Author Archives: benchoward

Dave Chisholm Talks His New Series Canopus

Canopus

Helen wakes up marooned on a lifeless alien planet 300 light years from Earth with no memories beyond a hazy sense of extinction-level urgency to return to Earth. Joined by Arther, her strange robot companion, she explores the planet to find materials necessary to repair her ship. However, circumstances are not as straightforward as they seem. Along the way, Helen’s most painful memories return as monstrous manifestations hell-bent on her destruction. Canopus is Castaway meets Annihilation, with a healthy dose of Phillip K. Dick trown in for good measure! 

–From Previews website

Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Dave Chisholm‘s. Awhile back, my fellow Graphic Policy writer Madi Butler interviewed Dave about Instrumental about an inspiring jazz trumpet player whose ambition leads him to a mystical horn that may give him masterful skills, but could also result in the end of the world. Ever since reading this masterful book, I’ve been following Dave and eagerly waiting for his next big project.

That last desire has recently come in the form of Canopus, his new sci-fi miniseries from Scout Comics. I had the pleasure of reading Dave’s book beforehand, and I immediately knew this would be on par with Intrsumental and give a medium clouted with many sci-fi stories that just about look the same. I sat down with Dave to discuss Canopus, how sci-fi can be used to funnel personal issues, many of the new bag of tricks he learned along the way during the making of this project.

Graphic Policy: Where did the idea for Canopus come from? 

Dave Chisholm: I had a speaking engagement in Boston. I was sitting on the flight toward it, and at that point I had just a basic idea for the main conceit of the story which I’m not going to give away.

GP: No spoilers!

DC: Right, no spoilers. Basically, I was just flying out and ruminating on some big ideas I had. Not the characters yet, but more the bigger sci-fi stuff. The character ideas stemmed from a deeper place from my struggles of learning to let go of resentment and pain from my past. I had tendencies to hold onto grudges. It reached a point where I was like, “Man, that’s not good for me.” I couldn’t really figure out a way to let go of it, so I decided to take that angst and channel it through the story with a character who is going through a similar issue. That character’s Helen. That’s the basic origin story for this book.

GP: I’m familiar with your first book, Instrumental, and Canopus is a totally new idea, which is what I admire about you. You’re not just repeating yourself. You’re going with something fresh. Instrumental was a surreal urban fantasy; Canopus is surreal sci-fi. What made you want to do that kind of story now?

DC: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi media. I love Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clark, and writers like that. I wanted to throw my hat in and do that kind of hard sci-fi story. One thing that draws me to Philip K. Dick, in particular, is how he will take a really personal idea and filter it through this completely bananas sci-fi setting. He’s trying to understand his own struggles with hanging onto reality or his other well-documented struggles. He uses a book like his own personal diary, therapy, or exploration of ideas for topics that might be a little more personal for him. I love the ability of sci-fi to explore a big concept, like healing from trauma or love or parenthood. Something like that.

I could’ve told a story about someone living in Rochester, New York in 2019 who’s trying to understand the trauma that they’ve been through, the pain that they’re feeling, and that stuff. I think it would’ve been a good story, but I also had these bigger ideas. Why not merge the two together?

GP: Helen seems like the perfect protagonist for your story because she is the type of protagonist you would expect: an adventurous scientist type, but she’s also working through her personal issues from the past. Not going to spoil that because, again, no spoilers. How did you conceptualize her character?

Helen looking over landscape

DC: It boiled down to essentially writing her life story, figuring out events in her life that led her to point we first meet her, then figuring out which one of those life events would be featured in the book. Specifically, these flashbacks that occur from time to time in the story. From there it was sort of, like, reverse engineering it in a way that made sense to who she was as a character, what she wanted, and how she grows.

When the story starts off, she (Helen) is a pretty intense person. She’s very on edge. She’s not a warm or nurturing person. She is very stern in getting things done.

GP: “You’re gonna do this, and you’re gonna do it NOW!!”

DC: Yeah, that kind of vibe. Hopefully the reader will be wondering why she is that way and get a clear picture of her life.

GP: Sympathize with her.

DC: Yeah. As far as what she wants vs. what she needs, and what her goals are–some of those are plot driven, some of those are character driven. Hopefully there will be a nice marriage between the two.

GP: The only other character that exists along with Helen is her companion Arther. I won’t spoil too much about him because he’s so unique, but I want to know how did you come up with him?

DC: How Arther came into the picture is a fascinating story. A lot of it had to do with workshopping with a cabal of editors. For example, my wife, Elise, is an amazing editor. She has the keenest eye for plot holes. I’ll give her something to read, like “You gotta read this!” She’ll read it and say “I just love it…here’s a plot hole”, and I’ll be like “OH NO!”

GP: Oh no! The ego has been pierced!

Arther

DC: Haha yeah! She was so helpful with this project. Thanks to her help and those of my friends who also workshopped it, Arther evolved over time so much. He started as something that was pretty different from what he ended up being. I hate to say this, but one of the last, big revelations for Arther, when I put the last piece of the puzzle in, was quite late in the process, even as I was pitching this to publishers and had a couple of issues drawn. Probably wasn’t the smartest thing. It’s one of the bits in the story that I’m most proud of, too. So, for people working in comics, publishing, working on art and stuff, you should work on it all as you go, like re-examining plot points or anything really. You’ll figure those things out, you’ll find something.

Anyway, Arther turned out to be a great character. His look didn’t really ever change. His look was based on a character I’ve been doodling for years, and he’’s really fun to draw. I really liked the idea of a robot that was squishy and plushy, not hard and geometric. I struggle with those shapes, so if someone asked me to draw a Transformers, I would have a hard time. I think Arther’s design makes him cute and adds to that child-like quality of who he is. Arther’s always curious, always wondering what’s going on, and everything like that.

GP: What strikes me about Arther’s relationship to Helen is how complicated it is. It starts off with her relying on Arther to act as a guide given that she has lost her memory. As those memories slowly resurface though, it turns their relationship into a parent/child kind of deal, except there’s some serious resentment toward the child. Was figuring out that out part of conceptualizing Arther, and does it tie back to Helen’s issues with letting go of past grievances?

DC: That’s a little bit of a difficult question, mostly because the answer would give away too much. I’m just going to embrace the fact that their relationship does get complicated over time as those memories are revealed, and I’m just happy those story beats fell into place.

GP: I’ll move on to a less sticky question then. Canopus, the star. Up until I read this comic, I was not aware that it actually existed. It’s such a unique choice for a setting. It’s not something generic like Mars or creating a phony-baloney planet. You chose something that actually existed in space. Why did you choose Canopus? What is its significance to the story beyond just the setting?

DC: I knew the comic was going to take place on a star that was far away, and, frankly, I just googled star names thinking “Maybe I’ll find a star with a cool name.” There isn’t a whole lot more to it than that. It does sort of tie thematically into the story, again without spoiling anything. I’ll leave it at that.

GP: I noticed that instead of a full-length graphic novel like Instrumental, you decided to make Canopus a four-issue miniseries. Is this your first time doing single issues?

DC: My first series in single issues was a book I did called Let’s Go To Utah! That was self-published from 2007 to 2009. It was a 9-issue series that was done before Instrumental. I did that back in my 20s. I still sell it when I go to conventions, but let’s just say I look forward to when I have enough books on my table that I don’t have to sell that one anymore.

