Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dream Jams: The Night Of Your Life

Rob reviews the new collection of Jesse Reklaw's SLOW WAVE dream comics, THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE (Dark Horse). He also takes a look at two minicomics of Reklaw's: SALIVATING BOX and PTNRT2.

A number of Jesse Reklaw's comics have revolved around formal problem-solving. The solutions he crafts are still conservative in terms of composition; he uses fairly standard grids and doesn't do anything especially avant-garde with regard to character design or layouts. His art has always had a certain pleasant looseness to it. His figures are sketchy and expressive, somewhere between cartoony and realistic. The information he conveys is always solidly designed and easy to follow; that looseness of line is not sloppiness and a quick scan of his work reveals how much he thinks about his designs. When I note that comics present a series of problems for him to solve as a cartoonist, I mean that he likes to find different ways of presenting old ideas. For his autobio comics series COUCH TAG, he frames his experiences around specific signifiers (pets, the things he used to do with a particular friend) to reveal deeper truths.

Reklaw recently reprinted his first minicomic (created 20 years ago), PTNRT2, a crude (in every sense of the word) stick-figure comic. This was about finding a way to shorten words by using letters and numbers, and he created an entire comic's worth of stories done in this style--a disorienting experience. Reklaw has also done jam comics as a way of sparking his mind to move in some different directions. His minicomic SALIVATING BOX, a jam done with Andrice Arp, Nate Beaty and Levon Jihanian, has someone issue a verbal prompt. Each artist then has five minutes to draw a comic about that prompt. It's a way of moving past the paralysis of the creative process and quickly solving a problem on the page. The way each artist approached each prompt revealed a lot about their creative process. The results were surprisingly coherent and funny. Having an outside "collaborator", even if that's just someone coming up with a word, obviously keeps Reklaw's pencil and mind moving.

In a sense, his long-running online and alt-weekly strip SLOW WAVE is a more elaborate form of collaboration, and in some ways even more random than the game played for SALIVATING BOX. The concept is brilliantly simple: readers send Reklaw accounts of their dreams, and he draws them in comic strip form. Dreams are a perfect spark for comics, especially someone else's. They are remembered in terms of narrative, with the person almost acting as a dominant narrator. Sorting through the convoluted logic of a dream to convert it into a single-page story presents its own kind of puzzle for an artist. Because it's someone else's dream, one doesn't have to worry about deeper meanings or interpretations.

That lack of editorializing on Reklaw's behalf (other than in the sense that he chooses which dreams to draw) is one of SLOW WAVE's greatest strengths. As a reader, one can simply enjoy the entertaining way Reklaw manages to briskly depict a narrative snippet that usually doesn't have a firm beginning or ending. One can also look at the trends one sees in the dreams and how it reflects the broader culture. Many dreams feature pop-culture figures interacting with the dreamer's lives in some way, often obstructively (like in one dream where someone has to fight Jackie Chan before he can go to bed). Animals play a huge part in many of the dreams, often acting out fantasies of being able to talk or otherwise interact with their owners at a higher level. One dreamer saw her dogs play the stock market so she wouldn't have to work!

Despite the repetitive nature of each page, SLOW WAVE actually reads much better as a collection than as a stand-alone strip. There's a page-to-page flow and sense of rhythm in this book, broken up from time to time by arbitrary chapters. While one can see some strips of a similar nature grouped together in each chapter, Reklaw is careful not to simply catalogue different dream fetishes. Instead, he varies what happens strip to strip just enough to keep a reader's interest. The reader knows that even though the grid will remain the same and each strip will feature a narrator, each one will feature someone doing something different. The chapter breaks acts as natural mental buffers to encourage the reader to pause.

Reklaw anchors his strips with thick black lines making up his panels, "trapping" the ephemeral dream images within. Another key to the success of his strips is his lettering. While this may seem like a trivial component, his clear, bold lettering gives the reader an immediate sense of access to the story of the dream. He uses a smaller, thinner line for any dialogue in the dreams, a clear signal that the reader needs to focus on the narrative box and the images to really engage each page. It's not surprising that Reklaw has been doing SLOW WAVE for so long; despite the repetitive nature of its process, it's been forcing him to solve storytelling problems on a weekly basis. That artistic curiosity and the ability to shape random thoughts of images into narrative continues to make him one of the more interesting artists in the alt-comics scene.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Static and Motion: Pohadky & Ojingogo

Rob reviews two recent volumes from Drawn & Quarterly's "Petits Livres" series, Matthew Forsythe's OJINGOGO and Marek Colek & Pat Shewchuk's POHADKY.

One interesting series of books coming out from Drawn & Quarterly has been their "Petits Livres" line. These "little lives" books are physically small, heavier on image than word and highly idiosyncratic. The most recent books from the line, OJINGOGO (by Matthew Forsythe) and POHADKY (by Marek Colek & Pat Shewchuk), both tread in some similar territory. Both are interested in exploring the inherently neurotic nature of fairy tales and folk legend. These stories were not simply made to entertain, they were crafted to instruct and offer correctives through fear. OJINGOGO tells us of the adventures of a young girl and what would become her pet squid as they travel through a hazardous yet exciting world. This story emphasizes the flow of movement, as events tumble into each other. POHADKY is more of a cultural excavation, as Colek & Shewchuk take turns on roughly opposite pages exploring static images dealing with either loaded iconic symbols or the enduring lives of the characters invoked in these legends.

Forsythe's book calls to mind three different artists. The tightly-packed gags and adventure sketches reminds me a bit of Lewis Trondheim's work in books like MR I and MR O. The simultaneous sense of characters aimlessly wandering through their environment combined with the propulsive nature of the panel-to-panel transitions recall Mat Brinkman's silent adventure comics. The way we follow the adventures of a plucky girl through a trippy dreamscape where creatures often unexpectedly change size makes me think of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Forsythe's character design has both charm and bite; the girl and her squid are both cute, but the squid attempts to eat her at first, and she's pretty much in constant danger.

The story, such as it is, is quite thin. Yet Forsythe never introduces a character that won't later have some use to the plot and eventual outcome of the story. He also keeps things lively by first introducing inanimate objects (such as a camera) and then having them surprisingly come to life. Forsythe continually ramps up the action by pulling back from the action to reveal yet another, larger, more threatening monster. Cleverly, he turns that size differential into an important plot point in the book's eventual resolution, turning a device that created tension into one that evoked laughter. This book started as a webcomic and it shows with the way Forsythe seems to be compelled to make each page its own comedic unit and the way he stitches them together as a continuing serial. The flow of the book is sometimes interrupted by two-page spreads that split apart single images. "Losing" part of the image was distracting, though I'm not sure there was a better solution with the material as he drew it. It'd be interesting to see what Forsythe comes up with when he doesn't choose to serialize his work.

POHADKY also proceeds silently, as intricate iconic symbols that have obvious power mixed with line drawings given life with a muted palette. The artists made the interesting decision of presenting their images without comment, providing an index only after they've concluded their images. The images in the drawings are archetypes: the crone, the soldier, Death, and even more familiar, modern figures (like the Capitalist). It's the sort of book that demands multiple readings to absorb the imagery and the way the artists are presenting an intentionally jumbled series of images. Many of the pages have a certain tension and energy to them by the way they are composed, even if the images are static. For example, "Witches, A Soldier a Donkey and a Black Cat" has the above figures floating above a city, huddled together as though they were waiting to be activated. Colek, who drew the images, is actually more effective in black & white than color. There's an almost primitive power to his b&w figures that his color images lack. Perhaps it's the difference between the visceral nature of a drawing and the more washed-out, storybook nature of a color image, but I found myself returning to Colek's spooky b&w drawings most of all.

OJINGOGO is a book for children to fall into, while POHADKY is more a book for adults to reflect on as they consider the roots of their own folklore. The former creates its own iconography as it follows a familiar storytelling path, while the latter is less about story than it is about the way images accrue weight and meaning over time in ways that expand beyond their original contexts.

Sequart Reprints: Minicomics roundup

Ah, the variety of minicomics I receive. I generally like to review comics that I can compare and contrast in some meaningful way, but these three comics couldn't be any more different. Liz Baillie's ( MY BRAIN HURTS #4 is the most accomplished and ambitious. Greg Vondruska's SUMMER GOES SLOWLY ( is a sometimes bittersweet account of summers spent as a child and a teenager. And the CRAP YOUR PANTS anthology is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of stories about people soiling themselves.

While this is the fourth issue of Baillie's series, she provides an excellent recap of the events to date. What I like about her stories is that she presents events that are dramatic without being melodramatic. The main character is Kate, a high school kid who is dealing with a lot of stress. She's picked on and abused at school for looking different (with a streaked hairdo and her love of punk rock, she's an easy target) and being gay. Her best friend Joey was beaten by a gang of gay-bashers and put in the hospital, and one of them takes a shine to Kate and follows her around. When she screams at him, he charmingly throws her against a wall. Kate's dealing with her own self-hatred; when her new love interest Desi tries to kiss her on the street, Kate flinches, not wanting to be seen in public kissing a girl. Later, when Kate stands up to a priggish school administrator, it backfires and she winds up walking out of school.

Baillie's character work is her biggest strength. Kate struggles with trying to fight back against the world with just wanting to surrender. Desi is a delight; she's a firebrand who looks to be a bit on the frumpy side. Joey is dealing with an abusive father who is trying to redefine the terms of his abuse; both make a lot of bad choices. Baillie's faces are quite expressive; Kate's face when the thug is holding a knife to her is a combination of pure terror and total surprise. There's a grittiness to her art that befits this urban tale, and reminds me a bit of LOVE AND ROCKETS X or Jaime Hernandez's glimpses of Hopey's high school days. Baillie wisely focuses on her figure-work above all else, because they really carry the story. Comparing this issue to the first is a revelation: her ability to convey expressions has greatly improved, especially in terms of subtlety. She also is going away from a common trap for young artists, the tendency to over-render everything because of a lack of confidence in one's composition and draftsmanship. Baillie is simplifying her backgrounds and allowing her characters and their body language to carry scenes. Her panel-to-panel transitions and lettering are also big keys in making her comics work. About the only aspects of her art that still look a bit stiff are her attempts to convey motion and action.

