Advance Review: 'How I Made the World': youth goes right onA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin, Justin Giampaoli, Keith Silva
Liz Plourde and Randy Michaels use their final-round Xeric Grant resources to create a story about a wannabe writer/artist who is initially introduced as a likable protagonist with a plucky carefree attitude. I was a little hesitant about dipping my toe back into the largely quotidian affairs of (mostly autobiographical) self-published comics after a five year stint and five-hundred-and-twenty-one reviews as a critic at Poopsheet Foundation, but a quick glance at this package and it looked as if the creators had more to do and more to say than mere navel-gazing. In short, I think they do have something valuable to say, but it's not relayed in the most effective ways possible.
I confess that I was ultimately left puzzled by some of the creative choices and troubling issues with this, err, issue, but I'll start with a few positives. The art is nice. To my eye, it felt like a blend of Terry Moore and Adrian Tomine, with a valiant stab at the emotive qualities of the former, and an inkier more variable line weight rendition of the latter. The figure work is very strong and the backgrounds are generous. I think Michaels does a good job capturing moments of humor or self-doubt, which can be difficult to pull off visually. As a fairly ravenous college dude, I appreciated Liz's near-obsession with food, it rings true from a character standpoint; in addition to being a means to an end, allowing the character to stumble onto the idea for her sculpture project.
The book is titled How i Made The World; however, the title of the issue is prominently displayed as 'The Monster.' The advance PDF we received didn't come with a cover art, so to the untrained eye it'd be easy to mistake the title of the book as 'The Monster.' Perhaps this is the first issue of more planned issues (?) since the indicia says ''Vol. 1 No. 1,'' and 'The Monster' will then just be used functionally as a chapter heading (?). It was also never made clear to me why the letter 'i' is deliberately lower-case. I found Liz's advisor and some of the other school officials to be too catty and casual in the way they held what should have been professional conversations with Liz. I found some of the phrasing to be awkward, sentences that required reading an additional time or two to glean meaning, and sometimes they'd even shift tense mid-sentence. Liz's advisor says that the sculpture class has been full for three weeks, but suddenly ''BINGO!'' and she's in with no explanation. For me, this was emblematic of a recurring problem with the page-to-page transitions feeling jerky.
Lest this review sound equally jerky and devolve into a litany of grievances I rattle off, let me dive deeper into a structural item. After the pre-credits scene, Plourde and Michaels open with a recurring dream that many of us have had -- that old ditty about showing up to a college class during finals only to realize that you forgot you took the course and haven't done a single thing all semester. It sucks. Now, if you paid attention to dream interpretation in Psych 101, you know that in your subconscious, school is never out. Life is always a test. This is why you may experience panic in this dream scenario, but you typically wake up prior to actually taking the test; life, the test that never ends. Professionals will explain this dream is about general anxiety over not paying attention to an aspect of your life. The class is a symbol for something you're accountable for, with an emphasis on the high stakes of formal written tests in the modern academic system. In the waking world, most of us are not so disorganized and illogical that we'd enroll in a class and forget about it for a semester, but in the dream-world, the emotional brain trumps the cognitive brain, yadda yadda yadda.
Please forgive the long-winded detour into dream analysis. My explanation is an attempt to understand why Plourde includes it in the story. What element of her life is Liz experiencing anxiety over that caused the manifestation of the dream? Where does it thematically connect to the rest of the narrative? If it's going to ultimately play this disjointed, then why include it at all? I kept looking for Chekhov's Gun introduced in the first act to be used by the third act. It wasn't; which makes it one of Quiller-Couch's darlings and therefore singled out for murder.
I enjoyed the idea of the Carla character, sort of a manifestation of the muse, but her Tyler Durden meets The Sixth Sense denouement was telegraphed so far in advance it robs the reader of any sense of discovery. Perhaps with more restraint in dialing back the clues, there would have been space left for the audience to participate i.e. the story about the girl killed in the fire, the Led Zeppelin predilection, Liz never going upstairs to check out Carla's work, I mean, come on, you don't need to be a trained Federal Investigator to suss it out; the jig was up long before Carla tells Liz: ''Your snoring could wake the dead.''