GP: Haha. I get it. Not all darlings are precious. Some you look forward to killing.

DC: HA!

Monster

GP: Another difference I see is that Canopus is in color. Did you know this was going to be in color? Like did you have a deeper reason for that choice? I feel like Instrumental was purposefully black and white because the visuals you put in that book had to be that way. Canopus seems like a book that works more with color and uses it to tell the story.

DC: Right! It’s cool because the story behind that is I got hired to draw a children’s book a few years ago that I don’t think is out yet. It was a really cute children’s book, independent contractor, and it was a very fun gig. I didn’t realize until after I signed the contract that they expected me to color the art as well. My coloring experience before that was pretty limited in terms of the workflow, meaning that it took me a really long time to color a page or an image or whatever.

Over the course of the 20-some illustration images I did for this children’s book, I really learned how to have a good workflow for coloring and just how to color in general. It was really just a great education for me. I’m a real autodidact. I can mostly teach myself, go at my own pace, find my own approach, and always be critical of my own process. I learned from that experience that I really like working in color. It’s super fun and adds this element of storytelling I had been ignoring as a creator. In that moment I was like, “Oh man. I gotta color the next project I do!”

The first project I wanted to get to was a much larger one than Canopus, but I wasn’t in a place with my comics career to pitch it. I sat on it and decided to pursue Canopus instead. With how the color plays into the story…hoo boy, this is going to be a long-winded answer, but the one thing I’ve really learned in music school, like 10 years of music college, is this idea that sometimes crafting a narrative is about what you don’t put into it, like setting up really rigid boundaries for yourself. That way when you do reveal to the reader that thing that’s been missing all this time, it’s mind-blowing.

Let’s say that you have a song and for the first two minutes there are no bass or drums. The listener thinks they’ve figured out the song. “Oh, it’s just guitars and vocals. There’s a little bit of piano in there.” Then come along the bass and drums into the song. It’s like BAM! It’s loud as hell. Their (the listeners) whole paradigm explodes. With Instrumental, I attempted this with the formal structures of the pages. Remember when Tom blows the trumpet, and all of reality is bent?

With Canopus, I’m taking a similar approach with color. I don’t want to spoil it, but it has to do with what is left out and with a limited, more focused color palette to set up a sense of normal for readers. I’m really happy with the way the colors turned out. With that said, I can’t wait to take all the stuff I learned working on this comic and level up with whatever comes next.

GP: One thing Canopus does share in common with Instrumental is surrealism. Although Canopus is more restrained than how off-the-walls, bonkers Instrumental got, there is still some zany elements. The first that comes to my mind are the panel layouts for Helen’s flashbacks. It shows a sequence in linear format, but there are repeated, multiple images of every panel. To me this symbolizes how she processes memory. I want to know what was your thought process in designing those panels?

DC: The first inspiration behind those particular scenes is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, if you’re familiar with that.

GP: I know the book you’re talking about. I just haven’t read it yet.

DC: Oh my god. I recommend you read that as soon as possible. There’s this beautiful scene where the character gets a blister on his foot…and the story is that we get present day scenes along with flashbacks, so kind of similar to Canopus is, although I would hate to compare my book to this book because it’s the most genius book I’ve ever read. Anyway, the main character has a blister on his foot, and it opens to this whole sequence where it triggers his memory with an ex, then that triggers another memory, and soon it becomes a kaleidoscopic display of all these different memories about his ex, all surrounding this basic narrative of her breaking a Q- tip in her ear and getting scared as he tries to fish it out with a pair of tweezers.

It sounds like such a mundane scene, but it’s profound with how it associates with all these separate memories that are blinking in and out of this single narrative. So, the memory scenes of Canopus were inspired by that and also pages from Chris Ware books where, like, the way a single object will generate a memory field in a person. Like, when you pick up a favorite toy from your childhood, and all of a sudden you have this visceral recall of the most significant memories around that object. Now those memories tend to be non-linear. I didn’t quite have the courage to do so in my comic, but I still wanted to hit that feeling. I hope the way I laid out the panels is a good stand-in from the fuzzy, more grid-like layouts you see in the “present day” story proper.

GP: I get the feeling that, since these scenes are related to Helen, it’s a representation of her trauma and trying to piece back together these memories, where and when they happened and all that. I do know from reading about PTSD that it can affect memory. I know there’s the concept of certain things triggering bad memories, but also I’ve read elsewhere it can cause emotional distance from them. In a way, does Helen’s amnesia symbolize all that, especially now that all those memories are coming back to her?

DC: I think that this idea of how PTSD works in people is definitely some kind of inspiration, although I can’t say it dictated the layouts. The way someone has a PTSD trigger or an anxiety attack has a more physical response, but I don’t know. Honestly, it’s really hard for me to come down strongly in this book. Her (Helen) character is definitely inspired by the idea of someone going through therapy. It’s sci-fi as therapy though. Inspirations for that are stuff like Russian Doll, Maniac, and The OA. These Netflix shows are, from my point of view, really like therapy in a fantastical presentation. All of those are about people learning to change their mind and reconcile their traumas. It’s just so inspiring.

Toys

GP: Another detail of the surrealism I wanted to ask about are the obstacles and enemies Helen faces. They’re all these twisted manifestations of her memories. Remembering those memories seems to be part of her defeating or getting over them. It’s like the whole therapy thing you’re talking about. I just want to know how you came up with them because each are so unique and utterly terrifying.

DC: Thanks, man! I think that, even in Let’s Go To Utah, it follows a thread of thinking where let’s take this really normal-looking thing and give it a charge of weirdness, like capital-W Weirdness. In Let’s Go To Utah!, my goal was to make this ice-scraper an extremely profound thing. In Instrumental, it’s a trumpet. In one of the very first story beats for Canopus, Arthur falls into this hole or crater on this surface, and it’s full of dolls and children’s toys. That imagery was just so creepy, compelling, and weird. It’s taking the normal, mundane and giving it a profound twist by associating it with something 300 light years away from normal, with symbolism and motifs. It’s an attractive idea to me, and I just hope it pays off.

GP: One last thing I wanted to mention was the twist. I have to say, I’ve never seen a twist this crazy in a comic before! When I got to it, my reaction was “Wait, he went that far?!” I’ll say it, your twist tops even Rick Remender’s twists.

DC: Hahaha! Thanks, man.

GP: Seriously! I want to know how your twist ties back to the theme of the story.

DC: The twist is something I’m really proud of. I’m happy the way it turned out, and I hope readers really get something out of it. If I tried to say anything further though, it would give it away. I’m just going to leave it at that and let everyone see for themselves when that issue comes out.

GP: This is just such an audacious series with a fresh sci-fi story and pulls off a lot of great storytelling ideas. It all comes together and has a very important message to people going through a lot of similar issues, me included. Do you hope it engages your readers on an intellectual and emotional level as much as it entertains them? I know you as a creator, and you always go into a story with something to say. You don’t just entertain, but help, if not enlighten, engage readers with new ideas and ways at looking at things.

DC: Absolutely! That’s everything to me. So, my answer is yes. Definitely yes. I have high hopes that it will connect with people and gets into the awareness of people who need it or can empathize and identify with the story. That’s the goal.


