Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Couple of Worthy Projects Need Funding

I'm taking a break this week from new content, but I did want to point out a couple of interesting fundraising projects brought to my attention. The first is Matt Runkle trying to raise money to publish Runx Tales #3, a zine/comic that will be printed in color and with an expanded number of pages. Runkle has the unique talent of being able to bring alive the voices of others as well as his own personal narrative of living on the fringe of fringe culture as someone who is both "gay and broke".

The other comic worth your while is Deep In The Woods, a newsprint "double feature" with Nicholas Breutzman and Noah Van Sciver. This campaign is being run by 2D Cloud, one of my favorite of the new, interesting micropresses that's popped up in the last five years. Note that Raighne Hogan, who's heading up the Kickstarter, has said that if they make their modest goal of $1,000, it means that Van Sciver and Breutzman will get some money up front. Anyone who's read this column regularly knows how much I admire the work of both of those young cartoonists.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Horror, The Familiar and the Mundane: Alex Kim

One mini at a time, Alex Kim is putting together a body of work that's every bit as disquieting, quirky and visually exciting as any of the new wave of cartoonists whose stock-in-trade is cerebral and/or body horror. In addition to his trademark wavy, almost vibratory line, he's added a stippling effect that gives his comics more solidity and weight. Every one of his comics approaches something horrible from a skewed perspective, bringing unexpected and frequently uncomfortable laughs to otherwise horrific situations.

Let's begin with the truly outrageous Meat Bird, a story whose plot is right out of the horror cliche' playbook but whose execution is jaw-dropping. The reader is introduced to a nondescript couple who have just moved to the middle of nowhere in the woods. They stop by a creepy-looking general store that gives the wife bad vibes, but the husband is hungry and buys a chicken for roasting from the strangely silent woman behind the counter; it happens to total up to $6.66. The reader knows something bad will happen, but the sight of the bones and skin of the chicken attacking the man, the store revealed to be abandoned and the woman running it dead, and the HellChicken emerging from the man's guts was both genuinely disturbing and absolutely hilarious. Kim plays it entirely straight, right through the downbeat yet satisfying ending. There's a lot that's visually exciting in this comic: the sharp v angles of noses and eyes; the use of stippling to create some disturbing effects from a charred bird corpse, and the clever inversion of light and dark on a number of pages. 

I Am Beauty is another monster book, this time from the perspective of the Cthulu-esque shadow creature that emerges to take over the body of a crayfish and fight its way up the ocean's food chain. What's odd about this one is that the monster also narrates the story, telling the reader how powerful and beautiful it is after absorbing a shark. This comic is a showcase for Kim's pure drawing chops, as he renders fish and other sea creatures with great skill even as he contrasts them with the blobby-looking elder god character.

The Vault is a self-contained, color version of a story he did for Joe Lambert's Too Far anthology.  Kim enjoys exploring apocalyptic scenarios, both literal and metaphorical, and this one concerns the stunning short-sightedness of one person in the wake of armageddon, only to find that loneliness does strange things to people. Another apocalyptic comic, Night Machine, is the most complex, haunting and visually exciting comic in this group. It concerns the paranoia of a man who appears to be living in two worlds: one where he battles ennui by sleeping with a particular girl (if only to get away from the rats) and another where he drives around in an armored bus, looking for the sinister source of that planet's destruction. The reader is rapidly flipped between the man at a therapy session, his time with his "girlfriend" and his quest to go after the monster behind everything until all three converge in an explosive and reality-bending matter. One is left to wonder if his psychosis created the real-life horror or if the horror found him, but it's interesting to see one man's fears and conspiracy theories given absolute material form.

The first issue of Kim's Oily Comics offering, Dumpling King, promises a story to top everything else he's done. In just 12 pages of glorious black & white, Kim sets up the story of an aspiring dumpling chef after his best friend (a dumpling delivery man) dies under suspicious circumstances (found hanging). Kim swiftly establishes the initial crisis and the relationship between the protagonist and the dead man (best friends) and then deftly reveals how the series will unravel: the chef becomes obsessed with finding out why his friend apparently killed himself, setting himself on the same path with a dangerous but enticing family named Chang, led by the enticing Grace. Though this story is all set-up, there's something wonderfully evocative about the way Kim juxtaposes the mundane, even grimy  nature of the restaurant with both the enticing world of the Changs and the general world of weirdness that Kim hints at. It's a very Lynchian concept, filtered through a different cultural context, and those differences will likely prove crucial in terms of character down the line.

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poetics of the Everyday: John Porcellino and Jason Martin

Jason Martin and John Porcellino are two of my favorite autobiographical cartoonists, in part because of the way both take a  poetic approach in talking about their lives. Martin is more likely to use a traditional narrative approach (much like Harvey Pekar), but there's a thoughtfulness to his stories that goes way beyond the simple and the quotidian. Porcellino is often more poetic in describing small events that have a large impact, or the ways in which interacting with his environment can mask his pain. It's almost comforting to see a new issue by either artist.

Laterborn #8 is Martin's latest comic, a year after the superb issue of Papercutter that he wrote and others illustrated. His own style is much cruder and simpler, but he's quite effective in getting across a wide range of emotions with it. This is a flip-cover comic meant to emulate the way a mixtape or album can have dramatically different tones on different sides. I like this idea because it allows form to shape content. "Side A" of this comic contains slightly more light-hearted stories. "Half-Deaf" is about how being born deaf in his right ear has affected Martin over the years, for good and ill. It's a funny but poignant story that reflects on how losing his hearing altogether would have prevented him from being able to hear music, something that is crucial in his life. "Book Reports" and "Secret Origins: I Want To Eat Pizza" both deal with his zine roots. The former is about a junior high teacher who demanded a lot from his students in terms of book reports, including illustrated covers that wound up looking like zines. The latter story is about Martin's college-era revelation of wanting to do a zine with friends. What I found most interesting about this story is how Martin so thoroughly conflated zine-making with playing music, especially in the sense that he thought of zine-making as strictly a collaborative activity. It was something creative and fun to do with friends at that point, not a solitary pursuit.

