Monday, July 27, 2015

Creativity, Motherhood And Self-Care: Miseryland

Miseryland is Keiler Roberts' second collection of her autobiographical strips from her minicomics series Powdered Milk. Please see links here and here for my reviews of what makes up the first fifty or so pages of the book. Much of the material in the latter half of the book focuses on Roberts' social anxiety. Like in much of her other comics, there's an obvious reluctance to focus on her mental health issues, and the reason she gives is that she's not sure anyone wants to read about that sort of thing. It's as though she's intensely worried that people will find her memoir work to be particularly narcissistic if she focuses on these issues. However, she can't help but crack every now and then on the page and let those issues sort of leak into the narrative, and her comics are all the better for this.

While the rest of the book is jam-packed with funny observations about her toddler daughter Xia and the various wacky things that she says, Miseryland is really about the reality of parenting on a day-to-day and minute-by-minute basis. It's a particular responsibility that is unyielding in terms of its demands and burdens, and for someone struggling with mental health issues it can feel especially onerous. It's also a book about negotiating the world and the people in it, while struggling with crippling self-doubt, in an effort to be creative and maintain a respected professional career. Even those strips are laced with acidic humor that's frequently equal parts self-deprecating and viciously hostile. Take the strip about Roberts encountering a woman at a subway stop. She thinks that the woman is wearing an ugly shirt, and then the woman comes up to hear and compliments Roberts on her sweater. The rest of the strip consists of Roberts' awkwardness, as she gives a response that she thinks is dumb and is worried that she'll have to sit next to her the rest of the way. However, the woman "reads her mind" and lets her off the hook in a warm, friendly fashion. It seems like the woman didn't so much read her mind so much as she read Roberts' body language.

Every time that Miseryland feels like it's going to zero in on such feelings, Roberts turns to gags from her everyday life. I especially like the way she depicts her husband Scott, like when she asks him to look at some sores in her nose and he says "God no! That's the last thing I would do. I will never look at them." Of course, the real star is Xia, who's at the age where the seriousness of play becomes profoundly important, scolding her mother to not say sorry with a laugh to one of her dolls. While children can be draining to take care of, Roberts shows how they can also provide enormous solace. On one page, a clearly deflated Roberts is cheered up by her husband reminding her that her daughter said "assplesauce" that day.

One gets the sense that by the end of this volume, Roberts is an artist whom, despite her social anxiety, draws the bulk of her inspiration from her interactions with others. This makes her work noticeably different from many autobio comics that tend to be mostly internalized monologues, but also points to the fact that she is actively seeking out this sort of interaction. Whether its commiserating with a friend that they are both the "world's worse mothers", having heart-to-hearts with her charming mother, venting to her husband or getting endless amounts of entertainment from her daughter, Roberts faces her emotions while being fully present with others. The result is a richly textured, complex and authentic account of one person's life. That authenticity is deeply felt in the way she depicts the variety of experiences in as honest a manner as possible, whether it be sadness, joy, outrage, or anxiety. There's a marvelous immediacy in the way she draws her comics, ripping the images from her memory and onto the page with a minimum of fussiness and a maximum of emotional expressiveness.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

John Porcellino's Back Pages

Throughout the course of its 25-year existence, John Porcellino's King-Cat series has mostly been autobiographical in the sense that it captures thoughts, feelings, moods, anecdotes and observations from his daily life. It has rarely been a straightforward, diary-style narrative. There have been exceptions, like the stories that made up Diary Of A Mosquito Abatement Man and Perfect Example. For the most part, however, Porcellino's writing circumambulated a number of huge, life-altering events. Porcellino noted that there were certain stories and events that he'd get to eventually, and "eventually" finally happened in the form of The Hospital Suite (published by Drawn & Quarterly), a book with three overlapping sections detailing Porcellino's battle with a mysterious, life-threatening illness and later depression, anxiety and debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This book accounts for a lot of things that were implied or elided in King-Cat. The first section, "The Hospital Suite", sets up the rest of the book. As a straightforward narrative about an abdominal tumor that required surgery, Porcellino also tells a story about love, fear, faith and coming to terms with the possibility of his death. There is the terror of being sick and dealing with doctors who needed a number of attempts to find out exactly what was wrong with him, but there was also the palpable comfort he received from his then-wife Kera as well as from his Buddhist faith. There are moments of humor, like when Porcellino is pissed that Harvey Pekar had beaten him to the punch in depicting a scene where his wedding ring fell off his finger because he had become so skinny. At 113 pages, this could have been its own graphic novella, However, the story deepens and becomes more resonant when paired with the next two sections.

