“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers

 

“Hot Comb” by Ebony Flowers. Drawn and Quarterly, June 18, 2019. 184 pp. Paperback, $22.95. Teen to adult.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review. Visit the store or contact them at fablesbooks@gmail.com to find or order this or any book reviewed on this blog.

Quick note about upcoming workshops with comics artists I’ve reviewed: Frank Santoro, whose “Pittsburgh” I reviewed last month, will be giving a one-day free workshop in that city in March. And across the pond, Gabrielle Bell, whose “Everything Is Flammable” I reviewed in 2017, will be teaching a workshop in the French Pyrenees in June. That one’s not free, but surprisingly affordable given the setting, and scholarships are available.

 

With her debut “Hot Comb” topping “best of 2019” lists at outlets from “The Guardian” and “Publishers Weekly” to “Forbes,” you might think that Ebony Flowers must have been a kid prodigy doodling incessantly, making zines, and setting her sights on becoming a cartoonist. The real story is that she drew her first comic only eight years ago, in 2012, when she signed up on a whim for a class taught by comics grande dame Lynda Barry.

Flowers had just landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and signed up for Barry’s class on a whim. She ended up writing and publishing sections of her dissertation in comics form. She now calls herself “cartoonist, ethnographer, teacher” on her website.

“Hot Comb,” a collection of short stories with a good dose of autobiographical content, reads nothing like a dissertation. As you might guess, all of the stories center on hair. “It’s hard for me to disentangle my experience as a black woman . . . in America from my experience with hair,” Flowers explained to the “Chicago Tribune.” The stories address stereotypes, microaggressions, and structural racism, but also joy, self-love, and the way hair can help forge positive bonds between women of color, especially black women.

Flowers especially highlights that positive-negative tension in the segues between her stories, where she inks one-page parodies of the hair care advertisements that used to fascinate her as a child:

Under Flowers’ brush, the real-life brand “Summit” becomes “Pinnacle,” and other brands morph to “Pro-Aide” and “Kinky Mane.” One ad hawks regal “Lion King” and Black Panther themes, another nonsensical promises of “DNA hydration.” Glorious more than insidious, these ads serve to both parody and honor, highlighting the complicated mix of pride and self-critique that has made black hair products profitable since at least the time of Madam CJ. Walker. “Through playful criticism,” Flowers explained to the “LA Review of Books,” “I’m conjuring up a future in which black women can be viewed as inspirational while loving their hair.”

Those familiar with Lynda Barry’s work will see immediate visual connections between “Hot Comb” and the best qualities of Barry’s style: Flowers’ drawings value exuberance over fussy perfection, and revel in awkwardness within both the art and the narrative. See this page, for example, from the title story:

Characters—especially their hair and bodies—break out of panel boundaries, and the varied textures of not only hair, but also fabric and upholstery, are painstakingly feathered and crosshatched.

This page and this story highlight a multitude of comics’ unique possibilities, such as the ability to more viscerally convey all five of the senses, not just sight. Note, for example, that the scent of ammonia wafting between hair and nose in that long middle panel spells “ammonia” in tangled cursive, actively blurring the boundaries between text and texture.

Visual texture is one of Flowers’ standout strengths. Her panels burst with contrast and pattern:

Every element of this page has a texture: the only true white spaces are a t-shirt sleeve and a kitchen floor tile or two. Lines run lengthwise, crosswise, and diagonal, the shading balanced rather than busy. The page as a whole contains a lot of visual sound, from the subtle click of the beaded curtain to the loud black “quacks” entering from the bottom right, enticing the reader to turn the page. Any parent or caretaker who treasures a few spare moments of restful silence will be able to relate: it’s as if the visual textures cushion and protect the mom’s brief page of peace.

Flowers also varies her panel size and progression. “My Lil Sister Lena,” a story about the only black girl on an all-white softball team, holds one of the best examples of her dynamic panels. In this sequence highlighting the sister’s obsessive-compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania), which is triggered by the team’s unwanted fascination with Lena’s hair, there are no repeats in angle or perspective, despite the uncharacteristically high number of panels in this 24-panel grid. Every panel moves the story forward, even the two blank ones:

“‘Hot Comb’ will be a mirror for some people and a window for others,” Flowers has told more than one of her interviewers. “Growing up, I loved getting my hair done by my mother,” she told the “LA Review of Books.” “It was our special time together. She was the mother of three children and worked two jobs. I treasured sitting with her on Sunday afternoons while getting my hair braided.” Many of the characters in the book share secrets and rambling stories while doing each other’s hair. Of course hair is about identity, and sometimes vanity, but “Hot Comb” highlights how it can also be about paying attention, showing love not through words, but by spending time being fully present with another human being.

“Rusty Brown, Part I,” by Chris Ware

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review. Visit the store or contact them at 574.534.1984 or fablesbooks@gmail.com to find or order any book reviewed on this blog.

”Rusty Brown, Part I” by Chris Ware. Pantheon, September 2019. 352 pp. Hardcover, $35. Adult. 

“Sprawling” is an adjective frequently applied to the visual and narrative style of vaunted comics master Chris Ware. The above image is only a section of the unfolded cover of his new book, “Rusty Brown, Part One,” but it well conveys the nested, insular, and almost maddeningly complex narrative mapping for which Ware is famous. (See my review of his 2012 book in a box, “Building Stories.”)

“Depressing” is an adjective frequently—perhaps most frequently—applied to Ware’s characters and their stories. In “Rusty Brown,” however, though the characters’ lives are often bleak, the book culminates in an expression of the type of hope and determination that keep Ware’s characters—and, really, the human race—going, even in the face of despair. “Books can’t tell us how to live,” he explains in a recent ”Guardian” interview, “but they can help us get better at imagining how to live.”

As well as how not to live, as some of the characters in “Rusty Brown” suggest. The book runs one by one through the stories of seven protagonists, introduced at the start of the book with film-like credits. The names are all very similar: for example, “W.K. Brown as W.K. ‘Woody’ Brown.” All of the characters either teach at or attend a small private school in Omaha, Nebraska. Though the real-life Chris Ware is associated with Chicago—he lives in the suburb Oak Park, populated by Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and patterns that echo throughout his work—he grew up in Omaha. “Rusty Brown” could be an alternate, “what if?” universe for Ware, especially since an art teacher at the school shares his name. Continue reading ““Rusty Brown, Part I,” by Chris Ware”

“PTSD,” by Guillaume Singelin

“PTSD,” by Guillaume Singelin. First Second, February 2019. 208 pp. Hardcover, $24.99. Adult, maybe older teen (some graphic violence).

“PTSD” opens with the elements: wind, rain, cold and other forces beyond human control. A woman named Jun, striking for her red hair and eye patch, navigates a dark city teeming with sights, smells, sounds, and textures so rich as to be claustrophobic. A veteran, Jun spends much of the story struggling for control of her self, her life, and especially the addictions she’s been unable to shake since the war in which she served as a sharpshooter.

Continue reading ““PTSD,” by Guillaume Singelin”