Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the WoodsIt can be terrifying to be a woman. Don’t get me wrong — there are so many great things about it, too. It’s not like all women live every moment in fear.

But there is an underlying current of danger for so many women. Is this street safe? Should I ride in the elevator with this man or wait for the next one? Is this person my friend or just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of me?

Nevermind that women live in bodies that are often confusing. We ache, we hurt, we feel emotions we don’t always understand. We bleed and want. But women just live with these things for the most part. I know I don’t give them too much thought. It’s just part of my daily life.

I thought about these things while reading the gorgeous collection of Emily Carroll’s stories, Through the Woods (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014). It’s not that all of these stories are about these specific issues, but even in the more horrific stories, there’s an undercurrent of this just being what life is like.

The five stories here (plus an introduction and a conclusion) take us deep into the world Carroll has created. It’s one part Shirley Jackson, one part Grimm’s fairy tales, one part Junji Ito, but so much more. Part of Carroll’s gift is how she transforms her influences into something completely new. In Carroll’s world, everywhere is haunted; everything means you harm.

Much of Carroll’s power is in what goes unseen. In the first story, “Our Neighbor’s House,” the protagonist narrates her sisters seeing a mysterious stranger before they each disappear, leaving her alone to face what’s to come. There’s no overt horror in this tale, but the tension is in the waiting, in the inevitable fate of our narrator. Carroll does creeping dread like no one else working in comics.

But when Carroll wants to show us actual horror, she’s unafraid, and her visions are as beautiful as they are terrifying.

In the elegantly paced “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” her twisting page layouts, poetic language and art saturated with bright blues and crimson reds lead the reader down a frightening path that turns in unexpected places. In the book’s final story, “The Nesting Place,” the quiet distress builds to outright horror. While Mabel’s distrust of her brother’s fiancée never feels out of place, the reveal feels both shocking and earned.

Carroll never feels like she’s pushing her metaphors about women’s bodies and lives being in control of forces outside themselves. The subtly of how she conveys her themes is skillful and lovely. Bottom line, these are all just wonderfully scary horror stories. That there is some subtext just feels like a bonus.

If you’ve read Carroll’s work online, you know she enjoys playing with form and format. Her layout switch wildly to suit her stories — unconstrained and open one moment, quiet and formal the next. Her unique style seems to be influenced by everything — children’s books illustrations, manga, indie and European comics, animation, video game artwork — but she filters it into a singular vision. It feels hauntingly familiar but also foreign, much like a nightmare.

The design of Through the Woods is also incredible. The full-bleed pages are engrossing and the glossy paper shows off the pure black and rich, vivid colors. It translates the power of Carroll’s online work into book format perfectly.

Emily Carroll is a comics creator people are going to study generations from now. She’s that good. Through the Woods is a masterpiece collection of comics. And I hope it’s only the first one of many.

Copy of Through the Woods provided by Big Planet Comics. Carroll is also one of Small Press Expo‘s special guests, so come tell her how awesome she is Sept. 13-14.

Comics & Medicine Conference 2014: From Private Lives to Public Health

comics-medicineI heard it a few times when I mentioned I was going to the Comics & Medicine Conference 2014 – “I’m surprised there’s enough about that for there to be an entire conference.”

I would always happily point out that one of the top-selling graphic novels in recent years is an autobiographical tale about a girl’s experiences with dental trauma.

I am, of course, talking about Raina Telgemeier’s Smile.

And after mentioning that, people do begin to realize just how huge the topic of comics dealing with health, illness and medicine can be.

In so many ways, comics are uniquely suited to communicating about health, whether it’s personal stories or instructive information. After all, comics marries visual elements with words and it becomes more effective than either one could be alone.

I attended Comics & Medicine as a guest of Small Press Expo (we were one of the sponsors) and while I was only able to attend on Saturday, I was so thrilled I got to go.

