Monday, August 31, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Reklaw, Nelson, Frank, Madness

Rob reviews TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #2-4 by Jesse Reklaw; TYPHOON #1 by Kelli Nelson; NEGRO FRANKENSTEIN by Al Frank; and REAL MADNESS COMIX by Bobby Madness.

TEN THOUSAND THINGS TO DO #2-4, by Jesse Reklaw. This is the print version of Reklaw's one-year journal comic project that's going to wrap up in a couple of weeks. It's no surprise that the artist behind SLOW WAVE has always been interested in formal constraints, and so TTTTD employs a (mostly) rigid 4-panel grid in every strip and tends to follow similar patterns on a day-to-day basis. There's a density to everything that Reklaw draws, a richness found in every panel both in terms of content and drawings. One gets the sense that Reklaw feels an obligation to the reader to entertain them while recording quotidian details like meals and time spent sleeping. What's most interesting about this comic is the way that it seems to be acting as a form of therapy, even if such revelations tend to either be asides or come from out of the blue. Reklaw even comments on doing this, noting that he can say things about pain and depression in his journal that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about with his friends. From both the title of his comic and the frenetic way he goes about his life, Reklaw fills his schedule with projects and an active social life as a distraction of sorts, a way of staving off feelings of failure and depression.

As the strip proceeds, Reklaw opens up a bit and discusses those feelings and how he finds ways to fight them and stay creative. One of the most fascinating running bits in the strip was a daily meter that measured pain in his shoulders, head and back; mood; energy level; and caffeine & alcohol consumption. It highlighted just how much pain he lives with on a daily basis, something that he glosses over in some of his strips. Something that isn't spelled out is the way that Reklaw has assembled a tremendous support system of friends, even if he mostly acts as the life of the party around them. Reklaw actively fights against the sort of isolation that many cartoonists wind up experiencing, both in terms of of his social life and artistic pursuits like playing in a band, organizing gallery shows and the many comics projects he has a hand in.

Reklaw's greatest asset as a cartoonist is his brain. I'm not sure if rendering other people's dreams for years gave him the tools to solve problems on the page in creative ways or if he was drawn to begin SLOW WAVE because it gave him an challenging outlet for his ideas, but in any event, Reklaw thinks through each page and assignment like few other artists. In particular, he has a way of mediating genres through different story filters. For example, in COUCH TAG, Reklaw is working in autobio filtered through accounts of pets and a particular set of activities with friends. BLUEFUZZ is straight-up fantasy filtered through an absurd framework and dialogue. And TTTTD is a diary comic peppered with gags, one-liners, and guest strips, surrounding the grind of committing to such a grueling project. Reklaw seems incapable of half-assing anything (even if he might say otherwise), and one has to admire the level of devotion shown in this comic in terms of drawing and structure. At sixty pages apiece with an immense (but clearly presented) amount of detail on each page, these are not comics that simply fly by. They present rewards for readers that linger on particular panels or pages, and I think that once it's over, TTTTD will be regarded as one of the best of all comics memoir strips.

TYPHOON #1, by Kelli Nelson. Nelson is a long-time favorite of mine whose style is marked by a stark, computer-drawn line. While I usually have a hard time looking at such art, Nelson has made that style her own, creating a harsh aesthetic that matches her acerbic wit. TYPHOON is a venture into fiction, depicting the aftermath of a cataclysmic storm that has flooded the world. This is really a story about trying to keep one's sanity in the face of oblivion, as the two characters we meet have to come to terms with the flood in different ways. The woman keeps her sanity by anthropomorphizing the storm and gaining new strength by trying to find more survivors. The man, stuck on an island, had to deal with his own psychosis at feeling like the last, trapped man on earth. This is an elegant little comic with an intriguing premise and a beautiful design that perfectly suits Nelson's voice.

NEGRO FRANKENSTEIN, by Al Frank. In Portland, the three small press publishers Sparkplug, Tugboat Press & Teenage Dinosaur occupy a continuum of sorts in terms of the kind of comics they publish. Tugboat publishes the most mainstream and straightforward of the three publishers, while Teenage Dinosaur's releases are very much raw, underground comics. (Sparkplug tends to be somewhere inbetween the two extremes). Al Frank's comic is an old-school rant, dwelling on old high school tormentors and acerbic thoughts on race & gender. The two best strips are the autobio "1983" and "1993", two accounts of the perils of being African-American in a mostly white community. In the latter comic, Frank reluctantly goes to a swimming hole, worried about running into rednecks who were going to harass him for having a white girlfriend. When his worries turn out to be well-founded, the fury and helplessness he feels fairly vibrate off the page. The scribbly line he uses here is well-suited to the immediacy of the story. "1983" finds an middle school-aged Frank dealing with a bully and trying to get the attention of a girl, finding no solace or resolution to his desires. Frank employs a stick-figure style that feels a bit like Peanuts gone horribly awry. Frank's at his best when he channels his anger into memoir; his gag strips have a certain mean-spirited edge to them, but are almost entirely dependent on the context of the other stories for their ultimate meaning.

REAL MADNESS COMIX #3, by Bobby Madness. Madness is a regular with Teenage Dinosaur, and he's very much in the underground tradition, albeit with more of a political than sexual emphasis. In that respect, he has more in common with punk/DIY culture than some of the slicker work found in ZAP or HOTWIRE. There's also a great deal of sympathy with Big Daddy Roth's motorcycle comics of the 60s and graffiti artists. Indeed, his drawings of cars and motorcycles are the most lovingly rendered in the book, compared to the way he clearly quickly drew the rest of the comics in the book. This comic is a clearinghouse for his stories, and the effect is rather scattershot. Strips like "Tom Teen" are funny in the underground tradition, as Madness uses a variation of Archie-style drawing in depicting drugs, violence, anarchy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There are a lot of great gags in this story and it's rendered in a slightly less sloppy fashion than some of the other strips. Like all of his work, it's bursting with energy but never overcrowded.

"Uzi Duck" and "Gun Girl" are fairly self-explanatory strips that seemed pretty quickly scribbled out and improvised--violent gags with absurd premises. Madness even makes fun of his characters later in the issue, noting they are the "world's shitty-ist cartoon characters", vowing "we'll never sell out. How? Because we never sell!" There are a number of single-page sets of gags, and the self-deprecating Madness chides himself for ripping off MAD when he's supposed to be an underground artist. That particular panel really spelled out his appeal to me: he's a politically aware gag cartoonist who doesn't take himself too seriously. That said, he's also clearly compelled to write and draw; it's something that seems as important as breathing to him.

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