SUMMER GOES SLOWLY is a much quieter sort of comic. There's not really much of a story arc in this series of vignettes from Vondruska's childhood, other than perhaps his growth as a person. In particular, we see him go from being afraid of the world and its possibilities to taking chances and following through on commitments. Vondruska relates the sort of dumb and random things a kid does, like ride a bike without holding onto the handlebars (resulting in a fractured skull), to trying his cat's food, to calling a girl 13 times in 2 days before realizing she wasn't going to call him back.

There are moments of quiet humor and more moments of self-deprecation as Greg recalls how socially inept he felt. Being a Doctor Who fanatic certainly didn't help in the latter department. A little more poignant were the recollections of the small humiliations he experienced at the hands of his peers and various animals; even at the time Vondruska realized that he was working himself up over nothing but couldn't help himself. This is a pleasant read and the art is serviceable, but it doesn't really distinguish itself in its observations or execution. The stories aren't quite funny enough to consider it to be a humorous autobio book, nor are they sharply observed enough to require 44 pages. As a result, the two types of stories pull at each other and ultimately cancel out their effectiveness.

The CRAP YOUR PANTS anthology has 18 stories in it. Of that number, only four are worth reading. Most of the rest are either badly drawn, scatological with no other hook for the reader, or incomprehensible. There was an open call for submissions and as one might expect, most of the stories looked and felt rushed & amateurish. Let's look at the four exceptions. "It's Delhi Belly" by David Robertson details the author's gastrointestinal distress on a trip toIndia. What seemed like a set-up for a routine tourist's tale quickly segued into him learning that he had Crohn's Disease, an embarrassing and unpleasant condition that can be managed but not cured. This is one of the few strips that had any humanity, while still maintaining some sly humor.

K. Thor Jensen is always a welcome presence in any anthology, and he manages a great gag set-up in "In Space No One Can Hear You Shit" (a take-off on the old Alien tagline). An astronaut is on a spacewalk when he uncontrollably starts voiding his bowels. It's no laughing matter as he realizes he could drown in his own waste. In the last panel, we learn from a couple of scientists onboard his craft that this was no accident. Jensen's panel design and use of blacks make this strip visually appealing.

Steven Tillotson's "Uncle Ken" strip was perhaps the most vicious in the book. A kid puts a laxative in his brother's tea, only to have it go to his grandmother instead. She winds up soiling herself, and as a result gets put in a nursing home and dies of loneliness. Tillotson's exaggerated figure-work makes this another piece that's nice to look at.

My favorite strip overall was the last one: Kate Allen's "20 Minute Miracle Diet". A young woman steps on the scale and is disgusted to find that she weighs 121 pounds. She decides to go for a run then and there and then painfully realizes that she has to defecate immediately. Two miles later, she finally makes it home and after sitting on the toilet for 20 minutes, she steps back on the scale and finds that she lost 7 pounds! This strip is well-composed, has an appealingly playful line and a nice payoff for the initial gag set-up.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

sequart #190: Mini Comics Round-Up: Neely, Ayuyang, Sayers, Mardou

Rob reviews a variety of intriguing minicomics. (These reviews originally appeared on

YOUR DISEASE SPREAD QUICK and BRILLIANTLY HAM-FISTED, by Tom Neely. Neely is the artist behind THE BLOT, one of the more astonishing recent major comics debuts. Neely's work falls squarely into what I call "comics-as-poetry". I've written about THE BLOT and this topic for another website (which has yet to debut), but briefly, comics-as-poetry is not the same thing as an illustrated poem. Rather, it's a comic that utilizes the same sort of strategy that poetry does in terms of beat, rhythm and abstraction. It eschews standard narrative and forces the reader to engage the work. Unlike most narratives, which have an immersive quality (carrying the reader smoothly through the story), comics-as-poetry is most frequently anti-immersive: the reader is aware of each word, each image, each panel. It's up to them to create connections between word and image.

Neely's artistic style makes for an interesting series of contrasts. He draws much of his inspiration from classic animation and comics from around the 1920s, and his comics have a rubbery, cartoony quality that draws the reader to its surface qualities. At the same time, he subverts reader expectations with images that are often gruesomely visceral. Another trope of his is his use of ink blots. These blots have multiple meanings, depending on the context, but generally represent both creation and destruction. Neely also has an extensive background in fine arts, and as a result his comics have a tension between the flow between panels & pages and the powerful single image.

That tension is highlighted in YOUR DISEASE SPREAD QUICK, a minicomic "inspired by the music of the Melvins". Neely draws from the lyrics and characters of the album "(A) Senile Animal" to create an apocalyptic narrative. Flipping between a horse-headed man crying doom to a spectral figure drawing ink from the horse to a heavily-bandaged multiple amputee inching along the ground, Neely spends the story introducing doomed protagonists who are victimized by schemers (exemplified by a two-page spread of some of history's nastiest monsters). The bandaged man winds up turning the tables after being sacrificed to a huge eagle, and the world winds up transforming into a mass of doom-saying horse-headed men. The last page, with one of them screaming "The world is full of evil!" as he's buffeted by thousands just like him, is a funny bit of irony. Having not heard the album for reference, this comic is still an eye-popping read because of the way Neely creates a flow of imagery. The back cover, featuring an obligatory Hostess Pies parody starring the Melvins, is a bit of wish-fulfillment with a slightly salacious ending.

BRILLIANTLY HAM-FISTED is a collection of "comic strip poems" originally published on Neely's website. Neely dips a bit into John Hankiewicz territory here in terms of the way he uses realistically depicted ordinary objects in his strips and gives them a different meaning by virtue of the way they're juxtaposed. The similarities end there, because Neely is still working in a classic comics tradition by using a four-panel grid for each strip. He also is more deliberate in the way he contrasts word and image--sometimes working in concert, sometimes at deliberate cross-purposes. "Sunday Afternoon" is a strip featuring a common Neely image: a crowd so tightly packed there's nowhere to breathe or move. Panel by panel, the phrase "Some people just can't appreciate the pathos of it all" is uttered by someone in the crowd--but we don't know who, because the figures are so tiny. Of course, the actual identity is unimportant, since all of the characters look exactly alike and are in precisely the same jam.

The themes running through these strips include suffocation, failure, anxiety, and the desperate attempt to connect--both on an emotional level and as an artist. "Art" features the artist taking off his glove and cutting off his hand, even though he knows we "would prefer cheap decorations". Some of the strips are more engaging than others; some make a quickly-absorbed point while others require multiple readings. It's fascinating to see Neely continue to mix old cartooning traditions with formal experimentation. The contrasts and contradictions inherent in his style and methods are what make him an artist to watch.

Rina Ayuyang's recent string of sketchbook/diary minicomics has been quite engaging. The best quality of her recent OVERWHELMING WOT-NOT, for example, is the spontaneity and liveliness of her approach. She manages to sprinkle quotidian observations, joys and frustrations into narratives that are surprisingly coherent given her loose approach. Her self-characterization in her comics is as someone who's constantly frazzled, harried and short of inspiration, yet the comics themselves have a clever exuberance. In "Fire!!", Ayuyang manages to relate an amusing workplace anecdote, throwing in a couple of gags related to an annoying co-worker and then shifting seamlessly to a related event at home. It has a light, breezy tone that simultaneously feels like a funny memory recorded for posterity in a journal and a polished narrative.

"Sushi Times" is a rougher, sketchier story that's as much about Ayuyang's often misplaced sense of empathy as it is about a particular lunchtime incident. "Happiness" and "A Dream of Sandra Bernhard" are slightly melancholy ruminations disguised as rambling anecdotes. The best story in this mini is "This Is The Day", a story that's both about writer's block and a way of fighting her way out of it. Faced with a blank sheet of paper and nothing to say, Ayuyang at first retreats into time-wasting activities, but soon tries to find ways to inspire herself. She draws support and wisdom from her friends, gets told to practice what she preaches after telling a friend to value her work, gets a hilarious "pep talk" from her father and vows to get back to her Big Story after a brush with mortality. What I admire most about this mini-comic is that it works as a form of art therapy. Instead of staring blankly at a sheet of paper because she can't work on her "real" project, Ayuyang engages in a form of highly polished doodling. In her recent work, she's become much more relaxed and comfortable with her storytelling, which has translated to a real sense of playfulness on the page. While I'm eager to see her eventual long-form project, I hope she continues to give us these pleasurable little side projects.

One of the specialties of the cartoonist Mardou seems to be examining friendships both deep and casual, especially among women. In MANHOLE#3, her character Bea takes us through a first-person account of the history of her friendship with Carrie. Both rock scenesters, Mardou tells a story of a friendship that was really a platonic love affair. Her use of detail and ability to evoke emotion through vivid anecdotes really gets across the depth and importance of this friendship, at least through Bea's eyes. The story does meander a bit and coalesces a bit more after a second reading, especially after one reads the ending. Indeed, as Bea is about to become the mother of a girl, her experiences with Carrie became all the more important in her memory, as a sort of continuum of feminine connection.

Mardou's line is sketchy and loose but highly expressive. Her character design is varied and effective, with her eyes in particular carrying a lot of the narrative's load. In the story, Mardou had a way of the story's leads creating meaningful eye contact with each other that frequently reduced the men they were with to mere props. In retrospect, Bea could see the end of their friendship coming, but there was nothing that really could be done about it. Sometimes, some friendships have a limited time span, no matter how intense they may be in the moment. This story is about a series of moments that had a life-changing quality to them; Bea knows that they're gone forever, never to be reclaimed, but the memories will always linger and influence her the rest of her life.