To be clear: This was, at its core, an academic conference. While many comic creators were involved, the focus was on presenting papers and sharing knowledge. This was absolutely reflected in the sessions I attended.

The presenters from Shared Experience: Time, Transformation and The Unknown

The presenters from Shared Experience: Time, Transformation and The Unknown

The first featured Nicola Streeten discussing a project she was involved in where she told a story from the perspectives of both the doctor and the patient. Army Capt. Joshua M. Leone presented his paper about how comics can help servicemembers heal from trauma through the closure they can provide. MJ Jacob shared personal insights into how creating comics — or being unable to — helped her deal with her depression in unexpected ways. (Henny Beaumont was scheduled but unable to attend.) All three presenters were discussing personal stories — whether they were their own stories or someone else’s — and how comics could provide different perspectives and connection to the world in an intimate and powerful way.

I then attended most of the Health Education and Accessibility presentations, which brought up topics I hadn’t thought much about. Two from Research Triangle Institute International discussed their process of creating two comics in partnership with Naval Health Research Center and Headquarters Marine Corps to help servicemembers with psychological stresses. Dana Marlowe then discussed accessibility issues when it comes to online comics.

Ellen Forney

Ellen Forney presents Marbles

The outreach to military servicemembers — both in terms of creating comics for them and helping them create their own comics — seemed to be a small focus of the conference. I was unable to attend it, but James Sturm did discuss some of the work he’s done with a VA medical center in Vermont. Overall, the therapeutic aspects of comics is one most people there seemed very excited about exploring further.

Ellen Forney was the final keynote speaker for Saturday. She presented in abbreviated form the first two chapters of Marbles, her honest, emotional and informative account of learning she had bipolar disorder and then learning to cope with it. It was book I’ve read and loved (it’s a tough read in places but also fun and often funny) but I didn’t quite realize until Saturday just how educational it was. She outlines not only her personal experiences with bipolar disorder but also offers a great deal of factual information about it and its treatment.

And I think that was really the best part of this experience — I certainly felt like I knew about the connection between comics and issues of health, illness and medicine, but I began to realize just how much comics had taught me about these subjects. Reading Marbles, I didn’t realize how much about mental illness I was actually learning. And I know that Smile often gets passed between young friends when they first get their braces. I also think about the delightful work people like Cathy Leamy (who it was great to see briefly!) when it comes to issues of women’s health (Mindful Drinking was one of my favorite comics from last year, period!).


Attendees shop in the marketplace after the conference presentations

I think more so than anything else, comics offer an easy point of connection. Maybe you don’t want to watch a graphic video of a surgery; maybe a medical text is too dry; but a comic can find the right balance of personal, informative and entertaining.

As someone who is not in the field of health or medicine, or even someone who really creates comics, it was incredibly inspiring to see what wonderful work all these people are doing. I know I left wanting to know more and how I can contribute to this field somehow.

(Special thanks to conference organizer Lydia Gregg and John Hopkins University for hosting.)

Review: Team Girl Comic #10

teamgirlcomic10There are so many things that can change in just five years. I know I’ve watched with delight how women have become a growing force in comics. They’re creating their own and posting them to Tumblr and speaking out about issues on Twitter. They’re taking over the artists’ alleys at cons and filling up sequential art classes. The changes are an amazing thing.

Likewise, Glasgow-based Team Girl Comic has grown and changed from its early days into a group that can absolutely not be ignored. If you haven’t been paying attention to Team Girl Comic, Issue #10 is the perfect place to start.

As explained in the opening story by Claire Yvette and Gill Hatcher, in Team Girl Comic #10, Hatcher didn’t feel like her comics were quite fitting in to the scene she saw around Glasgow in 2009. In an effort to find a community, she began seeking out other girls and women making comics. They began publishing anthologies and holding events, but the companionship and camaraderie they found in each other was the most important.

