He literally dreams of crashing a car into an exploding oil tanker, but even then he survives due to a filming mishap that placed the actual star at the steering wheel. The stunt double (he goes unnamed except for one severely cropped panel of his imagined “in memory of” death credit at the end of the film) is terrible at dying. Even his actual suicide attempts by razor and pills fail, leaving him still boxed inside DeForge’s panels.

Image result for michael deforge stunt

While the book’s structure coordinates well with its subject matter, DeForge’s drawing style deepens those connections further. Like most cartoons, the stunt double’s body is impossibly malleable. His rubbery muscles enclose only the vague idea of a skeleton as the lines of his body curve to exaggerate his actions. Sometimes the exaggerations are loosely naturalistic, as when DeForge draws him from extremely foreshortened angles, but the effects run much deeper, altering the fabric of the story reality. His hair could be a fifth limb. His blue skin sweats blue droplets as if his whole figure were in the process of oozing apart. When he imagines his fatal impact, his body seems to splash across the sidewalk. When he imagines being consumed by blue flames, the lines of the flames are indistinguishable from the lines of his body, as if emerging from him.

Image result for michael deforge stunt

Instead of windows into a film-like story world, sometimes the panel edges serve as barriers that his body contorts to fill.  When his suicide attempts fail, he imagines exercising himself to death, literally wringing his body out: “Nothing left of me but knotted muscle and pools of sweat.” DeForge draws the visual metaphors of a twisted towel and puddle—but are they metaphors? Is this a naturalistic story drawn in a distorted style, or is this an actual cartoon world that obeys different laws of physics? DeForge exploits that ambiguity well.

Image result for michael deforge stunt

The world is absurdist. The narrator doubles for an actor named Jo Rear, providing the dreamed death headline joke: “Rear, Ended.” Fortunately, DeForge mostly avoids that kind of comic excess, instead emphasizing the surreal plot development of Jo hiring his double to impersonate him in his so-called “real” life. Starting with innocuous commercial photoshoots, the arrangements escalates to TV interviews and then personal dates. Together the two attempt a kind of career suicide, turning “Jo Rear” into a self-destructive, relationship-ending, contract-breaking, conspiracy-theory-espousing, public-urinating performance piece. The “stunt,” however, only makes the persona more popular, spurring a viscous cycle of increasing degradation and humiliation.

Image result for michael deforge stunt

But who is declining? Is it the actual Jo giving the look-alike main character his instructions? Is it the double literally embodying the role? Is it some third, technically non-existent entity who exists only in performance? Is it all of the above? None of the above? The interrogation of identity extends to Jo and the narrator even when alone together and so not performing for the public. Their bodies seem not only increasingly interchangeable, but the two figuratively and literally merge as they have sex in the walled privacy of Jo’s mansion. Though homoerotic, DeForge’s images are too surreal, too formally abstract to create any prurient effect. These aren’t two human bodies having sex. It’s barely even cartoon sex since so many of the curves and blue shapes are indistinguishable. Out of context, the last two panels of the sex scene wouldn’t even register as representational images.

I won’t give away how DeForge concludes his metafictional comics stunt, but it is a fitting ending to both his narrator’s personal plot as well as his own visual experimentation. Since Koyama Press is closing down soon too, Stunt may also be a fitting ending to DeForge’s multi-book career with the publisher.

Image result for michael deforge photo

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

 

 

 

Tags: , ,

Image result for michael deforge brat

Sometimes I think I’m reading Michael DeForge the wrong way. His Instagram strip Leaving Richard’s Valley is out as a book collection from Drawn & Quarterly, but I’m catching up on Brat released last fall from Koyama Press. It’s a story of an aging celebrity, a former juvenile delinquent still renown for acts of vandalism appreciated by her now middle-aged followers as art installations. But I’m not sure “story” is the best word to describe the graphic narrative. Or rather it’s one perfectly accurate description that might accidentally obscure what’s most interesting about DeForge’s art.

