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

Tag Archives: Koyama Press

While numerous scripters, pencilers, inkers, and the occasional colorist vie for authorial recognition in the comics industry, the lowly letterer remains the least lauded of contributors. Marvel’s star scripter Brian Michael Bendis tells aspiring writers: “Lettering should be invisible. You shouldn’t notice it.” It’s no surprise then that a letterer’s name never appears on a comics cover.

In addition to comics artist, illustrator, and graphic designer, Hannah K. Lee is a professional letterer and the lone author of  Language Barrier, a pleasantly perplexing amalgam of one-page comic strips, single-issue zines, and stray experiments in the comics form. 

Or almost never. By pushing at the ambiguous border between words and images, Lee gives new meaning to comics pioneer Will Eisner’s observation: “WORDS ARE IMAGES!”

Even Bendis acknowledges that lettering needn’t be invisible if “it is a determined piece of storytelling in graphic design”—a description of nearly every page of Lee’s collection. In the most extreme cases, like the two-page spread “Millennial” that concludes the book, letters are the only graphic element.

But more often Lee combines words and pictures. The yellow letters of “You don’t owe anyone anything” contain warped smiley faces, much of “Nowhere to hide” is obscured by blades of grass, and clusters of eyes dot and cling to “Beautiful! We see you.” Sometimes Lee’s letters seem to fight to emerge from webs of similar shapes, adding irony to “Everyone knows your name” and “You are popular.”

Even when Lee renders words in familiar fonts, she finds other visually playful ways to disrupt their meanings. For the sequence “Close Encounters,” she isolates each word, floating their letters in white space for the reader to piece together while also puzzling their relationships to juxtaposed images. The fractured letters of “Change” hover beside a ribbon knotted around an impossibly thin neck. The letters of “Nervousness” dot the spaces beside and between a wavy tuning fork. Even when letters cohere easily, their accompanying image challenge simple interpretations—as with a sheet dangling from a clothesline beside the phrase “A soul leaving a body.” The graphic quality of the words are stable, but their semantic qualities continue to shift unpredictably.

Lee also explores images in isolation. The typically white background of the opening, title, credit, and closing pages feature wallpaper-like renderings of commercial product characters: the Chicken of the Sea mermaid, Chiquita banana’s Carmen Miranda, the smiling figure of Sun-Maid raisins. Though unaccompanied by product logos, the iconic images evoke the words Lee eliminates. Roughly of a third of the collection consists of other wordless images, some free-standing, others in sequence.

The 17-page “Shoes Over Bills” lovingly details a collection of women’s shoes, with juxtaposed phrases “Credit card debt” and “Emergency dental work.” “Hey Beautiful” is an appropriately fragmented sequence of a female body shattered and collected in still-life fruit bowl. It also includes free-floating words, presumably spoken by a male voice offering compliments, insults, and offers to mansplain Radiohead and Battlestar Galactica (the original).

Such gender analysis is central to Lee’s larger project. “Interpreting Emoji Sexts” offers contrasting translations of Lee’s hand-drawn rendering of ambiguously suggestive emoji combinations. Another two-page spread offers valentine candies with the unlikely phrases “Equal chore distribution” and “I like your body hair.” “Penises” consists of one-page comics arranged in traditional grids and features a cartoonishly rendered woman assessing the undrawn, but graphically implied shapes of her changing lovers.

Lee opens the collection with a similarly traditional comic, the four-page “1 is the Loneliest Number,” that explores the unlikely benefits of living alone. It is a welcoming entrance into what soon evolves into a comparatively anarchic exploration of the outer edges of the comic form.

If you’re looking for conventional storytelling with a main character narrating the travails of contemporary dating, this is not your book. Which is a shame, because Lee explores that same subject matter to better effect by abandoning panel grids and just-like-life characters and diving directly into the deep end of the image-text pool. Experimentation is rarely this much fun.

And if you don’t run off and buy Language Barrier (one of many gems from Koyama Press), you can stop by Lee’s website to see more of her work.

[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]




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Okay, the year’s not quite over yet, and, no, I haven’t read nearly all of the new graphic novels published this year, but from my personal perusal here’s by far my favorite.

GG—the pseudonym of a presumably female, Asian-Canadian comics creator living in an undisclosed prairie city—is little known except to her community of followers on Patreon and visitors to her website, which includes about a half dozen of her comics short stories, several also published in other venues. They range from the early sequences of rough, hand-drawn 8-pagers in her 2014 “Five Stories” to the sharply digital 48-page “I’m Crazy.” Her equally excellent 14-page “Don’t Leave Me Alone” appeared in the 2016 Best American Comics, but I prefer “Semi-Vivi,” another 14-pager that defines GG’s signature cropping effects and gutterless 4×2 grid. Judging from the content of her website alone, I would predict that GG will be a major comics voice of the next decade. And now she is already realizing that potential with her first full-length graphic novel I’m Not Here, released in September from Koyama Press.

