In this minicomics roundup, I’ll be taking a look at four self-published comics from four different creators. While these artists are of different ages, backgrounds, and aesthetics, all the work discussed here focuses on managing the impacts of grief, trauma, or simple day-to-day struggles. While that may sound like heavy-going, the immediacy and open nature of the graphic narrative form has a way of lightening the load of even the heaviest of subjects. Comics can be a great form of therapy, both for readers and creators.
(Disclaimer: The indie art comics scene can be pretty small. I am friends with three of these artists. Two of them sent me their comics for possible review and I purchased another over the internet.)
In 2015, forty-something Chicago-based cartoonist and radio DJ Tony Breed lost his husband Eric to brain cancer. The autobiographical That Night takes place about six months later, opening with Breed hanging out with a bartender friend and doing shots. On the bus ride home, he misses his stop and has to walk the last mile or so home through empty city streets, all the while listening to musician Kishi Bashi doing a cover of the Talking Heads’ classic “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” over and over. In flashback, we learn that a reading of the song was presented at a wedding Breed and Eric attended — thus the lyric “Love me ’til I’m dead” feels particularly acute and profound in the present. Then, out of nowhere, Breed encounters a fox (!) on the street, staring at him before it turns tail and vanishes into the shadows. In a gently funny epilogue, Breed talks over the incident with a friend, who insists that the animal had to have been a coyote — not a fox. Breed, mildly annoyed, clearly doesn’t care about such details. Only that something about the sheer oddness of the encounter felt significant — perhaps even magical. A short coda on the inside back cover reveals another fox sighting by Breed on a London street a week later — where he traveled to scatter some of Eric’s ashes.
That Night perceptively captures not only the power of music to help to process strong emotions, but also the heightened sensitivity to odd or seemingly serendipitous events that often accompanies periods of profound loss. It is a moving and finely-wrought piece, perhaps Breed’s best to date.
This mini features a pair of thoughtful, deeply-felt stories about parenting in an age of ultra-rightwing politics by Bay Area artist Tyler Cohen. Cohen is best known for her Mama Pants and Primazonia comics, many of which are collected in her first book, the excellent Primahood: Magenta (2016, Stacked Deck Press). The first piece, “Evident Truths,” originally drawn for an Illustrated PEN feature, deals with the immediate aftermath of the soul-crushing 2016 presidential elections, which put Donald Trump in the White House. Cohen presents herself as feeling torn between wanting to protect her young daughter, Nene, while not wanting to shield her too much from the real implications of what has happened. “Our daughter’s future just got decidedly harder,” she writes. There is a sense that Cohen is silently grieving for Nene’s innocence, which will inevitably be challenged in a bewilderingly complicated, often unjust world.
The second piece, “Day & Night for It,” examines the aftermath of the soul-crushing (do you sense a theme here?) white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, 2017, which resulted in the death of a counter-protestor, Heather Heyer. As in “Evident Truths,” Cohen’s protective maternal instincts kick into high gear, even as she prepares to bring Nene and Nene’s friend Ruby to a vigil; “It’s a vigil, not a protest,” Cohen tells Ruby’s parent, “so, it should be safe.” After the vigil, Cohen isn’t quite sure what the kids really got out of it, but when Nene later asks her mother, “What was the Holocaust again?” we are reassured (and saddened) that Nene is at the dawn of new knowledge and awareness. Cohen closes with the lyrics from an old labor song: “Freedom is a hard-won thing/You’ve got to work for it/fight for it/day and night for it/Pass it on to your children/Pass it on.” Both of these stories, featuring brushy, expressive artwork, pack a real punch.
Penina Gal’s Orbiting differs from the other comics here: rather than featuring a straight-ahead narrative, it is instead a poetic message of love and support from Gal to a nameless friend in need, a message that is both intimate and expansive. Gal blends their heartfelt tidings with beautiful risographed images of flowers, water, and other symbols of nature, illustrating themes of self-acceptance, transformation, and spiritual cleansing. In one passage, Gal writes: “You showed me an article that named EXCLUSION as a form of bullying. You’ve always felt lucky you were just ignored, rather than picked on or beaten. But that exclusion, it makes sense. Why you still get caught up in that fucking feeling.” Gal visualizes this entrenched mindset with garden flowers, focusing on their roots, nestled firmly underground.
Near the end of Orbiting, Gal acknowledges to their friend that every person’s own problems are minuscule in the vastness of the universe, with this reminder: “but you’re still part of the earth, through and through.” Even more to the point, Gal continues: “You know it’s an unwanted trope, people calling trans folks BRAVE. But you feel like such a coward. You know you need to be brave. You want someone to call you brave. I’ll tell you you’re brave, and I love you.” By mixing iconic imagery of tulips, waves, and stars with a voice rich in specific details, Gal transforms their private message to a universal one. Orbiting feels open to readers in general, trans people in particular, and perhaps even to Gal personally.
Lastly, for an all-fiction change of pace, we turn to the second issue of Laura Pallmall’s one-woman anthology series, Sporgo. This issue is devoted to the first chapter of an in-progress graphic novel called Pyramid Inch, which Pallmall calls a “millennial gothic.” Pallmall, a relative newcomer to comics with ties to the punk community, displays a rawer edge in her drawings than the veteran creators discussed above. Her lo-fi aesthetic works well for her tales of somewhat disaffected young men–tales that teeter on the edge of horror. The lead character is a nameless twenty-something screenwriter living in Miami. The story begins right after he has been arrested for shoplifting at Walmart. After he is released he hangs out with his friends, discussing typical day-to-day stuff, along with his works-in-progress — all of them with dystopian, apocalyptic themes. He then reluctantly agrees to help one of his pals mount an exhibit sponsored by VICE magazine — which (problematically) consists of a white artist’s photo documentation of the rap scene in Atlanta.
All of this adds up to a bad night’s sleep for our hero: he has an eerie nightmare where he visited by shadowy rapper figures, a ghastly giant cockroach, and a scary mask-like face. The reader understands that these dark dreams and visions are manifestations of the protagonist’s anxieties, but there is the looming feeling that these phantom fears may soon take on some sort physical form. There is always that possibility in a Laura Pallmall comic, so we’ll see what happens in future chapters. Pallmall, who was chosen for inclusion in the latest edition of Best American Comics by Guest Editor Ben Katchor, is still developing her style, though she obviously puts thought and care into her panels and perspectives. The naturalistic world she conjures is moody and atmospheric — and haunted with an ineffable sense of unease. She’s a real talent to watch.
Rob Kirby is a cartoonist, writer, and editor based in Minneapolis. His most recent books include The Shirley Jackson Project: Comics Inspired by Her Life and Work (2016), What’s Your Sign, Girl? Cartoonists Talk About Their Sun Signs (2015) and the Ignatz Award-winning QU33R (2014). He is a regular contributor to The Comics Journal, a guest editor for Illustrated PEN, and is currently at work on a long-form graphic memoir called Marry Me a Little. robkirbycomics.com