Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sequart #159: Heroes Con, Minis

Heroes Con is coming up this weekend, so I thought I'd reprint this report from Indy Island back in 2008. It was originally published at sequart.com.
I was only able to hit Heroes Con 2008 for a single day this year, the first time I've attended since 2001. Tom Spurgeon refers to it as the "last great American con". It's unusual today because it's locally owned and operated, and it focuses solely on comics despite being a mainstream event. There's no focus on TV, movies and nude models like at San Diego or the assorted Wizard events. It doesn't share the stage with science-fiction or fantasy, like many cons. There are no gaming tables. It's just row after row of comics retailers selling rarities or offering huge deals; and the artists themselves, selling art, sketching and signing autographs. In the last couple of years, Heroes Con has done something interesting. Convention director Shelton Drum has allowed Dustin Harbin to create "Indy Island" at Heroes. There's obviously a real dedication to featuring alt/indy/underground/etc. comics at this show, because the con gave them free tables and hotel rooms.

As a result, comics fans in the Southeast were exposed to publishers like PictureBox, Sparkplug, Buenaventura Press and Bodega for the first time. Comics fans got to see panels with the likes of Dan Nadel, Jaime Hernandez, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga and more. Several grads from the Center for Cartoon Studies had a booth, selling the new SUNDAYS 2. Many new participants at Indy Island reported slow sales and an audience that didn't quite know what to make of them, but others who were veterans of the show noted that they saw fans who sought them out because they had been there before. We'll see who decides to give it another go next year.

My main order of business was picking up comics for review, and there was an astonishing assortment there. I only wish I had had more time to get more minis by authors with whom I was unfamiliar. This column will examine the first set of minis I received; upcoming columns will look at recent books from Sparkplug, Bodega, PictureBox and minis from the likes of Laura Park, Liz Baillie, MK Reed, Papercutter and more.

FRED THE CLOWN # 5 1/2, by Roger Langridge. Langridge is one of the greatest humorists working today, in a class with cartoonists like Michael Kupperman, Sam Henderson, John Kerschbaum, Evan Dorkin, Ivan Brunetti, Lauren Weinstein and others. Langridge's line is bold, and no one uses effects like spotting blacks or zip-a-tone to any greater effect than him. This Fred mini is his first work with this character in some time, and Langridge reveals at the end that he had decided to abandon the character (and short-form gag cartooning) altogether in favor of long-form work that he felt he was "supposed" to do. Then he slowly realized that maybe long-form comics weren't what he did best, that in fact, these Fred comics were the best format for him to unleash his insane imagination. Turns out, he's right--I never wanted him to stop putting out issues of Fred in the first place. What's remarkable about them is the remarkable range of emotions and stories he's able to get across on the page.

Fred the Clown can be a tragic figure, a heroic figure (if an inept one), a scatological character, a source of pure absurdity, a tool for parody, and a pathetic scapegoat for the most vicious exploiters in life. Langridge has the ability to simultaneously evoke the feeling of classic 1920's comics and silent movies while using a crisply modern style. This 30-page minicomic doesn't have a single clunker in it, but for some reason his Western strips starring Fred (a classic, Bozo-haired clown) were especially funny. "Lonesome Cowboy Fred", which turns the high-noon showdown cliche on its head when the villain winds up kissing Fred, is classically set up with a perfect punchline. While that strip was silent (where Langridge especially excels due to his ability to depict gesture and expression), "A Hatful of Dullard" sees Langridge use rhyming verse to ridicule Fred, before it ends in a non sequitur punchline. I hope that this mini spurs Langridge to continue to work in short-form gags, and for smart publishers to collect these strips when he's built up enough.

