Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Generational Shift: SPX 2009

Rob reports on this year's Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD.

I've been attending SPX since 1997, the last year that it was a one-day show. As always, the types exhibitors present made it possible for attendees to have completely different kinds of shows, depending on their interests. In its old location, the show was small enough for me to feel like I'd exhausted every possibility in terms of seeing old favorites and carving out time for new discoveries. The show has changed in ways that no longer make that possible, something I discovered last year and really had driven home to me this year after I left. Here's a list of observations about the ways SPX has evolved in its fifteen year history and other observations related to this year's event:

* The sustained presence of web cartoonists. Kate Beaton stunned all sorts of people with her rock-star reception last year, and it was more of the same for many fans who came to see their favorite webcartoonists and who had little interest in other exhibitors. By the same token, many fans who came to see their favorite print cartoonists were baffled by the lines the webcartoonists had at their tables. The Comic Strips: Online and In Print panel was absolutely packed with fans in a way that few other panels could boast.

* The absence of well-known cartoonists from New York and the west coast. There was no table from Artists With Problems, no one from Meathaus, a tiny turnout from the Sparkplug gang, few cartoonists from the Portland or Bay Area scenes, and so on. This represented a generation of cartoonists mostly older than thirty that weren't at the show. I'm not sure how much of this was local shows drawing those cartoonists in (Portland has Stumptown, and there's going to be a new alt-comix show in Brooklyn), the national economic crisis, or simply folks getting older and not having the time to make it to the show. Along the same lines, there simply weren't too many artists older than 30 at the show, including any number of long-time stalwarts at the show. There were exceptions: Josh Neufeld (completing his rise from self-published artist to receiving national & mainstream praise for his recent Pantheon book), James Kochalka, Jeffrey Brown, Kevin Huizenga, and Dan Zettwoch, to name a prominent few.

* The influence of formal comics education. Schools like SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), SVA (School of Visual Arts) and especially CCS (Center for Cartoon Studies) are producing wave after wave of young, enthusiastic cartoonists. CCS-related cartoonists had a dozen or more tables, with nearly three dozen students or alums in attendance. In talking to a number of CCS folks, I was struck not only by how many alums stick around White River Junction after graduation, but by how totally sold out to comics they are. A culture has been created that not only provides support and encouragement but also demands a strong work ethic and a commitment to constantly growing.

I spoke to Zak Sally, who is currently a teacher at MCAD, about how he felt going from being a DIY cartoonist to an educator. He noted that he felt conflicted about this at first, but that quickly faded when he saw the impact that he had in helping young cartoonists solve storytelling problems and their enthusiasm. To me, this feels less like going to school to learn cartooning and more about old-fashioned apprenticeship. There's a tradition of younger artists learning the nuts and bolts of the art from experienced masters, and it's a tradition that seems to be coming alive now. The best way to go about this is still a matter of some debate, so I will be curious to see how Jesse Reklaw and a number of Portland cartoonists approach this problem with their educational program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC).

* The wane of traditional genre comics. A decade ago, the show was roughly 50% genre comics of some sort (many of them superhero comics), 50% alt-comics. Now it's more like 15% genre comics, 85% alt-comics--and most of the genre comics are either fantasy or horror (there were lots of zombie-related comics around). Minicomics dominated this show, and there seemed to be a sensible balance between mini as art object and mini as storytelling device. That said, the distinction between genre and non-genre comics has not only become less important, but it's started to blur. The New Action panel dealt with artists who drew genre comics of a kind, like Kaz Strzepek's THE MOURNING STAR. This is a post-apocalyptic story that's published by Bodega, one of the most refined of all publishing concerns.

* The strength of the programming. In the older days of the show, much of the programming was strictly perfunctory, with the exception of events related to ICAF (International Cartoon Art Festival, which brought in any number of interesting guests). Since Bill Kartalopolous took over the programming four years ago, nearly every panel is worth seeing. Bill dutifully made sure events started and ended on time and that panelists & moderators were in the right place at the right time. That also speaks to the organization of the show. Simply put, this is the best-run show I've ever attended, and it's only gotten better since it moved to North Bethesda.

This is a nice segue into the panels I attended or participated in during the weekend. First up was Debut Cartoonists, a panel I moderated. I showed up right at the 12:30 start time, running a bit later than I would have preferred, but all four participants had arrived. The panel was devoted to four cartoonists debuting new work at the show, a sort of replacement for the always-nebulous Best Debut Ignatz award which had been done away with. The group included Ken Dahl (aka Gabby Schulz), debuting MONSTERS; Zak Sally, debuting a collection of older material called LIKE A DOG; Eleanor Davis, debuting the kid-aimed THE SECRET SCIENCE ALLIANCE (AND THE COPYCAT CROOK); and Hans Rickheit (THE SQUIRREL MACHINE). After a slow start, the artists started to bounce ideas off each other, resulting in a panel that felt a bit like a cathartic therapy session at times. Sally talked about the struggles he had in going back to old material and trying to reconnect to the feelings he had about comics at the time. He and Dahl (a natural storyteller) commiserated on fighting feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing as an artist and allowing themselves to say that it was OK to seek feedback and get people to read their work. Davis was the panel's catalyst, engaging her friend Dahl on several occasions and creating debate around the feelings an artist gets when a project has been completed. Rickheit talked about his creative process and working from dream imagery, and noted that he particularly enjoyed hearing new interpretations of the book's ending from readers. I've rarely seen a panel where the artists really engaged each other so thoroughly and on so many levels.

I participated in this year's Critics' Roundtable once again, with Gary Groth, Douglas Wolk, Chris Mautner, Joe "Jog" McCulloch, Sean T. Collins and Tucker Stone. Moderator Bill Kartalopolous asked us questions less about specific works and more about a variety of experiences related to writing and critique. Johanna Draper Carlson had a nice summary of the event on her blog. For my part, I wished the event was about three times longer, so as to get longer answers from everyone. What I liked best about the panel this year was the looser feel of the event, with more give and take between panelists. We were just starting to get warmed up on the subject of negative criticism when we ran out of time. I could feel half of the panelists bristle when I noted my disdain of snark in criticism, and I would have enjoyed some back and forth on that topic. Collins has audio of the panel.

The attendance at panels and spotlights varied widely. For reasons I don't quite understand, the critics' panel was packed. On the other hand, the spotlights on legendary artists Carol Tyler & John Porcellino were sparsely attended. Porcellino's longtime friend and current publisher Zak Sally loosely moderated his panel, which began with a slideshow presentation of his brand new King-Cat collection from Drawn & Quarterly, MAP OF MY HEART. The material from this book is rather downbeat, given that it covered a period of time when he had to deal with sickness, divorce and loneliness. I asked him about his work in relation to poetry and its rhythms, because the actual comics only cryptically alluded to the real-life events that inspired them. He replied that he indeed took a cue from poetry in the way he pared away anecdote and tried to get at the feelings behind them. This work covered a fairly long span of time, and one could see the way his minimalist style became even sparer, yet more confident. The same is true of his use of language, which has a remarkable precision. Porcellino noted that while this material dealt with depression, he was also hungover and was hoping for some fun questions. Someone asked him about his beloved Chicago Bears and a fan told him that he used to use one of his book collections as a defacto bank.

