Small Press Comics Reviews TCAF 2017
June 1, 2017 at 10:58 am
Whoa. I cannot stress enough how impressively, overwhelmingly large the 2017 Toronto Comic Arts Festival felt. I had heard that it’s a big one, and I was excited to go, but the actual scale of the event was a shock–hands-down the largest indie comics or zine fest I’ve ever been to. I’m a dingus, so I only took one photo of part of the first floor before they let people inside, but trust me, during the actual festival hours everything was packed.
There were hundreds of cartoonists and publishers there, enough to fill space on three floors of the Toronto Reference Library AND a couple annex locations. I want to admit right away that I didn’t come close to seeing all of it. I was there tabling for my comix crew (Rough House!), and even slipping away from our booth for a couple hours each day, there just wasn’t enough time to see everything. That said, there was so much good stuff there that even nibbling at the edges was worthwhile! Anyway, here are a few of the things I picked up over the weekend:
Needy – Chloë Perkis
This is the first comic of Perkis’s I’ve read, though I’d seen some great drawings online after following links from the Bred Press store. It’s just about everything I had hoped it’d be, meaning, mostly, that Needy is aggressively un-cute. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the cute stuff — just not all the time).
Needy is a one-woman performance piece in comics form featuring a near-empty stage and a single character who grotesquely “mis-performs” womanhood. Or maybe it’d be more accurate to say that she correctly performs a womanhood, but does it in a way that purposely denies pleasure to the implied male gaze. Needy’s star presents a glamorous body to the reader as she takes a stream of selfies, but she does so while staunchly refusing conformity to the classical mold of beauty. Perkis draws her woman hairy, with a perpetual nose bleed, and in detail (which isn’t a euphemism for something. A common piece of drawing advice holds that the fewer details you add to a face, the more attractive a character is.) For her troubles, the nameless character is harassed by sourceless insults, calling her a “needy bitch” and a “clingy cunt.” Thus Perkis lays bare the double-bind that misogyny would trap women in. Needy’s woman is expected to be both an exposed and a hidden body, the parts men want made available but other, “gross” parts covered up or eliminated. She’s expected to want men’s attention, but to not want it too much. The comic ends with the protagonist shoving a pointed heel into her smartphone, cracking the screen.
Needy is a truly solid “fuck you”.
Dirt Dart – Wren McDonald
Super nice little comic by McDonald here, reprinting a short story from a Spanish-language anthology I wasn’t familiar with (Voltio #2). It’s a completely wordless story about a human soldier who clashes with some tentacle-wielding robots and then gets infected with something that metabolizes him into part of its alien life-cycle.
Dirt Dart is the sort of fun science-fantasy snippet that made up a lot of the better bits of Heavy Metal, though I’d say McDonald’s clarified linework is closer in style to Hergé than Moebius. I really wish I’d purchased McDonald’s longer book SP4RX now, but at the time I was worried about spending too much money at one booth so I went for the cheaper mini instead. Not really a mistake, but something I’ll amend soon anyway.
the clerics of midsummer – Victoria Grace Elliott
(Disclaimer: Victoria is a friend of POMEmag and has contributed to this site, but that did not influence the writing of this review.)
Jumping ahead of the main timeline in Elliott’s webcomic balderdash!, the clerics of midsummer finds the two young witches Georgie and Afia deep in their respective studies in the small town of Löffel. While the pair have only just met in the online portion of the story, by midsummer their relationship has noticeably deepened and it’s fun to finally see them as friends, sharing snacks, gripes and banter in their off-time. Still, there remains a distance between them, as well as some of the discomfort that comes from attraction without certainty of reciprocation. While Georgie settles into her routine as assistant to the fussy baker Fausto, Afia feels relatively aimless and alone in the library, perusing books on enchantments. She’s as unsure as ever about the ultimate direction of her life, but fresh uncertainties about her place in Löffel and in her new friend’s life complicate everything further.
Online, Elliott draws balderdash! in full-color, but she switches to monotone for a classic shoujo style here. While this move simplifies things a bit visually, the result is far from dull. For starters, midsummer is beautifully printed on cream paper in a lush red ink that gives the whole book a soft but comforting glow. For another thing, all the halftones and patterns are excellent and Elliott’s careful application of them establishes a rich emotional world. When Afia stares wistfully at the moon, for instance, her outline fades a bit and the page becomes covered in soft gradients that enhance the poignancy of the moment. In a later scene, when Afia and Georgie discuss the lumpiness of Georgie’s macarons, the halftone likewise becomes humorously clunky. And for the climax, seven pages (give or take) are lovingly filled with shoujo bubbles. While midsummer is probably best appreciated by fans of the webcomic, I think this self-contained episode is an excellent introduction to two characters you might find yourself wanting to know better.
balderdash! can be read here and the clerics of midsummer will be available online in the coming weeks.