The second section, "1998", talks about his journey back to his hometown of Chicago with his wife and the ways in which his life started to break down. Plagued by allergies that even made him hypersensitive to the ink he used for his comics, Porcellino once again had to come to terms with the idea that he might have to accept that he would lose everything that was important to him. When a specialist was finally able to help him with his allergies, he faced a new challenge in his persistent, alienating OCD. It was enough to cause his wife to walk out on him in a truly devastating scene, one that was precipitated by the nagging sense that she was on the verge of leaving him for months on end. This section mostly acts as a link between the first section and the last, detailing the ways in which physical and mental woes can wear away at relationships.

The third section, "True Anxiety" is by far the most harrowing. It's about his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and OCD. "Battle" is an overused term with regard to illness, but in Porcellino's case it accurately describes his many attempts at treating it. Meditation, yoga, diet, supplements, aversion therapy and talk therapy all helped for a period of time, but a stressful life event would simply make it come back, stronger than ever. Porcellino does a remarkable job in relating how one of the worst things about OCD was a rational awareness that the things the disease demanded were absolutely crazy and even absurd. Because the disorder works on one's lizard-brain, fight-or-flight responses, no amount of rational thought can assuage it. Porcellino even laughs at the sheer ridiculousness of some of his OCD fears, like how renting a Godzilla movie might cause monsters to appear and attack his town. Eventually, he gives in to the idea of medication, and there's a remarkable panel where he realizes that it's actually starting to help. Porcellino's work has always been simultaneously powerful and understated, and the ending of this book is typical of that quality. In talking about how he still has issues that he's dealing with, he notes that his life is now so much better, and in the past panel says, "When we meet, let's shake hands." That's a powerful affirmation for someone who was so germ-phobic, as well as an expression of openness and wanting to live.

The Hospital Suite is direct and blunt in a way that most of his work simply isn't. It still bears his trademark spare and understated line, conveying a maximum of emotion and information with a minimum of fussiness. It is brutally honest without being whiny or self-serving; if anything, this book shows just how humbled Porcellino was by his life experiences. There's an underlying sense of gratitude in how he came out the other side. The plain, stark and straightforward nature of the narrative takes on a greater power when paired with the rest of his life's work; The book certainly works on its own (as does King-Cat), but read in conjunction (and especially if one is a long-time reader of Porcellino's comics), each work illuminates and informs the other in interesting ways. The Hospital Suite provides context and resonance for the King-Cat stories, while King-Cat is in many ways a shadow autobiography that has illustrated Porcellino's life in a poetic manner.

While there are some interesting appendices in the book, the true companion piece to The Hospital Suite is actually the recently published King-Cat #75, the 25th anniversary issue. This is the tribute to Porcellino's beloved and deceased cat, Maisie Kukoc. Like the first and third sections of The Hospital Suite, this issue rewinds back to the early 1990's and tells the story of his life and his struggles with illness through the eyes of his relationship with his cat. There's lots of details about how life with a cat is a weird experience, but Porcellino genuinely drew comfort from this constant companion during his lowest moments. This relationship essentially framed one overriding aspect of Porcellino's form of self-expression: that he was not afraid to love, to acknowledge and express his emotions and to display constant wonder and awe at the natural world. That's especially brought him in the final, wrenching sequence when Maisie is dying and he takes her outside, explaining to her how hard it is to let go but it has to be done. This two page spread is masterful, as Porcellino only actually uses images in a handful of the twelve panels; some panels have only text, same panels don't have any borders, and some panels have just a handful of lines. The final panel of the second page has a drawing of his house, breaking up this moment of emotional intimacy and returning them both to the material world. Porcellino cleanses the reader's palate after she dies with a few pages depicting her favorite games, in packed pages featuring playful and kinetic art. Porcellino has an uncanny ability to draw animals in such a way that provides a fully-developed sense of their personality with just a handful of lines.