IS IT BACON? and UNDERPANTING, by Matt Wiegle. Wiegle is an enormously clever cartoonist whose work I've admired for some time. A member of the Partyka collective, Wiegle gets my current tag of "artist deserving more widespread recognition". UNDERPANTING is a hilarious string of gags about a pair of demonic underpants and their reign of destruction through history. One gag finds a man in a Salvation Army and finds that the "boxers are whispering outlandish and unrealistic promises to me." IS IT BACON? teaches us to identify bacon, and not to be fooled by things with bacon's distinctive striped pattern, like hair, tree's bark, etc., noting that "history is strewn with the bodies of those who took for bacon that which was not". These minis work because Wiegle goes to great lengths to sell his gags, and he tells them with a straight face. His ability to sell a gag by drawing an incredibly detailed pirate ship or skeleton gnawing on a tree because it thought it was bacon brings to mind the skill that Michael Kupperman brings to his humor. I haven't seen much longer-form work out of him recently, but I hope this trend is reversed soon.

PHASE 7 #13 and PHASE 7 FUNNIES, by Alec Longstreth. Longstreth is pretty much the most enthusiastic artist that I know of--not just of his own work (which he tirelessly promotes), but the medium in general. One can sense his burning devotion and need to create comics, a devotion that extends to even the most monotonous aspects of creation. At this point of his career, I actually think his real talent rests not in his autobiographical or observational comics, but in clever, intensely heartfelt fantasy/adventure comics like his ongoing "Basewood" story. Still, there's something enjoyable about reading his comics essay on "Depictions of Everyday Life Throughout Art History". The effect is not unlike Scott McCloud in UNDERSTANDING COMICS (a clear influence), as his talking head narrator shifts forms depending on what era and type of art he's discussing. The page where he shifts from impressionism to abstract expressionism is particularly amusing. In PHASE 7 FUNNIES, a collection of strips from a variety of magazine gigs, his single-panel gag strips fall pretty flat. However, in stories like "Emma The Emo Emu" and "Audible Alphabet", Longstreth's gentle, goofy wit shines. The latter story in particular cleverly uses sound effects and a propulsive story to go through A to Z, one panel at a time. While not every comic Longstreth publishes is a home run, I'm always interested to see what he'll do next.

CRUSTACEAN FRUSTRATION and ATOM BOMB BIKINI #5, by Robert Ullman. Ullman's mostly an illustrator these days (out of necessity), so it's always nice to see an actual comic from him. CRUSTACEAN FRUSTRATION is a nice silent mini about a chef who hits the skids after a lobster escapes from him. Ullman's combines his lush line with a simple visual style to create a delightful story with a funny punchline. While Ullman is known as the king of indy comics cheesecake art, it occurs to me that he'd be great at creating comics for children. There's an inherent cuteness to his design that gives even his nude drawings a winsome quality, making them sexy without being sleazy. That's certainly on display in ATOM BOMB BIKINI #5, his latest collection of illustrations culled from his professional work (he illustrates Dan Savage's Savage Love column for a few alt-weeklies), commissions and other odds and ends. Any fan of classic pin-up art should check out Ullman's work, because he excels in that tradition. I understand that he's been working on a long-form work on the side for quite some time, and I hope that he's able to complete this soon, because I miss the easygoing slice-of-life comics he used to do in his mini FROM THE CURVE. I'll be very curious as to what he has to say in his new work.

MONSTER TREASURE DIGEST 0.5, by Maria Sputnik. I picked up this mini from Dylan Williams' Sparkplug table on a whim, and it's 24 pages of inspired lunacy. Sputnik describes herself as a former zinester, and there's certainly that DIY zine feel to this mini. There's a sort of loopy dream logic to her stories. "Until I See You Next" is about a young woman whose boyfriend is lost in the perilous Big Nose national park, narrated by a talking chicken. "Four Legs" sees Maria trying to choose a horse, winding up with the Worst Horse, who is tiny and smokes cigarettes. That story is continued as Maria realizes that she's been hexed (a gynohex, to be precise) and has to negotiate a complex bureaucracy in order to combat it. There's a delightful feeling of not knowing what's going to come along next, a sense of mystery and discovery on every exuberant page. The art is rough, but Sputnik's sense of composition carries her stories, along with her fervent imagination. It reminds me a little of Dame Darcy's early work in terms of its singular and devoted vision. Contact the artist at monstertreasure@gmail.com.

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