Tyler, as one might expect, was a warm and charming raconteur. Douglas Wolk moderated her panel, wherein she discussed her brilliant comic YOU'LL NEVER KNOW. She spoke at length about the new audience she's acquired in the publication of this book about her father's World War II experiences. That includes places like American Legion meetings, VFW gatherings, etc. Her book is about trauma and how a generation was trained to subsume it, and how it came out in other ways. At one meeting, she talked about laying out the art on a number of tables for the veterans to walk around and peruse, and she noted how many of them were reaching for their handkerchiefs and gruffly blowing their noses so as to not reveal their tears. Tyler spoke of trying to bridge the generation gap and telling these men it was time for them them to tell their stories. To that end, she said that she invited a large group of veterans to the class she teaches at the University of Cincinnati on comics. She paired up students with veterans and assigned the students the task of interviewing them and adapting their stories to comics. That's an inspired move, and she noted it was her way of breaking the students out of their navel-gazing comics by telling someone else's story--of something that was important.

I don't know the final numbers, but I was impressed by the attendance at the show. Even with panels pulling in a couple of hundred fans for an hour, traffic on Saturday was shoulder-to-shoulder. SPX Director Karon Flage told me that DC folk not only flock to this show, they do so looking to spend money. A lot of exhibitors told me that sales were doing quite nicely for them, which had to be heartening given the economic downturn. This is an event that people save up for, and everyone seemed to get something out of the experience. While it is unfortunate that the encounters fans have with artists here is primarily a commercial one, as artists are looking to make sales, I was struck by the number of lingering conversations and interactions I saw at the tables. I still dream of a juried art exhibit room for SPX, where fans can peruse original art (and make arrangements to buy it later if so desired). I'd also love to see the CCS workshop on both days of the show, given its popularity and opportunity for fans to experience comics in yet another different way. As a venue, the Marriott is functional, if a bit stiff and cold for such an event. On the other hand, the surreality of seeing a beauty pageant or gospel music event next door to SPX was amusing.

Flage noted that no changes were planned for SPX in terms of size, and that none would happen unless attendance continued to grow. At this point, I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon. There are simply too many regional comics festivals that have sprouted up to make SPX a can't-miss event on a national scale every year. The reality is that there are no can't-miss events anymore, because chances are that both fans and exhibitors will have any number of chances to attend a relatively nearby comics festival of some sort. Still, with guests like Gahan Wilson (whose spotlight session was quite well-attended), SPX is still the premier show of its kind--especially given the recent organizational problems that MOCCA has suffered. All told, the generational shift has been good for the show, keeping it fresh for both participants and exhibitors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

High-Low, Baillie, Reed & Dahl @ Duke University

Attention North Carolina Residents: I will be moderating a panel featuring MK Reed, Liz Baillie and Ken Dahl on September 29th (that's this Tuesday) at the Sallie Bingham Center (in Perkins Library, room 217) at Duke University in lovely Durham, NC. The three artists will be reading from recent works and then will discuss them in relationship to gender. Festivities begin at 4pm and will conclude at 6pm.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Minicomics Round-Up: Downes, Madden-Connor, Dinski

Rob reviews minicomics from Christopher Downes, Will Dinski and Jonas Madden-Connor.

A DIARY OF A WORK IN PROGRESS, by Christopher Downes. As one might ascertain from the title, Downes pens a diary comic. It's unremarkable in that regard, though Downes does slowly start to reveal more about the hopes, fears and dreams of himself and his wife as time passes. Despite an obvious restlessness with regard to his life working in a department store, Downes' essentially cheery nature prevents the comic from bogging down into an autobio whine session. Indeed, he seems quite happy to be living in Tasmania with his wife and cat, pondering the issue of progeny. What makes this comic stand out is the appealing nature of his line. I love the thickness of his line, the way he densely hatches and cross-hatches and his charming character design. There's a little bit of R.Crumb, Craig Thompson, and Drew Weing (the artist whose style he most closely resembles) to be found in his art. His lettering is drop-dead gorgeous, with thick stylized letters that are printed slightly off-kilter against each other but still come together to form an attractive whole--and one that's quite easy to read. This is an artist with great chops and style who is still searching for his voice. I would be eager to see him try his hand at fiction or any kind of longer-form comic, especially one that pushes him to become more formally experimental. There are hints of that to be found in terms of the way he uses panels as a storytelling device (a panel bending back under the pressure of wind, or crashing down through two panels when he's exhausted), and I think he could tell an entertaining story as he made that kind of exploration.

COVERED IN CONFUSION, by Will Dinski. Dinski continues his recent string of excellent minis with a story that's a bit more straightforward than his usual stories. At the same time, there's a greater richness and complexity in both plot and characterization, with surprising story layers that manifest themselves in unusual ways. Dinski begins the story with a discussion of why we blush, a trope that pops up throughout the story of a woman recalling the tragic story of a favorite high school teacher. That teacher, Mr Danielson, was a quirky guy with a habit of stealing pens from other faculty and being a steadfast voice of support for his students. He was also the stereotypical absent-minded professor, something that's amusingly set up early in the book but leads to horrific consequences in the story's climax. This story is about triggers of trauma, as the woman is triggered by the cries of a baby in the apartment next door and reminded that she might have prevented the tragedy. That realization is a shattering one for the reader, yet Dinski handles it with a great deal of restraint.

All of Dinski's usual stylistic signatures are in effect here, yet stand out a bit less than usual thanks to the compelling nature of his story. There's the way he uses word balloons to block out whole panels, the way he uses a blank panel with a triangle in the corner to indicate time passing (a page being turned, as it were), his unusual character design (lots of angles, squidged eyes, bushy eyebrows) and formal flourishes (the splash pages freezing characters in time, almost like a yearbook photo, the cover glowing in the dark). The cumulative effect of Dinski's formal approach is a cold one, a coolness that distances the reader. That coolness is what allows him to tell such a downbeat story with so much restraint; the reader never feels manipulated nor is sentiment ever earned cheaply. It helps that the dialogue is never overwrought; indeed, conversations in Dinski's comics are deliberately on the spare side as he prefers to let images convey most of his story's major beats. With this story and last year's ERRAND SERVICE, it seems as though Dinski is reaching a new level of maturity and ambition as an artist, exploring emotional depths as well as creating a unique page.

OCHRE ELLIPSE #3, by Jonas Madden-Connor. Madden-Connor is an exciting newcomer whose specialty has been bold formal experiments coupled with a lingering sense of wanderlust and melancholy. The latter two aspects of his work were certainly at play in this new issue, though the formal fireworks were considerably toned down. Madden-Connor likes bending time and space as formal elements in his comics, but given that this story was about both time travel and the way one's past images accrue, it makes sense that he'd mute those formal elements.

The story seems heavily influenced by Lewis Trondheim by way of Chris Ware, though the tone is entirely his own. The figures are simple ovals (ala Trondheim's MISTER O) but retain a great deal of expressiveness. The comics' hook is killer: an unhappy, lonely man who remembers a happy childhood despite being a loner goes back in time to those happy days. Despite the fact that he can't interact with anyone as a time travel (appearing as a ghost), the visits to his childhood self with an intricately detailed fantasy life fill him with joy. The eventual resolution of the story is both heartbreaking and sweet, as the man realizes that the accumulation of his ghost images was the inspiration for that wonderful fantasy life--but that he will never be capable of any other happiness. Madden-Connor concludes the issue with the actual fantasy being played out as his childhood self imagined it, a wonderful sequence that recontextualizes earlier scenes in the book. Madden-Connor deftly uses genre trappings (even throwing a "science-fiction" sticker on the cover with an iconic ray-gun) to tell a story of one man's infinite emotional loop.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

High-Low At SPX and 12 Artists To Seek Out

I will be at SPX, perhaps the premier alt-comics event, this Saturday, September 26th in Bethesda, MD. I'll be part of the Critics' Roundtable at 3:30pm in the Brookside Conference Room, along with Gary Groth, Douglas Wolk, Sean T. Collins, Chris Mautner, Tucker Stone and Joe "Jog" McCulloch and moderator Bill Kartalopolous. I really enjoyed last year's panel and I'm looking forward to having a discussion with so many esteemed critics. I'll also be hosting a Debut Cartoonists panel, spotlighting new work by Hans Rickheit (THE SQUIRREL MACHINE), Eleanor Davis (THE SECRET SCIENCE ALLIANCE), Ken Dahl (MONSTERS), and the great Zak Sally (LIKE A DOG).

