Friday, April 29, 2011

Sequart #175: Sundays and CCS Minis

This review was originally published at in 2007. I'll be doing reviews of a number of comics by Center of Cartoon Studies grads in the coming days, so I thought I'd republish this set of old reviews.

I've been reviewing comics from the editors of the SUNDAYS anthology for quite some time. The core group of Joseph Lambert, Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford and Alex Kim produced one of the first splashy comics from the Center for Cartoon Studies, and it was one of the hits at MOCCA in 2006. Along with printing a new edition, the group continues to crank out minicomics.

Joseph Lambert is one of the most dazzling technicians in the CCS group, and the one who's the least interested in narrative at this point. His minis are cute, funny well-designed items that are simply a pleasure to look at. GRUMPUS is probably the most clever and personal of the minis in this group, about a cartoonist being lectured and yelled at by his many "selves", who then lash out at his partner. The situation escalates until we reach its inevitable punchline. YOUR MUG COMPANION MINI-COMIC is a micro-mini that shows off his absurd sense of humor, as it's suggested that mugs can be mittens, we see "Mug The Musical" and get a Chris Ware-style daydream story. It's one of my favorite of his comics. HEY. BE QUIET is another comic with an escalating series of events riffing on a single joke or premise, this time a series of fart jokes that ends with a really big fart joke.

Finally, there's his untitled and full-color comic about cavemen. The composition, rather than his linework, is the real star of this comic. The way he stages his action sequences and uses color to breathe life into his characters is remarkable. At this point, I've enjoyed most every mini Lambert's published. I'm curious as to where he's going next. I can see him collaborating with any number of writers (his THE BAIT AND SWITCH with Dane Martin was one of his best comics). I can see him simply collecting a number of short stories. What might be interesting is if he has a longer narrative in him, and how his voice will continue to develop.

Alex Kim continued the streak of CCS artists picking up a Xeric grant, and this is the first time I've dug into his work. He has an idiosyncratic, squiggly line that gives his figures a vibratory quality. It gives even quiet scenes a sort of liquid, kinetic feel. THE BIRD AND THE BEAR shows off his greatest strength as an artist: body language. His figurework is simple but expressive, but the way he positions his characters in relation to each other tells so much of his story--from where they lay next to each other in bed, how they eat, etc. This story is about a couple drifting apart who accidentally become masked vigilantes after a costume party. The way Kim shifts the story after the man is badly injured takes that body language that he carefully establishes and twists it. The way their "job" takes on a life of its own beyond them, making them wonder why they still did it (and by the same token, why they were still together) is one of those questions that the protagonists dread to answer.

Like many of the SUNDAYS editors, Kim enjoys collaborations. MEDUSA is an adaptation of a poem by Jessica Abston that once again uses posture as an important story element. Here, a woman "freezes" her boyfriend or at least tries to, as we see him leaning, stooping and bending in a swooping, trembling line. Trying to turn to stone something that's in frenetic movement is the contradiction that Kim captures from Abston's text. HEY GUY is an extremely attractive mini that he did with Chuck Forsman. One half of the mini is written by Kim and drawn by Forsman; flip it over, and the reverse is true. Forsman likes writing scenes in diners with salt-of-the-earth types, and "Fortune City" makes use of Kim's wavy lines in a diner argument and tale of woe. "Touch (Me)", written by Kim and drawn by Forsman, is a creepy but oddly touching story that makes use of Forsman's eccentric character design as we meet a healer who cannot talk to those she helps. The way the story is told as a conversation between the healer and her assistant (who talks to her "customers") is extremely clever. Kim sets up an off-panel conflict with her father while the action in the story is never explained.

Kim's Xeric-winning comic is WALL CITY. It's the story of a depressed EMS worker and a woman whose sister commits suicide, and how they find each other. Minty, the paramedic, is haunted by the suicide of his own father and his increasing inability to communicate with his girlfriend. That difficulty in communicating is a running theme of sorts in Kim's work. Eventually, Minty finds himself drawn to the woman, and she leads him outside of the city to a barren hole. This is where the story takes a sharp turn into metaphor, while still completely playing it straight.

Inside the vast hole is machinery that's stuck in there. She encourages him to join her in cleaning it out and creating a wall of electronics. When he protests "I can't help you. I don't even know what this is", she replies, "Does it matter? You can make it what you want. You can give it meaning." He wants to leave with her after a time, but she finds she can't leave the wall--and tells him that he's meant to leave. When he returns and someone asks, "Why have you come to our wall", he simply replies, "I've learned to live with it." What this means is he's come to terms with his depression. WALL CITY is about depression, desperation, the void, searching out and finding false connections, grief and the process of mourning. Kim has proven himself to be one of the most versatile of the CCS artists I've seen to date and has a promising career ahead of him.

