Saturday, December 13, 2008

Miscellaneous Mini-Comic Round-Up

Rob reviews a number of minicomics that are hard to classify. Included arebcomics by Lydia Conklin, Shawn Cheng, Molly Lawless, Ed Piskor, Austin English, Matt Wiegle, Falynn Koch, JB, Renee French, and Jonas Madden-Connor.

FLYING MACHINE and MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN, by Lydia Conklin). Every once in a while, I receive a submission for review by an artist I've never heard of that stops me in my tracks. Lydia Conklin's minicomics fall into that category. The visual approach is simultaneously crude (reminiscent of David Heatley in many respects) and sophisticated as she depicts the lives and dreams of children. MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN is a matter-of-fact account of a young girl named Nanette who hates everyone but her dog, whom she declares must marry her. She reasons that this must be done in the middle of the ocean, where she finds a number of other people who are also married to their dogs. There's a flatness of affect to this story that contrasts with the nature of the play/fantasy that is revealed to the reader. As Lynda Barry notes, play is a serious thing for children and so are fantasies. Even as Nanette makes faces and rolls around with her dog, her fantasy of falling in love with her dog is told in a straightforward, unironic manner.

MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN is a similarly straightforward story, though this time it seems to be at least somewhat autobiographical. It's an unromanticized account of how children interact with each other in pursuit of play. Young Lydia and her friend Elisabeth hit on a plan to create a "flying machine" but have to cajole tiny Brianna to be their guinea pig. She accedes, but only if the other girls refer to her as Purple Star Rainbow. Tension is added when Brianna's bully older sister, Erica, has to be kept out of the loop. The "machine" is a box lifted up by jump ropes, and naturally the bottom of the box falls out when she's lifted up. The epilogue, detailing Erica's death eight years later, is an interesting coda that shows how this incident tapped into Lydia's sense of guilt. She knew what she was doing was somehow "wrong", yet felt compelled to do it.

Conklin uses the crudeness of her figure drawing as a strength in these stories. Her figures are expressive, especially in the way she draws eyes and mouths, and she has a real understanding of gesture and body language. That comes from her background as a painter, I would guess, but her paintings I've seen by her have always had a narrative element. Technically speaking, the one distracting element of her primitive style is her lettering and word balloon placement. However, she works big (no more than two panels on a page) and gives her characters a lot of space to breathe in her panels. I noted a similarity to David Heatley's work, but I think perhaps Lauren Weinstein is a more apt comparison. They share similar sensibilities, backgrounds and even subject matter. I'll be quite interested to see how she develops as a cartoonist.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN, by Shawn Cheng. In many ways, Cheng is the most visually dazzling member of the Partyka comics collective, and this comic is a perfect display of his formal pyrotechnics. The story is simple: a traveler finds a giant beast/man lying covered in rocks and takes steps to try and help him, first with water, then with raw meat. The final punchline is a great one, revealed only when Cheng pulls back and lets us see a bit more of the bigger picture. It's a clever gag, but what makes this such an appealing comic is the way Cheng constructs it as much as draws it. The swaths of color he uses on the salmon-colored construction paper are bold and distinctive, especially the pale white of the wind and the beast and the burnt orange used to decorate the title character and his speed lines. There's an almost visceral quality to Cheng's coloring technique. This is an older comic (2004), and while it's not as meticulously drawn as his later comics, one can see him already taking a number of formal risks. The story he collaborated on with Sara Edward-Corbett that was reprinted in BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2008 is a step in the right direction of getting him the wider recognition that he deserves.

OCHRE ELLIPSE #1 and #2, by Jonas Madden-Connor. Issue two of this series was nominated for an Ignatz and just won the Isotope award, and both honors are well-deserved. That said, both of these comics have the feel of an artist just warming up and figuring things out as he goes along, trying to contain a score of ideas whirring about his head. Madden-Connor tells stories about people in motion that are circular in nature, as one portion of the stories segues into something completely different only to come back around to the original theme or motif in unexpected ways. The first issue starts with a strip featuring Aristotle talking about birds. We pull back to see that Madden-Connor's stand-in (an anthropomorphic mynah bird) is reading this story. He then becomes a giant, smashes out of his house, goes on a rampage and grows large enough to see an airplane--where it's revealed that he is in fact a passenger on this plane having a daydream. He has another daydream where he starts talking to clouds and finally starts reading a book--a book whose text takes over the rest of the comic. That story is a sort of metacommentary on the daydreams in this issue as well as a reference to Jonathan Swift, and that joke is concluded on the last page, when he shrinks.