The diversity of styles and subjects is delightful. MJ Wallace‘s sweetly thoughtful “How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Me” illustrates how she made peace with her body image in touching detail, even including some sketches from her life drawing classes. Shona Heaney‘s “The Winston Churchill Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” delivers on the title’s promise in both hilarious and disturbing ways in bleak, scratchy pen drawings.

There’s diversions into the fantastic, like “GEMS Saltire Squad” by Amanda “Hateball” Stewart, and into the surreal, like Donya Todd‘s “HC.” Many of the stories, though, do deal with what life is like for the modern woman, like Iona “Nondo” Mowat’s all-to-real “Small Talk Frustrations” and Lucy Sweet‘s charming reflection on getting older, “What Will I Be Doing When I’m Forty?”

The centerpiece of Team Girl Comic #10 is, without a doubt, “The Extraordinary Occurrence That Took Place at Comicon, in July 2013″ written by the legendary Trina Robbins and illustrated by Hatcher. Robbins writes about how, last year, other than the predictable outcome of a bunch of men winning in the Eisner awards, a surprising number of women won. Hatcher draws the reactions — disappointment and boredom to men winning and happiness and surprise to women winning — in a playful way. What is a simple anecdote becomes an entertaining glimpse into how comics is constantly changing for the better.

By bringing together women creators of all ages and experience, Team Girl Comic #10 definitely feels like the party that’s illustrated on the cover. It’s one where you have friends and you’ll make new ones. Everyone is welcome and everyone is going to have fun.

And I know I’m looking forward to the day when I’m reading Team Girl Comic #20.

PDF provided for review by Team Girl Comic.

Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki at Politics and Prose

Mariko Tamaki, left, and Jillian Tamaki at Politics and Prose on May 17, 2014

Mariko Tamaki, left, and Jillian Tamaki at Politics and Prose on May 17, 2014

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s discussion of their new graphic novel, This One Summer (First Second/Groundwood Books, 2014) at Politics and Prose on May 17 was introduced by what seemed like an unlikely choice: A young man named Frans. In his metal T-shirt and camouflage pants with long hair and a beard, he didn’t seem like someone who would be too into a young adult graphic novel about two girls created by two women. But that was the point: Frans told us that while he came into comics through ’90s titles like Cyberforce, he found a lot to connect with in This One Summer.

If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

For about an hour, the Tamaki cousins discussed their book and their work overall in an intimate chat, taking questions from the audience of a few dozen. The two had a playful, easy chemistry with each other, which showed why they are such effortless collaborators.

Many questions focused on their creative process. Mariko said she gives Jillian a script that’s written in a play format, but mostly trusts what Jillian will do with it. And the idea of “trust” was a big theme in how they work with each other. Jillian said she felt entitled to ignore some of Mariko’s dialogue and direction, and Mariko was OK with that, saying that most of those things were for her own understanding.

As opposed to their first collaborative graphic novel, Skim, this story was more complicated so there was more back and forth and more editing (and many Skype conversations). Both spoke of the strengths comics as an artform has — Mariko said that part of writing comics is writing very sparsely and letting the visual elements do much of the work.

Many people had questions about the editing process for this book and comics in general. The Tamakis did a lot of their own editing, but they did work with their publishers. They both said they were fortunate to have publishers who understand what they’re doing and because they did Skim, both publishers knew what sort of subject matter to expect.

That led to a question if they were ever forced to make changes. Mariko said they never felt forced to make any changes and Jillian said she didn’t know why anyone would be surprised by what they were creating. Mariko said that the things that define “young adult” literature have changed and Jillian added most kids aren’t going to pick up a book unless it has edgier elements in it.

When asked about writing about female protagonists, Jillian shrugged it off. She said she only wants to make books she wants to read and she doesn’t understand the trends. She’s more interested in realism and didn’t think, at the time, that Skim was really a YA book. Mariko commented that the subtitled on the mini-comic version of Skim was “This is the diary of Skim Takota. So fuck off” and she wasn’t interested in writing to market. She said she can’t write a dystopian adventure story and her characters would be “the first two characters to be killed off in the Hunger Games.

