Down a Darker Path: The Comics of Emily Carroll

91bldT8CbtL81gs3Mk0AALIt’s almost Halloween and I think we’re all looking for something a little scary to read. How about something downright terrifying? If you’re looking for something that will get under your skin and give you chills, something to only read in the daytime, then I suggest the work of Emily Carroll.

Carroll’s work has largely been in the realm of webcomics, which is fantastic for you (and me too!) because right after you read this, you can skip over to her website and get going. Carroll’s illustrations have an almost delicate quality; it’s similar to the work of Edward Gorey. They’re gorgeous and almost all of her comics have a fairytale-like quality to them.

I can almost guarantee that if you like Angela Carter or any of the other dark fairytale adaptations that I’ve recommended here in the past few months, that you’ll like Carroll’s work. In addition to her collection of webcomics, Carroll has a “real” book out, though you could always do what I did and buy the digital version, which seemed fitting after reading the webcomics.

Through the Woods is mostly new tales, conjured up from Carroll’s brain for the printed page. The exception is “His Face All Red”, which I strongly suggest you read in its webcomic version first to catch the original movement of the frames, which is much creepier than in the book. The other tales are new, though the prequel to “The Nesting Place” is one of Carroll’s webcomics, “All Along the Wall.”

Because the comics are so short, I almost don’t want to tell you what they’re “about.” Because short form horror depends so much on novelty, it seems wrong to give too much away. I’ve included some of the pages from Through the Woods at the bottom of this post so you can see Carroll’s beautiful work — I’m hoping it’ll draw you in and that you’ll click over to her website and enjoy a taste of her storytelling, before checking Through the Woods out from your library or buying it.

My recommendation would be to start with the webcomics. Many are interactive (like “Margot’s Room,” where clicking on objects will reveal a larger story. Others are somewhat less interactive for the reader, but Carroll’s use of scrolling up and down and left and right all add to an immersive experience that is difficult to come by in a book.

Through the Woods is worth it though. Carroll clearly knows how good horror should be constructed in a highly visual medium like comics and her page turns are well timed and the stories are well paced. However, while all of this is well and good, and obviously attractive to me as someone who likes scary fairy tales, this is only the tip of what make these stories so interesting.

Overall, what I like best is Carroll’s use of the unknown, the pauses, the gaps, and loose ends. Many of her stories don’t tie up nicely. It’s rare for Carroll’s stories to have a pat ending where the reader gets to know “what happened.” Many have classic horror endings, where one storyline is tied up nicely, but it’s obvious that another horror is lurking around the bend, and those are satisfying. However, my favorites are when Carroll gives us the puzzle pieces, but it’s clear that some are missing. Whatever our imaginations conjure up is most definitely more terrifying than any “answer” Carroll could give us.

This is the genius behind these short pieces, they engage our imaginations so deeply that we’re left thinking about the missing pieces of the plot, or the open endings for days. I also like that Carroll delves into scary territory that isn’t totally reliant on gore. I mean sure, there’s some gros s stuff, “Out of Skin” for instance, is a little more gory that I typically prefer, but Carroll’s ethereal illustrations render it palatable. The “scare” in most of these tales is visceral, but also psychological, and the double-down is really effective.

I’m always in for suspenseful stories, but I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to horror, so coming from me, this is a big deal! Again, this reminds me most of Angela Carter’s work in The Bloody Chamber. It’s horrific, but it’s also beautiful. The balance is what makes it work for me, I think. This idea that horror and beauty so often go hand in hand is something I think women understand especially well. So please, go check out Emily Carroll’s beautiful webcomics and should you be further motivated, Through the Woods is available now.

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From “Our Neighbor’s House” in Through the Woods

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From “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” in Through the Woods

Allison Carr Waechter is ready for the thinning of the veil. See you all on Halloween, you beautiful wraiths!

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This Charming Medley

Abel SoundtrackJessica Abel is a great cartoonist who has an impressive body of work, which includes Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, Life Sucks, La Perdida, Radio, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures with Matt Madden, and many other titles. Today my recommendation is generally for Jessica Abel’s work (because here at CBC we recommend what we like), but particularly for a collection of her older comics I recently picked up, Soundtrack: Short Stories 1989-1996, published in 2001 by Fantagraphics. This trade paperback collects some Artbabe comics, short fiction, comics journalism, cover art, and comic strips. I’m a sucker for anthologies and miscellanies and Soundtrack is a fine read with lovely art.

Abel’s drawing and writing—whether it be found in her longer narratives, educational publications, or newspaper comics—always looks and feels like a delicate balance. Much of Soundtrack’s illustrations encapsulate both a stylized, sketchy quality and a realistic, natural quality. This aesthetic emphasizes the way in which many of the short stories treat both the intimate, individual particulars of life and the quotidian grind.

