Monday, August 20, 2012

International Mini Round-Up: Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Great Britain

I am always thrilled when I received a minicomic with a foreign stamp on it, be it from a familiar favorite or someone completely new to me. This round-up will feature comics from Ireland, Poland, Denmark, Spain and Great Britain.

Smoo Comics #5, by Simon Moreton.  The British Moreton's increasingly confident voice and line have made his quiet, reflective and poetic comics a rich and rewarding experience. He's not quite at John Porcellino or Warren Craghead levels of refinement of his words and lines down to the sparest possible levels of meaning, but he's getting there. This issue contains a number of short stories and meditations on his time spent in the seaside town of Falmouth, which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Moreton gets at the intense loneliness he felt in the form of drawings of street lamps, fog-bound coasts obscuring boats and buildings, and the simple quietude of the countryside. When drawing figures, he has a new economy of line that gets across the bare minimum of human details but still does a tremendous job with gesture and body language so as to convey emotion. In other strips, he uses smudges and scribbles to get across that feeling of desperation and of emptiness during what was very much a drifting portion of his life.

Haunted Bowels, by Craig Collins and others. This is a bit of silliness from the Scottish writer/cartoonist, who mostly collaborated with other artists in this collection of short gag strips. Accustomed as I am to seeing cerebral if visceral horror stories from Collins, it was amusing to see him riff on pop culture and lay down some deadly puns. (Example: "Glee Van Cleef", which features the tough-guy cowboy actor gunning down the cast of America's most annoying non-reality TV show.) One of his best running gags was the "Zinder Kurprise", a take-off of the "Kinder Surprise" chocolate eggs that come with toys that are very popular in Europe.As always, his best collaborator is Iain Laurie, whose detailed, intensely-lined style is a perfect match for the density of Collins' work--even his silly work, like the hilarious "Seamus Heaney's Heinous Penis", which features the famous poet's penis singing a techno song while the man himself is trying to do a reading. Collins' evil floating head strip, "Omniscient Zorgo", is perhaps the most reliable generator of laughs, even if the punchline is more-or-less the same every time. Collins is better-suited to horror with slight comedic overtones than comedy with horror flourishes, but there are still some solid pieces in here.

Om, by Piotr Nowacki. Polish artist Nowacki likes to draw almost silent comics, generally using simple onomatopoeia to punctuate his visual gags. The narrative about a sort of all-devouring lizard-creature going about its day with its giant pet is just one funny drawing and gag after another, as Nowacki's feathery but simple line has enough weight to make the reader linger on each image but is fluid enough to push the reader onward to the next panel. Nowacki squeezes a lot of humor out of his characters' eyes; the lizard creature's eyes cross whenever it starts munching on something (alarm clock, toothbrush, chess set, etc)  that sets up a nice visual rhythm for the book. This comic is absurd in a low-key way, as the egg is awakened by the lizard putting it on a frying pan every morning, and the two go to school with varying degrees of success.  The female robot teacher (also with crossed eyes) gives the lizard an "A" for solving a math problem by eating the chalk and eraser, but the egg gets an "F" when it complains that there's no chalk. Nowacki heightens the stakes when a ninja kidnaps the egg, leading to a detective search, an epic rescue, a friendship with a fish-headed prisoner, a showdown with a giant octopus, and other silliness. This is a near-perfect all-ages comic, jam-packed with action and jokes on every page. I could easily picture this upgraded to a hardcover board book by a publisher of children's books.

Silent V #6, by Kyle Baddeley. In some respects, Silent V has been Baddeley's thesis project as a cartoonist. It's fitting that he's ending it with #7, because he's taken the lessons, ideas and absurdity about as far as they could stretch. This issue starts to wrap things up with helpful exposition filling in the blanks of the crazy, inexplicable action of the earlier issues. There are aliens disguised as bears, monsters disguised as robots, time-traveling gods affecting the lives of their adversaries so as to turn the tide of war, and the driest of gags being trotted out at odd times (like a giant button that says "Escapees Please Press Here"). Baddeley's figures are big, broad and lumpy, possessing a cartoony presence that chews up the page. His backup story, "Maggot Lump", featuring a heroic maggot foiling a candy-store robbery, is as silly, weird and gross as it sounds. I'd love to see Baddeley continue to explore that short story urge, as it seems to be a more coherent and easy fit for his silly and occasionally terrifying sense of humor.

