Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sad, Sordid, and Sympathetic Tales

I have to give the Xeric Foundation credit; they certainly know how to pick a comic. Each year, Xeric provides grants so comics creators can self-publish their work, and I have yet to come across a Xeric winner I haven't liked (Xeric winners reviewed here include Tyler Page's Nothing Better and Box Brown's Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing).

JT Yost's Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales is no exception to my Xeric love. This brief anthology consists of five stories that have little in common, save that they all show off Yost's remarkable talents as a visual storyteller. He is one of those rare creators who understands how much information can go into a single, deceptively uncomplicated panel and at the same time knows firmly what his stories are about. Take the titular tale "Old Man Winter." It chronicles the days and encounters of an elderly widower, but it's really about the small indignities that the old may suffer at the loneliest time in their lives -- at the hands of strangers, aquaintances, even their own family. It certainly asks us to rethink our own encounters, but Yost's hand is sympathetic rather than judgmental, rendering his aged protagonist with gentle affection, and demonstrating his quiet embarassment with understated expressions. Even the people who inflict these humiliations upon him are shown to suffer less from cruelty than a failure of empathy. It's a low-concept, high-execution endeavour that is surprisingly humanizing without ever feeling like its trying too hard.

There's a similar vein running through the other stories in this collection. Three of the remaining four deal with animal cruelty. One, "All Is Forgiven," peripherally references the contraversial rhesus monkey experiments of Harry Harlow. Another, "Roadtrip," has been used by vegan outreach groups. But even if this isn't your particular political bent (and, carnivore that I am, I can't say it's mine), they're still well worth the read, marvelously juxtaposing human pains (in the former) and pleasures (in the latter) with the suffering inflicted on animals by humans. "All Is Forgiven" is stronger as a classic short story, but "Roadtrip" is the more visually engaging of the pair. What's refreshing about "Roadtrip" is that it gets its point about the horrors of factory farming across without resorting to PETA's brand of grisly pornography, recognizing that anticipation and aftermath are often more powerful than action. The third of these stories, the not quite correctly titled "Running Away To the Circus/Running Away From the Circus," takes a similar tack, comparing the abuses that force young people and elephants to work the big top in a pair of parallel but opposite pages.

But it's the least flashy tale in the whole lot that gets me the most excited to read Yost's future work. "Logging Sanjay," which is sandwiched in the middle of the book, is an apparently autobiographical story about a childhood prank played on a friend's family. It's a straightforward, unpretentious anecdote that doesn't have the emotional power of "Old Man Winter," but offers hints of what a longer form piece from Yost would look like -- engaging, honest, and filled with mostly good-natured fun. That, combined with his more advanced visual prowess, is what's going to have me keeping an eye on Yost for what I expect will be many, many projects to come.

Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales will be available in August. In the meantime, you can check out the online preview or order it from Birdcage Bottom Books.

[JT Yost]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Karaoke Comic Still Searching for Its Voice

Reviewing a single-issue comic is a bit of an odd endeavor. It's like contemplating how someone would be in a relationship after sharing appetizers. And, in the cast of a six page DIY, it's a super quick nosh -- more mozzarella sticks than the pu pu platter. But Russ Kazmierczak Jr was kind enough to send me the first issue of his Karaoke Comics, so I am happy to review it.

The premise of Karaoke Comics is fairly self-explanatory. Kazmierczak chronicles his adventures (and misadventures) in karaoke. You see, Kazmierczak is a self-described karaoke fanboy (in the amusing introduction he explains his possible origins: "Rocketed to Earth from the doomed Planted K'raoke! Acquired karaoke powers when bitten by a radioactive Michael Bolton CD!"). He's the guy who doesn't need a liter of tequila to bust out a Whitney Houston tune, the guy who will sing along when someone has a really awesome solo going. Hell, he's the guy if you ask what he wants to do tonight, he'll say, without a moment's hesitation, "I know this great karaoke place."

It's a nice anchor for a comic, precisely because most of us don't share Kazmierczak's enthusiasm for crooning. I'm personally a bit mystified by people who step off the stage only to race back to the song menu, and I'd like to know what mystical force keeps them coming back to the mic. Plus, it lends itself to a rotating cast characters: fellow karaoke bar hoppers, the friends who tag along for the booze, regulars at certain hot spots. And after reading Side B, I'm intrigued by projects that explore music in the necessarily silent medium of comics.

