For those of you who are too young to remember it (myself included), the title of this comic refers to a real thing. There were a few rivers, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s, that were so polluted that they would sometimes burst into flames. Yes, really! This comic briefly details the history of the Cuyahoga River, Chicago River, the River Rouge in Detroit, and the Buffalo River. These rivers were spectacularly disgusting, the the Buffalo River being so bad that some fishermen would intentionally take their boats through the water because it was so acidic that it would burn the barnacles right off the hull. See, and people say that pollution is harmful. Caitlin really packs a lot of information into this comic, as is her way, and once again I learned a lot that I didn’t know/had no idea existed. Each city had their own ways of dealing with the problem, with the Chicago River still being over a decade away from being really fixed. The reactions of the locals was also fascinating, as the man in the street seemed more worried about the perception of them being seen as dummies for letting their rivers get this bad more than anything else. Hey, whatever works, and shame is a potent weapon against dummies. Not always immediately (the words “President Trump” spring to mind), but it eventually catches up to ever the most thick-headed of people. This is well worth checking out, so go buy it from her! Buy as many of her other comics as you can while you’re there too. Eventually she’ll have enough of these books that there could be a whole college class dedicated to expanding on her findings in these books. $4
Look, there’s no reason to sugarcoat it: things are shitty these days (5/17/17, future readers). We’ll be lucky to get through this current mess as a country, and if it does all fall apart we’ll probably take the rest of the world with us. What we need at this moment in history is a little perspective. A reminder that the history of the world is long, and human civilization is a blip on that history. With that in mind, Caitlin was kind enough to provide us a peek into the mind of a rock. Wait, don’t run away! If you haven’t seen her other comics I understand why you’d be a little skeptical. You’ve also been missing out on a remarkable artist, but this comic in a vacuum is a dubious proposition. But you’re wrong, as this comic is delightful. The rock in question does take the long view of history, and worries about how things will change once people are gone. There are things that he’ll… ok, I can’t assign a gender to a rock. “It” sounds mean after reading the thoughts of this rock, but it’ll have to do. Anyway, there are things that it will miss about humans, and about dogs. But this rock is also well aware that it’s immortal, and that none of us can match the perspective of this rock. And it is correct, assuming that rocks were sentient. Yikes, what a life that would be. I’m digressing big time here, so I’ll just wrap it up by saying that this is a funny and insightful comic, with the absolutely perfect ending for a story like this. $5
R. R. Whitehead
It’s history lesson time! Wait, artists, don’t go! This one could affect you directly. Caitlin mentions that there’s some confusion and inaccuracies with regards to the history of the man, but she does an excellent job of going through what it confirmed in this comic. He was a man with a dream, and that dream was to start a colony for artists. Well, that was eventually his dream, anyway, but we learn all about the story here. He eventually married into wealth (after he got over his little problem of already being married, which could maybe have used another few pages but I get why Caitlin didn’t want to make that the focus of the book), which enabled his dream to really take off. We get to see the beginnings of the place, how they tried to make money (making goods while eschewing advertising), how it gradually grew and how people came together from living there. It’s a fascinating story, and the kicker is that Caitlin made this comic while living at Byrdcliffe (the name of the colony), so it’s still a place for artists to visit and create even today. So check it out, artists! Get away from the real world and make some art!
Caitlin (who has to be one of the hardest working artists in comics) has veered off in a different direction for this issue, as it “captures the wordless day dream of a cotton mill worker.” Yeah, I cheated and looked that up on her website, but that was the overall impression I had anyway. Things start off with us seeing a few different women working in the mill. The faces that we can see through the windows are bleak pictures of despair, and the daydream starts with the image sampled below: with the women being completely buried under cotton while the owner made money on their suffering. In this dream the women go on strike, confront the villainous owner and, well, it’s a pretty picture of what reality should have been and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Caitlin often goes into more detail with the historical facts of her comics, but she manages to convey a lot of information here without saying a word. These women were exploited for their labor, they did work under extremely dangerous conditions, and undoubtedly many of them dreamed about seeing their bosses finally get what was coming to them. If you’ve somehow not read a single one of her comics yet I’d recommend starting with something meatier, but if you’re already a fan then this book is gorgeous and another great addition to her ongoing library of comics. $4
Cassie Chadwick: Queen of Cleveland
I haven’t even gotten a chance to review Caitlin’s last comic yet after my old scanner blew up, and she’s already done with another one. Feel shame, slow comics artists! This is the story of Cassie Chadwick, a lady who figured out pretty quickly the easiest way to gets lots of money: by fooling rich people into thinking that she already had money. It was ingenious, even if it didn’t work out too well for her in the long run. Is it getting into spoilers if I say how it turned out for her? She’s been dead for over 100 years. Then again, I didn’t know how it all turned out until I read this comic, so I’ll leave it a mystery for you. Anyway, she married a few rich people (one at a time), conned a few others, did a little time in prison and then figured out that the world runs on gossip. So she very carefully arranged to be seen leaving the house of Andrew Carnegie, one of the more famous rich people at the time, told one person that she was his illegitimate daughter and then let the socialites do the work for her. Something like this would be a little trickier to pull off now with the internet around, but I’ll bet it’s still possible. This is another solid, informative and thoroughly entertaining comic by Caitlin, who is basically a one woman crash course in the history of the strange and disaffected in American history. So have you heard the rumor that I’m the illegitimate son of Bill Gates?
