(This article was originaly published in Savant, in advance of SPX 2002, and is being archived here.)
The Small Press Expo (SPX) will be upon us in just a week, and the con has grown so large that it will be moving in 2003. Yes, this will be the last year possible to experience SPX "the way it used to be" before it merges with the more mainstream Baltimore Comicon and leaves the charming Bethesda area. Whatever its flaws, it still stands as the single most important gathering of the small press, its fans and those who choose to study it, thanks especially to the International Comics Arts Festival (ICAF) that takes place alongside it. ICAF almost always brings in interesting European artists and holds interesting crossover events with SPX itself. This year's SPX has its usual impressive array of well-known artists, with first-timers including Art Spiegelman, and Los Bros. Hernandez.
The complete list of attendees is staggering, with nearly 160 tables in four different rooms. A reasonably educated fan of alternative comics will know to seek out big names like Spiegelman, Bryan Talbot, the Hernandezes, etc.; but with the dizzying array of choices, one might well overlook some very worthy artists. The list I present contains a number of names that I feel don't get enough notice, even within the alternative community press. The list rather eclectic one, with a few artists who have been in the businessfor years and some who aren't even old enough to buy alcohol yet. Some work for major companies like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, while others are self-published. There are humorists, historians, formal innovators, skilled storytellers and those whose work has difficulty fitting into any category. While not all may be for every taste, every one of them deserves your attention--and all of them will have tables at SPX. They are presented here in alphabetical order, with links to their websites where applicable.
** Sean Bieri: He is a longtime and quite accomplished creator of minicomics and part of a thriving Detroit-area scene that loves minis for their own sake and doesn't view them as a stepping-stone to something else. Like his friend Matt Feazell, Bieri excels at humor, though his style couldn't be more different. New readers will want to pick up his minicomic collection JUMBO JAPE. His full range of styles and clever wordplay are on display here. Bieri is a skilled mimic who knows how to parody with particularly trenchant punchlines in mind. His two best features are "Jesus The Savior Man", a hilarious series of strips that crosses the Popeye characters from EC Segar's THIMBLE THEATRE with the Gospels. What is especially impressive here is a complete mastery of the Gospel stories of Christ as well as an uncanny rendering of Segar's thin lines. Almost as funny is "Good Ol' Conan The Barbarian", a mixture of Conan and PEANUTS.
Bieri's art style can vary from project to project, though his defacto style is somewhat loose and cartoony, much like Terry LaBan. Unlike LaBan, he doesn't go for long narratives, instead preferring parodies (like the two mentioned above or a SIN CITY take-off set in a dentist's office) or mixing a sight gag with a punchline. Not all of his gags work well as comics, or rather, they work effectively as just jokes. (His "Worse Than Hitler" strip is a good example.) Bieri also throws in the odd personal observation or two, which can be amusing but rarely as funny as his other material.
Bieri frequently takes full advantage of the DIY possibilities that minicomics can offer. He's done comics with hand-silkscreens, hand-constructed and decorated covers and has experimented with size and format. In his hands, the minicomic form isn't just a comics starter set, but a legitimate means of expression in its own right with its own special rewards. The biggest drawback is low print runs and circulation, which makes shows like SPX so crucial in getting a good understandings of what's out there. Bieri isn't just a punchline man, as he did a mini contrasting the lives of Gertrude Stein and Kiki (a wild woman of the night) in 1920's Paris. Another clever comic is a tongue-in-cheek listing of some Nazi aircraft that didn't quite get off the ground, with hilarious manglings of the German language.
I wouldn't say that Bieri is a unique talent or trailblazing innovator, but rather is a skilled craftsman who brings a high level of imagination, care and energy to his work. Humor is a difficult thing to bring off well, especially when working within a certain tradition, and this is what Bieri does best. I would start with JUMBO JAPE and then just get one of everything if you really dig it. JUMBO JAPE was nominated for a 2001 Ignatz and richly deserved it.
** Paul Hornschemeier: One of the most interesting and aggressively experimentative of the group I call the "neo-formalists." They are artists, often with animation backgrounds, that are interested in what makes comics tick, take them apart, stretch them to their limits and take risks. Many of them are not coherent in terms of narrative structure, often by design. Some of them have clearly been inspired by Chris Ware in terms of their fascination with form and its possibilities of getting across emotion, but many of them seem to have come from outer space. On this list, I have included two, Hornschemeier and Dash Shaw (see below). Including both reveals the range of what is possible in exploring these aspects of comics.
