Thursday, June 4, 2009

Form and Function: Minicomics from Blaise Larmee, Kenan Rubenstein & Dina Kelberman

Rob reviews three unusually formatted mini-comics. Included are IMPORTANT COMICS, by Dina L Kelberman, WIG-WAM by Blaise Larmee, and TICK, PROLOGUE and ON THE BEACH by Kenan Rubenstein.

WIG-WAM, by Blaise Larmee. Larmee is one of the more interesting artists who works primarily in abstract comics. This is a somewhat vaguely defined branch of art comics, given that sometimes it means a narrative told without the use of concrete figures, sometimes a comics story where the panel to panel transitions seem unconnected, sometimes a series of collages, and sometimes a comic with an emotional story arc rather than a concrete one. WIG-WAM is about as DIY as it gets, with the cover a folded-over sheet torn from a sketchbook and silkscreened. Larmee's main subjects of interest are children: their gestures, their interactions, and their secrets as they explore the world of their homes. The most interesting thing about this comic is Larmee's point of view as an artist with relation to the children. In the scenes where we see the children at play, walking, or in silent thought, the reader sees large, vividly colored images. In scenes where he depicts children exploring their secrets, the text and drawings become tiny and simplified; he's not really privy to these secrets. Naturally, the secrets revolve around sexuality, especially as it relates to identity. This comic is less a coherent statement than a series of loosely-related images that coalesce around a few simple ideas. What I like most about it is that it gets at the feeling of childhood mystery, a feeling that is never resolved as a child and never again accessed as an adult.

IMPORTANT COMICS, by Dina Kelberman. Kelberman works in a number of different media, with comics as the seeming repository for her most spontaneous work. IMPORTANT COMICS is a collection of her ephemeral, stick-figure minimalist comics. I'm fascinated by the way she uses color in her comics. It's rarely there to define space or push a narrative; often, it seems to interrupt narrative with random blotches or swaths of color completely sweeping over a panel. Like everything else in this collection, it serves to keep the reader off-balance. Despite the crude and simple nature of the artwork, Kelberman is clearly fascinated by the formal qualities of comics. Strips where her main two characters (a cylindrical triangle character and a bean-like character) "talk" with word balloons completely filled with color and no words get at this idea. Characters pour out of panels, panels are placed at weird angles in connection to each other, and in general form & function blur into each other.

This particularly plays out in the way Kelberman employs text: sometimes it's a scrawl, sometimes it's precise, and often it's part of the art itself. This is less immersive than taking an aspect of Chris Ware's work (his interjection of text occasionally dominating image) and running with it in an entirely different direction. The reader gets a big clue as to what Kelberman's doing when she reveals that she wishes she was synaesthetic. This comic is meant to be looked at as much as it is read, and the way word and image blurs mimics this desire to simulate the experience of different senses blurring in one's perception. While this collection was carefully constructed, with images juxtaposed with obvious intentionality, it also seems clear that the original images were entirely spontaneous.

It also helps that the book is very funny. Kelberman lampoons her own ambitions by printing an index in the back that refer to the text captions on each page from "jurassic park rehearsal" to "shaddap". Most of the strips are small observations, arguments, non-sequiturs, jokes and bits of absurdism (like a pair of shorts and socks being mean to a t-shirt). While it seems clear that part of the original effect of reading her comics is a visceral one, with tiny pages, she manages to keep that "what-is-this?" feeling up on page after page. Even as the reader settles into Kelberman's technique and style, she still manages to surprise and delight on every page.

TICK, PROLOGUE and ON THE BEACH, by Kenan Rubenstein. I've seen all sorts of hand-made trickery employed to spice up mini-comics, but it's the truly skilled artist who can turn such formal pyrotechnics into something that dovetails with the narrative. Will Dinski is one of the best I've seen in that regard, but Kenan Rubenstein's efforts here were also quite memorable. PROLOGUE and ON THE BEACH are tiny minis (about 2x3) that expand like maps. You open the first flap for the first panel, the next flap for the next two panels, the next flap for the next four panels, and the final flap for a splash page that serves as either a punchline or a capper.

PROLOGUE starts as a typical boy-meets-girl slice-of-life story, narrated by the author. It turns into something quite different, though the ending is alluded to early in the story. The final twist doesn't feel like a cop-out; instead, it turns the story on its head, using one cliche' to add depth and meaning to the cliche' we are initially presented with. ON THE BEACH is much more light-hearted, relating an anecdote about the author's experiences on a nude beach. Once again, the formal properties of the mini serve the story well, "exposing" more and more of the scene on the beach. It's an enormously clever use of the canvas, as it were, truly forcing the reader to engage the work and sparking their awareness of the comic as an object and delivery system.

TICK is formatted much like a calendar, which makes sense since page headers are months and several of the pages are gridded like a calendar. This is a story mostly told in images, with little dialogue. It's about a frustrated and clearly lonely artist who tosses aside his drawings for blueprints, creating a mechanical companion (which looks much like himself) run by a huge key that makes a ticking sound. "Tick" has a double meaning here--both the ticking of the automaton and the ticking of the clock as days pass by in frustration. There's a clever and unexpected twist in the story halfway through when the initial protagonist disappears and the automaton essentially lives his life in his place, biding his time until winter comes again. Ironically, winter proves to be a time of renewal for both characters.

It's an interesting idea for a comic and ambiguous enough to support several different interpretations. The main character is obsessed with spring and trees, perhaps because he's unable to actually experience it. The months that pass with the automaton are cleverly designed; each panel is a day on a calendar, roughly, and there's a sense of jumbled and blurred time bubbling up as a series of moments. It's a comic about loneliness, separation, reconnection and the ways in which relationships can break apart--even one's own relationship with one's muse. Rubenstein's sense of composition is bold and daring, with the calendar format both a problem to solve and the solution to the problem all at once.

Rubenstein's main weakness as an artist is his line. His figures are stiff and he tends to overrender a bit, which is not unusual for a young artist. His character design is a bit limited at this point as well. His line is just not very lively at the moment; it has the precision of an illustrator rather than the fluidity of a cartoonist. After he's able to loosen up a bit, this will allow him to really play to his strengths: his understanding of composition, striking use of light & shadow contrast and empathy for his characters. It's why I enjoyed his smaller "Oubliette" comics more than TICK; they were more spontaneous and less labored over. As Rubenstein matures, hopefully he'll be able to maintain that spontaneity for his more ambitious projects.

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