Ron Hotz walks many lines with his short comics: the line between sketchy and polished; between whimsical and serious; between lucid and chaotic. The way he does this, using different materials and techniques, both narrative and visual, lends a delicious tension to his work that is never resolved. The level and variety of tension varies from comic to comic, with some coming in on the sweeter and some on the heavier side, but it is never absent. Through this tension we get the impression of someone trying to come to terms with a world that is rarely fair, and that cannot be escaped, though it can be survived and even enjoyed. Hotz covers themes from lively friendship through to crisis centre calls, all with a delicate, non-judgmental touch, and he lets us see his process along the way.
Two Fine Gentlemen
Perhaps the most whimsical of the four comics that I’m reviewing here, Two Fine Gentlemen tells the tale of, well, two fine gentlemen who join together in common cause—friendship and conch shells—and enjoy a lovely afternoon. Though whimsical, this comic also contains frontal male nudity before one of the fine gentleman, Mayor Sullivan, is able to cover his penis with a conch shell. He is not naked, however, being decked out in coattails and spats, and does indeed form a lovely figure once his penis is covered with a delightful yellow conch shell. Not that anyone seemed bothered by his previous nakedness, and it seems to cause the mayor inconvenience only in the fact that he might have left his wallet in his pants. Kevin, the cat friend who spots the mayor for the price of a conch shell, chooses to wear his conch shell on his head. The mayor takes the purchase of the conch shell as a sign of their eternal friendship, and declares their friendship for the world to hear in the square, but Kevin’s reaction is less concrete: the expression on his face as the mayor rings the bell to attract attention is embarrassment, perhaps shame. There might be more to this mayor than first meets the eye, and I would not be disappointed to see more episodes involving these characters.
A Boy’s Guide to Wilderness Survival
A short, heart-aching tale that packs in themes of friendship, bullying, and loss, A Boy’s Guide to Wilderness Survival reminds me of those stories we read as children—Charlotte’s Web, The Velveteen Rabbit—that are dark enough to tell children the truth about the world while leaving just enough of an aura of hopefulness to not be completely devastating. The panel structure takes some getting used to, as you read up and down in sets of columns rather than left to right, but the simple rhythm and clever use of the structure to break up the story into tiny chapters is pleasing once you get the hang of it. I would have liked to see more evenness in the panel spacing and alignment, but as it is the handmade quality of the work is emphasized. The artwork also takes this tone. The lines are deliberately sketchy, and the colouring is loosely filled in, as is typical of Hotz’s work. We can almost see the creative process happening as black and white sketches are interspersed with coloured panels whose tone changes along with the mood of the story.
And there are several mood changes in this brief work. It is the story of a boy who hopefully, happily goes to summer camp, only to be immediately beset by a bully. Exploring the woods on his own with a compass for guidance, he comes across a fox who has a terrible tale to tell of the loss of a pup, which is inexplicably communicated to the boy, who displays the generous empathy of children. They are now fast friends, and the boy sees an escape from the torture that he suffers at the hands of the bully. Unfortunately, as the boy returns to camp to grab his backpack, the bully attacks once again and the fox defends the boy. Of course, all that the adults can see is a feral animal who attacked a human, and the dogs and guns are set after the fox. There is a harrowing moment when the boy repays the fox for defending him, and the comic ends with a full-page panel of boy and fox running free. However, an ominous giant moth in black and white hovers over the pair, perhaps suggesting rebirth, which implies a kind of death, and it is up to the reader to decide which ending they wish to believe.
As with The Boy’s Guide to Wilderness Survival and Crisis Centre (reviewed below), Draw Blood draws plenty of attention to the process of making comics. It also highlights the way that comics exist in the world as artifacts: its characters, rather than navigating a world that Hotz has built, struggle to escape our world and go home. They wake up in a confusing, chaotic landscape of letters and numbers and abstract objects, and when they find their way out of what we discover is a cardboard box being used for recycling, they are in a doctor’s office. Hotz juxtaposes clean, black-and-white drawings of objects typically found in clinics (blood tubes, tongue depressors, cotton balls) with colourful, sketchy drawings of a bewildered Franny, Roger, and Howie. Their confusion with the world around them, depicted in chaotic, indecipherable objects that threaten to overwhelm them, unveils the lived experience of patients as they wait for good or bad news, not knowing what is ahead. The anxiety that Franny, Roger, and Howie feel is a mirror for the subtle story of bad news from the doctor that is told in the black-and-white panels. Each story reflects the other and sheds light on it; each experience deepens the affective nature of the other. When Franny, Roger, and Howie are thwarted in their hope that they have found a way home, this is like getting bad news from the doctor and realizing that going home will never be the same again.
In the first section of this work, Hotz briefly and anonymously—and without judgement—tells the stories of clients and staff of the crisis centre where he worked, tenderly and thoughtfully illustrating each poignant anecdote. The stories range from the darkly depressing to the funny-in-retrospect, and Hotz’s illustrations match the mood and tone of each anecdote perfectly. When telling the tale of twin sisters who were sexually abused by their uncle when all they wanted to do was join Brownies, the muted colours and gentle lines of Hotz’s drawings of the girls enhance the straightforward way that he approaches telling the story. When a woman calls the crisis centre and Hotz eventually realizes she has a dissociative disorder, he maintains confidentiality by refusing to disclose that another personality had phoned to talk about her fears of being followed and persecuted. The illustration for this anecdote is a woman’s head, broken horizontally down the middle, the background split to match the divide, with the startling caption, “Did that bitch Bella phone you?!” The blank eyes of the woman indicate the lost sense of self—or the existence of too many selves for one to shine through—and the pops of colour—a bright red splotch, a nasty scribble—imply the confusion that Hotz must have felt, that the woman must have felt. In contrast, the tale of the shitty underpants is illustrated with bright colours and the whimsical feel that we see in Hotz’s other work.
The second section of this comic is comprised of the doodles that Hotz made during his tenure at the crisis centre. They are introduced by a brightly coloured page of circus sideshow–like signposts that are belied by the actual nature of the doodles themselves, which are often dark and inscrutable, peppered with appointment times and cut-outs of official crisis centre documentation. “Violence Risk: Y / N; Self-Harm: Y / N” reads one, demonstrating the boiled-down, clinical aspects of working in a crisis centre, and contrasting the breadth and depth of experiences that were described in the first section. The colour palette is mostly earthy colours, deep reds, mustard yellows, the muted taupe of manila envelopes, and black, the office supply materials representing the daily grind of working in a crisis centre.
These two sections combined form a contrast between the actual content of the work that is done at a crisis centre and the necessary blanching of colourful stories that must be reduced to filled-out forms and yes/no questionnaires that occurs at such centres. I enjoyed this contrast, but the first section was by far my favourite, and I wish it had been longer; I wish the whole comic had been longer.
Writer/Artist: Ron Hotz