Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Entry 61: Michael DeForge

Today is one of those days when, rather than focusing on one particular comic, I’m going to focus on one particular cartoonist. Michael DeForge can build whole worlds in just a handful of panels, inviting readers to explore, to discover, and to try to understand. His comics are dark and whimsical, full of imagination and full of life.

One thing that I value, in comics and other art, is exposure to ideas and expressions that would never have occurred to me on my own. It’s one thing to show me an image I couldn’t have drawn, or a series of events that I couldn’t have written, but it’s far more impressive to make me think thoughts I could never have thought without an outside influence. With surprising consistency, Michael DeForge becomes that outside influence, taking my brain and inserting concepts there that I would never have been able to consider otherwise.

Lots of his comics are pretty short, and many are (at least on the surface) fairly simple. It might take no more than a minute or two to read, but I have never stopped at reading a DeForge comic just once. These comics demand lingering attention. After I finish my first impulse is to go back and read it again, to keep engaging with the comic, dwelling on individual panels or actions until I’ve reached some sort of conclusion, for the moment, about what it means to me.

I reread hoping for greater understanding, for insight. Though I may occasionally miss a detail or two in my first reading, that’s not usually what defines my understanding of the comic. I don’t go back and read everything over in an effort to grasp complexity, but in an effort to make sense of the bizarreness. Truly engaging with DeForge’s work on an emotional level requires me to twist my mind in just the right way, to find the perspective from which all the details slot into place.

My relationship to these comics winds up being so personal, so entwined with who I am at a particular point in time, that if I come back to them months or even just days later I may get something entirely different out of them. I don’t think any two people will get quite the same thing out of a DeForge comic, even if those two people are just me at different points in my life.

The first place I ever read a Michael DeForge comic was over at What Things Do, where you can access a selection of his work. For the meantime, that’s the best place I can direct you to access his online comics. His Patreon page contains a purported link to a comprehensive list of his free online work, but the last time I checked the link was broken. (I’ll update here if that changes.)

If you’re on the fence about diving into All The Michael DeForge Comics, I encourage you to at least check out “Rescue Pet.” It might just be my favorite short-form comic of all time. I mean, not to overhype it or anything, but it’s definitely one of the greatest comics ever created and will completely change your life forever.

Writing this post about Michael DeForge brings up some questions to me about his relationship to webcomics, and the definition of webcomics overall. I don’t think I’d call DeForge a webcartoonist, because though some of his work is available online, the bulk of it is exclusively (or at least originally) intended for print. But of course, most artists engage in some sort of hybrid, printing some comics and distributing others online, or distributing much of their work in both digital and analog formats.

Indeed, many cartoonists reject the “webcomics” label entirely, finding that the separation of online comics into their own category is unnecessary and fractures the world of comics. Obviously I continue to use the term “webcomics,” since it’s part of the title of this blog and everything, so it must mean something to me. There must be a line I draw, however arbitrary, between webcomics and other comics. When most newspaper comics are available to read online on the same day of their publication, and when many of what I call “webcomics” have some sort of concurrent or parallel print distribution, I still apply some sort of criteria that tells me that Girl Genius is a webcomic, while Garfield (despite its comprehensive online archive!) is not.

Generically, I’d define webcomics as “comics that are primarily or initially distributed online.” What it boils down to, for me, is often my own primary or initial way of interacting with the comic. Reading a comic in an online archive is a fundamentally different experience than reading it in a book or a newspaper. And personally, I prefer the experience of reading comics online. It tends to be more comfortable for me.

I first came to know Michael DeForge’s work through his comics that have been posted online, and no matter how many print comics of his I read or how long a period of time elapses without any more of his comics being put up on the Internet, I will always associate his work with webcomics. That’s just the impression that I got early on, and it’s going to stick with me.

Lately, DeForge has been distributing comics digitally through Patreon for $3 a month. Technically that fits under my definition of webcomics, but it’s outside the scope of this blog, because I avoid writing about comics that you can only read if you can afford to pay for them. I would never argue that comics are not worth money or that artists don’t deserve to be paid for their work. However, I’ve spent enough of my life being unable to pay for things that I really appreciate finding works that anyone can engage with for free. When I write about webcomics, I limit my pool to those that a potential reader can experience without any commitment to spend money that they may or may not have.