Here's my annual list of artists to seek out at the con. This is obviously not any sort of exhaustive list of artists that I like or will seek out on my own. Consider it a survey of new artists, significant artists making their first appearance at SPX, artists with interesting new releases, artists deserving greater exposure and folks whose work I simply admire.

1. John Porcellino. One of the greatest exemplars of minicomics as a viable format of their own, separate from potential collections. He'll have not just a collection of KING-CAT out from Drawn & Quarterly called MAP OF MY HEART, he'll also have a brand-new issue of the series. SPX is one of the first stops on his extensive book tour of the country celebrating his 20th anniversary of his career. His extremely spare line is a testament to how one can be devastatingly expressive using a minimalist style. Porcellino will also have original art for sale. This is his first appearance at the con since 1997, and a generation of cartoonists has been strongly influenced by his approach. He will have a 2pm spotlight on Saturday in the White Flint Amphitheater and will be signing at the D&Q table on Saturday from 11:30-1pm and Sunday from 1-3pm. Sally will moderate the spotlight session, and I should note that he's most certainly another artist to seek out.

2. Colleen Frakes. One of my favorite graduates from the Center For Cartoon Studies (along with Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford and the rest of the Sundays gang), Frakes' recent WOMAN KING was simultaneously lovely and disturbing. I'd also seek out her older TRAGIC RELIEF minicomics.

3. Carol Tyler. One of the greatest working cartoonists makes her SPX debut. Her YOU'LL NEVER KNOW is my top comic of the year. She'll be signing at the Fantagraphics booth on Saturday from 12-2pm and Sunday from 2-4pm. Tyler is also a delightful storyteller, so be sure to check out her spotlight on Sunday at 1pm in the White Flint Amphitheater.

4. Josh Neufeld. This long-time SPX attendee is basking in the glow of the well-earned acclaim that his AD: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE has received. One of the best books of the year, Neufeld will have his own spotlight panel on Sunday at 2pm. Neufeld is a perfect example of a generation of cartoonists whose career dovetailed with SPX, going from self-published minis to illustrating Harvey Pekar to his own series with small publishers to a book deal with Pantheon.

5. Ken Dahl. Also known as Gabby Schulz, Ken Dahl has an acidic sense of humor and stunning chops. He will be debuting MONSTERS, a collection of stories about herpes, at the show, and will be on the panel I mentioned above. Simply put, Dahl is one of the best cartoonists to emerge from this decade.

6 Dina Kelberman. IMPORTANT COMICS was one of the weirder and more compelling minis I read this year. Her comics have a sort of absurdist quality that I admire, and the way she uses unusual page & panel compositions with a minimalist line is unusual. She'll be part of the Aesthetics of Mini-Comics panel on Sunday at 4:30pm.

7. Ed Piskor. Piskor is unusual in that he's a young artist heavily influenced by the underground generation (as opposed to the alt-cartoonists of the 80s and 90s). He's also had an opportunity to work with legends like Jay Lynch and Harvey Pekar, but his own voice is unique. He's taken his underground sensibilities to write about another underground culture: hackers. Seek out the first two volumes of his WIZZYWIG and watch him on his Source-Based Comics panel at 1:30pm on Saturday.

8. Eleanor Davis. Davis is another artist on my short list of "best emerging talents of the decade" thanks to her compelling minicomics and short stories in MOME. Her Toon Books entry, STINKY, was one of the best comics of last year. Her new book, THE SECRET SCIENCE ALLIANCE, is aimed at older kids, which makes sense given her style of art.

9. Jon Vermilyea. Eric Reynolds discovered his minicomics at San Diego a few years ago, and his subsequent comics for MOME have been simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. Like Dahl, Vermilyea has incredible chops and a flair for the grotesque.

10. Jeff Zwirek. His BURNING BUILDING COMIX, an Ivan Brunetti-inspired work, was one of the more clever comics I read last year. I'd recommend getting every issue to fully appreciate the level of detail he puts into his gag work.

11. Will Dinski. Dinski gets my vote for best currently self-published artist. His new comic, COVERED IN CONFUSION, is typical of his recent remarkable hot streak: funny, dark, tragic and uniquely formatted. Someone needs to give him a book deal.

12. Matthew Thurber. Thurber's 1-800-MICE is one of the best comics of the decade. That about sums it up. It's an exemplar of comics that have a lot of genre elements, humor, deeper themes, dense plots, absurdist elements and unforgettable characters. Seek him out at the Picturebox booth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sweeping The Underground: Mineshaft #24

Rob reviews issue #24 of the underground grab-bag, MINESHAFT.

It never fails to amaze me just how much editors Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri are able to pack into every issue of MINESHAFT. The covers alone are often worth the price, and this issue's delightfully bizarre Mary Fleener cover is no exception. She's seen all too infrequently in comics these days, but MINESHAFT has been one of her more regular outlets as of late. Of course, MINESHAFT is about all of the odd and overlooked corners of our culture, from the poems of the Brutalists to photographs from the "Cabinet of Curiosities" (lots and lots of conjoined twin remains) to a bracing feature on the death of newspapers framed by the mastheads of dozens of dead and dying papers. The Brutalist poems fit right into the underground aesthetic of the zine, detailing the day-to-day life of the working class in an unflinching manner. Adelle Stripe's stream-of-consciousness memories about her awakening sexuality were particularly memorable.

The big draws in this issue were assorted odds and ends from legends R.Crumb and Skip Williamson. Williamson contributed some pages from his sketchbook, including a stunning likeness of Harvey Kurtzman. Williamson is clearly an artist that's had a big impact on today's cartoonists, yet he's not as widely discussed as his contemporaries. Crumb contributed the back cover, a five-page letter to Rand that's endlessly fascinating (noting that he voted for Barack Obama--and that this was the first time he had ever voted for president), and several pages from his dream diary. It's clear that Crumb and Rand have a close relationship, and that shows in the intimacy of Crumb's correspondence and the sheer volume of material he's contributed over the years. Rand's tastes and passion for underground comics and culture has acted as a magnet of sorts, as countless veterans of the scene have flocked to contribute.

At the same time, it's not so much about an era as it is about a certain aesthetic for Rand, and so he's given room to younger artists like Ed Piskor (drawing a truly demented story by Sarah Sveda) and Joseph Remnant. Every issue seems to draw in another veteran; this time around, it was David Collier contributing a strip in exchange for a subscription. The ultimate expression of Rand's interests came in the form of a book review about Charles Bukowski, written by Dennis Eichorn and drawn by Pat Moriarity. That's a remarkable convergence, one that resulted in a clever and elegant essay that blended Bukowski's poems, Eichorn's commentary and Moriarity's inventive page design. The Eichorn piece is an example of a tiny story nugget that otherwise would not have had an appropriate home, while the assorted sketches from legendary artists are even rawer examples of this. MINESHAFT isn't truly an anthology, but rather a sampling of undiscovered and unpublished obscurities whose existence is simply a delight for a comics fan.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dudes Abide: The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book

Rob reviews THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK, Joe Daly's collection of two stories from Fantagraphics.

