"Between Gears" by Natalie Nourigat

“Was I ever so young?”  That’s the question that pops into my mind as I read the bio-comic Between Gears TP by Natalie Nourigat.  The answer is: Yes, but I don't remember it that way. One reason is because I lacked the discipline and perseverance to document a full year of that youth.

“Between Gears” is a slice-of-life diary of Nourigat’s senior year in college.  It begins September 17th as she returns to school, and wraps up on June 14th, a couple days after graduation when she moves back to Portland.  “Between Gears” is similar to a blog, or the original diarist, Samuel Pepys, but the comic form makes it more accessible, each page bringing a day to life using only five to ten panels.

I’ve seen many autobiographical comics, but unless the author has a good hook, like in Maus: A Survivor's Tale, or an epic story such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the challenge is for the author to bring structure to daily life.  Nourigat only touches on this tangentially, opting instead to highlight the plot twists that make days memorable: finding a cat in an alley, spending a happy-hour eating nachos with a friend, or a successful trip to Emerald City Comic Con.  For the most part, her microscope finds some interesting moments.

Nourigat has a deft hand for cartooning, jumping from mini-manga, to heavier line caricatures, and tossing in the occasional larger, more detailed drawings.  Most of the style reminds me of something between Scott Pilgrim and Raina Telgemeier's Smile.  I also appreciated the bonus material at the end that describes her process.

As a diarist, Nourigat chooses not to push any boundaries.  There’s not a lot of tension in the comic, especially on any day. The major crises that arise are: tonsillectomy, whether to participate in a Japanese immersion program, and whether she will be successful in her bid to become an artist or whether she’ll succumb to a “salary job.”  (Spoiler: if you're reading “Between Gears” you know the answer to the last question.)  Day-to-day problems concern spiders, lost debit cards, sudden rainstorms, and mildly embarrassing situations.  Even her relationship with a boyfriend arrives quietly like a cat, and leaves with only a slight bump. (Like a dog pushing open a screen door?)

Perhaps because this diary was created to be published, Nourigat omits some of her more personal issues. She mentions this in the bonus material.  Yet, I felt there were too many things left unexplained.  I’m accustomed to an author like Patrick O’Brien throwing a situation out there, and leaving it untouched for a couple pages, but in “Changing Gears,” some things were permanently unexplained.  I read twenty pages before I understood that “J.E.T.” had to do with the Japanese exchange program.  There were also references to her friend Emi’s bio-comic EmiTown that could have been expanded.  Is this on purpose, or due to an oversight?  I would have liked to have seen fewer assumptions made regarding people and events from Natalie Nourigat’s Portland comics world that appeared and disappeared but without much elucidation.

The ending makes a conscious effort to bring the story to a close, and that worked for me. After hundreds of pages, I was enamored of her character, but I was also ready for her to move on to life after college.  Some day, when she’s even more accomplished, she’ll look back on “Changing Gears,” and think “Was I ever this young?” and the answer will be there, in book form, the young Natalie, living life day-by-day on the page of this charming bio comic.
Natalie Nourigat works with Periscope Studios in Portland, Oregon.  Her art can be seen on Deviant Art, and on her website natalienourigat.com. "Between Gears" has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category.

"Oil and Water" by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler

After the fatal explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, the oil spill seemed to seep like a fever dream, ultimately lasting 87 days before it could be capped.  The news of the environmental and economic disaster blanketed news media until eventually the public became inured to the catastrophe, and people moved on. Except, in Grand Isle, Louisiana where the oil remained, seeping into the bayou and coating the ocean’s floor.

That same year, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler traveled to Louisiana to bear witness to the devastation, and to try to understand the event on a personal level.  The result of their visit has been transformed into the graphic novel Oil and Water.

Instead of literally describing Duin and Wheeler’s visit to the gulf, “Oil and Water” depicts a fictional delegation of ten Oregonians sent by the governor to help document the environmental and economic impact of the spill.  Among the group is an ornithologist, a Congresswoman, a reporter and some high school students.  The story is set after the spill has been capped, and the cleanup is in progress.  The delegates visit a bird rescue center, take a trip on a crab boat, talk with the locals and wrestle with their own feelings about the catastrophe.

In addition to the sparse line and watercolor art from Shannon Wheeler, I like the way Steve Duin has decided to explore the issue. By splitting the observers into a group, it provides a way to examine the incident from multiple viewpoints. Much like blind men understanding an elephant, the characters explore the massive oil spill from the edges, finding small parts to the puzzle and trying to fit it all together. This piecemeal discussion not only brings the catastrophe down to the human scale, but also gives an impression of isolation in the face of an overwhelming event.

