Category Archives: Alt-Comics

Review: ‘Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance’ Edited by Erma Blood

“Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance,” edited by Erma Blood

Minicomics will always retain the capacity to inspire and engage. A fine case in point is “Grab Back Comics Anthology Volume 1: Acts of Love and Resistance,” edited by Erma Blood, and available through Grab Back Comics. The disturbing and threatening rhetoric and related activity connected to Donald Trump and company have been responded to with numerous acts of love and resistance, including this collection of comics.

Dr. Allie Gray and Erika Rier

The first work in this collection is entitled, “Naming It,” story by Dr. Allie Gray and drawings by Erika Rier. In four exemplary pages, Gray and Rier express why it is never okay for a man to overpower a woman, never okay for someone to exploit someone else. In this case, Dr. Allie Gray, a young female professor, is just getting her bearings at an international conference when she is overwhelmed by a bear, a man in a position of power, a VIP scientist. This VIP bear forces himself upon Gray and manipulates Gray into a protracted relationship. A part of Gray is confused although she does her best to resist him. In retrospect, Gray concludes that the VIP bear was never confused. He wanted what he wanted and grabbed it. He was abusive. In the end, Gray has the power to name what she has experienced: abuse.

Nicole J. Georges

Nicole J. Georges shares a story about same sex predatory behavior in “I Had a Crush on My Rapist,” which further demonstrates the complexities and simple truths involved when we talk about sex. Georges recounts a situation where she was forced into sex by a pushy and aggressive friend. It left her questioning what happened, in a similar vein to Dr. Gray’s narrative. Georges, with her formidable storytelling skills, brings to light an area often shrouded in misplaced guilt. In the end, we come back to basics: no means no.

Erma Blood

Erma Blood shares a story about survival, “Did You Find Her?” Blood uses a minimal style to tell a powerful narrative about recalling abuse that took place at a very early stage in life, before Blood had learned to speak. This simple and direct story speaks volumes. The first page to this collection carries another subtitle, “Comics Stories About Sexual Assault, Rape Culture and Advocacy.” That further defines what is to be found on these pages. Blood’s work fits in perfectly, haunting but not heavy-handed.

Oana & Maria Heller

In an excerpt from a longer piece, “Interval of Trust,” Oana & Maria Heller tell the story of misplaced anger. Mara, the main character, has suffered abuse but she feels she has not been heard, not been provided an outlet for her pain. When a rude boy insults her, this triggers an avalanche of violence that she inflicts upon the boy. It is an intriguing piece that subverts expectations. The girl is not a traditionally sympathetic character. But, in spite of her actions, we can also see how vulnerable she is.

All the work here is quite compelling. This 87-page collection also features: Robin Elan, Rachel Masilamani, Tatiana Gill & Kathy Naughton, Mikko Galpin, Tess LeBlanc, Amy Camber, T.O. Walker, Anna Vo, and E.T. Russian. There is also a mini poster by Barry Deutsch and Ellen Forney. Cover and spot illustrations are by Gillian Rhodes.

For more information, and how to get your own copy, be sure to visit the Grab Back Comics website right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Erma Blood, Grab Back Comics, Independent Comics, mini-comics, Minicomics

Review: ‘Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours’ by Alex Nall

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” by Alex Nall

Comics is uniquely suited for any form of biography and to quite a fascinating degree. I’ve said that before and, to prove my point, I have all sorts of new things I can say about this theme in regards to Alex Nall‘s graphic novella, “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours.” This is a look at the life and times of Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the host of the landmark PBS children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Intertwined in this biography is a look at Nall’s own life as a grade school art teacher. As often is the case, the comics creator has created a mashup of bio and auto-bio. It’s a natural occurance among cartoonists to include themselves into the narrative. When done right, the results can feel like a smooth dreamy story.

A mashup of bio and autobio.

Nall’s artwork has a primitive child-like quality about it. He depicts himsself with a cumbersome bulbous pink nose. It is all hand-drawn, down to the lettering and color washes. This is a style that falls right in line with a lot of alt-comics: keep it simple; keep it slapdash. In this case, that look fits in. Nall evokes the frenetic energy of children: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kids, the little angels we’d wish them to be, usually are far from saints. Time and again, Nall shares with the reader the reality of the daily grind of interacting with these wee people. Ah, big segue: Nall comes to find inspiration in his nightly revisits on his laptop to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This triggers an exploration by Nall thus leading to confronting more than he bargained for.

A young and feisty Fred Rogers.

First, some words on Fred Rogers and his monumental achievement. Keep in mind, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” program ran from 1968 to 2001. There was nothing like it before and there will probably never be anything like it again. This is a show that speaks to kids on their own terms — and in a distinctive format that defies duplication. The viewership is mostly meant for 2 to 5 year-olds, but it appeals to any age. Fred Rogers became sort of a surrogate parent for countless children, spanning generations, simply by being there with kind and gentle entertainment mixed in with thoughtful observation and guidance. Everyone seems to fondly remember Fred Rogers and have a favorable opinion of him. You may have seen footage of a young and feisty Rogers testifying before Congress in support of PBS funding. Rogers was able to melt the heart of at least one tough and jaded senator.

