Friday, July 12, 2013

Minicomics: Taylor, Jordan/Smith, Cass, Keeper Steinke

Tabe #11, by Rio Aubry Taylor. Labeled "an abstract comic about community", Taylor's latest is a fascinating series of drawings that packs a surprising emotional punch. There are varying types of abstract shapes: squiggles, straight line patterns, hair-like tangles of lines, blotches, grey shapes that look like torn pieces of paper glued to the page, and things that operate as captions that contain "text" that looks like an alien language. There are moments where the page explodes like a supernova against a night sky, and then it fades back into what looks like a drawing of the circulatory system. There are pages where the drawings seem to be in harmony and others where the drawings look to be in opposition. What makes the comic work so well is Taylor's sense of rhythm and balance on the page, creating a sense of independent intelligence in each drawing while never creating anything that's directly figurative.

History In Ruins #1-2, by Rusty Jordan and Andrew Smith.Both of these comics are just twelve pages long, but they pack a truly bizarre punch in each installment.The main character, Duane Fields, is the sort of greasy loser that is not unfamiliar to alt-comics fans, a Clowesian character who works part time at a drug store and shoplifts on the way out. I'm not sure what the division of labor is here in terms of story and art, but the figure work has a sweaty, rubbery quality to it. There's an almost clownish, Skip Williamson quality to these odd-looking characters that makes this feel like it could have been published forty years ago in an issue of Arcade. That's especially true because the second issue takes us away from the more alt-comics narrative of the deluded loser and brings us to far weirder territory. Living in the basement of his mother's house with a near-sentient mouse and assorted "experiments", he spies upon his mother (wearing inappropriately sexy clothes around her son, though she still treats him like he's a toddler) being threatened by a gang of thugs. When she is later kidnapped, the story is transformed into a wacky revenge narrative. I have no idea where things are headed next (I get the sense that much of this comic is improvised), but each page is a visual treat and full of surprises.

Mr Wolf #2, by Aron Nels Steinke. In Steinke's autobio series, Big Plans, his Mr Wolf character is usually an expression of his range. It's interesting that he's chosen to rework it as an uncertain authority figure to reflect his status as a first and second grade teacher, transforming all of the characters into anthropomorphic animals. These fictionalized strips obviously draw heavily from his real life experiences and encounters, and I'd imagine that many of the characters are composites rather than outright fictions. These strips are the best comics of Steinke's career in my opinion, because it balances his need to constantly scrutinize and microanalyze his decision-making and emotions with actually having to deal with the emotions and minds of dozens of children. His observations about the kids are warm and knowing without descending into saccharine sweetness or sentimentality. Indeed, there's something raw and real about his observations and how in many ways he's more like one of them than he is like many of the adults, even if he is an authority figure whom many of the children respect and admire. It also helps that this strip is very funny, with Steinke no doubt curating the funniest things he's experienced or heard other teachers relate to him. His drawing is simple, cute and powerfully expressive, getting across the emotions and mental states of the kids with greater facility than if he had used a more realistic approach. Comics about teaching are still fairly rare, and I hope Steinke continues to develop his observations and witty, humane approach to discussing the children under his tutelage.

The Drowning Ring and Uh Oh Dojo, by Mike Keeper. I couldn't find any website info for these idiosyncratic zine/comics fusions. The Drowning Ring is a small booklet that is absolutely jam-packed with trivia, comics, ephemera and a narrative about being a lifeguard in a particular beach community. There's something remarkably knowing about the gags, the language and the weirdness of being part of lifeguard culture that Keeper brings to life. His actual comics have a surprising level of careful detail when he chooses to illustrate something in a naturalistic style, but he mostly prefers quicker, cruder renderings and iconic drawings. I have no idea how many of the details he throws at the reader are actually true, and I prefer to keep it that way. It's like reading a Leon Beyond comic, where one knows that Leon is mostly feeding you lies, but they are so enjoyable that one wants more and more. The whole thing is a very appealing mess, as the layout is frequently sloppy and slapped together, but it's an obvious labor of love. Uh Oh Dojo is a short and magazine-sized comic that's just eight pages long, but packed with comics and repurposed photos. It's about Keeper hearing about the death of his former karate sensei (teacher) and the likelihood that he had killed himself. It spurs Keeper to think about suicide in general, while circling back to the history of karate, to his own life and the things he learned in karate. It's a comic with no pat answers or lessons, just many questions solemnly asked in an unusual package. It's Keeper's attention to fine details while making sure to get across the essential emotions of a situation that make these comics worth reading.

The Index #4, by Caitlin Cass. Cass's deeply introspective series about insignificance, meaning and knowledge has now taken a firm turn into the realm of fantasy. After raising the specter of indexer Paul Otlet and zipping everyone to a fairly intact library of Alexandria, Diogenes wanders into the proceedings of this issue. He's the antithesis of Otlet, who spends his time with words and writings; Diogenes viewed anything less than a total lifestyle commitment to one's ideas as a kind of inauthentic living. As the cast of this comic has expanded, Cass has juggled a new character into every issue to likewise expand the nature of the ideas at work. One of the leads, Susan, kept blank cards because their potentiality and nothingness comforted her equally, balancing her own sense of nothingness.  When the other lead, John, started writing ideas on them willy-nilly it was as a way of rejecting his former career as a graduate student trying to get words to do his bidding. Otlet's index of ideas was the impossible task of trying to categorize all universal knowledge using a finite and clumsy set-up. Cass is careful to keep the non-apparitions in the story close to their somatic roots, giving them hunger and restlessness as they drift away from the performative spaces of the ghosts. This was a fascinating issue that betrays no particular allegiance to any of these points of view, which is what makes it so interesting. Her drawings are functional if unremarkable, sloppily but accurately getting across her points of view quickly and directly.

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