Ultimately, both The Hospital Suite and King-Cat #75 are about accepting loss without numbing oneself to the emotional reality of the situation. It's about the process of grief, as Porcellino had to grieve the loss of his health, his wife, his pet and even his own sanity and still found a way to make it through to the other side. Accepting loss while never giving up on life, the capacity for love, the willingness to take emotional risks and the energy to create and express oneself are depicted by Porcellino as part of what makes us human. There's no escaping loss and tragedy, and Porcellino's study of Zen Buddhism helped him to accept that the only way out is through--or as he says in his many books, "Forge".

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Time For Adventure with Marc Bell: Stroppy

Marc Bell is weirdly one of the most influential cartoonists of the last twenty years but also one of the most obscure to most audiences. His stylistic flourishes are partly a continuation of classic bigfoot cartooning, partly a continuation of underground comics (I see bits of R.Crumb and Skip Williamson in there), and partly an outlet for the feverishly vibrant concepts that spew forth from his imagination. Marc Bell is an artist who puts the lie to Scott McCloud's notion that comics by nature must have multiple panels to tell a story, because even his single page/single panel work seems to move and pulsate on the page. In reading his comics, one almost sees Bell as less an artist crafting a narrative than as an anthropologist dutifully observing and recording the goings-on of the cultures that happen to inhabit his brain. Another influence seems to be Will Elder in terms of the incredible detail and many "eye pops" (or "chicken fat", as Elder called) that can be found in every panel of Bell's work. Bell piles joke upon joke upon joke, providing callbacks to his own comics as well as references to the wider culture (pop and otherwise). Despite the frenzied energy of each panel, Bell counteracts that mania with languid, casual interactions. Conversations between characters can go on for pages. There's a sense of the characters just hanging out as Bell observes them doing their thing.

Bell is an obvious influence on many of today's comics surrealists (Matthew Thurber would be one example, Michael DeForge another), but he's had an even greater influence on a generation of animators. Virtually every single original show on the Cartoon Network owes a debt to Bell's work, from Uncle Grandpa to (especially) Adventure Time. The trippy visuals, the weird background details and even the relaxed pace of the narrative mirrors Bell's work. The main difference is that much of Bell's work can be hard to access without a plot to latch onto. Those shows have had success precisely because they've mixed Bell's visuals with a very simple premise and plot. Bell's latest book from Drawn & Quarterly, Stroppy, is Bell's attempt at reclaiming his aesthetic by similarly grafting it onto a simple plot.

The plot of Stroppy is as follows: the titular characters loses his awful job, his home and even his clothes thanks to an annoying guy advertising a concert by a mysterious local collective of musicians. Said musicians are advertising a songwriting contest that Stroppy enters with the work of a friend of his who happens to be a poet. Meanwhile, his ex-employer is concerned with the amount of power these musicians are accruing and launches his own investigation. The storylines converge in the contest and Stroppy's subsequent attempt to rescue his poet friend from the clutches of the musicians. It's a slightly odd story, but straightforward enough, as the reader is always kept aware that Stroppy is having abuse heaped on him, that the musicians are weird and vaguely sinister, and that everyone with the slightest amount of power is an asshole. Bell further keeps things simple but structuring the narrative as a series of four-panel pages, very much taking a cue from the early comic strip masters. That keeps things chugging while allowing Bell to reset on every page, adding flourishes as he goes.

That narrative spine allows Bell to go off the deep end into total silliness, weirdness and satire (this comic is one long, Kafkaesque attack on capitalism) while still retaining thematic and aesthetic unity. It's an insane world that Stroppy lives in, but one with internally consistent rules and reality. Oppression, the abuse of power, disregarding the efforts of hard work, bureaucracy, and the whims of those in control are taken as givens. The musicians, the All-Star Schnauzer Band, are a collection of megalomaniacal lunatics. Stroppy's boss, Monsieur Moustache, is the embodiment of slimy greed. The guy who accidentally gets him fired, Sean, wins my vote for "character you'd most like to see pummeled" as an unctuous bootlick who is oblivious to the harm he causes to others. Bell's lyrics are frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and just when you think the book has climaxed during the songwriting contest, Bell takes things to the next level with Stroppy fighting for his friend by way of playing an elaborately and psychotically designed miniature golf course. Bell reclaims his spot as one of the top humorists in comics with Stroppy, making his work more accessible without sacrificing an ounce of his aesthetics.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mini Round-Up: E.Brubaker, Luce, L.Suburbia

