Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sequart Reprints: 12 Great Minis From SPX 2006

This article was originally published in 2006.
One of the highlights of any alt-comics events is the opportunity to take a look at a new crop of mini-comics. Some of them are by established artists who have regular, professional publishing outlets. They often make minis just to have something new to show at conventions, or do it as a way of publishing chapters of new, long-form works. Other minis are by young artists looking to establish themselves, and yet others do minis purely as an end unto themselves. Some are elaborate, with die-cut or silk-screened covers; while others are humble Xeroxed efforts. The minis I included in this article were those that were my favorites. There were a number of other minis that I enjoyed as well, but the minis I wanted to include here were a bit more substantive -- both in terms of content and page length. Without further ado...

1. My Affliction, by Gabrielle Bell. Bell was giving out copies of this mini, a return to the weirder, magical realist stories of her earlier work. The title affliction is actually summed up by Gabrielle's stand-in character: "I'm always falling in love with guys who aren't good for me." One would expect a story built around that statement to be a typical melodrama. Instead, Bell starts off the story being picked up by a giant and finding herself stopping in mid-air when he dropped her. Things get stranger from there, as she finds herself in a neurologist's office after getting attacked by a gang of dogs. He tells her that that she must transfer her feelings of love to someone safer, and gives her a wooden token named Charlie. After she drops it into a river, he comes to life and they live together on a houseboat. Gabrielle finds herself unable to fall in love with him, and in fact fell in love with everyone but him. A panel where a UPS delivery man asking for her name for a signature is hilarious, as she suggestively replies "What's your name?"

Things get even weirder from there, as she winds up with a brutish thug who was the original owner of her foul-mouthed parrot. She gets abandoned by her new boyfriend and winds up getting a ride from a suicidal man and careens off a cliff. Winding up in a cage in the home of the original behemoth, she manages an escape attempt with her new cagemate and her rescuing boyfriend, and must worry about her dog winding up in a giant rat trap. As always, Bell plays all of this wackiness with a straight face. Her deadpan narration provides a bit of distance, but its flatness actually draws out the absurdity of the scenarios Gabrielle winds up in. That craziness is given warmth by Bell's loose and lively line. This mini is the latest in a series of triumphs by Bell and an interesting change of pace from her autobiographical work in her new book Lucky, as well as the conventional stories in Mome. While we've seen some fantasy elements creep back into her work recently, it's been awhile since we saw an all-out flight of fancy from Bell. It's a welcome return and makes me wonder if we'll see a long-form work of this nature from her in the future.

2. Becky and Friend, by Lauren R. Weinstein. This mini includes the story "Horse Camp", which was  published in the Viking anthology Stuck in the Middle.. A story much like her work in Girl Stories, this is a hilarious but awful account of Becky and her summer at what is supposed to be a horseback riding camp. Weinstein possesses the uncanny ability to depict the narcissism, self-loathing, giddiness and melodrama of the teenaged years. The funniest bits in the story are the over-the-top letters of woe Becky writes to her parents, despite the fact that she does finally manage to spend a few rapturous hours riding a horse. As always, Weinstein's style is an exaggerated one, to the point where some of the figures are almost grotesque. Her teenaged stand-in is memorably goofy--the scene where she tries to start dancing with her horse (singing Salt 'n Pepa's "Push It") is ridiculous, especially when some other girls catch her, mortified. Despite these exaggerated touches throughout the story, what makes it so effective is how remarkably (and embarrassingly) true she makes the episode seem. The distortions are played straight, which makes them both funny and real. A nice addition for the mini was the presence of grade school poetry about a similar experience, which was as over-the-top as one might expect for a child.

3. Couch Tag #3, by Jesse Reklaw. Reklaw's previous issue was one of the more compelling comics of 2005, and I was happy to see it included in The Best American Comics, 2005. Reklaw's skill as an autobiographical artist is to relay one series of anecdotes that are of interest to a general audience, but doing so in a manner that subtly reveals more profound emotional truths. In Couch Tag #2, Reklaw discussed the cats he had as childhood pets, but he was really telling the story of how his family disintegrated. In #3, the hook is the series of pranks and artistic projects he and his friend collaborated on over the years, but the underlying story is about different kinds of communication and the ways they can break down.

The best comparison I can think of is the relationship between Becky & Enid in Ghost World. Jesse and his friend Brandon went through ups and downs as friends, but when they were close, that friendship was expressed through a series of artistic collaborations and pranks. That culminated in a comic they did together about a man named Fred Robinson. He was someone random they picked to make into sort of their own everyman character--except that they'd leave him weird objects, set up stolen traffic signs repainted to say "Fred Robinson Crossing" across from his house and even send him comics they did about him. This communication through activity and in-jokes is not unusual for many men, especially those who have trouble expressing their feelings otherwise.