I greatly enjoyed the psychedelic storytelling of Joe Daly in SCRUBLANDS, his first collection of comics from Fantagraphics. His work reminded me a bit of early Steve Lafler in the easy way he combined gags, action and long stream-of-consciousness ramblings, as well as Herge's Tintin in terms of the line and flow of action. There was a sense of improvisation on the page combined with strong structural underpinnings, which made the stories amiable instead of incoherent. The greatest virtue of his stories was the way he so strongly established a sense of place: the beach community of Cape Town, South Africa. With THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK, Daly maintains some of the psychedelic trappings of his earlier stories but puts them within a framework of stoner noir (ala the film PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) buddy story, only with BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdity.

However, the book can't really be reduced to familiar genre markers all that easily, and that firm, eccentric sense of place is the biggest reason why it works. Daly begins the first story, "The Leaking Cello Case", as a leisurely slice-of-life story and slowly turns it into a mystery. He's in no hurry to get from point A to point B, giving the reader all sorts of details about the titular character and his life in Cape Town. Those details come both in terms of anecdotes and visuals, with some great drawings of buildings built into the hills, mountains in the background and the beach beckoning. One gets a simultaneous sense of the buzz of activity around the beach and a certain languidness of pace. It's instantly accessible and recognizable to most any reader, providing an atypical backdrop for a mystery tale. One might critique Daly for choosing a more conservative brand of storytelling by dipping into some familiar genre wells (especially when one compares it to his earlier work), but I suspect that slightly loopy but conventional narratives fit his talent and interests best.

The secret weapon here is Daly's rich use of color. Given his very clear line, and a disinterest in spotting blacks or crosshatching, it's that color that adds depth and weight to the characters and their environments. That clear line also lets Daly draw slightly-ridiculous looking characters without the strip losing some of its verisimilitude. It's that mix of familiar stoner life with increasingly-weird peril that makes both aspects of the story more compelling than they otherwise might be on their own. That sort of deadpan stoner humor also nicely sets up the escalatingly crazy action sequences of the book. When the Red Monkey winds up tangling with a vicious Mexican drug dealer who is pushing hallucinogenic toad secretions, it all makes perfect sense. When a search in dried-up marshlands leads to a showdown with a corrupt developer with a pet gibbon and a microwave death ray, the relaxed reactions of the comic's principals lead the reader along in the same manner.

I preferred the shorter "Leaking Cello Case" to "John Wesley Harding", mostly because the former had a looser, even improvised quality to it. JWH more-or-less began with the main characters saying "let's have an adventure", which was a less relaxed and organic way to construct the story. The story certainly went in unexpected directions and had a truly deranged ending, but going over the top is less important to the success of Daly's comics than is maintaining that sense of not being in a hurry to get anywhere. Still, he fills the story with enough random digressions and observations so as not to feel like a total departure from what he does best.

Along the way, Daly offers commentary on ecology, philosophy and global capitalism. For him, these are topics that very much fall into the "act locally" category, as he worries about the ways in which his beach community and its ecosystem will be warped and destroyed by these larger outside forces. Of course, Daly puts such musings on an even par with more mundane and silly observations as well, so as to make things a bit more palatable for the reader. This is a comic in the tradition of a Gilbert Shelton, only less self-conscious about gags and more willing to let the reader work through an absurd situation without feeling the need to spoon-feed every joke. Its delights are simple and modest and its ambitions limited, yet THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK lingers after reading. Daly has created a home of sorts not only for his characters, but his readers as well--a construct that is at once comfortable, familiar and evokes years worth of stories both familiar and anticipated.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Single Issues From Sparkplug

Rob reviews a number of periodicals from Sparkplug Comic Books. Included are THE SHORTEST INTERVAL, by David King; ROCK THAT NEVER SLEEPS, by Olga Volozova & Juliacks; DEPARTMENT OF ART #1, by Dunja Jankovic; the free anthology BIRD HURDLER; and REICH #6, by Elijah Brubaker.

Once again flying in the face of established comics business trends, Dylan Williams trusts his intuition and moreover, trusts his artists, as Sparkplug Comic Books has published a slew of comic books in the past few months. While most of them will never be listed by Diamond, Williams knows that the audience for these books is not necessarily one affected by Diamond's more stringent minimum orders policy. For some books, Williams has also pooled resources with other like-minded small press publishers like Greg Means' Tugboat Press and Tim Goodyear's Teenage Dinosaur. As always, there's a singular vision to be found in each of these comics that reflects more a unity of purpose than a house aesthetic.

THE SHORTEST INTERVAL, by David King. This is a short comic about the Planck Epoch (the first microseconds after the Big Bang) and gravity that's part science comic, part fanciful daydream about the universe's origins. With colorful and amusing schematic diagrams and disarming cartoons, King homes in on an interesting philosophical question. During the briefer-than-brief Planck Epoch, gravity was by far the most dominant force in the universe. As the universe expanded, it became less and less significant a force, since gravity is the attraction between two bodies. When two bodies are no longer in close proximity, gravity becomes less important than electromagnetism or (especially) the subatomic forces. King posits this question as though gravity was sentient, was forced to abdicate its crown and has since tried to find a new purpose. This is an aperitif of a comic, pared down to its most essential parts and no more.

REICH #6, by Elijah Brubaker. Brubaker checks in with an issue that's mostly set-up and what feels like a last look at past events of the 1930s. Here, iconoclastic psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich moves his family around in the face of National Socialist rule, ruminates about his encounters with prostitutes and considers what he thought those encounters meant. I've noted elsewhere how much I like Brubaker's blocky & angular character design--all sharp angles and harsh shadows; in this issue, I liked the way he used gradients of light to imply the fading away of an era. Reich was never afraid to challenge authority, and this issue has a very deliberate dissolve between one of his books attacking fascism being burned by Nazis and his first discovery of a weird energy emanating from a sample on a microscope slide. The latter half of the issue further cements one of Reich's chief faults as interpreted by Brubaker: he's a man who loves humanity but who has trouble expressing his emotions for people. Having his feelings broken by a prostitute and being beaten by his father clouded his ability to feel empathy; while not cruel, it was obvious that his affection for his own children was tempered by an almost clinical distance. That distance was instantly adopted by one of his daughters, mimicking his own dispassionate discussion of sex. I'm eager to see Brubaker start to explore the weirder aspects of Reich's ideas, which I imagine won't be for another couple of issues.

BIRD HURDLER, edited by Dylan Williams, Tim Goodyear and Greg Means. This was this year's Free Comic Book Day entry after last year's NERD BURGLAR, and it's once again a collaboration with Tugboat Press and Teenage Dinosaur. It's a strong lineup, including an excerpt from a Julia Grforer story I reviewed here, a two-page observational piece by Andrice Arp, a typically dense dream-related story by Theo Ellsworth, a funny story about cats by Lisa Eisenberg, and welcome short stories by Zack Soto and Farel Dalrymple (two artists whose own work I haven't seen enough of in recent years).

I don't often see Arp tackle autobiographical incidents, but her strip about the kind of weirdos one can observe on public transportation was appropriately bizarre for her style of art. The creepy guy trying to hit on two random women was hilarious because of just how oblivious he was to the open hostility being thrown in his face by everyone around him. Soto's strip was atypical; it was a relationship strip connecting the tangled skeins of the horrible things we can say to loved ones and how it can batter them. The way the threads wound up leading to two other people was a clever and telling shorthand method for depicting what was left unsaid. Eisenberg's clear line story about cats inheriting both the pluses and minuses of a couple's relationship problems was also quite clever, as a cat given a turkey's gizzard wistfully wishes it could taste that mysterious food again, even as a vegan girlfriend was angry at her boyfriend for doing so. This is still a pretty lightweight and amusing story, but the hidden yet jagged edges Eisenberg implies give it a little bite. Ellsworth's work looks great as the anchor of an anthology, given the density of his work and the fairly straightforward gag found in a cat barely deflecting a sleep-related disaster of its master. Dalrymple contributes a second part of a continuing story, which--while cute--was a bit hard to follow. Still, the way he draws children's hair and facial expressions with so much rubbery detail always draws my eye in. This was a truly impressive free comic with a wide variety of styles and superior production values that nonetheless did not seek to water down its stories so as to true a wider audience. The publishes have achieved a measure of success by publishing artists they believe in and finding ways to expose it to audiences who will be drawn to it.