Reich #12, by Elijah Brubaker. Ten years and 260-odd pages after he began this series about psychologist Wilhelm Reich, Elijah Brubaker finally finished it with this twelfth and final issue. It's a tribute to new Sparkplug publisher Virginia Paine that she's found a way to raise the funds to see this project through after the death of former publisher Dylan Williams. The final issue, which covers his eventual imprisonment and death, deals with Reich in much the same way Brubaker did throughout the entire series. Reich was both a moral crusader with ideas about sex and sexuality that were way ahead of his time and a hypocrite consumed by jealousy over imaginary situations and dismissing jealousy from others. Reich was almost always the smartest person in the room but also lost touch with reality, conflating real threats with imagined ones in what resembled a schizophrenic breakdown. His unshakable belief in himself and his discoveries was both his admirable quality and the eventual cause of his downfall. Brubaker treats Reich as a fascinating, brilliant, flawed and damaged person; he is sympathetic to his plight and even-handed with regard to many of Reich's theories, but is interested in the gestalt of Reich's life, both good and bad.

Brubaker's detailing Reich's early sexual experiences in a previous issue is a crucial but understated way of showing how many of his theories originated in encounters he couldn't fully process as a child. Making Reich the narrator of his own story also helped keep Brubaker's explicit opinions out of narrative, giving Reich himself the opportunity to state his own case--for good or ill. The angular, shadowy and cartoony nature of the art allowed Brubaker the flexibility to make this as much an emotional narrative as it was a chronological one. To his credit, Brubaker never shoots for visual or narrative pyrotechnics throughout the story, no matter how bizarre Reich's stories of battling with UFOs with orgone energy became. Indeed, one question left for the reader is that given that many of Reich's theories about sexuality were so progressive, what aspects (if any) of his orgone-related research (including seeding clouds) are valid? Brubaker asks that while Reich may have been delusional and jumped to some incorrect conclusions, it doesn't mean that many of his ideas weren't worth pursuing, albeit using different methods. Reich was a fantastic series about the ways in which ego and personality conflict with seeking the truth, and how those conflicts affect those around us.

Oafanthology, edited by Ed Luce. Luce's Wuvable Oaf is a genuine comics phenomenon, but one underrated aspect of that book is how much Luce loves to collaborate. This "collection of Wuvable Oaf drawings & stories" allowed Luce to work with fans, friends and admirers with his characters. The series (recently collected by Fantagraphics in a superbly well-designed hardcover) has always been part romance comic, part pro wrestling comic and part rock 'n roll comic. The fact that the titular character is a "bear" and that most of the characters are gay somehow manages not to matter much with regard to the above genres, yet the fact that most of the characters are gay is crucial to the series' DNA. It's assumed, uncompromising and direct, as Luce doesn't dilute his content for a crossover audience, yet the wacky but somehow relateable characters clearly appeal to a relatively wide audience. Fantagraphics wouldn't be publishing it if they didn't think so.

Oafanthology takes this crossover appeal and runs with it. For example, Luce's collaboration with Tom Neely, having Oaf meet Neely's "Henry and Glenn" characters, reflects Luce's own contributions to Neely's anthology and their shared aesthetic and cultural touchstones with regard to metal. The same is true for "The Spawn of Goteblud", drawn by Josh Bayer, who has used his scratchy line to write about pro wrestling elsewhere. Edie Fake's comic about Oaf's crazy cat working for the sadistic chef character is hilariously over the top. The Katie Skelly-drawn strip about the character who loves to wear dead cat skins is perfectly in Skelly's wheelhouse in drawing fashionable characters. In the same vein, Vanessa Davis's story about Oaf's grooming is perfectly her. There are a number of interesting pin-ups as well, including a mind-bending Junko Mizuno drawing, an appropriately disgusting one by Johnny Ryan and even one by mainstream artist Stephen Sadowski. None of this will make a lick of sense to non-Oaf fans, but it's a perfect supplement for those who are in the know.

