Saturday, September 12, 2009

Single Issues From Sparkplug

Rob reviews a number of periodicals from Sparkplug Comic Books. Included are THE SHORTEST INTERVAL, by David King; ROCK THAT NEVER SLEEPS, by Olga Volozova & Juliacks; DEPARTMENT OF ART #1, by Dunja Jankovic; the free anthology BIRD HURDLER; and REICH #6, by Elijah Brubaker.

Once again flying in the face of established comics business trends, Dylan Williams trusts his intuition and moreover, trusts his artists, as Sparkplug Comic Books has published a slew of comic books in the past few months. While most of them will never be listed by Diamond, Williams knows that the audience for these books is not necessarily one affected by Diamond's more stringent minimum orders policy. For some books, Williams has also pooled resources with other like-minded small press publishers like Greg Means' Tugboat Press and Tim Goodyear's Teenage Dinosaur. As always, there's a singular vision to be found in each of these comics that reflects more a unity of purpose than a house aesthetic.

THE SHORTEST INTERVAL, by David King. This is a short comic about the Planck Epoch (the first microseconds after the Big Bang) and gravity that's part science comic, part fanciful daydream about the universe's origins. With colorful and amusing schematic diagrams and disarming cartoons, King homes in on an interesting philosophical question. During the briefer-than-brief Planck Epoch, gravity was by far the most dominant force in the universe. As the universe expanded, it became less and less significant a force, since gravity is the attraction between two bodies. When two bodies are no longer in close proximity, gravity becomes less important than electromagnetism or (especially) the subatomic forces. King posits this question as though gravity was sentient, was forced to abdicate its crown and has since tried to find a new purpose. This is an aperitif of a comic, pared down to its most essential parts and no more.

REICH #6, by Elijah Brubaker. Brubaker checks in with an issue that's mostly set-up and what feels like a last look at past events of the 1930s. Here, iconoclastic psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich moves his family around in the face of National Socialist rule, ruminates about his encounters with prostitutes and considers what he thought those encounters meant. I've noted elsewhere how much I like Brubaker's blocky & angular character design--all sharp angles and harsh shadows; in this issue, I liked the way he used gradients of light to imply the fading away of an era. Reich was never afraid to challenge authority, and this issue has a very deliberate dissolve between one of his books attacking fascism being burned by Nazis and his first discovery of a weird energy emanating from a sample on a microscope slide. The latter half of the issue further cements one of Reich's chief faults as interpreted by Brubaker: he's a man who loves humanity but who has trouble expressing his emotions for people. Having his feelings broken by a prostitute and being beaten by his father clouded his ability to feel empathy; while not cruel, it was obvious that his affection for his own children was tempered by an almost clinical distance. That distance was instantly adopted by one of his daughters, mimicking his own dispassionate discussion of sex. I'm eager to see Brubaker start to explore the weirder aspects of Reich's ideas, which I imagine won't be for another couple of issues.

BIRD HURDLER, edited by Dylan Williams, Tim Goodyear and Greg Means. This was this year's Free Comic Book Day entry after last year's NERD BURGLAR, and it's once again a collaboration with Tugboat Press and Teenage Dinosaur. It's a strong lineup, including an excerpt from a Julia Grforer story I reviewed here, a two-page observational piece by Andrice Arp, a typically dense dream-related story by Theo Ellsworth, a funny story about cats by Lisa Eisenberg, and welcome short stories by Zack Soto and Farel Dalrymple (two artists whose own work I haven't seen enough of in recent years).

I don't often see Arp tackle autobiographical incidents, but her strip about the kind of weirdos one can observe on public transportation was appropriately bizarre for her style of art. The creepy guy trying to hit on two random women was hilarious because of just how oblivious he was to the open hostility being thrown in his face by everyone around him. Soto's strip was atypical; it was a relationship strip connecting the tangled skeins of the horrible things we can say to loved ones and how it can batter them. The way the threads wound up leading to two other people was a clever and telling shorthand method for depicting what was left unsaid. Eisenberg's clear line story about cats inheriting both the pluses and minuses of a couple's relationship problems was also quite clever, as a cat given a turkey's gizzard wistfully wishes it could taste that mysterious food again, even as a vegan girlfriend was angry at her boyfriend for doing so. This is still a pretty lightweight and amusing story, but the hidden yet jagged edges Eisenberg implies give it a little bite. Ellsworth's work looks great as the anchor of an anthology, given the density of his work and the fairly straightforward gag found in a cat barely deflecting a sleep-related disaster of its master. Dalrymple contributes a second part of a continuing story, which--while cute--was a bit hard to follow. Still, the way he draws children's hair and facial expressions with so much rubbery detail always draws my eye in. This was a truly impressive free comic with a wide variety of styles and superior production values that nonetheless did not seek to water down its stories so as to true a wider audience. The publishes have achieved a measure of success by publishing artists they believe in and finding ways to expose it to audiences who will be drawn to it.

