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The most immediately striking thing about Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! While reading it is the dungeon crawl dread of it.  The book follows Kyrii(also called Killy in earlier editions) as he crawls up an endless sprawl of technological ruin.  Nihei more than any other comic artist plays with scale. Closed claustrophobic spaces opening into giant caverns.  Small guns, large mile long blasts.  Dramatic pull aways where Kyrii becomes just an ant moving up the spin of a dead cyborg god.  Even though a lot of the mythos of Blame! Forms the foundation for all of Nihei’s work afterwards.  Blame! Is the basic formulas of Nihei’s storytelling at their most primordial and most direct.

Kyrii searches for thousands of years for the net terminal gene which will connect humanity from the base reality that is corrupted by insane machines and cyborgs eliminating humans on sight.  Much of Blame! Works along these basic cycles: Nihei climbing silently around, through, and up mechanical ruins.  Encounters corrupted mutated human populations.  He searches for the net terminal gene.  The safeguards show up.  Kill all of the humans.  Kyrii kills some of them.  Then he keeps up his journey.  The unrelenting repetition of Blame! Is key in building the dread of the book.  As a reader you figure out pretty early that this is a dungeon you can’t escape from.  So it makes the few moments where the book opens up into grand vistas, or dramatic fights between Kyrii and the safeguards all of the more dramatic.  It makes the existence of Kyrii, Cibo, and the fallen humans all the more tragic.  The architecture and the design of the world is along the lines of Giger’s Biomechanics, so some of the appeal as well is just the spectacle of what Nihei draws on one page or the next.  His capacity for continually upping the ante in design and scale is really incredible in Blame!

What’s interesting to me on this reread though, is the way that the microstructures of the world in Blame! Are suffused with the flaws of the greater cosmos.  To understand Blame! You have to understand that there are kind of three tiers to it.  There is the base reality which is the zone where humanity lived and built these machines, programmed all of these various rules, and where the second tier, the netsphere was created.  The netsphere is where all of the programming for the machines in the base reality reside.  The third tier is the space between the netsphere and the base reality that the safeguards move between.  The safeguards are these terrifying cyberpunk hellraiser looking demons that exist to enforce the rules of the netsphere within the base reality.

Something you find out in the prequel series Noise is that the netsphere, the reason only those with the net terminal gene can interact with the netsphere was that it was a way for humans to segregate those who had power to connect versus those that did not.  This human class warfare presented an exploit for the safeguards to pervert.  So once the netsphere rules were altered to send the safeguards after the humans, it just became a matter of exterminating all of those with the net terminal gene, so that the humans could never access the netsphere for long enough to save themselves from the safeguards and builders.  The insane builders are why there is this endless technological sprawl.  They can’t be stopped from building, so they just mindlessly continue to maintain this huge superstructure which imprisons humans.  And humans thousands of years removed from this catastrophe exist under the suppression of the safeguards, removed from the netsphere admins who are functionally God of the base reality.  So you can see the genetic structure of humans breaking down because of inbreeding and flawed cloning technology that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to repair or rebuild.  As humans break down they either move toward the safeguards in evolution or seem to devolve into sewage.

This aspect of being both withdrawn from god in the netsphere, god’s absence, human’s fall–while every aspect of their reality is simultaneously controlled and is an avatar of that withdrawn god.   The architecture is literally the design of this netsphere programming.  It’s randomness.  It’s chaos.  Is design.  The safeguards themselves as fallen demons, seem corrupted by their continual interaction with these humans.  They become more human.  Jealous.  They take on personalities. Filling the void of vacated humans.  It is apocalyptic hell on earth.  Techno-apocalypse.

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So in volume 2 of the Master Editions that Vertical have been putting out, there’s this great moment toward the end of the book, where Kyrii and Cibo are trying to defend the last of this group of humans against an unholy assault of safeguards both in number and scale.  We get these micro battles between the humans, kyrii, cibo and smaller safeguards, and this huge kaiju like battle evoking the old ones between a giant safe guard monster and a builder that Cibo has hijacked.  So on one level you have this tribe of humans fighting off these basic safeguards.  On another level Kyrii is fighting this super demon angel safeguard Sanakan–occupying this space of demigods.  And then beyond that is the space in between the netsphere and the base reality that Cibo has hacked into which is like a lesser ring of heaven, where an admin has descended to guide her.  And she’s fighting the safeguards in this almost immaterial space.  That also manifests itself in the base reality battle.  So these three tiers are all moving around at the same time as Nihei zooms in and out at extreme distances while everything around is bathed in fire and metal and leather.  At one point Sanakan actually takes on the aspect of a dragon almost in her fight against Kyrii invoking the earlier heroic cycles of knights and dragons, as well as ragnarok.  Nihei is interweaving multiple cosmos while showing simultaneously the unimaginable scale of the battle happening across three realities AND how small it still is within the greater whole of Blame!.  This is only the second volume of the omnibus editions!!!  There’s a few battles later in the series that are even larger in scale than this one.  And even this battle everything feels lost, nothing is saved, and there is only more ruin and despair.  Kyrii is knocked back.  And then just starts the climb back up.  There are no comics that are like Blame!.  Even Nihei’s later work which is also excellent.  Particularly Abara and Biomega.  I mean it makes sense that there’s no reason for Nihei to just keep making Blame! And the themes and basic structures of Blame! Are present in all of his work–but this cyclical saga of technopunk despair is a one off.  And there’s nowhere else in comics to go for this fix.  This is comics at its most spectacle.  It’s fun to read Blame! In this kind of instagram world we live in now.  Because since it is so many moments of “oh shit, look at that” there’s a way that reading it now is like touring it with friends.  These are snapshots from my Giger vacation.  Reading Blame! Is like going to Rome.  We should all aspire to make something so jawdropping and singular.
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There’s been a lot of discussion in comics this week about what fan culture should or should not be entitled to.  This Nick Hanover article kind of summarizes all of the disparate threads.