Finally, let's discuss SUNDAYS 2. The circle of artists involved in this edition was a little tighter, with just 13 artists in 70 pages. There seemed to be a bit more editorial consistency in this edition and the result was a more coherent gestalt. Most of the stories in SUNDAYS 2 were funny. Some had gags, but most had the mark of some truly cruel senses of humor. There's more than a little hint of madness in many of the stories as well. Ken Dahl's recurring "Professor Obstacle" character teaches operant conditioning by forcing his young , annoying assistant to lick his boots or else get shocked. Dahl really sells his gag by detailing just how disgusting the professor's boots are and how fried the assistant gets by the end. Dahl reminds me a bit of Roger Langridge in this story. Joseph Lambert did the introductory and endpieces, punning on "Sunday" and creating a flowing narrative of a couple of kids interacting with their environment--and not always peacefully.

Chuck Forsman tells the story of a mad ice-breaking captain and his sorry fate, while Jeff Lok spins a twisted fairy tale. The scene where one of two anthropomorphic animal bank robbers starts to lose his mind and shoots the sun istruly disturbing. Bryan Stone details the quotidian adventures of Onionhead, a sad sack who works at an electronics store and is quite a pathetic figure. Sam Gaskin throws out the single funniest page with a straightforward "documentary" about the rapper MC Sleepy ZZZ, piling joke after joke atop a loony premise. Sean Ford does a dialogue between two ghosts where we slowly learn who they are and why they're there, creating a narrative out of the antagonistically friendly relationship between the two ghosts.

Alex Kim's entries are about the fighting eagle Ambassador Sqwaa, and work both as stylish, brooding adventure stories and parodies of same. In the first story, he is regretfully forced to kill his enemy, a fish in a robot suit. In the second, his wife is killed by a rodent in another robot suit. Alexis Frederick-Frost's story is more straightforward, using heavy brushwork to tell the story of a bird plucked out of a jungle for a woman in a shop. J.P. Coovert tells a similarly kinetic tale about a boy and his dog going through all sorts of adventures to wind up in heaven, in the form of a castle in the sky (a tribute to CCS itself). The most impressive story came from Dane Martin, an awesomely strange and violent fairy tale about fratricide and betrayal. Martin's completely loopy character design, settings and dialogue somehow make the violence portrayed even more devastating. Betrayal of the most personal kind seems to be a running concern in the few Martin stories I've read, and their visceral quality is what makes them so effective.

The format of the book was in landscape this time, which seemed to better fit most of the artists. Every artist in the book seems to have grown bolder and more confident with both their art and their subject matter since the last edition. I had a real sense that the stories in SUNDAYS 2 were done with a lot of commitment in mind, specifically for the anthology. There was very little throwaway or filler material in here, and all of the work fit nicely together, a tribute to the editors of the book. Working together seems to have brought out the best in the CCS artists, and I hope they're able to keep the anthology going.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sequart #120: Little Nothings

This review was originally published at

I first became aware of Lewis Trondheim's work with a long strip in the legendary SPX 2000 anthology (an anthology that introduced a number of remarkable European artists to American audiences). This was an excerpt from his excellent autobiographical comic APPROXIMATIVEMENT, much of which focused on his travels. Other excerpts were translated and reprinted in the much-missed Trondheim spotlight comic THE NIMROD (Fantagraphics), so this was the material I associated most with Trondheim. Of course, it was also the least commercial Trondheim material, and to date a complete translation of APPROXIMATIVEMENT has not been published in English.

American audiences have been slow to appreciate Trondheim's comedic brilliance, but some inroads have been made, thanks to clever format changes. Fantagraphics initially reprinted what should have been the audience-friendly Lapinot stories (as McConey) in a format very similar to the original French albums--a format that for some reason baffles American audience. When NBM started to reprint the Dungeon stories in smaller, manga-sized volumes (packing in more pages, albeit in a more econonomical package), they've achieved a great deal of success. Combine that with First Second's success in aiming these books at children and young adults, and one can see that American fans have much to be grateful for with these smartly-designed volumes.