The Well Below, by John Robbins. This mini by Robbins, aka Sean MacRoibin, was one of four the Irish artist sent to me after I review an anthology of Irish artists at the version of High-Low. Robbins' line is spare and sketchy (a trait he shares with the other Irish artists in the batch he sent me), but also expressive and attractive. Robbins seems most interested in time, memory, and the irrevocable break between childhood and adulthood. The first story, "Find The River", is a simple slice-of-life story about two men on their annual fishing trip on a nearby river, as they try to reconnect while dealing with their own dysfunctions as adults.  The catch: Robbins draws them as children throughout the story, a tactic that starts off as confusing, then clever and finally more than a little sad. The art reveals that the men only relate to each other as boys, taking on old roles, while also simultaneously wishing for simpler times. "Man From The Past" and the prose story "The Time Machine" both have to do with the ways in which outcasts are effectively out of synch in a world with highly developed rituals and social roles. After a mini's worth of downbeat stories, Robbins caps things off with the title story, and the reader is tipped off that things will be a little different with the more solid but cartoony line that Robbins uses.  This story follows a man whose only emotional connections are ones that are superficial and from years in the past, resulting in a string of completely outrageous (yet somehow low-key) series of acts. Meeting up with a girl he had a crush on in grade school by coincidence, the middle-aged protagonist Tom tells her of his love for her in the past, which results in a highly unusual and gross sexual encounter that gives the phrase "a brown trout, a pine cone and a couple of maltesers" an especially hilarious and disgusting context. Tom is a fascinating character, one who is entirely unapologetic for his near-sociopathic inability to make connections with those who should be his loved ones. This was my favorite of the four minis, revealing an artist equally adept at depicting sadness and absurdity.

Matter #1, by Philip Barrett. Barrett is well known to alt-comics fans, thanks to having some of his comics published and distributed early on by Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comic Books. The story in this comic, "A Stagnant Pool", is the quintessential pub/club story. Barrett uses a loose, sketchy line, strategic scribblings, and a slightly reserved, almost detached narrative style to tell this story of a young man who goes to see a band at a bar, the women he encounters, and the large part of his own story he forgets after drinking too much. Barrett's use of restraint is what I loved best about this comic, as a clearly turbulent and upsetting time for the lead is kept at arm's length from the reader, even as his actions are more and more unstable. Visually, Barrett cleverly uses the repeating motif scene above, substituting the lips or the lips, eyes and nose of a woman for the actual woman herself, as though that was the only thing he could see or focus on at that given moment in time. Those lips later took on different meanings depending on the situation: lust, desperation and even bewitching. The comic focuses on how he got lost with one woman but it was her best friend that he was really after, and this is repeated as a motif through the use of her star tattoo turning into a maze, the maze he felt he was running when he left the house of the first woman the next morning after a night of sex that he had blacked out. This is also a story about connections, secrets and mysteries and the ways in which all three can elude us. The artist whose work is most similar to Barrett's is perhaps Sacha Mardou in terms of its verisimilitude, along with the spareness of John Porcellino.

Other Days, by Patrick Lynch. Lynch isn't quite as accomplished a draftsman as the other artists from Ireland, as both his drawings and lettering are a bit on the rough side. However, Lynch certainly shows plenty of formal daring, like in one story where his big-headed figure delights at getting to go to his job, where he is bullied by an unseen boss who bludgeons him with huge, blocky letters. Lynch is more interested in depicting quiet but significant moments, like a boy playing with his best friend, only to show that it's the boy's last day in town as he and his mom are moving away. Lynch also does work on the fantastic end of things, like one story about a man being visited by a dead friend who urges him to live his life. There's also a strip about firefighters encountering all sorts of silly, weird people on nights of the full moon. Most of these stories were done for anthologies, accounting for the disjointed nature of the collection, but the collective weight of Lynch's work has a smudgy, scrawled and fiercely intelligent appeal.

