Catalist: Rough Draft of a Grand Experiment

Tiresia reads the will of the Red God

Ever since Scott McCloud posited the existence of an “infinite canvas,” artists have been doing all that they can to extend the definition of “comics” as wide as possible. On the smallest scale, a webcomic can use its own webpage, beyond the panel, to capture a mood or, to drop a recent and hypeworthy example, mark the passage of time, like in this recent strip from the legendary, resurrected-at-a-snail’s-pace A Lesson is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible.

On the largest scale, we have massive multimedia undertakings like Homestuck, which have weaponized the internet as a medium, prioritizing moving images, interactivity, and original music. Taken as a whole, the comic is a brash sensory overload that barely resembles a “comic” at all. In a post-Homestuck world, the word “comic” has as much to do with Garfield and Action as  “marriage” has to do with old-school Christian mores.

The new, episodic more-than-a-webcomic Catalist, written by Daniel St. George with art by Jerome Queval and character designs by Jen Lee (of the fantastic Thunderpaw, which I previously wrote about here), follows the Homestuck tradition of going big, then bigger, then bigger and bigger and bigger. Though Catalist has obvious roots in webcomickery, its creators prefer the term “epic visual novel.” The project, published in weekly .gif servings and scored by atmospheric piano loops, stinks of genre-busting ambition for better and worse. Continue reading

Won’t superhero comics PLEASE think of the children?!

Mainstream superhero comics are imbued with a permanent asterisk, a stigma born from a number of stereotypes perfectly embodied by The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy. The basement-dweller, the neckbeard, the casual misogynist who relishes sex, violence, and exaggerated musculature in his (always “his”) art. Of course, stereotypes are just stereotypes, and there are plenty more superhero enthusiasts than this subset of readers.

Such as children!

Hell, I remember when I was just a children, I was all about the superheroes. Every Saturday morning it would be Superman, Batman, Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles, and I would head straight for the comic rack at the barbershop to pick up the new issue of X-Men, Spiderman, or whathaveyou. For a multitude of reasons, Young Horrible Paul was drawn to comics and superhero stories.

Just over a week ago, Comics Alliance’s Janette Asselin articulated the myriad reasons children dig superhero stories better than my cheap nostalgia ever can. In this fantastic read that cites psychologists, Supergirl writers and editors, librarians, and comic store owners, Asselin demonstrates why mainstream comic creators need to do more than just cater to the Comic Book Guys of the English-speaking world:

“Parents want to be able to give their kids inspiring superhero comics that are based on the heroes they know and love, or even just the ones that their kids are asking about. Currently, the companies that own those superheroes are not providing comics material that offers evergreen, accessible, kid-friendly storytelling.”

“It’s true; it’s not just “bam! pow!” (insert your own comics cliché of choice here); comics can be a wonderful developmental tool for children. Regardless of the genre, comics of any kind that are created for a young audience offer something that words alone do not. For new readers, pictures can help a great deal with making a story understandable.”

“If the comics industry is to thrive in the future, it needs to appeal to not just a wider variety of ages in its demographics, but also a broader diversity in terms of race and gender. [Psychologist Dr. Andrea] Letamendi has noted the effect diversity has on young comics readers. ‘When children read literature, they ask themselves, “How is this character like me?” and “What do I see in this character that I see in myself?” This is where gender can be important: Children notice differences at surprisingly young ages.'”

The article, and its many sources, damn a system that has polluted established properties–the kind of comics parents read as kids, and can no longer recommend to their own children due to inappropriate content–while failing to produce enough suitable alternatives. If a kid these days, let alone a kid who is not a straight white cis male, wants a superhero they can understand and relate to, their options are barren.

Three days ago, author of American-Born Chinese and all-around superstar Gene Yang wrote something of an addendum, arguing that comics as a general medium have richer opportunities for children’s literature, even though the slate of kid-friendly superheroes is relatively bare. To quote:

“Kids are reading lots and lots and lots of comics these days. They’re just not reading the same kinds of comics that their nerd parents did.”