Hornschemeier, like Kevin Huizenga, has dutifully self-published for quite some time in an effort to improve as an artist. He's also clearly invested a great deal of money in getting the best possible productions values for his work, so as to fully realize his vision of what he wants it to look like. Those of you who associate minicomics and/or self-published work with cheaply-printed scrawls on typing paper will faint when you see his SEQUENTIAL #7.
His interests as a storyteller are all over the map. A lot of his comics are funny, but with a long cruel streak intrinsic to them. His ideas have gotten bolder and more fully realized as he's evolved and had a better idea of exactly what he wanted to do. After doing a broad range of interesting but unremarkable stories in minicomics format in issues 1-4, he switched to a tabloid format that was as much a comics criticism publication as it was a comic, featuring an interview with Dan Clowes among other things. This was possibly his least successful effort, as it really seemed that he didn't know what he wanted to do. Then came #6, which really made me sit up and pay attention to this work. In it, he has any number of funny but disturbing stories ("Too Many Monkeys" being an amusing Seuss tribute), but he also introduces several features that show his successful use of experimentation.
First there's "The Peculiar Mr Williams", which is an EC comics tribute of sorts, complete with a gruesome but funny ending. The odd thing is that the story never quite goes away, as the unfortunate title character is written about as a missing person by a local newspaper, and the writer of said paper often drifts off into writing melancholy snippets about life in general. Then there's "The Devil's Lonely Day." As we read it (a gorgeous grey-scaled, meticulously drawn strip), we notice that there seem to be pages missing...and that not only was this deliberate, but that the author hasn't drawn and doesn't know what will be on the other pages yet! An experiment drawn out of a dada tradition, to be sure. A continuing feature called "The Supression of William T Andrews" details the title character's struggle to accept his own sexuality, done in this issue in the form of a conversation with a "friend".
SEQUENTIAL #7 is his true masterwork to date: a slick, attractive package that fortunately is merited by the contents within. New episodes of "The Devil's Lonely Day" and "William T Andrews" may be found within (with the latter being the best episode yet of that feature), along with two other noteworthy features. The first, "Ex Falso Quodlibet", appears to be at least partially autobiographical. It's about an anthropormorphic fish who is having difficulty facing life in the absence of a loved one. The second, "Language Lessons", ironically ignores the lush production values of the issue and is comprised of variation of the sort of stick figures you would see on a "Safety Instructions" card. Hornschemeier even provides advice at the end of the issue for how he was able to print the issue.
FORLORN FUNNIES is his newest effort, a full color comic that has evoked more Ware comparisons than anything else, though it traverses some territory that is quite different. It's a story that's about characters, essentially--fictional characters. We start with a stereotypical villain from a western, complete with long moustache, who somehow walks off the set and past a lonely woman who goes up to her apartment to watch an animated show. The star of the show is fired, but escapes cancellation by magically jumping intoother shows, or worlds. The whole issue carries a dreamlike but desperate quality with it that requires rereading. Hornschemeier has deservedly gotten an Ignatz nomination for Outstanding Artist. He represents comics' true cutting edge, so if you want a challenging but fascinating read, I would strongly recommend SEQUENTIAL #6 and 7 as well as the first issue of FORLORN FUNNIES. Find out more at http://www.sequentialcomics.com/.
** Kevin Huizenga: Huizenga is one of the best exemplars of the concept that minicomics can provide a training ground for development for new artists. Tracing his improvement from issue to issue of his comic SUPERMONSTER is remarkable. The most recent edition, #14 (GLORIANA), is an amazing formal and narrative achievement that really should be required reading for any serious comics fan. Tom Spurgeon wrote an excellent article on him and this issue in particular that appeared in the Comics Journal #240, and I would urge interested readers to seek it out.
Huizenga's comics always carry a sort of gentle intelligence in the way they're written, and are formally exciting without flaunting their stylistic innovations for their own sake. While his comics are sometimes astonishing, there's a calculated lack of pyrotechnics in his stories. Huizenga's background in philosophy fuels his curiousity about the world, with the technique of phenomenology clearly at play in his art. Put simply, this is a method of observing the world where one looks at something understanding its context, removes it from its everyday, understood use...and then describes it. With Huizenga, we get pages of drawings of forested neighborhoods, parks, children, etc--drawn without judgment or particular moral value, other than a profound respect. The other major influence one can see at play is that of Asian paintings of a certain era. It's well known that certain of these paintings focused on landscapes and backgrounds--rarely would we find any people in them.