But while Kazmierczak may have a decent idea (and one that aptly matches his passions), he's not quite sure what to do with it. This first issue, entitled "A Gay Old Time!" (much to my disappointment; a cheesier portion of my brain hoped the comics would all be named for grand karaoke standards), consists of two three-page anecdotes in which Kazmierczak (who is straight) goes to karaoke bars and is subsequently hit on by other men. The first, "Sideburned," is far too slight, even for a tale told to friends over beers, while the second, "Daydream Disbelief," is genuinely weird, while containing undertones of sympathetic sadness. The problem, though, is less in the choice of stories than the execution; they told in a way that is almost ludicrously straightforward, without any concern for texture or pacing.

Case in point: the latter (and stronger) of the two stories ought to be seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. As much as we should feel bad for the agent of our discomfort, we should (male or female, gay or straight) also pray that we never have the displeasure of meeting this fellow in the restroom. But where I expect Kazmierczak to linger -- and even luxuriate -- over the man's loneliness and his rather egregious breech of urinal etiquette, he wedges the entire experience into a single panel and then immediately skips back to his comfy table. Similarly, a sense of character and place are strangely absent from the telling. The stories are set in two separate karaoke bars: Orange County's Angels and Lamplighter in San Diego, but we get no idea as to what distinguishes one from the other. And there is maybe one line of dialogue that doesn't contribute deliberately to the central anecdote, revealing virtually nothing about the characters. Sure, we get a clear sense of what transpired in these particular narratives, but not what could be in store for us in future episodes, a circumstance that leads me to strongly suspect that slice-of-life, not comedic anecdotes, would be a stronger genre for this particular comic.

The artwork presents a similar issue. To my mind, karaoke by its nature has an exagerated quality to it; some people are being silly, others are forgetting how the song goes, still others are belting out pop tunes like it's a Broadway audition. But Kazmierczak's art, while highly functional, is bizarrely conservative, showing off not one color of his personal freak flag. It also fails to fill in the blanks left by the text -- characters' age, attractiveness, and sense of style remain a mystery. And seriously, how gross was that thing in the bathroom? Inquiring eyes want to know.

The pair of graphic anecdotes are broken up by two pages of text, a venue review for San Francisco song spot The Mint. The review shares the rest of the issue's theme (namely, that Kazmierczak is a tad obsessed with the sexual orientations of his fellow songsters), but it gives Karaoke Comics a nice bump from simple comic to zine, and I could see fellow karaoke fans submitting reviews of their own.

A good karaoke performance is about more than reciting the correct lyrics to the proper tune; it's about interpreting the song in your own way, even if you aren't the world's greatest singer. The same goes for comics; a unique personality and a strong sense of flair and fun beat an amusing anecdote any day of the week. I'm sure that Russ Kazmierczak has a great voice when he gets up on stage. Next time, I'd like to see it on paper.

[Russ Kazmierczak's Blog]
[Karaoke Comics Preview]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

No Pride, but Prejudice and Zombies

I don't fully comprehend zombie fatigue. To my mind, zombies fill a subgenre like any other -- swords and sorcery, atomic destruction, alien invasion, and the like. Adding zombies to an otherwise dull story doesn't make it any better (although it's certainly made Jane Austen more palatable for a lot of people), nor do the bajillion zombie apocalypses that came before make the latest zombie entrant any worse. The key is whether the still-living folks in the story are remotely interesting.

The Zombie Hunters
by Jenny Romanchuk is an interesting addition to the canon of undead apocalypses, a comic that shares a kinship with some of the stronger deadhead tales and adds a few twists all its own. It takes place in a post-post-apocalyptic universe, one where the zombies still reign over most of the world, but humanity's survivors have begun to slowly rebuild civilization. At the tightly guarded Argus Research Campus, humans once again have houses, schools, scientific labs, and even bars, scratching out an existence while scientists seek out a cure for the zombie plague.

