Panel Patter highlights Clyde Fans, The River at Night, Creation, and Hot Comb

“Mike's Favourite Comics of 2019” / Panel Patter / Mike McCann / December 18, 2019

Clyde Fans

I was utterly mesmerized while reading this book, and I would have finished it in a single sitting had I not started it at ten o’clock at night. Clyde Fans is a tale of the breakdown of the (North) American dream, of the broken promises of mid-century Canada, of the failure of post-war optimism as the decades clicked past. But it’s also a story of family, specifically two brothers Abe and Simon. Abe is arrogant and self-assured if somewhat depressed, even during his decline. He is a classic anti-hero, and he recalls the hamartia of Greek tragic heroes. He’s somewhat abrasive and ultimately unlikable, but he is also the lens through which we see much of the story unfold. Simon is equally frustrating and frustrated, suffering from both crippling social anxiety and a lack of support from his boisterous brother. The book functions as a meditation on privilege, namely how well one can succeed in the Western world if you are born into privilege. The decline of the Clyde Fans business is by no means sudden, and even the less-than-reflective Abe can pinpoint mistakes. That he shrugs it all off speaks exactly to the level of privilege that blinded him.

Stylistically, Clyde Fans is almost monochrome, told through hues of blue, black, and gray. The pages manage to be both subtle and crisp, and Seth’s Canadian landscapes, alternatively fertile and sparse, are one of the major benefactors of the color scheme. The book itself is an unintentional study on style. Seth himself comments in the afterword on the stark contrast between his drawings from the beginning to the end of the book, and it’s something I didn’t notice upon first read. Seth’s drawings at the onset – 1999, mind you – are wavier, less geometric. His panels are larger panes, and he makes use of the surrounding setting much more. By the end of the book, his style has coalesced into a more intricate and novel panel structure, preferring small drawings and a more geometric pattern. I hesitate to say that Seth progresses from Fauvist to Cubist, but there is something in the change from waves to forms that is striking upon second read. That this change occurs gradually and reflects the dynamic progression of Abe and Simon is one of those unintentional Easter eggs resultant of genius.

Creation

There are a number of great experimental books this year that play with either form or structure to provide a new experience. Nickerson’s Creation is non-linear and a little stream of consciousness, but it’s how she plays with illustrations that makes this book unique. People are formless, but recognizable – think the Ped X-ing sign or the AOL Instant Messenger mascot. Her inking is deliberate, just enough to provide contrast between big items. Most of the book, though, is pencil shaded without any inking, and thus it takes on a sketchbook effect. Nickerson paints an even bleaker picture of modern Canada, specifically Hamilton, and the perils of alienation. She contrasts the dread of loneliness with the burden of motherhood – one is entirely isolated almost by the fact that they’ve managed to create a life and bond with it permanently. Creation is also the story of generations, of what created Sylvia herself, all the layers and reflections of memories that make up one person come to the forefront for a reckoning. The result is a book that is sharp and clean, but also very thoughtful.

The River at Night

Perhaps no book looked better on its paper stock than Huizenga's Ganges collection, the culmination of nearly a decade and a half of comics starring the titular hero who is part Walter Mitty, part Don Quixote. A book like The River at Night is a manifesto for reading physical copies if there ever was one. Sepias, blacks, and blues cover Huizenga's pages on richly textured matte pages, thick and almost magazine-sized. Each page is rich and expansive. Huizenga plots masterfully, alternating between panel size and cramming content onto the page without making it ever feel crowded. Glenn Ganges is a wonderful character, a great pair of eyes through which to view the world. He is thoughtful and introspective, and Huizenga's exploration of his mind and subconscious provides an incredibly entertaining read. It is remarkably easy to get lost in Glenn's thoughts after he himself has ventured down his own subliminal rabbit hole.

Hot Comb

This is another book that connects personally with me because Dr. Flowers grew up close to where I live and work, and the stories she tells remind me of my students. Hot Comb is a reflection on youth through the lens of black hair. For our kids, hair is a very important aspect of style and personality, and that idea is infinitely magnified for a black female, who may have to endure a painstaking regimen to feel confident as a young lady amidst the shark tank that is the school playground. Flowers, who is a first time graphic novelist and a relative newcomer to cartooning as a whole, offers us touching stories of youth and revelation. Her stories aren’t about anything necessarily large, but they feel infinite in their scope. Hot Comb is certainly about the hardships of growing up, and it uses the metaphor of hair – hair that needs to be greased and pulled and ironed and treated – to drive home this theme. But more so than that, it’s a book about understanding the world around, learning those little lessons that come with age, or finally growing old enough to understand adults’ secrets. Flowers’s illustrations are free flowing and natural, and in both her art and tone, Flowers recalls Lynda Barry, who blurbs this book and is the godmother of this entire subgenre. Flowers creates more refined satiric magazine-style adverts to act as separators between each story. They’re funny enough, but they also stand as a start contrast to her more playful, immediate style of her panel work.

There is a great amount to relate to in this book, regardless of one’s background. But certainly, this book is yet another great ambassador of its culture and message, marrying the pains of growing up with the specific trials and tribulations unique of hairstyles. Black hair functions as both a plot point and a metaphor. It’s easy to misunderstand, and it’s especially easy for people outside the culture to take for granted. Don’t touch black people’s hair. Especially lady’s hair. To be fair, don’t really touch anybody’s hair. As a bald man with a shaved head, I can relate to this phenomenon as many people still find the need to rub or pat my head. Though, one of my favorite moments as an educator is when, while reading aloud to students, I looked up and there seated in the back of the room were two girls, one white and one black, each one playing with the other’s hair. The white girl curled the black girl’s hair around her finger before letting it pop off and starting again. The black girl ran her fingers through the white girl’s long hair, pausing every so often to deposit the loose strands onto the floor. Who knows how hard either girl worked that morning for their do, but in that moment they seemed like one. Hot Comb brought that memory back for me.

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