Many of the pieces will evoke laughter, some are sad, and some are implicitly political. Many of the short stories remind me of what it felt like to be a young woman full of piss, vinegar, and cheap booze; also to be shiny with artistic aspirations playing music, painting, and working crappy jobs. That is not to say that the comics are adolescent, but rather that they grasp a particular set of formative moments in young people’s lives before the internet. Reading Soundtrack left me with a little nostalgia, but Abel provides so many different tales and nonfiction pieces that there’s no feeling of self-indulgence, just quality storytelling.

A few of my favorite pieces in Soundtrack are “Mile Marker,” “Oh! My Sisters!,” the Artbabe comics, “Punk Pilgrimage,” and “Kek and Poot.” “Mile Marker” contains heavy, driving line-work—much of the very short story takes place in the rain—and its brevity and heaviness feel a bit like the event it narrates. (Read it. I ain’t tellin.) “Oh! My Sisters!” makes me long for the days that I would go purchase zines and comics by Nate Powell and Emily Heiple from Double Entendre Records in the late 90s. “Oh! My Sisters!” inspires me to give 7 Year Bitch/Spitboy/Tribe 8/L7/Bikini Kill tapes to my young sistren and also makes me a little angry and empathetic in a way that feels productive. The words jam together over a narrative that bisects what appears to be a real and imagined response to a sexist jerk. I like to imagine that the whole thing is a “real” response, but it’s all in how you interpret the very clever layout. The Artbabe comics are probably the best-known of Abel’s early work, and for good reason. “Punk Pilgrimage,” a piece of comics journalism on one of Chicago’s few all ages rock venues at the time, captures all the enthusiasm of a bunch of “far-flung suburban kids” coming to the big city for a show. The bowling alley setting is weird and charming, but also familiar to those of us who attended all-ages shows in VFW halls and American Legion posts, slightly defunct restaurants, youth centers, warehouses, squats, and basements. All kinds of basements, readers. Lastly, I have three words about “Kek and Poot”: hell yeah, skategourds!

You can order Soundtrack at your local comics shop because those nice folks almost certainly do special orders. You can also get more information about Jessica Abel and her comics at jessicaabel.com. I personally cannot wait for Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the Masters of Radio to come out this August.

Annie D’Orazio is working on her doctoral dissertation, and comics are a big part of it. She also dances, and not just to fight the encroaching hunchback from years of doing research. You can follow her on twitter.


Shapeshifters, magic and gay dads: NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson

nimona noelle stevensonI am very picky about my graphic novels. It comes, in part, because of my raging feminist nature – there’s not nearly enough female characters in most mainstream graphic novels and comic bind-ups for me to really love. It’s why I became so quickly obsessed with Rat Queens and Saga. But it wasn’t just the female characters I loved. Their worlds were fascinating and the plots hooked me in.

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona doesn’t have a dark of a world as Saga and it doesn’t have as many characters as Rat Queens. But it’s fun and fierce, with characters that no reader will soon forget.

Nimona is a shapeshifter who decides that she needs to be the evil villain Lord Ballister Blackheart’s squire. Blackheart accepts (albeit reluctantly and only because Nimona’s murdering people left and right) and together they pair up to take on the Institute of Law Enforcement and Heroics and its golden boy Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Along the way, Blackheart discovers there may be more to Nimona than a girl with magical powers; Nimona discovers that Blackheart’s heart might not be black; and Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin looks fabulous and struggles with the guilt of deeds long past.

It’s an amazingly fun story and a wicked fast read. (I devoured my advanced copy of the upcoming printed version at a diner over ice cream. Reading Nimona with ice cream is the best way to read Nimona. Reading anything with ice cream is the best way to read anything.) I absolutely loved the dynamics between Goldenloin and Blackheart, and Nimona’s determination (and habit of shapeshifting into large destructive dragon-esque creatures) endeared her to me. I’ve been talking about the characters and giggling with other fans ever since I finished it.

Nobody should be surprised that Stevenson’s Nimona is so memorable. It was her first work and what landed her on the map. Now, with her comic Lumberjanes and her absolutely amazing Wonder Woman issues, those who haven’t read Nimona certainly need to go back and read it.

But perhaps the best thing about Nimona isn’t the comic itself, but how much fun it continues to be once you put it down. There is no bigger fan of Nimona‘s characters than Noelle Stevenson herself, and so following her on Tumblr and Twitter means that the series never really ends. She’s constantly sketching the characters in alternate universes, where Nimona is a little older, or Blackheart and Goldenlion are her gay dads, or the Director is a giraffe. (She does have an impossibly long neck.)

Nimona was originally a web-comic that could be read for free online, but with the release of the book in May, only the first three chapters are available online. But trust me – you’ll want to own this one.