Nall highlights a particular aspect in his story and provides an excellent example of how one element can affect the balance of the whole. Comics, with their panels and unique narrative structure, are inherently tricky balancing acts. You can include a scene in one panel and the ripple effect is under way. Refer back to it and the overriding subject behind it, and you’ve underscored it, boosted its significance. Return to the subject again, and the whole story points back to it, in a way, as if in service to that one aspect. These sort of shifts in focus happen all the time in big prose works. For example, a book on current events will have its most newsworthy items plucked for greater scrutiny by all the news outlets.

The Washing of Feet.

Nall makes a strategic choice to focus upon the relationship between Mister Rogers and Police Officer Clemmons. The scenes are from the point of view of Francois Clemmons. Rogers hired Clemmons to play the role of a police officer on the show. This was the late 1960s and police brutality was a hot news topic. In one particular panel, we see what looks like Mister Rogers washing the feet of Officer Clemmons. The unique nature of comics allows the reader to linger on a panel. The panel is already a highlighted moment, suspended in time, radiating beyond its borders. The actual moment that occurred on the show was held together by a very different medium. In the course of that scene with Clemmons, he and Rogers are indeed enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. As they are about to complete the scene, they both begin to get their feet out of the water. For a split second, Rogers takes a towel and passes it over Clemmons’s feet. It occurred so fast as to be subliminal. Certainly, it was packed with Christian symbolism.

Francois Clemmons speaks out.

That moment, both subliminal and highly symbolic, is what Nall sort of plucked and focused upon to keep the reader wondering. It is unusual. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Sure, it is benign. You could see it as ideal too. But it is also unusual. It was Rogers’s way of gently and kindly getting a message across, specifically of racial tolerance but transcendent as well. A moment of kindness. Done. We move on. However, Nall has tapped into something that he pursues further and which he would be hard pressed to avoid. His research consisted of four articles and two books. It is really the one book, 2015’s “Peaceful Neighbor,” by Michael Long, that is at the crux of this. In the book, Francois Clemmons claims that he was told by Rogers that, while Rogers supported Clemmons coming out as gay, the program was not ready for an openly gay character. If he came out, he would have to be let go. To further complicate matters, Clemmons claims that Rogers advised him to marry a woman and Clemmons did just that. Considering the era, Clemmons would certainly not be alone among closeted gays. Even today, there is no openly gay character on a children’s program.

Overall, Nall has done a good job in conveying some compelling facts. He is not bringing to light anything that was not already covered in “Peaceful Neighbor” but he has presented these facts in a different format and reached a number of new readers. Nall’s book is an achievement in the sense that any book of this kind put together by one individual is a small miracle in itself. So, yes, of course, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nall. It would be very interesting to chat with him on what parts of his book are style choices and what parts are simply the result of his current skill set. Personally, I am a strong believer in cartoonists perpetually pushing themselves to make the smoothest and most readable content.

I look forward to what Nall does next as he considers his next project. Nall has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to tackle as ambitious a project as the life and times of Fred Rogers. And, as I say, he has a good grasp of how the comics medium works. It can be a deceptively simple affair but, in fact, it has quite a built-in complexity. Once the process is set in motion, just like any other creative endeavor, it takes on a life of its own.

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” is the latest installment of Nall’s “Teaching Comics” series. Visit him right here.

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Filed under Alex Nall, Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Mister Rogers, PBS

Review: NOT MY SMALL DIARY #19

NOT MY SMALL DIARY #19

For a sampling of some of the best independent cartoonists today, one great source is the NOT MY SMALL DIARY anthology, edited by Delaine Derry Green. Cartoonist John Porcellino, known for his “King Cat” comics, has called Delaine’s anthology, “One of the most important comic-zines in history.” Here is a look at Issue 19: Unexplained Events, which showcases the work from 43 talented artists.

Panel excerpt from Kevin Van Hyning’s “The Curse of Macbeth”

So, the theme of “unexplained events” leaves open a wide field of opportunities from things that go bump in the night and beyond. One of the most inventive, jarring, and downright entertaining pieces comes from Kevin Van Hyning. It’s a pretty messed up misadventure and I hope and pray that nothing close to this actually happened to Kevin. Like a lot of creative people, myself included, Kevin has many outlets, like performing on stage. In “The Curse of Macbeth,” we see what can happen when an actor confronts the age-old superstition of daring to say “Macbeth” before a show. It’s supposed to be very bad luck! And, as it turns out in this comic, it’s the sort of bad luck that can knock your teeth out! Inspired work! A big takeaway for me is learning of this curse as I don’t believe I’d ever heard of it before. But it has a long tradition dating back to the very first time it was performed in 1606. Teeth kept being knocked out and worse!