I don’t think it is very complex though.  The viewer is entitled to the feelings that a piece of art invokes in them–whatever those feelings are.  But that’s it.  They are not entitled to any interaction at all with the artist who made the art.  Regardless of what feelings the art has stirred in them.  Social media has made viewing art feel like the viewer can be a part of the process and that the role of the critic is the same as the role of editor.

It’s also conflated the role of artist with the role of celebrity.  A celebrity gives time to their fans, signs autographs, and largely positions their presence ahead of art as anything meaningful in people’s lives.  Which is bullshit.  There’s no difference between you and the person on the other side of the table.  You’re all just stupid people.  Flesh and blood. Flawed in all kinds of stupid ways.  The creation of the celebrity out of the human is an absurdly dehumanizing process for both the person made into the celebrity, and the people who contort themselves into fans.  These aren’t human interactions.

Never put anyone else above you or below you.

I think there is a temptation to view art as the act of a human being.  Like a comic about a fire in a theater, is the same as going into a theater and yelling fire.  But I think the benefits of allowing art to explore and express behavior that is outside of what we deem appropriate yields the possibility of the sublime experience of art.  Like for example, Picasso’s work about bullfighting–bullfighting is brutal and wrong–but this art can still touch you, and move you to a place that is beyond yourself.  Sometimes the crossing of the taboo is actually a part of the building of this experience.

So while it is important to demand that DC appologize for say a systemic history of violence and oppression against women in their editorial offices.  It isn’t important to demand that James Robinson issue an apology or even explanation for transmisogny in his comics.  Which isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write about those themes within the comics.  Because that falls under your reaction to a piece of art.  But where the line gets crossed is when people start harassing an artist on twitter or elsewhere for something they’ve created.

Now what is interesting is when we get to criticism itself.  Because criticism is not art.  It’s the analysis of art, and a huge part of what criticism is, is a discussion meriting peer review.  So there’s more of an element of earnest debate within criticism than there is when you are talking about the relationship between critics and artists.  Artists really shouldn’t respond to their critics, and critics shouldn’t expect to be read or listened to by artists they are writing about.  But with critics, there is as part of what criticism is, an aspect that is critics responding to critics, and the expectation for fair debate.  But where that gets screwed up, is again, you’re entitled to respond to someone’s criticism, debate it vigorously.  But you are not entitled to go after that person outside of the bounds of that debate.

What happened this week though was that because the discussion had gotten so meta that people were no longer talking about art or specific criticisms, but behavior–it got personal for people.  Dunno how you solve for that one.  Beyond just knowing when to fold em, and realize that you’re in that situation, and it’s going to help no one, especially yourself.  I think what happened this week, was two groups of people in pain, both refusing to empathize with the pain of the other.  Artists were in pain because fan culture treats artists as celebs, and that relationship lacks boundaries–so you get things like death threats, and just people thinking they deserve to be in your space just because you made some art.  Critics were in pain, because they felt like they were being told to sit down and shut up, and that they too are the victims of people who overstep the boundaries of critical debate, to harass and send death threats.  It’s funny really, because at the end of the day, it’s two groups in pain at the same thing–which is that social media has eroded the sense of boundaries that people have in both of these modes, resulting in these harmful interactions.

For me, I think both ends of it are tied to a poison that sits at the root of fan/nerd culture.  This poison that measures worth in obsessive devotion, and operates at this idea that if only you can give enough of yourself over to this obsesssion, that the pain of your existence will be erased.  So what happens is that people, rather than dealing head on with very real mental health issues at the core of their being, they attempt to replace and repress that pain with the mania of this fanaticism.  So what happens is that your interaction with art or criticism becomes entwined with this pain you are trying to repress and forget.  So someone telling you that there are white supremacist elements in a comic that you like, is them telling you that YOU are a white supremacist.  And then on the flip side, your expectation is that the artist needs to maintain a kind of art that maintains the values that you hold dear, but have projected through this fandom.

So you need for example, Kelly Sue to always walk this perfect line and manifest your perfect ideal as a feminist, because if she didn’t, it would somehow undermine your own values, because you aren’t living for yourself, you’re living through someone else and the idea that they should live a perfect life to validate the self that you have sacrificed in your devotion based solely upon the affect of their art, not them personally.

So the dynamic that you would give up yourself for devotion to the cult of an obsession of something that is completely outside of your control–this is unhealthy.  You should be working to bring your feelings, perspectives, and impulses under your own control.  To understand them within the context of your own life and your own pain.  Fanaticism is this urge to replace the self with a self which is not the self.  So even at it’s greatest ideal, you are asking for an impossiblity.  You can never escape yourself, and your devotion will never consume that part of yourself you wish to escape through this obsession.  That’s fucking Kierkagaard.

So when you give up that humanity, when you give up that knowledge of self, for the devotion to a “higher” power–you lose boundries, you lose perspective, but you don’t lose the pain of living.  It sits behind you growing in its represssion, and allows you to become possessed by these demons that are outside of your experience.  Your lack of control, comes from the control of the self that you refuse control of.  So when you become a fan, you lose track of boundries.  You stop seeing Nick Spencer as someone’s son, as someone’s friend, as a human being–but you also don’t respect him as an artist, and allow his art to breathe out and exist in all of its flaws without the need for repercussions.  Because there is no difference between the pain he causes you as a man, and the pain his art causes you.  You’ve lost discernment.  And in that, is where you start causing real pain to real human beings.  And this is the same in criticism. A critique of art that moved you, shouldn’t push you to a place where you need to attack the critic who wrote the piece personally, and harass them off of their life.  But when you are a fan, that’s not a boundary you can easily set.  Because the pain you have allowed yourself to manifest is so profound, and so personal, that it doesn’t seem to you that it is anything less than the person behind the criticism or behind the art, coming to your door and punching you in the face.  But it isn’t the same thing.  And this is the poison that fandom brings.

The trade off that fandom offers and why it is so tantalizing is this idea of community and that in your obsessiveness you can elevate yourself above the mundane despair of your own life, and you can find an importance to living.  For a lot of people, this is nothing to shrug at.  It’s the same offer that organized religion makes incidentally.  And depending on the level of what you’re running from, that tends to measure how much of a fanatic you will become.  And whether you are ready to blow up a mosque to get away from that pain, or whether you’re willing to go assassinate some cartoonists.

