Favorite Comics of 2015: "HAX" by Lale Westvind

Written and Illustrated by Lale Westvind
Published by Breakdown Press

At one point in the spring of 2015 there were three consecutive weeks where when I went to the comic store and came home with: Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve #14, then Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats #4, and then Sammy Harkam's Crickets #4. Each was prominently displayed on the table near the entrance. You could close your eyes and imagine this was what the world of comic retail was really like: a work of art from a major talent worth getting excited about each and every week of the year.

But the three weeks passed quickly and after that it was back to the status quo. Good artists don't make any money so years pass between occasions of their small pamphlets making it to market. Legends in the game are out there hustling $100 commissions on their Twitter accounts. And, increasingly the only ways to buy many good comics are either schlep your ass to one of a growing number of regional festivals or order online from small web stores, generally run by the artists themselves.

Despite this current, awkward delivery system, I was able to get my hands on Lale Westvind's HAX. It's a 24 page, soft-covered, stapled, four-color risographed comic published by Breakdown Press in the UK. It’s expensive for the format (£8) and requires overseas shipping, so buying online is less of an option and few have even been seen in the US. I got mine from Comic Arts Brooklyn, where Breakdown Press sold out of nearly everything they brought. HAX is the best looking thing Westvind has done in her career and feels like a culmination of her previous, slightly more available projects, like her Hot Dog Beach and Now and Here comics. For my money, it was the best comic of the year.

HAX is silent: there is no dialog or sound effects. The action of the comic is made up of three or five, or many women who traverse environments, battling airplanes and hooded figures as well as each other. The women look like Gods. They are broad shouldered, and stand with their feet spread apart, as if primed to throw a punch. They have bolts of electricity coursing through and off their bodies, and they collide and wrestle and stare off across ancient, volcanic vistas. At times Westvind’s pages can initially resemble the faces in Karl Wirsum's Hairy Who comics, but the effect is different. It looks like Westvind was jamming these lines onto the page fast and desperately with a brush clenched in her fist. You can imagine her making the sound effects to herself while drawing the motion lines of solid objects slamming into each other and the glass shattering . She is certainly not sitting back and filling in her panels with Wirsum-style ornamentation and curvy lines. There are few curvy lines in HAX -- it’s all straight or jagged. It is the most kinetic comic I read this year.

It's difficult to tell what is going on from panel to another, and for that matter, it's not always clear what is happening in any single panel. But the arrangement of the panels appears to be connected, and depicting continual action from panel to panel -- at least some of the time.  Another comic, Ding Dong Circus and Other Stories by Sasaki Maki, also published by Breakdown Press this year, tends towards even less narrative connective tissue between panels. In an essay about the manga and the reactions to it at the time their original publishing, in the late 60’s and early 70s, the comics writer Ryan Holmberg suggests approaching the Sasaki’s manga with an "open eye", "forgetting about conventional reading order and letting your eyes be guided instead by the gravitational pull of the overall page composition, as you would a painting or a poster."

Even though Sasaki drew his comic decades ago, it feels as though HAX is in dialog with Ding Dong Circus not only because the two comics were both published by the same small publisher in the same year, but because of the way you read the comics. Reading through the individual short comics collected in Ding Dong Circus you begin to see recurring visual motifs, themes, symbols, and characters.  There would be a similar experience reading through a collection of Westvind's work, especially with recurring character types.  But where Sasaki's comics are oriented towards symbolism and iconography, Westvinds' focus on actual movement and action.

In reference to Sasaki's work, Holmberg says "some people weren’t sure whether their work should be called manga", but no one is questioning whether Westvind's HAX is a comic. It is sitting confortably within the world of today's art comics of the Jack Kirby meets Fort Thunder type. And it may be interesting to compare her comics to Anya Davidson, Michael Deforge, or other artists working in a similar context, but with all of art history so easily available now, contextualizing art across decades and cultures, and between two admittedly different-looking comics, is a great pursuit for a small publisher and helps you look with different eyes.

In Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino makes stories emerge from tarot cards arranged in a line. I tried reading HAX this way, with the comic’s images / panels read as architectural elements depicting pieces of the story. Read this way, there are no consistent characters or actions from image to image. And that works for some of the comic, and bringing so much of yourself to a comic is a fun exercise. But to stick with the tarot approach, you have to ignore a good deal of what your eyes are telling you.

One undeniable sequence where this style of reading fails is on the bottom half of page 11, where three or five women appear to drink from the ocean, as if they were the Chinese man in Claire Huchet's Five Chinese Brothers, and then spit out the water as lightning bolts towards the airplanes divebombing over their heads. With tarot cards the action happens off-page between the panels, but there are too more panel sequences like the one above, depicting specific actions, for HAX to work as a tarot card style reading.

The best way to read the comic is to think of how you would watch the video that Westvind animated for Lightning Bolt's song, The Metal East. In a music video, loosely connected narrative sequences can be pieced together without any expectation of narrative resolution or even cohesion. The images are there to support the song, the music binds the images and sequences together, and fills in the gaps. A comic doesn't have music to pull it together. All it has are a couple of staples and 80 years of history telling you to read it a certain way. But if you look at HAX with the same eyes you use to watch The Metal East video, you can push back against that history a bit.

HAX is available from from Breakdown Press' online store.  Lale Westvind also has a few available from her personal online store.