At one level, Brat is simply a cartoon—albeit an extreme one. While all cartoonists simplify and distort natural proportions, few stray quite so far from recognizable anatomy. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters have impossibly large and round heads, an effect further exaggerated in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park cast. The character Brat’s head is large and round too—at least five times larger than the tiny circle of her torso, with pipe-cleaner-like limbs extending almost tenfold.  If any other male artist drew his female protagonist in a nude shower scene on the second page of a comic, I would worry, but there’s not even the most remote element of eroticism here. While still somehow registering as “human,” the level of abstraction breaks even the most expansive norms of cartooning.

Related image

That abstraction applies to the rest of the story world too. While DeForge is capable of drawing geometric depth, complete with multiple planes and vanishing points, he prefers flat surfaces that evoke while also rejecting the illusion of three-dimensional space. Sometimes he combines the approaches for discordant effects. As Brat spray-paints the cascading walls of a building complex, the street beyond features solid red vehicles above a grid of sidewalks squares. Not only is the 90 degree angle entirely flattened, the cars look like stenciled cut-outs reduced to their absolute minimal shapes. Any further reduction and they would cease to represent anything at all.

While dimension-deforming environments are another norm of cartoon worlds, few wander this far to the edge of pure abstraction—let alone cross it. When I say I’m reading Brat the wrong way, it’s because I’m spending too much time actually reading. DeForge’s layouts are traditional grids, most often 3×2 with a range of full-page and other variants to give the reading paths some visual rhythm. Most panels also feature a cluster of words, usually in a talk balloons as characters converse or Brat’s monologues break the fourth wall. Both acts—following a sequence of images and decoding written words—are considered “reading” when it comes to comics, often with an emphasis on the literal, word-focused sense. That’s also usually where “story” happens. And DeForge supplies plenty of that—Brat torches a police car, Brat reads her fan mail, Brat shits on the floor—but there are other kinds of stories on these pages too.

Image result for michael deforge brat

As I wandered deeper into the story-world narrative about the narcissistic crises of a still-profitable has-been depressed by her nostalgia-driven fanbase, I found myself more interested in the surface qualities of the images themselves—how the identical black dots of Brat’s eyes and nose shift within the panel frames, or how an x-shape of a cat wraps itself around the column of Brat’s nominal leg, or how two figures move through a landscape of … are those clusters supposed to be stars or tumbleweeds or just random shapes? When the young Brat narrates in a flashback, her body’s tiny shapes occupy only a fraction of panels that alter color with each iteration. The colored squares do not represent the actual colors of walls or anything else in the story world. They’re just squares of color arranged on the surface of the pages. Even their sequence breaks down since there’s no narrative logic to which color appears when in the story and so where on the page. The effect is closer to one of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe grids than to visual storytelling. It’s just abstraction.

And what would happen if there weren’t any words? The back of Brat’s head—two yellow swaths above a black semicircle–is visually undecodable out of context. Many of these panels would lose all representational meaning. DeForge is of course fully aware and manipulating these effects, and some of the book’s strongest episodic sequences take full advantage of them. “Tantrum,” for instance, begins with Brat crying and swearing as her body warps into even more impossible proportions, deeper distortions of her already cartoonish distortions. In “Hi Mom,” the figure of Brat’s crying father bends and merges with her mother until the two are a single yellow pyramid. “Immodest” features Brat’s drunken form devolving into squiggly shapes and then retracting into single lines before shrinking into literally nothing. While the images do nominally represent events in the story world—she’s depressed, she’s drunk—the “story” is about the shifting relationships of shapes on the page.

Related image

There’s plenty more of the conventional kind of stories too–a fling with an interviewer, the corruption of an intern, a kidnapping, various more meltdowns—but while each is entertaining, the bigger conceptual picture and its baseline pseudo-reality of extreme abstraction is the novel’s main strength. Because comics are traditionally understood as literature rather than art, and so are “read” rather than viewed, it’s possible to appreciate Brat as just a fun riff on a comically and nihilistically self-involved performance artist-criminal twirling through a sequence of chaotic plotlines. But that requires looking not at but through the images, attending less to their actual qualities, and understanding them primarily as symbols and so almost as words that represent events in some other far-off place and not as arrangements of ink on the physical pages in your hands.