Cyanide Milkshake #6, by Liz Suburbia. Suburbia just had her first book released by Fantagraphics, but this series is a catch-all for her other interests. This is the sort of one-woman anthology that's stuffed with gags, brief vignettes, a running serial, autobiographical notes and more. Suburbia's foice is clear and distinctive, and her line is both clear and expressive. A memory of nearly being kidnapped into a stranger's car and barely outrunning him is chilling, especially in the way she contrasts the terror of the moment with the calm of hiding out in a fenced-in yard with a rabbit staring at her. The post-apocalyptic romance "G.B.A" is exciting, funny and charming, mixing the Gary Panteresque style with a vividly detailed relationship story, one where commitment, choices and killing zombies all go hand-in-hand. Suburbia effortlessly blends fantasy, rock, feminism, punk, autobio, dogs and superhero gags into a surprisingly coherent package, held together by a singular aesthetic. This is the laboratory of a percolating and unique talent and indicative of the ways in which younger creators draw inspiration from a huge variety of sources.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mini Fiction: Reed, Lindner, Trower

The Titular Hero, by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill. For a writer who got her start doing slice-of-life comics, Reed certainly has a talent for writing fantasy. This mini that originally appeared online not only gets at the mechanics of being a fantasy adventurer, it also takes the piss out of the ridiculous amounts of sexism that pervades the genre. Hill can draw anything Reed throws at him, in this story about a party going to a seedy part of town and being exposed to certain seedy books. The "Lady Bosoms" title is a particular best-seller, and Hill drawing the spoof of big-breasted heroine while the adventurers critique it incredulously works quite well. Like all of the fantasy excerpts that Reed has written, I found myself wanting to find out what happens next with this group of characters.

The Black Feather Falls, Book Two, by Ellen Lindner. Lindner's elegant and stylish whodunnit continues, as her two female protagonists (a boutique worker and a secretary) follow the trail of a murder up to a remote island near Scotland. The book is part murder mystery, part buddy action story and part exploration of dark, personal roots. The two women overcome some rather extreme sexism in hilarious and dogged fashion as they piece together clues to essentially solve some of the whys and hows of the case, setting up the climactic third book. The story is really about trying to create a new identity and running away from one's past. In the case of Tina Swift, the protagonist, she hints that she was able to create a new life for herself after a life of abuse and horrible circumstances. Of course, the surprise ending of this book showed that she couldn't quite outrun every aspect of her past. Once again, the use of vivid and rich colors as well as the stylized character designs and lettering, give this comic a distinct and powerful sense of time and place. That's true of both the backgrounds but especially the fashions. Lindner is truly hitting her stride with this series.

REM Pt. 1, by M.R. Trower. Speaking of leaping forward, REM is Trower's best work to date. Like many of their comics, REM is a story about finding one's identity in a culture that demands that one fits into a set of rigorously defined categories. The story follows a young person named Rem who's about to go through the process of being sorted into a profession/caste by means of the mark placed their body by the "holy beast". When there's no mark to be found, Rem runs away, eventually finding safety with a group of fellow "deviants". The end of this chapter finds Rem embracing their new role, even as their future is uncertain. This is a story that begins with the nagging sense of not fitting in but that quickly moves on to its hero having a new sense of purpose, one filled with mystery, awe and wonder. Trower lists Moebius as an influence, and that's apparent both in terms of the intricacy of the line drawings & character design, as well as the trippiness of the backgrounds. Moebius' stories also tend to be about transformation and struggle, though Trower's take on this is uniquely theirs.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Check Your Privilege: Angie Bongiolatti

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was thanked by the author for offering him some suggestions after reading an earlier draft of the final book.)

Angie Bongiolatti (published by Secret Acres) is Mike Dawson's most interesting and challenging book. Dawson's comics tend to have a surface story covering up his real goals. (For example, Freddie and Me is on the surface a memoir about growing up as a fan of Queen but is really about the nature of memory.) On the surface, the book has two distinct threads: one follows a group of 20-somethings immediately post 9/11 amidst a great deal of personal and political turmoil, and the other follows the ways in which sex and relationships color our beliefs. Both threads center around the titular character, who is the one character who remains somewhat opaque in terms of her personal thoughts and dreams. Indeed, in my initial assessment of the book, I thought she was given too little to do. In thinking about Dawson's meta-story for this book, it became clearer that this book is really about the ways in which our points of view are inevitably colored by a number of sociopolitical factors, factors that are difficult to understand and empathize with.

