Leslie Stein, “Eye of the Majestic Creature Vol. 2” (2013) & Lisa Hanawalt, “My Dirty Dumb Eyes” (2013)

Eye of the Majestic Creature cover

I have a difficult time properly summarizing Leslie Stein’s comics. Are they whimsical? They certainly are in spots, but one can’t really say that’s a consistent tone – the comic often deals with difficult subject matter, from awkward stuff to downright distressing family issues. But the way the comics tells these stories, not just in Stein’s cartooning, or in the regular injection of fantasy or absurdity in the margins (the anthropomorphic instruments, Larry’s obsessive hobby being counting grains of sand), but also in the sort of quieter, introspective approach to them – it seems to drift from moment to moment, never focusing too much on one thing, allowing itself to be uncluttered by extraneous details. It’s a mode that remains evident in this volume, even with the protagonist more tied down, with a regular job in the city – the tendency is towards capturing a series of small events, even when working under a larger sort of narrative as in the first story in the book.

The collection of short stories in the middle of the book are prime examples of that. The longest of them, “Jonathan”, is a perfectly low key sort of strange personal story, one that interestingly backgrounds Larry to instead focus on her mother and other adults (could that possibly be because it was published on Vice as its own thing?), and exemplifies the very odd, specific kind of experience that typifies these comics. The other stories follow the same beat, encompassing subject matter that is light (“That Sticky Machine”), indirectly personal (“Brown Heart”), or straightforward adolescent realization (“Lithium”), or, in the case of the last story, all three at once (just replace “adolescent” with “adult”). It just seems that no matter where the stories go, they never try to get bigger or more pronounced than they need to be – they are treated seriously, but deftly handled in a way that makes them very approachable. It is enjoyable to follow the lives of these characters, and they never feel particularly distant or exaggerated (even when we’re talking about those anthropomorphic instruments, who have their own little stories in here.)

I also noticed that, as a continuation of the previous book, there is an underpinning to many of the stories that seems to be examining the idea of stability in life. As mentioned before, the book gives Larry a regular job and a new home, and while this doesn’t completely change the course from the last volume, it has a major presence in the first and last stories. In “Sister Carrie”, the problems of urban life, which includes Larry’s dissatisfaction with her job, seem to be resolved by the end, but it continues again in the final stories, leading to another big status quo change, much as what happened at the end of Volume 1. Real stability just doesn’t seem in the cards, and in this way, the two books not only parallel, but are in keeping with the drifting feel of the entire series.

my-dirty-dumb-eyes-cover

Hanawalt’s comics usually seem to work with two major elements: the very naturalistic, detailed illustrations, and the absurd, exaggerated ideas and details. Now, either of those can be funny on their own (her descriptions just seem to pop a little bit more when we have a near-immaculate representation of the thing she’s describing on page beside it), but often times, these two kinds of drawings are mashed together, juxtaposed in such that they enhance each other. Sometimes, it’s just spices up things – the accurate renderings of Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman on her “Stoic-Heroic-Autistic” scale sort of make that joke – but in other places, it’s applied wholesale, as is the entire concept of the “animals-in-hats” pages, or in many of the standalone illustrations, like the drawing of flowers coupled with penises. The drawings work so well that sometimes they are downright horrifying – she takes advantage of that big time in “Extra Egg Room”, where it becomes nightmarish body horror.

The animal imagery alone in her work is the biggest beneficiary of this. While there are stylized animal drawings throughout My Dirty Dumb Eyes, in most of her longer pieces, they are drawn “realistically”, often down to the really tiny details – and, as mentioned before, that enhances the humour of the drawings. One thing that brings out the humour is the animals’ low range of expression – they have one very generalized kind of look that never really changes, which is fun to contrast with the weird things going on around them, as in the hat drawings. It also makes it a little easier to feel sympathetic for them as characters – the “Therapy” strip works by having the “deerdog” just sort of doing deerdog things (also highly contrasted with the frightening pancake-faced therapist, with that relentless, plastered-on grin), and while we can understand the situation in “Moosefingers”, I can’t help but feel that the moose lady just looking like of an actual moose makes it a little sadder (Hanawalt sort of talks about this with in her piece on War Horse – concluding that it and movies like it are always about “projecting human ideals, emotions, and and symbolism onto animals”, which is probably what I’m doing here.) Maybe this is just a personality thing that brings out these thoughts – maybe being innately sympathetic towards animals makes me think one way, while someone without that sympathy would just find the drawings gross. The thing is, they could still work for someone in either mindset.

It’s also interesting, then, to compare that to the way she often draws people, where she takes complete advantage of our range of emotion. The faces are often taken to extremes, contorted and warped, or they can be given the more subtly goofy looks – either way, humans seem more often to be absurd figures, which is where a lot of the fun in those drawings are. Meanwhile, the fun in the animal strips is often that the absurdity happens AROUND them, and they just sort of endure it in their animal way.

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