DEPARTMENT OF ART, by Dunja Jankovic. Describing Jankovic's work is difficult. Perhaps "Kafka-esque" comes closest: a sort of suffocating Mobius strip of frustration, yearning, pain and aimlessness. The opacity of her comics comes in part from the moody, scribbly style she employs. Everything is in shadows, but not the sort of ominous noir shadows that imply danger or excitement, but almost a sense that the light has simply faded away. DEPARTMENT OF ART is a workplace comic that intersects with creating art for a living, a process that Jankovic depicts as literally sucking one's light out of one's body. In this issue, the lumpy, ill-seen protagonist finds herself unable to stay in her cubicle, but learns that things get much worse when she tries to go elsewhere. Indeed, Jankovic draws the workplace as an infinite labyrinth with no beginning or end, just more walls and more cubicles. The question that remains at the end of the issue is just what her inability to find her old cubicle (and job) means as far as her purpose in life. Jankovic, whom I believe has a fine arts background, magnificently illustrates what is otherwise a not unusual set of feelings. Depicting coworkers as chattering snakes, portraying a narrow vent first as a potential avenue of escape and then as a claustrophobic hellhole, and the ill-differentiated blobs that are her other co-workers in a break room are the very structure from which the comic's sense of desperation emanates. This has the potential to be a fascinating long-form work, depending on how she chooses to pick up and continue the story's threads.

ROCK THAT NEVER SLEEPS, by Olga Volozova & Juliacks. I've written in great detail about these artists and the immersive style of comics they champion. It was fascinating to see them collaborate on a story about memory; in particular, a story about a town where lost memories can be recovered. The two each wrote two separate stories that intertwined in interesting ways, with Volozova contributing one of her usual modern fairy tales and Juliacks writing a science fiction story. What both stories share in common are the hallmarks of that immersive style: a minimal use of negative space, reading the page as parts and whole simultaneously, and an integration of text and image as almost interchangeable parts. Words not only have a decorative quality at times, they also occasionally act as visual structures. It's an approach that demands a reader's full investment but also promises an enormously rewarding experience.
The key to reading these comics is by considering the concept of memory as something both always disappearing yet still lingering as a trace. Erasure is a big part of these narratives: words and images (often combined) that are tiny, smashed into corners, written in faded ink or half-erased. You can follow the story without paying attention to them, but they can always be espied in one's peripheral vision, or when one takes in the gestalt of the page. Volozova is all about that gestalt, constructing her pages as units to be apprehended all at once and then slowly broken down into panels. Like most of her stories, this one is about a set of alienated characters in a town whose population started to lose their memory. It focused on a family whose father was a puppeteer, whose mother came from a long line of puppet makers and whose daughter wished to learn the family secret. They lost their most important memories and traveled to a town called Rock That Never Sleeps, a place in the desert where one could regain memories for a price. That price was losing something precious. The genius of this story is the way that Volozova painfully had each character remember the horrible things they did to each other that forced their loss of memory, and the price paid was one of separation. I read it in part as a way of approaching trauma; that is, remembering traumatic events both unblocks certain possibilities but creates scars. It's a difficult choice to make, but it's obvious as to where Volozova's sympathies lie.
Juliacks equates the loss of memory with the end of the world in her story, a point of view that makes sense from a personal standpoint. In her future world, most of the world's population lost their memory, an event that essentially wiped out free will as technology stepped in to make up for this lack of identity. The protagonists of the story were part of a small community that not only retained their memory, they could read memories off of objects. The trio travels to Rock That Never Sleeps, and Juliacks portrays the continuum of cognition as an interconnected if jumbled mess. Nothing is ever erased so much as it's out of order in a set of files. As such, Juliacks' story is heavy on thick, black lines; tons of hatching and images blurring into and merging with each other. In the story's climax , the trio causes the whole structure of the town to collapse in on itself as they burrowed for their memories, with the story's main protagonist eschews the whole practice of memory, content to live in her own head. Ultimately, this is a story about solipsism and how an obsession with one's own identity can obscure the ways in which we relate to others.

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