That said, I love “Mars Is My Last Hope,” one of the Patreon comics, so much that it could almost displace “Rescue Pet” as my favorite Michael DeForge comic. So even though it’s not free to read at the moment, I think it’s worth mentioning for those who might be saying to themselves “Sure, I can afford to spend that money, but would anything I might get out of the exchange be worth it?” For me, the answer is surely yes.

Though What Things Do is the primary place I’d recommend to find free online Michael DeForge comics, it’s certainly not the only place you can do so. His work pops up in all sorts of places, often places where I wouldn’t have expected to find comics of any kind.

For instance, the band Speedy Ortiz got him to draw a comic announcing their upcoming album, Foil Deer. Now, I am not at all in touch with the world of music. I rarely listen to songs that I haven’t heard already. I haven’t bought an album in like two years. But I really want to buy Foil Deer, because Michael DeForge made a comic for it. I am at least 1000% more likely to buy that album than I would be if I had never seen that comic. (The math works out. Trust me. I took AP Statistics in High School.)

The message here is that if you’re in a band, or if you do publicity for a band, and you’re puzzled about how to get me to buy the music you’re selling, you should hire Michael DeForge to make some comics for you. End of story.

Michael DeForge makes comics that nobody else could. There’s a particular emotional quality to his work that I’ve never found elsewhere. Though his comics are almost always sad, they don’t leave me feeling down or exacerbate my depression. In fact, many of them elevate my mood. The melancholy aspects feel honest, and so do the optimistic aspects. Through surreal and outlandish scenarios, he manages to highlight a deep truth about living in an imperfect world and how to be okay with it.

At least, that’s what I’m taking out of the Michael DeForge comics I’ve read at the moment. Tomorrow I may feel that they give me something totally different. A year from now I’ll probably think something about his work that I’m not even capable of formulating at the moment. But in the meantime I’m going to keep reading, and rereading, all the Michael DeForge comics I can find, and see what comes to me.

Previous Entry: My So-Called Secret Identity

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Entry 60: My So-Called Secret Identity

Today’s comic is what would happen if Strong Female Protagonist and Batman had a baby. It’s not halfway between the two, nor is it a mixture of qualities from each, exactly. Rather, it possesses resemblances to both works, while achieving something entirely different and unique on its own terms. Brace yourself for the unflinching look at a troubled and flamboyant world that is My So-Called Secret Identity.

I find it impossible not to compare My So-Called Secret Identity to Strong Female Protagonist as I read it, because so much of the impact, so many of the messages, are similar. Primarily, both take a serious look at the sociopolitical implications of comic-book-type superheroics. While Strong Female Protagonist focuses on no one inspiration in particular, My So-Called Secret Identity very clearly consistently pays homage and alludes to Batman.

Please note that My So-Called Secret Identity must be read in order from the beginning. I won’t get into specific plot revelations, but this is the type of story wherein even minor details could constitute noticeable spoilers, so, you know, caveat lector.

My So-Called Secret Identity takes place in Gloria, a city dominated by heroes and villains, playing out political struggles over their urban stage. Being part of the drama isn’t about superpowers… in laws-of-physics terms, this comic is very grounded. All it takes to be a costumed player is the intelligence, personality, and/or strength to jump in and force the other players to take you seriously.

The problems in Gloria seem perfectly real, the type of thing any one of us might read about browsing the morning’s news links. The difference is that when a terrorist network attacks subway stations in Gloria, the mayor threatens retribution not in a suit and tie surrounded by aging city council members, but in costume and accompanied by a sidekick.

Those in power have embraced this melodrama, using it to push their agendas and maintain their own status. In Gloria, capes and theatrics are treated with utmost gravity.

In context, none of the superheroics seem the least bit incongruous or silly. My So-Called Secret Identity takes its tone from the dark, gritty type of superhero comics, the ones wherein running around in capes and punching criminals is not fun, but deadly. The characters wholeheartedly embrace this aesthetic, the reality that wearing strange clothes and acting larger than life isn’t just a way to be noticed, but it’s the only way to be taken seriously.

This trend persists, and is accepted, because the participants buy into it so strongly. The heroes and the villains make themselves grand and impossible to ignore, but they pursue their work with such dedication that there’s no room for mockery. Perhaps an outsider could ridicule these theatrics, but those in charge have turned the city into something of a closed set. Any commentary from someone not involved with the performance isn’t given any attention, and breaking into the show is a prohibitively difficult task.

