Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/13/2018 – 05/19/2018, Special Whit Taylor Edition

New York-based cartoonist Whit Taylor recently sent me a package of her superb wares, so let’s take them all in chronological order so you might be introduced (if you’re not already) to this unique and compelling voice who’s definitely making her presence felt on the independent/small press/self-publishing landscape. Ms. Taylor, this week’s column is all yours —

Ghost is a high-quality, squarebound, full-color little book that Taylor self-published in 2015 featuring a triptych of stories about her meeting three of her all-time heroes : Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell, and — well, that would be telling. Suffice to say that her first two meetings help give her the fortitude necessary for the third, and that in the third she finds the inner strength to not only come to terms with some very harrowing and unpleasant experiences that have left an indelible mark upon her life, but to hopefully grow from them, as well. This is by no means an “easy” read, but it’s a compelling one, and there is a very real sense that it was important, even crucial, for the cartoonist to relate her personal truth to her audience in a soul-baring and courageous manner like this.

Parsing out her  narrative into three distinct segments was a wise storytelling choice, but even more wise was her decision to give readers a bit of a “breather” by including two short “stand-alone” strips between segments one and two and two and three, respectively, that feature entirely different characters and scenarios but dovetail, and consequently resonate, with some of the same emotional “beats” as the main story, and her clean, smooth line and mostly-borderless panels give the proceedings an uninterrupted visual “flow” throughout. This is some brave stuff indeed, and left me feeling pretty well floored, truth be told.

Wallpaper is an experimental mini Taylor self-published in 2016 that tells what I’m assuming to be an autobiographical story from her childhood, about a period in which her parents purchased a “fixer-upper” at roughly the same time her grandmother’s health was failing. Eschewing the traditional comics page in favor of short-form prose vignettes juxtaposed alongside single-panel “splash” pages featuring wallpaper patterns, textured surfaces, even a pile of leaves, the net result is a kind of emotional diary that weaves together a disjointed set of sometimes-oblique memories with the surface trappings of the places where they happened. If you’ve ever been to a place that reminds you of something or somewhere from your youth, then you’ll know the feeling conjured by this remarkable short-form work. There is pain and magic in equal measure in these pages.

2016 also saw the release of The Anthropologists, a stand-alone comic published by Sparkplug Books that is also either straight autobio, or extrapolated from personal experience. This one takes us back to Taylor’s college days, when she and a fellow student traversed the outback of Western Australia with a local guide/sponsor, and relates their experiences interacting with members of the aboriginal population. Again, the emphasis here is more on emotional, rather than specific, memories, and while there is a bit of a “clash of cultures” theme to the story, really the narrative focus is more on finding a place, for a time, in a part of the world where you clearly don’t have one. I’ve actually been to (or near, at any rate) the location where this comic takes place during my own six-month Australian “walkabout,” so this brought a shit-ton of memories flooding back to me, but even if you’ve never been “Down Under,” you will be both charmed and haunted by this subtle-yet-powerful story. Drawn with a real sense of immediacy that expertly utilizes shading and Chester Brown-style cross-hatching to great effect, this is one of those books that puts you “right there” when events were taking place, even as it looks back on them with an almost-wistful eye.

Last, but by no means least, we come to 2017’s Fizzle #1, the first in what I’m figuring (or maybe that’s just hoping?) to be a semi-regular ongoing self-published series that sees Taylor turning her sharp observational skills outward and chronicling the life of an L.A. “twentysomething” named Claire, who is under-valued both at work (she has a gig at an incompetently-run tea shop) and at home (her boyfriend Aaron being something of an adolescent-in-perpetuity). At first glance this would appear to be the sort of material we’ve seen from any number of “indie” cartoonists in the past, but there is an understated emotional complexity to this book that gives even the most seemingly-mundane scenes a depth and resonance that are far too hard to come by in other comics focused on roughly this same demographic — and again, a legitimately wistful air permeates throughout, aided in no small part by a sympathetic artist’s eye that seems to tease out the most important parts in every facial expression or quirk of body language. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, the yellow paper she’s printed this on really works for this material, as well.  I definitely feel like Taylor is building toward something special here, in the same way you could sense it early on with Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats. Take your time with this one, Whit, but we definitely want more!