So I dunno.  I think it’s worthwhile to make an effort as thinkers in this world, to try and allow people to understand that there are options outside of fanaticism.  And that being a fan or being a nerd, is not something to aspire to.  Mental health, knowledge of self, expression of self–these are important things.  Devoting yourself to a god, to a celeb, to a fictional universe…these are paths that devour the most vulnerable, and swindle the rest.

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There’s a point in the newest Hiroaki Samura comic Der Wergelder where a bunch of sour faced yakuza dudes are sitting at a bar lamenting having their ass kicked by a women who was both a superior fighter, and physically superior as well, that kind of points to what was the strength and weakness in Samura’s older work Blade of the Immortal.  In Blade of the Immortal, the most compelling figure is Mackie, and the dramatic arc of the whole thing is driven by Rin–but because of how Samura structured Blade of the Immortal in the beginning, both of these women were shackled to Manji and Anotsu early on, and because of that were never really put on center stage–this was something of a misstep, because as an artist what Samura is best, and his art best explores is violence to and by women.  It’s why Mackie is his most compelling character, and why Brute Love is his most complex statement as an artist.

I bring this up because Der Wergelder represents a correction, because Der Wergerlder, amongst the many things that it is(and it is an absolute soup of Pinky Violence/Exploitation genre archetypes)–the first and foremost thing it is, is a center of focus on the women driving the narrative.  While the men in Der Wergelder are largely interchangeable ineffectual goofs–the women are lightning wielding valkyries hellbent on undermining the whole system built by said ineffectual goofs.

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It’s interesting that Blade of the Immortal was fundamentally a rape revenge tale, and Der Wergelder is that as well. As with Blade of the Immortal the focus of the rape revenge is slightly diffused because our point of focus is actually the character of Shinobu who hasn’t really been violated, but she’s flanked by Träne(pictured above), and Soli Kil–both of whom have.  I suspect it’s because since both are such deranged characters, that falling into either of them would have completely imbalanced the narrative.  But it’s interesting because it’s an inversion on the Manji-Rin relationship, where Rin was the poor fighting victim, and Manji was the tough–here Träne marries Manji’s acumen in battle, with Rin’s trauma–and then that leaves the sort of wide eyed wonder all expelled into Shinobu–who isn’t as naive as everyone around her kind of thinks.  We’re also given a fourth woman, the gun-nunchaku Jie Mao, of whom not much has been said yet.

This all serves as a great platform for Samura to focus on his strengths of violence, women, and sex.  There’s tinges of things like Bradherley’s Coach and Brute Love floating around here that weren’t as present in Blade of the Immortal.  You could actually conceive of a world where Der Wergelder and Brute Love are happening concurrently, and for the same reasons.

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The sense of Der Wergelder as an unhinged soup of elements feeds into its overall grindhouse feel.  You’ve got lightning wielding one eyed germanic figures dressed like Meiko Kaji shooting everything in sight, nunchuku weidling chinese dress women diving out of helicopters with no parachute–cybernetic enhancements, Lupin looking dudes being led around on leashes and tortured with exercise equipment–there’s a part where a dude has sex with a woman who has been modified to be a mermaid…just kind of in there.  It’s crazy when you think about it out loud, but it works in the same way 70s exploitation always works.  Craziness glued together by over the top sex and violence–you’ll accept just about anything.

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Even aesthetically Samura is throwing the whole bag at these pages.  One of the most remarkable things in Der Wergelder is Samura’s usage of Zipatone:

It’s like an artistic guitar flange that he drops in several times throughout the book.  All of these weird textures on top of the normal Samura styles:

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It’s really funky, because I’m so used to seeing Samura’s figures over a particular thing, but they’re popped out over and over here with sometimes completely ridiculous textures–and it speaks to this notion he writes about in the afterword of the book, that he wanted to make a “manga without dignity” the wild freewheeling Samura puts on display in Der Wergelder is really fascinating, because I’m always interested in how artists use texture and the way that playing with the foreground and background through texture is a key component for keeping a comic dynamic even when nothing is really happening in terms of action.  It introduces a play to the book that allows itself to be about its own image.  As I’ve written about before, trash largely lives or dies on whether it can through its wild fuckness –whether it can give you the image or not.

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This page is excellent, because not only do we get this dramatic zipatone reveal we also get this image of a buer demonsword(a demon you may remember from Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone comic) mixed with this sort of random image of a gagged Träne–which–is jammed in as a transition to the next scene–but here functions symbolically to speak to the horrors that Shinobu and Daisuke are speaking around.  There’s a created dissonance though in the shift, going from the zipatone to the heavier inky brushed drawing of Träne.

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Then you have a few panels like this, drawn with this super clean line style and much smaller zipatones, that look almost like a completely different artist–jammed in between two panels of older style Samura, but focused by the light and cleanliness.  It’s all pretty cool, Samura is at that point as an artist where he feels very confident in his techniques, and switches freely between them both on a whim, and for page compositional/dramatic reasons.  It gives the book this underpinning of really strange vibe.  The art choices largely keep the book campy in a way that allows for all of the discordant elements to fit, and allows for Samura to slide in horror story that is essentially about baby harvesting rape farms–in a way that is awkward and crass in the most glorious ways.  It’s staying power in its present form, and going forward I think will largely depend on how well it is able to stay in this space without being extracted into the predictable routine and modes that Blade of the Immortal could be mired in.  I think one of the disjunctions in Samura’s work, is that at times Blade of the Immortal was a thin veneer over the monstrous abyss lurking in the back of Samura’s predilictions as an artist–and the extent to which he is removed from that darkness is the degree to which his work loses its beauty.  My hope going forward with Der Wergelder is that it moves closer to Brute Love and Bradherley’s Coach but mixed with his bad bitches kicking ass characters–the roots of that kind of work are here in these initial volumes–if so, this could end up being a pivotal piece of work in Samura’s canon.  If not it could herald a decline into bleh.

