I don’t need to tell you that life is complicated. The amount of data we pull in over the course of a year is staggering. Reflection is more of a guessing game than a science. Still, some things linger, events gain significance in hindsight, and the prick of a moment can fester or bloom. Here’s five moments from 2014 that left an impression on me. – Daniel Elkin
Leslie Stein’s Diary Comics
Leslie Stein is best known as the artist behind the Eye of the Majestic Creature series and playing in the band Prince Rupert’s Drops, but in 2014 I got to know her as a creator of a poignant pastiche of diary comics. As creator of Eye of the Majestic Creature, Leslie Stein is a voice for a certain aspect of her generation, the ones you see feigning ironic detachment while inside they are either all honest excitement or vast empathy. While it’s just so much easier and cooler not to get emotionally involved, for people like Stein, that’s just really not possible. As a detached observer full of heart, it is interesting to see what happens when she observes herself directly.
Stein’s diary comics are imbued with an openness of experience, as they are awash in the colors of particular moments. They are also confessional in that they record in that same detached, yet intimate way Stein cannot help but create. Diary comics can often bog down in a need for meaning, but Stein works from the heart, poignancy without pedantry, making statements in the midst of a deceptively simple quiet, full of an innocence that could easily be mislabeled “cute” were it not for the depth of feeling they possess.
I want to call these comics “moments that emote,” but I worry that could easily be mislabeled “cute” too.
Stein’s art in these comics is light and airy, so much more than her work in Eye of the Majestic Creature. Adding depth, her color work swirls in a tight manner reflecting the unavoidable chaos inherent in daily life. In these she eschews panel borders to allow each flash to flow into the next with the fluidity of time passing. Causation and comment mix effortlessly. But the most effective artistic choice Stein makes is reducing her portrayal of herself to an iconic openness – registering as nothing more than two wide eyes for her face – thus universalizing her experience, giving us all access, making her experiences ours as much as hers. Indeed, “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,” as Walt Whitman wrote a century ago.
Leslie Stein’s Diary Comics bring us into her daily life. While we may not share her reactions to what she experiences, we can’t help but understand. In that point of understanding we connect and by connecting we make meaning in our lives.
Stumbling Into the World of Theo Ellsworth
There’s that weird moment when you stumble upon a work of art that just grabs you by your thought senses and tumbles you into that gelatinous place where you lose contact with the person you thought you were only moments before. It becomes even weirder when you start pursuing other works from that artist and all of it seems to be specifically talking to you – directly – face to face, over drinks at your kitchen table.
Such was my experience “finding” the work of Theo Ellsworth late in 2014.
And I can’t even tell you how it happened. Somehow I ended up with Ellsworth’s book Capacity #8 in my ever expanding “To Read” pile a few months ago. I don’t remember buying it. I don’t remember it getting sent to me in the mail. It was just there, having made its own way to me – because it was what I needed without even knowing it.
Trying to talk about an Ellsworth comic is almost impossible as our available lexicon breaks down quickly. It’s like what James Ryerson wrote in his introduction to David Foster Wallace: Fate, Time, and Language about Wittgenstein’s response to solipsism, “language is seen as a messy human phenomenon, part of social reality – a rich variety of everyday practices that you figure out the way a child does.” When you encounter something so wildly outside of that “social reality” then, by their very nature, words fail.
And so it is with Ellsworth’s art. There is a direct address therein; the artist speaks to the reader under no uncertain terms. The expectation is that regardless how alien the words and images are, the reader has the capacity to understand. Ellsworth works under the assumption that since his book is in your hands, it gives him access to your brain. He operates in a command center located near the pineal gland in your epithalamus, apt as Descartes declared it the “principle seat of the soul.”
Structured logic comes unglued quickly in Ellsworth’s art, and it’s not fully replaced with a primal or visceral understanding either. Rather, it demands a different way of interacting with the material. You have to step outside your skull, listen for Ellsworth’s directions with both your eye holes and your ears, and then proceed blissfully drunk on the trust inherent in being led by someone who knows you better than you know yourself.
This way you get to go places you never even imagined existed. Those places are wonderful.
Talking with The Sheehan Brothers
For me, there was first their six-page short “A Day At The Races” in the New Zealand comic anthology Faction #2. Then there was their precursor work, a graphic novel told in four parts called The Inhabitants. Finally, there was their longer work Into The Dark Woods. Having had exposure to the archetype of comfortable discomfort that the Sheehan Brothers were working with made me have to know more.
In my 2014 interview with these two New Zealand comic book creators, we explored the concept of “The Anxiety of Influences” – how we are bombarded with pop-culture references which cause us to be perpetually in a state of trying on new personalities, calling into question matters of identity, which then makes it harder and harder for us to connect to others on a fundamental level.
Both Kelly and Darren acknowledged that sampling influences is part of their process — not a reaction to, but a synthesis of, which then adds up to “something unique and your own … a story guided by (your) vision.” In a way, they stress the primacy of the individual as the creator, in their choices and understandings.