While DeForge offers both kinds of stories, Brat is at its playful best when viewed rather than merely read.

Related image

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

Tags: , ,

It’s difficult to describe the exceptional weirdness of Patrick Kyle’s Roaming Foliage. For once, the adjective “unique” is accurate. I’ve literally never read anything like it. Explaining why that’s such a wonderful thing, not just for Kyle but for comics generally, will take some explaining.

Image result for roaming foliage patrick kyle

First, consider the physical book.  It’s the height of a standard graphic novel (picture anything from Marvel, DC, Image, etc.), but it’s oddly wider—which, for me, recalls the dimensions of a children’s puzzle book. Or maybe that’s just the paper quality. It looks cheap. I mean really cheap—the pulp grade that defined comics until the 1990s. This is atypical even for an atypical publisher like Koyama Press (who tweeted after reading an earlier version of this review that, no, I was completely wrong, this paper is actually more expensive–which adds to the deliberateness). Compare it to the luxuriously thick, white pages of Nathan Gelgud’s A House in the Jungle or Britt Wilson’s Ghost Queen released by Koyama at about the same time, and you’ll understand that Kyle and the press made a deliberate, aesthetic choice for Roaming Foliage. The feel of those grainy, gray pages is part of the intended reading experience—one that conjures a time before not only webcomics, but the Internet. And, if this doesn’t strain interpretation too far, I can’t help but think of the recycled paper as a nod to the “foliage” of the title: you’re holding what was once literally foliage that has roamed remarkably far.

The other reason I think of children’s puzzle books is Kyle’s drawing style. At first glance it looks like a kindergartener with little respect for stay-inside-the-lines conformity scribbled over the cover and contents. That’s a compliment. Closer inspection reveals how those scribbles are artfully and probably meticulously achieved. I especially admire the variation in line quality. Though the same pen may have made most of the marks, Kyle appears to shrink and enlarge his images, at times accenting the thickness of a scraggly line, other times creating thinly miniaturized precision.

Image result for roaming foliage patrick kyle

How those lines combine is weirder still. Most comics pages can be analyzed in terms of layout, with framed rectangular panels spaced to create gutters that then form rows and columns for easy reading flow. Not here. While Kyle draws some frames, they are usually inset into other images, and there’s not a traditional gutter to be found anywhere in the book. Though Kyle’s reading paths do follow a standard left-to-right, top-to-bottom format, there’s nothing easy about that flow. At least not until you acclimate to his pastiche environment of borderless overlap that defines his approach to image juxtaposition. Where does one image stop and the next begin? Hard to say. Since comics are defined by the juxtaposition of discrete images, that lack of division digs at the roots of the entire form.

Image result for roaming foliage patrick kyle

Those line and image combinations also represent a story world, one described on the back cover as “the wild overgrowth of a mysterious and magical garden.” Those words probably conjure an image in your head, something roughly naturalistic in style, with clearly defined trees, leaves, bushes, paths, maybe some sky visible above the treetops. Wrong garden. Actually, wrong universe. Though Kyle does draw a variety of vegetation, the drawn elements don’t combine according to the rules of three-dimensional representation. Kyle’s world isn’t necessarily flat (some shapes are drawn as if in front of other shapes), and he doesn’t abandon perspective entirely either (a branch, for instance, leans above another branch to suggest a specific angle of observation). But in comics, even ones drawn in the most minimalistic and exaggerated style of cartooning, we expect a stable setting. Cartoon humor often violates the rules of a stable universe: Calvin’s body flies apart as he yelps in his surprise, Coyote hovers mid-air before plummeting down a ravine. But these violations of physics are only possible because the story world has a mostly stable set of physical laws. Kyle’s has none—or at least surprisingly few. Both his readers and his characters wander through his semi-representational ink marks, searching for meaningful paths.