The Index #5: The Scrolls
Don’t mind the weird discoloration in the upper corner; that happened on my end somehow and not from Caitlin. This one ended up in a random corner of my apartment, so I apologize for the lateness of the review. But since this series is amazing I thought a review was still a good idea, and it’s not like a bunch of the reviews on this website are all that topical anyway. Caitlin does an amazing job with the recap in this issue, as she somehow sums up the madness of the past four issues on a single page of text. Yes, you should still read the other issues, but the recap can get you by if you haven’t. This time around John has gone off to look for food and/or an exit, while Susan has realized that they’re in a psychological landscape and that she can eat whenever she wants. As she’s eating she chats further with Diogenes, discusses what exactly he is and learns that the many scrolls in the library are all books that she’s already read. And, as nobody remembers books word for word, they’re only the most important bits of those books, or the parts that she studied and underlined in school. Meanwhile John is freaking out and looking for help from the scrolls, but the only help there is in the form of literature. There’s still obviously more of this story to come, but it doesn’t look like it’s gone on past this book according to her website (unless her website hasn’t been updated in awhile). Maybe she’s putting it together into the first volume of a graphic novel? Here’s hoping, as this needs to be seen by book lovers everywhere.
Buffalo: High Hopes & Dead Elm Trees
Three cheers for Caitlin, who I hope later makes a pile of money by getting these educational but still thoroughly entertaining comics into the school system somehow. This is the rough, stupid history of Buffalo which, come to think of it, is probably why it will never be taught in schools. It’s too grim for the kiddies to learn how stupid and shortsighted the designers of this city were after cars came along. To make a long story short, some dummy came along who didn’t live in Buffalo and then redesigned it around the cars, taking out most of the elm trees (one of the main claims to fame for Buffalo before that) and eventually taking out most of the houses around downtown. And then wondering why people were no longer walking to shops. The elm trees get their revenge later, sort of, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. She also goes into detail about President McKinley and his unfortunate visit to Buffalo, where he was assassinated. What I didn’t know about that assassination was that he was there for a fair, and after he was killed the enthusiasm for the fair had understandably dimmed. And that the financing for the fair was tied up pretty strongly in the future of Buffalo. Anyway, yeah, that’s a lot for a tiny comic to unpack, but she does a fantastic job of it. If you’re curious about the specifics of the printing, this is a fairly basic (but full color) mini comic, with a fold-out insert included. One side of it details the history of the elm trees, the other shows Mckinley’s assassination and the local aftermath. If you want to put both of them up on your wall, you’ll need to get two copies!
The Great Moments in Western Civilization Volume 5 Issue 1: Chicago
Ah, Chicago. This comic is all about how Chicago came to be a city, including all the gory details about their attempts to build a sewer system and their inability to get the meat packing plant to quit flushing the heads of pigs into said sewer. Oh, and this also talks about the fire (you know the one), while delightfully leaving off any speculation that it might have been started by a cow. I grew up about an hour south of Chicago and I didn’t know most of this, so huzzah for learning more about my heritage! Well, not really my heritage, as I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but it’s easier to just say that I’m from near Chicago when meeting people instead of telling them about my hometown of about 3,000 people. The bulk of this comic is done as a large fold-out page, with one side dealing with the origin of the town and the other dealing with the fire and the attempts to rebuild/the gifts received from well-meaning but sometimes unhelpful foreign dignitaries. It’s gorgeous and often funny, and probably should be taught in schools, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s pretty unflinching with its depiction of the meat packing plant. Granted, they are horrible places, and they were significantly more horrible back in the day, but kids are probably not allowed to see such things in school, because why trouble their heads with unpleasant facts? Check it out, learn something about Chicago why don’t you!