Still, it’s not all depressing. “Oil and Water” has bits of often wry humor.  For example, when a crab fisherman talks about skipping dinner because he’s worked a long day, the car drives past a local restaurant serving a special on imported Alaskan crab.  Also, in a different exchange, one character questions another whether they know the difference between Katrina, a natural disaster, and the BP oil spill. Although it sounds dry, the dialogue and cartoons make it funny.

It’s a bit frustrating, but the choices they have made in creating “Oil and Water” are also what could potentially lose readers. For example, some characters may seem disjointed.  As I see it, the gaps are choices, similar to the way Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants” never discusses the actual tragedy, but lays out all the facts around it.  This method of storytelling requires the reader’s participation to fill in the gaps, but it could be offputting to some. (Incredible but true, I've met people who don't like reading Hemingway!) I would have like to have seen closure on one particular character that disappeared halfway through the story.

In his role as a Steve Duin columnist for the Oregonian, many of his articles are based on personal slices of life, and “Oil and Water” is as good an example of this as any of his other work. He also co-wrote “Comics: Between the Panels,” a history of comics, with Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson.

Shannon Wheeler is a cartoonist best known for his creation “Too Much Coffee Man,” but also a contributor to the New Yorker, and author of many other books of comics.

“Oil and Water” has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category.

"Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite" by Barry Deutsch

Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite is the second "Hereville" book from Barry Deutsch. In the first book the heroine Mirka outwitted a witch, won a magic sword, and defeated a goblin. In “Meteorite,” Mirka re-ignites the feud between the witch and the goblin, and ends up bringing down a meteor on Hereville.  Fortunately for the town, the witch changes the meteorite into a twin of Mirka, called Metty.  The girl and the meteorite decide to share Mirka’s life, until  Metty shows herself as extremely competent at everything, and Mirka feels useless.  She challenges Metty the meteorite to three tests. If Metty loses to Mirka on any one of the tests, the meteorite girl must return return to space.  Unfortunately, Metty is so good at everything, Mirka starts to despair whether she will ever get her life back.

“Meteorite” does a nice job of expanding Hereville. It seems more like an amalgam of modern life (or, maybe the 60's) overlaid with a template of 1900s rural living.  For example, at one point the goblin refers to NASA, but Mirka doesn’t seem to know the acronym.  She is also confused by a design tattooed on the witch’s arm.  All the clothes look like handmade articles, but a scene of Mirka running down a street of craftsman bungalows with a VW Bug parked at the curb looks like NW Portland. Could it be that Deutsch is dropping these small hints as he prepares for a larger story?

The ultimate resolution to Mirka's predicament is as clever, exciting, and satisfying as any fairy tale. And it is a fairy tale -- witch, goblin, magic swords and all.  But, it is also a modern story. Mirka is a self-rescuing princess, and the world she comes from is woven from a rich tapestry.  Like the first book, I enjoyed the infusion of Jewish culture into the story.  Deutsch annotates many of the pages with footnotes translating the Yiddish words that the characters use.  The effect adds a solid touch of the exotic to Hereville.

The artwork is competent, clean and engaging.  His mastery of the characters shines through. For example, Metty is drawn neater, happier and more confident than Mirka, who has a slightly frazzled look.  The slapstick feeling of the art enhances the story, and the final sequence in space goes completely off the rails, shedding all rules of physics and biology. But that’s OK. We still feel for Mirka, and want her to return to her life safely.  And, hopefully, for a third Hereville story!

"How Mirka Met a Meteorite" has been nominated for the 2014 Oregon Book Awards (OBA) in the Graphic Novel category. You can read a preview of the book online. 


List of comics I wish I had time to read

I've been reading (and re-reading) the nominees for graphic novels for the Oregon Book Awards this year.
Meanwhile, I have this other list of comics that I want to read, but haven't yet gotten around to...
  • The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun
  • Stumptown
  • The Legend of Bold Riley
  • Sketch Monsters
  • Bad Medicine, Vol. 1: New Moon
  • The Creep
  • Upgrade Soul
  • Alabaster: Wolves 
  • Blacksad: A Silent Hell 
  • The Black Beetle 
  • The Secret History of D.B. Cooper 
  • The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln 
  • Finder: Talisman
  • Crogan’s Adventures
  • The Yellow Zine
  • Jumbo Deluxe
  • Wings for Wheels, “Home is Where the Boss Is”
  • Heads or Tails
  • Skin Deep: Exchanges
  • A Comic Guide to Brewing Coffee
  • Grandville
  • Bucko
  • Heads or Tails
  • Once Upon a Time Machine
  • No Straight Lines
  • Creepy
  • The Devastator
  • Smut Peddler
  • Poorcraft: The Funnybook Fundamentals of Living Well on Less
  • Terra Tempo: The Four Corners of Time
  • Devastator #7
  • Fame and Misfortune
  • Decrypting Rita
  • High Crimes
  • The Legend of Bold Riley
  • Polterguys