Friday, June 19, 2009

More Mini-Comics: Sobel, Viola, Bougie & Frank, Apt 307, & the MCC

Another interesting crop of mini-comics to consider, each of which couldn't be any more different from the next. Included are THE RED STILETTO, by Marc Sobel; SUNWARD by Jason Viola; APARTMENT 307 by Josh Blair, Noah Van Sciver, Pete Borrebach & Nick Marino; MAXIMUM SUPEREXCITEMENT #2 by Robin Bougie & Maxine Frank; and MINIMALIST COMICS COLLECTIVE #1, by Agnes Anger, C. Che' Salazar and Abel Jimenez.

SUNWARD, by Jason Viola. This is a curious little mini about a group of three friends, one of whom has become unstuck from gravity and threatens to fly off the face of the earth (and inevitably, as his friends note, into the sun). The way that the cartoony characters are introduced, the reader almost has a sense that these are established dramatic personae whom we should know all about. Viola plays it straight the whole issue, now matter how absurd the set-up gets or crazy the ideas become in trying to solve the bedraggled hero's dilemma. The most interesting thing about the comic is the way that whom the protagonist actually is shifts from page to page. Is it Dave, who's in danger of flying off? Is it the pensive Felonious Monk? Is it the rambling Sebastian?

I enjoyed the weirdness of the premise so much that I was a bit disappointed when there was a kind of explanation as to what happened to Dave that wound up being the on-the-nose receptacle of the mini's main theme. That theme was the need to define a direction to one's life before it slips completely out of control--especially when one is experiencing near-total freedom. The figure work is fairly simple and ranges from expressive to slightly stiff and clunky. Viola seemed to really enjoy drawing short-haired and chunky Sebastian; at the very least, he comes alive a bit more than the book's other characters. Viola does well with keeping things deadpan, and as a result, there's plenty of sly humor in this comic. It just could have done with either more or less control over its line: more would have given the book a greater sense of restraint, heightening the tension of the situation; less would have been a nice chaotic counterpoint to the artist's dry humor.

THE RED STILETTO, by Marc Sobel. This is the first mini written and drawn by my former stablemate Sobel. Sobel is best known for his ultra-exhaustive, issue-by-issue take on LOVE & ROCKETS, an effort that I hope is one day published in a more permanent form. Sobel brutally critiqued his own art on this mini at the link above, and he's pretty much spot on. The problem for me was not that he used too much photo reference (including some direct traces). The problem was that he didn't go far enough in one direction or another. That is, it would have been preferable to see a shaky but spontaneous & expressive line or go the other way and play up the story as though it was a series of photographs, emphasizing the still & stiff nature of the images. That would have been perfectly appropriate for this story, which was about images & memories, both lost and found. Instead, we got something in-between whose linework was indeed stiff and awkward.

That said, this was a cleverly designed and composed comic, especially for such an early effort. There's no question that Sobel is a fine writer, and he really went to town adding layer upon layer of metafictive aspects in this story. THE RED STILETTO is a story about one man's memories of his best friend growing up. This friend lost contact with him many years prior but had moved to get back in touch with him for reasons that were initially unclear. Much of the issue's narrative involved a reminiscence juxtaposed against the actions of the friend, some of which confirmed his beliefs and others of which belied them. The climax of the comic was a text short story that led the friend to want to reconnect, a story written by her father who had killed himself. The story was about missing motivation and ideas that haunt creators, and it seemed both autobiographical and prescient in unusual ways. The shock ending of that story and the shock ending of the mini itself mirrored each other, creating spectacularly violent endings for mysteries that could never really be resolved. It's obvious that Sobel already has a firm grasp on visual storytelling, and that it will simply be a matter of repetition and refinement. I'm eager to see what he publishes next.

MAXIMUM SUPEREXCITEMENT #2, by Robin Bougie & Maxine Frank. This is a sharply drawn bit of filth and fluff. Bougie is best known for his Cinema Sewer magazine, celebrating the sleaziest examples of grindhouse films and culture. He's also a fine cartoonist who isn't afraid to go to some pretty extreme places with regard to sex, violence, gore and gross-outs. This comic is a collaboration with Frank, one where the two artists traded off panels and sometimes collaborated within the same panel. The results are amazingly seamless, which no doubt reflects their similar sensibilities. The story is a mishmash of postapocalyptic shenanigans, rapacious sex slaves, maggot-inducing viruses and the destruction of all human knowledge. There's gunplay, S&M, worms exploding out of assorted body parts and an (anti-) heroine dressed smartly in an old WAC uniform. This is gleeful gross-out, not really meant to shock or disturb, but rather to point out "Hey, isn't this exploding head awesome?" This comic is a fun drawing exercise by the artists--no more, no less. Its potential audience would seem to be a rather self-selecting one.