I WISH YOU WERE DEAD: THINGPART COLLECTION #6, by Joey Sayers. This is a drop-dead hilarious collection of 4-panel gag strips from Sayers' THINGPART website. Sayers specializes in classic "turn the idea on its head" humor, presenting a premise that the reader expects to go in one direction and then subverting it by the third panel before ending with the punchline. To this end, she employs a cartooning style that is simultaneously minimalist and grotesque. The design of her characters' bodies and backgrounds is bland and is just there to provide points of information and reference. The faces and heads are another matter.

Sayers draws round, stick-figure style heads with crudely-rendered faces: dots for eyes and simple mouths. Those mouths are often filled with just 2 or three teeth that almost resemble fangs. Like Matt Feazell, the master of stick-figure comics, Sayers' characters are still enormously expressive, with Sayers' refined understanding of gesture and body language shining through the simplicity of her line and aiding the punchline. Sayers is a flat-out great gagsmith, either taking an absurd idea to its logical end (like an employer praising what are suggested to be a commercial artists' samples but look like blank squares to the reader--until we see that the artist is applying for a job at "White Cardboard Squares, Inc.") or subverting a familiar scene (like a teenager asked to say grace who instead insults Jesus' tastes in food, is praised by his parents in doing so, and leads Jesus to buy the junky "Sugar Bomb" cereal the kid wanted instead). Sayers' work is also in the Michael Kupperman/Martha Keavney area of absurdist humor, but her goals and methodology are different. Fans of those humorists should certainly check out her website, especially since Sayers has such a high hit/miss ratio.

Id On The Page: Where Demented Wented

Rob reviews the career-spanning collection of lesser-known underground comics artist Rory Hayes, WHERE DEMENTED WENTED (Fantagraphics).

The influence of the underground artists of the 1960s on comics today is still considerable, especially since the vast majority of them are still alive and active. Robert Crumb is better than ever and still an inspiration to many artists. Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Frank Stack, Jay Lynch, Justin Green, Spain and others continue to publish fairly prolifically. I've found that for most of these artists, their work from the 1980s on is actually much better than their 1960s work. Some of the most famous and influential artists of that era, like Gilbert Shelton and S. Clay Wilson, produced comics that seem fairly juvenile and tedious today. Shelton led an array of artists making jokes centering around drugs, which was in itself a creative dead end.

Wilson was a different case. He was the first underground artist to encourage and exemplify the idea of not holding back anything on the page. He unleashed everything from his id in his dense, sex-and-violence soaked pages. However, I've always found the results to be juvenile at best and unreadable at worst. The theory behind what he was doing always seemed more interesting than the actual comics, though his influence on artists like Crumb would prove to be crucial. He also had a significant on another artist who was by nature incapable of holding anything back: Rory Hayes.

Hayes didn't publish a lot of comics and died fairly young of a drug overdose. In the first collection of his work, WHERE DEMENTED WENTED, we not only get to see the bulk of his published comics (and some unpublished material), we also get a couple of key essays about his life, influences and career. It's frankly a stunning retrospective that seems remarkably fresh today. Hayes' work was not well-understood or embraced outside of his artist friends at that time. It was considered too raw and even too transgressive (like his infamous Cunt Comics); in today's comics world, it looks like cutting-edge work. Ever since I first saw his comics in an old collection of Bijou Funnies, it popped off the page for me, and I'm grateful to see such an extensive collection.

The story of Hayes is that of his influences and the way he processed them and then transcended them. The key essay in the book is by his brother Geoffrey, a successful children's author and illustrator. It offers a tremendous amount of insight into Rory's early years, especially Hayes' relentless anger as a child. Despite their growing differences as children, the two constantly collaborated on any number of creative endeavors: films, fanzines and especially comics. Geoffrey was always the more polished artist of the pair, but he noted in his essay that Rory always pushed him and inspired to go further. Rory was always more obsessive and focused, though Geoffrey notes that Rory never consciously analyzed what he was doing: he just did it. Creating art together was a part of their sibling language, part of the way they dealt with the world. The fact that Geoffrey's art, and life, went in such a different direction despite all that they shared in common continues to mystify Geoffrey, though he notes that despite their differences "Rory is still present, as he always will be, in every story I write, every line I draw. Ultimately they are all for him."

An unfortunate aspect of this book is the way Hayes' fellow underground artists refer to him as a primitive artist or "original outsider artist". I think this description is probably based more on how people interacted with him than on the work itself. His brother Geoffrey touches on it briefly, but it seems obvious in retrospect that Rory was probably somewhere on the spectrum of autism. It's not so much a matter of being an "outsider", but looking at and interacting with the world in a very different way. If there's anything unusual about Hayes' methods, it's that he never seemed to care about what Lynda Barry refers to as the two questions: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" Drawing was as natural to him as eating or sleeping, not something that was a matter for introspection. While he obviously responded to the tutelage of Crumb and Wilson and wanted to respond to their challenges and encouragement, he was always ever drawing for himself.

Hayes' earlier work was informed by EC horror comics, various horror films, humor comics and other assorted pop ephemera. Hayes took the bear character that he developed with his brother and inserted him into grim, gore-splattered scenarios. Though he was clearly inspired by EC comics in terms of the text narrative, purple dialogue and ironic twist endings, what he does is very different. Hayes manages to zero in on the creepy and atmospheric parts of those sorts of stories without worrying much about plot or characterization. The cuteness of his bear character makes a clever juxtaposition with the horrible things that happen to him--and unlike many EC stories, he reaches a bad end regardless of whether or not he deserves it.

One reason why I wouldn't refer to what Hayes does as outsider art is that while his line can be crude, his understanding of composition and design is excellent. It's clear that he studied other artists extensively, though it didn't seem to bother him too much that he couldn't precisely reproduce their techniques. It also didn't take him long to rapidly develop and improve his technical prowess, though his work never lost the immediacy of his vision. One can see the frantic detail of Wilson and rubbery character design of Crumb informing his comics, but those influences didn't alter his voice any more than horror films did. He simply absorbed the influence and it became another layer of images that informed his artistic vision.

The reprint of the hyper-violent "stories" from "Cunt Comics" is certainly the most startling work in this volume. While there are certainly misogynistic images, it's not the juvenile revenge fantasies of Wilson or domination fantasies of Crumb. It's far weirder and more primal, a documentation of a fear of sexuality on the page. As warped as some of the images are, it's also incredibly funny at times. There's an absurd character to Hayes' work that separates it from similar sorts of comics. In a sense, Hayes goes a step further than Crumb or Wilson in that there's no agenda to how he expresses his id, no self-serving set of fantasy ideals or images. There's almost a child-like quality to these comics, in the way that children imagine sex and obsess on body parts as much or more than the act of sex itself.

Hayes' later work is almost startlingly polished-looking, with extensive use of zip-a-tone. By this time, he felt the need to consistently exist in an altered state, especially on speed. That started to show in his stories, especially in the stunning "Keeper of the Mind". Returning to an EC motif, we're drawn into the world of Popoff Hayes, "the drug fiend". Using one of his trademark teddy bears (drawn with a sort of permagrin that resembles the way jaws lock up when one takes speed), Hayes tells a story where Popoff gets speed & coke, takes them, and later travels with a friend and does more speed and coke. The physical trip in this story is inconsequential; it's the weird places he finds his mind going to that's the show here. Being that wired, Hayes implies, takes the brain to some very dark areas, tapping into some kind of primordial nightmares. Hayes' brother implies that Rory's stories tap into a sort of "H.P. Lovecraft territory". That is, he suspects that Rory was entering into a place mentally and emotionally where it became difficult to hang on to reality, making him become dependent on drugs. As a result, he began to work less and less. Though he died in 1983, the last story in this book is from 1976.

Hayes has slowly become an important influence in the world of alternative cartoonists. Edwin "Savage Pencil" Pouncey (who wrote the introduction) is one such artist, while it's obvious that Mark Beyer drew a considerable amount of inspiration from Hayes--both in terms of theme and style. This collection is simply essential for anyone the least bit interested in underground comics. Not only is the book well-edited in terms of the comics themselves (thanks to the always-savvy Dan Nadel and co-editor Glenn Bray), but the bonus materials are among the best I've ever read in such a collection. Contrasting the memories of Hayes' fellow underground artists with the heartfelt and frequently heart-breaking memories of his brother made for a rather dramatic shift, and the brief archival interview with Hayes made for a fitting final piece. His last response says it all: "I'm not so much into words. When people ask me to talk about my work, it's hard for me. I just feel I don't need to talk about it. It's such a complete thing for me, when I do it, and I hope people will get
that from it."

Checking In With Will Dinski

Rob reviews some recent minicomics from Will Dinski. Comics reviewed include SHIFT, ERRAND SERVICE and BEAUTIFUL, COOL & IRREPLACEABLE.

Minnesota cartoonist Will Dinski's comics were some of the first I reviewed in this column two years ago, and he's really been on a roll as of late. The formal qualities of his comics have always been unusual and distinctive. For example, the presentation of his comics is often eye-catching, though fully integrated with the comic's ideas. For example, comics about smoking that resembled a pack of cigarettes or a comic about a personality test with Scientologists was designed as a graph. Beyond such decorative but functional flourishes, Dinski's panel and page composition is distinctive. In a tact that somewhat resembles a silent movie, we often see a panel of character interaction followed by a panel of accompanying dialogue. It's a separation of word and image that forces the reader to focus in on images, especially when there are several consecutive wordless panels. He often employs blank panels with a triangle in the bottom corner to reflect time going by--"turning the page", as it were. In his character design, Dinski is all about sharp angles: noses, chins, heads and bodies.

Dinski loves humorous twists and irony in his commentaries on superficiality, modern life and the rituals of everyday life. At the same time, ambiguity and even ambivalence are an important part of his comics; no ending is left pat and comfortable. In three recent minis, Dinski has taken his work to another level. In SHIFT, a 3-page mini printed on cardstock, the panels are printed at a tilting angle, reflecting the way the older version of the character we meet has found his life completely altered--until he realizes that it's not everything else that's shifted.