Oh yeah.  Also:

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Katie Skelly’s My Pretty Vampire

Katie is my co-host on Trash Twins, and one of the few people kind of on the same wavelength as me in terms of what to do with comics, so it’s not really a surprise that she made one of my favorite books.  Her Vampire book is everything I love.  Big format, colorful comics that aren’t afraid to explore eroticism as something that refers both to sex and death.  Katie draws in this really iconic style, which is why that t-shirt of bon-bon is so popular. When we first started talking about her comics, one of the first things I ever said about her comics was that I wanted them as big as possible with all the colors.  These books along with Agent 9 and 10 and 8 are all that.  Also the progression in Skelly’s style just from Margarine to this–and before that from Nurse Nurse to Margarine is terrifying.  And really inspiring as well.  Even if we weren’t friends, she’s someone making me want to work harder on my own comics.  I wrote a lot this year about how comics handles trash genres–particularly in my pieces on Prison School, Terror Assaulter, and Bitch Planet–the subtext of all of those criticisms is that Skelly handles genre how I best believe it works.  She uses the rules to create iconic imagery that expresses her own poetic truth.  There’s no step back in her game, where it’s like “oh look at this thing that is like this dumb thing I like”–the thing is the thing in her comics, pretense doesn’t even come into it.  Katie doesn’t make comics that are about her trying to make some other thing, they’re about her using these tools to say the images that she thinks in and has conviction about.  Which you can see a lot of these things when I wrote about Operation Margarine which was from before we were really friends.

Tiger Lung by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie

What I love reading any Simon Roy comic is how thoroughly his worlds come together.  You can backwards engineer just about everything on the page and it’s fun to think about the things that are being said in that backwards space of those worlds.  It’s not just like “oh wow these are some weird creatures” it’s more “oh huh, that creature exists because of an elaborate history through the ages” and there’s speculation within that thought process that is really fascinating.  Tiger Lung specifically I liked because I find trying to imagine the lives and culture of our ancestors in the Upper Paleolithic really fascinating.  Our inclination is to view ourselves as more advanced and that history is this long forward arrow through time–but when you consider the imagination it takes to conceive of tools or fire, and how all of this information would be stored and passed down through culture–the complexity makes a mockery of our modern mind.  It is beyond conception really.  But Tiger Lung does a great job of trying.  I loved the sort of cave shadow rendering of the art that allowed supernatural shapeshifting to make sense for our modern eyes and within the world it exists in there.  It’s this fascinating sliver of a comic, that isn’t exactly the type of comic world that has been very thoroughly explored.  I wrote about it extensively here.

●●●● Vol. I by Morgan Jeske

Besides being beautiful, what I loved with this comic starts at the beginning with this girl riding a whale into space, which is such like…a chariot of the gods type of moment, and got back to the stuff I liked in Tiger Lung in terms of mixing up our ideas of what primitive actually is or means.  But past that, there’s a way that this comic is about the way that an environment is both the pollutant of the body, and the self is the pollutant of the environment.  The relationship between the interior and exterior is wonderfully conceptualized.  The walls postulize with sickness and corruption, the body changes shape under the pressure of gravity.  Space is psychomotionally conveyed on every page, and it creates this space of exploration that is both outward into the unknown, and inward into the mirroring void.  It’s a comic that stretches itself in two directions at once.  It’s a comic given over to the image, which is something I always enjoy.  I dig the colors too.  You rarely get a comic with such a strong POV that is executed in this kind of style.  At least in America.  This comic would win an ignatz if Morgan had less talent.  I kind of wonder where stuff like this and Emma Rios ID comic fit in American comics, because they’re not kind of firmly in the boy adventure thing where people like good looking art more, and they’re not ugly so they aren’t appreciated by alt-comix people.

I.D. by Emma Rios

I’ve probably said before that for myself, and what I’m interested in doing with my comics, I problem solve a lot off Emma Rios comics.  A lot of what she does in terms of balancing her pages, and handling a huge weight of images per page, she’s pretty much the best at.  With I.D. Emma held a masterclass on how to handle dialog heavy stories and still make them just as dynamic as a full on action comic.  She threads these pages with constant foreground and backgrounding tensions that shift back and forth over the course of conversations before culminating in a kind of climax.  It’s similar to what you see Rainer Fassbinder do with depth in his films, but it’s really interesting to see it balanced in a comic, and show how you can balance dramatic and visual tension playing to the strengths of comics as information pages.  Emma and Kelly Sue Deconnick also dropped a new Pretty Deadly issue this year, and even though it was also good, mostly along the ways in which they create these rich weird amalgm genre spaces, and how Emma is able to keep it all coherent in the costume design–and I think Jordie Bellaire’s color on this new issue points to a much much much greater understanding of how Emma’s artwork works-so there’s greater concert there–but man…it’s so basic compared to what Emma did on her own.  Reading I.D. where Emma is both writing for her own page, and drawing from her own writing, it becomes very clear that the complexity she has as a storyteller is much greater than any of the stories she’s drawn so far in collaboration.  It makes sense because these I.D. pages are so balanced and constructed, it would be hard for a writer to really think in all of those planes at once, without being an asshole with the script(Alan Moore).  The story itself goes hard sci-fi on what our bodies mean both to us and others, and in a year where transgender stories were largely either dumb as hell, or offensively dumb as hell–it was nice to read one that wasn’t fixated on that point, and just let the story be, and in the process said some interesting things organically through the story.  But yeah.  Mainly, if you want to see how to handle dialog in comics without being boring, this is the comic to study.

Sea Witch by Tessa Black

It’s amazing how horrifying beautiful is.  I dug this comic because again it was one of those comics that was actually drawn well, but more than that there are body things that happen in it that I still cringe looking at, but the experience of not looking away as this body is pulled apart and reshaped is truly sublime.  It’s sort of an inverse Little Mermaid story or like…an Origin tale for Ursula.  Her comic has that quality that has me following Shintaro Kago on twitter everyday, for every iteration of crazy spaghetti guts.  There’s just ways of drawing viscera for the body that always really affects me.  In this case it’s mirrored against the sea and a lot of organs are metamorphosed by their sea ocean counterparts.  Both Sea Witch and I.D. are from the Island anthology, which I have also contributed to.  But as a reader, I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of that magazine.  Not every story has been great for me, but it’s been a nice source of the kind of comics that I kinda look for.

