Monday, October 1, 2012

The Comics of Records Records Records

The British small press publishing concern Records Records Records is the kind of hybrid micropublisher that's been sprouting up like crazy in the US. It's the sort of publisher I'd been waiting to see come out of the UK: something more organized than self-publishers like the highly prolific Rob Jackson, but something with a smaller scope than the likes of Blank Slate, NoBrow, Knockabout, SelfMadeHero, etc. There's a cross-pollination with the music scene that's often implied but not always explicit in both the US and UK, as its publisher, Babak Ganjei, is also in a band. RRR sells comics and music downloads, befitting Ganjei's many interests. Let's take a look at each of their four published books.

Hilarious Consequences is by Ganjei himself, and is typical of the attractive but mostly lo-fi design aesthetic of RRR. It's very much in the Jeffrey Brown school of autobiography: events boiled down to (usually) amusing anecdotes. Ganjei cops to this influence in the book's epilogue strip, but sloughs it off saying, "It's not like anyone's gonna read it". Unlike Brown, Ganjei goes out of his way to depict himself as a buffoonish figure who's at the heart of his own troubles, even as he constantly complains about them. The book has a few through lines, but the central one is the deteriorating relationship between Ganjei and his girlfriend. Ganjei makes himself look pretty bad in portraying himself as whiny, codependent and insecure, but he manages to generate a lot of laughs in drawing himself as a sad sack. The other through line is the 30something crisis he's experiencing--that sense of years of hard work as a musician yielding almost no tangible results. In fact, it's left him with no job skills and the sense that he's too old to start over. That's a common theme for artists who willingly deprive themselves of material goods in their 20s to concentrate on their art (and living life to the fullest), only to find that recognition and material reward seem to be forever out of reach. Ganjei's line is scratchy and loose, notable only in the way it gets across information (both narrative and emotional) using a minimum of lines. One of the best things about this comic is the way he depicts the relationship between himself and his toddler son. He's clearly bewildered by this task, but owning up to that confusion and doubt is what keeps him close to his son. He's a constant traveling companion and utterer of punchlines, giving just the right amount of balance to what otherwise might descend into a navel-gazing exercise.

Ganjei's sense of humor is better served in Twit, a collection of three-panel strips based on his own tweets.  His son is in even greater effect here as Ganjei gives himself the freedom to get truly silly on many pages. From actual outright gags (like calling up Harvey Weinstein to "pitch" movies), to self-deprecation paired with punchlines to strips worrying about aging, failure, being out of touch with youth culture, Ganjei's quick-hitting gags distance themselves a bit from the Jeffrey Brown style more than Hilarious Consequences does. This serves him better, given that his talent for crafting a gag is better suited for the repetitive nature of these strips than his penchant for self-flagellation.

Antoine Cosse's Kiddo is another plainly but attractively designed book that's a sort of Fort Thunder above ground comic. That is, we follow a man as he negotiates and explores his environment in a relentless and forward-moving manner. Cosse' presents an interesting progression, as he starts off in an anonymous, grassy plain and moves from there to hills, to an isolated building, to the outskirts of a city, to the top of a high-rise. Throughout the book, Cosse' keeps the reader off-balance by introducing dream sequences that pop in and out of nowhere. This serves the function of briefly making the man's story more fantastic (like imagining him saving a naked woman that he later beds--sexual fantasies make up the bulk of the man's expressed thoughts) and then rendering it more mundane, until something shocking actually does occur. The ending is dreamy and open-ended, as the man's journey into an apocalyptic ending seems to be motivated by his desire to see a departed ex-lover. The other interesting wrinkle is his relationship with the dog that he initially blinds but later befriends, giving the protagonist a sense of warmth and humanity. Like the other RRR offerings, it's lo-fi and modest in its presentation, and that includes Cosse' spare drawing style.

Finally, there's Steak Night, the first anthology from RRR. Though it breaks my first rule of anthologies (don't put in material that's work in progress), the comics here are sufficiently self-contained to limit the impact of this problem. Cosse's "The Unease" is interesting because he's attempting to provide context and flavor for his long work about Magellan, and so this comic is a look at different modes of travel and how this affects us as a culture, especially in how we take travel for granted. "Early Learnings" sees Ganjei stepping up his drawing style (a lot more hatching and detail) in discussing his life growing up in a small town outside of London. Casual racism is something he faced every day without complaint (and in fact, he longed to be white as a boy), but the real narrative is his desire to transform into something transcendent--a rock star. His rhythms surrounding the ways in which children talk to each other and their parents is spot-on and hilarious--it's obvious that this is a real strength for him as an artist. "Early Learnings" is a nice balance between his silly and frequently laugh-out-loud observations and a more grounded and nuanced examination of his life.

Other contributors include Jessica Penfold, who has a dense and beautiful naturalistic style that mixes in surreal elements, like falling into the ocean and encountering talking sharks, as well as a strip about the ways in which a simple coke float induces euphoria. Writer Kele Okereke and illustrator Grace Wilson did a creepy story called "Metamorphoses", which starts off as a slice-of-life story and turns into a disturbing account of a young man who has the ability to read and manipulate the emotions of women. Wilson mixes naturalism with a moody expressionism in the way she draws faces and some unusual design choices, though this story is more illustrated text than comics proper. The same is true of Jackson Coley's "When", where the illustrations essentially comment on the next page of text in a frequently poignant manner. All told, this comic is a solid introduction to Ganjei's aesthetic as both creator and editor: crisp, simple, and bold.

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