Let's dip into yet another set of minicomics that have come my way:
A.R.R.O., by Alison Burke and Tara Harris. This is clearly an early effort by the artist and writer, but this low-fi sci-fi comic is ambitious in its own way. It's a day in the life of some sort of military/scientific base and the people who work there. The book is full of character interaction and seemingly minor schemes and betrayals, leading into much bigger stakes by the end of this first chapter. Burke has a nice ear for dialogue and adeptly creates an easygoing, relaxed pace for the narrative. Harris has a strong eye for color, making the choice of using subdued tones like olives, browns and mustard yellows to match the languid nature of the story. There are a number of signs that this is beginner's work. The lettering and letter balloon placement are both distractions due to their sloppiness. Harris' character work and overall line isn't confident or fluid; the stiffness of the characters is another distraction for the reader. Depicting motion and how characters relate to each other in space are other problems. One thing that would help is learning to vary her line weights in order to help give her characters more pop on each page. Her style does possess a certain idiosyncratic charm even at this stage of her career, but fixing some of the basics would go a long way in playing up that charm.
Buster Monster and the Roughage of July, by Chris Davis. The artist notes that this comic was inspired by Jesse Reklaw's Ten Thousand Things To Do (which in turn was inspired by Lynda Barry), a daily diary strip. Unlike Reklaw, who uses a strict four-panel grid and provides a scale to measure his energy level, alcohol consumption, pain level, etc, Davis uses a free-form, sketchbook approach. Davis makes the crucial decision to provide as little context as possible regarding his life to the reader, trusting them to figure it out. We learn about his routine working for a cafe/caterer, working a variety of events in the Portland area. We see him deal with waking up with pain, living with his girlfriend, and a variety of crabby co-workers to whom he gives funny aliases (PB&J, The Frog Princess, etc). There are also a number of comics about his dreams, which give him an opportunity to draw more interesting imagery. There are two major factors in his favor: his lettering is distinctive--stylized but legible; and his drawings are full of life. His figure drawing in particular is sharply observed, but he's not afraid to get a bit silly or stylized when the occasion calls for it. There's a lovely image of him shaking the hands of his elderly grandmother that captures both his respect and her grace simply by the way he draws the figures. This looks like it's done mostly in pencils and is slightly smudgy, but Davis makes that work for him. Hopefully his output as an artist will continue to increase.
Vortex #2, by Don Robinson. This is a good old-fashioned underground comic book in the vein of Gilbert Shelton. Robinson uses a dense line and makes his pages busy with tons of detail and eye-pops. While most of his strips are gag-oriented, there are a few fantasy/sex drawings reminiscent of S.Clay Wilson and a story that's a tribute to EC horror stories.. There are also a series of more simply rendered parody strips that are less interesting to look at and certainly to read. Most of his parody strips (like The Flintstones or Catcher In The Rye) revolve around smoking pot; others are weak-sauce pokes at Johnny Ryan and diary comics. There's not much of a gag there beyond "I don't like these things". It's ironic that he makes fun of Ryan's scatological humor, given that much of Johnson's humor revolves around coarse material and that Ryan himself is so much more effective in his own parodies. Ryan may be mean-spirited and unfair, but there's no question that his barbs stick because he is so familiar with his subjects. It's the vagueness of Robinson's jokes that rob them of their effectiveness. I'd love to see Robinson illustrate someone else's stories, because his rubbery, lively line and attention to detail are both solid.
Lizzie's Tail, by Darryl Ayo. Ayo won the Promising New Talent Ignatz award at SPX this year, and this comic is a highly assured sign of his progress as a cartoonist. I've been following his career more-or-less since he first put pen to paper, and it's clear that he's done the hard work of getting better in public. This comic is a flight of fancy that tracks one woman's story about how she got a particular object hanging around her neck. That turns into a borderline absurd fantasy piece wherein she possesses a tail, walks in a stream alongside a forest and battles several opponents with her knife and mermaid ally. Ayo takes some cues from Fusion comics in the way he blends in a certain kind of fantasy character design with a certain roughness and odd pacing common in alt-comics. He spots blacks to create dramatic tension as well as using zip-a-tone effects to create texture in his panels. After a mini full of conflict and dramatic poses, Ayo pops the balloon of this narrative by inserting a gag at the end. This is a minor work but one that illustrates that Ayo is certainly on the right path.
Dragons! (Comics and Activities for Kids!), edited by Greg Means. A Free Comic Book Day mini for kids that's not simply an Archie comic or a superhero comic is a tremendous idea, and leave it to Greg Means (editor of Papercutter) to put such a thing together. Using a number of regular contributors to that minicomics series, Dragons! is chock full of comics, mazes, jokes (by two superior gagsmiths in Karen Sneider & Joey Sayers), detailed drawings, word searches, find the hidden image drawings, connect-the-dot drawings, mad-libs, mythological tidbits and more besides. The "Dragon Maze" is an especially impressive achievement, as Kazimir Strzepek jams every inch of the page with eye-pops and gags. The lead comics feature is by Alec Longstreth, and it's a typically agreeable feature emphasizing the joy of reading and how a dragon finds an optometrist. What was impressive about this comic is that it's clear that no contributor half-assed their offering, which I attribute to Means' strong editorial hand. The overall effect is that of an issue of Highlights For Children with a dragon theme and in minicomics form. As a kid, I'd devour that sort of publication, so I imagine this comic might be appealing to children even now.
Danger Country #1, by Levon Jihanian. This fantasy comic is typical in terms of its set-up but fantastic in terms of its narrative execution and character design. The issue ends with three characters being thrown together for a quest: the apprentice daughter of a wizard, her cat-warrior companion, and the sole survivor of a village that was wiped out at the beginning of the issue. The pacing and Jihanian's sense of detail make this issue stand out. Jihanian stretches the narrative over its first sixteen pages, emphasizing the grief and shock of Evan, the sole survivor of the village. The quest he's given is what the reader expects will take up the rest of the book. Instead, that journey is sped up so that we can see his immediate goal (a wizard city hidden by mists) and the threat to it (a vampire wizard dressed in armor). Jihanian employs a clear-line style with a minimum of hatching or spotting blacks; the level of detail on his faces despite the simplicity is remarkable. That's because of the level of control he clearly has over his line, which is the key to creating a world that's at once strange and accessible.