Pre-order number: DEC191848
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Meeting Your Heroes…Kinda — A Review “Dreamers of the Day”

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day created by Beth Barnett

“Immediately after quitting her nine-to-five to pursue comics, Beth embarks on a life-changing research trip to Oxford University. In this bittersweet and beautiful book, Beth delves into the life of enigmatic war hero Lawrence of Arabia, and transforms her own.”

— From the back sleeve of Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day is half a biography and half a memoir about the author Beth Barnett as much as it is about T.E. Lawrence. This is actually quite similar to the much-beloved Maus, but while Art Spiegelman tried to better understand his complicated relationship with his father through the Holocaust, Barnett is learning about someone she looks up to. Barnett isn’t just geeking out though. The journey also allows Barnett to understand how complex Lawrence’s legacy was and have a more mature, appreciative understanding of him. She is able to turn that story into an entertaining comic through an easy-to-read story structure accompanied by beautiful, inviting art that had me feeling like I was on the adventure with her.

The story structure of Dreamers of the Day has two ongoing narratives, both narrated by Barnett. One is T.E. Lawrence’s story: where he was born, how he grew up, what influenced him to become an archaeologist, and why he joined the Arab Revolt. The other narrative is about Barnett’s journey to London, her experience getting there and some of the weird, sad, and memorable things that occur. In one scene, Barnett earnestly asks her husband if she can go to London, and he gives her the cheekiest support ever.

Dreamers of the Day

I rather love this approach because they’re very relatable moments between the history lessons about T.E. Lawrence. Not that those are bad. In fact, they’re quite intriguing and give a human portrait of the man; same with Barnett. I feel like I’m on the journey and learning with her instead of being lectured. It’s fun, exciting, and makes learning about Lawrence something more adventurous than reading from a textbook.

A huge component to making the structure effective is Barnett’s art style. There isn’t a whole lot of details in the illustrations and no coloring whatsoever. The comic is completely black and white except for the front cover. Barnett keeps her style stripped down to basics, portraying her characters (including herself) as bean-eyed cartoon characters that remind me a whole lot of Herge’s Tintin. The style of these characters honestly makes them just as expressive and alive as more realistic artists like Steve Dillon. Even though I said that the art style is simple, that doesn’t stop Barnett from drawing settings that are rich with character, marked by their distinctive cultural architect. Her use of inking for shadow in particular gives these places a feeling of life and age.

Dreamers of the Day

The most outstanding part of the art is that there are virtually no panel borders. Most scenes are compiled together in a sequential collage. If there are any borders, they tend to be organic ones like vines or tree limbs. Without lines or gutter space to box it in, the art is allowed to have leg room to fully form and capture the scope of a scene both visually and emotionally. I felt like I was allowed to be in the scene with Barnett, to fully understand why she loves Lawrence so much. It was an intimate read that gave me the opportunity to understand her love, not just to know facts for the sake of knowing.

So, the art and writing make Dreamers of the Day a functioning book. All well and good. But does it serve a greater literary purpose? Is it not just enjoyable but expand my mind and become cognizant of new cosmic paradigms? Kind of an unnecessarily tall order. Although we’ll see.

Honestly, it took me some time to think about what the theme of the book is. Originally, I would have probably said that it’s about how fun history is and that it takes an adventurous spirit to learn it. That’s definitely one, however, after reading the page below, I realized there was another, deeper theme at work:

Dreamers of the Day

For context, this image comes after her visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. During this visit, she sees many beautiful pieces of Muslim art on display. However, she knows that these items were procured under suspicious circumstances. She explains how this is a common issue in Archaeology, often justified by referring to these appropriations as acts of preservation. There is a lot of moral grayness in the field, although it remains an important one.

Barnett has a similar revelation with T. E. Lawrence. His participation in the Arab Revolt didn’t result in the best outcomes, despite his altruistic decisions. The United Kingdom, of which Lawrence served, would make choices that later resulted in conflict the Middle East faces today. Although Lawrence later denounced the U.K. government and became a pariah, his service to an imperialistic nation is still evident.

In the end, acknowledging Lawrence’s flaws doesn’t damper Barnett’s admiration. It just means she comes to a better understanding of him. The framing of the page above, I think, really illustrates that point. I get a sense of confidence from looking at the back of Barnett’s head. There are, in fact, many pages and images similar to this throughout Dreamers of the Day, allowing an intuitive sense of growth much better illustrated than if Barnett simply declared she had learned something.

One essential detail I haven’t touched on yet is how Barnett looks up to Lawrence as a queer icon. Based off of Lawrence’s personal letters gathered over time, historians theorize that Lawrence was gay. Barnett takes this theory a step further and adds that he was gay-ace. While he felt romantic affection for men, he struggled with sexual intimacy. Barnett is bisexual and identifies as non-binary while going by she/her pronouns. She demonstrates masculine fashion in real life as she does in the comic. Interestingly, she looks very much like T.E. Lawrence.

Before anyone jokes about stalker fans, Barnett isn’t projecting herself onto Lawrence. She knows that they are separate people. However, the LGBT+ community is short of historical icons due to history being straight-washed for many, many years. Finding out that there were people in their community who made huge impacts on the world, for better or worse, is always monumental.

Knowing Lawrence’s sexuality further informs Barnett’s understanding of him as a complex person. The reason he joined the Arab Revolt was his Syrian friend, Selim Ahmed. Lawrence wanted to protect Ahmed and defend his home. Between the fighting, Lawrence took every opportunity to make sure Selim was out of harm’s way. This might seem like a petty reason to fight, but the truth is that human history is inseparable from human drama. We have fought wars, formed nations, and committed acts both grand and grave for reasons straight of a soap opera.

Dreamers of the Day

At the end of the day, Lawrence had the same desires and fears as Barnett or any of us. He was an icon of history yes, but still just a person. People are flawed, including our heroes, sometimes more than others. However, that doesn’t mean we have to denounce them. Barnett demonstrates how learning about a person, not putting them on a pedestal and accepting their flaws, can create a more mature understanding of them. After all, they’re only human.

Except Hitler. He was just a bad dude.

Dreamers of the Day may not be as in-depth as other graphic novels of its kind, but it’s a delightful light read. Barnett’s approach to storytelling is intimate and fun. By the end, the reader truly understand Barnett’s love of Lawrence. This is actually book one of a planned trilogy which hopefully builds upon the strengths of the first and paints an even greater portrait of both Barnett and Lawrence, expanding the themes on display to a satisfying conclusion.

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Terrible Twos: Altar of Pine & Disorder

Sometimes you can’t help but notice that there are similarities between stories. I always find this pretty spectacular because it shows how certain themes and aesthetics can be simultaneously universal and idiosyncratic. Even when they come from separate genres this is true, and those genres themselves could share similarities as well. That is why for this review, I want to talk about not one but two webcomics: Altar of Pine by Cayde and Disorder by Erika Price. One is a historical dark fantasy tale, the other is arthouse horror. One gets its art style from watercolor expressionism and medieval woodcuts, the other is a black and white demon crossbreed between H.R. Giger and heavy metal album covers. And yet, both series are about identity, depression, anxiety, queerness, and a search for a deeper meaning to life beyond struggle. 

