September 11, 2014

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SPX Spotlight 2014: Mari Naomi and Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

After spending some time in the world of YA, it's time to turn to arguably my first love in terms of the indie comics world, autobiographical comics.

Though I did not start following her work until a few years ago, Mari Naomi quickly moved into my must-read pile when I started reading her short and honest stories when prepping for the first time she was under the SPX Spotlight.

It's actually those stories, originally appearing on TheRumpus.net, which make up the bulk of the comics collected here, in which Mari weaves in and out of her life, talking about her friendships, relationships, family, and anything else that comes to mind that might be interesting to her readers.

That last point--interesting--is in the eye of the reader, of course, but I think she succeeds overwhelmingly (there are over 350 pages of comics in here, after all) in choosing parts of her life that readers can connect to, even if their personal life path was nowhere near as varied as her's. For example, the opening comic, Dragon's Breath, is about how she loved so much about her grandfather, whether it was blowing smoke in her face or fighting against a doctor's prognosis. But after he passes on, she learns so many things about him that make a completely different picture: He beat his wife and opposed her father's marriage to Mari's Japanese mother.

Which is the true grandfather? Mari's not sure, just as I'm not sure which version of my grandmother I'll remember--the vile, cruel drunk who manipulated my mother nearly to the grave or the woman who took me downtown, considered me her own son, and never failed to protect me when I most needed it against my own parents? I don't know, and neither does Mari.

That's what makes an autobiographical comic stand above the rest--the fact that you can immediately connect. When you combine it with Mari's illustrations, which range from making her grandfather a benevolent dragon, a spiral-eyed racist, and a sitcom pop-pop alongside versions of herself that go from cute child to mature adult to a slowly dying kid that ends up as nothing but a skull, the effect is so powerful as to almost cause a physical reaction.

Different comics in Dragon's Breath will cause different reactions depending on your experience, but it's bound to touch you somewhere. Maybe it's when a young Mari doesn't understand why a snake in the house has to be killed, or the moment when she realizes she doesn't have to obey her parents in everything they wish her to do (a lesson that would significantly impact on her in her teens), or dealing with the neighbors when a relationship is doing downhill to the point of shouting. Perhaps all of those will register with you. It's amazing how many of Mari's stories have echoes I could easily understand, despite the fact that we led very different life paths, with the exception of both being queer.

Dragon's Breath itself move roughly chronologically through Mari's life, starting with stories of her childhood and progressing to just a few years ago. Time bounces around a bit, and the comics themselves were not written in this order. That means a 2011-written story might appear after one from 2012. For a different creator, this might be a bit jarring, but Mari's style shifts based on the story (one is done on a black page with white linework, for example), so it's not as noticeable.

One of the things I really like about Mari's work as an autbio author is that she does change things up on a regular basis. While I enjoy the work of others, their static style means that a heartbreaking moment and a silly one can get the same panel layouts or visuals. Mari has a very different approach. Her pages can be heavily text-based, if she needs to explain things. Want to show emotional distance? She'll put barely anything on the page, leaving the white space to enhance the feeling. If the story requires a lot of sequential work, she'll give us panels. Need a more shifting, open narrative? That's easily accomplished as well. It reminds me a lot of Anne Thalheimer or the limited work I've read of John Porcellino, where there's no set form to how the comic has to look.

Before I finish, I want to touch briefly on the art itself. I love the fact that Mari works hard to make herself look different as times goes on (presumably to match the way she appeared during those times). She also does a great job with contextualizing her stories. While she is more than willing to use white space for effect, we also get details that range from a vision of a cave to what it's like to encounter someone in an odd place, or show a tree she associates strongly with a memory. We really get a good picture of what she's thinking of when we shares her memories.

Make sure that you stop and see Mari, she'll likely be at the 2D Cloud table, and may have her 2012 book about her romantic life, Kiss and Tell, around, too.

Can't make SPX? You can find Mari on the web here.