DEPARTMENT OF ART, by Dunja Jankovic. Describing Jankovic's work is difficult. Perhaps "Kafka-esque" comes closest: a sort of suffocating Mobius strip of frustration, yearning, pain and aimlessness. The opacity of her comics comes in part from the moody, scribbly style she employs. Everything is in shadows, but not the sort of ominous noir shadows that imply danger or excitement, but almost a sense that the light has simply faded away. DEPARTMENT OF ART is a workplace comic that intersects with creating art for a living, a process that Jankovic depicts as literally sucking one's light out of one's body. In this issue, the lumpy, ill-seen protagonist finds herself unable to stay in her cubicle, but learns that things get much worse when she tries to go elsewhere. Indeed, Jankovic draws the workplace as an infinite labyrinth with no beginning or end, just more walls and more cubicles. The question that remains at the end of the issue is just what her inability to find her old cubicle (and job) means as far as her purpose in life. Jankovic, whom I believe has a fine arts background, magnificently illustrates what is otherwise a not unusual set of feelings. Depicting coworkers as chattering snakes, portraying a narrow vent first as a potential avenue of escape and then as a claustrophobic hellhole, and the ill-differentiated blobs that are her other co-workers in a break room are the very structure from which the comic's sense of desperation emanates. This has the potential to be a fascinating long-form work, depending on how she chooses to pick up and continue the story's threads.

ROCK THAT NEVER SLEEPS, by Olga Volozova & Juliacks. I've written in great detail about these artists and the immersive style of comics they champion. It was fascinating to see them collaborate on a story about memory; in particular, a story about a town where lost memories can be recovered. The two each wrote two separate stories that intertwined in interesting ways, with Volozova contributing one of her usual modern fairy tales and Juliacks writing a science fiction story. What both stories share in common are the hallmarks of that immersive style: a minimal use of negative space, reading the page as parts and whole simultaneously, and an integration of text and image as almost interchangeable parts. Words not only have a decorative quality at times, they also occasionally act as visual structures. It's an approach that demands a reader's full investment but also promises an enormously rewarding experience.
The key to reading these comics is by considering the concept of memory as something both always disappearing yet still lingering as a trace. Erasure is a big part of these narratives: words and images (often combined) that are tiny, smashed into corners, written in faded ink or half-erased. You can follow the story without paying attention to them, but they can always be espied in one's peripheral vision, or when one takes in the gestalt of the page. Volozova is all about that gestalt, constructing her pages as units to be apprehended all at once and then slowly broken down into panels. Like most of her stories, this one is about a set of alienated characters in a town whose population started to lose their memory. It focused on a family whose father was a puppeteer, whose mother came from a long line of puppet makers and whose daughter wished to learn the family secret. They lost their most important memories and traveled to a town called Rock That Never Sleeps, a place in the desert where one could regain memories for a price. That price was losing something precious. The genius of this story is the way that Volozova painfully had each character remember the horrible things they did to each other that forced their loss of memory, and the price paid was one of separation. I read it in part as a way of approaching trauma; that is, remembering traumatic events both unblocks certain possibilities but creates scars. It's a difficult choice to make, but it's obvious as to where Volozova's sympathies lie.
Juliacks equates the loss of memory with the end of the world in her story, a point of view that makes sense from a personal standpoint. In her future world, most of the world's population lost their memory, an event that essentially wiped out free will as technology stepped in to make up for this lack of identity. The protagonists of the story were part of a small community that not only retained their memory, they could read memories off of objects. The trio travels to Rock That Never Sleeps, and Juliacks portrays the continuum of cognition as an interconnected if jumbled mess. Nothing is ever erased so much as it's out of order in a set of files. As such, Juliacks' story is heavy on thick, black lines; tons of hatching and images blurring into and merging with each other. In the story's climax , the trio causes the whole structure of the town to collapse in on itself as they burrowed for their memories, with the story's main protagonist eschews the whole practice of memory, content to live in her own head. Ultimately, this is a story about solipsism and how an obsession with one's own identity can obscure the ways in which we relate to others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Density of Dreams: Sleeper Car and 1-800-MICE

Rob reviews SLEEPER CAR, the new comic by Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres) and 1-800-MICE #1-3, by Matthew Thurber (PictureBox).

Theo Ellsworth's CAPACITY was one of my favorite books of 2008, one that provided a road map of sorts for his fevered imagination. Many artists have felt the sensation of not really coming up with ideas, but rather acting as a conduit of sorts for ideas that are simply floating out there in the ether. CAPACITY was a series of stories, a description of method, and a warm, personal invitation to share in these ideas. Ellsworth crams an enormous amount of frenetic detail into each panel and page, leaving very little negative space to breathe. He counters what could be an incredibly off-putting reading experience with narrators who talk to and guide the reader, making sense of the page. He's literally laying the composition of each page out for the reader, gently introducing them to his world and visual language. Within a few pages, one is immersed in the style and the nearly vibratory quality of his line and crammed-in details feel normal--all part of the scenery.

With SLEEPER CAR, Ellsworth offers a much shorter comic--almost a palate cleanser for both artist and reader after the exhausting (if exhilarating) trek of CAPACITY. Included are a number of unconnected (other than by general theme) stories about a bet made by robots, an unusual journey by train, the adventures of a dream recorder, how to make a pajama tent and the many faces of the author waiting for a bus. "Sleep Study" is a recapitulation of his work, as an adventurer literally walks through the dreams of a creature and records all of the strange and wonderful things that he sees. That's Ellsworth to a T, simply relating all of the odd things he sees in his mental wanderings that compel him to draw. Ellsworth is very much an artist who writes, with the images driving the story instead of the other way around.

The opening image of two robots having tea in a forest sets "Norman Eight's Left Arm" into motion, a story about a bet about the existence of gnomes between the two automatons. There's nothing Ellsworth enjoys portraying more than journeys--the more convoluted, the better. Here, there's a journey of one robot in his quest to find gnomes and an internal journey from the other robot to keep himself entertained in the meantime. The woods he draws feel like places that are being inhabited, an indication of how real the author clearly feels these places are in his imagination. The story ends with a sight gag after cycling through a number of jokes--yet another palate cleanser of sorts for the reader. "Travel Report" takes a somewhat dimmer view of taking a journey, given its dreadful description of a train ride, yet the protagonist notes that he wanted to travel shortly after he got home. There's a pleasant restlessness to Ellsworth's comics as one senses that he can only hope to transcribe a tiny portion of what he sees in his mind, but that the comics he draws are better than nothing.

I knew little of Matthew Thurber's work (except by reputation) before I read the first three issues of 1-800-MICE, and I was prepared for a stream-of-consciousness narrative with primitivist art (the mark of many PictureBox releases). While the first couple of pages were difficult to parse at first, it quickly became evident that this was a stunning, multilayered story with a deep wellspring of themes and a dizzying array of memorable characters. It's not dream logic like Ellsworth's comics, but what it does instead is present a series of absurd premises and build an iron-clad narrative stemming from them. While there's a primitivist veneer to Thurber's art, his page composition is not only spotless in how easy it is to process, but it also rewards multiple readings as one tries to connect the various unfolding plot threads.