And those characters, the most central and repeatedly drawn objects in the garden and graphic novel, are perhaps the weirdest of all. Again, according to the back cover, the cast should be clear enough: “two boys, a girl, a small head without a body, a humanoid robot and a pumpkin.” Okay, so even in a naturalistic style that would be pretty damn weird, but in Kyle’s hands, it unearths yet another root of the comics form. According to some definitions, a comic has to include a continuing character (Colton Waugh) or a set of recurring characters (M. Thomas Inge) or simply recurrent characters (Bill Blackbeard)—all of which require recurrence: the experience of a viewer understanding that a cluster of lines in one panel or page represents the same thing as represented by a similar but inevitably different cluster of lines somewhere else. That’s so utterly basic an expectation, readers rarely make it conscious—until you’re reading Roaming Foliage.

Related image

The novel opens with a turnip-like head drawn above two lines (which could either be a bodiless neck or two very thin legs) standing before a set of flowing lines that (we learn later from the text) represent a suit of clothes (why the clothes appear to be partially levitating is one of many physical phenomena that goes unaddressed). In the next (in this case clearly divided) image a pair of arms materializes below the head in roughly the position a humanoid character would have arms—though no lines connect them to the head, and the rest of the implied body is undrawn. Turn the page, and the figure now also has legs and a newly clothed torso. But that’s not the peculiar part. Page three features five speech balloons pointing at five drawings, which I understood at first to include at least one recurrent character. Given the instability of anatomy and the physical world generally, the repetition of the head shape, and the collage-like lack of panel divisions, I figured the same head was sometimes attached and sometimes not attached to a body that sometimes appeared to be wearing a set of wavy lines and sometimes not. Wrong. These are five distinct characters with distinct visual characteristics that Kyle repeats consistently. That I could read them otherwise suggests just how pleasantly off-balance Roaming Foliage threw me.

Unlike this one, most book reviews, of comics or otherwise, discuss plot by the second paragraph, and I assure you Kyle offers plenty of that too. In fact, Roaming Foliage wisely offsets its relative chaos with a fairly straight-forward narrative structure. The characters quickly divide into pairs, with the opening character leading another to the tailor who made his suit in the hopes that the tailor will make another (and here I admit that my use of gender designations is visually ungrounded, but this is already too confusing for the singular “they”). The tailor is named Rotodraw and is either an ancient robot built by extinct humans or the last human who has come to believe he’s a robot. Either way, he (“he”?) needs a special fungus to refuel—and so begins the quest.

Related image

Rotodraw also turns Roaming Foliage into metafiction, with not just his ability create objects “out of nothing” (the power of any artist), but the foliage of the garden becomes animated when Rotodraw is having a dream—meaning the unstable fabric of the story world is linked to Rotodraw’s mind. That reality is also shaped by the characters who interact with the ever-changing face of the wishing well—and the reader too, since we’re instructed to write a description of the face on the lines provided inside the book (so it really is like a puzzle book).  Other pages include things that aren’t there (such as items that the characters are not carrying) and events that don’t happen (it was only an “anxiety dream” when she threw her friend’s bodiless head into the well).

As the unnamed characters’ adventures continue, there’s a secret password, wild dogs, a gate twice left open, an elf giant, a magic monolith, invasive tobacco plants, a dog-shaped fungus, a ladder, a tunnel, an image-projecting telephone, a mysterious hallway, and, like any quest narrative, a return home. In other hands, this would all be merely an entertainingly odd fantasy tale. And while it is still that, Kyle’s meta-garden also draws attention to the underlying structures of the comics form, giving it new sustenance to grow previously undreamed possibilities. I hope Rotodraw never wakes up.

Image result for roaming foliage patrick kyle

 

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

 

Tags: , ,

Image result for space academy 123

Taking exams, remembering your locker combination, auditioning for the school play, repairing the critical hull breach—it turns out attending school in outer space isn’t all that different from school today. Mickey Zacchilli draws an entertainingly familiar future in Space Academy 123, a book-length collection of her daily Instagram webcomic of the same name. Her cast includes Ashley the hyper-confident underachiever, Andrew the teary-eyed, spacesuit-wetting overachiever, Naomi the oddly self-reflective school bully, Shandy the preternaturally precocious preschooler, Donna the newly graduated principal who had really hoped to be a chiropractor, and Grandfather Computer the emotionless mastermind secretly manipulating the Academy. They evolve together in interweaving plots of romance and intrigue that build and diverge and meander and build again, creating a pleasantly un-novel-like graphic novel experience.

