Thursday, October 6, 2011

Four New CCS Anthologies

Anthologies have long been the lifeblood of the students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Self-published anthologies are frequently the first place they publish, but many alumni continue to edit and publish them long after graduation. Let's take a look at four recent anthologies by alumni, students and faculty of CCS.

Too Far, edited by Joseph Lambert. This is a very strong anthology from One Percent Press, the minicomics and music collective that includes Lambert, JP Coovert and James Hindle. They've done a number of anthologies but this one shows both their growth as artists as well as their taste in picking new contributors. Of course, this is really Lambert's show in terms of editing and design, and one can clearly see him evolving in every aspect of comics. Hindle's piece, "Microscopic", combines the very specific pain of dealing with a one-way breakup with the sort of phenomenology of space as it applies to emotional states that Tom Kaczynski does so well. Alexis Frederick-Frost contributes a story done in his recent, more relaxed style that's not quite so heavy on the blacks. With that thinner line, he crams a ton of ornate but clear detail into a hilarious period piece about society functions and how women started wearing ever more ornate hats with live birds on them. This is a wonderfully witty story that fully exploits its premise and ends with a great punchline. Coovert's piece is one of his fantasy/autobio pieces involving an argument with his finger after he picked at it. This is a wisp of a story, but some of the cartooning involved is clever.

Jose-Luis Olivares offers a typically visually crazy story about Superman and Storm giving birth to a baby hurricane. His line is simple but dense, using thick, swirling strokes to create an atmosphere of chaos. At the same time, this story is whimsical yet strangely affecting emotionally. Even when Superman learns that Mickey Mouse is really the father (a move that scored Olivares a hat trick of copyright infringement), he embraces the baby as his own--even as it destroys the world. Lambert follows a story by one of the most original stylists from CCS with another, as we get a Dane Martin story involving his bizarre bird people. There's always an inchoate rage present in Martin's comics that matches the bleakness of his dotted backgrounds and the blank expressions on the faces of his characters.

Lambert's own story is his best-ever, perfectly encapsulating the theme of the anthology as expressed by its title. Lambert's stories tend to center around sibling rivalry and the viciousness it can entail, putting that conflict on a fantastic, over-the-top stage. This story sees a scared child literally eating his father and then the entire world (truly a "going too far" moment) and then following up on the ramifications of this action by exploring what happens to the world when it's eaten. Lambert always had flash and slickness in his line, but he's now branching out with experimental and even quirky solutions to visual problems. Finally, Alex Kim picks up on the eschatological themes present in this book with a story about a man at an Antarctic base being confronted by the end of the world in the person of a woman who shows up at his door to tell him the news. "Too far" in this instance is less about nuclear devastation than about an extra act of shocking cruelty, and the paranoia in the story is heightened by Kim's trademark wavy line. There's no question that Too Far is on my short list for best minicomic of the year.

Stranger Knights #2, edited by Bill Volk. Volk expanded this genre-based anthology from the first issue, and while there's some interesting and off-beat stories to be found, the anthology as a whole is sloppily assembled. The work of some of the contributors feels rushed and even dashed-off in some cases. It doesn't seem like any editing or proofreading was done on any of the submissions and the errors are glaring as a result. Mary Soper, for example, has a pleasant enough style, but it's hard to tell her characters apart. This comic looks like it was drawn on a computer, but in any event Soper's line lacks weight, depending way too much on gray-scaling to give its characters some presence on the page. Volk's own stories are typically eccentric, but I'm not crazy about his new style. It's cartoonier and more spare than his old style, adding some interestingly deformed character designs, but it still feels like Volk isn't quite comfortable with it yet. What is never in doubt is Volk's wit, as the story of a "future archeologist" interpreting 21st century culture entirely through tattoos was very amusing. The weakest story in the anthology was Shawn Atkins' "The Rise of Phoenix Nine": the narrative is one cliche' after another, it's rife with spelling errors (due, no doubt, in part to its computer font), and the occasionally lively facial expressions are marred by pedestrian layouts.

On the other hand, the offerings by Morgan Pielli and Casey Bohn were a cut above the rest of the entries in the book. Pielli's "A Forged Man" is visually stylish, playing on Frank Miller-style figures and use of blacks to tell a story of a hero trapped in an awful loop. Pielli is really starting to hit his stride of late. Bohn's lumpy style is reminiscent of Steve Ditko, down to the stark simplicity of his character design and clarity of action. There's something slightly crazy going on under the surface of his staid-looking comics, creating an interesting tension between form and content. Overall, I'd say Volk's desire to expand the anthology's contents got the best of either his editorial judgment or attention to detail with regard to the other submissions. The idea of an alt-genre anthology is a good one, but the overall level of craft and care is not yet up to the standards of other CCS anthologies.