"Side B" begins with a dark series of anecdotes titled "It's Not Like He Tied Her Up And Other True Stories".. Essentially, these are stories told by others or overheard about horrible things. A woman who spoke little english asked a security guard for direction and he wound up feeling her up; stunned, she said "thank you", which is both awful and hilarious, as noted by the woman herself at the end of the story. People Martin knows experience, in a real and virulent way, homophobia, racism (in a truly disturbing anecdote), sexism, rape, and the desire to rape. At the end, there's a cringe-inducing story about Martin needing to head to the restroom just as a class video was about to air about date rape."Buffalo Blood" is a story about a visceral memory regarding a beloved Scoutmaster who died before Martin could complete an important initiation ritual, rendering that ritual heart-rending when he finally completed it.

"New Year's Day" is partly about Martin's sense of social anxiety and how a kind word by his friend Dylan Williams instantly negated that feeling. It's a beautiful tribute to Williams, whose enthusiasm and openness to others meant a lot to a number of people. "Lightness" feels like the the heart of this comic, and is typical of what I've read by Martin. Martin is someone who closely examines their feelings and memories in an attempt to come to terms with both, but always retains a sense of hope and optimism. It's not an optimism based on self-deception, but rather the hard-earned wisdom of someone who's been through ups and downs. This story connects a period of unemployment and stress with waiting on the new issue of King-Cat to arrive at his local comic shop. Not only does he get the comic, but the cover matches the part of town he had to travel to in order to get a new job! A sense of place is crucial to Martin and becomes part of his emotional background, often acting as scenery to music that's important to him; this is reflected in the second half of the story. There's a meatiness to Martin's stories that remind me of Pekar, an intellectual and emotional curiosity that's as attuned to the thoughts of others as it is to himself.

King-Cat #73 finds John Porcellino in an intellectually curious and roving state, a sign of becoming more settled both in his new Illinois home as well as his position as a cartoonist and publisher. The darker observations of the recent issues have subsided in favor of the sort of close reading of nature that's frequently been at the heart of his work. "In Search Of The Cuckoo Bird" reveals a lot about the author's life while making life events take a back seat to the obsession of the moment: trying to find out what sort of bird he saw at a park. Being a decent amateur birdwatcher, he was stumped by the brief, blurry glimpse he caught of the bird but managed to see it again later after he finally started wearing eyeglasses. Along the way, we see John P reminisce about one of his ex-wives in relation to his obsession with seeing the cuckoo and then lay next to his new girlfriend, his mind free to wander along paths that weren't tortured. The fact that the story ends in uncertainty is fitting, because this is a process story, both in terms of living his life and trying to identify a bird. There's no certainty regarding relationships or happiness, just as trying to identify a bird with limited expertise and corroborating information is a difficult process. I love his drawings in this story, especially the crude and then increasingly sure-handed attempts at drawing the bird he saw.

The rest of the issue is rather light-hearted. There's a story about sneaking in cats to go see The Blue Lagoon, a story about a cat needing to approve his shoelaces, and a dream involving Porcellino as a monk but still in the very confusing and disorienting comics industry. The dream was as lighthearted as these other stories, but masked some of Porcellino's real concerns: how much to commit to the comics industry as personified in his decision (after some hesitation) to "get his hands dirty" in a situation that had a number of downsides. The dream is a testament to Porcellino's new and steadfast attitude regarding comics--he is determined to make them and determined to be one of those people who gets the work of others read. This story and this issue are both a statement of purpose and a celebration of the small moments and the fact that he has time and the opportunity to focus on the small moments. Those opportunities do not entirely ameliorate stress; indeed, in some situations they exacerbate it. Still, there's a buzz of energy that pervades this comic, stretching from the cover image to his "top 40" to the final gag, an energy that still mostly manifests in quiet, contemplative moments but is present nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Minicomics Round-Up

This article was originally published in 2006.
About Yr Future, Plots, Their Condolences, by Eve Englezos & Josh Moutray.. This artist duo  known for putting out the Icecreamlandia minis first caught my eye a few years ago, and I always eagerly await their next bit of weirdness. Each of these minis is cleverly designed, short, and as beautiful to look at as they are hilarious. Their Condolences has the look of an old-time photo album, as we see a drawing of a man who died in the late 19th century. Eschewing their usual clear-line drawing style, Englezos & Moutray instead use heavily-shaded pencils that look uninked. The "condolences" involved may be heartfelt, but they're far from heart-warming, as each family member or servant makes nasty comments about him. The funniest page may be the last, when one of his sons holds a bird in his hands and thinks his father is there in reincarnated form.

Plots is more typical of the duo, with that oh-so-thin line of theirs being put to use in single-page gags. Every page seems to either be a set-up or a climactic point in some other story, many of them funny. The first page has a crying man hugging a friend, telling him that his wife was murdered and their place robbed. His friend replies, "I hate to tell you this, but I've got some more bad news" and then the reader's eye is drawn down to the knife in his hand. The "plots" here also imply someone plotting against someone else, be it a housewife/spy using cooking jargon as her code words, two kids using walkie-talkies to plot against their grandma, or a vulture calling his fellows to war against hyenas.

About Yr Future is the third in a series of small minis about time. This one is all about predictions, foretellings, and fate. Again, their authorial voice is one of bone-dry and bleak humor, mixed with a sense of absurdism. Their line drawings are even more amusing than usual here, considering they're drawing robots and an elderly man whose head has been transplanted onto a cyborg body. Englezos and Moutray are a unique act in comics, and their wonderfully skewed point of view mixed with an impeccably tasteful design sense makes even the shortest of their minis a rewarding experience.

Infandum #2, by Molly Lawless. Lawless is another new favorite artist of mine on the minicomics scene, thanks to her expressive pencils, sharp sense of humor, and obsession with baseball. It's those latter strips that are the most fun to read, and she's slowly on her way to compiling a collection's worth of baseball strips. Lawless strikes the right tone between smartass and historian as she has Bill Buckner "narrate" a story called "The Boner and the Muff: A Tale of Two Freds". Buckner was the first baseman who infamously let a grounder go between his legs in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a series that his Red Sox would wind up losing. This story is about two baseball players from the deadball era (early 1900's) who had similar blunders that were blamed on their team's eventual collapse. Just like Buckner, neither player was really to blame, but couldn't outrun their notoriety. Even readers who don't like baseball will enjoy Lawless' delicate pencils and decorative touches.

