Global Alt Comicsby Bartolomeo Sala
SCOTT EDER GALLERY | APRIL 27 – JUNE 2, 2018
Tucked into one of the many galleries of Mana Contemporary, a tobacco warehouse now repurposed as a creative hub in Jersey City, Global Alt Comics, on view at Scott Eder Gallery and curated by Alessandra Sternfeld, showcased work by seven female cartoonists and one queer cartoonist. Staples of the American underground, Mary Fleener and Trina Robbins, rising stars Lauren Weinstein and Gina Wynbrandt, voices of the international comics scene, such as Colombian-Ecuadorian Power Paola, Australian Tommi Parrish, and Catalan Conxita Herrero, and memoirist Gabrielle Bell, all found a spot in this exhibition, whose title was originally supposed to be “All Girl Thrills” after an all-female anthology edited by Robbins, sketches of which were also on view.
That female-authored alternative comics are treated as art and exhibited in a gallery setting shouldn’t surprise anyone: women cartoonists have been climbing bestseller lists, amassing prizes, spurring accolades, and building a faithful fan base for some time now. In this sense, Global Alt Comics is the most recent bit of recognition for a scene that has steadily grown in visibility in the last decade. In an attempt to preserve the DIY freshness that characterizes alternative comics as a whole—and perhaps intuiting that comic book art is best experienced in its original context, that is, a story—the curators kept intervention to a minimum, letting entire episodes unfold on the white walls of the gallery uninterrupted in the hope that the original drawings and watercolors would do the work. At first glance, the display was not the most striking; but it proved to be enough for anyone willing to spend time reading through the comic strips.
A few steps into the gallery, the visitor was confronted by a seemingly antithetical pairing of works by Robbins and Wynbrandt, facing each other on the opposite sides of the narrow passage leading into the space. Robbins is a self-avowed second-wave feminist, who reached the peak of her career in the 1970s, during the golden years of American underground comics. A friend of Robert Crumb, whose work she has criticized for its misogyny, she was the creator and editor of several anthologies dedicated to female comic book art, notably, Wimmen’s Comix. The works on view—mostly sketches—testified to her combative spirit by mostly depicting extremely fit, though not sexualized, Amazonian heroines in armor reminiscent of classic superhero comics. Several portrayed Calafia—the warrior queen who ruled over the fictional Island of California in Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 15th-century chivalric novel Las sergas de Esplandián—holding a series of fierce poses.
Wynbrandt, on the other hand, is just 27 years old, and the author of Someone Please Have Sex With Me, which chronicles her misadventures in love. Famous for her self-deprecating humor, which puts her body front and center, and the pinkish cuteness of the artwork, Wynbrandt’s pieces follow her plump alter-ego on her impetuous “manhunt.” Cute color palette and elegant drawing style notwithstanding, these strips were as hilariously brazen and politically incorrect as it gets. For example, in I’m Funnier Than Your Girlfriend, And I Have Fewer Sexual Limits: Let Me Make My Case (2015), an address to “heterosexual men,” she states that she will go to any lengths necessary to find a boyfriend after seven years of sexual starvation. While making her case verbally, her desperation (nearing obsession) is rendered graphically: she twists and turns, changing her position from one frame to the next, and sweats and grimaces, while showing her rear either half-naked or dressed in a sexy suit. In 2049 (2016), my favorite, she imagines a near future in which the gender tables have turned: Wynbrandt, here picturing herself as a business executive past her prime, forces a male employee give her sexual favors in exchange for keeping his job. By the end of the strip, she is waiting in her chair with her legs spread open for her unlucky prey, exclaiming, “crawl to me BITCH.”
A few steps further, on the left side of the gallery, are the works of Power Paola (Paola Andrea Gaviria Silguero) and Conxita Herrero. Power Paola, whose Virus Tropical (2016) tells a story of family life and female friendship set during the drug cartel warfare of the 1980s, draws in a style reminiscent of punk fanzines. Armed with only a black fine-tip pen, she scrawls her way through the page, depicting situations of intimacy, anxiety, and daily misunderstanding that straddle the line between the real and the fantastical. In the autobiographical micro-story No tengo miedo (2012), she represents the feeling that we have all experienced of being eaten alive by fear and uncertainty. Power Paola is working at a cafe when a Chinese dragon-faced monster dressed in a Hawaiian shirt appears. In a matter of seconds, the monster swallows her, and she begins to float in his bowels, caught in the rabbit hole of her own bottomless ruminations. Herrero’s work also explores similar themes, but where Power Paola’s style is punkish and dreamy, Herrero’s is its own brand of Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical painting. In her frames, giant, static, faceless figures—often turned away from the viewer—are depicted inside eerily empty spaces, more often than not in complete silence. Unlike de Chirico, however, Herrero fills her frames with brilliant watercolor reds, greens, and blues.
