Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/27/2018 – 06/02/2018, Kalen Knowles And (More) Pat Aulisio

Still firmly in catch-up mode (but with light at the end of the tunnel), this week’s grab-bag of items that arrived in my mailbox includes three self-published comics from Kalen Knowles, one of the most distinctive voices in the Seattle underground, and another from Philly’s Pat Aulisio, who continues to blow me away with his idiosyncratic visions. Why waste time? Let’s have a look at the good stuff, and this time out it’s all good —

Knowles’ Journal is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in my life, a densely-packed sketchbook diary (think the Wimpy Kid books and you’re getting warm) told from the POV of a young octopoid alien named Atticus that is almost disarmingly clever and imbued with a genuine sense of charm and wonder throughout. Atticus’ world — hell, his entire space/time continuum — bears certain similarities to our own, but rather than employing these as set-pieces for a straight allegorical tale, Knowles fashions a springboard from which to hint at any number of wild, even inexplicable, differences, and the end result is something equal parts utterly alien and entirely universal. You get a hell of a lot of storytelling for your five bucks here, all of it deliriously inventive, and if you pass on this, you seriously ought to have your head examined.

Stick Guy Comics is a varied, but generally pretty impressive, collection of one-page strips Knowles produced as part of Seattle’s monthly DUNE cartooning “jam sessions,” wherein participants would get together at Cafe Racer and produce an entire ‘zine’s-worth of comics in a single night. The character of Stick Guy is exactly what he sounds like, and there’s a definite Michael DeForge “vibe” to most of these stories, with basic and colorful shapes being utilized in service of (mis)adventures that are eminently easy to relate to, yet no less weird for that fact. As you’d no doubt expect given the circumstances under which they were created, some of these strips are more successful in terms of doing what they set out to than others, but when they “hit,” they really “hit,”  and truth be told even the “misses” are still interesting. Not an essential purchase by any means, but still well worth the five dollar asking price.

I doubt Knowles knows it, but the title for his Doctor Dracula comic is pretty similar to an aborted Ed Wood project called Dr. Acula, and like Wood’s films, this feels like art that arrived here from another dimension. Combining the stories of Tarzan, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, and even Gilligan’s fucking Island into one bursting-at-the-seams package of “high weirdness” might sound like a lot to fit into a mere 16 pages, but not only does it all work, it all hews to a strangely coherent inner logic, and is damn funny, to boot. Knowles’ B&W artwork in this one is richly-detailed, expressive, even lavish, betraying just a hint of Rick Geary influence (never a bad thing in my book) around the margins. You’re gonna want to read this one twice through before putting it down, just to see if you missed anything the first time around, and if your comics budget for the month is only three dollars, this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all to spend it on.

Knowles also sent me a terrifically bizarre and broad-themed mini called Intervals that I can’t seem to find available for purchase anywhere online, but if you can cajole a copy out of him, I highly recommend you try to do just that — as for everything else, it’s available from his Big Cartel shop at https://kalenknowles.bigcartel.com/

F’real Real is a mind-bending solo (well, for the most part) anthology from Pat Aulisio that features such a varied assortment of short, mostly full-color, strips that it’s fair to say there’s truly something for everyone in here — provided, of course, that “everyone” is a little bent. Once you get past that absolutely awesome cover you’ll find —among other, errrrmm, “delights” — tales of repetitious cuckolded cat-burglars, broke ex-wrestlers, dimension-hopping Japanese rock bands, and my favorite, a hot-rodder in the Big Daddy Roth mode who is in hock to a demonic space alien that requires young flesh to feast upon. Aulisio’s art has a raw immediacy that makes even the likes of Brian Chippendale look overly-professional and conservative, so your only option here is to hold on for dear life and try to survive the ride.

Printed on slick, glossy paper and featuring heavy-duty cardstock covers, this “co-production” of Drippy Bone Books and Aulisio’s own Yeah Dude Comics is well worth the eight bucks he’s charging for it and can be ordered directly from the cartoonist at http://yeahdude.storenvy.com/collections/50621-all-products/products/12163422-freal-real

And with that, we’ll call it a wrap for this week’s column. Next time up we’ll be taking a look at — shit, you know what? I don’t even know yet. But I’m pretty well caught up with what folks have been sending me in the mail, so maybe I’ll find something interesting at the shop this Wednesday? One can always (or should that be only ?) hope!

 

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Eurocomics Spotlight : “Lovecraft : The Myth Of Cthulhu”

On the one hand, this is an extremely easy book to review — and on the other, it’s an extremely difficult one.