Though this mini is only 8 pages long, it's a much meatier read than one would expect because Lawless jams so many panels and so much detail into each of her pages. Her first story (written by Carlton King), "Rules of Romance: Breakup Jujitsu", packs 15 panels and decorative extras onto one page. Her "Repressed Memory Theatre" is just as dense and is perhaps the funniest story in the comic. It's an autobiographical tale of young, uptight Molly being humiliated by her mother in front of her classmates at school. Lawless transforms a fairly standard reminiscence into something memorable due to her expressive figures, sense of comic timing, self-deprecating wit, and appealing sense of design. The only thing that detracts from my enjoyment of her comics is that her figure drawing suffers from being crammed into tiny panels on mini-sized pages. I'd love to see her expand her page count a bit and let her comics breathe with bigger panels. It's astounding that her comics look as nice as they do, considering that they're hand-made and photocopied. I look forward to her first collection of minis, which would do justice to her attractive art along with her sharp wit.

Just This Side Of Heaven, P.S. Comics #2 & #3, by Melanie "Minty" Lewis. I first became aware of Lewis' work in SPX 2003, and her story stood out for two reasons. First, all of the characters were clear-line anthropomorphic pieces of fruit. Second, her sense of humor regarding human interactions was pitch-black and dry. Lewis writes knowing stories about sad people living in "quiet desperation", but manages to squeeze every ounce of awkward humor out of these situations as possible. I'm a fan of this kind of "squirm humor", where the awkwardness of daily social intercourse is heightened for comic effect. Portraying these people as fruit or dogs (or table condiments) adds an extra layer of distance and absurdity to heighten the humor in the story--but at the same time, it almost gives Lewis license to make the situations all the more painful--especially if the stories seem to be based on autobiographical experiences.

Just This Side Of Heaven is a story featuring her other set of go-to representations: anthropomophric dogs. This one's about a goofy cat who lost her best friend (a dog) and is living with two new hipster cats who constantly argue and exclude him from the conversation. His dog friend appears to him in a dream and gives him good advice on how to live with his new roommates. What makes this comic so appealing is how Lewis has the animals act and live as animals (and more specifically, pets), yet the dynamic is very much of a 20-something group house, with the cat even being in school and using email. This comic was a bit more forgiving and sentimental than some of her other, nastier comics.

P.S. Comics #2 mixes up styles quite a bit. "Winners" is a hilarious account of an especially miserable high-school anecdote, done with her fruit characters. The story works because Apple is desperate to fit in, one way or another--and every attempt at trying to be cool backfires either in a whimper or in a spectacular public humiliation. "Yorkie Matrimony" is a vicious story using dogs as characters. It's the story of a friendship of two roommates gone sour, thanks to one of them deciding to get married and the other falling apart at the notion of being alone. Not since reading Hate have I enjoyed seeing a story this over-the-top and yet strangely familiar about roommates. Once again, the cuteness of Lewis employing dogs-acting-like-humans just makes the story funnier, even as the events get more pathetic. What's odd is that her use of gesture and expression seems more refined when she's drawing animals or fruit than when she draws people. "Salt & Sugar" is perhaps the most clever story in this issue. A heavily-narrated love story about the romance between a salt shaker and a sugar dispenser, Lewis does a clever parody of typical problem-romance narratives using every joke imaginable about salt and sugar. These are the first two pages of her work that I'd show to anyone to demonstrate her wit.

P.S. Comics #3's best story is "Bitter Fruit", starring her "Fruit Pals". A workplace/relationship melodrama, it once again perfectly captures not only the beats of 20-something relationships but also the inane nature of workplace life. As one female character (Pear) is dealing with being suddenly dumped by a co-worker for another co-worker, she has to fend off both the advances of and grating "advice" of another co-worker. This may be the most accomplished of all her stories, both in terms of design & composition and humorous impact. Finding a style that works for her so early in her comics career is clearly a big boost for Lewis. At this point, she simply needs to continue to further refine it. Her comics look best when they're clear, uncluttered and not overrendered, especially when she's able to add subtle decorative touches. Lewis' wit is already razor-sharp, and I'll be excited to see her continue to explore this milieu as she continues to grow as an artist.

Lucky (Volume 2, #1), by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly). This is the only comic from a publisher on this list, but it certainly counts as a mini. Half of this comic is a story called "My Affliction", which Bell was giving away at SPX last year. I've already reviewed that story on sequart, and it was a hoot--Bell's weird sense of humor was in effect. The other half of this particular comic was a series of diary entries. Much like the minis collected in Lucky, Bell's neuroses are on full display and depicted in her typically wry, over-the-top fashion. We see her dealing with the stress of "performing" her new comic (the aforementioned "My Affliction") and preparing to be on a panel at SPX. Bell uses blacks to good effect in these stories, giving them a certain weight that at times reflects the sense of claustrophobia that her narrative portrays. It should be emphasized that Bell plays her neuroses for laughs in her typically deadpan manner, not in a "woe-is-me" sense. I've written extensively about Bell in the past, so I'll just note that if you appreciate her sense of humor and enjoy her diary comics, then I would enthusiastically recommend the new volume of Lucky.

Routine & Are You Often Impulsive In Your Behavior?, by Will Dinski. Dinski is another favorite of mine, and these two minis are both unusually presented. Routine is actually a comic on a single page of posterboard, in full color. This story is typical of Dinski's strengths as a cartoonist: his sense of panel-to-panel beats and rhythms. In a narrative, he's often fond of using a silent panel, then a narrative caption in a rapid-fire sequence. In this comic, he sets up the boring routine of a businessman in this way. A random bit of near-violence puts his routine out of balance, creating a new, quite warped routine for our hero. As always, Dinksi's page is stylish, spare and puts a bit of distance between reader and story. This is done mostly for comic effect, but there's always something a bit unsettling going on in his stories, and Routine is no exception.