The work of the Catalan cartoonist was all the more interesting when compared with that of queer Australian cartoonist Tommi Parish, most recently the author of The Lie And How We Told It. In the strips on view, Parrish navigated the precarity of relationships: a couple talks about the girl’s difficult relationship with her father; a mother apologizes to a son, saying that she tried her best; two friends break off a conversation because one of them does not like talking about the other’s homosexuality so openly. As with Herrero, the figures are massive agglomerates of lonely matter, cumbersome yet fragile beings. Of all pieces here, Parrish’s were probably the most aesthetically pleasing, not only because of the beauty of the colors and drawings, but also because of what went outside of their frames—personal notes and colored traces were left in the margins, turning these strips into unique pieces bearing the mark of the artist’s process.
Gabrielle Bell and Lauren Weinstein’s pieces, which followed Parrish’s and Herrero’s, respectively, were more unusual. Not because they were less accomplished, but rather because both authors move confidently within the boundaries of classic graphic novel and memoir. Both like to flood their strips with running commentary, speech bubbles, and plenty of humor. Bell’s Gabby Goes to the Dentist (2017) recounts a time she went to NYU Dental School to have her “cavity-filled mouth” taken care of. Thinking about her college-aged dentist, she comments, “He is a sweetheart and it’s a pleasure to get so much attention although I suspect he only loves me for my rotting teeth.” In a follow-up titled The Collectors (2017), she fights with the same doctor over her medical bill, only to have bill collectors forcibly abduct her from her apartment six weeks later. Weinstein is much more scorching and militant. Most works belong to Normal Person, a semi-regular strip Weinstein draws for the Village Voice (and indeed, as befits a newspaper, there is rarely a strip in which politics does not figure prominently). In Ramona’s First March (2017), Weinstein describes the experience of bringing her daughter to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., and the feeling of hope this experience elicits in her. In Summer, 2017 (2017), she portrays people fretting over the threat of Trump’s presidency while engaged in typical summer activities. The difference in tone and outlook translated into the drawing style: Bell’s is quite classical—six frames, showing stylized figures drawn with black ink, every frame freezing an action in time. In comparison, Weinstein’s works seem deliberately rough and chaotic. The best example of this was Woman’s March DC (2017), a strip that combines protesters, banners, and text boxes merged into a whirlwind of graphite.
A visual language of the same sort is used in Fleener’s works, which closed the exhibition. The pieces came from her graphic novel biography of beat poet Diane di Prima who is, in effect, an avatar of Fleener herself. Fleener draws in a signature style she calls “cubismo,” which recalls the work of Mexican muralists in its tendency to remove naturalistic perspective and pack each frame with multiple scenes and characters. The influence seems unmistakable in at least the first page of the comic strip, where Fleener introduces Di Prima’s grandfather Domenico Mallozzi, an anarchist and free-thinker. In the space of a small, crammed frame—divided into two by an image of a closed fist emitting light—the highly stylized, mustached grandfather is seen both lecturing to a crowd and reading Dante’s Vita Nuova to his granddaughter.
Though by no means comprehensive, Global Alt Comics showcased some of the best established and emerging female and queer creators worldwide. As a reader of ‘highbrow’ literature, it was particularly refreshing to take in stories that used personal experience as raw matter yet avoided many of the pitfalls of much literary memoir and autofiction. The latter often wallows in a sanctimonious search for self, privileging a quest for authentic personal experience as if this alone is sufficient to a narrative. In contrast, the artists and authors in Global Alt Comics express a willingness to transcend personal experience in order to craft a world in which quirks and foibles are indulged but not taken too seriously. I left the exhibition wanting more; but for that, one can turn to the books.
BARTOLOMEO SALA is an aspirant editor living in New York. He is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail and BOMB magazine.