In this column, I've mostly paid attention to the avalanche of quality graphic novels that have been released of late (I have a huge stack still demanding my attention) as well as the large variety of minicomics that grow ever more intricate. There's a big pile of the latter from SPX that will also get a full hearing soon. But what of that disappearing species, the serial alternative comic? Love and Rockets is still going strong of course, but let's take a look at recent issues of some other series, new and old.
DORK #11 (by Evan Dorkin, Slave Labor Graphics)
Evan Dorkin has always been an interesting touchstone creator of sorts for me. He's one of the rare artists who's liked by fans of even the most abstract alt-comics as well as mainstream fans. In fact, he's one of the most prominent "gateway" creators, someone whose work is accessible to mainstream fans but can lead them in other directions. His old Hectic Planet series may have begun as a sci-fi series, but it evolved into something quite different. It became a book about relationships with a sci-fi setting--both about friends and lovers. Certainly Love and Rockets had to have been a huge influence on him by that point, but it was all filtered through his own point of view. That point of view is one of someone who was raised on pop culture & comics, particularly Marvels. As far away from that sort of thing he is now in certain ways, he can't help but reference them in his humor.
That sense of humor is what makes Dorkin such a popular creator. No matter what he's writing or drawing, there's always a manic feel to every word, every panel. Early in his career, Dorkin compensated for his perceived lack of talent by overstuffing every panel full of Will Elder-esque "chicken fat". Now that he's a much more skilled draftsman, that mania remains, only it's on a well-designed page. Dorkin's relationship with pop culture is one of love-hate: his Eltingville Club stories, depicting the misadventures of four genre-loving nerds, is stinging in its depictions of the pathetic lives of these unpleasant individuals. Yet at the same time, there's an undercurrent of pity present as well--and even a certain degree of empathy. Above all else, Dorkin is concerned about his story, his characters and getting laughs--yet there's always a subtext of anger, frustration, depression and hatred towards the world but especially himself.
The latest issue of Dork distills all of this down to its purest form: 24 pages of nothing but gags. Some of them are single-panel, others are seven 4-panel strips, and there are a few extended sequences thrown in there. The issue began as something that Dorkin thought would be easy, just a bunch of gags strung together. But putting together joke after joke and making each one funny was a monstrous task. Dorkin really let his id wander in a lot of them, as his jokes became more vicious and nastier than usual, almost at an early Ivan Brunetti-level. Whether or not an individual finds them funny will vary, of course, but I did want to speak to the way that Dorkin works.
Reading this issue makes me appreciate the sheer effort Dorkin put forth to sell each joke. Take a one-panel cartoon. We see a furball with a hat and glasses having doggie-style sex with a naked woman. The caption reads, "My favorite porn star was Vixxen St. Clair, whose specialty was taking itt up the ass". The drawing itself is sort of funny, the work behind the pop-culture pun (Cousin Itt from the Addams Family) was admirable, the little detail of coming up with a dead-on porn star name was nice, but what took the joke over the top was the word balloon from It: "BRRPIDIT-BIPIBITIBIF BDRRHRHR-HBDRGT!" Dorkin's ability to really sell a joke, to go the whatever extreme was necessary to make the initial idea funny, is on display throughout the issue.
There are times when Dorkin doesn't care if you don't get the reference, but takes the joke to its logical extreme anyway. "The Prisoner of Second Avenue", featuring #6 asking where he was, and a St Marks Place punker naturally saying "You're in the village". You have to be familiar with The Prisoner and New York to really get enjoy that joke, but that's a case of Dorkin aiming some of his humor at certain audiences and making other gags more universal. "David Byrne Gets Alzheimer's" has the singer of course waking up in bed, saying "This is not my beautiful house", etc.
The violent gags are among the funniest in the book; Dorkin really cuts to the bone on them when he combines a familiar reference with a violent end. For example, "Tintin In Cambodia" is a one-panel gag that sees Tintin and Snowy bound, with their throats slit. "Bad Dad" is a page about an awful, abusive father making demented wisecracks to his son as he does ever-more repulsive and over-the-top things. The latter strip speaks not only to the antipathy he feels toward his own father, but there's also an extra undercurrent of discomfort now that Dorkin himself is a father.
Finally, I also rather enjoy his cultural and comics commentary, like his strip entitled "If Other Media Were As Sad As Comic Books" featuring characters saying things like "Dude! I saw this movie last night and they showed a character in it reading a book!" "Oh, I am in ecstasy!" Then there's the "Save CBGB's" strip, where the characters "forgot what a complete shithole this shithole was!"