David Lasky’s “Mothman”

As a cartoonist myself, who has observed and commented upon the comics scene for many years, I am delighted to see page after page of inspired work from familiar and new talent. What you find in this book is a treasure trove of comics experimentation. Each creator is working within their own special confines, powered by their own personal engine. This is a fascinating book and a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary comics. Each artist you visit here is like a little island onto itself. We paddle ashore and reach the Isle of David Lasky. Here we find enigmatic work giving out a melancholic howl. In the one-page “Mothman,” we find the distinctive Lasky poetic comic. Relax your shoulders and linger over it.

Panel excerpt from “My ‘Unsual’ Sighting’ by James Burns

The universal symbol for the unexplained seems to always go back to UFOs. And so I close with a piece by James Burns, “My ‘Unusual’ Sighting.” The most eerie and creepy incidents are beautifully underscored by the mundane. Often the most profound things must compete with the most banal and so it is in this comic. It is 1966 and a bunch of kids innocently look up in the sky and seem to be watching their favorite sci-fi show in the clouds–but they’re not. Or what are they seeing? Ten years later, Burns is eighteen and has an opportunity to possibly confirm his most wildest speculation. But he’s still a kid–and what is he supposed to do if his suspicions are correct? Nicely done and a fitting example to a most impressive collection of work in comics.

Be sure to keep up with Not My Small Diary at Delaine Derry Green’s My Small Web Page right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Anthologies, Comics, Humor, Independent Comics, Indie, Not My Small Diary

Review: LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

LAID WASTE by Julia Gfrörer

Julia Gfrörer‘s ethereal comics are a perfect counterbalance to our world of memes and jittery nonsense. There are certainly a number of notable artists and writers who have carved out for themselves an intriguing landscape, an answer or a retreat from the everyday. Julia Gfrörer is one such person. What she does astonishes and resonates: those blank stares from eyes without pupils; all the delicious longing and despair; and that distinctive haunting feeling running throughout. Well, if you dig that, then you are going to be head over heels for her latest work, “Laid Waste,” published by Fantagraphics Books.

Like many a great cartoonist, Gfrörer takes what she does seriously, takes it to heart. I dare say that we see her inhabit her own comics more often than not. And that’s perfectly fine. When one undertakes a longer work, even a short piece, one needs to establish some hooks. Nothing is more natural than to include one’s self. So, that said, I suspect that Gfrörer is Agnès, our main character, a young woman at odds with circumstance and fate. She is in a medieval hamlet as she watches everyone around her succumb to the plague. She has supernatural powers but seems at a loss as to what to do with them.

Panels from LAID WASTE

Panels from LAID WASTE

Gfrörer has established herself over a relatively short time as a masterful storyteller with a distinctive gothic style. I have followed her work with great admiration. She is following in the footsteps of a select group of cartoonists with similar sensibilities. Edward Gorey comes to mind. A contemporary for Gfrörer would be the equally bookish visionary, Kate Beaton.

Along with a gothic vision, Gfrörer is quick to emphasize the theme of pain. In her new book, Agnès suffers greatly. She only sees gloom ahead. Only a brief sexual respite provides some relief. It is one of the more compelling unions I’ve seen in a good while. It is not explicit, per se. We only see the tip of a penis. There is room to explore and she strikes the right balance: a heady mix of passion and angst. For that moment, all the surrounding darkness can just go to hell. Afterwards, once alone again, the pain returns.

This book has been categorized as a “graphic novella.” Sure, you can call it that. The page count of about 80 pages would safely keep it within the range of a proper “graphic novel,” especially by European standards. What takes place within this story might have it qualify more as a vignette than a full-bodied narrative. It is certainly possible to pull together decades of activity, bring in generations of characters, from far-flung locales–all within 80 pages–and have that more in line with the idea of a graphic novel. In the case of this story, we are concentrating on a very special character with remarkable traits in a severe and desolate place with questions of life and death before her. Sounds like a great story no matter what category you place it in. For my money, go ahead and call it a graphic novel, for God’s sake.

Page from LAID WASTE

Page from LAID WASTE

Julia Gfrörer has poised Agnès, who I am suggesting is her alter-ego, in the position of a saint, or at least a heroine. It’s a gutsy move. But the risk is worth taking. As a cartoonist myself, I can fully appreciate the desire to take control of the hero’s journey. Let the cartoonist be the hero! Why not? I see it as a totally organic process. If it works, you go with it. In this story, while seeming to be modest in scope, we find a main character engaged in a full arc of growth. It is, at times cryptic, and, to be sure, heroic.

There is a relentless energy to Gfrörer’s light line work. It is delicate, determined and well-balanced. She keeps to a steady pace. She aspires to poetic heights and reaches them. The narrative does well within a four panel grid per page. This consistent framework complements the story and has a way of catching subtle shifts. There are moments like an abrupt appearance by Death that get a extra magical pop from taking place within this four panel system that can act as a stage. Gfrörer’s work can be called dramatic but it is never merely theatrical. That said, I would surely welcome a play, or maybe a set design, by Julia Gfrörer.

“Laid Waste” is an 80-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books, available as of November 1st. You can pre-order now at Fantagraphics Books right here. You can also find it at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Comix, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Julia Gfrörer