While Asselin’s article takes a more elegiac tone about the death of the superhero mainstream, lamenting that today’s children won’t grow up to draw the superheroes of tomorrow, Yang isn’t quite as mournful. He rattles off half a dozen graphic novels outside of the superhero genre that have pushed their way into the mainstream. He assures us that his daughter loves the heck out of those books, and that’s just enough. You can get the same childhood joy and psychological, educational boons out of a comic, no matter what it’s about.

Basically: superheroes: who needs ’em? Even if the majority of current industry brass doesn’t want to greenlight diverse, accessible graphic literature, who cares about them when there’s tons of great stuff from the fringes going public? If children want it, parents will come. In addition to the titles Yang rattles off in his blog post (and Yang’s own kid-to-teen friendly books), there’s a healthy influx of quality comics coming in from independent publishers.

Françoise Mouly, best known for handpicking every New Yorker cover for the past twenty-one years, is one such publisher planting seeds for the next generation of children and cartoonists. With her line of TOON Books, Mouly is cultivating an armory of comics for kids as young as three-years-old, including one aimed at second-graders that unabashedly wears the superspandex. In her article, Asselin mentions that there are few genuine comic books, not just picture books, out there for very young children. If Mouly’s TOON vanguard breeds more success, then perhaps parents will find it easier to pick up a copy of Mo and Jo instead of wading through Wonder Woman’s troubled history to find a saga appropriate for their little one.

Mouly’s TOON comics remind me not of the old-guard, “nerd parents” comic properties, but of a relatively newer superhero who graced the inside of my third-grade classroom desk: Captain Underpants. When I am a nerd parent, maybe he will be the first superhero I introduce to my kids. Or maybe I’ll just pass down Bone, or Prime Baby, or even Rice Boy when they’re older. To paraphrase Megadeth, the world needs heroes. They might just look different from the ones from the last generation.

Too Much Coffee Man: My First Cup of Comic

When I was a wee lad of indeterminable age, I became accidentally exposed to my first non-mainstream comic, a satirical lark by the name of Too Much Coffee Man. My family was driving upstate to Ulster County, New York to see my grandparents up in the Catskills, and there was a comic shop we occasionally stopped at along the way in scenic New Paltz. My sister and I picked up a handful of Bongo’s Simpsons comics, or some of its many spinoffs, and my dad would venture into the back of the shop, the dank corner that smelled like ozone and overripe bananas, packed with alphabetized white crates three stacks high.

None of the comics I recognized. No Marvel, no DC, no Simpsons, so what could they be? I asked him, as he pulled a skinny issue from the crate. On the cover was a massive, steaming styrofoam cup, dwarfing a man clad in a woolly red jumpsuit. I had no idea what this unusual comic was, or why it would be buried so far in the back of the store, but the cover reassured me that it was, in fact, “The Lawsuit Issue.”

“Adult comics,” Horrible Dad said. “You probably wouldn’t get them.”

I was in shock.

My dad was buying pornography.

Naturally, I had to sneak a look.

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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.”

Tomboy by Liz Prince: Deconstructing the Girl

A quick disclaimer, before I begin. I do not know Liz Prince, but this blog owes its existence to her. I can give you several very good reasons why, but the biggest one is also the most obvious: Prince’s many minicomics were my gateway into the wonderful world of zines. I have, of course, my best friend and cartoonist (and YHF silent partner) Izzy to thank for pointing me in Prince’s direction, but let’s be real for a second. Prince did all the heavy lifting.

I Swallowed The Key To My Heart, a trilogy of sexual misadventure comics (the objectively best genre of art), were the first comic zines I ever read. I was lucky enough to pick up all three issues at once at Lorem Ipsum Books in Inman Square, Cambridge. Maybe it was because we, as I discovered, lived probably a couple dozen furlongs from each other in the Boston semi-suburbs, or maybe it was the way Prince developed entire ecosystems of friendship and romance with so few, clean pencil strokes, but reading those comics gave me the delicious chills.  She made the creation of great, honest art seem effortless, powerful, and universal. As a writer and artist, Liz Prince wasn’t just up my alley; she kicked me out of the alley and into the sprawling, gorgeous city itself.

