A “Migraine” You’ll Actually Be Glad To Have

Featuring one panel per page and a pocket-sized horizontal format, lianhuanhua have been a staple of Chinese popular culture for decades, providing an affordable, and eminently portable, “delivery system” for mass-appeal sequential art storytelling. Some of the more dominant genres to grace the pages of these easily-digestible miniature magazines over the years, according to Paradise Systems editor/publisher R. Orion Martin, have been “fables, kung fu epics, and unauthorized adaptations of foreign films,” but with his own imprint’s entry into the world of lianhuanhua Martin seeks to bring something of an “art comics”  ethos into a field that has been previously closed off to anything that fell outside a generally populist aesthetic sense. As always, he’s clearly not short on ambition.

My first exposure to lianhuanhua Paradise Systems-style comes by way of Shanghai-based cartoonist Woshibai’s recently-released Migraine, and to say I’m eager for Martin to get more of these made would be an understatement of semi-epic proportions, as this is not only a complex and compelling read, but a truly unique one, as well, despite being fairly easily classifiable as yet another entry in a storytelling “canon” we’re all well familiar with. If that makes little to no sense now, read on, and all will be explained —

Illustrated in a thoroughly absorbing style that stresses functionality over obtrusively-laid-on style and written in a distant, dare I say even clinical, tone to match, this book reveals more about itself with each successive read — and re-reading proves to be something of a compulsive experience given that one can go from cover to cover here several times in the length of time it takes to read a standard-format Western comic book. Of course, one wouldn’t want to do such a thing if the story itself weren’t good, but that’s of no concern here as Woshibai’s comic is very good indeed.

Ostensibly autobiographical in nature, the story here is a simple-but-powerful rumination on, and reminiscence of, important and/or traumatic childhood events that flood the mind of a cartoonist after he stops working and dims the lights in response to that titular migraine headache. The succession of memories explored is pretty linear in nature : his mother leaves for Japan when he’s in the first grade, his father subsequently becomes ill, and between and after all that he struggles through the fears, the hijinks (harmless and otherwise), and the uncomfortable onset of early sexual impulses that all kids do, albeit in a manner that suggests he was far more prone to the internalization of shame and guilt than most children. In another life, who knows? He might have made a pretty good Catholic. In this one, he’s a damn good cartoonist.

Some of his actions/reactions, such as covering the telephone with a blanket to silence its ringing as pictured above, may seem peculiar, but when you think back to stuff you did when you were seven or eight years old, chances are you exhibited some curious behaviors of your own for reasons you most likely can no longer fathom. And it’s in that space between the him that he was then and the him that he is now that Woshibai constructs an invisible narrative bridge that is entirely felt and understood despite never really being shown. The idea that a child who perceived things in a singular and “off-kilter” way, one whose developing worldview was informed by abandonment and tragedy, should grow up to be the sort of person who has learned, likely for purposes of emotional survival, to distance himself from the events of his own life even as he ruminates upon them, makes a lot of sense and makes Woshibai himself (or, if you want to be technical about it, his stand-in) seem a very sympathetic character, even as the memories he works through play themselves out absent so much as an ounce of sentimentality attached to them.

That emotional distance is reflected in the individual panel drawings here, as well, most (although not all) of which feature economically-delineated figures presented straight-ahead and in mid-range, in front of either stark white or barely-nuanced gray backgrounds, allowing readers to draw a clear line from childhood to adulthood to the artistic output said adulthood produces. It’s a lot to accomplish, particularly for a character/cartoonist whose facial expressions seem downright allergic to conveying any kind of emotional affect, but no comic since Jeff Nicholson’s sublime-but-harrowing (or maybe that should be harrowing-but-sublime?) Through The Habitrails, which wore its Eastern aesthetic influence on its sleeve, has communicated so much with entirely blank faces.

Questions about how who we were ultimately informs who we are will no doubt linger in the mind of readers here, questions that are compounded and, most excitingly, never directly answered as one undertakes those inevitable and numerous re-reads I was talking about just moments ago. This is revelatory, soul-baring work communicated in the least manipulative way possible and, as such, stands out as one of the most original and intriguing autobio comics in years — from any corner of the world.