Anyways.  Those were the comics from 2015 that I liked the most.  I mostly re-read comics or read older Pat Mills written 2000AD comics(because they had crazy artists), Kyoko Okazaki comics, Prison School, Dark Knight Strikes Again and Holy Terror, The Collector by Toppi, Idyll by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Blade of the Immortal, Crepax comics, Children of the Sea, Daisuke Igarashi comics, Julia Gfrörer comics.

The book I read that I liked the least in 2015 was Wytches from Image comics.  That comic was stupid and a waste of time.  But maybe you’ll like if you like like…The Conjuring type of shit.  The coloring was good on it.  Everything else…the writing was very precious, the line art was visibly disinterested in most of the pages, as the story seemed a complete mismatch from the artist’s strengths.  The reason the book is even at all coherent as a singular unit, and worth looking at is the coloring techniques that largely dictate and keep everything kinda together.  But yeah.  Compared to everything else I read this year, pretty shit.

One of the things I think a lot about, and frankly, write a lot about, is this idea of chasing the sublime image.  Whether in my own art, or in the art that I am viewing, what I’m looking for is those images which transcend translation, and speak to an experience beyond text.  Images that link up with the poetic truth of an extrastential experience.  I think that, even though our culture is largely subsumed in images, those images are largely unimportant images.  They are the images of commerce, but not the images of the holy.  If that makes sense.  I think looking for, and creating beauty are two of the more worthwhile things that you can do to pass the time while living.  Tarkvosky writes about this in his book Sculpting in Time:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example.  The aim of art is to to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

As I have said in the past, when I talk about the pursuit of the sublime, I am talking about the pursuit of death.  The thing which is outside of life, and that stops us in our tracks; the thing that if we were to gaze upon it would destroy all desire for further image.  All life builds to this final image, and art is, at it best function, an iconographic representation placing itself between the artist and the viewer, and uniting the audience not with the ideas of the artist, but the ideas of beauty which already exist within that said audience.

But these impulses have been perverted.  Beauty has been changed from something that allows us to understand that which is outside of life, into something that makes us desire life itself.  It creates a need, not for death, but a need for life in all of its turmoil, pain, and exploitation.  The image has changed from that which removes us from the pain of living, to that which entrenches us further within it.  It does this for purposes of exploitation and control.  You are made to desire a false image of beauty so that the company can sell you and control you.  It is the removal of your own interior beauty, for the sake of an exterior master class who through money, can most ably jump you through whatever hoops they need to, because you think that you need their message, their product.  The image goes from a thing that is beyond text, to the thing which follows text around limply and pathetic.  It becomes the thing we have to go through to get to the message which makes us feel a controlled way with a predictable set of outcomes.  Artists are then trained out of their ability to listen, in favor of their ability to speak.  But art is not speaking, it is listening.  And I should note here, when I say things like “art is this or art is that” I’m not saying it as a concrete declaration.  I’m saying it as “I think that this is the state in which things can be the most powerful, and this is my reasoning why”.  Anyone can do anything, but for me, I am interested in these things which induce extreme feelings in me, and linger for decades versus the things which I can’t remember a week after I saw them.

This brings us to Bitch Planet.  A comic book published by Image, co-created by Valentine De Landro and Kelly Sue Deconnick; with lettering by Clayton Cowles, Colors by Cris Peter, and additional line art for issue #3 by Robert Wilson IV.  Bitch Planet is a thick brushed textural dystopian science fiction comic about women who have been cast out of society to an auxiliary outpost facility on a planet far away to live out the remainder of their lives away from earth societies.  These women labeled as “non-compliant” for reasons ranging from murder and assault to disrespect and adultery.  The first five issues largely serve to introduce a group of these women and the larger society that exists around the construction of this facility, and then move the story into some inter-gender kind of future rugby death sport, though we only glimpse this in the final issue with a practice match against the prison guards.

The book is something of an ensemble cast, but only in the sense that the character who makes all of the meaningful decisions in the book for the women (Kamau Kogo) is not the character that the artist has the most interest and fidelity in drawing on the page (Penelope Rolle).  This is complicated further by the fact that 1/5th of the book is given over to Rolle’s origin story, which is strangely drawn NOT by the artist (De Landro) who draws the character the best, but rather by Robert Wilson IV, whose Rolle is significantly less interesting(and smaller, even as an adult).  It’s also strange that none of this backstory comes organically from interacting with the rest of the cast, but just as a flashback that Rolle has while some random prison thing is done to her over the course of a single issue.

But then given how little meaningful interaction there actually is between the women in this comic, it makes sense why you’d HAVE to just force in a flashback.

To that end, there is no real complication within the women of Bitch Planet.  Right off the bat they pretty much trust each other, and start working together toward larger goals–which is useful in terms of speeding the book into the gladiator matches(which still don’t even really take place in full force by issue 5), but because of this decision, you never really get to grips with who these women are and how their different identities operate together, and then before you know it, one of them is dead, and three more have been added.

Artistically the book is drowning to depict its script.  Bitch Planet takes place in the future, but all of the fashion is pretty much what you would expect from a comic set in the present day.  Men mostly wear the same suits they’ve worn in comics for 50 years.  Women have no real clear sense of style rooted in any kind of attempt to create an era.  Guards wear the same kind of standard comic book body armor you’ve seen a million times.  Hands sometimes get drawn.  Faces often don’t.  Large crowds become blobby masses of faceless heads taking up space so that the backgrounds can remain mostly empty and unrefined.  Which is fine because comics don’t really need backgrounds.  But because you never once see the surface of Bitch Planet, or an establishing shot of the prison, or exteriors of where people are on earth you completely lose your sense of scale and place.  Even though we’re made to believe that women can easily be sent to Bitch Planet, and so…you’d think there would be like millions of women on the planet and overcrowding a real issue(I mean they send women there just because guys want out of their marriages, or just for like…looking at men wrong!) because of the lack of a sense of space or scale, and the blobular nature of crowds–it really does feel like there’s less than 50 people on the planet.  Which again, doesn’t make very much sense.  Unless you are saying that the women who are there are the worst of the worst–but if that were the case, then why do they work together so well?  I mean everyone at Bitch Planet seems pretty well adjusted.  And I mean, the only reason you start thinking about these dissonances is because the actual style of the book is fairly realist, it doesn’t really ask you to put logic aside at many points visually.  And there’s so much emphasis on explaining and setting up in the book, that when those things don’t add up, it is kind of jarring.

