Friday, April 17, 2009

Mini-Comics Round-Up: Sayers, Dinski, M.Hogan, R.Hogan, Trivial, Carcieri

Rob reviews another batch of interesting minicomics. Included are JUST SO YOU KNOW #1 by Joey Sayers; TRIVIAL, an anthology by Sean Ford, Alex Kim, Andrew Arnold & Alexis Frederick-Frost; MIND-MAPPING by Will Dinski; BEARD-GROWING CONTEST by Raighne Hogan; MANNY & BIGFOOT by Meghan Hogan; and PORTALS #1 & DREAM #1 by Nic Carcieri & Eric Dotson.

JUST SO YOU KNOW, by Joey Sayers. This mini is certainly a change of pace for the artist behind the "Thingpart" gag strips. Sayers generally employs a minimalist but nicely composed style for absurdist gags that skillfully subvert reader expectations. Her comics remind me a bit of Matt Feazell (in terms of the minimalist style) and Michael Kupperman (in terms of the quality of the absurd gagsmithing). JUST SO YOU KNOW is an autobiographical comic featuring anecdotes about Sayers' transition from male to female. I've actually read a surprising number of autobiographical comics about this subject, but Sayers' strips here are unusual because she takes great pains to provide every anecdote with a punchline. No matter how personal or serious a direction she takes the reader, Sayers always leavens the seriousness with a joke. The joke is frequently at her own expense. One gets the sense that Sayers was worried about being boring or preachy in a comic that was already (by definition) entirely self-centered. Pricking her own ego from time to time acts as preventative medicine for the reader who might think that Sayers takes herself way too seriously.

The impression one walks away with after reading this comic is that it's only because of the greater ease she feels in the world and with herself that she was not only able to write about this subject, but make fun of it. The first strip, "Freaking Out The Parents" starts off with some stiff medicine, as she tells her parents (and the audience) about the way she's struggled trying to live as a man, her depression and how she felt the need to turn to drugs. She kept going on like this for several panels, noting that she just wanted to be happy, until we are hit with her father saying, "Wait, you did drugs?" Sayers once again sets the reader up with one expectation and then pulls the rug out, establishing the formula for the rest of the comic.

Sayers gives us certain bits of the process of transition and the anxiety a transgendered person can feel, but isn't interested in presenting us with all the details. This comic is really about her own thoughts about transition, both funny and otherwise, as opposed to making a larger statement about it. There are vignettes about how hormones affect her emotional state (which create more than a little unease with both her and her girlfriend), being excited about growing breasts and getting a state ID confirming her new identity, and wondering if she's a bitch now in various circumstances. She closes things out by focusing on the relationship with her long-time and supportive girlfriend, as Sayers went from cross-dresser to transsexual. All told, this is a clear early front-runner for minicomic of the year for 2009, and I'm eager to see Sayers do more stories in this mold. She has a gift for relating personal details without being insufferable and of mining humor without forcing punchlines.

TRIVIAL, by Alexis Frederick-Frost, Alex Kim, Andrew Arnold and Sean Ford. The third of the Center for Cartoon Studies' "Four Square" anthologies is the strongest overall. Every quartet of artists in each issue works around a central theme, with this issue's being "trivial". That's a rather open-ended concept, which leads to four very different sorts of stories. Frederick-Frost's bold brush strokes and heavy use of blacks are a perfect way to open the book, drawing in the reader's eye with the starkness of his style. It's a style that fits the story well, being about the harsh beauty of Antarctica and a Shackleton expedition there. As he and his men trudge across the unforgiving landscape, the only way they could keep their sanity was by discussing the most inane of topics: conceptualizing new dishes and then debating their merits and originality. During a heated debate about the jam roll, Frederick-Frost underscores the nature of their struggle by printing the rather restrained text of Shackelton's account of the debate but showing a life-or-death struggle in the ice. It's a clever idea, well-executed.

Alex Kim and his weird, wavy line really go to town on a trivial conversation that turns into a graphic description of a weird nightmare. Kim throws us straight into a talking head with no explanation (not unusual in his comics), as the character is talking to someone we never see (one can surmise that the reader is really his conversational partner). The character talks about his obsession with hands and then relates a dream where he discovers his hands have become gigantic, sentient and murderous--eventually killing him, even as they were still attached to his body. What makes the story work is the way Kim uses panel-to-panel transitions, slowly panning down and around to up the horror content of the story. The effect is deliberately disjointed, creating an intense dream logic that continues until we slowly, creepily pan back to the character in real time. This is less a story than an image that Kim expanded and fleshed out, and it's the strength of that image that makes this chapter memorable.

Andrew L Arnold has an entry about a retired god/superhero who lives on a cloud. His day starts off reading a book, and he is then presented with a problem that is seemingly trivial at first but grows ever more problematic: a meteor heading toward a city that his explosive arrows just won't blow up. In the end, his luck (and aim) run just a little bit awry. This is a nicely designed chapter with a funny punchline that is deliberately stretched out like a shaggy dog story. It's a bit more conventional than the other stories in this anthology and less interesting to simply look at, but it's solidly crafted.

