First Impressions

As a critic, I enjoy receiving comics from artists whose work is not known to me. Despite being familiar with a fairly wide swath of talent in the comics world, there seem to be new artists emerging all the time, and I'm not even counting students from schools like SAW or CCS. Let's take a look at the work of a sextet of cartoonists.

Zebadiah Parts 1 and 2, by Asher Z Craw. Rob Kirby recommended Craw's work to me, and this series is fantastically original, moving, heartfelt, and at times genuinely frightening. Craw is clearly deeply influenced by Julia Gfrörer's scratchy but labored line and fusion of supernatural and psycho-sexual themes, but Craw's comics sound a different tone. What is most remarkable about them is the way Craw develops characters and settings and then turns on a dime to take the story in entirely unexpected directions. The story starts with the titular "mountain man" Zebadiah and his beloved wife Eula-Lee going about their day. It seems like this will be a comedy of manners, as Zebadiah spars with city folk regarding his wares, though there's the odd detail of revealing that Eula-Lee is Catholic, Zebadiah sparing the lives of a grateful family of possums, and various religious icons talking ominously about his fate. When Zebadiah is forced into the city for jury duty, the comic takes a hard turn into the sort of deeply emotional supernatural tale that Gfrörer does so well.


I should note that while Craw is careful to leave clues to every twist in this story, they still land hard. For example, Craw himself becomes a character in part two, yet his frequently heart-rending autobiographical details neatly fold into the magical realism and narrative through-line of Zebadiah. That autobiographical narrative is one of a trans person struggling throughout his life in a woman's body despite not feeling like a woman. The whole supernatural storyline surrounding Zebadiah, one with accompanying and sincere religious overtones, works as a powerful metaphor for the trans experience, and all the more so because of the way the comic is structured prior to the introduction of that metaphor. It also allows for amazing scenes such as when the descendents of that family of possums call upon "Craw's" cat to protect him from danger, which turns out to be strong suicidal ideations that are thwarted when the cat simply refuses to let go. It's an understated scene that serves the narrative well but also carries a devastating emotional punch. Fiction starts to bleed over into fact as "Asher" starts to recall bits of life with Zebadiah and his wife starts to recall being Eula-Lee in a beautiful moment that contains ominous overtones tying into the main narrative. That's what makes this such a great comic: Craw never loses sight of the narrative nor does he let the metaphor overpower the story.

Seitchik-LrgSub, by Daryl Seitchik. This recent Columbia/Barnard grad has a line that reminds me a great deal of Lauren Weinstein's. That's especially true when it comes to the say Seitchik renders her self-image: big eyes, slightly ragged line, a cartoony head that's a bit too big for her body (like a Peanuts character), simply drawn arms and legs. That simplicity doesn't sacrifice her understanding of body language and the rhythms of human interaction. Indeed, it's the mundane nature of the early part of this comic that helps set up the weirdness that follows. Early on, Seitchik's autobio stand-in is harangued by her mother to apply for nanny jobs as she's back living with her after college. There's a hilarious sequence where Daryl is looking for food in the kitchen and hovers back and forth between the same set of unappetizing prospects before slumping off to her room and its drawing board.


From there, things flip into a sort of dream logic as Seitchik goes from drawing herself nude and near a body of water to actually entering into her own story/dream. Using what appear to be charcoal pencils, she creates a beautiful, still atmosphere for her alter ego to float around in, until that loses its appeal. Seitchik is in no hurry to get anywhere in this comic as her alter-ego slowly explores the space around her that she feels she's in complete control of. That's true until the still-naked Daryl encounters her mother and her monstrous, mutant boyfriend; the former admonishes her to put on clothing. Even as she recognizes that they are "projections from her subconscious", she nonetheless rolls her eyes at her mom when she barks out orders. Her attempt to escape goes horribly, monstrously awry, however. This work of horror autobio is funny, quirkily paced, attractively sketchy, and in general a solid early work by a young cartoonist.


