Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Anthology Round-Up

I review a lot of anthologies, usually in great detail. There are a number of anthologies that I've read where I don't have quite as much to say about them, so I thought I'd compile some brief thoughts about each of them in this article.

Whores of Mensa #2. This anthology, named after a classic Woody Allen short story, is presented by Jeremy Dennis, Mardou and Ellen Lindner. The theme of this issue seems to be a sexual exploration of "east meets west", many of them period stories. Lindner is a long-time minicomics favorite of mine, and her wry sense of humor is on display with a send-up of Jane Eyre where Jane winds up marrying into a harem. Mardou has two stories, one an expose on the belly-dancing instruction racket and another sharply humorous variation on the anthology's title, as she is a "literary prostitute" who winds up dealing with a john who's obsessed with children's literature ("a paedo-reader"). Dennis contributes a story about a 19th century man who overcomes his melancholy by traveling to an Arabic country and later posing nude. These are smart, sharp stories, packaged with an attractive cover in an oversized format. Dennis has a scribbly style that nicely complements Lindner's bold, smooth blacks and Mardou's exaggerated naturalism. When reading an anthology, I often think about if I've read this kind of story a million times before, because such stories tend to fade from my memory moments after I've read them. With this comic, I'm happy to say that this isn't the case, and that it even rewards multiple readings.

You Ain't No Dancer, Volume 2.  This anthology, from New Reliable Press, has the theme of "youth". Most of the stories in this pleasant but largely forgettable collection focus on childhood reminiscences, frequently of the "I was such a loser" variety. As a result, there's a kind of numbing sameness from story to story, even though most of the entries are solidly crafted. The only really amateurish entry is a gross-out called "A Filth Hole Adventure" by Fred Grisold and Jamie Dee Gailey which, while crudely drawn and loaded with spelling errors, does at least have a perverse kind of energy. In an anthology filled with blandly sweet memories, cutesy fantasy characters or familiar self-flagellation, that story, while not especially good, at least broke up the monotony.

That said, there are some exceptions here. The ever-delightful Hope Larson contributes a two-page "Recipe For Youth", using that brief space to create some evocative images. Colleen MacIsaac's "Indian Princesses" is really well-drawn and has a funny punchline dealing with some ethnic misunderstandings over a Halloween costume. Grant Reynolds has a truly disturbing story in "Litter", using a lot of blacks to depict a litter of puppies and their very short life--and the contentment they feel both in the womb and in a sack going into a river. "Sharp Young Minds" from Phil McAndrew stands out because it's so well-drawn and has such a sharply-delivered punchline. The main problem with this anthology, as with many anthologies, is that some of the stories (especially by some of the bigger names like Jeffrey Brown and Liz Prince) are short to the point of being ephemeral, while many of the other stories tend to blend into each other thanks to the theme.

Pictozine II, edited by Dave Bradbury. In my review of the first volume of this all-New Zealand anthology, I noted that as a whole the project was a noble experiment that didn't quite work. Editor Dave Bradbury clearly stepped up his game in finding contributors for this second volume, because on the whole it's a much stronger collection. There are 36 stories by 37 contributors for a total of 151 pages. While there are once again varying levels of ability and professionalism, about 1/3 of the stories is solid, another 1/3 is excellent, and the last third were either too crude, dull or otherwise unremarkable.

Once again, top Kiwi legends Dylan Horrocks and Roger Langridge contribute strips, and once again they're some of the very best in the book. Langridge's "Shirley Temple Meets Frankenstein" is his philosophical absurdism at its best. His line is so crisp and his use of blacks so commanding that it almost hurts to look at his art. Horrocks' "Siso" is a staggering short story, with an iconic set of characters designed to resemble the sort of characters one would see in a children's book. He evokes war, peace and a sense of dread & calm all at once.

There's more to see here than just Horrocks and Langridge, however. Cover artist Mat Tait also contributed a silent story of birth and death for a Maori tribe. Brent Willis has a funny but disturbing story about growing up with communist parents in the late 1930's who felt they had to make nice with Nazis because of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact. Carlos Wedde did an angularly-designed take on Harvey Pekar-style anecdotes, talking about a haircut he got from a couple of guys who turned out to be racists. Robyn Kenealy has a cute one-pager about Roddy McDowall that is the model of what one should expect from a one-page strip. Tim Danko returns with another unusual strip about a ship tossed at sea (set to "Eye of the Tiger"!), with a post-modern commentary on the edges.

Other highlights include a creepy fine-line strip by Heather Buchanan about a sheep and a skeleton that acts as a mother figure; a funny, heavily stippled piece by Jess Johnson spoofing the art world; and a clever 1-page stirp by Sheehanbros that makes great use of negative space to tell a story about a family's sleeping habits. Perhaps my favorite story was by Samuel Killean-Chance. Titled "Cliff Trap", it's a Mat Brinkman-esque story of a couple of bulbous creatures. One is pursued by a sort of tentacled creature and falls off a cliff. The action is simple, but his composition, backgrounds, fluidity in depicting motion and character design draw the reader fully into the story. I love the story's ambiguity and Killean-Chance's willingness to leave the backstory unexplained. This is an artist I hope to see much more from in the future.