They insisted that the audience they were targeting was each other. Darren said, “I make this stuff because I enjoy making it. I enjoy what that feels like. I like the place my mind goes when I read Kelly’s words.” And that’s it, right there. As much as the work they create is beautiful, what it really amounts to is a conversation between two brothers. This is the purity behind what makes the work of Kelly and Darren Sheehan important to me as well as important to comics. As they talk with each other, they talk to me and they talk to the larger world. Yeah, you know… open yourself to their hearts and hear the echo of your own beating there.
Kelly said, “I just hope people enjoy our stories and have fun exploring our world.” Darren said, “I’d like for us to make the kind of work that inspires people to make their own work.” To both of them, I say, “Thanks. I’d love to buy you guys a beer.” This is what makes for great comics, and it’s this attitude that makes great comic creators. We can all learn a little from what the Sheehan Brothers are offering.
When my enthusiasm for Valiant Comics waned
I’d given up on the hope of being engaged by the type of superheroics doled out by Marvel and DC long ago, but something about the 2012 Valiant relaunch had caught my attention. The enthusiasm behind and audacity of their plans were, in a sweet and curious way, infectious. There were good books as much as there were good times. Those early years were filled with books demonstrating what can happen when you put your intellectual property into the hands of artists and writers and basically say to them, “Have fun with this. Make great comics.” As a matter of fact, I even chose Greg Pak and Robert Gill’s Eternal Warrior #8 as one of my favorite comics of 2014. It spoke large, it nearly brought me to tears.
But as 2014 dragged on, something began to change. I got the sense that whatever was going on at Valiant had taken a turn – as if endless variant covers, the formation of “super-teams”, and company wide crossovers designed to SELL MORE had become the mentality behind editorial decisions. For some reason I was reminded that in January of 1978, the great British philosopher John Lydon had said on the stage of the Winterland Theater in San Francisco, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
In 2014, my enthusiasm for the Valiant revolution got tempered by the dollar grab doldrums.
Still, I don’t want to cast aspersions at anyone at Valiant. They have a loyal fan base, some amazing creators, and they seem to be humming along nicely for a smaller publisher wading into the waters already teeming with bigger fish. It’s a publishing company, after all. Nobody there got involved on the business side of things to not make money, and nobody ever got rich exploring the universal truths of the human heart, especially when dudes punching other dudes surrounded by throngs of ladies in tight fitting clothes is what the market demands.
And I know the fault lies with me, not them. Perhaps it’s a hypersensitivity to whatever smacks of crass consumerism bred from having grown up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas where everything is plastic and everyone is trying to sell you something. Maybe I should lighten up and be more accepting?
Oh, that’s right, John Lydon also said, “Turn the other cheek too often and you get a razor through it.”
The Proliferation of Small Press Comic Conventions
Have you ever noticed how happy your dog is when you take it to the dog park? Tail wagging, tongue lolling, spark in the eye, jumping, chasing, barking to his heart’s content – he’s happy because, at last, he’s among his own kind. The same goes for timid old ladies at a Teddy Bear Convention, heavily inked Suicide Girls at a Tattoo Expo, Dudes and Walters at Lebowski Fest, Bronies at Bronycon, Juggalos at The Gathering, Rednecks at the Daytona 500, even fans of The Rock-Afire Explosion have their own safe places where they can let their freak flags fly among others without having to explain, justify, or underplay. Fandom survives because of community – the more marginalized the group, the more important that sense of belonging becomes.
Thus it is with those of us who are incredibly fond of small press comics. Luckily, we have our own gathering places as well.
The small press convention scene has never been more active or vibrant. This year I drove to the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco and flew out to Comics Arts Brooklyn in … well … Brooklyn, and both joints were jumping. The enthusiasm of exhibitors and patrons alike throbbed through the buildings at these shows, like the bass line of “Cosmic Slop”. It was impossible not to be caught up in it.
Much like the great bookstores around the world, these conventions give people the opportunity to discover fantastic new books that they would otherwise have no idea existed, like Bunny Man: My Life in the Easter Charade by Sean Seamus McWhinny or Towards a Hot Jew: The Israeli Soldier as Fetish Object by Miriam Libicki. Small Press Conventions open doors in ways that even the internet can’t get right.
Even more importantly, they also provide the opportunity for creator and consumer to connect, as much as creator and creator to connect, as much as consumer to consumer to connect. These connections provide the arena for real face-to-face interactions between people who, by the very nature of their passion, are often holed up alone reading, writing, drawing – the love of creating and/or reading small press comics isn’t inherently a team building exercise. It takes a reason to gather, conventions like APE and CAB provide that reason. “People over product,” as Keith Silva oft says.
You could come up with every reason in the world as to why you don’t go to these conventions. I know I did for years. Walking into Mount Carmel Church and the Fort Mason Center this year made every single one of those reasons ridiculous. Get up, get out, get into something new.
Keith Silva also rounded up some impressions comics left on him in 2014. And for more of Loser City’s Year in Comics coverage, check out our picks for our favorite comics of the year, as well as the Year in Panels.
Daniel Elkin is lucky because he has his eye on a majestic creature every time she comes to visit. He can be found on Twitter (@DanielElkin) and is Your Chicken Enemy (http://danielrelkin.blogspot.