Sean Ford checks in with a couple of vignettes related to his ONLY SKIN series, featuring the odd ghost and new kid Clay. In the series, the ghost is mischievous at best and malevolent at worst, but he's more the former in these stories. In the first vignette, Clay and the ghost are mushrooming and the ghost urges him to give a poisonous mushroom to a nearby girl. When Clay refuses, the ghost mocks him like a grade schooler. In the second story, the ghost longs for nostalgic memories that are not really his, like drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes in a cemetery. The punchline comes when Clay actually does it for him and it's not exactly as exciting as he hoped. Ford's biggest strengths are character design and page composition. He solves the problem of what are essentially two talking head stories by varying his panel design, having the characters engage in visually interesting actitivies while they talk and dropping characters into shadow as a way of adding variety. All of that would be pointless if Ford weren't so adept at crafting dialogue. Clay acts as a nice straight man of sorts for the ghost, whose enigmatic nature lends itself to all sorts of possibilities. It's not surprising that a good chunk of the crew behind the SUNDAYS anthology would produce such a visually distinctive book with great production values, and it's clear that they all approached their contributions to this book very seriously.

MIND-MAPPING, by Will Dinski. Another winner from Will Dinksi, who always engages the form of his delivery system in new and exciting ways. This comic is about memory as it relates to pain, and the ways in which the things we recall tend to be very much by choice. It's about a map specialty store owner with a photographic memory, who laments that he is haunted by the specters of his memories, recalling them more sharply than most. He relates in excrutiating detail various incidents burned into his brain. Upon discovering that his store has been robbed, including of his laptop, he realizes that perhaps a lifetime spent dwelling on the mental recreation of trauma has left him more than a little unobservant. That realization perhaps let him realize that the ghosts he was haunted by were of his own making.

The comic unfolds like a typical Dinski work: crisply stylized characters, word balloons that act as individual captions and a certain economy of line and storytelling. The comic folds out like a map, which not only refers back to the main character but also the way he thought of memory as a series of grids that one could access. When one has finished the comic, Dinski gives us a little surprise: turn out the lights and then look at the glow-in-the-dark images that pop up. It's a clever flourish for a story that had a lot of punch and wasted no time to get there. Dinski's been on a real roll the past couple of years, and this mini certainly continues his hot streak. I like how he goes out of his way to create comics that are difficult to reprint in standard format, fully embracing the freedom and difficulties that creating minicomics provide.

BEARD GROWING CONTEST by Raighne Hogan and MANNY & BIGFOOT by Meghan Hogan. This is a pair of tiny minis from the husband-wife duo behind the excellent GOOD MINNESOTAN anthology. Both of these minis are beautiful, weird art objects; they're less stories than quick impressions. R.Hogan's BEARD GROWING CONTEST is a brief little vignette about a little kid straining to grow a beard and unleashing a fart instead, with the real punchline being what happens in his dreams later on. The full-color MANNY & BIGFOOT feels like a story fragment, as a man and his pet rabbit are threatened by a mysterious kidnapping note, while his sweater-stretching roommate Bigfoot messes with him. The soft pastels grab the eye and create an almost blurry softness for the visuals. The production values of both minis are top notch, even if the comics themselves are the very definition of "slight". Still, it's clear that that's what both cartoonists were going for: a slight, fun comic that served as a useful test for some eye-catching techniques.

DREAMER #1 and PORTALS #1 by Nic Carcieri, Rantz, Jason Flowers, Joel Cotejar, and Eric Dotson. There's something comforting about a writer who is so devoted to creating genre comics that he puts them out bit by bit in minicomics form. There's no pretense to being rich or famous, but rather an intense need to tell one's stories. As part of United Fanzine Organization, these comics have the appearance of work by enthusiastic amateurs rather than polished pros, but this is honestly what is most appealing about them. With both DREAMER and PORTALS, we get a tiny snapshot of a larger idea, the effect being watching the first five-minute segment of a 25-part movie serial from the 1930s. DREAMER'S about a guy who receives a weird artifact of his father's that has something to do with some kind of ancient struggle. I like the unfussy line of artist Eric Dotson here, even if it is a bit stiff in places. Every story in PORTALS is a bit of high concept: both "Kylie West" and "Hot Wings" involve big-boobed heroines engaging in adventure; the former's about an astronaut who winds up on a weird planet, and the latter is about warrior angels. The stylizations of artist Rantz veer between sloppy and fetishistic, drawing equally from manga and Image-style art. As such, it feels more like pin-up art than something that really tells a story. Jason Flowers' work in "Are We Dead Yet?" (about an immortal detective) tries for noir but winds up being muddy (including the lettering). "The London Fog" is the most ridiculous concept in the book (a magical Victorian-era vigilante preying on killers in the form of fog) yet Joel Cotejar's linework makes the idea come alive. I like the enthusastic fan ambition of Carcieri in that he's writing five epics at once (if in dribs and drabs), almost as if he's finding out what will stick best. It's that purity of enthusiasm that shows through, even if some of the stories feel like well-trod genre ground. Other than the loopy-but-serious "London Fog", I can't say that I'd be eager to read further installments of any of these series, but I'm glad that they exist.

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