For those wishing to explore Taylor’s work further, Rosarium Press has just recently collected Ghost and Wallpaper, together with a third story, in volume entitled Ghost Stories. Details about this book, and much more besides, can be found at the cartoonist’s website, https://www.whittaylorcomics.com/comics.html

And that’ll about do it for this week — next time up we’ve got new stuff from our old friend Brian Canini, as well as Seattle cartoonist Kalen Knowles, both of whom have sent me books in recent days. Hope to see you back here in seven!


What The World Needs Now Is Jessica Campbell’s “XTC69”

By now you’re well-familiar (or should be) with the laundry-list of societal problems that have “trickled down” into all forms of media, including comics, and also know that right near the top of said list is misogyny, which many of us fooled ourselves into thinking was on the way out — that is, until the biggest misogynist imaginable was elected president, and the once-appropriately-marginalized “alt right” and “edgelord” internet subcultures, both rife with unreconstructed sexism of the most sickening sort, seized on the opportunity of Donald Trump’s political ascendance to become more loud, brash, boorish, and obnoxious than ever. Their bullshit is just plain unavoidable now, and as “gamergate” and “comicsgate” have proven, no corner of the “information” superhighway is safe from misogyny’s malign influence. We’re literally saturated in a toxic stew of aggressive male chauvinism that churns and boils 24/7.

Cartoonist Jessica Campbell, thankfully, isn’t taking it laying down. Her previous book, Hot Or Not?, turned the whole premise of the “male gaze” on its ear with by means of sharply-delivered absurdist satire , and in her just-released Koyama Press graphic novel, XTC69, she one-ups herself by taking aim at misogyny in a very specific literary sub-genre, namely pulp sci-fi (with the work of Robert Heninlein coming in for an extra dose of richly-deserved skewering), and deconstructing it with what can only be called a sense of sheer, unadulterated joy.

Campbell is a bona fide expert at tackling serious subject matter without taking herself too seriously along the way, and for proof of this look no further than the fact that she makes herself the center of her own story on two different fronts, to wit : in the future, a trio of adventurous, rough-and-tumble female astronauts, led by a captain named Jessica Campbell, arrive on a barren Earth, ostensibly seeking mates in order to repopulate their all-female planet, but find only — Jessica Campbell (who they come to label “JC2,” for obvious reasons), as in, the “real” Jessica Campbell, who’s been cryogenically frozen for the last 700 years and barely has time to take in the fact that she’s the last survivor of her world before deciding, what the hell, she might as well tag along with these other ladies and see if she can find a new place to call home.

Standardized six-panel grids are Campbell’s preferred page layout, and her thick, fluid linework is especially effective at driving home the less-than-subtle OTT absurdity of the situations she places her characters — and herselves — into : on the all-male planet of Mxpx, for example, the continent the “dudebro” assholes live on  is literally shaped like a penis, and these guys, led by “President Chad,” sound more or less exactly like the “men’s rights” dipshits you find all over social media these days, literally informing our protagonists that women abandoned their planet because “those ingrate bitches wouldn’t give us nice guys a chance,” before requesting that they smile more or, in one instance, even just coming right up to one of them and asking “blowjob?” Jordan Peterson, these are your offspring, and it doesn’t take too long for “JC1” to do the entirely reasonable thing under the circumstances and order Mxpx to be destroyed.

Wait, though, doesn’t that consign the all-female planet to certain doom? Well — no, but I’m not gonna give away how that fate is avoided because you really should read the book. And besides, all this is almost second-fiddle to the real action in the story, which involves a budding romance between, you guessed it, both Jessica Campbells. Does that get interesting? You bet it does! And it goes no small distance toward ultimately setting up the book’s redemptive final act.

What really impresses, though, is how swiftly and thoroughly Campbell manages to obliterate every bogus “argument” used to advance not just misogyny, but patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and even racism over the course of her narrative, and how she does it all with — dare I say it — a smile. It’s a knowing smile, an informed smile, a wry smile, but a smile nevertheless : her enemies are paper tigers clinging to outmoded systems of “thought” and she’s already got them beat — and furthermore, she knows it.