The Artist – Anna Haifisch
This really funny look at the life of a young, unsuccessful gallery artist in the modern era Gave Me Anxiety. The comic’s humor all essentially draws from failure and there’s plenty to go around in the lifestyle that Haifisch mines for material here. Episodes in The Artist are built around stuff like the main character’s ennui, the main character’s desperate self-medication and the main character’s perpetual sense of embarrassment. All of this hit a bit close to home. After finishing The Artist, I pulled my BFA out of my “important papers” box and stared at it for a while without blinking. Anyway, good comic!
How To Draw My Dog, Stop Sending Me Messages, & An Introduction To Physical Fitness – Michael Deforge
Maybe the thing I was most excited to pick up at TCAF was this series of pamphlets by ubiquitous indie cartoonist Michael Deforge. It’s always interesting to see someone working outside of their usual style and Deforge really delivers here, mimicking amateur graphic design for comic effect. His manipulated clipart layouts are humorously wonky, but they’re also subdued enough that they wouldn’t stand out in one of those pamphlet racks you see in hotels or grocery stores — until, I suppose, you realized how odd a title like “Stop Sending Me Messages” was. Under the guise of making helpful public announcements, each pamphlet twists its subject matter like a funhouse mirror. It’s an aesthetic of pure irony, punching neither up nor down, but itself, in the stomach. Basically, if you like “weird twitter,” you’ll dig these.
An Introduction To Physical Fitness begins with the explanation that “every time you wake up from sleeping, you lose one health point. When you run out of health points, you die.” It then goes on to list a bunch of ways you might be gaining or losing health points as you go about your business. Eating applesauce, running a ten-minute mile and “making love to someone and cumming while you look at their face” are all gains. Eating pasta, a dog barking at you, or looking away while cumming are all, unfortunately, not. Also important to know: “HEALTH POINTS CANNOT BE PURCHASED.”
Stop Sending Me Messages might be the most sincere by a hair’s breadth. Its plaintive request that everyone please stop contacting the pamphlet’s “author” is sorta sympathetic and speaks generally to the wearying barrage of information we all subject ourselves to online. (I also imagine being a semi-famous, freelancing cartoonist comes with a lot of communication chores.)
How To Draw My Dog contains the sad tale of a former pet owner looking for an artist’s help in reminiscing about their missing pooch. Here’s the drawing I made based on its instructions:
Beats me if you can get these online (probably not?) but apparently they’ve been scattered around the city of Toronto for free. Deforge’s cartooning work can be found on his website.
Box – Haejin Park
Riotous, full-page watercolors illustrate a fable about an abusive relationship in this zine from illustration collective plum. An evil presence (interestingly, also the narrator) latches onto a woman and tries to bend her to his will. At night, he “breathes ugly sounds” into her ears and during the day, he changes his form to twist her desires. In self-preservation, she builds a box to hide away in, eventually never leaving. While this keeps her safe from further harm, the book closes out on a sinister gloat from the antagonist about how he “will always be present in small details of her life.” A bad romantic relationship is an obvious parallel here, but the book also contains too many religious references (e.g. prayer, damnation) to ignore — though whether the manipulator is literally The Devil or just a demonic son-of-a-bitch might be beside the point.
Park tells her story with sparse lines of writing on each page, but the feeling is all contained in her expressionistic drawings and shifting color palette. I especially like how she doesn’t shy away from darker, muddier colors, such as when she follows a page of bright pinks and yellows with one of soil browns and booger greens. The book is colorful, and beautifully so, but it never feels saccharine, even though it’s often cute. Box contains, like the best fairytales, a real complexity.
Miasma – Paige Mehrer
Another one from the plum illustration crew, Mehrer’s zine also explores gender dynamics, though she employs a more materialistic vocabulary than the theological, good/evil overtones of Box. Instead, Mehrer makes metaphorical references to states of matter (e.g. liquids, solids, gases) and mixes her figure drawing with clean-lined geometry.
Miasma is told from the first person, describing a tenuous relationship between two lovers. The man, in the simplicity of his desire, is described as hard and crystalline. The woman, in response, tries to hold a shape for him. But she feels, sometimes painfully and sometimes with relief, that her existence is essentially weightless and that their loveless encounters do little to help. In her uncertainty the woman expresses melancholy, but also a certain power. “I have no shape,” she says, speaking to the man. “I will continue to evade you.” Mehrer’s art illustrates these metaphors beautifully by contrasting traced ovals and ruler-edged rectangles with wash-y, textured bodies. I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot more of this fragmentary, poetic mode of comics lately and I’m glad, because it really opens things up from the predictable strictness of sequential panels.