Friday, June 17, 2011

Means of Production: Living Things & Oscar

One advantage to working in the minicomics world is that it's so democratic. Anyone with a pencil or pen and access to a photocopier can make and publish them. As cartoonists grow more ambitious, the main obstacle in front of them tends to be publishing. In particular, how can they make a comic that looks just how they want it and afford to publish it? In the rapidly shrinking world of print publishing, alt-comics have taken on a status not unlike vinyl in the music industry. A small but highly dedicated niche audience keeps vinyl alive as a distribution point for music, as well as a small network of independent record shops that tend to ally with music venues. Networks of networks, connected by the internet, have led to a small but thriving scene. In much the same way, networks of cartoonists, fans and retailers have started to form. The comics shops that will survive are those that have already diversified beyond the standard superhero comics. Regional alt-comics shows are springing up everywhere, allowing cartoonists to sell comics and merchandise to a focused and motivated group of fans. Most interesting to me is the recent trend that's seeing cartoonists finding new ways to control the means of production.

Zak Sally, for example, has his own printing press. Then there's the case of Emily Wismer. A former zinester turned teacher, she moved from Chicago to Asheville, NC to set up her own print shop with an old tabletop Pilot press. She hand-makes cards, invitations, etc. and recently published a new minicomic by Jeffrey Brown called Oscar. It's simply beautiful to hold, with each page just soaking up ink. Running one's fingers over each page allows one to feel the the grooves that the ink creates, which is heaven for anyone who's a print junkie. The comic comes in a brown paper envelope that acts as its cover. The cover itself quickly reveals what this comic is about: little pearls of humor from Brown's young son Oscar, as recorded by "Oscar's dad". While cute in the way that one would expect a comic about a little kid would be, Brown has an ear for some of Oscar's weirder and more outrageous quotes. There's one page where Oscar pretends to dial a phone and says "Hello? Yes, Mommy's crazy." It's the usual string of funny Brown observations done in a format that I suspect many cartoonists will find appealing.

Little Otsu is a publishing concern, like Ladypilot Letterpress, that focuses on printing cards, calendars and other paper-based products as well as comics. As such, their comics all have careful attention paid to them so as to present them as art objects. Their Living Things series fits into their paradigm of comics and other printed matter related to nature. Each of the four issues published to date has the same trade dress and logo, even as each issue has featured a radically different style of art. The first issue, featuring Lizzy Stewart, purports to be "A Guide to Eastern European Wildlife" that begins with naturalistic depictions of bears, wolves and owls but slowly becomes more whimsical, with fur hat-wearing rodents and a moose with a clothesline hanging from its antlers.

The second issue features Jo Dery and is about pheromones. This is an inventive and charming comic, with each page setting up a different visual challenge and solving each one with a variety of color schemes. Dery switches between full-color pages (done in colored pencil, perhaps?) and single-color pages (a forest green) with more detailed line art. Hannah Waldron is featured in the third issue, titled "The City". This one's all about lines, with a young man entering a brownstone and experiencing his environment as a series of horizontal lines (through a shade) and diagonal lines (as the city becomes abstract). Waldron alternates close-ups of small objects and fade-outs of the city itself, creating a number of pages that resemble a study for a Mondrian painting. Like the other comics in this series, there's not much of a narrative to speak of, but it's a beautiful and intriguing thing to look at.

The best of the four issues, not surprisingly, is by Lilli Carre'. The talented artist contributes "Shifting Shadows", which puts her off-kilter sense of humor on full display. The concept is simple: shadows coming to life in unusual ways apart from their original source. In some of the images, the shadows are living images drawn from an unusual arrangement of objects. In others, the shadows reflect the true emotional natures of their source, like the wild, ecstatic flailings of shadows coming from a row of office workers trudging toward their jobs. This is a delightfully witty series of variations on a theme by an artist who takes full advantage of the production values provided to her by a publisher committed to creating beautiful objects.

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