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The $7 price tag that Migraine carries is admittedly a bit steep given the page count and size of the comic, but I wouldn’t recommend it as enthusiastically as I am if I didn’t think the story it presented more than earned every single penny it costs you. Order your copy directly from Paradise Systems at https://paradise-systems.com/products/migraine?variant=6934101327905

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/06/2019 – 01/12/2019, Paradise Systems

Editor/translator/curator/publisher R. Orion Martin is doing some seriously extraordinary things with his Paradise Systems imprint, bringing the best in contemporary “alternative” cartooning from China to these shores is sumptuously-formatted and impeccably-designed packages. These are some of the most utterly unique comics on the planet (no exaggeration), and well worth your time and money. Four of my favorite recent releases follow —

Friendship Forever by Inkee Wang occupies some bizarre middle ground between Simon Hanselmann and Austin English, with pliable, gelatinous, bulbous characters toiling away at a dark approximation of what, I guess, passes for “friendship.” But mostly they’re just assholes to each other because, hey, it relieves the tedium of droll, everyday existence. Laugh-out-loud funny in a “guilty pleasure” sort of way, this collection of strips and sketches has a real and unforced fluidity to it, even if it ultimately, in dry parlance, “goes nowhere.” A triumph of color, design, and questionable intentions that offers good value for money at eight bucks, seeing as how you’ll return to it again and again just to make sure you really understand what the fuck it is that you’re witnessing.

Electrocat & Lightning Dog by Bu Er Miao is a riso-printed explosion of color, motion, and energy that charts the exploits of strawberry-farming anthropomorphic animals Mr. Meow and Mr. Woof (need I specify the species of each?), who lead near-shut-in lives until a genie living in a cream-filled strawberry grants the kitty a wish that sends him in search of his (apparently) first-ever girlfriend. There are lots of comics about nights out clubbing and the like, but none like this. A little steep at $15, it’s true, but nevertheless a lot of fun and a legit visual marvel packed with plenty of riotously absurd humor.

Ellipsis by Diane Zhou is another surreal mini-masterpiece, tracking the “evolution” of a duck egg farmer who finds herself elevated to goddess status after being knocked on the noggin by a hailstone. Perhaps the most formally experimental comic of our foursome here — now that’s really saying something! — Zhou’s bright hues, inspired page layouts, and even the characters themselves, are all extrapolated from interpretations of old family photos run through an Optical Character Recognition software program. Supremely inventive stuff that plays entirely by its own set of rules, and a veritable steal at $8.

Captivity by Xiang Yata is, from this critic’s perspective, the crown jewel of this ridiculously impressive foursome, a handsomely-oversized publication of wistful and sublime power, loaded from edge to edge with some of the most hauntingly beautiful, richly-textured graphite illustrations your eyes have ever set upon, ingeniously assembled into a near-wordless poetic reminiscence on longing, infatuation, romantic fixation, and anything and everything else that holds our hearts in bondage. A genuine show-stopper of a book that, like the woman it centers around, arrives as a quiet storm and never lets you go. You need this a whole lot more than you need the ten dollars it costs to purchase it, that’s just a fact.

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Any or all of these comics are available for purchase individually on the Paradise Systems website, and for the budget-conscious among you (which, I’m assuming, means everybody), Martin has also put together a package deal featuring all of his company’s offerings — another of which, Yan Cong’s Cry, was reviewed on this site just yesterday, with at least one more coming up in the next day or two here — for $65. Check it all out at https://paradise-systems.com/

 

 

 

 

“Cry” Tears Of Sorrow, Tears Of Joy

Rendered in a combination of pen and graphite with exquisitely emotive precision, groundbreaking Chinese “alternative” cartoonist Yan Cong’s 2018 Paradise Systems release, Cry, is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, of that there is no doubt. But being that its brisk, economic narrative is primarily focused on immediate-post-break-up loneliness, what will surely surprise many is that it’s also a feast for the heart.

Not an easy one to consume, by any standard of measure, but one that lingers deliciously, that seeps in, its flavors revealing themselves over time as the work is allowed to stew, simmer, and be digested slowly. Yeah, I’m hungry as I write this — is it that obvious?