Huizenga does an entire issue of these sorts of drawings, done while walking around. In a later issue, he takes it a step further, actively mimicking these paintings while using as narrative the adoption papers of a child in China. At his heart, Huizenga is a comics guy, and draws from a number of inspirations. John Porcellino is an obvious one, from the top lists at the end of his earlier issues to the quiet, small bits of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical detail that we learn. Huizenga is also inspired by the loose, flowing line of early 20th century cartoonists, particularly Roy (WASH TUBBS) Crane. There are moments of humor here, though it's mostly gentle and rarely laugh-out-loud. They sometimes relate to his religious beliefs, which are clearly quite sincere and earnest but are never actively promoted in the comic. When asking "What Would Jesus Do" about having to run an ad offensive to zen, his imaginary Jesus almost obnoxiously points a finger and says, "I forgive you!" Kevin's character is annoyed because that advice had no relation to his dilemma, so he draws a flowsheet illustrating each of his options.
Supermonster #14 (subtitled "Gloriana Comics") has been nominated for Outstanding Minicomic. In an unusually strong field, I think that this was truly the best. At 100 pages, he throws in three stories that follow Glenn and Wendy Ganges. One is a story about Wendy at work, or rather, a particular stretch of time where every event happens at once. Then the two are at home and each imagines what their future unborn child will be like...except that time slows and accelerates without warning, with "real" time being replaced by a fantasy. The masterpiece is "The Sunset", where Glenn tells a friend about a sunset he saw. We the reader get to experience the full event, frame by frame, often out of order, of the sunset and even when his vision blurs. We get to see his thoughts and even fantasies of the notes from bird whistles wrestling with each other. It's a fascinating experiment in showing simultaneity. The last Glenn story has him trying to reassure a family that the earth isn't coming to an end despite the presence of a huge, blood-red moon--complete with astronomical diagrams!
Huizenga's talent really all came together with #14, but the other issues are quite worthwhile on their own. It does make me wonder where he's going next. I can see him continuing to publish beautiful minicomics, and I can also easily see him using a more standard format. But there's no polishing necessary in his work: it's fully realized and beautifully produced. See some of his strips online at http://usscatastrophe.com/kh/issues.html and drop by his table in the Versailles Room.
** Jason: Though he's represented by Fantagraphics, he's one artist that not everyone may be aware of yet...though they should be. Jason is a Norwegian who does a comic called MJAU MJAU (Norwegian for "Meow, Meow"). One story, called "Wait A Minute", was translated and published by Fantagraphics as "Hey, Wait..." It concerns two teenaged boys named Jon and Bjorn and their adventures over a particular summer, until a horrific event occurs that changes the tone and direction of the comic. To give away more specifics of the plot would be an injustice to the reader, but I will talk in more general terms about his work.
Jason's characters tend to be anthropomorphic, in this case dogs. That first layer of distance between reader and subject makes it easy for him to bend both time and reality. The story is rooted in the everyday details of summer that so many of us will recognize, yet its magical realist touches will fracture our expectations of what comes next. An early clue in how to read the comic comes when one of the boys, asked what time it is, replies "Summertime!" A period where time takes on a sudden flexibility, frequently whipping by at a furious pace, sometimes slowing to a crawl. It's important to approach each page as potentially both true and imaginary, as actual event or simple reminiscence. There are some really striking images here: a character sneezing and then changing into an adult in the next panel; a character noting that certain photographs seen by a friend are of him in fifteen years; the use of all-white and all-black panels. The book is deceptively simple to look at and yet symbolically complex; as such, it rewards many re-readings.
Meeting Jason will be a rare privilege for US audiences, especially as a new collection of his work from MJAU MJAU has just been released here, called SHHH! As the title implies, it's a wordless comic, drawn from considerably different themes from HEY, WAIT... Check out his style from his Norwegian publisher Jippi Forlag at http://www.jippicomics.com/english/index.html and see him at the Fantagraphics table.
