Author Archives: benchoward

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! 

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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. 

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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.

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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

Advance 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).

Panels to Chords: Getting Long Lost in Music with Matthew Erman

It feels like music and comics are tying together more and more with numerous comics being influenced by music and creators releasing playlists to go along with their latest issues. That’s where “Panel to Chords” comes in bringing comics and music together for discussion.

On this episode is special guest Matthew Erman, the writer of Long Lost which is published by Scout Comics. Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewErman

Matthew’s Spotify playlist for Long Lost:

Ben and Madi’s playlist:

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