Dylan Horrocks: The American Dream and Sam Zabel & The Magic Pen Horrocks' Hicksville is my favorite comic of all time, but he's gone through long fallow periods in comics this past decade. That's why it's so delightful to see him putting out work bit by bit on his website. The American Dream speaks to his interest in politics that's not present in Hicksville but has been a major part of his other work throughout his career. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a pure delight, one that any fan of Hicksville will find intriguing. The former strip has had just a few updates, and I gather from some of the artist's comments that it's been a tricky one to write. The premise is a dream of the author's where there is no America; he flies there only to find that it's been a trick of some kind. Horrocks will have a fine line to walk in crafting a story that makes a point without descending too heavily into polemics.He's several chapters into Sam Zabel, however, and it's a perfect mix of autobiography and fantasy. The title character is a stand-in of sorts for Horrocks, a struggling New Zealand cartoonist with a self-published series called Pickle, much like Horrocks himself. Zabel is a starting point of sorts for Horrocks to work out his ideas and emotions but is never a strictly autobiographical figure. The more personal elements of the story relate to Horrocks taking on mainstream comics writing jobs after the success of Hicksville and then finding himself unable to enjoy anything, including reading, writing or drawing comics. That inability to enjoy anything is called anhedonia, and Horrocks cleverly turns that into less a feeling than a place, drawing a map where Sam steps into that perilous country. At the end of his rope, Sam falls into an old comic about adventures on Mars and finds himself a character--and as a cartoonist, he is worshiped as a god. I'm always fascinated by stories of cartoonists who are crippled by depression and find themselves unable to draw. The thought of being unable to have emotional access to an experience that used to bring pure pleasure, even as a child--the act of making marks on paper-- is an unimaginably cruel fate. How one recovers from it varies, but there's something that Sam discovers in the strip--a web site dedicated to 19th century academy portrait painting--that gives him great comfort. The bright richness of those colors and their decorative qualities offer relief from the tyranny of narrative. For Horrocks, I will guess that this web site had a similar soothing quality, one that he worked out in the form of unleashing a beautiful but subtle color palette in this story. Once the reader reached the fantasy section of this story, Horrocks dips into a lurid, EC comics-inspired four-color palette that practically carries the narrative on its own. If that web site metaphorically brought Horrocks back to a love of creating images (at least in part), it seems as though this experience was literally lived out with Sam and his bemused adventures on Mars. (I'd say there's also a tip of the pencil to Jaime Hernandez in terms of the design of the female hero we meet briefly.) Horrocks is steaming right along on this story, and its mix of restraint and enthusiasm adds an interesting tension. This story has the potential to be a companion piece to Hicksville that will at once be exhilarating and sobering.
MK Reed: About A Bull MK Reed's first official debut (Americus) will be out this fall from First Second. However, the ambitious Reed has been doing all sorts of minicomics projects for quite some time. She's taken on an even crazier project in About A Bull, an adaptation of the Irish folk epic Tain Bo Cuailnge. This is a convoluted story to be sure, but she's done a remarkable job of not only simplifying the narrative but also of modernizing the dialogue. This is a story about a king and queen who quarrel about whose possessions are worth more. It so happens that the king is in the superior position, thanks to him possessing a mighty bull. The queen connives to acquire an even better bull to win the argument. After a series of misunderstandings, a deal to get the ball falls apart and war is declared to obtain it. Along the way, Reed turns to Caroline Kelsey to illustrate a portion of her story, one where we see the clever origin story of the two bulls done in a "stained glass" style of cartooning. As always, Reed's draftsmanship is rough but serviceable, and her sharp eye for color helps carry the story a bit. That rough style doesn't hurt the story, which is told with her usual sharp wit, and I'm eager to see how the twists and turns of the legends play out in the story itself. The part of Reed's art that needs the most improvement is her lettering. I think she'd benefit by using a font instead of hand lettering this story, especially when one compares her work to that of the other cartoonists involved. Terry LaBan: Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hard-Boiled Shaman LaBan is one of my favorite alt-cartoonists of the 80s and 90s, with memorable titles like Tales of Unsupervised Experience, Eno & Plum