George Romero's zombie movies are frequently stuffed with political subtext, commenting on consumerism, race, and social classism, and The Zombie Hunters has its own set of second class citizens. In Romanchuk's mythology, live humans can become infected with the zombie virus through contact with undead blood. Although the infected are still alive, they'll turn zombie when they die and can pass the infection to uninfected humans through bodily fluids. Consequently, the infected are relagated to special barracks on the campus and live under special curfews and surveillance enforced by Red Halo, A.R.C.'s military complex. Infected persons are greatly encouraged to join the Zombie Hunters, salvage teams that venture into the zombie-filled wastelands to recover food, clothing, and any other remnants of former civilization. It's a potentially deadly job, but offers the infected a freedom they can't experience on campus.

Jenny (yes, one of the characters is named after the author -- more on that later) leads a team of young zombie hunters whose prolonged time in the wastelands has left them jaded to the zombie threat. They've long chafed under (and bent) the rules imposed by Red Halo, and after the loss of a teammate, they've grown increasingly reckless, endangering themselves and their position as Red Halo agents. Meanwhile, in its search for a cure, Argus has created a creature that is neither human nor zombie.

Admittedly, it took me a few tries to get into The Zombie Hunters. My understanding is that the comic wasn't initially written for public consumption, but as a goof for Romanchuk and her friends. And the earlier pages certainly have a goofier quality to them. Romanchuk's art is generally gorgeous -- filled with a colorful range of characters (many physically based on her friends), but grisley enough to match the morbid subject matter. But early on, she slips in and out of manga conventions, occasionally giving her characters minimalist features to denote displeasure, sheepishness, or panic. I'm a big fan of manga conventions where they're appropriate, but here it comes off as jarringly cutesy. It's better when Romanchuk trusts the expressiveness of her normal artistic style, which she does more as the series progresses. By the time we return to the Argus Research Campus, she's polished up the physical design of her characters and relies less on exaggerated manga expressions.

Similarly, the writing and characterization are slightly over the top in those first few pages. In the initial arc, our zombie hunters have gone for a bit of off-mission looting, an error in judgment compounded by some rather ill-advised antics when the legions of undead show up. It's essential to the overall storyline, but a less successful demonstration of the team's aloofness than later flashbacks that show them treating zombie hunting as a game.

The Zombie Hunters picks up significantly at the start of Chapter Four, where Romanchuk lets us in on the universe's backstory via an educational film strip. Yes, it's the same device used in the 1950s-themed zombie comedy Fido, but if Romanchuk is biting on Fido, it doesn't show. Her visual style is similarly silly, but distinct, and rather than act as a PSA for the local corporate zombie-containing complex, it provides a somewhat uncomfortable assurance that infected persons should be treated with just as much respect as anyone else (methinks the salvaged TV set doth protest too much).

From there, we get a much sharper picture of the reality of The Zombie Hunters. The uninfected march on in an isolated facsimile of earlier civilization and are nurtured with a vague paranoia regarding the infected. Meanwhile, the infected are relegated to their ghetto. And though our zombie hunters are named for Romanchuk and her friends, there isn't a Mary Sue in the bunch. They're reasonably competent, but by no means superhuman when it comes to zombie killing, and their time in the wastelands has dehumanized them a bit; death has become sufficiently routine that they lay bets on the survival of new teammates. And, though they'll break a rule here and there (mostly nicking stuff from quarantine), they fear losing their zombie hunter privileges too much to challenge the status of the infected. But that doesn't mean class warfare isn't off in the distant story future; unscrupulous Red Halo officers can extract favors from the infected, and with A.R.C. experimenting on zombies, experiments on the infected can't be far behind.

Another innovation from Romanchuk is the zombie class system. Anyone who's played a few rounds of Left 4 Dead is familiar with hunter zombies, witch zombies, smoker zombies, boomer zombies, and tank zombies. The Zombie Hunters has hunter zombies too, as well as spitters, berserkers, basilisks, howlers, mercies, and the typical slow-moving crawlers. The Zombie Hunters' class system predates Left 4 Dead's, but it has the same effect of adding drama while making your average zombie fairly easy to kill. And Romanchuk has the good sense not to make too much of the undead aspects of her story, keeping the focus on the folks who are still alive.

So check your zombie fatigue at the door. The Zombie Hunters is a brilliantly illustrated work, and Romanchuk has laid the groundwork for a story that's far less horror movie than classic social science fiction drama. But if you just like watching cute girls get chased around by rotting bodies, there's plenty of that, too.