This just scratches the surface--there's page after page of jokes. Some work better than others, but that will certainly depend on the audience. Dorkin has always noted that his work is polarizing even with his own fans, with some preferring Eltingville to Milk and Cheese, Fun Strips to the Murder Family, etc. This labor of love, blood, sweat and clearly many tears may be the greatest value for your entertainment dollar you'll see all year.
American Splendor #3 (Harvey Pekar & various, DC/Vertigo)
Harvey Pekar is a name familiar to virtually every comics fan these days, thanks to the success of the film adaptation of American Splendor. However, Harv had been chugging along for years, first self-publishing his comics and then having them released by Dark Horse. While we did see an issue a year from Dark Horse, they never really gave his work the promotion and attention it deserved. While other major publishers were busy reissuing collections of Harv's early work (which sold like gangbusters), Dark Horse sat on a decade's worth of his comics--many of which were excellent.
Happily, the success of the film and his reprints opened up all sorts of opportunities: three original graphic novels plus a new series from Vertigo. Vertigo is doing a much better job of not only promoting him but getting an interesting variety of artists to illustrate his stories. It's unfortunate that Pekar didn't get these kinds of resources until very late in his career. It's a bit like Gary Payton signing on with Miami late in his career in order to get that elusive first NBA title--he still had moments of brilliance, but he was no longer a trailblazing force.
That's OK, because even an issue of American Splendor that covers familiar ground is still a unique event in the world of comics. Pekar not only is amazingly skilled in his depiction of quotidian life that is paradoxically poetic in its plainness, his cultural-political tangents & digressions on his career are also fascinating to read. I find his short stories are more effective than most of his graphic novels to date, in part because there's not quite enough narrative in most of his stories to sustain a long-form work. I would guess that's why he chose to write about other people in his latest graphic novels, and took a long look at his childhood in The Quitter.
While all three are quite enjoyable in their own way, there's something about a short Pekar story that is immensely satisfying on its own. The way he changes narrative strategies depending on the kind of story he tells and the type of artist he chooses to illustrate that story have a profound effect on the way the reader experiences them. For example, take "The Battle of the Vacant Lot". It's a story about his childhood and a violent event that took place, so it only made sense for his The Quitter collaborator Dean Haspiel to illustrate it. Haspiel's art is dynamic and stark, with lots of bold blacks, dramatic close-ups and tense compositions. That choice perfectly played up the story of Harvey accidentally hurting a friend of his as a child but feeling a weird sense of power after he did it. As with most of his stories, there's no neat conclusion or wrap-up; Pekar deliberately leaves his anecdotes open-ended for further contemplation by the reader.
"Medicating In the A.M." uses unusually loose art from another frequent contributor, Josh Neufeld. The slightly fuzzy line Neufeld employed nicely reflects the way Pekar felt in the morning as he contemplated what medicines he needed to take to combat his physical and mental problems. After using narrative captions in that first story to gain a little distance, the reader has full access to his thoughts via word balloons.
"Regionalism" employs long-time Pekar workhorses Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm. They're pretty much the working definition of "solid but unspectacular", which is what this story about urban sprawl, increased segregation and ways to combat it via a localized governmental model that encourages cooperation rather than competing for resources. Harv softens the didactic and rhetorical aims of the story by making it a dialogue between himself and a friend, and the art switches between Harvey and the scenarios he describes. One of the most interesting aspects of Pekar (one glossed over in the movie) is his status as a working-class intellectual, a renaissance man with extensive interests in politics, history and literature.
My favorite story was the quintessential quotidian Pekar piece, "Morning Route". Illustrated by Ty Templeton (an inspired choice) and looking like it was shot almost directly from his pencils, he adds a certain warmth to the proceedings. The story simply follows Harv around as he gets medication, goes to the post office, researches a story and buys some cookies for his wife. The undertone, as there almost always is in his stories, is how one man struggles to make sense of his world and feel like he's productive. As one reads his stories over the years, one picks up the thread not of a temporal narrative of his life, but an emotional narrative. Even when there's nothing but despair around him, he still plods through his day. After retiring from his government job and beating cancer a second time, he had to fight to stave off tedium and feelings of uselessness. For Pekar, not having a purpose and an outlet for expression is the same thing as death.