Both talked about the hard realities of doing what they do. As much as Jillian loves making comics, it’s subsidized by the other things she does — teaching, illustration work and more. Because of that, she said “I should just make the comics I want to make.” Mariko laughed about having to teach a class about working as a writer and said it should’ve been a class on “Working four jobs.” But both felt their other jobs is what gives them material and depth and keeps them motivated. Jillian said she creates comics for comics audiences primarily, since they’re the ones who know the medium. If others like it, then that’s just a bonus.

They joked about the differences between U.S. and Canadian literature — mostly that Canada isn’t into that whole “hero” thing but instead, just surviving, and they liked that Canadian literature is full of “cranky, frustrated women.”

When asked about how she’s able to convey such subtle emotions, Jillian offered this advice: “If you want to learn how to draw, make a comic.” She’s someone who’s still learning and growing as an artist, despite her years of experience. Mariko offered her praise, saying that in anyone else’s hands, the moments Jillian draws would be melodramatic.

As a perfect summary to the talk, as the two discussed their expectations for This One Summer going forward, Mariko said simply “What I wanted this book to be, it already is.”

But if the reaction from everyone — including Frans — is any indication, it’s going to be much more than that.

(Also on Saturday was the Gaitherburg Book Festival. I have a few photos and few thought on Tumblr.)

Review: Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson

Hilda and the Black HoundChildhood can feel like a magical time, full of mystery and infinite possibilities. Sadly, as we get older, the creatures and monsters we dream up fade away and we’re left with a reality that’s much less interesting.

And that’s exactly why Luke Pearson‘s Hildafolk series is a delight. In Hilda’s world, magical creatures are commonplace, to the point of being mundane (did you dog have antlers like Hilda’s pet, Twig?). The charm of these books are effortless and joyful.

As Hilda and the Black Hound (Flying Eye Books/Nobrow, 2014) begins, Hilda’s mother decides it’s time she makes some friends in Trolberg and signs her up for the Sparrow Scouts. Meanwhile, the house spirits known as Nisses are being banished from their homes while the big black hound of the title is being spotted all over the city of Trolberg.

Hilda is an infinitely sweet heroine, and her desire for knowledge always leads her to want to help. She wants to give something to the Nisse Tontu when she first spots him, despite her mother’s insistence to leave him alone because Nisse are only kicked out of their houses when they do something bad (“But wouldn’t it still be a good thing?” she pleads, regardless). Her belief in the goodness of people (and creatures!) does often lead her into trouble, it’s what gives her strength and makes her someone to root for.

Pearson’s art has a playful softness to it. Hilda’s huge, round eyes reveal her constant curiosity and the Nisses are all big noses and beards. The color palette is usually muted primaries with a few twists of brighter purples and darker shadows and the backgrounds offer enough detail to make the world feel lived in without taking away from the deceptive simplicity of the character design.

Pearson shines in action scenes, which are often wordless. He lets panels flow into the next, moving the readers’ eyes along at a quick pace, making the book feel more like watching an animated cartoon. These parts of the book are often quite funny and since Hilda is rarely afraid, neither are the readers.

Pearson also packs in plenty of plot into the slight page count, but the story never feels overburdened, even with a few playful surprise thrown in. He balances Hilda’s real-world concerns (living up to her mother’s expectations as a Sparrow Scout) with her more magical concerns in a quiet, understated way. Hilda is ultimately just trying to do good and make those around her happy.

These are gorgeous books and Flying Eye, like Nobrow before it, continues to be a publisher to watch. The Hildafolk books all feel like they’re children’s books for the ages as soon as you read them and Hilda and the Black Hound is a beautiful addition to the series. My only complaint is that it’s probably another year until the next one, but I know it will be worth the wait.

Copy of Hilda and the Black Hound provided by the publisher.