There’s a two-page spread of the prison interior early on, and in retrospect you can look at it and tell which characters had to be delineated and which ones did not.  Anyone who didn’t have to be drawn on those pages, became an inky ill-formed barf of a person.  Even the layouts are largely restricted because of how many words have to be fit into them.  You only really understand how much De Landro is holding back when you get to the largely wordless shower scene where suddenly the layouts become quite inventive, and the pages become much more dynamic.  There’s not much of a sense of play in the art of Bitch Planet.  It is very much art that is depicting a script, not complicating it through exploration.

The script itself is all over the place.  One minute Kogo is being tortured to get her to confess to a murder she didn’t commit, and then the next minute she’s being told to assembly a crack future-rugby team with little to no connection between the two sentiments.  I mean they say they tortured her for 18 days, but in the end, it’s just to ask her to start up this game?  And why did they accuse Kogo of the crime and not anyone else in the prison?  And why do they need someone to confess to a crime anyways?  She’s already IN jail, and the implication is that she’s there for life. If the goal of the prison is actually just to reform these women–why do they need to be on another planet for that?  All of the brainwashing is handled by technology anyways.  And then the torture itself is isolation, noise, starvation–which are all things that are really hard to depict visually in a few panels, and aren’t that interesting to look at.  It’s also a pretty sexless prison.  There’s one couple, but they can only make out in the shower because they let a guard watch, but they have to do it in the shower, because the guards can’t watch?  So in the distant future prisons have become really hostile toward homosexuality?  And then Kogo’s whole reason for not wanting to play the megaton game is because they’ll lose and get humiliated, but routinely we see her and Rolle beat up gangs of men like they are superheroes–so there’s no indication that the two of them are any less strong than men, and in fact, Kogo is shown to be superhumanly strong when she rips a showerhead out of the floor, flips, and then breaks down the wall with the pole.

There’s a constant sense of things in Bitch Planet  happening because they have to happen, not because they should happen–and they happen largely to the detriment of any kind of development of an emotional core of the book.  The book has some terrific depictions of some of the more sinister manifestations of patriarchal rule(particularly the scene with the waitresses in the gold dresses who are harassed and at once everywhere and nowhere)–but that’s all they are, is depictions.  They’re not really seated in anything.  And while the book’s decision to make the cast predominantly people of color, and mostly black women, is very good, and I think it’s nice just to see not only different races depicted in a comic, but also different body types–I mean on the whole that, the empowering marketing campaign, and the book’s politics are all things that I agree with and like–but the problem is that the message is just the message.  And I already agreed with the message.  The message doesn’t hit.  You don’t feel it.  You hear it. There’s no complication in Bitch Planet because all it is is the expression of a logical and sensible world view.  And that’s certainly a valid thing to do, and not insignificant in the current climate.  However, the difference between Ras Kass and Chuck D was that Ras Kass TOLD you the nature of the threat, Chuck D made you FEEL the nature of threat.  And if you just asked “who’s Ras Kass”? Exactly.

The book was originally marketed as a book owing to the exploitation cinema of the 60s and 70s, and the covers for the book still attest to that.  But what’s interesting with exploitation or trash cinema is that maybe a lot of things in those works were low budget–or poorly executed–but the works that we remember 50 years later, we remember them because it was complicated problematic troubled truth coming from the fringes.  It was the passion of the Image.  Like you don’t really remember the parts about Thriller(1973) that were just Christina Lindberg being drugged and raped and objectified by the camera–you remember her with an eye patch and a shotgun fucking dudes up–you feel those images, and they mean something beyond the sum of their parts.  The fucked up energy of the whole also created the same space for these weird things we’d never seen before, that could be extracted and taken with us for strength.  There’s nothing like that in Bitch Planet.  There’s no passion to it, there’s no rage in its pages.  There’s no danger.  And the thing is, we are in an era where women are becoming as dangerous as ever.  Where Nicki Minaj shakes her ass in a video, and half the internet sets itself on fire.  Where Beyonce calling herself a feminist in a music video pisses MRAs and white feminists off for totally opposite, and equally ridiculous reasons.  There is stuff going on right now.  Right now in 2015, people are wildly uncomfortable with dealing with women–but that fear isn’t really directly confronted here.  It’s certainly not meaningfully pushed back at.  I wish this book was its marketing, because I very much wish this book was a problem for people.  But it’s not.  It’s just another thing that’s the most important thing ever that you need to support because if you don’t then blah.  Just like everything else.  It will probably be a shitty movie in 5 years.  We’re selling people what they want, not giving them what they need.

When we talk about perversity what we’re talking about is not per se an observation by the subject about itself, but rather we are talking about a social recoil from a pattern of behavior.  Perverse behavior is a judgement about the tenuous nature of social codes which we believe create civilization, which separates our living from the dying of the animalistic.  Perversity is reacted to like a contagion.  A viral idea of behavior that threatens the sexual safety of the objective viewer.  Of course this recoil also creates it’s own eroticism, because when we talk about perversity we are talking about sexual inclinations that aren’t perceived to be for any purpose but their own.  There’s a foundational accusation of selfishness that accompanies the charge of perversity.  The pervert is a sub-human who in their inability to control their shameful urges, threatens our own sense of self and rightness.  And of course perversion also creates the system of codes and transgressions which make up romance and desire, which are important aspects of our denial of death.  Romance is fundamentally the set of behaviors that govern our ability to incarnate love, which is as close a mental state as we can create in ourselves to being outside of ourselves and built beyond ourselves toward the kind of ideals which perpetuate the desire to live.