Eighth Grade 1-3, Farmer's Dilemma, Garden Spectre and Fluxo, by Sam Alden. Alden is a young cartoonist with a great deal of talent. Right now, he seems to be rapidly cycling through his influences so as to find his own voice. Craig Thompson is an obvious influence on some of his comics, as they have that same heavy, brushy quality and expressive, occasionally melodramatic characters. Indeed, his webcomic and subsequent minicomic Eighth Grade focuses on that one truly miserable, unpleasant year of schooling where the difference between childhood and adolescence is entirely unclear. Building on the premise that pretty much everyone is awful at age thirteen, his main protagonist, Simon, is a liar whose main hobby is cutting down other kids with his best friend Tom. Alden's verisimilitude with the voices of kids is remarkable, and he has a balanced cast and a variety of conflicts and agendas. Interestingly, he abandoned the project, preferring to start a new long-form work. I can see why he would do that; while quite accomplished and evincing his skill as a storyteller, Alden was not exactly treading new ground with this series.


His other comics seems to point to his real promise, especially Fluxo and Farmer's Dilemma. The latter reminds me a bit of Andy Hartzell's Fox Bunny Funny, as it's about an anthropomorphic fox raised by anthropomorphic chickens, returning home to visit his family in a rural area after he moved to the city. The delicacy of his brush and cuteness of his figures makes for an interesting contrast to a surprisingly visceral set of images that provide the story's twist, as the son disappoints and frightens his parents in a single moment. Garden Spectre's elliptical storytelling falls short of full coherency despite its intriguing imagery (a man ridding a garden of squid-like monsters who must deal with his threatening employer). Alden's potential as a storyteller who can evince visceral reactions comes to the fore in Fluxo, a silent story about a young man searching for something and finding a naked, enormous woman wearing a crown who subsumes him as he performs cunnilingus on her. In the end, he finds a match that completes him inside of her. It's a bizarre, raw, and erotically charged story that's also ridiculous in a good way. It certainly shows Alden as a storyteller who's trying to push past his limits as he continues to grow as an artist.

scorchcoverScorched Earth Volume 1, by Tom Van Deusen. Seattleite Van Deusen's take on relationships is very much of the Peter Bagge school of loathsome characters. His "Tom" is like a less charismatic version of "Stinky" Brown: narcissistic, misogynistic, and utterly myopic to the needs of anyone but himself. How much one will enjoy this comic depends on how much one can tolerate this sort of character. Two pages into the story, "Tom" makes a homophobic slur that offends his OkCupid date, who identifies as genderqueer. What follows from there are a parade of jokes mostly at "Tom's" expense, even if he doesn't quite understand that he is the source of the humor. In case anyone is wondering about Van Deusen's true intentions as a satirist, an anti-immigrant remark (calling the work ethic of someone into question at a fast-food restaurant) immediately exposes the hypocrisy of the character, who spends his work day reading TMZ at the office.

Van Deusen, working in a style that emphasizes the grotesque qualities of all his characters (but especially "Tom," who is depicted as having disheveled hair and a pudgy belly) really starts to stir the pot in the second chapter, when "Tom" gets a new date and finds his date from the prior night is there with a guy who looks suspiciously like him. Drunken hijinks ensue as romance springs from dual vomiting sessions. Of course, the one night stand makes "Tom" think he has a girlfriend, whereas the horrified woman wants him to leave as soon as possible. And of course, "Tom" immediately calls his mother with the good news. The other stories in the collection further point out "Tom's" unexamined privilege and undeserved sense of entitlement to brutal comedic effect. The last strip sees him try to impress a date by crushing her at a video game, then pulling out his gun as he boasts that he doesn't need the "nanny state" to protect him. When she walks out on him, he yanks off the condom that he had slapped on his penis. The ugliness of his drawings is deliberately relentless, though he takes that to another level when he draws "Tom" naked. The more over the top Van Deusen goes, the funnier the comic, though one wonders just how far he can take this character.


