Speculative Relationships: Noodly appendages of pure love

Tyrell Cannon brought them together, but science fiction made them fall in love.

“Them,” in this case, refers to the cluster of likeminded cartoonists (and one illustrator, Michael Manomivibul, taking a first whack at this whole comics shindig) that dreamt up Speculative Relationships, a brand new, Kickstarter-certified anthology of science fiction/romance hybrid comics. “Dreamt up,” in this case, actually means “put in a shitton of hard, painstaking, deadline-missing, detail-inundating work,” as the authors explained last night at Quimby’s.

In a mirthful discussion panel—on average, every fourth sentence made the room LOL—authors Tyrell Cannon, Daniel Warren Johnson, Scott Kroll, and Isabella Rotman (Manomivibul and Rinko Endo couldn’t make it, because of distances) talked about why, and how, these stories of romantic science fiction came to be.  The origin story is mundane—basically, Cannon emailed everyone and they said “yes”—but the product is artistically diverse, beautifully-rendered, and unified by a pervading sense of clever warmth. I’ll get into Speculative Fiction in-depth later, possibly via Fox Hunting, so until then here’s the quick skinny on each contributing artist, what I learned about them at Quimby’s, and what else they offer to the world:

  • Tyrell Cannon knows how to use a computer. He likes to spend a lot of time on the details. He has started using smaller pens to put details on his details, and will eventually get even smaller pens and smaller pens until he becomes a detail. He’s got a book about the Green River Killer that sounds right up my alley.
  • Scott Kroll knows how to make a book and wear a suit. He has a kind of adorable thing for tentacles maybe. Related to Nick Kroll? Not impossible. Owlbear.
  • Daniel Warren Johnson is a veteran of romance comics, if you can count hacked limbs and bloodstrewn carcasses as romance (you very well can! love is strange!). He admits that his style tilts towards the mainstream, but he is trying to switch it up. Dark Horse is the daddy of Ghost Fleet, which he illustrates but doesn’t write. He adamantly refuses, REFUSES to hand letter, so his fiancee lettered for him. This confession led Tyrell and Scott to also come clean that their fiancees/wives also helped them in the publishing/drawing process.
  • Isabella Rotman was the only artist I knew about going in, from her line of educational sex comics. She looked visibly uncomfortable when everyone else talked about fiancees and wives. She’s got a knack for turning comics into musically-accompanied slideshows, a talent she showed earlier this year at Brain Frame, and would probably be a kickass animator. More than anything, though, she really just wants to draw lesbians… IN SPACE!
  • Because the Kickstarter couldn’t reach the $3.5 million dollar stretch bonus for a private jet, Michael Manomivibul and Rinko Endo couldn’t attend the donut-fueled presentation. Luckily, lots can be learned about them from their websites!

The Elsewhere: Hastings in in, North is out at Adventure Time comic. Gran 2017?

If you’re like me, you probably like Adventure Time, Dinosaur Comics, Dr. McNinja, chicken soup, and watching Adventure Time reruns while slurping chicken soup. If you’re like me, then you might find yesterday’s news bittersweet, too: ComicsAlliance reports that Ryan North, of Dinosaur Comics, has left as head writer of the KaBOOM Studios official Adventure Time comic series, to be replaced by Christopher Hastings, of McNinja.

Though I didn’t follow his tenure issue-to-issue, Ryan North, a bit of a renaissance man in the webcomic world, made some mighty, Eisner-validated product. I’ve got no doubt that a writer of Hastings’s caliber could continue putting out work at the same very, very, very high standard. In fact, I’m inclined to believe there’s a chance it might be even better! Hastings’s tone–which I would describe as “fifteen year old from 1994 by way of trickster demigod”–seems like a natural fit to the post-post-apocalyptic surreal magical learningscape of Ooo, and perhaps the ideal candidate to write for the preteen (and preteens of all ages) demographic that’s fallen in love with AT. It’s as natural a fit as KC Green is to the Regular Show comic–which, to this day, remains the most remarkable synergy between property and voice in entire comicsphere.

Which got me thinking: if not Hastings, then who? Who would be his dream replacement in another three years?