Akira Hiramoto’s Prison School Vol. 1 is a comic book published by Yen Press.  Prison School is the story of an elite all-girls boarding school which has decided to become co-educational through the admittance of five young boys. These boys: our central protagonist Kiyoshi; Gakt; Joe; Shingo; and Andre joined the school upon the supposition that since they were the only five boys in an all-girls school with a ratio now of 200:1 girls to boys, that they stood a chance of accomplishing their boyish desires with the women of the school. It doesn’t really work out that way though, because for one, the girls at the school have no interest in them, and treat them largely as alien outsiders; and two there is a shadow student council that runs the school and has forbid their interaction. This initial stifling of the boys perversity, leads them to try and peep on the girl’s bath.  They are caught, and sentenced to a mysterious Prison School which exists adjacent to the boarding school where the boys are made to wear prison jumpsuits and exist under the perverse authority of their warden’s The Vice President of the Student Council: Meiko; and Secretary Hana–under the overall governorship of the President Mari, whose father has recently taken charge of the school as a whole, and whose idea, it was to admit the boys in the first place.

Hiramoto draws these characters with a kind of perverse paranoia. With malevolent stress lines around the eyes, sweating shifty glances the game Hiramoto is playing aesthetically is largely a comedy of textures with a dark erotic undertone played straight up.  This comes across through Hiramoto’s choice of composition. Characters don’t really pop out of frames like you would expect in these kind of comics.  There is very little winking to the camera.  And generally speaking, the art style mirrors Japanese slice of life comic rules.  This is interesting because the actual story is straight trash exploitation genre–but it’s done with a level of rigidity(which isn’t to say there aren’t jokes here, there are, there are a lot of prison movie references and visual quotes) that almost demands shock and recoil at some of its most perverse moments.

There’s one particular section in the book’s narrative that I think is a good place to see what I’m talking about.  To set it up, you first have to understand, that for the most part most of the up-skirt shots in this comic are tied around the character Meiko, the dominatrix prison guard vice president of the shadow council.  Meiko is an exhibitionist, and even though she is in charge of the punishment of the boys, and even though the boys initially enjoy their shame and punishment at her hands, there is a lot of indication that Meiko is aware of this, and that this is a game of which she is quite aware of the rules.  The President of the school observes what is happening and sends in the Secretary Hanna, who in difference to the Vice President, who is more than happy to sit on the boys faces till they pass out, Hanna wears sweatpants under her skirt, and basically kicks the shit out of them whenever she feels like it.  This is important in terms of distinction because she is not an exhibitionist, at least openly, in the way that Meiko is.  So where the up-skirt peeps that the boys get with Meiko are largely consensual.  This page with Hanna peeing is not.

Hanna ends up wanting reciprocation on her shame, and forces Kiyoshi, also without his consent, to pee in front of her.  Hiramoto actually shows the construction of a particular kind of perversion with Hanna.

The weight with which Hiramoto draws this page gives it a kind of horrific tension.  Hana is sexually assaulting Kiyoshi, and Hiramoto isn’t playing that light which is weird dynamic for a book like this, but it’s why it’s interesting.  Hanna’s assertion here is frightening but it also represents a dramatic reversal of the scene where she was exposed, which even that page is drawn with less rendering and is a “lighter” page overall.  Here we’re drenched in shadow and grayscale, and the bathroom feels cramped not only by its architecture, but by Kiyoshi’s panic and lack of control of the situation.  Kiyoshi in contrast to the other boys in the story is a “good boy” (which makes Hanna’s usage here dramatically ironic), where someone like Gakt welcomes violation from Meiko–Kiyoshi does not. He is debased here as much as Hanna.

Through her interactions with Kiyoshi, Hiramoto gives us something subtle in her expressions that is fairly subtle, but she becomes someone different when she is in private with Kiyoshi talking about their shared shame, and when she finally forces Kiyoshi to pee for her, he of course pees on her, but rather than be alarmed in the way that she did when Kiyoshi saw her pee, her expression is actually a satiated expression, she even jokes ludely(shown in a different font) to the vice president about her defilement.

What’s interesting in this moment for me is that the moment isn’t for Kiyoshi.  When Kiyoshi first sees Hanna we can’t see her face, we watch Kiyoshi’s reaction to her peeing.  But this arc isn’t really about Kiyoshi, what’s interesting about this whole arc is that it is about the construction of Hanna’s perversity.  If at the beginning Hanna is just this faceless butt–she ends up as a pervert of her own agency.  This debased Hanna is an expression of her reconciliation and ownership of her shame.  I think this point comes across most effectively because the art style Hiramoto employs doesn’t play this whole scenario for ridiculousness.  The situation is ridiculous, but the things that are occurring for Hanna as a character are layered and nuanced and a lot of this is because of the tone of Hiramoto’s style.

And in some respect that’s what Prison School Vol. 1 is about.  Even though the book focuses on the boys of the story the most time wise, much of the character growth, and overarching thematic decisions are made by the women of the book as they seek to reconcile their relationship to perversion.

Disclosure: On the plus side, I’ve become friends with most of the artists I like, on the downside, being friends with your favorite artists starts to limit just what you can really write about in comics.  I’ve refrained from writing about some of my favorite comics this year because it feels weird.  But I feel like for the most part, I’m not really the type of critic rolling out telling you to buy this or buy that–so maybe I am worrying too much about it.  So what I’m going to start doing is writing about whatever I want to write about, and if I happen to be pals with the people I’m writing about, I’ll just mention it and you can factor that into any kind of hyperbole I might accidentally slip into.  In this case, Simon is one of my now yearly roommates for Emerald City Comic Con; and Jason Wordie colored my friend Alison Sampson’s book Genesis.

Simon is interesting because his work is super detailed and researched, and the depth of thought he puts into the worlds he creates is pretty astounding.  And then you meet him, and he looks like Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, is super funny and nice.  It’s a really wonderful dissonance I think.  At any rate.  That’s my ethical disclosure.  So I think we’re good.  We good?