Chances are, you see, that most readers going into Spanish comics master Esteban Maroto’s IDW-published hardback Lovecraft : The Myth Of Cthulhu are going to be well familiar with the three H.P. Lovecraft adaptations collected herein — “The Nameless City,” “The Festival,” and “The Call Of Cthulhu” are, after all, the first three entries in the legendary “Cthulhu Cycle,” and have been translated into the comics medium a good number of times already (despite the rather curious claim made in Jose Villarrubia’s otherwise-fine introduction to this volume that Lovecraftian works are rarely adapted for comics) — and therefore what’s of primary interest here is not so much what’s being presented as how it’s being presented. The usual plot recaps and the like that accompany most self-respecting reviews are, therefore, probably not strictly necessary in this case (forgive me, then, if we duly skip them over), but some type of analysis of how successfully this material “makes the jump” from the world of the purely literary into the world of graphic storytelling under Maroto’s direction is absolutely necessary if we’re to determine whether or not this book is worth 20 of your hard-earned dollars. So let’s get right to that, shall we?

Certainly the path these stories have taken to finally seeing print has been a circuitous one — Maroto is no stranger to most American comics readers, having enjoyed a healthy run on Marvel’s Red Sonja in the 1970s (for the record, the chain-mail bikini was his idea) and his name being a regular fixture in various Warren black-and-white horror magazines around the same period, but these strips were originally commissioned in the early ’80s for a publication in his home country that folded up shop before they could see print. The rights to them, as well as the original artwork, then fell into the possession of another Spanish publisher, who gave them decidedly short shrift by running them as backup features in a non-horror series, and then they sort of disappeared down the memory hole until they were essentially re-written by Roy Thomas (I’m sorry, but that’s just cruel) for inclusion in a little-seen small press Lovecraft-themed TPB anthology collection earlier this century.

The good news is that in the years since, the artwork has all been returned to Maroto’s possession one way or another, and as such, the reproduction quality of this volume is simply outstanding, with all the pages looking as sharp, clean, and striking as one would expect given that they are taken directly from the originals. IDW has long excelled at the presentation of archival-quality vintage material (okay, fair enough, apart from their Craig Yoe-edited projects), and this book fits well within that tradition, presenting hard-to-find material essentially thought lost to the ages in a manner that makes it look, for all intents and purposes, brand new.

And, of course, for many readers — myself included — these adaptations, if not the stories themselves, are brand new, as no one outside of Spain has ever seen them presented as Maroto originally intended, with “his own” (by way of Lovecraft, of course) words accompanying his masterful illustrations. And that’s where the heavy dichotomy sets in : Maroto’s black-and-white art is lush, detailed to the point of obsessive, and intensely atmospheric, with fear and terror literally dripping from every panel. His expressive faces, rich use of shading and tone, and thick, inky blacks combine and coalesce to form imagery that straight-up oozes dread, and his imagination is more than up to the task of depicting otherworldly malevolent forces that Lovecraft himself, let’s not forget, was always quick to remind readers were well beyond the ability of the human mind to fully comprehend or accurately describe. I’m not prepared to say that Maroto’s iteration of Cthulhu, for instance, is the “definitive” one, since there’s no such thing, but if there were —

Unfortunately, the scripting leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired, the stories coming across as a series of rather dry “Cliffs Notes”-style condensed re-tellings of their (I hate this fucking term, but) “source material,” heavy on entirely unnecessary description, so if you’re of the mind that both story and art better be pretty good in order for a book to be worth your time and money (in no way an unreasonable position to take), then I’ll tell you right now to avoid this one as you’ll just be disappointed. If, however, you’re prepared to let yourself get swept up by (or maybe that should be subsumed under?) wonderfully, nightmarishly grotesque (in the truest sense of the word) visuals and to let them do all the storytelling work, then Lovecraft : The Myth Of Cthulhu isn’t just a damn good collection of horror comics, it’s probably an essential one.

It’s About Time : Fiona Smyth’s “Somnambulance”

When you’re talking about a book that runs to 366 pages and covers over 30 years, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately for me— and anyone else who reviews it — Canadian cartoonist Fiona Smyth arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s more or less “fully formed,” as the old expression goes, with a clear idea of both what she wanted to say and, crucially, how she wanted to say it, and has spent the succeeding decades refining and honing her style and messaging, but never veering too terribly far from the inherently feminist concerns that have been her stock in trade from the outset. And here’s the thing — her work isn’t merely “as relevant” as ever, it’s probably even moreso.