Image result for space academy 123

Zacchilli’s style is the comic’s most unexpected and engaging quality, one that defines not only each installment but the governing principle behind the whole series. The pages look like lose, first drafts, the kind of quick sketches an artist roughs out while deciding the number and positions of panels, keeping their content as basic as possible. Instead of traditional gutters, she draws single frame lines along the panels’ inside edges, leaving outer edges open to the margins. The same, thin lines define the characters and their words and word balloons, with lighter pencil marks adding only sporadic depth—or rather indicating where naturalistic shadows could be developed since the effect is less crosshatching than stray scribbles.

Image result for space academy 123

Similarly, many of Zacchilli’s figures appear only partially drawn. Lines dividing shoes and legs can vanish or reappear panel to panel. The deliberate imprecision allows basic shapes (the double ovals of most character’s hair, for instance) to shift without seeming to indicate any change or other significance to the actual character. The roughness of the style creates some ambiguity about the identities of characters when they are first introduced—a challenge that Zacchilli counters with definingly overt character markers such as Ashley’s eyepatch, Regina’s triangular glasses, and Shandy’s hairbow. Arguably all cartoon characters require such visual markers (Mickey Mouse’s ears, Dick Tracy’s chin), but Zacchilli pushes the norm to its barest extreme.

Image result for space academy 123

Each one-page comic also includes a title banner drawn in the top panel. Though the lettering varies, the thicker pen lines always distinguish “Space Academy 123” from the rest of the drawing. This is perhaps Zacchilli’s oddest and so most interesting choice. The purpose of a title design is repetition. Look at any other comic and the same, series-defining graphic is used in each installment. Zacchilli instead redraws her title in an evolving sequence of variations, each as rough as the last. Were these pages actual rough drafts, no artist would bother redrawing and therefore redesigning title letters week after week after week.

Image result for space academy 123

And yet in another sense Space Academy 123 is a rough draft. Zacchilli does not appear to be working from a script or even plot outline. Like the drawings themselves, the characters and storylines take loose shape directly on the daily pages. The school bully does not receive a name till reintroduced in a “Character Update” some fifty pages into the series. The same update identifies “human teacher (name not yet revealed),” but her name is never revealed, while other characters later refer to her as if “Human Teacher” were her name. The subplots have a similar ad hoc aesthetic. While many do develop, others peter. Naomi vows early on to figure out Ashley’s “true wants,” but then barely notices her again, focusing attention (and possible attraction) on Andrew instead. Late in the collection, Naomi declares a Homeric quest to find the Private Admin Jacuzzi—a goal that both Noami and Zacchilli appear to abandon without comment.

Other plot threads do continue, but not always in meaningful ways. Though Grandfather Computer’s decision to move the space station seemed important at the time, no consequences follow. And why exactly did he manipulate the principal into going to retrieve the repositioning ore herself? Which, to be clear, was just “resources” when first introduced. More significantly the computer recognizes Shandy’s potential, declaring, “That child is VERY smart. If you don’t captivate & challenge her mind, things will go VERY wrong.” But then Shandy does go unchallenged, trapped back in Sunshine Storytime after her brief stint at hull breech repair. And though the school play was cancelled, and Andrew still hasn’t read the play Ashley wrote to replace it, why does that matter? And why introduce a “new girl” character in the second half, and then do nothing with her?

Sometimes Zacchilli writes and then scribbles out words inside her character’s word balloons, apparent evidence of her literally rewriting as she goes. She seems to follow the same revise-on-the-fly technique at the macro-level, scribbling her way through her Academy one open-ended page at a time. Though the effect makes for intentionally sloppy story structure, it is also an effective choice for the science fiction content. Like most genre fiction, SF is riddled with clichés, ones highlighted by Zacchilli’s aggressively generic title. But rather than delivering her school-in-space tropes in standard futuristic detail, her scribbled artistic and literary style undermines expectations to entertaining if chaotic ends.