Michaels illustrates the 'satori sequence' with a beautiful simplicity that feels like it would build and swell to… something, and then the story abruptly ends. Oh, there's also a back-up story, Catman, because Catman.
With some additional refinement, I think Plourde and Michaels have the makings of a quirky college age tale of self-expression. As is, How i Made the World plays like a long wind-up for a sophomoric concept about the act of creation and how life is like the journey vs. the, oh never mind -- you get it. Art is about the process and not the product.
Hey Silva, have you had the one about looking at yourself in a mirror and then all of your teeth start to fall out? The one about self-image? I hate that one.
Nah, man, all my dreams are about 'Clean' in mirrored shades and something called 'the Matrix,' sounds cold, wet and grey. Also snakes.
How i Made the World brims with potential and earnest charm. As you point out Giampaoli, the story in and of itself is pedestrian to the point of being hackneyed. And yet I believe Plourde and Michaels are on to something -- their talents are obvious and there's something to be said for setting a bar at a moderate height and not overreaching. Credit each with not adding needless quirk to the setting or characters (piercings, undergraduate funk or teen angst) Ditto the need to fetishize the art school oddball beyond the goofy sculpture teacher. These are average white kids in middling surroundings. How i Made the World feels very personal in a way a first work would/should. Again that doesn't make it bad, only a first work.
Plourde has the voice of a born storyteller, the innate ability to spark anticipation in a reader, to cause one to lean in as if proximity will yield the answers faster. I admit for as obvious as this story is at times, I didn't catch on until about three-fourths of the way through and even then I wanted to see how it would play out and not out of spite or indolence, I wanted to know, I had to know. Point Plourde.
Liz, feels very familiar. She possesses that relatable and very human impulse to pour procrastination, anxiety and laziness into a cocktail shaker and take slow sips. This 'me/we' quality to Liz feels sincere in a 'got the t-shirt' kind of way rather than making her an annoying twenty-something. The reader roots for Liz and I would guess, the closer one is to Liz's age and station the louder those cheers will sound.
As much as Plourde gets her character and knows how to make Liz appealing, like many writers Plourde suffers from a need to narrate, everything. Not always (thankfully), but enough to be noticeable, it's like Plourde doesn't trust the reader to understand the mundane actions playing out on the page. When Liz waits outside her advisor's office in a vain attempt to register for the chimerical 'Introductory Poetry,' she says, ''Every time I show up unannounced at my advisor's office, I find myself sprawled on the stairway, waiting for her to get off the phone.'' Michaels draws Liz's narration verbatim, right done to the sprawl, the stairway and the overheard phone conversation. Why? None of these details need to be told once they're shown.
Later, when Liz gets her 'Bartleby' on, she explains how her days are spent rereading 'Harry Potter' and the reader knows this because she's shown lying in bed reading … well, you get the picture, literally. This is less nitpick and more as an example of how Plourde and Michaels's voices still need to develop. Michaels needs to speak up -- as the artist, he should be the one to suggest Plourde cut the needless narration when the picture tells the story -- or Plourde needs to trust her artist and the reader. A comic is about mark making or better yet, editing marks for maximum impact.
The synchronicity between Michaels and Plourde occurs during the full page montage sequences of Liz doing the heavy lifting of creation. Plourde's words and Michaels pictures capture the exact essence of those lonely hours spent in empty rooms pounding away at making the block less and less uncarved. Michaels uses silhouettes and designs each page to elicit a surreal feel without relying on cliché. In these pages Liz's inner monologue becomes part of the composition, it adds weight and meaning -- it makes its mark, indelible and ineffable.
Randy Michaels is a cartoonist to watch. He possesses a Jamie Hernandez sense of reality, of what real people look like, how bodies move and how make a character feel real: the slouch in Liz's shoulders, the anatomy of foot vs. flipflop and the air of personal accomplishment. When Michaels goes beyond the duty he bears to illustrate Plourde's words he demonstrates how sequential storytelling works and how a conversation flows between panels, between people, be they living or not. His uses of overhead angles when Liz and Parker are on the beach and when Liz enters the classroom for the first time keep How i Made the World from appearing like a Mark Trail of Brenda Starr strip. Michaels makes people and places believable. Slice-of-life comic often prize idiosyncratic style over substance. For that reason alone Michaels work is refreshing in its clear, concise and conversational approach.
