Monday, August 24, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Gfrorer, Neely, Huizenga, Jackson, Jay, Platt, Beyer, Wiedeman

Rob reviews another selection of minicomics from old pros and newcomers alike. Reviewed are ARIADNE AUF NAXOS V. 1 & 2, by Julia Gfrorer; SELF-INDULGENCE, by Tom Neely; GREAT DEEDS AGAINST THE DEAD, by Rob Jackson; RUMBLING Chapter 2, by Kevin Huizenga; MY EXPLODING HEAD, by John R. Platt; THE NATURAL WORLD #2, by Damien Jay; CASUAL SEX and CITY UNDER SAND, by David Beyer, Jr.; and THE DEFORMITORY, by Sophia Wiedeman.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, volume 1&2, by Julia Gfrorer. These fall into the category of what I call "ramble comics"--minis where the artist takes the reader on a rambling journey that usually features themselves or a stand-in as a character and where the action and scenery is fluid to the point of surreality. I'd throw Jonas Madden-Connor and Damien Jay (especially in POCKET PARTY) in this category as well. The title of the comic refers to a Richard Strauss opera that originally followed a long play that was about a commedia dell'arte being thrust into the middle of a serious work. In much the same way, Gfrorer thrusts herself into the middle of other storylines, fed by pop culture concerns. The results are hilarious, with her thin and spontaneous line feeding her twin concerns of absurdity and sheer horror.

The first issue, themed around the idea of time, features Julia encountering James Bond in his different incarnations, then getting bored and drawing Gilgamesh meeting Simon Templar (The Saint)--with herself as a character in that meetup. That duo starts making out, leaving Julia to comfort Gilgamesh's now-left out pal Enkidu. Julia goes on to meet up with Doctor Who
(leading to a comedy routine the two), St Francis of Assisi (whom she horrifies by chomping on a live rabbit) and Lancelot, whom she contacts with her mind. This is a playful comic where horrible & inexplicable things can happen at the drop of a hat. It has the feel of total spontaneity on each page, but really seems to conform more to the principles of long-form improv. That is, while each individual page and panel might be improvised, there's an underlying structure that is referred to from time to time and that pops up in surprising ways.

The second issue's theme is death, and it mostly sees Julia wandering around as a sort of ghost zombie after the king of the witches kills her. There's an obsession with nomenclature and language that pervades this comic, especially the ways in which focusing in on picayune details obscures real meaning. Grforer expresses this idea with deadpan wackiness, with dialogue a bit reminiscent of Mat Brinkman's MULTI-FORCE: slang and curses spoken by supernatural characters. Doctor Who pops up again, this time dancing around the theme of regeneration. This comic is as much about the creation of the comic as it is a narrative, as Grforer never lets the reader forget that the comic is being drawn and that she is drawing it, even as strange things happen to her. The drawings have the crackling energy of sketchbook spontaneity but with a wit that provides a solid support structure.

Tom Neely. This little mini is a wordless bit of body comedy/horror from an artist who combination of bigfoot drawing and naturalism creates an unsettling atmosphere. The concept is simple: a pair of naked twins faces each other and one starts eating the other whole. As he's doing this, his twin is excreted out the other side, until the original image is duplicated as the book's final panel. With Neely, the fun is in the visceral, inky details and exaggerated body language. The way he elongates arms and legs while drawing pubic hair in exacting detail is the sort of thing that creates the old/new tension in his comics, a visual signature of sorts. I believe he customizes the cover for this comic when purchased at conventions (he did a drawing of the wolf from THE BLOT on mine), which is just a bonus for this beautiful comic.

GREAT DEEDS AGAINST THE DEAD, by Rob Jackson. This is another off-kilter genre comic from the prolific Jackson, in the tradition of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar. This time around, Jackson takes on the occult, in this story about a haunted house manipulating a widower. Jackson manages to hit every note and cliche' while still telling a straight-ahead story, including occult investigators, paintings coming to life, being forced to sleep in a haunted house overnight and deadly cemetery statues. At the same time, Jackson's characters often drift off on amusing tangents, like the musings of a literary agent and the matter-of-fact rantings of the demonic house. Jackson's crude but earnest line tackles occult conventions with gusto, and that simplicity subverts the usual visual cliches one associates with the genre. Jackson backs up that feature with what looks to be some drawings from life that form a rough narrative of a day out. The main critique I might make of Jackson's work is to further simplify his line. There are times when he overrenders a bit in an effort to provide atmosphere, and it's distracting. Taking a further cue from the simple but clear style that Trondheim employs would go a long way to making his genre explorations all the more effective.