Altar of Pine

Created by Cayde

Altar of Pine

In a colonial New England town, there lives a poor fisherman by the name of Alexander. He is lonely, doesn’t connect with his community, and is in debt to the miserly Montgomery. Not even Alexander’s only friend Pritchett is much of a friend. Alexander prefers to get lost at sea and not have to think about life, a certain freedom within nothingness. On one of his expeditions, Alexander is capsized and washes ashore on a seemingly abandoned island. Except for the cabin with strange potions…the totems made from skulls…and the spirits within. 

Altar of Pine is based on heavy research into history and witchcraft. The latter of which series creator Cayde is a practitioner of. Yes, unlike most cases where your mom is wrong about comics, this particular book will teach you the dark arts. If that is not your jam, I suggest you go read a Chick tract. 

The witchcraft hits early when you first go into the comic’s main website and, BAM!, there’s a very polite Satan warning you that there is explicit content in the series. Thanks, Satan! 

Altar of Pine

The coloring in Altar of Pine is done with watercolors. This approach has taken some ground in indie and non-Big Two comics as an alternative to the polished look of digital coloring. For many artists watercolor can give comics a softer, more traditional look. It’s also great for creating surreal and experimental designs. The artists participating in this movement are diverse, from mainstream icon Dustin Nguyen to cult superstar Niina Salmelin. 

Altar of Pine

Cayde’s technique is more subdued than these contemporaries. The first chapter of Altar of Pine focuses heavily upon the sea. The application of blue is grainish and ghostly. It invokes deep feelings of melancholy, the same feeling written all over Alexander’s face. 

This approach, using color to reflect the character’s mental state, is used later in a scene of Alexander’s town. The color choice is a yellow to symbolize the concentration of human life that exists within the village. Traditionally, that would invoke feelings of warmth and security. Alexander, however, feels fear, pain, and isolation as Montgomery and his men ransack his home, and no one lifts a finger to defend him. After the confrontation, a three-panel page shows a three-step transition from the yellow of the village to the green of the forest and, finally, the blue of the sea. 

In each panel, the colors and the feelings they invoke become more melancholy in nature. Yet Alexander’s emotional state improves as illustrated by this image. 

Altar of Pine

Watercolor becomes increasingly experimental when Alexander arrives on the mysterious island. The application of a singular shade in previous pages is replaced with a cabin scene with multiple colors. Not only does it look like how it would in real life, but there is also a feeling of peace and balance. After applying a suspicious green cream to himself, Alexander enters a realm where everything is cloudy and spooky, an unknown territory where anything could happen. The ultimate purpose of watercolor in Altar of Pine is empathy. The reader is meant to feel the same whirlwind of emotions that Alexander is feeling. 

Color also adds to character design. No one in Altar of Pine is a perfectly chiselled superhero or baby-smooth waifu. Nothing against the supes and waifus of the world. Most are middle-aged people with skin issues, gray hairs, and always some kind of belly fat. These characters live in a rough time period and eat some dank-ass food that Gordon Ramsey would need days to spice up. They aren’t exactly going to be in Vogue is what I’m saying. 

Aside from looking realistic, the characters drawn in Altar of Pine‘s grimey fashion also better express their emotions. Whatever they feel, it always gets reflected by the watercolor scheme around them. Sometimes it is an intentional effect, other times it’s a natural occurrence that just seems to fit. It is not trying too hard to make a point of being symbolic. Everything is just so naturally in-sync to the tone of the story that it does not need any extra effort. 

Grimey melancholy might not sound like the best emotion, but I think it makes sense to the story. Alexander is in a crappy position, and his only relief right now is to be alone. This might be when his depression intensifies, but it also might be helpful in unconventional ways.

Altar of Pine

I am not a mental health professional, but I do suffer from anxiety and depression. I have for some time now. Because I’m introverted, being around people exacerbates my downward spiral. When I walk alone though, along the streets, by the side of the sea or deep in the forest, I experience relief unlike any other. My mind clears and I regain a sense of purpose. I don’t want to die, I want to live and marvel at the treasures of the world. Ironically enough, loneliness is the key to recovery.

This is just my own interpretation, but I feel Alexander suffers similar episodes of anxiety and depression. It’s symbolized from the time as he escapes town on a boat to washing up on the shore of the island. As he struggles and makes new discoveries, I can’t help but be reminded by the same feelings I go through during those dark times. While Alexander’s return to the town does not conclude with elation, his desire to tell of his journey shows that, ironically, alienation pulls him out of the depths of despair. 

That’s as far as I can analyze the story. Partly because I don’t want to give too much away but also we are not that far into it. There are only three completed chapters so far, and Alexander has only begun to discover the mysteries of the island. There isn’t much to analyze or discuss from such an insignificant chunk of story. However, it’s enough to keep me reading, and perhaps for those who enjoy a dark fantasy about healing mixed with wonderful watercolor art. 

Disorder

Created by Erika Price

Capture 6

Where do I even begin talking about this comic? The simple answer is that I can’t because there is so much complexity to it, anything I say will be merely a scratch at the surface. The series’ website describes it as a “series of dark and surreal short horror comics, created as art therapy.” Boy, this must be some therapy because the stuff that goes down in Disorder would make Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Kathe Koje, Junji Ito, David Cronenberg, and honestly any other dark creative drop dead from feelings of inadequacy. 

There are no traditional plots in Disorder. It reads like a series of vivid nightmares accompanied by cryptic narrations and surreal images. Each involves an entity of some sort as it endures pain, dread, and a never-ending struggle for self-actualization. The true greatness of the series is how, in both writing and art, it never fails to be simultaneously unique and signature to Price’s ouvre, and touching upon themes that are universal and esoteric. 

Capture 7

In Issue #1, the cover displays many key characteristics of the art style: Black and white, heavily detailed lineart, unique patterns, and alien bodies. The story of this particular issue involves ginormous humanoid entities constructed out of cities. Concrete, glass, wires, steel, plaster, skyscrapers, railings, and asphalt twist and bend to shape these behemoths into being. As a result, it causes them great pain, at least that’s what I’m able to deduce. Interestingly, there are onlookers who walk toward the city and become citizens, as though the grotesque terraformation hypnotizes them. The layout for each page consists of large panels, some of them splashes, to fit in as much detail as possible. The effect is a sense of the grand scale of this humanoid city.

The other four chapters have similar stories of humanoids and the pain they experience. While the style remains the same, creator Erika Price varies in themes and execution. In particular, the panel layouts get into some delightful mischief. A good number of them are standard, albeit pushing the boundaries of those standards. Some are straight out trippy, such as in issue #3.

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This issue has heavy organic aesthetics to it, many of the life forms consisting of reptilian, amphibian, and fish qualities. Panels are constructed out of shapes resembling air bubbles and cellular patterns. The entire chapter is quite chaotic much like the biosphere it represents, and yet it all makes a visual sense to the cryptic narrative being told. 

In every one of the chapters, recurring themes of pain, alienation, and subjugation are presented in fresh ways while maintaining running visual characteristics unique to Erika Price’s style. With just a few short comics, she has already proven to be an auteur in terms of figuring out a brand and ethos. This is something that even the greatest artists in history took up to decades figuring out. Hell, double so in comics where, in the past, editorial mandates and trends held back a lot of highly talented artists. Free in the wild west landscape of webcomics, Price does whatever the hell she likes and distinguishes herself in the process.