A telling scene in the story is when Jesse gets a letter from Brandon, who is living in Norway at the time. All of the things that had never been said between the two of them as friends just spilled out--and were never said again in the same way when they reunited. That letter became especially poignant when we see their friendship splintering apart because they aren't capable of talking about it. That poignancy is prevented from becoming schmaltz by the shenanigans depicted throughout the rest of the issue. My favorite sequence is when they make up a stencil template and use spraypaint to turn street signs that look like this <- -> into the Batman signal. Reklaw is becoming an increasingly skilled and versatile artist, capable of doing straight-up humor pieces, dream interpretation strips, autobio and much more.

4. Krayon's Ego, by various. In the tradition of Low-Jinx and Johnny Ryan's nasty parodies, a variety of artists take on comics in the Kramer's Ergot vein. Parodies of Craig Thompson and James Kochalka, while both funny, don't really have much to do with the Kramer's aesthetic. Still, the hilarious parody of Blankets (involving an extremely inappropriate use of a crucifix) was a hoot, and the mimicking of Thompson's angular style was uncanny. Spoofing Kochalka's cloying sweetness is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the "American Elf 2030" strips here were extremely clever. The thought of Kochalka continuing his strip into old age, while visiting his son in prison and selling his song "It's My Dink" for a Viagra ad were all good gags. However, the Tom Gauld-esque looking strips satirizing Sammy Harkham, Souther Salazar, Kevin Huizenga, Ben Jones and Gabrielle Bell were nasty fun. The fifth strip, involving Harkham finding a discarded strip by Mr T and Harkham declaring him "another naïve master of sequential art!" The other strips poke fun at the creators by portraying them as their opposites: Jones as a wheeler-dealer businessman, Bell as a superhero, Harkham as a junkie who pretends to bow out of activities for religious reasons, etc. My favorite strip was probably "Why Johnny Can't Satirize", a send-up of Johnny Ryan's crude parodies: "It's like he takes a great comic and then puts a dick or fart joke at the end." "Brilliant!" This mini is clearly a series of inside jokes for the alt-comics crowd, but it's still quite amusing. Contributors include Karen Sneider, Marc Campos, Clutch, Josh Frankel, Tom Neely, Jesse Reklaw and Sara Oleksyk.

5. Morbus, by Star St. Germain. St. Germain is primarily an illustrator whose style is somewhat reminiscent of Phoebe Gloeckner. Both have an astonishing facility with anatomical drawings put to new purposes. This short mini is a stylized catalogue of "various diseases, illnesses, and syndromes that my body has collected over the years". Each page's design is beautiful, with an illustration of conditions like scoliosis and carpal tunnel paired with medical descriptions that have been mostly erased. The final image of the mini, where she opens up her dress to reveal an anatomical diagram perfectly captures the evocative nature of her work. The disappearing text evokes the imperfection of how medical lingo captures the effect that pain and sickness can inflict--theimage, combining her normal features and the anatomical dialogues, perfectly conveys these feelings.

6. Various minis by Drew Weing & Eleanor Davis. Both are graduates of the Savannah College of Art & Design and are two of the most promising talents in comics. All four of the minis reviewed here are beautiful art objects on their own, with die-cut covers, innovative cover designs and beautiful uses of color.

Weing is best known for his Journal Comic and Pup, both of which drew a lot of attention when they were originally published on the web. Weing is an amazing draftsman and designer, merging a light cartoony sensibility with lush backgrounds. His solo effort here, Blar, is a straight-ahead tale of a barbarian who kills everything in his path. Feeling a bit like Trondheim & Sfar's Dungeon, Weing plays the action straight but ups the ante with ever-more ridiculous opponents and situations. Each story ends with an unexpected punchline, as Weing paces each strip with great skill. This is a modest but delightful comic.

Davis is a bit more under the radar at the moment, but not for long. Her comics often have fantastic themes but a melancholy tone; she reminds me a bit of Megan Kelso in that regard. The Beast Mother is a masterpiece in the use of negative space as Davis details the life of a female monster with dozens of children. When a hunter starts stalking her, our assumptions and expectations are quickly challenged. Even after the big reveal, there's a sadness to the story that lingers. Mattie and Dodi is a very different sort of strip that evokes the same kind of feelings. It concerns a pair of sisters, the older of whom is taking care of both her dying grandfather and her younger sister, an extremely shy girl. This story is all about roles and responsibilities, as Mattie struggles to deal with her grandfather, her boyfriend (who wants her to sell the house), and Dodi, who is enormously uncomfortable with the outside world. While not as visually striking as The Beast Mother, it's every bit as powerful. The final two panels, as we see the sister in very different places emotionally, gives the reader a number of clues as to where their stories might go next.

