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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we finally break Comics College’s glass ceiling (what took us so long anyway?) with an in-depth look at one of the many notable female cartoonists to come out of the alt-comix scene of the 1990s, Jessica Abel.
Abel was one of the leading lights of the alt-comix scene of the ’90s, a warm, observant artist whose richly detailed stories of anxious young people looking for love and success helped propel comics from towards the — if not financial success — then more mainstream acceptance they endear today. And while she may have entered the scene a bit too late to be called a pioneer, there’s little doubt that her work, along with that of peers like Megan Kelso, helped encourage other women to read and make their own comics.
What’s more, she’s been a tireless advocate of the medium, both as a creator and as an educator and editor, shepherding young cartoonists and getting noteworthy work out in the face of a larger public. She may be one of the best ambassadors comics has at the moment.
It might be nostalgia on my part, but I think the best place to be introduced to Abel’s work is Mirror, Window, which collects the second volume of Abel’s seminal series, Artbabe. Befitting the author’s own age at the time, the stories here deal with freshly minted adults who struggle with friendships being tested, young love, making drastic changes in the hopes of improving your lot, trying to decide which direction you want the rest of your life to go and other things that plague modern day 20-somethings. Far from being solipsistic, or indulging in whiny navel gazing, Abel presents her stories with a good deal of grace and even poetry at times; her characters are rich in telling, nuanced details and their behavior suggests an author who has sharply observed the world around her. Really, it’s a killer collection of work.
Abel’s next project, and the one that’s won her the most acclaim so far, is La Perdida, a 250-plus-page story of a young woman who moves to Mexico seeking a different life but ends up involved with some seedy characters. And then things take a turn for the worse. Although it takes some time to get all the ducks lined up in the row — this is a very character-based work — Perdida is more of a straight-up thriller than any of Abel’s previous stories, and also one of her darkest works to date. She also adopts a much looser, rougher art style here, which fits the main character’s seeking, confused tone as well as the violence that occurs afterward. It’s not my favorite comic of hers — I find the main character to ultimately be too willfully naive to root for — but it definitely has its charms and has won enough acclaim to be a good next stop on your tour of Abel-land (definitely opt for the collected version, which is much tighter and better than the serialized issues).
Abel began her rise to prominence with her first, self-published run of Artbabe, which won her a Xeric grant in 1995. Most of the material from those comics are collected in Soundtrack: Short Stories 1990-1996, a swell little compedium that also compiles a number of illustrations as well as some interesting nonfiction, journalistic pieces she did for various alternative newspapers.
As it turns out, Abel is quite good at comics journalism, a notion that Radio: An Illustrated Guide confirms. This is a 32-page comic she did with public radio bon vivant Ira Glass for Glass’ weekly program This American Life. It’s an in-depth look at the acclaimed show and how it comes together. Abel does a fantastic job of breaking down the ins and outs of radio production and what makes a compelling story, and as a result it’s one of her best comics to date.
Abel has had a noteworthy second career as an educator and comics advocate, mainly at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Drawing upon her experience in the classroom she and her husband and fellow cartoonist Matt Madden created Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, an exemplary textbook on making comics. Just about every aspect of comics, from dialogue to scenery to lettering and making mini-comics is discussed at length here, making it the most essential, thorough book on the subject so far.
Madden and Abel are also the co-series editors of the Best American Comics series that Houghton Mifflin puts out every year. These books tend to be more reflective of the instincts of the special “guest editors” that oversee these yearly volumes, but it’s worth noting if just to remark how varied and busy her current workload seems to be.
Finally, Abel has a number of irons in the fire that should appear soon, including a sequel to Drawing Words and a children’s prose novel that has yet to see the light of day. Her most intriguing upcoming project is Trish Trash, Rollergirl of Mars, which Abel has started a Kickstarter project for to help get it off the ground.
Life Sucks has a great hook, combining the world of vampires with that of young adult slackerdom. The notion that vampires have to deal with the same shitty jobs, poverty and unrequited love affairs as normal human beings is a great one. Unfortunately, the book, co-created with writer Gabe Soria and artist Warren Pleece doesn’t go much further than that. It seems mostly content to rest on the laurel of its initial premise and doesn’t really develop the cast well enough to get the reader to care too deeply about what happens to them. Honestly, the book feels like a warmed-over movie pitch, but I give Abel and company credit enough to assume that’s not the case. It’s not a horrible book, but it’s far removed from the type of stuff Abel was doing in Artbabe and La Perdida, and not the first book you should turn to when going through her bibliography.