** Megan Kelso: Despite her long association with Highwater Books, Megan Kelso remains one of the most underrated talents in the alt-comics scene. Part of the reason this is so is that her work simply hasn't been as visible as some of the other names on the Highwater roster. The only collection of hers currently in print, QUEEN OF THE BLACK BLACK, is an eccentric collection of stories, many of them delicate & intricate, and others a bit too ephemeral to take seriously. Her simple, breezy line has always been an attractive starting point, but she has now really found her voice through a series of minis (to eventually be collected) called ARTICHOKE TALES.
In fact, over the past year Kelso has hit a remarkable stride no matter where she's appeared. The problem is that she's mostly popped up in anthologies and in minis; until ARTICHOKE TALES is compiled, I fear she won't get the exposure she deserves. She had one of the best three strips in both the Winter and Summer editions of the COMICS JOURNAL SPECIAL, had one of the best strips in the zombie-themed BOGUS DEAD, and her surprisingly explicit version of her ARTICHOKE TALES characters in the erotica compilation DIRTY STORIES VOL III was one of the few stories that was arousing on an emotional level. And of course, a long chapter of ARTICHOKE TALES was one of the best things in the groundbreaking anthology/art object NON #5 that came out last summer.
ARTICHOKE TALES is her most notable achievement to date, and is unusual for alt-comics in that it has significant fantasy elements. I'm not talking about unicorns 'n' dragons type fantasy, but rather a fanciful setting and not-quite-human characters. Like all great fairy tales, AT at its heart examines humanity's higher aspirations and its grim realities. The characters in the story look human with the exception of their hair, which looks like artichoke leaves. This slight distancing of the characters from our reality makes it easier to fall into their world's mythology. It's a world where a village was once part of a war, where another community is still at war, and healing has yet to take place. A soldier separated from his company meets the granddaughter of an apothecary. A love story emerges, but not necessarily one with a happy ending. One of the key components of the series is the story within a story--the origins of various conflicts are told as myths or fairy tales themselves. And like true fairy tales, the stories often contain gruesome elements and rarely end happily.
Kelso's art perfectly complements her sparse narrative. The reader is provided with little information early on, and must rely on the clues her art provides. The essential lightness of her style contrasts well with the often grim story; the entire story is about forcing contradictions upon the reader to figure out and making the reader work to decipher what's below an often still surface. This conflict is never heavy-handed because the art is always in service to the story and never exaggerated. As stories are told within stories, the art for those sections grows cruder and more iconic, reflecting a more simple abstraction from the world.
Essentially, anything that Kelso's put out in the last year or so is pure gold. We are seeing an artist fully realize her potential, and it's an exciting journey to watch. She'll have a new chapter of AT available at SPX, along with the first two chapters. Check out her website as well at http://www.girlhero.com/. Kelso is up for four Ignatz Awards at SPX, and this honor is well-deserved.
** John Kerschbaum: Kerschbaum's gags seem cute and innocuous until you dig a little deeper and notice with horror the real punchline of some of his strips. His comics owe little to anyone and often make the reader work for the punchline. I am delighted that he received two Ignatz nominations, because he deserves both the recognition and the publicity. Kerschbaum matches a solid level of detail in his backgrounds with more iconic characters that thrusts the focus of his strips on what they do. The background detail often dominates the reader's focus in a strip's early panels as we're trying to figure out what's going on--he always starts subtly. Oftentimes, he will quickly derail a story and go way over the top to deliver a punchline.
A good example is a woman who comes home, makes dinner and settles in on her couch to watch TV under a blanket. A weird look of discomfort appears on her face and she stands up, looking confused. We then see a pair of breasts on a hairy, sleeping man...and they're giggling. Looking back, we can see the woman was top-heavy and that when she stood up, she was flat as a board.
Some strips begin with a shock and then twist it and twist it beyond all recognition. One example is a story of a woman who comes home to find her husband having sex with an exact duplicate of himself. The two men try to convince the woman that she should stick with them...until one of them reveals that he's not human at all, but a gigantic beetle in human disguise. The way that one ends is both hilarious and unsettling.
Kerschbaum will go for the gross-out, but only in the service of an actual joke--it's never gross for its own sake. More disturbing than any gross-out is the relentless (but hilarious) nihilism of his comics--he's incredibly cruel to his characters. A strip where two dancing robots are separated, abused, stripped to spare parts and then "united" in the cruelest and most banal manner possible is both heartbreaking and funny. Another long strip retells the story of the city guy and country guy, both meeting the cruelest fates imaginable--and getting abused even worse after death.