The story revolves around a huge cast of characters in and around Volcano Park, a city built on an active volcano controlled by sentient trees. The main tension of the story revolves around events that are about to happen: a meteor crashing into the city, a banjo contest with sinister consequences, and (most of all) the potential eruption of the volcano. Fatalism and eschatology are two running themes in the comic, as a constant state of dread stalks the characters even as they whir and buzz around their lives. Exploitation, reconciliation and conspiracy are also ideas in play, with the forces of the corrupt and immortal "Banjo Shogunate" conspiring to work against a potential rapproachment between humans and tree-creatures. Even the three members of that cabal work at cross-purposes: one as a gang lord in Los Angeles, one the personification of crazy evil coming down in the meteor, and a third as a sort of omnipresent entity that passes herself off as a force for benevolence.

There's not much point in discussing the plot any further, given that Thurber obviously still has much to reveal and that it's so tightly wound that unraveling it would take the fun out of reading it. Suffice it to say that Thurber is interested in societal roles and how they change (especially in the person of a police officer), the concept of institutions & people being poisoned, the ways in which communication is always a form of intervention no matter how far removed we wish to be (personified in a company that sends mice to deliver messages but not otherwise intervene), and the ways in which we interact with our ecosystems. Thurber isn't afraid to throw in absurd commentary on activism, either--his "Peace Punk" character is a walking pile of scattered activist thoughts and identities. He winds up at a year-long alt-music festival held in a city's sewers and has to dodge a trio of sushi-chef assassins who hilariously have to get minimum wage jobs and listen to a prescribed course of music before they were allowed passage.

While Thurber occasionally dazzles the reader with a densely packed splash page (like the one introducing the reader to the bustle of Volcano Park), he concentrates most of his effort into character design. He favors the slightly grotesque (like the wildly gesticulating Officer Nabb, with a beaklike nose, bulbous pate and pointy ears), the anthropomorphic (like the various mice) or the ridiculous (like his badass sushi chef assassins). In terms of composition, he's all over the place, rarely repeating a panel set-up twice from page to page. He goes from splash pages to 12-panel grids to a page with 4 triangular panels meeting each other, where one has to turn the page around. None of this feels gratuitous; indeed, Thurber has an uncanny sense of meeting the story's needs with the construction of the page. He meets claustrophobic scenes with small panels, disorienting sequences with skewed panels, and grander scenes with much more white space. Some panels are crammed with background details, while intense scenes between characters have a white backdrop. It's Thurber's composition in this regard that makes this such a compelling read. He may want to slowly unveil information in the style of a mystery, but he doesn't want to deliberately confuse the reader. There's always enough information to know what's going on, though I would recommend reading all three issues to date one after the other.

The biggest reason why the comic is successful is that Thurber softens his thematic points with laugh-out-loud gags and absurdism. It's as though Thurber took a few Michael Kupperman-style concepts and spun a deliberate narrative from them. The events may well be grave, but the characters themselves are ridiculous. Despite the crazy conceptual nature of his cast, Thurber has fully-fleshed out backstories for each of them, pulling tighter the threads of the story in unexpected and delightful ways. It seems a bit odd to describe a story this crazed and complex as a page turner, but there's really no other way to say it. When it's over and collected, it will create a huge sensation in the alt-comics world. For now, it's a delightful treasure for fans of comics periodicals.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Do Is To Be: Katman

Rob reviews the new teen-aimed comic by Kevin C. Pyle, KATMAN (Henry Holt).

Kevin C. Pyle's career has seen him split time between political comics (most notably WORLD WAR III ILLUSTRATED) and comics aimed at teens. His particular skill in the latter area is homing in on a particular crisis moment and playing it out past the point of comfort. BLINDSPOT dealt with the intersection of fantasy life and reality and the ways the former could prove destructive to the latter. His newest book, KATMAN, is about the ways fantasy can be redemptive, along with providing a stark (if simple) example of the existentialist's dilemma. What is identity? What is meaning? What does it entail to live a meaningful life? What role do others have in this dilemma? Pyle does this with a surprising amount of restraint, avoiding too much angst or melodrama. He accomplishes this with his washed-out, scribbly art depicting real-life events (a bit reminiscent of Frank Stack in places) and a decent amount of verisimilitude with regard to dialogue. There's very little humor to be found here, nor is there really meant to be. The one way in which Pyle visually spices up the book is a device where one character is drawing an over-the-top manga about the protagonist; those segments are all in red and pop off the page, providing an obvious contrast to the relatively dreary lives of everyone else.

The cover is actually a bit misleading. The huge Katman image and electric logo dominates the page, with the duller aspects of real life blending together toward the bottom of the page. It looks as though the cover was meant to grab manga fans' attention, even though though this comic is not manga. Indeed, a reader expecting that sort of comic would likely be baffled for most of the early portion of the book, as we meet Kit and are introduced to his rather aimless existence. The book initially focuses on categories and identity, as Kit notes that he lives in a low-income neighborhood, that his single mom works incredibly hard, and that his brother is a slightly socially awkward academic overachiever. His brother is perfectly happy with that role and pushes Kit to find his own meaning (mostly as a way to get him out of the house).

Kit is observed by a group of outsiders, which included a headbanging satanist type, an Asperger's-esque video game addict, a manga-loving artsy girl, and a generic aloof guy. Kit decides to follow stray cats around as he wandered around the neighborhood, and then made it his mission to feed them. He became so single-minded in his pursuit that he defied his mother, stole from a local store and even befriended the local "crazy cat lady" to make sure the cats were fed. He eventually came to an agreement with the store owner, who sympathized with his concern, and approached the cat lady when he learned some of his neighbors wanted the stray cats gone. Throughout all this, the outsiders approached him and tried to size him up, with the artist (named Jess) taking an interest in Kit's weirdly obsessive nature.

More to the point, she admired his willingness to embrace being a true outsider without feeling a need to construct an identity for himself other than one who found it important to do something for other living beings. That brought a tension between herself and the others in her group, especially the aloof guy Rip. Her conflict in the book was trying to resolve her unspoken attraction to Rip (which was not reciprocated beyond a juvenile attempt to control her behavior) and her growing attraction to Kit (which played itself out in the manga avatar she created for him called Katman).

The low-key drama of the main story is expanded and exploded on the page when we see her artistic output, as she imagines the unassuming Kit becoming a fierce hero in the face of all sorts of adversity thanks to the steadfastness of his ideals. Her choice became a simple one: tearing down vs building up, or nihilism vs trying to create one's own set of meanings. For a teenager, these choices are, by their very nature, melodramatic and seem larger than life. In that sense, the manga pages made sense in how much they assaulted the senses. That said, they were nowhere near as effective in getting across the fantasy life of a character as in BLINDSPOT, for the simple reason that many of the pages were busy to the point of being difficult to read. Part of it was the choice of color: making everything red on red was confusing. I found myself flipping through these pages quickly so as to get back to the main narrative. This left the character of Jess feeling a little undercooked as a result: the pages that were supposed to provide emotional resonance for her wound up being distractions.

