Phylum, by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. Valero-O'Connell went all-out with regard to the production values of this small mini. From the silvery, translucent cover stock, to the use of spot pinks to the micro-mini comic inserted in the middle of this comic, this mini is a triumph of the combination of formal elements, decorative elements and content. The story is simple; familiar, even. A young woman finds a mysterious plant that felt warm in her hands when she pulled it up. She cooked it and ate it alone, in the absence of her partner (whose absence throughout much of the story is a key plot element). After she ate it came the micro-mini in the middle, with the pink image of a tiny plant creature slowly growing on black page after black page. The expected plot twist one would expect would be a sinister one, where the plant would be evil, control her, make her give birth to it, etc. Instead, the plant is happy to live inside of her, and she winds up being happy having the plant inside of her, pleasantly singing.
Valero-O'Connell uses an arsenal of interesting formal approaches. First, her character design is quite different than in her other comics; it's a clear-line style that emphasizes negative space around it on its single panel-per-page layouts. It's somewhere between Eleanor Davis and Megan Kelso, but her own naturalistic style still comes through in the way she draws everything else. The spot colors draw in the eye without being intrusive; they add a level of emotional shading. She also uses sous rature in her text, crossing out lines but leaving them visible to indicate something thought but daring to share it. The mini in the middle is a nice touch, confirming the obvious turn in the story while adding a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings. My favorite part of the comic is the way that the real narrative is about the slowly fracturing nature of the relationship, that decay paralleling the beneficent nature of the new growth inside of her.
Landscape, by Simon Hanselmann. Hanselmann told me that all of his stories are autobiographical, thinly disguised by his appropriated use of children's characters as well as a variety of anthropomorphic characters. Most of his Truth Zone comics do not tend to be collected later on, and I'm guessing that he uses this format specifically to go even darker than normal as well as go meta with regard to comics and the comics industry. In other words, it's the opposite of being truthful about his own experiences and instead functions as a take-no-prisoners send-up of all sorts of things. Hanselmann opens with nonsensical and paranoid musings about art from the odious but still oddly-sympathetic Werewolf Jones as well as body image and scatological jokes involving Megg the Witch, The deranged highlight of the comic is the truly unsettling "Mysterious Skin". The sensation of reading this comic was like simultaneously being tickled into hysterical laughter and given painful electrical shocks. Using a 12-panel grid, Hanselman depicts Jones photographing his sons. He's done plenty of weird things with his young kids, but it took a few beats to recognize that he was taking nude, pornographic photos of them and then rewarded them with cartoons and junk food. He then uploaded the photos to Owl's computer and called the police, and was thrown in with the child molesters. The uncomfortable genius of this story is that Hanselmann doesn't let the reader get away with treating this as absurd; he makes it very real and frightening, especially in terms of Owl's reactions when he gets out of jail. This was all done out of revenge for Owl writing a bad review of Jones' zine on the old Hooded Utilitarian website ("It was fair!"). This was by far the most extreme prank Jones has ever pulled, and Hanselmann's restraint in the face of it by dutifully executing the joke as one would expect was remarkable.
There are other inside baseball references, including Megg ripping up an Owl mini devoted to Warhammer with some all-star contributors, rightfully critiquing him for making something so empty. "Funded" is a parody of pop-up comics schools that Jones somehow gets money for, shoots at The Paris Review's offices (in a sort of Charlie Hebdo shooting parody), and gets a young woman to commit suicide for biting Aidan Koch's art. (Truly a joke only a handful of people would get.) It ends with his school being raided at sea by the feds, the Navy and "the guys from NoBrow", as an imprisoned Jones transcends his incarcerated state by drawing panels with his own shit on the wall and having his spirit join god while ejaculating. Fans of Hanselmann's more outrageous side will need to track this down, especially because of the remarkable control he has over his line. The utterly deadpan (and downright dead) quality of his characters is key to making the jokes land as hard as they do, with the earnestness of Owl making him the effective straight man for everyone else.
Uncompromising Petty Girlfriend is a Riso zine whose title describes its contents perfectly. It's told from the point of view of a woman who is not just self-centered and narcissistic, but appears to be the top in a BDSM relationship that involves significant psychological components. The restraint Bongiovanni uses in their single panel-per-page drawings only adds to the psychological and sexual tension of the comic. Sexxx Can Suck! is the opposite; it's an autobio zine talking about bad (consensual) sexual experiences, ranging from lost tampons, something called "Cock Rocks" that wound up a gooey mess, and the humiliation of being told that one tastes bad. Where the comic started to get real was when Bongiovanni discussed a relationship where they thought her partner was cheating on them, so their reaction was to cheat on their partner in return. Things only got worse from there, with Bongiovanni not trying to justify any of it in retrospect. Even in a situation as serious as that, Bongiovanni's comic timing, especially in the way they use exaggerated facial expressions, made the entire zine funny, even if that humor was at their expense.