The easy answer is Meredith Gran, who tested her mettle with Marceline and the Scream Queens. She’s got the Midas Touch (which we should rebrand  the “Meredith Touch”) for the kind of character-driven pathos at the core of a great AT story, plus she knows her way around a goofy aesthetic like few others. It might mean I’d have to suffer reduced Octopus Pie updates for many more moons, but damn it would be worth it to see Gran get the full-time distinction she deserves.

So I know Hastings just got the job, and I’m excited to see the places he will take the comic down the line, but I’m gonna start making “GRAN 2017” banners and store them in the bike room.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley: Food for Thought

Despite the improvisatory stream-of-comicness, lack of paneled styling, and curious traveler’s heart, An Age of License is a tethered book. Lucy Knisley makes this obvious from the half-title, shackling her floating body to the cursive “e” at the end of “License” like a ball-and-chain. We are warned, with this premonition, to recognize the limits of freedom, even when faced with a remarkable opportunity to momentarily cast aside our “normal” lives. Things that go up, must come down.

An Age of License: A Travelogue is the story of going up, but coming down never leaves its mind. For every idyllic moment author Lucy Knisley spends on Norway’s decadent cuisine or her Nordic lover’s chiseled face, there’s a sobering soliloquy on careers, marriage, or privilege. These doses of reality work greatly to the book’s advantage, lending weight–even profundity–to an already vivid and amusing tale of flights, sights, and romance. A trifle, this ain’t.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics

Plus, the cover is REALLY fun to touch. It’s got, like, three textures. (An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics)

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Panel Therapy: Tomboy and the Unknowable Horrors of Tweenhood

A great comic book, like any great art, sticks with us long after we’ve left it. A really great comic book burrows deep into our soul, leaving a lasting impression or a feeling we just can’t shake. For those occasions, I have started offering pro bono Panel Therapy.
Join me tonight, as I dig into the recesses of my psyche and analyze more closely one of my favorite sequences from Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by the inimitable Liz Prince. In this stunning sequence, Prince takes a step back from the narration driving her memoir to document a moment of youthful brutality. For some extra background, check out my full review of Tomboy for some sweet, sweet big picture.

Throughout Tomboy, Prince diagnoses, in no uncertain terms, the myriad torments she endured as a child who didn’t reflect gender norms. She narrates her journey through the He-Man Woman Haters of Little League, guides us through the perils of swimming with one’s shirt on, and candidly recalls the sucker punch she received for standing up for her brother to an intimidating sixth-grader. Girls tease her behind her back, boys openly mock her, other children’s parents just don’t understand her. Prince passes through each gauntlet in one piece, but each little brick thrown at her builds a Lego castle of confusion (insecurity knights and body issues catapult sold separately).

Despite the constant psychological assault from outside forces, Prince (both author and child) manages to press forward and keep Tomboy‘s narrative running smoothly. Even if young Prince cannot comprehend the full ramifications imposed on her by the gender binary, she still possesses a basic understanding of her aggressors’ motivations (or elder Prince, who I am now calling Liz to avoid confusion, at least imbues this understanding, as narrator, upon her younger self). She understands that she is perceived as neither girl nor boy, or understands that standing up for her brother earned a punch in the tummy. Cause and effect, at least, makes her misery and confusion marginally clearer, and the book is able to proceed at a steady, even confident clip.

That is, until Tyler gets all up in her business.

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Thunderpaw by Jen Lee: Surviving the Dogpocalypse

A GIF in the right hands is a powerful tool, as R.A. Villaneuva explained to AAWW the other day. Using, of course, naught but a series of GIFs, the award-winning poet delves into the versatile superpowers of the simple, soundless moving image format. However, the interview stretches to prove that GIFs can capture the whole range of human emotion by inherently limiting itself to reaction GIFs, the kind you find in emails or image boards.