To put it in terms a young Liz Prince, fifth grade Tomboy and Aladdin fanatic, would understand, I was seeing a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. Reading Tomboy, Prince’s new graphic memoir, gave me magic carpet feelings all over again. In her debut feature-length book, Prince documents her journey through the world of well-meaning grandmothers, cruel primary schoolers, and Santa Fe’s offbeat elite in a battle for acceptance as an outsider in a severely gendered world. Each page captures the poignancy and dry humor of her shorter works, while the compelling central theme of gender identity keeps the engine from losing steam.

Wait, no, that last sentence undersold it.

Tomboy cover, (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy (Zest Books, copyright Liz Prince)

Tomboy’s exploration of growing up outside the gender binary is textbook awesome. And I mean “textbook” literally! People ought to start assigning this in schools. Tomboy tackles society’s demand for girls to be “girly” in clear and digestible terms, making an expansive political statement that lingers and grows in power the more I think about it. In one particularly elegant metaphor, Prince condenses the innocent violence of children, who absorbed their knowledge and notions from parents, media, whathaveyou, into barfing gingerbread-man sponges. The visual is goofy yet menacing, like a tiny dog baring its teeth, and after retracing it ten times, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

The politics of Tomboy are relatable enough to fit anyone who has had to struggle with stigmas and stereotypes, but the heart of the memoir lies in the little details of Prince’s personal struggle. Really, when it comes to resonating moments, Tomboy is beyond rich. In a comedic highlight, Caleb, “sixth grade dreamboat” and object of Prince’s desire, demonstrates his handsomeness by slicking his hair back with a wedge of snow. The very next page takes that high point even higher, as young Prince mimics his action, transitioning from amazement to affected suaveness to lovestruck embarrassment in four panels and four sublimely simple facial expressions. On first read, it’s an adorable moment. On the second pass, the nuance blushes, the perfect distillation of tweenage infatuation at its inception.

These details add up to a revealing origin story (the cathartic finale feels like Peter Parker putting on his red spandex for the first time) that functions whether you are familiar with Prince’s oeuvre or not. There are still so many more individual moments I want to explore in depth, but to avoid rambling myself into a coma, I will have to save those discussions for later posts. Just know this: it all adds up to an incredible whole, one of the most subtly self-assured, honest, touching, hilarious, occasionally rage-inducing (without spoiling too much, I definitely yelled “WHAT THE FUCK PHYLLIS” at least twice, in a public space) debuts this year. Tomboy is a transformative experience for boys, girls, and everyone-in-betweens-and-outsides of all ages.

 

(Ask your bookstore to stock Tomboy if they don’t have it, or pick it up at Liz’s website Liz Prince Power, which has a bunch of her old booklets and zines too. In case you can’t tell, I’m a fan of those as well)

Lose-ing my shit for just a second (how do I delete this terrible pun headline just kidding)

I went to my friendly neighborhood comic book store today (I don’t throw the term “literal mecca” around lightly, but Quimby’s is the literal mecca of cool pictures and words in Chicagoland) to pick up some supplementary reading for a post about a certain Disney-themed zine, when I got derailed by Michael DeForge’s Lose #6 staring me right in the face. You can bet that I’ll be digging into that bad boy later this month, but first I’ve got to wring the fanboy juices out of this rag first.

 

Yes, I am very excited. Yes. I knew it was in the works, but I didn’t know it was out yet. I am excited. I like Lose. I like Michael DeForge. Oh boy, oh boy. Yes.

 

Okay. That should be good enough for now. Check the space above for more reckless appreciation of comics/zines/ephemera.