BEAUTIFUL, COOL & IRREPLACEABLE is Dinski's best long-form comic to date. It's about a plastic surgeon, his ambitious young partner, his celebrity clients and the wife he ignores. This comic is all about distance and the relationship between surface qualities and "true" identity. The icy surgeon is obsessed with his "work"--he views his patients as his creations, and can't stop thinking about the one remaining flaw in the famous actress that he had been working on for years. His attentions were misunderstood by his wife and the actress--they took his focus on physical flaws as attraction. There's a brilliant twist near the end of the story that's hinted at early on; Dinski then takes that twist and unravels it in some unexpected ways. The final punchline is especially clever, as the surgeon's wife makes a desperate bid for his approval based on what she thought he wanted.

My favorite of Dinksi's three recent minis is ERRAND SERVICE, a 6-pager printed on folding cardstock. Dinski starts with a clever premise: a first-person account of someone who performs errands for others as their job. Those errands include locking and unlocking a door five times for an obsessive-compulsive who wanted to delegate the job. The errand woman is a professional and feels compelled to take care of her assignments to the best of her ability and can't judge her least, not on their time. The story suddenly flips to the point of view of a different errand woman hired by our first narrator, hired to carry out her judgment against a client. The story ends with yet another clever twist, and it's a fascinating study of diffusion of responsibility. This is the best conceived and executed of all Dinski's work and certainly one of the best minis I've read this year.

Game-Changer: Mome #12

Rob reviews the twelfth volume of Fantagraphics' flagship anthology, MOME.

(This article originally appeared at

I've been reviewing the MOME anthology in bundles thus far. I'm reviewing volume twelve on its own because it's a stand-alone edition in every respect. None of the serials currently running through MOME appear in this issue. In fact, of the original MOME roster of artists, only Sophie Crumb and Paul Hornschemeier appear in this issue--and neither one really does comics in this issue.

This issue seems to complete a slow but steady transformation of the anthology. Originally conceived as a means to nurture a particular set of young cartoonists, many of the original members dropped out after a few issues. While series editors Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds continue to bring in new talent (five new contributors alone in this issue), the nature of that talent has shifted. Beginning with David B, MOME has also become a place for great artists to publish shorter work. #12 has the greatest concentration of such talent, with stories by David B, Killoffer and Belgian artist Olivier Schrauwen. There's a broader mix of narrative styles and intents, and more work that's purely decorative. New contributor Kaela Graham's crude, charming incidental illustrations are an interesting contrast to Sophie Crumb's ultra-detailed portraits. Al Columbia's "Invasion" is three pages of blue cats roaming through an eerily silent town, perhaps at dawn.

Nate Neal returns with another epic series of interrelated stories. These stories are a spoof of "serious" comics and the urge to create same; given that he's obviously been influenced by the id-first nature of underground comics, it's no surprise that he pokes fun at this greater cultural interest in comics. He goes from a cartoony character forced to face "reality" to "Reality Comics" that consist of single panels involving the most mundane activities imaginable (down to clipping toenails). In "Reality Apart", Neal switches to a third person narrative style to tell the hilariously warped story of a doomed relationship. Neal ties all three strips together by using the same color scheme. Neal walks the line between landing funny blows and belaboring the obvious. His criticisms aren't exactly novel, but he at least is funny in presenting them.

That humorous approach is something that's grown in MOME, which was much drier in its early issues. The addition of Ray Fenwick was a key moment in making MOME funnier, and he continues to get more into straight cartooning with another Bear & Truth Stick series of strips. While his lettering/calligraphy still dominates the strip, his panel-to-panel transitions show excellent comic timing. Jon Vermilyea joins MOME with a hilariously, shockingly violent story called "The Breakfast Crew". It begins with a bunch of bored kids complaining about their breakfasts and being stunned to see a gang of giant, anthropomorphic breakfast items smash through their wall. They become even more terrified when a rival breakfast gang (The Breakfast Bunch) bursts in, leading to a visceral and vicious showdown. Seeing an anthropomorphic creature have its eyes gouged out or getting disemboweled was quite a sight, and Vermilyea's tight line and flat layout give the strip a look that resembles a commercial. That familiarity is what makes the strip creepy and funny.

Sara Edward-Corbett is another newcomer to MOME. A member of the Partyka comics collective, Edward-Corbett's chops are sterling and her sense of humor is dry. She likes doing strips about children (the characters in her story in this volume are from her See-Saw series) and the horrible things they do to each other in school. The result is something lighter than most of the rest of this volume, but still retaining a certain tartness as well. Her work reminds me a little of Steven "Ribs" Weissman.

Dash Shaw and another MOME newcomer, Derek Von Gieson, both contribute slightly less straightforward stories. Von Gieson's "Paralleograms" is a silent, splotchy, black-dominated story about a certain woman on a park bench and her rather predatory nature. The story flashes between parallel narratives involving the same woman over a number of different years and her eerie appeal to young men. Shaw's "Train" begins with a therapist working with a young girl with some kind of neurological/ psychological disorder (an entirely cerebral process) to that therapist being determined to jog in the middle of the city. Arriving at a graveyard, she sees a train crash spectacularly into the middle of the graveyard. The survivors rush at her until she realizes that they're not really there. The shift from trying to understand the girl's world and perspective to a completely physical experience and back to trying to understand her own unexplainable hallucination is exactly the kind of whipcrack transition that Shaw employs so well.

Tom Kaczynski is the kind of artist that MOME was created to spotlight. He's grabbed that opportunity with astonishing story after astonishing story about humanity's relationship with its technology and the spaces it inhabits. When his work is finally collected into one volume, it's going to cause a bit of a stir in the comics world because of the way he speaks to the collective neuroses of the new millennium. There's no one quite like him in terms of his perspective and narrative voice. In #12, Kaczynski contributes three superb one-page stories about sound. In "Noise: A History", Kaczynski boils down the history of the world in terms of random events and how many decibels it measured out to, from the big bang to the falling of rustling leaves. He links past to present through the use of that measure of sound, providing an interesting shorthand for understanding the world in its greatest, worst and most indifferent moments. "Hotel Silencio" is about a man who creates a hotel that employs sound-baffling technology, creating a sensation that quickly abates after its inhabitants go crazy with the lack of sound. "100 Decibels" is about how the perception of sound can be quite subjective in its own way. It's a perfectly-executed and arranged suite of stories that fit right into the ideas he's been exploring all along in MOME.

The main event of this issue was the trio of foreign heavyweights. Schrauwen's bizarre "Hair Types" is his first story translated into English, and it's unlike anything I've ever read. The color in the story looks faded, as though the strip were decades old. That fits in with this story about the pseudoscientific classification of personality as a function of hair, a sort of follicular phrenology. Schrauwen intercuts the central conflict of the story with diagrams explaining the "theory" behind the hair type theory. In the mind of the protagonist, the diagrams of the "crazy hair" brain morph from words describing it (inertia, idiocy, laziness) to pictorial figures embodying the concepts. The concepts then break out of their compartments to interact with each other in an explosive manner. The story concludes with one of the members of the "hair salon" modeling different kinds of hair and showing off different drawings of the same girl--an imagining of external, arbitrary roots for artistic choices and inspirations. This is a story about self-fulfilling prophecy and the way categorization is often prescriptive, not descriptive.

Killoffer's "Dirty Family Laundry" is true to its title: an escalating series of scatological neuroses that Killoffer relates to a lover in bed. It's hilarious and horrifying as his quite literal anal-retentive tendencies play out in increasingly awful ways. His mother, depicted as a sort of cubist nightmare creature, is unbalanced in abusive in a shocking manner. The panel at the end of the story, showing his lover's stunned expression, is priceless. David B's "The Drum Who Fell In Love" is another in a series of stories creating an alternate, fabulist version of Christianity combining magic, war, dreams, art and sex. It's about a sect leader who dies but is brought back to life as a war drum that his followers create. He falls in love with a girl, tired of being used strictly for bloodshed, but their love is doomed. David B excels at these sorts of fantastic war scenes, creating a new kind of fairy tale.

This issue of MOME was far more visceral, scatological and funny than any previous volume. Given Gilbert Shelton's upcoming contributions to the anthology, I suspect that MOME will continue to evolve in this direction, at least for now. The quirkier, more organic editing touch that Groth & Reynolds are using to select contributors has aided the anthology's evolution; they're very much letting the talent drive the anthology rather than trying to box it in too much. There's no other anthology that's as aggressive in terms of translating the work of non-American masters while maintaining a commitment to find and grow younger talent. It continues to be essential reading.

Obsessive-Expulsive: My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down

Rob reviews the new "graphic memoir" by David Heatley, MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN (Pantheon). (This review was originally published at

The choices of what an autobiographical cartoonists opts to omit can be as revealing as what they choose to expand upon. David Heatley's dense and involving memoir MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN focuses in on some familiar areas for autobiographical comics (sex, family) and some rarely-trod territories (race). One of the reasons why Heatley's work is so deeply involving is the depth of detail and obsessiveness of each topic. By focusing on these topics, he deliberately skates over other crucial events in his life, referring to them only as side issues. It's an interesting approach to evaluate one's life as though each topic were a listing in an encyclopedia, thoroughly exhausting each subject. Heatley has indicated as much on his website, noting that while he was inspired by the diary comics of Julie Doucet and the relationship-focused work of Jeffrey Brown, he didn't want to make those areas his sole subject of his comics. Instead, this book represents a compendium of Heatley's experiences in some very specific areas, closing the book on his exploration of these areas.

The "Sex History" chapter was originally printed in a slightly different form in KRAMER'S ERGOT 5. It's exactly what it sounds like: a chronological account of every sexual experience Heatley could remember, with the exception of the experiences he has had with his wife. There's a stark and brutal honesty in Heatley's approach, and perhaps even a bit disapproving in retrospect. It's important to remember as a reader that this isn't really a narrative, but a retrospective interpretation of a set of memories. This catalogue of experiences is especially fascinating because Heatley is careful not to conflate sexual experiences with emotion. It's also interesting because of the frankness with which Heatley deals with child sexuality and the fluidity of sexuality at that age. Heatley identifies as a heterosexual but experimented as a child in a way that's not unusual but rarely discussed or fully internalized.