[The Zombie Hunters]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spandex Without Superheroes

Rival Angels has been calling to me over Project Wonderful. Everywhere I go online, it seems I am followed by pictures of pretty girl wrestlers staring out from their ad boxes, saying, Oh, come on Lauren, just click us.

So I did.

The comic snob in me rather expected to dislike Alan Evans' comic. The art didn't initially appeal to me, the narration and dialogue are a bit clunky (especially towards the beginning), and it's an utterly unironic soap opera about, well, professional wrestling. But I managed to come down off my high horse long enough to realize that, while it's about as deep as a puddle of sweat in the middle of the ring, Rival Angels also has the same simple, straightforward appeal as an evening spent watching the WWE.

Rival Angels operates on a very simple premise: What if professional wrestling were real? What if matches weren't choreographed? What if winners and losers were not predetermined? What if hitting people with chairs (while technically illegal) was still acceptable and really fucking hurt? What if all those backstage melodramas and onstage rivalries were real and unscripted? Oh, and what if all the wrestlers were (mostly gorgeous) women?

That is the world of the Rival Angels wrestling league and "Ultragirl" Sabrina Mancini. Sabrina longs to be a professional wrestler, and after a mere ten weeks in the Rival Angels developmental league, it looks like her dream is coming true. She's been called up to Chicago to be a full-fledged member of the Rival Angels family, wrestling each week to a packed stadium and on national television. But she's about to find out that getting the dream job is just the start of her worries.

Now that she's in the big league, Sabrina has to prove herself in ways that go way beyond her athletic ability. She has to deal with her fellow rookies and roommates, some of whom resent Sabrina's possibly premature success, the Hell's Belles, a trio of sadistic rulebreakers, and Rival Angels Commissioner Gabrielle Reni, who loves to keep her wrestlers on their toes almost as much as she loves increasing tshirt sales. Now, Sabrina has to navigate personalities, manage her offstage life, win her matches, and not get killed in the process.

From an aesthetic standpoint, professional wrestlers have a lot in common with superheroes. They're muscular, they wear colorful outfits, and they get involved in action-packed, multidirectional battles. Fortunately, Evans recognizes this and illustrates Rival Angels in a stripped-down superhero style. Outside the ring, it's not his strong suit; expressions are a bit off, bodies are overly posed, and backgrounds too spartan. But inside the ring, he really shines. To be honest, I thought I'd probably end up skimming over the wrestling panels, but to my surprise, they proved the most exciting and engaging parts of the whole comic. Either Evans obsessively studies wrestlers, or he has some extremely game life models, because the actions are clean and energetic, and when paired with the cheesy color commentary, easy for even this non-wrestling fan to understand. And though it still has a ways to go, the rest of the art is slowly but gradually improving as well.

Rival Angels is, at its heart, a melodrama, and it uses a more than healthy dose of soap opera conventions. Sabrina is our typical heroine with a heart of gold -- innately talented and hardworking, fiercely loyal, woefully naive, and possibly virginal. Sabrina meets her opposite and main rival in roommate Brooke Lennox. Where Sabrina is driven by athleticism and a love of the sport, Brooke seeks only fame and adulation, and she will happily connive and sleep her way to the top. Thus far, much of the action of Rival Angels has involved Brooke's attempts to undermine Sabrina and her cringe-inducing attempts to promote herself (think absurdly skimpy outfits).

The main plotline of Sabrina vs. Brooke (or Sabrina vs. any of her morally unworthy rivals) is actually the weakest point of Rival Angels. Although Sabrina's occasional temper and the sense that she's as capable of losing a match as anyone else leaves her shy of playing the Mary Sue, Brooke is too transparently villainous, and not a match for Sabrina in any department, save guile. There's no cat-and-mouse here, just a bitchy chick and the superior, undeserving victim of her wrath. And when Brooke starts up an affair with one of the Rival Angels higher ups to advance her career, it feels far too obvious and far too familiar. Plus, the Madonna/whore thing is plain tired; it would be peachy to see some nice girls who are sexually empowered or bad girls who are demure.

