This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006. Please note that Dylan Williams passed away in 2011.
A welcome trend in the comics world in recent years is the rise of the boutique publisher. With modest publishing goals and realistic release schedules, a small publisher can carve out a nice niche for their artists. One of my favorite publishers of this nature has been Sparkplug Comic Books, headed by Dylan Williams. Williams is himself an artist, having self-published several issues of the intriguing crime comic Reporter. Williams has said that he's looking to publish artists who have been overlooked and whose work is focused on storytelling. That's still a pretty wide net, and there are definitely some artists he has published who certainly push the envelope of what one might consider to be a standard narrative.
Jeff Levine's comics are observational studies of daily life, while John Hankiewicz's work is often abstruse and mysterious. On the other hand, Williams also gleefully publishes comics that are much more lighthearted, like Eric Haven's Tales To Demolish (a tribute of sorts to trashy 60's comics and monster movies) and Matter (Phillip Barrett's trippy and hilarious quasi-science-fiction stories). I've already discussed the delightful Asiaddict by Mats!? in my article on travel comics, but I'm pleased to report that there's isn't a stinker in the bunch of comics that Williams has published this year. Furthermore, there are a couple of legitimately great books: Hankiewicz's Asthma collection and minicomics maven Trevor Alixopolous' graphic novel debut Mine Tonight. I will have more to say about those latter books in future articles, but I wanted to use this space to discuss the other recent books from Sparkplug.
Jeff LeVine's Watching Days Become Years is an apt series title. The most recent issue (#3) is a continuation of the sort of thing LeVine does so well: sketching striking images from his everyday life and juxtaposing them against fragmented thoughts. The narrative here is the story of one man's life as he muses about what he's doing, where he's going and what it all means. Sometimes his thoughts are straightforward recollections of his days, wherein he simply draws interesting things that he saw and relates small anecdotes. On other occasions, LeVine becomes more abstract and poetic. There's one great panel where we see a drawing of a large, unmade bed with the caption "She was made of maybes." No further exploration of this point was made, but the melancholy and longing that LeVine feels is almost visceral. LeVine also struggles with the desire to stay inside all day and enjoy art, music and books and trying to connect with the outside world.
Ultimately, what makes this a surprisingly intense experience is that LeVine doesn't hold back. He relates a fantasy of strangling a neighbor with her own wind chimes and talks about his frustrations with women. At the end of the issue, he talks about days rushing by quickly as we see an image of a hand hoisting a beer: "Only now, one begins to understand just how fast a lifetime can go." This comic is contemplative and unassuming, reminding me a bit of John Porcellino's work in terms of its narrative content but with the immediacy of a sketchbook.
As quiet as LeVine's comic is, Tales To Demolish #3 is loud and lurid. Published in full color, the cover shows a superhero battling a reptilian creature over a pool of lava, with a half-naked girl in distress nearby. Eric Haven somehow manages to get across the fun of campy, pulpy comics and movies while at the same time telling his stories with a straight face. The first story "Mammalogy", depicts the struggle between mammal and reptile. We see an early mammal elude a reptilian predator and then later eat the eggs of its young. The story then cuts to an average schlub making an egg sandwich. The scene then shifts to a superhero (The Mongoose) battling a reptilian humanoid about to devour an innocent woman, part of his greater mission in the secret war between humans and reptiles. She breaks the spell of the story by asking him "Are you some kind of...um...you know... uh...furvert?" Haven's ability to go back and forth between silly and pulpy, often on the same page, is what makes his comics so fun. He's not afraid to let a silly idea play itself out with serious execution. Considering an offering like "The Gunslinger", about a western hero who kills a snake by slinging his gun at it as though it were a boomerang, with spectacular results. Haven's all about Big Dumb Fun, but done with clever self-awareness. The results are perfect for a 24-page comic book.
In the hard-to-categorize department is Philip Barrett's Matter Summer Special. This mini-comic formatted comic looks like an old-style Archie digest. The content is altogether different. The best way to describe the high concept of this comic is Half-Baked meets Primer by way of Ed The Happy Clown. Two guys sitting around getting high (one of whom, Whitey White, is depicted as almost completely blank and devoid of detail) get mixed up with experimental weed that somehow opens a door into another dimension. What's great about the story is that Barrett manages to breathe life into what very easily could be two-dimensional characters. Like Tales To Demolish, it's a fun, unpretentious and loopy story that is effective on its own terms.
One thing I like about all three of these comics is that Williams is dedicated to actually publishing comic books, not just graphic novels or collections. The comic book still has a throwaway, ephemeral quality that is part of its charm, and the comics I discuss here exemplify that trait nicely. They traverse a number of comics traditions: weird 4-color adventure, trippy underground escapades and quiet, personal ruminations. These comics nicely balance the longer and more complex books that Williams also publishes and show that while there's a certain feel that Sparkplug comics have, it's difficult to pin down.