All told, this was an interesting, varied read with a number of different approaches. It was an especially impressive effort for what seemed to be an open-submissions anthology (albeit one open to New Zealanders or those associated with New Zealanders in some form). If Bradbury continues to publish these anthologies (and I hope that he does), at some point he's going to need to start to make some difficult choices as an editor and only publish the best stories. This would have been an excellent 100-page anthology; as it stands, it's a very good 150-pager. I'd also like to see longer contributions by some of the artists; some of the 1-pagers felt tossed-off at best. That said, there were some excellent 1-page strips in here. The upswing in quality from the first to second volumes of Pictozine was quite impressive, and I hope to see a similar arc for a potential third volume.

CANDY OR MEDICINE #2, edited by Josh Blair. This modest anthology informs the reader right from the start that it "always seeks contributors of all skill levels for future volumes". With such a focus, it's not surprising that so much of the work in here is so rough. The anthology does lure the reader in with some Matt Feazell (king of stick-figure mini-comics) sketches, and they are indeed nice. The vast majority of the work in here, while containing some enthusiasm and creative spark, is mostly unremarkable. There are some funny ideas that aren't executed well because the artists' ability to render isn't at a level that meets their needs. There are some nicely-drawn comics that are hard to follow--a victim of composition and panel flow. There are some cute one-off strips that were instantly forgettable.

There were exceptions, however. Richard Cabeza's apparent use of a computer to draw a couple of gag strips about snowmen and turtles elicited some chuckles. Writing gag strips that work is extremely difficult, and it's even harder to use visuals to support a joke. Cabeza is clearly pretty clever and is an example of someone who made the best possible use of visuals in support of his ideas. Blair's own "Lunarcy" strip has a small but amusing payoff, nicely using repetition to get his point across. However, the best strip in the book belonged to Liza Miller. Utilizing expressive stick figures, she created an amusing strip about a woman playing around with a scarf, laughing at her own silliness. What I liked about this strip was the strong handle Miller has on gesture, especially with such a stripped-down set of figures. The wobbly-constructed panels added to the sort of rubbery, exaggerated action depicted in each scene. Miller's ambitions may have been most in this strip, but it was the most fully-realized comic in the anthology. I hope that she continues making comics, and that the other artists in the book strive to find out exactly what it is that they want out of making comics and immerse themselves in that process.

Syncopated, Volume Three, edited by Brendan Burford. This is one of my favorite anthologies, due in large part to Burford's strong editorial hand. The general theme of the anthology is reportage and "first-person journalistic essays". As such, the stories here have a firm sense of time and place, yet cover a wide variety of styles. In this volume, some of the themes that appear in the stories include perilous travel, treasures hidden and unappreciated, places whose times have come and gone and in general the way time erodes everything. This is a stylish, well-designed comic that is pleasant to read and look at. Burford and his cartoony line have stories that bookend this volume. One's about the old Fulton Fish Market in New York that's been moved and converted into a mall, and Burford goes on to make points about homogenization. That's a theme that runs throughout the book--the stories celebrate people and places that defy such homogenizaton. The last story is about the origin of the nickname "Gotham"--a phrase that originally was thought to meant a city of fools, but upon further investigation revealed that it's a city of natives who fiercely protect what's theirs, using deception when necessary.

Dave Kiersh has a story about hanging out with a friend of his grandmother's who turned out to be an avant-garde filmmaker in the 1950's. There's an earnest sweetness to this story as Kiersh enthuses over his relationship both with his grandmother and this artist, and while he's sad that both are gone he treasures their memory. Nick Bertozzi's rollicking, harrowing account of "The Voyage of the James Caird" shows that this anthology isn't all solemn meditation--this was a fascinating account of a risky rescue sea voyage. Meathaus collective artist Jim Campbell, along the same lines, contributes "T.R. And the Thieves", a hilarious account of pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt tracking down some thieves during a harsh winter with his men. Campbell's rubbery style is a perfect fit for the larger-than-life TR. The intrigues as his crew tracks down thieves in the forest reminded me a bit of the gripping Blueberry stories of Charlier & Moebius, only with a slightly more farcical air.

Burford includes some contributions that have a particularly striking visual approach. Tom Devlin's doodles aren't any kind of narrative, but are particular in how they were created--in a coffee shop with other cartoonists. Seeing a man who mostly works as a designer these days unleash his creativity on a page makes me wish he cartooned more these days. Greg Cook contributes an account of his local neighbors who went off to Iraq. Cook reverses positive and negative space in his depiction of figures, so it appears we are only looking at shadows. Paul Hoppe has a series of sketches about gentrification in Brooklyn, while Burford has an essay about the tugboat graveyard in New York and Susie Cagle writes about the history of a particular decaying building in Brooklyn.

All told, the variety of storytelling approaches and cartoonists, the enthusiasm with which each creator tackles their subject, and the particular writers and artists who contributed to this anthology made it one of the best comics of 2007. Anyone interested in the life of cities, exciting accounts of historical voyages, and the possibility of finding hidden treasures on a day-to-day basis should seek this book out. This anthology doesn't seek to revolutionize comics as a form, but rather seeks to examine specific times and events with existing storytelling structures. I hope another volume will be released sooner rather than later, because Syncopated succeeded in its goals and has become an overlooked treasure in itself.