I first encountered Smyth, if memory serves me correctly, in the pages of her Vortex (remember them?) series Nocturnal Emissions (remember that?), and was immediately equal parts shocked, enthralled, perplexed, challenged, and charmed by her densely-packed strips that seemed to offer a rumination on some kind of resolution between dream and conscious reality for the purposes of liberating sexual desire. Her stuff was then — and is now — quite unlike anything else around, and so Koyama Press’ just-released comprehensive retrospective of her work, Somnambulance, is more than a simple omnibus collection, it’s an important piece of comics history that, one hopes, will introduce its author/subject to a wider audience than she has ever enjoyed in the past.

For those new to Smyth, it may take a few dozen pages to get with the flow of her absolutely singular vision, but once they do, I predict they’ll have a hard time putting the book down. Her thick line is extremely clean and intense, and the same is true of the visions she transcribes onto paper — the “intense” part, at any rate. And yet, despite the entirely unsubtle and (I say this with all due respect) unconventional libidinal urges delineated throughout, I’m not inclined to say Smyth’s subject matter isn’t “clean,” as well. Her characters, which to her credit come in all shapes and sizes, may spew fire from their vaginas and contort themselves into impossibly bizarre positions that defy logic and common sense, but no matter how raw and explicit the “events” depicted, unlike any number of other underground, or underground-influenced, cartoonists, there’s no self-loathing or even uneasiness on offer here — in fact, most of the time, Smyth’s work is downright celebratory, a packed-to-the-gills festival of the most basic-yet-mystifying of human biological urges, a kind of visual treatise on the value of embracing and revealing the depths of one’s id without a hint of shame. You want what you want so go for it — you are who you are, so be it. Simple, sure, but also as revolutionary as it gets.

A steady stream of semi-frequent recurring characters gives this mostly-chronological collection some semblance of narrative progression, and while her female protagonists all feel like they must be (and probably are) expressions of specific aspects of herself, the same seems true of her men, as well, largely existing for purposes of facilitating various acts of becoming for the women. One way or another there’s not so much a sense that Smyth is having a conversation with herself, rather she’s either playing parts of her whole off against each other, or conjoining them in new and interesting ways, in order to more fully demonstrate and express the power of her own (sorry to use a done-to-death term, but) agency.

It’s not all a party, of course — demonic spirits attain, and enjoy the pleasures of, flesh on a number of occasions, and less-than-oblique references to a typically guilt-ridden Catholic upbringing make their presence felt throughout, but these are temporary obstacles, never entirely escaped from but lacking the power to put a damper on things for any extended period of time, compartmentalized expressions of internal angst that the cartoonist herself isn’t so much afraid of as seeking to strip of their power by dint of exposing their existence to both herself and her audience. There’s a wholeness and generosity of vision here — from Smyth’s earliest mini-comics work through to her contemporary-era paintings and large-panel illustrations — that somehow reveals all the complexity and nuance of someone not just comfortable with, but appreciative of, the fact that she is able to engage in deep and thorough self-examination in a public forum. I wouldn’t have the guts to do it myself — much less have fun with it — but Smyth is infinitely more interesting, imaginative, and confident than most, and that results in comics that are endlessly interesting and inventive even as they mostly tread the same thematic ground.

The human psyche is a stew of contradictory ingredients, and many cartoonists excel at making the creative end-product of theirs palatable in spite of their repugnance or toxicity. Somnambulance, however, proves that Fiona Smyth has always done, and continues to do, something entirely different — she gives us a privileged look into the deepest recesses of her conscious an unconscious mind, as “warts and all” an experience as it gets, and, with apologies to Lucky Charms cereal, makes it magically delicious.

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/20/2018 – 05/26/2018, Brian Canini And Pat Aulisio

Let’s talk some mini comics! I’ve been getting a ton of them in the mail lately and am doing my best to keep up (if you’ve sent me some and haven’t seen ’em reviewed yet, rest assured, I’m getting around to everything in the next week or two — and if you haven’t sent me any but want to, get in touch!), so let’s dive right in and take a look at some of what’s been coming my way, starting with a trio from our old friend Brian Canini and his Drunken Cat Comics self-publishing imprint —

Roulette is a stark and unforgiving (just check out that cover) eight-pager about a couple “dudebros” who have hit rock bottom and are indulging in the preferred method of drunken Russians to end their suffering. What exactly brought the pair of them to this point is only hinted at, but it’s not like the details matter too terribly much as the point of this entire endeavor can best be summed up as “maximum impact within a minimalist framework.” In that respect, Canini succeeds quite well, infusing his usual economic cartooning style with a bit of a DIY punk sensibility that suits this material to a proverbial “T” and socks you right in the jaw with very little fuss and muss. This is a bleak little book, to be sure, but a gripping one, and the highly ambiguous final page ensures that you’re gonna want to go right back to the start and read it again to decide how you think it “really” ends. $1.99 for an artfully-constructed comic that really makes you think is a solid expenditure, in my book, so I heartily recommend this one without reservation.