As much as I have talked about the universal themes in Disorder, there are esoteric themes at work too. Mental illness is a big one. I get a serious sense of depression and anxiety from the comic; those are illnesses I can relate to, so in a way they are still universal even if Price is presenting them esoterically.

One theme that I think is much more esoteric is bodily dysphoria, a feeling of being trapped inside a body that’s wrong. This might be particularly personal for Price given she is a trans woman. Although I am not transgender myself, so I don’t really know what that experience is like. I don’t want to step in and explain an experience I don’t have, so I will avoid going in any deeper. I will just say I wouldn’t be surprised if gender dysphoria is a theme here. If I did offend in any way, I apologize.

That said, the theme of body dysphoria can encompass more than just gender; after all, the two can relate to each other but are still different categories. Diverse people can experience body dysphoria if they feel like something is fundamentally wrong with their body. I’m going to speak from my own experience as someone who experiences this issue because of my weight. Since I am so preoccupied with it, my other issues of depression and anxiety multiply. I repeatedly feel like I’m trapped inside a gross body full of negative emotions, and it can be suffocating. Erika Price visually captures this feeling perfectly with how the humanoid entities twist and bend and break and mutant in excruciating ways. She has captured with the pure existential id of this state. 

Erika Price also captures the pure id of Horror. Now, it might seem presumptuous to attach Disorder to a genre when its storytelling methods defy all traditional notions of narrative, but visually speaking it is pure Horror. Disorder looks horrifying. It is horrifying to read. It perfectly encapsulates everything about the genre and the various forms of media and genres under the tent, from the slimy practical effects of David Cronenberg to the gothic landscapes of black metal. It can’t be denied how Disorder is Horror in its purest essence. 

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Given how much I’ve described the series, it’s still not enough. Disorder is the most abstract, complex, and challenging comic I have yet read. I’m barely able to comprehend it still given I have only read through the series once. I feel like my analysis is just scratching the surface and that smarter critics could dig deeper and find more layers to thoroughly discuss. Simultaneously, I think I’m underselling this comic by merely trying to describe it. Much like Lifemahcine’s Weaker Sides, this is a comic to read and experience more than to analyze. I hope to go back, reread the comic, and relive the experience of the first go round so that my understanding of this peculiar series increases. 

Altar of Pine and Disorder are both unique works of art, radically different in their styles and approaches to storytelling but similarly about mental illness, introspection, and a search for self. There is beauty in these comics’ darkness, one as strange and infinite as the entities of older, darker realms. If you’re looking for dark horror and fantasy stories that will challenge you to explore dangerous worlds and uncomfortable thoughts, then I can’t recommend reading both series enough.   

Art: 10 Story: 10
Recommendation: Buy, er well read ’cause these are webcomics

Check out Cayde’s Patreon
Check out Erika’s Disorder

Catians: Resurrection – Review

“When the Great Cat departed this world a thousand years ago, it left behind Relics, which grant divine powers to their users. Cats have safeguarded the Relics for millennia, until a desperate cat revives the ancient magic to save his human friend—giving rise to a blood-thirsty monster with the penultimate Relic. Worried that the disappearance of humans could mean the end of treats and back rubs, the cats of the world must choose three people, so-called Guardians, to find and protect the most powerful Relic. In return, the chosen three gain command of the elements and the ability to take feline form. But unbeknownst to the cats and their appointed heroes, other forces have been watching the Relics, too…”

–From the official Catians website
Catians: Resurrection

Catians: Resurrection
Art: Luyi Bennett
Script: Cortney Cameron

Catians: Resurrection is a prologue to the epic, ambitious urban fantasy series. Cats seek human champions to fight antagonistic forces. In this chapter, alley cat Felix tries to make a champion out of Rose, a human he has grown fond of due to her continuous acts of kindness toward him and other strays. One night, a group of mobsters murder Rose’s husband and leave her for dead. Felix saves Rose’s life by granting her powers from a mystical cat tail, one of the relics of the Great Cat. Rose may take her revenge on the mobsters in exchange for taking on the role of champion. Unfortunately for them both, there may be consequences.

Reading Catians: Resurrection was an interesting experience. Judging by the cover, I thought I knew what waited for me. Reading through, I pretty much thought I knew how things were going to go down. Boy, was I wrong.

We begin with narration from Felix over a splash image of a rose, symbolizing the actual main character named Rose. Felix’s affection is so strong, he swears to protect her. If that sounds like a rather benign reason for intense devotion, do keep in mind that Felix, despite his intelligence and articulation, is still a cat. Nothing will ever win over a cat’s loyalty quite like regular servings of Kibble.

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The design of the rose, the font of the lettering, and the sheer emotion in Felix’s narration has a mythic romanticism to it. It’s the kind of aesthetic I’ve witnessed in works by writers such as Vera Nazarian and Howard Pyle. It’s also that emotional intensity you get from various fantasy adventure mangas like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, etc.

Speaking of manga, the character designs are highly influenced by the medium. You have the large eyes, simplified structures and so on. Backgrounds are also simplified with buildings and rooms having no distinguishable qualities. They mostly serve to highlight the presence of characters and their relative distance from each other. If this sounds like a nice way of saying the art is generic, let me make it clear that’s not the case. While certain elements of the art are “on brand”, just as many go an extra mile.

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The coloring is digital. I assume it is because of the flawless quality that’s quite common to the technology. I sometimes have a negative response to digital coloring because of its generic application in many mainstream superhero comics. In the case of Catians, it’s very soft and easy to look at instead of being an overly bright sheen. It also lends itself nicely to “emotional coloring.” I’m sure there’s a better term for it, but what I’m referring to is the way colors can be applied to invoke a certain feeling within the reader as opposed to generic realism.

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This page is simplistic, but it really illustrates what I’m getting at. The descending transformation of the color from red to black gives a deep, uneasy feel of a situation going from bad to worse. And yet there are the golden cat paws. These accompanied with Felix’s narration create a nice counterbalance. Without showing so much, it gives the reader a feeling of hope even as hopelessness seems overwhelming. The artist, Luyi B., achieves this effect through simple means. It shows that you don’t need Van Gogh levels of skills to make coloring interesting, you just have to put in an honest effort.

There is also some seriously great lighting going on, such as this scene:

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Another quality of the art that sticks out is the panel layouts. Sticking yet again to manga influences, certain pages include that trick where smaller, jagged panels are deployed for intense scenes. The panels zoom in on faces and other body parts, and are accompanied by speed lines to make it more dramatic. I don’t really have insight into why this is such a good artistic decision. It just looks freaking cool!

One thing that did seem odd was how the cats appeared more realistic than the humans.

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Their hair and faces are more defined and detailed than the humans’. The only explanation for why could be their mythical nature. Perhaps having an uncanny contrast between the two serves the story on a thematic level.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, time to go into the story side of Catians: Resurrection. This is honestly both the most interesting and infuriating part for me. The plot is very straightforward, but with certain twists and turns. Rose is on a revenge quest against mobsters who killed her husband. Basic Punisher stuff. But then comes the cat angle which is more complicated than you would think.