...Behavior is a clever comic, also printed on cardstock. This one is meant to be folded so as to form four pages on one side. It's a story about Dinski taking a test at a Scientologist recruitment center on a whim, and the back of the comic has the results of his test. Once again, Dinski's control of story-beats drives the comic, as he breaks up the narrative with actual questions from the test. He did this to show how the way they were worded was designed to emphasize the test-taker's feelings of paranoia and inferiority. The results made Dinski out to be anxious, paranoid, critical, withdrawn, depressed, withdrawn and hyperactive (?). The punchline was that Dinski was expecting a recruiting pitch, but instead got sent on his way. The use of the test's questions dryly sets up Dinski's own critique of the proceedings in an indirect and amusing way. As always, a Will Dinski comic is smart, off-beat and comics in their purest sense; there's no way I could experience these stories as anything but comics.

Plates Are Cult #3 and Pocket Party, by Damien Jay.  Jay has been making beautiful, silk-screened comics for some time now, though I first became aware of him through cartoonist Ellen Lindner. The comics I'm reviewing here are much looser, torn from his sketchbook or originally done for anthologies. Plates Are Cult #3 is in fact a mini that collects a number of short stories from other places. There's all sorts of delightful weirdness in here, including "The Merpeople of Columbus Ohio" from Mapjam, the grotesque "Frankie Pug-Dog", and the clever "Hello Everybody On The Other Side". In these comics, Jay is working through styles, influences and inspirations, using a slightly tremulous line to create expressive characters. "Hello Everybody..." is the most formally experimental, about a man trying to record voices from the spirit world. On the back of each story page, Jay blends and jams text and image, printing some of it backwards as the line between spirit and material bends and blurs. Another standout story is "Warsaw", a travel story that Jay drew, depicting one man's struggle to fend off attempts of various Polish businessmen trying to get him laid with assorted sex workers. There's a certain bleakness to Jay's art that matches the grey world of the sex trade in Eastern Europe.

While these stories had their charms, it's Pocket Party that impressed me much more. Combining sketchbook segues with a loose narrative, it's an inspired flight of fancy. Jay starts with an odd-looking man named Leslie in an abandoned town and interjects himself into the proceedings as he sees fit. He insults one of his characters, who runs off and refuses to participate further. From there, former president Gerald Ford pops up and Jay tries to lecture him on what comics are and how he fits into the story. Throughout, Jay pops into his own comic to offer random opinions, critiques of his own art and story, redrawn panels, sea monsters, Leslie being forced to play Match Game and a perilous journey through the city sewers. Jay even chides himself for being so self-referential, promising to stop it (which he eventually does, but not before he moans, "I just don't have...anywhere else to go!). Somehow, this stream-of-consciousness stew works. The looseness of the art gives it a vibrancy, as though the reader just watched it appear off the still-wet pen of the artist. Jay is funny and riffs well on the page; while the comic is admittedly self-indulgent, it's an indulgence that's quite entertaining for a reader. Jay's ability to somehow make drawing exercises (like learning how to draw fins) into amusing interludes only made me want more; given that this was actually listed as issue #1, one would hope that he'll be doing more. All in all, this is one of the most enjoyable minicomics that I've read in the past year.

Monday #1 & #2 and Yip The Wonder Dog, by Andy Hartzel. Hartzell is the creator of Fox Bunny Funny, my favorite mini of 2006. He's following up that work with a new series, based on the Adam & Eve creation myth, along with a hilarious one-shot mini originally published in another publication. The full title of Yip is The Rise and Fall of Yip the Wonder Dog, and it's a funny account of a heroic dog's journey into Hollywood fame and subsequent decadent excess. It's another wordless story from Hartzell, and while his ambitions are certainly far more modest than in Fox Bunny Funny, the payoff is no less rewarding. Hubris is punished and loyalty is rewarded in the end, but it was the sight of a dog doing lines of coke and dancing the night away (along with the other absurd but logical extremes of the narrative) that made this tidy story so much fun.

Monday is a far more ambitious story, with these first two issues being the first of five chapters. The series' central premise is dynamite: we all know what happened on the first seven days of creation--but what happened on the eighth? Adam and Eve argue about the nature of Eden, the serpent starts planting doubts, and God is hard at work at perfecting his greatest creation. After reading a number of wordless comics by Hartzell, it was a pleasure to see him script such clever banter between Adam and Eve, staying fully within their archetypical characters while expanding the creation myth.

In this story, everyone has their own agenda. Adam is desperate to stay faithful to God in spite of the doubts being planted. Eve just wants the garden to be safe, and the serpent feeds her doubts. The serpent is resentful that God punished him for hubris after he criticized his creator. Finally, God is cranky and defensive, blowing up at his creations because of his own frustration with his new creation, who is somehow resisting being born. These first two chapters set up the tensions and conflicts that are sure to come, where everyone involved is all too human--which only makes sense, since man was created in God's image.

Visually, the art doesn't quite have the snap and polish of Fox Bunny Funny. It's looser and sketchier, but no less expressive. There are also more decorative touches, with the garden of Eden holding all sorts of "eye snaps" and visual surprises. Hartzell's figures are blocky and primal, as though they were made of squares. The silkscreened covers are especially beautiful, though I look forward to its eventual overall release on better paper. Hartzell's use of themes and imagery is very different from most artists working today, and the way he incorporates mythic and archetypical imagery in his stories lends them a lot of power, even as he deflates them with humor.

Mapjam and Satisfactory Comics #7, by Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe. Once again, full disclosure: Mike Wenthe has been a friend of mine for some years now. That said, he and his collaborator Isaac Cates have carved out an interesting niche in the world of freewheeling comics formalism. Satisfactory Comics #6 had been their most ambitious issue, with the most narratively coherent stories to go along with a slew of interesting extras and decorative touches. Issue #7 was done quite differently: it was created in an intense, 30-hour jam session. What makes this issue stand out is that despite each story having its share of pre-set rules, formal gimmicks and other built-in limitations, those boundaries were invisible to the reader. I think the main reason why was the furious pace at which these stories were written and drawn; as a result, spontaneity and looseness were the real rules here.