Image result for space academy 123

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

Tags: , ,

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Keiler Roberts lives in a deadpan universe ruled by a bipolar God. Her graphic memoir Chlorine Gardens is a fractured chronicle of self-deprecatingly hilarious yet harrowingly moving vignettes from the edge of her private yet oh-so-familiar abyss. Really, she has it pretty good: a comfortable life in a suburban home filled with loving family members and ample art supplies. Also, her grandfather just died and she’s been diagnosed with MS. But rather than best-of-times worst-of-times rants, Roberts’ humor is perpetually even-keel—a line as endearingly flat as the never-quite-smiling, never-quite-frowning mouths she draws on her and family’s faces.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Given her anti-sentimental tone, Roberts’ drawing style is appropriately sparse: thin, black contour lines give her world realistic proportions, but without crosshatched shadows and depth. All shapes are empty shapes. The universe is not only colorless; it rejects gradations too. But her always simplified renderings are never cartoonishly exaggerated either. Though any photographic source material feels distantly filtered, its underlying realistic integrity remains. This is our world—just less so.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Roberts matches the visual flatness of her panel content with similarly flat layouts of mostly 3×2 and 2×2 grids, punctuated by occasional full-page images. Each panel is framed by the same thin black lines that shape the images, gently challenging the conventional illusion that the white of the page background visible in the gutters is any different from the white of the story-world spaces inside the frames. In both cases, there just isn’t a lot holding everything together.

And yet her world, her family, Roberts herself—they do hold together, in part from the warmly ironic wit she threads through each scene. As a parent who kept a journal of the most endearing and inappropriate things my children said growing up, I know the pitfalls Roberts avoids as she chronicles her home life with an early school-aged daughter. In other hands, the six-year-old Xia—even as she’s echoing her mother’s “shit” and “goddamned” expletives—would be too cute, just a variation of parental bragging.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

Instead, moments with Xia, like Roberts’ self-portrayal generally, is grounded by the graphic memoir’s overarching tone of struggle. Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy? The memoir opens with Roberts telling Xia her birth story, yet by the end of the sequence she is clearly stating things not meant for her daughter’s ears. “I think,” Roberts’ drawn self later tells her viewers, “I started making comics so I could stop fearing the loss of my irreplaceable things.”

“Things” are central. Roberts lists some of her favorites and least favorites—including Coltrane’s jazz cover of “My Favorite Things.” Her favorite glass appears in a wallpaper pattern beside a vodka bottle on the inside of the cover. It appears again on the inside of the back cover, except beside a carton of milk. Somewhere between, she mentions that she’s stopped drinking and that “I never use my favorite glass anymore because I’m afraid I’ll break it.” She later lists first symptoms of MS, jokingly calling each her favorite thing too. “Nothing,” she explains, “exists without meaning and sentimental value,” and so “every object blooms with associated memories and feelings.” And as though to prove it, she ends the memoir with her mother lamenting that she has only “four of those wonderful frozen cheeseburgers from Costco left. They stopped carrying them.” The comment would seem aggressively mundane, and though Roberts’ character responds with only a simple “I’m sorry,” ten pages earlier she drew her dying father eating one of those cheeseburgers, calling it the moment she felt the loss of him.

Much of Roberts’ skill is in her understated use of the comics form—which is based on gaps and absences and so kinds of loss too. Roberts often leaves out key, dramatic moments. One panel caption explains that her beloved dog “bit some people,” and in the next she’s driving him “to the vet to put him to sleep.” She avoids not only the biting incident but the immediate drama of its aftermath when the victim presumably contacted authorities who agreed that the dog had to be put down. Instead, Roberts draws her “perfect” pet in the front seat, under the caption: “He sat up calmly.” In the next panel, she is alone in an examination room, with her hand on the blanket-covered dog. The panel reads: “Scott was in New York.” The understated fact echoes with a blur of emotion—all unverifiable by her expressionless face.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

That kind of image and word juxtaposition is another of Roberts’ comics skills, the way she plays the two modes against each other for subtle contradictions. When she states that “Scott sometimes watches football,” she draws her husband swinging their daughter around the living room as they shout “Touchdown!”—it’s unclear whether the TV is even on. When she’s explaining the nostalgia-like loss she feels in all objects, “It’s a wanting that can’t be satisfied,” she draws an angled eBay image of a “Barbie mixed lot from the 80’s” on the phone held in her hand. The mundaneness undercuts the spiritual depth of her words, as though her internal artist is gently mocking her internal writer.

