Sunday, November 29, 2009

Minicomics from SPX

Rob reviews a number of minicomics he got at SPX. Included are SO BUTTONS #2, by Jonathan Baylis, et al; NOAH VAN SCIVER MINI COMIC, by Noah Van Sciver; THE DAY I KILLED JESUS, by Julia Wertz; JUMBLY JUNKERY #7 & 8, by L.Nichols; BOOK COMIC, by Phil McAndrew; LIMBS OF THE MEGALITH, by Eamon Espey; OTTO ZEPLIN #1, by BT Livermore; THE REGULAR MAN, by Dina Kelberman; MY TERRIBLE TEARABLE HEART, by Sophia Wiedeman; TALES OF GOOD OL' SNOOP DOGGY DOGG, LOSERS WEEPERS and OLD MAN WINTER, by J.T. Yost; and PINSTRIPED BLOODBATH, edited by Jeff Zwirek.

SO BUTTONS #2, by Jonathan Baylis, David Beyer Jr, Tim Ogline & T.J. Kirsch. Baylis collaborated with several different artists for his autobiographical stories, and in general the visuals of this issue were stronger than his first effort. Baylis is at his best with the smallest of observations and recollections. Like many writers who don't draw, these stories are intensely text-heavy, sometimes to the point of overwhelming images. The artists who had the lightest, most cartoony touch were best suited to his work, like T.J. Kirsch on "So...She Married Me Anyway", a lovely story about him taking the wrong train on his wedding day. The material with his wife is the strongest in the book, especially when he tries to lecture her about comedy despite the fact that she's a professional stand-up comedian. On the other hand, his story about his Viet Nam vet uncle visiting the USS Intrepid had a lot stacked against it. Tim Ogline's earnest, naturalistic style demanded a light touch from a writer, but Baylis poured his heart out in talking about a tragedy that affected him. On top of that, the color in this story was distracting and took it further in a maudlin direction. If Baylis is going to continue mining these deeper memories (he had a similarly overwrought story about the Holocaust in his first issue), he'll need to figure out a way to add some restraint. Baylis' work is about memory above all else, and he is simply more effective relating his own, smaller memories (like recollections of listening to the Beatles with his mother) than trying to take on the horrific memories of a different generation. I do like his authorial voice and the easy way he jumps into his memories and finds ways to relate them as bite-sized narratives.

NOAH VAN SCIVER MINI COMIC, by Noah Van Sciver. Van Sciver is my favorite "miserablist" cartoonist at the moment, humorously relating his own struggles with alienation, depression, ambition and desire for success. The strip that summed all of that up the best was "Walk Home Drunk", a strip that began with Van Sciver being thrown out of a bar, trying to find his way home. Van Sciver's work is in the underground tradition: grotesque figures, an emphasis on the extremes of living (in this strip, puking up blood and the gag reveal that his "home" was a cardboard box), vicious exaggerations (Van Sciver's takedown of scenes and scenesters was hilarious), and a general sense of writing from the id. Van Sciver is still trying to find his voice and isn't quite there yet, but I like how many of his strips are so evocative of time and place. I would recommend his BLAMMO series, but this mini (a compendium of strips that appeared in various publications) is a nice place to start.

THE DAY I KILLED JESUS, by Julia Wertz. This is a split minicomic, backed with "The Legend of Rebob Mountain", an illustrated story that I previously reviewed. The titular story is a funny anecdote from the acerbic Wertz's childhood, where a family custom (of leaving a seat at the table empty for Jesus) was accidentally turned into an event that traumatized her. Wertz's autobio comics are an appealing blend of bitterness and shtick, especially when she looks back on her past as a born-again, prosyletizing Christian. That attitude mixes well with her effectively crude line that emphasizes over-the-top expressiveness. The anger that underlies all of her strips is contrasted by the goofiness of her figures, creating a tension in her work that gives even the silliest of her strips a certain charge. The reader is never distracted by drawings that are so funny that they are taken out of the reading experience. There's a pleasant sloppiness to her work that is partly a deliberate construction, and partly a sharp understanding of her own limitations as a draftsman. This piece was especially effective because she rarely writes longer narratives, but her sharpest work has been that which is a bit more fleshed out.

