Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Give The People What They Don't Want: Important Comics Are Bad and The Regular Man

On the back of her collection of strips from the Baltimore City Paper, Dina Kelberman printed this quote from a disgruntled reader: "Please, please, please CANCEL Important Comics by Dina Kelberman. She makes the Family Circus seems creative and entertaining. What was the strip she replaced? Please, don't print her anymore. It's painstakingly pathetic, unartistic and drab." There's a degree to which Kelberman's art functions as provocation (especially in a weekly newspaper), given her minimalist line, her avoidance of conventional narrative, and her focus on the decorative aspects of lettering. That said, I don't think she ever means to deliberately provoke readers or try to do something defiantly anti-art. On the comics page, Kelberman is someone who lives exclusively in her own head, and her comics represent an attempt to communicate that experience.

This might sound like a stretch, but the strip Important Comics Are Bad reminds me of the most is Charles Schulz's Peanuts. That's because every major character in Peanuts functions as a different aspect of Schulz's personality, just as all of Kelberman's dumpy, geometric figures represent the argument she carries on constantly in her own head. At the same time, both Schulz and Kelberman are committed to writing gags. To be sure, Kelberman abandons the more conventional joke/narrative structure of a Schulz on a frequent basis. There's plenty of absurdism to be found in this book and lots of practical jokes on the readers. The best of these is the accompanying CD that contains recordings from the Important Comics podcast, wherein a friend of Kelberman's would try to interpret each week's strip in the most half-hearted manner possible. The comics themselves are about contradictions, the chief one being Kelberman's misanthropy vs her need to be with others. Every other theme of the book is a variation on that, like comically inflated egomania vs a consistent sense of worthlessness, the need to be productive vs the desire to waste time, etc.

Those themes are more pointed in direct in her fabulous collection of her epically strange quasi-monthly four-page minicomic, The Regular Man. The production values for this comic are ridiculously high considering the minimalist nature of her line, but that level of detail is important because of the counter-intuitive way she uses splotches of color. Unlike Important Comics Are Bad, Kelberman starts each issue knowing that she needs to fill up two pages worth of comics. She starts doing this in a fairly conventional manner but gets more ambitious and conceptual as the book continues, with one story interpolating her emotional experiences with a schematic drawing of furniture. Her use of color is almost expressionistic at times, adding emotional tones as well as challenging the reader to see a comics page in a different way. Beyond her techniques and ideas, I just find Kelberman's comics to be hilarious. The mopeyness inherent in navel-gazing auto-bio is duly mocked even as she indulges in same. "Listening" to her main character analogue yell is as funny as Sally Brown yelling in a Peanuts strip. Boredom and self-loathing are transformed into fodder for laughs, and her drawings are frequently surprisingly expressive, even without the addition of color. Kelberman is a unique figure in comics as a provocateur without guile as well as a humorist with surprisingly traditional roots.

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