Ostensibly, this short-but-conceptually-dense book is about a guy, and a fairly typical-seeming one at that, who apparently does what a lot of typical guys do : takes his girlfriend for granted, doesn’t take time to understand her concerns, etc., until she finally decides she’s had enough and walks out the door, apparently never to return. He finds the business card for a sex worker lying discarded on a floor fairly shortly after and mulls over the idea of calling her to arrange a visit/appointment, tossing and turning through sleepless nights, only his cat for company, before finally deciding, what the hell, he’ll go over there — only to have the encounter go nothing as expected.

But that’s really only part of the story : the rest is told by and through anyone but our protagonist, even though it reflects numerous facets of his outer and inner life, adds crucial context and subtext to his day-to-day reality. What I’m getting at here, in an admittedly roundabout way, is that Cong uses the people, plants, animals, and even inanimate objects that surround and interact with his character to flesh out the narrative, to universalize it, to add dimension, depth, and texture to a tale that is only, and deceptively, “simple” on the surface level to begin with.

Every detail here matters, so pay attention to those floorboards, those cracks in the walls, those passers-by on the street, those crisscrossing electrical wires, that water rushing from the faucet — and realize that while that empty bed looms large, all these facets are important, and make up the world that this newly-single guy lives in. Consider how all these things go about their business, or simply continue to be what they are, regardless of his circumstances. Understand that the world keeps spinning, even though his world has ground to a halt.

That may sound uncaring, even oppressive in its own way, despite the fact that it is, of course, true — but there’s also a certain sense of freedom to be found, if you dig hard enough, in the idea that things keep on keepin’ on despite our reality falling to pieces. It means that we can go on, too — that our problems and challenges are only as large as we allow them to be, that there’s a bigger picture that we’re still a part of. Buuuuuuttttt —

You have to be ready to dip your toes back into those larger metaphorical waters, and whether or not this character actually is prepared to do so seems an open question at best, and one that you have to wait until the very last page to have the answer to. That “answer” will leave you a little perplexed, perhaps unsure whether to laugh, cry, or both, but it’s a very appropriate — I dare say even pitch-perfect — note upon which to conclude this quick, but highly memorable, journey.

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Paradise Systems is a fairly new specialty publisher in the small press scene, and one that is doing a truly superb job of bringing the best in Chinese cartooning to American audiences. I’ll be looking at some more or their offerings in the next few days, including in the next Weekly Reading Round-Up column, but you owe it to yourself to give their stuff a look. Cry can be ordered from them directly by clicking on this link :https://paradise-systems.com/products/cry

 

Chris Reynolds Maps The Geography Of Your Dreams In “The New World : Comics From Mauretenia”

I.

I have a recurring dream about a house.

My house, to be specific, but not really : there are extra rooms I’ve never seen before, large walk-in closets that my wife and I both wish we had but don’t, cavernous storage spaces with nothing in them — hell, one time I even discovered a massive interconnected underground aqueduct system that carried sewage (ugghhh) along in a canal but had sidewalks on either side that literally led to every other house in town; houses you could then enter unless folks had their cellar doors locked. Which, for some reason, they didn’t.

What can I say? Dreams are weird, but after a little bit of research I found that mine are no weirder than most — dreams where your house is different than it really is, where the bus you take to work every morning goes somewhere entirely new, where anything familiar becomes decidedly less so — these are a dime a dozen. They’re as unsettling as they are near-universal, to be sure, and yet —

For all the films, TV shows, and comics that are focused on dreams, how many of them really capture the character of them in a way that feels well and truly authentic? The people in dream-land are always flying around, meeting dead famous people or relatives, re-living childhood experiences — they’re never discovering a hidden hallway in the home they’ve inhabited for 20 years, or finding rotten boards under their porch.

Maybe that sort of thing is simply too prosaic. We like to think that our dreams are adventurous and exotic, especially given that often our lives are anything but, and I get that : we want to feel like our flights of fantasy are well and truly fantastic — and by and large they are, but not in ways we’re necessarily comfortable with.

II.