There are a variety of political viewpoints espoused in this book. Dawson is careful not to turn characters into caricatures, however. For example, her boss (jon) at the online learning firm that's one of the hubs of the story is a little older and depicted as being politically conservative as well as kind of an asshole. However, his home life reveals a man under a great deal of stress with a new baby and the very real fears of losing his job. The intersection between sex and politics is often hilariously navigated, as a guy (Matt) from Angie's job attends a protest meeting in an attempt to get to hang out with her. Former college friends Amol and Malcolm are also in the mix, and flashbacks reveal how Angie and her then-boyfriend got them involved in a three-way. The privacy and secrecy of sex is strongly contrasted against the public nature of political activism, though Angie makes it clear that she's not ashamed of either.

Let's delve deeper into those sex scenes, because they're key moments in the book. The first, with the funny Amol, winds up being played for laughs, as he ejaculates on himself before anything even gets started and winds up going home. The second, with Malcolm, winds up being the real thing, but it turns out Angie's boyfriend was cooler with polyamorous activity more in theory than in practice. Angie sensed this when he kicked Malcolm in the head "accidentally" and later starts singing the song "You Don't Own Me" as a way of indicating just that--that her sexuality was hers and no one else's. When he grumbles about what he "let Malcolm do", that's Angie's breaking point: she's not owned by anyone. It's one of many cases in the book where a character utterly fails to recognize a divergent point of view and simultaneously fails to recognize the ways in which their social standing gives them a certain degree of privilege.

Dawson's visual choices were interesting. He went even cartoonier than usual, giving characters big heads in proportion to their bodies as a way of emphasizing emotions and the subtleties of slight facial tics--much like a caricaturist might. Angie in particular gives away everything with her facial expressions, and the scene in which she and her boyfriend have the confrontation that leads to them breaking up is especially masterful. Dawson wants us to look as these characters as people, small actors in a larger world stage but whose own point of view paints each of them as important players. It should also be noted that the slice-of-life situations Dawson puts his characters into are frequently quite funny; Dawson's gift for dialogue is crucial here, as it prevents the book from ever falling into didacticism.

Throughout the book, there are illustrated excerpts from the writer Arthur Koestler on the nature of the revolutionary, and how it related to both the religious zealot and the neurotic. The fuzzy, penciled art stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the book. The smart but cynical analysis is presented with no comment, other than its juxtaposition against the activities of the characters in the book. After 9/11, Angie joins a socialist organization and encourages those at work to attend. Koestler's comments seem to comment on Angie in particular, initially making her into a sort of naive figure. Matt and Amol hope that their attending the socialist meeting will get her attention, her boss Jon holds her views in contempt, and her radical friend Kim holds her views in contempt for entirely different reasons while still wanting to be around her. As the reader slowly discovers, Angie is no one's tool and has no time for fools. She more-or-less ditches both Matt and Amol at the meeting (she gets them to sit together!), she sneers at her boss and she winds up cutting Kim out of her life when she disparages Angie's attempts at being an activist while holding a cushy job.

Kim also winds up quoting Koestler's friend Orwell when she sees Amol while looking for Angie, a quote that essentially resigns one to the machine of the state and capitalism being all but impossible to change and advocates simply recording what one sees. In a sense, it's a nihilistic confirmation of Koestler's point of view, one sparked by a visit to the USSR as a witness to a Stalinist purging trial. The various layers of story and especially of Angie's history are crucial to Dawson's next move: quoting Langston Hughes' visit to the USSR at the same time Koestler was there. He notes Koestler's discomfort in areas of true deprivation and was less interested in that same trial than he delighted in the fact that he could walk around outside the courtroom and not have his behaviors monitored or prohibited in any way--a degree of respect and dignity for his personhood that he did not receive in his home country.