The Index #4: Diogenes
Did the comics community as a whole ever get a ruling on the merits of putting a book out in mini comics form vs. putting it all out at once in a graphic novel? Maybe it’s not a problem that can ever be definitively solved. This series, for example, is a series of philosophical discussions that I’m thinking would flow beautifully as a graphic novel. However, Caitlin hasn’t done a lot of comics before this, so maybe this series will get her the recognition/acclaim/$$$ necessary to get a graphic novel together, while if she had just released this all at once as a graphic novel that wouldn’t have given people several issues to get to love this series. There is no answer! Which is a fine way to attempt to start to review this comic. Segue! Caitlin puts a recap at the start of this one, which is absolutely necessary for anybody who picks this up starting with the fourth issue. John and Susan start off in the burning Library of Alexandria with Otlet taking over the index cards. The two of them instantly start feeling useless, but they deal with it in different ways. Susan wants to go for a walk, John wants to take back control of the situation. We learn about Diogenes and it’s not like anything I said here about the guy would constitute a spoiler, but it’s still better to read all about him and his ways yourself. It’s another madcap adventure into the efficacy of constantly categorizing everything, in this case literally as the library burns down around them. This is one of the smarter series you’re going to see, and if you don’t understand it, yes, that is a personal failing on your part. Nah, kidding, she manages to keep it accessible to everyone. Well, everyone who has a natural sense of curiosity and a desire to understand everything. If that’s you, you’re in luck!
The Index #3: The Library
You’ve already read the first two issues of this series, right? Because otherwise I don’t see what you could get out of this one. That’s true for most series that tell a continuing story (not so much for series where each issue is a bunch of unrelated gag strips), and people should already know such facts by now, but this is America, where it’s best not to take intellectual competence for granted. Sorry, you caught me right after I learned that the ratings for this fourth season of “Community” are apparently the best ever, even though the show is a sad shadow of its former self after they fired Dan Harmon. Oh hi comic book! I didn’t see you there in the middle of this word cloud I’m spewing up. This issue deals with the fallout from the previous two issues, as Susan tries desperately to find something to replace the index cards in her life and John tries to come to terms with a new index card. From here we get a history the Library of Alexandria from way back in the day and how it really wasn’t all that great (relatively speaking) when it got burned down. I’ve mentioned how much I loved Caitlin’s art and writing before, but I should also mention her lettering. The words jumble and clash with each other, never to the point where it’s illegible, and it has a very subtle way of adding to the tension of a scene. Unless it’s just her handwriting and I’m reading too much into it, but it serves to make the whole comic more complete. If my description of the story is boring you silly then I’m doing it wrong, but give this series a shot. Your brain will thank you for it later (warning: please consult a doctor if you’re having regular conversations with your brain). $3.50
The Index #2
Which do you prefer: organizing all of your thoughts and trying to make some sense of them or merely writing all of your thoughts down and leaving them alone? Is there a greater truth to uncover by going over all of them, or is the act of writing them all down the greater truth that you were shooting for? If I’ve lost you already then you probably shouldn’t bother with this comic, but for those of you who enjoy the act of thinking, you should latch onto Caitlin’s work and absorb her wisdom. Or lack of wisdom, as who can say for sure? It’s the journey, right? After all, we all know where it ends. Crikey, do her comics ever get me into an existential frame of mind. I’ll have to watch something with a lot of explosions in it after this to get back to being a good American. Anyway, this comic starts off with John writing everything down on Susan’s blank index cards and having a grand old time of it. Susan eventually comes home and catches him, but instead of freaking out and having a dull shouting match, she does something that completely messes with his head: she puts his name on one of the index cards. It’s a simple act, and you wouldn’t think that it would cause such trouble, but Caitlin does a fantastic job of telling the tale of why it would be such a mind fuck. To sum it up: there’s a thoroughly engaging story, art that tells that story while leaving you plenty of little bits to mull over, and a closing line that would be damned difficult to top. I’m looking forward to seeing what else she comes up with over the years, as she seems to be entirely too good at this stuff to be so new at it. The potential for serious improvement out of her comics after she’s already at this level boggles the mind. $3.50
The Index #1
Caitlin manages to nail down the essential problem with so many of the angsty comics in the world in the first few pages: the authors of said comics have invariably had pretty damned good lives, which is itself the cause of all the angst. Lack of adversity can be a creativity killer for sure. This one starts off (after a damned funny but unrelated intro that you can discover for yourselves) with Susan (our heroine) arranging blank index cards on a shelf. Each blank card represented the sum total of the achievements in the lifetime of a single human, and she uses them to bask in her own insignificance. This worked for Susan just fine until her boyfriend John moves in, and he doesn’t like that constant reminder of the insignificance of his own life one bit. Things get a little tense from there, but why should I spoil all that for you? Caitlin does an impressive job with the art on this one, and I’m always up for a story that points out the inherent insignificance of our lives when put into any kind of context. And yes, it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, which makes that “prelude” thing on the cover a retroactively welcome sight. She has all kinds of other comics up at her website, if maybe you need more convincing, or if maybe you just like reading free comics online. As for me, I like the cut of her jib and I’m damned curious to see where she goes from here. No price, so the random price wheel today lands on… $3.25! Damn, that is random.