Most of the following strips come from his 3-issue series, THE WIGGLY READER. Issue 2 of that series has one of the best covers of all time, which I will only describe as being a series of reimaginings of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre. In some ways, his minicomics are even better than his other works. His latest, HOMECOMING, was nominated for an Ignatz. It's about salmon swimming upstream to mate--except that they're anthropomorphized into 1950's high school kids. His crowning achievement, however, is TIMBERDOODLE, a mini about an ordinary young man born with an enormous wooden cock. Every single panel dances with ingenious combinations of both verbal and visual jokes, and the final payoff is classic Kerschbaum: ambiguous and over-the-top. Kerschbaum does put his minis online when they go out of print, and they're worth seeking out. Many of them are true art objects in their own right. Check out http://www.fontanellepress.com/ for more on this demented genius, and come see him in the Washington Room, table 2.
** Steve Lafler: Lafler's been in the business for over twenty years, self-publishing his own series DOG BOY and co-editing the anthology BUZZARD. But it wasn't until he collected a series of stories called BUGHOUSE that everything seemed to really click for him. Lafler's comics have always relied on a sort of stream-of-consciousness inspiration, with storylines that alternated between overtly political rants, psychedelic journeys, and sexually charged explorations of his id. While interesting, not all of his experiments were equally successful or bore rereading. That changed when he started doing BUGHOUSE, which harnessed everything that made his work interesting into a gripping narrative.
Working with Top Shelf editor Chris Staros, he wove all of the disparate Bughouse vignettes into one story, writing new bits to connect the previously published chapters. The key to understanding and appreciating Lafler's work is that he has always valued improvisation as a creative device, making him an ideal candidate to write a story about improvisational jazz musicians. With Staros as editor, Lafler's story gained structure and organization, much like a good rhythm section holds down the bottom, allowing the soloist to shine. While there are any number of excellent Top Shelf artists I could recommend, I feel that Lafler has been the most overlooked considering the excellence of his work.
Describing BUGHOUSE is relatively straightforward: it's about a sax player named Jimmy Watts and his journey as a musician. We trace his development as a child to meeting musical partner Slim Watkins in music school in the big city. Watts is from the midwest while Watkins is a city slicker, but the two quickly form a tight musical bond. When the story takes place is somewhat vague, but it's at around the time when bebop was just being born. The two gig with a Duke Ellington stand-in named Buggy Eckstein before getting kicked out and starting their own group: Bughouse.
It's the twists that make this something to pay attention to. First, all of the characters are drawn as anthropormorphic insects. Like many artists who use this kind of tactic, it allows them to make reality just a little bit more fluid. Lafler uses this to maximum effect and he has to, because it can be so difficult to depict music in comics form. It works, partially because he occasionally adds little graphics to illustrate the songs, (like when Jimmy springs a number about cats) or when Jimmy hallucinates something associated with the music he's playing.
This brings up another aspect of the book: Lafler deals with addiction in relation to the creative process. The drug of choice for many of the musicians is something called "bug juice", which is really just a stand-in for any drug. Jimmy gets hooked on it by his girlfriend Julie after being convinced that every great jazz man needed it for inspiration, and struggles with it for much of his career. This struggle and the kind of shady characters he winds up dealing with as a result are a major source of the tension in the book.
But the heart of the book is the joy of the creative process and the camaraderie found in in collaboration. Lafler's fluid, expressive art and jaunty dialogue makes this a page-turner and simply a joy to read. I also strongly recommend BAJA, a follow-up to the original story concerning Jimmy's young bass player Bones and his adventures in Mexico while laying low from police attention. Anyone interested in music, the creative process or simply a good yarn should give this one a shot. Check out Lafler's website at http://www.bugcomix.com/ or the Top Shelf website at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/topshelf/index.html.
** Roger Langridge: A master gag cartoonist with the cleanest, purest line in all the land. Originally from New Zealand (which seems to have more interesting cartoonists per capita than most countries), Langridge now lives in England and has been cartooning for about 15 years. His work with his brother Andrew writing was published by Fantagraphics in their comics ART D'ECCO and later ZOOT. The latter was collected in a hilarious and demented edition called ZOOT SUITE and is a great introduction to Roger's clean and precise style.