Freaky Friday 2: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, written by Ana Lily Amirpour with art and lettering by Michael DeWeese and Patrick Brosseau, is the comic book rendition of Amirpour’s eponymous film. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian town, Bad City, is unaware that a vampire (The Girl) stalks their streets at night. The Girl seeks out criminals and perpetrators of injustice to fulfill her hunger.

 

Coven Book Club’s Kyle Cohlmia saw the film at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and originally wrote about it on her blog The Dusty Soul. When Allison read that post she was hooked on the idea:

“The film brilliantly combines film genres such as the Western, horror, graphic novels, and Iranian New Wave. Spoiler alert: the vampire is a woman. And she is a badass. Almost serving in a Robin Hood-esque role for the female population of Bad City, run by a corrupt drug lord and his minions. Amirpour does so much with the content of the film, yet contains it within beautifully shot, minimalist, black and white scenes. Not to mention the play on the Iranian female hijab, which ironically looks like a vampire cape (especially in the dark, while skateboarding down abandoned alleyways).” –Kyle Cohlmia, The Dusty Soul

Minutes after reading this, Allison scrambled through the internet trying to find out where she could see the film and realized she’d just missed it at the St. Louis International Film Festival, and despaired. In doing so, she found that Amirpour was collaborating on a comic version of the film for RADCO. She practically forced Kyle to buy it so they could talk about it. They both loved it so Allison pulled CBC’s resident comics expert Annie D’Orazio in to talk with us about issues one and two, “Death is the Answer” and “Who am I”:

Kyle: What I loved most about AGWHAAN is the way Amirpour shot the film, in all black-and-white, displaying cinematographyDeath is the answerthat correlates with the aesthetics of the graphic novel. As the viewer, you almost melt into the dark contrasting shadows of Bad City, from abandoned alleyways to a looming physical plant. There was this one scene that really stuck out to me of the town’s drag queen twirling around with a balloon in slow motion after a night at a local party. It reminded me of a scene in a Fellini film, kind of grotesque but kind of beautiful, characteristics to which Amirpour seems to align with the “good guys” of Bad City.

Considering that this film created a new genre, the first “Iranian Vampire Western,” AGWHAAN’s plot, which I think comes with its own flaws, (e.g. a lot of open-ended stories) doesn’t push the edge so far that the central message from the comic is lost. Sheila Vand, who played The Girl, portrays her vampireness in a subtle way; despite her lack of dialogue in the film, The Girl comes with her own set of interests (outside of murdering and consuming the male villains of Bad City), including music, skateboarding,  and the ability to fall in love. Of course, I also love the underlying feminist theme in this story.

Allison: Me too (of course!). What struck me most about the comic so far is the way a story that’s ostensibly about a vampire, turns out to be something I think most women will relate to. Shame about our bodies, our base needs and the dark secrets we keep all drive The Girl’s story. In that way, I think the story is really relatable. We’re all worried about those things.

Annie: Definitely. There are a few things that really impressed me about this comic. First, it’s black and white and makes use of that; it’s not just an aesthetic choice. (Is anything really ever just an aesthetic choice?) Yet, there are these scenes that remind me of Sin City and The Crow–not necessarily because of the content, but because of the almost unbearable visual weight of the black-and-white illustrations.

There’s a greater degree of visual clarity at work here as well. The Girl’s sense of morality and purpose seems to echo this aesthetic. We can get into all kinds of debates about morality, blah, blah, blah, but look who she’s eating. Look who she’s wWho am Iatching. I have a feeling that the comic will deliver some “But wait, it’s not so clear” moments, but for now it’s, no pun intended, pretty black and white. Plus, DeWeese’s line quality has a bit of a hard edge to it without losing kinetic energy, which represents The Girl and her needs. Also, she goes out into the desert alone, looking for death and finding the one truth: She is hungry. I think this touches on Allison’s observations about our base needs and desires and the kinds of head-breakers women go through around them.

I read that Amirpour likes David Lynch. I haven’t seen the film. Kyle, does that come into play in any ways you want to talk about?

Kyle: Annie, I was just reading about Amirpour’s connection to David Lynch! One article I read talked about the drag queen scene I mentioned. Personally, it reminded me of Fellini, but this author said it was alluding to Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and that she uses other Lynchian themes like “stark expressionism and black pools of industrial sound design.”

Annie: How great is the title, too? We are always told not to walk anywhere alone at night. The Girl does. Granted, she’s packing some pretty sharp teeth and supernatural strength and speed, but she still walks alone at night.

Allison: For me, the cool thing about the title is that it indulges in a fantasy I think any woman who’s ever felt scared walking alone at night has had: being able to turn around and be the real monster. I know I get a vicarious thrill from the fact that The Girl may look like “just a girl,” but she’s dangerous. She’s out for blood. Literally. As women, we spend so much time thinking about how we can protect ourselves from physical harm, that it makes the idea of the kickass lady vampire pretty attractive.

