Your Illustrated Guide To Becoming One With The Universe cartoonist Yumi Sakugawa writes primarily with metaphors. There is an ambiguity and a complexity to everything she does. Ikebana (Retrofit)—a story about Cassie Hamasaki and her art school senior thesis, and the cartoonist’s most recent release—is no different.
The title, which is explained in the comic, and which refers to the Japanese art of flower arrangement, serves as a foundation upon which everything else is built. Cassie’s goal is to merge the act of living and the act of ikebana, and, in the vein of that tradition’s practices, remains silent throughout the story’s tumult. But like the meditative, spiritual practice of ikebana, the meaning of Cassie’s blurring of living and art-making is polysemantic. For example, she begins the story standing in a bowl of water and concludes it floating in the ocean—the abyssal expanse effectively approximated by fat strokes of lush, black ink. This may be read as representing the transition from the “small pond” of college to the “big pond” of real life. Ikebana is poetic in that way; its narrative is short and ambiguous, and its lingua franca is figurative language. It’s more of an agglomeration of interrelated ideas than a narrative, and it’s fecund enough to sustain multiple readings.
A contributing factor to the elusive, slippery quality of Sakugawa’s writing is her art. Sakugawa’s lines are abrasive and bristling with a raw emotionality—the Platonic ideal of James Kochalka’s “Craft Is The Enemy” manifesto—and consciously or not, her style is thematically resonant with the art of ikebana’s emphasis on minimalism. This is evident in her figurework; she often leaves her characters without mouths or pupils or eyebrows, but she is able to achieve her intended affect without those things. She eschews the saccharine sentimentality that sinks the Chris Ware imitators of the world (the ones who are responsible for the perceived interchangeability of “indie comic” and “sad white boy discovers sex”), and she allows her ideas—her images—to do the communicating. In this way, the work is as much a montage as it is anything else; the meaning of images are created and altered by the way Sakugawa organizes and juxtaposes them.
This montage-like style of storytelling is deeply effecting, and Sakugawa has become transcendently skilled at using the Derridean arch-writing quality of comics (not just the interplay between images and text but the manipulation of images as text) to communicate both the sublime and the profoundly ineffable. For all of Ikebana’s merits, this is its most subtle and important. It’s difficult to imagine her work existing in any other medium and still holding the same weight, still having the same impact. Ikebana lives and thrives—totally and completely—in the medium for which it was intended. [Shea Hennum]
Despite her frequent protests that she would not be a very good editor, Gail Simone has proven to be quite adept at gathering talented creators around her to tell sprawling, interconnected stories. With the success of the Legends Of Red Sonja miniseries, it was only a matter of time before Simone and Dynamite decided to take another pass at a similar project, and that turned into this summer’s Swords Of Sorrow event, a fun, fantasy-driven jaunt through Dynamite’s properties, pulling characters back into the ring after years languishing on the bench. Many of the stories center around characters not nearly as familiar as Red Sonja or Vampirella, to say nothing of characters at other publishers. Mikki Kendall, who’s better known for her prose fiction and online activism, is at the helm of Swords Of Sorrow: Miss Fury & Lady Rawhide (Dynamite), one of four one-shot issues. Kendall has just a single issue to establish the personalities of two heroes and two villains, not to mention tell a compelling story. She does an remarkable job, particularly since she has to make sure that the story makes sense both with and without the context of the rest of the Swords Of Sorrow issues.
Miss Fury and Lady Rawhide begin the issue at odds, tossed into a chaotic world where the former’s 1942 New York and the latter’s 1832 Mexico have been smashed together for some nefarious purpose. The plot moves along quickly, hitting strong beats as the heroes overcome their initial distrust and work together to thwart the threats they face. There are a couple of moments that land awkwardly, almost exclusively because of the nature of being an event tie-in issue: Miss Fury & Lady Rawhide isn’t the first comic to suffer from a slight lack of larger context, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the story is strong enough that it recovers gracefully from these minor stumbles. It doesn’t help that, with some rare exceptions, editor’s notes in comics aren’t as common as they once were. Even readers who haven’t been checking out the rest of Swords Of Sorrow will be able to follow Fury and Rawhide in their adventures without trouble.
Artist Ronilson Freire, who has worked for Dynamite in the past on Mark Waid’s The Green Hornet and Justice Inc: The Avenger, has an old-school, pulpy style that works well for this book. There are a couple of panels with Escher Girl issues, but they’re a lot easier to forgive in context than some other examples are. That pulpiness may actually be the biggest problem for the whole Swords Of Sorrow project. Several of the covers, particularly those by J. Scott Campbell, are so mismatched to the tone and intention of the interiors that there’s little doubt some readers were chased off by the over-the-top cover art. Simone has done a great job of pulling Red Sonja back from “just eye candy” status, and Swords Of Sorrow is doing much of the same important work for other characters. But stylistically, pulp and overt hyper-sexualization have been tied together for so long that it’s difficult to find a way to separate the two, though DC Bombshells seems to be doing a great job so far with the similarly difficult pin-up art style. Simone’s a huge draw for comic neophytes and under-represented groups, and a big event like this has the opportunity to pull in a lot of new readers, but some of the art may have seriously limited its appeal. Kendall and Freire, along with colorist Kirsty Swan and letterer Erica Schultz, delivered an issue that’s both fun and funny with a retro feel and a strong pulp-but-not-porn sensibility. It’s a shame that it feels like Dynamite didn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain. [Caitlin Rosberg]
McNeil Island sits in the middle of Puget Sound, has a total area of 6.63 square miles, and is the former home of the minimum-security prison of the same name that closed in 2011. (Washington State still runs a Special Commitment Center for sex offenders on the site, unaffiliated with the DOC.) Although the idea of island prisons looms large in the public imagination, they’re expensive to run and difficult to manage, which is why McNeil Island was closed after 136 years.