Absence, by Andy Luke & Stephen Downey. This is part-autobio, part public service announcement on the part of Luke, and the entire comic is available at the link above. It's a nice companion piece to David B's Epileptic, this time from a person who actually has this condition. It actually reminds me a bit more of recent comics about their own disease from Nomi Kane and Sam Gaskin, in that it focuses in part on how this affected their childhoods and how they gained control of their own narratives as adults. Downey does a remarkable job in telling Luke's story with expressive art that focuses on gesture and faces. What's most interesting about this comic is how Luke has managed to go nearly a dozen years without a violent grand mal seizure. Part of that was accomplished by letting go and allowing smaller seizures or moments of freezing up to happen without resisting them, which in turn allowed him to learn things at an accelerated rate, which in turn builds neural bridges that help prevent seizures. Narrative is a powerful theme in this comic, as Luke advocates "owning the experience" as "gatekeepers of this exclusive knowledge" of what it is like to experience these sorts of neural disruptions.

Switching gears, let's take a look at the work of Danish cartoonist Allan Haverholm. Like Derek Badman, he's a formalist interested in comics-as-poetry. The comic that best sums up his work is Koan,which is a series of pages with roughly four panels per page whose images are not explicitly linked, but their juxtaposition creates a kind of narrative of rhythm. Divided into "travel", "home" and "surveys", the first section is marked by speed lines and propulsion, the second by a kind of stillness, and the third by more abstract patterns often coalescing into forms that suggest water, air, movement and sometimes stillness. 30 Days of Comics is a more ambitious comic, as it was part of a month-long challenge to do a new strip every day. This comic is a mix of standard cartooning, more abstract work (including his attempts at graphically illustrating music), gag work with unusual self-restrictions (like "What Telekinetics Do To Show Off", where the titular character never moves while opening up a can), color experiments, strips where key panels are left out so as to make the reader fill in the narrative blanks, and scenes inspired from TV and Twitter. His comic Lots is a collection of strips done while watching the show Lost, minus all of the characters. It adeptly picks up on the way the show established mood with its island backdrop and ominous use of stillness. Finally, Sex and Violence is a flip book whose Sex section is a series of orgasmic drawings of his girlfriend, the presentation of which is more warm and tender than erotic and certainly not exploitative. The flipside, drawn by Mattias Elftorp, simply details an onrush of riot-garbed policemen armed with truncheons and shields bearing down on the reader's perspective, eventually blotting it out altogether. Haverholm brings a lighter touch than many to this sort of experimentation, injecting even the most abstract of his comics with a sense of whimsy.

Finally, there's the El Monstruo De Colores No Tiene Boca ("the color monster has no mouth") project from Spain. This is a series of double-sided, folding cardstock illustrations of children's dreams. Each "issue" is devoted to a single artist, who attempts to capture key images from these very brief dreams. It's not quite what Jesse Reklaw does in Slow Wave, because there's no attempt at narrative here.  Instead, each illustrator chooses a different method to create a striking image. Roger Omar collected the dreams and handed out the assignments, and deliberately chose a number of different styles for the project. There's Javier Saez's intensely hatched pen-and-ink drawings, Takeuma's beautiful, stark and simple black & white drawings, Max's typically funny and surreal gag panels, Thomas Wellman's energetic and muscular action-oriented strips, Mitch Blunt's approach that used the faces of the children with a single image on their forehead from their dream, and Pedro Lourenco's frightening, psychedelic drawings. While it's not quite comics, it's still a fascinating project that's producing some intriguing art objects.

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