It's an obvious tack, I think, to compare wunderkind Sammy Harkham to Art Spiegelman. Both are perhaps better known for being editors than artists. Harkham is the editor of the groundbreaking avant-garde anthology Kramer's Ergot, while Spiegelman of course spearheaded RAW. Both are interested in aspects of Judaica. Spiegelman approached the subject from an ethnic/historical point of view in Maus, while Harkham is devoutly religious and this informs much of his work and subject matter. Both artists have a deep appreciation for the history of comics, especially classic early 20th century strips. Spiegelman explicitly named them as a direct influence on his recent In The Shadow Of No Towers, while for Harkham one can see echoes of Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and many other classic artists in his works. Both artists agonize about how slow they are in creating comics.
The age difference and when they started doing comics, however, marks a number of differences as well. While both artists are synthesizers of their many influences, one can see a lot of Gilbert Hernandez, Chester Brown and Daniel Clowes in Harkham's work. The early part of Harkham's career wasn't spent on formalist exploration the way Spiegelman's was--he went straight to crafting a style that he continues to refine today. And the storytelling styles of the above three stalwarts of the 80's clearly had much more of an influence on Harkham than Spiegelman did, and the way he synthesized those influences with that of classic cartooning has produced a very interesting style. His strips have the warm earthiness of classic cartooning (with many of the same interests and visual strategies) and the icy distance that Clowes or Brown often display, especially in their later work. Of course, both Clowes and Brown themselves have a strong interest in classic comics, with Brown's Louis Riel having a direct connection to Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie in terms of its visuals.
Crickets, Harkham's new ongoing series from Drawn & Quarterly, reads like it's his playground to really let loose. Most of his stories published to date have had a slightly sedate, restrained and sometimes even mournful quality to them. In Crickets, he's exercising his interest in gags, pratfalls, scatology and a sense of motion & momentum in an adventure setting. The serialized story "Black Death" is a grab-bag of action set-pieces coming together with little explanation and a darkly humorous bent. A strangely indestructible man is being pursued by an unseen army firing volley after volley of arrows into him. He somehow survives multiple arrows being shot into him along with a fall, where he's revived by a golem wandering around a forest. He encounters a man and his boy at night, who are traveling to bury another one of his children. After giving our escapee food, he realizes that he must be the golem's master and demands that he use his magic to resurrect his child. Of course, the man is as clueless as the audience is, which results in a fight where the child accidentally kills his father with a gun and the golem kills the child.
It's a darkly amusing and somewhat shocking scene, given the early tone of the story. Our protagonist looks and acts like an indestructible cartoon character, and the story is propulsive as he goes from place to place. The slightly distant nature of the narrative spills over into the later scene of family tragedy, and that distance is what makes it both funny and horrible. The audience is led to understand the action in a comedic way, but then Harkham turns the tables on us with a grisly end for the family that we meet.
In issue #2, Harkham turns to slapstick with "Black Death", throwing in farts, a comedy of errors in trying to retrieve a naked man out of a well involving pratfalls and characters who can't see, a black & white flashback (meant to evoke the classic film version of Frankenstein, I believe) of the golem's origin and subsequent sad banishment to the woods, the naked man leading them in circles and finally a horrific ending as a huge worm crawls into his ear. The deadpan, reserved nature of Harkham's style makes the slapstick and scatology stand out sharply, especially when he immediately contrasts it with horror or tragedy.
The rest of the strips in #2 are short, punchy and have a raw feel to them. There are a number of autobiographical strips involving Harkham's travels on the convention & book-signing circuit, but they tend to revolve around specific anecdotes with gag punchlines--frequently at his own expense. There's a certain squalid quality to his other strips, but they still follow a classic strip structure. After following the wretched lives of the young couple in "Pregnant Alley", for example, we end on a "plop-take" as the woman pushes away the man for smelling awful. Once again, we have an earthy strip following two pathetic characters, but then Harkham distances the audience with a punchline that falls right into place with the character design. "Mother Fucker" is a Clowesian strip involving a series of rejections.
The funniest strips are the ones based on historical figures. "Napoleon!" is about the conqueror fretting over becoming a comics artist, with using dots for eyes as his particular difficulty. (Of course, this is a frequent Harkham strategy, so it's a commentary on his own work in an absurd context as much as anything). The punchline, where Napoleon kills a man and sees his eyes go from normal to "dots", making him realize that they "do give too much empathy", is hilarious. This is another hot/cold strip--the figures are mostly iconic and distancing, and Napoleon is more obsessed with his own work than with the fact that he must deal with the guilt of killing so many people. "I Am Happy Every Moment Of Every Day" is a gag strip involving John "The Elephant Man" Merrick. In an effort to make his days a little less painful, a doctor suggests to a nurse that she smile at him. The result is him chasing her like a randy character in a slapstick movie, wanting to "chew on that sweet little anus". "Elisha" is about the old testament prophet, retold in a style most directly reminiscent of classic comics, complete with physical humor, sight gags and a humorous use of modern vernacular in a historical setting.
These comics are fascinating to me because Harkham is much less prolific an artist than many of his other contemporaries. I imagine the demands of editing and shaping Kramer's Ergot has had an effect on his own productivity, so seeing him cut loose on the page like this is a treat. I especially enjoy seeing him release his id on the page a bit after seeing so much restraint in most of his other work. Crickets feels like Harkham unblocking a lot of pent-up energy on the comics page, and in this regard, Johnny Ryan may be as big an inspiration for him as any of his comics forerunners. Harkham doesn't quite go as all-out as Ryan does in his strips, always maintaining a certain reserve, but it was funny to see so many of his strips in here delving into earthy matters. The tension between emotional distancing and visceral subject matter, and the interplay between the two, is what makes Crickets so interesting to read. I'll be curious to see what direction he goes in the next issue.