Currently, Roger is publishing a series about an idiot clown called FRED THE CLOWN, a sort of catch-all character for his extremely expansive imagination. Langridge clearly has drawn inspiration from MAD, both in its pre and post Harvey Kurtzman incarnations. Before the current FRED series, he did a one shot that reimagined Fred throughout the history of comics, where Langridge drew him in the style of virtually every important cartoonist of the 20th century. Langridge is not especially concerned whether or not you get the reference or the joke--he truly is cartooning for his own pleasure and that's what sets his gags apart. His skill as a mimic is astonishing, able to pull off Winsor McKay, Robert Crumb and Jack Kirby with equal ease. In the regular Fred series, Langridge shows off his love of 20's era animation with strips that evoke the weird feel of that time. While it's his art that's the main attraction, both in terms of humor and in sheer beauty, Roger can also get off a dizzying array of absurd lines. Within a panel about how "the strip is made", the narrator says: "The final decision, however, is always made by Fred the Clown himself." Fred: "Fred like this one." Roger: "That's a bank statement, Fred." "Fred insist." Narrator: "It's a jolly good thing that Mister Langridge's bank statements are in fact quite hilarious!"
Langridge is coming in from England to attend the show and will have a new issue of FRED with him. With a gag-heavy and classical style, his work is better seen than described, and he fortunately has a website at http://www.hotelfred.com/ that has tons of current and older work. He also appears on the roster at www.moderntales.com.
** Ellen Lindner: Lindner is my prime example in the "one to watch" category. Her talents and interests have been all over the place in her short life, but her self-assuredness as an artist grows from project to project. A mixture of wild abandon, trenchant wit and erudite scholar, Lindner's comics are utterly idiosyncratic and difficult to pin down. Some of them in fact go nowhere but are interesting exercises, while others capture the essence of some experience. There's a great graphic novel in her that's dying to get out (and from what I hear, it's slowly in the works), but in the meantime I'll simply enjoy the steady stream of minis and zines that she produces.
Linder publishes a zine called LITTLE WHITE BIRD/MEGACOM, which I took a shine to initially because it reminded me so much of my own zine days. Some of the layout is crude and a lot of the pieces are fluff, but the interviews are fun and the pieces that Lindner contributed on music and city life are enjoyable. The other half of the zine is all comics, and their quality varies. Some of Lindner's early, more unfocused efforts can be seen in last year's edition, but one can note her progress as a storyteller and an artist in the more recent edition.
Of greater interest to me are her minis. I would begin with BLONDE ON BLONDES, #1 and 2. Lindner is absolutely all over the place, with straight autobio stuff (a strip about 9/11 that appeared in Dark Horse's anthology), more veiled autobio material, stories about high school all-girl rock bands, biographies, slice of life and surreal accounts of films. One can sense how eager she is to explore a number of genres, particularly those that haven't had a lot of attention in comics of late. Her story of a Catholic schoolgirl and her rock band nails smartass teenage angst. Another story dealing with a beatnik girl going to college in the 50's also shines with smart dialogue.
Her autobiographical and semiautobiographical material demands the most attention, however. Lindner's most interesting story may be "The Best Year of My Life" followed immediately by a story called "The Worst Year of My Life"--with both stories covering exactly the same period of time, a year spent in France. Lindner's own stories resonate because they are told as stories, not autobiography, and so escape the tedium and navel-gazing that so often plague that genre. Instead, real life sneaks into her interesting anecdotes. Another favorite strip is Lindner's character in therapy, with the therapist giving her some unusual instructions. Then there's a strip about about a hip elderly woman who looks like Ellen in about 40 years or so. Another mini, THE EGG MYSTERIOUS, details a film and discussion Linder saw in person, said film leaving her mouth agape.
Lindner uses a lot of thick, bold black lines. There's very little use of grey or crosshatching, nor much feathering. The results are unusual, with a realistic style where the characters all look very slightly grotesque or distorted. The result keeps the reader off balance, with the stories themselves coming from a similarly skewed point of view. There are a lot of contradictions in the feel of her work: cynicism and romanticism, euphoria and dissolution, playfulness and lost innocence. Her comics keep a certain cool distance from the reader, but her lust for life comes through all of her work.
Check out her website at http://www.fantasticteam.com/lwb/. Lindner will also be in the SPX anthology this year, which is always recommended reading. Within a couple of years, I expect her to produce some truly lasting works. Until then, make sure to follow the development of a great artist in progress.
