Ah, the variety of minicomics I receive. I generally like to review comics that I can compare and contrast in some meaningful way, but these three comics couldn't be any more different. Liz Baillie's (http://www.lizcomics.com) MY BRAIN HURTS #4 is the most accomplished and ambitious. Greg Vondruska's SUMMER GOES SLOWLY (http://www.gregvondruska.com) is a sometimes bittersweet account of summers spent as a child and a teenager. And the CRAP YOUR PANTS anthology is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of stories about people soiling themselves.
While this is the fourth issue of Baillie's series, she provides an excellent recap of the events to date. What I like about her stories is that she presents events that are dramatic without being melodramatic. The main character is Kate, a high school kid who is dealing with a lot of stress. She's picked on and abused at school for looking different (with a streaked hairdo and her love of punk rock, she's an easy target) and being gay. Her best friend Joey was beaten by a gang of gay-bashers and put in the hospital, and one of them takes a shine to Kate and follows her around. When she screams at him, he charmingly throws her against a wall. Kate's dealing with her own self-hatred; when her new love interest Desi tries to kiss her on the street, Kate flinches, not wanting to be seen in public kissing a girl. Later, when Kate stands up to a priggish school administrator, it backfires and she winds up walking out of school.
Baillie's character work is her biggest strength. Kate struggles with trying to fight back against the world with just wanting to surrender. Desi is a delight; she's a firebrand who looks to be a bit on the frumpy side. Joey is dealing with an abusive father who is trying to redefine the terms of his abuse; both make a lot of bad choices. Baillie's faces are quite expressive; Kate's face when the thug is holding a knife to her is a combination of pure terror and total surprise. There's a grittiness to her art that befits this urban tale, and reminds me a bit of LOVE AND ROCKETS X or Jaime Hernandez's glimpses of Hopey's high school days. Baillie wisely focuses on her figure-work above all else, because they really carry the story. Comparing this issue to the first is a revelation: her ability to convey expressions has greatly improved, especially in terms of subtlety. She also is going away from a common trap for young artists, the tendency to over-render everything because of a lack of confidence in one's composition and draftsmanship. Baillie is simplifying her backgrounds and allowing her characters and their body language to carry scenes. Her panel-to-panel transitions and lettering are also big keys in making her comics work. About the only aspects of her art that still look a bit stiff are her attempts to convey motion and action.
SUMMER GOES SLOWLY is a much quieter sort of comic. There's not really much of a story arc in this series of vignettes from Vondruska's childhood, other than perhaps his growth as a person. In particular, we see him go from being afraid of the world and its possibilities to taking chances and following through on commitments. Vondruska relates the sort of dumb and random things a kid does, like ride a bike without holding onto the handlebars (resulting in a fractured skull), to trying his cat's food, to calling a girl 13 times in 2 days before realizing she wasn't going to call him back.
There are moments of quiet humor and more moments of self-deprecation as Greg recalls how socially inept he felt. Being a Doctor Who fanatic certainly didn't help in the latter department. A little more poignant were the recollections of the small humiliations he experienced at the hands of his peers and various animals; even at the time Vondruska realized that he was working himself up over nothing but couldn't help himself. This is a pleasant read and the art is serviceable, but it doesn't really distinguish itself in its observations or execution. The stories aren't quite funny enough to consider it to be a humorous autobio book, nor are they sharply observed enough to require 44 pages. As a result, the two types of stories pull at each other and ultimately cancel out their effectiveness.
The CRAP YOUR PANTS anthology has 18 stories in it. Of that number, only four are worth reading. Most of the rest are either badly drawn, scatological with no other hook for the reader, or incomprehensible. There was an open call for submissions and as one might expect, most of the stories looked and felt rushed & amateurish. Let's look at the four exceptions. "It's Delhi Belly" by David Robertson details the author's gastrointestinal distress on a trip toIndia. What seemed like a set-up for a routine tourist's tale quickly segued into him learning that he had Crohn's Disease, an embarrassing and unpleasant condition that can be managed but not cured. This is one of the few strips that had any humanity, while still maintaining some sly humor.
K. Thor Jensen is always a welcome presence in any anthology, and he manages a great gag set-up in "In Space No One Can Hear You Shit" (a take-off on the old Alien tagline). An astronaut is on a spacewalk when he uncontrollably starts voiding his bowels. It's no laughing matter as he realizes he could drown in his own waste. In the last panel, we learn from a couple of scientists onboard his craft that this was no accident. Jensen's panel design and use of blacks make this strip visually appealing.
Steven Tillotson's "Uncle Ken" strip was perhaps the most vicious in the book. A kid puts a laxative in his brother's tea, only to have it go to his grandmother instead. She winds up soiling herself, and as a result gets put in a nursing home and dies of loneliness. Tillotson's exaggerated figure-work makes this another piece that's nice to look at.
My favorite strip overall was the last one: Kate Allen's "20 Minute Miracle Diet". A young woman steps on the scale and is disgusted to find that she weighs 121 pounds. She decides to go for a run then and there and then painfully realizes that she has to defecate immediately. Two miles later, she finally makes it home and after sitting on the toilet for 20 minutes, she steps back on the scale and finds that she lost 7 pounds! This strip is well-composed, has an appealingly playful line and a nice payoff for the initial gag set-up.