APARTMENT 307, by Josh Blair, Pete Borrebach & Nick Marino, and Noah Van Sciver. This little mini-anthology hit upon a coincidence of circumstance shared by the three artists: they all lived in apartment 307 in each of the different cities they inhabited. Both Blair and Van Sciver complain about going up three flights of stairs. I liked Blair's visual treatment of this, using numbers and crossed lines to break up what is otherwise a mundane story. He's obviously not a very confident draftsman at this point, but he worked his way around that cleverly. Van Sciver engaged in a bit of navel-gazing here as he reflected on the ways in which his social anxiety has made him want to retreat to his room (and his stuff) more and more. Van Sciver's self-caricature is fascinatingly ugly, a point that he not only plays up in this story, but spreads to his art in general. There's a sloppy ugliness to his line that's starting to grow on me. I don't think he's really found his voice yet as an artist, but it's clear he's determined to do so. The Borrebach/Marino piece breaks up the introspection with a tale of why it's really best not to get involved in other people's business in Miami. It's a funny concept, but Marino's art manages to be both crude and drab.

MINIMALIST COMICS COLLECTIVE, by Agnes Anger, C. Che' Salazar and Abel Jimenez. This is the sort of comic that will draw a strong reaction from its audience, be it positive or negative. It's a conceptual exercise in comics narrative storytelling, with each of the three involved artists using a different technique. Jimenez crafts comics using only the most basic of geometric shapes as his characters, and they spout dialogue as though they were drawn in a perfectly naturalistic style. His are actually the most conventional comics in this anthology. Salazar uses text and panel-to-panel transitions to tell stories, a slightly more abstracted approach but still fairly straightforward. For Salazar, the iconography of the text becomes the image; words bend, dip and wrap around each other in a way that gives the reader information at both levels. Anger repurposes photographs to act either as word balloons or actual captions. Jimenez's comics are sort of like Matt Feazell's stick-figure comics taken to their logical end.

It's important to note that the stories in this comic aren't abstract. Indeed, with the exception of Anger's image-only comics, the storytelling is rather easy to follow. The grid on each page is standard, the Jimenez's drawings are obviously made with a simple computer program, and the lettering is also done by computer. The whole thing should be entirely dull to look at, and yet I found to be a compelling read. That was especially true in the stories where the three artists collaborated and combined their techniques. "A Typical Comics Story" combines Salazar's "expressive text" to create the characters and Anger's appropriated (but public domain) photographic images to create word ballons: text and image are cleverly inverted to tell a story that itself is a commentary on genre stories.

I think this comic succeeds because the artists made a deliberate conceptual choice to work using these techniques. It owes as much to dada artist Marcel Duchamp as it does any cartoonist. Anger in particular appropriates images with a particular (often charged) meaning and recontextualizes them in a manner similar to Duchamp and his ready-mades. In "Blink And You'll Miss It", horrific images literally blur into each other when the page is held up to the light; the formal properties of both page and image are integral to seeing these images in a new way.

Jimenez is much more playful, as in "Great Panels in Comic Book History", where he reduces motion and emotion from famous comics and breaks them down to circles and rectangles. The cascading rectangles depicting R.Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" is particularly clever, evoking a different Duchamp work: "Nude Descending A Staircase".

Duchamp's work crossed a number of media, making it hard to ultimately classify as a particular sort of art or literature. His art was both funny and whip-smart, thinking through concepts and laying them bare in ways other artists never considered. It should be noted, however, that once he told a "joke", he rarely lingered on the same sort of material for long. Along those same lines, I'll be curious how long the thinkers from the MCC will be content to work using these same techniques. One can only tell the same joke so many times, even when it's deadly serious, before the punchline gets stale. That said, this comic was an enormously clever dissection of the relationship between the formal qualities of comics art and craft. Those who conflate the craft of drawing with the art of creating comics will no doubt be enraged by this comic, but its sheer audacity as both an act of provocation and meditation made me chuckle throughout. Hopefully we'll soon get to see what the MCC has in mind for a second transmission.

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