Still, the character of Kit wound up being enormously compelling, precisely because he was so difficult to pigeonhole. He simply woke up one day and figured out that this was what he was going to do, and that nothing would change his mind. The denouement of the book, featuring his immediate plans going to pieces but the courage of his convictions eventually leading to a happy ending, was perhaps a bit more pat than expected. Pyle pulls it off because he did such a fine job in establishing Kit's sheer willpower and devotion; there was no doubt as a reader that he would find a way to get what he wanted in the end. I liked the way that Pyle depicted the interactions between Kit and his brother, an easy and brutally honest form of mutual aggravation and affection. The interactions among the outsiders are a little less interesting, but they're more devices to play off the leads than fully-formed characters. All told, the way Pyle modulated emotion through subtle manipulation of color (in the main narrative) and the looseness of his line made for a memorable character study.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Amazing Adventures: Emberley Galaxy

Rob reviews EMBERLEY GALAXY, an anthology designed as a tribute to children's illustrator Ed Emberley.

I've read a lot of themed anthologies and comics textbooks, but I've never read anything quite like EMBERLEY GALAXY, edited by Joe Kuth. It's a tribute to illustrator Ed Emberley, best known for his long series of innovative how-to-draw books for children. The genius of his approach was to start with a simple series of shapes that anyone could draw and add elements one-by-one until the image was complete. This anthology paid more than mere lip service as a tribute, given an extended introduction and demonstration of the technique, along with providing an annotated bibliography. Every artist who contributed based their strip on a particular Emberley book or set of techniques, but even those unfamiliar with the artist will find something to enjoy.

The anthology is also wise not to overstay its welcome, clocking in at just 60 pages. Some of the biggest alt-comics stars make appearances, including Jeffrey Brown, Dan Zettwoch, Dave Kiersh, Sam Henderson and Warren Craghead, among many others. One of my favorite pieces was from Rina Ayuyang, who was inspired by Emberley's thumbprint/fingerprint comics. It's also the only color piece in the book, as Ayuyang used her fingerprints to form most of the framework of the figures and buildings in a story about how living in paradise is harder than one might think. This was a beautiful-looking entry that worked both as a comic and a children's story, especially in the way that she integrated text and image.

Stefan Gruber contributed what may have been the single most clever entry in the anthology, using Emberley's panel-at-a-time additive drawing technique to create a clever series of punchlines. Every strip stays true to the spirit of Emberley's technique while turning it into an opportunity for conceptual humor. Along the same lines, Craghead employed his thin line while imagining Emberley's shapes as sentient beings that are slapped together and magically transformed into building blocks. In this instance, they were used to magically create a pencil, which in turn created more triangle-shaped beings. This is a beautiful piece, perfectly executed, that would be an outstanding entry in any anthology. Brown used the technique to draw himself (naturally), but threw in a self-deprecatory job as he drew himself sulking. Alex Holden created a narrative around a shipbuilder needing triangles and finding ways to improvise using the material at hand (rectangles, squiggles, etc)--a clever way to wrap a gag around the concept.

Henderson and Kiersh's work in general was a perfect fit for an Emberley tribute. Indeed, Henderson's page looked like a variation on his own sketchbook doodles. Here, he added a bit of narration on his quest to find Emberley books for reference, with each of the monsters acting as his mouthpieces. Kiersh's work has always had a bit of a childlike quality to it, and here he directly talked to children about music, and then featureed a page of nothing but Emberley-inspired drawings. There were a few such entries of nothing but drawings, mostly eschewing narrative. Jack Fraley's take on this was reproduced so small as to look like little but chicken scratch. Kuth and David Paleo's monster matchups, on the other hand, , were a playful delight. Paleo, known mostly for grotesque drawings, was quite adept at doing something much more playful.

The biggest standout strip in the anthology was Zettwoch's epic "Big Orange Vs Purple". Given his obsession with schematics and the building blocks of things, it should be no surprise that Zettwoch masterfully carried out a story dealing with the building blocks of drawing itself. This strip was inspired by his own obsession with a couple of Emberley's books as a child and had him set up a huge sea battle between the forces of Orange and Purple. Fans of Zettwoch's classic minicomic IRONCLAD (name-checked in the strip) will be delighted to see him mount a steadily-escalating battle with both sides steadily constructing their weapons, only to have it dashed at the last moment by a giant shark and giant ape. About the only thing this strip lacked was color, though Zettwoch's thorough exploration of Emberley's mark-making was still a lot of fun to look at. What I liked best about this strip was the childlike way Zettwoch went about building up each side's forces. This was done as a child might--with a great deal of seriousness and exacting detail, since play is very serious stuff.

There's an almost meditative quality to Emberley's technique. The more you do it, the more you want to do it. The technique is also quite empowering; even someone who can't draw can still create sturdy figures. That empowerment undoubtedly encouraged so many children to keep drawing even past the age when a lot of children with lesser skill might choose to give it up. The technique is also flexible enough to allow for greater complexity later on, as Zettwoch demonstrated in his strip. At the same time, it was never so prescriptive as to box children in to drawing in just one way, inhibiting creativity. EMBERLEY GALAXY is a tribute to Emberley giving children tools to draw and doing it as a form of narrative. The simplicity of the technique gave it its power and appeal, opening up a world of self-expression that many of the artists here still draw upon as adults.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Three From Buenaventura: I Want You #1, Injury #3, The Aviatrix #1

Rob reviews the upcoming three-pack of single issues from Buenaventura Press. Included are I WANT YOU #1 by Lisa Hanawalt; INJURY #3 by Ted May, Mike Reddy, & Jeff Wilson; and THE AVIATRIX #1, by Eric Haven.

As I've noted in other columns, Buenaventura Press has found a clever way around Diamond's more demanding minimum order mandate that has led to several cancellations of well-regarded alt-comics series. By bundling the publication of three single-issue comics into one package, Buenaventura was able to raise both price point and ordering interest, given that a fan of one of these comics was likely to be a fan of the other two as well. It's great news for the comics community, given that all three of the comics in the bundle are best-of-the-year candidates.

Let's start with Eric Haven's THE AVIATRIX #1. Haven's TALES TO DEMOLISH series with Sparkplug highlighted his impeccable sense of absurdity and merged it with a fondness for Kirby/Ditko era monster comics. In the tradition of Lewis Trondheim, Haven tells a straightforward adventure story filled with ridiculous concepts, trappings and asides. His nameless protagonist (a stand-in for the artist) is a wonderfully blank canvas, attempting to negotiate situations that soon spin out of his control. After insulting an anteater at a zoo, he is horrified to find the beast attack him and suck out his brains. On a date with a 6-inch high woman dressed in some sort of jungle queen outfit, he suffers extreme gastrointestinal distress (which nearly kills her due to the odor) and leaves. He isn't worried because he's wearing a tie, which was supposed to bestow some sort of immunity that he kept repeating up to and including the time he is eaten by a shark.

Haven eschews any sort of explanatory exposition, knowing better than to overwrite his gags. He lets the images speak for themselves, and his steady refinement as an artist has only served to add even more of a deadpan quality to his pages. That was certainly highlighted in "Confluence", the long story that featured the comic's title character. This is Haven's best story, highlighted by the many wordless panels at the beginning that make it feel like an ambling, quotidian autobio story of some kind. Our protagonist looks at porn on his computer (his drawing board noticeably unused), drinks a beer, gets high and then takes a walk around his neighborhood in four slowly-paced pages. Only a bizarre panel of him popping up on some sort of sci-fi device on the second page of the story gives any indication that something odd is going on here.

The protagonist then sees a mountainous monster and a World War I style biplane engage in battle, as he is saved by the Aviatrix. In a hilariously impassive series of pages, she rescues him from being stomped, leaps onto the beast and finds a convoluted way to kill it--complete with heroically expository dialogue. When he asks her who she is, she flashes back in her mind's eye to her "Secret Origins", a ridiculous story of invisible avian beasts taking away her parents and secrets revealed by a weird mountain mentor on how to fight them. A scene where she told an over-eager government agent keen to gain access to the secrets of her craft to "suck my dick" speaks to the way Haven builds up one set of expectations in the reader and then gleefully bludgeons them. Haven wrapped up the issue in roughly the same way he began it: with a bathroom emergency and a longing for love. When we realize the Aviatrix has been spying on him all along, it adds an amusing level of creepiness to the whole story.