The Floating Head Bounty Killers and The Astronomer, by Matt Rebholz. Rebholz is new to the world of comics after spending years as a print-maker and fine artist, as well as an art professor at the University of Texas. For fans of alt-comics who enjoy work with a fantasy or genre bent, these comics will be a revelation. Rebholz is an astounding draftsman who who is also a skilled and fluid storyteller. Fans of Brandon Graham, Kaz Strzepek, Brian Ralph, etc. will want to give these books a long look, because Rebholz not only is capable of delivering a tense and fast-paced action comic, he's able to do it with a sense of humor and quirkiness. The Floating Head Bounty Killers is as descriptive a title as you'll ever see, as one MODOK-like floating head is hunting a criminal in a bizarre landscape that mixes what seems to be Aztec or Mayan statues and images with weird trenches and creepy swarms of maggot-like creatures. After the heroic floating head completes his mission and is rewarded, Rebholz pulls the rug out from under the reader with a hilarious twist that leads into the second issue of this series of self-contained but connected stories.


The reason why both of these comics work so well is because Rebholz does an amazing job of getting the essence of decaying, ominous, and alien statuary onto the page. He creates a degree of realism in these images that is almost unnerving, especially when they're mixed with actual aliens. The second issue, featuring the titular astronomer tracking the progress of a comet in what we come to understand is a sort of post-apocalyptic world, will especially appeal to fans of Ralph or Strzepek. While not quite as much of a stunner as the bizarre first issue, the reader does learn a lot about this world, its mythology, and how truly screwed every character in the book is. Rebholz loves exaggerating form and expression, and there's not much about his work that I'd call subtle. He hammers the reader with dense hatching and cross hatching, splash pages, visceral scenes of violence and activity and the sheer sense of scope that he introduces. He currently has an active Kickstarter campaign going to fund his third comic in the series. There's a wonderful denseness and bluntness to Rebholz's storytelling that I enjoy because he's in such precise control of his line. If his comics lack subtlety, the world he's depicting is even more lacking in restraint.


Tits! and Sea Change, by Caitlin Skaalrud.
The comics of this former student of Zak Sally remind me a bit of the sort of thing that Julia Gfrörer and Colleen Frakes are doing. Namely, Skaalrud is interested in the intersection between fantasy/fairy tales and the ways in which these stories depict women as sexual objects. Tits! takes this notion head on, as it's about an aquarium that displays a captive, real species of mermaid named Titanica (nicknamed "Tits"). I love the way that Skaalrud draws her: freckled face, scar that closes one eye, a tangle of kelp-like hair. The mermaid is a sentient creature who is regarded as being quite dangerous, though one can hardly blame her. She has a huge crush on the female professor who treats her kindly and with respect, leading to an erotically charged fantasy sequence wherein the hermaphroditic nature of the species is displayed in a surprising way. That yields to reality, wherein a huge flood kills virtually everyone in town, and frees Titanica, who offers her own loving gesture to the professor. Skaalruud keeps things simple in this story, spending most of her time on the implications of keeping "Tits" caged and offering parallels to her objectification with the way women are objectified.

Skaalrud-LrgShe follows up on that idea in Sea Change. This is a "choose-your-own-way" story that pretty much results in a fairly dismal result for the poor fisherman depicted within. At best, he remains alone and unhappy, haunted by his past and grief over his dead dog. At worse, he is killed in any number of horrific ways: storms, wolves, the sea. He is warned away from mermaids at various points, and one possible story direction reveals his secret shame: watching his brother kill a mermaid when he was a child in order to collect her valuable scales. Skaalrud subverts the expectations of a choose-your-own-adventure book thanks to the generally miserable lot of the fisherman, closing each segment with an out-of-context quote that can range from amusing to poignant. I especially enjoyed her quoting Jessica Simpson regarding her confusion between tuna fish and chicken as the mermaid feasts upon the fisherman's corpse. Here, the mermaid is less a figure of sexual desire than she is a simple commodity, her sentience being irrelevant to man's interest in what her scales are worth on the open market. Despite the seriousness of her themes, Skaalrud approaches them with a light touch and sense of humor. Sea Change was on the over-rendered side as a minicomic, with the grey-scaling doing it no favors. That said, her character design and use of body language and gesture went a long way in telling this story, which likely would have been more effective in color.