Chris Reynolds gets it. Since the mid-1980s, he’s been self-publishing, from his home in the UK and to little or no fanfare, comic books set in a shared universe that he calls “Maurentania Comics” — and these stories are the closest thing to actual dreams on paper that I’ve ever seen. They play out in the exact same way that dreams do  — there are elements that can’t adequately be described; key events are tantalizingly hinted at but never directly followed up on; time moves entirely differently, more tethered to events that are happening than to an arbitrary and unforgiving clock; everything is oddly familiar but just a bit off. Nothing is as it should be in these comics, but that realization dawns upon you slowly and incrementally.

Legendary Canadian cartoonist Seth has long been a champion of Reynolds’ work, but to date the only widespread exposure he’s received was way back in 1990 when Penguin Books issued his long-form story Mauretenia in graphic novel format. Other than that, finding this guy’s books — especially on this side of the pond — has been a strictly “hit-and-miss” affair.

Midway through 2018, though, that all changed : New York Review Comics, with Seth on board as designer and editor and Ed Park along for the ride as author of an introductory essay, released a truly deluxe and fairly comprehensive collection of Reynolds’ print ouevre entitled The New World : Comics From Mauretenia that features a gorgeously-embossed clothbound cover, thick, archival-quality paper stock, and crisp, clean art reproduction — most importantly, though, it boasts well over 250 pages of Reynolds’ singular, visionary comics.

The arrangement of stories here isn’t chronological, but that’s perfectly in line with the dream “logic” that Reynolds so skillfully translates and subsequently adheres to. First up is The Dial, a novella-length story that introduces not only the tone, but the various precepts and details that the rest of the stories play off and into (aliens control the Earth, a devastating war of some sort has recently concluded, cars can fly, secret police working for equally-secret masters are ubiquitous, a new religion that the aliens brought with them has supplanted Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.), as well as the cartooning style that not only communicates, but exemplifies the pseudo-reality of this utterly alien, but disturbingly familiar, world : simple figures illustrated with maximum proficiency but little fuss and muss go about their lives in front of backgrounds short on detail but laboriously accentuated with precise cross-hatching, linework, even shadows. It’s black and white, but with a heavy emphasis on the black — so much so that the most natural comparison that comes to mind is to woodcut artwork. But there’s only so much about these proceedings than can fairly be described as “natural.”

For my part, I’m going with supernatural — isn’t that how dreams always seem? Reg, the protagonist in The Dial, returns from the war to his family home to discover no one lives there any more, but everything else looks okay — until the next day, when he discovers the mining operation underway all around the home, extracting valuable minerals from the ground. Then he remembers the “old” mine works when he was a kid. Why had that slipped his mind previously? Then he meets the foreman, who informs him that they’ll do their best to keep disruption to a minimum, but hey, you gotta expect some inconvenience — and besides, the house is in kinda rough shape. Which it suddenly is. Then it’s off to meet the foreman’s boss, who’s supposed to pay him some money for the hassle his excavation has created for Reg, only this guy says sorry, no cash is coming your way, that house it falling apart, you just need to move and chalk it up as a loss — and when he goes home, wouldn’t ya know, the place has completely fallen to shit. Funny he never noticed that before. And from there on things get even more surreal — in the exact, dictionary definition of the term. Figures that weren’t there before appear in old childhood photos. The house isn’t empty after all, his sister is there. And then his parents. And then, and then — I think you get the idea.

The selection of short stories that follow introduce us to on-and-off recurring characters such as the Cinema Detectives (so-called because they are private eyes who keep an office in a building that used to be a movie theater) and, crucially, Monitor, a helmeted figure of mysterious and undefined origin who seems to have a hell of a lot of friends and doesn’t really do much — but nevertheless appears to function, and not entirely unbeknownst to him, as a kind of living, breathing straw that breaks the camel’s back, a ball of “critical mass” if you will, in that wherever he goes, important things simply seem to happen, usually thanks to nothing more than some very subtle direction on his part.

Finally, the back half of the book is taken up with the previously-mentioned Mauretenia, a thematically ambitious, but tightly-focused, long form work that dispenses with the rigid six-panel grids of The Dial and nine-panel grids of the short stories in favor of a four-panel grid that gives the art a bit more “breathing room,” but doesn’t alleviate the sense that all this is playing out in a hermetically-sealed world of its own. Monitor’s place here is usurped by a young kid named Jimmy, who has taken up the mantle — sorry, helmet — of his idol (and perhaps, if certain oblique hints are to be believed, father), as well as his mission : he goes from town to town shutting down, by dint of no more than the occasional gentle nudge at the margins, companies that he has decided simply “shouldn’t be.” Not for any environmental or humanitarian reasons, nor on behalf of competitors as a form of industrial espionage, but simply because he’s decided their existence isn’t right.