** Dash Shaw: Of all the artists on this list, 20-year old Shaw has the best chance of being a truly innovative comics master. Loosely associated with the neo-formalist group Meathaus, Shaw's work differs in that his work is strongly rooted in narrative. This doesn't prevent him from going absolutely crazy in the use of formal innovations and unusual techniques in panel design. There's nothing he won't try, and while not all of it is successful at this stage, it's all fascinating to watch. Shaw likes to use thick, expressive brush work and lots of blacks, throwing in mixed media techniques like collage. Matching his daring as an artist is his vivid imagination as a writer, plumbing his academic influences while always focusing on richly defined characters.
He has two projects currently available: a planned 10-chapter series called LOVE EATS BRAINS! and a mini-graphic novel called GARDENHEAD. He describes the former as "a zombie romance" and that's exactly what it is. It centers around a young man named Williams who is being yelled at by his girlfriend Julie because of his involvement with another woman named Nachi. Nachi was an outsider raised in Japan who became obsessed with comics--but primarily in the spaces between panels. This obsession with spaces inbetween led her to film zombies in the local graveyard, because she felt that with death, zombies were no longer concerned with the survival instincts that prevented humans from fully being able to create art. (Yes, zombies are taken as a given here.) Chapter 1 makes you stand up and pay attention, but the visual pyrotechnics begin in chapter 2. Shaw often views panels as puzzle pieces, connecting and then fracturing images. Panels warp and bend as the story gets stranger, and Japanese language characters pop up and plays significant roles. I believe Chapter 4 (the newest one) will be available at SPX.
LOVE EATS BRAINS! is a fascinating series, but it was really just a warmup for what he did with GARDENHEAD. The story is concerned with learning, language, school and our roles in society. It skips from being a kindergarten-type primer, matching up things under the letter A (apple with a drawing of an apple, arrow with a drawing of an arrow), until it reaches "art"--a frame hung in a gallery. This is continued as we are introduced to our three characters: a boy named Raymond, his older brother and a college age woman. Raymond is struggling with his kindergarten art class, as his teacher constantly berates him for not following the standards of art--but praises all of his classmates, comparing their work to Mondrian and Giotto! His brother is a college librarian whose real love is phrenology, the old pseudo-science that claimed it could determine a person's character by the bumps on their head. He has a date with the young woman, a bulimic with a vehement distrust of language. The comic details their relationship and Raymond's struggles, often inserting clip art or anatomical diagrams for effect. It's nothing short of the best comic I've read in 2002.
That said, Shaw's work is still a bit rough, with errors in spelling and lettering here and there. The production values are also somewhat primitive at this point--GARDENHEAD very much has the feel of a DIY zine rather than a professional graphic novel. That is part of its appeal, but I don't see it as essential to Shaw's work. Rather, I see him as someone still absorbing influences both within and outside of art. Shaw's influences vary, but his writing is informed by philosophy and cultural studies, as well as art history and criticism. He'll have a story in the upcoming NEW THING anthology, and you can read his comics athttp://www.dashshaw.com/. He'll be sitting at the Meathaus table at SPX.
** Drew Weing: A common kind of comic seen these days is the cartoon diary, an innovation made popular by James Kochalka in his very popular SKETCHBOOK DIARIES. It's an appealling kind of strip to do because it's a combination of doing sketchbook exercises, having them printed for all the world to see, and blogging. That's why you'll see lot of these cartoon diaries on the web, and as one would guess, they vary wildly in quality. One of the best is from a young artist named Drew Weing, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art & Design's Sequential Art program. His JOURNAL COMIC can be seen on a nearly-daily basis at his website, (http://www.drewweing.com). Compilations of his JOURNAL COMIC as well as his other work will be available at SPX.
What separates Weing from the other diarists is that first, he treats each strip as a truly discrete entity and not just a throwaway sketchbook item. Second, each strip has a definite sense of closure. That closure is not always a punchline, but it does always get his theme across. Third, Weing is genuinely amusing. Even though he's living the typical lifestyle of a 20-something (group house, unsatisfying job, never enough money), he rarely mines the kind of humor one would expect, and never tries to pretend that his life is especially compelling. Weing views himself as a person, not a character, and that viewpoint is refreshing after reading more egomaniacal autobio comics. As he writes in his masthead: "A daily comic 'diary.' Why should you care about my life? Beats me." This lack of pretension makes it easy to like him.
