From M Train by Patti Smith.
From M Train by Patti Smith.
By Snezana Zabic
Scholar and teacher JoAnne Ruvoli was a friend of Packingtown Review from day one. When we were just starting out a decade ago at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she was a wealth of support and advice. She had served as an editor at Other Voices, another journal that had once been housed at UIC, so she warned us ahead of time about the challenges of running a lit mag, but she never failed to also encourage us to persist.
Back then, JoAnne and I were grad students assigned to the same severe and outdated office in the concrete tower called University Hall, equipped with the furniture from the ’70s and a desktop computer from the ’90s. The floor was worn-out linoleum. Instead of windows, there were slits of thick glass all but swallowed up by the gritty concrete columns that made up the wall that faced the campus and the city beyond. Despite its uninviting look, the office was a warm and calm space thanks to JoAnne’s presence.
We prepped and graded in that room, and held office hours that our students rarely attended. We talked a lot. About our skepticism of academic institutions and its hierarchies, about our love for old-school singer songwriters and Beat poetry. A native Chicagoan, JoAnne told me about her city’s past, and I told her about my no-longer-existing home country.
We talked about our futures too. I would talk her ear off about the journal a few of us grad students were starting, and I did my best to rope JoAnne in. She would tell me about completing her dissertation on Italian-American literature and about her job search, and she successfully resisted my peer pressure.
While she opted out of taking an editorial role in Packingtown Review, she remained a journal whisperer behind the scenes for several years filled with growing pains and small victories. Along with moral support and expert advice, she contributed a review essay for our first print issue before she left Chicago to pursue her scholarship and teaching. When we made our digital comeback in 2013, she contributed a review essay on Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. At the time, she was a Visiting Professor at UCLA. Next, this academic life took her to Ball State.
I saw JoAnne only a few times after she finished grad school. I will not forget her.
. . .
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own; touch of love;
on the brain, the ear.
. . .
Diane di Prima, “Revolutionary Letter #4”
By Kristin Summerson
Gretchen Hasse’s web comic Freaks’ Progress tells the stories of unique characters against the black and white backdrop set in a place not-Chicago-but-Chicago-like. Hasse’s characters jump off of the pages of the comic, telling tales filled with harsh moments in their changing neighborhood.
As of the time of this review, there are three chapters published, with more promised on the horizon every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Akin to character studies, each chapter so far has focused on one or two characters, their struggles within the city, and the problems they face and must overcome, always ending with a note of hope for the future. The first chapter introduces Lupita and Hazel, two best friends who want to start their own radio show, and Martin, Lupita’s older brother who sells his artwork to help out his family. Chapter two focuses on Max, who may or may not have ties with the mob. The chapter also features Jorge, Lupita’s and Martin’s father, and Reynaldo, an intimidating man who looks out for his own and employs Max. The third chapter focuses on Martin, but also on Fred, the owner of a coffee shop and good friend of Martin’s. The cast list makes the readers anticipate upcoming narratives centered around new major characters that will be developed in future chapters.
Hasse’s skillful use of photography as the background for her comics is beautiful and haunting. It gives a sense of reality to support these already believable characters. The art style catches your eyes as you sweep over the panels looking for the tiniest detail because you know each detail captures an aspect to the story. The panels are mainly in black and white, but Hasse adds a dash of color here and there (like one of the character’s shaded glasses and the neon lights of the bar’s name) to the scene or the character. One of the visuals that sticks with me is in Chapter Three: The Benevolence of Madmen page sixteen, has a black and white close-up photo of the moon as the background with emojis dancing around in the sky. The panel alone resonates with me, but in the context of the chapter… Well, just read it for yourself.
As the comic is on a digital platform, Hasse has a lot of artistic freedom, and she makes use of it very well. In Chapter Two: What You Know, on the neon colored coffee house there’s a blinking pink “e” with the whole sign pulsing as if electric. You can almost hear the buzzing emanating out of the screen. Even the tiniest detail adds flavor to each panel.
Hasse does more than a flickering neon light, however. Each of the three published chapters so far has at least one song accompanying the reading. The comic will tell you which song is playing and you have the option to click on the “Jukebox” section on the website and jam out to the amazing tunes as you read. It’s a whole other aspect to immersion as you read and experience things alongside the characters. The music adds so much feeling to the narrative, it would be a shame to not listen while you read. The only recommendation I can give would be to open the music tabs before reading so the pesky YouTube ads don’t hound your precious reading time.
The chapters have undertones of serious issues affecting every corner of the States and not just the snapshot of this city. Race, class, society, identity—all problems sink into each of the characters and suffocate them, but they push through.
All-in-all, Hasse’s digital comic Freaks’ Progress is an ensnaring visual story filled with a colorful cast of characters. Hasse’s manipulation of different art styles brings the stories off of the screen and straight into your heart where you see the world, hear the world, and feel the world as they do.