This story was brought up by a speaker at a socialist meeting attended by Angie, and gets to a key point: we talk about the importance of freedom, a somewhat abstract concept. (I'm not about to write off the Stalinist purges as glibly as the speaker does, considering how many millions were killed--though I think this may have been another intentional device by Dawson to indicate that she's as unable to see the point of view of the other side as the pro-capitalist set is). She notes that in a capitalist society, freedom is considered to be an absolute, while racism, poverty, etc are considered to be unfortunate but not priorities. Again, it's a matter of understanding how privilege informs one's worldview, even when one is not aware of it. The bottom line is that both points of view to some degree ignore simple humanism: respecting, nurturing and collaborating with others. Dawson seems to be saying that it's not enough to not do harm to others; we must actively help. The key word here is "active": Angie tries to change things, and Matt actually comes around to her point of view when he witnesses police brutality firsthand.

A friend of mine who's a college professor, when discussing the French revolution with his students, enjoyed putting them to the test in an interesting manner. He discussed the three ideals of the revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. He asked the class to close their eyes and raise their hands as to which of the three was most important to them. Invariably, the men chose liberty, the women chose equality, and hardly anyone ever chose fraternity. That sense of brotherly and sisterly love for one's fellow person is so often left behind when there's a paradigm shift of ideas, yet it seems to be the crucial bridge between liberty and equality co-existing as ideals. It's also an ideal that must filter down to every aspect of human relations, be it race, gender, sexuality or something else. It's interesting that Koestler himself was notorious for being a ladies' man, using his status as a famous writer to bed star-struck fans. It's one more way that his focus regarding freedom was a narrow one, indeed.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Give Me The Music: Dmitri Jackson and Ricky Miller/Julia Scheele

Blackwax Boulevard 1 and 2, by Dmitri Jackson. Originally and still currently a web series, these minis feature an incredibly sharply-defined set of characters who work at a dying indie record store. There's an obvious debt to Nick Hornby's High Fidelity here, but each member of the ensemble cast gets plenty of time and room to develop and prove that they're more than just one-note cartoons. While young Marsalis "Mars" Parker is ostensibly the main character of the strip, in no way is he simply a mouthpiece for the cartoonist or established as the character who's always right. Set in a decaying city, Blackwax Boulevard (the name of the store) is doing everything it can to stay in business, including stocking mainstream pop that Marsalis finds repulsive.

What Jackson does best is slowly generate stories out of character interactions; a woman Marsalis has a crush on turns out is going out with a glib street protester. We learn about the plight of the owner of the shop, who's lost a leg that he lost to diabetes replaced by an electric guitar. There are eccentric regulars and characters of various ages, genders and races. Race, gender, gentrification and other political issues are certainly addressed in this comic, but in a matter so organic that it never comes off as didactic. Jackson has an exaggerated, cartoony style that reminds me a bit of Kyle Baker by way of Ralph Bakshi. It's also clear that Jackson knows a lot about music, because the passionate arguments that various characters make come off as entirely authentic. The pace of the comic is pleasantly rambling and episodic, as though Jackson is trying to find out about his characters at the same time the reader is, but he never drifts so far as to get self-indulgent the way that so many webcomics can. This is a comic that's certainly deserving of wider recognition.

Metroland #1, by Ricky Miller & Julia Scheele. A rock 'n roll fairy tale is such an obvious mash-up that it's a wonder that it hasn't been attempted very often. Writer Ricky Miller credits the film Eddie and the Cruisers as an inspiration for his story of an alcoholic musician and the woman who took him on magical journeys through a window in a club called Metroland. The expressive character work of Scheele is an ideal match for this sort of dreamy story, especially with regard to the specifics of clothing as well as the muted pink and blue pastels that dominate the color scheme. While this is very much an introductory issue, the slow reveal of the series' more fantastic elements (the first hint being a modern-day poster on a wall advertising the new Beatles tour) turns this from simply a downbeat, slice-of-life story about being in a band into something else. Certainly, this comic is very much about that as well, and the particulars of being in a local scene are sharply observed and drolly written, but the fantasy aspects of the series take the metaphor of becoming a part of a scene as a means of escape make this comic especially intriguing. I'll be interested in seeing just what happens in the fantasy escape world, how and why the mysterious avatar of escape (Jessica) comes to leave the band, and whether the plot becomes tighter or simply revolves around the past. I also quite enjoyed the "bonus tracks" in this comic: one a flashback to how the main character (Ricky Stardust) and Jessica came to meet, and another about future, obsessed fans of the band.