Rich Kreiner: Minis Monday

Posted by on July 26th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Don’t Hate, Menstruate; a Menstruation Station Comic
And Mermaid Hostel
By Jen Vaughn

If there was one comic at the inaugural Maine Comics Arts Festival that generated some genuine, non-cliffhanger-related suspense, it would have been that of Jen Vaughn. Would there be a second issue of Menstruation Station? (Could there be?) How exactly do you follow up “Menarch Aboard?”

As it turns out, you show up at the second Festival with two new comics.

“Don’t Hate, Menstruate” is Vaughn’s 24-hour autobiographical comic. In most ways it is even more uninhibited and humorously framed than her first foray into the subject. This frankness stems directly from etched episodes and hard-won knowledge arising from the breadth (and a bit of the depths) of direct experience. Couple this source material with a) the ability (and willingness) to make light of bloody personal drama, b) a cheeky attitude abetted by c) the unavoidable adventuring of a 24-hour comic. The mix of practical information and funny bits should be eye-opening for the biologically exempt (everybody should have so candid and entertaining a sibling) and I can only imagine how warmly it would be greeted among the Greater Amalgamated Sisterhood. Moreover it makes a terrific companion piece for Cathy Leamy’s Greenblooded considered here in last Monday’s forum.

Vaughn’s second offering, Mermaid Hostel, represents a pronounced departure from her nonfiction funnies, starting with its scale (8 ½” by 11”). Coming from her Web comic, Hostel is a nurtured fantasy that, with this volume, is just getting on its feet. Or rather on its merflippers.

The action takes place at the underwater Shellington Hostel (and it’s hard not to picture as its inspiration the Coolidge, the neighboring hotel of The Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.). In this book, Vaughn is busy with introducing characters, establishing tone, presenting the features of the unique, alien environment and building momentum for what promises to be an involved narrative of backstory, immediate actions and future developments.

For those characters, Vaughn begins with stock figures — the responsible romantic lead, the amiable lunkhead handyman, the immediately intimidating outsider who turns sympathetic with a little understanding — but often gives them little half-twists. The subsurface world’s devices and corresponding conveniences are conceived and rendered with an intuitive imagination: Think of a combination of inventive children’s conceptions with The Flintstones’ problem-solving and mechanical conversion bolstered by Gould’s Tracy-like arrows and labels. There is a pervasive and intriguing undercurrent of established religious propriety throughout the proceedings which (I can’t help it. It’s just me I know …) offers a bit of novel foreboding. While the comic is pitched to the young at heart, it is not exactly kid stuff.

The transition from Hostel’s Web origins to paper edition has its drawbacks. The single-page entries make the story episodic and punch-line-dependent to varying degrees of success. As it translates here, the gait of the overarching narrative can be uneven and blunted when read as a single, seamless tale although there’s no reason to doubt that, once the foundations are in place, development will smooth out and pick up steam making greater empathy and involvement possible.

There is some reason to believe, though, that Vaughn would benefit from if not an editor then a sympathetic administrator of tough artistic love. I’m thinking here of someone who’d catch grammatical shortcomings (Menstruate’s “our mom’s” for possessive and plural) and yarnspinning hiccups (Hostel’s interlude of kitchen-sink schoolin’, as in “Kelp, family member of brown algae[,] is burned to make soda ash, the thickening agent found in toothpaste & ice cream”). Away from figuration and more conventional scenes, Vaughn can be a casual draftswoman, a feature accentuated by Hostel’s size. Maybe this is a byproduct of the nature of computer tools as opposed to her inky handcraft elsewhere. Or maybe that suspicion is just me as well, hoisted on a personal sticking point, a maxim held over from the days of Guttenberg: “Don’t hate, paper create.”

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