JUMBLY JUNKERY #7 & #8, by L. Nichols. This has become a consistently interesting grab-bag of stories, rendered in several different styles. Nichols mostly deals in slice-of-life anecdotes, and personal observations, but she also tried her hand at some compelling fiction in these comics as well. Issue #8's "Baxter" is about a kid obsessed with numbers, to the point where his book reports didn't discuss plot or character, but rather the average word lengths and graphs of letter frequency. The eventual reveal of this story took me by surprise, a tribute to Nichols' low-key storytelling style. "Paralyzed" is about a man who woke up, frozen, paralyzed by his own fear of death--a state that led everyone else to declare him dead. One thing I enjoy about her comics is the way her science background pops up in unusual ways, like in discussing entropy, ennui or the body as a mechanism.

Nichols' visual approach continues to evolve. In #7, she used a scratchy line that interlaced hatching and cross-hatching to create her figure and tell the story of Narcissus. Nichols also used color in her comics as a primary means of storytelling, matched up with simplistic stick figures. In other stories, she used a slightly deformed, almost Picasso-esque approach to making her figures. She also employed her standard self-caricature as a rag-doll with button eyes in interesting ways, like one story where literally tore her own stuffing out as an expression of frustration with the quality of her own work. These varied styles made her personal confessions and observations all the more interesting, a true one-person anthology. Nichols has frequently explored issues of identity and gender in her comics, with a refreshing absence of certainty one way or the other about what she believes. "Sisterhood" was a good example of that, a story about waiting for the feeling of "otherness" to disappear when she became an adult, that she'd feel connected to the idea of being a woman, but she feels as much an outsider as ever. The more quotidian observations from Nichols are of lesser interest; to an extent, her self-caricature can sometimes be a distraction in those strips. I'd love to see more fiction and color work from Nichols, and eventually some kind of long-form work. JUMBLY JUNKERY certainly has proven to be a fine training ground for her own development, with each issue showcasing work that's stronger and more daring than previous issues.

BOOK COMIC, by Phil McAndrew. This is less a standard comic than an extended shaggy-dog joke. With a single panel per page, it actually feels more inspired by minimalist animation (complete with silent "pause" panels) than anything else. It's about two people discussing books they've read, with a woman piling more and more over-the-top detail about her book. It turns out to be a fantasy-detective-conspiracy-scifi-ghost-romance-mystery story, becoming more and more unlikely with every detail she reveals. That's really the meat of the book, because the punchline (which is fairly obvious) is a head-slapper. In an effort to get the reader to flip the pages, McAndrew provides funny-looking drawings as his character, which I actually found a little distracting. While McAndrew is a great character designer and the details of the joke are amusing, there was no compelling reason for this to be a comic, per se.

LIMBS OF THE MEGALITH, by Eamon Espey. Everything Espey writes is pretty much a must-read for me, and this collection of very short stories for Bash magazine are no exception. While rendered in his usual grotesque & absurd style, these stories are more accessible and straightforward than much of the material that appeared in WORMDYE. These stories remind me of a weird, alternate version of Ben Katchor's JULIUS KNIPL stories, wherein we are introduced to someone with an unusual profession, an unusual life circumstance, or an unusual place in which they live. What's remarkable about these stories is their compactness, especially since Espey's WORMDYE narratives stretched out in ways that were frequently challenging. Here, Espey introduces us to a world where decreased life spans mean that children marry at age ten; a man whose dog shrunk down to an inch and turned into stone; a woman who lied about going on vacation and who made up weird tales about what she did; and a horseshoe collector who built a time machine. Espey is at the top of his game here, and this is one of the top minicomics of the year.

OTTO ZEPLIN Vol 1, by BT Livermore. This is a funny and well-drawn comic with a slightly weird premise: detailing the epic adventures of a baby whose exploits began right out of the womb. The title character was an actual person who died eight months after birth in the early 1900s, and Livermore, fascinated by the name, extrapolated all sorts of events for young Otto. These are all captioned, single-page gags wherein Otto is visited by the ghost of a pathetic U.S. Grant, hits it big in the stock market and blows it all on candy. What made the comic work was Livermore's crisp and clever character design, which did a nice job of conveying the dryly absurd nature of the humor.

THE REGULAR MAN #4, by Dina Kelberman. Kelberman's IMPORTANT COMICS was a delightful discovery for me this year, a book filled with ultra-minimalist, sardonic strips. This particular comic was about isolation and self-obsession, poking fun at herself while still delving into her own paranoia. Kelberman employs clashing colors in this little two-pager that further get across the sense of cacophony she relates here. Above all else, Kelberman is funny, both with her punchlines and her tiny geometric figures and the impromptu panels she strews across the page.