In addition to the serious consideration of superheroes and their sociopolitical implications, My So-Called Secret Identity has another similarity to Strong Female Protagonist in its feminist perspective. Both comics focus on a woman who struggles to contribute to her world despite her differences with the general superhero community. Each has her unique viewpoint; Cat, the protagonist in My So-Called Secret Identity, has mental, rather than physical strengths, and she’s trying to join in with the theatrics rather than separate herself from them.

Cat is intellectually gifted, making connections that elude others and sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong just because that’s the only way to satisfy her perpetual curiosity. Her disadvantages are that she’s young, she’s inexperienced, and, crucially, she’s female.

The theater that Cat is studying, investigating, and, ultimately, participating in, is dangerous. Especially so for women, not necessarily because women are likely to be physically weak or smaller than the others involved, but because women aren’t taken as seriously as men. A few female heroes have managed to make names for themselves, but they’re in the minority. More have disappeared, or never managed to make an impression in the first place.

Newcomers are treated with dismissal, at best, and contempt at worst. The people who’ve been running this play for decades don’t take kindly to those who’d like to take to the stage themselves. Cat has an uphill battle to fight if she’s going to earn recognition, or get any sort of results. Her gender will make that all the more challenging. But adversity makes for significant conflict, and conflict is what makes stories thrive. Whatever success Cat achieves will be all the more satisfying, from an audience perspective, for the added challenge she had in reaching it.

This whole comic is full of details that fit together like a puzzle, elements that make sense only in the context of all the others. If you enjoy piecing together clues until you’ve uncovered every secret a story has to offer, then My So-Called Secret Identity is for you. There’s a wealth of information here, giving the reader insight into a full and complex world, even if we only ever get to experience a small portion of it. Even Cat’s insights can only go so far, can only reveal so much. So mount your own investigation, start reading the story, and see what’s available to be discovered.

My So-Called Secret Identity is written by Will Brooker and drawn by Suze Shore, with certain pages created by Sarah Zaidan. The easiest way to get to the comic from the homepage is by hovering over the word “comic” and clicking “archive,” then clicking on an issue and page from there. (I recommend starting at the cover or the first page of Issue One, for obvious reasons.)

At present the first four issues are available to read online. For now, the fifth issue is only available in a printed collection of Volume One, making My So-Called Secret Identity a strange hybrid of web and print distribution. The authors claim that more is coming, though whether the next volume will be put on the website or restricted to the printed page I cannot say.

Whatever the comic’s future may hold, I strongly recommend you check out My So-Called Secret Identity and give it a try. It’s a refreshing take on superheroics and definitely rewards the time a reader would put into it.

Previous Entry: The Perry Bible Fellowship

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Entry 59: The Perry Bible Fellowship

Humor comes from the unexpected. We, the audience, anticipate one thing happening, and when a different thing happens, all that tension from anticipation and the disconnect between the expected outcome and the actual outcome turn into laughter. This phenomenon explains why both shock value and absurdism can be effective tools in humor. That which we have been trained not to expect, or that which we cannot expect, prompts exactly the sort of disconnect out of which humor arises.

Today I’ll be talking about a comic that presents usually simple ideas in a usually simple style. The comic is effective partly because the ideas are communicated so clearly, and partly because the ideas are so very unexpected. One of the things I value most in the comics I read is encountering ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own, and one of comics that introduces me to such ideas with extraordinary frequency is The Perry Bible Fellowship.

There is shock value, occasionally. There is absurdism, rarely. Mostly, though, the stuff one sees in Perry Bible Fellowship seems logical, once one takes a moment to consider the viewpoint that would allow these ideas to arise. It doesn’t require much adjustment to one’s way of thinking; the adjustment just happens to be so unusual that most people would never make it on their own.

Often, as in the above example, something apparently neutral or even benign turns out to be absolutely horrific. The author develops a dark and twisted worldview, stretching unsettling ideas and awful presumptions to their most extreme conclusions. Disturbing premises are applied to an absurd degree, producing a result that is as terrifying as it is hilarious. The horror feeds into the humor feeds into the horror. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those comics that often makes me feel bad for finding it funny.