Jimmy’s sole guide as to what the world should be is a series of unseen “nodal lines” — ethereal connections between places, times, and events that somehow tie them all together into a sort of spider-web grid. He’s opposed in his efforts by the agents of “Rational Control” — a so-called “trendy new police force” — who have even gone so far as to set up “front” companies, CIA-style, in order to monitor the actions of this self-appointed Monitor II. It’s heady stuff, even confusing, yet never difficult to follow — only difficult to fully decipher.

And what’s the point of that, anyway? Certainly mystery genre tropes abound here, but Reynolds never pretends to be going about the business of constructing some grand narrative that explains everything. Yes, there are “eureka!” moments to be had where pieces of the puzzle fall into place, where events dovetail in such a way as to answer certain lingering questions, but the major revelation, the missing link to tying everything up neatly with a bow — it’s always and forever just beyond our grasp, just outside our understanding. Again, much like in dreams.

III.

The Mauretenia was a massive British passenger liner that was an engineering marvel of its day, but was scrapped nearly a century ago. Mauratania (note the slightly different spelling) is a sparsely-populated African country that runs from the continent’s southwestern coast right snack-dab into the middle of the Sahara Desert, its name extrapolated from what ancient Roman conquerors called the region. I can’t for the life of me discern what either has to do with Reynolds’ comics nor the imprint he published them under, but again — unsolvable mystery is the lifeblood of this body of work.

Could it be that’s an “answer,” of sorts, in and of itself?  Sometimes, more than likely quite unconsciously, Reynolds seems to be utilizing his work to posit a theory that has been making the rounds among the more genuinely radical of anarchist theorists for decades now that some sort of resolution between dream and conscious reality is both possible and, ultimately, desirable — that our bifurcated consciousness is an unnatural development, a regrettable end result of domestication and civilization. I have a feeling that The New World : Comics From Mauretenia may be a work of art that comes from that very place, that Reynolds has somehow been able to reconcile the “real” and the “imaginary” in his mind, and to create stories that are a product of that unified consciousness. I could very well be wrong about that, though — there’s no proving it either way given that specific evidence, either for or against, remains, as always, frustratingly out of reach.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/30/2018 – 01/05/2019, Jessica Campbell

We last checked in with Jessica Campbell around these parts when her superb, topical, and hilarious graphic novel XTC69 rolled off the presses courtesy of Annie Koyama just over a year ago, but I’ve been meaning to do a write-up on some of her self-published minis ever since picking up a small batch of ’em at Autoptic back in August. A couple more came my way in the past few weeks and so, with her work once again reasonably fresh in my mind, it’s high time the esteemed Ms. Campbell got her due here at the Weekly Reading Round-Up. I shall procrastinate no further, this column has been a long time in coming.

Ten Most Incestuous Royals is, I believe, Campbell’s most recent release and collects a series of strips that originally saw the light of day on the Hyperallergic arts website. As both the cover and the title would imply, wasting time on the internet is one of the topics she tackles here, but the breadth, scope, and sheer variety on offer between these covers is pretty astonishing, from single-page “gag” strips about famous artists to diary comics about TV watching and teaching art to a fairly serious and well-considered essay on the responsibilities, and general perceptions, of male artists in the era of #MeToo. Rendered in her inimitable “loose-form” style that hones in on the expressive humor to be found in everyday situations with subtlety and humanity, this is a damn impressive little volume that is an absolute steal at five bucks.

JC’S Way is probably the most ambitious of the offerings under review here, an autobio work that stitches together a series of short vignettes from Campbell’s Charismatic/Evangelical upbringing over a ten-year period. There’s not a whole lot by way of specifics served up here as far as dogma and doctrine are concerned, but the essential character of the church she grew up in, and the attitudes it inculcated in her family, is readily apparent throughout. If you hate the kind of “mega-churches” that use electric guitars and big, phony smiles to cover up the fact that they’re essentially selling the same old ultra-conservative, patriarchal crap that religion has always made hay from, then this is the book for you. Funny, yes, but ultimately quite a sobering little read that, again, more than earns its five dollar price tag. Oh, and the “JC” in the title doesn’t refer to Jessica Campbell — unless, ironically and at the end of the day, it does?

