Going With The Flow Of Tara Booth’s “Nocturne”

At this point in the history of the comics medium — hell, at this point in the history of art in general — irony, particularly humorous irony, by all rights really shouldn’t work anymore. It certainly doesn’t deserve to, the vast majority of the time it doesn’t, and I’m generally of a mind that the more sequential narratives stay the fuck away from it, the better. It takes an extraordinary talent to pull off what’s been done literally thousands of times before, to find something new in such thoroughly-mined territory, but it probably takes something more than that, too — it takes a supreme amount of entirely-earned confidence, as opposed to mere empty bravado. It takes vision, not just an idea. And it takes top-level ability to execute, which goes well above and beyond simple competence.

In other words, it takes Tara Booth.

If How To Alive was Booth’s breakthrough, then her new 2dcloud book, Nocturne, is her announcement that she’s here to stay, and that she has a very definite artistic agenda — one that she cleverly couches in  highly-accessible, entirely non-threatening terms, allowing the beauty of her gouache paintings and the light-hearted tone of her narratives to subtly communicate strongly-stated messages about sexual freedom, gender identity, consent, and kink. Consider : this book features an extended look at a surreal night in the life of a dominatrix (presumably a stand-in for the cartoonist herself, or at least a particular facet of her personality), and yet it could almost (mind you, I say almost) fit comfortably in the “YA” section of your local bookshop.

And while we’re talking about “surreal,” it should be noted that when Booth’s protagonist/analogue enters into an altered mental space thanks to a few too many sleeping pills, not only does the book in no way become confusing, it actually gains  strength. Not that anything here is particularly difficult to follow, mind you — Booth’s wordless storytelling draws you in immediately and rushes you along with its heady flow — but that flow is so quietly compelling, so easy, so smooth, so unforced, that it has the quality of a dream to it, and when the narrative itself literally becomes a dream, it fits as comfortably as a favorite glove. Then dreams and reality blend together, and the results? They’re downright sublime.

To be totally fair, it could be said that this book is essentially one long joke stretched out to fill 64 pages (plus some wonderful pencil-and-ink pages at the front and back), but Booth incorporates so many issues central to her main artistic mission that one could also fairly say that this is an expansive, multi-faceted examination of the contemporary state of sexual politics, particularly within the BDSM community, expressed in the form of a deceptively simple, 64-page ironic joke. And therein lies the genius (a term I never employ without good reason) of what Booth has achieved here : a story that is both breezy and fun, but also completely serious; a book with an undeniably clear point of view and message that nonetheless is never preachy or even particularly over-earnest.

It all comes back to our word of the day : flow. I say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Nocturne positively washes over the reader and subsumes you with its sense of wonder and, believe it or not, simplicity. Sexual identity and the politics of consent within the BDSM “scene” are frequently fraught with complications, it’s true, but when it all works and everyone’s on the same page? It can be pretty damn awesome. Booth navigates some of the trickiest and thorniest of subsets in the spectrum of human sexuality within these pages and never forgets that at the end of day (or night), it’s still all about having fun. As is her remarkably heartfelt, passionate, and joyous book.

How To Read “How To Be Alive”

Toward the tail end of 2017 — yeah, I know, I’m still playing a little bit of “catch-up” here and there, sue me — the always-interesting Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics publishing co-venture released one of the more thoroughly engrossing books of the year, cartoonist/painter Tara Booth’s How To Be Alive, but no matter how many times I’ve perused its contents, either casually or with serious intent (it lends itself quite nicely to either approach, although the latter will always be more rewarding, of course), I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the best way to review it. Finally, after one complex, slowly-developing emotional reaction to it after another, I seemed to arrive back at where I started with it, and that’s when it sunk in : this was Booth’s point all along.

If there’s beauty to be found in the mundane, this comic offers the surest evidence of it — a series of 40 brightly-colored and inventively-arranged gouache paintings, exploding off the page with patterns and textures that enhance, rather than distract or detract, from their uniformly “everyday” subject matter, I take these wordless, border-free strips to be autobiographical in nature, although they can just as easily be interpreted as simply a series of events featuring the same nameless protagonist. You go with what works best for you, and again — I think that’s Booth’s point.

Life’s small triumphs, tribulations, and tragedies are the focus here, and whether Booth is portraying herself/her stand-in popping pimples, trying to get comfortable in bed, eating dinner, gulping down her prescriptions, cutting her hair, trying on shoes, looking for a missing sock, or exercising, nothing on offer is outside the sphere of the absolutely ordinary, much less anything remotely exotic, and as such the beating heart of the work is quickly established as being commonality or universality of experience, marking this as one of the most genuinely populist works of art in any medium you’re likely to cross paths with. Booth’s technical execution is exemplary, sure, but nothing she’s doing feels out of reach by dint of the sheer “oh yeah, I’ve been there” relatability of her visual narrative(s) alone. This comic may not be “about you” specifically — but what the hell, it may as well be.

Certain of the vignettes are unique to the female life experience, of course — that’s to be expected — but Booth’s keen ability to focus, with empathy, upon the small foibles of any given scene, as well as her fluency in the language of communicating emotional absorption of/reaction to any given occurrence, work hand-in-hand to pull readers of any age, race, gender, ethnicity, orientation/identification right into the material, and guide the eye in smooth and naturalistic fashion toward what matters most in each image. The book may be silent, sure, but this unforced expressiveness speaks volumes about Booth’s confidence as an artist. She “had you at hello” (God, did I really just do that? I’m so sorry), she knows it, and she never lets you go from her flow.

In purely practical terms, this is an impressive enough achievement, but the way Booth transmits — with ease, immediacy and heart — just about every “spot” along the human emotional spectrum while never giving in to the “easy outs” offered by melodrama, parody, self-pity, or smarm? That’s what elevates this book to the level of the genuinely remarkable. My best advice, then, when it comes to how best to approach this work? Cliched as it no doubt sounds, I say just feel your way through it — and enjoy the utterly unique sensation of your heart beating in time with a comic book.

How To Be Alive sells for $8.00 and that’s more than reasonable for a celebration of all that it means to be ali — shit, too obvious, not going there. Order it up post-haste if you know what’s good for you at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/29642-all-products/products/20671676-how-to-be-alive-by-tara-booth

 

“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!