Subterranean #3, edited by Sean Knickerbocker, Alex Bullett, and Andrew Greenstone. All three of these artists were new to me, but this mini was surprisingly tight and impressive. Each brings a different set of visual and narrative approaches to the table. Knickerbocker is a student at CCS, and he draws his inspiration from underground comics and contemporary cartoonists who take their cues from classic comics, like Sammy Harkham. His story "Hunters and Gatherers" is a grim take on two hunters exploring an environment, with the tragic outcome for one being mourned but briefly by the other. "Pekar" is a meditation on the great writer, done in the style of a Pekar/Crumb collaboration. His true gem is "My First Panic Attack", a (presumably) autobiographical story about a young man who experiences a panic attack when confronted with the age difference between him and his girlfriend. The attack manifests as he and his girlfriend transform into Floyd Gottfredsen-style, vaguely anthropomorphic characters and are menaced by a spider/cop. Knickerbocker clearly has a bright future, especially when he's fully processed his influences.

Bullett's story about two bumbling aliens sent on a mission to assassinate a political leader feels like a Heavy Metal pastiche/parody, and as such it's got a wicked wit. From the (subdued) spectacle of the villain wearing only a mesh tank top and sunglasses (a funny comment on the way women are dressed in such stories) to the distorted and grotesque figures, Bullett's chops are just good enough to tell the story the way it needed to be told without unnecessary clutter. Certain panels could have used backgrounds and more decorative detail to fully bring this world to life, but he certainly gets the point across. Greenstone's thick lines and clutter make his story about a vampire wage slave looking for love and inspiration at a hipster party spring to life. His cartoony style gives every drawing a springy energy, one that's contained by the generous helping of zip-a-tone effects he adds to nearly every panel. About the only problem I had with this story is that his lettering is just a bit too big and intrusive; the lettering itself is fine, but I would have preferred a little more visual impact in each panel and a bit less word balloon. All told, this was an impressive showcase for all three of these young artists, each of which has talent and potential.

This Isn't Working: Comics About Ex-Boyfriends, edited by Robyn Chapman. Chapman was never actually a student at CCS (she went to the Savannah College of Art & Design), but she's been an active part of the school in various capacities since virtually its inception. After years of editing and self-publishing her own comics as well as anthologies like True Porn and zines such as Hey, Four Eyes!, Chapman has officially launched her own minicomics publishing concern: Paper Rocket. She'll be reprinting classic minicomics series as minicomics (an ingenious idea) as well as doing new comics and anthologies. This Isn't Working is an anthology that includes several CCS folks in the mix, and it's exactly what the title suggests: autobio comics about relationships that didn't work out for one reason or another. The range of cartooning styles as well as experiences helps create a variety of stories. There are tales of woe, angry anecdotes and funny stories about crazy relationships. It's a short, tightly-edited anthology that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Cara Bean's pleasingly ornate tale of a rocky relationship she had with a man who was as miserable as she was ends with a tragic but not surprising result. Her self-caricature as a sort of walking potato was simultaneously endearing and self-deprecating. I've always admired Caitlin Plovnick's ability to use her limited skills as a draftsman to nonetheless create clear, simple and direct narratives. This story of a hideous recurring dream that turns from warm to horrible when an ex-boyfriend pops up is especially effective as she cleverly renders herself losing all definition after she wakes up from the dream. Chapman's spare and cartoony style has always grabbed my attention through the use of a thick, economical line surrounding key aspects of people and objects. Her story concerns her slight obsession with a long-ago boyfriend, wondering if he thinks of her the way she sometimes thinks of him.

Liz Prince's story of the hurt that remains long after the breakup with her boyfriend was surprisingly powerful. I thought her depiction of that relationship in Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? was lightweight and twee, but there's a level of thematic complexity at work in this story that goes beyond the simple drama of a break-up as she ties music into the narrative in an interesting way. Jen Vaughn's "Let's Go Out" is hilarious, depicting why cunnilingus after eating hot sauce is always a bad idea. As always, Vaughn is better at depicting clever visual solutions to compositional problems than in rendering actual figures, a factor that detracts a little from the story's punchline. Finally, Mari Naomi contributes another of her "Kiss and Tell" stories of people she's dated; this time, it was a rebound relationship after she broke up with her fiance'. The stark simplicity of her line, the frankness of her confessional story and sheer storytelling momentum she manages to conjure up out of minutia make this a strong closing act for an anthology that will hopefully have future volumes. Chapman clearly knows what she's doing as an editor and publisher.


  1. Hey Rob! Thanks for the review on Subterranean #3 and for your kind words. We appreciate you taking the time to look at our stuff!

    One quick note: you mixed up the names of Andrew Greenstone and Alex Bullett in your review. Can you switch 'em, so people know who wrote and drew which story? We just want to get the correct info out there.

    Thanks again!

    - Danger Park

  2. Sean,

    Done! Thanks for the heads-up.