Copykat #1 (MK Reed & Laura Tallardy, Otazine)
Manga is very much outside of my sphere of interest, but I've always enjoyed MK Reed's portrayals of youth and relationships. Her ear for dialogue makes her stories pleasant page-turners. It was a bit odd to see her write for an artist other than herself, and it was even stranger to see the printing/paper quality looking so amateurish. The whole thing felt more like a minicomic than a more professionally produced magazine, although its very crudeness actually made it more enjoyable to look at. Most standard manga (yes, I know there are all sorts of exceptions) is so slick and stylized (especially American attempts at the style) that my eye slides off the page. Quite frequently, I can't hold on to what's on the page. The cruder art, combined with a naturalistically told tale, reduced this difficulty for me.
The story is amusing and given energy by Reed's vivid characterization. Every character is given some sort of depth and is neither entirely likeable nor despicable. The plot is rather familiar: a young woman with a bubbly personality but not much of a grip on practicalities comes to live with her sister in New York, waiting for that big break in the art world. Reality dictated that she had to go find a job, and so she stumbled onto one at the local copy shop. Kat, the title character, is the sort of naive but pushy young woman who is fun to read about in this sort of setting. The reader is drawn to her but also wants to see her take a few lumps in the process of figuring things out.
The one really jarring thing about the art was Tallardy interjecting photographic backgrounds at random throughout the story. I'm not sure if that was a stylistic choice or simply a way to avoid trying to tackle subjects she can't draw. Her art is actually fairly expressive, but it's obvious that she can't do everything she wants on a page yet and there's not much economy to her art. She would do well to perhaps use slightly thinner lines and clean things up a bit in general. I like the way she composes a page, but using thick blacks doesn't really compensate for crude draftsmanship.
Monster Parade #1 (Ben Catmull, Fantagraphics)
It's odd that perhaps the most "mainstream" of the comics I'm reviewing in this column in terms of its trappings is from Fantagraphics, the vanguard publisher of alternative comics. Monster Parade is the new series by former Xeric-grant winner Ben Catmull. His work features a certain ominousness in its atmosphere and setting, lightened by whimsical story elements and absurd situations.
There's a certain interconnectedness in the short stories here, but it's not explicit. Catmull's world is one where monsters are the norm but still inspire wonder. In "Winter Storm", a young boy watches a storm roll in, stoked by a gigantic 4-armed hillbilly who's throwing lightning bolts and stirring up a wind. A huge bird brings the rain, and then the boy comes face to face with a flying whale. As we cut to a train rolling by, the story switches from black and white to the next story's washed-out reds. In "Monster Express", we get a sharply timed comedy of discomfort combined with an off-panel rampaging monster on a train. The story is completely different from anything else in the issue. However, despite the escalating gags from page to page, it still manages to finish on an extremely creepy note.
From there, we segue into the local wildlife doing all sorts of odd things and come upon an image of a creature in a window in a town. The reader is immediately jolted into the next story, "Civilization Illustrated", a faux-academic study of a town surrounded by rivers. This was my favorite story in the book, as Catmull manages to combine comedy, weirdness, and creepiness in one package. There's almost a Lovecraftian feel to some of the images (like the creature in the "deep haunted cellars where no living person should tread"). Then there was the minimalistically depicted war between Louse Land and Mite Ville, two insect cities living underneath a dock. There's not really a narrative here, just a collection of dizzying images that make the reader want to know more about every tidbit offered.
Catmull has always been effective in creating mood, atmosphere and general discomfort for the reader. In the long period of time it took him to publish again, it's clear that he's added a lushness to his work that serves to soften its hard edges and induce a sort of nostalgia for events that never took place and locales that don't exist. That may be the most unsettling part of his art.
Apocalypse Nerd #4 (Peter Bagge, Dark Horse)
Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorites, and I've enjoyed every series he's released since he ended regular publishing of his classic Hate a few years ago. There's a sense that while he's dabbled with children's comics for DC (Yeah!), a whacked-out Spider-Man story and a book about a comic strip artist & his staff (Sweatshop, also for DC) along with Hate annuals, he's yet to really get back in the groove that made him one of the most important and successful comics artists of the 90's.
Apocalypse Nerd, along with its backup feature Founding Fathers Funnies, is taking him a long way back to that status in my eyes. First of all, he's doing both writing and drawing again for this feature, which wasn't the case for his mainstream work. Second, this material is a return to the sort of freewheeling nihilism that made Hate such a landmark series. Third, the backup feature highlights what he's done best in the past few years: politically-oriented strips for places like Reason and Salon. Applying the cynical, smart-assed Bagge interpretation to sacred cows like the Founding Fathers of the US is instructive both as history and a lesson on how to think about politics today.
