Sunday, October 11, 2009

20 Years And Counting: New Minis from Henderson, Porcellino and Reklaw

Three of comics' mainstays from the 80s continue to go strong in publishing their work. John Porcellino just celebrated the 20th anniversary of KING-CAT, Jesse Reklaw publishes in every form of media imaginable, and Sam Henderson is looking for a new publisher with the slowdown at Alternative Comics. Let's take a look at three of their most recent minicomics.

TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #5, by Jesse Reklaw. This is the penultimate collection of Reklaw's flickr-based diary comic. In going over quotidian details like meals and sleep time, Reklaw gave himself a structure so as to express feelings he had difficulty expressing in his day-to-day life. This is even more explicit in his COUCH TAG autobio comics, but the day-to-day measure of things like how much pain various parts of his body were contrasted with his impish, joking nature. One senses that his reporting on his pain was an organic decision, something that just grew out of his goal to have a daily diary comic. This issue found him trying to relax, going on a Hawaiian vacation to see his girlfriend's family and having fun with his mother and younger brothers on a visit to see him. As always, Reklaw worked with a four-panel grid, occasionally breaking his pattern to solve a particular storytelling problem. There's a sense that Reklaw simply didn't want to settle for just a standard accounting of his daily activities, and made a point of relating at least one funny anecdote, one moment with his girlfriend (though never any sort of explicitly emotionally revealing details), one moment with his cats or one moment with his friends. It's a distillation of his day, one where it seems that he feels a duty to his audience to entertain them, but also a duty to himself to get across some kind of emotional truth. It's his skill as an entertainer that makes each strip so dense and compulsively readable, but it's a tribute to his own honesty that he tries to relate something more.

KING-CAT #70, by John Porcellino. Porcellino's 20th anniversary issue is another moving collection of lyrical short stories, pithy anecdotes, gags about cats and emotionally intense memories. Porcellino's minimalist line is poetic, abstracting image as much as his zen koan-influenced text does the same to language. What separates Porcellino's work from other autobio cartoonists (including his many imitators) is the way he grapples with life so directly. That's both in terms of the way he addresses his battle with depression and despair, as well as the manner in which he engages his environment and finds small joys. "Meds" is a good example of this, as he opaquely refers to being in therapy, the process of waiting to get a prescription--and the nervous process after "I put the bottle on the shelf. I waited..."

Porcellino still manages to mine interesting stories from his youth. "(Do The) Pete Duncan" related a time when he and a friend used his dad's office after hours to make photocopies of their zine and a night when they got caught when the machine kept jamming. The incident was less important than their friends' recollection of the incident and the way they kept it alive as an inside joke, even recording a song about it. "Ruby Hill" comes at a memory in a different manner, as he looked out over at Denver, noting "The sky was up/The Earth was down/The last thing of which I was ever certain". The simplicity of his line added to its effectiveness, down to using the principle of the Golden Triangle in every panel to construct an image that drew the eye to its key elements, maximizing its emotional impact. "Wisdom Teeth" plays a memory strictly for laughs, making rare use of funny drawings. This comic is filled with shorter stories that span a life's worth of memories, making it an especially fine issue for those looking for an entry into his work.

MAGIC WHISTLE #11 1/2, by Sam Henderson. Henderson is on the short list of comics' greatest humorists, but hasn't received a lot of attention in recent years. Hardly anyone seemed to make mention of the most recent big issue of MAGIC WHISTLE #11, which came out last year. Henderson is funnier than ever, crafting astonishingly convoluted stories that are funny on several different levels: as funny drawings, as gags, as absurdist statements and as meta-humor. He and Michael Kupperman are geniuses at deconstructing humor, simultaneously telling a joke and mining further humor from even the silliest of gags by breaking it down. This mini featured a number of single-panel gags, like a man on a cross saying "The thing I miss most is sex with animals", a man holding some snotty cats who exclaimed "I've got to stop blowing my nose with cats!" and a flowchart called "Your Mind At Work" that followed the thought processes of a man who just stepped on a tack. While his gag work is solid, Henderson tends to shine most with his longer stories. This issue's "Fucking With Jasper" is such an entry, a shaggy dog story about a guy who has to stay by his telephone and the friends who keep upping the ante in how they annoy him. The ridiculousness of their actions was funny enough (including their utter lack of motive), but the defenselessness of the main character was even funnier--including a punchline that featured the passive guy mustering up a tiny bit of anger.

What separates Henderson from other humorists is that he's a conceptualist with a style of art that is funny-looking but crude enough to be off-putting to some audiences. I find the simplicity of his drawings, all in service to gags, to be beautiful and strange. The way he arranges eyes on heads (paired together on the same side of the face ala Picasso), the funny lumpiness of his unclothed bodies, and the slightly grotesque shape of faces and figures gives Henderson's comics a distinctive feel. He's a cartoonist in the tradition of James Thurber, with a deceptively crude line that anyone can latch onto. Henderson is an artist best suited for periodicals, but given the current market this obviously isn't a viable option. The next best thing for him would be a thick collection of his comics, perhaps printed on coarse, thick paper. A collection that simply reprinted the best of his longer stories, or at least sectioned off single page gags from the longer stories, would be an incredible volume.

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