Now, all you nervous fellas out there, just in case you were wondering whether or not this book “goes too far,” fear not : Campbell employs the classic “logic” of straight white cis male privilege against itself and informs us that “a man read it and said it was fine” and that, hey, “some of (her) best friends are men.” A “comicsgate” numbskull like Richard C. Meyer or Ethan Van Sciver couldn’t have put it better himself, and it just goes to show that there’s no slack in Campbell’s act when even her frigging acknowledgements page is this spot-on.

By the time you reach it, though, you’ve come to expect no less. XTC69 is a work that oozes entirely-earned confidence by a cartoonist firing on all cylinders. Jessica Campbell takes us to the farthest reaches of space and time, sure, but her book is as “here and now” — and, consequently, as essential — as it gets.




A “Rock Steady” Read

You’ve gotta hand it to Ellen Forney : she’s got guts.

Any reader of her previous, highly personal and confessional graphic memoir, Marbles : Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, And Me would more than likely second that opinion, but it wasn’t her bravura work on that book that I had in mind when making that statement — nor, specifically, was I thinking of the contents of her just-released-by-Fantagraphics follow-up volume, Rock Steady. What the hell am I on about, then?

I’m “on about” her new book’s subtitle : Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life. Think about it for a second — if you were the author of a work, would you have the sheer self-confidence and spinal fortitude to put call it “brilliant” yourself? That kind of thing is usually left to the “pull-quote” blurbs the publisher slaps on the front and/or back cover, is it not? And it’s a doubly-gutsy move when you consider that Forney’s subject matter here is well and truly of the “life-or-death” variety.

Fortunately for the cartoonist and her readership, she backs up her claim of “brilliance” from first page to last with a treasure-trove of highly practical reflections on dealing with difficult mental health realities that any bipolar person, or anyone who knows and/or loves a bipolar person, can both relate to and, crucially, benefit from.

You’ll learn a new word along the way, too (hell, it’ll be drilled into your head) : “SMEDMERTS,” a developed-on-the-fly shorthand acronym for Sleep Meds Eat Doctor Mindfulness Exercise Routine Tools Support System. And in a very real sense, an exploration of each facet of the “SMEDMERTS” equation forms the backbone of this book — and it’s a “rock steady” one at that.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, then, this isn’t so much a “narrative” per se — although there are a small handful of highly effective “slice-of-life” vignettes interspersed throughout — as it is a combination guidebook/self-help manual/support tool gleaned from Forney’s own personal experiences, illustrated with a kind of graceful and expressive simplicity, for a specific audience, that being  either folks with bipolar disorder themselves, the people in their lives, or even folks who simply want to understand the subject with a greater degree of depth. It adopts a conversational tone from the outset — no lecturing here — and can even be charming when it needs to be, but it never forgets that it’s got an extremely important job to do, and you never get the sense that Forney is taking things lightly even if she frequently uses a combination of humor and surprising frankness to put readers at ease, a necessary step when dealing with something so inherently weighty.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about what Forney manages to achieve here, though — okay, aside from the fact that it might just save a few lives — is how smooth and eminently readable a flow it maintains, certainly no easy task for a book that is about the nuts-and-bolts of managing challenging life situations. Absent a real story “thread” that connects everything together this is a tricky thing to pull off, but damn, this is such a deftly-constructed and casually-related book that it genuinely attains something very akin to “page-turner” status. So “brilliant” doesn’t just refer to the practical advice Forney offers, but to her cartooning ability, as well.

So what do we have here, if not a “comic story,” a “graphic novel,” or even a “memoir”? How about this — Rock Steady is a unique work that incorporates elements of all three just-referenced forms of media  to create something new and unique : a cartoon handbook on surviving the ups and downs of bipolar disorder by someone who’s been there and wants to empower and assist others by sharing what she’s learned. And yes, it’s pretty damn brilliant.

You’re Going To “Love That Bunch”

Don’t look now, but Aline Kominsky-Crumb is having what the media has, in recent years, come to call “a moment” — and those of us who have been following her extraordinary cartooning career over the decades can only say : “it’s about fucking time.”

Through no fault of her own, Kominsky-Crumb has almost always operated in her (in?) famous husband’s shadow to one degree or another, and while the arcs of their respective careers have definitely either dove-tailed or run parallel to each other from time to time — they were both involved with (hell, they both edited, albeit at different points in its run) legendary underground anthology Weirdo, they collaborated on Self-Loathing Comics back in the 1990s, etc. — in truth their work, even though they both have figured as prominent characters in each other’s strips, focuses on entirely separate sets of concerns. Sort of.