Kyle: I LOVE the title. I LOVE that, contrary to my first thought, AGWHAAN is about a girl who not only walks home alone at night, but is the perpetrator for bad men who are walking home alone at night. And I LOVE that Amirpour uses the hijab as a weapon; The Girl’s head piece and cape serve as symbol of power, not repression.

Annie: Yes! I think many portrayals of the hijab, or at least ones we frequently see in the States, are reductive. Notable exceptions in comics include Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa’s The 99,  Wilson et al’s Ms. Marvel, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

There is an image in issue one in which The Girl is perched on a streetlight Batman-style, and her hijab looks like a superhero cape and cowl. We see a bit of this in the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel, too, but The Girl brings the dark, night-stalking, scary badass element to the forefront.

Allison: I think in the end, the first issues of AGWHAAN reinforce something a lot of CBC contributors have noted in past weeks: embracing your monstrous side is empowering. The Girl is equally repulsed and emboldened by her vampirism. At the heart of AGWHAAN, the connection between femininity, blood, power and anger is a potent combination. I’m really excited to see where they take the story in upcoming issues.

Thanks so much for talking with me about this, ladies.

We encourage you to see the film, which will be available on iTunes and DVD on April 21, 2015 and is on a limited run schedule in theaters. See if you can catch it! You can procure the comic here or at your local comic shop.

Being a middle-eastern woman herself, Kyle Cohlmia looks up to Iranian female vampires and aspires to fight (albeit nonviolently) for gender equality at night as well as during the day. She would also love to learn to skateboard but will stick to her yoga running for now. She is a poet and blogger for her personal blog The Dusty Soul and other art-based blogs in her home state of Oklahoma as well as CBC. Follow her on Twitter for updates!

Annie D’Orazio, as a former skateboard-pushing child, would try skating again if she were a vampire. (She mostly pushed around and jumped off of things to great injury.) For now, she’s happy to be in her fleshy mortal coil, especially with great friends and colleagues like Allison and Kyle and the CBC crew. You can say hello to her on Twitter. She really likes the comics blog Comics&Cola. Go check them out, too.

No skateboarding for Allison Carr Waechter, no matter what. But should she ever becoma a vampire, she promises you she won’t be as noble as The Girl. She’ll just bite you, grin and move onto her next victim, drunk with power. Until then, she’s living out her mortal life on Twitter and her website, just like the rest of the internet.


“If I can’t see the sky, then please let me die.”

prettydeadly01_coverPrAs a woman born, raised, and still living in the west, I am always interested in artistic portrayals of my home region, and I have a soft spot for carrion eaters. The mountains, the desert, the vastness of the valleys and the sky, the intensity of the sun—these are things often rendered imaginatively in the service of some of our more toxic and persistent cultural myths. Not so with this week’s recommendation.

Pretty Deadly, the beautiful and brutal creation of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Ríos, colorist Jordie Bellaire, editor Sigrid Ellis, and letterer Clayton Cowles dwells somewhere in the land of the Old Testament and Cormac McCarthy, but shows us some of the people and some of those stories ignored or wrote into the scenery. The Image Comics title will, thankfully, return with its sixth issue in September 2015. I am recommending the first five issues (also available in trade paperback) and a subscription through your local comic shop.

The story so far centers upon love and death, choices and consequences, retribution and duty, and Bunny and Butterfly. Bunny and Butterfly provide a wonderful frame both plot-wise, and in being our guides to the violence and perplexity present in nature—human nature included. The principle players in the first arc are unforgettable, a heterochromic vulture cloak-wearing girl named Sissy, death’s skull-visaged daughter, the appropriately named Deathface Ginny, and perhaps the bravest character, the completely human Sarah. I won’t reveal all of the characters here because I really want you to purchase and read this comic.

Emma Ríos’ art recalls Yoshitaka Amano, but it is sharper, less ethereal, and swifter. The manner in which she combines undulating, sinuous lines with forceful, heavy directional lines perfectly realizes the story’s tightrope walk between mystical awe and blood-and-dirt violence. When I look at Ríos’ art, sketches included, I always think of blades wrapped in long wing-feathers. Jordie Bellaire’s color palette choices form an indispensable ingredient in the comic as well. Bellaire’s colors augment the intensity of the open sky, fires, and swinging blades, but they also bring the reader to focused stillness, and let us listen to Bunny tell Butterfly the story of death’s daughter.

There is so much more I could say about this jewel of a comic. Instead, I would recommend that you just go get it as soon as you can.

Annie D’Orazio has a nasty head cold, but is so excited about Pretty Deadly that she wrote this recommendation anyway. She just passed her dissertation prospectus defense, and Pretty Deadly was in it! You can follow her on twitter. Just don’t feed her after midnight or put wolfsbane in her flamenco shoes, please.