And the same is true (hell, it always is with this series) for Plastic People #5. Last time out we exited the “world-building” phase of this faux-perfect dystopian future and jumped right into the murder mystery that is apparently going to be the main focus of Canini’s narrative, and this time around we get an unflinching look at the political machinations that are going to make an honest investigation well-nigh impossible for our protagonists. The art in this series keeps getting more assured and confident with each issue, and the plot progression is tight and reasonably intricate. Canini successfully crams more story into eight pages than “The Big Two” manage in books three times this length, and he hits on more story “beats,” to boot. This is an expertly-crafted series that has only improved with each issue, and $1.99 for shit this good is an absolute bargain. Plus, the future LA portrayed in this comic has no fucking cops. What’s not to love?

Glimpses Of Life #5 is the latest installment in Canini’s diary comics series, this time focused on cats and our love/hate relationship with the little bastards that we can’t live without. The bookends of the comic are probably the best parts of this issue, with a charming little autobio story about the cartoonist’s pet slugs (yes, you read that right) he used to keep as a kid kicking things off and a terrific little strip called “How Cat Beds Work” serving as the back cover send-off, but to be perfectly honest most of the stories in between fell kinda flat with me. Canini’s drawing style lends itself well to these short little vignettes, and the consumer-friendliness of this series (16 larger-than-the-typical-mini pages for $2.99) is welcome and appreciated, but I still feel like he’s trying to find his voice with this project and sort of eyeing up anything and everything in his everyday life as a potential source of inspiration until he hits on something that he’s really got some unique perspective on. I give him points for trying, and certainly encourage him to continue doing just that, but so far he has yet to find a way to make these admirably simple slices — sorry, glimpses — of life compelling. He’ll likely get there at some point — hell, he’s done some terrific diary comics work in the past — but for whatever reason, this is taking some time to come together.

Still, two out of three ain’t bad at all, and Brian’s storenvy site offers plenty more stuff well worth your time and money, as well, so spending some time browsing his wares is never a bad idea. You can do just that at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

Pat Aulisio is yet another cartoonist to emerge in recent years from the suddenly-booming Philadelphia scene, and while I’ve seen some of his work in a handful of anthologies here and there, Ghosted is the first of his “solo” books that I’ve sampled. Printed in black, white, and a pleasingly garish otherworldly aqua-blue, Aulisio’s own description of this comic bills it as concerning “online dating and a walk through the trans-dimensional void” — and I’ll be goddamned if that isn’t exactly right, as his narrative (I hesitate to call it a “story”) juxtaposes some typically lame Tinder-style banter with amazingly-delineated scenes channeled straight from an alternate reality that I can only think to (no doubt inadequately) label as “punk futurism.” You can look at this book for hours and not get bored — hell, not even know what’s happening for certain, and in that sense it reminds me a lot of much of the very best stuff from the volumes-four-and-five heyday of Kramers Ergot. There’s a touch of William Cardini to Aulisio’s work, a touch of Ben Passmore, but mostly a heaping helping of techno-psychedelia that defies not only classification, but even description. If you’re getting the feeling that this comic is exactly what you need in order to survive for another minute in this hopelessly dull plane of existence, guess what? It is.

Aulisio’s got himself a storenvy site For his Yeah Dude Comics imprint, as well — what self-respecting (or otherwise) cartoonist doesn’t these days? — and he’s even running a little sale right now, with Ghosted  going for the bargain price of $3.00 and other books knocked down by a buck or two, as well. Check it out at http://yeahdude.storenvy.com/

Next week we’ve got more Aulisio (he sent me a second comic that I haven’t had a chance to read yet), some cool-looking stuff from Seattle cartoonist Kalen Knowles that I meant to get to this week — and who knows? Maybe a few surprises, as well, depending on what else shows up courtesy of our friends at the USPS. Hope to see you back here in seven!