The cats have a central god figure, The Great Cat, who wants them and humanity to live in harmony. To achieve this, The Great Cat sometimes grants certain humans relics, which must be given to them by a feline aid. When Rose gets her tail, some of the things she does with it include creating a tombstone, turning into a cat humanoid, and even making a person. Yeah, I have no idea how it works. It is not specified to how many relics there are, what exactly they do, or any limits to the power they wield. That seems to be info that will be brought up later in the series.

If all I described makes Catians sound like a mad plot, boy do you have no idea until you read it for yourself. All the crazy ideas going on in writer Cortney Cameron’s head are machine-gunned out through plot beats that waste no time with subtlety. There are plot holes like a moon crater, characters not as well-defined as they can be, and yet the sheer mania of it all crackles with delightful, enthusiastic creativity. It reminds me of the 60s-era Marvel comics such as The Incredible Hulk #1 where he goes from stalking a U.S. military base as a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity to being zipped away in a high-tech jet to the USSR and escaping via From Russia With Love meets the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Such nuttiness might be too much for certain readers, but it’s arguably what makes comics such a fun medium. Only in comics can you compact so many ideas into one go-round. It’s all a matter of making it as visually compelling as possible while maintaining a certain kind of narrative pace. If you got both down, you can go crazy. Catians: Resurrection achieves this balance perfectly.

Until the ending. Most of the story up to this point is a combination of urban fantasy, superhero origin story, and revenge thriller that goes together very well. The ending, however, is a bizarre cross between David Cronenberg and H.P. Lovecraft. It suddenly stops being Rose’s story and gears toward the mythology behind the cats and their larger conflict with yet to be named antagonistic force. At least that’s what I can remember. I might just be experiencing whiplash and need to reread the comic, but something about it just seems off.

It might be that while Catians is a crazy train narrative, it felt like there was still a track it stuck to. Now, it feels like the train has jumped off into a completely new track. It’s still an interesting one, I will admit. I’m gripped enough by the cat mythology in order to give future entries a chance. But, Rose’s arc seems to have been unceremoniously ditched. On the other hand, there is a strong implication that Rose could come back, so this may not be the case.

Only time will tell. The story is still in its infancy, and there is no telling where it will go from here. Waiting to see is both thrilling and trepidatious.

Catians: Resurrection is not soaring to new heights of comic literature, but it knows the kind of story it wants to tell and does so with immense creativity and beautiful art. The only issue is the twist ending, which is up to the reader to decide how to feel about. If whacko, action-packed stories with fascinating mythologies is your thing, go check it out. If nothing else, it has drawings of cats in it. Those are always a win no matter what!

The comic
Luyi Bennett
Cortney Cameron

Panels To Chords Ninety – Nine Righteous Men

Ben and Madi are back for a all-new episode of Panels To Chords! This time, they’re talking about K.M. Claude’s Ninety-Nine Righteous Men, the cult hit webcomic about two priests with a shameful history between them that must join forces to vanquish a demonic being of lust possessing a helpless choir boy. It’s sexy, blasphemous and darker than your morning coffee. Just what the doctor ordered!

Panels To Chords: On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On this episode of Panels to Chords, Ben and Maddi take a look at the webcomic sensation On A Sunbeam, now coming in print this month from First Second. It’s a tale of space exploration, young love, and growing as a person. Ben and Maddi got quite the playlist for this book, a combination of emotional sincerity and scifi nerdiness.

NOTE FROM BEN: “Sorry for some of the weird audio on Maddi’s end. I had to edit it because some parts were a little low. I did not make the volume consistent enough, unfortunately. Hope ya’ll don’t lose your hearing! Earphone users beware!”

Here’s Maddi’s playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4CmnS6MougaFY5PC9Wg7Cr?si=uKwDZWwVSpquiv1Vi1jwyg

Panels to Chords: Talking Instrumental with Creator Dave Chisholm

In this latest episode, Ben and Madi chat with the creator of the musical comic Instrumental, Dave Chisholm. He tells us about how the book came to be and how creating a concept album adds a new layer to the reading experience.

Instrumental is available from Z2 Comics and can be purchased at Amazon, local comic shops and bookstores.

The concept album is available at Bandcamp:

 

Panel To Chords: Instrumental by Dave Chisoholm

NEW EPISODE OF PANELS TO CHORDS. This time, Ben and Maddi review Instrumental by Dave Chisoholm, a comic about a struggling trumpet player wanting to become the best musician he can, but he might inadvertently bring on the apocalypse in the process. Instrumental is a unique reading experience with a concept album by the writer/artist. What better way to talk about comics and music then a comic with original music to accompany it?

Dave Chisholm’s bandcamp for the concept album:

Review: Bingo Love

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If you read my reviews regularly, you might notice that I have a certain preference for the type of comics I read. Usually, my choices are dark stories involving serious themes ranging from trauma to war. Because of these preferences, I mostly read horror, dark fantasy, or crime dramas. Despite this preference, I have explored other genres, such as slice-of-life with Slang Pictorial. There is one genre that I have rarely explored, romance. The only one I’ve read so far is Stejpan Sejic’s wonderful lesbian BDSM romcom Sunstone. I think the lack of recognition for romance’s legitimacy are bad misconceptions, mostly societal. Literary elites tend to look down on romance as frivolous and poorly written. But why? Any genre can be either good or bad based on the story’s quality. Romance is a chance to explore love and bonding in ways other genres can’t when it’s simply a subplot to the larger narrative. Also, what’s wrong with reading something that makes you happy? Why not escape into a fictional story about two people finding true love, adoring each other, and having a fantastic adventure of joy?

Which brings us to today’s review of Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jen St. Onge, Joy Sann, Cardinal Rae, and Gisele Lagace. I didn’t know what to expect since this was my first black queer romance, but I’m happy to say it turned out to be a beautiful, albeit short, reading experience.

Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray are a queer couple that first met when they were teenagers during the 1960s. They fell in love but were separated by bigoted family members, then forced into unhappy marriages with men. Over 50 years later, they reunite at a bingo tournament, the same kind of tournament they first met in. They realize this is fate bringing them back together, but first they must come out to their families and deal with the fallout. Only true love can guide them to eternal happiness.

If you love the description of the story, buckle up! You’re going to love it even more after I’m done talking about it.

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The cover by Gisele Lagace is not as flashy as other comic covers I have seen, but it succeeds in a task way more important, which is advertising the contents of the story. We have three images of the couple, Mari and Hazel, together in different stages of their lives: teens, old age, and advanced old age. We see them together, embracing, looking at each other like they’re the whole world. Bingo balls fall all around, the title of the book in the upper left-hand corner. We know by looking at this cover that this is a romantic story spanning different stages of two women’s lives. We know somehow bingo is going to play into this. Most importantly, the positive feelings the cover inspires attracts the reader to the title. It’s perfect.

 

The first thing to grab my attention was the interior art. Jenn St. Onge’s character designs are diverse with unique hairstyles, body types, and facial structures. Readers might notice a good number of characters with similarities, but that’s largely because of the fact the majority are family members. Actually, it’s refreshing to have an artist know that family members are going to look similar to each other, particularly how children are a combination of their parents with features from both even if they resemble one parent more than the other. I love that people in Bingo Love have wrinkles, stretch marks, folds of fat and muscle, sagging breasts from age and breastfeeding, and other such tiny details. It adds a level of, if not realism, relatability to a style that’s otherwise cartoony.