The effects are subtle, but subtle is as good as it gets in Roberts’ universe. She posits a bipolar God to explain how “inconsistently great and terrible his creations are,” and then counters that volatility with her own deadpan consistency—though with just enough hint of a Mona Lisa smile to betray the love and joy struggling under the starkly drawn surface of all things.

Image result for chlorine gardens keiler roberts

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

[Also, despite my inability to defeat wordpress’ obscure and dysfunctional auto-formatting, here’s an email conversation I had with the author:

From: Keiler Roberts
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 3:52:00 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Dear Chris,
I saw your review of my book on PopMatters. I wanted to thank you for writing it! Clearly, you put a lot of time into reading the book and writing about it, and I really appreciate it. As you know, most cartoonists are not in it for the money. Attention like this really means a lot to me, and keeps me working when I’m feeling unmotivated. I hope you don’t mind that I’m contacting you at this email. I had a difficult time finding any info on the PopMatters site for contacting anyone.
There was one thing in the review that wasn’t correct, and I was wondering if you possibly could fix it? It was my grandfather who died, not my father. He was 98 and while I miss him very much, it was a sad event, but not devastating. My dad is alive and well and I’m not superstitious, but there’s something creepy about reading about his loss.  Please don’t think this was the only reason I wanted to contact you. I do really appreciate the review and I want to share it with everyone! I wish I were better at articulating my thoughts regarding what I read, but I guess that’s why it’s so satisfying for me to read reviews. Someone else can put into words the reaction I had – or help me see what I missed.
Thank you so much!
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>
Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 12:54 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters

Keiler, I’m so sorry for that terrible error in my review! I’ll contact my editor right away and make the correction.

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 4:05:20 PM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you so much!
My favorite line of yours is “Yes, life may be pretty goddamned good—but what’s that have to do with being happy?” That is absolutely it. I think I can stop therapy now that I finally understand! Really, your writing is so beautiful. You understood things that most people won’t.
Sincere thanks,
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>

Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 2:13 PM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Keiler, you’re so kind. And I’m so pleased that my interpretation of your work resonates accurately with you.  It may help that I come from a deadpan family myself.  I’m exploring the comics form myself now and you are a great model.  You handle complex, subtle material will such skill.
Chris

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, October 1, 2018 11:29:39 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Thank you!
On Feb 18, 2019, at 7:23 AM, Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu> wrote:
Hi Keiler,
I tend to wait a couple months before reposting my PopMatters reviews at my own site. In addition to correcting that terrible error you pointed out, I was wondering if I could include our correspondence below. If you would rather it remain private, I understand completely. Just wanted to check.
Thanks,
Chris

From: Keiler Roberts

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 9:11 AM
To: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>
Subject: Re: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Hi Chris,
Please feel free to share anything you want! Thank you again for writing the review. Coincidentally, I spent all morning journaling about “things” and was thinking about how you picked up on that theme in my book. Marie Kondo has everyone reconsidering their belongings now but I wonder how much of it will become a real reflection on what different objects do to us, and how much will be people trying to follow her advice and missing something in translation.
Best,
Keiler

From: Gavaler, Chris <GavalerC@wlu.edu>

Sent: Monday, February 18, 2019 10:05 AM
To: Keiler Roberts
Subject: RE: Chlorine Gardens review on PopMatters
Keiler,
I just watched the Netflix trailer. I predict Kondo and your journaling will lead to another cool chapter for your next book—which I look forward to reading!
Chris

: )

Tags: , ,

%d bloggers like this: