Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Smith, Cagle, Mitchell, Stafford, Pasty Anthology, Volk, Candy Or Medicine, McAndrew

Time to take a look at the latest batch of minicomics that have come to my attention. Included are minis by Bill Volk, Phil McAndrew, Susie Cagle, Brian John Mitchell, Ryan Cecil Smith and Tyler Stafford, as well as anthologies Candy or Medicine and the Pasty Anthology.

TWO EYES OF THE BEAUTIFUL and UN PETIT CARNET DE VOYAGE II, by Ryan Cecil Smith. Smith is the first of the Closed Caption Comics group that I've had a chance to read, and I was impressed by both of these minis. TWO EYES OF THE BEAUTIFUL is an adaptation of Umezuo Kazuo's "Blood Baptism", billed as "a grotesque horror manga". It's an over-the-top, jam-packed story about an actress with a disfiguring facial disease and a mysterious doctor who compels her to do all sorts of horrible things for a potential cure. Smith throws the kitchen sink at the reader visually, with zip-a-tone, photorealist panels, and heavily rounded Tezuka-like figures. The highlight for me was a witty four-page sequence where the actress is trying to tie up an innocent girl for hideous purposes--with nothing but zip-a-tone and sound effects representing the dark room. Smith cleverly captures the crazed nature of J-horror, mixing warped humor and genuinely disturbing images.

UN PETIT CARNET DE VOYAGE is a travelogue in the tradition of French comics, showing off Smith's lush brushwork. He is currently teaching english in Japan, and so made the trip from Osaka to Hiroshima, ostensibly for a sake festival. He notes with some delight that he feels like he's learning to draw trees, and they are indeed some of the most striking images in this minicomic. It's interesting seeing him mix Japanese imagery (especially with regards to trees and buildings) with a more French style of line with regard to his figures. This is one of the most beautiful minicomic sketchbooks I've ever seen, and I only wish it was printed bigger. It's obvious that Smith has tremendous tools as an artist, and I'll be eager to see how his time in Japan continues to influence his work.

THIS AND THAT #3, ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH?, THE SECRET THOUGHTS OF HAROLD LAWRENCE WINDCRAMPE, and PEARLY WHITES, by Phil McAndrew. McAndrew is all about character and caricature in these comics. SECRET THOUGHTS... is a Jules Feifferesque mini about an ineffectual guy who whines about not having a girlfriend and then spies a perfect candidate...only to lose her to an alpha male. It's nicely drawn but with a predictable ending, though he did get off a great joke in the middle ("Lola is too picky" after rattling off a capricious list of reasons why all the girls he knew weren't good enough for him). THIS AND THAT sees the artist collecting a variety of sketches, gags, and short stories in a variety of styles. He seems most comfortable drawing slightly grotesque caricatures with lots of angles, bushy eyebrows, stubbly facial hair and bulbous noses.

Speaking of facial hair, ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH? was the funniest of these entries. He combined his scratchy line, pointy noses and exaggerated character design with an excellent gag: a wimpy suitor impressing his girl's hyper-masculine father with an "awesome drum solo" so powerful that the father's moustache flies off of his lip and on to the suitor. He rides away with his lover with a motorcycle summoned by his moustache. PEARLY WHITES features another grotesque, scribbly, hyperemotional figure who regrets a lost love. McAndrew backs up a good final gag involving a creature sending him back in time in exchange for his teeth with a series of funny drawings. McAndrew is leaning heavily on his chops at the moment and still seems to be finding his way with regard to story structure. Of course, his control over his line is pretty remarkable at this stage. With his skills, it's likely that he will improve from story to story, as he continues to develop and refine his style and story interests.

O WOE! and DOMESDAY by Bill Volk. The first effort I read from this Center for Cartoon Studies student was a 24-hour comic (THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED). While that mini was rough in presentation, one could see a witty voice emerging. O WOE! is an account of the creation myth and apocalypse of a civilization that rose out of the remains of a giant space sperm. It's a clever idea with some funny and even disturbing bits (like a society that fell because of "doubling", wherein the rich made duplicates of all their possessions, up to and including cities--only to leave them unused), but Volk's chops weren't quite up to making their society as vivid as it needed to be. I'd love to see Volk redraw this comic at some point.

On the other hand, DOMESDAY is a comic that plays to Volk's strengths as an artist: character design, gesture and exaggeration. The story's about William the Conqueror's rule over England, and follows a young man following the king's decree of counting the possessions of every man in the country. The young man, of Norman descent, is terrified of the savage English, and Volk gets a lot of mileage out of the young man fearing for his life and begging god for mercy. The superdeformed looking character design is clever, giving this historical account a certain playfulness. Historical fiction, especially of an obscure nature, may well be Volk's forte, and I'll be interested in seeing how he continues to develop.

FOLK #3 by Tyler Stafford. This is a 24-hour comic by this intriguing cartoonist who works in the Brian Ralph/Mat Brinkman tradition. The best thing about the comic, other than a surprisingly well-defined plot, is the delightfully loony character design. The story follows an escaped prisoner on an alien world who is captured after breaking out and returned to his cell. Stafford then takes the story in a weird direction, as the jewel on the alien's head pops out and it magically rescues them all...with some unforseen complications at the very end. The way Stafford manipulates the shapes of his characters is what appeals to me the most: the oval-headed heroes, villains with bullet heads and creatures with heads that look like light switches, the weird Vaughn Bode-like helmet of the female leader and the toy-like proportions of the spaceship. This is a goof of a comic that does what Stafford does best: put funny-looking characters in motion.