Growing up is hard enough without having to do it next door to a prison. McNeil Island, in addition to being a prison, was also a company town housing around 50 families, all employed by the Department Of Corrections. This is where Colleen Frakes moved in 1997, the year her parents began work at the prison and she began the sixth grade. Separated from her middle school in Steilacoom by a ferry ride, Frakes faced a number of unique challenges. Her friends were often unwilling to cross the Sound for a sleepover (especially after news of the occasional escaped inmate). She didn’t have a proper street address to give cashiers in department stores. And, perhaps most tragically, it was impossible to order a pizza (she tried).
Frakes, a graduate of The Center For Cartoon Studies, received a Xeric grant in 2007 for her series Tragic Relief, and the 2009 Ignatz Award for “Promising New Talent.” Prison Island (Zest Books) is her debut graphic novel, a memoir of 10 years spent living on the last prison island in the country. It’s a sleepy book, intentionally understated. The pith of the story is found in the juxtaposition between Frakes’ unabashedly normal teenage life and her unusual surroundings. Other than the fact that both of her parents work as prison guards, however, there doesn’t seem to be anything odd about her life growing up—she’s too tall for her age, wears braces and glasses, and is stuck in odd social strata as a result of her family’s position. In other words, she’s a teenage girl, albeit one with an odd address.
The reminiscences that make up the bulk of Prison Island are framed by Frakes’ family’s 2011 return to the island for the prison’s closing ceremonies. Walking around the deserted remains of the island community—perfectly intact houses left unoccupied, doors wide open—it seems almost haunted (ghosts and the supernatural, the kinds of urban legends that pop up around both prisons and small islands, recur as motifs throughout). Frakes’ brushwork, complemented by graphite shading, is simple and uncluttered, well suited to laconic subject matter. (One unexpected Comics Panel crossover: Guy Colwell, whose Inner City Romance we reviewed here in March, did time on McNeil Island in the late 1960s after refusing to serve in Vietnam. Small world!)
As a memoir, Prison Island is best approached as an example of literary regionalism—almost entirely plotless, a series of anecdotes adding up to a portrait not necessarily of Frakes but of McNeil Island itself. If the book suffers, it does so as a result of Frakes’ own honesty: as interesting as the setting may be, she as a teen was sufficiently insulated from all but the most banal consequences thereof. Still, it’s slight enough not to outlast its welcome. [Tim O’Neil]
Nathan Jurevicius has a simple trick for making the world of Junction (Koyama) come to life: put faces on as many things as possible. The picture book begins with a weather vane topped by a head in profile, followed by a page introducing the unnamed main character in a room containing two flowerpots with faces. The bottles in the bathroom have faces; the light fixtures have faces; the houses and the mountains these houses are built on have faces. The expressions and features differ, making these objects and landmasses feel like individual characters rather than inanimate objects in the setting. It brings a vitality to the environment that ties into the book’s major theme of the wonder of change, because this rich, fantastic locale is a result of a ritual that dramatically transforms the population every year.
Told primarily through full-page illustrations with accompanying text, Junction is a showcase for Jurevicius’ unconventional design sensibility and fine linework, the latter providing a visual fluidity that reflects the mercurial quality of the landscape and characters. There are occasional bits of sequential storytelling on a single page, and it’s interesting to see how the rhythm changes during these moments: A page showing the shifting expressions of a bowl of pink soup at 12 different points use the bowl’s circular edge as a panel border, a whimsical way of melding the physical form of the object with the page structure.
At the core of Jurevicius’ story is the simple lesson that change is something to look forward to, and no matter what a person looks like or transforms into, there’s a place for them in this world. The strange, alien quality of the art accentuates that idea, with Jurevicius mining a lot of joy from the overwhelming weirdness. An early scene shows the main character wondering what it will look like after undergoing the transformation, presenting a series of potential outcomes in close-up shots of a smiling face shifting from an exotic plant to a ball of yarn to a crowded metropolis. No matter the shape, that smile is always there, highlighting the optimistic excitement felt before metamorphosis.
Junction is an ideal book for young readers attracted to a more bizarre aesthetic, showing children how to break traditional design rules to create art with a distinct perspective. Adults can find value in the intricacy of Jurevicius’ craft, and the textured crosshatching, immersive composition, and vibrant, varied color palette bring a captivating splendor to the narrative. The actual writing isn’t especially fanciful; it grounds the story with the character’s anecdotes about breaking an arm and finding a nest of newborn rabbits, detailing personal experiences that bring specificity to a figure that is constantly changing by nature. The text presents a regular youngster thrilled about the future, and it’s easy to understand the character’s excitement when seeing the extraordinary, unpredictable world Jurevicius creates. [Oliver Sava]