My Erotic Life #1 may sound like it just has to be a cartoon memoir about the artist’s formative sexual experiences, but fortunately for us all this most well and truly mini of minis actually consists of a bunch of four-panel humorous short strips that primarily focus on Campbell’s gallery job, where she daily interacts with people who drop more on a single painting than she earns in a goddamn decade. There’s not a hint of so-called “class warfare” jealousy to be found, though, as these punchy little numbers are all about — and wildly successful at — finding the absurdity inherent in a situation where so-called “patrons of the arts” spend $35K on work from people who literally have 20 bucks (or less) in their bank accounts. And speaking of bank accounts — the $3 price tag on this one won’t even make a dent in yours.

My Erotic Life #2 can quickly — and fairly — be summed up as “more of the same,” sure, but when that means more fun, smart, highly-observant, and deliciously wry humor, then who the hell is complaining? Again, three bucks you’ll certainly never miss in exchange for a terrific little mini that you’ll likely as not read several times over (if you know what’s good for you) is a more than fair trade.

Campbell’s stuff can be purchased from quite a few online small press distros, sure, but if you want the ease and convenience of being able to purchase all four of these together in one go rather than hunting down one of ’em here, one of ’em there (and also want the ease and convenience of finding them all listed next to each other on the very first “page” of the site), then get yourself over to Radiator Comics via this handy link : https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/

 

Definitely A “Little Stranger” Than Most

Talk about an eye-opener!

To date, my only exposure to the work of Edie Fake has been via his Gaylord Phoenix comic, which certainly doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of “conventional,” but which nevertheless is structured, albeit perhaps tenuously, along standard-issue linear narrative lines.

Not so with the book under our metaphorical microscope here today, Little Stranger, a multi-faceted, deeply emotive collection of short-form strips published a few months ago by Secret Acres that presents work culled from  Fake’s own ‘zines self- published between 2002 and 2017. Simply put — and I say this with utmost respect — most of these strips are just plain weird. Delightfully so, in most cases, but you have to come into this book prepared to do some serious interpretive work yourself, as many of them discard with the concept of “narrative” altogether, and those that don’t adhere to it very loosely.

From the “Clowns” one-pagers interspersed throughout to the metaphysical journey of a snake whose body is made up of the letters of the alphabet to the lustful escapades of a person who undergoes impromptu gender transition by means of strategically-placed leeches (yes, you read that right) to the de facto instructional guide on what to do with a witch’s pituitary gland and everything in between, these are abstract visual explorations illustrated in a staggering variety of styles ranging from highly detailed to playfully experimental to vibrantly colorful to stark and austere. Certain themes present themselves again and again — body horror, gender dysphoria, physical and mental bondage, human/animal hybridization — but it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that one literally never knows what the next page in this collection will hold.

All of which means this is a conceptually exciting book, but also one that is the very definition of a “mixed bag” that will, of necessity, confound most readers as often as it pleases them. From the perspective of this critic that’s an inherently good thing, and I’m more than willing to concede that some of the strips that fall a bit “flat” for me are no less imaginative and well-executed than the ones that hit the mark. The “running order” strikes me as a bit curious in that genuinely horrific stories often directly follow on from light-hearted and humorous ones and vice-versa, effectively discarding any sort of attempt at establishing tonal consistency even for brief periods of time, but on second pass-through I found this “grab-bag” approach to assemblage to be quite effective as it mirrors on the “macro” level the notion that there is no solid footing to be had here that many — hell, most — of the strips individually evoke on a “micro” level.

