Sometimes during a move comics will end up getting shuffled off somewhere that leads to me not reviewing them in a timely manner. Or at all; I’m sure I’ve lost a comic or two during a move before. The good news is that when the comics reappear (like, in this case, by checking under a mound of other nonsense in my car), it’s like there’s a brand new Caitlin Cass book waiting for me. This comic tells an ambitious story in a tiny package: the entirety of history before civilizations. Caitlin takes us through the very first forms of life, the length of time it took for them to get up and running, the various setbacks to life that almost ended all life on this planet several times, followed finally by the extinction of the dinosaurs. Um, spoilers I guess, in case you thought the dinosaurs were still out there somewhere. She also designed it in the same manner as those old “find out whether the boy likes you” hand puzzles from grade school, meaning it was impossible to get a second sample up here to show you. But you know her work by now and that it’s always amazing, so I doubt you’ll need much more convincing this time around. It’s Caitlin telling the history of the world before people were in it, what more do you need to know? $6
Rest Stop Brochures for the Not-So-Distant Future
Hey look everybody, it’s basically four new comics from Caitlin on one convenient package! Yes, I’m only showing the cover for two of them here, but that’s because I’m sneaky. This is a set of four faux rest stop brochures bundled together, each covering a different topic. There’s Digital Red Tape, where people sign up to be forced to fill out forms and complete busy work to use their phones, which leads to less usage of their phones and a way to gradually reclaim their lives. Next up is Rainbow Boat Tours, where the nicest possible spin is put on a boat tour that takes you through waters that are clogged with floating plastic garbage. Drone Eyes shows you the wonders of experiencing different parts of the world through a drone; these stations are set up at rest stops to help you forget about how much time is still left on your actual journey. Finally there’s The Forum, a place where you can say whatever terrible or objectionable thing that you’d like, and the hand picked audience will still cheer and give you validation. Sure, it’s bleak at times, but these are still some darkly hilarious comics. And if you can’t laugh at times like these… well, that’s probably healthy. Still, you should at least try to laugh.
For any artists out there who have been daunted by Caitlin’s productivity, especially considering the amount of research she has to do for most of her comics, but were perhaps selfishly holding out hope that maybe she wasn’t funny: sorry, this comic should kill off that hope for you. And really, you should be worried more about your own work than comparing yourself to others. That’s just common sense! This is a collection of 50 strips about humans in some sort of peril; more often than not the peril is existential, but there’s some physical danger thrown in here and there as well. These are all single panel strips, mostly reminiscent of New Yorker strips, but funnier than the average example of that type than I’ve usually seen. And bleak as hell, mostly, so adjust your expectations accordingly if you’re expecting a wacky laugh riot full of outlandish hijinx. Subjects include… ugh, is there anything worse than describing the basic outline of single panel jokes? I might as well be telling you where the punchline is heading for verbal jokes. Subjects include ennui, dissatisfaction at the state of the universe and your place in it, an unwillingness to disconnect from the virtual world to join the actual world, the futility of engaging with reality with forced cheer, and kittens falling asleep. One of those things is not discussed in this book of strips, but I’ll leave it to you to suss out which one was the lie. $6
Projections on a Monument
Hey look, multimedia installation can be comics too! Caitlin originally made this for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, and it was displayed in a much larger format for the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. Which must have been something to see, but since this is a website about comics, how does this translate to that format? Pretty well, as Caitlin is basically a master of the form at this point. It’s not much of a narrative story, it’s more of a collections of insights and historical facts from the time around the unveiling. We get to see some contemporary comments on the statue at the unveiling, the reaction of his daughter and a history lesson on what her life was like, the backstory on how the statue came to be (including how it was paid for, picking a location and dealing with problems when it ran behind schedule), a horrific lynching that took place two months before the unveiling and the comments made in real time about the incident, and the reactions of his son from the time (his son Charles was the model for the statue because of his resemblance to his father). So yeah, there’s quite a bit of information in here, including plenty of stuff that I didn’t know. On the off chance that you’re not just buying Caitlin’s books as they come out as this point, you’ll learn a lot if you pick this one up. You really should be getting all of her comics at this point, but if you’re not, then this is as good a place as any to start.
So here’s a question: is this a fantastic allegory for this specific moment in time, or a fantastic allegory for the modern era in general? Opinions differ, I imagine. The cover does a great job of explaining the concept, so I’d recommend clicking on it to see, but basically a group of people decide to lie in an apathetic pile of the ground, doing nothing at all. They have different reasons for doing so, but various levels of apathy and giving up on the world are the main culprits. This is odd but not of great concern to the county at large, this being America and all. The heap gets almost subconsciously organized, but still not towards any goal or reason for being. Finally an outside group decides to step in and help, and this is when things really start taking a turn. That’s all you get out of me, but Caitlin’s stuff is always worth a look; this comic doesn’t do a thing to disprove that notion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been inspired to start an immobile mass of humanity to see what comes of it… $4
Want to get depressed about humanity? One easy way to do it is to learn in detail about how an animal was hunted completely to extinction. Granted, these days there are some basic protections and people actively fighting back against that sort of thing from happening, but back in the 1800’s, boy howdy were people stupid about it. The Great Auk would have been fiercely protected today too, that much is obvious. It’s goofy, harmless and adorable, which would get the letter writing/political campaigns really going. They were roughly three feet tall, couldn’t fly and could barely walk (Caitlin doesn’t state this explicitly but I got the impression that it was named for the noise it made as it was stumbling around). These Auks didn’t have any defenses against humanity and never really had a chance against them. I won’t ruin the depressing tale of how the last few Great Auks in the world died, but I will marvel once again that humanity has managed to survive this long, seemingly in spite of our best efforts. This is a grim story, but hey, where else are you going to be able to see Great Auks doing their thing? And who knows, maybe if enough people read stories like this we really will collectively learn from our mistakes and stop doing stupid shit all the time. A guy can dream… $3
Quick, who out there knows that the Rockefeller name used to be dogshit, in terms or general public opinion? That probably comes as a shock to most of you, as these days “Rockefeller” is mostly synonymous with “ridiculously rich.” Well, that’s mostly because one man was hired to improve his image back in the early 1900’s, and that man was very good at his job. The world would be a better place if he had never existed, or if people with his “skill set” had never come into contact with modern society, but here we are, stuck living in this world. Caitlin takes us through a (brief but dense) history of his work, how he used the son to help convince striking miners that the Rockefellers had their best interests at heart. Well, “striking” is maybe too tame a word, as the workers were in a full blown guerilla war after most of their wives and children died in a fire. Anyway, the younger Rockefeller got them to stand down, which led to a lot of them getting killed through poor safety regulations. Yep, American history is rough. Ivy’s history after this incident is complex, as he managed to introduce the Red Cross to the public, but he was also accused of making propaganda for the Nazi’s. Caitlin has a knack for making minor historical characters fascinating, and she continues that trend here. $3
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.