Monday, June 15, 2009

Mini-Comics Round-Up: MariNaomi, Gonzalez, Jackson, Moorman, Cardini, Melaina

Rob reviews autobio confessional minis by MariNaomi and Melaina; odd genre takes by William Cardini and Ed Choy Moorman; underground-flavored minis by Jenny Gonzalez; and a lyrical take on water by Martine Workman.

ESTRUS #7, by MariNaomi. The Bay area artist specializes in confessional stories from her love life, but after the rather dramatic account that capped her previous issue, MariNaomi decided to fill this issue up with bits and pieces from various sources. Some are illustrations for various zines and anthologies, the most notable of which was a panel that was reproduced on well-known USA Today writer Whitney Matheson's blog. MariNaomi repurposed one of those assignments to hilarious effect here, adding captions to illustrations designed to make children less afraid of needles. Photos of cheerful children with captions like "I sure hope there aren't any bubbles in that syringe, or you're gonna die!" reveal her dark sense of humor.

While there was a fictional story in this issue, MariNaomi's strength is autobiography. "In Case Of Emergency" saw her ponder the notion of having to save everyone's life on a subway car in case of terrorist attack, and the ways in which she'd fall short. "Not My Celebrity Story" is a funny anecdote about her ex flitting from new crush to new crush and getting burned when his new girl turns out to be a porn star lying about her identity and intentions. The most revealing piece was "Euphemisms = Love", a one-page strip where her lover makes MariNaomi feel better about drinking too much with a well-placed euphemism. What's most interesting about this comic is the number of visual styles she uses, depending on the assignment. some are more naturalistic, others are steeped in the deep blacks that are her usual trademark, others are more spontaneous and cruder, while others still are deliberately cartoony. Her brand of wit seems to do best with a non-naturalistic style; there's something about her authorial voice that seems to "sound" best with a more fluid, cartoony style. There's a fluidity to her narrative style to begin with, so it only makes sense that her line should match it.

DATER'S DOZEN, by Melaina. Melaina lists MariNaomi as her comics mentor, and it showed in this mini about the artist dating different men. The kicker here was that it was a deliberate, chronological pursuit after a difficult break-up, and the dates came from the internet or were blind dates set up by friends. In terms of a visual approach, Melaina's work is very much unlike MariNaomi's in that she doesn't do much in terms of spotting blacks. Instead, she presents a flatter page and relies solely on her minimalist but expressive linework to tell her story.

Overall, this was a charming, breezy read. Melaina is a nurse by profession, and that sort of no-nonsense attitude found in nurses surfaced in the way she approached her dates. At the same time, she found ways of expressing her vulnerability and pain in a manner that was forthright and honest but not whiny or self-pitying. Regarding her art, she displayed a lot of cleverness in solving certain storytelling problems, with her panel composition in particular being fun to look at. In terms of her figure drawing, her self-caricature is distinctive & expressive as well as being a funny drawing. Her biggest weakness as an artist is in how she presents gesture and character interaction. There's a real stiffness there that could be aided by spotting blacks to establish mood, which would force the eye to see how characters are reacting to each other more clearly. What I liked most of all about this mini was that it was a warts 'n all examination of her dates and relationships, one in which she took herself to task as much as she did those men who didn't quite measure up. The power of her comics personification's personality combined with her ability to cleverly lay out a story will no doubt continue to lead her to create some interesting work.

TOO NEGATIVE #9-11, by Jenny Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a long-time mainstay of the minicomics world, working roughly in the tradition of underground comics. Gonzalez employs a cute, cartoony style to depict a "halfway house in hell". These minis seems to be fairly crude reproductions of strips originally printed elsewhere, and the copies don't do her work any favors in the way they chop of border edges and even dialogue at times. That's unfortunate, because her rubbery figures, over-the-top sense of humor and thinly-veiled fictive self all pack a powerful punch. While the series is ostensibly about a group of characters living in hell and either recovering or helping to treat others, it's mostly about the experience of living through mental illness. More to the point, it's about the experience of living through institutional treatment for mental illness.

As such, the Devil Dahlia character is obviously a liberating fictive construct, both for venting on this harrowing set of experiences and also as a powerful id-figure. She's quite matter-of-fact about her grip on reality, never preventing it from living her life freely and to the max. She's in a band, she freely expresses her libido, and she reaches out to others for friendships and connections. Gonzalez freely experiments with formats and story goals in these minis. One issue is nothing but dark four-panel gags. Another issue features an extended story of how Devil Dahlia wound up in an institution. Both of these issue flattered her strengths for the most part. Gonzalez's comics were less compelling when she was venting against crummy bands, whiny hipster cartoonists and other more ephemeral complaints. These tended to feel a bit dull and flat in comparison to those strips that flexed a sharper, darker sense of humor or depicted a nightmarish experience with wit and more than a little detachment. Her comics certainly deserve an extensive repackaging that flatters her expressive line to a much greater extent.

