I Don’t Like My Hair Neat #1-2; I Wished I Was Married to the Sea

Have you ever underrated someone while praising them to the heavens? A friend perhaps, someone whose dress sense and confidence you’ve long admired without realizing that in doing so you were also reducing them to those qualities?  Worse still, that you had somehow decided that because these attributes were so hard to ignore, your were somehow giving them all the attention they required just by doing that?

That’s how I felt when I read the second volume of I Don’t Like My Hair Neat for the first time. I’d written a snappy, enthusiastic review of the first issue earlier in the same year, one that I thought was appropriate to Julia Scheele‘s talents in tone if not in excellence.

It was clear to me even then that Scheele is a better cartoonist than I am a writer.

The second issue initially seemed to me to be something else, something more traditionally laudable.  Reading it on the train up from that year’s Thought Bubble in my traditional vulnerable, hung-up and borderline euphoric post-con state, I was surprised and overwhelmed.  At the risk of getting a bit Dead Zone about it, I felt like the ice was going to break:

Make of this what you will. For me, it’s evidence that the bullshit critical distinction between Style and Content is somehow alive and in me in the present tense, some half a century after Sustan Sontag publicly annihilated it in ‘On Style’:

Practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face…

Click here to find out how any half-decent analysis of Scheele’s style makes my initial confusion about her subject matter seem not only dumb but callow!

At first glance this looks like it might just be a new art school favourite. The linework is soft and rounded, occasionally crumpling into more naive forms or vacating the page completely in favour of washes of expressive colour – it signals the intimacy of experience in a way that is immediately recognisable to anyone who’s managed to read past the superhero comics on the graphic novel shelves of their local library.  Elsewhere, the colouring takes on an active role on the page, sometimes embodying a shift in perception and understanding, sometimes becoming a source of unexpected affect – it signals a sort of deliberate intelligence of design in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has read as far as Asterios Polyp.

All of these qualities are exemplified in Take It As A Compliment, but the book resists praise on the grounds of mere formalism.

Drawn from the true tales of those who’ve experienced various forms of sexual assault, Take It As A Compliment sees Maria Stoian using the full range of her artistic abilities to give voice to those who have been on the receiving end of this shamefully commonplace form of violence.

These pages are full of crowded or empty streets, appeals to a horrific spectrum of threatening outcomes (“If you don’t your dad will be mad!”) and various forms of complicity (“Oh he was just trying to be funny“) but they are always centred on the experience of the victims.

The use of colour alone makes these experiences inescapably vivid in a way that demands a trigger warning, and the Stoian brings these stories together with an explicit purpose: “in sharing we can make it easier for survivors to deal with their experiences, and create a society that does not tolerate sexual violence!”

Do we sometimes flinch from art that is so clear about the impact it wants to have on the world?  And if so, does this reaction come from a lack of belief in our ability to affect the world or from a conviction that the goals of art are somehow incompatible with such efforts?

Take It As A Compliment is so delicate and powerful that such perspectives seem impossible while you’re reading it.

It gives voice to experience without forcing those who have already suffered to risk further suffering; it makes the social conditions that allow this suffering explicit; and it does all of this in a way that cannot be separated from its aesthetic excellence, from its commitment to exploring all the different ways that the intersection of words, shapes and colours on the page can reflect the reality of the human experience.

These stories are not my story so I can’t comment on what they have to offer to anyone who might find their reality reflected here.

But I am still a part of the society in which these abuses take place, and if I come away from Take It As A Compliment without finding extra determination to be there for those who need listening to and to confront those who need to be stopped, then the failing will be in me rather than in the book itself.

PanelxPanel

July 6th, 2017

By everyone’s favourite Punisher expert and Garth Ennis scholar Maid of Nails aka Kelly Kanayama

For comics fans it can be discouraging to look out across the blasted wastes of The Discourse and see how much vitriol gets leveled against those who just want to try something different. Yet in this toxic landscape, there are still breaths of fresh air if you know where to search for them – such as the debut issue of Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s new comics criticism magazine PanelxPanel.

PanelxPanel combines analysis of soon-to-be-released comics by Otsmane-Elhaou with writings and interviews from critics and creators, all laid out in a pleasant color scheme. (I’m not using the word “pleasant” pejoratively here, by the way; it’s rare for comics criticism to make you feel more relaxed just from looking at the colors.) The aesthetic effect ties into Otsmane-Elhaou’s highly visual focus, which is oriented toward dissecting how the art of a particular comic creates its narrative, and which sets PanelxPanel apart from other, less visually focused comics criticism. Here, it’s all about panel layout, color choice, the placement of characters and objects in relation to one another: elements I know are extremely important in comics but which often have to be explained to me.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because the magazine is an expansion of Otsmane-Elhaou’s Strip Panel Naked column for ComicsAlliance, where he did much the same thing in article format. Although this column-to-magazine expansion is what makes PanelxPanel stand out, it’s also where its shortcomings lie.

Going for a magazine format allows Otsmane-Elhaou to include input from other voices…