Madden-Connor's line has a ragged, sketchbook quality in the first issue that seems ill-suited to the kind of formalistic fireworks he's playing with here. His line becomes much clearer and his background choices far bolder in the second issue, which expands on a number of ideas and techniques he used in the first issue. This issue loops its characters and stories in unexpected ways, made all the more interesting in the use of certain formal techniques. For example, the contents and even the word balloons in the first story in the issue are placed at 45 degree angles--tilted. It grid panels themselves are standard squares and rectangles, making the read crawl up or down a panel to read it. It really puts us into the head-space of the character Spot, who has a crush on the checkout girl at a supermarket. The page where he "talks" to her through the logos of assorted products and is "answered" in the form of receipts is funny and clever, one of many visually striking things about this section. Above all else, Madden-Connor's line here is clean, with the occasional thicker line used for emphasis.

The story segues into Madden-Connor's mynah alter-ego going to the same store and meeting the same girl, with a very different outcome that appears to bleed into the sort of surreal imagery of the first imagery. Instead, we stop right in the middle to reveal that Madden-Connor is in fact showing Spot this very story in his sketchbook, and goes on to tell a story about what turns out to be the checkout girl trying to find if she's actually related to a discredited scientist. Before we reach the answer, Spot changes trains (not really wanting to talk to Madden-Connor) and sees the girl again, contemplating whether or not he should wake her up on her train. This issue is remarkably well-designed and executed, and has many moments of quiet humor. His character design was simple but striking, and his use of gesture was much more sophisticated in this issue. I see Madden-Connor as an artist who perhaps needs to pare his line down even more, because his ideas really shine when his pages have room to breathe and make use of white space. If these comics are his debut, then it's clear he has a bright future ahead of him. I would love to see him really address a particular feeling or emotion in his next comic and build his ambitious framework around exploring that idea. The emotional exploration he makes in the first two issues is a cursory one, even as Madden-Connor concentrates on a motif or theme from an intellectual standpoint. It will be interesting to see him really flesh out human emotion in future issues.

WATER FLIES, by Renee French. No one draws creepy better than Renee French, who is especially good at turning something that seems cute at first into something enormously unsettling. In a matter of just a couple of pages, French introduces us to a humanoid who loves feeding carnivorous water flies outside his aquatic home. Fascinated by their lives, the person can't resist trying to interact with them under water in their natural habitat. This of course leads to disaster in ways that could not be foreseen; suffice it to say that the flies were much more intelligent than the person suspected--and quite malevolent. The comic was drawn in French's simplified (for her) art style; spare but still possessing a certain lushness and playfulness. There's a final punchline in the comic that reveals the sort of food that the flies really wanted that is a perfect summation of French's macabre sense of humor.

THE RUMOR, THE DIVIDE and PIE, by Falynn Koch. Koch certainly has great chops as a cartoonist, but these minis feel more like something one would see in a sketchbook than fully-formed ideas. THE DIVIDE is a very cleverly presented short mini about the skies opening up and separating a couple and them finding a way to get back together. PIE is about an interloper winning a pie-making contest and the blowback she gets from the other jealous participants. THE RUMOR is an intricately design mini about how rumor solidifies to become fact in the minds of many after it's spread around enough times. PIE and THE DIVIDE are nicely designed and presented but fairly forgettable. THE RUMOR is extremely intricately assembled with expressive and striking character design and a clever concept as the rumor is spread from place to place in a house. The little pouch the comic comes in looks silkscreened and is certainly striking, but the contents are no less painstakingly drawn. It seems clear that Koch is a developing talent trying different avenues to find her voice as an artist. THE RUMOR shows that she has some ambition and is trying to find the best way to harness it. She's someone to keep an eye on.

WHY DID I PUT THIS TOWN ON MY FACE?, by Matt Weigle. Weigle, another of the Partyka artists, draws comics that are funny and slightly unsettling. This is a collection of short stories that appeared in various anthologies, and there are some clever gag strips here. "A Story" uses a static visual grid (with a minor change in one panel) to deliver a gag; it's a nice introduction to his brand of humor. Weigle often combines a conceptual punchline or twist with the most scatological of situations; most of his stories also tend to center around the passage of time as a key component of the set-up. "The Salt Lick" has a grim and visceral punchline to the concept of someone putting up a lure for deer, eventually leading them right into a butcher shop. "The Omega Dome" takes us from an apocalyptic War of the Worlds scenario to a farting contest to determine world supremacy--except that it's a meta-commentary on fart jokes. "Your Career Is Not Working Out Like What You Had Planned" shows us the unfortunate but predictable deaths of three people in particular professions--and the out-of-left field death of a fourth in a home run of a punchline. There's a restless playfulness in Weigle's work as he balances intellectual, aesthetic and humorous concerns. While his line his completely different, his work reminds me a bit of John Kerschbaum's in its nastiness, occasional obliqueness and willingness to go to silly extremes to get across a punchline. He's certainly an artist deserving of wider recognition.