Given the number of jam comics and comics with specific formal rules (starting with a certain sentence, drawing with one's non-dominant hand, artists switching off panels, artists drawing different characters in the same story, improvising each panel and then switching off, etc.), I've noticed that they tend to work best as short stories. One feels the strain of the rules after more than a few pages, and the stories tend to devolve into silliness. In Sat-Com #7, it's clear that Cates and Wenthe are quite aware of this, and the result is a series of one to two pages stories that feel quite substantive. The stories range from a quiet lament on the apocalypse to an Alaskan astronaut's ruminations to a hilarious series of single-panel take-offs on famous works of literature, and much more. I particularly liked "Sinister City", which was the most formally restrictive story (single-syllable words, except for the seed sentence, written by Cates and drawn in Wenthe's non-dominant hand). The shaky pencils had a marvelous looseness to them, almost a vibratory quality, that neatly fit with the fact that the story was a retelling of a dream.

I loved the imagination of "The Xylem Cipher", about a liquid that enabled a woman to hear the speech of plants, who then discovered that this was not exactly the most exciting power in the world. This strip showed off their gag-making abilities, as they fired off every single good joke possible from this premise, and ended it on an even better joke. The range of emotional tones and genres makes the reader wonder what could possibly be next when they turn the page, and I found that this issue rewarded multiple readings. I also found their notes on the issue to be revealing as always, as they delved into their creative process.

Cates and Wenthe invited a number of others along for the ride on their ambitious Mapjam project. A wacky take on fantasy world-building stories, they had several artists contribute three bits to a fantasy world-map, split the map into nine quadrants, then handed out assignments to write a story based on that portion of the map. The results ranged from fairly standard fantasy stories to some truly ludicrous scenarios. The quality of the stories in a jam tends to depend on how much time each cartoonist puts into it. A number of the stories (especially in the first round) felt rushed and uninspired. On the other hand, those artists who were more obviously committed to the project created strips that were quite amusing. The best strip in the book came from Tom K., a contributor to Mome. In just four pages, he picked up the threads of an earlier story and took them to some unusual places. His art was stark and bold, especially a page set in a dark cave. Wenthe and Cates contributed tales of perverted minstrels, miniature questers, seasonal gods and other weirdness. Another standout contributor here was Damien Jay, whose loose style and sense of the absurd fit right into the proceedings. This was a case where the experiment and collaboration itself was more interesting at times than some of the results, but one would hope that for the next round, they'll be able to recruit cartoonists as devoted as Tom K. to pick up the baton. It'll also be interesting to see how the "exquisite corpse" nature of the experiment plays out. While not as focused or engaging as their Satisfactory Comics, Mapjam certainly has me eager to see where the stories go next.

Heart and Brain and Love Charades, by Fay Ryu.  I love these wordless, colorful romantic pantomimes by Ryu. Heart and Brain features an anthropomorphic heart engaged in an unrequited relationship with an anthropomorphic brain (ambulating via its spinal cord!). The graphics are simple, reliant on Ryu's understanding of gesture and expression, and heightened by her bright colors. The only narration here are the chapter titles: "At First Sight", "Second Sight", "Third Sight", "Out Of Sight", "Hind Sight" and "In Sight". The Heart character keeps encountering Brain, but is never able to screw up the courage to talk to the object of its affection. This comic is about loneliness and how it both makes one feel like one's traversing a desert alone (an image used here more than once) and insulates us against fear of rejection. There's safety in this fear, even as Heart grows more agitated and wistful as the story proceeds. It's a beautiful, simple little story whose ambitions don't outstrip its limitations. As a result, one can see hidden depths in the familiar imagery.

Love Charades is a sort of companion piece, labled a "heart and brain exercise". It's a series of vignettes starring the aforemention characters, this time clearly as companions. The charm of this piece is the way Ryu breathes life and excitement into quotidian activities; there's a sense that these everyday experiences take on added meaning simply because they're being done by lovers. Ryu is a clear, clever storyteller who is quite adept at wringing out emotional truths with just a few strokes of a pen. I look forward to getting my hands on more of her work.

Elsewhere #3, by Gary Sullivan. The first two issues of Sullivan's travel comics used some unusual techniques in combining word and image. This issue is a collection of single-page strips called "The New Life" that appeared in a poetry/fiction journal called Rain Taxi. The strip is all over the place in a pleasing sort of way. It starts as a narrative, as a Dante-like poet meets his Beatrice in Brooklyn and they explore poetry together. Sullivan junked that narrative when he fell in love with a poet who lived in Japan named Nada Gordon, and set several of his poems to comics--in much the same way a musician would attempt to translate poetry to music.

That decision made his visual storytelling approach fairly conventional, as he used his comics either to directly illustrate his text or else comment ironically on it. The images themselves were a supplement to the words and not a form of poetry unto themselves the way they were in the first two issues of Elsewhere or for cartoonists like John Hankiewicz. In "The New Life", Sullivan doesn't seek to redefine the visual language of comics as a different kind of poetry, but rather uses it to as a tool for historical, humorous and biographical purposes.

The most successful strips in this collection were Sullivan's pieces focused on specific poets. Combining commentary, direct quoting, ironic juxtaposition of word and image, and at times genuine warmth for subject and material, these strips were perfect introductions for poetry neophytes like myself and an amusingly different perspective on these pieces for afficianados. His parodies of old Marvel and romance comics as a means of illustrating certain trends or histories in the world of poetry were funny, but he doesn't quite have the chops to pull off the style mimicry required for the full impact he was going for. Still, he comes close enough that the audience will know what he was going for.

I like the fact that Sullivan is hard to pin down. He seems interested in being several different kinds of artist and writer simultaneously. He obviously loves comics, likes the free-flowing weirdness of Flarf (the sub-genre of poetry he developed), loves history, is engaged with the world in a political and material sense, and has a sense of humor about both himself and his art. He's a bit all over the map, and it's that very lack of focus that draws me in to what he does.

Eye of the Majestic Creature #2, by Leslie Stein. Stein first came to my attention with her painstaking and unusual comic Yeah It Is!, a Xeric-winner that looked to be assembled as much as drawn, given the way she composed each page with paper cut-outs along with drawings. It was an interesting experiment to say the least, and the fact that the story itself was equally appealing to my sensibilities (about a loudmouth loner trying to relate to the rest of the world) certainly made her one to watch.