NINE GALLONS by Susie Cagle. Cagle cleverly mixes the personal, the political and a keen eye for caricature in this account of her time with Food Not Bombs. This mini was the first part of a longer work related to this subject, and is unusual for a story with a strong political point of view in that it's not a polemic. Instead, it's a warts 'n all love letter to the various people she met when she was helping feed the homeless of San Francisco. Cagle takes aim at herself as much as anyone as she encounters, depicting herself as hemming and hawing and having trouble asserting herself. The story she relates is equal parts ambivalence and affection, given the friable and flaky people she encountered in the organization, like the group leader who always passes on cooking duties and urges her to go faster when she's chopping potatoes. Her most affectionate portraits are reserved for the people she helped feed--even the ones who screamed at her. There's a freshness to Cagle's point of view and a lot of verve to her line, making her an artist to seek out for those interested in political cartooning and comics journalism.

JUST A MAN, WORMS #4, XO #5 and LOST KISSES #9 & #10, by Brian John Mitchell, et al. These are tiny micro-mini comics, measuring about 2x2", and range from 16-40 pages each. Mitchell is the writer for all of them and is also the (stick-figure) artist of LOST KISSES. Most of these are parts of a series, all of which are easy to pick up on as Mitchell hops from genre to genre. JUST A MAN, drawn by Andrew White, is a sort of hard-bitten western, stripped of glory. A farmer sees his house burned down, his infant son killed and his wife disappear. He's pretty sure he knows who did it, and hunts them down, one by one. I liked the voice Mitchell used for the character, but he overwrote this story. That's not unusual for a writer collaborating with an artist, but the story would have had a bit more power if the first-person narrative had been sparer and he let the visuals carry the story.

WORMS and XO fall into the realms of sci-fi/horror and crime noir, respectively. WORMS had a zippy pace to it and appealingly minimalist art by Kimberlee Traub that fit the story nicely, one that featured a young woman who witnessed the death of her father and was the subject of an experiment in a lab. This issue found her gaining power through some strange worms, subduing her tormentor, and escaping. The single panel per page format fit with Traub's striking and hallucinatory imagery. XO had a similarly snappy pace to it but was let down by Melissa Spence Gardners art. It was competent, but it didn't fit the story's mood or add anything to Mitchell's narrative, which needed a moodier style.
The stand-outs in this set were Mitchell's issues of LOST KISSES. These stick-figure comics were first-person, meandering observations about human behavior and the narrator's own misanthropy. What's clever about these strips is precisely the same thing that hamstrung JUST A MAN: there's a narrative caption working against the image and dialogue on each page (it's a panel per page for all of these comics). However, in this comic, there's a comedic tension that arises as a result of that juxtaposition. Issue #10 was especially amusing, as it was a takedown of the concept of love and those who insist on expressing it, with the author worrying about falling for that fallacy himself. I love how unassuming and direct these comics are; there are no frills or pretensions here--just a writer and artists who are experimenting with a variety of means of expression.

CANDY OR MEDICINE 4-7 and LUNARCY, edited by Josh Blair. Blair's modest little anthology continues to roll on. Each issue is 16 pages long (including covers) and is just a dollar. The focus is on up-and-coming creators, though virtually issue has work by at least one reasonably well-published cartoonist. The highlights of #4 are a great gag strip by Blair and Ray N (punning on "Love Is Blind" in clever fashion) and Kevin Richardson's strip about a loveline DJ who gets his heart broken in a bar. His character design and use of gesture carry the strip.

Issue five has a couple of Shannon Smith strips later reprinted in his own minis, a "missed connections" strip by Ed Moorman that had a certain sweet wistfulness to it, and a cleverly-designed strip about a sleepwalker meeting a series of horrible fates. The sixth issue's highlights center around gags, featuring up-and-coming cartoonist Lydia Conklin with a couple of surprisingly silly punchlines, Jason Viola contributing a typically cartoony strip about a playground lawyer, and Patrick Morgan selling a character named Blobby for all that he's worth ("Do you dance?" "I shimmy..."). The latest issue's best story was from Tyler Stafford, who contributed a typically quirky tale of a tiny space creature that winds up popping a hole in a giant space whale.

LUNARCY is a comic filled with silent-beat gags involving the moon hanging in the sky, eventually making absurd or witty declarations. Blair is a crude draftsman but I admire the level of devotion he has to his gags as well as his sense of timing. In general, CANDY OR MEDICINE is an interesting if uneven sampler of new voices in comics from across the world, from an editor who is clearly devoted to creating a showcase for these voices. Many of the comics in this anthology aren't very polished, but I admire the diversity of styles and aesthetic choices featured here.

THE PASTY ANTHOLOGY, edited by Rob Jackson. This is anthology devoted to the glories of the British baked goods known as pasties, a quirky and geographically specific theme that was somehow delightfully conveyed. The stories range from Steve Butler's cautionary tale of why being a health nut (and denying oneself a tasty pasty) can be hazardous to one's health to Dave Hughes' pasty-obsessed character studies to Jackson's absurd history of the importance of pasties throughout history.

What I found surprising about this anthology was how much witty cartooning there was to be found. Jim Medway's calendar comic featuring anthropomorphic animals buying food at a pastry shop was a clever talking head strip with surprisingly expressive characters. Francesa Cassavetti's account of being scared as a girl because she swallowed chewing gum (leading to her ignoring pain that would turn out to be an appendectomy) was my favorite strip in the book, thanks to her loose character design and appealingly sketchy line. Even the text pieces in the book fit into the uncompromisingly provincial nature of the anthology. Jackson's hand as an editor is quite evident here, given each artist's total commitment to absurd ideas and seeing them through as seriously as possible.


  1. Thank you so much for the review and even more for liking my chewing gum story. You can check out more of my stuff on my website and some is posted on comicspace (link on my blog).