What's interesting is that Heatley seems to be most forgiving of himself as a child; there's very little judgment or editorializing on his choices. That's not the case at the end of "Sex History". Heatley added a page to his original story that took on a very different tone. After being content with his occasional masturbation habits in the original story, he's openly condemnatory of himself in the addendum, even attending a sex addicts group that he immediately found himself relating to. It concludes by how happy he finds himself reserving all of his sexuality with his wife. Of course, it's the "end", but as Heatley demonstrates in this story, sexuality is a continuum. The conclusion he came to here seemed every bit as definitive as his original ending, and I imagine that given another year or two he might find himself in a different place. Heatley's shifting beliefs are a cornerstone of the somewhat slippery nature of this narrative. It's not unusual for him to passionately espouse a position or interest only to abandon it later. That series of self-contradictions is really what makes up a life; while we have a coherent sense of self in our own narratives, our identities really shift over time and place. It did feel a bit disingenuous to his readers to try to put an endcap on events that were obviously fluid, but it did seem like he genuinely did think of the end of that story as something definitive.

Heatley's stories about his mother and father are similar: a group of short strips piled on a page ala Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes, creating a portrait over time. The stories he tells and choices he makes in how he tells them illuminates his relationship with his parents. At the same time, it's easy to see where his general sensitivity (Heatley depicts himself as frequently weeping) comes from. The hints he drops that both parents wound up as spiritual seekers was also quite illuminating. Beyond that, Heatley unleashes his wicked sense of humor, especially in the way he and his mother butted heads. An early anecdote about his mom cheating him out of ten dollars and the way he later tried to guilt her out of it was especially amusing.

The chapter on "Kin" was the most touching in the book. Beginning with his great-grandparents, Heatley provides an abbreviated chronology of both sets of grandparents, focusing on relationships and childbirth and child rearing. The early stories are sketchy, focusing on dates and facts. He moves from the general to the specific when he recounts the story of the births of his own children. There's a rawness to the way that Heatley recounts his emotions that's quite powerful to read; the scene where he realizes that natural childbirth was something he was pushing without really considering what his wife needed was stunning. This chapter was all about births and deaths, and the way Heatley conveys the depth of his feeling, the fact that he never holds back his emotions or demonstrating them, came through in every panel.

Heatley combines a couple of different visual sensibilities in crafting his comics. He uses the same kind of simple, sketchy, spontaneous line that Jeffrey Brown employs. Reflecting the obsessiveness of the stories he tells, he crams as many as 48 panels onto a page, using only the lines absolutely necessary to depict emotion. Heatley has a fine arts background, having done a lot of painting, and that sense of design and color is a crucial component of this book. The use of color contrast is a big key to depicting emotion. With the tiny panels he lays out on the page, it's the best option he had in getting across that sort of information. It also conveys information indirectly, adding a layer of subtlety to the otherwise brutally honest and direction narrative. Heatley adds another layer of ambiguity to the book by injecting a number of his dream strips about sex and race; those strips are much more decompressed and languid compared to the main body of work in the book. However, their content (straight from an interpretation of Heatley's unconscious) is even more indicative of Heatley's deep-seated obsession with these issues.

The longest and most bracing chapter of the book is "Black History", the complete listing of every African-American person he's ever known and the way black culture has influenced him. Once again starting chronologically, Heatley confronts the extremely complicated feelings he has about race. After a lifetime of having a number of black friends, being into black music and culture and having an African-American art teacher who had a huge influence on him, there was still a strong sense of otherness that he felt around black folks. Beginning from the friends and enemies he made in school and in summer camp, the story has a few emotional climaxes. One is Heatley's account as a radical free-Mumia activist, an experience clearly tinged by disappointment from his current perspective. Another is the story of how his art professor proved to be such a profound influence on his career, even if he was dismissive of comics. The final climax comes after he has to deal with his own anger after being humiliated by a black woman in public. That anger shakes him to his core, gripping him so strongly that his reaction is nearly hysterical. Only by purging himself of that anger, letting it run through him, was he able to release it. That release bore some guilt because the anger's release contained elements of sexism and racism. That fact encouraged Heatley to try to change the way he engaged the world, partly through his vaguely-defined "spiritual awakening".

In a sense, this entire book seems to act as a release for Heatley. It's a way of processing through thoughts, feelings and obsessions that are both intimate and personal as well as easily understood by anyone. The strips are a form of therapy, purging his darkest thoughts and providing an object lesson for himself. While Heatley closes on a hopeful note for himself in terms of finally trying to rein in his anger and the inappropriate expression of same, it's really a story that has no end. Heatley has a way of digging into the uncomfortable portions of his imagination, laying it bare and exposing it to public scrutiny. He's no mere exhibitionist, but rather an artist who works by piling on painful, tiny details until they coalesce into some kind of greater whole. He's not asking for sympathy nor is he a martyr. Above all else, Heatley seems to be desperately trying to understand and come to terms with his own motivations. In MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN, there are some places where Heatley is acutely self-aware and others where he has an almost startling blind spot. In either case, Heatley has created a book that gets at the truth as he understands it and where he essentially wrestles it to the ground. The result of this attempted expulsion of obsessive ideas is a set of strips that remains playful above all else. It may be serious play, but as Lynda Barry would note, all play is serious and dynamic, demanding one's time and focus. The same is certainly true of David Heatley's work.

The Pleasures of Obsession: Mineshaft #22

Rob reviews the newest issue of underground/alternative zine, MINESHAFT #22.

I recently received the most recent issue of MINESHAFT, #22, after reviewing an older issue. MINESHAFT's best attribute is its unabashed enthusiasm and embrace of unusual corners of culture and subcultures. Case in point: a long photo essay about the "Muscle Beach Beauties". It concerns female bodybuilders, acrobats and daredevils who performed on the beaches and boardwalks of California in the 1940s and 1950s. Like many of the pieces in MINESHAFT, this article (delving into the archives of OJ Heller) is revealing of a time and place, illuminating a subculture that was quite unusual for its time. Heller is obsessed with "women of strength", and it was amusing to see an R.Crumb sketch on the back cover, surrounded by photos of girls that Crumb certainly approves of.

As per usual, there are a number of unusual comic strips, stories and completely unexpected material. Mary Fleener's drawings of weirdly-dressed women at the San Diego Comicon was typically hilarious, with the punchline of Fleener being annoyed that she had to sell her comics behind a tented area while so many women were displaying their "wares" so openly. The most stunning highlight of the issue, especially for fans of underground artists, was the wager between Kim Deitch and Jay Lynch. The wager involved them writing the words for a country music song, encouraging MINESHAFT readers to come up with music for it and record it, and the winner would be which cartoonist got the song into a top-50 chart! While the songs they wrote are funny, it's punctuated by an amazing 2-page jam piece, featuring Lynch and Deitch sitting across from each other, with their cartoon creations sitting on their laps.

The excerpt from a longer work by J.R. Helton ("Pat and Corky") is very funny, with the situation the characters find themselves in growing ever more extreme and weird. Paroled prisoners, lots of cocaine, pedophiles, freebasing at parties, overdoses, and much more general weirdness are described in a deadpan, matter-of-fact manner. Jay Kinney contributes a rant against pretty much everything (occasionally veering into "get off my lawn, you kids!" territory), while Aaron Lange wrote an interesting review of Kim Deitch's work that puts it into the context of its time. He asserts that while the 60s were a political and cultural failure in nearly every respect, its cartoonists emerged relatively unscathed and stronger than ever. It's an interesting point, especially since I'd agree that the comics of Crumb, Deitch, Griffith etc. only get better as they get older. Finally, there's a long letter of comment from Crumb, who reveals all sorts of fascinating personal details as he comments on the latest issue, specifics of editor Everett Rand's life and the struggle he knows it takes in keeping a publication like this going. It's clear that MINESHAFT is the passion of Rand and co-editor Gioia Palmieri, and their readers are the beneficiaries of their obsession.

Family Fun: Tales Designed To Thrizzle #4

Rob revels in the new issue of TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #4, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics).

Michael Kupperman is probably my favorite humorist working today. He's the master of the non sequitur, riffing on familiar images and concepts and taking them in completely unexpected directions. He's one of the very few cartoonists whose work I seek out in any format it happens to be published in, be it in The Believer or on the internet. Fortunately, Kupperman uses his Fantagraphics title TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE as both a depository for his material first published elsewhere (cleverly repurposed) as well as a ton of new material.

Issue #4's structural conceit is that it's supposed to help your family get through its entire day, and the reader is instructed to start reading it when they wake up, going through a page every half hour. That premise is every bit as goofy as past issues, which had "age restrictions" (children only in the first part, adults in the second and the elderly for the last section). We start off at breakfast with a fake newspaper and go throughout the day until we're instructed to go to sleep.

There are three things that really pop out at the reader in Kupperman's comics. First, his unbelievable chops as an artist enable him to sell any gag he wants. His style mimics the feel of classic comic strips and advertising on a surface level, especially the likes of Chester Gould. Second, the sheer density of material on every page is staggering and difficult to take all in after a first reading. On the newspaper page alone, there are fourteen separate gags. Third, Kupperman's true genius as a humorist is the ability to create jokes where the reader is practically told the punchline ahead of time, but the results are still hilarious. In this instance, the punchline almost acts as a kind of release. Bits like "Ask Professor. Sexy", where someone writes into a newspaper column with a random question, only to be told, "Why not have sex?" was a perfect example of Kupperman stretching out a premise only to slam it home. Kupperman then switches that up with random bits of insanity, like an advertisement for Taco Repair ("You'd swear it was a new taco"), complete with a phone number and odd font.