MFW they could have just mentioned Thunderpaw: In The Ashes of Fire Mountain and dropped the mic:

Source: Tumblrpaw

Ollie’s like “whaaaaaaat” and I’m like “yah right” (credit: Jen Lee. Click for some sweet, sweet Thunderpaw)

Integrating GIF artwork into webcomics has been around for years (MS Paint Adventures is probably the most well-known example) and using the “infinite canvas” has been around for even longer (Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life turns eleven this November. Eleven!), but Thunderpaw, an in-progress webcomic from Jen Lee about two dogs navigating the end of the world, may be Exhibit A for devastating use of both innovations.

It starts out innocuously enough with some wobbly text on an ominous gradient: “It was the brightest night we ever saw…” Once those words sink in, Thunderpaw‘s apocalyptic hellscape dashes your throat and refuses to come out. Thunder crashes on a mountain. Birds swoop from the sky (a Hitchcockian motif that never fails to turn my stomach) behind the gnarled faces of a dog-like demigod (demidog?). The canine brothers Bruno and Ollie—“good dogs,” Ollie keeps reassuring—awake in an abandoned car with no masters, no signs of life besides themselves. Lightning flashes, fire rains from the sky, and the race against time begins.

As if the main plot weren’t enthralling and mysterious enough, Lee pulls back from the action at crucial moments for surreal flashbacks, abstract diversions, and one honest-to-demidog drug trip. These creative tangents pay off remarkably, keeping up the kinetic pace by ramping up the psychedelic visuals. In one such moment, a fever dream by Ollie turns into a nightmare when Bruno, flickering on a park bench in the distance, slowly turns around. His face is hollow; smoke plumes from his eye sockets. The effect is more than disorienting, more than just a window-dressing mood moment or a cheap piece of dark shock. Imbued by childhood fears, curdling brotherly love, dream logic, and Jen Lee’s superbly disturbing style, the panels are downright terrifying.

Try as I might, though, my words cannot do full justice to Lee’s incredible art. If cartooning were a seven layer cake, Thunderpaw is baking the eighth layer. Bruno and Ollie’s characterizations are packed into the way their eyes move in their introductory panels, how Bruno jumps between chairs while Ollie visibly shivers in a ball, the Squigglevision avatar of fear. By cloaking her birds in shadow, or rocketing them by at breakneck speeds, Lee turns an entire class of beings into angels of death. I could write treatises on the details that bring each panel to life, but that would be invariably way duller than just letting them soak, in all their gloryThunderpaw itself is still in its infancy—only one chapter is completed and, according to Lee’s Patreon, the story continues apace at four pages per month—but it manages to pack two frames of nuance into every panel.

These aren’t waterproof scientific measurements, but take my word for it that Thunderpaw rocks incredibly hard, despite the subtitle that sort of sounds like a family film starring Dwayne Johnson. But as far as nitpicks go, that’s about as small as they get. As it stands, itis one of the most breathless, engrossing works-in-progress on the web today. My heart was palpitating when I got current, and I look forward to it palpitating again in the coming months.

The Elsewhere: Asian American Writers’ Workshop interviews Michael DeForge

Now here’s a more innocuous example of separating the art from the artist: we can rest easy now knowing that Michael DeForge really, definitely is not a devil-may-care urethra-needling madman.

Snag-grabbing subheadline aside, this interview is really on point and just makes me more excited to get a chance to dive into DeForge’s catalog. I’m just now, particularly in Lose #2, seeing the Junji Ito, which (being a tremendous fan of Uzumaki) I can’t believe I had overlooked. The distinction the interviewer makes between “discriminate” and “indiscriminate” weirdness also resounds hard. It’s the difference between making art for the shock value, or using shock as a tool to probe something deeper.

Here are some more choice excerpts for quotable reference (or for those who want to save precious few seconds by clicking offsite–though, frankly, AAWW is awesome and could use the hits):

“I hope when I do show violence that there is some weight to it, because I do have a lot of sort of body-horror stuff, but it’s usually reacting to people’s bodies transforming. I am trying to make it more transformative.”

“…my job thankfully doesn’t care if I spend all day drawing dicks as long as I meet my deadlines.”

“[Tumblr] fed into my most narcissistic tendencies–being able to compulsively check comics for notes or reblogs so quickly after finishing them.”

” I feel like being Canadian I have some affinity towards nature that’s purely just based on weird historical stuff I read as a kid or landscape art I had to look at in art class.”