The style she uses in her minis is completely different--a very fine line, detailed pencils and even stippling for effect. Her stories are the product of an unhinged imagination, yet there is a coherent narrative to be found. Indeed, one senses that much of the story is directly autobiographical, if adorned with all sorts of weirdness. The story is about a young woman named Larry who has moved out to the country after living in the city made her too anxious. She lives alone in a house with her anthropomorphic guitar (named Marshy) and ponders misanthropy and the desperate need to connect, two contradictory impulses that nonetheless drive her.

I found myself completely drawn into the world that Stein created. Her ability to create intricate fine-line drawings whose simplicity leads the eye around the page with ease is matched only by her many decorative touches. Larry has huge, button eyes and a picklish nose to go along with her lithe frame. Stein adds a touch of the trippy and even grotesque in her drawings, with hints of Vaughn Bode popping up here and there. There are many hilarious sequences in the book, like Larry playing with a baby by bopping a doll on its head until she knocks it over and responding by quietly propping the baby back up.

This comic is mostly about the stink of alienation and loneliness. Larry can smell it on others (like a shop owner desperate for company) and is none-too-pleased to detect it in herself. Larry later house-sits for another loner-type obsessed with odd but beautiful details in life. He's a social misfit who seems content with his obsessions, like country music and barbecue.  Larry is not so different from him, and draws happiness from some of the most absurd places. It's safe to say that the absurd, the cheap, and the guilelessly delightful things in life give Larry joy in a world devoid of meaning or real connection. This point of view resonates with me as a reader, and it's for this reason, along with her superior chops as an artist and imaginative composition & design that this was my favorite mini-comic to date of 2007.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Gag Men of CCS: Lok, Bonesteel, Yoder, Seck

Let's take a look at four CCS grads who are primarily humorists.

Gag Rag #2. by Jeff Lok. Lok is quietly becoming one of my favorite humorists, thanks to his pitch-black comic sensibility. As his figures continue to look more like stacks of shapes and less like actual people, his strips have come into much sharper focus. Earlier in his career, Lok's attempts at a realistic style resulted in some over-rendered images. In this second issue of Gag Rag, he's reached the perfect antithesis of that style, creating figures and forms that are both unsettling and funny to look at. His gags continue to grow darker, meaner and funnier. The main story, about an Antarctic explorer whose heroic mission goes horribly awry, is peppered with absurdities (a man renting only one sled dog because "owning a dog is a lot of responsibility!") and grim, visceral conseqences. Indeed, Lok's can-I-top-this list of abuse heaped on his character goes beyond the cruel and into the ridiculous. Lok intersperses the main narrative with a bizarre visual pun about losing one's appetite and an enigmatic strip about a rooster and his young companion. There's no question that Lok has really found something that works, and I hope he continues to pursue this direction.

A Fan Comic About Community, Mr. Ryland & Mr. Yoder, and Giant Naked Baby, by David Yoder. Yoder is a very funny writer who's trying to figure out the best way of presenting his material visually. It seems pretty clear that drawing is a slog for him, especially since he tries to do much of his work in a naturalistic fashion. My favorite of these three comics was Mr. Ryland and Mr. Yoder, a hastily-drawn story for NaGroNoWriMo (National Graphic Novel Writing Month) that mixes humor and anti-humor in equal doses. It features my favorite drawings of his, most especially his own self-caricature. Along with Colleen Frakes', it's my favorite from the CCS crowd because it's both pleasant and funny to look at. The big glasses, the dot eyes and vaguely vapid smile all add up to funny drawing after funny drawing, which is a nice equation when paired with the punch of his gag work. This mini is one long deconstruction of humor as expressed through two "vaudevillian" characters who wear matching straw hats, bowties and plaid jackets. The way Yoder jumps back and forth through time, ignores conventional narrative and throws in a barrage of jokes both stupid and sophisticated shows how much potential he has as a humorist. The same is true for his Fan Comic About Community,  a TV show that features the same sort of meta-humor at which he excels. The comic is both an expression of his fears of what the show might turn into after its creator was fired and a smart parody of TV tropes, all told within a framework that allows ts "meta" character Abed to function both as a human being and as a comic book character. The crudeness of his line blunts some of the impact of his commentary, but it's still effective. Giant Naked Baby has its funny and absurd moments (after all, it's about the titular baby parking itself outside of someone's house and staying entirely still), but it's really about accepting one's own mortality as well as learning how to let go of loved ones in their dying moments. What the baby turns out to really be is a clever twist that adds an absurd element to the most grave of concepts. Yoder is an artist who just needs to draw a lot more in order to figure out what style will serve him best as an artist, though I could easily see him become a screenwriter as well. I'm hoping he'll continue to stick with comics and even return to previous works and re-draw them.

60/40, Jason and Birds, by G.P. Bonesteel. Bonesteel's comics are very much informed by his pop-culture obsessions, and the quality of the resulting gag generally depends on how cleverly he can spin those obsessions into actual jokes. 60/40 is a silly collection of random gags that are mostly forgettable, with the exception of "Monster Fight". Here, a fight between King Kong and Godzilla is actually a fight about their frayed friendship, bringing the language of slice-of-life comics to bear in a way that both sends them up and plays it completely straight. Bonesteel's skills as a draftsman are not especially highly developed, but he pushes through this thanks to his design and composition choices. For example, Birds is a collection of strips featuring 6-panel variations of the same pose, as two birds on power lines exchange witticisms, dirty observations, insults and deeply personal information. Bonesteel spares the reader's eyes from total visual monotony with some pleasing color schemes, but the real attraction here is the nature of the friendship between the two leads. Jason is by far the best of the comics, as Bonesteel's knack for creating high-concept concepts lands on a doozy: a slice-of-life story featuring Jason, from the Friday The Thirteenth movies. This "side-scroller" of a comic has three panels per page and goes day-by-day with the killer, who does this as a job, even punching a time clock in the morning and hanging out with fellow movie killers like Freddy Krueger and Leatherface. This is a comic about working and the ways it can be a deadening experience, as well as making connections. The ultra-simple, outline style works perfectly in depicting the very 2D world that Jason inhabits and allows Bonesteel to get gory without drawing the reader too far out of the page. This was the first chapter of a longer story, and Bonesteel has something very interesting cooking here.

