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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Koyama Press

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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

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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 ohgigue.com, 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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