and Cud. He later did some projects with DC Comics, including an adaptation of Muktuk Wolfsbreath by Steve Parkhouse, a more naturalistic artist. This project didn't wind up meeting with much success, but he did later stake out a career as a syndicated cartoonist with his still-running Edge City, a strip he does with his wife. As a project to earn a master's degree in Interactive Design, he decided to revive his old character. LaBan hasn't lost a beat with his folk-noir hero Muktuk. LaBan has the instincts of an old-school underground cartoonist in terms of the explicitness of his material, yet his actual cartooning is far more playful. He eventually seemed to become reconciled to this notion when he simplified his approach even further and took more direct cues from Archie comics master Dan DeCarlo. LaBan's mature style combines this simple, highly direct and emotionally charged style of storytelling with whatever weird idea he has in mind. Quite honestly, LaBan's discouragement with comics as a career seemed to lead to a bit of floundering right before he quit doing alt-comics. This is not to say that the material was bad; in fact, his willingness to fully commit to humor led to some hilarious work. It's just that he seemed to be trying every approach in an attempt to find something that stuck. One of these approaches was the "hard-boiled shaman", Muktuk Wolfsbreath. He joined up Raymond Chandler-style noir-storytelling with elements of Siberian shamanic folk tales. It's a particularly delightful kind of fusion, one far more effective than the Vertigo version of this, simply because its combination of three contrasting styles (noir, folk tale, Archie comics) seems to work better in providing dynamic tension for the reader. The lighter visual elements are a perfect counterpoint for the heaviness of the story's thematic elements. They also serve to subvert the cliched oppressiveness of noir storytelling without derailing it altogether, thanks to the fantasy element linking the two together. In the opening segments of "Boo", LaBan gently leads new readers through the character's premise while revealing new information about Muktuk to long-time readers, all in the context of a noir-detective case that's easy for anyone to understand. Hopefully LaBan will be able to keep this going past the end of his thesis. Christopher Adams: Strong Eye Contact Christopher Adams is a young cartoonist with an interesting approach. I took a look at a silent series of strips he did titled Strong Eye Contact that employ an elliptical narrative approach. The panel-to-panel narrative is frequently fractured, with one sequence slipping in and out of another. At its essence, these strips are about performance, as its balding protagonist not only has to find ways to deal with connecting to an audience at a comedy club, but in connecting with the world at large. The title of the strip almost seems to be an unspoken mantra of sorts, as the character muddles through as best he can by faking his way through his act and life. There's a vividness to each image that speaks to Adams' background as a painter. The way that he "rhymes" images back and forth speaks to his background as a musician; each strip very much feels like the verse of a song, or perhaps a separate song in a longer cycle. A blog is unfortunately not the proper place to really examine these drawings. Hopefully, Adams will be able to publish these strips in a format that flatters his work a bit more. I also get the sense that like Jerry Moriarty's Jack Survives strips, Strong Eye Contact takes on even more force when one reads a number of them in sequence. At the moment, Adams has published just eleven of them. Devil's Lake: Minty Lewis & Melissa Mendes Devil's Lake is an online publication connected to the University of Wisconsin-Madison; its comics content is edited by cartoonist Lydia Conklin. This issue features an excerpt from Minty Lewis' minicomic Salad Days; here's my original review of the entire issue. It's a typically awkward, uncomfortable Lewis workplace story featuring anthropomorphic fruit that squeezes out wince-inducing jokes with impeccable timing. Conklin contrasts the spare line and restraint of Lewis with the expressiveness of Melissa Mendes' "The Bird". Whereas "Salad Days" employs a typical comics grid, "The Bird" takes advantage of its format to create a one-image, one-click story that pushes the reader through a day in the life of a young girl. Like in many of Mendes' stories, the girl is a latchkey kid who fends off loneliness with a rugged self-determinism. When she and her father discover a bird who stunned itself flying into the house, a clear line could be made between the girl and the bird: both alone, both vulnerable (as a bicycle accident earlier in the story attests) but both ultimately aided by someone else. Mendes is becoming a remarkably confident storyteller, working in a style that mixes the best of children's illustration with comics. Conklin is developing a sharp eye as an editor, and I only hope she becomes more ambitious in future issues by publishing a greater number of contributors.