Joy San’s coloring is fleshes out the art. She not only gives characters their unique skin tones, she renders the entire comic with an unnatural brightness. This is not a negative criticism but a compliment because this type of coloring heightens the emotions of the book to surreal, dream-like qualities. It’s like escaping into a fantasy realm of intense love. This is no more apparent than in splash pages. Many of them are used during the most intense moments of romance, such as here:

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The coloring and character expressions are both fantastic and relatable, capturing the intense joy one feels when in these moments. It truly feels like a fairy tale come true. This includes scenes of family spending time with each other, grandparents hugging their grandchildren, siblings socializing with each other and their in-laws. My favorite is this splash page of a dinner table:

If I weren’t a vegetarian, I would’ve immediately cooked up this exact meal after looking at the image.

All this said, I found that the most romantic moments were quieter scenes, gradual multi-panel sequences showing the build up to an embrace or kiss. The reason is that the quietness allows emotion to linger, to slowly, like a wave, grow with each splash. This is much more intense than the payoff. It operates on the polar opposite, yet same line, that marks great horror.

The mastermind behind the story is Tee Franklin who delivers a story that is both relatable and unique. She starts off by establishing the two main characters so well. Hazel Johnson is plus-sized and shy, but also very passionate about the people she cares about. Mari McCray is more extroverted, a Californian tomboy that loves new experiences and very upfront about her feelings. We see their relationship in three parts: Youth, Old Age, and Advanced Old Age. The most recognizable is Youth. It starts off with the recognizable trope of Meet Cute, in which a future couple meets for the first time. The setting is a bingo tournament both girls accompany their grandmothers to, hence how bingo plays such a significant role in the story. Next time the girls meet, it’s in school, and after what can be considered an unofficial first date, they become friends throughout middle and high school.

 

Watching Hazel and Mari’s teen romance uses many tropes and story beats from romance that I have taken for granted over the years. There is the aforementioned meet cute moment, the first date, walking each other home from school, the first kiss, etc. I hadn’t realized how enjoyable these tropes are, the good feelings that they give you. If we must justify them on a more intellectual level, they dramatize the core of positive human bonding: meeting people, talking to them publicly or privately, and understanding them through a combination of small talk and personal anecdote. The result is an organic relationship that develops through mutual adoration. The mark of true love is being able to listen to your partner with the same attention about a new favorite album as you would a serious revelation of personal issues.

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Old Age does the reunion trope seen sometimes when a couple has been distant for a number of years. It’s fresh here because it is Hazel and Mari as senior citizens and not 20-30 somethings like most of the time. Along with reconnecting, they also deal with the fact they are both married women with families. Intense emotions and buried tensions surface as Hazel and Mari navigate to their eventual happy ending. Then there is Advanced Old Age in which the couple must face the reality of mortality (No spoilers). It was a truly engaging reading experience. Advanced Old Age comes after the conflict of Old Age is resolved. Hazel, Mari, and their families have adjusted to their new lives. This is the “honeymoon”, the moment the couple gets to be together and go on fantastic journeys. They get to live out their dreams once the shackles are broken. Their love is powerful even at the end. Oh, and of course, bingo is how they reunite. Bingo doesn’t serve much else than a setting for the two distinct romantic catalysts (love at first sight and reunion), but it works. Also, it legitimizes an activity often looked down upon, much like romance stories.

What made reading Bingo Love also enriching is that it is told from fresh perspectives, specifically black and queer. I can’t remember the last time since I read August Wilson where black people were allowed to interact with each other as actual humans, in churches and at home, sitting around and talking. They are allowed the same complexity and emotional range often reserved for slice-of-life stories populated solely by white people. And Bingo Love is slice-of-life as much as it is romance. It’s not just the love of romantic couples but that of families with all the baggage it comes with.

Without giving away too much, Hazel’s family find out about her relationship with Mari. They take it hard, especially Hazel’s husband James. He yells at her, they fight, and years of tension gets worse. I give Tee Franklin credit in that no one comes off as truly a bad guy. Everyone has their reasons for the way they’re reacting to the situation. Although some of it is confusing, such as with James. He gets portrayed as a loving husband and provider, but Hazel is uninterested in sex except for the times they have a child. Later it is revealed that James only ever had sex with Hazel when he wanted children. That means James was the one in the wrong all this time, but at the beginning the refusal of sex seemed more like Hazel not wanting to it because she didn’t love him, not that she was made to only when he wanted children. We do learn that James had a secret that fueled his need to find validation in having children. I won’t give away what it is, but it’s not that hard to figure out. There is a separate story online that tells his side of the story. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m eager to.

As I analyzed this conflict, I slowly realized the real culprit: a two-headed hydra of homophobia and patriarchy. The earliest hint is an occurrence that seems to happen often, a homophobe that is a hypocrite. They will go on about how much homosexuality is a sin while having their own misconduct that’s worse. It’s just a small part though. The larger societal context is not only how homophobia keeps Hazel and Mari from being happy together, but how it forces them into restrictive woman roles. They must be married to men, they must have children, must sacrifice their happiness for that of their families. Hazel becomes a housewife, even though she dreams of being a fashion designer. Mari becomes a lawyer, but many of the burdens typically dump on women remain. There is a sublime tie between queerphobia and misogyny, one that I do not believe I am knowledgeable enough to go into detail. The fact Bingo Love is able to tackle this issue while still remaining a positive story is a great feat.

I almost forgot, but there are scenes of Hazel participating in serious mental self care, something not often represented except going to support groups or therapy. There is a therapy scene, but it is very meaningful in affirming Hazel’s love for Mari. After that, there is a scene where Hazel helps one of her grandchildren braid their hair, and it brings her so much joy she is able to relax again after a fit of anxiety. It is referred to as self care, demonstrating how it comes in many forms.

My only gripe with the story is that it is so short. I wasn’t expecting Anna Karenina. This is young adult fiction after all. Brevity is key. But I do wish there were multiple volumes of the story. There were so many angles I wanted to see expanded upon. And while I have praised the characterizations of Hazel, Mari, and James, every other character is extremely minor. I wished there as much to Hazel’s children explored as much as her. We do not even get to know the names of Mari’s children or meet her husband. I wish there was more to her side of the story. Take note I bring this criticism up because of how I wanted more after reading. I could have read this title for the next 20 years and never been bored once!

The only other criticisms I have are 1) sometimes the coloring wasn’t done all the way, leaving empty spaces of white. 2) The otherwise effective narration and inner monologue captions by Cardinal Rae were confusing to tell apart at times. Although the former is all capitalized, the caption boxes are both colored yellow. It’s easy to mistake the two.

Bingo Love is a treasure of diversity, love, and joy. It brings fresh, underrepresented faces to romance and comics as a whole. Despite how short it is, one will find themselves lost in the lives of the characters, in the nuances of their personalities and journeys. With the poppy, dreamy art, the fantasy is complete. I urge everyone to pick up a copy of Bingo Love. Support these creators so they can make more comics, whatever it is they do next. Support black voices, queer voices, and love. Most of all, enjoy yourselves. This story will make you happy. We can all use happiness and love in our lives. Whatever helps people get through the day, make someone realize their worth as a person. No matter your ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical presence/ability, mental health, etc., we all deserve love. Bingo Love affirms that right.

