Thursday, March 12, 2009

Idiosyncratic Expressions: Two New Comics From Sparkplug

Rob reviews two new comics from Sparkplug: JIN AND JAM #1, by Hellen Jo; and DANNY DUTCH, by David King.

In small press comics, the output from a publisher tends to reflect their own personal aesthetic, even when they exert no editorial control over them. That shows through in things like design and format, creating a sort of house style, especially when a publisher puts out a limited number of comics in a given year. For Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comic Books, this couldn't be any less true. Williams' own work is frequently quirky and personal, so it's no surprise that he encourages the artists whose work he publishes to feel unfettered in the way they express themselves. The result is a catalog that contains very little overlap in style or subject matter, yet is all compelling. There's a sense of obsession that follows each artist's work from Sparkplug, as though they simply must get their ideas down on the page or else. For a comics reader who is a true omnivore, it makes reading Sparkplug's output especially appealing.

Williams is also unusual in that he prints a lot of pamphlet comics. Two fairly recent such comics, JIN AND JAM #1 and the first collection of DANNY DUTCH, couldn't be any more different in terms of visual style, narrative qualities or content. David King's DANNY DUTCH is somewhere between Steve Weissman's stuff and John Hankiewicz's (by way of Charles Schulz) in terms of the character design and set-ups of the former and the narrative abstraction of the latter. I remember seeing some of these posted online and not really being engaged by them. Reading a collection of the strips, what King was doing finally clicked for me. The strip has a sort of dizzying quality as King finds ways to simultaneously distance and engage his readers. He introduces these cutely-drawn, grown-up kid characters who are sometimes grappling with existential concerns and sometimes grappling with scatological humor (and often both at once). King loves grounding the absurd in a staid package, and occasionally taking the reader out of their comfort zone by going from a cute, iconic style to a more visceral, naturalistic style--usually to depict something horrible or stunning.

King's chops as an artist are remarkable. He's in total control of his line, presenting the reader with at least three different styles of visual representation: cartoony, stick-figure and naturalistic. Some of his strips have punch lines, but he's not afraid to simply relate an anecdote or emotional yearning instead of a gag. King's work is also surprisingly raunchy at times, but that raunch is restrained and made more powerful as a result of him chanelling it into resolving either an anecdote or feeling in each story. Some of the most pervasive emotions depicted include regret, loneliness, curiosity and camaraderie. One can't help but get swept along in this quirky collection of strips that speaks loudly through its quietude.

On the other hand, there's little that's quiet about Hellen Jo's JIN AND JAM. Like King (and in the tradition of Schulz), she's clearly exploring different aspects of her self through her various characters. King's characters seem to exist in their own world, while Jo's characters are very much grounded in a familiar sort of suburban malaise that they're reacting against. "Reacting" is a good word to describe what her young teens are doing in this story and how she depicts it visually. They're literally pushing, grabbing, punching and reaching for a life that has some kind of spark beyond the status quo. While King's strip has a deliberately flattened quality to the art (making us aware that it's very much a comic strip, and then subverting that awareness), Jo comes at the reader with all kinds of crazy angles and perspectives. There's also a certain propulsiveness to what she's doing, pushing the reader along the page.

The story is a simple and familiar one. Jam is clearly an outsider, thumbing her nose at authority (depicted as both brutish and buffoonish) whenever possible. Sitting outside a church with a friend, she meets Jin, who would seem to be a "good girl" until she swipes a cigarette as she's leaving. That sets up a time-honored scenario in alt-comics: a bunch of teens trying to get into see their favorite band play but getting denied. While that's straight out of the Jaime Hernandez playbook, it's really more of an opportunity to get these seeming opposites (but actual complements) together in an effort to figure each other out. The triggering event and highlight of the issue was a harrowing but hilarious fistfight between Jin and Ting & Terng, conjoined twins. One can sense the glee that Jo took in drawing the two of them fighting as dirty as imaginable; those scenes pop off the page. It's the visceral quality of this comic that separates it from other stories in this genre; Jo really has a way of positioning figures that makes the reader almost feel their sweat, breath and blood. It's an uncomfortable and in-your-face sensation, but one that makes for compelling reading.

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