Obviously there’s a lot to be gleaned about Fake’s own perspectives on issues of gender fluidity and identity here (he’s trans himself, as one would probably intuit from the book’s contents even if they went in knowing nothing about him), and his generally playful attitude toward what’s broadly defined as “kink” is easily-discernible throughout, but some “grand statement” on either the trans experience or sexual liberation  isn’t something that falls within Little Stranger‘s remit. Rather, it’s an exorcism of one cartoonist’s subconscious that features recurring obsessions, ideas, concerns — and, yes, nightmares — presented from a number of different perspectives and communicated in a number of distinctly different ways. I’m still wrapping my head around much of it, and think that I will be for quite some time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize it for the utterly unique, visceral, challenging, necessary work that it clearly is.

 

“Little Teeth,” Big Bite (Advance Review)

I’m not sue what it is about anthropomorphic animals and the LGBTQ+ comics community, but for the second time in less than a year, we’ve got a tandem of queer creators releasing a book of vignette-style stories centered on the broadly-defined “queer experience.” First out of the gate was Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez’ The Pervert from Image Comics, well-reviewed in most quarters (including this one) and focused on the hard-scrabble life of a trans protagonist subsisting on the economic margins, and in the next few weeks Czap Books will be releasing Little Teeth, drawn by Rory Frances and written by Jae Bearhat, that transposes the so-called “funny animal” trope into a queer communal living situation.

Beyond the more fluid sexual and gender identities and the tails and fur, though, it should be noted that the two books have very little in common, conceptually and tonally, and this points to a surprising breadth of storytelling possibilities within what one would assume to be the “confines” of a “narrow” recently-minted subgenre. Chalk one more loss up for conventional “wisdom” and old ways of thinking, then.

Where The Pervert was dark, somber, often-times harrowing, Little Teeth — much of whose contents were originally serialized in short-form installments on the Hazlitt website — runs the emotional gamut, but most often the tone is light, free-spirited, and fun. The sprawling cast of characters (by my count there are seven central players, but in fairness I may be forgetting about one) is generally young, they’ve generally come to terms with themselves, and they’re all about navigating the minefield of today’s blurred-lines interpersonal relationships. There’s angst aplenty here, sure, but it’s usually of the externalized, rather than internalized, variety and, as you’d expect, most of the situations these foxes, alligators, wolves, rabbits. etc. find themselves embroiled in lend themselves nicely to “deft touch”-style light comedy.

And, to their credit, Frances (who illustrates the proceedings in a bright, borderline-jubilant modern approximation of the classic “cartoony” newspaper strip style) and Bearhat (who has a gift for unforced comedic timing and an ear for authentic dialogue) do have a deft touch and make for a great team — in fact, the fluidity of the pacing and “action” in these stories is so seamless that one could be forgiven for assuming that they must have been written and drawn by the same person.

That being said, there are some flaws on ready display here — I’m not terribly  certain, for example, that each of the characters is given a name, and much of the dialogue is so “of a piece” that this lack of distinctiveness goes more than just skin (or, I guess, fur) deep; everyone’s favorite TV show, Seeking Same, is often employed as a cheap and easy storytelling crutch to “info-dump” the basics of concepts like polyamory on more traditional (or, in a pinch, square) readers; moments that lend themselves more to genuine drama are sometimes steered, unnaturally, back into “let’s play it for laughs” territory. And yet —

For all that, being young and mostly responsibility-free is a hell of a lot of fun, and Frances and Bearhat not only never forget that, their work positively bristles with the same energy and enthusiasm that their characters pursue their romantic entanglements (or, at the very least, potential romantic entanglements) with, and that kind of authenticity is absolutely essential when you’re making comics with a historically-marginalized (and, as a result, often condescended-to) audience in mind. Most of what transpires in these pages is well outside my own personal experience, true, being a straight, married guy who lives with only one other person, but I know when a comic is coming from a place of genuine personal experience or not, and that’s absolutely never in question here. Little Teeth is, ultimately, a story about a special group of friends at a special time in their lives trying to make the right decisions — or have a damn good time while making the wrong ones — within a social and romantic milieu where the old rules not only don’t apply, but are dispensed with gleefully. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it’s very much “of the moment.” It doesn’t wonder whether or not you can or can’t, should or shouldn’t — it just plants its own flag, stakes out its own territory, and does things its own way. More often than not, its faith in itself is rewarded, and the same is true for readers willing to put their faith in it. Check it out, and enjoy the time spent getting to know your new fictitious friends.