The title feature follows two friends in the Pacific Northwest after North Korea nuked Seattle and their wacky hijinx. This issue gives us a bit more information about what's happening in the world at large after civilization more-or-less ceased to function in the area. The protagonists stumbled upon a "nerd camp", as a bunch of academics set up a subsistence farm. That happened to be close to a compound filled with lesbian separatists. A raiding party of native Americans on horseback takes over the men's camp; and Perry, the less macho of our heroes, winds up begging to be taken in by the lesbian compound. They reluctantly allow it after he convinces one less threatening woman to injure him and play upon their sympathies. This sort of flies, as they turn him into a pet, even making him live in a doghouse! The story is typical Bagge over-the-top humor, beginning with a shocking premise and then taking it to its logical extreme. As always, his exaggerated, eyes-popped-out art perfectly matches the story. While his line is perhaps not as precisely rendered as it used to be in the Hate glory days, his unique stylization more than gets the job done.
The real main event of this issue was "Let's Fuck Shit Up!" starring the Beantown Boys--Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere and James Otis. It's a hilarious look at the propaganda, chicanery and crudity of America's revolutionary forefathers. Flipping from year to year, Bagge comically explores attempts made at distorting the facts of the Boston Massacre, the political maneuvering surrounding the Boston Tea Party, Otis' demented public rants, and moneyman John Hancock & Sam Adams fleeing by gilded carriage when the battle of Lexington broke out. Bagge manages to accurately convey historical detail with modern dialogue, producing a highly insolent look at history. Considering the way that the Founding Fathers are mythologized in American school systems, getting a taste of the wackiness that truly surrounded the times is what makes his stories so effective. I can't get enough of these stories, and I love to see a book full of them.
The Vagabonds #2 (Josh Neufeld & Various, Alternative Comics)
I reviewed issue #1.5 of the Vagabonds back in 2005 for my MOCCA article, and much of that material is in the new issue. The "real" issue is even more attractive than the mini; Neufeld's design sense and aesthetics are subtle and refined. This comic is devoted entirely to Neufeld's collaborations and the nature of collaboration itself. Neufeld is so successful as an illustrator because he never fails to bring out the most in a script he's given but does it without overwhelming the text. This makes him an ideal choice for Harvey Pekar, for example, who usually favors simplicity and directness for his naturalistic storytelling choices.
Neufeld separated the issue into four categories: Confessions (biography), Health & Welfare (odd medical tales), Echoes (formal experiments) and Loss (literal and figurative). In the first section, Neufeld illustrates two stories about Donald Ross written by his son. The first sees his rise as a big-time CEO in New York; the second sees him in Barbados after having given up that life. Both stories involve him ambitiously trying to master his environment, only to find that he was in over his head. Neufeld uses a pleasantly cartoony technique for these stories, verging on bigfoot-style comics.
A highlight of the Health section was a strip that Neufeld wrote about breaking his finger and how alienated from it he became. In a tongue-in-cheek turn, he blames the finger for ruining his career and marriage and ends the story holding a cleaver vowing that "there isn't room enough on this hand for the both of us". The most interesting example from Echoes was Neufeld completely redrawing a page of dialogue from an issue of Superman. Neufeld rethinks a scene featuring Superman returning to the Fortress of Solitude into a scene where a man comes home to his apartment in the midst of winter.
My favorite bit from Loss was "Father McKenzie's Sermon", inspired by the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby". Of course, in the song, Father McKenzie writes the words of a sermon that no one will hear; Neufeld interprets this as a sermon for Rigby's funeral. Neufeld's design on the page was quite clever. We see a shot of his feet, then his gesticulating hands and a bible, then a cross around his neck, then the cross on the coffin. We pan back to see a church and its cemetery, and finally her grave. This strip, and the comics he drew that adapated poetry, show Neufeld's great facility with adapting nearly anything into the language of comics.
Though the issue is interesting in its multiple approaches, experiments and types of story, the best Neufeld stories are those written by Neufeld. His travel stories are reminiscient of Pekar's work in that they look at small moments but significant in unfamiliar places and situations. In this issue, Neufeld stretches the bounds of the unfamiliar as an artist and collaborator, and the reader is treated to a one-man anthology more diverse than many multi-creator anthologies.