This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
Liz Baillie, MK Reed and Minty Lewis are three of my favorite minicomics artists, and the sort of stories they tell all tend to focus on relationships, daily struggles and personal dramas. However, each artist explores these slice-of-life stories in radically different ways. They differ not just in terms of storytelling choices and styles, but the kind of characters they seem most interested.
Lewis draws anthropomorphic fruit, dogs and cats. There's a deadpan tone to her stories that's aided by her amusing visual storytelling style. The inherent weirdness of animals (and they are animals, eating cat food and using kitty litter) doing absurd things like attending "Craftstivals" (an obvious take-off on comics fests) is muted by the low-key tone Lewis employs. PS Comics 4, like many of her comics, is about codependent and occasionally emotionally abusive relationships. In this issue, a self-absorbed dog who is obsessed with selling his cheese cozies at a "Craftstival" alternately ignores and berates his friend a cat, who is intensely loyal to him. The way Lewis plays up the fussiness and hubris of the dog (who is a huge failure at the festival) is balanced by the fact that the cat is indeed kind of dense. The end of the story redeems both characters in a series of delicately portrayed moments, including an almost-apology from the dog. Secret Acres will be publishing a collection of Lewis' quirky, appealing work next year. Her quiet wit and the way she meshes it so well with her stylistic choices reminds me a bit of Jason, though their themes and interests are otherwise very different.
MK Reed is one of my favorite writers in comics, but I'm also impressed by the way her art is becoming more expressive. In the second issue of her mini-comic series Cross Country, Reed turns in what may be the single best story of her career. The story follows Ben and Greg as they travel the country as part of a promotional tour for the Wal-Mart style stores that Greg's family owns. Ben hates Greg's overgrown frat boy-ways but tolerates it (while hating himself) because of the money, the experience and to some degree, his own natural self-loathing. This issue focuses on Ben visiting a college ex named Julia, and it's obvious that their break-up traumatized him. The way Reed captures the awkwardness and tension of their reunion through gesture and small talk is painfully evocative. Ben's own flashbacks and creepy dream sequences (embracing Julia while encircling snakes start biting him) add to the issue's emotional resonance.
Reed's ability to capture a particular time and place for young people is on further display in her collection of one-panel strips, I Will Feast On Your Whore Heart.. The actual strip, with each panel based on a single, pre-selected theme can be read in its entirety on the web. It details little moments from a relationship of "two hipsters from Brooklyn", eventually forming an emotional narrative of sorts. Like Cross Country, the characters have unfulfilled ambitions as artists and writers and behave in self-destructive ways. However, there's an undercurrent of pervasive hope and energy here as well, even as the boyfriend has to deal with his girlfriend's heavy drinking and thin-skin about her writing. As always, the highlight of Reed's comics is her snappy and witty dialogue.
Liz Baillie excels at depicting a certain kind of urban youth culture in her My Brain Hurts series. Issues 8 and 9 did a lot to advance the story's plot, as Joey (a gay teen who just got out of the hospital) finally learns exactly who savagely beat him and has a blow-out with his father, running away from home. His best friend Kate reaches a sort of understanding with the ex-skinhead who was present at Joey's beating, and he's clearly trying to do penance in the form of community service at a gay & lesbian rights center. What I like most about these comics is the way Baillie steers her characters into and out of trouble. Just when the characters seem to have miraculously turned a corner, their own self-destructive tendencies and teenaged short-sightedness leads them to disastrously bad decisions. Baillie's art grows more expressive with every issue, and I was especially impressed with her use of body language during the intense showdown between Joey and his father. Baillie captures the hopes, fears and dreams of a particular youth subset (queer/punk/outsiders in New York) with a great deal of verisimilitude, making every character sympathetic in their own way. Everyone in this comic is broken in one way or another, and Baillie lovingly depicts them all without judgment. Her work reminds me a bit of Terry LaBan's early Unsupervised Existence comics, both in terms of themes and the paces she puts her characters through.
Baillie's 8-page mini Layover was done in her sketchbook during an insanely long layover on her way to her brother's wedding. It's the rare autobiographical comic from her, and I loved the manic energy she poured into each panel. The personal details were touching but wisely only hinted at, like why this wedding was such an unusual event for her brother and the playful relationship she has with her husband. Baillie would excel in the daily diary strip format if she ever chose to do that for any extended length of time.