MY TERRIBLE TEARABLE HEART, by Sophia Wiedeman. Wiedeman excels at mythologizing heartbreak and pain, and this collection of short stories coheres nicely in depicting a set of experiences that form a sort of emotional narrative. "Exploratory Surgery" depicts a young woman carving open her chest and narrating as she went along, noting that if you reach inside, you get a prize. "Space Heart" was a hilariously nasty story about a smiley heart that started talking about how love lifts you up, "higher and higher". As the heart soared above the clouds into outer space, it exploded. Even the slightly maudlin "This Too..." which featured the young woman giving her heart to the Heart Monster, reassuring him that she'd grow another one as she curled up in the fetal position, used a striking sense of absurdity to leaven the outsized nature of the way she depicted pain. The way Wiedeman used dark dots for eyes gave her figures a much-needed sense of distance for the reader, even as the warmth of her line and the way she used grey drew a reader in. Refinement is the next stage for Wiedeman: more simplicity for her figures, greater confidence in her line and less reliance on greyscaling to achieve emotional effects.

LOSERS WEEPERS, TALES OF GOOD OL' SNOOP DOGGY DOGG, and OLD MAN WINTER, by JY Yost. Yost's greatest strength as an artist is his character design, and this serves his frequently amusing slice-of-life stories well. He also has a knack for seizing on a concept or gimmick and taking it in some unusual directions. For example, LOSERS WEEPERS was created when he found a journal written by a woman despairing of her relationship with a crazy boyfriend, an envelope with some explicitly crude writing scrawled on it, and a scrap of paper written in broken English. He pieced these together to create a story about that ex-boyfriend running into his ex-girlfriend, doing an obscene rap at an open-mic night and winding up sleeping under a bridge with fellow junkies. The tone of the piece was both tragic and comedic, which aptly describes much of the rest of his work. SNOOP was a compendium of dream comics and an autobiographical story related to the rapper. These are all amusing, with Snoop appearing as a friend, mentor and occasional supplicant. The last story, where we learn the impact that Snoop's music had on Yost as a child, put the dreams into a different context.
OLD MAN WINTER won a Xeric grant, and it's a collection that very much pushes emotion (and frequently sentiment) to the forefront. The title story exemplifies Yost veering from cartoony figures to naturalistic backgrounds (complete with dense cross-hatching), as we meet an old man whose wife has just died and is nearing the end of his own life. The story's emotional arc is pretty clear from the outset. The most interesting thing about it wasn't the titular character, but rather the way others around him reacted to someone in deep mourning who did as much as possible to hide it. The most effective story was "Logging Sanjay", a funny childhood account of playing pranks on a friend's family that unintentionally went to some darker places. "Roadtrip" was a really well-drawn story comparing the life paths of a human child and a calf that had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's propaganda in the truest sense of the word, trying to provoke an emotional reaction with the way it juxtaposed its imagery. In that sense, it's quite effective, but propaganda is imagery programmed to provoke a single, particular reaction; this is what I'd consider to be the opposite of art.

PINSTRIPED BLOODBATH, edited by Jeff Zwirek. This is an attractively designed, sharply focused minicomics anthology about organized crime-related stories in Chicago, drawn by Chicagoans. Almost every story is a winner here, with some providing more of a payoff than others. The only dissonant note in the anthology was the story by Neil "Neil Jam" Fitzpatrick, whose stylized art and authorial voice were a bad fit. Nate Beaty and Bernie McGovern use mostly wordless stories to depict historical events; both make the wise decision, in telling stories about massacres, to provide a minimum of context. The details are less relevant than the emotional, visceral nature of the violent acts (especially with McGovern's story about a gangster going out in a blaze) and their aftermath (in Beaty's strip, a woman bloodies her handkerchief as a keepsake).
My favorite stories were editor Zwirek's account of the history of the Thompson submachine gun (the "Tommy gun") and Sam Sharpe's stunning story of his mother's delusion about his connection to a crime family. Zwirek's use of a fractured narrative was quite clever, as was the way he used the inventor's moral struggle with the fact that his invention was being used by criminals as a way of adding emotional & dramatic tension to what was essentially a timeline. Sharpe's story is a clever spin on the way that gangsters have not only become part of American myth, they've become part of American paranoia. His mentally ill mother concocted a story about how he was taken away by the "Sharpe crime family" as a way of explaining to herself how her mental illness (and time in an institution) was the product of a conspiracy. Using Jason-style anthropomorphic figures added just the right level of distance for this story. Zwirek has a sharp eye as an editor, and I hope he attempts something like this again.


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