Okay, yeah, their “co-starring” book referenced self-loathing in its title for a reason, but unlike Robert, Aline has, going all the way back, been more focused on how family, in particular, turned her into the entirely-relatable psychological “mess” that she is, and her cartooning confessionals have always felt more cathartic than her old man’s pained, at times even painful, exorcisms of psycho-sexual neuroses. In short, she seems far and away the more likeable of the pair.

But hey — don’t take my word for it, Drawn + Quarterly has just released a mammoth hardback collection of her strips from 1976 to the present, Love That Bunch, which nearly doubles the size of the 1990 softcover volume of the same name, and it’s all the evidence you need that Kominsky-Crumb’s cartooning stands alone as a vibrant and necessary body of work in its own right . This, in short, is as definitive as it gets — and that’s cause for celebration.

Kominsky-Crumb and(?) her alter-ego protagonist, The Bunch, have been through a lot over the years, from surviving a dysfunctional Lawn Guyland upbringing to indulging in hippie excess to living very nearly “off-the-grid” (before it was called that) to marriage to motherhood to moving to France to grandmotherhood — reading this book offers so much more than the average autobio comix experience, most of which focus on a particular time period or series of formative experiences in a given cartoonist’s existence. Love That Bunch is the (warts-and-all, of course) chronicle of a life, related in fits and spurts when time permitted over the course of forty-plus years. And while so much has changed for Bunch/Kominsky-Crumb, there are number of wonderfully idiosyncratic “quirks” that remain consistent throughout.

Misspellings, for instance, are a big one, and not all of them intentional. Horniness. Body shame/insecurity. A kind of creative restlessness that endures even during the more contented periods of her life. An “old before her time” mentality. A perpetually satirical outlook. All delivered with a kind of rushed immediacy (and I don’t mean that as an insult in any way, I know Kominsky-Crumb usually spends a lot of time on her strips, but they always feel very nearly “instant”) that somehow never loses its conversational, self-deprecating tone. Don’t ask me how that works, and by all rights maybe it shouldn’t, but it absolutely does.

Honestly, the toughest task you’re going to have in relation to this book is determining which strips are your favorite. Everyone agrees that “Of What Use Is A Bunch?” is an all-time classic, a pioneering entry in the history of the women’s underground, but “Up In The Air With The Bunch,” “Sex-Crazed Housewife,” and “The Schlep Set” are all favorites of yours truly, and you’re sure to have your own depending on whether or not you’re more “into”  (somewhat) exaggerated reminiscences of Jewish family life, tales of “wild years” partying, or ruminations on mid-life — and what comes after. I never say this, but in this case I will, and without hesitation at that — there’s something here for everyone.

Kominsky-Crumb has her critics, to be sure. There have always been those who contend that she “can’t draw,” for instance, and those who are understandably less-than-comfortable with her history of sometimes-curt dismissal of her husband’s critics, particularly his feminist critics. The latter is beyond the scope of what I have the time or inclination to get into, but I will say that many people who take her to task for this make some very valid, very cogent points. The folks who are “down on” her art, though, have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about — this book shows her adopting, and succeeding at, any number of highly-personal styles (not all of them in any way “primitive”) that perfectly complement the stories she’s telling. In short, she’s a master of her craft, and Love That Bunch is a fitting, and long-overdue, overview of the career of someone who may very well be the most under-appreciated cartoonist of her time — but hopefully won’t be any longer.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/06/2018 – 05/12/2018

This past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, but given that my main goal with these weekly columns is to inform you, the budget-conscious comics consumer, what’s worth spending your money on (or not), it seems counter-productive to waste much time discussing shit that you don’t have to pay for, so we’ll just stick with books that came out that had an actual price tag attached to them, with one (sort of) exception —