That success has led to reprinting some more recent Trondheim autobiographical comics, with the hopefully-numbered volume 1 of LITTLE NOTHINGS (subtitled THE CURSE OF THE UMBRELLA). What separates Trondheim's autobiographical stories from so many others of its kind in the world of comics is that each page is a perfectly self-contained unit with its own punchline. At the same time, he manages to collect a series of quotidian observations into a narrative of sorts, deftly weaving in references to past events to create a story with weight and heft that addresses a number of ideas in addition to delivering jokes.

There's a sobering moment early in the book, when he notes that his family acquires two kittens in case one of them dies, "we won't be as said thanks to the second one". He then pauses for a beat, then notes, to his own dismay, "Just like with the kids?" Trondheim also muses on fate, the creative process, comics themselves, dealing with the public, his friends and the various places he visits. Travel is obviously a big part of his life, but writing about travel gives these musing a sort of forward momentum, a propulsive quality that helps draw in the reader and keep them focused on Trondheim's voice. By varying his settings, Trondheim helps the reader enjoy a variety of "little nothing" moments where Trondheim is riffing on a TV show or at home in his studio as well as seeing him in a variety of settings. By keeping the tone light and putting a punchline on every page, Trondheim is able to sneak in his thoughts, feelings and ideas without force-feeding them to the reader.

One interesting aspect of this comic is that Trondheim riffs on the nature of humor itself. He's a funny guy in everyday life, which sometimes makes him an irritant. "Advising" a man on how to get a rental car out of a hotel lot ("You just have to crash through barrier with the theme of Starsky & Hutch blaring"), he skips a couple of beats as the man stares at him, and then thinks ("In his place, I'd have thought I was a moron, too"). He reacts with annoyance when someone snaps off a punchline about feeding cats to a Venus fly-trap, saying that it should have been his line. A joke he plays on a friend (pretending to find a 50-euro bill after finding a dime on the street) turns against him and then escalates into paranoia after a man accosts him, saying he had lost such a bill. When he receives the Grand Prize at Angouleme, he gives an interview where he solemnly claims to be depressed that this is the height of his career and that it's all downhill from there to the media--and then chuckles to himself as he walks away, having played his own little prank on the public. Trondheim operates with a bit of a long-form improv artist's sensibility, building up narratives that culminate in punchlines down the road. That's capped off with the final page of the book, which doubles back on an earlier punchline from a museum with a wordless, full-page image that is instantly recognizable as a killer punchline.

Trondheim's calling card has always been his remarkable versatility. He's made comics where the images hardly ever vary, instead depending on his witty dialogue. He's a master of bon mots along with naturalistic dialogue, generating a score of vivid characters. He's made comics that were mute and depended entirely on his compositional and storytelling abilities. He's made abstract comics that depended entirely on composition and use of color. Trondheim has done many autobiographical stories and is equally proficient in genre stories of all kinds: fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, action-adventure, horror, romance and more. He writes comics aimed at kids that don't talk down to them and that any adult can relish. He does it all with a decidedly unfussy line and a preference for anthropomorphic animals as his characters (his own representation is a bird), a refined color palette and a love for comics qua comics that shines through all of his work. There's really no American equivalent for what Trondheim has done in his career (maybe the Hernandez Brothers come close) with regard to the variety of genres he's embraced; for Trondheim distinctions of "high" and "low" in his art don't exist. And now, with LITTLE NOTHINGS, there's a single volume that I can recommend to a general reading audience in America. Needless to say, this book instantly makes it to my short list of "books of the year" for 2008.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Two Fundraising Projects Of Interest

Here's a couple of links to some potential projects that I find interesting. First up is a British anthology called Sorry Entertainer. It's edited by Simon Moreton and will include work by Rob Jackson, Lauren Barnett, Noah Van Sciver, David Z. Greene, Thom Ferrier and other cartoonists whose work I've reviewed in the past. This will be a newspaper broadsheet anthology, an approach I happen to like quite a bit.

The other project of interest is The Ruined Cast, an animated feature by Dash Shaw. Essentially, they're raising money to raise money--they need to get a viable film done before they present it to real financiers for more extensive distribution. Anyone who's read my work knows how highly I think of Dash and his vision as an artist, so I would recommend taking a look. The project is currently about halfway funded.

New Review @TCJ: Approximate Continuum Comics

Here's my latest review from The Comics Journal, on Lewis Trondheim's Approximate Continuum Comics.