Bingo Love is out on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018 via Image Comics.

Story: Tee Franklin Art: Jenn St. Onge Colors: Joy San
Letters: Cardinal Rae 
Cover: Gisele Lagace
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy

(Note: My copy is a pre-order version from before the book’s deal with Image Comics).

Review: Coyotes #4

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*WARNING*: Minor Spoilers

Coyotes #4 concludes the current arc of the series. As the Victorias raid the secret location of the Coyotes, they need the help of their oldest enemy Seff. In the midst of blood, violence, and lost, Red will rise out of the ashes. But will she become the champion of women and girls? Or another predator?

The fun starts with the cover. I haven’t talked a lot about the series’ covers since the first issue, but here it’s just too gorgeous to ignore. The intensity of the all-red palette emphasizes the danger and action, visually solidified with the images of Red carrying an unconscious Eyepatch, great canine beast behind them. The wavy, often chaotic art of Caitlin Yarsky makes this image stick in your head.

Opening up the issue to the first two pages, and we get splashes that blast the promised intensity of the cover at your face. Here, the art’s aforementioned attributes are in full swing to illustrate the messy, savage fighting. A lot that makes this work is the panel layouts. They are the traditional rectangles and squares but also huge and contain abundant details. It’s a significant departure from many western comics that prefer 5-9 panel layouts. There are barely any layouts exceeding more than 4 panels. It reminds me of manga. Less but wider panels makes a scene appear more dramatic. For comparison, here is an image of Coyotes #4 next to Shuzo Oshimi’s Happiness Vol. 1.

However, these larger panels also cause the pacing of the issue to be too quick. In a manga trade with 100+ pages, larger panels work. But in a 20+ page single issue, you finish in under 10 minutes or so. A smooth read sacrifices a feeling of hefty content. Mind you, most American single issue comics have that problem. Most of all though, I feel like the pacing concludes the current art too quickly. The events that transpire are satisfying and have a logical progression, but there should have been a lot more in the middle. I would have, if not add extra issues to the arc, increased the page count of the single issues. This was similarly done in Sean Lewis’ previous project The Few quite effectively.

Don’t let this nitpick eclipse the greatness of the art. It might be short, but each page is a slam dunk. A new trick Yarsky pulls is more experimentation with color. It has always been there, but grayish colors tended to be the primary palette. Now there are scenes with intense shades of orange and red. Now that I think about it, the presence of red ties back to how red has been an ever present color motif. Deducing the meaning of this color has been a challenge, but if I had to guess, it’s about the growth of Red’s character from hapless orphan to Champion of the Victorias.

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Since I’ve mentioned Red’s character arc, it’s time to talk about Sean Lewis’ writing. This issue definitely feels like the characters, particularly the protagonists, are the centerpiece. The Victorias finally face down the Coyotes, and serious power shifts take place. The most significant is of course with Red. She gains higher statues among the Victorias, becoming their champion. This ties back to the power struggle between her and Duchess, where the latter party seemed to have had plans for the young girl but never clear what those were. This lack of clarity gave the impression of nefariousness, an unfair dynamic between master and servant that diminished the Victorias’ feminist agenda. It isn’t clear if Red’s new statues evens it out. Duchess also seems to gain higher statues among the Victorias, which reveals some tension between her and Abuela that wasn’t fully explored due to the pacing. What any of this does to heighten the stakes is for the next arc to expand upon.

I’ve already spoiled enough of the plot, so I’ll try to be a bit more obscure by discussing the feminist theme. This theme has twisted into many directions, but the core is still how patriarchy and toxic masculinity terrify women into submission. Issue #4 doesn’t add another layer so much as it brings this theme to a satisfying triumph for feminism. Watching the Victorias slay the coyotes is satisfying. Hell, the Victorias are so gung-ho that a splash page has them unleashing superpowers, even one popping the claws freaking Wolverine style. Absurdism, the greatest power against patriarchy.

On a more serious note, there are two lines of dialogue from Red that really hit the nail on the hammer regarding these concepts. Free of spoilers, here is the first:

“This is what people do to us. They make us pose. And then they make us disappear.”

It is a commentary on the imagery of harmed women. Mass media is full of these images, from news reports that contain pictures of abuse victims to fiction where a dead woman becomes the protagonist’s motivation. There is a larger discussion on this topic, incredibly complex and too much ground to cover on this review, but there is something sickening about the prevalence of this imagery, yet its consumption is superficial. Women are harmed every day, and while their broken bodies and minds might be remembered (temporarily), themselves as individuals are forgotten. Their suffering, their personal trauma, is stolen and mass marketed to a larger audience without empathy or respect. It becomes a spectacle.

Violence against women is imagery quite common in Coyotes, but often with better context. We are meant to know, understand, and root for these women. Most of all, despite how monstrous it presents the men that commit this violence, it also gets to what drives them: fear.

”Funny when monsters lose their power. They don’t really want to fight. They just want to run.”

I might have mentioned this before, but men’s violence against women is out of fear. Without their beastly forms, the coyotes are just small, weak men. This seems to be a parallel to toxic men in real life, the domestic abusers in meat space and the trolls online. They have deep insecurity in themselves, and women are, for them, easy targets to take that self-loathing out on. They commit their violence while behind a facade of masculinity, but when confronted with women like the Victorias, the facade crumbles even as they act more aggressively. I guess what I’m trying to get at with my rambling is that Sean Lewis is engaging in feminism in an earnest way. It is not perfect, but at least he processes it way better than other men attempting, and failing, to write these type of stories.

That said, the coyotes are a particular case because the coyote forms are forced on them, kind of how like toxic masculinity is forced on us. But are we willing to accept it? The men that become coyotes are on the borderline of how much they just act out to what they are programmed to do vs. inner desires to murder women. It’s a moral conundrum, one that could have been further explored, but, again, the arc was too short. Either way, women should not have to hold the emotional burden of understanding the male violence directed their way, not when it is a case of life or death.

That said, there are men in Coyotes that show positive growth. Detective Frank Coffey goes from cautionary observer to full-blown ally of the Victorias, expressing utter disgust of the coyotes committing violence. Nothing about it seems self-serving. Just like the author Sean Lewis, Coffey is legitimately invested in feminism. Men that engage eagerly with feminism would be an interesting subject for the next arc. Judging by the black and white epilogue of this arc, that might just be the case. I’ll be excited to see how that goes.

Coyotes #4 is, despite minor bumps in the road, a satisfying conclusion to the current arc. The heroes show up and kick serious ass, new possibilities are open up, and Caitlin Yarsky gets to expand on her amazing artistic abilities. I didn’t even go into depth of her amazing lettering this issue.

Coyotes #4_3

I think it speaks for itself.

In fact, this entire comic speaks for itself. Go pick it up. Enjoy the action-packed horror, fantasy, surrealism with an earnest feminist message. It’s one of the best sleeper hits of this past four months, and I hope it continues to grow in success.

Story: Sean Lewis Art: Caitlin Yarsky
Story: 9.5 Art: 9.5 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Buy

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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