Lawrence “RawDog” Hubbard is back,  along with latter-day sidekick/collaborator William Clausen, for Real Deal #8, this time published under Fantagraphics’ auspices, and while the late, great H.P. “R.D. Bone” McElwee will always be missed, this balls-out extravaganza of urban ultra-violence is still pretty much my favorite comic book in the entire goddamn universe. This time out, psychotic hood antihero G.C. meets a Pacino-style version of the devil in Hubbard’s main feature, “Psyops,” while Clausen’s long-running backup strip “Planet Dregs” comes to a suitably nonsensical conclusion at the rear of the book. Yeah, eight bucks is a lot to pay for what you get here — but what you get here can’t be found anywhere else, so there’s that. Still, I notice the old “More Slaughter For Your Dollar” tag-line is missing from this one, probably due to the hefty amount of cash it now costs. The distinctly “low-fi” vibe this book has always had is still here, though, and that’s what counts — this is the sort of thing that looks and reads like the product of truly fevered minds who are only semi-literate and never took an art class, but are still bound and determined to expunge their demons out onto paper nevertheless. As raw, immediate — and, yes, real — as anything you’re gonna find on your LCS shelves this year. Or any other.

Moving on to stuff that’s actually professionally produced, Image released Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s Barrier #1 in two formats this week — as an FCBD offering (yup, this is that “exception” I was talking about), and as a five-dollar book with  heavy cardstock covers, glossy paper, and a few sketchbook “process pages” at the back. Both are designed to be flipped over and read horizontally, as they were originally formatted to fit computer and tablet screens when this series ran on the Panel Syndicate website, and much like this duo’s prior collaboration, The Private Eye, I find it survives the “transition” to an actual, physical format quite well, and that colorist supreme Muntsa Vicente’s work looks a hell of a lot better in the real world than it does the digital one. But enough about the production particulars, how’s the comic?

Vaughan’s script is more timely and topical than ever (this was released online “way back” in 2015), focused as it is on the clash-of-cultures that ensues when a Texas ranch owner and an undocumented Honduran immigrant are forced to trust each other after being abducted by an alien spacecraft, and while a good half the book is presented in Spanish without cop-out translations, Martin’s art is clear and clean and polished enough that you won’t have much doubt as to what’s going on. For a five-part series (that the creators have stated will never be collected in trade, so grab it now if you want it) the pacing is remarkably languid, but that’s by no means a bad thing, as it lends a cinematic sensibility to the proceedings with lots of close-up “establishing shots,” and allows for some supremely solid character development while utilizing very little actual dialogue. No “info-dumps” here, then, but you get a really solid feel for these people and the worlds they come from before they find themselves whisked away toward another one. I liked this book a lot — so much so, in fact, that I sprung for the $4.99 “deluxe” version.

You know what, though? Image wasn’t done with this series this week, and neither are we —

That’s because Wednesday last also saw the release of Barrier #2, this time priced at $3.99 (it’s got the same high-quality covers and paper, but fewer pages), and we’re gonna keep getting an issue a week for the next three weeks, until the whole thing’s wrapped up. This installment was every bit as good as the first (and every bit as bilingual, so get your translator app of choice ready if you must — although, again, I didn’t feel it necessary in the least despite the fact that I know just about no Spanish) and ups the “high-stakes game of survival” vibe considerably. Vaughan’s efficient, economic scripting suits the overall ethos of the series quite well, but who are we kidding? It’s Martin who does all the real heavy storytelling lifting here (with more-than-able assists from Vicente), and that’s reflected in the fact that, with this issue, his name actually appears first on the cover credits, as well it should. And you should — buy it, that is.

Last and least, we come to Sean Murphy’s Batman : White Knight #8, which sees this series — that I was rough on at the outset in my review on this very site — finally, mercifully, come to a conclusion. Most Bat-fans seemed to like this one, but I’m most assuredly not a Bat-fan, so I’m gonna lay out the cold, hard truth for you, which is that this comic sucked from start to finish. Yet another revisionist take on the Dark Knight Detective is probably the last thing the world needs, but this was dull, hackneyed, predictable garbage even by “been there, done that” standards. Yeah, Murphy’s art was nice — as is always the case — and Matt Hollingsworth’s color choices were spot-on if less than adventurous, but the role-reversal that started things off (“psycho” Batman, “good” Joker) is completely undone by the end (as you knew it would be), and what we’re left with is little more than an “alternate universe” version of Gotham City that now has been returned to a status quo very much like the one that prevails in the main “DCU,” barring a few largely cosmetic differences at the margins. So, yeah — all that for nothing, and DC adds insult to injury by having the nerve to charge $4.99 for this final issue simply because it includes a few extra pages at the end entirely devoted to setting the stage for a sequel that no one in their right mind would touch with a ten-foot Batpole. I still like Punk Rock Jesus more than I probably should given that on second reading you can really see everything that Murphy has hidden up his sleeves in order to pull off his various storytelling tricks, but this series was so effing bad that I think it’s going to be a good long while before I trust him in the singular role of writer-artist again.

