Thursday, January 1, 2009

sequart #52: ABC, Dr Sketchy, Action Figure

I often get items for review that aren't quite comics. Some mix illustration and comics storytelling techniques. Still others are traditional comics about unusual subjects. I prefer to think of comics under a big tent--when in doubt, I include it, even if it skims the border between illustration and comics. Considering how many artists work as illustrators in order to make ends meet, I find it interesting and useful to consider such works.

Let us first consider Molly Crabapple. She was working SPX and handed me a review copy of her first book, DR. SKETCHY'S OFFICIAL RAINY DAY COLOURING BOOK. This is, of course, not her real name, but it fits into the entire nature of her enterprise. Crabapple is a self-taught artist and created her persona out of whole cloth. She had a fantasy notion of Paris in the 1920's--a decadent scene of creativity and artistic camaraderie. Whether or not this scene actually existed isn't relevant--Crabapple wants to believe in it and has the sheer force of will to create that reality.

This book is an art virus and manifesto disguised as a whimsical colouring book. The idea is simple: set up a life drawing session in your local bar, bookstore or coffee shop. Make the models interesting: burlesque dancers, roller derby girls, adventurous art models. Pay them well, make them comfortable, let them be creative. Charge admission for the artists, stage ridiculous contests, and feed everyone booze and/or coffee. Promote the hell out of it and stick the results on a website. Presto! Instant art scene. The only thing Crabapple insists upon is contacting her, so as to feed the worldwide scene.

The actual instructions in the book are quite useful, but only take up maybe 25 pages. Crabapple knows this and puts her decorative skills to use, with dirty paper dolls, drink recipes, photos of burlesque models, testimonials from Dr Sketchy operators across the world, etc. It's all very light-hearted and fun. Even if the entire operation is essentially a self-promoting exercise, it's a manual for encouraging everyone to find ways of becoming decadently famous.

Fantagraphics has of late been producing albums by artists associated with the art-comics anthology BLAB! That anthology has often copletely eschewed narrative in its editions, blurring the line between comics and art book. ALPHABETICAL BALLAD OF CARNALITY is a kid's ABC's book gone horribly awry. Indeed, artist David Sandlin incorporates text and image on double-page spreads, just like a children's book. Each letter takes us through the book's narrative, which is really just an extended confession, with the line "was it only a fable coming over the cable" repeating throughout. As the narrator reveals his dalliances with greed, incest, necrophilia, onanism, wife-beating, etc., each set of pages is rendered in lurid detail. The last letter is z for zealotry as the narrator gives us his most despicable confession--he gave up his sinning ways and replaced his doomed obsession with his woman with a bible in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

The content tries to be shocking, but it's nothing we haven't seen before in the comics of R.Crumb, S.Clay Wilson or Dori Seda. What I like about lies purely in the artist's chops--his design is clever and the way he incorporates text into each page's composition is quite appealling. Ultimately, this comic felt a lot like an issue of BLAB--it was interesting to look at but an especially compelling read. The comic should be enjoyed for its decorative and lyrical qualities above anything else.

ACTION FIGURE #1 is a fairly standard comic book--slightly smaller than a regular comic but bigger than a mini. It's a thinly-veiled autobiographical comic, set with a framing device of someone finding his journals in the future. Artist Richard Marcej is Richard Marzelak in the comic, and he dreams of having time to work on his comic strip and getting it syndicated. Pretty standard stuff, as the art is appealling & professional if slightly bland. Even the dream sequences are nothing out of the ordinary. What is interesting is his actual job: working in the art department of Hasbro Toys in the 1980's and later for Hallmark greeting cards. He combines the two as Hasmark, and as the story begins his company has just gotten the rights to Americanize the "Bot-Changers"--aka the Transformers.

His frustrations in his workplace are the most interesting thing in the comic--he's thrown off a plum assignment by a tyrannical boss, comiserates with co-workers in other departments and finds ways to make his new assignment interesting. While Marcej makes his desire to do his own comic the focus of his comic, and even tosses in a potential love interest, the meat here is the nuts-and-bolts of his daily experiences. Marcej can't help but lapse into technical minutiae from time to time, but seeing these kinds of details in an industry that marries art, craft and commerce is what made the comic interesting to me. I eagerly await the next issue, if just to see how the competition to adapt the Transformers for an American market and how he struggles to express himself in his job. I sense that Marcej isn't comfortable going all Harvey Pekar and reveling in the details of his day-to-day struggle, but I found his attempts at putting in a more traditional narrative constricting. Hopefully future issues will find Marcej getting more comfortable with the nitty-gritty of his daily routine and expanding upon it even more.

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