RUMBLING, Chapter 2, by Kevin Huizenga. With the cancellation of his D&Q series OR ELSE, Huizenga announced that he'd be continuing his "Rumbling" story in minicomics form. The second issue adds a bit of context and backstory to the vague sense of dread regarding an exile trying to evade the ramifications of a religious war. What's fascinating about this adaptation of a story by Giorgio Mangenelli is how Huizenga works in his visual and verbal interests into a previously existing narrative structure. There are the wide shots of countrysides and night skies, this time imbued with a feeling of doom instead of the usual sense of awe. There are the diagrams and philosophical asides that now represent life and death instead of merely playful exploration. It even features his signature everyman character Glenn Ganges, whose intellectual curiosity is subsumed in favor of survival and desire for human contact is warped into hermitage. The most fascinating thing about this story is the way Huizenga presents iconography as something that has lethal real-life consequences--both in a predictable way (religious wars) and unexpected (science wars). Glenn eschews all conflict and dips into his true love of ancient history, a pastime derided as heretical by all. Huizenga jumps around chronologically, going from quiet reflection to moments of danger along the way in rapid succession. It's a rich and potent stew from one of the most interesting cartoonists working today.

MY EXPLODING HEAD, by John R. Platt. Platt noted that this was his first mini-comic, and he was wise to play to his strengths as an artist. This is an 8-page collection of gags and observational humor that reminds me a bit of the sort of thing that Shannon Smith does. Platt employs a simple line that eschews extraneous details and overrendering and displays a knack for character design. His best strips actually feature jokes about monsters (like "Mummy Dearest" holding a wire hanger) and especially Bigfoot. Platt also did a micro-mini comic called "My Beard In Alternate Dimensions", which featured a number of funny Don Martin-style drawings of reimagined facial hair. There are downbeat undertones to his gags, as Platt also refers to his ongoing battles with depression, and it's interesting to see him deflect this particular show of emotion with jokes. It feels like Platt is slowly trying to figure out what he does best as a cartoonist and humorist, and I think that will be an interesting process.

THE NATURAL WORLD #2, by Damien Jay. One of my favorite minicomics artists returns with another chapter in what's shaping up to be a grimy fantasy epic. I'm reminded a bit of Terry Gilliam's film JABBERWOCKY, a medieval epic that paid special attention to the mud, manure and sheer unpleasantness of the life of a serf. Jay's greatest skill as an artist is his character design. The way he draws eyes (especially the bulging eyes of the forest hermit who falls in love with a female villager), facial expressions and gesture makes each page a pleasure to simply look at. While the pages look fine in greyscale, I must admit that I'd be very curious to see him unleash his vivid color sense on this story. There's an ease of pace to this story featuring all sorts of character bits, but I was surprised at the way Jay managed to pick up seemingly disparate plot threads and connect them. My favorite sequence in the comic featured a woman trying to hit on the village blacksmith, who was utterly immune and oblivious to her advances. The way she subtly removed her head scarf and tried to stand seductively, only to never even get the slightest glance from her intended, made what was essentially an extended conversation into something that drew the eye to the page. I'm guessing that this story will be Jay's longest sustained narrative to date.

CASUAL SEX and CITY UNDER SAND, by David Beyer, Jr. These are two sharp but very different looking minis. CITY UNDER SAND began as a 24-hour comic but turned into a comic mostly done on the subway--and given that the bulk of the narrative concerns a subway ride gone horribly awry, it's fitting. The story reminds a bit of Yuichi Yokoyama's TRAVEL in that it's a wordless comic that follows a particular traveler through a weird environment but doesn't seek to explain what he's doing or why. Beyer uses an expressive, scribbly style that's fleshed out with what looks like magic marker, adding atmosphere. I liked the way Beyer shifted the focus of the journey from what seemed like a long, arduous desert journey to a subway ride instead.

While CITY UNDER SAND was all about mood, CASUAL SEX was all about a clever device setting up a punchline. Beyer employs a naturalistic pencil style here in his depiction of a young man who wakes up with just one thought: "sex". That thought carries over throughout the day, culminating in a trip to the bar where he says things like "obnoxious sexual advance!" only to get slapped or drinks poured on him. The punchline of the strip, where the person he goes home with has more in store for him than he expected, was a perfect comeuppance for this walking pile of hormones. I get the sense that Beyer is very much still trying to figure out exactly what he wants to do as an artist in terms of the sorts of stories he wants to tell. It also seems as though he's trying to settle on a visual style. It's clear that his chops are already first-rate, with the confidence to create more spontaneous comics without overrendering like CITY UNDER SAND but the skill to pull off something trickier in CASUAL SEX. Beyer has the potential for a very

THE DEFORMITORY, by Sophia Wiedeman. This is a Xeric grant-winning book that's a collection of related short stories about the denizens of a sort of asylum for freaks. Wiedeman uses an intensive black & white pencil style with lots of hatching and cross-hatching but simple figures and faces. Her figures actually remind me a bit of Gabrielle Bell, but even more cartoony. Wiedeman's pages are cramped and claustrophobic, which I think is an intentional effect to heighten the occasional two-page spreads. These are cramped and claustrophobic stories about desperate people who have put themselves in tough situations.