Monday, April 11, 2011

New Post! Webcomics of Interest by Dylan Horrocks, MK Reed, Chris Adams, Terry LaBan and Devil's Lake

For the first time in over a year, here's a brand-new column on High-Low's home base. I thought I'd start by discussing a topic I rarely address: webcomics. That's a universe I don't generally explore because I either don't have the patience to follow them or because the subject matter of the vast majority of them (video games, jokes about video games and fanboy culture in general, fantasy) is of little interest to me. That said, I do take note of webcomics here and there that draw my interest. Here are a few words about each.
Dylan Horrocks: The American Dream and Sam Zabel & The Magic Pen Horrocks' Hicksville is my favorite comic of all time, but he's gone through long fallow periods in comics this past decade. That's why it's so delightful to see him putting out work bit by bit on his website. The American Dream speaks to his interest in politics that's not present in Hicksville but has been a major part of his other work throughout his career. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a pure delight, one that any fan of Hicksville will find intriguing. The former strip has had just a few updates, and I gather from some of the artist's comments that it's been a tricky one to write. The premise is a dream of the author's where there is no America; he flies there only to find that it's been a trick of some kind. Horrocks will have a fine line to walk in crafting a story that makes a point without descending too heavily into polemics.
He's several chapters into Sam Zabel, however, and it's a perfect mix of autobiography and fantasy. The title character is a stand-in of sorts for Horrocks, a struggling New Zealand cartoonist with a self-published series called Pickle, much like Horrocks himself. Zabel is a starting point of sorts for Horrocks to work out his ideas and emotions but is never a strictly autobiographical figure. The more personal elements of the story relate to Horrocks taking on mainstream comics writing jobs after the success of Hicksville and then finding himself unable to enjoy anything, including reading, writing or drawing comics. That inability to enjoy anything is called anhedonia, and Horrocks cleverly turns that into less a feeling than a place, drawing a map where Sam steps into that perilous country. At the end of his rope, Sam falls into an old comic about adventures on Mars and finds himself a character--and as a cartoonist, he is worshiped as a god. I'm always fascinated by stories of cartoonists who are crippled by depression and find themselves unable to draw. The thought of being unable to have emotional access to an experience that used to bring pure pleasure, even as a child--the act of making marks on paper-- is an unimaginably cruel fate. How one recovers from it varies, but there's something that Sam discovers in the strip--a web site dedicated to 19th century academy portrait painting--that gives him great comfort. The bright richness of those colors and their decorative qualities offer relief from the tyranny of narrative. For Horrocks, I will guess that this web site had a similar soothing quality, one that he worked out in the form of unleashing a beautiful but subtle color palette in this story. Once the reader reached the fantasy section of this story, Horrocks dips into a lurid, EC comics-inspired four-color palette that practically carries the narrative on its own. If that web site metaphorically brought Horrocks back to a love of creating images (at least in part), it seems as though this experience was literally lived out with Sam and his bemused adventures on Mars. (I'd say there's also a tip of the pencil to Jaime Hernandez in terms of the design of the female hero we meet briefly.) Horrocks is steaming right along on this story, and its mix of restraint and enthusiasm adds an interesting tension. This story has the potential to be a companion piece to Hicksville that will at once be exhilarating and sobering.