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The novel is one of the richest and gently disturbing I’ve read in recent years. It’s young female protagonist goes unnamed as she navigates the streets and hallways of her and her aging parents’ suburban homes and the memories of her second-generation immigrant childhood. No narrating voice grounds the story, so events move from the present to various moments of the past and possibly future without guiding explanations. By speaking only in dialogue, the main character seems to have no more insight about herself and her troubled situation than does the reader. We travel with her, suffering the same confusions that define her life. All we know for sure is the isolating distance she feels from her increasingly estranged mother.

I’m Not Here builds on GG’s earlier short works by approaching the long form in discrete, almost stand-alone units. The novel consists of eight closely linked vignettes, most between six and eleven pages, though the longest extends for twenty-four and the shortest five. Initially black and then gray two-page spreads divide all but the concluding vignette which is separated instead by two non-facing blank white pages. The movement toward white, though literally brightening, is paradoxical since GG’s use of white space within the narrative suggests loss as margins widen around the daughter’s isolated figure as she knocks at her mother’s door and the repeating image of the mother’s younger, cropped face fades until indistinguishable from the page. The novel also opens with two blank pages before a similar progression of panels darkens into grays and then eventually blacks. But if white is oblivion, black is no better. The dementia-suffering father concludes the second vignette by driving into the black of the margin, leaving the figure of his silhouetted daughter merging with the shadows of the street at night. The father never reappears.

The confining quality of the gray palette is reinforced by GG’s layout. Instead of her previous gutterless 4×2 panels, the novel’s physically smaller proportions suit her rigid 4-row grid of full-width panels. When the grid is not overt, it is implied, with the top two, middle two, or bottom two panels merged to create a double-sized panel. More often both the top and bottom panels merge to create two-panel pages. GG is especially adept at using her gutters in relation to the black and white shapes within panel images—the white frame of a photograph, the white rectangle of a bandage, the horizontal line of a grocery shelf, the vertical lines of a window pane—sometimes merging gutter and panel content to further augment her cropping effects.

Like the unframed panels, her internal images consist almost exclusively of opaque shapes with no contour lines separating them. Each shape is defined only by its internal and uniform gray gradation. The style produces a stark and simplified world devoid of not only color but texture too, with each figure and object precisely isolated—effects that express the novel’s overall narrative tone. Though often reduced to absolute simplicity in terms of image density, the contours of GG’s shapes also evoke real-world subject matter as if derived from photographic sources. The result is not the simplification of cartoons but a brutally stripped-down realism.

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GG’s use of words is stripped-down too. She wisely ignores the conventions of thought balloons, talk balloons, and even conventional caption boxes. Words appear only at the bottom of panels in panel-wide strips. Sometimes the strips merge with the black of the panel or the white of the gutter, with words rendered in either black or white. GG never varies font or font style, and, since the novel includes no narration, she forgoes quotation marks for dialogue too. She draws no sound effects within images, but includes the “knock knock” of a door in her caption strips, marking it typographically with brackets. Voices on answering machines are bracketed too. When GG uses dialogue it is effective, but the majority of the novel is visual only. Fifty-six pages—over half of the novel— are wordless, and another dozen feature only one line of text. Like GG’s visual simplicity, the linguistic silence adds to the novel’s stark reality—especially during moments of literal silence, as the daughter and mother pass a wordless meal together.

GG’s austere realism plays well against the novel’s narrative content. While the situation of a daughter feeling estranged from her aging parents is realistic, GG disturbs that baseline reality with moments of inexplicable surrealism. After a comparatively mundane opening sequence of the daughter tying back her hair and preparing to go for a walk to take photographs, she finds her mother sitting in her bedroom with one of her arms detached. “Can you help me tape this back on?” she asks.

The daughter applies bandages to her mother’s back too, but GG draws no wounds or stumps, so it is intentionally unclear how the severed but apparently bloodless parts attach. GG’s stark style obscures the would-be details of her characters’ reality, flattening the world into dream-like imprecision. No like incidents follow this brief, unreal moment, but by placing it in the first vignette, GG colors the rest of the narrative with its potential. Is the father literally driving around the block in search of his house forever? Is this dementia or an afterlife variation on Sisyphus? Does the daughter literally become another woman or does the woman’s landlady simply mistake her when she lets her into the apartment and later hands her the lease? Is the daughter literally knocking at her mother’s locked door or is this a metaphor of her dreaming mind? GG leaves such reality-defining questions unanswered, leaving her main character drifting between realities too.

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Like most graphic novels and stories in general, I’m Not Here could be reduced to a summary of its story content—though GG’s fractured plotting resists even that narrative norm. But aside from its surreal plotting and striking stylistic qualities, the novel is significant for GG’s way of expressing its content visually and so overcoming the limitations of script-based comics storytelling. I doubt GG began by describing her plot and panel content in words and then executing those descriptions in images. Instead, her story emerges from the images themselves, and so they and their intricate relationships cannot be simply summarized. The page, for example, of silhouetted tree tops and street lamp below a full moon and vast evening sky does not mean anything linguistically or even narratively, but its placement after the mother criticizes the daughter is emotionally evocative. Such images do not tell a story but are the story—a fact true of all comics but rarely so well achieved as here. And I’m looking forward to more such stories from one of the most exciting new voices of 21st century comics.

[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]




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