Potlatch Project 5, published by Steven Noppenberger. This anthology was created several years ago from a group of creators whose entries were rejected by the SPX anthology, so they decided to publish their stories and donate the profits to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. This is the fifth iteration of that project, now no longer being done for the CBLDF. It's a mixed bag of superhero, sci-fi, fantasy and slice-of-life comics. A couple of them seem to be excerpts from other series, or episodes from a series. Few of the stories made much of an impression. Even a funny artist like Stan Yan contributed what amounts to a throwaway gag story, while publisher "Noppie" had a nice-looking (with a really beautiful line) but somewhat incoherent episode of a larger fantasy story. The only segment that I really enjoyed was David Recine's "Murky Waters" a funny series of slice-of-life bits with surprising action elements and good punchlines. His line is a bit crude, but functional. One cannot fault the enthusiasm or intentions of the artists involved, but at this point this anthology series might be running out of steam.

Blurred Vision 3. This is an interesting assemblage of comics creators and fine artists working in the comics milieu. There are hyper-realists like Karl Stevens, Woojung Ahn and the enigmatic Toc Fetch. Stevens' "Love" presents frozen moments in time as a couple wordlessly relaxes on a couch as a man strokes her hair. We don't see the whole picture here--just bits and pieces of the woman's face, the man drinking water, and the TV shows they're watching. Ahn's "Adventures of the Right Hand" is a cute but creepy account of how an overworked right hand escapes, finds itself in the harshness of the big city, then gets sewn on to a new arm. Fetch's strips defy easy description. The hyper-realism of his images is contrasted with the weird mythology he alludes to in his text.

There are some familiar alt artists here like Ethan Persoff, Henriette Valium, Dash Shaw and Bishakh Som (from the old Hi-Horse anthology). Valium reworked an old Captain America story into "Captain Angry White", a typically outrageous and extreme entry from him. Persoff had an entry in an ongoing story called "The Dog and the Elephant", using his somewhat still, animation-influenced style to create tension in his stories. Som's "You Make Me Feel So Real" is a visceral story about a dancer who dips into her memories as she practices a rigorous piece. The way Som simultaneously visually depicts movement against that narrative of memory along with the beats of sound effects, culminating in the character recovering from an asthma attack, makes for a powerful reading experience.
Perhaps my three favorite pieces came from artists whose work I'm not familiar with. Henrik Rehr's "Apple" and "Bald Men" utilizes a fractured arrangement of text (almost like snapshots) illustrating a brief, poetic series of thoughts. Koren Shadmi's "Know Thy Self" is a hilarious, revolting story of a young woman who reaches through her navel to pull out various of her organs, anthropomorphized into singing, dancing, smiling creations...until her body collapses. Stem's "Shadowhouse" is a cleverly composed and designed story that makes great use of negative space, about a young child who discovers a parallel, house under his bed and travels there at night. It's both creepy and sweet in its own way. The eccentric choices in this anthology led to an interesting reading experience, where despite a lack of a theme, the different stories complement each other well.

Blab 17, edited by Monte Beauchamp. Blab is a long-running anthology that stepped in when Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly quit editing RAW. This issue features a couple of former RAW artists like Sue Coe and Drew Friedman and in general continues to use a number of items from the RAW playbook. For example, there's a wide diversity of styles and creators from other countries represented here. Under editor Beauchamp, Blab has occasionally veered a little too far away from narratives in favor of flashy imagery. That's mostly not the case here, other than a series of illustrations covering about a 12-page span. Blab is a sort of cousin to Kramer's Ergot, though perhaps not as aggressively experimental; and Hotwire, though not as inspired by underground comics tradition.

There's all sorts of storytelling traditions and genres represented. The silent "Membrane" by Paco Alcazar is a chilling, bizarre horror story. Peter Kuper's "Nine Lives" is an amusing autobiographical short, while Spain relates a story of his turn in factory life. There's absurdity like Mark Landman's "Fetal Sunday Funnies" (starring Fetal Elvis) and Matti Hagelberg's "Christmas In Shacktown" (featuring James Bond villain Blofeld aiding Hansel and Gretel). There's historical reportage like Geoffrey Grahn's "The Dutch Tulip", about the tulip speculation craze, odd archival material like vintage roller skate labels and a tribute to Bazooka Joe, and Playboy cartoon parodies. Esther Pearl Watson (a relative newcomer to comics) contributes a remarkable two-pager about a haunted funeral plot. The change in tone and style from story to story can be almost dizzying at times, but it all seems to fit into the anthology's overall aesthetic. Not everything in here is a hit for me (I thought the attempts at poetry were especially overwrought or grating), but it's all at least interesting to look at. The fact that Beauchamp has kept the anthology going for so long, with so many different talented artists, is a remarkable testament to his commitment to his artistic vision and willingness to continue to mine the worlds of comics and fine art for images that need a publishing home.

No comments:

Post a Comment