How i Made the World -- that lower case 'i' is going to drive reviewers batty -- doesn't hold up to too much scrutiny (says the guy who's written nearly 800 words and counting!). This is not a shallow story, only one in search of more experience. The backup story, Catman, delights (in both simplicity and again, charm) and makes me hope Plourde and Michaels have more plans for little Liz and Liz the young artist. I'd pay to see more of her Calvin-ish sense of imagination, deferment and adventure. These are the short stories, I want the novel. I want more. I want to see this world evolve, how it gets made.
Nobody ever asks me about my dreams. It's probably for the best, as I always forget them upon awakening no matter how fitful the night's slumber had been.
But I know there was a time when I would dream large. That was a long time ago.
** ahem **
Well, fellas, you two are certainly wearing your big boy reviewer pants here, but alas, I think they are beginning to show their age. How far away the three of us are from that procreant urge of youth? All three of us are in the capital 'I' phase of our lives now, what with careers and families and bills to pay every day. Hell, in a couple of months, I'm even planning on attending my 25th college reunion!
And I think it is our distance from the ferocity of our juvenescence that has led us to make the type of 'criticism' of this work that we are. How many years have passed since either of us, ''just in case someone reads it someday'' penned our ''immature exploits into the abyss?'' How many sun cycles have we toiled under since we fully pondered the cosmic pod?
What is ''The Monster'' here, if not that painfully in articulable self-absorption of youth? You remember when we were awash with the single truth that we had something incredibly important to say, that achingly profound purpose to our existence that had to be uttered in order to save the world, that consuming compulsion that turned us into versions of Sherwood Anderson's Grotesques?
No? Of course not. Were we to dwell on that for too long we might realize that our weight has shifted from message to waist-line and indeed we've grown old.
How i Made the World is about access. It explores the time in life when the individual is still ill-defined, the lower-case 'i.' When we still feel as if we are seed vessels harboring and nurturing greatness within -- the excitement of energy, of everything being new and self-created and important and OURS for the world. Nothing seemed more imperative or essential then the expression of … whatever it was back then, when we could embrace the notion that ''the ugly little details made life beautiful'' instead of distracting and ponderous and mundane.
How I Made the World is an immature work because it could only explode out of that song of Blakean innocence that can't help itself but be awkward and teetering and obtuse in its expression. Language and craft can't contain the unutterable. When those in its throes try to express the moment, it becomes something else and loses so much in the cloak of experience.
And I applaud Plourde and Michaels attempt to capture that creativity only youth can illicit, and I grow wary of our grown-up words trying to codify and label and critique. We are too far from the moment to feel its enormity and understand its expression, but rather we stomp through our steps as 'reviewers' instead of receivers.
My initial reaction to How i Made the World echoed what the two of you have written above. My big boy pants fit comfortably and no one would ever lay claim that they made me look fat. But after ruminating on my criticism and reading your words, I understood that we were the wrong people to be talking about this book. We have grown old, gentlemen, and, in doing so, have begun to get musty.
Could Plourde and Michaels take another stab at How i Made the World once they have spent more time on their craft? Would it be better?
Perhaps now would be a good time for all three of us to re-read E.E. Cummings' ''old age sticks'' to find the answer.
Oh, and by the way, though they elude me still, my dreams probably have something to do with sandwiches left uneaten.
How i Made the World goes on sale in June. Diamond Order Code is: APR141257 Contact Liz and Randy at email@example.com
Justin Giampaoli, Keith Silva and Daniel Elkin exchange emails, enjoy sandwiches and each one waits patiently to buy the other two a round or six. Folllow: @thirteenminutes, @keithpmsilva, @DanielElkin or visit Thirteen Minutes, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?, Your Chicken Enemy respectively.