I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m not a fan of shock value for its own sake. Perry Bible Fellowship is one of those few comics that can use shock value in a way that works for me. A large part of why I can enjoy the shock value in something like Perry Bible Fellowship is that there’s always something more going on. None of the payoffs rely entirely on gratuitous violence/sex/profanity, though any one of those may be a part of what makes the joke work.

One thing that separates Perry Bible Fellowship from lazy or unimaginative purveyors of shock humor is tact. Though typically irreverent, and often potentially offensive, Perry Bible Fellowship manages to treat difficult issues in a way that feels respectful to me. I think it helps that the humor typically “punches up,” targeting those who behave inappropriately rather than those who are harmed by the behavior.

Perry Bible Fellowship can even tackle issues that are typically big red flags to me without making me angry. There are certain subjects to which I tend to have intense reactions, because they carry emotional weight to me that they might not for most readers. When I encounter those subjects, I typically either decry the work presenting them (if it’s something I don’t like) or I ignore them as best I can and move on (if it’s something I like). The problem isn’t necessarily that I can’t handle those issues as artistic subjects, but that I typically find they’re not being portrayed accurately, or respectfully, or with the nuance that they require.

Suicide is one of those subjects that I have a hard time reading about. My own history makes me touchy about it, and almost all references to suicide in “humorous” works strike me as glib and inappropriate. Perry Bible Fellowship, though, can tackle even that most treacherous of subjects without bothering me in the slightest.

Not every Perry Bible Fellowship installment is horrific. The tendency to present new and unexpected ideas does often veer into unsettling territory… after all, many ideas are new and unexpected precisely because they are unsettling, and people usually don’t spend their time pondering exciting new ways to unsettle themselves. However, Perry Bible Fellowship includes all sorts of new and unexpected ideas that are fun or happy, or merely strange and exciting without any upsetting elements whatsoever.

Be prepared to encounter gore and violence and other troublesome imagery, but don’t think you’ll have to slog through unpleasantness the whole way through. There’s plenty more to Perry Bible Fellowship than just the twisting of an innocent concept into something darker.

On the other hand, though, there are times when Perry Bible Fellowship can really disturb me. I don’t think that’s to its detriment… art that has a powerful effect on a person is remarkable, regardless of whether that effect is enjoyable or not. But I will admit that certain installments of Perry Bible Fellowship bother me enough that I don’t like dwelling on them. So if you find a few that really get to you, know that you’re not alone. (I have a feeling that the ones I can’t handle and the ones any other person can’t handle might be totally disparate sets, though, because typically no two people have the exact same soft spots in their psyches.)

Even when Perry Bible Fellowship goes too far for me, its merit is still clear. I know that some of the ones I don’t like remembering are often cited as other peoples’ favorites, and I can understand why. They’re still well-executed, they still present new and interesting ideas… they just happen to take me to places in my mind that I don’t like to visit.
No I will not include one of the ones that I try not to think about here. Instead, have a couple of rhinos.

Can Perry Bible Fellowship be distressing? Certainly. But for the most part, its lack of regard for the typical standards of society, for the assumptions and values that we all take for granted, is refreshing. Everything in this comic is carefully crafted to feed the joke that it needs to tell. Not a line or a word is wasted.

The new, the unusual, the strange, are what make Perry Bible Fellowship remarkable. Even so, each installment follows a clear sense of logic. The humor lies in the disconnect one experiences when forced to make that mental leap to see the logic in any particular scenario. And that mental leap is precisely the kind of exercise I think everybody’s mind needs every once in a while. Read Perry Bible Fellowship to remind yourself that there is more to life than the ordinary, comfortable reality that you assume you live in. So, so much more.

The Perry Bible Fellowship is written and drawn by Nicholas Gurewitch. New installments go up rarely, and in fact I can’t guarantee that there will ever be another one. (A recent spurt of updates has now concluded and looks like it will have to content us all for a long while.) Typically I only write about comics when I’m reasonably confident there will be more to them someday, but Perry Bible Fellowship is something special, even if all there is of it now is all there will ever be.

And hey, the first time I actually read Perry Bible Fellowship, all signs indicated that it was over and there would never be any more comics there, but since then roughly a score of new installments have gone up, so I won’t be convinced that this comic is finished any time soon. Go read everything that’s there now, and if there’s any more in the future, read that too. Your life will be better for it.

Previous Entry: Solo