 

By The Time You’re Done With This Review You’ll Want To Read “By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage”

The work of cartoonist Laura Lannes is as raw as it gets. Rendered in tightly-framed watercolors that leave plenty of negative space for readers to fill in the “blanks” (both physical and metaphorical) for themselves, her 2dcloud-published graphic memoir By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage is something a whole lot more than the “simple” 30-day collection (covering the period of February-March, 2017) of diary strips it appears to be on the surface : it’s an examination not only of an emotionally turbulent period in the life of a 25-year-old New Yorker, but of how the process of putting these experiences down on paper allows its author/subject to regain control over the narrative of her own life — at precisely the moment when the parameters of said life seem entirely out of her control.

If you’re gonna “play” the autobio “game” successfully, sharp observational skills are indispensable, and Lannes certainly has hers honed to the point of glinting — she’s painfully frank in her depiction of others’ foibles, sure, but crucially she doesn’t spare herself, either, as the darkly humorous title of this spiral-bound collection (printed and bound with the level of exacting care we’ve come to expect from Perfectly Acceptable Press) makes plain from the outset. And yet, while you could be forgiven for making the assumption that self-pity is the main course on offer here, in truth it’s barely even on the menu.

To my mind, at any rate, that — in addition to just plain smart cartooning choices — is what gives Lannes’ work a “leg up” on most memoirists. Is everything in this book told from her own point of view? Absolutely. But that point of view isn’t afraid to lay its own process of becoming absolutely bare in front of readers. As Lannes navigates the perpetually-confused (and, from where this old married guy is sitting, perpetually confusing) landscape of Tinder dating, as she briefly re-connects (unsuccessfully) with an old flame, as she runs away from New York (to Mardi Gras, no less) with a guy who’s every bit as “on the rebound” as she is, as she dabbles her toes tentatively into involvement with local democratic socialist groups, as she falls for a guy named Francesco alarmingly quickly (and she knows it) only to ultimately add him to her mental list of guys who have let her down (he demands exclusivity from her while not being willing to return the “favor” — asshole), as she drifts from one doomed freelance gig to another — her honest thoughts and reflections are front, center, and immediate, but so is the internal debate within herself about how she’s going to present all this, to memorialize it, not only to herself, but to a readership composed largely of more or less complete strangers.

Following her quasi-breakup with Francesco, Lannes’ life takes on the character of the sort of downward spiral we’ve all seen before and perhaps even lived through ourselves, and while there are times when it seems like she can’t catch a break no matter what — the batteries in her vibrator are even dead! — she never loses sight of how inherently ridiculous, perhaps even pathetic, the search for love, sex, and romance (and she’s acutely aware of how interconnected all three are) is, and she also never drifts too far from her inherently (is it too soon to call it “trademark”?) self-deprecating wit. Is this all life and death stuff? It certainly seems to at the time to Lannes (as it would to most of us), but hey — that doesn’t mean you can’t see the funny side of it all, even while it’s still happening.

By the time all is said and done, Lannes’ down-to-Earth-and-maybe-even-beneath-it editorial POV becomes downright necessary, as she’s forced to open up the lines of communication with Francesco again to let him know that she may have, unbeknownst to her at the time, passed chlamydia on to him. There’s no “easy” way to delineate a scene like this, but Lannes at least manages to make it bearable to read, even if living through it was obviously anything but. You’ll cringe, but you won’t be able to stop reading — and you’ll find yourself bummed out that it’s all over when you get to the 30th, and final, page. Even if you’re somewhat relieved.

Names are changed to protect the “innocent” here, as you’d no doubt expect/hope for — hell, one of the characters is even (appropriately) given a dog’s head — but I’d still put By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage right up there with the most unflinchingly honest memoirs the comics medium has ever (no exaggeration) produced. It’s uncomfortable, it’s harrowing, it reads very much like a work produced from a place of compulsive need — and it’s hilarious. The overall experience of reading it can leave you feeling exhausted, at least mentally and emotionally (hell, maybe even physically, depending on what kind of shape you’re in), but you’ll walk away from it feeling damn impressed indeed. Maybe even something akin to floored.

Besides, what more do you need from a comic than sex, socialism, and self-reflection?

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Okay, admittedly $25.00 is a lot to pay for anything, much less a comic book, but By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage is an unforgettable read, and is sumptuously-produced, to boot. It can — and should — be ordered directly from the cartoonist at https://lauralannes.bigcartel.com/product/by-monday

 

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.