MK Reed: About A Bull MK Reed's first official debut (Americus) will be out this fall from First Second. However, the ambitious Reed has been doing all sorts of minicomics projects for quite some time. She's taken on an even crazier project in About A Bull, an adaptation of the Irish folk epic Tain Bo Cuailnge. This is a convoluted story to be sure, but she's done a remarkable job of not only simplifying the narrative but also of modernizing the dialogue. This is a story about a king and queen who quarrel about whose possessions are worth more. It so happens that the king is in the superior position, thanks to him possessing a mighty bull. The queen connives to acquire an even better bull to win the argument. After a series of misunderstandings, a deal to get the ball falls apart and war is declared to obtain it. Along the way, Reed turns to Caroline Kelsey to illustrate a portion of her story, one where we see the clever origin story of the two bulls done in a "stained glass" style of cartooning. As always, Reed's draftsmanship is rough but serviceable, and her sharp eye for color helps carry the story a bit. That rough style doesn't hurt the story, which is told with her usual sharp wit, and I'm eager to see how the twists and turns of the legends play out in the story itself. The part of Reed's art that needs the most improvement is her lettering. I think she'd benefit by using a font instead of hand lettering this story, especially when one compares her work to that of the other cartoonists involved. Terry LaBan: Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hard-Boiled Shaman LaBan is one of my favorite alt-cartoonists of the 80s and 90s, with memorable titles like Tales of Unsupervised Experience, Eno & Plum and Cud. He later did some projects with DC Comics, including an adaptation of Muktuk Wolfsbreath by Steve Parkhouse, a more naturalistic artist. This project didn't wind up meeting with much success, but he did later stake out a career as a syndicated cartoonist with his still-running Edge City, a strip he does with his wife. As a project to earn a master's degree in Interactive Design, he decided to revive his old character. LaBan hasn't lost a beat with his folk-noir hero Muktuk. LaBan has the instincts of an old-school underground cartoonist in terms of the explicitness of his material, yet his actual cartooning is far more playful. He eventually seemed to become reconciled to this notion when he simplified his approach even further and took more direct cues from Archie comics master Dan DeCarlo. LaBan's mature style combines this simple, highly direct and emotionally charged style of storytelling with whatever weird idea he has in mind. Quite honestly, LaBan's discouragement with comics as a career seemed to lead to a bit of floundering right before he quit doing alt-comics. This is not to say that the material was bad; in fact, his willingness to fully commit to humor led to some hilarious work. It's just that he seemed to be trying every approach in an attempt to find something that stuck. One of these approaches was the "hard-boiled shaman", Muktuk Wolfsbreath. He joined up Raymond Chandler-style noir-storytelling with elements of Siberian shamanic folk tales. It's a particularly delightful kind of fusion, one far more effective than the Vertigo version of this, simply because its combination of three contrasting styles (noir, folk tale, Archie comics) seems to work better in providing dynamic tension for the reader. The lighter visual elements are a perfect counterpoint for the heaviness of the story's thematic elements. They also serve to subvert the cliched oppressiveness of noir storytelling without derailing it altogether, thanks to the fantasy element linking the two together. In the opening segments of "Boo", LaBan gently leads new readers through the character's premise while revealing new information about Muktuk to long-time readers, all in the context of a noir-detective case that's easy for anyone to understand. Hopefully LaBan will be able to keep this going past the end of his thesis. Christopher Adams: Strong Eye Contact Christopher Adams is a young cartoonist with an interesting approach. I took a look at a silent series of strips he did titled Strong Eye Contact that employ an elliptical narrative approach. The panel-to-panel narrative is frequently fractured, with one sequence slipping in and out of another. At its essence, these strips are about performance, as its balding protagonist not only has to find ways to deal with connecting to an audience at a comedy club, but in connecting with the world at large. The title of the strip almost seems to be an unspoken mantra of sorts, as the character muddles through as best he can by faking his way through his act and life. There's a vividness to each image that speaks to Adams' background as a painter. The way that he "rhymes" images back and forth speaks to his background as a musician; each strip very much feels like the verse of a song, or perhaps a separate song in a longer cycle. A blog is unfortunately not the proper place to really examine these drawings. Hopefully, Adams will be able to publish these strips in a format that flatters his work a bit more. I also get the sense that like Jerry Moriarty's Jack Survives strips, Strong Eye Contact takes on even more force when one reads a number of them in sequence. At the moment, Adams has published just eleven of them. Devil's Lake: Minty Lewis & Melissa Mendes Devil's Lake is an online publication connected to the University of Wisconsin-Madison; its comics content is edited by cartoonist Lydia Conklin. This issue features an excerpt from Minty Lewis' minicomic Salad Days; here's my original review of the entire issue. It's a typically awkward, uncomfortable Lewis workplace story featuring anthropomorphic fruit that squeezes out wince-inducing jokes with impeccable timing. Conklin contrasts the spare line and restraint of Lewis with the expressiveness of Melissa Mendes' "The Bird". Whereas "Salad Days" employs a typical comics grid, "The Bird" takes advantage of its format to create a one-image, one-click story that pushes the reader through a day in the life of a young girl. Like in many of Mendes' stories, the girl is a latchkey kid who fends off loneliness with a rugged self-determinism. When she and her father discover a bird who stunned itself flying into the house, a clear line could be made between the girl and the bird: both alone, both vulnerable (as a bicycle accident earlier in the story attests) but both ultimately aided by someone else. Mendes is becoming a remarkably confident storyteller, working in a style that mixes the best of children's illustration with comics. Conklin is developing a sharp eye as an editor, and I only hope she becomes more ambitious in future issues by publishing a greater number of contributors.

Friday, April 8, 2011

New Review @TCJ: Gazeta

My first entry in the review section of The Comics Journal has popped up, and it's about the anthology Gazeta, edited by Lisa Mangum & Maria Sputnik.