Pink Juice: Comics and Essays 2008-2019
April 11, 2019
Everyone says that comics will break your heart, but not everyone means it. Or maybe it’s just that not everyone means the same thing by it. I imagine the male artists, whose slick graphic novels are sold in mainstream bookstores and museum gift shops, have in mind something about the wretched torture of genius and craft, or the indignity of comics’ uneven cultural capital. But I can’t know that for sure. Annie Mok means “lack of living wage” and “burnout” when she talks about comics breaking your heart. She means indie comics is still an industry, however much it wants to be something else. Pink Juice, a self-published omnibus released earlier this year, may be one of her last published works.
Totaling more than five hundred pages, the volume collects work from practically this very moment (“Orgasm Addict,” 2019) all the way back to 2008, acting as a retrospective of Mok’s career. It includes traditional autobio comics and essays, weird half-fictional shorts, surrealistic dream narratives, and familiar cartoon pages. This, plus riffs on everything from the Muppets to Egon Schiele, means there’s no single visual style in Pink Juice. Instead, you get to see Mok’s audacious experiments over the years, switching between traditional and digital media and often combining them in textural collages. And boy can she draw, even if she doesn’t always feel the need to prove it.
The short of this review is that you should definitely buy Pink Juice at whatever price you can afford. It’s currently available only in digital form—though I hope it someday finds a print publisher—and is incredibly pleasing and easy to flip through. I like being able to read around in its belly however I want, but I’m admittedly big fan of PDF-format comics anyway.
Some of the pieces in Pink Juice look like they’re culled straight from her sketchbooks, with marginal stains, scratchy lines, and smeared graphite. One notable page is a literal photo of an open sketchbook. It serves only as an interlude between comics and isn’t even given a title in the table of contents, but its apparent straightforwardness is misleading: the perfect eight-panel outlines appear to be digital, but on closer examination, some of the color-blocks reorganize the middle four panels into a single larger panel, which may also be added with digital color. In the penultimate panel, a figure that may be Annie’s avatar asks, “What makes you feel like you want to live?” The panel that follows it is a blank layered color-block without any accompanying graphite drawing. It feels like a shy and private answer, or a placeholder that admits that there is no clear permanent response to that question.
Even when writing in a plainly explanatory mode (“Name Journeys,” “The Story of My Hair”), Mok seems to understand at an instinctive level that explaining yourself is also mythologizing yourself. I don’t mean dishonestly. I think Mok is very interested in what makes emotional honesty possible. I mean using half-truths and metaphor to give abstract thoughts/feelings concrete forms. One memorable short early in the collection, “Rattata Story,” narrates the banal but weird tragedy of adopting those common, ratty Pokémon, only to have to face the small animals’ deaths. It’s a weird one, but it hits just right.
Mok’s work is, at its best, a combination of mystical and realist, dreamlike and mundane—an emotional architecture supported by visual daring and the artistic confidence necessary to pull it off. And so Pink Juice’s playful autobiographical bits have an otherworldly vibe that is part and parcel of the artist’s relentless self-examination. “All stories are dreams,” Mok’s avatar says in one story (“I, Lancelot”). That piece is one of my favorite comics in the collection; it shows off Mok’s writing chops and digital inkwork in just four short pages. With blocky inks, diagonal-heavy compositions, and washed-out colors, “I, Lancelot” lends memoir a mythical clothing, pairing Arthurian battle with a pared-down monologue about vengeance and trauma.
Another star is “Ages of You,” a comic short about a museum employee who encounters the kid they used to babysit masturbating in front of a statue. The eight-page story is a brief and difficult story about shame, following what feels like a classic American short story structure and aesthetic. (I was reminded of that Yiyun Li story, “Granny Lin,” about an elder laundry worker whose strange friendship with a lonely private school kid comes to a sour end.) Appropriately, this story uses an aesthetic familiar to the “literary comic,” with a clean and crafted cartoony style that uses light blue shading to accentuate its crisp black lines.
At the collection’s lesser points, the tenderness Mok excels at falls a bit flat, or maybe isn’t to my taste. There’s a short story about fisting that reminds me of the fisting scene in Renee Gladman’s weird-queer novel, Event Factory, though Mok’s ghostly and minimal version leaves the narrative tender, but not necessarily memorable. These lesser pieces are still functional; they’re most noticeable because the rest of her work here is so memorably tactile and full-throated.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mok’s talent for the essay. Her prose works in Pink Juice—sometimes combining illustrations and digital photo-collage with historical research and personal reflections—are excellent, short little snapshots of her thoughts and life. At various points in the collection, she writes about illness, loneliness, race, and video games.
If I had one pedantic complaint, it’s that the works aren’t arranged or labeled by year. But its slapdash ordering makes Pink Juice as welcoming to the casual reader as to the hardcore fan, inviting you to start anywhere. On the other hand, reading these collected works cover-to-cover brings you face-to-face with exactly what makes Mok’s comics so good. Her ability to plumb queer softness and tenderness is one thing, but she manages to put that softness in tense relation to bitterness, rage, and resentment. Tenderness with a bite. For the most part, Mok is unsparing and precise in her self-observation. (“Orgasm Addict,” Liam Conlon has noted, is a sometimes-uneven exception.)
Mok’s artistic range and relentless self-examination demand respect from her readers that “genius” (as a flimsy description) fails to express. If genius is about separating out art in its scale, permanence, and perfection, Mok’s lowercase art acts out genius’s opposite. Her comics dare to be temporary, haphazard, and sometimes even lazy—drafts that have no intention of ever being polished products. The extent to which her comics are objects are the extent to which she needs to get paid for them. I will say that I’m not old enough to know what punk is (or was) before it became a nostalgic, nearly-empty postscript for everything under capitalism. But Annie Mok is definitely punk. She’s into craft beyond the artist’s tight control, greatness beyond singular genius.
When I taught her work to my students at UCLA, one student asked her why she made Pink Juice’s opening piece “Florals” a collage of abstract landscapes and botanical/industrial diagrams. (It’s about falling in love for a night, after all!) The student got a candid answer: “laziness,” since the piece hadn’t paid much, and Mok had to make something good with the time and capacity she had. That stuck with me.
What could it mean for the comics industry to respect and value the kind of anti-mastery art that Mok has (paradoxically) become an expert of? The making-do and try-and-see approaches to art that get pressed out of comics in the ever-increasing pressure to make slickly crafted and polished art? Indie comics as a scene has long held a nominal disdain for polish, especially in non-fiction, but Mok’s commitment to that ethos goes beyond a scratchy or “de-skilling” aesthetic.
I love that Pink Juice is not an exercise in body-destroying perfection—that Mok admits to being lazy, on occasion. (What a different kind of opus this is, compared to those constipated volumes that Chris Ware puts out once a decade!) As a reader, fan, and scholar of comics, I don’t only want to value the back-breaking, hand-gnarling relationship to artistic work that is the current, unfortunate norm.
One of the best things I can say about Annie’s work is that it makes me want to make things. I love Pink Juice for that.