And, lastly and possibly-most-ly:

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine the opposing pectorals of the two men on the Jiraiya sweatshirt crushing a human face, forever.”

Waseca AfterDark #18: Ghost Town Literature, Part 2

Previously on AMC’s Your Horrible Family

“Put it down, Danny!”

“Is that right?”


“Oh boy!”

“I promised Maggie I wouldn’t go there…”

Ponderous stare.

“Heh. Heh heh.”

And now: our thrilling conclusion

Every zine has a history. Perzines, often and to their credit, will slam this history in your face, every minute personal detail relished for all of its honest glory. Zines like Waseca AfterDark capture history in a dissimilar way, casting a wider net to pinpoint a specific moment of space as well as time. But you should know this already if you read Part One.

So every zine has a history, that much is established. But no one tells zines that history exists on a spectrum. Issue #2 of your zine, such a fantastic achievement at the time, can be grist for the Mortified mill by the time you hit #17. Stories I wrote in high school represent a person I disagree with, resent to a degree, yet am obliged to identify with. It is a reflection of my “was,” the token of my past that I have preserved through immutable words. The world changes, but the word does not.

Waseca AfterDark is the “was” that precedes an iceberg, a mammoth story lurking beneath a seemingly barren surface. My research into the zine’s origins began with a frightful discovery. I sought out founder, editor, and ersatz Waseca historian Michael W. Flynn to inquire about purchasing back issues, but learned via online obituary that he had passed away in February 2014—only two weeks prior to the day I purchased the zine. Commence chills.

In AfterDark’s “Techno Spotlight,” a column about technology trends, Flynn writes with idiosyncratic nonchalance: “Man creates technology to help him alter and control his surroundings. But technology is a double edged sword. It alters and controls its creator.” Though primitive in its technological import, the zine in my possession had become altered by the state of its author. The zine was already a compelling artifact, the product of one man’s attempt to “control” his small and vivid Wasecan life by committing it to pen and paper, but news of his death lent it an intangible weight. I felt like I had stumbled upon a post-mortem Facebook of an acquaintance. My heart nearly broke.

It was 3:00 AM CST, the rest of my Albany Park apartment soundly asleep, and I needed some catharsis. Was there anyone else to talk to about the joy of Flynn’s celebration of southern Minnesota’s music scene? Or the weirdness of his concluding essay “America!”, a digressive treatise on patriotism that touches upon everything from the Bill of Rights to Pee Wee Herman? Waseca AfterDark felt like such a bizarre, personal touchstone that I could not handle it alone.

With only the physical address of the AfterDark office circa 1998 to go off of, my hopes for learning more about this mysterious zine were rapidly fading. Then, I realized the solution. He had been staring me in the face all along.

The man known as Hawk—whose actual name I am withholding out of tact—the subject of AfterDark’s cover story, whose goateed Mona Lisa smile beckoned to me from the Quimby’s shelf, was the answer. He was a family man, a tattoo artist, and a KISS superfan (dude draws a mean Gene Simmons portrait). At the end of Hawk’s brief AfterDark biography, Flynn remarks that he planned on starting his own tattoo parlor called Hawkster Ink. Lo and behold, some quick googling showed that Hawkster Ink still stood, Simmons and all. Sixteen years after-AfterDark, everything seemed to be coming up Hawkster.

But I noticed something a little off.

The Hawkster Ink of today was not located in Waseca, nor was it a tattoo parlor.

I reached out to Hawk via the site’s contact form. Our brief email correspondence pulverized the AfterDark rabbit hole, leaving a city-sized crater.

Beneath the sports bars, the taxidermy store, the spots for Domino’s Pizza, the portraits and photographs of local color, the vibrant music portraits, the blues harmonicas, the rambling essays, and the defunct telephone numbers—beneath it all lay a drug conspiracy, a renegade judge, and three tons of marijuana moving across state lines.

I am omitting a link to the court transcript (though publically available) that describes these goings-on of southern Minnesota’s seedy underbelly out of deference to Mr. Hawk, who I am sure values his privacy over a semi-stranger rehashing the crazy shit that went on in his past. Plus, he also told me that he would one day like to write a book about the whole shebang; by all rights, the bizarre drug conspiracy lurking under Waseca AfterDark’s surface is Hawk’s story to tell, not mine.