And with that, we’re done for another week. The last few days have seen pretty full mailboxes at the Carey/Young household, as a number of cartoonists have been sending me their wares for review, so expect a focused column looking at some of the best of what I’ve received next time out. Hope to see you then!

Eurocomics Spotlight : Anne Simon’s “The Song Of Aglaia” (Advance Review)

There are so many things going on in veteran French cartoonist Anne Simon’s graphic novel The Song Of Aglaia (originally serialized in a variety of European publications beginning in 2008, later collected in her home country under the title Le Geste D’Algae in 2012, and soon to be released in English for the first time by Fantagraphics) that it’s frankly impossible to pigeonhole it into a single category :  part fairy-tale, part cautionary fable, part fantasy narrative, part feminist treatise, part satirical take on palace intrigue, part dark comedy, part family drama, part tragedy — in short, it’s a book that wears a lot of hats. The remarkable thing (okay, one of the remarkable things) about it, though, is that it wears them all with a sense of fierce, defiant, downright joyous aplomb.

I admit that I’m a newcomer to Simon’s work, having encountered it for the first time via her astonishing triptych of inter-connected strips in the most recent issue of Now, but after reading those I needed more, and I needed it immediately — and if her Now stories were an appetizer, The Song Of Aglaia is more than a main course, it’s an absolute feast : for the eyes, for the mind, for the heart, even for the funnybone.

Our titular heroine is of a bird-like aquatic species known as the Oceanides (one of several entirely invented, and thoroughly inventive, zoological creations to spring from Simon’s imagination and onto the page) who learns all she probably needs to know about men early on when a hook-up with a quickly fleeing  mer-male leaves her pregnant, and her domineering father consequently banishes her from her family, home, and society — so it galls her to no end when she’s forced to rely on a marriage of convenience to a circus owner named Mr. Kite (one of several Beatles references sprinkled throughout the book, with a special emphasis on Sgt. Pepper’s) in order to prevent her execution at the hands of cruel misogynist tyrant Von Krantz, ruler of the kingdom of Barbarann (okay, the Beach Boys get a nod, too — and Bowie comes in for a couple later in the story, as well), who has decreed pregnancy outside of marriage to be a capital offense.

Von Krantz is more Donald Trump than Mike Pence, though, and his arrogance, incompetence, laziness, and stupidity eventually open the door to his demise at Aglaia’s hands after he kidnaps her daughters (who Kite has taken on as his own, a move for which his wife is equal parts thankful and resentful, a dichotomy than defines their entire marriage), thus securing her own un-planned ascension to the throne.

This initially looks like a big step forward for our protagonist, her family, and indeed everyone in the land, but Aglaia can’t escape the restlessness that eats away at her soul, the longing for a life of discovery and adventure that was denied her by early-onset domesticity. Her circumstances may have changed — and considerably so, at that — but her quest for some semblance of an autonomy she has never known remains a constant, and as such she’s not much of a mother, even less of a wife, and delegates most of her responsibilities as regent to a more-than-willing subordinate. What’s she doing with her time, then? Why, stepping out, of course!

Aglaia’s lover is a living rock imprisoned in a hole in the ground (you can unpack all kinds of symbolic significance from all that), and for her purposes he’s pretty much made to order : easy to manage, even easier to both satisfy and be satisfied by, and always available, but when she ends up pregnant again, the seeds of her final de facto enslavement are sown — and that’s probably as far as I should go down that road given that this book hasn’t been released yet (in English, at any rate), and I really do want to be cautious in regards to “spoilers.”

Even so, hopefully you have an inkling that Simon is exploring weighty themes here to be sure, ones that have taken on greater import in the years since she originally completed this work due to the sad resurgence of repressive, anti-woman authoritarianism once naively thought headed for history’s dustbin — but she’s nothing if not infinitely playful and sarcastic, showing no undue allegiance toward, or even particular sympathy for, any of her characters, and opting instead for a narrative tone that pays equal attention to the tragic underpinnings of their lives, as well as to the inherent character flaws that made them inevitable, with just enough detachment to allow her to see the funny side to all of it. She gives you plenty to think about, but also plenty of reason to laugh — sometimes in spite of yourself — while you ponder all those big questions.