Life Is Good and Monday Saddies, by Steve Seck. Seck loves depicting the lives of losers, freaks, perverts and all-around degenerate anthropomorphic animals. I've already written about the Pogo meets Hate antics of Life Is Good. However, Seck's art really comes alive when he's not beholden to anything resembling a real narrative, and such is the case in Monday Saddies. The continuing adventures of a homicidal (yet famous) snake, a depraved ranger and a bear looking for inspiration, this comic is agreeably frenetic. It plays into Seck's scratchy, exaggerated style while meshing the increasingly transgressive humor with the cute, anthropomorphic drawings. At the same time, it's a stinging metacommentary on certain kinds of "message" genre stories where Friendship Is The Most Important Thing, ending with the vicious snake going out of his way to stay friends with the ranger, despite the latter's deep desire to be bitten and squeezed by the former. The character of the bear is my favorite, especially when he protests being trapped by the snake's thought balloon and then later winds up haunting a couple that had him stuffed despite just being in a blackout drunk state. The mock-wholesomeness of this comic is what makes it work so well, as the bright orange cover seems to be one beckoning to kids until one comes across the "Not for kids!" warning at the bottom. I'd love to see the whole story done in a four-color process that would mimic Dell-style comics of the 50s and 60s.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Plot Thickens: Ralph Azham Volume 1

One thing that I don't think Lewis Trondheim gets enough credit for is just how dense and intricate his plots are. In his genre stories, he has a knack for telling "hang-out" stories pinned on impeccably and subtly designed plots. That is, his main characters seem to just be hanging out, cutting up, making mischief and generally behaving like idiots for page after page, until Trondheim suddenly tightens the knots on what seemed to be incidental details and pulls together a series of clever twists. Ralph Azham is his newest solo series, after years of working on Dungeon with Joann Sfar. That series got so incredibly convoluted that I imagine Trondheim wanted a shot at a more conventionally-paced fantasy series that still contained his trademark mix of high and low humor. The story concerns the titular character who happens to be the village outcast, an especially cruel fate considering that he was supposed to be some sort of prophesied Chosen One who failed the final test as a child. As a result, he's pretty much loathed by everyone and plays up to that loathing with his obnoxious personality.

Much like Herbert in Dungeon, Ralph is a classic Trondheim anti-hero. He seems to possess no redeeming qualities or abilities; his sole power seems to be the power to predict how many children someone will have. Also like Herbert, Ralph manages to rise to the occasion when things really get hairy. The story finds Ralph sentenced to be tied to a pole inn a pig sty after the flirty Claire kisses him, angering her father and brother. The blue-haired Ralph manages to make the best of his punishment as his father comes to him and brings him food. In the early going, no one appears to be more disappointed in Ralph than his father, who nonetheless keeps supporting him. Every person that Ralph meets winds up having some kind of impact on the story in a manner that is completely organic but frequently surprising. The little kid whose parents die after leaving the town winds up having some kind of powerful sonic scream. The village doctor/pharmacist winds up being complicit in an elegant cover-up. Ralph's dad is at once more caring and more diabolical than he seems at first. The "chosen one" plot rears its head toward the end of the book after a horde of invaders threatens to kill everyone in Ralph's small village, but with a series of unexpected twists.

What's interesting about this book is that what starts as a seemingly lightweight exercise winds up going to some pretty dark places. Ralph winds up getting the power to see and talk to the dead, for example. The first evidence of this is the many fetuses he sees hanging around the village doctor, who specialized in brewing an abortive tea for unwanted pregnancies. As it turns out, spirits wind up hanging around those who killed them, a revelation that renders that scene both hilarious and cringe-inducing in retrospect. Indeed, there's plenty of what seems to be incidental dialogue as Trondheim flashes back to Ralph's failure and his father's role in it that winds up revealing everything. The book ends with a betrayal of trust and the promise of greatness on the part of both Ralph and his new, young companion. In many respects, this is a conventional first volume of a fantasy series: the character is introduced and his beginnings are explored, and his humdrum life is eventually transformed by a tragedy. The book ends with the quest just beginning. One is left wanting much more, yet Trondheim unquestionably delivers the goods in creating a compelling, memorable set of characters with dubious motives whom we nonetheless root for. It should be noted that Bridget Findakly's tasteful color choices not only make this book beautiful to look at, but also have an impact on the way the reader understands the narrative. Editor Kim Thompson transforms a book that was a 50-page album in the standard European style into a hundred page book by cutting each page in half, printing them in a landscape format, and recreating the gestalt by having the original component panels of the page face each other. Trondheim is unquestionably the top genre comics artist in the world, which is amazing because he's also one of the top slice-of-life cartoonists, autobio cartoonists, children's cartoonists, gag cartoonists, experimental cartoonists, etc. There's never been a cartoonist as versatile as Trondheim who was able to work on virtually any kind of project and certainly not one who could blend his funny animal-style into any genre.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sequart Reprints: The Goddess Of War

Some comics creators have a style that's naturally appealing to a wide audience. Others have a voice that's so quirky and idiosyncratic that the reader is forced to take or leave it on its own terms. Lauren R. Weinstein falls into the latter category. Even her major publishing effort Girl Stories, aimed at a fairly wide teen audience, has expressionistic art that borders on the grotesque. Weinstein was literally changing the definition of "mass-market" with that remarkable release. What makes Weinstein's work so engrossing is that there's nothing affected about the slightly off-putting nature of her stories. That especially shines in her dialogue, which is at once naturalistic, awkward and hilarious.

For all of its eccentric qualities, Girl Stories saw Weinstein at her most restrained. Having come to her work through her Xeric-winning work Inside Vineyland, I was aware of just how weird Weinstein could get, and I missed seeing her imagination fully unleashed. In the first volume of her new series, The Goddess of War, Weinstein truly outdoes herself. The only artist I've come across who shares a somewhat similar sensibility to Weinstein is Michael Kupperman. While the sort of comics they do is very different, their work shares two things in common. First, both artists love to make unusual connections and juxtapositions for various effects. For Weinstein, those connections are often both means to make the reader flinch as well as laugh. Second, the work of both artists has a remarkable density to it. You can read their pages several times in a row and get different effects from them each time.