Futile Comix #2 by Mike Centeno: Let’s Talk About Sad, Baby

One look at the Futile Comics tumblr suggests that the author is more than just a run-of-the-mill sad sack cartoonist. “Visitors” is so bottled up with nebulous sorrow that it looks like it’s bleeding dirt, but strips like “Babel” play the prankster card when confronting life’s miseries. The more I read, the more I noticed strange details (like a hamburger with a hamburger face on its hamburger butt) dabbled between the parallel streaks of glee and gloom. All in all, it’s worth checking out, and the best of it reminds me of a more grounded KC Green.

Online offerings, as always, are kind of a mixed bag, so I oughta shift to the two short-form strips included in his new minicomic zine, Futile Comix No. 2, since that’s the issue that plunged me into this delightful ditch that I am calling the Centenosphere. Centeno sets the tone on the cover with a coiffed-up hamster doing his best Late 19th-Century Psychiatrist, with black holes for eyes. It’s cute, suggestive, and more than a little unnerving.

True to the Freudian getup, both of the stories contained in Futile Comix #2 contain oodles of psychological juice, working in ruminations on depression, anxiety, and gender identity—just to name what I got out of it. Centeno does a good job at keeping the subtext rich beneath each story’s narrations. In the first story, “Diamonds Are Forever,” he filters the beats of the story through the hamster Diamond’s mind. Poorly understood threats—from a mysterious malady to cloaked giants that sound oddly like human children—snowball into a single, suicidal ideation that proves, uh, futile to escape for poor Diamond.

If that plot summary sounds miserable, that’s because it is. But Centeno is smart to undercut the heaviness with stylized flairs of cuteness. Diamond, whether pensive, terrified, exhilarated, or wheezing out a chunk of petrified lung, is rendered grotesquely cute by his pitch-black gumdrop eyes. Every tiny, terrible emotion that he feels is really, really felt. The silhouette designs of his owner’s suffer by comparison; with so much of the story devoted to Diamond’s inner struggle, their plain, cartoony facial expressions came across as coy and distracting in visual and narrative terms.

All told, this gripe is a small water chestnut in the rich, tasty kung pao chicken plate called “Diamonds Are Forever.” But, as the saying goes, come for the hamsters and stay for the flaming island godheads, right? Because flaming godheads is literally what “The God That Wasn’t There,” perhaps among the Top 10 Most Depressing Genesis Myths I’ve ever read, has to offer.

Not-literally, it’s a divine fable that dishes up the human condition. But first: what if? What if, at the epicentre of reality, is a universe unmade by fear, anxiety, and squandered potential? What if gods got self-conscious? “The God That Wasn’t There” considers these tough questions vis a vis the eponymous god, a cross between a runic Easter Island skull and a Ghastly.

Compared to “Diamonds,” “God” is a much more straightforward allegory that benefits two tons from an unbound, aggressive visual palette. It’s an exaggerated style befitting of the creation of the world, full of fire without sacrificing clarity. Or irony! Of course, it would not be Futile Comix without irony, in this case of the self-reflexive kind. When the god is worried the most about its unfilled potential, it expresses creative impotence through luxurious exaggerations, exploding beyond traditional panel space, contorting the narration around its avatar. You are forced to feel the god’s massive stores of power upfront, culminating in an ending devastatingly anticlimactic.

For anyone who fancies themselves a creative, or has dealt with image issues in any form, or social anxiety, the list goes on, the tale is powerful, clear, and just a little too-close-to-home. No real laughs to be found there, that is just fine. The poetry of the art speaks for itself.

Maybe read it just before you go to bed and you need that little extra something to goose the restless spirits, or maybe read it when you’re in a bad-though-not-that­-bad mood and could use a sick laugh, but basically just read Futile Comix in general. Futile Comix at its best, by tapping into the terrors that grind gods, monsters, and hamsters alike into futile catatonia, manages to hit that blend of existential dread and ironic resignation that few practitioners of the black comedy arts ever manage to get right.

 

(Request the Futile Comix zine at your local bookstore, comic store, or zine library! Or why don’t you just ask Mikey C. himself, why not?)