The peripheral characters are far more fascinating. Sun Wong, a third roommate, is pure kick-ass -- essentially friendly, but tough and not above bending the rules to win. Krystin Moline rounds out the rookie cast as a dedicated athlete with an aptitude for enforcement and a keen vulnerability to people in power. And the veteran wrestlers aren't all buxom beauties; there's a potbellied Samoan, a horror movie luchadore, and a gal known only as "Zombie Luna." Best of all is Commissioner Gabrielle, whose deceptively upfront motive of cold, hard capitalism may be leading to some unexpected places.

As with the art, the strongest characters and storylines are the ones found in and around the ring, but Evans' recent sidetrips into Sun and Krystin's pasts have shown him flexing a wider range of creative muscles. And if he keeps pushing his storytelling chops and fleshes out the burgeoning supporting cast, Rival Angels could prove a fun and fluffy soap opera that borrows from pro wrestling mythology even as it enriches it. Rival Angels isn't great yet and it may never be as admittedly hip as most of the comics populating my RSS reader, but it's fast-paced fun -- and who knows, it might even convince me to give televised wrestling another look.

[Rival Angels]

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fractured Greek Myths

I have what could be described as a...mild affinity for cartoons. I'm kind of bitter that Saturday morning cartoons are no longer the institution they once were, and I still tune in for the occasional marathon of Recess or Danny Phantom. So I'm a pretty happy puppy when I come across a comic that reads like a smarter entry from Adult Swim or the Disney Afternoon.

That's what makes David McGuire's GastroPhobia such a welcome surprise. The titular characters are Gastro, a cheeky seven year-old aspiring bard (who employs a horn in lieu of a lyre), and Phobia, an exiled Amazon warrior and Gastro's single mother -- who just might be the lesser known sister of the famed Greek hero Heracles. Together, they wander about ancient Greece and have the sort of adventures Ancient Greeks do: facing down vengeful animals, monstrous fiends, and the ghosts of obnoxious relatives.

McGuire employs the representational minimalism of manga-style art, but wisely adds thick lines to match the comic's irreverent tone. The artwork is silly, affectionate, and full of head-chopping, monster-slaying, child-scolding action. And he's got a way with anthropomorphized animals, creating a host of malevolent mockingbirds and dastardly deer. McGuire also keeps the color palette relatively simple, giving each story arc it's own fairly narrow color scheme, a thin range of oranges, greens, reds, purples, and blues. It's a device we've seen before, but here it creates a nice sense of warmth and sets the main storylines apart from the black-and-white interim comics.

But the real treasure in GastroPhobia is McGuire's storytelling, which is at the same time straightforward and highly referential. Main storylines borrow from Greek myths and Disney (I swear, I'll never be able look at an adorable fawn again without thinking, "Bambikles!"), but also reference a wide range of other media, from "The Jabberwocky" to To Kill a Mockingbird. And McGuire has gags that are all his own. There's a running joke about how everyone knows the riddle of the Sphinx, and everyone who isn't named for a mythological figure (Alcides, Jason, Helen) gets a punny Greek name (a ghost named Pneuma, a thieving slave named Klepto, a fluffy pooch Mania). And, if you're wondering why you never read about Gastro and Phobia in your Edith Hamilton or your D'Aulaire's, the kingdom where they live is aptly called Inconsequentia. It all adds a happy layer of smart that puts GastroPhobia a minotaur's head and shoulders above similarly themed fare like Dave the Barbarian.

GastroPhobia works well as a light and goofy webcomic, but I say bring on the 15 minute animated episodes. It's got that perfect blend of silly stories and clever humor that would translate well to television. Now it just needs a kickass voice cast.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Free Comic Book Day!

At long last, it's Free Comic Book Day, that one Saturday a year when comic book publishers promote their wares by offering up promotional books -- like Oni's Resurrection #0 and Red 5's Atomic Robo and Friends -- free of charge. So get thee to thy local participating comic book store and get yourself something for free (and while you're there, it couldn't hurt to pick up something a bit less free as well).

[Free Comic Book Day]

Friday, May 1, 2009

Comics Artists Share a Silent Mixtape

I was never particularly good at putting together mix tapes. Although I lugged my CD/cassette player all through boarding school, I only compiled a meager handful of mix tapes and they were all on the fairly awful side -- strange mixtures of Pearl Jam, show tunes, Alanis, The Beatles, and far too much They Might Be Giants.