So what, then, is the story I am left with? For a chance pick off the bargain rack at a Chicago bookstore, this unassuming pamphlet packed in untold calories of food for thought. I have read comics that made me bowl off my bed with laughter, and I have parsed perzine scrawlings that burned my eyes with welling tears. Still, nothing approaches Waseca AfterDark’s strange bouquet. The product of a niche I can never possibly represent—a time far gone and a space far, far away—it has value as a piece of outlandish art* as well as a thoroughly unique cultural artifact, collecting the ultra-specific past while reflecting the melancholy present.

“The jam goes on,” Flynn writes, describing the weekly jam sessions at the Office, a defunct bar in Owatonna, “Bring your axe, sit a spell, play a while and just listen to what the area musicians are up to. It’ll surprise you.” Waseca AfterDark may not publish anymore, but it has not succumbed to history. Its jam goes on, and I have the musings and mullets to prove it.


*- I realize I spent very little time actually talking about Flynn’s essays, which have really remarkable cadences, or the non sequitur cartoon by Michael Miller. I plan on attaching most of the pages in the zine to this post once I get access to my scanner so y’all can see for yourselves.

Waseca AfterDark #18: Ghost Town Literature, Part 1

Every month in the Great City-State of Chicago, the Chicago Publishers Resource Center hosts a zine zine club (as opposed to a zine book club, which would just be daft) that, as you might guess, I am a pretty big fan of. This month’s meeting date was just confirmed via newsletter: October 9th, 7 – 9 PM. If you can make it out there, come say hello! The discussion is lively, the snacks are plentiful, and, for one month only, the zines will be spooky as hell.

Because, duh of course, it’s the witching month. Halloween is in a scant 30 days and October’s zine club tasks participants to bring a “dead” zine, one long out of print, lost to the world, or of a similarly ethereal nature. When John, ChiPRC honcho and zine zine club moderator (as much as a small circle of like-minded folks need a moderator), announced this theme at the end of last month’s meeting, I almost jumped out of my seat and saluted the heavens. I had the perfect zine for the occasion. So perfect, in fact, that I can barely wait another 8 days to talk about it.

Here’s the sneak peek: no, it isn’t a minicomic, nor is it a perzine or an issue zine. Waseca AfterDark #18 (No link, sorry, cannot find a trace of it on the internet) fits into no category but its own. This zine, this spooky-as-hell zine, is preoccupied with the state of a  small town of Waseca, Minnesota circa 1998. Standing 9,000 folks strong as of the latest census, Waseca is a city I have never visited, likely may not ever visit, and apparently had a zine documenting local culture through the ’90s. I don’t know when it started production, or when it ended, but issue #18 fell into my hands off the Quimby’s shelf for only two quarters. Within 30 seconds of spotting it, and the smiling, mullet’d man gracing its cover, I was mesmerized.

First, I wondered how Quimby’s, a mere 7 hour drive from Waseca, came into possession of this zine, and this issue in particular. After reading it cover-to-cover a couple times, my mind turned to research: forget how it got to Chicago, where did this come from at all? I’ve heard to zines documenting trends and culture in big cities like New York and Boston, but who could have expected a product of a culture so small and specific, 16 pages dominated by advertisements for local tattoo parlors and sports bars and laser toner cartridge stores, rounded out by a handful of essays written by one Michael Flynn? I did not, but I was amazed. Once again, zines proved to be extremely versatile editorial objects, capable of capturing even the smallest cultural ephemera.

I was ready to put Waseca AfterDark #18 back on the shelf. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Something strange, implacable, still compelled me to it. Butterflies crowded my stomach.

I needed to know what happened to it, what happened to Waseca, the man on the cover (“Hawk,” who apparently was just starting a tattoo parlor at the time of #18‘s publishing), and Michael W. Flynn, the man behind it all. I needed to dig deep and open the time capsule.

And that’s when Waseca AfterDark started to get, uh, dark. Very dark.