The Goddess Of War is based in part on the character Weinstein plays in her band, Flaming Fire. The idea of a blonde, glamorous war goddess is clever in and of itself, but Weinstein takes this idea in some unusual directions. First, the comic itself is unusually large: 10 x 15 inches. That allows her to create some impressive visual effects, including several huge splash panels that are etchings. These moody pieces have the effect of freeze-framing the action, as though one saw them in a museum. The large page size also allows her to cram a ton of panels into some pages, and Weinstein takes advantage of this with a dizzying array of approaches to panel design and layout. Each page in this book really acts as its own entity.

The story is a mash-up of all sorts of ideas. Essentially, the Goddess of War (a valkyrie named Valerie who was later promoted to this position) is sick of her job and wants a day off. She gets drunk (on the blood of 150 Mayan virgins that were once offered to her), goes back in time to recall her pettily punishing the Apache chief Cochise, and then leaves her post to try to make it up to him at the end. She calls up one of her friends to complain about how unhappy she is (of course, that friend is Nebulon the Universe-Eater). Weinstein crams in superhero tropes, mythological figures, psychedelia, historical fiction, absurdist humor and slice-of-life angst. Valerie may be a goddess, but she also acts like a bitchy teenager. She's petty, cruel, lonely, selfish and sad. Of course, she's been put in a position of being worshiped for thousands of years.

Weinstein immediately immerses the reader in Valerie's world, showing us a cutaway of the Head-Cave, her home. It's something that could have come straight out of a Batman comic. Weinstein uses an almost sickly green tint for most of her images, a perfect match for the often ghastly imagery she employs. Weinstein goes back and forth from the gruesome to the hilarious (often in the same panel), as in the panel where she recalls the adoration the war dead gave her: "Some died just to see me! Stupid bitches!" The conversation between Valerie and Nebulon may have been my favorite part of the comic, as Nebulon tries to give her advice and support but thinks to himself "Has she no other friends?", "Why does she always need a cheerleader?" and "Why does she always flirt with me? Does she really like me?".

The second half of the book takes a left turn into the story of Cochise, an earthy bit of historical fiction as Valerie drifts back to her forbidden affair with the legendary Apache leader. As Cochise has to deal with betrayal at the hands of American soldiers, he calls upon his one-time lover for help. Instead, Valerie betrays him as his brother dies and his people are forced to go to war. One senses that Valerie's betrayal was born out of her desire to foment war as it was her desire to run away with Cochise and leave her world behind. Waking up out of her drunken reverie, Valerie realizes her mistake and leaves, just missing the array of intrigue lined up against her. Weinstein packs in a ton of subplots in this issue that actually give the crazy events some structure; there really is a fairly standard adventure narrative that's holding the whole issue together. The Goddess Of War is an adventure narrative filtered through the uniquely skewed perspective of Lauren Weinstein, and while I can scarcely predict what's coming next, I can't wait to see how it will happen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Music, or the Misery?: Pinkerton

I couldn't help but think of Nick Hornby's novel (and subsequent film) High Fidelity when I read Francois Samson Dunlop & Alexandre Fontaine Rousseau's book Pinkerton. The line, "Which came first? The music, or the misery" refers to the notion that melodramatic, sad pop and rock tunes about break-ups instills those who listen to it with idealized expectations of both what a relationship should be and what a break-up should feel like. The sense that one is doomed to fail in creating meaningful relationships because one's been programmed to fail is a funny concept, one that Dunlop and Rousseau take and run with in this book. A friend visits another friend, only to find him nearly comatose after listening to the titular Weezer album after his girlfriend dumps him. They decide that the record is their root of all emotional evil, the origin point for their misery. The book is their quest to conquer each song's effect on them, and in so doing, get over their own heartbreak.

While this book is about break-ups, it's also about the fear of growing older and losing touch with what is culturally relevant. When the heroes refer to younger people as "kids", it horrifies them that there's even a class of people culturally relevant enough to designate in such a way--especially if they happen to laugh at them. I've always felt that thirty is the cutoff point for being aware of youth culture; after that point, you're an outsider, no matter what. I was 27 when Pinkerton was released and must confess that I've never even heard it, which greatly detracted from fully enjoying this book. Knowing the album is a kind of short-cut to understanding the book's jokes in much the same way as laughing at Hornby's jokes in his books; the reader is rewarded for understanding a reference. Fortunately, Dunlop & Rousseau are able to get across the essentials: it's an album about an especially harsh break-up by a budding rock star.

The book consists of a series of funny debates and arguments about each song, which in turn are about different aspects of relationships and identity. They easily get over the song "Tired Of Sex" because it's about a rock star's bedding too many women and getting sick of it--a problem the protagonists don't have. They debate co-dependence and the possibility of relationships working for the right reasons, dealing with one's own emotional fragility, and pie charting break-up mix tapes. They seek solace in all-female Weezer cover bands ("Sheezer"), poutine, beer and each other's company. The quest eventually bogs down as neither can quite agree on a proper course of action or what defines getting over a song, with the eventual resolution a shock-therapy session of listening to Weezer's post-Pinkerton work. It's a perfect hipster solution--their hatred of those albums and what they perceive as mediocrity tears down the idol that Pinkerton had become in their minds.

The tiny, almost Herriman-esque figures and their scratchy world help the characters attain a certain Everyman character, and I'm pretty sure that's intentional. This is a book with a specific audience: men in their late 20s and early 30s who are betwixt and between the energy of youth and the responsibility of growing up. Jobs are not mentioned in this book, nor mundane tasks. It's all about the music, romanticism, nights in pubs and clubs, and the earnestness of the quest. Jobs happen off-panel and have little to do with identity or purpose. Some might identify with the characters, while others might laugh at their self-seriousness (there are certainly times when the characters catch themselves in emo mode). I found it amusing but lacked the cultural connecting point to lock in on the book for 160 pages; the book felt lightweight and repetitive at points even as individual gags managed to score more hits than misses. This is likely to be a favorite book for a small audience, but its in-jokes and skewed perspective will automatically limit its appeal.