This article was originally published in 2005 at sequart.com. It was my first-ever column on minicomics.
Readers only vaguely familiar with the concept of mini-comics will be relieved to know that it's nearly impossible to pin down what is and isn't a mini-comic. Generally, they are small (but not always), usually relatively brief (anywhere between 8 and 80 pages), hand-made, frequently self-published, and often with personal touches like silk-screened covers, hand-stitched bindings, etc. Often, they serve as a sort of proving ground for young and/or inexperienced artists, though there are several accomplished artists who publish nothing but minicomics. The line between minicomics and zines is often blurred, but they often share similar content, a similar aesthetic, and the same sort of autobiographical self-expression.
The ten mini-comics I picked for this list were chosen based on how substantial they were (I skipped over some worthy 8-12 page minis simply because there wasn't enough "there" there), notable aesthetic or narrative qualities (preferably both), and formal elements unique to the world of minicomics. The artists range from absolute newcomers to those who have books from major publishers.
1. VAGABONDS #1.5: OF TWO MINDS, by Josh Neufeld (http://www.JoshComix.com). $2, 16 pages. Neufeld recently won a Xeric grant for A FEW PERFECT HOURS, distributed by Alternative. It's a collection of travel comics he had done over the years in his two-man anthology, KEYHOLE, and various other places. But Neufeld is also well known for doing a number of collaborative works (AMERICAN SPLENDOR the highest profile), and this mini is an exceptional collection of such stories. Neufeld adapts the poetry of several authors to comics, the most notable being "Time of Arrival". This is a single page with a 4x6 panel grid arrangement. The entire grid taken as a whole is an airplane, and Neufeld chops up the words of the poem into individual panels that comprise the plane. It's a clever formal trick and an effective means of getting across the poem's intent. Neufeld also did a story drawn with his non-dominant hand, imagining that such a person existed in his mirror and setting the story from the point of view of that character, and also draws a page using dialogue from an issue of Superman and completely recontextualizes its meaning with his new art. The mini is attractively packaged and extensively notated.
2. SATISFACTORY COMICS #6, by Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe (email@example.com). $3, 28 pages plus extras. Full disclosure: Mike Wenthe is a long-time friend of mine. However, the work that he and his partner have produced speaks for itself. The duo has long thrived on experimentation with the form for their attractive minis, with other participants drawing panels for inclusion, providing built-in story constraints or throwing in random elements for the Cates-Wenthe team to work into their stories. As one might expect, jam comics are frequently better in theory than in practice, and some of their stories suffer from a lack of narrative cohesion. However, their output in the last year or so has shown considerable and sustained growth. Their latest effort is so jam-packed with different kinds of stories, ideas and clever geegaws that the result is a sort of miniature version of the comics issue of McSweeney's that Chris Ware edited. This issue features two comics based on a map created by a group of creators; an autobiographical story about online game addiction; a detective story wherein each page must mirror the form of a stanza of a sestina; an adaptation of Job 41, and a minicomic tucked into the front cover and a random shuffle comic paperclipped into the back.
3. NO PUNCHBACKS, by Kelly Denato & Christine Nimocks (http://www.nopunchbacks.com). $5, 28 pages. Amazingly, this is the debut comic for this duo, although initially No Punchbacks Press contained more contributors. Denato is an animator by trade, and it shows in her story, "Nanni-Nanni Boo-Boo". It's a wordless tale about a man who buys a bird and a fish from a pet shop whom are already friends, and how the fish is taken away. Her style resembles CHUNKY RICE-era Craig Thompson and Sara Varon, with a clean, assured line creating a cartoony world. Nimocks is a fine artist whose style and content is radically different than Denato's. She employs a scribbly line and deals with more autobiographical subjects, including internet dating. This is a remarkably accomplished first comic, with attractive packaging and smart storytelling. Interestingly, the duo was inspired by past visits to MoCCA to create their own comic.
4. SEE SAW, by Sara Edward-Corbett (http://www.greenfog.com, http://www.partykausa.com). $8, 35 pages plus extras. The artist is the most impressive member of the Partyka collective, and her strips here are reprinted from the New York Press. She uses a thin, precise line but balances this with heavy blacks and cross-hatching, giving these tales of schoolchildren an extra weight. The strips are about brother & sister Georgie & Olga, psychopathic Chucky and lovesick Meals. Georgie is an ultra-intelligent little nebbish, while his sister is constantly paranoid. Her dreams of being killed by a gangster octopus (complete with mask) are vivid, and while we feel her fear, the whole set-up is still hilarious. The comic is hand-stitched, with a "cootie-catcher" enclosed in the back.
