Alternative Comics #4, edited by Marc Arsenault. In addition to reviving Alternative as a publisher, Marc Arsenault has also revived its flagship comic book anthology. This is a solid entry featuring established and promising cartoonists alike. The Mike Bertino cover is hilarious and weird, giving the book a slightly more underground feel than past issues, while the back cover's collaboration between Craig Thompson and Theo Ellsworth brought the best out of both cartoonists. Even in a relatively short comic, Arsenault's sequencing is carefully considered, as a series of one-pagers by Grant Snider act as detailed palate cleansers at regular intervals. He keeps the reader occupied in these thematically (but not narratively) related strips with multiple panels that lead the eye around the page in interesting ways, be it a meeting of frustrated artists, a checklist for summer or a series of directions on how to make a time machine. The simplicity of his line makes it easy to follow the pages and adds a further palate-cleansing quality to them.
Noah Van Sciver's "It Can Only Get Better" is my vote for best strip in the anthology, as he uses the sort of period detail he became known for in The Hypo and creates a hilarious and vicious send-up of cartoonists and cartooning. It reminded me a bit of the old B.Kliban strip where the caption is "Out of the way, swine-- a cartoonist is coming!", only taken to the next level, as an early 19th century political cartoonist enjoys his life and his ability to kill or fuck with relative impunity--and imagines their status in society will only continue to rise. Other highlights include brief pieces from Sam Alden (still in his drawing phase where his figures look not unlike Nate Powell's), the usual silliness by Sam Henderson (the "Grapes Hawthorne" typically creating an over-the-top version of a typical encounter with a certain kind of annoying person) and a Blobby Boys story by Alex Schubert that cleverly has most of its action take place off-panel. I was happy to see new work by Allison Cole and Andy Ristaino, with the former's thick, blobby figures still packing an emotional punch and the latter's exaggerated satire going to some amusingly dark places. The James Kochalka stories left me cold; his autobio attempts being poetic but feels self-indulgent, and his kids' story is unrelentingly twee. I did enjoy the focus on David Lasky, including a couple of strips and an interview that stripped the questions away and was reformatted to appear as more of an artist's statement. Lasky certainly deserves this kind of exposure as an artist whose mix of formalism and humanism in his drawing style make him a potent storyteller. I hope that Arsenault continues to make the appearance of the anthology an annual event, as there aren't very many anthologies of any quality that have open submission policies.
Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever #3, edited by Tom Neely. This may be my favorite series in all of comics right now, thanks to Neely finding new ways to go to the well in telling jokes about Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig as cohabitating lovers. There are three reasons why the anthology is so consistently entertaining. First, the stories avoid homophobic jokes by design. Indeed, many of the cartoonists involved in the anthology self-identify as being queer, which makes their presence in an alt-comics anthology (unfortunately) a bit of a rarity. Second, the gags, which tend to focus on Henry & Glenn, all come from a place of fandom, as they're very much insider jokes that poke fun at punk and metal from a devotee's perspective. Third, Neely is careful to rotate the roster of guest artists from issue to issue so as to provide as wide a range of styles as possible. This issue features the continuing saga of Henry and Glenn squabbling because of the presence of Glenn's mother, a sweetness and light type who drives everyone crazy with the insistence of her niceness. Neely clearly has a ball drawing Dan DeCarlo-style caricatures of various rock and comics personalities, the best being his send-up of death metal icon Gaahl.
Mari Naomi's story about Henry & Glenn's more quotidian visit to the pharmacist was a nice palate cleanser after Neely's craziness and the in-your-face craziness of Justin Hall's epic of Glenn descending into "Gaydes" in order to search for Henry's soul after he dies. Hall goes after every gay stereotype imaginable in hilarious fashion, from the Cavern of the Catty Drag Queens to the Dungeon of the Leather Daddies ("where there is no safe word!"). The usual array of pin-ups and Michael DeForge's funny take on the relationship problems that might occur if the two tried to collaborate musically, drawn in his uniquely deformed style, makes for a memorable capper. Neely will publish one more issue before trying to collect the material, which I think is wise, since while what started as a cocktail napkin doodle has taken on a life of its own, it will hit the diminishing returns stage at some point.
Abyss, by Saman Bemel-Benrud. This is an interesting little comic published by 2D Cloud. It's reminiscent of the sort of comics that Tom Kaczynski does, wherein critiques of capitalism and the architecture that emerges as a result are engaged. Bemel-Benrud's approach is a whimsical one, wherein "augmented reality ghosts" are included as a feature for a new condo development. The ghost encourages a woman to jump down and visit it after she takes a photo of its image on her phone. Pixellation and fractalization are two running visual themes in this comic, as both ghost and woman cross over into a space that makes them aware of their intersecting with three and four dimensional reality. There's also a sense where technology takes on a new, comforting role, one where the digital becomes visceral. There's an almost cheery openness regarding the woman's attitude toward this kind of neat, compartmentalized side-effect of capitalism, one that focuses on its aesthetic qualities. Her boyfriend is the opposite, decrying the lack of authenticity of such spaces as he is unable to interface with the ghost and the ideas it represents in the same way. Bemel-Benrud is cagey as far as what side he's arguing for as both characters land solid points, but the optimism of the woman is quite persuasive, even as she keeps the details of her ghost encounter to herself. The visuals in this comic are simple, bordering on crude, but Bemel-Benrud is able to make that work by using a pleasing blue color wash and as many iconic images against a blank background as possible.This comic is less interesting to look at than it is to think about, because one wonders if the woman was enlightened or infected by her contact with the digital specter--or perhaps both.
Reich #10, by Elijah Brubaker.The tone that Brubaker set in this biography of psychologist Wilhelm Reich has always been even-handed and fair. Reich is treated neither as a dangerous madman nor a visionary; instead, he's presented as brilliant, innovative, fallible, arrogant and hypocritical. That treatment continues even as Reich's theories grow all the more bizarre and show the limitations of his knowledge of science beyond psychology. He made the leap to consider that radioactive materials like radium react badly to his orgone energy generators without understanding the effects of radioactive materials, for example. In this issue, his theories take another leap into observing what appear to be UFOs (what he called EAs) that appeared to run on orgone energy. He saw them as a threat to the earth, one that could be defeated by his of his cloudbuster gun that acted as a sort of lightning rod for that energy. Brubaker cleverly parallels Reich's own narrative of being a sort of scientist-soldier needing to find and fight energies with his corrosive paranoia regarding his wife and a colleague having an affair, demanding written confessions and pushing away loyal colleagues. This is despite the fact that Reich himself had affairs with dozens of women in the interest of sexual openness and resisting self-oppression. At the same time, Brubaker injects a running note of sadness, as the deluded Reich thinks the president is supporting his research covertly even while the FBI and FDA view him as a dangerous crackpot. This paranoid had real enemies, but he simply wasn't savvy enough to understand how to fend off his real enemies while pushing away his true allies. Brubaker's scratchy but simple line perfectly captures Reich's many emotional states. In one panel, when Reich is furious, Brubaker drops the lines that form his face and just leaves in the eyes and other facial figures that are given weight by densely hatched lines representing his rage. It's an eye-catching panel, one of many in this issue.The way that Brubaker distorts anatomy gives his work a powerfully expressive quality without betraying the verisimilitude of his use of body language and especially gesture.