For fans of Kupperman's recurring characters, a number of them pop up in action stories. Twain and Einstein (of course drawn to look exactly the same) appear as hard-boiled cops. His most ridiculous creations, Snake 'n Bacon, also appear as cops (investigating the deadly duo of Asp 'n Taft). The best story is a reprint of a five-part Scaredy Kids story featuring the Bittern, Jungle Princess, an ant making love to a paperclip, Tony Mortadella and his cage of dangerous snakes and other insanity. The only other cartoonists who are in Kupperman's league in terms of sheer density and ability to craft gags at several different levels of awareness (from straightforward to meta) are John Kerschbaum and Sam Henderson. Kupperman's combination of craftsmanship and dada sensibilities make him uniquely appealing.

Power (S)trips: Feiffer's Explainers

Rob reviews the first volume of the complete run of Jules Feiffer strips from the Village Voice, EXPLAINERS.

In my review of the Jules Feiffer collection PASSIONELLA, I noted Feiffer's tendency to cynically examine relationships in terms of power. Upon reading the first volume of his complete Village Voice strips, EXPLAINERS, it's clear that Feiffer chooses to examine all aspects of human interaction in terms of power relations. It's not unlike the historian & philosopher Michel Foucault's point of view, a perspective on humanity that is bleak, cynical and yet so very accurate. In Feiffer's comics, who has power over whom informs every strip, be it about sex, relationships, the state, civil rights, industry, friendships or child/parent interactions. Even in his solo laments, the characters frequently express their frustration over their lack of control.

There's a lot of anger in Feiffer's work, but if one had to boil down exactly what he was angry at, one might say it's lies. While he may oversell his point about the nature of relationships being a series of power struggles, what's obvious is that he resents polite society not acknowledging the obvious. Husbands and wives frequently lie to each other about their feelings for each other, often as a way of getting the upper hand. The state exercises frequently arbitrary and ruthless means of making sure that its citizens stay in line. Parents lie to their children and create arbitrary rules to keep them under control. Employees are not rewarded for loyalty by increasingly faceless corporations. The very act of parceling out sex and affection is a sort of marketplace of deception and manipulation. Feiffer exposes the ways that people cover up this very brutal, basic way that humans interact with each other in strips that become increasingly vicious.

Reading the first eleven years of Feiffer's Voice strips (his column was initially titled Sick, Sick, Sick but was later retitled simply Feiffer) is a bracing experience. One sees the development of an artist's style over the years, as Feiffer quickly abandoned typical comic strip panels and word balloons and went to a more free-flowing and spare kind of composition. He went from the thick, angular UPA animation style to a scratchy, sketchy line that had a wonderfully tremulous quality to it. What's interesting about this approach is how well it serves his material. While many comics use a consciously cinematic approach, with the idea of camera angles and such influencing both the artist's process and the reader's perception, Feiffer's comics are staged more like plays. The character monologues are set up like stage monologues. When characters interact, there's very little in the way of backgrounds or "props" to distract the reader; it's very much like watching two character on an empty stage. As such, Feiffer's best strips are all about body language. He's the master of the slouching character, beaten down by the world. He love depicting more unctuous characters invading the personal space of others. When Feiffer is at his best, the expressiveness of his figures perfectly conveys his text.

Feiffer's less successful strips in the book are those that depend on political caricature as well as the talking head strips that don't vary much from image to image. There's always the problem of datedness when one works in political caricature, and that contrast becomes even more acute when one compares those strips to the other pages in the book. Even though some of the strips are over fifty years old, they feel frighteningly modern. That's partly because Feiffer dared to address a number of issues that weren't widely being discussed, even by the liberals of the era. Feiffer is skeptical of both political parties and spares no venom for what he referred to as "the radical middle". He was constantly battling the hypocrisy of liberals who supported civil rights so long as it didn't cause them any personal discomfort. He also mocked white liberal guilt in one memorable strip where a black man berates a group of white men, only to reveal that they had paid him to do it and wanted him to come back a week later. Of course, the many strips that satirically addressed supressing debate during a supposed time of emergency unfortunately ring all too true today.

Feiffer's most memorable strips revolve around his two recurring characters, Huey and Bernard. Huey is a brute and a cad who has no trouble getting women. Bernard is a schlub who is sensitive and caring but also self-pitying and needy. Of course, he is never happy with women. Feiffer gets at various aspects of male behavior through these characters, establishing his ideas about the nature of power dynamics through their actions and misadventures. Huey the brute gets what he wants because brute force is not only what usually wins the day, it's what a lot of people respond to. "Nice guy" Bernard is weak and knows it, resenting everyone around him but finding himself unable to change. Bernard is a wonderfully-designed character, all slouches and shrugs and furrowed brows. By August of 1961, Feiffer's line was growing ever more confident and bold even as he was gaining a greater week-to-week consistency.

While Feiffer's takes on civil rights, government hypocrisy and the reaction to various crises are all amusing in their own way, none of them quite drew blood the way his strips on relationships did. There's such a rawness of feeling there as though Feiffer was putting down on paper observations about gender that were taboo. He saved his greatest venom for marriage, and the many horrible reasons why people get married and the misery they put themselves through as a result. The way people talk past, around and through each other is a particular focus for Feiffer. Controlling communication is perhaps the greatest key to wielding power, and finding ways to talk without actually saying anything (all while controlling the nature of the discourse) is the most disingenuous act of all. That strangled form of communication was especially in effect in the 1950s. It'll be interesting to see how much Feiffer's approach changes in the late 60s, especially during the Nixon presidency. There's no question that he's the godfather of the independent weekly cartoon and one of the most important cartoonists of the 20th century. Having the bulk of the work that made such an impact on the culture's consciousness in one series of volumes is a great thing for fans of the medium.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

My Top 50 Comics of the Year

Rob unveils his list of his fifty favorite comics of the 2008.

It's never easy making a list of the year's best comics. What's funny is that I've heard a number of critics say that this was an off-year for comics in comparison to 2007. I could not disagree more. I felt there were more comics in the running for my personal top 50 than ever before and several masterpieces.

The list below is unapologetically personal, eccentric and all over the place. It's not a listing of the most "important" books of the year, necessarily. There are plenty of mini-comics on there, and I felt perfectly comfortable putting them on the same list as original graphic novels or collections. This is a list of comics that moved me the most, made me laugh the most, made me think the most or in some other way impressed me as examples of the art. A few notes before I move on to the list. There are a few notable comics missing, mostly because I haven't seen or read them yet. KRAMER'S ERGOT #7 is the most significant example of this. I also haven't had a chance to read the third volume of POPEYE yet. I wasn't able to read much from Picturebox or Closed Caption Comics this year. I decided to include collections of old material on my list, as long as the collection was published in 2008.

Without further ado:

1. ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19, by Chris Ware (self-published, distributed by Drawn & Quarterly). If this is a predictable pick, it's because Ware continues to top himself, year after year. The story of Woody Brown was Ware's most humane, complex and absorbing work yet. Ware's metafictional science-fiction story is in fact the author reading his story and creating subconscious connections.

2. WHAT IT IS, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly). Part statement of purpose, part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, part art project, part textbook, and all of it magnificently exploring the nature and process of creation. This is a book I'd recommend to every artist and writer, filled with self-deprecating wit and wisdom.

3. LITTLE NOTHINGS, by Lewis Trondheim (NBM). Trondheim is one of the people who can lay legitimate claim to "world's greatest living cartoonist", and this volume of spontaneous autobiographical vignettes may be his single best work translated into English. It's funny, thoughtful and beautiful to look at. I'm delighted that a sequel is on its way.

4. BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics). This is the year everyone started to notice what Shaw was doing. BBB was the book that took the lessons he learned during his years of doing experimental comics and applied it to the genre of "family drama". It's full of strange connections and disconnections as the members of the Loony family all live in their own little realities. Shaw mines a lot of humor from the awkwardness of their relationships and lives.

5. INKWEED, by Chris Wright (Sparkplug Comic Books). The best of many great books from Sparkplug, this collection of scratchy strips by Wright explores lust, creation, destruction and obsession. His eccentric character design and sheer density of his images draws the reader into his turbulent and frequently raunchy world.

6. WORMDYE, by Eamon Espey (Secret Acres). This release by promising new publisher Secret Acres took me by total surprise. Espey creates a bizarre, hallucinatory world filled with nightmarish dream logic. Espey mixes dark humor, naivete' and a take-it-or-leave form of storytelling in his short stories that are related by theme and tone more than specific content.

7. PETEY AND PUSSY, by John Kerschbaum (Fantagraphics). This was the funniest book of the year, with the lead story containing an amazingly dense layer of jokes, gags and long-form payoffs. Kerschbaum manages on the one hand to use gross-out humor to maximum effect, but there's always a fiendish intelligence behind these jokes that give them an even greater impact. Only Michael Kupperman is in Kerschbaum's class when it comes to matching up artistic chops with the effective use of the gags they think up.

8. AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (Yale University Press), edited by Ivan Brunetti. This companion to the fantastic first volume is much more idiosyncratic and personal. Once again, the way Brunetti edited the volume was absolutely key to the way each piece works in this book. Indeed, each piece comments on preceeding stories in new and surprising ways. This volume also has the added bonus of reprinting many more obscure cartoonists. If the first volume was ideal in teaching comics to beginners, this volume extends those lessons to a more advanced set of pupils.

9. BREAKDOWNS, and PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*!, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon). Among other things, this book is an illustration of the sheer willpower needed to sustain a career as a cartoonist, much less one trying to push the envelope as much as Spiegelman. This is a beautiful art object in addition to being a reprint of a groundbreaking collection of strips. The new series of autobiographical strips is every bit as fascinating as the old material, as Spiegelman tries to figure himself, and cartooning, out.

10. WILLIE AND JOE, by Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics). In a decade marked by reprints with strong production values and design, this collection of all of Mauldin's World War II work stands out. The design, the fonts used, and the paper are evocative of the war, giving a worthy platform for a series of brilliant strips drawn with a lively hand. Every library in the US should have a copy of this book.

11. THE HOT BREATH OF WAR, by Trevor Alixopolous (Sparkplug Comic Books). Alixopolous produced yet another thoughtful, provocative book about the intersection between personal and political, this time focusing on the relationship between war and sex. He approaches the subject in a number of of different ways (literal, lyrical, metaphorical), all with a lively, loose line.

