Rob reviews NEPTUNE, by Aron Nels Steinke (Sparkplug Comic Books and Tugboat Press) and SAUSAGE HAND, by Andrew Smith (Sparkplug Comic Books and Teenage Dinosaur).
It's been interesting to see Sparkplug team up with other like-minded publishers for some recent releases. I noted in my last post that the Portland publishers have sort of formed a continuum in terms of tastes and the artists who publish with each. Tim Goodyear's Teenage Dinosaur is the most punk/underground/DIY of the three, both in terms of politics and imagery from the id. Greg Means' Tugboat Press has the cleanest and most "mainstream" comics, concentrating on clear narratives and imagery. Sparkplug is the most innovative of the three publishers and is somewhere inbetween the other two--sympathetic to both storytelling poles but beholden to neither. Dylan Williams publishes as material as experimental as Austin English, Juliacks, Dunka Jankovic, John Hankiewicz, and Olga Volozova, but also publishes wacky work from Jason Shiga & Philip Barrett and more straightforward work from Elijah Brubaker and Trevor Alixopolous. Williams has a nearly unerring eye in identifying new and emerging talent, and his catholic tastes have been a significant factor as to why.
I'm not sure what precipitated co-publishing SAUSAGE HAND and NEPTUNE, though I might guess that it was an effort to pool resources to offset publishing costs. Considering that the three publishers have twice collaborated on their free comic book day releases, I wouldn't be surprised to see this model continue. These two books couldn't be any more different: Aron Nels Steinke's NEPTUNE is an all-ages book, while Andrew Smith's SAUSAGE HAND is a grotesque bit of body horror and exploration of insanity. The covers of each book prepare the reader perfectly for what lies within: NEPTUNE uses a perfectly-manicured but clear line in arranging its principal characters, while SAUSAGE HAND has a stark, black cover--as though something dreadful and pornographic lies under its covers.
Steinke's work here is reminiscent of James Kochalka, Jordan Crane, John Porcellino and Jef Czekaj. He uses a deceptively clear and simple line (like Porcellino) but crams his pages full of decorative detail--especially wider shots. Visually, this is a charming book, even if it does feel derivative of Crane's THE CLOUDS ABOVE. In terms of the story, NEPTUNE has the cloying, self-satisfied nature of a Kochalka comic. I found myself being consistently annoyed by the brother and sister protagonists of the story: the brother was whiny and the sister overbearing. The title dog's story seemed a bit undercooked; I would have preferred a bit more in the magical realism department than what Steinke gave us. Indeed, on the back cover, Steinke promised the reader "amazing things, fantastic things, confusing and contradicting things". The only event that fell into any of those categories was a big flood that magically went away. The story instead focused on the bossy girl's narrative, which was a lot less interesting than a potentially magic dog.
The sense I got was that the reader was supposed to identify and root for the two lead kids, but their weird sense of entitlement (especially with regard to school, where almost everyone was trying to be as nice as possible to them) was actively repulsive. Having read a lot of comics for kids in the past few years, NEPTUNE is as good as any of them in terms of design and visual appeal. I'm just not entirely sure exactly what sort of child it was intended for. This is unfortunate, given Steinke's obvious gifts as a storyteller. I've greatly preferred the autobiographical stories I've seen from Steinke in places like PAPERCUTTER, and I think the tone he strikes in those stories didn't quite translate in NEPTUNE.
SAUSAGE HAND has a hallucinatory quality that grabs the reader from the first page and never relents. There's a bit of Crumb, a bit of Tony Millionaire, and some seeming inspiration from Heinz Edelman. That said, Smith's stark, nightmarish comics also owe more of a psychological debt to Ivan Brunetti's SCHIZO. This is a story about one man's literal battle with his own psyche, delving into mystery and noir along the way. It starts with the title character going to a movie where a villain manipulates one brother into killing another. Sausagehand suffers from extreme social anxiety/misanthropy, wherein the thought of any contact with other people was both repulsive and paralyzing.
From there, Sausagehand passes out due to food poisoning, wherein he meets what appears to be the right hemisphere of his brain, who recommends a particular course of action. That winds up being a bad idea, but Sausagehand ducks into a bookstore wherein he finds a book called "Spoilers", written by God. That sequence summed up the book's appeal: a rubbery line and an equally elastic sense of logic and humor. The climax of the book is funny and confounding on several levels, where we see our hero ending up exactly where he wants to be--which isn't necessarily a great place. What's surprising about the book is how tightly plotted it winds up being, even amidst the weirdness, gore, violence and uncomfortable & claustrophobic angles. That's what sets it apart from other modern underground comics: there's a clarity in the storytelling that feels calculated and carefully planned. That structure keeps the reader moving from page to page, no matter what weirdness Smith throws at them. The result is a fascinating first major work, though I do wonder where the artist will go from here, given how singular his style is.