Simon’s artwork is equally complex, multi-faceted, and more than up to the task set by her ambitious, layered narrative — detailed linework, intricate cross-hatching, unique (to put it mildly) character designs, literally fantastic environments rendered with stylish flair,  with just enough Gary Panter and Richard Sala influence at the margins to make it feel inviting and familiar before spinning off into entirely new and unexpected directions. The Song Of Aglaia looks like what it reads like, which is to say : a comics story both timeless and utterly, singularly fresh and new.

You’d Have To Be “Dumb” To Pass On This Book (Advance Review)

I’ll let you in on a little secret : people have always been telling me to put a sock in it. I’ve been an annoyingly opinionated SOB my entire life, but now that I have some online outlets for my opining, I’m far more reserved in my daily interactions with folks. Even still, when you’ve got a side gig as a critic, plenty of people are still going to wish you’d shut up and go away. But what if you shut up — and don’t go away?

Canadian cartoonist Georgia Webber had to live through the answer to that question when a sudden and quite severe throat injury forced her into months of  physically- and medically-mandated silence, and to call her experiences “devastating” is probably to sell them a bit too short — but they do make for fascinating, engrossing, and revelatory reading in her new (-ish, more on that presently) graphic memoir, Dumb, sub-titled Living Without A Voice.

Medical maladies have proven to be — and I really hate to put it like this, but — fertile ground for creative cartooning in the past, from Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack’s Our Cancer Year to Gabby Schulz’ Sick and Monsters, but Webber isn’t one to follow a trail blazed by others, as her sheer persistence in getting this material into print proves : originally published in single-issue “floppy” format by Retrofit/Big Planet, then moving over to Radiator Comics, and now, finally, collected in its entirety in a handsome hardback by Fantagraphics, it’s been the proverbial long and winding road for this comic, but that’s nothing compared to what Webber endured during the period of her life that forms the basis of this comic.

Webber had been leading the relatively typical (which is to say, carefree) life of a young Montrealer — splitting her time between a paid gig at a cafe and a volunteer one at a bike co-op, in addition to her cartooning and fairly active socializing — when her malady hit, and watching events beyond her control increasingly dictate, indeed to eventually entirely re-frame, the terms of her existence is uncomfortable in the extreme, but to her credit she never plays for her audience’s sympathy, instead trusting in her visual storytelling skills (which are quite considerable) to accurately relate her journey with supreme emotional honesty. It takes guts to lay yourself bare like this, but there’s not an ounce of self-indulgence on offer here, and that puts it a good few steps ahead of many autobio comics right there.

Unable to continue working a customer service job, Webber is forced to get creative when it comes to making ends meet — unable to converse with friends she needs to find new ways to communicate — unable to engage in her favorite hobby, singing, she has to find new creative outlets. All of these life changes necessarily result in an increasingly isolated and lonely existence, and Webber’s creative use of two-color illustration (I might be mistaken here, but it looks to me like she skips the pencils stage and draws with ink pens) expertly captures the feel of a life that is simultaneously devolving into chaos yet also shrinking in on her. Anxiety, fear, displacement, loss of control — all are conveyed with a kind of raw expressiveness that incorporates loose-form squiggles, dark splotches of ink, and even collage into an appropriately chaotic visual repetoire that says a hell of a lot with an economy of linework that at times almost even borders on the austere.

Ultimately, though, it is Webber’s struggle with a healthy self-image — the image that, let’s face it, she’s used to — that is perhaps the hardest hurdle for her to overcome, but is also, not at all paradoxically, the goal she is  striving for. Her friends, her artistry, and her admirable sense of determination ultimately get her through, but not before she has to come to terms with a lot of truths most of us will hopefully  never have to face, chief among them how intricately our ability to speak and our very sense of identity are intertwined. Every day without a voice was a struggle beyond Webber’s previous level of comprehension, and I imagine that relating her story was very nearly as difficult, but she emerges out the other end with a new appreciation of both herself and her life — as will you by the time you finish this remarkable book.