SWEETHEART COMICS #1-3, by Austin English. These comics feature the sort of memory strips and unusually skewed stories of growing up that English does in his WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE. It's unclear which (if any) of these anecdotes is supposed to be autobiographical (other than some being from first-person perspective), but that information isn't really pertinent. The strips are less about events than they are feelings about these events. Sometimes those feelings are direct and obvious, like "I was happy to be a part of it", but in others it's as though he's trying to get record the experience of deja vu'. His art is extremely crude but has an immediacy to it that manages to capture those thoughts and feelings. There's also a sense of distortion to his figures (and his comics are dominated by figures as opposed to a sense of place) that's both disorienting and warm.

I missed the idiosyncratic use of color that's a hallmark of his WINDY CORNER strips. That changed a bit with the standout issue of the bunch, #3. His account of someone named Laurie and her troubled relationships, along with the story "Joel and Me", about a dialogue with and eventual surrender to one's own inner darkness, were both notable in the way he used black. His line got much thicker and as a result his figures were more solid in his panel design; they "held space" better than thinner-lined figures that blurred into the rest of the panel. That was true of issue #2 as well; the first story where we meet Austin's friends has a number of appealingly chunky figures. I didn't like the single panel-per-page set-up in #2 because it hurt the intimacy that English seemed to be driving at. The way he layered panels in unusual way in #3 added to that sense of immediacy. I like the way that English is constantly pushing himself in an effort to create clearer lines of expression and the way he balances editing and assembling a magazine with his own development as an artist.

CURIO CABINET #3, by JB. This was a comic I had heard about but not yet read until I picked up a copy at SPX. This is a collection of densely rendered but cartoony strips with a surreal slant. The first strip, "Human Again" details the day spent by a sentient hatchet that tries to commit suicide over the love of an anthropomorphic teapot by jumping off a building. The ax accidentally kill a bystander when it reaches bottom and winds up in lockup--in this case, a tool shed. Another strip details the horror felt by a man on a car ride in the desert with a friend as time fractures. One man is swatted out of the car by the end of god (in the form of a giant dog's paw) and the other repeatedly experiences this before managing to call some confused policemen. Another story finds a dinosaur summoned by a bagpipe player that winds up melting a field of soldiers with its sonic breath.

The stories are silent and have the feeling of dream logic combined with a certain well-defined set of personal symbols and characters. Each story has its own internal logic as JB isn't interested in "explaining" these images; they really speak for themselves. Indeed, one of the chief virtues of his comic is the clarity of JB's storytelling. We may be asked to swallow weird premises (like the metaphorically sentient ax) or accept bizarre endings (like godlike dogs watching over the world), but the way the story flows is crystal clear. JB actually uses a fairly naturalistic approach to character design, with his dense pencil work giving each panel and drawing a certain heft. His work reminds me a little of Eric Haven's, in that genre conventions, non sequiturs, oblique symbology random outbursts of violence and blunt moments of humor all blend together in take-it-or-leave-it fashion. It's the very definition of "cult comic".

WIZZYWIG #1.5, by Ed Piskor. This is a dense, 32-page preview of the second volume of Piskor's story about a composite of early computer hackers. As in the first volume, Piskor uses a variety of narrative techniques to keep the reader off-balance. He uses flashbacks, an omniscient narrator, a friend of the main character broadcasting on his own radio show, immersive action with no narration, talking heads and more. It's clear that Piskor absorbed a lot of lessons from working with Harvey Pekar in that he goes to great lengths to provide visual variety on his pages for a story that's mostly just people sitting around and talking. With his slightly exaggerated character design (ao many of his characters are gloriously ugly) and grab-back of narrative techniques, a potentially static subject becomes dynamic in Piskor's hands. I'm eager to see the rest of volume 2 when it arrives.

INFANDUM! #3, by Molly Lawless. This 8 page, 8 1/2 x 11 comic is more of the same from Lawless--which is a very good thing. There are more tales from baseball's often inglorious past, more stories about her sometimes dubious exploits as a long-distance runner, and more cheerfully disdainful advice and commentary on relationships. As always, her baseball strips are her best comics, a smooth combination of diligent research and irreverence. One of the strips is about Roger Connor, baseball's career home run record-holder prior to Babe Ruth--a record that no one knew or cared about until Ruth made home runs popular. It's a strip as much about the stats geekery surrounding baseball as it is about Connor himself. Another strip, about Wally Pipp, the man Lou Gehrig legendarily replaced in the Yankees lineup, is told from Gehrig's point of view and is both charming and witty.

Lawless packs a lot of detail into her pages, and each one is designed rather oddly. Her panels are of irregulas size and shape, word baloons and captions spill out of her grid, and her figures are both rendered with great detail and cartoonily expressive. Her pages wobble but seldom break, as the reader is whipped from panel to panel. Lawless is skilled at keeping the reader's eye on task in the way she places captions and word balloons, making each panel and page easy to follow. It doesn't hurt that she balances anecdotes with bon mots and assorted smart-ass remarks in support of her art. Lawless makes clutter work for her, and in fact her more visually cluttered pages are more fun to look at than her cleaner, simpler pages.

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