Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gag Comic Round-Up Nowacki, Viola, Reed,, Latta, Aushenker

Time to dip into an array of gag-oriented minicomics.

Moe, by Piotr Nowacki. Nowacki, a Polish artist, uses a delightfully simple and blobby line in depicting his anthropomorphic protagonist and the mysterious blotch who both aids and hinders him. This is a silent comic with an open four panel-per-page layout that emphasizes each character's body language above all else. Nowacki values exaggeration of action as the hero is punched in the face by the blob (after being offered a bone), winds up in jail, gets busted out by the blob, smokes a joint with a Rasta angel blob in a cloud, and finally rescues a beautiful woman underwater. The mischievous blob reminds me a bit of Al Capp's Shmoo character, only it's black with white eyes. Nowacki's work is incredibly self-assured in its simplicity and expressiveness; there are no wasted lines. The gags are reminiscient of the sort of thing Lewis Trondheim does so well in his silent humor comics: set up a character, provide an antagonist, then subvert reader expectations. Nowacki's imagination isn't quite as wild as Trondheim's, but Moe's ambitions are modest and this mini is a rewarding read.

Some Stories #1, by Desmond Reed. Reed is another artist who uses a simple line in order to tell his shaggy dog twist gags. Sort of like the O.Henry of minicomics gag work, Reed uses his exposition to set up an unexpected punchline. I wish Reed would vary the thickness of his line from time to time in order to make his pages more interesting to look at (as well as giving him more storytelling options); his art is merely functional, though it is effective. This latest effort, published in a larger size than his earlier micro-minis, is a mixed bag. "4 O'Clock" is too much of a shaggy dog story, dragging out the fate of a lab guinea pig who is killed by accident and is trying to sort out his afterlife. The eventual resolution of this story felt predictable in a way his prior comics hadn't. On the other hand, "Todd" represented a step up for Reed. As we meet two fish who are madly in love, we continuously flash back in time three seconds at a time, a clever way of detailing their extremely short attention spans and memories. It's a sort of underwater version of Memento, where Reed adds layer on top of layer until he reaches the final payoff. Unlike the first story, every single page is funny on its own, working first as a kind of non sequitur and then finally cohering in the end.

Herman The Manatee Volume 4, by Jason Viola. Viola's meandering strip about a manatee and his "lousy friends" hits a nice groove in this collection. Viola has an appealing line and great character design sense, but the quality of his work has varied as he's tried to figure out just what he wants to do with his strip. He quickly ran out of variations of his initial premise (the titular character getting hit in the head by passing boats), but attempts at piecing together extended storylines fell flat. His characters are simply too silly to support such attempts. In this volume, Viola strikes a balance with the Candide-like Herman, depressed (to the point of absurdity) Lester and vicious narwhal Knuckles playing off each other. Instead of trying to attach these characters to a plot (even a plot that was a parody), Viola instead simply structures gags around each character's quirks and how they interact. The result is a consistently amusing set of strips, drawn in a clean and assured style with a minimum of fuss.

Those Unstoppable Rogues Party Hard!, by Michael Aushenker. Of all the humorists discussed in this article, Aushenker's work is certainly the weirdest. Even in this series of strips about a turtle named Brett and a chicken named Clucky, it's hard to pin down Aushenker's style. There's a kitchen sink quality to it that I admire, as he throws in wordplay, absurdity, puns, double-entendres, purely visual gags, meta-humor, and character-based jokes. It's a loud, sprawling series of strips that features my favorite character designs of Aushenker's; there's an almost geometric appeal to Clucky (all triangles) and Brett (all curves). That balance makes this strip work better than his Greenblatt the Great! strips simply because I like looking at these characters more. There's also no real attempt to bring in other characters as concept gag generators, which sometimes proves to be a distraction in Aushenker's other comics. Brett and Clucky are at the center of every storyline and other characters serve purely to react against them, and then leave. Most of these strips are pretty old (dating from the early 90s) and there are some pages that have a bit of clutter that interfere with the overall storytelling. However, there's mostly a happy lack of fussiness to these strips. Aushenker has such a heavy line that keeping things relatively simple on the page winds up being the best approach. That simplicity allows Aushenker to create a strip that's simultaneously dumb and smart.

Rashy Rabbit Droppin' Anchor, by Josh Latta. Latta returns with another Gilbert Shelton-style adventure of a slacker rabbit done in a rubbery, lively anthropomorphic style. Latta has all but abandoned any sense of verisimilitude in his comics, as Rashy winds up at sea after his girlfriend dumps him and meets a group of sexy mermaids. While the comic is well-paced and balances its chaotic and ridiculous elements with straightforward storytelling, it's far sillier than Latta's earlier comics. Latta is better at mining humor out of awkwardness and sleaze than he is out of pure absurdity, and as a result this story winds up being fairly forgettable. The characters, divorced from prior continuity, all feel fairly stock and paper-thin. The sea captain Rashy ventures off with (and with whom he discovers he has a surprising connection) is ridiculously cartoonish. As a result, this issue isn't silly or absurd enough to be memorable in a Michael Kupperman sort of way nor is it tethered enough to actual character relationships to keep the reader focused on the page. That said, it certainly looks like Latta had a great deal of fun drawing this issue, especially the mermaid sequences. If Latta does decide to commit to more of a fantasy element in his stories, I hope he takes his concepts further.

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