The other interesting thing about the strip is that unlike many diarists, his strip is not relentlessly upbeat. In fact, an undertone of ennui that borders on desperation permeates the strip as he struggles to find ways to stave off boredom. The journal strip was clearly his answer to finding a way to keep doing work while struggling with his difficult advertising job. Despite that streak of desperation, Weing as depicted in this strip is not a loser; he has a number of friends and rarely feels sorry for himself. Of course, the tricky thing about autobio is that the artist chooses what we get to see, but Weing does a good job at depicting the mundane as well as more significant events in his life.
The other thing that recommends this strip is the high quality in its craft. Weing keeps it simple visually, imparting an iconic quality to himself and his friends, but his uses of thick lines and blacks helps the strip avoid too cutesy a look. The JOURNAL COMIC looks like a series of exercises designed by Weing to help him keep doing comics and improve, but his attention to detail makes it a delight for fans. This is not formally innovative work in any sense; both the format and subject matter have been done many times in alternative comics. Also, the format is inherently limiting in some ways; at some point, I'd like to see Weing take up a more ambitious project. Regardless, I would recommend Weing's work to anyone who enjoys well-crafted autobio with an eye towards entertaining an audience, not just the artist himself. I recommend reading it from the beginning if you have the time, as well as picking it up in paper form.
** Kurt Wolfgang: He's the biggest smartass in comics and the creator of some of its most tender, sensitive moments. Wolfgang both writes evocative, sad stories about loss and love and then creates minicomics slagging just that kind of story. Often associated with Highwater Books he's a sort of court jester of the alternative comics world, skewering its pretensions better than any outsider could. At the same time, he makes fun of himself. Contradictory? Sure. But it's no contradiction to enjoy every single thing he publishes, writes and/or edits, because his humor cuts deep and his stories are genuinely touching, all with a startling visual style.
Wolfgang has primarily been known for being able to assemble that rarest of creatures: the quality minicomics anthology. It's called LOW-JINX, and has had an amazing list of talent in its three issues. The second issue was subtitled "The Horrible Truth About Reinventing Minicomics (The Bastard Format)", and it featured Wolfgang, Johnny Ryan, and Tony Consiglio. Among others. Wolfgang's features stood out, as his first was not only a hilarious parody of Scott McCloud, it actually tried to define minicomics (in a chapter appropriately titled "What The Fuck Is A Mini-Comic?"). Wolfgang struck again with a story about the lonely life of a minicomic creator, with lines like "I'm sorry, Mr Wolfgang, but we've just recently discovered that india ink causes impotence".
Wolfgang and friends take it to the next level with LOW-JINX #3, subtitled "The Big Rip-Off". This was a full-out assault on alternative comics, with an artist choosing to satirize or parody another well-known artist's work. Part of the fun was figuring out which artist did which parody. Do yourself a favor and seek this out. While Jordan Crane eviscerating Chris Ware was brilliant, Wolfgang was once again the star of his own anthology with a riff on potty humor cartoonist Johnny Ryan that takes on the entire indy scene. Wolfgang won an Ignatz for Outstanding Minicomic for LOW-JINX #2 and #3 was nominated for the never-awarded Ignatz last year as well.
Just when you think that Wolfgang is making a career as a wiseass parodist, he turns around and produces WHERE HATS GO, a wordless comic originally printed as part of the 5th issue of the anthology NON that is now sold on its own. HATS is a sweet tale about a boy who loses a prized hat given to him by his grandfather, and the extraordinary lengths he goes to in order to retrieve it. Along the way, he is aided by a girl clearly in love with him whom he essentially ignores--except when she assists him in finding his hat. What makes this more than a sugary trifle is the ambiguous relationship between the boy and girl, and Wolfgang's eye-popping art. Wolfgang favors heavy blacks with a style influenced somewhat by 20's animation and somewhat by more familiar underground artists. But his panel design and layout is wholly unique.
You can really see Wolfgang go to town in his new project, an adaptation of the classic PINOKIO. He's printed the first chapter as a minicomic and it already is several leaps ahead of HATS in terms of its innovative design. The darker, sadder subject also lends itself well to Wolfgang's approach. Once again, this comic is wordless, and Wolfgang effortlessly conveys emotion and meaning through his design and clever visual cues. An example comes when the elderly Gepetto has just fixed a radio and puts it on. The radio becomes the center of the page, fracturing it and creating different panels for each station it's turned to. Wolfgang may be found at Top Shelf's booth, since they will be publishing PINOKIO once it's completed. Check out his style at http://members.aol.com/noefiepub/.