Monday, September 19, 2016


Forget two, there are actually four certainties in life:

Death, taxes, Batman and the fact that international surface mail takes a ridiculously long amount of time.

Arriving by sea, finally, last week was a package from family friend, proud Torontonian and occasional creator of adorable cartoons, Amy Lee. It contained three comics released at this year's TCAF held all the way back in May which showcase not just the depth of talent in the independent comics publishing world but also the thematically and culturally diverse selection of comics available. Plus, the three books all somehow smell deliciously of chocolate. Not sure how Amy managed that one but as she has designated herself the TCAF elf, I'm guessing she's actually at least part magic.

All three of these books seem to have completely flown under the radar this year and should be hunted down post-haste. Here they are.

By Ken Dahl
Published By Secret Acres

Part sex ed brochure, part body horror tale, part relationship drama, Ken Dahl's (the pseudonym of Gabby Shultz) Monsters was first published back in 2009 and was brought back to life in print this year by Secret Acres. A surprisingly gripping comics pseudo-memoir, Monsters is the "partially autobiographical" story of Dahl's struggles with the herpes virus, how it overcame every aspect of his life from the sexual to the social, the shame, the guilt and the embarrassment that it caused and the choices it forced him to make. 

In Dahl's book, the character of "Ken" is blissfully unaware he has herpes until he infects his long-time girlfriend. After the relationship breaks down, Ken moves from New York to Arizona and the book chronicles the years between 2002-2007 unflinchingly. The ring of brutal truth is apparent on page after page of comics that paint the character as by turns a sympathetic and grossly selfish protagonist, an outcast fallen from the peaks of sexual adventure to a repressed monster reduced to masturbating into his sink.

Dahl literalises the virus, covering his comics alter ego in a gelatinous, germy bubble that grows and builds as his guilt and his sexual needs consume him. The virus is at times also something of a confidant, offering advice on sexual conquest and appearing at inopportune moments to voice its opinion. 

For the reader (well this one anyway), sex briefly becomes as repugnant and confusing as it does for Ken, with a kind of Cronenbergian body horror building throughout the narrative and its imagery (Dahl's recreation of images from a Google search for herpes is perhaps the zenith of this, with mouths and genitals resembling something from a Bissette/Totleben Swamp Thing comic).

As dire as things seem for Ken, the narrative slowly takes a turn when he begins to actively seek knowledge about the virus. It's here that the comic morphs from autobiographical comix confessional,à la early Chester Brown, into sexual education with Dahl taking a symbolic trip into the depths of the virus itself over the course of some striking, Dave Cooper-ish, and extremely informative pages.

Monsters is an important book by a vastly underrated creator. It feels very much must-read to me. It's the kind of project we need more of in comics - grippingly told, disarming in its honesty and visual representations of nakedness and sexual encounter, scientifically informative to the point of being revolting and yet ultimately de-stigmatising in its blending of fact (the sheer number of people carrying the virus is staggering) with a heartbreak and alienation-filled memoir. It's proof again that comics can do anything.

By Cathy G. Johnson
Published By Koyama Press

Cathy G. Johnson's Gorgeous is a slender and beautiful little piece of comics, a 54 page graphic novella that's delicate and lovely and packs some narrative surprise along with real visual poetry.

On a dark but clear night three lives intersect briefly but memorably thanks to that old narrative chestnut, the car crash. Sophie's a college sophomore on the way to something very important to maintain her scholarship. Two nameless punks, one male, one female, are on the way back from a particularly bad gig, swerving all over the road. The female punk briefly catches a glimpse of a "gorgeous" light somewhere off into the distance, something unearthly in its rareness. Johnson employs a great little trick here, as her character sees the light and everything else in the world washes away including the voice of her boyfriend, his crossed out words indicating their unimportance to the moment:

The female punk's boyfriend is dismissive but it's this light that links her to Sophie in a surprising way as the trio hole up in an all-night diner post-crash and wait for sunrise. As good as this little story becomes, it's Johnson's ability to create a rich and atmospheric landscape that takes Gorgeous to the next level.

Johnson's graphite-drawn lines are by turns rich and sharp and smudgy. The sharp features of her characters softened by delicate grey textures. Several double page spreads show us the tree-lined surrounding landscape morphing from snowy night to crisp new day. A perfect half-moon hangs in her night sky while stars glow with the softness of fairy lights above a canopy of pine trees. Her newly minted morning is bright but moody, with grey clouds streaking above a mountainous world slowly revealing itself below. 

Gorgeous is a book that lives up to its title. A beautiful little slice of comics poetry. 


By Stanley Wany
Published By Editions Trip

Stanley Wany, Montreal-based creator of artfully psychedelic comics, follows up last year's stunning Agalma with the equally strange and appropriately dreamy title, The Dreamcave.

Three young hunters leave their remote African village in search of the ancestral spirits that have deserted their village and the land. Tracking a mortally wounded lion, the hunters stumble upon something to answer all their tricky metaphysical questions - a dreamcave, an access point to the spiritual realm. Within, the potentiality for shamanic transformation awaits...

Wany has once again produced work that lulls readers in with a gentle pace and an escalating strangeness. Here you'll find lion men, spirit worlds and between the cave itself and the village's "ancestral tree" more archetypes than you can shake a Jung book at. Much less abstract than the preceding Agalma, The Dreamcave is just as seductive and contains more of Wany's beautiful double page murals at its end. Grant Morrison really needs to tap this guy for some Heavy Metal shorts, he's as distinctive and beautifully surreal a comics maker as you'll ever stumble across.

By Madeline McGrane

Having a roam around her site, it’s clear that artist Madeline McGrane likes vampires. A lot. With short comics such as Vampires at the Beach and Vampire Western available it’s tough to choose just one to feature, but I went with Old Friends, in which her striking cartooning, creepy woods (I love her flora) and ability to evoke a folkloric atmosphere shines. It’s really good stuff. Read the rest of her work while you’re there as there’s a lot more than just vampire comics on offer. Time for some longer pieces, methinks!


Staying firmly in the alt-comics world, this week's video is Manly from that pop-psychedelic weirdo mastermind Jesse Moynihan. As we await the eventual arrival of part 3 of Moynihan's brain-melting Forming, an epic trilogy that reconfigures all manner of creation myth into a lysergic swirl of Kirbyesque fisticuffs and Saturday morning cartoon, what better time to take a similarly cosmic trip with Manly, the cartoon creation of Jesse and his brother, Justin. I will say no more save this: strap in...!

See you next week.

See you next week. Love your comics.

Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory ( You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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