I didn't know then what I know now -- in an era where hand-labeled cassettes have been replaced with Muxtape and A mixtape is more than a random assemblage of songs we may have liked at some point in time; it's something to be shared, something we can use to teach others (or later versions of ourselves) about who we are, what appeals to us, and how music informs our view of the world.

Side B, the latest comics anthology from Poseur Ink (publishers of the similarly themed Side A as well as I Saw You... Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections), is a different brand of mixtape. Instead of an audio recording of favorite songs, we get to see how writers and artists interpret and share their musical experiences through the silent medium of comics. It's a rare opportunity not only to learn about new musical artists but visual artists as well -- and to experience various musical genres through a wide array of narrative and visual styles.

The best mix tapes include a few familiar artists even as they introduce you to a host of new favorites, and Side B offers a nice assortment of independent creators. Ryan Kelly, illustrator for Vertigo's Lucifer series and Oni Press's Local, lends his considerable artistic talents to a punk rock vignette authored by his partner Kat Vapid. Jeffrey Brown of Clumsy and Bighead fame has a love connection with Cat Power. Lucy Knisley, whose travelogue French Milk was published this past fall (and the film rights have already been optioned), draws the instrumental cover and describes the emotional fallout of losing her entire digital music collection. And Bellen! creator Box Brown shares an excerpt from his upcoming book Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. But there are plenty of artists who I'm seeing for the first time and whose other work I'm raring to hunt down.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest works from Side B are the most specific, where the artist uses music to explore some other aspect of their lives. In "Out of Step," John Isaacson reminisces on love of Minor Threat and experiences with the straightedge subculture. In "Pursue It," Cordus Holdemauer questions visual artists' celebration of minimalist and conceptual art in the face of music's relative rigor and conformation to certain standards. And, in "Redemption Day" -- one of my favorite entries -- Cristy C. Road explains how punk rock -- and Green Day in particular -- fueled her self-acceptance as a self-loathing, bisexual adolescent.

But some contributors just want to share their formative musical experiences as best they can. Jim Mahfood writes a tribute to Gary Wilson that has admittedly piqued my curiosity about the cult figure's music. Colleen Frakes takes us inside one of Portland performance artist Jason Webley's annual Halloween "death" shows, which create a sense of magical and ritual. Dave Crosland sets his visually striking non-relationship story against the backdrop of a Modest Mouse concert, using music as the frame rather than the centerpiece.

But there are misses amongst this hit parade. The playful art in Brian Butler's "Where Do Shows Come From?" is overwhelmed by its flat text, and the poorly translated script in Uriel Duran's already thin "Life is a Mixtape" is left, for reasons I can't fathom, untouched by editorial hands. And a few of the tracks are wholly unmemorable -- attempting to key into the mystical aspects of music, or the isolation of donning headphones, or the appeal of a really good breakup song without adding anything personal or unique to the mix.

And even with a largely solid track listing, Side B doesn't quite come together as a mix tape. Too many contributors take too similar an approach to the challenge, offering monologues on their personal musical histories. The book is so packed with these and adjacent brands of narration (such as apostrophes and musing dialogues) that the occasional outliers (a ghost tale told in off-meter rhyme, a wordless prehistoric love story, a road trip turned hallucinatory) feel like interlopers from some other kind of anthology -- like a tape of alt rock songs inexplicably punctuated with show tunes and strands of acid jazz. It's a shame, because perhaps the most successful piece in the whole lot is Jon Sperry's magnificent and surprising "Litterboxx," a text-free work that reads as a hyperactive music video and shows just how far the idea of comics and music can be pushed. A quick flip through Side B reveals a rich assortment of visual styles, and ideally the storytelling would be just as diverse.

Poseur Ink editors Rachel Dukes and Mike Lopez have attracted some immensely talented creators, and -- even among the misses -- watching them flex their artistic muscles is well worth the price of admission. You may not come out of it with a keener understanding of what's possible at the intersection of music and comics, but chances are you'll find plenty of new artists to love with thick back catalogues to explore. And really, when we get a new mixtape, isn't that what we always hope for?

Side B is available June 3rd.

[Side B]