The book is framed by the story of a young boy who sees a unicorn in a forest and is frozen by the memory, building himself a tower in hopes of one day seeing it again. Then we meet Dolores, a woman whose hands warped and deformed but one day turned into sentient crab-like appendages who became her friends. They pointed her to the Deformitory, a place where she would be accepted. It becomes evident that her hands have their own agenda as they point out the Heart Monster as something to be feared, when it seems that this may not be the case. That subsequent Heart Monster strip is a sort of pivot point for the book that takes it in a darker direction; the style she uses here is even more cartoony, even as the Heart Monster meets a bitter end.

From there, Wiedeman introduces us to a mermaid with tentacles who can't make friends and whines incessantly about it. When a slug-girl offers to hang out, the mermaid recoils in disgust, revealing her own shallow nature. We're then returned to a now happy Dolores, who makes the mistake of getting a date, sending her hands into a jealous fury. They attack her date, belittle her for crying, slowly torment her over time and then try to kill her. She drowns them in a bucket but immediately regrets it, given that they're all she had. The book's final pages find the man from earlier in the book finally meeting his unicorn again, bringing it within sight of a forlorn Dolores, offering a glimpse of hope for all.

Dolores' hands are a potent metaphor for any sort of self-destructive behavior or addiction. Even when they were trying to kill her, she desperately wanted them back. Wiedeman manages to sidestep hammering this idea home with the visceral nature of her storytelling. The panels where Dolores is drowning her hands are larger than most in the book, and her line is much more detailed; so as to force the reader to feel the impact of the event. There's also a lot of unexpected humor in the book (especially in the mermaid chapter) that leavens out the more melodramatic elements of the story. The best thing about the book is its elegant structure; its formal elements provide a solid framework for its flights of fancy. Like most young cartoonists, Wiedeman simply needs to refine her linework. Some of her use of cross-hatching seems overly fussy, detracting from her character work. Her use of gesture also seemed a bit awkward at times, especially when characters interacted with each other. Still, this was an enormously ambitious early work for the cartoonist, one worthy of wide attention.


  1. Great writeup. One note about the Huizenga mini. You say: "What's fascinating about this adaptation of a story by Giorgio Mangenelli is how Huizenga works in his visual and verbal interests into a previously existing narrative structure." The Manganelli story is extremely brief and elliptical, it's part of a book where all the stories are one-page vignettes. As I remember, the original story sets up the idea of a man fleeing his own country only to get stuck in the middle of another country's religious war, but it doesn't contain very much detail beyond that. Manganelli's stories are more about the play of language than the plot. So Huizenga's not so much working within the original author's narrative structure as he is greatly expanding upon the themes and ideas hinted at in Manganelli's vague, ambiguous little sketch. I was somewhat ambivalent about the first installment of "Rumbling," but the second one developed it in interesting ways; I think this could be a fairly satisfying work if Huizenga completes and collects it.

  2. Thanks for the review! Much appreciated!

  3. There is a sense of ambiguity I feel in Rambling. I feel a bit disoriented when reading it. I agree a complete collection will add a lot to the reading experience.

  4. Ed,

    Thanks for that information; reminds me a bit of what Terry Gilliam did with "12 Monkeys" adapting it from "La Jette". I also think "Rumbling" could wind up as something great, given time and development. The one thing he has yet to do is a long-form story, and I'll be curious just to see how long he stretches this out.
    Have you ever read "Green Tea", Huizenga's adaptation of a story that came out in Orchid a few years back? That was another example of him taking a pre-existing structure and adding his own interests.
    By the way, are you writing regularly anywhere these days?

  5. Rob, good point about Gilliam, that's a great comparison. "Green Tea" is great as well, though in that case I'm not familiar with the original story, so I can't comment on that aspect. Huizenga is interesting to me whatever he's doing, and I'm really curious to see where he goes with this; I hope it does wind up being his first longform story.

    I'm not writing about comics anywhere these days, but I do write quite a lot about film, both at my blog Only The Cinema and at The House Next Door.