Haven's art is genuinely thrilling and his character design enormously clever--especially the monsters, of course. The Aviatrix's goggles give her a marvelously inscrutable expression; Haven is careful to never show the reader her eyes without them, even in the account of her origin. All that we know about her came from the out-of-nowhere narrative captions that told us of her motivations, and which promptly disappeared as that story ended. There's a rock-solid structure to this very silly comic, one that allows the artist to insert awkward pauses, weird images and explosions from the id without it becoming incomprehensible or self-indulgent. Haven's comics have always seemed to me to be about repression and the way that repressed desires inevitably surface. There's a flatness of affect to be found in his characters, even in the weirdest of situations, that speaks to a total disconnect between consciousness and repressed needs. That played out with the weird voyeurism of the Aviatrix countering her bad-ass persona, and the protagonist's ongoing battles with his own digestive system whenever potential romance reared its head. It's exciting to see Haven's chops catch up with his ambition as an absurdist; like Michael Kupperman, being able to draw something blandly but precisely only helps to heighten the humor of a deadpan story.

All three of these comics are funny in their own way, with Lisa Hanawalt's I WANT YOU #1 spotlighting a similar sense of absurdity, this time fused with autobio anecdotes and a touch of the grotesque. Hanawalt follows Laura Park as an artist who came from seemingly out of the blue to become an artist everyone was talking about. This comic felt like a mix between Lauren Weinstein, Renee French and Phoebe Gloeckner, yet that only scratches the surface of the compelling weirdness found between its covers. This comic is a loosely-related collection of personal hygiene anecdotes, bodily fluids, anthropomorphic animals (drawn in disturbingly exact detail), raunchy sex talk and off-the-wall concepts. The absurdity reminds me a bit of early Weinstein, especially the first page where Hanawalt rattles off lists of things like "Things I Should Probably Hide Before A Date Comes Over For The First Time" and "What Did We See Today". That page encapsulated the issue as a whole: dada observations, gross anatomical drawings (in the tradition of French and Gloeckner), and frank but decidedly unerotic sex talk.

That strip acts as a table of contents and answer key of sorts for the rest of the issue, as Hanawalt veers from a laundry list of "Mistakes We Made At The Grocery Store" (including "We were too sexual when we checked our eggs for cracks") to a story about sex bugs inhabiting her keyboard at work. In highly naturalistic detail, we see a cute little sex bug ejaculate on her face, setting off a chain of events both disgusting and hilarious. What I liked about this piece is how low-key it was drawn, despite the subject matter. The flatness of affect of the characters made the various bodily fluids spewed all the more shocking. Hanawalt purposely avoided using funny drawings or grotesque figures, which heightened the eventual punchline.

In some of the strips, Hanawalt the artist drives the humor. In "Love Letter", "Lunch Break" and "I Love She-Moose", the heads of her anthropomorphic animals are drawn so much like animals that they are unsettling to look at. There's no cuteness to be found in those stories (despite the trappings of same), only a weird sort of neurotic energy. That's heightened by the intense detail of the backgrounds--finely rendered patterns in wallpaper and carpets, checkerboard patterns in clothing, and tons of cleanly rendered bric-a-brac. With the reader already disoriented, Hanawalt drops the hammer with She-Moose getting her "scent" across a computer screen, He-Horse's losing his nerve and his erection, and the moose and cat getting their minds blown by irrational numbers.

In other strips, Hanawalt the conceptual gag writer is dominant. Her laundry list comics start from great concepts (like "Common Dirty Talk And The Questions It Raises") and go in some truly deranged directions ("8. I want to be your little slut. Q: How little?"). "Top Causes Of Freeway Accidents" all somehow involve horses, including "Pretending to be a horse". "Menstrual Terminology" is ruthless in the detail it immediately goes into regarding tampon use, including "Bento Box: inserting tampon while traveling by car or train" and "The Death Valley Stuffer: Trying to insert applicator-less tampon into dry orifice"--complete with the skull of a buffalo. Hanawalt is quite aware of what she's doing here, ending this strip with a list of ways people use to avoid hearing about menstrual terminology. "The Faux Jack-Off" is "a thing you can do while driving" that warns the reader to be careful not to think sexy thoughts while doing it, lest they actually jack-off while driving. Why someone would want to do this in the first place is a question that is not considered.

This comic has a relentless quality reminiscent of the first time I read Ivan Brunetti's SCHIZO. On page after page, there's an assault straight from the artist's id. In that respect, it doesn't seem like Hanawalt is out to shock readers deliberately, but that these are simply the topics she finds funny. Despite the unflinching nature of I WANT YOU, there's also a sense of restraint as well. The blandness of some images play off of the outrageousness of the concepts, while the funny drawings all have an unnerving quality to them. Hanawalt instantly became one of my favorite humorists after reading this comic, and I can't wait to see what's next from her.

I've long been a fan of Ted May's anthology comic INJURY, especially the ways in which he works with collaborators. My favorite ongoing feature in the comic may be Jeff Wilson's 80s high school metal saga. It strikes a chord initially because I went to high school during this era and knew lots of kids like those featured in the story. The way May & Wilson depict overwrought teen emotions is both hilarious and true to life, giving these stories a self-inflated but epic sense of importance for the principal members. This issue featured young Jeff going through in-school suspension (an especially humiliating process) after tussling with a brutal bully. As always, May excels at fight scenes both visceral and comic, and he expertly captures the sense of excitement and malaise of their fellow students when the fight spills into a classroom. The scene where his eager counselor gets him to come up with a list of three things he felt thankful for, and that the exercise not only helped with his depression but proved to be a useful resource throughout his life, was funny for a different reason. It was almost heartbreaking to see a teen try to come up with the cognitive and emotional tools needed to recognize depression, and while his answers "metal, squid, Sagan" were those of a juvenile, they also proved to be keys to unlocking his imagination. The extended fantasy sequence he has with Carl Sagan telling him about the potential for glorious heavy metal played by squid creatures on other worlds was a sweet one, helping his hopes trump his fears.

The other major story of the issue was written and laid out by May, but drawn by illustrator Mike Reddy. He hasn't done a lot of comics (mostly doing art for CD releases), but he reminds me a bit of Kaz Strzepek in terms of his character design (especially the eyes). The "Beast Biplane" is a typically ridiculous May character--a furry Bigfoot character known for his skywriting prowess from his souped-up biplane. (What are the odds of two biplane-related comics from the same publisher at the same time?) May just keeps upping the deadpan weirdness factor of this story as it proceeds, mixing up the titular hero with aggressive drag queen drug pushers forming a human pyramid, hippies selling hemp-based soap products, and turning his biplane into a giant bat. It's a hilarious bit of nonsense, and the greyscaling that Reddy uses adds to the overall density of the strip.

What these three comics share in common is a total commitment to concept. That deadpan nature, where the author never winks at the reader so to tell them that it's all a joke, is a crucial element to the success of all three comics. The reader is never told when to laugh in any sort of obvious way, in part because each comic is meant to work on multiple levels. All three of these comics are also very much from the id. Sex, an obsession with bodily functions, food and simple desire drive the characters in every story--and in a more direct way than most stories. These are all incredibly dense comics, inviting multiple readings and perusals of art. Hopefully all three books will find audiences, but there's no doubt that Alvin Buenaventura's strategy in this regard was enormously clever.