12. BOURBON ISLAND 1730, by Lewis Trondheim & Appollo (First Second). Trondheim is not only one of the greatest cartoonists in the world, he's also one of the greatest collaborative cartoonists as well. This book is one of his densest in terms of subject matter and characterization, spinning a complex narrative about the ways in which colonialism lessens both the colonized and the colonizer along with the nature (and cost) of freedom. The production from First Second is absolutely top-notch.

13. ALAN'S WAR, by Emmanuel Guibert (First Second). Speaking of collaborations, this is an artist's interpretation of one man's need to discuss his life in terms of anecdote and personal encounters. The restraint of both narrator and artist masks the lurking tensions within. It's a fascinating companion piece to WILLIE AND JOE.

14. PAUL GOES FISHING, by Michel Rabagliati (Drawn & Quarterly). This was the greatest entry in the low-key, playful and sometimes melodramatic Paul series. Rabagliati wove crackerjack anecdotes in and out of a tranquil plotline, then took a dramatic left turn before ending on the most emotionally affecting scene in any comic I read this year.

15. The works of Kevin Huizenga. I lumped GANGES #2, FIGHT OR RUN, OR ELSE #5, NEW CONSTRUCTION #2 and THE FACTOIDS OF LIFE together because they all seemed like disparate parts of the same project. GANGES was his "big" release of the year, but each of these comics seemed to flex a different part of his cartooning skill set. Huizenga takes a number of his visual cues from the golden age of newspaper strips, filtered through an inquisitive and probing intellect. This year also showed off his dry wit.

16. PERLA LA LOCA, by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics). This volume of the new Love & Rockets reprint collection featured Jaime's best-ever stories in "Chester Square" and "Wigwam Bam". This is when Jaime took a loosely-defined set of characters and gave them a depth, warmth and humanity that made them unforgettable. These are also some of the best-drawn comics of all time. Having both stories in one volume is truly a public service for readers; the only reason why this is not higher on my list is that I've read these stories elsewhere many times.

17. BEYOND PALOMAR, by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics). Beto's epic "Poison River" is one of the most complex, convoluted and shattering stories ever. Much of his more visceral, nihilistic current work can be traced to what he did in this account of Luba's pre-Palomar life. "Love and Rockets X" is not quite in this class, but it's a tight little thriller weaving in sexual and racial politics on a particularly bad day in Los Angeles.

18. ERRAND SERVICE, by Will Dinski (self-published). This would be my vote for mini-comic of the year. The story starts with a clever premise (the narrative of a person who performs unusual tasks like checking whether doors are locked for someone with OCD) and quickly turns into a story of regret and multiple betrayals. Every comic Will Dinski makes is elegantly and cleverly designed, and ERRAND SERVICE is the perfect confluence of design and idea.

19. BODYWORLD, by Dash Shaw (webcomic). Shaw has become a genius at using unusual approaches with regard to color, especially in his genre comics. In some ways, this comic is already more interesting than BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON; it's pushing more borders in terms of its storytelling techniques while still being firmly rooted in sci-fi pulp soap opera. When it's done and published, it will be a likely book of the year candidate.

20. AGAINST PAIN, by Ron Rege', Jr (Drawn & Quarterly). Rege' is an idiosyncratic and groundbreaking artist who has had a huge influence on a number of post-Fort Thunder artists. This book collects many years worth of minicomics and anthology entries (including his classic "High School Metaphor", a very different take on Spider-Man). It's easy for one's eye to fall off of Rege's pages, but making the commitment to engage his work is well worth the effort.

21. ORDINARY VICTORIES, by Manu Larcenet (NBM). This is an interesting companion piece to PAUL GOES FISHING, about a man trying to come to terms with the notion of fatherhood, his own mortality and changes in his hometown. Larcenet does a great job getting the audience to sympathise with his protagonist while still leaving him human and flawed, and the playfulness of his line and character design makes it a joy to read.

22. GODDESS OF WAR, by Lauren Weinstein (Picturebox). Weinstein drew a lot of notice with her autobiographical comics, but I always preferred her earlier, weirder work. GODDESS OF WAR is a weird amalgam of the two, about a mythological being with the personality of a teenager, and then takes a really weird turn into Cochise's personal history. Weinstein's art goes from a ragged, lively line to a beautifully rendered "plate". An idiosyncratic work from the most idiosyncratic of all publishers.

23. GUS & HIS GANG, by Christophe Blain (First Second). A rumination on friendship and romance disguised as a rough-and-tumble cowboy story. The grittiness of the old west and human emotion is given a striking contrast with Blain's bigfoot character design. It's by turns both funny and heartbreaking.

24. TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #4, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics). One of the greatest humorists in the world once again packed gag after layered gag under one umbrella of insanity. It's remarkable how Kupperman is able to blend new and old material seamlessly into a single loopy concept gag (reading a page once an hour, every hour of the day).

25. CAPACITY, by Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres). This story of an artist trying to find a way tell his stories was one of the most striking books of the year, having an almost feverish quality to its drawings. Against all odds, Ellsworth successfully patches together a number of seemingly-unconnected anecdotes and gets the audience to root for him while he's doing it.

26. EYE OF THE MAJESTIC CREATURE #3, by Leslie Stein (self-published). Stein combines misanthropy and the longing for human connection with an absurd, biting wit and plenty of self-effacement. She also combines a fluid line with a dense stippling style to create memorable image after memorable image. Stein's on my short list of artists who deserve much wider recognition.

27. BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2008 (Houghton-Mifflin). This was the Lynda Barry-edited edition, and it's her own love letter to the experience of reading comics. This volume almost entirely avoids autobiographical and naturalistic stories in favor of the weird, the fanciful and the hard to classify.

28. I STILL LIVE, by Annie Murphy (self-published). This was the most self-assured debut of the year by an artist whose interests include the intersection between spiritualism and feminism and whose style occupies the space between quietude and poetic sweep. As she refines her style, she will be a fascinating talent to watch. Murphy was just awarded a Xeric grant for wider publication of this comic, so look for it in 2009.

29. MOME #12. (Fantagraphics). This issue completed MOME's transformation from young cartoonist's spotlight to eclectic assortment of first-rank work, both new and translated. This issue features a tremendous one-two-three punch from David B, Killoffer and Oliver Schrauwen, the usual great work from Dash Shaw and Tom Kaczynski, and exciting newcomers like Jon Vermilyea. None of the original lineup of MOME had a new comic in this issue as editors Gary Groth & Eric Reynolds are finding a balance between printing rare work by big-time cartoonists along with nurturing newer talents.

30. NOCTURNAL CONSPIRACIES, by David B (NBM). This is a collection of David B's dreams, and he invites the reader to make symbolic connections between the images that arise. Murder, mayhem, spies and sex form a sort of ongoing nighttime saga, all done in his shadowy, angular style.

31. LITTLE THINGS, by Jeffrey Brown (Touchstone). This may be Brown's best book, a definitive collection of the sort of quotidian details and obsessions that make up a life. What's interesting about this book is that his romantic relationships, which formed the bulk of emphasis for much of his prior autobiographical work, are relegated to the background as Brown explores his other passions. As always, Brown's wobbly and scratchy line invites a certain kind of intimacy and brings a sense of immediacy to the reader.

32. THE RABBI'S CAT 2, by Joann Sfar (Pantheon). Sfar's ongoing exploration of the more intellectual side of his Jewish roots continues with surprising high adventure, an exploration of racial & religious politics and more dry wit. As always, the looseness and spontaneity of his line meshes well with his expressive use of color. Sfar isn't a tight storyteller like Trondheim, but rather indulges in extended ramblings that lead the reader in some very pleasant directions.

33. SWELL, by Juliacks (self-published). Juliacks is a multi-media artist with a unified vision of how her art should look like, sound like and feel like in all media. That gestalt is felt on her comics pages, as she merges a fine arts sensibility with impeccable storytelling instincts, incorporating text itself in a decorative as well as a narrative fashion. This minicomic series, exploring a woman's coming to terms with the death of her sister, is in turns fanciful and emotionally devastating. Juliacks' work is immersive and requires full engagement from a reader, but it's well worth the commitment.

34. SPANIEL RAGE 2008, by Vanessa Davis (self-published). Davis is one of the top autobiographical cartoonists working today, and her diary strip has only gotten sharper, funnier and more intriguingly self-reflective. This mini is just a taste of her upcoming published work, and it made me immediately want more.

35. POCKET FULL OF RAIN, by Jason (Fantagraphics). This volume reprints the early work of one of my favorite cartoonists working today. Here we see how he developed his deadpan, anthropomorphic style, why he abandoned an earlier, more naturalistic bent and the ways in which he developed his craft as an ace gagsmith.

36. THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1967-68, by Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics). It's hard to know how to rank a given volume of Peanuts in a list like this. Suffice it to say that Schulz was still at the absolute height of his powers here (eighteen years into the strip!) and was just starting to move in some different directions. This volume captures the best of his older and newer approaches.

37. EXPLAINERS, by Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics). In its own way, this collection of the artist's Village Voice strips was every bit as important an archival work as WILLIE AND JOE or BREAKDOWNS. Feiffer (along with R.Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz and Chris Ware) ranks as one of the five most important and influential cartoonists in the latter half of the 20th century. That influence extends beyond comics and into the greater culture itself. Feiffer's takes on gender and relationships in particular, along with his acidic and cynical view of politics, was an enormous influence on modern comedy and cultural commentary.

38. WHERE DEMENTED WENTED, by Rory Hayes (Fantagraphics). Hayes' singular voice was often mistaken as being "outsider art"; nothing could be further from the truth for a cartoonist who was strongly influenced by the style and content of contemporary underground cartoonists. However, Hayes filtered that influence through his own unique view of the world, resulting in strips more unsettling, unrestrained and more personally revealing of his own inner demons than those of his peers. This book may never have a large audience, but those it does speak to will draw much inspiration from it.

39. THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, by Jesse Reklaw (Dark Horse). Reklaw's formula of turning the dreams of others into little comic vignettes actually becomes more and more appealing as the stories start to accrue. Reklaw manages a perfect balance of discipline and spontaneity in his work, using a lively but distinct line to tell the weirdest flights of fancy and boxing them into a rigid grid. Reklaw thinks comics as much as he feels them and has managed to create an idiosyncratic strip that manages to appeal to a wider audience.

40. SNAKE OIL, by Chuck Forsman (self-published). Forsman is another impressive young talent who's gained a lot of well-earned attention early in his career with this breakthrough mini. Reading this one-man anthology is like watching a scientist in a laboratory, feeling his way through trial and error experiments, each of which yields interesting results. One senses that Forsman did an enormous amount of work before he let himself create a comic with this degree of spontaneity and creative takes on certain genre ideas. Forsman's focus on characters being thrown into bewildering environments mirrors what he does to the reader and himself as a creator.

41. ESTRUS COMICS #6, by MariNaomi (self-published). MariNaomi drew on her sexual history for a series of hilarious, candid and thoughtful anecdotes. She delved way back into her teen and pre-teen years to detail her escapades, and then took a sharp left turn into a story about an especially shattering account of a relationship that haunts her to this day. The playfulness of her line and her wit made that story all the more effective.

42. LOVE AND ROCKETS NEW STORIES #1, by Los Bros Hernandez (Fantagraphics). Jaime, Gilbert and Mario return and veer off in a completely different direction. Jaime crafted a straight-up superhero story that captured all the thrills and ridiculousness of the genre (using many of the familiar Locas and several new characters), Beto returned to the sort of experimental comics he did in NEW LOVE (including Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis stand-ins in outer space), and Mario & Beto teamed up for a pagan sitcome of sorts. Jaime and Gilbert continue to reinvent themselves, innovate and stay at the forefront of the comics world.

43. HOTWIRE, Volume 2 (Fantagraphics), edited by Glenn Head. This uneven but unfailingly interesting anthology is a perfect companion piece to MOME and KRAMER'S ERGOT in that it wallows in the vulgar, the visceral and the loopy aspects of comics storytelling. Like any good anthology, it's a reflection of its editor's taste for stories that are in-your-face, funny and straight from the id. It's the closest connection link we have now to the era of underground comics.

44. INJURY COMICS #2, by Ted May, Jeff Wilson & Jason Robards. (Buenaventura). This series is part-throwback to 80s alternative comics and part homage to Kirbyesque kineticism. May throws absurdist gags, romance sagas (by way of stoner, heavy metal youth) and a cyborg slugfest with animal-themed thugs into this stew of a comic book. The comic works because May and his collaborators tell over-the-top stories with a straight face, despite many laugh-out-loud moments.

45. DRAWN & QUARTERLY SHOWCASE #5 (Drawn & Quarterly). The latest volume of the typically handsome anthology featured stories that dealt with the feeling of being an intrude in hostile territory. The standout story is T. Edward Bak's, a one that effectively uses an almost oppressive use of black as we meet a soldier who abandoned his lover to "fight for liberty", the consequences he suffered as a result and the ways in which his lover reacted. Bak's striking use of color, contrast and elements of collage give him a unique style in comics.

46. HALL OF BEST KNOWLEDGE, by Ray Fenwick (Fantagraphics). This book is an interesting example of the full integration of lettering, typography, image and decorative flourishes. Despite there being very few images recognizable as "drawings", there's no mistaking this for anything other than a comic because of the way Fenwick uses sequence and iconography. It's a book where it only becomes apparent that there is an actual story very late in the game, and the punchline is enormously clever.

47. DO NOT DISTURB MY WAKING DREAM, by Laura Park (self-published). Mini-comics are actually not the best vehicle to present Park's gorgeous and playful sketchbook comics; they don't capture the vibrancy of her use of color. That said, Park's chops are stunning in any format, her wit biting and her character design charming. She's truly a talent worth watching.

48. GROTESQUE #2, by Sergio Ponchionne (Fantagraphics). This is one of the most underrated of the Ignatz line's series and certainly one of its best looking. This issue focused on a sort of waking nightmare and a city where emotion literally comes at a price. Ponchionne is an astonishing style mimic whose linework has a richness to it that invites the reader to luxuriate in each image--especially when they illustrate the most disturbing of concepts.

49. WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE #2 (Sparkplug Comic Books). WCM and Mineshaft stand out as the most personal and eccentric publications that mixes new stories with commentary about comics. WCM is the manifestation of editor Austin English's absolute devotion to and love of comics and his commitment to get other artists to talk about comics. It's a delightfully and unapologetically quirky and passionate magazine, and that passion comes through on every page, even if one doesn't share English's aesthetic sensibilities.

50. MAGIC WHISTLE #11, by Sam Henderson (Alternative). Like the best of humorists, Henderson thinks through his gags to such an extent that his meta-analysis becomes a comedy routine unto itself. At the same time, his gags are vulgar and visceral. That tension is at the heart of Henderson's mission to tell a gag, dissect the gag, and then somehow put it back together funnier than it was in the first place. It also must be noted that making one's drawings funny makes for a good humor comic, and Henderson's deliberately crude style is a perfect launching point for his purposes.

I wanted to give honorable mention status to the following:

MINESHAFT, edited by Everett Rand & Gioia Palmieri
THE LAGOON, by Lilli Carre'
CHIGGERS, by Hope Larson
MACEDONIA, by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor and Heather Roberson
FREDDIE AND ME, by Mike Dawson
JAM IN THE BAND, by Robin Enrico
JESSICA FARM, by Josh Simmons
TRANNY, by Steve Lafler
STINKY, by Eleanor Davis
NURSE NURSE, by Katie Skelly
PS COMICS, by Melanie Lewis
SPELT-RITE COMICS, by Martha Keavney
TEA TIME, by Stef Lenk
SUNDAYS 2, edited by Chuck Forsman, Joseph Lambert, Sean Ford, et al.
REICH, by Elijah Brubaker
INSOMNIA, by Matt Broesma
CRICKETS, by Sammy Harkham
BAOBAB, by Igort
TYPHON, edited by Danny Hellman
WIZZYWIG, by Ed Piskor
BERLIN, by Jason Lutes
DEITCH'S PICTORAMA, by Kim, Simon, Seth and Gene Deitch
GOOD MINNESOTAN, edited by Meghan & Raighne Hogan
FISHTOWN, by Kevin Colden
TONOHARU, by Lars Martinson

All of these books were given strong consideration for my top fifty list, and all are worthy.

Finally, here's my top 50 again, without commentary:

1. ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #19, by Chris Ware (self-published, distributed by Drawn & Quarterly).

2. WHAT IT IS, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly).

3. LITTLE NOTHINGS, by Lewis Trondheim (NBM).

4. BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics).

5. INKWEED, by Chris Wright (Sparkplug Comic Books).

6. WORMDYE, by Eamon Espey (Secret Acres).

7. PETEY AND PUSSY, by John Kerschbaum (Fantagraphics).

8. AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES, Volume 2 (Yale University Press), edited by Ivan Brunetti.

9. BREAKDOWNS, and PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*!, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon).

10. WILLIE AND JOE, by Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics).

11. THE HOT BREATH OF WAR, by Trevor Alixopolous (Sparkplug Comic Books).

12. BOURBON ISLAND 1730, by Lewis Trondheim & Appollo (First Second).

13. ALAN'S WAR, by Emmanuel Guibert (First Second).

14. PAUL GOES FISHING, by Michel Rabagliati (Drawn & Quarterly).

15. The works of Kevin Huizenga.

16. PERLA LA LOCA, by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics).

17. BEYOND PALOMAR, by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics).

18. ERRAND SERVICE, by Will Dinski (self-published).

19. BODYWORLD, by Dash Shaw (webcomic).

20. AGAINST PAIN, by Ron Rege', Jr (Drawn & Quarterly).

21. ORDINARY VICTORIES, by Manu Larcenet (NBM).

22. GODDESS OF WAR, by Lauren Weinstein (Picturebox).

23. GUS & HIS GANG, by Christophe Blain (First Second).

24. TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #4, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics).

25. CAPACITY, by Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres).

26. EYE OF THE MAJESTIC CREATURE #3, by Leslie Stein (self-published).

27. BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2008 (Houghton-Mifflin).

28. I STILL LIVE, by Annie Murphy (self-published).

29. MOME #12.


31. LITTLE THINGS, by Jeffrey Brown (Touchstone).

32. THE RABBI'S CAT 2, by Joann Sfar (Pantheon).

33. SWELL, by Juliacks (self-published).

34. SPANIEL RAGE 2008, by Vanessa Davis (self-published).

35. POCKET FULL OF RAIN, by Jason (Fantagraphics).

36. THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1967-68, by Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics).

37. EXPLAINERS, by Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics).

38. WHERE DEMENTED WENTED, by Rory Hayes (Fantagraphics).

39. THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, by Jesse Reklaw (Dark Horse).

40. SNAKE OIL, by Chuck Forsman (self-published).

41. ESTRUS COMICS #6, by MariNaomi (self-published).

42. LOVE AND ROCKETS NEW STORIES #1, by Los Bros Hernandez (Fantagraphics).

43. HOTWIRE, Volume 2 (Fantagraphics), edited by Glenn Head.

44. INJURY COMICS #2, by Ted May, Jeff Wilson & Jason Robards. (Buenaventura).

45. DRAWN & QUARTERLY SHOWCASE #5 (Drawn & Quarterly).

46. HALL OF BEST KNOWLEDGE, by Ray Fenwick (Fantagraphics).

47. DO NOT DISTURB MY WAKING DREAM, by Laura Park (self-published).

48. GROTESQUE #2, by Sergio Ponchionne (Fantagraphics).

49. WINDY CORNER MAGAZINE #2 (Sparkplug Comic Books).

50. MAGIC WHISTLE #11, by Sam Henderson (Alternative).