Davis and Weing collected several of their short stories in a mini called Bugbear. Life and death are the overriding themes in this mini. Weing does an odd story based on a dream he had after his father died, where his father comes back to life in a "soy-based" body. In the dream, Drew realizes that he can bring Eleanor back to life in the same manner. Davis has a story in which a young girl screams that there's been a mistake and ventures with a creature to the local graveyard, where her dead grandfather is revived. The themes are similar, but there's always an added distance present in Davis' stories.

Both artists are self-publishing, but don't look for that to last much longer. The only question is what kind of stories they'll want to tell given the resources of a publisher. I sense that Weing has several big stories that he wants to tell, but Davis' future might lie in being a short story specialist like Bell or Kelso. 

7. Husky #1 & #2, by Alex Robinson & Tony Consiglio. Two of my favorite "new-mainstream" creators are serializing their new long-form stories. Consiglio (whose  110PerCent was quite enjoyable) contributes "Titanius", a surprisingly hard-boiled, straight-laced noir involving a guy in a metal suit and his quest to get his son back. The humor here is told with a straight face as Consiglio conforms to certain genre conventions. However, the increasingly-convoluted plot (involving cures for herpes, evil pharmaceutical companies, killing enemies with lamps and more) reveals that Consiglio is winking at the whole story with his cartoony art style and over-the-top scenarios.

Meanwhile, Robinson's new story is called "2 Cool 2B 4gotten". The high concept is quite simple: a 40-year old man undergoing hypnosis to cure him of smoking is somehow sent back in time to high school--and in his 16 year old body. While he initially thinks he has an opportunity to ask that girl out he always wanted to and perhaps never start smoking as a youngster, it's clear that there's some deeper problem that he's repressed and has only started to bubble up. As always, Robinson's grasp on relationships and facility with dialogue makes him a pleasure to read. I like his work best when it deals with the most painful of human emotions; he has a way of evoking desperation that's almost visceral. While there's plenty of 80's name-checking here, Robinson keeps the nostalgia to a minimum and in service to the story. Robinson in the past has tended to write huge, sprawling stories; in Box Office Poison, they sometimes lost focus. That was due in part to the periodical nature of that story, but I think he was also perhaps a bit overambitious. The tighter focus in this story bodes well for this new project's development.

8. The Egoists, by Kelli Nelson. Another SCAD grad, Nelson's blocky computer-designed line provides the right amount of emotional distance needed for this story of her trip back to her hometown for her parents' divorce. The story itself has enough lurid and painful moments to be interesting without any further elaboration by Nelson, but she makes a number of clever formal and narrative choices that lead to some unexpected results. First off, the emotional distance created by her line is reflected in other choices. Nelson begins the story by introducing us to her hometown, leading us at last to the courthouse where her parents are divorcing. While the story is told in real time, Nelson tells us the story from a first-person future perspective. This choice again filters out the emotions she felt at the time; even as she tries to describe how she felt, it's all through her present perspective. The obvious absurdity of the moment and the meaninglessness of many of her interactions are emphasized by her choosing to put so much of the dialogue in empty word balloons--including all of her non-narrative, real-time dialogue. The most interesting question that Nelson asks is of herself: why did she attend? To support her mother, or get back at her father? Or worse--was it to get material for another comic? None of these questions are answered, but this isn't a story about answers. It's a story about a process, one that didn't make sense at the time of the events and clearly still didn't make much sense when Nelson wrote it. The irony is that only Nelson herself seems capable of asking questions, self-doubt and seeing perspectives other than her own.

9. Hey, 4-Eyes! #2, edited by Robyn Chapman. A delightful combination of zine and comics, this new paean to eyeglasses is a stylishly quirky read. This is the sort of esoteric zine that's clearly a labor of love and unapologetic about its obsession. What makes it so enjoyable is Chapman's sense of style and the variety of material she presents. From articles on how to purchase vintage glasses, to profiles on fellow zinesters and photo features on the "Miss (and Mister) Specs Appeal", Chapman gets down to the nuts and bolts of why she finds glasses so appealing. The best bit was "Eyeglasses Trading Cards" featuring profiles and D&D-style characteristics of the likes of Harry Potter, Lisa Loeb, Enid Coleslaw and Woody Allen, among others. Of course, there are also a number of top-notch comics in here as well. Chapman herself contributes a strip where she hits on these two guys who look like personal crush Harry Potter but instead gets shot down. The Icecreamlandia duo of Eve Engelos & Josh Moutray have their usual painfully gorgeous linework combined with bizarre one-page monologues, all centering around characters with glasses, goggles, monocles, etc. Also enjoyable is Damien Jay's take on being forced to wear glasses. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the topic or just frothy fun.

