A lot of this Fall has been about slowly revisiting works published around TCAF this year. Top of the stack is Virtual Candle, a 132 page full color paperback book from Space Face Books. Published as the first major collected edition of Grant Gronewold’s comics and illustration work (under the nom de plume HTML flowers), Virtual Candle also collects pictures of Gronewold’s stick and poke tattoos.
It’s challenging to call Virtual Candle a comics anthology; Space Face calls the book a monograph, although that definition seems a little wide given that Gronewold seems to be as comfortable writing poetry as he is drawing comics. Virtual Candle is broken up into 4 sections, each a different face of the same artist.
Gronewold’s comics and illustrations are a combination of smudgy graphite and bright colored pencil, often on colored paper. The comics in Virtual Candle are impish and irreverent; the first third of the book, titled “The Twins,” shows two fluffy humanoid troublemakers going on adventures, committing crimes, and being friends. I watched Gronewold read from “Twins Just Want to
Have Fun,” at TCAF this year and I was struck at the time by how genuinely funny the comic was. With the Twins’ disregard of authority and a corresponding lack of any real consequences for their actions, Gronewold’s art at first feels anarchic and playful. But as the book transitions into its middle, and towards shorter comics, Gronewold’s work takes on a different tone; a hopeful intimacy, a draw towards the resiliency of life. The sprouting plant is a symbol of hope against hope; Gronewold finds escape in growth and nature. In his illustrations, yet another face – one of fear and resignation, illness, pain, and abandonment. Nebulizer masks, bandaged stumps, bleeding eye patches all litter the work. The book is completed by a collection of pictures of Gronewold’s stick and poke tattoos, all of which echo previous themes; there’s a sense of intimacy in these images. Gronewold is essentially drawing on people in the comfort of their homes. There again, a disregard for authority, which echoes in the tattooing practice’s unregulated nature. In the final image, we see Gronewold giving himself a tattoo, clubbed fingers hiding behind a latex veneer.
The collection drove me onward to one of Gronewold’s recent minis, No Visitors #1, which is a 56 page collection of comics, drawings, and poetry in black and white with a 2-tone cover from the Gilmore Boys 2015 Care Package (the Gilmore Boys being Gronewold and Simon Hanselmann). Throughout Virtual Candle and No Visitors #1, Gronewold’s recurring images (a sprouting plant held in open hands, the bulbous spider, the hideous jack-o-lantern sun, the crawly caterpillars) fill up empty spaces, making
panels and pages cacophonous.
Unlike Virtual Candle, which casts a wider net on Gronewold’s work, No Visitors #1 is tightly focused on Gronewold’s
health/drug issues, which include cystic fibrosis and a history of methamphetamine use. Guides to hand hygiene, coping strategies, laboratory blood test requests, and Gronewold’s medical record number from the Monash Medical Center appear alongside drawings of patients in gowns with bandaged missing body parts, wearing nasal cannula, eye patches, or face masks. Dispersed throughout are short comics that detail the way in which Gronewold’s stand-in character Little is talked down to or othered due to their chronic illness. Gronewold’s dismissal of authority in Virtual Candle is present in No Visitors #1, an earned distrust. One spectacular example, “It’s… Not So Simple,” shows a doctor recommending drug therapy without fully understanding Little’s previous medical history or the side effects the medicine may cause. It’s a powerful moment. But Little also has a fierceness and insistence which is reminiscent of Virtual Candle – cutting their hair in a hospital bathroom, refusing to use the derogatory language of a nurse or social worker asking about their drug use.
Very few comics are so blatant, so blunt in their display of personal struggle and conflict as No Visitors #1. Gronewold examines his mortality in ways that is at times cool and clinical, and at others hot like tears. Some, maybe most of it is hard to read. Together, these books paint a picture of Gronewold as an artist rebelling against a broken body and exploring the relationship between life, pain, and death. It is remarkable how vivid that painting is.
HTML flowers @htmlflowers is an artist who illustrates, writes, raps, writes and draws comics, and does tattoos. You can buy his work at the Gilmore Boys BigCartel.