Tiger Lung is an adventure comic created by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie, published by Dark Horse, which explores the fantastical world of modern humans in the Upper Paleolithich through the heroic cycles of its shaman protagonist Tiger Lung.  It is segmented into three short stories, the longest of which is “Beneath the Ice”(Story by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie; Art by Roy; Colors by Wordie).  This story was originally a three part series appearing in Dark Horse Presents.  The notable aspects of the book, however, are contained in its two new entrants to the Tiger Lung saga: “The Hyena’s Daughter” (story and art by Simon Roy); and “Song for the Dead” (story and art by Simon Roy; colors by Jason Wordie).

I double-featured my reading of Tiger Lung with the Jean-Jacques Annaud’s exceptional film Quest for Fire (1981) (shot by Claude Agostini); both the film and the Tiger Lung book take place in roughly the same paleolithic time period, and both excel in the areas of their narrative where they are able to transport us past our own biases into the fantastical world of our “primitive” ancestors.  For example, when you see fire for the first time in Quest for Fire, it is contained in this shrouded bone lantern, that is carried by the clan like an ark of the covenant like holy object.  The artifact and the way it is treated, bestow a kind of magical fantasy on the world; so that later in the film when you see fire finally be made, it feels very much like Prometheus himself handing it down.  Where our modern biases may view these peoples as primitive–considering the scope of their invention and cleverness–it might be best to instead view these people as some of the most imaginative in our history.  I think we typically try to view ourselves as a species on a trajectory–but what if there is no trajectory of consciousness–and we are the same flame responding to different winds, and taking new ever shifting forms–but always remaining fundamentally flame?  What if the consideration of our being isn’t one of technological hierarchies of development–but rather one of aesthetic shape and fantasy?  In this way, how is an iPhone a better sight than a shape-shifting hyena-woman?  They are different spectacles.  Like different genres on the same bookshelf.

Roy pivots directly into these matters with his story “The Hyena’s Daughter”.  Where Annaud’s film caked on makeup and prosthetics to create a kind of alienation between the audience and the people within the world of the film; Roy works the opposite angle.  He downplays the aesthetic differences of our bodies and language to try and show how this story is our human story–he’s trying to bring you closer POV wise to the miracle of the moment.

The story itself is told in a flickering shadow of greytones which gives the form of Roy’s figures a kind of cave painting impermanence that ends up being very effective for evoking the kind of fire light these stories might have been told beside.  This aesthetic also allows for a muddiness which amplifies the transmorgraphic climax of the story, allowing for woman to shift horrifically into giant hyena monster.  Her transformation speaks to the the mystical heights that Tiger Lung at its peak seems built around ascending.

This gets back to what I was saying before about the complexity of imagination that these people had.  That they could perceive a three tiered world of spirits and demons, and magic–this wasn’t a detriment–it was a biological advantage.  It was these worlds which allowed their imagination to leap by bounds, and this directly feeds into the kind of abstract creativity needed to create tools, fire, and art.

The strengths of “The Hyena’s Daughter”, and “Song for the Dead”, are that these stories place Tiger Lung between different paleolithic cultures, allowing for him to be a kind of heroic interloper–both within the world of the book, and without the worlds that are being elucidated–he is both subject and object.  Tiger Lung makes the strange both fantastic and mundane.  His presence is the guidepoint for dramatic tension and understanding.  Beneath the Ice suffers because it is an origin story, and Tiger Lung is largely contained within a singular world unable to branch out.  It is only when he leaves this singular world that things get interesting and strange.  You see this in Quest for Fire as well, with Naoh really only coming into his own, and the movie itself, really only hitting it’s stride, once Naoh and his group leave their clan and have to venture out between cultures.  This is also how Conan the Barbarian functions at its best as well.  It’s something of a heroic archetype or something.

The last story of the book, “Song for the Dead” brings Jason Wordie back for his best work in the series.  Wordie expands on the shifty textural moves made by Roy in Hyena’s Daughter, and (actually these stories could have totally been made in reverse order–so it could very well have just been that Roy adapted what Wordie did in this story–at any rate: they are related) adds in a more expansive color palette.  The palette elaborates further the notion of the book sitting just outside a fire within a cave with colors bleeding and emanating off of their different sources and figures.  This works especially well for “Song for the Dead” because much of it takes place in a magical spiritual plane just outside of physical reality.  The way Roy and Wordie are able to depict Tiger Lung as a translucent sack of organs being carried by the shadowy crow through the spiritual forest, is one of the more affecting images of the story.

Both “The Hyena’s Daughter” and “Song for the Dead” traffic in the weaknesses inherent in Tiger Lung’s interloper role.  he knows alot in both stories, but he doesn’t know everything–he is fundamentally on unsteady ground, and has to constantly trust his instincts that what he is doing is the right thing–his chief strength as a hero isn’t his innate abilities as a shaman, but his ability to listen to the moment and make clear decisions, even as he is shitting his pants at the possibilities.  Which compares very well to Naoh in Quest for Fire.  Both have to balance between bravery and the kind of cowardice that defines survival in a harsh world.  And what’s more both need an insatiable desire to learn and experience.  When Naoh goes back for Rae Dawn Chong’s character, part of it is his romantic inclinations, but a larger part is his constant curiosity and questioning of the world around him.  He is willing to take the leap and see what happens because of it.  He’s ready to run away too.  But fundamentally both he and Naoh are characters who have to explore.  Who have to push on deeper down the cave.  It is the journey of the shaman, the explorer, the artist, the inventor.  These are stories of creativity explored, and the thesis that these impulses must necessarily define our survival as a species.  Because even though we may not be on a trajectory–it is important that we try to be.  That is how we create a richness to our lived experience.  That is how we create stories.  It is significant that the end of Quest for Fire is both fire AND story.  Naoh is telling his adventures to his clan.  The fire is both there for warmth, and for company.  And will be until it isn’t, and we aren’t.

-Sarah