When I attended Comic Arts Brooklyn (CAB) at the beginning of November, I came away with two books published by Retrofit/Big Planet that I had missed out on so far in 2016. The range of comics published by Retrofit/Big Planet is always rather diverse in style, tone and content, with the unifying factors seeming to be unique vision, commitment to story as communication between the creator and the reader, and independent art styles. The two books I picked up couldn’t be more different, and yet they both testify to those unifying elements listed above: We All Wish For Deadly Force and Hellbound Lifestyle.
We All Wish For Deadly Force is a collection of short comics by Leela Corman, some of the contained stories more long-form, and some as short as a single page. The media of the art ranges widely as well, from colored pencils, to inks, to black and white, to grey wash, showing Corman’s own flexibility in choosing format to suit narrative. You may be familiar with her powerful graphic novel, Unterzakhn from 2012. Some of the stories in this new collection are autobiographical and address her recent life, including grappling with PTSD following the loss of her young daughter and the impact of her second daughter’s birth and presence in her life.
Not all the stories in the collection deal with trauma, but Corman unabashadly stares down pain and suffering, and teases out conflicts in life that women, particularly, face. Corman pins down, verbally expresses, and visualizes aspects of human experience that may seem virtually impossible to share with others, and does so with great determination and compassion for herself and for others. She brings the same directness and incisiveness to all the stories in this collection, reflecting on the role of the cartoonist to bring experience to light for readers. In this collection, Corman has really reminded me that storytelling is truth telling and the comics medium has unique abilities to convey truth to readers.
Hellbound Lifestyle, by Alabaster Pizzo and Kaeleigh Forsyth, is wildly different in art style and tone than We All Wish For Deadly Force, but it may sneak in more truth-telling about modern life than expected. The narrative structure is built around the interaction of the protagonist, Kaeleigh, with her smartphone, where she keeps a patchy diary, sends and responds to texts, and is sent into spirals of self-doubt using apps like Instagram. Laced with dry prose, broken sentences, and set up in counterpoint to Pizzo’s equally restrained artwork, the book is deeply funny and has such solid pacing that you’re likely to convince yourself read it all in one sitting even if you don’t intend to initially.
When I realized the format of the comic would focus on a smartphone, I did genuinely wonder how the creators would manage to tell a wide-ranging enough story to keep me interested. I was overwhelmingly proven wrong since what we see presented in this volume is clearly only the tip of the iceberg in what could be narrated from our character’s life. Lifting details from the wallpaper of daily life in a city, the creators suddenly present those details in a new, absurd light. And you become convinced that the things we put up with every day are absurd and as the tide of absurdity rises, sometimes humor is the only recourse for survival.
From freaking out because her Instagram photo doesn’t get enough likes and concluding that she’s “not psychologically fit for social media” to realizing that taxis follow her around because she looks “conspicuously helpless”, the observations in Hellbound are all- too-realistic for many of us. For that reason, it gives us a new way to look at things, and a way of addressing the sense of being an outsider in the world we were born into that stalks us all.
If you’re a comic reader who ever feels that mainstream comics just don’t contain enough realism or human connectivity, looking to books like those published by Retrofit/Big Planet is clearly the way to go. These lovely and attractively square bound little books can make up for months of encountering too much superficiality in any form of media. You won’t regret trying them–you’ll be in awe of what these independent creators manage to convey, panel by panel.