8 STORIES, by Rob Jackson. Rob Jackson is an artist with a pleasingly loopy sense of humor whose art is rapidly starting to catch up with his ambitions. His use of grey and black in depicting a city that fell in love with its own reflection nicely established the story's mood, and the way he both anthropomorphized the city and displayed the collateral damage it inflicted on its people was quite clever. Jackson's cruder stories tended to be more autobiographical, though these stories all had humorous content. "Rob Jackson's Rules of Life #6" was a brief bit of deadpan silliness that subverted its own initial conceit at the end. "Blood and White Water" amusingly told the story of his one and only attempt at white-water rafting, a story that played up his own ineptitude and humiliation to great effect. "Show Me Your Insect Hooves" was about his experience going to see his favorite band, drawn more-or-less on site. While I appreciated the spontaneity of this piece, it was so rough that it either needed to be left in the sketchbook or else redrawn.

My favorite two pieces in this comic couldn't be any more different. "My Nearest Mountain" finds him experimenting with what looks like a brush to tell a more serious story about a particular day trip. His line here is thicker and more expressive and gives the reader a real sense of the terrain. "Math-Ro-Mancer" is the sort of absurd, violent genre comic that Jackson does so well. It begins as a fantasy tale as two children seek out the Math-ro-mancer to help them multiply fractions, and the title character teaches them with the gruesome use of a corpse that induces them to vomit. Pulling back, we see that this is an educational TV show and our hero pensively wishes that he could do math without terrifying children. Jackson takes a ridiculous premise and then subverts it in the weirdest way possible. About the only thing I could have wished for in this story was a line that was either more deadpan or funnier looking. Jackson's line here falls short of the situation he creates. It serves well enough to understand the joke, but what separates Jackson from being a great humorist is that he doesn't yet have a fine enough control over his line to go the extra mile to sell his joke. Given his improvement in composing a page, he will likely soon reach a point where his line catches up to his ambition.

DARK CLOUD COMIN', by Ed Choy Moorman. This mini feels strongly influenced by ED THE HAPPY CLOWN-era Chester Brown in terms of its line, the ambiguity of its narrative and its bleak view of humanity. More specifically in terms of the art, the way Moorman uses oversized heads and straightforwardly engulfs his character in a world of nightmare logic also recalls Brown. There are a number of striking images in this comic: the mute giant who must swallow children to live and in turn (supposedly) protect a value; the way he feels haunted by this proposition and scrawls his tortured confessions on the side of a mountain; the girl/boy child Elona stopping the giant's heart from the inside; the final page where we see the interaction between Elona, a baby tadpole and the wind whistling through a tree's long branches.

This story feels like a splinter from a longer epic, pared down to a few important emotional beats. While the character of Elona and the giant maintain a certain delightful mysteriousness, the other principals are all frustratingly bland: the deceptive priest, the helpful newfound friend, the earnest but impotent mother. It felt like Moorman either gave the reader either too much information or not enough, and I am actually leaning toward the former. Moorman might have been better served removing a few pages of exposition in favor of forcing the reader to work harder to engage the many striking images in this comic. Still, it's obvious that Moorman is bursting with ideas, and each successive comic of his I read is better than the last. He's one of many comics in Minnesota who are making a name for themselves.

FROGHEAD HANGOVER, by William Cardini. Despite this comic's absurd title, it is absolutely an accurate description of its contents. Reminiscent of somewhere between Mat Brinkman and Sam Gaskin, Cardini tells a story of a video-game playing humanoid who wakes up from a bad hangover to find that a large froghead has somehow wound up in his house. It's 12-pages of well-designed silliness and a vibratory line that winds up teaching us not to play Dr. Mario with mysterious shamen, lest one find oneself at the receiving end of a powerful magic spell. Cardini doesn't bother with set-ups, explanations or other extraneous details to get to his eventual punchline; once reached, the story's over. His line is so appealing (yet idiosyncratic) to my eye that every page is a pleasure to look at. Unlike a number of artists influenced by Fort Thunder & Paper Rad, there's a great deal of clarity and confidence in his line. I could easily imagine a collection of a number of stories like this one making an impact in the world of comics.

WATER AND FALL, by Martine Workman. This is a charming series of drawings that loosely work together to form a narrative of sorts about water. Mostly, it's about water spraying people in weird and unexpected ways. At times, it acts as comics-as-poetry, creating a certain rhythm of images on the page to get across the visceral sensation of floating and/or being splashed. I particularly liked the way that Workman diligently stippled drops of water while crafting figures that were small blobs in the face of nature. This comic is a beautiful trifle; it doesn't aspire to deliver a powerful emotional statement but rather simply creates an atmosphere and details a singular and similar set of experiences. It fits quite nice into the overall aesthetic of comics & zines published by Little Otsu.

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