10. Phase 7 #006 & 010, by Alec Longstreth. Longstreth is a hurricane of comics enthusiasm. These two minis tell very different kinds of stories, one the next chapter of his serial "Basewood" and the other an autobiographical account of his obsession with comics. "Basewood" is a story simply told, about a young man who wakes up in the middle of a mysterious, dangerous forest with no memory of how he got there. In this chapter, he becomes friends with Argus, an older man who had lived in a forest treehouse for years. We learn that Argus moved there with his wife, who was killed by a monster. The two become friends, but our amnesiac protagonist is haunted by dreams of monsters devouring him. The issue ends on a cliffhanger.

While the story itself is not especially ground-breaking, it's told simply and beautifully. Longstreth keeps his figures simple and iconic but provides lavishly cross-hatched backgrounds. He almost completely eschews the use of blank space, and the imbues each panel with a sort of nervous energy. Despite the heavy uses of blacks and shading, none of his pages feel claustrophobic or overstuffed. Instead there's a richness to his art that draws the eye in, aided by his fine storytelling skills and page design.

PHASE 007 #010 is something completely different. The story starts by Alec going to a therapist of some kind to tell him that "my comic book is really stressing me out!" That leads into Longstreth discussing how he became so devoted to comics. While Disney comics and Bone were huge early influences (there are touches of both in "Basewood"), it was Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics that blew his mind. Combined with Dave Sim's preachings on self-publishing, Longstreth knew that he wanted to make, teach and think about comics for the rest of his life.

One gets the sense when reading some of his comics that he wishes some of his stories could just come pouring out of him. We don't actually get to the root of his frustration in this issue, but I would suspect that he hates that he can't get his ideas down on paper fast enough. Longstreth's story is notable for his reaction when introduced to new concepts and ideas--he becomes so absorbed by them that he forgoes everything else to fulfill them. After being exposed to art comics, he read everything his libraries had in stock within a couple of weeks. Sim's writing encouraged him to draw some form of comics every day of his life. When he compares this to "a commitment on the same level as marriage", it's clear that this intensity is going to bring a lot of highs and lows as an artist. There's a total lack of cynicism in his approach, a purity and naivete that comes through clearly on the page. Longstreth is not only obsessed with the form, but he's also trying to figure out why he is obsessed. That mania, as Longstreth struggles with his own personal blind spots, is almost as interesting to follow as his actual comics.

11. How To Start Thinking About Learning How to Draw Comics, by Kevin Huizenga. This mini, designed as a guidebook for the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, offers rewards on every page both as promotional material and as a comics-reading experience. I can't think of someone more suited to do this sort of comic than Huizenga, other than perhaps fellow USS Catastrophe stablemate Dan Zettwoch. Huizenga's fascination with structure and patterns meshed perfectly with the flights of fancy that inform his best work in this catalog-as-comic. My favorite bits are the how-to tips and "secrets" of comics, like the absurd series of visual cues for mood that he came up with, like "Fiery Shoulder" for a "feeling of regret", or "Waltzing Duck" as "The ghost of carefree days".

What Huizenga captures best here are the joys and frustrations of a cartoonist's life. In a strip called "Vermont Winter: Cartooning Season", we see the CCS student hole up in his room for four months working on his comic as snow piles up outside his window. Upon emerging, he proudly hands a completed comic to a friend. Twenty minutes later, the friend completely finishes reading it. That's the struggle of the cartoonist in a nutshell: months of tedious labor that is consumed in mere minutes.

The booklet is also just plain funny and knowing about comics. Lesson 113: "The Types of Cartoonists" is an accurate bit of smart-assery, as Huizenga tels us about the "Retro Retentive (Motto: 'Sigh')", the "Mad Comedian (Motto: 'F*** all this boring artsy s***')", and "Autobiographical (Motto: 'That would make a good comic')". There are also plenty of Huizenga's diagrams--some useful (like neck & back exercises for cartoonists) and some whimsical (such as deliberately over-complicated model of approaches to comics, an amusing job at Scott McCloud's attempts to reduce comics down to easily categorizable forms). 

12. Pony Up, by Karen Sneider. Sneider is a stand-up comedian whose comics come all-too-infrequently. This comic appears to be an autobiographical tale from her youth, somewhat in the vein of Lauren Weinstein. Only wanting to ride her friend's horse, our heroine instead talks herself into drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Desperate to look cool for her fashionable friend (I love the touch of her friend wearing an off-the-shoulder Flashdance-style shirt), our heroine can only ask "Is this what adults do all the time?" The bonus story, where our heroine learns how to pop a pimple, is a bit more light-hearted. I like the way Sneider deals with the melodrama of her teenage years with a lighthearted illustration style. I'm used to stories from Sneider that are purely comedic, but I enjoyed this change of pace and style.

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