5. APOLLO ASTRO #9: JOURNEY OF GEORGE, by Jack Turnbull. (http://www.jackturnbull.com). $5, 30 pages. Turnbull abandons his anthology-style for his mini and devotes an issue to his Walking George Potato character. The simplicity of the George and Veggie characters are balanced by Turnbull's lavish backgrounds and the Dreaded Bellpepper Storm Toucan, not to mention a gorgeous silkscreened cover It's a simple story, well-told, that owes as much to Dr Seuss as it does to Chris Ware. Turnbull's biggest strength is his ability to draw out every ounce of expression from his characters using just a few lines. He took a chance using characters that had mostly inhabited one-off strips and plugged them into a larger narrative, and it worked well. This issue is part one of a larger story.
6. COUCH TAG #2, by Jesse Reklaw. (http://www.hobocomics.com). $2, 20 pages. Reklaw is the artist of the syndicated dream strip, SLOW WAVE. This mini has a simple premise: it's about the thirteen different cats Reklaw had during his childhood. What makes this such a great read is that this is really an autobiographical account of his family, but telling it through the device of when certain pets were around and making that the focus of the narrative makes the side details all the more intriguing. Little touches like designing different logos for each cat's introduction and skipping long periods of time between pets make this a great read.
7. THESE THINGS THESE THINGS, by Jeffrey Brown. (http://www.theholyconsumption.com). $4, 36 pages. Brown's scratchy art style and his focus on his love life in his major works for Top Shelf have made him a love him or leave him sort of artist. Personally, I can't get enough of his comics and their lack of adornment when dealing with major drama. Beyond his graphic novels, his minis are often just as compelling for very different reasons. Brown lets his sense of humor show more in his minis, and tells different kinds of stories. This mini deals with some of the events in ANY EASY INTIMACY, providing a sort of closure as Brown deals with yet another broken relationship, the quest to find the artist who performed a particular song, and a book tour with some fellow artists.
8. SUMMA CUM LAUDE, by Eve Englezos & Josh Moutray. (http://www.icecreamlandia.com). 10 pages. The comics that this duo creates are unlike anything else out there today. This latest work, a little bridge between issues of the sublimely strange Icecreamlandia, is designed to look like a minature diploma case. As you open it up, the pages fold out accordian-style, revealing a bizarre science fair. For some reason, the adults are all in 18th century aristocratic dress (complete with powdered wigs and corsets). The dialogue follows from this absurd set-up ("Why, yes, it seems pretty obvious to me now that the dinosaurs were in 3-D.") As always, the realistic, clear-line art belies the insanity of the set-up.
9. A CASE IN TOKYO, by Damien Jay. $10, 22 pages. This comic wins the "most beautiful mini" award, hands-down. Printed on a heavy cardstock and hand-assembled, the coloring process used to illustrate this creepy little story makes the whole thing feel like a children's book gone horribly wrong. The story describes a mental patient who in fact may be possessed, and the momentary clarity she displayed in this state. Her clarity was so incisive that everyone couldn't stand to be around her, until the spell faded and "she became a stupid person once again." While a very quick read, the visuals alone make this a worthwhile purchase. Jay gets the most out of the minicomic format, using every hand-crafted trick in the book.
10. ISOLATION CHAMBER #2, by Ed Piskor (firstname.lastname@example.org). $1.50, 16 pages. Of the comics on this list, this is the only diary strip. Diary strips (much like personal zines or blogs) can get boring quickly if the author simply devotes it to standard quotidian concerns. It's important to establish some sort of angle early on to differentiate it from other kinds of autobiography. Piskor does this through establishing his voice loud and clear in the early going: he's a curmudgeon who knows a lot of strange people, and isn't afraid to dish. He manages to inject sincerity into his description of his relationship with his baby sister without seeming overly sentimental. He struggles with what to put in his journal and what to censor, some interesting interactions with his parents, and a local group of comics creators. There are weird stories about his interactions with junkies, talks with Harvey Pekar and his feelings about becoming semi-famous. At the end, Piskor announces that the cartoon journal took up all of his time and discontinued it--an interesting statement in itself. Piskor is a real talent and has an interesting voice; it'll be interesting to see what he does after he finishes up his work with Harvey Pekar.